The Dissenter’s Top Films of 2014
It has, like a number of other people, become an annual ritual to put together a list of the top films I managed to see during the year and share it here.
While most lists of best films of the year were posted a week or two ago, I like to wait until this time so I can look over the various lists of films and see if I agree with critics. I also take the time to watch films I did not get to see yet.
I did not get to see Inherent Vice, The Kill Team, Point and Shoot, Selma or Whiplash, and I mention these films because potentially they would be on the list had I seen them.
If I had to pick my #1 film of the year, it would be Snowpiercer.
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Steve Rogers, who is Captain America (Chris Evans), awakens from decades of suspended animation, to find himself in the present day when the global war on terrorism is being waged. He works for SHIELD, a powerful paramilitary spy agency that now has military drones called “hellicarriers,” which allow for assassination. As Rogers says, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” Part of the reason why the agency has turned to assassination is because the agency was infiltrated, and Captain America spends the movie dealing with this.
On its face, this is a popcorn flick that happens to be based on a well-known comic book superhero. However, once the plot begins to unfold, it becomes clear the directors and screenwriters of the film consciously chose to infuse the story with a nod to the effect security state expansion can have on one’s privacy and liberty. Which makes the action sequences all the more gripping and transforms it into a kind of political thriller. In fact, Robert Redford, who starred in one of the greatest political thrillers of all time, Three Days of the Condor, is one of the villains in this movie.
In Christopher Nolan’s space epic, “The Blight” has hit Earth and the world population is experiencing drought and famine. Mankind is facing imminent extinction unless another habitable planet can be found. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is recruited to join a group of explorers in going on a mission to find that planet after he happens upon a site where NASA has essentially been kept going in secret.
If the storytelling or script is uneven, the grandeur of it all more than makes up for this flaw—the ship passing through a wormhole, the planet which may or may not be where mankind will have to learn to survive, etc. It visually inspires one to contemplate their mortality and man’s place in the universe. And, without spoiling the film, Nolan executes his high-concept envisioned by magnificently, crafting a film that tugs at one’s imagination like great cinematic experiences are supposed to do.
Director Alejandro Jodorowsky planned to adapt Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel, Dune, in the mid-1970s and before Star Wars. He approached the project with great ambition, believing he would cast Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali as characters. H.R. Giger, who died this year, was one of the artists designing the set and costumes for the epic. But, as this delightful documentary recalls, the project stalled and the world later was subjected to David Lynch’s Dune, which to Jodorowsky was far more inferior than his imagined adaptation.
The filmmakers animate the concept art that still exists from production giving viewers a glimpse at what Jodorowsky’s Dune might have been. The narrative shows how this production has become a part of science fiction and/or film lore and makes a case that it had an indelible impact even though the epic was never completed. And, listening to Jodorowsky articulate his vision, one cannot help but feel like the world missed out on seeing something that could have been extraordinary.
Kill the Messenger
The film tells the tragic story of what happened to San Jose Mercury News journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) after he published a feature story on how the CIA was backing Contra rebels smuggling cocaine into the United States. Not only did his own editors turn against him but the majority of the American press engaged in efforts, some CIA-influenced, to discredit his work. His life was destroyed and, even though he mostly got the story right and spurred a number of important government investigations, he never regained the respect he once had in the profession before he died from an apparent suicide in 2004.
Writer Peter Landesman structures this infuriating story in such a way so viewers can see how Webb got the first lead suggesting the CIA was involved in cocaine trafficking. His life then begins to unravel after it appears online, and episodes capture the paranoia and persecution he experienced. The way in which fellow journalists betray him is prominently featured. Yet, Landesman largely refrains from proselytizing about freedom of the press until the end of the film when Renner appears in a scene that puts the exclamation point on a stellar performance.
The documentary from Kartemquin Films traces film critic Roger Ebert’s life from when he was fifteen years-old and working for a local newspaper to the final moments where he was dying from cancer, which took away his ability to speak and do his weekly film show on broadcast television. Those who knew him best reflect on his strengths, like his ability to give five hour-long presentations on films and write a review in thirty minutes, as well as his flaws, like his drinking problem and his petulance toward Gene Siskel, his co-host on “At the Movies.”
I learned from Ebert how to find joy in writing about movies so viewing the film was an intensely personal experience, as I am sure it was for many of his fans. But the film is more than just a biographical documentary on a cherished film critic. It shows Ebert accepting death and dying with dignity. In that sense, it is about coming to the end of life and knowing that you lived life to the fullest and that it was, indeed, a life worth living.
A Most Wanted Man
Based off John Le Carre’s novel, this post-9/11 story set in Hamburg, Germany revolves around Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen Muslim, who has entered Germany illegally. Karpov was imprisoned by Turkey and Russia. He has a key to a safe deposit box in a bank run by Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe). The safe deposit box contains his inheritance from his father. However, German intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), part of a unit of spies operating under the radar to get around the constitution, is tracking Karpov and suspects he may be a terrorist.
Through his accent, posture and manner in which he lights cigarettes, Hoffman masterfully brings to life the character of this workaholic spy. The pace of the film captures the kind of slog it must feel like for intelligence agents tracking a terrorism suspect. It shows their impatience and the tension that routinely occurs when agencies from different countries coordinate with each other. Plus, the transgressions of the American global security state lie in the background creating anxiety as Bachmann wrestles with the reality that none of this making the world a safer place.
The Newburgh Sting
In October 2010, four poor African-American men were convict of plotting to blow up three synagogues and to shoot down military aircraft at a National Guard base with a Stinger surface-to-air missile. But none of the weapons were ever real. They were targeted by the FBI and an informant helped the agency carry out a sting operation against the men. It was all a part of the FBI keeping the country safe from terrorists. So they say.
The riveting documentary, which had a festival run before airing on HBO this year, features footage from hidden cameras that were used during the sting operation. Family, friends and members of the community of Newburgh, including the imam of the local mosque, confront what it is like to have the federal government infiltrating their town to catch “terrorists.” They contemplate whether the poor men ever intended to commit any crime and if they were exploited. Altogether, David Heilbroner and Kate Davis provide a long overdue examination of a counterterrorism tool that has been used like a sledgehammer in communities against gullible brown or black Muslim men.
Director Kelly Reichardt’s film tells the story of three environmental activists played by Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard, who have become frustrated with the traditional modes of nonviolent protest to fight climate change. They devise a plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam, but when the plan backfires and the possibility increases that they will be considered prime suspects, the three wrestle with what to do next with their lives as well as the guilt they have from choosing to engage in this action.
Writers Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond boldly explore a set of characters who turn to engaging in property damage because they believe shocking the conscience of a population is what is required to spur the change that is needed. The story methodically builds to the much anticipated blowing up of the dam. Aesthetically, it is all very melancholy. The acting from Eisenberg, Fanning and Sarsgaard is terrific. So, although the film only screened in a small number of theaters in the United States, that is no measure of its quality.
It is the summer of 1984. The National Union of Mineworkers is on strike in the United Kingdom. Gay and lesbian activists in the country decide they would like to show solidarity with the struggle of working class coal miners. The only problem is the miners are reluctant to accept unsolicited support from gays and lesbians. They are concerned that organizing together will make it difficult to achieve the outcome they want from their strike.
Of the films released this year, this one may possess the most delightful ensemble of them all. Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, Jessica Gunning, and Menna Trussler each manage to turn in memorable performances. It is also remarkable to see a film, whether intended or not, that tells a story, which involves intersectionality — how two movements can strengthen each other by working together. Plus, it has an unhurried pace that gives viewers an opportunity to appreciate the characters who have made the choice to step out of their comfort zones and fight back in whichever small way that they can.
All mankind has become extinct after an experiment to counteract climate change fails and leaves Earth in an ice age. The planet’s only survivors make it aboard a massive train with a class system called the Snowpiercer. Elites are at the front of the train. The poor are at the back end of the train. Each class, and then the workers who perform tasks for the elite, have their place. When Curtis (Chris Evans) and others decide to launch a revolution to take control of the Snowpiercer, the poor survivors learn just how oppressed they have been in the back of the train.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho and based on a French graphic novel, there is so much to rave about in this dystopian tale. Everything from the choreographed fight sequences to the train moving in perpetual motion is visually arresting. Tilda Swinton plays Minister Mason, who essentially is the head of security on the train, and her deranged personality steals each scene in which she appears to protect the interests of the Snowpiercer’s 1%. The decision to play Cream’s “Strange Brew” during one particular scene is splendid. And, what makes it even more stunning is that it survived studio executive Harvey Weinstein, who wanted to cut twenty minutes from it until people got angry and insisted he leave the film in tact.
Honorable Mentions: Calvary – Citizenfour – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Nightcrawler – Obvious Child – They Came Together – Top Five