Filmworks board picks favorite films of 2014

"Birdman" from Alejandro González Iñárritu. Via Fox Searchlight.
“Birdman” from Alejandro González Iñárritu. Via Fox Searchlight.

“Birdman” — A film student’s dream movie, this imaginative black comedy from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is edited to look like one long, bleary take. I see the story of Michael Keaton’s aging superhero struggling to claim some sort of relevance as a much-needed commentary in a year fully saturated with Hollywood superhero blockbusters.

“Dear White People” — No, the debut feature from filmmaker Justin Simien is NOT “like Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed-off baby.” Simien’s stylish social satire feels to me like an intelligent, heartfelt statement on the white privilege and institutionalized power structures that deeply control our universities.

“Finding Vivian Maier” — My favorite movie at the 2014 Fresno Film Festival, this documentary about one of the world’s most prolific (and previously unknown) street photographers reminds me of the power, charm, and mystery that can be found in everyday photography.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” — Eight feature films into his quirky career as a director, Wes Anderson never disappoints me. While enjoying his latest ensemble masterpiece, my whole world and all its tiny troubles simply vanished for the full 100 minutes.

“Obvious Child” — Months after a trusted friend recommended that I absolutely MUST see the best abortion comedy EVER, I gave in and watched this directorial debut from Gillian Robespierre. Sharply written, whimsically edited, and with sweetly perfect performances from Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy, this 20-something coming-of-age story delivers the charm.

Note: Honorable mentions for “Boyhood,” “Nightcrawler,” and “Under the Skin.” And I’m looking forward to seeing “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and “Inherent Vice” when they make it to Fresno.

"The Double" from Richard Ayoade. Via Magnolia Pictures.
“The Double” from Richard Ayoade. Via Magnolia Pictures.

Note: Filmworks did right by me in 2014: Two of my Top 5 films of the year were Filmworks screenings. Here’s to 2015 being even better!

“The Double” — Full of style and humor, this is paranoia is gorgeously filmed in a way I haven’t seen since Terry Gilliam made his own office place comedy.

“Levitated Mass” — Because art matters and we don’t talk about it nearly enough.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” — Great soundtrack, great effects, great fun.

“Big Hero 6” — The coming-of-age film nerds have been waiting for.

“Stalingrad” — Either the best or worst movie I saw all year. Definitely one of those two options. I’m still deciding.

"Ida" from Pawel Pawlikowski. Via Music Box Films.
“Ida” from Pawel Pawlikowski. Via Music Box Films.

1. “Ida” — This beautiful movie would be worth watching solely for the cinematography, but it has so much more—a sensitive and personal story, fine editing and directing, and skillful acting. The artistry of the cinematographer truly re-created 1961 Poland where the story unfolds. Each scene is exquisitely lighted and framed as painstakingly as a photographer would treat a single still image. The “filming” was digital and shot in color, then converted to black & white with film grain added in post-production. The result takes us back to 1961 and draws us into each and every scene.

2. “Finding Vivian Maier” — I don’t usually feel drawn into documentaries, but this film allowed me to imagine the complex and enigmatic personality of the subject. Unknown as a person and as a photographer, Vivian Maier’s cache of photographs and undeveloped film were discovered after her death. A street photographer who took photos surreptitiously with no apparent interest in sharing or publishing her photographs. Was she a voyeur? Was she stealing the personalities of those she photographed? Was she invading their privacy? So many possibilities.

3. “Bird People” — Not at all a fast-paced film. But such an exciting premise, a fantasy really. Because who among us hasn’t wanted to be a bird or the proverbial fly on the wall able to fly from place to place and look into the lives of others, and maybe even interact in some small way with those strange others? It kept my interest every second of the 127 minute runtime.

4. “Birdman” — No, I’m not into birds especially this year! But this bird movie was also a great one. Great acting and direction, a play within a play. And the question: Can he really fly?

5. “Wild” — So, usually the book is better than the movie. But in this case, the acting and directing brought the characters to life and transformed what I thought was a pretty good book into a really good movie.

"Mr. Turner" from Mike Leigh. Via Sony Pictures Classics.
“Mr. Turner” from Mike Leigh. Via Sony Pictures Classics.
Program Director

“Mr. Turner” — Mike Leigh’s portrait of J.M.W. Turner is quite simply a masterwork, textured with rich biographical detail and a luminous cinematic palette. Timothy Spall as the eccentric, self-made painter elevates grunts and growls to new eloquence.

“Leviathan” — Andrey Zvyagintsev, director of “The Return,” draws from the “Book of Job” and Thomas Hobbes’s eponymous treatise to tell a bleak political parable about modern-day Russia. The cinematography beautifully captures the desolate landscapes of the country’s northwest coastline. What most surprises are the moments of humor that precede the string of tragedies.

“Two Days, One Night” — The immensely talented Marion Cotillard disappears into her role as a desperate mother who must seek out each of her co-workers to ask them to vote in favor of saving her position instead of the bonus promised to them. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have created a tension-filled story with a surprising denouement.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” — More whimsy from Wes Anderson, with an impeccable performance from Ralph Fiennes. Much will seem familiar to Anderson fans: the play with narration, the color schemes, the obsession for centered framing. But the traumas at the center of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” are historical as well as personal; in this make-believe Europe, societal catastrophe is both impending and past.

“Only Lovers Left Alive” — No one does offbeat ennui better than Jim Jarmusch. John Hurt’s take on 450-year old Kit Marlowe, the deserted streets of nighttime Detroit, and Tilda Swinton’s soulful dance to “Trapped by a Thing Called Love” are just a few of the marvels in this utterly unique vampire tale.

Note: Completing my Top 10 are “Ida,” “Under the Skin,” “Birdman,” “Snowpiercer,” and “Pride.”

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" from Wes Anderson. Via Fox Searchlight.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel” from Wes Anderson. Via Fox Searchlight.
Development Director

1. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — As close to a perfect film as I’ve ever seen.

The rest are in no particular order, as they are so different from each other that I cannot rank them.

“Wild” — For the excellent adaptation of the book.

“The Judge” — For the sheer pleasure of seeing Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. together.

“Chef” — For the pure fun of it and for the terrific child actor (Emjay Anthony).

“Birdman” — For its daring, drumming difference.

Note: Honorable mentions for good stories with terrific kids: “St. Vincent” and “Like Father, Like Son.” And honorable mentions for documentaries: “Life Itself,” “Following the Ninth,” and “Levitated Mass.” I’m thankful to Filmworks for bringing these last four to Fresno!

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