Okay, I know film is digital now and that my title is anachronistic, but you know what I mean. It's a new year and something all culture bloggers are supposed to do is weigh in on the ten best films of the year past. I can't do it. Unless the late-arriving Oscar contenders are absolute dynamite, 2014 will go down as one of the worst years in cinema history. Does this portend the end? Maybe.
I suppose if you live in London or near a little art cinema in Tribeca, you might be able to find ten great films, but these days most of us live in the Land of Limited Options. Art houses have folded like a poker player down to his last buck and that doesn't portend well for the future of cinema. Low-budget indie films, foreign offerings, and below-the-radar "small" pictures don't get a lot of love from Hollywood, but the latter sucks from their buzz like a blood-deprived leech. What non-industry films have always done is instill a love of movies among those looking for more than a cheap date venue. Hollywood blockbusters lure young folks to mall cinemas, but they don't create lifelong moviegoers. Look around your town. How many flicks are on offer that appeal to someone over the age of 25? In the short-term feeding frenzy known as advanced capitalism that's fine, but I'm not seeing a lot of long-term viability. Hollywood has been riding a baby boomlet that's already crested; very soon, it will run low on 15-25 year olds. Reckoning Day will comes when today's moviegoers –gasp!–turn 30, look at what's playing at the local theater, and announce themselves as disinterested as I felt in 2014.
Here is my very short list of exceptional films for 2014–the ones that make you think movies are art. It includes some that were, technically, 2013 releases–those that opened in New York of LA, but nowhere else until early March of 2014. In order of preference:
Birdman (Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014)
This one takes the piss out of the very Hollywood blockbuster problem noted above. Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a superhero matinee idol too old for the part, bored with its lowbrow caché, and filled with remorse for the muck he's made of his life. He seeks respectability as a Broadway director and seeks to keep his demons at bay long enough to salvage respect. Among his obstacles is a caustic actor (Ed Norton) whose ego and cynicism surpass his own, and a troubled daughter (Emma Stone) who reminds him of his past inequities. Will life again imitate art? Will Riggan achieve an epiphany? Disappear down a magical realism hole? Find redemption? Little is what it seems in this inventive and deliciously weird film.
Locke (Directed by Steven Knight, 2013)
The most taut and anxious 85 minutes imaginable and all that happens is that Ivan Locke (Tim Hardy) takes a nighttime drive from Birmingham to London while chatting incessantly on his car phone. All he has to do in that 85 minutes–filmed in real time–is save a construction project, his marriage, his sense of honor, and calm the hysterical one-night stand about to birth his child. Is Ivan a god-like puppet master, or a knave about to take the fall for the one time in his life in which he strayed from the straight and narrow?
The Great Beauty ("La grande bellezza," Directed by Paulo Sorrentino, 2013)
Beloved playboy journalist Jep (Toni Servillo) has spent decades cavorting among Rome's rich and beautiful in round after round of partying and debauchery. He cleanses his soul by immersing himself in the Eternal City's art and culture. Jep awakes on his 65th birthday to the realization that, even were he not too old to persist in his libertine ways, he is bored by its ephemerality and dull sameness. Can eternal beauty save him? And can he, in turn, save other troubled souls through art? Call this one Fellini for a new generation.
The Past (Directed by Asghar Farhadi, 2013)
This superb telling of William Faulkner's adage that "the past is never dead" takes us to Paris, where an Iranian man, Ahmad (Ali Mosfta), has returned to visit the wife, Marie, and step-child he abandoned four years earlier when he chose to live in theocratic Iran rather than the materialist West. Ahmad is there to grant Marie the divorce she seeks, though in her (Bérénice Bejo, The Artist) he experiences anew all that led him to and away from the West. Moreover, he sees the turmoil swirling around Marie and her daughter and must decide anew whether to act or flee. This is a subtle but powerful tale of what happens to a man of conscience when right and wrong blur.
That's it, folks. If pressed to add a few also-rans of good-but-flawed films, I'd offer these (in alphabetical order): Captain Phillips; Deceptive Practice: Ricky Jay; Finding Vivian Maier; Ida; Jodorsky's Dune; Life Itself; Theory of Everything; and Tim'sVermeer. Notice how absent Hollywood is from my list?