It wasn’t a vintage year for movies; even if there was a fair amount of decent films on release, few of them were real top-drawer stuff. Even many of the films in this Top 20 are flawed or compromised in some way. That said, there were a number of positive signs –– a number of good films offered valuable auscultation of contemporary societies as diverse as Russia, Turkey, China, Spain and Brazil, Hollywood had an unusually good year, with some ambitious films getting green-lit and even the bigger blockbusters were worthwhile experiences –– Interstellar, Guardians of the Galaxy and Godzilla all better than expected –– and we even had the rare pleasure of having a good film (12 Years a Slave) named Best Picture at the Oscars.
The year’s best film, in my opinion, was an unlikely one, a two-and-a-half-hour long biopic of a fashion designer –– never the most promising material but Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent breathed new life into a tired genre. Though Cannes, like the Oscars and the other major films, rewarded deserving films this year, Bonello was left empty-handed. I suspect his film will be remembered more than most other films released this year though.
As ever, the criteria for inclusion are a cinema release in France before the third week of December (films from the tail-end of last year are also considered). This will explain the appearance of some films not on other English-language lists and the non-appearance of others.
1. Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello –– France/Belgium)
There were two Yves Saint Laurent biopics this year. The first, directed by actor Jalil Lespert, came with the imprimatur of the fashion house and was a worthy, plodding trawl through the late couturier’s life. Bertrand Bonello’s effort was more diffuse and Proustian (in the opening scene, Saint Laurent, played by Gaspard Ulliel, checks into a hotel under the name Swann) and is as effective at portraying the verve and style of the 60s and 70s and the humdrum reality of industrial dressmaking as it is exploring the troubled soul of the designer. Saint Laurent repeatedly casts things in a different light to what you would expect and has some wonderfully elegiac touches, such as Visconti alumnus Helmut Berger playing the ageing YSL. A stand-out in a notoriously moribund genre, Bonello’s film is the best biopic since Milos Forman’s Man on the Moon.
2. Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao redor) (Kleber Mendonça Filho –– Brazil)
Mendonça Filho describes his debut feature as ‘a telenovela directed by John Carpenter’ and Neighbouring Sounds is a brilliantly intriguing multi-character study of a middle-class housing complex in the Brazilian city of Recife. At turns satirical and darkly ominous, it is also a great film about urban space, the security concerns of Brazil’s rising middle-class, residential angst and the dark secret that may or may not lie behind the complex and its owner, the sugar-cane baron, Dom Francisco. A film that keeps you guessing, even after its decidedly ambiguous ending.
3. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Ban ri yan huo) (Diao Yinan –– China)
Like Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Diao Yinan’s Golden Bear winner is the sort of disobligingly bad-mannered thriller that China’s rulers don’t like too much. An ex-cop (Fan Liao) loses his badge after a bungled investigation into a murder when body parts are found in a freight train transporting coal; after a former colleague is also killed, he takes up the investigation again, and it points to an unlikely suspect. We soon find that, as Jean Renoir once said, every villain has their reasons. Black Coal, Thin Ice is a vital if depressing glimpse at the less salubrious side of Chinese society. Producer Vivian Qu herself directed another impressive film this year, Trap Street, which is even less likely to find favour with Chinese officialdom.
4. Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne –– Belgium/France/Italy)
The Dardenne brothers have, with the exception of their first Palme d’Or winner Rosetta, turned out films that are more solid than spectacular but this latest effort is probably their most robustly political to date. A factory worker and mother of two (Marion Cotillard) is given one weekend to convince her colleagues to forego their annual bonus so she can keep her job. Two Days, One Night is a great parable about the atomisation of class solidarity in a neoliberal age and Cotillard, not the most subtle of actors at the best of times, gives such a fine performance you soon forget the incongruousness of a Hollywood star in a Belgian blue-collar milieu.
5. What Now? Remind Me (E agora? Lembra-me) (Joaquim Pinto –– Portugal)
Pinto and his husband Nuno Leonel (who effectively co-directed this film) are veteran technicians of European cinema, having worked together with the likes of João César Monteiro, Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruíz and André Techiné. They are also longtime HIV sufferers. This long documentary charts one year of the director’s treatment and it extends far beyond the genre of the medical diary. Pinto explores the timeline of diseases, viruses and medicine, the history of Portuguese politics and gay liberation and goes back over his younger years, which involved attending the University of Leipzig at the same time as a young chemistry student named Angela Merkel. Though the pain and chronic fatigue induced by the treatment is palpable, this is a beautiful, often joyous film, with a sensitivity for nature that is best exemplified by the couple’s efforts at reforestation in the Azores.
6. Mr Turner (Mike Leigh –– UK/France/Germany)
Another good biopic this year, all the more remarkable for it tackling the greatest British painter of all time. Leigh’s film eschews the usual period film conventions and instead pours the textures, social contexts, the wonderfully vibrant language and even the illnesses of the early 19th century into the mix. Spall is both morose and loquacious as the ingenious but unspeakably cruel Turner, and grunted his way to the Best Actor award at Cannes this year. Like many a film this year, this one goes on about half an hour longer than it needs to, and Leigh is needlessly mocking of John Ruskin, but Mr Turner captures a great painter, his work and his times far better than most films of the sort. It was also a gamble to try to portray such a crabby curmudgeon and make him some way sympathetic; it’s a gamble Leigh pulls off very well indeed.
7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski –– Poland/Denmark/France/UK)
Pawel Pawlikowski returns to his native Poland for this film about Anna, a young novice in the early 1960s who discovers she is a Jew who was given up for adoption. She is taken under her wing by her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza in one of this year’s many excellent female acting performances), the only surviving member of her family, and now a dutiful but alcohol-dependent hanging judge. Together they confront the former neighbours who are now living in their house but Anna (née Ida) does not feel like turning her back on her vows, even when a young jazz saxophonist takes a shine to her. Ida is a low-key but very moving drama that looks gorgeous –– Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s photography recalls snowbound monochrome Eastern Bloc classics such as The Ascent and Marketa Lazarova –– and Poland’s often-forgotten Communist-era jazz boom and Coltrane’s ‘Naima’ provide a wistful soundtrack.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson –– USA/Germany/UK)
Anderson’s work isn’t as universally loved as some think it is and I am personally ambivalent about some of it. His mannered style has grated in recent films, and many of them were at best slight, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is his best in a decade. Adapted from Stefan Zweig’s short stories, the film is both a visual delight – Adam Stockhausen, Annie Atkins and Milena Canonero in particular deserve plaudits for the design –– and also a persuasive hymn to a vanished world, all the more remarkable because for being a comedy. Most of all, it is Ralph Fiennes’ unexpected comic turn as the rakish head concierge Monsieur Gustave that pitches the film at just the right level of comedic gravitas.
9. Song of the Sea (Tomm Moore –– Ireland/Denmark/Belgium/Luxembourg/France)
Tomm Moore’s second feature is sure to garner him a second Oscar nomination after Brendan and the Secret of Kells. This film, about a little girl born a selkie is in the same visual vein as its predecessor and is similarly dark like the best fairytales –– few other children’s films these days would start with the death of a mother in childbirth and the haunting lines of Yeats’ ‘Stolen Child’. The geometrically cubist graphic style recalls the glory days of Czech and Polish animation and there is not a dull frame in the entire film. A hugely impressive film from a young director and his talented team of animators. It’s really no exaggeration to say this bears comparison with Miyazaki.
10. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer –– UK/USA/Switzerland)
The mysterious alien bodysnatchers of Michael Faber’s source novel must have got their market research a bit muddled to conceive of an It girl driving a white van around the Scottish countryside but the end product certainly works. Glazer reminds us what a fine director he is with his third film, which is at turns beautiful and chilling. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t need to do much other than perfect an English accent to play the coldly alluring predator but the casting could hardly have been any better. And though it strays into familiar territory later in the film, Under the Skin is excellent stuff, interrogating both stardom and class relations, and, in the year of a Scottish referendum on independence, even became an inadvertent analogy for relations between the Scots and the London metropole.
11. National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman –– France/UK/USA)
The second film this year from the amazingly prolific 84-year-old Wiseman. The other, At Berkeley, was a surprisingly dull look at campus life at America’s foremost public university. Wiseman’s non-narrated fly-on-the-wall method is much more engaging here, largely because he has such fantastic subjects to work with. The National Gallery’s staff serve up mini-lectures on the gallery’s paintings that are more enlightening than a lifetime of TED talks and Wiseman himself knows how to flesh out a painting with great economy. The latest in a long line of great films from a master documentarist.
12. Beautiful Youth (Hermosa juventud) (Jaime Rosales –– Spain/France)
Jaime Rosales turns his attention to the impossible predicament of Spain’s jobless youth. Natália and Carlos are a young working-class couple just about getting by on a pittance while each still living with their parents, taking part in the odd amateur porn shoot to make ends meet. When Natália gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, the challenges begin to mount and soon economic realities mean that one of them will have to emigrate. Rosales, like the Dardenne brothers, is adept at showing how social ties and economic solidity have been vitiated by capitalism in recent decades –– Natália and Carlos unconsciously accept as a tradeoff for no job prospects the free messaging from What’s App (probably its first prominent use in a film), Skype and cheap consumer goods from Amazon. For such a sober stylist, Rosales is attuned to the emotional cost of an atrophied economy and Beautiful Youth is a film as sad as it is handsome.
13. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism)/The Second Game (Al doilea joc) (Corneliu Porumboiu –– Romania/France)
Two films from one of the brightest lights of Romanian cinema’s new wave. When Evening Falls on Bucharest is a discursive film about a filmmaker who finds the insurance for his film is threatened when it turns out he has kept a stomach ulcer secret. While not as readily accessible as Porumboiu’s previous films, 12:08 East of Bucharest or Policeman, Adjective, this is a fine addition to the canon of films about filmmaking and the creative process and has a pleasingly retro air to it. Even better is The Second Game, an experimental effort where Porumboiu and his father –– a former top-level football referee –– comment on a Bucharest derby (shown in its entirety) played between Steaua and Dinamo in the snow in 1988 and which the elder Porumboiu refereed. A fascinating meditation on sport and society under Ceausescu and a historical document forged out of the most mundane material.
14. Métamorphoses (Christophe Honoré –– France)
Honoré’s best film to date in which he adapts Ovid in the French suburbs with a non-professional cast. Visually inspired, right from the very first scene where Actaeon happens upon a transexual Diana, and with a bracing energy reminiscent of Pasolini, it is an excellent example of how to adapt a literary text on a modest budget. Great soundtrack too.
15. Stray Dogs (Jiao you) (Tsai Ming-Liang –– Taiwan/France)
Having been plagued by ill health in recent years, Tsai Ming-Liang announced this would be his last film and it’s his most affecting one since Vive l’Amour, twenty years ago. Tsai’s perennial main man Lee Kang-Sheng –– like an adult version of Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood –– is finally beginning to show his age, greying around the edges. He plays an alcoholic single father who lives in a derelict building with his two young children. A lonely supermarket clerk, played by another Tsai regular, Chen Shiang-Chyi, takes an interest in the destitute family and tries to help them but the cold distances in a Tsai Ming-Liang film are always difficult to traverse. Tsai’s unremittingly austere style will put some people off (even the appreciative audience I watched it with giggled at the interminably static final scene) but his films have an emotional and social power that few other formalists attain.
16. Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu) (Nuri Bilge Ceylan –– Turkey/France/Germany)
Ceylan’s Palme d’Or winner is not his best film and like his previous one, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, could easily have done with up to an hour shorn off its length. But this adaptation of several Chekhov tales set in a Cappadocia village is for the most part enthralling stuff and a finely calibrated portrait of a fraying Turkish society. Haluk Bilginer in particular is superb as the pompous actor-turned-editorialist Aydin, yet another unsympathetic male hero in a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film. The film is by turns talky and visually stunning and the dramatic centre-piece is a scene that is all the more shocking for its simplicity.
17. Han Gong-ju (Lee Su-jin –– South Korea)
Lee Su-jin’s debut feature is a chilling account of a high-school gang-rape (based on a real-life case even more horrifying than the one featured here), told in fragmented flashback. One of the survivors, Han Gong-ju (Chun Woo-hee) is hounded out of her school and hometown by her attackers’ families and goes to live with the mother of a sympathetic teacher. In her new school, she is understandably reluctant to make friends though some well-meaning classmates attempt to push her into a recording audition when they learn of her singing ability. The families continue to persecute her, accusing her of ruining their son’s lives, while her family seem to be more interested in financial claims. Han Gong-ju is a gruelling film that many won’t care for putting themselves through but it is a superb portrait of teenage isolation and communal cowardice.
18. Mommy (Xavier Dolan –– Canada)
As with Boyhood, the most interesting character in Dolan’s fifth feature is the mother and Anne Dorval’s performance is a thing of wonder as the brash, gum-chewing blue collar québecoise of the title. She struggles with a mentally disturbed teenage son (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) in a film that occasionally lurches into the over-stylised mannerisms of Dolan’s earlier films but which is ultimately a touching portrayal of maternal love.
19. Leviathan (Andrei Zvyagintsev –– Russia)
Zvyagintsev’s bleak account of a small-town businessman’s travails with corrupt local officials in Russia’s Arctic regions doesn’t break much new ground for him but it packs quite the punch nonetheless. It is also as formally elegant as we have come to expect from the director. Leviathan is loosely based on the case of the American Marvin Heemeyer. Nikolai (Aleksei Serbyakov) is served an exclusion order by an imperious drunkard of a Mayor (Roman Madyanov) and soon finds that the hotshot Moscow lawyer he has hired isn’t much help. There is unexpected humour in the film (a vodka-fuelled shooting gallery of old portraits of Soviet leaders in particular) but the Leviathan of the title is as unforgiving as Hobbes’ and Job’s. In an almost perfect précis of the society it portrays, the film was funded by the Russian Culture Ministry but then denied a screening permit because it infracted the country’s profanity laws.
20. Boyhood (Richard Linklater –– USA)
Many have Boyhood as their film of the year and it might have been mine too if it hadn’t run out of steam in the final third. Given Linklater has shown himself to be such an astute chronicler of adolescent life in Dazed and Confused and Suburbia, it’s odd that this film is so anaemic once Mason (Ellar Coltrane) hits high school. Still, there is enough that is great in the film to make it memorable. Watching characters grow up ‘in real time’ is so compelling you wonder why nobody has attempted it before and Linklater’s lightness of touch is as sure as ever. Not surprisingly, the film is as much about the parents as it is about Mason and his sister Samantha. Ethan Hawke gives one of his best performances as the estranged dad belatedly getting his life together but Boyhood really belongs to Patricia Arquette, absent so long from cinema screens, who is majestic as the harried, self-destructive but ultimately lovable mother. Linklater isn’t the most consistent director in the world but with Boyhood, he proves once again he’s among the most likeable.
Honourable mentions (in no particular order)
Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) (Hirokazu Koreeda –– Japan)
Child’s Pose (Pozitia copilului) (Calin Peter Netzer –– Romania)
The Wind Rises (Kaze tachinu) (Hayao Miyazaki –– Japan)
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen –– UK/USA)
Much Ado about Nothing (Josh Wheedon –– USA)
Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage) (Jean-Luc Godard –– Switzerland)
Goltzius and the Pelican Company (Peter Greenaway –– UK/Netherlands/France/Croatia)
Gloria (Sebastián Lelio –– Chile/Spain)
Her (Spike Jonze –– USA)
Three Sisters (San zimei) (Wang Bing –– Hong Kong/France)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg –– Canada/USA/France/Germany)
We Are the Best! (Vi är best!) (Lukas Moodysson –– Sweden/Denmark)
Our Sunhi (U ri Sunhi) (Hong Sang-soo –– South Korea)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier –– USA/France)
Trap Street (Shuiyn jie) (Vivian Qu –– China)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn –– USA/UK)
Party Girl (Marie Amakouchkeli-Barsacq/Claire Burger/Samuel Theis –– France)
Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg) (Dietrich Brüggermann –– Germany)
’71 (Yann Demange –– UK)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan –– USA/UK)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent –– Australia)
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy –– USA)
Timbuktu (Abderrahman Sissako –– France/Mauritania)
A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn –– UK/USA/Germany)
Nymphomaniac Volume 1 (Lars Von Trier –– Denmark/Germany/Belgium/UK/France)
The Kindergarten Teacher (Hagananet) (Nadav Lapid –– Israel/France)
Fighters (Les combattants) (Thomas Cailley –– France)