"Racism is over in America" the president of an exclusive university states confidently in Dear White People, "the only people thinking about it are...Mexicans, probably." Justin Simien's energetic satire is full of sharp dialogue aimed at puncturing the myth of a post-racial America and starting a real discussion about prejudice, class and racial identity, and if his rapid-fire approach means he occasionally misses the target, he also scores a considerable number of direct hits. The film invites comparison with punchy, provocative energy of Spike Lee's early work, and while Simien is a stronger writer than director – with some of his stylistic choices coming off as a little too cute – his script is clearly the work of an intelligent mind that has a lot to say. The characters are brought to life by a charismatic young cast and the film builds to an explosive finale, with a climactic montage of recent photographs showing white Americans who have worn blackface for parties acting as an instant riposte to anyone who might think it's over the top. Like all good satire, Dear White People is shocking and outrageous, but only because it so closely reflects reality.
24 - The Babadook (directed by Jennifer Kent)
The Babadook is a horror film about a monster who emerges from the pages of a children’s book, but that’s not the scariest thing about it. Jennifer Kent’s stunningly effective debut is about a single mother (Essie Davis, giving one of the year’s best performances) trying to cope with her difficult son while sinking deeper into depression and hopelessness, and Kent understands that this feeling of being lost and trapped in a cycle of despair is the true horror. The Babadook itself is simply a manifestation of these very relatable anxieties and this lends a powerful emotional core to this story of a mother trying to save herself and her son from the encroaching darkness. Even when the climactic section of the film adheres to more conventional horror tactics, Kent’s direction is always assured and her film lingers in the thoughts long after it has ended. You can’t get rid of The Babadook.
The inaccurate English translation of Céline Sciamma's Bande de filles as Girlhood led some people to make lazy comparisons with Richard Linklater's Boyhood, but they are very different films. While Linklater's picture is a more general portrait of growing up, Sciamma's third film is a specific exploration of growing up as a black teenage girl in an inner-city environment, and as such it's the kind of film that very few filmmakers are attempting to make. This is a less perfectly formed picture than Sciamma's marvellous Tomboy, but it is also a more ambitious work and it's a step forward in terms of the director's visual sense, with the use of colour and architecture being striking throughout. Sciamma's greatest asset, however, is the magical touch that she has when working with young, inexperienced actresses, and that touch is evident here again. Karidja Touré is a wonderful discovery as the teenager trying to work out who she is, and there's a great sense of camaraderie among her gang, with Assa Sylla being another standout performer. I hope we see more of these beautiful and talented young actors, and I can't wait to see how Sciamma develops further.
The Homesman looks for all the world like an old-fashioned Western, but Tommy Lee Jones' second feature as a director quickly takes itself off the beaten path and follows its own wayward trail. The result is an uneven and sometimes maddening but utterly engrossing picture that keeps springing surprises, including one narrative leap halfway through the alters the whole complexion of the film. Jones himself is on familiar gruff form but he reveals unexpected layers of empathy and emotion as the film progresses, while Hilary Swank's performance as the spinster determined to do a job that no man in the town will step forward for is one of her very best. This is a film about loneliness and madness and the film often seems to be on the verge of madness itself, with increasingly eccentric scenes and encounters occurring as the film rambles towards its memorably offbeat final shot. The Homesman was never a film that was likely to find a wide and appreciative audience, but I have a feeling that we will look back at this one in years to come as something of an overlooked classic.
Boldly covering two decades in the lives of a family in a shade over 90 minutes, Katell Quillévéré doesn't make things easy for the viewer with her habit of leaping around in time and letting key moments in the story take place in the ellipses. This tactic can make the film an infuriating experience at times, particularly in the early stages, but if you connect with Quillévéré's filmmaking then Suzanne is a spellbinding and devastating portrait of a family torn apart by a series of bad choices and misfortunes. The director is confident enough in her storytelling to withhold key information from the viewer before revealing it later and timing these revelations for maximum emotional impact, and her judgement in this never wavers. Sara Forestier handles her demanding central role with great skill, Adèle Haenel is a welcome presence as her sister, while François Damiens delivers an enormously moving performance as their father, an ordinary man who simple wants to love and protect his daughters and whose despair when he fails to do so goes straight to the heart. Suzanne is a fearless and hugely exciting film from a young director with a very bright future.
One day after being introduced to the work of Mathew Barney in the most intense way possible – with an all-day screening of his Cremaster Cycle – I ventured to the London Coliseum for his latest magnum opus. River of Fundament is a loose adaptation of Norman Mailer’s “unadaptable” novel Ancient Evenings and over the course of six hours I saw things that I will surely never forget, even if I might want to. Norman Mailer’s son (playing his own father) cuts open a dead cow and crawls inside; a naked pregnant woman removes her glass eyeball and pushes it into the anus of another; a man is tricked into eating semen-encrusted lettuce; a woman gives birth to a bird, and Maggie Gyllenhaal squeezes milk from her breasts. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the scatological depths that this film reaches, but there is a vivid sense of beauty here too and Barney’s filmmaking eye has come on leaps and bounds since his last Cremaster film (I’ve yet to see the Björk-starring Drawing Restraint 9). He stages a number of incredibly ambitious and commanding sequences and the sound design throughout the film is among the best I have ever experienced, fully involving us in Barney’s universe. River of Fundament is bewildering, overwhelming and exhausting but it’s also a sensational experience that leaves a deep mark.
Bruno Dumont’s latest offering was made for French television, but I saw it in one sitting on the big screen and it definitely stands out as one of the cinematic highlights of the year. This 197-minute tale of murder in a small French town looks like familiar territory for Dumont – a study of good and evil with a cast of untrained actors whose faces look like they have met the business end of a shovel – but there’s also a new sensation here, with Li’l Quinquin frequently prompting raucous laughter. Led by a unique, tic-laden performance by Bernard Pruvost as the detective trying to ascertain who exactly is murdering people and stuffing their bodies inside cows, the film blends hilarious, non-sequitous comedy, philosophical explorations of morality and burst of gruesome violence with a degree of success that I never could have imagined him pulling off. In truth, I never imagined Bruno Dumont having anything as wildly entertaining as this in his locker, and it is my favourite film of his by some distance. Li’l Quinquin would have been higher up this list, but it loses points for planting the world’s most irritatingly catchy song in my head.
18 - Listen Up Philip (directed by Alex Ross Perry)
A brilliant film about narcissistic writers and the women who see through them. Listen Up Philip expertly skewers the ego of the Great Male Novelist with Jason Schwartzman perfectly cast performance as an arrogant, caustic young writer with and Jonathan Pryce on grand form as a Roth/Mailer-ish veteran who takes him under his wing. Alex Ross Perry’s screenplay is alive with acerbic dialogue and he doesn’t hold back when pushing us into uncomfortable encounters with, the gorgeous 16mm cinematography from Sean Price Williams and Robert Greene’s skilful editing making every scene feel vivid, anxious and dynamic. Although this appears to be a study of men, Perry’s real masterstroke is to hand over a chunk of the narrative to the Elisabeth Moss as Philip’s long-suffering girlfriend, and to follow her as she tries to free herself from the shackles of this unedifying relationship. Her performance is a masterclass in expressing conflicting emotions with subtlety. The omniscient voiceover is a great touch too, helping the film flow beautifully from one awkward encounter to the next, with almost every scene locating some truth about artists and their relationships.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's fourth feature Leviathan takes a long, hard look at modern Russia and reveals it as a country rotten to its core – corrupt, hypocritical and godless. He uses the story of one man fighting the establishment to highlight the human cost of such a system, with Aleksey Serebryakov giving a tremendous performance as the humble mechanic trying to stop his family's land from falling into the hands of the crooked mayor (a superb Roman Madyanov). While we suspect this won't end well – the imposing use of a Philip Glass piece introduces an instant note of foreboding – Leviathan brilliantly conceals its hand and the full tragedy of doesn't hit us until it has already swallowed its characters whole. The film possesses this capacity to catch us by surprise because Zvyagintsev keeps wrong-footing the audience with his storytelling choices, which shift according to his characters' often impulsive decisions. Much of the film is very funny, and the tonal balancing act the picture constantly strikes is summed by in a vodka-soaked shooting party, which serves up big laughs before veering suddenly into tragedy. It's little wonder 's screenplay earned Zvyagintsev a prize in Cannes, but his direction matches it every step of the way, creating numerous arresting images and establishing an unsettling mood that's hard to shake.
16 - The Duke of Burgundy (directed by Peter Strickland)
14 - Mr. Turner (directed by Mike Leigh)
Mr. Turner is probably my favourite Mike Leigh film since his last biopic, 1999’s Topsy-Turvy. What distinguishes these films is a sense of period detail that feels lived-in rather than studied, and performances from his regular ensemble that create characters we can imagine living on beyond the scope of the film. By approaching these subjects through his unique methods, Leigh avoids the clichés of the film biopic, and instead his portrait of JMW Turner has a bracing sense of humanity and authenticity. Led by a grand, finely detailed performance by Timothy Spall, the film gives us snapshots of Turner’s final two decades, when he produced some of his most daring works and suffered major upheavals in his personal life. As a character study, Mr. Turner is inquisitive while being respectful of its subject’s essential contradictions and mysteries, but Leigh is just as interested in the realities of life as a 19th century working artist as he is in this particular man, and every scene in the film has some telling detail that makes us feel like we are looking through a window on the past. The film is also features the most inspired work yet from Leigh's longtime collaborator Dick Pope, whose use of light recalls the painter's own. The sun is God, indeed.
As I walked away from a screening of Selma and turned on my phone, the first thing I saw on Twitter was a photograph of the huge crowds gathered in New York, marching in protest over the murders of unarmed black men by the American police. Sometimes it’s hard to divorce a film from the context in which we see it, and there’s no doubt that the current headlines give Selma an added emotional force, but even without that factor I would have no hesitation recommending Ava DuVernay’s film. This riveting drama focuses on the Civil Rights march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, and DuVernay shows excellent judgement throughout. Her depictions of shockingly violent acts are blistering, her study of the political machinations behind the march is clear and astute, and her portrait of King and his inner circle is revealing and intimate. As King, David Oyelowo gives a commanding and soulful performance that one can’t help but be inspired by, and as the film marches towards its rousing finale, it becomes clear that this picture about America in 1965 has much to teach us as we move into 2015.
The latest film from the Dardenne brothers is essentially one scene replayed multiple times. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) must visit her co-workers and ask them to give up their bonus so she can keep her job, and we follow her as she forces herself through this humiliating ritual sixteen times, all while trying to fight off the exhaustion and depression that has previously kept her from work. It's an extraordinary performance from Cotillard and yet another rich human drama from the Dardennes, as each of the encounters reveals characters who have different reasons for making the decisions that they make and we get such a vivid sense of lives going on beyond Sandra's story. The film is a portrait of a culture in which bosses pit workers against each other, and the sense of solidarity that emerges when Sandra finds somebody who will take up her cause carries immense power. All victories are hard-won in the Dardennes' world, but that makes them all the more satisfying, and this is yet another enthralling, compassionate and stunningly accomplished feature from a pair of filmmakers who seem incapable of taking a false step.
“To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But, I will say, he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvellous grace.” Wes Anderson has always been a director out of step with contemporary fashion and his latest film is one of his most idiosyncratic, and his best. Like the Like the cakes made by Mendl's that become central to the plot, this fast-paced, farcical comedy is a multi-layered aesthetic treat, crafted with the skill and fastidious attention to detail of an artist in complete control and working at the apex of his powers. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a film of contradictions; it feels simultaneously modern and embedded in the past; it is both polite and profane; frenetic but elegant; hilariously funny, but also deeply sad. The film is a lament for an age of innocence and civility that is about to be washed away by the arrival of a fascist regime, and for all of the sparkling comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel contains, it may actually be Anderson's saddest and most subtly humane work. At its centre is perhaps Anderson’s greatest creation, the inimitable Monsieur Gustave H., who is played by Ralph Fiennes with a sense of comic timing and élan that we have never seen in his work before. It’s a revelatory performance, rife with the year’s finest deliveries, of which “I've never seen her like that before. She was shaking like a shitting dog” may be my favourite.
10 - Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater)
If cinema is the closest thing we have to a time machine, then Richard Linklater has just pulled off one of its most astounding feats of time travel. Hearing about the way Linklater filmed his actors every year for 12 years doesn’t prepare you for the impact of watching the years melt away over the course of less than three hours, of seeing a boy become a man in front of our eyes. Given how many things could have happened in 12 years to send him off course, the fact that Linklater made such an ambitious project work at all is astonishing, but the fact that he did it with such humble, effortless grace is what makes the film feel really special. Ellar Coltrane was a lucky find as the boy we spend more than a decade observing, while Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give exceptional, nuanced performance as his parents, but it’s the overall experience that stays with you. Boyhood is perhaps the definitive example of a film in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; a one-of-a-kind picture that gradually generates momentum and accumulates emotional weight through keen observations and the capturing of a moment.
Timbuktu is a film with images and moments that are seared into my memory. A long shot of a man walking away through water as his victim tries to stumble to his feet; a group of teenage boys playing with an imaginary football following a ban on ball games; a child running helplessly towards the camera with no idea what lies ahead in her future. Abderrahmane Sissako’s stunning film is a portrait of a village under the control of militant Islamists, and the director finds a beautiful balance between finding humour in the absurdities and contradictions of their actions and counting the tragic cost as innocent villagers fall victim to their rule. There’s a lovely musical interlude in which a group of musicians gather to sing and play together, but that scene is quickly followed by their shocking punishment; Sissako’s filmmaking is graced with moments of poetry but his view of the situation is always clear and unflinching. This is an eye-opening and unforgettable film of great humanity and profundity, and following the rise of ISIS Timbuktu feels ever more vital.
A notice appears on screen before The Tribe begins, warning us that the film we are about to watch is told entirely through sign language and there will be no subtitles or translation offered to assist us. That might seem like a daunting proposition but The Tribe quickly grabbed my attention and didn't let go of my nerves until the brutal ending. It is the story of an adolescent boy who falls in with a gang of criminals and prostitutes, and the cast of young deaf actors performs with a fearlessness and expressiveness that is essential to the film's success. I've rarely been part of such an attentive audience, as we all kept our eyes glued to the screen to follow every gesture, action and camera movement – our only means of understanding the narrative. The Tribe is a masterclass in non-verbal storytelling and a triumph for first-time director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, who shoots the film in long, brilliantly orchestrated takes and possesses a potent ability to create and sustain tension. That level of tension can sometimes make The Tribe feel suffocating, and I certainly felt dazed and in need of some fresh air when it was over, but it is undeniably a very special achievement.
I only saw one 3D film this year, but given that the film I saw was Goodbye to Language I feel that was enough. I think this is the only film I've ever seen that must be viewed in three dimensions, or else there is simply no point in watching it. Other filmmakers have used 3D as an additional effect for films that can just as easily be enjoyed in 2D, but Jean-Luc Godard uses it as a tool to let us look at cinema and the world in a whole new way. While 3D – with a handful of exceptions – has thus far been the toy of blockbuster filmmakers, Godard's low-fi approach liberates the technique, creating textures and images that are completely new and producing one shot in particular that drew gasps from the audience I watched the film with. How often does cinema show you something you've never seen before? Goodbye to Language is the work of a director who is still determined to push the medium into new territory, and the whole film is energised by his enthusiasm, curiosity and playful disregard for what we understand cinema to be. As ever with Godard, this is a work dense with ideas and allusions that I couldn't begin to parse on a single viewing, but it also feels like one of his most accessible and emotional films, and just the thrill of bearing witness to what feels like the first real 3D movie is an experience that can't be missed. Jean-Luc Godard turned 84 this year, but this old dog still has new tricks.
This is Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature, and this absurdly gifted young filmmaker just keeps on getting better. Mommy is a dazzling melodrama about a single mother trying to cope with her increasingly violent teenage son, and no other picture hit me with as many euphoric highs and devastating lows. Dolan keeps unashamedly chases big moments throughout, and while that is likely to be a turn-off for many viewers, I found it to be an utterly exhilarating emotional ride. Dolan’s chosen visual style for the movie, a 1:1 aspect ratio with a lot of close-ups, can take some getting used to, but he uses it for a purpose, with the borders of the screen widening when the characters are on the verge of breaking out of their situation before compressing again when they find themselves back at square one. I fell in love with Anne Dorval’s lead performance – a beautifully detailed characterisation that is both extremely funny and heart-wrenchingly empathetic – and the dream sequence that Dolan comes up with towards the end of the film is a shattering masterstroke that elevates the picture to true greatness.
I love the films of Frederick Wiseman and I love The National Gallery, so my positive response to his latest film National Gallery is perhaps unsurprising. Nevertheless, I was still taken aback by just how great this documentary is, and my only regret is that Wiseman falls an hour short of last year's 244-minute At Berkeley. Like that film, National Gallery has a heavy focus on education, and as he tours the building Wiseman keeps landing on scenes of people sharing their knowledge of art and trying to inspire listeners with their infectious enthusiasm. We also gain a privileged look behind the scenes, sitting in on budget meetings (Wiseman has an uncanny knack for finding riveting discussions) and watching the gallery's restoration team carrying out painstaking work to touch up ageing masterpieces, with one of the most revelatory moments in the film being the admission that every cleaning removes all of those restorations, meaning they have to be done all over again. You couldn't do that if you didn't love what you do, and throughout National Gallery we meet people who really love art – people who love viewing it, love preserving it, and love sharing it with others. The other thing that Wiseman understands so well is that people-watching is one of the joys of visiting a gallery, and he creates a wonderful interplay between the images on the wall and the wide variety of people who look at them every day. National Gallery is illuminating, inspiring and entrancing, and in its final minutes it achieves a state of transcendence that elevates it into the top tier of Wiseman's peerless body of work.
3 - Winter Sleep (directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
4 - Inherent Vice (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
Without a shadow of a doubt the funniest film of 2014, Inherent Vice is also sweet and strange and sad and mysterious. It’s such a rich feast of a film I can only imagine it revealing more textures and layers upon repeated viewings, but one experience has already left me with so much to savour. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel hooked me immediately, with the director displaying a peerless command of tone, generating a drug-fuelled atmosphere of confusion that draws us in and intoxicates us. There are blissfully funny moments scattered throughout, much of them involving Joaquin Phoenix’s wonderful range of baffled expressions or slapstick pratfalls, or Josh Brolin’s note-perfect portrayal of a frustrated right-wing cop, but this is also a love story, with one sequence following two lovers in the rain being one of the most beautiful and poignant moments that this great filmmaker has captured. I haven’t fallen so completely for a Paul Thomas Anderson film like this since Magnolia, and I can’t wait to dive back into Inherent Vice as soon as possible.
Although it has its roots in short stories by Chekov, Winter Sleep feels novelistic in its scope and sense of detail. The film is a study of relationships, responsibilities, pride, good intentions and characters who are trapped together and forced into petty battles. Much of it consists of long, discursive conversations, and while the idea of a 196-minute picture driven by endless talk may sound off-putting, I found the dialogue written by Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his wife Ebru to be totally fascinating in the way it reveals character and motivations, and touches on a wide variety of themes. The centrepiece of the film is an argument between hotelier and self-styled intellectual Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) and his younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), which is a stunning feat of needling passive-aggression and is performed with incredible skill and emotional dexterity by the two actors. Winter Sleep is as visually splendid as we have come to expect from Ceylan, with interiors bathed in golden light and the spectacular Anatolian landscape providing a naturally breathtaking space for him to work in, but what really stands out is how the director uses the vast canvas at his disposal to create such a finely tuned and intimate character study. Winter Sleep is a staggering achievement.
I must have burst into tears about half-a-dozen times during The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Sometimes it was the devastating Mizoguchi-like emotional impact of the film’s story that got to me, but often it was simply the sheer heart-stopping beauty of Isao Takahata’s film. Adapted from an ancient Japanese fable, the film has a suitably timeless feel thanks to the use of charcoal and watercolour animation, through which Takahata and his team of animators have produced one of the most visually ravishing films I have ever seen. The deftness of the brushstrokes and line drawings makes every frame of the film feel alive, and they conjure wondrous images that can make your heart swell or shatter into pieces, often simultaneously. The narrative is blessed with fantastic flights of the imagination but at it score it is a vivid and powerful cautionary tale about the importance of living a life that makes us happy rather than the life we feel we should live, because it's all over so fast. In the same year that Hayao Miyazaki directed his own swansong with the wonderful The Wind Rises, this picture truly does mark the end of an era as the final animated feature to emerge from Studio Ghibli. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a stunning way for these great artists to say goodbye, and a timely reminder of the magic that we risk losing if we let the craft of hand-drawn animation become only a memory.
Jonathan Glazer's extraordinary and singular Under the Skin blends footage shot covertly on the streets of Glasgow with vivid, nightmarish sights and sounds to create a wholly original and deeply unsettling experience. It is a film about being an alien in a human world, or being a woman in a man's world, and Scarlett Johansson's work as the film's enigmatic protagonist constitutes the year's most imaginative use of an actor's star quality. She is an alien creature herself on these dark Glasgow streets, and her the image of men slowly walking towards this beguiling creature, literally led by their erections, is just one of its myriad potent and indelible images. Thinking about what happens to these men when they have become trapped in the alien’s web still give me chills, as does the horrible scene involving a baby on a windswept beach, but this is a film that also has moments of humour and tenderness to offset its terrifying implications. Watching a film like this and seeing a hugely talented filmmaker strive for something genuinely new is a totally exhilarating experience, and Under the Skin isn’t just a film that works upon first exposure. Re-watching the film, it only seems richer, stranger, scarier, more intriguing and more human. It’s an extraordinary work of art and Under the Skin is a most apt title for such a haunting picture. Once it has seduced you into its dark world, there is no escaping it.