I deliberately refrained from attaching the word “best” to the films listed below out of consideration that my personal taste weighed heavily. While I would have no problem defending the picks based on artistic merit, there is a subjective factor that is probably no more arbitrary than that reflected in any other critic’s “best of” list even if they are reluctant to admit that personal taste tilted the scale. I can only say that if you have seen and valued films based on my recommendations, then you should look for those listed below in local theaters or on the Internet.
As a rule of thumb, I probably pay less attention to the visual aspects of a narrative film than I do to more conventional dramatic elements such as character development and plot. This meant that I had little use for a film like “Mr. Turner”, a work that made it to many ‘best of 2014’ lists on the basis of breathtaking images of the British landscape evoking the work of the boring and repulsive artist whose life it was celebrating. I could only wonder why Mike Leigh would want to make a film about such a man when you are better off going to the museum and looking at his paintings. My benchmark for such films was “Lust for Life”, the biopic about Vincent Van Gogh that was co-written by Irving Stone, from whose novel the script was adapted, and Norman Corwin. As you may know, Norman Corwin wrote and produced 100 radio plays in the 1930s and 40s, the medium’s golden age. The only images evoked in those classic plays were those that Corwin’s words produced in your mind’s eye.
Less subject to matters of personal taste, the documentaries for the most part reflect my concern with their subject matter, which by and large reflect those found on CounterPunch. Unlike most critics, the style of a documentary means little to me. If the subject is compelling enough, nothing else matters. Since it was not released last year, I cannot include Shirley Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason”, a 1967 film that consists of nothing but a gay Black hustler talking for 90 minutes about his hopes and disappointments. Ingmar Bergman called it “the most extraordinary film” he ever saw.
The films listed below identify the director/title/country of origin and are not in preferential order except for “Winter Sleep” that is in a class by itself and a film for the ages.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan , “Winter Sleep”, Turkey
Before his latest, which opens at theaters everywhere on December 19, I regarded Ceylan as one of the top ten directors in the world. Now I regard him as number one, a throwback to the golden age of cinema, when Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray were in their prime. Like them, his inspiration is local while the message is universal—in this instance a Chekhovian tale about class distinctions in the Turkish countryside. With a career in photography prior to making films, his work up to now has been visually striking. The breakthrough in “Winter Sleep” is literary, making critics’ comparisons with Chekhov amount to more than the usual hype.
Full review http://louisproyect.org/2014/12/10/winter-sleep/
Isao Takahata, “Tale of the Princess Kaguya”, Japan
An anime based on a tenth century Japanese folk tale about a bamboo cutter who after finding a new born infant sprouting from a bamboo shoot raises her to become a prospective bride for a member of the urban-based aristocracy. She prefers the simplicity and truth of rural life. Meticulously hand-drawn, each cel would fit in on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum. As unaccustomed as I am to thinking about spiritual matters, the film connects me to the Buddhist leanings of a half-century ago.
Karim Alexander Pitstra, “Die Welt”, Tunisia
Half Dutch and half Tunisian, Pitstra is well placed to dramatize the desperate attempts of young Tunisians to enter Europe illegally. The film evokes the disillusionment of many participants in the Arab Spring who now realize that parliamentary elections are no guarantee of a job and a secure future.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, “Two Days and One Night”, Belgium
A female factory worker in Belgium who has just been laid off has to persuade workers to forgo a bonus in order for her to get her job back. Played to perfection by Marion Cotillard, she goes house to house pleading for their vote in an election that pits her against the bonus. This in essence is the real drama of our day and one that the Dardenne brothers have dramatized over a long and distinguished career, the conflict between humanity and the cash nexus.
Mohammad Rasoulof, “Manuscripts Don’t Burn”, Iran
Iranian intellectuals run afoul of the cops and their boss, a one-time revolutionary who was picked for his job on the basis of his familiarity with their writings. Despite Rasoulof’s identification with the persecuted men, he empathizes with the largely uneducated enforcers who see the job as a way to pay their bills even as they mouth Islamic pieties.
Alex van Warmerdam, “Borgman”, Netherlands
A sly home invasion film that superficially resembles Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” but is both much less repellent and a lot more unpredictable. A comfortable petty bourgeois couple takes in a mysterious homeless man and slowly become his subjects. Is Borgman a demon? The film tantalizingly lets you decide for yourself.
Sam Fleischner, “Stand Clear of the Moving Doors”, USA
A 13-year old boy with a mild case of autism, played by exactly such a boy—a nonprofessional, wanders away from his mother’s apartment in Rockaway, Queens and travels about the city on the subway. You see the underground world through his eyes and identify with him, a miracle of filmmaking made on a budget just a fraction more than one day’s worth of meals for the cast and crew of “Interstellar”.
Jano Rosebiani, “One Candle, Two Candles”, Kurdistan
Rosebiani tells the story of a young woman who resists the attempts of a village headman to force his will on her through an arranged marriage. It is a clarion call for women’s rights that reflects the advanced thinking of Kurdistan’s young artists and activists. Rosebiani understands these questions better than most after having fought in the Kurdish resistance against Saddam Hussein. A most exceptional film from an exceptional filmmaker.
Hany Abu-Assad, “Omar”, Palestine
Omar is a young man who scales an Israeli wall each day to hook up with his girlfriend. Sick of being harassed by the IDF, he takes part in an attack on an Israeli military outpost and ends up in an Israeli prison where he is pressured into becoming an informer. Unlike the typical Israeli film that adopts a liberal “let’s understand each other” perspective, this is a straight-for-the-jugular tale that makes violent resistance appear as the only sane and moral response to a monstrous system. Superbly written, directed, and acted, this is the finest Palestinian narrative film I have seen.
Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, “In Bloom”, Georgia
A coming-of-age story of a teenage girl living in Tbilisi in 1992 who is contending with an array of problems: a father in prison, a battered wartime economy, and the anomie endemic to a post-Soviet society. Despite all this, she lives to the fullest and refuses to bend to the will of the men in her neighborhood whose sexism is fuelled by their inability to be masters of their own fate. At a wedding party for her best friend who has been forced to marry one such man, she performs a solo dance to the accompaniment of folk musicians that is the most exciting moment in film I saw in 2014.
Wim Wenders, “Salt of the Earth”, Brazil
Wenders celebrates the life of Sebastião Salgado, a photographer whose camera has taken up the cause of oppressed workers, victims of genocidal wars, and the flora and fauna of a world confronted by environmental despoliation. It is, to my knowledge, the only documentary that has ever gone into such depth about the art of photography.
Judy Irving, “Pelican Dreams”, USA
A film that combines Irving’s love of the bird as a kind of sacred object with expert testimony on the dangers confronting it. From the perspective of environmental survival in the face of a Sixth Extinction, these creatures are our canaries in the coalmine.
Bill Benenson, “The Hadza: The Last Of The First”, Tanzania
This is among the world’s last surviving hunting-and-gathering society that lives in the Rift Valley. Like the pelicans, they are confronting existential threats to their survival. If for no other reason, their survival is essential in order for students of homo sapiens to see that there is an alternative to class society with its dead-end individualism and disregard for Mother Earth.
Gabe Polsky, “Red Army”, Russia
A film for both sports fans and leftists still trying to figure out what happened in the Soviet Union. The Red Army Hockey team was the world’s greatest for a number of years. Its success was attributed to the teamwork that subordinated the individual to the whole. But no matter how respected it was internationally, the players could barely stand playing for the coach who imposed Draconian rules on them. In search of a better life, they were lured to professional hockey in the USA that gave them more freedom, more money but less of a sense of the common good. The film is mostly an interview with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, arguably one of the greatest hockey players of the past half-century as well as an extremely witty and insightful interviewee as deft before the camera as he was with a hockey stick.
Teodora Ana Mihai, “Waiting for August”, Romania
While mom is working as a housekeeper in Italy, her seven kids look after each other in a cramped but loving household. This is a penetrating look at post-Communist Romania that demonstrates how empty the promise of capitalist prosperity was even if its main aim was to tell a story about the inner resources of a family living under duress.
Beth Harrington, “The Winding Stream”, USA
A documentary about the Carter Family that is graced by some of the most beautiful performances ever seen in this genre. The Carters were a monumental force in American roots music whose influence continues to this day. Just before his death, Johnny Cash is interviewed throughout and makes the case most effectively for their importance.
Dan Krauss, “The Kill Team”, USA/Afghanistan
A documentary that is reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” as a GI resists becoming part of a death squad.
Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2014/07/26/the-kill-team/
Mahdi Fleifel, “A World Not Ours”, Palestine
Reflections on Palestinian life by an exile. Despite the tragic consequences of the nabka, the film is a celebration of the quotidian joys of the Palestinian people.
Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty, “Lyn Foulkes One Man Band”, USA
If the aforementioned “Salt of the Earth” is the finest film I have seen about a photographer, this one does the same for artists. Foulkes, an eccentric who spends decades on the same work and who holds galleries in the contempt they deserve, has a second career as a kind of Spike Jones who plays on his own hand-made combination of instruments, so adeptly that he has been a guest on TV variety shows, including Johnny Carson. I loved him.
Mark Levinson, “Particle Fever”, Switzerland
Levinson, a nuclear physicist, was not only qualified to make a film about the Large Hadron Collider project in terms of his technical expertise but also as someone with a tremendous gift for directing visually striking ways to make his expertise entertaining and informative to a lay audience. The film is focused on the search for the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that might provide insights into the origins of the universe. A film that makes pure science as transcendental an enterprise as writing the Great American Novel or painting the Mona Lisa.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.