//2014 IN REVIEW: Lena’s Top 20 Films of 2014

2014 IN REVIEW: Lena’s Top 20 Films of 2014

Top Ten FeaturedCinema did a lot for me in 2014, and I can’t help feeling I didn’t do nearly enough in return.

Not everybody shares my view of this year being so outstanding, and I admittedly can’t bring myself to blame them. Nobody’s had precisely the same year as anyone else, and golly gee, what a strange confrontation it would be if that were the case. Speaking only for myself, I saw at least 190 films across this long stretch of year, so nearly triple fellow critic Justin Jagoe’s more easily condensed, but no less stunning collection of films (trust me, Justin, you made out fabulously with this year). And how many of those films did I ultimately write about at length here at Film Misery? Not nearly enough, but if you want to put a number on it, 36, including Quick Takes.

So in a year I saw an immense amount of cinematic pleasures, I wrote significantly about less than 20% of them. I could cite difficulties in my personal life and prioritizing my last year of college as reasonable excuses, but when it comes down to it, I just wish I’d done more. If anything deserves reminding of this year, it’s how essential friendly critical conversation is in any year. Without it, the conversation lies dead, or worse, misinterpreted. I’ve been maddened by retrograde, one-note conversations about the most basic aspects of this year’s films. There’s only so deep I can go with a conversation about Snowpiercer‘s obvious class metaphor, and would be happier digging into the specifics. I’d be more enthusiastic, say, with a conversation about Alison Pill’s kindergarten teacher with an Uzi, ya know?

Obviously enough, such misunderstandings have centered so much around the year’s Oscar entities. How soon till Selma‘s finer details get lost behind its larger role as a representation of racial tensions in America? It didn’t take long for Birdman to succumb to the audacity of its own vision. Even Boyhood, one of the most specific experiences of the year, has lost traction to its own “relatability” (my college classmates’ words, not mine). How can we expand a thoughtful conversation if we’re only ever going to handle it in the broadest terms?

Thankfully, that has nothing to do with the films themselves, often as diverse from moment to moment as they are from film to film. And because distilling them from 190-somethin’ down to ten feels quite half-hearted after such an underwritten year on my part, I’ve hemmed it in to twenty(-ish). After all, This is Martin Bonner director Chad Hartigan managed a video countdown as captivating as David Ehrlich’s with five films less. It’s just big enough to be inclusive, but not enough to be indulgent. You’re probably a better judge of that than I, though.

I admit, I’m still sad to leave a heavy number of films off, and not merely those that played on the big screen. I’m increasingly broadening my definitions of what classifies a full fledged cinematic experience. With Mad Men closing its run as uncompromisingly as ever and Transparent emerging into its own with disarming sensitivity, television is already an essentially integrated part of my film year. And I’ve long since blurred the lines of short and feature films in compiling this list – BAMcinemaFest discoveries Ellie Lumme and A Million Miles Away were considered as legitimately for this list as any others. I can’t even say that my experience with Joseph Kahn’s music video for “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift was anything but a riotously cinematic one. It’s a more considerate showcase for Swift’s acting talents than The Giver. I’ll say that much, and likely more.

I’ll have to discover my own way of honoring the rest of this year’s essential films that didn’t make this list. As always, I had to cast aside broader preconceptions of the year’s great films and start from scratch with what struck me most deeply and fervently. Cinema is about sharing, yes, but I share with others what stirs the most within myself. I started my 2015 by watching Vertigo with a friend who’d never seen it, and it’s never hit quite as profoundly or hauntingly as it did then. I hope to have such meaningful experiences with each of these films one day.

Lena’s Top Twenty Films of 2014

LEGO Movie - 22 Jump Street20. 22 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie (Dir. Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

In the words of Ennis Del Mar, “If you can’t fight it, you gotta stand it,” and no two Hollywood filmmakers are withstanding the commercialization of mainstream film as subversively as Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Busting ecstatically through the ceiling and out of the toy crate, their two films this year at once signify everything wrong with modern studio filmmaking and make a progressive, enthusiastic effort to invert those errors into virtues. The LEGO Movie is a manic hostile takeover of children’s animation, inspiring independent and innovative creativity and imagination in both narrative and form – its CG-stop motion hybrid is the rare spectacle that looks unlike anything I’ve seen before. 22 Jump Street is a riotous marriage counseling session equating the industry’s redundant, overstaying relationship with film franchises to the unconventional, but optimistically progressive relationship of its leads, and all but obliterating any further unironic sequel possibilities in the process.

It’s tough to tell if Lord and Miller are commercial filmmaking’s heroes or villains, with The LEGO Movie spawning a worrisome cinematic universe and Sony racking themselves with how to squeeze more Jump Street films out of the duo. What’s less debatable is the sheer joy and giddiness these anarchic delights elicit. (Full The LEGO Movie review here)

Obvious Child19. Obvious Child (Dir. Gillian Robespierro)

Obvious Child is a seemingly modest comic episode that grows deeper and more unfettered with every viewing. It follows in the Frances Ha tradition of quarter-life crisis in the overwrought ensemble showcase of New York City, but freshens it up with its own warmth and loony charm. The child of a stern business savvy mother and a goofy puppeteer, Jenny Slate’s frazzled Donna is an endlessly, desperately self-effacing creation, her humor not even faintly masking her anxieties about her professional, romantic and personal lives falling sporadically apart. And yet there’s an uplifting and invigorating bravery about Obvious Child, how it tackles everyday crises free of patronizing judgment, and how it angles its characters to confront their difficulties head-on, rather than to run away from them. Extra points for Jake Lacy being a genuinely, unflinchingly nice guy character, a refresher from far too many indies that try to earn sympathy for abominable male characters. This film is a beacon for the moving power of romantic-comedies, the most unduly dismissed genre in modern filmmaking.

Starred Up18. Starred Up (Dir. David Mackenzie)

The prison genre is certainly one of the more elegant solutions to having an all-male cast of characters, though it’s only inside the prison community of Starred Up that heteronormative relations are outcast. Mackenzie really establishes prison as a way of life, a professional mindset that starts fresh young inmate Eric Love (a ferociously physical Jack O’Connell, making much more expressive freedom of his incarceration than in the more saccharine hopefulness of Unbroken) aggressively off the path to a brighter community. His father, Ben Mendelsohn’s Ned, is at once a humiliating, patronizing figure and the sign of a bleak, determinist future for Eric. Starred Up is certainly one of contemporary film’s most honest and progressive father-child portraits, begging understanding and compromise on both sides. It’s also ultimately a wearisomely hopeful vision for the next generation, brutally, but concisely emphasizing the revolving doors keeping some members outside a positive community, but remaining open for others to pass through freely.

Grand Budapest Hotel17. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)

Wes Anderson has long been an auteur I’ve wanted to be taken with, but whose aesthetic has kept me on the outside for much of his career. The distanced admiration finally turns to joy and love with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film which I’d merit would make a highly anachronistic, but not incorrect pairing with Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida. There’s a WWII-bound sense of unattainable loss anchoring both, but what Pawlikowski emphasizes that through emptiness, Anderson emphasizes through the distortion his affectations have long added, but never before overtly merited by their narrative. In that way The Grand Budapest Hotel is a work that breathes necessity and vitality into his entire career, but it’s also one that quite individually lends grace and energy to a time long decayed, but whose memory flourishes the deeper into the past we go. It’s not nostalgia, that irksome crutch which is perhaps too much of a go-to word for Anderson’s fans. It’s simply an emptiness which must be sporadically filled by our aching imagination. Perhaps Ida is a “better” film, but the beautiful union of Anderson’s cinema ensures I’ll revisit The Grand Budapest Hotel for ages, and each time with as bitter a kick at the end of its rollercoaster.

Force Majeure16. Force Majeure (Dir. Ruben Ostlund)

Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure and Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet from 2012 both depict the rapid dissolution of a relationship dynamic after a split-second action, and while I was quite enraptured by the latter’s lyrical ambiguity, Ostlund ventures arguably much farther with his formal technique. It’s a refreshing exception to discipline often diluting style, the crushing emotional distance of characters in space speaking to its mockery of the perfunctory one-size-fits-all nuclear marriage dynamic that’s become an unconscious, destructive, but quite hysterical norm. Ostlund could’ve roasted male privilege on a spit without a second’s thought towards dimensionalizing them, but what makes Force Majeure about more than just a wife and children coping with an emotionally cutoff stranger replacing their husband/father, whilst at a not-quite-luxury ski resort backgrounded by frequent controlled explosions, is how equally it investigates the evasive, emasculated male psyche. Tomas isn’t a sociopath. He’s just a dude, and the way Ostlund jeers at the squiffy dividing line between those two makes Force Majeure such a riotously humbling experience for the guys, and a turf leveling one for the girls.

Timbuktu15. Timbuktu (Dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

Based on subject matter alone, Timbuktu should be totally depressing. A snapshot of Mauritanian daily life under the duress of local jihadists, its suggestion that the monsters aren’t the others, but our neighbors, is one that’s not exclusive to its historical situation, and Sissako affords enough satirical moments to offset their anti-western sentiments with their feeble dependency on western technology. Neither is the uplifting use of artistic, personal and recreational self-expression as an act of defiance confined to its titular city, with women rising self-sacrificially for the sake of their own spirits as the men remain submissive to, or in aid of, the strict traditionalism violently promoted by the jihadists. It’s a film as charming and lovely as it is shocking and sobering, giving space in the same warm, sun-soaked light for both suffering and sports, mutiny and music. Hope and devastation end closely and inseparably clutching to one another. (Cohen Media Group releases Timbuktu on January 30th)

Babadook14. The Babadook (Dir. Jennifer Kent)

The most frightening things about The Babadook don’t spawn from the supernatural, but are merely heightened by it. The first half’s a We Need to Talk About Kevin style pressure cooker, dipping into the increasingly tense, nightmarish home life of a mother torn between loving her semi-sweet, semi-obnoxious, mostly terrifying son and ripping his head off for taking her husband away from her. The second half is Our Children gone berserk, with the mother going slowly psychologically unhinged as their chalk-and-marble designed household becomes the grounds for a violently emotional battle between mother and child. Grief, depression and stress are the monsters that grow inside Amelia, with Essie Davis giving an extraordinary performance, at times venal, riotous, terrified and terrifying, often with a breath’s distance from one another. It’s Jennifer Kent, though, who rises as the year’s most most promising discovery, already delivering a visceral, hand-crafted and quite permanently hair-raising chamber horror piece, and one with something ugly, but honest to say about parenthood.

Eden13. Eden (Dir. Mia Hansen-Love)

The passage of time has been an oft-recurring theme of my 2014 in film, so much that it’s surprising so many of them have sparked as distinctly from one another as they have. Mia Hansen-Love’s film isn’t exactly about time gained or lost, but blurring into a timeless vortex. Paul’s life is propelled forward through the garage music era by a tireless search for the next ethereal high – chasing the cartoon phoenix, the lone stylistic flourish that leaves us and Paul alike striving for more – only to be personally and financially stagnated by his devotion and immersion in the endless punk-disco movement. The music is immersive and intoxicating, but never intoxicating enough, leaving a feeling of dissatisfaction that heightens the potency of the film’s own effect. It’s the immense weight of possibilities faded into the atmosphere that makes Eden such a powerful beacon to those who’ve passed through the world too unscathed to have anything to hold on to. (Broad Green Pictures releases Eden this summer; Full NYFF review here)

Futuro Beach12. Futuro Beach (Dir. Karim Ainouz)

Nobody’s life is physically saved in Futuro Beach, but it’s the inability to save a life that throws the film’s superhero, Wagner Moura’s Brazilian lifeguard Donato, into a crisis of personal strength, as well as into a gay romance with Konrad, the German friend of the drowner. With chapter titles like “The Drowner’s Embrace” and “A Hero Cut in Half” and a production that scales from Brazil to Berlin (until ultimately coming to a cathartic finish someplace aesthetically in between), Ainouz is painting a small, intimate story on a grand canvas. The use of superhero nicknames nudges us into near-mythical territory, though it’s not from the resilience of the human spirit, but from its fragility that Ainouz sends his characters down deep, sorrowful, neon electrified paths to reconciliation, both with themselves and each other. It’s not the fierce forces of nature, but the unity of the soul that leads their destinies, and Ainouz posits those themes in such soothing, somnambulant ways so that they never feel like hollow gestures. (Strand Releasing releases Futuro Beach on February 27th)

Look of Silence11. The Look of Silence (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

“How often do you see someone change the world?,” has been the calling card (or at least Jeff Baker’s) for Citizenfour, and indeed a massive train of buzz has surrounded the news unveiled in and during that film. But if any non-fiction film felt urgently like news in 2014, it was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a film that overturns the state sanctioned denial and oppression that its predecessor, The Act of Killing, incited internal sickness for. Set in the same Indonesia where a progressive shift in ideology has yet to occur, Silence serves as both follow-up and antidote to Killing, opening a space for the victims to re-exist in the consciences of the perpetrators and their families, while simultaneously burning the bridges Oppenheimer built up through indulging them for his last film. It’s a revolutionary act of bravery in every register, daring to reopen old wounds that have since scabbed over, but remain infected. It’s also a beautiful family drama about people struggling to make space in their lives everyday for what’s been lost, even as its been willfully, or psychologically, oppressed into obscurity and unearned innocence. (Drafthouse Films releases The Look of Silence on July 17th)

Begin Again Music10. Begin Again (Dir. John Carney)

Maybe the songs of Begin Again wouldn’t save my life, as its original title proposed, but they certainly made it easier, freer, and more confident with every step. As much about artistic self-therapy as it is about symbiotic creative partnership, Begin Again begins, alongside its characters, on an agitated emotional tailspin, and becomes increasingly more winning and reassuring as it goes along. It earns life-informing experience and accompanying sincerity with each emotion-oozing song, that in their own turn reveal and refresh the hopeful reservoirs of the characters performing them. A break-up song performed with mocking perkiness? I’ll take it! A rooftop jam session joyously reuniting father and daughter personally and artistically? Hell yes! Begin Again becomes brighter, deeper, and more endlessly reassuring with every passing second and every viewing. Like Gravity, I might slip it on if life’s serving me a tough hand, but unlike Gravity, I won’t have to go through a rigorous physical workout for it to reignite my love of art and life. (Full review here)

Foxcatcher9. Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller)

As powerfully as Starred Up depicts the ruinous expectations of father-child relationships, Foxcatcher captures the warring co-dependence and jealousy gnawing away at the heart of brotherly dynamics. It really is the dread of not having one’s personal support network that heightens the paranoia and dread of the film. “This country has failed to honor you,” Steve Carell’s highly affected, but quite thoroughly sorrowful John duPont says to Channing Tatum’s perpetually isolated and subsequently self-destructive Mark Schultz. It’s one of his fonder gestures, but still speaks to duPont’s gradually suffocating confusion of fraternal support and patriarchal lordship. The ideal resolution, it would seem, is for Mark Ruffalo’s profoundly, problematically kind-intentioned Dave Schultz to ameliorate the tension. Instead the message his arrival on Foxcatcher Farms sends is a much bleaker one: money is a more powerful influence than familial love. This blunt, bleak misunderstanding underscores the tragedy and permanent, crushing devastation that follows.

Leviathan8. Leviathan (Dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s work is embellished by bleak, brutal political punchlines and grandiose symbolic imagery joined with Philip Glass music, but what he lives for is the simple humanism that’s frequently laughed at by the Russian political system surrounding him. Such it is with Leviathan, the second great film with that title this decade, though as opposed Sensory Ethnography Lab’s ferocious sonic and visual unity, Zvyagintsev’s film is a languid, tonally melancholic affair that unfolds as a mythic legend of corruption. Indeed the Book of Job is name checked at least once diegetically, but there is no holy sanctuary for those who dare to oppose the privileged and powerful. That Leviathan‘s characters dare oppose the state seeking to seize his home and livelihood only further condemns their circumstances, expanded from simply local to biblical humiliation and devastation. And besides its epic symbolism, Zvyagintsev continues to depict the overly conditional ties of family, organic and adopted, that he bleakly delved into with Elena. The have-nots of Leviathan can only dream of such an incredulously prosperous end as the morally misplaced characters of that film, their family’s history of innocence and decency corrupted permanently simply by dint of being hopeful.

Suzanne7. Suzanne (Dir. Katell Quillevere)

A number of films this year dealing with time’s passage focus on the changes, or lack thereof, in characters, but it’s Suzanne‘s shifting, disintegrating relations to others that lends it the crushing weight of time. It’s family, not identity, that provides the bookmarks for Katell Quillevere’s gradually devastating sophomore feature. Suzanne isn’t a specific character, and its her circumstantial, unspecific elements that form her existential problem. Seizing her adulthood more recklessly than her sister, we see her make rash decisions about her teen pregnancy, professional life and a questionable romance that leads her life less to ruin than to brutal deformation. Her eyes are set on the shimmery horizon, and as she sacrifices a more arduous everyday struggle to get there quicker, she finds herself, through abandonment, incarceration, and re-abandonment, sacrificing much more in her life. With so many rapidly misjudged decisions, it’s a lovely miracle that Quillevere never dips into patriarchal judgment of Suzanne, giving her choices emotional validity, and allowing for a merciful ending that at once crushes and realizes her dreams. (Suzanne is still awaiting distribution)

Tom at the Farm6. Tom at the Farm (Dir. Xavier Dolan)

If I could isolate this and Night Moves back into 2013, alongside Stoker, Berberian Sound Studio and In the House, that year would be the definitive year of Hitchcock affectations. Instead Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm remains inexplicably in distribution limbo, in spite rapturous art house screenings in the U.S. this year. It’s not just their loss, but U.S. auds as well, as this is Dolan’s most delicious, tenacious film to date, finally using his fabulous style to provoke piercing physical and emotional reactions. Inclined as ever towards a fusion of classical craft and neon-pop tendencies, he closes this tale of violent, manipulatively arousing homophobia with Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town”, and besides its sexually hulking villain sporting a jacket with the U.S. flag on the back, Tom at the Farm raises a palpable disillusionment with the unflinchingly prejudiced heartland, either here or there. “I’m so tired of America/I’ve got a life to live” Wainwright croons on the disturbed opposite end of a film that begins on the mournful swoons of a French cover of “The Windmills of Your Mind”. In between is a twisting, occasionally twirling unveiling of the toxic familial expectations that await for too many queer relationships, not to mention a Gabriel Yared score to rival Bernard Herrmann. (Tom at the Farm is still awaiting distribution)

Boyhood5. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)

Having lived as a closeted transsexual for every year Boyhood encompasses, I can definitively say that I don’t relate to Mason’s childhood. Nor do I feel the pain of a parent watching as their child grows up as rapidly as they did. What feels universal about Boyhood, though, is how Linklater defines his characters as the sum of their experiences, and how deliberately they rebel against those definitions. “I was somebody’s daughter, and then I was somebody’s fucking mother,” Patricia Arquette rails at the start, and by the end those constricting roles have stripped away so much of who she thought she was. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr., too, finds himself making compromises and transitions from his reckless beginning to where the film leaves him.

Boyhood is as much their story as Mason’s, but it belongs even more to all the brief encounters he has. His childhood friend who disappears with a wave while he’s off to “Soak Up the Sun” in Houston. His step-brother and sister who recede to a frightfully volatile household, and quite possibly likely to turn out like their father. His second step-dad, who undergoes a much sadder descent into controlling alcoholism. Everybody we see for a while, or just a moment, and whose futures are tantalizingly unknowable. Yes, it ends with Mason high as a kite, likely to get laid in the middle of a canyon, but it’s not goofy bro satisfaction that heightens the moment. It’s the realization that his identity’s been irrevocably framed by these moments, both as he’s least expected it and as he’s rebelled against it, which he’ll all too soon forget in a puff of smoke. Yeah, Boyhood made me cry, but not because of some invalid nostalgia, but because of the notion that our lives have already been decided. You can take that as bleak or hopeful, but it’s a beautiful, profound encompassing statement.

Tale of the Princess Kaguya4. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Dir. Isao Takahata)

No 2014 film has as visual a relationship with the apocalypse as Ghibli experimentalist Isao Takahata’s likely (unfortunately) last feature, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, but the feeling of a world receding from view, even as we’re living in it, isn’t confined to the film’s ravaging, stripped down aesthetic. This film’s a harbinger of the approaching end of Studio Ghibli films, emphasized further by documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, but it’s also a sign of the painful recession of hand-drawn animation. Paired with last year’s Ernest & Celestine, these films roughly encompass the complete history of the medium, with that film depicting a flourishing, progressive renaissance, and Princess Kaguya leading it to decay and neglected decomposition.

Besides our relationship to it as animation lovers, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is foremost a flash-and-its-gone encompassing of all of life, packing more of that aforementioned parents’ fear of their child’s life disappearing before their eyes than Boyhood. It’s personal fears, joys and anxieties, though, that mark the progression and degradation of the titular princess’ life. “The happiness you wanted for me was too much for me to bear,” she says as her own vision of her life has become brutally limited by parental expectations and societal restrictions. Takahata’s style is already surrealist, but the dips into Kaguya’s ethereal head-space are ravishing and visceral, her emotions and self-worth deciding how corporeal or deteriorated a form she will take. There’s an endless reservoir of symbolism and gracefully heartbreaking moments that make this film an immediate and lasting touchstone of Ghibli’s short, beautiful time on this earth.

'713. ’71 (Dir. Yann Demange)

’71 is one swift, hard jack-knife of a movie, its effects disorienting and horrifying, both physically and politically. A number of films on this list are rather fluid with their depictions of morality and understandable actions, but there’s a futility and senselessness at the heart of ’71 that shows all of the ostensible good guys to be misguided. That’s what Jack O’Connell’s Gary learns over the course of one blazing night in 1971 Belfast, Ireland, where the British soldier must rest his survival in the hands of politically and impersonally invaded locals, caught in the crossfire between radical IRA dissidents and even less ethically grounded British military enforcers. He’s not a hero in any conventional sense, but he has the gracious innocence to understand a boy dying in his arms is no worthy sacrifice for… whatever the Brits’ goals are here. The national tension depicted in ’71 remains as urgent now as it was then, and Yann Demange’s brutal craft ensures that the bullet lands deep in the arteries. (Roadside Attractions releases ’71 on February 27th; Full NYFF review here)

Nymphomaniac2. Nymphomaniac (Dir. Lars von Trier)

This is my Blue Is the Warmest Color of 2014, in that I haven’t had as divisive or defensive arguments about any other film this year, with others or with myself. Lars von Trier has a tendency of provoking that, his work being at once scathingly self-reflexive and hostile towards viewers with expectations of moral decency, if not in the characters then at least in the telling. He hates social constrictions of morality, which have often been an affront (or a corruption) to the humanity of his characters. No film of his is as messy or seemingly overwrought as Nymphomaniac, but no film gives as toxic or influential a position in its narrative for poisonous philosophical bullshit. This is a film where a fragile, self-searching narrator (and narrative) is made unreliable by a commentator’s attempts to fit it within a relatable and understandable, but ultimately grossly biased and self-serving, moral framework. If Seligman isn’t a blatant and humiliating stab at Lars von Trier’s critics, I’m not sure what is.

In between the riotous lapses into metaphor and morally questionable conversation, there remains another infinitely sad portrait of loneliness, most particularly one in the age of human sexual utility. Charlotte Gainsbourgh’s Joe isn’t the only cinematic woman of 2014 to demand her sexual agency, an expressly self-possessed liberty that made it impossible for this viewer not to look at her conquests with admiration. But, not dissimilarly from Suzanne, there’s an emotional, physical and personal cost to that reckless liberty, one which is present, but woefully underserved in the theatrical cut. The director’s cut, now also on Netflix, fills in a major, and unspeakably upsetting, gap in her story, but also in von Trier’s career. Like The Grandmaster‘s neutering from its Chinese cut to American release, so many small details of Nymphomaniac await for discovery in the extended version, which only raised my admiration and immersion for this dark and devastating chapter of Lars von Trier career and life overall. I honestly can’t imagine a more exciting way to spend a Saturday night than watching Nymphomaniac from midnight till dawn. But I’m fucked up that way.

Under the Skin1. Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin may never be as mystifying as it was upon first viewing, or even before that. The aura surrounding it is one of such tantalizing ambiguity that striving to know its heart, through to its stripped core, feels antithetical to reading it. This is a film, like the Stanley Kubrick works it’s been compared to, that lives to be discovered and re-discovered. A contemporary vision through alien eyes, we see small facets of our world glimpsed with unexposed freshness, revealing how unusual or absolutely terrifying they are. The social recluse will undoubtedly find evidenced before them many of the reasons going out into the world terrifies them; simply as a reluctant and confused social entity where conventional sexual dynamics are easier to play on, but most certainly as a woman. Scarlett Johansson’s lead character is an It who discovers all the grotesque misconceptions placed on the Shes.

There’s plenty Kubrick and Tarkovsky in the mix here, but the most unexpected parallel I’ve found in Under the Skin recently has been to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, another film about the inhospitable overlap between image and identity. Months back I posited my favorite shot of the film as its last, but now I’d reassess to a different unassuming image that inverts Jimmy Stewart’s climactic final act in Vertigo. In that film, he was dragging his girl forcibly up the stairs to conquer his guilt. In Under the Skin, it’s a kind man who cushions her as they walk carefully down a winding staircase. It’s a beautiful, touching depiction of compassion and dependency that affords humane grace to a film that, before and after, goes into very dark, horrifying territories.

So to leave describing an image that improbably captures both, my mind increasingly returns to the baby on the beach, who we last see wailing on the shore, abandoned and likely to die. And yet, he gets up. Alone, and with nobody, there’s still something within him. It’s something that Johansson’s character must discover for herself, ensuring Under the Skin as a film of both fear and fearlessness.


And that’s the whole grand deal! I know there are a number of films average viewers aren’t able to see yet, but there are just as many that have been readily available, but not yet accessed. 2014 may not have been a great year for everybody, but it’s not too late to redeem that. 2015’s already looking to be just as exciting a year, if not incredibly more so.

What are your favorite films of 2014, and where do you agree or disagree with mine?

Born in California, resident in New Hampshire, Lena is film studies graduate with a intense passion for queer cinema, stop-motion animation and all things Greta Gerwig. Full Bio.