Sunday, January 25, 2015

The best movies I saw in 2014

The films I liked most this year – unlike my favorite books of 2014, most of them actually are 2014 films (the English release at least) – tended to fit with the books I liked and to fall into two major thematic categories: existentialism and the arrogant-vindictive personality.

My taste in movies is maybe even more idiosyncratic than my taste in books, which is why I typically have trouble recommending either.* But with that warning out there…

First, the three movies I’d broadly classify as “existentialist.” Ida

directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and for Achievement in Cinematography. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Picture nominees and so can’t speak to whether it deserves to win over them, but independent of the specific competition it certainly deserves the award. The cinematography is also outstanding. Beautiful film.

The documentary The Last of the Unjust

directed by Claude Lanzmann is also haunting and heartwrenching.

Both movies – one fictional and one about a real person – address the Holocaust and its aftermath. They pose the starkest existential questions about the impossible dilemmas of people who retain some freedom of choice even as they’re victimized by oppressive political systems. They both present situations (I’ve read several interviews with Pawlikowski about Ida, and don’t know that he’d necessarily agree with this fully, but it’s my interpretation) in which there’s no escape that isn’t a political decision and in some sense a contribution to injustice. They’re both compassionate toward their subjects.

My third favorite is also an existential film, but an unusual one. While Ida and The Last of the Unjust follow in the existentialist tradition of presenting people in moral limit situations (what Sartre called “the literature of great circumstance”), Éric Rohmer’s A Summer’s Tale,

like his other works, is a refreshingly lighthearted exploration of existential themes – in this case, a study in bad faith. (I don’t think I’m reading too much into his work here: according to this obituary, Rohmer himself declared “I never talk about Sartre, but he was still my starting point.”**)

I recommend this movie to people who already know they like Rohmer’s films or who expect based on the preview that it would be to their taste. I don’t think they’re an acquired taste, but that people either love them or hate them based on very personal preferences. I generally find them both enjoyable and thought-provoking, but I like films with a lot of talking, especially those set at the beach. For some reason, I’ve also tended to see them in very pleasant circumstances (I saw this one on a cheery summer day in New York, left the theater and strolled along Central Park while some sunlight still remains,…), which probably also colors my opinion. But I’m certainly not alone in my fondness for them – he made popular movies for decades.

My other favorite films of 2014 looked at the arrogant-vindictive type described by Horney. One I’ve already discussed here: Alex Holmes’ Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story. The second is an HBO documentary - Nixon by Nixon: In His Own Words. Even if you think you know the extent of Nixon’s viciousness, you’ll probably be surprised by this film. At the moment you can watch the whole thing here:

If that video is taken down for whatever reason, just look it up on YouTube. Even, again, taking into account what’s known about his vindictiveness, and even setting the man in his time, I’m still struck by the extent of his arrogance and meanness; the depth of his misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism; his projection (man, the projection!); and his utter contempt for democracy. I also think the film does a great job of presenting the central material – the audio recordings – in a clear manner that’s not too gimmicky or obtrusive; in other hands, that could have gone very wrong.

The Good Doctor

isn’t a 2014 film and I wouldn’t include it among the best I saw last year (nor would I necessarily want to see it again), but it’s an interesting fictional psychological character portrait.

* I will say that I finally watched The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire recently and enjoyed them both. I probably won’t ever get around to reading the books, but the movies were engrossing and I look forward to the next ones. So it’s not that I dislike mainstream or popular films reflexively or as a matter of principle. It’s just that those I do like tend to be few and far between.

** I’ve seen a few references to the quote but not the source, so I can’t confirm it.

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