My Favorite Films of 2014

(Note: This story was first published in The Philippine Star on January 11, 2015. Online link is here: http://www.philstar.com/entertainment/2015/01/11/1411569/my-favorite-films-2014)

MANILA, Philippines - It’s 2015! Did you make good with your 2014 resolutions? This writer did not do so well and is recycling a lot of them but there’s one resolution that I diligently followed through and I believe I did very well.

Last year, about this time, I pledged to watch as many movies as I possibly can and I think I did it! I saw over 200 titles from all over the world and it made my year incredibly exciting and fulfilling.

I started the year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in early January where I saw the highly-regarded debut films of Hannah Espia (Transit, Philippines) and Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo, Singapore). Two weeks later, I attended the Scandinavian Film Festival where I discovered one of my favorite films of the year from Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, the exuberant We Are the Best! I also loved the tender film Mother, I Love You from Latvia by director Janis Nords.

In early February, I went to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and discovered a couple of outstanding films from two emerging Eastern European directors: Victor Taus (Clownwise, Czech Republic) and Ignas Jonynas (The Gambler, Lithuania).

In June, the Los Angeles Film Festival offered a great selection of films and I discovered a great documentary about a movie buff making his own D-I-Y films in his own backyard called Giuseppe Makes a Movie by Adam Rifkin. In July, I enjoyed Cupcakes, a delightful comedy about an unlikely group of friends competing for Europe’s top singing prize from acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Eyton Fox at the annual LGBT-themed OutFest.

In September, the University of Southern California organized EUphoria, a three-day film festival featuring the best new films coming out of the European Union. My favorite movies were the quirky comedy from Germany called The Strange Little Cat and the politically charged espionage thriller The Color of the Chameleon from Bulgaria.

In November, the annual AFIFest organized by the American Film Institute offered an outstanding selection of movies from all over the world including the excellent Argentine film Wild Tales from filmmaker Damian Szifron and Two Days, One Night from Belgian greats Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Acclaimed Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz’s Locarno-winning film From What is Before also screened but to mixed reviews.

During the same month, the European Film Promotion (EFP) organized a series of screenings of Foreign Language Oscar submissions from 23 countries. I went to a few screenings and discovered the delightful film Cowboys from Croatia, 1001 Grams from Norway, The Japanese Dog from Romania, Force Majeure from Sweden and the haunting and powerful new film from acclaimed Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo Concrete Night (Betoniyo).

In between all these film festivals and screenings, this writer also enjoyed the variety of movies that Hollywood offered this year. It wasn’t a particularly strong year for Hollywood movies with only a handful that can be considered as truly masterful and memorable although there’s one that really stood out over the others, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

Boyhood is a delicate and brilliant ode to childhood. Filmed over 12 years, the movie tracks the years in the life of a young boy named Mason from the time he was seven until he went to college. The part of the young boy was played with surprising tenderness by newcomer Ellar Coltrane who literally grows up before our very eyes! In a year filled with movies populated by state-of-the-art computer-generated special effects, Coltrane’s transition from a young child to young adult on screen stands out as the best special effect there was all year!

The movie debuted to wide acclaim at Sundance in January last year. I saw it in July and it was an experience like no other. If cinema was invented to create magic and trickery on film, Linklater’s masterpiece will be remembered years from now as perhaps an important milestone in the evolution of cinema as a medium to capture life on screen and it is for this reason alone that I pick Boyhood as my top film of the year!

My second favorite film of the year is Wild Tales. I waited half a year for this movie to reach the US after its spectacular debut at Cannes last year. Many critics have been raving madly about the Argentine film all year. Many of them were one in saying that it was perhaps the best film this year and after watching it I can definitely say that all the buzz were warranted, all the great reviews were earned, all the superlatives heaped on the film were absolutely well deserved!

The movie is an anthology of six short stories that share a common theme: Violence and vengeance. If you are in the mood for some wicked time at the movies, this movie is perfect. But even if you want to just have a good fun at the movies, to be entertained without being dumbed down by poor writing, this is the perfect movie for you. It’s the kind of film that successfully mixes high art with commercial filmmaking! I have an exclusive interview with Damián Szifrón, the writer and director of the movie. Watch for it.

My third favorite film of the year is the hypnotic Concrete Night from the great Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, the movie begins with a dream that morphs into a nightmare for young Simo, the central character in this relentlessly depressing film about a boy’s final hours. The story tracks 24 hours in the life of brothers Illka and Simo. Illka, the older brother is to start serving his prison sentence while his younger brother Simo is forced by their mother to spend the day with Illka. I wish the Finland consulate in Manila would bring this masterpiece to the Philippines so that many ardent movie buffs could watch it.

So, to recap, my Top 3 favorite films of the year are: Boyhood, Wild Tales and Concrete Night.

My fourth to 10th picks are:

4.) We Are the Best! (Director: Lukas Moodysson, Denmark) — This film tells about three adolescent girls who share a common love for punk music and decides to form a punk band. It is a lovely film that pulsates with life and youthful exuberance.

5.) The Imitation Game (Director: Morten Tyldum, UK) — This is based on the life of Alan Turing, the man credited for cracking the German communication system Enigma during World War II. It is an imposing document of one man’s undeclared greatness and enormous sacrifice to save millions of lives in exchange of his own. What a triumphant and heartbreaking performance by Benedict Cumberbatch!

6.) A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Director: Ana Lily Amirpour, USA) — I waited 11 months for this movie and when I finally saw it, I was just blown away by it! I love it! I adore it! And I think it’s a masterpiece! Every frame, every minute of the movie satisfies in all levels. There’s comedy, drama, theater, thriller, horror, romance — even the music, oh, how I love the score! The film is a mash-up of several genres that only someone who lives and breathes movies could have ever done. Have I told you that it’s a vampire flick set in Tehran but filmed in the western genre?

7.) Wild (Director: Jean Marc-Vallee, USA) — This is based on the incredible journals of Cheryl Strayed when she spent over three months hiking over deserts, mountains and forests in searing heat and snow in search of her proverbial self and her worth as a person — and in atonement for the many transgressions she has committed against herself and the people who loved and cared for her. This movie features a commanding performance from Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon.

8.) Two Days, One Night (Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium) — This movie features a tour-de-force performance by French superstar Marion Cotillard in the role of a laid-off woman who was given only one weekend to plead with her co-workers to return their bonuses in exchange for the job that she lost. The film is a powerful commentary on the state of minimum wage earners in modern Europe that is slowly seeing the growing divide between the rich and the poor.

9.) Transit (Director: Hannah Espia, Philippines) — One of the best Filipino films I’ve seen in many years! Espia’s well-observed camera work and meticulous storytelling style showed in this masterful examination of the effects of Israel’s discriminatory law that called for the deportation of children born to non-Israeli parents to a group of Filipino migrant workers.

10.) The Fault in Our Stars (Director: Josh Boone, USA) — This is a love story between Gus and Hazel. Enough said. But, really, no recent movie in this genre has moved me so much and made me cry hard as much as this movie did. I know it’s my favorite because I saw it in theaters five times.

I also tremendously enjoyed Locke, which features a singular performance by Tom Hardy in a movie set in its entirety in a moving car. If I had an extended list, I would have included Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Whiplash, The Theory of Everything, Nightcrawler, Enemy, X-Men: DOFP and Big Hero 6.

In 2014, I also saw Lav Diaz’s Norte, the End of History and found it to be one of his better films but it definitely could use extensive editing. The Star Cinema movie Starting Over Again offered an interesting twist to the ex-girlfriend angle in the Filipino rom-com genre but was ultimately hampered by a shamelessly audience-bait epilogue.

(To see the full list of the 200 films I saw, please visit my blog: http://raymonddeasislo.blogspot.com/p/2014-movies.html.)

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