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The Best Films That Appeared at Festivals in 2014

Here's a list of movies you should watch instead of the Oscar debate we're deluged with during the Christmas holidays.

by Bruce LaBruce
20 December 2014, 7:10am

Still from 'The Look of Silence'

The film awards season—that inflated, over-congratulatory period—is upon us, during which Oscar bait movies, of which there appear to be an inordinate number this year, are shoved down our throats until tears are driven from our eyes and the cockles of our hearts are forcibly warmed. I've already watched a number of these cinematic emoticons (Birdman, Interstellar, The Theory of Everything), and I will likely see a few more, especially The Imitation Game, if only to assess how not gay enough it is. It's hard to believe that, once upon a time, off-the-wall, psychosexual masterpieces like A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, and Cries and Whispers were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Now you have overwrought period pieces like Unbroken, Selma, and Big Eyes to "look forward" to.

Not that great movies haven't come out in 2014—here is a list, in no particular order, of films I saw at festivals this year (some of which haven't yet been commercially released) which deserve your attention, even if not all of them were 100 percent successful.

  1. Foxcatcher. (Director: Bennett Miller.) From the director of Capote, here's another film about a real-life self-loathing homosexual who had a bizarre and self-destructive crush on a young, straight-identified, repressed (and self-loathing) homosexual, except this time around the murderer roles are reversed. The famous homosexual is John du Pont (Steve Carell), heir to the chemical fortune. His man-crush is Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum), a Olympic gold medal–winning wrestler whom he takes under his sickly white chicken wing as a protégé and potential cum-dump. The film is admirably direct and unflinching in its portrayal of homosexual panic and repression, although one could hardly call it the gay feel-good movie of the year. As du Pont, Carell is monumentally unctuous and creepy—the scene in which he offers the clueless Schultz cocaine in a helicopter is genuinely skin-crawling—and his prosthetic nose, like Nicole Kidman's before him, almost assures him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. But Tatum, as the stunned beau hunk sex victim, is equally impressive.
  2. Girlhood. (Director: Celine Sciamma.) Tomboy director Sciamma returns with a cool, minimalist movie about four black girls struggling against patriarchy and poverty in the low-rent outskirts of Paris. In opposition to the usually chaotic and overwrought representation of ghetto life, the film creates a spare, sterile, almost expressionistic cityscape that you might expect more from a zombie film. One electrifying scene, however, has the four girl gang members dress up in stolen clothes and lip synch to Rihanna's "Diamonds," a viral YouTube moment if there ever was one. The girl who escapes and binds her breasts as a kind of symbolic protest against female objectification makes the feminist and proto-queer agenda of the film heart-achingly real.
  3. Whiplash. (Director: Damien Chazelle). This movie, about an aspiring jazz drummer's relationship to his brutal teacher, made a big splash at Sundance. I thought its message was crypto-fascist, and it felt like it was directed by a computer, but I suppose that's why people like it.
  4. Pride. (Director: Matthew Warchus.) This is the film upon which my jury and I bestowed the Queer Palm at Cannes this year. Based on the true story of a rag-tag group of queer activists who travel to Wales to support the National Union of Mineworkers during the crippling strike of 1984, it reminds us of a time when gay political consciousness was inseparable from leftist, egalitarian, and socialist values in opposition to the status quo—something that the contemporary gay assimilationist movement seems to have largely forgotten. Warchus, who has taken over the directorship of the Old Vic Theatre in London from Kevin Spacey, deftly sidesteps many of the clichéd characters and scenarios to create an uplifting film that you don't mind being lifted up by.
  5. Winter Sleep. (Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan.) Winner of the 2014 Palme D'Or, the top prize at Cannes, this three hour–plus opus about the everyday struggles of a secular Turkish former actor turned hotel owner and landlord is what I call a "Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man" movie, the prototype being Bertolucci's 1981 film of that name. Set in a bleak, remote small town in Central Anatolia, it concerns the midlife crisis of a slightly pompous and self-centered (if well-intentioned) man who is living with, but emotionally distant from, his frustrated young wife and his cynical, world-weary sister. Comprised mostly of his philosophical discussions with the proto-feminist yet defeated female characters and his ethical dilemmas in dealings with the pesky underclasses, it nonetheless revolves entirely around the crisis of a bourgeois, middle-aged white man, which makes it a slightly odd choice by the Jane Campion–led Cannes jury. Cultural differences aside, it makes me long for the feminist verve and sexual subversiveness of 70s Bertolucci.
  6. Two Days, One Night. (Directors: The Dardenne Brothers.) Also in competition at Cannes, I'm not sure why this great film received such a mixed reception on the Croisette. Dardennes fatigue might be one explanation, as the style of the Belgian brothers has become so refined that perhaps viewers find it too familiar and effortless. Or perhaps the expectation was that their casting for the first time of an A-list actor, Marion Cotillard, in the lead role would make for more "commercial" entertainment. Instead, Cotillard blends in completely with the social-realist, kitchen-sink ethos and aesthetics of the filmmakers. It's refreshing to see a film so resolutely fixated on the plight of a working-class female character. Like Winter Sleep, the film is about the dialectic between moral and ethical choices, but here the point of identification is with the exploited female worker, the camera doggedly following her and her emotional turmoil as she attempts to save her job at a solar panel factory. Thoroughly feminist, it's about survival in the face of corrupt managerial austerity and lingering institutional misogyny. A refreshing change from all the glossy real estate porn that female characters have been reduced to in contemporary Hollywood.
  7. Timbuktu. (Director: Abderrahmane Sissako.) Winner of the Ecunimical Jury Prize at Cannes, Timbuktu is an examination of the occupation of Mali by militant Islamic rebels, neatly capturing the irony of modern Jihadis using Western gadgets to make viral videos designed to throw neglected societies back to the Stone Age. The football-game-without-a-football, like Antonioni's tennis-game-without-a-tennis-ball in Blow-Up before it, symbolically sums up the absurdity and tragedy of revolutions stuck in reverse.
  8. Leviathan. (Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev.) One of my favorite films at TIFF, and the winner of the best screenplay at Cannes, Leviathan brilliantly captures all the absurdities and hypocrisies of post-Soviet Russia: the petty bureaucracy, the thuggish leadership (the film's amoral Mayor gives Toronto's own Rob Ford a run for his money), the bizarre marriage of convenience between the Orthodox church and leftover Communist-era hierarchies. The basic plot—about a homeowner refusing to give up his prime waterfront property and home to the city for the construction of a church—is filled out by scenes of vodka, guns, and adulterous sex, an impending sense of doom and dread waiting around every corner. As in House of Sand and Fog, the house is not merely a location, but a metaphor for the dissolution of identity and purpose; the central Leviathan metaphor suggests a society hopelessly swallowed up by the eternal return of its own corrupt history.
  9. Return to Ithaca. (Director: Laurent Cantet.) A kind of Boys in the Band for straight, white, middle-aged Cubans, I personally found this talky, single-location film riveting, but maybe that's because my husband is a Cubano who, like the characters in the film, suffered through all of the trials and tribulations of the "Special Period." What sadly emerges is a portrait of a disillusioned country with no direction and an unknown future.
  10. Pasolini. (Director: Abel Ferrara.) Legendary Italian Marxist homosexual director, poet, and philosopher Pier Paolo Pasolini is a muscular subject for any filmmaker to confront, and Ferrara only succeeds in conveying those not inconsiderable aspects of Pasolini's life that intersect with his own: an Italian sense of moral density and Catholic atheism filtered through impulses of cinematic sexploitation and experimentalism. Although the film's broody design and Willem Dafoe's stylish performance in the title role capture the cool, cerebral chic of Pasolini's persona, the film in its entirety doesn't quite convey the kind of homosexual complexity embodied by the subject, characterized by Oedipal overdrive, macho masochism, camp spiritualism, and the godhead of working-class rent boys. (Although the casting of Pasolini's real-life muse Ninetto Davoli definitely helps.) By steering clear of the political conspiracy theories surrounding Pasolini's murder, Ferrara misses the opportunity to place Pasolini more adamantly in a long tradition of martyred, radical, homosexual geniuses.
  11. Tales of the Grim Sleeper. (Director: Nick Broomfield.) From the director of Kurt and Courtney and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, this harrowing documentary explores the horrific true story of a black serial killer in South Central LA who was able to murder scores of crack whores over a period of decades owing to the indifference of police and a society that regards disenfranchised black communities, and its women in particular, as utterly disposable. Broomfield proves himself once again to be a fearless documentarian, bravely circumnavigating pit bulls and gangbangers alike to explore his subject, and enlisting a formidable and fearlessly funny, former crack addict female prostitute as his guide and proxy to tell this disturbing story.
  12. Hungry Hearts. (Director: Saverio Costanzo.) Or, We're Having a Rosemary's Baby! What seems to start out as a romantic comedy about a young couple expecting a child quickly turns into a vegan horror flick replete with fisheye lens shots of a demented young mother-at-the-top-of-the-stairs who starves her own baby by denying it meat. The tonal shifts are too sudden and broad, and do we really need two psychopathic mothers in one film? The hapless father and sole voice of reason in the film, played by actor-of-the-moment Adam Driver, is annoyingly wishy-washy.
  13. 99 Homes. (Director: Ramin Bahrani.) Another Hollywood it-boy, Andrew Garfield, fares much better in this indie drama about a single father evicted from his home who makes a Faustian bargain with the real estate baron who has evicted him (a suitably scary Michael Shannon) by accepting a job evicting other victims of the US foreclosure crisis. As with Two Days, One Night, it's almost disorienting to watch a movie made from the point of view of working-class people living paycheck to paycheck, and like the Dardennes, Bahrani deftly handles the moral quandaries and ethical challenges facing desperate people screwed over by austerity measures and corporate and governmental malfeasance.
  14. The Look of Silence. (Director: Jonathan Oppenheimer.) An emotionally devastating follow-up to Oppenheimer's controversial documentary The Act of Killing, based on the same subject—the mass killing of Communists by Indonesian death squads in the 50s and 60s. This film may not have the conceptual and theatrical audacity of its predecessor, but its close identification with the victims of the genocide and their families makes it a logical and necessary cathartic sequel. The framing device of the brother of one of the victims using an opthalmologic device to check the eyesight of the killers—who still rule the same communities from which they culled the Communists—in order to provide them with glasses, is an apt and chilling metaphor for memory, perception, and distorted historical vision. His own eyes, as he listens to their casual, even proud, confessions of murder and torture, are unforgettable.
  15. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. (Director: Roy Andersson.) The Swedish director returns with the third installment of his trilogy about the zombie-like complacency and absurdity of the austere and frozen Nordic middle class. Comprised of a series of carefully composed and highly art-directed tableaux vivants, the film builds to a surprisingly savage critique of colonialism. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for good reason.
  16. The Revenge of the Green Dragons. (Directors: Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo.) A huge disappointment from the director of Infernal Affairs and fellow Hong Kong director Andrew Loo. The New York City setting fails to invigorate the Hong Kong action movie genre, and in fact seems to signal its complete exhaustion, coming across instead as a weak imitation of Scorsese, its executive producer. The scenarios and characters are all-too-familiar cliches; the casting and performances are uninspired. The teeth-pulling and finger amputations seem oddly stale and pedestrian when compared to, say, the perversely imaginative tortures and slayings in Takashi Miike's Japanese gangland movies. For a more entertaining film with the same story and setting, try Michael Cimino's slightly underrated Year of the Dragon.
  17. Dearest. (Director: Peter Ho-sun Chan.) Another film about about working-class characters, this time revolving around the rampant phenomenon of child abduction in China. Based on a true story, the film is overlong and somewhat melodramatic, but a twist halfway through, which shifts the focus of the narrative to the wife of the abductor, makes the scenario more morally complex and complicates the concept of nature over nurture in parenting.
  18. The Riot Club. (Director: Lone Scherfig.) An adaptation of Laura Wade's stage play, Posh about a secret society of privileged prats at Oxford University, the film comes across as a creepy cross between Brideshead Revisited and a reverse Straw Dogs. The elitist, conservative young tossers, based on a real-life society called the Bullingdon Club, of which UK Prime Minister David Cameron was a member, descend on a quaint English pub run by a working-class Scotsman and wreak havoc on his property and person. Had this film been released in Scotland before the referendum, the country would have surely voted for independence.
  19. The New Girlfriend. (Director: Francois Ozon.) Based on a Ruth Rendell mystery (of all things), the French gay auteur returns with a stylish, Hitchcock-and-De Palma-inspired, psychosexual cross-dressing yarn infused with a generous dollop of Almodovarian melodrama. Although it still reads as slightly heteronormative, especially coming from a gay director, there are enough gender twists and turns to keep it interesting.
  20. The Duke of Burgundy. (Director: Peter Strickland.) Here's a lesbian fetish epic from British filmmaker Strickland, whose first "proper" job in the film industry was as a production assistant on my 1999 neo-Nazi porn film, Skin Flick! A lavishly photographed, subtly subversive, avant-garde work about the perils of perversion, the film archly exposes the banality and conventionality of sadomasochism without sacrificing feminist-charged sexual empowerment. It's Fifty Shades of Grey for intellectual lesbians and their admirers.
  21. Mommy. (Director: Xavier Dolan.) At 24, the Quebec gay wunderkind, who tied for third prize with Godard this year at Cannes, proves definitively with Mommy that he's an international filmmaking force to be reckoned with. A turbulent, formally brilliant melodrama about the relationship between a mother, her ADD-inflicted son, and her repressed best friend and neighbor, the movie also packs an emotional wallop. This is Canada's 2014 entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
  22. Party Girl. (Directors: Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq, Claire Burger, and Samuel Theis.) A great, simple narrative film shot in hand-held, cinema verite style about an aging nightclub hostess who decides to get married and settle down, with disastrous results. This won the Golden Camera for Best First Feature at Cannes.
  23. A Girl at My Door. (Director: July Jung.) This strong first feature by Korean director Jung follows the exploits of a young lesbian alcoholic policewoman who takes over as the head of a police substation in a remote seaside town only to have a past scandal come back to haunt her. Moody, morose, and strangely compelling.

More stuff like this:

The Best of London Film Fest

There's a Film Festival for People Who Get Turned On by Bicycles

The Cannes Film Festival Can Be a Pretty Miserable Place

The Look of Silence
The Duke Of Burgundy
Toronto International Film Festival
Film Festivals
Oscar bait
Winter Sleep
Two Days
One Night
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence