Favorite Films of 2014

Here, at long last, is the list of my favorite films from 2014. Or a list, anyway. I’d better post this before I change my mind again about what to put on it. It’s a mix of fiction features from the United States and other countries, along with documentaries. I included films that played in 2014 at the Chicago International Film Festival and art venues like the Gene Siskel Film Center. And of course, I didn’t see everything that’s worth seeing.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

01-grandbudapesthotelAn exquisite jewel box of a film as well as a thrilling adventure. I recently saw it on the big screen for a second time, along with my other favorite movie of 2014, Boyhood, and my appreciation for both films only deepened as a result of those repeat viewings. I feel torn over which movie to put at No. 1, but my second watching of The Grand Budapest Hotel — when I found myself focusing on all of the intricate details, like the typefaces on every object in the background — helped me to realize just what a stunning achievement of artistry it is. I have been an unabashed fan of Wes Anderson’s movies ever since I saw Rushmore, so it’s no surprise that I fell for this one, which ranks in the top tier of his work. Even as I tried to concentrate more on the way Anderson put together this marvel, tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the friendship and bond building between the young character Zero (Tony Revolori) and his mentor M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Like the best of his movies, it works on more than one levels: It’s highly artificial — very self-conscious of the fact that it’s a work of art — but it also resonates for me on a deeper emotional level. It turns out to be a delightful story about the power of storytelling. And now, I must really try to find the time to read the books of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist whose early 20th-century stories inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel.

2. Boyhood

02-boyhoodRichard Linklater is another director whose films I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, especially his superb trilogy of talky romantic relationship movies: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play the same characters as they age over the course of those three films has been fascinating. Witnessing the passage of time is also the main attraction of Boyhood. The concept was almost ludicrously ambitious: filming a cast of actors playing a family over a dozen years. It’s amazing to watch these people (the characters as well as the actors) evolve over time. Boyhood doesn’t have the sort of plot structure that’s standard in Hollywood movies, but I found it absorbing. It unfolds in a natural way, and it feels like an authentic portrait of a boy and his family.

3. 20,000 Days on Earth

Nick Cave in 20,000 Days on Earth. Picturehouse Entertainment

This groundbreaking movie by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard about Nick Cave is not exactly a documentary. At times, it’s more like a filmed work of performance art, with Cave participating in staged situations. But even if those scenes are depicting Cave’s real life in a cinema verite style, they do seem to capture the true charisma and searching creativity of this remarkable musician. Maybe it’s more accurate to call this movie a portrait. It’s also one of the best rock ’n’ roll films of recent vintage.

4. Ne Me Quitte Pas

04-nemequittepas

Two grizzled Belgians chat as they guzzle booze in this startlingly intimate documentary, directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden from the Netherlands. It’s touching, humorous and sometimes unsettling. Without any voiceover or any explanation of why we’re even watching these two men, it becomes a subtle examination of alcohol’s effects on their lives, as well as a moving depiction of their friendship.

5. Winter Sleep

05-wintersleep

An engrossing character study set against a desolate but picturesque landscape. Like director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, this film moves at its own pace and confounds our expectations about where the story’s going. Ceylan knows how to linger on a conversation between his characters, subtly revealing their histories and personalities.

6. Force Majeure

06-forcemajeure

A penetrating moral drama plays out at a ski resort, where the snow itself seems sinister. Director Ruben Östlund’s previous film, Play, was equally riveting and thought-provoking; he is proving himself to be one of Sweden’s most interesting and important filmmakers.

7. Under the Skin

07-undertheskin

Freaky and marvelously weird. Even months after seeing director Jonathan Glazer’s movie, it lingers in the mind like a bad dream.

8. Only Lovers Left Alive

08-onlyloversOne of the coolest vampire movies ever, and yet another Jim Jarmusch movie worthy of cult status.

9. Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night

One woman’s struggle for her livelihood and her dignity — and the latest gut-wrenching drama by Belgium’s masterful brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

10. Leviathan

10-leviathan

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a vivid and disturbing tale of Kafkaesque political corruption in a small town in Russia, where you really can’t fight city hall. Most of the recent films from Russia that I’ve seen portray the country in a similar light — for further viewing, I recommend two films by Yury Bykov, The Major and The Fool, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s surreal trip My Joy.

Runners-up

Here are more 2014 films that I liked, in roughly descending order. As with any such list, my opinions are subject to change. Many of these outstanding movies might move up into my top 10 after subsequent viewings.

Parviz (Majid Barzeger, Iran)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, France)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
Birdman (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland)
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
Life Itself (Steve James)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
The Fool (Yuriy Bykov, Russia)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
The Red Army (Gabe Polsky)
Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen, Singapore)
The Private Life of Mr. & Mrs. M (Rouhollah Hejazi, Iran)
Snow on Pines (Peyman Moaddi, Iran)
Honeymoon (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic)
Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio)
The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia)
Mistaken for Strangers (Tom Berninger)
Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists (Leslie Buchbinder)
The Immigrant (James Gray)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Algren (Michael Caplan)
Free Fall (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary)

Favorite Records of 2014

Over the past year, these are the 2014 albums I’ve enjoyed the most. (And here’s a Spotify playlist with some of my favorite songs.)

01wussy

1. Wussy: Attica!

Among the many terrific things about this terrific album are the words, memorable little nuggets of real life, lyrics that pull off that trick of feeling poetic without seeming to try too hard at achieving the effect. The first song, “Teenage Wasteland,” seems to be an ode to the joy of listening to rock music — in particular, that classic-rock radio standard by the Who, “Baba O’Riley.” And it deserves a spot on the list of best opening lyrics for an album:

Do you remember the moment you finally did something about it?
When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart
Stuck in the corn with only a transistor radio
Making paths with the sound waves and echoes in old Baba O oh oh…

Of course, Wussy is considerably less famous than the Who, but this little band-that-could from Cincinnati has made yet another record filled with rock songs that stand up alongside the classic stuff. Wussy is one of those groups with two lead singers, and the way Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker switch off on lead vocals is a big part of Wussy’s chemistry.

Thanks in part to the championing of legendary critic Robert Christgau, who has called Wussy “the best band in America,” the group has been getting a bit more of the attention it deserves, including a recent appearance on the CBS This Morning. I chuckled at the way CBS described Wussy: “Despite a record deal, a dedicated following and critical praise, members of the band Wussy haven’t been able to leave their day jobs.” As if that’s anything unusual! (See many of the other musicians on this list.)
wussy.org
wussy.bandcamp.com/album/attica

02cantrell

2. Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here

It has been a strong year for female singers — five of them occupy spots on my top 10 list, or 5 1/2 if you count Wussy — but Laura Cantrell’s wonderful collection of old-fashioned country and folk-rock songs went largely unnoticed. Cantrell is a low-key performer, singing her lovely melodies without any grand flourishes. That’s part of what makes her songs such perfect gems.
lauracantrell.com
redeyeusa.com

03ultimatepainting3. Ultimate Painting: self-titled

The key reference points on this album are the Feelies and, of course, the seminal band that influenced the Feelies and countless other bands, the Velvet Underground. That formula is well-worn but far from worn out, as this delightful record demonstrates. Released by the dependable Chicago label Trouble in Mind, it’s the debut of a London group comprising James Hoare of the band Veronica Falls and Jack Cooper of Mazes (the British group, not to be confused with the Chicago group of the same name). The bones of Ultimate Painting’s songs are bare in these recordings, which almost sound like unadorned demos — the best sort of demos, the kind that reveal all the strengths and structure of a song. These tunes don’t need anything more.
ultimatepainting.tumblr.com
troubleinmindrecs.com

sharonjones4. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Give the People What They Want

Jones has made several great albums of authentically retro soul music since the Daptone label rescued her from a career of obscurity, and this is one of her best. The presence of backup vocals by the Dapettes and the varied, colorful arrangements give the music an added urgency. Jones finished making this record just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she successfully battled the disease and hit the road this year for a tour (including a triumphant show April 11 at the Vic), sounding as strong and vibrant as she ever has.
sharonjonesandthedapkings.com
daptonerecords.com

05adams5. John Luther Adams/Seattle Symphony Orchestra: Become Ocean

First off, let’s stipulate that this recording can’t capture the full effect of hearing and seeing Become Ocean performed live — something I haven’t been lucky enough to experience. Adams, a composer who lives near Fairbanks, Alaska, writes music that evokes the natural world. And he designed Become Ocean to be performed by an orchestra spatially divided into three ensembles. Each of these groups plays slowly changing chords at its own pace. But even experienced through the two channels of a stereo recording (I haven’t heard the DVD 5.1 surround mix), it’s a beautiful and remarkable piece of music. Adams took the title from a poem that John Cage wrote about the music of Lou Harrison: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” That’s an apt description of Adams’ amorphous and oddly compelling music.
johnlutheradams.com
cantaloupemusic.com

LL-digital.v16. Lydia Loveless: Somewhere Else

This young singer-songwriter from Columbus, Ohio, belts out her smart, catchy alt-country songs with impressive strength, packing them with yearning and spunk. And her band kicks ass. Among the many excellent tracks on this album, “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” — a twangy Americana tune about 19th-century French poets — was my favorite song of 2014.
lydialoveless.com
bloodshotrecords.com

07protomartyr7. Protomartyr: Under Color of Official Right

Joe Casey, the frontman of this Detroit group, typically performs in a professorial jacket, intoning his lyrics like a half-inebriated poet. The brooding strength of that voice comes through on record, too. Using the basic tools of a standard rock band — guitar, bass and drums — Protomartyr makes intense post-punk with unusual, distinctive sonic touches, especially those otherworldly guitar lines.
protomartyr.bandcamp.com/releases

08twinpeaks8. Twin Peaks: Wild Onion

This youthful band from Chicago writes garage-rock tunes with a touch of 1970s glam, cheerfully bashing out catchy riffs and singing with what sounds like a bit of a punk sneer. This debut album isn’t quite as lo-fi as Twin Peaks’ earlier EP, but it still has the highly compressed tones of music actually recorded in someone’s garage. Thank goodness.
music.twinpeaksdudes.com

09stvincent9. St. Vincent: self-titled

Annie Clark, who performs under the name St. Vincent, is an amazing talent: a highly inventive songwriter; a musician who makes daring and unusual production choices; a live performer with the flair of an actress and a dancer; and a guitarist capable of blazing solos. Other than the visual spectacle of her live shows, all of that comes through in brilliant color on her self-titled album.
ilovestvincent.com

jag246.1118310. Angel Olsen: Burn Your Fire For No Witness

On her latest record, the former Chicagoan gets more comfortable playing with her band, making music that defies genre labels. But her stunning voice is still at the center of the music — a preternatural force that conveys deep emotion even in the moments when it seems calm and placid on the surface.
angelolsen.com
jagjaguwar.com

Runners-up

With more listens, many of these records might have ended up in my top 10. And I heard another 100 or so albums that I liked — if only I’d had enough to give them more than a spin or two. These are in roughly descending order:

Chad VanGaalen: Shrink Dust
Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
Tweedy: Sukierae
Gord Downie & the Sadies: The Conquering Sun
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
Reigning Sound: Shattered
Cousins: The Halls of Wickwire
Bry Webb: Free Will
Swans: To Be Kind
Ty Segall: Manipulator
Nude Beach: 77
Woods: With Light and With Love
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Luluc: Passerby
Thee Oh Sees: Drop
Ausmuteants: Order of Operation
Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Jennifer Castle: Pink City
The Skygreen Leopards: Family Crimes
Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics
Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London
Matt Kivel: Days of Being Wild
Meatbodies: Meatbodies
Mozes & the Firstborn: Mozes & the Firstborn
Outrageous Cherry: Digital Age
Ex Hex: Rips
Spoon: They Want My Soul
Beck: Morning Phase
Lykke Li: I Never Learn
Kasai Allstars: Beware the Fetish
OOIOO: Gamel
Pink Mountaintops: Get Back
The Soft Walls: No Time
The People’s Temple: Musical Garden
Carsick Cars: 3
White Fence: For The Recently Found Innocent
Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
My Brightest Diamond: This Is My Hand
Steve Dawson’s Funeral Bonsai Wedding
Jack White: Lazaretto
New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots
Jon Langford: Here Be Monsters
Greg Ashley: Another Generation of Slaves
John Wesley Coleman: Love That You Own
The Haden Triplets: The Haden Triplets
Paperhead: Africa Avenue
Tony Allen: Film of Life
Musee Mecanique: From Shores of Sleep
Hookworms: The Hum
Krakatau: Water Near a Bridge

Records I discovered in 2014

Honorable mention goes to a few records from previous years that I discovered in 2014. If these qualified as 2014 releases, they’d have a strong shot at my top 10:

Dog Trumpet: Medicated Spirits
Courtney Barnett: The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas
Jambinai: Difference
Tim Kinsella Sings the Songs of Marvin Tate by Leroy Bach Featuring Angel Olsen