As the year comes to a close everyone, and I mean everyone, is making some sort of best-of list. Facebook can even put together a video of your highlights for the year, as if that’s a thing you ever needed. But these best-of lists consist of a lot of things: TV shows, music, films etc. The problem with me creating a best films of 2014 list is that I just do not watch many current films (save for a mad dash right before the Academy Awards). As you can do doubt tell from this blog, most of my time in the film trenches are spent watching old films. So, for the second year in a row, we’ll take a look at the ten best films I saw for the first time this year. Some of these are super obvious ones that should have been seen a long time ago. Others are somewhat hidden gems that aren’t as widely known as they should be. And shockingly, some of them even came out within the last twenty years. So here they are, in order of their release date. Sure, they may not be “new” releases. But they were new to me.
Within Our Gates (1920)
One of the earliest surviving films by an African American director, this is not only a good film, but one of historical significance as well. The central story is about a woman trying to get financial support so more African Americans can find themselves with a proper education. Along with that comes a harsh look at what race relations were once like in the United States. Some of the these scenes aren’t pleasant to watch, but they are important to see and are incredibly well done.
Hot Water (1924)
I had the pleasure of watching this in a theater with live musical accompaniment, and members of the audiences found themselves doubled over in laughter the entire time. That’s because this film is relentless, one of Lloyd’s funniest, even if it isn’t that well known. It isn’t as strong on heart or story as some of his others, but it was more manic humor throughout. Comprised of three loosely connected gags, each one has Lloyd in a different role that what we’re used to seeing. Each segment (largely revolving around his married life) brings with it relentless gags and great moments. It all culminates with a closing segment that is by far the highlight, involving Harold believing he may have killed his mother-in-law. This is an overlooked gem of silent comedy.
The Last Performance (1927)
Paul Fejos has been discussed on here before, specifically his film Lonesome. This is another Fejos film with a very different tone, but one that is just as gripping. Conrad Veidt stars as a magician who is in love with his assistant. Things go haywire when he discovers she is having an affair with another man. From there, Veidt decides to enact his revenge through a magic trick gone wrong. Veidt’s masterful performance is the heart of the movie: his meltdown and subsequent plans of revenge is something to be seen.
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Long before Hollywood made overuse of menacing phone calls to create tension in movies, Sorry, Wrong Number used that perfectly. Barbara Stanwyck plays an invalid who believes she has heard a murder being plotted over the phone. Burt Lancaster also stars as her husband, but Stanwyck is the real star. As the film edges towards it’s tense and suspenseful conclusion, she commands in the screen, all from her bed. The confined space works to the film’s advantage, creating a tense and claustrophobic experience.
The Whales of August (1987)
This film is a joy to watch for two simple reasons: Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Made when Davis was 79 and Gish was 93, the two are still at the top of their game, telling a story perhaps only those two could tell. The two play elderly sisters, staying at the same home they have since they were very young. The matters at hand are important: dealing with the death of others, and facing the facts of your own incoming demise. It’s filled with heartbreaking and heartwarming moments based around these ideas, the greatest of which may be a scene where Gish celebrates her wedding anniversary without her husband. Vincent Price and Ann Sothern round out the stellar cast. Surprisingly, Sothern was the only one nominated for an Academy Award. This is worth seeing just to watch two masters at work in their twilight years.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
If you’re like me, you might be more aware of this landmark documentary thanks to the landmark podcast Serial. Even if you weren’t a fan of that, this documentary is still required viewing for it’s look at the criminal justice system. The question it poses is simple: did Randall Adams kill a police officer or was he wrongfully convicted? Making this documentary particularly gripping are the people interviewed. Not only is Adams himself interviewed, but so is David Harris, the key witness who says he was in the car when the incident occurred. Both are particularly compelling interviews that drive the story. This is a film that ended up having real world consequences, demonstrating the power of documentary filmmaking.
Some movies can accomplish more in dialogue alone than other films can with a complete package. Metropolitan is one of those films. Almost overloaded with snappy and dialogue, that is the driving force behind this amazing film. A trope of upper class young people are examined mostly through how they interact with each other, and that is enough to make a wildly entertaining film. Whit Stillman (writer/director) is a master of engrossing the viewer through witty dialogue, and this film brings that in spades.
Husbands and Wives (1992)
One of the more atypical Woody Allen films, it’s shot in a way that is not just unique to him, but unique to anyone. Shot almost like a documentary, the camera constantly moves like an invader through very real and unsettling scenes. The movie itself is someone unpleasant to sit through, as marriages and relationships crumble before our eyes. But that is precisely what makes this arresting movie so powerful: it’s one of the more realistic looks at relationships you’ll find anywhere on film.
Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adele) (2013)
This French film made a lot of waves upon it’s release, in some part due to the graphic sex scenes between the two female characters. Looking beyond those scenes, you are still left with an engrossing character study of what happens when young people fall in and out of love. It is truly a universal story, as we’ve all experienced something like these fascinating characters are going through. Few films have captured falling for someone and how that process changes you as well as this one does. Clocking in at around three hours, there is plenty of time to delve deep into the amazing characters played by Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. Beautifully shot, this is a realistic journey that will suck you in.
Nebraska garnered a lot of praise (and Oscar nominations) when it came out last year, all of it well deserved. It has the feel of an older movie: shot in black-and-white with slow and deliberate pacing. It is at times both hilarious and touching, thanks to a cast of characters who deliver, no matter how small the role. Although the lottery letter Bruce Dern receives in the mail in the jumping off point, it’s a classic MacGuffin. Instead, the film is really about a look at this family, anchored by the curmudgeonly father. The family has a lot of funny and poignant stories to tell.