Tastes change. Not just those of the moviegoing public, who’ve gotten so wise to the sales pitches and story formulas that the town has had no choice but to adapt, propelling a self-aware superhero movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” above the likes of Cap and Spidey at the box office, and making sly, meta-minded directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller — responsible for ultra-blockbuster “The Lego Movie” and wink-wink sequel “22 Jump Street” — the hottest helming duo in town. But over time, critics’ tastes change, too.
In February, I relocated from Los Angeles to Paris, to take up my new post as Variety’s chief international film critic. As you can imagine, my diet underwent a radical upheaval — and I’m not talking about crepes and chocolate mousse, either. What I wasn’t prepared for was how swiftly my moviegoing palate might adapt to this new post.
I’d been raised on junk-food American fare, and now, I had the privilege of spending the better part of 2014 on the festival circuit, seeing and reviewing art films as they were first unveiled to the world at Berlin, Cannes, Venice, and a dozen other key showcases, including Sundance — because believe it or not, America makes art films, too. Some of the best, in fact. On its surface, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is a portrait of an all-American adolescent, but deeper down, it’s a tribute to a certain European filmmaking sensibility, born of directors such as Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and Eric Rohmer, directors driven by sheer curiosity about human nature, unperturbed by plot, content to follow rather than to lead their characters. Hollywood screenwriting manuals talk about character arcs, signaling on which page changes should happen, insisting that the protagonist be somehow transformed by the finish line. But life is a winding, unpredictable road.
My tastes may have drifted from the cookie-cutter franchise pictures that once enthralled me, but I take comfort in the fact that studios are still taking wild risks. Sure, “Gone Girl” was a massive bestseller, but that hardly made it a safe bet, especially viewed through David Fincher’s dark lens. (I can’t remember the last film I saw in which the lead actors’ faces were so perpetually cast in shadow.) Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” struck me as loud and needlessly complicated, but again, a lunatic gamble in its own right. And what about Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”? I’m the first to admit that I don’t entirely know what to make of it, and yet its pothead eccentricity caught me off-guard in the best kind of way.
The year brought unpleasant surprises — like the news of Robin Williams’ suicide, following one of his best performances in “Boulevard” — and wonderful ones as well, such as the discovery that another great comedic actor, Steve Carell, could find nuance in a character as blithely unnerving as “Foxcatcher’s” John du Pont. And could anyone possibly have anticipated that “Parks and Recreation” goof Chris Pratt would prove to be the Harrison Ford of his generation, an insouciant everyman with whom we could so easily identify as he rises to the call of action?
Oddly, the movies that greeted me here in French theaters — by which I mean the run-of-the-mill, week-in/week-out releases that drive the local box office — proved far more formulaic than their American counterparts. Romantic comedies like “Fiston” and “Relationship Status: It’s Complicated,” where the only difference from the equivalent Hollywood swooner is that (spoiler alert), in the French version, the guy never seems to wind up with the girl he thought he wanted. Here, the year’s biggest success has been a risible comedy called “Qu’est-ce qu’on a fait au Bon Dieu,” which has earned $148 million milking jokes at the expense of black, Jewish, Arab and Asian characters. But as we all know, France makes exceptional art films, and if I haven’t necessarily fulfilled my mission in reporting on the country’s popular fare (though I pledge to do better in 2015), that’s because there were far more interesting films — French and otherwise — to review on the festival circuit.
Perhaps the biggest twist that defined the past year for me is how dramatically certain films managed to overturn my own expectations. There’s a risk in this job of prejudging a director based on his past work, of raising or lowering the level of anticipation according to previous experiences with a given filmmaker. The powerful emotional impact Ava DuVernay delivers with “Selma” blindsided me, for example, after the relatively cold formality of her previous film, “Middle of Nowhere.” By contrast, the sheer reasonableness of Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” which offset its own controversy by deconstructing sexual desire in intellectual (and often comedic) terms, made it something of a letdown given all we’d been led to expect — though I’ve since had time to digest both versions of both volumes and believe the five-and-a-half-hour director’s cut, for all its flaws, to be the year’s most essential moviegoing experience.
Speaking of upended expectations, four of the films that impressed me most this year hailed from directors I’d all but written off. Just when I’d feared that cine-confectioner Wes Anderson had disappeared into his own candy-glazed oblivion, he delivered a viennoiserie with uncanny depth of soul. With “Birdman,” Alejandro G. Inarritu rebounded from the punishing cynicism of his past work (e.g. “Biutiful”), delivering a heady coup de theatre that felt more real and raw than all his previous attempts at manufactured grit combined. At the Cannes Film Festival, French miserablist Bruno Dumont found his sense of humor, brilliantly, while Ruben Ostlund (whose previous feature, “Play,” I had downright reviled) won me over with his unshakable “Force majeure.”
Were these the year’s best films? This side of the Atlantic, I feel blessedly removed from the contest-oriented Oscar din that had preoccupied my nine previous years at Variety. I haven’t seen all the so-called “award contenders” (so don’t read too much into the absence of “American Sniper” or “Top Five” from this list). I figure it’s fine, since American-centric Academy voters haven’t necessarily seen the year’s best international movies. The top-10 list that follows bends the rules somewhat. It’s not limited to movies that received at least a one-week qualifying run in the States, but rather, it represents the creme of what I’ve had a chance to sample in my world travels — signs of an evolving taste, with, I hope, a few surprises thrown in.
1. “Calvary.” While so many of my critical colleagues were swept off their feet by 12 years in the life of an all-American boy (a commendable achievement, to be sure, yet somewhat lacking in structure and suspense), I found myself riveted by a single week in the life of a small-town Irish priest. Reteaming with dark-comedy mastermind John Michael McDonagh (“The Guard”), Brendan Gleeson plays the cleric in question, who learns in the film’s opening scene that one of his flock intends to kill him seven days hence. Organized according to the stages of grief, what follows is an unconventional martyr mystery in which we scramble to discern “who’s gonna do it?” The priest already knows the answer — a powerful statement about faith and penance amid increasingly skeptical times.
2. “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” No film this year gave me more delight more consistently for a greater part of its running time than this crafty bit of cinematic decoupage, which finds a nearly perfect application for Wes Anderson’s detail-oriented sensibility. Though more overtly comedic than his previous work, the film is by no means frivolous, thanks in large part to Ralph Fiennes’ terrific turn as a hotel concierge fully committed to a waning sense of refinement. By channeling the spirit of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, Anderson affords us a taste of old-world European culture on the brink of its obliteration.
3. “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Not since “Being John Malkovich” has a movie delved so completely into an actor’s subconscious, making brilliant use of Michael Keaton as a has-been star looking to earn some respect on Broadway. In a year that also found Juliette Binoche grappling with aging-actor concerns in “Clouds of Sils Maria” (not to mention the smallscreen comeback of Lisa Kudrow’s “The Comeback”), Alejandro G. Inarritu’s virtuoso showbiz satire plays like the autopsy of a still-breathing corpse, inviting audiences into the dizzying, hallucinatory headspace of an ego-driven star, then spitting us out, dazed, in a ditch along the New Jersey Turnpike.
4. “Love Is Strange.” With some movies, you can’t wait for them to be over. Here’s one you never want to end as Ira Sachs introduces us to an elderly gay couple who’ve been together longer than they’ve been apart. That’s about to change the moment they get married: Forced to sell their condo, the late-life newlyweds — portrayed with sincere affection by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina — must rely on their circle of progressive-minded New York friends to support them. Overflowing with deep human insight and humor, this wonderfully relatable domestic drama makes the couple’s (re)union seem the most natural thing in the world.
5. “Le Week-end.” Love is even stranger in this portrait of a fuddy-duddy heterosexual couple who sneak away to Paris hoping to rekindle the spark, but instead find it impossible to escape the bickering and stress that threatened their relationship in the first place. Collaborating for the third time, incorrigible romantic Roger Michell and brutally honest screenwriter Hanif Kureishi strike just the right balance, offering a mature perspective into human relationships seldom seen on film, which all too often favors the heat of fresh passion. London stage actress Lindsay Duncan is a revelation alongside the ever-reliable Jim Broadbent.
6. “While We’re Young.” Yet another wise and witty offering for grown-up sensibilities, the new feature from “Greenberg” director Noah Baumbach world-premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, but doesn’t actually open until 2015. Deliciously au courant, the film pokes fun at the pressure modern fortysomethings feel to remain relevant in a society preoccupied with youth, featuring Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a married couple who latch on to a pair of Brooklyn hipsters, hoping the association will rejuvenate them. At a moment when everybody from Lena Dunham to the Duplass brothers seem to be writing wince-inducing, too-close-to-home comedy, Baumbach retains the discomfort crown.
7. “Li’l Quinquin.” Here on the international festival circuit — where daring auteur cinema is routinely backed by French and German TV networks — the snobbish distinction made between big- and smallscreen fare ceases to exist. At Karlovy Vary, “True Detective” was treated for what it was: an eight-hour cinematic event, overseen in its entirety by Cary Fukunaga. Lisa Cholodenko’s “Olive Kitteridge” premiered in Venice. And the best film in Cannes turned out to be a French miniseries: Bruno Dumont’s curious, devilishly comedic “Li’l Quinquin,” in which a series of ghastly small-town murders are seen through the eyes of a Tom Sawyer-like country boy and his friends, coming to U.S. theaters Jan. 2.
8. “Force majeure.” A movie about masculinity that attacks the myths we’ve been fed over the years — namely, that men are inherently heroic, programmed to risk their lives in order to protect their loved ones. Swedish director Ruben Ostlund presents a situation in which a seemingly perfect father figure fails a split-second test of character, then spends the rest of the movie trying to reconcile his choice with his damaged self-image. It’s a fascinating but potentially frustrating movie for American audiences, made up of long, slow scenes in which viewers are encouraged to question how they might behave under similar circumstances.
9. “War of Lies.” Debuting only weeks ago at IDFA (the world’s top doc festival, based in Amsterdam), German director Matthias Bittner’s portrait of the Iraqi informant we’ve come to know as “Curveball” is just beginning what’s sure to be a long and fascinating life on the fest circuit. Reminiscent of “The Impostor” in the slippery way it uses dramatic recreations to reveal the contradictions in its subject’s story, this formally inventive, morally infuriating look at the man whose fabricated stories of WMDs gave President Bush the justification he sought to invade Iraq reveals a discarded pawn struggling to rationalize the role he played in world events.
10. “Class Enemy.” There are few things scarier than a group of young people convinced that they are in the right. Together, they have the power to change the world — or to tear it down. In this gripping debut, Rok Bicek re-creates a story from his school, where a young woman’s suicide so incensed her classmates that they took it upon themselves to punish the teacher whom they deemed responsible. Bicek masterfully orchestrates the mounting tension in this sociological thriller, which was selected to represent Slovenia at the 2014 Academy Awards, but never received a proper U.S. release.
The next 10 (in alphabetical order): “The Duke of Burgundy,” “Foxcatcher,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “The Imitation Game,” “Leviathan,” “Locke,” “Selma,” “Starred Up,” “Stranger by the Lake,” “Whiplash”
Best films lacking U.S. distribution: “100 Yen Love,” “40-Love,” “Corn Island,” “The Fool,” “Gyeongju,” “The Harvest,” “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” “Parasyte: Part 1,” “Self Made,” “When Marnie Was There”