Lars von Trier is by no means a conventional director. From Antichrist to Melancholia to his newest psychosexual piece of cinema, Nymphomaniac, von Trier has proven he can create some of the most artistic yet highly unsettling ambiances in film.
Comprised of two parts, each spanning the length of two hours, Nymphomaniac is a film that, quite simply, delivers what the title promises—it is a film about a woman who has struggled with sexual addiction her entire life. However, it presents this theme with such sharpness, beauty, and sorrow, that it is easy to look past the almost pornographic and bacchanal nature of the film to find its true meaning.
Nymphomaniac begins by leading us down a dark alley where we meet the protagonist of our film lying unconscious on the snow-covered cement, bruised and bloodied. A man named Seligman finds her and takes her into his home to care for her after she expresses apprehension about being admitted to a hospital. Seligman inquires about her injuries and we begin to learn more about our protagonist,
Joe, and her deep sense of self-loathing and cynicism about life. Joe, however, finds it difficult to put her story into words, due to its length and density. Therefore, she uses physical objects and metaphysical concepts around Seligman’s apartment to outline her tale. There is heavy use of symbolism in the film as Joe recounts her appalling story of sexual addiction, and she is vulgar and tenacious as she outlines the discovery of her sexuality and its destructive progression throughout her life.
Nymphomaniac is dark, unfiltered, and tragic, but it is inarguably a thematically dense and significant film about loss and the despairing struggles of personal demons.
7. Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg’s directorial work is always a much-anticipated and entirely unexpected journey, and Maps to the Stars is no exception.
Filled to the brim with A-listers, from Julianne Moore to Robert Pattinson to John Cusack, Maps to the Stars is a dark yet satirically relevant film about the state of Hollywood and the thirst for fame in a morally obsolete era. The film follows the Weiss family in their envious and self-obsessed quest for fame, showing the horrific and psychologically tormenting lengths they are willing to go to for celebrity status, and yet the film never loses touch with its humor and outlandish societal impressionism.
Maps to the Stars is a visually stunning, jadedly inhumane, and psychosexual piece of art that one can expect from Cronenberg, and it is absolute supremacy as a commentary on the cynicism and narcissism of our modern age.
In light of so many dystopian films as of late, Snowpiercer has been one of the few to make a truly profound statement about the injustices of politics and inequality rather than survival in a post-apocalyptic world.
The film takes place in a world that has entirely frozen over, with the remaining part of humanity aboard a massive train named “The Snowpiercer.” Even on board this train, there is a class system in place, with the poor living in the back quarters of the train and the rich living towards the front, in a much more lavish environment.
Chris Evans delivers a spectacular performance as Curtis, a man labeled a lower-class citizen on board the train and forced to reside in the rear section. Curtis and a crew of other determined survivors violently fight their way through each segment of the Snowpiercer in an attempt to reach the front, intending to attain control of the engine to realign the social status that has been wrongfully imposed upon them.
Above all, Snowpiercer is a breathtaking and thrilling tale depicting a fight for equality despite dire circumstances, and it is philosophically and politically profound from start to finish.
Nightcrawler is, without a doubt, one of 2014’s most hauntingly provocative films. Every layer of the film slowly unfolds with ominous and grippingly dark events, never losing its sinister and macabre ambiance. It is a success as a foreboding tale of greed, psychological disconnection, and the morally questionable state of our television news. Furthermore, it is masterfully filmed in the dark Los Angeles nightlife, adding to the film’s corrupt but honest themes.
Nightcrawler follows the pale, longhaired Louis Bloom, played with chilling exquisiteness by Jake Gyllenhaal, as he struggles to live without a stable job. He is a highly intelligent yet morally depraved man, who can sell his positive demeanor along with the best business plans to anyone in under five minutes but could care less about anything but his own interests.
One night, he happens upon a car crash, where he discovers a camera crew headed straight toward the accident to retrieve footage of the burning car and a severely injured individual. Louis is immediately drawn to this prospect, and after a brief discussion with a video journalist, Louis learns he can sell footage to the news—something he sees could potentially solve his monetary issues.
He soon gets a hold of a camcorder and a police radio scanner and begins his journey into “nightcrawling,” the act of catching the best and most gruesome footage of the nighttime for the local morning news channels. Louis evolves from an amateur to a professional videographer before our eyes, always doing his work with precision and committing entirely immoral acts to further his career. He represents a part of the social scale where dollar signs mean more than friendships and graphic deaths equate the value of television ratings.
Nightcrawler is a film that forces one to contemplate the boundaries of morality, social media, and the fine line between sociability and manipulation.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Anyone familiar with Wes Anderson’s previous directorial work knows his films are immersed with surreal imagery, immeasurable humor, and symbolic underpinnings throughout the entire film in terms of physical objects, colors, and even the symmetry of the screen. He has become an indie director icon over the years, and with good reason.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is undoubtedly another masterful piece of cinema to add to his already outstanding filmography. With its vibrant colorization and laughs per second, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an immediately enjoyable experience. Add a uniquely layered plot and immersive characters and the film becomes truly majestic.
Anderson prides himself on the quick-witted charm of his characters, just as they are in Grand Budapest, but this film adds a much darker layer of greed, sexuality, and even gore, making it unmatched to Anderson’s previous light-hearted work. In any regard, Grand Budapest stands alone as a hauntingly beautiful and side-splittingly hilarious film that is impossible to walk away from without feeling visually and emotionally fulfilled.
The film follows the retellings of Zero, the previous lobby boy and current owner of a hotel named—of course—The Grand Budapest Hotel. This vividly lavish and enormously maze-like hotel from the 1930s becomes a character all its own—a centerpiece for the peculiar and sinister events that occurred during the European 20th century.
Zero becomes the right-hand to the hotel’s concierge, the quirky and well-liked Monsieur Gustave. Gustave has a sexual yet affectionate affinity for elderly women, a highly satirical subplot in the film’s dialog. Days after seeing Madame D., an elderly woman Gustave deeply loves and highly respects, he is informed of her death, which occurred under “mysterious circumstances.” Gustave inherits a painting from her will worth a large sum of money, enraging family members whom greedily expected the inheritance.
Shortly thereafter, Gustave is then falsely imprisoned for the murder of Madame D. and Zero valiantly aids him in his illegal escape from prison to prove his innocence. The film then becomes a rapid rollercoaster of picturesque insanity, poignant emotion, and the perfect blend of beauty and anguish.
At its core, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a whimsical yet poetic approach to human emotion through its portrayal of love, humor, and malice. It is magnificently artistic, uproariously funny, and cleverly allegorical in its storytelling.
3. Listen Up Philip
It has rarely been so enjoyable to watch the life of a jaded cynic fall apart as he insults and loses all the people closest to him. Philip, played with uncanny brilliance by Jason Schwartzman, is a rudely uncompromising writer living in the shadow of the popularity of his first novel. However, as the publication of his second novel doesn’t go as smoothly as expected, Philip becomes as insultingly unrelenting as ever, making it impossible to empathize with him yet making it impossible to look away.
Elizabeth Moss shines in her role as his tormented girlfriend, Ashley, having to deal with his incessant rants and self-loathing temperament. Philip attempts to realign his personal perspectives by leaving Ashley and befriending one of his literary idols, Ike Zimmerman, who is almost equally as emotionally dissociated and self-absorbed as Philip. Zimmerman invites Philip to live with him in his country home as Philip teaches creative writing at a local liberal arts college, and the duo seemingly live for any bit of misery and deprecation they can gripe about.
The nihilistic undertones of the tale are palpable, and yet Listen Up Philip remains to be a highly entertaining and comical experience, proving that even the most insufferable characters can be the most pleasurable to watch.
2. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
In what is perhaps one of the most metaphorically mind-consuming and cinematically astounding films of the year, Birdman excels in its unique storytelling and symbolic undertones on the current state of humanity and entertainment.
Michael Keaton’s talent and wit are unmatched as Riggan Thompson, a man struggling with his inner demons as he attempts to make his comeback in a Broadway production. However, it seems Riggan will always live in his own shadow for having played the infamous role of “Birdman,” a blockbuster comic book adaptation he starred in twenty years prior to this.
The film is presented in one long, continuous shot, giving it a dizzying, maze-like effect akin to Keaton’s state of mind as he constantly doubts himself and his mental stability. Every scene in the film is filled with thematic meaning, from its surreal imagery to its unnerving score. The film is also a fascinating character study on vanity, self-doubt, and fame, along with numerous other thoughts that buzz through Riggan’s head—portrayed with comical perfection in voiceover form.
Ultimately, Birdman is a gorgeously stylistic and dense piece of cinema that demands to be analyzed and interpreted upon viewing.
Filmed over the span of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is entirely unlike any film we have ever seen before or are likely to ever see recreated anytime soon.
The film chronicles the life of Mason and his family from childhood to his freshman year of college. Every actor returned for filming every summer for 12 consecutive years, and the result is a wholly unremarkable feat and a spectacular commentary on the human experience. Boyhood is a poignantly moving, artistically stunning, and philosophically thought-provoking coming-of-age film that attempts to decipher how we view our lives and experiences over the span of time.
Boyhood is not interested in explosively dramatic events, but rather the small and seemingly insignificant moments of one’s life, eventually showing that these experiences are what define human existence as a whole. It is truly an unprecedented piece of cinema and its ambitious grandeur is without measure. Calling it the masterpiece of 2014 almost feels like an understatement.
Author Bio: D.A. Zapata is a freelance film and television critic from Palmview, TX. His college degrees specialize in Psychology and Philosophy, although he is a cinephile in every sense of the word and spends an alarming amount of time in movie theaters. You can follow his incessant rants about film, television, and pop culture on Twitter (@calciumwaste) and Facebook (/calciumwaste).