The longer you go on watching and writing about film, the more you start to feel like one of those jaded vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive.” It’s as though art’s power to surprise and amaze you is nowhere near what it was when you were fresh to it. “Gone Girl” and “Interstellar” were both good films, but how good you rate them might depend on whether you’ve already seen “Basic Instinct” and “To Die For,” or “Contact” and “2001,” respectively. Amid the many decent films of 2014, there were a few that I can honestly say were as powerful and astonishing as anything I’ve seen in my life.
A Belgian bluegrass film? Dispel all doubts: This cinematic firebomb follows a bluegrass musician and a tattoo artist who fall madly in love, face the loss of their child, and then fall apart. It’s a straight-over-the-edge romance, as passionate about music as love, and desperately tragic, the type that only comes along once in a generation (e.g., “Betty Blue” from 1986 or “Head-On” from 2004).
Life, as they say, is what happens when we’re not paying attention, but no film has ever captured that proposition as well as “Boyhood.” The idea of making a film over the course of 12 years to depict growing up in near real-time seems almost insane, but that’s what director Richard Linklater does here. Nothing happens, except for everything.
“12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for best picture this year, and while it was a worthy film, I felt like it was telling me what I already knew: Slavery was horrific and the people who enforced it were evil. Where “The Act of Killing” delivers is when you want to get an insight to the “how” questions: How can people behave that way and how can they live with themselves? This documentary on the executioners of the mid-1960s coup by the Indonesian military — free and boastful, even today — is one of the most troubling films you’ll ever see.
Call this one “Girlhood.” Adele Exarchopoulos plays a 15-year-old who comes of age, both sexually and emotionally, when she falls for an older, flirtier, out-er lesbian (Lea Seydoux). The rush of first love and the pain of first letdown have rarely felt this raw, thanks to both the actresses’ commitment and the incredibly intimate way in which the film is shot — you can almost feel the heat of a blush.
This is basically director David O. Russell’s homage to Martin Scorsese — the cinematic style of “Goodfellas” crossed with the ambience of 1970s New York. But throw in a clever, funny script and four great performances, and this con flick eats “Ocean’s Eleven” for breakfast. Christian Bale’s comb-over alone is worth the price of admission.
If you only see one documentary about the Arab Spring, make it this one. Shot in Syria, the film includes footage from the peaceful protests of 2011 up until quite recently, and focuses on a charismatic soccer goalie turned protest leader. “The Return to Homs” shows, up close, how so much of the Arab world has devolved from hope and idealism into sectarian killing with no end in sight.
This documentary on “The greatest film that never was” is a fascinating slice of hidden cinematic history. Cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Frank Herbert’s visionary sci-fi novel “Dune” died in development hell in the ’70s, but — as director Frank Pavich convincingly shows — Jodorowsky’s ideas for the film influenced everything from “Alien” to “The Fifth Element.” This is an inspiring portrait of artistic integrity.
8. The Double
Dostoevsky meets Terry Gilliam in this vividly imagined tale of doppelgangers in a steampunk dystopia. Director Richard Ayoade takes on a dark Kafkaesque vibe, but his febrile creativity is still present. Jesse Eisenberg is in his fidgety, self-conscious comfort zone, but then takes a 180-degree turnaround for the persona of the evil twin that mysteriously shows up at his workplace.
No one captured the angst and seedy underbelly of Showa Era (1926-89) postwar Japan as well as gekiga (literally, dramatic pictures) manga artist Tatsumi Yoshihiro, and Singaporean director Eric Khoo gathers five of his most twisted tales in this animated feature. Tatsumi’s own life story — taken from his manga autobiography, “A Drifting Life” — is also woven through the film.
Director Alexander Payne is in his element here: a meandering movie with prickly characters, deadpan humor, moody cinematography and a laid-back pace. Bruce Dern plays a nearly senile old man who’s convinced by some sweepstakes junk mail that he has won a $1 million prize, and his son (Will Forte) humors him by driving him across the state to collect it. A funny, tender film.