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It’s the end of the year, and once again here is a list of the best films I caught this year. As opposed to other years, I’m including short films and even a couple of multimedia experiences, including some works that some might exclusively consider “art.”

If there is one characteristic I search for in moving image experiences it is the feeling of transcendence. To this writer and lover of the art of the moving image — sometimes above narrative and definitely beyond the confines of the classical Hollywood cinema form — that often means subverting the medium. It would be unfair to place the burden of that on narrative films that often come up this time of year, begging to be noticed for an Oscar award. But it was a grueling awards season this year only because not many of these films stood out as genuinely spectacular (I’m thinking Unbroken, The Gambler, Into the Woods and Interstellar)

In this two-part post, I hope to give you a taste of films that you would not expect for an end-of-the-year summary, including links to some that you might be able to see now, on-line. All of these were true surprising experiences and many, yes, had that moment of transcendence. But of course there were indie, world and even some studio films that impressed with acting and narrative technique.

Though I must take personal acquaintance out of the mix, as that has an effect on opinion, allow me to note that I saw wonderful films by some local Miami filmmakers this year. The Miami International Film Festival gave us the incredible short documentary “Cherry Pop: The Story of the World’s Fanciest Cat” by Kareem Tabsch, co-founder of Miami’s chain of O Cinemas. He cracked up when I asked if it was a mockumentary. It’s not.

MIFF also gave us “Ectotherms,” an atmospheric film of suburban malaise distinct to Miami by Monica Peña, operations manager at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (read my interview with her here). She also finished a short documentary that captures a side of Miami Beach few who haven’t been there have ever seen. It premiered at Miami’s Borscht Film Festival. Watch “Pink Sidewalks” below:

Speaking of Borscht, I saw only a few of this year’s offerings, but they inspired lots of writing on my part in the “Miami New Times.” “Cool As Ice 2” is an amazing meta sequel to Cool As Ice by the talented duo of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer. Then there is “Papa Machete,” by Jonathan David Kane, a poetic short documentary about an elderly Haitian Machete Fencing master that is now headed to Sundance. I also lobbied hard to get Borscht the “Golden Orange” from the Florida Film Critics Circle. They won it (read all my Borscht coverage and check out videos by following this link).

Finally, though Art Basel – Miami Beach this year meant a preview for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, it more importantly allowed me to spend a lot of time with Auto Body, an group exhibition in response to gender inequality in art that featured art by women artists. It was a performance and video-based exhibit with nothing for sale. A lot of it was based on destruction over creation or vice-versa. It opened with Cheryl Pope destroying hundreds of water balloons sustained from the ceiling using only her head and closed with Naama Tsabar leading an all-girl band through an immaculate cover of Pulp’s “Babies,” which descended into abstract noise at song’s end, while Tsabar spent a half-hour bashing the stage to pieces with her guitar. In between my friend dancer Ana Mendez choreographed a fall down and “up” a metal staircase she titled “Liminal Being,” which she repeated several times each day of the exhibit. It was raw, real and visceral, showing both strength and human vulnerability, something that could be said for much of the art in this exhibit.

But much of what made Auto Body were short films, and indeed some of the most incredible visuals I saw this year unfolded on those 25 screens. I wrote a preview here, with several interviews. Next I wrote a reactionary summary of part of day 1 of the event here. The latter includes some of the video highlights at the exhibition, which lasted four days and even caught the attention of the “New York Times.” Here’s a snippet of one of the highlights (those offended by naked female bodies should not play this):

There are some terrific film experiences above that made 2014 memorable, there’s also a distinctive style coming out of Miami, be it abstract or narrative-based, that is worth further exploration in another post. Some are already using the term “Miami Wave.” I just feel too close to them to rank them among the films I feel less personally attached to in the list below and in part 2 of this post, which will appear on this blog tomorrow. Though, recalling this year in local art and film, I do feel like I have already written about my favorite film of 2014.

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I’m going to start this list by presenting an example of one of the great short films I saw in 2014, which I will consider number 20 of my top 20 film experiences of 2014, then I’ll present the rest of the first half of this list. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the specific link, you will be financially supporting this blog. If we reviewed it here, there will be a link to the review under the poster art. Finally if we haven’t reviewed it, I’ll try to share a few words about the film’s significance.

20. Collection petites planètes • volume 7 • Maricel Yasa

Do not dismiss this as a music video. It’s a slice-of-life exploration of Buenos Aires with the beautiful accompaniment of the music of Maricel Yasa. Her soft, airy vocals and active acoustic guitar plucking is sometimes accompanied by a droning, high-pitched violin but it mostly melds with the sounds of the city, be they rumbling buses or kids setting off sporadic fireworks in a park. Filmmaker Vincent Moon (we wrote a lot about him here), shows no shame in his probing camera work, which is as spontaneous as the scenes he captures, he drifts close to his subjects and shows as much respect for their surroundings. His work has beauty and an earthy quality that is both beautiful and sometimes sublimely poetic.

19.  Blue Ruin

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With Blue Ruin, director Jeremy Saulnier gives us a suspense film not driven by plot twists but a human incompetence that reveals the blinding power of a grudge allowed to fester for way too long. The performances by these unknown actors are handled with great care. There’s an every-man quality to them that far from glamorizes the revenge flick. There’s little panache but great sensitivity in showing how hard it is to kill, adding to the nerve-racking pace of the film without contrived enhancements of editing and music.

18. Whiplash

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Refreshingly intense, Whiplash not only features two of this year’s great male performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, but it  has an unrelenting pace fueled by twisted passion. They may not be musicians, but Teller and Simmons give a lot to convey their weirdo drive for technical musical perfection. The crazy thing is that it’s jazz, a music to be loved for its human imperfection. However, to get to that — ahem — transcendent level of greatness in the music, you have to master perfect form, and it comes through pain, and, man, is pain conveyed to the hilt in this film.

17. Wild

Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

16. Force Majeure

Force_MajeureRead my review

15. Listen Up Philip

LUP-Poster-WEBRead my review

14. Lake Los Angeles

lake laRead my review in “Miami New Times”

13. Snowpiercer

snowpiercer_ver20Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

12. Birdman

posterRead my review

11. Hide Your Smiling Faces

smilingfaces_smRead my review

Tomorrow: the top 10 films (or videos) of 2014. Update, it’s live:

The best movies of 2014, according to Hans Morgenstern — Part 2

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Force_MajeureForce Majeure, a new, impressively shot film from Sweden takes a stark but funny look at the fragile fibers that hold together a family of four when the actions of the father calls the unit’s existence into question. Director Ruben Östlund uses both humor and an efficient sense of drama to examine the role of the father that draws in the audience to consider today’s notion of what makes a man. It’s tight filmmaking in the best sense, as it never over-reaches the human drama at the center of it but has vast echoes beyond the image on screen.

Östlund, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a rather interesting portrait of a modern man who screws up in a big way with the wrong gesture. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a ski vacation with their young children, older sister Vera (Clara Wettergren) and younger brother Harry (Vincent Wettergren). The crux of the film is hinted at early on, with a photographer who bullies the family off camera into taking some portraits on the slopes. Tomas goes with it, following orders from the man, who is left unseen on the other side of the lens.

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But the real drama begins after the family has a close encounter with an avalanche while dining at an outdoor restaurant … and Tomas runs away, leaving his panicked wife and screaming children at the table. After the screen goes white and the snow powder clears, others around them have a laugh at the scare. At the edge of the frame, one laughing man even points his thumb at Tomas, as he returns to his shaken family. Though physically unscathed, the emotional wounds will be profound.

The film is all about the various ways Tomas is tested following the incident. It comes out not only in Ebba’s very public manner in dealing with the trauma by recounting what had occurred in the company of other couples but also in Tomas’ private moments afterward. Though he insists that Ebba’s perception of what happened is somehow warped, there is also no denying a weight is now bearing down on him. He must find some way to deal with it, and though he tries in various, very human ways, it culminates in a delicious moment of humor and pathos that will test the family further.

The drama would never be as interesting as it is had Östlund not considered the many ways Tomas’ actions has reframed his role as a patriarch. The director wastes nothing in the film’s pacing, the characters’ gestures and actions and especially the movie’s potent visuals. Against a landscape at its most intimidating, using anamorphic, widescreen lenses, Östlund presents the fragility of the family brilliantly without being overt. Early in the film, before the avalanche, the director infuses a sense of dread into the movie by simply juxtaposing scenes of domestic banality and the nocturnal maintenance of the ski-slopes with controlled avalanches. Against the frantic, extra-diegetic sound of Ola Fløttum’s score of rumbling strings and accordion, the family brushes its teeth. Meanwhile, outside, canons explode over the slopes to loosen snow, and a snowmobile zips across the screen followed by three lumbering snow tractors. The music and the sounds of buzzing machines, be they electric toothbrushes or industrial machinery, toggle to monopolize the soundtrack during pauses in Fløttum’s witty score. Tomas, domesticated and contained, handles an electric toothbrush as well as his wife and two children. Meanwhile, outside, in the night, real men, who we never see, speed around in machines to do manly work. Who knows? They might even be women.

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Östlund wants the viewer to not only consider the man’s reaction during the avalanche but other details. It’s about gender roles in a modern age where everyone should be considered equal, lest you be considered sexist or politically incorrect. Though it does not come up in the movie, it is interesting to note that in Sweden it is not uncommon for a man to choose to take the wife’s last name when they marry. It’s important to consider this film comes from a country with such advanced ideas of gender roles. The film also brings up the idea of open marriage during an opportunity Ebba has to have a chat with a fellow married female vacationer who seems much happier than she does.

This is not the first time manliness has been called into question with a gesture in film (The Loneliest Planet did it more austerely: Film Review: the insignificance of trauma in the land of ‘The Loneliest Planet’), but that Östlund can find humor while considering a drama that has real pathos (you will feel for these people) is commendable. Force Majeure is smartly entertaining, shocking and funny, and it presents one of those hypothetical situations that demands discussion after the house lights go up. It presents it all in a tidy package with powerful performances and a sly, steady camera that’s both ironic and focused. It’s one of those great art house experiences that provokes on many levels without feeling cruel or overly serious, and it stands as one of the best cinematic experiences of 2014. It’s plain ingenious on all levels of cinematic story-telling and should not be missed.

Hans Morgenstern

Force Majeure runs 118 minutes, is in Swedish and English with English subtitles and Rated R (there’s some language and brief nudity). It opened exclusively in South Florida in at this Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday. On Nov. 14., it expands to the Gateway 4 in Fort Lauderdale and the Lake Worth Playhouse. It may already be playing at other theaters across the U.S. To check other screening locations, visit this website. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)