‘Tis the season for list-making, and Jim and I are wrapping up the first full year of the new Madison Film Forum with our “best of” lists. Jim posted his Top 20 yesterday, and now it’s time for mine, replete with the usual disclaimers. As with any list, it is reflective of my biases. Interestingly, there are several films on the list that would make excellent double features, and there are a surprising number of entries from filmmakers whose work I typically don’t like. I have more and more misgivings about ranking such a disparate group of films as the ones below. The only order here, then, is the order in which I saw them. My list also includes films from 2013 that were released domestically and/or widely (or played at the Wisconsin Film Festival) in 2014. To be sure, this list is incomplete. I certainly haven’t seen everything, and among others, I’m sure Inherent Vice and Only Lovers Left Alive will make their way onto this list once I see them. For now, this is what I’ve got.

Before I launch into my list, both Jim and I would like to say thank you. Thank you to the people who work so hard to bring such great programming to our fair city. Thank you to our fellow local arts writers for your support, camaraderie, and inspiration. Thanks to Taylor and our other contributors along the way. Finally, thank you to our readers. We hope we’ve provided you with an entertaining and insightful look at movies, be they streaming or playing locally, and we look forward to meeting more of you at our Madfilm Meetups. This was a great year for movies, and here’s hoping for an even better one in 2015!

Wind Rises

The Wind Rises  | Hayao Miyazaki | Japan | 2013 | 126 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

A great director leaves us with perhaps his greatest film. (If the rumors of his retirement are true, that is.) The Wind Rises is a tale of romance, whether it is the romance of two people falling in love or the romance of the main character’s dreams of flying. Miyazaki tells this story with a beauty and a gentility that is almost absent from most contemporary film. And while I usually prefer the Japanese lanugage versions, watching the English language version of this film was a treat, if for no other reason than when I heard Werner Herzog’s voice. This was one of our earliest—and one of our best—Madfilm Meetups. The fine folks at UW Cinematheque will be showing the Japanese language version to kick off the Spring 2015 lineup. If you missed this film in theaters, go see it. If you did see it, see it again!


Manakamana | Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez | USA | 118 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

As I said in my take on the first half of the Wisconsin Film Festival, this film is the Rope of experimental ethnographic filmmaking. The Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose previous film was the dizzyingly amazing Leviathan, uses a static camera captures travelers on a cable car as they ride up and down a mountain. It is an experiential documentary with a wide range of human emotion on display, all within the confines of a tiny metal box suspended in the air. I found this film utterly hypnotic and resonant well beyond my exit from the theater.

JoeJoe | David Gordon Green | USA | 2013 | 117 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

Joe was yet another standout from this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival. While I have reveled in Nicolas Cage’s say-yes-to-any-role attitude over the past several years, it was a genuine pleasure to see him in a role that felt like a step toward career redemption. Joe is another in a great cycle of violent Southern gothic pictures, and I greatly admired the way in which David Gordon Green made a very Texan movie (being from the Lone Star State, myself). Few people shoot the South as beautifully and meditate on the emotions behind the violence as Green does here.

SabbaticalSabbatical | Brandon Colvin | USA | 2014 | 72 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

At the time of this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, I said that I had given Sabbatical more thought than any other film at the festival. I can now say that for the year as well. The only thing this film is short on is the run time. It is long on craft, long on maturity, and long on thoughtfulness. In other words, it is the very definition of what independent cinema should be. Film festivals and arthouse theaters everywhere, take heed: this is exactly the kind of film you should be showing.

Captain America - The Winter SoldierCaptain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony & Joe Russo | USA | 2014 | 136 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

I’ll say one thing about the Marvel films: they have been remarkably consistent. Aside from the utter misfire that was Iron Man 2, Marvel Studios has put out one entertaining picture after another. The Winter Soldier, however, is far more than that. It grounds these films’ increasingly epic superhero mythos in a savvy, street-level political intrigue that is executed almost flawlessly. Chris Evans does for Cap what one reviewer said Gary Oldman did for Jim Gordon: he makes virtue look cool. Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie are also outstanding as Black Widow and The Falcon, and the Russo Brothers prove to be more than competent action directors. For me, this is the best of the Marvel films to date, and one of the best superhero movies ever made.

Under the SkinUnder the Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK | 2013 | 108 min

Amazon Instant| Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

Aside from saying that this is utterly unrelenting art cinema, words fail me when I try to discuss this film with others. So rich is the imagery and the multiplicity of meaning behind this film, I find it baffling that it is an adaptation of a novel. Scarlett Johansson deserves much praise for her performance, which required bravery in the making and ruthless calm on the screen. I remember thinking that Jonathan Glazer’s film Sexy Beast was a massive disappointment, but this film is nothing short of masterful. There are those movies that you only need to see once and they stick with you forever. This is one of the very best examples of those.

Jodorowsky's DuneJodorowsky’s Dune | Frank Pavich | USA | 2013 | 90 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

I usually find documentaries about movies or filmmakers to be lacking in (if not bankrupt of) any stylistic flourish whatsoever. Instead of being the usual talking-head parade, Jodorowsky’s Dune adds to the interviews by animating the storyboards for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unmade adaptation of the Frank Herbert classic. Director Frank Pavich gives us a taste of what the “mad director’s” vision for the film would have looked like, and while I have much esteem for David Lynch’s version, it would have been astounding to see Jodorowsky’s version. The way the film presents Jodorowsky’s views on his art—and art in general—is both compelling and inspiring.

SnowpiercerSnowpiercer | Bong Joon-ho | South Korea | 2013 | 126 min

Amazon Instant| Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

The comic book movie that was on nobody’s radar, Snowpiercer became one of 2014’s most interesting box office success stories. Personally, I was impressed with its staying power here in Madison. What I enjoyed most about this film was its resolute commitment to the world that it built. A handful of survivors of a global climate crisis aboard an unstoppable train—once you buy in, you are in for one hell of a ride. Chris Evans provides another strong man-of-action performance as a character with perhaps a little more complexity than his turn as Cap. And, in this film, Tilda Swinton demonstrates once more that she is one of the treasures of contemporary cinema.

Most Wanted ManA Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/USA/Germany | 2014 | 122 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

I have said it before, and I will say it again: A Most Wanted Man has the slow burn of an impeccably wrapped cigar and the long finish of a fine whisky. I said above that I was not ranking the films here, but I’m making an exception with this one. It’s my favorite of the year.

You can find out why by reading my review here.

Guardians of the GalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy | James Gunn | USA | 2014 | 121 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

As a friend of mine quite rightly said, we now live in a time where it seems impossible for a studio to get a movie about the Justice League off the ground, but a movie with a talking raccoon and his companion—a lovable, scene-stealing, walking tree—is a surefire hit. Personally, I don’t know if I’ve had as much fun with a sci-fi/action picture since Star Wars (the original, that is). It does have one of the themes that I’m a sucker for: a band of misfits coming together to form a makeshift family. James Gunn, whose films I find very hit (Slither) or miss (Super), hits this one right out of the park.

BoyhoodBoyhood | Richard Linklater | USA | 2014 | 164 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

Easily one of the best of the year, Boyhood took me completely by surprise, if for no other reason than that I tend to dislike most of Richard Linklater’s work. When talking about Joe earlier, I mentioned that David Gordon Green had made a very Texan movie. In Boyhood, amidst the captivating performances of all of the actors and the incredible emotional journey that the film offers, Linklater perhaps has made one of THE Texan movies. He captures the light and the sky of my home state in a way no one else has, and it made me homesick in a way I was wholly unprepared for. It is also a film that absolutely earns its run time and feels nowhere near as long as it is. I felt like I had watched 12 years of life in the blink of an eye.

DropThe Drop | Michaël R. Roskam | USA | 2014 | 106 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

Some of the best crime movies combine an atmosphere of gritty menace with moments of unusual tenderness to make what turns out to be a very human movie. The Drop is just such a film, thanks to a remarkable script by novelist Dennis Lehane. Some might say that the story is mostly by the numbers. If it is (I’m not convinced), then we shouldn’t neglect to take pleasure in the film’s outstanding execution of that story. In much the same way that Daniel Craig’s performance in Layer Cake proved to me that he could take on the part of James Bond, in a weird way I’d say The Drop does the same for Tom Hardy. (Well, this and Inception, of course.)

We Are the BestWe Are the Best! | Lukas Moodyson | Sweden | 2013 | 102 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

Movies like this are why it’s a good idea to visit Spotlight Cinema at MMOCA. This film is about three teenagers in Sweden who decide to form a punk band. There is a refreshing lack of irony and needle-dropping here. Moodyson opts instead for a very earnest, genuine humor. The performances are instinctive and natural, neither too childish nor too pretentiously adult. I had a smile on my face for pretty much the whole screening. Be sure to take a look at what Jim had to say in his review of the film.

Happy New YearHappy New Year | Farah Khan | India | 2014 | 180 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library | Official Website

Speaking of films where I had a smile on my face the whole time, there is the Bollywood smash Happy New Year. The plot is pretty simple: in order to pull off a vengeful heist, Charlie (Shah Rukh Khan) and his rag-tag crew have to enter a dance competition to get at the loot. And in order to get into the dance competition (and subsequently earn the love of millions of fans), they have to, well, learn to dance. From this absurd premise, the film gives us three hours of hilarious gags, elaborate thieving, and musical numbers that will get you grinning from ear to ear. As with Boyhood, I felt like the run time passed effortlessly. In fact, if I could have, I would have watched it in the theater again the day I saw it.

InterstellarInterstellar | Christopher Nolan | USA/UK | 2014 | 169 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

I have to say that the first time I watched Christopher Nolan’s latest film, I felt that it had been some time since I’ve been as disappointed by a movie that I liked. Upon second viewing, I found that many (though not all) of my complaints disappeared. It is a film of truly awesome spectacle, with conceptual heft, a gorgeous score by Hans Zimmer, and practical visual effects that dwarf most CGI effects. One of the common critical lines is that the film’s reach is greater than its grasp. Maybe so, but I’d say it reaches for far more than most other films do, and that should count for a great deal.

Goodbye to LanguageGoodbye to Language | Jean-Luc Godard | France | 2014 | 70 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

I confess that I prefer Godard in pre-Weekend mode, and I outright hate some of his more recent pictures. That said, to say that this film surprised me would be a massive understatement. Part of my esteem for this picture comes from the big-screen experience. It was shown in Madison as a special fundraiser screening, courtesy of the fine folks at UW Cinematheque, with David Bordwell introducing the film and conducting a thoroughly engaging post-film Q&A. The story feels almost impenetrable at first, and I can’t pretend to have gotten everything on the first pass, but I am looking forward to seeing it again. One note: you must watch this film in 3D, because what Godard wields stereoscopic technology to create shots we simply haven’t ever seen before.

John WickJohn Wick | Chad Stahelski | USA/Canada/China | 2014 | 101 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

Think Eastern Promises meets Jack Reacher, which is to say that John Wick is the best kind of throwback vengeance film. It is a thoroughly enjoyable action picture that aptly rides the fence between drama and outright camp. I admire the more ridiculous elements of the world this film creates (the assassins’ hotel, for one), simply because the film commits to those absurdities so wholly. Plus, any film that features actors from The Wire is generally okay by me. And yes, this is the second movie on my list that is, to some degree, about a tough guy and his dog (The Drop being the other).

Big Hero 6Big Hero 6 | Don Hall & Chris Williams | USA| 2014 | 102 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

This felt like a superheroic animated version of Real Genius, one of my favorite comedies growing up. Like that film, Big Hero 6 is about smart, nerdy people who are trying to do the right thing. In other words, it’s the kind of film we need more of. The character of Baymax is one of the best robot characters in recent memory, and the animation is so colorful and kinetic that it bursts from the screen, regardless of whether you watch it in 3D or not. Even though I very much enjoyed The Lego Movie, I’d say this is the best American animated film of the year.

CitizenfourCitizenfour | Laura Poitras | USA | 2014 | 114 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

Again, “surprised” is the word I’d use to describe how I felt watching this documentary about Edward Snowden. I was taken aback at how it came and left Madison with little in the way of notice or promotion, which is a shame, because it’s a documentary everyone should watch. For the most part—and at Snowden’s behest—the filmmakers did an excellent job of not making this a traditional personality piece. Instead, they focus more on the events as they unfold, on the information and the timeline in which it was released, creating an exceptionally tense portrait of the effects of one person’s decision making. Without a doubt, it’s the scariest movie I’ve seen this year. Even if you are paying attention and keeping up with the news, there are still things about this film that are instructive with respect to the politics of security.

Tale of the Princess KaguyaThe Tale of the Princess Kaguya | Isao Takahata | Japan | 2013 | 137 min

Amazon Instant | Netflix | GoWatchIt | Four Star | Madison Public Library

As I began my list with a Studio Ghibli film, so too do I end with one. In the way that The Wind Rises is about many types of romance, I’d say this film is ultimately about many types of love. Love of nature and country, love for family, and romantic love all play a part in director Isao Takahata’s visually lush adaptation of the old Japanese folk tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Along with the delicate score by Joe Hisaishi, the imagery and the more traditional animation style all made me feel less like I was watching the film and more like I was dreaming it.

Bonus Shorts

While the list above focuses on features, there were also some particularly strong short film programs that played in Madison in 2014, and I wanted to spotlight two films from those programs:

The Missing Scarf  | Eoin Duffy | Ireland | 2013 | 7 min

This was one of several brilliant films in this year’s Oscar Nominated Animated Short Film program that played at Sundance earlier this year. Narrated by the one and only George Takei, Eoin Duffy’s film uses a brilliant geometrical aesthetic to capture the vast expanse of existence, equally grave and comic. You can watch the film on Vimeo below.

I Think This Is the Closest to How the Footage Looked  | Yuval Hameiri | Israel | 2012 | 10 min

Screened as part of the Sundance 2014 Animated Shorts Program, this film initially seems like a playful experiment, the filmmaker staging scenes using a variety of mundane, inanimate objects to make a sort of avant-garde puppetry project. As his voiceover reveals the reason behind what he is doing here, however, the film transforms into something far more powerful and poignant. I can’t embed the film into this post, but I would encourage you to view it at the bottom of this page.

One reply on “Jake’s Take: 2014 in Review”

Comments are closed.