2014: the year's best films

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday December 30, 2014
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On reflection, 2014 was a fabulous year for LGBT cinema, beginning with an incredibly moving tale of UK queers battling Britain's "Iron Lady," Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

1. Pride It's 1984, and 20-year-old Joe lands in London from the coal-mining region near Bromley for his first Gay Pride march. Taken under the collective wing of a queer group of gay men and lesbians who meet at a Soho bookshop, the young man quickly finds his coming-out journey framed by two odd bedfellow political movements: out lesbians and gays form a most unlikely but powerful alliance with striking coal miners.

The miners are battling Thatcher's decision to close pits of declining economic value. Northern Irish activist Mark Ashton urges a gay/miners solidarity alliance; this risky strategy receives an unexpected boost when a van full of gays find themselves in the Welsh village of Onllwyn. Disco-dancing proves an unlikely fundraising and consciousness-raising tool, surviving local bigotry and leading up to a massive benefit concert that seals the deal on this incredibly moving slice of contemporary history. Check your pulse if your eyes aren't a little moist by the time the credits roll.

2. The Last Weekend Tom Dolby, scion of the fabled "Dolby Sound in selected theatres" family, offers a quirky family drama where an anxious matriarch (a crackling good Patricia Clarkson) has come to the conclusion that it's time to ring down the curtain on her frisky clan's eons-old tradition of ringing out the summer at their fabulous Lake Tahoe lakefront estate. This weekend, her adult gay son has chosen to bring along his latest trick, although the perky one-night-stand has his own ideas about how the script will play out. This sharply observed portrait of an upper-income West Coast family is enlivened by a sharp ensemble including Joseph Cross, notable for his high-wire comic turn in the film version of Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs' sassy memoir of growing up crazy.

3. Kill the Messenger Two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner heads up an all-star cast in a dramatic thriller based on the true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gary Webb. Webb stumbles onto the sinister origins of the men who launched the crack epidemic on the nation's streets. Webb alleges that the CIA was aware of major dealers who were smuggling cocaine into the U.S. and using the profits to arm rebels fighting in Nicaragua. Director Michael Cuesta (Homeland, L.I.E.) and screenwriter Peter Landesman based their story, set in California, Nicaragua and Washington, on the books Dark Alliance by Gary Webb, and Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou.

4. Appropriate Behavior One of the year's hippest comedies is an achingly wise and poignant account of life in Brooklyn's lesbian fast lanes from Iranian-American director Desiree Akhavan. Her wise-ass heroine Shirin starts with a messy breakup �" her ex cuts up her underwear as an exclamation point to their final fight. She's not out to her family, her day job involves teaching filmmaking to six-year-olds, and worst of all, she just can't get her mind off her ex. Akhavan punctuates her story with flashbacks like that long-ago New Year's Eve when Shirin first met her honey on the steps of a Park Slope brownstone. With a sharp eye for the pratfalls of coming out in a conservative ethnic culture, Akhavan offers a queer version of mumblecore classics like Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha.

Beginning and ending with our gal on the subway, we pray that Shirin finds her way before the end of the line. 

5. The Two Faces of January In 1962, a well-heeled couple (Vigo Mortensen & Kirsten Dunst) hook up with an American expatriate acting as an Athens tour guide (Oscar Isaac). An incident at the couple's hotel puts all three in danger and creates a precarious interdependence between them. A tense and dangerous battle of wits leads from Greece to Turkey, and to a gripping finale in the back alleys of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. A big treat for Patricia Highsmith fans.

6. Whiplash is a terrific psychological thriller set in the emotionally shark-infested waters of an elite New York music academy. An aspiring jazz musician (Miles Teller) finds a teacher/mentor (scary good J.K. Simmons) who offers keys to the kingdom at a steep price. "Here, kid, join my little coven of talented but mostly spineless wimps, and I'll not only turn you into a seasoned pro, but I'll make a man of you in the bargain." The bargain ranges from enduring profanity-laced lectures to actual physical pummelings in the classroom. It's those first slaps across the boy's face that clue us into the fact that writer/director Damien Chazelle isn't remaking Mr. Holland's Opus.

7. Men, Women & Children is an ensemble comedy-drama from Jason Reitman (Up in the Air), co-written with Erin Cressida Wilson, based on Chad Kultgen's novel. Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, and Kaitlyn Dever play teens and their parents addressing videogame culture, anorexia, infidelity and the proliferation of illicit material on the Web, phones, tablets, and computers.

8. The Theory of Everything Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) and Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) headline James Marsh's (The King) bio of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who at 21 receives the nominal death sentence of "Lou Gehrig's Disease." Once a healthy, active young man, Hawking embarks on his most ambitious scientific work, studying the very thing he now has precious little of: time. The film is based on the memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Hawking.

9. Love is Strange Ira Sachs begins with the nuptials of two 60-something New Yorkers: a painter, Ben (John Lithgow), and a music teacher, George (Alfred Molina), decide to use the passage of New York's Marriage Equality Act to legally baptize their nearly 40-year union. Soon real life intrudes: George is fired from his job at a Catholic high school, and suddenly the couple are technically "homeless," unable to make the mortgage payments on their co-op apartment. Since none of their friends have space in their own cramped quarters for a couple, Ben moves in with Kate (Marisa Tomei), a female novelist; her husband, Elliot (Darren Burrows); and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), while George bunks down on the couch of two gay cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). Ben is particularly hard-hit as his mere presence puts a crimp on Kate's daily writing ritual, while Ben's being in the lower bunk in Joey's bedroom causes the teen to start to resent his once-beloved gay "uncle" while also putting the kid's own burgeoning romantic life on hold.

10. Five Dances One of the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival's favorite directors, Alan Brown (Private Romeo, The Book of Love), returns with a low-key romance set in Lower Manhattan's modern-dance subculture. Broadway star Ryan Steele is enchanting as a shy student dancer about to burst out of the closet. Chip (Steele), still freeing himself from the Kansas-bound apron strings of an emotionally needy mom, finds himself sleeping on the couch of one of the company's veteran female dancers while weighing whether to pursue one of its cutest aspiring male stars. Like the recently released, SF-situated Test, Five Dances is sublimely on-point about both modern dance and love.

Texas boy Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up in director Richard Linklater's Boyhood.

11. Boyhood The year's best fiction epic on the dilemmas of growing up an American male kid, Richard Linklater's Boyhood gives us a unique perspective on how a Texas boy (Ellar Coltrane) matures over an 11-year period (2002-13), showing the maturation of a boy and his sister. Debuting at the 2014 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, Boyhood is a lovely companion piece to the long-running British reality series 7-Up .

12. Night Moves recalls that brief shining moment in the 1960s when, fueled by generational shifts, sexual politics and a post-Vietnam disillusion with politics as usual, brave filmmakers attempted to straddle a growing chasm between traditional forms of dissent and acts of violence that would be viewed as treason. The mood of curdled idealism becoming existential despair is enhanced by three strong performances, particularly the passive/aggressive rebel played to chilling perfection by Jesse Eisenberg, an actor previously more identified with acts of neurotic comedy than of dissent.

13. The Double British director Richard Ayoade (Submarine) bases his second feature on Russian novelist Dostoyevsky's second novel. Few viewers will miss the irony of Jesse Eisenberg, the young actor who won an Oscar nomination for his take on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, here returning as a haunted loser who suffers the ultimate identity theft.

Gabriel (Fabio Audi) and Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) in writer/director Daniel Ribeiro's The Way He Looks. Photo: Strand Releasing

14. The Way He Looks In 2010, Brazilian Daniel Ribeiro's short Eu Nao Quero Voltar Sozinho plopped us down inside the complicated world of a young blind teen who feels he's being smothered by an overprotective mom. Now the feature-length version preserves the short's unique vision while providing fascinating clues about how our senses shape and inform our sexuality. It opens on two best friends lying lazily by a pool. Leo (Ghilherme Lobo) is bright, handsome and blind from birth. Giovana (Tess Amorim) is Leo's guide and platonic girlfriend. Things get sticky when a new boy, the radiant, curly-haired Gabriel (Fabio Audi), becomes a classmate and replaces Giovana as Leo's best bud. A highlight is an erotic post-pool shower scene between the boys. Ribeiro seamlessly charts the baby steps by which new alliances are formed among school chums, and how puberty can drastically up-end old bonds. This may be the first feature to trace with humor and compassion how hard it is to be gay, blind and in love with a boy you've never actually seen. 

15. The Imitation Game The personal life of closeted WWII-era British science whiz Alan Turing, highlighted by feats of mathematical brilliance that exposed Nazi Germany's top wartime secrets, would have been unexceptional if it weren't for the Victorian-era laws that turned "poofs" into dangerous outlaws. One of the film's achievements comes from hinting at the enormous power possessed by an unseen monarch. Oscar bait: a very likely Best Actor Nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch (as Turing) for projecting an extraordinary anti-charisma.

16. Interior. Leather Bar. Palo Alto native James Franco deconstructs the fallout, 30 years later, from the queer protests directed against William Friedkin's inflammatory melodrama about cops and queers, Cruising.

17. Citizen Four Filmmaker Laura Poitras (My Country, My Country) snatches a rare moment in the making of a reluctant celebrity, the moment before a beautiful young man �" on the cusp of 30, but still looking like a perpetually distracted grad student �" becomes, in effect, a digital-era debutante. Edward Snowden's "coming out" party is a tad impromptu, downright bumpy in fact, as he stumbles out of the shadows from idealistic NSA whistleblower to expat fugitive and temporary houseguest in that bastion of free speech, Putin's Russia.

18. Mr. Turner British auteur Mike Leigh provides gifted character actor Timothy Spall a likely Best Actor Oscar nomination for an uncompromising portrayal of 19th-century landscape painter Joseph Mallard William Turner. Regarded by many as the father of modern abstract painting, in Spall's hands Turner emerges as a complex and memorably tragic figure building on contemporary notions of artists as wastrels and failed adults.

19. The Drop "Are you doing something desperate, something we can't clean up this time?" The question from Tom Hardy's taciturn bartender to the late James Gandolfini's amiable "Cousin Marv" reverberates all the way through this smart if bloody thriller from the pen of Dennis LeHane (Mystic River). This dark tale loses little punch despite the switch in settings from LeHane's "Southie" Boston precincts to a drab slice of industrial, non-gentrified Brooklyn.

20. Stranger by the Lake Taking on a subject, gay male cruising, that has eluded many, French director Alain Guiraudic sets us down in a fairy-tale pretty environment: a crystal-blue lake, 150 kilometers north of Cannes, where a motley assortment of men, both out and closeted, check each other out and frolic in the nearby vegetation. Guiraudic conjures up the duality of excitement and ennui affecting gay male cruising spots worldwide, with a plot that borrows from classic film-noir tropes, producing an effect that is sexy, thrilling and oddly funny.

21. 3 Still Standing "When it works, it's better than sex, better than drugs, better than family, better than chocolate fudge." Comic Will Durst's elixir is to slay a large group of humor-deprived adults in a darkened room. Robert Campos and Donna LoCiero use Durst and his comic peers Johnny Steele and Larry "Bubbles" Brown to illustrate the shifting landscape of the once-vibrant SF standup comedy scene. Dedicated to and with participation from the late Robin Williams, this well-made piece shifts between uproariously funny and sadly elegiac. 

22. Palo Alto Gia Coppola's first feature captures the elusive feel for life in a wealthy San Francisco suburb whose privileged denizens don't regard themselves as anybody's mall rats. Coppola aces her take on the short stories of one of her hometown stars, the ever-controversial James Franco. Comparable to last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, without the benefit of the latter film's incendiary gay hero (Ezra Miller).

23. Rich Hill In their terribly human, fitfully funny but always empathetic portrait of small-town America today, cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo make what could have been an unbearably sad story quite unexpectedly hopeful. The filmmakers zero in on three boys whose intelligence, earthy humor and refusal to give up on themselves will give you something to chew on if you fear for the future of American boys.

24. The Third One This erotically charged caper kicks off in a young man's bedroom as the college student begins a sexy web-chat with an older guy. Argentine director Rodrigo Guerrero uses long takes to show how the kid hooks up for some frisky action with the man and his lover. What distinguishes this romp is the deliberately paced escalation of carnal hooks: sex must wait for dinner with white wine. The bedroom scenes are worth the wait, in carefully choreographed erotic sequences, for a film that steers clear of obvious porn.

25. Cupcakes Israel's jack-of-all-genres director Eytan Fox returns with a cinema sugar-rush about six friends at a European TV song contest. Ofer, a sexy and vocationally frustrated pre-school teacher, ropes five female pals into subordinating inflated egos to deliver a blockbuster slice of pop treacle. Framed by my favorite disco anthem, "Love Will Keep Us Together," Cupcakes unveils the party-down side of a country surviving perilously in the world's toughest neighborhood. 

27. Boy Meets Girl Eric Schaeffer gives the story of a Kentucky newbie a sassy spin. Newcomer Michelle Hendley offers a brave interpretation of the complex motives of a "simple country girl" who trusts her platonic best friend/one-time wannabe lover with a naked glimpse of both her heart and a body that's still very much in transition.

28. Salvation Army Abdellah Taia embeds us inside an extended Moroccan clan as a shy, queer Arab boy (Taia's younger self) plots to escape the tyranny of family and the mostly benevolent but still painful exploitation by foreign sex tourists.