By Noel Vera

I PARTICIPATED in two End-of-the-Year surveys: Film Comment’s and Sight and Sound’s, the latter having the advantage of making every voter’s list (mine in particular) available online.

Two movies that impressed me the most — Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya — were released in their respective countries in 2013, on DVD in the USA in 2015; they’re included in my 2014 tally.

Which is good as the following may be because I really haven’t found anything that engaged and moved me as much as those two masters’ final works (one died, the other retired) — hence my title.

In ascending order then:

8 When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There

Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s sophomore effort (he directed the more overtly fanciful The Secret World of Arietty) is a ghost story, if by “ghost” one means a lingering memory more than actual ectoplasm. The film puts aside Studio Ghibli’s fantastical creatures to tell the Gothic tale of one lonely girl’s friendship with another. You can’t help but wonder about Anna: why is she so deliberately off-putting; why is her interest in the world and in others (Marnie aside) so wan, her dislikes and hatreds so intense? Her eponymous friend is even more perplexing: is she a spectre from the past, a figment of Anna’s imagination, an actual girl living in and enlivening the present? And why do they have this immediate and intense (almost homoerotically so) connection?

Yonebayashi doesn’t present the narrative as a mystery — a recognizable genre puzzle to be investigated and solved — so much as something more mysterious, the subconscious processing of childhood trauma and loss. Wonderful film — calling it “animated” seems confining, if not small-minded — and a fitting last work (if it is the last; hope springs eternal) from the legendary studio.

7 A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Roy Andersson’s heroically deadpan comic masterwork suggests its premise from the title: a pair of alien eyes peering down at grotesque humanity trying (in 37 static if precisely composed shots) to make sense of near-incomprehensible activity. The narrative is minimal: the camera sometimes watches (sometimes not) the sad-sack attempts of a pair of slow-motion salesmen to sell novelty gag items; sometimes loiters in a bar where at one point all the customers sing an inspired rendition of “John Brown’s Body;” sometimes gazes impassively as Charles XII rides a horse into a more modern café, and hits on a young bartender. If you find this sort of thing funny — that’s a very big “if” — you’ll want to watch this film (and people need to watch themselves around you, but that’s another story).

6 Timbuktu

Another comedy (odd — or not — that in a year full of grim events the comedies resonate so). Abderrahmane Sissako asks what would happen if a group of Muslim militants (the Ansar Dine) take over the historical African city. The results are not as unremittingly grim as you may think; the people resist in all kinds of ways, from furtive indoor singing to (in one glorious sequence) playing imaginary football to a woman attired in brilliant peacock blue, her hair tied in bows, her arms outspread, daring the soldiers to confront her. They shrink back, perhaps in bewilderment perhaps in fear, the power they sense streaming from her as inexplicable as it is indisputable.

5 Esprit de Corps

Combine an ambivalent attitude towards the borderline abusive yet (some would say) character-building Philippine military with a rather breathless homoreroticism and you might get Kanakanan Balintagos’ latest film, an adaptation of his stage play written back in the 1980s. Balintagos doesn’t so much hide the film’s theatrical roots as revel in them, encircling the actors in swirling long takes, drinking in their tight muscles and creamy brown skin. Are the officers taking physical and sexual advantages of the cadets’ hazing? Yes. Maybe. Maybe the cadets are complicit (you don’t see them resisting much when the officers start getting hands-on); maybe everyone accepts this as a necessary step to building the military culture. By film’s end you’re so drunk on the director’s potent mix of discipline and desire you aren’t sure you have the answers — or if any answer is possible.

4 Carol

Strange but I admired more than adored Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. In channeling Douglas Sirk’s ’50s melodramas he seemed to have channeled too much of Sirk’s distancing visual style, not enough of the filmmaker’s impassioned tone. The results were beautiful but oddly unmoving, as if Julianne Moore’s Cathy and Dennis Haysbert’s Raymond were passing ships that never got to approach, much less hook up.

Hayne’s Carol is a whole other creature. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, it’s an unabashedly erotic film where the eroticism has been given a high gloss by Haynes’ impeccable visual style, this time more Hitchcock than Sirk (though the Teutonic filmmaker’s presence is still evident here, there). Carol looks, tastes, feels like two pairs of lips suspended an inch apart; that inch of space is crucial to the film’s appeal, in the way it makes the heat palpable, the thrill unbearable.

3 Clouds of Sils Maria

Haynes’ film is as simple as a stolen kiss; Olivier Assayas’ film is more complicated — a teasing buildup between an actress and her assistant, rehearsing a theater piece where they play lovers. Do they have feelings for each other or are they playing characters with feelings for each other? Are the characters really so troubled or is that the actors’ repressed emotions breaking through? Bookended on one end by a deft satire of film festivals and auteur worship, on the other by an equally deft satire of Hollywood star power that in the final scene suddenly sprouts a pair of fangs, it’s one of the most unclassifiably supple subtle sexy films I’ve seen this year.

2 Storm Children Book One

Storm Children Book One
Storm Children Book One

Lav Diaz’s first feature documentary — about the child survivors of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) is in a way a remake of his Death in the Land of Encantos, only telling a true story instead of imposing fiction on the blasted landscape.

I have to confess, I prefer fictional Diaz — prefer his bleak narratives that in Encantos seem to have found their perfect backdrop, prefer the way his ideas and characters try too hard to scale themselves upwards to the surrounding devastation. The people in Storm Children simply are, and while they have their own unaffected dignity you miss the attempt at overreach, the attempt to get beyond surface realism.

That said, muted Diaz seems better than almost anything by anyone else; the little figures struggling to dig out vital material buried deep in the sludge have their own pathos, their own ways of coping. And watching these diminutive figures crawling past the hulk of beached ships (stranded hundreds of feet past the shoreline) you can’t help but ask: what’s everyone else doing? Where’s the government in all this? Millions in aid according to the news, and months later the city’s still half-drowned in mud. Diaz doesn’t give us any answers, doesn’t have to; the wordless questions posed by his lens are power enough for any one film.

1 The Assassin

The Assassin
The Assassin

Hou Hsiao Hsien’s first-ever wuxia isn’t grand opera like Zhang Yimou’s Hero, or blandly tasteful like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (a.k.a. “Introduction to Chop-Sockey 101”); Hou’s wuxia (which he dreamed of making even before he became a director) is far more personal, far more perverse: a sword-fighting film that’s also unapologetically a Hou Hsiao Hsien film.

Not that it doesn’t have its genre pleasures — the occasional fight sequences are quick and brutal (much like real fights), and breathtaking only if you’re sharp enough to suss out the choreography (at one point the eponymous killer Nie Yinniang — Shu Qi — disarms a swordsman with what looks like an extra pirouette and a twist of her limbs; you might need to rewind several times on DVD to really appreciate the move). But Hou above all is about mood and character study: the extraordinary intimacy for example between Governor Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen) and his concubine Huji (Hsieh Hsin-Ying); or Yinniang standing trial before her masters — her posture defiant without her saying a word. Wonderful new work from one of the greatest of Chinese filmmakers, and in my book the film of the year.