Here are my top ten:
1. The Fool [Дурак] (dir. Юрий Быков, Russia). A perfect movie about a powerless hero frustrated by the indifference and corruption of those in power. The plot synopsis of this film sounds contrived, but the movie unfolds with disturbing plausibility. The film had me transfixed, the moral stakes keep rising as Dima Nikitin (the ironically titular “fool”) tries to persuade the civic leaders to save 820 lives by evacuating a building, even though no alternate accommodations are available. There are some obvious analogies to environmental issues like climate change (indeed, this movie could have been titled “An Inconvenient Truth” if that title was not already taken) or more directly, the mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ontario, a couple of years ago. Artyom Bystrov deservedly won the best actor prize at the Locarno Film Festival, and all of the supporting performances are also excellent, especially the unforgettable mayor who goes by the nickname “Mama”. The Fool (and not Leviathan, which I found very disappointing) ought to be the Russian film everyone is talking about this year. This film has so many nice touches and surprises, I am keen to seek out Yuri Bykov's previous work.
2. Still Life (dir. Uberto Pasolini, UK/Italy). The tour-de-force performance by veteran character actor Eddie Marsan ought to win an Academy Award. For some reason, Marsan has never even been nominated for a BAFTA. Still Life was the first movie I saw at VIFF this year (during the press screenings) and it set the bar incredibly high. Fascinating and heart-breaking, an absolute gem.
3. Winter Sleep [Kış Uykusu] (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/France/Germany). The festival circuit this year is marked by filmgoers simultaneously bragging and complaining about having seen a “three-hour Turkish movie”. It won the Palme d'Or and may well get two or three Oscar nominations; in my opinion deservedly so. Despite its length Winter Sleep is not boring at all, every minute has something to hold your eye and your mind. This film has the most remarkable lighting I have ever seen in a digitally-shot movie, outdoor scenes of mountains and snow and indoor scenes of warm hearths. I am not generally a fan of long movies (I’ve even been known to fall asleep) but at Winter Sleep I did not want it to end, and I intend to watch it again when it is theatrically released.
4. In Order of Disappearance [Kraftidioten] (dir. Hans Petter Moland, Norway/Sweden/Denmark). On my top ten list for 2010, Moland’s previous film A Somewhat Gentle Man was number 6. In Order of Disappearance is equally good. (The great Stellan Skarsgård stars in both films.) Hans Petter Moland is another director whose previous films I need to seek out. In Order of Disappearance is a crime thriller about an ordinary man who, having just won citizen of the year, sets out on a murderous rampage against a dangerous gang of drug dealers.
5. 24 Days [24 jours, la vérité sur l'affaire Ilan Halimi] (dir. Alexandre Arcady, France). A harrowing dramatization of the kidnapping in Paris of Jewish cell-phone-store manager Ilan Halimi, 24 Days pulls no punches. Great performances by Zabou Breitman and Pascal Elbé as Ilan’s parents, and Jacques Gamblin as the police commandant heading the investigation.
6. Force Majeure [Turist] (dir. Ruben Östlund, Sweden/Denmark/Norway). This is the movie I was most looking forward to at VIFF, because of how great Ruben Östlund’s previous film (Play) was (#5 on my top 10 of 2011). Although not as unconventional as Play, Force Majeure is a terrific movie that asks whether the split-second decision you make in a crisis is a truer reflection of your character than your behaviour the rest of the time. Reminded me in a way of The Loneliest Planet.
7. Haemoo (dir. Shim Sungbo, South Korea). Based on a tragedy that occurred in 1998, Haemoo (Korean for “sea mist”) is a gripping, tense film that takes place almost entirely on a fishing trawler that is smuggling migrants from China. The action sequences are so compelling that it’s hard to believe Shim Sung Bo is a first-time director. This film could be a surprise nominee for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar this year.
8. The Infinite Man (dir. Hugh Sullivan, Australia). I am an aficionado of time-travel movies, and this is the best I’ve seen since Primer. With just three actors, The Infinite Man is endearing, entertaining, and funny, while still rigorously adhering to its time-travel logic. At least I think it does; I’ll want one more viewing to make sure! The film has played numerous festivals in the US, Australia, and elsewhere, and has various reviews online as well as some feature articles (e.g. search), but I can’t find any spoiler-heavy analysis and discussion by science-fiction nerds, which is what this film really calls out for. (See, for example, the very serious dissections at Temporal Anomalies in Time Travel Movies.) But you don’t need to be a science-fiction nerd to like this film. It also works as a romantic comedy, which can be appreciated without understanding all the details of the complex plot.
9. Class Enemy [Razredni sovražnik] (dir. Rok Biček, Slovenia). Of the few Slovenian films I have seen over the years, this one is the best. Class Enemy is one of a few teacher/student films that played at VIFF 2014 (including the excellent Behavior, which would have been on this list except that I saw it at TIFF, not VIFF). Class Enemy begins with a popular high-school teacher going on mat leave, to be replaced by a teacher whose style is rather more hard-edged and traditional. Eventually, due to plot developments that I won’t spoil, the students in his homeroom class mount a rebellion against him. The film is an engrossing drama that has won at least a dozen awards at various European film festivals. It would make a good double bill with Monsieur Lazhar.
10. Human Capital [Il capitale umano] (dir. Paolo Virzì, Italy/France). I loved this film, which has an unconventional, tripartite narrative structure along the lines of Mystery Train or Congorama, two of my all-time favourite films. An Italian film based on an American novel, Human Capital is likeable enough to have an outside chance at an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Honourable mentions (alphabetically): Elephant Song (dir. Charles Binamé); Field of Dogs [Onirica - Psie Pole] (dir. Lech Majewski); Hope and Wire: Part 1 (dir. Gaylene Preston); Infinitely Polar Bear (dir. Maya Forbes); The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir (dir. Mike Fleiss); The Salt of the Earth [Le Sel de la Terre] (dirs. Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado); Sorrow and Joy [Sorg og glæde] (dir. Nils Malmros); Two Step (dir. Alex R. Johnson); Violent (dir. Andrew Huculiak); You’re Sleeping Nicole [Tu dors Nicole] (dir. Stéphane Lafleur); and Zero Motivation [אפס ביחסי אנוש] (dir. Talya Lavie).
I walked out of just one film (Maps to the Stars) and fell asleep during only three (Nuoc 2030, Goodbye to Language 3D, and We Come as Friends).
I am still puzzling about why The Vancouver Asahi won the main audience award at VIFF. I thought the film was just okay; it was interesting to see the reproduction of 1930s-era Vancouver but it did not look authentic, and the film was much too lengthy and slow-paced. There were many better films at VIFF. Most of the other winners of VIFF awards (listed here) I did not see.