The Year in Review Is Not Just About New Movies; 14 Older Films I Discovered in 2014

By  · Published on December 19th, 2014

Like every December, FSR is devoting numerous posts to the very best and worst (but mostly best) that 2014 had to offer at the movies. But as movie fans, we don’t only see movies that were released in the year we see them – we might dig into classics and curiosities via online streaming, repertory showings, or simple chance encounters.

Year-end lists may summarize the breadth of movies released in theaters throughout the calendar year, but they don’t necessarily reflect the yearly consumption of a dedicated movie fan. To many movie lovers, going to a movie theater can be surprisingly rare, and watching movies follows less of a calendar schedule and works a bit more like time travel: one day you’re in 2014, and the next you’re in 1940s war-torn Rome, followed by a brief stint in the 1970s Australian outback, and then back to the present again.

For some of you, 2014 may have had little to do with your movie experience in 2014. So I’ve again concocted an alternative year-end list: the 14 most memorable movies I saw in 2014 that weren’t actually released this year. Not necessarily the best, but the movies that most surprised me – the movies that reminded me that no matter how many you’ve seen, there’s still another worthwhile surprise out there, and even an older film that speaks profoundly to our present.

But rather than simply navel-gaze at my own movie habits and tastes, I want to hear from you: what are the most memorable non-2014 movie discoveries you made this year?

Rome Open City (1945)

A film that I certainly should have seen far sooner, Roberto Rossellini’s Rome Open City is one of many essential films in the storied tradition of Italian neo-Realism. A brutal depiction of the German occupation of Rome and the Nazis’ violent ridding of Italian Communists filmed on the recent ruins of the last days of that very war, Rome Open City maintains a palpable and affecting sense of immediacy almost seventy years after its release. Historically speaking, it’s perhaps the most consequential display of how injustice can be represented onscreen.

Available to stream via Hulu Plus.

The Trip (1967)

The conceit informing this Roger Corman film is deceivingly simple: Peter Fonda (playing a TV commercial director enduring a breakup) drops acid, with a friend (played by Bruce Dern) as his guide. But after his guide ill-advisedly turns his back, what ensues is a hilarious yet surprisingly tense romp through late-night Los Angeles, with Fonda’s gleeful and earnest under-the-influence grin leading the way. An exploitation film that ends up ultimately as a simple statement on friendship and appreciating the moment, The Trip is perhaps the most feel-good of Corman’s substantial oeuvre.

Available to stream via Amazon and iTunes.

Festival (1967)

Films about late-60s music festivals like Monterey Pop, Woodstock, and Altamont in Gimme Shelter are often thought of as landmark depictions of the arc of the American counterculture, but Murray Lerner’s portrait of the Newport Folk Festival between 1963 and 1966 gives a layered, complex insight into what it meant to use music as a political device even before those ceaselessly mythologized late-decade events. Like looking into a keyhole at a youth culture over fifty years ago, Festival is a remarkably rich and straightforward examination of musicians and their adherents figuring out what it all means and anticipating the next step. Come for the masterful non-fiction filmmaking, stay for the performances by Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez, Donovan, Son House, and Dylan going electric.

Available via DVD.

Little Big Man (1970)

Arthur Penn’s adaptation of Thomas Berger’s novel might be the most underrated of the New Hollywood era’s great anti-westerns. But if it’s not the most overlooked, it’s certainly the most epic. Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabb, a settler taken in by a Native American tribe who can thus move at his convenience between the worlds of the colonizers and the colonized. Organized as a sort-of Forrest Gump of the Old West without the stagnating romanticism around American history, Crabb’s witnessing of a great many totems in the story of Western expansion allows the film to incisively undercut myths around American civilization and manifest destiny with wry intelligence.

Available via DVD.

Wake in Fright (1971)

Two years ago, Drafthouse Films distributed this previously little-known entry into the Ozploitation canon, and what a find it is. Gary Bond stars as a schoolteacher in rural Australia who stays overnight in an Outback town nicknamed “The Yabba” on his way to Christmas holiday in Sydney, but one eventful evening at a bar turns into a seemingly ceaseless hell of alcoholism and violence, with Donald Pleasance giving a commanding turn as a hedonistic ringleader. Ted Kotcheff’s masterful sort-of anti-western makes peer pressure into a topic of genuine horror and somehow renders the expansive landscape of desert Australia into a claustrophobic nightmare.

Available to stream via Amazon and iTunes.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

This summer I revisited all the original Apes films in anticipation of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and this forth entry in the original series resonated with me far longer than Matt Reeves’s functional sequel. A thematic inspiration for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Conquest introduces Caesar (Roddy McDowall), son of Cornelius and Zira, who must hide his intelligence in a dystopian society in which apes are enslaved. But his oppression inevitably brings him to start a mass ape rebellion. A supposed kids’ film wielding a sledgehammer of allegorical weight, the film’s ending was so radical that it had to be re-cut in order to mute the image of a violent revolution. In a time where we expect our blockbusters to be overflowing with self-seriousness and political resonance, it’s easy to forget that franchises have been doing just that for a long time.

Available to stream via Amazon and iTunes.

Themroc (1973)

Over forty years before Godard bid goodbye to language, his Contempt star Michel Piccoli led this audacious French export about a blue collar worker who transforms into a screaming, laughing, grunting urban Neanderthal after one subjection too many. It’s unclear whether Claude Faraldo’s cult comedy is a provocative but muddled commentary on a revolutionary post-1968 France or simply a cinematic fantasy depicting a life outside the trappings of morality, compassion, and intelligence. But it does feature a scene in which a police officer is eaten.

Available to stream via YouTube.

Lisztomania (1975)

Released the same year as Tommy and the third entry in Ken Russell’s series of inventive composer biopics, Liszomania reimagines Franz Liszt as a 19th century rock star in the form of Roger Daltry. Probably Russell’s most excessive film (if you can believe it), the utterly batshit Lisztomania at some point does the following: briefly transforms into a Charlie Chaplin homage, features Ringo Starr as the Pope, contains a psychedelic hallucination sequence in which Liszt/Daltry rides a giant penis across a harem like a speed boat, and portrays artistic rival and anti-Semite Richard Wagner as a literal vampire/robot/proto-Nazi. The 1970s were truly a wonderful and fascinating time for making movies.

Available to stream via Amazon.

The American Friend (1977)

Our association with Matt Damon as Tom Ripley makes Apocalypse Now-era Dennis Hopper’s turn as Patricia Highsmith’s iconic literary character all the more bizarre and intriguing. A liberal adaptation of Ripley’s Game, Wim Wenders’ film positions Bruno Ganz and Hopper as one of cinema’s most counterintuitive and inspired partners in crime. This globe-trotting escapade is difficult to follow, but narrative development is beside the point in this impeccably shot, delightfully original, eccentrically paced, and entrancingly stylish New German Cinema entry. Bonus points to Wenders for casting both Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray in supporting roles.

Available via DVD.

Style Wars (1983)

This concise but rich documentary about graffiti artists in New York City altered the conversation about street art by presenting a portrait of urban residents’ self-expression in public spaces to counter knee-jerk narratives and stereotypes about gang associations, public defacement, and moral degradation. Tony Silver’s film can not only be seen as a harbinger of change in the way we see street art, but also a time capsule that showed how the aesthetics, style, and politics associated with hip-hop were hardly resigned to be a passing fad.

Available to stream via iTunes.

Streets of Fire (1984)

I’m probably the last to the party when it comes to loving this film, but Walter Hill’s beloved cult film that’s part rock ’n’ roll musical, part moving image map of a dystopian alt-universe New York, and part heightened noir is one of the freest and most entertaining studio-made movie experiences I had this year. It’s rare to see a film so surprising and so passionately unafraid to be the balls-out vision it wants to be. I like to imagine an alternative 1980s in which Streets of Fire was Ghostbusters-level successful.

Available to stream via Amazon and iTunes.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

I blame the way it was advertised, but for decades I dismissed Hoop Dreams as a nonfiction take on a generic sports movie formula. So I was floored when I saw the exact opposite: not an inspiring “you can achieve” drama of received wisdom, but a Dickensian examination of what happens when the sports industry and the myths of sport success meet the hard realities of living with severely limited socioeconomic opportunities in the poor African American neighborhoods of Chicago. Epic and tragic, yet somehow still affirming without manipulation or easy answers, Hoop Dreams proves to be one of the most searing and revealing documentaries of the past quarter century by pulling the curtain of the cost behind a lucrative institution that receives almost unquestioned veneration.

Available to stream via Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

With recent cinematic excursions outside of his home country of Iran in the forms of Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, it would seem that Abbas Kiarostami has entered a stage of his career that finds the director exploring new territory. But The Wind Will Carry Us (his first film after his Palme d’Or win for Taste of Cherry) works as something of a perfect summation and demonstration of his concerns as director: exploring how people handle events as they unfold in real time, through big and small moments, with themselves and others operating under fractions of information. The selective ways in which Kiarostami uses his camera has always been revealing in terms of how much it limits and highlights, and this 15-year-old feature (recently remastered by Cohen Media) is one of the most artful exhibitions of his one-of-a-kind means of looking through the lens.

Available to stream via Amazon and iTunes.

The Yards (2000)

Having never seen a James Gray film in advance of The Immigrant (which turned out to be one of 2014’s best films), I spent a few weeks exploring his non-prolific but impressive body of work. The Gray film that surprised me most was this sophomore effort about an ex-con (Mark Wahlberg) hoping to reform himself in the subway train business with the help of a duplicitous family connection (Joaquin Phoenix). The film’s narrative plotting is well-tread, but the built-in familiarity works wonders in The Yards’s favor, for Gray’s style is thoroughly indebted to the shared likes of Sidney Lumet and the European arthouse, expertly crafted to give the impression of a work made well outside the 21st century. With its perfect execution of storytelling patience and detailed understanding of setting, The Yards (not to mention Gray’s other films) strikingly demonstrates how they don’t make them like they used to.

Available to stream via Netflix, Amazon, and iTunes.