Pin It
Scarlett Johansson lures men into oozing black voids in Jonathan Glazer's hauntingly strange Under the SkinCourtesy of Film4

The top 20 arthouse films of 2014

Bogeymen, carnal encounters and alien invasions – we explore the darkest corners of this year's leftfield cinema releases

From the epic head-fuckery of InterstellarChristopher Nolan’s spectacle of wormholes and gravitational ghosts, to the debauched onslaught of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, there was a load to love in blockbuster fare this year. But forget that for a minute. As the fanfare around big releases sometimes drowns out smaller, less commercial oddities, we’re shining a light on a stellar year for arthouse films – some of which even pulled off big hype all their own.


Shia LaBeouf amped up the creepiness with Stacy Martin in an office elevator for this catalogue of carnal encounters, which director Lars von Trier says is the only film he’s penned when not off his head. Though the notorious Danish maestro of dysfunction is back in the news sharing his fears that he’s got no more ideas left in him now that he's sober, irreverent sex-addict epic Nymphomaniac was boldly original and impishly transgressive enough to show that he’s still on top form.


Michel Houellebecq is the current-day badass of the French literary world, and in this odd, blackly funny blend of reality and provocation, he plays himself as a chain-smoking, boozy sack of misanthropy who’s a nightmare captive for some kidnappers. The writer really vanished a few years back when promoting his art-world satire The Map and the Territory, and director Guillaume Nicloux’s take on the disappearance will make any schemer think twice about the size of their target’s ego before pulling anything.


There were a bunch of great music docs this year (special shout-out also to The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s portrait of riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna) but directing duo Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth really took the rock bio into innovative arthouse terrain with their take on Nick Cave. The Aussie visionary is an advocate of the untouchable, larger-than-life grandeur of rock stars past, and this doc makes such big-man posturing its compelling mystery, even enlisting a bona-fide Freudian analyst to quiz Cave on stage transformation.

Read our Q&A from Berlin on the film here


If the Hollywood blockbuster is fast food, then indie directing legend Richard Linklater’s latest is one long and languid lunch. His sprawling portrait of American youth was 12 years in the making, with the actors brought together to shoot once every year and a wealth of pop-culture detail marking the era-specific passage of time as we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up from schooldays in Austin to college, negotiating the fall-out from the toxic relationships of his mum (Patricia Arquette) along the way.

Revisit our interview with Coltrane and Linklater here


Russia’s Oscar entry from leading directing talent Andrei Zvyagintsev has been hailed by many as a masterpiece – and a rare middle-finger to the country’s repressive censorhip system given the film doesn’t hold back on portraying a nation buckling under widespread corruption. The majestic, bitingly sardonic epic, shot through with biblical symbolism, betrayal and gallons of vodka, depicts the battle of a hotheaded peninsula local to prevent his life from unravelling when the mayor decides to seize his house and land.


“You can kiss my narcissistic ass,” Xavier Dolan responded in a tweet to one critic who slated Tom at the Farm as self-obsessed. And the French-Canadian director has got talent in spades to back up his swagger. The gorgeously shot film – with a killer soundtrack by Gabriel Yared – is a departure into psychological thriller territory for Dolan, but is still stamped with his energetic pop-savvy flair. He also stars as Tom, an advertising copywriter who is plunged into a family’s dark secrets when he travels to the countryside for the funeral of his boyfriend Guillaume. It’s kept us on edge for the director’s upcoming latest, Mommy, which stars Dazed 100 actor Antoine Olivier Pilon.


Maverick director Jia Zhangke’s explosive, bloody masterpiece is a brave depiction of citizens lashing out against corruption and desperation in a modern China gripped by capitalism, and a timely blueprint of tech-transforming rebellion. Executed with the hard-ass flair of wuxia vigilante tales, the episodic film is based on four real-life violent incidents – including a pedicure worker who stabbed a sleazeball official – that had created uproar after word got out on microblogging site and alternative news source Weibo. 

Revisit our interview with Jia Zhangke on how the film came together here


Like Bowie in 80s cult classic The Hunger (1983), Tilda Swinton’s svelte otherworldliness and effortless cool make her perfectly cast as rock’n’roll blood-sucker Eve in Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse take on the vampire genre. Eve’s been married for centuries to a jaded, reclusive musician with a fellow blood dependency, and as the outside world – and the arrival from LA of her reckless younger sister – impinges on their Detroit mansion and a supply drought threatens, desperate measures call.

Revisit our interview with the director here


The horror genre is taken Down Under and given an atmospheric imprint all its own in Jennifer Kent’s terrifying, gothic-tinged debut. As a sinister children’s pop-up book threatens a household in the Adelaide suburbs with visitations from a top-hatted bogeyman, six-year-old Samuel arms himself with DIY weapons – to the exasperation of his long-suffering single mother, who finds it hard to keep the family unrest from the judgmental eyes of the conformist community.


Also taking the domestic into the realm of the seriously eerie, Joanna Hogg gave us one of the freshest, most playfully experimental and funny Brit films of the year. Punk legend Viv Albertine plays a performance artist whose relationship with her more outwardly successful partner is in crisis, as they try to sell their home. The stark, modernist house becomes a haunting presence as miscommunication feeds neurotic meltdown.


The Dardenne brothers have always got their fingers on the pulse of social reality. The Belgian directing duo make a contrived, melodramatic dilemma work as they tap our harsh economic climate to draw a shattering performance from Marion Cotillard. She plays a factory worker who, after a bout of depression, finds her manipulative employer has given her colleagues the option of a cash bonus if she’s made redundant – forcing her into a nail-biting weekend of house-calling to change their minds.


Alain Giraudie’s French arthouse thriller is one of the most daringly original – and explicit – takes on desire and risk we’ve seen in ages. Even before it hit UK screens it was getting the prudish hot under the collar, with distributor Peccadillo ordered to cover up the nudes in their advertising posters with shorts. The film sees a cruising spot regular (Pierre Deladonchamps) fall for one of his hook-ups (Christophe Paou) – even after he witnesses him drowning somebody. Cue all sorts of psychological turmoil.

Revisit our interview with the director here


Ben Whishaw plays Richard, who tries to process his grief over the recent death of his boyfriend Kai (Andrew Leung) by connecting with his Mandarin-speaking mother in director Hong Khaou’s dreamy debut feature. The film is set in a retirement home with retro 50s decor designed to remind the inhabitants of their youth, and netted a cinematography award at Sundance for its evocative look.

Revisit our interview with the director here


My Summer of Love (2004) director Pawel Pawlikowski went back to his Polish roots for this stunningly framed, multi-layered film of black-and-white imagery that recalls old-school European arthouse elegance. Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an 18-year-old who has grown up in a convent and seeks out her aunt before becoming a nun. Wanda (Agata Kulesza) is a hard-partying former state prosecutor whose startling revelations about Ida’s past and Poland’s troubled history come in fragments, complicating this odd pairing – and Ida’s future – even more.

Revisit our interview with the director here


“Cinema-sorcery” is how filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell describe their most recent collaboration, a three-act film threaded through with mystical symbols that’s the most experimental oddity we caught this year on UK release. It stars Chicago musician Robert AA Lowe, who is shown drifting round northern Europe – at a shaman-run commune in Estonia hanging with pseudo-hippies, in the Finnish wilderness, at a Norwegian black metal gig – as he searches for some version of utopia in secular times.


“Don't you know who I am?” grunts a semi-naked Gerard Depardieu in this canny take on the allegations that France’s disgraced IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn tried to rape a hotel maid. Known for his vibrantly lurid indies of the mad acting bad, director Abel Ferrara doesn’t hold back on the gross-out factor of loathsome behaviour of his subject, but beyond mere spectacle offers psychological food for thought on the self-rationalising delusions of the utterly unaccountable.

Revisit our interview with the director from Vienna here


As revitalisingly sweet as his classic Lilya 4-Ever (2002) was soul-destroyingly bleak, but still with a glint of fierceness at its heart, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s irreverent charmer is based on a comic by his wife Coco about her punk childhood. It follows three schoolgirls in 80s Stockholm (played by talented newcomers Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) who form a punk band and are determined to make it – despite not knowing how to play any instruments, and being surrounded by macho haters.

Revisit our interview with the director here


No one does crazy quite like Kim Ki-duk, the prolific South Korean provocateur whose films are often as sumptuous-looking as they are brutal. His grotesque, rhythmically hypnotic Freudian ballet Moebius delivered on his rep and more. The most off-the-charts bizarre movie we subjected our eyeballs to this year, it’s a sustained hysterical outpouring buoyed by absurdist humour that, with next to no dialogue, swoons around a warped family triangle of incest and castration.


Darkly loopy and totally idiosyncratic, Benedikt Erlingsson’s feature debut plays out against the sublime, forbidding landscapes of Iceland. Alcohol binges and the cruel disregard of nature feed into humiliating or life-threatening predicaments for a small community in this episodic black comedy. The primal desires of locals as seen through the doleful eyes of their horses show humans and beasts are not so different in the wider scheme of life and death.


Jonathan Glazer, who also directed unclassifiably weird Nicole Kidman number Birth (2004), gave us a hauntingly strange yet raw, naturalistic take on the sci-fi genre – and a stellar role to Scarlett Johansson. She plays a seductive yet emotionally blank alien who drives round the Scottish Highlands in a van, luring men into an oozing black void. Explanatory plot details are thin, but this stunner’s got atmosphere in spades.

Revisit our longread interview with Johansson in Paris here