Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Films of the Year 2014

Every year I forget what a struggle writing this list is, but I've finally finished it. 

As I don't write regular reviews on this blog, I have very little to go on other than my rather flawed memory, which causes a fair amount of problems when looking back to the earlier months of the year.  This can lead to my list weighing heavily in favour of films released in the second half of the year, but I think that I've managed to keep it fairly balanced this year. Hopefully 2015 will be the year that I get back to writing regular posts. 

These are the films that have had the greatest impact on me personally over the past year, so they're not necessarily the greatest movies of the past twelve months, but a collection of recommendations.  Over the years my review of the year has become unintentionally verbose, so I've aimed for brevity this time, which I hope should make this a more concise and helpful read. As usual any feedback and discussion is welcome. 

Disclaimer! - Many other films of the year lists will contain films yet to be released in the UK. I don't include these in mine, even if I've seen them at preview screenings. We usually get these films in January and February, so there's lots to look forward to early in the year. This year those films include "Enemy" (2nd January), "Foxcatcher" (9th January), "Whiplash" (16th January, which I saw at a preview and loved), "A Most Violent Year" (23rd January), PT Anderson's latest "Inherent Vice"(30th January)"Big Hero 6" (30th January) and a little bit later in the year "Force Majeure" (10th April).  A number of notable films are still awaiting a UK release date; "Snowpiercer", "Listen Up Phillip", "Dear White People" and "The Tale of Princess Kaguya".

This years Trends - subtle sci-fi, great soundtracks, sexual encounters

10. Nymphomaniac Volumes 1 and 2
(I saw the two films in one showing so I'm counting them as one)

Lars Von Trier's latest offering goes from the sublime to the ridiculous to the just plain awful. Over two hundred and forty minutes it's not surprising that the quality control is often a bit all over the place, but overall the film has enough style and gusto in it's best scenes to drag you through the terrible ones. The sex obviously caused a lot of controversy and grabbed all the headlines, but I didn't find it too gratuitous, always serving the story. At it's best it is well acted, memorable and thought provoking in a way films are. However o
n the downside, this film features Shia LeBeouf using the worst accent I've ever heard. Even now I'm not sure what country he was meant to be from.   

9. Under the Skin

Early buzz had raised my expectations to unreasonable levels when I first saw "Under the Skin", so it is included only after a second viewing.  I now appreciate this slow and subtle sci-fi film a lot more, especially the visual links between the themes in the first and second acts of the story. Filmed in a unique way in and around Glasgow, making full use of hidden cameras in the early parts of the film, and with many disturbing but beautiful scenes (especially the beachside incident), director Jonathan Glazer explores humanity from the view point of the aliens, creating a distant unflinching tone. I think it's best to go into this film knowing as little as possible, so I won't say too much except to say that Scarlett Johansson is excellent in the main role as we see her character develop through her experiences on Earth. The film also features my favourite opening sequence of the year, with it's abstract sounds and shapes setting the tone to follow.

8. Calvary

A fascinating look at morality and religion, carried off in emotional yet darkly comedic fashion. A harder watch than McDonagh's previous film "The Guard", which also starred the fantastic Brendan Gleeson, the movie winds its way through a rogues' gallery of potential murderers (all played by wonderful character actors, such as Dylan Moran), one of whom has threatened to kill a good priest in revenge for the actions of a bad one. This priest must look to his past and to his future to decide what his life has meant and what his (and all priests') purpose in modern society is, as the clock counts down on his life. 

7. Guardians of the Galaxy/Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Choosing two films here is, of course, a complete cheat. However I'm a big fan of both movies and find it interesting how they complement each other in Marvel's ever expanding universe. Whilst "The Winter Soldier" is Marvel's best attempt at combining long-form multi-movie storytelling with a satisfying singular film, "Guardian's of the Galaxy" finds them expanding their stories into interstellar sci-fi. Both films hope to widen their appeal past the norms of the superhero genre, as Marvel must do to survive as people tire of their tried and tested formula. "The Winter Soldier" is superhero film as paranoid spy thriller with the interplay between 
Captain America, Black Widow and Falcon creating the feel of a buddy cop movie. The film also really moves the overall story arc on by destroying the status quo of previous Marvel universe films. "Guardians of the Galaxy" meanwhile is a fun space romp littered with oddities that make it a joy to watch. Chris Pratt leads a fresh comedic cast who flesh out a diverse team of misfits that includes an angry talking Raccoon and anthropomorphic tree. This is all aided by an excellent retro soundtrack that tonally binds the disparate elements together.

6. Her

Handled perfectly by Spike Jonze, who takes a somewhat goofy subject and creates a subtle and heartfelt film. As Joaquin Phoenix falls for his operating system (voiced by Scarlet Johansson) it feels more like a genuine love story than a gimmick and offers a thoughtful reflection on our contemporary relationship with technology and how this might progress in the future. The story also does well to avoid saccharine cliches and builds to a believable and satisfying finale. I was also impressed with the holistic approach that Jonze takes in building his futuristic world, with gradual and believable progress not only shown in the use of technology, but extended into possible architecture and fashion (this future features high waisted trousers and ubiquitous moustaches).

5. Frank

Loosely based on Jon Ronson's time in a band with Frank Sidebottom, director Lenny Abrahamson creates a powerful look at mental illness yet retains a light comedic touch throughout. This tonal balance is an impressive feat, which is aided greatly by top performances from it's cast. Michael Fassbender is, of course, brilliant as the titular Frank, despite having his face covered behind a mask for pretty much the entirety of the film, but my favourite performance comes from Scoot McNairy who enhances any film he graces. Like many other films this year, it also has a great soundtrack with the finale song cutting to the emotional core of the movie.

4. '71

The most consistently intense film of the year, "'71" harnesses the burgeoning star power of Jack O'Connel in a frightening look back at the violent conflict in Northern Ireland. O'Connel's soldier must survive in an inhospitable area of Belfast after his unit leaves him behind during a riot, unsure of where to run or who to trust. This distrust between the two sides leads to horrific acts that haunt both O'Connel's lost soldier and, more deeply, the community that lives in this area of Dublin. This compelling film on a recent dark time in the nation's history is enlightening to those who know little about these times and serves to remind us all of the past mistakes that lead to such violence.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

A kind of comedic, slow-burn, existential horror movie, this is the Coens in "Barton Fink" mode with the added bonus of a beautiful soundtrack. The film follows the hapless Llewyn Davis as his poor decisions lead him to deeper and deeper failure. Whilst funny (especially the "Please Mr Kennedy" song) it has the creeping fear of failure woven throughout. The Coens are great at exploring artistic failure and the fine line between that and success and this film painfully follows Llewyn's attempts to thrive artistically and not just exist. It's also a film that really rewards repeat viewings as its ambiguity allows for multiple readings of its meaning (it's worth googling some fan theories). 

2. The LEGO Movie

A film so full of exuberant fun and energy that it's like pure, bottled childhood enthusiasm. Creating such a great movie when the base concept called for just one long advert is another great achievement for directors Lord and Miller, who excel at turning improbable concepts into winning films. This visually inventive film manages to capture the battle between structure and freedom that is key to LEGO's popularity and place it at the centre of its fun filled story. Astounding animation brings this all to life and whilst I'm not so crazy about the live action sections (as they break the momentum that has thrilled throughout), they do bring an emotional heft to the movie that perhaps it need to avoid being too light and frothy.

1. Ida

At the opposite end of the movie scale to the exuberant "LEGO Movie" is "Ida", a small, quiet, black and white film about Wanda, a trainee nun exploring her past in nineteen-sixties Poland. Director Pawel Pawlikowski uses Wanda's journey to explore the broken communities left behind by Nazi occupation, exposing dark secrets and fractured families. Agata Kulesza's contemplative Wanda is perfectly juxtaposed with her expressive and explosive aunt Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) and the interplay between the two forms the backbone of the film.  Beautifully shot, heartbreaking scenes intermingle with touching scenes of love and humour.  A personal story brimming with wider issues, this is brilliant movie storytelling.

Worthy Mentions
Not quite on the main list...
Nightcrawler - Incredibly close to making the main list, this is a gripping movie that exposes the dark heart of capitalism. Jake Gyllenhlall is fantastic in the lead role.
Only Lovers Left Alive - Another outstanding soundtrack. Jim Jarmusch's cooler than cool modern vampire tale is brimming with interesting takes on Nosferatu cliches. Very close to being in my top ten, you'll never cast better vampires than Tom Hiddleston and the imperious Tilda Swinton.
Grand Budapest Hotel - Another lovely Wes Anderson film, with added historical heft. This would make my top ten most years, but my love of his previous movie, "Moonrise Kingdom", probably diminished this film's achievements for me.
22 Jump Street - A triumphant follow up to an improbable hit, this very funny self aware sequel only lost out on being in my top ten due to the presence of another Miller and Lord film, "The LEGO Movie".
Jodorowsky's Dune - A great documentary about one of my favourite film makers, but it was on my 2013 list.
Whiplash - I loved this film and it would have featured near the top of my 2014 list, but as I saw it at a preview and it doesn't go on general release in the UK until 2014, it'll have to wait until next year.
The Double - Another impressive film from Richard Ayoade, but its visuals skewed a little too much towards copying "Brazil" when it would have been more interesting if it had its own unique look.
Blue Ruin - Jeremy Saulnier's revenge drama does a great job of examining the ramifications of revenge. When perpetrated by an average joe, violent retribution doesn't work out like it does in your average action movie. 
American Hustle - A really fun long-con film with a fantastic cast.
Boyhood - A fantastic achievement and brilliantly acted. However, I found the teenage years dragged on a bit and I was a little distracted as the lead actor grew into someone who looked exactly like one of my old school friends.
Starred Up - Another showcase for Jack O'Connel's macho acting talents. An intense prison drama with great support from the menacing Ben Mendelsohn.
Gone Girl - A surprisingly funny thriller (albeit in dark fashion) from David Fincher. 
Pride - Full of cliches, but great performances from a fantastic cast lift this heartwarming tale to another level.
The Guest - Retro horror with a stand out performance from Dan Stevens, shaking off his "Downton" baggage as a psychotic young man bringing trouble to a small town.
We Are the Best! Lukas Moodyson's warm storytelling finds a great subject in this coming-of-age tale about a group of young punks growing up in 80's Stockholm. 
Neighbors - One of the best comedies of the year. Zach Efron's muscle bound jock battles young parents Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne. 
Dallas Buyers Club - A touching and brilliantly acted film.
Wolf of Wall Street - Very entertaining, but it fell a little flat for me in the final half hour.

Worth a Watch
Films worth a look -
"12 Years a Slave", "The Babadook", "20,000 Days on Earth", "The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld", "X-Men: Days of Future Past", "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)", "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes", "Mr. Turner", "Life Itself", "How to Train Your Dragon 2", "Chef", "Noah", "A Field in England", "The Trip To Italy", "The Imitation Game"

Interstellar - It seems your enjoyment of this film is dependent on the size of the screen and sound system. I saw the film on a modest screen where the deficiencies in script could not be overcome by bombast. As a massive fan of all Nolan's films up until the messy "The Dark Knight Rises", I'm still hoping for a return to form.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - While I generally enjoyed the film and it was technically brilliant, the story was cliched and talked down to it's audience.
Godzilla - Like "Interstellar", my enjoyment seems to have been hampered by a quiet screening where the audio couldn't sweep me off my feet. While beautifully filmed, the convoluted plot line and bland characters didn't appeal to me.
Locke - This film opened to almost universally positive reviews, but I didn't find it engaging at all. I'd rather re-watch Rob Brydon's similar, yet brilliant, "Marion and Geoff".
X-Men: Days of Future Past - Entertaining, but for a film designed to free the franchise of its numerous missteps, it seemed to leave plenty of its own problems behind. The Quicksilver scene was one of the best of the year however.
The Babadook - I really enjoyed the film, but the central monster looked so much like the Hitcher from "The Mighty Boosh" that it was hard to be scared of it. 
12 Years a Slave - Whilst I admired the film greatly, I felt it lacked the feeling of time passing, which diminished the effect of his long years of trauma. 
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - This franchise is such a mess, not even Emma Stone could save it.

Probably Not Worth a Watch
"Dom Hemingway"

The ones that got away...
In an ideal world, I would have seen these too -
"Night Moves", "The Rover", "John Wick", "The Skeleton Twins", "Get on Up", "Lucy", "The Wind Rises", "Cold in July", "The Muppets: Most Wanted", "The Raid 2: Berandal", "A Most Wanted Man", "Leviathan", "Two Days, One Night"

Hope you enjoyed reading my breakdown, Happy New Year!
2013 Update
The ones I caught up with that I missed last year...

"Monsters University", "G.I Joe Retaliation", "Mud", "The Bling Ring", "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug", "The Great Gatsby" 

The ones I didn't...
"Evil Dead", "Fast and Furious 6", "The Purge", "Europa Report", "Pain and Gain", "No", "Beyond the Hills", "Good Vibrations", "Spring Breakers", "A Touch of Sin", "The Selfish Giant", "Norte, The End of History", "Stranger by the Lake", "The Hunt", "Rush, Filth", "What Richard Did", "We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks", "The Impossible", "Caesar Must Die", "Wrong", "All is Lost"

Last Years Top Ten
10. Cloud Atlas
09. Upstream Color
08. Jodorowsky's Dune
07. Zero Dark Thirty
06. Frances Ha
05. Short Term 12
04. The Act of Killing
03. Much Ado About Nothing
02. In a World...
01. Gravity