best of 2014, comment, Movies

My favourite movies of 2014

Can we draw any conclusions about the state of film in 2014? More to the point can I? As I noted in my ‘most annoying films of 2014’ list, I am not a professional film critic and while I am privileged enough to see a lot of films at press screenings, as an enthusiastic semi-amateur I still see a lot on my own dollar. Like everyone else in these penny pinching times, that means I’m choosy. Even the pro-critics cannot hope to see the full range of movies released in the UK in each year, let alone all the movies that play festivals, or go direct to video (or whatever is your streaming option of choice). So I’m reticent to draw firm conclusions.

[But I’m obviously going to anyway.]

2014 has been a great year, but not for Hollywood. Forsaking entertainment for adults, the American studios chase an ever smaller audience demographic who may not even be interested in going to the cinema anymore. Indiewire’s Ted Hope recently published this depressing comment piece on some of the issues, mostly self created, facing the film industry right now.

Some of the 2014’s biggest films of 2014 have been seen by barely anyone I know. Transformers 4 made bazillions, but it is not a movie I could imagine anyone recommending to their gran. In a curious way, it’s a rather niche movie.

It is all too easy to feel discouraged, but the audience for more complex entertainments (what is a complex entertainment? If it doesn’t wear a cape that’s a tip-off) is still there and still hungry, something clearly not lost on the TV producers who are claiming this ground as their own. But film and TV are different mediums, with different approaches to story-telling. Television is by nature usually open ended and continuous, if a show is a hit, it can run and run. A film is far more finite (even if Hollywood is trying it’s best to turn film into TV by developing shared universe franchises).

It is clearly a very challenging and transitional time, many of the old business models are failing, and the relative ease with which subscribers to services such as Netflix can access international content and see smaller pictures before their domestic release is already having a detrimental impact upon independent distributors who have a hard enough time getting their wares into multiplexes as is.

Canny filmmakers, distributors, and exhibitors will find ways to create new opportunities and models for UK, independent and foreign language cinema or the art-form will wither. Perhaps the future of film is to become a niche art-form like opera? This doesn’t have to be the end of everything.

Against this backdrop of guarded pessimism there are still a few auteurs out there able to marshal significant budgets in service of more idiosyncratic visions, international cinema is vibrant, and British film has had a sensational year.

I have genuinely struggled to get a list down to 10, and have made some hard decisions, excluding the following films has pained my heart:

Blue Ruin; Coherence; The Raid 2; Grand Budapest Hotel; ’71; The Falling; Spring; We Are The Best; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Lilting; The Duke of Burgundy; Godzilla; Locke; Noah; and yes, Paddington.

Any of these could be included in the top 10 if I were to do it on another day and in a slightly different mood.

So [fanfare… drumroll…] without further ado here is the final list (in reverse order):

10 – Gone Girl

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David Fincher has a gift for keying into the zeitgeist, and this delightfully trashy, neo-noir dark comedy, caused much debate among the chattering classes. I lost count of the think-pieces penned to decry the film’s alleged misogyny, all failing to recognise that the film’s primary mood was a bitter equal opportunity misanthropy. In fact among its broad range of characters practically the only sympathetic ones were female (the sister and the detective).

A superbly convoluted thriller that was smart, subversive, and frequently hilarious, Gone Girl looked fantastic. The sly and often unsettling score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross was among the year’s best. Affleck hasn’t been as good since Chasing Amy, and Rosamund Pike played brilliantly against type.

9 – Birdman

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The director Alejandro González Iñárritu has not been known for comedy, so Birdman came as something of a surprise. Beneath its meta-textual flourishes and Walter Mitty-esque fantasy effects sequences, Birdman is an old fashioned theatrical farce.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan, a Hollywood actor famous for starring in a series of superhero films now attempting to reinvent himself by writing, directing and acting in a Broadway play based on stories by Raymond Carver. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. His co-star is hospitalised in an on-stage accident during rehearsals and is replaced by a brilliant but conceited method actor (Edward Norton, hilarious) who is in a fraught relationship with his lead actress (Naomi Watts). Riggan’s assistant is his daughter (Emma Stone) who is just out of rehab and hates him, and he is sleeping with one of the actresses (Angela Riseborough) who may be pregnant.

Frequently hilarious and technically amazing, some have seen the film’s single take conceit as indulgent, but I couldn’t imagine the film being shot in any other fashion. The long handheld shots gives the performances intimacy, impact, and is perfectly in keeping with the theatrical setting.

Where the film occasionally falls down is when it stretches for profundity, and I question if some of the effects sequences really add much. Ultimately Iñárritu struggles to reach a entirely satisfactory conclusion. Despite this Birdman is a richly entertaining comedy, stuffed with wonderful performances and witty dialogue.

8 – White God

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Essentially Spartacus with dogs, White God is the story of a family pet cast out into a cold and uncaring human world who unites the stray dogs of a Hungarian city to rise up against human oppression and cruelty. All the while he is being sought by the little girl who loves him.

Subtle it is not, but Kornél Mundruczó’s parable of civil rights and violent revolution contained some of the most striking images found in 2014’s cinema (the film’s opening and closing scenes are jaw-dropping).

A potent political allegory made all the stronger by its use of real animals rather than CGI, with canine action scenes the equal of any Hollywood thriller.

Read my full review on Verite

7 – Boyhood

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A long gestating project for Texas based filmmaker Richard Linklater; Boyhood is an intimate family drama charting the journey of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) across the spectral Rubicon that separates boy from man. Linklater shot the film over a 12 year period shooting a few weeks a year. This means that the cast ages before your eyes, haircuts change, bodies develop, fashions shift. Boyhood was sprawling but focused, and finds the profound in the ordinary minutiae of the everyday.

Very much a Linklater film, like the writer/director’s best work Boyhood is a movie in which characters talk and consider big questions about the nature of life.

Read my full review here

6 – Calvary

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John Michael McDonagh’s fabulous film was somewhat miss-sold coming off the festival circuit as a comedy. The first words spoken in the film are as shocking as any act of fictionalised screen violence this year. While his script is full of wit, the subject matter (child abuse and its consequences) was deadly serious.

Calvary was the year’s greatest western, albeit set in Ireland. Brendan Gleeson was monumental as a decent priest told during confession that he will be murdered in a week as retribution for a sexual assault perpetrated by a now deceased priest decades in the past.

A stark but beautiful film, superbly written and played, Calvary left me an emotionally devastated wreck.

5 – Interstellar

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Possibly more divisive than any previous film by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar was not without flaws, but in ambition and themes this epic yet intimate cosmic adventure stood in stark contrast to its contemporaries in a generally disappointing year for blockbusters. Matthew McConaughey led an excellent cast and again proved that he is among the most exciting American actors working today, elsewhere in the cast child actor McKenzie Foy was superb in a key role.

Christopher Nolan’s cinematic worlds have been a consistently dark (even in the piercing daylight of Insomnia), but despite grappling with the possible extinction of the human race Interstellar faced up to the future with optimism.

4 – Stranger by the Lake

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If Gone Girl explored noir gender tropes from a heterosexual angle, Alain Guiraudie’s incredible anti-thriller Stranger by the Lake provided a gay male spin. Challenging and confrontational from the start, the film was as bracingly explicit in its content as it was formally austere in its technique.

A mystery in which there was no mystery, a whodunit where the answer was never in question. Stranger by the Lake presented a clear and present danger, but did not try to be frightening in the debased, fairground manner of much modern horror. Instead it exploited the anticipation of catharsis, of violent release, extending this past the point of agony in a tantric dance of dread.

Read my full review here

3 – Under the Skin

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Jonathan Glazer’s obtuse science fiction film saw a sensational Scarlett Johansson playing a predatory alien. Taking human form she prowls Glasgow in a transit van luring lustful men to their doom like an intergalactic siren.

On a narrative level, Glazer had rendered off the flesh from Michel Faber’s source novel leaving barely a bleached skeleton of narrative, but the film contained some of the most striking and haunting images in film this year. One sequence in particular, in which the alien happens upon a slowly unfolding scene of tragedy on a beach was extraordinarily disturbing.

A meditation of the nature of empathy (its lack, and the effects of its acquisition) this was a science fiction film that harked back to the pre-Star Wars when the genre was not so readily associated with escapist entertainments. It’s meditation on the nature of the human condition through the eyes of the alien also made it easily the best horror film of 2014.

2 – Mr Turner

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Mike Leigh returned to the screen in magisterial form with a richly enjoyable biopic of the final decades in the life of famed landscape painter JMW Turner. Beautifully staged and wonderfully shot by Dick Pope, the film showcased a barnstorming performance from Timothy Spall as the painter, with very fine support from Dorothy Atkinson as his psoriasis-ridden housekeeper.

Avoiding hagiography, Mr Turner deftly sketched a character of light, shade, and contradiction, but it did so with great wit and humour.

Read my full review on Verite

1 – Pride

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Pride was the most entertaining, funny, moving, educational, and enriching experience I had in the cinema in 2014.

On paper a film exploring the true story of how a small group of LGBT activists came to support a small Welsh mining community during the long Miner’s strike of 1984 does not sound like the ideal recipe for a fun night at the flicks, but against all odds director Matthew Warchus, writer Stephen Beresford, and an outstanding cast take dark material that covers industrial relations, Thatcherism, the ravaging of working class communities, homophobia, AIDS, and civil rights and fashions not an easily digestible victim narrative, but a tale of triumph, warmth and unity that was both moving and hilarious.

Beresford’s screenplay – his first to be produced – was among the best of the year, taking a complex story with numerous viewpoints and somehow making every character memorable. Among the superb cast, there were so many highlights any roundup will shamefully miss someone, but I have to mention a few: Paddy Considine rips your heart with a glorious speech relatively early in the film; Bill Nighy plays against type as the Union chapter’s introverted treasurer, but gets a lyrical soliloquy about the importance of the coal to his community, and its terrible cost; as the ostensible leader of the LBGT activists Ben Schnetzer brought a firebrand’s earnestness, but also humour and wit; and my personal stand out performance was Andrew Scott, playing a gay Welshman long estranged from the Valleys returning home to confront his past.

Read my article on Pride in the September issue of Verite Film Magazine

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