Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Phonogram: the Immaterial Girl #1 - Review

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Colourist: Matthew Wilson
Letterer: Clayton Cowles

After a five year gap since the previous mini-series, Phonogram has finally returned with The Immaterial Girl and - if this first issue is any indication - it continues to get better with each new volume. If the original arc, Rue Britannia, showcased the raw cleverness of Gillen's writing and stylishness of McKelvie's art in the early stages of their collaboration and comic book careers, then the next chapter, The Singles Club, brought with it a new focus and sense of discipline. It was tighter, easier to follow and never felt convoluted or got metatextual to the extent that it alienated the reader.

But whilst The Singles Club was more fun to read and far easier to follow, it was a little less ambitious than the story that had come before - essentially being a collection of one-shots, each focussing on a different character with the entire series taking place over the same club night out. The Immaterial Girl seems like both an obvious progression and combination of everything that came before. It's slick, disciplined and accessible like the second volume, with the ambition and world-building scope of its predecessor.

As a Brighton lad myself, the perfect attention to detail here is appreciated.
This time the story takes previous supporting regular Emily Aster and thrusts her into the spotlight, exploring her backstory. In doing so it jumps between different times of her life and, with them, naturally transports us to different musical 'scenes' with their own affectionately rendered fashions and obsessions - a set-up which plays right into Gillen and McKelvie's interests as they geek out over clothing, music, places, and fictionalised versions of people they knew. [To emphasise the amount of love and care that goes into detail: an offhand reference to the White Stripes having played "across town a few days ago" in the Brighton of November 2001 is completely accurate, according to a quick Google search.]

It could easily be read as smug or self-indulgent but what makes Phonogram (and with it the entire Gillen/McKelvie oeuvre) so great is that it's completely anti-cynical. It's fundamentally a celebration of loving whatever it is you love and doing it with total commitment - and though we see that via a tour through what moves and inspires the creators, you never get the feeling they're looking down on anything else (even if the characters themselves may be on occasion). The best example of this comes when a phonomancer* asks a random guy about his take on pop trio the Sugarbabes only to throw a punch he responds "my real take or ironic?" The guy isn't being punched for not liking the Sugarbabes (well, mostly) but for being pretentious and insincere. He's embarrassed about what he taps his feet to and that is why he must bare the brunt of Seth Bingo's pugilistic fury. Such is the verdict of Phonogram.

So good.
I don't usually care a great deal about spoilers as a rule, but I genuinely don't want to write too much about what happens over the second half of the issue because it's really inventive and surprising (even if it is skillfully foreshadowed earlier in the issue). So go and read the comic because it's great stuff by brilliant creators - including regular colourist Matthew Wilson and letterer Clayton Cowles. I'll just conclude by writing that volume three is shaping up to be something really special and potentially more emotionally satisfying than the previous ones which have largely traded on being clever and funny. The first issue here has it all and is a really good indication of where Gillen and McKelvie are now as creators. Viewing it alongside those other two (still very good) arcs gives a strong indication of how their collaborative voice has matured.

As far as new readers go, I'd tend to echo the creators themselves in saying that The Singles Club is a perfect introduction to the style and humour of the thing, but I'd add those who know them from Wicked + Divine (another current Image title) or their run on Young Avengers at Marvel will have no problem jumping on here. You can probably come in completely cold too, but you'd probably get a bit more from it if you're plugged into their particular sensibilities beforehand.

*In Phonogram the idea that music is magic is made literal, with phonomancers those who can manipulate this power. Incidentally, the idea that songs are spells is best encapsulated in a small backup story in this issue, written by Gillen and drawn by Sarah Gordon, called Everything is Nothing, in which a Taylor Swift song that reminds a guy of a recent breakup is referred to as a "curse song". The man is question is compelled to play it seventeen times back to back and it summons his ex's ghost... because metaphor. It's a really good backup story.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Beames on Comics?

Since moving to Barcelona at the end of 2014 I haven't updated this blog at all - as a result of settling in a new country, a lack of access to new film releases, and (mostly) apathy. Sad to say, but I haven't been keeping up with movies in 2015 and therefore there's been no real reason to continue this blog in its original form. However, thanks to the wonders of digital publishing, I am still able to buy new comics each Wednesday - something I've been doing now for about four years - and so I'm in a rather better position to write about those than I am about movies as things stand. Maybe that'll change but that's the reality right now.

I've actually been thinking about writing comic book related articles and reviews for the best part of two years but I've allowed silly things to stop me up to this point. Laziness is certainly one of them ("I'll start blogging again next week") but mostly, stupid as it will sound, every time I've sat and the keyboard and felt like writing about a comic book I've been put off by the fact of having to actually think of a name for a new blog (Beames on Film was always intended as a placeholder to just get me started actually writing) added to the minor hassle of setting it up.

So I've basically decided to cut the crap and just start writing again on this existing blog, which started last night when I posted a comic book review. For all I know it might be pointless: even a consistently popular monthly comic book has very low circulation in 2015, so comic books (despite their over representation in broader popular culture in recent years) remain an extremely niche bit of 'popular' entertainment.

To put some figures on that, every month Batman sells around or just over 100,000 copies. And that's Batman - most comics sell far fewer copies than that. Admittedly this doesn't account for digital sales, which the industry doesn't publish, but the number of sales is likely still low even given our wildest estimations of what digital sales might be. Do digital sales double readership of Batman? Do they quadruple physical sales? Even then we are talking about a niche unit of entertainment, smaller than any TV show or movie or pop song or vaguely popular YouTube video you can think of.

Happier times.
Compare that with the latest movie adaptation of the Fantastic Four which bombed last weekend at the American box office, earning around half of its already low projections following terrible reviews and general negativity surrounding the movie. By all accounts that film is a financial disaster and a big blow to its backer, 20th Century Fox. An embarrassment. I'm a massive nerd and I love the Fantastic Four and I have no interest in seeing it at all... that's how badly it's doing. But if that film has so far grossed around $65 million then - even allowing for insane ticket prices - at least three million people have seen it so far. Incidentally the comic book itself was cancelled earlier this year due to low sales (about 30,000 copies a month, globally).

And that's not even accounting for the fact that popular culture and the mass media report on and engage in dialogue around even those movies people don't flock to see. So even a film that absolutely "fails" there's still a good chance the average person on the street has heard of it. So, to come back round to my point, it could be that talking about single issues of new comic book releases is so impossibly niche that nobody even reads this blog - which used to do ok numbers on movie reviews. Because even small movies are huge things.

So I'm obviously not doing this for the hits. Why am I doing this? Basically it comes down to the fact that over the last few years I've really gotten into comics after years of being interested but having zero idea where to start, so for starters I'd like to review comics with an eye on new reader friendliness and accessibility, which isn't really an angle I've seen covered much.

From what I've seen and experienced, conventional wisdom amongst comic book readers is that it's pretty easy to become a comic book reader: you go into a shop, pick up something you like the look of and buy it. And bang, you're buying comic books. But the reality is that comic books (at least the mainstream superhero kind) are intimidating to the uninitiated - and in some cases that can go for the stores they are sold in and the gatekeepers who work there as much as the books themselves.

Honestly, I've read this comic and I'll be damned if I know, Cap.
Let's stick with the books though. In terms of the big, mainstream superhero comics, many of the best known ones have been running in an ongoing, continuity intensive way for at least fifty years and in some case a good deal longer. Now I've heard the point made, and it's a good point, that audiences jump into ongoing stories all the time when they watch a soap opera or join a TV show half way through whilst flicking channels. This is true, but whilst your average episode of Eastenders might reference that somebody you've never heard of is having a baby, or has died or is going through a divorce, these are all fairly familiar scenarios. However, comic books are often full of strange concepts and governed by an internal logic which doesn't tally with everyday experience.

I first started reading monthly, single issue comics in around 2011 and, for the first two years, I barely read anything without Wikipedia on hand. Understanding much of what was going on in, say, Avengers vs. X-Men required more work and research than I think a sane person would ordinarily invest in entertainment media.

So there're complicated backstories and convoluted, decade-spanning plotlines to try and understand. Then there's the peculiar publishing model which means, without research, it's often difficult to look at a shelf and understand which books come in what order. Trying to piece together, for instance, the correct reading order for Ed Brubaker's (completely brilliant) run on Captain America can be a confusing process even for the initiated.
Kamala Kahn as Ms. Marvel is a great example of a step in the right direction. And it helps that the comic is also excellent.
And this is all before we even come to the huge inclusivity/accessibility issue that is the ongoing question of representation, with the overwhelming majority of books written by (and largely for) straight, white men.

Anyway, I've rambled on writing this post for a lot longer than I originally intended. Basically, I'm going to give this a go and see if it's fun writing about comic books for a while. If it goes well and people do seem interested then maybe I'll try and write for other people or start a dedicated blog. Maybe I'll talk about film now and then but, for the most part, I'm going to be talking about comics, likely with an emphasis on flagging up things that could serve as good jumping on points for new readers.

Watch this space for reviews and features in the coming months. I hope they're of interest to somebody!

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Action Comics #43 - Review


Words: Greg Pak
Art: Aaron Kuder
Colours: Tomeu Morey
Letters: Steve Wands

ALWAYS SPOILERS

It’s fitting that my blogging about comics should begin with a piece about the latest issue of a title that (for better or worse) changed the medium as we know it, especially as the story within is so 'of the moment'. With Action Comics #43, Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder present the third issue in an arc that has been really compelling up till now, as Superman squares off against a group of wholly unsympathetic riot cops looking to beat down a group of assembled ordinary Joes, who’ve peacefully gathered for a pro-Superman rally in Clark Kent’s neighbourhood.

It’s an interesting hook, bearing in mind contemporary US news events, which puts the Man of Steel in his element as an optimistic and inspirational figure and defender of the downtrodden. He may be shorn of his immense power (more on that in a bit) and decked out in jeans and an S-logo t-shirt following his identity having been leaked (more on that in a bit), but this is Superman at his purest: as a form of wish fulfilment and embodiment of ‘goodness’. And it’s been a really fun couple of issues so far.

To briefly recap, issue #42 ended with a genuinely suspenseful cliffhanger moment as, after taking a lot of punches with stoic, good grace befitting the last son of Krypton, Superman finally relented, punching the officer in charge. Of course, this is exactly what the bad guy was hoping for and set up some interesting questions, namely: how is Superman going to deal with the fallout of having assaulted a cop? Especially having provided an excuse for a squad of riot police to beat the crap out of his assembled friends and neighbours. How on earth was he (being Superman the character and Pak as writer) going to resolve this one?

Somewhat anti-climatically this is all resolved by page two of the issue. It begins with a great opening splash, in which Superman realises exactly what he’s done (“Me... punching a cop? In anger? This isn’t what Superman’s all about. This is bad...” ) which further raises tension for the reader, only for Pak and Kuder to reveal that the officer in question – Sergeant Binghamton – is a more literal monster. He's in fact one of the Shadows, a mysterious new enemy currently being established over in the pages of Gene Luen  Lang and John Romita, Jr’s Superman. This has the effect of instantly letting Superman off the hook and also saves the assembled innocents as the riot cops turn their capacity for violence upon their unmasked sergeant.

In a great little character moment, Superman's answer to the cop's "how'd you know. Superman?" is a straightforward and completely honest "I didn't".

This is potentially a problem, for the issue and potentially the whole arc, because the stakes were raised somewhere higher than “will Superman beat the monster?” to somewhere infinitely more interesting. Perhaps there was internal (and quite understandable) reluctance at DC comics to have Clark Kent punch a cop, so it makes sense that Pak and Kuder would go the route of revealing Binghamton as an even less ambiguous monster, eligible for guilt-free punching. Yet it might have been more interesting a problem for Superman if nobody else around had seen the officer’s true nature, with our hero still having to face the consequences of that act with all their teased implications.

Which isn't to say the situation blows over without any moral consequence. Pak is smart enough to have our hero wrestle with what he intended to do - which was to punch a cop in the face in anger - noting his sense of “shame and relief” after the fact. Still the story loses a lot of the momentum and sense of curiosity which had been built up so skilfully in the preceding chapters.

Yet even if it doesn't continue on the trajectory I'd have found most immediately rewarding, over the rest of the issue it becomes clear that Pak wasn't necessarily interested in telling “Superman vs. Police Brutality” so much as a more optimistic and constructive tale about people overcoming their differences and banding together for a common good. It's about a community healing rather than the easy thrills one might derive from Clark punching back – even if the characters are bound by genre convention to do this by fighting somebody else (monsters!). (Sidenote: a superhero title called Action Comics would make an unlikely forum for a tale of peace and anti-violence after all.)

I love Greg 'The Incredible Hercules' Pak's writing as a rule, but this attempt at making Jimmy Olsen seem cool/relevant made me laugh and it's a perfect encapsulation of the 'hip' DC YOU branding. #auto-uploading
In the end the comic is smarter for taking this approach than I had initially given credit on reading that second page reveal. As the police and protesters aligning against Shadow-possessed government officials it suggests a conflict between Superman and the institutional causes of systemic inequality rather than just the foot soldiers themselves. As the "to be continued" text sums up nicely, with a playful hokeyness that's visible throughout the book, "Does Superman Know You Can't Beat City Hall?"

But putting current affairs and specific story beats to one side, where this story arc has really shone so far is in its deceptive simplicity and accessibility.

This brings me back round to Superman’s vague, undefined loss of a portion of his power and the aforementioned detail that his secret identity has been leaked to the public, apparently putting him out of favour with elements of the population and government*. That all sounds like business that would intimidate or alienate a new reader, yet happily this isn't the case at all.

There's no convincing some people, apparently.
I jumped onto this series with #41, at the start of this arc (which more broadly forms part of a nominal crossover event called “Truth” taking place over all the Superman books), and it’s written in such a way that makes it very easy to just roll with this status quo. It’s quite amazing in the modern era, but this is genuinely an arc you could hand to somebody completely new to superhero comics and they'd get what’s going on. Better still I think #43 pulls the same feat even as it comes in the middle of an arc. Everything you need to know to enjoy this comic is presented in the pages of this comic and is supported by coherent storytelling. That shouldn’t be such a big deal but it’s far from the norm in comics.

If you'll indulge a little anecdotal case study to support this point: my wife is reading and enjoying this arc, with no prior Superman knowledge (save the general pop culture kind) and zero investment in the broader DC universe whatsoever. This is something even the very best writers at “the big two” find extremely difficult to do and it’s something more comics need to do if they're ever going to attract significant numbers of new readers instead of just selling comics to nerds who already like comics (like this writer). Which I don’t mention as a business problem (although it is) so much as an inclusivity issue. Ultimately, a wider range of people reading comics will translate into a wider range of people writing comics.

So if you know somebody who’s into the movies or TV shows (or the cosplay or the t-shirts or the video games or the action figures) but doesn't know where and how to jump into the books themselves (which was me circa 2011), this issue and this story form a brilliant jumping on point.

It’s smartly written and purely enjoyable - easily one of the best superhero books coming out at the moment.

*There's potentially something about the current immigration debate here but I won't go into it for fear of using up all my SJW tokens in my first comic review.

Monday, 29 December 2014

My Top 30 Films of 2014: 10-1

A very USA-centric top 10 this year, though I haven't seen 'Leviathan' and didn't rate 'Ida' which accounts for the absence of two of the foreign language movies that have appeared in a lot of end of the year lists. 'Interstellar', 'Gone Girl' and 'Mr. Turner' also did very little for me. The latter probably should have made this list somewhere near the other end but I forgot I'd seen it until just this moment, which is not a great sign in its favour.

Here are the other two parts of this list:

30-21
20-11

Below are my personal favourite ten movies of 2014:

10) Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky, USA

What I said: "On the face of it you'd think there couldn't be much worse in this world than a big screen Bible story starring Russell Crowe, but the director's decision to tell it as a full-blown High Fantasy-influenced myth - complete with rock monsters, flaming swords and magical potions - makes for something highly entertaining, yet also thought-provoking as it becomes something of a discussion about the Old Testament in the post-flood second half. For his part Crowe is perfectly cast as a biblical patriarch in the old mould: an uncompromising zealot who would murder a child if God willed it of him. It's his decision to collaborate with God (referred to throughout as 'the creator') in wiping out the rest of humanity that forms the bulk of the third act soul searching and causes conflict between Noah and his long-suffering family."


One of the year's most divisive films, I haven't met too many people willing to defend Aronofsky's 'Noah' let alone admit to liking it. Yet it was undoubtedly one of the bravest, most insanely risky movies in recent memory: an expensive biblical epic that - for all the talk of the powerful American Christian cinema audience - seemed destined to be a notorious failure. The marketing did it no favours, painting it as a very boring looking tale of a couple of beardy blokes fighting in some mud, but what that didn't show was all the High Fantasy-tinged craziness or the Old Testament soul searching. For a long time in the second half of the film Noah is essentially the villain and following God ("the creator") is cast as a type of madness which brings him to the brink of committing acts of unambiguous cruelty.

9) 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen, UK/USA

What I said: "[W]e're, along with Solomon, witnessing the rape of enslaved women, children torn from mothers and sold to the highest bidder, lynchings, and many other appalling acts of brutality. And we see many faces of slave ownership too, from the paternalism and impotent liberal-guilt of Benedict Cumberbatch to the blind hate of Paul Dano, who seems to take great pleasure in beating and tormenting the slaves as a means to reinforcing his own fragile sense of self-worth. Then there's the mercurial Michael Fassbender as the alcoholic and unpredictable Edwin Epps, whose religious fervor and cold conviction that his slaves are nothing more than property makes for an especially nasty villain... Though there is a sense that all involved are victims with slavery an institution that ultimately demeans everybody... '12 Years a Slave' is manifestly McQueen's most conventional and mainstream film to date, with his visual artist background and arthouse sensibilities more keenly felt in the cold and self-consciously difficult 'Hunger' and 'Shame'. What this film does is wed the director's compassion for difficult characters and interest in exploring unpalatable human truths with something more heartfelt and genuinely emotional - something built for an audience."


Having triumphed at the Oscars and succeeded in finding an audience, Steve McQueen's slavery drama has probably lost a bit of the kudos that's been associated with the video artist in the past - with less accessible, less widely seen critical darlings like 'Hunger' and 'Shame'. But don't hold its success against it: whilst the film is certainly more audience friendly than past efforts, its this marriage between McQueen's uncompromising, hard-hitting sensibilities and conventional narrative that makes '12 Years a Slave' so brutally effective.

8) Inside Llewyn Davis, dir. Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, USA

What I said: "Llewyn is an interesting character. Superior, aloof and prideful - refusing to sell out his artistic sensibilities, living hand to mouth and playing 'real' folk music with thankless results and no commercial future. A user and a man without responsibility or attachments. Yet he is on occasion, paradoxically, upstanding and decent in his quiet way. Both humble and egotistical. Emotionally detached and yet harbouring his own grief and inner turmoil. A complex and nuanced character perfectly suited to Isaac's intelligent and introspective demeanor. He's not a hero in any sense; he's infuriating and maybe a little pretentious - but he's entirely human. The Coen's get criticised often for not liking their characters enough, but this kind of nuanced depiction of people - with all their faults and idiosyncrasy - to my mind comes from a place of empathy and understanding. I think they understand people very well, but they aren't afraid to admit that we're all basically a bit rubbish."


The titular Llewyn Davis - played by Oscar Isaac - is something like a spiritual successor to Barton Fink, that pretentious, not wholly self-aware, not wholly likable early Coen's creation, whilst the film itself has the subtlety and relative plot-lightness of the more recent and criminally underrated 'A Serious Man'. Throw in the fact that it has a soundtrack to rival 'O' Brother Where Art Thou' and you have a winning combination. As well as being a neat little character study the whole thing also looks and feels like you've stepped into the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, which a nice place to some spend time.

7) The Lego Movie, dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA

What I said: "[P]acked with funny moments, charming characters and surprising Lego character cameos (which I won't spoil here). It's also way more subversive and socially aware than you expect from a movie based on a toy license - with the evil President Business (Will Ferrell) using an army of robotic micro-managers to ensure optimum social conformity. In the same vein, it's a love of chart music and chain restaurants that tips off ass-kicking heroine Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to the fact that generic, smiley Lego construction worker Emmet (Chris Pratt) might not in fact be "the special" - a prophesied "master builder" who will restore free-thought and fun to a land oppressed by the tyranny of the instruction manual."


I was initially a little underwhelmed when I first stepped out of the cinema from 'The Lego Movie' last summer. Though I enjoyed it a lot there was no question all the best gags had been put in the trailer. However, watching it again over Christmas - after buying it for my kid brother - it was more consistently funny than I'd remembered. The big laughs were still all those moments spoiled by the trailers, but there's a constant trickle of great sight-gags, character moments and bits of business that get a lot of charm and humour just from the way the Lego characters have been animated. Best of all though is how Miller and Lord's movie manages to make a toy license movie seem completely un-cynical, even whilst being overtly subversive from start to finish. There's no "franchise" movie like it.

6) The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese, USA

What I said: "Funnier than most straight comedies, Martin Scorsese's biopic of stockbroker Jordan Belfort is consistently entertaining over its daunting three hour running length. In many ways it's very similar to 'Goodfellas', albeit following a different (less physically violent) type of criminal, but the beats are the same and the same questions remain, namely "why would somebody choose to live this life?" - with the suggestion made that we will all envy the Belfort even as we come to despise him as a human being. And despicable he is. For all the moral panic about the film failing to condemn its protagonist, Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio paint a picture of a charismatic but morally bankrupt figure, ultimately without any real friends or meaningful human connections. He's an out of control, drug-addicted monster by the film's final third, punching his wife (Margot Robbie) and driving his young daughter into a wall. If you think the film doesn't make his life seem unappealing enough, or that it doesn't show the dark and sinister side of his character, then I don't know what version of the film you saw."


Comedies rarely run too much long than 90 minutes, presumably because keeping an audience laughing for much longer is very difficult, especially as most comedies are not simultaneously asking for too much audience investment in plot or character development beyond what is customarily expected. Yet Martin Scorsese's 'The Wolf of Wall Street' had me in stitches for a lot of its three hour running time, which is some feat. True, the film is probably not considered an out-and-out comedy: it's a crime drama and biopic about a real-life villain who got rich on Wall Street by making a lot of other people poor (and he is most certainly not portrayed as a good or likable person), but it's so much funnier than, say, '22 Jump Street'. To my mind it's the year's best comedy. Jonah Hill should have won an Oscar.

5) Gloria, dir. Sebastián Lelio, SPA/CHI

What I said: "'Gloria' is a particular joy due to its nuanced and atypical portrayal of a middle-aged woman, with the title character multifaceted and shown engaging in activities - such as clubbing, drug taking, having lots of sex, drinking, gambling - usually restricted to the under-40s as far as movies are concerned, none of which are played for easy laughs.A claustrophobic film, during which the camera never strays away from the protagonist (I'd be hard pressed to recall a single shot Garcia isn't in), director Sebastián Lelio has crafted something deeply compassionate and empathetic with a deceptive lightness of touch. It isn't showy and there isn't a loose scene or sequence in it, instead this is a well-crafted character piece told with great economy and forward drive that plants the viewer firmly in the shoes of its brilliant and quietly tragic central character."


I'm not certain this is officially a 2014 release, with UK screenings apparently happening in 2013, but the cinema I worked at got it back in January and it is so bloody good I'm not leaving it out on a technicality. 'Gloria' is a bittersweet little Chilean movie about a middle aged woman who gets drunk, does drugs, and has sex with a frankness, joyfulness and lack of judgment that isn't really seen in movies. It's a "feelgood movie" in a lot of ways. A fist-pumping "yes!" of a film with a terrific central character. There's a little melancholy to it, with Gloria feeling lost and lonely - a single woman in Santiago whose daughter is contemplating a move to Europe - but ultimately this isn't the story of a woman finding happiness and self-worth in a man but on her own terms.

4) Nightcrawler, dir. Dan Gilroy, USA

What I said: "'Network' for the modern age, 'Nightcrawler' is a darkly comic and very disturbing thriller which casts Jake Gyllenhaal in a potentially career redefining role as Louis Bloom - a sociopath who, lacking in empathy or anything approaching a moral code, is perfectly suited to filming grisly accidents for an unscrupulous TV news network... It's pretty grim and though not physically violent (with one notable exception in the opening scene) Bloom is a menacing, unsettling presence who seems to threaten an aggressive outburst during every encounter. It speaks to writer-director Dan Gilroy's skill that he never releases that pressure valve. To allow that outburst would grant the character a level of interest in other people and a degree of emotion that he just doesn't have. Much scarier is how coldly and calculatedly he seems to regard everybody in his orbit. There's something of Patrick Bateman in him and maybe a slice of Travis Bickle too. The film itself invites that company not only with its lead character but with its complexity and quality."


Jake Gyllenhaal gave one of the year's best performances in this unsettling and tense thriller about a sociopath who finds his calling in the ambulance chasing world of American cable news. The actor vanishes into the role, undergoing a physical transformation which goes beyond the evident weight loss: it's something unhinged behind his eyes that makes the whole thing so creepy, especially when he is trying to appear charming or happy. The tension - born from this central performance - never lets up all the way through the movie, with the feeling that something terrible is always about to happen. And it often does, though never in the explosive display of violence you expect. It's queasy and compelling from start to finish.

3) Locke, dir. Steven Knight, UK

What I said: "A masterclass in terms of showing what you can achieve with one (admittedly world class) actor and a tight, disciplined screenplay, 'Locke' is literally a film in which Tom Hardy drives down a British motorway for around an hour and a half, juggling problems at home and work on his phone. It begins with him getting into his family car in Birmingham and ends with him taking an exit ramp off the M40 and, though hugely important to Hardy's Ivan Locke and to the disembodied voices we hear on the other end of his carphone, the problems he faces are refreshingly down to earth. If given a small budget, one actor, and the brief to make a film entirely set in a moving car, it would be tempting to inject high-octane drama by making, say, something about a man with a bomb on his backseat who is having to deal with terrorists as he drives against the clock to rescue his wife and kids - but Locke gets a lot out of far less. It's consistently tense and thoroughly gripping even though it's about a man who's simply trying to get to resolve marital problems whilst also trying to co-ordinate what we're told is the "biggest concrete pour in Europe" (outside of military and nuclear). High stakes on both fronts, but on a relatable, human scale."


Who knew a film that consists entirely of a bloke driving down an English motorway talking about concrete pouring could be so riveting? On paper 'Locke' shouldn't work, even with an actor as watchable as Tom Hardy in the central role, yet Steven Knight's tight little movie gets by on one actor and a consumer car without ever being the slightest bit boring. Hardy's Welsh accent is a little bit hammy and the voices on the other end of the phone sometimes don't quite ring true (his kids especially) but it doesn't do anything to diminish how good - and how unique - this movie is. Reportedly made for less than $2 million (which is probably less than the catering bill on some Hollywood movies) the film stands out as an example to aspiring filmmakers about how far you can go with a clever, disciplined screenplay.

2) Boyhood, dir. Richard Linklater, USA

What I said: "As well as the thrill of seeing these characters age and change in such a unique way, the film presents a look at attitudes and lifestyle in Southern Texas - with events likes the invasion of Iraq and election of Barack Obama in the background, as well as obligatory changes to cell phones and video games - as the family move around the Lone Star State. If there's an ongoing plot it's in seeing Mason constantly pressured into not being himself by a succession of douchey stepdads, shortening his hair against his will and taking an interest in sports. You get a sense of what it must be like to be an introverted, creative kid in Linklater's home state and so, in some sense, this might even serve as a semi-biographical film about its director. Incidentally his daughter Lorelei plays Mason's older sister and she steals every scene she's in with natural screen presence."


It has a few clunky moments but overall 'Boyhood' is something very special. Not only is it a fascinating and relatively authentic window on the ageing process - not just for its young stars but for the older actors in the supporting cast - but it also manages to be a movie about a period of time in Southern Texas and, incidentally, a look at a lot of other changes that occurred over the years of its making (notably in glimpses at the rapidly changing state of mobile phones and video games). It's a document of a place and time(s) that will only get better with age, as its strange time capsule quality becomes even more evident and exotic. It wasn't quite my favourite film of the year but I think there's an argument to be made that it's one of the most significant and interesting films of the decade.

1) We Are the Best!, dir. Lukas Moodysson, SWE/DEN


What I said: "It's uplifting without being schmaltzy, with an infectious enthusiasm for jumping around and generally being a 13 year-old misfit that I would have loved to have seen at that age... There just aren't that many films that depict adolescence with the kind of heart and complexity displayed here. The three leads are all incredibly interesting, lovable, fully-formed characters who you really root for in spite of, or rather because of, their naivete, stubbornness and half-formed pseudo-political ideas. As fun as it is, the film also cuts to the heart of what it means to be an outcast: to feel isolated, unloved and alone. We see their daily interactions with cruel classmates, weary teachers and odd parents - with three contrasting family dynamics proving its how you fuck up your children as opposed to if - and glimpse more than a little casual everyday sexism, that's so constant as to be mundane. Yet there is a fierce optimistic streak running through it too and the film is smart enough to also understand (and embrace) how the girls' self-conscious outcast status is to some extent a construction of their own design. A film that says so much about youth, friendship, being an outsider, and the unaffected joy of music."


An unalloyed joy of a movie. Whilst being very honest and heartfelt in its presentation of the difficulties of being a young person (in particular an unconventional young woman) it's also an overwhelmingly sweet and good natured film - without ever being the least bit twee. It's imbued with a love of music and an affectionate recognition of some the arrogance that comes with youth (the girls think they know everything about everything), but mostly it's all about a love of running around, waving your hands in the air, shouting at the top of your voice - in that way you can really only get away with when you're small. For those of us that are no longer small, the movie bottles that feeling and allows you to experience it all over again.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

My Top 30 Films of 2014: 20-11

Films 30-21 on the list can be found here.

20) Captain America: the Winter Soldier, dir. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, USA

What I said: "[It's] is tonally very different to the rest of the Marvel Studios oeuvre to-date... this one is more of a conspiracy thriller and - without going all Nolan Batman and jettisoning fun and colour - it's a comparatively gritty and grounded affair. Much like the Ed Brubaker run in the comics, which introduced this film's antagonist the Winter Soldier, it does a neat job of including lots of outlandish and far-fetched comic book elements - from the winged exploits of Anthony Mackie's Falcon to the newly computer-bound consciousness of Toby Jones' Arnim Zola - with something altogether more grounded and grave... The action is hard-hitting, well choreographed and visceral, whilst the main players exhibit the sort of good chemistry needed to make all the bits in between fun. Especially Chris Evans in the starring role - an actor who imbues the title character with as much subtle depth as he does obvious decency."


The increasing confidence of Marvel Studios was demonstrated earlier this year - even before they released a wacky sci-fi comedy about a wise-cracking racoon - as the Disney-owned comic book moguls proved how versatile their superhero properties can be whilst remaining in a shared cinematic universe. 'Winter Soldier' is a sequel to both the nostalgic, World War II-set Joe Johnston movie 'The First Avenger' as well as Joss Whedon's mega-blockbuster 'The Avengers', two very distinct superhero movies with vastly different tones, and it succeeds in following both whilst again being completely different: in this case a 70s-style espionage thriller. It's a very good one, even if it has to go headlong into an explosion-fest for the final 20 minutes, with a tense atmosphere and - in Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson - two terrific lead actors.

19) Two Days, One Night, dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, BEL/ITA/FRA

What I said: "Subsisting on the sort of tight concept I tend to love, the Dardenne brother's latest stars the always-excellent Marion Cotillard as Sandra: a severely depressed woman who is ready to return to work only to discover that her colleagues have voted her out of a job [after] her bosses decide to cut costs by making staff choose between Sandra and their annual bonus payment... When Sandra convinces them to recall another vote after the weekend she has the titular timeframe to convince each individual to back her over personal financial gain... It's an interesting moral question which the film explores in all its complexity as Sandra visits each person in turn and makes the same basic argument with mixed results... Perhaps the film treats an attempted suicide too casually and Sandra's apparent defeat of bed-ridden depression by the credits is a little too sudden, but this is a complex and original film which deserves to be seen. Especially as the Dardenne's again display an impressive knack for marrying social realism with something more hopeful and optimistic than that term usually suggests."


One of the best ideas for a movie this year, there's not a lot to dislike about this small-scale, entirely humanist drama which essentially features a dozen versions of the same conversation all playing out differently. It could easily be a little slight but instead Marion Cotillard helps imbue the whole thing with a consistent and palpable edge of emotional turmoil that prevents it from getting stale.

18) Her, dir. Spike Jonze, USA

What I said: "You meet somebody for the first time and instantly hit it off. As feelings develop, you nervously pursue a romantic relationship. The early days of that relationship are filled with laughter and a spirit of adventure - you never want to be apart from that person, who now occupies all your waking thoughts. Months go by and you settle into a bit of a muted groove. You get a phone call from that person whilst at work, and they can tell you don't want to talk. It's become slightly awkward all of a sudden, or at least there's a strange distance developing between two supposedly intimate people. Eventually it ends, possibly when one of you has outgrown the other. In Spike Jonze's 'Her', Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly experiences something exactly like this with Samantha (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) - the difference being that Samantha is a sophisticated OS (operating system) rather than a traditional human partner. But the rhythms and patterns and core experience of the relationship seem to be exactly the same in Jonze's non-judgmental and highly plausible account of the not too distant future."


A movie released last year in the US and included in the Oscars last March, so it feels ancient at this point, but (with the exception of 'Snowpiercer' which has still not been released here theatrically) I base my list on UK release dates, so here it is! 'Her' is like a schmaltzy episode of Black Mirror, which I mean in a good way. There's shades of grey and room for debate about how healthy or real Joaquin Phoenix's romance with a Scarlet Johansson voiced AI is, but mostly it's an uncommon story of optimism about technology and the future. It's non-judgemental and sweet whilst still being smart.

17) The Wind Rises, dir. Hayao Miyazaki, JAP

What I said: "In almost every Miyazaki film to date his passion for machines, engines and, especially, aircraft has loomed large... so in many ways, though it is less fantastical and magical (and it does still have those qualities stylistically), 'The Wind Rises' does have the air of a great passion project and represents an extremely personal sign-off. In the dream sequences, which are many, Miyazaki indulges his childish imagination, creating wondrous and impossible aircraft and contriving to have two of his heroes converse in what is ultimately aviation hobbyist fan fiction... Miyazaki's obsessions enter the film in other ways too, with Jiro's drive and single-minded dedication to pursuing his chosen profession, perhaps at the expense of his personal life, another recurring theme... At its core it's a film about choosing to pursue your creative dream even if it might be appropriated for nefarious purposes. Some have criticised the director for not going far enough to address the fact that Horikoshi ultimately designed efficient engines of war and destruction which were quickly put to devastating purpose in expanding the Empire of Imperial Japan... That said, given some of that negative reaction I was surprised how much the oncoming war underpins the entire film from its opening dream sequence (interrupted by bombs and destruction) to it's bittersweet final moments as Jiro finally perfects his plane only to be suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of what it will be use for next."


It's not Miyazaki's best film (in fairness it faces tough competition for that title) but he's never made anything so obviously personal. Nominally it's an animated biopic, about a controversial aviator no less, but it isn't hard to see parallels between the loosely adapted life of Jiro Horikoshi and Miyazaki's own - with it very easy to substitute famed aircraft inventor with famed animation director. Seeing as fictionalised regrets about his personal life take centre stage near the end, perhaps this has more to say about the filmmaker's own reflection on a life lived in obsessive pursuit of dreams. Being the legendary filmmaker's final work before retirement (though he said that a decade ago) it seems fitting that it's his most reflective and melancholic. Special mention must go to the film's understated and quietly terrifying depiction of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which stands out as one of the finest sequences Miyazaki ever devised.

16) American Hustle, dir. David O. Russell, USA

What I said: "It's been trailed like a derivative, Scorsese-influenced crime film, but David O. Russell's 70s-set 'American Hustle' is best viewed as a black comedy. Every brilliant performance, every hackneyed line, every haircut, every sequence is a little warped, a little odd - from Jennifer Lawrence doing the housework whilst miming along to Live and Let Die to Christian Bale's pot-bellied, comb-over sporting conman seducing Amy Adams in the lost property room of his dry cleaning establishment. That doesn't mean to say it isn't a decent and occasionally tense crime film, with its share interesting twists and turns in the plot, but it reminded me more of the Coen Brothers than 'Goodfellas', being about a group of variously flawed, morality bereft shysters who are often as pathetic and incompetent as they are resolutely unlikable. It's saying something that Jeremy Renner's charismatic local mayor is the only one of the bunch with any integrity and he's the victim at the centre of the big con."


As with 'Her' this is another one of those movies from the last Oscars that just about slips onto this year's list with it's early 2014 UK release date. Viewed as this year's answer to 'Goodfellas' it's a little overblown and trivial-seeming, but seen as (I think intended) as a black-comedy populated by uniformly messed-up, unlikable characters I think it works brilliantly. It is operatic and over the top but Jennifer Lawrence's housekeeping scene, not to mention everything to do with the "science oven", is amazing. It's also great to see a movie that isn't completely cynical about politicians and their intentions, which is a real rarity in popular culture at large. Jeremy Renner is corrupt as the flashy, local mayor, but he is also the nearest thing the film has to a good guy. He might get his hands dirty but he's doing it with solid gold intentions. It's easily the most interesting part he's had since 'The Hurt Locker' made him a star.

15) X-Men: Days of Future Past, dir. Bryan Singer, USA

What I said: "They have fixed the X-Men movie franchise and in a classy way that makes it possible to make new movies with the 'First Class' cast without fear of bumping into any of the old baggage that once lay in the way. It's a smart movie that celebrates the past, but definitively makes way for the future. It's a rare sequel/prequel that actually elevates everything that came before and makes it all seem, finally, like it all sort of makes a certain fuzzy kind of sense. I like problem movies, which is to say movies which seem to have set themselves a problem and solved it... this movie seems to have been conceived as a way to address continuity mistakes and to help rejuvenate and reboot the franchise. It's a placeholder movie, paving the way for new stories with a couple of hours of energetic rebuilding work, basically. Yet it also works on its own terms somehow, and is fast-paced, fun and contains terrific fight scenes not matched by any X-Men movie and, possibly, by any superhero movie to date. For the first time I'm excited to see a new X-Men movie... It's not often movie number seven is the best in the franchise, but Fox's X-Men just got really good and it only took about 15 years to get there."


This probably benefited from sub zero expectations on my part. I've never been overly enthusiastic about Fox's X-Men franchise - with its drab, leather-clad versions of colourful comic book heroes and Wolverine-centric narrative - even disliking the widely praised 'First Class'. Yet Bryan Singer's return to the franchise he launched over a decade ago (and without which there might never have been a Marvel Studios or Sony Spider-Man franchise) has proven hugely beneficial, with the director using a time travel story as the vehicle to strip away almost everything terrible that happened in the previous movies (most notably the events of 'X-Men: the Last Stand') and leave the whole thing in a place where I'm actually excited to see what they do next. Also, between the slowed-down Quicksilver (Evan Peters) set-piece and the imaginatively implemented portal-opening powers of the obscure Blink (Fan Bingbing) this movie had the stand-out action moments of 2014. At least outside of 'The Raid 2' (if you're curious: it didn't make my list on account of being way too long and not interesting at all outside of the punching scenes).

14) Under the Skin, dir. Jonathan Glazer, UK/USA/SWI

What I said: "A masterclass in editing and sound design, Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who takes on the form of a human female and uses this guise to seduce lonely, socially isolated men, who she then traps and harvests for... some reason probably much clearer to those who've read the Michel Faber novel. Though I'd argue the question of why she captures these men and what exactly becomes of them is a secondary concern in a film that works primarily on the level of visceral, sensory experience. In lieu of much specificity or explanation, this is simply the story of an outsider assimilating and attempting to fit in (albeit with nefarious intent), learning a certain degree of compassion for humanity and gradually becoming more unsettled by and attached to her newly acquired body...Moments of intense body horror and a heart-pounding finale combine with this playful casting and Glazer's technical mastery to create something truly memorable - potentially even destined for cult status."


Strange, unsettling, almost unknowable. I haven't read the book but I suspect, like a Kubrick movie, the novel might have been more of a loose jumping off point than the basis of a strict adaptation. I might be wrong, but this movie is '2001' levels of oblique in a way I can't imagine the book being. Nothing is really explained and it's not certain at times what is literally taking place, though that doesn't make the imagery any less haunting or powerful. The scene on the beach, with the baby left on its own, is easily one of the most shocking of the year. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson disappears so convincingly into her role as an alien that whole sequences appear to have been shot with the mega-famous actress blending in entirely amongst an unsuspecting public. It's also responsible for some of the year's best moments of horror, even though it isn't really a horror movie, with lots of nightmarish stuff happening with bodies.

13) The Past, dir. Asghar Farhadi, FRA/ITA/IRN

What I said: "In a style familiar to fans of his earlier films, such as 'A Separation' and 'About Elly', director Asghar Farhadi's maiden effort outside of Iranian cinema is still a tightly wound and faultlessly humane drama, peppered with extraordinary revelations and populated by nuanced and fully-formed characters who are lead by circumstance to ponder profound ethical questions... After a half-dozen twists and turns we come to understand the various conflicting points of view all involved in the unfolding crisis, which this time revolves around the theme of forgiveness and moving on from what has happened before - of leaving an old life behind as you head into another. Something which none of the characters can quite face doing, at least without difficulty and heartache. Nobody in contemporary cinema (at least that I know of) is quite as brilliant as Farhadi when it comes to creating ensemble casts in which every character is so complex and well drawn. As with his other films, the four central characters here - along with another three or four supporting cast members - are each worthy of audience investment and sympathy, portrayed and written with great compassion."


Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi ventured outside his native Iran to make this French-set drama, but all of his hallmarks and concerns are still palpable with trademark focus on multifaceted, complex characters struggling with questions of morality. It's not quite got the gut-punching hook of his masterpieces 'About Elly' and 'A Separation' but it's still top-tier drama with faultless performances from its ensemble cast. I'll take a minor Farhadi movie over the best work of a lot of other filmmakers every single time.

12) The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson, USA/GER

What I said: "If the move from 'Bottle Rocket' to 'Rushmore' onto 'The Royal Tenenbaums' marked a gentle progression of his style, Wes Anderson's subsequent films - 'The Life Aquatic', 'The Darjeeling Limited' and even the animated 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox' - took the recognised tropes of that style and crystallised it into something that often flirted with self-parody. Then 'Moonrise Kingdom' came along and seemed to indicate a maturation of his by now well established visual motifs, storytelling themes and even the highly stylised performances drawn from his familiar band of recurring actors. It was a refreshing change of pace... At a first glance his latest, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', superficially resembles a return to the larger-scale, ensemble-driven fare that directly preceded 'Moonrise Kingdom', though it's actually a subtle synthesis of the two being expansive, broad, imaginative and, well, grand, whilst also being restrained, focused and tightly wound... Even as its focus remains on character detail and small-scale interactions, it's easily the most traditionally plot-heavy of Anderson's films - helping again to separate it from what's come before - and, even if death and grief play a part in all but one of his other movies, it's also one of the saddest - with an overriding feeling of entropy and a sense of sadness at the passing of time."


As a long-time fan of Wes Anderson his films have always touched me on an emotional level that I gather they just don't for a lot of people. I get that: they could easily seem cold and detached. Yet the emotional stuff is usually in the details, like Anthony agreeing to wear a yellow jumpsuit in 'Bottle Rocket' when he sees the guileless and enthusiastic Dignan faced with the unbearable cynicism of Futureman. Or Steve Zissou throwing away his earring petulantly when he overhears somebody laughing at it, only to sheepishly pick it back up again moments later. Or all of 'Moonrise Kingdom'. But the emotional stuff is much more evidently to the foreground in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', which has a consistent elegiac tone and features more than one death. Told from what might be a fourth person perspective, coming decades after the events of the narrative, in a world in which the titular hotel is crumbling into the ground, the whole thing is really very sad indeed. Something punctuated by Ralph Fiennes extremely funny and charismatic central performance as the last of a dying order.

11) Guardians of the Galaxy, dir. James Gunn, USA

What I said: "When the film was announced a couple of years back, it was regarded as a make or break movie for Marvel's growing cinematic universe: can the studio that started with the (relatively) gritty and grounded 'Iron Man' convince us of a talking raccoon and tree double-act? There was no going back and I'm sure the spectre of Jar Jar Binks must have loomed over the project, at least for nervous studio executives. Well they've more than gotten away with it and, after this, you'd have to wonder if there's too much in the company's comic book continuity they couldn't now bring to the screen with well-placed confidence."


In terms of pure enjoyment at the movies this year, 'Guardians of the Galaxy' would be right at the top of the list. That's not to say, with a note of condescension, that James Gunn's Marvel blockbuster is merely 'enjoyable' rather than 'good' - it is a very good film all ways around (great comic performances, entertaining action, a whip-smart script, stand-out soundtrack) - just that on balance the immediate thrills and (multitude of) laughs have been eclipsed by a bunch of films which gave me a lot more to think about and talk about after the credits. That's not to denigrate 'Guardians' though. It's definitely a contender for the best Marvel comics adaptation to-date, my teary-eyed love of 'Captain America: the First Avenger' notwithstanding, and given the consistently high quality of those movies I mean that as high praise indeed.

Come back soon for the top 10.

Friday, 26 December 2014

My Top 30 Films of 2014: 30-21

Happy holidays, everybody. Hope you had a lovely time.

Much like last year, I post this annual best of list with the caveat that I haven't seen as many festival movies as I had in previous years and, in fact, my cinema attendance has been well down overall (for many reasons, including moving to a country where I don't speak the language and where almost everything is dubbed). But like last time around I'm sticking to a top 30 format because of the excuse it provides to revisit a greater number of movies. Even allowing for that fall in attendance and lack of much in the way of serious arthouse cinema-going, 2014 was not a vintage year for cinema. I didn't see anything this year that would have cracked the top five in 2013, though there were still a lot of interesting movies released and many, including a large swathe of those in this first installment, were ultimately flawed and uneven but proved interesting anyway.

30) Edge of Tomorrow, dir. Doug Liman, USA

What I said: "Criminally overlooked this summer by audiences who've become increasingly sick of Tom Cruise over the last decade or so, 'Edge of Tomorrow' is a genuinely smart and thoroughly entertaining piece of high concept sci-fi which takes its cues from video games and features Bill Paxton at his sarcastic, army man best. It also stars Emily Blunt as a highly capable and supremely badass soldier who used to have the strange alien power since acquired by Cruise's combat-shy press officer: an ability to come back to life after being killed, waking up in the same point about a day earlier a la 'Groundhog Day'."



Pretty slick and exciting sci-fi fare featuring a great co-starring performance by Emily Blunt - who proves herself a compelling action lead. There's not a ton more to add about it here so I'll pad this out by musing about the film's title. Originally holding the more eye-catching title 'All You Need is Kill', which was apparently changed because of fears the word "kill" would lack widespread appeal plastered on every bus stop, the film has since been marketed and released on DVD with packaging that seems to further modify the title to 'Live. Die. Repeat.' - which smacks of a complete lack of confidence in "the product" if nothing else. Anyway, whatever it's called it's worth a watch even if you're usually allergic to Tom Cruise.

29) Snowpiercer, dir. Bong Joon-ho, KOR


What I said: "The first half of 'Snowpiercer, 'The Host' and 'Mother' director Bong Joon-ho's maiden English-language effort, is one of the best things I've seen all year. Smart, funny, with inventive action set-pieces and an oddball sense of humour, the highlight being an inspired supporting turn from Tilda Swinton. However the second half of the film is one of the worst movies I've seen this year, from Ed Harris' 'Matrix Reloaded' style clunky, cod philosophy explanation of how his train-based society works to the film's spectacularly misjudged "I know what babies taste like" monologue (which star Chris Evans does his best to sell but it's not happening)."



Some of the most interesting cinematic moments of the year - from Tilda Swinton's shoe monologue to the presentation of a strange, train-based dystopian society to the battle that we see first person through night vision goggles - came in Bong Joon-ho's 'Snowpiercer'. Yet the South Korean has not been as successful as his compatriot Park Chan-wook (a producer here) in translating his talent into English - with last year's 'Stoker' a much more even and satisfying movie. There's a lot to love here, but the second half of the film is so messy and, at times, ridiculous that it doesn't make it any further up the list than this.

28) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, dir. Matt Reeves, USA

What I said: "Not as tightly focussed or emotionally satisfying as Rupert Wyatt's 2011 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' - the prequel movie for which this is the direct sequel - as it broadens the focus from one rapidly evolving ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis), to a whole array of primates and significantly less interesting human characters, but Matt Reeves' 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' is exciting and filled with great moments. The opening 20 or so minutes are particularly breathtaking, as the film opens on an organised and socialised ape hunting party communicating in sign language whilst chasing deer through the Muir Woods near San Francisco. All the scenes between the apes are really well done, technically and in terms of storytelling, with Caesar and his brethren clearly compelling enough to carry an entire film if Fox so wished, even though it would be a clear break from the apes versus humans formula of the series."



It would be here for that "ape takes a tank" shot alone but there's not a lot wrong with this sequel, even if it doesn't match its immediate predecessor which had the benefit of being less sprawling and focussed on one character. It's Andy Serkis' ape Caesar who remains the most interesting presence here and it's always very good when he's the focus but, perhaps in service of the brand, there are also a lot of less interesting human characters. Many of them, notably Gary Oldman's would-be villain, suffer as a result of not being in the film enough to be interestingly developed but conversely have just enough screentime to make you miss the apes. None of the stuff with the humans is bad necessarily, just not as good.

27) The Boxtrolls, dir. Anthony Stacchi & Graham Annable, USA


What I said: "Not in the same league as 'Coraline' or 'ParaNorman' (the best animated film of this decade so far), but Laika's latest stop-frame animation is still very polished and endearing, with its heart very firmly in the right place. But intention isn't everything, of course, and a cross-dressing villain has perhaps rightly invited criticism that the film is transphobic, which I can't rebuff with any force... This is made all the more unfortunate by the way it undermines the film's great message of tolerance and not being afraid of those who are different from you."



Typically beautiful animation from Laika, though this is easily their least satisfying film, partly because of a potentially transphobic plot twist and partly because the production design is a little drab. Yet it's heart is still very much in the right place, with some interesting things to say to its young audience about a scaremongering media and incompetent authority figures, as well as the perils inherent in trying to be somebody you're not.

26) Blue Ruin, dir. Jeremy Saulnier, USA

What I said: "With a low budget crowd-funded on Kickstarter and a very slight plot, 'Blue Ruin' is a taut thriller that mostly gets by on atmosphere, with the camera often uncomfortably close to Dwight (Macon Blair) who, when we first meet him, is a soft-spoken, reclusive vagrant - apparently sleep-walking through the past several years of his life in a traumatised stupor and living on a beach in a rusted, blue Pontiac. This changes when a local cop informs him that the man who killed his parents is due to be released from prison, prompting Dwight to start moving with a zombie-like single-mindedness on a quest for revenge. He starts up his old car, gets himself a gun, and heads out on a path of endless and empty ultra-violence with no clear winners."


A revenge thriller without the usual romanticism/tawdry fantasy element, 'Blue Ruin' (to my mind anyway) is about the reality of that idea: that revenge is not only a mutually destructive act but also an inherently childish one. Our protagonist is stuck in a juvenile state caused years before by the death of his parents, which he never moved beyond, and finds support on his anti-social rampage in the form of an old high school friend who is equally well adjusted. There's an air of early Coen Brothers menace tinged with black comedy to the whole thing, which on the film's very low budget suggests director Jeremy Saulnier is one to watch.

25) Muppets Most Wanted, dir. James Bobin, USA


What I said: "Disney's sequel to 2011's well loved 'The Muppets' might not hold together as neatly as a movie, lacking that earlier film's pathos and clearly defined character arc, but it's every bit as fun (and possibly more so) thanks to a high gag-count and some typically enjoyable musical numbers from Flight of the Conchords' Bret McKenzie... Also extremely fun to watch is Tina Fey as the Kermit-obsessed warden of the gulag, stealing the show with her performance of one of the film's most toe-tapping songs and getting some of the best gags. It's a bit baggy in places but made with obvious love and a complete lack of cynicism, something backed up by dozens of celebrity cameos which feel less like an attempt to sell tickets and more like genuine expressions of the affectionate regard held for these fading icons within popular culture. 100% joyful from start to finish."


One of the funniest out-and-out comedies of the year and there isn't a duff musical number in the whole thing . I can't decide what the best song is, but it's between the catchy, Tina Fey sung "Big House", Constantine the Frog's disco-infused love song "I Can Give You What You Want", and the "Interrogation Song" as sung by the year's stand-out comedy double-act (Sam the Eagle and a scene-stealing Ty Burrell). I've rewatched it a bunch of times, including one occasion where it made a transatlantic flight feel far less arduous, and I expect I'll watch it many more times over the years.

24) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, dir. Francis Lawrence, USA


What I said: "It's not as exciting as the second movie or as focussed as the first, but this is the one where the hitherto wobbly political themes start to actually get interesting and take on added weight. In that sense it's the cleverest so far. It's also refreshing to get moving on the wider plot across Panem - outside of the titular games (this film has none) - which finally takes centre stage after being glimpsed at the margins of the previous films. All in all a satisfying run-up to the final chapter that even manages to craft a decent ending out of the arbitrary half-way point as hewn from the source novel."



The added room for character development and the slower pace afforded by the increasingly common, dollar-sign inspired "part 1" format means we get to see the franchise's impressive supporting cast a little more than we otherwise might have if the series was racing towards its conclusion. In terms of action it doesn't hit the highs of the previous movie, 'Catching Fire', but it's clearly head and shoulders above other tween-lit adaptations.

23) Only Lovers Left Alive, dir. Jim Jarmusch, USA


What I said: "Languid and atmospheric - with musing about art, literature and music taking precedence over matters of plot - 'Only Lovers Left Alive' casts two supremely watchable actors, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, as Eve and Adam, a pair of above-it-all vampires whose love has spanned the centuries. Making the most out of its compelling leads, slick editing and a terrific soundtrack, the combined effect is something that washes over you for an enjoyable two hours without leaving much in the way of a long-lasting impression. That said, it is interesting to see vampires played as these eternal art critics, whose often downright snobbish opinions are invested with an unassailable amount of cultural capital when compared with us mere mortals."


Perhaps not destined to live long in the memory but Jarmusch managed to do something relatively fresh with vampires, which is an achievement in its own right. With little plot to worry about, the pleasure here comes from listening to one of the year's best soundtracks whilst watching two of the most consistently interesting actors of recent years lounging about, talking about the arts whilst being amusingly world-weary and condescending.

22) Nymphomaniac, dir. Lars von Trier, DEN/BEL/FRA/GER

What I said: "There is always, nagging in the background, the question of morality (to what extent are Joe's actions potentially "wrong") though the film makes no judgments in most instances - except when combatively challenging the judgements of others (for instance regarding the subject of so-called 'sex addiction' and, in it's bravest and best scene, attitudes towards pedophiles). Even its ending, that could read as a pessimistic final judgement on humanity - or, at the very least, men - is more even-handed than it might first appear, with denial of experiencing sexual urges the ultimate villain of the piece rather than an interest in or enjoyment of sexual behaviour itself."



Shown in some territories, including the UK, over two installments, Lars von Trier's latest doesn't really feel like something that's meant to be seen that way. It's one long, disturbing, rambling movie with an arbitrary break in the middle. But taken as a whole film it's always interesting and occasionally brilliant stuff, typically confrontational and sometimes very funny. Charlotte Gainsbourg is brilliant in it as the older version of the sex-obsessed Joe, whilst Uma Thurman is particularly memorable in a one-scene cameo that constitutes one of the funniest scenes of the year, playing like something out of Chris Morris' Jam.

21) Calvary, dir. John Michael McDonagh, IRE/UK

What I said: "Hinging on a stunning central performance by Brendan Gleason, as a good man and dedicated priest in a rural Irish town, 'Calvary' is writer-director John Michael McDonagh's typically tragicomic follow-up to 'The Guard'. Behind that great performance is a screenplay which not only boasts a lot of smart and darkly funny dialogue but also a simple yet ingenious premise... Even-handed to a fault, the supporting cast of broad archetypal characters - played by the likes of Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran and a particularly superb Chris O'Dowd - air a number of popular (and generally justified) grievances against the church's exploits, whilst in return Lavelle is shown to be a pretty smart and witty guy who more often than not has an amusing rebuttal, even if he doesn't always mount a counter-offensive. It's as much about the Catholic church as an institution as it is about religious belief and the very idea of a good priest - or even a good man - as it is a compelling, occasionally tense crime mystery and acidic, jet-black comedy."



Lower down on this list than it probably should be - I know many people have this near the top of their list and I won't argue - but for me it fell short of matching John Michael McDonagh's first film, 'The Guard', and verging into more melodramatic, emotionally manipulative territory. Still it's beautifully made and Brendan Gleeson has never been better, whilst Chris O'Dowd comes close to stealing the spotlight with a nuanced and complex dramatic performance that suggests a previously unseen depth from an actor more closely associated with playing affable comedic nice guys.

Read entries for films 20-11 here.