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:


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.

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