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.

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