The Best Films of 2014

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin


Of the 350+ films I saw this year, these are the best ones. Some of them were released last year and I’ve been a bit slow getting round to them. Some of them were released even longer ago. The criteria are – I watched them in 2014 and I liked them. That’s it.




The Best


Computer Chess (2013, dir: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski, inventor of mumblecore, proved there’s life in the old beast yet with this retro-verité drama about geeks meeting in the 1980s to pit their programs against a chess-playing computer. Shooting on original video cameras in fuzzy-edged boxellated black and white, Bujalski catches the moment when the let-it-all-hang-out era died and our brighter, geekier world was born.


In a World… (2013, dir: Lake Bell)

A comedy of modern manners strung onto a plot about voice artists vying for the throne of the newly dead king of the hill. The savviest, screwballiest Hollywood comedy in years came from left-field, from writer/director/star Lake Bell, playing the daughter of a famous voiceover artist trying to get out from under dad’s reputation. It’s sentimental in all the right ways too.


The Canyons (2013, dir: Paul Schrader)

The sensational Lindsay Lohan’s “right, I’m back” movie is also Paul Schrader’s best for decades, a turning over of the paving slab to see what low-lifes slither about beneath. It’s The Canyons, not The Hills, so don’t expect Hollywood to come out smelling of anything but bad drugs, mercenary sex and broken dreams.


Stranger by the Lake (2013, Alain Guiraudie)

Don’t watch if you can’t take the sight of gay male sex. If you can you get a remarkable French drama about a killer at large on a nudist beach where homosexual omerta guarantees him a free ride, in any way he fancies. It’s beautifully composed, dramatically as taut as you like and even the soundscape is a thing of wonder.


Under the Skin (2013, dir: Jonathan Glazer)

How odd that Scarlett Johansson suddenly cornered the female sci-fi market (with this, the Avengers movies, Her and Lucy). This is the best of the bunch, with ScarJo playing a killer (in every sense) alien who cruises round Glasgow, Scotland, enticing men into her white van and then taking them back to her lair. Shot painstakingly with real, unsuspecting Glaswegians picked up off the street playing the dupes, it’s a triumphant return to movies for writer/director Jonathan (Sexy Beast) Glazer.


Of Horses and Men (2013, dir: Benedikt Erlingsson)

There are scenes in this elemental Icelandic movie that you will never have seen before, some hilarious, others just jaw-droppingly wha? It’s a unique rural drama that seems to suggest that people are at their happiest and least stressed when they behave most like animals. Watch that young woman swish her tail when the visiting Spaniard shakes his mane. Brilliant.


Norte, The End of History (2013, dir: Lav Diaz)

A four hour epic shot in long continuous beautifully framed takes, about a rich young law student and the poor street-pedlar woman whose life he affects maximally without even realising what he’s done. Wait two hours for the first “what the hell just happened” moment, and then another 90 minutes for the second, while a new (to me) master Lav Diaz casts his spell.



Only Lovers Left Alive (2013, dir: Jim Jarmusch)

If you were going to cast the supercoolest vampire film ever, you’d want Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in it. And you’d want Jim Jarmusch to direct it, wouldn’t you? That’s exactly what you get with this aching paean to immortal hipsterism shot in crumbling Detroit and labyrinthine old Tangier. No one ever says “I feel so very very tired,” as they do in cornier movies, but that’s the spirit. Plus jokes, hipster jokes.



Goodbye to Language (2014, dir: Jean-Luc Godard)

At one level Jean-Luc Godard’s boy-meets-girl drama of collaged visual styles and overlapping dialogue looks like the result of using every preset on Final Cut Pro software; at another it’s a brilliant exercise in trying to reformulate film syntax. Genius.


Edge of Tomorrow (2014, dir: Doug Liman)

Tom Cruise as a soldier repeatedly being killed, each time back to life a little bit tougher, sharper, wiser in Doug Liman’s sci-fi extravaganza that looks, feels, smells like something Arnold Schwarzenegger would have graced in the 1980s.


Welcome to New York (2014, dir: Abel Ferrara)

Abel Ferrara’s drama about/not about Dominic Strauss Khan and his sexual escapades in New York looks like it was shot entirely on one camera, stars Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset and suggests obliquely that the people who run the planet are sociopaths.






Honourable mentions


Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright
Gary Bond sinks a beer in Wake in Fright


Wake in Fright (1971, dir: Ted Kotcheff)

A restored 1971 Australian classic about a nice schoolteacher having a wild weekend of up-close Ocker masculinity out in the Outback of the Outback.


Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013, dir: Abdellatif Kechiche)

Lesbian sex was its big sell but it’s the acting that’s the thing in this slow (as in Slow Food slow) French drama about a young girl’s sentimental education.


Klown (2010, dir: Mikkel Nørgaard)

The Danes do comedy in this road movie about two inadequate blokes and a ten-year-old boy on a “tour de pussy”. Inappropriate comedy fans, this is for you.


All Is Lost (2013, dir: JC Chandor)

Robert Redford is all at sea on a sinking yacht in the virtually wordless thriller from JC Chandor, who made the banking business sexy with Margin Call and proves lightning does strike twice here.


Fossil (2014, dir: Alex Walker)

A British couple in trouble are befriended by a lovey-dovey twosome in this four-hander that looks good, hits a few deep notes and goes as badly whacked-out as outsider-couple dramas generally do.


Back to the Garden (2013, dir: Jon Sanders)

Really? A film set in Kent (the “Garden of England”) and made for nothing? Yes, and you won’t find a better recent film about confronting that moment when you realise your parents’ generation are dead and your lot are next.


Dallas Buyers Club (2013, Jean-Marc Vallée)

Part of the McConaissance, with Matthew McC as the homo-hating cowpuncher who discovers he’s HIV+ and breaks the law to fix himself. A brilliant exercise in Hollywood storytelling economy.


The Past (2013, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Asghar Farhadi casts The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo as the woman about to marry for the third time, to a man with a wife in coma. How the wife ended up in the coma is what this subversive, complexly plotted drama is all about.


The Lunchbox (2013, dir: Ritesh Batra)

A Mumbai desk jockey gets the wrong lunchbox at work and starts up a relationship with the neglected wife who prepared it. Life-changes all round in this lovely romance made with a very light touch.


An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (2013, dir: Danis Tanovic)

A dirt-poor Roma man tries to get medical help for his pregnant wife in this immensely sweet drama that comes with this seal of authenticity – it really happened, and to this lovely couple.


The Lego Movie (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The incredibly smart Lego people got Phil Lord and Christopher Miller of 21 Jump Street to script/direct their movie, a fast-moving Star Wars-y affair with Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell its standout voices. Four viewings necessary.


Starred Up (2013, dir: David Mackenzie)

The best British jail drama since Scum, all those years ago, with a starry turn by Jack O’Connell as the new lag running into all the usual bad stuff inside. Spectacular.


Locke (2013, dir: Steven Knight)

Tom Hardy sitting inside a car for 90 minutes and making phone calls. That’s all there is to this super-high-concept drama that screws more tension out of the situation than you could imagine possible.


Blue Ruin (2013, dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

A hillbilly milquetoast is forced into an unlikely revenge-driven killing spree in a drama that grips from the first second and holds you there till the grisly end.


The Counselor (2013, dir: Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy’s loquacious drama about a high-flying lawyer who hasn’t realised he’s swimming with the sharks (Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt). A sleek, ratchet-like thriller of pitiless inevitability.


Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012, dir: Ilian Metev)

So simple, so effective, a documentary that follows a Bulgarian ambulance team and focuses entirely on them, never the people they’re treating. Tight, unusual, very humane.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, dir: Bryan Singer)

The best of the X-Men movies gains a position in this list because of director Bryan Singer’s sheer ability to keep so many stories, characters and settings constantly in play. And his observation that the 1970s might as well now be an alien universe is interesting too.





The Underrated


Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor
Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Julian Morris in Kelly + Victor


Kelly + Victor (2012, dir: Kieran Evans)

A nice lad falls for a totally fucked up girl in this brilliantly acted, nicely observed Liverpool drama about a boy, a girl and a lot of bondage gear. No “ferry across the fucking Mersey” (the director’s words) visible. Hoo-fucking-ray.


Seduced and Abandoned (2013, dir: James Toback)

An exquisite and slyly clever documentary that’s not really a documentary at all, about old mates Alec Baldwin and James Toback talking to the movie world’s money men at Cannes. Fascinating, proper inside-Hollywood reveals.


Bad Grandpa (2013, dir: Jeff Tremaine)

Johnny Knoxville deserves the Sacha Baron Cohen award for bravery for the audacious stunts he pulls off as the titular grandpa, and Jackson Nicoll – what, 10-years-old maybe? – even more for his turn as the grandson. Yes, it’s a Jackass movie and that ship has sailed, but it’s also a very funny, one-of-a-kind affair.


Metro Manila (2013, dir: Sean Ellis)

A poor Filipino family moves to the big bad city and what looks like a drama about the innocent getting monstered turns into one of the best heist films of the year. Brilliantly made, brilliantly acted.


Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, dir: Colin Trevorrow)

Aubrey Plaza, one of those girls who can go from hot to not in the blink of an acting eye, dominates this no-budget smartly written mumblecore sci-fi about a rookie journalist chasing down a pudgy middle age guy who claims to have built a time machine. Fabulous.


Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

Hated because a) it’s not as good as the original and b) people like to kick Spike Lee, who proves here he’s an intelligent, accomplished gun for hire, while Josh Brolin excels as the asshole incarcerated by person(s) unknown for 20 years and now wanting payback.


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013, dir: Ben Stiller)

Ben Stiller’s brilliantly crafted reworking of the story that Danny Kaye made a hit film with in 1947 – about a geek whose rich fantasy life starts to invade his real one – is too unclassifiable to hit the “best of” lists.


8 Minutes Idle (2012, dir: Mark Simon Hewis)

A simple British comedy about a Bristol call centre that’s clearly been written by someone who’s worked in one – the cameraderie of the drones is palpable, their maddened boredom too. And star Tom Hughes is great as a post-Uni slacker working out what to do next.


The Monuments Men (2014, dir: George Clooney)

OK, so it’s not a Tarantino movie. But George Clooney’s amiable comedy about a crack team saving art before the Nazis destroy it isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to be Von Ryan’s Express/Hogan Heroes reimagined. Job very much achieved.


The Invisible Woman (2013, dir: Ralph Fiennes)

Felicity Jones is surely going to get an Oscar one day, but this film actually belongs to Ralph Fiennes (who also directs) playing her lover, Charles Dickens, as the world’s first media celeb. It’s a sweet film about love, in the end, with intelligent digressions.


Felony (2013, dir: Matthew Saville)

A gritty Oz cop melodrama written by its star, Joel Edgerton, the supercop who fucks up one night and spends the rest of the film getting further and further in the shit as he tries to wriggle free. Tom Wilkinson contributes another of his sneakily intelligent peformances as Edgerton’s superior.


All This Mayhem (2014, dir: Eddie Martin)

If you’ve never heard of the Pappas brothers, Ben and Tas, this excellent and shocking documentary about their 1990s rise and fall is well worth the ride, even if you’ve no interest whatsoever in skateboarding.


God Help the Girl (2014, dir: Stuart Murdoch)

A strangely 1960s-ish and intensely cute love letter by Belle and Sebastian frontman/director Stuart Murdoch to his star, Emily Browning, here fetishised in a boy-meets-girl Scottish musical recalling – if you’re fanciful – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.


Chef (2014, dir: Jon Favreau)

Jon Favreau is one of the great under-revered directors of our era, and Chef – a road movie about a celebrity chef getting his mojo back – is exactly the sort of easy-looking, effortlessly digestible charmer he seems to be able to knock out at will.


Mystery Road (2013, dir: Ivan Sen)

An Aborigine cop tries to find out who killed an Aborigine girl – with stone-faced resistance from his white co-workers – in a beautifully shot Down Under cowboy thriller with one of the best shootout finales ever committed to film.


The Congress (2013, dir: Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman pushes animation even further this time, with a psychedelic meditation on fantasy and reality starring Robin Wright as an actress who is digitised and inserted into any set-up the imagineers fancy. Highly highly unusual.




The Overrated


Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche
Emile Hirsch and Paul Rudd in Prince Avalanche


Prince Avalanche (2013, dir: David Gordon Green)

Two guys paint a road and David Gordon Green swerves back into George Washington territory in a film that’s Waiting for Godot with Girl Trouble. Tim Orr’s camera is lovely, 1970s and sun-dappled, but there’s a hole where the meaning should be.


Blue Jasmine (2013, dir: Woody Allen)

Another of Woody Allen’s overhyped “returns to form”, this time featuring a relentlessly over-acting Cate Blanchett as a super-entitled bitch whose ship has sailed. Watch instead Sally Hawkins.


Thor: The Dark World (2013, dir: Alan Taylor)

Everything that’s wrong with bad superhero films in one film – too many characters, too much gobbledegook, a lack of humour, though Tom Hiddleston’s Loki remains a fun watch. More to come (sigh).


The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)

Lee Daniels’s epic about the black butler (Forest Whitaker) to a whole bunch of POTUSes attempts to square the radical tradition with the gradualist conservative move towards black civil rights. Proficient, nothing more.


Saving Mr Banks (2013, dir: John Lee Hancock)

How Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) strongarmed PL Travers (Emma Thompson) into letting him film her Mary Poppins. The leads are genuinely fabulous and brilliant, but all that Travers backstory? Really?


Frozen (2013, dir: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)

On my own here, I know, a triumph for lovers of adenoidal singing of the sort of Broadway songs that Eric Idle spoofed so brilliantly with his Song That Goes Like This. The snowman and reindeer are funny but the central characters, what utter drips.


The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir: Wes Anderson)

It still hasn’t sunk into Wes Anderson’s head that a) a little whimsy goes a long way and b) it has to be in the service of something, if only a good story. Here, though Ralph Fiennes is joyously funny as a devious owner of an old Mitteleuropean hotel, as a film it’s Sachertorte with cream, then more cream.


The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014, dir: Marc Webb)

Marc Webb’s second pop at Spider-Man is immeasurably worse than the first, fails to weld live-action into increasingly cartoonish set-ups, has too many villains, and feels like little more than a franchise placeholder or a sop to fanboys who will buy any old crap.


22 Jump Street (2014, dir: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)

The jokes were all done in 21 Jump Street – and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s extensive running gag in the closing credits, in which they trail the franchise’s development all the way to 34 Jump Street: Return of the Ghost – shows they know it. Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum remain a hot combo though.


And if you want to watch or buy any of the films, this Amazon link will allow you to do just that – enjoy!


© Steve Morrissey 2014




28 April 2014-04-28

Robert Redford in All Is Lost

Out in the UK This Week



All Is Lost (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

JC Chandor’s Margin Call was a brilliant debut, a great piece of storytelling which turned the complexities of the financial crash into a gripping human interest drama. Now he’s made All Is Lost, also a brilliant film, though as different superficially as they come. Instead of the high-tech, glass and steel, manmade world of finance, it takes place out on the high seas. And instead of a dialogue-driven screenplay there’s almost no speech at all. And yet a sense of jeopardy drives All Is Lost, as it did Margin Call, this newer film telling the tale of a lone yachtsman whose boat is holed after accidentally hitting a passing container (the seas are full of them, apparently), and who then spends the next few days trying to navigate, fix the boat, pump out the water, repair the radio and so on, while being battered by storms, menaced by aquatic wildlife and all the while sailing closer to the moment when he’s going to slide under the waves and die.

It’s obviously a film for lovers of adventure, but there is something here for nearly everyone else too. Robert Redford fans get to see him put in his best performance since the 1970s – and he barely speaks a word. Admirers of the older gent will marvel at Redford’s nimbleness. Now nudging 80, he’s able to climb over and under, shimmy, swim and perform various other feats that take us into spoiler territory. Lovers of cool intelligent cinematography will admire Chandor’s careful and unmelodramatic shots which slightly call to mind the vast oceanscapes of Life of Pi. And there’s even the meta-aspect of the entire thing – the white, blameless, resourceful, persistently optimistic ageing Wasp male caught up in a disaster that is none of his responsibility, piloting a large piece of luxury kit the likes of which the rest of humanity can only envy? Of course it is. Thankfully, Chandor simply puts this meta-business up on the screen and lets us take it down for inward digestion, if we want to. Meanwhile he’s drip-feeding us one of the simplest, most effective high-concept thrillers in years.

All Is Lost – at Amazon




Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Digital)

When it comes to biopics, serial killers often get a better ride than the great and the good, who tend to be reduced to single-focus automatons or martyrs. So when the subject is already considered a saint? Amazingly, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom avoids almost all of the pitfalls of the biopic. It is surprisingly good, in other words. Following Mandela from his time as a rakish womaniser practising law in apartheid South Africa of the 1940s, to his political awakening, then his years of firebrand rabble-rousing, his incarceration in 1963 and, finally, his release in 1990, Justin Chadwick’s film has a lot of ground to cover. So it is necessarily episodic. Idris Elba is too young to play the older man but he makes a solid, uncontroversial and convincing Mandela. Naomie Harris, meanwhile, plays Winnie, the wife who would get into hot water while Nelson was doing time on Robben Island. If Elba is good, Harris is remarkable, and because of Winnie’s dalliance with the dark side (the tyre necklaces and so on) the film threatens at every point to become more about her than him – because his journey was essentially internal, which is not easy to put into pictures. Reminiscent of Richard Attenborough at his best – big, bold, unafraid to compress time – this is one of the best biopics for years.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – at Amazon




American Hustle (EV, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

God, I was looking forward to seeing this. Those trailers, all co-ordinated “we hustle” sashaying set to a Led Zeppelin shuffle, they looked so sexy and dangerous. In fact David O Russell’s drama about 1970s grifters digresses terribly into Scorsese pastiche early on and then loses itself in the fog. I’m so disappointed. It’s the story of a pair of con artists – tacky, toupee-wearing Christian Bale and slinky jug of sex Amy Adams, seconded by Bradley Cooper’s FBI guy in an attempt to break open an unholy alliance between the Mob and elected politicians. I think. I’m slightly unsure because the film seems more intent on getting its look right than telling its story. However, the look is where it excels and there is much cinematic joy to be had from ogling the clothes and admiring the sets, as well as taking in the prowling camera, the soundtrack, the greatness again of Jennifer Lawrence as Bale’s blowsy pout of a wife. It just really isn’t what the trailer promised – which was a bang-bang pumping rock-style story. Instead it’s like its actual on-screen soundtrack – Monk, Ella, Duke and Sinatra – all jazz curlicues and moments of fitful brilliance sparkling among the modal vamping. It has those long, verbose scenes that have become de rigueur since Scorsese was thrown off the throne by Tarantino. And it does have really great performances all over the place, even the small ones – Louis CK as Cooper’s nebbish boss. Jeremy Renner as the local mayor, like a mini-me Liberace in his silly bouffant hair. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But it meanders, it doesn’t motor. I feel conned. Appropriately.

American Hustle – at Amazon




Big Bad Wolves (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Big Bad Wolves is a big bad film out of Israel. It’s a comedy so black that it actually feels wrong to bracket it with other comedies. Starting off with a child kidnapped by a paedophile and alluding, at one point, to the extermination of six million Jews via a scene in which the smell of burning flesh is conjured using a blowtorch and a handily trussed up paedo-suspect, it really isn’t messing about on the nursery slopes of bad taste. Tarantino loves it, so the press blurb says. And you can see why – the central sequence is essentially this one guy strapped in a chair while two other guys wax verbose about how they’re going to hurt him without killing him. Do they find the missing girl? I can’t say. Is it funny? Not even slightly. Is it good? A tough one. Though if you like your gruesome served up with a side order of whimsy, and a soundtrack that wouldn’t be amiss on Desperate Housewives, fill your boots.

Big Bad Wolves – at Amazon




Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

I’ve just re-read my notes to Anchorman 1 and my first impression was that it was a five minute Saturday Night Live sketch expanded to well beyond its terminal point. Anchorman 2 is exactly the same, a “let’s get the band back together” prelude eventually yielding to one absurd scenario after another in which Will Ferrell’s moustachioed TV newsman somehow becomes the hero of the hour in spite of the fact that he’s an idiot of the first water. This time around we’re in the 1980s, where Ron appears to be accidentally inventing Fox News and the entire rolling news format. That’s the end of the plot details bit. Returning guests include the original team of Ron’s dimbulb mates – Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner – and their often improvisational riffing really helps make this more than a one-man show. Also helping things along is the soundtrack, full of 70s/80s tunes chosen to make a point about the dopiness of the era – Ride Like the Wind, Muskrat Love and so on. I won’t mention the cameo-stuffed repeat of the fight scene from the first film, since it actually fails to strike any sparks at all, in spite of all those famous faces. Instead hold out for the blooper real, which only actually makes sense if you’ve watched the film. It is by far the best bit of the entire thing.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues – at Amazon




Bastards (Artificial Eye, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The genius French director Claire Denis (see Beau Travail and just be amazed) doesn’t usually do “genre”. But that’s exactly what she’s up to with this revenge thriller that feels to me as if she’s pausing for breath and recharging the creative batteries. The basic story is Get Carter – a guy (the magnificently implacable Vincent Lindon) seeking payback to avenge the niece who’s been sexually mistreated by a ring of powerful men – though Denis loads the whole thing up with misdirection, a brooding score from Tindersticks, plus what seems like an unrelated story about the odd super-rich couple who live upstairs from Lindon, until watching the film starts to resemble the experience of our questing, uncomprehending hero. Whether he is a hero at all is also part of it. And who exactly the “bastards” of the title are seems also to be moot. It is probably going to be a little too cool and oblique for some tastes, but any film from Denis (White Material possibly excepted) is worth devouring.

Bastards – at Amazon




Ace in the Hole (Eureka, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

A restoration of Billy Wilder’s classic 1951 melodrama about a busted newspaperman who happens upon a great story – a man trapped in a mine – and then manipulates the guy and his rescue (prolonging it unnecessarily) to make the story better. Kirk Douglas plays the antihero, appearing in the opening scene in a broken down car being towed through a decent small town, for the metaphor hounds, before cutting through the rest of the film like a dose of caustic soda. It’s a great performance, which makes no sense for the first half hour or so – why is he shouting all the time? – but eventually the film starts to conform to Douglas’s character, bad, which is the entire point of the thing. The restoration is fantastic, better, even, for what it’s done to the brassy honk of the soundtrack than for the way it’s revealed Charles Lang’s original cinematography. Stark black and white, just like the morality on display. “I’ve met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my life.” says Jan Sterling, the dubious dame Douglas hasn’t yet slapped but will, “But you, you’re 20 minutes.” There’s plenty more where that came from, oh yes.

Ace in the Hole – at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2014