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




8 September 2014-09-08

Macon Blair in Blue Ruin


Out in the UK This Week


Blue Ruin (4DVD, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Most vigilante thrillers fall into one of two camps – either the seriously pissed off professional killer who decides enough is enough (Point Blank/Kill Bill), or the utterly unlikely avenger whose anger makes him/her as good or better than any professional (Death Wish/Law Abiding Citizen). Blue Ruin comes at it from a fresh angle, introducing the killer who is utterly unsuitable for the job, is forced into a corner and has to fight his way out, doesn’t learn anything along the way, and remains a bumbling milquetoast to the end. Macon Blair plays that man, a timid creature we first meet in the bath leaning forward to turn off the tap, because he thinks he’s heard a noise outside. Instantly we’re hooked, and Blue Ruin keeps us there as its merciless fight and flight story plays out. I’m not even going to go into its plot – except to say that our man has to kill the family of the man who he put behind bars for killing his family – because atmosphere is all in this very spare, often wordless film that keeps faith with its premise almost to the very end. With the result that it’s us doing the running and the cack-handed killing, while director Jeremy Saulnier pulls one tension trick after another, lacing everything with dark, dry humour. Highly recommended.

Blue Ruin – at Amazon




Concussion (4DVD, cert 15, DVD)

Another novel story, this time it’s the happily married New York lesbian who gets a bump on the head and decides to become a prostitute. The bump deals with the Concussion title, I suppose, though it’s immaterial. As is the lesbianism, though there’s plenty of girl on girl action, of a fragrant sort. What does seem to be the film’s point is its treatment of a particular stratum of American society – entitled, moneyed, middle aged, terribly well toned – and really, at bottom, it’s painting a portrait of this particularly privileged, not particularly appealing group of people and how Abby (Robin Weigert), the newcomer to whoredom, interacts with the civilians she meets who are not like her – the young woman, the fat woman, the woman who’s had reconstructive surgery. If it sounds slight, in many ways it is, though it’s a punchy, well cast, well played relationship drama that fascinates right to the end.

Concussion – at Amazon




Bad Neighbours (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Hey Zac Efron, it’s OK, we’re sorry we suggested you were gay, you can stop now with the “my cojones” films. This one stars Efron as the alpha male of a frat house which moves in next door to young marrieds Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne. Rogen and Byrne, unwilling to accept that they’re too old to party, try to curry favour with the lads by rolling them spliffs, sharing their mushrooms and generally behaving like 18-year-olds. Except that they have a baby and jobs and responsibilities and eventually the two things are going to come into conflict. Like on Day 2. There are two good jokes, the sort of dialogue (Rogen referring to Efron’s arms as “like giant veiny dicks”) that seems written to separate out a demographic, and lots of what looks like improvisational back-and-forth between Rogen and Byrne in a comedy that moves at a lick. Pity no one in it is vaguely likeable and that it’s actually intensely coy about the thing its script is so fixated on – sex. I mean who, honestly, is scandalised by the sight of dildos these days?

Bad Neighbours – at Amazon




The Angriest Man in Brooklyn (Signature, cert 15, DVD/digital)

This has had terrible reviews and I expected to hate it too, because it stars Robin Williams RIP. In fact it’s a fast, short, funny Ortonesque farce about an incredibly angry man (Williams) who is told by a doctor (Mila Kunis) that he has an inoperable brain aneurysm which will kill him within 90 minutes. The aneurysm is true, but the 90 minutes isn’t – it just came out of the doctor’s mouth because Mr Angry had pissed her off. So off he goes, attempting to square thing with his estranged family, though still not sure whether he should kill himself and at one point monologuing that his life will have lasted “1951 to 2014”. So there’s a ghoulish “life imitating art” aspect, and it’s a Williams film so there’s a gigantic mawkish undertow too. But if you put the maudlin voiceover to one side, and block out the whimsical Wisteria Avenue soundtrack, and ignore the fact that it’s entirely and phonily episodic (director Phil Alden Robinson, yes he of Field of Dreams, doing very little to the stage play it’s based on), and can ignore James Earl Jones’s egregious cameo as the thrift store guy with a stutter – no, this is not some rhetorical device, I managed to tune out all these things – there’s plenty to really enjoy. Williams is phenomenally good as a man almost full up with bile, so good in fact that you wonder if this wasn’t a hidden side of his character. Kunis is also extremely on the money as the remorse-filled doctor trying to find her patient. And round the edges we have top flight talent – Peter Dinklage as his dismissive brother and Melissa Leo as his unfaithful wife both showing why they’re always in work.

The Angriest Man in Brooklyn – at Amazon




A Thousand Times Good Night (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Whereas this is the sort of film that always gets an easy ride. Because to criticise the film feels like a criticism of the person it’s about. A bleeding-heart war-zone photographer, played by Juliette Binoche, who is trying to fit the square peg of her humanitarianism into the round hole of her commitment to her family. Director Erik Poppe spends a lot of time delineating peg and hole – the hellish war zone, the rolling affluent splendour and gorgeous family back home in Ireland. He has good actors – including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the husband who is running out of empathy, Lauryn Canny as the daughter unsure whether to idolise this crusader for photojournalist truth or despise the absent parent. And he ducks about, from Afghanistan to Ireland to Kenya to Afghanistan again. But the sound you hear is of an issue-driven drama spinning the wheels. Watch it if you must for the fine acting – Binoche is never bad and Canny marks herself out as one to watch.

A Thousand Times Good Night – at Amazon




The Hypnotist (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD)

A Nordic noir that has two headline attractions. One is the return of director Lasse Hallström to his native Sweden. The other is the arrival of Lars Kepler on screen. Kepler is the pen-name of the husband and wife writing duo of Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho, who have been called “the next Stieg Larsson” so often they must be sick of it. If this film is anything to go on, we will have to carry on making do with the Larsson who died in 2004, because there’s nothing new going on here – a cop who calls in a hypnotist to try and access the unconscious mind of a witness traumatised by the murder of his family. Hallström opens up in spectacular fashion, with a multiple slaying that’s breathtaking and urgent, and ends with a fabulous scene in which a bus drives out across a frozen lake. In between… lovely shots of wintry Stockholm, scenes of the troubled cop (Tobias Zilliacus) battling his demons and his superiors, the hypnotist (Mikael Persbrandt) trying to rebuild trust with his wife (Lena Olin) after an affair with a hot doctor (Helena af Sandeberg). It’s all fine, it’s all good, it’s all very routine. As the cops say, nothing to see here.

The Hypnotist – at Amazon




Brick Mansions (Warner, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

This is a belated remake of the 2004 French parkour actioner District 13, which was a rentamob thriller full of brutes in black bomber jackets that sprang into life every time free-running god David Belle burst into action. This happened a lot. Belle returns here, starring alongside Paul Walker in his final film. I’m not sure if Brick Mansions was so heavily weighted in Walker’s favour originally, or whether a post-mortem edit has increased his share of the screen time. Either way there’s a distinct paucity of Belle, apart from the thrilling opening sequence when he runs, bounces, vaults and tumbles through a huge projects building in 2018 Detroit, which is pretty much a note for note copy of District 13’s opening sequence. After that it’s lots of Walker, some cynical Fast and Furious rubber-burning, very little Belle, whose dry relationship with Walker is enjoyable, if brief, as the two pair up to go into the off-limits Brick Mansions to take a nuclear weapon (or something) off RZA, the loquacious bad guy who, embarrassingly, likes to quote Bob Marley. Let me sub this down: it’s rubbish.

Brick Mansions – at Amazon





© Steve Morrissey 2014