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




5 May 2014-05-05

Juno Temple and Emily Browning in Magic Magic

Out in the UK This Week



Like Father, Like Son (Arrow, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A couple of years ago Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda made an enchanting film called I Wish, about two separated brothers, the importance of family ties being its theme. With Like Father, Like Son he’s similarly sure-footed and on the same turf but is coming at it from a slightly different direction. The story of the Nonomiyas, a well-to-do couple who discover that their five-year-old son isn’t actually their son at all – a mix-up in the maternity ward – this drama is all about the competing values of rearing over blood. The white-collar family discover that the owner of an electrical appliance store has their kid, and they have his. What’s more, the blue-collar Saikis are a really relaxed nice sort of family, who value time with their various offspring, while the Nonomiyas are uptight, demanding, constantly straining for “their” child to achieve, their whole attitude summed up in dad’s obsession with piano practice. This situation – swapped kids, class aspiration, hothouse parenting – is ripe for drama, and Koreeda milks it for all its worth. Should these two families keep things the way they are, swop kids, or what? In Koreeda’s hands what could easily have been a midweek TV weepie becomes an essay on the quantity theory of family – we love people not because they are the fruit of our loins but because we’ve spent time in their company. Both families are beautifully sketched, but the burden of the acting falls on Masahuru Fukuyama, who plays Mr Nonoyima, and does a brilliant job of making the unyielding father a figure of some sympathy. If it’s not the lake of joy that I Wish was, that’s because the subject matter was never going to allow that, but Like Father, Like Son is a fascinating film that will jerk tears from the driest of eyes.

Like Father, Like Son – at Amazon




Fossil (Drakes Avenue, cert 15, DVD/digital)

Here’s a promising debut by a director called Alex Walker, a four-handed drama about a couple of bickering Brits (John Sackville, Edith Bukovics) who have their fractious holiday in a very pleasant French gîte disrupted by the arrival of a loud American (Grant Masters doing a dudish Jeff Bridges thing) and his young girlfriend (Carla Juri). Over the next few days there’s a lot of drinking, some arguments conducted in loud whispers, a touch of cross-couple transgressive flirting and a very bad spoilerish thing happens too. For sure, we’re never not aware of the contrivance in the screenplay, which forces people to stay together in close proximity when they most probably wouldn’t. And not all the acting is that great either, though Sackville’s peevish Brit Paul pulls off the difficult feat of being unlikeable yet engaging. But Walker keeps the pace up, builds tension deliberately, delivers the heat and even the smells of the Dordogne setting. And when it comes time to switch from pent-up internal emotion to external action, the release – though nasty – is weirdly cathartic.

Fossil – at Amazon




The Railway Man (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

A trainspotter (Colin Firth) meets a pretty and forthright woman (Nicole Kidman) on the train in 1980s Britain. They get talking. They get on. There’s a spark. Within 20 minutes or so of screen time they are in fact married. And about five minutes after that, the trainspotter is having a full-on psychotic episode in which he imagines he’s back in the Japanese PoW camp where he spent the Second World War. What we have here, in other words, is a Second World War drama wrapped in something fluffy, in an attempt to attract another audience quadrant. One minute we’re back in the camp where brutality is meted out on a regular basis. Then we’re back in the present, where a decent woman is attempting to deal with a husband who clearly has post-traumatic stress disorder. Kidman, in fact, doesn’t have much to do, because this part of the story – the modern bit – doesn’t really serve much of a purpose until the film hits the home straight and the railway man (do you see?) heads off to the Orient to confront his past. Firth, however, is as reliable as ever as a decent, cool gent seething with repressed horror, and Jeremy Irvine is pretty good too as his younger self, even incorporating a few trademark Firth tics into his performance. Ultimately, The Railway Man is a bit dry, a bit muted, a true story that needed to be told. Perhaps just not in this way.

The Railway Man – at Amazon




Magic Magic (Koch, cert 15, DVD/digital)

A cabin-in-the-woods horror done as psychological study. The cast is a kind of an indie supergroup of young talent – Juno Temple, Michael Cera, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Agustin Silva. Silva, actually, is the director’s brother and so makes the group by way of special dispensation. But nepotism or not, he’s very good, as the alpha male of a gang of holidaying friends, into whose midst has been dropped the extremely nervous cousin (Temple) of the hot girl (Browning). In normal cabin in the woods films the jeopardy is all external. Here it’s inside the cabin – whether it’s Cera’s ADHD weirdness, Moreno’s cold hostility or Browning’s self-absorption, all of them just short of pathological. And it’s inside the head of the increasingly fraught newcomer, who basically just falls apart as the film builds towards its odd shocking climax. I’d love to say Magic Magic is a successful film, but it isn’t really. The Chilean locations are refreshing, mood is conjured effectively with off-kilter camera angles and a brooding score, and Cera’s almost unhinged performance really adds to the weird jangling mood. But that ending, straight out of leftfield, just does not compute.

Magic Magic – at Amazon




Child of God (Signature, cert 18, DVD)

Though best known as an actor, James Franco has directed more than 20 movies in the past eight/nine years. Child of God comes in at number 18 or so, and is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel about a hillbilly simpleton whose activities see him wandering, almost accidentally, from the fringes of civilised society into the full grip of outlawdom. Expect no famous faces and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see Tim Blake Nelson as the local sheriff, and Franco himself turns up in the tiniest role, presumably so someone in marketing could put the words “starring James Franco” on the posters. Instead there is the amazing sight of Scott Haze as wildman Lester Ballard, a ball of dim fury who we meet being thrown off his daddy’s land by the auctioneer who is selling up. This is Haze’s film – he’s in every shot – and it’s an acting tour de force. Franco, for his part, has enough confidence in his ensemble to let them get on with it, and they reward him with uniformly good performances. If he has less success getting McCarthy onto the screen, it’s the same problem Billy Bob Thornton had with McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and John Hillcoat had with The Road – McCarthy’s rhythmic prose translates too often to the screen as just plain repetitive – so let’s not be too hard. Instead let’s look forward to the arrival on DVD of Franco’s As I Lay Dying and on the big screen of his Bukowski, both of which also feature Scott Haze. Franco clearly feels he has a tiger by the tail.

Child of God – at Amazon




Zulu 50th Anniversary Edition (Paramount, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

The 50th anniversary restoration of Zulu reminds us, if we’d forgotten, what a fantastic looking film it was in the first place. Photographed by Stephen Dade in Technicolor and 70mm Technirama in the bright sun of South Africa, it rivals David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia for sheer screen brilliance. It made a star of Michael Caine too, here playing a high-born officer bridling at being given orders by a lieutenant (Stanley Baker) who is his social inferior. If we need another reminder that Caine cannot do accents, here it is, but otherwise he’s a riveting presence as Gonville Bromhead, who, along with Baker’s Lt. Chard, will eventually rally his men into a defence against the thousands of Zulus who are poised to flick the Brits into eternity. Made just as Britain was upping the pace on disposal of its colonies, dismantling its empire faster than you can say “bankrupt”, Zulu catches the ambivalence of the imperial legacy. Which makes for a much better film – this is no one-sided attack of savages against the godly civiliser – the “white man’s burden” is not too much in evidence.

Zulu – at Amazon




We Are the Freaks (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

A “last summer before adulthood” coming of ager, set in Birmingham, UK, centred on a loose group of friends, who seem to have little in common apart from a love of drugs and easy sex. The time is the 1980s, when writer/director Justin Edgar, a Birmingham boy, would have been growing up. And, we presume, his central character, the likeable and laddish Jack, is partly autobiographical. Edgar does an awful lot of things that a writer/director really shouldn’t – too many overhead shots, too much voiceover, there’s even the dreaded address-directly-to-camera that was once the wink-wink refuge of the ironic scoundrel. Some of this is forgivable – Edgar is working with a budget of zero – and as his story of the “freaks” and their messy relationships, gatecrashing of parties, run-ins with girlfriends, would-be girlfriends and a drug dealer called Killer Colin (another lovely mental performance by Michael Smiley) continues, it gradually becomes clear that, against all expectations, this is rather a good film. It is funny. The characters are likeable. Their story is interesting. The acting is actually very funny. The no-budget in-jokes twitting film conventions are actually quite good jokes. Towards the end it slightly loses faith in itself and becomes a touch silly, a bit unbelievable. But that’s not enough to sink it. Think The Last Picture Show as rewritten by The Inbetweeners and you’re about there.

We Are the Freaks – at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2014