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

 

 

 

29 September 2014-09-29

Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Edge of Tomorrow (Warner, cert 12, digital)

As hyper-aware of his position in the culture as he is of a camera in relation to his three-quarter profile, Tom Cruise knows that a lot of people want to see him taking a kicking. Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow as it seems to have become) answers that demand, with Cruise playing a cocky jumped-up PR guy pressganged into the army (which answers the “how come a guy over 50 is still in any army?” question) who then relives the same day over and over again, after he gets contaminated with alien blood. What plays out is a smart, fast Groundhog Day style sci-fi, with Cruise getting the last laugh as the guy who becomes the most formidable fighting machine the army has ever produced. And if that isn’t exactly a surprise in a Cruise film, Emily Blunt as an action heroine is – the non-smiling, super-tough battle vixen role suits her. And she gets to kill Cruise repeatedly too, in the interests of making him better/stronger – because every time he comes back, he comes back with his memories intact. It is in many ways a 1980s action movie, with Bourne Identity director Doug Liman laying on the blue, smoky, flat colour palette as the script by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth runs through a rake of 1980s standbys – the “you don’t know who you really are” plot, the time paradoxes, the Skynet future, the glorying in military hardware. Thirty years ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger would have been in this. Thirty years from now Edge of Tomorrow will probably get a remake, and the eightysomething Tom Cruise will probably be its star.

Edge of Tomorrow – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Norte, The End of History (New Wave, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Short review: this is a masterpiece. It’s a four hour epic set in the Philippines and focusing on two individuals. On one side is Fabian (Sid Lucero), a supersmart law student with an interest in moral relativism, postmodernity, all the usual intellectual debates. On the other is Ading (Hazel Orencio), a poor woman whose hardscrabble life selling vegetables is made even tougher when her sweet, harmless husband is sent to jail for murder. I won’t say how these two lives intersect, because it takes two hours for the film to reveal the first of its dramatic switcheroos, and nearly another hour and a half before its second. But both are monumentally dramatic. In between times director Lav Diaz somehow, magically, keeps us transfixed with long, perfectly framed shots that must have been a bugger to compose yet look so effortlessly right. You can see Norte as a state-of-the-nation film, or as one about class, but more than that it’s a simple story of two people – one who has it all and can’t appreciate his good fortune, the other who works, works, works and doesn’t have time for self-pity. Granted, these rich=bad, poor=good positions are a bit schematic, but the acting is so natural and believable, the plot so organic that objections recede as the immersive drama closes over you.

Norte, the End of History – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Lilting (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

In subject matter a little like Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm, writer/director Khaou Hong’s London-set drama is about the aftermath of a gay young man’s (Andrew Leung) death and the attempts by his lover (Ben Whishaw) to explain the true nature of their relationship to his grieving mother (Cheng Pei-pei). The wrinkle here being that she is Chinese, speaks no English and has been prematurely put in sheltered accommodation “temporarily” by her son just before he died. Good though Whishaw is, it’s Cheng’s film, and she’s a welcome stern presence with questing eyes in her dealings with the over-eager Richard (Whishaw) and with Alan (a rather good Peter Bowles), the randy codger making stinky eyes at her. A bit stagey, but nice.

Lilting – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Postman Pat: The Movie (Lionsgate, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD)

The British TV show for pre-schoolers gets the big-screen treatment, with Stephen Mangan now providing the voice of Postman Pat. The look and tone remain the same – bright, almost insanely cheerful (“Have a good day,” says Pat’s lovely wife. “I always do,” replies Pat) though Pat appears to have arrived in the world of restructuring, downsizing and all that with a plot that sees the post office taken over by a management wonk with a dastardly plan to outsource everything and replace the postpersons – part social worker, part police, part friend – with robots. Pat, meanwhile, has been persuaded to sign up for a TV talent competition, presided over by one Simon Cowbell. The film is written by Kim Fuller, brother of Simon Cowell’s former business partner Simon Fuller, but there appear to be no axes being ground in a fairly standard “Nasty Simon” portrayal of the big bad judge. As it should be – this is a film for young kids, who won’t care that the unaffected Pat’s singing voice is provided by the over-mannered Ronan Keating and that the odd “moral message” (technology has made us lose sight of the better things in life) seems aimed at their parents. Who might also half chortle at the fact that one of the bots, when being switched off, make a little 2001: A Space Odyssey reference. You know what it is. Cheerful.

Postman Pat: The Movie – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Run & Jump (Wildcard, cert 15, DVD)

Here’s an Irish film with an American and a Brit in the key roles. No matter, they’re both talented, with Will Forte as the US shrink embedded in a hurly-burly Irish family, Maxine Peake the wife of the stroke victim he’s observing. So how long before they get into each others pants – that’s the clear expectation with any drama of this sort. But the canny thing about Run & Jump is how much it makes us run and jump as we rush towards what we see as the film’s obvious romantic conclusion. I can’t, in other words, tell you anything more about the plot. What I can say is that Forte, last seen by me in Nebraska, is fine as the mopey scientist but that Peake is miles better as the wife and mother whose bright demeanour is a brassy hat on top of a roiling world of worry. Without Peake, the fact that Run & Jump is a tiny bit long might have been more obvious.

Run & Jump – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

The Wind Rises (StudioCanal, cert PG, Blu-ray/DVD)

The great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki says this is his farewell, and he appears to be going out with a highly personal subject – a film about the Japanese plane designer named Jirô Horikoshi (voiced in the English dub by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the planes he designed in the run-up to (and including) the Second World War. The animation is a gorgeous as ever – the 2D style almost bereft of detail apart from one small, possibly not even that important, eye-grabbing item in every shot (tatami matting, a balustrade, the shadow of a train running along the ground). As for plot, it falls into two halves – the design stuff (based on actual events) and the personal stuff (entirely made up). I found the design stuff to be neither Arthur nor Martha – not detailed enough to engage, nor background enough not to intrude. But the personal stuff – Jiro’s romance with a woman (voice: Emily Blunt) he meets during an earthquake – the earth literally moved – was entirely charming, and the interlude set in a tuberculosis sanatorium which owes a large debt to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain were also heartwarming and as sure a sign of Miyazaki’s Europhilia as the quotes from Paul Valéry and Christina Rossetti. As for the idea that Miyazaki isn’t addressing the issue of artistic culpability and the Second World War, that’s obviously been put about by people who are both blind and deaf.

The Wind Rises – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Goltzius and the Pelican Company (Axiom, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

After Nightwatching, the second in Peter Greenaway’s Dutch Masters series is big-scale film making, the sort you might remember from his The Thief, the Cook, His Wife and Her Lover. A story about an acting troupe playing out just the naughty bits from the Bible (Sodom & Gomorrah, Salome and John the Baptist, David and Bathsheba etc) gives Greenaway all the canvas he needs to put on a lavish, theatrical and punishingly symmetrical display of painterly mis-en-scenes, a renaissance tale of puckish fancy in which neither the establishing frame – F Murray Abraham’s central European court – nor the stories within it are immune from disruption. It is all very 1980s, though there’s no denying Greenaway’s eye for an arresting image and his actors’ enthusiasm for taking their clothes off (especially the gents with the larger endowments), Abraham’s booming voice somehow grounding everything when the assemblage of nakedness, hysteria, arthouse splatter, varying levels of reality and front- and back-projection threatens to disappear up its own back passage. Welcome back, Mr G.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014