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

 

 

 

22 September 2014-09-22

Ingvar Eggert Sigur∂sson in Of Horses and Men

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Of Horses and Men (Axiom, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

The jacket photo of the DVD shows a man sitting on a mare that’s being mounted by a stallion. The look of passive acceptance on the mare’s face, randy enthusiasm on the stallion’s and stubborn resistance on the man’s says much of what you need to know about this instant classic, the debut by Benedikt Erlingsson. The mounting incident is the first of several discrete stories that eventually tie together, detailing life in rural Iceland, where a horse is still a valuable commodity and humans are seen, to a large extent, as at their best when they accept their animal natures. I guarantee something in this film will make your jaw drop. For me it was the big burly guy spurring his horse into the freezing sea, then forcing it to swim a good distance out to a passing trawler and shouting “Vodka?! Dollar!” as he gets near. The comedy is as bone-dry as the images are arresting, and under it all there’s a fabulously warm, humane spirit at work, with a spare aesthetic that calls to mind the offbeat work of the Swede Roy Andersson.

Of Horses and Men – at Amazon

 

 

 

Before the Winter Chill (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Like his I’ve Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime), Philippe Claudel’s film is one sort of genre hiding within another. It looks like the story of a middle aged man having a fling with a younger woman, and of the spurned wife at home. In fact it’s a thriller, and I really can’t say any more than that without ruining it. Daniel Auteuil plays the brain surgeon whose achingly tasteful life with stay-at-home wife Kristin Scott Thomas is thrown into the blender when he hooks up with an ex patient (well, she says she is an ex patient), played by Leïla Bekhti, and starts an affair that’s initially tentative, then increasingly passionate. A beautifully made film of a very French sort that will disappear for good once Claudel, Auteuil and Scott Thomas’s generation have gone, it’s full of so many beautiful character touches (Auteuil’s fat fingers with his wedding band on so tight it would have to be cut off), gorgeous establishing shots (so many piles of autumnal leaves – symbolism alert) and acting of the “I speak; you pause” sort, that it’s easy enough to stay entertained until the movie’s real intentions declare themselves. Too elegant? Yeh, probably.

Before the Winter Chill – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Lost Patrol (Kaleidoscope, cert 15, DVD)

A Brazilian Second World War film. Rare enough. But it’s a good one with its own distinct tone, unlike almost any war film I’ve seen. Though the story is fairly routine – a Brazilian engineering corps lost in wintry Italy and worried that they’re going to be accused of desertion winds up de-mining a strategically important road (the Estrada 47 of its original title), with a photojournalist and a wounded Nazi along for the ride. No, that’s not your routine story either, is it? And its execution is even more out there – sober, deliberately quiet, intimate, spending a lot of time establishing its characters and so averse to big noises that even when a mine goes off it’s shown from way way back. And there’s even a nice, Martin Sheen-style Apocalypse Now voiceover delivered by its good-looking star Daniel de Oliveira, who can probably book himself a ticket to Hollywood, if he fancies it.

The Lost Patrol – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Short Game (Kaleidoscope, cert E, DVD/digital)

A documentary about young golfers which shows that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy didn’t just come from nowhere. In tried and tested manner director Josh Greenbaum introduces us to a number of seven- and eight-year-olds before we head into the tournament they’re all competing in. Among them are Zam Nxasana, the South African whose parents see him as a beacon for their post-apartheid country, Jed Dy, the Filipino whose extreme aversion to publicity of any sort gives the lie to the notion that these kids are all attention-seeking brats. And there’s Allan Kournikova, brother of Anna, who is the number one seven-year-old golfer in the world. This is a real film of two halves – in part one we meet these gifted boys and girls, in part two the film devolves into what looks and sounds like standard sports coverage of their tournament, complete with the usual inane “how did you feel about that” post-match interview (which the kids are already adept at handling) and it starts to drag. It’s 20 minutes too long and there’s little insight but it is a fascinating intro to a bizarre world. And my god they all have a great swing.

The Short Game – at Amazon

 

 

 

A Jester’s Tale (Second Run, cert U, DVD)

Here’s an example of the dreaded picaresque movie – no plot, just incident – Karel Zeman’s 1964 Polish comedy set during the Thirty Years War. Loosely, it’s a Good Soldier Schwejk affair following two guys, Petr (Petr Kostka) and Matej (Miroslav Holub), as they find themselves on one side or the other as the battle thrums and the winners become temporary losers and vice versa. Petr is your D’Artagnan figure, all virility, impetuosity, and with a comely face that wows the ladies (mostly in the shape of Audrey Hepburn-alike Emília Vásáryová), while Matej is Athos, Porthos and Aramis all rolled into one, all fists-on-hips laughter and cornball wisdom. And dreaded the film would be if you just watched it for its one-damn-thing-after-another plot. Which would be to miss the sheer technical brilliance of it, and why it’s been a key influence on film-makers at the fantastical end of the scale, Terry Gilliam and Wes Anderson to name but two. A mad assemblage of live action mixed with animation, cutouts, surreal comp shots, it builds to a majestic and fairly insane conclusion in its last 20 minutes, during which Zeman overlays image after image (pre-digital, this can only lead to severe degradation, though the remarkably crisp restoration really helps) which are as audaciously creative as they are beautifully composed.

A Jester’s Tale – at Amazon

 

 

 

A Touch of Sin (Arrow, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Jia Zhang Ke’s loose Altman-esque drama lifts the lid on modern China – showing us sweatshops, the corruption and the whorehouses, the whole such a portrait of negativity that it’s a mystery how it got to be made at all, given the Party’s stranglehold on cultural production. Beginning with the shooting of a trio of hammer-wielding thugs, moving on to the sight of a man beating his horse until it collapses, pausing to watch as a duck has its throat slit and its blood is run into a cup, it starts out as the story of a bitter hothead (Jiang Wu) who goes on a rampage of violence in an attempt to unseat the corrupt village chief. The level of splatter is high, which sits oddly with the pace of the thing, which seems to have Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia as some kind of structural and tonal reference, while its loosely connected (or not) various stories feature people at crunch moments – the man and woman discussing the end of their affair, the prostitute being taunted by a client, the garment worker causing a colleague to drive a cutting blade into his hand. However, it’s a tough watch, not because of the violence, but because the characters are held at arm’s length and we’re never quite sure who we’re meant to be rooting for.

A Touch of Sin – at Amazon

 

 

 

Miss and the Doctors (Drakes Avenue, cert 15, digital)

Two brothers, both of them doctors, fall for the same woman (Louise Bourgoin) after the brothers have been called out to deal with the absent mother’s diabetic daughter. Which one is she going to go for – is it going to be the nice smooth one (Laurent Stocker) or the gruff, offhand one (Cédric Kahn)? Hang on a second, both of them called out to a patient? This seems unlikely, and a wasteful use of a valuable resource, but the two brothers do indeed seem to work in tandem, just the first of many unlikelihoods that plague what should be a nice romantic drama with some sibling complications. One of the brothers, the nice one, is also an alcoholic, a fact we’re introduced to but which seems to have no bearing on anything that subsequently happens. In fact nothing has any real bearing on anything and there’s no real drama, but then, fittingly for a medically themed story, the characters are all x-rays and absolutely nothing in any area rings true. It looks great though, all plummy, woody shades, burnt oranges and ambers, as does Bourgoin, who you might have seen in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec but is entirely wasted here.

Miss and the Doctors – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014