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

 

 

 

24 February 2014-02-24

Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza in Safety Not Guaranteed

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Safety Not Guaranteed (Vertigo, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Since The Puffy Chair I’ve been a sucker for anything connected with the Duplass brothers. Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly’s film stars Mark Duplass as a nerdy shelfstacker guy who puts an advert into a paper asking for a companion to go time-travelling with him, “safety not guaranteed”. But we pick the story up from its other end, as we follow aspiring journalist Aubrey Plaza, lead writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and supernerd Arnau (Karan Soni) as they head out into the boonies to track down the obvious whackjob for their magazine, humiliation probably guaranteed. Mumblecore goes sci-fi, kind of, is the big (or small) idea, and the film works so well because Plaza’s brand of winsome cynicism (“you’re dangling my vagina out there like bait,” she says to Jeff at one point) and Duplass’s overgrown slackerdom are so appealing, even though this sort of thing really has been chased to an early grave. Sci-fi/time travel nuts won’t find a lot to get sweaty over, but it’s a nicely observed human drama that offers emotional arcs for nearly all concerned.  And the ending is something of a surprise too.

Safety Not Guaranteed – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Thor: The Dark World (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/Digital)

If Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor film reflected the light-heartedness of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s 1962 creation, Alan Taylor’s follow-up picks up the other strand and dives into the mythos, albeit Whedonesquely. Hence the complicated plot, with one strand featuring Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) mortal love interest Natalie Portman, another featuring her sidekick Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgard and Jonathan Howard (the earthly scientific contingent), yet another featuring a malevolent being called Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) whose henchmen creatures usefully have tusks, to mark Malekith out as a baddie in case the sulphurous fumes hadn’t alerted you. And yet one more strand incorporating the domestic set-up of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), Frigga (Rene Russo) and the now-imprisoned Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an Asgardian naughty kid who’s been sent to his room. As you might expect from a Game of Thrones director, Taylor has no trouble keeping all these storylines in play though he lavishes special attention on the interactions between Loki and Thor. As in the original comic, so in the film. Strangely, for all its pluses, this isn’t an awesome superhero movie. Even the big special effects sequences are a bit meh. That is down in part to the only really weak link – Malekith, an underwritten Star Trek baddie aiming to destroy the universe with a sneer. But Thor: The Dark World is at least engaging. And you couldn’t say that for Iron Man 3.

Thor: The Dark World – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Last Days (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

From Spanish sibling directors David and Alex Pastor, whose last film, Carriers, was about a viral pandemic, another film about a viral pandemic. Do not worry, it is a good one, drawing a lot of its power from the way that a sudden massive change in circumstances can make obvious what is almost hidden in daily life. In this case absurd power relations. We are following the scrabble through Barcelona’s subterranean tunnels and sewers of a slightly devil-may-care computer programmer (Quim Gutierrez) and the outside axeman (José Coronado) brought in to fire half the workforce at the company he had been working at till disaster struck, two guys who under normal circumstances would have little to say to each other now forced to co-operate in order to survive. The Pastors capably build a world in total chaos, where men are walking around holding rats by the tale (dinner!) and where meeting a stranger is a fraught event. It’s a familiar journey, in many way, of a callow young man and a more strategically inclined older guy, with The Last Days definitely more powerful in its first meet-and-greet phase than in its second half, when they grudgingly start to respect each other and even have a heartfelt conversation about their failings as men. Mismatched buddies go Children of Men, yes, that’s about it.

The Last Days – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Mister John (Artificial Eye, cert 15, DVD)

Working in the same territory as the Gosling/Refn film Only God Forgives, writer/directors Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s dreamy, deceptively lulling film follows a Brit (Aidan Gillen) out to Singapore where his newly dead brother has left behind a bar eponymously named Mister John’s. It’s a girls/booze/what-have-you kind of bar at the top end of sordid, or bottom end of glam. Mister John has also left behind a Singaporean wife, plus a gaggle of dodgy expats and goodtime local girls keen to lay hands on Mr Gerry, as they inevitably call the new arrival. The question that the film poses is: is Mr Gerry going to tidy up his brother’s affairs and then return to his fairly shitty life back home? Or is he going to be seduced into stepping into the dead man’s shoes? Actually, scratch that Gosling/Refn reference. This isn’t an exercise in neon slo-mo, though it does share a lot of the operatic ambitions of Only God Forgives, and also renders many events as a waking dream – I was frequently wondering whether Mr Gerry was a dead man too; he just didn’t know it. As the final credits rolled, what I had become convinced of was that Lawlor and Molloy are excellent film-makers in search of a bigger, better subject. Until that comes along this fascinating, mysterious film full of passive flaky men and dynamic destiny-shaping women will just have to do.

Mister John – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

One Chance (EV, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The story of the rags to riches rise of Paul Potts, winner of TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent in 2007 with his range of operatic songs and his backstory of woe – Pavarotti, no less, told him he was no good – is brought to the screen by producer Simon Cowell, no less. For this reason alone it would be easy to hate One Chance. But Cowell is nothing if not smart and has bought in talent – Justin Zackham, writer of The Bucket List and The Fastest Man in the World. And David Frankel, director of The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me. So, one who writes about men with a dream, the other who directs largely female-centric feelgood. Smart. The killer app is James Corden as Potts. Corden is impossible not to like when he’s being likeable, easy to hate when he’s being a cock, but he’s on extremely likeable form here as the fat kid from South Wales who always had a dream etc etc. Alexandra Roach plays the girl he met internet dating and who became his instant life partner – true story, apparently. And the story itself. It’s Billy Elliot, more or less, impossible to hate, no matter how manipulated you feel afterwards. Again, smart.

One Chance – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Machete Kills (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

I only watched this because there was a shortfall of decent new DVDs out this week, the first Machete having drained my enthusiasm for life itself. The original, Robert Rodriguez’s excuse for lazy, tired, moneygrabbing film-making, was criticproof – it was meant to be terrible because grindhouse was terrible, so the theory goes. The theory stinks. I’ve seen Undercover Brother, so know how well written, intelligent and funny old genre knockoff can be. But on to this Machete, which is a vast improvement on the first, until it runs out of gas at an hour in. Up to then we’ve had Danny Trejo as the mythical Mexican force of nature making Schwarzeneggerish pronouncements such as “Machete don’t Tweet”, all very amusing, as a string of famous people wander across one weapons-grade scene of bandito badassery after another. Jessica Alba, Lady Gaga, Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson. There’s even a faux trailer to kick things off which jokily claims to feature Leo DiCaprio as “the man in the silver mask”. Other funny moments include a “put on the 3D glasses now” sign flashing up on the screen as Amber Heard takes her clothes off. She’s a major baddie, by the way, and we don’t actually get to see her take her clothes off. Best thing in it by a long way is Demian Bichir, playing a giggling Mexican crime lord with two personalities, both of them on the mental spectrum. And some of the action is fun in a ridiculous way – Machete jumping out of a helicopter into the back of a speeding boat, then using a harpoon gun to wind an assailant up into the rotors of a chopper. That. But on the whole it’s a further example of Rodriguez’s category error – a bad action movie is just as dumb as a good action movie. Making fun of the dumb is shooting fish in a barrel, which is one stunt I don’t think I saw Machete attempt. Did I mention Cuba Gooding Jr? And Antonio Banderas? And Vanessa Hudgens?

Machete Kills – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Classe tous risques (BFI, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The 1960 film that is supposed to bridge the gap between the well made traditional French film of the 1950s and the edgy chaotic New Wave. As such it’s about a slightly older guy than the New Wave dealt with, a beefy career criminal (Lino Ventura) on the run who in short order we see pulling a desperate job, making good his escape, before his family and partner in crime are gunned down in front of him in a shootout with the police. Director Claude Sautet choreographs all this with grace, charges ahead with pace and shoots everything in the sort of stunning black and white (apart from one fuzzy moment this is a beautifully restored film) that perfectly suits the cool jazzy soundtrack. Enter Jean Paul Belmondo, minutes away from everlasting fame in Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, and the film doesn’t so much grind to a halt as embark on an “after the break” part two featuring Belmondo and a girl he rescues by the roadside as he drives the fugitive gangster back to Paris. Where the film embarks on part three, the bit where the meaty and violent Ventura is let down by his old compadres and has to organise one desperate “last job”. This three part zigzag is the enemy of a film that is cool and excellent in so many ways – the set design is meticulous and fascinating; the casting is as brilliant as the way that Sautet sketches characters large and small with the sort of economy Tarantino should study; Sautet’s sense of filmic geography is perfect; and he’s cast Belmondo, an instant star from the moment he slouches onto the screen.

Classe Tous Risques – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Serpico (Eureka, cert 18, Blu-ray)

Made in a hurry and featuring a star in a hurry, this is the film that most endeared Al Pacino to a generation of filmgoers back in the early 1970s, with his portrayal of the fresh faced cop who grows his hair, who won’t take backhanders, and who suffers for his principles. He’s a hippie in the belly of the beast – “You look like an asshole with dentures” one of his superiors tells him when he reports for work at a new precinct in beard and beanie hat, smock shirt and flared trousers. Serpico goes to the ballet, attends night school, hangs out with artists, he drinks tea. In police eyes he’s a faggot. To audiences watching him back then he was a hero sticking it to the man who, ultimately, stuck it back to him. Looked at now, more than 40 years on, Serpico is a more complex figure. He’s deliberately naive, passive when he shouldn’t be, self-righteous, priggish, failings you could lay at the door of the counterculture too, at its worst. This makes for a more interesting film than the basic billing suggests, vindicates Pacino’s acting choices, and reminds us how good the man used to be before he disappeared into his own firmament. Amazingly, the film was actually shot backwards chronologically, Pacino starting with long hair and beard and having it trimmed as he went. So his transformation from puppy-eyed, duck-voiced rookie to a rebel with a cause and a swagger is all the more remarkable. Sidney Lumet’s leisurely pace, shooting on around 100 New York locations with cinematographer Arthur Ornitz, plus Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler’s tight screenplay put this right up there with All the President’s Men in terms of early 1970s film-making with real craft as well as crusading zeal. True story too.

Serpico – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014