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 March 2014-03-24

Marine Vacth in Jeune et Jolie

Out in the UK this week

Jeune et Jolie (Lionsgate, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Being hot is like a weapon. That’s what director/writer François Ozon’s drama about a French schoolgirl’s double life as a hooker seems to be saying. Ozon casts beautiful Marine Vacth as Isabelle, his teenage temptress, in a story that sees Isabelle offering her young bedflesh for cash to older gents, some of whom are nice, while others are only too keen to abuse their power. Meanwhile, at home, the girl’s beauty goes unremarked upon, until exactly what she’s been doing with it becomes apparent to mum, stepdad and their various friends, who react as if someone shouted “fire”. Ozon pits this carnal power against something potentially as strong, the ideal of romantic love – Isabelle falls in love. And then he metaphorically stands back to let them fight it out. How fitting that for the film’s coda Charlotte Rampling, once one of the most desired women on earth, turns up to administer a cool lesson in the dynamics of sexuality and time. Jeune et Jolie does not say much, especially for an Ozon film, but it does say it eloquently. And in the form of Vacth it also says it beautifully.

Jeune et Jolie – at Amazon

Fire in the Blood (Network, cert E, DVD)

An angry documentary that falters at the start thanks to a murky timeline. But once it gets going it tells a remarkable and disquieting story about drugs companies and their power. The focus is on the Aids crisis in Africa and how Big Pharma tried to stop selling generic drugs to the legions of people dying there. Largely, it seems, because they are black. Dylan Mohan Gray’s film really takes flight when he starts wheeling out the facts. The next time a drugs company tells you it needs to charge big money for pills because that’s how it funds R&D, remember that in fact most spend only about 1.3% of profit on research. And that 84% of worldwide drugs research is funded by governments and other public sources, not drugs companies, or so the film says. Fire in the Blood’s passion finds a heroic human focus in the figure of Yusuf Hamied, the Indian generic drugs manufacturer who broke the logjam by making Aids drugs from scratch, buying in the raw ingredients on the open market. He then sold the cocktails at somewhere around cost to African governments who had declared Aids a national emergency – a stroke learned from the US during its mini anthrax crisis – which allowed them to suspend patent agreements with the drugs companies. This lowered the price per treatment per person per year from $15,000 to $350. In a sinister coda we learn that the companies have since moved the goalposts. Drugs patent agreements no longer come under the aegis of national government legislation, because Big Pharma lobbied hard to have them included in the global World Trade Agreement talks. So next time there’s a similar crisis the Hamieds of the future won’t be able to act.

Fire in the Blood – at Amazon

Philomena (Pathe, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Steve Coogan finally comes good as an actor in this mismatched-buddies road-trip drama about a cynical journalist escorting a sweet elderly Irish woman in her search for the son she gave up years before, at the prompting of evil nuns (is there any other sort these days?). But then he is in the company of Judi Dench, a generous performer, and he’s being directed by Stephen Frears, who has a charmed light touch. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the real-life journalist, and writer of the book on which the film is based, who was forced to abandon his career as a political spin doctor and go back to being a jobbing journo. It’s to Sixsmith’s credit that he paints himself as a bit of a twat, a nobby member of the London mediarati whose last wish would be to accompany an ageing simple soul on a dreaded “human interest story” in search of her son. It’s this dynamic – he really is a cock-chafer; she takes a packet of Tunes and some custard creams on a car trip – that is the beating heart of the film. Some of the dialogue is twinklingly funny – “Martin, do you have a chocolate on your pillow,” Philomena asks excitedly after they check into a mid-range hotel. And though Dench’s Irish accent wanders here and there, her comic delivery – “I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin,” – is never in doubt. As for the plot – horrible nuns, searching high and low, trip to America, where they discover the long-lost son is… well, that’s spoiler territory. I watched it with my Irish Catholic mum, who ventured the opinion that nuns aren’t as bad as they’re being painted in films at the moment. Philomena, the film and the woman, seems to agree.

Philomena – at Amazon

The Missing Picture (New Wave, cert E, Blu-ray/DVD)

Is The Missing Picture a documentary? I’m not sure. It’s directed by Rithy Panh, a Cambodian who uses his camera to tell his own story, of growing up in Cambodia just as the Khmer Rouge arrived in the 1970s. Whether it’s a documentary or not, it’s a remarkable film that mines Panh’s awful past to tell the story of what happened – the starvation, the forced labour, the executions – with Panh using his own homemade clay figures to fill in the gaps where archive footage cannot or will not go. When I say homemade figures I mean lots of them, hundreds, possibly thousands. It looks like some sort of stunt at first, but Panh has lavished such care and attention on them – there’s his brother in a Hawaiian shirt, an entire village assembly, a mock-up of a movie studio, people working in the fields, at the market, everyday scenes from before and during the “occupation” by the obsessively Marxist Pol Pot, aka Brother Number 1, and his mad gang. It’s a sorrowful film, not an angry one, with a quiet considered commentary that only emphasises the grimness that was visited upon this country of gentle souls.

The Missing Picture – at Amazon

Saving Mr Banks (Disney, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Saving Mr Banks tells a great story not very well. Set in the early 1960s it picks us up at the point where Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) has finally persuaded PL Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him turn her book, Mary Poppins, into a film. He’s been trying for 20 years. She is broke and so hs finally agreed, though she demands, and gets, script approval, a power she proceeds to wield with a dictator’s sense of fair play. This aspect of the film – Disney’s irresistible force against Travers’s immovable object – is intensely satisfying, Hanks almost brimming over with sly folksy bonhomie while Thompson counters with a frosty asperity that makes her the anti-Poppins – sour, self-centred, snobbish, child-hating. Who’s going to win? We know it was Walt, of course. But how? Why? Because, the film tells us, Disney tapped into Travers’s own insecurities brought about by her own experience with her father. And in flashbacks that pepper the film and soon outstay their welcome, we’re introduced to young PL, in Australia, where her useless father (Colin Farrell) is to turn a good thing bad with his drinking and his incessant wild fantasising.

Saving Mr Banks – at Amazon

Diana (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Director Oliver Hirschbiegel is best known for his film Downfall, about Hitler’s last days in Berlin. This film about Princess Diana in the months after her divorce from Prince Charles is a drama about another famous person in a bunker. And as with Hitler so with Diana, Hirschbiegel taking some pains to present the human face behind the myth – Di giving the staff the night off, making herself beans on toast and, most crucially, pursuing the handsome doctor she’s accidentally bumped into at a nearby hospital and smuggling him back into Kensington Palace. This romance, between Diana and Dr Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) is the peg on which this portrait is hung. Presumably because Khan doesn’t have the legal clout to remove himself from the film’s gaze – notably there’s not a single royal personage or person of real public profile in this film. The dead princess’s legions of fans might like it; I doubt anyone else will really be interested in a jump through familiar headlines, the princess being portrayed as a giddy young woman with Mother Theresa tendencies. Naomi Watts tries – I don’t think I’ve ever seen her work harder – but she gets no further than the public perception of the woman. Same with the film.

Diana – at Amazon


Don Jon (Warner, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

I’ve heard Don Jon praised by people I respect (Tasha Robinson at The Dissolve, for one). But though I admired its intention and have a lot of time for its stars, it left a bad taste in the mouth. But big props to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, its star, writer, director, for deciding to tackle the issue of porn-induced emotional anhedonia, JGL’s character being the Don Jon of the title, a playa and porn addict whose hit rate with the ladies takes a deep dive after he falls for Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a totally hot ice queen he meets at the club. Leaving to one side the fact that this is the most ungenerous piece of writing for a female character I’ve seen in years – Johansson’s Barbara is a cockteasing nasty, smallminded bitch – Don Jon’s real problem is that it keeps telling us the same thing again and again. We see DJ affected by some new development (usually something Barbara did), his voiceover tells us about it, his friends greek-chorus it, his parents turn it into an issue, then the look on his sister’s face amplifies it further, until finally we hear about it all over again as DJ kneels in the confessional. Ah yes, the confessional. I could also entirely do without the New Jersey guys-in-their-singlets business and all the sub-Scorsese/Abel Ferrara Catholic bullshit. There is good stuff in here – when is JGL ever bad? – he’s tackling the right subject and he’s unafraid to present guys as feral when it comes to women. But so much doesn’t work. I’m not even going to mention what goes down once Julianne Moore turns up.

Don Jon – at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2014