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




10 March 2014-03-10

Alice Englert and Iain De Caestecker in In Fear

Out in the UK this week



In Fear (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

In Fear is a great little movie with a cast of two for most of it, Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert as a couple who barely know each other but are now off to a festival together in Ireland. He’s driving, she’s wondering, antennae flapping, why he’s booked the pair of them a preliminary night in an out-of-the-way hotel. Except that, no matter how often they follow the signs, they just don’t seem to be able to find the hotel. Taking this as its starting point, director Jeremy Lovering lashes together a titanic raft of increasing creepiness from the simplest of ingredients – their in-car interaction, the road outside, the trees, the desolate countryside. Like the best films of this sort it’s all done with smoke and mirrors – creepy camera angles and a moody soundtrack. Lovering makes even the swoosh of a windscreen wiper sound full of foreboding. Connoisseurs of the “a couple and a car” genre will note that this is a vast improvement on 2007’s Wind Chill, which worked a similar setup into a supernatural corner it never quite came back from. In Fear doesn’t go there. Instead it prefers its shocks to be flavoured with real human. Which makes for something more crazed, gothic, believable and ultimately more satisfying.

In Fear – at Amazon




The Butler (EV, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

With so many Hollywood movies cheating at their equal opportunities casting – black actors often in positions of high status within the film but having no real dramatic heft – Lee Daniels’s latest film looks like it’s reversing the situation. The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, the lowly and patient butler to eight US presidents, from Eisenhower onwards, whose tenure of office ran alongside efforts by black American citizens to enjoy the civil rights their whiter brethren took for granted. The presidents are all played by big names – John Cusack as Nixon, James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as Reagan etc – and not one of them has any dramatic input worth speaking of. Which is refreshing. That’s not to say that The Butler is exactly brimming over with drama focusing on Gaines – though his struggles with his son, who joins the Black Panthers while Gaines waits for the presidents he serves to do the right thing, are the philosophical heart of the piece. Like Gaines himself, Whitaker subsumes himself in his role, leaving the grabbier displays of acting to others – Oprah Winfrey is fantastic as his wife, David Oleyowo ditto as his son, and Yaya Alafia does herself a ton of favours as a spitfire skank Black Panther. Daniels livens things up every now and again with a fight, a spat, a bit of trademark melodrama (he made Precious and The Paperboy, let’s remember). Even so it’s hard to escape the fact that this is heritage film-making peddling a profoundly toe-the-line message.

The Butler – at Amazon




Short Term 12 (Verve, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A film set in a kids home that doesn’t feature the workers sexually interfering with their charges, that’s unusual enough. But one that doesn’t go for fireworks, aims instead for something approximating real life (actual real life being a bit boring) that’s doubly unusual. Brie Larson, everyone’s indie, up-and-coming darling right now, is the star, playing Grace, the supersussed young woman looking after kids who aren’t really that much younger than her in the home known as Short Term 12 – the name Holding Tank presumably already being used somewhere else in the municipality. Destin Cretton’s film doesn’t set out to do anything other than show us people and tell us their stories – Marcus the angry rapper, Sammy the weird withdrawn kid who’s always making a run for it, Jayden the sulky superbright new girl whose behaviour rings a bell in the head of Grace. Cretton might be a Christian, I don’t know. I say this because he seems determined to go for uplift, clean resolution, redemption. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, considering what you normally get with films set in institutions for kids, his approach is radical. And his film is beautifully acted, intelligently directed and a bit of a one-off.

Short Term 12 – at Amazon




Drinking Buddies (Sony, cert 15, DVD)

So, an indie-ish sort-of romance with a dark undertow that casts Olivia Wilde as the only girl working in a microbrewery, Jake Johnson as one of the brewers, a guy she gets on with really well, shares lunch and confidences with. She likes beer, he likes beer. They are meant for each other, obviously. But each has a partner. For him it’s Anna Kendrick, playing a peevish girlfriend just this side of slappable; for her it’s Ron Livingston, a pursed lip older guy who’s just this side of shootable. So when are the two going to get it on? This is the lure that writer/director Joe Swanberg dangles before us. And doesn’t he dangle it? Giving us endless shots of Wilde being cute, sniffing her armpits to check she doesn’t smell when she thinks no one is looking. The problem being that Olivia Wilde’s armpits couldn’t smell if the hollows had been used for scooping processed anchovy waste for a week. She’s too damned… she’s Olivia Wilde. If you can buy the fact that Johnson – playing a nice guy with a normal sex drive and two eyes in his head, no religious impediments, no gay inclinations that we’re made aware of – wouldn’t make some sort of move long before Swanberg excellently pulls the rug out from under our feet, then I entirely recommend this film. If you can’t, you’ll be shouting “get on with it” as I was.

Drinking Buddies – at Amazon




Motorway (Arrow, cert 15, DVD)

Ever since the British handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997 the movies coming out of what was once one of the world’s cinematic powerhouses have changed in character – if I see one more film about the Three Kingdoms making the point that powerful government is what China really needs. Anyway, here’s Motorway to remind us what Hong Kong used to produce before everything went fu manchu moustache. It’s a fast-paced cop actioner like they used to make in other words, with synth drums on the soundtracks, night shoots drenched in blue light. And the plot… well that’s a throwback too, to a Lethal Weapon story of a cop on the verge of retirement and the hotshot who thinks he knows all the tricks in the book. But mostly Motorway is a series of rubber-burning car stunts interspersed with flavoursome character scenes – rookie tries to pick up babe in poolhall; Danny Glover guy teaches rookie a cool car stunt – and these are genuinely terrific. The static drift – nudge-driving a car round a corner while moving at zero miles per hour is particularly impressive, especially if volcanic plumes of smoke are your thing. And unlike some rubber-burners, Motorway does stop to point out here and there that this stuff is actually dangerous, that innocent people get killed when nutters run around in powercars (the Mazda S13, prominently). That the communists have decided to wake up the Hong Kong film industry is a great thing, and while Motorway isn’t perfect, it’s a great start.

Motorway – at Amazon




Ender’s Game (E One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

A voiceover from somewhere in the future informs us that kids, by virtue their video-game savvy, are much faster, more visual, more co-ordinated than their elders, and so have been selected as the warriors who will save planet earth from attack by giant alien antlike things. With that established we’re into a sort of Bugsy Malone in space, and what must be the most insufferable sci-fi film for decades. The story of Ender, the wee kid chosen, Harry Potter-like, because of his special talents by a wise old guru – Harrison Ford, not so much acting as sneering his way through what’s clearly a “take the money and run” role – is familiar in its arc. Ender is chosen, he joins the ranks, he is subjected to initial humiliation before winning the grudging respect of all who encounter him, largely by specialising in the sort of insubordination that would get any recruit in any military organisation taken out and shot. Asa Butterfield plays Ender, and I spent much of the film trying to work out whether it was Butterfield or Ender who was giving off the odour of priggishness. As for the script – insistent, repetitive, uppity, boring and just plain through-the-fingers dreadful. Enter Ben Kingsley – who was in Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne so knows how to keep a straight face – as some sort of fabled pilot, and the film does actually start to improve. It improves again as it moves into its final third, and the live action is increasingly displaced in favour of a swarm of game imagery. In its last five minutes it improves yet again, and it becomes apparent that it is Ender who is the appalling insubordinate cock-chafing snot and that Butterfield has just been playing him as written. Bring on part two.

Ender’s Game – at Amazon




Mouchette (Artificial Eye, cert 15, Blu-ray)

Mouchette is by a good stretch Robert Bresson’s most easily digested film. The monochrome classic from 1967 is a masterpiece of compression, introducing us in its first five minutes to the young loner Mouchette, her sick mother, severe father, pinched teacher, a gamekeeper and a poacher, and Luisa, the hottie who works at the local bar whom both gamekeeper and poacher would like to ensnare. Wandering like a holy innocent through all these stories is the wretched Mouchette, whose encounter with both rivals for Luisa’s affections while walking home through the woods sets her up for an outcome that Red Riding Hood would recognise. Though it’s still clearly there, in Mouchette Bresson is insisting less severely on the “anti-acting” style his films are noted for. And maybe his story-telling is a touch less severe too – there is the odd embellishment; not everything is left to our imaginations to fill in. But on the whole it’s Bresson down the line – rarely a line of dialogue when the scene can do without; the sound tells the story or the picture does but never the twain. And even when it comes to sound, it’s either dialogue or the ambient noise that’s doing the hard work, again never both. This restoration reminds us of the power of black and white when a film has been made by a cinematographer (Ghislain Cloquet) who knows how to squeeze all the tones from the restricted palette – entirely appropriate for Bresson too – and is so well done it will bear magnifying glass scrutiny.

Mouchette – at Amazon



© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Butler

Oprah and Forest Whitaker


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



7 March


Police attack Alabama marchers, 1965

On this day in 1965, a day that subsequently became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers attacked civil rights demonstrators outside the town of Selma, Alabama. Between 500 and 600 demonstrators were marching to protest against the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man who had been shot by a policeman after a previous civil rights march on 18 February. Any grouping of more than three civil rights campaigners had been declared illegal by a judge, and the local governor, George Wallace, went on to declare the march a threat to public safety. At Edmund Pettus Bridge the marchers met state troopers, backed up by the large number of white males who had been deputised only that morning. At the bridge the commanding officer ordered the demonstrators to go home and refused to discuss anything with the leader of the march, Reverend Hosea Williams. The troopers attacked the demonstrators, hospitalising 17 and injuring many more. The publicity generated by the event ensured that the next march, held two days later and led by Martin Luther King Jr, would be attended by nearly four times as many people.




The Butler (2013, dir: Lee Daniels)

The Butler is an example of a genre that’s usually stacked with well fed white people – the heritage drama – stacked with well fed black people. But being a story about black people in recent decades it inevitably dips into waters more political than you usually find in your average white heritage drama. It’s about the slow emancipation of black people, in other words. And following the old newspaper maxim that the best way to cover any awkward subject is to turn it into a human interest story, director Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong focus on the figure of Cecil Gaines, the poor black kid from the cotton-picking South who served in the White House in a variety of domestic roles for eight presidents from the 1950s onwards. A 50something Forest Whitaker struggles to look young under the presidency of Eisenhower, as the rookie butler who has swapped a life on the plantation – his mother raped, his father murdered – for the more genteel environs of the White House. But as we move on to JFK and Johnson, the age gap fades into insignificance as the butler butles (or whatever the verb is) invisibly while the various leaders of the free world discuss pressing events. Meanwhile, at home, Gaines is a severe but affectionate husband (to excellent Oprah Winfrey) and a tough-love dad struggling to bring his kids up to share his gradualist view of history. But one of his kids, brought up in the progressive, combative 1960s, becomes actively involved in the civil rights struggle. Too actively, as far as his father is concerned. Can a butler, a servant, make a contribution to the struggle? Is the “house nigger” (as Gaines is described early on) a man at all? These are the film’s big questions.
The answer is yes, as you might imagine. Don’t bother watching if you have any residual affection for the political stance of the Black Panthers, and other radicals who took more direct forms of action to secure their political objective. They’re not treated well. Not treated fairly, in fact. But though it would be easy to dismiss the film as a conservative screed, it’s the attempt to reconcile the twin prongs of black political progress that make it interesting.
Danny Strong’s screenplay is inspired by a Washington Post article about the real life of White House butler Eugene Allen, and together with director Lee Daniels he commits some of the cardinal sins of biopics – he tends to tell us stuff we already know, a tendency shared by Rodrigo Leão’s score, which also isn’t above deploying the musical equivalent of emoticons. Of the presidents, they’re all interesting in their way, though none has more than a blur-on appearance and a couple of lines to say. Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan, surprisingly enough, fares best of the lot of them, all twinkles and folksy avuncularity. But Daniels’s strength as a director is in co-ordinating groups of people, of keeping a lot of balls up in the air. It’s an assured piece of storytelling which only now and then heads into melodramatic territory, which as we know from Precious and The Paperboy is Daniels’s special area of expertise.
Look out for Jane Fonda – Hanoi Jane back in the day – as Nancy Reagan. That’s a joke, a conservative joke, the casting equivalent of a “not so radical now, Jane, eh?”. We live in different times, Lee Daniels’s times, not Hanoi Jane’s. “Slowly slowly catchee monkey”, that’s the film’s message. Or maybe “they also serve who only stand and butle”.



Why Watch?


  • See Forest Whitaker once again subsume himself to his role
  • The stunt casting of the presidents – John Cusack as Richard Nixon!
  • A history of the civil rights struggle from a different perspective
  • Great support from the likes of David Oyelowo and Yaya Alafia


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Butler – at Amazon