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

 

 

 

7 July 2014-07-07

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori in The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Like a cornier Peter Greenaway, Wes Anderson gives us tableaux, picture-postcard symmetry, exquisite control of his mis-en-scène, in a black forest gateau of a movie, set in Europe between the wars, the last great age of decadence. Its revelation is that Ralph Fiennes can do funny, as the charming but crooked concierge with a finger in every pie (and most of his aged female guests) who is accused of murder when one of his ancient paramours is found dead. Whether he did it or not is immaterial. Anderson has, by the time we get to this point, pretty much abandoned storytelling in favour of whipped cream montages and caricature cameos, as if he were directing a musical from Hollywood’s golden era, minus the tunes. Anderson has a genius for storytelling (Bottle Rocket, Moonrise Kingdom) but either thinks he’s beyond all that now or is somehow re-inventing the whole notion of narrative – the tricksy story within a story within a story opening is just the first of many conceits. Stand back and marvel at the cast. Though as Anderson throws Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, F Murray Abraham, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan and Léa Seydoux into the mix – there are many many more – the law of diminishing returns applies punishingly. First 25 minutes a feast of rococo madness, the following 75 grating arch posturing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – at Amazon

 

 

 

Miss Violence (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

I’ve heard Miss Violence described as being along the lines of Dogtooth. It’s Greek, that’s for certain. But whereas Dogtooth used a depiction of one weird family’s life to make a broader point about all child-rearing being essentially coercive, Miss Violence isn’t making any such grand points. Instead it’s the story of one family, seemingly normal, ruled over with a rod of iron by an outwardly amiable grandfather who knows how to work the authorities like a pump organ. Organ being the operative word in that sentence – I will say no more. It’s a grim trudge of a movie, brilliantly played, never less than totally gripping, and it even has a payoff that seems to suggest that its director, Alexandros Avranas, has a highly tuned though macabre sense of humour. Highly recommended.

Miss Violence – at Amazon

 

 

 

Goal of the Dead (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

Nothing to do with George A Romero’s oeuvre, this is another proof that when the French do genre, they really go for it. It’s a zombie movie, of course, about a big Parisian football team visiting a lower league team’s ground, the birthplace of one of the big team’s players, Sam (Alban Lenoir). The locals, of course, now hate Sam for having abandoned them, and for having banged everything female on his way out. But one villager hates him even more, his old rival Jeannot (Sebastien Vandenberghe), a mountain of meat who has also, just before kick-off, become a zombie. That, essentially, is the first ten minutes of a film that’s got a lot of plot, but pays it out with an eye on Shaun of the Dead, and also is smart enough to make interesting points about modern footballers, modern football and modern identity – local, national, global, racial, religious, and whatever else there is. The gore is excellent too, particularly if, like me, you don’t think there’s nearly enough bilious vomit in zombie movies these days. A real game of two halves.

Goal of the Dead – at Amazon

 

 

 

Man of Tai Chi (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Keanu Reeves’s existence as anything at all in the movie world has always raised questions. Can he act? Is he dumb? No one asks these questions about Bruce Willis, and he made Hudson Hawk, for pity’s sake. Wandering back onto the point of the review, Keanu has gone and directed a film, casting in the lead Tiger Chen, the ball of cool martial arts fury who taught him to fight in The Matrix. Keanu himself turns up as a baddie organising lethal fight clubs, into which he wants to recruit the good-as-gold Chen. Which he does, while a tough-cookie female cop (Karen Mok) sniffs around trying to work out where the bad smell is coming from. There’s nothing specifically wrong with Man of Tai Chi, though Reeves doesn’t seem to have settled on a directorial style (John Woo, Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood and Wong Kar Wei are all in there), and his characters are a touch under-developed. And great as the hugely impressive Chen is in the series of fights staged well by Reeves, bravura displays of charisma are not his thing. But, as a bonus, we do get to see the nearly 50-year-old Keanu showing us that the “I know kung fu” line from The Matrix still just about applies – he fights. In short, it’s all here, more or less, but it just needs the volume turning up a touch. Maybe next time.

Man of Tai Chi – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Sacrament (House, cert 15, DVD)

If you’ve seen The Innkeepers, or Ti West’s contributions to The ABCs of Death or V/H/S you’ll know that he’s a film-maker attuned to atmosphere and street-smart dialogue. Which makes this found-footage horror film based on the so-called Jonestown Massacre of 1978 – nearly 1,000 followers of a cult leader drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid – slightly mystifying. It’s, you know, OK, but nothing more, with West never quite managing to build the atmosphere he should. And that’s with old friend and actor/director Joe Swanberg on board as one of a trio of video journalists heading off to the lushly tropical compound where a cult religious group has claimed the sister of one of them as its own. She is played by Amy Seimetz, another of West’s clique, and she also does no wrong as the far-too-upbeat right-hand woman to the scary leader (a nicely folksy Gene Jones) of the community, known only as “father”. Was West bored? Lacking in inspiration? Possibly – the “scary Christian community with intimidating patriarch” idea is hardly exciting unexplored territory.

The Sacrament – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Trials of Cate McCall (Solo, cert 15, digital)

Now that Kate Beckinsale’s ass-kicking days as a Lycan-slaying advert for rubberwear are behind her, she’s started moving into what her agent probably calls “serious acting”. Here’s a case in point: a potboiler about a lawyer (Beckinsale) on the case of a woman unjustly imprisoned for murder and her attempt to get the accused set free. Cate is an alcoholic, a bad mother and a lawyer with a history of putting the wrong person behind bars. A threefer of actingness, everybody. Depth. Joining Beckinsale to growl while she scowls winningly is Nick Nolte, as McCall’s gopher and Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Yup, unlikely. The whole thing looks and feels like a pilot for a TV series that would be canned about four episodes in, with Beckinsale doing catalogue work in a variety of ever-so-casual loose-fitting garments, as if to say, “look, no rubber”. Flippancy aside, the too-easy-to-be-true case does indeed turn out to be something more interesting, and the plot makes a turn about halfway in that makes the whole thing just about worthwhile. Meanwhile, Beckinsale and Nolte have an easy chemistry that makes you wonder how the TV series would shape up. If it ever got to episode five.

The Trials of Cate McCall – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Book Thief (Fox, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Anne Frank was the Jewish girl stuck in an attic in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, feverishly writing her diary and hoping that one day she’d grow up and fall in love with a boy. Or even just survive. But there’s not much cinematic mileage to be had from the story of someone stuck in one place the whole time and writing – too passive. Coming to the rescue is this adaptation of Marcus Zusak’s best-seller, starring Sophie Nélisse as Liesel, the young daughter of a Communist (not a Jew), learning to read (not writing a book) in the cellar (not the attic) of the kindly German couple who have taken her in after her mother’s arrest and, we assume, execution. The sense of compare and contrast is heightened when Liesel’s guardians also take in a handsome Jewish lad, and while he festers in hiding, Liesel is able to run about, go to school, cook up a semi-sweet romance with the blond German boy down the road, live a life in which locations and tracking shots and extensive set-dressing are not only necessary but obligatory. A German/US co-production in English that all too willingly sucks at the teat of history’s victors, The Book Thief is unwilling to credit its viewers with the knowledge that the Nazis were a bad thing. Another mysterious lapse is its decision to have everyone speaking in a Cherman Akzent – including the German actors who probably don’t normally do ziss. Stalwarts Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson make efforts to make the whole thing ring true. But they’re undercut by an unnecessary voiceover by the unimpeachable Roger Allam as Death (the book’s narrator, never properly integrated here), a mawkish score, sets that are just too clean and nice, chocolate-box cinematography and every bit of cinematic artificiality, contrivance and cliché that Downton Abbey director Brian Percival could find. In a phrase, this is inept and gruesomely twee.

The Book Thief – at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014