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

 

 

 

9 June 2014-06-09

Casey Affleck in Out of the Furnace

 

 

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

The Past (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

After Fireworks Wednesday and A Separation, something more muted from Asghar Farhadi, a drama set in France rather than Iran as the previous two were, about Marie (Bérénice Bejo) a beautiful but flighty woman finally giving the kiss-off to ex-husband Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) while lining up a new man, Samir (Tahar Rahim, the lead in A Prophet). It sounds like a soap and it’s undeniable that Farhadi’s genius knack for naturalism seems to have slightly abandoned him this time. What makes The Past still unmissable is the devious plotting – the ex seems like such a nice guy, the new man like a bit of a brute, and he’s got a comatose wife to factor into the equation, and the reason why she’s comatose in the first place… ay ay ay. Farhadi is also doing something really unusual with the form. Dramas are all, pretty much always, about what happens next, the forward movement. The Past is about being stuck, held by the past, held by our commitments and feelings. In a world where we are consistently being told that living in the moment is the most important thing there is, Farhadi’s film quietly, powerfully disagrees.

The Past – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Lone Survivor (Universal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

A two hour war film set in Afghanistan with a one-hour central sequence that functions like a film within a film. That’s the bit where Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch are attacked by the Taliban and their bodies are subjected to disintegrating attack by sustained bullet onslaught. It’s an astonishing sequence, long, brutal, bloody and ugly, with few words spoken apart from “ow, fuck” as another bullet hits meat and bone. Director Peter Berg wants to show us something else as well: how situations like these turn even highly trained men desperate, disoriented, panicky. He entirely succeeds. So sit out the standard war-movie introduction to the guys, all the usual big-bollocked swaggerers, and also indulge the last half hour set in an Afghan village, which is there because the story is a true one, though it doesn’t help the film very much. Tobias Schliessler’s cinematography is bright and clear and gorgeous, and he and Berg even give us the odd “Malick moment”, backlit grasses glowing in the sun against which the bloodshed looks even more gruesome.

Lone Survivor – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Out of the Furnace (Lionsgate, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

The visual equivalent of one of those Bruce Springsteen blue-collar laments, Out of the Furnace is chocker with acting talent and was clearly intended for great things. However, it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. It is, once it’s declared itself, a revenge thriller with an almost insane amount of set-up. This would be unbearable if the set-up wasn’t handled so well, at a steady pace it refuses to be deviated from. Plot: Christian Bale is the solid working guy trying to keep fiery dim brother Casey Affleck out of trouble. But Affleck is in bigger trouble than he knows because his bare-knuckle fights for much-needed cash are about to take him into the orbit of Woody Harrelson – a very very dark Harrelson at that. The acting is of a piece with the rhythm and looks of the film: steady, sure, just a tiny bit heightened, with Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard all easily as good as the leads. But it’s Harrelson who steals the film as a thug with extreme animal cunning in this mesmerising 1970s-flavoured drama of extreme Americana that sets out to simmer rather than cook.

Out of the Furnace – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Vanishing Waves (Autonomy, cert 18, DVD/digital)

Also known as Aurora, this Tarkovsky-flavoured Lithuanian sci-fi drama asks big questions about memory and identity – see Solaris for more on that. It gets its hooks in early, in a portentous opening sequence in which a black screen is displayed as scientists in voiceover discuss the dangers of messing about in the neural networks of the brain. Which is exactly where guinea-pig Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) journeys, once he’s strapped on an electrode-covered skullcap and lowered himself into a float tank, Altered States style. What he finds inside his own head is a woman (Jurga Jataite), a gorgeous one he is soon doing all sorts of pleasurable things with. The film, meanwhile, is taking us on a journey to the overwrought end of sci-fi, wrapped in a fatalistic love story with extra helpings of doom. They get a bit slow here and there, these neural meetings between him and her, but back in the lab the pace is quicker, actions have real consequences and there’s even a bit of enjoyment to be had from the actors talking English, which some of them appear to reading phonetically. It’s an unusual film, worth watching at the very least for its occasional moments of sheer visual virtuosity – wait for the remarkable, visionary “running” sequence towards the end of the film. Tarkovsky would probably approve.

Vanishing Waves – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Cuban Fury (StudioCanal, cert 15, digital)

So here’s Nick Frost, usually Simon Pegg’s sidekick (Pegg does put in a tiny cameo) breaking out on his own, playing a fat loser who is shaken out of his torpor by the arrival of an attractive woman (Rashida Jones) at work. Outgunned at every level by the office lothario (Chris O’Dowd, funny) he reaches back into his traumatic past for the tools to woo her, having discovered she attends salsa classes. He, you see, was a junior dance champ who bottled it in the … enough plot already. All you need to know is that this very familiar looking story isn’t bending itself into weird shapes trying to hide the fact. But it has no real heart, uses clever camerawork to hide Frost’s lack of expert dance skills, leaves four key characters (including Rashida Jones, most unforgivably) as sketchy presences and is badly paced too. If it makes it to the finish line with at least one thumb up, then that’s because of Nick Frost’s sheer blokey likeability.

Cuban Fury – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Robocop (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

José Padilha made Elite Squad, a film about a no-shit police force in Rio De Janeiro kicking the favelas into shape. So he looks like the man to direct this remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic about a police force composed of stern hi-tech robots. It’s an origins story, with Joel Kinnaman (of the Swedish thriller Easy Money – worth hunting out) as the cop who becomes a hybrid robot after an explosion separates most of his body from his upper torso. This stuff, the nuts and bolts of putting together a cyborg, with Gary Oldman as the decent scientist in charge and Michael Keaton as his money-grabbing boss, this is all highly satisfying. Less convincing is the relationship between RoboCop and his wife, Abbie Cornish again playing the wilting female, something she’s not very good at. Even less satisfying is the film’s refusal to take on board the fact that, in the 27 years since Verhoeven’s film, the surveillance society has arrived so any satire about all-seeing law enforcement needs to acknowledge that fact. And even more distressing is Padilha’s command of the action sequence – really poor. And this from the guy who did it so well in Elite Squad. Still, it looks nice, all shiny and futuristic. But otherwise, sadly, it’s RocoCrap.

Robocop – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

Last Vegas (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

So someone goes into a Hollywood pitch meeting and said “Let’s send Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman to Las Vegas for a geriatric Hangover kind of comedy”. The chestnut-coloured heads hear the four big names and someone asked the question “What happens when they get there?” The reply is something like, “Oh, you know, stuff.” Last Vegas isn’t terrible terrible – the actors are a guarantee of that. But its jokes are weak (old guys need to pee, they don’t know who 50 Cent is) and it has no real plot, no throughline, unless you count a contrived romance involving Mary Steenburgen (who has rendered herself unrecognisable with cosmetic surgery). This throws all the onus on the cast, and to their credit they glow like incandescent lightbulbs about to burn out. Verdict: Hollywood tries to make a film about being old, and can’t.

Last Vegas – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014