So here we are again!
2014 has been a great year for film. As usual I’ve yet to see a fair few of this year’s ‘Best Of’ contenders (Nightcrawler, Maps to the Stars, The Babadook) and some of the others have been omitted by choice (I belong to the minority who didn’t love Boyhood). Having scanned through some of the main Best of 2014 lists it occurs to me that a lot of the films critics are raving about aren’t films I’ve missed at all. I haven’t had the chance to miss them yet. For instance, eight films on the BFI’s list of the Best of 2014 are yet to have a general release in UK cinemas, and another is only just out this week. That means that of a list of 20 films, nearly half of them won’t have been seen by the general public unless you made it to a handful of screenings at festivals across the country. That’s great for getting a heads up on what films to look out for in 2015, but I’ve compiled a list of the best films you may have actually seen this year. So, here are my top ten picks:
10. The Double
Director: Richard Ayoade
Screenplay: Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine
Based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double
UK Release Date: 4th April 2014
A Gilliam-esque dystopian nightmare (my favourite kind) set within a labyrinth of beaurocratic offices and dull apartment blocks where outside light doesn’t even seem to be found outside. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the pallid non-person Simon, whose life is shaken up by the arrival of James (also Jesse), a man who is identical to him and yet more successful in every way. Their initial friendship soon becomes a rivalry as Simon struggles to prevent James from stepping into the life that Simon had previously been too meek to live. The subterranean production design is strikingly effective in creating the claustrophobia of a world that is systematically and stringently ordered and where every man should know his place. Mia Wasikowska provides a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stifling environment and the film operates with a surrealist dream logic that injects energy into the proceedings.
Director: Matthew Warchus
Screenplay: Stephen Beresford
UK Release Date: 12th September 2014
Pride tells the true story of gay activists in London who in 1984, during the miner’s strike, formed a fundraising group to support Welsh miners, forging an unlikely alliance with the residents of a small Welsh town in the process. It’s an interesting story and although the film is formulaic and resorts to some well-worn tropes, it’s still great to see queer history in the mainstream. I admit that it’s not a perfect film – for instance, Dominic West is completely unconvincing as an eccentric femme and I would especially have liked to see the film’s secondary lesbian characters get a less stereotypical representation. On the positive side – Faye Marsay gives a great performance as Steph, Imelda Staunton is her usual fantastic self and a touching scene where an elderly character comes out to a completely nonplussed response is nicely handled. The film for the most part, is rousing and triumphant. There are some bittersweet moments and not all of the events of the period are easy for the gay community to relive and reflect upon, however, the film manages to end on a moment that we can all be proud to have in our cultural history.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
Writers/Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
UK Release Date: 24th January 2014
I think that the Coen brothers are just going from strength to strength at the moment. I love that their range of work spans all kinds of genres and styles, yet each one is also recognisably theirs. Inside Llewyn Davis is a melancholy film with a beautiful soundtrack of mellow folk music. A colour palette of greys, browns and muted blues really makes you feel the cold winter of the film’s New York setting and long for the warmth and comfort that homeless Llewyn seeks on doorstep after doorstep. Whether your sympathy for Llewyn extends beyond that is another matter. My partner and I saw the film in opposite ways – he saw Llewyn as a struggling artist who just can’t get a break, whereas I saw Llewyn as very much the cause of his own problems with an attitude that slowly erodes the goodwill of his friends. The film starts, and ends with Llewyn being punched in the face outside of the Gaslight just as an artist with a much bigger destiny is taking the stage. In life, love and his career, Llewyn repeatedly bears the frustration of being the other guy, destined to remain out in the cold.
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo
Screenplay: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
UK Release Date: 26th March 2014
Chris Evans is easy on the eyes, but even I found the First Avenger an extremely dull affair. Burdened with a lot of set-up, not just in providing Cap’s origin story but also laying the groundwork for the Avengers, there wasn’t much room for plot and there wasn’t much fun to be had. Free of all of that, Captain America 2 is a much more confident offering and one that began to show the wider scope of the Marvel Universe, along with Guardians of the Galaxy, the studio’s second release this year. The Winter Soldier is an accomplished action movie with a grittier, more current feel than any of the Marvel movies to come before it, taking inspiration from 70s conspiracy thrillers. The film also provided an opportunity for more adventures with Scarlett Johansson’s arse-kicking Black Widow who continues to steal the show. The AV Club has an interesting discussion of Black Widow’s agency as a female character here. Can she get her own movie already?
6. Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Screenplay: James Gunn & Nicole Perlman
UK Release Date: 31st July 2014
I had very low expectations for Marvel’s second release of the year. The first trailer seemed to be trying hard for laughs and the tone seemed off. I assumed that this one would be just for the kids. I wasn’t even planning to see it at the cinema until I started hearing about it from friends who’d loved it. As it turns out, I loved it too. Guardians of the Galaxy is really fun. I can’t remember the last time science fiction has been this funny. It’s a change in tone for the Marvel Universe and it’s interesting to be seeing some of the more fantastical worlds and characters that six decades of comics have to offer. This film has a few nods to space operas of the 70s and 80s in its design – particularly Starlord’s ship – and watching it reminded me of the excitement and thrill of seeing big event blockbusters as a kid. There are also some beautiful visual effects on display, particularly the planets and spacescapes that deserve a second viewing to really appreciate the background detail.
5. The Lego Movie
Director: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Screenplay: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
UK Release Date: 14th February 2014
I was so incredibly skeptical about this movie that it took a lot of convincing by my friends to actually get me to watch it. It’s a really fun film. The Lego Movie has a great script that’s extremely funny. The animation is really impressive, combining predominantly CG 3D animation with some stop motion and actual Lego sets composited in. The attention to detail is astounding. (Screencrush has an interesting look at the making of the film here. ) The filmmakers digitally created thumbprints, dust, dandruff and scratches on the Lego pieces and characters to give them a worn, played-with look. The overall effect is a film that looks as if it has been painstakingly created brick by brick from a child’s Lego playset with pieces that we all recognize from our childhoods and yet is brought to life in ways that extend beyond the limitations of the real world. The film also operates with a child’s logic that gives it an anarchic and eccentric feel that pays off as the greater plot is unveiled towards the end. This time last year I would not have believed that I’d be giving The Lego Movie my recommendation, but here it is, quite possibly the best animated film of 2014 and a hot contender for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.
4. 20 Feet From Stardom
Writer/Director: Morgan Neville
UK Release Date: 28th March 2014
This documentary beat out my favourite film of 2013 to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. While I personally feel that The Act of Killing was the better film, or at least the most impactful, 20 Feet From Stardom is a vibrant and uplifting documentary and a hugely enjoyable experience. The film shines the spotlight on some of music history’s unsung heroes – the amazing backing vocalists who contributed to some of the biggest hits of the last 50 years. Powerhouse talents such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Lisa Fischer discuss their careers, their hits, their highs and lows, as well as returning to the studio to lend their wonderful voices to the film’s soundtrack. An absolute pleasure to watch.
3. Gone Girl
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Gillian Flynn
UK Release 2nd October 2014
A dark thriller reminiscent of 90s domestic thrillers like Single White Female and Sleeping With The Enemy. Gone Girl weaves a twisted tale of suburban marriage and the roles that partners play for each other and the outside world. Having no prior knowledge of the book, I found this film gripping, surprising and darkly fun. Gone Girl’s ever shifting trial by media is a fantastic dissection of image consciousness and lives lived and performed in public that feels very current. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling the plot as I think a lot of the film’s entertainment value comes from sitting back and letting it take you for a ride.
2. Under The Skin
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenplay: Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell (Based on the novel by Michel Faber)
UK Release Date: 14th March 2014
Under the Skin is a film that stayed with me for days after I watched it. The film has very little dialogue and what little plot there is is mysterious and meandering. Ordinarily I’d expect this to make it a difficult film to watch, and while I’ll openly admit that there were often moments when I wouldn’t have been able to explain what was going on, the sense of tension and overwhelming dread made me feel that on some instinctual level, I understood it acutely. It is utterly gripping from start to finish.
Scarlett Johansson gives a career best performance as an alien that stalks men in Scotland. She is all at once enticing, enigmatic, cold, predatorial and entirely alien. There’s no better word to describe it. Her performance and Jonathon Glazer’s direction capture the essence of being a stranger in a strange land so thoroughly that it needs no explanation or set-up. Johansson studies humanity as a curious and lonely outsider. We are often presented with individuals whose speech is difficult to understand clearly, whether it be their thick regional accents, the rage with which they are shouting or the crowd that they dissolve into. Humanity is seen at times as pathetic, humble, caring, aggressive, violent, an indecipherable mob. With these touches, Glazer enables us to feel alien from our own kind and sympathetic to Johansson’s character despite the veiled threat she poses. Perhaps this is the most disturbing element.
I also want to mention the technical brilliance of the film – the beautiful cinematography, particularly in showing the remote natural landscapes, the use of diegetic light to give a raw, documentary realism to the visuals and sound design that isolates and distorts minor details to skin tingling effect when paired with the film’s uneasy score. It’s science fiction but in a world that is very recognizably our own. I don’t want to spoil the ending but I will say this – it doesn’t provide a satisfying release of tension in the traditional sense. It satisfies the expectations of the genre but in a way that makes the viewer feel dirty, complicit, like the instant guilt you feel after the blind panic that makes you crush a spider. This film taps into something primal and disorienting, leaving you with a lingering unease.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenplay: Wes Anderson (Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig)
UK Release Date: 7th March 2014
An absolute masterpiece of a film and Wes Anderson’s best work to date. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson so many won’t be surprised to see this on the list. That said, I felt somewhat underwhelmed by Moonrise Kingdom, which I felt unable to truly connect with, and so I was all the more pleased by this return to form. The film is dripping with sumptuous detail – stylish period features, Anderson’s trademark pastel colours, an aspect ratio that changes to suit each time period of the film’s timelines, gorgeous miniatures and stop-motion animation flourishes. Ralph Fiennes is a delight as M. Gustave, the Grand Budapest Hotel’s famed concierge and the script sparkles with humour and invention. This is hands down my favourite film of the year – madcap, fun, charming and entertaining, it’s perfect cinema.
The film’s stop-motion animated ski chase is my favourite scene. If you’re interested in how it was put together there’s an interesting interview with the animator and puppet fabricator here at Dragonframe’s blog. Anderson is quoted as saying “The particular brand of artificiality that I like to use is an old-fashioned one.” You’ll find that interview and also get a look at the film’s miniatures in this New York Times Article.
As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts – what were your favourite films this year and what are you looking forward to seeing in 2015?
I’m planning to be a bit more active in my blogging this year so be sure to follow me for more film reviews, lists and updates on my own filmmaking projects. Happy New Year everyone.