Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Best Films Of The Year 2014


According to my Letterboxd diary HERE I watched 317 films in 2014. Seeing as it was a World Cup year, I set myself the optimistic target of 300 films, so to not only reach that tally but to beat it was pleasing. I thought 2014 threw up a lot of impressive films, kicking off with some fantastic awards season movies (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS etc), as the year progressed we got an unusually strong blockbuster season (DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, CAPTAIN AMERICA - THE WINTER SOLDIER), a terrific selection of gritty American thrillers (BLUE RUIN, COLD IN JULY, NIGHTCRAWLER), and a growing list of quality indie horror movies from across the globe (THE BORDERLANDS, STARRY EYES, THE BABADOOK). As ever there were some misfires and disappointments - Gareth Edwards' GODZILLA and Christopher Nolan's INTERSTELLAR failed to meet their immense promise and the high expectations I had for them. Whilst as tends to be the case, my often contrary nature meant I found some of the year's best reviewed and most admired movies a bit underwhelming (HER, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, BOYHOOD, UNDER THE SKIN take a bow!). Despite viewing over 300 films in 2014, the bulk of which appeared to be new releases, it was as always the case that it's impractical or indeed impossible to see everything in time before the year ends, but I pretty much managed to see all the films I most wanted to catch, so while there were a few notable exceptions which appeared on many other end of year 'best of' countdowns, several of these were films I have little or no interest in actually viewing (NYMPHOMANIAC for one), and there were a few films which have had just limited festival runs or no UK release as yet, which I either haven't seen, or won't include here until they officially open in the UK. A list of my favourite films which fall under this category can be found HERE 

Criteria for inclusion on this rundown of my favourite films of 2014 in the end boiled down to films that were released in UK cinemas for the first time this year and new films which debuted on DVD / Blu-ray which had bypassed UK cinemas. Films available on import discs which had not yet been released in the UK, but were legally available to purchase from overseas, and films that featured in UK film festivals or regional screenings were omitted from my selection process this year, some of those may well make it onto my Best Films Of 2015 rundown.

THE BEST FILMS OF 2014:


1) NIGHTCRAWLER
Nightcrawler is an incredibly assured directorial debut from screenwriter Dan Gilroy, a sort of savage zeitgeist satire which plays out like Network meets American Psycho by way of Peeping Tom. Yes its targets may be obvious and its strokes rather broad, but its critical barbs are piercing and provocative. Plus, at its rotten black heart is a quite staggering central performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, creating one of the screen's great poisonous antiheroes, a calculating, manipulative, ghoulish emotional void, who seems to care more for the potted plant he methodically waters in his sparse apartment, than any member of his own species. It's an incredibly manic, oddly mesmerising mix of Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin and Patrick Bateman, and should be a shoe-in for Best Actor recognition come awards season, in spite of the darkness of the material. Russo's scene-stealing media mercenary is equally impressive and worthy of attention, as is Four Lions' Riz Ahmed as Bloom's exploited, nervy lackey, who crucially is notable for being the film's only remotely sympathetic character.
At once a brutally biting modern media allegory, a sobering cautionary critique of dwindling career prospects, a terrifically twisted nightmarish noir thriller, and primarily a magnetic character study of a predatory, soulless sociopath surgically attached to a video camera documenting the bottomless abyss into which society is increasingly plunging. Nightcrawler is a haunting film for our times. For me, the standout film of the year.

2) THE WOLF OF WALL STREET


Excess all areas! The Wolf Of Wall Street is a hedonistic hit of pure cinematic vivacity in a capitalist vision of Sodom & Gomorrah. Martin Scorsese's account of shamed stockbroker Jordan Belfort's rise and fall presents the banking sector as a sybaritic cartoon world of greed, vulgarity and crime - it's Goodfellas with fewer murders but pretty much every other deadly sin ticked off the list in duplicate.
Leonardo DiCaprio dominates as Belfort, a decadent deity whose rise from green-gilled Wall Street novice to self-made multi-millionaire is expertly portrayed in incremental stages of unrestrained ambition and coke-fuelled debauchery. But it's not just a one man show however, Scorsese also finds time to offer impressive support from a career best Jonah Hill, Rob Reiner as Belfort's weary father, Margot Robbie as his feisty trophy wife, and a nearly film-stealing early mentoring monologue from a shark-like Matthew McConaughey.
Even at three hours in length, The Wolf Of Wall Street never outstays its welcome, sizzling set pieces and crazed comedic peaks littered throughout its sprawling duration, in what for me is Scorsese's most ambitious and essential film for over twenty years. A film I rather perfectly heard summed up as the movie Wall Street would've been had Gordon Gekko directed it.


3) INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
The Coen Brothers' latest is an elegiac and nuanced study of an emotionally fractured character against a backdrop of melancholic musical soul-searching. In many ways the title character (a wonderfully passive Oscar Isaac) is one of Joel & Ethan's most flawed and unsympathetic leads, a world-weary man out of time, one half of a former singer/songwriter partnership, aimlessly drifting through a sofa-surfing existence of apathy in a pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene. Yet as Llewyn's feckless world falls apart, the Coens somehow draw us into his mostly self-inflicted misery and career sabotage, setting off on a week long odyssey thanks to a ginger cat(alyst), a journey with no direction home, which starts to unravel the depths and despair of the film's uncompromising eponymous character.
Thematically, Inside Llewyn Davis shares most common ground with O' Brother Where Art Thou in both its musicality and Odyssey inspired narrative, yet stylistically it's more reminiscent of those personal and existential films in the Coen's back catalogue, particularly Barton Fink and A Serious Man. It's a delicate balance between sympathetic and sadistic, the angst and despair offset by typically offbeat humour ("Where's its scrotum?"), it's a film despite its petulant protagonist, and the fact it never delivers the epiphany it teases throughout, remains awash with wicked whimsy and prickly poetic charm. 


4) BLUE RUIN 


Jeremy (Murder Party) Saulnier's self-financed sophomore feature Blue Ruin is a searing, savage stripped-back revenge thriller simmering with pain and anguish, and positively bristling with rage, tension and tragedy. It opens dialogue-free and disorientating by following the day to day trials and tribulations of a destitute and desperate homeless vagrant Dwight (brilliantly played with doe-eyed twitchiness by Macon Blair), and gradually drip feeds the viewer his disturbing back story - how he came to be this pitiful broken shell of a man, and what leads him on the misguided path to redemption as he sets out on a tumultuous trail of revenge as a reluctant, ramshackle anti-hero.
Blue Ruin is a film which stresses that vengeance comes at a terrible price, here's a movie which reinforces the notion that violence begets violence and that it's a grim, ugly business, utterly devoid of the glamour and glory of any traditional Hollywood vigilante justice thriller. Dwight is as far removed from a stereotypical action hero as is imaginable - utterly out of his depth on his quest for payback, his fallibilities and failings exposed via his meek, clumsy ineptitude and everyman vulnerability.
Punctuated by shocking, realistic brutality, a blackly comedic undercurrent and genuine emotional heft throughout, Blue Ruin is the sort of gritty, mature indie-spirited thriller which bears favourable comparison to classic examples of the genre such as One False Move and Blood Simple. It also reminded me thematically at times of the idea of the difficulty, cost and impact of taking lives as addressed in Clint Eastwood's masterpiece Unforgiven. Pretty exalted company admittedly, but Blue Ruin is a fantastic piece of work, captivating and contemplative, both subverting and saluting its particular genre.


5) THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

My reaction to Wes Anderson as a filmmaker has been every bit as enigmatic as his movies. I genuinely hated his breakthrough film Rushmore, and really couldn't get to grips with The Royal Tenenbaums, but somewhere around The Life Aquatic he won me over, and ever since then I've steadily become ever more enthralled by his deliciously eccentric and esoteric output.
His latest quirk-fest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is perhaps the most quintessentially idiosyncratic Anderson film to date, a star-studded distillation of styles and subjects from his earlier filmography, crafting a magnificent multi-layered cinematic tapestry - nostalgic, playful, a charming, cheeky, lavish feast for the eyes and imagination. Playing out over interweaving time periods (each represented via different screen aspect ratios), this charts the eventful history of the titular establishment in the fictional kingdom of Zubrowka, primarily through the exploits of charismatic and scheming concierge M.Gustave (Ralph Fiennes brilliantly tapping into previously underemployed comedic prowess) who is "a faint glimmer of civilisation in the barbaric slaughterhouse we once knew as humanity."
By turns a richly observed comedy of manners, farcical crime caper, fanciful wartime drama, and affectionate ode to vintage cinema, this is an impish, endlessly entertaining, utterly individual directorial tour de-force, populated by crazy and kooky characters and with an immaculate attention to detail and composition throughout. With its inclusion of bygone cinematic trickery that harks back to silent films through to the stop-motion and lush matte work of Anderson's own Fantastic Mr Fox, this is a vibrant, visual delight, its film within a film construct magically unravelling hidden layers of narrative and character like a cinematic Russian doll. An absolute joy, and extra credit for allowing Saoirse Ronan to speak in her natural Irish accent.


6) DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
A near perfect mix of storyline and spectacle, character and cutting edge technology. Not only does this improve upon the already impressive Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, but for a mainstream franchise film it also works as both a superb standalone story and a pivotal chapter in what is clearly going to be an ongoing, ever expanding story arc.
Here's that rarest of commodities - a mature movie for the masses, a blockbuster with brains, heart and soul, unafraid to spend screen time on developing characters and relationships, and exploring themes of conflict, intolerance and trust. And yet it works admirably as an action-packed popcorn movie too, with state-of-the-art special effects, which set new benchmarks for CGI realism. You genuinely forget you are watching computer animated creations, rather than real living, breathing characters. 


7) GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Is it the new Star Wars? Probably not. But it could well be the new Spacehunter or Ice Pirates or Battle Beyond The Stars - quirkier, cultier, cooler films which followed in Luke Skywalker’s wake. James Gunn, up until this point one of genre cinema’s great unsung talents, deservedly hits the big time with a deliriously entertaining romp, that’s big on laughs, stunning visuals and strong characters. It’s a warm, witty, wildly creative crowd-pleaser bursting with great one-liners (“Don't call me a thesaurus”) and memorably madcap set pieces (a city inside a giant floating ancient alien head). Yes there’s a rather perfunctory plot with the usual predictable mcguffin as ever central to proceedings (why do they always make planet destroying weapons quite so portable and easy to lose?). But seriously, you’d have to be a monumentally joyless sod not to be won over by a feelgood film quite so hellbent on being as engaging and entertaining as this. GOTG is essentially Indiana Jones in space, or Firefly with a mega-budget, with a rag-tag crew of “A-hole” misfits, a killer kitschy soundtrack, a wisecracking trigger-happy raccoon, Vin Diesel’s best performance since The Iron Giant, and the most unexpected cameo from an M.I.A. Marvel character in the customary post-credits scene.
Without a shadow of a doubt the most fun film I’ve seen in a very long time. I watched it with a huge idiotic grin etched wide across my face throughout, my inner child thoroughly appeased with the rainbow colour scheme, eye-popping intergalactic backdrops and breezy, bustling action sequences. It's a film which makes us all "just like Kevin Bacon".....or at least "high on believin".


8) CALVARY
It begins with “a startling opening line”, a catalyst which leads to a twisted murder mystery, as John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up to his assured debut feature The Guard, plays out like a parochial mix of Father Ted and High Noon. It’s a film which tackles weighty issues of morality and mortality with a profane, acerbic, pitch black wit. Brendan Gleeson is immense as the Catholic priest threatened with murder during a confessional, wrestling with his own faith and frailty, whilst surrounded by lost souls adrift against a sobering backdrop of the Church’s abuse scandal and Ireland’s economic downturn. And yet there’s charm and humanity and humour at the heart of the frequently intense and provocative subject matter - a caustic, philosophical and ultimately moving study of a conflicted man defying adversity and indifference, in a small-town populated by oddballs, eccentrics and sinners, arriving at its ultimate act of revelation and redemption with genuine emotional impact.

9) WE ARE THE BEST
We Are The Best is a charming, spirited, beautifully realised coming of age story about three outsiders allied through youthful rebellion and punk rock music. Lukas Moodysson's film is full of wonderful whimsical moments, and whilst it's the music which binds the narrative together and forms the central theme, more than anything this is an ode to friendship, individuality and attitude. It's a film which admirably avoids cliches, even when it steers towards obvious subjects like relationships with family and rivalry over boyfriends. Ultimately it's a film which succeeds because of its terrific trio of young performers, utterly naturalistic, enchanting and frequently hilarious as they proclaim their improvised, naive philosophies - "I don't believe in God. I believe in ketchup."
Spiky, sweet, life-affirming and sharing a similar maturity and magic between its young cast as another magnificent Swedish film - Let The Right One In - the pugnacious spirit of punk lives on......"Hate the sport", love the film.


10) WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS

Sharper than a bloodsucker's fangs, this comedy/horror from the creators of cult TV show Flight Of The Conchords (which I've never seen), is consistently hilarious throughout, proving to be an inspired spoof of vampire folklore, and a reminder (alongside this year's other festival hit Housebound), just what a knack New Zealand has for producing the perfect blend of gore n' guffaws.
Leaning more towards an outright comedy vehicle than say Peter Jackson's early visceral efforts, this takes the form of a Christopher Guest type mockumentary as a film crew document the day to day (or rather night to night) lives of a pack of vampires all living together in a gloriously ramshackle house on the outskirts of Wellington. With wonderfully well-etched undead characters of differing personalities, ages and eras (cleverly representing various iconic vamps from the history of cinema and literature), this has the anarchic feel and chaotic energy of something like The Young Ones, which this oddly reminded me of. With a staggeringly high joke hit-rate, the film piles on the gags whether it be the mundanity of housework when you're eternal - batfights over doing the dishes are commonplace, fish out of water problems - our heroes' general incompetence with technology and antiquated fashion sense, or just the general pitfalls of being a creature of the night - getting into bars and clubs being particularly problematic when you need an invite before entering, which proves fruitless when confronted with an array of disinterested doormen. The film is also terrifically cine-literate, lampooning everything from The Lost Boys and Nosferatu to Twilight, and it even finds room to ridicule werewolves ("not swearwolves"), and the inherent absurdity of accepted vampire mythology (much inspired idiocy is mined from the notion of a vampire's lack of reflection in a mirror).
Not just the year's best horror/comedy, I'd say this was 2014's funniest film full stop - the virgin blood / sandwich line alone secures that honour.

THE BEST OF THE REST:  



11) JOE
12) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
13) MYSTERY ROAD
14) OUT OF THE FURNACE
15) THE LEGO MOVIE
16) THE RAID 2
17) THE BORDERLANDS
18) THE BABADOOK
19) COLD IN JULY
20) R100
21) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
22) THE WIND RISES
23) X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
24) GONE GIRL
25) HONEYMOON
26) EDGE OF TOMORROW
27) OCULUS
28) THE GUEST
29) FOUND
30) HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
31) '71
32) CHEAP THRILLS
33) GUN WOMAN
34) MAPS TO THE STARS
35) STARRED UP
36) THE KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM
37) CHOCOLATE STRAWBERRY VANILLA
38) FURY
39) LONE SURVIVOR
40) AMERICAN HUSTLE.


BEST HORROR FILM: THE BORDERLANDS

BEST COMEDY: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS

BEST SCIENCE-FICTION / FANTASY: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

BEST THRILLER: BLUE RUIN

BEST SPECIAL FX: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

BEST SCREENPLAY: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

BEST DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE  (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET)

BEST ACTRESS: ROSAMUND PIKE (GONE GIRL)

BEST ACTOR: JAKE GYLLENHAAL (NIGHTCRAWLER)

RISING ACTRESS: SARAH SNOOK (PREDESTINATION / JESSABELLE)

RISING ACTOR: JACK O'CONNELL (STARRED UP / '71)


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