2014 review

Another really great film year, my friends. Here’s my top 15 of the best films for 2014 (last year’s post here):

1. Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan
2. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater
3. Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle
4. 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
5. Lilting, directed by Hong Khaou
6. The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum
7. Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne
Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher
8. Her, directed by Spike Jonze
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson
Nightcrawler, directed by Dan Gilroy
10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Matt Reeves
11. The Lego Movie, directed by Chris Lord & Phil Miller
12. The Skeleton Twins, directed by Craig Johnson
13. Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean Marc Vallée
14. Captain America the Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony & Joe Russo
15. 22 Jump Street, directed by Chris Lord & Phil Miller
Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by Jamas Gunn

Other great films: How to Train your Dragon 2, Edge of Tomorrow, The Boxtrolls, American Hustle, the Wolf of Wall Street, The Armstrong Lie, Transcendance

Ahem, I think you all expected that. But the thing is, no matter how incredibly strong these films are, no matter how genuinely happy I am to sit through beautiful, life-altering films like Boyhood & Whiplash, nothing really ever came close to what it felt like to watch Interstellar for the first time, and being struck by the terrible beauty of science, and the vastness of space, and the emotions of it all, and just how strong was the story of Cooper’s journey finding his way back to his daughter. To say that the film struck a chord with me would be a massive understatement. And the magic of it is, that I don’t need to be a parent to understand how powerful these emotions are -that’s why Chris Nolan is so genuinely good I think, is that somehow he finds an authenticity and a truth in everything he does. Interstellar‘s been called pretentious and overindulging, which just seems completely at odds with everything I think he stands for? Sure Interstellar is ambitious, it takes itself really seriously, it’s flawed in many ways. But at the heart of it all, it’s really just an interpretation of what we experience as parents, as children, as human beings, in what’s possibly the most hostile of environment -outer space. Anyway, I reviewed Interstellar in my previous post, so I won’t dwell too long on it here but I think it sits very deservingly at the top of my list this year.

Now, Boyhood. Boyhood, like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, feels like an entire lifespan stretched across one single film. It’s a tremendous achievement in both form and content. To film over 12 years the same cast of people and characters is a genius idea in itself, but the execution is the hardest part, and Richard Linklater never fails -it flows so naturally, and feels so seamless and real, that essentially it reminds us why film was even invented in the first place. It really is the pinnacle of Linklater’s naturalistic style: full of warmth and soul as always, but also deceivingly simple by going straight for the heart. No fuss, no tricks: Linklater’s the real deal.

Whiplash also holds a really special place here -like Boyhood, it’s the triumph of independent cinema, a film fan’s ultimate dream. There’s no movie this year that will get your heart racing quite as much. A young drummer in America’s most elite conservatory meets a teacher who doesn’t know where to stop -what’s so extraordinary about that? Well nothing and everything. In his debut film Damien Chazelle redefines the teacher movie -essentially tears it apart. The sheer intensity of the way it’s filmed, in addition to the strength of the screenplay and characters, make Whiplash a unique experience. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are both utterly compelling, and so is the directing: it’s talent in its purest form.

12 Years a Slave, by the importance of its subject, and because of how relevant and educational it is, should really be sitting at #1 -like Schindler’s List before it, it’s a film for the ages. But because of how actually difficult it is to watch, the absolutely brutal experience that this film is, it felt a bit counterintuitive to me to have it as the Best Film of the Year -I won’t ever watch it again, although this in no way diminishes how good and how significant the film is. Steve McQueen is fearless, relentless in depicting the horror of slavery; he’s one of the boldest filmmakers of his generation and this film really confirms it. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is an absolute treasure.

Rounding up the top 5 is Lilting. This one is also a very personal choice, but that’s also because it’s a very personal film: Hong Khaou is English but Cambodian-born, and there’s a depth to the story and the characters that can’t be artificial -it’s drawn from his own experience, and his own family story. Which in very odd ways is very similar to mine. Pei-pei Cheng is absolutely outstanding as the elderly mother who’s never accustomed to the country she’s emigrated in; the film is full of melancholy and yearning, yet it’s also very funny in parts and genuinely touching. An absolute must-see.

The Imitation Game is also a British film, but an entirely different beast (I’m listening to Alexandre Desplat’s score for the film as I type these words). The story of Alan Turing’s life in itself is incredibly good material for a film -but I really loved the fact that it steered away from predictable biopic films by focusing on the extraordinary story of cracking the Enigma code, and in that way, felt more like a thriller than anything else. Of course Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance makes the film (it almost is the film as the directing is a bit conventional), and again it’s a story that feels important, that needed to be told in order to honour and recognise Turing’s legacy. A very, very solid film indeed, with a skillful screenplay and fantastic performances.

Alexander Payne is one of these outrageously talented directors -beyond the ‘quirkiness’ of his style, he’s been really consistent in putting out great films with amazing dialogue and situational comedy: Nebraska‘s no different. With his clever blend of black humour and bittersweet characters, he truly is a unique filmmaker -very similar to the Coen brothers but with a more emotional touch. From Bruce Dern’s brilliant performance to the beauty of the landscapes (shot in black and white by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael), Nebraska is a little gem of a film, the perfect amount of wacky and sad all jumbled together.

So Gone Girl is a bit of an odd one to pair with Nebraska, but I really couldn’t choose which one out of the two I’d prefer. Gone Girl is a very different film, it’s Fincher jubilating at how smart and dark the story is, it’s the perfect script with the perfect director. The book was just so good already, but there’s something with Fincher that just elevates the material -I think it’s the way he’s just being so meticulous in his shots, he’s become that director where his perfectionism just bursts out on the screen. Sure he’s always trying to outsmart you and that can come off as a bit annoying, sure Gone Girl is a massive box-office hit with millions of book sales to back that up, but to be honest I love mainstream Fincher, as much as I like Zodiac-like Fincher. Also, Rosamund Pike is here to kick ass and take names, her performance is scaringly good.

By all rights Her should be a bit higher in this top 15 -Spike Jonze’s marvelous study of love and loneliness is as funny as it’s poignant. Visually it is just stunning (Hoyte van Hoytema went on to become Interstellar‘s director of photography) and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is nothing short of genius considering all he had to interact with is a voice. It’s filled with aching nostalgia and asks some really big questions but it might have been a bit too sentimental for my tastes. Still, another really strong film for Spike Jonze -incredible well-written, perfectly executed and just a real pleasure to watch.

Actually those exact same three things could be applied to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel! The thing with this one though, is that it’s so damn entertaining, you can’t resist it. The visuals are exquisite (would expect nothing less of Wes Anderson) and the cast of characters is just such an off-the-wall bunch; it’s another really delightful Wes Anderson treat. He’s just become so good at what he does, and in surprising ways, too –Grand Budapest Hotel has more characters than ever, yet it never feels rushed or overblown or repetitive.

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is the end-of-the-year surprise, the sort of film no one really saw coming: an in-depth critique of news reporting today, and a dark satire of the society we live in. Yet I believe it may have been a victim of its own hype -sure it was original, well-shot and edited, with a superb performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. Yet I am not sure it would stick in my memory as an incredible, visionary film like the ones below -perhaps first-time director Gilroy’s inexperience showed a bit in that sense, although for a debut film it is outstanding and pushed boundaries in many ways.

To close off this list of excellent films is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which we shall call Dawn thereafter since it’s impossibly long to type. I know, I know, a massive Hollywood sequel, I’m a sell-out etc. It’s just that I expected Dawn to unfold in a very particular way: humans are mean to apes, apes turn against humans, full-on war happens. And the great thing is that -it’s not what happens, it’s not as predictable as this. Sure there is that massive battle at the end, but really, Dawn has more dialogue and heart than your average Hollywood blockbuster, and that’s all because of this fantastic creation that Caesar represents. That’s what makes the new Apes film more character-driven and I admire having that in a multi-million franchise. Hats off to Andy Serkis and all the other actors in motion capture -they’re better actors than most human actors at this point.

So next, we have the Lego Movie which is just the most exhilarating, funniest ride I’ve had this year. Is it a giant-sized Lego commercial? Probably, but it’s also a giant-sized piece of fun and brimming with enthusiasm. The Skeleton Twins could not be more far away from that, yet it’s also hilarious and heartbreaking in its own way -watch it for Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s perfomances as twins Maggie and Milo try to sort out their lives. Dallas Buyers Club is another film that’s carried by its duo of performances. It’s been said before but I’ll say it again: Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto give transformative, nuclear perfromances, and that makes up for its somewhat drab directing.

Lastly, we have Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which, like Dawn, largely outshines its predecessor (I hated the first film). It’s a superhero film that’s not really one, and those are my favourites really -it feels like the first proper film that Marvel Studios have put out since they’ve created their cinematic universe. Finally, 22 Jump Street and Guardians of the Galaxy both share an element of irreverence and just plain awesomess: hard to resist both of them when there’s Ice Cube on one side and dancing baby Groot on the other.

Voilà! I did rush off a bit at the end there, but otherwise this post would have gone on for ages and ages. I must say, I haven’t seen the Hobbit, Paddington, the Theory of Everything and other potential films that might make it into this top 15, so it might be a bit early to round up the year but it is mid-December after all… 2015 looks as if it is going to be the Biggest Film Year Ever, so it’s all really exciting! See you soon folks.

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