My annual film highlights post, in which I highlight 20 films from all that I saw during 2014. This time I’ve selected from 232, and as usual the only limitation is that I saw the film last year; no restrictions on release date. The films listed aren’t necessarily what I’d call the best, but I think they’re all noteworthy for various reasons. I think this might be more of a downbeat list than previous years. Such was 2014.
A further 20 honourable mentions appear at the end. On with the show.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen’s story of a struggling ’60s folk singer has a few laughs here and there, but Inside Llewyn Davis is far from being a comedy; it’s a cold and bitter film, the titular protagonist endlessly battered by wind, rain and circumstance. While on the surface, Davis might seem to be a deadbeat, but I don’t think it’s a fair reading: he tries over and over to break out of his rut but is so frequently dragged back down that it feels more like a film about depression than anything else. Inside Llewyn Davis is beautiful, in its own way, impeccably scored and performed, but it’s so, so bleak.
The History of Future Folk
Novelty folk band Future Folk expanded on their stage act with The History of Future Folk, a cute, lo-fi film about aliens who arrive on Earth to destroy it but, after discovering music, instead form a successful bluegrass novelty folk band. There’s not a lot I can say about this film — it’s brief, funny, and genuinely sweet.
A tense, chewy and intelligently-shot thriller, Prisoners is long and slow but not a moment feels wasted. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are both at their best here with Jackman in particular a study in bottled-up rage and propriety and Gyllenhaal at his twitchiest. My only qualm with the film is that it helps propagate the ‘torture works’ myth, popularised over the last decade by 24 and similar works. That aside, I don’t think I’ve seen any film convey such an oppressive sense of dread all year.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s previous films have tended towards the depressing, particularly in his film before Birdman, Biutiful, that saw Javier Bardem essentially being tortured by the universe. Happily he’s stepped away from relentless misery porn with Birdman, a film that has its sadness but also plenty of wit and light. Michael Keaton’s best work in decades, but also a great piece for Edward Norton, Emma Stone and the entire supporting cast. The script is witty but the cinematography is the biggest star, a showy approximation of a single take accompanied all the while by improvised jazz drumming. A fine, exhilarating piece of work.
I’m a sucker for those short, intense, grimy Australian revenge flicks, and Blue Ruin is a compelling American take on the trope. Macon Blair, surely the sweetest, most doe-eyed revenge killer there ever was, is superb as he ham-fistedly takes revenge before having to deal with the bloody consequences of what he’s done. A brief, violent and tense film that’s also darkly comic. The spare and haunting score by Brooke and Will Blair helps keep things taut.
A found-footage faux-documentary — with a heavy emphasis on plausible science and believable, professional characters — that reports on a disastrous space mission to visit Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa Report goes for understated realism over melodrama, effectively conveying horror and drama through claustrophobia and the split-second life-or-death decisions the crew is forced to make. Despite the overall downbeat tone, the film is still positive about science and exploration for its own sake, and fits nicely alongside the likes of Duncan Jones’ Moon.
Under the Skin
Under the Skin is a difficult and abstract film, but also an incredible one with utterly alien visuals and score. Scarlett Johansson gives perhaps her best performance yet as the alien that mimics, hunts and stalks us before being undone by moments of human compassion; it’s like watching a lioness suddenly develop a conscience. With a story that’s stripped down to almost nothing and almost no dialogue, Under the Skin is a film to pay attention to, and to watch over and over.
Of all the Michel Gondry films I’ve seen, Mood Indigo is perhaps the most Michel Gondriest of them all. A romantic drama set in a dreamlike world that’s overwhelmed with typical Gondry surrealism where visual effects appear to be made entirely from paper, paint, glue and string, Mood Indigo is far bleaker overall than its initial whimsy lets on, making this more like watching the first ten minutes of Up, spread out over an hour and a half. Romain Duris continues his sterling work as French cinema’s most chiselled jaw, and Audrey Tautou is as Audrey Tautou always is.
Trailers for Calvary, a second collaboration between director John Michael McDonagh and actor Brendan Gleeson after 2011’s excellent The Guard, unwisely played up the comic side of the film. While there’s certainly comedy here, it’s dark, gallows humour more than anything, and it’s spread thinly over a melancholic piece that’s more like watching a play, where purgatory is a remote Irish village. Gleeson is brilliant, soulful and sharp and also with the most strokable beard I saw all year, but the supporting cast — Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Dylan Moran and M. Emmet Walsh (still going!) in particular — stand out just as well. Calvary is a brilliant work, but a crushing, despairing one as well.
Ida turned out to be a perfect refresher after a long summer of loud, brightly-coloured comic book films, being black and white, Polish and shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio that still managed to isolate characters at the edges and corners of the screen. Set in 1962 and telling the story of a young Polish novice nun obliged to leave the convent to meet her estranged aunt, Ida is a starkly-presented, brief, almost minimalist piece, and was one of the most subtle, compelling and smartly-handled films I’ve seen this year.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
My pick of the summer blockbusters is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a confident, gutsy piece that borrows tone and style from a ‘70s paranoia flick. There’s just so much to like here, not just the punchy action and Robert Redford’s natty old-fashioned suits, but Chris Evans’ Captain America finally finding a cause to fight for, Scarlett Johannson continuing her excellent work as Black Widow and Anthony Mackie looking all the time like he can’t believe he’s been let on set to play with Falcon’s wings. Post-Avengers, the Marvel films have been a little shaky, with Iron Man 3 only a partial success and Thor: The Dark World just being a bore. Winter Soldier, on the other hand, is resolutely solid.
Perhaps the most nihilistic film on this list, The Rover is a gritty Australian road thriller that’s tense and miserable. Set in a society on the verge of a Mad Max-style total breakdown after an economic collapse, there’s practically nobody to root for, no reason to care for anybody. Guy Pearce is at his most psychotic, but it’s Robert Pattinson that excels with a performance the polar opposite of his turn in one of my favourites from 2012, Cosmopolis. He’s almost unrecognisable in The Rover, grimy and simple, and he’s the closest the film comes to having a heart. Despite the brutality, The Rover is a film that’s fundamentally about loyalty, if you can find the message underneath the dust and blood.
A beautiful, luminescent animation from the studio that produced the equally-beautiful The Secret of Kells, this time based on a German children’s novel about the Man in the Moon hitching a ride to Earth on a comet. A sweet and eccentric film with a lovely soundtrack as well.
Kelly Reichardt specialises in sparse, quiet, naturalistic films that are frequently highly suspenseful and emotionally engaging in surprising ways. Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff are all stellar films, and Night Moves, an eco-terrorist thriller concerning three disaffected people intending to blow up a dam, didn’t disappoint. While Jesse Eisenberg is fine and Peter Sarsgaard has a great slightly-creepily confident presence, it’s Dakota Fanning that stands out the most as the youngest, and least committed of the trio. Her slow physical degeneration as the guilt of their act takes its toll on her is matched by rising tension as the remaining two realise she’ll need to be silenced. A real heart-in-the-mouth film.
Still a tricky film to track down, thanks to a petulant deal between producer and director that saved the film from cuts but removed from it any significant distribution; your reward for getting hold of the film is seeing something imaginative, surreal, funny and sad, a wonderfully complex film with superb performances. I don’t want to say too much about it because it might spoil moment after moment of brilliant invention. If you can find it, see it.
Maleficent would be a decent film with some dazzling special effects and an interesting slant on the traditional Sleeping Beauty tale, but where the film is notable is with Angeline’s Jolie’s sharp, magnetic performance, for the shockingly dark way the story unfurls and the wholesale rejection of various fairytale tropes, in particular the notion that all every woman needs is a handsome young prince to save her. Given all of the above, I wonder if Disney really understood what they were getting; I hope that they did, and Maleficent — along with Frozen — really does represent a more progressive way of thinking from the company. I can’t say for sure if Maleficent is anything more than the sum of its parts, but the parts themselves are astonishing.
For Those in Peril
A slow-burning, naturalistic drama set in a Scottish fishing village that appears to be about the sole survivor of a sea disaster, copying with survivor’s guilt, but edges gradually towards the supernatural until you’re never quite sure what’s real. Powerful, realistic performances from a mostly-unknown cast.
I don’t think The Jacket, a time travel curio from 2005 in which a demobbed Adrien Brody finds he can jump forward in time to investigate his own death, is a great film, but it’s here because I’d never heard of it despite some big names in the cast and it did hold my attention. Adrien Brody isn’t quite right in the lead role but the rest of the cast is very strong, with some unexpected appearances, and the story keeps you guessing. The Jacket is more sedate than, say, 12 Monkeys, but it’s got a decent creepy vibe and it’s worth a look.
Ultra-low-key fantasy drama about a woman entirely cut off from civilisation by an invisible, impenetrable wall. The whys and wherefore of the wall aren’t relevant or explored in any way; this is a story about a woman learning to live again, deprived of human contact and technology. Had me transfixed, and if I’m honest, a little envious.
Pain & Gain
My biggest surprise of 2014 was that a Michael Bay film would be one of my most enjoyed films, but, here we are. Pain & Gain is just hilariously, brilliantly moronic, a real-life — though also a heavily fictionalised — tale of three imbecilic bodybuilders trying to extort money from a fellow gym member. It’s dumb slapstick at best, but Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie play the whole thing straight to great effect.
Boxing Day, Nebraska, The Last Days on Mars, Red Rock West, A Late Quartet, Wings, A Hijacking, Phantom of the Paradise, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Wake in Fright, Beyond The Hills, Shotgun Stories, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Zero Theorem, Two Faces of January, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Abominable Dr. Phibes