My annual film highlights post, in which I highlight 20 films from all I saw during the previous year. Not all are without their flaws, but I’m very fond of all of them, flaws and all.
One thing that strikes me about this year’s list is there’s a few director/actor partnerships here that keep turning out great work together: Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, Jeremy Saulnier and Macon Blair, Bernard Rose and Danny Huston, and Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy. I’m looking forward to seeing what they all do next.
Anyway, in no particular order:
Another successful collaboration between Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, Midnight Special is reminiscent of the likes of Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with Shannon spiriting away a boy with mysterious powers, the government in close pursuit and a religious cult adding creepiness and mystery. The film may go a touch too far in offering a resolution, but for the most part it’s thrilling, punchy and riveting.
A great example of how a moribund franchise can be revived, with director Ryan Coogler reuniting with his Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan for a gripping and emotional return to the Rocky universe. Jordan — who’s yet to disappoint on screen, even in the dreary Fantastic Four — excels as the listless son of Apollo Creed, and Sylvester Stallone inhabits the retired, ageing Rocky as if he’s never left the role. A confident, strutting film with some exciting camerawork, a great soundtrack, and a touching story.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth covers some of the same ground as The Great Beauty, chiefly the subject of ageing and leaving a meaningful legacy. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel are both as excellent as always; worth noting more are Paul Dano as a superficially-placid actor who seethes underneath that he’s not being remembered for his preferred work, and Rachel Weisz, a study in pent-up anger. Typically for a Sorrentino film, Youth, set in the Swiss alps, is beautiful throughout, and stocked with memorable minor characters you can’t help but feel affection for, even in their occasional monstrosity.
If you come to Hail, Caesar! hoping for the sort of smart, clockwork-plotting that the Coen brothers specialise in, you might be disappointed; the story of Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix racing around trying to find a missing actor is mostly a loose framework for the Coens to affectionately poke the Golden age of Hollywood, taking in overblown Biblical epics, stilted costume dramas, cheesy westerns, and sailor musicals. While the fake films within look mediocre at best, it’s clear the Coens’ nostalgia for the period is genuine and heartfelt, and the cast is outstanding: Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes and Frances McDormand are non-stop hilarious, while Alden Ehrenreich shows he’s one to watch in the future. I never realised until Hail, Caesar! how much I wanted a feature-length Channing Tatum tap-dancing sailor musical, but here we are.
Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin was one of my film highlights of 2014, and Green Room is just as outstanding a piece. This taut, tense tale of a punk band fighting for their lives against neo-Nazis is brutal, terrifying and exhausting. Patrick Stewart puts in the most nightmarish performance I’ve ever seen from him, and the much-missed Anton Yelchin is superb throughout. A work of tremendous, awful violence that stayed with me long after I’d finished watching.
Love and Friendship
The funniest film I’ve seen in years, Whit Stillman’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is sublime. The whole cast turn in note-perfect performances but Kate Beckinsale especially is superb as the scheming, manipulative Susan, slipping confidently from one lie to the next with a permanent look of wide-eyed innocence, and Tom Bennett as the dimwitted, foppish Sir James is hysterical. Smart, intricate and brilliant throughout, I can’t recommend this enough.
Tale of Tales
An anthology adaptation of some less-well-known fairytales with all the original darkness intact; murder, monsters, fleas and flaying. The stories are told simultaneously, cutting from one to another, and although they never meaningfully come together — they’re all set in the same world but don’t share many characters or noticeably affect each other — Tale of Tales is a gruesome joy to watch. Visually stunning and delightfully horrible.
The Nice Guys
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is a little looser and a little flabbier than some of his earlier films, and may not have the verbal dexterity and wit specifically of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but that may be down to casting: neither Ryan Gosling nor Russell Crowe were ever going to be a match for Robert Downey Jr. The film’s strength instead is in its slapstick sight gags and Gosling’s confidently mediocre PI played against Crowe’s amiable, mountainous straight man and newcomer Angourie Rice’s cynical but determined teenage daughter. Fun throughout, The Nice Guys also has all the polish and attention to detail you might expect from a Shane Black film, and should reward multiple viewings.
Woman on the Run
This 1950 noir sees a woman spending a day finding her husband who’s run away after witnessing a mob hit. While the story itself strains a little at the edges, the film is talkative, thoughtful and slow, as Ann Sheridan’s Eleanor, both world- and man-weary, relives her courtship and revitalises her marriage as she looks for her husband in emotionally-meaningful places. Psychologically compelling stuff.
Bone Tomahawk isn’t a Western of expansive vistas and sunset scenery porn, going instead for a tight focus, the camera staying so closely to the action that at times it feels more like watching a play than a film, the audience as entrenched and under fire as the cast. Bone Tomahawk is darkly funny at times but also gruesome and violent, and it just about gets away with the “savage, inhuman Other” trope with a bit of self-conscious exposition and dialogue explaining away any possible racism. Despite that occasional awkwardness, the film is an engrossing, thrilling, painful ride.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s second film is, like her debut Innocence, beautiful, sinister and surreal. Set within a rural coastal town populated only by boys and women, and an unsettling hospital of peeling walls and inexplicable, unnatural experiments, Evolution is content to offer mystery without resolution, and the gentle, unceasing horror of it all doesn’t distract from some stunning underwater scenes.
This Georgian drama from 2013 that sees an elderly Estonian man trying to harvest his last tangerine crop before war reaches his doorstep is a perfectly straightforward story about overcoming prejudice and moving past differences. Strongly performed and genuinely moving.
Warcraft: The Beginning
Duncan Jones’ Warcraft occupies the same niche for me as John Carter and Pacific Rim, in that it’s a structurally flawed, fundamentally compromised film that does so well with performance, world-building and characterisation that I end up firmly on its side. The flaws of Warcraft — breathlessly-delivered exposition, and perhaps an assumption the audience will be familiar with the source material — are flaws that could have been avoided with more room for the film to breathe; it’s a two-hour film that could happily have accommodated an extra hour. We’ll never see an extended cut, but there’s value to be found regardless, in a colourful, expertly-drawn fantasy world, some outstanding motion captured performances, and some nuance and subtlety from the whole cast that provides welcome shades of grey in a genre that tends toward black and white.
April and the Extraordinary World
An animation based on the style of French cartoonist Jacques Tardi, set in an alternate steampunk France with a fun, pulpy story that takes in coal-fired car chases, cable cars, immortality serums and a talking cat. Exciting and imaginative and perfectly drawn.
Bernard Rose, formerly of Candyman and Boxing Day, has made a career out of unassuming, character-driven films that don’t make much of a splash but tend to reward those who dig them out. His lo-fi Frankenstein adaptation, set in the present day and utilising some sort of biological 3D-printing, is strongly casted — Danny Huston, Tony Todd, Carrie-Anne Moss, Matthew Jacobs — and even though the Monster never gains the eloquence and intelligence of the literary character, Xavier Samuel does well with what he has to work with. The polar opposite of so many other big-budget adaptations, Frankenstein is unshowy but engaging.
I’d read the Ted Chiang story Arrival was adapted from before I saw the film but Denis Villeneuve’s minimalist direction, Brad Young’s muted, sparse cinematography and Amy Adams’ intense, thoughtful performance all worked together to make up for any missing mystery. Arrival is exceptional, and respectful of the audience’s intelligence.
Set the Thames on Fire
It’s a testament to how much I enjoyed Set The Thames on Fire that it appears here despite a jarring, joyless appearance by Noel Fielding. Fortunately he’s barely in the film, the rest of which is a surreal, affecting fantasy set in a near-future London that’s threatened by rising river water. With an oddball cast made up of performance artists and ‘60s icons, Set the Thames on Fire may not be a great film, but it’s funny, charming and poignant and has a look and feel unlike anything else.
A pitch-perfect family film of the sort I didn’t think they made any more. No irony, no eye-rolling, no appeals to nostalgia or inside jokes for the adults, just a straightforward story of a boy and his dragon, where even the villain of the piece gets some redemption by the end. While the opening is necessarily bleak, the darkness soon gives way to a fun, light, occasionally thrilling adventure with great effects and solid performances.
Too Late For Tears
I loved this 1949 noir, which sees an ice-cold Lizabeth Scott come into possession of a bag of stolen money and subsequently murders her way through the men in her life so she can enjoy it without their interference. Scott is incredible throughout, calculating and unwavering while others around her fall to pieces. Not an especially complex film, but fun and satisfying.
A tricky film to appreciate on its own merits, with so much of the original film’s DNA — cast, soundtrack, jokes — inextricably woven through, along with references to the online furore from the horde of man-babies threatened by the idea of women busting ghosts. Nevertheless, Ghostbusters turned out to be a lot of fun, the Feig/McCarthy partnership seen before in The Heat and Spy bearing fruit again. While the film is by no means perfect — it’s structurally unbalanced and makes poor use of Leslie Jones — the script is witty and intelligent, performances are great, and it’s brought us Kate McKinnon’s unhinged Holtzmann, like a queer female reincarnation of Christopher Lloyd, permanently fixing herself in pop culture history with a wink and a smile.
Odd Thomas, Rams, Archipelago, The Neon Demon, Tokyo Godfathers, Phoenix, Days of Future Past (The Rogue Cut), All About Eve, The Heiress, The Heat, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, The American Friend, Theatre of Blood, Welcome to Me, Out of the Past, Reality, A Girl At My Door, Human Capital, Cry of the City, Long Weekend, Men and Chicken