Confessions of a Film Freak, 2014

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By Roderick Heath

Many times in 2014, I was tempted to throw my hands up and walk away from the year’s film scene. It seems to have been a pretty common feeling. The profitability of the film industry’s most exalted spheres have slumped, and the sense that the obsession gripping Hollywood for recycled product and well-milked cashcows might be choking the industry it at a time when people are all too willing to switch over to some other source of entertainment is becoming more convincing—not that it’s likely to spark any great sea change in Hollywood yet. Certainly a sense of diminishing returns was all too palpable in this year’s mass market cinema. Some have posited that the current economics of Hollywood have practically killed off the stream of mid-budget films aimed at adult audiences, though that strand had long been an endangered species: adults have long been very picky about what they go to see in a movie theatre. This year, I lost the last of my patience with Marvel and even Godzilla’s presence on the big screen couldn’t entirely please me.

Despite all that, 2014 has slowly accumulated good films like specks of gold in river sand until the year has proven doggedly, quietly impressive.

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We Are the Best!

A lot of this year’s films have concerned themselves with creativity itself as a theme: the sources of it, the process of gaining the skill to express it, the worldly powers it gives those who master it, and the constant, dogging anxiety of doing right by it. We Are the Best! looked wistfully back to time most artists have gone through, when their impulses and characters demanded creative outlet long before they actually had the skills for doing so, when their spirits were at their purest. Damien Chazelle’s scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash posited the idea of the artist needing brute force to gain virtuosity. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proposed that creative vision is the result of specific, often terrible, sometimes wonderful formative experiences. John Carney’s Begin Again and Jon Favreau’s Chef both suggested a fall is needed to rise again as a creative force. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook presented a heroine as a frustrated artist whose possible incipient psychosis might be a by-product of that potential creativity. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur turned creative ownership into gender struggle, the wish-fulfilment side of much art turned around on itself in a bitter sex farce. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrayed an actor who had known the dizzy heights of Hollywood success trying to prove himself an artist in the face of a culture geared to poles of celebrity-obsessed admiration or antipathy. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gave us a panoramic contextualisation for a boorish genius. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars portrayed creativity turned septic tank, the world of acting and celebrity having turned into stews of self-worship and pharaohlike, incestuous self-perpetuating discourse control. Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a film that failed resolutely to achieve any of its interesting goals, nonetheless also made the link between cathartic horror and creative success with a great climactic image, its heroine transformed into a stylised icon of trauma and triumph, splattered blood and theatrical make-up mixing on her face.

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Willow Creek

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek depicts an exercise in self-mythologising fallen victim to the primal, unruly terrors that still inhabit our world. The Lego Movie made good sport of generations of popular mythology and then delved into the childhood roots of how we construct our own world views, and then how we adapt them to coexist with others. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys breezed through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-pain narrative of the showbiz flick to conclude that sometimes professionalism is a greater value than mere inspiration and that identity often trumps aspiration. The Fault in Our Stars tried to portray the moment when the intellectual awareness that art cannot contain life’s grief suddenly becomes all too immediate.

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Tracks

Some films took this thematic turf a step further and contemplated characters trying to create or recreate themselves, the creation of the self and life itself becoming art forms. The very notion of becoming, the processes that create us as individuals and as a collective and point us forward became a recurring concern. The alien temptress of Under the Skin felt the faint breezes of the humanity she gazed at uncomprehendingly, but finally became fatally trapped between worlds. The heroines of Wild and Tracks both sought to conquer distance to rebuild their damaged interiors. The eponymous Lucy of Luc Besson’s scifi action epic accidentally pushed onto a higher level of awareness and then willingly pushed herself to achieve the status of a god. The flailing hero of Locke, his life suddenly turning into a disastrous quagmire, struggled throughout to pull off a piece of managerial legerdemain that would write his commitment in the sky. The hapless heroine of Obvious Child converted the minutiae of her existence into her art, stand-up comedy, which then often affected her life, an ouroboros chain of creation and deflation. The bourgeois Los Angelinos of Coherence, many of them failed or flailing artists, are confronted by doppelgangers who might turn their own failings and self-hatreds upon themselves, and offers a heroine who quite literally tries to beat herself to death to grasp a better version of the same thing. Amy of Gone Girl tried to control her own life narrative through a dense mesh of art and action.

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Maleficent

As far as “big” movies go, this year has been trending lacklustre to rotten, riddled with overhyped, underwhelming fare as the current Hollywood ethos of sequels, remakes, and franchise service finally began to crack up under its own weight. Usually a film year offers two or three blockbusters deserving of appreciation, but this year, the fun and spectacle the genre offers have been remarkably lacking. Something like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sounds far better as a think-piece article than it actually played as a movie, with its occasionally brilliant images foiled by a flimsy script. Guardians of the Galaxy, a pseudo-original hit for Marvel, spawned innumerable memes, most of them wittier and more entertaining than the spectacularly ordinary, lazily composed film. Maleficent, a promising concept in revisionist fairy-tale-telling from Disney, proved to be depressingly incompetent trash that couldn’t even be bothered to sustain a basic story and character logic. After feeling the strain throughout 2013, I also felt this year like I saw the comic book movie, the industry’s greatest money faucet at the moment as well as its stand-out cultural phenomenon, begin quietly dying. The depth of enthusiasm it can still wring from aficionados has started to feel forced and wilful, with minor tweaks and twists greeted like momentous events and competent films inflated into titans by sheer force of hype. What was once one of the best comic book series, the X-Men franchise, saw Bryan Singer returning to the helm on Days of Future Past, a work overloaded with promise and expectation that managed to piss just about all of it up against the wall, save for the great “Time in a Bottle” scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided a reasonably honourable attempt to bring the superhero genre down to earth and contextualise it amidst a semblance of real, contemporary evils, but still ended up a grab bag of random story elements and stodgy action. The unfortunate mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been generally recognised, though again I felt a little out of step as I found it a slight improvement on Marc Webb’s first, dolorous reboot; at least it had the minatory courage to shoot for romantic tragedy, something the gutless Marvel films couldn’t countenance.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

Ironically, I found two of the most entertaining big-budget works of the year were throwbacks to bygone brand of spectacle, the biblical epic: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Scott’s film sometimes played like a highlights reel from The Ten Commandments (1956), but Scott’s pernickety, critical scepticism gave it specificity and wove intelligently with the vistas and grandiosity, taking as its keynote the detail that “Israelite” means “he who wrestles God,” and keeping camp and earnestness in a healthy balance. Aronofsky’s was a different beast, more ambitious and cinematically lively than just about any other big movie of the year, if also more humourless in trying to forge new zones for mythopoeic inquiry. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s (probably) final entry in his Tolkien series, like Scott’s film, is all but a throwaway master class in big movie making, making sweeping use of the screen, reading action coherently, and packing even the most functional shots with visual lustre. The most hyped and discussed blockbuster this year was Christopher Nolan’s divisive Interstellar, another supremely ambitious work that saw Nolan trying simultaneously to earn the Kubrick comparisons he’s had heaped on him whilst also positioning himself as heir to Steven Spielberg as king of the Hollywood mythologists. He didn’t make it, with a script that ran the gamut from irritatingly pedantic to haplessly schmaltzy, took some blind alleys and a last act that didn’t work. Yet Interstellar was still an often-compelling experience that packed a sense of true wonder in both scientific theory and cinema, and signaled the widening outlook of movie scifi after decades of being reduced to mere action backdrop.

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The Lego Movie

One of the best major money-spinners from Hollywood this year was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie, a zippy, hugely entertaining film that contained, in its building blocks, a sense of perspective on how children build their own worlds, a satirical streak that broadly and successfully lampooned many popular modern Hollywood narratives, and also more specific gags that occasionally cut deep: after its portrayal of Batman as an emo-jock jerk with a sideline in death metal music sporting lyrics like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take the character seriously again. One thing that 2014 has been a quietly terrific year for is the kind of trashy fare we’re not supposed to honour on best-of lists: I’ve created an honour roll for my preferences below.

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Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Not for the first time in cinema history and surely not for the last, it was interesting to see filmmakers from beyond the pale take on the sort of thing we used to expect from the Dream Factory and outdo it by degrees. Stephen Chow’s funny, frenetic, almost endlessly inventive Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons had zest and ingenuity enough for 10 films, as well as a lampooning streak that didn’t strain to seem urgently hip. Meanwhile Welsh expat turned Indonesian auteur Gareth Evans made the year’s best action film and crime epic by far in The Raid 2: Berandal. Evans will certainly hear the call from Hollywood soon, and part of me hopes he might spread his gospel from such a vantage, but another part of me wants him to stay where he is, creating tropical storms. Paul W.S. Anderson took a thankful time-out from those goddamned Resident Evil things to make Pompeii, a film that was crucified by many on release and a box office bomb, and yet became a quick fetish object for Anderson’s vulgar auteurist fans. Yes, it reminded me why I once thought him an interesting talent: the film’s clunky, clichéd sword-and-sandal first half gave way to a second half that was a sustained study in controlled, ebullient cinematic spectacle.

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Last Passenger

David Ayers, who gained some notice as a screenwriter and then as director, released two films this year, the fairly well-regarded and successful Fury, and the much-derided Sabotage. I greatly preferred Sabotage, a gamy, vicious, hard-driving revisionist western in cop garb that sported Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos’ in two impressive, blind-siding female performances—you know something’s weird when Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger counted as one of the best romantic pairings of the year. Fury, by contrast, tried a two-faced game in looking with unvarnished force at the inhuman side of war, and offered a marvellous centrepiece sequence that saw Yankee tank crewmen and two German women thrust together amidst rites of passage and stews of resentment. But then it retreated into a stale and incomprehensible celebration of comradeship that threw away the very point it had been making in favour of a clumsy, ill-conceived action finale. Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made some decent DVD shelf filler in the past, raised his game considerably with Non-Stop, an expertly developed pressure-cooker thriller that slipped into excess by its finale, but along the way used widescreen photography to conduce both claustrophobia and paranoia, expertly charting a drama that concerned not just Liam Neeson’s regulation damaged badass and his electric concerns, but also a small community roused from dozy distraction to group action. Even better was Omid Nooshin’s barely seen Last Passenger, a thriller similarly pitched at first on a level of near-subliminal menace amidst a drowsy romantic comedy, building into an urgent fight for survival with dashes of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), even if, again, Nooshin didn’t quite know how to end it.

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Cold in July

Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ attempt to revive his beloved TV show, proved a mixed, but mostly charming bag that provided solid evidence that social commentary and good humour don’t have be mutually exclusive and that Kristen Bell remains one of America’s wasted natural resources. I wasn’t so thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier’s much-hyped Blue Ruin, a very indie film that displayed some fine craft throughout but fizzled on both the levels of raw suspense and supposed critique of revenge-minded action films, many of which already essentially made the same points: if the movie really wanted to disassemble the genre’s usual presumptions, it might have started by making the villains less caricatured. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July was a similar mixture, more intriguing and pulling off some inspired perversions of expectation. Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed was excessively goofy and a little too determined to annex the Fast and Furious fans, yet it was the kind of formally strong, candy-coloured entertainment too rare this year, and benefited from an excellent cast having a ball. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano sustained some strong sub-Brian De Palma staging and remained taut until almost the end, though, like too many films this year, failed to even try to come up with a convincing finish. The zippy efficiency and moodiness of these films to my mind showed up the pretences of some of the year’s more acclaimed genre-leaning films, including Bong Joon-ho’s okay but incredibly overblown Snowpiercer (save that schoolroom sequence, a black comedy apotheosis) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that had no idea how to discipline the many impulses of its source material for effective cinema, leaning at different stages towards media satire, marital parable, thriller, and horror film, and doing none that well.

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Robocop

Similarly confused was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which toyed with some great mind-bending scifi ideas and confirmed Besson’s powerful sense of style hasn’t entirely abandoned him. But Besson’s lazy story development and perpetual B-movie presumptions foiled its potential. José Padilha’s remake of Robocop was a beggaring spectacle, lumbering where the original was fleet, obvious rather than sly, painfully literal and bogus-classy rather than disreputably ingenious. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow became a critical charity case after it bombed at the U.S. box office because it was a rare attempt in the current studio scene to forge something new, but it never had any clue what to do with its superficially clever storytelling and battery of reliable actors. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was an odd duck, trundling into a tedious welter of contemporary action clichés, but along the way suggesting something more serious, contemplating its young hero’s confrontations with his mortality and first life-or-death struggle and patriotic duty shading into romantic conflict in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Divergent was a The Hunger Games cash-in that moved in frustrating fits and starts, but proved ultimately more entertaining than any of the Hunger Games films have managed to be yet, with a less duly stoic heroine and some nice villainy from Kate Winslet. McG’s 3 Days to Kill was a sorry waste of talent, including the agreeably battered Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld playing the same part as she did in Begin Again, and Amber Heard cast as a potentially great character, a brilliant, ruthless, sexually adventurous hit woman who was then made to stand around and do absolutely nothing.

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White Bird in a Blizzard

The Expendables 3 continued that barely watchable series’ habit of casting an increasingly awesome array of leathery action greats and forcing them to mouth terrible dialogue and mow down cardboard villains. Machete Kills, which likewise cast Mel Gibson in what seems now to be his most appropriate role as charming asshole, was a slightly more enjoyable genre mockery, but signs are that between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it’s time for Robert Rodriguez to grow up. The latter at least featured a well-reviewed Eva Green, who was unleashed to great effect in an off-the-wall incarnation of thwarted passion in White Bird in a Blizzard, where she found the meeting point of Douglas Sirk character and J-horror ghoul, and also in 300: Rise of an Empire, the latter, a mildly entertaining, if often ponderous study in CGI action that offered one of the year’s most memorable movies images: Green’s Queen Artemisia kissing the lips of a prisoner’s severed head, a bold moment of far-out eroticism in the midst of a genre usually very busy sublimating it.

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The Sacrament

Amidst the growing school of independent fantastic cinema, Ti West, who had been shaping up as a major talent, turned in The Sacrament this year; tense and entertaining, it was nonetheless something of disappointment in resorting to the found-footage mode West had so effectively countered before, and skating over its not-quite recreation of Jonestown without penetrating beyond its studiously composed surface. Still, some sequences, like the lengthy one-shot portrait of a woman poisoning her brother, were powerful, and Gene Jones’ performance, alternately seductive, defensive, and imperial, was superlative. Two classy thrillers I was eager to see and ultimately severely disappointed by were Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The former almost gave “old-fashioned” a bad name as it moved pokerfaced through potentially cracking, perverse material, and the latter crept glacially towards a preordained, cynical finale without locating its own dramatic heart, for all the good work by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams.

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The Quiet Ones

More sustained, and indeed one of the small gems of the year, was professional provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait’s restrained, smart, witty found-footage burlesque Willow Creek, which wove rich, satirical value contemplating various forms of mythologising and coupling whilst offering some quality scares, particularly in its signature, epic-length tent sequence. Hammer Studios’ revival continued to slip along unsteadily with John Pogue’s well-made, attractively cast, but rickety The Quiet Ones, a film that, like Blair Erickson’s The Banshee Chapter, mixed traditional horror filmmaking with found-footage touches to varying effect. The Banshee Chapter sustained interest by having a plot composed of an array of inspired connections and a defiantly Val Lewton-esque sense of minimalist scariness. The Irish horror film In Fear failed to keep me until the end, sadly. Surprisingly, the best-regarded horror film of the year has proven to be an Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, all the more remarkable considering the film’s quick trip in and out of movie theatres here. I must admit, however, that apart from Essie Davis’ sustained performance, it left me cold: the relentless showiness of the filmmaking couldn’t disguise that this is well-worn territory for horror fans, replete with neon-flashing metaphors, and the marvelous prop book that sets up the drama wrote a cheque the film couldn’t cash. Also, the characterisations, particularly of the hapless heroine’s son, kept changing according to what Kent wanted to do with a scene. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a fleet and entertaining mindbender, made for next to nothing and sustaining its “Twilight Zone”-esque plot with conceptual cleverness and a dash of enjoyably sarcastic commentary in offering a literal portrait of people who become their own worst enemies.

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The Monuments Men

Over in “serious” movie land, things have often been just as frustrating. George Clooney, who was so impressive with his first two features as director, reached an artistic nadir with The Monuments Men, a film that lurched from scene to scene with no sense of structure, tension, or character substance, only the most snivelling take on its cultural thesis, and a series of lazily tethered vignettes that added up to the one of the most galling moviegoing experiences I had in 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo were terrific as a pair of mutually exploiting rodents in Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal particularly offering an expert black comedy performance as a creep who shape-shifts into whatever he thinks the market wants of him. But the one-note script was far too pleased with itself, built to an utterly predictable “dark” climax signalled about an hour earlier, and cut no deeper as media satire than the average Kent Brockman report. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was for me a new departure for the director: whereas his take-it-or-leave-it directing style has been at least reliably on a level with his writing, this was the first time I’d been frustrated that his script couldn’t have been handled by a director with a half-ounce of taste and a real sense of the European tradition he was bastardising and trivialising. David Cronenberg, who had been on a roll, crashed to a halt with Maps to the Stars, a would-be devastating critique of modern Hollywood and American parenting. Cronenberg’s direction was poised in a way that only showed up the emptiness of the script, which did at least have a core idea with potential—the likening of modern Hollywood with ancient Egypt as a place where incest is the logical end-point of cordoned power and privilege. Yet the satirical points were dismayingly stale and smug: nutty actress celebrating a rivals’ misfortune and a self-help guru who’s a total asshole to his kids.

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Under the Skin

The year’s most unavoidable movie in terms of critical regard has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood’s stature derives entirely from the unique conceit behind its filming, having been shot in snatches across a 12-year period to chart young star Ellar Coltrane’s growth. This method is indeed affecting for allowing us to see actors age before our eyes, but as a work of dramaturgy, it’s a superficial achievement that fails to gain real entry into the psychology and viewpoint of its young hero (certainly not like Terrence Malick did with The Tree of Life), instead presenting a mass of vignettes and ironically being prevented by the niceties of that method to get up close to the poetry of becoming. Studying Ethan Hawke’s face and how much it’s changed since Joe Dante’s Explorers (1986; another greatly preferable study of childhood dreams giving way to adult realities), moved me more than young Mason’s growth into a vague and wooden avatar for just about every stubbly, arty, self-involved young man likely to make up the bulk of its audience. Yet the film offered up some excellent moments that rang painfully true, particularly Mason’s encounters with the various men, most of them his mother’s poor choices in mates, frustrated with his ever-intensifying individuality, making plays for power over him disguised as sagacious aid. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is another highly regarded work of the year, and I have more sympathy with it: the final scene was so good it almost urges me to put it on my best-of list, and yet I could never shake off the feeling that I was watching an exercise in music video aesthetics being stretched to a 90-minute film: so coolly confident when portraying utter alienness stalking social refuse in a desolate Glasgow, the film turned stodgy as it tried to reverse the perspective, as ornery, ordinary humanity can scarcely get past Glazer’s relentless aesthetic filter. Still, the film’s sense of atmosphere, the chill and cheerless Glaswegian streets and the wild surf and rain-smothered hills, were powerful in a manner that made the film’s contemplation of various forms of life stunted by circumstances urgent.

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Palo Alto

Gregg Araki, a filmmaker who shifted from enfant terrible to major artist nearly a decade ago with Mysterious Skin, returned with White Bird in a Blizzard, a jumpy, oddly curtailed film that nonetheless continues to nag at me, in Araki’s perfervid and often dreamlike blend of John Waters-esque camp and P. T. Anderson-like haunted nostalgia. The film’s animating murder mystery offered a thriller element less by pondering who murdered whom, but rather in contemplating whose aberrant and frustrated sexuality boiled over with destructive results, and how much Shailene Woodley’s young protagonist has inherited it, in a work pitched at the nexus of wistful coming-of-age tale, suburban tragedy, and punch-drunk satire. Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto, an interesting if rather loosely structured adaptation of a book of short stories by James Franco, sometimes trod similar territory in portraying adolescence in affluent, distracted America as a no-man’s-land of experience. Franco’s much-mocked, yet dogged, directorial career threw up some intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful films, particularly Interior. Leather Bar., a pseudo-documentary exploration made with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews that rummaged through concepts of acting and the aesthetics of sexuality, whilst Franco’s solo work Child of God turned Cormac McCarthy’s arty gross-out novel into a portrait of utter human degradation that, by the end, may well have been reborn. Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild tried to bash Cheryl Strayed’s diffuse memoir of walking therapy into an epic of personal experience: the result swung wildly between clumsy devices and granola pseudo-philosophy, and yet often communicated a sense of life far more unruly than this sort of thing usually offers, and had the straight-up nerve to portray a heroine who was no angel. John Curran’s Tracks, a similar tale, chose a more distanced take, one that ought to have proven superior, and yet the evasive smugness of the film’s dramatic pitch somehow turned great adventure into tedious hike. Amma Assante’s Belle touched on fascinating history and personalities and offered Gugu Mbatha-Raw a star-making role she made the most of (see also Beyond the Lights), but proved filled with vapid characterisations and laborious speechifying on a level somewhere between romantic melodrama, historical consciousness-raiser, and Jane Austen fan bait, to the point where it almost became self-satire.

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Get On Up

As ever, biopics were a cash crop this year. Mr. Turner essayed the form with eccentric power and teeming detail, trying to capture an age and way of life as much as the prickly personality of the singular man who inhabits it. And yet somehow, somewhere, the film lost its own thread of enquiry, to the point where it seemed to be essentially ingeniously-composed rubbernecking. The Theory of Everything provided an utterly contrived and smoothed-over portrait of Stephen Hawking, exemplifying just about everything wrong with this contemporary brand of prestige lure. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up were both showbiz biopics that gained less attention than expected. Both films kept their own theatricality in mind, making comedy out of the usual road-to-stardom stuff, and the vivacity of Get On Up’s early scenes suggested Taylor might redeem himself after the godawful The Help: the recreations of the flash and cool of a real cultural revolution were often superb. But whereas Eastwood’s sturdy sense of technique and emotional directness eventually helped his film locate a modicum of worldlywise catharsis, Taylor’s became cartoonish and ultimately formless: Chadwick Boseman worked his ass off playing James Brown, and yet never quite found what was going on behind those sharklike eyes, whereas Nelsan Ellis quietly stole the film as his long-suffering, less mercurial yet vital compadré Bobby Byrd. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Coincidence) likewise was essentially a showbiz farce constructed out of archetypes and received ideas posing as a grand and incisive tragicomedy, but redeemed by its sheer delight of technique and performance.

Film Review A Million Ways to Die in the West
A Million Ways to Die in the West

2014 was a weak year for comedy, but then again so are most years now. The controversial dumping of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle The Interview by an assailed Sony probably hasn’t cheated us of a classic of mirth, and yet the event as a whole suggested new truths about global culture with some galling and ridiculous ramifications. Few were particularly keen to see a film from Seth MacFarlane after his job hosting the Oscars, and his western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West proved frustratingly patchy and indecisive as to what kind of movie it was. Yet it was an intermittently enjoyable experience after all, a contemporary answer to Blazing Saddles (1974), just as undisciplined and tendentious, if much less consistently inspired, offering such random joys as the spectacle of Amanda Seyfried sucking on Neil Patrick Harris’ moustache, and Gilbert Gottfried’s wacko cameo as a fake Abraham Lincoln joyously announcing his newfound wealth to a bunch of oblivious schoolkids. On the other hand, the much-praised Obvious Child was, like its heroine, nowhere near as funny or radical as it wanted us to think it was. Jon Favreau’s likeably minor Chef had energy and a good-humoured take on the same story other films took deadly seriously this year, though its chief effect in the end was to make me hungry. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! was a gleefully energetic if rather shallow and sometimes nerve-trying paean to the joys of youth rebellion.

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Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)

2014 was at least a vintage year beyond the precincts of the Anglo-American zone. Little surprises and pleasures I was privileged to catch this year included a couple of fine Canadian films, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s mordant portrait in comedic existential angst Whitewash, featuring a drolly soulful Thomas Hayden Church, and the superior Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, both films unfolding like bleak fairytales in the midst of the woods. Out of France came one of my more frustratingly unseen films of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s much-acclaimed Goodbye to Language. Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay (released abroad as The French Minister) was a divisive film, as some branded it a laboured Gallic version of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but it was to me a lighter, much less one-note indictment than those satires, instead a deft comedy of manners that tried to comprehend the degree to which modern politics is a game of perpetual catch-up football enacted by people whose talents and follies coexist. Roman Polanski offered what was, to me, easily his most enjoyable and full-blooded film in a long time with the twisted role-playing satire Venus in Fur, setting Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner into a pas-de-deux of sexual and artistic gamesmanship. Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie was, by comparison, a good-looking but still-born study of an alienated young woman who finds…well, something or other in prostituting herself out. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of 2011’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, captured the Palme d’Or this year with Winter Sleep, an equally lengthy and intensive interrogation of the modes of petty tyranny and fear that too often consume and define life on the most everyday levels, unfolding like a good book but infused with genuine cinematic values. Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s spacy, intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying odyssey across the Argentine pampas inferred history as a chasm people fall into and societies emerge from. Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water was a lustrously beautiful, if excessively diaphanous fable that told a not-dissimilar story to Boyhood, but with a far richer sense of social and natural connection, as well as a more specific sense of the fears and torments of growing up.

Performances of Note:

Agata Kulesza, Ida
Allison Pill, Snowpiercer
Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dakota Fanning, Night Moves
Don Johnson, Cold in July
Dorothy Atkinson, Mr. Turner
Dylan Moran, Calvary
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emma Watson, Noah
Emmanuelle Seigner, Venus in Fur
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire; White Bird in a Blizzard
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Golshifteh Farahani, My Sweet Pepper Land
Imogen Poots, Need for Speed
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant ; Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Katia Winter, The Banshee Chapter
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night; The Immigrant
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Olivia Williams, Sabotage
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Russell Crowe, Noah
Shailene Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard
Thierry Lhermitte, Quai d’Orsay
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive; Snowpiercer
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Tom Hardy, Locke

Favourite Films of 2014

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

Sundance 2014: Day 7 - video

Calvary wasn’t a perfect work, but it was a massif of ambitious drama that actually had something to say and said it well, simultaneously curious and sceptical, brutal and humane, extraordinarily funny and deeply sad. A titanic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson backed by excellent ensemble work helped give flesh to a film that delved into matters of faith and character and beyond, to study the failure of the most profound social bonds in the modern world, to try and honestly state both why the failure happened and also question what, if anything, might remake those bonds.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson)

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A lot of pretenders have tried to claim the crown of the FX blockbuster king in recent years, and the sharp knives that greeted Peter Jackson’s final Tolkien entry suggests many are ready for a change of dynasty. But Jackson still does this sort of thing with a sense of gusto, fulsomeness, and an eye for beauty in unlikely places that makes most rivals look pathetic, particularly amongst this year’s big movie dross. Battle of the Five Armies stands tall in the Hobbit triptych: fun as they were, the first two often felt like theme park rides in Middle Earth, whereas here the final battle rams together every moving part in the story with consequence, and pays off with a pair of harshly beautiful death scenes carrying more tragic gravitas than just about anything else in the entire sextet. The spectacle of cross-purposes, naked greed, and swaggering arrogance from various self-appointed supermen who conspire to start a war also represented the most morally complex passage in the series, and the possibility of redemption through trial therefore more moving.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)

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I found myself cocking an eyebrow suspiciously at Ida, a continental excursion for a filmmaker who had previously been based in Britain. With its black-and-white photography, Holocaust themes, preciously framed shots, and general air of mournful seriousness, it seemed like something carefully pitched to be the perfect art film for pseuds. Yet under the film’s studied surface lay a fervently beating heart and a brilliant sense of character in a work attuned to cultural dislocation and flavourful in its evocation of the period. Pawlikowski’s style conveys the way life flows on, running roughshod over personal loss and horror, suggesting both why that’s inevitable and possibly even for the best, and also noting the good and bad reasons why some might choose to opt out altogether.

The Immigrant (James Gray)

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A tragic tale situated in real history but dusted with the lightest gilt of magic-realism, The Immigrant needed no gimmicks or stunts other than good filmmaking to tell its story, rising with a symphonic blend of intricacy and directness and represents one of the most concise and intelligible aesthetic constructions of recent years: The Immigrant withholds until its last shot, and then haunts for days afterwards. The sublime intelligence of Marion Cotillard’s bedeviled heroine and particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Caliban deserve great acclaim, but won’t get it.

My Sweet Pepper Land (Hiner Saleem)

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This oddball mix of folk tale, Fordian western, and Shakespearean romance, with a jigger of antic gallows humour, has gained little release and appreciation, and yet it’s stuck with me with more affection that many other films of the year. My Sweet Pepper Land resituated Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan, portraying a young policeman’s entanglement with a victimised schoolteacher and a criminal potentate as a way of exploring the new frontiers of an ever-assailed nation and cultural tensions pulling the Middle East in the many directions all too clearly described by contemporary history.

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)

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I wasn’t sold on Kelly Reichardt’s lauded anti-western Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), but her follow-up Night Moves was accomplished in treading similar territory with a lighter foot and a less obvious sense of irony. A notable film talent emerged more completely. Depicting a trio of eco-terrorists driven to blow up a dam by various motives both political and personal, Reichardt, like Hiner Saleem, blended disparate genres, including war movie, murder mystery, horror film, and the jangled nerved thrillers of ‘70s cinema (including Arthur Penn’s great film of the same name) for the sake of depicting people and an age at a crossroads, the grey zone where commitment shades into hostility, idealism is subsumed by solipsism, and alienation realises that it is actually sociopathy.

Noah (Darren Aronofsky)

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Aronofsky’s startlingly odd, mammoth, misshapen revival of the biblical epic had chutzpah beyond the measure of any rival in big-budget cinema this year and an actual vision to purvey, daring to enrich a stark legend with conceptual weight and philosophical enquiry. See also Ridley Scott’s less thoughtful, but brilliantly staged Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

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Jim Jarmusch’s best film in many years was a droll and opulent exploration of the bohemian creed through a twist on an old metaphor: vampirism. Tourism through the desolate grandeur of Detroit is equated with the intellectual journey of life and of romance through the ages, constantly changing expressive form and governing code but never the vital essence. The coda landed a blackly humorous rabbit punch in contemplating how sooner or later, everyone who looks at the stars has to acknowledge the gutter they’re in.

The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)

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Punctuated by thunderous, brilliantly staged and choreographed sequences of mayhem and martial artistry, Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his claustrophobic ass-kick classic from 2011 expanded his scope enormously, not entirely without some pacing problems, but finally creating a spectacle of motion matched to an expansive drama of gangland honour, offering everything from tragedy to farce and hazy poeticism.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

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Note-perfect social realism and incisive ethics and psychology provide reminders just why the Dardenne brothers are so lauded, in a taut and thrilling tale that is also utterly believable. Marion Cotillard’s second great role of the year saw her inhabit an Everywoman without a trace of either star slumming or self-important art.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) / Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)

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I pair these films in part because Stranger by the Lake was a delayed 2013 film, which Marilyn Ferdinand reviewed back then, and because both are cool, bare-boned, almost mythic tales with a queer twist: Stranger by the Lake invoked primal rituals of mating and blood sacrifice in a landscape deliberately cordoned off from the modern world, whilst Vic + Flo Saw a Bear becomes a kind of fairy tale enacted by two aging, life-damaged lesbian partners threatened by a lurking demon from one woman’s past. Both films conclude with wrenching, brutal, yet oddly touching visions of people who just can’t live without love, even in the face of annihilation.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

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The Palme d’Or winner is over three hours long, driven by dialogue, and replete with silence and evocations of alienation–it’s like the art movie your mother warned you about. Yet Winter Sleep is patient rather than inflated, dense with detail and quietly motivated, taking its characters seriously but never over-indulging them. Ceylan analyses psychology and social context with a feel for how the two affect each other. Like Calvary, with more finesse, Ceylan uses a small town and its occupants to delve into the way so many of us create phantoms of our preoccupations, terrors, and preferred world views and inflict them on other people.

Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Runners-Up

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Locke (Steven Knight)
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait)

Rough Gems & Underrated

Begin Again (John Carney)
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
Quai d’Orsay (aka The French Minister, Bertrand Tavernier)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)

Roll of Genre Pleasures

Cold in July (Jim Mickle)
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok)
Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin)
Need For Speed (Scott Waugh)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Sabotage (David Ayer)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)

Overrated & Underwhelming

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Fury (David Ayres)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tracks (John Curran)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)

Crap

3 Days to Kill (McG)
The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Robocop (José Padilha)
The Rover (David Michôd)

Not seen:

Bird People / The Blue Room / The Captive / Charlie’s Country / Child’s Pose / The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby / Force Majeure / Frank / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night / Gloria / Goodbye to Language / The Guest / Horse Money / Ilo Ilo / In Bloom / It Felt Like Love / Joe / Land Ho! / Leviathan / Love Is Strange / Mommy / Norte, The End of History / Nymphomaniac / Pride / The Strange Little Cat / Stray Dogs / The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2014:

Baby Face Nelson / The Beguiled (Don Siegel)
Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine)
The Big Night / Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino)
Break of Day (Ken Hannam)
China Seas (Tay Garnett)
The Colossus of Rhodes (Sergio Leone)
Creature with the Atom Brain / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake / Pier 5, Havana (Edward L. Cahn)
The Driller Killer / China Girl / The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse / The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava)
Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Horsemen / Black Sunday / Prophecy (John Frankenheimer)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Matango (Ishiro Honda)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson)
Rabid / The Brood / Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Railroaded! / T-Men (Anthony Mann)
Seas Beneath / The Plough and the Stars / The Long Voyage Home / The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
Shaft / Shaft’s Big Score! (Gordon Parks)
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)
Strangler of the Swamp (Frank Wisbar)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce)
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon)
Une Femme est une Femme / Vivre Sa Vie / Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow)
Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes)
Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan)

Scorecard: Best Films of the 2010s, Halfway Mark:

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

  • Syd Henderson spoke:
    29th/12/2014 to 9:02 pm

    Well, I’ve seen one of your top films, but I’m a little surprised “Journey to the West” didn’t make your top 10. I like the Marvels and Boyhood a lot better than you do, and urge you to see “The Imitation Game.”

    I’m glad you got to see “Love Me Tonight.” I like all the MacDonald/Chevalier films. (She’s livelier in “The Love Parade,” which I like a smidgeon better but doesn’t have that wonderful sequence with “Isn’t It Romantic” going cross-country.) The only MacDonald/Eddy film in the same league is “Naughty Marietta.

    You may want to check out “The Wind Rises” if you haven’t already. It’s the Miyazaki film about the creator of the Zero.

  • Roderick spoke:
    29th/12/2014 to 10:05 pm

    Hi Syd. Happy holidays to thee and thine.

    Indeed I haven’t seen The Wind Rises yet, Syd, although I consider it one missed from 2013 rather than 2014. It’s very high on my mental list of ones to watch soon at any rate.

    The Imitation Game has not been made available to me in any form, sadly, but I do want to see it, chiefly for the cast. After The Theory of Everything, though, I’m not feeling too hot for Oscar-season biopics.

    I know what you mean about Journey to the West, but ultimately I decided its virtues were best preserved in the realm of grand lark. I decided a similar thing with The Lego Movie.

    Love Me Tonight was genius filmmaking above all; everyone should see it to know how an inventive filmmaker could subvert all the theoretical limitations of early sound cinema, just as vitally as King Kong did the following year.

  • Patrick spoke:
    30th/12/2014 to 12:23 am

    I’ve seen of this stuff, have just a few random comments. Two recently seen movies you haven’t gotten to yet – The Imitation Game and Whiplash are both very good I thought, among the best movies I saw this year, hopefully you get a crack at them soon. JK Simmons and Cumberbatch are excellent.

    Just saw Noah on DVD, I liked it more than I thought I would, the wrestling with what God’s will is was what set it apart from the usual spectacle.

    As soon as I saw the idea of Boyhood I realized it wouldn’t have a plot, being just by it’s nature a series of episodes or vignettes, so didn’t have a lot of interest in it.

    Wasn’t nearly as offended by Monuments Men as you, but it was totally bland and forgettable, left next to no impression.

    Enjoyed Guardians of the G., but the big finish, which is sort of key to a movie, did nothing for me. I think I got more of a kick out of the characters and humor than you did and that offset the disappointment in the climax. Wouldn’t mind a sequel.

  • Roderick spoke:
    30th/12/2014 to 1:18 am

    Hi Patrick. I can understand most just forgetting The Monuments Men, but man, it just made me angry; so much good material so utterly mishandled. The closer I looked at it the lazier it proved, and it’s the laziness that offended me deeply. I could all but hear Clooney self-censoring himself into a corner: “I wanna make a war movie. But not a trad war movie with all the blood and the killing and the rah-rah. I want to make a film about culture. But without actually caring about the culture. I want to make a comedy. But not something that’s, like, too funny because this is serious…” Etc, etc, etc.

    As I just said to Syd, I look cautiously forward to The Imitation Game. Whiplash I am more wary of, because in abstract as the plot has been explained to me and the parts of it that I’ve seen looks more like macho fantasy dressed up as portrait in creative straits, like Fury for an upmarket crowd: the clip of Simmons slapping Teller reminded me keenly of Pitt forcing Lerman to shoot the German prisoner, and I wonder if the former film is as hypocritical about such abuse of power as the latter. As I’ve already encountered aspects of Chazelle’s sensibility in Grand Piano I feel more confident in my wariness. But, then again, that anxiety might readily dispel when I do see it; it wouldn’t be the first time.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/12/2014 to 11:02 am

    The only thing The Monuments Men is a monument to is the ego of actors who think talent in one area means talent in another – that’s why we have professional screenwriters, guys.

    Rod, as usual, you put me to shame with the comprehensiveness of your yearly review. I have only seen three of your top 11 films, and didn’t think as highly of Ida as you and everyone else seems to, though you were quite right to single out Agata Kulesza for her performance, which made the film for me.

    Ironically, I probably went out to the movies more this past year than I have in many a previous year and found much to admire, from Citizenfour to Beyond the Lights. Still, for me, the highlight of the year was Martin Scorsese’s Masterpieces of Polish Cinema traveling show. When you see the rich tradition from which Ida sprang, it boggles my mind that the series didn’t play to respectable-sized houses the way Ida did.

    If I had to make a top 10 of new films, I don’t know if I could. I know one doesn’t have to choose great films, only the best of the year, but it feels like a cheat to me to choose films that I have more than minor quibbles with. The Immigrant is certainly a fine film, but unlike you, I felt that Marion Cotillard was kind of a hole in its middle, a cipher that drained energy from the film. I believe my most unadulterated admiration goes to Citizenfour, not only an important film, but also a very well-constructed film, and Journey to the West, which didn’t waste a single moment of its running time and gave me the most rousing ride in decades. I would also include We Are the Best!. I can see where it could be annoying, but as a former girl, it hit every note of what it’s like perfectly and made me feel young again.

    I wanted to love Princess Kaguya, but alas, I didn’t. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Noah, which your review made me want to see, as well as a few others you only wrote about here. Thanks again for a great round-up.

  • Pat spoke:
    30th/12/2014 to 5:00 pm

    Well Rod, another wonderful year-end confessional. I always look forward to this post and always have a fair number of both agreements and disagreements.

    I liked both THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and BOYHOOD more than you did, although in the case of the latter, I am wavering in my support. I tend to judge films in terms of how long they linger in my mind and imagination. My primary memory of BOYHOOD is that it started to feel like a very long slog in the last 30 minues; I was convinced that kid would never finish high school. I’m also struggling to get on board with the near-universal praise for IDA – my lingerin impression of that one is pretty much in line with your initial one.

    I do rejoice to see that you also find SNOWPIERCER and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY among the overrated films of they year.

    And as long as we’re all piling on the dreadful MONUMENTS MEN – was anyone else bothered by the number of times Clooney had someone asking if it was really worth risking men’s lives to save ART? It was almost as if he were anticipating that question from right-wingers in the audience so felt like he had to keep answering it. Ultimately it weakened the film for me – I wish he’d gone in with the courage of convictions and just made a movie that took for granted art is worth saving. Not that it would have necessarily been much better, but at least it would have been marginally less annoying.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/12/2014 to 9:03 am

    This is certainly a monumental post, wrought with some serious cinematic fervor and fueled by a passionate resolve to see each and every film of consequence released during the calendar year. Yes we will never come to terms on BOYHOOD (unlike my friend Pat above, I did not find the latter part problematic and remember the entire film vividly) Still, it looks like it will finish below INTERSTELLAR and SELMA on my Ten Best lists, with showings over the next few days of WINTER SLEEP and LEVIATHAN notwithstanding. I applaud your inclusion of Dardannes film (seen two nights ago) I love the idea of making a list of the greatest films of the new millennium too, and there are five of your choices that would make my own list in that regard.

    I do love THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, (and also love GUARDIANS, but you already know that, ha!) and of your very best list I am certainly a huge fan of IDA and CAVALRY, and do like THE HOBBIT and THE IMMIGRANT quite a bit.

    Quite a rhetorical fireworks show here in every sense.

    I don’t yet know what my own Top 10 will be–it depends on the final viewings. These are the present serious “contenders:”

    Interstellar
    Selma
    Boyhood
    Force Majeure
    Ida
    Stranger by the Lake
    Pride
    Bad Hair
    Keep on Keepin On
    The Grand Budapest Hotel
    Two Days One Night
    Mr. Turner
    The Imitation Game
    Regarding Susan Sontag
    Happy Valley
    The Overnighters
    Cavalry
    The Immigrant
    Belle
    Whiplash
    Nightcrawler
    Starred Up
    Brides
    Stand Clear of Closing Doors
    Frank
    Into the Woods
    Under the Skin
    Babadook
    Black Coal, This Ice
    In Order of Disappearance
    Broken Hill Blues
    Gone Girl
    Snowpiercer
    Five Star

    I haven’t even considered the list of films I didn’t like by for sure Inherent Vice, Foxcatcher and The Theory of Everything would be among them.

    I also liked Jersey Boys more than most did.

    Again, great show here!

  • Patrick spoke:
    31st/12/2014 to 11:05 am

    Since leaving my previous comment I have watched The Grand Budapest Hotel (on DVD of course) and agree with you – underwhelming. It’s all so whimsical that it’s light as a feather, a piece of fluff. Mildly amusing, but I was expecting some substance. Really don’t get what all the praise was for.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/12/2014 to 2:22 pm

    The praise GRAND BUDAPEST got from legions of bloggers and the critical establishment was well deserved. I am wagering it will even win Paul Clark’s Muriel Awards event next month. It is Wes Anderson’s best film to date and teh whimsy is all part of the film’s allure. Funny, bizarre, subversive, captivating in set design and performance, I’d say it is a huge hit in every sense myself.

    It has also made Anderson fans out of non-Anderson fans. That may be its most astonishing accomplishment.

  • Roderick spoke:
    2nd/01/2015 to 5:16 am

    Hi, Marilyn, Sam, Pat, Patrick. Welcome to the train shunting yards.

    I might object to your characterisation of The Monument Men or at least the implied dig at Clooney, Mare, who had proven his directorial chops. I still feel Clooney has talent in this field, but this disaster suggests he needs to step back and take stock of his aims. What he seems to lack at the moment is a real direction to move in artistically other than a vague ethic of “solid, old-fashioned, broad” without ever quite showing he knows how those qualities worked in relation to the stories they told. The same hesitation and weak-will was also the curse of Leatherheads, which was a more tolerable film than TMM. As per your criticism, Pat, indeed, one only has to look at The Train and Castle Keep to see the same theme handled with far more punch (perhaps George could take some clues from Burt Lancaster) and much less chickenhawk pussyfooting.

    I think one quality of The Immigrant and Cotillard’s role that was distinct was that Ewa was a detached person, or trying to be one, and wasn’t a clear-cut, likeable avatar for the audience; with her self-loathing after the rape on the ship and her anger towards the world, she had essentially closed herself off from other people; in fact, although tantalised by Renner as the embodiment of the facetious new world magic, she actively hated everyone around her and herself. Only in the last scene when she regained the capacity of empathy for another did she find anything like openness again. It’s a rare stance for a “lead” character.

    As both Marilyn and Pat found Ida disappointing, well, as I said, I was awfully suspicious of it. But I also found I couldn’t shake it loose long after watching it. Where I found it worthy and powerful was the careful way Pawlikowski contrasted the surface exactness with churning feeling beneath it, and also his feel for the way the life around the central character skidded off their private anguishes: in particular the scene with the pop band and their unruly high spirits both sang out with liberating enticement to the ladies but ultimately couldn’t redeem them. Also, as you mention Mare with the Scorsese selection, I could see Pawlikowski both deliberately recreating the artifice of those works – I thought of Ashes and Diamonds and Night Train and Knife in the Water and Closely Watched Trains and others when watching it – whilst also trying to state directly what could generally only be implicit in many films of that era: the sense of personal betrayal, oppression, and enmity infecting too much of the post-war landscape, the inability of former neighbours to look each-other in the eye anymore. So yes, I found it rewarding after all.

    I would emphasise that I didn’t dislike Boyhood. It had some fine qualities and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke gave strong performances. I just didn’t find its achievement anywhere near commensurate with its reception. I actually found the experience provoked me to consider the nature of art. Frankly, the film’s reception has nothing to do with art. It is rather then anti-art aspect of it that has gained such fierce favour.

    Sam, you should know by now that my yearly Confession is a great big middle finger to consensus acclaim, and trying to counter Patrick’s opinion by saying everyone else disagrees with him is a red rag to a bull. I don’t give a hoot who or how many people approved of The Grand Budapest Hotel. I have tried to like Wes Anderson’s films but I have given up. His films are Chris Columbus movies for pseudo-intellectuals, the aesthetic equivalent of Ritalin for overwrought hipsters, the Martin Prince of filmmakers. Anderson can be a droll chap when he wants to be. But I tire quickly of his total immersion in smug artifice, his lack of an idea filter (that stupid fucking birthmark on Saoirse Ronan’s cheek was close to the straw that broke the camel’s back), his one-note characters. His backing away from the actual emotional climax of this film laid bare just how gutless he is in his unwillingness to alienate or jolt his audience out of the cotton wool he wraps them in. His films are a pile-up of mannerisms, not art. If a less pre-approved filmmaker had offered up cute faux-Nazis like he did, they would’ve been skinned alive. His precious framings and overwhelming aesthetic strangle his comedic flourishes in the cradle. His annexation of Stefan Zweig’s work only proved how utterly detached he is from the real world and how much he appeals to people who want to share that detachment. I did enjoy Ralph Fiennes’ performance and the ski chase, which was flagrantly fake in the same way as the better moments of Moonlight Kingdom and Fantastic Mr Fox, the only Anderson films I’ve felt even mild liking for.

    Okay. That’s off my chest anyway. Anway, Sam, I’ll still be glad to see your list when it’s complete. Your contender list is long and authoritative. Out of curiosity, which five on the Decade list would you concur with?

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    2nd/01/2015 to 9:07 am

    Rod, I have to hand it to you. When you dice something you leave no stone unturned, and each of your arguments did have me broadly smiling. I have tried to stay clear of my longtime obsession with consensus, but again entered the fray only as a direct response to Patrick, who just in the comment above mine wanted to know why the film got all the praise. There was a time where some of your present positions were embraced by me too, (I was NOT in the early days a Wes Anderson fan) but I do like his last two films quite a bit. In any case, I know you for so many years now, and well know your middle finger glee with consensus!! Touche, my friend!!! 🙂

    The five films on your milennium list that I am gleefully in accord with are:

    Mysteries of Lisbon
    To the Wonder
    A Separation
    12 Years A Slave
    Lincoln

    Each and every one of those films were high om my annual ten-best lists, with LISBON at #2 and SLAVE at #1 of their respective years. I am almost to the point where I would also add ANATOLIA, especially after recalling it vividly yesterday afternoon while spend New Year’s Day at Manhattan’s Quad watching the nearly three-and-a-half hour WINTER SLEEP, the Palme d’Or winner from the same director. I know this is a film you have a high opinion, and I’d have to agree with you. A trenchant marriage-disintegration work that is purely Bergmanesque is the very best sense. Bringing this comment to you full circle with an amusing anecdote is the fact that I brought my 15 year-old son Danny with me into the city, as he was hot to trot to pick up some vinal records at the Strand. I didn’t dare make him see WINTER SLEEP, but instead directed him to one of the other three theaters in the art house multi-plex, which was showing THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. 🙂

  • Roderick spoke:
    2nd/01/2015 to 10:01 am

    Ah, I’m glad you finally got to see Winter Sleep, Sam (even if unseen by your vinyl-enthused son). The gods know why it had to wait so long for a release Stateside. It’s a dense, involving, terrific piece of work and I have a full-length review of it coming up soon. Although it is a movie experience that should be approached when one is in the full flush of wakefulness, as I learnt to some strain. If I still prefer Anatolia to a certain degree it’s because Ceylan pulled off something quite unique there, a more finite poetic quality mixed with sparse and unsentimental realism too, whereas the Bergmanesque quality with this is more marked and familiar if still entirely pleasurable. There’s a few more films which I’d add to the Decade list but require second viewings.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/01/2015 to 10:39 am

    Rod – My dig is not at Clooney the director, but Clooney the writer and his actor/writer collaborator Grant Heslov. They each have five writing credits to their names, including their collaborations, and I don’t think they’re very good at it. This story deserved more than a couple of dilettante screenwriters, which is what I consider them to be.

    I like your analysis of Cotillard performance. I definitely can see it from this perspective. What can I say? I just didn’t respond to it.

    As for Ida, I liked a great deal about the film, but trying to come to terms with the Holocaust and its reverberations from a distance of 70 years makes the discoveries a bit cliched as applied to modern Polish audiences. I’m very wary of the enthusiasm of new generations for stories about the Holocaust, a guilty pleasure is how it seems to me.

  • Patrick spoke:
    2nd/01/2015 to 9:55 pm

    Wow. Nice takedown of Wes. I went back and forth on replying to Sam (don’t want to be an agumentative troublemaker), but I’ll just make quick comment on my main problem with Grand Budapest – the characters are not real people. At least, they don’t respond to the situations in the film as a real person would. And if they don’t respond to anything with much more than a sort of shrug, we don’t really invest anything in the characters or the situations either.

    I keep trying on his films because so many others like them, but I’ve had it, they just don’t connect in any way with me. (Fantastic Mr. Fox the exception, it was fine)

  • André Dick spoke:
    2nd/01/2015 to 9:57 pm

    I agree with Sam Juliano: “This is certainly a monumental post”. Great work! Congratulations, Roderick. I would like to ask your permission to present my list:

    1. Boyhood
    2. Interstellar
    3. Ida
    4. The hobbit – The battle of the five armies
    5. Enemy
    6. Palo Alto
    7. Two days, one night
    8. Heli
    9. Men, women and children
    10. The missing picture
    11. The grand Hotel Budapest
    12. Gebo and the shadow
    13. Jodorowsky’s Dune
    14. Nymphomaniac – Volume I
    15. Hide your Smiling Faces
    16. Stray Dogs
    17. Adult World
    18. Maps to the stars
    19. We are the Best!
    20. RoboCop

    Honorable mentions: Jersey Boys, White bird in a blizzard, Nymphomaniac – Vol. II, The double, Le week-end, Noah, Frank, The guest, Guardians of the galaxy, Begin again, Stranger by the lake, The Lego movie, Hateship loveship, Jealousy, Between us, The captive, Magic in the moonlight, The way he looks, Nightcrawler, Dawn of the planet of the apes, Transcendence, The fault on your stars, Calvary, The young and prodigious T. S. Spivet

    Blind spots: American sniper, Birdman, A most violent year, Force marjure, Inherent Vice, Winter sleep, The homesman, Whiplash, The theory of everything, Selma, Fury, Big eyes, Still Alice, Into the woods, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Locke, Night moves, The imitation game, Mr. Turner

    Thank you, Rod. And happy new year!!!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    3rd/01/2015 to 8:14 am

    Wow, Andre Dick is a man after my own heart and sensibilities, big time!!!

    Terrific list there!!! Love it!!!!!

    Patrick, I can handle arguments, especially when they come from someone as polite and as eloquent as yourself. I’m a seasoned veteran in these parts.

    The entire bit about the characters in BUDAPEST not being “real” people is what makes it so alluring and creative. Your issues with it are exactly why I love it so much.

  • Patrick spoke:
    3rd/01/2015 to 9:27 am

    Interesting, the very things I don’t like are what you do like (or said another way – You mean everyone does not think the way I do?? Barely conceivable). I will give him Production Design in this one, I did like the look of the film.

  • Roderick spoke:
    3rd/01/2015 to 10:15 am

    Mare, I’m still inclined to disagree a little. They did a fine job writing Good Night, and Good Luck. But, and this is probably the crux of the matter, that was defined by the crispness and directness of how they chose to tell a story provided by them. But I’m not terribly convinced a lot of professional screenwriters in Hollywood now could’ve done that much better. After all, Leatherheads was written by another team entirely and yet betrayed similar problems to TMM. Nonetheless, it is true: when Clooney knows what he wants he can be very sharp, but some of his works have only been piles of impulses and gestures he wants to put together without an instruction manual and so they’re still spread out on the floor.

    I do know what you mean about the glut of Holocaust themed works in recent years and the feeling of horror tourism for self-congratulatory audiences some do offer. However I don’t feel Ida was afflicted with that quality; its theme was survivor guilt, an under-examined phenomenon, and communal treachery, rather than atrocity, and one that can bear the weight of other frames of reference beyond the specific events it portrays.

    The character actions that Sam liked about The Grand Budapest Hotel and which annoyed Patrick could I think usually be safely filed under the absurdist rules of farce and screwball comedy, genres that are specifically driven by characters doing things that are illogical to all but their own internal worlds. But there’s something about Anderson’s approach that prevents me for considering his work as that. That vein of sentimentality he injects into his films makes me deeply uneasy; it always seems to me to be very carefully pitched on a level where one can take as either earnest nor sarcastic, and thus I get the feeling I’m being played by a talented conman; it’s too insubstantial and unearned for seriousness and not actually funny enough to be a burlesque. The rude edge he gave this film should’ve goosed that element a little, but instead it just seemed to make it all stand out even more starkly. The reason why Fantastic Mr. Fox is so well-liked by non-Andersonian aficionados inevitably lies in the fact it’s an adaptation and is free of that facetious uncertainty.

    Andre, that’s a might interesting list. I’m particularly interested that you put the much-derided Men, Women and Children in there; I’m no fan of Jason Reitman, but I admire your willingness to stick up for something so reviled, and I do wonder if the rocks tossed its way might have been partial compensation for how overinflated Reitman’s early work was. And I’m actually interested in Nymphomaniac, which is rare for me with Lars Von Trier.

  • Yann spoke:
    3rd/01/2015 to 12:57 pm

    Thanks for another great year-end post.

    If I could make one addition, it would be “The Selfish Giant” by Clio Barnard (technically 2013 but I guess most people caught it on DVD in 2014 like myself).

    It’s quite heartbreaking and the child actors are amazing.

  • Roderick spoke:
    3rd/01/2015 to 8:13 pm

    Gosh, Yann, that’s another one that’s slipped by me, although I do recall hearing good things about it. Anyway, glad you enjoyed the read.

  • Paul Dionne spoke:
    6th/01/2015 to 9:33 am

    hee hee, I could read this all year – paul dionne

  • Roderick spoke:
    6th/01/2015 to 10:12 am

    Glad you enjoyed, Paul.

  • André Dick spoke:
    22nd/01/2015 to 3:36 pm

    Thank you, Roderick! Thank you, Sam!
    In my opion, Men, women & children is underrated and incredibly genuine. I was really interested. Great casting: Judy Greer is incrible in this film. Overrated: Whiplash, The imitation game, Foxcatcher. I watched Inherent Vice. A masterpiece! Please, a review! A most a violent year is also great.

  • Roderick spoke:
    22nd/01/2015 to 8:00 pm

    Well it wouldn’t be the first film Judy Greer’s elevated, André. Yes, The Imitation Game and Foxcatcher are excruciatingly overrated, and yes, Inherent Vice is a masterpiece – review is forthcoming. I enjoyed A Most Violent Year quite a bit although I did have some problems with it: Chandor just didn’t seem to know how to actually end it.

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