Here it is at last, my top 16 films of 2014 (based on UK release date), because 10 just wasn’t enough and I like square numbers anyway. Overall, if there’s any trends it seems to be auteurs at the top of their game wandering into new directions, and/or the best of American directors picking up form again.
16. Gone Girl
Twisty plot chicanery, an unreliable narrator, a glossy visual aesthetic, and a scene-stealing gummy-bear throwing lawyer all contribute to making this Fincher’s best film since Zodiac. More than that, by sparking off debates on the internet and social media (ironically one of the targets of its satire), the film showed there to be some life in cinema’s social significance yet. The main issue contested was the representation of Amy, sexist to some, feminist to others. I personally sided towards the latter after my viewing, and reading some of the discussions didn’t change my mind. Yes, she’s an avenging beast materialised out of the darkest nightmare of the male psyche, and yes she’s a cipher, but I think that’s the point. Gillian Flynn has written Amy as a woman who is defined by others, whose story has been and is being written by those around her, in the case of her parents quite literally so, but no less in the case of her husband and ex-boyfriend seeing in her the person they want to see. In turn this created an expectation of her responsibility to become that idealised version of her. Now she’s had enough and wants to fight for control of her own narrative, and she goes about it by creating a new story of her own (hence the unreliable narration too) in an admittedly extreme way…
Jim Jarmusch making a vampire movie? Eyebrows were raised. But then, besides the costume drama war biopic, what genre has he not made his own over the last 30 years? Naturally he pulls it off, casting Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as vampires reinvented as sophisticated world-weary wanderers who have lived centuries on Earth making art (Christopher Marlowe is one of them and he’s also the real Shakespeare but that’s another story), lament the stupidity of the humans they co-exist with and scavenge around for their most precious commodity: blood. Jarmusch threads it all together with a running theme on that other form of vampirism, of the artistic kind, plagiarism (or is it borrowing?) and a beguiling musical performance courtesy of Yasmine Hamdan, wife of Palestinian director Elia Suleiman. Quirky, imaginative, genuinely romantic, and as always with Jarmusch rich in references aplenty which will strike all kinds of associations and connotations… Jim leaves us thirsty for more.
Admittedly I only saw 50 new releases in 2014 and far too few documentaries, but The Missing Picture is the only doc to make this list. It is the latest exploration by Cambodian director Rithy Panh of his country’s darkest period, when dictator Pol Pot flung the nation into a frenzied whirlpool of insanity and murder, leading to at least two million deaths in just four years. I recommend also watching, among others, Panh’s 2003 documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which is a sobering account of survivors revisiting the jails where so many were killed and tortured, and provides the right contextual knowledge for this more personal exploration.
In The Missing Picture Panh combines stock footage with an essay-film style voiceover recounting his own memories of how he and his family coped under the life-shattering regime, how they were moved into a prison camp when Rithy was 11 years old, of the painfully happier memories of his father reciting poetry to him before he was killed, and of all those other memories that live on within him like ghosts. But since there is no way of faithfully visualising these images anyway, Panh introduces the film’s unique twist by re-creating the scenes with hand-made clay model figurines, childish in their simplicity but deeply eloquent of a past frozen in time which must not be forgotten.
There probably was no better film this year about the pitfalls of modern relationships nor about the increasing influence technology is having over all aspects of our lives than Her, Spike Jonze’s welcome return to form in his post-Charlie Kaufman days. Joaquin Phoenix shows a gentle side to himself as the lonely and slightly self-centred Theodore who falls in love with his new computer interface system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, sure winner of the Oscar for best vocal performance if such a category existed. The neutral retro-futurist setting feels oddly timeless but works in making this a film not about flashy effects or sci-fi gimmicks, but about human characters and the evolving ways they connect, or attempt to re-connect, to one another. And, unexpectedly, about how computer system characters evolve too… The spot-on performances, the script and the warmth, for all its relevance to our daily lives made this film not just philosophically fascinating but a witty, rewarding watch.
12. Norte, the End of History
Fabian is a well-off law school student whose increasingly extreme opinions are alienating both his friends and his professors. He rants away about his disgust at the state of things and the need to violently force the start a new social order (echoing with the Philippines’ revolutionary past) until he drops out of college, ends up alone, and decides to carry over his theories into practice. The irony will be that the people who shall suffer from his actions are exactly the class of have-nots his twisted intentions wanted to help…
At four hours long, and peppered with references to Filipino history from the 19th century revolution against Spanish colonialists to the Marcos dictatorship, this would appear a challenging watch. But there’s something elementary about this 21st century answer to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with plenty of ruminations on the nature of evil and the cycles of history… Partly this must be why it has managed to become Lav Diaz’s most successful film at the UK box office to date, and his breakthrough to a wider audience around the world. (And a four-hour long film is a breeze by his standards anyway.) Filmed in wide-screen where every movement is perfectly choreographed to give visual meaning to each shot while remaining natural to the film’s long-take rhythms, Norte is meticulous like a drawn-out Bresson film, and ultimately rewards living through and feeling its lengthy duration.
11. Two Days, One Night
(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Among many other things, the Dardenne Brothers have become masters at turning extremely simple plot premises into a riveting watch, and their latest was no different. And as usual they continue their project of making a cinema that forces us to empathise, to literally put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, in a tricky situation, right down to the signature camera that follows a central character from behind at all times. In other words, it was more of the excellent same. The one new note perhaps is the collaboration with a genuine huge star, bigger certainly than Cecile De France who starred in The Kid with a Bike, or Jeremie Renier, who was ‘discovered’ by the brothers anyway. Marion Cotillard gives an admirably unglamorous performance as Sandra, a mother, wife and factory-worker with just one weekend to convince her co-workers to vote for her to keep her job and sacrifice their own bonuses in the process. From the start we know her quest will lead to some saying yes, some saying no, that she will meet some caring people and some selfish ones. And yet the film never falls victim to its own story structure. The Dardennes keep it injected with tension and emotion, as it slowly reveals the theme it’s really about (more universal than workers’ rights in capitalist societies of course) leading to the clever and life-affirming ending.
(Ethan and Joel Coen)
This has all the ingredients to join the pantheon of Coen Brothers gems. We know by now to expect vivid, memorable characters from them, but the melancholy Llewyn drifting through life is one of their most intriguing creations in a long time. Not immediately likable yet portrayed with almost uncharacteristic tenderness by the Coens, it’s a brilliant central performance by Oscar Isaac as a singer-songwriter of folksy music in 1960s New York, with enough talent to not give up but too little drive to ever be a success. His biggest mistake, other than not possessing the pragmatic know-how that’s part of the business he needs to succeed in, will be not being Bob Dylan…
Some memorable cameos by the likes of Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and F. Murray Abraham (good to see him appearing in worthy movies once again) spark things up along the way, while Carey Mulligan does the best she can with what is the most one-dimensional character in this script, Llewyn’s erstwhile love interest. There’s more Coen cleverness with a bewitching circular narrative where the film’s timeline somehow manages to loop in on itself. And, probably best of all, there’s Ulysses the cat, scene-stealer, thematically crucial in his relation to Llewyn’s search for his own identity and definitely one of the greatest screen feline performances ever. This is a film I can’t wait to watch again.
9. Winter Sleep
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Although I still think I loved Ceylan’s previous two films more, I had a lot of admiration for the way Winter Sleep took him into unexpected new directions. He unashamedly drew more influence from theatre and literature to advance his cinematic project, to make a longer, more slowed down, more interior, more talky film. If that sounds unappealing, or dare I use that confused word uncinematic, think again. Acting that leaves you on the edge of your seat, a perfectly orchestrated narrative, a wide variety of carefully judged shifts in tone and mood, and heaps of psychological nuances, Winter Sleep has so much to offer. Its painstakingly realised portrait of crumbling human inter-relations simply served to remind us that sometimes great cinema can be just taking the time to get engrossed in the lives of interesting but deeply flawed human characters.
You can read my full review here.
8. The Grand Budapest Hotel
At once his lightest, most whimsical frolic of a movie, and the one dealing with his most difficult, mature themes yet, Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel took his world-creating ploys to new elaborate heights. A flamboyant lothario, a mythically opulent hotel, a not altogether unpreposterous murder mystery plot that rides along as fast as Willem Dafoe on skis, all this serves up delights that go down a treat much the same as Mendl’s famed pastries. But look again, and simultaneously in the very same film is Anderson engaging with war and the most horrible side of humanity for the first time, making not only young upcoming lobbyboy Zero an immigrant orphaned by man’s violent cruelty but Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave too. All this is revealed in an understated way, and neither this film nor Anderson have been credited enough for their subtlety.
And what of the painfully melancholy way in which the narration of the now middle-aged Zero (F. Murray Abraham again, in one of the film’s several Russian doll style layers, each with its own aspect ratio) simply skips over the most traumatic event of his life, the death of his beloved, in one brief sentence? All along we thought we had been watching the story recounting the most important and formative events of his life, but in fact not so at all, for that story is too heavy on his heart to tell. Wes Anderson had always fitted in plenty of emotional truths on the bitter-sweetness of life under the seemingly lighter surface of his movies, but here he stretched both poles of that spectrum to new limits. Of course though the film’s greatest revelation is Ralph Fiennes as outstanding comic actor, and his not being nominated at the Oscars is just another in a long line of travesties that discredit that awards ceremony from genuine credibility.
A brutal, and topical, attack on everything that’s rotten within the state of Russia, Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was a seriously impressive beast, building on his earlier films The Return and Elena, only extending the scope of his themes to an even wider canvas. At times it deals almost in farce, as in a vodka-drenched face-off between the modern-day Russian version of Job fighting to keep his house and the corrupt mayor attempting to evict him. At others in wry satire, like in a particularly cheeky scene in which the protagonists let off steam on a hunting trip by emptying rifles into portraits of former Soviet leaders. Then there’s some almost surreal Kafkaesque touches like the couplet of deadpan court-room scenes where an almost mechanical judge reads out the verdict at such breakneck verbal speed that not a word can be understood — this incomprehensible display is justice in Russia today, these scenes seem to say, in a way that reminds of the similar pair of abstract tribunal scenes bookending that classic of American paranoid cinema The Parallax View. All these various elements, combined with a tense sense of pacing and atmosphere and suitably daunting cinematography taking in the vast landscapes that dwarf the forlorn inhabitants, all merge triumphantly right up to the finale where the film unveils the real target of its sting.
6. Stranger by the Lake
Like Locke which I covered in part 2 of my 2014 roundup, Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is restricted in time and space. It’s set over just five days and the action takes place across essentially two settings: a beach by a lake which is a cruising hotspot for gay men, and the woods surrounding it where they meet to engage in sex (shown nonchalantly by the film in explicit details on several occasions, consider that your ‘NSFW’ warning…). What the film does with this sparse palette, in maintaining tension, atmosphere and a taut thriller narrative, make it a masterpiece of minimalism. Stranger by the Lake turns so little into something that feels mysterious, provocative, and never less than captivating.
Mild-mannered Frank, a regular to the beach, falls wildly in love (and in lust) with Michel, a newcomer he meets one afternoon by the lake. But when, hidden in the woods one evening, Frank witnesses Michel drowning his ex-lover, he must directly confront his own lustful obsession with this man. Completing a bizarre triangular relationship is the disenchanted Henri, recently divorced, who attends the beach alone by day merely to observe, possibly in a silent plea for company. Frank develops a friendship with Henri, which in turn shall trigger Michel’s jealousy… A compelling meditation on love in all its different forms from obsessive and lustful to platonic and self-sacrificing, this is a must-see for anyone wanting to keep pace with the very best of contemporary European cinema.
5. A Touch of Sin
Jia Zhangke’s passionate and arresting A Touch of Sin took the greatest Chinese filmmaker at work today into new directions, and treaded a tricky balance. He mixes cinematic flourishes of violence inspired by the 1960s martial arts classics of King Hu and John Woo’s gun-play movies, with a social conscience exposing the widening rich-poor divide in China, and an intelligent portrayal of how and why violence arises in his country. Each of the four separate stories (all based on real-life events) portrays a different type of violence, and each one moves gradually southwards, from his home province of Shanxi to the mega-metropolises like Guangdong, mirroring the trajectory so many migrant workers are forced to follow within China to seek better prospects. While it goes without saying that the film is not without nuance and a self-conscious sense of moral ambiguity (especially at the final scene), there’s no doubt whose side Jia is on, with characters that are akin to the Robin Hood-style outlaws of the classic Chinese tales of the Water Margin. The end result is thrilling, enraging, and leaves plenty of food for thought.
Filming characters, and the actors in their shoes, over a vast timespan to let us see them grow and age before our eyes is something that’s been done before. In Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, in Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday (which of course was technically started after Boyhood although released before), or in Michael Apted’s 7-yearly Up documentary series. Richard Linklater, however, took this idea to its purest and most ambitious form, by filming the same actors playing a family a few weeks a year for the course of 12 years. But if it was no more than that it would just be a gimmick movie. The point is Linklater went way beyond this mere premise, and in fact it allows him more liberty, more freedom with the plot, without need to impress with anything flashy or supposedly clever beyond simply letting us get accustomed to these characters in an organic way.
Scenes may skip weeks or even months, but cuts between them are unobtrusive. No more than subtle markers of characters’ appearances slowly adjusting before our eyes, or the changing musical and fashion trends, are required to inform us of the passage of time. This loose structure, bar a few (necessary) exceptions, picks up on small, unassuming moments along its trajectory. Those are the ones that make up a life, the ones that stick in our memories later down the line. It’s a perfect way to let the characters’ arcs grow as they themselves do, and we do come to feel we know them, having been privy to a huge chunk of their lives. For this, and many other reasons, this sprawling epic of a coming-of-age story, felt true to life and resonated with so many of us.
3. Mr Turner
Another film that took an episodic structure to its approach, painting a portrait of its esteemed subject with broad strokes not subjugated to any conventional narrative imperatives. A towering performance from Timothy Spall (another shameful omission from the Oscar nominations) made a complex man feel fully realised, whether he was being a cad with his loyal housekeeper, a more soft-hearted gent with a lonely widow or seeking new inspiration by tying himself to a ship-mast, observing trains or having his photograph taken. A tireless artist and his world came to life in rich and rewarding ways, as would be expected from a director like Mike Leigh with such a keen observational eye for detail, from every bit of Victorian language to Spall’s throaty grumps. Proof again that you don’t need a linear goal-driven plot, going from A to B, to create a filmic experience that lingers long in the mind.
I talk more about the film in my full review here.
Managing to evoke the austere minimalism and invisible spiritual presence of Dreyer’s films, thanks to cinematography as precise in its framing as it was gorgeous in its textural black-and-white, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida was a minor miracle. Central to this are its austere minimalist mise-en-scene, static takes (only two moving shots in the entire film, and both come at the end for good reason) and carefully architectured compositions where the characters are positioned at the sides or bottom of the frame, making them seem small, and suggesting an aura of spirituality in the empty spaces around them.
The religious themes are pertinent to a film about a young nun, Ida, and her crisis of faith as hidden secrets about a past and family she never knew come to light, when she meets her feisty, spirited aunt, Wanda. But it is also about Ida’s identity crisis too, and this clash of two opposing characters (the quiet Ida who has had a sheltered convent upbringing, and the world-weary Wanda who loves a good time) becomes a road trip and quest for roots, which will unearth some startling revelations. The way these are revealed, with subtlety and restraint, only adds to the film’s power. Ida’s tentative ‘fling’ with a jazz musician along the way, is also beautifully handled, a poetic reminder that in order to make sacrifices you must first have tasted what you intend to give up. In the end, Ida occupies the centre of the frame, has drive and purpose, and finally the camera moves, with her. This was a film that was consistent throughout in its visual lexicon, while making sure it always reinforced the telling of its poignant story. And of course, Agata Trzebuchowska, who’d never acted before and was found by Pawlikowski in a coffee shop, is dazzling in the central role.
1. Under the Skin
The most unique audio-visual experience I had all year, this was an invitation to see the world anew, perhaps quite literally with alien eyes. Its magic came in its ability to reveal the familiar within the strange and the strange within the familiar, hence the combination of the mundane, repetitive scenes of Scarlett Johansson driving around Glasgow (including what I assume must be at least quite a few ‘stolen’ shots with unsuspecting passers-by) and some of the most amazingly stylised bizarre visuals I’ve seen in a long time. There’s many images here I’ll never forget, the lair scenes, that moment of devastating human fragility on the beach, or the cosmic inter-connection experience as Johansson walks down a high street. But the sound is equally instrumental in making this film get, yes, under your skin. Mica Levi’s soundtrack of rhythmic, slithering dissonant chords is haunting in its own right, and that sound design is worthy of comparison with the legendary work underpinning the acoustic effect of Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining. If, as Werner Herzog once suggested, cinema’s most important task is to stimulate our shared imaginaries by feeding them with images we’ve never seen before, then Under the Skin amply achieved that target. Just as remarkable is that, without ever really providing any exposition or explanation — in a way it’s a bit of a cinematic Rorschach test, where we can all see into it what we wish — there’s still through it all the potential of finding a coherent narrative, a tale of loneliness, alienation, humanity, fitting in, discovering the world around us, feeling, seeing, etc. Basically, all the things that the most evocative sensory cinema should be about.