2014, if you ask me, has been a great year of cinema. It’s rarely a fruitful exercise comparing films today to bygone eras, but this year the output (and variety) of so many top-notch films has at least put paid to doom-mongers’ premature claims of cinema’s demise. Cinema and film culture looks in a healthy state from where I’m standing.
I was able to see around 50 new films this year, not that much but I figure just about enough to come up with a top 10. I’ve decided the rule will be to include only those released theatrically in 2014 in the UK. It’s arbitrary of course, and excludes a plethora of no-less-worthy unreleased, but considering I haven’t had much chance to dip into those waters myself, it makes sense. Most of the films I saw were 2014 UK cinema releases, with unfortunately only but a handful of festival or preview screenings, which I include here in part 1.
The As-yet Unreleased:
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan)
The surprise winner at this year’s Berlinale shocked a few people by beating Boyhood to the top prize, but it’s not at all unworthy. A neo-noir set in snowy Northern China, with its stylistic and colour code veering between icy white cavansases reflecting the wintry existential emptiness and neon-lit urban scapes of an amoral dog-eat-dog worlds, it’s a visually striking re-imagining of classic film noir tropes. There’s a rather inept drunkard of a cop who bungles a murder investigation and loses his badge; and there’s a femme fatale, a mysterious launderette clerk who bizarrely keeps coming up as the common link whenever mutilated corpses start surfacing in coal mines.
But this seemingly conventional noir plot is played out in rather unconventional ways. The most shocking and startling scene, which despite otherwise largely mobile camerawork makes great use of a static frame to heighten tension, occurs in a beauty salon near the start. The film’s finale goes off on a tangent of a coda, after the main narrative has been resolved, and closes on a seemingly random, abrupt note. These are bold structural decisions.
In any case, the plot, which admittedly is perhaps lacking in thrills in its resolution if you’re looking for standard thriller fare, is very far from the point of this movie. Visually and atmosphere-wise, there’s so much to admire. The suffocating film noir atmosphere of fatalistic doom is also reinvented, and what better way to visually demonstrate the coldness of the inter-relations between these characters, and the precariousness of their destinies, than the thin sheet of ice surrounding the outskirts of the town. The film makes the most of this motif with some brilliantly filmed ice-skate chase scenes, the slicing of the blades across the ice being felt almost viscerally. A scene between our cop and the femme fatale, full of erotic tension, stuck together in a hazardously creaking ferris wheel, is another example of the film’s visual and sonic toolkit being put to great atmospheric use.
There’s also much to enjoy in the way director Diao Yinan controls the unexpected shifts in tone throughout the film, which only riffs with the detective noir genre, combining it with an unpredictable structure carried along by languorous pacing and plenty of darkly wry humour. The cop is played in a commanding performance mixing drunken oafishness, subtle facial expressions, and an impromptu break-out dance that Denis Lavant would be proud of (another of the film’s random unexpected moments), by Liao Fan who certainly deserved his Best Actor prize at Berlin. That Berlin double-win should boost its chances of theatrical release at some point in 2015, but nothing confirmed yet.
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso)
It may not be saying much but this is Lisandro Alonso’s most accessible film to date. Since his 2001 feature debut, the Argentine has eschewed most narrative conventions in favour of slow, drawn-out visual contemplations of characters and their relationship with the landscapes around them. Jauja is certainly about this once again, but now there is a story of sorts and even a star actor in the shape of Viggo Mortensen. He plays a Danish captain and engineer, Dinesen, in 19th Century Argentina, somewhere on the plains of Patagonia with his teenage daughter, perhaps on some expedition in search of the mythical lost land of Jauja which is described on the opening titles card… That’s not quite clear, but what is clear is that his daughter and a handsome convict at the encampment take quite a shine to each other, and before Dinesen knows it the two have eloped together, triggering a frantic search.
The faint echo of The Searchers’ plot should already make it clear that this is a deconstructed western (the relationship between man and his surroundings is where Alonso and Ford’s westerns overlap). But it’s one that, slightly reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu a couple of years before it, seems in dialogue with silent cinema, with its Academy (4:3 aspect ratio) format and rounded corners, as well as Viggo Mortensen’s brilliant but largely wordless performance — with Lav Diaz’s newest film also heavily indebted to 1920s films, is art cinema in the midst of a silent cinema phase?
In any case, Jauja is also never too far away from the deadpan absurdism of the worlds of Jarmusch or Kaurismaki… there’s plenty of humour here if you sense it, as well as otherworldly landscapes and painterly night-time campfires. This is a mysterious gem of a movie, which hopefully will get some kind of release in 2015 (Mortensen’s presence is its lifebuoy in that regard, without it I can’t imagine this film would’ve got anywhere near UK cinemas sadly). The ending, which sees the narrative delve into a tricksy rabbit-hole of memory and time inter-connecting, will be poetically moving to some, perplexing to others, or, perhaps best of all, both!
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Retorting to Karl Marx’s famous statement that revolutions are the locomotives of history, the German thinker Walter Benjamin once suggested that revolutions were in fact the human race trying to apply the emergency brake on the locomotive. Both quotes seem at the root of this film’s premise of a perpetually running train sheltering what’s left of humanity in a post-apocalyptic world. The last of the humans are split into carriages forming a caste system: the exploited underfed workers are forced by some dictatorial powers to remain crowded together at the back of the train, while near the front the privileged party on in nihilistic luxury without a care in (what’s left of) the world. This inequality is festering an inevitability, and before long the third-class passengers rise up in revolt, determined to make their way along the train to discover who is really in charge…
As a fully signed-up member of Bong Joon-ho’s fanclub, I had high hopes for this, his first venture into English-language filmmaking and first Hollywood co-production. But it’s not entirely successful. Certainly it has some great scenes (one in the train’s schoolroom in particular), it displays ambition in weaving extremely cynical political commentary into what’s essentially an entertainment-film form, and does it even need to be said that Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-ho are fantastic? Yet the plot’s major twists are sadly predictable, the battle scenes often tedious, and Chris Evans as the lead figure of the revolution lacks charisma. One scene towards the end where he delivers what should be a horrifically moving monologue instead felt borderline cringeworthy.
Maybe I’ll warm to the film more on a second viewing, but in any case as it stands the film’s long-awaited UK cinema release is still in limbo, and the easiest way of seeing this is importing the blu-ray. Given this treatment and the controversy over cuts in the US version, I’m pretty sure Bong won’t be in a hurry to work under producer Harvey Weinstein again, and given the quality of his previous films one wonders why he even needs to move away from Korean filmmaking anyway.
White God (Kornél Mundruczó)
A film that on paper I wanted to like but just didn’t work for me, White God is a sort of amalgam between Sam Fuller’s dog-centric racism allegory movie White Dog and a zombie horror flick. The opening, with its 28 Days Later-style spookily deserted city streets, is a powerful and extremely cinematic scene. The empty streets soon get filled by an army of dogs, charging in dreamlike slow-motion to a soaring score, while a young girl on a bike is either being chased by them or leading them like a modern-day pied piper… Already palpable is the sense that these dogs are, in Freudian terms, the return of the repressed, the things that society wants to brush under the carpet, rushing out all in one torrential stream to get its own back.
This opener, as well as all the dog-driven scenes, are highlights. Sadly everything else is no match. The plot centres on a young girl who loses her dog because of her bad-tempered father refusing to keep him (due to a new tax on mix-breed dogs), but it is simplistic. Mundruczó is going for allegorical potency here, but his message loses all credibility in an extremely contrived plot where every single human character (apart from the girl) is a Disney-like villain, either mean-spirited, wanting to hurt the dog, wanting to exploit the dog, wanting to put it down, and so on… We soon get the picture: humans bad, dogs good and victims, which in Mundruczó’s extremely basic social parable are supposed to represent any oppressed group. Eventually, the girl’s dog, having ended up at a pound, initiates a mass escape and this canine legion are rampaging the city, meting swift and bloody revenge on all the humans who’d wronged them…
The story is paper-thin, but the dogs not only have their day, they steal the show here too. Some of the scenes around the middle of the film follow the girl’s dog, lost and on its own and a brilliantly emotive actor… it almost makes us wish the film had been just that, a dog’s POV-film without the one-dimensional human characters at every corner. But, credit where credit is due, Mundruczó’s intentions are at least commendable, and it was heartwarming to find out that all the many dogs used in the film, all from shelters, went on to be rehomed after the production. The film itself is released in late February in the UK.