Back in January I decided to start writing film reviews. Now, in the harsh winter of December, I am contractually obliged (through the unwritten film reviewers amendment) to do a list of my top 20 favourite films of the year. Before I get to that though, here are the rules for my first ever best-of list:
- Firstly, I haven’t seen every movie released in 2014. Notable movies that I haven’t had time to catch up with include Cold in July, Citizen Four and The Hobbit: The battle of five armies, as well as countless others. This is the best films THAT I HAVE ACTUALLY SEEN.
- As I live in the UK, several major awards contenders that were released internationally in 2014 won’t be in cinemas here until 2015. This means that the likes of Foxcatcher, Selma, Inherent Vice and Whiplash will not feature- but as they are 2014 films, they may get added to my definitive Letterboxd list of my top 20 movies of 2014 once I see them in the New Year. Compiling this list without seeing them gives me a chance to shine a light on films that may go comparatively unnoticed once awards season gets into full swing.
- Yet I’m not going strictly by UK release dates; three films I saw at the start of the year (12 Years a Slave, Wolf of Wall Street and Her) technically count as 2013 films, which means they aren’t on this list despite the fact they would have all cracked the top 10. Plus, I’ve included movies I’ve seen at film festivals (or on US Netflix) on the list even though they have not as of yet been released cinematically over here.
So, without further ado, here are my top 20 favourite movies of 2014.
Not the biopic of Frank Sidebottom that many people expected (but if you want that, check out Filth), but instead a genre defying look at what makes creative people tick- and whether or not their individuality makes them geniuses or just posers. Director Lenny Abramson casts Michael Fassbender in the titular role- a ballsy move that renders one of the biggest actors in the world unrecognizable due to wearing a giant paper Mache head for the majority of the running time. The film is an intense character study that deals with the central artistic conflict of staying true to your original creation or selling out in order to live a comfortable, successful life. It mixes moments of poignant drama with bizarre laugh out loud moments that deal with everything from Josef Fritzl to the music of Madness. In terms of genre, it’s completely unclassifiable, but utterly enjoyable from start to finish.
If we were to play a game of “guess the running time” based on a film’s plot synopsis, you would likely assume Ida was a three hour-plus epic. Instead, director Pawel Pawlikowski’s film deals with the aftermath of World War 2 (in which the titular nun, at this point believing her name is Anna, finds out she was born Jewish and adopted by a convent as war broke out, then told to take leave to find her birth family) in a brisk 80 minute running time. I only saw the movie on Netflix, yet it demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible- the black-and-white cinematography is some of the year’s best, turning something as dreary on paper as a woman looking out of a stain glass window in a barn into one of the most beautifully shot moments I’ve seen this year.
18) Night Moves
One of the most gripping thrillers of the year is one of the most under seen and criminally underrated. Night Moves stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as hipster environmentalist douchebags whose plan to make the world stand-up and pay attention to important green issues is to blow up a hydro-electric dam. Director Kelly Reichardt manages to turn incredibly mundane activities into moments of edge-of-your-seat suspense; if your pulse isn’t racing by a scene of Dakota Fanning going to buy fertilizer (yes, really), you may technically be dead. Despite an anti-climactic ending, the movie manages to keep suspense going after the eco-terrorist attack by dealing with the fallout between the characters in a way that manages to be both believable yet completely silly. At every single turn, the movie confounds genre expectations, making it one of the biggest (and most unexpected) cinematic thrill-rides of the year.
17) Two Days, One Night
The latest movie from Belgian sibling directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is a classic example of a movie winning you over based on premise alone; after taking a few months leave due to clinical depression, a factory worker (played magnificently by Marion Cotillard) finds out her colleagues voted to fire her after an ultimatum that said they couldn’t keep their Christmas bonuses if she was still on the pay-roll. Demanding a second vote to be held on Monday, she has the weekend to convince her co-workers to vote for her to stay on the rota. The movie excellently deals with issues such as the class divide without being overly preachy or obvious in addressing the topic. It also has one of the most realistic depictions of depression in modern cinema, thanks to Cotillard’s nuanced and understated performance that shows her slowly breaking down at the indignity of going door-to-door across the city, pleading to keep her job.
16) The Immigrant
And here’s Marion Cotillard again, delivering another of the year’s best performances in a movie so good The Weinstein Company dumped it in a small of handful of cinemas on its US release and haven’t even bothered releasing it over here. Set in 1920’s America, Cotillard is initially refused entry into the country (after following her sister there) before being “rescued” by a vaguely creepy nightclub owner (Joaquin Phoenix) who says he can help her find a job and make a living in the country. Of course, that’s by moving her into a run-down Jewish ghetto and getting her a job as a burlesque stripper, who is forced to dress up as Lady Liberty to only highlight the indignity of chasing the American dream. If The Immigrant was released in the 1970’s, it would likely be regarded as one of the definitive movies of the era. Instead, director James Gray permanently remains a man out of time with his fondness for genres that have lost cultural momentum, but he shouldn’t be. The Immigrant is dangerously close to being a masterpiece (as are so many movies on this list) and will likely find it’s cult following sooner rather than later. Movies this good can’t be dumped and ignored forever, can they?
The best foreign language movie of the year (according to this list anyway), Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev has made a middle-finger fuck you to Putin’s government that the Russian authorities tried to ban. Of course, since then they’ve done a complete 180 and have now submitted it as Russia’s entry for the best foreign language Oscar- in a nutshell meaning that Russia are highly likely to win an award for a film highly critical of Russia. A family in a desolate village have been ordered by the town’s mayor to vacate their coastal home so he can demolish it and do with the area whatever he likes. Asking for the help of a hotshot Moscow-based lawyer doesn’t help matters and soon the family is completely falling apart in ways that are equal parts blackly comic and genuinely depressing. As far as social commentary goes, it doesn’t get more biting than this- the majority of the characters spend their entire lives downing endless bottles of vodka to drown their sorrows, with the feeling of getting drunk being the only relief in a town in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere. It manages to deal with issues incredibly specific to corrupt Russian politics (the relationship between church and state, politician’s connections with local gangsters) in a way that effortlessly draws international viewers in. It’s the Russian tourist board’s worst nightmare- but their loss is our gain.
14) Maps to the Stars
Of all of the things I expected to see on the big screen in 2014, Julianne Moore taking an open-door constipated shit was not one of them. Yet here it is, in David Cronenberg’s weird and wonderful Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars. In equal parts funny and terrifying, as well as occasionally playing out like a pilot episode for a TV show no network executive would ever commission, the movie is a fly-on-the-wall character study of the most dysfunctional people in Hollywood. It’s no coincidence the movie’s screenplay (by Bruce Wagner) namechecks Paul Thomas Anderson, as it’s like a fucked-up reimagining of the “everything is connected” movies that appeared in the wake of Magnolia.
Leading the monstrosities is Moore, a faded actress who is doing everything it takes to make a big comeback, but still finds herself haunted by visions of her dead mother. Moore is one of the best actresses in the world, but she is unparalleled at portraying rubbish acting onscreen- think back to the scene of her porn acting in Boogie Nights. Here, her performance is dialled up to eleven, yet simultaneously nuanced in a way that nobody else could pull off. In an ideal world, her performance (as well as the rest of the ensemble, who I would mention here were I not keeping an eye on the word count) would generate Oscars- but this is the kind of movie that gives members of the Academy heart attacks. This isn’t a loving satire on Hollywood- it’s a scathing indictment on modern celebrity.
13) The Grand Budapest Hotel
After years of disliking his movies, Moonrise Kingdom finally made me a fully-fledged member of the Wes Anderson fan club. The Grand Budapest Hotel manages to keep my interest going, with a fantastic ensemble cast, laugh-out-loud funny dialogue, spontaneous changes in aspect ratio and deliberately shit special effects that recall the old days of Hollywood. It’s a film I enjoyed more on second viewing, as I initially complained that, as funny as it was, it didn’t have the heart of Moonrise Kingdom. How wrong I was, as when I recently re-watched it, I found myself getting moved by the central love story, as well as laughing at all the sight-gags I missed the first time round.
12) Love is Strange
Although it won’t be released in the UK until February, I saw it this year at Leeds International film festival and it was released in the US as well, so fuck it, it’s going in. Love is Strange stars John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as long-time gay lovers George and Ben, whose decision to finally get married leads to unexpected consequences. Firstly, the catholic school where George works fires him, despite having always known about his sexuality, causing the couple to move out of the apartment and into the spare rooms of friends in order to maintain economic stability. As social commentary for the slow-march towards full equal rights for gay couples in the US goes, you don’t get any more biting than this. Yet director Ira Sachs never makes the movie preachy, instead ensuring it remains that rare character study where you are emotionally invested in everybody involved.
When it came out, I never actually bothered reviewing Interstellar. This wasn’t for fear of accidentally revealing plot spoilers, or for not understanding the (largely bullshit) scientific aspects of the narrative. It was because of how I couldn’t describe how perfect I felt it was despite the clear number of flaws. Christopher Nolan has built a reputation as a cold, clinical director, one more interested in ideas than characters. Here, he confounds his critics by essentially making a character study dealing with the relationship between a man and his family. It has talking robots, fantastical planets in different dimensions and beautiful 2001 inspired special effects, but it’s the family dynamics that keep you invested. I cried three different times at Interstellar, the last time being tears of pure joy. Because even as the film tips over into silliness towards the end, it has a great message for what we, as mankind, are capable of doing. As bleak as some parts of it are, this is a movie that will inspire tons of kids to become astronauts and scientists instead of pop stars and footballers, starting the path towards preserving the planet for future generations. Most importantly, it’s a movie that will make you call your family directly after viewing to make sure that they are okay. Like a film higher up on my list (*cough* Boyhood *cough*) it’s about the manipulation of time and how family relationships alter as the years pass. In a nutshell, Interstellar is a remarkable sci-fi movie because it doesn’t play to sci-fi conventions- this is one of the most truly human movies of the year.
10) Life Itself
Rather shamefully, Life Itself is the only documentary to make it onto my best of list this year. Veteran documentarian Steve James adapts legendary Chicago film critic Roger Ebert’s memoir of the same name, celebrating the life of not just one of the greatest movie writers, but one of the greatest writers of the past fifty years. The film was initially a more personal documentary of Ebert’s life, filming his visits to hospital and rehabilitation centres in the months before his death. His untimely passing instead has transformed this into a celebration of a life’s work (he was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize!) and his unflinching love of movies. Even though it doesn’t shy away from showing the downward spiral his life was once taking (alcoholism and an infatuation with “terrible women” took a toll on his life through the 70’s), the movie is still as inspirational as documentaries get. For somebody who wants to be a professional film writer, the movie is a blessing and a curse; it inspired me to write more, but reminded me that I’ll never be an iota as good a writer as Ebert– and will never love the movies as much as he did.
9) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
After being indifferent to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I didn’t have the highest expectations for Dawn. When you factor in the hiring of Matt Reeves as a director, a man responsible for the piss-poor US remake of Let the Right One In, my expectations couldn’t be lower. How wrong I was; a movie of outstanding set pieces, fully fleshed out ape characters (the human characters have clearly been designed to be the broadest character archetypes possible, to ensure our sympathies lie elsewhere) and a socio-political subtext that is somewhat lacking in other blockbuster tent pole movies all add up to make the best franchise movie of the year. Why can’t all blockbusters be like this?
8) The Babadook
Mr. Babadook, the creepy creature in Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut, is not who you are supposed to be scared of. Yes, he provides the obvious scares, knocking three times on the door and screaming in your face even as you hide under the covers. What you are supposed to be scared of is the central mother/son relationship, which gives the horror a personal edge that makes it closer in tone to We Need to Talk about Kevin than Poltergeist. Essie Davis’ performance as put-upon mother Amelia is the best I’ve seen this year- how often can you say the most outstanding acting you’ve seen is in a horror movie? Yet everything director Jennifer Kent pulls off here is more ambitious than your standard horror; the creepy animation of the Mr. Babadook pop-up book, the bleak cinematography that highlights how depressing the house is and the sound design that gets under your skin praying for the nightmare to end. The ambiguous ending (which owes more than a little to Shaun of the Dead) potentially sets up return encounters with Mr. Babadook- yet Kent has made a film that doesn’t share the franchise cynicism of so many mainstream horror movies.
7) Gone Girl
Every conversation I’ve had with somebody who hasn’t seen Gone Girl runs as follows: “You haven’t seen it? Oh, go watch it then. Then we can talk about it”. You should probably do the same- Gone Girl is a dark relationship satire disguised as a murder mystery whose twisted delights are best discovered cold. Ben Affleck has never been better; Rosamund Pike is simultaneously a feminist icon and a living detriment to basic feminist ideals, whilst Tyler Perry plays a defence lawyer who is the only sympathetic character onscreen. It’s twisted and not a movie you can shake off easily- it’s everything you want and expect from a David Fincher movie and more.
6) Under the Skin
After a ten-year hiatus, director Jonathan Glazer returns with a movie that plays out like a mission statement to become the living heir to Stanley Kubrick. Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien who has taken human form, prowling the streets of Glasgow to pick up unsuspected men as prey. The best directorial decision was to film all the Glasgow-set scenes with hidden cameras- it never becomes clear if the people appearing are actors or not. The hidden cameras also enable us to see the world through alien eyes- the strangest sequence literally consists of Scarlett walking through a Glasgow shopping centre with nobody recognising her. They don’t know they are being filmed, yet they don’t see one of the most famous women on the planet walking to Boots to get some cosmetics? The movie is science-fiction, yet also genre defying. Moments of intense horror derive from the character’s inability to understand the complexity of emotions (such as her letting a man drown and leaving a baby to cry as the tide turns in), whilst there are even elements of social realism as she chats to members of the public about their lives. It is a unique and an entirely unforgettable experience, regardless of whether you like it or not.
5) The Double
The best British film of the year (according to me) is Richard Ayoade’s underrated black-comic adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novella. Jesse Eisenberg stars as a boring office-drone whose unremarkable life gets turned upside down when his clone appears, taking his job, the woman of his dreams and the very reason he has to live away from him. Eisenberg always manages to find new ways to channel the social-awkwardness that is inherent in all his performances, with his dual role here doing enough to silence any critics who say he has no range. Best of all, Ayoade (and the production design team) have created a place out of time; characters with accents from all over the world, miserabilist Eastern Bloc buildings and outdated 80’s technology are all the rage in this world. For a person with such a well-defined comic sensibility, the main surprise is how depressing Ayoade’s latest is- yet when he’s created a world this fully fleshed-out, it’s a moot criticism.
4) The Guest
The most criminally underrated movie of the year, director Adam Wingard has created a tribute to the suspense movies of the 80’s whose lack of success is due to the central paradox that it is equal parts thrillingly mainstream, yet entirely devoted to audiences of cult-movie nerds. Dan Stevens gives the best male acting performance of the year in a role that channels Kurt Russell’s collaborations with John Carpenter. He stars as David, a soldier who one day turns up on the door of an unsuspecting family saying he spent some time with their deceased son before he died in combat. Despite being untrustworthy, he charms the family into letting him stay with them- and then weird shit starts to go down. Boasting an awesome 80’s synthwave inspired soundtrack that gives Drive a run for its money, as well as several changes in genre (is it a thriller? Is it a comedy? Is it a horror movie?) before it reaches a haunted house-set climax, The Guest is a film that fully embraces its silliness. As both a tribute to the midnight movies of the 80’s and as a bona-fide crowd pleaser, The Guest succeeds effortlessly. After making nihilistic movies like You’re Next, Adam Wingard should really stick to this kind of movie more often.
And now the best movie of the year that hasn’t even been released in the UK (thanks, the Weinstein Company!). Korean director Bong Joon-Ho makes his English language debut with a film that examines how the class system affects everybody in modern society. Most importantly, it deals with this in what is essentially an action movie set on a train, yet one that frequently upends action movie tropes. Not all the characters survive early fight scenes. The lead hero (played by Chris Evans) may not be sympathetic. Weirdest of all, the comic sidekick (Jamie Bell) isn’t even annoying, but surprisingly funny. For a movie based on a French comic book by a Korean director that was funded by the Czech Republic, this is a film that will likely play best with British audiences (if it ever gets released here) due to the class system metaphor. It’s not understated, but it is dealt with in an original way- it’s no coincidence that Tilda Swinton plays her character like a cross between Margaret Thatcher and some long forgotten character from Coronation Street; she’s a member of the higher class pretending to be just like the people down below on the food chain.
2) Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
It’s not released until New Year’s Day in the UK, but I saw it at Leeds Film Festival, so again, fuck it, I’m including it here. Michael Keaton stars as washed-up actor Riggan Thomson, best known as the star of the Birdman superhero movies. He quit Hollywood in the hopes of being taken seriously and is now putting everything on line to write and direct an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story on Broadway. Simultaneously, his whole life is falling apart; the new actor he’s hired (Edward Norton) is a pompous dickhead whose penchant for method acting leads him to getting erections on stage and demanding real booze be used as props, whilst his daughter (Emma Stone) is out of rehab, due to a drug addiction his lack of fatherly attention is responsible for, back to making his life a misery. Plus, he’s got voices in his head telling him he’s the greatest and the sound of jazz drumming drowning out anybody who tells him otherwise.
I’ve personally hated the movies of director Alejandro González Iñárritu before; they’re self-important pieces of “everything-is-connected” miserabilism that are equal parts pretentious and equal parts the movie equivalent of Michael Jackson’s Earth Song. Birdman works where his previous films haven’t because this time the characters are all clearly defined as self-important- as well as being a savage satire on Hollywood, it could equally be read as a satire on what people expect from the movies he makes. Yet the real winner here is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. With the exception of some cut-a-ways near the end, the entire movie appears to take place in one take (you can clearly see where the edit points are, but you can’t fault the ambition). Within seconds we go from claustrophobic scenes of Emma Stone screaming at her father to fantastical sequences of Riggan flying over New York, all within the same shot. It’s a rare case of a filmmaker making something that actually equals their ambition and not letting it get the better of them. That a comedy movie can be so technically proficient should be a lesson to directors in all genres that you don’t have to settle for the easy option just because of how audiences expect to see the movie.
I’m tired of people saying that, even though they liked Boyhood, it isn’t really about anything. But it’s about everything. Childhood. Adulthood. Being a mother, a father, a sister and a son. The evolution of technology from giant Apple computers in classrooms to people getting so bored of it all they delete their Facebook account. The evolution of pop music from Coldplay to Arcade Fire, with everything from Britney to Soulja Boy in-between. Politics. The War on terror. Being a democrat in a red state. Religion. Staring out into the distance and contemplating the meaning of life. Nostalgia. The future. Moving out. Moving on. Watching your family change as time goes on. Getting high and getting drunk. Watching YouTube videos. Swapping Harry Potter books for Kurt Vonnegut. Changing your hairstyle. Going through an emo phase and painting your nails. Having conversations that seem pointless at the time but actually become your best memories. Going to college. Thinking about your career. Wondering what life has in store for you next.
There’s nothing I can say about Boyhood that hasn’t already been said. It’s my favourite movie of the year (and the decade) and on first viewing was instantly placed in my top ten favourite movies of all time. It’s a film I feel difficult talking coherently about, as its greatness is so obvious that arguing in its defence is a task I’m unprepared to do. Director Richard Linklater spent twelve years watching a family grow up- yet he also made a cinematic time capsule of the years gone by. It will look outdated in twenty years, but the emotions within are so universal that it surely will never FEEL outdated.