Here we are, another year, another glut of cinema to celebrate. Below are the beginnings of my top 20, namely picks 20-11. The top 10 should follow in a matter of days.
A quick note on a few movies not included on my list. No Marvel effort made the cut (although Guardians of the Galaxy and The Winter Soldier warranted consideration), and there were no spots for audience favourites like Wild, Interstellar, The Fault in Our Stars or Inside Llewyn Davis. Each has a many great attributes and warrants recommendation, but didn't excite or stimulate me to the top degree.
I'm sure it would also be a source of great sorrow to the Dan of last year, that Horrible Bosses 2 wasn't quite up to the challenge of cracking the 20. It's a cruel world.
Below are some honourable mentions (films that were really hard not to include), but other than that, let's get this questionable exercise in vanity on the road!
Honourable Mentions: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1, The Skeleton Twins, Nymphomaniac, ’71, Laggies
20. Oculus (Dir: Mike Flanagan)
Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” was the consensus driven horror champion of 2014, but for me it represents only the second best housebound creeper determined by fraught familial history. Mike Flanagan’s haunted mirror movie rises well above its dubious concept, drawing on a deeply unsettling Karen Gillan and a strong editorial hand to make the most of its slight budget. It helps that the frights ere towards the genuinely horrific, complete with dab twists and a fundamentally uneasy fantasy element. An ending with the courage of its convictions seals the deal.
19. 22 Jump Street (Dir: Lord & Miller)
Marginally inferior to its predecessor, “22 Jump Street” is both the first of two sequels on this list, and the first of two features helmed by Miller and Lord. Reteaming Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill for a metatextual punt at the uninspired nature of production line cinema, the film plays dumb with supreme intelligence, challenging convention with the vibrancy and off-colour tint you’d expect from the guys behind “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”. The recent Sony crisis has suggested at a peculiar direction for a third instalment, so as a farewell to the traditional buddy-cop format “22 Jump Street” marks a slick, refreshingly self-aware embrace.
18. Starred Up (Dir: David MacKenzie)
David MacKenzie’s prison drama is a visceral and uncompromising experience, deliberately claustrophobic, with a powerhouse turn from up and comer of the year Jack O’Connell. The leading man oozes danger, a tenderer side slowly and organically exposed through Jonathan Asser’s heartfelt yet honest screenplay. Shot almost completely in a single location, the movie is all tight-angles and drained colours, bringing the walls ever closer as O’Connell’s troubled youth feels the strain of incarceration. Asser’s history as a prison counsellor shines through, never more so during the thought-provokingly authentic finale.
17. The Guest (Dir: Adam Wingard)
Dan Stevens makes for a cracking anti-hero in Adam Wingard’s sublime B-movie, a crazed mishmash of “The Terminator” and “The Stepfather”. Unapologetically stripped right from the 80s, the film is a distinctive cocktail of comedy and thriller, complete with infectious genre tweaks. Stylistically impressive, and with a soundtrack to die for, the feature finds precisely the right pitch of black macabre as Steven’s titular interloper wrecks dark havoc. Being an obvious homage to the VHS-leaden era of schlock, “The Guest” might appeal more to cinephiles than traditional viewers, but for those who respect genre tradition it’s a rigorously paced treat.
16. Locke (Dir: Steven Knight)
Despite its single location (a jeep on the motorway from Birmingham to London) Steven Knight’s drama is vivid and visually purposeful, relying on artful framing and intelligent editing instead of gimmicks to sustain a sense of aesthetic grandeur. Tom Hardy is the only face we see, giving a dependably human performance, but the voices which form the film’s soul on the other side of his phone are vocal tour de forces. “Locke” finds pathos and challenges in the deeply ordinary, coming across all the more powerfully as a consequence. This is ambitious film-making masked under a veil of simplistic ingenuity.
15. The Two Faces of January (Dir: Hossein Amini)
Hossein Amini’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation is like an immaculately fashioned piece of furniture, ruthlessly practical but with a sense of welcome artistry. Harking back to a Hitchcockian mode of storytelling, Amini’s film takes three interesting characters (illuminated by three solid performances) and pushes them through a suspenseful trek of Greece. The scenery is marvellous, but the plotting is even better, preferring low-key sequences of extreme tension over anything overwrought or sleazy. The film’s pleasures often reside in the unsaid, a strength fortified by stellar structure and eerie implication. Under-seen but very good.
14. Under the Skin (Dir: Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer’s meditative sci-fi begins as a chiller, before unfolding into something much more profound. Shot with a cinema vérité glaze, the movie boasts commendable sensorial command, be it through the greying cinematography, shrill musical score or the ominous, tight close-ups on Scarlett Johansson’s extra-terrestrial huntress. Exhausting and not without moments that baffle, “Under the Skin” is every bit as exotic and seductive as its lead, who hypnotically moves from ice cold killer to victim. There have been numerous interpretations, but for me it’s a film about finding what makes us human, a nice, artsier companion piece to Johansson’s work in “Lucy”.
13. Two Days, One Night (Dir: Dardenne Brothers)
The titular time-frame makes for a powerful ticking clock throughout the Dardenne brothers’ most recent work, in which Marion Cotillard’s working class mother must convince co-workers to help save her job. Devoid of schmaltz or manipulation, the film unfolds organically and with a sense of determined urgency, tackling issues including mental health, economic status and the modern boundaries of compassion. Like “Calvary”, the supporting characters work to accentuate (often harsh) truths of the human condition, with individual encounters ranging from the deeply touching to frighteningly confrontational. Cotillard is as usual, magnetic.
12. Her (Dir: Spike Jonze)
A victim of international release strategies (we didn’t get it until February), Spike Jonze’s “Her” has remained present throughout the year’s cinematic conversation. The high-concept at the heart of “Her” makes “Oculus” looks like a feat of impeccable logic, but the story of a man falling for his computer is enlightening, funny and tragic. Jonze avoids smashing the obvious points over our heads, instead fathoming a not so distant future of some considerable majesty for his sweet, believable cyber-romance to unfold within. Societal commentary takes a backseat to compelling drama, laced with the quirk and softness that comes so easily to Jonze’s creative vision. Likely to be recalled as generational touchstone of the tech-boom alongside “The Social Network”.
11. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Dir: Matt Reeves)
The year’s top sequel and second best summer endeavour, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” proves that even with almost half a century in the tank, Pierre Boulle’s dystopic prophecy still has legs. Picking up ten years after 2011’s impressive “Rise”, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” parlays all of that movie’s strengths into a more substantive narrative, taking pleasure in the construction of a post-viral apocalypse and burgeoning simian community. Andy Serkis continues to demonstrate how empathetic and rich motion capture performance can be, Caesar again one of the year’s most invigorating characters. Released in July, the film’s plague-guided storyline and pervading aura of conflict received a boost from real world issues, but the material explored and technical audacity of the execution still far outweighed already high expectations. A third film is due in 2016, and if enacted with the thought and consideration of “Dawn”, could allow for the best trilogy Hollywood has produced post-“Toy Story”.
10 through 1 to follow shortly...
An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014