29 December 2014

The Top 10 Films of 2014

Below sit my favourite movies of 2014, ranging from 12-year passion projects to extravagant sci-fi blockbusters. Each of these movies are now available to rent or stream from the usual outlets, and are for the purposes of comprehending 2014, essential viewing!

Take care guys, and as always, a happy new year!

10. Life Itself ( Steve James)

Who loves a critic? The answer is more people than you’d think based on Steve James’ touching documentary. Chronicling the life of Roger Ebert (including access to the man in final days), James paints an honest portrait of a flawed but hugely magnetic individual. It’s quietly inspiring to see Ebert so jovial in the throes of extreme illness, surrounded by a loving family, but James’s doesn't romanticise the legend. He’s happy to illuminate Ebert’s alcoholism, egotism and ruthless ambition too, casting a slyly enjoyable light on Ebert’s unsettled relationship with “At the Movies” co-star Gene Siskel; watching the two bicker an effortless joy. James’ picture is a thorough and emotionally charged detour into the life of an unusual but deeply interesting soul, a force of nature who above all else, just really dug cinema.  

9. The Lego Movie (Lord & Miller)

Where to start with this one? One of the year’s least promising concepts becomes one of its finest films, thanks to the anarchic touch of Lord & Miller. “Frozen” may still have been playing on a perpetual loop on the minds of the globe’s children, but with its fascinating world-building (including ace 3D), dependably sharp sense of humour and potent deconstruction of consumerism and the hero’s journey, “The Lego Movie” is far the more memorable venture. The fear that Lord & Miller might sell out here is completely founded, you’re delusional if you think they don’t. But, it’s the film’s total admission of said fact, and subsequent attempt to use it for the fueling of absurd creative asides that makes the adventure deliriously good fun. 

8. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Not much left to say about this one. 2014’s big Oscar winner, “12 Years a Slave” is maybe the most beautifully composed feature on this list, every frame bleeding a melancholy beauty. Director Steve McQueen fully exploits his artistic background with some of the year’s most painterly cinematography, giving contemplative credence to the horrifying ordeal of the protagonist. The cast (including an impossibly still Chiwetel Ejiofor and  maddeningly savage Michael Fassender) immerse themselves believably into the bleak outline of McQueen’s world, and even if Brad Pitt in Jesus mode momentarily distracts, the rest of the film acts as a mature and necessary evocation of the era’s pain. 

7. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Technical virtuosity, engrossing drama and intelligent cultural commentary form a potent mix in "Birdman", which is consistently as thoughtful and relevant as it is blackly honest. Michael Keaton - a true national treasure - owns the titular part, presumably drawing from his own past to sketch a dynamic portrait of a man on the edge, pushed to breaking point by the universally desired pursuit of greatness. It's beautifully photographed, edited and scored, but even without the brave aesthetic facade, the film would still register as explosive. The supporting cast represent a rich pool of talent – Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan – and thankfully make good on their exceptional promise. It’s surprising the movie has been so warmly received by Hollywood; as director Inarritu doesn't seem much a fan of contemporary studio politics. 

6. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

An ambitious experiment in endurance and continuity, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” seems to be many people’s favourite of 2014. Whilst there were a few alternatives I preferred, there’s no denying that Linklater has concocted something captivating here, following the growth of Mason from the age of 6-18. Linklater tackles the highs and lows of youth with the precision of a documentarian, sustaining impressive causality and purpose in several performances (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette never better as Mason’s parents). Words like honesty and empathy are too handily tossed about in relation to Western cinema, but Linklater breeds the emotions with captivating earnestness, painting a picture not just of boyhood, but 21st century living itself. If pure identification’s the name of the game, “Boyhood” betters all else.

5. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

America holds a mirror up to itself, and finds a fucking horrible image starring back in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler”. Jake Gyllenhaal thins down and creeps up as Lou Bloom, a young American desperate to make a professional marker in the world, led to believe that worth only comes with placement in the capitalist cog. Finding he has a knack for freelance crime photography, Lou begins to climb the ranks, pushing out competitors and manipulating peers in increasingly deranged ways. “Nightcrawler” is over the top, but that’s all part of its twisted appeal. There’s gore and dirge aplenty, but what really unsettles is watching Lou seduce everybody around him with each increased success, driven by mantras stripped straight from a self-help book. Gilroy sidesteps the difficulties of antagonist as protagonist by rendering Lou and his relationships so toxically captivating (Rene Russo excels as an initially reluctant willing victim), but props must really go to Gyllenhaal. He’s transformed, and utterly unforgettable.  A great bedfellow for Bay’s “Pain & Gain” or Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”. 

4. Gone Girl (David Fincher)

The finest American film-maker of his generation strikes again in “Gone Girl”, a riveting and suitably complex adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s pulpy 2012 page-turner. Flynn herself does great work on writing duty, impressing with a focused and vitally un-precious attitude toward the source, but it’s really Fincher’s knack for detail and craft which elevate the picture to the rank of masterwork.  Everything from the deliberately sped-up opening credits, to the meta casting of stars Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck aids the film’s sense of pervading uneasiness, an internally authentic portrait of marriage fuelled by a ludicrously entertaining and twisty external mystery. To top it all off, Fincher reteams with musical maestro Atticus Ross to forge another searing musical score, and involves Neil Patrick Harris in a scene of sexual violence which might leave Paul Verhoeven shuddering. It’s often the little things that land hardest, something David Fincher well knows. 

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Draining, excessive and hugely debauched, but also incredibly rewarding, Scorsese’s mature, balanced and impeccably detailed “The Wolf of Wall Street” has already been much discussed. In the year since its release (January of 2014 in the UK, hence its inclusion here) the film has fuelled all manner of discussion. Is it exploitative? Ethically corrosive? Misogynistic? No, but it's also not not those things. One of the charms of Scorsese’s odyssey of Wall Street corruption is its confidence in never damning nor glorifying, the director simply telling a story with remarkable cinematic dexterity, asking you, the audience to decide, Maybe that’s why the picture incurred wrath from certain sections. I’d imagine it’s cavalcade of blow, breasts and morally duplicitous behaviour forced people to ask certain questions about themselves, and what they might do in one Jordan Belfort’s shoes. Maybe I’m being a tad presumptuous, but even without that faculty the film remains a wonderfully acted, vibrantly arranged splurge of sexy repugnance. 

2. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

I quite enjoyed “Guardians of the Galaxy”, Marvel’s triumphant summer sci-fi actioner. But it has nothing on Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow”, which incidentally made some $350 million less worldwide.  Best expressed as “Groundhog Day” meets “Starship Troopers” at pitch level, Liman’s ingenious yarn forces an against type Tom Cruise to save humanity, starting at a level of gross incompetence. As Cruise wars against an alien menace - dying daily, only to be reborn with the chance to learn from the previous day’s mistake - one cannot help but assume it’s a metaphor for the actor’s famed work ethic. You do your job, and if you fail, you get up and do it again until it’s right. “Tomorrow” laces humour, genuinely invigorating action and practical FX into a thrilling blockbusting cocktail, one that embraces and challenges the notions of studio entertainment. It’s loud, repetitious and very aware, until the point where the formula exhausts, and it instead turns incredibly human, Cruise stepping out of his mechanized suit and into a world of purer dramatic possibility. As his mentor, Emily Blunt is a vulnerable ball-buster, but this is Cruise’s flick, the megastar relishing the chance to undergo an unusual but captivating arc. 

1. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

Brendan Gleeson has a nice supporting role in my number two film, but it’s in “Calvary” that he delivers the finest performance of the year. Representing an immense maturation from his enjoyable 2011 black-comedy “The Guard”, “Calvary” sees John Michael McDonagh retrace Christ's ascension of Calvary in rural Ireland, this time with Gleeson’s soulful priest hauling the metaphorical cross. After being told he has a week to live by an unknown, Gleeson tries to repair relationships with his troubled daughter and varied congregation, brought to life with cartoonish buoyancy by an assortment of gifted actors. Addressing ideas of national guilt, faith and the internal suffering each can spring, “Calvary” is every bit as powerful and more distinct in construction than McQueen’s “12 Year’s a Slave”. Punches are never pulled, because in the eyes of McDonagh, forgiveness is not something handed down lightly. If it were, what would be the point? 

An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014

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