Films, eh – two hours of sitting still with strangers, often in dark eerie spaces, locked in silence by the shared commitment to stare at eighty square feet of lit canvas. Seems we’ve come a long way from tales told around the campfire. Still, what remains the same is how those tales can be good, bad or ugly. And who wants to lose two hours of their life over the latter two, right?
With that in mind, the good folks over at mediadiversified asked me to cast a quick glance over the best of the last year’s movie offerings and share my rundown of the top 10 films of 2014. At this point I’m not entirely sure I agree with my own list. There are some pretty notable omissions that only came to mind after completing it. But at the end of the day I had such fun thinking about the films I’d seen last year I thought I’d share the list here too. So, without further ado…
- Under the Skin
Scarlett Johansson as an alien… in Scotland. And yeah, it is as strange as it sounds. What the film does well? It wraps you so snugly within our extra-terrestrial protagonist’s skin (I’d say pun not intended but, well, who am I kidding?) that you begin to view the Glasgow streets she’s roaming through with a slightly disconnected air, as though you, like her, are an alien wondering at the strange habits and customs of the locals, sort of like how David Cameron must feel outside of Whitehall. That being said, what the film doesn’t do so well is bother to have much of a narrative. Who needs story when you’ve got Johansson in full-on black widow mode, complete with a decent English accent and an audio/visual palette as arresting, gritty and immersive as anything this side of Ken Loach?
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I know what you’re thinking, what chance getting through a list like this without a big budget Marvel offering of some kind, right? Seems these guys are pretty much monopolising the summer blockbuster trade, and are planning to continue the tradition for the foreseeable future. Which, in normal circumstances, is the kind of thing that would make me itch. I’m not usually a big establishment, monopoly, making-cash-hand-over-fist sort of guy, and so a part of me is ashamed I’ve managed to develop such a liking for a film franchise that’s titled with as self-impressed a geopolitical moniker as Captain America. Goes to show just how entertaining the thing is, I guess. Like peanut butter from the jar, you know you shouldn’t like it, and yet… Let he who is without sin etc. etc.
I’m a sucker for remakes anyway but I wasn’t expecting this little caper to be quite as thoughtful and entertaining as it was. Director José Padilha somehow managed not to trample the mixture of camp satire chic (see Samuel L. Jackson with a white quiff the size of a football, burlesquing Fox News in the opening scene) and casual violence that made Verhoeven’s 80s original such a hit. At the same time, the film asks some fairly interesting questions about the nature of the self, the media, and the increasing co-dependency of man and machine, you know, the kind of Black Mirror type techno-noirish ruminations that keep me up at night. Plus, at the end of the day it’s a dude in a robo-suit. What’s not to like?
If ever you wanted proof positive that the movie going masses, or at least the critics, don’t always like being asked to think (unless a certain Christopher Nolan is the one asking them to do the thinking), then this was it. Panned, it seemed, by every film critic from Hollywood to Hong Kong, Transcendence, Wally Pfister’s cerebral directorial debut, ended up taking only a fraction of the profits the hype before its release suggested it would. Thing is, it’s a damn good film. Geeky speculations on the future of the computer age, a bit of conspiracy theory, an AI consciousness trying to take over the world and bend the nature of reality to its fit, all meshed together with Paul Bettany in a return to form, providing the emotional centre for what is in the end a pretty good story. It’s classic sci-fi at its very best. Don’t let the Johnny Depp haters fool you.
- The Best Man Holiday
In many ways it would almost be enough just to have an all-black cast, with characters being portrayed not as cyphers or dark-skinned übermensches (the kind of thing that can make people trigger-happy in certain parts of the world, but I digress) but rather actual human beings. But putting my fondness for well portrayed people of colour aside, this was actually a quality film, made so by good old fashioned storytelling and engaging, not to mention very funny, characters. Does it get sentimental in places? Sure. But then that’s never done Spielberg any harm. The Best Man Holiday is a film with real warmth, some impressive comedic chops, and a knowing yet sweet portrayal of friendship and family you’ll have to go a fair way to improve on. It’s pretty much my favourite Christmas film of the last decade. Recommended viewing (as is its prequel, The Best Man).
Let’s just stop referring to Christopher Nolan as Christopher Nolan and start calling him ‘The Brain’. What’s he gonna do this year? What he does every year, try to take over cinema and twist the audience’s mind in more directions than a pretzel whilst he’s at it. Lovers of Nolan’s by now well-known and revered mind-bending shtick, first showcased in his 2000 offering Memento and built upon in 2010’s Inception, are in for a treat with this one, although this time Nolan’s not making narrative his clayey play thing, but the metaphysical conventions of reality itself. Interstellar is, even for Nolan, an admirably ambitious spectacle that single-handedly defines the reason for IMAX screens (seeing this film any other way simply will not do. And no, you should not just wait until it comes out on DVD). Bold brash starscapes, time-twisting wormholes, and more metaphysical and existential dilemmas than you can shake a stick at make Interstellar a film that demands to be judged on its own terms. It’s more than just a movie, it’s an experience.
- The Raid 2: Berandal
Another film that didn’t get what it deserved at the box office but man am I glad Sony went ahead and wide-released it anyway. Now, I know this is going to seem an exaggeration, you’ll say I’m being hyperbolic, that I’m untrustworthy, perhaps after reading this you’ll even re-read every previous comment I’ve made with a lamenting shake of the head, questioning everything from my intellect to my sanity, wondering whether you ought to ever trust another word that issues from my ever eager fingertips. I know I risk blasphemy by saying it, but believe me when I tell you – The Raid 2 is the greatest pure action movie ever made. The fight scenes are insanely good, vested with a swooping kinetic energy that borders on the vertiginous as you witness bone cracking savagery rendered at light speed from the offending fist’s point of view. It’s like a Bourne film on steroids, but with that typically eastern aesthetic of turning the violence into something weirdly beautiful, all done with an elegance that would’ve made the legendary Akira Kurosawa proud. Poetry in motion from start to finish. You’ll not need coffee for a month.
- The Lego Movie
Yeah, I am still singing that song. But I’ll say this, watching The Lego Movie is possibly the most surprising movie going experience I can recall having. It has plenty of the stuff you’d expect, the slapstick humour, the witty dialogue, some (oh so painfully) catchy tunes for the kids, but then, right there as you’re watching, the strangest thing happens. You find yourself experiencing a surreal sensation not unlike a sudden gust of zero gravity as you observe this (apparent) kid’s film, in the cleverest, funniest and most self-aware way, begin to open a conversation about the relative merits of creativity and practicality; art versus business, play versus profit, the heart versus the mind, and you do a kind of mental jaw drop and think, my God, this here’s Rousseau and Marx writ large. Eventually you take off your Mr/Ms Pretentious cap but even then the thought lingers amid the Lego Batman one liners and teeny-bop ditties, that what you’ve been watching wasn’t just fun, it was, well, kind of profound.
- Gone Girl
This is a film you will need a seatbelt for. With a femme fatale protagonist, played exquisitely by the increasingly versatile Rosamund Pike, to rival anything a Quentin Tarantino wet dream could ever hope to produce. Twists galore, with a subversive critique of social media to boot make Gone Girl one of the year’s most accomplished films. But let’s be real, neck-snapping plot twists aside, what truly makes this film special is what will prove to be one of cinema’s most provocative and enduring female characters. Glenn Close and Sharon Stone step aside, Gillian Flynn – both the writer of the film’s screenplay and author of the novel from which it’s adapted – has conjured in Amy Dunne a character so deeply affecting she’s already responsible for a small forest’s worth of copy debating whether her portrayal has furthered the feminist cause or harmed it. Is Gone Girl a masterpiece of misogyny, or a satirical tribute to empowered womanhood? You decide. Either way it probably makes for a great first date movie… if you’re a masochist. Just one thing’s for sure, husbands everywhere were sleeping with one eye open for at least a week or two after watching this.
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Shakespeare with CGI. Simple as. The narrative arcs involved here are swooping and epic and ambitious. Matt Reeves’ treatment of this seminal work is, I kid you not, a piece of art. I admit I haven’t seen the 1960s originals, there’s only so much Charlton Heston-as-saviour-and-deliverer narratives a guy like me can take, and when the same said leading man has become, in his later years, a gun toting zealot, the guy’s real life persona begins to conjure images I find hard to ignore when watching him on screen doing his day job. All of which is to say this latest series of Planet of the Apes reboots have been a welcome updating of something that was, by all accounts, a special piece of storytelling-come-political-commentary back in the day, claims I hadn’t realised were so true until this year. All the big themes are on show here, power and its corruptibility, war and its inevitable consequences, envy, prejudice, pride, the whole thing viewing like a biblical discourse on the origins and failings of mankind. Who’d think a sci-fi flick about escaped primates could be so insightful and compelling. And who’d think a chimp named Caesar could be so utterly charismatic. And so with a third instalment of the franchise scheduled for in a couple of years’ time, I say roll on 2017.
And by that I mean films that probably would have made the list had I gotten around to seeing them;-
Belle (Directed by Amma Asante, running time 105 minutes) – I mean, a black woman? In the lead role of a feature? In a period drama? I’ll believe it when I see it, which along with the very positive reviews I’m reading is why it’s high on my waiting list.
Boyhood (Directed by Richard Linklater, running time 166 minutes) – the way this thing was filmed, two week shoots interspersed over a 12 year period, gives this movie a whole new meta angle that by itself will make the viewing an intriguing experience.
Nightcrawler (Directed by Dan Gilroy, running time 117 minutes) – who doesn’t appreciate when a familiar onscreen presence commits so hardily to a role they willingly lose significant portions of their bodyweight to better inhabit their character? The last time I came across this kind of thing was when perennial method extremist, Christian Bale, lost around 8 stone to star in 2005’s The Machinist. I’m expecting Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in Nightcrawler to be equally impressive.
So there you have it. The top 10 films of 2014 plus a few extras. But hey, that’s just my take, and opinions are what make the world go round so feel free to let me know you’re recommendations for what should or shouldn’t be on this list.