2014 in review – It wasn’t the best of times, it wasn’t the worst of times

(clockwise from top left) Ida, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin, Calvary

Another year goes by, more films come out than I get to see, and a promise to my young self to one day watch every film there is becomes ever-more a betrayal. The year 2014 was a busy one for me, still entrenched in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU; moving images took a back seat in all but theory.

Towards the end of the year there were many saying that 2014 had been a disappointing 12 months in film. It was hard not to see some small truth in this; I certainly saw very few films that deserved consideration of being called masterpieces, and reports from others suggested I had not missed many either. But I saw no lack of great films in 2014. Whittling down a top 20 remained a challenge, with several films I feel hugely positive about not making the cut. Despite what some may think, there is no lack of greatness out there, even amongst the most mainstream of Hollywood popcorn fare.

Indeed, if anything, 2014 was a year of noble failures and flawed triumphs. Hollywood gave us works like Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Divergent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – solid action movies with ambitious themes, some better pulled off than others, but evidence that the business of show and global audiences still want their brain candy to come with a little brain.

And then there were the dramas. 2014 opened with everyone finally catching Spike Jonze’s Her (a film that would’ve done quite splendidly on my last year’s ranking had I caught it in the last weeks of December but which I can’t in all anal conscience include this year), and the year didn’t quite live up to this until the post-summer pre-Oscar season. Gone Girl gripped for two hours, then choked its audience with a bewilderingly unsubtle final 20 minutes. Wetlands provoked more than any film in recent memory with its study of female sexuality, but came to be more a tantrum of provocation than a truly meaningful inspection. And Maps to the Stars took one of the finest shotgun blasts to the myth of celebrity that has ever been unleashed, before inevitably turning that weapon on itself. Elsewhere, Love Is Strange was that rare film that handled its subject matter with such maturity and confidence that it seems laughable to think that any of the issues it addresses were taboo in the last 100 years.

Then there were the comedies. While The Lego Movie provided more laughs than any film in years, movies like Neighbors (Bad Neighbours in countries with good soaps) and The Trip to Italy showed there’s still plenty of material out there to mine for clever laughs. The Grand Budapest Hotel was a ferocious misfire, gorgeous to behold but utterly empty of heart, bound to endlessly repeat the same two gags of “famous people appearing” and “famous people swearing”. 22 Jump Street failed to live up to its predecessor; critiquing the Hollywood formula for sequels by repeating every one of their failings is cute at first but rapidly succumbs to its own poison. At the very least its closing credits will go down in history as some of the most enjoyable and inspired in forever.

Sequels were a mixed bag. Captain America and Planet of the Apes saw marked improvements, while the finest X-Men movie in more than a decade may have saved that stagnant franchise. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 proved that franchise alone cannot guarantee success, with a bloated and thematically bipolar production almost crucifying Sony’s hopes to move forward with more. Transformers: Age of Extinction was not the worst film in the franchise, but that’s about all that can be said for it, while How to Train Your Dragon 2, despite the expected gloss of its design, managed to extinguish much of the fire of the original surprise triumph. The Raid 2 was a misery of convoluted and derivative over-plotting that redeemed itself with some of the finest action spectacle ever recorded.

Back home, Irish cinema had a tremendous little year. Calvary, while hugely divisive with homegrown audiences, was viewed as a spectacular work elsewhere. Frank, if inconsistent, proved that Lenny Abrahamson could branch out of dark drama, and raised his profile as the saviour of Irish cinema (while also proving Michael Fassbender is so beloved he doesn’t even need to be visible on screen to astonish as an actor). Up North, ’71 took complex and controversial historical events and mutated them into a sophisticated thriller without feeling exploitative.

If 2013 was the year Netflix began to conquer television, 2014 was the year streaming releases became an enormous part of movie-viewing culture. Nymphomaniac saw online distribution just as it hit cinemas, while the terrific thriller Blue Ruin never saw a real cinema release. Netflix produced The Battered Bastards of Baseball, one of the year’s finest docs, while a Christmas tragedy (and World War III?) was avoided with the iTunes drop of The Interview after hacker threats saw it pulled from cinemas.

And then there’s TV. Basically True Detective happened, and then nothing else lived up to it all year.

My own year of film, as I’ve already suggested, has been very wrapped up with my studies, and will continue to be so for the first half of 2015. I was privileged to have the chance to spend the summer working at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland cataloguing and repairing a large collection of nitrate film, which will likely go down as one of the most important tasks I ever achieve in the film world. Discussing and recommending movies feels that little less important after you’ve saved a film from literally eating itself into a puddle of toxic goo.

As for the classics, well I continued to work away at those. Two films this year instantly ranked themselves for me as amongst the finest I’ve ever seen or will see: The Devils and The Holy Mountain. Other essentials included World on a Wire, Queen Christina, Spider Baby, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Z, A Star Is Born (1937), El Topo, Thief, Design for Living, The Sacrifice, The Tin Drum, Phantom of the Paradise, Tampopo, Sitting Target, Fury (1936), Woman in the Dunes, Possession, Taxidermia, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Eyes Without a Face, Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Steamboat Bill Jr., Black Sabbath, A Page of Madness, Umberto D, and Tokyo Godfathers. There were many more, of course, but here is not the place to recommend them. And there were even more films too awful to ever recommend, but they’ll remain unmentioned.

Every year I set myself a film goal, and for 2014 it was exceptional. Having finally watched the second Godzilla film, Godzilla Raids Again, in December of 2013, I set out to finish the entire Toho kaiju catalogue (a further 26 Gojira films and more than a dozen connected features) by the end of this past year. It took a lot out of me, but I achieved it. There’ll be a full report soon, so stay tuned. It’s going to be silly.

And now we prep ourselves for my top 20 of 2014. As always let’s clarify what I missed. Films which evaded me that I suspect may have had places in this list include Two Days, One Night, Selma, Locke, Mommy, Citizenfour, Winter Sleep, and Force Majeure. I will catch them in their own time. Close contenders for the top 20 include Through a Lens Darkly, Captain America 2, La Sapienza, Tom at the Farm, Blue Ruin, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, The Congress, and, a late removal, Edge of Tomorrow. As I said above, it was a year full of great movies, even if all too few of them were spectacular.

20. The Babadook

The feature debut of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent is one of those horror films that gives you the sensation of having seen it all before, while simultaneously feeding you with the unnerving sensation that that isn’t as reassuring as it could be. A superbly nightmarish take on the boogeyman idea that goes all-in on the “what if it’s just in my head” trope, The Babadook builds to several terrific frights. The all-grey aesthetic becomes wearisome before the end, but the film’s two terrific leads, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, hold attention to the very last scene.

19. Jodorowsky’s Dune

The greatest film never made is an easy tag to throw around, with so many notorious cases of the ‘development hell’ concept out there. But Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandoned take on Frank Herbert’s Dune is a stronger contender than most. This documentary assembles the essence of the cancelled ’70s psychedelic sci-fi epic through use of talking head interviews and an avalanche of spectacular concept art illustrations that once upon a time nearly saw this film into production. It is a nostalgic and remorseful study of a different time in Hollywood, while also a declaration of the need for experimentation and risk-taking in epic cinema and adaptation.

18. Inherent Vice

Critiquing Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner detective movie without referencing the other films it invokes memory of is difficult, and that seems to highlight the film’s undeniable imperfections. But Anderson has made a gorgeous film, meticulously detailed and with a suitable faded ’70s look to the image. Bloated with too many oddball characters and a meandering mystery that never quite catches the imagination, it still finds a terrific lead performance in Joaquin Phoenix, and in Josh Brolin’s Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen one of the most audacious eccentrics in American cinema.

17. Interstellar

Contemporary science fiction has gone from ignoring big issues to addressing issues of colossal importance in frankly stupid ways. Just look at Prometheus’ “intriguing” explanations for the origins of life on Earth and our relationship with god. No, scratch that, please don’t. For all its aspirations Interstellar is not a smart movie, but it is a tasteful one, and a production unrivalled in envisioning outer space since 2001. Despite all its faults (abandoned subplots, awkward romance, poorly paced action, a self-contradicting emphasis on the power of love over science, and a second act twist that reeks of rewrites), there is no denying Christopher Nolan is a showman par excellence. The film’s imagery, accompanied by a divine score by Hans Zimmer, assaults the senses throughout, and Matthew McConaughey commits wholeheartedly to a role that supports the whole production.

16. The Lunchbox

Just when you think you’ve seen every high concept romance, this little gem emerges. Utilising Mumbai’s famed dabbawalas, an intricate and vast system of lunch delivery men, Ritesh Batra’s film finds a lonely widower accidentally receiving the lunchbox of a man whose unfulfilled wife is trying to reignite his passion through cooking. The wrong passion is ignited, and a complex love affair begins without the pair in question meeting. Effortlessly charming and rhythmically enrapturing, leads Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur achieve the impossible, to have extraordinary onscreen chemistry without sharing a scene together.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy

Much can be argued about the damage Marvel is doing by dominating mainstream action cinema (and encouraging rivals to try likewise), but when their output can be this furiously exciting there’s little room for complaint. Featuring a gaggle of lesser-known celestial superheroes, James Gunn took a postmodernist comedic slant to the story while also making room for genuine pathos. Challenging the progressively darkening aesthetic of comicbook movies with an effervescent purple, blue and yellow glow and an upbeat ’60s and ’70s pop soundtrack, Guardians showed that a blockbuster could refute seriousness without being dumb. Who knew?

14. Birdman

Speaking of superheroes, where did this one come from? A startling experiment by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman reimagines the fate of actor Michael Keaton after his glory days as Batman and conjures a fascinating tragic character, Riggan Thomson, typecast and devoid of credibility, attempting to reinvent himself on the Broadway stage, while simultaneously going insane from the pressures of failed ambition. The finest ensemble cast of the year and a thrilling jazz score help propel it through some overlong reflections, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s single take illusion is as mesmerising as it is unjustified by the content. The ending is an unsatisfying collision of the shocking and obvious, but the film is an intriguing treat throughout.

13. Foxcatcher

A hypnotic study of madness and obsession that slowly lures you in with its unsettling unpleasantness, Foxcatcher leaves you unable to look away from the disintegration of family and trust at its core. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo impress as real life Olympic wrestling champions and brothers, dazzled by a chance at wealth and immortality offered by psychologically damaged billionaire Steve Carell, in a career-redefining role. Shot with restraint and edited with beautiful subtlety, it is charged with a homoerotic intensity that builds to an impossible, exactly-as-it-happened conclusion. One scene of grotesque binge-eating stands out as the greatest horror moment of 2014.

12. The Wonders

One of the finest reflections on the isolation of farming communities from contemporary society, Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders took beekeeping as its subject. The family at the film’s centre, overburdened financially and by the sheer size of their clan, and patronised by an embarrassing reality TV show, represent a dying race of people, whose contributions are no longer respected by growing cities. Seen through the eyes of the eldest daughter, played longingly by Maria Alexandra Lungu, a cycle is revealed that cannot be reversed. Beautifully shot in the Italian countryside and full of witty asides, it is bolstered by fleeting sprinkles of magical realism.

11. Whiplash

More jazz drumming here, but this time it is central to the plot. Damien Chazelle’s tremendously rhythmic film features one of the year’s most intense relationships, a symbiotic S&M partnership between teacher and pupil. The idea that without punishment and cruelty genius can never be achieved is hardly new, but it has never been sold with such wit and ferocity as it is here. Miles Teller makes a convincing lead and impressive percussionist, while J.K. Simmons is simply thrilling as his demented and brilliant mentor. The green colour grading intrudes once too often, but otherwise is an extremely tidy film, hard to fault.

10. Mr. Turner

Attention to detail is all there is to this film. But isn’t that everything? Like the artist himself, whose paintings evoked such feeling by capturing the vastness of sea and landscapes in glorious detail, Mike Leigh’s film recreates the London of the first half of the 19th century down to the most inconsequential minutiae. But while the film reflects on art, class and late-blooming romance, it is Timothy Spall’s outstanding performance that holds the whole work aloft. Every tremor in his face and grunt from his mouth carries a trove of meaning and sadness, and Spall simply becomes another man, a great and tragically faulted man. If the film struggles with pacing and focus, Spall never stumbles for a moment, delivering the performance of his career and the performance of the year.

9. Nymphomaniac

This two-part study of female sexuality revels in the violent and grotesque; it’s almost a shame it’s so brilliant. Lars Von Trier’s latest is a series of vignettes taken from the life of Joe (Stacy Martin and later Charlotte Gainsbourg), which examines her spiral of self-discovery and sexual liberation with wit and pain. Certain sections work better than others, but the continuous raising of stakes, awe-inspiring visuals, and brazen abuse of pop music make for a delirious and provocative work.

8. Goodbye to Language

Cinema’s aging revolutionary, Jean-Luc Godard, delivered one of his most obscure and inspired works. Reflections on language and philosophy, the duality of relationships and existence, are framed in a series of stylistically contradictory shots; steady shots, concave angles, and handheld cinematography enlivened by simulated video errors. Godard’s decision to shoot in 3D is what makes this experiment the boldest work of 2014, and allows it to feature the year’s most astonishing shot – a stroke-inducing uncoupling of the stereoscopic cameras that bends the eyes and brain in ways cinemas has never done before.

7. The Lego Movie

If everything truly were awesome, how could we fully appreciate The Lego Movie? Phil Lord and Chris Miller began their deconstruction of the Hollywood machine in 2014 with this anarchic work of mainstream commercialism, managing to sell toys and major brands while also breaking down the very ideas that make them successful. The chaotic animation and riotous barrage of regularly sophisticated gags made it an audience favourite, but beyond that it was a complex discussion of artifactual purpose, creative intent, artistic inspiration, and obsessive anality. It is perhaps the smartest film aimed at young audiences since Toy Story, or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

 6. Boyhood

Much of the criticism that can be laid at the feet of Richard Linklater’s opus seems largely superfluous upon reflection of the effort that went into its making. Shot in spurts over 12 years, with music, technology and the rapidly aging protagonist underscoring the passage of time, Boyhood is hardly unprecedented in cinema, but not even Truffaut could craft the experience of growth and the triumphs and betrayals of life’s promises with this much confidence and style. Ellar Coltrane is strong as 6-to-18-year-old Mason, more awash in a sea of experience than an active dramatic character, while astonishing support is offered by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater. While it sometimes slips off course to focus on matters more of interest to Linklater Sr. than Mason, it remains an often overwhelmingly powerful study of what it is to be a young American, and what it is to become a man.

5. Under the Skin

So then what is it to be human? Jonathan Glazer cast hominid perfection Scarlett Johansson as an empty vessel, an alien purporting to be human to prey and consume. Using an astonishing and eerie array of editing techniques, cinematographic styles and complex sound design, Glazer at first stalks mankind with his alien subject, then has her seduced by its flawed complexity and finds herself the prey. Johanssen excels throughout, while the film pulls no punches in studying the darkness that dwells in the emotionally disconnected. Glasgow, stark and grey, stands in for the traditional invasion spots of New York or small town America. A chilling horror film and a riveting philosophical drama.

4. Calvary

In the finest performance of his career, Brendan Gleeson plays a priest chosen to be the target of an abuse victim’s revenge, a tortured mysterious figure who feels only the death of a good man will awaken the world to horrors gone unpunished. But since the lead knows who the would-be killer is from the first scene, we are left alone to investigate while he decides how to spend his allotted remaining days. A terrific cast of local oddballs make up the parishioners and suspects, allowed to run rampant with writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s deliciously biting dialogue. Ireland has rarely looked better, and the film acts as a remarkable dissection of a country in a state of schizophrenic uncertainty as to where it is going, or even where it has been.

3. Nightcrawler

A scathing assault on tabloid journalism, Nightcrawler is as bleak as it is beautiful, shot in the fluorescent glow of pre-dawn Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal grips as the sociopathic, ruthlessly efficient and zealously self-serving Lou Bloom, whose morality-free clamber into the ranks of accident and emergency reporting represents the worst nightmare of the American dream in the information age. Unpredictable without being extreme, it builds tirelessly to a thrilling conclusion. In Bloom, writer-director Dan Gilroy has created perhaps the most original character of the 21st century so far.

2. Ida

This gorgeously composed black and white film emerged with little fanfare this year but was embraced rapturously by critics and its small audience. Set in 1960s Poland, still in turmoil after the War and the Holocaust, and with the lingering Damoclean sword of Soviet overlordship, Ida is a gentle reflection on identity that both uplifts and stings with the brutality of its humanity. Agata Trzebbuchowska and Agata Kulesza give astonishing, tragic performances as a young orphaned nun and the aunt she has been newly reunited with. The film packs an emotional wallop, but every frame along the way dazzles with pristine simplicity.

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

One of the last films produced by Studio Ghibli before it ceased production of new animations to much distress this past year, and the assumed swansong of Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that director’s third masterpiece, and perhaps his most triumphant work. Based on one of Japan’s most famous fairytales, it tells of a childless bamboo cutter and his wife who find an enchanted infant, who they raise as their own. Financially supported by a divine source, the loving parents give the young Kaguya everything she could ever want, but her uncertainty and feelings of alienness prevent her from securing true happiness in a society that so pressures women to be what it demands of them. Once more abandoning Ghibli’s traditional style, Takahata this time paints in liquid bursts of watercolours, creating a spellbinding visual feast that reaches a cinematic zenith in a dashing charcoal nightmare. Wit and heart and fantasy combine; the story is pure magic. The production is too.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Booyah! Kaguya!

————————————————————–

I’m just assuming you skipped down to here. Because these are the films I hated this year. Dross such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Need for Speed, and even the egregiously misjudged Transcendence, which would easily have taken the bottom honour on a better year, weren’t as bad as these disastrous attempts at films, only one of which I can possibly recommend for ironic viewing (hint: it’s at No.3).

 

5. Gun Woman

Mindless and grotesque even by Japanese gore porn standards, this was certainly the most unpleasant film experience to be had in 2014. Featuring an antihero so bland it’s hard to call him a character, and a villain so cartoonishly despicable the man who thought him up should be kept under police surveillance, this is a joyless stool of a film, hideous to behold, and ritually disemboweled by its attempts at Tarantinoesque postmodernism.

4. Let’s Be Cops

Please, just make up your mind, do you respect cops or not? Do you think they are morons who should be made fun of, or that they are disrespected heroes one and all? Because really your film did not make it clear. But congratulations, you made a scene where a character chokes on a fat man’s testes look more pleasant than hanging out for just half an hour with your two buddy leads.

3. Winter’s Tale

Something about miracles and magic and horses called Horse. This overproduced farce is actually in the realm of so bad its funny. Colin Farrell and his awful hair have a brief and unbelievable love affair, while on the run from Russell Crowe, who is either Irish or suffering from some kind of brain aneurism. The dialogue redefines cheesy, the performances redefine confused, and the first act takes up 75% of the running time. The greatest miracle of all is that the film got made in the first place.

2. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane and his troublingly featureless face headline this Western pastiche that is… well nothing. Flatly shot, with a tsunami of jokes that don’t make landfall, and a plot so hackneyed you could write something more inspired by farting in sand, this follow-up to the genuinely enjoyable Ted proves McFarlane doesn’t understand high concept without being high. The supporting cast all seem embarrassed to be present. You’d almost feel sorry for them, ’cause they should be.

1. The Legend of Hercules

Where to start? The first of two big budget takes on the copyright-free demigod in 2014, this Renny Harlin venture took the most liberties with the material, pouring countless other myths and histories into the pot, and even a lightning whip-sword. The whole film is so joyless and po-faced, the actors so completely out of their element (unless their element is “stand there and look pretty”), the special effects so… uncompleted, it’s simply hard to believe this film exists at all. Thankfully, it proves as forgettable as it is awful, and due to The Rock’s moderately well-received Hercules, history will forget this Grecian stillbirth ever appeared in 2014.

 

See you again next year…

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