Tag Archives: Paul Thomas Anderson

2017 in review – Faces, Places, and Much Needed Changes

best of 2017

I found 2017 taxing. It was a taxing year. I think it was for most people. Of course this isn’t a politics blog, so let’s not even go there, but even at the movies I did not find my usual escape. As often happens, it was late in the year before I found anything close to a list of favourites. But beyond that, just shutting out the stresses of the world has been harder, making sinking into a movie more mentally trying. It doesn’t help that I am noticing myself getting older, and staying awake through film after film is no longer a case of sheer willpower and enthusiasm. Oh for the days when two cups of well-timed coffee could get me through six features between bedtimes.

But at the same time, 2017 was actually somewhat of a landmark for cinema. After 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite scandal, who could have foreseen Moonlight take Best Picture over the charming but inferior La La Land, and in the way it did? Watching a livestream that was about a minute behind “live”, I could see panic and shock breaking out on my phone before anything had signalled La La Land was not the winner on TV. My Twitter feed was freaking out, and for a few moments I had to wonder what was about to unfold (a fainting filmmaker, a fight on stage?) – who’d have believed it? The shock has died down, but the Best Picture debacle of 2017 will go down as one of the greatest single moments in both film history and live television. What a time to be alive.

If 2016 had been a major year for Black cinema, 2017 shifted the focus to women. While it’s not a film I am especially in awe of, Wonder Woman hit with an undeniable impact, and moments like Gal Gadot strutting into No Man’s Land, or Chris Pine electing to be a handsome honeytrap to woo information from a female villain, completely rewrote the book on how Hollywood must view gender roles. (The huge success of the hilarious Girls Trip proved these changes were not solely going to benefit white women.) There’s more good work to do, but it feels exciting to be standing here while the sands are beginning to shift. And where representation behind and in front of the camera – and at the box office – showed extraordinary progress, an even bigger shift came as the rotten husk of Harvey Weinstein dominoed into his fellow abusers throughout Hollywood. Enough has been written by many greater talents about the #MeToo movement, but suffice to say the horror of hearing these stories come to light is regularly overcome by the swift victory of victims newly heard and perpetrators’ careers tumbling.

Before we get to the movies, let’s talk a little about what a year it was for TV. Since the dawn of True Detective and Black Mirror, TV has moved into EVENT territory, with individual seasons or episodes of far greater social (and artistic?) importance than tracking the fate of characters over too many years of one show. New shows like Legion, The Good Place, The Handmaid’s Tale, and American Gods stood out, but it was limited revivals that showed what TV could really do when focused artists expressed themselves through serialised storytelling – Twin Peaks: The Return and the belated final season of Samurai Jack (which oddly paralleled Peaks) truly stood out. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, an astonishing metaphysical exploration of identity in 21st Century America through avant-fantasy and soap-operatic extremities, was such a remarkable achievement it triggered much fevered and pointless debate as to whether or not it was a “film”. The discussion is irrelevant, what matters is that it is. Purely to keep in check with previous years’ best-ofs, I have not included it on my list here, although with some reflection I wonder if it would have come out on top. I have subsequently seen the entire series on the big screen, and I can assure you, whether it’s a movie or not, it works as one.

Laura Dern in a still from Twin Peaks. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Not a movie

Professionally 2017 was a good one – I began as Festival Manager of Doc Fortnight at MoMA, which had a tremendously successful year, and wrapped as a film consultant at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. I continued to write and edit at Cineaste (especially pleased with my broad review of Rebecca), while picking off some smaller projects. In my spare time, I continued a quest to watch every Palme d’Or movie, begun in 2016, and got up to the 2000s, so will finish that off this year. I also dedicated myself to watching one movie exceeding a four-hour runtime per month, which allowed me to pick off some exhausting cinematic must-sees, including Shoah, Out 1, Sátántangó, and Histoire(s) du cinéma. If I’m not going to make myself watch these things, no one else is going to!

On the big screen I saw some terrific rep screenings, from Don’t Look Now and Tokyo Drifter at Metrograph, Monterey Pop and Stalker at IFC Center, The Fireman’s Ball and Pelle the Conqueror at Film Forum, The Old Dark House, Hello, Dolly!, and Funeral Parade of Roses at Quad Cinema, and Strange Days, Husbands, and, err, Manos: The Hands of Fate at MoMA. Elsewhere, my home viewing ranged wildly from The Colour of Pomegranates to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s remake of Christmas in Connecticut. I have a range. Too much so.

As for the new releases of 2017, well there were many highlights and lowlights. I was left cold by Haneke’s Happy End, and thought the much-lauded A Ghost Story collapsed in the second act. The always-reliable Hirokazu Koreeda’s After the Storm hit me in the gut, but lacked the simple visual ambition of his better works. Okja did much the same for Bong Joon-ho, another favourite. The summer was riddled with flopbusters, but a few almost made my best of the year list, including Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Other close calls included Risk, The Big Sick, Personal Shopper, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Columbus, Dawson City: Frozen Time, and, until Phantom Thread dislodged it from the list-in-progress, Lady Macbeth. I’d have included the spectacular World of Tomorrow – Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, except it’s a short, and then I’d have to defend putting a short on my best films list, and, well, you know.

WOT2-0

Not a movie

Major releases I missed that might have featured include Coco, Song to Song, T2 Trainspotting, Raw, and I, Tonya, among many others. But as of early 2018, these are the 2017 films that have not left my mind…

20. Mudbound

There’s a well-trodden feel to Dee Rees’s racial melodrama, a sense that the toxic poverty and discrimination of the American South have been told before, and so well as to reduce further efforts to redundancy. And yet, here, through guiding a great ensemble, and with an exceptional rising cinematographer in Rachel Morrison at her side, Rees finds a balance between two complex family dramas, rebirthing the Mississippi landscape (Louisiana standing in) in remarkable, rich brown tones.

19. Molly’s Game

First-time director Aaron Sorkin brings his distinct writing style and energy to a one-of-a-kind story of a go-getting secretary-turned-underground-gambling-house-diva. Jessica Chastain brings her A-game, blasting out Sorkin’s buzzy dialogue, with plenty of fun sparring partners (Idris Elba is terrific as her attorney, following her bust by the Feds). It keeps character the focus, without letting the poker overcomplicate the drama. The final act devolves briefly into nonsense, but it’s not enough to slow it down. The screenwriter-auteur seems to understand the collaboration great cinema requires, and smart editing and handsome cinematography make this a memorable debut.

18. A Quiet Passion

The inimitable Terence Davies made his first (and only?) misstep with 1995’s The Neon Bible, a Georgia-set period piece that felt outside the range of his very British working class viewpoint. Having honed himself as a master of period tone in the decades since, Davies’s second American tale reveals the depth of his maturity as an artist. With beautiful imagery matched by splendid pacing and often caustic wit, the lives of poet Emily Dickinson and her family are realised thoroughly. If it at times ventures away from the historical truth, it does so only to keep things lively, and Cynthia Nixon is the cornerstone of a terrific cast.

17. Nocturama

One of 2017’s boldest pictures, French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s anarcho-thriller Nocturama is a Parisian-set genre smorgasbord. Beginning as a heist movie, in which a gaggle of misaffiliated teens sets off a series of bombs in order to topple the economic status quo, it shifts to satire, bordering on farce, as the young antiheroes hide out in an abandoned ultra-bougie department store. It ends in horror. The first act shows the deftest filmmaking, as Bonello intercuts between his characters at various points in the timeline, but the lengthy central act unveils a bolus of social commentary as the youths interact, often joyfully, with the elaborate trinkets of a society they profess to despise.

16. The Shape of Water

There are few visualisers of the fantastic working in Hollywood today with the skills of Guillermo del Toro, but his screenplays (especially the English ones) rarely match his remarkable imagery, with strained dialogue and comically heavy-handed metaphors. But here, working with Vanessa Taylor (whose major credits include a handful of Game of Thrones episodes and a Meryl Streep romcom), he has produced his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth. A complex character study, loaded with wit, and a truly out-there love story borrowing from 1950s B-movies and Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water shows tireless craft (amazing, rust-encrusted sets, plays with light, splendid music), and is held aloft by the quality of its performances, particularly Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a government research lab who rescues, and falls for, a South American fish-man creature. Michael Shannon’s villain is as under-baked as all of del Toro’s villains (although the actor, as always, acquits himself admirably), but otherwise the writing is stellar, and builds to a beautifully realised finale.

15. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Martin McDonagh has always revelled in being an outsider – his most famous works, plays set in the West of Ireland, derived from his visiting his extended family as a youth, observing the peculiar and exciting linguistic flourishes that he magnificently retooled into hilarious, mean-spirited tales like The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Here he has bitten off more than he can fully masticate, with a Midwestern setting that he is perhaps too much removed from to fully capture. But what he’s done remains an exceptional entertainment, darkly imagining the war of printed words between a bereaved mother and a well-intentioned sheriff, who she holds responsible for the failure to capture the brutal killers of her daughter. The characters and situations are larger-than-life, with performances (Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell especially) to match. Its contemplation of redemption for racist, Red State caricatures feels ill-timed in an angry, polarised America, but the strength of the dialogue and the crisp texture of Ben Davis’s cinematography make it a film difficult to deny in its quality.

14. Marjorie Prime

Yes, yes, yes, it’s just a play I hear you say, but when a play is this good, when it’s this well-written, this cogent and timely in the issues it addresses, the medium feels irrelevant. Adapted from Jordan Harrison’s stage drama with minimal flourish by Michael Almereyda, Marjorie Prime looks at a near-future where the grieving process is aided by memory uploads of the departed, appearing as interactive holograms of them at whatever age the customer chooses. Too introspective and quietly sad to be a Black Mirror instalment, it’s a heart-rending look at memory and regret, acted superbly by its four stars, Lois Smith, Jon Hamm, Geena Davis, and Tim Robbins.

13. Your Name

A record-smashing success both at home in Japan and around the world, writer/director Makota Shinkai’s Your Name is a romantic fantasy comedy that pushes in every direction – a huge emotional impact; shocking supernatural twists; big, silly laughs – while even challenging the likes of Studio Ghibli in the quality and richness of its animation and colours. Billed as a teen body swap tale, initial gender gags give way to a deeply satisfying romance and ethereal revelations. If the many subplots seem tired or convoluted, they all wash away in the image of two star-crossed lovers meeting for the first time across the flare of a setting sun.

12. Dunkirk

The sort of cinematic grandeur that Hollywood has forgotten in the wake of CGI city explosions, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is simultaneously experimental and defiantly old-school. Recreating the famous naval escape of WWII in breath-taking 65mm IMAX, Nolan’s film is a triptych edited out of sync, revealing days on the beach, an afternoon on the sea, and one terrifying hour in the air. Hans Zimmer’s thrilling score ticks with intensity as time runs out for the soldiers. The pressure builds in all three stories as they meet at the day’s end, culminating in a cathartic welcome home, accompanied by Churchill’s most famous address. This is the war movie at its most ambitious, even if the characters’ screentime is too diluted to ever truly feel in the thick of it with any of them.

11. The Florida Project

Following his impressive Tangerine, a film famously shot entirely on an iPhone, Sean Baker’s Florida Project is mostly crisp, bumblegummy 35mm. An affecting look at childhood in poverty, and a savage critique of the selfie generation’s self-absorption being anathema to parenthood, this is a minor triumph of humanism, with Brooklynn Prince and Willem Dafoe as neighbours, decades apart in age, neither of whom allow the minor tragedies of daily living scuttle their enthusiasm or hopefulness. A finale that dips into magical realism both looks and feels out of place, but it barely leaves a dent in this dramatic and regularly hilarious work.

10. Blade Runner 2049

Few were more sceptical than me at the idea of a new Blade Runner sequel/reboot/anything. But on the heels of the splendid Arrival, Denis Villeneuve had more than proven his sci-fi chops. What we got was a shocking success, building on the mythology of the Philip K. Dick universe, while somehow reinforcing the mystery around Rick Deckard’s humanity, questioned at the close of Ridley Scott’s original, leaving it satisfyingly unanswered. The exquisite production design and imagining of future technology that both aids and alienates made it a new dystopia, not a rehash. The cast, from Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, to exceptional supporters Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, and Sylvia Hoeks, brought more than could be expected to a thought-provoking, largely action-free sci-fi gem.

9. Get Out

If any film could vie with Wonder Woman for the title of “most important film” of 2017, it was Get Out. The icing on the cake is what an incredible achievement Get Out is, even before its socio-political satire and revelations are taken into account. The tale of a young African-American man lured into the welcoming abode of an over-eager white family who, secretly, don’t so much want to kill him as be him, latches on to numerous under-spoken-of issues bubbling beneath the surface of post-Obama culture. First-time director Jordan Peele impresses hugely from the get-go, but its his script that dominates, fluctuating with ease between social commentary, brilliant black comedy, and nightmarish horror; apparent throwaway lines of dialogue early on whip back as ingenious foreshadowing of gags and grotesqueries. Star Daniel Kaluuya offers a performance that horror cinema hasn’t seen the likes of in a generation.

8. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Yorgos Lanthimos continues to revel in his highly personalised brand of faithlessness in humanity, and the results remain inspired. Here suburban inanity is punctured by Barry Keoghan’s intrusive oddball Martin, who forces himself into a pretentiously happy family’s home life, blaming the patriarch, a doctor, for the death of his own father. Lanthimosian performances are emotionally wooden as always, played with bitter somnambulism by Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. The moral dilemma at its core is played as a cunning, tormented thought experiment, shifting the movie suddenly from darkly comic to spine-cringingly horrific.

7. Lady Bird

On the surface a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama from first-time director Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is encased in a study of daughters and mothers, and the generational misunderstandings that can blind loved ones to others’ needs. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf merge with their characters – the shared frustration with one another is written in every movement of their faces. Unshowy production design keeps the story grounded, while Gerwig’s script and the exceptional editing of Nick Houy make the film as unforgettable as the drama.

6. BPM (Beats Per Minute)

As the AIDS crisis has diminished in the West, it can be hard for some to remember the terror it incited in the early ’90s. In my youth it seemed the greatest threat to humanity in a pre-9/11 world. But for those who feared it, nothing could compare to the experiences of those who lived with it, unsupported, unheard, uncared for. Robin Campillo’s award-winning BPM is a sensational dive into the world of French AIDS activists 25 years ago, gently and caringly listening to their stories and hopes and fears in intimate love scenes, while also making clear the incredible work and organisation done by ACT UP in fighting for the rights and humanity of those living with HIV/AIDS. The acting and writing capture a unique energy with exceptional passion, while the film features perhaps the most outstanding scene transition of the year, as specks of dust caught in the wavering lights of a nightclub morph into human cells, under attack from within.

5. The Teacher

One of the most overlooked films of 2017, Jan Hřebejk’s The Teacher is one of the finest works studying abuses of power in recent memory. Borrowing a concept from 12 Angry Men, it is set at a PTA meeting called to question the future of school teacher Mária Drazdechová, in the closing decade of communist Czechoslovakia. Drazdechová is accused of using her position of authority within the Party to manipulate parents into doing copious favours for her, and bullying her students so severely that one even attempts suicide. Using flashbacks to show their interactions with Drazdechová, while intercutting children and parents to reveal generational (dis)similarities, one by one the parents are convinced to come forward. It’s an astonishing piece of storytelling, and in the title role Zuzana Mauréry dominates the screen, making her one of the most memorable villains of the 21st Century so far.

4. Faces Places

As she approaches 90, but appears to come nowhere near to slowing down, Agnès Varda once again hits the road to traverse France and find the most interesting people she can interview and shoot. Her companion/co-director/partner in crime is 30-something graffiti artist JR, whose portrait photography is blown up to enormous sizes and plastered in the most aesthetically pleasing and surprising places. As Varda’s eyesight fades, the trip and film become a metaphor for what might be her last chance to truly see the world and its people. What begins as a sweet, charming journey, documenting the towns and faces Varda and JR come across, expands into something far greater, about lives lived and not lived, as the duo attempt to confront Varda’s past with two towering male legends of French cinema, her late husband Jacques Demy, and long-time friend turned hermitic curmudgeon Jean-Luc Godard. At her impressive age, Varda continues to push the boundaries of the documentary arts, never losing hope or faith in the real, human magic of the world around her.

3. Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson has never made a bad film, but his best work always comes with narrow focus; direct character studies rather than sprawling, Altmanesque ensembles. Phantom Thread is his smallest film since Punch-Drunk Love, and features barely more than three characters: fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, his young muse Alma, and his commanding sister Cyril. What begins as a straightforward melodrama about a woman unable to crack the eccentric brilliance of her much older lover – echoes of Rebecca abound – morphs into a stranger, sexlessly kinkier story about emotional domination. It looks luscious, while Jonny Greenwood’s score is as seductively brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis’s Woodcock. Vicky Krieps is strong as Alma, but much of the film is stolen by Lesley Manville’s divinely snarky Cyril.

2. Call Me By Your Name

Luca Guadagnino undoubtedly had a masterpiece in him, but it wasn’t clear it would come so soon. His fifth fiction feature, adapted from André Aciman’s novel by the iconic James Ivory, is a quiet and powerful love story set in Northern Italy. Elio, aged 17, meets Oliver, 10 years his senior, his father’s assistant in excavating artefacts from Roman antiquity. What begins as a resistant friendship between two men whose only common trait is a shared Jewish ancestry, erupts into romance through a succession of spoken and unspoken moments – glances of the eyes and the hand against skin. Superbly paced to create the feel of a summer spent falling in love, the story beats with the pain and beauty of first love. Shot in extraordinary sunswept frames by Uncle Boonmee’s Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and accompanied by the delicate bombast of Sufjan Stevens’s music, it is never less than gorgeous. Lead actors Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer offer up their impressive bests, but it is Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s calmly caring father who leaves the most powerful mark, connecting one boy’s heartbreak to a legacy of unexpressed emotion.

1. The Square

No movie in 2017 dared to tackle as many issues as Ruben Östlund’s The Square, and few movies have ever aimed for so many targets without spreading themselves thin. Whereas his breakout 2014 darling Force Majeure focused squarely on fragile masculinity, The Square encircles that issue in addition to commentaries on homelessness, the immigrant crisis, the incompatibility of art and commerce, the Americanisation of Europe, and casual sex. It is a ruthless satire on the art world that sees Claes Bang’s curator Christian struggling with the titular artwork, which professes to be a sanctuary in which all are equal. But none are truly equal within or without, as power shifts from person to person, from Christian to the thief of his smartphone to the vengeful child inadvertently accused of the crime. A self-revolved artist is overcome by a peer who has turned to animalistic performance, and bourgeois society is at first delighted and almost instantaneously outraged. Christian, perceiving himself a demi-celebrity, argues with a woman he has slept with who won’t let him dispose of the condom they have used himself, convinced she is out to steal his sperm, in surely the year’s most hysterical scene of awkward comedy. The film has so much to say about 21st Century living, and our inability to comprehend much or all of it. It is ruthless and hilarious, ceaselessly entertaining, and a consistently startling work of cinema, pristinely shot, tremendously executed.

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An artist’s interpretation of me telling you how good The Square is

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Oh, and of course, there’s the worst movies. These were works from 2017 that either bored me beyond redemption, entertained me in ways they were never meant to, or left me simply stupefied by their outrageous, unearned out-there-ness. I didn’t see The Emoji Movie, while Justice League was too run-of-the-mill to even bother feeling negative towards, and Transformers: The Last Knight gave us the gift of Cogman, without whom it would surely have made this list.

5. Ghost in the Shell

Narrowly beating Death Note for the misguided anime remake of 2017, Ghost in the Shell brought nothing new to the table, and in keeping a Japanese setting placed a target on its chest for accusations of white-washing. Audiences and critics justifiably struck. Borrowing all its finest images from the source material, its mot inventive creation was to have the Caucasian hero and villain be secret Asian people. In what feels like a lazy Saturday Night Live sketch, characters repeatedly pause to use the terms “ghost” and “shell”, which mean, in this context, as they make very, very clear, “soul”… and “body”. It is agony.

4. Lemon

Another study of an anxious intellectual struggling with the emotional and career success of those around him, Lemon is a mean-spirited, aimless film, relying too much on the muted charisma of its stars. The story reaches no conclusions (nor a reason for there to be no conclusion), while the blown-out yellowed palette exhausts after the first few minutes. There’s much talent here, but all of it is misdirected.

3. The Book of Henry

Behold a child smarter than his mother! Cringe when you should be weeping as he dies suddenly of a brain tumour! Thrill as his mother follows his instructions from beyond the grave to murder their neighbour who is abusing his daughter! Gasp as that abuse is made clear through interpretive dance! That rare example of a movie that simply should not exist.

2. The Mummy

Universal’s self-immolating attempt to create a shared “Dark Universe” of their famous monster characters began (and ended?) with this dour-looking action film which follows Tom Cruise’s uncomfortably quippy hero from the Middle East to London, pursued by a sexy zombie and her army of unspectacular CGI. Tonally scattershot, impossibly dull, mercilessly sequel-thirsty.

1. Baywatch

The lowest point of ironic media repurposing, this painfully unfunny comedy has the audacity to tease a television show that showed more impressive cinematic craft in its opening credits montage than this can in two hours. Smothering the natural charisma of stars Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, this bounces from comic set piece to comic set piece with awkward scene transitions and a threadbare drug-smuggler plot failing to hold it together. An extended scene in which Efron’s character must fondle the genitals of a corpse feels like the perfect metaphor for this film: ugly, gross, determined to insult, but just cold and flaccid.

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Oscarhood – Predictions for the 87th Academy Awards

I like to imagine an alternate universe where giant gold men award each other Neil Patrick Harrises for their contributions to the cinematic arts

With your host, Dougie Stinson.

If I’m to understand this correctly, California is the only American state right now not crippled by unnaturally cold February weather. And it’s a good thing too, or this weekend’s Oscars would feature 90 very unpleasant minutes on the white carpet, and those of us on the East Coast wouldn’t have good excuses to hide inside from the snow on a Sunday night.

So yes, it’s Academy Awards time again, that one magical time of the year where everyone cares as much about movies as I do. The theme for this year’s show is “Neil Patrick Harris finally gets to host the Oscars”, so there’s a lot of pressure on the Starship Troopers star to make sure MC stands for ‘most charming’.

Twelve months on from 12 Years a Slave’s deserved win, and 12 years are again a major contender – this time the 12 years of Mason Evans’s life in Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s film is surprisingly lo-fi for a Best Picture contender, but the scope of its production makes it that one-of-a-kind film the Academy occasionally like to acknowledge. But it’s not quite a given yet, with the likes of Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel and the struggling British scientist twins Hawking and Turing all viable contenders. There’s been a notable best picture/director split the last two years, also, and although Interstellar has been denied the role of this year’s Gravity, there’s still a good chance of the top film of the night won’t walk away with all the gold.

The big event no one is talking about is The Sound of Music 50th anniversary something-or-other we’re all going to be subjected to because AMPAS have officially run out of ideas for how to throw a party. The only way it’s going to be truly entertaining is if they just play this clip on a loop for five minutes.

 

Anyways, where was I?

 

Best Picture

Free Mason: Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Free Mason: Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Only eight nominees this time around? What does that say about the movies in 2014? And what was the point of the whole Dark Knight-inspired revival of up to 10 nominees if Interstellar was gonna get shut out? And where the hell is Nightcrawler on this list? Boyhood has all the prestige in its pocket, but it also comes with plenty of fatigue given its summer release and the endless parade of praise since its Sundance debut more than a year ago. It’s a deserving winner though, and it’s hard to pick out a true opponent. Birdman is just that bit too out there to take the prize, and Grand Budapest Hotel suffers from both fatigue and over-whimsy. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything would almost be shoe-ins in their own years (although the latter is a far more affecting film than the rather flaccid Turing tale), but I suspect they cancel one another out. Whiplash is terrific, but its real-world appeal is utterly overshadowed by Boyhood’s. American Sniper has courted so much ire and controversy it’s hard to see it taking the top prize, but then I remain astonished it was nominated in the first place – it has to be the weakest BP nominee since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Selma follows a Black History winner last year, and despite some superbly staged scenes just cannot live up to 12 Years; it’s a worthy nominee, but not a deserving a winner.

Should win: Boyhood or Whiplash

Will win: Boyhood

 

Best Director

Period Piece: Ellar Coltrane and director Richard Linklater check out some very dated hardware

Period Piece: Ellar Coltrane and director Richard Linklater check out some very dated hardware

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) and Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) are the placeholders here, while a win for Wes Anderson would be more a career achievement prize than a win for GBH. Really it’s between Alejandro González Iñárritu and Linklater. Iñárritu has energy behind him after Alfonso Cuarón’s win last year, ut really it’s hard to imagine Linklater not taking this home for committing twelve years to such an ambitious and personal project.

Should win: Richard Linklater or Bennett Miller

Will win: Richard Linklater

 

Best Actor

A Short History of Hawking: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

A Short History of Hawking: Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

This one will go down to the very last vote. Michael Keaton has made an astonishing career comeback with Birdman, and it’s hard to know if he has another performance of this quality in him. But the astonishing physicality of Eddie Redmayne’s take on Stephen Hawking, which pushed through impression into a remarkably affecting conjuring of the scientist, is the sort of prestige performance the Academy adores. Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper can all sit this one out.

Should win: Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne

Will win: Eddie Redmayne

 

Best Actress

Forget-Me-Not: The internet assures me this is a picture of Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Forget-Me-Not: The internet assures me this is a picture of Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Julianne Moore seems anointed for Still Alice, although the film escaped me this awards season. Of the three performances I did catch, of Marion Cotillard, Rosamund Pike and Felicity Jones, all were stellar, although Jones did not completely carry her movie as the other two did.

Should win: Marion Cotillard or Rosamund Pike (but probably Julianne Moore?)

Will win: Julianne Moore

 

Best Supporting Actor

Srsly, no jk: Simmons offers a little encouragement to Miles Teller

Srsly, no jk: Simmons offers a little encouragement to Miles Teller

Robert Duvall gets his pat on the back for still being with us and wonderful. Ethan Hawke wins the award for most eternally youthful, so doesn’t need an Oscar. Ed Norton gave one of the finest (and most entertaining) performances of his career in Birdman, while Mark Ruffalo was solid throughout Foxcatcher. But yeah, why am I still writing here? J.K. Simmons dominated Whiplash. This is all his.

Should win: J.K. Simmons

Will win: J.K. Simmons

 

Best Supporting Actress

The single parent trap: Patricia Arquette with Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltraine

The single parent trap: Patricia Arquette with Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltraine

Emma Stone would be a deserving winner for Birdman, but something tells me (and I think everyone else) that she has a lot more performances of this quality in her. Patricia Arquette, on the other hand, deserves this on the power of her final scene in Boyhood alone, in which she summons millennia of forgotten, neglected womanhood and channels it into a wail lightly tinged with ironic wit.

Should win: Patricia Arquette

Will win: Patricia Arquette

 

Best Original Screenplay

This is a tight one too. It would seem unfair for Linklater to take this, given the script was worked so much on the fly. Anderson has lost momentum too, and assumedly his script says “[funny cameo]” one too many times for it to be taken too seriously. Dan Gilroy’s screenplay for Nightcrawler is one of the most brilliantly dark works to come out of Hollywood in years, but it’s so scathing of the entertainment business it’s hard to imagine it getting a bite. The Birdman gang, whose praise for real artists is found on every page, will take this.

Should win: Dan Gilroy

Will win: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Whiplash would be a very deserving winner here, as would Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Inherent Vice, however incoherent at times, is loaded with punchy scenes and dialogue. This could be where American Sniper takes it, but somehow I suspect Graham Moore’s (lacklustre) screenplay for The Imitation Game will win for simplifying so much complicated science in the manner of a tour guide at Bletchley Park.

Should win: Damien Chazelle

Will win: Graham Moore

 

Best Animated Feature

Bewilderbeasting: A satirical cartoon representing DreamWorks pressuring the Academy to vote for their shitty sequel

Bewilderbeasting: A satirical cartoon depicting DreamWorks pressuring the Academy to vote for their shitty sequel

Why even bother? The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, assumedly Isao Takahata’s swansong, was probably the finest film of 2014. It’s hard to believe any of the Academy’s members even watched it. Song of the Sea was equally as enchanting if not quite as deep or visually mesmerising. But that’s all irrelevant. DreamWorks have shovelled out enough money to claim it for the bog-standard How to Train Your Dragon 2 (a film whose predecessor was superior to Oscar-winner Toy Story 3, back in the day). Likely to be the biggest farce of the night.

Should win: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Will win: How to Train Your Dragon 2

 

Best Animated Short

I waaaaaaaan' it! Winston, the hero of Disney's Feast

I waaaaaaaan’ it! Winston, the hero of Disney’s Feast

I’ve only seen Feast so I’m guessing Feast because I want a puppy and now I’m hungry.

Should win: Feast

Will win: Feast

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Ida-ntity crisis:  Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza take a break on their journey

Ida-ntity crisis: Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza take a break on their journey

Embarrassingly I have only seen Ida of this batch, but it is magnificent. I have yet to read a review of Leviathan that wasn’t overflowing with praise, but really this can only go to Ida, if only for proving that the Holocaust can still be mined for the most exceptional drama.

Should win: Ida

Will win: Ida

 

Best Documentary Feature

Metadata is betta'data: Edward Snowden breaks down some complex coding for Glenn Greenwald

Metadata is betta’data: Edward Snowden breaks down some complex coding for Glenn Greenwald 

Two warzone films (Last Days in Vietnam and Virunga). Two photographer films (Finding Vivian Maier and The Salt of the Earth). And then there’s the astonishing and frighteningly potent Citizenfour. Maier is the only real competition, but as incredible as its subject is the film itself is very blandly thrown together. Citizenfour on the other hand grips like a thriller and chills like a horror. We have to trust the Academy on this one.

Should win: Citizenfour

Will win: Citizenfour

 

Best Documentary Short

I promise one of these years I’ll see one of these, OK?

 

Best Live Action Short

Ugh now you’re just trying to make me feel bad.

 

Best Original Score

What is the sound of science? The big competitors here are Interstellar (Hans Zimmer), The Imitation Game (Alexandre Desplat), and The Theory of Everything (Jóhann Jóhannsson). Criminally locked-out of the major categories, Mr. Turner appears here for Gary Yershon’s score, but like Desplat’s Grand Budapest Hotel score both were less memorable in the face of such exquisite visuals.

Should win: Hans Zimmer or Jóhann Jóhannsson

Will win: Jóhann Jóhannsson

 

Best Original Song

Hey did you notice how I managed not to piss and moan about The Lego Movie getting cut out of Best Animated Feature? Well now I’m gonna! Because that was bullshit. But just because it was cut out does not mean it should be patronised with a bonus Oscar elsewhere. ‘Everything Is Awesome’ is amazing fun, but musically and thematically John Legend and Common’s ‘Glory’, from the also largely overlooked Selma, is probably the more deserving winner.

Should win: ‘Glory’

Will win: ‘Everything Is Awesome’

 

Best Sound Editing

Hey look the third Hobbit movie got a nomination for something! But no seriously fuck that movie. Birdman gets this.

Should win: Birdman

Will win: Birmdan

 

Best Sound Mixing

Oh right! The other sound one! This will be tight between Birdman and Whiplash, but I suspect the former has it as it goes for a minor technical sweep.

Should win: Birdman or Whiplash

Will win: Birdman

 

Best Production Design

Box art: Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

Box art: Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan in The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’m sure I’ve made it very clear I am no fan of Wes Anderson’s latest, but even I think it would be criminal to let The Grand Budapest Hotel be beaten here, unless it was by the sensational Mr. Turner. But no, give it to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock, seriously.

Should win: The Grand Budapest Hotel or Mr. Turner

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Best Cinematography

Flight the power: Michael Keaton takes to the skies in Birdman

Flight the power: Michael Keaton takes to the skies in Birdman

Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Birdman was that film’s greatest draw, but with a win for Gravity last year and up against the likes of Grand Budapest, Ida, and Mr. Turner it’s hard to just hand it to straight to him. But the Academy will.

Should win: Emmanuel Lubezki, Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski (Ida), or Dick Pope (Mr. Turner)

Will win: Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman)

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Skin-jobs: Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana show off some impressive full-body makeup

Skin-jobs: Dave Bautista and Zoe Saldana show off some impressive full-body makeup

Steve Carell’s nose takes on Dave Bautista’s full-body tattoos. You just never know which way the Academy will go. I suspect the tremendous goodwill towards Guardians of the Galaxy will see it through.

Should win: Guardians of the Galaxy

Will win: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

Best Costume Design

Purple pros: Ralph Fiennes comforts Tilda Swinton in the lift of the Grand Budapest Hotel

Purple pros: Ralph Fiennes comforts Tilda Swinton in the lift of the Grand Budapest Hotel

This is the sort of place outsiders like Mr. Turner or Into the Woods could sneak one through. Even Maleficent got a nod here. If we take it the fairytales cancel one another out, that throws the period dramas up against one another. Inherent Vice could take it for cool, but I’d put my money on another win for the look of Grand Budapest Hotel

Should win: Inherent Vice

Will win: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 

Best Film Editing

There’s only two choices here: Whiplash for rhythm, or Boyhood for scope. If Boyhood doesn’t take this early, the rest of the night could go very differently to what’s expected, and you may then dismiss the entirety of this article.

Should win: Whiplash

Will win: Boyhood

 

Best Visual Effects

Spirit in the sky: Star-Lord's ship the Milano flies over the planet Xandar

Spirit in the sky: Star-Lord’s ship the Milano flies over the planet Xandar

This is like making me choose between my children. I cannot remember the last time I would be delighted for any of the nominees to win. Captain America: The Winter Solider – fantastic. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – fantastic. Guardians of the Galaxy – fantastic. Interstellar – fantastic. X-Men: Days of Future Past – fantastic. Not only are they great effects films, but they’re also probably the five best blockbusters of last year, with films like Transformers 4 and The Hobbit 3 getting deservedly cut. I dunno, I just want to congratulate the winner and move on.

Should win: Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar

Will win: Guardians of the Galaxy

 

And that’s all there is. I wish I could predict which winners will be booed or orchestra’d off the stage, but that’s a very different kind of Oscar prediction. We’ll know around this time tomorrow night anyways… See you back here then!

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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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And the Osc’Argo’s to… – Predictions for the 85th Academy Awards

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

Sunday night will see the usual meat parade of celebrities march down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, in their excessive ball gowns and ever-so-slightly personalised tuxedoes, before giving each other gold man-shaped pats on the back for being ever so special – or so the cynics would have you believe.

There are those amongst the cinephiles of this world who do feel the Academy Awards are a meaningless black hole of self-congratulation and commercialism, and they may be right in many respects. But they can’t take the fun away. For the more optimistic film fanatic, the Oscars provide the one night of the year where every person in the world (or so it seems) cares just as much about the movies as we do. Who cares if they cheapen it – at least they care!

The somewhat bold decision by the Academy to have the unpredictable and untested Seth MacFarlane host could well prove a trump card or a bright red self-destruct button. At the very least the quality of lampooning should be stepped up a notch from previous years. Other events of the night differ in the levels of excitement they inspire. A tribute to 50 years of James Bond should provide a quality showreel. A tribute to Hollywood musicals of the last 10 years will surely have less life in it than the roll call of the recently departed.

So how are the awards lining up? Well…

Best Picture

For a long time there this was anyone’s game. Les Misérables seemed a lock, before anyone saw how blandly it was shot. Lincoln was also an early call, which took a dip and then rose back up to the top of the charts. Zero Dark Thirty appears to have waterboarded its own Oscar hopes. Django Unchained has been greeted with bewildering raves from critics and audiences, but it is surely a little eccentric and excessive to warrant a win. Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, both fine films warmly received, seem to have been pushed out by their more realistic and historically themed peers. Amour is the token nod to a master filmmaker, which is all-but-assured the Foreign Language Oscar. Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a similar nod to a newly shining star in Benh Zeitlin, but don’t count it out completely – it’s been a huge hit with critics and would tickle the liberal hearts of Academy voters.

Have… have we won yet?: John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in Argo

But realistically if anything is going to give Lincoln a run for its money it’s Argo. Ben Affleck’s light espionage drama has crept back into pole position after waltzing home with pretty much every best picture (or equivalent) award at every awards show thus far. Despite Affleck not being nominated for Best Director, it is unwise to count Argo out – with no best picture/director split since 2005, the Academy is well overdue such a discrepancy, although it would be the first film to win Best Picture with a directorial nod since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. Evidently, stranger things have happened.

Should win: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Will win: Argo

Best Director

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

This seems an easier one to bite, what with Lincoln one of the top two Best Picture contenders. Steven Spielberg has already a Best Director statue without a Best Picture twin, for Saving Private Ryan, and his work on Lincoln is more than deserving. But so does Ang Lee, for Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi is assuredly the work of full-blooded auteur. David O. Russell seems an unlikely candidate, if only for the scale of his film, and that goes double for Michael Haneke. A Benh Zeitlin win would be a coup and a half. He should be very proud just to be there.

Should win: Ang Lee

Will win: Steven Spielberg

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Abolition impossible: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

I won’t insult your intelligence by writing anything here. Other nominees include Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Hugh Jackman (Les Mis) and Denzel Washington (Flight).

Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

The Oscar Games: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Now here’s a proper contest. So much to play for. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) are fighting to be crowned the new Queen of Hollywood. Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is fighting to be the new Princess. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) is fighting for one last great honour. Naomi Watts (The Impossible) is fighting to stay in movies and not be condemned to television. The tide against Zero Dark Thirty seems to be squeezing Chastain’s hopes, and she will no doubt be back for more in the years to come. Lawrence is here a second time, and seems the likely winner. Riva and Wallis would both be record holders, oldest and youngest winners respectively. With a performance as strong as she gave in Silver Linings however, the same year her Hunger Games was such a surprise hit, Lawrence seems the best bet.

Should win: Emmanuelle Riva or Quvenzhané Wallis

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Oscar, the grouch: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Coming out of the Golden Globes, Christoph Waltz has momentum behind him, but his character Dr. King Schultz, the highlight of Django Unchained, is perhaps a little too similar to Hans Landa, the character who previously won him this award for Inglourious Basterds. Alan Arkin already has his tokenistic Best Supporting award for Little Miss Sunshine, so he seems an ill-fit. Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) gave his finest performance in over a decade, but it was hardly the finest supporting performance of the year. The disdain the Academy has shown for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will work against Philip Seymour Hoffman. This one has to go to Lincoln’s Tommy Lee Jones.

Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman or Tommy Lee Jones

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

Fantinetastic: Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

There was a lot of talk early on about Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln making her a likely winner, but the performances of Day-Lewis and Jones (and Spader!) have undermined her hopes considerably. Amy Adams gave a chilling performance in The Master, but it is perhaps too dark (and complex) for the Academy’s tastes. Helen Hunt (The Sessions) is surely just delighted to back in the A-list. Jacki Weaver was definitely in Silver Linings Playbook, but I don’t remember a lot else about her performance. No, this is as assuredly Anne Hathaway’s win as anything could be. If Les Mis didn’t convince you of that, surely this video will.

Should win: Amy Adams

Will win: Anne Hathaway

Best Original Screenplay

Tarantino has already taken a few trophies for his Django Unchained script, a fact which continues to baffle me. Mark Boal will no doubt suffer the Zero Dark Thirty backlash. John Gatins (Flight) and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom) seem like seat fillers, but count neither out just yet, especially the latter. This is the one category where Amour could really step-out of the woodwork, and not just be another Best Foreign Language Picture winner and nothing more. Here’s hoping.

Should win: Michael Haneke

Will win: Michael Haneke

Best Adapted Screenplay

With so many exceptional adaptations this year, this could turn out to be the most exciting and unpredictable race of the lot. Chris Terrio (Argo), David Magee (Life of Pi) and Tony Kushner (Lincoln) have all done remarkable work in their adaptations, while David O. Russell has written a truly charming yet affecting work from Silver Linings Playbook. But in terms of transmogrifying a source material into a work of cinema, there seems no greater nominee than Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin’s script for Beasts of the Southern Wild, from Alibar’s one-person play Juicy and Delicious. But who the hell knows that the Academy wants!? Usually everyone, so why is this so hard to call?

Should win: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

Will win: Chris Terrio or David Magee

Best Animated Feature

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Here’s another unpredictable little venture. DreamWorks’ confusing but beautiful Rise of the Guardians didn’t even make the grade, leaving an odd band of five vying for the Oscar here. Brave is decidedly a weaker entry in the Pixar canon, but it is at times breathtaking to behold. A respectful nod to the studio with a win, or a “must do better” note sent home to the parents? That would leave the major contenders Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. The former has the artistry, the latter the ideas – but both suffer from weak third acts. ParaNorman could scrape in, but its poor box office makes it the most forgettable of the quintet to the untrained eye. That could leave Aardman’s superb The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (I won’t be caught dead using its American title), but it has been largely overlooked in previous awards nominations. Another tough one to call, especially for one that film fans are so surprisingly passionate about.

Should win: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (aka Band of Misfits)

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Animated Short

Love-struck: Paperman

Love-struck: Paperman

Disney’s utterly delighting Paperman goes up against the surprisingly sweet Simpsons short The Longest Daycare. Both feature playful acts of defenestration, but the former is surely the forerunner in this contest. That said, it would be nice to see PES’s remarkably inventive Fresh Guacamole win. I mean, just look at the damn thing!

Should win: Paperman

Will win: Paperman

Best Foreign Language Film

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Amour

Moving on.

Best Documentary Feature

Due to unfortunate release schedules in these parts and unfortunate me schedules in my own life, I have not seen any of the nominees. Searching for Sugarman seems a firm bet based on word of mouth, but that’s all I can offer.

Best Documentary Short

See above, only shorter!

Best Original Score

This one could get interesting. Skyfall is a surprise nomination for Thomas Newman, and Dario Marianelli seems a wild card for Anna Karenina. Alexandre Desplat’s Argo score was one of the year’s better, while John Williams’s Lincoln was but a pleasant shadow of what the man used create in his prime. In terms of evoking a mood and sounding truly original, nothing should beat Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi score. Although the absence of both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas from this category is definitely disconcerting.

Should win: Mychael Danna

Will win: Mychael Danna

Best Original Song

That Adele is so hot right now. Not much chance of that going any other way. Expect the manner in which Seth MacFarlane handles his nomination in this category (for ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted) to be the making or breaking of his performance on the night.

Should win: ‘Skyfall’

Will win: ‘Skyfall’

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

Stop pretending you care.

But for what it’s worth I’m calling both for Life of Pi.

Best Production Design

As was the style at the time: Lincoln’s stellar production design

Another potential shocker that could turn up just about anything. Certainly Anna Karenina was intriguing to behold, and Life of Pi did some remarkable things with its visuals. But bigger is surely better in these sorts of categories, so The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables and Lincoln seem the better calls.

Should win: Anna Karenina or The Hobbit

Will win: Lincoln

Best Cinematography

Shadow play: Roger Deakins's cinematography in Skyfall

Shadow play: Roger Deakins’s cinematography in Skyfall

Roger Deakins has quite horrifyingly never won an Oscar, and while it would be unlikely for him to finally win for a Bond film, it isn’t impossible Skyfall could nab this one. Still, Seamus McGarvey’s luxuriant Anna Karenina and Claudio Miranda’s magisterial work on Life of Pi are almost too much for Deakins to counter. Janusz Kamiński’s bright yet dreary Lincoln looks real and beautiful, but is perhaps too drab for Academy tastes. Robert Richardson’s work on Django is more than anything what creates that film’s style, but away from its frankly gorgeous exteriors, it has not much to offer. Another tough one to call.

Should win: Roger Deakins or Claudio Miranda

Will win: Claudio Miranda

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

"It's the beards": The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“It’s the beards”: The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Oh right, this is still an award. Um… The Hobbit? Actually, going by traditional winners Hitchcock will probably nab this. But no, I’m saying The Hobbit. If only for making Christopher Lee look in his 60s (he’s 90!).

Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Costume Design

All dressed up and somewhere to go: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michelle Dockery and Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

2012 was the year of not one but two dreadful Snow White films, but both deserve a bit of credit for the costume work, and here that credit is. The late Eiko Ishioka could well receive a posthumous Oscar for her work on Mirror Mirror, but the film was so frankly despised it seems improbable. Snow White and the Huntsman seems even less likely a winner. With Les Mis vying for a top spot with Lincoln in terms of historical realism, the eye-melting costume work of Anna Karenina, by Jacqueline Durran, has a very good shot at stealing the title, especially if diamonds can count as costuming.

Should win: Anna Karenina or Mirror Mirror

Will win: Anna Karenina

Best Editing

There were no standout examples of editing nominated this year, and thinking back on 2012 it’s hard to think of anything exceptional that has been cut from the list, either. Zero Dark Thirty was the real disappointment, after the phenomenal editing Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker displayed. Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook were both edited efficiently but without flair. While Tim Squyres tied Life of Pi together beautifully, the energy created by William Goldernberg’s editing of the opening 10 minutes of Argo more than makes him deserving of the award.

Should win: Life of Pi or Argo

Will win: Argo

Best Visual Effects

Film school: Life of Pi's astonishing whale

Film school: Life of Pi’s astonishing whale

Snow White and the Huntsman gets another nod here, and will go home empty-handed and undeserving. The Avengers and Prometheus will cancel one another out, leaving this a battle of scale versus creativity. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could win out through sheer force of everything, but it seems unlikely to beat Life of Pi’s controlled, fluid and never utterly in-your-face world building. All the orcish hordes of Middle Earth can’t compete against the colossal might of a leaping whale.

Should win: Life of Pi

Will win: Life of Pi

And that’s the lot of them. How right I’ve been we’ll see on Sunday night. It’s the predictability of the Oscars that makes the upsets all the more shocking, and entertaining, so with any luck, for my sake at least, I’ve been very, very wrong.

If all goes to plan I’ll be live-blogging the event, so be sure to check back here, or follow my Twitter feed. It’s gonna be a long, fun night.

Well, maybe not fun. But long. Definitely long.

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2012 in review – The year of archery and French wheelchairs

As the credits begin to roll on another year of film (don’t bother sticking around to the end, the bonus scene after the credits is just a hangover), it’s time to look back on what the world of film offered up in 2012. There were highs and lows, unexpected joys and underwhelming potential wonders. Hollywood provided its most entertaining popcorn blockbuster in a generation. French cinema shattered our hearts over and over and over.

Early on The Artist won out at the Oscars, but rather than reignite interest in silent cinema, it became a Netflix-condemned anomaly unto itself. Thanks to 3D, The Avengers won out over The Dark Knight Rises and its IMAX presentation, but the launch of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series caused the real fuss with its introduction of HFR (higher frame rate, 48 frames per second), which has caused more division amongst audiences than Prometheus. Films such as Berberian Sound Studio and Cloud Atlas aspired to greatness, but fell at the all-important last hurdle, having an ending. Michael Haneke returned to Cannes, made everyone and their mothers cry, then went home victorious to launch a parody Twitter account.

Archery!

It was once again a mediocre year for animation. Pixar clawed their way out of the wreckage of Cars 2 with the unfairly disliked Brave, though it remained a step down from their sensational output in the last decade. Frankenweenie and Rise of the Guardians charmed but did not wow. ParaNorman sadly escaped my gaze.

It would be unfair to say it was a poor year for documentary, but I was left disappointed by many of the most praised docs this year; Samsara, The Imposter and Bill Cunningham – New York were all strong works that did not fully succeed in their ambitions. Disappointingly, Waiting for Sugarman, 5 Broken Cameras and Tabu were all missed by me – I suspect my top 20 might have looked very different had I caught them.

On a personal note 2012 was not the year career-wise I had hoped it to be, but my writing, both here and for Film Ireland Magazine continued and I like to think improved – this blog expanded two-fold over the last 12 months, something to be proud of. I continued to trawl through the greatest of film cinema, most notably binging on the Rocky movies, The Bourne Trilogy, The Apu Trilogy and The Godfather Trilogy – each of those in single, incredible sittings. On the big screen I revisited classics such as The Apartment, A Night to Remember, RoboCop, Baraka, Bambi, The Shining, Fantastic Planet, Haxan and the 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia. My major goal for the year was to finally delve into horror cinema, a genre I had avoided for much of my life, with first-time viewings of Carrie, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and George Romero’s original Living Dead Trilogy. More specifically, I delved into Italian horror, seeing some of the best films of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, as well as Lamberto Bava’s Demons films, and also gave myself a light education in the rockumentary, finally watching The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Buena Vista Social Club and the director’s cut of Woodstock. Elsewhere, I finally completed the IMDB Top 250 list, an achievement that would be so much greater if not for the fact that, due to its constant shifting, I now find myself back at 249 (and not caring).

There were a handful of films I was eager to see this year but missed; Sightseers, Monsieur Lazhar, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Seven Psychopaths and Silver Linings Playbook. Due to my continued transatlantic travelling, my list is assembled of films released in Ireland or the US anywhere from 2011-2013, and films such as Django Unchained, Les Misérables and Wreck-It Ralph remain viewing for next year’s list.

French wheelchairs!

Films that nearly made the grade this year include Le Havre, Coriolanus, The Dark Knight Rises, Ted, Moonrise Kingdom, Killer Joe, The Kid With a Bike and Laurence Anyways. These and many others remain worthy viewing. But the following should all be seen and appreciated; they are my top 20 of 2012.

20. The Grey

Featuring an immensely committed, world-weary performance by Liam Neeson, what should have been a standard action/horror about plane crash survivors fending off a wolf pack turned out to be a treatise on the nature of faith and the human will to survive. With characterisation of a quality far beyond what this story called and some truly tense adventuring, The Grey hit harder than Liam Neeson punching a wolf in the face.

19. What Richard Did

It’s easy to forget some times that I am actually Irish; I know I often do. And despite my role in promoting film culture in Ireland, few Irish critics are harsher to Irish filmmakers when they drop the ball than I am. But when they get it right, they can get it so very right. Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did, based on a true story about an accidental killing by privileged schoolboys of one of their own, delved deep into the issues of when uncontrollable testosterone and youthful arrogance collide. Beautifully capturing the light grey tones of Dublin city, What Richard Did is at its best tracking the distress of Richard (notable newcomer Jack Reynor) through intense, unrelenting camera movements.

18. Anna Karenina

As much an exercise in cinematic stagecraft as an adaptation of Tolstoy’s romantic novel, Joe Wright brought out all the visual big guns to set his film apart from its forebears. Theatres become palaces and diamonds become more emotive than the faces of the actors wearing them in this ultra-stylised drama. Keira Knightley gives it her best in the lead role, but it is the supporting players, most notably Jude Law and Domhnall Gleeson, who really steal the show, along with Tom Stoppard’s oft-inventive screenplay. Nothing else this year looked quite like it.

Full review

17. Argo

After years of lamentable acting and increasingly promising directing, Ben Affleck has finally won the love of all Hollywood with this tense, witty espionage drama. A spy thriller in which not a gun is fired or a woman seduced, Affleck recreates, with some liberties, the exodus of American civilians trapped in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, while also poking fun at the Hollywood studio system, which was manipulated to help win the day. Superb attention to historical detail is what really sets this film apart. The tension is carried through to the very end, at the unfortunate expense of believability, but it remains a thrilling ride, with several exceptional supporting performances.

Full review

16. Looper

The first truly entertaining time-travel adventure since Marty McFly settled down for good in Hill Valley, Rian Johnson’s Looper looked at the consequences of actions through two versions of the same character, played by Bruce Willis and a Bruce Willised-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Exciting and playful with its impossible premise, Looper stood out for its wit and audacity. It faltered hugely in its third act, but it was too late to do the film any real damage – and the final 20 minutes proved an unexpected rollercoaster. As clever as popcorn cinema can get.

Full review

15. The Hunt

More than a decade after his magnificent Festen, Thomas Vinterberg returns to form with the dramatic thriller. A magnificently pained and frustrated Mads Mikkelsen stars as a kindergarten teacher falsely accused of child abuse. Rather than create a mystery around the events, Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm allow the audience to be the only ones aware of how this dreadful confusion arose. This omniscience on the viewer’s behalf becomes tormenting as the town turns against the teacher. Superbly acted, it is given extra power by the brown and grey autumnal look of the Danish landscape, full of a slowly fading beauty.

14. Lincoln

Showing uncharacteristic restraint, Steven Spielberg directed a Civil War “epic” with almost no war. Playing like an extended season finale of The West Wing, Spielberg’s beautifully detailed period drama is entirely focused on scrambling for votes in the U.S. Congress. Milking the political clash over the abolition of slavery for all the drama and excitement it’s worth, Tony Kushner’s screenplay made the esteemed president a Machiavellian political mastermind, while Janusz Kamiński’s camera shot him like a former superhero returning for one last heroic act. Daniel Day-Lewis captured the president’s spirit, but it was Tommy Lee Jones who stole the film as the devoutly anti-slavery congressman Thaddeus Stevens.

13. The Raid

A bolt out of the blue that hit so hard the audience’s collective heads shattered several wall tiles, Gareth Evans’s Indonesian cop thriller/martial arts extravaganza was one of the year’s most unexpected critical darlings. Lethal human whirligig Iko Uwais played the cop trapped in a tower full of machete-wielding drug dealers, forced to fight his way out using every weapon and muscle at his disposal. The results were electrifying and often hilarious. Editing troubles aside, The Raid was one of the tightest action movies released all year.

Full review

12. The Intouchables (Untouchable)

The first of three French films on this list to feature the tragedy of a person confined to a wheelchair, and the film in which the wheelchair is most at the fore, this undeniably charming dramedy, based loosely on a true story, tells of a wealthy quadriplegic and his unlikely friendship with a street-smart layabout turned caregiver. Predictable and light, it is also superbly acted and told with boundless heart and (often dark) humour. Shamelessly uplifting without being slight, it is adeptly shot and edited.

11. Skyfall

Choking on the poison that was Quantum of Nonsense, James Bond brought himself back to life with a defibrillator shock once more, and this time that shock was Skyfall. Exceptionally written and paced, Skyfall had the audacity to focus more on the character of Bond than any other film in the series to date, while giving ample room to develop his relationship with the ever-excellent Judi Dench as M. Javier Bardem’s villain was left with a poor evil scheme, but was himself memorable as a vengeful ex-agent with mincing homoerotic undertones. Light on action, when it hit it came with a wallop. Sam Mendes’s direction was solid but came second always to Roger Deakins exceptional camerawork.

Full review

10. Life of Pi

Adapting a spiritual novel into a personal epic with countless remarkable special effects shots, Ang Lee continues his quest to be the most diverse filmmaker in the business. Weaving the wonderful tall tale of Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel into a visually astounding oceanic adventure took remarkable skill, which bursts forth from the screen in every shot – literally in the case of the impressive 3D presentation. Suraj Sharma plays the devout theist castaway on a lifeboat with a vicious tiger. The metaphor at the film’s centre lands powerfully, but it is the clever dialogue and mesmerising visuals that make this film stand out.

9. Holy Motors

Leos Carax’s veritable clusterfuck of madness is at some level a statement about the falsehood of (digital) cinema. At another level it is just plain bonkers. Chameleonic Denis Lavant plays everyone you could think of, as a performer doomed (it would seem) to forever play the strangest of roles; from romantic lead to frustrated father, beggar woman to subterranean troll, his own killer to husband to a chimpanzee. It lapses in many of its instalments (installations?), but as a whole it is an astoundingly odd and wonderful piece of filmmaking.

8. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)

Against all the odds and an army of alien beasties, this superhero mash-up succeeded on almost every level. Four years of films leading up to this one, introducing some of the leading players and the universe’s themes, paid off as the egos of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Bruce ‘The Hulk’ Banner collided. The result was unexpectedly tremendous, with Joss Whedon’s wildly entertaining script bouncing the characters’ personalities off one another beautifully, and with plenty of laughs. Everyone played to their strengths, the minor characters were given moments to shine and the action redefined explosive. Here’s to Phase 2, eh?

Full review

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This pastoral police procedural drama, set over a night and the day that followed, gave a haunting insight into modern Turkey. Exceptionally well acted and with more than its fair share of beautiful, memorable shots (the mini adventure of a tumbling apple cannot be forgotten), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wonderful film was let down by a tragically sluggish third act that clashed with the astounding first two thirds of the film. Still, as a whole Once Upon a Time in Anatolia remains far more impressive than any American crime drama of the same year.

6. The Master

Barely passing under the bar set by There Will Be Blood, P.T. Anderson’s The Master cannot be underestimated. The incomparable story of two men who need each other for contradicting reasons, The Master would still be a great film without the powerhouse performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. With them, and with remarkable assistance from Amy Adams, this is a drama that must be experienced before you can believe it. Occasional lapses in pacing and a visual aesthetic that rarely lives up to the power of the drama do it a disservice, but the mastery of filmmaking on display here cannot be denied.

Full review

5. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!

The finest animated feature released this year, this daft comic gem from Aardman Animations brought more laughs than any other two films released this year could muster between them. Rattling out sight gags and wordplay like the spiritual successor to Airplane!, The Pirates! also featured some superb voicework (especially from animation virgin Hugh Grant as the pirate captain, named the Pirate Captain) and took Aardman’s animation style to new limits. The incredibly detailed stop-motion sets (photographed in 3D) boggle the eyes as you try to take in everything you can see – there are more sight gags per image than the human brain can process. It may not have the same heart as some of Aardman’s earlier offerings, but there is a sweetness to be found here. It doesn’t matter though, the outstanding quality of the Gatling-gun comedy and the craft on display are what make this the work of brilliance it is.

Full review

As a bonus, here’s a picture of me with the model Pirate Ship from The Pirates! taken during a studio tour of Aardman Animations back in 2011.

The Pirate Ship

4. Amour

Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking tale of an elderly husband caring for his stroke-addled wife could not be more perfectly handled or acted. The camera is confined to the apartment like Anne herself, but gently roams its rooms and corridors capturing flashes of the dying days of this unspectacular couple. Punctuated with comedy (a rogue pigeon invades the house) and horror (a nightmare of floodwater and disembodied, strangling hands), Amour’s power is inescapable. ’60s romantic movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva excel, the former capturing a pained patience, the latter the agony of natural imprisonment; within a wheelchair, within a bed, within her own body.

Full review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

This majestic imagining of a Louisiana community struggling against the elements, told through the eyes of a wondrous, haunted young girl, is the breakthrough movie of 2012. First-time director Benh Zeitlin crafts a world drifting on the border of reality. Shot on 16mm, Beasts succeeds in finding a unique beauty in the overgrown damp of the bayou. The narration by six-year-old Hushpuppy (the revelation that is Quvenzhané Wallis) is perhaps overwrought, but it is delivered with astounding honesty and passion. As the world around her is literally and metaphorically washed away, her imagination of the end times allows for a powerful reclamation of human spirit and dignity. The score alone, all plucky Southern instruments, is enough to make this film a triumph. Thanks to its other successes, it is a minor masterpiece.

Full review

2. Rust and Bone

The follow-up to his phenomenal A Prophet, Jacques Audiard turns to a more humanistic tale in adapting Craig Davidson’s short story collection from an assemblage of broken lives into a remarkable drama of shattered dreams and people repairing one another. Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard each give career-defining performances as, respectively, a bare-knuckle boxer-cum-struggling father and a sexually defined whale trainer left powerless and paralysed in a gruesome accident. The tenderness and frustration of this odd couple’s relationship rings amazingly true, while Stéphane Fontaine’s near-divine handheld camerawork circles them effortlessly, stopping from time to time to capture remarkable stand-alone images. Over-powering stuff, altogether.

Full review

1. The Turin Horse

Far from the most entertaining film of 2012, no film released this year deserves immortality quite like Béla Tarr’s intended swan song. Imagining the daily life of a beleaguered workhorse, whose plight is fabled to have caused the mental breakdown of Friedrich Nietzsche, The Turin Horse is shot in hypnotic, terrifying black and white. Capturing the monstrous monotony of rural life at the turn of the last century, Tarr takes us through several interchangeable days as a brutish farmer and his weary daughter go about their chores. The repeated imagery as man and woman eat their daily potato, each time shot from a different, intense angle, each time robbed of civility by the farmer’s slurpy gorging, makes for painful, powerful viewing/listening. The outstanding black and white cinematography, the phenomenal use of music and the set design and wind-battered landscapes create a cinematic experience unlike any other. It is difficult viewing, but the craft involved in it cannot be rivalled.

A Turin-out for the books

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And now, my top 5 worst films of the year. I managed to miss a few apparent clunkers; Project XThe WatchBattleship or Piranha 3DD. But I still managed to catch some pretty awful stuff. Some lamented films, such as John Carter and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, were actually pretty harmless. Films that nearly made the list include The Bourne LegacyGhost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and This Means War. Despite hating more than almost any film I can think, there was no denying that Ruby Sparks is too adequately made to reduce it to this waste bin of cinema. Instead I’ll condemn it to the waste bin of human decency.

5. Snow White & the Huntsman

This uninspired, or rather thievishly over-inspired, adolescent fantasy threw everything it had at the screen and none of it stuck. An evil queen far more radiant than the Snow White. Kristen Stewart wearing armour. And leading an army after giving a dramatic speech. A love triangle in which none of the corners seemed particularly interested in one another. Actually, this film did feature one pretty awesome feat of archery (theme!), but it was of course pilfered from the infinitely superior Princess Mononoke. Thank goodness for the amazing sequence with giant deer god in the forest that was oh no wait stolen from Princess Mononoke. I love Princess Mononoke. I hated this.

4. Haywire

Despite the lamentable acting of MMA fighter Gina Carano, your film is in trouble when she’s the best thing in it. Several fine actors (most notably Michael Douglas) phone in their performances so hard they even reversed the charges. Michael Fassbender forgets his accent in the last scene again. The decent fight choreography and the surprisingly good sense of Dublin geography could not prevent this formulaic purported pastiche from being one of the most excruciating viewing experiences of the year. Steven Soderbergh has directed a movie so badly edited The Asylum would look down on it. Oh, and the jazz score? No.

3. Taken 2

Liam Neeson beats up anyone with darker skin than him, this time without any of the urgency or fun of the original. Grenades get thrown recklessly at civilians. Mosques are shown with deafening boom sounds on the soundtrack, just to remind you that foreign things are evil. They’re not really, but pumping this much cash into a movie and ending up with this surely is.

Full review

2. Charlie Casanova

What was that I was saying about Irish movies? This hardly seen Irish indie does its best to deconstruct the worst excesses of the Celtic Tiger generation, but creates a character so ludicrously cartoonish in his villainy that he fails to represent anything at all. Shot on grim low-grade digital in not one but two of the ugliest hotels in the world, this was an almighty mess of editing and dialogue. Lead actor Emmett Scanlan gives it so much socks that he and his improbable moustache swallow the movie whole.

1. The Campaign

But at least the makers of Charlie Casanova tried! In a year when political satire was a much needed relief, this Congressional comedy ran for the safety of the silly hills. No attempt was made to properly address the preposterous (and potentially hilarious) contradictions of the American two-party system. Instead The Campaign opted to have Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis do their best to out-swear and out-stupid one another. The results were hardly funny. It was the film audiences deserved, but not the one they got. An utter waste of several talents.

Here’s hoping for 2012!

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The Master – How to make an American cult

The Master is good, the Master is great, we surrender our will as of this date…

In many ways The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s biggest film yet. It may not have the vast landscapes of There Will Be Blood, or a fraction of the characters of Magnolia, but it is shot in many more assorted locations and its themes about faith and belonging are as enormous as any in his previous films. Despite this, however, the previous film of Anderson’s that The Master most brings to mind is Punch-Drunk Love, his small, quirky 2002 romantic-comedy-drama.

The connection is due solely to the two films’ lead characters; both frustrated outcasts with fractured ties to their families, prone to violent rages and uncontrollable crying fits (which they both deny). But unlike Punch-Drunk Love’s Barry Egan, there is little solace or redemption for The Master’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). His attempts to calm his anger and find himself lead him down a very strange rabbit hole.

Discharged from the US Navy following World War II, Freddie flits restlessly from job to job, seeking women to satiate his sex addiction and gulping his own brand of moonshine to appease his alcoholism. Lost in a new America, he stumbles onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an enigmatic, suspiciously over-qualified writer with an original take on the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Freddie soon finds himself sailing to New York with Dodd’s family and cadre of followers, and is rapidly indoctrinated to Dodd’s teachings, called “The Cause”.

In little time we can be certain that The Cause is nothing more than a cult built up around Dodd’s increasingly bizarre creations – claims of past lives, a trillion-year-old universe and the threat of a sinister “invader force” from beyond. But Freddie, disillusioned and uneducated, does not see it as such, or chooses not to, or chooses to overlook it; so eager is he to find somewhere to belong. But as The Cause grows in strength and numbers, how poor a fit Freddie is for The Cause, and The Cause is for him, becomes ever-more apparent.

Clearly taking its start-off point from Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, The Master has no interest in attacking that religion, and is far more concerned with the personalities behind it; of those who build it, those who are seduced by it and those who cannot be. As much as Freddie thinks he needs The Cause, Dodd needs him. He needs him to prove he can brainwash anyone to his beliefs, but he also needs him because at a base level Freddie cannot be won over. As the success of The Cause skyrockets, Dodd’s Frankenstein’s monster spirals out of control, and Freddie remains his only anchor to humanity, and his only potential escape. It is Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who sees this element to Freddie, and keen for there to be no limit to her husband’s greatness, observes Freddie and Dodd’s relationship suspiciously.

Absolute madmen: Rami Malek, Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix

As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix gives the strongest performance of his career to date. Hunched in posture and speaking always out of just one side of his mouth, he effortlessly portrays Freddie as the damaged goods he is. His shell-shock, disillusionment, and regret all combine to form this bubbling kettle of frustration that Phoenix holds together throughout the film. He shows Freddie as a man incapable of believing the things he is told, but like a good solider willing to fight to the death to defend those same (dis)beliefs. The film’s two most intense sequences both detail Freddie’s indoctrination to The Cause, first as a mere member and later as an acolyte. In the first instance, Dodd breaks him down psychologically by asking him personal questions in quick succession, with the only rules being Freddie may not stop to think or blink. If he blinks, they start over. Shot in a series of unflinching close-ups of the two men, the scene is exhausting and difficult to watch, but brilliantly defines their relationship. For the next tier of his indoctrination, Freddie is forced to walk back and forth endlessly across a room, describing his sensations at each end. Part of a seemingly unending montage, Phoenix brilliantly captures Freddie’s escalating frustration at not being able to achieve or feel what is needed. Unable to look away, we can understand what he is feeling.

Hoffman plays off Phoenix beautifully, as his mentor and father-figure. Channelling Orson Welles’s greatest monsters, Hoffman makes Dodd larger than life in public while showing his all-too-human doubts in private. Dodd could be the love-child of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday from There Will Be Blood, fusing those characters’ ruthlessness, devotion and passion for corrupting others. But behind every great man there is a meek but terrifying woman, and Amy Adams steals much of the film as Mrs. Dodd. Her natural shyness and sweetness come across as wholly menacing here, and there are few moments when it is not clear how much power she is actually wielding.

Anderson’s script and direction rarely falter, and he manages to keep the drama building and the audience’s attention throughout the film’s 140-minute runtime. Somewhat disappointingly, The Master is not as breathtakingly pretty a film as one might expect, especially in the wake of There Will Be Blood. Robbed of his regular cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson has here teamed up with Romanian D.P. Mihai Malaimare Jr. The photography is crisp and the camera is wielded finely throughout, but there are none of the visual flourishes of the Anderson/Elswit union. With the exception of one beautiful, oft-repeated shot off the back of a boat, representing Freddie’s constant drifting from life and responsibility, The Master never overwhelms with its imagery. This of course lets the characters be the real focus, but fans may find themselves less than pleased with this film’s look.

In the navy: Joaquin Phoenix, disillusioned and out cold

Johnny Greenwood’s assorted score is similarly incohesive, with each piece of music sounding like it comes from a different soundtrack. This has a brilliantly disjoining effect, and allows for a great variety of instruments to come to the fore: frazzled strings, pulsating bass, the joyous tinkling of a piano.

The Master is an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love. The portraits painted of Feddie and Dodd are hugely impressive, but it is a struggle to find anything in either character to relate to. Still, full of sharp dialogue and energetic scenes, and with three astounding central performances, it is not an easy one to forget. It is one viewers will find themselves wanting to revisit, whether they even liked the film or not. Like The Cause itself, The Master is a strange seducer.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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