Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Top 10 Films of 2014

Indeed.  It's that time of the year once again, but I've been to the cinema so much this year that I decided to do a top 10 rather than bore you with my complete list of viewingness.  (Even so, there were many, many, many films I wanted to see and didn't get around to.)

As ever, expect 2013 entries that I didn't get to see in 2013 because of reasons.

10. Blue is the Warmest Colour (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

As my dad aptly put it, this is the Frenchest film ever, being concerned with just three things: sex, food and philosophy.  The three-hour running time is a bit excessive, but only a bit – given that it stretches over several years, it needs to be long to work properly.  A trim of fifteen minutes or so would’ve done it.  Kechiche's thorough shooting method (I seem to recall reading he ended up with something like 800 hours of footage) means that it can be a bit vague at times – there’s no real way of working out exactly how many years it spans – but it results in a sort of emotional scrapbook of a person’s life that works very well (cue Richard Linklater laughing a laugh of one-upmanship as he unveils Boyhood later in the year).  Stunning performances from Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, obviously.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Another three-hour epic, but this one earns every minute of its time.  That’s why Scorsese is so much the daddy that my laptop has his name in its spellcheck dictionary.  Its staggering pace and energy (seriously, this was directed by a seventy-something man?), as well as the sheer amount of plot to get through, means it doesn’t have time to bore you or overrun.  Key to its success is that it’s incredibly funny, with Jonah Hill waltzing off with the top moments (a toss-up between his trying to justify being married to his cousin or masturbating in the middle of a party while off his face on expired pills).  (“Toss-up” pun accidental but very pleasing.)

8. The Raid 2 (dir. Gareth Huw Evans)

A mere stripling at two-and-a-half hours, The Raid 2 is ridiculous.  The first Raid could be subtitled Iko Uwais Beats Up Indonesia, and this sequel could be subtitled Iko Uwais Runs Out Of Indonesians To Beat Up So Tries It On With Half Of Japan Too And I Think There Were Some Chinese Guys In There As Well, Right?.  A twisting criminal epic delivered through the medium of fist/face interaction, the major failing is that it is occasionally obvious that the script started life as a separate project before writer/director Evans retooled it as a sequel to his surprise hit, and it lacks a little of the sheer verve of its predecessor.  But then something completely jaw-dropping (or, indeed, jaw-demolishing) happens and you forgive it.  One example will do for all: there’s an action sequence with Uwais scrapping in the back of a car driving down a motorway where the camera, which is obviously attached to the outside of the car, suddenly makes an impossible move and passes through the car and out the other side.  I couldn’t for the life of me work out how they did it (it clearly wasn’t CGI) so consulted the internet when I got home.  Turns out, they dressed a cameraman as a car seat and passed the camera to him, then he passed the camera to someone driving alongside the car.  Yup.

7. Frozen (dir. Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee)

You might have heard of this one.  In some ways it’s kind of odd that Frozen has become Disney’s all-time success story – it’s certainly not one of the studio’s best, and indeed its obvious spiritual forbear, Tangled, was a better movie overall.  But in other ways it’s not that odd, because when Frozen’s good it’s very good indeed.  The downsides – mostly to do with the trolls, who dispense clunky exposition at the beginning, completely derail the film’s momentum with a misplaced comic song two-thirds through and that’s it – are more forgivable when you learn that the final script only came together twelve months before release (a preposterously small amount of time to do a big-budget CGI cartoon).  And the good bits – the excellent characterisation, clever deconstructionist script, jaw-dropping costumes (seriously, watch it on Blu-ray and marvel at individual stitches) and strong musical numbers – are the bits that stick in the mind.  I’ve already mentioned that thisfilm has my single favourite sequence of the year, a marvel of songbook, voice acting and animation.

6. A Most Wanted Man (dir. Anton Corbijn)

A proper, meaty, grown-up movie of the sort that were apparently all that was made in the early- to mid-‘70s, if you listen to nostalgic cineastes.   (I was not existent enough to comment then, but I suspect all the good movies were remembered and all the crap ones forgotten, rather than some sort of golden period.  It’s usually the way.)  The tale of an illegal immigrant looking to claim his war criminal father’s inheritance hiding out in Hamburg, being fought over by two different sets of authorities – one just wanting to secure the cash, the other hoping to use him in a progressive, humanitarian-ish trap to catch a suspected terrorist bankroller – it maintains just enough bruised optimism to avoid a bleakly cynical view without becoming idealised.  Atmospheric and twisting, it’s a tense, intelligent, thought-provoking watch.

5. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

If A Most Wanted Man avoids bleak cynicism, Gone Girl dives in headfirst but maintains your interest by finding the utter bastardry of humanity completely hilarious.  The cheerfully ludicrous plotting – which starts off as unnervingly plausible before gradually shedding its skin to reveal an unashamed eye-popping melodrama is seized on by the whole cast with relish, while Fincher plugs back into his Fight Club-era, blackly-witty-misanthropy persona.  At the beginning I was tense, halfway through I was laughing, at the end I was back to tense again.  It’s the movie to watch if you want to break up with someone!

4. The Hunger Games:Mockingjay – Part 1 (dir. Francis Lawrence)

I wasn’t expecting great things of this one.  I love, love, love Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, and was concerned about the films because they’re the sort of thing that could easily be messed up on the trip to the screen.  The first film, happily, proved an exemplary adaptation.  Then I got worried again when original director/co-screenwriter Gary Ross bowed out due to concerns about the time demands the studio had for the turnaround for the sequel and handed the reins to Lawrence, a man known for solid, exec-pleasing efficiency rather than greatness.  The second movie, Catching Fire, appeared to play out my concerns, being decent but unremarkable.  Then came the news that the final book, Mockingjay, would be split in two – something completely unnecessary, as the book could be comfortably fit into one film.  It seemed The Hunger Games had fallen into the tiresome formula of all the other young-adult adaptations clogging up cinema in the wake of Harry Potter (a series that actually justified its trendsetting concept of dividing the last book).  Just look at that awkward full film title, for heaven’s sake.  But!  Happily, and unexpectedly, and delightfully, Mockingjay 1 proves to be a great movie, close in quality to the first instalment.  The book’s main emotional beats are transplanted seamlessly, new ideas (dragging vapid Effie into the grey communist state of District 13, giving President Coin more of a rounded personality since the film lacks the first-person perspective of a character who doesn’t like her, scenes of the Capitol’s reactions to the growing revolution) fit in well and the film even finds time to satirise itself.  The Blu-ray of the first film included a documentary with scenes of fans going crazy for the initial trailer, and the propaganda films made by District 13 have the same feeling as the film’s own advertising, finishing with 13ers going crazy in much the same way.  I was half-expecting a hashtag.

3. Belle (dir. Amma Asante)

Proving that Hollywood hasn’t cornered the market on inaccurate historical depictions, this biopic of the UK’s first mixed-race aristocrat is apparently (my dad researched it) about as factually accurate as Mockingjay.  And it doesn’t matter, because the film’s brilliant.  It’s the sort of narrative you can half-envisage just from being told the basic scenario, and it doesn’t really surprise at all, but it’s made with such conviction and love that you end up getting swept along anyway.  The cast is universally excellent, but when you have the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton and Miranda Richardson in there universal excellence is pretty much prerequisite.  The undoubted star is relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role, giving a performance that demands awards to be fired at her from a high-powered Gong Cannon.  (Side note: nice to see that Tom Felton, a.k.a. Draco Malfoy, can expect a long, comfortable career of playing aristocratic dickbags.  He’s very good at it.)

2. The Wind Rises (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Accompanying Belle in the Biopic That Says Bollocks To Actual History corner, here we have the story of Jiro Horikoshi, an aeroplane designer best known for the Mitsubishi Zero, wherein pretty much everything is made up for the sake of the film.  However, not only is this a Studio Ghibli film, it’s Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, so we’ll let it off.  It helps that it’s really good.  Miyazaki’s first attempt at a “realistic” film (unless you count The Castle of Cagliostro, which I don’t), it’s a quietly absorbing drama that takes on an extra dimension when you consider Jiro some more.  A quiet, skinny, polite man with huge coke-bottle glasses, rarely far from a cigarette and completely obsessed with flight, it’s a thinly-veiled autobiographical portrait of the writer-director.  The film he inhabits presents a fascinating portrait of a Japan attempting to run so hard and so fast into the 20th century (one memorable moment shows the latest plane prototype being towed onto the runway by oxen, much to Jiro’s colleague’s despair) that it ends up on the wrong side of history, as Jiro goes on a business trip to a shadowy, fear-filled Germany and muses on how his “beautiful dreams” of flying machines are being corrupted by war.  (It’s interesting to note that Japanese audiences considered the movie too anti-Japan, while Americans thought it too pro-Japan, essentially letting off a war criminal.)  On a more artistic note, it’s nice to see that even for his final film, Miyazaki experiments with new ideas, most notably using human voices in place of sound effects for certain scenes, which adds an unreal, nightmarish quality to the film’s finest moment, a vivid recreation of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

1. The Zero Theorem (dir. Terry Gilliam)    

Possibly the most Gilliamesque film ever made, the most obvious thing to say about The Zero Theorem is that it’s a sort of flip-side to Brazil (indeed, writer Pat Rushin apparently checked out the Brazil screenplay among others for inspiration when writing it).  Where Brazil’s Sam Lowry tries to escape from a world of boring, grey bureaucracy via flights of fancy, Zero Theorem’s Qohen Leth is a man who prefers quiet boringness but is stuck in a hyper-connected, hyper-colourful, hyper-hyper world that could easily be us in fifty years or so. It’s an excellent performance from Christoph Waltz, a man better known for playing charismatic men – his Qohen, bald, shy, awkward and head-to-toe in black, couldn’t be more out of place and constantly uncomfortable if he tried.  His new work assignment – to try and crack the titular theorem, which may or may not solve the meaning of existence itself, worked on via a virtual reality machine that looks like Mirror’s Edge meets Portal meets some really hard algebra and so impossible that everyone who’s tried it before has ended up dead – seems initially a nice excuse to not have to leave his house.  Unfortunately, people keep disturbing his peace and as he gets closer to cracking the theorem the film gets closer to cracking in general.  Gilliam’s usual themes of a man up against an increasingly strange panoply of adversaries in a world with certain norms exaggerated to grotesques – here it’s information overload, how social networks can both increase and decrease social connections and a general infantilisation of culture (a neat visual gag near the beginning concerns the Church of Batman the Redeemer) – have rarely worked so well.  The film’s one major failing is that the female lead, Mélanie Thierry, has a rather basic, oversexualised role – but then that proves to be kind of the point near the end, so there you go. 


Best Cameo

Billy Connolly as Dain in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.  A dwarf chief so belligerently Glaswegian he knocks orcs out by headbutting them despite the fact he's not wearing a helmet and they are.  Also he rides a pig into battle and has a hammer pretty much the size of himself.

Best Facial Hair

Connolly again.  He has a beard shaped to resemble boar's tusks.

Best Tree

Groot, obviously.

Best Batman

Lego Batman, also obviously.

Sweatiest Sweat

I saw Alien and Aliens as a double bill for Hallowe'en (first time I've ever been to a double bill, in fact).  Having seen them on the big screen for the first time, I can confirm the actors get ridiculously sweaty.

Most Envy-Inducing Superpower

Blink's ability to make portals.  Love the bit where she provides a way for Colossus to build his momentum up.  Someone's being playing Portal!

Most Inexplicable Lack of Blood

Two improbably giant dragons have a fight in How to Train Your Dragon 2.  One stabs the other with its building-sized tusk.  Drops of blood spilled?  None.

Most Touching Scene Where One of the Characters is Additionally Shitting Himself

Robert Downey Jr. cleaning up his Robert Duvall-shaped, cancer-riddled dad in The Judge.

Funniest Pronunciation of a Single Syllable

The Hobbit wins again, with Martin Freeman's "...Yiss."  when asked by the elf King Thranduil if he was the one who organised a prison break from under the nose of the elf King Thranduil.

Luckiest Human

Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Ford Brody goes through so many near-death scrapes in Godzilla that it got quite funny by the end of the film.

Silliest Name

Seriously, "Ford Brody"?  And this is a year that gave us Guardians of the Galaxy and a Middle-earth movie.

Biggest Slight Disappointment

Jenny Agutter starts beating people up in Captain America: The Winter Soldier!  Then it turns out she's actually Scarlett Johansson disguised as Jenny Agutter.  Oh.

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