Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The 14 best films of 2014


From experimental filmmaking to the blockbuster fare of Marvel Studios, with a sprinkling of folk and a dash of eastern adrenaline, these were the 14 best films of 2014.

14. Locke

There is every chance that the average cinemagoer opted for more accessible diversions than Stephen Knight's ostensibly obscure Locke when searching the listings back in April. Watching Tom Hardy drive along the M1 in a BMW for 84 minutes is hardly a prospect holding mass appeal, but for those who did take that plunge, the rewards were all too obvious by the end. Experimental and fascinating, the story focuses, exclusively, on construction overseer Ivan Locke, who leaves behind the biggest job of his career to deal with a personal matter that will destroy his comfortable life. 

Inexplicable Welsh accent notwithstanding, Hardy is a magnetic figure, a superlative talent capable of dwarfing those around him (see his recent demented schtick in Peaky Blinders). He is all there is to look at here and one is inevitably drawn deep inside his confidence while everything unravels around him in nail-biting, gut-wrenching real time. There will be many who chose not to waste their time getting into the car with Locke. What a pity.

13. Guardians of the Galaxy

It would not be inaccurate, or unfair, to point out that James Gunn's mega-budget Marvel juggernaut checked all of the usual comic-book boxes when it skipped onto general release as the studio's summer tentpole. Big and bulky visuals, a kaleidoscopic palette, lots of explosions and enough CGI to satisfy James Cameron; this was a blockbuster, no doubt about it. How refreshing then to discover that Gunn had also conjured a swaggering action comedy as knowingly over the top as anything anchored in an era spawning that 'awesome mix' playlist so cherished by 'Star-Lord', Chris Pratt's slyly hilarious idiot-cum-crusader. 

A genuinely fantastic intergalactic odyssey built around the crackling chemistry shared between Pratt and his fellow reprobates, Guardians of the Galaxy's pedigree may present itself in the enormous final stanza but where this truly excelled is in the intertwined strength of those memorable lead players. This mixed bunch sealed the deal: Zoe Saldana's watchful assassin Gamora; humourless nutcase Drax (Dave Bautista); the digitally rendered tandem of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), spiky badasses with crap attitudes and arguably the best lines ("I am Groot" or otherwise). With such a solid base, the only direction was towards the stars. 

12. '71

Unusually for a filmmaker focusing on Northern Ireland's troubled history, Yann Demange seems to understand the waters in which he is swimming. Working from a script by Scottish playwright Gregory Burke (Black Watch). Demange is not alone in getting his head around the complex politico-religious fervour — both Steve McQueen and Paul Greengrass have successfully touched on the Troubles — but with '71, the Paris-born director faces that era's darkest excesses head on, bending them into a picture of mesmerising proportions. It sees Jack O'Connell inhabit the skin of flinty squaddie Gary Hook, cut off from his unit in alien territory: west Belfast. 

At heart, '71 is a brilliant, coiled, pulsating thriller. In O'Connell it enjoys the perfect mix of raw talent and authentic hardscrabble survivability to suggest that this really is a callow lad, lost and alone in a deadly hornet's nest. 

11. The Wolf of Wall Street

In keeping with much of his back catalogue, Martin Scorsese’s scorching ode to unhinged hedonism is a kinetic blitzkrieg of razor-sharp dialogue, its true-story roots constituting a graphic tapestry of the financial sector's most horrifying clichés. In short, it's dazzlingAs the preening Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort, Leonardo DiCaprio chews up every last piece of scenery. His subsequent Oscar nomination surely represented some kind of reward for the non-stop, hernia-inducing hysteria that punctuates much of the film and through a haze of expensive booze, copious barbiturates and no small number of beautiful women, financial corruption has never seemed so appealing, or energetic. 

At Belfort's right hand, however, Jonah Hill steals the show as demented douchebag sidekick Donnie, his unsettlingly bleached dental crowns glowing like nuclear rods. Everybody hates these trader dickheads, perhaps, but we sure can't take our eyes off them. 

10. Cold in July 

This adaptation of the 1989 novel by Joe R. Landsdale is a strange and mighty beast. Springing from a place somewhere between HBO's True Detective and David Cronenberg's twisted small-town noir, A History of Violence, this jagged, clammy southern gothic features a trio of leads one would hardly expect to see crammed into the front of pickup truck seeking answers and vengeance in equal measure. 

When he discovers a night-time intruder in his home, quiet, lightly mulleted patriarch Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) kills the prowler, only to attract the ire of the dead man's father (Sam Shepard) with that single shot. Regular B-movie director Jim Mickle takes what might have been a predictable plot in a number of riveting directions before the end, aided in that task by the strutting Don Johnson as a flamboyant pig-rearing private detective. Episodic in nature but pulled off with cool dollops of style, a retro score and three charges of electrifying acting, Cold in July can feel awkward, though the end result is undeniably affecting. 

9. Out of the Furnace

muscular tale located deep in the rusting core of faded Pennsylvanian steel country, Scott Cooper's follow-up to the gorgeous Crazy Heart finds a glowering and tormented Christian Bale searching desperately for a brother lost to the grimy rural environs of the hillbilly bareknuckle circuit. With its verdant landscapes and blue-collar honesty, Out of the Furnace explicitly invokes The Deer Hunter, as proud men are jettisoned in that horrible hinterland between pointless war and industrial decrepitude. 

Yet this is no lazy riff on a stately progenitor. Cooper and Bale render a handsome picture, imprinted with a sad atmosphere best summed by the elegiac sounds of Pearl Jam's 'Release'. Eddie Vedder's sultry tones wash over the narrow Appalachian surroundings more than once. They seem as uplifting as this milieu is ever likely to be. 

8. The Guest 

Yes, that is the guy from Downton Abbey playing a vaguely psychotic Abercrombie model. Worry not, however, for this film, an arch, pulpy and whip-smart brew of genres, shares absolutely no DNA with ITV's endlessly silly romp. The Guest is, instead, an incredibly enjoyable and paranoid thriller, where the largely bonkers plot never once encroaches on director Adam Wingard's merciless sense of fun. 

Fusing a variety of familiar themes — warrior PTSD, government conspiracy and teenage angst (no, seriously) — with the synthy stylistic tropes of recent hits like Drive and Cold in July, what could have been an uneven mess is actually the year's most original guilty pleasure. Stevens, in particular, distinguishes himself as a leading man of significant presence. 

7. Dallas Buyers Club

The story of Texan rodeo rider Ron Woodroof's battle with both HIV and Big Pharma during the Eighties' AIDS crisis, Jean-Marc Vallée's film is, by turns, amusing and deeply moving, driven from beginning to end by an emaciated, Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey in the lead role. Undoubtedly the apex of McConaughey's incredible career renaissance (the McConaissance?), his Woodroof is a complicated grifter of questionable morals and unpredictable motivations. Sniffing out a profitable business opportunity to import Mexican drugs, this unlikely saviour seems well formed in a modern age of the anti-hero.

Beyond McConaughey's layered characterisation, Jared Leto ably justifies his own Academy laurels as the suave, wonderfully androgynous transexual Rayon. It is a performance infused with rare class and quite stunning bravery, and one wholly typical of the Dallas Buyers Club's spare Texan charm. 

6. The Raid 2

The moment that The Raid exploded onto screens in 2012, delivering a gut-punch to Western action cinema's tired old fighter in the process, a sequel seemed inevitable. And so it proved as Welsh director Gareth Evans — a talent to watch — stripped his original down to its component parts before rebuilding and catapulting it onto a template as large, and as visceral, as anyone could have hoped. 

Centred on the humid Indonesian underworld, The Raid 2 sees the unstoppable SWAT cop, Rama (Iko Uwais), debriefed following the murderous events of the first movie and then dropped into an undercover role to tear down Jakarta's biggest mob boss. Realised, thrillingly, with gravity-defying martial arts, ambitious storytelling and a host of visual flourishes, this is mighty Asian cinema in its finest, purest form. 

5. Inside Llewyn Davis 

In spite of their previous Oscar success with No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers have never stood out as automatic fixtures on the Academy radar. While the brilliance of their work, rather than any cynically selected subject matter, has often won them recognition, it still appeared a snub to see Inside Llewyn Davis overlooked for the major honours at February's big awards. It was the Academy's loss. 

The Coens' work is an exquisite, reined-in paean to the folk scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, quietly bracing and free of the siblings' signature quirkiness. A tenderly elegiac story of loss and lucklessness, afforded room to grow, Llewyn Davis is girded by a filmmaking duo who are, quite simply, existing at the very pinnacle of their craft. Alongside that, the wonderful soundtrack is not simply an ancillary element, designed to squeeze out extra revenue once the credits roll, but a pulsing heartbeat in the chest of this melancholic and profoundly defining creation.

4. Gone Girl

In 2012, author Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl swept through the literary landscape, carrying with it a chilling account of marital collapse and psychological torture. Two years later, visionary auteur David Fincher adapted Flynn's novel to a masterful degree, wringing every last drop of tension from her dark story. Capable of mining even unthreatening subjects for sinister undertones — see his Facebook opus The Social Network, a movie fuelled in no small part, as in this instance, by Trent Reznor's remarkably ambient score — Fincher's picture exploits the bleakness of foreclosed, recession-hit Nowheresville, Missouri, to roll out a film as disturbing as it is beautiful. 

Did Ben Affleck's Nick murder his wife, Amy (a disturbed Rosamund Pike)? Is she really dead? Should these two even be together? The questions come thick and fast, the answers unfurling to reveal the monstrous central conceit. Intense and pervasive, Gone Girl was 2014's nastiest conundrum. 

3. 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning drama was no mere worthy period piece drenched in sumptuous colours, a stunning visual feast of sticky southern refinement in the hot box of Louisiana's cotton belt. No, the acclaimed filmmaker offered something far more profound, an unblinking view into the heart of darkness. This adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir of his time in bondage picks at the corners of white guilt; McQueen trained his artists's gaze, with furious elegance, on the vileness of slavery.

Boasting a thunderous Michael Fassbender as the grotesque master, Epps, and a similarly impressive Chiwetel Ejiofor as the eponymous chattel, 12 Years a Slave symbolises more than any ordinary depiction of America's original sin. It skewered the plantation, lighting it with a truth free from any ambiguity or filter of cultural mores. The result is an unyielding and urgent picture of rare power, unafraid to confront history's swelteringly violent reality. 

2. Boyhood

On the one hand, Boyhood is about nothing remarkable. It pushes no weighty message, there are few scenes of note. There is little, in a narrative sense at least, to set it apart from countless other family anthologies featuring modest budgets and recognisable indie stalwarts. To come at it from another angle, however, is to witness its greatness. Director Richard Linklater's coming-of-age epic is a story of childhood experienced, then lost, told mainly from the perspective of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane), an ethereal and precocious youngster of America's post-millennial age. 

What sets this apart from the genre, of course, is Linklater's visionary decision to construct his project over the course of 12 years. He captures his characters' natural ageing and maturation in the process, an approach which moves beyond gimmickry thanks to a subtle melding of time and plot. Shot through with authenticity, possessed of believably natural characters, Linklater's masterpiece is a towering tribute to cinema's singular power. 

1. Interstellar

A soaring space opera from writer-director Christopher Nolan, Interstellar blurred the lines between sci-fi and human drama, its vast canvas of dying planets seeking new horizons the thrilling converse of Alfonso Cuarón's claustrophobic, though equally magnificent Gravity

A tale from beyond the cosmos playing out through the prism of its director's signature spartan realism, this is a grand fable of love and legacies, apocalypse and genesis. With ideas as massive as those distant starscapes, there can be no doubting the scope of Nolan's boundless imagination. 

1 comment:

  1. First of all, good list. Although why no Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Calvary or Her? I liked, but didn't love Guardians Of The Galaxy; I felt subversion overtook heart. O'Connell was brilliant in '71 but I felt the film tailed off into conventionality in the second half. The Wolf Of Wall Street? May have felt like Leo & Marty's Greatest Hits, but I really enjoyed it, so no arguments there. Interstellar rubbed me not quite right, Gone Girl left a very bad aftertaste, and I loved Boyhood in the moment but it hasn't lingered with me quite as long as I'd have hoped.