Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ed's Top 20 Films of 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West…a film which will not be appearing in this list.
Owing to Christmas and New Year, much of which I spend in a cottage in the Lake District with no access to the outside world (and which had the perfect atmosphere for a slasher movie), I didn't get the chance to put my Top 20 films of the year list up on New Year's Eve as I have done traditionally. Then, when I realised that two films I was desperate to see would be opening near me in the second week of January, I decided to sit on the list a little while longer. Now, I feel ready to release it into the wild.

I would not consider the following list to be a definitive account of the best films of the year - I still have a bunch that I want to catch up on in the next few months - but it is a pretty full account of the films that I loved in 2014.

20. Lucy (dir. Luc Besson)

I would never argue that Lucy is an especially smart film; its science is suspect, to say the least, and its plotting is dunderheaded in the way of most Besson films. However, it is the kind of deliriously enjoyable pop-art that Besson has been making for decades now. He takes his deliberately silly premise - Scarlett Johansson accidentally gets a huge dose of a drug that begins to unlock parts of her brain that give her increasingly crazy powers - and pushes it to the extreme, creating a film that feels like a cross between an adaptation of the little-remembered videogame Second Sight and the Springfield Stock Footage festival.

19. The Immigrant (dir. James Gray)

Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cottilard both had a pretty spectacular year thanks to films that appear elsewhere on this list, but they started it with affecting turns in James Gray's criminally ignored drama about a young immigrant woman (Cottilard) trying to survive in 1920s New York, and the club owner (Phoenix) who becomes her pimp and sort-of-protector. A sumptuously shot yet emotionally fraught film, it's one of Gray's best and deserves to have a longer and richer afterlife than the one it spent in only a handful of theaters.

18. Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)

I feel like John Michael McDonagh's second film should be higher on my list, and it probably would if I had a chance to rewatch it, since few films lingered so clearly in my mind over the past 12 months. Brendan Gleeson gives a typically wonderful performance as a priest whose life is threatened by an anonymous member of his parish. He embodies not just the fears and contradictions of a man who came to the priesthood late in life, but also the Catholic Church itself. The film is largely about the spiritual state of Ireland following the revelations of the horrible things the Church did over many, many decades, and it could easily have been an angry anti-religious screed. While it is angry, it also suggests that there is some value in what good men like Gleeson have to offer, and that no one is beyond redemption.

17. Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)

By now most people will know Jack O'Connell as the star of Angelina Jolie's aggressively mediocre WWII nearly-epic Unbroken. While O'Connell is great in that film, or at least as great as the material allows him to be, he was even more incendiary and brilliant in David Mackenzie's prison drama. As a young offender deemed too dangerous to be kept at a juvenile facility who is then unleashed on the same prison that holds his father (Ben Mendelsohn), O'Connell breathes violent life into a character and story that could have seemed well-trodden. Mackenzie's unsentimental direction and the story, in which forces within the prison close in around O'Connell like a vice, also push the film far beyond the usual restrictions of the genre.

16. Listen Up Phillip (dir. Alex Ross Perry)

A blackly funny dissection of literate masculinity that takes its style from the form, Listen Up Philip manages to both excoriate the alpha-male posturing of authors like Philip Roth and John Updike (with Jonathan Pryce on career-best form as an amalgam of both) while ably mimicking their rich, textured writing. Though the film is about the titular Philip (played to unctuous perfection by Jason Schwartzman as a kind of Max Fischer who was never humbled), a young novelist who gets a whiff of success then goes about dismantling the only good thing in his life, the structure of the movie, which uses narration and a non-linear associative timeline, allows it to encompass the lives of many characters who swirl around Philip and his mentor (Pryce). As such, it manages to contain a sequence about Phillip's girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) which is so hauntingly beautiful that it would warrant inclusion on this list as its own short film. Instead, it's an enriching part of an intoxicating whole. It also was probably the best-shot film of the year.

15. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

A lean, mean, drumming machine driven by the sado-masochistic mentor-mentee relationship between Miles Teller and a domineering J.K. Simmons, Damien Chazelle's debut is a raw and ferocious film without an inch of fat on it. Meanwhile, it's clinical approach to the central thesis advanced by Simmons' character, that greatness must be unlocked by any means necessary, even if those means include verbal and physical abuse, makes the film a fascinating Rorschach test for viewers.

14. Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

Pawel Pawlikowski's last film, The Woman in the Fifth, was the worst film I saw in 2012. A drab, boring thriller which wasted Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas on a story built around a truly terrible twist. No one was happier than me to see him rebound in a truly heroic fashion with Ida, a sad, gorgeous film about a Polish nun named Anna (newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) who sets out to discover the truth about her family's tragic history before she can take her vows. Pawlikowski uses that premise as a means to explore horrors both personal and political, while Agata Kulesza gave one of the year's best performances as Anna's aunt, Wanda, a woman whose guilt over her past colours the entire film.

13. Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)

Gillian Robespierre's film has rather unfairly been labeled as an abortion comedy (not least by its own marketing, as the slightly tone-deaf ads that played on seemingly every L.A.-based podcast this summer will attest), a term which is true on a very basic level - it is a comedy in which the lead character, played wonderfully by SNL alum Jenny Slate, has an abortion - but also does a disservice to one of the warmest comedies in recent memory. Slate is great as the stand-up comic faced with a difficult decision (not whether to have an abortion, but whether to tell the prospective father), but the strength of the supporting cast - which includes consistent MVPs like Gaby Hoffmann and Richard Kind - makes it one of the most enjoyable hangout comedies in some time.

12. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater's body of work is filled with films in which quiet moments of everyday life create a kind of gentle profundity, and ones in which introspective types wax lyrical about life and philosophy. Boyhood, his 12 years in the making intimate epic, is light on the latter but heavy on the former. It captures some of the thousands of tiny moments in childhood and adolescence that shape people better than any American film I've ever seen, and it does so with little in the way of traditional drama. It's essentially a collection of little vignettes, and as such is as close to an approximation of real life as Linklater has ever managed to create.

11. Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)

Like Obvious Child, Love is Strange is a film that radiates warmth and love, even as the story separates its two newlyweds (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) when one of them loses their job and forces them to give up their apartment. Ira Sachs' film is a funny, poignant examination of a beautiful, comfortable relationship that is torn apart at the moment when it should be at its strongest, and a subtle snapshot of how far gay rights have progressed in America in such a relatively short space of time. It also features a performance from Molina which rivals his work on the BBC sitcom Roger and Val Have Just Got In, which is about as high praise as I can give anything he is involved in.

10. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

While the phrase "Iranian Vampire pseudo-Western" might sound like something created by picking out random Arthouse Cinema buzzwords and throwing them together, Ana Lily Amirpour's film is one of 2014's more singular achievements. A stark, sexy take on a well-worn genre, it feels like a lost Jim Jarmusch movie in how it uses images of Americana to cultivate its timeless cool, but brings its own streak of dark humour and raw emotionality to offset the pristine compositions. It can also lay claim to probably the best use of music in a film in 2014 thanks to its use of White Lies' "Death" in a crucial scene.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Speaking of Jarmusch, he came roaring back after the interminable The Limits of Control with one of his best films in the better part of a decade. Like his masterwork Down by Law, Only Lovers Left Alive is ostensibly a genre exercise - a prison break movie in the earlier film, a vampire movie here - but one in which most of the stuff associated with that genre takes place offscreen, or is ignored entirely. Instead, Jarmusch fills the screenplay with conversations about art, music and love, with most of those conversations taking place between Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the titular lovers, a pair of centuries-old vampires who act more like junkies or bored rock stars (which is actually the case for Hiddleston's character Adam) than the children of the night. Achingly cool yet deeply sad, it's heartening to see Jarmusch doing such great work again.

8. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)

Part The Exorcist, part Repulsion, Jennifer Kent's debut effortlessly joins the pantheon of thematically rich horror movies that are also deeply distressing in their own right. In telling the story of a mother and son who are menaced by a boogieman with impeccable dress sense, Kent creates a claustrophobic and intense movie in which the scares come less from Mr. Babadook himself than from the toll that exhaustion takes on Essie Davis' character, and which gradually reveals itself to be a pointed meditation on grief and motherhood. And for my money, Davis gave the best performance I saw in any film all year.

7. Stray Dogs (dir. Tsai Ming-liang)

It's very hard to describe Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs. Well, it's very easy to describe what happens in it: a homeless man takes two children who are probably his own, though I don't wish to presume, and they all try to survive on the streets of a city that seems indifferent to them. What's harder to describe is the effect of watching that unfold. Tsai's long, unbroken shots and the film's lack of dialogue or traditional action make it a uniquely crushing and devastating experience as it forces you to sit and watch people go through the banal awfulness of existing on the margins of society, with no obvious sense of what it means. It's a deeply unnerving watch, but a fascinating and rewarding one.

6. Two Days, One Night (dir. The Dardenne Brothers)

Since switching from their early documentary work to dramatic features, Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne have perfected a very specific type of film: thrillers with potentially melodramatic plots which they then strip of all artifice, leaving behind the bare musculature of a story. Much like The Child or Lorna's Silence, Two Days, One Night takes a story with very clear goals - a woman (Marion Cotillard) has to convince her co-workers to forego their annual bonus in order for her to keep her job - then tells it using unvarnished performances and handheld camerawork that both heightens the drama while downplaying the artificiality of the story. Their concept this time is ingenious in its simplicity and in its dramatic potential - the film could easily be retitled 16 Uncertain Belgians - and also demonstrates that their style is unfazed by working with a bona fide movie star (though Cotillard's surprise Oscar nomination for her work suggests that star wattage is more important than mere quality as far as The Academy are concerned).

5. Blue Ruin (dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

It's tough to be a commentary on a kind of story while also being a satisfying example of the story being examined, but Blue Ruin makes it look effortless. Not only is it a bleak, funny revenge film that addresses the whole genre with a skeptical eye, it's also a brutal and thrilling film in its own right. I think it's not going too far to say that Blue Ruin announces Jeremy Saulnier as a major new talent in American film in much the same way that Shotgun Stories did for Jeff Nichols, and I can't wait to see what he does next.

4. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson does the seemingly impossible and translates Thomas Pynchon's loopy stoner detective novel into a film without losing any of its singular, woozy charms. Not only that, but Anderson puts much of the book's themes into sharp relief, and brings the sadness of the story to the fore in order to create a wacky, funny comedy that doubles beautifully as an elegy for an idealism that was slowly collapsing in on itself when Doc Sportello went looking for his ex-old lady. It's a surprisingly poignant account of the immediately post-Manson period before Nixon and the Silent Majority crushed the hippie sub-culture, one which also features an hilarious scene of Josh Brolin going to town on a frozen banana.

3. Under The Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

On paper, Jonathan Glazer's exceptionally loose adaptation of Michel Faber's book about an alien who comes to Earth to seduce men sounds like a Glaswegian redux of Species. On screen, the effect is markedly different. Between Glazer's harsh camera, Micah Levi's incessant and disorientating score and Scarlett Johansson's initially detached performance, Under The Skin is a rare science fiction movie which makes everyday human existence seem weird and alien. A brilliant and distressing film.

2. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)

As a cinephile and a historian, I have rarely seen a work of fiction bring history to life as vividly and as painfully as Ava DuVernay's Selma does. With no trace of the irony that usually afflicts historical films - at no point does DuVernay allow the characters to wink at the camera to acknowledge the audience's knowledge of future events - Selma allows its story to live in the moment. And that moment is one of pain, fear and intimidation which is captured in by turns haunting and unflinchingly brutal detail. Events in Ferguson and New York have added an extra resonance to some of the scenes in Selma - it's hard to watch a policeman use a baton to put a chokehold on a woman without being reminded of Eric Garner, or to see a policeman shoot an unarmed black man without thinking of Michael Brown - but DuVernay's direction and David Oyelowo's performance would be equally as powerful and palpable regardless of when the film was released. That it happened to be released at the end of 2014 just goes to show how necessary its story remains.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)

Like most Wes Anderson films, The Grand Budapest Hotel rewards repeat viewings. Unlike a lot of his earlier films, the repeat viewings are less to do with catching little details in the production design or the slyer jokes, though God knows that there is plenty of pleasure to be had from doing that, but in peeling away the deep layers of sadness and melancholy that run beneath the Lubitsch-esque farce that drives the story. It's as much a paean for an older style of filmmaking as it is for an old European sense of civility, and Anderson finds in Gustave H. one of his best "men out of time" characters. It helps that Ralph Fiennes is on phenomenally funny form as the vain and painfully professional concierge, and that the whole film is underpinned by a wonderfully restrained F. Murray Abraham (who makes an appearance in my favourite film for the second year in a row).

Honourable Mentions

- Phil Lord and Chris Miller for almost single-handedly (or double-handedly, I suppose) rescuing film comedy from the doldrums with The LEGO Movie and 22 Jump Street.
- Tom Cruise and Doug Liman for delivering one of the darkest and funniest blockbusters in recent memory with Edge of Tomorrow.
- Nightcrawler for giving us a Rupert Pupkin it's impossible to like.
- Wild for making a quarter-life crisis story that was genuinely sweet and moving.
- John Wick for making old-school action fun and funny again in a way The Expendables movies never came close to achieving.
- Birdman may be meaningless - sound and fury signifying yadda yadda yadda - but damn is it an exhilarating watch.
- Life Itself for paying worthy tribute to the great Roger Ebert without falling into total hagiography.
- Guardians of the Galaxy for turning Chris Pratt into this generation's Harrison Ford (and undoubtedly inspiring a whole generation of young Andy Dwyers to badly/brilliantly recap the plot).
- A Most Wanted Man for giving us a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance so great it made me forget that he had died.
- Jodorowsky's Dune for ably demonstrating what an absolutely wonderful lunatic Alejandro Jodorowsky is.