Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Listomania! My Favourite Films of 2014

You all read my rambling, shambling, ambling stroll through my year at the movies, right? Well, it’s time now for the cold, hard data known as The Best of List. I’ll dispense with the usual caveats about Best Of Lists by distilling it all into this: “This is my list. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.”

Now that’s out of the way, at ease, soldier! Let the Listomania begin! And at the top of the heap is:

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

Here’s something that doesn't happen very often: There was one scene in Under the Skin (that I’m not going to spoil here) that was so oppressively tense that I think I may have held my breath a couple of times. Another thing that doesn't happen very often: Once the film had ended, I remained rooted to my seat, all the way through the closing credits and beyond to the illumination of the house lights, just sort of staring both past the screen and right through it. Just extraordinary.

Sliding into second is:

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Brooding, dark, funny, uplifting, hopeful and nihilistic, all held together by Brendan Gleeson and those eyes.

The rest of my Top Ten, in no particular order:

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

I've always been something of a Wes Anderson sceptic, but with The Grand Budapest Hotel he finally got me with his lovely, labyrinthine, laudatory lament to stories and the people who tell them. It was surprisingly affecting once the artifice crumbled.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)

I never know what kind of Coen Brothers movie I’m going to get. There are the ones that I love unreservedly (Blood Simple; The Big Lebowksi; No Country For Old Men; Raising Arizona; O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and then there are the ones that leave me cold (Fargo; Burn After Reading; Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; The Man Who Wasn't There). I had a hunch that Inside Llewyn Davis would fall into the latter category as soon as I heard that this would be about folk music and featured a cat in a prominent role. Man, was I wrong! I still catch myself singing Please Mr. Kennedy at inopportune moments...

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

Only Lovers Left Alive (or "The Unbearable Darkness of Being") did nothing to alleviate my ongoing crush on Tilda Swinton as it reveled in the gothic in more ways than one.

The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco)

Note for Purge virgins (Purgins?): You don’t have to have seen the first film to enjoy this superior sequel.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese's trilogy chronicling a History of True American Crime is now complete. From Goodfellas and Casino to the amoral white-collar recidivists of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort may well be the biggest monster of them all...

Under those ten, in the category of Close But No Cigar:

The Guest (Adam Wingard) and It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) - That’s a stunning Carpenter-inflected Maika Monroe-starring double-bill right there. Prediction: It Follows may well graduate to my Best of 2015 list next year after another viewing...
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Oculus (Mike Flanagan)
Pasolini (Abel Ferrara)
Pride (Matthew Warchus)

Honorary Mention: All Is Lost (J. C. Chandor)

I’m counting this one for this year even though it got a UK release date of Boxing Day 2013, because that week between Christmas and the New Year is a ghost week that comfortably straddles both sides of the temporal firework whizbang we divide our calendars with. There are coincidental glimpses of Life of Pi, Captain Phillips and Gravity here, and All Is Lost is better than all three of them put together. On the strength of this and the terrific Margin Call, Chandor’s forthcoming A Most Violent Year shoots to the top of my most anticipated films of 2015.

Cut. Print. Ask me tomorrow, and you'd get a different list. Maybe. 

(Please don't ask me tomorrow).

My Movie Year 2014

For me, 2014 has been all about the eyes. Brendan Gleeson's sad, soulful eyes in Calvary. The horrors reflected in Chiwetel Ejiofor’s haunting and haunted eyes in 12 Years A Slave. The flat blank eyes of Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin. My abiding memories of this year’s screen-gazing are going to be the gazes looking back out at me...

And it’s not just the eyes looking out. How about the eyes looking in, carting along baggage, preconceptions and a lifetime’s experience with them? You take from a movie what you bring to it. Case in point: The excessive deluge of think pieces screaming about the perceived agenda of David Fincher’s Gone Girl. From one corner: “It’s misogynist!”. From the other: “It’s feminist!”. And I sat in the middle thinking “No...it’s pulp. Really well-tooled pulp, and Fincher is smart enough to want to provoke his audience and raise such questions. But...it’s still just pulp.”

Gone Girl was monumentally stupid, hugely entertaining, far too long, never a dull moment. All at the same time. It’s a potboiler. Lurid. Over-egged. Melodramatic. Compulsive. It's riddled with holes that only gape wider when you prod at them a little bit. It may well be the ne plus ultra of potboilers, but it's a potboiler all the same.

Brilliant balderdash, but it really doesn't have anything remotely profound or meaningful to say about marriage or the media. Let's not credit Gone Girl with such unwarranted gravitas, when it's little more than a very good time at the movies.

And yet while everyone was picking apart Gone Girl fruitlessly hunting for an agenda where there was none, there was a more insidious, cavalier sexism at play in another huge release that didn't garner anywhere near as much attention - Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla. Let me show you how with a little game called Reverse The Following Roles: Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson. I can't think of a single reason why at least one of those character reversals couldn't have been made without adversely affecting the narrative in any significant way. Ken Watanabe would still have had the opportunity to say “Gojira!” with the requisite amount of crowd-pleasing portent and gravitas.

(And, while I’m railing against inconsistent ways of looking at things, chew on this one: Stealing and sharing stolen naked selfies online is rightly perceived as Very Bad and Wrong. And yet stealing and sharing private company data and Sony email correspondence is Perfectly Fine and Fair Game. How’s that for a double-standard, motherfuckers? Sharing your body and sharing your opinions are personal and intimate acts and, most importantly, choices. Choices that have been removed from those affected. And with each licked lip over every salacious reveal, everyone makes their future argument weaker the next time someone comes to violate your rights and privacy….OK, back to crapping on about movies…)

Elsewhere, Christopher Nolan continued to make films that I admire rather than like. Interstellar was no better or worse than his erstwhile collaborator Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, and yet the latter was the one that got the critical kicking. In both cases, it's just not enough to have the ambition to interrogate questions of love, devotion, grief and our relationship with technology if you can't actually come up with anything remotely profound or illuminating to say about any of it.

Lucy, on the other hand, was Transcendence with a sense of humour. Where Pfister's film trades in po-faced faux-profundity, Luc Besson has a twinkle in his eye as he gleefully bullshits us for the sheer fun of it.

2014 was also the year that The Great John Carpenter Homage became a fully-fledged sub-genre. The Guest was essentially John Carpenter's Uncle Buck. It Follows was Halloween in Detroit (which is unfairly reductive, sure, but if you want a more detailed assessment, you’re going to have to click through to my recap of this year’s London Film Festival.) And in The Purge: Anarchy... It's Punishin' Time! If John Carpenter directed Frank Grillo as Frank Castle for Marvel, you’d get this double-barreled blast of pulp nirvana.

On the subject of Marvel, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy disproved the burbling misguided wisdom of the internet masses who liked to claim that Big Bad Corporate Marvel were far too conservative to unleash Edgar Wright on Ant-Man. Gunn vaporised that argument with the endearing friendship between a gun-toting raccoon and a monosyllabic dancing tree. I also now have an excuse to once again share this beautiful logo designed by my inestimable friend Emma Price based on a dumb gag I hurled on to Twitter.

The Raid 2 sadly hewed to the maxim that more is less. The first film was all tight, stripped-down bonecracking beauty. This, however, was somewhat baggy and occasionally tipped over into queasy, disposable sadism. It lagged and suffered whenever Iko Uwais was off-screen (you could jettison an hour of subplots easy), but when he's there...wow. He's the Fred Astaire of face-kicking.

And so ends just a few of my ruminations on my Year In Dimly-Lit Auditoria. For one of those list things that everyone seems to be so fond of, you’ll have to wait just a little bit longer...