And so here we are again. Happy New Year! And here is my twenty favourite films of 2014 in descending order. If you care. Don't blame you if you don't.
Please note: as per usual I do not claim that these as the best films of the year, just the ones I personally enjoyed the most. It is all subjective. I have a big ol' yen for Marvel flicks, apes on horseback and emotionally resonant Asian animation. So there you go. Also, at the bottom of this post you'll find my five least favourite films of 2014. Enjoy.
Lenny Abrahamson's strange, off beat dramedy stars Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy and Michael Fassbender as the titular Frank and was inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the comic persona of late comedian/singer/poet Chris Sievey. Abrahamson's film is a strange, funny and also sad tale with a top notch cast that has the excellent Fassbender proving again why he is one of our best current actors.
19. Jodorowsky's Dune
Frank Pavich's engrossing and fascinating documentary explores Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky's unsuccessful attempt to adapt and film Frank Herbert's legendary novel Dune in the mid-1970s. The interviews are all great but Jodorowsky and his Dune bible in which he has his entire movie that never was mapped out in script, storyboards and detailed artwork are the true stars. The movie had it happened would have been utterly insane but totally original. If only.
18. Only Lovers Left Alive
Idiosyncratic director Jim Jarmusch does his take on vampires by focusing on the current lives of a centuries old married couple played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton and how they both deal with unending life and the frustrations of the modern world. There isn't much story (an appearance from Swinton's troublesome undead sister played by Mia Wasikowska adds some jeopardy) but rather the film is about two very much in love people who just happen to be very, very old and is a brooding, contemplative, darkly humorous character study featuring two riveting performances from Hiddleston and Swinton - the coolest on screen vamp couple since Spike & Dru.
Stretch is a sly, darkly funny, cynical LA noir thriller from Joe Carnahan which see Patrick Wilson as a down on his luck limo driver knows as Stretch who is trying desperately to raise some money to pay off gambling debts while at the same time trying to improve his life, impress his ex girlfriend and also get himself out of a criminal tangle his rich and kinda mad client has got him involved in. Stretch is slick, funny, satirical (esp about LA life and its glossy/seedy side) and features two great performances from Patrick Wilson in the title role and Chris Pine as the rich, mad, grubby and criminal client. A very, very fun ride of a flick. And a totally unexpected joy.
16. The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises is legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki's final film before he retired in late 2013. The film is a fictionalized biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A5M fighter aircraft and its successor, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, used by Japan during World War II. However the film is not about the war or about creating weapons of war but rather about a young man who since boyhood has loved aeroplanes and the idea of flying, a love and fascination shared by Myazaki. As such the film is an ode to that purest and most freeing of dreams and is also about how love and dreams become entwined to create a rich and full life. As always with Miyazaki the film looks beautiful and the themes are honest and relatable. Not his best work but a fitting note to end such an illustrious career on.
15. Gone Girl
David Fincher's film of the novel by Gillian Flynn is a savage indictment of the institution of marriage and what it can involve and potentially lead to – lust becomes love becomes routine becomes indifference becomes boredom becomes hostility becomes....something else altogether. Ben Affleck is very good in the role of the husband suspected of offing his missing wife while Rosamund Pike turns in a 'who knew?' performance that will surely bring her an Oscar nom. Sexy, riveting, scary. Another Fincher winner.
Gareth Edwards' update/remake of Toho's famous monster mash movie thankfully wiped clear all memory of Roland Emmerich's ghastly 1998 effort. The story here is rooted in family tragedy as a bereaved husband seeks to discover the truth about his wife's death in a nuclear power plant in Japan while his now adult son tries to stop him only to get embroiled in a multinational conspiracy to keep the existence of ancient monsters a secret. A secret which explodes in to the world with disastrous results. To be honest the human story here is secondary. It is fine. But what the punters want is Big G. To have him done right. To sell his size and majesty. And to see him kick monster ass! And boy doe we get that. What ever the movie may lack in its human story it surely succeeds in how it treats its star. Edwards holds back on revealing Big G...but when he does...wow! And every scene with our star, every sequence is directed the hell out of. This was a true cinematic experience that got my jaw well and truly dropped in the theatre. It does lose something on the small screen but still manages to sell its titular hero to us. Monstrously good fun.
13. We Are The Best
Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's sweet, funny, endearing coming of age story is about three young girls in 1982 Stockholm who start their own punk band just as punk is dying out. Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), Klara (Mira Grosin), and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) are outsiders. Bobo and Klara are lifelong friends and already rebellious and looking for any opportunity to stick it to the system (in their own naive and sweet way), while Hedvig is a Christian girl who is great at guitar but is isolated from the rest of her peers due to her strong religious beliefs. But when the three girls come together they find common ground and a common spirit and embark together on a mission to form their band and play their punk songs to people, especially 'Hate the Sport' inspired by their shared hatred of gym class. The three young actresses are fabulous and you can't help but root for them in their small but so very important personal mission to express themselves to a world which wants them to conform and behave. A lovely, sweet and funny ode to friendship and rebellion, We Are The Best is a charming little gem.
12. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson's eighth film as director is now my favourite of his. It's a tale of old world manners and etiquette mixed up with a farcical comedic criminal conspiracy that features a hilarious and career best performance from leading man Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is Gustav H, concierge at the titular hotel who teams up with one of his employees, bell boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to prove his innocence after he is framed for the murder of a rich old lady who he'd been providing extra 'services' to for years. Anderson brings his usual style of flat space camera moves, symmetrical compositions, snap-zooms etc. to showcase the small, idiosyncratic and also big and outrageous comedic moments that litter the film. The film also looks gorgeous having been designed and shot to within an inch of its life with Anderson making full use of his glorious sets and locations as well as his game cast. Odd, hilarious and utterly brilliant!
11. What We Do in the Shadows
A mockumentary about four old school vampires who live together in Wellington, New Zealand, What We Do in the Shadows follows their night to night lives, documents how they co-habit and how they deal with 'living' in the modern world. It also shows what happens to their home when one of them accidentally makes a new vampire who turns out to be a real pain in the neck. The movie was directed and written by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), who also star. The movie works on three levels. First, it is very, very funny with the characters great and distinctive and the comedy coming from how they interact with each other and with the outside world. Second, it pokes affectionate fun at many familiar tropes of the horror/classic monster movie genre. Third, the three main vampire characters have their own stories and arcs which we follow and we can't help kinda rooting for them. For despite their great age and monstrous nature they are still relatable and have to deal with many of the same things us humans do – keeping house, petty arguments, relationship problems, dealing with tiresome bureaucracy. But above all else this movie is just damn funny. I laughed and laughed and loved every minute.
10. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Original X-Men director Bryan Singer returned to the chair to make Days of Future Past, a further reset/course correction for the franchise after the excellent First Class in an effort to repair the damage done by X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the Last Stand. And he succeeded. A complex time travel story sees Wolverine altering the past to save the future and in doing so erasing much of what went wrong in the franchise. Once again Jackman is terrific as the hirsute hero while the First Class cast esp Fassbender, McAvoy and Lawrence all do great work. Arguably though it is Evan Peters as Quicksilver who almost steals the movie in his small but pivotal cameo. Full of great action, stylish visuals, resonant themes and strong acting, Singer has indeed succeeded in putting his X boys and girls back on top. Bring on Apocalypse!
9. The Babadook
Blimey! A horror movie that is actually about something and that is genuinely smart and scary. Doesn't happen often anymore. Jennifer Kent's powerful, creepy, emotional and affecting fairytale horror story is all about parenting and the stresses and strains of motherhood especially when doing it alone looking after a young child with emotional issues while at the same time trying to cope with one's own personal emotional issues. Isolation, grief, stress, terror all come to play here thanks to a truly remarkable performance by Essie Davis as the mother being driven to distraction by her child and by her own still raw grief at the death of her husband. The film is largely set in the dark and creepy house mother and son inhabit, a house that has been exquisitely designed, dressed and shot to enhance the levels of spine tingles and discomfort amongst the audience. And Mr Babadook himself is thing of nightmarish beauty. A marvellous creepy children's monster come to life. Is it real or are all the supernatural events in the film just the product of two traumatised minds? Who knows. And that's the beauty of it. Brilliant!
8. The Guest
The Guest was directed and edited by Adam Wingard, and written by Simon Barrett, the team who previously gave us the excellent horror flick You're Next. In The Guest the pair have made a retro 80's inspired action/horror/thriller about a mysterious, relentless and utterly lethal ex soldier who comes to visit the family of a deceased comrade and proceeds to cause bloody havoc in and around the family's lives. Small scale but beautifully directed, shot and edited ,The Guest benefits hugely from its stripped down script, 80's feel (complete with synth score) and rather stunning and star making central performance from one time Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens as David, the titular guest. Stevens burns up the screen with charm and charisma that barely covers a level of bestial menace and threat. And when he finally unleashes his full lethality he becomes a force of pure bloody destruction to rival the Terminator himself. Short, sharp, stylish, brutal, The Guest is bloody brilliant!
7. The Raid 2
If Gareth Evans' The Raid was his Indonesian take on Die Hard then The Raid 2 is his take on The Godfather. The simple 'fight your way through the building to get the boss' plot of the original has been replaced by a sprawling crime saga that follows undercover cop Rama and his battles with rival crime families and police corruption. The simplicity of the set-up of the original Raid was part of its brilliance and that simple brilliance does get lost in what is now a two and half hour crime epic. But Evans manages to weave a tense and compelling tale here with strong memorable characters even if some of the plot might lose you in places. But where he truly excels is the action. My God! The action! Nobody else is making action films like this. Epic, bloody, brutal, choreographed to insane levels...and now with added car chases too. They are like long and beautiful ballets of carnage and blood that do quite take your breath away. I do hope Evans doesn't get sucked in to the Hollywood system and just keeps on doing what he is doing. Because what he is doing is pretty much perfect just the way it is. Stunning!
6. The LEGO Movie
Everything is awesome! What more can I say? This movie IS awesome. Chris Miller and Phil Lord's blatantly commercial effort to sell more of the iconic Danish toy to kids worldwide had no business being this good. Being this smart. This sly. This funny. This...AWESOME! The visual style is pure genius, the gags (coming thick and fast) hilarious, the characters memorable, especially goofy Lego everyman Emmett (Chris Pratt – having a great year), the asshole Batman (Will Arnett) and the genius that is Bad Cop (Liam Neeson). The movie even tackles themes of creativity verses conformity and pokes fun at story archetypes, the corporate world and its money grabbing ways, and at adults who forget what toys are all about – imagination and fun! Just damn funny. Damn smart. Damn creative. And damn good FUN!
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
And the Marvel machine keeps on rolling. And keeps on making top flight entertainment. But this time they added a little extra: a bit of social comment with a look at our current surveillance world and how our fears of terror and of crime can lead us to almost blindly give away the very freedoms we say we cherish and are fighting for. Basically Marvel made a 1970's conspiracy thriller which just happens to have a costumed super soldier as its main hero. New directors The Russo Brothers bring a more real world, gritty style and feel to the world of Cap and co. while still maintaining the scifi and fantasy elements that we love about the Marvel Universe. The film sees Cap struggling to find his place in this new and morally grey world when a deadly conspiracy throws him back in to action along with an old friend and a new one in a fight to save lives and stake out the moral high ground his way. Once again Chris Evans is terrific as Cap giving him a vulnerability and innate likability while always maintaining his strength and absolute badass ability along with the sense that he truly does believe in just being a good man and doing the right thing. Scarlett Johansen is also excellent as the sly yet ultimately loyal Black Widow and Anthony Mackie makes a great addition as Cap's new buddy Sam Wilson. Also only Robert bloomin' Redford!!! Awesome! Plus Cap 2 has possibly my fave action sequence of the year with the epic free way chase/battle. It's amazing and brings to mind the street battle in Heat. With this movie Marvel yet again proved they can find the perfect people for the job with The Russo Brothers who are returning for Cap 3: Civil War and are rumoured to be involved in the Avengers: Infinity War saga if Joss decides to bow out. The future is looking pretty darn Marvel-ous!
4. Edge of Tomorrow
Adapted from the 2004 Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Doug Liman's scifi actioner is bloody great from start to finish. Tom Cruise plays against type as the cowardly PR man drafted in to fight alien invaders on the front lines in a hopeless battle only to find himself caught in a repeating Groundhog Day style time loop which allows him to repeat the same day over and over until he gets trained up enough to get off the beach and ultimately find and destroy the core of the alien threat. Cruise is terrific as the coward who gradually becomes a deadly weapon. And he is assisted by the equally terrific (and very gorgeous) Emily Blunt as veteran badass soldier Sergeant Rita Vrataski aka Full Metal Bitch! The concept alone is brilliant and Liman and his writers mine it for all its worth. What is perhaps most surprising though is the level of black humour throughout inc. finding more and more creative ways to off poor Tom! The alien bashing action is all wonderfully staged and exciting and the cast are obviously having a grand old time of it. EoT may not be very deep or thought provoking but it is a great scifi concept well told that rollicks along and keeps the audience on their toes. The aliens themselves – mimics – are a cool and creepy creation, while the tech and the war imagery harks back to WW2 complete with the storming of Normandy beaches. The saddest thing here is that while the movie did okay at the box office it got largely overlooked in the busy summer season. While crap like Transformers 4 makes over a billion dollars a genunely great and fun scifi actioner like this is relegated to the lower BO leagues. Bummer!
3. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Isao (Grave of the Fireflies) Takahata’s animated adaptation of the old Japanese folk tale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter is easily the most beautiful animated film of the year and a gorgeous, magical, graceful and emotional joy from begging to end. The story is about many things – partially a coming of age tale it is also about how parents should allow their children to follow their own path to discover who they really are rather than forcing them down a path they think they should follow due to societal pressures or their own personal agendas. It is also about how society views women and young girls as well as ones own personal wishes and dreams and about being careful what it is you end up wishing for. But above all the story is about the simple pleasure and joy to be found in close familial bonds – the love of a mother and father for their daughter and vice versa. If nothing else though The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is simply gorgeous to look at. The animation is a sketchy simple style set over the usual vibrant watercolour type backgrounds, though here those backgrounds are of a lighter than normal style with the edges of each frame fading out to white. The effect is like a children's hand drawn storybook come to life. Almost every shot, every frame of this film you could put behind glass and mount on your wall. Simply this movie is irresistibly beautiful on every level.
2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
I love the Apes movies (except for Tim Burton's crap 2001 remake) but when Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out three years ago I like many were wary. But then I saw it and loved it. It was a brilliant prequel/reboot to the entire franchise that started back with the classic 1968 original. When it came time for the sequel to Rise it was announced that Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) would direct. That made me happy as I loved both his earlier flicks. The resulting film is another triumph for the almost fifty year old franchise. A contemplative and character driven take on trust, betrayal, race relations and sharing (or not) the world with others who are different, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is Shakespearian in its tragedy and in the weight it puts on its characters especially the noble, caring and peace loving Ape leader Caesar once again played by the brilliant Andy Serkis. Caesar must deal with a city of humans wanting access to his land for their own needs while also dealing with fury and betrayal in his own ranks, all the while trying to keep what is a fragile peace between Ape and what remains of Man. Reeves focusses in on Caesar as the central character. The film starts close in on his eyes and ends the same way. We see in to his troubled soul. Serkis and the Weta FX team who help bring Caesar to life are astonishing. All the apes look amazing and are wonderfully performed especially by Serkis and Toby Kebbell as vengeful Koba. The humans are all fine and if they are short changed then so be it as this is Caesar's story and not theirs. The end of the film is sad and melancholic and points the way even more towards the future world we first saw through astronaut Taylor's eyes. Reeves is currently working on the next movie which is apparently a more or less direct sequel to Dawn. I for one can't wait. Hail Caesar!
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Okay, so...its an action/comedy space adventure starring some chubby guy from a TV sitcom, a green woman, a talking raccoon... and a walking tree that can only say the same three words? And to write/direct we'll hire the guy who wrote Tromeo and Juliet, made weird no budget psycho superhero flick Super and those internet comedy shorts PG Porn? Sounds perfect. Lets do it!
And lo they did.
With GotG Marvel took their biggest gamble to date. Even bigger than hiring a then washed up actor and recovering drug addict to headline their first big budget movie about a B level comic book character. And that turned out pretty well. But that Kevin Feige guy at Marvel must have a crystal ball or something because they went and did it again. And yet again they pulled it off...big time stylee!
Guardians of the Galaxy is not the smartest, deepest, most intelligent, most artistic movie this year. It is not world changing in any way. It doesn't speak to the core of your humanity and say anything profound to you about life and creation.
But what it is, is one helluva good time.
It's a pure geek pleasure from start to finish that knows exactly what it is – a machine for making you smile, laugh, cheer, and laugh some more. Writer/director James Gunn and original writer Nicole Perlman took these largely unknown characters and made audiences love them. As with many stories I love (including the works of Mr Whedon) the primary theme of Guardians is family...but making your own family when you don't already have one or don't have one that 'gets' you. It's the group of freaks/outsiders who come together and forge loyal bonds of friendship and love that strikes a chord. It's Buffy. It's Angel. It's Firefly. It's Star Trek. It's Babylon 5. And now it's the Guardians.
So what else?
Simply Guardians is a blast. It's funny...so funny. Full of spectacle. Full of great action. Designed and shot beautifully (boy does it look good). It's a rollicking good roller-coaster movie ride. And those songs...oh wow! But all that would be for naught if we didn't love these guys. Peter Quill, a man-child who still mourns his long dead mom; Gamora, the assassin who hates what her evil 'father' has turned her in to; Drax, full of vengeful hate and emptiness due to the murder of his only family; Rocket, an angry, tormented and scarred little creature who has never known anything but pain and suffering except from his loyal pal Groot, the big lovable, childlike sentient tree who is like Rocket's very own Jiminy Cricket conscience. Yes, Gunn and co. made us love 'em. And that is why the movie works so well. Character. And the fact that it was cast perfectly and written and directed with a quirkiness that made it feel outside the box and some ways away from normal. Oh and that Quill named his awesome ship the Milano after his major crush on Alyssa Milano, something I can totally relate to. All that and we also get Howard the freakin' Duck at movies end!!
Before 2014 dawned Guardians of the Galaxy was my most looked forward to film of the year. I had a feeling. I trusted James Gunn. And Marvel too as they had shown they had the balls to make left field choices that paid off ridiculously well. So it is pretty bloody great that come the close of 2014 Guardians is indeed my favourite film of the year and is also my second favourite Marvel film to date being not too far behind Joss's The Avengers. And as they move forward and produce more and more movies Marvel continue to redefine blockbuster entertainment with the shared MCU having gotten bigger this year. Way bigger with a new wing having been added to the Marvel house - a cosmic wing inhabited by a talking raccoon and his weird, funny, lovable pals. And I for one can't wait to see what these awesome Guardians will do next. So bravo Marvel! Bravo James Gunn!
We ARE Groot!
Predestination, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1, Nightcrawler, Starry Eyes, In Your Eyes, Obvious Child
LEAST FAVOURITE FILMS OF 2014
5. In To The Storm
Tiresome and utterly stupid disaster movie starring the bland and uncharismatic Richard Armitage. At least Sarah Wayne Callies added some spark.
4. I, Frankenstein
Poor Aaron Eckhart. From The Dark Knight to this. Lame brained and utterly misconceived spin on Mary Shelley's classic tale. Dumb is being too kind.
3. 3 Days to Kill
Or where terminally ill Kevin Costner wears a silly scarf and kills people while trying to reconnect to his annoying teenage daughter in Paris. Not even the gorgeous Amber Heard can save this risible toss.
2. Devil's Due
Yes, because we really needed a found footage take on Rosemary's Baby only without the subtext, the style, the creepiness, the scares, the sense of any point to it all whatsoever. By the numbers and empty headed so-called horror for undemanding teens and nobody else.
1. Transformers: Age of Extinction
More loud, obnoxious, incomprehensible and needlessly vulgar crap from Michael Bay. I make myself watch these as I know that they will be the worst films I see in whatever the year they come out. It is quite reassuring to always be right. This one though... the film stops dead for scene where a early 20's guy explains to his teenage girlfriend's dad why it is okay for him to have sex with her and not get prosecuted for statutory rape! Yes. Really. Wonderful. Bay really outdid himself this time. Jeez!