Monday, 29 December 2014

Top 10 Films of 2014

My Top 10 Films of 2014

1. Stations of the Cross (Dietrich Brüggemann)

2. Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen)

3. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

4. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)

5. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)

6. Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara)

7. Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood)

8. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)

9. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)

10. Dumb and Dumber To (Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly)

Honourable Mention:
Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang), Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson), A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank), The Creeping Garden (Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp), Big Eyes (Tim Burton), Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott), Paris of the North (Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson), The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini), Jimmy's Hall (Ken Loach), The Rover (David Michod), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy), Last Days (Kathryn Bigelow) 

Special Mention:
Hands of Bresson (Kogonada)

Standout Performances:
Julianne Moore & Mia Wasikowska in Maps to the Stars 
Marion Cotillard & Fabrizio Rongione in Two Days, One Night 
Lea van Acken in Stations of the Cross 
Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler
Colin Firth & Emma Stone in Magic in the Moonlight 
Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Aleksey Serebryakov & Roman Madyanov in Leviathan 
Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Paul Jesson, Marion Bailey & Lesley Manville in Mr. Turner 
Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces of January
Serhat Kilic and Demet Akbag in Winter Sleep
Guy Pearce in The Rover
Eva Green in 300: Rise of an Empire & Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Min-sik Choi in Lucy

Abysmal Performances: 
Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Godzilla
Christoph Waltz in Big Eyes
Sharlto Copley in Maleficent
Jack O’Connell in 300: Rise of an Empire
Dominic Cooper, Scott Mescudi & Harrison Gilbertson in Need for Speed
Jessica Alba in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Logan Lerman & Emma Watson in Noah
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan & Benicio Del Toro in Guardians of the Galaxy
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl 
Paul Giamatti in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Notable films from 2013 that I saw for the first time this year:

The Wind Rises, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Enemy, Enemies Closer, Venus in Fur, Camille Claudel 1915, Under the Skin, Trespassing Bergman, Ida

Films from 2014 I'm very eager to watch:

Phoenix (Christian Petzold), Jauja (Lisandro Alonso), L'il Quinquin (Bruno Dumont), Pasolini (Abel Ferrara), Miss Julie (Liv Ullmann), The Salvation (Kristian Levring), The Cosmopolitans (Whit Stillman), Queen and Country (John Boorman), The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland), Here is the Concatenation (Claire Denis), La Sapienza (Eugene Green), Not My Type (Lucas Belvaux), The Captive (Atom Egoyan), Ned Rifle (Hal Hartley), Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas), The Blue Room (Mathieu Amalric), The Falling (Carol Morley), Girlhood (Celine Sciammaa), Citizenfour (Laura Poitras), Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller), Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans), Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 (Johnnie To), National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman), Interstellar (Christopher Nolan), Eden (Mia Hansen-Love), Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu), Top Five (Chris Rock), Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson), A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor), Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry), See No Evil 2 (Jen & Sylvia Soska), Chef (Jon Favreau), White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki), Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau (David Gregory) and many others.

Films I'm looking forward to or just curious about in 2015:

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick), Evolution (Lucile Hadzihalilovic) Blackhat (Michael Mann), The Martian (Ridley Scott), Sunset Song (Terence Davies), Carol (Todd Haynes), Spectre (Sam Mendes), Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg), The Lobster (Giorgos Lanthimos), hopefully a finished version of The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles) and, of course, Woody Allen's currently untitled next feature starring Emma Stone, Joaquin Phoenix and Parker Posey.
Also 'Lost Themes' - a new record by John Carpenter.


Richard Attenborough, Ox Baker, Lauren Bacall, Polly Bergen, Noel Black, Karlheinz Bohm, Marilyn Burns, L. M. Kit Carson, Charles Champlin, Warren Clarke, Ruby Dee, Marie Dubois, Antoine Duhamel, Gerry Fisher, Robert Gardner, James Garner, Giorgio Gaslini, H.R. Giger, Menahem Golan, Jim Hellwig (aka The Ultimate Warrior), Edward Herrmann, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bob Hoskins, Gottfried John, Russell Johnson, Christopher Jones, Koichi Kawakita, Daniel Keyes, Richard Kiel, Carla Laemmle, Virna Lisi, Rik Mayall, Oswald Morris, Kate O'Mara, Luise Rainer, Harold Ramis, Alain Resnais, Joseph Sargent, Maximilian Schell, Run Run Shaw, George Sluizer, Dick Smith, Ken Takakura, Saito Takao, Shirley Temple, Eli Wallach, Robin Williams, Gordon Willis

Further Thoughts:

In 2014 films took a backseat to the World Cup, Tour de France Grand Depart in Yorkshire, moving house on two separate occasions and a much anticipated holiday. There's also the awkward fact that getting to a cinema showing anything that wasn't a kids movie or a blockbuster (or both) was quite an ordeal. For geographical and financial reasons going to the cinema isn't as straightforward as it used to be for me. Living in a large city at the start of the year I was lucky enough to have two wonderful independent cinemas and a multiplex within walking distance. After moving in February I've had to prioritise and compromise with my choices given all the extra expense involved, as anyone who uses trains in the UK knows all too well.

In 2013 I wasn't particularly convinced by several of my choices for the year's best and was at a loss to find any order of merit for those that made the list. This year I'm reasonably happy with the selection I've chosen for my highlights of the last 12 months. Although less active as a filmgoer the fact that I've managed to see a more interesting and varied bunch of films than the year before now feels like an achievement of sorts. Being more selective had its advantages, even if I found myself cramming a lot of viewings in to the last two months of the year via easily obtainable rental titles. There's a great deal of films I've not yet seen (see section above for details) that I would like to have given some kind of mention to here, for instance Interstellar seems like one of those titles that the average filmgoer is required to have an opinion about, but there's plenty that I did see that is well worth discussing.

It was encouraging to see several of my favourite filmmakers on adventurous form in 2014. Jean-Luc Godard made a film that used 3D as part of the experience rather than some silly novelty. At 70 minutes length it didn't give me too much of a headache either, unlike the hyperactive, godawful Lego Movie. Clint Eastwood adapted a broadway musical of all things. Abel Ferrara, never one to shy away from tough subjects, gave us a fictionalised Dominic Strauss Kahn in Welcome to New York and covered the last day of Pier Paolo Pasolini's life in Pasolini. It was a particularly good year for David Cronenberg fans. There was a new short film called The Nest shown online, the publication of his first novel 'Consumed' and his cinematic exhibition continued to be shown at various international locations throughout the year. As daring as ever, his latest feature Maps to the Stars feels like his most unhinged and warped work since Crash and is probably the closest he has yet come to making a comedy. It makes an interesting companion piece with 2012's Cosmopolis.

If any further evidence were needed that I focus too much on the directors, my major disappointments of 2014 were more to do with filmmakers than the films themselves. There was an unfortunate trend of promising talents who have previously worked on modest budgets moving to the big leagues. While I had no great urge to see Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, all three represented a serious downturn for their respective helmsman. Guardians of the Galaxy depressed me more than any film in 2014 as it seems to be what modern audiences crave and yet I couldn't find a single likable quality to it. After providing the perfect antidote to the multitude of superhero movies clogging our screens with the woefully underrated Super how sad it is to see James Gunn join the Marvel bandwagon. He appeared to have put more effort in to choosing tracks for the "awesome mix" tape than he did on the film's screenplay or terrible action scenes. Gareth Edwards was effectively silenced by his sophomore effort, an undoubtedly lucrative venture. Having shown in 2010's Monsters that ambitious genre films can be done on microbudgets for those with resourcefulness, knowhow and determination, all that ingenuity went out of the window in the terminally dull Godzilla. Matt Reeves also went the franchise route and proved once more how bloated budgets can smother talent.

Almost by contrast it was nice to see some corners of mainstream action cinema stepping back from the lifeless gaudy CGI trickery that has robbed it of excitement in favour of good old fashioned stuntwork, in The November Man and Need for Speed for instance. Much of the interest in The Expendables 3 was in what took place offscreen, notably the very public falling out between Stallone and Willis over Bruce's paycheck, the piracy case and the discontent over the PG-13 rating. Far better was Sabotage, a much closer approximation of what The Expendables series should have done all along. Meanwhile another aging former action star (Kevin Costner) has to content himself with being the best thing in lousy movies these days - last year it was Man of Steel, this year it was Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 3 Days to Kill. Liam Neeson's assembly line of generic thrillers continued unabated, with A Walk Among the Tombstones being a surprisingly solid effort while Non-Stop got rather tangled up in its series of twists before its overblown finale. Edge of Tomorrow milked its gimicky scenario for all it was worth and as a result ran out of steam in its later stages but it showed that Tom Cruise can still carry a movie. Another conceptual action movie, Lucy, made the wise decision to keep its ludicrous premise running for under 90 minutes but even that seemed stretched to breaking point. Ironically for its subject matter, Noah provoked disbelief above anything else. A film so ludicrous I kept expecting Nicolas Cage to show up. Can anyone explain how this or Transcendence seemed like a good idea to begin with?

The Leeds Film Festival in November was, as always, a nice chance to catch up on acclaimed offerings from around the globe, although missing such titles as A Hard Day, Bird People and Birdman feels like a failing on my part. I couldn't make head or tail of the highly acclaimed Horse Money, which proved to be something of an endurance test although judging by the number of walkouts the film prompted I was more patient than some. Despite some fine performances, the Palme D'Or winner Winter Sleep was a slow burner that didn't amount to much and certainly fizzled out long before the end. There's only so many prolonged, awkward conversations and uncomfortable truths in a single film that I can endure. It was a shame that the film's striking main location was underused in favour of some relatively bland interior scenes although director Nuri Bilge Ceylan maintains this was intentional.
There were compensations, most notably in the form of Goodbye to Language and Tsai Ming-liang's Journey to the West, an interesting experiment that is largely successful as a form of meditative cinema.

Writing this over the Christmas period I have found the end of year plaudits that greeted The Grand Budapest Hotel somewhat baffling. Wes Anderson's overstuffed, self-pleased offerings feel very tiresome by this stage. Alongside Horse Money I found it to be the year's most overrated film. As for the much vaunted Boyhood I thought the idea was better than the execution. Whether such a banal and meandering story really warranted such an ambitious and lengthy production schedule is open to debate. While there were admirable qualities to Mr. Turner it did feel at times like a dream project that had maybe gestated for too long.

I felt the most misunderstood film I saw in 2014 was Magic in the Moonlight. I'd need a full blog post to sum up my thoughts and feelings on this one but I'll try and keep it as short as possible here. Like with Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys it seemed like a veteran with nothing to prove making a film for the sheer fun of it. It was all too easily written off as frivolous after the much praised drama and awards season glory of Blue Jasmine. Under the guise of a lightweight comedy Woody Allen has made his most beguiling film in years and a much deeper and richer film than than the glossy, luxurious surface would suggest. This is the first of his overseas ventures that I've really liked, in part because the location here doesn't feel imposed or like a burden. The late 1920s French Riviera setting actually adds a certain charm here as opposed to the hollow feeling picture postcard backdrops he used in Barcelona, London, Rome and Paris and Woody seems far more at ease in a period setting than he does in contemporary outings. Rather than mannered turns we get a relaxed cast that seems to be enjoying themselves. Both on outstanding form, Colin Firth and Emma Stone work wonders with the dialogue and display marvellous comic timing. Pitting reason and intellect against faith and intuition Woody is able to tackle his favourite themes with mordant wit and wisdom. Not the straightforward romantic comedy that some may have expected. It's definitely earned a place in my personal canon alongside the similarly misunderstood Anything Else and Whatever Works as one of Allen's great latter day films.

I went to see Stations of the Cross almost by accident and unexpectedly stumbled upon my favourite film of the year. There seems to have been a mini renaissance in German cinema in recent times. The last 5 years has given us such excellent films as The White Ribbon, Barbara & The Strange Little Cat. I hope there's a lot more titles of that quality still to see, although distibution for French and German films has been patchy at best in recent times in the UK. Along with Calvary and Timbuktu, Stations of the Cross suggests a more nuanced approach to religion and faith in films, a welcome relief from the hysterical treatment we have become accustomed to.

I'm willing at this point to overlook the flaws of Exodus: Gods and Kings. The film is a harsh tale that fits in well with the fatalistic worldview of Prometheus and The Counsellor in which Ridley Scott combines the epic and the intimate with his strong eye for detail and orchestrates the action superbly. A self proclaimed agnostic, his work has taken on an interesting philosophical and theological charge in the last few years, perhaps to make up for the shallow detours of A Good Year, American Gangster and Body of Lies. Scott has mentioned that the original cut was around the 4 hour mark, which explains the uneven pacing in parts and sometimes unexpected marginal characters. I'm probably one of a minority who is excited at the possibility of a longer version surfacing on DVD.

As well as religion, politics came to the foreground of several fine films but in a more organic, less forced way than is usually the case. Perhaps unsurprisingly under current circumstances politically engaging films took on what felt like a new kind of urgency this year in the likes of Welcome to New York, Leviathan & Jimmy's Hall. Best of all was Two Days, One Night, a very moving portrait of personal struggle and the social and economic turmoil that is prevalent in contemporary Europe. It's as relevant, stirring and compassionate a film as anything I've seen all year and one that hit a particularly raw nerve. It's been a difficult year for me in some ways but thanks to at least a dozen offerings I feel like it's been worth the effort on the film front. Cinema trips may be something of a quaint excursion these days but here's hoping that a change in circumstances will allow for an even better year in 2015.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Film Highlights of 2014

Film Highlights of 2014

Best filmgoing experience: A screening in February of Fritz Lang's Destiny at Hyde Park Picturehouse with a live musical accompaniment by HarmonieBand.

- A very good year for fans of Westerns. In the USA Criterion released John Ford's 1946 masterpiece My Darling Clementine as well as two mid-1960s efforts from Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson - Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. Hopefully Criterion have plans to do a DVD of Marlon Brando's sole directorial outing, One-Eyed Jacks. Meanwhile in the UK we were treated to 'The Great Westerns Collection' by the 101 Films DVD label. Titles included Horizons West, Border River, Ride Clear of Diablo, Whispering Smith, Hell Bent for Leather, Law and Order, Man in the Shadows, Ride a Crooked Trail, Gun for a Coward, The Cimarron Kid & The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. They were all barebones releases but it was nice to see the original artwork on the covers.

- Three classic Mitchell Leisen comedies - Easy Living, Midnight and Remember the Night got long overdue region 2 releases thanks to the Odeon label.
- Favourite Region 2 DVD releases (in addition to the titles mentioned above):
Hombre (Fox), Rabid Dogs (Arrow), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (Arrow), White Dog (Eureka), The Killers (Arrow), Wake in Fright (Eureka), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Odeon), 55 Days at Peking (Anchor Bay), Ace in the Hole (Eureka), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Icon Home Entertainment/Hammer), Sisters (Arrow Video), That Sinking Feeling (BFI Flipside), Boomerang! (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), The Werner Herzog Collection (BFI), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Masters of Cinema), Salvatore Giuliani (Masters of Cinema), The Gang’s All Here (Masters of Cinema), Spione (Eureka) & The Sorcerers (Odeon Entertainment), The Long Goodbye (Arrow), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (BFI), If... (Eureka/Masters of Cinema), Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1963-1974 (BFI), Violent Saturday (Eureka), Man of Marble (Second Run), Branded to Kill (Arrow), The Whip and the Body (Odeon Entertainment), Dead of Night (Studio Canal) 

Film scores
- La-La Land Records did an expanded and remastered release of Shirley Walker and John Carpenter's score to Escape from L.A. Meanwhile Intrada Records released Jerry Goldsmith's score to Psycho II and a 2 disc set of Harry Sukman's score to Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot.

- Two very worthwhile books examining classic Horror films were released this year: 'Tod Browning's Dracula' by Gary D. Rhodes, a thorough study of the production, reception, legacy and myths surrounding the 1931 film, and 'The Making of George A. Romero's Day of the Dead' by Lee Karr.

Other film related highlights
- The Chris Marker exhibition at Whitechapel gallery was a surprise given the scant exposure that Marker's work has received in the UK in the past. Soda Pictures put out a 2 disc set of lesser known Marker works while BFI released Le Joli Mai.

- 90 minutes of deleted or extended scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me were included on 'Twin Peaks - The Entire Mystery' Blu-Ray box-set. I would have preferred a standalone special edition DVD release of Fire Walk with Me but the fact that this footage has finally seen the light of day is definitely a cause for celebration. As for the show itself it seems there is still more to come in 2016. 

- On a film/TV related note, Don Hertzfeldt's couch gag for The Simpsons was one of the most wondrous things I saw all year. 

- YouHateEverything podcast

- Some decent film posters: