29 December 2014

My top 10 films of 2014

So another year ebbs into the sunset, and it's been a bumper year for film-watching for me. Spurred on by the Film Society, the Film Festival and the movie-list site Letterboxd, I've watched an infeasible and possibly unrepeatable 199 films this year. There's been a few duff outings - that 15-minute indie short film at Filmsoc of a cat sitting around doing nothing will go down in ignominy - but that's been more than counterbalanced by a fine crop of quality offerings at the cinema. Here's my top 10 list of new films seen in 2014. It's in reverse order, commencing and concluding with two particular highlights from the film festival - the latter of which I've been raving about to anyone who will listen since I saw it in August.

10. The Young & Prodigious T.S. Spivet
This splendid work of imaginative French film-making is perfectly in its element on the big screen at the Embassy in Wellington - glorious 3D cinematography displayed to full effect on the largest canvas possible, allowing the whimsical Spivet spectacle free rein. Young T.S. (Kyle Catlett) is a gifted 10-year-old inventor who receives an invitation to the Smithsonian in Washington DC to receive an award for his remarkable invention, but only because the museum doesn't realise he's only a boy. Striking out on his own from his home in the Rockies, this is an impressively rendered fantasy suitable for most ages (apart from some naughty swearing near the end). Fans of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's earlier whimsical work (Delicatessen, Amelie, Micmacs) will be on solid ground here. It's a pity that most people may end up seeing this on DVD release rather than on the best screen possible, because it really does make superb use of the visual storytelling power of properly-thought-out 3D film-making. Now if only the boy could be convinced to speak his lines a little more clearly so we could make out exactly what he's saying, it would be near perfect.

9. Gone Girl
David Fincher's Gone Girl is one of the increasingly rare films that deserves and makes engrossing use of a 2-hour-plus running time. It benefits from a strong performance from not just the main players (Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck, both in pleasingly multi-faceted roles) but also the supporting players - particularly the coffee-swilling detective and the suspect's twin sister played by the actress with the unfortunate surname. It's also nice to see an all-grown-up Patrick Fugit (from the marvellous Almost Famous) as the detective's sidekick. And: the things Neil Patrick Harris will do for his art! Also, despite the hysteria when it was released about the tone and themes of the film, one should remember that Gone Girl is about as representative of marriage as Black Swan was of ballet. It's not a documentary, folks - it's entertainment. Bleak, mordant, gripping entertainment.

8. 12 Years a Slave
It is no surprise that a film about man's inhumanity to man should shock and confront its audience, and 12 Years A Slave certainly does that. This is an unflinchingly brutal depiction of the harsh reality of centuries of black slavery in the American South, and many scenes are very difficult to watch. Through it all, Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a most powerful performance as the educated kidnap victim Solomon Northrup, who must pretend ignorance to survive and who suffers the multitude of cruelties that were inflicted on many generations in the bleak and shameful history of the South. I don't know if director Steve McQueen intended 12 Years A Slave as a direct riposte to the jokey badinage of Django Unchained, and I haven't seen that other famous film set in the pre-Civil War days, but if that was intended then it has definitely succeeded. This is undeniably superior and serious work of lasting importance. Its British director and British star should be proud for having made this year's classic film of American history - an epic to rival 2012's Lincoln.

7. Short Term 12
It would be easy for a drama like Short Term 12 to descend into a soap opera, depicting as it does the struggles of youthful social workers working to support troubles teenagers in a California residential centre. But it's anything but a melodrama; instead, this is a warm, challenging and commendably unsentimental glimpse into the powerful difference a committed advocate can make in the lives of young people who have been set off the rails by personal tragedy and abuse. The performances of the social workers and the teenage cast are uniformly compelling, lending this an air of realism missing in so much TV drama, and the personal dilemmas faced by the staff are sometimes just as powerful as those faced by the youths in their care. This is a powerful and intriguing film that shows contemporary drama is in good health at the fringes of indie cinema.

6. Interstellar
Finally after all the waiting, Interstellar came out and it's definitely worth seeing. Is it perfect? No, there are noticeable problems. A reasonably large chunk of the dialogue was undecipherable thanks to McConaughey's close-mouthed drawl and the cacophonous background noise, which the film-maker later claimed (unconvincingly) was intentional. The long Earth-bound setup drags somewhat and commits the ultimate sin of actually being boring in places - Michael Caine is surplus to requirements and much of the plot explanation is superfluous too. For example, Christopher Nolan certainly does not need to explain what wormholes are to sci-fi fans, or indeed to the highly experienced astronaut receiving the information, who is on a mission to a wormhole. Everyone knows already. And like Gravity, some of the physics involved are rather showbizzy in nature. But despite those quibbles, Interstellar is essential viewing for Nolan and sci-fi fans alike. Visually the film ranks amongst the finest of the art, with superb space sequences and imaginative alien planet environs. It asks interesting questions about the personal consequences of journeying across space and time, and the challenges of maintaining humanity and sanity, both individually and as a species. And the ending, which I won't spoil here, is pleasingly unexpected. See it on the best screen you can - at home on TV will simply not do justice to Interstellar.

5. Nebraska
This little film with a lot of Oscar nominations is a road movie with an endearing family dynamic at its core. Bruce Dern and Will Forte are both excellent as a decrepit senior citizen Woody and his dutiful son David who take a road trip to redeem a million-dollar piece of junk mail in Nebraska. En route they bicker about the father's incessant drinking, stop in with relatives who get a sniff of the riches and form designs on a share, and revisit scenes and the ossified associates from Woody's youth. There are moments of brilliantly understated family comedy, gentle pathos, the occasional missing set of dentures, and constant scene-stealing from June Squibb as Woody's vinegary and long-suffering wife Kate - her graveyard scene will be remembered fondly for years to come.

4. Mr Turner
Director Mike Leigh and lead actor Timothy Spall have together created a top-flight costume drama of impeccable pedigree in Mr Turner, the biopic of the distinguished painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), whose masterful and at times unconventional maritime scenes enlivened the art world in the first half of the 19th century, and which still reach out to visitors to the Tate Britain gallery in Pimlico. Spall inhabits the role of Turner with gusto, all huff-puffing, porcine grunts, and suffering no fool gladly. In lesser hands this would be a portrayal given to gurning over-acting, but Spall pitches the performance perfectly, particularly as he depicts the declining Turner of his later years. Aside from Spall's surely Oscar-nominee-worthy performance (he has already won Best Actor at Cannes), the supporting cast is also highly skilled, including those playing Turner's long-suffering house-woman Miss Danby, his second mistress Mrs Booth, and art-world folk like the young John Ruskin (a hilariously foppish turn by Joshua McGuire) and the temperamental and unreliable artist Benjamin Haydon. The film is lovely to look at too, with several of Turner's finest works mirrored onscreen with the careful and discreet use of CGI. So many of the scenes are memorable for their unhurried gait and Leigh's welcome touch, allowing the natural humour of life to play out before our eyes without dashing on in the service of the plot. My only quibble with the film is the casting of Paul Jesson as Turner's father - while he gives a good performance, there is only 11 years age difference between him and Spall, and it is a small obstacle to believability in the first half of the film. But aside from that, Mr Turner is every bit as strong a production as 12 Years A Slave.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson's new film will probably not win new converts to his particularly meticulous and idiosyncratic way of film-making, but for his fans The Grand Budapest Hotel is something to savour. A superb cast all eager to work for a director is often a good sign, and Anderson's cast list boasts an embarrassment of riches. The casting of Ralph Fiennes as the florid, voluble Monsieur Gustave, champion concierge and romancer of elderly grand duchesses, is note-perfect, and under Anderson's stewardship it's as if he was born to play deadpan comedy. As ever, the film is a delight to watch, unfolding in impressive detail onscreen with familiar Anderson touches - exquisite framing, multi-storey tableaux with cameras whizzing through buildings, never cutting when a 90-degree pan will do, and particular attention to Ruritanian follies like brocaded hotel uniforms and Austro-Hungarian-style army get-up. While this may not be to everyone's taste, I definitely appreciated the wry, dry humour at work, and can't wait for Anderson's next outing.

2. The Great Beauty
Jep Gambardella has just turned 65, and despite living the dream life amongst the careless Roman elite, he can't help but feel his hedonistic lifestyle is empty, lacking completion. Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza follows Jep (the dapper Toni Servillo) through a myriad of Bacchanalian excess and frivolous conversation as he questions the purpose of his life as a writer who produced one good book four decades ago and who has lived off that fame ever since, partying til dawn, sleeping through the day, and arising to begin anew each night. Throughout, Jep flirts with memories of his first, lost love, and ponders what to do with his remaining years. Whereas Woody Allen's recent To Rome With Love was an entertaining trifle, this is an enduring glimpse inside a world of ageing gigolos, dissolute literary gods, exploited artists, would-be lechers, gluttonous cardinals, aspiring playwrights and fading beauties, partying through the night because they know no other way to live. The film has so many memorable scenes that it definitely calls for repeated viewings, particularly on the big screen, which can show off the sumptuous cinematography. The classical music sprinkled throughout is also thoroughly gorgeous, although the same cannot be said for the traditionally awful - but thoroughly authentic - Italian pop music in the party scenes. Aside from that, this is a real cinematic treat.

1. Boyhood
Twelve years to make one film - checking in with the cast each year to film new scenes in the developing story of one boy, his sister, and his separated parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) - equals an enormous and ambitious endeavour, and one that has paid huge dividends for director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Boyhood is both compelling and engrossing, and it's a rare compliment to emerge from a 164-minute film wishing there was more to see. There are no villains and no saints, just a very real depiction of a series of friends, stepfathers, relatives, boyfriends and girlfriends that spread out over more than a decade in Texas, director Richard Linklater's own home state. Young Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) as his sister Sam sprout before your eyes from a mop-haired urchins to college-departing young adults, making this the dramatic equivalent of the famous documentary Seven Up. It's remarkable how effective the narrative remains when it could easily have been disjointed, and how the segments combine into a seamless mix of drama, comedy and social realism. The performances are all uniformly excellent, too. Boyhood is an absolute treasure. Someone should put it in a time capsule immediately, because film-making doesn't get much better than this.

In conclusion

I will watch the Oscar nominations with interest, in the hope that some of the deserving but lesser-known films in this list receive the attention they deserve. And perhaps in 2015 I might make an effort to watch a more modest and reasonable number of films, because 199 is just about too many!

See also:
Movies: My top 10 films of 2013
Movies: My top 10 films of 2012
Movies: My top 10 films of 2011
MoviesMy top 10 films of 2010
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