2014 has been a great year for film. However, that can possibly be said about any year since the advent of cinema… 2014 has been an interesting year for film. We’ve lost a great deal of talent – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lauren Bacall, Robin Williams and numerous others – and discovered some fantastic newcomers.
Christopher Nolan delivered us into space and other directors focused on keeping us on Earth, to immensely troubling results – I’m looking at you, David Fincher; both the galaxy and the Earth were on the brink of destruction and, alas, saved. We saw the sequel How To Train Your Dragon and something that we could’ve only dreamed of years ago – a film, dedicated solely to Lego…
So here’re the best – in our opinion – films of 2014. Perhaps the films the 2014 will be remembered by. Enjoy the read and have a great New Year.
– Paulina Drėgvaitė & Andrew Russell
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is two hours within the head of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor famous for playing a superhero named Birdman – years and years ago. Now Riggan is attempting to establish himself as a ‘serious’ actor and is directing a play – his first ever – in Broadway; he’s directing Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and it is proving to be more difficult than expected. Hiring a magnificently talented Mike Shiner (a fantastic Edward Norton) to help with the play, Riggan finds it harder and harder to balance between the real – failure, competition, alcohol – and the surrealistic suggestions of Birdman himself, who keeps on nagging to excel, excel, excel…
Iñárritu is one of the best directors cinema has at the moment, and it’s great to see him back on track. Birdman strikes a very different chord than his previous masterpiece Amores perros (2000), but it has a similar sense of sheer brilliance; it halts you on your tracks and keeps you transfixed, the camera relentlessly pursuing the characters to the pace of Joan Valent’s jazz score. One gigantic theatre rehearsal, seemingly shot in one take. Magic. And, in the age of massive superhero blockbusters, it delivers a wonderfully ironic view on the iconization of actors, be they method or superhero.
– Paulina Drėgvaitė
On the surface, the revenge thriller, much like the slasher movie, would appear to be a tired genre. On the whole, recent revenge thrillers failed to really evoke anything other than revulsion. Seemingly, their aim was to shock and horrify the spectator, and offer little more as a consolation. Films like I Spit on your Grave (the 2010 remake) and I Saw the Devil (2010) offer up a hearty helping of prolonged gratuitous violence with little tension or greater meaning, with the specific act of revenge filling the entire length of the film. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin is a revenge thriller, but its power and brilliance lies in what it has to say, rather than what it specifically shows.
Blue Ruin succeeds where others fail; the violence is abrupt and merciless, leaving the screen as quickly as it entered it. This predilection to avoid dragging out the violence works to achieve a number of effects. Firstly, the sheer suddenness of it maintains a steady tone, and an unbearable tension; the audience is acutely aware that violence may strike at any moment, and prepares themselves as such. Secondly, with Saulnier choosing to depict violence in this way, he is directly commenting on the act of violent revenge itself. He is not glamourizing it as an empowering act of justice, but as a hollow act, that quickly ends and provides little satisfaction or solace. It is clear that this act of revenge brings little happiness to a man whose life has been destroyed by violence, and resigns himself to avenge his parents’ death with little concern for his own well-being. The steady pace and unbearable tension of Blue Ruin made it a great ‘revenge thriller’, but the discourse on the act of revenge that was commented on by the text, is what made it a great film.
– Chris Owen
Like Dazed & Confused, the Before Sunset trilogy, and pretty much every Richard Linklater feature, Boyhood treads the line between underground and mainstream aesthetics with unusual balance. It takes a director of great skill to craft a masterpiece like this one, but one of far rarer levels of humility and respect for his subject matter, to be so absent from it. The mise-en-scene is unobtrusive and economical. There are beautiful shots, no doubt, but the beauty of them is intrinsic, as is the artistic value in the magnificently natural family narrative that, free from edgy edits and self-indulgent camera flourishes, so organically unfolds before us.
But it was the depth of my relation to the adult characters in this movie that I did not see coming. Ethan Hawke had me beaming at several points in the film, not least when explaining his conceptual compilation of The Beatles’ post-breakup solo work to his son in the car. But it was Patricia Arquette who stole the show for me, as, in the last shot we see of her, head in hands she sobs wearily ‘I thought there would be more’. After a lifetime devoted to caring for her children, she now comes face-to-face with the abyssal space they leave behind them as they head on to adulthoods of their own. As much as I felt excited by the potential adventures ahead for Mason as a liberated, dope-smoking freshman, I couldn’t suppress the overriding sense of remorse for his mother, who turned out to be the victim of her own tireless efforts to preserve her children’s happiness. This triumphant meditation on life is casual in its formal treatment, yet profound in its emotional impact. The crowning glory in its hugely underrated director’s career.
– Jacob Mier
Calvary tells the story of a priest who is told, during confession, that he is going to be killed next Sunday. Upon hearing this news he proceeds to attempt to help the various troubled members of his flock. In a year which included Interstellar, Mockingjay Part 1 and The Battle of the Five Armies, Calvary provides a welcome break to the large scale blockbusters by providing a simple narrative with rich characters without any mention of wormholes or dragons. Only the third film John Michael McDonagh has directed, the film has a real sense of maturity and progress when compared to his earlier film The Guard. Brendan Gleeson provides a strong performance as Father James Lavelle, the protagonist, who is the moral centre of the film. His warm and cool demeanour means you instantly feel for his struggle as he attempts to make some positive difference in his village before Sunday arrives. The narrative is interspersed with awe-inspiring shots of the Irish countryside which provide a peaceful and neutral background to the immoral characters who populate it.
The film’s strength comes from its ambiguity and the questions it raises. Hours after watching it I was still left wondering why the film was named after place where Jesus was crucified, despite the elements of self-sacrifice, and quite why Father James didn’t simply notify the police about the threat. On top of this it makes you wonder about the image of the Catholic Church, with allegations of sexual abuse and such and whether branding the entire establishment as immoral because of the behaviour of a few is justified. In the film many characters use Father James as a scapegoat, taking out their cynicism and dislike of religion on him, ignoring the fact he is in fact a very moral and kind man with integrity. To me, any film which provokes as much thought as that is worthy of the highest praise.
– Jack Bonnamy
This past year has seen quite a few cinematic crackers hit the big screen with big blockbusters such as Christopher Nolan’s gargantuan Interstellar, and the Marvel universe’s latest cosmic caper, Guardians of the Galaxy, but David Fincher’s dark thriller, Gone Girl, has soared higher in my cinematic estimations than any of this year’s releases. Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s 2012 bestseller of the same name, Gone Girl follows the tale of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), after the disappearance and suspected murder of his beautiful, all-American wife, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike). Suspicion quickly falls upon Nick as the stormy turmoil beneath the tranquil veneer of his marriage is revealed, yet all is not as it seems as Fincher masterfully spins out this labyrinthine yarn of deception and diabolical betrayal. Rarely is the statement true, but Gone Girl is one of those films which has you gripping onto the edge of your seat. Every twist and every turn, even to those who have read Flynn’s novel, are fantastically executed that the impacts of each revelation is no less diminished. Ben Affleck proves his acting mettle with ease, but this film really shines bright through the tour de force performance of Rosamund Pike. This is Rosamund Pike’s moment, and she has met the mark with her role as the cunning, Janus-like Amy Dunne. Gone Girl is a clever examination of how perspectives can so easily be twisted and manipulated, particularly by the media.
With recent cases such as Christopher Jeffries demonstrating the damaging power of the press in dialogue with the justice system, the issues at play in Gone Girl are painfully relevant as they revolve around perhaps one of the oldest dramatic tropes; as the old saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
– Alexandra Ricou
Guardians of the Galaxy
When I picked Guardians of the Galaxy as the best film of the year, I immediately thought to myself “Am I only picking it because so many other films have been taken?” But while its claim as best of 2014 may be arguable, it is most definitely the year’s greatest underdog story. It’s no coincidence that the first scene after the prologue on Earth (a scene also in the trailers) features one of our heroes, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), trying to explain who he is to a perplexed Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou). “Who?” he asks, echoing many who thought Marvel had gone insane when this film was announced. Every aspect of it was a sure bet for failure.
The protagonists were a team of Marvel C-listers, obscure even to an average comic book fan. The same could be said of the casting choice: A sitcom star and a semi-retired wrestler in main roles and its best known stars, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, relegated to voice roles; one of them technically having a single line in the whole film. And while the wonderfully disturbing Super may count as experience in the superhero genre, writer/director James Gunn was still a big gamble. Despite everything that could have gone wrong, Gunn has created a fantastic film. It is simply a really fun, true to its roots, honest summer blockbuster. It’s a child of Star Wars and Indiana Jones and all those great adventure romps of the eighties, from before a time when the term “summer blockbuster” became somewhat tainted. Gunn seems to understand what makes the classics so great and ensures that Guardians has what so many films lack nowadays, a heart. Who would have thought Rocket and Groot would end up being the emotional core of the film and straight-faced killer Drax the Destroyer would bring out some of the biggest laughs?
In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy may not be high art or as thought provoking as some of the other picks but it is thoroughly enjoyable. And at a time where most blockbusters seem unable to achieve even that, should we not appreciate Guardians for showing us the light again?
– Cayo Sobral
How To Train Your Dragon 2
How To Train Your Dragon 2 is not just an outstanding sequel, but one of the best films to come out this summer. Fun, moving and exceptionally crafted, the animated epic builds upon relationships and issues introduced in the first How To Train Your Dragon. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now at the age of 21, is struggling with the transition into adulthood and what that entails for someone who’s part of a dragon-riding Viking warrior tribe. Additionally, the looming responsibility causes Hiccup to question his own identity, something which comes to a head with the loss of a loved one later in the film. The plot may not be quite as charming as the first, but makes up for it in scale and fairly heavy emotional drama. The excellent supporting characters from the first film make a return (Hiccup’s father Stoick played to perfection by Gerard Butler), with the addition of new antagonists, and Hiccup’s mother – played (with a somewhat shaky accent) by Cate Blanchett. As for the animation itself, it really does soar (sorry).
As with the first film, it looks its best in the flight sequences, but with Roger Deakins (cinematographer for Skyfall, True Grit and No Country For Old Men) returning as a visual consultant, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is probably the best looking animated film I have ever seen, with stunning landscapes, skyboxes and character models, all of which occasionally appear to be photorealistic, thanks to Dreamworks’ new animation software. John Powell’s score is equally great, helping to elevate the film to a level of grandeur and intimacy yet to be seen in any other Dreamworks film – and in one moment, even gives way to a number sung by Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett, to great effect. How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a unique, mature, but accessible animated feature film, and easily holds up against this summer’s blockbusters as a thrilling and emotional experience for all ages.
– Kambole Campbell
Ida & Nymphomaniac
Choosing between Nymphomaniac and Ida was a choice between how film can put trauma to work. Plus because lists are designed to feed somewhat complicated information down a tube directly into our stomachs, I thought I’d throw a spanner in the works and give two films the space of one. This was an interesting year for films depicting women in various roles and historical periods, from Gone Girl’s pint of skepticism to all the hope-giving fairy tales and animations (Frozen, Maleficent) designed to show the little one’s a way out other than marrying rich princes and maybe stir some repressed freedom in the mothers and fathers who dragged their only-reason-to-stay-together child along to another animation. Ida on the one hand gives us a beautifully slow aesthetic that moves characters to the edges, revealing the overlapping worlds they inhabit and two possibilities out of crisis moments in one’s life. The ending is pure bliss, an unthinkable hope for what Ida may do after the curtain call is much more promising than another image of a self-made woman. Nymphomaniac similarly shows relationships between women and the potential in-escapability of patriarchal oppression while men govern the means of expression, attempting to tie in every hysterical loose end. Nymphomaniac is pessimistic about social relations and reveals how easily hope vested in softly-spoken men is destructive to any sober female (and other) expression. Together these films offer ways of thinking about the many threads that work to create identity and how easily we can undo them, making ourselves part of the world we want, sewing ourselves into the social fabric in ways that give no certain answers, the symbolic antagonist of Nymphomaniac.
– Andrew Russell
The Lego Movie
My expectations were low coming into a movie that’s literally built on product placement, but as the hype for this one grew and grew, I became curious. When I did finally get to see it, it still surpassed all expectation. It’s as beautiful as Toy Story 3, thinks harder than Wreck-It-Ralph, and is definitely the best animated offering of the last twelve months. Not only is the animation sharp and full of energy, but it also moves in a completely unique way. It captures a robotic jerkiness you’d expect from characters made of entirely plastic, but retains a certain grace and fluidity on a par with anything from Pixar. The film is full of on-point satire and the humour is sophisticated and adult without being inappropriate for kids. Lego Batman is far and away the funniest thing in the film, though other characters do have their moments, and the interplay between Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is some of the best stuff in the movie.It also has plenty of beautiful logistical touches, like the animation of clouds made entirely of bricks and the unnerving unison of the background characters in the early parts of the film that show just how much though and effort went into this project.
What I love most about this film is how it travels to the ends of its own universe and does not shy away from the implications and possibilities of its set-up. What does it mean to be truly creative? Can you be inventive if you only follow the instructions of others? What’s the value of creativity in teams? I love children’s films that assume children can think, and I think the best thing of all is when a film decides the audience can work it out for themselves.
– Hannah Froggatt
At times it seems that the romantic comedy is slowly dying, and the Golden Age of the late 80s through to the early 00s has been dismantled by cynicism and Meg Ryan ageing. However, Obvious Child showed there’s still life in the romantic comedy yet with a hilarious yet bracingly adult look at womanhood and modern relationships. Jenny Slate stars as stand-up comedienne Donna Stern who uses her incredible wit to distance herself from her emotional issues, like a female Seinfeld or Alvy Singer. It follows in the grand tradition of Jewish New York Comedy with some excellent one liners. In the funniest joke of the film she describes herself as the girl serving bagels at the synagogue. However, her honesty in performances leads to her break-up and she rebounds by sleeping with a stranger she meets at a bar. When she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, she is forced to re-examine her life choices. What’s refreshing about this comedy is the mature look it has on a controversial topic such as abortion whilst never losing empathy for its characters.
The destination was admittedly obvious, but there were few better journeys this year. Obvious Child joins Tiny Furniture and Frances Ha as great New York stories about young women. Here’s to the romantic comedy having a renaissance next year.
– Redmond Bacon
A Touch of Sin
The greatest shut-up-and-listen moment of 2014 cinema comes just two minutes into Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin when an attempt at highway robbery backfires horrifically. After more than a decade of exceedingly restrained gems documenting China’s rapid westernization and the people, places and values that can get lost in the shuffle, Jia chooses to drop three young corpses on us in rapid succession before we even get to the title card. Finding such an outburst in a film from the director of the 2006 masterwork Still Life (clue is in the title) is such a shock to the system that one can only take the subsequent literal explosion to be a punchline of the most deadpan kind. Essentially a modern-day western with a social conscience, Jia plays a dangerous game, interpreting four stories ripped from the governmentally-suppressed headlines, all of which end with their leading players carrying out a striking act of violence – sometimes as self-defence or petty vengeance but always ultimately a sad response to, or embodiment of, the corrupt values and power dynamics that China and the world at large seem to have apathetically surrendered to. His handling of such real-life horrors can sometimes be gratuitously violent and even outright silly instances of genre immersion but the ripples these audience-friendly action and exploitation cinema tropes create in the film’s reality help to underscore the tragic authenticity of these acts, holding the nation accountable as much for its indifference as its greed.
Looking at the People’s Republic from angles of varying geography, gender and generation, this is big-picture cinema shot from the ground up and it only gets bigger once you familiarise yourself with the rest of Jia’s filmography. The ever self-reflexive director is constantly making nods to his own work, be this from ten years or just twenty minutes ago, creating a rich, passionate, nuanced tapestry that makes even good works of socio-political cinema look superficial by comparison.
– David Pountain
Under The Skin
Ten years in the making, Jonathan Glazer’s film wasn’t just the best film of the year, it was the best British film of the year, which hasn’t been celebrated nearly enough. Back in March, Glazer took unsuspecting audience members – including myself – on an unforgettable journey around Scotland, accompanied by a seductive, wig-wearing Scarlett Johansson. And what a strange, beautiful, perhaps transcendent journey it was.
The story was, well, ambiguous to say the least. Johansson plays an alien who rides around Glasgow in her van to pick up locals, only to bring them back to her lair and, um, consume them in a pool of black goo. Yet the arrival of a deformed man prompts unexpected feelings of empathy within our inhuman heroine, and she soon retreats to the wilderness of Scotland to escape the wrath of a mysterious man on a motorbike. If that didn’t make much sense to you, don’t worry; Under the Skin is not about the story. What really makes the film stand out is the way it’s filmed, making Earth feel more foreign than the most otherworldly sci-fi planet. From the Kubrick-esque opening to her disturbing trip through a shopping mall and the mysterious ending in the snow, we see the world of the film through an utterly convincing alien set of eyes. Glazer’s film is science fiction, horror, art-film all condensed into one; it’s pure, profound cinema, both clinically detached and satirical (Scottish men do not come out of this well), and breathlessly intimate. Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the alien hints that there might be glimmers of humanity hidden beneath her cold exterior, sentiments that could easily apply to Under the Skin, too; it only took an elusive, ambiguous film about an extra-terrestrial for us to see what it means to be human.
– Sam Gray
We Are the Best!
I love coming-of-age stories. Both books and films. And theatre. Basically anything that portrays the turbulence and aching of growing up, and stepping into the world of grown ups. It is easy to slip and use formulaic approach in this genre – one can find many examples when the coming to terms with yourself and the surrounding world on screen looks staged, showing rather what it should be like than what it actually is. We Are the Best! completely stays away from any sugar-coated path and gives you an honest, both funny and heartfelt view of being a 13 year-old. And a member of a punk band. And a girl. Set in 1980s Stockholm, story follows two school friends, who decide to start a punk band (because punk is not dead). After finding a new friend and a member, who can actually play, the girls face everything that comes to your mind when you hear ‘When I was 13…’. Do not expect any action over PG-13 – the heroines are only 13! – but sometimes as drastic and rebellious (or even more) as the first cigarette or first kisses can be starting a punk band or cutting your own hair.
Stepping into adolescence is more than just doing things that your parents forbidden you to – it is also first tests of the friendships, finding your voice and following your dream. Even if those things sound cliche, if they are portrayed with honesty and empathy, they can bring a lot of joy to the viewer. We Are the Best! does that and that is why it is my movie of the year. It brought smile and was a wonderful reminder of the bittersweet experiences we all went through. Also for proving that punk is so much more than just clothes and crazy hair.
– Auksė Meškinytė
Header Image Sources:
Stills from Nymphomaniac and We Are The Best! , film poster of Guardians of the Galaxy, courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures, stills from Boyhood and Under the Skin, courtesy of Mongrel Media, still from Ida, courtesy of Artificial Eye.