Sunday, 28 December 2014

My Top 30 Films of 2014: 20-11

Films 30-21 on the list can be found here.

20) Captain America: the Winter Soldier, dir. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, USA

What I said: "[It's] is tonally very different to the rest of the Marvel Studios oeuvre to-date... this one is more of a conspiracy thriller and - without going all Nolan Batman and jettisoning fun and colour - it's a comparatively gritty and grounded affair. Much like the Ed Brubaker run in the comics, which introduced this film's antagonist the Winter Soldier, it does a neat job of including lots of outlandish and far-fetched comic book elements - from the winged exploits of Anthony Mackie's Falcon to the newly computer-bound consciousness of Toby Jones' Arnim Zola - with something altogether more grounded and grave... The action is hard-hitting, well choreographed and visceral, whilst the main players exhibit the sort of good chemistry needed to make all the bits in between fun. Especially Chris Evans in the starring role - an actor who imbues the title character with as much subtle depth as he does obvious decency."

The increasing confidence of Marvel Studios was demonstrated earlier this year - even before they released a wacky sci-fi comedy about a wise-cracking racoon - as the Disney-owned comic book moguls proved how versatile their superhero properties can be whilst remaining in a shared cinematic universe. 'Winter Soldier' is a sequel to both the nostalgic, World War II-set Joe Johnston movie 'The First Avenger' as well as Joss Whedon's mega-blockbuster 'The Avengers', two very distinct superhero movies with vastly different tones, and it succeeds in following both whilst again being completely different: in this case a 70s-style espionage thriller. It's a very good one, even if it has to go headlong into an explosion-fest for the final 20 minutes, with a tense atmosphere and - in Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson - two terrific lead actors.

19) Two Days, One Night, dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, BEL/ITA/FRA

What I said: "Subsisting on the sort of tight concept I tend to love, the Dardenne brother's latest stars the always-excellent Marion Cotillard as Sandra: a severely depressed woman who is ready to return to work only to discover that her colleagues have voted her out of a job [after] her bosses decide to cut costs by making staff choose between Sandra and their annual bonus payment... When Sandra convinces them to recall another vote after the weekend she has the titular timeframe to convince each individual to back her over personal financial gain... It's an interesting moral question which the film explores in all its complexity as Sandra visits each person in turn and makes the same basic argument with mixed results... Perhaps the film treats an attempted suicide too casually and Sandra's apparent defeat of bed-ridden depression by the credits is a little too sudden, but this is a complex and original film which deserves to be seen. Especially as the Dardenne's again display an impressive knack for marrying social realism with something more hopeful and optimistic than that term usually suggests."

One of the best ideas for a movie this year, there's not a lot to dislike about this small-scale, entirely humanist drama which essentially features a dozen versions of the same conversation all playing out differently. It could easily be a little slight but instead Marion Cotillard helps imbue the whole thing with a consistent and palpable edge of emotional turmoil that prevents it from getting stale.

18) Her, dir. Spike Jonze, USA

What I said: "You meet somebody for the first time and instantly hit it off. As feelings develop, you nervously pursue a romantic relationship. The early days of that relationship are filled with laughter and a spirit of adventure - you never want to be apart from that person, who now occupies all your waking thoughts. Months go by and you settle into a bit of a muted groove. You get a phone call from that person whilst at work, and they can tell you don't want to talk. It's become slightly awkward all of a sudden, or at least there's a strange distance developing between two supposedly intimate people. Eventually it ends, possibly when one of you has outgrown the other. In Spike Jonze's 'Her', Jaoquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly experiences something exactly like this with Samantha (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) - the difference being that Samantha is a sophisticated OS (operating system) rather than a traditional human partner. But the rhythms and patterns and core experience of the relationship seem to be exactly the same in Jonze's non-judgmental and highly plausible account of the not too distant future."

A movie released last year in the US and included in the Oscars last March, so it feels ancient at this point, but (with the exception of 'Snowpiercer' which has still not been released here theatrically) I base my list on UK release dates, so here it is! 'Her' is like a schmaltzy episode of Black Mirror, which I mean in a good way. There's shades of grey and room for debate about how healthy or real Joaquin Phoenix's romance with a Scarlet Johansson voiced AI is, but mostly it's an uncommon story of optimism about technology and the future. It's non-judgemental and sweet whilst still being smart.

17) The Wind Rises, dir. Hayao Miyazaki, JAP

What I said: "In almost every Miyazaki film to date his passion for machines, engines and, especially, aircraft has loomed large... so in many ways, though it is less fantastical and magical (and it does still have those qualities stylistically), 'The Wind Rises' does have the air of a great passion project and represents an extremely personal sign-off. In the dream sequences, which are many, Miyazaki indulges his childish imagination, creating wondrous and impossible aircraft and contriving to have two of his heroes converse in what is ultimately aviation hobbyist fan fiction... Miyazaki's obsessions enter the film in other ways too, with Jiro's drive and single-minded dedication to pursuing his chosen profession, perhaps at the expense of his personal life, another recurring theme... At its core it's a film about choosing to pursue your creative dream even if it might be appropriated for nefarious purposes. Some have criticised the director for not going far enough to address the fact that Horikoshi ultimately designed efficient engines of war and destruction which were quickly put to devastating purpose in expanding the Empire of Imperial Japan... That said, given some of that negative reaction I was surprised how much the oncoming war underpins the entire film from its opening dream sequence (interrupted by bombs and destruction) to it's bittersweet final moments as Jiro finally perfects his plane only to be suddenly overwhelmed by the reality of what it will be use for next."

It's not Miyazaki's best film (in fairness it faces tough competition for that title) but he's never made anything so obviously personal. Nominally it's an animated biopic, about a controversial aviator no less, but it isn't hard to see parallels between the loosely adapted life of Jiro Horikoshi and Miyazaki's own - with it very easy to substitute famed aircraft inventor with famed animation director. Seeing as fictionalised regrets about his personal life take centre stage near the end, perhaps this has more to say about the filmmaker's own reflection on a life lived in obsessive pursuit of dreams. Being the legendary filmmaker's final work before retirement (though he said that a decade ago) it seems fitting that it's his most reflective and melancholic. Special mention must go to the film's understated and quietly terrifying depiction of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which stands out as one of the finest sequences Miyazaki ever devised.

16) American Hustle, dir. David O. Russell, USA

What I said: "It's been trailed like a derivative, Scorsese-influenced crime film, but David O. Russell's 70s-set 'American Hustle' is best viewed as a black comedy. Every brilliant performance, every hackneyed line, every haircut, every sequence is a little warped, a little odd - from Jennifer Lawrence doing the housework whilst miming along to Live and Let Die to Christian Bale's pot-bellied, comb-over sporting conman seducing Amy Adams in the lost property room of his dry cleaning establishment. That doesn't mean to say it isn't a decent and occasionally tense crime film, with its share interesting twists and turns in the plot, but it reminded me more of the Coen Brothers than 'Goodfellas', being about a group of variously flawed, morality bereft shysters who are often as pathetic and incompetent as they are resolutely unlikable. It's saying something that Jeremy Renner's charismatic local mayor is the only one of the bunch with any integrity and he's the victim at the centre of the big con."

As with 'Her' this is another one of those movies from the last Oscars that just about slips onto this year's list with it's early 2014 UK release date. Viewed as this year's answer to 'Goodfellas' it's a little overblown and trivial-seeming, but seen as (I think intended) as a black-comedy populated by uniformly messed-up, unlikable characters I think it works brilliantly. It is operatic and over the top but Jennifer Lawrence's housekeeping scene, not to mention everything to do with the "science oven", is amazing. It's also great to see a movie that isn't completely cynical about politicians and their intentions, which is a real rarity in popular culture at large. Jeremy Renner is corrupt as the flashy, local mayor, but he is also the nearest thing the film has to a good guy. He might get his hands dirty but he's doing it with solid gold intentions. It's easily the most interesting part he's had since 'The Hurt Locker' made him a star.

15) X-Men: Days of Future Past, dir. Bryan Singer, USA

What I said: "They have fixed the X-Men movie franchise and in a classy way that makes it possible to make new movies with the 'First Class' cast without fear of bumping into any of the old baggage that once lay in the way. It's a smart movie that celebrates the past, but definitively makes way for the future. It's a rare sequel/prequel that actually elevates everything that came before and makes it all seem, finally, like it all sort of makes a certain fuzzy kind of sense. I like problem movies, which is to say movies which seem to have set themselves a problem and solved it... this movie seems to have been conceived as a way to address continuity mistakes and to help rejuvenate and reboot the franchise. It's a placeholder movie, paving the way for new stories with a couple of hours of energetic rebuilding work, basically. Yet it also works on its own terms somehow, and is fast-paced, fun and contains terrific fight scenes not matched by any X-Men movie and, possibly, by any superhero movie to date. For the first time I'm excited to see a new X-Men movie... It's not often movie number seven is the best in the franchise, but Fox's X-Men just got really good and it only took about 15 years to get there."

This probably benefited from sub zero expectations on my part. I've never been overly enthusiastic about Fox's X-Men franchise - with its drab, leather-clad versions of colourful comic book heroes and Wolverine-centric narrative - even disliking the widely praised 'First Class'. Yet Bryan Singer's return to the franchise he launched over a decade ago (and without which there might never have been a Marvel Studios or Sony Spider-Man franchise) has proven hugely beneficial, with the director using a time travel story as the vehicle to strip away almost everything terrible that happened in the previous movies (most notably the events of 'X-Men: the Last Stand') and leave the whole thing in a place where I'm actually excited to see what they do next. Also, between the slowed-down Quicksilver (Evan Peters) set-piece and the imaginatively implemented portal-opening powers of the obscure Blink (Fan Bingbing) this movie had the stand-out action moments of 2014. At least outside of 'The Raid 2' (if you're curious: it didn't make my list on account of being way too long and not interesting at all outside of the punching scenes).

14) Under the Skin, dir. Jonathan Glazer, UK/USA/SWI

What I said: "A masterclass in editing and sound design, Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who takes on the form of a human female and uses this guise to seduce lonely, socially isolated men, who she then traps and harvests for... some reason probably much clearer to those who've read the Michel Faber novel. Though I'd argue the question of why she captures these men and what exactly becomes of them is a secondary concern in a film that works primarily on the level of visceral, sensory experience. In lieu of much specificity or explanation, this is simply the story of an outsider assimilating and attempting to fit in (albeit with nefarious intent), learning a certain degree of compassion for humanity and gradually becoming more unsettled by and attached to her newly acquired body...Moments of intense body horror and a heart-pounding finale combine with this playful casting and Glazer's technical mastery to create something truly memorable - potentially even destined for cult status."

Strange, unsettling, almost unknowable. I haven't read the book but I suspect, like a Kubrick movie, the novel might have been more of a loose jumping off point than the basis of a strict adaptation. I might be wrong, but this movie is '2001' levels of oblique in a way I can't imagine the book being. Nothing is really explained and it's not certain at times what is literally taking place, though that doesn't make the imagery any less haunting or powerful. The scene on the beach, with the baby left on its own, is easily one of the most shocking of the year. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson disappears so convincingly into her role as an alien that whole sequences appear to have been shot with the mega-famous actress blending in entirely amongst an unsuspecting public. It's also responsible for some of the year's best moments of horror, even though it isn't really a horror movie, with lots of nightmarish stuff happening with bodies.

13) The Past, dir. Asghar Farhadi, FRA/ITA/IRN

What I said: "In a style familiar to fans of his earlier films, such as 'A Separation' and 'About Elly', director Asghar Farhadi's maiden effort outside of Iranian cinema is still a tightly wound and faultlessly humane drama, peppered with extraordinary revelations and populated by nuanced and fully-formed characters who are lead by circumstance to ponder profound ethical questions... After a half-dozen twists and turns we come to understand the various conflicting points of view all involved in the unfolding crisis, which this time revolves around the theme of forgiveness and moving on from what has happened before - of leaving an old life behind as you head into another. Something which none of the characters can quite face doing, at least without difficulty and heartache. Nobody in contemporary cinema (at least that I know of) is quite as brilliant as Farhadi when it comes to creating ensemble casts in which every character is so complex and well drawn. As with his other films, the four central characters here - along with another three or four supporting cast members - are each worthy of audience investment and sympathy, portrayed and written with great compassion."

Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi ventured outside his native Iran to make this French-set drama, but all of his hallmarks and concerns are still palpable with trademark focus on multifaceted, complex characters struggling with questions of morality. It's not quite got the gut-punching hook of his masterpieces 'About Elly' and 'A Separation' but it's still top-tier drama with faultless performances from its ensemble cast. I'll take a minor Farhadi movie over the best work of a lot of other filmmakers every single time.

12) The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson, USA/GER

What I said: "If the move from 'Bottle Rocket' to 'Rushmore' onto 'The Royal Tenenbaums' marked a gentle progression of his style, Wes Anderson's subsequent films - 'The Life Aquatic', 'The Darjeeling Limited' and even the animated 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox' - took the recognised tropes of that style and crystallised it into something that often flirted with self-parody. Then 'Moonrise Kingdom' came along and seemed to indicate a maturation of his by now well established visual motifs, storytelling themes and even the highly stylised performances drawn from his familiar band of recurring actors. It was a refreshing change of pace... At a first glance his latest, 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', superficially resembles a return to the larger-scale, ensemble-driven fare that directly preceded 'Moonrise Kingdom', though it's actually a subtle synthesis of the two being expansive, broad, imaginative and, well, grand, whilst also being restrained, focused and tightly wound... Even as its focus remains on character detail and small-scale interactions, it's easily the most traditionally plot-heavy of Anderson's films - helping again to separate it from what's come before - and, even if death and grief play a part in all but one of his other movies, it's also one of the saddest - with an overriding feeling of entropy and a sense of sadness at the passing of time."

As a long-time fan of Wes Anderson his films have always touched me on an emotional level that I gather they just don't for a lot of people. I get that: they could easily seem cold and detached. Yet the emotional stuff is usually in the details, like Anthony agreeing to wear a yellow jumpsuit in 'Bottle Rocket' when he sees the guileless and enthusiastic Dignan faced with the unbearable cynicism of Futureman. Or Steve Zissou throwing away his earring petulantly when he overhears somebody laughing at it, only to sheepishly pick it back up again moments later. Or all of 'Moonrise Kingdom'. But the emotional stuff is much more evidently to the foreground in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', which has a consistent elegiac tone and features more than one death. Told from what might be a fourth person perspective, coming decades after the events of the narrative, in a world in which the titular hotel is crumbling into the ground, the whole thing is really very sad indeed. Something punctuated by Ralph Fiennes extremely funny and charismatic central performance as the last of a dying order.

11) Guardians of the Galaxy, dir. James Gunn, USA

What I said: "When the film was announced a couple of years back, it was regarded as a make or break movie for Marvel's growing cinematic universe: can the studio that started with the (relatively) gritty and grounded 'Iron Man' convince us of a talking raccoon and tree double-act? There was no going back and I'm sure the spectre of Jar Jar Binks must have loomed over the project, at least for nervous studio executives. Well they've more than gotten away with it and, after this, you'd have to wonder if there's too much in the company's comic book continuity they couldn't now bring to the screen with well-placed confidence."

In terms of pure enjoyment at the movies this year, 'Guardians of the Galaxy' would be right at the top of the list. That's not to say, with a note of condescension, that James Gunn's Marvel blockbuster is merely 'enjoyable' rather than 'good' - it is a very good film all ways around (great comic performances, entertaining action, a whip-smart script, stand-out soundtrack) - just that on balance the immediate thrills and (multitude of) laughs have been eclipsed by a bunch of films which gave me a lot more to think about and talk about after the credits. That's not to denigrate 'Guardians' though. It's definitely a contender for the best Marvel comics adaptation to-date, my teary-eyed love of 'Captain America: the First Avenger' notwithstanding, and given the consistently high quality of those movies I mean that as high praise indeed.

Come back soon for the top 10.

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