I try to see every film of a certain year I can, but living where I do doesn’t make that too easy. Out of the films I didn’t manage to catch up with, I guess Maps To The Stars is the one I really felt could have been included on this list if I’d got to see it. I suppose I should have made the effort to see Boyhood, but after the poisonous Before Midnight it’s going to be a while before I make a major effort to see a Richard Linklater film. So enjoy my top twenty rundown, and if some of my picks are odd….well, I wouldn’t be the Doc if they weren’t.
20/ ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
I didn’t watch Only Lovers Left Alive until last night, and after much thought I decided it had to replace Captain America: The Winter Soldier as number twenty on this list, so sorry Marvel fans [though to be honest I’m rather pleased that there isn’t a superhero film on it]. I tried to get into the films of Jim Jarmusch many years ago and found them, to be frank, rather pointless and boring, but considering that I really enjoyed his latest effort, it could be time for me to give them another go. Despite being extremely slow paced and full of dialogue [albeit dialogue that is often full of meaning and that you really need to listen to], Only Lovers Left Alive has a quite extraordinary moody atmosphere and feeling of timelessness much like its ageless protagonists, while there’s plenty of droll humour, dry observations on humankind and modern society, and an ending which is very moving because it’s so understated. However the most striking thing about the film is Yorick Le Saux’s fantastic night-time photography of Tangiers and Detroit, enhancing no end the film’s sleepy, somnambulistic feel.
19/ GONE GIRL
I had almost written off David Fincher as a director who was now only able to now make extremely disappointing films, but he certainly bounced back with Gone Girl and it now seems that the maker of Fight Club might just about be still with us. Gone Girl has its problems, most notably an often awkward first third [which would actually benefit from being longer] and that ending, about which I will say no more. Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn still succeed in expertly manipulating the viewer in a manner Brian De Palma would be jealous of and you can almost touch the powerful sense of unease evoked by the film even when nothing is really happening [in fact it’s sometimes at its most strong here]. Rosamund Pike deserves to win the Oscar for her complex performance, and even, amazingly, Ben Affleck does okay despite being saddled with a far less interesting role. Also a film which feels very much of the “now” due to its themes and commentary on things like media manipulation without going over the top, I feel Gone Girl may climb higher up my list with successive viewings.
18 /THE DOUBLE
I still haven’t found the time to check out Submarine, Richard Ayaode’s first directorial feature, though I would have thought that Ayaode, a guy who never fails to make me laugh when on TV even when hardly saying anything, would be more into making full-blown comedies for the screen. Actually there are elements of comedy in The Double, but his film is more an expert combination of dark humour, social satire and twisted love story. Fyodor Dosteovsky’s book is a bloody difficult one to adapt for a modern audience but Ayaode, bar perhaps a few slip-ups in the final third which feels a bit rushed, just about succeeds in doing this as well as expertly creating a semi-fantastical world with a low budget and very limited sets. Jesse Eisenberg has up to now never been an actor I’ve warmed to, but his terrific performance here is an object lesson in how to play dual roles subtly without going over the top. The Double is also a fine example of how a film can blatantly wear its influences, from Brazil to The Man Who Haunted Himself, yet still seem quite fresh.
17/ THE BOOK OF LIFE
You probably all know by now that I love my animated movies – all film lists to some extent are dictated by taste – and I feel that this one could actually have been brilliant if it hadn’t felt the need to constantly throw in something supposedly amusing to keep the nippers interested, something the great cartoon classics have rarely felt a need to do. The Book Of life, the highly impressive first film from Real FX Animation Studios, was sadly a bit of a flop, but I hope this studio will go on to make more animated films. Writer/director Jorge R. Gutierrez, who in part seems to have created a love letter to traditional Mexican culture, has put on screen a terrific cartoon world here and has just about succeeded in telling a story with genuine mythical depth on screen while filling his film with genuine, un-schmaltzy heart and warmth and immersing us in a fascinating set of cultural beliefs. And the entry of the Land Of The Remembered is the most gorgeously eye-popping scene of the year.
16/ BIG EYES
One of the reasons it took me so long to post this article was that I wanted to see Big Eyes before I wrote it, a film that I’m classing as a 2014 film because it came out in the UK on Boxing Day even though I saw it the week after. In many ways Big Eyes is a departure from Tim Burton’s usual style, being even closer to fact than Ed Wood, but despite what some have said it’s still visually striking, many of the scenes inside the main house being stunningly lit, while elsewhere the look of a 1950’s film has been expertly replicated. The film’s poignant and compelling story of artistic expression, discovery and fraud is simply but still eloquently told, while the Hitchcock lover in me loved seeing Burton seem to channel the Master Of Suspense for probably the very first time, and not just by having Amy Adams look like just Tippi Hedren in The Birds. The clash of the two totally different acting styles by the two leads is awkward but interesting and thanks to this film I just can’t get those damn pictures of big-eyed girls out of my head.
The extremely tense Kajacki: The True Story wasn’t far off my top twenty list, but in terms of war movies it was blown apart [sorry] for me by Fury, which I feel is just on the edge of being one of the great film about armed conflict. Filled with starting images which compellingly show the horror of war and with some extremely intense and uncomfortable scenes, Fury still manages to be exciting and even rousing, something which seems to upset a lot of people these days, as if military heroism is a dirty word[s]. Actually this film seems to be of the entirely sensible view [to me, anyway] that war can bring out both the worst and the best out of people. David Ayer’s action directing – a tank duel is one of the best action scenes of the year – is expert [for a start you can see what’s going on] and, even if you dislike the film, you have to give it some respect for getting a good performance out of Shia Labeouf.
Rehashed scares and ideas tended to dominate the horror movie in 2014, and there was very little that actually scared this critic, a seriously disappointing thing considering he can often ‘take himself’ to that ‘place’ if he wants to be frightened by a film! Oculus though….God it was frightening, and even genuinely disturbing, extremely impressive considering there’s only so you can really do with the idea of a haunted mirror and it’s all pretty much been done before. However Mike Flanagan and his two co-writers manage to tell their story in an admirably clever way [this one actually requires a brain or at least a fair amount of concentration] while concentrating on two sets of two characters, resulting in a tremendously intense and uncomfortable experience with more than a whiff of old-time Roman Polanski about it. Creepy build-up, jump scares [but not too many], upsetting imagery [the eating glass bit is my candidate for most unnerving scene of the year] and strong performances combine to make a chiller that succeeds in nearly every way that it should.
This one will really raise some eyebrows [but this is the Doc], but I found Horns, the film where Alexander Aja has finally almost matched Switchblade Romance, thoroughly entertaining and compelling from beginning to end. Though in terms of plot it’s essentially a murder mystery with fantastical elements, Horns never seems to really know what kind of film it is, and, you know what, I found its constant chopping and changing immensely refreshing when with so many films you can virtually finish the script after watching ten minutes. Sometimes it’s a very off the wall comedy, sometimes it’s a revenge thriller, sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s a religious metaphor, and so forth, but it mixes together superbly along with clever direction [shoot me, I love odd, show-offy shots] and gloriously lush cinematography from Frederick Elmes, while a surprising twist near the end bloody had me in tears. It’s all anchored by a terrific performance by Daniel Radcliffe, an actor who sad to say up to now I’ve found both wooden and wet, but who just totally nails this character.
12/ DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Maybe Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes feels a bit too much like an episode of a larger story than a self-contained film, something which the original Apes series managed to pull off with its second film and even partially its third, but there’s no doubt that this is still an example of how to do the big-budget blockbuster thing right, with intelligence and special effects which really are stunning and often seamless [there are shots where the apes really do look virtually real] while still remembering to deliver the pure entertainment value expected. The clever script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver which constantly makes you nervous as fear, mistrust, cynicism and revenge makes characters do things you feel like screaming at them not to, refuses to take sides with either the apes nor the humans and really brings to the fore the allegorical elements of the whole premise, while Michael Seresin’s stunning photography paints gorgeous pictures with greens and browns. Out of the cast, Andy Serkis somehow manages to bring even more gravity and believability than before as a motion capture creature.
11/ THE GRANDMASTER
Wong Kar Wai unsurprisingly takes the martial arts movie, and a story told more conventionally elsewhere, and partly turns it into a typically poetic exercise in romantic melancholy, though he still remembers to give us loads of stunning looking, diverse fight sequences, and in the process shows all these idiots who make action incoherent and sick-making how tight editing should be done in an action scene. Somewhat infuriatingly, Wong has re-edited the film, which he also seemed to take forever to make, several times – the West saw the shortest cut which may explain why it seemed rather disjointed to me – and I’d like to see a Final Cut with all the footage available – though true to form Wong will probably just continue to irritate and beguile us. The Grandmaster still has that amazing texture, artful use of colour and deep emotion that makes Wong’s fans continue to love his work, while Wong has clearly found in cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd a fine replacement for the brilliant Christopher Doyle.
10/ THE IMITATION GAME
It’s easy for someone like me not to like something like The Imitation Game because it’s the kind of movie almost guaranteed to get attention at the Academy Awards, though why on earth they think the bland, dumbed down, TV-style style biopic The Theory Of Everything was also worthy of being nominated for Best Picture is anybody’s guess….or maybe it’s not, considering its subject matter which is of the kind the Oscar voters just love. But I digress. Morten Tyldum’s film masterfully tells its mostly true to life story with considerable emotional complexity and an amazing amount of suspense considering it mostly focuses on a group of mathematicians and puzzle solvers, albeit ones who just managed to help win World War 2. The switching between three different time zones is executed with sublime smoothness and the performances all gel together magically [even Keira Knightley is good], though of course Benedict Cumberpatch dominates as another unusual genius. It’s been said that the film doesn’t go into enough detail in some things – I think it gives plenty but leaves you wanting to learn more.
This isn’t really the time or place to moan about the politically correct back-slapping farce that is the Oscars, but I can’t imagine anyone who sees Nightcrawler will come out thinking Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t deserve at the very least a Best Actor nomination for this incredible work as Lou Bloom in this film. Bloom is one of the most repulsive, yet fascinating and entirely believable, cinematic creations in some time, and the actor totally submerges himself in the role. This utter sociopath makes your flesh creep, but you can’t wait to see what he’ll do next in Dan Gilroy’s striking directorial debut, a pointed, timely and frightening yet often blackly funny commentary on contemporary news, modern journalism, and greed-induced naked ambition, while evoking the ugliness of a city [Los Angeles] usually shot as a great place to be [terrific work from cinematographer Robery Elswit]. Highly original, like Gone Girl very much of the “now”, and incredibly tense, Nighcrawler is compulsive and essential viewing, though it’s not necessarily enjoyable – but then not all films have to be.
8/ NEED FOR SPEED
I make no apologies for including Need For Speed on my top twenty films list, and this high. Maybe it’s partly because I’m getting so bored with costumed crusaders that Scot Waugh’s throwback to 70’s films like Smokey And The Bandit and Vanishing Point seemed almost like a breath of fresh air and the movie for me ticked virtually all the boxes required for pure entertainment, something which makes it worth all the Fast And Furious films put together [of course I do enjoy those, bar maybe film number three, too], though sadly it wasn’t the hit it such a fun picture should have been. The many car race and chase sequences are brilliantly shot, edited and directed so you can actually enjoy them, the pace is truly relentless after the first third, and Aaron Paul and Imogen Poots make the best bickering couple in ages, yet a couple you care about. I was closer to the edge of my seat towards the end far more than when I watched any of Marvel’s movies this year. The film even had a decent 3D transfer [they’re rare, while the format is still pointless of course] at the cinema!
7/ 12 YEARS A SLAVE
This is generally considered a 2013 film, but I’m going by the UK releases of all these movies, so 12 Years A Slave is a 2014 one to me. The fact that its subject matter pretty much made it a given that it would Best Picture at the Academy Awards infuriates me no end [actually the Oscars and their small-mindedness and predictability infuriates me no end…see, I just can’t stop moaning about them], but I cannot deny that 12 Years A Slave is a very fine movie, as upsetting and harrowing as it should be – to the point that even looking at Lupita Nyong’o’s tragic character can bring on the tears – yet still very moving. Steve McQueen’s penchant for long takes is refreshing in this era of rapid speed editing, and reaches its peak in the brilliant scene where Solomon is hung at night, and in the morning he just hangs there in excruciating agony, the camera just staying on him as everyone begins to casually go about their daily business and ignore him, the only major sounds being those of nature. Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb, acting often with just his eyes.
6/ THE RAID 2
The Raid 2 listed above 12 Years A Slave? I guess I’m one of the few film writers we would dare to do that, and even genuinely believes that it’s slightly better. Maybe it’s just because I feel that sometimes there is little that is more exciting than watching a cracking martial arts fight on screen. We’ve already had The Grandmaster, showing the artistic, beautiful side of martial arts, with lovely compositions and tight editing to help conceal that much of the cast members can’t really fight. And now we have the raw, gritty answer to all that, where real experts show their skills as they slug it out and cutting is kept to a minimum so we can see it all. The funny thing is, while I enjoyed The Raid, and had it in my top twenty of its year, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. Nothing special to this long term martial arts movie fan, I said. But The Raid 2, which many consider to be inferior to the first film…well, it’s a parade of incredible fight scenes, from the one-take prison mud sequence to the brawl in the car [how hard that must have been to do!] just blew me away even if director Gareth Evans didn’t entirely have a handle on his very involved storyline!
5/ DECEPTION AKA THE BEST OFFER
It depresses me greatly that Giuseppe Tornatore is primarily known, if he’s known at all, as the writer and director of Cinema Paradiso. That is a great film, in fact one of the greatest, but the man has been turning out fine films continually since then, though they rarely get noticed, something I can’t see changing in this cinematic world all but dominated by certain kinds of films. For me, 2009 [when he made Baaria] remains the only year that he hasn’t released a film which has touched me greatly, and would make it into a top ten of a specific year. Deception is another beautiful story from the golden pen [he writes all his films] of Tornatore, full of unashamed emotion, but also some of that cruelty and symbolism [the restaurant full of clocks!] that every now and again will creep into his films and give them added gravitas. Nothing much may happen in Deception for the first two thirds, but Tornatore can make a series of conversations between a man and a woman hiding behind a wall touching, yet sinister, and totally riveting, while the Big Twist may be partially borrowed from Matchstick Men but is far more effective here.
4/ THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS
This film is best described as a collusion of 75% Dario Argento [at least when he was good] and 25%David Lynch, which already makes it sound awesome, though that’s to almost belittle Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s second feature length deconstruction of the giallo, primarily its dazzling imagery and disturbing psychology, that is as striking as their first. Maybe they are obsessed with this sub-genre, and I’d like these two geniuses to use their skills in making a picture in another genre, but nonetheless The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears literally breathes great cinematic craft in virtually every scene, while feeling like a film that could have been made by aliens. There really is nothing like it at the moment, with nearly every single scene, no scratch that nearly every single shot, done in an unusual way, while the whole thing is disorientating in a way that is disturbing. Now I still haven’t worked out what it’s really about, and it’s quite possible that Cattet and Forzani are having us on, but that makes it quite special for me in these times.
3/ THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
If you’re a film lover, it’s always exciting when you ‘discover’ a filmmaker you hadn’t heard of or previously ignored. Apart from The Fantastic Mr Fox, Wes Anderson’s stuff had just never appealed to me, and though for quite some time now I’ve tried to see as many films as I can, I see little point in going to see something you’re pretty sure you’re not going to enjoy. Twenty minutes into The Grand Budapest Hotel, I was captivated by the film’s clever structure, fascinating story, deep nostalgia, quirky charm and fairytale-like look, and knew that this was a filmmaker who I very much liked indeed. Films like this make the term ‘art house’ ridiculous, because, while it is indeed odd and not primarily aimed at teenagers, it’s still thoroughly entertaining [and may I also say I adore Anderson’s deadpan sense of humour] and certainly isn’t slow and ‘boring’. Nobody in the ridiculously huge cast really put a step wrong in this wondrous picture. Since its release, I’ve been making my way through Anderson’s films, and they’re all great, but this is his masterpiece.
2/ HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2
Laugh if you may, but I really can’t see anything wrong with How To Train Your Dragon 2, except that it is a sequel [and come to think of it Cate Blanchett’s Scottish accent], but what a sequel! This is a near-perfect example of how to do a sequel right, feeling like a genuine continuation of the first film, expanding its world, and increasing the amount of thrills and spills while never sacrificing the heart. While there are many films featuring CGI animation that I love, I’ve always felt that the style seems to hamper character emotion [something which good old hand drawn animation never had trouble with], but with this new software Dreamworks have made a major leap forward in this area. Then again the film looks fabulous from beginning to end, giving you awesome visual after awesome visual yet often taking time to provide shots of great beauty and atmosphere. The storytelling is masterful and provides strong emotional beats, the action is stunning, John Powell’s score is tremendous, and this monster lover adored seeing such a huge variety of dragons. The final film in this trilogy can’t come soon enough.
So here we are, and, to be honest, I can’t believe that a Christopher Nolan film has topped a top twenty films list of mine. I’ve never quite seen what so many others see in this filmmaker up to now, you see, and, while many of his films are solid and Inception almost reached greatness but failed at the last hurdle, his much-praised Batman movies left me cold. Trust me to finally feel that Nolan has made a film is genuinely great, and it’s also being a film that I totally adored, and it turns out to be possibly his most divisive film. Yes, you can see signs of other films in its DNA from Mission To Mars to 2001: A Space Odyssey [though philosophically it’s probably closest to the two versions of Solaris], but that’s probably unavoidable when making a film about space travel. Yes, the final section is both puzzling and sentimental, but isn’t it great that Nolan and his brother Jonathan feel they are able to totally wear their hearts on their sleeves with their epic, yet humble and very personal, picture? Yes, the space ships are all models, but hurrah to that! I guess it’s down to what you grew up with, but for me they are far more convincing than anything CG artists could come up with because they’re actually there and feel and look solid.
Interstellar is an amazing, immersive, trance-like experience [I wish I’d seen it at the cinema twice, because it won’t be anywhere near as good on even the biggest TV set], with even the music by Hans Zimmer [and I can’t believe I’m writing this, as I dislike much of this composer’s stuff and hate its huge influence on current film music] adding immeasurably to the hypnotic, almost dreamlike feel. Image and sound combine to create a sublime, almost mystical effect. It asks deep, important questions, such as how far can we go to gain knowledge, and what it really means to be human. It gives us set pieces that are almost beyond thrilling, but Interstellar is also a deeply human film, never losing sight of its emotional core. I cried three times during the picture, something I haven’t done in a new film in decades. In a way Interstellar seems like a new start for Nolan, and I can’t wait to get more. Wow.