Now we’re officially at the end of the beginning of 2015, I figured now would be a good a time as any to share my favourite films of the last year. The Oscars still haven’t happened, so this is still relevant I promise. No, I haven’t procrastinated this piece since December. Shut up.
2014 was, unquestionably, a remarkable year for filmmaking with record-breaking box office turnouts and, more importantly, an absolute cavalcade of top-notch films. It was also an especially exciting year for me personally in the world of film, as Jack and I attended the London Film Festival in October and then followed it up with a number of screenings around London in the months preceding Awards Season.
Some highlights before getting down to it:
Looking back, I’m astonished at how lucky I’ve been to see so much in such a short amount of time. Film in London has treated me extremely well so far, and I’m looking forward to see if 2015 will compare. Now, at last, the list. Unlike last year, this was a particularly difficult list to put together due to the sheer number of films that last year could easily have been in my Top 3. Let’s begin before its too late.
10. The Lego Movie
Written and Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring; Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks
Everything was awesome. The Academy is so wrong, and it hurts me and everyone else who saw this film that it will not walk away with Best Animated Picture in a few weeks. That is all.
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Written: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford
Despite Guardians of the Galaxy raking in the majority of praise from Marvel fans and casual cinemagoers alike this summer, I felt that March’s The Winter Soldier ‘cap’ped 2014 as far as superhero-ing goes. Genuinely exhilarating and totally Badass with a capital B, Cap 2 is probably one of the best-directed action films of the year. With beautifully precise action sequences and haunting social commentary, it combined visceral intensity with cerebral intrigue and demonstrated the MCU’s capacity for expanding wildly in every direction without feeling stale. One shortcoming of most superhero films, past Marvel films especially, is their lack of compelling villains. In most cases, the chief adversary has a shoehorned-in origin story, poorly developed ethics (no real villain ever considers themselves the ‘bad guy’), and strength mediated entirely by the convenience of the plot. In Cap 2, however, the villains are intimidating and worryingly believable, which only adds to the film’s adrenaline-inducing spectacle. Also, even though Guardians technically passes the Bechdtel Test, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow more effectively portrays a dynamic female character than the entire Guardians’ crew put together. Putting its “Comic Book Movie” label aside, The Winter Soldier is a heavyweight of a political thriller and cements Marvel’s virtually untouchable status as a money-printing movie-making entity that earns its massive audiences.
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Either loved or hated by all who saw it, there’s some question as to whether Nolan’s incomparable capacity for mindfuckery is hampered by Interstellar’s alienating subject material. Personally, this film blew my brain inside out. Dealing with relativity in a non-theoretical context, Nolan expands universal human forces beyond our solar system, and though these moments felt occasionally insincere, the film’s scale is truly astonishing. A cosmic journey most akin to Contact, Interstellar keeps its audience guessing until the final reveal in typical Nolan fashion, which, if you can keep up, is literally jaw-dropping. I sat there gaping, hands clutching the sides of my head, for minutes. That said, like many of Nolan’s other films, it is nearly indecipherable in the early acts and takes its time coming together for the finale. Unlike many other reviewers, I found the Earth sequences unimmersive and oddly thin considering their importance in setting up the emotional climax of the film. That said, it is unquestionably a remarkable technical achievement: the non-earth planets were alien and atmospheric, the space travel silent and looming, and the robotics stylised and intriguing. I concede some criticisms of the film’s overwrought motifs and clunky supporting characters, but I stand by Interstellar’s mind-boggling conclusion, which takes the laws of physics and fashions them into an imaginative monolith of a film.
7. Grand Budapest Hotel
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring; Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Tony Revolori
Clearly a frontrunner for artistic and design awards this year, The Grand Budapest Hotel delivers Wes Anderson’s most weighty-but-whimsical film to date. Symmetry, colour, and vivaciousness abound but are underscored by the film’s theme of deterioration. Continually shifting perspective from storyteller to cartoon-like exposition, the film wistfully remembers bygone glory years. With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson beautifully frames his eccentric style through memory and his usual whimsy takes on a new meaning altogether. Of course everything seems geometrical and perfectly-timed in the past, that is the fundamental function of storytelling—to organise and translate experience to entertainment, and entertaining is an understatement. Featuring some of the funniest and emotive swearing this side of In the Loop, Fiennes’ charm twinkles throughout. The film’s universe expands far beyond the grounds of the hotel, and lends a sense of gravity to an otherwise kooky locale. Earning its not-so-nominal nominations in virtually every field, The Grand Budapest Hotel is fun, frantic, and fantastic.
Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring; Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo
If you haven’t heard of this film, skip the trailer entirely, seek out no plot details online, and enjoy Nightcrawler as the perfectly engineered story that it is. Accompanied by a delicate soundtrack, which plucks and bounces along with a sense innocent curiosity, Nightcrawler is one of the richest and most textured films of the year. Unlike other startlingly good lead performances, Jake Gyllenhaal’s turnout feels right at home within the rest of the film, an indication of the film’s brilliant cohesion. Speaking almost exclusively in motivational mantras, Louis Bloom’s drive for success while searching for equal economic footing carries the film’s deliberate pace—there is never a dull moment, with every event building a sense of urgency and ambient moral ambiguity. Without a single wasted moment, the film speeds along without feeling rushed, and achieves so much while cleanly, deliberately and coherently trundling to and ending that feels so natural and earned, it seems almost obvious. It is a real shame this film did not meet more success during this awards season, but it is certain that it has received a due amount of praise.
Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly
“I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’ve done nothing wrong. I’m going to kill you ‘cause you’re innocent.” Calvary quietly impressed me nearly a year ago, and after all that time still begs to examined further. Set in a quiet Irish coastal town and framed across the social spectrum, Calvary examines faith and sin in a world of disillusionment, and follows Father Laverne (Brendan Gleeson) in the aftermath of a threat on his life. At its funniest, it is about as dark as dark humour can get (Killing a priest on a Sunday. That’ll be a good one.), but it is by no means a comedy. Every character in the film is constructed around a fatal flaw and disconnection with their world, and their relationship with Laverne’s church colours their often-grey morality. It balances the whodunnit mystery with deep characters, and its final panoramic sequence, which touches on all the lives unfolded throughout the film, is both wonderfully specific and epic in scale. Structured through various confessions, either intentional or not, it swells with genuine questions about the relevancy of faith in the modern world. At times it feels microcosmic, but it quickly expands to address Big Questions of righting past wrongs and lifting up those who have fallen—a masterpiece of character and subtle realness.
Directed and Written by Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
I’ve already discussed my thoughts on Boyhood in far more detail, but there is no getting away from the fact that Boyhood gets more and more meaningful with time. Showing life as it happens, nudging the everyday into narrative, and playing with expectation, Boyhood’s genius relies on what remains unsaid, unseen, and undone. Patricia Arquette’s performance as Mason’s mother transcends even the decade she spent working on the film; unlike a number of characters, we really feel the years press down upon her, and her ultimate dissatisfaction resonates throughout the film’s resolution. Ethan Hawke is never better than while directed by Linklater, and he returns for another touchingly real performance as Mason’s father. In the end, Mason becomes a photographer, and tells stories with snapshots of the world around him, silently addressing his own troubled timeline through quiet curation. By the end of the film, Mason is nothing much more than ordinary, but his journey that is so natural and reaches beyond the confines of his experience is extraordinary.
Directed and Written by Joon-Ho Bong
Starring: Chris Evans, Jaime Bell, Tilda Swinton
Snowpiercer lands somewhere in-between scathing satire and extended social allegory on the ‘what the hell am I watching’ spectrum. In one of the most spectacular cinematic worlds in recent memory, the film begins seventeen years after Earth has been frozen as a result of a failed attempt to curtail global warming. The last bastion of humanity survives within a luxury train, the Snowpiercer, which is divided into various sections based on social status, with those in the back on the lowest rung. The film begins as Curtis (Evans) instigates a revolt to take control of the train’s front and end the persecution of his fellow tail-enders. It’s no mistake that the first billed on-screen are the production and costume directors. The production is tight, striking, and immersive in a way that few other films have ignited my imagination. Snowpiercer brings one of the most captivating dystopian worlds to life within minutes, and though it’s easy to get lost in the intricacies and spectacle of the world, the social allegory rings true throughout. The film is shot in a strikingly realistic (but stylised) way, which serves to maintain a sense of forward momentum. Snowpiercer has stayed with me while many other equally brilliant films this year have slipped away, which helps me forgive some obvious flaws with its final act. Chris Evan’s denouement monologue is one of the best examples of character exposition I’ve seen all year. It’s not for everyone with its occasionally incongruous tone and hard-to-watch brutality, but if you can stomach the symbolism and grittiness, it is a profoundly rewarding watch.
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu
Written by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu and Nicolás Giacobone
Starring Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Norton, Emma Stone
No film that I’ve seen has ever depicted the moments before going onstage as recognisably as Birdman. Watching Riggan standing in the shadowy wings plagued by self-doubt and fear, and experiencing it all melt away under the bright stage lights invoked the same reaction from me as actually performing onstage. Heart-pounding with mounting pressure, that uncertainty that lasts until the entering plus few moments after is nothing short of absolute authenticity. The theatre itself illustrates the conflict between his interior anxiety and exterior fame, with its claustrophobic backstage and the wide-open mainstage; it deals with performance, celebrity, and art so deftly and unpredictably that one cannot help but feel twisted and pulled along by the ‘one-take’ technique. Boasting incredible achievements in technical direction and cinematography, every frame can be read while in continuous motion. Its final one-take sequence is perhaps the gutsiest and most well executed final act of any film in recent memory, a transcendent display from both Lubezki and Iñárittu that makes Birdman absolutely unforgettable.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring; Miles Teller, JK Simmons
Sitting in anticipation at its LFF premiere last October post red-carpet shuffle with complimentary chocolate in hand, I had no idea that in two hours I would feel more inspired than any film has ever left me. Leaving Leicester Square in the rain still buzzing from its infectious energy, I knew I’d seen my film of the year. No film before has handled musicianship in such an honest and visceral way. It touches on the fear and tension that every musician in an ensemble feels but never shares, and director Damian Chazelle’s experience as a jazz drummer colours the film with honest detail. Following Andrew Nieman, a promising and ambitious student at a prestigious New York jazz conservatory, the film unpacks his drive for success with a concise structure and jaw-dropping editing. Simmons’ performance as Andrew’s terrifying perfectionist conductor will no doubt be recognised at the Academy Awards this year; his intensity left me inspired, awe-struck, and as speechless as the film’s final sequence itself. The moment the titles roll, I just want to buckle up and ride again. I now live in fear that I may eventually find myself watching it over again and again until passing out from forgetting to eat. Whiplash measures its tone expertly, oscillating between Fletcher’s breakneck insults and Andrew’s suffocating self-hatred. Their relationship marches to a rhythm of its own, and negotiates the uncertainty of young artistic talent without missing a beat. Whiplash deserves far better than Fletcher’s scorned ‘good job’ – it is brilliant.