MostlyFilm is coming home – and just in time for Christmas. Today we devote ourselves to our first love. These are mostly the best films of 2014.
I should never have seen it. I should barely have heard of it: a British TV refugee goes to Hollywood with big dreams but ends up in a blood-soaked bargain basement thriller. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success but, somehow, everything went right for Adam Wingard’s The Guest.
The set-up itself sounds tired and predictable: a stranger inveigles his way into a family but isn’t all he seems. Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, though, encounter genre as a bride and hug it in their arms. It doesn’t seek to surprise. The pleasure is in the journey: in the perfect, obvious blankness with which ‘David’ charms his way into the grieving family of his former military colleague in small-town New Mexico and the delicious anticipation of waiting for everything to go horribly wrong.
In the best tradition of sensation fiction, the film teases us with the thrill of transgression as David starts off as the family’s avenging angel, taking on their rage and grief and becoming an incarnation of their collective id. Their darkest wishes come to bloody life as school bullies, bad boyfriends and pushy work colleagues come to a series of mysteriously sticky ends, but – as is suitably inevitable – things continue to spiral out of control and before you know it, bits of the old ultra-violence are breaking out all over the place.
The film draws its merits in part from its perfect control of tone and style – it’s like a half-remembered dream of the 80s, all neon drenched lights and a soundtrack fizzing with electronica – and from its immaculate casting. Maika Monroe is a blast as the teenage daughter who is the first to smell a rat and the last to give up, but the revelation, and the film’s purring engine, is an almost unrecognisable Dan Stevens as David. The doughy, floppy Matthew Crawley is nowhere to be seen as the lean, blond David eases his way into the film with Southern fried sincerity before becoming a remorseless dead-eyed machine cutting a swathe through the supporting cast. It’s an absolutely magnetic performance, creating a proper movie star out of nowhere, and daring you to keep rooting for him as he plumbs the depths.
As a grotesque parody of the blue-eyed American boy, he’s the perfect centerpiece for a smart, self-aware, grimly funny and kinetic film which – from its deceptively quiet beginning to its audaciously hilarious final moment – is a giddy, utterly unexpected delight.
My Favourite Films of 2014
1 The Guest
2 The Grand Budapest Hotel
3 Edge of Tomorrow
4 The Skeleton Twins
6 Tom At The Farm
7 Vi är bäst!
10 Begin Again
The joy of end of year lists is manifold. I love reading why someone else loved a film I couldn’t get on with, I love it when someone else, more eloquent than I, can articulate why something reached greatness and how, and I love the thrill of someone highlighting a film you’ve not seen, or maybe, not even heard of.
My list doesn’t contain many films that slipped under most people’s radars, but I think Obvious Child may be one. Obvious Child, written and directed by Gillian Robespierre, is a smart, funny and affecting indie comedy, with a star-making performance by Jenny Slate, whom I’d only previously seen in her recurring cameo in Parks and Recreation.
Slate plays Donna, an aspiring stand-up, whose routines are mostly extended comic monologues about her life. Pregnant, after a one night stand, Donna tries to understand her options, and make the best decision that she can. It would be fair to say that from that point on, Obvious Child is anything but obvious, Robespierre avoids all of the clichés upon which her script could have run aground, and what’s left is a very sharp and surprising film.
Slate’s performance is one of the year’s best. It’s a hugely impressive piece of work, with Donna’s vulnerability and confidence almost in a constant duel, she’s well supported by Jake Lacy and Gaby Hoffman, but it is Slate’s performance that anchors, and propels the film.
Films of the Year
1= Winter Sleep
1= The Past
7) The Grand Budapest Hotel
8) Inside Llewyn Davis
9) The Raid 2
11) Obvious Child
Jenny Slate (Obvious Child), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle), Berenice Bejo (The Past), Tom Hardy (Locke), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Jack O’Connell (Starred Up), Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida).
Lars von Trier is essentially a director of good bits. His best films are the ones with the most good bits in them. It perhaps stands to reason that the best thing he’s ever done is also the longest: his freaky, free-associating hospital serial Kingdom. It has the most good bits in it.
This year von Trier gave us Nymphomaniac. At four-and-a-half hours long in its shortest version, it offered at least the temporal scope to have lots of good bits. And von Trier himself seems to approach it in the spirit of a Greatest Hits album: there’s a bit of Breaking The Waves here, a bit of Antichrist there, there’s even – in a peculiar thriller interlude towards the end – a fair bit of 1991’s Europa. But there’s something else, too: the clear sense of someone who thinks this might be the last film he ever makes.
Something happened to von Trier shortly after completing 2005’s Manderlay: some sort of existential crisis, followed by a severe depression. We know this because von Trier keeps telling us about it. But because von Trier is so professionally unbuttoned in his public appearances – imagine the Sex Pistols on the Bill Grundy show, for all eternity – we tend not to credit his sincerity in any matter. The fact that his films now begin with the blunt declaration ‘Lars von Trier’ (as opposed to ‘A Film by …’ or ‘Directed by …’) might reasonably lead one to believe that we’re dealing with nothing more than an ageing, egomaniacal scandal-hound. All I can say is that Nymphomaniac changed my mind.
Framed as a conversation between a fallen woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her celibate confessor (Stellan Skarsgård), Nymphomaniac comes on like the most brazen wank fantasy: it delights in female flesh, while being righteously alarmed at any woman who might want to enjoy herself by using it. The film’s first hour is a hectic compendium of slurping and rutting. So is the second hour. But something has happened in the interval: you’re no longer quite seeing all the sex that’s being put in front of you. You’re seeing the idea that underlies it – that sex is a form of radical creativity, and that pleasure itself might be an art.
Is this a serious thesis that serious people should take seriously? Probably not (it’s awfully close to a wank fantasy), but in taking it on, von Trier comes as close as he ever has to both justifying and disparaging his own art. The sheer length of the film, and the variety of styles and approaches von Trier is forced to apply, defeat and disrupt any of his attempts to impose a singular meaning on it, while at the same time giving him lots of room to do what he’s best at. Nymphomaniac has lots of good bits. It’s also the first thing von Trier has made where starting the film with just his name makes perfect sense: the film is him.
My favourite film of 2014 is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which was filmed for a few days every year over the course of 12 years. It’s an extraordinary, mind-boggling achievement, by any stretch of the imagination and it’s impossible to watch the film without marvelling at its construction. We watch the main character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), age from six to eighteen and you can’t help but wonder what the film might have been like if, instead of growing up into a sensitive, skinny, thoughtful, artistic teenager, he had turned out differently. So the film perfectly embodies the idea that your life is defined by the choices you make: on the one hand, almost anything is possible if you apply yourself to it, but on the other, each direction you take closes off the possibility of other directions. The film also strikes a powerful chord of nostalgia, since it forces you to think about your own life and the choices you made at Mason’s age – I think I heard more people confess to being reduced to tears by Boyhood this year than any other film.
There’s one more thing I want to highlight about Boyhood: Linklater’s exceptional editing, particularly in the transitions from year to year. Sometimes these are so subtle that it takes you a couple of moments to realise that a year has passed, but other times he uses them in clever ways – my favourite example is the cut from Mason’s step-father taking the boys to secretly buy booze to him hiding it in the house a year later, with the penny suddenly dropping that his alcoholism is a year further along. I also loved the comedy value of the cut from Mason spotting his mother being chatted up (and rolling his eyes) to, sure enough, her suitor being his new step-father a year later. More than that, I love that Linklater had to courage to not show the expected coming-of-age story points (we don’t see Mason lose his virginity, for example) and instead tell a story about, well, just the day to day business of life itself.
My Top Ten of 2014 (for now)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson has been ploughing his own furrow – very straight, with a whip pan or two – for a good few years now, but in the 2010s his particular approach finally seems to have pierced the general moviegoing consciousness. When people are making affectionate and highly perceptive compilation videos about your style, and even SNL are parodying you, then it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve arrived in the mainstream, wherever that is.
If 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom did a lot to raise Anderson’s profile, this year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel hoists it to the top of a European peak, covered in snow, and reached by funicular railway. Even though Anderson has sometimes been accused of tweeness, in Hotel he undercuts the prettiness and the perfection of production design and costumes with complicated emotions and subject-matter that skirts around the darkest topics twentieth century European history has to offer. The performances, from an embarrassment of actors, are uniformly great, with a scene-stealing Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Tony Revelori doing particularly well. All with a coating of dry humour and a surfeit of insanely quotable lines.
Bear with me for a moment while I compare Wes Anderson to Alfred Hitchcock. At one point, Hitch had become so good at what he did that he started setting himself stylistic challenges to make things a bit more interesting, like trying to shooting an entire movie in one more-or-less ‘continuous’ take. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s Rope, if you will, in that Anderson also decided to shoot the film in four different aspect ratios, each corresponding to the period in which that part of the film is set. This means that most of the film is in Academy Ratio (approximately 4:3), squarer than what contemporary audiences are used to. In an interview, Anderson’s long-time cinematographer Robert Yeoman acknowledged the challenge, and yet watching Anderson and Yeoman adapt their signature shooting style to the new format becomes part of the pleasure of the movie. (Hint: they do just fine).
I think one of the reasons Anderson’s films are so popular at the moment is that he may be one of the best examples of an Auteur currently working today. It’s all there: the collaboration on his own screenplays; the themes which keep cropping up from one movie to the next; the easily identifiable, signature style; the insane attention to detail. For the obsessives among us, The Grand Budapest Hotel does reward an auteurist reading, but at the same time it’s the best kind of personal film, one which stands on its own merits and in its own right. I’m probably not the first to compare the movie itself to the baked delicacy which forms an important motif, the Courtesan au Chocolat, but it’s too good a metaphor to pass up: slightly lopsided, pastel-coloured, sweet, yet surprisingly rich and filling. And all together one of the most satisfying film experiences of the year.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Among all the surprising films of this year, from Scarlett Johansen melting down Scots hitchers to the nested boxes of delights which made up The Grand Budapest Hotel, nothing was as surprising – or as much fun – as James Gunn’s hilarious, visually gorgeous space opera.
Like most people who don’t spend their Saturdays in comic stores, I’d never heard of the franchise before and I’m still not sure how much of the film was derived from the original stories. The trailer combined a few good gags, the thundering Blue Swede chant and one sweeping shot of a space ship ripping across the frame, and gave the impression of one of those occasional mega budget sci-fi follies that appear; The Fifth Element, maybe, or another demented Wachowski sibling lunacy. I’m always a sucker for that kind of thing, and I have a nine year old who will watch anything from Marvel, so along we went.
Unexpectedly, GotG turns out to be pretty much the best of the Marvel Studios films, managing to be far, far funnier than The Avengers, narratively more coherent than any of the Iron Man series, and to go into deep space without being as laughably awful as Thor. More impressively, though, it manages (whether or not consciously I have no idea) to recreate the mix of comedy and wonder I thought had died with Iain M Banks and make it work on screen. Time after time Gunn manages to create spectacular images (the ship blasting into a giant alien skull to Moonage Daydream, or the whistle-controlled knife missile) which seem to come straight out of a lost Culture novel, and I can’t praise a space opera more than that.
In a year where Marvel otherwise seemed to lock entirely into a slightly joyless grind through a 5 year cross promotion calendar, the least promising film on their slate managed to be a breath of fresh air. The 9 year old, mind you, is convinced that Howard the Duck is going to be a major part of Avengers 2…
Depressingly often, cinematic revivals of vintage British children’s properties are cynical cash grabs by carpetbagging producers, who often announce their stunt casting in advance before realising they haven’t given any thought to the script, or how a much loved character from their childhood might relate to a contemporary audience while staying true to its origins. It’s usually better, in fact, for such films to flame out before they’re made (O hai, Dave Stewart out of the Eurythmics’ version of Mr Benn starring John Hannah) than to be born unwilling and twisted, and left to die (avert your eyes, dear reader, from the tiny cyanosed cadavers of Thunderbirds, andThe Magic Roundabout).
Paddington could easily have gone horribly wrong – neither Michael Bond’s books nor the 70s TV adaptation (which mixed a stop motion bear with paper cutout human figures, a world away from the new film’s massive CGI budget and all star cast) make most people think of the narrative or visual scope and scale of a big movie (and, with Harry Potter producer David Heyman behind it, this was always going to be a big movie), and London itself, which was a key character in the books, has changed a lot since Bond started writing (it means a very different thing in 2014 than it did in 1974 that the Browns, the family who adopt our ursine hero, live in a townhouse in Notting Hill). The director, Paul King, had made only one film previously, the mostly either derided or ignored comedy Bunny and the Bull. And the pre-announced stunt casting backfired horribly when everyone belatedly realised that Colin Firth was not, as it turned out, the ideal choice to voice a childlike miniature talking bear.
It’s fair to say that some of the choices made in the production of Paddington only just pay off – the overarching plot about the eeevil taxidermist played by Nicole Kidman (!) – who wants to stuff Paddington and display him in the Natural History Museum – comes perilously close to overwhelming the quieter charms the film displays elsewhere (one great verbal joke and two brilliant action gags go some way to righting the balance), and the sequences that are closest in spirit to the books, slapstick burlesques of Paddington causing cascading chaos, like a small furry Mr Bean, also sometimes feel like distractions from the film’s main pleasure, it’s lyrical and emotional portrayal of Paddington’s initial sadness and loneliness, and how a family and a city fix it. From the early scene in which he’s buffeted and ignored by commuters at Paddington station while carrying his little suitcase (which could only be more reminiscent of that scene from Being There if it was scored by Deodato’s version of Also Sprach Zarazthustra) to the loveliness of the non-realist flourishes of the final return to 22 Windsor Gardens, which I won’t spoil for you, King continually finds new and surprising ways to visualise and express his characters’ emotional states, while finding space for a non-stop procession of verbal and visual gags and for the actors to do some fine work (particular plaudits to Julie Walters and Sally Hawkins). Not only have the film makers honoured their source material and found ways to make it relevant, they have broadened the cinematic horizons of every child who saw their film.