2014 is coming to a close. Savour it, because it’s the last year to be Star Wars free, free of a film based on a DC comic book character that’s part of a 10 year plan, and the latest remake that’s set to ruin your childhood. With so many huge franchise movies on the way next year, 2014 somehow felt smaller, intimate, and well-paced with releases. There seemed to be consistent highlights throughout the year as opposed to the usual surge of films carrying the ‘for your consideration’ tail end of a calendar. Even the current awards season feels sleepy as the targeted contenders fail to fire.
Now for the criteria spiel. Selection is based on new releases I saw in 2014, at a film festival, or new to VOD during the course of the year. I am based in Australia so there will be a few films from the U.S 2013 release schedule that made it onto the list because they were delayed a release here. Documentaries will feature in a separate list.
A flurry of debate arises whenever an auteur releases a new film. Each fresh creation is greeted by a career retrospective that boils down to anointing one movie as ‘the best’. Few filmmakers ignite deliberation like Wes Anderson who has been passing around a box of cinematic confectionary since he debuted in 1996 with Bottle Rocket. Anointing a favourite Anderson joint became harder in 2014 with the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Unwrapping The Grand Budapest Hotel was an utter delight and showed Anderson firing on all his quaint idiosyncratic cylinders.
There just weren’t enough rooftops to shout my love for this film. Romance and science fiction were infused magnificently by writer and director Spike Jonze. A man falls in love with a computer. A tricky concept to execute, but the perfect kind of crazy for Jonze who has made a career out of wrangling odd ideas with ease. Her was more intimate and perceptive to a timeline that’s not too far away in our existence and it didn’t get side-tracked with the oddball trademarks of Jonze’s resume. Her focused on the human story and not the gizmos. It defined everything great about science fiction, that when done right, provides the platform to ponder what it means to be a human being.
You know a comedy is excelling when you’re paranoid that you’ll miss jokes during bursts of laughter from the audience. That’s what happened when I saw What We Do in the Shadows. Co-writers and directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement were comedic strategists with their commitment to set ups gags that payed off big time. From the moment Viago’s arm creeped out of a coffin to hit a buzzing alarm clock it was clear that the comedic filter cast over the environment, working to craft jokes at every opportunity. The pacing and timing was perfectly regimented for maximum effect and there was rarely a moment when your face wasn’t locked into a smile. Waititi and Clement mined centuries of vampire lore and pop culture incarnations of blood suckers to wittily deconstruct every aspect of the supernatural world. What We Do in the Shadows does for vampires what This is Spinal Tap did for rock bands.
Nebraska was like discovering a crumpled old black and white photograph. Memories came flooding back, stories from the past were uncovered, and regret sunk in as the young faces in the images, now old, mused on their mistakes. Director Alexander Payne crafted a striking portrait of a dysfunctional family and a refined piece of Americana that contained a wonderfully dry sense of humour.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler has been described as Network for the TMZ age and it’s spot on. A thrilling autopsy of the shadowy side of the media and how it benefits the vultures. We all want to say “it’s just a movie” but it cuts closer to the truth. Los Angeles is an arena like the Colosseum of ancient Rome with an audience crying out for blood. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) of 2014. Gyllenhaal is chilling as the cold, calculated, and driven character, who speaks like a Tony Robbins motivational CD crossed with horrid job application selection criteria jargon. Rene Russo, Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed provide sensational support. Can’t wait to see what Gilroy does next.
5. Tom at the Farm
We were spoilt getting two outstanding Xavier Dolan films in one year. Tom at the Farm was an impeccable psychological thriller in the key of Hitchcock but with Dolan’s operatic flourish. Themes of sexual identity bubbled beneath the surface and Dolan expertly maintained a sense of unease in a harsh rural setting. Gabriel Yared’s score was a luscious touch and Dolan’s use of Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night was a masterstroke.
A snapshot of a young life flashes before your eyes in Richard Linklater’s phenomenal film. This is a masterclass in the power of a filmmaker to control the passage of time and tell an engaging story. An accomplishment grand in scope and ambition but so incredibly intimate and heart-warming. I never wanted it to end. Shot over 12 years, it’s a great achievement in modern American filmmaking and solidifies Linklater’s status as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.
3. Force Majeure
A comedy of passive aggressiveness, a scathing satire of masculinity, delivered with Kubrickian unease by writer and director Ruben Östlund. Östlund’s family portrait was distorted by dysfunction and it was absolutely captivating.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis was a film that embraced failure in a beautiful way. From the ground floor of the American folk movement the Coens’ tap into the ultimate story of the man that never was. The beating heart of Inside Llewyn Davis was the songbook constructed by executive music producer T-Bone Burnett and performed beautifully by the cast. Each song cut to the core of each character and propelled the narrative forward in a sublime way. Oscar Isaac imbued Llewyn Davis with an abrasive nature that never fell on the side of malice; you were watching a good natured guy who is worn out. The actor engulfed Davis with sorrow and his eyes looked like two tiny water balloons ready to burst. The supporting cast was layered with terrific appearances from Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett who play the Gorfeins, friends, cat owners and kind folks who are forgiving of Davis’ mood swings. John Goodman was unforgettable as a confrontational travelling musician named Roland Turner, and Garret Hedlund gave off an air of danger and mystery as Roland’s personal driver. Jeanine Serralles was terrific as Davis’ sister and the constant voice of reason while F. Murray Abraham and Jerry Grayson play music reps that are so candid it hurts. Inside Llewyn Davis was masterfully told story and a transcendent piece of filmmaking from the Coen brothers.
1. Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive was a gothic ode to decaying culture and the joy of being alive from the perspective of the living dead. If you can live forever, what do you live for? Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch presented music, literature, science and engineering as the creations that inspire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). The dialogue was thick with disdain for the moronic side of human nature that has destroyed, ignored or condemned the great thinkers. The classic vampire staples were present but it never defined the characters and it was presented in a way that was so damn cool. Hiddleston oozed melancholy, Swinton was excellent as the adoring optimist and Mia Wasikowska appeared as a devilish as a reckless young vampire. Also, a fanged John Hurt was in top form amongst the already impressive cast. Only Lovers Left Alive easily shoots to the top of the list of great vampire movies with a wooden bullet. A definitive entry in the genre and the best film of 2014.
Cameron Williams – follow Cam on Twitter here: @MrCamW