Friday, December 26, 2014

The Best Films of 2014

I love the movies.

I remember, exactly, when the love affair started. I was about 17, Year 12, and I'd been out with a few friends. And by 'out' I mean; we'd been hanging around the beach after dark, drinking UDLs and smoking weed. This is pretty much all there is to do in a country town when you're in Year 12.

In any case, I'd wandered home, skipped past my mother as quickly as possible ('Hi... Yeah... Ok, night') and flopped out in front of the TV in my room. It was about 10pm and one of the networks was showing Casablanca, which I'd not seen before.

And wasn't interested in watching then either. I mean, old movies? They were for old people. But - and you can feel the world shift on its axis a bit right here - I couldn't be fucked finding something else. So I watched it.

And that was it really. The next day I went to the local video store and rented everything in the classics section that had a familiar title.

Years, decades, later, I have that couch-Casablanca moment to thank for another year spent in the dark, obsessively eating mints. And I am very thankful indeed.

And now... my favourite movies of the year.


Sporting some of the year's most indelible images, and one of its most outlandish concepts, this Hungarian drama was a worthy winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes this year. Writer/director Kornel Mundruzco deftly balances a number of plot strands, then cleverly links them all back to his central point; power corrupts, and causes the powerful to do terrible things to the powerless. While this theme is simple, it in no way detracts from the originality of the presentation. The hypnotic stillness of the opening and closing  - Budapest, abandoned - stands in stark contract to the chaotic scenes mid section, where an uprising of stray dogs turns on the worst elements of society. The boldness of the approach is simply stunning, while the ambiguous ending leaves much to ponder. A unique movie experience.


Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are close friends and nerdy misfits; they cling to each other while they try and navigate the difficulties of their American high school, bullied and maligned at every turn. But Matt has a temper, and an anarchic streak, and also has a plan to pay back everyone that has wronged him. Tragic, real life events in America have lead to a raft of high school shooting movies in the last few years, but we have never seen these events depicted like they are here. The Dirties is wickedly, hilariously funny, mining the shopworn high school setting for some very black comedy, that spills over into the more serious part of the film to remarkable effect. Multi talented Matt Johnson writes, directs, edits, produces and shines in all areas, although his bravura performance as the manic main character leaves the deepest impression. His rapid fire dialogue and ludicrous ideas are funny, stupid and brilliant, all at once. Provocative and thrilling.


Vacationing in the French Alps, a well off Swiss family seem to have it all worked out; father Tomas Johannes Kuhnke) is the satisfied centre of the universe, with wife and two kids comfortably in his orbit. But this tranquil picture is disrupted by Tomas' cowardly reaction to an avalanche, an act of god that shakes his family's faith and uncovers previously glossed over tensions. The role that fate plays in our lives is given a thorough examination in this subtle, beautifully crafted drama, which also touches on the corrupting influence of materialistic society. Tomas and his wife have lived in their insulated cocoon for so long they have lost touch with who they are, and don't like what they see when forced to re-examine themselves. This harsh critique of their existence and character climaxes in one of the most intriguing scenes of the year; an ending where the finest of details communicates volumes.  An intelligent and stylish film.


American independent director Wes Anderson's eighth feature arrived with the now expected preliminaries; a beautiful, retro poster, an energetic trailer, and a lengthy cast list filled with a group of names to make other auteurs weep (how many other director's can call on the likes of Bill Murray, or Tilda Swinton, for one scene parts?). Likewise, the film itself displays Anderson's trademark style; a many splintered narrative, a vigorous music score, remarkably detailed production design and a happy-sad narrative that pitches laughs against tragedy. That this all works so well, despite the familiarity, is a testimony to how good Anderson and his team are at what they do. The story of a legendary hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) involved in a madcap scramble for a stolen painting, this is one of the director's best films, containing some of his funniest jokes and, perhaps, his most melancholy final act. It's manically entertaining, while still finding time for reflection, and perhaps no one can walk that tightrope as well as Wes. 


In a year in which it was hard to write about any Australian film without attaching the word 'dreck', there was one, and only one, saving grace; this wonderful, moving adaption of Robyn Davidson's 1970's book about her solo trek across the Simpson Desert. All the more remarkable is that this is very tricky filmic territory; Davidson (brilliantly played here by Mia Wasikowska) was a difficult, insular woman and her narrative consists of one long, lonely march into a void. Hardly the stuff of a conventional narrative. But in the hands of director John Curran (responsible an eternity ago for the equally excellent Praise) the film is compelling, as the characters physical journey turns into an emotional one. And the more obvious plot turns that do show up come with genuine impact; Davidson losing her camels, and the fate of her dog, will have you wide eyed and white knuckled (and, probably, a blubbery mess). Primarily though, this movie is about personal courage, and the importance of carving your own path, and serves as a showcase both for a young actor and a young woman, unafraid of either. 


Veteran character actor JK Simmons (Spiderman, many others) has waited his whole career for a part like this; Terrance Fletcher, the charismatic, messianic head teacher at a prestigious private music school. Into Fletcher's domain steps naive wannabe Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented drummer so dedicated that he casts aside his cute girlfriend lest she interfere with his goals. The clash of wills, and psychologies, between teacher and student powers this remarkable character study, pushed to great heights by two brilliant performances, both among the year's best. The creative process, and the nature of artistic license, are dissected in a series of bold, thrilling scenes, as excessive behaviour is excused in the name of art.  Fletcher's line, 'There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job' ' was probably the most discussed quote of the year, and a fitting shorthand for the places this film gets too. Unexpected and exhilarating.


Having delivered memorable recent turns in Enemy and Prisoners, Jake Gyllenhaal continues a terrific creative run with his most dazzling performance to date; Lou Bloom, a petty criminal and hustler who slithers into a job shooting freelance footage for the nightly news. Gyllenhaal's Bloom is intelligent and highly capable, talented and adaptable... and also vicious, egocentric and sociopathic. Travis Bickle with clearer goals and cable internet. And Gyllenhaal's transformation into this bug eyed, slick haired narcissist is something to behold, a chameleon act worthy of some award attention. The surrounding film offers sharp satire of the modern TV industry, where 'anything goes' has become a watchword for success. Writer/director Dan Gilroy packages his story for maximum impact, and there is not a wasted scene or moment throughout a very taught two hours. In an era of 140 minute gross out comedies, this almost feels like a revolution.


Sandra (a deglamourised Marion Cotillard), will lose her job, and her family their house, if she cannot convince her co-workers to forsake an end of year bonus that otherwise pays her salary. The film follows Sandra over the time period of the title, as she desperately tries to convince her colleagues to help her, while she also juggles two kids and manic, medicated, depression. The latest from Belgian duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (L'EnfantRosetta) is a simply constructed film in the neo-realist style (entirely filmed on location, with no music score) that delivers with sledgehammer impact. Watching Sandra be repeatedly knocked down by the difficulties of her life, and still try to find a way back up, was the most emotional experience I had at the movies this year, and one that was difficult to watch at times. The vivid reality of the film is entirely absorbing, and the sense of watching a real person crumbling, impossible to distance yourself from. But there are wonderful, uplifting moments for Sandra as well, and the fragile hopefulness of the ending is a blessing, after the harrowing struggle of the previous two hours. Sandra's sign off - 'We fought a good fight!' - is something I will think about, long after some of the flashier films on this list have faded from memory. Essential. 


Filmed in installments over a dozen years, versatile director Richard Linklater's breathtaking feature is a one of kind take on the classic coming of age tale. With deft segue ways between the yearly sections (effectively a collection of short movies, edited together) we watch the characters physically age and emotionally mature. At the forefront is the boy of the title, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but part of the pleasure of this work is that all of the main characters take us on a journey; trying new things, surviving reversals, reflecting on what has happened to them. The sense of time passing is palpable and each character's mini story believable and engaging. Coltrane shines in an indelible debut, and is well backed by Patrica Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who have their best roles in years playing his estranged parents. While the film's epic length begins to tell, a little, towards the end (there is, perhaps, one emotional climax too many), this unique film is rich, subtle and demanding of repeat viewings. Brilliant.


With his prime some way behind him, aging writer/socialite Jep (veteran Toni Servillo) takes stock of his life. He also parties hardy, whisking through a dizzying array of clubs, restaurants, get together's, openings and events. These parallel lifestyles define the character and drive the film, as the narrative shifts between scenes and eras to highlight the conflicting elements of this complex man. Jep moves in a rarefied atmosphere but the contours of his life are familiar; the powerful echo of a first love, the frustration of unresolved choices, the tenderness of a meaningful connection, 

Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino rightly won an Oscar for this extraordinary, deeply layered film, which stands squarely alongside some of the classic works of Italian cinema (we're mainly talking Fellini here, although the touchpoints are numerous). It is, in equal measures, funny, melancholy, sentimental, cynical, silly and profound, and its philosophical musings are balanced against some broad satire (organised religion and the art scene, being particular targets). At times, it is messy and chaotic, but this sits well with the films themes. After all, what life an easily be defined? How would you even start?

Towards the end of the movie, Jep considers death, knowing his own isn't much further away. He reflects via voice over, 

'This is how it always ends, with death. But first there was life, hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah...' 

It's a cryptic ending, to a film wide open to interpretation; is he saying that as his life was full, his death becomes insignificant? Or just the opposite, that the commotion of his life really just disguised the emptiness that he now has to face?

The beauty of this magnificent movie is that it is unafraid to pose questions of this magnitude, and equally comfortable to leave them open. A bona fide classic for the ages.

Also very good...

  • Blue is the Warmest Colour
  • Calvary
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Housebound
  • Particle Fever
  • Mr Turner
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Happy Christmas
  • Ne Mes Quitte Pas
  • Enemy

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Worst Movies of 2014

There are some obvious ones missing from this list.

I didn't watch A Winter's Tale (nor could I ever imagine doing so), and a dislike for both Nicole Kidman and Grace Kelly kept me away from Princess Grace: Weepy Pants. And I couldn't force myself to Transformers 4, even though I had a free ticket.

All of which made most of the 'Worst Of' lists I've seen.

So this is a personal selection, from the 80 or so features I did watch this year, and it comes with the usual provisos; the author is neither very educated, nor very awake (most of the time), and his long term addiction to Eclipse mints can be a film watching handicap.

With that in mind, an otherwise definitive list of the years worst films.


Having slumbered for 15 years since it's last, disastrous, reboot, the world's most famous monster seemed ready for another tilt at the big time. And, on paper, this movie seemed highly promising; a hip young director (Gareth Edwards, of Monsters fame), a big budget and a surprisingly heavyweight cast, including Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, even Walter White himself (Bryan Cranston, terrific as an earnest engineer). But, apart from an exciting set up sequence in a stricken nuclear power plant, this silly, clumsy film almost entirely failed to deliver. The big guy is fun, but there is entirely too little of him, and way too much of wooden leading man Aaron Taylor-Johnson, badly miscast and utterly woeful. Some of the action sequences have potential, but even these are hampered by a hyperactive editing style, that cuts away from the monster mayhem right as things are about to get smashed. What should have been a rollicking, popcorn munching thrill ride ended as just another overpriced session at the IMAX, followed by a looong walk home.. 


Serpentine plotting can serve a movie well, but there are some guidelines; the twists have to be carefully concealed, the ending a surprise and the scenarios along the way credible. Abandoning all three early on, this local time travel thriller tries to make up with effort what it lacks in subtlety and polish. And imported leading man Ethan Hawke does his best with the giddy material, gamely keeping a straight face while pursuing a criminal named The Fizzle Bomber. Also in the mix is 2014's most obvious woman pretending to be a man (local gal Sarah Snooke, trying hard), a high tech violin case and Noah Taylor, doing a fair impression of the Cancer Man from the X Files. There's a lot of energy and enthusiasm on display here, but only a little craft, which makes for a largely unsatisfying flick. The plot twists only get sillier, and more laughable, the longer it goes. Bold ambition in film makers is laudable but, unfortunately, even the best intentions can fall flat.


Also from the local industry, this low budget, wannabe-supernatural thriller has cut a bit of a swathe on the festival circuit, garnering great reviews and a spot on the New York Times best films of the year list. All the more surprising then, that the film is neither scary, nor suspenseful, nor can come up with a better ending than the most obvious plot device in the history of boogeyman films (Oh! It's all in the weird characters head. I mean, really?). This is writer/director (and onetime actor) Jennifer Kent's first feature and, unfortunately, it shows; the amateurish direction and editing entirely fails to create any atmosphere, not at all helped by a terrible performance from Daniell Henshall, wretched in the crucial role of 'The Troubled Child.' The mysterious book that puts the story in motion (pictured above) is creepy, which makes you wonder what Tim Burton and an animation studio could have done with this. But in these hands it is simply dull, and so very obvious.


Writer-director Ben Stiller has an excellent track record with his own films; they're mostly really good, and, occasionally, really awesome ('Cable Guy', 'Zoolander'). But this, a re-make of a Danny Kay vehicle based on the novel of the same name, is an almost total misfire. The buttoned down office drone Stiller plays at the start of the movie we've seen many times before, and his transformation into a romantic global adventurer is trite when it isn't tedious. The meaning of life, Stiller's Mitty works out, is 'Follow your heart,' a message you may have already picked up from every other film ever made. Much more offensive than this, though, is the relentless product placement that dominates large tracts of the narrative. Suffice to say that the internet dating site and pizza chain that sponsored this turkey got their money's worth. The one saving grace, and it's worth a little something, are some beautiful images from the film shoot's far flung locations, but you can get these at too, and their advertising is much less crass.


American director David Fincher has had a bit of a mid career sea change; away from the edgy material of his earlier films (Se7en, Fight Club), towards pulpier, mainstream fodder (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Very much in the latter vain is this ludicrous, overheated thriller, which Fincher has brought to the big screen straight from the discount book bin at the local airport. The story - pretty young wife goes missing, neglectful hubby looks guilty - starts off well enough, but just cannot resist tipping its hand early. The big reveal, as to the whereabouts of the wife, comes after about forty minutes and, with this, goes any reason anyone may have had in watching the rest of it. Which is not to say that the remaining two hours aren't lively; there's a new twist every ninety seconds, and each one goes soaring to new heights of craziness; corrupt lawyers, trailer trash criminals, kinky sex, an evil yuppie and a boo-hiss tabloid TV host all dive in to this mess and wriggle around. And that's without mentioning the laughably named Detective Boney, and her prissy sidekick, ineptly questioning everything in sight. The only thing more ludicrous than the way these plot strands ties together is the earnest commentary that has accompanied the film, of the 'biting satire of our media obsessed times' variety. Good satire is a rapier, and this is more like a rubbery bludgeon. 


Continuing a dismal 2014 for the local film industry (and I'm not even done yet, see below), this barely released and little seen action comedy took high concept film making to the very lowest levels. Because, on paper, the conceit behind this looks promising; cast acerbic British comedian Simon Pegg against type as a hitman, then let him make like the Man With No Name in a rural Australian town populated by dimwits. Really, I'm pretty keen to see that movie. Or I was, once. But, unfortunately, in order to flesh out this synopsis, the film makers have opted to lean on every lame, worn out stereotype in the formula movie playbook. So; the main story revolves around a bar owner who's wife is cheating on him; he wants to kill her; he is also a drunk; then there's a life insurance scam; and a corrupt cop; and... well, who cares really. You've seen it all before, done much better. The couple of laughs that Pegg does engender (and he does quite well really, considering how bad the rest of this is) only serve to highlight what could have been, in more skillful hands.


One man TV industry Seth McFarlane (Family Guy, Robot Chicken) scored a big hit two years ago with his first foray into movies; Ted, a gross out comedy with McFarlane as the voice of a foul mouthed teddy bear. For this, his excruciatingly unfunny follow up, McFarlane has returned as writer, director and producer, and also installed himself as leading man, front and center in every single shot across the endless run time (watching this it was hard not to imagine his directing style, 'How about another close up of my giant head? Yes, another one!'). Much of the comedy is meant to derive from McFarlane's mild character interacting with a parade of macho Western cliches, but his supreme awfulness, his relentless, arrogant, wankery-ness, will have you rooting for any one of the villains to pick him off. You certainly won't be laughing, unless you think someone saying 'Fuck' a lot is funny. Worst of all, McFarlane's obsession with himself means that the well credentialed supporting cast - Liam Neeson! Giovanni Ribisi! Charlize Theron! - are all relegated to the sidelines. You wouldn't imagine any of them would be back, when 'Seth McFarlane's Third Movie' is inevitably released.


2012's Spider Man reboot was a very odd duck; Sam Raimi's popular reboot trilogy was still pretty fresh, and the thought of going through a new origin story with different actors seemed bizarre. But if that first installment seemed curious, it now looks like a masterwork in comparison to this inept, utterly atrocious sequel. Every single element required for a successful multiplex flick has gone awry here; the villains are goofy (and poorly motivated), the story is convoluted and endless, the special effects look like they were knocked up on an app. Even our leads, the normally brilliant Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, look... distracted? Bored, even. Everyone involved, it seems, has cottoned on to the pointlessness of this movies existence, and reacted accordingly. 'Just get it done! And then we can move on to the next one.' A dismal example of contemporary, big studio film making, where the film is almost secondary to the product placement and toy sales. You really hope that there won't be another one of these, while, at the same time, you know there will be.


Unlike a few films on this list, Monuments Men is technically well made and has everything money can buy. It looks a treat. It also has a roll call of brilliant, hip character actors filling all of its major parts, undoubted testimony to the popularity and pull of writer/director George Clooney. So there really is no excuse, none, for the dismal fiasco that has resulted here. A potentially interesting story - art experts rescuing stolen art treasures from the Nazis - given the laziest, most half hearted treatment imaginable, rounded off by a booming chorus of 'rah-rah the Yanks saved everyone' bullshit. Jingoism! From George Freakin' Clooney! If I hadn't had my mind slowed by two hours of this dreck, I would've been totally outraged. Offensive to the sensibilities, numbing to the mind, an outright failure in every important way. Phew, that felt good.


To cap off a year of, largely, terrible Australian films, comes the very worst of the bunch; a long delayed sequel to an already forgettable Australian slasher flick from 2005. Back behind the wheel for this second installment is John Jarrett, making like the Freddy Kruger of the outback in his tattered hat and red shirt. But, as Jarrett's Mick Taylor is no longer a fresh concept second time round, the film makers have tried to add some new elements to his grimace and stab routine. So, like a crazed version of Barry McKenzie, Mick is now a nationalist, which a regularly stated hatred of anyone not from Australia (which doesn't stop him killing a local farmer and cop, of course). 'Clever take on the current state of National issues' anyone? Mick's also lost his sense of humour, as the wise cracks from the first movie have been wound back to him saying 'Yeah?' aggressively. The director, Greg McLean, also chucks in a horrendous, utterly pointless, sequence that shows Mick mowing down a group of kangaroos with a semi trailer (the absolute low point, of my film watching year). It's all in the service of being shocking and provocative, and you feel that there is nothing the team behind this wouldn't stoop to, to get these labels attached; 'Have Mick eat someone's balls! Rape a dingo! Choke someone with vegemite!' Talent-less, worthless, junk, utterly devoid of any merit.