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

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