Films of the year, 2014

All of these fall into at least two out of: 1. released in the US in 2014; 2. released in the UK in 2014; 3. I saw them for the first time in 2014…

(Edit: after thinking a bit more about The Interview, I dropped it in favour of the very fun Edge of Tomorrow…)

25-21: The Flawed Gems

25 Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise only makes two good kinds of movie these days: ones where he plays a slimeball, and ones that have the words “Mission Impossible” in the title. “Edge of Tomorrow” (now sort-of-retitled “Live. Die. Repeat.” for VOD) looks like a bit of hokey sci-fi, and it is, but it’s also a great Tom Cruise slimeball pic. He plays a cowardly soldier exposed to the reality-warping effects of having an alien explode all over his face. He’s then forced to relive the same beach invasion over and over until he finds a way to not die during it. The ending is kind of a dud, but in the meantime it’s Groundhog Day meets a sort of demented Tom Cruise snuff film. If you enjoy watching the smile get wiped off his face, congratulations – this is the movie for you. It happens dozens of times.

24 Noah
There’s never been a Biblical film quite like this before, and it’s very much a movie of two halves. In the first part, Russell Crowe builds his ark with help from giant rock monster fallen angels, then then defends it from Ray Winstone’s warrior tribe in a massive fantasy battle just as the deluge hits. That part’s pretty good. In the second half, Russell Crowe is sailing along with Emma Watson and threatening to kill her unborn children if they turn out to be girls. That half is less good, even once you factor in the secret twist – down in the bowels of the ark, Ray Winstone is slowly eating all the animals.

23 Maps To The Stars
Cronenberg’s acid satire of Hollywood families has the pH dialled right down to 1. Ultimately the storytelling doesn’t quite flow right, but in the meantime Juliane Moore is phenomenal.

22 Interstellar
Some great sequences. Beautiful effects. Workmanlike acting. Terrible plot.

21 The Babadook
Effective domestic chiller with a stressed-out mother, repressed emotions, and a child who can “see” something crawling from the depths of their subconsciouses via a mysterious children’s book. But lord oh lord is the child annoying. I started to identify very strongly with the mum.

20-11: Very good

20 The Guest
First it’s a mystery, then its a thriller, then it’s an action movie, then a horror. In something like Gone Girl that could be unsatisfying, but in a schlocky movie like The Guest, it works. An ex-soldier (or is he?) comes to offer comfort to a family who lost their own son in the war. They were comrades (or were they?). A nice throwback to late-80s straight-to-VHS fare, in the best possible way (or is it? Yes, it is).

19 Foxcatcher
Prestige cinema, and great acting, but it’s the same darn tone throughout. Wintery and bleak. Easy to admire but hard to love.

18 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Some people found this too talky, but there’s airstrikes, commando raids, someone is brainwashed to kill, and a hospital explodes. Plus, as ever, Jennifer Lawrence sells the hell out of it.

17 Snowpiercer
Fun, stupider-than-it-thinks action-packed Marxist fable. Amazing sets, and some lovely surreal moments.

16 Nymphomaniac
Lars Von Trier hasn’t failed me yet. Deadpan ridiculousness.

15 The Lego Movie
The best realisation of Batman for decades, and an ending that made a little bit of dust land in my eye. Dust!

14 Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Features Toby Jones trapped inside a 1970s computer. Job done.

13 The Raid 2: Berendal
If you wanted highly choreographed violence, this is the movie for you. Blazing lay intense action that puts its foot on the pedal and never lets up, until it slams into the credits.

12 22 Jump Street
No apologies – there are a lot of apparently dumb comedies around these days, but this was the funniest, smartest stupid movie of the year.

11 Gone Girl
Almost every part of Gone Girl is great, as are all the performances. But as a whole it seems uncertain about what kind of movie it wants to be – mystery, thriller, high-camp melodrama – and as a result it never quite gels. That said, Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike both give career best performances, and it’s the only Tyler Perry movie worth watching.

10-1: Excellent!

10 Whiplash
Does Miles Teller have what it takes to be one of the trio great jazz drummers? JK Simmons thinks… maybe, but probably not. As the need to prove himself slides into dangerous obsession, Whiplash delivers the most intense final half-hour of the year.

9 Nightcrawler
Lean, keen, pop-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal will do anything for success in the tightly competitive world of chasing down crime scenes and selling the gore-strewn footage, in this searing tale of obsession and manipulation. Rene Russo guards the gateway to a total moral void. But how far is Jake willing to go? (Spoiler: right off the edge).

8 Guardians of the Galaxy
Probably the best Marvel movie to date, albeit with their traditional problem of a bland villain. Chris Pratt’s dancing is a particular highlight.

7 Frank
Michael Fassbender rocks a paper mâché head, in a bittersweet tour of creativity and madness.

6 We Are The Best
Swedish punk teen girls in the (other) great coming-of-age movie of the year. Not nearly enough people went to see this, but it really was lovely.

5 Only Lovers Left Alive
Deadpan vampire poets in one of Jim Jarmusch’s greatest films. The ruins of Detroit prefigure the coming end of human civilisation. But in the meantime, Tilda Swinton is a Stax girl.

4 Boyhood
There’s nothing else quite like Boyhood, the anti-coming-of-age-film coming-of-age-film. As much about being a parent as it is about growing up; Patricia Arquette gives the performance of the year.

3 Birdman
This had all the bells and all the whistles. Working within self-imposed limits – almost the entire film has the appearance of a single take, despite taking place over several days – Iñárritu delivers a spinning catherine wheel of a movie, supported by a fantastical cast with Keaton, Norton and Stone the highlights.

2 Under The Skin
Jonathan Glazer defamiliarises Earth and its civilisations, watching Glasgow through the eyes of Scarlett Johanssen – and watching Scarlett Johanssen through the eyes of Glasgow. From the shopping centres to the slip roads to the nightclubs to the sub zero beaches and wintery forests she moves; an absence behind a human mask. This movie contained both the most haunting moment and biggest shock of the year. Unforgettable.

1 The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s grand return to form, this had as much heart and depth as Boyhood, but through some kind of alchemy achieved it via stylised comedy rather than earthy drama – a far harder trick to pull off. Just as one indicator of how much of a return to form this was, it featured – like The Darjeeling Limited – a dead child. But whereas in that film it was a cheap plot device, here it’s the hidden heart of the the whole thing, lost in a throwaway remark in the folds of the history.


London Film Festival 2014

Another October, another LFF. I was at a wonderful wedding in Philadelphia for the first half of this one, which meant I had to leave ’71, It Follows, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and Leviathan for another time. And I decided to forgo Whiplash for the Surprise Film. But, for what it’s worth, here is my roundup of what I did manage to catch.

4. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.
This was essentially “The Seven Stages of Grief – The Movie”.

Originally this was going to be a film about a guy whose wife disappears after a tragedy [spoilers available upon request], and his attempts to find her/win her back. Then Jessica Chastain talked writer/director Ned Benson into turning it into two movies, back to back: “TDOER: Him” and “TDOER: Her”, each following one half of the couple. That’s what they shot, but a double-length whammy of grief is a tough sell. So outside of the art circuit, they’re releasing “TDOER: Them”, an edited-together single movie cutting between their perspectives – and that’s the version we saw.

If you think “hey, if they ‘found’ this version in the editing room, I bet it’s a bit of a mess”, you’d be right. There’s no real storytelling structure here, it just cuts back and forth between James McAvoy being torn apart by frustration and Jessica Chastain being torn apart by grief, for what feels like three hours. Sometimes it’s very affecting, but more often it feels like someone playing a Coldplay song into your face VERY LOUDLY.

Too often it doesn’t amount to much more than “look at these people being sad”. But it’s nicely shot on New York locations, and the amazing cast (including Bill Hader, William Hurt, Viola Davis, Ciarán Hinds, Isabelle Huppert) is consistently excellent. In particular, the movie just soared right up whenever McAvoy was chewing the fat with best friend Hader, or Chastain was mulling the meaning of life with her university lecturer Davies. These was some actual playfulness and energy in those scenes that were eagerly devoured by the audience.

Sadly, strong female roles for actresses to really sink their teeth into are as rare as ever. So if you need your fix of that, this movie delivers. On that basis, it might be worth a recommend. I just wish it was less of a depiction, and more of a story.

Grade: C-

3. White Bird In A Blizzard

Shailene Woodley narrates the story of her mother (Eva Green), her decent into apparent madness, and the day she disappeared. This movie marries a Lynchian sense of “darkness behind the curtains”, Eva Green giving it her best crazyeyes Eva Green acting technique, and the Gregg Araki “hip teenagers ponder the dark ennui of life” school of late-night dialogue.
For all these reasons, I loved White Bird In A Blizzard – right up until the ending. In the last five minutes, it completely falls apart as a genre film. We’ve loved the satire on suburban life. We’ve loved the seduction scenes and the dry, arch dialogue. But this is a mystery movie, and we demand a satisfying resolution to the mystery! Instead Araki ties it off with what amounts to little more than a montage and a quick voiceover. It’s like the end of Unbreakable, only ten times more annoying.

This could have been great, but, alas… fans of Woodley, Araki or Green will enjoy the ride but maybe not so much the destination.

Grade: C+ Available on VOD now.

2. Foxcatcher

Easy to admire. Hard to love. Not-too-smart gold medalist wrestler Channing Tatum gets an offer from ultra-rich eccentric (in real life a diagnosed schizophrenic) John DuPont to set up a wrestling team at his Foxcatcher farm, then draws his smarter brother into the circle too. A dark, bleak satire on The American Dream, and what if means to have “meaning” in your life – or to try and add it where it’s missing. Foxcatcher is very good, but I doubt I’ll ever really want to watch it a second time.
Mark Ruffalo as the elder brother is phenomonal. Steve Carrell as DuPont is mesmerising, but you never quite tune out the nose.

Grade: B+

1. Surprise Movie: Birdman

The trailers play up the Birdman/Batman angle, and even cram in a whole bunch of effects shots from towards the very end of the movie. So, ignore/avoid the trailers. This is mostly NOT that movie, and it’s a shame to have that late-blooming element spoiled.

Instead, Birdman is mostly an acidic, flip satire of backstage shenanigans in the run-up to a play’s opening night. It shifts wonderfully back and forth between actorly shade-throwing, knockabout action, narcissistic acting-out, delirious melodrama and hallucinatory fantasia.

The disguised edit technique (see Gravity, Children of Men, The Secret In Their Eyes) is used here to represent almost the entire movie as one unbroken shot. In other movies that’s used to ramp up tension. Here it’s used to give events a woozy, up-all-night vibe – more than once the action progresses a day or two in the space of a few seconds as the camera moves down a corridor and into a room, taking us from a rehearsal into a backstage argument into the next day’s formal preview, all without an apparent break. By the time reality seeps away, the audience is ready.

Micheal Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, and Andrea Riseborough are all great. Norton especially.

Grade: A

Best Performances based on these four movies:

Lead Actor: Michael Keaton. Basically a defining Keatonesque performance. Not a 180 turnaround from previous roles (like Steve Carell in Foxcatcher), but more of a distillation of his essence. This might be the movie by which he is remembered. Or the *other* movie by which he is remembered, anyway.

Lead Actress: Jessica Chastain. It’s a great performance, and so much better than the script deserves.

Supporting Actor: Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo. I suspect people will go for Ruffalo (who is GREAT in Foxcatcher), but Norton is just as good. But it’s a comedy role, and they just don’t get the recognition.

Supporting Actress: Viola Davis. She’s just such a pro. Lifts the entire film. Which does need lifting.

TL;DR: go see Birdman. Out in the UK in Jan, in NY and LA now.

Hidden Treasure: A High Wind In Jamaica

What makes a good fairy story? Archetypes aside, I’d say darkness, loss, and death. These elements also lurk at the core of the best children’s stories – or at least the kinds of children’s stories that continue to hover in the mind once most such things have been put away.

A great many such stories involve that threadbare theme, the “loss of innocence”. But I have a particular fondness for those in which the supposed innocence is replaced by nothing at all – the kind of terrifying amorality that parents may find themselves catching glimpses of, but elect not to talk about. This is occasionally harnessed by lesser film-makers for the purposes of a hokey thriller, such as The Bad Seed or The Good Son, but to see it done well we need someone like Alexander Mackendrick.

Mackendrick made his name directing the best-loved of the Ealing comedies: Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man In The White Suit. His cynicism is particular keen in that one – Alec Guinness plays a perky scientist who invents a self-cleaning fabric, and is for his troubles crushed by a union of big capital and big labour, both fearful of the disruption it would bring. He also made Mandy, a real button-pusher of a movie about the struggle of a troubled family to raise a little deaf girl. Mandy is one of the few films that can make me cry. Honestly, it gets me every time. Anyway.

He then left for Hollywood, where he made what many regard as his masterpiece: The Sweet Smell of Success. His cynicism is back here, and in full force, in a tale of moral corruption and the corrosive effect of desperation in the world of New York gossip journalism. Ironically, Success turned out to be the peak of Mackendrick’s own box office fortunes. Falling out with the producers, he was almost immediately kicked off his next project for them. He managed to make three more films before difficulties in obtaining further financing caused him to abandon directing completely, and instead take tenure at the University of Southern California. Unlike the happy cocoon of Ealing, freelancing in Hollywood had depended on being a great “deal-maker,” he complained, and “I have no talent for that … I realised I was in the wrong business and got out.”

Fortunately, the second of those final three movies was A High Wind In Jamaica; it’s here that Mackendrick was able to to take Mandy’s touching sensitivity to the emotional world of children and crash it into the brutal darkness of Success. For, aside from children, who else is known for living outside of the moral conventions of mainstream society? The answer, of course, is pirates.

A High Wind In Jamaica is based on the book of the same name, and follows the adventures of a family of children who are believed dead, but in fact have stowed away with a pirate crew (lead by their captain Anthony Quinn and second in command James Coburn). In one type of story this would be a jaunty romp with lots of yo-ho-ho and a cheeky parrot. In another type, it would be a much grimmer, traumatic voyage. The film’s skill is in playing one possibility off against the other, never quite closing off the possibilities that it will resolve one way or the other. When the pirates make their first stop the kids roam around the port in a fun, high-spirited sort of way. Then the eldest boy sneaks upstairs in a brothel. Can you guess what happens next? If you guessed “he freaks out, jumps out of a third floor window, smashes his head in and dies,” then you are correct. This is only made more disorienting by the fact that he’s played by Martin Amis.

Without the relative maturity of their brother to anchor them, life for the remaining children takes on an increasingly unreal air. But it’s when Gert Frobe (aka Goldfinger) turns up as a Dutch Captain that things really take a turn for the savage. Suffice to say, the original novel is regarded as the primary inspiration for The Lord of The Flies.

The trailer tries to sell it as a salty Technicolor yarn, perfect perhaps for a Sunday matinee… but the menace oozes through the screen.

This is a story where the children learn the hard way the difference between right and wrong – and then learn that maybe they just don’t care. If children start their lives beyond good and evil then this is one story where, after a journey of growth and discovery, at least one decides to stay there.


“Hidden Treasure” is the W&P series on films we think are under-seen or under-appreciated…

The 25: Whitlock & Pope’s Most Anticipated Films of 2014 – #10-1

10. A Most Wanted Man (TBD US & UK)
A Most Wanted Man movie (2)

John Le Carre’s based-on-true-events novel about morally ambiguous diplomacy during the modern War on Terror gets the big-streen treatment with an interesting ensemble cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Defoe, Daniel Bruhl). People call Carre’s work “the thinking man’s thriller,” which is a way of calling something a critical darling that doesn’t do as well as movies where Tom Cruise rides motorcycles in the desert and does not-so-undercover spy work with sexy team members and explosions.

The film is directed by Anton Corbijn, who correctly surmised the appeal of George Clooney as a be-suited assassin in The American (which, in turn, was inspired by a Martin Booth’s espio-novel A Very Private Gentleman–do I sense the pattern of A Very Thoughtful Spy Movie brewing?)

I plan on seeing this, not only for the cast and story, but also to esoterically humblebrag about this at my local beer garden while drinking a microbrew you’ve never heard of. –GW

Next: Foxcatcher >>>