I have been more privileged than normal with the sheer number of films I have been able to see this year. I ventured across the world to attend the Toronto Film Festival, and made an effort to see at least one film at each of the festivals that run in Australia. It has been a terrific year, and I think what is notable is the incredible depth of excellent films.
There were a number of titles that had a theatrical release in early 2014, but I saw in 2013 and were considered for last year’s list. They include Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, 12 Years A Slave, The Great Beauty and Blue is the Warmest Colour. The first four films listed here would have made this short list, had I considered them.
So, with them exempt, the chosen films have been sourced from everything else I saw in 2014, whether they had a theatrical release in Australian cinemas in 2014 (or 2013 internationally), are set to have one in 2015, screened at a festival or went straight to VOD/DVD.
I didn’t get the chance to see some of the best-received films internationally, like Citizen Four, Goodbye to Language, Obvious Child and Listen Up Phillip, or some of the films receiving Oscar buzz like Inherent Vice, Selma, A Most Violent Year and The Theory of Everything.
But, before you say “Where’s ….” here are some honourable mentions (#35-26) that just missed the cut: Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich), Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson), The Double (Richard Ayoade), Starred Up (David Mackenzie), Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono), Boyhood (Richard Linklater), Calvary (John Michael McDonagh), Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel), The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her (Ned Benson) and Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood).
25. While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach) – Well, Noah Baumbach still hasn’t made a bad film and this may become my favourite of his films to date. Ben Stiller sure is at his best in this partnership, but Naomi Watts and Adam Driver are also excellent here. This is such a funny and relatable study of the differences between Gen X and Y, centered on a couple approaching middle age (Stiller and Watts) who have become alienated from their baby-obsessed friends, and have long wasted time using their stilted professional ventures as excuses, find their sense of youth invigorated when they meet a carefree 20-something hipster couple (Driver and Amanda Seyfried) with a whole different outlook on life.
24. Girlhood (Celine Sciamma) – Oppressed by her family setting, dead-end school prospects and the boys law in the neighborhood, Marieme (Karidja Toure) starts a new life after meeting a group of three free-spirited girls. She changes her name and her dress code and joins the gang, hoping that this will be a way to freedom. Celine Sciamma is the real deal. My goodness. I don’t know where to begin with this film, but it manages to be, extraordinarily, explosive and quietly intimate at the same time. The best use of music (Rihanna’s Diamonds!) of any film I saw at TIFF, and wonderfully performed by its non-pro cast. The finale is so brave, too.
23. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) – The Palme d’Or winner from Nuri Bilge Ceylan (the extraordinary Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) is set amongst one of the most stunning film locations in recent memory. It is a riveting, beautifully photographed portrait of middle-age re-evaluation and revelation in historically and economically crippled Anatolian isolation. In addition to being an honest and insightful study of a writer and their creative influence, it is about the divide between the rich and the poor in Turkish society, a strained marriage emotionally unravelling and a clinical observation of how a man reacts when his character, his deceptively content personality, is dissected and criticized. After an incident with one of his tenants, a member of a struggling family who have fallen behind on rent, Mr Aydin (a wonderful Haluk Bilginer) is forced to re-consider not only his closest relationships, but also the way he carries himself and how he is viewed by the very town he ‘presides over’.
22. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) – Set in the gorgeous Swiss Alps a veteran stage star Maria (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) hide out as she prepares for her latest play – the same one that made her famous as a young woman, but the opposing ‘older’ role. Unable to identify with this character, due to her own concerns about aging and being unable to adapt this character into a new context, she turns to Valentine for advice on the actress taking on her old role (Chloe Grace Moretz), challenging her to rehearse the role with her at length. Tension mounts when Maria is disagreeable with what Valentine brings to the role. As the material and their relationship begins to merge, this takes a Persona-esque twist that is quite a hook. This is a very pretty and bonkers look at performance as role, textual interpretation influenced by age (and how measures of age in the business have changed) and 21st Century ‘celebrity’, and the opposition of personal privacy vs. public openness. All three women excel, but Stewart’s performance is her best and one of 2014’s best.
21. The Possibilities Are Endless (Edward Lovelace, James Hall) – It is difficult to describe how this unforgettable experience impacted me, but it is a largely unseen gem that people should be talking about. It is an unconventionally structured, sensory-charged, and deeply moving documentary insight into former Britpop king Edwyn Collins’ recovery from a stroke.There is something quite profound about the way this film delves into Collins’ nightmarish quest to return to the surface of consciousness and psychological function. It reveals just how essential memory is to quality of life, and the power that memory has in reuniting a human being with their passion.
20. The Infinite Man (Hugh Sullivan) – This is an essential time travel film that successfully remains smarter than its audience, offering consistent twists and revelations, while actually making sense. This is micro-budget filmmaking at its very best, managing to inventively fuse elements of some of the genres great works in Primer and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is such a tight film and Sullivan does a fantastic job ensuring that the potentially confusing parallel timelines are smartly edited, managing to avoid what must have been a continuity nightmare. Average-joe Dean creates a time travel headpiece that allows him to go back one year, to the date of his anniversary with his girlfriend Lana, to try and make the disastrous events of that day perfect and save the relationship. But, when there are multiple Deans and Lanas in close proximity and dressed identically, and with Dean blindly obsessed with controlling Lana and the course of events, trouble ensues and be begins to battle his alter-egos for the woman he loves. The results are hilarious. The Australian film of the year, and a future classic. You’ll see.
19. Pride (Matthew Warchus) – Pride is British feel-good drama at its very best, featuring one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year and one of the best soundtracks. It is not only an inspiring and important film about the fight for equality and how strength in numbers amongst multiple marginalised groups has the potential to change a nation’s values, but it’s also full of frequent humour and irresistible energy. Coupled with the charm is an ever-present feeling of substantiality in its exploration of the period and the heroes that made such an unlikely union possible. Pride is based on true events, depicting a London group of smart and determined gay and lesbian activists, led by Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer, The Riot Club), who raised money to help families affected by the 1984 British miner’s strike.
18. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour) – An Iranian vampire western with a romantic twist. Not something you see every day, and it is pretty special. In a small death-riddled town call Bad City, ruled by drugs and illegal enterprises, the citizens are stalked in the night by a lonesome female vampire. A young man, at the mercy of a drug dealer whom his junkie father owes money, finds his luck turn through the circumstances of her presence. This is a sexy film; gorgeously photographed in B+W and accompanied by a funky soundtrack (which I hope exists somewhere) it thrives on style and atmosphere and is a remarkably confident debut feature from Ana Lily Amirpour.
17. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski) – Ida may be the most interestingly and beautifully photographed film I saw in 2014. The young lead Agata Trzebuchowska is a stunner; and the story is deeply affecting. Anna is an orphan brought up by nuns in a convent and before she takes her vows, she is determined to see Wanda (Agata Kulesza), her only living relative. Discovering that she is Jewish and that her parents had been killed when she was a baby, Wanda takes Anna on a journey to discover her tragic family story. Along the way both women question their religions and beliefs.
16. Enemy (Denis Villeneuve) – The second straight collaboration (with Prisoners) between Denis Villeneuve and the great Jake Gyllenhaal couldn’t be more different from the other. As stylish as we have come to expect Villeneuve’s films Enemy has a distinctly sickly look about it; a beige-golden colour-palette that suggests there is something sinister about the world we find ourselves in and not quite right about the character we start following – a dissatisfied, disheveled-looking and emotionally withdrawn history teacher with some unusual primal urges (Gyllenhaal). His days are stuck on repeat, and Villeneuve does a masterful job of conveying this. Then, watching a film late one night he sees himself. An extra who looks exactly like him. It isn’t his imagination. He exists. He decides to track this man (also Gyllenhaal) down, and discovers that the only thing they have in common is their appearance. An analysis of the paranoia and confusion that couples such a situation – and the fallout of their ‘meeting’ on both of their lives – is satisfying enough, but this film is about something else entirely. Villeneuve doesn’t give the audience any help along the way, offering up some terrifying images and never relinquishing the suspense.
15. Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund) – An incisive and complex black comedy. On the visually striking slopes of the French Alps, bottled-up personal failure and challenged masculinity tests the strength of a holidaying family, plumbing discontent and a lot of awkward tension. We never really know how we are going to react to a startling event, and this film explores how a couple perceive each others fight or flight behaviour differently, and how silly modern notions of gender roles are. Technically accomplished and absurdly funny, I saw this in the close company of some other high profile films this year and this is one that stuck with me.
14. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) – In the latest film from the great Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta, The Kid With the Bike) Marion Cotillard is wonderful as Sandra, a still-depressed mother of two who decides to fight for her job by asking her colleagues to vote in favour of her returning to work and keeping her salary, over a generous and financially-cushioning bonus. We see inspiring increases in Sandra’s self-worth, having been sidelined by depression, just as self-pity heartbreakingly brews with each encounter with a colleague. This is a small film about a universal crisis, establishing a profound moral dilemma that challenges and audience to consider how they would respond in such a situation.
13. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves) – An intimate, complex character-driven sci-fi/war hybrid that offers a relentless barrage of intense, unpredictable and deeply affecting moments of moral conflict, and an astounding fusion of visual effects and choreographed battle sequences. Incredibly, the epic Dawn improves upon the very good Rise of the Planet of the Apes in almost every capacity, offering thought-provoking commentary on humanity and the differences that may bring opponents to war – despite the mutual desire for peace – amidst unfathomably consistent tension and aesthetic spectacle. is an intelligent and challenging blockbuster feature, brilliantly directed by Matt Reeves and featuring another masterful motion capture performance from Andy Serkis. Technically, from the amazing ape effects to Michael Giacchino’s epic compositions, it is highly commendable, but it is the power of the story and the profound impact of the civil and moral conflicts that really leaves an impression.
12. Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan) – Xavier Dolan’s farm games, a tense, prickly cornfield of suppressed emotions, desires and secrets. Twists emerge with wild abandon. Dolan stars as Tom, a young advertising copywriter, who travels to the country for a funeral. There, he’s shocked to find out no one knows who he is, nor who he was to the deceased, whose brother (Pierre Yves-Cardinal) sets out the rules of a twisted game that entraps Tom. You’ll be hooked by the opening and intrigued by the plot revelations. Then it goes places you likely won’t expect. Too far for some, no doubt, but it was (for me) Dolan’s most impressive and formally playful work…until I saw his next film a few days later.
11. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller) – Based on the shocking true story of Olympic Wrestling Champion Mark Schultz, his partnership with eccentric millionaire John Du Pont and the events that led to duPont killing Mark’s brother Dave. Du Pont stabled Schultz like a piece of livestock, a vulnerable victim of post-Gold obliviousness, and possessed the monetary power to use and manipulate him as he pleased. Then he learned that he responded only to his family-man brother Dave, a symbol of hardworking middle America. For Du Pont, who saw this as a chance to be worshiped and viewed as a father-figure, this was a rejection he could not accept. The complexity of the three relationships will long be bearing on my mind. Bennett Miller’s best film to date (and Moneyball is great) features amazing performances from Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell and Mark Ruffalo. Especially Ruffalo, who deserves the Oscar. This is a heartbreaking story of compromise at the wrath of dynasty-inherited privilege and greed. It has been enriched with metaphoric commentary, and artisan creativity. I had enormous emotional investment in this film.
10. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Sion Sono) – A fast and furious ascent into the bloody ridiculous, but how can you not admire its maintenance of manic energy for the 2+ hours and ability to fuse informed commentary on the transition into the Digital era and an idolization of a cinematic era passed, with a story that is so impressively complex and heartfelt. At the same time it is also one of the funniest films of the year. The ending is a full-on chaotic collision of the history of Japanese genre cinema, and an ecstatic celebration of the joys of filmmaking. A technical marvel, Sion Sono knows exactly what he is doing here. The better of the Sono double (Tokyo Tribe made my honourable mentions, above), but it is extraordinary just how many high quality films he churns out.
9. All is Lost (J.C Chandor) – In writer/director J. C Chandor’s bold and breathtaking technical feat, All is Lost, Robert Redford stars as a solitary man at sea forced to exhaust everything at his disposal to survive a series of worsening catastrophes. Cruising the Indian Ocean on his yacht the Virginia Jean, Redford’s unnamed character awakens one morning to water flowing into his cabin. He has sailed into an abandoned supply container, which has caused a serious dent in the side. He quickly and efficiently sets to work temporarily repairing the damage and rescuing anything he can. Content with his solution he starts to sail on. But, he soon finds himself in the middle of the ocean with a fierce storm bearing down on him. His proud vessel soon becomes nature’s ragdoll and an irreparable capsize proves to be the first of many hardships to follow. Throughout the story we never leave Redford’s side – accompanying him to the top of his masts and to the depths of the ocean – nor are we ever introduced to another character. The dialogue is minimal, and yet so much is conveyed through Chandor’s patient direction and intelligent script, Redford’s weathered face and the compelling intricacies of the sets and production design.
8. Snowpiercer (Joon-Ho Bong) – This spectacular, ambitious and audacious sci fi is set in the year 2031 amidst a frozen and uninhabitable world. Seventeen years earlier measures were taken to stop global warming, but the experiment was a disaster, killing everything in the process. Those lucky enough to survive boarded the giant rattling ark called the Snowpiercer, a train that circumnavigates the globe over the course of exactly one year. We are introduced to those living in the back of the train, the lowest class. They sleep cramped together, their only source of food is a manufactured protein block distributed once per day and they have been deprived everything that the upper class forward carriages consume in lavish excess. Amongst these tail-dwellers is Curtis (Chris Evans), who is desperate to shake up the world order. In order to take the train, they have to take the engine at the very front. Their mission seems impossible, impeded by synced locked doors that offer a tiny window to breach, soldiers wielding guns and…other weapons. Evans creates a character we wholeheartedly back through this gauntlet, the action sequences are astounding and the powerful monologue-driven final act fits in perfectly with the personal, philosophical and political cogs at play.
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) – Throughout the frivolity that encapsulated the entire duration of The Grand Budapest Hotel a little smile (or maybe it was a mischievous grin) never left my face. I love new introductions to the worlds of Wes Anderson and being repeatedly surprised by his ability to find humour in the most sad and mundane events, his stunning shot compositions and his ability to attract such wonderful casts, all of whom seem to be having a great deal of fun. It is impossible not to admire the amount of work that has gone into the conception and execution of these ideas. Anderson is a man who seems to possess unlimited originality and imagination, and with a newfound sense of unbridled inspiration. He has faced his animated critics head on and refused to alter his widely considered worn out style, but has tightened his scripts, chiseled his style down to the strongest features and spruced them up. Anderson has crafted a gem that is characteristically hilarious and playful, yet surprisingly bold in its construction (the film shifts between 1.33, 1.85 and 2.35:1 ratios), and tackles a horrific period of history with seriousness and respect. The Grand Budapest has some genuinely grisly bits, and an all-new darker edge, but offers plenty of charming, emotional developments. It is a venture into fun-house cinema you may cherish for a long time after.
6. What We Do In The Shadows (Taika Waititi) – This entire experience at the Sydney Film Festival, which involved co-writer/directors Taika Waitit (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) introducing the film (in side-splitting fashion) and returning with star Jonathan Brugh for a post Q&A, was the work of comic geniuses. This is a clever, witty and hilarious Wellington-set vampire mockumentary that does for vampires what Shaun of the Dead did for Zombies. Creature lore, contemporary pop culture and slacker-hood are the targets, but not the exclusive source of the mayhem, and it is destined to be a genre classic. The laugh quota is so high that missing jokes due to prolonged laughter is a genuine concern. It was perfect. I have re-watched this since then, and it holds up beautifully.
5. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) – Inarritu’s incredible Birdman is a calibre of film that comes around once every now and then. It is a film that could potentially influence the way you think about cinema and the possibilities that the medium can offer. Birdman is captivating, awe-inspiring work that takes a fascinatingly layered narrative about an aging actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) attempting to finance, direct and star in his own stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story and escape a career defined by one achievement. As he struggles to bring the story to life, he is suffering with anxieties of failure and a loss of purpose. The film is made to appear as if it comprises of one single shot, and yet the story doesn’t unfold in real-time. Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Tree of Life, Gravity) genius ensures that this camera does things we cannot even fathom. I thought this idea worked perfectly, taking us through the bowels of the theatre – the stage, the hallways and the dressing rooms – onto the rooftop and into the streets of New York in a fluid plane of motion. Some knowledge of Keaton’s career is perhaps a prerequisite to appreciating Riggan and Keaton’s performance here. He has become a maverick of the industry, but hasn’t had a starring role for a long time. He has come back in a blaze of glory. All of the anguish, frustration, embarrassment and desperation that comes through Riggan seems fueled by Keaton himself. The supporting cast of Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifainakas are exemplary too.
4. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) – This is such a bold and relevant film. In this exhilarating thriller we are sided with one of this grotesque disaster-media hungry societies super villains. This is an incredible performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom. Considering the horrible things Lou does, the fact that we have empathy and respect for this guy is extraordinary. He’s endlessly fascinating. It addresses a very prominent problem in today’s media culture, but who is to blame? The person exploiting these victims and capturing the tragedies, the network buying the footage, or us consuming it? Very LA, it looks incredible courtesy of PTA’s regular DP Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), and ALL of Dan Gilroy’s decisions hit the mark. The music. The casting. The ending. Following a car chase the audience at TIFF burst into applause. That is something I have never experienced. The film has accurately been described as a combo of Taxi Driver and Network. Comparisons are beside the point, it is in a league of greatness.
3. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) – Under the Skin is a thoroughly absorbing experience of pure cinema and an expert utilization of the sensory spectrum within the medium. It is a film bursting with opportunities for theoretical and analytical dialogue, but ultimately a film about our world, how our world is seen through alien eyes and what it means to exist on earth as a human being. Scarlett Johansson’s performance as a seductive alien who prowls the streets of Glasgow in search of prey to lure to a fate best unrevealed, is a fascinating transformation. It is a stylish, experimental exploration of an ‘It’ becoming a ‘She’ and without even considering the extraordinary technical elements, this arc is emotionally satisfying by itself. Glazer is more interested in re-seeing the world we live in through the eyes of an extraterrestrial, capturing the nature of humanity – the desire for pleasure and the weight of isolation and loneliness – as a document. How scenes were filmed and the texture built by the sound design and score are worthy of essays all on their own. If a film can challenge the way you think about the world you live in, and the humans that populate it, it deserves the highest praise. Have you ever been so affected by a film you have sat through the entire closing credits mouth agape in shock, and when you tried to stand up and leave your legs wouldn’t let you? This happened.
2. Mommy (Xavier Dolan) – If you asked me what I loved about this film I’d say: “everything”. The second Dolan film on this list, and it is so unfair that this young guy can make something so incredible as this film. Mommy is the story of a widowed single mother, raising her violent son alone, who finds new hope when a mysterious neighbor inserts herself into their household. With a 1:1 ratio (a boxed image perched in the screen’s centre) composition is so imperative, and not an inch of screen is wasted throughout. Dolan forces you to watch nothing else but the subject and it is never limiting and always stunning. As are the complex relationships and characterizations, the stirring use of music, and the outstanding acting by Anne Dorval, Antoine-Oliver Pilon and Suzanne Clement. I was an emotional wreck at the end of this, completely captivated by the lives of these characters.
1. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch) – When I left the cinema after this film I felt like I was on a blood high. From the opening minutes, when the relationship between the stylish visuals and the wonderful music had been established and I had been hooked by the compelling characters and the unique premise, I knew I was in tune with it. It is not really a vampire film, but a chapter (the reuniting) of a lengthy love story between Adam (Tom Hiddleston, never better) and Eve (Tilda Swinton, superb) with vampire lore layering the relationships. It is languid in pace and doesn’t have a graspable narrative and yet it is ultimately about…everything. Centuries of literature, music, invention and world-changing historical events are just some of the topics that the pair reminisce about, and hearing Adam and Eve discuss their involvement with and unique knowledge of individuals responsible for celebrated art and theory is the source of much amusement, throughout. The casting could not be more perfect. Swinton, who doesn’t seem to have aged at all, is wonderful, but Hiddleston is especially impressive as a depressed, reclusive musician living in Detroit, completely out of touch with the modern world. He is lamenting the state of his immortality, and his home – an incredible piece of production work – provides a clear picture of just how much he has given up. That is until Eve returns. Mia Wasikowskwa, Anton Yelchin and Jeffrey Wright are very good too. I can’t find a flaw with it at all and found it exquisite on every level. Sexy and passionate, droll and reflective, and always cool.
By Andrew Buckle