Owen Hughes: 2014 Reviews Part 1 – Jan-Jun

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

I know technically that title doesn’t really make sense as I’m not about to post two-thousand and fourteen reviews, but it sort of rhymes. Following in my colleague Callum Petch’s footsteps with his top and bottom 10 movies of 2014 lists – and of course after the Failed Critics Awards winners were announced on our end of year podcast last month – I wanted to share my personal review of the last 12 months. Because… why not. It’s my film blog and I’ll cry if I want to. However, rather than provide a list of my favourite films, and given how much I enjoyed writing my Horrorble Month article back at the end of October, I wanted to adopt a similar format for a whole year in review.

As I mentioned in the top of that article, I watch what I would consider to be a lot of films. Indeed, from 1 January to 31 December 2014, I watched a total of 534 films. Not all of them good, either. In fact, exactly 250 of those I gave 3 stars out of 5 or less to. All the same, I just love watching films. Even the not-so-good ones. They’re worth it for the times you occasionally stumble across a film that thoroughly changes the way you think and feel about movies; about life; about, well, anything and everything, really. Films such as A Bittersweet Life, Ikiru, Poetry, The Great Beauty, The Great White Silence, The Act of Killing, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nashville……. A Bucket of Blood, even! All films that I watched for the first time in 2014, and all of which were astonishing in their own way and have left a heavy impression.

So, without further ado, I’m going to go through each month, listing my favourite 10 first time watches from each (in no particular order of preference) and discuss one of those that profoundly changed my opinion on films. For the sake of argument, I’m going to exclude those that were actually released in the UK in 2014 as I’ve talked about all those that I wanted to on the podcast. This is more of a “new discoveries” list. Also, like Callum, I will be splitting it over two parts (January – June, and July – December).


bittersweet lifeJanuary – The Yellow Sea (2010); A BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005); Brotherhood (aka Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War) (2005); The Housemaid (1960); Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003); Annie Hall (1977); The Informer (1935); The Hustler (1961); A Serious Man (2009); The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

During our end of year awards podcast, James asked each of us what we’ve learned from films in the past year. Matt made a very salient point that one should always seek to broaden their horizons. Not to be afraid to try something new or different. It’s an opinion that immediately resonated with me as, if you can’t tell from the titles above, half of those listed are Korean movies. It was towards the tail end of 2013 I finally started to get into films by Korean filmmakers, but that carried on right through to 2014. Within four days of the new year, I discovered Kim Jee-woon’s beautifully unpleasant romantic gangster thriller, A Bittersweet Life. Something about it was so… different. So unusual. So extraordinary. I’d already seen films like New World, I Saw the Devil, Oldboy etc, all films that deal with violence and, to an extent, organised crime… but this? It blew me away. It married that familiar raw savageness with an astounding beauty as the remarkably talented high-ranking Lee Byung-hun (due to star in Terminator: Genisys this year) deals with the consequences of falling in live with his bosses girlfriend. It’s grim, unrelenting and astonishingly exquisite. I doubt I’ll see another film like it.


act of killingFebruary – The Thin Red Line (1998); THE ACT OF KILLING (2012); Poetry (2010); Yojimbo (1961); The Skin I Live In (2011); Rushmore (1998); The Tree of Life (2011); Howl (2010); Ran (1985); Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Regardless of how some folk wrote off Joshua Oppenheimer’s profoundly moving and downright incredible documentary as little more than torture porn (they couldn’t be more wrong if they tried) (oh, wait, they could as some critics who claimed that didn’t even watch it), The Act of Killing was very highly thought of here at Failed Critics. I like to think I can stomach quite a lot when it comes to violence in films; I’ve been watching 18 rated movies for as long as I can remember! But the atrocities that former executioner Anwar Congo and his team re-enact churned my insides. Not necessarily because of the brutality of them, but the way in which these Indonesian death squad members jokingly tell Oppenheimer and his crew about how they would execute people, and the fact they are so disassociated with it despite fully, honestly and cooperatively explain the acts committed is haunting and chilled me to the bone. Whilst clearly giving Anwar enough rope to hang himself with, it’s not just about showing up these people for the monsters they are. There’s a real journey being captured on screen and I have never been so satisfied with a resolution to a documentary in my entire life than I was when the ugly, unbearable truth forced itself out of Anwar’s every orifice.


ikiruMarch – K2: The Killer Summit (2012); Cutie & The Boxer (2013); The Stranger (1946); The Lady Vanishes (1938); Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case (2013); Mother (2009); IKIRU (1952); Throne of Blood (1957); eXistenZ (1999); The Mission (1986)

Before Film4 began their Akira Kurosawa season in February, the only movies of the acclaimed Japanese director’s that I’d seen were probably his most famous two, Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Both of which I’d liked, neither of which I’d loved. However, watching Yojimbo, Sanjuro, The Hidden Fortress, Ran, Throne of Blood and finally Ikiru in quick succession immediately changed my opinion on him. I finally saw what all the fuss was about. None changed my opinion quite in the same way as his tale of a boring old bureaucrat called Kanji Watanabe (played affectionately by Takashi Shimura) being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The title of Ikiru literally translates as ‘living’; poignant in so many ways. Of course, it’s poignant because Kanji is dying, but also because he comes to the realisation that he’s not yet done and still has some living left to do. It’s amazing to think that although it was made on the other side of the world and over half a century ago, it crosses any cultural divide to try and inspire people to make the most of their lives. To not waste away your time on this planet working for a faceless company that doesn’t care about you. Go places, experience things, meet people, love someone and have a good time. It’s a beautiful innocence that is neither saccharine, naive nor insincere. If it takes a dying man to inspire people to live, then so be it. It certainly seems more easy to accomplish than building a blue-meth empire, in any case.


32_Toni_Servillo_foto_di_Gianni_Fiorito_05313.JPGApril – Stoker (2013); The Foul King (2000); Shiri (1999); Desperado (1995); Attack the Gas Station (1999);  (1963); Breathless (2008); THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013); Badlands (1973); Volver (2006)

I watched Fellini’s  just under a week before sitting down to watch Paolo Sorrentino’s film that had somehow rather unbelievably beaten The Hunt to best foreign language film at the recent Academy Awards. There are certainly similarities between the two; they’re both Italian, quite existential and assess where one finds beauty in life. Albeit through Fellini’s it’s mostly through women, in Jep’s world (Toni Servillo) he finds it in the city of Rome. The film is mostly just about the retired critically acclaimed author Jep wandering around town, meeting friends old and new, seeing the world as if experiencing it for the first time. However, that is where the real beauty lies. Whereas I wasn’t quite as blown away by Fellini’s 1963 thought-provoking classic as I’d hoped to be, I was more absorbed in Sorrentino’s film. It has been labelled as pretentious in some of the reviews I’d read prior to watching The Great Beauty, and it’s easy to understand why, but it is as hilarious as it is contemplative. The clever writing appears to be very knowing; an exchange between Jep and a highly pretentious artist early on in the film, whereby she is completely demolished by Jep during an interview. Brought to tears when trying to describe the vibrations she claims to live for, it was one of the funniest scenes I’d seen all year. But that’s just Jep. The effortlessly cool persona that Toni Servillo brings to the roll meant I could’ve spent all day hanging around with him, walking the streets of Rome in the middle of the night, and I’m damn well sure I’d have never gotten bored.


the damned unitedMay – The New World (2005); Late Chrysanthemums (1954); Day of Wrath (1943); Out of the Furnace (2013); Metro Manilla (2013); THE DAMNED UNITED (2009); The Selfish Giant (2013); Short Term 12 (2013); The Exorcist III (1990); Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013)

I am a red blooded male from Great Britain. Phwoar, women eh! Oooh I love well done steak, me. Football? Get in! And so on and so forth. OK, you got me, that’s a slight exaggeration… but I do love football. And I am from the UK, therefore I know about the greatest manager England never had, the multiple league and cup winning legend that was Brian Clough. I was also aware of his ill-fated spell as Leeds United manager in the 70’s and that a few years ago, a film starring one of Britain’s greatest modern actors Michael Sheen was in it. Even so, I wasn’t that bothered about watching it. Don’t get me wrong, sports movies are all well and good, but they’re hardly ever worth going out of your way for. A rise, a fall and a rise again is probably one of the most over-used plots within the genre and that’s all I expected from The Damned United. How foolish I was. It took a train journey to London with nothing else on iPlayer worth downloading to my tablet than Tom Hooper’s movie before I finally gave it a chance and I absolutely loved it. Obviously, it’s not a bog standard sports movie so much as it is a short biopic tracking a rivalry only one half is aware of. I’m sure it probably takes a few liberties with some facts, but it was one of the finest acted dramas I watched all year. Sheen is somehow even better than he was in Frost/Nixon. He’s such a fantastic actor and is supported by a great cast of British/Irish talent including Colm Meaney, Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Giles Alderson, Maurice Roeves, Stephen Graham and plenty of others. The direction is equally as impressive but it’s what was achieved by the actors involved that really left a lasting impression.


peppermint candyJune – Punishment Park (1971); The Man from Earth (2007); The Show Must Go On (2007); PEPPERMINT CANDY (1999); The Borderlands (2013); You’re Next (2013); La Haine (1995); Green Fish (1997); Filth (2013); Save the Green Planet! (2003)

Back to South Korea again, I’m afraid, as I look at one of my favourite films from Lee Chang-dong, a man who over the course of the last 12 months became one of my most highly rated filmmakers working today. Although, I say “today”, between his work for the Korean government, it did take the multiple award winning 60 year old 13 years to release five films, with the last of those released in 2010. It was with each new film that I found myself in complete adoration of him. From Poetry back in February, to Green Fish and then Peppermint Candy in June, I knew I had found a director who had never made anything less than an astonishing film. In fact, I started to watch Peppermint Candy straight after finishing Green Fish, but stopped eight minutes in for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted to really give my full attention to it, as I knew I would still be thinking about Green Fish; and secondly, because I wanted to wait until my wife was home so she could watch it too. It struck me as a movie that was better shared and I think it was worth the wait. Peppermint Candy was just about perfect on almost every scale. From the reverse-linear narrative that begins with a man killing himself and working backwards through his life, chronicling his various exploits in love and work. It’s so layered and has such depth that it’s almost as if it’s the story of a real person and not a work of fiction. A moment towards the beginning of the movie where Yongho (Sol Kyung-gu) meets a woman he hasn’t seen for a long time is as emotional and powerful as anything you’re likely to find anywhere else. Combined with the expertly structured narrative, the ingenuity of the story and the gorgeous cinematography, Peppermint Candy firmly established itself as one of the greatest movies I have ever seen. It’s almost inconceivable that it’s not even Lee Chang-dong’s best film!


Thanks for reading! I’ll be back soon to conclude the series looking at my favourite films from July through to December.

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