by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Welcome back to the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2014. If you missed Part 1, where we counted down entries #10 to #6, then you can go here to get caught up. Otherwise, we are going to get straight back down to business. So, without any further ado, GO GIRLS GO!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
05] Under The Skin
Dir: Jonathan Glazer
Star: Scarlett Johannson
Under The Skin is not on the list because I enjoyed it. The rest of the films on this list are here because I enjoyed them; the commonly accepted barometer by which people typically measure the quality of a film. Under The Skin is not here for that, for I did not enjoy Under The Skin. I experienced Under The Skin, I endured Under The Skin, but I did not enjoy Under The Skin. Instead, Under The Skin is here, and is this high on the list, for two specific reasons.
The first – and honestly the more minor of the two, which is crazy to believe – is Scarlett Johannson’s performance as the lead character, which is the single best performance by anybody in any film released in 2014. Her performance of the main character is sensational, having to simultaneously keep them an enigma and yet clearly be able to give the audience some semblance of a clue as what is going on in their mind-set, and she is more than up to the task. Shedding all of her effortless movie star charisma, she positions herself in this very alien register, taking detached to new heights and playing each new revelation about her character – the discovery of a conscience, strange new emotions, exploring the form that it has taken, the reaction to its humanity – as major game-changers without bursting into a flood of emotion. She is on a whole other level compared to everyone else this year, and I spent so much of the film’s runtime in awe of her.
You know, when I wasn’t being made incredibly uncomfortable. That’s the second reason why Under The Skin is on this list, it got to me. It really got to me. If I were a hack writer and wanted to undermine the seriousness of that last statement, I’d make pun involving the film’s title right now. But, although I am, I don’t want to. Under The Skin really got to me. See, I am very sexually repressed, possibly bordering on asexual. I always have been. Nudity makes me uncomfortable, the concept of sex grosses me out, and having to witness sex or nudity causes me to want to reach for the exit as fast as possible. One of the main aspects of Under The Skin is all about sex, sexuality, and the body, but the film never shoots any of these aspects in an erotic way. It instead presents them coldly, clinically, alien, and explores how we are affected by each of those things.
Many of the film’s most disturbing sequences for me come from the depiction of nudity. The full-frontal shots of the men that return to the protagonists’ dark void of a room, the scene where the biker examines the protagonist, the sequence where they look at themselves naked in the mirror and inspect their body… all scenes that made me thoroughly uncomfortable because they contextualise themselves in the way that I often see the naked flesh, as something alien and strange. It’s not just that we are presented with these images, it’s the way that we are presented with these images as something unusual and slightly imposing. It taps very much into my psyche and pushes many of my buttons, confronting me with my fears in a presentation that visualises how I possibly see them deep down.
Not to mention how the film very much plays out its narrative as the visualisation of gender performance and gender awakening. The protagonist slowly identifying as female, putting on the airs required to be seen as acceptable in modern society, and being viciously punished the second it fails to keep up that act. If the film weren’t so deliberately abstract, Under The Skin could very much be read as a blisteringly angry clarion call against the way that our patriarchal society treats and views women. That hateful attitude – not to its protagonist, instead from how our world is presented through alien eyes, how our sh*tty attitudes towards women and our complicated relationships with nudity and sex can look to an outsider – seeps through the entire film and serves to further prey on my underlying fears and deep-seated issues.
No film this year has stuck with me and affected me in the same way that Under The Skin has. It’s not exactly a film I am clamouring to see again – I had to pause the thing three times whilst watching it because I just needed to stop and calm down – but it more than earns its place on this list.
04] The Raid 2
Dir: Gareth Evans
Star: Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Alex Abbad
It’s all about pacing. The Raid didn’t understand proper pacing; that was a film that started at 11 and tried to stay at 11 for all 90 of its minutes. That gets tiring and it means that your finale doesn’t hit anywhere near as hard as it should do, and in fact bores a bit. The Raid 2 gets pacing. It gets pacing very much so. It starts at about 2 or 3 and then slowly builds to its 11 finale, so the 150 minutes that the film runs for pretty much fly by and its excellent finale works gangbusters and never ever bores or drags.
The Raid 2 also has a plot, something that The Raid sort of hinted at having but ultimately cut most of because it got in the way of the fighting. It’s not a particularly original story – undercover cop infiltrates a criminal organisation to bring it down from the inside, son of criminal organisation wants to prove himself to his father but his impatience leads to temptation, and then everything goes to hell – but it is fascinatingly told with strong characters and excellent performances. There’s a real stylish cleanness to proceedings, where every single frame is immaculately constructed and every shot tells you a story of some kind – a care and love that’s frequently missing from other action films nowadays in their desire to “immerse” the viewer by simulating being stuck on a rollercoaster mid-barrel-roll-crash.
Then there are the action scenes. Oh, man, the action scenes! Again, the film benefits from understanding pacing. They’re doled out when they fit the narrative, there are no extended fight sequences just for the sake of 15 or so minutes having passed without a few dozen dudes being murdered, and they escalate. The film’s opening fight involves a good 20 or so guys against 1 but lasts barely 90 seconds, the introduction of important lieutenants get fight scenes to establish their gimmick and dangerousness but they never drag, the final string of action sequences have ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs, and enough breaks between them to keep the plot going and not make the last 30 minutes feel like an endurance test. Plus, each sequence has enough variety and innovation to keep them from blending into one another.
And that final fight! Oh, man, that final fight! It is paced perfectly, the choreography is outstanding, the camerawork is beautiful, the story it tells is captivating and doesn’t require a single line of dialogue, and there is just this electric feeling to it that stands it above all other action scenes I’ve seen this year and maybe even this decade. It is a perfect six-and-a-half minute encapsulation of everything The Raid 2 does right and every single time I see it I am left short of breath with my palpable adrenaline running through me and a burning desire to fist-pump the air repeatedly.
Prior to seeing The Raid 2, I was excited but also very cautious and sceptical. After all, I was excited for The Raid and I have never been able to truly love that film. But The Raid 2 blew me away totally, surpassing my every expectation, fixing every problem with the first film, and being my favourite film of 2014 for the longest time. Gareth Evans is planning a third entry for some point in the future and I will be satisfied however it turns out. If it happens, I cannot wait to see how he tries to top what is almost the perfect action film. If it doesn’t, then I will still be satisfied thanks to this film kicking so much arse and that ending shot and line being almost the most perfect in all of 2014. This is what sequel-making should be like.
03] The Double
Dir: Richard Ayoade
Star: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn
When I saw The Double in the cinema, the thing that stuck out the most to me was the sound design. Everything about the way that The Double sounded just appealed to me. The way that the film balanced its score – its bloody, bloody, bloody brilliant score by Andrew Hewitt – with the various diegetic sounds of the film’s world that it handles in such a way as to draw direct focus to them in an almost drone-like repetitiveness. It does an outstanding job of getting the viewer inside the head of Simon James, conceptualising what it is like to be a spineless creep drifting through life making no impression, and I have done an appalling job at explaining and describing it. Watching the film is the easiest way to understand why it works for me, so props to the entire sound team for their work here.
In fact, watching The Double is one of the best ways to understand why it works so well. There have been many, many times this year where I think back on the film and question whether it is truly a comedy – the register it operates on being that black and the tone being that deadpan – only to re-watch it or certain clips from it and find myself laughing raucously along for pretty much every single one of its 93 minutes. The world that the film exists in is such a bleak and miserable place that there are sections of the police force set-up solely for the purpose of dealing with jumpers in a certain area, yet the officers’ matter-of-factness about their job and the open contempt they have for those they have to deal with somehow manages to make their existence darkly laughable. James is such a pathetic wet doormat when it comes to the world that it loops around from being sad to outright hilarious. And the world’s singularly gloomy and laser-focussed hatred of Simon skips straight past irritating and is instead a constant source of laughs.
The world of The Double, whilst we’re on the subject, is one of the most singularly focussed, believable and immersive worlds that I have seen a film construct in a long time. Even though it’s clearly not our world and many holes, specifically as to how this dystopia is like outside of the focus we get on Simon, are left unexplained, it still feels immersive. I sit down and I just get transported to this world and at no point do I question it or get dragged out of it. The sets do such a great job at filling in the details, the low-key lighting and claustrophobic camerawork paint the oppressive nature superbly, and little details like the glimpses of the in-universe TV series The Replicator, a look at their coins, and the usages of South Korean and Japanese artists on the soundtrack give an indication of life in this world outside of Simon James.
But The Double is about Simon James, and his physical doppelgänger, James Simon. Simon is such a spineless timid useless tool that he is incapable of spitting pretty much anything out. He walks around in life like he doesn’t exist and uses that to his advantage with his quietly obsessive stalking of his co-worker Hannah. It is quite clear that he wants to just say the words to her, but he glides through life so passively, and has for so long, that he is incapable of doing so. Crucially, the film recognises that James’ stalking of Hannah isn’t romantic and never endorses it – right up to the end, too; the last scene’s dreamlike ambiguity providing yet another fantastic ending for a 2014 film, a recurring thing with most every one of the entries on this list – but forces the viewer to have to get inside Simon’s head regardless and see why this has come to be. It’s a difficult balancing act, and the film pulls it off just about with surprising deftness.
James, meanwhile, is a detestable little shit. A weasely, conniving, smug prick whose slow absorption of Simon’s life is teeth-gratingly tough to watch. He is that rare character whom I hate for the reasons the film wants for me to hate him. As somebody who loves well-written and entertaining characters – and I mean properly loves, where I won’t sit there and demand their head on a pike because I juts enjoy their presence too much – it takes a lot to make me hate a character for the reasons that I am supposed to, but The Double pulls it off flawlessly thanks to an excellent script, by Ayoade and Avi Korine, and Jesse Eisenberg putting in the best male performance I have seen in a film all year. He’s always been good, and I have always liked him, but he is on show-stopping form as Simon and James, twisting performances that he’s given in Adventureland and The Social Network into something new and fresh and majorly compelling. The film hangs on his performances and he is more than up to the task.
Plenty of critics were tripping over themselves at the time of The Double’s release to throw plaudits in its direction, only for everyone to cool off and mostly forget it the further the year went on. I honestly don’t know why because it is the best British film that I have seen all year and one of the absolute very best films of 2014. Ayoade has had a fantastic directorial career so far, and I cannot wait to see how he tries to top this.
02] Life Itself
Dir: Steve James
Surprised? So am I. For the last month or so, I was quite certain that Life Itself was going to be my Film of 2014, such was the power, emotion and energy it stirred in me as I watched it. It touched me in a way that no other movie released in 2014, or even that I had seen in 2014, had been able to do. It sent me into floods of tears and re-invigorated my passion for movies. Yet, when it came time to set in stone my official list for 2014, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put it at the top. As it turns out, there is one other film that has stuck with me more and affected me more and that I just plain loved more than Life Itself.
That, however, is not to discredit Life Itself. Life Itself is a genuinely uplifting, interesting, and frequently heart-breaking mediation on movies, friendships, rivalries, the progress of society in the last 50 years, the power of criticism, death, and life. It’s a documentary that uses its supposedly restrictive set-up – a biopic about film critic Roger Ebert – to explore so many themes and ideas, without ever losing sight of its original subject, that even people who have no interest in Roger Ebert can watch the film and get something out of it. It is a vital documentary and the truest possible definition of a “feel-good movie”.
I will not, however, be writing any more about it. Not because there’s not enough happening in the film to be able to do so, lord no, but because I can’t. Fact is, I said everything I can say about Life Itself in my review from back in November. In it, I laid bare my feelings on Ebert, the ways in which the film touched me, and why it got me so and that took so much painstaking effort to do that I can’t go through it again. I can’t try and improve or re-state my thoughts on Life Itself because I said damn near everything I had to or could say about it back there, and I don’t want to have to repeat that or condense it to fit in the five allotted paragraphs that each entry in this list gets. So, if you want further explanations and reasoning as to why Life Itself is this high up on my list, go and (re-)read my review. But know that Life Itself deserves to be this high on my personal Top 10.
The only reason why it is not number one, is because of the following film…
01] Gone Girl
Dir: David Fincher
Star: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon
NO, SERIOUSLY, MEGA SPOILERS, DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN GONE GIRL.
I sympathise with and root for Amy Elliott-Dunne.
The more that Gone Girl has been rattling around in my brain, the more that that realisation has stuck out in my brain. Amy Elliott-Dunne is a psychopath, somebody who uses and discards people as she sees fit, somebody who goes the extra morality-crossing mile to get what she wants, a woman who refuses to compromise, and who is willing to commit a man to death and outright murder another in order to get out on top. She forcibly inseminates herself with a kid she doesn’t really want to keep a loose end under her thumb, she fakes being a rape victim, she is a walking embodiment of everything that MRAs fear women to be.
And I sympathise and root for her.
Not completely, of course, there are lines that I won’t follow her across, but enough that I get why she does the things she does and quietly hope that she successfully pulls one over on everybody. Gone Girl is very much presented as a “He Said/She Said” narrative and I am very much more inclined to believe the “She Said” side, even after the reveal that the diary was faked and everything that Amy has ever revealed about her relationship with Nick is thrown into question. Nick, as presented in both Amy’s version of events and his own segments of the film, is a whiny, selfish, complacent ass who never fully appreciates what he has after he gets it, forces his life on others, bleeds his supportive wife dry, and doesn’t even have the spine to end things with her before moving on to somebody else. He does have redeeming qualities, and he is forced into situations and events where it is hard to not feel sorry for him, but when Amy states out loud, point blank, that Nick Dunne “took and took from me until I no longer existed. That’s murder,” I honestly find it hard to disagree with her.
Does this mean that Nick deserves the death sentence that Amy hands down to him? Honestly, the fact that I don’t immediately go “no” scares me a little bit.
The cold-blooded murder of Desi is seemingly more black and white: she murders him in order to return to Nick and complete the fabricated cover story that paints her as a victim who managed to escape from a crazed ex-boyfriend. She lies, and therefore she is not to be trusted – incidentally, brief side bar, I absolutely agree with those who interpret Gone Girl to be misogynistic as pretty much every female character in the film is a walking embodiment of a negative male viewpoint of a woman, but I find the dualities between that misogyny and its frequently blistering feminist heart (both embodied by Amy Elliott-Dunne) to be so loaded and so complex that the film cannot be dismissed so easily without a hugely detailed and in-depth analysis from people far more qualified than myself (although I could also be talking out of my arse and apologising for loving something so problematic, that’s the beauty of critical analysis).
Yet, Amy is very much trapped with Desi. She’s stuck in a figurative prison, partially of her own making and partially of Desi’s making. She’s made commitments she doesn’t want to follow through on, Desi always carries this creepy possessive air around with him, and the slow realisation seeps in for Amy that Desi is the worst traits of Nick only with genuine devotion replacing quietly-resentful hatred. She’s traded one loveless, inescapable relationship for another and, in both instances, she no longer exists. Her only out is through force, to turn the tables and take their agency away from them. Amy has spent much of her life being driven about by men. In a way, she still is, but now she’s getting a say in the matter.
Does this mean that Desi deserves to get his throat slit? I will answer “no” far quicker than I would the question earlier, but that itself raises further questions. Is the fact that Nick isn’t being directly murdered by Amy making it easier for me to not immediately turn on her? Am I projecting with Desi? After all, he doesn’t openly act possessive and the film purposefully spends little time with him to properly deepen his character. Am I just assuming and judging someone without truly knowing them? Is this all being fuelled by a misunderstanding and misappropriation of feminism on my part?
These are the sorts of thoughts and moral quandaries and conundrums that have been rolling around in my head for the last 3 months, more so the further we got to the end of the year. More so than even Under The Skin, Gone Girl is a film that has clung to my brain since I first saw it in the cinemas and it has not let go since. What began as a love for a smart, stylish, complex, and slightly trashy thriller with a phenomenal performance by Rosamund Pike – in other words, a film I loved as a film – has evolved into a constant moral discussion and self-examination that refuses to let me get up and walk away. Gone Girl commands my thoughts, Gone Girl asks tough questions of myself, Gone Girl is seared into my brain like no other film that I can recall.
And that is why Gone Girl is my Film of 2014. Not only is it the best made film of the entire year – absolutely nothing else is operating on the same continent as the ball park that Gone Girl resides in – it is the most thought-provoking and personally challenging film I have bared witness to in a long, long time. I cannot wait to watch it again.
And there you have it. My Top 10 Films of 2014. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below and tell me your favourite films of 2014! Tomorrow, I will return with the first half of My Bottom 10 Films of 2014. Prepare the pitchforks and torches.
Callum Petch just wants to be a woman. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!