by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
141. That’s the number of films released in 2014 that I have seen. That is a lot of films. To put that into perspective, I have been attempting to critique films on the Internet for five years now and that number is more than the combined total of films I had seen in all four of those prior years when it came time to do some list making. Of those 141, 131 were eligible for appearances on my lists. That is insane. To tell you the truth, I have no idea how on earth I’ve managed it, especially since I spent much of this past year despairing at movies in various forms.
Except that, as the year has come closer to its end and I’ve reflected more and more upon what I have seen, the problem is not that films were worse in 2014 (although there have been some atrocious pieces of tripe, as we shall see in a few days’ time). The problem is that I have seen more films in 2014. Whereas in prior years I would have to pick and choose what films I could and could not see, therefore sticking with safer bets and actively avoiding crap, this past year I have been able to see damn near everything that came my way, which has meant flinging quality control out of the window and exposing myself to films I wouldn’t normally touch with a ten-foot pole.
In some cases, this has meant extended bouts of self-flagellation. In others, this has allowed for major surprises that I would not have typically tried to burst through to the forefront. In some cases, this has meant that the frequency of films that I was looking forward to disappointing me in some way this year would get me down somewhat. In other cases, this has meant that I can see the films I love multiple times and allowed them to really stick out in my brain for days, weeks, even months on end. It’s a double-edged sword is throwing out the personal quality control barrier and seeing whatever comes your way, but I honestly can’t think of my cinema-going lifestyle now in ways that don’t involve voluntarily seeing everything that I can.
It also means that constructing my Top 10 list this year was both incredibly easy and unbearably difficult. I’ve had to do this three separate times over the past month for various different things and each time it’s gotten progressively easier and harder, as certain films remained steadfast in their appearance and placements whilst others jumped around and dropped out. Seeing so many films has made the absolutely cream more apparent but has also made filling the bottom end of the list that much harder, as certain entries are way too close in quality to others. The list is actually a Top 20, but it’s been abbreviated to Top 10 as I am pretty sure that Owen would like back his website at some point this week. I am, however, incredibly satisfied with it, the most satisfied with any Top 10 Movies of [x] list I’ve so far had to make, so take that for what it’s worth.
Now, before we begin, a brief set of pointers. This list is strictly limited to films that have seen a UK release in 2014, so the awards season films that have yet to cross the pond (Foxcatcher, Wild, Inherent Vice, Whiplash, Birdman) or just films that don’t have the common courtesy to turn up on time (Big Hero 6, Top Five) aren’t eligible. I am also limiting the list to 2014 films, awards season films that saw an American release in 2013 (The Wolf Of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, 12 Years A Slave, The Wind Rises) aren’t eligible. Finally, even though I have seen a ridiculous amount of films in 2014, I haven’t seen them all and, naturally, this list can only include films that I have seen. Blue Ruin, Belle, Only Lovers Left Alive and Nymphomaniac may be outstanding, and I tried so hard to get around to seeing them, but I unfortunately ran out of time and so they can’t be featured.
Lastly, I mentioned that I did arrange a Top 20 so I might as well share 20 to 11 with you before we get started on part one. In reverse order (starting at 20, ending at 11): St. Vincent, Locke, Pride (which was my favourite surprise of 2014 and would have taken the #10 slot by default if this were any other year), Mistaken For Strangers, Lucy, 22 Jump Street, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks, The Lego Movie, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier/Guardians Of The Galaxy which was pushed out of the Top 10 at the very last minute. It’s a testament to the Top 10 that these films, all of which I love, are the ones that just missed out.
So, no more pre-amble faffing. Today, we go through entries 10 to 6. Are we all ready? In that case, TITANS, GO!
There may be spoilers. Proceed with caution.
10] Edge Of Tomorrow
Dir: Doug Liman
Star: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Edge Of Tomorrow is something that 2014 surprisingly lacked: a damn fun, pure blockbuster. Much of this past Summer consisted of films that either took themselves way too seriously, were majorly flawed in some way, or severely underwhelmed and disappointed. That’s not including those films that were desperately trying to force a franchise out of thin air, or were so busy trying to set-up pays-offs in practically guaranteed later films that they did nothing and told no stories in their current films. Blockbuster filmmaking nowadays frequently consists of nothing but po-faced seriousness, loud noises and delayed gratification.
Then in swaggers Edge Of Tomorrow, wide-eyed with optimism, confident in what it wants to do, aviator sunglasses proclaiming it to be the coolest motherf*cker in the room at that moment in time, and looking for some fun. It takes one look at the dreary and dull way that everybody else is doing things, sees how the general public is lapping up that crap, then swiftly turns around and marches back out that door. Edge Of Tomorrow wants nothing to do with the modern blockbuster. It wants to be fun, it wants to smarter than just loud noises, it wants to tell a full and complete story, the kind that only a $178 million budget can provide, and it does not give one f*ck if anybody else cares or not.
By the time that Edge Of Tomorrow had arrived in cinemas, I was in rather low spirits for 2014 film. I had come off a string of disappointments and was all prepared for this film that I had heard good things about and seen advertised majorly to similarly underwhelm me. Instead, over the course of 113 brilliant minutes, I was rejuvenated and reminded of why I love the movies. Sometimes you want to sit down and be challenged, be pushed, be confronted and to experience something very serious. But sometimes you just want to sit down and watch something fun, and Edge Of Tomorrow delivers that in spades. It takes its central premise – the day resetting every time that Tom Cruise’s Major William Cage dies – and goes for broke, exploiting it for drama, comedy, black comedy, character work, and a tonne of incredibly awesome action moments.
But it’s also smart, it has a brain going on up in its head. Edge Of Tomorrow is fun and spectacle, but grounds that fun and spectacle in excellent character work and committed performances. Tom Cruise sheds his usual charm and movie star charisma to play a slimy cowardly ass and he is equally as strong at that as he is when Cage slowly becomes braver, more in control, more heroic; his excellent performance adding onto the extremely well written character. Emily Blunt, meanwhile, is a goddamn revelation as Sgt. Rita Vrataski, absolutely commanding the screen in a performance of such intensity and skill and quiet emotion that, in a decent and deserving world, would catapult her to A-list superstardom. Vrataski, too, is one hell of a character, a strong capable woman who has been hardened by trauma but is not emotionless or humourless or relegated and degraded by the film. In other words, the kind of female character that blockbusters almost never bother to create.
It’s not perfect, it’s not thematically heavy, and I do wish that it ended about two minutes earlier, before the bittersweet ending is turned into a completely happy ending, but those flaws only serve to raise Edge Of Tomorrow as a whole. They are the flaws and rough edges of a scrappy individualistic film, a film that does its own thing and remains steadfast against studio interference and focus grouping as much as possible. They throw what Edge Of Tomorrow does right into sharper relief and Edge Of Tomorrow gets so much right. It’s a reminder of what blockbuster filmmaking is capable of if it would get its head out from its ass, stop purely focussing on profit margins, quit focus-testing everything, and stopped sucking the teat of serialisation and franchising.
In a decade or so’s time, we as a film-going audience, along with a generation of filmmakers with studio budgets, are going to look back at Edge Of Tomorrow and go, “Yep, we should have done more of that. We should be doing more of that.”
09] Starred Up
Dir: David Mackenzie
Star: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Forget the trailer. Ignore the trailer. That is not Starred Up. Starred Up is not a dark, gritty, lads’ “C’MON, YOU SLAAAAAGS!!” prison flick with nothing going on aimed solely at the lowest common male denominator. Starred Up is actually a bleak, unflinching, realist melodrama about masculinity, fathers, and the self-perpetuation of the modern prison system. It is not a film that asks you to like any of its characters, it is not a film that revels in its bursts of violence or nastiness, it is not a film that is interested in fulfilling anybody’s fantasies of how cool prison is. Starred Up is an angry film and you are damn well going to pay attention to what it wants to say.
Much of the plaudits thrown Starred Up’s way are for Jack O’Connell’s central performance as Eric Love, and it’s hard to argue against that. O’Connell – in the first of what turned out to be three outstanding performances from this past year, I really hope that this momentum keeps up because he deserves to be a star – plays Love with such barely restrained intensity that perfectly fits his livewire tendencies without going overboard into ham and cheese. He’s also able to reach down and find the sadness, the wounded nature at the heart of Eric that powers his angry violent lashings out at the world and which makes them hurt that much more. Eric Love could have been a cartoon character in the wrong hands, but O’Connell mixes that intensity, that vulnerability, an air of mystery and his own natural likeability as an actor to create a profoundly complex lead. It really is a powerhouse performance.
But to focus solely on O’Connell would be to do the rest of Starred Up a disservice. The script, for example, by newcomer Jonathan Asser, grounds its more melodramatic tendencies in a low-key rather realist way. The tropes that you expect to show up in a prison drama – corrupt officers, shankings, prisoners running the show, lots of swearing – turn up here, but they’re executed in a low-key way. Big deals aren’t made of them, they’re just everyday facts of prison life and their appearances tie back into character work, with Eric’s crazed alpha-male desire to make a name for himself both disrupting the delicate nature of this broken system and re-enforcing his worst impulses, and the film’s bleak overall message of the self-perpetuating cycle of prison.
Nobody in Starred Up is clean or fully good. There are only shades of grey and even darker shades of grey. Even the closest thing the film gets to a fully sympathetic character, in Rupert Friend’s tired and ceaselessly loyal prison therapist, is still strongly hinted to have some kind of superiority complex powering his actions – his adamant claim of “I need to be here” can be taken so many ways. Eric’s been raised with the belief that self-destructiveness and violence is the only acceptable form of masculinity, and he can’t realise that all it has done is destroy his life. It’s also so deep-seated that all of that hard therapy work can be instantly discarded the second his dad turns up and tries to make up for lost time by steering him the wrong way and completely misreading his son. Not to mention the fact that the actual prison staff view the people they are assigned to look after with nothing but contempt; deep-seated beliefs that all of their charges are irredeemable and not worth even trying to reform.
The film’s more melodramatic moments – shower attacks, the final 10 to 15 minutes – benefit from that realist nihilism and strong character work. Such effort has gone into fashioning a portrait of our broken prison system that the moments where more blatantly fictional touches break through still fit within the previously established world and nature of the film, acting like cappers to its overall point. Couple that foundation with extremely well-handled themes, great supporting performances (Friend’s increasing desperation in protecting his little group is especially well-conveyed), an excellent script, and a thunderous central Jack O’Connell performance and you get a film as commanding and fiercely memorable as Starred Up. It is bleak viewing, but it is vital viewing and it is so much better than the trailer suggests.
08] The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir: Wes Anderson
Star: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, a lot of others
My first viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel underwhelmed me somewhat and I am willing to chalk that up to two things. The first was trailer overexposure – this thing was relentlessly trailed before films for months on end, a lot of its best laughs were featured in it, and most everything stops being funny when you’ve seen it for the 20th time – the second was personal overhyping – I really liked that trailer when it dropped and was really bloody excited for the finished film. I still thought it was a very good movie, but overexposure (the catalyst in getting me to just walk out during trailers now) and my weird belief that I was going to get a more monumental film than what I ended up getting lead to my questioning of whether this was it, as it were.
A second viewing later in the year proved me to be majorly and totally wrong on every negative account. See, Grand Budapest is my first proper Wes Anderson film – I had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox in late 2012, but that was it – and so I wasn’t properly prepared for what was in store, expecting something different than what I got (I don’t know what it was I was expecting, but there you go). I think the rather low-key nature of Grand Budapest caught me off guard. It’s a film whose scale is large – encompassing tonnes of characters in a wide range of locations across multiple time periods and several different aspect ratios – yet whose stakes are rather small and its central character relationships tight knit.
And it’s that closeness that actually makes The Grand Budapest Hotel resonate and stick. This is a very funny film – good lord, is it ever a very funny film, especially pretty much anything that comes out the mouth of an absolutely dynamite Ralph Fiennes – but what sticks with me after watching this film, both in the immediate aftermath and in the days and weeks after, is the sadness that runs throughout the entire film due to that closeness. This is a sad film, a melancholy film, a film that never lets that sadness get buried under too many layers of whimsy or raucous jokes. It is a film that is sad for days long since passed, both in terms of humanity – with barbarism and self-interest corroding decency and respectability – and filmmaking – there’s genuine love coming from Anderson’s insistence on using virtually every aspect ratio ever used in a commercial cinema release.
Yet the irony is that none of its characters are from the time it’s so wistfully nostalgic for. Gustave H. is a man of some level of respectability and civility stuck in a time that slides further into greed and fascism the longer he sticks around. Zero is a man who is clearly wounded and saddened by a world that would reject the actions and principles of a man like Gustave, and whose life is marked by constant loss and the encroachment of old age. The Author is fascinated by the stories of Zero and Gustave H. but remains removed and emotionally distant due to both his profession and the fact that he doesn’t get the true feeling of that time due to having experienced nothing close to it. The Young Girl who reads the book that starts off our film similarly can only paint a picture in her head of those times, to escape the miserable looking world that she is currently a part of, and it’s unlikely to resemble anything close to reality.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much about people trapped out of time, even Inspector Henckles who tries to deal with proceedings in a civil manner despite the force that he is a part of being of the barbaric type. That wistful nostalgia does not really exist for many of its characters, as the time they are nostalgic for frequently ended long before they were born. Yet, it’s what bonds them, it’s what brings Zero and Agatha together, it’s what makes Gustav and Zero such fire-forged friends, and it’s what ultimately proves their downfalls; their inability to let go. Yet, they are respected and admired by the film and by Anderson for that commitment to their nostalgia – why should holding onto a time when people weren’t being violent fascist pigs be considered a bad thing? – and that’s why the film’s gradual reveal of its incredibly bittersweet ending feels so poignant.
It’s a film that is sold on its laughs and its quirkiness, but stays with me thanks to its deep-rooted sadness and melancholy heart. It’s an incredibly clever and impeccably well-balanced film and pulls off that tightrope walk – sentimental without being sappy, riotously funny without drowning out the melancholy or becoming too bawdy – with aplomb. I should really make the time to watch more Wes Anderson films, already.
Dir: Dan Gilroy
Star: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
First things first, Nightcrawler contains my single favourite film scene in all of 2014. I am referring to “Horror House”. Not the bit where Lou Bloom is filming the sequence, nor the bit where he utterly unnervingly shreds Morning News Director Nina over negotiations for the tape (although that is close), the bit where it goes to air and the film makes you sit through every last agonising second as a whole studio full of ratings hungry opportunists exploit the misery and suffering of others for profit. It’s the way that it twists the knife and turns the screws and keeps going, and going, and going, forcing you to sit through the whole segment, making you complicit in their work, and being written and presented in such a way that the scene stopped being a sequence from a movie for me and became something uncomfortably close to our reality.
It’s a magnificent scene and it also hides the true target of Nightcrawler’s venomous anger in plain sight. Nightcrawler is a takedown of sensationalist 24-hour cable news networks, but it’s also a blisteringly angry screed against Capitalism, encapsulated in “Horror House” by having the news crew exploit the suffering of others to further their own hunt for money and success, especially hammering home the idea that a wealthy white suburban family was murdered by lower-class possibly Hispanic (at the time it’s unclear, not that that stops any of the anchors from pushing down hard on this button) gang members. After all, nothing’s more likely to keep the broken system of Capitalism in place than by terrifying those with the power and success that the unworthy lower classes are coming to take everything away from them, whilst simultaneously profiting off of that fear.
The film’s thoughts and views on Capitalism can be best summed up by the character of Lou Bloom himself, a walking encapsulation of everything that is wrong with the system. Lou is a complete sociopath purely interested in his own self-gain. He is somebody who has been told time and time again that he deserves success and that he can win at The American Dream if he just works hard enough, and when that doesn’t happen he resorts to crime and petty theft to claw his way up. He speaks near-exclusively in sound-bites ripped from corporate handbooks, justifies everything he ever does in cold, calculated business terms and is incapable of treating people like humans – later revealed to be down to his contempt for them.
Then, he stumbles into a field where his sociopathy, lack of morals and complete disregard for social decency and the law are rewarded. His desire to stay one step ahead, by any means necessary, in the Nightcrawling business gets him the money, the car, the recognition and the in to start climbing up the corporate ladder. And when he doesn’t get what he wants, he manipulates, blackmails, threatens, sexually exploits, and even near-outright murders to get his way. But not once is Lou punished. Not once does he truly hit a setback, because Capitalism is broken and those who are willing to cross the moral line are the ones who will successfully make it, whilst the rest will be left in the dust to be exploited by those who go too far. [BRIEF SPOILER BIT, SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU’VE YET TO SEE THE FILM] That’s why Lou gets off scott-free in the end. Sure, the police technically have enough evidence to put him away, but to do that would be to undermine the message: Lou has won Capitalism because of his complete sociopathy and lack of a moral code. Even his new company logo is ripped straight from that of the rival he killed earlier!
Jake Gyllenhaal puts in the performance of his career as Lou Bloom, always keeping the viewer at a distance yet forcefully commanding their attention at all times. He’s clearly relishing the opportunity to sink his teeth into such a detestable yet complex role, and his total commitment to making Lou this utterly abhorrent and frightening monster is a major reason of why the film works. Rene Russo also puts in her best performance in years as a similarly repulsive but slightly more socially acceptable female counterpart to Lou, Dan Gilroy’s direction for his debut feature is confident and assured, I have already talked about James Newton Howard’s quietly genius score, and the film is also tightly paced and expertly structured. Nightcrawler is an outstandingly relevant and captivating film that features a villain protagonist for the ages, and satire and venom that deserves way more analysis and conversation than it has sparked. A film for 2014 if there ever was one.
06] The Guest
Dir: Adam Wingard
Star: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Lance Reddick
Holy hell, is this one ever fun! Dumped into the beginning of September with precious little fanfare and left to fend for itself, The Guest is one of the biggest gems I have stumbled across all year. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett’s, previous of You’re Next, demented genre hybrid thriller is just pure good old fashioned fun. That’s it. There is nothing deeper to The Guest, no giant thematic core or major emotional centre, and no huge twist to it. The Guest is just pure, undiluted fun and, as mentioned back in my entry on Edge Of Tomorrow, fun is something that I put a very big price on due to its growing rarity in the modern filmmaking landscape.
So, what is The Guest? After all, I spent pretty much all of September doing nothing but praise the ever-loving crap out of it and despairing when, unsurprisingly, nobody saw it. Well, The Guest is hard to categorise for people who haven’t seen it, partially because it hops around between genres like an indecisive driver coming up on a line of toll booths, but mainly because the fun of The Guest is watching it slowly reveal its true colours. In the most general terms, it’s a throwback to trashy 80s B-Movies, mashing together elements of psychological thrillers, gory low-budget action films, the works of John Carpenter, and a nice sprinkling of camp. It sounds like a mess, but Barrett’s script is airtight, Wingard’s direction is so confident, and the pair are so learned in what they are trying to emulate that it works perfectly.
It also helps that they have an outstanding central performance to hang proceedings onto. I’ve raved about Dan Stevens in my review of the film, so I’ll let you go back and re-read that to save me from repeating myself, but I cannot stress how absolutely note perfect he is here – switching between charming, terrifying, and utterly hilarious (in a deadpan way) effortlessly whilst keeping David a consistent character throughout. He’s also matched beat for beat by Maika Monroe who expertly embodies the determined Final Girl archetype whilst making it her own. The film visually is wonderfully stylish, the soundtrack is one of the very best of the entire year, and it is by far the coolest film of the year thanks to the way it completely owns and openly embraces its campy tendencies – the finale is absolutely hilarious and unbearably tense without one ever undermining the other.
Look, I want to write a giant (attempted) intellectual deep analysis of this film like I have everything else so far on this list, one that gets to the root of why this film works and why I love it so, but I just can’t because The Guest is not that kind of film. The Guest actively resists that kind of analysis because, quite frankly, its start and its end can be summed up with “it is a hell of a lot of fun” which it very much is. It is also damn near flawless at what it aims to do, it’s an immaculately constructed film that I can’t find a single wasted second, dropped pacing or glaring flaw in. Sometimes, a film sticks out as excellent purely because of how much fun it is and The Guest is the single most amount of fun I have had in a cinema all year.
Or, to put it another way, I saw it opening day and went back for a second go-around seven days later. I would likely have kept going every Friday if the film hadn’t been pulled from cinemas in near-record time. Whilst you are reading this, I will be watching it again on the Blu-Ray that I picked up on the first day it was available, and my writing for this is being fuelled by the film’s soundtrack. This is just a straight shot of pure smile-inducing fun, for me, and you are officially out of excuses to not give it a shot.
That’s the first half of the countdown done. Tomorrow, we’ll tackle numbers 5 to 1. In the meantime, let me know in the comments on whether you agree with my picks or not and what some of your favourite films of 2014 are!
Callum Petch’s letters are returned to sender. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!