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Owen Hughes: 2014 Reviews Part 2 – Jul-Dec

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Following part one of my year in review articles where I picked out my favourite first-time watch of each month in 2014 (excluding new releases) from January to June, it’s about time I got my arse in gear and wrote up my second and final piece. So here it is! Starting with July….


the great white silenceJuly – Samaritan Girl (2004); THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE (1924); Blue is the Warmest Color (2013); Forgotten Men (1933); Peeping Tom (1960); Excision (2012); Red Sorghum (1987); Amores Perros (2000); Splinter (2008); Audition (1999)

Originally released in 1924 but recently restored by the magicians who work at the BFI to a gloriously high definition standard, The Great White Silence uses real footage from Captain Scott’s two-year long ill-fated journey to the South Pole aboard the Terra Nova ten years earlier. Nevertheless, it is as provocative and inspirational now as I’m sure it would’ve been to those viewing it 90 years ago. I was completely taken by surprise with it. In fact, I’ve no memory of even adding it to my LOVEFiLM rental list! However it got there, I’m glad it did because I have never been taken aback by the breathtaking beauty in a documentary quite like I was with this. I had no idea that this 100 year old footage even existed, let alone that the expedition was immortalised by Herbert G. Ponting. It was absolutely fascinating to see Captain Scott and his crew trampling snow underfoot that had never seen human life before. The optimism in the air is captured tremendously well considering there wasn’t even any sound recorded, just film footage. Unsurprisingly, that does give proceedings a rather ominous tone given the fact we know what ends up happening to Scott and his four friends. It’s just a tremendous documentary and an incredible restoration to boot.


secret sunshineAugust – House (1977); Revenge of the Ninja (1983); The Battery (2013); American Movie (1999); The Battle of Algiers (1966); Doomsday Book (2012); Oasis (2002); SECRET SUNSHINE (2007); A Separation (2011); Pastoral: To Die in the Country (1974)

With a week in the middle of the month where I was away, and with FrightFest leading me to catching up on a few new-release horrors, I saw very few first time watches that weren’t actually released in 2014. However, for my birthday I did receive an imported copy of Lee Chang-dong’s (the guy who made Peppermint Candy, which I talked about in Part 1) Secret Sunshine. Starring one of my favourite Korean actors, Song Kang-ho, in a supporting role and Jeon Do-yeon absolutely batting it out of the park in the lead role, it’s one of the most moving and genuinely heart-touching performances I have ever seen. After moving from the big city to her recently deceased husband’s small home town in order to start over, and then suffering further tragedy as her only son goes missing, you are completely dragged under the waves of emotional outpouring with no strength to fight against the tides. As she’s constantly battered by family and friends, by well wishers and local creeps, in her fragile state she reaches out for something to soothe her pain. When she finds it in the communal church going community, Lee Chang-dong attempts to unearth exactly why religion and faith can protect someone from their grief, whilst all the time analysing and exploring the fragility of such a thing. It was such a traumatic watch for me that I literally had to take a break in the middle of the movie to go and get a cup of tea! But like with Peppermint Candy, like Poetry, Green Fish and like Oasis (which I also watched for the first time in August), it’s the complexity of the narrative interwoven with multiple layers of emotional depth that leave such a mark on the viewer and why even after pausing for a moment, I had to go back and finish the film. Alas, it was the last film of Lee Chang-dong’s I had left to watch, and it has left a hole in my cinematic heart because I know there’s no more feature length films directed by him out there left for me to consume.


ordetSeptember – American Mary (2012); The Importance of Being Earnest (2002); The Breakfast Club (1985); An Education (2009); The Midnight Meat Train (2008); Lord of the Flies (1963); ORDET (1955); Le Jour se lève (aka Daybreak) (1939); Potpourri (2011); Happiness: The Himalayan Boy and the TV Set (2013)

Released in the US as ‘The Word‘, Ordet is Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s only financially and critically (upon initial release) successful film in his entire canon. Whereas something like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) may be one of my favourite ever films, as it is for a lot of other people too, it was a financial flop due to the surrounding controversy and lack of distribution / censorship resulting from that. His films were not always immediately accepted by critics, either. Vampyr was famously booed at festivals and became one of the leading factors in his nervous breakdown. However, back in September, you would not have heard me booing him nor his work as I became utterly engrossed with this extraordinary story. Much like Secret Sunshine come to think of it, the key aspect seems to be one of the human will power and ability of the mind, versus that of faith and religion. It tells the tale of three brothers, their devout father and Inger, married to one of the brothers who is agnostic, in a small 1920’s farming community. The youngest brother plans to marry a girl from another local “rival” community. The final brother is called Johannes, who is the most interesting character in the film by far. He used to study religious texts but has gone slightly insane and now thinks he’s Jesus Christ. As a film, it’s less about a story and more of a naturalistic look at people; how family and religion and faith all come together and what that means to different people. It may have a rather tepid pace, but this only forces you to think for yourself about what’s going on, about seeing beyond what’s there on screen, and look deeper into it. Of the five Dreyer films I’ve seen, it’s certainly the closest to bettering The Passion of Joan of Arc that he came.


corman's worldOctober – The Masque of the Red Death (1964); A Bucket of Blood (1959); The Fly (1986); The Fall of the House of Usher (1960); Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966); CORMAN’S WORLD: EXPLOITS OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL (2011); Fright Night (1985); The Intruder (1962); Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Seeing as how I’ve already written a lengthy article chronicling my attempts to watch a horror film every single day throughout October in my Horrorble Month piece, I don’t think there’s much point repeating myself! Suffice to say, I discovered during those 31 days leading up to Halloween that I am an enormous fan of Roger Corman. After inducting myself to his work primarily via Vincent Price when researching films for the Decade In Film: 1964 article, I became fascinated by him. At some point during the month I was recommended the documentary Corman’s World, which had as profound an effect on me as I think Life Itself appears to have done for Callum. Quite rightly a hero to many thanks to his plethora of b-movies, both those directed and the hundreds he produced, to fans and colleagues alike (indeed, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard, Peter Fonda, Dick Miller etc all pay tribute to him in the documentary). The ambition and drive that Roger Corman has is infectious and an inspiration. If you want to make a movie, then do it. Don’t wait for somebody to tell you that you can, or that you’re good enough. If you’re prepared to work hard and if you are talented, then you can make it. Eventually. Maybe.


nashville_b3.tifNovember – Life is Beautiful (1997); NASHVILLE (1975); Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988); My Bloody Valentine (1981); Creepshow 2 (1987); Panic Room (2002); Miller’s Crossing (1990); Monkey Shines (1988); Black Rain (1989); The Mummy (1959)

I did not do it! I did not pick The Room after Carole made us watch in for the podcast! I didn’t! It’s bullshit. I did not! Oh, hi folks. November was not a fantastic month for first time watches for me (excluding 2014 releases, of course). Barely any of those listed above scored any more than 3.5 stars out of 5. Well, excluding the Robert Altman directed, Joan Tewkesbury written musical drama Nashville, that is. As anyone who has read our Meet the Critics page will be aware, I bloody hate musicals. Even more so when it is essentially country music. To give a little bit of context as to why I ended up watching this; for much of November, my internet was down. This meant I finally had to open that envelope from LOVEFiLM (yes, it’s a perennial problem that I leave them on the side unopened for up to 6 weeks at a time before bothering with them) and put on the three hour long DVD. After 20 minutes in, I really wanted to give up on Nashville. It just wasn’t winning me over, I hated the music, it seemed completely devoid of plot and interesting characters, and was so, so slow. Even 20 minutes from the end, despite a vast improvement, I was still checking the digital display on my blu-ray player, trying to work out how long was left. And then…. it ended. And I was gutted. Quite unaware of exactly what had happened, it seems that despite my protestations at terrible country music, an inordinate run time and a lack of uniquely interesting characters, I was actually gutted that Nashville had finished. So I sat there, I thought about it, and came to the conclusion that actually, I had enjoyed it. More than enjoyed, I had really, really liked it. I realised that the character is the place, and the people, and the music, and all that it entails. The story is the simple story of life. Of celebrity, of love, of exploitation, of triumph, humiliation, of belonging, of culture, of family… of Nashville. It wasn’t just a well acted and well shot film. It was a key hole and I had been peering through it solidly for 160 minutes, confused, enthralled and unaware.


3-ironDecember – Brother (2000); Bait (2012); Skeletons (2010); Afflicted (2012); Labyrinth (1986); Willow (1988); Scrooge (1951); The Coast Guard (2002); L.A. Confidential (1997); 3-IRON (2004)

December became mostly a month of fantasy films. After watching the entire extended edition Lord of the Rings trilogy, and re-watching the two Hobbit films in preparation for The Battle of the Five Armies in November, I ended up ploughing through films like Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Willow, Legend, Krull and so on. Yet, it wasn’t any of these that were my favourite first time watches during December. In fact, towards the very end of the month, in that gap between Christmas and New Year, I watched a boat load of Kim Ki-duk movies. Moebius, his entirely dialogue free story of a boy whose mother cuts his penis off in his sleep and eats it in a revenge attack against her husband/his father for sleeping around, which is as weird as it sounds, ended up making my top 10 films of the year list when submitting my votes in the Failed Critics Awards. I already liked his films like Pieta and probably his most famous work Spring Summer Fall Winter… And Spring. Yet, I had a few movies on my DVD shelf that were unwatched and what ended up becoming my favourite films of his (and of the whole of December), watched on the penultimate day of the year, was 3-Iron. Whilst nowhere near as bizarre as Moebius, or even Pieta, it was even better. The plot begins following a young man who appears to reside in the shadows (metaphorically speaking), breaking into the houses of people who are away from their homes and spends the night there. He does a few domestic chores, takes a few photos of himself around the place, that sort of thing. It’s all a bit creepy, but ultimately harmless. Upon entering one home he assumes is unoccupied, he ends up meeting Lee Seung-yeon, who appears to be in an abusive relationship. I say “appears” because neither Lee Seung-yeon nor Lee Hyun-kyoon have any dialogue. At all. The message seems to be that love can transcend language. What you feel is not restricted to the sounds that you can make with your mouth. It’s the way that what’s unsaid is actually what’s being whispered the loudest that makes 3-Iron his most beautiful, soft and haunting film. The final 5 minutes are probably the best thing he has committed to film in his entire career.


And that’s it! My favourite 120 non-2014-release first-time-watches of each month from last year. With a bit of luck, 2015 will be just as consistent with each new discovery. Thanks for reading!

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.