Awesome Mix Vol. 2014: The Best Films of the Year
2014 is coming to a close. Savour it, because it’s the last year to be Star Wars free, void of a film based on a DC Comics property, and the latest remake that’s set to ruin your childhood. With so many huge franchise movies on the way next year, 2014 somehow felt smaller, intimate, and well-paced with releases. There were consistent highlights throughout the year as opposed to the usual surge of films carrying the ‘for your consideration’ tag at the tail end of the calendar. Even the current awards season feels sleepy as the targeted contenders fail to fire.
The dream has always been 52 outstanding films; a year well spent. In 2014, my list of favourites got to 50. I’ve never been a fan of squeezing a year into a list of 10 because it’s agonising, and never properly acknowledges the year in film. As I examined the 50, I began to think about what 2014 meant to me personally. It was a big year. I became a dad for the first time, I turned thirty, and baldness continued its assault on my scalp. As time became limited with family demands and I realised that I had more to lose than ever before; films meant more and had to mean more. It explained how I settled on 50 but when I began to examine the intricacies of each pick, it became 34.
What determined the 34? I wanted films that transcended a genre and became hard to define. Something that challenges what I believe in or makes the world melt away for the run-time. Films that nudge the medium forward in their own special way. Films that highlight everything that’s great about cinema as storytelling medium. Captain obvious, I know, but it really was a great year.
Now for the criteria spiel. Selection is based on new releases I saw in 2014, at a film festival, or new to VOD during the course of the year. I am based in Australia so there will be a few films from the U.S 2013 release schedule that made it onto the list because they were delayed a release here. Documentaries will feature in a separate list.
Now I present to you, the best films of 2014.
34. Of Horses and Men
The Scandinavian sense of humour was at its driest and darkest in writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson’s film about the people of a rural town in Iceland and their horses. Erlingsson’s cinematic sensibilities kept the film mostly dialogue free and completely engaging. The visuals told an oddball story with breakneck shifts in tone with shades of the work of Jacques Tati. Frábær!
33. Grand Piano
Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash got all the attention this year but it was his other little film that impressed the most. Chazelle provided the screenplay for Grand Piano and director Eugenio Mira delivered an ace thriller with a hint of Hitchcock at the core. Elijah Wood starred as a famous, stage fright stricken piano player featuring in a comeback concert when he finds out that if he plays a note wrong, he dies. The intricate editing of José Luis Romeu made it gripping from start to finish and its VOD unveiling showed the strength of alternate release strategies.
32. Stations of the Cross
Co-writer and director Dietrich Brüggemann promised 14 scenes that contrasted the life of 14 year-old Maria (Lea van Acken) with the Crucifixion of Jesus. The camera was fixed on each slice of Maria’s life, unflinching, forcing contemplation. The hand of a clock shuffling in the background in a library scene indicated that sequences were shot in a single take and in real time. Brüggemann and co-writer, Anna Brüggemann, crafted acute conversations about the nature of religion, sacrifice and the extreme pressure traditional Catholic belief systems place on impressionable young minds; the ‘get them while they’re young’ formula is still as powerful as ever within the context of Stations of the Cross.
31. The Raid 2
Nobody on the planet is making action films like filmmaker Gareth Evans and his merry band of arse kickers. The incredible action sequences of The Raid 2 certified Evans’ ascension to supreme action cinema maestro.
30. The Great Beauty
The Great Beauty was ripe for arty Euro film bingo. Cryptic religious imagery. Tick. More bare flesh than the nude Olympics. Tick. A dwarf. Tick. Before yelling “bingo” on co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s film, it’s worth digging a little deeper into the ethereal grace of his exploration of life in the shadow of Rome, Italy, and the clash between the ancient ghosts of tradition and the modern flamboyance of the elite population. It’s also one of the most ‘Italian’ films I’ve ever seen; passionate, satirical, and sumptuous.
29. The Wolf of Wall Street
Don’t take Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street as a serious attempt to say too much about the great American pastime of greed. Based on the memoir of real-life stock broker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), it was a lavish brag designed to put you in the businessman’s swanky shoes, and Scorsese perfectly captured the farcical excess of a deplorable human being. The 72 year-old has still got it.
28. 22 Jump Street
The sequel to deconstruct all sequels. Directing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller stage an intervention with the Hollywood studio system over the frivolity of a cashed up second helping while being clever enough to not become a victim.
27. Gone Girl
Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (adapting her novel of the same name) poisoned the marital well with Gone Girl, amplifying the passive aggression of long term relationships until all that remains is malice. But there’s was more to Gone Girl than just Everybody Loves Raymond style gags and observations about monogamy; gender roles were scrutinised, the trashy media got a lashing, and privileged white America was in the shameful spotlight once again.
Arriving on the festival circuit in Australia with a lot of positive critical baggage, writer and director Xavier Dolan’s Mommy more than lived up to praise. The way the aspect ratio shifted with the narrative, while hitting incredible musical cues, showcased the genius of Dolan’s artistry as a filmmaker. The performances from Anne Dorval, Antoine-Oliver Pilon and Suzanne Clemet were absolutely outstanding. Those French Canadians are far too talented.
25. You’re Sleeping Nicole
Speaking of French Canadians, You’re Sleeping Nicole also came from the bilingual bunch of maestros. Pointing and laughing at entitled millenials has become a sport in the media. Television shows like Girls revel in a youthful malaise while the excellent Frances Ha injected optimism into the slacker-sphere. You’re Sleeping Nicole (Tu dors Nicole) was in the same youthful universe but it was beautifully understated and grumpy in that special 20-something kind of way.
24. Charlie’s County
Filmmaker Rolf de Heer holds the camera on Charlie (David Gulpilil) sitting on a bed in a decrepit shack, silently looking at photos in the opening of Charlie’s County. You see his stunning eyes darting side-to-side, lost in memoires, while his environment crumbles around him. Gulpilil and de Heer want you to witness the inequality of the aboriginal community in modern Australia. And we did. One of the most important Australian films of the year. See it, or bench any opinions you have about the state of the Australian film industry.
Put your arms around me, fiddly digits, itchy britches, I love you all. The music of Frank burrowed into the mind and the tale of a band of misfits took residency in the heart. The comfort of crazy in a mad, mad world.
Space in your face. Beautiful, beautiful space. Interstellar was an awe inspiring journey across the cosmos that traveled to the heart of humanity; flaws and all. Hopelessly optimistic, co-writer and director Christopher Nolan, delivered a heartfelt science fiction tale. Nolan also proved his fight for film was worth it, seeing the epic vistas of space while hearing the flicker of a projector is one of my favourite cinema-going experiences of the year.
21. Under the Skin
Director Jonathan Glazer crafted a film that’s essentially about why you don’t give cows on a farm names. An alien (Scarlett Johansson) exploring Earth and feasting on the male populace was haunting, cerebral, and the baby on the beach scene still gives me nightmares.
20. Edge of Tomorrow
Heading into the U.S summer season of blockbusters I was feeling a cold sweat coming on. Remakes, reboots and sequels, oh my! Not to forget the new buzz words in gigantic studio releases “wider cinematic universe”. Edge of Tomorrow arrived with no umbilical cord to an existing twelve volume young adult saga, it was based on a short Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and that thriftiness applies to the film. Edge of Tomorrow was a frenetic burst of energy that thrilled and enthralled while carrying zero baggage.
The mad genius of Joon-ho Bong was applied to the action packed Snowpiercer. Class warfare on a train with an end of the world plot centric on a global warming catastrophe. Yes, please. Pregnant kindergarten teachers with machine guns, the craziest New Year’s Eve countdown ever, and Chris Evans delivering the line “babies taste best” with the determination of a young Marlon Brando. Snowpiercer was full of surprises and I haven’t even mentioned any of the Tilda Swinton stuff. It’s the film that keeps on giving.
Writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s film was akin to an Irish version of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. Brendon Gleeson was outstanding playing a priest facing a death threat while navigating a town full of deplorable people. Faith and humanity were put to the test by McDonagh’s excellent slick black satirical style.
17. Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel Studios haven’t made a bad film yet but they’ve waded in mediocrity with Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: Winter Soldier. Earth centric adventures, familiar characters and MacGuffins galore; things were starting to get dull. Thankfully, Guardians of the Galaxy gate crashed Marvel’s cinematic stable and instantly became the life of the party. Filmmaker James Gunn delivered a rocking space odyssey with the perfect band of misfits in a bountiful outer universe to explore.
16. Obvious Child
Recently on Twitter, Christopher Runyon from Movie Mezzanine wrote “Obvious Child: I wanted to hug this movie as soon as it was over.” Couldn’t agree more. Director Gillian Robespierre’s film deserves a group hug. Jenny Slate was wonderful playing a comedienne whose life is changed by an unplanned pregnancy. A superb twist on the romantic comedy that’s actually funny, sweet, uplifting and empowering.
Husband and wife duo Sophie Henderson and Curtis Vowell’s Fantail was a bittersweet tale about family and identity with the oddities of a dead-end job at a service station as the backdrop. Henderson delivers one of the best lead performances of the year and her screenplay is lush with humour and heartache. A highlight of the Melbourne International Film Festival where it played against esteemed competition.
14. The Dirties
Found footage films sometimes fail to make an impact, beyond gimmickry, because filmmakers forget that the footage has to be discovered. It’s a contract with the audience that’s often broken. There was a brief moment in the late 90s when people believed The Blair Witch Project was real after an advertising campaign led us to believe three filmmakers disappeared in the woods. Buying into something that’s perceived to be real enhances the experience of these movies. Even the Coen Brothers deployed the ‘true story’ at the beginning of Fargo, despite only being loosely inspired by disparate crime stories, because they wanted to heighten the tone of the narrative as it spirals out of control. Style has overtaken concept when it comes to found footage, predominately with horror films, but The Dirties redefined the genre. Not afraid to challenge a difficult theme, filmmaker Matt Johnson made a micro-budget masterpiece that’s intricately layered beyond any gimmickry.
13. The Lego Movie
Moving at the speed of the imagination it was hyperactive adventure that breathlessly moved from crazy to bonkers. Filmmakers Chris Lord and Phil Miller struck gold twice in 2014 (see: 22 Jump Street) and added another hit to their already outstanding resumes. The work of the Australian based digital animation studio Animal Logic was a masterstroke in creating a stop-motion look to ensure every character and piece of the environment moved with the physics of the universe and the articulation points of the minifigures. The authentic handcrafted look boggles the mind as to how they masqueraded the fact that it was all built in a computer. Part of the elation of the film was getting completely immersed in Lego environment and forgetting about ‘how’ it was made. The way light was muted as it bounced off the plastic bricks, the little imperfections on well-worn characters, and even the little instruction booklets littered throughout the world pushed you deeper into the Lego shaped rabbit hole. Also, for a film produced by a toy conglomerate it was surprisingly anti-corporate and I did want to horde copious amounts of Lego afterwards so for all the people who think it’s a film that’s just a commercial for toys; it most certainly is, and it works. But it’s Lego, and it’s one of the only toys left that allows little kids (and lots of big kids) to use their minds to create worlds where Superman can hang out with a bunch of pirates and spacemen from the 1980s. And that’s where The Lego Movie succeeded the most, by reminding us of the art of ‘play’ and the ability to let our thoughts manifest in cubist creations.
12. Blue Ruin
As most films continue to bloat out to the three hour mark or when one movie is broken into parts two, three and four, it’s refreshing for a film like Blue Ruin to come along and earn every second of its 90 minute runtime. Writer, director and cinematographer Jeremy Sauliner’s film is a tense exploration of the aftermath of revenge with American gun culture blistering beneath. Sauliner sourced most of the funding through Kickstarter and Blue Ruin is the gold standard of what can be achieved when a talented filmmaker is matched with crowd funding.
11. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
A twisted satire of show business set to an acid jazz drum score that’s darkly comic and completely brilliant. Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu gets meta with Michael Keaton playing a washed up actor who was once the star of a billion dollar superhero franchise. Keaton is incredible, as are the rest of the cast including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Lindsay Duncan.
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
A flurry of debate arises whenever an auteur releases a new film. Each fresh creation is greeted by a career retrospective that boils down to anointing one movie as ‘the best’. Few filmmakers ignite deliberation like Wes Anderson who has been passing around a box of cinematic confectionary since he debuted in 1996 with Bottle Rocket. Anointing a favourite Anderson joint became harder in 2014 with the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Unwrapping The Grand Budapest Hotel was an utter delight and showed Anderson firing on all his quaint idiosyncratic cylinders.
There just weren’t enough rooftops to shout my love for this film. Romance and science fiction were infused magnificently by writer and director Spike Jonze. A man falls in love with a computer. A tricky concept to execute, but the perfect kind of crazy for Jonze who has made a career out of wrangling odd ideas with ease. Her was more intimate and perceptive to a timeline that’s not too far away in our existence and it didn’t get side-tracked with the oddball trademarks of Jonze’s resume. Her focused on the human story and not the gizmos. It defined everything great about science fiction, that when done right, provides the platform to ponder what it means to be a human being.
8. What We Do in the Shadows
You know a comedy is excelling when you’re paranoid that you’ll miss jokes during bursts of laughter from the audience. That’s what happened when I saw What We Do in the Shadows. Co-writers and directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement were comedic strategists with their commitment to set ups gags that payed off big time. From the moment Viago’s arm creeped out of a coffin to hit a buzzing alarm clock it was clear that the comedic filter cast over the environment, working to craft jokes at every opportunity. The pacing and timing was perfectly regimented for maximum effect and there was rarely a moment when your face wasn’t locked into a smile. Waititi and Clement mined centuries of vampire lore and pop culture incarnations of blood suckers to wittily deconstruct every aspect of the supernatural world. What We Do in the Shadows does for vampires what This is Spinal Tap did for rock bands.
Nebraska was like discovering a crumpled old black and white photograph. Memories came flooding back, stories from the past were uncovered, and regret sunk in as the young faces in the images, now old, mused on their mistakes. Director Alexander Payne crafted a striking portrait of a dysfunctional family and a refined piece of Americana that contained a wonderfully dry sense of humour.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler has been described as Network for the TMZ age, and it’s spot on. A thrilling autopsy of the shadowy side of the media and how it benefits the vultures. We all want to say “it’s just a movie” but it cuts closer to the truth. Los Angeles is an arena like the Coliseum of ancient Rome with an audience crying out for blood. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) of 2014. Gyllenhaal is chilling as the cold, calculated, and driven character, who speaks like a Tony Robbins motivational CD crossed with horrid job application selection criteria jargon. Rene Russo, Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed provide sensational support. Can’t wait to see what Gilroy does next.
5. Tom at the Farm
We were spoilt getting two outstanding Xavier Dolan films in one year. Tom at the Farm was an impeccable psychological thriller in the key of Hitchcock but with Dolan’s operatic flourish. Themes of sexual identity bubbled beneath the surface and Dolan expertly maintained a sense of unease in a harsh rural setting. Gabriel Yared’s score was a luscious touch and Dolan’s use of Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night was a masterstroke.
A snapshot of a young life flashes before your eyes in Richard Linklater’s phenomenal film. This is a masterclass in the power of a filmmaker to control the passage of time and tell an engaging story. An accomplishment grand in scope and ambition but so incredibly intimate and heart-warming. I never wanted it to end. Shot over 12 years, it’s a great achievement in modern American filmmaking and solidifies Linklater’s status as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation
3. Force Majeure
A comedy of passive aggressiveness, a scathing satire of masculinity, delivered with Kubrickian unease by writer and director Ruben Östlund. Östlund’s family portrait was distorted by dysfunction and it was absolutely captivating.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis was a film that embraced failure in a beautiful way. From the ground floor of the American folk movement the Coens’ tap into the ultimate story of the man that never was. The beating heart of Inside Llewyn Davis was the songbook constructed by executive music producer T-Bone Burnett and performed beautifully by the cast. Each song cut to the core of each character and propelled the narrative forward in a sublime way. Oscar Isaac imbued Llewyn Davis with an abrasive nature that never fell on the side of malice; you were watching a good natured guy who is worn out. The actor engulfed Davis with sorrow and his eyes looked like two tiny water balloons ready to burst. The supporting cast was layered with terrific appearances from Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett who play the Gorfeins, friends, cat owners and kind folks who are forgiving of Davis’ mood swings. John Goodman was unforgettable as a confrontational travelling musician named Roland Turner, and Garret Hedlund gave off an air of danger and mystery as Roland’s personal driver. Jeanine Serralles was terrific as Davis’ sister and the constant voice of reason while F. Murray Abraham and Jerry Grayson play music reps that are so candid it hurts. Inside Llewyn Davis was masterfully told story and a transcendent piece of filmmaking from the Coen brothers.
1. Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive was a gothic ode to decaying culture and the joy of being alive from the perspective of the living dead. If you can live forever, what do you live for? Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch presented music, literature, science and engineering as the creations that inspire Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton). The dialogue was thick with disdain for the moronic side of human nature that has destroyed, ignored or condemned the great thinkers. The classic vampire staples were present but it never defined the characters and it was presented in a way that was so damn cool. Hiddleston oozed melancholy, Swinton was excellent as the adoring optimist and Mia Wasikowska appeared as a devilish as a reckless young vampire. Also, a fanged John Hurt was in top form amongst the already impressive cast. Only Lovers Left Alive easily shoots to the top of the list of great vampire movies with a wooden bullet. A definitive entry in the genre and the best film of 2014.