First up, the stats: I saw 205 films in 2014, 125 of which were in the cinema (including about four repeat viewings), so a slight increase on 2013. Last year I did matched posts for my favourite and least favourite films, but I was less enthusiastic this year in trying to see everything, meaning I didn’t really *hate* any films I saw this past year.
In making such a list, I feel there should always be caveats, but I think we all understand this. Maybe a contender was omitted because it wasn’t properly released here in the UK; there are certainly films here that were in other peoples’ lists last year for the same reason. So these are my favourite new releases I saw for the first time in 2014. If you are concerned at something being omitted, check my A-Z of reviews page, because maybe I didn’t like it or didn’t see it…
EDIT [5 Jan]: I managed to miss out Obvious Child so have awkwardly added that in to what is now a top 11 (without doing any renumbering).
An award-winner (Cannes Palme d’Or) but for good reason, because director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, even over 180+ minutes, knows how to craft an engrossing story. Like a few other films I’ll be getting to, it deals with a rather unlikeable and controlling central character, who nevertheless tries to affect the persona of a well-educated, liberal and easygoing guy. The way his character unravels over the film’s three hours and alienates those around him, is part of the fascination of what is essentially a character study. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s set against some beautiful Anatolian scenery.
9. قصهها Ghesse-ha (Tales) [festival screening only]
Every good list demands some festival-only obscurity, and here is that entry. I would however argue that it’s not because of any limited appeal. The form is well-worn — interlocking stories set over a short period of time in the same city — but there’s a lightness of touch and a willingness to avoid any heavy-handed moralising. As the title suggests, it is just a series of stories, people who only briefly flit through each others’ lives, without any deeper meaning except to present a cross-section of a society at a particular moment in time. And as the society is Iran, a country always oddly balanced between religious zealotry and western modernity, so the stories are that much more fascinating.
8. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
From the point of view of an audience member, I was most concerned that this film by British artist Steve McQueen, a story drawn from the US history of slavery, would be a dull-but-worthy telling of history, one for the classrooms, too bound up in its period costumes and exacting recreation of the historical past to make much of a cinematic impression. But I was wrong. Even through all the terrible injustices being perpetrated, the film is watchable without being crass or letting its audience off the hook. It’s a film of great performances, and largely avoids sentiment.
7. Ida (2013)
I could have seen this at last year’s London Film Festival (where it won first prize), but eventually there was a cinema release for British-based Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s austere black-and-white film about a novitiate nun discovering her family history. Set in Poland and recalling the work of many of his compatriots (not least due to its monochrome lensing and its early-1960s setting), it’s a film carried by a strong central performance and an eye for studied compositions, which in its compact running time still finds room for a layered and complex investigation about the underlying resentments of the post-war years.
6=. Vi är bäst! (We Are the Best!) (2013)
I’d almost forgotten that director Lukas Moodysson was capable still of making life-affirming films, but he’s back with one that isn’t trying to push the viewer away. In fact, it’s delightful, a story of three teenage girls who form a band against the background of early-80s punk, and don’t seem to much care what anyone (least of all the men) thinks.
6= [ADDED]. Obvious Child
Reduced by many to an abortion-themed romcom, this was in fact a bold and very strong comic film that made the most of its premise, and found interesting emotional terrain within the comedy in ways that so many US comedies manage to so notably fail at doing.
A whimsy and a confection, like so many of Wes Anderson’s stylised films, but one told with both a genuine sense of joie de vivre and an underlying ennui. Like one of the elaborate cakes made in the film, this is a layered story passing back through time to a fictionalised mid-20th century Europe riven by war. And yet through all this strides Ralph Fiennes’ deftly comic hotel concierge, a performance perfectly fitted to the delicacy of the film’s elaborate construction.
4. 天注定 Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) (2013)
Director Jia Zhangke has moved from the underground to something approaching mainstream success in his native China, but this multi-strand film spares no criticism of the direction its country is taking. All the stories are drawn from real life events, stories of crime and murder and dissatisfaction with the ruling classes. It’s a beautiful film, epic in scale, but intimate in its dissection of human drama.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Another late release of a film that many had in last year’s lists. I would be the first to be wary of any of the Coen brothers’ films, as in the past I’ve found them self-satisfied and just a little bit arch. There are superficially, then, many reasons to be suspicious of this film set amongst the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, and yet it captured my attention in a way that few other films this year did, especially impressive given that its eponymous protagonist is so deeply dislikable. In a way, the film is about why Llewyn is the way he is, but it’s not an apology, just a story of an embittered life sliding out of focus amongst such an all-too-easily mythologised scene.
2. 郊遊 Jiao Yu (Stray Dogs) (2013) [one-off screening only]
It’s slow and it’s deliberate, and in many ways it’s as grand an arthouse state-of-the-nation film can get, but I still found this film by noted Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang to be transfixing. There’s a big depressing city, a poverty-blighted family unit of some description, and a lot of water. There are enough mysteries that I’ll want to return again (assuming it ever has another screening), but the basic themes dealing with the effects of our consumer economy are plain enough to see.
This almost certainly won’t be the only end-of-year list on which this film appears, and in my head I’m already feeling a backlash against its dominance, but to avoid placing it in this position would be to ignore my own gushing review after I saw it twice earlier in the year. It’s the second year in a row that a Richard Linklater-directed film has made the top two, so his next film will be loaded with expectation, but he’s a consistently excellent filmmaker. I can understand some people’s issues with this particular film, but I never personally found it slow or boring, and the titular focus belies that it’s about a whole family in many respects. Ultimately, it just made me feel warm and happy and a little bit optimistic, which is always worth rewarding.
There were plenty of other films I really liked, and as I found it difficult to really whittle my list down to just 10 picks, I feel I must nevertheless mention the following. Perhaps in 10 years’ time I will look back and realise that some of these are far better than I’d initially thought, that stand the test of time, are films to which I will want to return again. Or maybe not. But at least when I saw them, I liked them a lot.
11. Leviathan may have the kind of portentous gravitas and grandiose imagemaking that lures in awards judges, but it worked on me too, a bleak story of modern Russia but leavened by a bit of black humour too.
12. I didn’t manage a write-up of Calvary, but I certainly admired its stripped-down theatrical aesthetic, which makes sense given it was written and directed by a playwright. Brendan Gleeson superbly plays the shambolic Catholic priest at the film’s centre, who is the subject of a death threat and is trying to figure out who delivered it and why.
13. Sure there was a lot of gaudy glitz to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), but Martin Scorsese has a body of work behind him to suggest there’s something deeper at play. Then again, a criticism of the financial sector’s profligacy is hardly news to anyone nowadays, so perhaps the surface sheen and tricksy editing is really what I’m drawn to.
14. Also stylised, but in quite a different way, is La Sapienza. It’s about an architect on tour in Italy, but the way the director Eugène Green frames his actors and has them deliver lines suggests they’re on a par with the buildings at a narrative level. It’s all extremely mannered, but I happen to like that kind of thing.
15. I’m hardly a horror connoisseur but The Babadook was worth a rare watch of this genre. Australian director Jennifer Kent brilliantly handles the ratcheting of tension, as the eponymous beastie makes only brief but chilling appearances in this story of a single-parent family slowly breaking apart.
16. Citizenfour was among the year’s finest documentaries, managing to do a lot with its limited range of settings (a hotel room and other such liminal spaces). Partly that’s to do with its drawn-from-the-headlines story of government surveillance as revealed by CIA operative Edward Snowden — and he makes an unexpectedly charismatic lead — but it’s also down to documentarian Laura Poitras, who has previous with exposing this kind of high-level corruption.
17. A quite different milieu is provided by Mia Hansen-Løve with the sprawling, episodic Eden, tracking one man’s obsession with French house music over a couple of decades. He’s not always likeable as a protagonist, but the film does a good job (even for a novice like myself) of bringing to life its musical scene.
18. A lot of people liked American Hustle in 2013, and when it came out here eventually, I was one of them. Yet at best it’s a shaggy dog story of con artists and low-level grifters, with a talented ensemble cast and a light directorial touch. If I weren’t predisposed to liking anything with Amy Adams or Jennifer Lawrence, this might not have made my list at all.
19. Sadly we’ll never know what film critic Roger Ebert would have made of that film, but the documentary Life Itself by Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) does a good job of bringing us up to speed with his life and career — particularly necessary in the British context, where his long-running TV show and newspaper columns barely made an impression. But in showing him during his declining health, the film is magnificent at suggesting something of what it means to be alive, and the value of a life, quite aside from whether you know anything about Ebert himself or his work. (Then again, you might reasonably suspect a film about a film critic is always likely to do well in this particular context; it was Ebert after all whose reviews in the 1990s first drew me into film criticism as a form, even if I later moved on to other sources for my opinions.)
20. It’s perhaps some testament to the memorable effect of the uncanny imagery in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) that I wanted to rank it higher than I did in this list (I dare not overrule my original ratings based on something so unreliable as memory). For the film has its longueurs and its weaknesses, but what it gets right — in the whirling, intoxicating relationship of two achingly hip people against a heady backdrop of urban decay and glorious music — it gets really very right indeed.
21. Under the Skin (2013) is another film in much the same situation, which perhaps I hold in higher estimation in memory than I did in the actual auditorium. It’s just such a strange piece of work (equal parts horror, psychological thriller, and science-fiction) with such an intangible lure, that perhaps looking back in future it will be the film I most underrated. It certainly was striking, though.
22. A completely different order of memorable was The Lego Movie, a goofy repurposing of plastic bricks in the aid of something very enjoyable indeed, an adventure film about resisting conformity. The ridiculously catchy theme song probably helped too.
23. All of Claire Denis’ films have a sort of concise yet inscrutable poetry to them, so I loved Les Salauds (Bastards) (2013) as well. At a visual as well as thematic level, it’s filled with vast pools of darkness, and there’s a certain reflexiveness to its sordid story which implicates audience, filmmaker and characters alike.
24. Another filmmaker who polarises audiences and critics, but whom I continue to love is Gregg Araki. His blend of luridly-coloured sun-dappled imagery combined with polymorphous perversity is muted a little in White Bird in a Blizzard, but it’s a film that plays with plenty of well-worn genres (suburban melodrama, coming-of-age, police procedural) in an interesting and surprising way, plus Shailene Woodley is excellent in the lead.
25. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) was the last film I saw in 2014, so I haven’t had to time to really live with it, but it has some fantastic performances (obviously Michael Keaton in the title role, but especially Edward Norton). The style is a little precious, but it adds up to a compelling film about acting and its pitfalls (not so far thematically from Nightcrawlers in that respect, a film that many others have been putting in their lists, but I couldn’t quite muster enthusiasm for).
26. It’s a small, messy little film, but Frank has enough that’s genuinely delightful in its story of outsider musicians that despite its tiresomely ingratiating lead character, I couldn’t help myself.
27. One of the year’s biggest big budget releases (and apparently a box office disappointment), Tom Cruise continues to show that he knows what makes for a good dystopian sci-fi with Edge of Tomorrow, with its Groundhog Day-like structure and an excellent supporting role from Emily Blunt.
28. David Fincher likes to play with his characters and with audience narrative expectations, within a coolly stylish filmmaking framework, and Gone Girl certainly doesn’t disappoint on that level, though as so often I remain unconvinced by whether it has anything much deeper to say.
29. Another exercise in building atmosphere was the disturbing L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake) (2013), which takes one setting and by repeating similar shots with a limited handful of characters, eventually pushes the film from sun-dappled languor to vivid threat.
30. Blue Ruin (2013) is also a lower-budget film but one which takes a generic framework (retro revenge thriller) and builds a story which fascinates because it concentrates on the characters and is not just about marking off self-congratulatory film references like too many low-budget indie filmmakers.
Bonus TV Section
Once again I watched a bunch of TV and liked the following. I’ll admit (and you can probably guess) that I didn’t put a lot of thought into this, so these are the new series that I was keeping up with compulsively. I also caught up on Masters of Sex season 1 and if I’d seen the second, maybe that would be here.
1. The Mindy Project at one level is just another sitcom about a professional woman in New York City, but Mindy Lahiri’s writing and acting of this character is almost subversive in the way it plays with expectations and is refreshingly unapologetic about all the stuff that seems to matter in other TV shows. She gets the guy in season 3, but strangely it doesn’t make the show any les compelling, as there’s plenty of comedy still to be had in relationships.
2. Mad Men. My interest waned a little in seasons 5 and 6, but season 7 (part one) was absolutely brilliant, and a compulsively fascinating ‘return to form’ (it was probably always good, just me whose attention drifted somewhat).
3. Selfie. It’s a pity this show was cancelled because I loved Karen Gillan’s sparky performances, which play off John Cho as the straight guy. Perhaps it was too immersed in its own media world, but I found it delightful.
4. Game of Thrones. I continued to love this big-budget bit of mythmaking, with its huge cast and labyrinthine plots. I do love a good bit of drama, but it feels to me like 2014 was the year I spent watching comedy on the television…