So here they are, my Top 10 Films of 2014. I won’t ramble on, as there is a lot to read ahead (sorry about that). What I will say is, again, these are not in any real particular order, though I could argue the two foreign language films may well be my favorites.
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What is there to say about Boyhood that has not been said already? I have been loving the journey of movies from a teenage boy to a grown man, and father, for as long as the incredible Richard Linklater has been making movies. From a very exciting time when the American independent films made their surge. With this current venture, Linklater has still managed to maintain that indie feel. Filmed over twelve years, this is more about how engaged we can be in our own lives, growing up and just remembering or forgetting the simple things that pass us by or stick to us like glue.
Boyhood is not just a motion picture experience in it’s own right, it is a celebration of how we change, and the life that builds as we grow. It is about the people around us, the mothers, the fathers, the brothers, the sisters. Houses we leave, schools we attend, friends we make, or romance that eludes us. Patricia Arquette is likely going to take gold in a couple of weeks, but a huge shout out has to go to the men too. The director Linklater, the father Ethan Hawke, and the boy we have all really, truly be talking and thinking about, Ellar Coltrane. Movies make us feel, and influence us, in so many different ways. There are few, very few, that hit this close to home.
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There were conflicting and provoking discussions and debates about race, about history, about the accuracy of cinema, about the changing of cinematic history itself. There was the whole awards season fails, and the uproar caused by the supposed Lyndon B Johnson fiasco. And behind all that, sometimes getting a little lost in the smoke, was the movie Selma. An extremely rich, powerful, immaculately filmed and acted portrayal of an important part of American history. Just the two Oscar nominations tell us nothing about the quality of this film.
Ava DuVernay speaks, even today, so humbly about the essential experience (both in life and on film) of Selma. That it seemed so obvious to make a feature film about the great Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and the waves he made to change a part of history the way he did. David Oyelowo is so utterly convincing as King, rarely does he over-power the screen. This is a man, remember, a man who had to fight politics, race tension, but also the emotion of the struggle, affecting many around him, but all for the greater good. I am neither black, nor American, but Selma still remains, for me, one of the most accomplished achievements of the year.
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I know people had tears in their eyes in the very opening moments of Life Itself, because Steven James set the scene for the story of a great man in the industry. I, too, was moved as the movie began. I was also afraid, to see Roger Ebert how he was in his last years, to be reminded of his illness, and that we did lose him in the end. As you watch Ebert though during that time, and as mentioned in this compelling documentary, it seems he was the one still spreading laughter and happiness.
Life Itself takes us right back to Ebert as a young man, his climb up the ladder of film journalism, his unmatchable and temperamental relationship with the late Gene Siskel, and his last, great love story with Chaz. The documentary reminds us how Ebert mirrored life with movies. And we have all done that I am sure. It is a truly honorable tribute to the definitive movie critic, who should be remembered and never, ever forgotten. Like I have done with hundreds of movies before, I wish I could go now to IMDB and read that Roger Ebert review at the top of the list.
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With the multitude of movies Mia Wasikowska has appeared in over the last year or so, there was bound to be one that landed pretty high on my list. And one that is likely her greatest performance of a distinguished career so far. Unforgivably under-seen and neglected come awards season, Tracks is a rare cinematic achievement. Laying it heavy with open and beautiful Australian desert landscapes, this is in fact quite an intimate movie experience, based on Robyn Davidson’s monumental trek with four camels, a dog, and occasionally a National Geographic photographer.
Tracks also has a heart-warming score by Garth Stevenson, juxtaposing Robyn’s struggles and triumphs. And there is, of course, the gorgeous cinematography from Mandy Walker, which shows off the Australian vastness, as well as capturing our protagonist at her best and worst. I had no idea a movie such as this would land so highly on my end of year list, even with the American companion piece Wild also impressing. Tracks just resonated with me personally a little bit more, and lingered with me long after I saw it, and still does now. I am not particularly ready, either, to give up that journey.
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Where do you start with a film like Inherent Vice? This really is a mixed bag. A hypnotic movie, and a kind of aptly drug-free high for the viewer. The range of era-specific songs are catchy and addictive. And Jonny Greenwood once again composes a score so fitting, it surely has to be reinforced how much of a force to be reckoned with he is in the film music circles. It is shot in a much more intimate way than perhaps There Will Be Blood, but still has frames to die for.
The performances are electric, yet no two appear to be the same. As well as the illustrious range of acting on display, it is credit to Paul Thomas Anderson, adapting those characters from Thoms Pynchon’s bonkers novel. To say they fully come to life on the screen is an understatement. Anderson’s direction of the material, too, is mesmerising. Casually weaving through laugh out loud humor, long-lost emotion, some real drama, and rather oddball moments – and making it look easy. Some might get a bit lost, I didn’t. Often, Anderson’s movies ask you to get in the car, not knowing what might befall you, or what exactly is going on. I am more than willing to go along with the ride each time. It is always totally worth, and Inherent Vice is no different (even though it is).
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There’s a beautiful little scene in Smoke (1995) were one character shows another his collection of candid photographs from the same street corner of New York. In doing so, we too invest in the wonder of capturing life through a lens. I immediately thought of this when I first saw Finding Vivian Maier, a documentary by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof came across a box of negatives at an auction and what he found inspired him to dig much, much deeper. The film uncovers Vivan’s life, via some accounts of those that knew her, were she was a nanny, something of a hoarder, and clearly an extraordinarily talented photographer from Chicago.
Finding Vivian Maier crams many of her wonderful photographs across the screen as the story is told. Her photos could also be intriguing, intrusive, and moving to some of those featured in them when view many, many years later. It is captivating not only because of the array of marvellous, magnetic photography on offer, but also because it presents and explores it’s own ethics. This documentary presents a private woman, who would not have liked this exposure, and we could have missed out on a treasure there.
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Gone Girl provided us with not only the brand new movie from the master technician David Fincher, but also one of the year’s best screenplays (by Gillian Flynn), and one of the powerhouse female performances (the inch-perfect Rosamund Pike). For me, and others I am sure, this was one of the most eagerly anticipated movies for a long, long time. From the popular original book, through all manner of promotional teasers and clues, right up to the positive critical reception, and fantastic box office success. With the dark allure of the story, we wondered at the time of its release, though, how many first dates or marriages seeing this would ruin.
As a movie, Gone Girl is yet another example of Fincher’s talented grasp of this high calibre of film-making. You can run through the expertise of the movie’s components, and tick them off without hesitation. The flawless editing by Kirk Baxter, the sheer range covered by Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography, the haunting, emotive score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor – all of it. This is also a remarkably good adaptation of her own book by Flynn. So, so good in fact, you are hard-pressed to grumble even slightly about the abrupt, lack of closure ending of both the book and the film. Somehow, it works.
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Wes Anderson is a film-maker with immaculate taste, and the movies he brings to the screen tend to be little works of art. The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different, and merges all of Anderson’s stylistic traits into a movie many are calling his best so far. Finally receiving some well-earned recognition with the awards voters (and made a lot of noise with the critics), here is a movie that ought to be for everyone. It has comedy, it has drama, it has action (of a fashion), and some remarkable relationships between a number of the characters.
That very cast is extremely vast and outstanding right across the board – to go through each and every one here would never do them justice. The narrative has more than enough to keep the audience engaged, and the subject matter is handled with a light-hearted nature – even when dealing with prison breaks and killer chases. It is edited and photographed to perfection, and moves along at a cunningly swift pace. Not to mention the sumptuous costumes and production design. The Grand Budapest Hotel is an instant, expansive delight, proving Wes Anderson is one of the best, unique storytellers around – both in conception and execution.
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In competition, and then not rewarded, in Cannes last year (though Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been victors twice before), Two Days, One Night was extremely well-received. It has now, nearly a year later, found the legs for Marion Cotillard to earn a Best Actress Oscar nomination, as Sandra, a depressed Belgian woman, finding the strength from somewhere to fight for her job. And well-deserved that nomination was. Cotillard has had a terrific year, also knocking it out of the park with The Immigrant. Here, she is on the brink of crumbling, and utterly convincing as a real woman, a wife and mother, faced with a real, awakening dilemma.
In the Dardennes’ movie, they continue to make important stories about little society. Two Days, One Night explores the deep-rooted fears we all might have had the potentially crippling effects of the recession and the daunting prospects of not being able to provide for your family. It is brought to the screen and made accessible as entertainment in wonderfully accurate style. There are scenes between characters were you wonder how they will react, simply because you are made to care for what is at stake from the outset. This is, for the most part, not exactly a euphoric journey, but it has it’s naturally magic little moments, and is always completely engrossing even when things look bleak.
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With the domination of the English language film in this industry, you may be forgiven for not being sold by a black and white Polish film set in the 1960s. Well, not in this case. Probably more established for success in British cinema, Paweł Pawlikowski has delved back into his own country’s history with Ida. The film is one of kind. Filmed in box ratio, this looks and feels like a movie from that decade. And not just from Poland, this shines spotlights on various breakthroughs and innovative film-making to come out of Europe during the sixties.
The story, then, takes a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska), about to take her vows, on a journey of self-discovery when she finds out her own identity and history are nothing what she thought. Her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) helps Ida, who wants to find the bodies of her parents, without the temptation or adventure her aunt alludes to. The movie Ida is so poignant and simplistic, it is actually quite the marvel. Capturing the pain and longing in facial expressions (from both actresses, giving very different, but equally stunning performances), there is little room for over-emphasis from too much dialogue or physical actions here. A film that is perfect enough to do without that.
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The Top 10 Films of the Year (alphabetical order)
Finding Vivian Maier
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Two Days, One Night