George East’s Top Ten Films of 2014

by George_East on March 2, 2015

Finally, we reach the last of my 2014 review posts.   Traditionally I have posted my review of the year in cinema together with my top 10 films on Oscar weekend, which took place the weekend before last.  However, because I still hadn’t completed my top 50 albums posts, it got pushed back by a week or so.

For a reminder of my top films of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 follow the links.

2014 was, in my view, the best year for cinema in a very long while.  Not only was the average quality of films released in the year very high, but there were, I think, at least 4 out and out masterpieces of the kind you  expect maybe one to come along every few years.  It was an embarrassment of riches.  Indeed, any of the films in my top 8 could have graced the top spot in many previous years.

That is not to say that there weren’t disappointments.  The year started off poorly with David O Russell’s Carry On Up The 1970s tits and wigs (copyright Ms A)  excuse for a heist movie, American Hustle, which recycled all of the laziest bits from Scorsese without any of the art.   David Fincher’s Gone Girl was dangerously complacent about domestic violence and Night Crawler was surely the most critically overrated film of the year, as Jake Gyllenhall played a two dimensional weirdo exposing the obvious flaws in the American media (watch Ace In The Hole, Network or even Broadcast News if you want to see that subject done with cinematic panache).  Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall was too much of a hagiography to have anything like the resonance or power of his best historical work (like Land and Freedom and When The Wind Shakes The Barley).  Worst of all after his recent renaissance Woody Allen made the godawful stinker that was Magic In The Moonlight with the least convincing romance in 50 something Colin Firth and 20 something Emma Stone since, well since Woody still played the leading man with the 20 something leading woman a couple of decades back. And yes the Riviera looked lovely but there’s always Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief for that.

Honourable mentions (this alone shows what a great year it was) go to Only Lovers Left Alive, Grand Budapest Hotel, Stranger By The Lake, Dallas Buyers Club, Tom At The Farm, The Lego Movie, The Past, The Missing Picture, The Wolf of Wall Street (and yes I know I’m in a minority on this), the first half of Blue Ruin, Obvious Child, Two Days One Night, Finding Vivian Meier, 20,000 Nights On Earth, Mr Turner, The Possibilities Are Endless, A Touch of Sin, Exhibition and ’71.

 

1. Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

10 years after his creepy child psychological horror, Birth and 14 years since the release of his debut, Sexy Beast, the best British gangster film since The Long Good Friday, Jonathan Glazer returned with one of the most breathtakingly original films of the last couple of decades.

The Kubrickian opening credit sequence of intense screen out whites as a human figure is constructed over the sounds of a woman learning how to speak switches into apparently Loachian realism – all natural light and trailing camera as a woman wanders through a down market Glasgow shopping arcade are only the beginning of this extraordinary film.Scarlett Johannson plays an unnamed alien preying on men as she drives around the streets of Glasgow, picking them up and taking them back to a house where their desire for sex will result in their demise.   Glazer actually filmed a lot of this – with Johansen driving round and asking random men to get into the van with her.   Johannson’s performance is brilliant – her English accent (the sounds at the beginning actually being recordings of her working with her dialect coach on the accent) giving an additional sense of alienation (some even read the film as about the Scottish independence referendum).

The film deals with sexual predation, gender roles, socially constructed notions of beauty (the incredible scenes with the facially disfigured Adam Pearson stick in the mind long after leaving the cinema) and what it is to be human – it is Scarlett’s beginnings of empathy that will be her undoing.   Add to this Tommy Cooper, Deacon Blue, chocolate gateau and a wonderfully apposite electronic score from Mica Levi and you have one of the great Sci Fi films (possibly the greatest since Blade Runner). It is a film that can be endlessly debated and endlessly rewatched as a result.

2. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyaginstev)

Following the brilliant Elena (my number 6 film of 2012), Zyvaginstev continued his cinematic deconstruction of modern Russia, but this time with an even better film.   Leviathan, a tale of a man, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) who has his family property taken from him for the purpose of a property development by the corrupt mayor of his town, took in the full gamut of Russian society under Putin.  And what it revealed was something extraordinarily ugly, with the corruption taking in the courts, the police, the prosecuting authorities and the church.  Against this what hope is there for the little man – the answer is none.  This is a Doestoyevskian tale of a man crushed by the system.

It is also beautifully shot and full of wonderful humour – including a great birthday party drinking scene in which the party game is to shoot pictures of former Soviet leaders (with a hint that pictures of Putin and his cronies may be round 2) and a hilarious court room scene in which a judgment is read out in a perfunctionary voice at about 200 miles per hour – not only is justice not done, no one even cares whether it is seen to be done.   Copious amounts of vodka, whale carcasses on the beach and a bread carrying monk who appears to have arrived from the 19th century, all add up to a monumentally ambitious work that demonstrates the power of cinema.

3. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Palm D’Or winner showed again why he is one of the very few directors currently working whose work is utterly essential.   No one has an eye for landscape like Ceylan (here the extraordinary cave houses of Cappadocia) and Winter Sleep is once again stunningly beautiful, but like his last film, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (my film of the year in 2012), this is a film which operates on both the intimate and the epic levels.  Its running time of 196 minutes would make me run a mile from most films, but here is fully justified as we follow a few days in the life of a former actor come newspaper columnist and hotel proprietor, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) as he deals with his tenants, hotel guests and with his sister and much younger wife.

Aydin is over the course of the film revealed as a self-important and self-pitying bully. The film is structured in Chekhovian way around two long conversations: one with his sister and one with his wife, which reveal much of what he is. Yet Ceylan ensures that we never fully lose sympathy with Aydin.

The story can be read as a metaphor for Turkey with Aydin as Erdogan and his wife as Turkey.   Yet it works just as well on the micro-level. It also has one of the best drinking scenes in cinema.

4. We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysen)

This simple story about an all school girl punk band in early 1980s Stockholm was one of the delights of 2014.   No film has captured what it is like to be a teen as well as We Are The Best! in a good long while.   Bobo, Klara and the  Christian Hedwig are united by their outsider status and will be (briefly at least) pulled apart by rivalries over boys.  It is hard to think of a film in which I got more involved.  You root for them and you root for their band (over the ridiculous but competent heavy metal band at their local youth club).  It captures a time and an age perfectly.

The fact that practically their only song is about how much they hate PE makes them all the more endearing.  And in Reagan, Brezhnev Fuck Off (by the boys’ punk band) surely we had one of the songs of the year!  The fuck you gig that ends of the film is to die for – I’d rather have been there than the Pistols at the 100 Club.

5. 12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen)

Showing up the much lauded treatment of slavery in Django Unchained for more of the shallow teen boywank that it was, Steve McQueen once again with 12 Years A Slave showed what an amazing talent he is.  The former Turner prize winning artist is now 3 for 3, as he completed what has become known as the body fluids trilogy, after his film about Bobby Sands, Hunger (piss) and about sex addiction, Shame (semen) with a film about blood.

This was of course a far bigger film than his first two and (rightly) won the Oscar for Best Film last year.   In depicting the true story of Solomon Northup, a freeman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, McQueen doesn’t flinch in showing the violence, helplessness and dehumanisation of chattel slavery.  Chewitel Ejiofor as Solomon, Michael Fassbender as sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps, Lupita N’yongo and Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps are all superb.  The scene in which Solomon is made to whip Patsey as a proxy for the anger that Mrs Epps feels at her husband’s philandering is extraordinarily difficult to watch – McQueen making sure that we are not, as an audience, let off from the realities.

The film was very slightly marred by having executive producer, Brad Pitt, as the man in the white hat who comes to the rescue.  But this is a minor criticism in a Hollywood historical issue film which is so much more impressive and powerful than that genre usually produces.

 6.  Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

From the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in 2013, to the one that should have one this year. Like Under The Skin, this was a film of startling originality.   Not so much in style but in the execution of a story of an ordinary family. Linklater filmed the same actors over a period of 12 years and we see the characters (like the actors) grow up before us.  There is a nice nod to Harry Potter in the early part of the film, as that franchise is surely as close as we have come hitherto to that idea (watching as we did the actors grow up with the characters in the course of the franchise).  The difference here is that it is done in one film.

However, it is not a film that is simply a gimmick. The idea could, after all, have gone spectacularly wrong.  The film also has a profound truth to it as we watch Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow up, and his estranged parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) navigate parenthood.   The film concentrates on the mundane rather than the big moments and is all the better for that.   It could I think have been as easily called motherhood, as it is the sacrifices, struggles and triumphs of Patricia Arquette’s character that are at the heart of the film.

7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)

A monochrome Poland in the communist 1960s is the setting for Pawlikowski’s incredible film about a novice nun, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), who discovers, with the aid of her Aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), that she is Jewish and the truth of her family history.

The black and white cinematography is reminiscent of the work of Sven Nykvist for Ingmar Bergman’s great 1950s and 1960s films.  The stark beauty of the cinematography contrasts with the bleakness of life then in Poland: a country denying its history of complicity with the genocide and the bankruptcy of its present as a Soviet satellite state.  This is a haunting and poetic work.

8. Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammed Rasolouf)

Iranian cinema has been rightly lauded over the past couple of decades for its allusive critique of life under religious rule.  The films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Ashgar Farhardi, Jafar Panahi, Rafi Pitts and others have made Iranian cinema perhaps the finest in the world.

For understandable reasons what Iranian cinema rarely does though is a full frontal assault on the regime.  That is what this film is.  Rasolouf is in exile in Germany but some of the film was shot in Tehran. The credits do not record the names of anyone involved.  This is for good reason.  As this is a film which shows how an authoritarian regime is able to co-opt people into doing the darkest of deeds.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn centres on two working class men employed by the Iranian state to murder a dissident, and a middle class dissident writer who is under surveillance seeking to get his manuscript out of the country for publication.  It is gripping political thriller, which takes on big issues of class and complicity as well as state repression.

9. Of Horses and Men (Benedick Erlingson)

Leftfield delight of the year, was this Icelandic portmanteau film about a rural community in Iceland and the horses at the centre of their lives.  If it sounds like a documentary it is about as far from that as can be imagined.

Strongly reminiscent of the early absurdist loser black comedies of Aki Kaurismaki, this is a film which is laugh out loud funny.  It even has a nod to The Empire Strikes Back (really).   Funny funerals, funnier deaths and the most gobsmacking opening of the year.  A cult classic is born.

10. Bastards (Claire Denis)

The ever reliable Claire Denis’ film of a man, Marco (Vincent Lindon) who can fix anything except his irreparably broken family had the most shattering end of any film of the year.  This is a study of abuse that does not turn the abusers into cartoon baddies but shows how the abused can normalise what is happening, making the cycle that much harder to break.

A Searchers like desire for rescue and vengeance as Marco channels Ethan Edwards leads only to the self-realisation of his impotence and irrelevance.

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