It’s been a bit of a lean year for quality cinema. Or at least, I haven’t seen a heap of great things. When I sat down to think about my top films, it was a bit of a struggle – the main couple stood out, but it was hard coming up with even five that I thought were memorable. There were a couple that were okay (‘Inherent Vice’, ‘Kingsmen’) and a few that were really bad (‘Focus’ – so bad), but I had to rack my brain to come up with a good, five deep, list of my top films. Maybe I missed something, maybe I’m not in the loop on some of the good stuff. I don’t know – what I do know is that, of what I’ve seen, these are my top films from the first half of 2015.
- Ex Machina
Really, Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ is so far out in front, it’s not even close. The story of a guy winning a competition to spend time at a brilliant, but eccentric, billionaire’s secluded mansion – which turns into something totally different – is an brilliantly executed story, and one which forces the viewer into the very moral quandaries being faced by the narrator. It reminded me of Denis Villenueve’s ‘Prisoners’ and Gregor Jordan’s ‘Unthinkable’, films that force you to question what you would do in the same situation, how you would respond. It’s smooth, methodical and compelling, keeping you held there till the last. Definitely worth checking out.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
I really don’t understand the fuss about the early Mad Max films. I’d watched them many years ago and not fully understood them, being too young to get the complexities, but they were recently re-run in a late night slot on Australian TV. And I still didn’t get them. They’re overly stylistic, there’s not a heap of story or character development. Yet, people are drawn to George Miller’s post-apocalyptic world. With all that in mind, I wasn’t expecting a heap from Fury Road – and really, there’s not a heap to it, in terms of storytelling complexity. But it’s just so good, it’s so enthralling and crazy and it just keeps coming at you. As a friend noted, it’s basically a two-hour car chase, but the fact that your heart’s still beating fast right through to the end is a pretty big endorsement for how well it’s put together. Just, madness, some of the best examples of modern special effects, tied together with a story that’s basically “we need to get from here to here”. That’s it.
I think Interstellar may have come out last year, but I definitely only caught it in 2015, so I’m counting it. I’d heard and read a bit about the film before I saw it, I’d seen debates about its scientific accuracy and such. I don’t know much about all that, but I do think that the ‘science’, within the world of the story, works well enough to pull it together. Mostly. Either way, it’s a compelling story that really draws you in as it gains momentum – and some of the emotional peaks are very well done. Similar to Nolan’s other big, non-Batman film, Inception, there are things that don’t quite fit, particularly in retrospect, but he certainly knows how to put together an entertaining film.
- The Drop
This is a lesser known one, I think, or at least, I haven’t seen many people discussing it. The Drop is about a bar tender who’s involved in organized crime money drops, one of which has gone wrong. Fingers are being pointed, threats are being communicated in non-verbal cues, while the guy at the middle of it all is just a normal guy, trying to get out without any trouble. Kind of. Tom Hardy’s better in this than he is in Mad Max, though similar role, in that he doesn’t say much, plays the quiet type (in fact, that’s him in every movie). Written by Dennis Lehane, the story rolls along at a good pace and develops the main character well. It’s a well done crime drama, above the normal, popcorn cinema type fare.
- The Jinx
Due to the aforementioned drought of good films, I’ve actually gone with a TV series in slot five. But in TV terms, The Jinx is certainly one of the most cinematic experiences you’re going to get. The Jinx tells the story of Robert Durst, a billionaire who may or may not have killed his ex-wife. And his housemate. And some other woman, and a former friend and… the list goes on. But he’s not in jail. The documentary series, which runs over six episodes, highlights the power of money over all else, how a rich man can, apparently, get away with pretty much anything. In case after head-shaking case, Durst subverts the law and goes on his way, left to his own, questionable devices, when it’s pretty clear that something’s not right. If it weren’t true, no one would believe it – it’s just too much. But it is, and it’s amazing.
Hopefully the second half of 2015 brings some better stuff our way, but these ones were good, they’ve definitely stuck with me after seeing them. And there is, of course, Star Wars on the horizon, a film which has millions of hardcore fans both stupidly excited and supremely nervous at the same time. I’m pretty sure that, at least, will be great. Probably. Hopefully.
So, there’s still a few weeks left in 2014, but I’m pretty confident that nothing mind-blowing’s going to be released in that time (I think ‘Inherent Vice’ will be good, but that’s not out till February in Australia). Given that, I’ve put together a list of my top ten films of the year. I caught some really great movies, a couple that might make my top ten of all time – but no one really cares about the intro section of a list post like this. So, here they are – my top ten films of 2014.
Enemy is so good. It didn’t get a lot of hype, and it’s not widely known, but it’s my favourite film of the year, by far. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a guy who’s bored with his life – the same routine, everyday, the same stuff. Then, while watching a movie at home, he sees a man who looks like him in the background. He searches on the internet to find out who the actor is and finds that the guy looks exactly like him. So he locates his details, calls him up. A woman answers he phone and asks him what he’s doing – she thinks it’s the other guy calling – and the film just gets weirder and weirder from there. It’s almost impossible to decipher ‘Enemy’ once the credits roll, you need time to think about it, to consider it, then you’ll start to unravel just how brilliant it really is. I can’t recommend it highly enough – the director, Denis Villeneuve, is definitely one to watch.
Under the Skin
This is one of those films that reminds me of what cinema is all about. Under the Skin starts with a man on a motorbike picking up the dead body of a woman from the roadside. He takes the body to another woman, who removes the dead woman’s clothes and puts them on, then she drives out in a large van, pulling up to ask random people on the street for directions to a freeway, then to something else, then you realise she’s not actually seeking directions at all. Under the Skin is compelling, fascinating, and visually amazing. There were scenes that hit me so hard, just based on their visual impact, scenes like nothing I’ve seen before. Jonathan Glazer, renowned for his music video work with bands like Radiohead and Massive Attack, does an amazing job with this film, and it’ll stay with you for some time after the credits.
Guardians of the Galaxy
My son is four years-old. I envy the calibre of superhero films he’s going to grow up with. Granted, I had Star Wars, which was pretty great, but it’s possible he could have that too. Comic book films have evolved so much. It started with Nolan’s Batman films, which proved that comic stories could be done in a legitimate way, that you could treat the fantasy worlds of comic books seriously and not have to make up hokey plotlines or unusual character twists. Because Nolan’s films succeeded, it paved the way for things like Iron Man and Whedon’s Avengers, which, itself, took superhero films to the next level. Along with that, studios are now looking to make big, high-impact movies that need to be experienced in a cinema to maximise return on investment – people don’t have to go watch arthouse films at the movies, they can get the same experience at home. But you can’t replicate that big screen experience for big films – and thus, we have films like ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ and now ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’. There’s so much to like about this film – everything works, all the details are correct. Even the little things – in one scene, Gamora is running at a prison guard and she jumps, and when she does, she goes just a little bit higher than what’s humanly possible. Because she’s not human – it’s those subtle details that make it Guardians so great. They don’t overdo the retro references, Chris Pratt is excellent in the lead role and nothing ever gets loose or out of synch with the internal logic of the story. And also, Groot.
I’d almost forgotten that Her was a 2014 film – I caught early on in the year. Director Spike Jonze is a true master of his craft, and Her is no exception. There’s so much depth to the film, so many layers and so much genuine feeling. It’s a film you just can’t ignore – you think a movie about a man falling in love with his computer can’t make you feel deeply? Think again. Jonze covers the subject with such passion and such delicacy that it’s a powerful love story, albeit a very unconventional one. Jonze made a short film just before working on Her which captures the same sort of feel (you can check it out here), and that too is totally worth your time. The dude is just tuned into the emotional core of his work, a central heartbeat that he’s able to communicate and share with his audience. Few directors can do so at the same level.
Another one not many would’ve heard of – it got limited coverage and was met with mixed reactions. But it’s a pretty interesting piece of cinema, and worth seeking out. Two young guys and a girl are driving across the US – the girl is moving to another state. Along the way, the guys get an e-mail from a hacker whose been harassing them for some months. They manage to track down his location, based on his IP, and it happens to be on the way, so they decide to take a detour and confront him. Then things get weird. I loved how this film switched up, almost out of no where. It’s moving along as a normal road movie, with relationship dramas and a real simple sort of feel in the cinematography, all as you’d expect, but then the special effects shots come in at random. And they’re amazing. The storyline, in the end, didn’t feel full, like it could have had more to it, but it’s definitely worth checking out, there’s some excellent twists and changes that go against what you might think.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
After the disaster that was ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’, it was great to see the franchise come back with Matthew Vaughn’s ‘X-Men: First Class’. Days of Future Past takes that to the next level by integrating the old and new casts and building one of the best comic book films I’ve ever seen. There was a heap going on in this film, and none of it felt clumsy – there was no machine to turn everyone into a mutant or a key plot point dropped in some random conversation. Basically, Days of Future Past felt like a comic book film without compromise. As noted above, I think Guardians of the Galaxy was able to pull this off slightly better, but along the same lines, in that the detail was not compromised, the creators were given freedom to make the story and worlds they needed. The Sentinels are bad-ass (like they are in the comics), the characters did cool stuff, while the bad guys remained bad, driven by their personal agendas – there was no softening or out of character turns. It’s films like these that have me excited for the possibilities of things like the new Star Wars films and the long slate of Marvel features coming out in the next few years. These films are making big money, and while that’s happening, the creative teams will get more leeway to create what they envision.
I could go on and on about Dom Hemingway – and I kind of did already, writing this post about it after watching it earlier in the year. Dom is a charming but frightening character, which, in my experience, is what many of those types of people are. I loved the first sequence in the film, where Dom gets released from prison after 12 years and immediately rushes directly into town to beat up the man who’s since married his ex-wife. Dom Hemingway does a great job at showing the balance of the fun of the character’s total disregard for… everything, whilst also reflecting the impact that sort of recklessness has on his life. Things don’t go well for Dom – while it may look like fun to be smashed at 11am and out every night with random women, there are consequences, and the ramifications of his behaviour are never too far from the surface. Dom Hemingway is reminiscent of Trainspotting, with it’s likeable no-hopers trying to get by – they’re fun to be around, but things aren’t always so free and easy. Dom Hemingway reflected this, and moved in line with what you’d imagine the actual character’s reactions would be – the emotion would be there, and you’d feel it for a moment, then he’d be off onto something else, taking the viewers along for the ride.
All is Lost
There’s, maybe, ten lines of dialogue in All is Lost. The original shooting script was, reportedly, 31 pages long. Yet, it’s a fascinating and enthralling film – it holds you in till the last. All is Lost is about a man setting out on what appears to be an around the world sailing mission, or something of that magnitude. The guy is old, and through voiceover at the start, it sounds like not everyone agreed that he should attempt it. But he sets out anyway, only to run into an jettisoned shipping container which rips a hole in the side of his boat. It floods the radio and the electrical system. He’s stuck. The film documents his ongoing struggles to stay alive in the middle of the ocean. It’s an amazing film – I always have a predisposition for films where the characters are out on their own in the middle of no-where, so it was always likely I’d enjoy this. There’s just something haunting, yet peaceful, about the whole thing. Redford, while he looks a lot different, is still a great actor.
I came across Blue Ruin almost by accident. It’s the story of a guy who, broken by the murders of his parents when he was a kid, comes back to his home town to seek revenge against the man who did it, whose just been released from prison. But there’s no Hollywood gloss to this film, no normal, ‘revenge flick’ vibe. It’s uncomfortable and difficult and highly compelling, in that you just need to see what he does next. It’s well acted and shot and takes turns you’d not expect. The ending I was not fully sold on, but it’s a great film, worth a watch, particularly as an antidote to overdone Hollywood revenge cinema. Reminded me a bit of ‘Winter’s Bone’ in it’s ‘small town cliques’ feel.
Edge of Tomorrow
I’d pretty much written Tom Cruise off. I think a lot of people have – all the weirdness and the couch jumping and the religious talk, he just got a bit too much, and I figured he was out of the game. This was reinforced with that Jack Reacher film – I saw enough of that to know I didn’t want to see any more. With that perspective, I wasn’t really interested in Edge of Tomorrow. I left it a long time before bothering to check it out on DVD, so I was pretty surprised to see how good it actually is. Directed by Doug Liman – who normally makes very good stuff – the film moves away from what you might expect and actually takes a pretty unique, original angle. Emily Blunt was excellent – though I was disappointed at the implied romance between the her and Cruise’s characters – like, why couldn’t she just be a cool female character? Why did there have to be a romantic element? The very end felt slightly off, and I’ve heard the original source material is much better overall, but this was still a great popcorn flick, and different to most others in the same vein.
And that’s my ten. I’m sure there are others I didn’t catch that are standouts. Which ones did I miss? Which were your favourites of 2014? Leave a note in the comments if you wanna criticize/contribute/question my taste and sensibilities.
I recently watched ‘Dom Hemingway’, an unusual, energetic and excellent film by writer director Richard Shepard. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it – I’d heard Jude Law’s performance was great – a cockney, over-the-top, gangster-type, like Ben Kinglsey in Sexy Beast. But the character of Dom Hemingway had much more to him than that, more than stereotypical characteristics and quotable lines. Shepard’s character had a real life to him, a real heart – definitely, Jude Law was great and this added to the character (also, no one owns male pattern baldness like Jude Law), but there was so much more to him, more than what was presented on screen. He felt larger than cinematic life, a character that demanded to exist – at times affable, other times offensive, all the time a risk, a liability unto himself. A time bomb with a blood alcohol level as a countdown. As such characters are in real life, he’s both frightening and exciting, making him fun to be around, so long as you can handle the inevitable crash.
In the first scene I wasn’t sure where it would go, an opening monologue paying tribute to his own masculine prowess. I thought it might go down the path of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Bronson‘, which I was not a fan of (while many were, I felt it rode too close to being over the top a little too often). But the scene ends perfectly, and you immediately get the title – the ill-educated but articulate street crim, hence ‘Hemingway’. The scene captures the essence of the character, the passion, the anger, the verbosity – then the charm and the carelessness that follows. I was definitely intrigued, but it was the next scene that was so great, yet so shocking – I can’t even talk about it without ruining it. It’s symbolic of the juxtaposition that underlines the whole film – yes, it’s funny, but there’s also serious consequences to being the guy who doesn’t care, who can’t keep his emotions in check. For every laugh, there’s a sorrow, and the depth of that emotion is what really brings the film into it’s own. Shepard could have made it lighter, could have played down the impacts of these moments, but he allows the viewer to dwell in them, just long enough each time, just enough to sink you beneath the water with no hope, seeing the sunlight shivering above the surface – and then we’re back, Dom moves onto the next option, taking the audience along for the next chapter of the ride (and speaking of chapters, I liked the text on screen dividers, which can sometimes fall flat or be pretentious).
The thing about Dom Hemingway is everyone wants to be him. Everyone wants to be as charming and witty and be able to say what we really think, just unleash with no consideration of the consequences. Even in the face of death, Dom still can’t resist telling it like it is, and it’s refreshing and awakening. We’d all love to be able to just let it go like Dom does and go on three day benders with no concern for our everyday lives. But we can’t. That’s why Dom exists, he’s the embodiment of that escapist streak. But to be Dom comes also with the downside, the failure, and Dom certainly feels that, over and over. In the end you just hope he’s taken in the lessons, that he’s going to stay on the level enough to remain present. But you know he won’t. And it’s heartbreaking, but beautiful at the same time. Dom Hemingway is the epitome of ‘larger than life’, the personification of rebellion and good times, and a reminder of why that lifestyle is something most of us leave behind.
It’s a complex, intelligent and thoughtful film and it’s stayed with me for days after as I’ve mentally noted the depth and the art of it. It has style, skill in it’s execution, and I can’t fault it on any level. The only criticism I have is that I wanted more – which is the probably best way to end a film about such a character. You’ll always want more Dom Hemingway, but you know, after everything, how it’s going to end. Maybe best to get off before the real tragedy starts to kick in.