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.
Here it comes – we’re nearing year’s end so get ready to see list after list of top tens. Rather than fight it, I’m going with it (though I’ll only go five to save you from fatigue) – here are some of the best films I saw in 2013:
I’ve written about Mud briefly here, but definitely Mud was my favourite film of the year. It was released in 2012, but only made it to Australia in 2013, so I’m counting it. For people who think traditional film storytelling is being pummelled into submission by visual effects, a never-ending number sequels and movies based on board games, you should check this out. McConaughey is great in this.
The most tense, gripping film I’ve seen this year was Prisoners. The story was clever and compelling, forcing the viewer to question not only which character was behind the crime, but what lengths would be acceptable to obtain the answer (reminded me of the also excellent ‘Unthinkable‘ which is definitely one to check out also). Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman are so good in this movie – Jackman’s best performance ever, in my opinion (yeah, he is Wolverine, but in a dramatic sense, this is a better performance).
3. The Kings of Summer
So good. I’d read some of the buzz about this film and it definitely lives up to everything promised. As a comedy, it’s pitch perfect and the dramatic elements are weaved through, so you’re not quite sure which way it’s going till the conclusion. The lead actor, Nick Robinson, is someone we’re going to see a lot more of in future films, no doubt.
4. Captain Phillips
I only saw this recently, but it’s right up there with the best things I’ve seen for the year. Going in, I wondered whether they would be able to sustain the tension of a whole film (as this is based on a true story), and early on I had my doubts (Tom Hank’s accent seemed odd in the first scenes and the pace takes a moment to kick in), but it’s an amazingly well done film. Director Paul Greengrass knows momentum and story has become such a good film-maker. Captain Phillips continuously raised the stakes as the film moves along and Hanks gets better and better, till the final scenes, where he delivers five minutes of pure acting brilliance.
5. Monsters University
When I head Pixar were doing another ‘Monsters’ film, I thought they might be coming off the rails. ‘Brave’ was good, but not up to their usual brilliant standards and ‘Wreck it Ralph’ the same, entertaining, but just some flaws that you usually wouldn’t get from the perfectionists at Pixar (note: a reader has corrected me on this, Wreck-it-Ralph is not Pixar). The first time I saw Monsters Inc, I thought it was okay, but in subsequent viewings (I have two young kids, I’ve watched it a lot) I’ve come to really like it. Even if you stop seeing it as a Monsters film, as a college film, it’s right up there with the best. And I loved the message in the end, that life is what you make of it. Great film.