Friday, 19 December 2014

My favourite films of the year, '14

There are a few films I regret leaving out. This is especially true with Frank. How could I leave out a film about an avant-garde rock band which references Captain Beefheart?! I also found it very moving. It made the point that outsider artists do not act deliberately outrageous - they are genuinely troubeled people. I regret the absence of documentaries. Errol Morris' The Unknown Known was fascinating, despite the inevitable caginess of Donald Rumsfield. Camille Claudel 1915 was an austere film on religious belief and madness - I am interested in both themes - and featured a fine performance from Juliette Binoche.

Although many of these films were released internationally in 2013, this list covers films released theatrically in the UK in 2014.

10. Calvary by John Michael McDonagh (Ireland)

Calvary is a comforting and life-affirming film about the virtues of faith in secular societies. Infused with gallows humour, it oscillates between mainstream comedy and art-house fare. Its lead character is warm, down-to-earth type who becomes a priest to get away from marital break-up and the tensions of a capitalist society. To have faith seems to invite scorn and ridicule. And, indeed, the priest is threatened with murder from the film's outset. Its only - quite major - flaw is the over-abundance of stereotypical characters.

9. The Wolf of Wall Street by Martin Scorcese (USA)

Whilst it may be a bit shallow and superficial to rank among his best films, this is certainly Scorcese's best film in a long time. It is set at the outset of the deregulation of the financial markets and 'reaganomics.' And whilst Di Caprio's character is rapaciously greedy and selfish, the film is pretty much pro-capitalist. It celebrates individualism. You could pretty much say that it has no moral core. (Scorcese, barring his gangster films, usually is quite moralistic.) But it is extremely funny whilst being lewd. He has made one of his gangster films but populated it with bankers instead. Di Caprio's hubris and fall from grace is all the more pertinent considering the number of bankers who still have not been brought to account post-2008.

8. Inside Llewlyn Davis by Coen Brothers (USA)

The Coen Brothers have been accused of repeating themselves of late and relying on the same tired formulas. But what we have in films like A Serious Man and now Inside Llewyln Davis is a subtler and more understated kind of filmmaking. No matter how much I love their earlier work, it always felt too high-octane and cartoonish. This film follows a folk singer in his peregrinations across the US. Although he is talented, he struggles to make ends meet. Set in the early 60s, it is all the more ominous considering the impact psychedelia and pop music would soon have. Folk would soon become even more irrelevant.The film follows Llewln roaming aimlessly. It has a circular quality when he ends up where he began with. The Coens once more allude to Homer's Odyssey (which they adapted in O Brother Where Art Thou).

7. Leviathan by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia)

Suffused with biblical overtones, this is a chilling study of corruption, abuse of power and clericalism in present day Russia. A family is forced to leave a spot of land after it has been claimed by the local mayor. Putin is a ubiquitous presence, as he hangs over the walls of politicians. Whilst the film does celebrate the religious impulse on a more personal level - it provides a sense of meaning for characters despite the bleakness of what they go through - the film is staunchly anti-clerical. The orthodox priest drives the politicians to do nefarious things. The film also alludes to Hobbes (whose most famous book is called Leviathan) in the way in which citizens lose their freedom once they have signed up to a social contract. Indeed, the characters are powerless and at the mercy of Russia's repressive political bureaucracy. There are also several lovely shots of the sea and hill-tops.

6. Maps to the Stars by David Cronenberg (Canada/USA)

Maps to the Stars is a brilliant critique on the narcissism and self-absorption of Hollywood. Instead of the parasites that feature in his horror films, here the characters are psychologically plagued by their own DNA. Hollwood is an insular place where the same people meet and the same people procreate. They are vain, neurotic and eager for nothing other than fame. Hollywood is an incestual microcosm which keeps perpetuating itself. Cronenberg hasn't merely made a film that tangentially addresses incest, he has made a film about incest. He takes a detached, scientific approach where he dissects the vicissitudes of incest and psychosis. As a result, he does not shy away from anything. This is exciting as he has not made a film as visceral as this in a long time. The film, of course, is also a satire on the cynical machinations of Hollywood.

5. Mr. Turner by Mike Leigh (UK)

This is a delightful film. It's always been said that a life of Turner would never make a good film because it was so uneventful. Leigh is a master at that kind of thing. It is mundane and quotidian, but the essence of his creative process and his idiosyncrasies are evoked wonderfully. It is set in the last years of his life when he was accused of making 'bad' art. As with all Leigh films, there is no script but the dialogue is improvised and rigorously rehearsed accordingly. The language is straight from a 19th century novel - it is very rich. It is also very funny and playful. One of the most mesmerising things about the film is the way Leigh frames landscapes as if they were one of Turner's paintings.

4. Under the Skin by Jonathan Glazer (UK)

The greatest thing about this film is its point of view and its defamiliarisation. It is from the perspective of an alien. The film does this with cinematic, not literary, language. It achieves through its framing and the use of sound (it has a brilliant dissonant soundtrack). It is ambiguous and strange. Parallels could be made with 2001. Yet, despite this, it also has a documentary feel. Surprisingly, some of the scenes really took place. Scarlett Johansan really drove past Glasgow, picked up guys and offered sex. As you watch those scenes, they really do seem authentic. It is a science fiction film set in the here and now - as such, it is very Ballardian.

3. Nymphomaniac by Lars von Trier (International co-production)

This film, being four hours long and divided in two parts, can seem like hard work. It is also obscure and sexually graphic. (So, it's not for 'philistines' or for anyone prudish it seems...) I have always being fascinated by books and films which are both cerebral and sexual. This is why I love the work of both Georges Bataille and J. G. Ballard as well as the filmography of David Cronenberg. The Gainsbourg, the nymphomaniac, character divulges her experiences to a bookish type. As she does this, her host incongruously makes connections to what he has read. (Her sexual experiences lead to huge sprawling digressions on Bach/counterpoint, fly fishing, Edgar Allan Poe and mountaineering.) As such, because of its temporal breadth, watching this film feels more like reading a novel. I really found the reaction from most critics lame. They were disappointed because they didn't find it 'shocking' enough. What did they expect? Porn?

2. Twelve Years a Slave by Steve McQueen (USA)

This film is high up this list because it is so emotionally stirring and harrowing. Shockingly, it is the first ever film made about the slavery of black people in 19th century USA. McQueen, by providing an endless onslaught of violent and disturbing images, makes you empathise. As such, the film is a resounding success. The film is still slightly problematic. By focusing on the plight of an upper-class, educated black man it might be suggesting that his particular experience is more precious than the experience of millions of other slaves. It might be questioned whether the at times gratuitous violence really is needed to elicit this 'empathy.' (Instead of a more understated, distanced approach.) Still, this is an overwhelming film - with both rich dialogue and ravishing images - and should be mandatory viewing.

1. Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski  (Poland)

Ida is a film which depicts the endurance of faith. A seventeen-year-old orphan, about to become a nun, discovers that she is Jewish. She then meets her aunt - a Stalinist with blood on her hands - to track down the remains of her butchered parents. The eponymous character has the opportunity to take on a bourgeois lifestyle and get married. Instead, she to return to a convent. The film austerely emphasises the sacred and the transcendent in a secular society. It has the deft pacing and masterly cinematographic framing of space of Bresson and Dreyer. It charts the way an ascetic woman discover love, music and loss and, once she has done so, returns to her hermitage to lead a more enriched life.

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