Opinions, everyone has ‘em. Except you, because you didn’t watch the bloody film. Fortunately, you read this list, so you can borrow mine. Ranked from Worst to Best, here’s a mini-review of every film I saw this year. With the occasional joke you won’t laugh at. Fuckers. So whether you’re trying to chat up a cute film nerd girl/guy or just…actually, that’s pretty much the only reason you’d need this. Just use protection. Especially if they defend The Amazing Spiderman 2. You don’t want crazy babies running around this time next year.
- Don’t Blink
Somehow managing to slip in beneath The Amazing Spiderman 2, Don’t Blink is my worst film of the year, a case study in sloppily executed horror. When your film’s starring Brian Austin Greene and Mena Suvari I don’t hold out much hope anyway, but something really went wrong here, especially considering that the production quality is at least sci-fi channel grade. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the premise itself is interesting. A group of friends take a vacation to an isolated ski resort but when they arrive the resort is empty, with no clue as to what happened to the residents. The fuel pumps aren’t working, cell phone coverage is down and all the animals have vanished. And just to confirm that some bad evil shit is afoot, members of the group itself start to disappear, in increasingly impossible circumstances. From here, we at least have the setup for a taut mystery with psychological elements. Unfortunately, the film’s promise vanishes in the same way as its characters. It’s very meta of course, but no fun to watch. The writers pick up on the potential for existential dread in the scenario but the script is rotten in a number of key spots. The characters are undersold, having little more to offer than petty whining, jokes about pissing in water bottles and possibly the most tame game of strip poker ever committed to film. The couples’ retreat setup, with its slight potential for a more interesting dynamic than the typical teen slasher, turns out to be a bait and switch. The age of the characters is very rarely utilised to add anything more to the script, and often leads to reality within the film just breaking, as our motley crew continue to act like rejected applicants for the campout at Camp Crystal Lake. Similarly, the mystery film setup never leads everywhere. This is all the more disappointing for the fact that early in the film we are fed enough clues to believe that something interesting might lie behind the veil, but these elements are neglected more as the film progresses, dropped in favour of increasingly disappointing character turns. The ugliest comes in the form of the character who decides that since he’s going to vanish anyway, he might as well go crazy, grab a gun and threaten to “rape the vegetable” when a fellow tourist suffers a psychotic break. It’s already difficult enough to swallow this charmer’s character turn, but it’s obvious that the writers are so desperate to inject some tension into the flagging script that they had to resort to inserting “random asshole with a gun” into the mix to drag the movie towards the finish line. To be fair, an attempt is made to justify this with the character’s vague ramblings, but whether it’s the script or the delivery, the vegetable enthusiast might have been more interesting if he’d skipped out on the wooden philosophizing. In any case, he pulls himself out of the film by putting the gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. No, I wasn’t shocked, but I was relieved the shitshow was almost over. The director may as well have written “deus ex machina” in the blood sprayed across the wall at this point, as nobody’s buying the plot point as anything else. The film finally limps to its hugely underwhelming conclusion, but even clocking in at just over an hour and a half, it’s too damn late. There’s plenty more wrong, but I only have so much time to dedicate. Worse than sucking a hobo’s scabby dick.
- The Amazing Spiderman 2
Too many villains? Check. Too many plot threads? Check. Poorly executed subplot where Spidey and his love interest are pulled apart to provide the sense of his life falling apart? Check. But enough about Spiderman 3, let’s move on to this year’s instalment, which is actually worse. This is a considerable achievement when Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone lead your cast, but it’s executed with the flair of a studio which not only forgets its mistakes, but is willing to plumb the depths even further. Featuring a huge sequel hook ending, sins of the father plotlines and ensuring that every single villain is of the main character’s creation, Spiderman 2 laughs at the idea of not making coincidences huge plot points and hangs the whole edifice upon them. Seriously, this makes the crane scene in Spiderman look smart. Sorry, the crane scene in The Amazing Spiderman. Screw it. Sony doesn’t keep track of which film is which. I shouldn’t have to either.
There’s a surprising amount to recommend this one. Jeff Fahey just has to show up to play an ornery ol’ man and his acting chops on top of that make him a pleasure to watch. The atmosphere of the coal mine is dirty and claustrophobic to the point where this film may actually give you the black lung. The rest of the cast do their jobs adequately and production quality is inoffensive. Most of what’s wrong with the film lies at script level. From thematic ideas that go nowhere (especially the irresponsibility of the coal mining industry, which is hinted at early and never given the promised attention), to character arcs that do the same (we get the sense of a conflict in the father-daughter relationship that is never adequately explored) and the poor unfortunate plot caught in between (Daddy’s lung problems are never of particular consequence, they just amplify the tension), the film gives the sense of either being undercooked or having let too many cooks get their grubby hands it. Add this to an unfortunate ending which is both much too heavily telegraphed and lacking the necessary closure, and the good qualities just cannot outweigh the sloppy mistakes that should have been fixed on the page.
- [REC] 4
Not as bad as [REC] 3, not half as good as [REC] 2 and incapable of touching the magnificence of [REC] itself. This stiff sequel feels custom made to languish in bargain bins and late night movie slots of cheaper channels forevermore (An improvement over [REC] 3, which seemed destined for dumpsters). I’m going to blame this disappointment on an unusual source. It’s the setting. [REC] and [REC] 2 had a magnificent setting in the apartment block. The isolation of the characters was achieved through the quarantine of the entire building and one shot up through the stairwell told you everything you ever needed to know about the geography of the location. Add this to the found footage aesthetic, which, though much maligned, is very effective at creating tension in confined spaces, and you had a film that would leave you with your girl/boyfriend’s nail marks indelibly printed on your arm. Without the first person perspective, we have a second rate zombie film, a problem worsened by the ship setting, which achieves the isolation perfectly but has too many sturdy steel doors and soldiers (with guns no less) to achieve the necessary tension. The script’s perfectly up to snuff for a containment horror, nobody cheaped out on cameras or effects, and I’m surprised by how much the return of Manuela Valesco escalated things in the acting department. Still, a disappointment, and should be avoided. Now if only I could unwatch the third one.
- The Signal
I am so sorry, so very very sorry to every other film I accused of being incoherent this year. The signal feels like someone stitched a bad road trip horror with found footage elements to a poor one man against the system illegal imprisonment thriller and then, not quite satisfied with the monstrosity they had brought forth, bolted on thirty minutes of poor David Lynch imitation. Oh, and there’s sci-fi in there too. What the hell did I just watch? Is that all there is? Why do I feel like someone just stole my lolly? It can be visually arresting at times, and it’s tough to fault a film for ambition. However, the payoff feels silly rather than profound and the puzzle elements just aren’t compelling enough. The Signal feels less like a philosopher educating you, and more like a hobo yelling at you.
- Willow Creek
It’s fun at times, the leads are perfectly cast and there are gorgeous shots of the backwoods setting. Unfortunately, it’s billed as a horror film and around an hour in the scariest things the film had thrown at me were two grumpy rednecks and a joke about Bigfoot’s dick. Once the horror does get rolling it has its redemptive elements. During one especially long take with minimal dialogue the lead couple absolutely nail it, and the design of this creature feature’s monster is surprisingly cool (though, fair warning, you will see it for about a half second). I was impatient during the build-up, more due to my expectations of the film as a horror than awful execution and while I question weighting the film’s running time so heavily in favour of the mockumentary it is charming in its own way. An acquired taste, just one I happen not to have acquired.
- The Houses October Built
From jokes about Bigfoot’s dick to jokes about clown dicks, the Freud is strong in this year’s lower tier found footage films. The Houses October Built has none of Willow Creek’s charm but makes up for it in spades with its own brand of mockumentary scares, which are much more evenly spaced and solidly tiered to create a perfectly paced stepladder of fear, leading down into clown-filled darkness. The scares are also well-constructed, often relying on tension rather than jump-scares, and themed around the idea of being so helplessly outnumbered that the many predators can have you any time they please. Further, mock interviews with ghost house staff explore just how far is too far and how it can be impossible to tell when the pantomime ends and true danger begins, giving the story an interesting thematic undercurrent. The only thing that holds the film at this end of the list, and it’s important, is the character design. Whiny, ineffectual and ultimately dumb as a pair of clown shoes, the classic horror urge to make us feel that these people deserve what’s coming to them on some level is served too well here. It’s a shame that a film that has so much going on for it elsewhere had me rooting for the spooky clowns at the end. Nonetheless, worth a viewing as an educational piece for aspiring horror filmmakers, as what it accomplishes with the tools available to it is quite impressive.
- The Quiet Ones
I’m going to be honest here. I had to look up The Quiet Ones to remember how it ended, always a worrying sign. This is a pity as the performances, especially from Jared Harris and Olivia Cooke, are a step above the average “save the possessed girl” horror film’s level and the production quality is comfortingly high. The scary scenes are fresh enough to be interesting and the script’s even willing to have some fun with the notion of possession. Unfortunately, this is the only fun thing about the script, which drags us through increasingly low-impact plot twists, their power stripped away by increasing dissociation from the flat lifeless characters. It’s tough to blame anyone but the writer to be honest, as the visual execution is solid, but this film was probably doomed before the cameras started rolling.
- The Taking of Deborah Logan
The next addition to our “Not another bloody possession story” film list is actually an interesting take on the idea. A documentary crew following the path of one woman’s struggle against Alzheimer’s begins to wonder if something else is going on as increasingly unnerving incidents are happening around their subject. Jill Larson is suitably vulnerable as the genteel lady whose dignity is being increasingly stripped away by the disease, and whatever else has invaded her body with it. The film’s disappointing nature comes for the most part from the fact that most of the scares lack the desired effect, but it does have one of my favourite shots of the year in its later stages, when they find Deborah doing something her best snake impression. For the most part this film is just too low impact to be memorable as a horror, however.
Helmed by Jose Padilha, of Elite Squad 1 and 2, I had high hopes for this one, which proved to be completely unjustified upon seeing the film. A parade of recycled special effects, caricatures masquerading as characters and a bulletproof protagonist who drains all tension out of the film’s action scenes, not even Gary Oldman and Samuel L. Jackson can salvage this ill-advised remake. Especially since Oldman seems to be in “show up, receive pay check” mode. I can’t blame him. Stick with the gloriously silly original, and avoid this homogenised bullshit. Hopefully in a few years all copies will have been destroyed and we can pretend this never happened. Although if we do, they might try another bloody reboot. See, this is why we can’t have nice things.
Fun facts I learned when watching Noah: the titular character invented both kung-fu and the phrase “I ain’t raising no babies.” It’s little jibes like this that kept me going through Noah, a joyless two hour snore fest without any of Aronofsky’s usual cheeky flair that makes his films so watchable. The story feels like the result of the studio’s screenwriter of choice gazing out the window and wondering “just how big of an asshole can we make our main character and still get away with it.” Well boys, you’re going to need a smaller asshole. Even the return of the hip-hop montage and giant fucking rock monsters can’t save the film when it’s this disinteresting. It’s simultaneously dryly literal and jarring in the Hollywood-injected changes to the story. I always find it tough to criticise ambition, but if this is where ambition takes Paramount they need to stick to pumping out Transformers sequels. Speaking of which…
The fourth instalment of Michael Bay’s giant robot jack-off fantasy dropped this year, and actually exhibited something approaching growth. The action was more coherent, Kelsey Grammer and Titus Welliver did solid villain impressions with the absolutely ridiculous material they had to work with and Mark Wahlberg’s character is a million times less annoying than Shia Labeouf’s slacker nerd. As for eye candy, Nicola Peltz’s character is a looker, deepening my love of shorts that aren’t long enough to cover the pockets, even if she lacks Megan Fox’s my-dick-is-having-a-heart-attack levels of hotness. Bay includes fan service for the ladies and dudes who like dudes in franchise newcomer Jack Reynor (playing a leather jacket wearing rally driver, sorry Wahlberg fans) whose Irish accent, chiselled good looks and ability to liquefy panties at five to ten feet make for a tasty piece of man candy. Similarly, the film’s wide shots can be legitimately breath-taking and at no point does it look like the camera is going to be driven straight up anyone’s asshole. The plot’s still entirely built of bullshit and there’s an infuriating amount of “let’s hump the camera from behind” shots but this is the best Transformers has been since the first instalment, which remains entirely watchable when drunk. Also, the film performed much better abroad than domestically, backing up my theory that Transformers films are immeasurably improved when you can’t understand the crap spewing out of the actors’ mouths. Not a triumph, but definitely much less of a cinematic abortion than the previous two.
Afflicted was a frustrating film for me to watch. Having to plod through the whole found-footage sequence where the film justifies the fact that the characters are filming for the millionth time this year, and dealing with another batch of unbearably stupid characters soured me on the whole film before it really got started but hidden amongst the unwatchable drivel was one of the cooler takes on the vampire myth I’d seen recently. This is vampires by way of Chronicle, a pair of childhood friends discovering the powers and then proceeding to use them the way frat boys would. The sequence in which they go to increasingly desperate lengths for blood is glorious, as are some of the later action scenes where the filmmakers have some real fun with the concept (and the special effects budget). Added to that, the reason the character was turned in the first place is revealed late in the game and it recontextualises some of the film’s earlier scenes in a way that’s thought-provoking thematically. The writers are not idiots. However, the characters they write are, and it scars the film too deeply to enjoy, despite all its potential.
- Hide and Seek
South Korea’s been exporting quality films recently, the dual might of Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho pressing Western countries to poach from their talent pool often. Hide and Seek might not work perfectly, but it does prove that the pool is deep enough it won’t be depleted unless Hollywood airlifts the entire country east to make Transformers 5. The film looks fine, although at times the aesthetic is a little too clean cut for the sort of tense atmosphere it seems to be attempting. The acting is more than adequate, even if nothing special. The script has the requisite amount of twists needed to support a thriller and they’re all reasonably fresh. The problem with Hide and Seek is that it’s good rather than great. Everything is executed well, but at no point did I feel impressed. Still, if Park Chan-Wook never makes another film there, at least they’ll have adequate filmmakers taking his place.
From one adequate film to another. Gareth Edwards (who directed the delightfully strange Monsters) directing a special effects blockbuster seemed like a marriage made in Kaiju heaven. And indeed, whenever the big beast is on screen, Godzilla looks absolutely terrific. Unfortunately, even with the cast of heavyweights assembled in front of the camera, the story fails to deliver, the plot moving slowly in the direction it needs to go with the meandering pace of a dogma film. Subplots meant to hold the emotional core of the story go nowhere fast and too many plot points hinge on coincidence for the film to be taken seriously. Visually exciting (Gojira himself kicks all kinds of ass), but too often dull (never have soldiers bored me so much), a spit-shine on the script could do wonders for the upcoming sequel.
- The Double
The Double is a big ol’ wet blanket of a film, the sort of thinking man’s film that might actually be interesting if Fight Club hadn’t already been released. It’s got a sad sack plot that feels ripped from a rejected Kaufman script, a deliberately obscure setting and characters that are dour by design. It’s a mild intellectual distraction and Eisenberg and Wasikowska deliver the four star performances you’d expect of them but Norton and Pitt did it better. An unfair comparison perhaps, but when your film treads the exact same ground of alienation, identity crises and the world’s most boring offices, it’s inevitable, and the Double just isn’t up to the task.
From now on I really hope, nay, demand that every film containing Karen Gillan has at least one walking scene shot from directly behind her ponytail. Seriously, that thing has a life of its own. Oculus was surprisingly adept for a film produced by WWE Studios: it’s well-produced, pleasingly original and its concept wallpapers over any plot holes (even if its characters make some jaw-droppingly dumb decisions, the mirror obviously mad them do it.) The film’s particular brand of horror is focused for the most part on tension and gore rather than jump scares and even elicits winces in one particular scene involving a light-bulb. Unfortunately, reality and illusion are mixed too much, taking the audience from the point where we don’t know which is which to the point where we just don’t care. This isn’t helped by the fact that the script’s plot points are often emotionally incoherent, further sapping any investment in the film by destroying any potential attachment to the characters. The film continues to degenerate, ending on a completely limp climax, where we are most definitely faced with reality, but which feels like it has been coming for thirty minutes. Not without its merits, but impossible to recommend.
- The Sacrament
Ti West’s latest feels like a more competently executed version of Willow Creek. A bigger budget and tenser set-up works wonders for the mockumentary horror, especially given the heavy references to the Jonestown massacre. From the start the film teases us with the sinister undercurrents that will later dominate the tone, but the plot is skilfully woven around the idea of a cult induction, the characters experiencing the more palatable elements of the commune before the true horror of the situation they’ve embroiled themselves in becomes apparent. Similarly, creepier elements of the cult lifestyle are often only hinted at, a refreshing approach in a year where many films seemed determined to slap us in the face with every little point four or five times. The leads are pitch-perfect. Gene Jones is fantastic, portraying the cult leader “Father” in a way that avoids cliché and hamminess while still being dramatically compelling and sinister. The documentary setup implicitly carries the reason for the filming, managing not to belabour the point unlike many films this year, letting The Sacrament use very high production values without looking too good for the circumstances implied in the script. It’s easily the best looking found footage film this year. The tonal shift in the third act is a little too extreme and I still question the viability of horror-documentaries which are weighted so heavily in favour of documentary, but this is an admirable effort with plenty to enjoy.
Fury is a solid addition to the pantheon of war films, starring Brad Pitt as the Captain Ahab of tank commanders, leading his men on an increasingly suicidal drive into the remaining Nazi resistance, blinded to everything but ending the war. Surrounded by a tank crew who have been so twisted by the war they are little more than bipedal killing machines, he is jarred back to reality briefly by the newest addition to his tank crew, a typist with no battle experience, who is suddenly expected to shoot men without hesitation, or put the lives of the entire crew at risk. Fury is an examination of what soldiers leave behind in order to become effective murderers, and an intellectual step up from the typical, gung-ho, us against the Nazis fare. Unfortunately, in its effort to establish an atmosphere of unrelenting grimness it pushes some characters too far, jumping from the believable idea of a hollowed-out man to the reality-breaking asshole who is an asshole (because he’s an asshole).Mistakes like this make the film difficult to take seriously, and despite its ambition and execution, it fumbles the ball and ends up falling short of where its potential clearly lay. Worth watching, but will disappoint you eventually.
Why is it that Scarlett Johansson has her most impressive year ever when she’s constantly playing emotionally blank killer ladies? This is exactly the sort of question Lucy won’t let you ask, instead constantly distracting you with the shiny new action scene before you can start thinking about how mind-numbingly stupid the film is on every level. The science doesn’t work and any tension that should exist in the film is drained out by the fact that our protagonist is basically Neo from the Matrix, if the agents didn’t exist to provide fair opposition. However, despite this, the film actually works. At least for me. And that’s all down to Johansson. It turns out she’s the female Clint Eastwood, in that it’s an absolute blast to watch her brush aside gun-wielding thugs like they’re nothing, speed the wrong way down a busy street and always be the smartest character in the room. It’s the same sort of charm she employs as Black Widow in the Marvel films, a combination of a knowing smirk and cocksure eye contact, along with an icy calm in how she portrays her character dealing with everything. Helped by Luc Besson’s technically flawless approach to rapid-fire action movies and a cracking villain turn from magnetic South Korean actor Choi Min-Sik (It’s nice to see Oh Dae-su getting introduced to a western audience. That Josh Brolin thing doesn’t count.), Lucy punches well above its weight, a tremendously entertaining piece of fluff.
- Starry Eyes
Satan loves blowjobs so much he will get your mouth pregnant. Or give you herpes. Starry Eyes made it kind of tricky to tell the difference. A body horror flick that’s by turns fun and disturbing, the film is an examination of those the Hollywood dream machine exploits and spit out, those whose reach exceeds their grasp. Surrounded by a gang of not-so-loveable losers who are ignored by the machine (and dealing with the rejection with varying degrees of bitterness and bitchiness), our heroine is a struggling actress with a penchant for self-harm, convinced she’s finally found her big break. However, as she comes closer to landing that big part the auditions process becomes more sinister, and she is forced to question how much of herself she is willing to give up in pursuit of her dream. And there’s plenty of horror and Satan blowjob action in there, I promise. The film’s central premise, that the part of us that drives us to pursue our dreams might just be the worst part of us, is approached from an original angle and the body horror has plenty of teeth when it’s time to get bloody. A fun way to satisfy that horror craving.
- Late Phases
We’ve had over one hundred years of cinema now, and still the monsters that populate the cinescape continue to ignore the most important lesson, one we’ve been taught time and time again. Never fuck with the main character’s dog. Especially not when the main character is a badass on the level of Ambrose (portrayed by Nick Damici, in a cracking performance), a blind veteran whose Seeing Eye dog is the one living being in the world he doesn’t hold at arm’s length with his cantankerousness. So when the dog dies defending Ambrose against the local werewolf, we have a good idea what’s going to happen. That fuzzy asshole is going down. But along the way there’s time for plenty of shenanigans, like finding an outsized gravestone for the dog, buying a gun (I did mention Ambrose is blind, right?) and scaring the shit out of all the locals in his new retirement community. The film wrings every drop of humour and heart out of these scenes and is actually at its weakest when the monsters show up, an issue since the pacing of the film is designed to be building towards these confrontations. Nonetheless, the strength of the drama and comedy pulls the film above mediocrity, resulting in a compelling and very welcome entry to the werewolf genre.
- As Above, So Below
It strikes me as I get to the better horror films on this year’s list that most of them are here by virtue of their non-horror elements, rather than an especially powerful ability to make me piss myself. As Above, So below, for instance is horror spliced with an Indiana Jones quest for an ancient relic Fortunately the two halves meld together perfectly. The quest for the relic gives the characters adequate motivation to keep plunging deeper into the Parisian catacombs despite the increasing sense of peril that accompanies the descent and the rich plethora of increasingly outlandish horrors the team experience only make the relic seem more desirable. Fuck it. I’m tired of saying relic. It’s the Philosopher’s Stone. Anyway, moving on, the atmosphere is claustrophobic without resorting to keeping the camera jammed in everyone’s face, and the mixture of modern and medieval imagery in the scares creates a really unique sense of strangeness. The characters are interesting enough to encourage commitment, and it seems a goal of the script and casting to make sure they can be seen as humans rather than bland audience avatars. One of the tighter horror films released this year. Oh, and it’s found footage. Which didn’t get in the way once. Take notes, directors, this is how it should be done.
- The Den
The Den is probably the most traditionally appealing horror film I saw this year, no small feat given that it’s based around what at first seems like a giant gimmick. Every bit of action takes place on a laptop screen, and the characters are viewed through their webcams. While we are wandering through interesting thematic territory, that the information we post online can so easily be used to hurt us, the film is driven by what is at its core a traditional horror plot. A lone woman is harassed by a stranger who takes increasing control of her life and begins to isolate her from her friends and colleagues. In this case the stranger accomplishes the majority of this through the internet, manipulating the protagonist, watching her through her webcam, reading her e-mails and using them to find her friends. It’s all neatly presented on the screen, very easy to follow and the premise is never used as an excuse for sloppy camerawork. The script makes neat work of keeping the dialogue reasonably true to real life and has enough oomph to keep viewers’ attention away from their own laptop screens. The acting follows this approach as well, simultaneously earnest and compelling. The net result of all this is that there’s genuine tension as the main character’s life falls deeper into disrepair, and ultimately mortal peril. It reminds me a lot of a light version of French horror flick Martyrs in some of the later imagery and scenes, with a slight social networking twist. Required watching for slasher fans this year.
- Maps to the Stars
If Mulholland Drive was David Lynch’s poison pen letter to Hollywood then Maps To The Stars is David Cronenberg’s. The production quality feels oddly cheap here, but then it wouldn’t surprise me if there was trouble finding funding for a script like this. On the acting front, Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore chew scenery as an incest survivor and a girl with dreams of incest respectively, and in case that got you wondering, yes, the script contains Kiss X Sis levels of wanting to bang your attractive siblings. This is Cronenberg at his most obscure, with plenty of room for interpretation and characters acting like future asylum residents on a regular basis. However, the Tinsel town setting gives the kooks a lot more dramatic credence than they would otherwise enjoy, and it’ll provide plenty of food for thought once you leave the cinema, almost demanding repeated viewings. Not especially riveting, but a very nice puzzle film.
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
First off, in case you were worried, this isn’t Robocop. Gary Oldman actually gets to do some acting in this one. And there’s no need to worry about the other thing either. This film isn’t its predecessor. Gone are the occasionally immersion-breaking CGI, Lucius Malfoy’s ridiculous caricature of a cruel ape-wrangler and big bright shiny action set-pieces on the Golden Gate Bridge. In their place are photo-realistic apes, Jason Clarke proving he has the charisma to be a leading man, and a strangely satisfying layer of decay and dirt covering every visible surface. The post-apocalyptic feel of the setting is vital to the whole enterprise. If we can’t buy that humanity has fallen, then we won’t get a true sense of danger, and the film as a whole will fall flat. But this domino falls as planned, followed by acting (including Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Cesar, the ape leader), script and production to give a surprisingly solid action film. The imagery is perfectly chosen to captivate. Apes with guns and horses? Humans in cages? The filmmakers explore every avenue of showing the role reversal successfully and the action scenes are of epic scale without the characters ever feeling lost within them. A well-executed popcorn film with a hint of soul.
- How to Train Your Dragon 2
Kids’ films suck. You know it. I know it. Throwing in a DVD to keep them quiet while daddy deals with his hangover is all well and good, but then you actually have to watch the damn thing. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when one of them turns out to be more entertaining than a monkey knife fight. Enter How to Train Your Dragon 2, stage left. Unfortunately, at this point in the review I hit the impasse of explaining why it works and that’s a problem, because defending kids’ films isn’t in my job description. So let’s see if I can get through the entire review without using the phrase “It’s just good.” First off, the premise is more engaging than most. While most kids films involve….I don’t know, fairy dust or talking animals or some shit, the central premise of how to Train Your Dragon is a young Viking dealing with growing up under the burden of having to succeed his father as chief, and becoming his own man. With Dragons. The animation’s amazing. Toothless the dragon continues to be the cutest thing you’re likely to see in animation this year, unless someone finally makes my script about a puppy that barks rainbows. The vocal performances are spot on, and the film’s got plenty of room for laughs and smiles regardless of your age. It isn’t afraid to kill to get the job done and the script dovetails into a superb ending that neatly ties the previous couple of hours together. And to add to that…actually, you know what, I can’t do this. It’s just good. Really bloody good. Now let’s get back to the films where I know what I’m talking about. I don’t even have fucking kids.
- Cold In July
From films for the kids to films you keep away from your kids, Cold in July is a satisfying noir thriller that succeeds by relentlessly toying with the viewer’s expectations. Beginning as Cape Fear, the setup about a man whose family is being stalked by a psychopath is turned on its head about half an hour in, plunging the plot into much more interesting and thought-provoking territory. A combination of Odd Couple comedy, vengeful road trip movie and tale of a man learning what being a man really means, the film explores the darker edges of morality…tantalisingly weighing evils against each other and finding situations where the wrong choice is the one that must be made. Michael C. Hall gives a solid lead performance, finding both the humour and heart in his portrayal of a soft-hearted family man in over his head. Sam Shepard and Don Johnson ground the noir tone of the whole piece as two old men bound by a willingness to do what must be done with their own hands, rather than wait for the law to catch up with reality. One’s a grumpy ol’ bastard, one’s a smooth talking private eye, but both have the eyes of men who have seen so much that nothing can faze them anymore. Nick Damici anchors the tone in the film’s opening act, playing matter of fact police officer Ray Price with the same world-weary energy. The film drags itself hand over hand to its grim conclusion, but is always compelling, a well-constructed noir piece that won’t rattle any cages (especially ones filled with Oscars), but is still a good few steps above genre average and worth watching.
Okay South Korea, you’re just showing off at this point. Showcasing two of my favourite talents, Director Bong Joon-Ho of The Host alongside frequent Park Chan-Wook collaborator and scenery chewer Song Kang-Ho in their first English language film, Snowpiercer is a well-realised, muscular sci-fi that deserved much, much more attention that its lack of fanfare at release would have you believe. Set in yet another dystopian future, this particular grim vision involves a contingency where Earth has cooled so much that the only humans left alive are confined to a train perpetually circumnavigating the globe. The cast is superb. Chris Evans drips with that Captain-America charisma as the man who leads the train’s second class citizens to rebel, John Hurt and Edward Harris provide suitable gravitas as leaders of the train’s proletariat and aristocracy respectively and Song Kang-Ho’s kooky charm is as rich as ever. However, even with all that talent working at full steam, it’s Tilda Swinton who steals the show. Once again showcasing her almost supernatural talent for making bizarre characters both believable and magnetic, she owns the screen as the train’s second in command. Taking pleasure in watching violence, showing contempt for her charges and absolutely divorced from ugly reality, Swinton and the script combine to construct a character that I loved every minute I spent hating. Moving on to the film’s other aspects, the production design is spot on (in particular, the protein bars the passengers at the tail end of the train eat may cause your stomach to stage a rebellion of its own). The cinematography and choreography combine for some mesmerising action sequences and when the film slows down the strength of the performances carries it through. The ending veers a little too much into the fantastic for my taste, but given everything else the film has on offer, it’s nowhere near enough to derail the fun. Spectacular.
- In Fear
Horror films that deconstruct the genre walk a shaky line. Too much scalpel and you ruin your film for most of its audience (hence the mass derision for Funny Games, despite it being a lot of fun). Too much chainsaw and you’re just making another silly slasher. And let’s not even talk about the films that think they’re smarter than they are (Scary Movie springs to mind as a film that misses the point on every level, though that wasn’t so much deconstructing the genre as making bad dick jokes at it). So where does In Fear lie? Happily, it maintains the balance, proving reasonably intelligent while still packing enough atmospheric terror to ruin the boxer shorts of the uninitiated (briefs are ruined just by being briefs). In the acting department, Iain De Caestecker and Alice Englert prove perfectly capable of carrying the film’s minimalistic setting of a couple lost in a car on increasingly dark and ominous Irish roads. However, they are upstaged by Allen Leech as creepy hitchhiker Max, who, whether through charisma or because he’s given all the good lines, steals every scene he shows up in. The cinematography is very well done, finding fear in the ordinary, like a gnarled tree spread against the sky or a scarecrow against the….well, sky. Okay, so a lot of it’s turning everyday items into shadow puppets, but it’s still a well-executed way of upping the tension visually. The plot takes a while to escalate and has the occasional hole, but has one of my favourite big villains this year, a killer who practises a form of murderous aikido, leading his victims to condemn themselves. The film also contains a superb death scene, creating the nexus of the film where plot and theme come together in one wonderful moment. I can’t recommend In Fear highly enough to horror fans.
- The Lego Movie
Okay, here we go, another kids’ film. Maybe if I believe hard enough I can get through this review. It doesn’t even have the good decency to be a brick so I can slate it. Alright enough with the nauseating banter. Time to get this over with. The Lego movie shouldn’t have worked. In Hollywood’s desperate fumble through the closets for any property with a fan base they hadn’t already thoroughly pissed off (Fans of Tomb Raider, Catwoman or H.G.Wells still regularly self-immolate on studio tours) they stumbled across that box of bricks that had been hanging out back there since they were kids. And then, perhaps remembering the childlike joy of the time Dad left them have their first sniff of cocaine, they made the kids’ movie of the year. Oh fine, I’ve only watched two. But what’s going to knock this off the pedestal? Fucking Night at the Museum 3? In any case Hollywood did right by us in The Lego Movie. Following the simplest of filmmaking rules, like “narrator growth” and “always include Morgan Freeman” is a nice start, but it goes beyond that. In an odd way, what makes the film great is what made Lego great in the first place. Freedom to create. You want to throw Batman in the film with Shaquille O’Neal. Go right ahead. You can build whatever you want. If you want to throw a joke in the film, you can build the context to make it work. And so we have an incredibly self-obsessed Batman provide some of the film’s biggest laughs, topped only by somebody finally being ready when Shaq asks “Y’all ready for this?” The writers went wild, the story mostly works, and the sense of fun wallpapers over the parts where the plot falls short. Also, it’s pretty and sounds good and if we had smellovision it’d probably smell of sexy perfume and strawberry shampoo (I love that crap. It’d probably even taste of fruity lip balm). Great work boys. Everything IS awesome. Even your movie.
- 22 Jump Street
In the first quarter of an hour of 22 Jump Street, screenwriter Michael Bacall talks an ungodly amount of trash on genre convention, using his characters as mouthpieces. Then the film proceeds to do to you every little thing it said it was going to do. And fuck it, I loved it. 22 Jump Street has got cinematic dirty talk down. My filthy mind aside, 22 Jump Street is terrific, a comedy build of the best collection of meta and bromance jokes ever committed to film. It reduced me to a giggling girl for the entire two hour running time…and it wasn’t even because of Channing Tatum’s abs. Backed up by Peter Stormare, Ice Cube and a cast with the comic timing of hilarious ninjas, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are perfect vessels to let the genius flow through. Making a dick grabbing joke isn’t funny the first time. Go for the second one, and you’ve got me. Jump Street goes above and beyond the call of duty as a comedy, packing in twice the number of belly laughs needed to make it worth the price of a movie ticket. Thanks Hollywood. Please don’t fuck up 23.
Housebound is a comedy horror. So basically it’s a comedy. The second you add enough jokes to your script it qualifies for the comedy tag, you strip away the ability to connect with the characters on an emotional level required for horror. Unless you’re directing The Loved Ones. Then you can do whatever the hell you want and it’ll work. Regardless, Housebound does work on two levels; it’s just that the second one is more of a thriller’s interest in the next plot point as opposed to a horror film’s ability to fill your favourite pair of pants with liquid kak. And as for that comedy. Wow. Taking a note from Peter Jackson, Housebound has a keen understanding of humour in the macabre, from the ridiculous appearance of the film’s ghost to the comedic approach taken to the film’s more violent sequences. The film also mines plenty of humour from its characters foibles. The characters are all built as deeply flawed, but a combination of skilful scripting and casting choices balances this to ensure they will all compel, if not outright charm, the audience. The labyrinthine plot keeps the pedal to the metal to the very end and the irreverent nature of the final scene tonally recalls some of Adam Wingard’s recent work. The production design also deserves a big shout out, veering between the mundane and almost Wes Anderson levels of whimsy with consummate ease. Similarly, the camera is impeccably handled, flipping the mood between casually domestic and claustrophobically tense as needed. A strong Indie that bodes well for the future of the team behind it.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past
Ambition has been the ruin of many a film. While I can fault a film for sloppy execution and trying to do too much (Hey there, Amazing Spider-Man 2), I can’t take issue with ambition itself. Films like X-Men: Days of Future Past are why. With a cast of Hugh Jackabs (Seriously, what gym does this guy use?), James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin,…*okay, deep breath, we’re gonna get through this cast list*…, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, it’s astonishing that there was anything left in the coffers to actually make the damn film with. But it’s not just stunt-casting, Singer’s team has torn the X-Verse a new one with a sprawling story that rips the existing continuity to pieces, spans multiple time periods, and gives the finger to Brett Ratner. Incredibly dense, but never confusing, and balancing the needs for humour, action and audience connection to the plot (in the case of one mutant who can slow down time, the film manages to do all three at once), the script is a work of art. It doesn’t provide much in the way of food for thought but more than makes up for it in providing the framework of a movie that will let you turn your brain off without making you feel stupid. There is, of course, plenty of room for things to go wrong in the transition from page to screen, but the production is handled ably, special effects packing plenty of wallop, the edit ensuring every beat happens at the exact right second, and the cast proving that they are capable of stepping up and delivering yet again, knocking scene after scene out of the park. Hugh Jackman deserves special praise here as it is on his character’s (buff as fuck) shoulders that the majority of the plot rests, and he never puts a foot wrong, giving the rest of the cast a firm foundation to act off with his trademark Wolverine glower and impeccable comic timing. Overall, this is an exceptional summer film, a huge, loving, thrill-packed two-hour blowout that set an almost impossibly high benchmark for the blockbusters that followed it.
Richard Linklater, you so crazy. When you tell people you want to make a movie that will take twelve years to shoot, their first reaction should be testing you for LSD, not throwing money and Ethan Hawkes at your whacked out project. But someone must have noticed that the glimmer in Linklater’s eyes wasn’t madness, because now this is a film. That you can watch. In cinemas, with popcorn and everything. Less surprising, given the talent involved is that the film is a top flight piece of work. Despite its deliberate abandonment of things like plot coherence, the film has a mesmeric quality, making it impossible to look away as we experience snap shots of a boy’s life, from six to eighteen. Maybe it’s Linklater tapping into a nostalgic vein in the audience that achieves this effect, but I like to think the scenes themselves are inherently compelling even without ringing some Pavlovian bell in the back of the mind. We are instead connected to the character by more traditional means, experiencing his disappointments and triumphs alongside him. It is worth noting that the earliest scenes of the film feature our young protagonist going through a tough transition in his life and perhaps it is simple pathos that binds us to the character for the rest of the film. Regardless of how it’s achieved, the effect is powerful. Thematically, we deal with the idea of the parents growing alongside the child, and that it’s a combination of big moments and more gradual forces around us that shape us into the people we become. They’re not exactly fresh themes, but they are expressed well, arising naturally in the telling of the story. If I have one issue with Boyhood, it’s that towards the end I find the kid increasingly annoying. Espousing seizing the moment while engaging in diatribes against the whole world, he characterises the most annoying aspects of know-it-all kids, making it tricky to keep engaged. Regardless, Boyhood, is still one to watch this year and if Mason turns out anything like Ethan Hawke, he’s going to be just fine.
- Only Lovers Left Alive
It’s hard to defend Only Lovers Left Alive. On the one hand it’s an innovative take on the whole vampire idea, focusing on the toll all those years take on the mind and the world-weariness that comes from history repeating itself in front of your eyes. The music’s fantastic. The actors are top-drawer and working at the peak of their powers. Swinton, Hiddleston, Wasikowska and Hurt get their pointy fangs deep into the scenery on this one and are wonderful to watch. On the other hand the film indulges in more snobbery than I usually care to recommend, erecting barriers to entry in the form of plot points that completely lose impact if you don’t know who Marlowe and Stravinsky are and jokes that don’t work if you haven’t developed the resentment of Byron that comes from having tried to read fucking Don Juan in full. It doesn’t help that there’s plenty of dead time too, with long tedious shots of Hiddleston goofing around in his music studio and very little to show for it. Basically, what I’m saying is that I liked the film, but it’s very much a niche taste and I wouldn’t blame you at all for dismissing it as complete shit. But there are plenty of films out there for the Transformers crowd and it’s nice to see the classics crowd get an occasional bit of fan service. The film’s meandering plot and tendency to infer developments with a nod and a wink rather than battering the viewer about the head with exposition lead to plenty to keep the brain turning both during and after the film. It’s also a treat to watch four superb actors do their damnedest to upstage each other and I’m always down to see Mia Wasikowska get more exposure, considering how underseen Stoker was. Not for everyone, but custom built for a few who will enjoy the hell out of it.
Okay, public service announcement time. Ignore the advertisements for this one, it’s a comedy alright, but it’s a bloody dark one. Of course, if you’re in the market for that sort of thing then come on in friend. Pour yourself a shot and let’s enjoy jokes about felching and random urges to kill folk together. Calvary feels like dark Wes Anderson, operating on a current of bitter whimsy that tears like a vicious dog at the twisted nature of life itself. Calvary’s characters are a grim bunch, angry at life and taking shots at local priest Brendan Gleeson wherever possible. The film follows Gleeson over the course of two weeks as he is forced to come to terms with his own bitterness and self-entitlement that are holding him back from actually helping anyone. He’s a man in a cassock, rather than a source of comfort to the lost souls of his locality, and the film explores the depths of the character extremely well. Oh, and at the end of the two weeks, someone has promised to kill him. So it’s not just a quiet drama we’re dealing with here, there is a ticking clock in the background. Calvary’s brand of humour runs on the bizarre… whether a world-weary billionaire pissing on his favourite painting or a young man joining the army because his rising urge to kill would be a sort of “bonus” it’s never far from real darkness and the film isn’t afraid to cross the line into pure murk at times, stripping the humour from the situation and just examining the sick indecencies which life is capable of inflicting on people. Gleeson’s given a fine cast to bounce off, with Chris O’ Dowd, Kelly Reilly and Aiden Gillen proving more than capable of handling the difficult material. A bitter, twisted must-see.
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
And onto the next film in our “darkly whimsical” section. The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his most, well Wes Anderson. There is no other way to describe it. The production looks like Roald Dahl’s dollhouse and the film is constructed in such a way that we are not especially interested in the fate of the characters but spellbound by curiosity as to what will happen next, what strange scene Anderson will conjure to amuse us. In this way, I think that despite the literary quality of his work, Anderson’s movies have more in common with caper comedies like the Hangover than most would care to admit. Fortunately, one of the commonalities between the two is that they are very funny. Anderson recruits actors with an ability to deliver self-unaware, deadpan lines completely seriously, delivering a counterpoint to modern comedy neurotics…his characters show very little evidence of any inner monologue or self-regulation, providing him with the ability to put the characters in whatever kind of scrape he wants, as their insanity and quirks will carry the scene. It leads to a disconnected fairy-tale feel to his films, but this is not an insult. Anderson’s films provide a safe zone where even the most violent acts can be dismissed with a hand-wave, and it’s all in the name of good fun and escapism. Your life won’t have been enriched at the end of the film, but you will have been entertained in the strange way only Anderson can. A unique comedy, and a top-tier Anderson film but I will duel pistols with anyone who says this is better than Rushmore.
- 12 Years a slave
I really don’t want to review 12 Years a Slave. It’s a difficult film about slavery and pain and Michael Fassbender banging kids and spent much of its running time making me want to look away. But unfortunately, Steve McQueen has continued his unbroken hot streak and much like slavery itself, it’s unpleasant, but impossible to ignore. Indeed, this is probably the best film on the subject ever made. The only thing more heart breaking than Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of a free man kidnapped and forced into slavery is the viciousness of the cruelty inflicted on him and the other slave characters in the film, as McQueen cuts to the bone of slavery, that humanity’s fundamental flaws make us wholly unsuitable for the owning of other humans. From the weakness of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, to Paul Dano’s jealous slavedriver to Michael Fassbender’s unyielding portrayal of a brutal, unstable plantation owner who uses his slaves to fulfil his every sick whim, 12 Years A Slave explores what society was like for those left at the mercy of another human’s will, without the modern shield of laws based on things like equality, decency or clemency. Having Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character begin as a free man both provides contrast with the horror of his life as a slave and is the neatest way of expressing the idea that the only thing that separates slave from master is the whip. That being said, McQueen doesn’t shy away from the idea that the years of conditioning slaves endure produces broken human beings, as uneducated and malleable as children. Nor does he create caricatures of slave owners. Even Michael Fassbender’s vicious plantation owner is cut deeply by his wife’s contempt for him, while his wife (played in a ripping performance by Sarah Paulson) in turn is tortured by her husband’s lust for his younger female slaves. And in one of the film’s more subtle ploys, by the halfway mark I was thinking of Ejiofor’s character by his slave name, Platt, more than his true name, Solomon. 12 Years a Slave is one of the toughest films this year to watch, but it is also one of the most important, a searing reminder of the mistakes of the past. Psychologically complex, brilliantly acted and impeccably directed by McQueen, this heart-render is essential viewing. Just pay attention, because you won’t want to go through the experience again.
- Starred Up
The prison film is a well-worn genre for good reason. From crowd pleasers such as the Shawshank Redemption to crime epics in the vein of A Prophet to slow burning explorations of character (Steve McQueen’s Hunger springs to mind), the cramped space of a prison cell has always provided ample room to explore a character and enough opposition to test their limits. Starred Up, the story of a juvenile offender moved to an adult prison because the facilities for boys his own age are unable to cope with his violence, is a welcome addition to the genre. The pathology of our lead character is largely explored through his actions. The film informs us exactly where the character is at psychologically when the first thing he does on arrival in prison is to channel his inner Michael Scofield to put together and hide a shiv. The violence he inflicts on his fellow prisoners and the prison guards is on a Charles Bronson level and the insane smile he wears throughout recalls Heath Ledger’s Joker. Yet despite the fact that his character feels like the twisted offspring of cinema’s most violent offenders, everything is successfully played straight. This is in large part due to Jack O’Connell’s unswerving performance. He walks a very fine line playing the character, always dramatic, but never veering into the hammy, comic book villain territory that it would be so easy to slip into. It also helps that the script is not just a vehicle to facilitate us watching him menace the rest of the prison. One of the earliest scenes involves O’Connell’s character knocking out another inmate, only to then realise they were only trying to help him. Over the course of a minute the character explores the range of emotions, calm to violent, which gives way to remorse which leads to an explosive outburst against the prison authorities (And this is a guy for whom actions speaks louder than words). This rollercoaster ride can be seen as a microcosm of the film as a whole, switching the tone instantaneously but in ways that feel natural, each switch teaching us a little more about the complex ball of emotions at the heart of our twisted protagonist. With a screen-stealing performance by Ben Mendelsohn and Rupert Friend providing his yin, the surrounding cast plays off O’Connell perfectly, if you can penetrate some of the thicker British accents. It’s a spell-binding look at the workings, and some of the contradictions, of our modern prison system. Unmissable.
- Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel has had a great year. While they have shown us they are perfectly capable of horrible misfires on the scale of Thor 2 and Captain America 1, when the cinematic arm of the comic book legends does things right we end up with terrific blockbusters. The secret to this formula is largely an approach assumes the audience has ADD and will leave the cinema without something shiny to keep their attention every ten seconds, but it’s tough to argue with the results, especially results packed with this many shiny, pretty things. Guardians of the Galaxy may not give much to ponder and reflect on, but it more than succeeds at hitting the mark the studio were aiming for: one of the popcorn films of the year. The most interesting part of this is that for the overall bubble-gum sweet flavour of the film, the characters we’re following are varying degrees of bastard (with the exception of Groot. Groot’s a sweetheart). Even Chris Pratt’s cocky thief (think Indiana Jones in space) seems like the last person in the world you’d trust your wallet to, and he’s the group’s charmer. To get us involved in their plight, the film takes a two pronged approach. First the characters are bad guys, but they’re not evil. The likeable casting helps get this point across, along with the fact that they’re thieves, not killers and that the characters all seem to have some deep hurt buried in their past. The second technique is giving us an even bigger shower of bastards to root against, in the form of lead villain Ronan (an infuriating zealot) and Michael Rooker’s magnificent portrayal of a grumpy ol’ space pirate/cunt, one of the more fun anti-heroes to watch in recent memory. With the audience connection with the characters skilfully established, the intergalactic caper is on safe ground emotionally. Even if you can’t invest in the characters, it’s difficult to hate them, especially when all their flaws and myopia are used to indulge the writers’ whacky sense of humour. The enormous sense of fun permeating every moment of the film is helped in no small part by the nostalgic eighties music choices, a mix of poppy feel-good hits that help the action scenes go down like…well, like a pina colada. The special effects are tight, the camera is adventurous without being oppressive and things move along at warp speed, leaving no time for boredom or frowns. A joyful action blast…the Avengers have found their biggest rival.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
If there’s anything more difficult than reviewing a silly blockbuster Marvel film, it’s reviewing two of them in a row. Guardians of the Galaxy and the good Captain America film share in common that style of filmmaking that relies on stunning visuals, likeable characters, and never giving the audience time to check their texts. So it’s only natural that come year’s end, I found it they ended up right next to each other in my rankings. The differentiating factors are mostly personal preference. While Guardians of the Galaxy leans heavily on its zaniness, Captain America (let’s pretend that first Captain film didn’t happen) takes itself a bit more seriously. The Earth setting is a start, making what’s at stake in the course of the plot more relatable, but Chris Evans also plays a more traditional hero. Evans would have made a fine Superman, believably portraying a noble character oozing integrity. Part battle-worn soldier, part boy next door and full-on badass, Evans’ charisma is off the charts here. Badass seems to have been the watchword for this film, Scarlett Johansson continuing her year of showcasing cinema’s deadliest smirk and the Winter Soldier proving a menacing physical match for the captain. These three are just the tip of a pretty kick-ass iceberg, an unusual proportion of characters in the film feeling like the sort of people ready to throw down at a moment’s notice. Similarly, the action scenes have a Michael Mann grit to them. Explosions are twisted balls of metal and flame and when a punch lands you can almost feel the little veins under the skin rupturing. Some of the urban warfare scenes are especially spectacular, the special effects team working overtime to create a scene that is both exhilarating and unnerving. But when the bullets stop flying, the movie has plenty left to carry it through, the main conflict perhaps being the captain’s old school view of morality against the dizzying kaleidoscopic craziness he is faced with, where right and wrong can be impossible to discern. The political intrigue element of the film is never clunky and I even welcomed it, which surprised me. A large amount of its impact can be attributed to Robert Redford, one of cinema’s elder statesmen proving the perfect fit for the role of a high-ranking politician with a complicated agenda. His presence lends enough weight to this side of the film to let it stand almost equal to the action, a considerable achievement for a midsummer popcorn film. For me Captain America hit the spot just a bit smoother than Guardians. Guess I always was a sucker for explosions. And cat suits. Long live the cat suit.
The phrase “follow your dreams” is one of the most overused in entertainment. Almost every time I see or read it I get the urge to burn the book, snap the DVD or read a different horoscope. So whenever I see it subverted it’s a cause for joy. Frank’s particular twist on the idea is one that has I’ve seen explored before, but that warms the cockles of my bitter heart every time it shows up. What if you’re not good enough for your dream? More importantly, it handles it in a light-hearted, entertaining way, which never feels like the artist is bemoaning the state of affairs. The keystone of the film’s entertainment value is the titular character, played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender is unrecognisable here, and not just because he spends the vast majority of the film hidden underneath an oversized mask. In contrast to the emotional intense, visibly twisted characters Fassbender is known for, Frank is all sweetness and light. He’s the kind of guy who’s incapable of losing his temper, a font of creativity and positivity. The protagonist, played by Domhnall Gleeson, slowly becomes jealous of Frank’s charisma and musical talent, but is almost as incapable as Frank is of expressing anger, leading to an increasingly pointed series of passive aggressive manoeuvres intended to show everyone who the real genius is. It might sound intense, but it’s played for laughs more than anything. Lenny Abrahamson’s skill in using small, almost lifelike characters to get big laughs pays off handsomely, the film using subtle human comedy, black humor and even slapstick to milk an impressive amount of belly laughs from the audience. Hilarious, unpredictable and even a little touching, Frank was my favourite comedy this year.
- Edge of Tomorrow
Emily Blunt’s agent is going to have to put in a lot more effort I’m afraid. They tried everything this time: dirtying her up, putting her in a big ol’ suit of power armour, making her character a gruff soldier with all the feminine charm of sweaty crotch rot (She plays the role perfectly, girl’s got chops for days). And still, every ten minutes or so when she’s on screen I’ll wonder what she looks like naked. I guess that makes me as big of a scumbag as Tom Cruise’s character then, a wholly self-interested press officer who is shipped off to the front lines of the war when he attempts to blackmail a commanding officer and forced to participate in the spearhead of a modern D-Day. Over and over again. Think Groundhog Day, if the day in question involved re-enacting the Normandy landings. And with homicidal aliens that’ll make you feel jealous of the guys who only had to deal with landmines and Nazis. Edge of Tomorrow’s unique concept is magnificently realised. The battle scenes have a sense of menace and chaos, making it all the more impressive when Cruise’s character begins to learn his way through the fight as he’s forced to relive the day. The time loop is played for laughs early and often, Cruise once again proving his worth as both a comic actor and leading man, making his weasel of a character both watchable and entertaining. Growth is never neglected, the character’s reactions to his world used to show that he has changed even if everything around him hasn’t. It’s a return to form for Doug Liman, whose output since The Bourne Identity has always been interesting, but suffered from ambition getting in the way of a good time. Here, the two gel perfectly, into a blockbuster that’s fresh, thrilling and endlessly entertaining. Even the weakness of the ending can’t dampen my enthusiasm. A film I’ll happily watch on repeat.
- A Most Wanted Man
Pour one out for our fallen homie, another one of the greats has checked out before his time. The powers of Philip Seymour Hoffman were astonishing, the great man using what I can only assume to be a combination of witchcraft and CGI to slide into the most despicable characters without the concern us lesser mortals have for things like dignity or restraint. Released just before his death, Hoffman left us with yet another great role to remember him by, in his role as a spy in A Most Wanted Man. Adapted from a Le Carre novel, the movie’s central tenet seems to be that the idea of making the world a safer place is a double edged sword. It drives men and women to push themselves through terrible adversity in the hopes of making someone else’s life better, but it can also push them too far, leading to terrible atrocities. The dual nature of the tenet is mirrored in the complexity of the characters the film presents. Nobody is in the right; everyone is continuously making compromises to impose their own vision of justice on the world, as is to be expected of any work by Le Carre. But it never saps the film’s dramatic tension. As rich as the narrative is, there is always a definite dramatic thrust to the film to keep the viewer hooked, without drip feeding us mind-numbing exposition. This is, to my mind, the film’s greatest achievement, but mention also has to be made of the casting. Hoffman is supported by actors chosen for their ability to communicate the labyrinthine nature of their characters in their performances and putting any two of them in a room together results in fireworks. Old reliables like Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright are joined by impressive newcomer Grigoriy Dobrygin in the main cast, but even with all this talent on display and at full power, it’s Hoffman who dominates. He plays one of his more normal characters here, a German intelligence agent with sharp instincts, giving him a chance to show off some of the charm which his more, well, creepy roles forced him to keep under wraps. This doesn’t mean this is Hoffman playing Hoffman though. Sporting dogged determination, a willingness to bend rules and people to get things done and a German accent you could use to deflect bullets, it’s actually a very tough role, but he fills it like maybe no other actor could. Both his face and his personality feel worn and lived in, adding a layer of believability to the character that grounds the low key, realistic espionage feel of the film as a whole. It’s a transcendent performance to add to the list of brilliant Hoffman roles, and one we might never see the like of again. Complex, assured and with some of the best acting you’ll see this year, A Most Wanted Man is yet another great Le Carre adaptation, and a fitting final performance for an acting legend.
Interstellar stars Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon in the tale of one man’s harrowing journey into space. No wait, that sounds too much like the Martian. How about “Interstellar is a Christopher Nolan film exploring the story of a man doing one last job in a place where physics and even time itself are not what they seem, in order to make it home to his kids.” Yeah, that’s good. No potential confusion there. Although if you’re still having trouble, this one’s got Michael Caine in it. In all seriousness though, Interstellar is fantastic. With a cast featuring my man crush Matthew McConaughey, the always awesome Anne Hathaway and Topher Grace for some reason, the acting is rock solid throughout. However, it’s all about the script and Nolan’s sure hand guiding the film through exposition, action and drama alike with the grace we’ve come to expect from the top drawer director. Especially the action, which is shot in a manner that seems determined to put even Gravity to shame and may just eclipse anything else shot this year in terms of execution and scale. Though let down by a slightly graceless climax, Interstellar easily earns its stripes as one of the year’s best films.
Major spoilers ahoy: I do feel that Matthew McConaughey’s may be the greatest hero in cinematic history. Seriously, the guy has to watch everything that ever happened in his daughter’s bedroom. Everything. I’m surprised he didn’t go home in a straitjacket.
- The Babadook
Maybe I mentioned it before, but most good horror lately doesn’t impress me much within the way of traditional jump scares or nail-biting tension. If you want to make a great horror film that’s also a great film, it takes something more. For The Babadook it was a seemingly simple idea that left it stuck in my head, like dirt under the fingernails of my mind. The Babadook takes the theme of child abuse and resentment for your own child and simultaneously makes it easier to absorb, and viciously ugly. The ease with which we absorb this notion is mostly a consequence of framing this psychological struggle as a monster (the Babadook, in case you were wondering) and giving us a relatable view of the mother’s struggles putting up with her little….well, let’s just call him precocious. A precocious little bastard. Most child actors piss me off, because too many are all child and no actor. If I had my way, all future child roles would be played by Andy Serkis. However, I have to give props to The Babadook for having a child actor who manages to play an annoying child without actually being an annoying child actor. He actually does some acting, this kid. Clearly a bright future awaits him, much like Judy Garland and Macaulay Kulkin. Leaving his performance alone though, the believable way the film draws us into the idea that the mother has been pushed to the edge by her son’s behaviour is a high point of the work as a whole. It multiplies the sense of peril a hundredfold later on as she becomes increasingly abusive and we are drawn increasingly towards the child’s viewpoint, into his small broken world where the Sun around which he orbits, his mother, has collapsed into a black hole that threatens to destroy him. Oh, fine. Enough with the space metaphors. Blame interstellar. Regardless, the constant viewpoint changes are used really well to shift gears in the film, in terms of plot and ideology, an impressive display from any auteur, especially a first-timer. Oh, and the actual Babadook book was pretty sweet. Though a better title might be “How to Make Up Monsters and Annoy People.” Damn kids. Call me, Mr. Serkis.
- Blue Ruin
Well, holy shit. Crowdsourcing finally made something good. Really, really fucking good. Great even. Where’d I put that fucking thesaurus? And does it have any word to describe Blue Ruin, because the only thing that comes to mind is Charles Bronson meets Charlie Chaplin, a slapstick revenge tale built on a shoestring budget and none the worse for it. Our main character is unusual, a completely sane and rational homeless man, whose flaw is weakness, a pathetic streak running through him, from the clumsy way he interacts with other people to the comical ineptitude he displays in his quest for vengeance against the man who murdered his parents. The giggles slowly turn to pity however, as the character is explored further, exposing a beating, bleeding, sensitive heart, too wounded by the pain inflicted by his parents’ murder to live a normal life or let the man who did it go free. This protagonist should be working in a cubicle farm at an accounting firm, not driving across the country with a gun in his glove box and murder on his mind. This isn’t just a straightforward tale of justified revenge though. The film shows ambitions beyond just entertaining us, and the more committed our protagonist becomes to his course of action the more his righteousness is questioned, until ultimately his goal becomes less revenge and more fixing the trail of destruction his actions have wrought. With more shootin’. In case you were wondering. But the film never becomes preachy, instead focusing on the tragedy, and becoming increasingly melancholy in tone up to its haunting conclusion. This year’s Winter’s Bone. And I still can’t find my Thesaurus. There’s a foreign language dictionary though. Screw it. It’ll do. Blue Ruin is a subarashii film, and tokubetsu as fuck. See it. Now.
- The Guest
From revenge thriller to revenge thriller, and while tonally they couldn’t be more different they do both have an indictment of revenge at their core. While Blue Ruin is an indictment of revenge itself, The Guest acts more as an attack on the idea of the revenge fantasy, pointing its finger squarely at the twisted fucks in the audience. Like me. To accomplish this, the first half of the guest is basically revenge porn. And it is hot. Mysterious houseguest David (portrayed charismatically by Dan Stevens, with equal parts boy next door charm and swaggering menace), has a Santa sack filled with violent gifts for the whole family. Daddy gets a work rival knocked off. Mommy has a school principal intimidated into not suspending her son (for an act of violence inspired by watching David at work). For the son in question, David gives a gang of bullies a vicious, humiliating punishment beating, warning them to keep their hands to themselves in future. And daughter Anna’s best friend Kristen has her clingy, abusive ex-boyfriend knocked the fuck out when he shows up uninvited at a party she’s holding. All of these gifts are given without strings, but also unrequested, David acting like a badass Southern Guardian Angel. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a charmer too. Drinking buddy, foster son, big brother and mysterious sexy badass: David plays just the right role to get each member of the family on his side. So there’s a proxy for the majority of the audience, giving us the chance to experience the thrill of violent revenge vicariously through them, and maybe a little guilt too. It helps that the continuum of revenge is set up so we can ask where exactly it’s okay to draw the line, and if we justify these acts of violence and coercion to ourselves because of the unhealthy lust for retribution lurking in our hindbrain. And in case you weren’t the second half of the movie forces it on you, David turning his badass superterminatorjesus powers to much more brutal, impossible to justify uses. This feels like the film’s way of reminding us that a charming psychopath is a psychopath nonetheless, attacking the Hannibal Lecter “monster with a moral code” myth. So, to wrap up, The Guest is smart, superbly constructed, has great choreography, impressive acting and action scenes that make Scwarzenegger’s bar fight in Terminator 2 feel like the imitation. A violent and irreverent masterwork, with something for everyone.
- Gone Girl
Okay, this is a David Fincher film, so I’m just going to point out that the casting, cinematography, pacing, music, sound design, production design and effects are as perfect as you’d expect. Fincher has celluloid running through his veins and shooting from his eyes. It is known Khaleesi. Let’s move onto the stuff that could actually go wrong with Fincher at the helm, and the stuff that moved beyond perfection to transcendence. First up, it’s something that’s been brought up almost too often already, but Rosamund Pike had better be on the list come Oscar nomination time. The combination of physicality, complexity and believability she brings to the role blew my mind, taking the already intricate character of Ben Affleck’s missing wife up to very serious Oscar contender territory and one of the real memorable performances this year. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry, while they won’t be walking away with Golden Statues, did impress me, both demonstrating far more dramatic chops than I would expect from actors known for their comedic roles. Harris delves especially deep, creating a character that’s self-righteous, sneaky and creepy as Pee-Wee Herman’s home movie night. Not quite Philp Seymour Hoffman level, but far beyond adequate. The script is pleasingly snarky and dark, always a couple of steps ahead of the viewer, and delivers an ending that, though strange, felt curiously fitting, dramatically satisfying while not giving up any of the film’s scorn of genre convention. The film’s visual tone matches the tone of the story note for note, feeling dry and suburban at first, then slowly introducing the pools of shadow and light I always associate with Fincher as the story itself becomes more twisted. I feel like some critics saw the film as dissecting modern relationship dynamics, which didn’t fit with the film for me. I feel it was made clear that the characters themselves were both highly aberrant with broken views of the world, enough so that the notions of this being even a caricature of a modern relationship can be dismissed. Even if the film has less going on under the hood than some would claim, this is still a cracking, subversive thriller, and one of Fincher’s better films, which is really saying something, only getting knocked out of my top 5 at the very last minute by the next film on the list. You owe it to yourself to see this film, and to encourage others to too. If we scream loud enough, maybe more exciting films like this will get made at major studio level and I can stop starting fires just to feel alive.
Enemy was the start of something that I’ve been calling the year of Jake Gyllenhall. This sucks, because then I looked it up and realised his name is actually spelled Gyllenhaal. But it has to be said that even for the world’s most talented Taylor Swift survivor, the quality of his work this year has been mind-blowing. In Enemy he takes on the task of acting across from an actor of equal power and scope: himself. Here Gyllenhaal takes dual roles, one of a quiet, asocial college professor with a smokingly hot girlfriend (yes, this is actually important). The other is that of a bit-part actor with an inflated sense of self-confidence, a pregnant girlfriend and a psychopathic streak. The interaction between the two is the driving force of the film, which leads to plenty of the nuanced, quirky and highly watchable acting I associate with Gyllenhaal while never feeling gimmicky or forced. Moving away from the acting for a moment (don’t worry, the cast surrounding Gyllenhaal are also highly capable), Enemy itself is a phenomenon. A puzzle film that succeeds in keeping the lid on its boldest move until the end, it’s a wise choice to set aside some extra time to watch this one, because as soon as I watched it the first thing I wanted to do was watch it again. And given that you have the pieces you collected the first time, the second viewing was actually more enjoyable for me. It also succeeds in hitting the correct level of ambiguity in its puzzling, very definitely pointing you in one direction with the clues it offers but leaving the room open to argue other interpretations. Less ambiguous are the thematic musings underpinning the mental joyride. This is the dissection of the modern relationship that critics wanted Gone Girl to be, taking the idea of wanting everything from a relationship and cloaking it in layers of symbolism and philosophising to make the exploration as rich as possible. Denis Villeneuve has crafted something very special here, a Lynchian labyrinth of a film with every twist and turn providing a dramatically intriguing thrill. Cinematic LSD.
Tom Hardy underwent a similar acting challenge to the one Jake Gyllenhaal went through in Enemy for this film, but while Gyllenhaal’s challenge was that he spent several scenes acting across from himself, Hardy’s problem is that for the entire hour and a half of Locke, he’s the only person we see on screen. The only other characters in the film remain unseen as Hardy cajoles, pleads and argues with them to try and prevent his life from blowing apart, in this masterful drama. Oh, and it’s all set in a BMW X5 that’s driving down an English motorway. At night. The filmmakers have set themselves up to fail with their very premise, making it all the more incredible that this film not only works but is one of the year’s best. This may be down to the fact that the main character, Ivan Locke, is a completely unique protagonist. He’s a concrete man, in both his job (he’s supervising Europe’s biggest concrete pour over the phone during his journey) and his attitude. Locke is unyielding, a creature of logic and honour, who made a mistake with a woman one night and is now paying the price for that with both his marriage and his job. All because he’s doing the right thing. The film is a meditation on a lot of what it means to be a man, focusing on the ideas that it only takes one mistake to destroy everything you’ve worked your whole life to build and that even when you have, there is still space to be a man in the world of unrelenting pain and consequences beyond that mistake. So it’s got it on the inside, but what about the surface level? Happily, Locke, despite all its art, is also a tight drama, a fact that hinges entirely on Hardy’s epic performance. When he’s quiet he almost hypnotises you, and during Locke’s few emotional outbursts you may find yourself cowering in your seat. He carries almost the entire dramatic weight of the film on his shoulders, and manages to make this strange, hard man incredibly easy to sympathise with and even admire. It’s Hardy at his best, an out of control performance and has been cruelly overlooked for awards season this year. Locke does odd things, he pushes people beyond their limits, but it’s hard to argue that any choice he makes is anything other than the right and responsible one to make as a human. This strong moral centre in the film places you even more firmly in Locke’s corner, sharing his heartbreak and triumphs alike and securing the sort of emotional investment that leads to effective drama. In the final minute of the film I was kept in more tension than I’d felt in a cinema all year. Not once, but twice. Without a doubt Locke is a strange film, as unwilling to compromise its vision as its protagonist, but it’s all the better for it. I still find it almost impossible to believe it exists, but that only secures Locke even more firmly as my favourite drama of the year.
- The Raid 2
“I know Kung Fu” is Neo’s startled line in The Matrix. Luckily, he didn’t know Pencak Silat, the Indonesian martial art employed in The Raid 2 because then The Matrix would have lasted five minutes and ended with Neo standing atop a pile of bespectacled corpses in slick suits, doing a little jig. Eh, I still would have watched that version of The Matrix, but am much happier that I got The Raid 2, this year’s ballsiest, craziest, best choreographed and my personal favourite action film. Following up The Raid 1 seemed a fool’s errand. It was, after all, one of the best action films of the past ten years, a rip-roaring martial arts masterpiece where the plot existed solely to get the characters from A to B and then kick, punch and shoot the shit out of each other in gloriously stylised, over the top fashion. How the hell are you supposed to improve on a film that found the action genre’s ceiling and stayed there for its entire running time? Fortunately, director Gareth Evans had a different view on things and had the builders in to knock the entire fucking ceiling out of the genre, and show us all what the outside looks like. The Raid 2 is all about being bigger. The plot’s bigger, expanding its scope beyond a straight raid on a criminal outpost to a more ambitious tale of police espionage, jealousy, greed and loyalty. Evans shows he’s more than just a first-class martial arts director here, providing his story with a suitable gravitas and impact, while still finding room for odd jokes about pegging hitchhikers. Lead Iko Uwais has grown as an actor too, readily painting the convincing portrait of a family man in over his head and surrounded on all sides by danger. But if the action hadn’t grown too, this sequel, however dramatic the scope of the story, would be unworthy. Evans is showing off at this point, filming classic action scenes back to back, from a chaotic prison yard brawl featuring more mud-covered wrestling than a Tralee Friday night to a hybrid car chase/fight scene that feels like Christopher Nolan was working second unit. The violence is balletic and beautiful, the choreography team and cinematography combining to recreate the apex of brutal elegance in cinema over and over. It’s beyond a pleasure to look at, and at times the stylized violence was so creative and brilliant that all I could do was laugh. The Raid 2 is incomparable. With more balls than an all-male bingo game, it is the new bar against which all martial arts films will be judged and my favourite action film of the year easily.
- Under The Skin
Oh fine. First things first. Scarlett Johannson: naked. You see everything. You still reading? Good. Now that the idiots are gone renting the film, we can actually sit down and discuss Under The Skin like adults. Frankly, the “lol, bewbz” Transformers crowd is exactly the type of audience this film wasn’t made for. And despite the fact that I generally despise non-inclusiveness in a film, I loved Under The Skin for its willingness to go all the way into Tarkovsky territory. It’s a weird, angular sci-fi, not especially difficult, but unwilling to let go of its secrets without a fight. What I admired the most about it is that while films like Enemy were designed to be watched multiple times, Under The Skin has exactly enough material to be watched once. Thinking time is built into the film in periods of long silence and slow, brooding shots. The delivery of story happens through a series of scenes that have to potential to act as dramatic non sequiturs if you’re not paying attention and the Scottish accents make Trainspotting look like The Remains Of The Day. The first time through, those pauses and ebbs in the film can be filled with your own processing of what it is you’re watching. The second time, it truly will be dead time, killing the film for you. But that first watch is everything. For all its attempts to push you away, Under the Skin is riveting. Strange and determined, it’s a film about what it’s like to look at humanity from the outside, with Scarlett Johansson demonstrating a lot of restraint as the alien protagonist. Her performance is designed perfectly, her character beginning the film as a reasonably charming approximation of a human being with no empathy. It’s only as she becomes more human that she becomes less capable of wearing this mask and increasingly unsure of her place in this world. It’s heart-breaking and ugly, but compulsive watching and also strangely beautiful as the atmosphere of fear (please don’t say that out loud) gives way to sadness and Johansson’s character arc resolves itself in a tragedy that makes for difficult viewing, even for this film. Emotional and thoughtful, Under The Skin easily takes sci-fi of the year.
And so we’re here. Finally. Welcome to my film of the year, the crowning achievement of the Year of Jake Gyllenhaal (At least according to the calendar I got from that Chinese restaurant. Apparently next year is the year of Nicki Minaj. Who knew?) Penned and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of fellow auteur Tony Gilroy who made Michael Clayton, Nightcrawler follows a (really) creepy loner as he becomes involved in the sordid business of recording accidents and violent crimes for the local news. As he becomes embroiled further he crosses line after line in the pursuit of money, fame, and Rene Russo doing whatever he wants in the bedroom. First off, this was the performance that made it the year of Jake Gyllenhaal for me. It’s DeNiro level artistry, from his physical design of the character (gaunt as a heroin addict, greasy as a used up McDonalds wrapper) to his odd mannerisms and communication of the character’s combination of bulletproof self-belief with a complete disregard for decency. Watching this character do his laundry would be a uneasy thrill ride, watching him plunge beyond the moral event horizon in pursuit of a dream that was already morally objectionable is riveting, almost intoxicating. Providing able company onscreen is Rene Russo, in a terrific turn as a mid-level television producer who is in desperate need of results and has no qualms about how they are achieved. L.A. at night has never looked so good, the visuals playing with pools of light and shadow in a way that’s very good-looking but not stylized enough to ruin the film’s atmosphere. This approach to composition gels perfectly with the queasy feeling Gyllenhaals’s character evokes as he manipulates everyone around him, becoming more successful as he gains leverage and takes advantage of people in need who are in no position to say no to him. Even the philosophy of the film is nauseating, the film taking the finger of blame and pointing it squarely back at the audience for consuming the car-crash journalism Lou Bloom types peddle and thus enabling the lowest of the low to live perfectly comfortably amongst us. As a thriller, Nightcrawler receives top marks as well, a strange combination of slow burning tension with bursts of violence that locks eye contact with you and never lets you look away. When it came time to decide on my film of the year, this was an easy pick, in a year full of terrific films. Dan Gilroy has successfully made his brother look like the loser, even more than the Bourne Legacy did. Nightcrawler is every bit as ambitious as its unhinged main character and fulfils that ambition in sublime style. Film at its most entertaining.
Well, that’s it, the end of the list. As awkward as this is, I feel like this is the right time to say it. I’m done with films. I’m quitting podcasting and writing about them. The magic’s gone. I’m sick and tired of the drivel Hollywood’s putting out and the only possible way they could get me back doing anything remotely like this again is if they put Emily Blunt and Anna Kendrick in a film. Together. Wearing old-timey fucking princess dresses.
Goddamn it. This means I have to review Furious 7, doesn’t it? If anyone wants me, I’ll be in my bunk.
Image source: Warner Brothers Pictures