Ambition. More than any other quality this year, ambition seems to have been the watchword for the filmmakers whose work has shone the brightest. It has manifested in many different ways, but there’s a boldness to a number of the titles that have made my list this year. In most cases film has been used not just to tell a story but to advance an idea or pose a discussion. The collaborative nature of the medium has, it seems, felt more prominent than ever. It’s made for a great year in many ways, and while there were some disappointments as there always are (for me personally Interstellar and The Grand Budapest Hotel fell far short of my hopes for either) there were just as many welcome surprises, both large and small.
Picking and ordering a top 20 has been difficult this year, so props to the titles that almost made it; Dallas Buyers Club, Maps To The Stars, Edge of Tomorrow, Frank and (most surprising of all) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Tough culls all.
For inclusion on this list, the films in question had to have their UK release within 2014, as such some stateside readers may see titles they associate more closely with 2013. Without further ado then, the first half of this year’s countdown:
In A Sentence: The foreman for a historic concrete pour abandons the site and his family in order to drive south for a personal matter.
At The Time: First and foremost Locke is an actor’s dream come true, and Hardy has made everything of it that he can. For the audience, however, this is a pleasingly absorbing drama that is well-worth taking the time for, but one which will leave little of itself behind and which leaves very little incentive for repeated journeys. (April 13th)
And Now?: I’ll eat some of those words. Returning to Locke reveals a rather wonderful character piece, diffused by the drift of motorway overheads. Tom Hardy owns the movie and while, yes, it is contained within the limitations of the car, I’m certainly far more open to riding passenger again with Ivan Locke now than I was initially.
19. The Rover
In A Sentence: In a desolate future, one man will stop at nothing to find the thieves who have stolen his car.
At The Time: The Rover thrives on what is inferred but not directly shown or expressed. The insinuations are often so much more powerful than the truth. What were Rey and Henry running from? Does it matter? How do some of these men know each other? There are dozens of unknowns here that Michôd is wise enough to leave the audience to ponder. It gives the film much of its power. As such it’s hard to understate how frustrating the final scene is; the only point in the film in which Michôd shows us too much and bursts the bubble. (September 12th)
And Now?: That final scene still sticks in the gut, nevertheless this is a lean, gritty powerhouse in which Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson go toe-to-toe. It’s near impossible to say which is better; instead they raise the picture up. But Michôd isn’t the bridesmaid here. It may lack some of the horrifying realism of Animal Kingdom, but The Rover positions the Australian director as a possible successor to Cormac McCarthy for beautifully bleak devastation.
18. 12 Years A Slave
In A Sentence: An adaptation of the memoirs of Solomon Northup; a free black man living in New York who is tricked and sold into slavery in 1841.
At The Time: The atrocities depicted here have been too often sanitised by Hollywood. Even recent efforts such as Spielberg’s whitewashed Lincoln or Tarantino’s cartoonish Django Unchained. McQueen has built a film for mass consumption that packs a significant and worthy punch. Dressed up as an Oscar-hungry prestige picture, 12 Years A Slave is a bristling, important film, angry and expressive, designed and marketed to be seen by as many people as possible. (January 18th)
And Now?: …yeah, pretty much. It bagged the Best Film gong at the Oscars and was a worthy winner. It may also prove to be a key film in the career of Steve McQueen, taking him out of the arthouse shadows. What he does from here could be very interesting. 12 Years A Slave is a hard film to love – the idea of repeat viewings is less than enticing – but you’d do yourself a disservice to skip it.
(John Michael McDonagh)
In A Sentence: An anonymous voice from a priest’s congregation vows to kill him in one week’s time, allowing him those seven days to get his affairs in order.
At The Time: Calvary may have started out for Gleeson and McDonagh as a character piece, it seems to have evolved into something greater – a discussion of where our values lie in present day society, what’s been eroded and what can be salvaged. There’s an elegiac quality here that underpins nearly every scene, save only for the rare moment played purely for comedy. (March 30th)
And Now?: It’s a touch self-important, and fans of the more whimsical McDonagh / Gleeson pairing The Guard may be disappointed at the comparatively sombre feeling of Calvary, but it remains one of the year’s more thought-provoking pictures, and a superb showcase for Brendan Gleeson, who has never been better.
16. Obvious Child
In A Sentence: After a drunken one night stand, stand-up comedian Donna (Jenny Slate) discovers she is pregnant and decides to have an abortion.
At The Time: When it’s not charming you with its approach to the subject matter, it’s winning you over with its characters and wit. This comes in no short supply from Slate, who positively owns the film. In a performance slightly reminiscent of Greta Gerwig in last year’s Frances Ha, this is an all-or-nothing assimilation of comic performer and movie role. One that feels effortless, like an extension of self. (August 29th)
And Now?: In a year largely bereft of good comedies, Obvious Child stands as 2014’s diamond in the rough. Welcomingly eschewing the cloying quirks of indie-coms of recent years, this is a frank, grown-up confrontation of a taboo topic, and a very funny one at that.
In A Sentence: A guy who got abducted by aliens as a boy with some ‘mommy issues’ gathers an unlikely band of extraterrestrial allies to stop another bad alien who wants a very bad, err, thingy.
At The Time: Having been gifted a relatively unknown commodity, Gunn has realised he is not overburdened by fan service; instead he gets to present this universe to a vast new audience. The incredible enthusiasm he brings to this is infectious. (August 5th)
And Now?: I recently saw this again, and guess what? It’s still supremely entertaining. It may stick incredibly close to (or directly to, actually) Marvel’s recent formula, but it does so with much, much more fun than any of its peers. The villains are poorly sketched, granted, but this one is about the heroes, and kids of all ages are simply going to lap it up.
In A Sentence: The vainglorious story of law-dodging Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort and his merry band of cocaine-and-prostitute addled comrades.
At The Time: Hugo felt almost like a curtain call. The Wolf Of Wall Street says otherwise. This is fiery, invigorating filmmaking that recalls the do-or-die grandstanding of, say, Paul Thomas Anderson when he thrust Boogie Nights at us. Scorsese’s picture yells, “Look at me! Look at me!”. It’s a bolshy, rambunctious piece of work. (January 21st)
And Now?: Some may find the amoral rambling 180 minute running time of TWOWS a little too much to take, but it’s fittingly excessive, unapologetic, hugely entertaining and, really, Scorsese’s best picture in a very long time. It also includes the year’s finest scene of a man getting into a car. So there.
(Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
In A Sentence: A woman recovering from depression must spend the weekend pleading with her work colleagues to give up their bonuses in order for her to keep her job.
At The Time: The Dardenne’s suburban landscape is not one of hard-grafted misery. There is no romanticising of blue-collar toil here. Instead the world is presented in neutral tones, where life is made up of mealtimes and bus rides, car journeys and laundrettes. These things just are. It might not sound exhilarating, but it doesn’t need to be; the insurmountable suspense and investment is wrought from the way in which Sandra’s comparatively minor struggle is her whole world. (August 26th)
And Now?: The most quietly devastating film of the year. A sneak gut-punch of a movie.
In A Sentence: Believed to be responsible for the murder of his beloved girlfriend, a young man inexplicably grows a set of horns only to find they compel those around him to reveal their innermost.
At The Time: What separates Horns out from its key forebearers is how shamelessly prone to excess it is; no surprise when you consider French director Alexander Aja is at the helm. Working primarily in horror (and Horns has it’s share of graphic and disturbing scenes), Aja’s last feature was the openly bonkers trashfest Piranha 3D. The material here is far more developed and nuanced, but Aja is not afraid to channel that same barely contained mania, heightening the sense of chaos and potential carnage in a number of scenes, while evoking the spiky spirit of tempestuous, passionate youth. (November 5th)
And Now?: 2014’s weirdest surprise, to be sure. On paper this film really shouldn’t have worked – looking back I’m still fairly amazed that it did – so a tip of the hat to Alexander Aja for scrambling the disparate elements into such a wonky but enjoyable ride. Props also to Daniel Radcliffe for a performance that sells the whole thing and shrugs off the ghost of Potter.
11. Gone Girl
In A Sentence: An imperfect husband comes under close scrutiny from the community, the police and the media when his wife disappears under suspicious circumstances, but all is not as it appears.
At The Time: The film’s concerns are both maximal and minimal. On the one hand there’s the depiction of a society as content-hungry, social media fixated soap opera lovers, on the other there’s the intensely introverted examination of how we obsessively hurt the ones we love. (October 5th)
And Now?: Rosamund Pike storms a movie that appeared, on the surface, to be a showcase for Ben Affleck. Yet everything about Gone Girl is a smokescreen. Looks are always deceiving here. It looked, for instance, as though Fincher was coasting through another pedestrian thriller, but instead he shook loose the encroaching cobwebs and brought us a grown-up riot with a hot streak of youthful mischief.
To be continued…