Best & Worst Films Of The Year
It’s a safe bet that no-one will look back on 2014 and regard it as a classic year for Hollywood, which, as always, went where the money was – this time looking to the East, as films inserted locations and stars from China, Japan and India in an effort to increase revenue in those growing markets.
After the bizarre cash explosion of ‘Frozen’ in SE Asia that caught even Disney by surprise (‘Frozen’-themed weddings, anyone?) the studio even managed to combine merchandising with its ethnicity in Marvel spin-off ‘Big Hero 6’, and has started launching its films in the East ahead of the West (‘Big Hero 6’ was originally recorded in Japanese). Tentpole ‘Interstellar’ aimed for ‘2001’ status and fell far short, ‘Exodus’ was as loud and ridiculous as any camp 1950s sword-and-sandal epic, and even the reliable superhero genre felt flat and stale.
In the domestic US market things were pretty disastrous; bad comedies like ‘Sex Tape’, an international incident over something as inconsequential as ‘The Interview’, a competent film involving apes and more about flying people, a few cold-eyed arthouse oddities. British films were, well, overly British; in retrospect ‘The Imitation Game’ was not as sharply honed as it should have been, ‘The Theory of Everything’ was pretty to look at, ‘Testament of Youth’ had the listlessness of a Sunday teatime serial. ‘Mr Turner’ was admirably rigorous but only offered crumbs of entertainment value, and only Emma Thompson’s ‘Effie Gray’ and the charming comedy ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’ hit the mark.
Here’s my selection of highs and lows. The choice is personal, not fashionable, and only includes only English language movies – in fact, the best films I saw, like ‘Hannah Arendt’, ‘Painless’ and ‘The Witches of Zarragamurdi’, were all subtitled. That’s not me being a film snob; they really were better stories, better told.
But it was also the year that European output was massively dialled back, with fewer films of interest from France, very little from Spain or Italy, and just ‘Leviathan’ representing the hardcore art world.
Ones That Soared
1. The Lego Movie
Who’d have expected a merchandiser to get it right? Whip-smart, exhaustingly hyperactive cleverness that managed to celebrate non-conformity while filling the screen with pop-cultural conformity, it was too smart for its own good, but highly entertaining nonsense. Even with that damned earworm of a song.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
A career high for Wes Anderson and especially its Maitre D’ Ralph Fiennes as Gustave (you have to love anyone who can greet the fascist militia with a cry of ‘Hello darlings’), it may have been inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig but felt as if it owed more to Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’. Hilarious, dark, joyful and elegant, this tale of the life and death of a grand hotel even managed the odd moment of profundity.
An old story – the struggling artist attempting to leave earthbound roots and soar one last time – got an ADD-afflicted makeover in the single-take NYC-set race to stage a work by Raymond Carver so that former superhero-acton Michael Keaton could finally prove his self-worth, with a flying sequence that actually felt like flying, and a panicky seat-of-the-pants tone that reminded me how I feel half the time.
Brendan Gleeson’s portrayal of a good man must have been hard to pull off – films about goodness always are – but this film by John Michael McDonagh managed to be a study of the church in crisis, a thriller, a black comedy and a whodunnit all at once, somehow celebrating and obliterating the ‘Father Ted’ image of Ireland.
5. Into The Woods
When Sondheim wrote Streep a new song, he wrote across the bottom of the page, ‘Don’t fuck it up’. Rob Marshall didn’t, making amends for the wreck of ‘Nine’ and staying true to the tale’s truthful heart, which dispels the notion of fairytale endings with a dose of reality. Even Marshall’s cuts were judicious and appropriate, drawing out star players in an ensemble piece – it’s as if Disney finally grew up.
Skincrawler, more like – nothing we didn’t know about the grotesque venality of TV newsrooms, but as a biopsy of obsession coupled with overweening ambition it felt like an X-rated update mash-up of ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’, ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘The Apprentice’. In a time when every greedy man thinks he’s a corporation, it was also hilariously accurate about the current disastrous state of capitalist hubris.
7. What We Do In The Shadows
The Conchords team work slowly to develop projects over very long periods, and this gem was reduced from 150 hours of improvisation. The tale of four ancient vampires coping with modern night-life managed to be frightening and utterly hilarious, an original take on the supernatural that didn’t rely on gross-out humour or lazy CGI to make its point.
Ones That Bored
1. Under The Skin
I did not find the sight of Scarlet Johansson repeatedly picking up mugs in Glasgow and dipping them in oil a ‘chilling erotic masterpiece’ as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw (a critic who likes everything I hate) apparently did. Jonathan Glazer’s film had some admirably strange moments but felt sexist and dim both in lighting and script. If the point was to make one feel alienated, I can get it by walking around Glasgow myself.
2. The Amazing Spiderman 2
Apparently I saw this. The fact that I remember nothing about it at all says a lot. Was it a reboot, remake, sequel or prequel? Did it excite, surprise, thrill in any way at all? Did it have an original thought or even a moment? Or was it there to fill a schedule gap in an increasingly boring franchise?
3. Winter’s Tale
If ever there was a time to stop making films from mawkish US bestsellers it’s after this travesty of whimsy, with devils and flying horses and a fairytale version of NYC. It offered up only one point of comment; what was wrong with Colin Farrell’s hair?
And anything – anything – with Seth MacFarlane or Adam Sandler in must be avoided forever by cinemagoers who value their sanity, after their respective car crash movies rightly bombed this year. Bring on 2015.