10. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Anyone who has been following this blog would know that I have three favourite directors: Brian De Palma, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. Whenever any of these masters comes out with a new film it is an event to me, however when “The Wolf Of Wall Street” was originally announced I wasn't as enthused as I normally am for a new Scorsese project. First off, the film that eventually came to be was nothing like I thought it was going to be. I had no idea about the book it was based on so just the words “wall street” turned me off because the last thing I wanted was to sit for two hours watching arrogant guys working on the stockmarket; it just sounded a bore. However as I know now, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is nothing like that, in fact it is almost the opposite as we watch Jordan Belfort and his friends party to excess after manipulating the stock markets to make themselves some of the richest men in America. These guys suddenly think themselves untouchable and due to how rich they are, feel they can do anything. Everything they do is done to excess because everything they have they take for granted and means nothing; soon life itself means little; all it is about is having a good time and making money (no matter who you hurt doing so). While a lot of critics complained that Scorsese glorified Belfort and his friend's drug and sex fuelled exploits, I think they are missing the point. Scorsese needs to show just how fun these parties and the like are, so you get an understanding of why these men became addicted to such a lifestyle, but make no mistake about it, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” is a morality tale about the dangers of excess, which is shown very simply by how much of a tool these guys ultimately look like. At the end of the day, the film is about the rise and fall of a man who thought himself bigger and more important than anyone around him; it just happens that a lot of his exploits are hilarious as much as they are irresponsible. Quickly, on the acting front DiCaprio shines in the very showy part of Jordan Belfort, and he is ably assisted by Jonah Hill in one of his dramatic roles. The film has a wonderful cast but it has two very impressive cameo roles from Matthew McConaughey and Jean Dujardin. For a film that is three hours long, it moves at a cracking pace and is always entertaining. It is hard to believe that this film was directed by a man who is aged 72 because it feels like the work of a young filmmaker, but at this late in the game, are we really surprised that Scorsese has the ability to do anything he chooses?
9. THE DOUBLE
This is the second of my doppelganger thrillers to make this list but although at first they seem similar, the two films couldn't be more different, not least because “The Double” also works well as a very dark comedy (and it is very funny). What is interesting is that when I saw both “Enemy” and “The Double” (within a week of each other), I originally thought “Enemy” would be higher on this list but as the year has gone on, “The Double” has just stayed with me that much more. The thing that impresses me most is the design of the film. It is just so precise and of its own world. Although the film is set in the future, everything looks as though it has come from the past with gadgets run by gears and metal as opposed to everything being smooth and digital. It gives the film a great texture. Director Richard Ayoade along with his design team create a world that is bereft of colour with a lot of greys and browns used with the odd splash of blue whenever Mia Wasikowska is on screen. With the use of deep, dark shadows, it creates an almost “black and white” colour film. What “The Double” is about is having a lack of identity as if nobody sees you and the comedy of the film comes from the fact that when our main character's (Simon) exact double shows up, no-one notices. At least not Simon, they all notice his double (James) because he is the exact opposite to him in that he is confident, charismatic and very outgoing. Simon sees what little life he has slipping away which ends up causing him to fight to survive and come out of his shell. The further the film goes along, the darker (thematically) it gets and the one film I kept on being reminded of while watching “The Double” was Roman Polanski's “The Tenant” which is one of my all time favourites. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in “Enemy”, Jesse Eisenberg does a fantastic job with differentiating between Simon and James, with Simon being very twitchy and nervous all the time, whilst James always has an air of confidence around him to the point of arrogance. One final note about “The Double” (although I really have heaps more to say about the film) was that I thought it was a nice touch that Ayode cast all of his cast members from his previous film “Submarine” in the small, bit parts of this film.
If for nothing else, “Wadjda” is a stunningly achievement for the fact that it is the first film to ever be made in Saudi Arabia and it was by a female director. Considering how restrictive society is for females there, it is almost unbelievable how this film got made. Director Haifaa Al Mansour was not allowed to speak to the male cast members directly and when shooting scenes outside in public she had to direct from inside a darkened van parked on the street. It is seriously a miracle that the film even got made, but for it to be a film of such class and beauty is something else entirely. What makes “Wadjda” so great a film is its simplicity; it is about a young girl named Wadjda who wants to buy herself a bicycle, but under the guise of this simplicity, Al Mansour is able to give insight into what it is like to be a female living in Saudi Arabia. Do not fret though, this isn't a political piece where Al Mansour has some agenda she is trying to get across, rather she is just honestly portraying what life as a female is like in her country. The film is also quite funny at times although I would never call it a comedy. The fact that Wadjda herself is such a cheeky girl, you cannot help but laugh at her when she is defying her mother or talking back to her. She is just so damned cute and Waad Mohammed is perfectly cast in the role. She also has fantastic chemistry with her screen mother played by Reem Abdullah and it is this chemistry that makes the scenes between mother and daughter the highlights of the film. The interesting thing about the (unnamed) mother character is the difference in her and her actions from when she is in her own house compared to when she is outside in public and it is a real eye-opener in regards to the repression of women in Saudi Arabia. I'm not sure if I am getting across just how fun this film really is, but although “Wadjda” is a beautiful and happy film, it is not without its sadness too, with most of these scenes having to do with the mother. I implore you to check out “Wadjda” because it is just a great crowd pleaser. Click here to read my original review.
7. FISH & CAT
This was the only Iranian film that I saw at MIFF this year and unsurprisingly it blew me away. I do not know what it is about me and Iranian cinema but I am always impressed by what I see. However what made “Fish & Cat” unlike any other Iranian film (or of any country) is that this 140 minute film is shot in one long continuous take. No doubt this is an impressive feat, but it doesn't stop there, because within this single take, we are witness to a number of flashbacks and scenes that are told multiple times but each time from someone else's point of view. It is extraordinary how the film comes together and the logistics and rehearsal to make this whole thing work must have been a headache for all involved, and yet for the audience, it is all seamless. To be totally honest, I was so caught up in the style of the storytelling and bedazzled by it all, that I'm not entirely sure that the plot of the film warrants how high it has found itself on this list. Frankly I do not care because “Fish & Cat” is all about technique and I was spellbound by it all. Seriously my mouth was agape a number of times during this film, stunned by what I was witnessing. The story of the film is relatively simple as it is about a group of friends who travel down to a lake to participate in a yearly kite flying contest. Neighbouring the camp on the lake is a small restaurant who has a bad habit of serving meat of the human variety, and the scary part is that its three cooks are currently out in the woods looking for some fresh meat. What is interesting is that the film is based on real events which is pretty shocking. While the film itself goes for 140 minutes, the time-span of the actual events in the film would probably only last fifty minutes at most, but we are constantly revisiting the same scenes over and over again. It might sound repetitive and boring but it is the total opposite as you are totally focused by it all as you learn more and more about what is happening each time you witness the scene from another point of view. And do not forget that this is all in one take; simply stunning.
This is the second time that Jake Gyllenhaal has made it onto this list in a starring role, and the film is one that just came out of nowhere for me. Until about a month before its release I knew nothing about the film and then it started getting rave reviews and it was released in Australia soon after. I immediately checked it out and fell in love with the film and its sleazy main character, Lou Bloom. The film is a satire about today's sad state of journalism and about the increasingly blurring of the line between news and entertainment. The fact that if there is blood or gore in a story a news service will run it in an attempt for ratings. Gyllenhaal is yet again superb as Bloom and couldn't be more different from the other recent roles he has played. What I love about Gyllenhaal is that when he creates a character he builds them from the ground up starting with their body language. With Lou Bloom he creates a character that barely blinks which is very disconcerting because you just feel the man's gaze on you at all times. He also plays this man as someone very charismatic, which is important because he is a man who does deplorable things in an attempt to advance his position in work and life, but he still needs to be someone the audience and the other characters of the film relate to and gravitate towards. Make no mistake, Lou Bloom is a disturbed man, and while initially it appears like he is just professionally motivated, things begin to turn when he starts to participate in the news rather than just observing them, to the point of withholding information from the police of crimes he has caught on film. What I really liked about “Nightcrawler” is that it is a film that continues to build until it reaches a fever pitch for its finale, which may be the films only downside because I knew exactly how it was going to end well before the end, therefore I guess it is predictable. Still it is a minor quibble of a fantastic film. I must quickly make mention of Robert Elswit's seedy night-time photography that gave L.A a very dark and desperate look to it, and I thought it was fantastic to see Rene Russo in a substantial role again (and she is very good too).
5. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
This was actually the very first film that I saw in 2014, which is a testament to just how good a film it must be that I still remember it when it comes time to doing this list. “12 Years A Slave” is the incredible true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York that is kidnapped and sold into slavery where he spends the next twelve years of his life under a number of different owners. Originally I expected this film to be very heavy and a bit of a slog to get through, and although it deals with a lot of confronting themes and unflinchingly so, I found the whole thing to be beautifully made mainly due to Chiwetel Ejiofor's sensitive portrayal of Solomon himself. He is a proud man who refuses to give up this pride and self respect just because he is now considered a slave. It really is a stunningly powerful performance, full of nuance and emotion; you cannot take your eyes off of him. Equally as strong but in a much uglier role is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps who plays Solomon's longest owner in the film. Most of the film's confronting scenes involve the Fassbender character who fully commits to these scenes to expose their true ugliness including a very painful scene of him whipping Patsey, a young female slave who is played by Lupita Nyongó. From a content point of view it is a terribly painful scene, but from a filmmaking perspective it is the film's most exciting moment because it is all told in one long continuous shot that has been masterfully achieved by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (whose work, unsurprisingly, is brilliant throughout the entire film). The thing that surprised me most though was Hans Zimmer's score. For a film like this, I was expecting something very large and sweeping in an attempt to manipulate your emotions, something done with a full orchestra and everything. While I know little about music, it appears that what I got was something quite different and a lot darker to compliment the horrific images on screen. For me personally, I thought it added a great deal to the film. While there is plenty more to say about this equally disturbing and emotionally beautiful film, here is not the place, so I will end by saying that director Steve McQueen has created yet another stunning achievement with “12 Years A Slave” that rivals his previous film “Shame” in brilliance. Unsurprisingly I look forward to whatever may be McQueen's next film.
4. THE RAID 2: BERANDAL
“The best action film for at least a decade!” is how I summed up “The Raid” in my best-of list of 2012 (where it came in at #5 on that list) and I stand by that comment, except it has only taken two years for that statement to become obsolete as “The Raid 2” betters the earlier film in every department possible making it not just the best action film for at least a decade, but one of the best action films ever made. If the first film didn't prove it, the second film certainly has shown us that director Gareth Evans is clearly the new master of action films. Unlike his contemporaries, he painstakingly works out every moment of each action scene and doesn't finish shooting them until he is absolutely satisfied with the results. We are not just talking one or two takes here, we are talking well past thirty if that is what is needed. Regardless, the proof is on the screen because the action in this movie is just insane and very inventive. Evans and his star Iko Uwais have combined to create some of the most awe-inspiring action ever captured for a film and what I particularly like is that each action scene is different from the one that came before it. There isn't that sameness which can sometimes make an action film boring. Here we have a large number of fights, be it one on many, one on one, one on two, weapons or just open hands; they are all spectacular and I haven't even mentioned the vehicular madness yet. The original film was a claustrophobic experience with the entire film taking place in a multi-storey building that the cops cannot escape from. For the sequel, Evans opens everything up, letting the story breathe and introducing a number of new characters into the story. Apart from the fights, this sequel is bigger in every way possible not least of all with its extended running time of two and a half hours, but Evans proves he has quite the cinematic eye by perfectly choreographing a scene of dialogue just as excitingly as one of his action scenes. He understands when to move the camera and more importantly how, and is able to create a tangible world for his characters to inhabit. If there is a criticism of the film, it is that with all the new characters, it gets a little confusing just who is who and their exact function in the plot, but this is a minor quibble of a fantastically kinetic motion picture. If you are not impressed by the final fifteen minutes of this film then you are unable to be impressed; it is truly outstanding in its complexity. Click here to read my original review.
3. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Oh my god! Is Jim Jarmusch the coolest guy in the world? He is a true original and makes films like no other, and that is something to be thankful for in this cookie-cutter age of cinema. He always creates such engaging and interesting characters that are so easy to fall in love with even when they are not doing much on-screen which, if we are being honest, is often in a Jarmusch film. I especially love it when Jarmusch ventures into genre filmmaking which he has done with his latest film “Only Lovers Left Alive”, which happens to be a vampire film – one of the coolest vampire films ever. The film is about Adam and Eve, vampires deeply in love and that have been together for centuries, and yet live countries apart. Adam lives in Old Detroit, whilst Eve lives in Morocco. After a conversation with Adam over the internet, where he bemoans about the state of the world and of human kind, Eve understands that he is in suffering from one of his depression moods and decides to leave her abode in Morocco and reunite with her husband in an attempt to show him just how good life can be again. As soon as Eve arrives in Detroit and the pair are together once more, Adam starts to pick up and begins to have fun with his loved one, but all this is threatened when Eve's sister Ava shows up for an uninvited visit. From the opening frame, I was in love with this film. It grabbed me right from the get-go and even though it moves at a snails pace that some might find disconcerting, I was entranced for the entire two hour running time. All of Jarmusch's films look amazing, but this is especially true of “Only Lovers Left Alive” as the production design here is so detailed that it just gives the whole universe that the film exists in, a lived in quality to it. It doesn't feel fake; you believe that Adam would live in a place like he does, and the same with Eve. Being a Jarmusch film, music also plays a big part of the film, particularly here because Adam is actually a famous musician. All the performances in this film are pitch perfect (I'm really becoming a Tilda Swinton fan these days), but I have to single out Mia Wasikowska's energetic and playful performance as Ava. She plays her as a naughty little kid who has no responsibility for any of her actions. She just does what she wants without thinking. Whenever Ava is front and center, Wasikowska just lights up the screen; it is unlike any role she has done before. My final thought on this film is if you ever wondered what a Jim Jarmusch vampire film would be like, check out “Only Lovers Left Alive” because it is everything you imagined it would be, and it is fantastic. For a brief while I actually thought it was my favourite film from this original artist (until I saw “Dead Man” on the big screen again, and it took back top spot) but it easily comes in at number two; yes folks, it is that good. Click here to read my original review.
2. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
After my disappointment with his previous film, “Moonrise Kingdom”, I was afraid that my love affair with Wes Anderson's films may be over because what I reacted against most was his (over) stylisations within that film which is an Anderson trademark. Thankfully it appears that my reaction to “Moonrise Kingdom” must have been an anomaly because he has followed that film up with his best yet, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which also has to be his most stylised film to date and I loved every second of it. The film, as per my original review, is “set in the early 1930’s in the fictional European country of Zubrowka, where we are witness to the many adventures of the famed concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, Gustave H. and his trusted lobby boy, Zero. The oddball couple find themselves mixed up in a story involving a murder mystery, an art theft, a jailbreak and a battle of wills in regards to a family fortune, all against the backdrop of impending war”. The best thing about the film is the character of Gustave H. who is hilariously played by Ralph Fiennes. Often considered a stuffy actor of period films, Fiennes shines with the comedy of this film and makes the famed concierge Anderson's greatest character yet. The rest of the cast is filled by a who's who of Hollywood with bit roles going to the likes of Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton (again), Adrien Brody, and Willem Dafoe, just to name a few. All of them are excellent as is Anderson behind the camera himself. He seems to be in total control of the film at all times expertly handling the difficult tone of nostalgia and melancholy (whilst creating a comedy). As you would expect the film is packed to the gills in the visual department, with each set filled with the tiniest details but I loved the fact that Anderson appeared to be celebrating the artifice of filmmaking reminiscent of the film's time period. He uses a number of techniques such as matte paintings and extensions, to the use of miniatures, and even a bit of stop motion animation. It all comes together beautifully though. Speaking of beautiful, as usual Robert Yeoman's cinematography is precise and beautifully composed and I must say I was happy to see Anderson's use of the colour yellow finally being taken over by another colour, this time with pink. It is well known that the film is actually in three different aspect ratios depending on the time period of the story, but the majority of the film is shot in the 1.33 Academy ratio, which works very well for Anderson's detailed heavy images. The only negative I have for this film is I think it has one too many framing devices; with the third one too cute for its own good. Other than that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a fantastically funny film and one that is very easy to re-visit over and over again, and the best part is it gets better with each viewing. Click here to read my original review.
So here we are finally. My favourite film of 2014 was none other than Gerard Johnstone's “Housebound”, a brilliant horror/comedy that came out of nowhere from New Zealand. Those that have been following this blog may know that I really do not like comedy in my horror films. It just rarely works and nobody understands how to get the balance right between the horror and comedy with most people overdoing the comedy totally which undercuts the horror. “Housebound” is the perfect example of a horror/comedy done right. The whole thing is hilarious and scary when it is meant to be either and the reason why it works so well is because it doesn't rely on gags, the situations the character's find themselves in are funny but they are played totally straight. We, the audience, are the ones laughing not the characters, which is important to the film's success. The other great thing about “Housebound” is that it defies conventions; you just never know where this film is going which is so great for a viewer. It is awesome not knowing what will happen next, or guessing the ending five minutes into the film. The plot of the film is about an immature twenty something girl, Kylie, who is sentenced to house arrest at her mum's house for six months after a bungled robbery attempt. Whilst living and trapped in this house, strange things start happening and it isn't long before Kylie starts believing that the house may be haunted and just what does the creepy next door neighbour have to do with all of this? One of the most incredible things about this film is that Kylie is such a selfish, bratty bitch, and yet through the performance from Morgana O'Reilly in this role, you can't help but fall in love with her and you are with her for every second. She is just brilliant particularly with her “I don't give a fuck” stare that she gives all the time. A lot of the comedy comes from Kylie's mother, Miriam, who is the nagging kind of mother that you would hate to be trapped in a house with for six months. She could talk the leg off a chair and yet nothing she says is at all interesting; it's just noise. Still, again, you really find yourself loving her. Actually come to think of it, that is true of all the characters. When it comes down to the horror part of the film, this is also expertly handled but Johnstone does an amazing job of changing the type of horror film you are thinking you are watching regularly. At first the film comes across as a ghost story, and while I am not going to give away any secrets of the film, lets just say that by the time “Housebound” is over, it is a completely different type of horror being explored. While there are a couple of gory scenes particularly one moment at the end, the majority of the horror is done via suspense including a great segment on the roof of the house near the finale. Just like “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Housebound” is a film that gets better with each viewing and it is just so easy to watch. It was the film I watched more than any other in 2014 and I have recommended the film to so many people since. That is why “Housebound” is my favourite film of 2014, and I cannot wait to see what Gerard Johnstone does next.
Well there you have it, that was my round-up of the year that was 2014. Hopefully you got some enjoyment out of it, but before I finish, lets have a brief look at the upcoming year and my most anticipated films of 2015.