Hope you all had a killer Christmas and are shaping up for a huge new year (we certainly are)! How was your 2014? Personally, it's been kinda big; I moved one feature film script closer to completion and started another, wrote my first short film in three years -- which we'll be making, frighteningly soon -- started forming a team of awesome collaborators to take Cinema Viscera to the next level, and basically lined up a shitload of dominos to knock over in 2015, all going well. But more on all that in other posts to come soon. Today, I'm here to extol the virtues of what 2014 gave me in cinema, and other filmic discoveries I had along the way -- broken up into helpful chapters.
The Long Goodbye.
So: you may or may not know that I co-host a monthly movie podcast with my filmmaker/critic pal Lee Zachariah, called Hell Is For Hyphenates. We invite a different special guest on the show to discuss the career of a filmmaker of their choosing, film by film. We've talked to everyone from Joe Swanberg to Julia Zemiro, about everyone from Luchino Visconti to Michael Bay. If you haven't listened to it, you really should! But enough of the advertorial: we'd been talking with the lovely Mathieu Ravier, eminence grise of the Sydney Film Festival Hub, about doing a show there for a while, so it was our huge pleasure to fly up for this year's fest to record our first ever live-audience podcast. But who would our guest be?
Well, it just happened that the festival were screening a retrospective of films by the late, iconoclastic American director Robert Altman, with introductions and Q&As with his son, Michael. So Mathieu approached us with the indelible proposition: would we like to discuss the films of Robert Altman with Michael Altman?
Of course, we turned him down flat.
What followed was one of the defining film-viewing experiences of my life. The attention to character, the love of actors, the dexterity of staging, the fluidity of camerawork, the cacophony of sound… his films were so urgently, thrillingly alive.
Watching M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park and countless other classics, you feel as if life is unfolding in front of you, a life that began before the film unspooled and continues after it ends, a life we've just been privileged to jump into for two hours, yet all filtered through incredibly unique takes on genre. Western, War, Horror, Thriller, Science Fiction, Costume Drama, Crime, Drawing Room Melodrama -- there isn't a genre he didn't successfully tackle.
What's more, Michael Altman was a lovely man, a most obliging guest with plenty of great stories and insightful perspectives on his father's films. Studying the method of Bob Altman's madness, immersing myself in his intoxicating, quintessentially New Hollywood aesthetic -- watch M*A*S*H again and tell me that it isn't the American Cinema of the 1970s beginning in front of your very eyes -- felt like an adrenalin shot to the way I think about making films, and, while I don't believe I could ever be brave enough to replicate the gloriously disintegrated chaos of his sets, his intuitive, collaborative, generous way with actors will forever inform the way I direct mine.
But, of a bounty of endless discovery that includes California Split, HealtH, That Cold Day in the Park, 3 Women, Fool For Love, Brewster McCloud, Images, Streamers, Secret Honor, and The Company -- really, the man has more hidden gems than most directors have good films -- one rose above them all: Altman's 1973 trailblazing take on Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye.
Starring a magnetic, laconic Elliott Gould at the peak of his movie star powers (seriously, you'll wonder why he didn't rule the rest of the decade), the film's caustic dialogue, gymnastic narrative, evocative sense of place, snatches of everyday quirkiness and loose reinvention of genre will make you feel like you're watching the Coen Brothers' entire aesthetic being born in front of you, ten years before they emerged. It's a furiously entertaining, meta-before-"meta" blast of ganja-clouded L.A haze that arrived two decades before its time, and provides the perfect launching pad to explore this towering filmmaker's astonishing career.
Voyages of Discovery.
If the Godfather Parts I and II are the bookends of my all-time top five films ever seen, Pulp Fiction is the greatest of what's in between. It's fair to say it had a seismic effect on me upon release (I saw it four times, still a PB!), as a paragon of the kind of films I loved to watch and those I'd love to make. It's pretty much my Star Wars, and seeing it projected from a slightly battered 35mm print of the huge Astor Theatre screen in Windsor, alongside some of my closest friends, was like reacquainting myself with a great love.
The Elmore Leonard influence felt much more present this time around, now I'm more familiar with his work, while the scene where Vincent arrives to pick up Mia struck me as unbelievably sensual, edging into Wong Kar Wai territory with its fixation on objects, mirroring and gentle flirtation. In fact, I'd never found the Mia-Vincent sequence so gorgeously charming before. I had always dug it, but this is the first time I truly fell for her and their beautiful, almost innocent, flirtatious chemistry.
It reminded me just how much of Pulp Fiction is about human connection. The conversations between Vincent and Mia, Jules and Vincent, Butch and Fabienne, Jules and Pumpkin/Honeybunny -- they're all just people trying to make sense of a world that's always perched precariously on a gun barrel, where the most desperate choice is always the easiest and violence literally lurks around every corner. In his larger-than-life way, Tarantino is often most interested in seeing his characters find fleeting pockets of inspiration within the madness that is their lives.
Just as I saw it on its second day of release in 1994, I want to devote my life to making movies that make others feel the sheer elation that Pulp Fiction brings to me. It was a wonder way back then, and remains so today -- and will endure.
Meanwhile, my biggest non-Altman discoveries of 2014 were two films that actually lived up to their hype as cinematic masterpieces of the highest order, and another that was bafflingly considered a failure for too many years…
Let's start there.
Previously most famous for the misfortune of opening the week after Star Wars, the life of Sorcerer -- William Friedkin's ambitious 1977 remake of the 1953 classic The Wages of Fear -- as a pejorative cinematic footnote ends now, and should be rediscovered on the biggest screen, with the biggest sound, humanly possible. Newly remastered in 4K digital for a Venice premiere and prestige Blu-Ray release, Sorcerer is as powerful a sensory experience as any film I've ever seen, a white-knuckle thriller of peerless skill, and an optimum example of politicised 1970s American studio filmmaking. The first hour sets up the four protagonists in near-wordless economy -- almost feeling like four different short films -- before throwing them together in one of the most pitiful hellholes ever committed to screen (the dilapidated production design is relentless), firing a still-timely broadside at the way multinational resource firms exploit third world nations ripe for the picking. The entire second hour is devoted to our Four With Nothing To Live For driving wet nitroglycerin in beat-up trucks across rickety bridges and rocky, washed-out terrain, and it is terrifying; a stunningly executed, perfectly played journey into madness to rival Apocalypse Now (which was still two years away). It's time for this neglected classic to finally get its due and become a fixture on repertory cinema calendars the world over.
Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966) opens like a Lars von Trier film -- there's a sentence I never imagined myself ever typing -- and only gets nuttier from there. This exploration of identity and inverting traditional female roles is a closet full of mysteries, bewitching and bewildering in equal measure, yet resonating powerfully on a primal, subconscious level as cinematographer Sven Nykvist's luscious monochrome compositions envelop your senses. One could make a solid argument for Persona being the archetypal "European Art Film", even out of sync with the rest of Bergman's career -- I've never seen him this angry or experimental, and seems to emerge just as much from the turbulence of the mid 1960s as anything else, influencing generations of filmmakers and blowing countless minds. Essential cinema.
But enough trips down memory lane. It's time for the show!
Paul Anthony Nelson's Unsolicited Countdown of the Best Films of 2014
As usual, I duly sidestepped most major US comedies, films that looked particularly bad, or anything Cameron Diaz was in this year. And, naturally, there were quite a few critically or commercially popular films I just plain missed as, well, I can't see everything and, often, didn't really want to. This year kept me pretty damn busy, forcing me to miss a number of screenings I actually did want to attend, so why waste my time with things I didn't? Still, I think you'll agree that I've absorbed a broad spectrum from which to choose my year's finest (my full list of eligible films can be found in the comments).
As always, my countdown arrives with disclaimers:
- My list is restricted to films that had their paid premiere screening to the Australian public (whether in cinemas, on home video, online or at film festivals) during the 2014 calendar year.
- A certain film about an actor who used to play a superhero, who is played by an actor who used to play a superhero, would have placed third on this list if it didn’t officially release in Australia 'til January 15th, 2015. So look for it on next year's list -- which I guarantee, it will make.
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
Filmed only on Tuesdays over one year, this seriously impressive drama about a mother starting a gender reassignment transition to become male -- and managing to shut out her daughter, shuttling her off to her father and restricting her to just one visit a week, every Tuesday, for a year -- smartly avoids sweeping generalisations and saintly portrayals of its characters, opting instead to show us nuanced, difficult, dysfunctional people trying their level best to be authentic to themselves, without always considering -- or trusting -- the people they love most. An innovative, deeply personal work of uncommon frankness and emotional complexity, and the very best Australian film I saw this year.
This Norwegian effort from debut director Eskil Vogt is one of those great film festival surprise packets. Writer Ingrid (the terrific Ellen Dorrit Petersen) loses her sight and refuses to leave her apartment, despite the urgings of her husband, preferring to ensconce herself in a self-constructed cocoon of memory, desire and imagination. Fantasy and reality coexist, collide and dovetail with a deftness matched only by Charlie Kaufman's work, creating a playful, funny, sexy, even poignant character study whilst wielding a surgical knack for human observation. I'm unsure whether Blind will ever find a local release, but I strongly urge you to seek it out. It's a pistol.
Threatened by an unknown confessor looking to kill a good priest in exchange for the collective sins of the Catholic Church, Father James (a never-better Brendan Gleeson) spends his next seven days wondering just who the hell wants him dead. Not easy as a rare good man in a town of bad apples. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh's (The Guard) aggressively dark humour is all over this, lulling us into thinking this is yet another quirky, sharp-edged portrait of a small town Ireland where colourful abuse and casual violence lurk around every corner… But McDonagh has a lot more on his mind beneath his seemingly quirky conceit, finally revealing the damaged psyches of his bruised, beautiful characters, building it all to a profoundly sad, emotional wallop of a close.
A one-time superstar chef is fired from his big-time restaurant and finds redemption -- and reconnection with loved ones -- through weaving his own culinary magic from a beat-up food truck. Having been through the Hollywood ringer of writing and directing hits and flops for indies and studios -- and walking both sides of the critical street --writer/director Jon Favreau knows a thing or two about the modern commercial artist's journey, which lends this, his gorgeous ode to creative independence, a welcome dose of gravity. It's also just plain fun, filled with delicious-looking food, irresistible Latin rhythms and an excellent, affable all-star cast having a ball -- not to mention being one of the few films to understand the reach and power of social media.
A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT
Walking and talking like the Persian-speaking bastard child of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, the English-born of Iranian-heritage, US-raised writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour cooks up a beautiful, bewitching romance-with-a-pinch-of-horror that takes its cue from the above filmmakers, with a little Sergio Leone composition and musical taste stirred in. Leads Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi make a strong impression as the loveable, attractive leads, and Amirpour goes about crafting her tale in a spare, sparse but always interesting way that transcends her influences -- showing a gift for small sensual moments, beautiful imagery, subtle yet very pointed social commentary and a Tarantino-esque feel for matching music to image -- that marks her as a huge talent to watch.
Elderly and ornery, Woody Grant (a wonderful Bruce Dern) seems convinced his bogus Publisher's Clearing House-style slip is going to net him the million dollars it promises, and is determined to travel the country to fetch it -- with his youngest son David (Will Forte, a revelation here with his sad-eyed turn) in tow to make sure Woody doesn't get himself into mischief. Writer/director Alexander Payne crafts another excellent, bittersweet portrait of all-too painful family dynamics and the tyranny of ageing, laced with his particular brand of truth and acidic, often uncomfortable humour, all shot in glorious black & white. Payne has a serious eye and ear for the tragic dignity of middle America, honing it ever more from film to film, all at once beautifully simple, utterly ridiculous and quietly heartbreaking.
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Vampire lovers Adam and Eve (the exquisite Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) reunite in Adam's Detroit home after years apart and amble through their undead lives, trying to find something to keep them engaged after soaking up centuries of culture. Complicating matters is Adam's party girl sister Ava (a delightfully devilish Mia Wasikowska), as impulsive as her elders are considered and incognito. For all his filmmaking gifts -- all on brilliant display here -- writer/director Jim Jarmusch doubles as a sort of Hipster Patient Zero, and his vamps initially strike us as insufferable too-cool seen-it-all types, until it becomes clear Jarmusch is slyly making affectionate fun of the hipster's studied melancholy -- yet has his cake and drinks its blood by mining the genuine sadness of these two as the film draws on, growing ever more beautiful, all framed by a broken Detroit that echoes the wreckage -- physical and emotional -- we all leave behind, along with our own mortality.
Due to his inability to be controlled within the juvenile detention system, ultraviolent teen Eric (an alternately boyish and fearsome Jack O'Connell) is "starred up" -- transferred to an adult prison, where his equally explosive father (Ben Mendelsohn) is an inmate. The surprise of director David McKenzie's film is that it's a riveting father-son melodrama, with genuine heart and soul -- but never, ever sentimentality -- dressed up as a bracing, sobering social realist prison drama, electrified with a keen eye for detail, the intelligence to highlight connective tissue between the failure of the state to support its staff and the prisoners their institutions produce, and builds it all upon cracking performances from a brilliant cast.
THE TRIP TO ITALY
Real talk now: I could just watch these two all day. I'm not one for sequels -- only three appear on this list -- but revisiting these two brilliant, strangely loveable comic actors, both indulged and reigned in by the sure hand of director Michael Winterbottom (The Trip, 24 Hour Party People), was an absolute pleasure. The film also presents a clever turn on the sequel ethos, by essentially giving us more of the same -- the brilliant impressions, the mid-life crisis acting-out and struggle between perceived freedom and family commitments -- but cleverly, subtly inverts the leads' dynamic: suddenly, it's Coogan on the phone to his loved ones & Brydon daring a dalliance, and it works brilliantly. Even more picturesque than the first -- those Italian countrysides are luscious -- it cloaks its eloquence on the impending threat of ageing we all face with some of the funniest scenes of one-upmanship and friendly ribbing you'll see. I almost never say this, but: bring on a third.
UNDER THE SKIN
A nameless woman drives around the grey streets of rural Scotland like a serial killer, picking up random guys. When she takes them home, you won't believe what fate awaits them… yet, that's only the hook for this endlessly odd, completely beguiling film. Straddling science fiction and social realism is no mean feat, but writer/director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) manages it with a chilly, Nic Roeg-esque eye for human darkness and frailty. Scarlett Johansson is subtly brilliant, pulling off an excellent british accent and taking us on an indelible, chilling headtrip with her enigmatic character. Rarely does a film start off so terrifying and end up so sadly, but Johansson's journey from hunter to hunted, seemed -- to my eyes, anyway, I could be wrong -- to be exploring nothing less than the cavernous gulf between the general perception and painful actuality of the female sexual experience. You'll feel like a dunce while watching it, but just try and get this darkly beautiful, haunting film out of your head afterward. Oh, and Mica Levi's musical score may be the best you'll hear in 2014.
A determined girl named Wadjda wants her own bicycle: this may sound like the stuff of Italian neorealism -- and there's definitely a thematic DNA there -- but this girl lives in Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to drive, vote… or make movies. The fact that not only is this the first film ever shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, but that it is written and directed by a woman -- the talented Haifaa Al-Mansour -- is cause for celebration alone, but the fact this landmark work is so relentlessly entertaining is quite something else. A simple story well told, Wadjda is affecting enough, with a wonderful lead character (played by the endearingly cocky Waad Mohammed), but where it really excels is in Al-Mansour's writing. There's a lived-in quality to this world and every character in it, of such uncommon depth you'll find yourself wondering about the pasts and futures of even the most incidental characters. Considering Hollywood studios' often failed obsession with "world building", watching a woman from Saudi Arabia just rock up and do it like it ain't no thang is truly inspiring.
Aspiring Jazz drummer Andrew (an impressive Miles Teller) is accepted to the prestigious Schaffer Conservatory to further his path to greatness… but here he must contend with the cruel tutelage of Fletcher (a demonic J.K. Simmons), whose idea of teaching would make Hannibal Lecter blush -- a never-ending cycle of verbal, physical and psychological abuse to break people down, build them- nah, just keep breaking them -- which takes a serious toll on Andrew's psyche. Descending into the Crimson Tide of inspirational teacher movies, Whiplash asks if greatness really does require a certain shunning of humanity and empathy -- and where this notion even comes from (as much from a teacher's indulgent power-trips as likely apocryphal myths and anecdotes). Above all this, the film is a showcase for writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross and cinematographer Sharone Meir, who assemble one of the most unbearably tense, pulsatingly rhythmic, stunningly shot and cut films of recent years -- the film's ending alone is its own symphony. Chazelle's blazing command of craft will linger long after his often over-the-top story (the car crash scene, in particular, loses me, metaphor or not) fades from view.
THE TOP 20 FILMS OF 2014
One night, Ivan Locke leaves work to take responsibility for the biggest mistake he's ever made. Over the course of an 80 minute drive, it's just him, his car phone and his conscience as he tries to save everything: the biggest concrete pour of his construction career, his marriage and that mistake. The very conceit of taking a family/work melodrama and fashioning it like an airtight thriller is a masterstroke in itself, but seeing it unfold, as this honourable professional can't help but bargain as his life is being slowly taken apart, adds it an unexpected poignance. Steven Knight's script is rich with detail and wastes nothing, and the film is beautifully shot (could've used a little more bokeh, really)... but all of this doesn't work without an intensely charismatic, relatable, bruised performance in the lead, which is what Tom Hardy provides. He's done some extraordinary work in his short career, but this ranks near the top. The voice cast on the other end of his phone line provide able support, too; particularly Andrew Scott as his particularly nervous foreman. Strap yourself in for one of the year's best thrillers.
19. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
I've never seen any of the original Planet of the Apes movies or the TV series, but I did suffer through the awful 2000 remake, and, Caesar aside, I wasn't that jazzed by 2011's Rise reboot… so I'm more shocked than you that this is here. The film's form is so impressively odd for a modern blockbuster: barely a word is spoken for the first 13 minutes, most of the lead characters are computer-generated apes, and there's precious little destruction, instead opting for huge stretches of quiet, contemplative scenes of drama. Matt Reeves directs the hell out of Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver's thrilling screenplay; both a sensitive personal drama and a whip-smart sociopolitical conspiracy thriller. But it all crumbles if the visual effects fail in any way, and this is the film's greatest magic trick: it creates hordes of photorealistic apes, rendered so seamlessly, the leading ape characters so affectingly, achingly lifelike, that it feels like you're watching a new frontier being crossed. 25 years of computer generated visual FX has finally led us to a place where an angry ape can blaze two machine guns while riding horseback, and I am delighted by this.
18. NEXT GOAL WINS
American Samoa are relatively new to the world of professional football, but, even amongst fellow newbies, their ability to lose spectacularly is unique. Rock bottom arrives when they suffer a world record loss to the Australian national team -- hardly a World Cup superpower themselves -- 31 goals to nil. This film begins as an inside look at their road back to national respect, but as we meet the American Samoa players, it soon transcends the sports documentary narrative to become a bigger story about inspiring individuals, preserving an admirable culture that embraces diversity -- a key member on the team's roster is the world's first transgender player to suit up for a World Cup qualifier -- and the point where teamwork and self-expression can meet and even flourish. It's not only the best underdog story you'll see this year, but also a sweet ethnographic study of one of the world's smallest cultures.
17. LIFE ITSELF
Film critic Roger Ebert lost his voice to cancer in 2006, but found a new, even more powerful one through his blog afterward. The At The Movies with Siskel and Ebert guy found a renewed global following through his long-form op-ed pieces, political views, interesting links, personal pieces and, yes, his film reviews. By the time cancer finally claimed him in 2013, aged 70, the outpouring of condolences and goodwill was huge. Using Ebert's memoir as a springboard, world-class documentarian Steve James creates a loving tribute to Ebert's journey from newspaperman to drunk to critic to sobriety to TV stardom to illness to Twitter, posing a series of pointed questions to the man himself, but also talking to family and friends (and even a few enemies) from all of these eras, unafraid to show Ebert's sharper edges. A highlight of the film is the examination of his complex, combative, almost brotherly relationship with Gene Siskel, not least for some fascinating outtake footage. Ebert may have been prickly, but as he grew older, and ego ceded to love, his indomitable voice is what endures -- which never blazed brighter than when he lost it.
Under the threat of catastrophic job losses, miners from small towns all over the UK spent the majority of 1984-85 standing up to Margaret Thatcher's draconian rule, and suffered dearly, as her government found new ways to squeeze them into accepting her terms: mostly involving violent police action. As fate had it, the striking miners found an ally in another group familiar with such harassment: a particularly politicised corner of the London LGBT community, who started collecting money for the miners' cause. Writer Steven Beresford and director Matthew Warchus' dramatisation of these events -- of an alliance that began uneasily, to say the least, but wound up becoming an example for us all -- is so perfectly judged, never shying away from the political, social and personal stakes at hand, expressing them through a range of beautifully written characters played by the best assembly of UK actors seen in years. The ads and posters make it seem twee, but this story of the power of protest, of finding kindred spirits in unexpected places during times of adversity, is as politically vital as any film I saw this year. It will also make you cry buckets, so be warned.
There are few sights so pleasing to this film buff as watching a mad auteur being completely unleashed. It's fair to say that Luc Besson's career has been flagging in recent years, which means it's such a joy to see him recapture a large slice of his '90s-style Nikita/Leon/Fifth Element form here. Lucy (Scarlett Johansson, enjoying an unstoppable year) is a party girl who finds herself forced to be a drug mule for a South Korean crime lord (Oldboy himself, the great Choi Min-Sik). A beating at the hands of a reprehensible type sees the package burst and the experimental drug enter Lucy's system in gigantic quantities, expanding first her intelligence, then her consciousness… and her power. What follows is both the silliest, most ambitious and most thrillingly unhinged action film seen in an age, where LSD-trip profundity rubs shoulders with comic book insanity. It's quite literally like no action film you've ever seen, with a nutty script that does some really interesting things with the idea -- this ain't Limitless -- anchored by a Johansson performance that's honest, affecting and kickass all at once. Welcome back, Luc: we missed you.
In the far future, a second ice age has obliterated the planet, leaving the only survivors circling the Earth on a giant train that runs on an engine that processes snow. Inside, the last remaining humans are segregated in terms of class: the poorest at the back, the train's president at the front. But young firebrand Curtis (a never-better Chris Evans) has other ideas; he rouses the downtrodden to make their way to the front and take the train. If this sounds like an implausible comic book, it's because it's based upon one... but there's nothing implausible about the social dynamics at play. Snowpiercer's politics are its third rail: the one where all the power is. Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Mother) navigates his audacious English language debut's elastic tone with aplomb and creates a structure that reflects his characters' struggle: opening with the year's most visceral first act, he leads us through insane action and absurdist humour before taking a turn for the intellectual -- like Curtis, Bong pushes us from the gut to the head. Such genius choices are legion in this, the kind of bold, witty, brutal, politicised action/sci-fi/thriller you'd never see out of a Hollywood studio.
13. JODOROWSKY'S DUNE
After kicking off the midnight movie era and gaining serious cult attention with his wittily surrealist headtrips El Topo and The Holy Mountain, iconoclastic Chilean auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky found himself holding the keys to a giant science fiction property: Frank Herbert's epic novel Dune. He set about making the most incredible science fiction picture ever made -- made only with collaborators Jodorowsky considered "spiritual warriors" -- which would do nothing less than expand the consciousness of all who saw it. Frank Pavich's irresistible documentary, overflowing with brilliant/crazy ideas, boundless enthusiasm and hilarious anecdotes, follows the process of how this grandest of visions collapsed, had its bones picked over by Hollywood and all-but-sidelined Jodorowsky's filmmaking career for 14 years. But where does a document of a failed, unrealised film get off being so damned inspiring? Improbably, this tale makes you want to pick up a camera, surround yourself with spiritual warriors and charge on to set. But, hey, that's the kind of mad messianic genius Jodorowsky is. And you'll want that massive book.
12. THE OVERNIGHTERS
A fracking boom brings itinerant workers from all over America -- as there's no damn jobs where they've come from -- to the oil fields of North Dakota, only to find their positions are already filled there, too. Faced with a homelessness epidemic, local pastor Jay Reinke decides to let them stay in and around his church, which raises the ire of his parish. Some of these men have criminal records, including serious sexual offences, and as a wave of fearmongering sweeps its way through the town, Jay must continually defend, adjust and bargain his position -- to him, it's the church's duty to look after their wayward flock. As we follow the lives of Jay and a selection of the workers, personal secrets gradually emerge that threaten to bring everything they're fighting for crashing down around them. Jesse Moss' intimate, well-balanced documentary never wavers in its journalistic conviction, even as it morphs from an interrogation of a church's societal role into a damning document of a modern America crumbling under a capitalist nightmare, fearing even thy neighbour all the while. Riveting stuff.
11. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
The horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from New York abducted into slavery, forced to endure twelve years of unfathomable abuse from plantation owners is an emotionally numbing but essential document of man's inhumanity to man... none worse than Edwin and Mistress Epps (a chillingly petulant Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson). Chiwetel Ejiofor has shown talent and charisma for some time now, but his performance as Northup propels him to greatness; most of the film plays out on his face, processing the enormity of the horror that's been thrust upon him, as his dignity and identity is slowly stripped away piece by piece. Steve McQueen's spare, clear-eyed direction is undercut slightly by Hans Zimmer's constant cribbing from his own Inception score, but where the film -- and John Ridley's screenplay -- proves most effective, is as an examination of how systemic human violations flourish. This kind of mass injustice needs more than stone cold racism to perpetuate: more often, the potential loss of power, status or community stops perhaps otherwise "good" people from challenging the status quo, which -- as Edmund Burke told us long ago -- is the only thing necessary for evil to triumph.
…and then there were 10...
10. NYMPHOMANIAC - VOLUMES I & II
Too often slandered as a misogynist -- curiously, most often by male critics -- instead Lars von Trier has become the foremost chronicler of man's inhumanity to woman, and of the female experience of moving through a brutal patriarchal world. Here, he turns his attention to Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg, sublimely going all in), a lifelong self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who recalls her sexual history to the man (Stellan Skarsgaard, gentle, open and affable) nursing her back to health after a beating. (Joe is also beautifully played as a younger woman by a very game Stacy Martin, in a stunning film debut.) Nymphomaniac roars with formal audacity -- structurally, aesthetically, narratively and sensorially -- but, as ever with von Trier, his coldly unsparing knack for human observation grounds his film in an all-too-real emotional reality. 8 the film's 9 chapters are different shades of incredible -- career-best turns from Uma Thurman and Jamie Bell distinguish the two best chapters -- until the weirdly contrived, gratingly absurd spy-movie-style final chapter damn near derails the entire thing… until von Trier plays his trump card: a truly shattering conclusion that puts his point -- men damning women merely for their sexuality -- into stark, poignant focus.
9. THE ONE I LOVE
We meet young marrieds Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, both pitch perfect) in their therapist's office. Things aren't going well, so their doctor (the terrific Ted Danson, in a sharp cameo) recommends a retreat he sends all his patients to; one weekend there and it'll fix their marriage right up. Ethan and Sophie oblige, but after their first night there, very strange things start happening. To say any more would be unfair… Charlie McDowell's directorial debut is both a nimble genre-mash and stunning example of low-to-micro-budget filmmaking, working from Justin Lader's razor-sharp screenplay (helped along, amazingly, by Moss and Duplass' astonishing improvisational work), which remains airtight due to never wavering from its thematic concerns, mixing up the kind of film you think you're watching, and speaking smartly observed, often uncomfortable truths about relationships in a fashion both funny and tragic, all leading to a conclusion that packs an unexpected emotional punch. Seek it out.
8. THE GRANDMASTER
Wong Kar Wai's return to the screen seven long years after My Blueberry Nights sees cinema's prime sensualist in fine form, working his magic on the life story of Ip Man (embodied by the brilliant Tony Leung), who would go on to train and mentor no less a titan than Bruce Lee. The fight scenes that populate the first hour of this film are almost overwhelming to watch, visually stunning and godlike in their depiction -- in a potentially played-out genre, I've never seen fight scenes staged like this before; like the bastard offspring of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but vastly different, more tactile than both. When the Second Sino-Japanese War forces Ip Man to leave his family to migrate to Hong Kong, he becomes increasingly obsessed with a martial artist he once considered his equal -- the beautiful Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang, making a huge impression) -- following her and piecing together what her life had become now. At this point, the film drifts away from Ip Man's story and becomes fixated on Gong Er, a decision that troubled many viewers but I found emotionally true: as Ip Man becomes consumed by her, the very trajectory of the film does, too. It's a clever, if risky, decision that pays off, with the profound, slo-mo, deep-focus romanticism Wong has made his trademark, standing alongside those astonishingly crafted battle tableaus -- all of which makes The Grandmaster a work of uncommon grace and emotionally resonant beauty.
7. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Three ancient vampires living in Wellington invite a documentary crew into their sharehouse to film their everyday (after)lives and explore their culture -- until they wind up turning a new vampire and have to show him the ropes. Longtime friends and collaborators Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) -- formidable talents alone -- join their considerable forces to write and direct this wickedly hilarious mockumentary, bursting at the seams with cheekily clever spins on popular vampire tropes. The sheer volume of great jokes alone would make it the year's funniest comedy, but it's its deft touch with character, making these monsters so relatable and endearing, that really shoots this picture to another level. The film's performances are also disarmingly human, particularly Waititi as the lovestruck peacemaker Vlago. What's more, there's an uncommon rigour applied to maintaining the documentary conceit; rarely for the mockumentary subgenre, not a single shot feels false or impossible. The sheer loveable spirit, blood-soaked abandon -- don't think for a second this film shies away from the bloodier aspects of vampiric horror -- and originality of the writing on display here ensures repeat viewings will be essential for years to come.
6. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
As professionally crafted as Marvel's movies are, they often feel like product, each with interlocking parts, action accessories and little-to-no concerns below the surface. But Captain America: The Winter Solider, brilliantly directed by frequent Community directors Joe and Anthony Russo -- who knew? -- feels like a film, the best kind of modern blockbuster; breathlessly speeding from one set piece to the next, yet taking care to give both lead and supporting characters moments of humanity and iconic beats to savour, whilst weaving in thoughtful subtext reflecting the world in which we live. The selling out of civil liberties to stop a faceless, insidious terror, using drones and fear to do it, creating soldiers by first robbing them of empathy -- these are some weighty, intelligent issues to be smuggling into your superhero flick, but it's done perfectly; I've not seen 1970s paranoid spy films and very 2010s blockbusters merged in such a satisfying way before. And it's not afraid to be sexy, showing off its almost unbearably gorgeous cast to excellent effect without ever feeling exploitative; there's enough flirtation and unresolved sexual tension -- and not just between opposite genders -- to fill seventeen blockbusters. Marvel's best yet.
5. TOM AT THE FARM
Although he landed on my radar last year with Laurence Anyways, French-Canadian actor/writer/director/producer/editor/costume designer/wunderkind Xavier Dolan has been the cinematic MVP of 2014 for me, starting with this disquieting psychological thriller. Dolan also plays the titular lead, who heads to the country for the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume, only to find upon arrival that Guillaume's family only know him as their son's friend, and have no idea about his sexuality. What follows is a journey into madness that echoes the best work of Polanski and Clouzot, but with a very modern queer twist, digging into sexual repression, homophobia, the rural/urban social divide and the destructive power of secrets. Dolan impresses just as much in front of the camera as behind, and Pierre-Yves Cardinal gives one of the year's most menacing portrayals as Guillaume's violent, manipulative brother, Francis. Tom is both terrified and drawn to Francis, and their bizarre Stockholm Syndrome-style dynamic leads to some incredible scenes -- a tango in a barn chief among them. From its opening scenes of quiet rural menace, to the casual brutality of the dairy farm to the haunting end credits, Tom At The Farm ensures you'll bite your nails to a nub.
4. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Dazzled by the bright lights of the New York financial district, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is eager to learn the ropes, but quickly learns that playing by the rules doesn't pay. Soon, he's hustling rubes into buying dud stocks, building a company on the backs of empty promises and rising rapidly to wealth, power and even fame. Martin Scorsese is in full Goodfellas mode here -- it's essentially Goodbrokers -- showing an enthusiasm and pumped-up, pulsating style not seen in his work since the 1990s. But for all the rush and wildly inappropriate fun contained within the film's propulsive three-hour running time, there's also a palpable rage running through the entire thing, something else we've not seen from Scorsese in an age. Both an explosive satire of Wall Street Master-of-the-Universe get-rich-quicker culture, and furious indictment of unregulated machismo -- as depicted here, Belfort's firm Stratton Oakmont feels like the natural career destination for America's most entitled, monstrous white college fraternities -- and works like gangbusters on both levels. The cast are top-notch, but DiCaprio is astonishingly good, unleashed like never before; even throwing himself into some Jerry Lewis-level physical comedy. Never mind Scorsese's "Mob trilogy": The Wolf of Wall Street feels most like the third corner of an unofficial "Fuck You, Pay Me" trilogy with Goodfellas and Casino, about the ways we casually destroy one another for our vision of the capitalist dream, blind to the wreckage we leave behind until our day comes, too. But unlike the mob films, the real sting of this film is that people still don't learn: Take down one Belfort, and millions of others are all too ready to take his place.
3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
A young woman pays homage to her favourite writer. Years earlier, the writer recounts a story he heard as a young man. This younger man travels to the land of Zubrowka, nestled within Eastern European peaks, at the centre of which lies The Grand Budapest Hotel. Within, Concierge par excellence Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) oversees his domain as charming bon vivant, confidante, lord and master. Throw in changing aspect ratios and you've an idea of the babushka doll storytelling structure at play -- and how gloriously playful it all is. Writer/director Wes Anderson crafts an idealised, fictional pre-WWII world, enjoying its last days as a fascist threat looms large to change everything. Gustave H is the living embodiment of this world of opulence, courtesy and jolts of cathartic vulgarity, and he fits Fiennes like a glove, displaying a hitherto unseen gift for verbal and physical comedy (leading a wonderful all-star -- and I do mean all-star -- cast). Anderson's achingly precise filmmaking design finds its perfect setting in this pre-war diorama, creating both the year's wittiest, most purely pleasurable film -- but, also, a deeply sorrowful elegy to a lost age, before tyrants, despots and presidents threw out the etiquette rule book.
Widowed mother Diane Després (a towering performance from Anne Dorval) has mixed feelings when her loving but erratic, violent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon, perfectly balancing charisma and vulnerability) moves back home after being ejected from another institution. But Diane gains an unexpected ally when their new neighbour, the sweet, seemingly brittle Kyla (a brilliant, beautifully contained Suzanne Clement), is drawn into their lives. They make an instantly irresistible trio, and Dolan isn't afraid of getting up to his elbows in complex territory as his characters' best efforts to overcome their emotional deficiencies to a happier life build and collapse. From Laurence Anyways to Tom At The Farm to this, Dolan just seems to improve and expand his cinematic gravitas with each film, and Mommy sees his signature blend of lived-in social realism, perceptive melodrama and bold cinematic flourish swell to a perfect storm -- not to mention his perfect use of popular music to punctuate his characters' journeys -- fashioning a shattering experience that roars to a conclusion that left me astounded and emotionally spent. I've not been this consistently thrilled by a new filmmaker in years, and I'm on tenterhooks to see what sorcery Dolan will conjure next.
The Coen Brothers have outdone themselves. This will not be a movie for everyone; it's wintery, melancholy, low-key and features a miserable protagonist… but it may be my favourite work of their incredible career thus far. Following belligerent, bereaved folk singer Llewyn Davis over one particularly awful week as his life and career continue to unravel, it struck me -- and has so over three viewings now -- as one of the best films ever made about the psychology of an artist. In the Coens' customarily clever, caustic, quirky way, it asks all the big questions that keep artists of all stripes up at night: Are you as talented as you think you are? Does the world really want to hear what you have to offer and, if they don't care, does it all even matter? What if you're the right person in the wrong time? Is your integrity and unwillingness to "sell out" helping or hurting you? Are you selfish and/or your own worst enemy? Watching Llewyn, sad, sarcastic and beat down (a phenomenal performance from Oscar Isaac, fast becoming one of my favourite actors), losing and using the last friends he has left, trying to get by day-to-day and struggling to hold on to what remains of his dignity, is both darkly funny and a moving, humbling experience. The world of early '60s Greenwich Village and folk music is beautifully recreated, which cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel shoots through a cold, ghostly sheen that gives everything a spectral quality, like we're witness to a culture that's already dead but doesn't know it yet. Forged of harsh truths, the pain of creativity and human frailty -- but it's not all sturm und drang: there's some genuinely hilarious moments here -- when Llewyn is roped into a recording of the novelty song Dear Mr Kennedy, for one, or the egotistical, dark-arts-worshipping jazz legend (John Goodman) and his Kerouac-wannabe chauffeur (Garrett Hedlund) Llewyn finds himself driving cross-country with. With every new film, it feels to me like the Coen Brothers' entire career, when all said and done, will end up looking like the Great American Novel On Film, such as they so perfectly capture the foibles, follies and futility of humanity, spanning so many timeframes through experiences that seem so uniquely American yet, somehow, hit us all right where it matters.
Viva la cinema,
Paul Anthony Nelson
PS: The 115 eligible films I saw this year were…
12 Years a Slave
A Girl At My Door
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
A Hard Day
Among The Living
An Honest Liar (D)
Any Day Now
August: Osage County
Big Hero 6
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Blue is the Warmest Colour
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Catch Me Daddy
Dallas Buyers Club
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her
Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him
Edge of Tomorrow
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (D)
Finding Vivian Maier (D)
KEY: (D) = Documentary
Guardians of the Galaxy
How To Train Your Dragon 2
In Order of Disappearance
Inside Llewyn Davis
Into The Woods
Jodorowsky’s Dune (D)
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
Life After Beth
Life Itself (D)
Magic in the Moonlight
Maps To The Stars
Mr Peabody and Sherman
Next Goal Wins (D)
Only Lovers Left Alive
Reaching for the Moon
Sin City: A Dame To Kill For
Sunshine on Leith
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Rise of Electro
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Hobbit: The Battle of the 5 Armies
The Hope Factory
The Infinite Man
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq
The Lego Movie
The One I Love
The Overnighters (D)
The Raid 2
The Trip To Italy
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Zero Theorem
Titli (aka Butterfly)
Tom At The Farm
Trespassing Bergman (D)
Under The Skin
Velvet Terrorists (D)
Welcome To New York
What We Do In The Shadows
White Bird in a Blizzard
Why Don’t You Play In Hell?
Wolf Creek 2