1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson has for two decades now been the most distinctive cinematic voice in America, and this 1930s-style caper film is the most complete realisation yet of his aesthetic. Anderson first-timer Ralph Fiennes is not known for comedy, but he is tremendous here in leading an all-star cast. In a time when so many comedies are built around rambling improvisation it, there is something really striking about the meticulously crafted nature of The Grand Budapest Hotel. With a Russian Doll structure, the film is beautifully designed and precisely shot. A real treasure.
2. Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Irish director John Michael McDonagh managed to one-up his brilliant debut feature, The Guard, with this poignant, powerful and yet still very funny film about a rural Irish priest who receives a death threat in the confessional. What starts as a black comedy transitions into a quite profound modern passion play, with Brendan Gleeson delivering what is for mine the year’s best performance as Father James Lavelle, a good man who must bear the sins of the institution that he represents, an institutation that has failed both the wider community and himself.
3. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Where so often movies about music focus on passion, soul, creativity and love for the art, Damien Chazelle’s debut feature chooses to explore the determination, single-minded obsession and dangerous perfectionism that goes into the pursuit of greatness. This emotionally and psychologically brutal film features a powerful and controversial depiction of the student mentor relationship as a determined young drummer is brought to the brink by a borderline psychotic conductor. JK Simmons is surely a short price favourite to walk away with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar early next year.
4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
There has never been a film quite like Boyhood. Writer-director Richard Linklater shot the film over a twelve year period, following the same boy (Ellar Coltrane) as he grew from a six year old into a young adult. Incredibly ambitious and effectively executed, the film manages to not only explore the evolving family dynamic as this family grows up together, but also to navigate the cultural and political changes the world experienced over the twelve years of production. Managing to be at the same time epic in scope and incredibly intimate, Boyhood is a truly unique cinematic experience.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
How hot are Marvel Studios right now? In what looked like a questionable step following the success of The Avengers, they announced they would be bringing a minor comic book about a motley crew of space adventurers that includes, among others, a talking raccoon and a walking tree, and they have turned it into the most exciting, fun and fresh blockbuster in decades. Rather than repeating the formula of The Avengers, James Gunn has gave Guardians of the Galaxy a completely different style and tone. This 1980s style sci-fi adventure is Marvel’s funniest film and has made a legitimate movie star out of Christ Pratt.
While it lacked the mainstream potential of True Grit and No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis saw the Coen brothers in top form. This character study of a neurotic, arrogant but undeniably talented folk musician offered significant insight into the mind of an artist while poking gentle fun at the earnestness of the Greenwich Village folk music scene. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is stunning, with its muted colour palate of greys, greens and browns making the film feel almost black-and-white. The soundtrack, arranged by T-Bone Burnett is outstanding.
7. Locke (Steven Knight)
One man in a car making phone calls. Who’d have thought that could be the basis of the year’s best thriller? Steven Knight’s variation on the one-man play breaks with formula and bravely rethinks how to tell a story on screen. Carried by a compelling performance from Tom Hardy – one of the few actors in the world who can carry a film on their own for ninety minutes – this minimalist piece of filmmaking reimagines the very nature of what is cinematic.
8) Chef (John Favreau)
Jon Favreau got back to his indie roots in 2014 with his passion project Chef, the food porn film of the year. With its simple story, Chef is a completely endearing celebration of food, cooking, creativity, passion and family, with many critics seeing more than a hint of autobiography in chef Casper’s quest to rediscover his creative spark. Vibrant and alive with the Cuban inspired flavours of the food and the music, Chef is a joyous film and not to be seen on an empty stomach.
9) What We Do in the Shadows (Jermaine Clement & Taika Waititi)
With What We Do in the Shadows Kiwi duo Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement take a subject matter, vampires, with which popular culture is teetering on the edge of overload, and a form, the mockumentary, that is every bit as tired and combine them to create a vibrant, original and downright funny movie. Juxtaposing the extraordinary with the mundane, the film follows a trio of vampire flatmates living in Wellington. The New Zealand sense of humour brings a slightly different sensibility to the film than we’d get from an American or British equivalent.
This year saw two films in which Scarlett Johansson got a bit cerebral. While Lucy was among the year’s worst films, Under the Skin was among its best. This odd film sees Johansson driving around Glasgow and the Scottish highlands, picking up men and then… well it’s best not to give away too much. A most peculiar and entrancing film, when you get to the end of Under the Skin you won’t quite know what you’ve seen but you’ll know you’ve seen something.
The Next Best (alphabetical): The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves), Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee), The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller), Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
The Worst Movie of the Year:
I, Frankenstein (Stuart Beattie)
200 years after being brought to life, Frankenstein’s monster finds himself in the middle of an ongoing war between demons and gargoyles for… You know what? It’s not worth going on. This diabolical film which recasts Frankenstein’s monster as an action hero is utter nonsense and would have Mary Shelley rolling in her grave.
by Duncan McLean
What were your best and worst films of the year? Post in the comments section and let us know.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
All too often movies about music and musicians restrict their focus to the importance of finding and retaining ones passion, soul, creativity, and love for the art. Rarely do films attempt to explore the other side of the equation. With Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle draws on his own experiences as a driven high school jazz drummer to examine the determination, perfectionism, obsession and back-breaking hard work that that is required to be the very best.
Nineteen-year-old Andrew Neyman is a jazz drummer in his first year at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. Neyman is good. He is very good. But he wants to be great. After a chance evening encounter with Terence Fletcher, the infamous conductor of the conservatory’s award winning studio band, Neyman finds himself shockingly transferred into the band as the alternate drummer. Fletcher is more drill sergeant than music teacher but he is the best there is and the students know it. But is the combination of Fletcher’s psychological brinksmanship and Neyman’s determination to be the best leading the young drummer towards greatness or madness?
At what point does drive become obsession? When does determination go from being an admirable quality to being a repugnant one? At what point does the quest for perfection become counter-productive? We watch Neyman try and fail, and try again. We see him drumming until his hands blister and bleed. But rather than cheer him on, we become conflicted by his drive. His single-mindedness makes him selfish. His need to accept nothing but the very best from himself makes him incapable of acknowledging more ordinary achievements and aspirations in other people. His progress as a musician seems to be to the detriment of his development as a person.
Whiplash has the potential to stir up some debate with its controversial depiction of the student-mentor relationship. Fletcher’s aim is to push his students beyond what is expected of them. In his mind it is only then that greatness can emerge. Comfort and contentment breed mediocrity. There are no two more harmful words, he says, than ‘good job.’ But at what point does motivation and pushing just become abuse? Fletcher’s favourite anecdote, one repeated numerous times in the film, concerns a teenage Charlie Parker. One night he was playing in a recording session and made a mistake in his solo, prompting the drummer to throw a cymbal at his head. He went home humiliated and cried himself to sleep, but woke up more determined than ever and only a year later was playing some of the best jazz the world had ever heard. For Fletcher, fear and humiliation are powerful motivating tools. They provide the heat and the pressure with which a diamond can be forged.
At the centre of this film are two powerful, award-worthy lead performances, one from a young actor on the rise the other from a long-time character actor finally given the role of his career. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons deliver complex characters that are equal parts repellent and engrossing. The character of Fletcher in particular, is very carefully realised by Simmons and Chazelle. Early in the film we find his bluntness and barbs humorous, and in lesser hands he could become an over-the-top caricature. But as the film progresses these situations lose their humour. His aggression becomes frightening and we start to feel the cruelty of his words. Yet even then we understand where he is coming from.
As much as the clashing egos of Neyman and Fletcher seem destined to destroy each other, they are one and the same, entirely co-dependent. Fletcher’s methods don’t work unless a student is headstrong enough to persevere through them. Neyman can’t continue to improve unless he has someone who can push him beyond what he thinks he’s capable of. So dedicated are they both, so high are their standards, that eventually they have only each other.
Chazelle and his director of photography Sharone Meir shoot bands and musicians brilliantly. The director wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie and he really has achieved that. The rehearsals feel like battles. The performances play like action set pieces, edited for maximum intensity. You don’t have to know jazz in order to appreciate this explosive film because ultimately the movie is not about jazz. It is not even about music. Whiplash is an emotionally and psychologically brutal film about the dangers of perfectionism and single-minded obsession.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Whiplash? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk
High school senior Sutter Keely is a charming, fun guy, loved by everyone and the life of any party. Sutter lives in the moment, he lives for the now. But as he and his friends approach their high school graduation he finds that everyone else is looking forward, thinking of the future, making plans.
Through a chance encounter he meets Aimee Fineky. A shy, reserved girl, she knows him from school even though to him she has previously been invisible. Sutter finds something fascinating about Aimee, and she enjoys the attention. They become friends and ultimately come to love each other (but is that the same thing as being in love with each other?). Aimee and Sutter provide each other with much needed support. Both come from broken homes with absent fathers, Sutter’s through divorce and Aimee’s through death.
Sutter is a self-destructive character whose emphasis on the here and now is the result of an inability to deal with the past or face the future. He uses alcohol as a coping mechanism, constantly sipping from a hipflask he carries with him – a habit he soon transfers on Aimee – rarely getting excessively drunk but always having a buzz on. This insidious and constant presence of alcohol is much more confronting and uncomfortable than the usual representations of teen drinking we see on screen (massive party binging followed by throwing up and the rubbing or sore heads the next morning), and before long you find yourself willing him to stop.
The characters of Sutter and Aimee have a realism to them that you rarely find in screen teenagers. They look like real teenagers, not thirty year olds in backpacks. They sound like real teenagers, not the razor sharp fantasies of an all-too-clever screenwriter. The two young leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, are not household names but their performances carry this film. The two, who work so well together it is difficult to consider their performances separately, deliver incredibly authentic portrayals of teenage lovers dealing with all the confusion and uncertainty of youth. The pair received a Special Jury Prize for Acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival “for two young actors who showed rare honesty, naturalism and transparency and whose performances brought out the best in each other,” an apt description of what they bring to this film.
From the screenwriters who delivered the gem 500 Days of Summer a couple of years ago, The Spectacular Now is a film that requires some time to process. It leaves you with a number of questions, resisting the urge to wrap everything up in a nice neat bow. The result is an honest and affecting film, a teenage love story for adults which doesn’t trivialise the teenage experience.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean