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.
Directors: Taika Waititi & Jermaine Clement
Starring: Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham
Kiwi duo Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement do something quite surprising with their film What We Do in the Shadows. They take a subject, vampires, with which popular culture is teetering on the edge of overload, and combine it with a form, the mockumentary, which seems just as tired, and through the combination create a vibrant, original and downright funny movie.
A documentary crew observes a group of vampires flatting together in Wellington, New Zealand, in the months leading up to the undead community’s annual night of nights, the Unholy Masquerade. Viago is 379 years old. He’s an 18th century Dandy and the unofficial organiser of the house. The 862-year-old Vladislav the Poker is a legendary lothario and hypnotist, though his powers have dulled in recent years. Deacon is the young bad boy of the house, being that he is only 183. Down in the basement lives Petyr, an ancient vampire, 8000 years old, clearly modelled on Max Schreck from F.W. Murau’s legendary 1922 silent Nosferatu. In between catching and devouring virgin victims, the group deals with the usual politics of share house living. Their dynamic is challenged though when Petyr turns young kiwi Nick into a vampire. While they have much to teach Nick about being a vampire, he teaches them a thing or two about living in the modern world.
What We Do in the Shadows transcends the seeming limitations of its subject matter and form because of the slightly different sensibility the New Zealand sense of humour brings to the fold. An American version of this movie would in all likelihood have been horrible. The strength of Waititi and Clement’s screenplay (or perhaps their scenarios is a better term given the mockumentary form is so dependent on improvisation) is in the way that the film combines the extraordinary with the mundane. It is hilariously absurd watching vampires having flat meetings to discuss household chores – if someone is going to kill a victim in the living room, they should be considerate and lay down some towels first. The film also plays on the incongruity of a group of people who are so determined to keep their existence a secret allowing themselves to be the subject of a documentary.
All the best genre comedies take convention and turn it on its head. In the case of What We Do in the Shadows, there are centuries’ worth of vampire lore and mythologies to be played with. Waititi and Clement then plant these well-known conventions in a very ordinary context to explore the difficulties of being a vampire in the present day. How do you look after your appearance if you can’t check your reflection in the mirror? How do you enjoy a night out on the town when you can’t enter a venue without being explicitly invited in?
While Clement and Waititi are the headliners of this cast – Clement known as half of Flight of the Conchords and Waititi as the writer-director-actor behind the wonderful film Boy, the highest grossing New Zealand film at the domestic box office – Jonathan Brugh more than holds his own and even steals a few scenes as Deacon. There is also a great cameo from Rhys Darby as the alpha male of a group of werewolves who our vampires occasionally cross paths with.
Horror comedy isn’t the easiest genre balance to get right but What We Do in the Shadows is start-to-finish funny while still having enough schlock, gore and surprisingly impressive effects to keep genre fans happy. At just 85 minutes, the movie is short and sweet. It doesn’t stretch the premise beyond what it can support, and what you end up with is one of the most consistently funny comedies of the year.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen What We Do in the Shadows? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.