31 December 2014

The Mad Prophet's Top 10 Films of 2014

Even without the special effort I've made to avoid watching shit this year, 2014 has been a superb year at the cinema. Films like 12 Years A Slave and Boyhood are achievements that will immediately go down in film history, even if they're not necessarily amongst the films I most enjoyed this year.

I'm keeping it down to ten this year, if only because I'd end up swapping stuff in and out of the top ten (as I have been all year) if I carried on to 20. You can check out my top 25 on my Letterboxd profile, but the second I started writing about #11-#25, I'd end up changing my mind and you'd never get to read this.

This is going by UK release dates, so as usual, there are a couple of 2013 films that nevertheless didn't come out until 2014. If I had a comment on the list overall, there are a lot more international co-productions this year, which probably says something about how film funding has changed for a lot of a mid-budgeted features that usually rise to the top for me. That's not the kind of thing I'm going to examine too closely though, except to say that all of these films are a bit mint.

10. Muppets Most Wanted
Dir. James Bobin // Cert. U // 107 mins // USA
"We're doing a sequel, we're back by popular demand..."

Are there "better" films that could have made the cut? Sure there are, but that's what the top 25 is for. The whole point about how frequently the order of these lists can change is that you should never trust any film buff who are fixed on one list. They're only snapshots of our tastes at the time they were written, and one of my main regrets from 2012's list was not including The Muppets, which I've since revisited time and again.

Somehow, Muppets Most Wanted became the year's most underrated comedy, skewing closer to older adventures (especially The Great Muppet Caper) than the more nostalgic and sentimental take of its predecessor. It lampoons its own critical reception in the opening number, but crucially, that's just another sign of how this one is just as funny and the songs by Bret McKenzie are just as frigging marvellous as last time around. If it suffers by comparison to the previous film, then so does every other Muppet-less family comedy of the last two years.

Furthermore, the performances more than make up for the absence of Jason Segel and Amy Adams. There's Tina Fey's revelatory all-singing, all-dancing prison warden routine, Ty Burrell's Clouseau-esque Interpol lackey and a standout performance from Muppeteer Matt Vogel as Kermit's unlikely doppelganger, Constantine. "Everybody knows that the sequel's never quite as good", but this one holds up the standard magnficently- we should all keep our fingers crossed that it made just enough at the box office for them to do it all again. Again.

9. The Babadook
Dir. Jennifer Kent // Cert. 15 // 93 mins // Australia
"You can't get rid of the Babadook."

Baaa baaa dook dook dook, push pineapple, shake the tree. Maybe it's just because I swerved a lot of rubbish horror films this year, but it seems this has been a really good year, from mainstream chillers like Oculus to surreal nightmares like Under The Skin, but The Babadook definitely wins for having the most infinitely repeatable title.

Following a frazzled single mother and her child as they are terrorised by a monster from a mysterious children's book, this was far closer to an arthouse film than the incredibly effective trailers let on. With an Oscar-worthy turn from Essie Davis as Amelia, writer-director Jennifer Kent does a tremendous job of building up the psychological horror.

Moreover, it makes tremendous use of in-camera special effects, never going for the easy soundtrack spike when it can keep you staring sleeplessly at your ceiling all night with just a stop-motion gribbly in the shadows. Kent approaches this chiller as supernatural family counselling, aiming to keep you awake at night with its emotional heft rather than fleeting jitters.

8. Edge of Tomorrow
Dir. Doug Liman // Cert. 12 // 113 mins // USA/Australia
"On your feet, maggot!"

Or Live, Die, Repeat, or whatever it's called now- I'm not sure how changing the rubbish title of the most under-appreciated blockbuster of the year for its home entertainment release was supposed to get more people to see it. I'd have gone for Groundhog Doomsday, but to all who love it, it's "The One Where Tom Cruise Dies Over And Over Again."

Made up of equal parts Source Code and Starship Troopers, this was a surprisingly inventive sci-fi actioner, making a virtue of its own repetitive structure with loads of darkly funny reminders of the futility of war. Cruise himself is the best he's been on screen in years, going from an Arnold Rimmer-style armchair hawk to... well, Tom Cruise.

Elsewhere, Emily Blunt almost steals the show as someone else who's been immortally affected in the past, earning the nickname "Full Metal Bitch", and she and Cruise make a terrific double act. Although it can be argued that it doesn't quite stick the landing in a more straightforward third act, it earns its ending by working through the characters over the same time-frame over and over. It's repetitive like no other blockbuster this year, but in the best way possible.

7. Frank
Dir. Lenny Abrahamson // Cert. 15 // 95 mins // UK/Ireland/USA
"Coca Cola lipstick Ringo, dance all night, dance all night!"

The title of Frank is a double entendre so subtle, it's entirely possible that I imagined it- the fibre-glass head (worn with no vanity whatsover by Michael Fassbender) is what makes Frank Frank, but it also allows the title character to make frank, heartfelt musical oddities that don't quite stand up to the glare of his young acolyte's ambitions to make their band famous.

Domnhall Gleeson plays a slappable (and at one point, stabbable) lead, garnering sympathy for his creative block even as you watch him systematically wreck a precious thing with his good intentions, and Maggie Gyllenhaal might be the most valuable player with her violent, deadpan performance.

This film grew on me over the course of the year, mostly because it's just plain lovely. There's great music too- Frank's Most Likeable Song Ever is an earworm, and I Love You All, the song that plays into the credits, makes for one of the most moving musical moments of the year. I usually don't like biopics of musicians, but this isn't that kind of film- Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan threw out the rule book and riffed out a delightful ode to unconstrained creativity.

6. What We Do In The Shadows
Dir. Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi // Cert. 15 // 86 mins // New Zealand
"If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it."

With a couple of years' distance from the Twilight saga, vampires are finally getting out of the sun and being taken a bit more seriously. Universal had a go at remounting their monster franchise with Dracula Untold, Jim Jarmusch explored the undead's spooky action from a distance in Only Lovers Left Alive (another of the best films released this year) and on TV, there was The Strain and the finale of True Blood.

To keep things light, the blokes behind Flight of the Conchords gave us What We Do In The Shadows, a mockumentary about a house-share between five very traditional vampires in the modern age. It does play like an extended sketch, but it's so consistently funny that it's tough to begrudge it any structural flaws.

Clement and Waititi mine vampire lore for horror ideas, with one frantic chase sequence that wouldn't be out of place in a legit scary movie, but mostly for a host of supremely silly gags, including the above rationale for coveting virgin blood, and a killer visual joke in which Clement's Vlad "gets the faces wrong" when shape-shifting into animals. Remember, kids, be werewolves, not swear-wolves.

5. Nightcrawler
Dir. Dan Gilroy // Cert. 15 // 117 mins // USA
"If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket."

Nightcrawler might be a bit of a ringer for the top ten, what with it being a TV news satire and me being called The Mad Prophet and all, but damn, it stands up well. It's destined to be screened as a "What Not To Do" guide in future lectures in media ethics, or otherwise used as an instructional guide for anybody who really wants to become a real life Batman villain.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a sociopathic job-seeker who finds his niche in ruthlessly filming "breaking news" stories for local news stations, becoming ever more resourceful in his efforts to cross the line, whether that line is moral or a yellow one that says "do not cross." Gyllenhaal is a magnetic but despicable screen presence here, backed up by a terrific script and great first-time direction by Dan Gilroy. This may also boast the only instance of an on-screen car chase that's actually a car chase-chase.

Somehow, the characters in the film get really low in a really banal way. By the time Lou's piece de resistance, an exclusive tour of a house where three people have just been murdered, goes out on television with breakfast news anchors commentating, you can only stare, transfixed by how venal and crass Lou's environment (and by extension, our own) really is.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson // Cert. 15 // 100 mins // USA/Germany/UK
"Once the public knows you're a writer, they bring the characters and events to you."

I don't always get on with Wes Anderson, but to date, The Grand Budapest Hotel is my favourite film of his. It's like a Tintin adventure or a Hitchcock thriller, filtered through Anderson's own idiosyncrasies to make a film that aches with nostalgia for a more civilised age, but isn't afraid to get a little nasty either.

Amongst a cast that overcrowded the film's poster, the standout is Ralph Fiennes in his most comedic performance to date as Gustave H, doubling down on any residual Leonard Rossiter comparisons with his randy and frantic management of his tenants. He also has a sweet relationship with Tony Revolori's lobby boy-in-training Zero, and they make a fine pair of adventurers in the complex nesting-doll story structure.

Aside from being really, really funny, there's a really touching melancholy air to it as we flash forward to F. Murray Abraham as the story's most involved narrator, and a palpable dread that comes with every appearance of Willem Dafoe's terrifying thug. That said, there's a scene where he murders Jeff Goldblum's cat that slays me every time, and it's Anderson's unique sense of humour that has kept this in my mind all year long.

3. Gone Girl
Dir. David Fincher // Cert. 18 // 149 mins // USA
"What have we done to each other?"

Watch out for spoilers here- I've done pretty well to keep Gone Girl's secrets so far, but we really need to talk about what really makes it great, so skip to number 2 if you haven't seen this yet...

As Tyler Perry's "patron saint of wife killers" tells Ben Affleck's Nick towards the end of the film, "You two are the most fucked-up people I've ever met." It's a much needed moment of levity after the cavalcade of double-crossing, lies and murder that implode Nick and Amy's marriage, but he also serves to underline that this is a dark and deeply cynical comedy.

But after a decade of being quietly brilliant in everything, it's Rosamund Pike who lets loose a staggering performance as "Amazing" Amy, revealing herself to be an insane genius as the film's dual perspective begins to form one big, scary picture. She's an instant classic screen sociopath, all the more compelling because she's still reacting to a grievance with Affleck's complacent dullard and his wounded masculinity.

Perhaps best enjoyed if you haven't yet read Gillian Flynn's best-selling book, this plays like the most liked and shared Huffington Post story that never actually happened. Even though it's actually a Fox movie, Fincher merrily takes the media to task for the way in which they'd really cover this nasty little tale of modern marriage with a near-miraculous tandem of a great script and great performances.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

Dir. James Gunn // Cert. 12 // 121 mins // USA/UK
"We're just like Kevin Bacon!"

It's tough to hold back tears at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy, as eight-year-old Peter Quill watches his mother die in front of him, her hand outstretched for his. It's a bold way to start a comic book movie, but perhaps it's bolder still to then whisk the kid into space and skip forward 20 years to find him dancing through a cave on an alien planet, listening to Come And Get Your Love on his Walkman. Still, there's a sigh of relief when that happens and you go "Ohh, it's a funny one."

James Gunn has arguably made Marvel Studios' best movie to date with little more than a banging soundtrack and a story about misfits becoming friends. At once adjacent and separate from the ongoing Infinity Gems palaver that will come to a head in Avengers 3, this introduction to Marvel's least likely new stars is a delightful, quotable sci-fi adventure that can't be sunk by any amount of universe-building exposition.

It lightens up after that opening, but it keeps the same tack with its investment in the characters. Accordingly, it makes us care about a wise cracking raccoon, and makes a whole generation of us into tree huggers with its version of Groot. On top of everything else, it makes instant stars of Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, and finally gives Gunn (whose last two films grossed less in their lifetimes put together than this did at midnight screenings) a long deserved break into the big time.

Oh, and as space operas go, the bar has been set very high for December's Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

1. Calvary
Dir. John Michael McDonagh // Cert. 15 // 102 mins // Ireland/UK
"I think forgiveness has been highly underrated."

Following The Guard, I had certain expectations from a new Irish Western by John Michael McDonagh and star Brendan Gleeson. That film now looks like "the early funny one" compared to the sheer darkness entailed in Calvary, but that's alright, I have been wrong before.

The setup is simple enough- Father James Lavelle takes confession from a man who was molested by another priest as a child, and promises he will kill Lavelle within a week. The priest recognises his assassin's voice, but he's more immediately troubled by the corruption and poisonous apathy that festers in his parish and a long dark High Noon of the soul ensues.

The mystery of Lavelle's would-be assailant, who wants to kill him purely for what other priests have done than for any sin of his own, goes on almost in the background during the week that follows, with Aidan Gillen, Dylan Moran and Chris O'Dowd amongst the insidious supporting players. McDonagh's script tackles the concepts of absolute good and evil head on while still playing as a serious drama- it's not a film that's particularly given to understatement, and sometimes strays into extremely dark gallows humour, but it elicits strong reactions either way.

It stands at the best of 2014 with Gleeson as the calm, sympathetic centre in a town that's on the verge of going straight to hell. As the only truly good character, Gleeson's performance makes Lavelle more complex, rather than simpler and he's a big part of why the film is so devastating. Most of all, looking back from the end of the year, it appropriates Western tropes in the way that the genre intends them- Westerns are about the end of things.

Still, it's not the most cheerful way to end the year. So, to cheer us all up...

Please do share your own picks for best and worst of this year in the comments, and let us know which films you're most looking forward to in 2015. For New Year's Day, at least, I'm all about Birdman...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next year, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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