It is that time of the year when critics decide which films they enjoyed the most and pompously declare that these were therefore the best. In keeping with tradition, I have compiled a list of my top twelve films of 2014, as well as a ranking of every new release this year (with links to my earlier reviews). As always, I missed films that I know I should see, and I will manage some as they come out for home release. But at the end of 2014, here are my top twelve, presented in suitably musical order:
On the twelfth day of Christmas,
The movies gave to me
12 Wanted Men
11 Interstellar trips
10 tanking Furies
9 Turing tests
8 alien Skins
7 Gone Girls
I am Groot
4 Apey Dawns
3 Wall Street Wolves
2×6 Slave Years
And the Pride of miners and gays.
Here is a more detailed view.
Top 12 of 2014
A joyous, moving, tear-jerking tale of life-affirming courage and socialist unity.
A searing story of socio-historical importance that cannot be ignored.
A relentless and laugh-out-loud rush of hedonism and debauchery.
An unflinching portrayal of the demise of peace.
A compelling reinvention of a classic figure.
A hilarious, rip-roaring rollercoaster of weirdoes in weird places.
A dark tale of contemporary relationships and trial by media.
A haunting and mesmerising portrayal of embodiment and otherness.
A subtle drama of wars both intimate and global.
A visceral trip through the hell and camaraderie of war.
A staggering journey into wonder.
A grim tale of world-weary espionage.
An inspiring story of courage and redemption with a strong political message.
Laugh, grimace, gasp. Repeat.
Thrills, spills and surprising tears.
A spectacularly deranged rendering of a timeless tale.
Superhero thrills encased in a conspiracy narrative.
A grim, gritty tale of determination and obsession.
A powerful dystopia that applies a teenage angst metaphor to all ages.
A brilliant collage of resonant images, narratives and lives.
A relentless dystopic escalation.
A surprisingly intimate tale of faith and politics.
A beautiful warts-and-all portrait of artistic obsession.
A mournful weepie that deftly avoids the pitfalls of mawkishness and excessive sentimentality.
A brash, bold, blistering action thriller.
A mournful tale of love and grieving.
A beautiful tale of dreams, flight and love.
A creative vigilante thriller with surprisingly progressive politics.
A fun if flimsy action adventure.
Salome & Wilde Salome
A fascinating exploration of obsession and mystery.
Darkly humorous if slightly repetitive revenge thriller.
The weakest chapter of the Middle Earth saga.
An imbalance of tone makes for dissatisfying and inconsistent time-travel paradoxes.
More of the same and lacking in innovation.
Hollow tale of ultimately tedious double-crossing.
Sweeping visuals that fail to make up for retrograde gender politics.
Turkey of the Year
Please. Make. It. Stop. esaelP. ekaM. tI. potS. .potS .tI .ekaM .esaelP aMek. aePles. ptSo. tI.
These transforming words are more fun than the film.
So that was 2014! Who knows what cinematic delights will be along in 2015? The Shadow knows… wait, that was what evil lurks in the hearts of men. Silly me! Anyway, bring it on, 2015, do us proud!
Exodus: Gods and Kings is an odd beast. Plagued (see what I did there?) with controversy as well as unhelpful comments by director Ridley Scott (these complex issues warrant specific discussion for another time), it arrives at the tail end of the year with little competition in terms of scale. It also comes out in a year that saw another Biblical blockbuster play fast and loose with the source material, Noah. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, as are comparisons between Exodus and Ridley Scott’s previous sword and sandal epics, Kingdom of Heaven and Gladiator. While these films have epic scale (and at times Exodus seems to openly imitate Gladiator, including almost identical lines), Exodus suffers in comparison with Scott’s Roman tale, especially for failing to deliver the same epic sweep, a problem that also troubled Kingdom of Heaven (though not Noah). However, this is also an unexpected strength of Scott’s take on the story of Moses. Rather than a grand, sweeping style that takes the viewer on an irresistible ride, Exodus offers instead a surprisingly intimate take on faith and politics.
Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramses (Joel Edgerton) are close friends and allies, raised as brothers and both responsible for the Egyptian Empire. Moses is presented as more rational and politically savvy – talking to people rather than prejudging, reviewing financial records and consistently demonstrating critical thinking. By contrast, Ramses is impulsive, paranoid and, as the film progresses, increasingly cruel and tyrannical. The clash between these two men becomes a clash between power and justice, Moses’ pursuit for Hebrew liberation echoing with contemporary concerns over redistribution of wealth and the ruling 1%. While the film delivers grand spectacles in its depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt as well as major battle sequences, it does not overplay these elements – the inevitable parting of the Red Sea is handled in a surprising way. The film’s portrayal of faith is also ambiguous, as Moses’ encounters with God (Isaac Andrews) can be read as divine intervention but also as hallucinations. That said, while some spectacles are given rationalist explanations, others are not and can only be read as supernatural, creating a lack of confidence in the subject matter. The storytelling is sometimes loose and progression between scenes illogical and unsatisfying. These flaws do undermine the film, but it remains a dramatic and engagingly personal exploration of politics and faith in the grandest of settings.
The appearance of Under The Skin in several best films of the year lists compelled me to check it out on Blu Ray. It is one of those rare occasions where a film lives up to the hype, as Jonathan Glazer’s lo-fi adaptation of Michel Faber’s science fiction novel is a haunting and mesmerising portrayal of Otherness. The Glasgow locations, anonymous characters and subdued performances provide a (literally) down-to-Earth naturalism, but the objective camera and eerie score create an atmosphere of strangeness. The human body is presented as an object of curiosity, while the central character’s (Scarlett Johansson) interest in her body also serves to de-naturalise basic human features. Human interactions and activities are similarly presented as strange through sound and production design – simple undertakings such as kissing, eating, walking and resting become journeys of discovery. The film takes the viewer on such a journey, making the everyday unfamiliar and casting the familiar as alien.
The quality of the final instalment of the Middle Earth saga is divided along the same lines as its title. When focusing on the small, such as individual characters, themes and set pieces, it is effective. When the scope widens, most obviously with the eponymous battle, the film becomes meandering and fails to fully capture the scale of the battle or indeed the stakes over which it is being fought. This is disappointing and surprising as the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers and the Battle of the Pellennor Fields in The Return of the King both demonstrated Peter Jackson’s talent for truly epic battle sequences. But whereas those sequences provided a sense of danger, escalation and, perhaps most importantly, scale, the Five Armies in this film are largely anonymous masses, spread out in long shots and then encountered all too briefly in close-up. Similarly, Jackson fails to deliver the dramatic crosscutting that he did in The Two Towers between Helm’s Deep, Isengard and Osgiliath. Although there is crosscutting here between the various armies, too little time is spent on each clash, making this the shortest film in the entire saga, and also the most lacking in dramatic heft.
However, amidst the rather superficial large scale scenes, there are many smaller sequences that are effective. Various individual set pieces are enthralling, such as Smaug’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) assault on Laketown, the duel between Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) as well as an escalating fight as orc Bolg battles Kili (Aidan Turner), Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Best of all is Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugh Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) taking on the Nazgul and Sauron (Cumberbatch) in a dazzling clash of swords and magic. To see the most powerful figures in Middle Earth truly wielding their power recalls the dizzying heights of Jackson’s own power. Nor are the film’s better moments confined to combat: Thorin’s descent into madness is depicted with careful nuance and evocative sound, while scenes focused upon the titular Hobbit emphasise both Bilbo Baggins’ down-to-earth view of the awful events around him, and the perfect casting of Martin Freeman in the role. Personal favourite: Bilbo sheepishly admits his besting of Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) guards. Individual moments like this in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies are very effective. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that the film ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
No surprise here. 2001: A Space Odyssey tops the list of my top five transportive science fiction films with its extraordinary vision that more than lives up to the title of its third chapter, “Beyond the Infinite”. 2001: A Space Odyssey takes the viewer from the dawn of humanity to the birth of a new species, an odyssey few films approach. What makes 2001 top of this list is that it expresses its themes and makes its claims in a specifically cinematic way. The plot is simple, but ideas of humanity and identity, destiny and our place in the universe are all presented through cinematic techniques of image and sound. The opening and closing chapters are entirely without dialogue and remain cinematic touchstones, the stargate sequence one of the most exquisite pieces of cinema I have ever seen. The middle section portrays space travel as both wondrous and mundane, the production design detailing the mechanics of space travel and the logistics of weightlessness and docking. HAL is a definitive example of artificial intelligence, a clear influence on MUTHR in Alien as well as Blade Runner’s replicants. Furthermore, thanks to this film a single red light shall forever be menacing. Despite the detail given to spacecraft and inter-planetary travel, 2001 never explains too much (over-explanation being the major flaw of the film’s recent descendant, Interstellar), relying instead on suggestion and ambiguity. The film maintains a mystery and opacity much like the black monoliths, which is a common feature across the films that constitute this countdown. How human are the replicants in Blade Runner? What is the reach of Eywa in Avatar? What do the extra-terrestrials want in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? How did the alien ship come to be on the planet in Alien (the explanation in Prometheus notwithstanding)? Mystery abounds in 2001 but not to the point of frustration, as enough is suggested by Stanley Kubrick’s precise alignment of production design, cinematography, editing, sound effects and music to give the viewer a sense of what is going on, while leaving enough ambiguity for us to wonder, and indeed, wonder at the majestic mystery of what we behold. After nearly fifty years, 2001 remains the greatest journey undertaken by the sci-fi genre and an unrivalled cinematic landmark.
The penultimate film in this countdown of my top five transportive sci-fi films has some similarities with a previous entry. Like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner transports its viewer to a sci-fi environment on Earth with suggestions of the beyond. Unlike Close Encounters, however, Blade Runner is far from a hopeful dream of a journey that we can envy, but a dystopic nightmare of a grim world in which hope, equality and life have been largely devalued. At the same time, it is a hypnotic and mesmerising vision with a haunting, otherworldly beauty. That the presentation of something so bleak could be so beautiful is testament to Ridley Scott’s superb direction, Jordan Cronenweth’s gorgeous cinematography and Lawrence G. Paull’s exquisite production design, as well as Vangelis’ melancholic score. Blade Runner’s Los Angeles is the gloomy city of film noir turned up to 11, with enough rain for an Indian monsoon and enough filtered, neon light to accentuate the expressive mise-en-scene of sets, costume and performers. The combined effect of these cinematic features is to transport the viewer to this city of the damned, in what may be the most detailed and (chillingly) plausible dystopic landscape ever committed to film. Many sci-fi films predict the future. Blade Runner seems to get parts of it right.
The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.
My countdown for my top five transportative sci-fi films continues with Ridley Scott’s haunted castle-in space movie, and a reference to an Alien wannabe. The tagline for Event Horizon is “Infinite Space. Infinite Terror”, but unfortunately that film is not very scary. However, apply that tagline to Alien and you have an accurate description. Alien transports the viewer to strange and threatening environments, never letting up the sense of dread and impending danger even when nothing explicitly threatening takes place. Space itself looms throughout, from the slow crawl of the opening credits to Ripley’s final message, the blank, empty void providing a palpable sense of indifference to fear, suffering and life itself. The planet (subsequently named LV-426) where the crew of the Nostromo encounter the alien spacecraft is hostile and threatening, while the craft itself provides an eerie tomb for the fossilised space jockey. The sequence’s magnificent production design, engulfing cinematography and ominous score create a ghostly atmosphere for a menacing environment. Most terrifying of all is the Nostromo itself, an industrial castle filled with dark spaces both cavernous and claustrophobic and occupied by monsters both humanoid and extra-terrestrial, as well as an unsympathetic governing presence in the form of MUTHR, that represents the malevolent absent landlord, the Weyland-Yutani Company. While these tropes may owe more to horror than sci-fi, Alien’s use of space (pun intended) transports the viewer into a realm of fear and wonder, where you can scream all you want, but… You know the rest.
As a completely unofficial tie-in with the British Film Institute’s science fiction season, Days of Fear and Wonder, I’ve prepared a countdown of my top five science fiction films that transport the viewer to fantastical environments. At its best, science fiction can be the ultimate cinema experience, as it creates another world and takes you to distant places and times. These are not necessarily the greatest science fiction films of all time, but they are all films that take the viewer on a remarkable journey. The next few days will feature a countdown of my top five transportive science fiction films, beginning with…
Star Wars (1977)
The cultural impact of Star Wars can never be over-estimated, and for its time it was an extraordinary piece of groundbreaking cinema. While I do not find it particularly transportive and its script and direction is ropey in many places, it remains an undiluted thrill ride through a far away galaxy, a long time ago. Contact (1997)
Contact’s journey is as much about travelling into the heart and mind as it is about a journey to a distant world. An intelligent science fiction film that explores humanity on Earth while also reaching out to the stars. Solaris (2002)
Steven Soderbergh is a great utiliser of editing and cinematography, which sometimes collapses into irritating style for its own sake. In the case of Solaris, however, the discontinuous editing takes the viewer both into a grieving mind and to a strange world where time, memory and reality blur together and nothing is what it seems. WALL-E (2008)
One of Pixar’s finest films conveys both the ghastly isolation of an abandoned Earth and the expansive wonder of space. One is gloomily familiar and the other a source of inspiration and beauty, best demonstrated in the space dance sequence between WALL-E and EVE. But perhaps most importantly in WALL-E, the journey to the final frontier is not only transportive but transformative, as humanity, led and inspired by little robots, returns to the Earth that is our home. Interstellar (2014)
The most recent entry and a convenient release for the BFI’s season (Coincidence? Unlikely). Fear and wonder populate Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic: fears include the horror of ecological devastation as well as the vacuum of space, balanced with the spectacle of Saturn as well as spherical worm holes and alien landscapes. Interstellar echoes earlier films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and Contact and, while it sometimes tries too hard to explain everything, it remains a breathtaking journey into the infinite.