Fifteen of Fourteen
It’s my birthday! Not to shove it in your face or anything.
I’m not here to ask for gifts, though. Instead, I come bearing them.
We just had one of the worst film years ever, and one of the reasons for that was the misallocation of attention. The more you dig into 2014’s releases, the more overlooked gems you find. For some reason, most of the good films were buried. You know what that means, right?
Last year this feature was fun, but this year it’s an urgent necessity. Keep in mind that these movies are not necessarily my favourite of the year. They’re simply the best of all those films that were noticeably unappreciated. Although film critics were aware of them, many (if not all) of these films will sadly be complete mysteries to the common man. Hopefully some will mutate into cult hits in the future.
Many people in Australia will certainly be aware of The Babadook, because it’s an Australian production and it won “Best Film” at the AFI awards. However, it also shared the award with The Water Diviner, so I wouldn’t slap that on as a badge of honour.
Commercially the film only brought in a little over twice its $2 million budget, though. The Babadook made a subtle appearance at the cinemas before being purged in favour of Godzilla and Bad Neighbours. While I enjoyed Godzilla and detested Bad Neighbours, any credible film fan has to recognise the superior shelf life of this tiny Aussie picture. This is a film that horror lovers will compare future releases to and ask “why can’t we have more movies like that?”.
Still, I wouldn’t advertise it as a good horror, but actually as a good drama. There are few actual scary moments, and most of the film merely simmers in a creepy tone. Yet, as with all great horror, the gold lies in the story and not the shock tactics.
“A single mother, plagued by the violent death of her husband, battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house, but soon discovers a sinister presence all around her.”
At the heart of The Babadook lies the strange off-kilter relationship between the two central characters. Much like We Need To Talk About Kevin, it concerns a mother who struggles to love her son. He’s odd, violent, incoherent and obnoxious. At least, those are the superficial reasons for their broken relationship. As the plot develops, however, the real “Babadook” in the room begins to reveal itself. Thereafter, “if it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”.
Clearly the best Australian film of the year, it’s the directing debut of Jennifer Kent, who I remember best as the Crime Scene photographer from Nine Network’s 1997 crime series Murder Call.
Kent’s 2005 short film Monster served as the springboard from which she adapted this brilliant first feature, and I hope to see more of her work in the future. Australia, take note of this woman!
This one’s mainly for film buffs and makers, but I was absolutely enthralled by a totally neglected documentary named Jodorowsky’s Dune.
In case you were unaware, there is a very famous science fiction book series named Dune. There have been a couple adaptations since the original novels, in the form of a 1984 David Lynch film and two TV Miniseries named Dune and Children of Dune. None of them have been considered totally successful, and the 1984 attempt is a famously epic failure.
Why? Well, the world of Dune seems to be very hard to wrestle into a visual narrative medium. It’s the kind of twisted large-scale religious and philosophic empire that just doesn’t translate well to the screen. Perhaps a massive Game of Thrones-like TV show could do it, but…a film? Oi vey.
Over the decades several filmmakers have tried and failed, most of them never escaping the shackles of pre-production. Arthur P. Jacobs, Ridley Scott, and eventually David Lynch all had a bash. Lynch was the only one who ever put anything on screen, and then struggled to cut the film down from four hours to three. Eventually, after failing to secure artistic control, a hack-jobbed final product was spat out into cinemas that featured the singer Sting in a metal thong (no, I’m not kidding, check it out!).
In amidst all of this, there was an approach that many fans feel could have led to a proper depiction of Dune. It was the vision of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky is, shall we say, an inspired man. If you’ve ever seen any of his films, you’ll know how bonkers he is…but perhaps bonkers is just what Dune needed.
Alejandro never made his version of the film, but spent years compiling a production bible that contained every concept, storyboard, musical piece, and casting decision that he would ever need if he could just secure financial backing for the movie. This is the subject of Jodorowsky’s Dune, and it’s marvellous to see how the evolution of this unrealised project inspired so many others, like Alien, Blade Runner, Contact, Star Wars, and Gravity.
I’ve heard people describe Calvary as a comedy. Well, apparently I don’t understand Irish comedy, because I didn’t find it very funny. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it, I’m just not a fan of false advertising.
“After he is threatened during a confession, a good-natured priest must battle the dark forces closing in around him.”
To fully appreciate Calvary, you need to understand what it is; a throwback to old fashioned crime noir stories. Set up like a classic Hardboiled picture, the film merely substitutes a catholic priest for the traditional cynical alcoholic detective. In keeping with this structure, the protagonist is set off on a private “whodunnit” investigation, and along the way meets a bizarre cast of sinful characters that make up the corrupt backbone of his little Irish seaside town.
Don’t expect laughs, expect scowl and brooding menace as Father James wades in the murky pools of hatred, temptation, and revenge. A deliberately slow burn, this is not a movie you’ll be re-watching anytime soon, but you just might find it intriguing upon a single viewing.
I am not a Jim Jarmusch fan. I don’t know what he smokes, but I don’t want any of it. Film sin number one is to make something boring, and number two is to make something pretentious. Jarmusch typically achieves both at the same time, which almost deserves a round of applause.
In 2014, however, he made…a good film.
Don’t get me wrong, Only Lovers Left Alive still meanders and drags in several places, certainly taking its sweet time to make its obscure point…but, all that being said, it’s actually good.
“A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance – which has already endured several centuries – is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister.”
That description forgot to mention that the characters in question are actually vampires. There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, really. Only Lovers merely documents the day-to-day activities of living as a vampire. It brings vampirism into the real world and lets it play out in front of the camera. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are perfectly believable as once-zestful sweethearts who’s souls have aged but their bodies haven’t. If you’re a Twilight fangirl, you’ll hate this movie, but if you’re an actual vampire film fan (the kind that can appreciate Near Dark, Thirst, Cronos, and Let The Right One In) then you’ll like it.
Frank is a film about the border between insanity and genius.
“Jon, a young wanna-be musician, discovers he’s bitten off more than he can chew when he joins an eccentric pop band led by the mysterious and enigmatic Frank.”
“Mysterious and enigmatic”? That’s what you call an experimental musician who always wears a giant paper-mache head? I call that utterly deranged, and yet…I find myself envious of the experience.
Frank is the sort of movie that will resonate more with some than with others, but everyone will find something to like about it.
If you’re a fan of 80’s synth musical scores and cheesy but fun John Carpenter aesthetics, then you have all the motivation you need to seek out The Guest.
“A soldier introduces himself to the Peterson family, claiming to be a friend of their son who died in action. After the young man is welcomed into their home, a series of accidental deaths seem to be connected to his presence.”
Ah yes, the ol’ “series of accidental deaths” that couldn’t possibly be related to this new stranger except for the fact that it totally is. This is not a movie with any surprises in it. There’s never any doubt about where we’re going, but it sure is a lot of fun getting there.
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, you’ll be familiar with Dan Stevens. For those of you who aren’t, though, just think of him as Cary Elwes’ younger clone.
As if The Guest wasn’t transporting me back to 1987 already, suddenly this guy shows up and spreads that perfect Cary Elwes smile across his face. Wow! He even sounds like him! That alone is enough to make me like the film. There was hardly enough Elwes in the 80’s and 90’s, so give Dan Stevens some proper vehicles in which to grow his profile and let’s all relive those golden years!
As Brad Pitt would ask, “do you like dags?”.
I should really be asking if you like puppies, and so there’s no need to ask because everyone loves puppies! If you like Tom Hardy, too, then there’s absolutely no way you can overlook this one.
“Bob Saginowski finds himself at the center of a robbery gone awry and entwined in an investigation that digs deep into the neighborhood’s past where friends, families, and foes all work together to make a living – no matter the cost.”
There are a few different plot strands going on here that slowly but surely merge. All of them orbit and close in on Tom Hardy’s character, who himself is a bit of an enigma. It also gets bonus points for being James Gandolfini’s final film. Go out and see it!
With gay marriage transitioning from illegal to legal, to accepted, and eventually boringly normal (although at different rates in different countries), now we’re beginning to see the movies that reflect that social change.
“After Ben and George get married, George is fired from his teaching post, forcing them to stay with friends separately while they sell their place and look for cheaper housing — a situation that weighs heavily on all involved.”
Love is Strange is far better than a typical schmaltzy gay-rights picture. There are no hateful yobbos yelling “faggot”, no bricks flying through windows, no lynchings, no slimy christian fundamentalist politicians blocking progress, and no loveable conscientious objectors crowbarred into the story to make modern liberals feel proud of their own political stance. Instead, it takes the marital relationship of the two central characters for granted and then tells its story from that point on.
The best part is that you can feel the love between them. While the story may be (at times) uneventful, the chemistry between the main players is palatable and keeps you engaged. It’s far better than the Academy’s “yay for gay” pick this year, The Imitation Game, because it isn’t interested in preaching to the choir or caricaturing the dissenters.
Anyone with an aversion to coarse sexual language should skip this one. If you do, however, you’ll be missing out on a very moving film. This is usually what happens to prudes. They can’t see beyond the surface of things, and subsequently miss a lot of great and valuable content. Take your narrow mind out of your tight ass and give this one a go, it’s lovely! What’s it about?
“A twenty-something comedienne’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time.”
No, no, no, stop! Come back. It’s ok, it’s not that kind of film. Just like Love is Strange didn’t waste time speechifying about gay rights, this movie makes no bones about its stance on unplanned pregnancy. It knows exactly where it’s going…in the bin!
Ok, that’s a harsh way to put it, but when Donna discovers that she’s pregnant she never hesitates about her decision to have an abortion. The real dilemma centres around how to best inform the stranger that she slept with. It’s also really cute and very funny. I dare say that even a “Pro-Lifer” could find a lot to love about this movie.
Back in 2010 we were given The Trip, a cheeky fly-on-the-wall look at the seething clash between two “straight-man and funny-man”comedians who agreed (through gritted teeth) to travel across the English countryside together in search of the most exquisite gourmet food available. If you missed it, I suggest you find it immediately and enjoy all the snappy one-liners and uncanny impressions that Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon had to offer as they sat squarely on each others nerves the entire time.
Now we have The Trip to Italy, and this time the tables have turned. Well, perhaps not turned, but they’ve at least shifted a little. Steve and Rob are back, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, but having detectably more fun this time around.
Like the original, The Trip to Italy exists as a six part BBC miniseries that was later squashed into a 2 hour movie and released in theatres. If you like the film version, the extended version is only more of the same goodness. So, you have that to look forward to. I was cackling through almost all of this. Impressively, the entire thing is improvised. You couldn’t forge wittier banter no matter how hard you tried.
Top five, ladies and gents, this is where it starts to get serious. These next five picks are not just the best of an invisible lot, they’re truly marvellous films.
You need to know what A Most Violent Year really is before you actually see it, otherwise you may be disappointed. People hear “violent” in the title, and they think they’re in for a bright red pulpy Scorcese picture. This is not Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, but its definitely in the same league in terms of quality.
“In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.”
The brilliant and increasingly successful Oscar Isaac plays Abel, a man stretched thin between opposing forces. On the one hand his wife and colleagues want him to retaliate violently against malicious competition, and on the other he is being investigated by the authorities who urge him to keep his business clean. More importantly, he is determined to be an upstanding businessman, faithful to the classic American Dream. So what will he do, mutate into a crooked gangster like everyone else or weather the storm with his head raised high? Moreover, who will suffer at the tail end of his prolonged indecision?
There’s very little I can say about this film, besides that it’s brilliant.
“Struggling with a marriage on the brink of falling apart, a couple escapes for a weekend in pursuit of their better selves, only to discover an unusual dilemma that awaits them.”
And I’d be spoiling a lot of the fun if I revealed to you what that “dilemma” was. Just know this; if you’re a fan of marital dramas and The Twilight Zone (because we know how often those two overlap) then this film is right up your isle.
Don’t google it! Enjoy the suspense and watch the movie.
I’m not bumping this one up on the list just because I have a twin sister. It’s just really, really, really good.
“Having both coincidentally cheated death on the same day, estranged twins reunite with the possibility of mending their relationship.”
The opening of this film makes it look like a first-world-problems movie, and I hate those. Very quickly, though, it becomes 100% relatable to anyone feeling lost and unfulfilled between the ages of 20 and 40. Maybe for those of you who have all your shit together with a stable loving family, secure finances, and great career won’t be able to identify with the main characters…but if that’s the case then fuck you anyways. Nobody should escape misery entirely, it’s not natural!
You may have your perfect life but the rest of us, the poor lost worried ones, will forever have The Skeleton Twins!
Also, it has one of the best renditions of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” ever performed. If you don’t love this movie then I just can’t understand you.
I’ve always been a fan of movies that do a lot with very little. A limited budget mixed with an interesting concept and a disciplined story often makes for a worthwhile film, if not an extraordinary one. I liked Buried a lot when it came out four years ago. Watching Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin for 90 minutes as his air supply slowly diminishes sounds like about as great a time at the cinemas as you could ever ask for.
This year Tom Hardy was in the drivers seat, literally, commandeering the tensely crafted British film Locke.
“Ivan Locke, a dedicated family man and successful construction manager, receives a phone call on the eve of the biggest challenge of his career that sets in motion a series of events that threaten his carefully cultivated existence.”
Stuck in his car for the full hour-and-a-half of screen time, Hardy’s world slowly closes in on him as he struggles to maintain order in his life.
Usually this kind of film resorts to some sort of hostage situation or terrorism plot, like 2002’s Phone Booth. Although I enjoyed the rising stress of Colin Farrell trapped in the sights of a high powered sniper rifle, I found myself wishing that one of these days a film would rise above that kind of cheaply generated conflict. Well, the gods seem to have answered my prayers.
Locke majestically manages to balance its central character on a tightrope without resorting to guns and knives. If he falls, there will be devastating consequences. I’m reluctant to go into more detail, suffice it to say that Tom Hardy shows even more of the chameleonic dedication that we’ve come to expect from him. From mixed martial arts boxer, to Bane, to a battered family man, Hardy is rapidly becoming the next Christian Bale (with a little more iron in his blood).
I could rave about this movie for days. From the second I saw the opening scene I knew it was going to be my favourite film of the year. Correction, it’s my favourite film of the last ten years. I’ve easily seen it fifteen times so far and it just keeps getting better. With that endorsement, here comes pompous Carl:
This is a movie for people who have a brain and like to use it. It requires you to engage with it as much as, if not more than, it engages with you. It’s not a movie that directly explains much, if anything, about its plot. Nearly every shred of storytelling is visual. You have to stitch together its sequential imagery to form your own comprehensive view of what’s going on and what it all means.
“A mysterious woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. Events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery.”
Anyone who has an interest in gender politics or sexual psychoanalysis should bask in what Under The Skin has to offer. Still, even without the pretentious intellectual crap, there’s a real heart and soul underneath all the “high art”. I can’t remember seeing a movie more lovingly and meticulously crafted, so it’s no surprise that the director, Jonathan Glazer, took a decade to make it.
Perhaps most strikingly, the sound design features an exquisite landscape of jarring electronic twitches, deep base tones, and eerie beckoning violin strings. Composer Mika Levi has crafted a score with what she refers to as a “pied piper tune” at its centre, which seduces your curiosity and yet leaves you unquestionably suspicious. This siren song sets the tone for what may just be one of the most creepy experiences I’ve ever had while watching a movie. I love it like an unforgotten ex-girlfriend. While I can’t stop revisiting it, it’s a deliberately unsettling experience that I’m doomed to repeat forever.
But hey, most of you will likely give up on this thing halfway through. Of those who do make it to the end, half will most likely regret the experience entirely and re-watch their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles DVD as an antidote to that god-awful intellectual stimulus they’ve just had to endure.
If you’re someone who loves true cinema, however, then I’ll be adding a longer post about my own interpretation of this movie as part of my next article on the director, Jonathan Glazer.
Under The Skin is a movie that needs to be seen! A hark back to classic 70’s science fiction horror and Kubrickian artistry, it’s easily the most interesting concoction of sight and sound you’re likely to come across for quite some time. Challenging, thoughtful, provocative, and gorgeously shot. If you can only pick one movie from this list, it should be this one, but they’re all great in their own way.