The Best Films Of...

The 100 Best Films of 2014 | #10 – #1

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FilmOnTrial‘s The 100 Best Films of 2014 concludes with entries #10 to #1. What made the list? What didn’t? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and check out the previous part (#20 – #11) here.


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Under the Skin

During what we can only assume is the creation of Scarlett Johansson’s erotically charged alien, there is one thing we are made acutely aware of in Under the Skin‘s opening minutes; she is most definitely not human. This exquisitely evil picture constantly toys with concepts of morality at the basest level, a play of unspeakable apathy acted out by Johansson’s dead-eyed biped, an ebony-bonced harlequin who lures her prey (unsuspecting Glaswegian men) into pits so oblique, so black, we can almost see ourselves in their glassy surface. And that’s where this science-fiction picture transcends all genre boundaries; director Jonathan Glazer has shown us the link between sex and the soul, and it takes the terrifying form of a pitch-dark abyss. We scream at these poor fellows to follow her no further – but not before we realise we’ve taken a step too far ourselves.

‘You think I’m pretty?’

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9_1

The Lego Movie

Exploding with imagination in every brick and pixel, The Lego Movie may well be the most heartwarming and hilarious two-hour kid’s toy advert ever made. Fuelled by invention, and greased by exemplary voice performances from Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson and Will Ferrell, this sugar-infused adventure barrels along at breakneck pace while still taking time to pack in character moments, breathless set pieces, and pop references that actually work (take note, MacFarlane). But just what is the secret ingredient to The Lego Movie‘s winning formula? It may be the fact that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who also helmed this year’s other comedy megahit, 22 Jump Street) never lose sight of why Lego is such a timeless plaything: It allows us to create entire worlds from scratch. And The Lego Movie – especially during its curiously profound ‘twist’ – keeps us facing forward with that same sense of wonder.

‘I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.’

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Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)

If you ever want to make a drama with the pace of a thriller – and lace it all with sly sociopolitical commentary – you could do worse than use Two Days, One Night as a template. The Dardenne brothers are two of the greatest auteurs working today, and with a dazzling Marion Cotillard at the centre of their latest, this elegantly designed and beautifully executed story may be their best. Its plot sees Sandra (Cotillard) visit her workmates over a particularly suspenseful weekend, in order to convince them that if they drop their bonuses, the company will allow her to keep her job. This core simplicity is immediately arresting, while in each scene, a broad range of humanity is explored; the screenplay effortlessly zips from gagged desperation to carefree euphoria, often within a few moments, and the narrative drive keeps rolling forward to an exciting, devastating climax. Cotillard, in those eye-catching neon tops, has become an immediately relatable figure for many of us – and thanks to the Dardennes’ magic touch, for an entire nation.

‘Don’t give in. You have to fight.’

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7_1

Boyhood

What there is to say about Boyhood cannot be squeezed into a word count. To truly get inside Richard Linklater’s opus, film criticism should adopt a similar MO; after twelve year’s worth of analysing and writing has been amassed on the film, perhaps only then will we understand Boyhood‘s myriad layers of time-hopping alchemy. But even then, the movie’s biggest questions would still remain: Is there an exact moment when a child becomes an adult? Does what happen to us as a kid inform our older selves? Why does time pass quickly, but also slowly? Boyhood will go on to be recognised as one of the greatest movies of all time, even if it was just for its technical achievement which, in shooting actors over a large period of time, gives a new meaning to ‘patience’; but in transcending potential gimmickry on that front, Boyhood will grow with its audience because of how much it manages to say between the lines. ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,’ the saying goes. Boyhood gives us the closest example of that truth.

‘I just thought there would be more.’

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The Past (Le passé)

Riding on top of the wave that’s rushing out of Iranian cinema, Asghar Farhadi has crafted another intellectually engrossing and deeply moving photoplay. A Seperation may have gotten him recognised, but he matures even further with The Past; a central trio of incredible performances from Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, and Ali Mosaffa let this patiently observant material soar, a domestic tug of war that will see an unconventional family (complete with a coma victim in the middle) stretched to breaking point. Farhadi likes to instil his perfect-pitch drama with an intriguing conceit, a whodunnit-style mystery that needs to be solved; The Past sees him further explore and develop that formula, posing that the only mystery that needs solving is the one that’s proven the most elusive: How far will go for someone you love?

‘Do you know why she fell in love with that jerk? Because he looked like you.’

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5_1

Starred Up

Director David Mackenzie cuts to the core of masculinity with Starred Up, a prison drama for the ages that deftly explores the relationships forged – and destroyed – in a building containing damaged, dangerous men. When Eric (Jack O’Connell) graduates from youth centres to a full-on prison term, he meets someone inside he did not expect: His father. Ben Mendelsohn – again proving he is the best character-actor around, next to Scoot McNairy – plays Neville, the defunct dad trying his best to show his son the way despite the metal-barred, concrete-walled circumstances. Joining them is Rupert Friend’s Oliver, the prison therapist who, through group sessions, acts as the glue to mend theirs and other men’s egos – and during the film’s most electric scenes, the wall between them to stop them ripping each other apart. The plot may resemble throwing a group of vicious wolves into the same small pit and seeing what happens, but Mackenzie knows there is more to it than that. Starred Up shows, without a smudge of sentimentality and bearing the hardest of edges, that its wolves are acutely self-aware.

‘So this is where you open up to me and build trust?’

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4_1

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like the movie Wes Anderson has been building toward his entire career. We glimpsed his subtle relationship work in The Royal Tenenbaums; tasted his expressionist world-building in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; sat in awe at the masterful camerawork in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s not that GBH is whimsy on a higher plane of existence, its dollhouse dioramas serving as backdrops for fanciful hijinx; it’s that it’s populated with some of the most wonderful characters this year has seen, most namely Ralph Fiennes’ concierge, Gustave H. Imagine Buster Keaton running a hotel, and you’re close to getting at the spirit of this wondrous creation. Through the funnel of this sublimely written and acted performance, the world of the Grand Budapest comes to life; this isn’t kitsch at all, but rather nostalgia as an artform, an emotional force to be reckoned with. Ingenious framing devices let us peek back to another time, one filled with days that were as colourful and rich as your favourite pastries. After all, who wouldn’t want to work at the Grand Budapest?

‘Take your hands off my lobby boy!’

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Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers have always been cinema’s happy couple; producing modern classic after modern classic, their near-immaculate run has seen them somehow perfect what seems an unimprovable formula. The result is Inside Llewyn Davis: Set in the burgeoning folk scene of ’60s New York, a frostbitten wasteland of tall buildings and even taller ambitions, struggling musician Llewyn Davis is trying to find his break – but he’s having a few problems. First, there’s the cat that he has to lug around since he locked himself out of its apartment. Second, he’s technically homeless. Third, he’s breathtakingly, headscratchingly stubborn. The elliptical structure of the movie’s screenplay ensures that Llewyn is firmly rooted in his endless rut of creation / destruction, a product owed equally to his own rejection of the commercial music industry, and to that very same institute. What the Coens, and through stunning lead star Oscar Isaac, have managed to do, is present a narcissistic, selfish figure who surfs couches and siphons money from loved ones, yet becomes something resembling an angel whenever he takes up his guitar and sings a song. Something indescribably beautiful escapes, but the sad fact is that no one is really listening. Yet somehow, it feels that Llewyn was a real person, who lived and breathed in this world; so while it might be late, we’re listening now.

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Interstellar

Christopher Nolan shrugs off the shackles of the Dark Knight and breaks through the final frontiers of humanity, delivering what is, by a great extent, the most ambitious film of the decade so far. In Interstellar, the stakes have never been greater in the movies; Coop (played by the Oscar-gilded Matthew McConaughey) and a team of intrepid explorers must travel to the far reaches of the universe, find a new planet for the dying human race, and save our cotton socks. And for Nolan himself, and everyone involved, the stakes have also never been greater; in bending space-time itself to fit around human notions of love, Interstellar has invoked criticisms concerning melodrama. But how many movies these days fully commit to an idea, completely believe in their own construction, instead of ironically winking at the camera?

McConaughey – essentially a future-flung Chuck Yeager – grounds the intergalactic scale with a relatable humanity, even when he’s fighting for survival on alien planets, or travelling through all sorts of holes (black, worm, and occasionally plot). Coop is searching for a new home for humanity, and by proxy, his family; Nolan never forgets this, even when the universe is spiralling around us, evidenced by flashbacks that jump across vast gulfs of not only space, but time, to catch up with Coop’s daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain) and provide us with a direct link back to Earth. Yet Hans Zimmer’s monolithic score pounds away, its heavenly organs reminding us of our cosmic insignificance; and even Dylan Thomas’ triumphal, humanist poem ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,’ quoted here and there, somehow makes us feel further away from home.

But when we find ourselves in the darkest parts of the universe, terrified at how tiny our lives appear in the shadow of Einsteinian Relativity and the celestial bodies that govern them, Interstellar gives hope. In every moment of gasp-inducing, brain-boggling beauty – whether that be a fly-by shot of Saturn or a mountain-high wave on a planet in the grip of a black hole – there is always the sense that while the universe may be indifferent, like Kubrick once said, Nolan has another idea: there is still the meaning we give it.

‘There is a moment -‘

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1_1

Her

What makes Her the best film of 2014? Above hundreds of others, why has it come to rest at the top? It might be to do with its impeccable conception of the future, where we talk to our computers, not each other; maybe it’s the pin-point perfect writing, which lends its brilliant plot an inventive structure, breathes depth into its incredible performances, and earned its director an Oscar; or, perhaps, it’s the way it tackles the biggest problem of all. That would be Love.

Spike Jonze had, before Her, been half of the one-two punch success of himself and Charlie Kaufman. The latter’s inventive screenplays would be perfectly served by Jonze’s knack for giving vibrant reality to the most ridiculous of premises (Being John MalkovichAdaptation.) – but authorship always felt like it belonged to Kaufman. Her signalled Jonze striking out on his own; not to dismiss his pioneering work in music videos, but cinematically speaking, Her is the man’s long-deserved showcase of his numerous talents. Chiefest of them being his ability to put aside any fear of failure when aiming for the highest peaks – and with Her, through the act of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falling for his operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johannson), he gracefully reaches them. Jonze seems to have floated out of the usual sphere of experience, look down, and describe what it’s really like to occupy a human brain – and ultimately, show us our limits. As Amy Adams puts it in one of Her‘s many inward-looking yet universally relatable scenes, ‘while I’m here, I wanna allow myself joy. So fuck it.’ We may only be human – but hopefully, that counts for something. Fuck it.

‘Samantha, why are you leaving?’
‘It’s like I’m reading a book. And it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now, so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much… but this is where I am now, and this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘It might be hard to explain. But if you ever get there… come find me. And nothing will ever pull us apart.’
‘I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.’
‘Me too. Now we know how.’

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< Previous: #20 – #11

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About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.

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  1. Pingback: The 100 Best Films of 2014 | #20 – #11 | FilmOnTrial - January 9, 2015

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