Category Archives: Cinema

The Best Films of 2014

The Best Films of 2014

* The following list is in alphabetical order *

’71 (Dir. Yann Demange): The Troubles in Northern Ireland have inspired some very bad films (A Prayer for the Dying), some excellent ones (Bloody Sunday) and some masterpieces (Hunger). This intelligent and absorbing examination of a British soldier (Jack O’Connell) on the run in Belfast, during 1971, can be safely added to the ‘excellent’ category. Although parts of the film owe a considerable debt to Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), albeit in reverse, it remains a pulsating historical drama. Mostly set over one hellish night in the city, the performances, production design and visuals are deeply impressive and bode well for newcomer Yann Demange.

A Most Wanted Man (Dir. Anton Corbijn): The final significant performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of his best, playing a German spymaster in this John Le Carre adaptation. Set in Hamburg post-9/11, it examines the tensions and suspicions that abound between the U.S. and German security services. This comes to a head when a Chechen refugee turns up in the city who may (or may not) pose a security threat. Corbijn evokes the mood and nuances of Le Carre’s world, whilst cinematographer Benoit Delhomme shoots an appropriately gloomy Hamburg in blues and greys. A rare and bold contemporary thriller, which actually embraces the complexities of our times, instead of shunning them.

Birdman (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu): One of the most inventive and technically accomplished films of recent years was this darkly comic exploration of a washed up Hollywood actor (Michael Keaton) trying to reignite his career on Broadway. It plays like a brilliantly audacious mashup of Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and is laced with some delicious supporting performances from Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts. The extraordinary cinematography which glues the film together could spell another Oscar for DP Emmanuel Lubezki.

Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater): Perhaps the most conceptually ambitious film project of the modern era, this film was shot over several years, from 2002 to 2013, and follows a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) – and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater) – from childhood to adulthood. Director Linklater demonstrates his trademark eye for human behaviour and the performances are uniformly excellent – especially Patricia Arquette as the boy’s mother – and the seamless time transitions are perhaps the most impressive aspect of all. Is it as powerful as Michael Apted’s pioneering Up documentaries? Probably not, but in terms of US filmmaking this is an unusually daring and satisfying film in an era of safety first thinking from the major studios.

Calvary (Dir. John Michael McDonagh): Although this Irish drama bore some similarities to McDonagh’s last film, The Guard (2011), it was darker in tone and content. The tale of an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) who hears a troubling confession explores the light and shade of modern Ireland with a knowing, morbid wit. Gleeson stood out in an impressive ensemble cast, but Kelly Reilly was also notable in a key supporting role as his troubled daughter. Over the last twenty years, Ireland has undergone seismic political, financial and cultural changes, which are reflected in this grimly comic exploration of a small coastal town.

Citizenfour (Dir. Laura Poitras): Perhaps the most riveting cinematic experience of the year for me was experiencing the inside story of the Edward Snowden leaks. The former NSA contractor who contacted Poitras and two Guardian journalists (Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill) about the post-9/11 eavesdropping activities of the US government. What gives the film real power is the sense of being in the Hong Kong hotel room as Snowden reveals the initial secrets, the tension of them getting caught at any time and the consequences of what might happen next. A remarkable document of an incredible story, as tense and thrilling as any fictional film.

Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller): Bizarre and disturbing real life events form the backdrop for this compelling drama about two Olympic wrestlers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and their relationship with one of America’s richest men. That man was John du Pont (played with eerie intensity by Steve Carrell), a philanthropist and wrestling enthusiast. The film is something of a blank slate, preferring suggestion over explanation, but this is a powerful tool in exploring themes such as patriotism, class and the seedy underbelly of the late Regan era. Since his little seen debut film The Cruise (1998), Miller has often drawn from the enigmas and oddities of real life and packaging them with considerable intelligence.

Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher): This love letter to Hitchcock was a smart adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, tailor made for the sensibilities of David Fincher. When his wife (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, a Missouri husband (Ben Affleck) slowly enters a hellish nightmare of trial by media. Using a highly effective flashback structure, it Fincher uses his formidable array of skills to dissect and dismember the institution of marriage. The performances from the leads and supporting cast are all first rate and Tyler Perry was an unexpected jewel as a high profile ambulance chasing lawyer.

Interstellar (Dir. Christopher Nolan): A sci-fi epic which blended theoretical astrophysics with human emotions was always going to be a tricky feat to pull off. Thankfully Nolan just about achieved it with this story of futuristic Earth on the brink of dying and the NASA mission to save it. Headed by a former pilot turned engineer/farmer (Matthew McConaughey) forced to abandon his young daughter and family, the depiction of space travel was realised with tremendous verve and clever mix of sets and visual effects. Although its grasp sometimes exceeded its reach, it was was a bold and unusual blockbuster filled with ambitious ideas.

Life Itself (Dir. Steve James): A documentary about a film critic might seem an esoteric, even indulgent, project, but when the subject is the late Roger Ebert and the director is Steve James it immediately becomes more tantalising. After the acclaim that followed its premiere at Sundance, I was expecting something good, but not quite the heartfelt and fascinating tribute James created. Aside from his storied career as a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, it reveals numerous other nuggets including work with Russ Meyer (!) and backstage spats with fellow TV critic Gene Siskel. Interviews with his wife Chaz and a wide circle of friends paint a moving and unflinching picture of a remarkable man.

Mr. Turner (Dir. Mike Leigh): A slow burn portrait of the famous Victorian painter J. M. W. Turner, was greatly aided by a tremendous central performance from Timothy Spall in the title and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Dick Pope. Interestingly it begins when he is firmly established as an artist and covers the last 25 years of his life. This means we see a reflective Turner coping with a complicated private life and critics disliking his later, unconventional style. One can still detect a defiant spirit (the list of credited financiers seem to indicate Leigh’s determination to get it made). The result is also a richly layered portrait which ranks highly amongst Leigh’s best.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson): A delicious layer cake of a movie, Wes Anderson crafted his most elaborate and ambitious project yet. Inspired by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, the madcap story involves a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who needs the help of one of his employees (Tony Revolori) to prove his innocence after being framed for murder. A wonderful ensemble cast featuring F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe (amongst others) is headed by Fiennes, who gives one of the best performances of the year, showing a lovely comic touch. Some people simply don’t like Wes Anderson’s intricate style of filmmaking, but even arch sceptics might be tempted by this.

The Imitation Game (Dir. Morten Tyldum): When World War 2 codebreaker Alan Turing got a posthumous pardon from the UK government, it was a sad reminder of how a great hero of the war could be a victim of prejudice on the home front. Norwegian director Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to this adaptation, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work. Cumberbatch is very strong in the lead role, whilst Mark Strong brings a enigmatic gravitas to his role as a shadowy MI6 agent. The production design by Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three time periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which involves a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

The Rover (Dir. David Michôd): This follow up to Michôd’s stunning debut, Animal Kingdom (2010), didn’t quite reach the dizzy heights of that film but was still a stellar effort from the gifted Australian director. Set in a lawless post-apocalyptic world, the plot sees a loner (Guy Pearce) have his car stolen by a gang who have left a member behind (Robert Pattinson). It then becomes a fusion of genres, principally drawing from the Western and road movie. Although it bears some similarities to The Road (2009), this has a slightly more arid and oppressive atmosphere, partly due to the hot conditions of the Australian Outback. The film is filled with intriguing surprises, whether it be strange characters or bizarre actions and the pay off when it comes is a corker.

The Theory of Everything (Dir. James Marsh): The life story of another British genius was turned into a film, only this time the subject was the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking. Although at times it borders on romanticising its subject, director Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten manage to steer the film away from too much sentiment. The bulk of the narrative deals with Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) as they fall in love at Cambridge in the late 1960s and have to deal with motor neurone disease. Redmayne bears a strong resemblance to the Hawking and does a fine job in portraying the younger and older man. Beautifully lit by Benoît Delhomme and directed with precision by James Marsh.

> 2014 in film
> Critic Picks from 2014 on Metacritic
> The Best Films of 2013

Life Itself

Roger Ebert at his computer

Steve James is one of the best filmmakers of his generation, and his latest documentary is a deeply insightful portrait of the life and legacy of US film critic Roger Ebert.

A US film critic might sound like an unlikely subject for a full length feature, but as James Joyce once wrote:

“In the particular is contained the universal”

This quote rings especially true here: a cornucopia of experiences and emotions compressed into a moving narrative via through the lens of an individual life.

Using Ebert’s 2009 memoir as a platform, the basic outline involves: his formative years in Urbana, Illinois; a long career in print at the Chicago Sun-Times and subsequently on television with Gene Siskel; it concludes with his final years, where he lost his old voice to cancer but found a new one online.

Peppered throughout are startling scenes of the ‘other’ Roger: the screenwriter who co-wrote Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) with Russ Meyer and a never-made project with the Sex Pistols; the prodigious journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, but nearly drank himself into oblivion.

He was also an early champion of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, all of whom talk warmly of him, even when he disliked some of their work. (Herzog even ended up dedicating his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World to his fellow ‘soldier of cinema’.)

There are also some hilarious outtakes from the TV show he presented with rival Chicago critic Gene Siskel. Whether it was squabbling like a married couple over Full Metal Jacket (1987) or whose name should come first on the title (Siskel won out), both found the Yin to the others Yang.

Crucially though, the rich archival and interview material is skilfully weaved in with the personal: his beloved wife Chaz who provided critical emotional and practical support in his later years.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, his condition eventually led to him losing his lower jaw and ability to speak.

However, as an early adopter of the web, he eventually found a new audience through his voice-activated computer, an extensive website and on Twitter.

It was in the medium, which almost seemed invented for him, that he wrote deeply powerful meditations on not just the latest films, but his own existence and, by extension, ours.

Four years before his death in 2013 he wrote:

“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.”

These words are used at one point in the film and I suspect they have special resonance for director Steve James. His documentaries, which include Hoop Dreams (1994) and The Interrupters (2011), are often fascinating, humane explorations of people’s lives in Chicago.

The Windy City is an almost tangible presence in this film, it was the place where Ebert penned his reviews at his beloved newspaper (The Sun-Times), where he married his soulmate Chaz and where he found a nationwide platform to champion films like Hoop Dreams.

For James, Life Itself feels like the culmination of an unofficial Chicago trilogy, but it is also seems to be the most personal of his works: a joyous celebration of a man who loved movies, people and life.

> Official website for Life Itself and Twitter feed
> Get local listings via Dogwoof, pre-order the DVD or rent or buy via iTunes UK
> RogerEbert.com

Interstellar

Matthew McConaughey Anne Hathaway and David Gyasi in Interstellar

A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

Set in a dystopian future where Earth’s resources are running dry, widowed farmer, engineer and ex-test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is confronted with a dilemma when offered the chance to lead a last-ditch mission to save humanity by the elderly NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

This involves using custom-built spacecraft, advanced theoretical astrophysics and travelling to the far reaches of space and time. Apart from the obvious risks, he will have to leave his family behind: young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who are both devastated to see him go.

Joined by Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other NASA (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a multifunctional robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), the team venture into the unknown, searching for potentially habitable worlds.

To say much more about their mission would be entering dangerous spoiler territory, suffice to say that what they experience in deep space is truly a sight to behold.

Nolan’s own challenge was to blend real-life theoretical science (with the help of world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne), interstellar space travel grounded in a semi-plausible way, and finally to explore the emotional toll this takes on human beings.

It is a tall order and using a blend of practical and digital effects, and a scientifically literate script, the writer-director weaves a patchwork of influences which he just about pulls it off.

The twists and turns of the story may be too much for some on first viewing, but this one where you have to strap in and embrace the ride into other worlds.

Dust-filled Earth and chilly deep space are realised with stunning clarity and imagination: cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shoots the dark wonders of space and other worlds with a piercing intensity.

Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin complements these with seamless digital transitions, working from stock NASA imagery and Thorne’s theories, the work he and his team at Double Negative have achieved here is truly exceptional.

Editor Lee Smith also brings a wonderfully brisk pace to an epic that lasts 166 mins, whilst utilising the crosscutting technique that Nolan used to such great effect in his Batman trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010).

The production design by Nathan Crowley, costumes by Mary Zophres and sound design by Richard King all create a rich, immersive and at times even tactile quality, which is surprising for a film as expansive as this.

Given all the technical brilliance at work here, and perhaps because of it, the performances of the actors are occasionally dwarfed by the sheer scale, but McConaughey, Foy, Hathaway and Irwin are the standouts.

McConaughey especially delivers the goods as the engineer burdened with courage and a seemingly impossible inner conflict and Ellen Burstyn burns brightly in a small, but critical role.

Surprises abound in Interstellar, and although the obvious sci-fi influences are here – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – perhaps less expected are traces of Reds (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), The Abyss (1989), Solaris (2002) and Sunshine (2007).

Like Nolan’s other films it will almost certainly repay repeated viewing, but it bears all the hallmark of his very best work: smart, technically accomplished and leaving the viewer with a desire to experience it all over again.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic
> Interstellar at the IMDb
> Roundtable interview with Nolan and his cast with THR (26 mins)

LFF 2014: Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall in Mr Turner

Director Mike Leigh brings the life of Victorian painter J. M. W. Turner to the screen, with the help of a tremendous central performance from Timothy Spall and some dazzling visuals by cinematographer Dick Pope.

Covering the last 25 years of his life, we begin with Turner (Spall) at the peak of his career, a somewhat eccentric but brilliant landscape painter who commands respect among his peers, despite (in their eyes) coming from a more modest background.

The narrative also delves into various relationships over this period: his doting elderly father (Paul Jesson); housekeeper and lover (Dorothy Atkinson); an estranged partner (Ruth Sheen), with whom he has fathered children; a landlady he meets on a trip to Margate (Marion Bailey); Scottish polymath Mary Somerville (Lesley Manville) and art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

Whilst all of those actors shine in supporting roles, it is Spall who dominates with a performance of rare quality. The physical movement, intensity, and rough edges he brings to Turner are all a delight to watch, but he also manages to use silence to express the painter’s emotional distance from people.

The slow-burn episodic narrative is effective in immersing us into his world. Details of his life are presented, but they always seem to be in the shadow of his artistic obsessions.

The technical presentation of these is remarkable, as Leigh and his long time cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a visual look, which uses Turner’s work as a reference point. Added to this, the production design by Suzie Davies, art direction by Dan Taylor and costumes by Jacqueline Durran are all impeccable.

The choice to use the digital ARRI Alexa camera was an interesting one, as the film looks very analogue, but perhaps shooting on digital offered greater latitude in capturing colour and light. After all, embracing new methods in order to capture light is essentially what Turner was doing in his later period.

Whether you are an expert or being introduced to Turner, this is one of the best recreations of an artist, and ranks alongside Pollock (2000), Le Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Van Gogh (1991) as one of the best depictions of a painter at work.

Some art historians, even one who actually advised on the film, have quibbled about details, but the wider thematic point seems to be the conflicts a mature artist has to face when he has already broken through and achieved a great deal of respect.

The choice to eschew the ‘early years’ was a wise one, and perhaps the result of Leigh’s own introspective thoughts as an established filmmaker who still feels like an outsider in an industry filled with social and financial restraints.

Questions like: ‘What have I really achieved?’, ’What is my art worth?’ and ‘Why do I do what I do?’ seem to be in the air, both for the director and subject of this film.

Leigh has always carved out his own identity in an industry susceptible to conformity and now at 71, he is regarded as one of the great British directors.

In Mr. Turner one can still detect a defiant spirit (the list of financiers on the credits seem to indicate his determination to get it made) and a certain satisfaction in going his own way.

The result is also deeply satisfying, a richly layered portrait of an artist that ranks highly amongst Leigh’s best work.

Mr. Turner screened at the London Film Festival on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th October 2014

> Mr. Turner at the LFF
> Watch the official trailer
>
 Find out more about J.M.W. Turner at Wikipedia

LFF 2014: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

The story of World War Two codebreaker Alan Turing is brought to the big screen with class, compassion and a standout performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

Based largely on Andrew Hodge’s biography, it employs a well-worn but effective flashback device which sees the maths genius (Cumberbatch) relate his story to a police officer in the early 1950s.

As the story unfolds we see how a seemingly odd bachelor in Manchester, with a fondness for electronics projects, was in the previous decades a maths prodigy who would become crucial in defeating the Nazis, and in the process help lay the blueprint for modern computing.

The real life events that inspired this version are both extraordinary and complex, but screenwriter Graham Moore has wisely woven them in to his nicely honed screenplay, with only a handful of overwritten moments (most of them involving his childhood).

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum also brings a compelling pace to proceedings, whilst juggling the complexities of Turing’s life and work with how it affected those around him.

Production designer Maria Djurkovic impressively recreates three time periods (1930s, 40s, 50s) and is aided by some sharp camera work which results in a subtly altered visual sheen for each.

In key supporting roles, it is Mark Strong who stands out as a shadowy MI6 agent, bringing an enigmatic gravitas to his role. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode, as fellow codebreakers, also do solid work in fairly underwritten parts.

This is a far superior film to Enigma (2001), the Michael Apted film which covered the same story with a somewhat hackneyed thriller premise, which seemed to turn away from the goldmine of the central protagonist.

Perhaps the shrewdest thing this film does is to embrace the puzzle of Turing himself: war hero; rebel; math genius; autistic savant; and finally a victim of the British society he had helped to save.

That the final film works as well as it does, is in large part down to Cumberbatch’s performance.

Although at times it borders on being a little too mannered, it nonetheless feels like we’ve been in the presence of Turing for the duration of the film.

Convincing whether he is answering back to his superiors or colleagues, fragile when worrying about his emotions, and belligerent that his vision will work no matter what, it is the range of emotions on display that make this his best screen performance to date.

Ultimately, the wider story is a bittersweet one, with a war hero unable to see what profound impacts his ideas had on World War II and the development of the computer and the field of artificial intelligence.

The Imitation Game does not seek to sugarcoat Turing’s legacy, nor is it an ‘issue film’ about Britain of the time.

Instead, it acknowledges the complexities of both the man and the times, whilst wrapping it up in a accessible narrative that acknowledges the profound impact he had on the world.

The Imitation Game opened the London Film Festival on Wednesday 8th October

> Official website
> Find out more about Alan Turing on Wikipedia