Wednesday, 7 January 2015

My Top 10 Films of 2014

Apologies for the delay!

Here are my Top 10 Films of 2014!

To check out my preview for this article (which lists all the films I watched last year) click HERE.

So without further ado:

10. The Babadook

Directed by: Jennifer Kent
Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

Ignore the misleading trailer, this psychological horror is more creep-under-your-skin kind of disturbing rather than the usual ‘in your face’ scares. It’s subtle and ambiguous when it need to be, but doesn't skimp on the occasional nightmarish visuals either.

The whole film has a classic look, the sound design is excellent and the story unfolds in such a way that you’ll be thinking it over and picking apart the clues long after you've finished watching. Not bad for a small (and originally crowd-funded!) Australian film.

Favourite Bit: That damned creepy pop-up book! It’s been so popular you can now actually buy a copy for yourself HERE, just as I did.

You can read my earlier review of The Babadook HERE.

9. Nightcrawler

Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed

 Whilst the story itself and the exploration of media manipulation was quite intriguing – there are a few flaws. The plot occasionally suffers from a few odd changes in direction, there are strange musical choices made throughout and the story’s conclusion will feel unsatisfactory for some. What really impresses in Nightcrawler, however, are the performances.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s slippery Lou Bloom is remarkable – unusual in that he is both the protagonist and villain of the film. Having a character so awful being so watchable is not an easy task, and Gyllenhaal relishes the role. He doesn’t just carry the film – he is the film. And we are with him every step of the way.

It’s also darkly funny – and Riz Ahmed is great in it too!

Favourite Bit: Any scene where Lou Bloom uses his fast talking and pseudo self-help speak to ooze his way out of a situation or, rather more often, into a position of power.

You can read my earlier review of Nightcrawler HERE.

8. Dhoom:3

Directed by: Vijay Krishna Acharya
Starring: Aamir Khan, Katrina Kaif, Abhishek Bachchan

 Wait what? A Bollywood movie? Yes indeed – and I wouldn't even particularly consider myself a fan of Bollywood movies in general.

Yes, the action scenes are over the top and far too much slo-mo is employed. Yes, the Eastern take on a Western Blockbuster movie (largely set and filmed in the US) is often unintentionally hilarious in its representation. Yes, the film is overlong and has one twist too many. And yes, the film brazenly cribs ideas off of at least half a dozen different Hollywood hits. But by gosh it goes for broke doing it.

It had the highest budget of any Bollywood film (and the highest grossing Bollywood film too) upon its release – and you can definitely tell. All cylinders are firing on 110 percent throughout and it’s hard not to get swept up in something that is so joyous in its execution.

For me though, what secures the film’s place in this countdown is Aamir Khan’s performance. I can’t say too much without giving away some story elements, but despite being 50(!) this guy seriously impresses. Not only does he convincingly do action, dance and sing (or rather mime) like the best, his acting in this is incredible – especially in the more heartfelt moments later on in the film.

Oh, and the songs and dance numbers are great too.

Favourite Bit: Any of Aamir Khan’s latter scenes are astonishing, but special mention also goes to Aaliya (Katrina Kaif) and her go-for-broke audition for a place in The Great Indian Circus. It’s a song, dance, circus performance, parkour and striptease all rolled into one. Utterly bonkers.

7. Interstellar

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain

 Wow – talk about splitting audiences down the middle. Some people I know downright hated it. Nolan films (especially his more recent ones) have a tendency to polarise and Intersteller is no exception.

Sure, you may pick apart the science, or roll your eyes at the ‘love conquers all’ platitudes, or sigh at Michael Cain in yet another ‘wise mentor’ role - but there is much to enjoy here. The performances are good (some of McConaughey’s scenes are just heartbreaking), the visuals are out of this world (pun intended), there’s a surprise cameo and you’ll get to witness the awesomeness of TARS – the most originally designed (and witty) robot in recent memory.

Because the film is very ‘science-y’ at first glance, people may tend to get too caught up in that aspect of it, but there is so much more going on here than that. The pioneer spirit, the study of ‘humanity’ (both in terms of the individual and as a collective species), familial ties, the whole notion of ‘time’ and how we experience it – this film is thematically bursting at the seams. If anything, it should be criticised for trying too much and perhaps slightly failing as a result of overreaching.

Of course it is not a perfect movie, but it is a fantastic cinematic experience nevertheless – especially if you got to see it on the big screen.

Favourite Bit: Cooper (McConaughey) catching up on his video messages after involuntarily skipping ahead a few years. If that doesn't choke you up – I don’t know what will.

You can read my earlier review of Interstellar HERE.

6. The Guest

Directed by: Adam Wingard
Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Brendan Meyer

 Adam Wingard is great at subverting expectations, first with last year’s surprisingly enjoyable horror film You’re Next, and now with 80s flavoured thriller The Guest.

To say too much about the story will spoil the fun, but it has three killer points in its favour: a glorious synth-heavy score and soundtrack that is great at setting the mood, a twisting plot that starts straight but gradually slides into fun camp; and finally, a knockout performance from lead Dan Stevens – playing a charismatic all-American bronzed hero (despite formally being that pale Brit off Downton Abbey).

Possibly the most unexpected entry on this year’s list.

Favourite Bit: Dan Stevens is great anytime he is on screen here, but a highlight is the bar scene. A turning point in the film – and a great use of a ‘Fireball’.

You can read my earlier review of The Guest HERE.

5. The Raid 2

Directed by: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais, Arfin Putra

 If you thought The Raid was harshly violent in its action, The Raid 2 takes it the next level! Instead of the claustrophobic confines of a single tower block, the sequel opens the story out into a sprawling gangster epic, whilst retaining the same flavour of bone-crunching action and stunning fight choreography.

It’s unfortunate that star Iko Uwais doesn't get to shine quite as much as he did in the first film (as the story occasionally focuses on other characters), but with great actors involved such as Arfin Putra (who plays Uco, the bratty son of a mob boss) this isn’t necessarily such a bad thing. Along with other larger than life characters such as ‘Hammer Girl’ and ‘Baseball Bat Guy’, the Raid 2 is brutal, violent and inventive – and despite not quite being the perfectly formed entity that the original The Raid was, this sequel is still a hell of a lot of fun.

Favourite Bit: So many choice moments that shock and thrill, but Rama’s final showdown in the kitchen against ‘The Assassin’ has to be seen to be believed.

You can read my earlier review of The Raid 2 HERE.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson

Who would have thought that the guys behind the comedy TV series Community would be the ones to direct this hit sequel? The tone has changed from the old school adventure yarn of the Cap’s first outing, to a stylish paranoid spy thriller, complimented with some slick action and thrilling set pieces.

The dialogue is also great and frequently zings, particularly with exchanges between Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson – the former two with significantly beefed up roles since their previous appearance in The Avengers; and despite its slightly lengthy running time, not a single scene is wasted.

The other draw is the ‘Winter Soldier’ himself. Although his identity is never really much of a mystery, he oozes pure badass-ery every time he makes an appearance.

At the core of it all though is Chris Evan’s performance. He makes an essentially boring character on paper into an extremely likeable one - the straight arrow that believes in persisting as such despite everyone (and even the world around him) having long since moved on from those optimistic ideals.

It feels a bit of a shame that the film’s climax isn’t the most inventive – but there is enough here to enjoy, even on repeat viewings.

Favourite Bit: The assault on Nick Fury’s car is an awesome set piece, but the Lift Scene is my choice moment.
“Before we get started… does anyone want to get out?”

You can read my earlier review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, HERE.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista

 Well, what can I say? Marvel’s biggest gamble paid off – and did so in spades. A largely unknown comic book property becoming 2014’s highest grossing movie, Chris Pratt becoming a movie star almost over night; and “I am Groot” becoming an instant catchphrase – Guardians of the Galaxy surprised everyone not only in how good it was, but how it got away with being so different.

Much of its success can be attributed to writer and director James Gunn’s leftfield roots. Guardians pays homage to cartoon sci-fi and space opera without feeling derivative. Fresh and funny without feeling like it’s trying too hard. It’s economical in its plotting, character introduction and world-building. It serves as a standalone movie, but also makes itself available to slot into the existing Marvel movies canon. It’s got a kick-ass soundtrack that’s nostalgic to adults but refreshingly new to younger generations.

Guardians does so much right that you can forgive its few flaws (comparatively dull villain, predictable character arcs, an over-familiar climactic battle), and any film that has its lead man yell ‘Dance off, bro!” at the villain during the final showdown (and gets away with it) has some balls.

Favourite Bit: Drax the Destroyer’s inability to understand metaphors.
“Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it...”

You can read my earlier review of Guardians of The Galaxy HERE.

2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman

 A masterclass in how to take a sequel to the next logical step – it's a continuation of the story but heads off into different and more interesting direction. A world where humans have diminished and apes are the more fitting dominant species.

Dawn ups the already impressive technological feats of its predecessor Rise of the Planet of the Apes to thrilling new heights. Whereas previously you eventually came around to believing the Apes as worthwhile characters through emotional investment, in Dawn you would be forgiven in occasionally forgetting that there aren’t actually real animals present on screen. The ape performances are simply astonishing – and Andy Serkis rightfully takes top billing this time around as conflicted ruler Caeser. Just one weary look or a shrug communicates volumes. Truly the best in the business.

But of course, visuals don't mean a thing without a soul, and this story delivers. It's a Western – the clashing of cultures. It's about humanity (and ape-ity?). It’s about politics and power struggles. It's about morality and the burden of leadership (who sticks to their principles as a show of example and who deviates in order to further their own cause – although perhaps ultimately for the greater good). These themes and many more run in constant parallel throughout the film between the human and ape tribes – they are reflections of each other.

Delivering tense stand-offs and some pleasing action, Dawn rarely falters.

Favourite Bit: There are many great moments: the tightly choreographed scene where Malcolm evades Ape movements in his former abode or the scene where Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus manages to switch his iPad on after the power is restored – and the first thing he sees is a picture of his family. But for me, Caeser’s first real show of power and subsequent address outside the city gates is a true goosebumps moment.
“Apes… do not want… war!”

You can read my earlier review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes HERE.

1. The Lego Movie

Directed by: Phil Lord, Chris Miler
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell

Ok, stop for a second.

I feel I have to start this with a rebuttal of sorts.

“But Seb!”, I hear you cry, “Of course you would put this at number 1. You love LEGO!”

Granted, but look at it this way: surely it would make me even more critical of the movie? As a huge fan of the brand, I would judge it more harshly for any perceived missteps or for abusing the popularity of the brick to make a quick buck. And I’ll be honest with you, I went in to this with my guard fully up.

It looked like just another kids movie. The main character looked a bit bland, a preview of the theme song sounded ear-splittingly horrendous and there ran the very real risk that we might just end up being a 90 minute toy advert. But then you watch it. And it all makes sense.

Undoubtedly, the merchandising surrounding The LEGO Movie was huge, but the film itself was also playful subversive – riffing on anti homogeneity and corporate culture (but also balancing it against the other extremes of chaos and anarchy).

It celebrates the art of playing with toys, rather than focusing on the actual toys themselves. Everyone remembers playing with LEGO – even though they didn't necessarily have the same LEGO sets – and that joy is what this film taps into, with ‘building’ and ‘creativity’ being a central theme (something that everyone can relate too) rather than just being a generic ‘Good vs Evil’ story that just so happens to feature some LEGO characters.

The duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller as the writers/directors of The LEGO Movie undoubtedly contributed to much of this unexpected direction. The quick-fire humour has a broad approach but is also mixed with subtle references to treat long time LEGO fans too. Adults will feel a wave of nostalgia and maybe even a pang of knowingness at the father/son relationship; whilst kids will enjoy the bright colours and almost manic pace at which the film throws its visual delights at you. CG animation created to look like the film is stop-motion? The choice of only using actual existing LEGO elements to create the world? Utter genius – both in terms of pure aesthetics, and also because it fits in with the clever (and very ballsy) late game revelation.

And I don't even have time to fully praise the cast; such treats as Chris Pratt being the perfect ordinary guy Emmet, (before he became actually face-famous with another movie on this list), Morgan Freeman wonderfully playing upon his too-often-cast-as-the-wise-old-man role, a decent female role model in Wyldstyle (“Are you a DJ?”), the joyfully hyperactive Benny, a perfectly cast Will Ferrell, a hilarious chair kicking Liam Neeson, not to mention Will Arnet as (quite possibly) the best version of Batman ever to have graced the screen.

It’s rare to have a “children’s” movie that offers so much depth and joy beyond its veneer of simple throwaway entertainment. It can be considered up there with the likes of some Disney Classics and Pixar films – although secretly I think it’s better…

Favourite Bit: I honestly can't decide. So instead I'm just going to say...
"Spaceship! Spaceship! SPACESHIP!!!"

You can read my earlier review of The LEGO Movie HERE.

Honourable mentions

These are films that didn't quite make the Top 10 or would have been had they been released this year.
In no particular order these are:

Batman: Assault on Arkham – A decent animated feature featuring the exploits of The Suicide Squad (soon to have a DC movie for themselves!).

Edge of Tomorrow – Sci-fi Groundhog Day! Win! My earlier review is HERE.

Fury – The best tank sequences ever? My earlier review is HERE.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Not sure exactly who the ‘five’ are, but there is an almighty scrap.

Robot & Frank – Sweet, funny, touching. Would definitely have been in my Top 10 last year if I had seen it then.

The Wolf of Wall Street – A crazy look at excess. The book is still slightly better of course. My earlier review is HERE.

Well, that’s it for my Top 10. Agree? Disagree? Let me hear your opinions!

Stay tuned for The Alternative Awards for 2014 films – coming soon!

You can also check out my Top 10 Film lists from previous years: 2013, 2012 and 2011.

6th Jan 2015

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