From teenagers to monsters and everything in-between, 2014 was a successfully eclectic year for the film industry. Boyhood was the culmination a decade long labor of love, whilst controversial David Fincher adaptation Gone Girl capitalised on Gillian Flynn’s best-seller of the same name.
Acting wise, it was a wonderfully mixed bunch. There were hot names such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Affleck and Tom Hardy strutting their stuff in the lead, as well as lesser-known, homegrown faces such as Britain’s Eddie Marsan and Australia’s own Essie Davis spearheading independent dramas. Hollywood were a little self-indulgent with family favourite The Lego Movie, boasting voices from Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett and Guardian of the Galaxy‘s Chris Pratt.
2014 was also a return to form for some, with Beetlejuice‘s kooky lead Michael Keaton stirring up Oscar buzz as the titular Birdman, and broody Australian music icon Nick Cave was front and centre in his docudrama 20,000 Days on Earth.
Richard Linklater’s ambitious feature starring Ethan Hawke (Dead Poet’s Society, Before Midnight) and Particia Arquette (Medium, Holes) fast became an indie favourite of 2014. The fictional drama – made with the same group of actors over a 12-year period from 2002-2013 – followed central character Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through his childhood, adolescence and right into early adulthood. It’s the quintessential American coming-of-age flick, but the central performances are ballsy direction are really what makes this film so good. As the audience, we watch Coltrane grow from 8-20 yrs old through a series of slickly edited vignettes that capture family get-togethers, road trips, birthdays, graduations and other important milestones. The soundtrack too was a nostalgic mixtape from the 90s, with classics by Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Blink 182, Foo Fighters and many more bands that encapsulate the time period. If you haven’t seen it already, get onto it (it’s still showing in selected theatres so be quick!).
It’s yet to be released here in Australia, but I couldn’t put together a 2014 film list without Birdman. “A one-time action hero tries to put on a play while contending with a scene-hogging narcissist, a vulnerable actress, an unhinged girlfriend, a resentful daughter, a manager who’s about to come undone… and his alter-ego Birdman”, so the tagline goes. Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film is a front-runner Oscar contender, and boasts a career-best performance from its lead Michael Keaton (ironically, the 90s star of Batman) and a supporting cast that includes Edward Norton (Fight Club), Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive), Emma Stone (Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover). The true plot is almost impossible to get from the trailer – and therein lies the intrigue and excitement of this eccentric film. The intertwined stories are dazzling, the characters bizarre, and the cinematography fantastical!
Never leaving a car for 80-odd minutes sounds boring in theory, but the anxiety levels are high throughout Locke. Director Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) has outdone himself with his latest writing/directorial effort. Although set entirely in a car with one actor a la Duel, Locke is proof that simplicity can be powerful – and as the “callers”, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott are particularly punchy with just their voices. One riveting car ride spearheaded by one riveting lead actor is all it takes to have you completely and utterly hooked from start to finish. Knight has succeeded in compressing an ambitiously scripted drama into an insular, agonising journey. Tom Hardy is a tour-de-force as an existentially angsty lead, expressing both control and vulnerability as a man dealing with multiple crisis’ over the course of one car trip. Locke works because it’s a gutsy concept, and the one-on-one engagement with Hardy’s antihero is a thrilling, cinematic pay-off.
This, my friends, is the brilliance that can be achieved on a small budget. Australian indie horror gem The Babadook was made on a modest budget of only $30,000 via the crowd-funding initiative, Kickstarter, but you wouldn’t know it to look at it. The film is a visual and psychological masterpiece – a proper thriller with all the trimmings, albeit localised – in the same vein as The Conjuring and The Exorcist (with high recommendations from the later’s director). The Babadook – a debut feature for Australian director Jennifer Kent – tells the spine-chilling tale of a storybook villain who haunts a small boy and his bereaved widow mum. It became an international sensation everywhere but Australia. Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries) was magnificent as the troubled and tormented mother, and fresh-faced child actor Noah Wiseman a revelation in the lead. Eerie swells and discordant noise underscores every scene as Davis transitions between fearful mum to raging, possessed lunatic. I can bet you haven’t heard about it it let-alone seen it, but don’t fear, it’s now out on DVD. Watch it ASAP, if you dare…
Director Dan Gilroy – making his directing debut – disturbing message in the guts of Nightcrawler: news and current affairs programs are turning us into voyeurs. We have become desensitised to shootings, suicides, massacres and domestic violence because we consume it all. This thrilling feature is a seedy, suburban nightmare of criminal silhouettes, late-night diner lights and camera flashes. Gilroy (responsible for co-writing the 2012 Jeremy Renner reboot of The Bourne franchise) has created a seedy, pulse-pounding depiction of downtown L.A through the eyes of one of the city’s most psychotic men – Lou Bloom (a career-best Jake Gyllenhaal; Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain). He is the ultimate anti-hero with the appearance of a vampire and the nocturnal habits and appetite to boot. In his pursuit of wealth, success and fame, he encounters the world of ‘nightcrawling’ – freelance reporters who film crime scenes to sell to the highest-bidding news station for bulletin breaks. A must-see for thrills, spills and ultimate chills.
This quiet and humble British film went under the radar release wise, but was certainly praised on many prestigious festival circuits early this year. Still Life is, quite simply, a stunning movie. Eddie Marsan (The World’s End, Filth) is John May, a meek and mild, middle-aged bachelor whose job is to step in, in the absence of family and friends, when someone in the community dies alone. The touching premise is gentle where other films would manipulate, quiet where music would bombard and organic where SFX usually dominates. It’s essentially about loneliness and a longing for human connection, which is a well-trodden concept that seems boring and self-righteous, but this film is anything but. Director Uberto Pasolini (famous for producing The Full Monty) has a beautiful way of getting the most out of his actors by limiting dialogue to avoid cluttering the tone. It is this cinematic essence of simplicity that is at the core of the film’s heart and success. If anything, see it for Marsan’s performance alone. And bring tissues!
The Lego Movie
When Warner Bros. announced they were putting together an animation about toys, Toy Story fans weeped. There was no way it could top the hit flick of the 90s, no way. Well, it did. In the lockstep metropolis of Bricksburg, an ordinary construction worker (voiced by Chris Pratt) fights to free the city from the manipulative tyrannical President Business (a menacingly comic Will Ferrell). Other famous voices include Liam Neeson (most famous for voicing Aslan in the modern Narnia adaptations) as a hilariously mocking good cop/bad cop, and the ‘Voice of God’ narrator Morgan Freeman. From the creators of 21 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, this colorfully animated spoof of consumerism and superheroes was the most awesome surprise of the year – and even more excitedly, featured many talented Aussies from animation group Animal Logic. The plot was a witty, colourful pastiche to entertain the whole family, with cutesy Lego characters to excite the kids, and clever, tongue-in-cheek commentary on conformity and individuality for everyone else.
20,000 Days on Earth
Nick Cave is more than a cult icon. The 57 year-old is a songwriter, a poet, a screenwriter, an author, a composer and occasional actor. He’s also instantly recognisable with his bob black hair, heavy brows and deep, velvety vocals. The camera loves Nick Cave, so, it’s only natural he be the star of his own story. In 20,000 Days on Earth (the directorial debut from British visual artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard), the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds frontman relives key moments of his life – his 20,000 days on earth. We explore the ‘real Nick’ juxtaposed against the ‘frontman Nick’, and how his family, collaborators, contributions, music and musings have shaped his life. This docudrama looks stunning, with Forsyth and Pollard’s background in visual art creating a polished, almost dreamlike aesthetic to the filming style. For fans of Cave, this is a great, intimate glimpse into his life. For fans of music, it’s a great insight into narrative songwriting and the musical process. For everyone else, it’s just a great, exciting film with a central “character” of great mystery and endless charisma.
The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch is an undeniable talent. Since smashing the small screen as the BBC’s titular Sherlock back in 2010, the 38-year-old British star has fast become Hollywood hot property. In The Imitation Game, he is back to his quintessential British roots. He plays Alan Turing, a young and complicated mathematician and computer scientist who is enlisted by Britain’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, during World War II. Working alongside scholars, mathematicians, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers, Turing spearheads the UK’s attempts to crack the Nazi Germany’s Enigma code – a highly intelligent naval correspondence deemed “impossible” to intercept. The language, though of a sophisticated bygone era, is easy to follow, and the 114-minute plot is never dull. The Imitation Game is a stylish wartime drama with stellar central performances and an eye-opening premise. Look out for it next year at the Oscars!
When Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl flew off the shelves back in 2012, it wasn’t long before a big screen adaptation was on the cards. Director David Fincher created a stylish suburban neo-noir; a dark and at times sadistic exploration of the pitfalls of marriage and the legacy of a twisted love story. At the centre of this epic psychological thriller is the disintegration of Nick (Ben Affleck; The Town, Argo) and Amy Elliott-Dunne’s (Rosamund Pike; Die Another Day, Made in Dagenham) marriage. Amy is the ultimate modern femme fatal, using society’s pre-conceptions about domestic violence and rape to manipulate people into believing she is the victim when in fact, she is the one orchestrating everything brutal in the world that is Gone Girl. Amy is one bad-ass villain. It’s the only film I saw this year that warranted full-blown gasps from every audience member in the cinema. Even if you’d read the book beforehand, the film still excels in its ability to shock, provoke, disgust and ultimately, deceive its viewers. Gone Girl is the number one must-see for all moviegoers!