|Under the Skin
You probably don't care, but here are some of my favourites from 2014, listed in no particular order. These are based on Irish releases, so a few technically '2013' films may have slipped in there:
(Shameless plug: you can find my 'other', properly published end of year film article at the link below, which is focused on films that slipped under the radar for one reason or another: https://www.newstalk.ie/Ten-great-films-that-slipped-under-the-radar-in-2014)
At Berkeley - How is a four hour documentary set pretty much entirely on a university campus so compelling from first frame to last? Frederick Wiseman allows the camera to soak up the sights, the stories, the people, and offers a masterclass in documentary filmmaking in the process. From what I'm reading, looks like a safe bet to reserve a place on next year's list for National Gallery!
Boyhood / Girlhood - Boyhood really needs no introduction - a sprawling achievement on a truly unprecedented scale (certainly in the realm of fiction film). But Girlhood deserves defending too as something of a counterpoint - another honest, acutely observed tale of adolescence from Celine Sciamma. Frankly, these two films are ultimately very, very different stories in very, very different styles, but they’d make one hell of a double bill.
Goodbye to Language - I go to the cinema to see something new and challenging, and Adieu au Langage sees a veteran director still redefining the potential of the medium. Jean Luc-Godard, cinematic troll extraordinaire, rips apart the rules of 3D and storytelling with equal parts playfulness and complexity. It’s the only 3D film you ever need to see - although you’ll need to see it again. And again. And probably again after that.
The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson manages to make a film even more drowning in his own eccentricities. And thank god he did, because The Grand Budapest Hotel is delightful cinema from one of the medium’s most singular auteurs. Anderson concludes on the poignant reminder that, for all the energy and vibrancy of the world portrayed here, it is destined to remain an impossibly nostalgic dream. Luckily, we have Wes Anderson to visualise that impossible dream for us.
Her - Where other films treat technology with fear and suspicion, Her is defined by its empathy and humanity. Simply put, it is a truly thoughtful and beautiful, yet probing and bittersweet sci-fi romance. It’s the brilliant film Spike Jonze has always had him.
Ida - the visual presentation most stands out in this minimalist yet powerful drama. Shot in black & white 4:3 (and making tremendous use out of that old-fashioned aspect ratio), the compositions make fascinating use of frame height and geometry. Through the cinematography, Pawlikowski and his DP transmit a sense of unease, place and often a grim sort of beauty. It's a film where every pretty much every cut signals an inventive new shot, while the fascinating dual character study at the film’s centre (dominated by incredibly evocative performances from Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza) also allows for insightful exploration of the political and social contexts of mid-century Poland (particularly the aftermath of the Holocaust)
Mr Turner - an exquisite biopic that elegantly bypasses the typical limitations of the form. With its painterly cinematography, admirably episodic structure and towering lead performance from Timothy Spall, Mike Leigh's film feels like a truly rich, engaging and illuminating portrait of a complex and fascinating individual. The painfully mediocre likes of the Imitation Game could take note.
Snowpiercer - the greatest cinematic travesty of the year was that Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian masterpiece was denied a proper release here (hopefully rectified in 2015). Those who sought it out were granted a genre film of electrifying intelligence, grace, skill and style. Not even the finest Hollywood efforts of the year came anywhere close to the accomplishments of this weird and wonderful train journey, loaded with hugely imaginative setpieces and bold social commentary.
A Touch of Sin - a truly magnificent 'state of the Chinese nation' address from the renowned Jia Zhangke. The society portrayed here is at odds to many of the images we see portrayed in most Chinese and Western media, to the point where it seems like a near miracle Zhangke was allowed make such a scathing film in his own country. It's a cynical film, but one that seems genuinely concerned with some of the changes taking place in China.
Two Days, One Night - The Dardennes manage a mesmerising feat here as they explore the various ethical and moral dilemmas faced when a woman named Sandra (Marianne Coutillard) is threatened with being let go after her co-workers are put in a near impossible. position. It's sort of an anti-parable, despite its seemingly morally loaded concept - this isn't a story with one outlook, but seventeen of them. All this is done in the typically economical way the Dardennes are experts at. The visuals are unshowy and (deceptively) simple, but the long-takes in medium and close angles capture with devastating clarity the reactions and emotions of these characters
Under the Skin - Above all, this is a film about mood, and Glazer is brave enough to supplement a stripped down, ambiguous narrative with evocative and sometimes provocative delivery. The film is overflowing with memorable imagery and fantastic effects sequences - including several that are among the most disturbing yet strangely beautiful I have ever seen in a cinema. Nothing I saw this year, if you’ll excuse the lazy description, quite got under my skin quite like this one.
Whiplash - really, it all boils down to that ending. If you want a perfect example of raw cinematic catharsis, make sure you watch Whiplash through to its impeccable cut to credits. Not that what precedes it is any slouch - it’s an intense, blackly comic and fascinating two-hander, with JK Simmons owning every single scene he appears in.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell’s complex layers and subtexts ultimately elevate it above the more hollow genre thrills Quentin Tarantino is often known to peddle. By the end, the characters have descended into a heady cocktail of euphoria and delirium, living the dream and expiring in a horrible nightmare - an apt description for the film itself. It's a rush to experience, Sono showing a level of creative freedom, punk attitude and sense of devilish fun that we haven't seen in earnest since Love Exposure. Nothing is immune to attack or criticism here, even Sono himself. Embrace the whiplash and soak up the contradictions - Why Don't You Play in Hell? is a rush.
12 Years a Slave - emotionally devastating and immaculately made
Au Revoir l’ete - Koji Fukada proves himself one of the most promising directors in Japanese cinema as he channels Rohmer in this acutely observed character study, with another star turn from young Fumi Nikaido
Bastards - Claire Denis drags us through a modern, living hell with discomforting effectiveness
The Babadook - a brilliant debut from Jennifer Kent, where the real horror is more terrifying than the expressionistic monster of the title
Exhibition - Joanna Hogg's portrait of a house and a marriage is potently melancholic and subtle
Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coen Brothers hit the mark yet again with this evocatively unromantic study of a hopeless musician
The Kirishima Thing - a compelling high school mystery with no easy answers from the up-and-coming Daihachi Yoshida
Leviathan - Andrey Zvyagintsev's impressive film is incredibly bleak, but benefits from a blackly comic streak and some surprisingly lively storytelling
Manakamana - those who commit to Manakamana’s uniquely sedate pacing and style will experience beautiful and insightful moments - and even some hilarious and lively ones too
Nightcrawler - how refreshing to see a Hollywood film about an absolute asshole
Night Moves - 'Eco-terrorism' thriller that benefits greatly from director Kelly Reichardt's at this point trademark restraint
Norte The End of History - an epic that explores everything from class structure to political systems, but perhaps the most intriguing theme in Norte is also the most primal - an exploration of the conflict between good and evil
The Past - another intense yet sensitive account of a domestic crisis from Asghar Farhadi
The Punk Singer - a rich and visceral tribute to Kathleen Hanna as both an artist and an individual.
Short Peace - an anime omnibus that benefits from the inconsistency of voices, yet is consistently imaginative and engaging
A Spell to Ward off the Darkness - unashamedly inaccessible and experimental, this film builds to a final act that might be among the most transcendent musical performances ever committed to the screen
Stranger by the Lake - a masterclass in quiet tension building and paranoia, wayward looks and lurking figures employed to create this captivating sense of unease. It's also, in its way, a very modern cinematic romance, albeit one with a palatable sense of danger and risk
Timbuktu - solemn, intelligent and very 'human' filmmaking, and one that's a vital contrast to the more alarmist, ethically dubious efforts that tackle similar subject matter
The Wind Rises - Miyazaki's (possible) swan song is one of extraordinary grace and mastery. A fitting bow for an all-time great