The fact every year is a good year for cinema is a sentiment I have grown to appreciate more and more over the last few years. Whether or not you think a year was slightly better or worse than another, the bottom line is we are blessed to see a hell of a lot of great movies each and every year.
So here are my absolute favourites of 2014. I mentioned it when introducing my bottom 10 of the year, but it bears repeating here. To be eligible for this list, a film must have had its first cinema or straight to DVD/VOD release in Australia during 2014. Festival only films are not eligible if they have a wider 2015 release forthcoming. But if they don’t seem to be getting any broader kind of release, I will highlight them here.
Honourable mentions: Almost too many to mention really. It wasn’t the best year for blockbusters, but I loved Guardians of the Galaxy like everyone, loved Godzilla unlike plenty of people and for the second year running feel a bit shitty that a Hunger Games film missed out on my top 10, because Mockinjay Part 1 took a huge budget franchise a pretty bold place. As almost seems to be the norm, last year was a great one for docos. Film about film Room 237, Come Worry With Us, the very important Aussie doco Utopia, Next Goal Wins, Freeload and another Aussie entry All This Mayhem were all excellent whilst music doco Muscle Shoals was the best of the lot. It was a weak year for horror and comedy though. Ti West’s The Sacrament sucked me in big time, whilst What we do in the Shadows brilliantly trod the line between both genres. Drama wise Her was great, as were Inside Llewyn Davis (my favourite Coen Bros film), Pride, Calvary and Jimmy’s Hall. On a more arthouse front, Marion Cotillard gave the year’s best performance in Two Days One Night, we all found out that Iranian vampire films were a thing we loved with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Congress melted my mind. Almost there now. The Aussie industry again made exceptional work with far too few people here seeing it. The two aforementioned docos, three films below and Predestination and Charlie’s Country both being incredible mean there is plenty to catch up on.
I can see why people took issue with this film. It does have fallen angel rock monster thingamajigs after all. But more importantly, this is a very rare ideas driven blockbuster that refused to pander to the studio or the supposed evangelical Christian target audience. I have no idea how this film got released as it did, much more an Aronofsky film than a biblical one. It’s hard not to love how the director took a source where we all thought we knew what we were going to get, and totally flipped it. What we are left with is something visually unique (just think of how average Ridley Scott’s Exodus film looked in comparison) and one of the most ideas rich blockbusters I’ve seen in a long time. It will challenge you to consider the environment, the way you interact with those around you, family structures, what you eat and what you think of “the creator”.
9. 52 Tuesdays
The first of three Aussie films on this list and almost certainly the least known of them. The film focuses on two characters undergoing transitions – one a teenager going through a year of great change and awakening. The second her mother, undergoing a female to male transition. The film has a Boyhood esque structure as it was filmed on each Tuesday of a whole year. It further plays with structure by having the teenager Billie talking straight to the camera. It’s this teenage character who is the focus of the film really, her experience of her mother transitioning, whilst she awakens sexually is a lot for a character to bear. The performance of Tilda Cobham-Hervey in the role is pretty special, conveying the tumultuous year whilst also convincing as a playful teen. This is a unique film, both in terms of subject matter and construction, and announces a couple of really promising Australian talent on both sides of the camera.
8. Big Hero 6
Wow, Disney is on a hell of a roll lately and this is my favourite of the lot of them. Not only that, they are making quite a diverse range of films right at the moment. This one plays a fair bit older than is the norm and as a result adult viewers like myself will feel it all the more. Death is present, as it so often is. The concept of power and its (ab)use is a major theme and there is a truly creepyarse masked villain. The film manages to function as a piece of classic Disney filmmaking as well as a really good superhero team origin story. All the characters are wonderful and fully formed. This is an awesomely geeky adventure story and I struggle to recall a stronger adventure film made this decade.
7. The Rover
This film seems almost forgotten already, which is a damn shame. I think it is a much more interesting film than David Michod’s beloved Australian gangster film Animal Kingdom. This is a sprawling, thought provoking film centred on the arresting outback visuals and Guy Pearce’s grimy performance. Set in a near future, it’s really a window into Australia’s blighted present, as greed and environmental exploitation rule above all else whilst the indigenous experience in this country is also touched upon. There is a stillness in the film that some may find too slow, but for me allows for reflection upon the themes on screen and absorption of what is being told.
When’s the last time you saw a great doco that was quite simply a beautifully drawn love story? So much of what I say to recommend this film, makes it sound like I am lessening its ambition. It’s just a love story. It’s just one guy’s tale. It’s just a simple film about family. But by not attempting to make the film anything grander than that, director Elvira Lind ensures that it stands out in a sea of docos that are trying to tell you theirs is the most important story to be told. Having said all that, seeing trans stories like this on screen is so new and as such there is an inherent importance to it. But it is so refreshing to see a film that is not totally obsessed or focused on the trans aspect of a person. Rather the film is a reflection of how that aspect interrelates with everything else that makes up Ryan Cassata – his family, passions, loves, growing up and working out what the hell to do in life. Given Ryan is also a talented muso the film is also elevated by the incorporation of his music, especially those songs he wrote for his girlfriend, into the film.
5. John Wick
If you told me at the start of the year that a straight up Keanu Reeves action film would make my top 5, I would have laughed and thought you and idiot. But after a little more reflection, I would have come to realise how awesome such a film must be. This film came from nowhere and totally blew me away. It feels like there is nothing to distinguish it – tis a gun heavy, moderate revenge film. The choreography is spot on without being showy. The plot has the occasional flourish to set it apart. The cast, led by John Leguizamo and Keanu Reeves are above average. But basically, the sum here is greater than its parts, and I cannot wait to grab this on blu-ray, kick back with a beer and watch it over and over again.
4. The Raid 2
Can’t really believe my top 10 of the year has two pretty much straight action flicks. I liked the first film in this series, though I have to say I probably was less a fan than most. So many action films try and cram too much into the fight sequences. But never has freneticism in choreography been such as strength, as it is here. The action is blistering, sprawling, at times over the top, but no matter what is happening the camera-work ensures it always remains easy to watch and be wowed by. I’ve never seen action sequences as good as this. Some have issues with the lengthy plot of the film. But it actually worked really well for me as a contemporary gangster film and I was enthralled by the various power plays and lobbying that was going on. I also felt that from a pacing perspective, these sequences brought me back down nicely in between fight scenes. We’ll see if I stand by this little bit of hyperbole in five years, but for me this really is one of the best action films of all time.
Much, though obviously not all criticism of Nolan’s films comes from a nitpicky critical approach. For some people, small issues around plot or logic affect the enjoyment of his films as wholes. But for this film especially, the director’s grand vision totally won me over. The film has a number of my ‘favourites’ for the year. Hans Zimmer’s score is undoubtedly the one that stands out to me the most this past year. And some of the set pieces, spaceships careening through black holes or the wondrous dangers that await on new, uncharted planets quite literally took my breath away. This is definitely a flawed film, it’s unwieldy and Nolan struggles to keep it all under control. But by aiming so high, even where he misses, you have to applaud it. Visually awe-inspiring, surprisingly (for the genre) emotional and challenging on a bunch of levels, I kind of suspect this may end up being the enduring classic of 2014.
Very little this year has made me as happy as seeing this film really blow up internationally. I toddled off to see this film by myself on my birthday, a couple of beers in hand. That may be my standout cinema going experience of the whole year. This is a terrifically frightening horror flick, with a thematic depth that really opens up over repeat viewings. It is both about a supernatural threat and the (perhaps much more real) threat of grief. It’s spearheaded by one of 2014’s best performances from Essie Davis, the realism and feeling of her frazzled mother somewhat reminiscent of Cotillard in Two Days, One Night. The influence of haunted house films was plain to see, though it never felt derivative, in much the same way as The Conjuring by James Wan. But even though it recalls a number of other films, this feels a whole lot different to pretty much everything I saw last year and the credit there is certainly writer-director Jennifer Kent’s. Her perspective is a fresh one and I cannot wait to see her make films for years and years to come.
1. The Broken Circle Breakdown
I always worry that my lists will automatically favour films released toward the end of the year, because they will be fresher in my mind. Whilst that is probably true to some degree, I first saw this film when assessing it for a festival 18 months ago. I was pretty sure then it would be my number one of 2014, and none of the amazing films I have seen since have matched this film experience (an experience I have revisited on a number of occasions without lessening the film’s greatness). Like so many great films, this is a challenging one. Whilst tackling the theme of grief head on, the non-linear storyline means that the depths of sadness sits alongside the heights of life, alongside new love, fantastic gigs or awesome sex. The cracking bluegrass soundtrack begs for comparison to O Brother Where Art Thou but it’s unique to this film and much more enmeshed in the plot than in that film. Buy this soundtrack. I have it, and I listen to it often (I’m listening to it now). I don’t cry often when watching films, but I have cried each of the three times I’ve watched this. There is something frightening, challenging and exhilarating about a film that captures life, in all its brilliance and ugliness, as well as this film does.