My Top 10 Films of 2014 or: I’m Hooked on a Feeling (That) Everything is Awesome!

2014 is over and done with and you know what that means – that’s right, it’s time for yet another ‘Top 10 Films of 2014’ list! Except this one is special – not just because it’s my Top 10 Films of 2014 list, not even because it’s my first ever Top 10 Films list (which it is), but because it’s my first ever blog entry. Ever. I’ve had this website for just over four years now and I never really wanted it to be just a few static pages of information about myself; I wanted it to be dynamic, to add something new on a regular basis. At some point I realised that the best way of doing that would be to add a blog section, and switching to a WordPress-based site a couple of years ago certainly helped with that, but even though I did that, and then gave the site a further revamp earlier this year, I simply haven’t gotten around to writing a blog entry before now. I think the problem has been that I built it up in my head too much – thinking that somehow my first blog post had to be The Greatest Blog Post Ever and that I needed to set aside a huge chunk of time to write it and make sure it was perfect. Finally, I realised that probably the best way to approach it would be to just get on with it and so, without standing on ceremony, welcome to my blog, where I will write about stuff that I do, stuff that I hope to do and what I think about stuff – primarily, but not limited to, films. I hope you enjoy reading it, it would be great if you could subscribe, like/share my posts and leave some comments, because that sort of social media ego boost will keep me coming back to write more – and hopefully you’ll find it all worth reading!

And now, Without further ado, here they are –

My Top 10 Films of 2014

1) The Lego Movie
The Lego Movie

What can you say about this movie except ‘Everything is Awesome!’ When it was first announced that a Lego movie was in the works I think the dumbfounded reactions from most people were entirely justified – after all, how can you adapt a toy, especially a toy like Lego, which doesn’t have any particular setting, characters or plot into a movie? And didn’t anyone learn anything from the Battleship movie? I’ll admit that, after initially dismissing it, I became somewhat interested in it when I saw some of the actors who had been cast in it – big names like Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman and Will Ferrell, personal favourites like Alison Brie and Charlie Day and – the one that excited me the most – Will Arnett as Batman! The first trailer sold me on the visual style – it’s clearly all been put together with CGI but there’s an underlying painstaking attention to detail that suggests the animators started from the ground up with individual Lego blocks, especially when it comes to things like the way the fire is animated and the way Wyldstyle’s hair moves when she shakes her head. By the time of the theatrical release I was really looking forward to The Lego Movie but even with my now-raised expectations I was still blown away.

It’s not just an entertaining movie – although obviously it is primarily aimed at kids, so it’s a visual feast with a plot that’s easy to follow and chock full of visual gags – it also manages to be incredibly witty, satirical and, ultimately, heartwarming. Without writing a plot summary or invoking any spoilers I will just say that it turns out to be not just a movie made by animating Lego but a movie that is about Lego – the toy, as well as what it means to different people, and just like the toy, everyone is going to get something out of it.

2) Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel Studios’ latest movie (and technically the end of Phase 2, as it’s the last before next year’s ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’, not that ‘Guardians’ will be tying into the other films just yet) is a bit of a departure. Whilst the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not quite as gritty or realistic as Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, none of the previous films have had two out of the five main characters be entirely CGI – and if they had, they wouldn’t have been a talking raccoon and a (slightly less eloquent but still talking) tree. I heard reports that Disney/Marvel were not entirely confident about this film but I never understood why – unlike The Lego Movie, I was sold on this from the get-go. Like most people (if they’re honest) I hadn’t heard about the Guardians of the Galaxy previously, so I had no idea what to expect, but I was hooked on the feeling from the first trailer thanks to its combination of colourful characters and cheesy ’80s music. I also had faith in James Gunn, as I’m a big fan of both ‘Slither’ and ‘Super’.

‘Guardians’ turned out to be both a technical and creative triumph. It’s a slick, gorgeous, action-packed sci-fi/fantasy adventure that doesn’t allow any of those things to take centre stage. Instead, it’s all about the characters – a ragtag group of people, aliens and alien people that become endeared to one another for various reasons and end up saving the galaxy together. It’s given us Groot, a fully CGI character who manages to say more with his soulful eyes and facial expressions than he does with dialogue, and Chris Pratt v2 – somehow just as cute, funny and charming as before but now with added dramatic acting chops and sex appeal. Oh, and an excuse to have ‘Escape (the Piña Colada Song)’ on our regular playlists without having to cough loudly and skip past it if there’s company present.

3) Calvary

Calvary

What, you didn’t think this list was going to be all light-hearted, entertaining films, did you? I studied film at university, you know! No, this is where it gets dark and a bit more critical. Calvary is an amazing film and I would tell everyone to watch it, but I would also warn them about it – this is one of those films that starts off dark and depressing and never lets up. If you know the premise you will know that it starts with a small-town Irish priest hearing confession from a man who tells him that he is going to kill him in one week, just to prove a point, and then it’s all downhill from there, exploring the relationships between the priest, his daughter and the other people in the town during the week that leads to the impending confrontation.

It’s stark yet reflective, dark yet tinged with humour, all of which is expertly handled by writer/director John Michael McDonagh, is beautifully shot and features some fantastic performances from Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran and Chris O’Dowd.

4) Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

This film came out of nowhere for me – I hadn’t heard about it until it was already out and then I kept hearing good things about it so I tracked it down and gave it a watch. It’s set in a future where an attempt to reverse global warming worked a little too well and plunged the Earth into another ice age and the only survivors are living on a train (the titular Snowpiercer) that is continually circumnavigating the globe with a perpetual-motion engine, living in a microcosmic class system that dictates their role and which carriage they live in. When mysterious messages work their way from the front of the train to the work class in the rear carriages, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) leads a revolt to take control of the front of the train and the engine, fighting their way through each carriage along the way.

The allegory may be a little over the top but it totally works in this case because this is not a film that takes itself too seriously. It’s been rightly likened to a Terry Gilliam film and indeed its collection of eclectic locations and oddball characters make it as bizarrely entertaining as it is gritty. It has some beautiful sets – each carriage of the train looks different, depending on its function, and the cinematography does a really good job of working with this – and some great visual effects (the frozen world outside is beautifully haunting) but it’s the human story that really carries the film along, with one of the highlights being a standout performance from Tilda Swinton.

5) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
‘Caesar is home’ is where we left off at the end of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and, although that was a perfect ending for a really great film that served as a prequel to original ‘Planet of the Apes’ (explaining both how the apes gained intelligence and how the humans were so easily overthrown), it was hard to resist the temptation to check in on the progress of the super apes at some point between James Franco saying a fond farewell to Caesar in the redwood forest and Charlton Heston and his crew crash landing back to Earth 2,000 years later.

What follows is a fascinating look at the society that the apes have built for themselves, the remains of the fallen human society and the relationships within and between them. The conflict in the film essentially comes from racism – humans who refuse to get along with apes and apes who refuse to get along with humans, particularly Koba, a member of Caesar’s council, who was badly treated by humans in the lab. The ever-thoughtful Ceasar quickly realises that there are good and bad humans as well as good bad apes and that, in that sense at least, we are all the same and his seemingly doomed quest to get everyone else to realise that is both thrilling and poignant.

6) Nebraska

Nebraska

Nebraska follows Woody Grant, a man who receives a letter stating that he has won a $1 million sweepstakes prize which is clearly a scam but he either doesn’t realise this or doesn’t want to. Either way, it looks like he won’t settle until he travels to Nebraska to claim his prize and so it falls to one of his sons, David, to drive him there – less out of love for his crotchety old dad and more because he hasn’t got anything better to do. Along the way they stay with other family members, run into people from Woody’s past, get into arguments and try to address Woody’s alcoholism and bitterness towards his family. It’s one of those films that’s more about the journey than the destination, and this journey is a meandering, comfortably paced, bittersweet exploration of old age, regrets and family life, exceedingly well cast and performed, and beautifully shot in a nostalgic, crisp black and white.

7) Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

Up there with Calvary in terms of unrelenting grimness, Blue Ruin starts in a dark place and gets darker as we follow Dwight Evans brutal, if amateur, revenge-driven killing spree. For me, this is a great film thanks to its ability to tell large parts of the story without the use of dialogue – there isn’t much exposition until Dwight meets up with his sister to discuss what is going on – until then we are left guessing for the most part, even as we are pulled in to Dwight’s life and made uncomfortably complicit with his actions. It’s an intelligent, taut, grounded thriller with a streak of dark comedy and is a film that will stay with you, thanks in no small part to Macon Blair’s perfect performance as Dwight – he strikes a perfect balance between wounded and psychopathic and manages to make you root for an indefensible character.

8) The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

I’ve only recently gotten into the films of Wes Anderson (I saw ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ many years ago but otherwise nothing until ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ when that was in cinemas) and I think this might be my favourite one. A story about friendship, loyalty and love during a time of war, with a nostalgic longing for a lost age, it’s brilliantly stylish, delightfully whimsical and extremely well crafted, choreographed and executed. Its set pieces are technical marvels that serve the story rather than drawing attention to themselves and its actors turn in stellar slapstick performances – particularly Ralph Fiennes, who is not known for his comedic abilities but perhaps should be, as it does it exceedingly well.

9) Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

If the Coen Brothers release a film, chances are it will be one of my favourites that year, and ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is no exception. I love it when their films have a meandering narrative and this is one of those – it allows you to sit back, relax and soak up the atmosphere of the 1960’s New York music scene, following Llewyn Davis around as he drifts from friend’s couch to friend’s couch whilst trying to make a living from his music. It features some great dramatic and musical performances and Roger Deakins, as always, excels with the cinematography. Also there’s a cat!

10) The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

As with the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese is one of my favourite film makers is consistently brilliant enough to nearly always make one of my favourite films of the year. His previous film, ‘Hugo’, a loving, fictionalised tribute to the history of film, felt as though it had been made for me personally – it took me right back to when I was studying film history in my first year of university and made me nostalgic both for then and the early years of film itself, a time I didn’t even live through. It is to ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’s credit, then, that his subsequent film managed to draw me in and hold my attention, despite its subject matter not being something that I’m particularly interested in and a personal story about someone I wasn’t even previously aware of. It succeeds in this thanks to a combination of an excellent script and fantastic performances from the entire cast, but particularly Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill. The drugged driving scene remains one of the highlights of the year!

Honourable Mentions

Here we have some films that were all absolutely great but didn’t quite make the Top 10 list –

Digging Up the Marrow

Digging Up the Marrow

This is my favourite film from Adam Green so far. I’ve never seen anything else like it so it gets loads of points for originality – it’s a pseudo-documentary in which Ray Wise is the only person not playing themselves, instead playing a character called William Dekker who approaches Green and tells him about the ‘marrow’ – a mysterious underground world where monsters live. Green sets out to discover whether he’s telling the truth, documenting the whole process. It’s hilarious, but not without some genuine scares.

A Walk Among the Tombstones

A Walk Among The Tombstones

Like a smarter, classier, more introspective ‘Taken’, Liam Neeson proves that he can combine his acting prowess with his more recently discovered action man status in this beautifully shot (I mean, just look at that composition) thriller.

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow

It may be simply ‘Groundhog Day’ meets ‘Independence Day’/’Starship Troopers’/whatever film you can think of, but ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ is a summer sci-fi blockbuster done right.

X-Men - Days of Future Past

 X-Men – Days of Future Past

Bryan Singer’s apology for ‘The Last Stand’ is accepted.

Swing and a Miss

Unfortunately, there were some films released this year that didn’t quite live up to the hype surrounding them and/or my own personal expectations. In these cases I have particular reasons why they didn’t make my Top 10 list –

InterstellarInterstellar

This was the big one that everyone was psyched for and most people seemed to love but it just left me cold. I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan (have been since Memento) but there are just too many issues with this film for me to consider it the triumph that it’s been heralded as. As a human drama, it fails on account of being quite rushed in the beginning and rather disjointed later. Matt Damon’s ‘I’ve obviously got space madness’ and Ann Hathaway’s ‘I’m a hardcore scientist who will do anything for the mission but, oh look, I’m going to break down crying because I’m a woman in love and that renders me useless’ characters were particularly disappointing. Finally, even though it comes across as a film that’s had a lot of attention to detail paid to the science, but it still contains so much bad science that it makes bad science fiction.

Gone Girl

 Gone Girl

This is an interesting one because it’s not a bad film at all and I totally enjoyed it. However, I read the book first, and the book is excellent – it’s one of the tightest, cleverest thrillers you’ll ever read – and the problem is that, once you’ve read the book, you’ll see that the film is so close to it that it’s pointless. That is, perhaps, largely due to the fact that author Gillian Flynn adapted the novel to screen herself, which is great because the film retains all the great aspects of the book (i.e. the characters and plot) but unfortunately nothing is added in the adaptation process – it completely fails to take advantage of the medium of film and, honestly, I find that disappointing because I expected more of David Fincher, who has proved himself to be a stylistic visual storyteller in the past.

 The Hunger GamesThe Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Further proof (along with ‘The Hobbit’ movies) that normal-length novels don’t need to be split into multiple films – except, whereas ‘The Hobbit’ is just one story that’s part of a much larger world and, even though it detracts from the story of Bilbo Baggins, you can understand Peter Jackson’s desire to cram in as much Middle Earth stuff as possible because it’s unlikely that he will make any more movies set there, with ‘Mockingjay’, what came from a fairly quick-paced novel about District 13 turning the tables on the Capitol ends up being a confused, bloated mess. If there was room for expansion, it was with how ‘Mockingjay’ investigates the role of the media in warfare – and in particular how one person can become an icon that everybody else rallies behind – but instead Katniss just spends the entire movie somehow not realising that it’s not all about her. Then ‘Part 1’ ends rather abruptly, leaving you with the feeling that if there wasn’t a better place to split the films, they shouldn’t have been split.

Unseen Must-Sees

These are the films that I heard really good things about and/or really wanted to see this year but didn’t get chance to watch them. I intend to rectify this as soon as possible.

The Guest

The Guest

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

And so that was my 2014 in film! How was yours? Would be great to see other people’s Top 10 lists and compare and discuss (I could probably write a few thousand words about what I didn’t like about ‘Interstellar’, although I would probably have to watch it again). Here’s to 2015 and all that it may bring, film or otherwise – Happy New Year!

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