Sunday, 28 December 2014

Spectrum's Best Films of 2014 (No.10-1)

10. Ida (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

For a film about crises of faith, orphans, and the long-lasting, submerged repercussions of the Holocaust on ordinary people, Ida is perhaps most remarkable for its accessibility. This is certainly borne out by the box office figures, which show that this low-key, Polish-language drama has been a modest yet surprising hit in both the US and the UK. Ida, a young nun coming of age in 60s Poland, is tasked by her mother superior with visiting her earthy, strong-minded aunt in the outside world to test her commitment to her calling, and embarks on an odyssey into the recent past and the revolutionary, jazz-saturated present, where she gains her first experiences of grief and sexual love. Despite its weighty themes, the drama unfolds without bluster: like the inscrutable Ida, it says little yet speaks oceans. Nick Pierce

9. Leviathan (Dir. Andrey Zyvagintsev)

Movies that try too hard to capture the state-of-the-nation, or offer political critique of the prevailing regime, are often in danger of quickly feeling dated and irrelevant. Leviathan, the latest troubling melodrama from director Andrey Zyvagintsev, brilliantly circumvents this problem by couching its very bitter satire of Putin's Russia in biblical parable. Nikolay, a car mechanic in a remote coastal region of the country, is a modern-day Job, beset by malevolent forces beyond his control: principally the corrupt local mayor, who uses his administrative influence, connections to the orthodox church, and outright intimidation, to acquire the land that Nikolay's family inhabit for his own self-aggrandising ends. Leviathan is very dark, but it is also surprisingly funny, especially in the scenes featuring Roman Madyanov as the grotesque, drunken mayor, who appears almost as crushed and ruined by his activities as his victims. It is a bracingly full-on, and glacially beautiful, illumination of the cronyism and criminal elite that have poisoned modern Russia, and, in a broader sense, a moving retelling of the age-old story of the little man being swallowed by a bigger fish. NP

8. Mr Turner (Dir. Mike Leigh)

Is there any film genre more afflicted with banality than the biopic? Generally lacking in any narrative purpose beyond a trite cataloguing of the 'key events' in a given figure's life, they quickly assume the character of a child's clumsy attempt at storytelling: 'And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.' More often than not, they have all the fresh insight and substance of a dramatized Wikipedia entry.

Leave it to Mike Leigh, then, a director renowned for recreating the mess and the disarray of real life, to pump rude blood through the biopic's withered veins. His passionate, and typically compassionate, treatment of the life and times of J.M.W. Turner, leaves in all of the failings and filthiness that lesser biopics timidly expunge. Much like the great artist himself, in painting a masterpiece Leigh is unafraid of getting his hands dirty. Consequently, the world in which we are immersed escapes the dressing-up-box atmosphere of most historical recreations, to become a place that we can practically smell. During the course of the film's meandering, but consistently engrossing 2 1/2 hour running time, and Timothy Spall's career-best performance, we are given glimpses of Turner the scoundrel, Turner the genius, and Turner the dying animal, Leigh wisely emulating the shifting, indistinct seascapes for which his subject is best known today by never allowing us to think that the irresolvable majesty of such a remarkable human life can come fully into focus. NP

7. Two Days, One Night (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Just when one started to suspect that the Dardennes brothers had begun to repeat themselves, releasing a series of kinetic moving portraits of lives lived precariously on the economic fringes to solid but diminishing effect, they find a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Remarkably, they do this without really departing too far from what has come before: once again, Two Days, One Night is a small, perfectly-formed, and laser-focused account of one weekend in the life of Sandra, a factory employee at a solar-energy panel plant in a Belgian industrial town, given 48 hours by her callous bosses to persuade her co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses so that she may keep her job.

But the Dardennes revive their formula by seizing upon a concept that allows them to illuminate the iniquities of our post-crisis capitalist age, where the have-nots have been turned against each other in order to distract attention away from the wider economic system, and by casting the phenomenal Marion Cotillard in the lead role - a coup that enables the brothers to create indelible cinema simply from the storm of barely-repressed feelings that pass across the emotionally-unstable Sandra's face. The final result: the Dardennes' best film, and one of the most impeccably-crafted and socially-relevant of the entire year. NP

6. Her (Dir. Spike Jonze)

What could easily have been Lars and the Real Girl for the smartphone generation circumvents any possible awkwardness by making clear just how much more permissive Theodore Twombly’s (a disarming Joaquin Phoenix) society is toward his budding relationship with the complex, adaptive OS Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Of course, as much as Spike Jonze’s sci-fi drama is an exploration of love in the digital age it is, more impactfully, an honest portrayal of the expectations and fears we bring to any relationship entered without reservation. Carrying its soul on its sleeve, Her polishes up many of the thematic concerns seen in earlier projects like I’m Here and Where the Wild Things Are, as Jonze’s characters work within the confines of society around them to simply try and be. Impeccably dressed (both the sets and the cast), this is an assured vision of the future, and refreshing in its hopefulness for tomorrow. Tom Dunn

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)
With his latest feature, Wes Anderson seems to have finally found a subject that suits his vision. Whilst in the past, when applied to stories of dysfunctional family dynamics, I've found his fussiness and pedantic overemphasis on style to be exasperating, here it marries perfectly with the movie's similarly preening hero, Gustave H, concierge of the eponymous establishment. Channelling the meticulously-constructed golden-age Hollywood comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson spins a yarn about H and his put-upon lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, speeding breathlessly across a heavily fictionalised pre-war Europe to absolve Gustave of a murder he did not commit. It is genuinely hilarious, and gorgeous to look at, without ever letting Anderson's impulses as a stylist override its enormous heart. NP

4. The Wind Rises (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

When the magisterial swansong of celebrated veteran animator Hayao Miyazaki was released at the beginning of the year, what should've been heralded as a bittersweet cinematic event was instead tarred in the Western media with accusations of letting Japan too easily off the hook for its actions in the Second World War, which forms the backdrop and part of the dramatic impetus to The Wind Rises' biographical account of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, gifted engineer and designer of the legendary Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft used by the nation's military during the conflict.

Much of this controversy strikes me as being deeply dubious, not to mention culturally biased: so ingrained in us in Britain and the USA, as victors of that war, is our sense of righteousness, that we seem to expect Japan to explicitly and contritely address its culpability in every work of art that broaches the subject, whilst the US, for instance, hardly applies the same principle; how many Hollywood WW2 movies, for example, mention the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Answer: not flippin' many!

But more to the point, Miyazaki's final feature is far more than the humble apology that some obviously expected it to be: it is an impassioned conflation of the life of a visionary with the life of his country, told with the sensitivity, vibrancy and visual dynamism we have come to expect from Miyazaki when he is firing on all cylinders. Within, he offers a rich and stark reflection on the costs of vaulting ambition, and remains ambivalent about the artistic vocation and his nation's recent history, right up until its deeply moving conclusion. Given the generic, resolutely infantile quality of most mainstream animation, it is hard to think of a creative force who will be more sorely missed. NP

3. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)

After last year’s Before Midnight, it was beginning to look like Richard Linklater was at risk of falling into terrible self-parody, the series that earned him worldwide acclaim finally stumbling into the clich├ęs and faux-pas it had circled warily in the earlier Before Sunset. Thankfully, there’s none of that sniffy pop-intellectualism to be found in the superior Boyhood. Filmed over an eleven year period, this coming-of-age drama paints an impressionistic picture of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) and his family, reconvening with them at key points in their lives as they grow and change. Watching Mason shift from wide eyed sprog into a gregarious young man over the course of two hours is mesmerising – in no small part helped by the clear development of Ellar’s acting ability as he in turn finds himself throughout production – but it’s the film’s final double-punch that leaves a lasting impact: Mason may have finally achieved independence at the age of 19, but we’ve watched his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) painfully struggle to adjust to the next 20 years in parallel with Mason’s own formative years. It remains to be seen whether or not Boyhood, technically made prior to Before Midnight, points to a still stellar career for the filmmaker, or is instead a signal to change. TD

2. Nymphomaniac (Dir. Lars Von Trier)
If recent news stories are to be trusted (and few things involving Von Trier are to be taken at face value), then we might be seeing a reduced output, or even a complete cessation of activities from the Danish troublemaker in the years ahead. If this is to be so, and all fans of challenging, arthouse cinema should hope it is not, then at least Nymphomaniac will serve as a fitting magnum opus. It touches on many of the themes that have preoccupied Von Trier, especially the paradox of an individual finding both freedom and destruction in defying society's taboos, only this time writ large on a two-part, five-hour canvas awash with blood, tears, and semen. The picaresque tale of a middle-aged woman looking back on her life-long, life-endangering flirtation with sexual and ethical boundaries, it also doubles as a portrait of the artist from whose psyche it has escaped: alternately sincere and impish, shot through with contradictions, and gloriously, shamelessly button-pushing. NP

1. Under The Skin (Dir, Jonathan Glazer)

It took Jonathan Glazer an entire decade to follow up 2004's Birth with the bizarre, haunting and sometimes darkly comic Under the Skin. That Glazer spent so much time considering how to loosely convert Michael Faber's 2000 novel shows; everything is so thoroughly well considered. The film follows Scarlett Johansson's extraterrestrial humanoid as she travels across Scotland, quite literally consuming any men whose lecherous gazes happen to fall her way. To me the film's central motifs are the ideas of consent and consumption, the scene in which Johansson wanders round a busy Glasgow mall looking for victims, dozens of shoppers unwittingly making up the film's extras, is therefore key. By no means though are these the only themes which are explored. As with Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which this film clearly owes a debt to, Glazer is happy to leave the audience guessing as to what the questions are, nevermind the answers. Words may serve to make observations on this film seem definitive, but its main strengths are in its ability to keep the viewer guessing, and its openness to interpretation. Really, the depths of Glazer's curious triumph can only be fathomed by viewing it. George Bate

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Spectrum's Best Films of 2014 (No. 20-11)

20. The Double (Dir. Richard Ayoade)

Whilst sorely lacking the spirit that made Submarine such a rollicking debut, Richard Ayoade’s sophomore effort is still clearly the work of a genuine voice in cinema. The Double takes the core conceit of Dostoyevsky’s novella and fuses it with the bureaucratic nightmares of Terry Gilliams, to great effect. Genuinely unnerving when it’s not pitching for gallows humour, this tale of dual souls is almost entirely carried by Jesse Eisenberg, whose self-regarding doppleganger James is just as strongly played as the more obviously ‘Eisenberg’ protagonist Simon. Hashed out in a world of clunking pipes, jaundiced yellow smoke and tinny Hawaiian ditties, their symbiotic relationship is far more complex than first appears, resulting in a climax just as murky as the streets beyond their apartment. Like Submarine, The Double is at times too referential for its own good, and it wouldn’t be hard to argue that either feature is more of a cinephile’s gimmick than it is a self-contained work. Yet Ayoade’s clear understanding of iconic personalities like Truffaut et al is apparent on screen precisely because the man is capable of executing cinema with character. He just needs to make it wholly his own. Tom Dunn

19. Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy)

Nightcrawler is not a great film, but it is a good film that contains a great character. It is the blackly comic story of Lou Bloom, a loner who discovers a knack for obtaining gruesome footage from crime and accident scenes in night-time LA and selling it to cable news stations. The jabs at how the media preys on public fear and morbid curiosity to inflate ratings are more than a little broad and obvious, and the last act is marred by a descent into silly car chases. But as Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a genius performance that already feels like an iconic anti-hero for our times: a ruthless, ghoulish manipulator, prone to spouting careerist platitudes ripped straight out of a particularly nauseating LinkedIn profile, and more at home behind the barrier of a digital screen than he is face-to-face with another human being. Nick Pierce

 18. Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher)

It’s difficult to get too involved in praising David Fincher’s latest belter for fear of giving the game away entirely. This examination of modern marriage begins with the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary; a crime investigation quickly developing around her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) – the prime suspect in her possible murder. What follows takes all of the complications of a long-term relationship; trust, perception, dependence, and dials them up to eleven. The result is a blackly comic fable for our times, and proof that Rosamund Pike desperately needs a better agent if it’s taken her this long to shine. TD

17. A Touch of Sin (Dir. Jia Zhangke)

Like the crazy bastard offspring of Thomas Hobbes and Quentin Tarantino, Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin uses stylised comic-book violence and B-movie genre trappings to target the iniquities of present-day China. The four loosely-connected stories, filled with bold, bloody imagery and whiplash pacing, range over wide geographical and thematic terrain, tackling the struggles of unionised workers, the plight of marginalised women and youngsters, and the murderous sprees of sociopathic criminals. As with Russia in the similarly angry Leviathan, the superpower is vividly exposed as a moral jungle, where all men must become the prey or the predator. After seeing these films, it's impossible not to ask: where are the British and American dramas addressing the ills of our Western governments with such clarity and vigour? NP

16. Venus in Fur (Dir. Roman Polanski)

Six decades into his filmmaking career, Roman Polanski shows no signs of running out of energy or ideas. Mathieu Amalric plays a self-satisfied director, searching for a lead actress for his stage adaptation of the eponymous work of 19th century erotic fiction. When a mystery woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up at the empty theatre where the director has been auditioning for the part, he initially thinks that he might have found his muse, but soon suspects that she has altogether more sinister designs upon him. It is obvious that Polanski cast Amalric partly because of his resemblance to the director as a younger man - appropriate enough for a film with such an autobiographical feel, deconstructing his perennial fascination with women, sex, and the feminine. But Venus in Fur is also a masterclass in how to translate a dialogue-heavy stage play into cinema, with Polanski displaying a near-Hitchcockian mastery of how to place the camera to build suspense and tell a story. NP

15. Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s a strong argument for the Coen Brothers’ finest works simply being the same film made over and over again. Inside Llewyn Davis joins the ranks of Barton Fink and A Single Man as the latest in Joel and Ethan’s farcical explorations of biblical suffering in 20th century America, as the titular folk singer struggles to make his way in Manhattan’s clubs and bars on the eve of Bob Dylan’s breakthrough. There’s perhaps only so many times we can watch characters look on in resignation as the universe conspires against them, but, like O, Brother! Where Art Thou?, Davis’ story is charged with quality song writing to temper all of the Beckett-by-ways-of-the-Stooges, and standout moments like the ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ recording scene ensure that this is still top-shelf Coen. TD

14. Winter Sleep (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

For those new to the work of acclaimed Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, his Palme d'Or snatching latest is definitely not the best place to start: among his most challenging films to date, its languidly-paced depiction of an arrogant retired actor turned hotel proprietor locking horns with tenants, a sister, and a young wife, who all treat him with barely concealed resentment, is a hardcore art-house excursion into forbidding exterior and interior landscapes. It is not the equal of Ceylan's previous release, the masterful Once upon a time in Anatolia, but it has many of the same strengths: uniformly excellent performances, uncomfortably insightful and recognisable dialogue, and a clear-eyed fascination with the gap between who we imagine ourselves to be, and who we really are. NP

13. Exhibition (Dir. Joanna Hogg)

Experimental filmmaker Joanna Hogg's chilly, austere, yet dryly comic depiction of middle-aged marriage is as formally bold as it is cringe-inducingly unflinching. In terms of story, this is about as low-key as it gets: a contemporary artist couple (played by actual conceptual artist Liam Gillick and former Slits frontwoman Viv Albertine) put their London house up for sale, only to find that the strain of moving brings their career frustrations and personal resentments to the fore.

Hogg's work is an acquired taste: some will probably dismiss Exhibition as a wearisome formalist exercise about insufferable metropolitan wankers, but I'd defend it as an alternately satirical and anthropological look at the neuroses of the chattering classes, and as an uncommonly candid dissection of conjugal friction. What's more, the fact that the narrative is almost entirely confined to the interior of the house means that it serves as a sharp commentary on the changing face of modern central London: no longer so much a living city as an enclave of the wealthy and the out-of-touch, trying vainly to maintain a hermetic separation from the mess of reality. NP

12. Frank (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

Lenny Abrahamson returns to Spectrum’s Top Films for the second year running, following up last year’s What Richard Did with a thematic 180 in Frank. Ostensibly based on Chris Sievey’s cult Sidebottom figure, this fictional tale of a band on their way to SXSW sees Frank (Michael Fassbender) reinterpreted as a rather more ambiguous figure. Hailed as a genius by his fellow band mates, the ever-masked musician becomes an obsessive pet project for new keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who sees in Frank the keys to unlocking his own commercial genius. A surprisingly astute rumination on the myth of creativity, Frank may have strayed a little far from the punk edges of its inspiration in favour of modish twee turns, but in doing so makes the film’s late-game revelations all the more tragic. TD

11. Maps to the Stars (Dir. David Cronenberg)

A fitting companion piece to his previous collaboration with Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s latest American nightmare puts Hollywood firmly in its sights – and, in light of the recent Scott Rudin / Amy Pascal scenario, seems far too accurate in its execution. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska in fine, fear-inducing form), a severely scarred woman, has come to Hollywood to find her place among the stars, pulling a favour from Carrie Fisher after flattering the actress on Twitter. Her introduction to a world of total amorality and egomania – embodied in the hysterical Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and drug addict child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) and his family – would be utterly heartbreaking, were it not for the fact that Agatha clearly has form in this environment. Shot in the same disquietingly sterile way as that earlier ode to capitalism, Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a claustrophobically incestuous machine that would sooner eat itself whole than search for salvation. TD

Stay tuned for part deux of Spectrum's countdown of the best in cinema 2014 had to offer...