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...