2014 provided a huge range in style and substance for film. Throughout the year were both surprises and disappointments, and from the near-80 films I managed to see – here are some of my favourites.
I’m a sucker for blockbusters. I love the big loud fun of Hollywood’s (sometimes not-so-) finest, packed with special effects and A-listers. There’s a certain stigma about blockbusters, but I believe they have the capability to be every bit as intelligent and enjoyable as any other type of film. The best came from the superhero genre. Not the perplexingly bad The Amazing Spider-Man 2, nor Marvel’s surprisingly average Captain America: The Winter Soldier – but in the overwhelmingly awesome Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Both very different in style and tone, Guardians was a zippy, bright and energetic entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With more bizarre characters and quotable lines to even begin to mention, it’s been a while since we’ve had such a fun space fantasy.
X-Men has the edge for me, though. Not only does it bring back the fantastic cast including Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but it expertly intertwines them with their younger selves (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender). Throwing Hugh Jackman into the mix is always a good idea, resulting in certainly the coolest movie of 2014. It features a fantastic script that leaves no character feeling unnecessary (sometimes even a close-up of a tormented face spliced with camera flashes is enough to depict their deepest fears). The action is slick without feeling rushed, and the final product is just very, very cool.
Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction epic, is also one of the year’s best. Many people cite Nolan’s films as ‘intelligent blockbusters’, a phrase that always annoys me because it implies blockbusters are inherently unintelligent. Nevertheless, Interstellar was a fun, occasionally awe-inspiring but severely flawed film. Great performances from the entire cast can’t cover up plodding sequences stuck on Earth, or forced scientific explanation in what is crucially a very sentimental movie. However, the sentiment works (causing me to well up more than once) and the emotion and tension are there when they need to be – in space. Everything that happens on distant planets or spacecraft is truly excellent – and brilliant science-fiction.
But the best science-fiction film of the year was Snowpiercer. Unfortunately it didn’t manage to find a general release in the UK and was reduced to festival screenings, but it is nonetheless a fantastic film. Set in a frozen dystopia where the only survivors live on a train encircling the entire planet (the poorest at the back, the richest at the front), it depicts a revolution led by Curtis (Chris Evans in the best performance of his career) to take control of the train. Director Joon-ho Bong packs action galore into a tale about human nature (as the best sci-fi usually is) without feeling as forced or simplistic as previous, similar attempts (see 2013’s Elysium).
Action-wise, you’d be hard pressed to find an action movie as emotionally powerful as Fury. It follows the crew of a Sherman tank (including Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf) in the last days of WWII in the midst of Germany, where the fighting is at its roughest and desperation hangs in the air. Although throughout the first act violent moments may seem gratuitous, once accustomed to the sheer brutality of the warfare it is hard not to get taken on an emotional rollercoaster. The characters are engaging and played well (especially by Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf), and even the quietest scenes manage to be among the most impactful, resulting in a fantastically gripping watch.
2014 was also a year of terrific performance. Jake Gyllenhaal’s twisted yet pragmatic sociopath in Nightcrawler is already receiving awards recognition – as is Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. Giving his best performance to date, he stars as Alan Turing, the mathematician heading an operation to crack the Nazi code machine Enigma. A profoundly moving and human story, Cumberbatch’s delicate performance is only enhanced by the rest of the ensemble cast (including a brilliant Keira Knightley) and fantastic script.
However, my favourite performance of the year has to be from Nicolas Cage. I’ve been a huge fan of Cage for a while now, admittedly due to the hilarious rubbish he’s become accustomed to starring in, never letting us down with his over-the-top performances. However, a solid reminder of his genuine talent was found in Joe. Playing a grizzled and harsh man implicitly searching for redemption, he becomes mentor and father-figure to a teenage boy – and has to deal with the boy’s drunken and violent father. A rough, heart-breaking story, Cage shines in a sincerely great film for the first time in what seems like forever.
I’ll admit – I haven’t seen that many horror films. I’m squeamish enough without forcing myself to watch a movie designed wholly to terrify me, which is probably why one of the only ‘horror’ movies I saw this year was actually a comedy. From the creators of the amazing TV series Flight of the Conchords comes What We Do in The Shadows, a mockumentary following a small group of vampires in their flat in Wellington, New Zealand. The same hilarious dry wit that made FotC so terrific is in abundance here, gently mocking every vampire trope under the sun.
But the one actual horror movie I saw in 2014 turned out to be one of my favourites. The Babadook, a small Australian picture, centres around a widow and her young son haunted by an extremely creepy spirit called Mister Babadook. The film is terrifying, it will have you cowering in no time, but everything scary is also fantastically crafted. The sound is eerie; the stop-motion demon effects terrific, even the pop-up book that appears to the family which allows Mister Babadook to seep effortlessly in their lives is beautifully creepy. More than just being scary, it’s a profoundly moving story about grief, which elevates the film above cheap scares to tell us a story about dread, not only of monsters, but of loss.
But it’s The Lego Movie that secures the place of my favourite film of the year. My childhood was filled with thousands of the little plastic bricks. Months and months were spent building, playing and imagining with them – suffice to say I was excited for The Lego Movie. Instead of being a cheap cash-in to sell toys, it was the complete opposite. The movie is filled with such love and care for Lego that it’s impossible not to get instantly sucked into the bright fun being poured out on-screen. The animation is wonderful – not only is everything painstakingly animated using pieces of Lego with perfect detail and lighting, but the animation is made to look more like the stop-motion animation that has ignited the imagination of so many filmmakers. The script is hilarious and touching, the characters are lively and charming – The Lego Movie is nothing short of a fantastic film for all ages.
Cropped use of Guardians of the Galaxy image © Marvel 2014.