NFB’s Film Rankings And Awards 2014

awards20142Another year has come and gone, and so it is time to wrap-up, justify the rankings and hand out the shinies. I think it has been a particularly good year for cinema, despite box-office fluctuations and a sense that Hollywood is moving ever more into a franchise dependent system. Looking at my list, I can happily say that I would recommend, in some way or another, the majority of the films on it, making 2014’s ranking some of the hardest I have ever had to decide upon. But decide I did. Let’s get straight into it.

As with previous years, my classification of 2014 films is based upon Irish release dates.

  1. God’s Not Dead

“So bad it’s good” is, astonishingly, a height that God’s Not Dead struggles to reach, in a religious film that is just plain dull for so much of its running time. But it’s much worse than that really.  Offensive in its message and dreadful in every part of its production, the film is downright laughable when it isn’t simply enraging. Taking a Christian straw man and trying to make a film about it was a bad call, and the vision of Kevin Sorbo representing the atheists of the world is just one of the various sins this movie has to answer for.

This sums up the movie.

This sums up the movie.

  1. United Passions

A FIFA vanity project to beat all vanity projects. Taking nearly every opportunity to aggrandise and glorify its subject matter, to the detriment of all reasonable historical narrative and honest introspection, United Passions features terrible acting (Tim Roth is probably denying he was ever in this), a laughable script and pacing that could be charitably described as sub-par. The kernel of a good idea  – a history of FIFA, especially in its early, formative years – is contained within this project, but it’s all lost very quickly and the end product is more a bad joke than anything. Must be nice to have this much money to burn.

Ugh...

Ugh…

  1. Maleficent

Reboots and re-imaginings are all the rage these days of course, but one still feels as if studios should be shooting higher than this in the attempt. An utterly pointless and plothole filled effort at rehabilitating one of Disney’s most iconic animated villains, Maleficent is struggling from the moment Angelina Jolie turns up onscreen, giving one of the most wooden and lifeless performances of her career. And she is not alone. With crazy pacing, poor supporting characters and a lacklustre script to boot, Maleficent is only OK when it is copying scenes from its animated source material, which is about the worst criticism I could fling at it.

This is the look on Jolie's face for most of the film.

This is the look on Jolie’s face for most of the film.

  1. The Food Guide To Love

My personal biggest disappointment of this year’s JDIFF, The Food Guide To Love was never going to be all that mesmerising, any more than any romcom can be. But you expected things to be a bit better than the flat, uninspired stuff that was served out here. Romcoms can, and have, been better than this, and you could detect the lack of effort all over the production. With only marginal moments of better substance – like most of the material dedicated to the main characters parents – making it worth seeing, The Food Guide To Love can’t rise very high above its poor pacing, lack of humour, underused supporting characters and a very unfortunate choice of ending.

An Irish/Spanish romantic comedy. Potential hit or bad idea?

An Irish/Spanish romantic comedy. Potential hit or bad idea?

  1. Mrs Browns Boys: D’Movie

It knew exactly what it was and what it wanted to be. No criticism of mine is going to land too close to home on Mrs Brown, with Brendan O’Carroll’s cross-dressing act long since past the point of caring. A slapdash story, an overly sentimentalised view of Dublin, racist humour (yes Brendan, it was racist) and a certain lack of suitability for the big screen format are all evident throughout. D’Movie is still genuinely funny in parts though, and fans of the TV edition will find plenty to enjoy. But a classic, it ain’t. When you start out with a crude masturbation joke, you sort of know what you’re getting yourself into.

Yeah...

Yeah…

  1. I Am Soldier

A dirt simple military film, with few illusions about itself and what it can offer, the kind of bare 90 minutes of entertainment you watch once after finding it in a bargain bin (or on Netflix in this case). Part educational and part propaganda, I Am Soldier gives a decent glimpse at the rigours of SAS training, the intense stuff that has actually left people dead in reality, but finds its best moments in its depiction of SEAR-type training in its mid-section. Those sections were intense, well shot and psychologically thrilling. From there, it’s a fairly dismissible action finale of little consequence. It has some half-decent performances and direction, but also feels very forgettable when it comes right down to it.

Fictionalised documentary, gritty thriller, recruitment film?

Fictionalised documentary, gritty thriller, recruitment film?

  1. A Nightingale Falling

Maybe my biggest disappointment of the year. I openly admit to the fact that I had big expectations and a sympathetic eye for A Nightingale Falling, but it’s a huge let down on so many levels. A dull, maudlin and dragged out tale of misery in Revolutionary Ireland, with most of its primary cast faltering and some really poor script work, the film is bolstered only by a few performances (most notably Brian Fortune) and the general look of it, when certain shots aren’t getting reused so much you start to yawn. It isn’t just a budgetary issue: that shouldn’t affect something like pacing or editing. The film fails to make the most of its setting, and is a poor example of Irish historical cinema in a time when the sub-genre should be teeming with good efforts.

The love triangle is inevitable, but not particularly engaging.

The love triangle is inevitable, but not particularly engaging.

  1. The Monuments Men

Struggling to find anything left about World War Two to make an interesting film about, Hollywood decided to go down a very unlikely path, and the result was this. While I can appreciate the effort put into trying to find a unique glimpse of the Allied war machine outside of military action, the narrative simply isn’t exciting or interesting enough to justify this movie, especially given the fairly big name cast’s lack of effort in so many ways. The Monuments Men feels like its treading water right from the off, only becoming engaging in a few brief moments, that did not include a stuttering ending or an elongated Parisian sub-plot. Visually its fine, but The Monuments Men is all over the place in terms of pacing and the subject matter seems much better suited to the documentary genre. There’s still stuff from World War Two that can make a good modern film (see below) but this isn’t an example.

One of the more unique looks at World War Two, but is it any good?

One of the more unique looks at World War Two, but is it any good?

  1. The Unknown Known

Errol Morris has done better work than this, a 90 minute interview of Donald Rumsfeld, where the tantalising possibility of getting the controversial former Secretary of Defence to open up about the more sordid parts of his career largely goes a begging. Rumsfeld dodges and sidesteps the more probing of inquiries, and while he has plenty of interesting anecdotes and stories to offer in the course of The Unknown Known, by the end the viewer will surely be left more frustrated than anything. Morris, it would seem to me, is more obsessed with the style of his documentaries, rather than the substance, and it shows in this offering, where pretty imagery and camera tricks are shoved in to try and make up for the rather disappointing content. Rumsfeld is the winner here, and all of us are losers.

Rumsfeld is more than happy to talk about his past, but not so much on the present.

Rumsfeld is more than happy to talk about his past, but not so much on the present.

  1. Hercules

The most popcorn of the popcorn movie sub-genre, Hercules is the perfect part for Dwayne “No Longer ‘The Rock’ Anymore” Johnson to show off his biceps and fling some horses around (seriously). With a supporting cast that’s straining to get any substantial part of the action and a plot that is as generic as they come, you might think Hercules is a write-off, but the film is actually enjoyable enough, knowing exactly what it is and what it is here to offer. Some good action scenes prop it all up, and the film even ventures into slightly deeper territory at times, in its depiction of a classical celebrity, whose name is more propaganda related than reality. But, we can’t give it too much credit: swords are swung, blood is spilled and a good time is had.

Featuring: "Supporting Cast"

Featuring: “Supporting Cast”

  1. 300: Rise Of An Empire

The sequel no one asked for, but didn’t turn out too badly, not really. 300 2 is patently unnecessary and more than a little bit of a cash grab, but manages to showcase some interesting things all the same. It’s greatest strengths are an origin story for Xerxes and the performance of Eva Green as Artemisia, not to mention the really well visualised depictions of ancient naval warfare, the sort of environment that is relatively untapped by film. Salamis is re-imagined in the 300 style, and it looks stunning on screen. All of that being said, the lead is still wooden, the scriptwork is pedestrian and cliché, and the film features the most ridiculously scored sex scene ever filmed. Fans of the first will find plenty to like, but this franchise is now all tapped out in my view, with little more to be done with the universe or the style.

The Persian Wars get another crack at the big screen.

The Persian Wars get another crack at the big screen.

  1. Godzilla

Godzilla is a film that has a Godzilla in it, and it features this Godzilla fighting similarly sized monsters that are not Godzilla. Having fulfilled this requirement, Godzilla doesn’t feel the need to try too hard with the rest of its make-up, be it plot, acting, dialogue or music. The visuals of the kaiju fighting each other are great, and Bryan Cranston does a good job in his time onscreen, but nearly every other part of the experience is a bit of a letdown. A movie where there was a certain lack of ambition, and the worst use of a decent actor, Ken Watanabe, that I’ve seen in a while.  Seeing it in IMAX is still about worth it though, and that’s where Godzilla finds its main attraction: as a spectacle, to be enjoyed and then largely forgotten about.

Yup. That's a Godzilla alright.

Yup. That’s a Godzilla alright.

  1. The Wind Rises

The story of Jiro Horikoshi , the famed Mitsubishi engineer who designed the Zero fighter plane for Japan, might seem an odd one for Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (or so he say’s). And the result is a mixed affair, endearing and moving in parts, but overly maudlin and frustrating in others. A very insipid (and fictional) love story infects the recapping of Jiro’s life, and there is a certain glorification of Jiro (or maybe a lack of really thorough glimpses of what his work involved) that is bound to leave more than a small proportion of the audience uncomfortable. But it does have Ghibli’s great visuals, and a few really beautiful moments, mostly in some engaging dream sequences. The film seems to be aiming to be an inspiring tale of sorts, and while it only partially succeeds, it does make a firm impression: The wind is rising, we must try to live.

The films better moments are in imaginative dream sequences.

The films better moments are in imaginative dream sequences.

  1. Lucy

Luc Besson, on the public record, essentially stated that he wanted to make a few different films with Lucy: high brow sci-fi mixing with traditional action, a confluence of 2001, Leon and Inception. The end product is a hard film to like, but not one worth dismissing entirely. An exhilarating opening half hour moves into an increasingly bizarre, confusing and badly thought out remainder, where the acting talents of Scarlett Johansson are neutered and the supporting cast fails to engage. Such varied elements struggle to mesh properly for the most part, and decision to shine a spotlight on the dodgy science backfires. The action is decent and at times Lucy threatens to breakout into something much better. But its individual elements are not that great, and a certain amount of delusion is evident in how smart it thinks it is.

Scarlett Johansson continues her sci-fi streak in Lucy.

Scarlett Johansson continues her sci-fi streak in Lucy.

  1. Frank

A film whose trailer indicated a better product than you got. Good performances from Gleeson and Fassbender help to cover the cracks, but by the time the last act is done, you’ll be left wondering just how Frank turned so tightly on a dime, moving from effective comedy straight into a territory so dark as to induce depression. Mixing mental illness with laughter is ever a tricky thing to pull off, and I don’t think that Frank does it very well, with a too clear divide in the course of the film where the jokes stop and the seriousness begins, as if the production team had two films they wanted to make and couldn’t pick one. A decent script and a good exploration of how mental illness affects those around it helps Frank, but can’t excuse its other problems enough. That first act/45 minutes are great, but the rest is an absolute let-down.

Fassbender's most strange role ever.

Fassbender’s most strange role ever.

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis

Probably my most over-rated film of the year. I have a lot of time for the Coen Brothers, but was horribly disappointed by this, a film with a protagonist so unlikeable as to make any effort to induce sympathy for his numerous self-inflicted plights a failure. With symbolism as subtle as a sledgehammer, a supporting cast jipped for screentime and an ending that seems to have the most irritating kind of intentional confusion, Inside Llewyn Davis is only partially rescued by the immense quality of its music, from start to finish, be it old school ballads or jingle-like hits. After the quality of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I expected better of the directors with a similarly music-based film. Those expectations were not met, and I only hope the Coen’s give it a better go next time.

The single largest problem though, is still the unsympathetic nature of the titular character, a wastrel and a git.

The single largest problem though, is still the unsympathetic nature of the titular character, a wastrel and a git.

  1. Muppets Most Wanted

If this film has a major flaw, it’s that it is simply more of the same from a very well worn concept, from a troop of entertainers who have been doing this for a long time. A weirdly paced heist plot starring a passable Ricky Gervais takes up a surprising amount of time in Most Wanted, to the detriment of the overall experience (add to that some weirdly clipped celebrity cameos). The songs are still good, and the laughs, while traditional, are still good enough to have you roaring on more than a few occasions. But there is certainly a sense that, for a modern 21st century film going audience, the Muppets might be starting to tread a bit of water, at least in my eyes. Nostalgia will only take you so far, and it might not be much longer before audiences start to tire of Kermit and company’s familiar act.

The Muppets role is far better (and funnier) than that of the human cast.

The Muppets role is far better (and funnier) than that of the human cast.

  1. The Wolf Of Wall Street

This might be one of the most talked about films of the year, but I was left underwhelmed by Scorcese’s latest for a variety of reasons. It’s too long, it glorifies an intensely hedonistic lifestyle, it brutally eschews “less is more” is every respect, its female characters are made of cardboard and its final act is an unsatisfying mess of conflicting themes and messages. It succeeds when it comes to acting, direction, even the script manages to rise a bit above hit and miss. But the entire thing just feels off in a lot of ways, beyond the (quite good) humour, as the central protagonist takes a non-journey through a world of excess, and gets both praise and criticism from the camera for it. The Wolf Of Wall Street can’t make up its mind what it wants people to think of it, and that’s a problem.

The excess-filled story of Jordan Belfort comes to the screen through the work of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The excess-filled story of Jordan Belfort comes to the screen through the work of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.

  1. Showrunners

A half decent documentary, that finds itself this low on the list more for its lack of ambition and somewhat monotone message. Taking an in-depth look at the world of showrunning in US television is a great idea, but less good is a repetitive central theme, that showrunning is hard and has a tendency to burn people out. Showrunners is replete with decent interviews and some great stories about the state of the TV entertainment business, but one cannot help but feel that a 60 minute idea was needlessly dragged into an hour and a half, the additional time built around reiteration of that recurring theme. You can have all the great stories you want, but for a decent documentary, it has to form into a greater whole.

His contribution is small enough, but Whedon is, surprise surprise, one of the stand outs.

His contribution is small enough, but Whedon is, surprise surprise, one of the stand outs.

  1. Dracula Untold

If Universal really are trying to pull an Avengers with their monster franchises, they could have done a lot worse with their opening, trying to envision a unique origin story for the famous bloodsucker. There are obvious issues: a poor antagonist, a lot of melodrama and a somewhat confusing ending stand out. But it also has some great action sequences and a strong central performance from Luke Evans as Vlad. Trying to walk that fine line between the true story and fantasy, Irish director Gary Shore succeeds sometimes and falls down at others, but I still found Untold to be fairly entertaining, and a lot better than many others thought. Classic characters could do with a bit more risk-taking in their adaptations.

Bats!

Bats!

  1. The Retrieval

This low-budget Civil War story tales an intriguing enough tale of a young boy having to make fateful choices about the direction of his life, but suffers from simply not being all that engaging. Long stretches of travelling, limited character interaction and an underdeveloped antagonist take away from some otherwise decent moments between the Will and Nate characters, and a coming of age tale that, while well worn, is no less a good narrative maker because of that. But there is something rather dull about significant parts of The Retrieval, which might have been more engaging if it was cut a bit shorter, under that apparently mandated 90 minute mark. Decent performances can only do so much to save a film with flaws like that.

A journey about influences and growing up, in the harsh world of 1860's America.

A journey about influences and growing up, in the harsh world of 1860’s America.

  1. RoboCop

This one got a plane load of pre-criticism for the apparent crime of merely existing, but is actually not all that bad, and even trumps its predecessor in some respects. RoboCop dials back the campiness and humour in favour of a more serious, gritty, modern take on the titular lawman, who struggles with what remains of his humanity as he battles the programming that now dominates him. A reboot with a brain, RoboCop tries to balance action with soul searching, and mostly succeeds at that. The film has a problem with its bad guys and much of its supporting cast but was ultimately, in my eyes, a more than acceptable effort at bringing RoboCop into a 21st century environment, if maybe not the most memorable film of the year. Justifies its own existence? Hell yes. Likely to spawn a successful franchise? Maybe not.

The central journey for the main character is coherent and enjoyable.

The central journey for the main character is coherent and enjoyable.

  1. Grand Piano

You probably haven’t seen much of Elijah Wood post-Middle Earth, but he’s still around and still making decent films, like this simple little number. Taking the premise of Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth and setting it during a piano recital might seem a little weird and pointless, but Grand Piano actually delivers the goods, in a taut engaging thriller, that keeps you on the edge of your seat for its opening hour, as a grim cat and mouse game is played out between pianist and shooter. It only starts to fall apart a bit in its closing stages, as the premise and John Cusack’s performance run aground. But the direction from Eugenio Mira is great, the music is sublime and Wood is focused and believable in the central role. While probably unlikely to remain in the popular consciousness like Phone Booth sort of did, Grand Piano is still a decent offering.

Grand Piano begins as a film about stage fright, then moves suddenly into different territory.

Grand Piano begins as a film about stage fright, then moves suddenly into different territory.

  1. After The Dark

A unique take on the post-apocalyptic genre, After The Dark approaches the idea through the lens of a philosophy class role playing exercise, skilfully blending that idea with the deluded and increasingly depraved actions of the class teacher, played well by James D’Arcy. The dime store teachings are accessible enough for most audiences without getting into anything too complex, and the general premise is engaging enough. But the supporting cast is misused a lot, and at times you’ll really be wondering just how stretched the production team is willing to let the central idea get, as role playing starts making little sense in the context of the presented classroom. Still, the ending basically makes up for it, and After The Dark also enjoys one of the better love triangle plots of the year as well, one with a decent conclusion that formed a satisfying pay-off for what came before.

A neat take on the sub-genre.

A neat take on the sub-genre.

  1. One Million Dubliners

A moving and excellently put together documentary, offering a very vivid and engaging glimpse at the inner workings and characters of Glasnevin Cemetery, one of Ireland’s most interesting historical sites. A wide variety of interviews shows obsessive’s, grievers, cremators, tour guides, flower sellers and managers, such a diverse blend as to insure that just about anybody will finds something of interest. Where it fails is on any kind of coherent general point, beyond a ham-fisted effort to probe at what happens beyond death. That, and its visuals fall somewhere between beautiful and repetitive, with a certain sense that proceedings are just a bit too long. But, when it comes to showing off a portion of Dublin as well as possible, One Million Dubliners hits the target. I might have placed this a bit higher, but for the decision to air the documentary on terrestrial television so soon after its cinema release.

The people of the modern cemetery are the stars and the storytellers of One Million Dubliners.

The people of the modern cemetery are the stars and the storytellers of One Million Dubliners.

  1. How To Train Your Dragon 2

While this series is so formulaic that it is dedicated to the memory of screenwriting formula creator Blake Snyder, there is still something greatly endearing about “HTTYD”, and that’s clear in this second instalment of Hiccup’s adventures. The world around Berk has grown, and HTTYD is a suitable evolution of the original tale, where dragons and humans co-existence brings new challenges and difficult choices. Characters have changed in the intervening years too, with a “growing up” theme properly implemented, something that is positively rare for this genre. Cate Blanchett’s Valka adds an important female and family dimension to proceedings, and the whole experience is a wonderful burst of colour in visual terms. The problems are with a very underwhelming villain and a plot structure straight out of the Save The Cat beat sheet. Good VA work all round, great CGI and decent score and soundtrack work do the best job possible of covering that all up, and the end product is a fun animation that also offers plenty of depth in the tale that it tells.

Will it be a case of sequelitis or something better?

Will it be a case of sequelitis or something better?

  1. Snowpiercer

The trick to enjoying this one is to purely get over the ludicrousness of the premise and how parts of it are presented. The post-apocalyptic world of Snowpiercer is one in where logic plays no part, as the revolution led by Chris Evans and co gradually transforms into an elaborate fairy tale straight from the mind of Terry Gilliam, replete with drug parties, revellers, and the train that travels through an icy wasteland including an aquarium within. Parts of the film, like its fight scenes, music and ending are a little hum drum, overblown by an exuberant fanbase and not a patch on the director’s previous work. But Snowpiercer also features a very good cast and some great direction, turning what could have been a direct to DVD level mess into something much more interesting and memorable. Something as simple as the right look in terms of costumes pays dividends in this film and I found the overall experience to be surprisingly enjoyable, with a strong central narrative and character arc for Curtis, even if the larger class war angle made zero sense in the context of the universe.

Chris Evans takes on the man in Bong Joon-ho's trippy post-apocalyptic thriller.

Chris Evans takes on the man in Bong Joon-ho’s trippy post-apocalyptic thriller.

  1. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One

There are parts of this I enjoyed – the great acting, the scenes focusing on the revolution engulfing Panem, the music – but it is fair to say that the placing of this film as relatively high as it is might be more to do with its place in the wider Hunger Games universe, which it helps to flesh out and advance in preparation for next year’s more promising finale. Part One of Mockingjay is a film struggling with being half a story through large parts of its overly long running time, as Jennifer Lawrence does her usual sterling job in the Katniss role while doing basically very little for most of it. The film is a meandering and frequently dull affair at times, and loses the run of itself in the last act, when the protagonist’s lack of agency goes from distracting to a woeful flaw. Some sequences are truly great – like that surrounding the recitation of “The Hanging Tree” – but Mockingjay – Part One feels like it misses a lot more than it hits. Still, at least all of this is out of the way, before we get what I’m confident will be a tremendous finale in November 2015.

It's that time of year again!

It’s that time of year again!

  1. The Armstrong Lie

Alex Gibney, after the true nature of Lance Armstrong’s “success” was revealed, could have been forgiven for dumping the already shot footage for his documentary of the disgraced cyclist’s 2009 Tour de France comeback. But instead he crafted something different, taking an in-depth look at what drove Armstrong to do it, and why so many were sucked along, willing to believe every excuse, dodge and lie. Well shot and well paced, The Armstrong Lie probably won’t add much new to the story overall, but does give us a front row seat to the mindset of Armstrong, and how an addiction to success – at any cost – was created in him from a very young age. It is a story of abused power, unfairly tarnished names and self-delusion: one of The Armstrong Lie’s most searing moments is late on, as an almost unrepentant Armstrong posits he might be thought a hero again in the future. Gibney is to be commended for creating something this interesting out of the ashes of his previous project, a documentary that both informs and entertains, an important contribution to the canon of work surrounding Armstrong.

Gibney expertly brings Armstrong's self delusion to the fore.

Gibney expertly brings Armstrong’s self delusion to the fore.

  1. Mitt

Casting an eye over Mitt Romney’s two runs at President – in 2008 and 2012 – documentarian Greg Whiteley manages to get a really interesting insight into how a family copes with something as dominating and stressful as American politics. Here is the human and underseen side of Romney, discussing things frankly with his sons, defending his wife and indulging the whims and idiosyncrasies of his grandchildren. The bitter and oft-nasty world of electioneering in the States brings heartbreak and anger, only partially relieved by the brief moments of success. Whiteley makes sure his focus is on the Romney family – as opposed to unrelated campaign officials – and this may rankle a bit, but documentary’s of this type are, I believe, better served by taking this more personal approach. Romney goes from a man barely recognised at a fast food restaurant to being close enough to the biggest position in the land:  regardless of your own politics, you might struggle not to feel a bit of sympathy during scenes of the result coming in. In fact, politics barely play any part of substance in Mitt, and such exclusion has its positives and negatives: we see Romney free of his campaign lines, but you could argue this is too much of an absence to be credible. The impression of Romney created is of a proud family man who maybe just didn’t have a thick enough skin for the game he played, and I found the journey to make that impression well crafted.

Mitt does humanise its subject, a very important goal for a documentary like this.

Mitt does humanise its subject, a very important goal for a documentary like this.

  1. Penguins Of Madagascar

They were always the best thing about Dreamworks’ somewhat stretched out Madagascar franchise, and before the Minions of Despicable Me do the same thing, Skipper and co got in there first. And the effort is surprisingly endearing and hilarious, with the Penguins serving up a comedy outing that epitomises the sort of “joke for kids/joke for adult” style that this genre has fast become very comfortable with. The dark humour abounds right from the off (one of the opening gags is a seagull getting eaten alive by a sea lion), and is perfectly at home in this zany and fast paced spy satire, which never steps away from its roots in manic craziness for too long. The guest stars are giving it socks in the kind of roles that allow a break from the serious stuff (John Malkovich’s “Dave The Octopus” is fantastic), but this is all about those adorable, intelligent and crazily lucky Penguins, an ensemble with excellent interaction and comic timing, who smash their way through various locations and impart a lot of laughs in the process. Specifically mocking their parent franchise at one point, Penguins Of Madagascar is the kind of film I’d like to see a follow-up on, not Madagascar.

It's the spin-off we deserve...

It’s the spin-off we deserve…

  1. The Grand Seduction

Brendan Gleeson might be the best living Irish actor still working right now, and this is the first of two excellent performances from him that I was lucky enough to witness this year. Playing the lead in a comedic offering adapted from a French-Canadian work, Gleeson brings a great deal of warmth, feeling and humour to The Grand Seduction, a film that mixes a wide variety of laughs with a down to earth look at the brutal effects of unemployment, how traditional avenues of expressing masculinity are neutered by it and how simple rural life is vanishing under the pressure of industrialisation and progress. The Grand Seduction expertly straddles the line between comedy and drama, and also between black humour and slapstick, with the end result being an alarmingly charming take on rural Canadian life, with not an accent out of place. The supporting cast, for the most part, further prop up the narrative, with Taylor Kitsh at home as the odd man out and Gordon Pinset proving a valuable foil to Gleeson’s Murray. A damp romantic sub-plot takes away from the overall experience, and there is a certain lack of questioning on environmental issues that the film could have explored, but as a comedy and an introspection on living with unemployment, The Grand Seduction succeeds admirably.

The Grand Seduction captures the feel of a rural area in crisis very well.

The Grand Seduction captures the feel of a rural area in crisis very well.

  1. The Lego Movie

“Everything is awesome” was the perfect theme for a film like this, a love letter to, perhaps, the most famous toy ever made. The production team isn’t shy about it either: the entire film is a gigantic fantasy of creation, pop-culture jokes and almost too cheesy dialogue that still manages to work out just fine, and it’s all about Lego. The incredible comedic acumen of the cast, from Chris Pratt to Charlie Day, ensures that the comedy works wonderfully, while enough “serious” actors are also on hand to give The Lego Movie that special something, with Liam Neeson in particular giving it socks as “Good Cop, Bad Cop”, though Will Arnett’s Batman might just be the star of the show. The Lego Movie is only really let down by the reveal of a “live-action” component, which was dripping with insipid metaphor and unnecessary plot developments, when just focusing on the wonderfully diverse and colourful world of Lego would easily have been enough. The VA, the visuals, the music, they all blend together to form an exquisite whole, that could so easily have been a bland, unpalatable toy tie-in (which is what I thought it would be from the start). Instead, bar some of its third act problems, The Lego Movie is an appropriately epic and unique tribute to those little blocks.

Is everything awesome with this film?

Is everything awesome with this film?

  1. Antarctica: A Year On Ice

This documentary, a wonderful overview of what human life in Antarctica actually looks like in a typical year, succeeds on two basic levels. Informatively, it shines a light on the scientific and personal lives of those who brave the awful weather and isolation, showing just why these people do what they do, what they get out of it, and just why so many of them come back again and again, to live, work and find love in a place where the sun doesn’t come out for months at a time. On a visual level, Anthony B. Powell’s stellar time lapse photography adds a whole other dimension to A Year On Ice, one of spectacular skies, epic vistas and rapidly changing flows. Powell wants to show Antarctica as both a human colony and as the place on Earth closest to an unvisited planet: I think he pulls it off, and manages to imbue everything with a fantastic warmth, whether he’s talking about how he met his wife in Scott Base, or the film festival that the winter lodgers partake in to stave off insanity.

And then there are the terrifying glimpses of an inhuman environment, as Powell braves storms that would wreck devastation of dramatic scale elsewhere in the world, but happen constantly in Antarctica. A Year On Ice might not have the level of detail that some might be hoping for on certain aspects of Antarctic life, but manages to form a glowing message on the power of human cooperation and community regardless.

Powell captures the majesty and sheer alienness of Antarctica very well.

Powell captures the majesty and sheer alienness of Antarctica very well.

  1. The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch is, I suppose, the new best thing in the world of acting, or at least he usually is. Wasted on things like Star Trek Into Darkness, he’s better off sticking with roles like this, where the immensity of his acting talent can truly be put to good use. Alan Turing is a man whose life is ripe for a biopic treatment of this scale, and Cumberbatch is just the right man to bring this troubled and tragic figure to the screen, in just such a way that his courage and intelligence shine through, at the same moment that he appears so sad and pitiable. It would be easy for Cumberbatch to lapse into a World War Two era Sherlock Holmes type performance, but he does far, far more than that, and his stirring portrayal of Turing is worth the price of admission alone.

The film makes you squirm, laugh and maybe cry by the end, seeing the life of Turing at three critical points, where his genius was frequently overshadowed by his probable autism and closeted homosexuality. Some will undoubtedly blanch at the liberal reworking of some history, or maybe at the unnecessary aggrandisement of the Bletchley Park contribution to the Second World War. But in its narrative The Imitation Game gets the spirit of things right, and besides, it’s a story about Alan Turing first and foremost. Keira Knightly is the standout of a supporting cast that is largely just window dressing unfortunately, but the strong script and steady direction of Morten Tyldum help to make up for that. Turing was a hero, and gets a hero’s tale, one that does not blanch at the injustice of his life’s conclusion.

Alan Turing, finally getting the film and the actor he deserved.

Alan Turing, finally getting the film and the actor he deserved.

  1. Fury

David Ayer’s World War Two film has a serious upside and a serious downside, but the overall quality of the production is clear enough. The performances from all involved, from Brad Pitt’s grizzled tank commander to Logan Lerman’s out of his depth rookie, are truly stellar and buyable, different aspects of humanity sucked into this warped and violent world, with Lerman in particular offering a turn that indicates future stardom might be in the offing. The direction and cinematography is sometimes breathtaking, with a battle between the titular Sherman and a German Tiger one of the year’s best action scenes, in fact one of the best action scenes from this period ever put to film. And the choice of setting is good too, an intensely visceral and sometimes upsetting look at the messy, dirty and altogether airbrushed from history ending of World War Two on the Western Front, where two exhausted armies, one a lot more powerful than the other, took their last swings amid mud, rubble and decaying corpses.

On the other hand, the films general plot and script are as cliché as they come in this genre, with nothing about war or the way that men face it said that has not been said before, and better. Fury, when you boil it right down, is little more than Saving Private Ryan with a tank in many ways, and that isn’t to Ayer’s credit. But, that’s to strip away everything else that makes Fury great, a still worthy addition to the dwindling canon of films from the World War Two period still making it to our screens.

Fury does have some intense and evocative action scenes, but falls down in its larger storytelling.

Fury does have some intense and evocative action scenes, but falls down in its larger storytelling.

  1. Interstellar

I had huge expectations for this one, and while they weren’t all met, Interstellar is still a rip roaring science fiction adventure with a heart. Matthew McConaghey gives a commanding performance in the lead role to keep the audience engaged, as issues of humanity’s survival and space colonies are almost overshadowed by the simple bond between a father and a daughter millions of miles apart. Starting strong in the first act and getting better in the second, Interstellar, with Nolan’s usual great visuals, offers a fantastic glimpse at a not too distant post-apocalyptic world, before showing us a few new ones in some spectacular sequences across the stars, with wonderful environments, tense action scenes, and the help of a surprise A-List casting job that was kept under wraps.

It’s a shame that Interstellar goes off the rails in its conclusion then, with a dense, corny and unsatisfying finale that indicates the film was just too long for its own good, and that Nolan just did not know where to stop, a flaw exacerbated by a surprisingly poor script and a mixed supporting cast – Anne Hathaway having rapidly become, in my opinion, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood. Nolan typically seems to divide critics and fans, but Interstellar is enjoyable enough in most respects, short of The Dark Knight and Inception, but still a great example of what this director can still offer.

It is, very much so, a visual masterpiece of science fiction.

It is, very much so, a visual masterpiece of science fiction.

  1. Guardians Of The Galaxy

Certainly one of the most talked about films of the year, Guardians Of The Galaxy could easily have been Marvel Studio’s “Jump The Shark” moment, a property and premise so out of left field that disaster sometimes seemed the easier course. But instead, through a wholesale embrace of the camp, the pop-culture references and the insanity, director James Gunn came up with one of the most enjoyable films of the summer, if maybe not quite the masterpiece that some make it out to be. Chris Pratt is all kinds of amazing in the lead role, oozing the kind of charm not seen in this genre since Han Solo, and he’s the brilliant main player in a universe of dazzling complexity and colour, matched by Saldano, Bautista, Cooper and Diesel (especially Diesel) as the other members of the titular team.

A decent script and a wonderful score/soundtrack compliments everything, which makes it a shame that Guardians Of The Galaxy has so many fixable problems: some unsubtle character motivations and backstory declarations, ill-placed humour, a third act that is meandering when it isn’t predictable and a villain that encapsulates the problems with many of the “MCU” bad guys: dull, characterless and forgettable. These are forgivable flaws though, and it would take a lot to forever tarnish the happiness of that introduction to “Star Lord”, any scene involving Groot or that prison escape sequence. Another shining success from Marvel Studios, and one of the main reasons for the sudden explosion of additional comic book adaptations being announced.

"...I'm high on believin..."

“…I’m high on believin…”

  1. Live. Die. Repeat./Edge Of Tomorrow

I caught this one late in the year, on DVD, and I immediately regretted not giving it a shot in a cinema setting. Despite what I now consider to be a baffling failure at the box office, All You Need Is Kill/Edge Of Tomorrow/Live Die Repeat/Too Many Titles is a really great sci-fi action movie, and one of Tom Cruise’s best films in yonks. It’s been too long since he was really challenged in a role, gotten to play a character who seemed utterly incapable and hapless, and that character is put through the grinder here, in a film that seems like a strange smashing together of Groundhog Day, Saving Private Ryan and Battle: LA.

But it all just works really, really well: the action scenes are intense and visceral, the aliens are cool and unique, dark comedy elements are skilfully worked in, Emily Blunt is a fantastic sci-fi female character, the logic of the premise is stuck too and carried through, the supporting cast is decent (mostly) and the visual direction is top notch. Where it falls down a bit is with elements of the ending, which stray too much into a Hollywood mandated formula, and might leave the audience with the wrong note at the conclusion. It’s not a minor flaw, and All You Need At The Edge Of Tomorrow Is To Live Die Repeat could have been a good bit higher on my list if it was just more willing to be truer to the story it told for most of its running time. But still, its relative failure financially is a great injustice.

He dies over and over and over...

He dies over and over and over…

  1. Veronica Mars

We used to be friends, a long time ago…it seems like a very long time actually, when we last saw the modern day Nancy Drew, when her TV show ended somewhat flatly. But thanks to the epic power of Kickstarter and the commitment of Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars has gotten at least one last outing, and it is an outing guaranteed to please fans of the utterly brilliant TV show that never got the ending it deserved. Kristin Bell slips back into the role she made her own all those years ago, and shows us a Veronica that is more grown up but still falling back into the same patterns, with an almost pathological need to head back to Neptune and get involved in as much drama as she can, whether it be with the latest batch of police corruption or the latest murder investigation involving Jason Dohring’s Logan Echels.

What makes Veronica Mars so great is also a weakness though: it really is more of the same, with everyone a bit older but generally just doing the same things that they always were. The Veronica/Logan romance is treading water and the film abounds with needless cameos. But what made the TV show so great is also still here: the central character, the main supporting cast, the whipsmart dialogue and the well put together mystery plots. The awesome visuals, a bit darker and more noir-ish than the TV show offered, are probably the best new aspect. If it is more of the same, enough time has passed for that to be OK, at least for this entry. Veronica Mars gives its titular detective and her loyal fanbase a much more satisfying ending for her story, if this is to be an ending. And I happen to think that it should, before she overstays her welcome.

"We used to be friends, a long time ago..."

“We used to be friends, a long time ago…”

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Continuing Phase Two, on the big screen anyway, was on Cap’s shoulders big time, and he delivered, in a stirring flick that encapsulates everything that makes the character, and his supporting players, so great, regardless of what anyone thinks. The First Avenger was a brilliant take on a World War Two film with superheroes, and The Winter Soldier does the same thing with 70’s style conspiracy movies, with Robert Redford ably stepping in as S.H.I.E.L.D head honcho Alexander Pierce to help make that feeling complete. And he’s just one of a great and diverse cast, with Jackson, Johansson and Anthony Mackie all lining up well behind the ever great Chris Evans, the man out of time struggling to bring the righteous fury of 1940’s America into a much greyer modern age, a great central journey to make this old age hero relevant.

The stakes are raised high, the MCU is changed irrevocably, and The Winter Soldier pulls it all off with some style. The visuals are crisp, the script is great and the score accentuates everything. The Winter Soldier could well have been rated higher by me, but for the ridiculousness of the premise heading into the second act of the film – the scene featuring the returning Toby Jones was one of the stupidest of the year – and the lack of time for the titular bad guy, whose portrayal by Sebastian Stan indicated a character who should have been given more of the limelight. Instead the Russo brothers went for more of a surprise villain, and that was OK, but you still felt that Barnes’ villainous persona went under-utilised. But a rip-roaring finale and a nice closing moment helps to make up for those problems, and firmly establishes Captain America, in my eyes, as Marvel’s proper flagship franchise, after the disappointment of Iron Man 3.

Marvel's Phase Two rolls on with Chris Evans' return as "Cap".

Marvel’s Phase Two rolls on with Chris Evans’ return as “Cap”.

  1. The Stag

John Butler’s comedy offering could easily have been just a second rate Irish version of The Hangover, with just enough effort put in to claiming back a reasonable profit. Instead, something really wonderful was put together, an intelligent little comedy that manages to infuse various kinds of humour in with a more serious look (well, sometimes serious) at how masculinity has changed in a modern era, as a group of civilised men are thrust back into a caveman-like existence. A very strong ensemble cast, bursting with some of the best Irish talent performing today, was assembled for this, with Andrew Scott breaking free of his Sherlock stardom to perform brilliantly in something radically different. A host of minor sub-plots are blended in with the main journey of a stag party lost in the Wicklow countryside, and that blending is very effective, with simple stories, from financial ruin to bigoted views on homosexual relationships, fitting in nicely with a secret love triangle at the heart of The Stag’s main duo, Scott’s Davin and Hugh O’Connor’s Fionnan.

It’s a film about going up a mountain (or into a few valleys in this case) and coming back changed, and the journey is a worthwhile one. On hand to provide most of the actual laughs is Peter McDonald’s “The Machine”, and while the focus on him gets a bit too much throughout the second act, at least he’s still funny, a crazy D4 experience obsessed maniac who adds the right level of hysteria to proceedings. The visuals are beautiful and the script is fantastic: a keen mixture of classic Irish wit and American style ludicrousness. When The Stag wants to get serious though, it does so with aplomb, mostly thanks to the sterling work of Andrew Scott, easily the best of a mostly fantastic cast.

Irish comedy approaches that most male of cultural mainstays.

Irish comedy approaches that most male of cultural mainstays.

  1. American Hustle

On the face of it, this seems like a crazy role for Christian Bale to take. He’s just done playing Batman in one of the most financially and critically successful superhero franchises ever, and later this year he’s playing Moses in a Biblical epic. And in-between, he puts on a load of weight, grows a load of chest hair, adopts a New Jersey accent, and steps into the role of a sleazy con-man in the 70’s. And, amazingly, it all works really well, with Bale pulling off the transformation brilliantly, and achieving one of the best performances of his career. And while they don’t have to work as hard as him, he’s ably supported by the rest of the cast, with Amy Adams playing the role of her life, Bradley Cooper’s success obsessed FBI agent providing a great foil and Jennifer Lawrence’s housewife sex kitten showcasing a different part of her range we hadn’t really encountered before.

The actual story here is a bit overly-long and complicated, but American Hustle works far better as an intense character study of the main four players (not forgetting Jeremy Renner’s unfortunate politician or Louis C.K.’s trampled upon FBI head honcho), their desires and motivations, what makes them tick, and how they all try and play the others, or willingly get played themselves. It’s a great exploration of greed, the perception of love and the power of simple acts of kindness and friendship. The world of the 70’s, in a way that is full of cliché but still effective, is created wonderfully by David O. Russell’s direction, and the script is there to back it all up. The ending rankles a bit because of the lack of risks that it takes, which might leave a bad impression, but American Hustle really is one of the best of the year, triumphing in most aspects of its production.

The relationship between Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser is very well portrayed by Bale and Adams respectively.

The relationship between Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser is very well portrayed by Bale and Adams respectively.

  1. Nightcrawler

After hearing a veritable avalanche of critical praise for this one, I was tempted in to see it, not knowing whether I would be experiencing something darkly comedic or outright horror, or if the right Jake Gyllenhaal would turn up. In the end, I got to enjoy a masterful central performance in a dark and twisted version of the American dream played out in front of me, where the amorality of the modern age takes centre stage. Lou Bloom is the American hero for the 21st century: determined, hard-working, smart and utterly ruthless, using others and manipulating events to his own advantage as much as he can. Gyllenhaal is immense as the sociopathic Bloom, showcasing the kind of acting talent that he frequently fails to muster, but which is stunning when it does make an appearance. His supporting cast, with the talents of Rene Russo and Bill Paxton, serve admirably as various shades of foil to the Bloom character, with their own arcs and journeys alongside his.

The contrasts of the LA night time are brought out vividly by Dan Gilroy’s direction, neon lights mixing with grungy neighbourhoods, affluent homes with blood spatters, as Bloom sinks deeper and deeper into plots that involve corruption, sexual exploitation and murder. The script is catchy, with Bloom’s constant stream of business manager speak weirdly endearing even as it makes him an even creepier character, while James Newton Howard’s score is a risky but suitable accompaniment. But for me, it’s all about the greatness of the story Nightcrawler tells, positively Shakespearian in sections, as the audience is brought to a point of sympathy with the conniving sociopath, even as he commits more and more terrible deeds. In making that kind of character, Nightcrawler deserves a hell of a lot of credit, managing something that other films have failed to accomplish this year.

Jake Gyllenhaal goes sociopathic in Nightcrawler.

Jake Gyllenhaal goes sociopathic in Nightcrawler.

  1. X-Men: Days Of Future Past

This had a huge possibility of being a gigantic mess, what with the potentially confusing dual timeline plot and the mountain of characters. But instead of a disaster, we got the best comic book film of the year, and perhaps the best X-Men film to date. Using Hugh Jackman’s ever reliable Wolverine as the cipher, director Bryan Singer crafts a grand narrative crossing decades, but amid all of the time hopping, giant robots and cameos galore, a remarkable simplicity is found, with a focus on the triangle between the younger versions of Xavier, Magneto and Mystique, three people whose lives crash into each other once again in the wonderfully evoked 70’s. It’s a love and a friendship triangle, with the opposing views of McAvoy and Fassbender’s characters – ever amazing those two – finding a suitable battleground in the form of Jennifer Lawrence’s blue skinned changling. But outside of those three, Days Of Future Past is full of wonderful moments and storytelling: the brutal opening fight scene with the Sentinels, Quicksilver’s stunning “Time In A Bottle” sequence, the two Xavier’s communicating through time or Magneto’s grand finale with the stadium.

The cast is doing great work in roles they are very comfortable in, with the exception being Peter Dinklage’s somewhat forgettable Bolivar Trask. In fact, if Days Of Future Past has a major issue, it is that it lacks a very good antagonist to string everything together a bit better, and maybe also a lack of anything very important for Wolverine to do, other than to just sort be there, an audience surrogate with claws. But the visuals are great, the script is great, the soundtrack is great. Nearly everything about this production comes together in a way that I hadn’t dared hope for, more than an equal to the same kind of job that Joss Whedon pulled in his similarly packed Avengers. The X-Men might never be able to match up completely with the MCU, but they are giving it a damn good try. And where else are you going to see Stewart, McKellan, McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Dinklage, Jackman, Berry and Page all be on screen together?

Fassbender remains an example of classic Hollywood cool in his role of Magneto.

Fassbender remains an example of classic Hollywood cool in his role of Magneto.

  1. Next Goal Wins

Sports movies should never be about a sport, they should be about how a sport impacts on other things. Next Goal Wins is a sporting documentary of the finest calibre, that manages to do just that, showcasing the way that football effects issues like national pride, hope and mental well-being, and it does it all with one of the most unlikely subjects imaginable. Poor little American Samoa were the worlds laughing stock after the record 31-0 defeat to an uncaring Australia. Next Goal Wins is the emotional and thrilling story of how they tried to rectify that. But beyond the football itself, and the hopes and dreams of this tiny little Pacific territory being heaped willingly on this team, there are other fascinating insights. There’s the Dutch coach brought in when no one else would do the job, dealing with the tragedy in his own past. There’s the third gender defender, whose lack of skill is more than made up for with passion and drive to compete. There’s the US soldier, drafted on the team as a desperately needed ringer. There’s the third generation islander, honouring his grandparents by choosing to play. And there’s the regretful goalkeeper, seeking any kind of success to make-up for that terrible one-sided score line.

Next Goal Wins is the story of these individuals and the team they are a part of, all of these people seeking redemption for a nation that is not even a nation. The camerawork is clear and detailed, showcasing both the beautiful surrounds and the beautiful game in equal measure, as American Samoa deal with floods, ridicule and other set-backs, before a final half hour that works on a knife edge of tension, as the games begin and everything done up to that point is put on the line. “Edge of your seat football” doesn’t even get close to describing the effect. Cathartic in the extreme, joyful beyond measure, Next Goal Wins is one of the few films I have ever come seriously close to crying over. For fans and non-fans, few other films cut so close to the heart of sport and football, and what makes them so adored the world over.

Rongen is just the man to lead this squad out of their hopeless losing streak.

Rongen is just the man to lead this squad out of their hopeless losing streak.

  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ah, Wes Anderson. Was there ever a director more cast iron likely to fall into the category of “Love em/hate em”? Well, I happen to love him, and I loved this, my highest rated viewing at 2014’s JDIFF festival. It’s a crazily multi-layered beast, taking place over so many different timelines and with so many random elements that it could easily have been a forgettable disaster. But instead Anderson delivers the goods once again: a moving, funny comedy, which is able to mix and match the laughs with drama whenever it sees fit. Ralph Fiennes is plainly having a ball in the central role of Gustave H,  a lead character from another age, the gentleman concierge trying to maintain the ideals of chivalry and good manners even as the entire world goes to hell around him. And, like a Marx Brothers skit, he’s endlessly funny in his “zany straight man in crazy situations” kind of way, with The Grand Budapest Hotel’s humour full of wit and nuance.

Secret societies, grand conspiracies and death scenes straight out of Hitchcock: they all get their time, with Tony Revolori’s Zero a suitable understudy to Gustave’s more fantastical mentor. But there is also a very beautiful and stirring melancholy, a sombreness that infects proceedings in just the right way: amid all of the laughter and wild antics, Anderson also wants to paint a portrait of a world about to be engulfed by jackboots and causal violence. The gigantic cast – names like Goldblum, DaFoe, Ronan, Swinton, Murray, Brody, Abraham, Norton and Law make this one of the most talented ensembles assembled in a long time – does fantastically for the most part in this wonderfully colourful production, where the script, while absurdist to the extreme at times, remains accessible and fun. Maybe more could have been done with Brody, maybe the tone is a little bit off at times. But regardless, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a touching and emotional affair, bound to leave the viewer feeling reflective upon its conclusion even as they remember the cavalcade of laughs they have enjoyed. A true classic, and maybe Anderson’s masterpiece.

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori are wonderful in the starring roles, a great mentor/pupil plotline.

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori are wonderful in the starring roles, a great mentor/pupil plotline.

  1. The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The last hurrah (well, maybe). Just like the Academy Awards of 2004, the placing here is probably my brains recognition of the trilogy as a whole, as opposed to the merits of this singular film, which can’t really be judged fairly without its connections to what came before. Because on its own the pacing is a bit off, the film is action-heavy to a fault, and a lot of the sub-plots and characters are somewhat superfluous (why is Alfrid in this so much!?). But what it does have, is everything that made the other two films so good, aside from just being good ‘ol plain fun to watch. Middle-Earth is presented, from vistas to costuming, as brilliantly as ever. The cast, for the most part, is as sterling as they have been for the last five hours, with Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage giving the film the necessary emotional heart with the strained relationship between an increasingly desperate Bilbo and an increasingly crazy Thorin, while the entire world turns to swords and shields around them. Ian McKellan enjoys his last run out as Gandalf, Luke Evans continues to make Bard a better character than he was in the book and the other supporting players do what is required of them, even if they’re stuck with love plots or little more than extended duels.

The CGI is the best of the trilogy, with figures like Manu Bennett’s Azog impressive as antagonists, Smaug’s fire breathing attack on Lake-town proving a fantastic opening and the actual battle of the title one of the most awe-inspiring large scale fight scenes of film history. The script has all of the adaptive genius that Team Jackson has been demonstrating for over a decade, with distinctive voices for all, and Howard Shore takes his final bow with another memorable auditory effort with the score. These films have been some of the highlights of my cinema trips for the last three years, and it is a sad day when Peter Jackson finally, definitively, walks away from Middle-Earth. Sure, it might not be the last time that Warner Bros and New Line go back to the well, but I’m satisfied with the trilogy that has been created from The Hobbit, that has illustrated the highest ideals of fantasy filmmaking. Maybe not the best film of the year, but one of the best trilogies of modern times (and one half of a very awesome saga).

"Will you follow me...one last time?"

“Will you follow me…one last time?”

  1. Calvary

Oh man, what a movie, the kind that leaves you struck dumb for several minutes when the credits roll. Having unintentionally avoided most of the publicity for this one, I was caught dramatically unprepared for the power of the experience that awaited. I was expecting another dark Irish comedy in the vein of The Guard, what with the same director, leading man and setting. And while I did get something very dark, it contained only bare moments of levity, in an otherwise absorbing and potent drama. With a large dose of allegory at every turn, Calvary tells many stories. It’s about Christ, in the form of Brendan Gleeson’s stunning performance as Father James Lavelle, heading towards Golgotha, taking with him the sins of mankind on his shoulders. Through the myriad of sinful and desperate figures in the town, some just badly intentioned, others outright evil, it’s a fascinating representation of different facets of Irish culture in a modern age, and how they are all re-adjusting to a world where the sex-scandal plagued Catholic Church is not the powerful institution it once was.

And it’s also a western/mystery story: a hardboiled detective seeking the truth about a death threat, even as he prepares himself to take on the bad minded people who are surrounding him bit by bit, trying to determine if he even has a place left in this community. It’s a wonderfully told story, full of power and emotion, from brilliant set-piece to brilliant set-piece. One only has to look at that brutally tone-setting opening line, the conversation with Domhnall Gleeson’s serial killer, Dylan Moran’s scene stealing businessman urinating on a priceless painting just because he can, and the undeniably hypnotic effect of the films ending scene, where killers are revealed, and Lavelle faces his own Calvary. McDonagh’s direction is as effective as it was in The Guard, the script bubbles over with wonderful lines and dialogue (most notably between Lavelle and his pre-ordination daughter, well played by an underappreciated Kelly Reilly) and the rest of the cast, from Aidan Gillian’s mischievously diabolic atheist doctor to Owen Sharp’s ghost spotting young boy, performs admirably. In the end, the greatest thing to take from Calvary is the immensely positive final notes, on how forgiveness, that most under-rated aspect of religion and human community, should be more at the front and centre of our lives. One of the best Christian and Irish movies ever made.

The townspeople are brought vividly to life in every scene where they square off against Lavelle.

The townspeople are brought vividly to life in every scene where they square off against Lavelle.

  1. 12 Years A Slave

It hit the top of the rankings early, and has stayed there all the way to the end. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the famous memoir is both an immensely entertaining and an incredibly important film: modern Hollywood’s best examination of slavery, that defining practise of so much of the United States’ existence, an evil that dragged a free man into its darkness and didn’t let go for over a decade. One can only gush with praise over the story told, the staggering lows, the awe-inducing highs, but much of it comes back to Chewital Ejiofor. Somewhat of a sleeper in terms of recognition, 12 Years A Slave has rightfully catapulted him into the popular consciousness, with a titanic portrayal of Solomon Northup, in every word, every unspoken look of fear or hope, and in every action. So many scenes were crafted to simply give Ejiofor the opportunity to emote without script: crude sexual encounters with desperate fellow slaves, being slowly lynched while farm life continues around him or facing into the uncertain prospect of becoming a free man again.

Around him are a similarly immense supporting cast: Benedict Cumberbatch as the hypocritical southern preacher, Paul Dano as a relentlessly cruel overseer, Paul Giamatti as the non-caring auctioneer, Lupita Nyong’o as a victimised fellow slave . But above all of them, and just below Ejiofar, is Michael Fassbender’s astonishing turn as the “nigger-breaker” Epps, whose merciless insanity and religiously backed fundamentalism drive so much of what makes 12 Years Of Slave such an emotionally exhausting experience. This is a film that is hard to watch, less to be enjoyed and more to be endured. Through McQueen’s vivid cinematography and the excellent scriptwork, we get as good a glimpse of the how slavery worked as we are liable to stand, wrapping up this examination of the practise with Northup’s personal odyssey, moving from fear, to hopelessness, to finding freedom somehow.

There are still parts of the story that rankle: a certain lack of agency in the Northup character in the third act, the repetitive and largely heard before score of Hanz Zimmer  or in the lackadaisical performance from Brad Pitt’s northern abolitionist. But they cannot mar the whole, a film whose power, in every crack of a whip, in every beating, in every cruel word and dehumanising speech, makes you suffer along with Northup, and receive the proper catharsis in his eventual rescue and family reunion. Beautifully shot, brilliantly acted and replete with horrifying and moving moments, 12 Years A Slave can rightfully claim to be not only the best film of 2014, but one of the best films ever made.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is spellbinding as Solomon Northup, in the role that has gotten him the international recognition he deserves.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is spellbinding as Solomon Northup, in the role that has gotten him the international recognition he deserves.

And so, to NFB’s 2014 awards.

Best Actor: Chewital Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)

An easy decision, despite some momentous challengers. Ejiofor says so much when he says nothing at all in this film, and when he is saying things as well. McQueen’s direction deliberately gives Ejiofor as much opportunity as he needs to emote, at a level that is a pure masterclass in the art. Without him, 12 Years A Slave could have been just another film. With him, it transcends to another level.

Honourable Mentions: Brendan Gleeson (Calvary), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Matthew McConaghey (Interstellar)

Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave, Frank, X-Men: Days Of Future Past)

He was good enough, in all three of his performances this year that I have witnessed, to merit this award, but it is as the villainous Epps that Fassbender succeeded the most, an antagonist of truly epic scale, easy to hate but fascinating to watch, who played off wonderfully with Ejiofor.

Bradley Cooper (American Hustle, Guardians Of The Galaxy), Dylan Moran (Calvary) Logan Lerman (Fury), Richard Armitage (The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies)

Best Actress: Amy Adams (American Hustle)

As is depressing typical, this was the hardest acting award to fill, but in a tight contest, Adams won out. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been very impressed with her before American Hustle, but she formed one part of a brilliant acting trinity in that film. In fact, she was the lynchpin between the two other participants, and her con woman role allowed her to demonstrate a range I had previously not witnessed.

Honourable Mentions: Kristin Bell (Veronica Mars), Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: Days Of Future Past, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One), Sophie Lowe (After The Dark), Eva Green (300: Rise Of An Empire)

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)

Some good candidates all round here, but Nyong’o was the best of them, capping a great acting trifecta for 12 Years A Slave. Her Patsy is a truly pitiable creature, one whose suffering under the rule of Epps and his jealousy stricken wife is expertly portrayed.

Honourable Mentions: Kelly Reilly (Calvary), Saorise Ronan (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle), Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Best Ensemble: Calvary

A very difficult one to call, but I can’t think of a single cast member of John Michael McDonagh’s masterpiece who did anything close to even an average job. As personifications of different allegories and elements of modern Ireland, they fit neatly alongside Brendan Gleeson’s towering central figure.

Honourable Mentions: 12 Years A Slave, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Hustle

Best Director: Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)

Great acting needs great direction. Great cinematography needs great direction too. 12 Years A Slave had both, on a level that is positively rare to find these days. With the use of actual former plantations, a patient approach to scene construction, and a willingness to let his cast do their thing in as intimate an environment as possible, McQueen proved himself one of the top directors around today.

Honourable Mentions: John Michael McDonagh (Calvary), Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), David O. Russell (American Hustle)

Best Production: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Yup. Three for three. Jackson has never had a problem with universe building, be it in storytelling terms or with those amazing sets.

Honourable Mentions: 12 Years A Slave, The Grand Budapest Hotel, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Guardians Of The Galaxy

Best CGI: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Same again. WETA’s work in this trilogy has been cruelly underrated in my opinion, and it’s at its best in the final instalment.

Honourable Mentions: X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Interstellar

Best Score: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

In a year with a dearth of good scores, Howard Shore’s amazing work, one last time for Middle-Earth (I hope), deserves some recognition and kudos.

Honourable Mentions: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Antarctica: A Year On Ice, Grand Piano, The Lego Movie

Best Soundtrack: Inside Llewyn Davis

This has to be the only (positive) award the severely over-rated Coen Brothers film will be getting off me, but the only thing stopping it from being a total disaster was the insanely good soundtrack, be it the covers of folk classics, the new material or even the supposed-to-be-bad-but-turned out awesome-anyway stuff.

Honourable Mentions: American Hustle, Guardians Of The Galaxy, The Lego Movie, How To Train Your Dragon 2

Best Original Song: “Everything Is Awesome” – Tegan and Sara, The Lonely Island, Various (The Lego Movie)

A hard one again, but it terms of originality and suitability for the film it was in, “Everything Is Awesome” stands out more than the others this year. A rip-roaring melody that changes its own message between the start and end of the film, The Lonely Island just made it better in their contribution to the credits version.

Honourable Mentions:, “Where No One Goes” – Jonsi (How To Train Your Dragon 2), “The Last Goodbye” – Billy Boyd (The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies), “I Love You All” – Michael Fassbender (Frank)

Best Covered/Adapted Song: “Fare Thee Well” – Oscar Isaac, Marcus Mumford (Inside Llewyn Davis)

The best part of an otherwise disappointing film, this cover was moving, poignant and brilliant.

Honourable Mentions: “The Hanging Tree” – Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I), “Upon A Dream” – Lana Del Ray (Maleficent)

Best Adapted Script: John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave

It was a difficult task, adapting a 150 year old memoir for a modern audience. But John Ridley did an excellent job of giving 12 Years A Slave’s numerous memorable characters the right kind of distinctive voice, and the actors did the rest.

Honourable Mentions: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians Of The Galaxy, The Imitation Game

Best Original Script: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Yes, there is an acknowledged inspiration in the form of Stefan Zweig’s work, but Wes Anderson fingerprints are all over this one, with a script that bubbles over with charm, wit, sombreness and melancholy.

Honourable Mentions: Calvary, American Hustle, Nightcrawler, The Stag

Best Cinematography: Interstellar

Perhaps a surprise choice – 12 Years A Slave was there or there abouts here – but in a film that some significant problems elsewhere, Interstellar’s shot choices and general camerawork were of an immense quality, with Hoyte van Hoytema bringing Christopher Nolan’s alien worlds and post-apocalyptic Earth to life in a stunning way.

Honourable Mentions: 12 Years A Slave, Calvary, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Make-Up/Hairstyling/Costuming: The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Only one possible winner here. A clean sweep.

Honourable Mentions: 12 Years A Slave, The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Hustle, Guardians Of The Galaxy

Best Comedy

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Animation

The Lego Movie

Best Romance

American Hustle

Best Sci-Fi

Interstellar

Best Comic Book

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Best Documentary

Next Goal Wins

Best Historical

12 Years A Slave

Best Irish

Calvary

Best Scene

Soloman and Epps discuss a letter (12 Years A Slave)

Best Action Scene

Sherman vs Tiger (Fury)

Best Battle Scene

The Battle Of Five Armies (The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies)

Best Delivered Line

“ I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!” – Chewital Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)

Best Set-Piece

Docking the ship (Interstellar)

Best Hero

Father James Lavelle – Brendan Gleeson (Calvary)

Best Villain

Epps – Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)

“Diamond In The Rough” Award (Good Performance In Bad Film)

Tara Breathnack (A Nightingale Falling)

“Turd In The Punchbowl” Award (Bad Performance In Good Film)

Edward Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

 “Bang For Your Buck” Award (Best Film In Least Time)

The Stag (94 minutes)

 “Inception” Award (Good Film Despite Plot-Holes)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

“Walter Mitty” Award (Good Film Despite Clichés)

Fury

“Starcrossed Lovers” Award (Best Romantic Plot)

Irving/Sydney/Richie (American Hustle)

“Limp Fish” Award (Worst Romantic Plot)

Any of the romantic relationships (God’s Not Dead)

 “Lonely Planet Guide To…” Award (Best Universe Building/Presentation)

Interstellar

“Looks like British Columbia Again” Award (Worst Universe Building/Presentation)

Maleficent

“On The Shoulders Of Giants” Award (Best Sequel/Reboot/Remake)

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

“Has That Been Done Yet?” Award (Worst Sequel/Reboot/Remake)

Maleficent

“NOOOOOO” Award (For Over-Acting)

Kevin Sorbo (God’s Not Dead)

 “What Are Ee-Mo-Sh-Uns?” Award (For Under-Acting)

Angelina Jolie (Maleficent)

“Equality Now” Award (Best Female Characters)

American Hustle

“T&A” Award (Worst Female Characters)

God’s Not Dead

“That Escalated Quickly” Award (Good Film Idea That Turned Bad)

United Passions

“Surprisingly Tolerable” Award (Bad Film Idea That Turned Good)

The Lego Movie

“It’s Been Mixed” Award (For Varying Performances)

Brendan Gleeson (Calvary, Edge Of Tomorrow)

“Just Applaud” Award (Most Over-Rated)

Inside Llewyn Davis

“Why Is No One Applauding?” Award (Most Under-Rated)

RoboCop

“Chekov’s Gun” Award (Most Obvious Shoed-In Scene)

May serves some drinks (A Nightingale Falling)

“Just Pick One” Award (Film Trying To Be Two Things At Once, And Failing)

Lucy

“We’re Going To That” Award (Best Trailers)

Interstellar

“Are You Sure You Want To See That?” Award (Worst Trailers)

The Lego Movie

 “The Pictures! They’re Coming…Alive!” Award (Best CGI Moment)

The battle begins, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

 “You Can See The Strings” Award (Worst CGI Moment)

Goat riding, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

 “Superman 64” Award (The Worst Thing Ever)

The final debate (God’s Not Dead)

“You Can’t Take The Sky From Me” Award (The Best Thing Ever)

“ I apologize for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.” – 12 Years A Slave

So there you have it. 2014 is done. Next year, I’m looking forward to Foxcatcher, American Sniper, Ex Machina, Big Hero 6, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Jurassic World, Ant-Man, London Has Fallen, Spectre, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and The Hateful Eight. Until next year.

(All images are copyright of Fox Searchlight Pictures, Entertainment One, Warner Bros. Pictures, Icon Productions, 20th Century Fox, Open Road Films, Entertainment Film Distributors, Columbia Pictures, Arrow Films, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Paramount Pictures, StudioCanal, The Weinstein Company, Antzworks, Netflix, Sony Pictures Classics, Lionsgate, CJ Entertainment, RADiUS-TWC, Underground Films, Phase 4 Films, All Media Company, Magnet Releasing, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Variance Films, Universal Pictures, Submarine Deluxe, CBS Films, Magnolia Pictures, EuropaCorp. Distribution, Toho, Touchstone Pictures, I Wonder Pictures, NFP Marketing And Distribution, VPRO, Mixed Bag Media, Lionsgate, Haut et Court, Falcon Films, MTVA, NOS Audiovisuals and Pure Flix Entertainment).

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