In my worst film list for this year I wrote that this hasn’t been the best year for film and that it may reflect in my 50 best films of the year list. Thats not to say that any of these films are bad, they just aren’t perfect and while I’d expect some disagreement about some of the early choices (and some of the later ones knowing the internet) I will tell you that I enjoyed all these films, some just a little more than others. So here is the first 10 films of my 50 best films of 2014 list.
Warning Spoiler Alert
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – I’ve never been a huge fan of The Hunger Games series, be it the first films avoidance of the dark elements the film should have concentrated on or Catching Fire’s decision to just rinse and repeat the events of the first film with no changes or way of differentiating the two. Mockingjay Part 1 however is my favourite of the series as it moves away from the trappings of the games in favour of the brewing rebellion that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has become the beacon of hope for. The film uses the politics of war as a jumping off point and delves into the darkness of propaganda as President Snow (an excellent Donald Sutherland) starts an all out political war against Katniss and master political manipulator Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who will appear again later on this list). The film worked because it was different, it didn’t pretend that the characters were fearless in their resistance as Katniss and fellow Hunger Games survivors Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and Finnick (Sam Claflin) suffer from the aftershock of their experiences. The film is all about the little things in war we forget and while the film loses steam in its final act this is a top notch way to really make us care for the films characters before we enter the final act.
- Under The Skin – Its hard to put into words the reasons I liked Under The Skin, a bizarre little feature starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien given the task of seducing unsuspecting men for nefarious purposes. From that description you might expect a conspiracy film with some reporter or police officer looking for answers into the various disappearances. Thats not the kind of film Under the Skin is, in fact there is nothing conventional about it. There are long moments where no dialogue is used as we must try to enter the mind of this creature as best we can as she begins to see the beauty and terror of our world for the first time. Her time away from completing this endless mission allows for our culture and sensibilities to seep into her (it?) influencing her journey in the final act where she encounters all the good and bad that this world has to offer. The film, i believe at least, serves as an allegory for us on the whole as we are dumped on a world we know little of and must crawl and scratch our way into understanding only to be ripped out of this world when we still have so much to do/learn. The idea that our time here is important is taken from us in the final moments as the creature’s presence is literally burned away to be forgotten by this planet as if she never existed in the first place. The film may seem to be saying that everything is meaningless but I believe its telling us that no matter what we do the outcome is the same so we should brave every experience and learn for us, not for what we want people to see us as.
- Maleficent – Although I am reaching my breaking point when it comes to fairy tales being reimagined with new aspects due to a huge quantity of them in recent years I can’t help but find myself ever so slightly enamoured by Maleficent, a new take on the story of Sleeping Beauty. First off the film doesn’t take itself too seriously like other reimagined tales (I’m looking at you Snow White and the Huntsman) and it doesn’t treat you like a child like others (Jack the Giant Slayer), it finds the right blend of drama and comedy to find a workable balance. However thats not why the film works, it works because Maleficent (A surprisingly impressive Angelina Jolie) is a far more interesting character than Aurora (Elle Fanning). The film ultimately turns Aurora into a two dimensional presence early on in the film by dictating what and who she will be through magic (you’ll understand if you see it) where as Maleficent is allowed to flit back and forth with her emotions and actions, be they good, bad or somewhere in between. Jolie tucks into the role and yet manages to imbue the villain with enough pathos for you to truly care about her and the role she has to play in Aurora’s slumber. While Sharlto Copley pops up to chew scenery and annoy viewers he is barely around long enough to cause any lasting damage but the film does feel a little long and never really manages to lose its fairy tale persona, no matter how hard it tries. The film tries to avoid it but you will always remember what this story is really about which might leave you cold at the films sunny ending.
- Fury – This Brad Pitt starring war flick is a complicated pick as when I first left the cinema I was conflicted as to whether or not I actually liked it. David Ayers latest exercise in morbidity is a clever film in the way it manipulates its viewer but there is no denying that is what it does. The film tries to convey the horrors of war through its characters but all it really does is lead you to conclusions instead of allowing you to interpret the film. The ultra violence doesn’t add to the film in the same way as Saving Private Ryan as the moments it is used are over the top (someone literally explodes from what looks like the inside out) and it almost ruins certain action sequences. There is a lot to critique in Fury but the film is full of excellent performances, a bone chillingly brutal ending and some stunning visuals including a tank battle that is wonderfully executed. It’s true the film tries to enter the ring with Spielberg’s classic thanks to where the film is set but it manages to separate itself enough to be its own monster and I’d be impressed if you weren’t completely shocked and impressed by an extended sequence in the middle of the film that really cuts to the core of war in a new and unique way, one that feels as devastating as it should and connects you to the characters in a way that the preceding 30 minutes somehow failed to do. All in all Fury isn’t about war, its about being proud of yourself when the end finally comes around and for most of the characters in Fury, the end inevitably comes.
- The Purge Anarchy – The first instalment of The Purge wasn’t perfect because it tried to convince people it was a horror film when it really just wanted to be an action film and by the end thats exactly what it became. Anarchy takes a different tack where it sticks itself firmly in the thriller camp and it manages to thrive because of it. The world that has been built around this idea that crime is legal for 12 hours every year is wonderfully realised and yet harrowing at the same time. The way the rich, the poor and everyone in between respond to this exercise in barbarism is part of the fun of the series and while concentrating on one family in the first film was an interesting way to introduce the concept there was much more to be seen. The open world aspect of Anarchy really brings the series to life and the idea that crime can be used for good is more believable this time around as the unnamed Sergeant (Frank Grillo) searches for vengeance but finds redemption instead while racking up one hell of a body count. A sequence in the middle of the film threatens to ruin the film thanks to its racist undertones but thankfully it wraps up quickly and the film gets back into the exploration of this world. Most of all, Anarchy is balls to the wall entertainment and even if you liked the horror aspects of the first film, you will still find plenty here that you can sink your teeth into.
- 3 Days to Kill – I’ll put it out there first that 3 Days to Kill is one of the cheesiest films of the year. The film follows the story of a CIA agent (Kevin Costner) who is forced into retirement due to an incurable disease and must return to his estranged family to make amends. However when a mysterious woman offers him a cure he must go on a 3 day killing spree across Paris to catch a terrorist while trying to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). What I haven’t said about the film is that it has an extremely dry wit that director McG plays into with some playful direction. Be it Costner interrogating a cowardly Italian only to require his help with pasta sauce or him asking for help from his latest targets teenage daughters when his goes missing, the film takes every chance to humanise him. However the film really works because of the chemistry between Costner and Steinfeld who make the films cheddary moments seem more bearable thanks to their believable interactions. In fact I’d go so far as to say you will go into it for the action but stay for the surprisingly heartfelt story of regained family. A massive improvement on McG’s last film, the horrendous This Means War.
- Out of the Furnace – When I watched this in January I thought this would be one of those films that would stay in the list until Oscar season but would promptly drop off once the truly great stuff emerged. Unfortunately this is 2014 so it clung to the list. Thats not to say its a bad film, in fact it has some killer performances from an almost unrecognisable Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck that elevate the film above its very basic vengeance storyline. The parts that make the film worth watching is the way it presents a small town community on the brink of bankruptcy and the shocking underbelly that has emerged to fill in the gaps. The film both embraces the beauty of the rural area around the industrial town as well as the dilapidated centre. The film makes a powerful point that these kinds of towns are reverting back to the rural areas they once used to be as the local factory looks to be on its last legs and everyone has reverted to fending for themselves in a very primal way. The only real downside is the film tries desperately to make you care for its lead character played by Christian Bale and by the films end you can’t really understand why you ever could. Be it that or the presence of perpetually bad Zoe Saldana this film is a mixed bag but its photography is stunning and you can relax and take it in like a soothing balm to the other problems.
- That Awkward Moment – This Zac Efron starring relationship drama isn’t the most original of films, it tells relationship stories that are as old as time but the way the characters walk, talk and interact with the world around them is so real and well thought out that it just had to be on the list. The trio of leads, be it Efron, the underutilized Michael B Jordan or Miles Teller, are fantastic as they mix the script and their own improvised ideas into one coherent story as they each try and court a different girl, each of whom has fun playing with the films style as well. The film however really belongs to Efron whose misogynistic party boy character is a delight from beginning to end even if he does some pretty questionable things along the way. His struggles feel important and his relationship with Imogen Poots Ellie is the best part of the picture, not only because they play off each other so well but because of the way the simple thread of commitment issues feels fresh when in the hands of these performers. It might not be the most unique idea but if you do something right it doesn’t have to be.
- Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – This is a bittersweet film for many different reasons, be it its story of a man willing to compromise his beliefs for his people but not for his family or the way the film glosses over some of the more interesting elements to paint a particular picture, one that might not shine a light on the real Mandela. The early moments concentrate on the cosmetic elements of the man, his likes, his dislikes. Lets be honest, when we think of a film about Mandela we don’t particularly want to know he was a fan of boxing, it just doesn’t feel relevant to the story. It does paint him as human but to be honest so does the fact that HE WAS HUMAN. The film’s final moments also gloss over the man in favour of the myth, the man we all hear about but know nothing about. It’s the middle of the film that matters and that really hits home, be it his time in prison while his family flounders on the outside and his wife (Naomie Harris) is punished more harshly than the man serving a life sentence. She is emotionally tortured and while hard to watch it is captivating at the same time. In fact Harris is the main draw, not to diminish an excellent Idris Elba, but the heart of the film comes from the unintended side effects of Mandela’s idea of freedom. By the end he had caused huge change in a country that needed and corrupted the soul of the one person he held dear to the point where she was unrecognisable to him. The film doesn’t delve into their divorce and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Mandela’s reaction to seeing what his wife has become but you can feel the pain, the hidden impact has become more than real thanks to Harris and Elba.
- Transformers: Age of Extinction – Ok, bear with me on this one. I can tell many of you are thinking what the hell is this guy smoking for putting this up here but hear me out and I’ll explain. The 4th instalment in the Transformers saga is arguably the best of the bunch as it carries on the tradition of exquisite action set pieces but manages to give them a much more human touch thanks to an actor who actually wanted to be in the films. The film follows Cade (Mark Wahlberg), a wannabe inventor who finds himself embroiled in a plot to destroy the planet when he comes across a powered down Transformer. What makes the film worth watching isn’t robot dinosaurs although they are fairly entertaining. What makes it worthy of the list is the fact that director Michael Bay has actually given the various characters (both human and metal aliens) personalities and character traits beyond the fact they are big, loud and capable of destruction on a massive scale. Although there is all of that you actually care about people in the film. The budding relationship between Cade’s daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and boy racer Shane (Jack Reynor) should have been cut for its gag inducing elements but beyond that this is just pure entertainment and a cameo performance by T.J Miller provides some much needed comedy early on.
Come back Sunday for part 2 of the list which includes a big dollop of comedy as well as the first of 3 animations to grace the list. See you Sunday.