The Year In Film

It felt like a remarkably good year for cinema. And that was without getting Godard in 3D.
By Philip Matthews

Show me a film reviewer who doesn’t like making lists. I’ve been drawing up top 10 lists pretty consistently, almost every December since the mid-1990s, and I don’t recall a year in which there were so many good titles vying for a limited number of spots. It isn’t that I saw more films this year but that the quality seemed better, so much so that a second 10 was required. There were a couple of notable disappointments as well, but aren’t there always?

As for omissions, I know that the Sight and Sound critics’ poll has Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language 3D coming in second (behind Boyhood), with the critic J Hoberman wishing he could have put it in all five slots in his top five, but Goodbye to Language 3D didn’t play in the South Island leg of the New Zealand International Film Festival this year. So it was unseen rather than snubbed. Also, in a sign of the times, Sight and Sound asked its film critics for their TV series of the year. I’d say True Detective if you asked me, with Rectify and Mad Men in hot pursuit.

Anyway, to the films …

1. UNDER THE SKIN (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

A dazzlingly original science fiction reinvention, of both the genre and the star, Scarlett Johansson. The Hollywood actress was recruited by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) to play the unnamed alien who travels through Scotland, luring men to their deaths. She barely speaks and when she does it is in character as an unrecognisable British-accented woman behind the wheel of an anonymous van, suggesting a version of Rosemary West or Myra Hindley. Glazer shot some of those scenes with hidden cameras and used real Scottish bystanders, like a killer alien Candid Camera, whereas the sinking death sequences were deeply stylised. This was simply the year’s most unforgettable film. Was there anything more horrifying in 2014 than Under the Skin’s beach scene?

2. BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

This was notorious for some explicit – and, let’s face it, long – sex scenes involving Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, but Kechiche’s haunting three-hour feature is really one of the great coming of age movies, tracking a lonely young woman (Exarchopoulos in a brave performance) through the end of high school, her first serious relationship and the growing confusions of the adult world. There is also an emphasis on class difference that is every bit as vital as the sex, which is really just one element in the film’s emotional language. The style is a loose, Dardennes-like realism and director Abdellatif Kechiche reportedly shot much more than he needed and shaped his film from the footage, meaning that there were unseen scenes and backstories that were useful for the actors. That must explain why both lead characters, and the northern French social world that is depicted, seem so convincingly real and lived-in.

3. WINTER SLEEP (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Longer even than a Peter Jackson movie, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s intimate Palme d’Or-winning epic allows for the patient examination of one flawed man, a pompous former actor, hotel owner and newspaper columnist ruling his own small kingdom in a remote, starkly beautiful, snowed-in corner of Turkey. At a more than three leisurely hours, it offers the too-rare pleasure of film conversations that take just as long as they need to, and is beautifully performed by Haluk Bilginer as Aydin, with Demet Akbag and Melisa Sozen. “Chekhovian” is the word we’re looking for here.

4. IDA (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

An austere film about an austere time. Pawel Pawlikowski’s small, marvellous Ida is set in Poland in the 1960s, when World War II and the Holocaust are still within living memory. Young Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is about to settle into life in a convent – these early moments reveal the obvious influence of Dreyer and Bresson – but must first visit her more worldly aunt (Agata Kulesza). The trail of recent history sends the pair through small Polish villages where the unsettling mix of guilt, shame and defiance they encounter might remind some viewers of Claude Lanzmann’s meetings with Polish villagers in his landmark Holocaust documentary, Shoah.

5. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (dir. Wes Anderson)

Who said that you have to love all of Wes Anderson’s films or none of them? I don’t buy that. They can sometimes be too twee, too intricate, too in love with their own production design, but I liked the smart comedy of The Fantastic Mr Fox and I like The Grand Budapest Hotel even more. The nods toward a melancholic mood are never really that persuasive and it works much better as middle-European screwball with all those blink-and-miss-them Anderson details (there are newspapers called the Trans-Alpine Yodel and, in the Communist era, the Daily Fact). Ralph Fiennes is in top, energetic comic form as Gustave, the hotel concierge, and it would be bad manners to suggest that Anderson could lose some of his regular passengers (but since you asked: Owen Wilson). I didn’t see what others saw in Moonrise Kingdom, but even when you don’t like the films, you admire his singular vision. His best since Rushmore, for the ski chase alone.

6. BOYHOOD (dir. Richard Linklater)

The three Before films still trump Boyhood as Richard Linklater’s great cinematic experiment, but this film, which was both set and shot in Texas off and on over 11 years, deepens the themes he has been working with since Slacker – how can cinema catch and register time? Whether it is condensed into 24 hours or stretched over more than a decade.

7. MAPS TO THE STARS (dir. David Cronenberg)

This is the most heartless of Hollywood satires. Robert Altman’s The Player at least contained some residual affection for the studio system and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was alert to tragedy and the exploitation of young women, but Cronenberg’s adaptation of a screenplay by novelist Bruce Wagner is darker and more vicious than either. Julianne Moore is in one of the roles of her life as Havana Segrand, played as a washed-up Lindsay Lohan in paranoid middle age, John Cusack is a bogus guru and Evan Bird is an obnoxious Bieberite. Maps’ subject is Hollywood curses and childhood monsters. In its satirical tone and low-budget sensibility, it felt at times like a throwback to the Cronenberg of The Brood and Videodrome, when no one got out alive. Also: film murder of the year.

It was a good year for David Cronenberg. His first novel, Consumed, appeared and was more Cronenbergian than most of his films, and funnier too. Seldom has reading a novel felt so much like being inside someone’s head. There were shades of Dead Ringers in its treatment of surgery, disease, morbid emotion and sex gone wrong (also, cannibalism and philosophy). There were perverted or corrupt doctors and technology fetishism that bordered on Patrick Bateman-style brand adoration. Young internet journalists Nathan and Naomi were reminiscent of Ted and Allegra in eXistenZ, encountering a new world they were not exactly prepared for, but then, who could be? A dialogue exchange such as this one was revealing of Cronenberg’s mordant humour and familiar metaphors:

“Nathan, I think I gave you a disease. I’m so sorry.”

“A disease? You mean, literally?”

8. HER (dir. Spike Jonze)

I was pretty sure that Spike Jonze’s whimsical, ever-so-slightly melancholic sci-fi romance Her was his answer film to ex-wife Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The Coppola film was widely believed to be about how she felt as the neglected wife of a big-deal movie director, which made her the Scarlett Johansson character. No surprise, then, that Johansson was cast by Jonze as the seductive voice of an operating system in a gentle comedy about a separated man (the faultless Joaquin Phoenix as a kind of sensitive Jonze surrogate) who falls in love with his phone. Love means never having to say you’re Siri. Jonze’s mildly futuristic detail was appealing too – high-waisted pants and moustaches were surely that close to coming back in.

9. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (dir. Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)

In a good year for mainstream horror (It Follows, The Babadook) and a good year for New Zealand films (Housebound, The Dead Lands, The Dark Horse), this Wellington pseudo-doco comedy nailed both categories. Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement and Jonathan Brugh – the latter in a role that doesn’t seem a million miles away from the hilarious things he did as half of Sugar and Spice in the 1990s – put on Udo Kier accents and costume-hire outfits as ageing vampires in a flatting situation, within “the undead community of Wellington”. The three did a rudimentary version of this back in 2006, but it works much better in a world in which zombies and vampires, although not yet werewolves, have reached peak saturation. A world that is not just post-Twilight and post-True Blood but post-Being Human (where a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf went flatting). That peak saturation means that it is even less peculiar to see vampires on a night out in Courtney Place than it might have been a decade ago.

The comedy feels loosely improvised with confidence and skill, and while the best parts riff on established vampire lore – the bat fights, the problems with werewolves, the blood – the film is really about Wellington as a nightlife city and would-be hipster capital. Vampires are just one more hipster sect in New Zealand’s leading nocturnal centre. Which is not to be snarky, either – here and in their other work, Clement and Waititi’s comic setting is generous warmth and Kiwi male friendship is their main subject. As a comedy about ageing night-time bohemians and mateship, it could run in a double bill with Margaret Gordon’s recent doco about Christchurch art band Into the Void (vampire-loving guitarist and artist Jason Greig’s quote of the year: “I’ve got a fucken disease, it’s called heavy metal”). While ostensibly straight, Into the Void is almost as funny as What We Do in the Shadows. On a more personal note, it was nice to see former Listener deputy editor Denis Welch in the Clement/Waititi film – even if he was about to get it in the neck.

10. INTERSTELLAR (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Fields of corn? Of course, Christopher Nolan is already well ahead of you on that one. Yes, the screenplay credited to Nolan and his brother Jonathan is uncharacteristically sentimental and we could have done without Michael Caine reciting Dylan Thomas quite as many times as he did unless you buy the theory that the “rage against the dying of the light” line doubles as Nolan’s eulogy for the death of film. Death is on Interstellar’s mind, at the level of personal grief and unretrievable time, and at a planetary level. At its worst, there are moments worthy of M Night Shyamalan, but at its best – and for my money, that is reasonably often – there are moments worthy of the Tarkovsky of Solaris and Mirror. Really. A man trying forlornly to communicate across time in an extra-dimensional library could easily be a scene from Mirror, now literalised for the multiplex. Like Tarkovsky, Nolan knows that time is both the material and subject of cinema, which puts Interstellar neatly in a series with Memento, The Prestige and Inception. In many ways, this is Inception in reverse – going way out rather than way in, with travel time stretching into decades rather than packed into seconds.

A SECOND TEN:

Dallas Buyers Club, The Dead Lands, Gloria, It Follows, The Lego Movie, Leviathan, Locke, Nymphomaniac, The Selfish Giant, The Trip to Italy.

THREE GREAT MOMENTS IN ACTING:

Tom Hardy held your attention for 85 minutes in Locke, in just one location (behind the wheel of a car) and with no one else on screen.

We have been waiting years for a Cliff Curtis performance like the deeply committed one he showed us as Genesis Potini in The Dark Horse, but it was a shame that the film was mostly over-hyped and obvious.

Michael Fassbender conveyed a whole world of hurt and confusion when he finally took off his mask and sang in the last minutes of the otherwise muddled outsider-music comedy Frank.

THE YEAR’S DISAPPOINTMENTS:

I suppose Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth deserves some praise for not being the usual rock biopic – you know it goes: a subject is rescued from obscurity (Death, Pentagram, Rodriguez , Skeptics, etc) and pundits offer their wisdom (Bono, or Henry Rollins if Bono can’t make it) – but the treatment of Cave in this doco seemed unusually hermetic and insular, even pretentious. It didn’t help that the album that preceded it, Push the Sky Away, showed that Cave seems dried up and largely uninspired as a lyricist these days. Forsyth and Pollard’s style is entirely unspontaneous and their approach is more about helping Cave with the ongoing production of his own legend or persona (including his visit to the fictional Nick Cave archives to mull over old photos) rather than exploring his creativity or career. Cave gets to be in it while also staying remote, constructing a fortress around himself out of his Nick Cave-ness.

But when the reverse applies, there are pleasant surprises. I used to have the impression that Alejandro Jodorowsky was something of a charlatan or a blowhard, but the enthusiasm and humour in Frank Pavich’s doco Jodorowsky’s Dune cured me of that. Has there ever been a better film about a movie that never got made? (And yes, I saw Lost in La Mancha.) We can console ourselves with the idea that the unmade Dune seeded a whole generation of science-fiction cinema, from Alien and Prometheus to Flash Gordon to Star Wars to David Lynch’s epic, failed Dune.

Back to disappointments: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer seemed bizarrely over-sold. What was this but an art-directed metaphor on wheels (or tracks, I guess)? Maybe we all have our preferred world-ending scenarios. Snowpiercer’s big freeze or Interstellar’s big dry? On the edge of another dusty southern summer, I’ll pick the latter.

THE BEST REVIVAL:

The restored On the Waterfront in the NZFF’s Autumn Events season.

THE BEST MOVIE ABOUT MOVIES:

Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy. In the first Trip movie, comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon went on a restaurant tour of the north of England in what was an unofficial sequel to their competitive clowning around (Al Pacino impressions, Michael Caine impressions) in Winterbottom’s brilliantly formless Tristram Shandy film. The Trip was pseudo-reality, at once a newspaper assignment, a television series and a narcissistic airing of partially fictional versions of their successful middle-aged selves. In Italy, the food is better, the driving is more treacherous and the reflections on age, relationships and careers are that much more poignant. Coogan and Brydon are on the trail of Byron and Shelley’s history, but the trip also becomes a movie trip. You might lose count of the references: The Godfather, La Dolce Vita, Godard’s Contempt as they sail past Capri, Roman Holiday, Journey to Italy, The Italian Job (that had to be in there). In most cases, themes of sex, death and fame in those films coincide with where Brydon and Coogan are at. The question is whether you can ever really be a tourist in Italy without having a movie consciousness.

Runner-up: The Lego Movie. Every bit as meta as Being John Malkovich.

MOST ANTICIPATED IN 2015:

Inherent Vice.