‘Tis the season of the Top Ten List and what follows is mine. 2014 was an interesting year in films. It seemed a rather diverse twelve months despite the usual hand-wringing from some about the dominance of super-hero films or the collapse of the Australian film industry. I’m not saying there isn’t a good discussion to be had about these subjects, but I think the sheer number of films released internationally, the move towards different models of distribution and the way audiences are taking in media content make it difficult to see a big picture and make accurate pronouncements about cinema’s future. Here at AccessReel, we focus on the mainstream products of the movie-going experience and I thought within those parameters, there was plenty of note made in the last year.
I culled my list exclusively from those films I reviewed for AccessReel. There is a reason for this. Outside of my 40 plus reviews, I was barely able to catch up with anything else. I didn’t consider say, Interstellar or Gone Girl because I hadn’t seen them at the time of this writing. There are some films that may be from 2013 in this list, but I saw them screened in Perth in 2014, so for our purposes this is year it was made in. My Honorable mentions go to FRANK, HANNAH ARENDT and CALVARY.
So here goes, this is my Top Ten, in the order I saw them, along with my reasons, excuses and rationalizations for listing them. Keep your eye out for the lists of my fellow AccessReel writers in the coming days.
Spike Jonze’s movie is about a man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who has a relationship with an operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The film is about how we define ourselves in our relationships. And it’s about whether we can consider artificial intelligence to be its own life form. Also it’s about whether we limit our significant others or help them grow as people. HER is a smorgasbord of ideas set in a near-future San Francisco. Beautifully directed, designed and performed, HER is a thoughtful science fiction movie that could get you thinking about stuff. As good as it is, it never asks the question that Ro-Man did in the classic movie ROBOT MONSTER (1953): “To be like the hu-man! To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these things not in the plan?” Why indeed not? See the review here.
In 1977, 25 year-old Robyn Davidson trekked through 1700 miles of Australian desert with no traveling companions except four camels. Her reasons were personal and she had no interest in publicity or making money as part of her journey. Davidson later wrote a best-selling book called TRACKS and this movie is based on that work. Actor Mia Wasikowska creates an impressive portrait of the enigmatic Davidson. TRACKS has some thematic overlap with Reese Witherspoon’s recent feature WILD. Check out the review here.
THE RAID 2: BERENDAL
Welsh director Gareth Evans’ sequel to his 2011 hit THE RAID: REDEMPTION. This Indonesian martial arts flick takes place right after the story of the original film. Iko Iwais again plays officer Rama and this time we follow him into deep cover. Rama goes into prison and works his way into a leading crime family by befriending the son of the big boss. Evans goes large in this sequel. There are more car stunts, locations, actors and violence. However, as before, it’s Evans elegantly designed fight sequences (brilliantly choreographed by Yayan Ruhian) that put THE RAID 2 head and shoulders above other action films. Find yourself a subbed rather than dubbed copy. And watch out for the murderous Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle). Our AccessReel review.
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN
HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is based on the 2006 novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story follows four lives as the Nigerian Civil War descends in 1967. Olanna (Newton) and her twin sister Kainene (Rose) are the central relationship of the story. Their family is wealthy and both the daughters are English educated. They are going to make a mark in Nigerian society. The quartet is rounded out by Olanna’s boyfriend, an academic, Odenigbo (Ejiofor) and his young houseboy Ugwu (Boyega).
Director Biyi Bandele directs a solid adaptation of Adiche’s novel. This UK/Nigerian co-production reveals a specific part of recent history with epic scope, but tells a human-sized tale that has a universal appeal. Our AccessReel review.
UNDER THE SKIN
The science fiction art film we’ve been waiting for. Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed extraterrestrial. She travels through the Scottish countryside, suburbs and city. The Alien is ever watchful as she scans the streets for her next victim. She stops and asks for directions and establishes whether these men are expected anywhere, if they don’t have a family or partner who might miss them, then she offers the man a ride in her van. The suggestion is clear. There could be sex in the offing. Many men get into the van. They are never seen again. It’s LIQUID SKY (1982) for a serious audience. Our AccessReel review.
PREDESTINATION kicks off when an androgynous man (Sarah Snook) enters a bar and bets the barkeep (Ethan Hawke) a bottle of whisky that the story of his life will be the most amazing the barkeep has ever heard. The bet is accepted and we are taken back through a series of vignettes that reveal the strange twists and turns of the adrogynous man’s life. Although it doesn’t look it, this is an Australian directed by the Spierig brothers. It film deals with terrorism, gender identity, love and existential questions. It also has action, crazy gadgets and temporal anomalies. One of my favourite films of the year. A science fiction corker. Our AccessReel review.
KILL THE MESSENGER
KILL THE MESSENGER is a feature film based on the investigative journalism of the late Gary Webb. It is 1996 and Pulitzer Prize winning Webb, picks up the scent of a story. It starts with the arrest of a small-time drug dealer Ronald Quail (Robert Patrick) and then leads up the chain to a Nicaraguan informant called Danilo Blandon. Webb discovers that Blandon has been selling cocaine and arms to Los Angeles gangs, yet he also appears to have protected status with the CIA. Webb investigates and the impact on his professional life is profound. A well-made film that reminds us that no matter what our politicians say, their first duty is to protect their own power. Our AccessReel review.
Scavenger and main chancer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets a lucky break and finds himself negotiating to sell some video to a struggling local station. The news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is impressed with his work. From this point on, Lou has decisions to make about how he can make an impact on this profession. He applies himself to the task of getting the best pictures of the worst crime stories. He is aided in his quest by having very little empathy for others. This dark little flick has a relentless nightmarish quality aided by the gaunt Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance as Lou. Our AccessReel review.
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is set in Austin, Texas, and tells the intersecting stories of a group of parents and their teenage children. The adults feel separated from their kids, the kids mostly ignore their parents and try to make connections with each other on-line. The adults feel disconnected from each other, too. Jason Reitman’s film has been described disparagingly by certain hipster critics as AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999) with cell ‘phones. But if you like that film, then you’ll understand something of the vibe of this one. Connecting with others is difficult and painful. Sometimes avoidance seems preferable. The characters in this movie are screwing up fundamentally and believably. Our AccessReel review.
FINDING VIVIAN MAIER
In 2009, the work of street photographer Vivian Maier began to show up online. The images were scanned from negatives that were in the possession of Chicago collector John Maloof. He came across Maier’s work by chance. He bought some trunks and boxes at a deceased estate sale. When he properly examined what he had bought, he discovered thousands of negatives and hundreds of rolls of undeveloped film, both colour and black and white. This documentary is a discovery of this extraordinary work and also a journey through the hidden life of a photographer whose work is connecting with people now, but who stayed in the shadows for an entire lifetime. Our AccessReel review.