10. Mr Turner
“Ultramarine’s gone up to a guinea a bladder!” cries William “Daddy” Turner. “Gawd, strewth, that brigand’s still robbing us!” responds his son in Covent Garden cockney, who happens to be the famous painter JMW Turner. Any apprehension that Mike Leigh’s biopic of Turner will descend into bloodless, well-mannered heritage cinema are well and truly buried with this exchange
This ripe, gamey dialogue is one of the most obviously impressive aspects of Mr Turner; and it’s backed up with a whole gallery of tremendous performances. Spall’s towering presence in the central role is unquestionably a masterpiece of Dickensian proportions – by turns passionate, mischevious, cerebral and melancholy.
It’s become bit of a cliche to describe Leigh’s films in these terms – what with the exaggerated physical characteristics, the ferocious comic tone, and the unabashed assault on social iniquities – there’s no getting away from it with Mr Turner, which timewise lands smack-dab in Dickens’ middle period. But Leigh’s film rises well above mere pastiche: this is a finely detailed, and wholly alive, portrait of an exceptional human being, rendered with committment and love. You can’t ask for more than that. Andrew Pulver
9. The Lego Movie
Everything is awesome. And forever compromised. The Lego Movie is a $60m (£38m) advert that’s clever, smart and extremely funny. It’s marketing as art, art as commerce, and commerce as fun. It’s also an attack on corporate mono-culture. And a deconstruction of stupid Hollywood. You leave it feeling exhilarated and utterly conflicted. Thrilled by a branded film.
Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is an ordinary block. A construction worker in Bricksburg, he drinks chainstore coffee, watches dumb network comedy and loves the same hit song as everyone else. His life runs to a plan dictated by Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an Orwellian ruler whose desire to keep everyone thinking inside the box has extended to a secret plot to super-glue his subjects in place. The Master Builders – a rebellious cabal of free-thinking creative-types – are too disorganised to get their bricks together. Only Emmet – who bumbles into prophecy after coming into contact with the magical “Piece of Resistance” – can save Bricksburg from a sticky end.
Writer-directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord freak out while they cash in. The Lego Movie is absurd, but its conventional story arc and cookie-cutter leading man serve to highlight the laziness of much Hollywood product. They pissed off Fox News with their “anti-business” message, but the film’s not arguing for anarchy. It’s a wry and edgy satire promoting individuality, responsibility and compassion. A kids’ film that tries to teach the very grown-up message of accepting difference, even difference you can’t agree with.
Emmet learns to break the rules. The Master Builders learn to compromise. Co-operation wins out. Imagination is key. It’s a brand identity that Lego wants to cultivate, even as their actual product becomes uniform and instruction-based. Product placement is a necessary evil in big-budget film-making. Better it’s done frankly and with wit, than slipped in by stealth.
The Lego Movie made $468m at the box office. Its success is great news: who doesn’t want to see clever films do well with a broad audience? Its success is bad news: the market demands the product and a sequel and a spin-off are on the way. Brands have made films before, but rarely have they been made with such pride, love and attention. Who knew sponsored content could be this good? Who knows if we want it to be? Henry Barnes
Some films are so delicate you are afraid they will collapse in the first puff of wind, or disintegrate like a soap bubble. Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida is one such: an achievement so subtle and intangible, it’s hard to understand precisely why it’s so powerful, and why it leaves such a lasting impression. Pawlikowski has described Ida as a “miracle”. He was talking about a luckily timed snowstorm that held up production long enough to allow a rewrite, but the film itself could be considered a kind of miracle.
The bare-bones outline of Ida’s plot, for example, sounds sturdy rather than spectacular, if not unpromising. A young novice nun on the verge of her vows is ordered by her mother superior to visit her only close relative, an aunt. The aunt tells Ida that she was, in fact, born to Jewish parents, who are now dead. The pair then set off on a journey to find out exactly what happened to them. Set in Poland in the early 60s, the story has a piquancy, given the country’s troubled history of its relationship after the second world war with its once-substantial Jewish minority.
It’s how this story is handled that so elevates it. Pawlikowski never dwells on the social or political points: the aunt is a compromised Stalinist lawyer; Poland is in the grip of cold-war communism; and Ida herself is forced into existential self-doubt. Yet these things lie lightly over the film – nothing is hammered home, or pointed up. What is made much of, on the other hand, is Ida’s fervent, devotional watchfulness; she carries the intensity of her faith into an investigation of her own family’s past.
Moreover, the cinematography enhances the sense of spiritual weight. The off-centre framing, in which much of the visual space is given over to blank areas of roof and sky, is more than a stylistic pose – it presses down on Ida, as if it was an extension of her consciousness, an attempt to break out of physical boundaries and limitations. Or God, if you want to look at it that way.
However Pawlikowski arrived at Ida – and by his telling, it was a long, arduous process of honing and tweaking – it is of a piece with his earlier films, the British-set Last Resort and My Summer of Love, and even his 40-minute BBC car-thief docu-drama Twockers. Each also elevate their raw material but Ida grapples with far larger emotional and historical questions.
There’s no doubt that Pawlikowski’s miracle of a film will go down as a landmark of Polish cinema. Next February, it could even carry off best foreign-language Oscar. But in an age when non-Anglophone, thematically ambitious cinema is in retreat, I suspect that it’s already proved the answer to a lot of people’s prayers. AP
7. Two Days, One Night
Hollywood trades in car chases and shoot-outs, worm-holes and tornadoes to distract us from the pure white-knuckle thriller that is everyday life. The cinema is our sanctuary, our palliative. It is where we go to escape the high-stakes horror of the working day or the churning drama of the domestic hearth. There is nothing quite so scary or galvanic as everyday life.
In the Dardenne brothers’ glorious Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillardplays Sandra, a minimum-wage worker, battling depression and facing the axe from her job at the local solar panel plant. The management wants her out and her cash-strapped colleagues have been cynically bought off. If Sandra can persuade a majority of the workforce to forgo their €1,000 bonuses, she may just survive to punch the clock again on Monday. And if she can’t, she’s toast.
The Dardennes make films about hard times and tough choice and Two Days, One Night may well be their most rousing work to date. It is a socialist epic in miniature; a ticking time-bomb thriller in disguise. It is at once intimate and universal, a timely drama with a mythic structure, like a kitchen-sink version of the labours of Hercules. Cotillard’s fragile, faltering heroine comes tottering through pebble-dashed Belgian suburbs, racing the clock and pleading her case. Some of her colleagues refuse to see her and others are just as desperate as she is, working weekend jobs and relying on the bonus to keep their heads above water. “I didn’t vote against you,” one tells her. “I voted for my bonus.”
Except that of course the situation is not as simple as all that. Divide-and-rule management has created a culture of fear and unionised labour is sliding into the past. Sandra’s task is to remind her fellow employees that they are all in the same boat – and that in rescuing her, they at least stand a chance of keeping themselves afloat as well.
In a more conventional picture, Sandra’s fraught odyssey would wind up in one of two places. She’d lose her job or she’d secure the votes. She’d either finish the tale as a tragic victim or as a Belgian Rocky, the plucky little underdog who out-punched her horrible bosses. But everyday life is not just more thrilling and scary than most Hollywood escapism; it tends to be rather more complicated, too. Sandra is labouring to secure the votes and keep her job. But the odds are stacked against her and the game may well be rigged. The one chance she has is to play by a different set of rules.
Sandra’s initial self-interest, then, is born out of necessity, just as her co-workers grabbed their bonuses to avoid sliding more deeply into debt. But with each house that she visits, the woman grows in moral stature. She encounters the best of humanity as well as the worst. She rediscovers her strength and stitches herself back into the world. And this, I suspect, is the real message of the film. Soul-stirring and humane, Two Days, One Night assures us that the journey is what matters and that the fight is always worth it. And that even if Sandra loses, she has already won. Xan Brooks
6. 12 Years a Slave
In the year since Steve McQueen’s movie 12 Years A Slave won its Academy Award, it’s fair to say that not merely has there been no great advance in race politics in the United States — but that things have got worse. Grand juries have caused outcry by refusing to indict white police officers for the death of black men in different cases and attitudes to the first black President in US history appear to have hardened into a resentment and disappointment from two political wings of public and media opinion. Meanwhile, Anti Slavery International estimates a global slavery figure of 21 million people currently in forced labour and trafficked into prostitution.
In my original review, I also noted the subversive line taken by the anti-corporate campaigners, the Yes Men, who gatecrash conferences to proclaim that, even without coercion, globalisation works out cheaper than slavery because you don’t have the overheads of paying for food, lodgings, chains etc.
Despite or because of this marginally grimmer context, McQueen’s movie looks more vital and in its way more modern at the end of the year. This is because of the way its protagonist, Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor is actually trafficked in precisely the way that vulnerable women are in the 21stcentury. He is befriended, effectively groomed, wined and dined, seduced by a sinister liaison or point man in the big city who vanishes from the prisoner’s life to be replaced by the brutal slavemaster once he is taken across borders and the shackles snapped on.
Looked at again now, what emerges yet again is the poigant, and yet desolate and dishonourable way that the master Epps (fiercely played by Michael Fassbender) experiences the agonies of love, or at any rate emotional cupidity for Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o. This feeling does not ennoble him: it is not experienced by him, or presented to us, in an ethical way. It is the natural result of one human being being in contact with another. The point is that Epps does not think of Patsey as human: he thinks of her with the kind of extravagant enthusiasm he might have for a prize racehorse. And he therefore cannot understand or come to terms with his emotions, with resulting tribal loyalty-crisis and the backlash of self-hate.
Steve McQueen single-handedly restored Solomon Northrup’s autobiography to the canon of American history with his movie, and broke the silence about the everyday world of unabolished slavery in antebellum America. It is a film of rare power. Peter Bradshaw
Past the oil pumps and billboards, up through the hills and out in the suburbs, you’ll find Lou Bloom, camera in hand, filming LA’s dying for profit. Lou is a modern-day success story. A TV newsman racing through the night to get the gore first. Come the morning his footage is on breakfast news. Pixelated, occasionally, for decency’s sake.
Nightcrawler, screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s first film as director, is a scouring satire of the media and the state of the job market. Lou is played with terrifying precision by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s a product of desperate times: a wild animal with an appetite. And his next meal – a car crash, a stabbing, a shooting – is never far away. There’s no morality in Lou’s world, just what’s to gain and what he needs to do to get it.
Lou isn’t looking for handouts, which is good, because there aren’t any. Gilroy shows us a world where opportunity is scarce and guru culture is on the rise. Lou recites swaths of self-help truisms to potential employers. He calls himself head of “Video News Productions”, hires a deputy (Riz Ahmed) and sets up a two-man corporate structure. Here’s Lou: a mogul in the making, CEO of a car and a crappy video camera. The film’s UK marketing team took the next logical step. They set “Lou Bloom” up with a real-world LinkedIn and Twitter account (since left untended and then deleted – very un-Lou that).
The film recalls the best of the 70s satires in that its political engagement never gets in the way of the ride. It’s disturbing, but funny. Provocative, but cool. A scene between Lou’s station head, Nina (Rene Russo), and the studio’s legal counsel sets the film’s case. “Can we show this?,” asks Nina, staring at footage of a triple murder crime scene that Lou broke into. “Legally?”, asks the suit. “No … morally”, she drawls.
Out in LA Nightcrawler makes news. Gyllenhaal is being tipped for the best actor Oscar, Gilroy should snare an original screenplay nomination at least. The performances are fantastic, the film’s politics spot-on, but weeks after Nightcrawler’s over, it’s still Lou’s sickly charm that sticks in my head. Nightcrawler was the most purely enjoyable film of 2014. I can’t help but feel guilty writing that.
Lou spins the wheel, stamps on the accelerator. There’s blood in the road and money to be made from it. It’s a shameful business. Go Lou, go! HB
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
If he had wings like Noah’s dove, Llewyn Davis might be able to rise above his troubles and achieve a heavenly state of success and fulfilment. But the winter chill is in his bones and his frantic flapping has come to nothing. Now Llewyn is sliding south at speed, rattling from Morningside Heights to the West Village, with no money in his pockets and the Gorfein’s cat wriggling against his chest. The schoolboys are amused to see the man in disarray. They flash conspiratorial smiles aboard the downtown train.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a gorgeous dying fall of a movie, perfectly crafted by the Coen brothers and spotlighting the foot-soldiers and also-rans of the burgeoning early-60s folk scene. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is the not-quite-Dylan who kicks hard against the genre’s straight-edge, Aran-sweatered mainstream, variously causing consternation and bemusement among those around him. Llewyn is gifted and impassioned, and therefore deserving of victory. And yet, crucially, Isaac’s sombre, scratchy performance never asks for our sympathy. Unsung heroes, the film suggests, are sometimes hard to warm to properly. Llewyn knows that he’s good and despises the world for not noticing. And naturally, this only serves to compound his bristling sense of injustice and frustration.
Let’s take it as read that Llewyn is good. His voice is strong and his songs are sound. But is that enough? More specifically, might he actually need to be brilliant to achieve what he desires? All around him, his low-aiming rivals are content to make a decent living with sappy, old-school harmonies and bubblegum pop ditties. Llewyn, to his credit, aspires to something richer, something deeper, something radical that will break the mould and point the way to the future. He appears destined to fall a whisker short of his goal.
Once, not so long ago, Llewyn Davis had a partner, but now he’s flying solo. In the meantime, the opportunities keep swirling about his head like snowflakes. He snatches desperately at a pay cheque at the expense of a lucrative royalty deal, while a make-or-break trip to Chicago runs aground in the slush. “Everything you touch turns to shit,” Carey Mulligan’s sometime lover rails at him. “You’re like King Midas’s idiot brother.”
In setting out to spin this heart-piercing tale of New York artists, the Coens took their inspiration from the footnotes of history, from the life of Dave Van Ronk, who sputtered fitfully in the shadow of Bob Dylan. It’s tender, clear-sighted and gloriously, mordantly funny; a rousing salute to the sort of noble failure most other film-makers wouldn’t touch with a bargepole.
Llewyn, we come to realise, is not alone in his trials. Along the way, he runs across a splenetic dying jazz musician (John Goodman in thunderous form) and a kindred spirit (Adam Driver) who stashes his unsold records beneath the coffee table of his cheap apartment. Presumably there are hundreds of others out there in the woods – talented types who set out on the path with high ideals, only to find their bellies grumbling and their legs growing weary. These people are the norm; they are the heroes we relate to. Stardom is the stuff that dreams are made of. Half-chances and near-misses are the stuff of life. XB
Has 2014 given us any more full-blooded a film than Leviathan? Even the best of the rest feel watery lined up beside the 70% proof sucker-punch of this. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s contemporary Russian epic is a one-stop shop for those in search of love, sex, adultery, an exploration of the role of the man in the state, of faith and freedom, institutional corruption and insidious patriotism. And a lot of vodka.
The story, given the whopping sources (The Book of Job, the work of Thomas Hobbes, etc) is actually quite a lean beast: Nikolay (Aleksei Serebryakov) lives with his second wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova from Zvyagintsev’s Elena), and moody teenage son in a modest villa overlooking a lake. It was built by his ancestors, on a site coveted by the local mayor, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev), who wants to slap his own grotesque palace there instead. Roma fixes the court, and the family face eviction, eased by derisory compensation. Nikolay enlists the help of an old school friend, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a hot-shot lawyer in Moscow. So sets the stage for a battle which, if you’re familiar with Job’s lot, was never likely to deliver the happiest of endings.
Leviathan hooks you from the outset. It’s scripted with the grip and precision of everything you hope an HBO box set will be (but frequently isn’t). You’re as helpless to resist watching to its conclusion as Nikolay is to fight back while held in a noose of Russian red tape.
It’s also – crucially – very, very funny, mostly on account of the high alcohol content. An early showdown with the mayor, all parties absolutely tanked, can’t help but be humorous – despite the devastation. Likewise, the picnic scene, in which villagers, wives and children all drive to a lake, get plastered and start doing target practice with portraits of former presidents, is fantastic slurring stuff, for all the looming drama.
Yet it is the cumulative power of the plot that hits the hardest. You’re left reeling at its ballsiness. This is a ferocious polemic against the Kremlin, a blistering and brave attack that couldn’t help but get the movie labelled a hot potato – as well as a stone-cold masterpiece. At Cannes, the film-makers said 35% of the budget was stumped up by Russia’s ministry of culture, who were ominously unhappy with the final product. It then had to be substantially bowdlerised to secure the chance of release in Russia. And then the oddest twist: the country would, after all, be nominating it as their candidate for the best foreign language film at the 2015 Oscars. Had they had a change of heart? Had they lost their minds?
The separate saga of its strange, blatant bravery has somewhat obscured the stand-alone excellence of Leviathan. It is not only for those with an interest in the suppression of the individual by the state; it is as universal as The Book of Job. It will move anyone who’s encountered corruption, whose considered having or losing faith. It is as an essential – and restorative – a piece of cinema as one could ever hope to see. Catherine Shoard
With so many movies contriving to be dumb, formulaic and yet messily over-complicated, the pure simplicity and clarity of Richard Linklater’s masterly Boyhood makes a glorious change. It is a marvel, particularly its refusal to bend itself into any traditional screenplay-seminar narrative structure. Like life, like old man river, it just keeps rolling along.
The central conceit was endlessly and excitedly compared by critics to lots of different things when it arrived – largely Michael Apted’s 7-Up series and François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies – but the remarkable thing was that it really hadn’t been done before. The nearest attempt was probably Michael Winterbottom’s honourable attempt in his film Everyday. (Watching Boyhood again, I found myself thinking of Roger Livesey transforming himself from young blade to old buffer in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.)
Linklater took a child, Ellar Coltrane, and filmed him playing a kid called Mason in various naturalistic settings and situations for a few weeks every year for 12 years. He then stitched together the result: a devastatingly plausible biography of a real person. Before our eyes, the child became a man in a movie time lapse. The movie was loose and open-ended because that was how it had to be. The filming procedure was like life. Actually, it was life. How incredible to have a repertory cast of actors ready to commit, like family, to such a project over such a length of time.
It is impossible to watch this movie and not be moved and awestruck by an obvious truth: grownups were once children. The adults and the kids we see in movies, or outside in the streets, in real life – they are not separate races or tribes. They are the same. Ethan Hawke, playing the dad – he used to be a kid. Patricia Arquette, so wonderful as the mom – she used to be a kid. And Lorelei Linklater, equally wonderful as Mason’s sister: she is, then was a kid. She, too, demonstrates a real-time growing up.
And there is another simple, powerful truth that Boyhood demonstrates, one that I can’t remember seeing expressed with such force in any other film, or indeed any novel or play. And it is simply that life is terrifyingly short. It really is over in an instant. Watching this film as a parent is almost unbearably sad, especially when Patricia Arquette’s mom bids farewell to Mason as he heads off to college, cheerfully unconcerned about his parents’ empty-nest anguish. (She says the next event in their lives will be her funeral.)
Boyhood is a film that inspires love. There can hardly be anything more worthwhile than that. PB
1. Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a film about a beautiful, scary alien that is itself beautiful and scary and alien: it’s an entirely extraordinary, outrageously sensual film that Glazer’s previous excellent work had really only hinted at, partially and indistinctly. His Sexy Beast (2000) was a visually accomplished, exciting and intelligent crime thriller that was way ahead of the woeful mockney-geezer mode of the time. Birth (2004) had Kubrickian ingenuity and chill, with some remarkable moments; it was a movie that deserves cult-classic status but has yet to achieve it. Then a decade went by, and it seemed that Glazer might be a stylist for whom a sustained cinema career would perhaps not be achievable (and heaven knows, it can happen to the most talented).
But when he gave us his long-gestating free adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel Under the Skin, the result really was gasp-inducing: hilarious, disturbing, audacious. No less an A-lister than Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form who roams the streets and shopping malls of Glasgow. Perfectly genuine footage of real-life passersby is shown as the incognito Johansson impassively sizes up these earthlings for their calorific value. Then actors will step out of the crowd for their scenes with the great seducer. She takes them back to her place: a mysterious dark cavern in which, in an erotic trance, they submit to being imprisoned and farmed for their meat – and perhaps, who knows, for their very soul.
Glazer surely took something, again, from Kubrick, especially in the scene in which his alien is born in some dimensionless otherworld. He took something from Nic Roeg and The Man Who Fell to Earth and a little, perhaps, from David Lynch – of which, more in a moment. But alongside the sci-fi exoticism he brought the grit and sinew of contemporary realism, calling to mind the work of film-makers like Ken Loach, or even Abbas Kiarostami and the opening of his The Taste of Cherry, in which a desperately unhappy man drives around the itinerant labour markets of Teheran looking for someone to help him. These fantastic alien forms are scuffed with ordinariness and even bathos. The scene in which the alien uncomprehendingly watches Tommy Cooper on television is a masterpiece of tonal suspense.
Watching Under the Skin again brought to mind another comparison: Orson Welles – the Welles who succeeded in creating a hoax martian invasion on the radio and who, in F for Fake (1975), got his partner Oja Kodar to walk around the streets in a miniskirt, secretly filming the lascivious expressions of the non-actor guys looking at her.
The most staggering scene is, of course, that in which the alien picks up a young man with the facial condition neurofibromatosis, played by Adam Pearson. Glazer brings to this scene an utter fearlessness and unsentimentality, perhaps a variation on a theme from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. The alien does not essentially distinguish between his looks and those of her other victims, but her encounter with him – an encounter of two aliens? – triggers a crisis in which she becomes the prey rather than the hunter.
Under the Skin is just so visually free and uninhibited that there is an intense dark, destructive sexiness in everything about it – quite apart from the hilarious, bizarre, mesmeric eroticism of the film itself. It is a work of subcutaneous potency. It gets under your skin. PB
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