Review Of 2014: The Top 40 Movies Of 2014

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Few notes here. If you want to cut straight to the list then skip to the jump.

Here we are again. After dissecting the year from every angle I could think of, my biggest ever review of the year comes to an end with my fifth annual top 40 films of the year. A reminder if you’ve not yet got around to reading any of my previous top 40s (links at the bottom if you’ve got the stamina after this one), but I do top 40s for two reasons: as a reminder of the excitement of listening to the chart countdown at Christmas when I was but a wee nipper, and because I see enough films in a year that anything in the top 40 is a recommendation as I have scored it 8/10 or higher. This year, only the top six were worthy of the full 10/10, the joint lowest since I started this blog.

First up, the rest of the usual stats. This year, I saw 180 films for the first time in a cinema this year, of which 28 were re-releases or festival films not released for the first time this year. Total pedants such as myself would probably be keen to know that I count Nymphomaniac as two films for these purposes. I also saw Back To The Future in a cinema, which is not only an old film but I also saw it in 2010 on its last re-release. That leaves 152 brand spanking new’uns I saw in the cinema, and this year I set a new record of also seeing 15 new releases at home, for a grand total of 167 films. Consequently, what you see here is about the top quartile of what I’ve watched in 2014. (I also used Netflix to watch the first twenty minutes or so of another half a dozen, including Bastards and Venus In Fur, but as none of them suggested they’d crack this list on a brief viewing I will watch them to completion at my leisure in 2015.)

I agonised this year about whether or not to go for a top 50 rather than a top 40, given that I’d seen more films at around the four star mark than ever before. But, a tradition is a tradition, and so just for the record the unlucky ten to lose out, in alphabetical order, were ’71, Alleluia, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ilo Ilo, Kajaki: The True Story, Lilting, Omar, The Guest, Timbuktu and Tim’s Vermeer. I would still recommend any of these if you’ve not seen them, and hopefully if you’ve liked one or more of these then that should suggest it’s worth exploring my top 40 in more detail.

As always, despite seeing 167 films there were plenty I would have seen had the opportunity presented itself. At the top of that list would be The Overnighters, A Touch Of Sin, Obvious Child, Tony Benn: Will And Testament, Tom At The Farm, The Rocket, In Bloom, Still The Enemy Within and Goodbye To Language. For a full list of what I’d like to have seen if time and money had allowed, you’ll find one here. You might be expecting to see Citizenfour, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Leviathan, The Wind Rises, Pride, Two Days One Night, What We Do In The Shadows, Interstellar or Only Lovers Left Alive, and while I loved them all in part or in whole, just not quite enough to crack my top 50, and I’ll happily go into more detail on any omissions in the comments.

Finally in pre(r)amble I’d like to just add some thank yous. Thank you to both Toby and Bums On Seats and also to Rosy, Edd, Jim and the gang at Take One for allowing me to take part in what you’ve done this year, and hopefully you’ll have me back again. To the host of people who’ve stopped and chatted who I run into regularly, many of whom I listed at the end of the Cambridge Film Festival, thank you for making my year in darkened rooms that much more social. Finally, I’d like to say a big thank you to the staff of every single cinema that I attended in seeing those 180 films, as I’ve not had a truly bad experience in any of them this year. In no particular order, that includes the Abbeygate Cinema, the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Saffron Screen, Cinema City in Norwich, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the BFI Southbank, the Prince Charles Cinema, the Curzon Soho, Vue cinemas in Cambridge and the West End, and last but by no means least, Cineworlds in Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, Huntingdon, Ipswich, Stevenage, St. Helens and Didsbury, as I pump my Unlimited Premium card for every last ounce of value.

Here then are the 40 that made the cut, my favourites of the year. Click on the link in the title to discover what I wrote earlier in the year on any films where I did. I hope if you’ve not managed to catch all of these that something tempts your fancy in what follows. Bear in mind that this list is the same as every other list you’ve read in the past month: a matter of opinion, not fact, so don’t tell me I’m wrong – there is no such thing, it’s all just a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously – but do try to suggest films I might have missed.

40. Starred Up

Starred Up

The idea of a British prison drama doesn’t sound the most appealing, given that British ability to weave grimness into the most innocent of subjects. It’s also fair to say that nothing in director David Mackenzie’s back catalogue is hugely inspiring, a solid body of work rather than any stand out films. But in his study of a father-son relationship brought into sharp focus in the cauldron of a prison wing, Mackenzie (working from a script by debutant Jonathan Asser) has produced a taut and focused film that makes the most of the confined setting. The strong casting helps, with Ben Mendelsohn showing defiance and restraint to counterbalance Jack O’Connell’s wiry unpredictability.

39. X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men Days Of Future Past

It feels as if Bryan Singer should be returning to the X-Men series with his tail between his legs; after delivering a solid origin film and following it up with one of the finest superhero tales yet told on film, he deserted the trilogy closer for a mediocre Superman film and the series was treading water until Matthew Vaughn put a spark back in with his First Class prequel. But Singer sets about redeeming himself with a combination of memorable set pieces and a combined cast doing their best to get you to overlook the fact that they look nothing like each other, and puts the energy and the vitality back in a set of films that had become sadly underpowered for a set of mutants. Unafraid to tamper with its own history or ours, X-Men Apocalypse has now become something to look forward to rather than to dread.

38. The LEGO Movie

The LEGO Movie

How easily we all withdrew our cynicism when a movie based on the world’s best selling toy line proved to be joyous and not in the slightest concerned with selling toys (which it probably did by the hatful anyway). Phil Lord and Chris Miller are proving very much the cinematic alchemists, having taken a children’s book with no plot (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs), an unloved and forgotten TV series (21 Jump Street) and even then taken that surprising film and remade it almost as the same film (22 Jump Street) and come out covered in glowing recommendations every time. The LEGO Movie channels the enthusiasm of its star in the making Chris Pratt and even makes a virtue of the year’s most annoying earworm.

37. The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro)

The Golden Dream

Given how many column inches get devoted to the immigration debate in this country over the last year, The Golden Dream is the ideal film to generate some balanced debate on the topic. Following three young immigrants on their desperate struggle to escape their dead end life in Guatemala as they try to navigate their way across Mexico and into the United States. Writer / director Diego Quemada-Diez is realistic about the hardships and doesn’t sugar coat the challenges, but also weaves in occasional moments of lyrical beauty and makes full use of some stunning landscapes.

36. Next Goal Wins

Next Goal Wins

They call it the beautiful game, but it must be hard to think like that when you’re officially the worst team in the world. Sensing kindred spirits in some potentially plucky underdogs, Brits Mike Brett and Steve Jamison track the fortunes of the national team from American Samoa as their new Dutch coach Thomas Rongen attempts to get the team playing with some principles and application to back up their commitment. The story is given added layers with the story of squad member Jaiyah, who has the third Samoan gender fa’afafine and who is trying to become the first person of non-male gender to play in a FIFA match. A film about small but meaningful victories and the power of teamwork.

35. The Lunchbox (Dabba)

The Lunchbox

It’s impossible to think about Indian cinema without thinking of the glorious theatricality and splendour of Bollywood, and if The Lunchbox isn’t a reaction to the heightened state of emotion that can accompany India’s mainstream cinema, then it is a perfectly judged counterpoint. It has a marketable lead in Irfaan Khan, known to both local and Western audiences, but Nimrat Kaur is no slouch in the acting department either. It has fun with some of the supporting characters, including Khan’s well-meaning apprentice and Kaur’s offscreen aunt, but the central relationship is tender and special.

34. Ida

ida---3

It’s been pleasing to hear of Pawel Pawlikowski’s intimate film playing well to a lot of local audiences, not to mention being a regular feature on end of year lists. I’ll confess to not being a particular fan of his previous film, The Woman In The Fifth, but here he takes a simple idea and draws out of it complex character work and varying shades of human fragility. In a year when films such as Noah and Exodus: Gods And Kings put the religious epic back in vogue but put the religion somewhat in the background, Ida mixes ideas of faith and belief with other personal themes to great effect and its honesty and directness is both satisfying and occasionally shocking. The best black and white road movie with a nun I can think of, and if that’s not a recommendation I don’t know what is.

33. The Past (Le passé)

The Past

At some point in the past ten years I’ve evolved from being “bloke who watches blockbusters at the cinemas and reads Empire” to “bloke who watches just about everything at the cinema and has liquid film in his veins”. One of the greater pleasures of that transition has been finding particular directors whose work resonates with me, and having seen four of Asghar Farhadi’s films in the past few years I feel I’ve not only gained a greater insight into Iranian life and culture but also watched someone who’s an absolute master of character and situation. Despite a change of location and a more international cast, Farhadi’s touch with his actors and the deftness of his scripting remain intact in a film that’s as insightful in modern relationships as any of his previous films, if not carrying quite the same dramatic impact.

32. Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac)

Stranger By The Lake

For some reason, despite the fact that every single one of us is in possession of genitalia, the presence of them on screen can make both the audience and the film just a shade too self conscious; maybe that, maybe it’s that I’m about to turn forty-one and still can’t avoid smirking at the mildest innuendo, never mind the sight of naked flesh on screen bringing out my prudish middle-class tendencies. Stranger By The Lake avoids these pitfalls and without being lurid or tawdry, uses the sexually charged environment to create something dangerous and thrilling. The central act of violence remains one of the year’s most shocking moments, but Alain Guiraduie’s film still has plenty up its sleeve once this has passed.

31. Violet

Violet

One of a handful of films I saw at the Cambridge Film Festival this year that are still awaiting wider distribution but deserve to earn it, this is a story of a young man attempting to deal with the violent death of a friend while friends and family around him work through their own grief with him as a conduit to their own feelings. What could potentially be gimmicky, in that the majority of the film is constructed from locked off (and not always expected) camera angles actually serves the story well, as it retains intimacy with the characters while also feeding the sense of distance that they’re unable to bridge between each other. I look forward to seeing what writer-director Bas Devos brings us next.

30. The Double

The Double

I tried to go into The Double with slightly lower expectations than I had for Richard Ayoade’s debut film Submarine, which had one of the best trailers of recent years but wore its influences more heavily than the likes of Wes Anderson. In doing so I enjoyed The Double slightly more: it’s got a top-notch cast all round, and Jesse Eisenberg in particular excels in his dual role, but if anything the fact that The Double’s spin on Dostoyevsky is a highly stylised world of bureaucracy and oppression that is better served by Ayoade’s influences and excesses. It’s bleaky comic and unafraid to explore darker recesses, and any film that give screen time to the likes of Wallace Shawn and Chris Morris is always likely to get me to put my hand into my pocket.

29. The Skeleton Twins

The Skeleton Twins

The combination of former Saturday Night Live cast members Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig might initially suggest something zany and inconsequential, but both feel ideally suited to the roles of depressive, estranged twins attempting to assess where their lives have gone wrong but unable to move on from the errors of their past. Director Craig Johnson allowed his cast, which also includes Luke Wilson and Ty Burell, to improvise around his script and the result is refreshingly honest and at times painfully heartfelt. The Skeleton Twins still manages to interweave moments of levity without compromising on the emotion, and after her straight comedy successes in the likes of Bridesmaids it’s great to see Kristen Wiig excelling at a film nearer the dramatic end of the spectrum.

28. Night Moves

Night Moves

I love audience reactions, but I’ve never heard such consternation from an audience as I heard at the end of Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, Meek’s Cutoff, which has one of the most ambiguous endings I’ve ever seen. What that overlooks was the skilful combination of quiet mood and palpable terror that Reichardt had conjured, and that’s in evidence to an even greater extent in this masterful thriller which is propelled by character and given greater tension by human foibles and carelessness. The three leads (Eisenberg again, as well as Dakota Fanning and Peter Saarsgard) are all excellent, both before the attack on a dam that they’ve conspired to produce and after it while the results of their actions spiral the film into a different beast altogether.

27. We Are The Best! (Vi är bäst!)

We Are The Best

The face of punk has probably never looked as adorably cute as the self-unstyled “girl band” of Lukas Moodysson’s Eighties throwback. It was actually based on a graphic novel written by Moodysson’s wife Coco, and the film captures the anarchic spirit embodied in three very believable teenagers. It flirts with convention, but isn’t really interested in it; the girls have only a modicum of talent and the final stretch, where the girls should be giving their first triumphant and defiant public performance, turns out to be anything but that. It’s all in keeping with the same delirious spirit, and the time we spend in the company of Bobo, Klara and Hedvig feels almost shamefully brief. I don’t feel the need to see it, but I’d love to believe that the three of them are still angrily touring working men’s clubs, sticking their middle fingers up at authority and just having a laugh thirty years on.

26. Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin

If you’ve ever wondered how you’d fare if you woke up in a serial killer movie or a dangerous thriller, then Blue Ruin might just have the answer. Jeremy Saulnier’s unconventional revenge drama sees Macon Blair bumbling intentionally into dangerous situations and generally scraping out of them with the skin of his teeth barely intact. It’s almost obtuse in its refusal to adhere to genre convention, but it’s still unashamedly violent and consistently crowd-pleasing. It rattles past in just ninety minutes, but only needs that long to leave an indelible impression.

25. Godzilla

Godzilla

I’d be a fool to deny that Godzilla has faults. Thankfully the lessons of the past were learned and Godzilla’s not one of them, with the truly impressive monster having a sense of true weight and scale unlike almost anything seen in this era of CGI embellishments. You also can’t fault the casting, with Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche in particular making the most of their slice of screen time. Finally in the positives column is Gareth Edwards’ direction, and having cut his directing teeth on Monsters of his own making he conjures up a succession of scenes that put both the characters and the audience at the heart of the drama. But the film is a roaring success (sorry) despite neglecting many of its supporting players and also making Aaron Taylor-Johnson the most conveniently unlucky man in film history.

24. The Distance (La distancia)

The Distance

I love to look at the world differently, and find pleasure in the quirky, the oddball and the bizarre. That would go some way to explaining why I found so much pleasure in another Cambridge Film Festival screening of Sergio Caballero’s film, which is a loose reworking of Andrei Tarkovksy’s Stalker but with telepathic dwarves and talking inanimate objects. It’s a dry, casual surrealism that feels whimsical, but Caballero still manages to create dramatic tension by not neglecting his narrative through line. Given that it’s taken inspiration from another work, there’s still more invention on display here than half a dozen average Hollywood blockbusters.

23. 20,000 Days on Earth

20000 Days On Earth

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to listen to more music: the total of albums and singles that I purchased in 2014 sits at a pitiful one each. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to The Bad Seeds’ back catalogue on the basis of this, but that didn’t stop Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s documentary from being any less weirdly compelling. Ostensibly a day in the life of a minor rock star, what you actually get is a thorough insight into creative process, coupled with Nick Cave driving around Brighton with assorted other famouses in his car and a host of other similar tangents. Cave worked with Forsyth and Pollard to compile the film and it’s a rock doc that’s long on personality and humanising of its subject, for better and for worse.

22. Calvary

Calvary

John Michael McDonagh’s follow up to The Guard mirrored the earlier film with a magnetic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson and absolutely no threshold of being inappropriate when opening its mouth, but this time rather than the hilariously dark comedy it took a more serious look at the nature of faith and religion with a focus on the sins of the church and themes of right, wrong and mass culpability. It might have more dramatic weight but it crackles with intensity as Gleeson’s priest spends the week after receiving a death threat exploring his own conscience in a series of two handers. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for McDonagh and Gleeson just to see what other genres they could explore every couple of years.

21. How to Train Your Dragon 2

How To Train Your Dragon 2

This sequel to the first solid but unspectacular How To Train Your Dragon suggested that a dreary future of increasingly pointless dragon training montages lie ahead of us for years to come. If they all up their game like this sequel you’ll hear nothing but praise from me, as this took what worked in the original – largely the touching relationship between Toothless and Jay Baruchel’s Berk – and magnified it, while resolving most of the problems that lay around it. The supporting characters are now better defined, there was a real sense of awe from many of the flying sequences and the stakes were upped considerably, but never in a way that felt sequel cheap. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the end, if the seat I was sat on was any measure.

20. Of Horses And Men (Hross í oss)

Of Horses And Men

This dark, dark comedy of relationships, society and men coming a cropper on horses might be short, but it’s certainly not sweet; a more twisted sensibility’s on display here as Iceland takes a look at itself in the reflection of the eyes of a variety of horses, and quite often ends up being dragged away in a coffin as a result. More a collection of loosely connected episodes than a traditional narrative, it still weaves an engaging portrayal of life in the Icelandic wilds. It also makes use of the stunning Icelandic scenery popularised from Interstellar, Oblivion and Game Of Thrones, but this time as the country itself, and the panoramas add an epic scope to an otherwise intimate film.

19. Cherry Tobacco (Kirsitubakas)

Cherry Tobacco

You guessed it, you probably haven’t heard of it so it must be another film I saw at the Cambridge Film Festival. The festival has tapped into Estonian cinema very effectively a couple of times in recent years, and this was one of the best examples yet. It’s one of the most natural and honest stories of the awkwardness of adolescence and the first tentative steps into a relationship I think I’ve ever seen. As well as being gently and humorously performed, it also has some clever structural moments and reflections and it doesn’t aim for pat resolutions. If there’s ever an English language remake, can I nominate Matt King (Super Hans from Peep Show) to play the guy with the pipe?

18. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler

Sometimes a film can become so dominated by a single performance that it becomes unbalanced, and Nightcrawler veers dangerously close to that on occasion. It is, however, testament to the strength of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance and while he’s built a consistent career this might just be the one everyone remembers ten years hence. Rene Russo offers what she can in bullish support, but this is about Gyllenhaal from start to finish and his mission to burn himself into your brain permanently via your retinas should be considered a rousing success. The satire on the news media may not be quite as strong as the character study, but wow, what a character study.

17. Mr. Turner

2014, MR. TURNER

One of the year’s biggest treats turned out to be speculating on just what combination of grunts, groans and general exhalations that Timothy Spall could come out with next, as his impressionistic Mr Turner made short work of dealing with high society. John Turner is portrayed as an artist first and foremost, talented rather than genius and benefiting of hard work and the keenest of eyes. His relationships with women are rarely more than dysfunctional but remain varied and keep your interest, and Leigh’s usual improvisational techniques never feel overstretched at two and a half hours despite not quite having enough plot to go the full distance.

16. The Raid 2

The Raid 2

There’s always a pressure on sequels to up the stakes rather than just repeating the winning notes of the first film, and The Raid 2 is bigger in every way imaginable. Rather than a confined building setting on a single day, it sprawls across a gangland struggle for power across a city over a period of several years. The non-action sequences are serviceable rather than memorable, but Gareth Evans invests them with just enough intrigue to fill out the action. But it’s the action sequences that are off the chart, from hundred man prison brawls to a fist fight inside a car chase, and the camera work breathtakingly explores every corner of the action as Evans pushes every one of his technical teams to the limit. I felt with the original that variety had begun to elude the film by the final fight, but that’s not a criticism to be applied here.

15. Winter Sleep (Kis uykusu)

Winter Sleep

Another Turkish rural epic from director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but his remarkable use of the Turkish countryside gives his film an almost alien feel (a note to directors there that it’s not just Iceland that feels like it’s been plucked from the surface of another world). To sustain the three hour plus running time, Ceylan once again has a library of memorable characters and if this doesn’t quite have the relaxed levity of his last film (Once Upon A Time In Anatolia) then it’s got intensity by the bucketload and sustains beautifully right to the final scenes. I’ve already commended the acting in another of my year end round-ups, but I’ll do so once more here.

14. Exhibition

Exhibition

There really wasn’t a lot of love about outside of critics for Joanna Hogg’s latest, so if that bundles me in with more serious film criticism it’s a cross I’m willing to bear. I’m not sure why it was so unloved, possibly the trailer selling an appearance by Tom Hiddleston which turns out to me no more than a functional cameo raises expectations unfairly. But aside from Loki in a suit, Hogg’s look into the modern state of distant relationships said more than most other romantic comedies or dramas I’d care to mention, and did it in a visually arresting way largely within the confines of one of the most eccentric houses I’ve ever seen. I should add that I’d love to live in it, as long as someone could disassemble it and relocate it to my village. For free.

13. Paddington

Paddington

The creepy Paddington meme seems a very long time ago now, as the last couple of months have seen everyone utterly charmed by the bear who seems to have mislaid Marmalade Lovers Anonymous’ phone number. Perfectly capturing the tone and spirit of the characters without slavishly recreating and creating a jeopardy plot that walks the fine line between overdoing it and not having enough jeopardy, this has a delightful British eccentricity and charmed adults and children alike at the screening I attended. It is unfortunate that a film that’s being lauded for being a positive role model on immigration and ethnicity has more speaking bear characters than speaking non-white human characters, but maybe the inevitable sequel can redress that balance.

12. Life Itself

Life Itself

I’m always fascinated to look at the end of year box office performance statistics to see if films received the right amount of audience love, and once again there’s a raging disparity between films of quality. At the very top of the pile in the UK this year is The LEGO Movie with over $56 million, and sat in the middle are the likes of Calvary with $5 million, before you get down to Blue Ruin at $500,000 and The Golden Dream at $50,000. Criminally, Life Itself managed to scrape in only $5,191 from its limited UK release, and this inspiring story of the world’s foremost exponent of movie evangelism (and thus an inspiration to many more years of this blog, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to hear) deserves to me much more widely seen. If there’s one film I’d suggest you tick off from this top 40, on the basis that less of my readership will have seen this than the other 39, then please take my one thumb resolutely up as a strong recommendation.

11. The Babadook

The Babadook

When you watch horror movies at a horror film festival, you don’t expect the hardened audience to actually scream, but this Australian mind torturer proved it had the horror genre absolutely nailed. It’s not only deeply effective and affecting psychological horror, but it gets into the difficult mother-son relationship (a revelatory Essie Davis and Shining-alike newcomer Noah Wiseman) and never compromises that for the sake of the horror elements, or vice versa. The Babadook itself is one of the most creepily effective horror creations in years, and I really hope that this isn’t a one-off from Jennifer Kent as she would seem to be an absolute star find.

10. Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg)

Stations Of The Cross

For all the aforementioned films that have explored themes of religion this year, the one that did so most effectively this year was this German film which tracks the increasingly frantic childhood of Maria (Lea Van Acken) as she struggles to reconcile the reality of modern society with the religious beliefs of her overbearing mother. It’s a film that deeply understands the effect of organised religion on the human mind yet never sits in judgement on those with belief, leaving the audience to make their own minds up. It’s also another film with a camera gimmick – of the fourteen scenes, only three have a camera move of any kind and those no more than a simple pan or track – but the depth of field that director Dietrich Brüggemann generates in his static tableaux makes you wonder why anyone even bothers with 3D any more. A deeply affecting tragedy that retains its power even as it moves inexorably towards its climax.

9. Under the Skin

Under The Skin

I saw Under The Skin just before it managed to escape cinemas, and I wasn’t even sure it was the best film I’d seen that day (part of one of my trademark triple bills with 20 Feet From Stardom and The Double). Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months. I would still maintain, and this is with the benefit of only a single viewing, that the end is a slight letdown as it avoids the unexpected that the rest of the film has traded in so successfully, but quite where director Jonathan Glazer pulled this out from is anyone’s guess. It’s a novel adaptation so stripped down as to retain only the barest essence of its source, but it conjures scenes bizarre, utterly disturbing and even oddly touching and Scarlett Johansson surprises everyone by being one of the film’s greatest assets.

8. Her

Her

Scarlett Johansson amazing again? Check. Memorable imagery and thought provoking issues that live long in the memory after seeing the film? Check. Slightly disappointing ending? Check. My coincidental list double bill with Under The Skin shows the films have a lot in common, but where Her edged it for me is in having a cast full of great performances and by also being a statement on our present and an eerie premonition of our future, just feeling that shade more vital in its storytelling. Never once did I doubt the core relationship, and so nice to see that Spike Jones can still deliver work to the equal of his Charlie Kaufman collaborations.

7. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

Yep, I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, so if one of their films is well received by a general audience, it’s likely to be a significant hit with me. Every one of their films after The Ladykillers has made my top 10 of that year, and Inside Llewyn Davis manages to do that while simultaneously overcoming the massive obstacle of the fact that, while I don’t dislike folk music, most of it normally leaves me cold. The cast are brilliant to a person, the music (with songs being allowed to play out in full, unusual for a non-musical) is chillingly effective and the Coens find yet another facet to their prism of human understanding. Do we really have to wait until 2016 for their next film?

6. The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf Of Wall Street

Once they get to know me, people begin to discover that my outwardly pious, almost angelic persona actually hides a fairly sick sense of humour that almost makes me embarrassed to admit to it. If you were sat near me in the cinema during this, I’d have had no chance of hiding it, as Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio fashion one of the year’s funniest and most twisted films out of one of the bigger villains of the financial crisis. Remember to bring your own sense of deep moral indignation as Scorsese will presume you have a basic understanding of right and wrong, he’s too good to be spoon-feeding. The only real criticism is of the marketing, which suggests that Matthew McConaughey will have a much larger role than he does and you miss him for half an hour once he’s gone.

5. Gone Girl

Gone Girl

The rule about David Fincher’s even numbered films being the classics holds true here, as Gone Girl is a fitting continuation of the sequence that so far runs Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike both turn in career best work, but the real mark of quality remains Fincher’s direction. Once over the top to the point of distraction in the likes of Panic Room, it’s now a machine oiled to perfection so well you can’t even see the moving parts. It’s trashy and pulpy but it’s a complete delight and Fincher has huge amounts of fun laughing at the human condition even as he lays into as many aspects of it as possible.

4. Norte, the End of History

Norte The End Of History

My heart sank about five minutes into Norte; not because I’d settled down to watch a four hour, ten minute film with no interval – one from a director who’s previously made black and white, nine hour epics – but because the opening scene suggested a trite pretentiousness full of naval gazing and cod student analysis of politics, sociology and religion. Thankfully the rest of the film is so far removed from that, by the end you struggle to even reconcile that scene as having been in the same film. Occasional brutal outpourings of violence are balanced by moments of dreamlike beauty and yet another film to take Dostoyevsky as its leaping off point this year – this time in Crime And Punishment – comes dangerously close to being a four hour masterpiece, thanks to its superb blending of detailed character study and wider cultural and societal commentary.

3. Boyhood

CREDIT: Matt Lankes for IFC Films

I commented in my review earlier in the year that few film makers had watched the evolution of a child or character quite as effectively over the course of a number of years, until I saw some pedant point out online earlier today that the Harry Potter series inadvertently performs the same trick over eight years. But Boyhood casts an entirely different magic; individual scenes seem unremarkable and occasionally themes repeat themselves in ways that don’t feel vital, but at around the two hour mark you start to realise that everyone’s grown up or is getting old and you’ve watched the entirety of adolescence unfold in a single film to breathtaking effect. More significantly greater than the sum of its parts than anything else this year, it still has some pretty great parts and for my money marks Richard Linklater out as one of the greats.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

For some time, I toyed with the idea of putting this film at the top of my list, but in the end I couldn’t escape the extreme physical toll that the sheer act of watching my number one choice had on me. But The Grand Budapest Hotel brought me more joy than anything else I’ve seen this year, Wes Anderson’s style and ethos strike more chords than a Beethoven symphony with me and the layered narrative and the best comedic performance of the year from Ralph Fiennes brought Wes Anderson box office success to go along with critical acclaim. In years to come, I’ll probably still be quoting large chunks of Anderson’s dialogue back at despairing friends and family, especially the lines about whisky and whores.

1. 12 Years a Slave

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Two years ago, the third film of the year I saw was from director Steve McQueen, and after watching it I felt it unlikely I’d see anything of equal merit in the rest of the year. Almost two hundred films later I was proved right. 2014 wasn’t simply a case of history repeating with almost frightening precision. Ten months on, even the mere thought of this film leaves me a quivering wreck, and there’s something about McQueen’s distinctive, more measured style and his choice of subject matter that leaves me breathless – and in this case, after nearly two hours of sobbing silently and uncontrollably, almost entirely drained both physically and emotionally.

It’s a landmark achievement in terms of its all-encompassing depictions of slavery, the performances are so raw you can almost see the nerve endings on screen and even the egregious Brad Pitt cameo at the end can’t undermine the incredible quality of what’s gone before. Steve McQueen currently occupies the top two places in my films of the decade at the halfway point, and if you’ve got the stomach for what’s a painfully tough watch at times then 12 Years A Slave will continue to reward repeated viewings by draining you over and over again. We can only hope that, in this time when once again the rights of black Americans are being trampled upon unceremoniously and it seems true equality for all races is still just a dream in some parts of the world, that the lessons from films such as this are not forgotten so quickly.

Previous years:

The Top 40 Movies Of 2013 WINNER: The Act Of Killing

Top 40 Movies Of 2012 In Pictures WINNER: Shame

My Top 40 Movies Of 2011 WINNER: Confessions

My Top 40 Movies Of 2010 WINNER: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

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