It’s Oscar night, and that means two things:
1. I’m going to bed because I’ve got better things to do than stay up until 5 a.m. watching an awards show when I will most likely bitch about the result.
2. If you’re reading this then you may actually be watching the ceremony. Good luck to you.
Having noticed a sudden spike in traffic of 100% today to my blog, mainly composed of people searching for the search terms “Oscar” and “scorecard”, although well done to the one person who arrived here by searching for “reese witherspoon can’t act” and, more bizarrely, the two people who both searched for “composition of air 3d pie chart”. Just for you two:
For the rest of you, here’s my completed scorecard for this year with my usual categories:
And here’s a blank one for you to fill in while you wait for Neil Patrick Harris to shuffle along:
Whatever you’re doing tonight, have fun!
The Pitch: OK then. Gainsboro, silver, spanish, dim, Davy’s, platinum, ash, charcoal, battleship, cool, cadet, glaucous, slate, puce, rose quartz, cinerous, metallic, taupe, er… light, medium, dark… er… have I already said battleship? Is it too late to call it Twenty Shades Of Grey instead?
The Review: You might be asking yourself, when the book sold more copies in the UK than all seven Harry Potter novels put together and when the trailer has been watched by more people worldwide than either the Avengers sequel or Star Wars revival trailers, should I go to see the new film version of Fifty Shades Of Grey? Apparently you’re one of the ten people in existence who hasn’t actually read the book (I am also one of those ten, although I’ve now read enough of it online in constructing this review to want to poke the rusty end of an old coathanger in through my ear to swirl my brain around for a bit in the hope that I’ll forget), so may I present this convenient fifty step guide to your potential cinema experience. You and I both know you’ve already decided if you’re going or not, but it wouldn’t hurt to read this first.
1. There’s a genre of fiction that has had vast chunks of words devoted to it since the birth of the internet, and it features characters from existing works of fiction having highly sexual encounters. This could be anything from Harry Potter to (seriously) The LEGO Movie.
2. One such work was called Masters Of The Universe and it was based on the Twilight series. Yes, the one with the sulky vampires and randy werewolves. As far as I am aware, it didn’t feature any actual Masters Of The Universe characters such as He-Man, Skeletor, Man-At-Arms or Fisto, although I imagine he’d have fit right in.
3. It was written under the pen name of Snowqueens Icedragon. Opinion is divided online as to whether that user name featured an apostrophe or not, given that the standard of the other writing in the story wouldn’t be an indication.
4. It was later then withdrawn and republished as three novels called Fifty Shades Of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, the last of which doesn’t even make sense as a title.
5. Despite seemingly being read by almost as many people as The Bible, the book has been correctly condemned for featuring some of the most horrific mangling of the English language ever to see print. Here’s some examples.
6. “I feel the colour in my cheeks rising again. I must be the colour of The Communist Manifesto.” The book apparently features an incessant amount of Ana (Dakota Johnson in the film) expressing her inner goddess; thankfully – or disappointingly for lovers of excruciatingly bad dialogue – none of this makes it to the film.
7. “The orange juice tastes divine. It’s thirst-quenching and refreshing.” The film does feature orange juice and medication with accompanying signs saying “Eat me” and “Drink me”, suggesting this is some form of sadistic remake of Alice In Wonderland.
8. “My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.” Dakota Johnson does get to show off her dance moves at one point, a rare moment when someone – anyone – actually seems to be enjoying themselves.
9. “Now I know what all the fuss is about. Two orgasms… coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow.” Apart from a singular lack of understanding about basic home appliance mechanics, this is something else that doesn’t make it into the film: there isn’t a single orgasm, leaving the film feeling like some form of neutered foreplay manual.
10. “I’m all deer/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake … and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me.” I think we also know what E.L. James is doing to the English language, and it’s probably more painful than anything Christian’s ever come up with.
11. “Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?” A question you would do well to ask yourself before buying a ticket.
12. I think you get the idea. So the makers of the film hired Kelly Marcel (writer of Saving Mr. Banks and, er, Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical) and had a script polish reportedly performed by Patrick Marber (Closer, The Day Today) and Mark Bomback (Die Hard 4.0, The Wolverine). They have between them hidden or excised much of the most embarrassing dialogue, but in its place have failed to find any worthwhile or interesting dialogue.
13. They also hired Sam Taylor-Johnson, who is married to the bloke from Godzilla who ends up always being in the right place at the wrong time. Insert your own joke.
14. The next decision made was to excise some of the novel’s ickier concepts, such as the infamous tampon scene. According to Taylor-Johnson, they never even discussed this being in the film. (Really? Not actually a discussion? You all just telepathically knew which bits you wanted and which you didn’t?)
15. The film opens with Ana visiting the offices of Christian Grey (the third extraordinarily rich, oddball philanthropist I’ve seen in the fifteen films I’ve seen this year, and I’ve not even seen Tony Stark in a film yet. What are the odds?).
16. Ana is an English major who is apparently incapable of coming up with ten minutes’ worth of questions for a well-known entrepreneur, and also so smitten with a man she’s barely met that she’s incapable of making value judgements on questions written down in front of her.
17. When she enters Christian’s office, she also stumbles and falls to her knees, a clumsy and obvious piece of symbolism that still made it through the value judgement of at least three separate writers.
18. Although she believes the interview has gone badly, Christian later appears unexpectedly in the hardware store where Ana works around 200 miles away. She in no way finds this suspicious, stalker-like behaviour.
19. Ana later gets drunk on a night out and drunk dials Christian, who then appears at the bar she’s drinking at as if he’s in some way omnipresent. He then repeatedly shows up at places where she is without any knowledge of her whereabouts, suggesting either that he’s abusing his telecommunications business on an industrial scale or worse options that are barely worth contemplating. At no point does Ana raise more than the mildest of objections to this conduct.
20. This is also around the time that Ana’s friend José (Victor Rasuk) makes a clumsy, aggressive pass at her while drunk. This, along with José, is then also completely forgotten about. They should have tried to get Taylor Lautner to play this (he of the equivalent Twilight role) just for a laugh.
21. Christian performs gentlemanly acts such as holding Ana’s hair back while she vomits and pulling her out of the road so she avoids being run over by cyclists. Did I mention he’s also a billionaire? While Jamie Dorman as Christian does stern and brooding about as well as anyone could, it’s unfortunate that he appears to have confused the words concentration and constipation but has largely the same facial expression for both.
22. Once Christian has won over Ana’s inital trust with acts of basic decency and snogging her in a lift, he then takes up to the roof and shows her his massive chopper. This is not only a useful euphemism for a helicopter, but also allows me to reference the fact that this is the only chopper on display here: Fifty Shades takes the default Hollywood position of full-frontal nudity for the woman and either topless only or two shots of buttocks for the man. This, yet again, makes me feel slightly more ashamed to be a man, but slightly less ashamed than usual when the writer and director are both women.
23. Christian then asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which is a standard business practice for confidentiality but a thoroughly non-standard practice for a man who appears seemingly at random wherever you are, demanding your attention.
24. Christian explains to Ana that he’s not looking for a romantic relationship, and also mentions at various points that he wants to avoid physical contact, before he divests her of her virginity. Mixed messages there, fella.
25. Christian is visited by his mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who appears to be playing against type by being lovely, apart from the fact that one of her friends used Christian as a submissive for six years. The film occasionally throws chunks of exposition at the wall like overcooked spaghetti in the hope that enough of it will stick to explain Christian’s behaviour, under the assumption that Christian’s behaviour needs explicit explanation.
26. Ana is given a free laptop to research more of the sexual practices Christian is looking for Ana to be subjected to, at which point she types “submissive” into a search engine and comes back with some fairly timid fetish photography that is still more extreme than most of what’s made it into the sex scenes. Was I the only person wondering if she had Safe Search turned on or off?
27. Christian and Ana then have a business dinner where they discuss the contract Christian is looking to commit Ana to, where she has various practices removed from the contract but also reveals that not only has her Googling yet to reveal to her what butt plugs are, but that she has a singular lack of imagination for an English major.
28. The scene with the signing of the contract (in which they don’t actually sign the contract), along with much of the first half of the film, is accompanied by a jaunty Danny Elfman score which suggests that this is really a light-hearted comedy of manners.
29. When jaunty Elfman isn’t playing in the background, the soundtrack is littered with heavily sexualised versions of popular tunes and mixes modern artists such as The Weeknd, Sia, Ellie Goulding and Beyoncé with older names such as The Rolling Stones and Annie Lennox. It is by far the best thing about the film and will sell by the absolute bucketload. Clearly the lessons of Dirty Dancing and Pretty Woman haven’t been completely forgotten.
30. Speaking of Pretty Woman, this whole film is essentially a grimmer version of Pretty Woman, as rich man uses money, power and influence to obtain a woman he’s fallen for having barely known her, except instead of love overcoming the evils of prostitution this is just a grim exploration of a misunderstanding of how BDSM works.
31. The other obvious touchstone for the film is 9 1/2 Weeks, in that Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke famously emptied the contents of the fridge over each other and explored some fairly graphic sexual practices, and here Christian ties up Ana’s wrists and rubs an ice cube over her. If that sounds like a backwards step, let’s not forget that 9 1/2 weeks encouraged mass walkouts at the cinema and scraped together a cult following on DVD; Fifty Shades had a midnight opening with the same level of box office as the last Transformers and Spider-Man films.
32. There are other reminders and references to films with two or three shades of similarity. That starts with Dakota Johnson, daughter of Melanie Griffith – and delivering much the same breathy intensity as her mum did in Working Girl, another film about attempting to win the heart of a wealthy but aloof businessman who she’s sleeping with regularly – and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, which means you really would think she would be more generally wary of dubious male behaviour.
33. It’s also reinforced by Jennifer Ehle, and while the closest she’s ever been to rampant depictions of sexuality was Colin Firth clambering moistly out of a lake, the film makers have attempted to reimagine Fifty Shades as a story of feminine empowerment. There is, of course, more female empowerment on display in a novel written over two hundred years ago than anything here.
34. So what is Fifty Shades about? Well, it’s not about abuse if you believe the film makers, because Ana enters into the arrangement voluntarily, other than Christian stalking her over a several hundred mile area, invading her privacy at regular intervals and nagging her until she caves into his requests at every opportunity that he gets, in a manner that feels eerily reminiscent of Bart and Lisa Simpson and their efforts to be taken to Mount Splashmore.
35. Then there’s the claims that it’s misunderstood the nature and practices of BDSM (bondage / discipline, dominance / submission, sadism / masochism – yes I know that’s technically BDDSSM but I don’t make the rules). I’m not an expert in this, but most of the articles from people who are would seem to suggest that Fifty Shades is more just about an extravagant control freak exercising his will than it is any kind of attempt to analyse or understand the more extreme side of safe sexual practice.
36. While it isn’t about abuse directly, there are strong themes of control, with Ana and Christian engaged in a mental power struggle, each attempting to assert their own control over the other. This, in the first half especially, is where the film manages to rise above its source material and for a while seems in danger of actually having something interesting to say.
37. But what neither the film, nor its makers, seem to grasp is that abuse is a control mechanism, and Christian’s control mechanisms are all teetering so close to abuse that there’s really little value to be had from arguing any difference. The fact that Ana has been manoeuvred into this situation just makes it all the more distasteful that those involved with the production would then attempt to recast this as an empowering romance.
38. So what we’re left with is the twenty-first century equivalent of a romantic comedy with most of the romance and all of the comedy surgically extracted, and where we’re then left with two hours of waiting for the next attempt at titillation.
39. Now we’ve come full circle: the real purpose of the genre of the fanfiction from which this sprung, and of pretty much any erotic fiction ever written for that matter, is to stimulate sexual excitement in the reader. Typically that would be the female reader, as men generally seem to be more content with some pictures or a video if the Internet as a whole is anything to judge by. (I hate sweeping generalisations but I think there’s some truth in that one.)
40. This is then where the film must be judged: if any attempts at social discourse have failed, is it at least sexy? Initially yes, despite Johnson and Dornan having less chemistry than a ten year old’s first box of test tubes and random chemicals, Taylor-Johnson does manage to make the most of Ana and Christian’s first couple of sexual encounters.
41. Sadly then, with nowhere else left to go, the remaining encounters follow the pattern of the rest of the film in leaking away the tension and also evoking little sympathy for anyone involved (especially the actors, who are either being well paid or should have known better).
42. As well as being about the sex, works of fiction from this to Working Girl and Pretty Woman are an escapist fantasy, the thought of submitting to a powerful man (even with the occasional scene of empowerment) being a consistent theme within the genre, but there would be more to be gained from exploring Ana’s conflicted feelings than Fifty Shades the film ever seems keen on.
43. What you’re left with is an odd combination of the exact structure of the novel with the trashy pleasure of the appalling writing sanitised completely out of the script and the sex scenes avoiding male nudity, orgasms and anything else that might generate controversy. The fact that the French gave this a 12 rating isn’t as controversial as you might think.
44. Given that so many films over the past couple of years, from Blue Is The Warmest Colour to Nymphomaniac and Stranger By The Lake, have used sex to explore facets of character so much more successfully, the fact that most of those have barely been seen by anyone and that this has a bigger target audience than bread is all the more depressing.
45. The only person likely to come out of this with their dignity intact is oddly the person who spends most of the film having it stripped away. Dakota Johnson does what she can with the role and, after tiny roles in the likes of 21 Jump Street, she may actually defy the odds and go onto a successful career from this, even if it is remakes of Marilyn Monroe films and Working Girl 2: The Daughter That Oughta.
46. Well actually… when I said the best / worst dialogue didn’t make it into the film, there are a few examples. If you hear anyone in real life using Christian’s catchphrase of “Laters, baby” you have my permission to give them an entirely non-BDSM slap. (Disclaimer: please don’t slap anyone on my say so.)
47. There is no escaping the fact that, at over two hours, the film feels too long. I would love to try to make a joke about length at this point but it’s just become too hard.
48. And that just leaves us with the three likely reactions most audiences will experience at the end of the film, which were certainly felt vocally by the group I saw the film with. Firstly when the credits roll: “is that it?”
49. Secondly: “9 1/2 Weeks was better.”
50. Thirdly, about thirty seconds into the credits: “Rita Ora’s in this?!?!” Now you can play the exciting game of Spot The Ora to pass the time.
Why see it at the cinema: If, rather than discreetly reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity in the privacy of your own home, you’d prefer to sit in a room with several hundred other people gawping at a half-naked man and a fully naked woman not quite having sex at occasional intervals, then knock yourself out. But don’t come crying to me afterwards.
What about the rating? Rated 18 for strong sex. A description that caused two people sat behind me in the cinema to proclaim “ooh, strong sex” in a manner reminiscent of Frankie Howerd. Titter ye not, missus.
So let’s be clear about this: the marketing suggests that the film features about twenty minutes of sex across a two hour run time, which suggests a very generous description of when the sex actually starts; possibly when the two characters enter a room within minutes of each other. If you are coming for the sex (if you’ll pardon the expression), then you may be better advised to wait for the DVD so you can fast forward the boring bits.
My cinema experience: Seen at the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds with an early morning (but very full) audience that is likely to be the norm for weeks to come. Good luck finding something – anything – else to watch. At least the cinema only detained us with fifteen minutes of ads and trailers up front.
The Score: 5/10
2015 is a year that I fear for having to hunt harder than ever for the true gems of cinema amid the overly scripted neon morass of increasingly formulaic blockbusters that will clog up cinemas of all sizes more than ever before this year. With major film shunting themselves into next year to avoid the crush, it’ll be harder than ever for the smaller films to find sufficient two hour slots in cinemas to be seen before they must disappear, and I fear for quality getting trampled in the rush.
However, we shouldn’t be too disheartened: if January is anything to go by, quality film making is far from a thing of the past, it’s just going to have to work a teensy bit harder to be seen this year than ever before. Based on my first look at the two minute promos for January – for I do try to watch trailers for every single film being released before settling on six each month – then 2015 should at least be a good year for the art form of the trailer, and it’s good to see those involved in promotion stepping up their game to get behind films looking to wrestle their way into cinemas near you.
Here for the first time this year are the six trailers that, for better or worse, caught my eye this month.
As a regular in London for the cinema, and particularly my frequent visits to Leicester Square, I am often conscious that I overlook some of London’s greater treasures in favour of more time at the cinema. Thankfully, documentarian Frederick Wiseman has come up with a way for me to do both. Just a shame that I couldn’t make a preview screening offered in the gallery itself, as watching a film about a place being showing as a film in the place is just delightfully perverse.
National Gallery is on limited release from 9th January.
Normally trailers are just a compilation of often spoiler filled clips from the film, but American Sniper has taken a different route. You might call this a clip rather than a trailer if you were being pedantic – and if you were, I’d of course applaud you – but it would seem to encapsulate enough about the film to help your decision on whether or not to buy a ticket without having to see another second of footage.
American Sniper is on wide release from 16th January.
You wait ages for a film with massive amounts of drumming and then two come along at once. I hope my Birdman fatigue, some of which related to the incessant jazz drum score which underpinned the film and occasionally broke through the fourth wall, doesn’t diminish my enjoyment this time. I also hope that Miles Teller can redeem himself a little, for despite being one of the better things in last year’s That Awkward Moment, it was still one of 2014’s lowlights for me. The only way is up.
Whiplash is on wide release from 16th January.
When I started blogging, I tried to read as many other blogs as I could, and three in particular became regular reading. As well as Your Turn Heather and The Incredible Suit, Charlie Lyne’s Ultra Culture became required reading for his style, forthrightness and absolute willingness to pursue his own particular predilections, such as his fondness for the film Eurotrip. He’s now channelled his broader fascination with teen movies into a documentary and the trailer is as distinctive as the voice of his blog (seemingly now retired, at least for the time being, as he’s crossed over into film making).
Beyond Clueless is touring the country before its release on 23rd January.
No Manifesto: A Film About Manic Street Preachers
One of the first things I did this year was to book tickets to see one of my two favourite bands play their most iconic album in full, with the Manic Street Preachers playing The Holy Bible at Cardiff Castle. (Oddly, One Direction are playing at the Millennium Stadium the same night, so Cardiff will be a strange place to be that weekend.) I’ve not only booked my hotel as well as my ticket, but true to form I’ve already checked the release schedule for that weekend, so I may also sample Insidious Chapter 3, Spy or Electric Boogaloo while I’m down, having last been to the cinema in Cardiff nineteen years ago as a student.
No Manifesto will receive some limited cinema screenings from January 30th before being released on DVD in February.
Pelo Malo (Bad Hair)
This is my list of interesting trailers. This trailer looked interesting. Sadly my waffle about it isn’t turning out that way, but you can’t win them all. Look, a puppy! *points in the other direction* *runs away*
Pelo Malo is released in most of the UK on 30th January and in Scotland on 6th February, presumably to give Scotland chance to get over Burns Night the week before or something.
The nominations for the BAFTA film awards have been announced this morning, and once again those compiling the nominations have between them managed to prove at best case that two good performances are all you need to make a good film, and and worst that the British film is simply a pandering lapdog still craving the attention and validation of America rather than attempting to stand on its own two feet. The nominations in particular for Best British film have left me so irked that I’m currently sat in the cafeteria at Stonehenge trying to get this off my chest, having toured one of the world’s great heritage sites full of 5,000 year old monuments and I’m left to wonder if these stones could talk, would they come up with a more contemporary, relevant and worthy set of picks. Each year I publish a handful of posts in the run-up to the Oscars in an effort to remind myself that awards are meaningless and just because they don’t reflect my own opinion, it shouldn’t ruin my day when they’re announced.
But wow, this year takes the biscuit in a category already renowned for encouraging the receipt of flour-based baked goods. In the time since I started blogging, an era during which the BAFTA film awards have moved to a pre-Oscar slot in a desperate attempt to secure an influx of Hollywood glitterati and so seem pointlessly relevant, the following films have been the “Best” British Film:
– In 2011 The King’s Speech beat out Another Year and Four Lions
– In 2012 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy overcame Shame, Senna and We Need To Talk About Kevin
– In 2013 Skyfall came out on top of Anna Karenina and Les Misérables
– Last year, Gravity beat The Selfish Giant and Philomena
The awards twelve months ago embodied everything wrong with the dual main categories: no-one in their right mind would have considered Gravity a British film, with it beating not only a stunning piece of work from deserving British director Clio Barnard but also arguably a better awards season type film in Philomena. But the Best Film was 12 Years A Slave, and this wasn’t even nominated for Best British Film despite a sufficient qualifying connection, a British director and two outstanding lead performances from British actors.
So what’s gotten me so riled up this year, that’s possibly even worse than last year’s farrago? Part of the problem stems from what’s actually been an outstanding year for British film, in which we are so spoiled for choice that you could fill British film two or three times over with quality picks. What the voters of BAFTA have come up with for Best British film is:
The Imitation Game
The Theory Of Everything
Under The Skin
That’s not a bad list, and there are a couple of excellent films on it. The first problem is that those films are Paddington and Under The Skin, and the two films from that list that have made it to the Best Film overall list are certainly the two least interesting and arguably the two worst: The Imitation Game and The Theory Of Everything.
The Imitation Game is a real frustration as its only two positives are the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch – a man now so all powerful he can get a lead role in an animation about penguins despite being demonstrably unable to say penguins – and Keira Knightley. Other than that it’s a film that fudges its issues and has barely the merest pretence of drama, an Emperor’s New Clothes of acting mannerisms with a narrative that does poor service to both the war effort and Turing himself; no mean feat when it actually overplays his war contribution in many ways.
I enjoyed The Theory Of Everything, but again it’s a film that survives on the performances of its two leads and precious little else. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are both exceptional, but the rest of the film is placid to a fault and it’s a chocolate box Cambridge that explains science politely and tries its hardest not to cause offence at any other time. It’s not a patch on director James Marsh’s last two films, Man On Wire and Shadow Dancer. I still believe that Under The Skin will be being discussed in ten years’ time; I find it hard to believe that too many people will remember The Theory Of a Everything in ten weeks.
But not only have the two films most likely to find the common denominator even though they’re not very good made the Best Film, I would argue that there are at least another ten films more worthy of a place on the Best British Film list for last year. In descending order of greatness, they are:
Next Goal Wins
Kajaki: The True Story
The Possibilities Are Endless
(And possibly an eleventh: I haven’t seen The Testament Of Youth as it’s not out yet.)
I can accept that you may believe not all of these ten films or the four in the Best British Film category are better than The Imitation Game or The Theory Of Everything, but if you can sit there with a straight face and tell me that none of them are – for that is the implication of the BAFTA nominations – then can I politely suggest that you don’t watch enough films. Anything on that list of fourteen which didn’t make the Best Film list above would be an ideal way of starting to put that right.
But before I go, I must also mention the most egregious omission from the nominations. As I’ve indicated, Mr Turner didn’t make it into the nominations, but Mike Leigh has at least picked up awards for various categories in the past for Secrets And Lies and Vera Drake. However, the snub handed out to what to me was the performance of the year by Timothy Spall has left me incredulous. There truly is no justice at awards time, but that probably won’t stop me getting my knickers in a twist when the Oscar nominations come out. Joy of joys.
The Pitch: What We Talk About When We Talk About Films With Dominating Technical Conceits Released In The Middle Of Awards Season.
The Review: Alejandro González Iñárritu was the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar, but his back catalogue of films have a more serious reputation than those of his contemporaries Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, the latter winning over the geek crowd with his highly detailed fantasies and the former becoming increasingly renowned for his long single takes in films such as Children Of Men and last year’s Gravity which saw an opening of seventeen minutes and you wonder if this left Iñárritu challenged to determine if it would be possible to construct an entire film in such a manner with modern technical wizardry just as applicable to the grounded, real world as it is to space, perhaps even more so if you restrict the movements of your characters to a single location, in this case a theatre where Michael Keaton’s tortured former superhero actor Riggan Thompson, star of the now defunct Birdman trilogy, is attempting an act of self-redemption with the production of a Broadway play in which his direction and acting are becoming unbalanced by his alter ego whispering provocatively in his ear even while his producer and lawyer friend (Zack Galifianakis) does his best to keep the sinking ship afloat, his daughter (Emma Stone) attempts to be an assistant while sorting out her own addiction issues and the last minute replacement (Edward Norton) brings a Method madness which complicates his role and threatens to derail the production before it gets to opening night after a series of previews which we see unfolding over the course of several days, possibly even weeks, as we and the characters roam the inner hallways, the stage, the roof and occasionally the streets of the theatre while the script by a team of writers including Iñárritu attempts to understand the conflict between acting and the nature of celebrity and how much one can be compromised by the other but the arguments feel dated and the pot-shots at the real life actors name checked in the early scenes feel cheap and unearned, Riggan’s silent partner of the gravelly Batman voice and seeming telekinetic ability proving further distractions and potentially exploring interesting ideas but like a hyperactive child attempting maths problems it never sits still for long enough to allow you to consider the solution, the tangents to the subplots involving Norton’s rooftop conversations with Stone and scenes with Riggan’s performer girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his leading lady (Naomi Watts) offering some of the best character moments but sucking the momentum from the overall narrative which has the surface feeling of a stage play but in both its internal conceit and the overall effect lacks the natural vocabulary of either stage play or film, the first forty minutes in particular being a succession of scenes which are staged without any variation in tone or pitch and which become plagued by the fourth wall breaking jazz drum score from Antonio Sanchez which initially drives tension but increasingly becomes an irritant as the whole language of film is gradually dispensed with in a way that many have regarded as a supreme technical achievement – and it is – but never manages to rise above being anything more than that, and if by now you’re thinking that my attempt to write this entire review in a single sentence is even more of a a cheap trick than the one I’m calling attention to, then that’s exactly my point: as the play unfolds over two hours without the normal breaths and pauses that standard filming or cutting provides it became for me as punishing to watch as I presume reading this review has become for you and for that I genuinely apologise, if you haven’t given up already but then you wouldn’t been reading this part anyway so ignore me, and anyway you get the benefit of punctuation and the best the film can do to shake things up is a disappointingly brief but vibrant scene where Birdman is brought thrillingly to life, because the narcissistic fabrication that Iñárritu has fashioned so exhausted me with its constant demands to observe every element of the foreground and background and its inability to resolve any of its subplots to any degree of satisfaction that its only joy comes from within the moment, rather than by being able to appreciate the film as a complete work and maybe this another one of those cases like Magic Eye paintings where everyone who can do them thinks they’re brilliant but people like me who see differently find it commendable that so many others enjoy it but personally can’t help but be incredibly frustrated by the whole experience, and while many of those isolated moments are enjoyable, often filmed in long, technically demanding takes which undersell the efforts the actors would have invested in them, the end never justifies the means and the final irony being that half of the best moments are in the trailer but they’re actually more gratifying when taken out of context than assembled into an overwhelming stream of consciousness that hopefully means that now we’ve seen this once, in service of a story that’s less successful at skewering celebrity culture and acting than TV series such as The Larry Sanders Show were twenty years ago and one which also strives for magical realism but ends up confounding itself like a magic trick without a prestige, Iñárritu might stop attempting to one-up his fellow Mexicans and learn how to subvert standard narrative conventions as effectively as he did in his early films rather that in this award-baiting torture that is rightly earning plaudits for a Keaton renaissance and for strong work from the rest of the cast but which sadly doesn’t merit the remainder of the praise being heaped upon it.
Why see it at the cinema? If you want to play Spot The Joins, then you stand the best chance of doing that in the cinema. And good luck to you. Since pretty much every aspect of the production is ramped up to 11, you may as well do that with your viewing experience as well.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, sex references. If it’s come to the point where fourteen year olds can’t be allowed to hear two grown adults laying in bed and talking about having sex, which is what the BBFC extended classification info would seem to suggest, then maybe we should all give up and go home.
My cinema experience: The first of what I expect to be dozens of uses of my Cineworld Unlimited card, on this occasion at their Cambridge branch. Just a shame that I’d already paid to see it a week earlier at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton before a clogged up motorway and a broken down train on the Central Line scuppered my plans.
The Score: 6/10
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.
So for the past five years on this blog I’ve published a year end review, trying to take in as many positives of the previous twelve months as possible. For the last four of those five years, I’ve produced a run-down of what I considered the most memorable performances, but in an attempt to produce as balances an end of year review as possible, I’ve realised that one area normally overlooked by awards is those people who’ve made a consistent contribution to their craft over a number of films. So to try to redress the balance somewhat, I’m instituting two new awards this year, in the form of the Man and Woman Of The Year. I’ve gone with an actor and an actress this year for the main awards, but one of my honourable mentions in the male category isn’t an actor, and I’ll try to be open to all possibilities if this becomes a thing.
Given the enormous outpouring of bile after The Times newspaper somewhat controversially chose Nigel Farage as their Man Of The Year (and that’s a man that could be the member of Parliament for my home town by this time next year; God help us all), I realise I could be on a hiding to nothing, but you have to try these things at least once. Please bear in mind that these might be saints, or they might get their kicks shooting puppies in the park, but this is not a judgement on them as people, merely a recognition for their overall contribution to films I’ve seen in 2014. So in that spirit, please be upstanding – and be gentle – with my Man and Woman Of The Year.
Man Of The Year 2014 is Jack O’Connell
It seems almost impossible that Jack O’Connell is only 24, as it feels like he’s been around for ever. Fittingly for someone born in Derby he made his debut in a film from another East Midlands stalwart, appearing in Shane Meadows’ This Is England as Pukey Nicholls. But the first role I can really remember him grabbing my attention in was the horror thriller which also starred Michael Fassbender and Kelly Reilly, Eden Lake in 2008. He takes what could be a rather clichéd role as the film’s eventual villain and manages menacing without ever feeling forced, and his eventual triumph is as compelling as it is repulsive. It then felt like he might get stuck in a rut of stock British thugs and bad guys, also appearing in the Michael Caine starrer Harry Brown as a gang member and appearing in 2012’s Tower Block with Sheridan Smith as another local estate thug, but that was another role where he had to play totally unsympathetic yet ultimately comes out on top.
After building up a solid body of stage and TV work, it feels like 2014 is the year he’s finally come into his own in film. His first major role of the year was in the British prison drama Starred Up, a tense and brutal affair that traded heavily on O’Connell’s ability to do distant but remain charismatic. Eric Love is a walking explosion of pent up rage waiting to happen, but an unexpected reunion in prison with his father gives O’Connell a huge amount to explore. This was his first real lead film role and he’s magnetic for the entire run-time in this unflinching look at life on the inside.
He also then took the lead role in one of the year’s most underrated and underseen films, the Yann Demange thriller ’71 set in the troubles in Northern Ireland. Here, although he’s got top billing once again it’s the supporting cast that get to deliver much of the theatrics, and O’Connell’s requirement is to be calm and level headed after he’s separated from his unit on the wrong side of the lines. Demange maintains tension throughout, and it’s to O’Connell’s credit that you care about his plight despite being little to go on in terms of backstory.
As a sign of things to come, O’Connell also appeared as Calisto in the bigger budget 300: Rise Of An Empire, but it’s at the end of the year where he’s really begun to make a name for himself in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. Somehow, despite having a script with contributions from the Coen brothers and cinematography from Roger Deakins, Jolie has crafted something which renders a remarkable story somewhat ordinary, and it would have been a complete washout had it not been for O’Connell’s performance. As the stocky Italian-American Olympic runner who ends up in a Japanese POW camp, O’Connell proves he’s got what it takes to be an (admittedly unconventional) leading man, but he also delivers the film’s only real emotional beats in the last half hour.
Frankly, anyone who can get Angelina Jolie to deliver that classic East Midlands greeting of “ay up, me duck” in public deserves some form of recognition, but O’Connell looks to be a star in the making and 2014 is very much the year he’s arrived in earnest.
Man Of The Year Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, The Monuments Men, The Imitation Game, Unbroken)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave, Frank, X-Men: Days Of Future Past)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Interstellar)
Ben Mendelsohn (Starred Up, Exodus: Gods And Kings, Black Sea)
Woman Of The Year 2014 is Scarlett Johansson
I’ve always been very much someone who could take it or leave it as far as Scarlett Johansson’s concerned. She came into my cinematic consciousness from an unconventional angle, with that infamous opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation in 2002. She’d been around for a while before that, both on TV and most notably in Ghost World from the previous year, but in the years that followed her success with roles was at best mixed. Despite working with the likes of Woody Allen (Match Point), Christopher Nolan (The Prestige) and, ahem, Michael Bay (The Island), her brushes with the acting awards categories had started to recede into the distance – as well as Match Point and Lost In Translation, she received Golden Globe nominations for A Love Song For Bobby Long and The Girl With The Pearl Earring, but all were prior to 2006 – and it’s only really been this year that she’s reminded people of just how good an actress she is.
Sure, she’s been appearing in Marvel films as Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow since 2008’s Iron Man 2, but it was only in this year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she truly came into the role, appearing both an effective foil for Chris Evans’ previously uptight Captain American and also being able to stand her ground in the drama stakes, rather than being lost in the mêlée of The Avengers. She also proved she’s still got her action movie chops with the uneven Lucy from Luc Besson, yet for all the film’s issues believing in Johansson as a super-brained genius wasn’t one of them. And she proved that she’s got charisma to spare with a brief appearance in Jon Favreau’s food lovers’ delight Chef.
But of her two biggest successes this year, she wasn’t even on screen for one of them. Playing the voice of an AI in Her, she has a remarkable and totally convincing chemistry with her co-star Joaquim Phoenix, despite the two never being on screen together. Samantha Morton was originally cast in the role, but it was only when Steven Soderbergh was brought in to help manage the film down from a two and a half hour first cut that writer / director Spike Jonze began to realise that what he’d created with Morton didn’t work; spending four months working with Johansson provided what was missing for the role, and so a proportion of the film’s success has to be credited to her for coming in at that late stage and still making it work.
If that performance was memorable, it still wasn’t her best work of 2014; that came in Jonathan Glazer’s mindworm Under The Skin. Portraying a cold and distant alien might not seem like much of an acting challenge, but almost everything Johansson does in the film grabs your attention in the right way. Driving round Glasgow in a black wig with an English accent, she became unrecognisable to the real men she was picking up, and her performance is free of clutter or mannerisms and perfectly captures how an extraterrestrial visitor might struggle to comprehend the vagaries of our very human existence.
I’ve never been Johansson’s biggest fan, but her string of consistent, high quality performances this year has put me down firmly as a fan. Here’s hoping she can now find the roles to carry that momentum forward.
Woman Of The Year Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):
Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her, Big Eyes)
Keira Knightley (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Begin Again, Say When, The Imitation Game)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Serena, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1)
Mia Wasikowska (Only Lovers Left Alive, Tracks, The Double, Maps To The Stars)
When it comes to the time for end of year lists, there’s always contention and debate around exactly what should qualify for a list. Some people see films in London or at festivals which may not then get a release until the following year for those mere mortals watching films in the provinces like myself. I was on the verge of having to debate whether or not to include Birdman in this year’s list, but the decision was taken out of my hands at the weekend by horrendous traffic on the M11 and the Central line having ground to a complete halt. That’ll teach me to try to get into London anytime after Christmas.
What I did manage to see when I got there was the Back To The Future trilogy. It’s the first time I’d seen the sequels in the cinema, but I’d seen the original on its last reissue a couple of years ago. This year I’ve managed to see more classic films than ever before, as well as discovering a few unheralded gems. Attempting to put together a top ten list on a critic basis for these kind of films is fairly pointless – while most people are trying to catch the good films of the current year, there’s just too much that makes it back into cinemas to be able to claim to have seen all of the quality of older films – but I thought as a one off this list would highlight just what it’s possible to see in cinemas these days if you’re willing to look beyond current releases.
I’ve managed to watch a total of 28 films this year in cinemas that were released before 2011, from restored 3D classics like House Of Wax and Inferno to classic films with children such as Wrony and The White Balloon. I’ve continued to fill in my Hitchcock back catalogue with To Catch A Thief and seen historical curios such as Sexmission and Nekromantik. If you don’t already, I strongly suggest in 2015 you open yourself up to the possibilities of just what cinemas are showing these days, and here’s my ten favourites from days gone by. I had never seen any of these films in a single sitting before watching them in a cinema this year.
10. Ghost In The Shell
Seen at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on re-release
What I learned: So that’s where the Wachowski brothers got most of their ideas! I’ve never really seen much anime, another area of film that I need to explore in greater detail in years to come.
9. Mad Max 2
Seen as part of the Mad Max double bill playing at Picturehouse cinemas
What I learned: That Mel Gibson’s probably better when he’s not saying much, Lethal Weapon films notwithstanding.
8. Down By Law
Seen at the Cambridge Film Festival ahead of a limited re-release
What I learned: That once upon a time, it was possible to enjoy Roberto Begnini in films without any baggage, and that Jim Jarmusch’s films from back in the day did both brooding and entertaining just as well as their modern counterparts (such as this year’s Only Lovers Left Alive).
7. Some Like It Hot
Seen as part of the classic Sundays season at Picturehouse cinemas
What I learned: That I’d clearly left it far too long before seeing my first Billy Wilder film; I have another four sat on DVD at home waiting for me to get chance to watch them.
6. The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari
Seen in restored form on re-release at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse
What I learned: That silent horror movies that are nearly a hundred years old can still retain a huge amount of power, especially if seen in a darkened cinema late on a Sunday night.
5. Bicycle Thieves
Seen as part of the classic Sundays season at Picturehouse cinemas
What I learned: Rome is one of my favourite cities that I’ve ever visited, and it’s still just as special even when it’s the setting for a post-war tragedy.
4. Play Time
Seen at the BFI Southbank ahead of a limited nationwide re-release
What I learned: that it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s showing in London, as this was well worth a trip down. I could have walked back in and watched this again straight away thanks to the sheer level of detail that Jacques Tati crammed into every frame.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Re-released as part of the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days Of Fear And Wonder season
What I learned: that this is a film you need to see on the big screen. I’d tried half a dozen times as a student and never gotten into it, but had no such issues when able to appreciate its full majesty in the cinema.
Seen at the Cambridge Film Festival prior to a limited re-release
What I learned: That Peter Lorre’s face might just be one of my favourite things in all of cinema.
1. Jules Et Jim
Seen on re-release at the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St. Edmunds
What I learned: That, through the films of the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino and Wes Anderson, I’ve been a huge fan of the French New Wave for years. This sows the seeds of so much that I’ve loved in the cinema, and it was all I could do not to sit and giggle with glee at Truffaut’s technique and verve. Even the deeply nihilistic ending was right up my street.
2013: The General
2012: Lawrence Of Arabia
2011: Funny Games (original)
2010: The Shop Around The Corner
Sometimes a film isn’t about the combination of script, director, actors, special effects and the host of other contributions, sometimes it’s about the alchemy of a particular moment that lives long in your memory. Other times it’s just about a cheap fart gag or a stupid dance. Either way, no Movie Evangelist Review Of The Year would be complete without me attempting to pick out the 30 best scenes of the year from a collection of legal and illegal clips made available via YouTube, then getting frustrated when I can’t find the clip I had in mind and discovering that half the ones I did find have disappeared within a couple of months. (When I put my top trailers together last week, one of them had been taken down before I even managed to publish the post. Grr.)
Yes, no review of the year of mine would be complete without this, except my review of 2010 because the first time I did this was in 2011. If I had done a list in 2010, the number one would either have been a bunch of monks having dinner (Of Gods And Men) or the audacious stadium chase where the camera seemingly zooms in from somewhere in the next country (The Secret In Their Eyes). Or possibly the end of Toy Story 3. Or Mary And Max. But now we’ll never know. Anyway, that’s the beauty of variety of these lists.
So after having been back to my countdowns of 2011 to 2013, and then reinstated all the clips that have disappeared since this time last year – this year a total of thirteen clips had disappeared from the last three years – I’ve now been through and assembled thirty of my favourite moments from this year’s finest.
WARNING: Viewer discretion advised. This blog post would be rated at least a 15 if I had to submit it to the BBFC, for several instances of strong language, strong violence, bloody injury detail, and dangerous bears. Well, dangerously cute bears, anyway.
30. Manakamana – Two old ladies eating ice cream
The latest film from the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard is really more of an art installation than it is a film – hence nine walkouts when I saw it in Cambridge – but if you allow yourself to be taken over by its precise rhythms there are many pleasures to be had. It consists of a series of cable car rides on a trip to and from a temple, and by the time you’ve seen half a dozen you have a rough idea of the duration. Watching two women attempt to finish their ice creams before they reach their destination becomes a surprising study in tension.
29. Starred Up – Cell invasion
The British prison drama has energy and anger to burn, and there’s no better example than this scene where Jack O’Connell greases up then arms himself ready for trouble.
28. Muppets Most Wanted – I’ll get you what you want
None of the songs in this sequel quite match the original, but this one probably comes closest. Not sure whether my favourite rhyming pair is second pillow / armadillo or diamond ring / thingy-thing.
27. Edge Of Tomorrow – Truck and roll
Edge Of Tomorrow, or Live. Die. Repeat. Or Groundhog Cruise, or whatever it’s calling itself now, had a lot of fun killing Tom Cruise, and this was as much fun as any of the deaths.
26. Lilting – Awkward introductions
You would think having to have almost every scene in the film translated would be a barrier to the drama, but as this early scene proves, it can actually add to the tension and layers of meaning.
25. Mood Indigo – The pianocktail
Very little this year – with the exception of The Grand Budapest Hotel – brought me as much joy from a single film as Mood Indigo, and I would see a pianocktail as being a fine addition to any room or deranged fantasy film.
24. Alleluia – Kitchen sink opera
Just the trailer here for Alleluia, the latest from Fabrice Du Welz, but this means the scene in the kitchen where Lola Dueñas breaks into song will remain resolutely unspoiled for when you see the film.
23. The Grandmaster – Platform altercation
Wong Kar Wei’s much delayed film had problems in the Weinstein-produced version I saw, and I’m not sure that the original cut would have fixed them, but the experience was worth it for scenes such as these.
22. What We Do In The Shadows – Werewolves not swearwolves
It’s all the little moments – like throwing the stick – that still make me think I may have harshly judged WWDITS when I reviewed it earlier in the year.
21. Kajaki: A True Story – Bomb dispersal
The trailer here gives you a flavour of the film, but most of the last hour or so is an exercise in ratcheting tension that had me gripping chunks out of the armrests. Thanks to a dedicated distribution deal with Vue, this wasn’t as widely seen as it might have been, but the scene where one character is leaping blindly across a valley of landmines was as nerve-shredding as anything seen this year.
20. The Babadook – Bedtime stories
So, you start reading a terrifying bedtime story book – at what point would you have stopped reading? Before this? Yeah, me too, probably.
19. 22 Jump Street – Who’s the daddy?
A collection here of the finest scenes, all featuring Ice Cube, from this summer’s meta-sequel that provided a lot of the year’s biggest laughs.
18. Fury – Sherman vs. German
This making of discusses the highlight of the film, a sequence where a German Tiger tank takes on four American tanks and comes off resolutely best.
17. Godzilla – HALO goodbye
You might recognise the music from this sequence if you saw the re-release of 2001 earlier this year, or if indeed you’re a fan of Lygeti’s Requiem (source of the music in question).
16. Blue Ruin – Headshot
Yep, so I didn’t see this coming when I saw it in the cinema. A film full of small, surprising moments and less conventional choices.
15. ’71 – Kicking off
The second appearance of a Jack O’Connell film in this year’s countdown, and the best moments in the film are when O’Connell is separated from the rest of his unit and forced to go on the run. For some reason this film was criminally underseen this year.
14. Night Moves – Dam busters
Couldn’t quite find the scene I wanted, which is the attempt by Jesse Eisenberg, Peter Saarsgard and Dakota Fanning to blow up a hydro-electric dam in a manner that goes about as smoothly as sandpaper covered in splinters. But this scene also shows how the lack of forward planning and Saarsgard’s laissez-faire attitude undermine the plan from the start.
13. The Guest – Brother from another mother
So this scene is when The Guest kicks into a higher gear, as Dan Stevens shows just how to deal with bullies. For my mother if she’s reading, a bonus scene with Dan Stevens. Apparently Downton hasn’t been the same since he was killed off. Can’t think why.
12. Stranger By The Lake – Ready for drowning
This making of discusses the pivotal scene at the heart of the film, which sees a crucial plot development take place in the far distance with the character watching unable to do anything except sit and be horrified.
11. Inside Llewyn Davis – Opening number
Many of these end of year lists feature Please Mr. Kennedy as their scene of choice, but I was hooked when Oscar Isaac was allowed to sing this in full. Despite not being a musical, having every song at its full length worked very much in the film’s favour.
10. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – Tank whirl
Sadly the full clip showing the tank POV shot as the apes attack the human settlement isn’t on YouTube yet that I can find, so instead watch the Honest Trailer, which has bits of it it, but also made me feel ridiculous about even liking the film. They usually do that.
9. Under The Skin – Surface tension
A film that I originally rated 8/10 and thought would be lucky to break my top 40 this year. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about scenes like this for months.
8. Guardians Of The Galaxy – Prison break
Marvel’s blockbusters may have only been mildly revolutionary – although as it turns out Captain America: The Winter Soldier probably saved Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. from an early grave – but in terms of entertainment value, the raccoon and the tree are hard to beat.
7. The LEGO Movie – SPACESHIP!!!!
Hey, at least I didn’t play you the year’s biggest earworm, Everything Is Awesome. ‘Cos you’re thinking about it already, and I’ve only said the title, haven’t I? Anyway, this is how excited I got when I played with LEGO when I was seven. And also last week with my niece. For five hours. Awesome.
Oh, and that thing about not playing the earworm? I lied, sorry.
6. The Skeleton Twins – Starship troupers
This clip not only captures the special bond between brother and sister that persists well after childhood (it would likely be something from the original Now That’s What I Call Music album for my sister and I), but also the frustration that sometimes you have to just scream into a pillow. I might go sale shopping for some more pillows while I think about it.
5. Paddington – Meet and greet
Spending four years at university, trekking from east Kent to Bath every six weeks or so by train, meant that I spent more hours than I’d care to mention on those platforms. Yet now, I aspire to the middle class lifestyle that this short clip clearly represents. The Lost And Found sign over Paddington’s head is a delight.
4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past – Hi yo (Quick)silver
Remember, of course, that filming this at 200 frames per second means they actually had to do everything really quickly. Nice to see Bryan Singer back on the X-Men films.
3. The Raid 2: Car chase fight
This is just part of a longer sequence, but when you watch it, pay close attention to the part around the 4:23 mark. If you can’t work out how on earth they achieved that camera move, the solution in this video is both simpler and more amazing than you realise.
2. 12 Years A Slave – Hanging in the balance
From the year’s most uncomfortable film, a scene I still can’t watch without grasping at my own throat. Or soul, for that matter.
1. The Wolf Of Wall Street – Higher than an eagle
It’s maybe no surprise to see Martin Scorsese still at the height of his powers after forty years in film making, but Leonardo DiCaprio has continued to mature thanks to his partnership with Marty over the last ten of those. This clip has everything: visual style and trickery from Scorsese, the most hilariously inappropriate voiceover I can remember, and Leo showing a gift for physical comedy that probably no-one expected. Let’s hope the pair can continue to find projects to work on together if they’re as good as this.
The Top 30 Scenes Of 2013 – WINNER: Iron Man Three, the Mandarin reveal
The Top 30 Scenes Of 2012 – WINNER: The Muppets, Man Or Muppet
The Top 30 Scenes Of 2011 – WINNER: Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, Burj Khalifa
We have arrived at the breakdown of actors and actresses in my review of the year, and this year more than ever there seem to be great performances on this list that have been in the service of less than stellar films. When you look at the big award nominations, the acting awards and the best picture nominations aren’t normally too far removed from each other, but in my list this year at most fifteen of these performances will be in films that feature in the final top 40.
Of course, there’s no reason why good actors shouldn’t appear in average, or even bad, films but in most cases on this list it’s the actors being let down by their scripts. I can’t think of many instances of great scripts being played out by bad actors, so clearly it’s easier to get your film funded with a decent name or two attached than it is to get the script right first. There isn’t as much talk as there used to be about actors’ salaries these days, but few of the names on this list will be commanding top dollar anyway (although two at almost opposite ends of the list will be in Star Wars next year – what odds one of them reappearing for that in twelve months?).
Anyway, usual rules apply: all lengths of performance are considered equally and there is no distinction between actor and actress here. For the record, I have 14 men and 11 women on this year’s list, but in the top 10 it’s 6-4 the other way. And only one person per film; there are two or three instances where this rule has excluded great efforts, but I will endeavour to give them an honourable mention as I go. So here’s my fourth annual list of my favourite 25 performances of the year. In the end I couldn’t pick between Leo and Matthew in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but if this list ran to 26 one of them would probably have been on it. Them’s the breaks.
25. Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Part of what I love about Oscar Isaac is his chameleon-like ability to blend in completely with his surroundings. I wonder how many people would associate him with his role in Drive having seen this? He’s also shown his versatility in The Two Faces Of January in 2014, proving that he’s got charm to spare, but exasperation was his best mood this year. Not only does he fit in perfectly with the ranks of other downtrodden Coen leads, but his musical skills are also brought beautifully to the fore. Someone get this man a moody musical.
24. Uma Thurman – Nymphomaniac, Part 1
She may be on screen for only a few minutes, but Uma Thurman is the best thing in Lars Von Trier’s patience tester (although at least this was one four hour epic we got an interval in this year). I’m sure there’s some wish fulfilment of some embittered soul somewhere in that performance, but Thurman lights up the screen in a thoroughly entertaining cameo. Also, I don’t have awards for least best acting, but if I did a strong contender would be someone in this film whose name rhymes with Friar LeSmurf.
23. Haluk Bilginer – Winter Sleep
By contrast, this three hour and ten minute latest from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan is intermission free, and consists greatly of people talking calmly to each other in dark rooms. You need someone who’s going to keep your attention for that to work, and Bilginer’s sheer magnetism does just that, even allowing for his world-weariness that lays over the top. A mention must also go to his on-screen wife Melisa Sözen who has a couple of very powerful scenes in the last half hour.
22. Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
To think that there were the usual silly doubts when the Hunger Games franchise began that Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t right for Katniss; too old, dyeing her hair, wrong star sign, that sort of thing. While the casting is generally stellar this just wouldn’t have worked as a franchise without Lawrence, and to her credit she’s given the same level of committed performance in both her blockbuster roles this year that she has to her more serious endeavours. It’s great to see someone who, in behind the scenes footage, clearly has such a love for her craft and that passion is on screen for all to see.
21. Brendan Gleeson – Calvary
Gleeson has now teamed up twice with John Michael McDonogh and the results have been great both times. While Brendan Gleeson was sardonic and dismissive in The Guard, here he’s required to give a different level of performance and in both films Gleeson’s performance has crucially underpinned the overall tone. McDonogh isn’t afraid to deal with weighty themes and what humour there is happens to be dry as a bone and black as a starless night but, for all his sins and those of his church, you still find yourself rooting for this non-stereotypical priest. It would be remiss of me not to mention Kelly Reilly as his daughter who’s also putting in a performance as good as anything she’s done.
20. Pierre Deladonchamps – Stranger By The Lake
I could make cheap jokes about Deladonchamps’ performance being stripped bare – and if you want cheap jokes, you’ve normally come to the right place – but Stranger By The Lake pulls off the difficult balancing act of being both a taut Hitckcockian thriller and an honest assessment of male frailty and psychology. Leave your modesty at the door and you’ll be firmly gripped (stop it) by a performance which is one of the most unhindered of the year, regardless of the state of dress of many of the participants.
19. Jack O’Connell – Starred Up
It’s been a great year for Jack O’Connell but his best role may also have been his first, the British prison drama which skipped around the clichés to feel fresh and relevant. O’Connell has a set of facial expressions well suited to defiance and a demeanour to match, but he’s shown in all of his performances this year that he can do subtle in spades and his fractious relationship with estranged father Ben Mendelssohn gives both actors plenty to work with. With two Hollywood roles under his belt this year already, expect O’Connell to be a star of the future.
18. Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
It’s difficult to pick a winner from the performance stakes in Boyhood, but possibly thanks to his experience in the Before trilogy it was Ethan Hawke that most caught my eye. Over the twelve year span of the film his character goes through as much of an evolution as anyone, from cocksure and unreliable to steady and dependable, but he does so in believable steps; that can have been no easy feat considering the nature of the filming process. The four leads are all great, so apologies to Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and especially Patricia Arquette that I only pick one performance per film.
17. Berenice Bejo – The Past
I’ve become a real fan of Asghar Farhadi’s work over the past few years, and while The Past didn’t quite hit the heights of A Separation or About Elly, it wasn’t far off at all. This was the first time he’s worked with such an international cast but this felt comfortably and with deep familiarity a Farhadi film, and Bejo proved that she’s not just a silent face with a performance the polar opposite of her appearance in The Artist. For some reason this film seemed to slip below the awards radar, but Bejo’s performance is up there with anything in Farhadi’s back catalogue.
16. Juliette Binoche – Camille Claudel 1915
I struggled greatly with parts of this biopic of the troubled artist, but that shouldn’t take away from Juliette Binoche’s work as the titular artist. Many of my problems with the film relate to later stretches when the film becomes dry and airless while searching for resolution, but coincidentally this is also when Binoche happens to be off screen. It would be easy to overdo the theatricality of a role dealing with mental illness, but to Binoche’s great credit she’s far more astute than that. A shame, then, that the film isn’t quite the equal of what she brings to it.
15. Bill Murray – St. Vincent
The biggest problem with St. Vincent as a film is that it doesn’t have any gear shifts: it has a consistent, level tone despite the extreme ups and downs endured by its characters when it would be better suited with an ability to swing more closely to the comedic and dramatic aspects of its script. That’s highlighted in Bill Murray’s performance, which defines irascible but also asks a lot of Murray with a huge back story and physical afflictions as the story progresses. It’s nice to see Melissa McCarthy dialling back her performance to something simple and honest, but everyone else is in Bill Murray’s shadow here.
14. Tom Hardy – Locke
While there was a certain amount of fun from playing guess the phone voice (I’d repeatedly convinced myself that Andrew Scott was actually Chris O’Dowd), Steven Knight’s film is little more than a conceit which doesn’t necessarily serve Tom Hardy’s performance as well as it might. I’m also prepared to overlook the fact that I wasn’t 100% sold by Hardy’s accent, which is generally reliable but no more, in light of how much emotion he generates with so little acting backlift. He was also the best thing in Dennis Lehane scripted drama The Drop later in the year, mildly memorable for being James Gandolfini’s last film.
13. Gugu Mbatha-Raw – Belle
I got into a debate on Bums On Seats, the community radio show I lend my voice to, about the merits of Belle; I turned out to be the lone positive voice. I’m not going to claim that it was a masterpiece but I stand by its merits, and one of its many was the performance of relative newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw (hitherto known only to me as Martha’s sister Tish from the third modern season of Doctor Who). There’s plenty of solid support around but Mbatha-Raw carries the dramatic weight of the film and deftly handles both period romance and the film’s dalliances with weightier issues.
12. Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
I think that The Imitation Game as a film has a lot of problems, but the acting isn’t one of them. The likes of Mark Strong and Charles Dance do what Mark Strong and Charles Dance generally do best, but the stand-outs are Keira Knightley – even if she is saddled with the poshest accent in acting history – and Benedict Cumberbatch. The man with the most mocked name in showbusiness puts yet another spin on his collection of damaged geniuses and without him, the film would have been a hollow shell. I just hope he manages to get the right balance of Hollywood and Britain moving forward, as both Star Trek and Marvel have already got their claws into him for big franchise roles.
11. Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Seriously, why did no one think to put Ralph Fiennes and Wes Anderson together earlier? Delivering some of the most delicious dialogue from any script this year, Fiennes spews out quotable lines with effortless elegance but his performance ranges through a variety of emotions. Ipswich’s finest export since Cardinal Wolsey has been meticulous and sharply calibrated in both his acting and directing for two decades, but he’s achieved most of his best work in dramatic roles. In Bruges might be the closest he’s come to anything like this before, and that’s still a mile off (and no-one who’s ever seen him opposite Uma Thurman in The Avengers will ever forget his discomfort), but he was such a total fit for the Anderson universe that we can but pray it’s not their only collaboration.
10. Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
There’s a myth about the curse of the Bond girl, when in reality for every woman who’s proven herself as a love interest opposite Bond but then gone onto anonymity there’s just as many for whom it’s been but a footnote on an impressive CV. Evidence would suggest Rosamund Pike is likely to fall into the latter category, but her role in Pierce Brosnan’s swansong may have come slightly too early in her career; she’s matured in smaller roles in the likes of Made In Dagenham and The World’s End, but I suspect her role as the object of Ben Affleck’s attention in David Fincher’s trashy delight will one day be seen as career defining. Somehow, despite being cast in a role where she’s consigned to flashbacks before the main narrative has even started, she walks in and waltzes off with the whole film.
9. Ben Whishaw – Lilting
Lilting is very much a film of actors and performances rather than strong direction, but I have a lot of time for any film prepared to cast Peter Bowles. Ben Whishaw has been quietly going around his business for a few years now, and having impressed greatly in Cloud Atlas and nabbed a role to pay the bills for a few years yet as Bond’s new Q he’s now started to find leading roles that show off his talents. Here he played the troubled man attempting to dealing with the grieving mother of his deceased parter beautifully, an understated role that still demanded Whishaw to have a lot going on just beneath the surface. He capped a good year with a voice turn as a positively perfect Paddington.
8. Kristen Wiig – The Skeleton Twins
Here’s a trivia question for your next film quiz: what connects Morwenna Banks, Joan Cusack, Robert Downey Jr., Jimmy Fallon, Christopher Guest, Randy Quaid, Chris Rock and Pamela Stevenson? They’re all alumni of the American comedy institution Saturday Night Live, and while you might at first think of the likes of Dan Ackroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy when you think of SNL, the latest generation are showing they are equally adept at both comedy and drama. The former SNL pairing of Wiig and Bill Hader are by turns heartbreaking and charismatic here, but it’s Wiig as the sister who seems stuck in a cycle of perpetually making poor life choices that makes the greatest impression.
7. Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
I’ve seen two Dardennes brothers films now and for some reason neither has quite gelled with me in the way they seem to have taken others. For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I find myself drawn to the deficiencies in their social realism, rather than being taken in by the performances and storytelling. Nonetheless, former Movie Evangelist Performance Of The Year winner and current Movie Evangelist ideal woman Marion Cotillard defies both any shortcomings in Two Days, One Night’s script and also rises above my slightly awkward attempts at stalkerish flattery with yet another winning performance that the rest of the film is constructed around.
6. Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
I have a lot of time for Jake Gyllenhaal, ever since he, Dennis Quaid and Emmy Rossum made The Day After Tomorrow far more watchable than it had any right to be. Why someone who has Donnie Darko, Zodiac, Source Code, Prisoners and Brokeback Mountain on his CV isn’t thought of as one of the best actors of his generation continues to mystify me, but with a mesmeric performance as the manipulative, greasy Leo Bloom Gyllenhaal is getting due attention for the first time since his partnership with Heath Ledger all those years ago. While he was slightly overshadowed even then, here Gyllenhaal dominates ever scene he’s in, which I think is just about all of them.
5. Joaquim Phoenix – Her
I have a strange and unhealthy fascination with Space Camp, the Eighties Space Shuttle film that’s a reductive mix of Apollo 13 and The Goonies which features a young Phoenix alongside Steven Spielberg’s wife and Marty McFly’s mum. It’s as an adult that the former Leaf Phoenix has impressed, from Gladiator through Walk The Line to The Master, yet in Her it’s ironically a childlike innocence that makes his performance so heartfelt and convincing. Never for one moment do we as an audience doubt or question his commitment to Scarlett Johansson’s AI, all the more impressive an achievement given that Johansson recorded her performance after the fact (it was Samantha Morton on set playing opposite Phoenix). I’m already looking forward to Phoenix’s reunion with Paul Thomas Anderson next month in Inherent Vice.
4. Essie Davis – The Babadook
The only woman who ever made a name for herself in a horror movie might have been Linda Blair. The director who drew out her most famous performance then this year rated The Babadook as the most terrifying film he’d ever seen, and that’s due large part to the anchoring performance given by Essie Davis in the lead role. Selling both the concept and her own gradual mental disintegration, Davis is as key to the success of The Babadook’s icy grip as the reedy-voiced monster. Up to now, the biggest credit Davis had received was probably in the two dire Matrix sequels, but hopefully her performance here will be a stepping stone to more lead roles.
3. Scarlett Johansson – Under The Skin
Easy to play an emotionless alien struggling to come to terms with the human condition? I’m sorry, I’ll have none of that. The contrast in the opening scenes where we see the original form taken over by Johansson show the contrast clearly, and I’ve been saving up the word fearless for this point in the countdown as Scarlett commits herself to the role with gusto. That’s even before that you consider she was actually out in a wig, cruising the streets of Glasgow with an impeccable English accent, and Under The Skin wouldn’t be featuring at the top of quite so many end of year lists without her. I’ve not always been a fan of Scarlett – The Prestige was my favourite film of the Noughties despite her rather than because of her – but consider me a convert off the back of this.
2. Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years A Slave
If you’re looking to hand out acting recognition for Steve McQueen’s devastating Best Picture winner, it’s difficult to know where to really start. But you should finish either with Michael Fassbender’s horrific plantation owner, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s dignified slave enduring a sort of reverse emancipation or Lupita Nyong’o’s gut-wrenching performance that earned her an Oscar, a job in Star Wars and a role as the Face Of Lancôme. In researching this list I watched two brief, thirty second clips of this Mexican-Kenyan actress’ performance and I was nearly in tears again, almost a full year after having last seen the film in full. I’m planning to watch the film again at some point this week, so will be off to bulk buy soft tissues shortly after completing this post.
1. Timothy Spall – Mr. Turner
But there was one performance this year that edged out all the others, a performance that bore the weight beautifully of the two and a half hour film constructed around it and one which will define the image of one of our nation’s greatest painters in the mind of a generation. I would absolutely love it if the award Spall picked up for this at Cannes turned out not to be the biggest prize that he’ll store in his trophy cabinet for this performance, but whatever the outcome of awards season Spall grabbed his chance in the limelight with both hands and created a character that felt as truly human as anyone we’ve seen on screen this year.
His Turner isn’t a misunderstood genius, merely an honest, humble man with an exceptional talent and an intolerance for family. Spall has long been a staple of both Mike Leigh films and British television and film in general, and his career as a character actor seemed in hindsight to be building to this moment. His characters aren’t always capturing huge amounts of screen time but so often it’s Spall’s performances that are the most memorable of the works he’s in. Given full rein to interpret Joseph Mallard William Turner his tics and mannerisms, his gutteral grunts and frustrated groanings might be what play out in the award season clips, but this is a full bodied performance that sees Spall at his very best and made Mr. Turner one of the best British films of the year. Timothy Spall, I salute you and am delighted to declare your performance my favourite of cinema in 2014.
The Top 25 Performances Of 2013 WINNER – Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
The Top 25 Performances Of 2012 WINNER – Marion Cotillard, Rust And Bone
The Top 25 Performances Of 2011 WINNER – Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur