If 2014 was miserable for Malaysia, the situation elsewhere wasn’t much happier. In America, movie ticket sales were at their lowest in nearly a decade, and even China — the world’s fastest-growing market — saw far fewer breakout hits than expected. Some pundits pointed to a perceived lack of exciting offerings, while others blamed poor cinema attendance on the continued rise of illegal downloading. Postponed releases from the major studios like Disney-Pixar and Universal added to the impression of a thinner and weaker summer spread.
To be brutally honest, I felt it was like that throughout the year. There was not a single film that really blew my mind, unlike 2013 where my Top 3 films were all outright masterpieces. I will qualify that claim by saying I have yet to watch a number of acclaimed works from 2014, namely “Selma”, “A Most Violent Year”, “The Imitation Game”, and my most anticipated piece, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s “Birdman” with Michael Keaton. Still, of the ones I did watch, some turned out to be good but overhyped (“Boyhood” was an awe-inspiring cinematic experiment that ran out of steam towards the end), while others were merely solid efforts with exceptional lead performances that overshadowed the subject matter (Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory Of Everything”, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo in “Foxcatcher”).
Which leaves me with what did end up on my Best Of list. While I would stop short of calling any of the following films masterpieces, they are definitely very, very good and a number of them touch greatness. Each of these films were measured against what they originally set out to do, and they accomplished their respective goals with a whole lot of intelligence, passion, and craftsmanship. This year is also more international than usual, with entries hailing from England, Australia, Ireland, and Indonesia. Ladies & gents, here are the films that impressed Electroshadow the most…
Although 2014 was generally a lousy year for horror, this ultra low-budget Aussie production almost single-handedly redeemed the genre. But it’s somewhat reductive to label “The Babadook” a mere scary pic. Of course, it worked on that level first and foremost, with a mournful monochromatic look and an inescapable feeling of dread saturating the entire film to constantly put us on edge. Its real strength however, was in its examination of how the death of a loved one can consume us, turning even the purest, most selfless aspects of human nature — such as the maternal instinct — into something dark and dangerous. The film played it so that the titular demon could be taken literally or as a metaphor for grief. Either way it was still a troubling yet ultimately touching portrait of a widowed single mother struggling to keep it together. Budgetary limitations occasionally took the edge off the scares, but this was more than compensated for by some remarkable acting and a smart, sensitive handling of a familiar premise. Based on this debut, writer-director Jennifer Kent is a talent to keep an eye out for.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
A lot of people tend to underestimate what Marvel Studios achieved here. “Guardians Of The Galaxy” was a very weird property even by comicbook standards, and the studio consciously chose not to give it a helping hand by having established characters show up. They wanted it to be its own thing. This was a studio boldly declaring that they were expanding their universe; to tell new stories, to give us a chance to fall in love with brand new characters. There was certainly no guarantee that we would, but Marvel President Kevin Feige’s instincts about director James Gunn proved to be spot on. He injected just the right amounts of loony and goofy into the project to make it, if not this generation’s “Star Wars”, then certainly something pretty close in spirit. It’s also Marvel’s best comedy so far, filled with quotable dialogue and scene-stealing performances across the board. Only the studio’s traditional Achilles Heels of an underdeveloped villain and a formulaic 3rd act prevent this from ranking higher.
10 THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
I make no secret of my disinterest in Wes Anderson’s work. I get that he has a very specific filmmaking voice and therefore may not speak to everyone’s tastes. Personally, I’ve always found his style overly mannered and artificial. Yet these very same attributes somehow gelled into something utterly delightful in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Anderson’s brand of deliberate oddness simply clicked with the setting and the type of story he was telling here (inspired by the writings of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig). Typically, it was stuffed with quirky characters but rather atypically for me, this time they were endearing and funny. In fact, this stood out as Anderson’s funniest film to date, with Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton showing off some damn fine comic timing. Visually, I loved it too. The symmetrical compositions, dead-centre shot framing, pastel color scheme, and opulent art deco sets all added up to make this the most beautifully-designed film of the year. While a number of Wes Anderson-isms still bugged me, the overall experience was just too charming to resist.
9 THE LEGO MOVIE
Ah, but if you really want a tour de force of pure charm, look no further than “The LEGO Movie”. Cynics couldn’t see past the apparent stupidity of doing a movie based on a bunch of building blocks. Fortunately, directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller weren’t cynics. To them, that was precisely the appeal. LEGO is all about potential, the freedom to create whatever the hell you want. And that’s what they built their movie on, if you’ll pardon the pun. The result was a wonderful celebration of the power of creativity and the sheer joy of play. Amidst the manic, non-stop barrage of jokes, pop culture homages, and visual inventiveness, they even had room for a heartwarming message about the importance of preserving that child inside, the one who hasn’t been tainted by the self-defeating rules, restrictions and limitations we place on ourselves in adulthood. Altogether now: Everything Is Awesommmme!!
8 THE RAID 2: BERANDAL
Although “John Wick” gave it a pretty good run for its money, the decision was never in doubt. “The Raid 2” is the year’s best actioner, and ranks up there as one of the best action films in years. If you haven’t heard the name Gareth Huw Evans yet, please take note now. He is the Chief Architect of Ass-kickery (yes, that’s a real job title). Be it hand-to-hand combat, car chases or gunfights, this guy delivers in every department. Holy crap, did he deliver here. With his Indonesian cast — Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian & Cecep Arif Rahman — pulling double duty as martial arts choreographers, Evans gave us some of the most jaw-dropping fight scenes ever caught on camera. The prison courtyard brawl. The scuffle inside a speeding car. The nightclub free-for-all. Any scene with Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl (instantly iconic). Or THAT final showdown in the kitchen. There was just so much to savour. Lightyears bigger in scope, complexity and ambition than the first film, the admirable thing about “Berandal” was that it wasn’t afraid to slow down for us to get involved in the plot and characters. If anything, it was perhaps a tad too complex and ambitious for its own good. Some of the drama did not quite pay off. But those were small issues considering just how incredibly energised the rest of the film was, and how energised it made me feel. Now this is what I call a kick in the head.
Right from the beginning, this Irish film warned us that it wasn’t going to hold back. In the first scene, an unseen man in a confession booth tells a priest (Brendan Gleeson): “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” After a pause, Gleeson stoically replies “That’s hardly a startling opening line”. The stranger then reveals that he will kill the priest in seven day’s time, to make an example of him. But don’t mistake “Calvary” as some trashy, sensationalist swipe at the Catholic Church over its child molestation scandal. The film was really more concerned about matters of faith and sin, about how it is possible to maintain your spiritual resolve when humanity appears to be crumbling around you. The film had a strange way of showing it, but it was actually an affirmation of religion. On the way there, it had a lot more to offer. The bleak humour for one. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh presented us with a town’s worth of human oddities, and Gleeson cutting through each character’s bullshit with a plain-speaking wisdom. The veteran actor has always been a favourite of mine, and here he brought a quiet fire to the role of a man torn between moral outrage and self-doubt. “Calvary” also worked really well as a ticking clock whodunit, or in this case whowilldoit, and right up to the final revelation it refused to let up its uncompromising mindset. Sobering yet funny, tragic yet hopeful, opaque yet insightful, the film’s conflicting nature was also its biggest allure.
6 GONE GIRL
David Fincher’s rather harsh worldview shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Which is fantastic if that means we get more films like “Gone Girl”. I hesitate to call this a return to form since his output has been somewhat inconsistent in the last decade or so. But unlike his last book adaptation, this one was riveting, unpredictable and thought-provoking from start to finish. Fincher was in full command of the material here (author Gillian Flynn wrote the screenplay), which went from a fairly standard mystery thriller to a much darker and way more twisted place. This was a romance tale stripped of any idealistic romantic notions, a look at marriages as toxic, suffocating power plays. There wasn’t even a moral to be found by the end of it simply because it was so determined to ignore morality. Which isn’t to say the film did not have a point. I’ll risk a slight spoiler by telling you the point here: some people truly deserve each other. This message was stronger in the book, as the film’s ending was changed for reasons I still can’t figure out. To be honest it did diminish the strength of one of its characters and made for an unfulfilling resolution. That’s the only reason the film is not ranked higher. Otherwise, this is powerful, potent Cinema, with top-notch performances all around and two standouts. Rosamund Pike will surely be getting a lot of awards attention, and deservedly so. But it was Ben Affleck who surprised me with a deceptively subtle showing. “Gone Girl” is his best work, and a high point for Fincher too.
Some films impress you with their amazing craft or storytelling verve. Some films just win you over by the sheer force of their likability. That’s “Chef” for you. I don’t think I came across a more good-natured, big-hearted movie in 2014 than this one by Jon Favreau. And to think he made this out of some petty need to address the criticism of him as an artist. That’s how it may have started, that’s what the spine of the film ended up being, but that’s not what we ultimately got out of it. What we got was something made with so much love and affection it was impossible not to feel it. “Chef” was an ode to family and how those ties can help pick you up again when life falls apart. It also paid tribute to the artist and the devotion to one’s art. Not all good films need to be epic, complex and filled with Big Ideas. Sometimes, small, straightforward stories about ordinary things work just as well. Of course, it helped that Favreau had a lovely cast with palpable chemistry, and gloriously-shot food scenes. “Chef” reminded me of home-cooked comfort food. Man, just thinking about it makes me hungry right now.
4 CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Forget debates over whether it is the best superhero film ever made (it is), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is simply one of the best action thrillers out there. And that’s the genius of Marvel Studios. They don’t make “Superhero” films — at least not anymore. They make genre films which feature superheroes. There is a difference. They knew earlier and better than anybody that eventually the superhero bubble will burst, so they took steps to keep things fresh and differentiated. That’s why Marvel flicks have often been described as either a sci-fi comedy, a heist caper, a supernatural horror, or in this case an actioner heavily influenced by the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. While “Winter Soldier” still conformed to certain tropes of the Marvel formula, there was never the feeling that it was shackled by convention. In fact, this was the film that proved just how far Marvel was willing to go to generate real forward movement in their cinematic universe. Superhero franchises are often guilty of doing the same thing over and over, hence the eventual stagnation and the subsequent need to reboot. Now consider how drastically different this sequel was from the first outing, and just how wide open they left things by the end. Directors the Russo brothers and their writers were signaling even bigger, more thrilling developments to come. So, beyond the terrific action sequences, the sharp script and the engaging performances, it is work like this that will save the superhero genre from itself. That’s what makes this film so valuable in the grand scheme of things.
This wonderful British film (directed by Stephen Frears) was released in late 2013, but received a local release in early 2014. You might recall it got some attention at the Oscars, with Dame Judi Dench nominated for Best Actress, plus nods for Best Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. While it did not win in any of those categories, that shouldn’t take away an ounce of its worth. “Philomena” was accused of being anti-Catholic, but in truth the controversial accusations of nuns forcibly taking children away from young unwed mothers was a simple matter of fact. In a story like this someone had to be the “bad guys” and it just so happened to be members of the religious order. Besides, its accusers tended to overlook the true point of the film. It wasn’t about hate, it was about love, forgiveness, and the importance of closure. Dench lived up to all the praise heaped on her, with a performance that was equal parts adorable and heartbreaking. Co-star and screenwriter Steve Coogan was excellent too, and together they made the year’s best onscreen (odd) couple. The ending left me with a lump in my throat and a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart. Not a lot of films with such a grim subject matter can achieve that.
2 A MOST WANTED MAN
If you’re only as good as your last piece of work, then Philip Seymour Hoffman’s legacy as one of the greats is assured. “A Most Wanted Man” was his final completed leading role, and boy, talk about going out on a high. Based on the novel by John le Carré, the film took a long, hard look at post-9/11 Islamic terrorism versus the West’s often skewed perception of Islamic terrorism. A tightly-woven story of hidden agendas, shifting loyalties and human frailties, director Anton Corbijn cranked up the tension in Andrew Bovell’s superb screenplay several notches to deliver a blistering political essay. At the forefront of all this was Hoffman in absolutely masterful form as a German secret service operative. It’s never easy conveying a quality like intelligence, but Hoffman just exuded it from every pore. And he did it in such a naturalistic, lived-in way, you’d swear he spent years working undercover for the German government or something. The film also offered a cool glimpse into the inner workings of the espionage world, right down to the mundane yet ingenious ways agents get results. For anyone who’s ever lamented the dearth of the mature, plot-driven thrillers that do not rely on explosions to thrill, I assure you it is alive and well in films like these. But if for nothing else, watch this for Mr. Hoffman.
“Nightcrawler” is a film of mosts. It was the most audacious, most amoral, most sharply-written, most beautifully-lit, and most compelling film I saw last year. I would’ve added that Jake Gyllenhaal gave the most outstanding performance by a lead actor, if not for one thing. The fact that last year there were just too many unbelievable examples of acting by the men, to the point where any awards show is going to have a very tough time shortlisting the nominees, let alone choosing the winner. Even so, Gyllenhaal’s work was something else. You simply could not take your eyes off him, which is saying a lot considering how ghastly he looked in the role of a media vampire. The film filtered the American Dream through the distorted prism of Gyllenhaal’s ruthlessly ambitious character and what came out the other side was the blackest comedy of the year. He brought a whole new meaning to the saying “If you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” Directing off his own script, Dan Gilroy coaxed a career best out of a consistently brilliant actor, and got some pretty first-rate work from his supporting players as well (Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo and Bill Paxton). “Nightcrawler” is proof that great Cinema can make you feel terribly uncomfortable and still be thoroughly captivating.
If you haven’t already read it, check out Electroshadow’s Top 10 Worst Movies of 2014 HERE!