The Year in Movies image

The Year in Movies

Instead of doing a standard Top 10 of the year, I thought I’d break down the films I’ve enjoyed into categories of why I’ve enjoyed them. This is largely because ranking films (when you see over 100 new films a year) becomes slightly arbitrary. Is Leviathan – a meaty treatise on suffering and Russian politics, made with sombre precision by the contemporary master Andrei Zvyagintsev – better or worse than Paddington, a wonderful, heart-warming family film full of creative flair and marmalade jokes? It is, of course, impossible to say (although I think I would sooner rewatch Paddington). So here are the films I’ve enjoyed the most this year, and there are slightly more than ten, just to really shake the system.

The films that are about now

Were I to pick one favourite, Boyhood would claim the prize. The film’s USP – filming it with the same cast over the course of twelve years – really did capture the spirit of the title; you get the sense of seeing a childhood unfold in front of your eyes, as the themes and ideas gently develop over the three-hour run time. It had extra resonance for me as it is about a person not much younger than me trying to work out who he wants to be. Becoming a Christian gives you a new purpose and identity, so my context is a little different from Mason, the main character in Boyhood, yet the dual sense of looking forward to an uncertain future, and backwards to a past that has shaped you, is nevertheless incredibly relevant for someone like me at a liminal stage of life. It’s a masterpiece, charged with emotion and full of warmth and humanity.

Her, the story of a man who falls in love with an operating system, was poorly marketed as a kooky rom-com, a kind of ‘When Harry Met Siri,’ but it was far, far better than that. It’s a film about what human relationships look like in a digital world, and it’s both profound and prescient.

The films from directors I love

Two of my favourite directors released films this year, and neither of them disappointed. Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is a strong contender for my favourite film of the year, a comedy that remembered to be funny, and yet still far more visually interesting than the majority of more serious films. It’s a rich, nostalgic and moving story, and may be his best yet.

Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator whose films everyone should watch, retired from film making and released his last film, The Wind Rises. Beautifully animated and subtly imaginative, he gracefully concluded his career with his most adult film yet, and ensured that his canon remains as close to perfect as a director can achieve.

The films that left me with a massive grin on my face

I love big, emotional animations. If it’s well animated, and has satisfying arcs, however predictable, you are guaranteed to get me in the cinema more than once. How To Train Your Dragon 2 hit all the right notes for me, but better than that, it was directed better than so many live action blockbusters, with truly cinematic sequences, strong character development and action sequences that actually have consequences make the storytelling far more mature than anything Marvel have produced.

More surprising was Paddington, which was about as good as family films get. Not only does it have a good, non-forced message – multiculturalism is good – and loads of enjoyable slapstick humour, but it’s directed with visual ingenuity and humour.

Frank, meanwhile, left me with a massive grin on my face simply because it was so absurd, so funny and so unexpectedly moving. It’s a film for anyone with a surreal streak to them.

The films that didn’t leave me with a massive grin on my face at all, but are so good anyway

Those who know me know that it is rare for me to be speechless, and rarer still for me to be speechless about a film, but for a solid ten minutes after 12 Years A Slave had finished, I had nothing to say (to my friends’ amusement). It’s a film of astonishing power, and not just because the subject matter is inherently horrific. In editing, sound mixing, cinematography, acting and screenplay, 12 Years is a triumph. Be warned: it is relentless and horrifying in the ways that it should be, so it’s not an easy watch, but it is one of the most technically accomplished films of this century so far.

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is an unpleasant watch in a wholly different way. It’s about a man who profits from local tragedies by filming them and selling it to news networks. It isn’t a film for every Think reader, as its subject matter is often grim and doesn’t shy away from the details; I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to my mum. As a satire on 21st Century news media and business practices, however, it’s uncomfortably astute and almost funny in the blackest way.

The films that challenged my faith

One of the year’s best was the Irish film Calvary, although my church leader wasn’t much of a fan because, again, it’s quite bleak (maybe in 2015 I need to watch more happy films). I loved it because of Brendan Gleeson’s phenomenal central performance, because the main character was actually a good, caring man of faith (albeit with flaws) and because it openly wrestled with big, difficult questions and seemed to conclude that love and forgiveness trumped them all.

Similarly influenced by Job was Leviathan, a Russian film with a strong critique of that state’s links with the Orthodox Church and the nation’s politics, with a rather philosophical sense of humour running throughout. Stations of the Cross and Ida were two exquisite films featuring young women questioning the place of faith in their lives. I’m not especially au fait with the religious sentiments in Russia, Germany and Poland, but the questions asked in these beautifully shot, impeccably performed films feel relevant in the UK, too. Far from being polemics, these were some of the most well-made, moving and interesting films of the year.

The best blockbusters

People call me a total grump when it comes to blockbusters, but that’s not true; it’s just that there aren’t many good blockbusters. Refreshingly, this year, there were three with ideas to spare, the best of which is Edge of Tomorrow, or ‘Groundhog D-Day’ as my friend called it. Great, clearly-shot action sequences and an inventive plot that keeps you engaged more than make up for a final act that borders on generic. Interstellar has similar problems with its ending, but is too ambitious and ideas-filled for that to matter. It’s bold, intelligent film making and better than some nit-picking critics would have you believe. Lucy has ideas, too, and they are all silly. Luc Besson’s film is about as ridiculous as cinema gets, and it embraces that. The ending, which goes further than most dare, is jaw-dropping in its brilliant stupidity.

The worst films of the year

A Million Ways To Die in the West and Grace of Monaco are easy targets here. One wasn’t funny when it was supposed to be, the other was hilarious when it shouldn’t have been. But both are fairly boring failures, just completely incompetent pieces of film making that fail at every level. They should and will be forgotten.

No, the greatest failure of the year, the one that I hated the most, was The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. Given that The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the reasons I fell in love with cinema in the first place, the utter disaster that is this endurance test of a film has a particularly grim resonance. Everything that was once good about visiting middle earth is, here, exaggerated, simplified and ruined in a two hour battle with such muddled storytelling it makes you question whether you even liked Fellowship. Characters die, companies are separated, and battles rage and you just. don’t. care. How can something with an almost limitless budget, a talented crew and a great world to explore end up so dispiritingly limp? It is worse than the Star Wars prequels.

What to look forward to in 2015:

2015 contains an over-saturated market if you want things exploding for $200m, as blockbusters dominate the release schedule. I urge you to look away from superheroes and space to see some independent cinema that is sure to be a good deal better than Age of Ultron. For example, Selma, out in February, is about a crucial moment in Martin Luther King’s campaign for voting rights; it’s incredible, relevant film making. Critics are raving about Whiplash, out in January, a drama about a jazz drummer and his teacher, while I’m particularly looking forward to two animations, Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which use traditional animation techniques and both have great directors. A Hologram For The King, Macbeth and Still Alice are all titles to look out for, too. Of course, I say all of this but deep down, there’s a chance that the film I’m most looking forward to is actually Pitch Perfect 2.

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