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Well, certainly the best films that I’ve actually seen in 2014, anyway. As with any list like this there are some parameters and disclaimers that need to be mentioned. First of all due to international release dates I saw American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Her, 12 Years A Slave and The Wolf Of Wall Street in January and February this year, but I have not included them in this list as I’ve tried to limit it to films that have been widely-released in cinemas in 2014 (i.e. leaving out the films our American friends watched way back in the year of 2013). Still, there’s no hard-and-fast logic to it all – Snowpiercer is included here despite the fact it still hasn’t been properly released in the UK (I…er…stumbled across a copy online, your honour), while some of the other films in this top 20 made their debuts in festivals around the world in 2013.

There are also several glaring omissions that will no doubt be appearing on other people’s lists. Certain movies that have been widely-praised already by those that have seen them, such as Birdman, Whiplash, American Sniper, The Theory Of EverythingFoxcatcher, A Most Violent YearSelma and Inherent Vice have not yet been released over here at the time of writing, and are therefore not included. Lastly, there are many, many movies that I just haven’t got round to seeing that I expect I will enjoy or find very interesting based on the reviews I’ve read elsewhere; that means The Lego Movie, Locke, The Babadook, Pride, TracksAdieu Au Langage, Leviathan, JaujaTwo Days, One NightFinding Vivien Maier, Starred Up, Horse Money, KajakiThe Look Of SilenceFruitvale Station (a 2014 UK release) and plenty more besides aren’t listed here. In some cases they just haven’t been shown at a cinema near me, but I hope to watch all of them at some undetermined point in the future. So that should tell you all you need to know; I’m not for one minute suggesting that this is a definitive list of the best films in 2014, but it is simply a list of my favourites out of the ones that I’ve seen. And if anyone suggests to you that it has been a crap year for film feel free to send them here.

OK…without further ado…

20. Edge Of Tomorrow
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Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt star in this Groundhog Day-ish sci-fi / videogame-style futuristic nightmare, directed by Doug Liman, that also looked to the Normandy landings of Saving Private Ryan and the alien-paggering mayhem of Starship Troopers for inspiration. Edge Of Tomorrow arrived with less fuss than most of the year’s blockbusters, didn’t take itself too seriously, and this fun action film showed Cruise still knows how to pick a sci-fi script. (Read full review.)

19. Gone Girl
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David Fincher’s icy portrait of a marriage gone horribly wrong was overrated in my opinion, but there was still much to admire; the main twist was well-executed, the lead performances by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were decent, and the sudden explosion of violence in the third act was quite something. A clever, multi-layered thriller and media satire, but not one of Fincher’s best. (Read full review.)

18. Guardians Of The Galaxy
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Another overrated load of old nonsense, arguably, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Guardians Of The Peace Galaxy nonetheless. It was hailed by many on its release as a breath of fresh air, and while in reality it adopted many of the usual Marvel / comic book conventions, it did contain some genuine laugh-out-loud moments and was very well cast. I steered clear of Marvel’s output this year, by and large, but this was a fun summer film and it was successful in establishing a wide range of little-known characters for the future. Apparently that’s a good thing. (Read full review.)

17. Snowpiercer
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Bong Joon-ho’s frenetic Snowpiercer has had such a fragmented release schedule – the result of the director pissing off the dastardly Harvey Scissorhands over at Miramax – it’s hard to know whether it should be included in a top 20 from last year, this year or next year. This dystopian sci-fi action film is set almost entirely on board a train that circumnavigates Earth at high speed, and though its setting becomes less and less credible as the story reaches a climax, it still makes for an excellent dark, claustrophobic setting. Chris Evans is enjoyable as the frowning hero battling his way from one carriage to the next, but Tilda Swinton steals the show with a performance that can only be described as bonkers. (Read full review.)

16. 20,000 Days On Earth
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This quasi-documentary about the singer-songwriter Nick Cave gives a fascinating glimpse into the artistic process – or rather his artistic process – with a mix of genuine and scripted footage as well as in-car conversations with collaborators as diverse as Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue. It may be a little self-indulgent at times but, like Cave, it’s always interesting, and worth watching for the Nina Simone anecdote alone. (Read full review.)

15. What We Do In The Shadows
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In my opinion it has been a lean time of late in terms of comedies, but this New Zealand film packed in a bunch of laughs as it lampooned the vampire legend, with the team behind Flight Of The Conchords mocking or referencing everything from Nosferatu to Twilight along the way. Genuinely witty, with a warm heart, even if the ‘fake documentary’ shtick is old hat. Destined to become a cult classic. (Read full review.)

14. ’71
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Yann Demange’s tense, taut tale of a young British soldier caught behind enemy lines in Belfast during the course of a night in 1971 included some nail-biting sequences, a moody soundtrack from David Holmes, and a very good turn by rising star Jack O’Connell. This underrated thriller does not seek to give an overview of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but it does offer a carefully-neutral view on the city at that time, and the IRA, the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary all appear to be beset by internal problems.  Good support from Sean Harris. (Read full review.)

13. Ida
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Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida is a slow-burning and often beautiful film, controversially examining the role of Poland’s own citizens with regard to the Holocaust. It’s also a film about two related women born into entirely different ages: one who looks to the future in a world where the west is gradually beginning to exert an influence, the other jaded after many years as a prosecutor in the country’s Stalinist regime. A satisfying, rich study. (Read full review.)

12. Frank
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Few would have predicted that northern comedian and performance artist Frank Sidebottom would be the inspiration for one of the best films of the year, and fewer still would have predicted that Michael Fassbender would play an American character based on Sidebottom, but that actually happened. Frank was one of the year’s quirky treasures, and a savvy rumination on fame, outsider music and artistic integrity that also featured decent turns from Maggie Gyllenhaal and Domnhall Gleeson. A bittersweet pill maybe, but easy enough to swallow. (Read full review.)

11. Fury 
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Brad Pitt played the leader of a tired, battered and bruised tank crew in David Ayer’s hard-hitting World War II film, but this was a meatier affair than many had expected, despite the fact that Pitt’s hair rarely looked shabby. Fury painted a grim picture of the conflict and the inner turmoil experienced by its participants on both sides, all muddy roads and bombed-out towns, and it was an engrossing experience with realistic-looking battle sequences that kept the viewer on the edge of their seat. (Read full review.)

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel - 64th Berlin Film FestivalThis pink and purple-hued latest effort from Wes Anderson delighted his legion of fans and probably won him a fair few new ones as well. At times it was as sweet as a box of chocolates, but there was a darker edge to this hotel-based caper, which was set against a backdrop of the rise of fascism in Europe. Ralph Fiennes excelled as the hotel’s ebullient concierge Gustave H, while newcomer Tony Revolori provided plenty of deadpan laughs as the young lobby boy helping to clear his superior’s name after he is accused of murder. A host of famous faces camped it up in support. (Read full review.)

9. Vi är Bäst! (We Are The Best!)
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2014 saw a return to lighter material for Lukas Moodyson, who made this energetic and hugely enjoyable film about a spirited trio of Stockholm punks, set in the early 1980s. We Are The Best! championed the outsider spirit in a different way to Frank, but it was just as funny and even more heartfelt, and Moodyson’s film never feels condescending to teenage girls (though I guess that’s actually pretty condescening of me to assume so, given that I’m a 39-year-old man). Spiky and effervescent, the three lead performances were magnificent. (Read full review.)

8. Calvary
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More a ‘whosgonnadoit’ than a ‘whodunnit’, Calvary features a very strong performance by Brendan Gleeson – arguably a career best to date – as a threatened priest trying to fulfill his duties to the local community and his convalescing, suicidal daughter, all while operating under the knowledge that someone will soon be making an attempt on his life. John Michael McDonagh’s intelligent script ruminated on forgiveness and the role of the Catholic Church in 21st Century Ireland, but it also incorporated plenty of comic moments that made fine use of supporting actors like Chris O’Dowd and Dylan Moran. (Read full review.)

7. Blue Ruin
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Jeremy Saulnier’s Kickstarter-funded thriller may have been a straightforward tale of revenge and escalating violence, but that doesn’t make it any less well-made than some of the more attention-grabbing films on this list. A tense, broody affair with occasional explosions of violence, little wonder it drew comparisons with the work of the Coen Brothers; Blue Ruin was one of the indie highlights of 2014 and it will be interesting to see what Saulnier, and lead actor Macon Blair, do next. (Read full review.)

6. Only Lovers Left AliveTilda-Swinton-in-Only-Lovers-Left-Alive

The second film in this list featuring Tilda Swinton and John Hurt (the other being Snowpiercer), and also the second modern take on the vampire legend (the other being What We Do In The Shadows), Only Lovers Left Alive was Jim Jarmusch’s latest quirky genre experiment, and it was a typically idiosyncratic affair, revolving around two vampire lovers, played by Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, living apart in Tangier and Detroit respectively. A great mood piece, filled with a certain woozy, narcotic, late-night ambience. (Read full review.)

5. Under The Skin
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Arguably 2014’s weirdest ‘mainstream’ film, Under The Skin was Jonathan Glazer’s triumphantly unsettling return after a decade-long hiatus. It featured Scarlett Johansson as an alien entity who assumes human form before preying on the young men of Glasgow (some of whom, famously, are non-professional actors who must have thought all their Christmases had come at once), as well as a dissonant, experimental soundtrack by Micah Levi that added to the film’s otherworldly vibe. Glazer’s movie asked plenty of questions and left out most of the exposition, treating its audience as intelligent individuals that didn’t need spoon-fed plot explanations every five minutes. The year’s best sci-fi movie by a country mile, and perhaps the most visually arresting. (Read full review.)

4. Nymphomaniac (Parts I and II)
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Understandably, Lars von Trier’s 241-minute, sexually-graphic, two-part study of a nymphomaniac woman named Joe between the ages of 16 and 50 isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea, and this was certainly heavy going at times, but you can only admire such a great example of a filmmaker’s desire to break taboos and push the boundaries of cinema. Von Trier was aided in his quest by some brave actors: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin were both excellent playing Joe at different ages, while Shia LaBeouf was also impressive, if you’re willing to overlook the fact his oily character spoke with an accent that veered from Australian to English to South African to American … sometimes in the space of a sentence. Joking aside, this pair of powerful films felt like a milestone work, damning just about every subject it addressed, and there were great supporting turns by a host of famous faces (the standouts being Stellan Skarsgård and Jamie Bell). Well worth the effort. (Read full review.)

3. Mr Turner
Mr-Turner-3Mike Leigh’s biopic of JMW Turner, arguably Britain’s greatest living artist (if you ignore the past decade’s output by Jason Statham, of course), was a stately affair flecked with all the grit, grime and illness you’d expect of 19th Century London. Timothy Spall excelled in the lead role, picking up the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s entirely possible that Oscar glory may follow. Cinematographer Dick Pope, who manages to recreate Turner’s pastel-heavy palette in the film’s many stunning scenic shots, may also be in with a shout. And don’t forget the fact that the Academy – quite rightly on this evidence – loves Mike Leigh. (Read full review.)

2. Nightcrawler
nightcrawler-movie-wallpaper-5A satire on the ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality of TV news channels and reporting, Nightcrawler featured magnificent photography from Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular DoP Robert Elswit and a career-best turn by Jake Gyllenhaal as sociopathic freelance cameraman Lou Bloom, who cruises the streets of LA at night looking for accidents and crime scenes. Bloom is a modern day Travis Bickle, and Dan Gilroy’s film occasionally recalls Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, though this is a very modern, glossy affair and deserves to be judged in its own right. A terrific film with a memorably unhinged character driving it forward, Nightcrawler is brilliant. (Read full review.)

1. Boyhood
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I went to see Boyhood at the cinema twice, and enjoyed it just as much the second time round as I did at first; the 2 and 3/4 hour running time seemed to fly by on both occasions. Richard Linklater’s epic study of a young boy and his family was famously shot over a period of 12 years, and yet it flows together so seamlessly the finished work is a testament to the skill of the director and his cast and crew, who would reconvene in Texas each year for a couple of weeks’ work. Ellar Coltrane is very good as Mason, the boy who grows from 6 to 18, while Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are superb as the divorced parents going through their own mid-life crises. Sincere, honest, warm, sad, funny, inspiring, melancholic and touching, Boyhood is a must-see, and my favourite film of 2014.  (Read full first review / Read full second review.)

So…that’s all from me this year, thanks for reading during 2014 ,and I hope you’ve enjoyed these releases as much as I have. I’ll be back in 2015 with more reviews and general film-related nonsense. All that remains is for me to ask … what are your favourite films of 2014?

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2014-MR.-TURNER-014

This ambitious, blustery period piece by Mike Leigh explores the later years of the life of Joseph Mallord William Turner (played by Timothy Spall), covering a period from 1828 until the artist’s death in 1851, at the age of 76. Copying to an extent the typical colour palette of Turner’s own landscapes and with an attention to period detail that leaves countless Dickens adaptations trailing in its wake, Mr Turner is a visually-impressive biographical film and, at times, an intiguing dramatisation of the man’s later life.

Spall is on-screen for nearly all of the film’s 150 minutes, often delivering a guttural grunting noise as his Turner goes about daily business in London, by the sea in Margate and elsewhere. This expressive ‘grrr’ can, and does, mean anything during the course of the film: a dismissive snort, an acknowledgement of somebody else’s fine humour, an approval or an agreement, a ‘thank you’, a ‘no thank you’, and so much more besides. If you thought ‘I am Groot’ was 2014’s phrase of a thousand different meanings then I suggest you watch Mr Turner and marvel at Spall’s ability to turn a simple noise into just about anything. Not that you win the Best Actor award at Cannes for simply grunting for two-and-a-half hours, of course. Spall delivers the rest of his lines with just as much relish, and this is a triumphantly-vibrant performance full of verve and gusto; it certainly assists in evoking the hustle and bustle of Georgian and Victorian life in London at the tail end of the industrial revolution.

Leigh’s film begins quietly in the Netherlands, with Turner standing atop a hill, painting a nearby windmill. The colours of the sky, thanks to the light of the fading sun, are suggestive of the pastels the artist favoured during his career, and it is an early sign that cinematographer Dick Pope’s work is to be informed by Turner’s art; later on the connections are made a little more forcefully, with ethereal whiteouts and foggy seascapes awash with pale yellows, pinks and blues. Soon, though, we return to England, and during the next two hours we see several glimpses into the man’s private life in various houses, shops and other locations crammed with the typical fixtures and fittings of the age. He lives primarily with a loyal housekeeper named Hannah Danby (an equally-impressive performance by Dorothy Atkinson), who he uses for sexual gratification, and denies that he is the father of two girls with another woman, Hannah’s aunt Sarah (Ruth Sheen). For prolonged periods he relocates to the seaside town of Margate, where he enjoys another relationship with the landlady and widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), who herself appears to be barely interested in Turner’s status and talent.

Turner’s bond with his father and studio assistant, William (Paul Jesson), dwarfs the other relationships. Theirs is a jovial closeness borne partly out of the sectioning and subsequent death of Turner’s mother, Mary Marshall, who passed away in 1804, and it’s worth noting that Leigh addresses both men’s deaths in a similar fashion, which seems to strengthen their connection. In this film Turner isn’t quite the same after his father dies, and there is a suggestion that the father’s death is the catalyst for Turner’s highly experimental later period, which causes much harrumphing at the Royal Academy.

The Academy scenes, incidentally, are great fun; they are filled with various highly-strung artists throwing hissy fits about the placement of their work on the walls, though it doesn’t seem to bother Turner himself when one of his landscapes is hung in an ante-chamber. Leigh teases us with a glimpse of Turner’s rivalry with that other celebrated British landscape painter of the era, John Constable (James Fleet), before cruelly dropping the thread after a minute or two. The lively and entertaining dialogue in the Royal Academy gives some insight into the prevailing tastes of the period: both Turner and Constable are credited with changing attitudes toward landscape painting within the snooty art world, elevating it to the same status as historical painting, although later we see Turner publicly mocked for his early brand of abstract impressionism at a ribald comedy show. The general public’s take on his work seems to bother Turner far more than the opinions of noted art critics of the day like John Ruskin, played here by Joshua Maguire, who invites Turner to an art discussion that bizarrely turns into a debate about gooseberries. Even comments by Queen Victoria (Sinéad Matthews), who dismisses his work as faulty on account of the artist’s fading eyesight, are merely met with a resigned shrug; you get the impression Spall’s Turner would grunt right in front of her if he could.)

As with many biopics the film is structured in a linear fashion, though the passing of time is mainly perceptible through encroaching illness and the sudden introduction of new technologies (Turner is intrigued by the workings of the camera, for instance, and even encourages the skeptical Mrs Booth when she dismisses the idea of sitting for her own Daguerreotype). The signs of aging are perceptible and the roughness of the diseases of the day allow for some fine make-up work by the team of Christine Blundell, Alexandra Joyce and Chris Lyons, with Hannah Danby’s skin in particular acting as a different, gruesome canvas. Keen fans of the artist will no doubt be able to chart the passing years by the paintings that hang or sit on the floor in his studio as well, I would imagine.

At times Leigh’s Mr Turner is a lurid, bawdy biopic and at others the writer-director successfully engages with more highbrow subjects that remain relevant today, such as the commercialism of art and the influence of changing technology on artists. He approaches it all with a masterly confidence, creating a broadly-focused and unhurried biopic that reinforces his status as the finest British filmmaker working today. Spall has delivered his best work to date here, and considering his excellent performances in the earlier Leigh films Life Is Sweet, Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy, that’s saying something. Highly recommended.

The Basics:
Directed by: Mike Leigh
Written by: Mike Leigh
Starring: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jeeson
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 147 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.0

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