The Best Films of 2014

OK. I made a mistake. I wrote out most of my top 10 films of the year and then, apparently, didn’t save the post. That means I now have to do the whole thing again, which is a bummer, because it took a while. Therefore, this might be slightly abridged as I skim through most of the list.

A couple of other notes. I have included all films released in the UK in 2014, even if they were up for awards in last year’s awards season so some of these you might think shouldn’t be valid, but they are. So there.

Finally, last time I did this it turned out I miscounted and had 11 films in my top 10. I see no reason to change. However, I’m still going to start the countdown at 10. Ha. My list, my rules. I only realised my mistake when I got to number 3 last time, so there were two number 3s, but seeing as I know going in I have 11 films this time, we’ll have a joint 10th.

So, at 10…

=10. Calvary – dir John Michael McDonagh

Where McDonagh’s brother, Martin, followed up his brilliant small Irish crime thriller In Bruges with the underwhelming 90’s-style Pulp Fiction knockoff Seven Psychopaths, John Michael goes a different route after his debut, The Guard.

Calvary takes a philosophical look at matters, slowing the pace down to something far more contemplative. Brendan Gleeson is again the lead, this time as a priest who is told in confession that in one week he is to be killed and he should use the time to put his affairs in order. The time is used to meet his parish and try to diagnose the underlying motives that might exist before his date with destiny. It’s brilliant and understated and well worth your time.

=10. Frank – dir. Lenny Abrahamson

In 2013, Abrahamson’s brilliant What Richard Did made my list. Frank doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it’s still a very funny black comedy about the fictionalised life of Frank Sidebottom creator Chris Sievey. Michael Fassbender takes the lead inside the papier-mâché head (as far as we know) and adds another string to his bow.

9. Paddington – dir. Paul King

Look. When I first heard about this I assumed it would be bad. Like the Thomas The Tank Engine movie or something. It isn’t. It’s delightful. Funny, fun, good all-round family entertainment. So don’t make assumptions.

8. Dallas Buyers Club – dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

It won lots of awards. Justifiably. It signalled a peak in the McConaughsance as well as having a great supporting performance by Jared Leto. It dealt with a difficult topic sensitively and humourously. It was just great. And it’s on Netflix already.

7. Edge of Tomorrow – dir. Doug Liman

If they’d given it a better title (like Live. Die. Repeat. which is all over the bluray box, for example) and a slightly better trailer, this would have been a monster smash. It’s by far the best action film of the year (and yes, I include the Marvel films which were fine, but nothing more). It’s perhaps the best action film since Inception. It’s the kind of thing we need to encourage Hollywood to make more of, rather than Transformers movies, so go out and do your bit by buying a copy. Now.

6. The Boxtrolls – dirs. Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi

A lovingly made stop-motion animation that has undercurrents of Roald Dahl in its heart. It’s delightful and weird and deserves to be seen by many more people. I’m not sure it’s as good as ParaNorman, but that was brilliant. This is close.

5. 12 Years A Slave – dir. Steve McQueen

This has probably only fallen down this far due to recency bias. This came out a year ago and you probably know everything about it by now. It’s a genuinely great film.

4. Nightcrawler – dir. Dan Gilroy

Set aside the fact that I read the title and hear ‘Nightcrawler, Nightcrawler…’ to the tune of the Beegees Night Fever for a moment. This is a great character study with a brilliant central performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal has become a firm favourite of mine now, after a string of great movies (Zodiac, Source Code, Brokeback Mountain) and great performances in flawed movies (Prisoners, Jarhead, End of Watch). He seems to have great taste in scripts. This may now be at the top of the list, certainly performance-wise, if not film-wise.

3. Pride – dir. Matthew Warchus

Pride follows in what has become a tradition in British film-making of funny, heart-warming movies about issues, often with a historical context. The Full Monty was the first, but following on from that was Brassed Off, Billy Elliot and Made in Dagenham. Pride may be the best of the lot.

Set in the mid-80s as the AIDS epidemic was taking off and the miners strike was hitting its peak, Pride follows a group of London gays and lesbians who set to support the miners of a small, Welsh village. An unlikely alliance is made. The film is based on a true story and, by all accounts, gets almost every detail bang on. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry. It’s the feel-good film of the year. And some other clichés. Seriously though, it’s brilliant.

2. Boyhood – dir. Richard Linklater

A film literally 12 years in the making and one that may clean up in the coming months. Richard Linklater got his cast together once a year for 12 years to film the childhood of a boy (Ellar Coltrane). It’s moving and powerful and something that is unlikely to ever be attempted again, let alone pulled off so well. Its strong central dramas at the core are brilliantly realised, with great performances by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. I’m not sure I can do it justice…

1. Under The Skin – dir. Jonathan Glazer

So I want to get into this movie a bit more. In 2013 I reviewed everything I saw. In 2014… not so much. But I feel I have something to say about this. It will contain spoilers though. I’ll highlight the spoiler section clearly when I get there, don’t worry. It’ll be after the embedded trailer.

When I see films I give them a rating in a little database I have. It helps me keep track of what I’ve seen and gives me a broad idea of where films fit in but it’s far from hard and fast. My initial rating for Under The Skin slotted it in 8th for the year, but it’s got the (coveted?) number one slot because, more than any other film, it’s the film that has stayed with me the longest and made me think more than any other.

The film has little in the way of story. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien driving around Glasgow, picking up men to seduce and lure back to her lair where they are engulfed in infinite blackness. It is purposely obtuse, it is unlike anything else. It is bizarre, scary, haunting, and, on some level, erotic. It is, as I am proving, indescribable really.

It’s a film I can’t guarantee you’d like. It’s a film I would expect a lot of people not to like. But, as I said, it stayed with me more than any other film on this list. I think it is a masterpiece.

SPOILERS

I’m not even sure these will be spoilers, but they are my thoughts on what the film means and they may give away things that you wish you didn’t know before seeing the film.

Johansson’s alien is seeking out men and through the course of the film her encounters are all different (as you would hope), while her approach in all situations is pretty much the same. Her demeanour doesn’t change. In no way is she the reason the different men react in the way they do.

We live in a culture which demeans women or tries to subjugate them. The culture will try to tell women that the way in which they are treated is because of them, and that men can’t be blamed. ‘Rape culture’ says that women shouldn’t drink to excess, shouldn’t wear short skirts or show skin, and that if they do then it’s their fault if they get assaulted. While that is the extreme end of the spectrum, those attitudes are present in all areas of life – the home, the workplace and all social spaces. There was a revealing video recently of a woman who just walked through the streets of New York recording all the comments that were sent her way. These are things that, fortunately, I am not subject to, and don’t even occur to me most of the time, but which are commonplace across society.

If women are held responsible in society for these things – “It only happens because they dress too sexily/dowdily” is the kind of comment you hear from people justifying the unsolicited complements or put-downs – then this film is a reaction to that. Johansson never alters in her approach to men but the reactions she gets are across the board – nervous, admiring, obsessive, assault. Johansson doesn’t court these reactions. She is neutral. They are the true nature of men asserting themselves in ways they feel are appropriate. The film is designed to show the lie at the core of the ‘blame culture’ that surrounds us. The responsibility for how women are treated by men lies with the men, not with the women.

Now, I don’t know if this is what Glazer and Johansson meant when they made the film, but that’s my reading, and I do find it interesting that Johansson is involved. Johansson was, of course, hacked several years ago, with nude photos being leaked over the internet. This was a massive violation, with many people pointing the blame at Johansson for having the photos in the first place. Things have taken a turn since then and when Jennifer Lawrence was hacked earlier this year, her reaction was not to apologise for having the gall to have nude photos for her own private reasons, but instead label the theft and publication as a sex crime and to call out people for asking her to apologise.

These cases of photo theft are just the extreme end of men taking a form of ownership of female bodies and sexual freedom. It’s an important topic and one that should be addressed. Of course, it’s not one that many in the media want to address because so much of what the media does is predicated on the exploitation of female flesh.

That then gets into whole other discussions about sex, pornography and so on that I’m not tackling here. It’s merely to link the themes of this film to the pervading narrative in our culture.

Under The Skin has a lot to say, but makes the audience work for it. Like great art should. And Under The Skin is certainly that.

How I Fell In Love With How I Met Your Mother And Why The Break-Up Hurt So Much

(The beginning of this post features very minor and general spoilers from How I Met Your Mother, however, half way through I launch into total spoilers of the last season, and I recommend you don’t read it until you have seen the finale. The point at which I start this section is marked clearly.)

Ted's such a douche he won't let anyone else sit on his sofa

Ted’s such a douche he won’t let anyone else sit on his sofa

Kids, I want to tell you about why I fell in love with a show called How I Met Your Mother and how it ended up breaking my heart…

Relax. I’m not going to make you sit down for 9 years while I tell you a long drawn-out story with no satisfactory conclusion in the way that one of my favourite TV shows had a character do with his (fictional) kids. But I do want to talk about what made the show so great, why it was unappreciated and why it fell at the last hurdle.

First of all, a brief recap. How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM for short) was a sitcom launched into a post-Friends landscape. It featured 5 friends who regularly met in a bar, rather than a coffeeshop (Friends) or diner (Seinfeld). It was the story of their struggles with growing up from post-college through marriage and families and various career decision. In that sense it is completely unlike Friends… No, wait a moment…

how-i-met-your-mother-how vs friends

Actually, Friends is probably the worst thing for HIMYM because while superficially they have the same DNA, they are thoroughly different shows in the ways the are written and contructed, but HIMYM was launched at a time when every network was scrabbling to find The Next Friends. It was also a time when mainstream (in the US, Network) TV was dying. It’s a death which is still going on, ever so slowly. In the decade since its launch TV services such as Netflix, Lovefilm, and Hulu have meant people don’t watch live, people downloading TV shows via Bit Torrent has eaten into revenues, and even at the base level, PVRs (like Sky+) mean that people skip adverts and ratings can’t be measured. Now no one can say what a hit show is. Something getting 5 million viewers on one channel is a disaster, while for another network 5 million is an unbelievable hit. Up is down. Dogs are living with cats.

So HIMYM could never become Friends. It could never conquer the globe in the same way. Equally, it was too smart to be Friends. And I’m not down on Friends, there were some seasons of that show that are among the funniest I have seen, but it was always playing to the widest audience possible. That’s not a criticism. Things can have a wide audience and also be good. See also Cheers, Seinfeld, Sherlock and many others.

But Friends was always a joke delivery device. It was an efficient machine. Sure, it delivered some dramatic moments, but it was never about the story, it was about the laughs. It was a sitcom, that was its raison d’être. From the very beginning HIMYM set out its stall differently. It would be funny, but the point was that the show was telling a story.

More specifically, its nominal lead character, Ted, 20 years in the future is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. We see his tales spring to life. This was a sitcom where jokes were not the most important thing. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. In fact, I would argue that it made HIMYM a funnier show. Friends needed to cut to the chase. At the very least every other line had to be a zinger of some kind. Cutting to the chase like that meant the creativity had to be a little lacking. HIMYM could take detours, it could be different, inventive, and sure, maybe you didn’t get as many one-liners in your half hour as you did in Friends, but you got a lot more jokes you couldn’t see coming.

HIMYM Challenge Accepted

Here is a choice – you can:

A) Give someone a 5 on the laugh scale right now

or

B) Meander at laugh level 1 or 2 for 20 seconds and then slap them with an unexpected 8 or a 9.

Friends always took route A (though some of those laughs inevitably climbed higher) while HIMYM would regularly go down route B and deliver a Slapsgiving to remember.

But it’s not just about being a story. The fact that the story is being told 20 years hence means that linearity goes out the window. Friends was always told in the now. There might have been the odd flashback, but each story, generally, had to after last week’s story and before next week’s story. HIMYM would regularly flash forward or backward in time, overlapping with incidents past or future, with promises that “I’ll get to the story of the goat”. And this is where the true genius in the story-telling lay.

It’s quite a regular occurrence for a TV show (in America) to get greenlit on the basis of a concept but for the writers to have no idea where it is heading. Lost is the prime example. Every week the writers were making up more questions with no idea what the ultimate answer was. But HIMYM always seemed to know. When they promised to get to a story, the got to it. Things that were small details in one episode became the focus of another. There were never any contradictions, everything added up. And in doing so it became something more than a story, it became human. It allowed the audience to truly become invested because we knew these characters and their worlds added up.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the show had was turning Barney Stinson – the pick-up artist breakout character played by Neil Patrick Harris (and played brilliantly, I might add) – into a real boy. When the show started he was one-dimensional. He cared about suits, sleeping with women and the bro-code. But as his popularity grew he earned more screen time and needed depth, and the show found it for him.

Barney - Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Barney – Legen-wait-for-it-Dary

Ted, our ‘hero’, had been searching for love since day one. While the show was ostensibly about his search for The One, it actually became his journey through a lot of potentials who could never be The One. Barney was never looking for The One. He was looking for a different one every night. But the journey the writing team took him on to fall in love was perhaps their greatest triumph. They slowly filled in the details as to why he was the way he was, why he treated women the way he did. The show indulged him at times, but mostly it condemned his ways.

As funny as his sleeping around and trickery was, it was also always frowned upon, but as the show coloured in his background, Barney started to feel and slowly grew his extra dimensions. This was a big risk for the show. Stinson was the marquee character and by adding the shading they risked taking away the alcohol from Fun Bobby. The remarkable thing is that they didn’t. Barney was always Barney, even as he became more human in front of our eyes. Of course, this wasn’t all down to the writers, Patrick Harris is brilliant in the role, but the skill it took to pull off this manoeuvre is not to be sniffed at.

And then we come to perhaps the longest joke in television history. In season 2, episode 9, Barney has a bet with Marshall and the winner will be able to slap the other 5 times, at times of his discretion. A ‘Slap Bet’, if you will. I won’t go into it too much, but this was a joke which kept paying off right until the final episode of the show, and was regularly sitting as an idle threat in the background. It was a beautiful thing whenever the next slap was revealed, and the fact that one joke could run so perfectly for seven and a half seasons is a real credit to the show.

So that is why I fell in love with How I Met Your Mother, and why you should watch it if you haven’t already. Now I shall move on to what happened at the end of the relationship.

This is where the real SPOILERS kick in. I will literally talk about the very end of the show. Seriously – don’t wanna know, stop reading.

So episode one starts with a classic bait and switch. Ted starts telling his kids the story of how he met their mother and proceeds to tell the story of how he went on a date with their “aunt Robin”. Robin becomes the newest member of the group and, over time dates Ted, then Barney, and come the final season, is preparing to walk down the aisle with Barney.

In fact, the final season of HIMYM is one of the most daring things to be put on in a mainstream, popular show, up there with Seinfeld’s season 4 arc where Jerry and George are trying to sell a pilot to NBC. It came about because the show was due to end after season 8 but the network wanted to get one more season out of the producers and cast. Patrick Harris was still hot, Jason Segel was starting to hit in Hollywood (having written and starred in the Muppets revival movie), and they had nothing coming through to take its place. So what was going to happen in the last 3 weeks of season 8 instead became the whole of season 9.

That right there is a recipe for disaster. Stretching a few episodes to fill a 24 episode arc. More than that, the whole season would take place over the course of just one weekend. The weekend of Robin and Barney’s wedding.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This is a show that plays with time all the time, so there were plenty of flashforwards and flashbacks, but generally, we were watching the weekend. And for the first 22 episodes they pulled it off. It wasn’t perfect – Marshall (Segel) couldn’t join the cast for the first half of the season so was stuck in his own story line – but they did callbacks to so many great moments, they played with the emotions of all the characters, they resolved issues, and they got past the problems. Throughout we have the spectre of a love-lorn Ted still filled with feelings for Robin, the woman he met in episode 1, that he fell for, hard, that he mourned. That he was still mourning. He struggled to let he go. But while all that was going on, the most important thing is that we got to meet the mother, Tracy.

That’s right, throughout the season we followed the mother’s course to meeting Ted. We saw her side of numerous near-misses that called back to episodes we’d seen years ago – the yellow umbrella, Ted’s mistaken lecture, a meeting with Barney in a convenience store. We got to find out what type of person would fall in love with the douche (but loveable) Ted, and we got to find her as adorable as Ted did. We got to fall in love with her too. And that is why the ending hurt.

You see, the ending wasn’t really about how Ted met the kids’ mother. After they meet we skim forward and the story takes a melancholy tone. Ted and Tracy have some wonderful years together and they have a family, but then we find out that Tracy has passed away and Ted is alone again.

At the same time we are learning about the lives of the other characters and, especially, about the marriage and divorce of Barney and Robin. This is followed up with the kids asking him if the whole story was an excuse for him to ask them if they’d be ok with him asking ‘Aunt’ Robin out on a date…

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER

The problem with this isn’t so much the story as the execution and the confounding of expectations. Coming into the last episode we have one expectation – that Ted will meet the mother, nothing else. We have seen the two orbit each other all season. We’ve seen how close they came to meeting in years gone by. We’ve seen how they perfectly match each other. In fact, the writers have done such a good job that we now know that Tracy is a far better match than Robin ever was. We get to see the pair on their first date. We get to see them on honeymoon and anniversaries. Time plays inwards to the point at which they met so we’re seeing before and after until eventually they converge, two halves of the same whole.

It’s beautiful story-telling and by the end of it we’ve not just fallen in love with Tracy, we’ve fallen in love with Tracy and Ted.

And then it is ripped from us.

Without the burden of an extra 24 episodes, without the decision to have the audience meet Tracy before Ted does, without the chance to fall for her, maybe this blow isn’t so crushing and maybe they get away with it.

Maybe there could have been some more hints. I mean, in retrospect maybe we should have guessed. Ted has been telling this long story to his kids since 2004 and he has never been interrupted by his wife; there has never been a reference to her in the present tense. Looking back, perhaps there were a few “Your mother was…” comments in the voiceover, but even if there were it wasn’t enough. This is nine years of build-up to a supposed meet-cute and happily ever after and then we’re told that happily ever after ended a few years past. There is no happily ever after.

Perhaps if Robin and Barney hadn’t got together so convincingly, perhaps if we hadn’t been sold so totally on the idea of them as a couple, we could still have wanted Ted and Robin together. Was this supposed to be fan service? Did the fans long for Ted and Robin to end up together? I spent the whole of season 9 wishing Ted to move on from Robin, to drop those thoughts and prepare himself for the love of his life to arrive.

The ultimate resolution felt like a stab in the heart. It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s that the season was written to push all of our hopes and desires and expectations in one direction and it was pulled out from under us. That’s not a bad thing – if you’re making Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or Mad Men – but this isn’t those shows. This is a 9-year long romantic comedy and there are certain expectations that are part and parcel of that commitment. I, the viewer, do solemnly swear to fall in love with these characters and to will them together and you, the writers, do solemnly swear to put ample obstacles in their path but ultimately let them live together forever and ever in our hearts and minds. Nowhere in your side of the contract does it say that you will kill her off and replace her with the biggest obstacle that we have spent the past 11.5 hours (23 episodes of a half hour show) getting over and past.

As I said, there are ways this could work, and that make a degree of sense – Ted and his children are mourning the passing of beloved wife and mother and so Ted tells the story of all that he loved about her and how they came to be – a way to ensure that his wife and his love can live on in eternity. But in this circumstance he’s too close to the tragedy for us a) to not know before we get there (a good thing in a story like this) or b) for him to be able to be contemplating dating Robin. So this approach would perhaps have changed the show beyond recognition, though it would have been able to confront mortality in a way that mainstream television is all too afraid to do. I doubt, however, that audiences would have watched for 9 years the moment they got an inkling that the mother was no longer with us.

If Tracy hadn’t been written so well as the yin to Ted’s yang, the slutty pumpkin to his hanging chad, then perhaps we could have been more accepting too, but then this would seem like bad writing. We might have been accepting of the Robin resolution but we never could have accepted Ted with someone who wasn’t the woman of his dreams. And beside’s how would that play to the kids? “Kids, I want to tell you the story of how I met the woman I mistakenly married when I should have been with your Aunt Robin all along” isn’t the best intro to a story.

Ultimately, the finale failed because HIMYM tried to have its cake and eat it. It wanted Ted to have the woman of his dreams and the woman he obsessed over for most of the previous 9 years, but failed to realise that to do so meant killing someone the audience had not only grown to love, but had fixated on, which isn’t bitter-sweet, it’s just bitter.

But does any of this matter? In the grand scheme of the universe, no, obviously. But neither should it in terms of television of the show. In a way, the finale reminds us that it’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey. The destination is, for all of us, the ground, just as it was for Tracy.

What mattered for us wasn’t where we got to, it was the road we took to get there, and HIMYM gave us 8.95 seasons of brilliant television which managed to do things that no show has managed to do before and, it’s highly likely, no show will even attempt to do again. It gave us 5 great characters (of variable douchey-ness), it brought Neil Patrick Harris to the world’s collective consciousness (and if you’ve not seen any of his Tony or Emmy song-and-dance numbers you have been missing out), it gave us Robin Sparkles, it gave us Slap Bet, it gave us Alyson Hannigan and Jason Segel’s love for the ages, and it gave us so many more wonderful memories that no matter where the story went in that final half hour, it went somewhere else for me.

how_i_met_your_mother_finale_yellow_umbrella

The Wolf of Wall Street

Some kind of fevered masturbatory fantasy rather than something with anything of value to say

Some kind of fevered masturbatory fantasy rather than something with anything of value to say

The greatest opening line to a movie comes from Goodfellas:

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster

It sets the scene, it draws you into the journey of how Henry Hill became a gangster and then how it destroyed him. The opening line to The Wolf of Wall Street might as well be “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be rich”. It’s only a small change but it makes the world of difference. Martin Scorsese seemingly wants to do for Wall Street bankers what he did for the Mafia by filming the story of Jordan Belfort, a self-made Wall Street multi-millionaire who rode the wave all the way to the top and then couldn’t let go, destroying himself in the process. Only he’s not quite as destroyed as many of us might hope.

The film is problematic in many ways, but the first thing to say is that Wolf is a very funny film. Funnier than anything Scorsese has done for some time, and certainly the funniest performance of Di Caprio’s career, including some brilliant physical comedy, something of which I didn’t think him capable. Also, at three hours long, the film does not feel anywhere near as blaoted as one might fear. It rips along at a rare old pace and doesn’t really give you a chance to draw breath. But all of that leads to the however…

However, if Goodfellas is the equivalent of a big fat juicy steak meal (says the vegetarian), something that leaves you full and satisfied, Wolf is something else entirely. It’s full of empty calories. It’ll make you feel sick, it’ll make you fat, it’ll do nothing good for you. Here’s the thing. The film depicts the debauchery that was (is?) common-place amongst Wall Street traders. It is full of sex and drugs and drink and wasted money. It is life turned up not to 11 but 12. It is the thing we (hopefully) would hate to become were we living in a world of unlimited resources.

The better poster. The one that has some art behind it. Less representative of the film though, given it has some art about it.

The better poster. The one that has some art behind it. Less representative of the film though, given it has some art about it.

But the problem is that the film isn’t just depicting these things, it is these things.

The film is packed with nudity but it crosses the line between artistic merit and pornographic excess. Is there a justification for the lengths it goes to? I can’t see one. Likewise, there’s no equality. There’s a difference between portraying misogyny and being misogynistic and The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line into the latter category. The women are treated pretty abysmally throughout and, ultimately, it comes across as leering and masturbatory. At times one can’t help visualising the other side of the camera as a 71 year old man asks a bunch of naked 20-somethings to do his bidding and it’s not exactly comfortable. This may be a representation of the behaviour that carried on with these people but we got that message in the first half hour. The constant repetition is unnecessary – the very definition of pornography, no? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-nudity in films and neither am I anti-pornography per se, but in this context it is unnecessary and uncomfortable. There needs to be some kind of authorial voice or something.

So The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that was enjoyable, though bloated, but the longer you reflect on it the worse it becomes. A leering and seedy exercise that unfortunately bears a resemblance to the worst of Michael Bay’s “fucking the camera” extremes.

D+

Film Length: 2 hours 59 minutes – Feels like: 2 hours 30 minutes

The Best Films of 2013

So this year I inadvertently conducted an experiment, writing reviews of everything I saw (including stand-up and music, but centred around films). I didn’t intend to do this when the year started, but that’s how it turned out. By the end of the year it was a bit of a slog. I didn’t always have things to say about films and, at various times, I got behind and had to blitz a few to get back up to date (witness my delayed best of year list!). I won’t be doing the same in 2014, though I will still post the occasional review when I feel I have something to say. A Wolf of Wall Street post will follow this shortly. In the meantime, here’s a quick run down of what I thought were the best films of the year, in reverse order…

10. Behind the Candelabra

A camp classic. I was completely unaware of the story of Liberace and this was a brilliant film getting me up to speed. Funny, scary, twisted and heart-breaking at various junctures, and the kind of thing you rarely get to see on screen.

9. No

Another true story I was completely unaware of – the advertising campaign that ousted a dictator. That dictator being Augusto Pinochet in 1988. Imaginatively shot to bring the era to life, and shot through with the kind of humour borne of the oppressive regime. Uplifting, fun and informative.

7 & 8. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa & The World’s End

I’m not separating these two brilliant British character comedies. Both spin incredible stories out of the familiar, be that familiar characters, familiar ensembles, familiar settings. Both show Hollywood how to make good comedies – something Hollywood has been pretty bad at in recent years. Strong characters, strong stories and let those naturally bring the comedy forward, rather than forcing it.

6. What Richard Did

An antidote to American high school movies. A realistic portrayal teenagers coming of age. Likeable kids give fantastic performances, the film then throws in a heartbreaking twist, literally what Richard did. This film offers something that’s all too rarely seen and deserves a far wider audience.

5. Zero Dark Thirty

An enthralling telling of the hunt for and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, which gets stuck into the both the process and the moral stand points of the global hunt, culminating in a stunningly realistic visualisation of events at Bin Laden’s compound which serves as a thrilling and tense counterpoint to almost every espionage and action film of th last few decades.

4. All Is Lost

Daring and highly original film of man versus nature. Robert Redford is all at sea, battling his boat and the elements as he tries to survive.

3. The Sessions

Both heart-warming and heart-breaking, this is the story of poet and polio sufferer Mark O’Brien and his quest to lose his virginity. This is a film of touching and rare humanity that makes you think about life and the role sex plays. An incredible central performance from John Hawkes is complimented by Helen Hunt as his sexual surrogate and William H Macy as the priest Mark seeks counsel from.

2. Gravity

Yes, it’s a B movie with a B movie script, but it also does things on screen that you’ve never seen before. Tense, exciting, breath-taking – literally and metaphorically. The kind of film that needs to be seen in the cinema, and the first film that really merits the use of 3D.

1. Cloud Atlas

Insane on many levels and I’m still not entirely sure it works, and yet I was blown away. It’s like nothing else. It’s ambition is off the charts and for that alone it deserves to in the top 10, but then there’s what it actually accomplishes. It tells 6 interlocking stories, which don’t really interlock. It uses actors to play multiple roles across those stories, often unrecognisable. It has Buddhist undertones but leaves it to the audience to draw conclusions. It’s not for everyone but it is most definitely for me. Outstanding.

What’s interesting (to me) is the wide variety in there. Aside from numbers 7 & 8, the Britcoms, there’s a huge range of topics, styles and genres. There really is no film like any other on there. ven Alpha Papa and The World’s End are only really united by being British comedies, the films themselves are very different beasts. Looking back over the list, I saw 64 films at the cinema in 2013 and 26 of them I rated at 8/10 or better. That’s a really impressive hit rate. But it does bring me round to the other question. The worst films of the year. Here is my list of shame, the 5 worst films I saw this year and to save any confusion, the worst is the last one I list…

5. Elysium
4. To The Wonder
3. Kick Ass 2
2. A Good Day To Die Hard
1. Parker

Gravity

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Sandra Bullock is into goldfish role-play

Imagine you dislike cucumber. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but for the sake of this, you really dislike it. In your mind, it’s essentially flavourless and makes everything around it soggy, so while, in and of itself, it isn’t an issue, it makes everything around it that bit worse. Then imagine a friend cooks you a meal. They’re a really good cook and you trust that whatever dish they prepare for you will be delicious. They mention that a key ingredient is cucumber and you think about objecting before saying to yourself, “you know what, I trust my friend as a chef”. The meal is a revelation; you have rarely eaten anything so delicious. You have to acknowledge that the meal probably wouldn’t be quite so good without the cucumber. The cucumber is a vital part of this meal. It’s like Lebowski’s rug – it really ties the meal together. This is not to say that you like cucumber, this is to say that your friend’s cooking is brilliant. He is a brilliant chef.

3D cinema is cucumber, while (here’s the big reveal) Gravity is the meal and Alfonso Cuaron is my friend, the excellent chef*. The fact that Gravity is such a great film and is enhanced by the 3D doesn’t mean that 3D is a good thing in general. Generally speaking, in fact, it gets in the way and distracts you from the main event. Look, I even wrote a blog about it ages ago. In fact, as I can’t trust you to go back and re-read my old pieces, let’s excerpt the relevant passages here:

“It is something often (seemingly) ignored, but when you look at a film as striking as, say, Far From Heaven, the use of colour is used to emphasise emotion, to fill the audience with warmth and enables us to further empathise with Julianne Moore. Compare this to the stark, cold blues in Gattaca which give the whole film a cold, clinical, detached feel which serves to distance the viewer. 3D doesn’t – or hasn’t yet – been used in such a way to draw in or distance the audience. If someone works out a way to do this, that gives the film an additional emotional core not available in 2D, I will happily become a 3D convert…

…It may well be that it takes a true artist to unleash 3D in a way which will truly exploit its potential…

…The test will be whether artists like Mallick, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers start using the technology and what they do with it.”

Cuaron is the artist that 3D cinema has been waiting for, someone who understands how to use 3D as a tool to help his story-telling, rather than purely as a novelty that gets in the way. And that brings us to a simple fact. Gravity may be the most beautiful looking film you will ever see. The visuals are stunning, but more than that, the directing is stunning. There is a certain majesty to the manner in which the camera floats weightless around the screen, performing an intricate dance with the actors and objects. You feel both that you are there in the midst of space alngside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and you feel the effortless glide of the story pulling you along.

Ah yes, the story. This is very simple. A crew are repairing the Hubble telescope. George Clooney is the veteran astronaut while Sandra Bullock is a rookie making the repairs. They are struck by some space debris and things go wrong. Can they survive? You don’t need more than that. It is a B movie concept, cut to B movie lengths – a slim 90 minutes – and that’s all it needs to be. It has no pretensions and it understands that epic is something you are, not something you become by bloating a script.

The film is crafted to slowly ratchet up the tension, to draw the audience in, to make you hold your breath. The 3D is used to bring the weightlessness to life, to help the audience live this nightmare along with the cast. It’s subtle. Not so subtle as you ignore it, but not obvious enough to truly notice it. It allows you to become part of the film.

Beyond that there’s nothing else to say, except you have to see this film. And if you can, you should see it in IMAX 3D – the biggest and best way to see it.

Well what are you waiting for? Go. Now.

A

Film length: 90 minutes – Feels like: 90 minutes

*Disclaimer – Alfonso Cuaron is not actually my friend. I cannot testify to his skills as a chef.

Simon Munnery – Fylms

Simon Munnery – West End Centre, Aldershot – 2 November 2013

Simon Munnery is a criminally underappreciated comic, and his latest show, Fylms, is both ingenious and hilarious. And, as Munnery himself points out, stadium ready.

The concept is deceptively simple. On stage is a screen. In the middle of the audience Munnery has set up a little gantry for himself from where he will conduct the show. He has two cameras, one pointing at his face, and one pointing down on a tabletop, and a series of images and diagrams to display.

What follows is probably best described as a semi-animated TV sketch-show on-stage from the middle of the audience. Actually, that’s a terrible description. It’s mediocre-ly described as such. Look, it’s difficult to describe it, clearly, but it works very well and if you go along and see it you’ll see how simple a concept it really is. Then you can send me your own mediocre description of the show’s format.

The sketches veer all over the place, with no rhyme or reason. Some are incredibly surreal, others disturbingly lucid, all very funny. I’m going to pull out one moment which really tickled me, though far from the best joke of the night. After that, you should track down tickets for a show near you. I promise it’s worth it.

Venn

Very very very very very funny. Deeply profound and seemingly inane. And overwhelmingly pink.

A

This is a trailer for the DVD of a previous incarnation of the show, Fylm Makker. Be warned, it’s odd.

Thor: The Dark World

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

Image from Mis-Matched Siamese Twins Monthly

The original Thor film was a curiosity of 2 parts. Directed by Kenneth Brannagh, the scenes on Asgard, the home planet/realm of Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth), were treated as weighty drama filled with Shakespearean import while the scenes on Earth were imagined as being somewhere between Hanna Barbera, Playschool and Charlie Chaplin. Suffice it to say, it was the latter sequences which stood out, while Asgard was stuffy, emotionless and ultimately tedious (as well as being a brilliant advert for Mr Sheen).

Thor: The Dark World looks to repeat the formula, though the lack of a Brannagh makes the Asgard scenes that little bit more approachable while the story sidelines the fantastic Loki (Tom Hiddleston) for the bland Makelith (Christopher Eccleston, who does his best in a thankless role), a trade off which perhaps balances the two sides a little better but still fails to produce a truly thrilling ride.

The story sees Makelith and his men imprisoned by Thor’s father some time ago, and escaping in the modern day to track down the magical Aether, a mystical power source which will enable Makelith to take over the world. Or something.

Meanwhile, Thor’s earth-bound girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) stumbles across the Aether because of a thing. I mean really – does it matter? Is it even explained? Not really. Does it make sense? No. Does that matter? Not really.

The pace of the movie is just about fast enough, though the scenes on Asgard still drag it down, but ultimately the film is redeemed with a fantastically fun end sequence using portals. No, that doesn’t make sense either, but it’s pulled off with enough comic panache that it gets away with it.

Fun while it lasts.

B-

Film length: 1hr 52mins – Feels like: 1hr 50mins

Escape Plan

Arnie and Sly get stuck in ITV's The Cube

Arnie and Sly get stuck in ITV’s The Cube

This should perhaps be considered an addendum to the B movies post of a few weeks back as it’s a continuation of that theme. It’s not quite the big dumb action movie that Sly and Arnie used to specialise in, but it’s close and it does represent the first time that these two have co-top-billed a movie.

The story finds Stallone as an expert at testing the security of prisons. He’s offered a big pay check to test out a CIA prison that is designed to be a more secret Guantanemo and dives in without a thought of the implications of getting involved with the CIA. So, in a matter of minutes he’s whisked away to an unimpeachable prison where, who should he find but Arnie. When his failsafe measures fail, he has to set about escaping for real, and Arnie latches himself on for the ride.

It’s a simple concept and it’s not without its flaws – if these prisoners are that of the grid why not just kill them? And why allow them to mingle with each other? – but you know what you’re getting in to. If you go along for the ride there’s plenty of fun to be had here. It’s a pleasantly dumb way to pass a couple of hours, and at no point does anyone make any stupid jokes about being too old for this shit, which makes for a pleasant change.

B-

Film length: 1 hr 55 mins – Feels like: 1 hr 45 mins

Sunshine on Leith

Make Glorious Sunshine for Imperial Leader on Leith

Make Glorious Sunshine for Imperial Leader on Leith

Everybody knows one or two songs by the Proclaimers. If nothing else, you could 500 Miles out of your locker, and probably Letter From America too. After that you might be struggling. I was a bit, I have to say. Watching Sunshine On Leith you quickly realise that somewhere in the deep recesses of your mind some other tunes have lodged themselves. Not only that, you also realise that you really should pay attention to their music more.

Sunshine On Leith is a jukebox musical, one of those creatures that tries to take the songs of one artist, hitch on a story and attempts to pull in nostalgic punters. The most famous of these is Mamma Mia, the Abba musical (which I have not seen), but there’s also We Will Rock You, the Queen musical which, despite miserable reviews, has been running in the west end for years now. And recently there was a Spice Girls musical written by Jennifer Saunders which fell flat on its face.

Based on the reputation of those which have gone before, one might not hold out much hope for Sunshine On Leith, but those fears are rapidly dispelled. The film feels down to earth and, despite being a musical, real.

The story starts with two young soldiers, Davy & Ally, returning from a tour in Afghanistan and tells the story of 3 relationships at different points in their journeys. Ally is in a relationship with Davy’s sister and has big plans. Davy strikes up a relationship with a colleague of his sister, and then Davy’s parents’ long marriage comes under some strain.

The three stories are, to varying degrees, flimsy, and in the case of Davy’s parents, not properly worked through, but ultimately the weaknesses inherent in the stories is papered over, and with no little joy, by the songs.

It’s interesting that you would expect the songs to feel crowbarred in but that actually they fit very well. In fact, in many cases they feel like they were written for the film and not the other way around. Perhaps it’s because of the folk background of the music means that many of the songs feel as though they should be sung in around a piano in a pub or similar that means that fit the environs of a musical better than, for example, the back catalogue of Abba. The singalong-ability of many of the tunes also draws you in as an audience and makes you forgive the other shortcomings of the film.

The performances are uniformly good, especially from the two leads and a surprising turn from Peter Mullan as Davy’s father, and the film is guaranteed to send you away with a smile on your face and, perhaps, a tear in your eye..

B+

Film Length: 1hr 40 – Feels Like: 1hr 30

And a special bonus video…

Stewart Lee – Much A-Stew About Nothing

Stewart Lee – Much A-Stew About Nothing – Mayflower Theatre, Southampton – September 15, 2013

Stewart_Lee_Big

Honestly, this isn’t going to be much of a review. Stewart Lee is one of the best comedians around, but he operates on such a different wave length to anyone else, I’m not sure I can adequately sum either him or this show up. Much A-Stew About Nothing is actually 3 episodes of Lee’s forthcoming 3rd set of episodes of his BBC2 series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, and this was an opportunity to hone the material before that films.

Lee has previously stated an aim of producing a show without any punchlines whatsoever and a segment which involves him repeating the line “If you say you’re English they arrest you and throw you in jail” about 8 times shows how through context and inflection it’s possible (for him) to make almost anything funny without relying on the traditional structures or formulas of comedy. However, I am deeply aware this doesn’t read well.

Anyway, the show overall is incredibly funny and leaves me awaiting the the arrival of the new Comedy Vehicle. In the meantime, below you can find the first epsiode of the first season.

A