Favourite Films of 2014

26 December 2014

This year I have attempted to acknowledge the films that I feel are examples of cinema at its best on both technical and artistic levels, with the films that had more a personal impact in the sense that they long stayed with me or compelled me to see them again. Most films ended up falling into both categories. Regardless of the reasons, these are the films I loved the most over the past twelve months that got a full theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia:

Top ten favourite films of 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis
1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2013)
released January

Two Days, One Night
2. Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2014)
released November

3. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
released July

The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)
released April

The Grandmaster
5. The Grandmaster (Yi dai zong shi, Wong Kar-wai, 2013)
released September

The Wolf of Wall Street
6. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
released January

Blue Is the Warmest Colour
7. Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle, Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
released February

12 Years a Slave
8. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
released January

A Touch of Sin
9. A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, Jia Zhangke, 2013)
released February

10. Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013)
released March

Honourable mentions

I thought this was a particularly strong year in cinema so these are fifteen more films, listed alphabetically, that have stayed with me for one reason or another:

52 Tuesdays
52 Tuesdays (Sophie Hyde, 2013)
released May

Big Hero 6
Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 2014)
released December

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
released July

Charlie's Country
Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, 2013)
released July

The Dark Horse
The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, 2014)
released November

Force Majeure
Force Majeure (Turist, Ruben Östlund, 2014)
released October

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
released December

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)
released May

Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
released January

The Infinite Man
The Infinite Man (Hugh Sullivan, 2014)
released September

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)
released July

nightcrawler review
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
released November

Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
released April

Under the Skin
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
released May

WWhat We Do in the Shadows
What We Do In The Shadows (Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, 2014)
released September

Favourite ten films not given a full theatrical release

Many of the best films I saw this year were not given a full theatrical release, but were still screened to Melbourne audiences at festivals or other special events.

1. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

Hard to Be a God
2. Hard to Be a God (Trudno byt bogom, Aleksey German, 2013)

3. Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2014)

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets
4. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, 2014)

The Possibilities Are Endless
5. The Possibilities Are Endless (James Hall and Edward Lovelace, 2014)

Happy Christmas
6. Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg, 2014)

Why Don't You Play in Hell?
7. Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Jigoku de naze warui, Shion Sono, 2013)

The Overnighters
8. The Overnighters (Jesse Moss, 2014)

Ping Pong Summer
9. Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully, 2014)

10. Housebound (Gerard Johnstone, 2014)

This list was compiled for the Senses of Cinema 2014 World Poll

If you want to hear me discuss many of the films listed above, plus some that I wasn’t able to find places for in my lists, then check out the final episode of Plato’s Cave for 2014, which you can listen to via Radio On Demand or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

See you all in 2015 and thanks for reading my monthly summaries. I don’t have any plans to return to long form reviewing just yet, but I’ll still continue to do my radio spots as well as work on a couple of long term projects that may even come to fruition. Following me on Facebook and/or Twitter is the best way to see what I’m up to.

Thomas Caldwell 2014

Films I loved in December 2014

23 December 2014
Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6

Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) and Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) in Big Hero 6

Walt Disney Animation Studios have been doing some extremely impressive work over the past few years with Big Hero 6 being my favourite film of theirs in recent times. The animation looks great, it contains a refreshingly diverse cast of characters and it contains just the right mix of pathos, humour and excitement. It doesn’t contain any naturally gifted or Chosen One characters, as instead the young heroes are all intelligent and studious who use science to solve problems. It also warns against the destructiveness of pursuing vengeance rather than justice with its story of a 14-year-old boy who enlists the help of a healthcare robot to uncover the truth behind a personal tragedy. While attempting to teach the robot humanity, the boy himself learns what it means to be human, and along with the villain effectively being a shape-changing robot, this makes Big Hero 6 a family-friendly variation of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in Paddington

Sally Hawkins as Mrs Brown and Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) in Paddington

The other terrific family film for this month is Paddington, which is filled with charm, and child-friendly sight gags and word play. It’s a gorgeously designed film that blends together director Paul King’s comedic avant-garde style with some pleasing nods to Wes Anderson and Jacques Tati. Best of all, the tale of a marmalade-loving bear who has lost his home in darkest Peru and seeks somewhere new to live in London, very successfully conveys timely messages about the harm of racism, the inhumanity of turning away those who seek help and the true meaning of family – all just in time for Christmas!

Sheila Vand as The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Sheila Vand as The Girl in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Combining the hip spirit of 1960s Iranian New Wave cinema as well as the equally hip spirit of 1990s American independent cinema (in particular channelling the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley), Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an ultra cool vampire film, which for good measure is also inspired by spaghetti westerns. If nothing else it is remarkable that a film that is bursting with so many references to so many other films should come across as having such a distinctive voice of its own, but it does and that voice is subversive, smart and stylish, announcing Amirpour as an exciting new talent to have emerged this year.

Robin Wright as Robin Wright in The Congress.

Robin Wright as Robin Wright in The Congress.

It’s been over a year since I’ve seen Ari Folman’s The Congress and while I’m not sure what I may make of it watching it now, I thought it still worth mentioning since it’s a film that has stayed with me. Blending live action and animation, it stars Robin Wright playing a version of herself who sells her digital-self to a Hollywood studio and then later enters an animated dream-world. It’s a perplexing and disorientating film that touches on ideas concerning memory, identity, reality and authenticity. The early-20th century-style animation used throughout the middle section of the film is realised on a grand and spectacular scale, and the overall strange and melancholic tone of the film is haunting. The Congress is admittedly a mess of a film, but it’s a glorious mess.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in November 2014

2 December 2014
Marion Cotillardas Sandra in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard as Sandra in Two Days, One Night

The latest film by brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night, is similar to their previous film The Kid with a Bike, where they take a highly structured story within a very precise setting and still deliver the naturalistic feel that they are renowned for. The structure is reminiscent of High Noon, where the protagonist has a short period of time to convince the members of the community to stand by her. Marion Cotillard is incredible as Sandra, battling depression and despair, as she lobbies her co-workers to vote in her favour so that she can keep her job – the company has given its employees the cruel choice in having to decide between her remaining employed or them all getting bonuses. It’s a complex and beautifully performed film that delivers a sensitive portrayal of what it’s like living with a mental illness as well as providing a potent social critique of systems that trample the rights of workers. It also has a conclusion that is close to perfect.

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

James Rolleston as Mana and Cliff Curtis as Genesis in The Dark Horse

The other film released this month that commendably portrays the difficulties of living with a mental illness in a difficult environment is the outstanding New Zealand drama The Dark Horse. Cliff Curtis is a revelation as Genesis, an ex-chess champion who has been in and out of institutions due to his struggles with a bio-polar disorder. Based on a true story the film is about his volunteer work at a local youth chess club and his attempts to get his teenage nephew out from the violent gang life that his father intends for him.  Not unlike Shane Meadows’s excellent 24 7: Twenty Four Seven this is story of hope that doesn’t flinch from the grim realities that face the characters.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler

The ultra cynical and darkly comedic Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal in fine form as a ruthless creature of the night akin to the alien from Under the Skin and pop-culture psychopaths like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. In the case of Lou he profiteers from video taping tragedy to then sell to news stations, and he does so with no qualms about manipulating other people’s trauma to get the best footage possible. The result is a thrilling and voyeuristic ride alongside somebody completely lacking empathy, and a savage critique of the news that we consume, which is only made possible by people like Lou and our own morbid appetites.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I’ve enjoyed all The Hunger Games films and even though the new film is only half of one of the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is my favourite so far in the excellent franchise. With a focus on the propaganda war between the ruling class in the Capitol and the rebels in District 13, this film goes even further in its savvy critique of how celebrity culture, the media and popular culture carry political messages to influence the target audience. Jennifer Lawrence is once again fantastic as reluctant hero Katniss Everdeen who in this film starts to question the rhetoric of the side she’s been coopted to fight on.

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway as Amelia Brand and Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar

The final film I really enjoyed this month is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which may overreach in some of its attempts to position itself alongside philosophical science fiction masterpieces such as Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but still contains enough moments of awe and wonder for me to overlook any shortcomings. On a purely spectacle level it is a triumph and I admire its attempts to explore complex ideas such as how time could be represented as a physical space. I also strongly responded to its core question, which is also at the heart of Malick’s The Tree of Life, about what motivates humanity: a simple survival instinct that’s wired into our DNA or something less tangible or measurable such as – dare I say it – love. Corny to some perhaps, but I enjoyed it and also appreciated how much the film linked in such ideas with its celebration of scientific curiosity and the quest to discover something more in life than simple survival and acceptance of fate.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in October 2014

5 November 2014
Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Ben Affleck as Nick and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl

Gone Girl is director David Fincher’s most scathing and most dangerous social satire since Fight Club. Taking a scenario that seems to have sprung from a Men’s Rights Activist’s wet-dream, and gleefully highlighting how inherently ridiculous such a scenario is, both the film and the novel it is adapted from uses the template of a whodunnit thriller to deliver a darkly comedic and borderline absurdist critique of gender roles, mainstream attitudes towards marriage, media sensationalism and materialism in a post-GFC America. Gone Girl is part of a long tradition of horror and thriller films where social anxieties of the era, in this case anxieties primarily concerned with gender, are manifest into the film’s monster or villainous character.

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba and Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas in Force Majeure

Speaking of social satires that critique what is expected of men and women, the Swedish film Force Majeure by writer/director Ruben Östlund is a hugely entertaining drama, which also has a number of wonderfully borderline absurdist and comedic elements. Not unlike the far more minimalist The Loneliest Planet, the way somebody instinctively acts in a single moment of crisis completely ruptures the dynamic between a couple making them confront the ways in which they are expected and expect each other to behave.  The passive-agressive dialogue that flows throughout this film – and the very unusual way the film sometimes disrupts the tension – is compelling and confronting, not to mention extremely funny at key moments.

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman and JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

The final film that caught my attention this month – and judging from the critical response, the attention of pretty much everybody – is Whiplash, by writer/director Damien Chazelle. It’s another film that challenges social conventions, in this case ideas about the nature of genius and notions concerning the use of pressure as a motivational tool. While it is a film about playing music, and some beautifully edited and shot sequences really bring the music to life visually, it overall resembles a boxing film and a Full Metal Jacket style war film. Whiplash shows us how something like music can be made miserable when the focus is on perfectionism and competitiveness, it shows that while some talent may be natural it also requires passion and a lot of practise, and most importantly it shows us that the antiquated and militaristic push-until-they-break approach is nothing but destructive.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in September 2014

1 October 2014
Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

Tony Leung as Ip Man in The Grandmaster

September was a great month in terms of the number of films that got me excited, but none more so than The Grandmaster, the most recent film by Wong Kar-wai, which has finally made its way to Australia. I’ve long adored Wong’s films and I’ve long been a fan of martial arts films, so I was already primed to embrace his take of the story of Wing Chun expert Ip Man. Set in 1930s China and 1950s Hong Kong, The Grandmaster is an exquisitely sensory film filled with beautiful people in beautiful clothes against beautiful settings, engaging in elaborate and breathtaking fight choreography that resembles dance. I was swept away by the exhilarating and sumptuous look and sound of this film, and moved by its romantic melancholy.

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Xavier Dolan as Tom in Tom at the Farm

Although I’ve had mixed feelings about Xavier Dolan’s previous films, Tom at the Farm has converted me into a card-carrying admirer of the young French-Canadian filmmaker. Dolan not only directs (and writes, produces and edits) but also plays the lead character, a young man named Tom who travels to the country to attend the funeral of his dead boyfriend. Tom becomes drawn into an intriguing power play with his boyfriend’s crude and violent brother Francis, where both men are attracted and repulsed by each other. The end result is a compelling psychological thriller that evokes many of Roman Polanski‘s early films.

Ellar Coltrane asMason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane as Mason and Ethan Hawke as his father in Boyhood

Not only is Boyhood a remarkable conceptual and technical achievement – having been shot over twelve years so that the cast could age in real time – but it is also a beautiful portrait of childhood and growing up. Writer/director Richard Linklater has long had a fascination with how the lives of everyday people are a tangle of the extraordinary and the mundane, and here more so than ever he creates a convincing portrait of ordinary lives as they traverse through the years, being subjected to both gentle change and dramatic upheavals. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke in particular are outstanding as the divorced parents of Mason, the boy we see age from 6 to 18-years-old.

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

Josh McConville as Dean and Hannah Marshall as Lana in The Infinite Man

This has been a fantastic year for bold feature film debuts by Australian filmmakers with Hugh Sullivan’s The Infinite Man being one of the films I had the most fun with. The complex time travel narrative is gleefully tricky and very effectively used to facilitate the theme of destructive obsession, where the control freak protagonist desperately tries to repair a ruined relationship. The two leads – Josh McConville and Hannah Marshall – are wonderful, and Alex Dimitriades as the rival love interest delivers one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in Australian cinema in years.

Taika Waititias Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

Taika Waititi as Viago in What We Do in the Shadows

And speaking of comedic performances, not a single person involved in the the droll New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows puts a foot out of place. Directors/writers/actors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi have created a superb comedy that very effectively works within the conventions of its faux-documentary format and vampire mythology. This is an endlessly inventive and funny film with a glorious low-fi aesthetic that no doubt must have involved meticulous craftsmanship to achieve.

Otherwise, two extremely strong coming-of-age films about teenage girls were released in Australia recently. The Georgian film In Bloom presents a very sad portrait of a culture where patriarchal values are so heavily entrenched that customs that horribly infringe on the rights of women are treated as everyday occurrences. Meanwhile the teenage girls in the Swedish film We Are the Best! also have to confront the condescensions and restrictions of regressive attitudes to gender. Their weapon of choice is punk music resulting in a film bursting with fun and rebellious energy, by filmmaker Lukas Moodysson whose 1998 feature debut Show Me Love is one of the greatest films ever made about teenagers.

While I am highly sceptical that Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vision for the film version of Dune would have worked as well as he and his fans imagined it would, I really enjoyed Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which examines the history of the so-called greatest science-fiction film never made. Finally, I loved Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (and Luke Wilson for that matter) delivering great performances in this familiar but extremely endearing spin on the dysfunctional family narrative.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in August 2014

3 September 2014

Jarvis Cocker in Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

Jarvis Cocker in Pulp: a Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets

Although Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets isn’t technically an August 2014 release, it received a number of festival and special event screenings as well as getting a Digital Home Entertainment release (the DVD and blu-ray release is September). It is also a film I adored. It helps that I’ve long been a fan of the band so was overcome by nostalgia, but regardless this is still a very strong documentary that manages to provide an insightful context for the band and their music. By providing a portrait of the English city of Sheffield (where Pulp original hail from) and its residents, director Florian Habicht goes beyond the fact-listing and anecdote-telling formula of most music documentaries, to explore the time and place that produced the music and investigate why it still resonates with its fans. The concert footage is also extremely dynamic and some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Nicolas Cage as Joe and Tye Sheridan as Gary in Joe.

Nicolas Cage as Joe and Tye Sheridan as Gary in Joe.

Part of the growing number of Southern Gothic films that are coming out of the United States at the moment, which I am fascinated by, Joe is both a coming-of-age story about men and masculinity, and a portrait of a community that is rarely depicted on screen other than to be ridiculed. Director David Gordon Green’s use of non-professional actors was inspired, especially Gary Poulter who sadly died shortly after the film was made. Teenage actor-on-the-rise Tye Sheridan is great and continues to impress after Mud and The Tree of Life, and Nicolas Cage in the titular role gives one of his best performances in years.

Zoe Saldana	as Gamora and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy

Zoe Saldana as Gamora and Chris Pratt as Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series that really stayed with me and it’s probably no coincidence that it is more in the spirit of the original Star Wars films and the television series Firefly, than the superhero-driven films from the rest of the franchise. Director James Gunn has previously demonstrated that he has the ability to playfully subvert and draw attention to generic conventions, without resorting to parody or blatant self-awareness, which is why Guardians of the Galaxy is so much fun while still taking itself seriously as an ensemble-driven space opera. Most importantly is the character development where the audience are quickly endeared to the anti-heroes of the film so that most of the enjoyment comes from them riffing off one another and even occasionally having exchanges that are genuinely touching.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in July 2014

6 August 2014

As I’m currently caught up in the thick of the Melbourne International Film Festival and didn’t get this summary done beforehand, my notes on my favourite films from July are briefer than ever. I also didn’t even get to see all the films I wanted to see, particularly A Most Wanted Man, so maybe that will appear on my August list. But for now here’s what I did see in July, better later than never…

Tilda Swinton as Mason in  Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton as Mason in Snowpiercer

I first saw Snowpiercer while travelling abroad late last year and I was thrilled to see it again recently as I think it’s become my favourite film to-date by Bong Joon-ho. I love the visceral and exhilarating action, I love the production design, I love the dark humour and I love the social satire. Not only is the film a savage condemnation of class politics, but it examines the conditions under which class-based oppression thrives with all aspects of the film designed to facilitate that critique.

Brendan Gleeson as Father James and Chris O'Dowd as Jack Brennan in Calvary

Brendan Gleeson as Father James and Chris O’Dowd as Jack Brennan in Calvary

I have to keep reminding myself that Calvary is a blacker-than-black comedy, because it left me devastated. This is extremely sophisticated storytelling that transcended all expectations I had for writer/director John Michael McDonagh. The insights into personal and collective guilt, and the mix of ideas concerning redemption, forgiveness, sin and martyrdom, make this an essential film for trying to understand just how much damage the centuries of sex abuse and cover-ups committed by the Catholic Church have done to individuals and communities.

David Gulpilil as Charlie in Charlie's Country

David Gulpilil as Charlie in Charlie’s Country

I have been a fan of Rolf de Heer’s films for over 20 years now and Charlie’s Country yet again validates my belief that he is one of the most important Australian filmmakers of all time. After making so many progressive films, often about marginalised people, including two previous films with an Indigenous focus but set in the past, this is the film I’ve been waiting for de Heer to make for some time. And it doesn’t disappoint. Closely collaborating with co-writer/lead actor David Gulpilil, de Heer delivers an insight into the extent to which white Australia has continually intruded upon the lives of the First Australians on all levels. While this is overall a sobering film, it also contains a lot of humour thanks to Gulpilil’s performance and just the right amount of hope to prevent the audience from throwing their hands up into the air and declaring the issues to be all too hard to deal with.

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy in Lucy

Scarlett Johansson as Lucy in Lucy

I feel vaguely guilty for including Lucy here, but I had such a great time with this B-grade mash-up of junk science, stoner-philosophy and Hong Kong action-inspired spectacle. The film’s conceptual audacity and the way it fully embraces its internal ridiculousness is completely exhilarating, and it’s by far the most fun I’ve had watching a Luc Besson film since Léon: The Professional 20 years ago.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which is a sort of Hindi In the Mood for Love/Brief Encounter with interesting insights into some of the social issues within contemporary India. I found the Australian documentary All This Mayhem very compelling, having next to no knowledge of the rise and then very disturbing fall of skateboarding champions Tas and Ben Pappas. It’s been a year since I saw The Selfish Giant, which is now on general release in Australia, but at the time I was extremely impressed by the way it transformed a parable by Oscar Wilde into a very moving social-realist film set in a poverty stricken part of northern England. And I was finally able to catch up on Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, which has recently been released on DVD, with Paradise: Love from 2012 being the standout film from that trilogy. Set at a Kenyan beach resort where older Austrian women go to have sex with the young locals, the cocktail of gender, race, class and body politics on offer in this film results in a wonderfully uncomfortable, provocative, confronting and darkly funny film.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014


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