Distributors often save the best films for December and early January so that they will be fresh in the minds of Academy Award and BAFTA voters. This overlap presents problems for any Best Films list.
The Coen Brothers Inside Llewyn Davis, was apparently eligible for awards in 2013, but released in the UK in late January 2014. Disgracefully overlooked in last year’s awards, this brilliant tribute to the NYC folk music scene circa 1961, with a tour de force performance from Oscar Isaac (who plays the guitar and sings), kick started the year with a masterpiece.
Now for the indisputable qualifiers: Following is a personal pick of the 12 top films of the year:
1. Boyhood: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a courageous, but triumphantly successful experimental film that turns the mysterious process of growing up into an enthralling comedy-drama. Shot over an 11-year period with the same actors playing the family, we watch six-year-old Mason Evans Jr (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) transform and mature before our eyes. The three hour film flies by as fast as life itself.
2. Blue Ruin: Written, directed and shot by American cinematographer-turned Writer/Director Jeremy Saulnier, Dwight (brilliantly played by Saulnier’s friend, the unknown actor Malcolm Blair) becomes the most unlikely and ill-prepared avenger in the history of the revenge drama. Fortunately, he learns fast. At turns hilarious and deeply moving, you will be gripped from the start. Stumbling only at the end, Saulnier breathes new life into an old genre in the most entertaining thriller of the year.
3. The Two Faces of January: Hitchcockian in tone, scriptwriter (Wings of the Dove, Drive) turned Director Hossein Amini actually improves on Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a love triangle that is not what it seems – and neither are the characters. Visually stunning and psychologically alluring, Amini gives Viggo Mortensen the chance to show off his talent in the most challenging and nuanced performance of his career.
4. Camille Claudel 1915: Bruno Dumont combines his obsession with religion and his unique style to give us a deeply moving and profound look at the sculptor Rodin’s former mistress and student, confined to a mental hospital by her rich and famous, weirdo brother, Paul. Working with real mental patients and their nurses, actress Juliette Binoche takes us on Camille’s dark journey.
5. Winter Sleep: When a former actor turned land owner, his much younger wife, and his recently divorced sister hibernate in their mountaintop hotel in the Cappadocia region of Anatolia, sparks fly – not from the fireplace. Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s beautifully filmed Palme D’Or winner is about the complex gulf between those who wield power and those who feel powerless.
6. Dinosaur 13: Director Todd Douglass Miller takes us on an incredible and frightening journey, not back millions of years, but just 24, and to a dark place unimaginable to visitors of America’s natural history museums. This politically-charged documentary is essential viewing and hard to forget.
7. Locke: Can you make a riveting thriller, both humorous and moving, with one Welsh cement-pouring engineer sitting behind the wheel of his car for the duration of the film? British Writer/Director Steve Knight and actor Tom Hardy have done just that in this experimental feature about a self-controlled, dependable family man having a mid-life crisis on the motorway to London.
8. Of Horses and Men: Benedikt Erlingsson shows us the versatility of the Icelandic pony and the interdependency of man and horse in what must be the strangest docu-drama ever made. A disorientating experience for even the most seasoned traveller, you will laugh, cry and squeal, while feasting your eyes on the wide expanses of rugged, stark scenery.
9. The Wind Rises: Seventy-two-year-old animator Hayao Miyazaki’s swan song is a film so complex in its layered cultural references, so visually spellbinding and so masterful in its period detail, that you can forgive it its narrative weaknesses. Much more than a historical biopic (Studio Ghibli’s first) of Jiro Horikoshi, the controversial designer of Japan’s deadly A5M Mitsubishi fighter plane, the film is also an autobiographical reflection on life.
10. Obvious Child: Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre deserves kudos for turning her directorial debut into the best and bravest romantic comedy of the year. A tad less romantic than hilarious, Obvious Child’s star, the comedienne Jenny Slate, brings a great character and script to life.
11. Kiss the Water: Eric Steel’s charming British documentary goes to show that it isn’t what you do in life that counts, but how you do it. The late Megan Boyd was quite a character. She never married, but toiled away in her remote, Spartan cabin in Scotland, making fishing flies of such quality and beauty that she counted museum curators and the Prince of Wales among her customers.
12. 22 Jump Street and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Call it cheating, but it’s so rare that two box office blockbusters make my list that neither can be omitted with a clear conscience. 22 Jump Street is very much a movie sequel; and, from the opening scene to the clever and hilarious closing credits, it doesn’t let you forget it. The feeble, clichéd plot is presumably part of the package: a hilarious parody of The Hollywood Sequel – the dreaded summer phenomenon turned into a welcome treat.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is part of the famous franchise, but also a terrific stand-alone action drama with, for what it’s worth, a gun-control message. Yes, it’s a silly Sci-Fi film about talking apes who ride horses into battle with machine guns, but Director Matt Reeves’ film has class. Charles Darwin would have loved it for its evolutionary theme; Tolstoy might have admired it for its humanistic look at war and peace; and Turgenev would have appreciated the father/son bonding subplots.
Joyce Glasser is Mature Times film reviewer – look out for her reviews of each week’s film releases in 2015.