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My Top 5 Films of 2014

December 7, 2014

OK, so I’m bending the rules a little with my inclusion of seven films – but there is a fair degree of cogency in joining the three French films together for the contrasting ways they dramatise the corruption of the family unit….

Norte: The End of History (Lav Diaz)

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If cinema is the most multi-sensory of mediums, then Lav Diaz is one of its purest exponents. Norte was perhaps the most polished and impressive exposition of filmmaking I saw this year. Diaz is able to infuse his ‘domestic’ Philippine saga with a universal, almost apocalyptic, air.

Full review:

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)

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One word: wow! If Norte: The End of History was the best example of sound and image-making I saw this year, then Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin unquestionably provided my most immersive and memorable viewing experience. It’s a quite staggering film that almost belies any rational analysis, particularly as Glazer seems to have envisioned it as a work – like that of David Lynch – to engage our unconscious and sense of the uncanny.

Full review:

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)

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My favourite Scorsese picture for many a year. He seems to have rediscovered the sheer zest, energy and storytelling chutzpah that I felt had (quite understandably) been fading from his work as he entered his professional ‘dotage’ and since he had begun making films from an increasingly snug industrial position. It’s a relentlessly intuitive satire on the sheer grotesquery of high-end Capitalism, and is apotheosis of the Scorsese-DiCaprio axis (something to stand alongside the Scorsese-De Niro masterpieces of Taxi DriverRaging Bull and The King of Comedy).

Full review:

Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

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Quite simply an ingenious filmmaking concept – a narrative filmed at various junctures over twelve years, using the same cast for that entire period – but it’s one thing coming up with the idea, and quite another to execute it as brilliantly as Linklater does. Tapping into the best sentiments of his Before triptych, Boyhood works not through an overly-determined narrative, but because it quietly taps into a certain temporal and poignant ‘truth’ about life.

Full review:

Bastards (Claire Denis), Jeune et Jolie (François Ozon), The Past (Asghar Farhadi)

Here are three seemingly different films, by tonally-disparate auteurs, but they all provided supremely assured and striking deconstructions of the French family unit.

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Bastards, even though relatively speaking a Claire Denis work in minor key, was still a superior exercise in genre filmmaking, which atmospherically outed an air of vile moral repugnancy at the heart of its family-in-crisis.

Full review:

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While Lars von Trier’s Nymphomania garnered all the attention, I actually preferred François Ozon’s take on an unusual female sexual odyssey, Jeune et Jolie, which was released to little fanfare at the turn of the year. Unfairly dismissed as an exploitative work merely as a result of its beautiful female lead, I thought this was a deceptively graceful and psychoanalytically complex portrayal of female sexual agency.

Full review:

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The Past was a masterful cine-theatrical work, with Farhadi showing a dramatist’s knack (and no little cinematographic flair) in gradually revealing how a woman’s bad relationship choices have a devastating, coruscating effect on an alarmingly large number of people in her orb.

Full review:

(December 2014)

The Invisible Woman

December 4, 2014

The Invisible Woman (2013)
Director: Ralph Fiennes
Actors: Felicity Jones, Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas

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Synopsis: In Victorian England, a relationship develops between celebrated novelist, Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes), and young actress, Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones).

Review: I’ve grown accustomed to approaching films directed by celebrated actors with a touch of scepticism. Especially when those actors have a theatrical pedigree, their films can be more than a touch plodding and literary – as if their inherent actor-centrism dictates a sole conception of the cinematic medium as a vehicle for filming narratives and sticking a camera in-front of actors, locations and sets.

Considering Ralph Fiennes has the aforementioned theatrical pedigree, and that his first two films have been a Shakespeare adaptation and a romantic drama centred on the personal life of one of Britain’s greatest novelists, Charles Dickens, you’d be forgiven for assuming Fiennes falls into this literary-director category. Surprisingly, while not exactly making the case that Fiennes is in any way a radical filmmaker, his two films actually reveal a healthy respect and interest in the special properties of the medium, and where his Coriolanus was a well-envisioned contemporary, 24 hour news ‘exposé’ of the Shakespeare play, so The Invisible Woman is a subtle, superior version of the hugely familiar period genre film.

Fiennes understands that The Invisible Woman is a work of ‘pitch’ and the gentle underscoring of the Victorian social tension which cloaks and ultimately undermines the central romantic relationship between Dickens and actress, Nelly Turnen. Fiennes makes good use of overlapping sound editing to suggest how a fragment of the present (a walk on the beach, opening up an old manuscript) can echo into a past remembrance, and he succeeds in imagining how viscerally oppressive the Victorian fetish for dark and airless interiors was versus a liberating dash of verdant green in a country graveyard or the pastel blue of a beautiful patch of English coastline.

Felicity Jones and Ralph Fiennes play the central relationship with a great deal of pathos, the only marginal misstep being how quickly Fiennes (as director) siphons on the story from Nellie initially scoffing at the prospect of becoming Dickens’ de facto kept ‘secret’ to falling ardently in love with him in the subsequent sequence. That minor quibble aside, Fiennes has crafted one of the more original heritage movies of recent years, and it’s ironic the movie it uncannily resembled to me in nailing that genre so intuitively is Onegin, directed by Fiennes’ own sister Martha Fiennes. (December 2014)

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist

December 2, 2014

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist (2014)
Director: James Erskine

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Synopsis: The life and career of cycling legend, Marco Pantani.

Review: It’s hard to go too far wrong with a documentary on Italian cycling sensation, Marco Pantani, when the sheer raw materials are so compelling. First, it’s a documentary about cycling (that most popular and booming of sports), it covers in a fair amount of detail the Tour de France – undoubtedly the most picturesque, iconic and gruelling of sporting events, and Marco Pantani himself is a man with an incredible story – he had that iconic, balding, buccaneering ‘Pirate’ persona, he was the last man to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France ‘Double’, he was sensationally kicked out of the 1999 Giro for having an uncommonly high red-blood cell count (invariably a sign of EPO doping), and he tragically passed away only a few years later in 2004 as a result of a cocaine overdose.

It’s hard to make an argument for the documentary really elevating the subject matter beyond its said raw materials, as it limits itself to only a few pro-Pantani talking heads (thus making it a very lenient piece that seems to offer close to a one-dimensional ‘victim’ thesis on the tragic end-game of his cycling career and life). There are also rather naff, hackneyed attempts to recreate the lustre of Pantani’s cycling style – which we already see quite readily from the archive footage from the actual stages – by showing dreamy POV downhill cycling montages. At least director James Erskine had the good sense to underscore the action with sage commentary from two great journalists in Matt Rendell and Richard Williams, and unquestionably, the film succeeds in giving the viewer a greater context to the rich story and complex character of Pantani. (December 2014)

The Human Stain

December 2, 2014

The Human Stain (2003)
Director: Robert Benton
Actors: Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Wentworth Miller

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Synopsis: Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins), an eminent Classics Professor at a top US college, resigns his post after being accused of using a racial epithet against two absent students. While planning to document his disgust at the decision by writing a book with local author, Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise), Silk embarks on an affair with lower-class farm hand, Faunia (Nicole Kidman), while remembering how he was able to hide the fact that he grew up as a young black man…

Review: The Human Stain bears all the scars and stretch-marks of a work that has tried to condense the necessarily literary elements of an esteemed novel (characters, plotting and backstory galore) into a feature film format. The plus-side is that one can clearly detect the presence of a probing intellect in the interesting interplay of themes (racial and class prejudice being the two main areas of discourse), and the central construct of slowly revealing through reminiscence that Coleman actually grew up as a (light-skinned) black man is unquestionably as fascinating and fertile a development as presumably it must have appeared in written form. In fact, director Robert Benton actually does a fine job of interlinking Coleman’s present day dilemmas as echo of his youthful sacrifice/metamorphosis through the use of rhythmic and elegiac flashbacks.

Where the adaptation fares less well is in the ‘present-day’ plotting and genre ingredients it throws into its already rich mix of a literary pudding. Giving Coleman’s younger girlfriend, Faunia, her own traumatic subplot of deceased children and an abusive ex-husband, must have been a much more organic development on page, but on screen, against the larger context of Coleman’s story and racial secret, it has the effect of (if you’ll excuse the cooking metaphor a touch longer) over-egging the pudding. Also, presumably there are commercial and industrial reasons for casting Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris as the white-trash girlfriend and ex-husband respectively, but their presence and earnest Method willingness to over-demonstrate their characters’ blue-collar world-weariness further disavows the contemporary section of the Coleman story. (December 2014)


November 28, 2014

Exhibition (2013)
Director: Joanna Hogg
Actors: Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Tim Hiddleston

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Synopsis: Performance artists-cum-architects, D (Viv Albertine) and H (Liam Gillick), are a live-in couple, and set in process the sale of their minimalist, three-storey apartment in London. The estrangement in their relationship mirrors the forlorn last throes of life in the apartment.

Review: I’ve always sensed Joanna Hogg is much more of a conceptual artist and sociologist than a fully-fledged dramatic filmmaker, and this is confirmed by Exhibition –  a rigorously-realised filmed thesis on the relationship between architecture and social interaction, but a work that’s tedious to the point of abstraction, and follows a through-line of rhetorical obviousness you can trace to her previous films, Archipelago and in particular, Unrelated.

The problem with Hogg’s conception of the cinematic medium is that it’s almost entirely one-dimensional and (in the literal sense of the word) ‘conceited’. Every frame of Exhibition smacks of the term, “get it?”, meaning that Hogg – akin to the mindset of a conceptual artist – is attempting through the interplay of abstract means to communicate a linear context or truth. Thus, Exhibition is awash with static tableaux and distinctive (but rather obvious) visual or aural conceits – such as the continual sound of building work outside (symbolising transition and disruption), and the late closing shot of the dishevelled cake which was made in the same image as the apartment itself (hint, hint)!

Maybe I don’t speak for every cinephile, but I want films that move, immerse and transport me, and that try and tap into some of the uncanny, experiential ephemera of life, rather than films like Hogg’s which seek to reduce, explain and flatter people’s intelligence. All I can say in defence of Hogg, is that at least she’s not compromising her conception of cinema for commercial reasons, and she does unquestionably have an innate understanding of framing and mise en scène. It would just be nice to see her relinquish some of her control tendencies next time around…(November 2014)


My 5 most overrated/underrated films

November 24, 2014

It’s hard enough passing empirical judgement on a film as it is (cinema is after all an inherently subjective ‘experience’ – a convergence of different artforms and sensory elements that get magically processed in that murky little place somewhere between your eyes and ears). So to talk of films as ‘overrated’ and ‘underrated’ is naturally extremely slippery territory to get into – just who exactly decides that a film is ‘rated’ or not anyway, and by what rationale? Still, it’s an interesting conversation starter for sure, and in today’s age of instant opinion, social networking and the ever-growing bourgeois consensus, it’s interesting to take a step-back and to try and call out the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ or equally, dust down an unheralded gem….

Here’s my top 5 in each category (please note – I’ve generally only looked at the last decade or so of releases for my lists)


The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

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I think we can safely say this film was ‘rated’. Critics were falling over themselves to fawn at this piece of performance art-cum-academic thesis, and Sight & Sound contributors even voted it the best film of last year. My review linked below articulates my misgivings over the film more substantially than I’m going to here, but in short, I feel it was a one-dimensionally conceited and cinematically inert work that comes dangerously close to exploiting a horrendous story of national genocide (the Indonesian ‘reign of terror’ of 1965-66) for a first-world, falsely moralistic, intellectual parlour game.

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013)

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Don’t get me wrong Blue Jasmine wasn’t bad per se, but in relation to the effusive reviews it received and Cate Blanchett’s bizarre, unquestioned coronation as Best Actress at all the awards ceremonies, it was substantially over-estimated. I think it’s part of the phenomenon of Woody Allen’s now annual release, where reviewers go looking for things that aren’t there – for signs that it might contain some of the magic of early/middle-phase Allen, when in reality, the guy has produced work of staggering mediocrity over the last decade or so, which very few other directors would be permitted. Blue Jasmine was visually undistinguished, borderline badly acted, and nowhere near the classic American tragedy lineage that people tried to ascribe to it.

Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

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Pardon my French ma’am, but this film was utter shite! An object lesson in how not to tell a story on screen: it was poorly plotted, desperately unfelt (ironic considering it was a film about an abducted child and a serial killer – two huge genre plot hooks), and it was just horribly diluted and neutered beneath its terribly bland period production design.

The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2009)

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My least favourite type of genre – middle-class holocaust porn, usually based on a bestseller, and directed in a stodgy, literary way by a theatre luvvy who possesses little understanding of, or interest in, the cinematic medium. Peter Bradshaw famously dismissed the film in The Guardian some years back, and he speaks more articulately on its specific flaws than I possibly can:

Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2003)

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Probably the hardest one to sell as overrated – mainly because I appreciated little bits of its craft in parts. It’s a combination of the fact that the film was so well received and is generally still reckoned to be Mike Leigh’s best film. And my problem is due to Leigh’s style being so purely theatrical – the obsession with the minutiae of performance/characterisation and the overcommunication of theme and subtext (this film’s abortion politicking) – it gives the work a pleading, didactic, smothering feel – wanting you to ‘get it’ at every single stage of its discourse.


The Believer (Henry Bean, 2001)

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Before Ryan Gosling became colonised by the mainstream for his role in syrupy romantic drama The Notebook and the fanboys for his collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn in the overrated Drive and Only God Forgives, he gave the performance of his life in this utterly brilliant, micro-budgeted, highly-intelligent and perceptive film about religion, rage and terrorism that has an ever-growing relevance and prescience today.

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)

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OK, I know Terence Davies has always had an illustrious reputation anyway, and this film certainly wasn’t poorly received (it was well complimented in most quarters), but having rewatched it recently, I’m adamant it’s one of the best British films of the last decade or so. It’s a near-perfect, gorgeous, literate, sensuous exposition of thwarted desire – featuring perhaps career-best work from Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.

Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011)

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J.C. Chandor received deserved praise for his Robert Redford-seafaring number, All is Lost, but not many people remember his utterly brilliant and intuitive take on the 2008 Banking Crisis that was Margin Call. The film was exactly the right way of dramatising the sheer vulgarity of what happened – it’s set over one long night at a fictional investment bank HQ in Manhattan, and how one innocent piece of numerical research from a lowly trader leads to the end-game finally being called on the mathematical bullshit of a charade they call ‘securities trading’, and how the sheer stunned apocalypse of that recognition plays out on the different levels of command in the bank (it’s a great ensemble of character-turns from the likes of Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci and Jeremy Irons to name but a few).

Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)

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Unfairly derided as workmanlike and overly consumed in the technicalities of its cop/criminal world on its release, in my humble opinion Miami Vice stands as one of the greatest action movies ever made – and if anything, its unusual sensuousness and artfulness may have blindsided viewers more schooled in the hackneyed grammar of this type of film. It’s seriously atmospheric filmmaking, featuring some of the best cinematography and sound design going in ‘mainstream’ cinema, and the film uncannily honours Miami’s position as gateway to the steamy, tumultuous, neon-inflected climes of the Caribbean and the Americas.

Time to Leave, Le temps qui reste (François Ozon, 2005)

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François Ozon’s sheer prolificness (he makes a film almost every year) and his predilection for frothy pastiche often sees him overlooked as a filmmaker of real note. The Charlotte Rampling collaborations (Under the Sand and Swimming Pool) not withstanding, Ozon’s best work is this remarkably poignant story of a healthy man in his twenties suddenly coming struck down with a terminal illness, and how he processes that in the increasingly short-time he has left on the planet. The premise plays into all of Ozon’s best tendencies – he’s a good director of actors, and he likes to keep a little mystery in not overdetermining the psychology of his protagonists, according them some elegiac space to fade out on….

(November 2014)


November 16, 2014

Bastards (2013)
Director: Claire Denis
Actors: Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Bataille

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Synopsis: Marco (Vincent Lindon), an itinerant naval worker, is called back to the family flock in Paris when his brother-in-law, Jacques, commits suicide and leaves the family finances in a perilous state. Marco proceeds to ingratiate himself with Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) – the mistress of millionaire Edouard (Michel Subor) who was closely linked to Jacques’ business affairs. Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton) is practically catatonic and suffering from graphic injuries and a strange malaise incurred at a similar time to her father’s death. Justine’s story and the intertwining of Marco’s family’s affairs with Edouard combine to unmask a sinister secret….

Review: It’s a real treat to see Claire Denis dabbling in slightly more conventional, genre material. Her murky, lugubrious, elliptical style that straddles shades both naturalistic and expressionistic makes such a rich and natural bedfellow for gripping, characterful narrative cinema.

It’s the non-didactic storytelling that really stands out in Bastards, and how Denis is content to let the narrative and its themes and undertones trickle out forbodingly – as much through mood, clever editing and the simple presentation of time, rather than guiding the audience’s hand through every twist and turn. Thus, when we reach the shocking – but somehow, inevitable – climax, we realise that what Denis has crafted is a pitch-perfect parable of corruption and betrayal, and that the film’s title Bastards is a suitable epitaph for the way that fiscal and sexual depravity has insidiously destroyed every single character in the story. (November 2014)


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