Top Five Films of 2014

2014 is coming to an end, and so it becomes time to look back and reflect on the year that has past. It started with the oscars, and to no one’s surprise 12 Years A Slave dominated the awards.

The summer box office saw science fiction, fantasy and superhero movies completely dominate proceedings. One has to go to 13 (Rio 2) before one can find a film outside one of these three genres. Also, although not all the films in the Top Ten were sequels, films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Maleficent (2 and 3 respectively) definitely benefitted from the Marvel and Disney brand recognition. This will continue to be the case, with only a handful of directors (Nolan, Jackson, Scott, del Toro, Cameron) able to get blockbuster levels of funding for original projects. Finally, 3D is dead, or at least paying extra for it is. IMAX is the future now. Expect to hear little about whether a film is 3D or not over the next few years.

Finally, the year ended with one of the oddest diplomatic incidents of recent years, after a Seth Rogen film caused the type of tension normally associated with cuban missiles or the shooting down of passenger jets. The truth of the matter seems somewhat muddied, although what seems to have emerged is Sony relying on alternate streams of revenue to big theatres to ensure a profit. Perhaps The Interview will mark a watershed moment where the simultaneous release of “Video on Demand” for non-blockbuster films is the rule rather than the exception.

Anyway onto the main event, my Top Five Films of 2014:

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5. Frank

I’m a big fan of Jon Ronson’s writing (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Them, and Psychopath Test among his best known). If you’re unfamiliar with him, he has a similar style to Louis Theroux in that he gets to know people on the outskirts of society in a non-judgemental way. Before he was a well-known writer, Ronson was part of Frank Sidebottom’s band. Frank is a fictional retelling of that time told from the point of view of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson).

The film is an exploration of the thin line between being true creativity and madness. Frank (Michael Fassbender) refuses to take off his paper maché head through out the film for reasons that are never completely clear. Jon is determined to make his band a success, despite the protests of the other odd ball members of the band for whom the art is all that matters.

Like its protagonist, Frank is both eccentrically funny yet undeniably tragic. It gets to the heart of the fact that often we want to change the most idiosyncratic of our acquaintances to be ‘normal’ like the rest of us, and yet there is something beautiful and appealing about someone who chooses to live outside those norms.

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4. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan currently stands alone as a director able to command big budgets and do something spectacular and original with it. Standing on the shoulders of Kubrick and Spielberg, he does this with Interstellar which not only looks beautiful but which inspires us to see beauty in the universe we live in.

It’s not a perfect film, and undoubtedly owes a lot to 2001: A Space Odyssey, yet it forces us to look up and out at our place in the universe, a rarity in film and also in sharp contrast to the other big sci-fi success of this year, Guardians of the Galaxy.

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3. Lego Movie

There’s just something joyful and hopeful about this movie that meant it would have been a crime to leave it out. The Lego Movie, like The Muppets or Wallace and Gromit seems to inhabit such a positive, funny, imaginative space that it’s impossible not to want to be a part of its world.

Its rare a franchise film manages to capture what’s so *ahem* awesome about its product, but The Lego Movie managed to perfectly capture what makes the toy such a hit with generation after generation of children since its inception.

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2. Her

On paper, the concept of Her seems like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch: a man falling in love with the “Siri”-like personality of his computer. However, there is a depth and subtlety to the execution of the concept that sends it well beyond its initial idea.

Her explores notions of regret, intimacy, AI, and romance in a profound, funny and endearing way. Like Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, it allows us to think about technological advancement by focussing on the unchanging aspects of human nature. No matter how much the world changes around us, we still need companionship, acceptance and love. However, can we ever experience such things from an articificial being?

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1. Boyhood

There’s nothing original about my choice for Best Film of 2014, however, perhaps that is testament to the quality of the film. Boyhood is a film that transcends the medium and shows us the power cinema can truly have. Filmed over 12 years, Boyhood shows us the growth of a young boy, Mason, into adulthood.

There are so many wonderful moments in the film it’s hard to pick out just one or two. What it manages to capture beautifully though is the changing problems you deal with as you get older. Whether that be an annoying sister who tries to get you in trouble, changing schools, a new haircut, or a new step-father, there’s something simply amazing about the way such an individual story will evoke so many different memories in the mind of each individual viewer. A masterpiece that will be studied and adored for many years to come.

What I’ve Been Watching: Interstellar

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Science and fiction are two words that shouldn’t really belong together within a genre. Science, to give it its precise definition is “study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” That is, it deals with facts and that which is observable in some way. Fiction on the other hand deals with the imagination, things which are unknown and unobservable. What is it about the theories and practice of science that so provokes the imaginations of creators and audience members alike when it comes to science-fiction as a genre?

Interstellar is a film Spielbergian in its set-up (he was originally set to direct the film). There is a father, Cooper, (McConnaghey) doing his best to provide for his two children in the aftermath of a worldwide famine which has wiped out most of the world’s crops. With the earth becoming unsustainable for human life, Cooper, a former NASA pilot gets recruited to go on a mission to find other planets the people of earth could move to.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Gone Girl

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I feel like I’ve written extensively on the subject of adaptations, covering it in my reviews of Life of Pi and The Great Gatsby for example. Adaptations are a strange and contradictory beast. All adaptations must balance being true to the spirit of the original work with the desire to bring creativity and imagination to their version of the story.

David Fincher is a director well suited to one of these two things. Whether with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Fight Club he knows how to successfully bring well-loved books to the big screen. However, I would argue the creativity and vision of a true auteur when doing so. He is the director a writer wants to work with since it will primarily be the writer’s version of events which ends up on the big screen (cf. Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network).

In the case of Gone Girl, it is difficult to see any changes Fincher requested from Gillian Flynn’s book, since the two are virtually indistinguishable. The film relies entirely on the strength of the plotting, story and characters of the source material. This is by no means a bad thing, since the book is one of the most exhilarating and clever novels I have read in recent years. However, for me the experience does not differ much from merely re-reading the book.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Boyhood

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Some ideas for films are so simple and wonderful one wonders why they haven’t been done before. Boyhood is the fictional account of a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he grows from boy of six to a man of eighteen. Filmed over a twelve-year period we see how him and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s real-life daughter) change both in the sense of their personalities and physical forms. We also see how their concerns change from moving home and haircuts to romance and recreational drugs.

The story’s scope is not limited to Mason and his sister, however, we also see how his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) change and do their best to support their children in spite of the difficult circumstances that often arise.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Guardians of the Galaxy could come across as kind of an oddity in terms of Marvel’s films. It doesn’t open with a superhero coming to terms with their new abilities, neither is it based on earth, or is even concerned with earth (constantly referred to as “Terra” in the film). However, like other Marvel films it is an origin story, it’s just it’s concerned with the origin of a team, rather than the origin of a character’s abilities.

The film opens with Peter Quill aka Starlord (Chris Pratt) stealing an orb which everyone in the film wants their hands on. This includes Gamorrah (Zoe Saldana), Rocket the Racoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel). However, their attempts to get if off Starlord land the four of them in jail. They attempt to escape and are helped by Drax (Dave Batista) who joins their newly formed merry crew.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Summer Blockbusters (Dragons, Apes and Mutants)

how-to-train-your-dragon-2-posterThis summer has left me somewhat busier than usual due to finding myself a Mrs Observealot to share my adventures in time and space with. Because of this I’ve not had the time to write up my thoughts and insights into many of the summer’s films I’ve been fortunate enough to catch.

Three of these films are X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and How to Train Your Dragon 2. All are big budget, high quality films, but more importantly thematically they actually have a surprising amount in common.

More so than most other big budget franchises, X-Men, Planet of the Apes, and How to Train Your Dragon are all about two rival groups and the struggle to find peace between them.

For this reason, all three films appealed to me as someone who grew up in Northern Ireland in the midst of such a struggle. Whether the ‘other’ are mutants, apes, or dragons there is a sense in these films that peace is a possible, if difficult, outcome, and the protagonists in all these films are all doing their hardest to bring reconciliation to their worlds.

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What I’ve Been Watching: Godzilla

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In 2010, Gareth Edwards released Monsters, an indie film shot with a tiny cast and crew that was a great example of the kind of ambitious sci-fi film one could make for next-to no money. Now with a bigger budget, bigger crew, more famous cast, and possibly the biggest of big monsters comes Godzilla.

It’s a film that starts off promisingly. The action starts in Japan (as every good Godzilla movie should) where we see Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) lose his wife in an accident in the nuclear power station he’s working in. Cranston is told the accident was caused by an earthquake, but he begins to suspect a cover-up and starts to investigate.

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