15. Stranger by the Lake
Directed by Alain Guiraudie
Written by Alain Guiraudie
Though Stranger by the Lake premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (and appeared on Sound On Sight’s best of 2013 list), it finally reached North American audiences in January of this year. Alain Guiraudie’s stunning noir-tinged thriller is set entirely against the backdrop of a secluded lake–known to locals as a popular gay cruising spot. A tale of murder complicated by intense sexual obsession (garnering equal parts praise and criticism for its frank depiction of unsimulated gay sex) it accomplishes the rare feat of subtly guiding the way we pay attention to details as we watch. The film’s deceptively simple geography is mapped out as much aurally (and orally) as visually. By the time of the pulse-pounding climax, Guiraudie has masterfully taken hold of all of our senses in an ever-tightening claustrophobic grip. It is Hitchcock by way of Bresson.
14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus
Comparing this film to the paranoid spy thrillers of the 1970s is a bit much: last I remember, The Parallax View did not end with Warren Beatty jumping off of an exploding gunship. But this film shares with those pictures a dark view of America: of course the Battle of New York in The Avengers would result in a hyper-paranoid and over-militarized security apparatus, and of course everyone is okay with it. In that way, the film turns a mirror on the audience’s own cynical apathy. To beat that kind of cynicism you need someone who is not just a super-soldier but is also superhumanly compassionate, and Chris Evans’ performance delivers on all levels. Plus, those exploding gunships sure do look pretty.
Directed by Steven Knight
Written by Steven Knight
UK / USA
Forget about superheroes, vampires, or countless other high-concept setups found in mainstream cinema;Locke is a film that reminds you how powerful the everyday world can be. In real life, even the smallest action can bring about devastating consequences. And if you are like most people, you have a preferred method for dealing with these unforeseen bumps in the road.
Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a man who handles his problems one way: he likes to do what he believes is right. And when he says he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. So when a woman whom he had a one-night-stand with calls and tells him she is going into labour with their baby, he puts everything else on hold—his family, his job, and his entire reputation—and decides to take responsibility for his actions.
As a film, the success or failure of Locke rests solely on Hardy’s shoulders. Taking place entirely inside of a car, director Steven Knight does what he can to make the aesthetic somewhat stylish—lens flares, an emphasis on reflections—but in the end, it is Hardy’s performance that engages our attention. From his controlled delivery to his subtle tics, Hardy sells us on a character who follows through on his word; and the more we learn about him, the more we realize how even the most disciplined of individuals can make mistakes.
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Max Borenstein
There’s a lot that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla gets wrong. Maybe even more than it gets right. Its plot is tonally serious, yet utterly ridiculous; its rather one-note cast of characters is led by perhaps the blandest action hero of the last few years; it commits the cardinal sin of building up to an explosive battle only to cut away at the last possible minute to its news report not once, but twice. When it does gets it right, however, boy does it get it right. It is, ironically, the little things that make it shine. The steady build-up to the entrance of the monsters, for instance, or the gorgeous visual effects – a flaming train has never looked so horrifyingly pretty. The HALO jump is one of the greatest sequences seen on film, a mix of wide, swirling colours and tight, claustrophobic gas masks, all to the haunting score of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The final battle between Godzilla and the muto is an epic brawl, with a finishing move that elicits cheers. So whilst it may never quite break free of its genre boundaries in the way that Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight managed, it’s a beautiful monster mash – and that’s all it ever needed to be.
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Written by Kelly Masterson and Joon-ho Bong
South Korea | USA | France | Czech Republic
Joon-ho Bong’s English language debut, Snowpiercer, boasts a daffy creative energy befitting the maverick Hollywood films of the 70’s. Bong connects a first third that looks like vintage Gilliam and a conclusion that feels like Apocalypse Now with enough stylized action to make John Woo jealous. Part prison, part metaphor, Snowpiercer treats its titular train like a social stepladder, where eons of evolution are ruthlessly condensed into a tyrannical vision of Utopia. Arresting visuals breathe life into the suffocating atmosphere, lending each train compartment its own unique personality. Quirky supporting performances augment the surrealistic nightmare, while Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer provide a relatable heart and soul. A clever script from Bong and Kelly Masterson tackles some big ideas about tyranny and social justice, but never forgets to deliver the popcorn thrills. There are breathtaking scenes that will haunt you for days, like the heartless punishment of an insolate passenger or the perilous journey across an ice-covered bridge. Bong fought hard to keep Harvey Weinstein’s meddling fingers away from his artistic vision and the result is an audacious example of fevered filmmaking. In other words, this is one crazy train!
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Wrriten by Lars Von Trier
Denmark / Germany / France / Belgium / UK
Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac has been split into two films and that is a tragedy. As many reviews showed from viewing the films separately, the effect of the film is lessened by separating the deeply comic first half from the dreadfully disturbing second. So if you are going to watch Nymphomaniac, make sure that you watch the full film. Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a self-described nymphomaniac who is describing her life to Stellan Skarsgard and at first it is very uncomfortable. The jokes are there pretty much from the start but it takes a while for them to lull you into being comfortable at which point the film takes an incredibly dark turn. Its cringe worthy because what you were just laughing at becomes visually scarring. And when you walk out of the theatre those images are never going away. This film sticks with you; one moment you’ll remember the fantastically funny scene with Uma Thurman and the next the most violent and jarring scene where Charlotte Gainsbourg psychologically breaks a man down. This is better than Antichrist and its better than Melancholia. Nyphomaniac is not a film to watch lightly, but it is a film that cinephiles need to see.
9. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Simon Kinberg
With all the missteps the X-Men Franchise has taken in the past decade, Bryan Singer and company finally got it right, combining the best elements of both prequel and sequel. It even manages to take it a step further by all but erasing the past mistakes in continuity, setting us up for something new and exciting in a franchise that should be growing weary.
- Kenny Hedges
8. Edge of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman
Written by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
American director Doug Liman’s career trajectory has been one blessed with great success and marred by disappointing results. Whatever the quality of his projects, be it 2002’s celebrated The Bourne Identity, 2008’s maligned Jumper or 2005’s tepidly received Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Liman is a man who attaches himself to projects glowing with potential and intrigue. This includes his latest endeavor, a science-fiction action tent-pole Edge of Tomorrow, inspired by an ill-known Japanese novel titled All You Need is Kill. In it, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a significant American Army liaison with other international forces as the world tries to repel a strange alien takeover. Surprisingly enough, Cruise does not start off as a hero figure but rather a comical wimp, terrified and ill suited for combat, an attitude which shockingly lands in a battle zone at the behest of Brendan Gleeson’s spiteful General Brigham. Once in combat, Cage finds himself unexpectedly caught in a time loop, the escape from which may only come with the help of war hero Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt).
Say what one will about how Liman’s films turn out, the director always goes full throttle with his projects,Edge of Tomorrow being no exception. Expertly crafted, gifted with cutting edge visual effects and handsomely casted, Edge of Tomorrow is thankfully one of the director’s better efforts. It is even tempting to consider it as among his very best. Starting with the aforementioned surprise about the nature of Tom Cruise’s character, the film goes from there to develop an action-packed film where the characters, while still somewhat simply drawn, feel as though they actually matter, a testament to both the writing and the performances. Cruise and Blunt end up being a great pairing as they try to figure a way out of the time travelling predicament they find themselves all the while devising a plan to thwart the alien invasion. Blunt is the bad ass and Cruise is the weakling who needs to grow a pair of brass balls. In addition to refreshing character development and superb action set pieces, the script is not afraid to inject genuine humour into the mix, providing Cruise and a lively Bill Paxton will some hilarious lines that fit their respective roles. Amidst sequels, prequels and reboots, Edge of Tomorrow is an original take on science-fiction that satisfies by being both intelligently made and entertaining on superficial levels.
7. The Raid 2: Berandal
Directed by Gareth Evans
Written by Gareth Evans
In 2011 the surprise sleeper hit that was The Raid took the international film circuit by storm. It was the perfect example of lightning in a bottle; a Welsh writer/director with an Indonesian cast and crew operating on a million dollar budget within one location spurred by a high concept plot and front lined by a martial arts star. Somehow both a throwback to classic 90s hardcore action and also a game-changing first step into a new era, its no-nonsense technical approach and heavily condensed shots of adrenaline wowed critics and audiences alike, opening up MMA and a largely untapped cinematic frontier to all corners. Naturally, the announcement of a sequel had to be treated with a pinch of salt. The original was a unique beast. A follow up resembled an attempt to recreate the formula for maximum gain.
How wrong such predictions were as Gareth Evans ditched the ‘trapped in a skyscraper’ format and instead opted to make the crime thriller epic he’d long coveted, remoulding the ambitious Berandal to fit the toned frame of Iko Uwais’s hero Rama and filling it with callbacks to his high octane opus. Thus The Raid 2 hit cinemas this year following a rule of sequel-making long preached but rarely adhered to; this was a different beast, bigger and bolder yet original and organic. Like Rama, it was recognisable yet also different, wearing the same face but evolved and advanced. Simplicity and brevity was replaced by complexity and layers hinted at the first time around. The fighting is back, brasher and more brutal than ever, but surrounded by a sweat and grime drenched atmosphere as thick as syrup. You can feel the sleaze on your skin and the crack of your knuckles as Rama infiltrates the Jakarta underworld in search of the corrupt influence and unjust hand of the law at its heart. Unthinkably, The Raid 2 is Level 2, both for us and our amiable, newly ambiguous protagonist. The apartment block seems like basic training by comparison.
It is truly a marvel of film-making and absolute solid, undeniable proof that in journeyman Gareth Evans cinema has found a truly special star. Threading together a vast plot, relatively massive running time (more than an hour longer than the original), numerous backward links and a new array of colorful villains as deserving of cult status as Mad Dog or Tama, The Raid 2 is one part fisticuffs acid trip and one pulsating film noir, aided by Uwais’s acting upgrade and an intricately conceived narrative. You come for the duels and mass brawls but are seduced by the story. The violence (bloodier than ever) is dressing for the drama. A straightforward action outing draws us into the world of the crime epic. What we are seeing is truly a rare feat; a director making the film he always dreamed of, and fulfilling our own fantasies in the process. It is a truly perfect, transcendent action thriller. Every bit as good, and perhaps better, than the original.
- Scott Patterson
6. Blue Ruin
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Written by Jeremy Saulnier
Blue Ruin features some clever writing in reworking structural genre tropes. Another revenge film would set its sights on a target and go full Death Wish until a bloody denouement. Instead, Blue Ruin snuffs out its major target in the first act, throwing things for a structural loop and forcing Dwight into increasingly dangerous and unpredictable situations.
The film rides a line between existential drifter narrative and deadpan-funny comedy. The former might be closer to a Charles Bronson film of a different name as Dwight’s is less Paul Kersey and more Harmonica from Once Upon a Time in the West…just far less capable with a weapon; the latter bits, including an arrow from a crossbow to the thigh, lighten the mood, but also work well with the established revisionist structure as it’s Dwight’s clumsiness that is the source of nearly all laughs.
- Neal Dhand
5. The Immigrant
Directed by James Gray
Written by Ric Menello and James Gray
Directed by James Gray and photographed beautifully by Darius Khondji, The Immigrant is a work of high ambition—though not in an epic or grand sort of way. From the opening image to the last (easily one of the best shots of the year), the frame is bursting with details; and though all the elements for a traditional American period piece are there—high profile stars, exquisite set design and costumes, and an emphasis on authenticity—Gray’s refined visual style works to establish characterization, thus allowing the film to avoid all the trappings of an overly-cynical or an overly-nationalist approach to the past.
Featuring stunning performances from Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner, The Immigrant is more concerned with individual experience than it is with flashy statements, as
Gray’s version of 1921 America is one from the bottom-up. Said to be 80% inspired by the stories of his own grandparents coming to America, Gray fleshes out the characters in a way that makes them complicated, driven, and aware of their own shortcomings—or in other words, human. Instead of focusing solely on the many ways in which the American Dream is a lie, Gray has us connect with these characters and see what it may have been like to survive in the underbelly of 1920s New York. And though the story is fiction, the intent is sincere and precise, as emotions run deep in every scene. To sum it up, The Immigrant is Gray’s most accomplished film to date, and one of the best films of the year.
- Griffin Bell
4. The LEGO Movie
Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Regardless of my lifelong love for the Danish bricks, skepticism was the original reaction to The LEGO Movie. Instead, a huge slice of humble pie was eaten as comedy geniuses Phil Lord and Christopher Miller made the most of Lego’s extensive inventory and created one of the most inventive and creative animated films in recent years. With its vast array of characters, the film perfectly blends fantasy, comedy, stunning computer animation and relatable themes that both adults and kids can enjoy. It is hard to think of a recent film that captures the nostalgic joy of The LEGO Movie and if you don’t enjoy it, you’ve obviously never played with a Lego brick in your life.
- Katie Wong
3. Only Lovers Left Alive
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Written by Jim Jarmusch
UK /Germany / Greece
Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive opens with a spinning, dazzling shot of vampire lovers, suicidal Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and earthy Eve (Tilda Swinton) set to a moody version of Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love”. The film is Jarmusch’s love letter to Detroit, music, literature and yes, love. Only Lovers Left Alive is first and foremost a romance and a beautiful one at that but it’s also bitterly funny and clever. The fact that these are ageless vampires isn’t ignored; there are tons of references to history. Eve hangs out with Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) and Adam recounts affairs he had with various historical women but what really matters here are Adam and Eve (named in reference to Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve). Hiddleston and Swinton are perfection in their roles and their chemistry is boundless. The film is lush, romantic, and endlessly cool like all Jarmusch films tend to be. In fact, Only Lovers Left Alive may be his most effective and beautifully moving film.
2. Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson
The question of Wes Anderson’s reputation as a foremost artist of contemporary cinema remains a point of debate among the film community. His style is no doubt distinct and his vision consistent, but some remain skeptical as to whether or not he is bringing any new ideas to the table. Though inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel nonetheless adopts most of the signature themes and styles found in his previous works. Centered around the legendary Grand Budapest Hotel, the film is set between the two wars and portrays the adventures of concierge Gustave H. and his Lobby boy, Moustafa Zero. Working off a pre-existing oeuvre allows Anderson to embrace greater excesses then his previous works, as coincidence and meta-textuality emerge naturally from Zweig’s structured style. Is this film a parody or a celebration of stylistic excess? The line is tread so carefully that the film is alienating, a bizarre embodiment of whimsy that lacks “real” spontaneity or chaos. Though it has become tiresome to describe Anderson’s style as being like an elaborate maquette, the analogy rings true. His characters, his world and his settings seem to be made out of paper and clay than any other organic material. It is the performances that inject energy to the film, with Ralph Fiennes making his debut in Wes Anderson’s universe with incredible grace and dignity.
- Justine Smith
1. Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Jonathan Glazer
Working from Walter Campbell’s script adapted from Michel Faber’s novel, Under the Skin is Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast, Birth) first feature in ten years. The film is firmly rooted in such sci-fi landmarks as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the best way to describe Under the Skin, is as a direct descendant of Nicolas Roeg’s classic The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Scarlett Johnason stars as a creature from another planet. She travels here, landing in Scotland, and adopts human guise and the name Laura, with the intention of harvesting men for food. Most of Under the Skin operates on an almost subconscious level; It’s as existential as a sci-fi/horror film can be and a film that raises far more questions than it answers. It’s slow moving and contemplative – and while the horror elements are slight, there is one jump scare that will have you leaping from your seat.
Glazer reportedly spent ten years developing Under the Skin, and instructed the actress to cruise the streets and offer rides to random men while he secretly shot these encounters with a hidden camera. One such meeting involves Adam Pearson, a real-life sufferer from facially disfiguring neurofibromatosis, a.k.a. Elephant Man disease. Pearson’s scenes along with a wrenching sequence in which Laura leaves a wailing, unattended child alone on a rocky beach rank among the very best of any film released this year. At times the film walks a tight rope between mesmerizing and narcotizing. The denouement is shocking, casting an otherworldly spell that will leave viewers dissecting the movie for years to come.
- Ricky D