For organisational purposes, I've decided to leave out films that came out in Ireland at the start of this year that are otherwise tied to 2014, mostly by awards season. Consider them existing on the 'Best of Nebulous Time Space' list out there somewhere. Of those, Whiplash would rank quite high, Birdman would be low and Song of the Sea would be a strong fixture in the middle. And if you see any glaring omissions, unfortunately it isn't cheap being a self-appointed critic and the likes of Ex Machina found their way onto my 'to watch' list this year and sadly haven't left it yet. Rest assured, I definitely would have put your favourite at number 1 if I had seen it. If you're favourite is on my list but not at 1, just assume it's a typo, I make enough of them. Now on with the list!
Director: Céline Sciamma
In Girlhood, the traditional coming-of-age trope of 'falling in with the wrong crowd' turns out to be the best thing to happen to the protagonist, and the film may have ended up higher on the list if it chose to spend more time on Vic's friendship with her tough but loyal girl gang friends and less time on the more stereotypical crime and drama that make up film's back half. Sciamma's depiction of adolescence may lack philosophical rambling from Ethan Hawke, but it more than makes up for it with a very authentic mix of conflict and camaraderie.
Director: Asif Kapadia
With hundreds of hours of footage to go through, Kapadia and editor Chris King did well to avoid having Amy just be an extended 'Behind the Music' what-a-pity fest. Two things stop Amy from the usual pitfalls of wallow or worship: firstly, a strong narrative through line (Amy Winehouse had no support system) and second, allowing its subject's talent to speak for itself louder than praising talking heads could. When the tragic footage is combined with Winehouse's music, the lyrics literally appearing on screen, its clear what was lost by her early death.
Best Bit: For a given value of 'best' obviously, but the whiplash of going from the trailer-friendly moment of a clean Winehouse's face lighting up in shock as she wins a Grammy (announced by her idol Tony Bennett no less), to the revelation from one of her closest friends that she found the celebrations "so boring without drugs" encapsulates the tragedy of Amy.
8) A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
I originally described this film as 'shallow' even though I liked it, but it's grown on me even more since then. Shallow is an unfair word to use when the director has so many ideas and manages to get them all on screen without everything falling into incoherency. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is essentially everything Ana Lily Lampour finds cool-from silent film to James Dean to 80's punk-bursting out of her brain as a jack-in-the-box, yet its restrained enough not to overwhelm. Its a lot like how its protagonist Arash reacts when he meets the enigmatic vampire girl who walks home alone at night-freaking out on the inside but playing it cool on the outside. It does a much better job than he does.
7) Slow West
Director: John MacLean
It's been another banner year in the Fassbender household as everyone's favourite hansy Kerryman with the ominous energy went Oscar-hunting again with a biopic about a successful white guy in Steve Jobs and crossed Shakespeare off the actor 'to do list' in Macbeth. Slow West might be the under-appreciated gem of Fassbender's recent filmography though, and he's perfectly cast as cynical mercenary Silas, who is simultaneously protective of and taking advantage of young Jay Cavendish, a sap on a quest of redemption and rescue that nobody ever actually asked him to take up. The Heroes' Journey always has the Refusal of the Call, but Jay keeps texting his destiny winking emojis when it's telling him it's going to bed. Slow West gets a little loose and rambling at times but a pitch-perfectly dry sense of humour anchored by Fassbender's performance gives it a strong spot on this list.
Best Bit: The deadpan tone of Slow West pays off gangbusters as a character is emotionally devastated only to salt poured into the wound in the most literal, hilarious way possible.
6) Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Director: Alex Gibney
Nobody exactly needed to be told that there's something a little off-putting about Scientology, but Alex Gibney gives an extended view on just how deep that rabbit hole goes (and still doesn't fit everything in). As greatly explained by Sean Duffy here, Gibney gives Going Clear the atmosphere of a horror movie, turning what is a series of talking heads wrapped around basic narration into a gripping and emotionally exhausting experience. Stories of frantic rescues of fly-covered babies and the insanity of people fighting tooth and nail to stay in the mysterious torture(?) compound 'The Hole' give pause to Scientology's status as a casual punching bag.
Best Bit: The utter insanity of how far leader David Miscavige will go to keep banner boy Tom Cruise onside, culminating on Cruise being 'awarded' what is essentially the Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.
5) Inside Out
Director: Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
In the midst of a slight fallow period for Pixar, in terms of critical acclaim at least, it's been great to see the adulation given to what might be the most Pixar movie of them all, one which takes their wheelhouse of mindful and imaginative films with subjects that surprisingly have deep emotions to its natural conclusion, with the surprisingly deep emotions of actual emotions as they work in an actual mind and try to protect its actual imagination. The directors and animators clearly had a ball designing the more offbeat environments to have their characters race to return home through. Certainly I'd rather by working on 'Imagination Land' than painstakingly making the water in The Good Dinosaur look as realistic as possible. Even more half-arsed spin-offs to Cars are all worth it when the trade off is a film as bright, emotional and entertaining as Inside Out.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Sicario is the kind film that you absolutely have to see once and should then never watch ever again, at least not without a room full of puppies and pizza and a recording of Patrick Stewart softly telling you that it's all alright. The way that the film drops FBI agent Emily Blunt into an absolutely hopeless situation she can do nothing about and barely understands because everybody keeps lying to her is one of the most tense, disorienting film-watching experiences I can remember having in a long time. I could not tear my eyes away from Villeneuve's depiction of some of the shady shit the American government gets up to dealing with Mexican drug cartels, after leaving the cinema I kind of more wanted to tear them out.
3) It Follows
The chances are pretty good that we're not going to get another John Carpenter film in the cinema ever again, but It Follows is about as close as you're going to get. From the wonderfully creepy Disasterpiece soundtrack to the eerily empty look it gives to the run down setting of Detroit, It Follows was the creepiest film-watching experience of the year, and keep that picture of Tom Cruise in mind when I say that. David Robert Mitchell soaks the film in atmosphere, providing plenty of iconic images (something that horror is more reliant on than other genres) and an anxious journey through the uncertain end of adolescence as brought into focus by a relentless, inexplicable sex monster.
Best Bit: Dat 360 degree pan tho
Director: Todd Haynes
Just a few weeks after first reviewing Carol I'm still thinking of the intimate touches of Todd Haynes' direction and Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett's performances. The film captures the feeling of infatuation so capably and at times feels like it's clouded in a haze of that spirit; the idealised New York setting as viewed through grainy 16mm film in particular seems to evoke that feeling. It's a real treat of acting to watch Blanchett play a character who herself plays so confidently when in reality its all a thin layer above genuine doubt, while Mara starts so demure yet becomes increasingly assured without making any huge changes to how she plays the character. Its all in the subtleties with Carol.
Best Bit: Therese reunites with Carol in the closing moments in a moment that couldn't be more old-school Hollywood romantic if it were made in the year it was set in and Carol were actually a man.
1) Mad Max Fury Road
As if there was any doubt that I would pick this. George Miller came in from the cold to make a film that is simultaneously unlike any other action blockbuster around at the moment and much better at doing the basics of action storytelling than almost all of them. Mad Max Fury Road is the best of its genre in the past ten, maybe fifteen years, which is as good a claim to being the best film of the year as you're going to get. It's an absolute treat to look at, its a fantastic director at the top of his game, its got subtle storytelling in an age where the Joseph Campbell beats are getting hit harder than ever and it near absent-mindedly created the next Ripley in Imperator Furiosa. And there's a guitar that shoots FLAMES. As I said on its release:
The big apology for silly shit like Transformers is that they're movies you're meant to "turn your brain off" for, but why ever would you want to do such a thing? It doesn't let the endorphins in. Leave your brain switched on for Fury Road, keep your senses alert, reward your brain with the colours of the desert, the cacophony of crashes and the visual spectacle that pings stuntman after stuntman across the screen. It's a painting, a symphony and an epic poem all rolled up into one and then shot out of a cannon. Go see it. Then go see it again.Best Bit: Uh, all of it? A lot of great stuff happens when night falls though. Well, when blue filter falls. People may try and claim that Max is doing nothing in this movie. But he is. He's doing this.