Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 – My Top 10

I’d like to start by saying a big thank you to Oxford’s only truly independent cinema, The Ultimate Picture Palace, for 1) welcoming me in as part of their stewarding team, 2) giving me the chance to see a great spread of films I may never have sought out and 3) reinforcing my love of the movies.

In fact, I have the UPP to thank for my greatest moment at the movies this year. Apologies if you’ve already heard this story . . . I was on to cover a weekend screening of ‘Pride’, a movie that I’d considered going to see but had never made the leap. So, the UPP made the leap for me and, after sitting down for two hours of life-affirming British dramedy, I got up to open the doors ready for people to leave . . . but no one did, and what started out as a murmur soon rose to a roar. The audience were clapping and cheering. They’d broken out in a spontaneous round of applause, and my heart was warmed as I stood out in the evening chill. As far as I’m aware, every screening of ‘Pride’ at the UPP was greeted with a round of applause. That is what the movies are about, and it’s one of the reasons I love the UPP and my new hometown so much.

With that in mind, it was quite a surprise that ‘Pride’ missed out on my top 10. And that, more than anything, is a testament to just how great 2014 has been for cinemagoers.

But, without further ado, here goes; my favourite movies of the year . . .

10. The SacramentA late addition to the list and probably the least well-known entry (all the more reason for you to seek it out). Sold as a horror movie, Ti West’s (director) chilling Christian cult movie is so much more than that. Brilliantly played off as a true story, West grounds the found-footage set-up better than any other film in recent memory. The cast only add to the naturalism, with all of the key players on brilliantly understated form. Truly exceptional, however, is the little-known Gene Jones as Father, Eden Parish’s twisted leader. One interview sequence mid-way through is totally absorbing. ‘The Sacrament’ is far smarter and more accomplished than the horror-centric promotional material would have you think. A real gem!

9. Inside Llewyn Davis – This seemingly aimless meander through Greenwich Village’s dwindling folk scene of the early 60s (before the arrival of a certain Mr Dylan; keep an eye out for the cameo) sees the Coen Brothers on fine form. In an effort to mirror Llewyn’s stagnant career, they leave narrative progression at the door (by Joel Coen’s own admission, "the film doesn't really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that's why we threw the cat in."). However, the deeply seeded melancholy is highly affecting, yet laced with the Coen’s trademark dry wit. Oscar Isaacs leads the movie magnificently and the musical work is exceptional, with a set of brilliant (to my untrained ear, at least) folk songs that perfectly straddle the fence between parody and homage. It’s also one of the year’s most visually arresting movies, with the entire film viewed through an understated greenish copper chloride filter.

8. Gone Girl This David Fincher thriller played exceptionally well on a repeat viewing. Any questions I’d had after the first run-through were suitably ironed out and I was left to revel in the glorious depravity on-screen. Rosamund Pike is excellent as Amy, but it’s Ben Affleck who really shines as Nick, the husband left to pick up the pieces after her disappearance. It’s very much a movie of two halves; the first being a white-knuckle detective thriller, culminating in a breathless reveal that left me absolutely floored (if not by the truth, but by the astonishing delivery), and the second being decidedly more trashy, but no less watchable. An excellent piece of work from a director/writer/star combo all at the top of their game.

7. Captain America: The Winter SoldierUnfairly overshadowed by July’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, this Captain America sequel is the best Marvel/superhero movie of the year. Guardians gave the world superheroes via space opera, and this gave us superheroes via political thriller (far more appealing, if you ask me). Delivering bone-crunching action courtesy of a terrifying villain, ‘The Winter Soldier’ sees the stellar cast on top form and belies it’s superhero movie shackles to deliver a social relevance unprecedented in movies of this kind. It also provided a much-needed shot in the arm for ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’, Marvel’s TV show. The events of the movie changed the show completely, and triggered something of a renaissance for Coulson and his team. ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ season 2 is some of the greatest TV I’ve seen this year, and we have ‘The Winter Soldier’ to thank for that.

6. The Lego MovieThe first of two brilliant family movies in my list, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord sprinkle their magic fairy dust on yet another unassuming ‘property’ (21/22 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, being the other two) and deliver one of the most joyous movies of the year. An endlessly energetic celebration of creativity and individualism, ‘The Lego Movie’ remains brilliantly self-aware throughout and delivers a never-ending stream of gags. Liam Neeson’s Good/Bad Cop is a real standout, and sees Neeson at his unhinged best. Fun for all the family had never seemed more apt a phrase . . .

5. PaddingtonUntil ‘Paddington’ came along, that is . . . Proof that us Brits can hold our own against our American cousins when it comes to big-budget family-friendly fare. ‘Paddington’ stands tall in the landscape of modern British cinema as a heat-warming celebration of multicultural London and everything that makes Britain great. The cast are on great form, especially the voice of the ursine star himself, Ben Wishaw (taking over from Colin Firth in an inspired last-minute casting switch), and the humour is spot-on throughout. Joyous!

4. Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThe year’s best blockbuster makes it up to number four on my list. Troubling reports about the original director, Rupert Wyatt, choosing to leave the project meant that many – including myself – were apprehensive going in to this sequel. But, under the assured direction of Wyatt’s replacement, Matt Reeves (‘Cloverfield’ and ‘Let Me In’), we were treated to a glorious piece of issue-cinema on the grandest of canvases. The combination of the greatest performance capture work the world has ever seen and some bar-raising computer effects, this deeply challenging sci-fi world is brought to life like never before. Shakespearian drama, deeply sincere performances and brilliantly exciting action combine to create one of the purest cinematic experiences of the year. People often see ‘darkness’ as synonymous with intelligence, when it comes to blockbusters (*cough* Dark Knight Trilogy *cough*), but this proves there's so much more to it than that. If part three delivers, we could have one of the greatest cinematic trilogies of all time on our hands.

3. Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer’s draws one of the year’s greatest performances out of Scarlett Johansson, as a mysterious extra-terrestrial sent to stalk the streets of Scotland in search of single men. It’s a chilling journey into the darkest depths of human sexuality and Glazer makes use of some breath-taking special effects shots to lure us in to this intoxicating world. It’s admittedly a challenging watch, and the jarring lack of narrative coherence and the extended virtually silent sequences may put some off, but that’s also what makes ‘Under the Skin’ one of the most rewarding and deeply meaningful cinematic experiences of the year.

2. The Raid 2Gareth Evans sequel to his exceptional 2011 effort, ‘The Raid’, outdoes its predecessor in every possible way. Threading a set of increasingly mind-blowing set pieces together with an epic Indonesian crime drama works brilliantly. And Evans yet again delivers with the choreography, doing things with the camera that I’ve never seen anyone else do, resulting in not only the most adrenaline-fuelled sequences of the year, but also quite possibly the greatest action movie I’ve ever seen.

1. BoyhoodWhat else could have made my top spot? If ‘The Interview’ was the most important movie of the year in terms of the film industry, then ‘Boyhood’ was the most important movie of the year when it comes to cinematic craft. Shot over a twelve-year period, ‘Boyhood’ is about love, life, growing up and everything humans have ever found worth talking about, quite frankly. And to think that no one will ever tackle anything like this again . . . ‘The Raid 2’ may have some of the most remarkable action cinematography the world has ever seen. But, I have faith that ‘The Raid 3’ (presuming it gets made) will match, if not beat, it. ‘Boyhood’, however, is sequel-less. In fact, it’s its own sequel; twelve of them in fact. If you see one movie this year, please make it ‘Boyhood’. Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like it. A generation-defining movie!

With honourable mentions to the following; The Grand Budapest Hotel, Pride, Nightcrawler, Interstellar, Leviathan, Lucy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Godzilla, The Wolf of Wall Street, Locke, Edge of Tomorrow, 12 Years a Slave and Snowpiercer. All great movies, but not enough to make it onto my list.

Of the forty-three 2014 releases I’ve seen, to have twenty-three worthy of recommendation is truly unprecedented! Admittedly, there have been a couple of big disappointments (most notably, ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ and ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’) and one absolute stinker (the putrid ‘The Riot Club’). But, that’s pretty good going for a supposedly ‘weak’ year. If you thought 2014 was a poor year for the movies, then you simply weren't trying hard enough!

Thank you to all of you who continue to visit the site, I do hope you occasionally find something worth reading. I’d also like to apologise for my lack of new reviews in the last few months. It’s hardly surprising, with the stresses of university and the like, but I would still have liked to have posted more regularly. But, I hope to manage my time a bit better in the coming year and hopefully these dry spells will be 1) shorter and 2) less frequent. This may be trickier than it seems, however, as I recently began writing for Close-Up Film; my first piece being a review of British gangland thriller, ‘The Guvnors’. While it may be to the detriment of this site, I do hope to continue pursuing other writing opportunities and I hope you will follow me on this journey. Exciting times!

Made even more exciting by the successes of the summer. The site hit an all time high in August, which was then beaten come October. So, thank you for that period, in particular. The 'top review' spot has also changed hands in the last twelve months. Gone is ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ and, in it’s place, ‘Kick Ass 2’, which blitzed the competition and shot to the top of the heap in just a couple of months. It turns out you guys love a good hatchet job!

Until next year,
Benedict Seal

p.s. If you want to keep up with all my latest news and reviews, I can be found on Facebook (Benedict Seal) and Twitter (@benedictseal).

Friday, 26 December 2014

Nightcrawler – Gyllenhaal’s Got Guts

Jake Gyllenhaal takes on freelance crime journalism in this slick, and terrifically twisted, drama from ‘Real Steel’ writer, and first-time director, Dan Gilroy.

And what a debut! Gilroy is a class-act throughout, delivering a highly accomplished visualisation of his excellent script. In fact, the movie stands out as one of the most impressive directorial debuts in recent years.

And Gilroy would be the star of the show if it weren’t for Gyllenhaal, who delivers a career-best performance as the demented Louis Bloom, a man to whom human life means absolutely nothing. Even his attempted relationship with Rene Russo’s Nina screams of selfishness. Gyllenhaal’s smile is deadly and his words deliciously creepy. This guy is an unforgiveable sociopath, yet Gilroy’s direction and Gyllenhaal's performance make him devilishly watchable and deeply enigmatic.

Also, a big shoutout to Britain’s own Riz Ahmed (star of the fabulous ‘Four Lions’, among other things) who’s equally transformative as Bloom’s assistant, Rick.

Gyllenhaal is the real draw here, but a brilliantly crafted script and some exceptional visuals ensure Nightcrawler will linger long in the memory. Sickening, but gloriously so.


Monday, 22 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – A Major Disappointment

The most surprising thing about the final film in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy is just how badly he got it wrong.

And, trust me, he’s preaching to the choir here. I love the original ‘The Lord of the Rings’ movies, and I’ve enjoyed (and, at times, really enjoyed) the first two movies in this prequel trilogy. So why did this fail so badly?

First off, let’s deal with the title problem. The Battle of the Five Armies; hmm, I’d wondered, what exactly are they going to be fighting over? Nothing is the answer, nothing. Smaug is slain in the opening 15 minutes and The Hobbit, as I’d known it, was complete. The fight was over, they’d defeated the dragon and Erebor was returned to the dwarfs! . . . Can we go home now?

No, is the answer. For the dwarfs aren’t the only ones who have their sights set of the treasures under the mountain, and thus begins the battle . . . over gold. Where’s the nobility in that? Gone is the honour, gone are the morals; the world isn’t going to end if someone gets a wallet-full.

This is a major narrative issue. There are zero stakes. Quite frankly, I didn’t care who won, I just wanted the whole thing to end. Please?

Jackson’s debilitating over-reliance on CGI also lynched any of the thrills out of the, admittedly huge, battle sequences. Seeing pixel 1 knock seven bells out of pixel 2 isn’t fun, it’s breathtakingly vapid.

And Jackson’s camera doesn’t help. He swings that thing around with gay abandon. Wooshing and swooshing his way through huge valleys, piled high with the bloodless corpses of men/dwarfs/elves/orcs/goblins left fighting a meaningless battle for the benefit of their arsehole leaders.

It’s all so inconsequential and so massively underwhelming.

Even the superb Martin Freeman (who has now, unquestionably, proven himself to be the perfect Bilbo Baggins – I don’t think there’s a single actor alive today that could have done a better job), with his brilliant twitches and tics, can do little to save the film. He’s an absolute joy when he’s onscreen, but that’s the problem, he spends so much of the running time elsewhere.

Likewise, Richard Armitage does some great work as gold-lustful Dwarfen King, Thorin. He has a gravitas unmatched by any of the movie’s other key players and draws the eye brilliantly. But, even his role is rife with tonal issues.

The film takes itself so deadly seriously, whilst consistently ramming hopelessly misjudged comedic moments down our throats. The fact that Alfred, the rat-like right-hand man to Stephen Fry’s buffoon of a mayor, gets so much attention is the final nail in the coffin. The man’s an idiot, why can’t we just accept that and move on?

I sure hope The Battle of the Five Armies isn’t the ‘defining chapter’ it claims to be. But, I fear that statement is slightly too close to the truth. This finale led me to question my love of the original trilogy and that’s the greatest criticism of all. It was so, so easy, but Jackson got it so, so wrong. Farewell Middle Earth, it was a shame to see you grow so old.

And a big heads-up here; avoid the high frame rate (HFR) 3D. It adds nothing. In fact, it lessens the impact of virtually every scene. The actors are left flailing in front of green screens and the boundary between the CG and the real has never been more glaringly obvious.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Paddington – The Best of British

Now I’m not usually one to say it, but ‘Paddington’ makes me proud to be British. It’s not often that the essence of these proud and noble shores stands quite as tall as it does during Paddington, Paul King’s (most well known for his work on ‘The Mighty Boosh’) big-screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved series of children’s books.

The film opens in Darkest Peru with a brief, but highly affecting, origin story for this marmalade-munching ursine.  From the off, King delivers side-splitting belly-laugh after side-splitting belly-laugh as he throws his camera about with gleeful abandon, making the most of the sumptuous location and a trio of top-notch British thespians.

But the tide soon turns and, as cheers turn to tears, Paddington (voiced pitch-perfectly by Ben Wishaw, in an inspired piece of casting) sets his sights on London . . . and what a London he finds.

It takes a few blank stares and avoidant shuns, but our cuddly friend soon finds himself lodging with the Browns, the year’s most charming on-screen family (featuring great work from Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, and their on-screen kids, Madeleine Harris and Samuel Joslin). What ensues is a joyous celebration of multicultural London.

King throws an antagonist into the mix part way through, in the form of Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist, Millicent, but that does little to detract from the sheer joy of seeing this ball of fluff warm the hearts of everyone he meets.

The jokes are spot-on, the visual humour is terrific and the sheer good-heartedness is infectious.

Some of us have got the Royal Wedding, others afternoon tea, but I’ve got ‘Paddington’ and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. An absolute triumph!


Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Interstellar – To Infinity and Beyond

An aching sadness permeates every frame of ‘Interstellar’.

And this pain lingers on . . . even during the scientific ramblings of space-suited explorers.

Yet, in that pain lies a seed; a seed of hope. And the sheer beauty of seeing that seed burst with life is overwhelming.

When those moments arrive, a magic surges through your body; tingling your fingers and bristling your neck.

This, my friends, is pure cinema. And, it’s something Christopher Nolan delivers in spades during Interstellar; his ‘humanist love song to the planet’*.

Supported brilliantly by Hans Zimmer’s soaring score, Nolan comes as close as anyone has to perfecting this medium. He’s long been a champion of the importance of visuals in cinema. This may sound dumb, but think of how many filmmakers are forced to use endless dialogue to get their point across. Nolan just needs an image (and the talents of the world’s leading film composer). At a number of points during the movie, I longed for the powers of fourth-dimensional manipulation to pause time and let these images wash over me forever. If anything, that was my biggest disappointment with the film; it had to move forwards . . . as we all do.

To desperately want to live these snapshots forever, yet to feel them drift from your grasp and disappear into the endless reaches of space; it’s audience manipulation as an art form, and it’s brilliant.

The science does have a tendency to choke the emotional core and dirty the wonder with logic. But, the universal truths still ring true. Nolan glides between the small and the large-scale effortlessly; from vast great canvases of ideas to supreme moments of intimacy.

Is it a surprise to know that ‘Interstellar’ isn’t about space?

Well, no more than ‘Inception’ is about corporate crime . . . so not at all, then.

Nolan admires the beauty of space; but he revels in the beauty of humankind. Unlike Alfonso Cuaron’s wandering, and wondering, eye in ‘Gravity’, Nolan keeps his focus squarely on character and emotion. Despite being light-years away from Earth, Nolan keeps his camera close-by. He remains supremely restrained when there must have been the underlying urge to send his camera soaring off into the cosmos. Instead, (the brilliant) Matthew McConaughey’s stupid helmet is left blocking us from the possibility of exploring the intricacies of the spaceship or the breath-taking views out the window. But, the humanity we’re given in return is far more worthy of exploration . . .


*a terrific summary courtesy of Simon Mayo