At time of writing, several of the big Oscar contenders (Birdman, Foxcatcher, CitizenFour) had yet to roll-out internationally, so watch for those twelve months from now. Which is not to suggest there wasn't plenty of prime movie meat to chew on in 2014. SCREEN-SPACE swam against the current on some of the award season contenders (when will the rest of the world twig to the meandering mediocrity of Boyhood?) and got a glimpse of some of 2015's cinematic surprises (watch for Jason Trost's chilling How to Save Us). Settling on a subjective, occasionally indulgent, Top 10 of 2014 (in no particular order) was not easy, given the wealth of wonderful work world cinema had to offer...
Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s glistening, ghoulish vision of Los Angeles’ and the immoral hunger for fame and fortune it inspires proves every bit as potent and disturbing as past LA-noir classics Chinatown and The Player. As the skeletal sociopath Lou Bloom, whose predatory instincts and myopic ambition know no boundaries, Jake Gylenhaal (pictured, above) embodied dark dreaming and feverish insanity to create the perfect American psycho.
FROM WHAT IS BEFORE (Mula sa kung ano ang noon)
The societal structure of a small coastal barrio unravels to chilling, heartbreaking effect in Lav Diaz’s dreamlike political allegory, From What is Before. Non-festival crowds will find the film (if they find the film) particularly challenging – a monochromatic masterpiece, the narrative (set on the eve of Ferdinand Marcos’ imposition of martial law in 1972) unfolds over five-and-a-half-hours in regional Filipino dialect, albeit with mesmerising artistry.
Newlyweds Harry Treadaway and the wonderful Rose Leslie find their idyllic post-ceremony holiday devolving into a tortuous psychological fight against unknown forces, both external (what is that beam of light in the darkness?) and from within (“You taste the same, but you’re different.”) The leads bring a crucial humanity to this classic ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ horror premise, just one of many tropes deconstructed in Leigh Janiak’s paranoid, nerve-shredding, slow-burn directorial debut.
As the increasingly fragile single mum desperately clinging to her sanity while her son conjures to life his own dark fantasies, Essie Davis delivers one of the great pieces of horror film acting in Australian auteur Jennifer Kent’s instant boogeyman classic. Steadily building a word-of-mouth reputation that strengthens with every viewing; Noah Wiseman's terrified, disturbed, courageous Samuel deserves a place alongside The Shining's Danny and Poltergeist's Carol-Anne as one of the great horror genre child characters.
The unforgiving landscape of Australia’s outback, captured with an artist’s eye by DOP Mandy Walker, is no match for the unyielding strength of spirit that drove lone explorer Robyn Davidson in her cross-continental journey. John Curran explores the pain and perseverance of one of Australia’s unsung heroines; Mia Wasikowska (pictured, right) embodies it in an unforgettable portrayal as the driven heroine (a coveted part that, at various stages of this daunting shoot’s long development, was attached to Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan and Cate Blanchett).
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Wes Anderson finally silenced his detractors with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a frantic, fabulous farce that danced between light and dark amidst the most beautiful set design of the year. Heading an all-star cast of perfectly employed blink-and-miss-them cameos is Ralph Fiennes (pictured, left; with co-star Tony Revolori) as the wonderfully immoral concierge M. Gustave, Anderson’s most idiosyncratic and lovable ne’er-do-well lead character to date, in the comedic performance of the year (yes, that Ralph Fiennes).
THE DARK HORSE
The great New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis (pictured, right) gives a masterclass in character acting in The Dark Horse, James Napier Robinson's account of troubled chess-champion Genesis ‘Gen’ Potini. From Gisborne’s mean streets and its unforgiving maori gang culture springs a story of family values, achieving goals and shaping destinies. A tough, strikingly-shot film that earned Curtis the Asia Pacific Screen Award trophy for Best Actor, his leading man looks shed for full immersion as the chipped-tooth, overweight, bald bipolar sufferer.
If film award ceremonies actually reflected critical opinion, Marion Cotillard would be short-odds favourite for most Best Actress trophies in the weeks ahead (at time of writing, she had just one, from the New York Film Critics Circle). Some would be for the Dardennes Brothers stirring Two Days, One Night; most would be for James Gray’s sweeping, personal and criminally underseen epic, The Immigrant, in which she plays a new American swept up into a life of exploitation and heartbreak the minute she steps off the boat. A majestic work that soars as both an emotional journey and a grand production, it is the director’s masterpiece, a darkly-hued homage to ‘Old Hollywood’s vision of the American dream, as well as his leading lady’s shining silver-screen moment.
Writer/director Paul King’s adaptation of Michael Bond’s children’s books takes all that was endearing about the adventures of the little bear ‘from darkest Peru’ and crafts a giddy gem of heightened whimsy and magical movie moments. Great comic turns by Hugh Bonneville and the wonderful Nicole Kidman as the treacherous taxidermist out to stuff our hero are second only to Paddington himself, a CGI-creation (voiced by Ben Whishaw) with more heart and personality than just about every actor working today.
Eliciting that ‘What would you do?’ response from audiences with gripping potency, Iranian Nami Javidi announces himself as heir apparent to countryman Asghar Farhadi with his stomach-tightening debut. A young couple (Peyman Moaadi, Negar Javaherian) are packing for their life-changing relocation to the titular Australian city when tragedy strikes. How they react – the decisions they rationalize, the secrets they are willing to keep – makes for gripping drama, the kind of cinema that has you uttering “Oh my God…” to yourself.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: John Wick, Under the Skin, Guardians of the Galaxy, Life Itself, The Fault in Our Stars, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, Ida, Calvary, Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau, Blue Ruin, Manakamana, The Raid 2, Stranger by the Lake, Goodbye to Language 3D, Edge of Tomorrow, Winter Sleep.