Our half year version of the Oscars™, film critic Stephen A Russell has dissected the film releases that have made an impact in 2014.
Putting aside most of the gems that already grabbed nominations and/or wins at the 86th annual Academy Awards in March this year, we’ve rounded up the best of the rest of the movies in the first six months and rated them along the same category lines.
There has been so much to love in 2014 already, from the pantomimic Grand Budapest Hotel – that’s no doubt going to be a major Oscar contender in 2014 – to the lush period drama with heart of Amma Assante’s societal drama Belle and the darkly twisted fable of Richard Ayode’s The Double, starring Mia Wasikowska and Jesse Eisenberg.
Yet another Coppola, this time Francis’ granddaughter Gia, made her assured debut with an adaptation of James Franco’s short story collection Palo Alto, with Franco’s cameo outshone by breakout star Emma Roberts (American Horror Story).
Even some of the big box office destroyers had brains, including Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and Doug Liman’s Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt two-hander Edge of Tomorrow.
And while there has been non-stop talk about the gorgeous Grand Budapest Hotel, Jim Jarmusch’s richly layered tale of arty vampires, Only Lovers Left Alive, is just one of those movies that burns deep into your brain. Starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddlestone devilishly divine as the artsy blood suckers whose centuries-enduring love story kicks Twilight right in the teeth.
Australian film is in good hands this year. The Rover might not have burned with the same incredible intensity as Animal Kingdom, but David Michôd still delivered a commendable vision of a post-collapse Australia that was more The Road than Mad Max. Major kudos also goes to South Australian director Sophie Hyde, who challenged gender preconceptions with her filmic experiment 52 Tuesdays.
But our favourite cinematic vision so far came in the form of another kookily surreal slice of Wes Anderson’s magical whimsy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which added a refreshing layer of melancholy. With all the usual cameos from Swinton, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, and a stellar new star in Tony Revolori’s lobby boy, it’s a stylised riot of ravishing performances, crazy camera work and Anderson’s incredible attention to detail that we devoured, just like fictional baker Herr Mendl’s cakes.
This one certainly ain’t going to Russell Crowe for his demonic mangling of the Irish brogue in Winter’s Tale or Geoffrey Rush for his underwhelming performance in the mushy mess that was The Book Thief’s big screen adaptation. We loved Oscar Isaac’s smouldering performance as the grouchily hapless musician in the sadly Oscar-snubbed Inside Llewyn Davis, and more recently he was compelling as the conman tricked into a much bigger mess alongside the also ace Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces of January.
Isaac and Mortensen were great, as was Fiennes’ furiously manic outbursts, piercing his perfectly composed façade, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but could they have pulled it off with a great big papier-mache mask stuck on their head? We’re not so sure, and that’s why we’re awarding this one to the incredible performance of Michael Fassbender in the year’s oddest film to date, Frank. It takes real skill to pull off emotional depth literally under these circumstances, but the Irishman does it with aplomb.
The ladies are winning so far this year, hands down, accounting for at least twice as many standout performances as the blokes. Young Australian Tilda Cobham-Hervey shone in her debut turn as teenager Billie in 52 Tuesdays, trying to figure out her own place in the world just as her mum embraces the emotional challenge of gender transitioning. Fellow Tilda, Swinton, hardly had to try to be fantastic as the ravenously literary vamp of Only Lovers Left Alive, a role she seemed born to play. Or undead to play?
In a very tight race, we’ve plumped for Scarlett Johansson in her bravest and least recognisable role yet – a vampiric alien in the otherworldly creepiness of Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer’s bleakly obtuse Under The Skin, set in and around a very dreary Glasgow. The scenes with Johansson’s picking up unsuspecting blokes were filmed unknowingly by hidden camera, and it’s incredible they pulled it off. She deserves serious brownie points for choosing such challenging material in between her leather-clad, high-kicking shenanigans in Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Best Foreign Film
The foreign language field is on a roll in 2014, with women once again leading the way. French auteur François Ozon’s Young And Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie) starred Marine Vacth as Isabelle, a young girl whose intriguing emotional distance leads to an unexpected tale of sexual awakening that also featured a cameo from the always-excellent Charlotte Rampling. We were also blown away by Luminita Gheorghiu’s turn as a manipulative mother in Romanian writer/director Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose (Pozitia Copilului).
The magnificent Paulina García’s Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear-winning turn in Chilean writer/director Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria sealed the deal, however, for its fantastically honest portrayal of middle-aged life and an undaunted spirit, with quite frankly the best use of a disco classic so far this year.
Last but not least, it’s been a great year for documentaries too, with tennis great Billie Jean King’s incredible showdown with sexist Bobby Riggs in The Battle Of The Sexes, a surprisingly affecting insight into brotherly love/hate cunningly disguised as a music doco in The National’s Mistaken For Strangers and the sadly missed razor sharp wit of one of our finest authors in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.
For the very love of film, and the frankly bonkers backroom deals with insane money men it takes to get them off the ground, we have to hand it to director James Toback and the roguish Alec Baldwin for their rakish two-hander Seduced and Abandoned, exposing just how much soul you have to sell to get a movie made.