1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE (DIR. STEVE MCQUEEN, USA/UK)
An ultra-early release of 2014 in the UK (January 10th to be precise), Steve McQueen’s third film 12 Years A Slave has endured, in my memory, as the most moving cinema experience of the year. Prior to this film McQueen had established himself – with Hunger and Shame – as one of the most important feature directors in the UK, for his ability to merge demanding topics with fresh visual language. With 12 Years A Slave he proved himself capable of this on a much grander scale, earning a Best Picture Oscar, a $187.7 million box office return and widespread critical support. It is essential that we revisit history through the eyes of great artists and Steve McQueen is one such artist.
2) 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH (DIR. IAIN FORSYTH & JANE POLLARD, UK)
In a strong year for cinema documentaries 20,000 Days on Earth expanded the paradigm. Composed of elements from dramatic fiction, observational documentary and the rock film this Nick Cave biopic, set over the course of a day, is an expertly framed Petri dish of fascinating ideas. While the film might primarily appeal to Cave fans, it should interest anyone who creates, or simply wishes to understand themselves and their human impulses. Cave’s transcendental live performances feature prominently, while the meaning of these occasions is explored in moments of fascinating examination, as the frank and eloquent Cave reflects on his life to a therapist and lives out his life in atmospheric Brighton.
3) THE WIND RISES (DIR. HAYAO MIYAZAKI, JAPAN)
The Wind Rises is the final film of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki and it is a bittersweet achievement, not only about about the cost of innovation, but the cost of dreams. Based loosely on the true story of Japanese engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who was responsible for designing fighter planes during World War II, the film surrealistically captures the glorious freedom of imagination and intellect and contrasts it with the devastation these powers can bring. In line with Horikoshi’s own attitude towards the futility of WWII, the film’s tone is one of profound melancholy. The film presents a man whose talent for innovation and love of flight is tragically undermined by the impulse, in others, for war.
4) ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (DIR. JIM JARMUSCH, USA)
In the cinema, 2014 was a special year for the more esoteric side of rock n’ roll. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch took the horror genre into reverent territory and drew a line straight back through the history of art. The film, which centers around the reunion of a pair of vampire lovers (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston), resonates with a universe of fascinating culture for those ready to listen. With locations in Chicago and Tangier the film takes us on a poetic punk journey, into a world once inhabited by Shakespeare ghost writers, Nikola Tesla, William S. Burroughs & The Stooges. The film’s soundtrack, featuring Jarmusch’s band SQÜRL, Jozef van Wissem and Yasmine Hamdan is also not be missed.
5) VIRUNGA (DIR. ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL, UK/CONGO)
This extraordinary film from prolific director Orlando Von Einsiedel is a thrilling piece of journalism and another fantastic expansion on the possibilities of documentary cinema. The film follows the current crisis of the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the park’s security team and rangers attempt to hold off an onslaught from Congolese rebels who appear to be collaborating with British oil company Soco. The documentary creates extraordinary emotional stakes by telling the stories of Andre Bauma, who cares for the park’s gorilla population, park director Emmanuel de Merode and journalist Melanie Gouby. These individuals put their necks on the line for the park, which the film depicts as an integral element to the survival and autonomy of the DRC, while the filmmakers capture the unfolding violence and human displacement.
6) THE KIDNAPPING OF MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ (DIR. GUILLAUME NICLOUX, FRANCE)
Back in 2011 controversial French author Michel Houellebecq (Whatever, Atomised, Platform) disappeared during a book tour for The Map and the Territory, leading to media speculation that he had been kidnapped by al-Qaida. The contention created by the author’s works may have justified such a possibility, but director Guillaume Nicloux’s dramatic interpretation of the situation (starring Houellebecq as himself) speculates on a much different – and hilariously funny – scenario. The integral joke of the film is that Houellebecq, in sly deadpan style, rather enjoys the experience, as he encourages his surprisingly benevolent captors to cater to his whims and vices. However you may feel about Michel Houellebecq, this film riffs brilliantly on his dark humour and outsider status.
7) NIGHTCRAWLER (DIR. DAN GILROY, USA)
Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The Fall, Reel Steel, The Bourne Legacy) made his directorial debut with Nightcrawler and doing so brought to the screen a career best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, as aspirational anti-hero Louis Bloom. The film takes it’s cue from the post-recession job crisis, with Bloom as an ultra-opportunistic news cameraman who dispenses with all moral values to succeed in the business. His ambition leads him to film increasingly grisly crime scenes, as he simultaneously loses contact with the reality of what he films. The film is a thrilling romp, starring an unusually manic Gyllenhaal, which also works as a critique of the potentially exploitative nature of American news broadcasting.
8) 22 JUMP STREET (DIR. PHIL LORD & CHRISTOPHER MILLER, USA)
22 Jump Street is an unexpectedly great sequel, to an unexpectedly great feature adaptation (21 Jump Street), of a late 1980’s TV police comedy primarily remembered for kicking off Johnny Depp’s acting career. The beauty of 22 Jump Street is the way in which it comedically writes itself off as a pointless sequel. The irony of the film is that this bold sense of flippancy (embodied through the perfect buddy-chemistry of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) is precisely what makes the Jump Street films relevant. After years of terrible sequels, remakes and computer game adaptations, these films are the evidence that someone in Hollywood is finally thinking what the audience has been for a long time.
9) BELLE (DIR. AMMA ASANTE, UK)
Following her 2004 debut A Way of Life, Streatham born writer/director Amma Asante made a strong return with Belle. The film tells the story Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Captain John Lindsay, a British career naval officer – who encouraged her uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (and Lord Chief Justice) to recognise slavery as illegal in England and usher about its formal end. The film is directed with elegant style and frank sincerity, influenced no doubt by the 1779 Johann Zoffany painting that it was inspired by, in which a headstrong Belle appears animatedly alongside her cousin Elizabeth Murray.
10) THE ROVER (DIR. DAVID MICHOD, AUSTRALIA)
David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom was one of the most striking debuts of 2010, showing Michôd to be one of the most gifted directors of contemporary Australian cinema. The film was a dense and engaging drama of a Melbourne crime family, made with an impeccable grasp of tension and great style. With The Rover Michôd stripped down the scope of his vision, focusing primarily on Guy Pearce’s mysterious protagonist who harbours an undisclosed agenda. The minimalist approach to his second feature pays off, with Michôd delivering a lean, bleak and thrilling film with excellent performances and a beautifully simple central conceit.