While the comic book universe remains the main focus for major Hollywood studios – and they are undeniably drawing people back into movie theatres – 2014 was a great year for smaller films. There was a host of low-budget films that had powerful and dark stories to tell. Here were my top 20 favourite movies released in Australia in 2014.
Director: Gareth Edwards
British writer-director Gareth Edwards’ impressive 2010 feature Monsters proved the perfect resume for his big-budget reboot of the Godzilla franchise. Released 50 years after the beloved monster’s debut appearance in 1954’s Godzilla, Edwards’ update included new kaiju and a series of awe-inspiring set pieces.
19. THE ROVER
Director: David Michod
Australian director David Michod’s follow-up to his breakthrough success Animal Kingdom, is a bleak and boiling depiction of our near future. An economic collapse has turned the wasteland of Australia’s desert into a lawless frontier. Guy Pearce’s cold, ruthless performance is the film’s centrepiece and draws the viewer through many of the movie’s most tense sequences. While the final scene is perhaps not as profound as it may have been intended, The Rover is still an impressive experience and will maintain the interest surrounding Michod’s career.
18. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s stylish vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive explores an ancient marriage between two creatures whose love for each other is rivalled only by their worship of the arts. At its heart the film is a black comedy but the humour is measured and dry. Vampires are well and truly saturating popular culture but in these characters Jarmusch creates commentators on our modern-day ignorance and philistinism.
17. MAPS TO THE STARS
Director: David Cronenberg
Maps to the Stars might not be as clever or devastating a satire on Hollywood as David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Dr., but Cronenberg’s own dark sensibilities serve him well in this twisted movie. Julianne Moore has never been better and rightfully won the Best Actress Award at Cannes. John Cusack returns to form as a dubious self-help guru.
16. BIG HERO 6
Directors: Don Hall and Chris Williams
The Disney and Marvel juggernauts joined forces to create one of the most enjoyable movies of 2014. Big Hero 6 is equal parts thrilling and charming. The animation is often stunning and brings to life numerous innovative and refreshingly original action sequences and visuals. The inevitable sequel can not come soon enough.
Director: Frank Pavich
When listening to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s wide-eyed gushing about the plans for his spiritual and mind-bending adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune, it is hard not to be swept up in his passion and enthusiasm in much the same way that his talented team was in the mid-’70s. Jodorowsky was both inexperienced and experimental, two traits that scared Hollywood from bank-rolling his wild and, with the benefit of hindsight, ground-breaking take on how Dune would be adapted. The Chilean artist drew an array of talented people into his project, from Mick Jagger to David Carradine, Orson Welles, Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali and the late-great artist H.R. Giger. His version of Dune would have been legendary and, despite never being made, its echoes live on throughout science fiction cinema.
14. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
Directors: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement
This hilarious and twisted mockumentary about four vampires in a Wellington share house should have had a much bigger cinematic audience, but will no doubt find a cult following in years to come. Drawing on every recognisable trope and facet of the vampire myth, What We Do In The Shadows is one of the funniest examples of the mockumentary tradition since This Is Spinal Tap.
13. THE BABADOOK
Director: Jennifer Kent
The psychological horror film The Babadook was an impressive debut from Australian actress, writer and director Jennifer Kent. The eerie, unsettling film is grounded by incredible performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, who play mother and son respectively. The Babadook wears its messages and metaphors on its sleeve, but should be applauded for its emotional depth – something lacking in the majority of modern scare flicks.
12. THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Director: James Gunn
One of the saving graces of two recent Marvel blockbusters, The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, was that they were put in the hands of genuinely clever filmmakers. Joss Whedon lifted The Avengers above the gloss of pure spectacle and imbued it with wit and charm. Similarly, James Gunn, a Troma-alumni, was allowed to bring his dark, irreverent humour to The Guardians of the Galaxy. And it paid off.
Director: Steven Knight
Taking place almost entirely within a moving car, Locke includes one of the year’s most stunning performances. In the titular role, Tom Hardy’s protagonist is a man attempting to return his own sense of order to a chaotic world. A tense, atmospheric and beautifully written piece.
Director: Bong Joon-ho
The innovative, visionary South Korean science fiction fantasy Snowpiercer seems to have slipped under the radar of many movie buffs this year. But this gritty dystopian drama deserves an audience. Adapted from a French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer is set in 2031 on a frozen post-Apocalyptic Earth. The world has become an icy wasteland, the result of an experiment that was meant to reverse global warming but had the opposite effect. A number of human survivors have boarded the Snowpiercer, a “rattling ark” train that perpetually circumnavigates the globe. The passengers live out their lives in a class system that sees the wealthy enjoy luxuries at the front of the train and the poor crammed into the train’s tail like livestock. But the strong-willed leader Curtis Everett (Chris Evans), tired of his squalor in the tail, leads a revolution that sees a bloody march towards the front carriage, the home of Snowpiercer’s omnipresent Howard Hughes-like inventor Wilford.
With a bleak sense of humour, striking and memorable visuals, building tension, and an oddball performance from Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer can be forgiven for borrowing many of its themes from classic science fiction like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. It’s a highly ambitious effort from co-writer and director Bong Joon-ho (2006’s The Host) in his first English-language movie.
Director: Jon Favreau
This was a gem from writer-director-actor Jon Favreau. Chef is a simple film that, like the culinary dishes served during its duration, has delicious ingredients that add up to a delectable whole. Favreau plays Carl Casper, the lauded head chef of Gauloise in Brentwood, California. He wants the restaurant’s menu to be ground-breaking but restaurant owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) believes tried and true dishes are what bring patrons returning to the business. When Casper follows Riva’s orders and receives a scathing review from food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), Casper has a mini-breakdown that sees him step away from Gauloise and rediscover his love of cooking through the restoration of an old food truck. With both his son, Percy, and friend Martin (John Leguizamo) in tow, he drives the food truck from Miami to Los Angeles, stopping each day to serve the locals his top-shelf dishes.
This is a small movie compared to Favreau’s recent works like Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens, and is strengthened by a superb ensemble cast that also includes Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale and Robert Downey Jr. But it has a funny and sincere script that manages to get away with a lot of potentially cornball sentimentality.
Director: Richard Linklater
Boyhood is as understated and meticulous as it is a genuine cinematic event. Filmed over 12 years with the same cast – Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke the only familiar faces – Richard Linklater’s document of American youth is without a plot, but is no less moving for it.
In Boyhood we watch actor Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, age from a wide-eyed six-year-old into an 18-year-old man. We experience the ups and downs of his life with ultra-realism, made possible by utterly convincing performances from the cast. But Linklater’s approach to the script is a methodical lesson in tone, resisting the temptation to sensationalise Mason’s childhood. Instead Boyhood allows the viewer to experience profound humanistic moments in the seemingly repetitive and universal nature of every day life. And in its two-hour-and-forty-five-minute duration there are only two clearly definable moments where the existential theme of the movie is directly alluded to.
Boyhood is a landmark achievement that may never be surpassed.
07. UNDER THE SKIN
Director: Jonathan Glazer
An alien with a detached stare and the stunning looks of Scarlett Johansson drives a white van through the cold, austere streets of Scotland. The creature is hunting prey, choosing male pedestrians from the cabin of her vehicle before politely luring them into her passenger seat. The beautiful alien takes them to a small abandoned house. The men are expecting sex, but are instead drawn into a black pool of liquid and digested.
This is daring filmmaking. With a courageous and bold performance by Johansson at its centre, Under The Skin is haunting, ambitious and arresting.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
The most discussable and dissectible film of 2014 was Enemy, by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. He reunites with actor Jake Gyllenhaal after their powerful work together on the thriller Prisoners.
Enemy is both puzzling and mesmerising, and deals in visual metaphor and atmosphere at the expense of conventional story-telling. Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a solitary college professor who specialises in the history of totalitarian governments. He discovers the existence of Anthony Claire (also played by Gyllenhaal), who is his doppelgänger. Their lives inevitably entwine.
It really is a treat to see Jake Gyllenhaal make consistently fine and fascinating movies, seemingly having left the likes of The Prince of Persia and The Day After Tomorrow behind him to focus on dark, challenging movies in the vein of the film that introduced him to a wide audience – Donnie Darko.
Director: Alexander Payne
American writer-director Alexander Payne continued his near flawless body of work with the gentle black and white comedy Nebraska. The director’s empathy and compassion for his characters is again central to this film’s tone.
Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern in a role that earned him an Oscar nomination and also the Best Actor gong at Cannes, is a crotchety old man who believes he has won a $1 million sweepstakes competition.
He insists on travelling from his Montana home to Nebraska to claim the money, even though the giveaway is nothing more than a piece of spam mail. Reluctantly, his son David (Will Forte) travels with him.
Nebraska is a heart-warming and funny road movie that explores familial relationships, particularly those between father and son.
04. THE TRIP TO ITALY
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Those that loved 2010’s The Trip were no doubt very eager to rejoin the fictionalised versions of actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for another sojourn of stunning scenery, incredible food, cheeky banter and on-point impersonations.
As the title suggests, Coogan and Brydon are this time on an Italian driving tour from Liguria to Capri, stopping in at some of the favoured haunts of the great Romantic poets.
The film is dialogue driven, but when the conversations are this hilarious – and the leads so incredibly likeable – the result is extremely enjoyable.
03. GONE GIRL
Director: David Fincher
In adapting her best-selling book for the screen, author Gillian Flynn was able to improve on her own work.
David Fincher’s film keeps the novel’s savage observations on modern relationships, the impacts of the global financial crisis and the media, but improves the pace and tension.
The bleak and dark comedy Gone Girl follows the disappearance of the beautiful and brilliant Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), and the subsequent investigation of her husband Nick (Ben Affleck).
The casting is perfect, the tone cold and elegant, and the finale unsettling.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
According to Gospels, Calvary was the location beyond Jerusalem’s walls where Jesus was crucified.
This is an entry into the themes of this devastatingly moving movie.
It also contains the year’s best opening scene.
Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is visited in the confessional by a man who explicitly reveals he was sexually abused by a priest as a young boy.
The faceless man tells Father James that a fitting punishment for the Catholic Church would be the murder of a good priest, and that he intends to kill him the following Sunday.
Calvary follows the ensuing week of Father James’ life and it’s the portrait of a man whose unshakable faith in the goodness of humanity is tested by the residents of his parochial Irish village.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the year’s creepiest performances as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler.
The gaunt actor plays a charasmatic but disturbing loner who discovers he can make money by filming gory car accidents and crime scenes, and then sell the footage to TV news stations.
As Bloom’s dogged ascendence into financial success unfolds, he pushes the limits of his vocation into very grim territory.
Set mostly at night on the streets of Los Angeles, this neo-noir psycho-thriller is not just a satire on our insatiable need for graphic news.
It also has all the hallmarks of a modern classic.