Yes, most of the Film Fights this year were terribly late, with roughly half showing up in December, but we got there in the end. So what was the best film of the year? As always, my caveat from earlier years applies: Film Fight is done in a knock-out style and, as such, only picks my favourite film of the year; there are no guarantees about second place.

First up, the honourable mentions; the good films that, for some reason, did not win their month:

  • American Hustle
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • The Lego Movie
  • The Double
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Zero Theorem
  • Under the Skin
  • Starred Up
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Raid 2
  • Frank
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Interstellar
  • Snowpiercer

Now, the monthly winners:

  • January: 12 Years a Slave
  • February: Her
  • March: The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • April: Calvary
  • May: Blue Ruin
  • June: Fruitvale Station
  • July: Boyhood
  • August: The Rover
  • September: Before I Go to Sleep
  • October: Gone Girl
  • November: Nightcrawler
  • December: In Your Eyes

It was an uneven year, but it started incredibly well. January, February and March were absolutely rammed with great movies, where the mid to end of the year were a lot weaker. Looking over the winner’s list, though, and they’re all strong contenders (but not classics).

The moods evoked by Before I Go To Sleep, HerBlue Ruin, In Your Eyes and The Rover were all affecting in very different ways. The dark humour in Calvary and Gone Girl hit perfectly, with some lovely direction in both. The real-life inspired 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station showed up awful, brutal moments of humanity. The Grand Budapest Hotel was another strikingly shot and wonderful Wes Anderson film. Boyhood, while not the most gripping story, was a fascinating cinematic experiment.

However, the winner for 2014 (not by much) was Nightcrawler. The lead performance was a career best that no-one saw coming (the bit parts are all strong too), it’s cleanly shot, and is a very dark, satirical statement on modern journalism that never missteps. A great film.

 

The last film fight before the big finale has three films…

First up, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is that most annoying of films: the set-up for another movie. It feels very much like a cash-in. With the lucrative franchise coming to an end, the decision to split Mockingjay into two films has seriously harmed at least this part. For the vast majority of the film, we see a boring set-up and a few dull action sequences to fill it in. With the exception of one remarkably well structured sequence towards the end (the SWAT-style assault), this film is fairly tiresome, never making us care about many of the characters. To be clear, it’s not bad; merely unnecessary. Avoid. (See my Mockingjay Part 1 Twitter review).

Joss Whedon decides to do something different for In Your Eyes: his newest writing project (he did not direct), that went straight to digital services, rather than a regular cinematic release. So what does a Whedon indie film look like? Pretty great. It’s strikingly pretty, with sweet dialogue (rather than the writer’s trademark humour) and great pacing. The two leads are very good, giving a sense of reality to the central conceit (people across the country who can see and feel through each other’s eyes) and keeping the whole thing interesting until the end. Very worthwhile. (See my In Your Eyes Twitter review).

Finally, Big Eyes is based on the true story of Margaret Keane, an artist who let her husband take credit for her work as it became world-renowned. While there are great moments in the performances by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, they are ruined by the film’s lack of tonal consistency. It can’t seem to decide whether it should be a straight biopic, somewhat light, or wildly over-the-top and thus fails at them all. It also has the worst voiceover I’ve seen in a long time. A minor character pops in occasionally to literally state what is already happening on-screen. A real shame, because the core of the story is interesting but there’s too much wrong with this for it to really work. Avoid. (See my Big Eyes Twitter review).

The winner for December is In Your Eyes. Well-written, and touchingly performed.

There are three films in the film fight for November…

First up, Nightcrawler is a stylish, dark satire about the shock culture prevalent in modern journalism, particularly the nightly news. Jake Gyllenhaal absolutely nails the lead performance as a psychotic, but fascinating, camera man who will chase down any story; it might be a career best. The pacing is excellent: always pushing forward without being relentless, leaving the viewer gripped to their seat as the story unfolds. It’s made clear that the protagonist will do anything to get ahead, but it’s quite something to see exactly what he does. Exceptionally strong. (See my Nightcrawler Twitter review).

As a fan of Christopher Nolan, it feels strange to say that Interstellar might be his weakest film. That’s not to say it’s bad, it just doesn’t live up to the high points he has elsewhere. The visuals are stunning, bringing clarity to any number of complex scenes and scenarios that involve astronomical phenomenon that are hard to comprehend. This bleeds over into the world-building which swiftly shows the end-of-days scenario playing out for humanity, and why the mission must go ahead. Despite the odd slow patch, the whole never feels like a three hour movie. All of that said, some of the dialogue is absolutely terrible, incredibly cringeworthy and painfully out of character speeches mar the otherwise good performances. Anne Hathaway’s speech in the middle is jarringly bad (due to the writing, not her performance). The central conceit in the plot (about love and family) doesn’t help much here either, turning a solid hard sci-fi film into an overly saccharine movie. Good, but flawed. (See my Interstellar Twitter review).

Finally, Snowpiercer is that rarest of things for a modern action film: clear. The linear set-up, of taking a train carriage by carriage, brings a clarity to the plot and action that is often missing in many movies. While the performances are solid (Tilda Swinton and Chris Evans in particular), it’s really the mix of different action sequences and the big, dark moment at the end that really make it all work. Mostly fun. (See my Snowpiercer Twitter review).

The winner is Nightcrawler: well-paced, looks great, and with a top-class performance. Film of the year material.

October was a busy month for me, so there is only one film in the Film Fight…

First and last up, Gone Girl is David Fincher’s latest, about a man who is accused of abducting and killing his missing wife. The pacing here is masterful, with each act taking the story in a different direction; moving from straight-up thriller to dark satire along the way. As you’d expect from Fincher, the whole thing looks gorgeous, with a golden sheen over all of those fixed camera shots. While the film is generally well-acted, there are a few of the smaller performances that are a bit broad, but nothing to really put you off. All in all a very good movie (See my Gone Girl Twitter review).

The inevitable winner is, of course, Gone Girl.

 

For September’s Film Fight, we have three films…

First up, The Guest very quickly establishes that its tongue is firmly in cheek and that, despite the unease and tension in some scenes, it is not to be taken seriously. Doing this early was a good move, as it can then play scenes as knowing, rather than misjudged. The film finds just the right balance of dark comedy, home-intruder horror, and outright action for the mix to work. Enjoyable. (See my The Guest Twitter review).

While the slow burn of a spy thriller can be rewarding, A Most Wanted Man is not. It has the hallmarks of the genre: a slow, methodical build-up of misdirection, double-agents and deep-planning. It fails to pay-off on any of it. Maybe that was the intended punch-line, that sometimes these cat-and-mouse games don’t work, but to the viewer the lack of any real dramatic moment meant it was largely dull. Boring. (See my A Most Wanted Man Twitter review).

Finally, Before I Go To Sleep has a lingering and sad atmosphere, every scene filled up with a sense of mourning for a life that has been forgotten. Nicole Kidman is fantastic as a woman filling in the details of her former life day-on-day; with Colin Firth and Mark Strong both giving good performances. While the ending is overly saccharine, and oddly out of place, the majority of this film is excellent. Beautifully shot, well acted, and with an interesting narrative. Must watch.   (See my Before I Go To Sleep Twitter review).

The obvious winner is Before I Go To Sleep, for its strong performances and great direction.

Again, a few months late, but August’s Film Fight has 4 films…

First up, Guardians of the Galaxy represents a change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Where the earlier films are straight-faced without being dour, Guardians is out-and-out comic book crazy as we see the wider cosmic parts of the universe. The cast are great, managing to pull off fun action with genuinely funny moments; playing the right level of knowing insight into the absurdity of, for example, a tree that is best friends with a psychotic raccoon. The storytelling is a little exposition-heavy at times, but you won’t mind when everything else works so well. Very good. (See my Guardians of the Galaxy Twitter review).

The Inbetweeners 2 is the result of extending a series way beyond breaking point. Where the series was funny, and the first film was okay, there’s barely anything left for a second film. There are a handful of horrible but funny moments, but most of the film is just the same reheated filler. Avoid. (See my The Inbetweeners 2 Twitter review).

The Expendables 3 is another sequel that should never have been made. As is par for the course, the opening and closing action sequences are big, extravagant indulgences that can be greatly entertaining. The problem is everything else: the awful acting, the terrible dialogue, bad pacing, pointless subplots etc. There’s very little to like when something isn’t exploding on screen. Also avoid. (See my The Expendables 3 Twitter review).

Finally, The Rover is an exceptional, cold-blooded revenge thriller against the backdrop of a society that no longer has meaningful consequences. Set in a post apocalyptic world, reminiscent of The Road, Guy Pearce delivers one of his best performances as the not-quite-right lead. Brutal, relentless and breathtaking. Very good. (See my The Rover Twitter review).

The winner is The Rover for being such a cold but gripping film.

Yup, they’re getting later and later at the moment, but here’s the Film Fight for July, with 4 films…

First up, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a fun-enough sequel to what was a pretty good kids movie. It’s not a masterpiece, feeling a little formulaic at times, but it really didn’t have to be a classic. There are sad moments, fun moments, exciting moments. It does its job of being an entertaining, if light-hearted, film. Enjoyable. (See my How To Train Your Dragon 2 Twitter review).

Boyhood is a fascinating experiment: director Richard Linklater assembled his cast every year for a few weeks, ostensibly so we can see the 7-year old boy at the centre of the film turn into a 19-year old man. While the pacing doesn’t always work, it’s great to see the actors improve year-on-year. While Ellar Coltrane, as the lead, sees the most obvious evolution, it’s great to see now-seasoned actors, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, going from serviceable at the start to great towards the end. Very worthwhile. (See my Boyhood Twitter review).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly good reboot of the franchise, so it was going to be interesting to see where its sequel, Dawn of the Planet of The Apes, went next. There’s a significant time jump and the human population is all but wiped out as the film begins. A small group stumble into Caesar (the ape leader) and his new family, causing tensions to rise. While the supporting cast are sketched in overly broad strokes, the leads are well-drawn characters forced into worsening situations. There are a number of missteps (the music is overwrought, the apes using guns is never earned) but it remains entertaining. A solid action/adventure. (See my Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Twitter review).

Finally, The Purge: Anarchy takes the silly premise of The Purge (that for one night a year no crime is illegal) into a new direction. Where the original was a home-invasion horror, Anarchy is more of a suspense-thriller, in the mould of Judgement Night. Viewed through that almost B-movie lens, it’s an entertaining film. There aren’t many surprises, but the action keeps the pace up nicely. Good. (See my The Purge: Anarchy Twitter review).

For July, the winner is Boyhood, for being such an interesting cinematic undertaking.

It’s October, so clearly this Film Fight for June is very, very late. It is, however, quite full, with 6 films reviewed.

First up, A Million Ways To Die In The West is an absolutely terrible comedy. While it certainly does have some funny moments, most of which don’t rise above toilet humour, the film as a whole is almost as bad as Seth Macfarlane’s performance. He comes across as wooden when delivering anything that isn’t a gag. His knowing insights into the genre he’s pastiching get old quickly, and there’s little else going on. Boring, poorly paced, and badly acted. (See my A Million Ways To Die In The West Twitter review).

Edge of Tomorrow (or Live Die Repeat, or All You Need is Kill, depending on your context) is an excellent take on the time loop genre. An unwilling PR mans gets pressed into combat against an unstoppable alien force, being forced to live through his bad day thousands of time, as he slowly becomes a weapon. It does a remarkable job of compressing the wealth of information it has to convey into a clear shorthand; you’re rarely at a loss as to where he is in the cycle, even in the midst of the fast-paced action. Exciting and well made, an excellent watch. (See my Edge of Tomorrow Twitter review).

Fruitvale Station is the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury prize winning film, based on the true story of a man who was shot by police at the titular station. It is shot in a straightforward manner, following him around for the day leading up to the events; giving us a chance to see the struggles of the man before seeing his last struggle. The performances, like the camera work, are grounded leading to a horrible unease as the ending gets closer. Great film, well worth seeing. (See my Fruitvale Station Twitter review).

There have been many hours of media activity around the West Memphis 3, so it’s not surprising to see a dramatised version in the form of Devil’s Knot. It is, however, surprising to see an otherwise decent pair of leads (Reece Witherspoon and Colin Firth) turn in such poor performances. With the exception of Kevin Durand’s small role, where he absolutely nails it as John Mark Byers, there’s nothing worth seeing here. It’s poorly paced, with overwrought music, and a lack of care. If you want to know about this case, watch the Paradise Lost documentaries. Avoid this. (See my Devil’s Knot Twitter review).

When 21 Jump Street was announced, it seemed like a bizarre, completely unnecessary and likely very bad movie reboot of a once popular TV show, in the vein of Bewitched. It turned out to be one of the funniest dumb comedies out of the US in a good while. 22 Jump Street then is that most unnecessary of things: a sequel to an unnecessary success. Thankfully, it turns out to also be pretty good. While it never hits the highs of its predecessor, it does turn in some great scenes. It is highly derivative but knowingly so, without being a simple cash-grab. Worth seeing. (See my 22 Jump Street Twitter review).

Finally, Cold in July is… well, barely memorable. I am writing this significantly further on from seeing the film that I would like, but nothing much really stands out. The film is something of a throwback to the 80s revenge thrillers that have seen a small resurgence of late. It’s quite bloody in places and with relatively good performances, but the over-the-top lighting and bad pacing put this into B-movie territory. Decent. (See my Cold in July Twitter review)

The winner this month is a tough choice. As an example of the action genre, Edge of Tomorrow is very strong, but I think it’s edged out by the slightly more worthy Fruitvale Station. (As an aside, Fruitvale Station is currently on Netflix if you happen to be in Canada).

May was a reasonable month with five films for Film Fight.

First up, Blue Ruin is a strange revenge thriller, where a man seeks vengeance for the murder of his parents. The story and twists are doled out in a careful manner, with just enough exposition to keep things moving. It’s shot through with a dark humour arising from the fact that, while the protagonist is reasonably determined, he’s quite far out of his depth. Beautifully shot, and often brutal, Blue Ruin manages to juggle a number of balls effectively. Very good. (See my Blue Ruin Twitter review).

Bad Neighbours is a Seth Rogen comedy about maturing, told from the competing perspectives of new parents and their new fraternity neighbours. The arc of the story is much as you’d expect, and many of the gags could be used in just about any similarly styled comedy. That said, it’s an entertaining enough couple of hours, with a pace that keeps things moving along. It’s hard to get excited about the film, or to pan it. Good, not great. (See my Bad Neighbours Twitter review).

If you’re looking for an odd indie film with a weird sense of humour, Frank fits the bill. It’s based very loosely on the time writer Jon Ronson spent in the company of Frank Sidebottom, but allowed to slip quite far from reality. It’s full of oddball characters and awkward interactions, with a great cast (particularly Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal) making the often on-the-nose writing work. Quirky and enjoyable. (See my Frank Twitter review).

Another Godzilla reboot can surely only be better than the last. Well, yes, it is, but it’s still really quite poor. It opens well, with some big action coupled with some emotional beats, but quickly slides into awfulness. There are some great action set pieces throughout, but this is the dumbest movie I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t just mean that it’s a shallow action movie. No, it’s utterly moronic. The dialogue is dumb, the plotting makes little sense, and the contrivances that hold it together are, at times, painful. It doesn’t come close to recent genre entries, like Cloverfield or Pacific Rim. Very bad. (See my Godzilla Twitter review).

Finally, X-Men: Days of Future Past does something that none of the other movies in the series have managed: showing a complex, cohesive and, fundamentally, comic-book plot in a fun an exciting way, whilst great actors put on a hell of a performance. Fassbender and McAvoy get to pit their characters, each with increasing depth, against each other whilst a giant, time-hopping plot plays out behind them. The action sequences are fun, the gags work well, and there’s little to let this down. A great superhero movie.  (See my X-Men: Days of Future Past Twitter review).

There were a number of good options this month, but I think the winner has to be Blue Ruin. Dark, brutal, but with just enough of a funny edge to make it less bleak. Great.

April was a relatively quiet month for cinema, with only three films viewed.

First up, Noah is a heavily dramatised and expanded telling of the story of Noah and the ark, as imagined by Darren Aronofsky. I’m a fan of much of Aronofsky’s work (particularly The Wrestler and Black Swan) so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in tackling what appeared to be a dull subject. I was wrong to do so as there is almost nothing worthwhile in this movie. Visually, it’s horrendous: bad green screen, awful CG, and colour-graded in the least tactful way you can imagine. The story is overblown, the performances lack any subtlety, and the dialogue is, to a line, atrocious. I cannot begin to imagine why anyone thought this was worth filming having seen a script, but all we can do now is avoid it. One of the worst films in recent years. (See my Noah Twitter review).

A few years ago The Raid was a surprisingly brilliant action movie, full of intricate choreography and a relentless pace, confined to a small tower block. The Raid 2 sees the scope expand across many more characters and locations, but keeps the essence: a fair plot that is fast moving, but with stunning fights. The stunt set pieces throughout are brilliant. From the prison riot through the nightclub brawl, you won’t be disappointed. The story itself is a little more convoluted, and told out of order, but don’t let that throw you too much. Enjoy the action, enjoy the movie. (See my The Raid 2 Twitter review).

Finally, Calvary is a strangely dark story about a priest forced to represent the better side of humanity to a largely unseen antagonist (and a cast of other broken people), beyond what he should have to bear. While that sounds high concept, the film is very much grounded in humanity. Shot through with a dark humour, it’s an oddly affecting film that can be laugh out loud funny one minute and tense the next. From the look through to the performances, this film rarely slips. Exceptionally good. (See my Calvary Twitter review).

The winner, as should be obvious, is Calvary; an unexpected gem.

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