Ladies and fellas: Top 10 performances of 2014

Sometimes a film isn’t that great all the way through, but an individual performance stands out. Sometimes a film is carried along by that performance, by an actor knocking it out the park at the top of their game. And sometimes the film is great all the way through, but it goes up another level when buoyed by a stellar lead performance.

In 2014 there were a fair few of both of these. And in the interests of balance I’ve split them out into the fellas and the ladies. Where do you stand? Any missing you’d like to have seen?

THE LADIES
Rosamund Pike as Amy – Gone Girl
Scarlet Johansson as Laura – Under the Skin
Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia – The Wolf of Wall Street
Jessica Chastain as Murph – Interstellar
Kiera Knightley as Joan Clarke – The Imitation Game

INTERSTELLAR

THE FELLAS
Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom – Nightcrawler
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort – The Wolf of Wall Street
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game
Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof – Dallas Buyers Club
Iko Uwais as Rama – The Raid 2

wolf_wall_street1

Interstellar: Nolan goes intergalactic

INTERSTELLAR

We’ve entered a time in which certain filmmakers – directors and writers to be precise – are being afforded a fairly free license to make the films that they want to make. Films on an epic scale, but with added smarts. The thinking person’s blockbuster.

With Interstellar director Christopher Nolan has firmly left the Batman franchise behind and struck out into bold new territory. You could argue he’s been doing this sort of thing his whole career: Memento, The Prestige, Inception – they all deal, to a certain extent, with time, memory and personal identity. And each film in his filmography is a big step up from the last.

Interstellar begins on an earth ravaged by dust storms, akin to America during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The earth has had it and it’s up to former pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) to fly a spaceship through a black hole in search of a better world.

interstellar

So far so epic. The setup has been done before, that’s for sure. But we’ve never seen Nolan tackle it. He starts by setting up the characters on earth, taking his time with them.

We see Cooper’s relationship with his children, particularly his daughter (expertly played by Mackenzie Foy) who seems wise beyond her years. Their relationship is key throughout, so pay attention early on. We also meet old NASA scientist (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway), also at NASA. Both attempting to solve Earth’s agriculture and environmental problems as best they can.

Once we head into space Nolan asks us to get our thinking caps on, for this story demands you give it your full attention in terms of space, quantum physics, the relativity of time and the nature of gravity.

int2

That’s not to say it doesn’t pack emotional punch. With the voyages through space and time families and divided, perhaps to never see each other again, and their limits are tested. This affords the likes of McConaughey some big emotional moments (which we know he can do) and keeps us in the story. Hathaway, too, gets her time to shine.

That said, space film clichés remain. With space you’re always going to have someone who’s been left on their own for years and, with no one to talk to, gone mad/insane/to the dark side. You’ll have the desperate quest to get back to earth. You’ll have a few people selflessly sacrifice themselves for the mission.

But, to rein in my cynical side for a moment, it’s a decent film. Tense, thrilling, human, heartfelt. It makes you think and it tests you. There’s a strong emotional pull throughout, although it does have a somewhat melancholy tone, but perhaps that’s in the nature of the message that Nolan is trying to deliver.

int1

This may seem patently obvious to say, but if you go into the cinema expecting to see Inception – or even Batman – in space, then you’ll be disappointed. However, as a cinematic experience it’s got action and thrill moments (a la Apollo 13 and Gravity), yet it also shares some ground with films like Moon, Sunshine and maybe Event Horizon – although the latter might be pushing it.

There’s a section in the final third where you think maybe Nolan has handed over the director’s chair to Darren Aranofsky, as it gets really quantum and asks the audience to take a bit of a leap of faith (or imagination). This could be considered a brave move, but Nolan is a heavyweight director these days, and more often than not, what he does works.

This could be one of those films in which you have a wholly different experience on a second viewing. Time will tell how it stands up in Nolan’s filmography. But, as far as space films go, it’s an intelligent one that asks a lot of the audience, but does so in a respectful way.

Best twenty films of 2012

It’s been an epic year for films across a variety of genres. This list reflects my taste in films so I hope you enjoy. Sorry Twilight, you didn’t make the cut!

  • Skyfall
    skyfall-craigStrangely there are people who don’t like this film and say it’s not classic Bond. I think it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond since Connery. To celebrate 50 years of Bond, the dream team of Mendes, Craig, Bardem and Dench pulled out the stops to make this film truly special.
  • Argo
    Can’t believe people still give Affleck a hard time for his early career. How many decent films does he need to direct before people will admit he’s a real talent? First Gone Baby Gone and The Town and now this. A proper, intelligent thriller.
  • Moonrise Kingdom
    This film is a great companion piece for The Life Aquatic, my favourite from Wes Anderson. As always, a great cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton. Although focus is on the two, young actors who confidently carry the story. A sweet and quirky tale.
  • Looper
    Rian Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are fast becoming a match made in heaven. First Brick and now this time-travelling sci-fi tale of assassins. This film had an interesting mix of futuristic and retro, plus it marked Gordon-Levitt out as a leading man in the making.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKForget Hunger Games, this ranks as my favourite Jennifer Lawrence film, just edging Winter’s Bone. She has great chemistry with Bradley Cooper, both of them playing flawed characters in this acerbic, edgy and alternative type of rom-com. Highly recommended.
  • Chronicle
    Earlier this year this film was released and flew somewhat under the radar. Shown in found footage style, the best way to describe the first half is Jackass with telekinetic powers. It then goes darker as it builds to an epic finale. Thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.
  • Dark Knight Rises
    The final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing bat franchise. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Gordon-Levitt as Boy Wonder in the making. This was an emotional, visceral ending to the best set of Batman films of all time.
  • Avengers Assemble
    Despite my last comment regarding Batman, Marvel Studios has firmly staked its claim as the lighter, more upbeat side of the superhero world. Joss Whedon pulling off an incredible trick to balance a film with a host of big characters, letting them all shine equally.
  • Ted
    ted
    Macfarlane knows his comedy. This film was his vision and really paid off. From script and direction through to mo-cap acting, he was the driving force. Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg added their dramatic and comedy talent to make this one of the funniest films of the year.
  • Life of Pi  
    Ang Lee’s tale of a young boy shipwrecked at sea with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker is a visual masterpiece. Taken from a Booker prize-winner novel, it makes you question the nature of belief and how you perceive the world. An uplifting and life-affirming tale.
  • The Raid: Redemption
    Combine the talents of a Welsh Director and up-and-coming action star in Iko Uwais and you get an unexpected, kick-ass treat. Introducing us to pencak silat, an Indonesian form of dance and self defence, it’s breathtaking to watch when used to beat up bad guys.
  • The Hobbit
    Peter Jackson has worked wonders yet again. The dwarves are great and Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo. His ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Gollum is brilliantly scripted. If you’re even a fleeting fantasy fan you won’t want to miss this exhilarating tale.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
    beasts
    Critically well received, this fantasy film has drawn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth and is well worth seeing. It tells the tale of six-year-old girl Hushpuppy who, when looking after her ill and hot-tempered father, must learn the ways of courage and love.
  • Rust and Bone
    It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Marion Cotillard – there’s a permanent picture of her on my blog. Here she beautifully plays a killer whale trainer who forms an unlikely romance with a bouncer. Jacques Audiard directs this passionate and moving love story.
  • The Master
    Possibly a career-best film from Paul Thomas Anderson and performance from Joaquin Phoenix? Ultimately, this film is about the fascinating interplay between war veteran Freddie (Phoenix) and movement leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
  • Seven Psychopaths
    seven-psychopaths_07
    From the Director of darkly comic film In Bruges, this tale of kidnapped dogs and gangsters is hilariously scripted and brilliantly acted. With a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson.
  • End of Watch
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena put in the hours with cops on the beat in South Central LA to form a real bond prior to filming. The results paid off, as this thriller cop movie has real believability and chemistry between the two leads.
  • Magic Mike
    Ladies of Tampa‘, croons Matthew McConaughey, before he smashes his guitar and strips in front of a horde of screaming ladies. This film, though, belongs to Channing Tatum. Before acting he was a stripper – this film gives an intriguing glimpse of life back stage in that world.
  • The Grey
    It’s Liam Neeson, he’s cold, he’s angry, wolves are trying to kill him. In a minute he’s going to get really mad – what’s not to like? This bleak adventure sees a bunch of oil workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash – in the middle of a wolf kill zone.
  • 21 Jump Street
    21 jump street
    Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill team up in this cop buddy comedy remake. Tatum is – surprisingly – very funny, with great comic timing. Jokes are often set up and don’t pan out how you might expect, which is a good thing. Also, Johnny Depp has an outstanding cameo.

Renaissance of Matthew McConaughey

mcconaughey

Cast your minds back. The year is 1993 and a 24-year-old Matthew is breaking out as an actor in coming-of-age film Dazed and Confused. Stealing most scenes with brilliantly quotable lines and an iconic character in Wooderson.

He followed this three years later with a heartfelt and commanding performance as lawyer Jake Brigance in A Time to Kill – holding his own amongst a solid cast including Kevin Spacey, Samuel L Jackson and Donald Sutherland. The dramatic courtroom scene near the end gets me every time.

Wilderness years
He then floundered. From the early 2000s it seemed he just didn’t know what kind of actor to become, flitting back and forth between roles and genres until he found his calling. Sadly this turned out to be rom-coms, the ‘shirt off clause in my contract’ years.

Whilst a lot of the films he did between 2001 (The Wedding Planner) and 2008 (Fool’s Gold) made money – you got the sense he was dying a little inside each time he picked up the script for yet another tedious and insipid rom-com.

That’s what I love about McConaughey. He gets older, his talent stays the same
Ok, para-phrasing that quote doesn’t exactly work, but you get the idea. If you don’t, allow me to explain. McConaughey has always had talent, that was clear from his early days.

mcconaugheyAfter A Time to Kill I counted myself as a fan, looking forward to his future roles.  As you can imagine, I’ve had to steer clear for the best part of ten years until he began to move in a new direction.

The comeback kid
For me, Tropic Thunder in 2008 kick-started his revival. Perhaps he’d had enough of strutting around in romantic roles that offered little challenge.

Perhaps he realised he needed to go back to basics, reminding himself of the character that launched his career, the slightly sleazy Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. This was where the fun was to be had.

Which brings me on to Killer Joe. If you want to well and truly break away from rom-coms this is the way to do it. Cop by day, hired killer by night, McConaughey’s Joe is a truly mesmerising character for all the wrong reasons.

The same way you cannot avert your eyes from something horrific, such as a car crash, Joe as a character is sublimely sleazy, twisted and malevolently sadistic, yet can switch moods at the drop of a hat.  The climactic scene in this film that builds to – ahem, fried chicken – is perhaps the most uncomfortable thing I have seen in a long time. Key to this is McConaughey’s performance, utterly compelling. Puts me in mind of Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet, getting off on amyl nitrite. Once you’ve seen both films you’ll know what I mean.

mcconaugheyBringing sexy back
Then, in 2012, came Magic Mike. A fantastic supporting turn by McConaughey. Ok, it’s a film about male strippers so his shirt (and most other clothing) is off a lot of the time, but this is no rom-com.

He’s poking fun at himself in a self-deprecating manner, mindful of what he’s done thus far in his career to get to this point. Either way, it’s a great change of direction and key to his future appeal as an actor. Coincidentally, in both films I’ve mentioned he sports a cowboy hat.

Maybe he’s just returning to his Texan roots? Cue angry Texans messaging me now. Whatever the case may be, Hollywood is finally getting the message. Give this man some meaty roles that poke fun at his image and mix things up.

All hail the renaissance of Matthew McConaughey!