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Wolfville, Nova Scotia
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Best of 2014

Chris Campbell

2014 was a good year for cinema with many films that were moving and challenging and solidly made. To keep track of films that stood out I started a private list on Letterboxd about halfway through the year to add films to it. By the end of the year it had around 20 films on it and that's a good number, so as the end of the year approached I tweaked and arranged it to come up with a list of 20 films in a loose ranking with a top 10 and another 10 that are good as well. My 10 earlier blog posts are reviews of those films. The full list of 20 for 2014 is on Letterboxd and my top ten in order are:

  1. Frank
  2. Two Days, One Night
  3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  4. Ida
  5. Winter Sleep
  6. Under the Skin
  7. Obvious Child
  8. Only Lovers Left Alive
  9. Mood Indigo
  10. Locke

The full posts give a lot more detail, so here I can give a bit more context for them. Six of the films were first viewed in a theatre and the other four were rentals or purchases via iTunes. I've seen six of the films more than once (with The Grand Budapest Hotel twice in the theatre and 3 times on video). Seven of the ten are films are in English, two are in French, one is Polish, and one is Turkish. Half of the films have female leads, and only one has a female director.

In picking out the films for a list one of the things that is important is the emotional impact and resonance of a film. The blockbuster films of the past year didn't have much resonance or memorability for me, but these films did. I thought about them for days or weeks afterwards and will probably watch all those films again. They all show different aspects of humanity and generally positive in tone. They all look distinctive and have great performances.

For acting the standout is Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night with her intimate and moving performance layered with complexity and subtlety. Her role is perfectly matched by the structure of the Dardenne Brothers give the film. Michael Fassbender transcends the mask he is within in Frank, and Tom Hardy sits in a car and carries the entire film of Locke as well. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is mesmerizing in Ida with a vulnerability conveyed brilliantly by the black and white cinematography. The ensemble of Winter Sleep manages to create complex situations and tension out of their interactions all within visually stunning settings. The smaller casts of Only Lovers Left Alive and Obvious Child bring an easy comfortability to their characters and stories. The controlled visual constructions of The Grand Budapest Hotel and Under the Skin fit with ranges of the actors well, with the former having a huge cast, and the latter mainly focussed on Scarlett Johansson.

The ten runner up films are solid and interesting in different ways with seven in English, two in Swedish, and one in French. One is a musical and one is a blockbuster and the rest are indies.

Listen Up Philip originated on 16mm film and feels like it's from 70s. With an unsympathetic main character played by Jason Swartzman, balanced off by Elisabeth Moss it's a complex and challenging film that played against my expectations. Moss is also great with Mark Duplass in the strange indie The One I Love which has a different take on a romantic comedy with a Twilight Zone twist that exemplifies what is great about independent filmmaking.

Three of the films are coming of age stories with the Quebecois film Tu Dors Nicole, the Swedish We Are the Best!, and the Scottish musical God Help the Girl. Tu Dors Nicole follows the end of summer as a young woman tries to figure out what she wants to do with her life. We Are the Best! happens in suburban Sweden in the 80s as three young women form a punk band to make a statement and combat boredom. God Help the Girl is a Glaswegian musical about young woman during a summer with love and music with an unexpected darkness and drama balanced off by the songs.

Two of the films examine family relationships and how they change when they are under stress. Love is Strange is a beautiful look at a couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina and how their marriage destabilizes their lives and the lives of their families. Force Majure is a darkly humorous look at how an incident causes everyone in a family on vacation in the Alps changes based on their reactions to an avalanche. The indie revenge drama Blue Ruin has a murky incident in the past that sets things in motion in a quiet, but inevitably bleak series of events that also has a dark and recessed humour to it.

The outlier and oddly ignored blockbuster Edge of Tomorrow was a lot of fun and the type of film that should be a success. Thoughtful science fiction with Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt perfectly paired together it has great action, interesting ideas, and was just long enough to be interesting and strangely didn't do that well at the box office.

It was a good film year and a year where I easily watched the most films in a year. The routine of a film a day is good and it is comforting to have a steady stream of images and sound from around the world in my life.


How I Watched

As technologies and viewing methods change it's good to track how things are seen. The preferred way to see films is on a big screen with an audience, but most of the films that we watch are on smaller screens. This is how my viewing looked on the screens that I chose.

The most popular device was my Apple TV with 143 films watched on it followed by the TV with 119 films (that includes cable and DVDs). I saw 64 films in theatres, watched 96 films on my iPad, and 18 films on my MacBook Pro.

I only watched 48 DVDs and most of my rental and purchased films were from iTunes with 70 films and for streaming Netflix gave me 131 films and MUBI 45. The other major source of films was Turner Classic Movies with 65 films from that TV channel. Comparing the numbers with last year I'm watching almost three times as many films on Netflix as the year before and half the number of films on MUBI.

Frank

Chris Campbell

It's an odd and bold gamble to take an actor and put them in a mask for the bulk of a film, but with Frank and Michael Fassbender it works surprisingly well. It's an odd concept but the mask reveals more than it hides in the characters surrounding Frank and it forms the emotional core of a film that goes from some pretty extreme tonal shifts to create one of the most memorable films of the past few years.

Aside from some rather wide shifts in tone, Frank also is bold with narrative point of view. It begins firmly in the head of aspiring musician Jon Burroughs (played by Domhnall Gleeson) and it ends with the perspective shifted and him walking out of the film at the end. Drawing on writer Jon Ronson's own experience in a band along with several other band stories mixed in, it's a complex picture of the creative process and talent and how things get created.

It's a darkly funny story that deals with mental illness and different people deal with it as well. It also deromanticizes many myths about artists and how they form. Part of the pleasure of the film the surprise at how things develop, so I'm not going to spoil that. But the heart of the film is in how the characters interact with each other and with Frank. Fassbender somehow manages to convey a surprising range of emotions all while beneath the mask and he also he has a great and distinctive singing voice.

The first member of the band we meet is the manager played by Scoot McNairy who has been turning in great character performances for years (most notably in Killing Them Softly). His portrayal of the manager as someone who is dealing with depression is one of the more unique portrayals of that in recent films. It's part of the strategy in the film of shifting tone to keep us off balance when we see something and are not sure if it is funny, sad, tragic, or all three. Most of all the characters are human and complex and they constantly resist stereotypes.

While audience surrogate Jon thinks the band (with the unpronounceable name The Soronprfbs) should be more popular, Clara (played with gusto by Maggie Gyllenhaal), wants to focus on the music and working together as a band. This conflict forms the dramatic tension and undermines the expectations we usually have for this type of musical film that traditionally ends with a big concert scene. The distance between the vision that Jon has for the band and the reality keep diverging throughout the film and that is ultimate it results in him leaving the narrative as he realizes that he doesn't belong there.

A great film can join a dramatic structure with solid acting and Lenny Abrahamson brings together a cast that have many subtle and beautiful moments as we go on a strange musical journey. Frank does have one of the most powerful and transcendent endings of any film of the past decade and it stayed with me for days.

Two Days, One Night

Chris Campbell

Two Days, One Night has a deceptively light and naturalistic shooting style. With a hand-held camera and moving around behind characters, there is an improvisational documentary feeling to it as with the Dardenne brothers other films. But like those films, there is a lot going on around that casual feeling with a world filled with interesting and complicated characters. With Marion Cotillard at the centre of the film in yet another stunning role, it becomes a deeply human and moving experience. With most scenes happening in long takes, we follow Cotillard's Sandra as she fights for her job over a weekend by talking with her coworkers to convince them to give up their bonus to allow her to stay. It's an unfair situation created by the manager of the solar panel plant where she works, but in the struggle we gradually see more of who she is and her relationships. It goes in unexpected directions and while it never feels like it is showing off, it also features some of the best cinematography in any recent film.

The technique of using the documentary style adds a layer of reality to the story which feels as if it is happening in real time. In some ways it's a distant echo of Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 in using a tight framework to highlight character. Using portable equipment and improvisational cinematography shows us a sliver of the world that the characters are within. It's a fragile and beautiful world that is a privilege to see.

The Dardennes create deceptively simple films that illuminate the human condition. Their films centre on difficult ethical choices and how character emerges from those situations. Often there isn't a right answer and in seeing the characters struggle with their choices is where the drama comes from. In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard's costar is Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione, who supports her. The dramatic structure works surprisingly well as she tracks down and meets with coworkers over the weekend. We get glimpses of their lives and challenges along with Sandra's and there are some amazing moments that happen between them as the journey continues. It exemplifies the power of personal cinema in the hands of sensitive and gifted filmmakers.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Chris Campbell

At the heart of Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel is a virtuoso performance by Ralph Fiennes who fits perfectly into the elaborate sets and huge cast that Anderson assembles. For those who love his complicated confections it is a joy, and for others I wonder if it holds up as well. I was lucky to see it on a big screen to enjoy the details in a big old theatre which felt perfect. It strikes a perfect balance between humour and melancholy in a similar way to how he did it with Rushmore which is my other favourite Anderson films.

One of the things I often forget about The Grand Budapest Hotel is how elaborately constructed with different time frames. Structurally the film is like a set of matryoska dolls with times nested inside one another. It begins close to the present day, then goes back to 1985, then to 1968, and then to 1932 where the bulk of the story happens. It features the usual meticulous attention to detail with art direction and design, but this time it connected with me because of the story, based the work of Stefan Zweig, who told stories of Europe in the time around World War I.

The detailed construction of the film and the relationships between the characters is like the desert craved by many of the them, Mendl's Courtesan au Chocolate (a more complicated Religieuse). The ingredients for the film are echoes of Anderson's other films with the old European location providing the perfect backdrop for the international cast to engage in their intrigue. The author tells the story of how he met Zero, who tells his story of how he met Gustav H. and Zero's great love, Agatha. Most of the characters are not too deep, but as the film jumps around between them, there is just enough detail to keep it interesting.

For me the true genius of the film is how it smuggles in emotion. It crept up on me and hit me as it did with Rushmore. It's about people connecting in difficult times and finding happiness and pleasure no matter what the circumstance. It's about how the stories we tell that keep the memories of people alive. Below the layers of art direction and sophisticated camera work it is about friendship and love. It's great to see a filmmaker working at the peak of their power with everything balanced just right. The blending of the story and technique works well and it's a joy to see a cast and crew that are clearly enjoying what they do.

Ida

Chris Campbell

Shot in crisp black and white in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio with precise and off-centre framing that recalls the work of Bresson, Bergman, and Dreyer, Ida carefully and quietly shows a series of revelations. It's short and powerful, feeling distant at first, but becoming more and more emotionally engaging as the film goes on. It's the coolness of the approach that let the film creep up on me while exploring the role of the Catholic church, Communism, and the Holocaust in post-war Poland. While the topics are heavy, the film never feels that way with the face of Anna forming the mirror that we see everything through.

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski and cowritten by Pawlikoski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Ida is he most recent addition to my list of best films of 2014. It's about a young woman in Poland in the early 1960s who is about to become a nun. She's an orphan, raised by the Catholic church and just before she takes her vows she finds out that she has a surviving relative, an aunt who is a judge. This starts Anna on a journey to discover her Jewish ancestry.

Ida could easily fit into a retrospective of Polish and eastern European art house films from the 60s, but it doesn't feel like an homage so much as a evocation of the time. The understated tone and glimpses of life and society that made those earlier films so distinctive and important are here along with the benefit of hindsight. It's also a rare film that firmly focusses on women and their concerns with the men in the film taking a peripheral role.

The performances in the film are perfect with Agata Trzebuchowska and Agata Kulesza at the centre as two women who defined themselves through their faith in the church and in the Communist state. They share an absent family destroyed by the Holocaust and we witness them determining how to square the horrors of the past with their present lives. The film feels as if it is from the 1960s with perfect period detail, looks, and sounds. It's a compact gem of a film filled with transcendent moments of beauty and sadness.