The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)
Tom Nixon, Senior Film Editor
It’s easy to say that The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most accomplished film Wes Anderson has ever made, a supremely confident tour de force from a legendary director in his prime. Never has he demonstrated such metronomic comic timing nor so ingeniously exploited the dimensions of the frame, disturbing and manipulating his claustrophobically ordered mise-en-scène to the point of collapse. What makes it truly special, however, is that it’s a validation of his whole career and an intimidatingly masterful riposte to accusations of insularity and indulgence, contextualising his obsessive-compulsive stylisation against a real-world historical backdrop and establishing it as a manifestation of a precious worldview.
With its painstakingly decorated layers, the titular hotel is the ultimate Wes Anderson prop, a critic-baiting bubble of opulence reminiscent more of immaculate confectionery than reality as perceived by any age referenced in the film. Rather, it represents a certain fragile anachronistic sensibility beset by external threats of war, amorality, discordance and death; an ideal image of our history that may never have existed but that, like devoted concierge and blatant Anderson-surrogate Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), we must attempt to preserve regardless. Anderson has devoted his career to protecting artificial images — a brand of openly manufactured, nostalgic innocence — and if there’s any doubt he’s consciously self-mythologising here, it’s erased by the self-aware formal device through which the narrative is told. Mirroring the layers of the hotel, Anderson’s filmmaking and indeed history as a whole, the story passes through a nested structure of four different storytellers from four different eras, complete with their own aspect ratios. Far from widening the emotional distance, this historical prism frames the characters — their loves, struggles and glorious shenanigans — in a way that highlights how fleeting, how endangered, how important they really are.
What’s never been clearer is how Anderson aches to immortalise the ideals out of which his style has grown. Even as he pushes all his most controversial tics to their limits he’s simultaneously arguing that they matter, insisting upon his work’s value as a fortified stronghold in a darkening world. And if that world is ultimately too chaotic to be kept at bay, the divisive auteur will at least go down fighting, “sustaining the illusion with a marvellous grace”.
Hard To Be A God (Dir. Aleksey German)
Chuck Williamson, Deputy Film Editor
As the world went wild over Richard Linklater’s universalizing portrait of white male heteronormative adolescence, another epic-length film with a decades-spanning production history slipped beneath the cracks — a film far more radical and revolutionary than the former’s cellophaned nostalgia. Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God, a freeform adaptation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s mid-sixties SF classic, emerges from the sort of protracted gestation period that puts Boyhood’s twelve-year production to shame. German first began preproduction on Hard to Be a God in 1968, intending it as an allegorical response to the Prague Spring, but could not procure the funding to start shooting (albeit sporadically) until 2000. Production stretched out all the way to 2006, and the film soon languished in a purgatorial postproduction phase that lasted until German’s death in 2013. Completed by his son later that year, the final cut of German’s magnum opus premiered posthumously at the 2013 Rome Film Festival. That Hard to Be a God even exists counts as a minor miracle.
Hard to Be a God is not only the best film of 2014, but easily stands head-and-shoulders above its competitors as this decade’s greatest cinematic accomplishment: raw, richly textured, radioactively strange, and as fetid as a farmhouse romp. German pares down or excises the specifics of Strugatsky’s story — an allegorical tale of scientific observers stationed on a planet plunged in a perpetual Dark Ages — and uses it as the pretext for an unrelenting and totally visceral guttercrawl through a monochromatic, mud-caked hellhole. It unfolds like a gonzo-absurdist ethnography of an alien world, as if Robert Flaherty had lugged his handcranked Bell & Howell all the way to some interplanetary backwater and trudged through primordial shit alongside some bechainmailed warlord (himself a man “unstuck in time,” impotent and staunchly unheroic). Each shot unfurls like an antique fresco made of dampened plaster and smeared with human excrement, winding through German’s dirty and densely-packed recreations of extraterrestrial medievaldom with a woozy determination and verite directness. German’s film wallows in clatter, chaos, and visual putridity — a despairing and uncompromising valedictory work from one of our most iconoclastic filmmakers.
The Imitation Game (Dir. Morten Tyldum)
Michael Dodd, Film Editor
The story of Professor Alan Turing is of paramount importance, and The Imitation Game stands as a masterful telling of the great man’s story because it profoundly emphasizes what truly matters in one of the most appalling and tragic episodes of our modern history. There is no stark jingoism of the kind you may expect Hollywood to engage in when bringing an iconic figure of world history to the screen; and no room is ever allowed for triumphalism. The relief and ecstasy of breaking the Nazi Enigma code is cruelly short-lived as it becomes apparent that Turing and his team have thus taken on an unbearable moral conundrum, that of having to allow naval attacks and air strikes to take place so as to not alert the enemy that their encrypted messaging system has been decoded. It is an uncomfortable viewing experience that powerfully enforces the notion that there is no true glory in war, only the weight of countless dead upon the conscience of all who participated.
The conclusion of Turing’s story is however the most savagely horrifying to witness. A brilliant mind which pioneered much of what has today become the science of computing is mercilessly wasted thanks to abhorrently prejudicial and archaic laws of the day. To this end Benedict Cumberbatch, fast on his way to becoming the biggest contemporary film and television star, gives his most exceptional performance yet. It is impossible to see him crumble to the chemical castration enforced on him for the contemporary crime of homosexuality without feeling unequivocal empathy. Through his tears and utter resignation Cumberbatch does not just bring one of modern history’s great names to life, he also gives the injustice suffered by this real individual an iconic pop culture gravitas. Historians and scientists know the absurdity of Alan Turing’s end, and now moviegoers have quite dramatically experienced it vicariously too.
This must be considered one of the best films of the year because it carries a significant warning. Like 12 Years a Slave last year this is the cinematic cry of opposition to injustice and prejudice, and just like its powerful predecessor it simply cannot be ignored.
Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)
Ben Hynes, Film Editor
A film that at once invokes and inverts tropes of the predatory nature of female sexuality, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is as remarkable for what it gestures toward as for what it shows. Implicated by the film is the patriarchal structure under which Scarlett Johansson’s Laura works; the character’s sexuality is instrumentalized and commodified by a system that the viewer sees only hints of in the film’s mysteriously indefatigable motorcycle-riding men. Rather than functioning as some autonomous predator, devouring men of her own fickle whim, Laura’s sexuality is harnessed to provide energy/resources for a larger enterprise. The character’s progress and labour is monitored at all times by these men. Through this arrangement we’re given a de-familiarized picture of how patriarchal capitalism mobilizes and commodifies women’s bodies and work, alienating them from both themselves and their labour in the most essential way possible.
Glazer’s strategy for constructing the film, oscillating between compositions of sumptuous artifice and rough naturalism both aesthetically and in its performances, speaks to the dual nature of this critique. The artificiality of the film is anchored by its ethnographic hidden cameras. So too is the film’s use of science fiction anchored by the immediacy of its engagement with the content agency of women’s lives. We follow Laura as she begins to unravel an understanding of how the system in which she functions has estranged her from herself before the implications of this transgression are made violently material at the film’s climax.
By turns rapturously gorgeous and deeply unsettling, perfectly complimented by Micah Levi’s score that seems woven from the fabric of anxiety and love and borne by Johansson’s subtly removed performance, Under the Skin is a film that functions simultaneously as a nearly seamless science fiction work and as one of the most strikingly urgent critiques of how our contemporary system violently exploits women.
Two Days One Night (Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne)
Christine Jin, Contributing Film Editor
It’s rare that the weakest of female characters makes such a strong on-screen presence as Marion Cotillard’s Sandra in the Dardennes’ latest film. Earlier this year, in James Gray’s The Immigrant, Cotillard performed as another beaten-down woman seeking a sense of purpose. Neither film necessarily offers an uplifting story about women, but there’s a certain perceived assertiveness to the actress’ embodiment of those characters. In this unsentimental tale of solidarity and self-worth, the lead star glibly switches between desperation and shame, timidity and fortitude.
The conceit is that, under a time constraint, Sandra carries out a door-to-door canvass to keep her job, which will cost her colleagues a bonus. It’s a streamlined narrative, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is a clear-cut me-against-them sort. While the film borrows its dynamism mostly from Sandra’s varying responses after pleading either on the phone or on the doorstep, what really infuses it with potent humanism are the diverse personalities and circumstances the co-workers contribute. During her first call, we only see Sandra reacting to what is being said on the other end of the line. Framed in a seemingly disinterested medium shot, Cotillard manages to channel the reluctance and mortification her alter-ego feels without making overt gestures. From then on the directors incrementally increase the other employees’ visibility, pitting Sandra against not some vaguely defined enemy but fleshed-out humans. With the help of the brothers’ exactingly-timed cuts and nuanced shifts in camera distance, as well as the actress’ keen instinct for drama, Sandra’s emotional displays are well modulated. The negotiations largely occur in lengthy, distant two-shots, but the Dardennes allows for close-ups when refusal hits her hard, or when an affirmation puts a smile on her face.
With heartless (and almost faceless) corporate types pushed to the margins — literally, in the opening and close — of the story, the film’s politics aren’t so thickly veiled, but its social engagement feels modest without pompousness. It’s not only one of the year’s best, but it has the best performance of the year, period.
The LEGO Movie (Dir. Chris Miller & Phil Lord)
Aaron Grierson, Senior Articles Editor
Simply put, this movie was my childhood, or at least a large part of it. The movie is not just for kids. It is genuinely funny, thoughtful, and truly for moviegoers of all ages. It is also extremely well animated, cannily cast and perfectly suited for 3D. You only see two human actors in the entire film, but the credits just scream “all-star hit.” And this is one film I can safely say actually delivers.
Another particularly notable aspect about The LEGO Movie is its attention to heroes. Several heroic characters (including the ever relevant Gandalf) make little more than cameo appearances (though Batman is cast as a moodier secondary character), while Emmet, the hero of the film and indeed “The Special,” is your everyday guy, who has an average job and really follows along with all of the modern trends.
Of course, “everything is awesome”. Okay, maybe not. There’s a villain who wants to rule the (LEGO) world and all but enslaves several of the more heroic characters to propagate his control. The movie is, for the majority, fast paced, but lucidly transitions between the action, comedy and plot points, in addition to showcasing a heaping helping of some very diverse bricks (including dragons), as the story travels through several different LEGO worlds that we can purchase and build. And throughout the film, a touching, feasible romance starts to bloom in between trying to save the world.
Of course, there is the seemingly obligatory moralizing message (that anyone is capable of being a hero), but the film’s list of negative qualities is a short one. Even the soundtrack is extremely catchy! (Like I said, everything is awesome!) The LEGO Movie also plays inventively with a lot of tropes, making references that many filmgoers probably found (I sure did) amusing.
Is it film of the year? Animated, maybe. Regardless though, it is extremely creative, and I would declare it “a must see”, at least once. Your age is irrelevant; you will have fun. You might find yourself glued to your seat by the end!
Guardians of the Galaxy (Dir. James Gunn)
Mahnoor Yawar, Senior Articles Editor
Okay, so it’s probably a cliché pick, but who saw this coming? A movie about D-list Marvel characters, with a cast of not-quite-A-list actors (excepting the voice talents) and a soundtrack from before most of us were sentient, in a story even comics fans were skeptical of putting their support behind, turns out to be the runaway blockbuster hit of the year. If someone had tried to tell 10-year-old me that her favorite heroes would end up being the raccoon with violent tendencies and his anthropomorphic tree sidekick, I’d probably have found my way into a time machine and skipped all the way to 2014 to see for myself.
But such is the awesome power of the Marvel momentum — you just can’t slow them down.
This is a story of misfits and weirdos who win the day, and it succeeds with the help of some brilliant casting choices. James Gunn clearly plays off of the unique eccentricities that each of the actors bring (overly literal Bautista continues to be a revelation), and subtly pushes the Grand Marvel Narrative forward without being too overbearing on either front.
Sure, it wasn’t the most groundbreaking of stories. And yes, the visuals often left something to be desired. But — and this is the kicker — wasn’t it just so much fun? You just can’t get enough of the quietly raunchy humor, the self-aware speeches of glory, the love-hate relationships, the music, the sheer exuberance. After all the darkness and the existentialism that made its way into big screen adaptations over the last decade, finally someone steps forward to say THIS! This is how you do superhero movies. Marvel 1, DC 0.
Move over, Midas. There’s a new sheriff in town… at least until I’m well into my thirties.
Stonehearst Asylum (Dir. Brad Anderson)
Gimel Samera, Articles Editor
At the beginning of the year, I’d written down a list of 2014-released films that I could not wait to see. The list included X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Before I Go To Sleep, and of course the much anticipated, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. But if you would ask me to name my pick of the year, surprisingly you will not find it on the list. Sometimes it’s not the ones that you’ve waited for that end up becoming the one you’ve enjoyed the most. This year, I would like to introduce you to Brad Anderson’s Stonehearst Asylum.
This psychological thriller is loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether”. Set in the late 1800s, newbie medical school graduate Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) visits a British mental institution in search of apprenticeship under the well-regarded alienist Dr. Salt (Michael Caine). However, upon arrival, it’s not Dr. Salt whom he finds running the asylum but Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley), whose methods of medical treatment are considered unorthodox. The longer Newgate stays, the more he realizes that nothing in Stonehearst is what it seems. Patients are hardly treated. Instead of straitjackets, electroshocks or ice-cold buckets of water, they are given the freedom to indulge in their delusions. It is also a custom for patients and staff to dine together. Trouble begins when Newgate finds himself highly infatuated with one of the patients, beautiful Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a sexual-abuse survivor institutionalized for “hysteria”.
Stonehearst Asylum offers more than a strong cast. A film about insanity and abuse of power, it gives you a macabre view of 19th-century medicine, when methods of psychological treatment and study were ethically questionable and even what we now consider barbaric. Though somewhat predictable, the plotline is gripping with a dash of dark humor, keeping you on your toes. So if you have a list of films to see, consider adding Stonehearst Asylum to it.
The Missing Slate’s editorial team also reviewed the best books of 2014.