The Best Films of 2014

The turn of the year brings with it the irresistible urge to make a list and check it twice. International box-office takings might be down but the quality and breadth of films available to Irish cinemagoers is as strong and vibrant as ever. I’ve catalogued my 13 favourites here but might easily have included 13 more. The blockbusters might not have a great summer but it’s been a vintage for cinema.

Before we get to the selection, first an apology: I haven't been updating this blog as regularly as before, or as regularly as I should. I can't say that will change in the year to come, as the pressures on my time aren't likely to change. If you want more posts, please say so in the comments.

Now, my film of the year is Ida, the story of a young novice nun who discovers a dark family secret in an austere, almost abandoned 1960s Poland. A haunting meditation on identity, history and survival, crafted with deceptive simplicity and photographed in luminous black and white, Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is a masterwork. The rest of the best, in no particular order:

Unsettling, erotic and dangerously hypnotic, British director Jonathan Glazer’s audacious sci-fi tells the sideways story of an alien, transported to contemporary Glasgow, who preys on the unwitting human inhabitants.

Christopher Nolan’s madly-ambitious sci-fi space opera divided audiences right down the middle but seeing it in a 70mm projection on the IMAX screen was 2014s best argument for watching films on the big screen, with big sound, in the big dark.

Even from under a papier-mâché head, Michael Fassbender is brilliant in Lenny Abrahamson’s funny/sad story of a talentless keyboard player (Domhnall Gleeson) joining an edgy art-school band to make an album in the Wicklow mountains.

12 Years A Slave
Raw and mad, Fassbender again astonished in Steve McQueen’s heartbreaking, Best Film Oscar-winner about American slavery, playing a demented plantation owner refusing to release Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup, a free man stolen into bondage.

The Lego Movie
It might have been just another kid’s toy tie-in cash-cow but Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s visually stunning, funny and subversive Lego Movie turned out to be the year’s best animation. A stirring tribute to the power of the imagination.

Ten years on from his debut The Return, Andrey Zvyagintsev continues his forensic dissection of contemporary Russian life with this angry story of a car mechanic fighting a corrupt local mayor to keep ownership of his family’s land.

The Wolf of Wall Street
His best film in years, Martin Scorsese takes a pop at 90s excesses and their malignant after-effects in this blisteringly paced and packed romp with Leonardo DiCaprio on electrifying form as a junk-bond trader living it up in good times New York.

Gone Girl
The book that everyone read became the film that everyone saw. One of the biggest non-franchise films at the Irish box office this year, David Fincher’s take on Gillian Flynn’s novel is a ripe and rewarding circus of pulp noir, black comedy and sly surprises.

Spike Jonze returned from a lengthy absence with this tender and sad film, set in a near future in which Joaquin Phoenix’s lonely writer falls in love with his computer’s operating system (the smoky-voiced Scarlett Johansson, who has had quite a year).

We Are The Best!
An adorable teen comedy from Lukas Moodysson, based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel, that follows three 13-year-old girls who start a punk band in 1980s Stockholm.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson makes possibly his best film yet; a painstakingly beautiful, howlingly funny comedy about lives and loves at a Mitteleuropean hotel, in a fictional mountain state, between the wars. As fun to just look at as it is to watch, Ralph Fiennes’ performance alone made it a must see.

Ellar Coltrane goes from boy to man before our eyes in Richard Linklater’s saga of everyday life, filmed over 12 years, which hangs on the passage of time and our perception of it. Made up of those bits that usually get cut from films about families (as opposed to ‘family films’) it considers the past, present and future all at once and in a unique way.

And the worst film of 2014?
Even in a good year there’s no shortage of bad films but there was only one possible winner (or is it loser?): Olivier Dahan’s purported biopic Grace of Monaco, a deranged and misguided soap-opera.

*Image of Pawel Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal from this story on the American Society of Cinematographers website

Terry Gilliam Interview

He is the Monty Python animator turned director famed for his creative genius and unique vision, but making films is still a struggle for Terry Gilliam.

“You’ll be sure and tell me if I’m talking too quickly,” Terry Gilliam says, a grin poking through his lumberjack’s beard as he flops onto an enormous couch in the Merrion Hotel. “I've been told I talk very quickly. My films are the same. Sometimes, I worry that it all goes too fast on screen and that there’s a lot of stuff going on that people miss.” I tap my tablet device and reply that I am equipped to capture whatever he says, at whatever speed he prefers. “A computer”, he snorts, “I’m no Luddite but you can’t put your trust in computers.”

Gilliam does talk pretty fast, as it happens, but then he has a lot of ground to cover. At 73, the director, animator, writer and member of the recently-reunited Monty Python comedy troupe shows no sign of slowing down. He’s in town to present his new science-fiction think-piece The Zero Theorem at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival and pick up one of the festival’s Volta awards, in recognition of his long and unique career. “It’s an honour to get any kind of award, especially one bestowed by a great festival in this fantastic city,” Gilliam says in a modest gush, “but I’ll be perfectly honest, it’s even better to be here with a film to show.”

Things haven’t been easy for Gilliam recently. The Zero Theorem is his first film since The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in 2009, a production almost derailed by the tragic death of his lead actor Heath Ledger half way through filming. At the time of its successful release, Gilliam was quoted as saying he didn’t foresee himself making another feature. “I used to think I could will films into existence,” he says of that time, “I don’t think that anymore.” Since then, he has made a couple of short films “from stories that turned me on,” directed the English National Opera’s production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust in 2011 and watched a series of projects burn to a crisp in development hell; including an adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel Good Omens, an adaptation of Mr. Vertigo, co-written with novelist Paul Auster from his book, and The Defective Detective, a surreal crime caper written with Richard LaGravenese, who scripted Oscar-winning The Fisher King for him in 1990. As we sit over steaming tea cups, watching the furious February rain beat off the windows, Gilliam shrugs his shoulders. “Hollywood”, he says with an exaggerated sigh, “is the least imaginative place on Earth.”

Little wonder, then, that for his new film, Gilliam stayed as far away from Hollywood as possible. Made for $10 million (“the least amount of money I’ve had since Time Bandits in 1981”) and filmed over the course of a month in Budapest, once it started to happen, The Zero Theorem happened very rapidly. He admits that getting to that point was, in typical Gilliam fashion, something of a complicated process. “The script from first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin came bouncing my way about five years ago. When I read it, I liked that it was full of thoughts and ideas. It seemed to ask questions about the modern world and how we communicate with one another. But I went off and made Dr Parnassus and Zero Theorem floated away, as things sometimes do. The story was always at the back of my mind, though. I keep scraps of notes in a drawer in my desk and I found a bundle of them were about Zero Theorem. Most of all, I liked the characters. I felt they were people I would like to spend some time with, so when the chance came around again in 2012, I took it.”

Ask Gilliam to describe the finished film and he winces. “I've never been good at synopsis and sound bites. I can’t tell you what I do, I just do it.” Ask him what the film is all about and he laughs. “I don’t have the answer to that question. That’s why I make movies. I hope The Zero Theorem contains some answers but at the same time, I’m always looking to ask more questions that I answer. Otherwise, what’s the point?” The film focuses on Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a brilliant and reclusive computer hacker in the near future, who works as a programmer for an Orwellian corporation called Mancom. Always referring to himself as “we”, Qohen lives in a derelict church, waiting for a phone call that will deliver him from his unbearable life. When Mancom’s mysterious ‘Management’ (played by Matt Damon) charges him with cracking the Zero Theorem, a digital equation that could provide the meaning of life, Qohen sets to work. As he attempts this impossible task, Qohen is visited by the seductive muse Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and computer prodigy Bob (Lucas Hedges), who disrupt his micro-managed existence, forcing him out into the wider world when all he wants is to be left alone.

Even with the budget restrictions and short production time, Zero Theorem takes place in a distinctly Terry Gilliam world, with inventive production design, complicated, hand-built props and outrageous costumes. The director says that making the film “look the way I want it to under financial and time challenges” was an enormous task. “But in a funny way, finding clever and inventive ways to overcome the difficulties was the most exciting part of the whole process. I got my team together and said, just jump in there and do it. Everything we were doing was reflexive, responsive and intuitive. We were putting it down on paper, then BANG! it was done.” To illustrate the point, he tells me about the challenge of creating futuristic costumes for crowd scenes with very little money. “My costume guy found these huge bales of incredibly cheap and ugly Chinese fabrics spewed out of some factory in the middle of nowhere, carpets and shower curtains basically, and turned them into clothes. Incredibly sweaty, uncomfortable clothes that looked amazing on camera and fit the world we were making.” Gilliam says he wanted to create a colourful, happy place where the people were always smiling. “Grinning like fools, for no apparent reason. It’s buzzing with life. The people are zipping around in their electric cars in their plastic clothes, listening to optimistic pop music, constantly staring into their phones, buying into whatever it is that Mancom asks them to buy into. There’s only one guy that’s miserable.”

Funny and bleak in equal measure, the film can be read as a biting critique of corporate culture and a satire on internet culture. Gilliam says his hero is “thinking not shopping, trying to make connections and ask questions. You’ll see it in the endless billboards and advertisements: ‘Don’t Ask, Multi-task!’ and ‘Occupy Mall Street.’ Qohen only does what he’s told so the system will leave him alone. This is a damaged guy but he’s got something that the corporation wants – he can form connections, he can use logic and intelligence to figure things out – he has skills that this future society has allowed to atrophy.” There is a clear line between Zero Theorem and Brazil, the sci-fi comedy that made Gilliam’s name, released in 1984. “When I made Brazil, I was telling a story about the world as I saw it then. This film is a glimpse of the world we are living in now. Brazil was about the misery of bureaucracy and the manufactured fear of terrorism and war that politicians use to control the people. This film is more about the connectivity the internet allows us to have and whether it is possible to separate yourself from it. They are both dystopias, but Zero Theorem is about a private hell. It’s about finding solitude in a connected world. How do you know who you are if you’re tweeting and twitching all the time about nothing in particular? People have a terrible fear of aloneness now. The internet fills that gap but the side-effect is that nobody wants to spend time with themselves anymore.”

Is The Zero Theorem a warning? Gilliam shakes his head, reluctant to stand on a soapbox. “It’s a statement of concern more than a warning. I don’t have the solution to any of these problems but I wanted to find a way in which to frame the question. What about the sex suit that connects Qohen and Bainsley in the story? That’s very nearly a reality. Can you imagine the profits that are coming to the guy who invents a working internet sex suit? Every lonely guy and girl in the world is going to want one and they’ll never turn them off again – at least not for long enough to go outside and find one another and have sex in the real world. Why would any of us ever leave the house again? This is what I’m saying in the film. We think we’re connected but we’re not really. As people, we are in fact entirely disconnected. We think we’re part of this endless stream of information but it’s not making us any smarter and maybe it’s doing the opposite.”

The internet can affect positive change too, Gilliam readily admits. It was an on-line campaign that finally brought the Monty Python gang together again for a series of live dates in London in July. He says he’s not really looking forward to it. “I’m too busy to think about it, but I suppose it will be fun. It’s always fun. We sold out opening night, something like 17,000 tickets, in 40 seconds.” He expresses amazement that anyone would care, saying that the Pythons can hardly believe that they are still relevant. “It’s not about reminiscing, or at least it’s not all about reminiscing. We never thought that anyone would care forty years later, never mind quote the sketches back at us. The way Terry Jones put it to me is that the establishment we were poking fun at in the 60s are still there, even though they’ve done their best to destroy themselves in the meantime. We’ll do what we can to help them achieve that.”

Then, Gilliam says, it will be time to focus on the project that has haunted him for more than a decade. “Ah yes, Don Quixote.” His version of Miguel Cervantes’ 500 year-old novel was half-way through filming in 1998 when a series of misfortunes caused it to be abandoned. There was an injury to his lead actor, a disastrous flash flood that washed away his set and NATO fighter-jet manoeuvres roaring overhead, a disaster chronicled in the entertaining not-quite-making-of documentary Lost in La Mancha. “You say entertaining, I’d use a different word entirely,” Gilliam interrupts with a rueful grin, “but I’m still tilting at those windmills. I haven’t given up. It’s an obsession, a desperate, pathetic, foolish delusion of a film.” With some long-overdue luck, Gilliam says he’ll start shooting the film, entitled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, on the island of Fuerteventura in the Canaries later this year. “Eleventh time is the charm, right? If everything goes according to plan, we’ll shoot in October. He says the film has changed considerably over the years, “becoming more and more autobiographical, and better too, each time, I think. Certainly it’ll be a smaller film, more modestly appointed. I must cut my cloth according to my measure nowadays,” puffing up his chest and adding a wry aside that my microphone barely picks up; “cheaper cloth too.”

Under The Skin

For his first film in almost a decade, British director Jonathan Glazer lands an extraterrestrial on the grimy streets of modern-day Glasgow and follows her as she completes an unexplained mission. Oblique and mystifying, beautiful and grotesque and filled with haunting images, Under the Skin is likely to repel as many as it entrances.

Sparsely adapted by Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s cult novel, Under the Skin unfolds as a feverish dream. The first thing we see is a series of overlapping images; the crescent curves of a planetary system, a vast, white circular vessel slowly filling with an oily substance and the black pupil of a human eye without a spark of life. Then a dead woman’s body is thrown into the back of a truck on the side of a wet road. Another woman (Scarlett Johansson) strips the corpse naked and puts on her clothes, seemingly in the process adopting her persona. While doing this, she finds a solitary black ant and examines it closely as it wriggles on her fingertip. Without uttering a line of dialogue or providing any overt exposition, Glazer has established the scene: this ‘woman’, arrived from somewhere else, will study us in the same way she studies the insect. She is not the benign anthropomorphic alien of ET or Close Encounters, here to teach and heal. She looks like a person; she looks like Scarlett Johansson in fact, but is as separate and unknowable to us as we are to the ant.

Glazer’s camera takes us onto the streets of the Scottish capital, leads us between the people on the streets, watching as they tap out texts, smoke cigarettes and wander through the shops. The woman buys new clothes to match the city crowd, gently applying a smear of red lipstick and a smudge of eye-liner. As Johansson drives around the street-lit roads in a white van, looking for likely men to enrapture and ensnare, Glazer adopts the techniques of hidden-camera reality television to give us glimpses of how his alien slips unnoticed through the cracks. She stops the van to talk to men in a politely clipped English accent, always checking first that they are alone and unlikely to be missed. More often than not, they respond to her charming questioning and get into the van with her.

Soon after, in the film’s most visually striking sequences, Johansson leads the men into a black room with a shiny, slick floor and watches as they sink beneath the surface, to be absorbed by an oily black liquid and transformed into something unspoken. Is she collecting trophies, processing food or collating data? We cannot say for sure and the uncertainty is unnerving. Again and again Glazer shows us this process, extending the scene by moments and adding more details, until we make the connections for ourselves.

In the first act, Glazer’s methodical pace, deliberate repetition and disorienting tone is structured to reflect the alien’s utter inscrutability and the apparently simple terms of her mission. Things gradually start to change. She meets a potential victim, lures him into her van and only then notices his facial deformity. Uniquely, she allows him to escape. The next day she falls on her face in the street and is bewildered when passers-by try to help her. From that moment on, the story gathers emotions around it like an out-sized overcoat. She struggles to cope with new sensations of empathy, pity and fear. When her motorbike-riding handler, credited only as The Bad Man (and played by professional racer Jeremy McWilliams), discovers his charge has fled the city into the Scottish highlands, he gives chase. The predator becomes prey.

Told with minimal dialogue and with a vibrato mood of anxiety and tension, there are moments where the film contorts into pure horror, particularly in a sequence at a bleak, wind-torn beach where Johansson stands mutely on the shore. We watch as a woman drowns in the pounding surf, her frantic husband attempts a rescue and their toddler sits screaming on the sand. The alien walks away. It is the most stomach-clenching scene I have watched in a cinema in years; a moment of icy disregard that serves to remind the viewer that they are human, that they have feelings, that they couldn’t just stand by and watch other people suffer. Mico Levi’s throbbing electronic score ratchets up the dread, sounding at times like a whispered conversation between computers, or an almost-subsonic alien language.

As the film weaves between the gliding precision that Glazer exercised in Sexy Beast and Birth and more rough-and-ready CCTV images, Johansson remains the constant, effortlessly switching from sunny and gorgeous to an unsettling blankness, every wrinkle of posed humanity falling off her face in a heartbeat when no-one is looking. It’s a brave, engrossing performance of twisted eroticism that grounds an always intriguing, sometimes astonishing audio-visual experience. Glazer crafts a mesmerising, surreal spell: some audiences will fall for it and some will remain unmoved but Under the Skin remains lodged beneath mine.


“I say tell everyone everything. I mean, why cover anything up?” The man speaking this line is wearing a papier-mâché head with wide-set painted blue eyes and bee-stung lips. His name is Frank and he’s a singer in a band. The head doesn’t come off. It’s therapeutic. Frank has a certificate.

In the first of director Lenny Abrahamson’s wilful ironies, the man in the head is played by one of the current cinema’s most handsome leading men, Michael Fassbender. He’s explaining his song-writing philosophy to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a keyboard-player and wannabe rock star who has just joined his unpronounceable band Soronprfbs. And Jon doesn’t get it. The band is holed up in a cabin in the Wicklow Mountains, supposedly recording an album. They’ve been there for a year, having gotten lost on the way to superstardom, a place nobody but Jon wants to go.

That’s the set-up for Abrahamson’s off-beat musical comedy Frank which shares something with the director’s previous films in that the story contains a nugget of truth. There really was a rock singer named Frank Sidebottom who wore a papier-mâché head and he was joined, for a brief period, by a keyboard player who wanted to be famous, the writer Jon Ronson, who scripted this story with Peter Straughan. From that kernel of inspiration, Abrahamson has constructed a funny, tender and endearingly daft film that captures the spirit of creativity like lightning in a bottle then tries to break the bottle over your head.

We first meet Gleeson’s Jon as he is enlisted into Soronprfbs to play a gig when their other keyboardist runs screaming into the sea. The previous incumbent had been driven to his demented soaking by the rest of the band, including Theremin-playing Clara (a brilliantly sour and suspicious Maggie Gyllenhaal), aloof bassist Baraque (François Civil), passive-aggressive drummer Nana (Carla Azar from the band Autolux) and manager Don (Scoot McNairy). The gig does not go well but Jon joins up anyway, taking the ferry to Ireland under the pretence of another live date. “You can play C, F and G, right?” asks Don, with a squint. They end up trekking into the mountains to record a long-promised album, rehearsing in a close-quartered cabin and finding inspiration in the wild world around them. Tweeting his experiences incessantly, and slowly gathering followers, Jon secures the band a slot at the prestigious SXSW festival in Texas and Soronprfbs reluctantly hit the road. And like every road trip ever undertaken by a ragtag gang of movie characters it turns out to be their undoing.

Frank wouldn’t work if the music didn’t work. From under the head, Fassbender proves a magnetic front-man, delivering a masterclass in physical performance through little more than undiluted charisma. As we watch Frank lead the band through their unconventional rehearsals, or weaving around on-stage, the music from composer Stephen Rennicks takes an identifiable shape. Songs are delivered in burps and snatches as Soronprfbs generate a sound unique to themselves but inspired by outlying musicians like Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnson and The Residents.

Abrahamson’s uncanny control of tone and mood nudges Frank from a kind-of comedy to a kind-of tragedy, bumping up against almost every point in between. Partly an exploration of the unknowable methods of the truly creative, and partly a discussion about how fame and celebrity are cheap commodities in the internet age, Frank is a consistent and enduring delight. It’s a film about outsiders who feel no particular urge to come inside. An unexpectedly poignant conclusion makes astute observations about how analysing the creative process can destroy it, and damage the source of creativity itself.