CJ Johnson, host of ABC Radio’s Movieland, gives us his take on the past year of cinema.
2014 has some time left, and there are undoubtedly some seriously good movies still to be released. Thanks to Harvey Weinstein, it is now a truth universally acknowledged that the closer a film is released to the close of voting for the Academy Awards, the more likely it is to win Academy Awards, which means that the very best (or at least, the ones the studios and distributors think are the very best) get released deep into December. That said, there have been some terrific releases this year that have already cleaned up some major awards, some that haven’t but are still worth investigating, and, of course, some serious disappointments.
Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, which won Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, is probably my favourite film thus far, which is far from saying it’s the film that made me feel the best. This devastating look at how fragile family life can be is truly (and opposed to superficially) referential of Kubrick and Haneke – indeed, Östlund stated to me in an interview that Haneke was a major influence on him at film school. It’s a major work from a filmmaker on the cusp of major status. Watch him start to win the big ones over the next decade.
Working in another vein but also examining marriage with deadly and brutal invasion, David Fincher’s Gone Girl took a nearly-good novel and made a nearly-great film out of it. It’s not as incisive as Force Majeure, but it’s even more cynical about that most singular institution we pretend to hold dear. Marriage in Gone Girl is a pinàta, and by the time the film is over, it’s been beaten to death.
Moving into the realm of happiness, Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best was the happiest film of the year, telling the story of how a band comes together, when that band is punk, composed of twelve year-olds, and living in Stockholm in 1982. For me, this film wins the “Best Climax” award – the ending is truly, madly, deeply joyous, and a monumental ode to the act of creation.
On the creepy side, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is just terrific – a totally awesome entertainment, all the more so if you like your satire as bitter and black as a Turkish espresso. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a truly despicable creation, a sociopath to rival De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Come Awards Season all the talk will be about Gyllenhaal, but Rene Russo – Gilroy’s wife – gives an outstanding support performance.
The Dardenne Brothers, who lost out at Cannes but won the Sydney Film Festival Prize, offered their most commercially approachable film ever with Two Days, One Night, which, for me, was the most suspenseful film of the year (thus far). What a plot! A woman wakes up and is told that unless she can persuade the majority of her sixteen colleagues to forego their annual bonuses, she’ll be fired. She has the weekend to persuade them to deliberately forego a significant parcel of money to keep her on. If the final scene doesn’t have you white-knuckling your armrest, you simply must be dead.
Kill The Messenger was a Lumet-influenced, coolly proficient journalism thriller, with a calmly excellent performance from Jeremy Renner, who, let’s face it, has not capitalised properly on his Hurt Locker Oscar nomination until now (playing the guy who shoots arrows really well in the Marvelverse is not a Meryl Streep Choice). David Ayer’s Fury is an excellent and tense tank movie and again shows how brilliant Brad Pitt is at filling a large screen. Whiplash is an intense and highly original melodrama that will propel journeyman (and brilliant) actor JK Simmons into the Awards Club, and Locke is simply stunning from start to finish, a film that plays its cards as a gimmick (the whole thing is shot in a car!) but wins its hand by being ludicrously suspenseful and oddly moving. Tom Hardy gives the performance of the year, unless you can give that honour to Ellar Coltrane, who let Richard Linklater shoot him for twelve years for Boyhood and became awesome as it happened. Well, not really. His performance is natural and charming but hardly technically precise. Hardy’s, in Locke, is that in spades. It’s amazing.
You can’t say that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was at his absolute best in A Most Wanted Man, mainly because his character, and thus his performance, is so low-key (he’s playing a spy in a La Carré movie!), but the film itself, from Anton Corbijn, is amazing, a beautiful, melancholy spy thriller for the post-9/11 scene in an accessible key. It’s up there with Force Majeure for me for film of the year thus far. For an esoteric ride, Jonathan Glazer’s third feature Under The Skin, with Scarlett Johansson as a creepy alien, was gleefully strange and quite brilliant. Matthew Saville’s Felony had one of the sharpest screenplays of the year, by Joel Edgerton, who also gave an excellent performance in the film, as did Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney, who finally had a role with nuance and ambiguity.
Also on the Australian front, Tony Mahony and Angus Sampson’s The Mule, written by Sampson and co-star Leigh Whannell, is strangely touching and tender, especially given that it’s essentially about two dudes waiting for another dude to poo. The 1983 production design is spot-on – Paddy Reardon deserves many awards – avoiding cliché and evoking emotion. Amazing details fill every frame, from the food to the wallpaper, the cars and the beer cans – let alone the clothes and hairstyles. It’s evocative enough to make the film entertaining on design merit alone, but there are great performances too, especially the double act of Ewen Leslie and Hugo Weaving as the cops assigned to get the evidence out of Sampson… literally.
The documentary about the skateboarding Pappas brothers, All This Mayhem, proved the truism that you don’t need to be interested in the ostensible subject matter to love the film. I couldn’t give a toss about skateboarding and I was enthralled. I am completely into theatre producers, and Gracie Otto’s The Last Impresario, about Michael White, was catnip to me, but it’s a terrific film by any measure, fast and fun. Not an Australian film but featuring an Australian subject, the Nick Cave filmic essay 20,000 Days On Earth probably proves that you do need to like the subject to like the film, but if you are a Cave fan (I am), it’s gold. And while we’re celebrating Aussies in foreign films, Rose Byrne stole every scene of Bad Neighbours she was in, cementing her place in the “new Hollywood comedy” firmament in the process.
Indeed, some Aussie films did far better overseas than here, the best example being Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, which was essentially hailed as a modern horror classic in the UK while being pretty neglected here. Of course, there was a lot of talk of all Australian films being neglected at the box office this year, and they almost universally were. Some, such as My Mistress and Canopy, really probably had no real audience to begin with, while others, such as Predestination and The Rover, may have been expected (hoped?) to have performed far better than they did. The problem is an archaic 120 day window that remains in stuffy place for films between their theatrical and home release dates; hopefully this will get rectified in 2015. It must.
Moving back off our shores, in terms of the top-shelf stuff from far-flung lands, Child’s Pose, from Romanian Calin Peter Netzer, is, essentially, a thriller, but, like the recent films of Asghar Farhadi – A Separation and The Past – it offers a depth of meaningful, emotional engagement far beyond that genre’s typical aspirations, and, indeed, far beyond those of your average “straight drama”. Its thrills are thrilling, but its drama is intense, moving, and extremely rewarding.
On the disappointing side, What We Do In The Shadows, from the usually reliable Jermaine Clement and Taika Waititi, was terrible, a juvenile sketch stretched to feature length and, horrendously, never funny. Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer could have been so good but was, instead, crippled by a third act that was talky and dull. Calvary lacked conviction, peppered with stereotypical, cliché characters and a “have your cake and eat it too” attitude to its subject matter (systemic child abuse in the Catholic church). And Noah was ill-conceived, a strange attempt at art-film fantasia shackled by the very biblical conventions it was trying so desperately to subvert.
There were many other good films: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Nymphomaniac Part II, The Invisible Woman – and many, many bad ones (I’m looking at you, Tammy). Overall, though, I have to say: it’s been a great year thus far for movies.
Roll on Oscar Season! I will report.
CJ Johnson hosts and produces Movieland on the ABC. Subscribe to the Podcast.
He also has a terrific and terribly confronting show called Kinski and I, about Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog, and sex, which will play in Sydney in January and at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in February. Check it out here.
He is the film reviewer for Tony Delroy’s Nightlife on the ABC, a Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes, and the author of seven produced plays including worldwide smash The Dog Logs, as well as a book you’ll love, And The Oscar Didn’t Go To…