The final tally of films seen in 2014 was 317, which is a handful up on last year. Felt like a better selection, with submissions to the Phoenix FearCon representing a very significant chunk of the top tier. Mind you, they would probably also feature heavily if I did a list of the bottom ten films: there were a number of cases where I seriously had to wonder, in what universe this was a movie you’d show to anyone outside your immediate family. But those are already all but forgotten, and finding the gems listed below, which we’d never have seen otherwise, made up for it. Cinema going continues to decline, with traditional theater visits contributing a whopping total of… Two: Godzilla and Lucy.
In vaguely chronological order of viewing, honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the top 10, either because they weren’t quite good enough, or I couldn’t quite squeeze them in to even my famously loose definition of what constitutes “2014”: Wolf of Wall Street, Cat Run, Daddy’s Little Girl, Final Cut, Die Wand, Nurse 3D, Big Bad Wolves, Sharknado 2 [so sue me, it was fun], The Man in the Orange Jacket, Roseville, Mirage Men, Snowpiercer, Dead Snow 2, 009-1: The End of the Beginning and Gun Woman. Said definition is “got some kind of US screening or release in 2014, in one format or another,” and links go to wherever I wrote the longest review, which may be this site, GirlsWithGuns.org or, in one case, over on AZSnakePit.com.
10. Godzilla. There were a lot of complaints about this one, and justifiably so, in the case of a hero who was blander than vanilla pudding. However, it’s worth remembering how little Godzilla there was in the original fifties version too, and what we did get here, was simply majestic. The first glimpse of the big G was one of those moments that made even my jaded, cynical heart beat like a hummingbird’s, and reminded me of why I love film. What we said: “Complaining about the acting in a Godzilla film, is like complaining about cinematography in gonzo porn: it’s missing the entire point of the endeavour.”
9. The Battered Bastards of Baseball. Similarly, this documentary shows a pure love of the sport that’s thoroughly invigorating, It details the efforts of Kurt Russell’s father [yep, that Kurt Russell] to buy and run a minor-league baseball team, independent of any major-league affiliation, recruiting a mix of has-beens and never-weres (the latter including Kurt), and using savvy marketing to survive in Portland. A true gritty underdog story. What we said: “With the game seeming to be increasingly corporate, this film shows there is another way: it may not be more profitable, but it sure looks a lot more fun.”
8. 300: Rise of an Empire. While this may not have made quite the same startling impression as the original, we say in the Sin City sequel that merely repeating the same thing isn’t enough. Wisely, the makers here took the same tech but opted for a broader story and avoiding the uber-macho posturing [rightly skewered in Meet the Spartans]. Instead, it gave us a genuine, kick-ass historical heroine in Artemisia (Eva Green), and a ceaseless palette of visual inventiveness which made for a sequel which was straight-up more entertaining. What we said: “If what you have here occasionally topples over into video-game style, it rarely looks less than lovely.”
7. Circus of the Dead. The first, but not the last, feature on the list which was screened at this year’s Phoenix FilmCon, this would also win Best Performance by an Actor, thanks to Bill Oberst Jr’s chilling portrayal of the most amoral clown ever. He can snap from lovable to psychotic in a second, then back to charming before you’ve caught your breath: without that at its core, this would have been not much more than an empty parade of atrocitities [Hello, A Serbian Film]. Instead, it packs a genuine wallop, taking the viewer over the edge and beyond. What we said: “Hypnotic to watch, and feels like being trapped in a box with a rattlesnake: you cannot let your guard drop for even a minute”
6. Blood Runs Black. Another FearCon flick, this one was the opposite of Circus in some ways: where that was expansive and explicit, this was claustrophobic and understated. But either approach is valid, since it’s the execution which matters. Shot with a crew which consisted almost entirely of the director, this depicts the gradual collapse into insanity of a woman, after her boyfriend leaves on a business trip. But is it paranoia, or is someone genuinely out to get her? The audience is pulled along with the heroine, and you’re never sure of whether what you’re seeing is real or not. What we said: “A textbook example of how a limited budget can be made to work for a film, rather than against it.”
5. Maleficent. This, meanwhile, was a Hollywood blockbuster in all ways, but succeeded simply on the basis of an inspired casting choice. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else but Angelina Jolie as the evil sorceress, yet the film provides an effective back-story, providing a plausible explanation for why she became that way. While I’d love to see some other stories told from the supposed villain’s perspective, they would be extremely hard-pushed to come up with as impeccable a match of character and actress as we say here. What we said: “Jolie as Maleficent? Suddenly, the idea doesn’t just make sense, it became more a case of, why did nobody think of this before?”
4. Mar Negro. This is the first Brazillian horror movie I’ve ever seen – I’ve heard of, but have never watched, any of the Coffin Joe series. On the basis of this, I’ve been missing out terribly, for this is a joyously excessive exercise, perhaps the goriest movie since Brain Dead. It does take some time to get to that point, but even the journey there is still a fun one, filled with quirky characters, an unusual setting and an escalating sense of something being very wrong. Then, when it all explodes – it’s totally glorious. And I haven’t even got as far as the beached whale yet. What we said: “The insanity on view is not just epic, it’s also highly entertaining.”
3. Raze. We’ve been waiting for someone to give Zöe Bell another starring role since Death Proof: we’ve seen her in a few things, but nothing has been quite worthy of her talents. Then this shows up, filling our request with, basically, 95 minutes of righteous Bell ass-kickings. It’s a nasty, brutal and vicious fight flick – so, just the way we like them. The fact that it’s women delivering the brutality, however, renders the entire operation radically original, and with Bell at the core, it delivers a mean grindhouse wallop, surpassed only by Hobo With a Shotgun in the last few years. What we said: “Much like Bell herself, it punches well above its weight.”
2. Berkshire County. After watching this, someone at the Fearcon screening said, “So, why isn’t this in the cinema?” And they were right: this isn’t just the equal of anything cinematically released this year in the horror genre, it thoroughly destroys them. In terms of storyline, it’s a straightforward “babysitter in peril” plot, that goes all the way back to Halloween. However, it takes this well-known concept and delivers impeccably, adding its own variety of twists, and giving us a “final girl” that’s truly worthy to stand alongside Curtis and Weaver. What we said: “You’ll find yourself frequently holding your breath, for close to an hour after things kick off.”
1. Gravity. For the second consecutive year, hard SF leads the way. Much the same breath-holding is true here, which opens with one of the most bravura and jaw-dropping shots in cinema history, and doesn’t let up thereafter. This is truly what cinema is supposed to do: show us places we’ve never been to, and takes us along with the characters for the ride. No film has ever done such a good job of showcasing the perils of space. But while this pushes the boundaries of technology, it also still keeps a firm grip on the core essential of good movie-making: telling a story that captures your interest, concerning a character you care about. What we said: “Everyone involved here deserves enormous praise for their work in crafting a memorable piece of cinema.”