2014 In Retrospect

It was 100 Films’ greatest ever year in terms of sheer size, but it was also one of the highest-scoring too, with the most five-star ratings I’ve ever awarded and the second-highest average score to date. Now it’s time to look back over the list and ask: Which were the cream of the crop? Which were the dregs? And which significant new films did I not even see?

To top it off, you can make your voice heard by voting for your favourites (plural) in this year’s top ten poll. Exciting stuff.

So without further ado:



The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014

In alphabetical order…

Chicken Little
Disney are back at the height of their powers of late, at least as far as the box office is concerned, with the phenomenon that is Frozen. Things weren’t so rosy in the early ’00s, though, leading them to abandon traditional 2D animation for the burgeoning world of 3D CGI. Their first effort was this dross, instantly proving it wasn’t the style of animation that was the problem.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
I only gave this two stars (as opposed to one) for two reasons: 1) the rather cool cliff-swinging fight sequence, which deserves to be in a better movie, and 2) because for some unknown reason I’d given the Team America-esque first one two stars, and this is marginally better. Really, though, it’s awful: messily told, tonally uneven, ridiculous in any number of ways. Even as a daft actioner, it’s no fun.

Ghost Rider
Ghost Rider’s maligned sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, wasn’t particularly good, but at least it embraced the trashier, grimier aspects of the character (even if it was only in a PG-13 way). This first attempt to bring the Marvel anti-hero to the big screen tried to force the concept into the shape of a trad blockbuster, ending up with a Constantine rip-off. As hardly anyone liked Constantine, that wasn’t a very good idea.

Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger!
I liked the first Nativity — it’s not high art, but it’s a perfectly lovely Christmas movie. This follow-up has to switch out Martin Freeman for David Tennant, which isn’t a problem, but the new story is. Not that it’s much of a story, more a series of loosely-connected misadventures. Throw in a climactic concert made up of truly dreadful new songs and you have a disappointingly charmless sequel.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Michael Bay can make good movies, but he seems to have forgotten how. There are many things wrong with this third Transformers flick, but what’s most shocking is how ineptly it’s put together. For experienced filmmakers, there’s no excuse. Apparently this year’s fourth instalment is even worse, but it’s tough to imagine how. To quote a character in the movie: “does it suck or what? I mean it’s like a bad sci-fi film.”

Dishonourable Mention
Sin City: Recut & Extended
Not bad enough to actually make the bottom five, this recut took a film I remembered loving and messed about with it so much it made me doubt if I’d ever liked it in the first place. It could be my tastes have changed in the intervening nine years, but I suspect it’s at least as much due to the frustrating and near-pointless rearrangement of the running order. I recommend you stick to the theatrical cut.



The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014

The fascinating story of the outrage provoked in Britain by gory horror movies in the early days of VHS. Excellently constructed from talking-head interviews and archive clips, it not only tells the tale clearly but also presents spot-on juxtapositions. Informative both for those who lived through it and those for who it’s now part of history, the important message is how easily such censorship was allowed — even encouraged — and that we must be on the look out for it again. Unfortunately it is happening again, to the internet this time, and once again is being championed via misinformation from those with a vested interest. I guess more people need to see this film…

The gang’s all here for an all-eras X-Men team-up, the original cast teaming up with the First Class lot, and led by original franchise director Bryan Singer, for a time-travelling adventure inspired by the classic comic book storyline. Some surprisingly deep characterisation, buoyed by strong performances from a first-rate cast (how many of them are Oscar nominees/winners?), rubs shoulders comfortably with witty and inventive action sequences. The series that kicked off the current Hollywood superhero obsession proves it can still hold its own among the big boys that have come since.

Darren Aronofsky’s multi-pronged narrative about the evils of addiction is sometimes cited as one of the bleakest films ever made. Even if you’re prepared for that, the verve of the filmmaking transcends expectations. Finely-tuned editing and attentive sound design gradually position the viewer for the climax, a fast-cut perfectly-scored assault on the senses that almost batters you into submission. It may ultimately be grim and without hope, but it’s so amazingly crafted that you’re left longing to experience it again regardless.

Snatched off the street, locked in a bedsit for 15 years, then inexplicably released and given just days to figure out why it happened — that’s the concept behind this dark South Korean thriller (remade in America to no fanfare and even less acclaim in 2013). Oldboy mixes what could almost be a straightforward revenge thriller with weird, almost surrealistic touches, for a whole that is ready-made to be cultish without the self-conscious Cult-ish-ness that such things are normally saddled with. It ends with twists and revelations so hard-hitting they equal even the famous single-take hammer-featuring corridor scene.

Found-footage and superheroes — two current cinematic obsessions, reviled by some and beloved by others. They had to come together eventually. Director Josh Trank keeps a handle on affairs, so that the film always sticks to concept without becoming samey, while screenwriter Max Landis reveals the true nature of his characters as he leads them from low-key beginnings to a barnstorming citywide climax that’s a bit like the ending of Man of Steel, only really good.

Why aren’t there many thrillers set inside the jury room? I’d wager because 12 Angry Men got there a long time ago and nailed it. A man is on trial for murder; we join the case as the twelve-man jury enter their deliberation room. Eleven of them are absolutely certain; one thinks they ought to discuss it. For the next 90 minutes, twelve men sit in one room and talk to each other… and it’s absolutely gripping, tense and thrilling, with moments that make you virtually punch the air with excitement. It’s a masterclass in constrained filmmaking, from director Sidney Lumet, and acting, from a cast of twelve peerless performers.

The sequel to the prequel of the Planet of the Apes takes the fad for all-CGI characters and brings it to maturity with a fully-realised ape society, played by mo-capped actors led by Andy Serkis, that is far more interesting than the human portion of the story. This is a story of interspecies relations where everything could be fine if it weren’t for past distrust and people constantly bringing guns along — like the best sci-fi, it reflects our world back at us. They claimed Avatar proved motion-captured performances should be considered alongside ‘the real thing’. Rubbish. Dawn, however, makes that case completely.

Hated by Stephen King, author of the original novel, and his most die-hard fans, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation sees Jack Nicholson and family as the caretakers and sole residents of a remote hotel over a snowbound winter, when very creepy things begin to happen… Goodness knows what any of it ultimately means (I know there are plenty of wild theories — I’ve got Room 237 recorded to catch at some point), but as an exercise in eliciting emotions of dread and almost-primal fear, it’s second to none.

The sixth feature film to star Hergé’s boy reporter (yes, really) sees the master of action-adventure cinema, Steven Spielberg, bring us the best Indiana Jones movie in over 20 years — only it’s computer animated and stars a blonde Belgian chap with a posh British accent. Rendered with incredible realism by Weta, with a screenplay that perfectly balances investigation, action and humour, and direction that knows when to maintain verisimilitude and when to cut loose with all the freedom CGI can offer, Tintin is a quality entertainment. Very nearly my film of the year, but for…

Regular readers will know I love a single-location thriller, and this is one — it just happens that the single-location in question is the entire orbit of planet Earth. There may not be much of a plot (“woman gets stranded in space; tries to get to safety”), but it doesn’t matter: director Alfonso Cuarón reminds us of his mastery of the single-take, using it to better connect us to the characters’ experiences. I’m sure people were right that it’s best in 3D on a huge screen, but even in 2D on a telly it’s spectacular. It’s also the third film in my top five that’s only been made possible thanks to advances in computer graphics — that surely says something about how an intelligent use of CGI still allows filmmakers to innovate.



Top 10 Poll

As ever, I welcome your opinion on my top ten — not just in the comments section, but also in the form of a lovely poll. This year you can pick multiple options, so feel free to vote for all your favourites.

And if you feel I’ve made an unforgivable omission, do feel free to berate me below.



Honourable Mentions

Yet another record: for the first time ever, all of my top ten films are ones I awarded a full five stars to. That’s once again testament to the quality of this year’s viewing, because I felt sure at least one four-stars-er would make the list. To be precise, that was The Green Hornet, which I know isn’t widely liked but I rather loved — I called it “one of the best superhero movies of the current generation”, in fact. On the day, though, I couldn’t in good conscience say it was better than any of the films I have included. I guess that confers 11th place on it.

In total, 27 main-list films earned themselves a five-star ratings this year. As well as those in the top ten (for which, see above, obv.), the others were After the Thin Man, All is Lost, La Belle et la Bete, Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, In Your Eyes, The Kings of Summer, Rear Window, Saving Mr. Banks, The Searchers, The Secret of Kells, Sightseers, The Thin Man, The World’s End, and Zero Dark Thirty. Additionally, both of the ‘other’ titles I watched and reviewed — The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition) and miniseries The 10th Kingdom — also scored full marks.

There are any number of other films I could highlight here — my long-list for the top ten had over 50 movies on it, and at least 25 of those were genuine contenders — but two categories stand out. Firstly, after finishing the Falcon series earlier in the year, towards the end I made a start on The Thin Man, watching the first three out of six films. They’re excellent fun, the tonal inspiration for the likes of the Saint and the Falcon (which I’ve previously covered in full), but on the whole even better. Expect reviews before too long.

Finally, we all know superhero and comic book movies are everywhere right now, and will continue to be so if the announced plans of Marvel Studios, Warner Bros, Fox, Sony, and the rest, come to fruition. It’s felt particularly true for me this year, with not only a few well-received recent releases (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men: Days of Future Past), but also getting caught up on an array of recent entries (all but two were from the past decade, and one of those is only 11 years old). All told, there were 22 superhero, comic book, or related movies on this year’s list — that’s 16%. For a single subgenre — and not one where I’ve (say) dedicated myself to watching the entirety of one series — that does seem rather a lot…



The Films I Didn’t See

As is my tradition, here’s an alphabetical list of 50 films that were released in 2014 but I’ve not yet seen. They’ve been chosen for a variety of reasons, from box office success to critical acclaim via simple notoriety. It’s biased slightly towards ones I might actually see at some point, though there were a couple of highly-successful or much-discussed ones I felt couldn’t/shouldn’t be left out. Feel free to assume which ones those are.

22 Jump Street
300: Rise of an Empire
’71
American Sniper
Big Eyes
Big Hero 6
Birdman
Boyhood
Calvary
Divergent
The Equalizer
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Expendables 3
Godzilla
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Fault in Our Stars
Foxcatcher
Fury
Hercules
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
The Imitation Game
The Inbetweeners 2
Inherent Vice
Interstellar
The Interview
Into the Woods
Locke
Lucy
Maleficent
The Maze Runner
A Million Ways to Die in the West
The Monuments Men
Mr. Turner
Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie
Muppets Most Wanted
Nightcrawler
Noah
Paddington
Pride
The Raid 2
RoboCop
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Theory of Everything
Transcendence
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Unbroken
Under the Skin



Party like it’s Nineteen Ninety Nine…

It’s 100 Films’ ninth year — crikey, when’d that happen?

Expect more archive reposts (can I finish them before my 10th anniversary?), a third round of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” (it’s got a killer new acronym…), and — fingers crossed — both my 1,000th review and the official 100 Films’ #1000!

All that and hoverboards. We were promised hoverboards.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

2014 #127
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Cyprus / English | 18 / R

Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForBelated sequels can be a Terminator 2, but more often they’re a Terminator 3 — that is to say, they can be brilliant, but often it seems they’re a poor idea, a too-late money-grabbing re-hash. Mooted since before the first Sin City was even released back in 2005, this long-anticipated sequel finally appeared at the tail end of the summer, a nine-year wait, and met with poor critical reception and even poorer box office. Considering the first film isn’t just a fanboy favourite but also fairly well regarded (it still sits on the IMDb Top 250, which I know some disregard out of hand but does mean something), that’s quite a painful fall from grace. Having watched the original the night before, I rather fail to see why.

As with its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is a collection of hyper-noir short stories, connected by location and overlapping characters, that flits between time periods with abandon — this is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, revealing both the story of how Dwight (Josh Brolin) came to change his face (to become Clive Owen in the original film), and what Nancy (Jessica Alba) did after the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, returning in a more spiritual form). There’s also the story of a cocky gambler, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), taking on the city’s power-players, and a short pre-titles tale starring breakout character Marv (Mickey Rourke).

If the first film was noir with a comic book mentality, then the second is a comic book with a noir mentality. The plots are still hard-boiled, the extensive voiceovers overwritten to the point they wash over you meaninglessly, the characters a mix of downtrodden toughs (for the men) and whores (for the women), and there’s still no hope for anyone in a city which drags everyone down. Naturally the visual style is the same: high-contrast monochrome with dramatic splashes of colour, and the occasional artistic lapse into literal black-and-white.

Violent MarvBut the comic-book-ness of the first film — moments of almost metaphorical visual representation rather than literal reality, including physically-impossible action beats — has been ramped up. The value of the first film was never in its action, so the sequel’s lengthy punch-ups, crossbow-based guard-slaying, and all the rest, get boring fast. When it slips into this needless excess, A Dame to Kill For loses its way. When it sticks to what it does best — hard-boiled fatalistic crime tales with striking comic book-inspired cinematography — it does as well as the concept ever did.

The best story is probably the titular one, which makes up the bulk of the middle of the film. It’s the most traditionally noir-ish, with a killer performance from a perfectly-cast Eva Green as the eponymous dame. She also spends most of her screentime starkers, which — coupled with the ludicrous dialogue and increased action — does lend credence to accusations that this is a film made by 13-year-old boys. Enjoy the results or not, it’s a hard point to argue against.

As Nancy, Jessica Alba was somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to awful in the first film, but she’s another of the best things in this sequel. It’s not just that she’s given a meatier role, but that she seems to know how to act better fullstop. For all the criticisms that the film is misogynistic, with its women all strippers or whores or manipulative bitches, it’s the actresses who get the best parts and deliver the best performances. Brolin is unremarkable, for instance, while Marv, undoubtedly the original film’s breakout character, is now shoehorned into every story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced.

Johnny come latelyThe intervening decade has lessened the impact of the first film’s sick ultra-violence, but there’s nothing even that extreme here, aside perhaps from one eyeball-related moment. On the other hand, nearly a decade of tech development means it looks better than the last one, both in terms of the CGI’s quality and the camerawork more generally — it’s less flatly shot; more filmic than the first one’s sometimes-webseries-y composition.

Rodriguez once said he hoped to film all of Miller’s Sin City stories, and across the two films they’ve got through six (plus two new ones), which leaves two more full-length tales and nine shorts. Based on the poor performance and reception of this instalment, a third go-round looks unlikely. But then, if there’s one filmmaker who seems to keep on producing even when no one expects more it’s… Uwe Boll. But if there’s another, it’s Robert Rodriguez. That said, the box office really was shockingly awful (just shy of $40 million worldwide; I read the budget was $60 million), so maybe even Rodriguez can’t save this project.

Many critics, even those who rate the first Sin City highly, slaughtered this sequel. I don’t really see why — on balance, I think it’s of a piece with the first one. To love the first and hate the second seems predicated on the notion that the original was innovative and groundbreaking, whereas the follow-up is the same thing again. Well, what did you expect? It promises more stories in the visual and thematic style of Ghost of movies pastits predecessor, and that’s exactly what it delivers. I suspect the first benefits from nostalgia because, watching them virtually back to back, I found I liked Sin City less than I remembered, but enjoyed A Dame to Kill For just as much. It’s flawed in several aspects, but for honest-to-themselves fans of the first movie, I think it’s a “more of what you liked”-style success.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended (2005)

aka Sin City: Recut ∙ Extended ∙ Unrated

2014 #126
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
with Quentin Tarantino | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18

Sin CityAdapted from a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, Sin City is a noir homage, replete with high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, dialogue so hard boiled you couldn’t crack it with a sledgehammer, and all the requisite downtrodden heroes, corrupt authority figures, dangerous dames, etc. There’s also the very modern inclusion of shocking ultra-violence and nudity, but I guess a fair degree of that would’ve crept into classic noir if the mores of the time allowed — pretty much the point of the genre is the dark grubbiness of the world, after all.

Anyway, Sin City: The Film is probably best known for its slavish faithfulness to Miller’s original comics; or rather the way that manifested itself: the film was shot digitally (when that was still remarkable rather than the norm, as it has become since) and almost entirely on green screen, with cast members who share scenes sometimes not even meeting, and whole roles being recorded in a day or two rather than the usual couple of weeks. It helps that the movie is a collection of short stories, meaning no one person is in it for more than about 40 minutes. The point of this was to then emulate the comic’s visuals: black-and-white with minimal grey in between, but occasional splashes of colour and other striking effects — blood is sometimes stark white, sometimes red; one character has blue eyes, another golden hair; plasters or necklaces are sometimes rendered as flat white blocks; and so on.

Hartigan got a gunThe DVD-premiering extended version, dubbed Recut & Extended (or, in the US, “Recut, Extended, Unrated”) is even more faithful to the comics than the theatrical version. Some of the books’ scenes that were excised are now included, and the structure has been rejigged to present each of the four stories one by one in their entirety (whereas the original version had a small amount of intercutting). The total running time is 17 minutes and 40 seconds longer, an increase of some 14.2%… which is a thoroughly misleading figure. As a presentational choice, each of the four stories is offered for individual viewing, plus option to “play all”. However, rather than that showing them as a single film, they play as four shorts back to back, with a full set of section-specific end credits rolling each time. The actual amount of new material in the film itself is reported to be 6 minutes and 55 seconds, or only a 5.6% increase from the theatrical cut. I’m sure the extensions are great for die-hard fans, but for most the additions are all but unnoticeable — look at that Movie-Censorship.com list and you’ll see there are only three or four new bits that could reasonably be described as “scenes” (ranging from under 30 seconds to about two minutes), and then just a bunch of extended ‘moments’.

The lack of notable new material isn’t the issue, though. The real problem is the re-structure. Let’s not beat around the bush: it scuttles the film. Individually, each of the three longer narratives is fine, but when watched back-to-back as if it were still one film, the structure is unbalanced. Then there’s the shorter story, The Customer is Always Right, starring Josh Hartnett as The Man. In the original cut, his character features in a standalone pre-titles style-establisher (both for the visuals and the kind of tough tales we’re about to be told), and then a neat coda bookend before the end credits. These two scenes have been placed together in this version, and it sucks.

They've got a bigger gunFor one, the second scene belongs more truly to The Big Fat Kill (the final story, starring Clive Owen’s Dwight and the whores of Old Town led by Rosaria Dawson). For another, because this recut purports to be in chronological order, The Customer is Always Right plays second. So we get 47 minutes of Bruce Willis protecting Jessica Alba from a paedophile in That Yellow Bastard, then we get a one-scene story that rightly belongs at the beginning (complete with title card, now 50 minutes into the ‘film’), then we get a scene that, actually, belongs in a completely different place. The next full story is The Hard Goodbye (the one with Mickey Rourke under a slab of prosthetics as Marv), followed by The Big Fat Kill — and it’s after this that the second scene with The Man belongs. Divorced of that context, the scene is robbed of almost all its meaning.

I guess Sin City: Recut & Extended isn’t really meant to be viewed as a single film — hence why there are four sets of end credits, and why the cool opening titles featuring Miller’s original art is nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for that, though, I think the second scene with The Man has been badly placed. A chronological cut of a non-chronological film is an interesting idea, but this doesn’t even get that right. And even if it weren’t for the regular interruption by lengthy credits sequences, the re-order makes for a very stop-start viewing experience, something the theatrical version avoided by divvying up one story and having characters make brief cameos in each other’s tales.

Tits 'n' effectsIn the end, I enjoyed Sin City considerably less than I did nine years ago in the cinema. This is partly down to the restructure, but I’m not sure wholly so. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, as things produced at the forefront of emerging technology are wont to do: some of the CGI looks dirt cheap, the shot compositions are often unimaginatively flat, and there’s an occasional internet-video style to the picture quality. It’s not just the visuals, sadly, with amateurish performances from reliable actors, possibly a result of the hurried filming schedule. Just because you can capture an entire part in a single day doesn’t mean you should. Then there’s Jessica Alba, who’s just awful here.

For all that, there are shots that are striking, when the elements come together to make something that still looks fresh and creative even after nearly a decade of the film’s visual tricks being emulated by lesser movies or integrated into general cinematic language. One thing that struck me was that the most memorable moments were all from the trailer — Sin City did have one helluva trailer. The stories and characters aren’t bad, thanks to the hyper-noir style being a deliberate choice, though perhaps it sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. Maybe, again, this is the fault of watching the longer cut; maybe there’s just a little too much of it in any version.

Quite often an extended cut will become the definitive version of a film — these days, it’s often a way to get the originally-intended cut past a studio who insist on a shorter running time or PG-13 certificate; or it’s a chance to revisit and improve a project that hadn’t quite worked. Not so with Sin City. This is a version for fans of the books who want to see every last drop included… but even then it falls short, because apparently a few moments are still nowhere to be found. That yellow so-and-soNone of the present additions are game-changing, and though some are good in their own way, there’s nothing noteworthy enough to compensate for the destruction of the original cut’s well-balanced structure. For the average punter — and certainly for the first-time viewer — the theatrical cut is unquestionably the way to go.

4 out of 5

This year’s sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended received a “dishonourable mention” on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

The Spirit (2008)

2014 #89
Frank Miller | 98 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG-13

The SpiritComic book creator Frank Miller brings what he learnt co-directing Sin City to this adaptation of Will Eisner’s classic newspaper strip. Turns out, that’s not much.

Miller aims for a pulpy but satirical tone, a stylistic choice many misunderstood. Sadly, even when spotted, the execution doesn’t coalesce. Gabriel Macht is a limp lead; famous co-stars overact; visually it’s a Sin City rip-off… Castle’s Stana Katic as an eager rookie is the best thing in it (that might just be me…)

There’s the seed of a fantastic idea in Miller’s vision of The Spirit, but it germinates as an amateurish wannabe.

2 out of 5

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is released on DVD and Blu-ray today.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.


* The Spirit was trimmed by 25 seconds to get a 12A for UK cinemas. The Blu-ray release is branded as an “Extended Cut” but is merely the uncut original, and is rated 15. This was the version shown on TV. ^