After Part 1, and before Part 3 in which I’ll count down my top 15 films of 2014, here are a few releases from last year (in no particular order) which just failed to make the cut but are well worth a watch anyway. What a strong year it was!
Camille Claudel 1915
Two powerful tributes to the plight of two French women artists, feminist writer Violette Leduc and sculptor Camille Claudel respectively. I already reviewed Violette right here, but Bruno Dumont’s film is even more moving. Spanning a few days of Claudel’s life in the mental asylum her family has banished her to, Dumont’s biopic has a more defined narrative than most his previous films. Add to this its casting of professional actors including an actual star in the shape of Juliette Binoche (although the majority of residents are played by actual psychiatric patients), and it’s clearly a new step in Dumont’s career. But it also re-explores some of his favourite themes, of existential struggle, of spirituality and faith.
Many scenes pass by without dialogue, relying on the intensely raw performance of Binoche whose facial emotions can turn in a split-second. Her Claudel is a tortured artist wanting nothing other than to return to her workshop and her art. Towards the final third however, the film moves its focus to Camille’s self-centred brother, Paul, preparing to visit her, and proceedings become more dialogue-heavy, if only to show us Paul’s hypocritical delusions of being a ‘true Christian’. It’s a searing portrait of a woman who was shunned away for the final decades of her life, dying in neglected oblivion, and of the unjust world she lived in where (unsurprisingly) the men in her life, Paul and her former lover Auguste Rodin, were celebrated, free, and had all but stopped caring about her.
Once you get over the initial disappointment at this not being a biopic of the 17th century philosopher John Locke — and used to Tom Hardy’s delivery of a Welsh accent making him sound like the lovechild of Anthony Hopkins and Tom Jones — this is actually an impressively taut film restricted both in space (it all takes place in a car…) and time (…over the course of one journey from Birmingham to London). It’s all a Hardy one-man-show as the drama unfolds over various in-car phone conversations, with several different countdowns to add suspense and a timeframe to proceedings (a massive and critical concrete pour which has to be organised overnight, a woman going into labour, and even a football match…). What the film achieves through all these restrictions and structural ploys, in its portrait of a man desperate to do what is right even as his life might be unravelling, is more than enough to forgive a somewhat flat ending.
Widely hailed as a revitalising moment for the horror genre in 2014, Jennifer Kent’s debut, about the tribulations of a widowed single mother in dealing with her hyperactive and uncannily strange 8-year-old son (played with bags of creepiness by young Noah Wiseman), did indeed have plenty of moments that go bump in the night. It also plays on all our fears of the dark, those faint memories of waking up in our bedrooms as kids in the middle of the night and making out strange silhouettes among the shadows. But more than that, Babadoook transcended genre by taking on what still remains a taboo subject, previously handled in We Need to Talk About Kevin, namely the negative and painfully difficult aspects that can be part of motherhood. The film speaks out against the stereotypical myth that being a mother is always the same gloriously happy experience for all women, and thus expresses what no doubt many women have felt but perhaps didn’t dare say themselves.
We are the Best
That a film this good fails to make the cut of my very best picks of 2014 (set to come in part 3) only goes to show what a high standard was set. Adapting his wife’s autobiographical graphic novel, which charts her early teenage years in 1980s Sweden, Lukas Moodysson moves away from the more miserabilist mood of some of his previous films in this ode to three young girls, perennial outsiders who never quite fit in with their more conformist schoolmates. Bored to tears by the drudge of PE classes, going through the tumultuous period of early adolescence and upholding a stubborn allegiance to punk (no it’s not dead, they keep having to remind naysayers), they need an outlet through which to rebel. In true punk style, this outlet will be starting a band, despite (at least in the case of two of them) a total lack of musical talent. Full of empathetic warmth and joy for life, as well as a careful eye for detail and an awareness of the more bittersweet moments of youth (one scene featuring the self-conscious Bobo spitting at her reflection in the mirror speaks volumes about teenage insecurity). Oh, and ‘Brezhnev-Reagan’ has got to be the best original movie song of the year, although run close by ‘Hate Sport’.
Along with a physical transformation leaving him looking like a lean goggle-eyed creep, Jake Gyllenhaal channels Patrick Bateman and Travis Bickle in Nightcrawler, which is in many ways a Taxi Driver for the 21st century. If Bickle were brought back today, he’d probably have evolved into this sinister sociopath with a sheen of PR suaveness, completely bereft of any empathy, his loneliness curbed by watching business lectures on youtube, and who wants to achieve success for its own sake. There’s even an awkward Bickle-Cybil Shepherd moment with Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo’s TV producer… It’s a canny update that ends up tapping into our appetite for voyeuristic media, be it on television or watching whatever kind of unsavoury footage is going viral on the internet, or the growing trend for footage and livestreams taking us ever closer and ever more ‘live’ to whatever atrocities are happening in the world, which we consume and digest all while being disconnected from them. It therefore adds new currency to the age-old cinematic theme of voyeurism, but as a thriller it was somewhat too predictable to be a genuinely great film.
2014 was the year I was introduced to the great shaman of seriously weird and out-there cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky. Part visionary eccentric, part guru leader of his own cinematic cult, Jodo had tapped into something quite unique during the final years of the hippy era and of the ‘midnight movie’ phenomenon with his two far-out bewildering masterpieces El Topo and The Holy Mountain. His follow-up would take his ambition to new astronomical heights; he was pushing for no less than a film to change the world, carrying a message so powerful it couldn’t help but affect whoever saw it. Naivety aside, his plans for this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s cult sci-fi novel Dune (several years before David Lynch’s version) display major artistic audacity, and he brought together a mouth-watering dream-team of talent, including Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Moebius, Pink Floyd, HR Giger and many more…
Many of these potential collaborators are interviewed in this documentary, recounting the rise and fall of this massive project. It’s a wonderful chronicle of one of the great what-might-have-beens of cinema, including some animations based on Moebius’ storyboards giving a taster of what might have been (at least until Ari Folman’s stated interest in making it into a feature-length animation turns into reality). And if that’s not enough for you, Jodo’s priceless reaction to first seeing Lynch’s Dune is alone enough to make this worth watching.