For the record, several films released in the UK in 2014, including Ida, Night Moves, Under the Skin and Stranger by the Lake made my favourite films list last year, since I saw them at either the Toronto or London Festivals. (Last year’s list is here.) This year, from the intimacies of Night Bus and Radiator, to the wide-screen ambition of The Duke of Burgundy and Mr. Turner, I’m especially happy to be able to include so many daring, creative and exciting new British films in my selection, alongside awesome new works by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Xavier Dolan and James Gray. The seventh art's in rude health, after all.
The Duke of Burgundy (dir. Peter Strickland)
Boots, butterflies, Sidse Babett Knudsen… Peter Strickland confirms his reputation as one of the most audacious of British auteurs with this funny, unsettling, moving and often jaw-dropping diaphanous dream of a movie. By turns rapturous and discreet, The Duke of Burgundy is at once cohabitation comedy, dreamy erotic reverie and deeply insightful exploration of the tensions, compromises and pleasures of any romance. Elements of Lynch, Franco, Brakhage, Bergman and Byatt are felt, but the movie turns out entirely distinctive and alluring in its own right. Some people hated it, but I, like many others, was seduced and pleasurably surprised from the sublime retro title sequence onwards. Full swoony review here.
Exhibition (dir. Joanna Hogg)
No film has haunted me more this year than Joanna Hogg’s enigmatic exploration of coupledom and creativity, by far the oddest, most idiosyncratic entry into her loose trilogy of Hiddleston-featuring dramas. Boasting the most expressive use of domestic space since Haneke’s Amour, Exhibition is as mysterious as it is incisive, richly rewarding patience as it reveals its central property to be a repository of its artist protagonists' dreams, desires and demons. The film adds up to a fascinating exploration of the spaces we inhabit – and that, in turn, inhabit us.
Also evoking Amour in its attention to domestic space (here a rubbish-filled, rodent-ridden Cumbrian cottage), and - more particularly - its focus on a long marriage undergoing the strain of one partner’s decline, Tom Browne’s debut feature is a stunningly beautiful, wise and intimate family portrait, one that touches off very personal feelings, scrapes very raw nerves. Essentially a three-hander, the movie has wonderful subtle depths of emotion and performances of captivating naturalness and bravery from Gemma Jones and Richard Johnson as the couple, and from Daniel Cerqueira (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Browne) as the son summoned back to the family fold. Deserves to be widely seen in 2015. Full review here.
Unlike this year’s other big Cannes heavy-hitter, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which disappointed (me at least) with its obvious allegory, unconvincing plot turns, and clumping symbolism, I found Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest to be a completely absorbing and fascinating three hours. Seen in the middle of the London Film Festival the movie's slow-burn approach and lengthy running time were a challenge. I liked the film on that first viewing but didn’t exactly feel it. Watching it again recently, however, I was overwhelmed by the complexity, humanity and invigorating moral seriousness of a film that lays bare so insightfully all our failings, regrets, compromises, delusions. That second viewing marked a turning point in the year for me, and, in a way I'd find it impossible to articulate, I feel fundamentally changed by this movie. Deemed by some to be overly dialogue-driven and too derivative of Chekhov, Winter Sleep in fact goes way beyond homage in its close attention to interior and exterior spaces, to the landscapes of its Cappadocia setting and of the human face, and its incremental revelation of character. Featuring an absolutely amazing central performance from Haluk Bilginer, for me it’s Ceylan’s finest, fullest work since Uzak, and I firmly believe you could watch this film once a week and feel differently about its characters every single time. In addition, I’m always a sucker for a story in which something very important gets thrown into a fireplace.
Still unreleased in the UK, James Gray’s great old-school melodrama presents a vision of turn-of-the-century America that’s tough and strange but also tender and humane, and crowned by an unforgettable performance of Gish-ish greatness from Marion Cotillard as the resourceful Polish woman exploited and loved by two very different men (Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner). Here’s hoping Cotillard’s recent win at the New York Critics Circle Awards will be enough to bring The Immigrant to these shores, finally. Review here.
Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh)
Episodic, rich, subtly subversive, Leigh’s long-anticipated portrait of the artist as an ageing man isn’t quite the equal of the director’s peerless Topsy-Turvy, but still takes its place as one of his finest-ever features. Following a couple of minor, rather vapid films, it's thrilling to find Leigh working on this scale once again and producing such a languorous, intelligent, beautifully rhythmed work, one that's generously packed with indelible sequences and vivid performances from…well, practically everyone Leigh’s ever worked with, basically. A treat.
Mommy (dir. Xavier Dolan)
There’s so much that can grate on the nerves in Mommy, and you suspect that that's exactly how its director wants it. But Dolan’s latest all-out opus (a return to the feverishly indulgent following the marvellous, lower-keyed Tom at the Farm) was as exciting as it was maddening, its manic mood swings, musical interludes and shrinkings and stretchings of the frame capturing with sometimes startling vividness the ups and downs of its central trio’s experiences and emotional lives. Plus, a finale so perfectly judged that the viewer emerges exhilarated and feeling ready to take on the world.
Night Bus (dir. Simon Baker)
Like a mini city symphony film, or the classic night-road-home sequence in Michael Winterbottom's wonderful Wonderland (1999) stretched across a whole feature, Simon Baker’s great little debut film takes place entirely on a Leytonstone-bound “N39” as it winds its way through London on an average rainy night. Loved up and querulous couples, bantering colleagues and amiably pissed Poles are among those getting on board. A funny, sad and elegant nocturne, Night Bus boasts considerable sharp humour, generosity of spirit and surprising flecks of noirish ambience, adding up to a lively, very likeable London snapshot. Trailer.
Girlhood (Bande de Filles) (dir. Céline Sciamma)
An indelible portrait of a lady: Sciamma's superb girl gang melodrama gets Jamesian. The hotel room lip-sync sequence to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” is already a classic.
The Photographer (Fotograf) (dir. Waldemar Krzystek)
This year's Gdynia Film Festival was so blissful and rewarding in so many ways that even the films I didn’t like (Close-Ups, Heavy Mental ) now seem, from this vantage point, to be enriching and charmed and beautiful. Apart from The Immigrant, the best film I saw at the Fest was Waldemar Krzystek’s The Photographer, a big, gripping, rather weird thriller that probes Polish/Russian relations via a creepy contemporary murder-mystery plot and equally chilling 70s-set family dysfunction drama. Featuring a stand-out performance from Elena Babenko as the least maternal of mothers.
Honourable mentions: Boyhood, Belle, Two Days, One Night, The Wonders, The Imitation Game, X + Y, Hardkor Disko, Jack Strong, Polish Shit, Walking on Sunshine, The Lunchbox.