Like a holiday tradition, film critics find themselves scrambling to catch late December releases or catching up with whatever films they may have missed over the course of the year, all in a futile attempt to declare the best films of the year. Of course, this is all a pretty silly exercise in attempting to codify films within a given time period. But there’s an irresistible, almost OCD, appeal in ranking and composing a list - of which I’m certainly not above. My top ten of 2014 drops on the last week of December. Until then, here are some films that I caught up with, all currently streaming on the usual sources or on DVD/Blu-ray, that are certainly worth your time.
Starred Up (David Mackenzie, 2013)
“Show, don’t tell” is the modus operandi of David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, a film of impressive visual construction, particularly given its setting. Consider the near wordlessness of its opening twenty minutes. Eric Love (Jack O'Connell), a teenager “promoted” from juvenile detention to prison, goes through the motions of incarceration. The opening sees Love arrive at the prison, with Mackenzie addressing a triptych of concerns: the visual geography and film space of the penitentiary is clearly established, the mundane procedure of prison life is made clear, and Love’s previous prison experience is demonstrated. This is confident and kinetic filmmaking that trusts its audience to observe these sequences and unite their consequences together. The film stumbles a bit when Mackenzie and O’Connell aren’t the primal motivators of action, as is the case when the film’s screenplay dominates - sequences involving prison personnel are rather useless asides in a film motivated by brute force.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, 2014)
DreamWorks’ finest achievement remains the first incarnation of How to Train Your Dragon, a film that relents little ground to Pixar’s finest. This sequel to the 2010 film is not as good, though certainly remains one of better pieces of American animated cinema. Big, bright, and beautiful, this sequel brings back Roger Deakins as a visual consultant and his influence constitutes a vital part of the picture’s DNA. A particular sequence sees its hero Hiccup (voiced with hipster anxiety by Jay Baruchel) soaring through the clouds, only to be accosted by a masked figure. The rich visual composition of the sequence shifts from bright blue to jet black, all the while maintaining an optic density that’s rare in animated films. Narratively, the film seems to be constantly trying to one-up its predecessor, and as a result feels a bit bloated and dramatically jarring. A battle between giant dragons and Vikings is an obvious source of micro and macro dichotomies that the film attempts to convey, though like its predecessor, this sequel is most effective on the micro level, emphasizing the humanity of its characters above all.
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
This summer release boasts one of the best performances of the year from Brendan Gleeson, along with a too-clever-for-its-own-good screenplay. Of the McDonagh ilk I’m most familiar with Martin McDonagh, writer/director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Based on Calvary, John Michael McDonagh is much more concerned with visual presentation, though maintains his brother’s ear for stylized dialogue. Cleaning up the frame of Martin McDonagh’s grit might not make sense for dialogue that’s so rapid and verbose, but it works in Calvary. The film is essentially composed as a series of vignettes where an Irish priest (Gleeson) is informed of his impending death, a direct consequence of the moral leverage he exercises over the community. The film is not all too dissimilar from Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, where a lowly lawman attempts to recruit members of the community to fight a returning criminal, only to find no one willing to help him. Calvary updates the tale of the old guard being rejected by his fellow man by presenting the criminal as a member of the community. McDonagh overplays his hand a bit, particularly in his blunt characterizations of the community’s vices (every member of the community has a vice that serves to underscore their personality), but Gleeson is simply terrific in the lead, where his grizzled attitude on a small town’s vices wears down his sturdy resolve.