Jan 2, 2015

Top 20 Films I discovered in 2014: Part 1

For me, 2014 was a weak year for new movies.  That's not to say there weren't highlights, by my Top 10 was tough to draw up this year, and not because there was an abundance of choice.  

On the other hand, I've also seen a lot of films this year that were new to me, but which weren't released in 2014.  Here, across two parts, are the 20 best, listed in the order I watched them in over the year.

The Vampire Lovers
I hadn't seen many Hammer Horror films before this year, and The Vampire Lovers was the film that set me off to explore a few more of their productions, in particular the Karnstein films; a loose trilogy of then quite daring, now slightly quaint, but still sexy, lesbian vampire films based on Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla.

The Vampire Lovers is the most entertaining of the series (Twins of Evil and Lust For A Vampire would follow it), thanks largely to the performances which, though they are very much of a type, work well with the tone of the film.  Madeline Smith is all doll like cuteness and naivete as Emma Morton, while Ingrid Pitt's Carmilla oozes overblown sexuality.  Their scenes together are both sexy and creepy as you feel Emma being drawn ever deeper under Carmilla's spell, first through a naively trusting nature, then through Carmilla's mesmerising influence.

This is not the deepest of horror films, but director Roy Ward Baker fashions some memorable images and today the bits that might look a little silly or the occasional cheap looking set have a creaky charm to them.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum
This film is about to hit its 40th birthday, but in many ways it couldn't feel more timely.  Angela Winkler gives an outstanding performance as Katharina Blum, who is arrested, treated with suspicion and humiliated by both the police and the press after she is found to have spent the night with (and fallen for) Ludwig, a wanted anarchist terrorist.

The film is gripping and thrilling on its own terms, with Winkler's performance matched by Jurgen Prochnow as Ludwig and Dieter Laser as a journalist who sells fabricated stories about Katharina.  However, what's remarkable, and rather sad, is that it could easily be a film about the tabloid press of today.  The fact that the ITV drama about the 'odd' landlord vilified in the press in the wake of the murder of Joanna Yeates was titled The Lost Honour of Christopher Jeffries must surely have been a nod to this film.

A riveting, intelligent and exceptionally well acted thriller, this would deserve to be sought out even if it weren't disturbingly relevant in the light of contemporary media.

Cria Cuervos
A project on coming of age movies (which is continuing into 2015) led me to see a lot of great performances by children and young people in 2014, but few, if any were as remarkable as Ana Torrent.  Torrent is just eight here, but she exhibits a remarkable maturity as an actress, allowing her to give a chillingly and sadly detached performance as a young girl who seems to be trying to understand and come to terms with the death of her Father, which happens in the film's first scene.

There are touches of surrealism - with Geraldine Chaplin's dual roles, one of which is dubbed, adding to that feeling - but what really grips about Cria Cuervos is how believable Torrent's performance is and how articulately she engages with the difficult subject matter.

It's strikingly shot too, with images of an impassive Torrent having her hair combed, or carrying a gun she's found, sticking in the mind.  The use of music is also memorable, with the film finding three different registers in which to use the same cheesy, but hypnotic, pop record.  By the end both Porque te Vas and Ana Torrent will be stuck in your head.

Prime Cut
Prime Cut was a film I had always wanted to see, had owned for quite some time, but for some reason had never got around to watching.  When I finally did sit down to Michael Ritchie's film I found something you tend not to see these days; a dirty little exploitation movie with a great cast, a smart script and a tendency to take itself seriously.

This was also my first Lee Marvin film, but it won't be my last; he's impressive as a morally ambiguous anti-hero who, despite being a ruthless mob enforcer, has a distinct moral code.  Gene Hackman is odious in a relatively early role as a cattle rancher who also sells young women on the side, and grinds his enemies up to make sausage (I told you it was an exploitation movie).  The film's real find is Sissy Spacek, here just 23 and at the height of her willowy beauty.  She's excellent as one of the girls Hackman is trying to sell, who is then rescued by Marvin.

Prime Cut has plenty of memorable sequences. An extended chase through a corn field, with Marvin and Spacek in danger of being cut to pieces by a combine harvester, stands out.  It's a terrifically paced sequence, with the danger approaching slowly at first but coming frighteningly closer every second.

Criminally, Prime Cut still has no UK disc release, but I promise you, for any exploitation fan this one's worth importing. 

The General
This wasn't, historically speaking, my most belated first watch of 2014 (that's in part 2), but I'm still a little ashamed that it took me so long to see my first Buster Keaton film.

In many ways The General was familiar, my whole movie watching life I'd seen images, clips, references and films and comedians who have been influenced both by this movie and by Keaton , and yet, The General still surprised and delighted me.

There is no more surefire way to murder comedy than to explain it (except perhaps casting Rebel Wilson), but with Keaton I did find that famous stoneface, combined with the dexterity and invention of his physical comedy to be hilarious.  This I expected, what I was less ready for was how The General managed to be thrilling and funny in the same moment.  I saw it the same day as Jack Ryan, and Keaton's was by far the better action film.

The timing as Keaton uses one sleeper to bounce another off the tracks and the many remarkable stunts, especially the bridge explosion, achieve a visceral charge, through being real, that today's CGI 'action' can't match.  It's no wonder Jackie Chan cites Keaton as a key influence.

I've still got a lot of silent film to catch up on, but Keaton is a high priority after this.

Les Diables
Like most British movie fans, if they know her at all, I first saw Adele Haenel in Celine Sciamma's Water Lilies.  It was only when doing research into coming of age films that I heard of Les Diables.  

Haenel and Vincent Rottiers play a brother and sister, abandoned by their parents to the care of the state, perhaps largely because Chloe is severely autistic.  Her brother Joseph is severely protective of Chloe, and when he feel that their latest children's home is pulling them apart, they go on the run to try to find their parents.

Typically of European coming of age films, Les Diables is hard edged.  It doesn't shy way from the harsh realities of Joseph and Chloe's lives either when they are abandoned, when they are in the children's home or when they are out in the streets.  The closeness of their relationship is another thing you just wouldn't see in an American or British film, as it goes to some uncomfortable and explicit places.

Rottiers is excellent; all bottled up rage, but it is Haenel, just 13 here, who runs away with the film, giving an extraordinary performance as a severely autistic young woman.  I've worked with people like Chloe, and Haenel gets them exactly right.

Les Diables is brutal, but it's also provocative and moving, and shows off two extraordinary performances from its young stars.  Seek it out, because there's almost no chance, thanks to Haenel's nudity, it will ever get released here.

The Spirit of the Beehive
I did tell you that Ana Torrent was something special, as far as child actors go.  Aged just six here she gives a remarkably rich, mature performance in her first film.  After seeing Frankenstein at a mobile cinema that sets up in her village young Ana begins to believe in monsters, insisting the one lives in an old abandoned house.  In that house she finds a wounded soldier, who she begins to care for, bringing him food and clothing.

Throughout, the juxtaposition between Ana's real world and her fantasy world, where the soldier is a monster and she's the equivalent to the little girl by the pond in Frankenstein, becomes ever more blurred and, as in Cria Cuervos, leads to some unsettling moments.  Most notable is a moment when, during a game, Ana's older sister appears to be seriously hurt, if not dead.  The way that we see Ana process this, and the way that Torrent and director Victor Erice let us wonder, to unsettling effect, just how much she understands in this moment, is remarkable on several levels.

Ultimately The Spirit of the Beehive is an emotional and even elegiac film about childhood innocence in troubled times.  It's one of the best of its kind.

Mauvaises Frequentations
Another European coming of age movie from my research, and another that is tougher and more downbeat than most coming out of the English speaking world.  Theis one sees 14 year old Maud Forget brought out of her shell when she becomes friends with Lou Doillon, but that's a mixed blessing, as it becomes clear that the boyfriends who say they want them to run away from France with therm are in fact using the girls, especially the naive Forget.

Mauvaises Frequentations falls into quite distinct halves, with Forget's friendship with Doillon making up a sunny opening,  which then leads into a real gut punch of a final hour, which goes further than most films in digging into how awful people, even kids, can be to each other.  Throughout, Forget is outstanding, her physical delicacy and the character's trusting nature lending her real sympathy.

On the sidelines is another moving story about the earnest, movie loving, boy next door who wants nothing more than to take Forget on a date.  Yeah, I can't imagine why I identified with that either, particularly when his heart gets stomped on.

This is another film that never appears to have had a sniff of a UK release, and that's a great pity. 

Totally True Love
I maintain that Little Manhattan, which is basically Annie Hall with ten year olds, is one of the most underrated and underseen films of recent years.  Totally True Love feels like a slightly more down to earth take on the same themes of the very first time that a kid has romantic feelings.

In this case the kid is Anne (Maria Annette Tanderød Berglyd), who falls for the new boy in school, Jorgen (Otto Garli), the second she sets eyes on him.  However, she has a rival for his affections in the most popular girl in their class.

The film is brilliant on the politics of the playground, with friendships made and broken over the tiniest things and an innate understanding of both the earnestness and the pettiness that little kids are capable of.  It feels like the film was written by people who still remember enough of what being a kid was like to understand it from their perspective, rather than comment on that perspective as adults.

There's terrific energy to the film, set down in the first moments by Anne's voiceover (which is very funny) and by Maria Annette Tanderød Berglyd's performance and that's also key to the feeling that this film is talking to the kids its about in a way that's intelligent and not talking down either to them or to adult viewers.

From the outside, Totally True Love might look like a rather slight kids film, but it's smarter and more insightful than that, as well as being masses of fun.

Singin' in the Rain
As soon as I read the title I'm humming that tune, which is probably as good a recommendation as any musical can get.

Singin' In The Rain sometimes seems less like a film and more like an experiment in bottling joy.  It's largely successful.  There is a plot, set around Hollywood as the silent era ends and talkies begin, but for me the film exists more as a series of comic and musical set pieces.

I thought that The General would provide the ultimate masterclass, at least during my 2014 viewing, in physical comedy, but I had reckoned without the incredibly energetic yet graceful clowning of Donald O'Connor in this film, especially during his spectacular slapstick showcase in Make 'em Laugh.

O'Connor very nearly steals the film, but Debbie Reynolds is charming and funny and Gene Kelly, even outside the iconic title song - whose brilliance is undimmed even after being exploited in that advert a few years back - has a great many memorable song and dance sequences of his own.  The standout for me was the dance he has with Cyd Charisse, who is breathtaking in that green dress.

This is another film I can't believe I managed not to see until so recently, but it certainly won't be long before I revisit it.  Any time I'm having a bad day would seem to be an opportune moment.

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