24 Dec 2014

Best things I saw on a screen in 2014

10:25 am on 24 December 2014

Film and TV reviewer Judah Finnigan shares his picks of 2014.

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Photo: Unknown

The Top Five Television Shows of 2014

Some highlights of the year included a posthumous musical number from Bertram Cooper, an impassioned monologue on women and image from Louis CK, an enthralling riff on a Coen Brothers classic and a sombre series closer for the crime-riddled boardwalks of Atlantic City. But here were five special enough to warrant their own paragraph.

5. Broad City

Like the goofy, deranged cousin to Lena Dunham’s Girls, Broad City is what your stock NYC twenty-somethings template looks like after you feed it booze, blunts and 90s hip-hop for an evening: crude, wild, trash-talking and weirdly affectionate. Both Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are such manic, unpredictable performers that their archetypal dichotomy never quite feels familiar or fixed. Erratic and impulsive, both affable heroines and laughable losers, it’s the duo’s commitment to messy deconstruction that keeps this shit fresh. While unabashedly a loving ode to sisterhood, it’s a show equally infatuated with vulgar, madcap absurdity. I’ll happily drink to both.


4. Veep

Armando Iannucci’s biting political satire had already been killing it for two tack-sharp seasons, but it was the raised stakes of this year’s cycle that nudged Veep into a new realm of sardonic, incisive genius. For my money, Iannucci has the best comedy ensemble working in television today. To watch his cast of opportunistic assholes, ambitious weasels and hapless failures squabble and squirm under the heightened pressure of the campaign trail was both deliciously funny and surprisingly involving.

Somehow, Veep manages to juggle political hot potatoes like gun control, abortion, technological anxiety and citizen journalism with trenchant relish, but without ever losing grasp of what it is that makes its characters crack. It’s no wonder a scene like that iconic nosebleed meltdown in the penultimate episode should feel so deliriously cathartic.


3. True Detective

It still feels like some sort of miracle that one of the most culturally involving, fervently discussed television shows of the year was also one of its most bleakly existential. But the sensation of absorbing speculation that encircled True Detective sure seems to bode well for the future of cable drama.

There’s no doubt that the premise of weird, ritualistic murders (not to mention all that A-list pedigree) might have had something to do with the appeal, but I was consistently surprised by the way in which the show would often feel at odds with itself, marked by the impulse to withdraw inward, to sacrifice its own significance to deeper, more troubling concepts. The conclusion we inevitably arrived at belied a lot of that, but it speaks volumes to the cold, engrossing control of True Detective that the last thing anyone anticipated was a happy ending. 


2. High Maintenance

Technically not television but as thoughtfully accomplished as any new comedy on it, there’s still no vehicle for human observation quite so compelling as Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld’s hit web-series High Maintenance. A collection of [occasionally intersecting] vignettes that each focus on a different set of Brooklynites, it’s a conceit with near-limitless potential for both measured comedy and human verisimilitude.

This year saw some of the series’ sweetest, most memorable moments: a cross-dressing author struggling with writer’s block, a blossoming romance encountering an unexpected role-reversal, an asexual magician turning to inner-city teaching for fulfilment. As always, Ben Sinclair’s unnamed, ubiquitous pot dealer threads the episodes together with an open-minded, sweet-natured presence emblematic of the show’s principles. In what other series could a close-up of a cock and balls dunked in milk make for one of the warmest, most tender moments of 2014?


1. Olive Kitteridge

Again, I’m not sure a miniseries totally qualifies as a television season, but technicalities be cursed: four hours with Lisa Cholodenko’s melancholic, immensely moving Olive Kitteridge was all it took. A slow, attentive character study of a cantankerous old bitch, sprawling across twenty-five years, Olive Kitteridge is an exercise nearly entirely reliant on the eminence of its central performance. Thank the Lord for Frances McDormand. She lends Olive a wealth of human complexities: wisdom, humour and compassion dovetailing seamlessly with her bitterness, cynicism and regret. Even at her most monstrous, there’s something endearing about that snarky pragmatism, with her shit-spitting wrath offering a constant source of pleasure. She’s so wonderfully, tragically human, and even when the series veers into more heightened, dramatic scenarios, Cholodenko never loses sight of that.

Resisting flimsy transformation arcs and last-ditch redemption, it’s a work rooted in the cyclical flaws of our humanity, astutely aware that a crisis of character won’t necessarily translate to a reversal of it. But above all, Olive Kitteridge is about love: not in the romantic, idealised notion of the word, but in the practicalities of it, in the concessions and sacrifices we must make to share a life with someone. Much like the disposition of our titular heroine, there’s no gloss to that sentiment but I’ll be damned if it don’t speak the truth.


The Top Five Films of 2014

Some other highlights of the year included Richard Linklater’s 12-year observation of human metamorphosis Boyhood, Jennifer Kent’s creepy allegory for maternal anxiety The Babadook, Lukas Moodyson’s affectionate power-chord of pubescent punk agency We Are The Best! and Ben Affleck’s penis. But without further ado…  

5. Force Majeure

My favourite moment of Ruben Ostlund’s blackly funny festival-hit occurs as our central couple invite some friends over one evening for drinks and conversation. It isn’t long before the pleasantry dissolves entirely, and our hostess Ebba launches into confrontation, putting her husband on trial for his recently exposed cowardice while their guests remain seated between them as a reluctant jury. Ebba keeps grilling for an admission. Tomas refuses to speak. Just when it seems the audience couldn’t recoil into their seats any deeper, a toy drone flies through the living room and collides with a glass of wine. The nervous tension snaps; the cinema erupts with laughter.

While his film is littered with incisive commentary on the fallacy of socially constructed gender roles, scenes like the one detailed above are testament to where Ostlund’s true strengths lie. One of the oldest philosophies in comedy is that if you can persuade someone to laugh at something, you force them to acknowledge the absurdity of that idea. After two hours of Ostlund puncturing uncomfortable silences and spaces with his measured, merciless jabs, masculinity is going to seem like the most ridiculous idea in the world.


4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

If Force Majeure was a reflective sociological study bolstered by its comedic intrusions, then Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was the reverse: a gleefully loopy comedy elevated by the moments it stops to reflect. Anderson has been known to undercut his most oddball efforts with subtly pensive notes; the profound grief of The Life Aquatic, the wilted innocence of Moonrise Kingdom, the existential confusion of Fantastic Mr. Fox. His latest definitely marks up as one of his funniest, but it’s the immersive nature of his surreal idiosyncrasies and mannered surfaces that give the more tragic bits their bite. How could the cruelties of history possibly infect this dazzling, delicate diorama?

Anderson wistfully examines nostalgia and time, whilst never neglecting his duties to deliver the immaculately designed delicacy expected of him: a feast of giddy, meticulous formalism as feverishly animated as Harvey Keitel’s tensing, twitching muscles. I suppose you’d call that a draw.     


3. Nymphomaniac

After witnessing the aesthetic degustation of Lars von Trier’s latest, one can scarcely believe it to be the work of a man who once signed his name to a Dogme 95 manifesto. Nymphomaniac – von Trier’s four-hour sex addiction epic – is cinema of a ravenous, insatiable appetite; not only is it the apex of its director’s craft, but the finest use of said craft in exploring the tumultuous interiority of his characters. In a sense, the exhaustive running time is a tool as well. In the same way Martin Scorsese stuffed The Wolf of Wall Street with bloated portions of ludicrous debauchery, von Trier diffuses our curiosity into a disaffected numbness by saturating and suffocating us with sex.

But what shifts Nymphomaniac to potential masterpiece status is the way it simultaneously explores and further complicates von Trier’s already contentious legacy. Each instalment in von Trier’s recent trilogy has existed in a tension between external expectations and personal compulsions, much like the many controversies of his career. Here, he transplants this tension to the film’s focal framing device, the push-and-pull analysis of two perspectives, both rational and emotional. Then, as characteristic of the provocateur, once he’s found his most beautiful, sentimental conclusion, he screws it up and tosses it in the trash.  


2. Under the Skin

Here’s one for all those concerned about the state of modern cinema and its potential to invent, explore and confound. Jonathon Glazer’s intoxicating, inscrutable Under The Skin is a work of craft totally befitting of its title; you simply cannot feed on its icy soundscapes and perplexing imagery without prints left in your memory. Sometimes, late at night, Mica Levi’s insidious theme music (“Death”) just swirls on loop in my head – the creepy, scratching moan of strings clawing at what sounds like the raw audio from a slow-motion ping-pong match between Jonathon Glazer and Satan.

But probably the most interesting aspect of Under The Skin to me is the disparity between the degree to which it has possessed me and how little I have to contribute to the discussion. I could wax lyrical about the eerie artistry, the cool, detached performance, the visionary ambition, but truth be told, I’m still too dumbfounded, bewitched and love-stoned to critically analyse anything. This type of reaction is probably defensible for a work of such oblique abstraction, but with virtuosity this horrifically, sublimely seductive, it’s a wonder anyone makes it past the surface.


1. Two Days, One Night

In the history of film, there are many masters of social realism, but few as adept with stakes as the Dardennes brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc. Often times, it feels like they’ve just snatched the conceit of some cracking thriller and reverse-engineered it into a more humbly scaled, palpably human appropriation. The magnitude of whatever predicament is at hand may feel closer to earth, but it could hardly feel more world-shatteringly significant to the lives affected. Their latest heartbreaker Two Days, One Night bears probably their most constructed premise, but it’s only ever pushed to heighten the stakes – never to manipulate or define them. It’s a compassionate, open-eyed observation of the real lives scrambling inside our broken capitalist structure, exploring the ways in which decency and empathy can even survive in a paradigm that only ever encourages individualistic advance.

But by and large, it feels like our protagonist’s pending redundancy at work is only a secondary concern to the Dardennes, a proxy to her own psychological validation. This is a woman who has literally only just grasped a sense of her own self-worth. Now she has to fight for it. We don’t need anything further to appreciate the gravity of these stakes. Marion Cotillard takes us there with a glance. Two Days, One Night is indeed a powerful, vital statement on inequality, a film about a system designed to leave people behind, but it wouldn’t be a Dardenne film if it ever lost sight of the bare humanity in the cracks. If they continue at this rate, we just might lose count of all these heart-wrenching humanist masterpieces.