Some months in the year are just purple patches for good movies. With the two big awards ceremonies coming up (BAFTAs tomorrow night and the Oscars two weeks following), January and February tend to be those months in the UK, where we typically get big releases such as Selma and Big Hero 6 long after their Autumn releases in the US. In addition, there are occasionally smaller releases during this period that get overlooked, and it’s nice to focus on them too.
I could write individual pieces for all the important cinema releases and other movies I’ve seen over January. I think on this occasion, with so many that I’d like to give my attention to, that option would be counter-productive and time-consuming. So I’ve decided to sum each of them up in one post instead. The following are films I saw in January but haven’t yet written about.
Boyhood – Finally, I got around to seeing Richard Linklater’s unique coming-of-age drama after missing its original release back in July 2014. Shot over 12 years as the director followed the physical development of his core cast in real time, it would be easy to think of Boyhood as a film that earned plaudits more for the sheer effort that went into it than its own merit as a standalone piece. However, this one-dimensional way of looking at it is ultimately unfair to an experience that only really works – and works magnificently – precisely because of its elongated production.
The two (process and finished product) organically go together to create a skilfully crafted whole. As the viewer you feel as if you’re growing up with the characters over time; as you get to the end you do indeed wonder where all the years have gone. When Patricia Arquette exclaims about her kids growing up so fast, you’re right there with her emotionally because you’ve been right there all the way through. The film’s greatest strength is the perspective it gives, not only on its own characters, but also on growing up and even on life in general. Breathtaking and insightful, I wonder whether there has ever been a more truly ‘human’ film than 2014’s Boyhood. 10 / 10
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Few films in recent memory are as critically and creatively astute as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s stylish dark comedy.
Starring Michael Keaton in a role that half recalls his previous one as Batman, Birdman shows us both sides of the critic/ creative divide, and confidently attempts to pass itself off as a classic satire of modern Hollywood in the process. The obvious homage in its title says as much, and it does a pretty entertaining job of convincing you it belongs in such company. Perhaps not quite the technical achievement that some will try to say it is (the ‘one-take’ trick is not as difficult to pull off as it once was), this is still an essential film, one of 2014’s best, and thoroughly deserving of its place among the big hitters in this year’s awards categories. 10 / 10
The Theory of Everything – The well-publicized adaptation of Jane Hawking’s memoir about her marriage to theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Eddie Redmayne is, of course, the film’s shining star, though there is more here to catch your attention than just his and co-star Felicity Jones’ fine performances. Ironically the film is lacking in actual theory; its sights are clearly set on a more accessible piece encompassing… well, everything, from debilitating illness to the difficulties associated with married life. I initially found it hard to get over the sheer sentiment of it all, but if you can manage that, there is a top quality film here waiting to be discovered. I really liked it – which is more than I was expecting beforehand, frankly. 9 / 10
Stations of the Cross – German film that provided a nice change of pace against the backdrop of big budget awards season. It’s hard hitting and ‘to the point’; following the life of a normal teenage girl being driven to depression by a domineering, strict and unreasonable Catholic mother who is representative of the wider church they are part of.
At the same time it is surprisingly unbiased in its message, leaving open the possibility in the end that God is very real. Acts as a stark warning to those who wrongly think there can be no harm in misguided religion; on the contrary, when you remove the human element from relationships and use religion to fill that gap, it doesn’t lead to anywhere good. Not a comfortable watch, but a crucial one. 9 / 10
Leviathan – A visually majestic Russian film with much to say about the hierarchy of its native country, to the extent that it’s somewhat surprising it hasn’t been embroiled in controversy. The fact it was put forward as Russian selection for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (an award it’s likely to win) and has had a successful run internationally is heartening for an industry that has recently felt its right to freedom of expression threatened. Was also nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and ultimately won Best Screenplay at the festival. While this may put some off who would label it a “critic’s film” with the unfair connotations associated with that, there are indisputable dramatic and emotional moments in Leviathan to be appreciated by any viewer. 10 / 10
Enemy – A curious movie that I first watched last May at the BFI in London, Enemy had a (very) limited UK release this January. If you were fortunate enough to see it, your reaction was probably one similar to most: what the hell did I just watch? Not in a bad way; rather in a “I don’t know if this is a masterpiece or just confused” kind of way. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as a History professor and low-rate actor.
The premise? One day while watching a movie in his apartment, the History professor sees this actor, literally his double, in a small background role and subsequently becomes obsessed with meeting him. Enemy was first released in 2013 and I’ve yet to come across anyone who reckons they’ve figured it out (the story’s based on a novel – The Double – by Jose Saramago, so that probably contains some hints). An intriguing film to say the least; one you must see, even if I don’t feel confident in giving it a proper rating quite yet. But rest assured: I’ll certainly be returning to this one in the near future. ?/ 10
Ex Machina – One of the most intriguing British films of the past few years, Ex Machina touches on some very interesting themes without exploring them fully. If it had gone as far as I would’ve liked (I’ll perhaps return to this another time), I think it could have been one of the all-time greats of its genre. As it is, it’s still a pretty damn good movie. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson play off each other well as the two male leads, though the true star here is Alicia Vikander, who plays the charming AI, Ava.
They make up the core cast in a film that feels appropriately small scale and almost claustrophobic in places. It also boasts a subtle, haunting soundtrack that I liked very much. Overall it’s an intelligent sci-fi thriller; such a combination isn’t too common in an industry that could do with more of this and less loud explosions. 9 / 10
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film has a large cast and even larger ambition. Shot in grainy 35mm with added effects to give it a vintage 1970s feel, Inherent Vice certainly can’t be accused of lacking ‘character’, but has understandably split audiences and critics with a winding plot that often ends up on the wrong side of disjointed.
Lose concentration for a moment and you may find yourself lost for the remainder of the film (though this can be attributed to the ‘stoner’ culture that it aims to encapsulate – and does so very well). On the other hand it is filled with entertaining performances from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro and Reese Witherspoon, among others, and is more likely to win you over with its charm than not. Does it sometimes feel like it’s trying too hard to be ‘cool’? Perhaps, but at least it is trying. Sometimes that’s what counts most, and the vintage style provides a fresh change from anything else currently on the market. Highly recommended, if not ultimately satisfying. 8 / 10