14. The Rover
The opening twenty minutes of writer-director David Michôd’s sophomore effort was one of the most gripping and taut introductions of any film released in 2014.
A weary and dishevelled man, Eric (Guy Pearce), sits inside a makeshift bar on a desolate outback road. Meanwhile, a 4×4 carrying three anxious criminals fleeing a botched heist approaches and control of their vehicle is lost causing it to overturn just outside. The criminals flee their temporarily immobilized 4×4 and make off with Eric’s car.
From then on, The Rover focuses upon Eric forcing the twitchy and simple-minded Rey (Robert Pattinson) to take him to his brother’s residence so he can retrieve his stolen car and the unlikely camaraderie which they develop on the way.
Set in a barren dystopian future, “10 years after the collapse”, in which every scene is rife with flies buzzing over some off-screen putrefaction, The Rover reveals itself to be a violent, nihilism-soaked, post-apocalyptic road/buddy movie – something of a much more sobering and bleak Mad Max film.
13. Grand Piano
A gripping minimalist thriller in which a virtuoso pianist (Elijah Wood) discovers that a sniper (John Cusack) has a bead on him from up high in the venue in which he is playing and will pull the trigger if he gets just one note wrong during his live comeback performance.
Grand Piano is a film which echoes Hitchcock’s tightly set compact thrillers such as Lifeboat (1945), Rope (1948), and Rear Window (1954) but also packs the frame-filling flair of De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) or Blow Out (1981). It may wear its influences on its wrists, but it still carves itself a rather unique brand of tension, no matter how preposterous it all may seem.
Because most of the action takes place from the piano seat, the filmmakers cleverly generate simple but effective thrills through the cascading diegetic symphony and tight editing, as well as Cusack’s constant threats coming through Wood’s earpiece, reminding him of just how costly one error will be.
International treasure and perpetual internet phenomenon, Nicolas Cage, is often regarded for some of his more ‘eccentric’ film performances as of late. But this notoriety actually serves to discredit how good an actor he can actually be and Joe is a prefect exemplification of this.
Cage portrays the eponymous character, a ruffian foreman of a local lumber crew who is held as something of an affable hero to the townsfolk but is actually an alcoholic shell of a man who has frequent run-ins with the law. When a drifter, Gary (Tye Sheridan), moves to the area with his poor family and violent father, Joe takes a shine to him and gives him a job but is tested when the father begins to beat Gary and take his salary.
Shot on a considerably low budget and featuring many non-actor locals who were cast (notably Gary’s father portrayed by Gary Poulter, a homeless man picked off the streets of Texas who sadly died after filming wrapped), Joe is raw tale full of naturalistic performances which bolster its sympathetic core as well as featuring Cage’s best work since The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009).
Much like The Borderlands (which we shall come to soon), Creep shows that there is still a lot of hope left for found-footage films when it is in the right set of hands, as director Patrick Brice has proven here.
When a videographer (the director, Brice) answers a Craigslist ad for a one-day job in the outer-exurbs which involves filming a terminally ill man for a video to give to his unborn son, he quickly finds that his overly-erratic client (Mark Duplass) is a severely disturbed individual.
Again, much like The Borderlands, it may not bust every single barrier and limitation endemic in its sub-genre, but the sheer unpredictable nature of Duplass’ performance is often a humorous treat and the bluntly shocking ending will leave you totally stunned.
10. Late Phases
Late Phases is an admirably restrained – and dare one say it, sweet – horror film with a deep-rooted emotional core, but this is also a film that doesn’t slack off on the bloodshed when the claws come out…
Nick Damici takes a break from working with his usual collaborator, Jim Mickle, and here stars as Ambrose – an old, blind Vietnam Veteran with unresolved family issues. However, Ambrose’s life is given new purpose when he learns that his neighbours are being killed off by a local Werewolf; he begins to prepare for the impending attack and sniff out which member of his community is hiding the ‘beast within’ before the full moon rises again.
Damici’s, gruff, Eastwood-like and often humorous performance is perfection, made even better by the fact he has portrayed a blind person so very convincingly. As well as this, the film can also be credited for relying heavily on practical effects rather than banal CGI for the monster effects and for giving the Werewolves a unique gait – both of which are showcased during the gloriously nasty climax.
Overall, Late Phases is a solid horror effort and one of the best Werewolf films in years.
9. Blue Ruin
A seemingly unique and minimalist take on revenge thrillers as it features a vagrant protagonist who essentially does not fully know what he is doing, but who is desperate for retribution for the death of his parents.
The film dwells heavily upon the efforts which the anti-hero, Dwight (Macon Blair), puts into his plot for revenge; every detail of his ‘mission’ is accounted – something that really puts the audience in the character’s jolted and semi-competent mind-set unlike any other revenge thriller.
The bedraggled anti-hero rides his luck for the most part as his kills are far from clean and his progress is largely dictated by luck other than anything else, but its Blair’s truly engrossing performance of his increasingly perturbed character that creates a palpable edginess which permeates through the rest of the film.
The notion of religion (namely Catholicism) becoming somewhat antiquated as it slowly dissipates from society and the implied cynicism that is often attracts is at the very heart of Calvary, John Michael McDonagh’s dark comedy follow-up to his acclaimed debut, The Guard (2011).
In the opening scene, Father James (a stellar Brendan Gleeson) is promised by a mystery man at confession – who suffered child-abuse at the hands of a now-dead priest – that he is going to kill him in a week’s time (on a Sunday no less). Instead of going to the authorities, James spends what may be his last days going about his usual business – trying to be a good priest. However, this is often thrown back in his face by the satellite of townsfolk who mostly take pleasure in mocking him or who have problems which simply disgust and disenchant James.
Despite the film’s heavy and anger-filled religious themes, it does not struggle in finding only the darkest of gallows humour to keep the film lively as well as being provocative, eloquent and altogether perfectly balanced in its tone.
Ultimately, Calvary is a mesmerising yet anger-filled film with obvious implied allusions to the western genre (the pub/saloon, a showdown of sorts, and the idea of religion equating to civilization being flipped on its head). Certainly one of 2014’s very best films.