Looking back, 2014 has been a strong year for independent film and as ever, it has been the directors operating on the outskirts of the feature film arena that have provided me with the most rewarding cinematic experiences of the year.
As usual, narrowing it done to just 10 films has been a painstaking challenge – some films I thought would definitely be in my top 10 didn’t make the cut, whilst others have sneaked in due to the lasting effect they’ve had on me. Spike Jonze’s Her is probably my most notable exclusion from my list – when I watched the film early in the year, I thought it may well be destined for being my favourite film of 2014. Yet as time has passed, its hold on me has lessened and although I almost featured it for its wonderful production design and commanding Joaquin Phoenix performance alone, upon a second, more recent viewing I felt its impact was much-lesser than the 10 films I’ve selected for my list. Other noticeable absentees that came close to making the cut were – Fruitvale Station, The Final Member, Miniscule: Valley of the Lost Ants & Big Bad Wolves.
Anyway, here’s my ten from 2014, the list probably tells you all you need to know about my cinematic choices – I love science fiction and fantasy and certainly lean towards the darker side of storytelling:
10. THE ONE I LOVE | Charlie McDowell
Taking a break from their everyday life to embark on a secluded couple’s retreat, Ethan and Sophie’s relationship takes an unusual twist when they discover another side to their better half. A film based around a simple but brilliant concept, McDowell’s thought-provoking feature provides plenty of surprises and playfully avoids genre-classification with the unexpected direction its storyline takes. Featuring convincing performances from Mark Duplass and the ever-brilliant Elisabeth Moss, The One I Love is a film that is destined to bring up some interesting questions between you and your significant other.
9. SUMMER OF BLOOD | Onur Tukel
The majority of films in this list contain some kind of fantasy element and as the name probably already suggests Summer of Blood is no different. Despite its initial appearance as an unromantic comedy about egocentric, opinionated outsider Eric Sparrow, things soon take a blood-filled twist that feels equal-parts unexpected (unless you’re watching it after reading this), hilarious and refreshing. Featuring a captivating, perfectly-pitched performance from Writer/Director Onur Tukel and some killer dialogue – this is a filmmaker to keep a beady-eye on in the future.
8. THE ROVER | David Michôd
If you’re already familiar with Michôd’s previous feature-film Animal Kingdom or seen any of his previous short film work, then you probably weren’t expecting his latest film The Rover to be a light-hearted road-movie. Instead, what the director delivers is a brutal and uncompromising vision of an apocalyptic world that sees society in free-fall after a global economic collapse. A draining and bleak experience, after watching The Rover you almost feels as if you have been journeying side-by-side with Guy Pearce as he pursues the thieves who stole his car – and as the film concludes and the reasons for this pursuit are revealed, the film delivers its final, devastating blow.
7. COHERENCE | James Ward Byrkit
Crawling into your head and really fucking-with-it, James Ward Byrkit’s character-driven lo-fi Sci-Fi Coherence is a film destined to linger in your mindspace long after viewing. Watching the film cold, having seen no press on it – except a friend’s recommendation on Facebook – its taut and unexpected narrative had me wound around its little finger for its packed run-time. It’s one of those films that’s so immersive and so tense, you don’t actually realise that you’ve been shouting advice at the characters for the last 10-minutes. Avoiding fancy FX, slick post-production and lavish photography the film adopts an almost documentary style approach, to add a sense of realism to the film that makes it even more unsettling to watch.
6. BLUE RUIN | Jeremy Saulnier
Revenge is certainly a dish best served cold in Jeremy Saulnier’s relentless and brutal tale of a mysterious outsider on a quest for vengeance, Blue Ruin. If Taken is Hollywood’s answer to the revenge movie, then Blue Ruin is independent film’s. Replacing slick action, with inept, bloody violence, Saulnier somehow has you routing for his antihero throughout his film – even though he lacks the charm and presence you usually find in a protagonist in search of revenge. A blood-filled modern Film Noir, Blue Ruin’s taut and violent storyline is certainly not for the squeamish, but look beyond its shocking scenes and you’ll find one of the most assured pieces of filmmaking of 2014.
5. NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN | Katrin Gebbe
Originally screened at Cannes in 2013, Katrin Gebbe’s uncompromising feature debut Tore Tanzt (original language title) was picked up for multi-platform distribution by Drafthouse and released this year. The tale of Tore, a “Jesus Freak” who finds his faith tested when he moves in with a family who find cruel new ways to push the boundaries of his beliefs, Gebbe’s film is easily one of the darkest and most uncomfortable watches on my list this year. Putting their newly “adopted” child through a serious of sadistic and humiliating situations, Nothing Bad Can Happen ends up being a tense and somewhat disturbing watch as the strength of Tore’s faith brings him coming back for more.
4. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL | Sion Sono
Described by its creator as “an action film about the love of 35mm”, WDYPIH is a blood-soaked dark-comedy that doesn’t know the meaning of the term “over-the-top”. Whilst the movie within a movie narrative has been done several times before, it’s never been done with this much excess. As violent as it is ridiculous, Sono’s playful masterpiece is undoubtedly the most fun you’ll find on the big/small screen in 2014 and it’s a film destined to have a cult following for years to come.
3. A TOUCH OF SIN | Zhangke Jia
Despite picks 3 & 4 in my 2014 Top 10 list being picks from Asian cinema, I’ll readily admit movies from this region have somewhat slipped from my radar in recent times. Reminding us all just how dramatic, captivating and brutal cinema from the East can be when it’s bang on form, Zhangke Jia weaves together four separate stories of random acts of violence to create a powerful statement on modern life in China.
2. UNDER THE SKIN | Jonathan Glazer
Time for a little honesty – I think if my level of expectancy wasn’t so high going in to watch Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, it’d almost definitely be sitting on the top of my pile right now. Whilst that may sound a strange way to a judge film (surely if it’s good enough, it’s good enough right?), surprise and the expectation plays a large for me when it comes to enjoying films and even though I loved Under the Skin…I knew I would. Leaving us waiting 10-years for his latest feature (2004’s Birth was his last), Under the Skin is by far the director’s strongest, most fascinating film so far. More of an experience than a movie, Glazer’s film immerses you in its science fiction narrative and leaves you feeling uncomfortable, unnerved and even somewhat distraught throughout its 108min run-time.
1. BORGMAN | Alex van Warmerdam
Like Coherence above, Borgman was a film I knew nothing about before watching. Only coming to my attention because of a tweet by filmmaker Riley Stearns that appeared in my stream and caught my eye, van Warmerdam’s film is a unique blend of suspense, mystery and down right weirdness. Described as a ‘dark suburban fable exploring the nature of evil in unexpected places’, Borgman is a difficult film to summarise. Managing to feel both tense and comedic in equal measure, it’s hard not to see van Warmerdam’s movie and not be reminded of the work of other boundary-pushing European directors like Haneke or Von Trier. If possible try to avoid reading anything else about Borgman, just track it down on VoD or Blu-ray and strap yourself in for a slice of the surreal.