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The Fan Carpet’s Phil Slatter share his Top 10 of the year


23 December 2014

With 2014 coming to a close, and just before The Fan Carpet settles down for Christmas, we are delighted to share with you the first of our top 10 films, this one comes from our very own Phil Slatter who runs down his top 10 from the year, The Borderlands, A Story of Children and Film, The Past, Blue Ruin, The Lego Movie, Calvary, The Square, Under The Skin, Nymphomaniac and 12 Years A Slave, with honourable mentions to Locke, Inside Llewyn Davies, Next Goal Wins, Interstellar, The Wind Rises, Gone Girl, Frank, Ilo Ilom and Pluto.

2014 was a great year for film, and 2015 is looking pretty awesome too! Stay tuned to The Fan Carpet for all your film needs...

10 THE BORDERLANDS

The ‘found footage’ formula feels tired and overused these days and none more so in horror. The Paranormal Activity franchise may roll on as it rakes in the cash but we’re now seeing filmmakers adapt the style for other genres such as cop films (End of Watch), disaster flicks (Into The Storm) and even superhero movies (Chronicle). ?Yet this low budget and sadly little seen British film manages to take the format and turn it into something subtle, original, thought-provoking and, best of all, terrifying. Telling the tale of a team of Vatican appointed investigators who go to a West Country church to investigate a supposed miracle, it draws on the deep-seated roots between latter day paganism and early day Christianity that still exist to this day. It’s a film that is not afraid to have a theological debate all the while cr0eating a deeply unsettling mood in the most subtle of fashions (keep em peeled for a changing gravestone).

It’s interesting character dynamics engage you from the off as Father Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) is more sceptical about the supposed miracle while the agnostic tech man Gray (Ben Wheatley regular Robin Hill) is more open minded. This engages you with the characters, along with some snappy dialogue (‘Say hello to Edward Woodward’ is a standout, postmodern line referencing the similar themed British classic, The Wicker Man) meaning that when the climax comes – a nigh on literal descent into hell – the emotional involvement with the characters makes the scare factor even greater.?On top of this, it’s a film that understands found footage better than any other. It uses what works well with the format  - the immediacy of the action, the unpredictable length of a scene, the possibility of anyone being killed at any moment – yet also manages to cleverly sidestep the problems that are often created. You never question why the camera is rolling thanks to the use of head cams and the need to record everything as instructed by the Vatican and it isn’t interested in trying to convince you that the story is true. Yes it is ‘found’ footage but there is no attempt to tell you who, how or when the footage was found via some half-baked, cryptic internet site. No, this is intelligent film making by intelligent film makers for intelligent film fans looking for something original in their horror.

9 – A STORY OF CHILDREN AND FILM

Mark Cousens brings his usual enthusiasm, knowledge and diverse film tastes to this personal documentary examining the portrayal of children in cinema across the world and throughout film history. It takes in many nations and continents thanks to the fact that Cousens, as all film critics and fans should be, is blind to where a film comes from, how it was made or who is behind it. He keeps the focus though, on the various facets of children's personality from adventure to loneliness to the lack of danger within a child and their need to be centre stage at times. Cousens uses his niece and nephew as a start point and constantly cuts back to a film of the playing with a marble run. This adds a personal edge to the documentary but also underlines how fiction utilises real life behaviour and brilliantly demonstrates the various points he is making. It's an in depth and thoughtful documentary that works as an excellent side sequel to the remarkable The Story Of Film.

8 - THE PAST

Asghar Farhadi cements his place as one of the most interesting directors working in cinema, following up About Elly and A Separation with this superb, Parisian set tale of broken families. The story tells of an Iranian man returning home to grant his wife a divorce only to discover a family equally torn apart and held together by suicide attempts, half-siblings, extra marital affairs and many other themes you may usually get in a soap opera. Yet Farhadi is such a skilled filmmaker and draws such superb performances from his cast that this always feels real and never melodramatic. The past unravelled with understated conversations and little drama as camera, script and dialogue tell the story. It requires your attention from the very start as two characters are united yet divided by a glass door at an airport and you spend the early moments trying to work out the various relationships between characters. This is one of the films strengths showing Farhadi has respect for the audience as he creates a heart-rending, emotional and brilliantly constructed drama of individuals on the brink of total meltdown.

7 – BLUE RUIN

On the surface, this is a revenge thriller - man goes after murderer who killed his parents when killer is released from prison - but beneath the surface, this is so much more. There is barely any dialogue (around two lines) in the opening thirty minutes as director Jeremy Saulnier uses the camera to tell the story. Dwight is bedraggled and homeless, almost disguised by the years of pain he has felt from an (at that point unknown to the audience) event in his past. After the first development, that you might have initially expected to be the films climax, he shaves and cleans himself up, almost symbolically out of his previous state.

Yet while he is through with the past, the past ain't through with him and subsequently as the plot develops, the morals become murky, the characters distinctive shades of grey. The notion of a vigilante being driven as much by fear as by anger and a desire to protect his own is a fantastically original one, yet somewhat obvious when you think about it. This is not a 'go get the bad guy, take the law into your own hands' film but a complex examination of vengeance and the sins of the father(s), a theme that is creeping into cinema a lot these days (see also - Calvary, Starred Up, The Place Beyond The Pines, Lore). Dwight does not know much about guns and becomes unsure of his actions - Liam Neeson in Taken he is not. And here in lies much of the beauty – this is thought provoking and intelligent drama grounded in the real world rather than Hollywood.

6 – THE LEGO MOVIE

People are creative. People are unique. People have their own identity. People like what people like. So why is it, in this culture of ours, that we get stifled on T.V. in music and film with repetitive nonsense that conforms to a formula? Think of the bland, soullessness of X Factor, the generic music it churns out year after soul crushing year, the broad comedy of many T.V. sitcoms, the predictable nature of summer blockbusters like Transformers. They’re all devoid of real artistic merit, yet they’re massively popular, making millions of pounds thanks to a public who chooses to feed them cash without thinking ‘is this any good?’ and ‘if I stop paying for them, will they stop making them?’. ?Then along came a very wry satire via a kids film based around a Danish toy. Lead character Emmett loves singing the generic, bland ‘Everything is Awesome’ and watching the terrible comedy ‘Where are my pants?’ because, well, everyone else does. Yet lego was never about confirming to type – it was about being creative and making something unique, and that is exactly what the film does. The randomness of lego meant that when playing with it as a kid you could have the Millenium Falcon attacking a band of pirates and Batman could fly through the wild west. The Lego Movie creates all sorts of worlds and the randomness is part of the beauty and charm. It also helps that it is very, very funny, superbly animated with a superb voice cast. Everything IS awesome.

5 – CALVARY

Following up the more jovial The Guard, John Michael McDonagh furthers his reputation with this incredibly thought-provoking and deep film. Brendan Gleeson plays Father James who is told at the start in a confessional that he will be killed by a victim of child abuse within the Catholic church in seven days time. The reason? Because he is a good priest and this will make more headlines. What follows are those seven days in which James, with an almost Christ like acceptance of his execution, does his priestly duties tending to the strange characters that populate the small village near Sligo in Ireland. The crucial thing here is the main character.

He is a flawed man yes, arguably turning away from his daughter when she needed him and with a minor drink problem, but a good one none the less. He understands and represents a key element of the film - what religion should be in contrast to what it has become as the greed and corruption of the man has pulled sway over the church. He does not judge - characters are murderers, adulterers, homosexual rent boys, greedy bankers and more - the sort the church is often quick to condemn. Yet Father James knows what his role is - to aid, help and advise these individuals, not to tell them they're damned unless they repent or how they should or should not behave. He is a wise individual with a clear desire to do good in the way he sees fit and treating all as equals. Yet he becomes a victim of both the church itself (the sins of the fathers - in both senses of the word - is a key theme) and other individuals with a one dimensional, but equally understandable view of a once respected institution (look out for a key scene in which a horrified dad is disgusted to see Father James simply talking to his infant daughter).

In a world where we have the religious right and the atheist right both using unbalanced arguments to support their world view and in which every priest is perceived to be a paedophile, Calvary offers that rare thing - a view of balance presenting arguments from both sides to create something genuinely thought-provoking. A film about a good priest? Now there is a genuinely original idea that flies in the face of mass perception all the while acknowledging where the church has gone wrong. The bankers who caused the economic downturn don't get of easy either with Dylan Moran's vile character living a life of wealth without actual substance. The world is his but his soul has evaporated. And why does he not feel guilty about his sins? Why is a character from the banking world still living in luxury when a good priest is being punished for the evil actions of others? It goes without saying that Gleeson is superb and while it is not a comedy, director McDonagh is not afraid to throw in some laughs, treading the balance very well. Admittedly some of the supporting characters are a little extreme (certainly in the volume of them) which lends a slight air of Craggy Island to proceedings, but this is none the less interesting, moving and a genuine winner.

4 – THE SQUARE

Winston Churchill once said that 'Democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others'. That statement is brilliantly recognised is that phenomenal documentary that examines a real revolution - not a phoney one that a rock star is proclaiming - by looking at people who are as mad as hell and have decided that they're just not going to take it anymore.

In 2011, Egyptian revolutionaries occupied Cairo’s Tahrir square to try and oust President Mubarak. It sounds simple, yet this is smart enough to realise the complexities of politics and what could have been the films optimistic climax - the resignation of Mubarak - actually occurs very early on before the protesters realise that it is a regime and system of government that they're actually revolting against. No Dictatorship is ever truly one man and one man can only ever be figurehead. Did killing Bin Laden get rid of Islamic Fundamentalist terrorists? Would killing Hitler have stopped the Nazis? The answer is no and as the documentary unfolds the revolution becomes split and confused.

The Muslim brotherhood use it for their own means to get into power, using religion (a man-made system of law in itself) as a tool to garner votes. Yet the true revolutionaries understand that religion should belong in the heart of the individuals, not on a documented piece of paper, and the Muslims stand alongside the Christians in their demands for change with one person stating that the new leader can be Jewish for all they care, as long as they are the right person for the job. The film highlights the difficulties of implementing political change and that in order to do it, revolutionaries must be determined and not accept some half measures (such as the leader resigning) in their bid for equality and democracy for all. It's powerful, it's moving, it's uplifting, it's depressing, it's violent, it’s accessible and above all else, it's important. The revolution will not be televised. The revolution will be live. And then filmed and made into the year’s best documentary.

3 - UNDER THE SKIN

Chris Nolan stated before Interstellar that the best sci-fi films look at what it truly means to be human. It's a simple but very true statement of the genre. Think of the interpretations of the ending of 2001 and the link between monkey and machine, of the life and death issues of Gravity, the feminist overtones of Alien, Blade Runner being 'more human than human' and many more. This odd yet remarkable film does just that with an examination of our need for human contact. Scarlett Johansson's character is unexplained, where she comes from, what she is doing exactly, why and for what purpose. Yet that is not the point.

As she scouts the desolate Scottish land, devoid of anything of interest (even dialogue) she meets men who love to or choose to be alone yet jump at the chance of human sexual contact. As she does this she becomes to see that humans also have depth and the deep seated need for interaction that lies - under the skin. We are creatures of pleasure - be that pleasure in sex, laughing at Tommy Cooper or eating chocolate cake, but there is also more to us than just that.

It's a bizarre and poetic film, superbly shot, devoid of any thrills, underlined with an incredible soundtrack and, like all great films, a deep thinker, open to multiple debates and interpretations. The guerilla style that Glazer uses at times works to superb effect, bridging the science fiction world with the one that we know. Many people may struggle to get it or understand it for this is speaking the language of cinema and it has a very 2001 feel to it. But if you go with it, it really does reap rewards, with a terrific central performance from Scarlett Johansson in a bold project.

2 NYMPH()MANIAC

Lars Von Trier’s two parter is a staggering, controversial, gripping and deeply thought-provoking examination of human beings attitudes and behaviours to sex. Telling the tale of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who recounts her life as a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac to elderly bachelor Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). As she draws on influences from around the room the film calls into question the reliability of the narrator (note how the tale of losing her virginity is very similar to the final sexual encounter she witnesses before meeting Seligman) …but as Joe says, that is part of the appeal. And here in lies just one element of the films remarkable power – it even asks a question of you, the viewer. Why are we so interested in sex, be the story true or false?
Von Trier uses this simple notion to explore so many facets throughout over Nymphomaniac’s epic running time. From Joe and her friend trying to sleep with as many people as possible on a train journey for something as trivial as some sweets (and despite admitting to not actually enjoying the sex) to a controversial speech about a paedophile via Uma Thurman’s terrific turn as a wife and mother betrayed by an extra-marital affair, this is a film that thinks, feels, holds up a mirror and stares deeply into the human psyche.

Von Trier’s dogme approach along with the mis-mash of accents and this strips the film of any specific notion of time or place and the purpose is clear – this isn’t about one type of people from one period of history, but about human beings the world over, throughout history and our attitudes to that most basic of human desires.

1 - 12 YEARS A SLAVE

A film that got 2014 off to the best possible start, this was never bettered and so good that even the Oscars couldn’t fail to get it right. While the plot line may seem like a triumph of hope over adversity, this is superior, intelligent filmmaking. It acknowledges that this is not a tough story with a happy ending but one with an end that understands the horrors of what has gone before (the final scene is similar in tone to the cook being reunited with his family in A Hijacking). For the first time we really see the horrors of slavery on film. Admittedly we've seen elements of it before (the hotbox scene in Django Unchained for example) but not the full emotional trauma and theft of identity that slavery truly was.  

It doesn't caricature the slave owners either, Epps is brutal but Benedict Cumberbatch is far more humane. While certain scenes are very tough to watch, you feel as if you shouldn't turn away - we're being shown the true horrors of slavery instead of the glorified abolishment Hollywood sings about in (still excellent) films like Lincoln. The ensemble cast are terrific with Ejifor giving an absolute masterclass in bottling emotion - his controlled reaction to Brad Pitt telling him he will send his letter is emotionally captivating and brings you close to tears.

McQueen just lets the camera and the actors tell the story through his now trademark use of long takes but is skilled enough to know he doesn't need to ram it down your throat with ECU's and the like (Yes, Tom Hooper, that was a dig at you). It is brilliantly researched, written (the dialogue is almost other worldly), edited, filmed (the continuous shots of the sky, which play like a call to above for help, are sublime) and subtly scored by the ever reliable Hans Zimmer. It's a stark reminder of a forgotten period of history. We're always rightly told not to forget the holocaust but why not slavery too? The emancipation proclamation is rightly seen as a great thing and is subsequently glorified but this shouldn't detract from the horrors of what had gone before. Not only the best film of 2014, but one of the most important of recent years.

STAY TUNED TO THE FAN CARPET FOR MORE TOP TEN'S AND FOR YOUR FILM FIX IN 2015