Looking back on this year as a casual film viewer, I have watched too many films. That's not to boast, but having decided to stick to one film a day from the mid-year on, there's been an apparent issue that many films, especially ones that are impossible to see on physical media, I have proclaimed to be great from the early months have vanished from memory completely. It could be an issue of how long a year actually is. It could be a result of too much stimuli to sort through - I am an anomaly that the idea of a film marathon or a film festival is an insane, terrible way to view the movies, seeing five or more films one after another liable to mangle your ability to gauge which was good or not. It could be, frankly, a reflection of how first opinions are hollow. Some films need a second chance, but there were films, difficult to see, that have made a lasting first impression which will be seen in the lists below, suggesting that only when the films linger are they truly the best.
I have not seen enough films to create a decent Best of 2014 list. I intend to create one, mind, catching up with the releases, but only those I want to see, and rather than throw a list out immediately without though at the end of the year, I'd rather take a while even if its when everyone else is writing their Best of 2015 lists. Instead I'll look at the first time watches, not just films, any format of viewing them, that have stood out in an award special just for the sake of my amusement. As long as they wouldn't qualify for a Best of 2014 list, anything can qualify. Since it'll be long, this'll be the first part below...
Best DVD Label: Arrow
One disappointment is that Second Run, another great company, has been neglected by myself this year, whose tantalising releases for this year will be caught up with. But Masters of Cinema, the BFI and Arrow scored some incredible releases, many I still need to get to, Arrow by a country mile winning for that many things they've managed to do. Their project for Walerian Borowcyzk to be critically reassessed completely in Britain is enough by itself to get the award, but the categories you'll over the parts of this special will contain a lot of their hard work.
If there is one concern, as someone who has to be careful economically which how much I buy, there is a danger of physical media becoming incredible expensive and inaccessible for casual buyers to discover these films for the first time. The market will need new people to discover how wide and diverse cinema can be, and expensive releases and limited editions can be problematic, as well for myself with a small budget at hand, in preventing a wider audience from being created. You cannot merely depend on a hardcore fan base, even if it's meant the great releases we've had, so if there was a greater balance in cost and access in 2015 it would be for the best for all of us. That Arrow has decided to create an American branch of their business could be a risk but could also help in this issue, opening the floodgates for a wider selection of films to view.
Best Production Design:
Winner: Careful (Guy Maddin, 1992)
Honourable Mentions: Youth of the Beast (Suzuki Seijun, 1963); Kaiba (Yuasa Masaaki, 2008/Anime Series); French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954); Eden and After (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1970)
As the later categories will show, I discovered, or properly introduced myself, to individuals that appeal to everything I find great in film and motion picture art. Animation, as much as live action, is capable of taking you into new worlds, as all the films and one series in this section can attest to. Its befitting to this category that I have a film from the director of the notorious Branded To Kill (1967) here, at the moment he would get to that film, the moment when he has a gang member's flat have airplanes on mass dangling from the ceiling obstructing the space of the main protagonist. Be it 1890s Paris in all its bright colours, of Tunisia, or the far reaches of space and numerous planets where memories of individuals float in their own milky ways, the possibilities of what you can do in the medium makes the obsession with realism in modern cinema baffling and even more patience inducing, more so when the best examples of production design are as capable of showing the real world beyond the cinema without needing to be puritanical in aesthetics. That all the works here have distinct colour schemes is as much a rebellion for myself from shit browns and greys you get in many films recently. The winner couldn't be beaten, a mountain community where silent is golden, taking inspiration from early cinema but transforming it into a strange, richly detailed world of oddballs and haunting locations. Guy Maddin may not have won many awards for this special, but he is the patron saint for this sight finally seeing most of his back catalogue in one giant viewing gulp this year.
Films that were also considered were Rubber's Lover (1996), the original King Kong (1933), Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (1971) and the other Yuasa Masaaki anime series of the year Kemonozume (2006).
Winner: Wakakusa Kei (Kemonozume (Yuasa Masaaki, 2006/Anime Series))
Honourable Mentions: Yoshida Kiyoshi (Kaiba (2008)); Nagashima Hiroyuki (964 Pinocchio (Fukui Shozin, 1991)); Jon Newton (Unhinged (Don Gronquist, 1982)); Lauren Kirk (Young Man with a Horn (Michael Curtiz, 1950))
Music can be lyrical and it can also be pure noise, and importantly for this category, I'm also thinking of the additional music along with the work of the composers mentioned in being factors for these works inclusion. What matters is if it sticks out and adds to the visuals, draws you in atmospherically. The high level of Japanese entries says a lot, as it proves anime director Yuasa Masaaki has a knack for great music in his work; that's including having opening title songs that, rather than poor J-pop, have something magical in them, the utterly captivating one for Kaiba and the one for winner Kemonozume that most live action movie would kill to have. Beautiful, sweet music to the hard, life affirming jazz, to glitch electronic. And then there's the one that may feel out of place, the drones of the former Video Nasty and low budget slasher Unhinged, a film many would dismiss as a poor film, but a surprise, a great deal of why its memorable because of the eeriness of Newton's droning keyboard sounds. It may put many off, but something as simple as atonal notes can mean a lot in adding to a film.
Winner: James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957))
Honourable Mentions: Guy Durban (Goto, Island of Love (Walerian Borowcyzk, 1968); Michel Kelber (French Cancan (1954)); Ennio Guarnieri (The Garden of the Finzi Contini (Vittorio De Sica, 1970)); Henry Sharp (The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928))
There could only be one winner, and there were so many films, including those I removed from the short list above, that were exceptional in this category. I learnt of him viewing John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966) last year, and visiting one of the most critically acclaimed films in his filmography, James Wong Howe's work in Sweet Smell of Success is clearly that of a master, a black and white film where the textures of monochrome are fully felt and the environments feel three dimensional as you watch Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster duel with words of venom, a noir mood of threat around newspaper journalists out for blood. So many films could've been included, but keeping to five films, including the winners, for each category, it was a painful but a necessary thing to choose the best of the best. The one that has added meaning in the honourable mentions is The Crowd, one of the many publically unavailable films I saw in the earliest part of the year in mass with other films, one I dismissed as the weakest of those viewings, but is one of the only few to have survived in memory while others I praised higher have vanished from memory. Its tender, thoughtful tone, even if naive, has stayed with me, as has the cinematography, over ninety years old yet still bold and throwing a gauntlet down to films barely five years old now to do better in evoking a world onscreen. It is a fitting irony its lasted in memory, grown, when I felt it was disappointing originally, and says a lot why it's as critically acclaimed as it is.
Other films considered for Best Cinematography were Tout Va Bien (1971), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and its incredible use of first person sequences, Rubber’s Lover (1996), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), Barton Fink (1991), Medea (1969), Upstream Color (2013), Assassination (1964), The Horse Thief (1986), White of the Eye (1987) and Morgiana (1972).
Winners: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success (1957))
Honourable Mentions: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette (La Belle noiseuse (Dir. Jacques Rivette, 1991)); Kikushima Ryuzo and Tanaka Tomoyuki (Sanjuro (Kurosawa Akira, 1962)); Albert Zugsmith (The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk, 1957)); The Joel and Ethan Coen (Barton Fink (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1991))
The lengthy conversations between painter and his subject that last for what feels like an hour, always compelling; the deliciously funny parody of Yojimbo (1961) and the mocking of honour codes as rebelling samurai hide in the wardrobe like baffled sheep as Mifune Toshiro strides onwards with the right ideas at the right time; the pulp romance as Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone fall in love behind her husband Robert Stack's back; and director-writers expressing writer's block through a mix of horror, the abstract and desperate comedy as an acclaim stage writer unravels trying to write a film script. But you hear a line like "I'd hate to take a bite outta you. You're a cookie full of arsenic." and you realise whose won by a clear mile despite stiff competition. You don't ignore dialogue this nuanced in its nastiness especially when the film around it still has a sting fifty years or more later.
A film that were also considered was Dead & Buried (1981), Ronald Shusett and Dan O'Bannon spinning a compelling little horror story that adds the grittier, nastier content of the eighties onwards.
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Lauren Becall (Young Man With A Horn (1950))
Honourable Mention: Shelley Duvall (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (Guy Maddin, 1997))
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: John Wayne (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962))
Honourable Mentions: Hijikata Tatsumi (Horrors of Malformed Men (Ishii Teruo, 1969)); John Goodman (Barton Fink (1991)); Frank Gorshin (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997))
The discrepancy, in quantity, in actresses to actors in both main and supporting categories is utterly disappointed for myself. It shows I need to keep an eye on great performances by women more. But as it stands, seeing Duvall in a Maddin film was something special, especially as she and Frank Gorshin were utterly memorable in their roles, why they're in their categories, and part of why, for a film viewed as a disappointment, I've become immensely fond of Guy Maddin's Twilight of the Ice Nymphs immensely.
For Best Supporting Actress, it is saddening she passed this year, but it's fitting to say that I have fallen in love with Lauren Becall, as a talented actor and as an individual onscreen in a film like Young Man With A Horn. In all the films I've seen her in, she has never felt like she is playing a weak female character, and even if she is technically a villain in Young Man With A Horn, you sympathise with her as a deeply flawed person because of how good an actress she is. As for best supporting actor, you have John Goodman being Satan incarnate, yet strangely understandable in his psychological problems, Gorshin being a sweet, kooky eccentric, and the masterstroke of casting the creator of the avant-garde dance Butoh, Hijikata Tatsumi, in a transgressive Edogawa Rampo mindfuck, allowed to both use his dance style in his character, and transform a Doctor Moreau figure into a deranged mass of guttural proclamations and spasming twitches as he lolls around on jagged rocks on the beach of his island of artificially created "freaks", something you'd never forget after witnessing. But it has to go to one person; regardless of his politics, regardless of anything that could be said about him off camera, John Wayne is loved because he played men onscreen who are noble even if they are ruffians, and especially in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the meaning gained with what his character does for another played by James Stewart more significant because of the charisma and heart he shows in the role.
Best Supporting Actor entries considered also included Jack Albertson in Dead & Buried (1981) and Kase Ryô in Like Someone in Love (2012).
Worse Viewing Experience of the Year
Winner: Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
Honourable Mention: Tokko (Abe Masashi, 2006/Anime Series); Dracula In Istanbul (Mehmet Muhtar, 1953); Big Tits Zombie (Nakano Takao, 2010) & Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (Tomomatsu Naoyuki and Nishimura Yoshihiro, 2009); The Devil's Business (Sean Hogan, 2011).
Unfortunately for every good film you see, there are also terrible experiences, and for me the worse aren't badly made, but those that inspire nothing emotionally for me. For the final category for this part of this special, it's worth tackling what was the worse and what I can learn from it. The obvious lesson is that irony ruins films. Two Japanese entries qualify for one, both Big Tits Zombie and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl showing when you stop caring and languish in being cheap and dumb on purpose; even with their ridiculous titles and base desires, they could've been special if they weren't laughing at themselves and undercutting an earnestness they might've had. Compare them to the very low budget, but sweet and fun pinku softcore film The Strange Saga of Hiroshi the Freeloading Sex Machine (2005), which beats them to a pulp just with having the better title, and great strange films from Japan still exist, but they're being compromised by those purposely catering to the West rather than be what the director desires them to be. Irony, and when people try to be smart arsed with their film knowledge, is what also killed any good Sexy Killer (2008) might've had, which didn't get into the honourable mentions, worse because it's a film that could've been the quirky, Spanish sister to a film like May (2002), female characters on the outskirt of normalcy you get to cheer on. Instead you get another damned movie which references zombie films in dialogue and tires me. The other lesson is that, even if the promise is there, sometimes you'll be disappointed, a Turkish Dracula film that is utterly tedious to sit through when what you imagine in your head is a superior movie in every way. As for The Devil's Business, I want to see more films released by the American company Mondo Macabro, but I'm baffled why they picked up this film, a dull British horror film that shouldn't have any critical praise like it has done; even baring in mind its micro budget and the earnestness in making it, the lack of anything fresh or interesting is not acceptable whether it's a debut feature or your second.
It's neither only films either. I admit I only finished it just before Christmas, but if I'm allowed one hollow first opinion, I want to mention the 2006 anime Tokko once and kick its head in mercilessly. About demon slayers who are part demon, the first scenes after the opening credits, when it goes to quirky sex comedy, were a sobering realisation that this was going to be painful to sit through for all thirteen episodes. Along with live action cinema, I've realised that while great works are still made, from the 2000s onward to now, the quality barrier for even trash has been lost. Cheap, nasty looking digital animation, a haphazard script that is full clichés crushed down to their most lifeless forms, cramming in plot moments just before something is meant to be profound, all the bad things that you get in anime more from the Millennium onwards, and even botching its finale in a random clutter of scenes. It was an attempt to be a throwback to older, more adult anime of the nineties - gore, nudity and even the inexplicable fact that one of the female characters prefers being topless except for a biking jacket for the most part - but it feels fangless, with none of the perversity of older anime or anything that's actually good.
Yet the actual winner is something worse in terms of the morals behind it while better made technically, controversially choosing Thor, one of the Marvel Universe films, for the reason that, barring the sumptuous production design, what you have is the same clichés of a hero learning to become a better person regurgitated without meaning to it, its attempt at profundity merely a label for a visual food product. spending God knows how much money to make what is effectively a trailer for another trailer with no climatic end. By itself, and what it was meant to be a trailer for, The Avengers (2012), it's a thinly structured b-movie that Roger Corman would've wanted re-shots done for to boost up the action quota if he was its producer. This could easily come off as a snob dismissing multiplex cinema as I write this, but it comes off more from someone who wants to go to the multiplex more often but finds most blockbusters dull, done better in a pulp stories from the turn-of-the-century or an older more "reprehensible" b-flick, and looks on like Alan Moore in horror at how much money is spent on these comic book films, not just compared to how much comic books are made for in comparison, but for such little spectacle you actually get at the end for all that money. Norse mythology of Scandinavia has so much that could be shown onscreen that would, like any mythology and all religions, that you could create such incredible, and entertaining, films as a result, but few blockbusters and mainstream films, like Thor, actually use it, instead reducing it to something tedious and bland. Stories of Odin riding a eight legged horse, backstabbing and betrayals, Valkyries and Valhalla, runes and Norse symbols, bizarre incidents like Thor tricking frost giants by pretending to be a bride and dressing up as a woman to get his stolen hammer back, the strange, majestic folktales full of such details and idiosyncrasies that people have spun out over centuries, that would be fun to see onscreen, and instead you get great actors in Idris Elba and Asano Tadanobu twiddling their thumbs and merely saying exposition in silly armour instead of seeing Ragnarok and monstrous dragons. The waste of such material and money is the real reason, above all else, that Thor was painful to watch, the fact that these Marvel Universe films are seen as high art of entertainment horrifying the more I think about it for how piss poor they are in telling a good story rather than any snobbish attitude to being entertained. I can imagine actually Vikings at a banquet throwing their tankards at Kenneth Branagh, who should've known better as an adaptor of Shakespeare plays, for telling such a dull story halfway through, had him dragged off the stage, and someone else tell one that was actually fun and had more frost giant fights instead.