My week in film: Trainwreck, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and more…

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It’s been over a year since I updated my weekly film journal here on Cinematic Investigations and in that time I’ve worked for three festivals, visited four more (including IFFR and Alchemy in Hawick) and seen a host of fantastic films. Working for festivals means that any writing I do is mainly of the brochure copy kind, so it’s time now to catch up on viewing and share some thoughts on the latest cinema releases, my neglected stack of DVDs and the ever-increasing ‘to watch’ list of old and new classics.
6One I missed at EIFF was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel starring Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård. Powley plays Minnie, a fifteen year old living with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister, Gretel (Abby Wait) in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie becomes involved with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Skarsgård) and this first sexual experience awakens for her, a torrent of feelings about sexuality, power and responsibility. Powley’s performance is remarkable, portraying acutely Minnie’s potent teenage combination of naivety and self-awareness. Minnie is at once defiant in her desire for Monroe, whilst struggling with the feelings of vulnerability that such passion creates. Heller handles her directorial debut with confidence, always maintaining the perspective of her enthralling central character. Sara Gunnarsdottir’s animation perfectly incorporates Minnie’s inner world and the creativity that she’s just learning to harness, enhancing the narrative by opening up possibilities for the character beyond what she sees and hears.

The Diary of a Teenage girl is successful in presenting a female character unafraid of her sexuality, Minnie learns that her self-esteem has to come from accepting herself, rather than approval from men around her, as her mother has tried to teach her. It was interesting to compare it to Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, which also presents a female character apparently content with their sexuality and autonomy within a male-oriented world (the office of a men’s lifestyle mag). Written by the very talented and funny Schumer, and directed by Judd Apatow (who I would only really give credit to for producing Girls), Trainwreck fails to support the independence of its central character – but what was I expecting from a film with such a judgemental title?
14-trainwreck.w529.h352.2xAmy is introduced as having been trained to reject monogamy by her father since childhood, now comfortably living alone and working as a writer for a magazine (Tilda Swinton is hilarious and almost unrecognisable as her editor, Dianna) and enjoying regular one-night-only sex with various men, and dates with sort-of boyfriend Steven (John Cena). Not an unusual lifestyle you might think, though perhaps one not represented in mainstream cinema so much, and yet despite Amy Schumer’s reliably feminist output in her TV show Inside Amy Schumer, Trainwreck seeks to delegitimise is protagonist’s choices. Amy’s refusal to ‘settle down’ is attributed to a fear of rejection and her ultimate lesson [sigh] proposes that her life until she falls in love with a nice doctor (Bill Hader) has just been training for ‘the main event.’ It’s a disappointing descent into romantic comedy cliché, where Amy is presented as just another immature Apatow-type rogue, one that must conform to marriage and children to be truly ‘happy.’ Where Schumer regularly critiques a culture that infantalises women and makes them complicit in attempting to attain sexual desirability – and certainly Trainwreck’s Amy is presented as the product of such hypocritical messages – it’s the resolution for the character that’s problematic here. How radical it would have been if Amy had instead learned to love herself, and maybe started her own magazine.
mistress-americaAnother, more effective and charming portrayal of female lives is Mistress America, the second collaboration between writer/actor Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach following the brilliant Frances Ha. Gerwig plays Brooke, a self-proclaimed autodidact who tumbles into the life of soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is trying to navigate the awkwardness of college for the first time. Tracy becomes fascinated with Brooke’s life, which encompasses various jobs including maths tutoring, spin class instructing, interior decorating and her latest enterprise, opening a restaurant. Unbeknownst to Brooke, Tracy uses her as subject of new short stories, her whirlwind of costume changes, appointments, confident declarations of advice and apparent self-awareness giving Tracy the impression of someone maintaining the illusion of togetherness. This fast-paced screwball comedy doesn’t require its characters to learn anything though they are given plenty of opportunities to do so. Rather that Tracy and Brooke are in altered circumstances by the end of the film feels entirely convincing as having come from the characters themselves. Tracy looks at Brooke and thinks that, as a person twelve years her senior, she should have life ‘figured out’ by now and both judges and admires her. Whereas in Brooke’s mind her experience tells her that the years she has on Tracy are irrelevant.

Also watched:

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, dir John Cameron Mitchell, 2001. Sing-a-long screening at Filmhouse.
Inside Out, dir Pete Doctor, co-directed by Ronnie del Carmen

IFFR 2015: The Chambermaid Lynn, interview with director Ingo Haeb

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Approaching his adaptation of Markus Orths’ novel, director Ingo Haeb knew that he couldn’t take the narrative of a cleaning-obsessed chambermaid only at face-value; ‘’it was clear that it was a modern, adult, fairy-tale’’ says Haeb. Whereas the novel presented the experience of Lynn plainly, without any doubt as to the actuality of her experiences, when envisioning the source as a more ambiguous, cinematic work, for Haeb; ‘’the distance between the audience and the character is gone, so I wanted to keep it open.’’

The Chambermaid Lynn follows its titular heroine as she goes about her weekly routine, working at the Eden Hotel cleaning the rooms with a fastidiousness that outstrips the efforts made by the other chambermaids. Lynn (Vicky Krieps) is fascinated by the lives of the hotel’s guests, and examines the remnants of their lives – clothes, books, etc. that they leave behind when they go out. One day hiding under the bed to avoid detection, Lynn is immediately hooked on another aspect of one guest’s life, when he hires dominatrix, Chiara (Lena Lauzemis). Having compartmentalised her sexual life, much like work, exercise and cleaning, Lynn is desperate to know what it would be like disrupt the order that she has created, and so makes a date with Chiara too.

Visualising Lynn’s world involved meticulous planning by Haeb, who focused on the smallest details, such as the colour of a telephone, or the way Lynn’s hair is parted, in order to convey the structures that the character has put in place in order to go unnoticed, which meant that for the production design; ‘’everything becomes important.’’ This careful approach also extended to making sure the audience could understand the origin of Lynn’s obsessiveness, through the relationship with her mother (Christine Schorn). To do so, Haeb consulted a psychologist/philosopher, who could advise what kind of maternal relationship would produce Lynn’s particular coping methods, and her attitude to sex – says Haeb; ‘’with this kind of mother, she [Lynn] would have the psyche that ‘I never had sex, but sex is done to me’.’’ Such an important relationship becomes key to understanding Lynn’s initial reticence when attempting a less passive approach to intimacy with Chiara.

Far from being the familiar story of a sexual awakening however, The Chambermaid Lynn is successful in showing the shifting power dynamic between Lynn and Chiara. For someone for whom sex is simply a perfunctory activity, it is feeling at all – rather than feeling for a woman – that is important. Says Haeb; ‘’this is not a coming out story’’ rather, Lena was cast as Chiara for her androgyny, having neither the particular energy of a man or a woman; ‘’she’s neutral [to Lynn].’’ While Lynn begins to gains confidence in the new feelings she’s experienced, for Chiara, her feelings – and Lynn’s – make her vulnerable. Plunging into something new is all part of human nature for the director however, and though we see Lynn grow and take risks in the film, for Haeb; ‘’getting what you want and going too far’’ is inevitable.

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 28 January 2015. Republished with permission from International Film Festival Rotterdam.

IFFR 2015: Director Nicolas Steiner’s Above and Below

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For his second feature film, director Nicolas Steiner set out to discover people hidden from the world. Those who have chosen a life away from the cities and communities – and the luxuries therein – that most ordinary folk take for granted. Above and Below documents the lives of Cindy, Rick, and Lalo who live in the flood tunnels below Las Vegas, David, who lives in a reclaimed military bunker in the Californian desert, and April, a geologist living out a red planet expedition simulation for the Mars-Society. Though each protagonist seems to be wilfully rejecting a normal life, for Steiner, they represent the will to survive that is natural to all of us, and created their own kind of ‘normal’ by which to do this; ‘’It’s amazing how fast a human being attaches to its surroundings and what the formula of three walls and a ceiling can be.’’

What’s striking about Above and Below is how successfully it makes seemingly ignored lives cinematically epic, whilst retaining an intimacy with the protagonists. Shooting wide and employing strategic use of a crane, Steiner and DoP Markus Nestroy convey the scale of the desert, the Mars-like terrain and the Las Vegas skyline, in such a way that the individuals who inhabit these mostly forgotten lands, appear heroic in their choice to live apart from the mainstream. For Steiner, this wide scope was essential to the concept of Above and Below, allowing him to visualise the connections between his star-gazing and tunnel dwelling protagonists. For the most part however, a looser, more spontaneous approach was needed, in order to remain discrete; ‘’we didn’t want to attract too much attention from the “outside” world, because especially in the underground of Las Vegas we were shooting illegally. We were constantly trespassing.’’

Building an intimacy with his subjects was also vital to achieving Steiner’s vision for the film. Before shooting he spent months with each protagonist without the film’s crew, which allowed the director to gain their trust, and whilst filming, this effort to respect their lives remained important; ‘’[During the] shooting period (which was over 2.5 months), we didn’t shoot that much daily, instead we spent a lot of time with them as well. Often times we went down into the tunnels for example, without any equipment. It was more “to hang out” and helping them: driving around, organizing stuff, collecting bottles, trying to help fix Dave’s RV etc. We did what we could to be part of the whole life system within.’’

Such respect and empathy for the subject is what makes Above and Below so effective, allowing for moments in which the protagonists reveal the difficulties that have come from their life choices. For Steiner, this closeness dismantled what he had imagined such hidden lives to involve; ‘’the true story is sometimes so much harder than anything that you could possibly even think of.’’

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 26 January 2015. Republished with permission from International Film Festival Rotterdam.

IFFR 2015: Interview with Norfolk director, Martin Radich

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In writer/director Martin Radich’s Norfolk, screening in the Hivos Tiger Awards Competition, a nameless man (Denis Menochet) – a mercenary – lives an almost solitary life in a run-down farm house in the titular region. Aside from his son (played by Barry Keoghan), the only contact he welcomes from the world beyond is through six televisions, arranged on chairs, transmitting the news and entertainment of the day. An apparently self-imposed isolation is explained by way of a dream he describes to his son, the meaning of which seems to be: if we try to help each other, we will hate each other in the end.

Norfolk’s pessimistic outlook is emphasised by an aesthetic that imbues the English countryside with dread. Using a palette of colours all on the spectrum of gloom and dirt – ochre, brown, impenetrably dark blue – Radich and cinematographer Tim Siddel, present us with a locale that’s neither wholly past nor present. This is a place where loss hangs in the air, the characters seeming to carry their ghosts with them as though hope is a luxury they can’t afford. Having worked extensively as a cinematographer, Radich admits he was perhaps unusually particular about finding the right person to achieve his vision of a timeless Norfolk; ‘’I wanted to find someone who wasn’t part of that London advertising aesthetic… someone who had the same philosophical outlook as me.’’ On working with Siddel, Radich describes it as ‘’a joy’’, the pair utilising in-camera techniques for ethereal soft focus, and a ‘’children’s camera’’ to allow for spontaneity on set. Melding different shooting formats was important in achieving the right texture for the film, says Radich; ‘’If you’re going to be committed to an idea, just commit.’’

At the centre of Norfolk is Menochet’s striking performance as the mercenary tasked with one more kill that will threaten his son’s future happiness. Whilst writing the screenplay, Radich imagined a ritual enacted by the character before he commences his deadly missions. Whilst shooting, the director allowed Menochet to interpret these sequences in whatever way he felt; ‘’we did no rehearsals at all, he just did what he did and it was very, very powerful.’’ Without discussing with Radich the connection he would draw upon for the performance, Menochet’s gesture’s in the resulting scenes evoke a deep, deep rage that the director feels are; ‘’an indication of how dedicated he was to the character.’’

In Norfolk the deadly serious tone is broken by moments of odd humour in the performances that play with the timelessness of the piece as a whole. Despite the mercenary’s economical attitude to communication, punctuated by allegorical lessons and statements about moral relativity, his gravitas is countered by a logical self-awareness on the part of his son, and Keoghan delivers his lines with a straightforward approach that re-situates the action in the present. Radich says this incongruity was essential for the film; ‘’the intention was always to have a bit of humour in this dark place.’’

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 24 January 2015. Republished with permission from International Film Festival Rotterdam.

IFFR 2015: Interview with Gluckauf director Remy van Heugten

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A film that is both about a very specific place, and a universally understood theme, Remy van Heugten’s Gluckauf is as precise about the Dutch province of South Limburg as it is broadly sympathetic regarding family ties. Focusing on Lei (Bart Slegers), father to grown son Jeffrey (Vincent van der Valk), van Heugten and co-writer Gustaaf Peek establish early on that their central pair have long been dependent on each other, and that the roles of parent and child have become interchangeable between father and son. Living in the shadow of his own father’s legacy and feeling the effects of a region abandoned by industry, Lei makes a living day to day, hunting and selling rabbits, whilst Jeffrey prefers to peddle narcotics. When Jeffrey discovers Lei’s debt to landowner Vester (Johan Leysen), he quickly becomes embroiled in darker and darker ways to pay back what is owed.

Screening in the Hivos Tiger Awards Competition at IFFR, Gluckauf showcases van Heugten’s assured and subtle direction, which has extracted a powerful, nuanced performance from Slegers, and a hugely effective sense of place. Having grown up in Limburg, Gluckauf is something of a personal film for the director, who desired to show the contradictions of the region – that despite the ‘’lovely image of Limburg’’ commonly known, the area has suffered greatly from the economic downturn caused by mine closures in the 1960’s, now consistently appearing second only to Amsterdam for high crime rates.

For van Heugten, Lei and Jeffrey are emblematic of a generational dynamic where unemployed men lacked the direction needed to push their own children to find careers. Developed from Peek and van Heugten’s observations and anecdotes about paternal relationships, the director describes Lei as the ‘’immoral father’’ who lacks social skills, whilst Jeffrey, having become a quasi-parent to his own father, has become amoral, such that ‘’he doesn’t know what’s right or wrong.’’ In a pivotal scene in the film, we see just how far Jeffrey has strayed from any sense of a moral code, valuing the acquisition of wealth above all else.

Finding the right actor to convey Lei’s depth of feeling was essential to the success of the film, and for this van Heugten consulted a casting agent with the intention to ‘’find somebody who feels deeply, emotionally invested in the story.’’ Eventually discovering Slegers, the director describes how the actor was intensely connected to the character and could relate Lei to his own life experiences. Slegers commitment to the role is apparent in his raw, natural performance as Lei, showing with skill the way a seemingly child-like father eventually realises the necessity of protecting his son.

With Gluckauf, van Heugten has successfully realised a vision of Limburg that is at once beautiful and barren, where Vester’s country estate – seen gloriously illuminated at sunset – is symbolic of a pastoral life that is now more hell than heaven and the burden of paternal expectation inescapable.

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 22 January 2015. Re-published here courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Returned from Rotterdam: IFFR 2015

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The end of January saw this intrepid reporter attend International Film Festival Rotterdam (21 Jan – 1 Feb) for the first time, where I was selected to take part in their Trainee Programme for Young Film Critics, alongside Tina Poglajen, Rueben Demasure and Oris Aigbokhaevbolo. Whilst there, I contributed preview/interviews for the festival’s newspaper, The Daily Tiger, sat on the FIPRESCI jury (where me and my fellow trainees had one, collective vote) awarding the prize to the best film in the Bright Futures strand, and had the pleasure of ‘expert meetings’ with established critics and editors, Clarence Tsui (The Hollywood Reporter), Wendy Mitchell (Screen International) and Jay Weissberg (Variety).

I also managed to see thirty-one films in total, write three reviews for CineVue, and one focused report on the strand Signals: WTF?! for the forthcoming edition of Little White Lies. I got very little sleep, learned at lot and met some truly fantastic people.

Solos by Joanna Lombardi

Solos by Joanna Lombardi

Highlights from the programme were Ana Lungu’s Self Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter, a thoughtful, witty piece looking at the ‘late’ coming of age of a young woman inheriting her parents apartment, that exposes the learned behaviours that oppress her. Solos by Joanna Lombardi examined the financial and cultural restrictions on distributing exactly the kind of films that IFFR celebrates, following four friends as they attempt to attract audiences to independent film screenings in rural Peru. With improvised dialogue, the relationship between the friends emerges gradually, and their endeavour becomes ever more absurd, as audiences shift from one to zero. Lombardi’s steadfast refusal to abide by any cinematic rules is admirable, and though the audience for her films may be a small as her characters’, I hope to see more of her work in the future. Finally, Isabelle Tollenaere’s Battles, which was awarded with the FIPRESCI prize, was a carefully edited, episodic piece, exposing the military in Belgium, Albania and Russia, as more useful as a source of social propaganda than a means of defence. Three talented directors that are definitely worth looking out for.

I’ll be posting each of my Daily Tiger pieces here on the site, courtesy of IFFR’s DT editors, Nick Cunningham and Lot Piscaer.

My Year in Film 2014: Tarr, Tsai and more…

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Having already taken part in a poll for the top films of 2014 elsewhere (See CineVue Top 20 Part One and Part Two), which included any film having a received a world or UK Premiere, an annual review on Cinematic Investigations will take a different approach to reflecting on this year’s highlights. Based purely on this writer’s cinema-going habits, I will pick out the top ten experiences in a cinema, regardless of premiere or release date. These are ordered chronologically, 10 being in the early part of the year and so on.
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10. Her | Spike Jonze

Two days after dreaded Valentine’s day, I saw Her, a gorgeous, intelligent, moving portrait of contemporary communication and relationships. Jonze presented a world where a kind of uniform aesthetic sensibility existed without comment – everyone and every environment seems lush, and clean and clear, and yet the streamlining of individual lives through personalised operating systems with artificial intelligence simply reveals what we know about ourselves already – we humans with our fragile bodies are flawed, imperfect and irrational.

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  1. Postcolonial Cinema Weekend | AV Festival | Newcastle upon Tyne

At AV Festival for the month of March, the theme of Extraction allowed for an exploration of the raw materials that comprise our experience of the world, with a film programme that included such lesser-seen much praised works as Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks (2002) and Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale (1971). Over the 7-9 March, artists and filmmakers gathered to share their films addressing the outcomes of decolonialisation. Highlights were a screening of Statues Also Die (1953) by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais from 35mm followed by Turner Prize winning It For Others by Duncan Campbell, who was present to talk about the influence of Marker and Resnais, and his representation of the commodification of objects through contemporary dance.

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8. Stray Dogs | Tsai Ming Liang

‘In anger my hair stands on end and when the rain stops, I launch a shrill cry at the heavens.’

I saw what would become my no. 1 film of the year at Edinburgh International Film Festival, which actually turned out to be host to other of the year’s highlights. Stray Dogs is incomparable however – a heart breaking tale of a man earning a living as a human signpost advertising luxury accommodation, whilst living with his children at a dilapidated semi-sheltered building. Technically exemplary and acutely observed, Tsai’s film left me speechless, but not for the last time this year…

Journey to the West

  1. Journey to the West | Tsai Ming Liang

… as Journey to the West also screened at EIFF. Comprised of fourteen shorts held still as Lee Kang-sheng moves with a barely perceptible slowness throughout Marseille, dressed in red monk robes, becoming the focus of attention – or more frequently not – to passers-by. Performer and director having collaborated on the same gestural performance capture five times previously, Journey to the West includes a contribution from French actor Denis Lavant, who enacts his own slow walk too.

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  1. Interrupted Revolution: Iranian Cinema, 1962 to 1978, EIFF

At EIFF I also had the pleasure of seeing four films in their Iranian retrospective, including in the programme, ‘Truths Beyond Truth: Three Masterpieces’; Forugh Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962), Kamran Shirdel’s The Night it Rained (1967) and Amir Naderi’s Waiting (1974) and Ebrahim Golestan’s The Brick and the Mirror (1965). Ninety-two year old (!) Golestan was present at the screening to discuss the film’s production, and their energetic approach to filming in the streets of Tehran. An afternoon of rarely screened Iranian classic cinema was an opportunity too special to miss.

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  1. Guardians of the Galaxy | James Gunn

It being one of the most hyped and anticipated films of 2014, and being a fan of some superhero films (X-Men, Avengers Assemble, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and the talents of Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement around Guardians. Of course it was silly, and of course it was predictable and derivative, but it was damn fun too.

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  1. Locke | Steven Knight

Since seeing Knight’s tremendous sound film, the phrases ‘I am driving’ and ‘I have made a decision’ have stayed with me, as expressed by Tom Hardy’s Richard Burton-esque Welsh intonation. A gripping, sad and witty thriller, and one of this year’s best.

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  1. Alluvion | Sasha Litvintseva

At Aesthetica Short Film Festival, I traversed the cobbled streets of York, between historic and contemporary venues, taking in what would become eighty-three short films, in genres as varied as experimental and fashion. A real highlight was Sasha Litvintseva’s Alluvion, a piece of ethnographic/poetic geographical interpretation that expresses the tension of the family holiday and touristic/working environments. Litvintseva’s aural landscape is as complex yet deceptively simple as her visual compositions.

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  1. Sátántangó | Béla Tarr | 1994

Screening at Filmhouse from a 35mm print sourced by those intrepid Scalarama folks, the chance to finally see reportedly one of cinema’s great masterpieces was truly unmissable. At seven hours and twelves minutes, Sátántangó is one of the longer examples of what might be deemed ‘endurance cinema’ and in its depiction of a run-down village, the inhabitants of which are attempting to survive during unrelenting autumn rain, it’s not a cheerful film either. However, the sheer tenacity and confidence of the framing, the length of the shots and bravery of the performances, make it one of the most memorable cinema experiences I’ve ever had.

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  1. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras

The third in a trilogy of films about post 9/11 America, the first two of which My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) were about the Iraq War and Guantanamo respectively, Citizenfour is remarkable in many ways. Following an invitation from an anonymous source through a secure connection, to meet in order to share information, Poitras travelled to Hong Kong with Glen Greenwald in 2013 where they found themselves in a hotel room listening to revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programme from Edward Snowden himself. What’s remarkable about the film beyond what turned out to be a high stakes intelligence leak, are the moments Poitras captures that show just how ordinary Snowden is. Despite a justified reluctance to reveal too much about himself lest his story become one of personality obscuring the facts, what can’t be obscured are the urgent, unplanned moments in that hotel room, as covert travel plans are made. Snowden seen attending to a stray hair nervously before leaving the building, or thinking and rethinking his message to the media via the hotel conceirge show him as an ordinary person, who, despite having taken great risks to share what he knows, doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing at all times. Rather, he has his priorities straight – a steadfast commitment to challenging the accepted dismantling of privacy regulations in the name of national security appears deeply, chillingly logical.

Beyond these most memorable cinematic experiences, my personal favourites from 2014 also include:

Exhibition | Joanna Hogg
The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson
A Touch of Sin Jia Zhangke
Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski
Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev
Concerning Violence | Gören Olsson
Winter Sleep Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Boyhood | Richard Linklater
Blue Ruin | Jeremy Saulnier
Under the Skin | Jonathan Glazer
We Are the Best!  Lukas Moodysson