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The Congress
The CongressCourtesy of Pandora Filmproduktion

The most visually stimulating films of 2014

From the scorching deserts of Tracks to the dizzying heights of Interstellar, we chart the year's most optical movie moments

A mind-melting spectacle doesn’t need to star Angelina Jolie dressed as a witch, nor does it need to come packaged up with a trillion dollars worth of special effects. The real magic is in the pieces of work that weave mind-bending visuals, beautiful backdrops or insane attention to detail in to their stories. In the most exquisite cases, a film’s visual beauty can make even a bad script or lukewarm performance forgivable.

2014 had some big shoes to fill. Last year gave us Gravity, Spring Breakers, Stoker and a whole host of others that were still worthy of an Instagram post if you paused them at any point. Luckily, as this year unfolded, cinema-goers have been left with a diverse mix of cinematic moments to obsess over. We’ve had minimal, futuristic, historic and just plain surreal. From Mia Wasikowska lost in a scorching, seemingly infinite Australian desert in Tracks to Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton checking into Wes Anderson’s overtly decadent Grand Budapest Hotel, these are the year's most optical movie moments.

TRACKS

This biopic about Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowkska), who was 27 when she turned her back on everyday life to go on a trek across the Australian desert with only camels for company, is so beautifully shot it would make anyone want to try and do the same. Cut to blistering heat, near miss snake attacks and general hysteria induced by loneliness and thirst and you’ll understand why you might not want to. Director John Curran usually reserves his lens for domestic dramas, but his venture from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean involves so many tear-inducing skylines you’d need a new colour chart to name the different shades of blue on show. It’s a beautiful, exhausting road trip of a film that sees Wasikowska delivering a performance that’s equally as mesmerizing as the backdrops behind her.

UNDER THE SKIN

Who knew cult director Jonathan Glazer would be making a return to art house when he cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead in this sci-fi mind-bender? Based on the surreal novel by Michel Faber, the film waves goodbye to the clear plots of Glazer’s previous efforts and welcomes in a new take on symbolic filmmaking. Trippy sound effects, foggy views of the Scottish highlands and Scarlett Johansson playing an alien disguised as a woman who kidnaps the local men of Glasgow is enough to creep anyone out. The film's hypnotic flow leaves you in such a trance it’s hard to decide whether you liked or loathed it. But then again, that’s the beauty of disturbing films.

IDA

Polish drama Ida has the type of synopsis that takes you straight to the till at Waterstones: a young nun begins to question her faith when she discovers a dark family secret that stems back to the Nazi’s. It’s the stuff good thrillers are made of, but Ida is no ordinary film. Shot with one camera entirely in black and white, director Pawel Pawlikoski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal capture a visual mood that harks back to 60s filmmaking. Each frame seems so composed and so unreliant on dialogue that you want to frame it and give it pride of place on a mantelpiece – or at least introduce flickering candles into your home decor.

THE CONGRESS

Robin Wright playing an ageing actress who agrees to sell off a digital version of herself so she never has to act again in a half-animated, half-live action film? Yeah, right. Most people thought this film by Israeli director Ari Folman, with it’s messy plot and split visual personality, might never see the light of day; but it certainly did and it made its mark. Most of the favourable reviews went to Wright’s performance as an actress in the midst of an existential crisis as opposed to its ambitions to boggle the mind, but you can’t fault The Congress for it’s venture in to a warped version of Hollywood, both visually and contextually. Sad one minute, happy the next – it’s a mind fuck of a film that stays with you afterwards. Even if you don’t want it to.

SNOWPIERCER

Generally, anything starring Tilda Swinton is bound to come packaged as a visual masterpiece. After all, this is her third film on this list. This South Korean post-apocalyptic, sci-fi thriller is no exception. Directed by Bong Joon-Ho of 2006's The Host fame, the film follows the world within Snowpiercer, a train carrying a mass amount of inhabitants who have all survived the apocalypse. Based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer seemingly came out of nowhere with Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer all on board and very little hype before its release. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a mini-masterpiece. Joon-Ho’s bleak take on a now frozen earth are just as epic as the film’s real standout star, the gigantic, story-worthy Snowpiercer that seems fit for a trilogy.

INTERSTELLAR

Thanks to Christopher Nolan, we now get blockbusters with depth and intellect. This SF epic, Nolan’s first piece of work post-Batman, covers time travel, wormholes and the end of the world in one 169-minute swoop. Jessica Chastain, Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are all on duty as the lead roles set against a backdrop of special effects and visuals so powerful they’d leave even the most cynical of viewers filled with a sense of delight. Plus, Nolan did his research by getting physicist Kip Thorne (who also worked on 90s sci-fi thriller Contact (1997)) to help add context to his ideas. Interstellar certainly isn’t an indie-flick but it's an emotional and powerful reminder why a bank-breaking ticket to the IMAX can be a really good thing.

BIG EYES

Tim Burton finally makes a return to a more subtle style of filmmaking with this biopic about Walter and Margaret Keane, played respectively by Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams. Walter was an artist famous throughout America during the 1950s, later busted for taking credit for the paintings because they were actually Margaret’s. Visually, Burton makes 50s America look super-chic with his signature, eccentric details coming into play when the paintings (of bug-eyed, creepy-looking girls) start coming to life as Margaret loses the plot under the pressure to remain sane. If you prefer Tim Burton circa Ed Wood (1994), where style is more important than OTT child-friendly plots, then Big Eyes is a decent reminder of his brilliance.

THE ZERO THEOREM

Although the cult director would neither confirm or deny, Terry Gilliam fans called this sci-fi adventure the final part in the Brazil trilogy. Either way, Christoph Waltz received film festival praise for his performance as an eccentric computer programmer searching for the meaning of life. A whole vortex of sub-plots ensue and the film blossoms into a visual trip that looks like a cross between a very camp, futuristic Tokyo and a very confusing computer game. Throw in French actress Melanie Thierry dressed as a nurse and you’ve got yourselves one of 2014’s weirdest yet sexiest films.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

The Grand Budapest Hotel, or TGBH as it became known to die-hard Wes Anderson fans, was the kaleidoscopic cinematic adventure of 2014, with Secret Cinema Club already prepped with a lavish event ready to celebrate the weekend of it’s release. Anderson took his eye for weirdly decadent costume and set design and amped it up to accommodate his most stellar cast to date. Following the adventures of Gustav (played by Ralph Fiennes), a concierge at a popular ski resort, this whimsical film took Anderson’s exceptional talent for kooky story-telling to the next level.

TOM AT THE FARM

Queer cinema’s rebel hero, Xavier Dolan, can do no wrong. Especially as his films garner more and more international praise at such incredible speed. If his previous offering Laurence Anyways (2012) was his venture into 90s nostalgia, then Tom At The Farm is Dolan’s first trip into the woods. Dolan himself plays Tom, a young man struck by grief, who travels to the countryside to attend his boyfriends funeral. He arrives only to discover that his partner’s family have no idea who he is or that their son was even gay. Soon, Tom enters into a cat and mouse style chase with his boyfriends homophobic brother Francis. Between the pair there is enough sexual tension to cut through the screen and Dolan's visual take on the farm creates a bleak, dark and grey world that is as unsettling as it is addictive.