Let’s be honest. 2014 was a bit of a bummer: Ebola outbreak, Gaza war, MH298 disaster, Ferguson riots, ISIS turmoil, Tony Blair’s Christmas card—the list goes on.
With all the destruction, death and despair, it made trips to the cinema (at least for me) essential escapism—wallowing in that wonderful, bubbly joy I get each and every time the credits of a great movie begin to reel.
So what a relief it was to find that 2014 was filled with fantastic little cinematic gems. Gems that were scattered all over the calendar and not just clumped together at the end of the year to please the brilliantly discerning, open-minded Oscar voters—*ahem, cough*.
But this year, it has to be said, was a pretty damn good year for cinema. In the words of the immortal Larry David, it was “prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay, pretty good.”
In February we had The LEGO Movie and everything was awesome. In March we had Under the Skin and everything was weird (but still awesome). In April we had Calvary and everything was thoughtful (but again, still awesome). In May we had Blue Ruin. In August we had Night Moves. In September we had Ida. In October, ‘71.
These films proved 2014 to be an amazingly consistent year in cinema. But the trend that I think the year should be remembered for is not Scarlet Johannsson proving she could out-alien anyone in Guardians of the Galaxy, but that 2014 was full of genuinely great child performances. Who would have guessed that some of the most mature performances of the year would come from some of the most inexperienced of performers? Lots of little scene stealers, left, right and centre, flexing their tiny acting chops and pocketing the films in which they star—doing so with such efficiency it was as if the Artful Dodger had trained them himself. These performances very often left the rest of the cast sitting in the dark, no doubt complaining to the director why the set didn’t have better security.
From Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood to Jaeden Lieberher in St. Vincent, it seemed that, in 2014, child’s play was no child’s play.
One of the best films of the year featured not one, but three of the best child performances in recent memory: We Are the Best!—and never has a film been more deserving of its exclamation mark. A bunch of rebellious ungirly girls with gamine haircuts and baggy clothes decide to form a punk band; except only one of them can actually play a single note of music. But hey, that never stopped the Sex Pistols, right? But what these three Swedish kids lack in musicality, they more than make up for in attitude—full on rambunctious don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that would surely bring a big, beaming smile to Johnny Rotten’s face. Their signature tune of “Hate the Sport!” is a brilliantly clamorous condemnation of their reviled gym class. With lyrics like, “They’re bombing all our towns and cities/And all you want is more tennis committees”, it would inevitably become stuck in my head for days.
Despite the off-key harmonies, the performances are note-perfect: Mira Grosin as the brash and boisterous Klara, Mira Barkhammer as the sardonic but lonesome Bobo and Liv LeMoyne as the shy, introverted mediator Hedvig. A lesser film would have traced the girls’ improvements as musicians, charting their growth and development throughout the movie and culminating in a stellar, kick-ass performance that has the audience on their feet chanting for more. It would have been “a journey”—two words that should only be reserved for X-Factor contestants who’ve just been kicked out of the competition and can’t think of anything original to say when the microphones have been shoved in their face.
But We Are the Best! shows how little it matters if the band improves; how little it matters if the band ever improves. It’s the sheer existence of the band that matters—that sense of power and belonging it instils, that sense of camaraderie and solidarity it provides. All these elements come together to give these punk rockers that wonderfully unshakable conviction expressed in the film’s title.
Another of 2014’s great child performances resided in Noah Wiseman’s rowdy, volatile and highly aggressive Samuel, from Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.
The Babadook is the scariest film I’ve seen all year. William Friedkin said on Twitter during its US release, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK.” As a result, it took The Babadook’s producers weeks to get rid of a bad case of dollar-sign-shaped pupils. The “ka-ching” noise, it was said, could be heard for miles.
The Babadook is freaky as hell—a monster that is as real internally as it is externally. It first appears in a pop-up book, devoid of author and publisher. The rather innocuous first few pages give way to a much darker malevolence where the Babadook’s plans to terrorise mother and child are laid bare. As the pages turn, the more we want to turn away. But, like a catchy Taylor Swift song, we are told: “You can’t get rid of The Babadook.” Unless, of course, it’s on Spotify, in which case Taylor can help you out.
The young Noah Wiseman is brilliant as the unruly—possibly disturbed—child who causes severe emotional and physical trauma to his mother (among many others) wherever they go. His mother, Ameila (played by the excellent Essie Davis), sees her social circle slowly diminish to the radius of their own home—constricting the pair’s whereabouts, naturally, to that of Mr. Babadook. Except, Mr. Babadook (with his trademark top hat and Nosferatu-like claws) seems to be capable of turning up wherever our heroine goes—after all, “You can’t get rid of The Babadook.”
This all of course begs the question of whether the Babadook is real or a figment of their collective imaginations. Their nocturnal oppressor is very much a beast of their own making—a shared nightmare born of the complicated, tempestuous relationship between mother and son. The monster could very well be a fabrication of Amelia’s psyche; an attempt to delude herself into believing Samuel’s extraordinary tales, refusing to face the possibility that her son may well be perturbed, or worse, insane.
The creature is a metaphor, not only for Amelia’s repressed fears and anxieties towards caring for a disruptive, disorderly child, but also of Amelia’s loneliness and strain—her silent resentment towards her own son, and of Samuel’s contempt of her. The Babadook serves as a personification of their mutual, occasional wish to do away with one other.
Heavy stuff, eh? Hope you’re listening, Paranormal Activity. You and your hundreds of sequels should be forced to watch this film—A Clockwork Orange style; eyelids hauled back, head restrained. You could stand to learn a thing or two (or you could sit down to learn a thing or two, I don’t mind).
Yet, amidst the macabre, the film is remarkably fragile in its depiction of this mother/son relationship. We see Amelia as a tired, neurotic, but ultimately loving, parent. The key to this sympathy lies in Essie Davis’s performance, but it also lies heavily in Noah Wiseman’s.
A horror film where the female character isn’t a lip-glossed, peroxide blonde cowering in the wardrobe is wonderfully refreshing. And this is because Kent has created a whole other kind of beast; one concerned with character over caricature. She has managed to extract two performances so full of contradictions, so full of ambiguities—yet ones so grounded in reality—that one can’t help but empathise with their predicament.
We care because they are human. And in The Babadook, caring leads directly to scaring.
The brilliance of The Babadook is Kent’s skill of making daily domestic life seem like the most natural place in the world to encounter monsters; including the scariest monsters of all—the monsters that we ourselves have the ability to become.
So as 2014 comes to an end, the “serious” films begin to line up at the starting line for the annual Oscar race, shuffling around and spouting aspersions at one another (it’s Hollywood after all). But spare a thought for the little films that may have passed below your radar. For these films will warm your cockles on a cold winter’s night (yes, even The Babadook) more than any of the giant Weinstein behemoths. And as Woody Allen once said, “[there’s] nothing like hot cockles.”