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A preview of 2014 on the big screen

Steve McQueen’s raging and compassionate film about Solomon Northup will be the first hit of the year.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch in 12 Years a Slave

At the start of this year in the pages of the New Statesman I predicted great things for a little-known, unassuming actor named Leonardo DiCaprio, who was scheduled to have three big movies released in 2013—Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street. It turned out I was a tad premature in my enthusiasms, since the latter film, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the memoir by the hedonistic Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort, had its UK release shunted into early 2014. It’ll open here on 17 January and, having seen it, I will say only that it is the performance of DiCaprio’s career. If he doesn’t receive the Best Actor Oscar for this, he never will. But—bad news for Leo—he won’t. That prize will go, if there is any justice, to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is mesmerising in a very different adaptation of a memoir: 12 Years a Slave (10 January), Steve McQueen’s raging, compassionate and necessarily brutal film about Solomon Northup, an African-American tricked into slavery in the early 1840s.

Matthew McConaughey is another actor who will deliver his best work to date in the new year in—do you see a theme developing here?—yet another factually-based movie, Dallas Buyers Club (7 February). Neither McConaughey nor the film go gunning for our tears, despite plentiful opportunities to do so: this is, after all, the story of a rodeo rider who starts importing illegally anti-viral medication when he is diagnosed HIV-Positive. Breaking the trend for the factual, but not as far removed from reality as it might seem, is Spike Jonze’s Her (14 February), featuring the terrifically controlled Joaquin Phoenix as a man who develops a relationship with his computer operating system. The disembodied voice is provided by Scarlett Johansson, who will also be seen as another almost-human life form in Under the Skin (14 March), the long-awaited third feature from the British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth).

Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, in which a woman recounts her grim sexual history to a man who takes her home after she has been beaten unconscious, has been a long time coming. First we were promised real sex scenes featuring stars including Shia Labeouf and Charlotte Gainsbourg; then it transpired that such recognisable faces would be digitally superimposed onto copulating bodies; next we learned that von Trier, unable to shepherd his five-and-a-half-hour work into a manageable shape, had handed over the material to other hands, resulting in a two-part, four-hour version. In fact, it’s a more sober and ordered picture than any of these headline-grabbing tales might suggest; it arrives here on 21 February.

A director’s cut of the first part of Nymphomaniac will receive its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February; that festival will open with The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest helping of candy-coloured whimsy from Wes Anderson, which is released here on 7 March. The same month brings new movies from Darren Aronofsky, whose Noah is said to have an impressive arc (sorry), and Asghar Faradi, who follows his brilliant Oscar-winning domestic thriller A Separation with The Past (both 28 March).

I’m also looking forward greatly to two Irish films. One is Calvary (April), which reunites Brendan Gleeson with John Michael McDonagh, who directed him in The Guard. The other is Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, loosely based on the Frank Sidebottom story, starring Michael Fassbender as the enigmatic rock star in the papier mâché head. On the subject of Irishness, it is worth noting that June sees the release of Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie, a film version of the coarse and highly popular BBC sitcom. Snobs may scoff, but the show was the hit of the Christmas schedules, easily beating Downton Abbey. It will divide cinema audiences, just as it has with their sofa-based counterparts. It would be hard to imagine such a split among those who see Lukas Moodysson’s charming comedy We Are the Best! (April), about three 13-year-old girls forming a punk band in 1980s Sweden.