Thursday, January 15, 2015

Favorites of 2014

20. Life Itself

I’m not sure director Steve James needed to do much when tackling a biography of influential film critic Roger Ebert, especially in the absolutely stoic manner in which he dealt with his waning mortality. Ebert was so well loved and respected in the film going community- both in his reach with artists themselves and the people who paid money for that art- that any old slap dashed documentary probably would have opened the tear floodgates and goodwill towards the writer. But “Life Itself” purports more than. It not only deliberately studies Ebert the man- hard drinker, cantankerous newsman, eventual husband and step father/grandfather- but exemplifies the downright goodness in his actions. As a fifteen year old boy, eagerly watching “Siskel and Ebert” each week for glimmering peeks of films that would never play in my area, his legacy for me personally, is undeniable. His writings (and those of Andrew Sarris) impinge my own thoughts every single time I sit down to write about movies- as I’m sure it does for millions around the world now. Hopefully, his bravery and humor in the thrall of death will be just as lasting for us.

19. Foxcatcher

While simmering tension and dread is there right from the beginning in Bennett Miller’s true tale “Foxcatcher”, the resounding impact from the film remains its stillness. Many scenes are shrouded in quiet, almost hushed conversations, all of which makes the emotional explosion towards the end that much more shocking. Tracking the doomed relationship between wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Canning Tatum and Mark Ruffalol) and wealthy Olympic supporter John E. DuPont (Steve Carell), “Foxcatcher” is a dense study in repressed emotions from all sides. While Carell undergoes the most physically transformative of the roles (and he is really, really good), the best acting comes from Tatum and Ruffalo. With statures like apes and lacking the ability to fully express their sentiments outside of casual positive reinforcement or the comfort of each other’s body in practice, “Foxcatcher” soon becomes a pointed attack on the ‘haves’ versus the ‘havenots’. This widening gulf eventually swallows everyone and director Miller orchestrates the quiet apocalypse with deft precision.

18. Whiplash

Who would of thought a music school for jazz prodigies could give us the most compelling psychological thriller of the year? Writer/director Damian Chazelle does just that, assaulting the viewer in many ways as a young drummer (Miles Teller) is given a ticket to the chocolate factory, then has it taken away by a sadistic teacher (JK Simmons).

17. The Internet's Own Boy, Aaron Swartz

Careening to the top of 2014’s current event stories involved the hacking of Sony by (insert your theory here). No doubt viral warfare is on the precipice, looming as the new frontier in corporate espionage and financial insecurity. But Brian Knappenberger’s documentary on the brilliant but brief life of web design pioneer Aaron Swartz shows us that the new frontier can also be used for the positive enforcement of internet freedom of speech and the open access of knowledge. In charting Swartz’s early internet fame and eventual destruction by the US government bringing fraud charges against him, “The Internet’s Own Boy” tracks some of the same murky regions that “Citizenfour” explores. Both films ask us to question the extent modern technology should be allowed to go when faced with the discovery of moral outrage, but “The Internet’s Own Boy” and its diligent portrait of Swartz succinctly gives that technology a human face. What we do next is now up to us.

16. Starry Eyes

The best horror film of the year, sorry “The Babadook”! Both films weave a terrifying yarn that may (or may not) take place inside the mind of a frazzled, burned out woman, alternately casting horrid consequences on those close to her. As the waitress-cum-actress striving to make her big break in Hollywood, Sarah (Alex Essoe) ultimately makes a very bad decision with some very bad people. Essoe is amazing, giving a feral, vivid performance. Not since the French film “Inside” has a film made me gasp and recoil at the horror on screen.

15. The Skeleton Twins

Shame on the trailers for ruining would should have been the incandescent moment in Craig Johnson’s stellar “The Skeleton Twins”. Fortunately, the rest of the film is just as good as the impromptu lip sync between Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig that centerpieces the promotional marketing. And what’s even more surprising about the film are the performances from Wiig and Hader as estranged brother and sister who reconnect after Hader’s attempted suicide and spend a few weeks together. Both have deep familial issues they’re working through, and both actors reveal a stark humanity within cliched ‘indie’ paradigms. “The Skeleton Twins” excels at pretty much everything… even the secondary characters portrayed by Luke Wilson as Wiig’s husband and Ty Burrell as a past figure in Hader’s complicated love life. The emotions and repertoire stirred up throughout the film consistently reveal how messy, imperfect and, ultimately, affirming the curve balls of life routinely are.

14. Starred Up

Simply put, one of the most lean, brutal prison films ever made. 2014 breakout Jack O’ Connell stars as Eric, fresh blood in a prison where his father (Ben Mendehlson) serves as one of the top dog inmates. Director David Mackenzie shuttles most of the back story for these guys, instead choosing to hone in on the forceful, almost wordless quest Eric embarks upon to seek some sort of weird acceptance from dad. “Starred Up” dives head first into a savage, animalistic world of survival, made all the more striking when, in the first scene, after being strip-search and inspected thoroughly, Eric still manages to create a shank with a razor blade and toothbrush within five minutes. So many prison films, but not quite like this.

13. The Rover

David Michod’s “The Rover” frighteningly presents the apocalypse as a scavenged, bleak and instantly cutthroat procession of boarded up fuel stations, neon-lit motels and burned out vehicles. Swimming through the mire with a singular, propulsive purpose is Guy Pearce, intent on finding the men who hijacked his car. He stumbles across the wounded brother of one of the men, played convincingly by Robert Pattinson, and the two men embark on a journey of revenge. Like his previous film, the magisterial crime opus “Animal Kingdom”, “The Rover” is relentlessly violent and prone to sharp outbursts of gunfire that underline the power of the weaponry. But there’s also an undercurrent of emotion and silent moments of reflection that bring back the human element to this elemental narrative. Though Michod wrote this screenplay before “Animal Kingdom”, both films represent his desire to expose the hypocrisies of family and the manipulation of stronger man over a weaker individual. As the film winds down, it becomes a lean examination of these ideas and spares no one the western-style shootout its been promising since the beginning. With this second film, Michod truly is a bright spot in modern cinema.

12. Wild

Jean Marc Vallee’s film does the improbable…. it takes a well worn treatise on self exile and eventual self fulfillment and makes it feel vital and organic. A lot of this has to do with the source material by Cheryl Strayed, whose life and journey the film is based upon and performed magnificently by Reese Witherspoon. Deciding to escape her troubled life and hike 1000 miles from New Mexico to Canada, “Wild” intercuts her spontaneous and tough walk with the events that landed her in a dark place to begin with. Playing like a patchwork of flashbacks, conversations, moods, memories and sounds that ebb and flow brilliantly into a stream of conscious-like scrapbook, the film coalesces into a cathartic experience. As he proved with “Dallas Buyer’s Club”, Vallee expertly handles the material and elicits vivid portraits from even the smallest secondary roles. But even more than that, “Wild” is a moving exploration of why we sometimes need to fall off the grid and allow life to catch us somewhere below

11. Chef

Jon Favreau’s low budget “Chef” is an unassuming, refreshingly real labor of love that hits all the right notes, both in its storytelling and its food porn. Starring Favreau, the film tells the mid-level rise and hard fall of a Los Angeles chef after a scathing food review sends his self esteem spiraling out of control. He loses his job and has to start over, both professionally and personally as he deals with an ex-wife (Sofia Vergera) and young son (Emjay Anthony). There are just enough starlet cameos (Dustin Hoffman…. Robert Downey Jr) and wish fulfillment girlfriends (Scarlet Johannson) to remind us that Favreau is still an A-list director, but “Chef” hooked me from the get-go. It feels honest and authentic, not only in its kitchen bantering between Favreau and co-stars John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale, but in its sprightly outlook on family and the tenuous bonds that often draw us back and forth from one another.

10. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderdson’s latest jaunt into his storybook world of old European set design and anachronistic characters crossed between real and half imagined is a sheer delight. Brimming with humor (led by a wildly unpredictable Ralph Fiennes) and 40’s style Hardy Boys adventure, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” tells the tale-within-a-tale about how Zero (F. Murray Abraham as adult and Tony Revolori as his younger self ) came from nothing to eventually own the cavernous place. Along the way, lecherous family members, Cistern monks, war mongrels and cold blooded killers dot the fetishized landscape that has become the coup de grace for Anderson. Any fans of his work will be immediately drawn to the way “The Grand Budapest Hotel” maintains its air of theatricality while still mining real, genuine emotions among its characters. After seeing this very early in the year, I watched it again recently and laughed just as hard the second time.

9. In Bloom

Nana Ekvtimishvili’s debut film is a stunning observational tale of two 15 year old Georgian girls dealing with the turmoil of daily life in their Eastern bloc country. As Eka and Natia, Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria give soulful and naturalistic performances. Their sudden growth from giggling schoolgirls to forced adulthood in a lingering atmosphere of loveless marriages, cramped classrooms and streets littered with jeering boys and jealous men is charted by Ekvtimishvili’s fluid camera and unforced narrative. Yes, a gun does play a huge role in the story, but the film refuses to turn generic and stays focused on the truthful relationship between the two girls. It’s this type of film- largely undiscovered on the margins of world cinema- that gives me most hope for the future of movies.

8. Boyhood

Richard Linklater is the undisputed master of documenting time passing and the longueur of life. and with “Boyhood”, he undertakes his most ambitious marking of time yet. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same core actors, “Boyhood” is a remarkable exploration of not only our preconceived notions of time in the movies, but how the tired clichés of a family drama can be inverted with truth and generosity. As Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up literally before our eyes, he deals with puberty, an annoying older sister (Linklater‘s own daughter Lorelei), introduction to the opposite sex and finally flying the nest for college. All these themes have been prolific in the annals of movie making, creating entire dramas out of each individual portion of life. In “Boyhood”, Linklater manages to craft an enveloping experience with them all. And it’s not only with the children, but in the failures, frustrations, and missteps of the parents as well. Ethan Hawke and especially Patricia Arquette provide strong roles as mother and estranged father, trying to hold things together as best they can in an ever-changing environment of spatial differences and asshole husbands. The word “experience” truly describes “Boyhood”.

7. Snowpiercer

It’s a far-fetched idea, yes, but any film based on a popular graphic novel stretches the limitations of logic. “Snowpiercer” is no different, presenting a world frozen over by global warming with the remainder of the world’s inhabitants idling their time and surviving on a powerful train that criss-crosses the globe. Within this compartmentalized dystopian universe are classes divided by sections of the train and kept in line by armed forces serving the train‘s inventor, and it’s here that the eternal struggle between the haves and have nots plays out with kinetic, brutal force. “Snowpiercer”, long delayed and rumored to be a victim of widespread studio interference, emerges as a strong film with dazzling visual style, embedded humor and everything the fan-boy base could hope for…. Including a cute-as-can-be but kick butt young Asian girl (Ah-Sung Ko) and the everyman (Chris Pine) in which we can envision ourselves. I’ve long been a fan of Bong Joon-Ho, and here he continues to fascinate and elevate his material in unique and energetic ways. The violence is swift and brutal, continually challenging our expectations of who is the center point of the film. Just when we connect with someone, life in this rolling hell delivers a punch. And even though the comment on class divisions and social stratus is belabored, “Snowpiercer” eventually has a lot more on its mind.

6. Under the Skin

“Under the Skin” is a minimalist science fiction thriller that could pass as an experimental avant garde film if one walked into it during the middle. Rapt attention is needed as Glazer plays with all sorts of nerve-inducing, shrill soundtrack cues and a perfectly realized mise-en-scene. Scarlet Johansson is some sort of alien being wandering the frigid wastelands of Scotland in a white van, picking up men and then leading them to a dark room where they mindlessly walk into a black ooze. Her only other interaction is with a motorcycle riding “handler” who supports her along the way, then becomes her hunter when things go awry. Not reading the novel the film is based on- though initial reviews describe the film as a complete “paring” of the novel- the force of “Under the Skin” is its complete tone and mood. This thing is entrancing from the beginning, and it only grows its spell as the narrative takes a few science fiction twists, namely the alien’s desire to be human. While “Under the Skin” may puzzle some, its downright adventurous attitude and brave refusal to play anything by the rules is breathtaking.

5. Burning Bush

Long form expression on the small screen has reached ecstatic heights over the last dozen or so years, as evidence by master filmmakers making the jump to its cozy format (see Soderbergh and Scorsese). Agnieszka Holland’s four and half hour miniseries gives the time and weight a subject as convoluted as “Burning Bush” deserves. The 1969 self immolation of Prague student Jan Palach is simply the jumping off point for Holland’s infuriating and devout study of Palach’s family quest for justice. As the lawyer fighting against the dynamics of a Communist regime, lead actress Tatiana Pauhofova exerts so much with her eyes and guarded body language. She adds a steely justice fighter to the mix. No intricate understanding of Polish politics or culture is necessary. “Burning Bush” leads one into the foxhole of paranoia, injustice and good ‘ol boy Eastern bloc suffocation with clear eyed determination and just how easily the institution can crush the individual.

4. The Immigrant

The themes of Catholic guilt, familial violence and moody Northeastern settings that have dotted the James Gray cinematic landscape for years now gets cross pollinated with 1920’s New York in “The Immigrant”. Marion Cotillard is splendid as Ewa, a Polish immigrant who’s immediately separated from her sickly sister at Ellis Island, then manipulated into a life of showmanship and prostitution by small time burlesque owner Joaquin Phoenix (in his fourth collaboration with filmmaker Gray). Glimpses of happiness appear when Phoenix’s cousin, magician Orlando (Jeremy Renner), enters the picture and Cotillard is pulled between her obligations for financial status and the potential for a normal life. “The Immigrant” succeeds in developing the three characters with depth and feeling. They are all flawed but acutely drawn people. Even the small roles of Ewa’s aunt and uncle, who make an uncompromising decision, resonate with honesty and moral ambiguity. Filmmaker Gray, so strong with each new passing effort, has crafted an intimate epic that not only gives Cotillard one astounding monologue in a confessional booth, but an ending that both devastates and uplifts its corresponding couple. I’m so glad this film is getting numerous year end accolades.


3. Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic travels a long way to reveal the personal foundations that anchors us so firmly to our home. It’s unapologetically his most emotional film to date, tossing a lot of scientific jargon at us while remaining true to not only the cinematic corridors of Kubrick, Tarkovsky and those way-ahead-of-their-times-but-obscure Polish sci-fi flicks of the 80’s but also to the warm embraces of Capra-esque human connectivity. All of this to say “Interstellar” was the film I saw four times in the theater… and each time its power and resonance struck a deeper chord in me. Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway and all involved give tremendous performances within a CGI framework that could have easily suffocated genuine emotion. Instead, Nolan again hatches a mind-warping tale that magisterially settles on the most elemental principle- a father and his daughter.


2. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is sure to polarize and challenge the expectations from a film noir. It’s a fuzzy mosaic of gung-ho cops, mysterious drug lords, disaffected Flower Children, fringe political anarchists and lots of marijuana use by its lead private investigator, which only casts a wider sense of paranoia and murkiness around the whole affair. It’s also about the tenuous moment in time when sunny California, as the template for America at large, changed from the Summer of Love into something decidedly more sinister. The logistics of its plot may not come to a fully explainable finale (although I feel like I could decipher the who’s who), but rather the mood and very sad transition of a generation are the real mechanism behind the plot. Haunting, laugh out loud funny, and completely committed to its stoner logic, it’s a majestic ride and yet another brilliant layering on Anderson’s America unfiltered.

1. Birdman

The struggling artist on film has been an especially ripe subject for filmmakers since the medium learned how to refract the light back onto itself. Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s “Birdman” joins that procession, and not only does it create a visually stunning universe of backstage politics and shifting emotions among actors in a New York play, but it pinpoints something deeper in the psyche of leading man/writer Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton). Battling his own inner demons while trying to maintain the week leading up to his opening night, things aren’t made simpler by his inner voice… a stream of conscience rally that wants him to return to his glory days as action film star Birdman. Thrown into the chaotic mix are controversially edgy co-stars (a wonderful Ed Norton), a daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and an arts critic just itching to take down his play because Hollywood actors don’t belong in the theater. “Birdman” balances the natural with the supernatural, sometimes with Keaton’s head games taking over the film. But regardless of its flights of fancy (literally at times), “Birdman” is a real triumph of human emotions, anchored by a tremendous performance from Keaton.

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