Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Ten Best Films of 2014

1. Under The Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Original Review

No movie from 2014 was more engrossing, more transfixing, more inherently creepy than Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, which took a basic sci-fi concept (a foreign species, disguised as human, hunts down men for it's own species' nutrience) and produced the most unique moviegoing experience of the year. Starring Scarlett Johansson in her most startlingly daring role, Glazer uses the American movie star as an emotionless cypher combing the streets of suburban Scotland in a hulking white van and seducing men with the greatest of ease. The film's script, written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, doesn't give the film much in the way of explanation or motive for Johansson's character, a nameless being who moves from scene to scene in a stunted daze, waiting for her next victim. Under The Skin's narrative doesn't give the audience a base to start from and only becomes clear as it unfolds, reaching a climax that both chills and shocks in equal measure. In a year where science fiction had many exceptional submissions (Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), it's remarkable that it's a modestly-scaled indie that ends up taking the cake. Skin's mostly hand-held photography (cinematographer: Daniel Landin) and unnerving score (by Mica Levi) also add to the year's best, most brilliant movie theater experience. This is only Glazer's third film and it's his first film in ten years (since his masterful 2004 film Birth). Under The Skin shows both why he should start working more often and why he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, a true master of finding the strange in our everyday lives.

2. We Are The Best!
Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Original Review

Who would've thought that three pre-teen girls would end up being the stars behind the greatest movie made about punk music this decade. Mira Barkhammer and Mira Grosin play Bobo and Klara, respectively, two rebellious youngsters who decide to start a punk band for the sole purpose of pissing a small handful of people off. Without any form of musical training, they recruit the Christian outsider, Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), to play the guitar and bring the slightest legitimacy to their rockin' trio. As Hedvig slowly becomes indoctrinated into Bobo and Klara's rambunctious life philosophy, their unnamed band begins to take unquestioned (if slight) form, with an anti-sports anthem that makes up with punk spirit what it lacks in basic chord progression. Lukas Moodysson's latest film goes beyond grrrl power and creates one of the most realistic movies ever made about stirring adolescence. Too often, films about young girls coming of age hang on sexual exploration - boys get to come of age at the movies, girls usually have to cum of age. We Are The Best! avoids all of those pre-designed ideas about girls, and instead focuses on friendship. Not the smoothest friendship by any means, Barkhamer, Grosin and LeMoyne bring an unbridled joy to the film, as we see the girls face sexism from opposing local bands, as well as disruptions from their meddling parents. When another local punk band of similarly-aged boys threatens to tear the girls apart, they respond with a kick-ass performance in what I found to be the most satisfying ending to any movie I saw this year.

3. Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Original Review

All hail Paul Thomas Anderson. His seventh film is a trippy-dippy journey through a fictional part of Southern California during 1970 with a pot-addled protagonist named 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). A private investigator, Doc wanders through 'Gordita Beach' trying to juggle various cases involving his hippy ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), his current girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), his maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), the ex's millionaire boyfriend (Eric Roberts), a former heroin addict (Jena Malone), her dead saxophone player husband who's probably still alive (Owen Wilson), a sex-crazed dentist (Martin Short), an enthusiastic whorehouse desk girl (Hong Chau) and a self-described "renaissance cop" (Josh Brolin) who's always got his eye on Doc. Inherent Vice is an often hilarious, occasionally melancholy stroll through a period in American history where the Peace & Love 1960's spilled into the Me Generation of the 1970's. Anderson's usual penchant for grim genre stowed away, Vice is Anderson's most light-hearted film since 1997's Boogie Nights, and it's certainly his funniest. The ensemble cast is end-to-end fantastic, led by Phoenix who shows another wrinkle to his seemingly endless range. Backed by phenomenal Robert Elswit's cinematography (shot on 35mm) and a top-notch music score from Johnny Greenwood, Anderson adapts the best-selling novel by Thomas Pynchon and elevates it from an entertaining noir to a brilliant, oddball meditation on the loss of American innocence.

Directed by Laura Poitras
Original Review

Laura Poitras' incredible access to Edward Snowden in the days leading up to his leak of NSA practices is one of the biggest scoops of any journalist in American history. The footage she captures of the whistleblower's steel rebellion transform itself into fearful paranoia is the core of the year's best political thriller. Snowden knew that the information he was sharing would bring him ungodly attention, that he may even be arrested. He stands firm in his belief that he did the right thing in informing the American public as to just how tenuous their privacy actually was. But as CITIZENFOUR continues on, we see his firmness start to buckle as the ever-growing monster that he hoped to expose takes its aim at him. Poitras is smart not to canonize Snowden, even while admitting a form of empathy. The information that he gave her uncovered a very sobering reality concerning how our government used the threat of terrorism to grant themselves access into our own private information. The film's message is bleak, made all the more troubling by Snowden's eventual, expected villainization by the national media and his consequential entrapment in Russia where he is being granted a one-year asylum. As polarizing a figure as Snowden is to the American public, CITIZENFOUR displays him as ultimately idealistic, possibly naive and incredibly willful. Enough time has passed so that the public knows that Snowden is not just an enemy of the state, but Poitras' film stipulates - and makes a convincing argument - that it may be too late for Snowden and for us.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by Wes Anderson
Original Review

On the surface, Wes Anderson's eighth film may seem like his most slight - the fictionalized version of Eastern European countries, the whimsy of Alexander Desplat's score, the over-the-top performances - but The Grand Budapest hotel is indeed one of the filmmaker's most thoughtful, melancholy meditations on humanity that he has ever created. The movie takes place in the Republic of Zubrowka, a snowy Eastern European kind of city that houses the famed Grand Budapest Hotel, a resort known for its high swank and customers with deep pockets. The Grand Budapest's most treasured asset is its maniacally committed concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), an effeminate but suave lady's man who loves charming all of the elderly women who come to stay. When one of the hotel's most beloved patrons (played by Tilda Swinton) is mysteriously murdered, Gustave becomes a prime suspect and must run for his life against the dead woman's temperamental son (Adrien Brody) and his homicidal goon (Willem Defoe). With the help of his equally dedicated lobby boy (Tony Revolori), Gustave hopes to clear his name and keep the Grand Budapest afloat. Set against the backdrop of the oncoming World War II, Anderson's charming way of dealing with the historical settings including the eventual Cold War presents a universe unlike any seen in Wes' prior films. Above all, it's the performance from Fiennes that makes Grand Budapest such a wonderful experience. The actor's incredible range is on full display as he melds Anderson's usual blend of absurdist humor and somber emptiness. It's the best performance in a Wes Anderson film since Gene Hackman's incredible work in The Royal Tenenbaums.

6. Gloria
Directed by Sebastián Lelio
Original Review

This might be cheating a little bit, since this was technically Chile's Oscar submission from last year, but it never got an official American release until January, which is when I saw it. So considering all that, I'll say it's safe to put it on the list. Though Gloria is good enough to be amongst the best films of any year. Paulina García stars as the titular Gloria, a woman heading toward the end of middle age but still partying like she's in her twenties. Her children, cemented in their own lives and responsibilities cannot take much time for their lonely mother who still quixotically hopes to find love on the dance floor. When she meets Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a sensitive man of similar age, she thinks she may have finally found someone who shares her lust for the golden years, but when Rodolfo's own insecurities and past begin interrupting their newly blooming romance, Gloria has to confront a part of herself she didn't realize still existed. American dramas rarely tackle the issues of the middle-aged as colorfully as you see here, as Garcia gives such a funny, bare performance that is equal parts tender and heartbreaking. Co-written and directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, Gloria is a film made with a wonderful spirit, unafraid to display the naked (literally) truth of the beginning of advanced age.

7. Nightcrawler
Directed by Dan Gilroy
Original Review

The performance that Dan Gilroy gets out of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler is equal parts funny and garish, the most uninhibited that the young actor has ever been. He plays Lou Bloom, a possible sociopath with a talent for turning on a blinding smile when the time calls for it. On a whim, Lou decides to take up a job as a "stringer", a freelance news journalist capturing local news footage in the night when all the union men have gone to bed. If it bleeds, it leads - and Lou takes this cliché to heart, manipulating crime scenes and even allowing horrible crimes to happen so he can get the quality footage. Lou mostly deals with Nina (Rene Russo) a TV news exec under pressure to goose ratings for her flailing news show and she appreciates Lou's extra effort. As Lou's unethical behavior at crime scenes become more and more encouraged, Lou's limits become more and more expanded. Hiring a poor young man named Rick (a brilliant Riz Ahmed) to be his unpaid "intern", Lou is equipped to run a two-man operation, seeking to take the local news world by storm. Nightcrawler's political views are apparent but not indispensable to the film, it wears them proudly but more than happy to stay mostly as a haunting character study. And this is where Gyllenhaal truly shines, embodying the overflowing antisocial behavior, always keeping Lou Bloom at the exact tipping point and never more or less. It's an incredibly measured performance within a film that knows how to use it. This is Dan Gilroy's first feature film, but he's the brother of writer-director Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, a talented family indeed. Nightcrawler showed that he already has the screenwriting chops to make a fully realized film.

8. Wild
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Original Review

Cheryl Strayed's memoir from 2012 was a smash hit for the famed essayist, which allowed her to expose her own troubled past as a form of catharsis. When the rights to the film adaptation were purchased by Reese Witherspoon, it was easy to be cynical about the story's rougher edges being smoothed out for a movie star's vanity - but Witherspoon is completely unfiltered here, unlike any other performance in the actress' career. Strayed's memoir focuses mostly on her own personal quest to hike through the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border through the Western woods and desert, into Canada. The script, written by Nick Hornby, splits time between Cheryl's harrowing, three-month trek through the woods and her tortured past, which includes her crumbling marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Director Jean-Marc Vallée creates such a wondrous visualization of Cheryl's inner torment, a truly cinematic interpretation of depression that is rare in contemporary American films; Vallée attempted this with last year's Dallas Buyers Club, but this film is much more suited to those cinematic tastes, less dependent on linearity. But the film's truest source of power comes from Witherspoon, who gives one of the best performances of her career, displaying Strayed's journey toward the light at the end of the tunnel. What makes Wild special is that Vallée, Hornby and especially Witherspoon understand that the story's power comes not from the light, but the tunnel.

9. Edge of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman
Original Review

This movie started as All You Need is Kill then hit the theaters as Edge of Tomorrow and is now being distributed on DVD and Blu-Ray as Live, Die, Repeat. Whatever this movie may actually be called, it certainly is the best Summer blockbuster that I got around to seeing. Bourne Identity director Doug Liman does what few studio directors would have had the courage to do, and that is craft this sharp sci-fi action film as an engaging comedy, a sort of Groundhog Day meets Halo. Taking Tom Cruise in his best leading role since 2004's Collateral and placing him alongside the consistently wonderful Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow (the title I'm settling on here) finds pockets of sweetness where you wouldn't expect, and has the guts to be a big-budget action film that relies on more than just mindless action sequences to keep its audience entertained. Cruise is a PR man for the military which is trying to fight off a violent alien species and stave off extinction. When he's forced into becoming a soldier, he incidentally ingests the alien's trait which allows him to relive the same day over and over until he can discover the key to killing the species and saving Earth. Every day, Cruise must re-introduce himself to the war hero played with marked skill by Emily Blunt to gain help against this apparently unstoppable group of aliens. Cruise shows off why he was once the most beloved movie star in the country, but the chemistry between him and Blunt goes well beyond the usual Cruise-and-leading-lady routine - Blunt has the skill to match wits with the gargantuan movie star, and she shows why she may be the most under-appreciated asset in the movies today. Edge of Tomorrow is old school in its escapism and it's leading man appeal, and it's that quaintness which stood it apart from the rest of the Summer action films.

10. Calvary
Directed by John Michael McDonaugh
Original Review

John Michael McDonaugh's grim meditation on the rotting fish that is the Catholic church is one of the most chilling films I witnessed this year. The always tremendous Brendan Gleeson plays Father James, a good-hearted priest living in a scenic Irish town populated with religious hostility. The film opens with Father James sitting in the confession booth, being threatened by a faceless man who promises to kill him in seven days time. In those seven days, Father James explores the town and speaks with it's sordid collection of misanthropes, including a smarmy butcher with a history of domestic violence (Chris O'Dowd), a cynical doctor (Aidan Gillen), an eccentric millionaire (Dylan Moran), and a brooding mechanic (Isaach De Bankolé). In this time, he also gets a visit from his suicidal daughter (Kelly Reilly), who's just as shocked as anyone at the constant antipathy that Father James is met with by the entire town. McDonaugh - the brother of award-winning playwright and fellow filmmaker Martin McDonaugh - directs his second film here. His first film, The Guard, was mostly a vehicle for Gleeson, but Calvary is a true artistic statement. It's thoughts on Catholicism and its deep-rooted, symbiotic connection to Ireland stretch far beyond the usual declarations of religious corruption. The film understands how a culture can be undone by its own dogma, and it's the truly good-natured, like Father James, who usually face the biggest brunt from the blowback.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Honorable Mention: Best Films of 2014, 25-11

So my 'Honorable Mention' section for my Top Ten of 2014 was getting a bit too robust, so in succinct fashion I will present The Best Films of 2014, 25-11. **There are a few movies that I would have loved to see that may have majorly effected this list, but considering the nature of late releases, was made pretty much impossible for me to see. Those films are: Selma, Two Days, One Night, Leviathan, A Most Violent Year and Winter Sleep.

John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange
25. Love is Strange. Ira Sachs' modestly told tale of contemporary marriage is so wonderfully lived-in, hilarious without being over-the-top. Tough to find better acting than John Lithgow and Alfred Molina here, playing a pair of newlywed life partners who find that life has much more in store for them once they finally achieve their lifelong dream of getting married.

24. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The second part in the latest iteration of 'Planet of the Apes' films may very well be the best. Mixing strong performances with intoxicating filmmaking, Dawn expertly draws the parallels to today's headlines without blinding it's central narrative. Andy Serkis as the lead ape, Caeser, continues to show that no one is even in his stratosphere in terms of motion-capture acting.

23. Obvious Child. Funny lady Jenny Slate's incredible performance fuels this wonderful millenial comedy about an up-and-coming stand-up comedian who finds the need to abort a pregnancy from a one-night stand. Hysterical and honest, this indie from first-timer Gillian Robespierre proves that good, real comedy can come from taboo subjects.

22. Belle. This period piece seemed like a stuffy costume drama on paper, but proved to be a truly effective film about 18th Century racial politics. Born from a Royal Navy Admiral, Belle (stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is raised in luxury under her great uncle (Tom Wilkinson) despite her mixed race. As she becomes an adult, she begins to learn the rarity of her situation. Belle's story is a sort of inverted 12 Years a Slave - a much less brutal picture, but equally as wide in its vision and message.

21. Mr. Turner. Mike Leigh's love song to Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner is a grand testament to the English filmmaker's unorthodox legacy. Timothy Spall's performance as Turner is filled with growls and grumbles, and greatly helps Leigh's illustration of a melancholy genius who was able to visualize the chaos of humanity in his artwork so brilliantly, yet struggled mightily with the complexities of his own life.

American Sniper (**1/2)

Directed by Clint Eastwood


Chris Kyle's reputation precedes him. His record as a Navy SEAL seems impossible, inhuman. As he's touted on the cover of his memoir and in the trailer for Clint Eastwood's latest film, he's the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Eastwood's American Sniper is a film about the thin line between war hero and sociopath, whether he intended to make that film or not. It's grippingly intense view of the Iraq war gives American audiences the most thrilling film version that we've ever seen of that most complicated insurgence. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker explored the psychology of the type of man it takes to really excel in today's war reality: an American military made of the utmost sophistication is struggling against a ragtag army that believes in what it's fighting for more than we do. Bigelow's film focused almost exclusively on that psychology. American Sniper is too preoccupied with the built-in linearity of being a biopic about Kyle to really create the same picture of the American soldier's mental fragility that The Hurt Locker was able to pull off. But Eastwood's film is equally as suffocating in its suspense and crafts battle scenes that match the skill of some of the war genre's best films, even its politics can be problematic at times.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Mr. Turner (***)

Written and Directed by Mike Leigh


There isn't a single Mike Leigh film which doesn't feel like a passion project of his, and so it's almost surprising to learn that Mr. Turner is the film that he had hoped to make all his life. The film is about the last twenty-five years in the life of the brilliant, eccentric painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh is such a spirited director, known for the Altman-like looseness to his films, so you wonder how the constraints that come with making a biopic would mesh with his usual freewheeling style. As Turner, Leigh enlisted the help of one of his regular cast of characters, Timothy Spall, a character actor who's unorthodox visage has often left him to play grotesque characters in Hollywood films, but Leigh has always seen him as something more. In Secrets & Lies and All or Nothing, Leigh envisioned Spall as more of an everyman, giving the talented actor some of the best roles of his career. None of those roles match the magnitude of Mr. Turner, though. Like all of Leigh's period pieces, there's an attention to detail that is unrivaled, and a trust placed in the actors that allows the settings to truly come alive. Leigh's process is well-known, and his craftiness has made some of the most beautiful, exciting films of the last quarter-century. Mr. Turner, his true passion project, is a sentimental love letter to a favorite artist, but it's still got all of the director's splendid calling cards.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Inherent Vice (****)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


There are logistical reasons why famed post-modernist writer Thomas Pynchon hasn't had any movies made from his novels until now. His books are all about mood and feeling, wondrous prose surrounding characters that are more like caricature. He's a pure writer, not bending to the stringent rules of narrative, and certainly not writing with a film adaptation in mind. Only Paul Thomas Anderson, our generation's greatest filmmaker, can really speak to have the proper combination of skill and ego - as both a screenwriter and a director - to even attempt it, and how luck for us that he did. Inherent Vice is a drug-fueled mystery without much solution, a stoner noir that both nails every rule of the genre while also defying them. It's romantic view of a fictionalized California at the end of the groovy 1960's is grand, percolating with odd details and visualizations of the arduous death of the Hippie Era. Anderson's incredibly faithful adaptation slims Pynchon's novel to its essentials, but more importantly, it captures the enigmatic feel that Pynchon creates: the thin line between paranoia created from legitimate means and the kind created by smoking too much weed. This is probably the most anticipated meeting of auteur filmmaker and brilliant novelist we've seen since Stanley Kubrick decided to tackle Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, and Anderson, always the show-off, proves why he is just the man for the job.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Still Alice (**)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland


Still Alice is Lifetime Channel-level melodrama. It's based on a Lisa Genova novel about an Ivy League linguistics professor who's life is dismantled by early onset Alzheimer's Disease. The story is ripe for tragedy and, directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, it unfolds in a moment-by-moment sequence of an it-can-only-gets-worse downward spiral. All cinema is emotional manipulation, but Still Alice is a bit shameless in its pandering toward the weepy crowd. What helps the film rise above it's made-for-TV screenplay is its wonderful collection of performances. Robert Altman used to say that the actors are the most important artistic contribution to any film, and Still Alice shows this point in spades. The film is built around the performance of Julianne Moore, the titular Alice. Moore has always been just as good an actress as Meryl Streep, and twice as brave. She's spent twenty years being one of the most fearless actresses, testing her own mental, emotional and physical limits more than any other mainstream player, while still being one of the best pure performers. Moore's performance here is being talked openly as the frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar coming up in February. My first thought when I think about that is that Moore has been much better in other films. My second thought is that few people are as talented to give a performance as good as hers is in Still Alice and it still be pretty low on her resumé.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wild (***1/2)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée


One figures that when Reese Witherspoon negotiated the purchase of the film rights to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in 2011, she may have pondered tackling the role of Amy Dunne, the fascinatingly evasive anti-heroine of Flynn's novel. When the film came out two months ago, this year, you finally get the sense of how difficult it must have been to translate the complexity of that character to the screen - Rosamund Pike's performance of Amy Dunne is not perfect, but you kind of figure that it's the best performance that we could have ever gotten. There's no way that an actress with the starpower of Witherspoon would have been able to attack the character of Amy the way Pike did; if she had, I'm not sure she would have left the film with her career intact. So what is an actress like Witherspoon to do? An Oscar-winner in 2005, her talent doesn't need to be proven, and yet, like many actresses with her specific set of skills, the good roles are so few and far between. Witherspoon was denied the slithering darkness of playing Amy Dunne, but quickly recovered to gather up the role of Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Wild presents Witherspoon with an entirely different kind of darkness, but it still gives the actress the opportunity to play against type, to show that her range extends beyond the 'America's Sweetheart' tag we're so desperate to pin her with.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Imitation Game (**)

Directed by Morten Tyldum


Alan Turing is a fascinating man whose life was ended tragically early by a society that was so intolerant of homosexuality that it couldn't even tolerate one that helped keep it from being destroyed. He was a complex, contradictory man who faced perilous odds and went on to create the foundations of the Information Age, the internet and the computer. That his repressed homosexuality led to him never being properly appreciated for this during his lifetime is very sad indeed. The Imitation Game's greatest flaw is that it thinks that Turing's story is also a World War II story. The movies have been obsessed with World War II since before it even ended. It's dividing lines between the good guys and bad guys are so thick and impossible to look past, it makes it perfect for films with heavy-handed morality to draw a portrait of valiance and violence. Only a glance at a Wikipedia page can show you that the war was only a partial player in Turing's resume of brilliance, it gave him a substantial opportunity to exploit his fascination with creating a machine that can think like a human. The Imitation Game cares too much about global dispute and not enough about the wonderfully idiosyncratic protagonist that history has provided for them. What we end up getting is a film that telegraphs its narrative arc so obviously that it's a miracle that the characters don't see the end coming.