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Monday, July 20, 2015

Best of 2014

7 months after the end of 2014, I'm ready to unveil my top 10 list! The delay has given me time to catch up on lots of good films from last year. I found last year (like most years) a really strong year in cinema if you knew where to look. There were lots of good foreign films and, despite what the Academy Awards looked like, movies made by or focused around women.  Of the 63 movies I saw last year, here are the ones that rose to the top!

Since I hate to leave them off, here are my #16-25 in alphabetical order, all movies well worth watching: The Babadook, a gripping Australian horror film; Beyond the Lights, a hugely entertaining musical drama with a breakout performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the rare special effects film with lots of ideas up its sleeve; Gone Girl, David Fincher's much-discussed thriller; Le Week-End, a film at turns caustic and touching which reminded me of an older version of the Before Sunrise movies; Mommy, a crazy Canadian melodrama from the young director Xavier Dolan; A Most Wanted Man, a smart thriller with Phillip Seymour Hoffman's last major role; Night Moves, director Kelly Reichardt's low-key thriller about environmental activists; and The Overnighters, a moving and surprising documentary about a pastor caring for workers in North Dakota.

Runners-Up (These 5 almost made it!):

Calvary: A funny and moving film about a good Irish priest (the excellent Brendan Gleeson) doing his best to minister to a town of wayward souls. It has a dark Irish humor and heart that I love.

Dear White People: The great and rare combination of really sharp satire and a cast of characters that the audience cares about. This film follows four black students at an Ivy League college, taking on ideas of racism, identity, and campus culture.

The Immigrant: I didn't love the subplot with Jeremy Renner's character, but large portions of this historical drama were among the most beautiful and moving of the year. Chief among its virtues is the luminous cinematography and and enormously powerful performance by Marion Cotillard as a woman clinging to her goodness and dignity in a tough new world. I hate to leave this one off my top 10.

Life Itself: Roger Ebert is near and dear to my heart, one of my guides as a film-loving teenager in the 90s. This documentary perfectly captures his life, his influence, and the happiness he found at the end of his life.

Wild: Beautifully filmed and fully focused on one woman's personal journey, I was completely immersed in Wild. In my mind, director Jean Marc-Valee took a big step up from his more-awarded Dallas Buyers Club. It even inspired me to take a 3-day hike!

Now on to my top 10:

10. Two Days, One Night: The Dardenne Brothers are masters at creating realist portraits of working-class residents in Europe. This is one of their best, starring Marion Cotillard as a factory worker facing modern capitalism as she forced to beg her coworkers for her job.

9. Leviathan: It's long, it's Russian, and I wasn't bored for a second. Leviathan is about family and class struggles in modern-day Russia and it has the scope and feel of a great novel. Beautifully shot and full of deep emotions, it had one of the most powerful endings of the year.

8. Selma: Director Ava Duvernay's skillful and moving historical drama will be remembered for years to come. Centered on David Oyelowo's riveting performance as Dr. King (let's take a moment of silence for his missing Oscar nomination....), the movie also uses its ensemble incredibly well, showing how many people were crucial to the civil rights movement.

7. Ida: The Academy crowned Ida the best foreign language film, and I agree. A quiet movie about a young woman in 1960s Poland preparing to be a nun, finding out she's Jewish, and spending time with her worldly and haunted aunt. Ida features two great performances, some of the best cinematography of the year, and two characters that haunted me for weeks.

6. Love is Strange: A beautiful film about community, family, love, and aging, Love is Strange focuses on two older men (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) finally getting married and navigating tricky family relationships. The movie keeps a delicate tone that builds and culminates in its incredible ending sections.

5.Whiplash: The most thrilling and tense movie of last year, this is about a driven drummer and his domineering teacher. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons work magic together, and the movie hooks you from the first scene. Director Damian Chezelle gave one of the best debuts I've seen in a long time.

4. Birdman: After winning Best Picture and Best Director, we saw the inevitable backlash against Birdman. It's perhaps not the deepest movie of the year, but man is it a lot of fun. I love backstage dramas, and every single cast member is perfect. Throw in the incredible single-take cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and you have a real winner.

3. Under the Skin: This mix of science fiction, performance art (part of this was filmed "undercover"), and modern art film is certainly not to everyone's taste, but give it the time and it will haunt you. It's about.... well, an otherworldly being (Scarlett Johannson) experiencing modern life. I think it also has much to say about being human, being a woman, and the ways we look at and experience one another.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel:  Grand Budapest contains the heaviest themes director Wes Anderson has ever done, but its pulled off with his assured and light touch. Anderson's meticulous style is a perfect match for this wartime comedy/drama of old manners, new threats, and the memory of things past.  Ralph Fiennes is absolutely perfect, robbed of an Oscar nomination.

1. Boyhood: From the moment I saw it, I  knew this would be my number one film of the year.  Director Richard Linklater broke new ground in fiction cinema, in filming the same actors over 12 years, letting the audience watch the passage of time before our very eyes. A landmark in film history, and emotionally stunning in the best, most natural way. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

2015- First half of the year

I've had a bit of a hiatus on the blog, so here's some thoughts on some 2015 releases, many of which are essential viewing. I can't remember the last time I saw two early releases I loved as much as my top 2.

In order of my preference....

Mad Max: Fury Road

This movie is absolutely as awesome and amazing as you've heard. Weird, thrilling, and filled with wall-to-wall action, this is one of the best theater experiences I've had in a long time. My usual problem with action movies is their muddled action sequences that exist just to have some cool tricks. Director George Miller does an incredible job of showing the stakes of each sequence and helping you know exactly what's going on, no matter how weird things get.  Whether you rate Mad Max as groundbreaking feminism or just kick-ass girl power, it's great seeing Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as an amazing action heroine. I could go on and on about everything I loved about this movie, but it's best to go in fairly fresh.


Grade: A

Ex Machina

I've thought about Ex Machina a whole lot since I saw it a few months ago. It's a parable about a eccentric billionaire (Oscar Isaac) testing his lifelike robot (Alicia Vikander) on a naive young man (Domnhall Gleeson). The movie has many twists and turns, and its expert in the way it plays with the expectations and sympathies of the audience. After some great indie and foreign performances (A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina), Alicia Vikander becomes a star here, absolutely nailing a tricky role. Oscar Isaac is more than her equal, playing a megalomanic as chilled-out-bro. See it with someone who like to talk- I promise you it will lead to many discussions!

Grade: A

Inside Out
As you probably know, Inside Out has the high concept of taking place largely inside the mind of a young girl going through a life transition. The main characters in her head are Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), and they are joined by Fear, Anger, and Disgust.  It's a great concept and Pixar has a lot of fun playing with the ideas of how emotions are formed and change as we age. I especially loved the forays into other character's minds and into the land of dreams. That said, it didn't quite hit the (admittedly high) Pixar pinnacle for me. I think the idea is so strong that it becomes a little harder to connect on a human level with all of the goings-on.  While it was consistently funny and clever, I think the Toy Story films are a little more moving and honest about the process of growing up and letting go. You can probably ignore my criticisms, though, because it's still a really terrific movie. The standout for me of the movie was sadness as played by Phyllis Smith (The Office). Her voice is perfectly matched to the character, and she ends up being the most important character in the film. Another triumph for Pixar.

Grade: A-/B+

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

After winning both the audience award and the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, Earl seemed to arrive with weaker reviews and box office than expected. It's certainly a very "Sundance" movie, in the sense of being small, quirky, obsessed with other films, and a wee bit twee. Yet I think it owns its vibe and pulls it off with charm. Perhaps it's because I (or my teenage self) identified with Greg (Thomas Mann), a kid making it through high school based on his love of film. He and his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) spend their days making parody films of classics until they befriend Rachel, a girl diagnosed with cancer. It definitely has a young adult novel feel, but in a really entertaining and lovely way, touching without being overly sentimental. If the movie was called Me and the Dying Girl, I would have really loved it.  Unfortunately the African-American Earl comes across as a two-dimensional character, existing more to teach Greg lessons than to be his own character. I also really loved the parental performances by three great TV performers, Connie Britten, Nick Offerman, and Molly Shannon.

Grade: B+

While We're Young

As someone in my 30s, caught between the characters in this movie, I could easily relate to director Noah Baumbach movie's culture clash comedy of a couple in their 40s (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) befriending a hipster couple in their 20s (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried). I REALLY LOVED this movie in the first 40 minutes or so. It absolutely nailed the way the character's talked, the idiosyncrasies of urban life, and the social anxieties of adult friendships. Unfortunately, the second half becomes pretty schematic, getting too tied up into a who did what story involving a documentary film being filmed by Driver's character. I wish Baumbach had the courage to just let his characters be and interact, just as he did in 2013's Frances Ha (one of my favorite films of the past few years). It's not that the rest is terrible, it's just not up to Baumbach's best work, including the first half of the movie.  

Grade: B (First half A, second half C+)

Love and Mercy

This biopic of Brian Wilson is split into two halves, once with Paul Dano as Pet Sounds-era Wilson and one with John Cusack as post-300 pound yet still troubled Wilson in the 1980s. I'm often slightly underwhelmed by biopics, preferring those that get really abstract (I'm Not There) or focus on a finite part of the story (Lincoln, Capote). Love and Mercy lands somewhere in the middle. While it does only focus on two short periods of Wilson's life, its story of downfall and redemption is still easy to map from the beginning. While I liked Cusack as the older Wilson and especially Elizabeth Banks as his love interest, I did think the earlier scenes were more interesting. The movie does a great job of giving us a sense of how Wilson's unique mind led both to the creative musical experimentation of Pet Sounds and to his troubles surviving in the music business and the world. Paul Dano is really great as the young Wilson, digging deep into the character.  A good movie you'll probably like even more than I did if you enjoy biopics.

Grade: B


Another hit from Sundance, Dope is a story of a trio of 3 nerdy smart kids, living in a troubled inner-city neighborhood.  They inadvertently get caught up with some local drug dealers, and hijinks ensue! If you can picture a mash-up of Boyz in the Hood, Ferris Bueller, and Superbad, you'd be somewhat in the ballpark of Dope. That's fun in a lot of ways, but also a little disconcerting. The tone of the movie shifts so much its hard to really get your handle on it, even while you're enjoying the experience. I think I preferred it most in its Bueller moments, having fun with the heists without getting overly heavy or over-the-top with its teen gross-out humor. The best part of the movie is the central trio (Shameik Moore, Tony Revilori, and Kiersey Clemons). Whenever they're interacting on screen they have a natural chemistry that carries you through the movie. Let's see more movies like this that give great non-stereotyped roles to young actors of color. Let's just make the scripts a bit tighter.

Grade: B-/C+

Up Soon: My (Very Late) Top 10 of 2014