Tuesday, January 13, 2015

BEST AND WORST OF 2014

2014 was a middling year at the movies. The highs not so high, the lows not so low. Despite a few exceptional outliers (the top three or four entries on the Best list), rarely did I feel wowed, elated, enlightened or appalled. Extreme reactions, positive or negative, came in short supply. Von Trier's two-part Nymphomaniac (my Most Anticipated Movie last year) left me limp at the start of 2014. Inherent Vice at the close elicited a bemused shrug. My prevailing mood coming out of the theatre (or, more often than not, hitting Stop on my USB feed) could be summed up: "Entertained but Underwhelmed." Did someone prescribe the global film industry a mild antidepressant? Or was it just me? Maybe someone slipped a Celexa capsule into my Jujubes.

That said, I'm looking ahead to 2015 with childlike optimism. Why? Because it seems like every movie or movie franchise from my childhood is either being remade, rebooted or expanded this year. Mad Max, The Terminator, Poltergeist, a new James Bond, another Vacation movie, more Mission: Impossible. Everyone knows a new Star Wars is hitting next December. But did you know there's a Swayze-less Point Break due in July? Or that a major studio made a biopic about NWA? Oy vey!

I'm keepin' my chin up and my face forward...so as to at least better view the screen. I'm reading Pynchon's Inherent Vice for comparison's sake. Time permitting, I may give the five and a half hour Nymphomaniac: The Director's Cut a second chance on Netflix. Of the 93 new theatrical releases I saw in 2014 (mostly at home), here are the ones that made an impression, good, bad or somewhere in between...

THE BEST


10. Birdman

Once famous actors obsessing about the sorry state of their mid-life careers generally fail to captivate my attention. But when that actor is Michael Keaton and his sustained meltdown filmed with such manic exuberance by Inarritu's restless lens (yes, those long takes are amazing) it's hard not to indulge the self-indulgence. Birdman is "look-at-me" filmmaking in the best possible sense, in that you never once care to look away.


9. The Homesman

This Tommy Lee Jones directed western about a spinster (Hilary Swank) and rogue outlaw (Jones) escorting three mentally disturbed women across the plains won me over with its odd, jangly rhythms, gorgeous cinematography (so much umber!) and the only truly surprising plot twist I saw all year. I won't spoil the mid-movie surprise other than to say there is one character to whom you should not get too attached.


8. Night Moves

More than last year's similar, flashier The East, Kelly Reichardt's film about three environmentalists/eco-terrorists plotting to blow up a dam grounds its radical politics in rich characters and comes out the more revolutionary for it, exploring the steep price paid for unwavering adherence to one's beliefs. Was it all worth it? The life of extreme loneliness Jesse Eisenberg faces at the end of Night Moves seems to suggest "maybe not."


7. The Babadook

Who ever thought a movie about a children's pop-up book could be so unnerving? Aussie first-timer Jennifer Kent mines the murkier aspects of single motherhood in a surprisingly scary thriller about the mom of a special needs child whose nightly reading material begins to unhinge her in the most disturbing ways. We're talking early Polanksi levels of unhinging. If you thought The Shining's Danny Torrance ("Redrum") was weird, wait until you've seen young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) on a rocking horse in a top hat.


6. Mr. Turner

Speaking of top hats... Mike Leigh's warts and all biopic of painter J.M.W. Turner proves that talent sometimes comes in the unlikeliest of packages, that the sublime can spring from the most ordinary of lives, the least extraordinary places. Turner, as Timothy Spall renders him, is a grumbling, grunting, piggish brute. He has little time or sympathy for the women in his life (maids, wives, lovers). His only good relationship for most of the film is with his father who has just died. But to watch him mercilessly attack one of his own finished canvases mid-show and make it that much better is to watch a thing of beauty, a not-so-precious man do something in art he'll never be able to do with his own life.


5. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal's bug-eyed crime scene paparazzo is the nightmare reality rotting at the core of the American Dream. He cruises the streets of late-night Los Angeles fueled by craven ambition, hollow self-help bromides, a black hole in the place where his non-existent moral center should be. "If it bleeds, it leads." But if it's putrefying within inches of your lens and you've got the sole exclusive, even better. As a character study of a sociopath personality, Nightcrawler is merely good. As an enjoyably gnarly bit of modern pulp, it's pretty great.


4. Force Majeure

Avalanches...they come suddenly and bring out the worst in us. Especially us menfolk, apparently. But they do make for compelling Swedish film fodder. The story of a vacationing family's slow disintegration after Pop flees the scene of an emergency leaving Mom to fend for herself and the kids, Force Majeure is so much more than a dressing down of modern masculinity. It's a slyly hilarious movie about an entire humanity in crisis where the bravest act of all is living honestly with the truth of our horrible, horrible selves.


3. Ida

This Polish import about a serious young nun visiting her carefree, bohemian aunt and learning a few family secrets along the way is classical filmmaking par excellence. That is not code for "boring" or the fact that it's filmed in black and white. Its utter refusal to be radical is what makes Ida seem so fresh. Like its chaste protagonist, still and simple wins the race here. And thus the modest handheld tracking shot at film's end comes as more of a revelation than any of Birdman's showy 20-minute takes.


2. Boyhood

Forget the 12-years-in-the-making backstory. Forget the awards Boyhood is surely (and deservedly) set to win. The pleasure of this film is not only watching a child grow and mature right before our eyes but watching director Richard Linklater's career come full circle. It's like one of those ape-to-man evolutionary progression charts, except the ape/man gets hairier as he gets older and still walks with a slight hunch. Mason may be an adult male by the end, but he is also on his way to becoming one of those beautiful "slackers" straight out of Linklater's first film.


1. Under the Skin

What? A Scarlett Johansson space alien flick sitting proudly atop the Best Of List? The one that I so jokingly referred to the majority of the year as The Woman Who Fell to Earth? Under the Skin is indeed all those things but, oh, so much more. It's the only movie his year that felt truly original from beginning to end. It's the only film where the images stayed with me long after the first viewing, the only one I was compelled to see more than once, and not just for the killer limbo scenes (see above). A movie like this walks the exhilarating tightrope of absolute failure every other frame. To director Jonathan Glazer's credit, he never once takes a false step.

HONORABLE MENTION


Cold in July

Like Kill List several years ago, I give this underseen indie big props for successfully hopscotching several genres (thriller, horror, drama, western) and never once telegraphing where it was headed. Don Johnson, Sam Shepard and the dude from Dexter sporting a hellacious '80s mullet join forces for a brutal but honorable Peckinpah-esque Texas revenge. Yes, I realize I'm exactly the target audience for this type of thing.


Listen Up, Philip

Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel) delivers again with a character study of prick-ish novelist who idolizes a Philip Roth-style blowhard who's even more of an asshole than him. But the movie's most interesting turn involves neither asshole...a section where it abandons these two self-involved jerks to follow Philip's girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) for nearly a half hour as she learns to appreciate herself on her own. Inspired choice or failed narrative experiment? Anyone's call. It at least made for an interesting argument on an otherwise uninteresting OKCupid date.


Locke

Locked in a speeding automobile with no one but Tom Hardy (and his bizarre Welsh accent) for 1.5 hours. He talks on a dashboard phone, sustains a nasty head cold and navigates numerous personal and professional crises. Sound like a dull night at the movies? Sir, you are wrong. In case anyone thought they made a mistake casting Hardy as the new Mad Max, I offer this film as contrary evidence. Look what the man can do in just a compact car. Now imagine what he will do at the helm of a post-apocalyptic 18-wheeler truck.


Stranger By the Lake

Ever wondered what a Hitchcock thriller would have looked like if old Alfred was into rough trade? Probably a lot like Stranger By The Lake. A moody French serial killer tale set at a waterside gay cruising spot, this very explicit film is not for the faint of heart, regardless of that heart's chosen persuasion. But for lovers of artful suspense filmmaking, it is, indeed, a commendable thing.


The Immigrant

Director James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own The Night) continues to make fantastic under-the-radar Joaquin Phoenix movies that virtually nobody sees. Add this early in the year entry to that list. More importantly, put it in your Netflix queue.

THE WORST


10. Interstellar

I still consider Christopher Nolan one of the more intellectually curious, exciting directors working in big-big budget Hollywood filmmaking today. I've liked virtually everything he's done, and I don't care to count how many times I've had to apologize for appreciating The Prestige. Interstellar is the first of his movies that failed me start to finish. A bloated, pseudo-philosophical space opera with 2001: A Space Odyssey aspirations, Nolan strives for Kubrick heights but free-falls (weightlessly) into a mushily sentimental Spielberg-Zemeckis abyss. Better yet, he crashes head-first into Stanley's humming Monolith. The Evil Matt Damon-McConaughey moon wrestling scene is (unintentionally) fun, but that's about it. And don't get me started on the home library tesseract.


9. Sex Tape

Years ago when I was a fledgling, sometimes working screenwriter, this hacky producer pitched me a terrible idea for a movie about a husband-wife sex tape that he wanted me to write on the cheap. I have no way to confirm this, but I think Sex Tape might be that movie. I watched it (for free) out of mild curiosity to see if I'd made a horrible mistake by not pursuing the job. I'm ecstatic to say I did not. Somehow, the finished product was even worse than that pitch.


8. A Night in Old Mexico

I love Robert Duvall. I love movies where cantankerous aged men go down to Mexico to settle old scores (see The Wild Bunch, et al). So, in theory, I should have loved this tiny movie. But in actuality I loathed it in a big budget sort of way. Sorry, Bobby D., but this movie screams vanity project, a misguided attempt to remind us all that, though aging, you retain every ounce of your early career virility. We didn't need the reminder, at least not in this way.


7. Lucy

A permanently dumb movie about a temporarily smart person. Forgive me for asking, but I have to wonder: If a person truly held all the world's intelligence at their fingertips (smart drug-induced or not), wouldn't they be able to find a way out of sticky situations without so much collateral damage, the age old action movie fallback of blowin' shit up? I suspect they probably would. But then I'm not the genius here. I suspect Lucy was my punishment for liking Under the Skin so much.


6. The Expendables 3

Yes, I knew the tired stew of action movie cliches I was getting myself into. After all, both previous Expendables movies ranked highly on prior Worst lists. I have no good excuse for watching this dross other than it being free and readily available. I have no one to blame but myself and, possibly, Wesley Snipes.


5. Godzilla

And so begin the Bryan Cranston post-Breaking Bad career doldrums. Bigger budgets, less interesting choices. I eagerly await his Better Call Saul cameo and little else. BB was built upon the premise of watching a good man (Walter White) slowly turn bad. Fingers crossed this brilliant actor's future resume does not follow the same trajectory.


4. The Monuments Men

Though a fine actor/philanthropist, George Clooney's always been hit-or-miss as a director. It's hard to say exactly what went wrong with Monuments Men. A fine cast, interesting source material, a World War II story as yet untold. But somehow the result is CRUSHINGLY DULL. Too earnest? Stakes not high enough for his merry band of art preservationists? I'm not sure. What I know is it took me several attempts to make it through after repeatedly falling asleep.


3. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Further evidence that the Family Guy guy's fratboy sensibilities are not my cup of tea and that he should never cast his own smarmy self as the lead. Blazing Saddles? Not by a long shot. Not even the campfire bean fart scene.


2. Unbroken

The Coen Brothers worked on the script, so I was kinda curious. Whatever they brought to the project, director Angelina Jolie must have by her mere presence erased. Because what's left is Oscar bait at its worst, unexceptional storytelling at best.


1. Noah

Were there battling rock monsters in the Book of Genesis? I don't know, I didn't pay a lot of attention in Sunday School. You tell me. Darren Aronofsky is fine filmmaker on the small-scale (The Wrestler, Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream). But when he goes big (The Fountain, this) he tends to go very bad. Let's hope for his next outing he avoids the Good Book all together, goes guerilla, shoots a documentary about one of the lesser bunions atop his feet.

DISHONORABLE MENTION


Chef

A dull two-hour advertisement for Twitter feeds and trendy food trucks. @cashiersdecinema says #avoidthismovielikeacaseoftheruns.


Dying of the Light

After last year's abysmal Lindsay Lohan vehicle The Canyons and now this flaccid Nic Cage CIA disease of the week thriller, director Paul Schrader is starting to become a permanent fixture on the yearly Worst list. Which is a shame because he's a brilliant writer and, at times, a great director (Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo). Here's hoping his creative firelight is not entirely dead, only temporarily dimmed.


Obvious Child

Juno in reverse with added poop jokes. I like Jenny Slate on Parks and Rec, but her spoiled, hipster stand-up shtick here was just the pits.


RoboCop

Not the worst Paul Verhoeven remake ever made, but, honestly, did we need a humorless RoboCop? More Michael Keaton, yes. More Gary Oldman, sure. New Detroit was fine the way it was. Now stay far, far away from Starship Troopers, Hollywood, will you please?


St. Vincent

Somewhere in the blind spot between a legitimately funny '80s Bill Murray comedy and a nauseatingly heartwarming '90s indie falls St. Vincent. Wherever you place it, it seemed curiously aged far beyond its expiration date.

SUPERLATIVES

BEST EVIL DOPPELGANGER FLICK

A two-way tie: Enemy and The Double

LEAST FLATTERING BUT MOST ENTERTAINING PORTRAYAL OF A VETERAN

The Guest

MOST FLATTERING BUT LEAST ENTERTAINING PORTRAYAL OF A VETERAN

Unbroken

BEST VICARIOUS MOVIE VACATION

The two old guys' Iceland trip in Land Ho!

WORST VICARIOUS MOVIE VACATION

Gerard Depardieu's five-star hotel to no-star prison cell reversal in Welcome to New York

BEST ORTHODONTICS

Tilda Swinton's oversized choppers in Snowpiercer

WORST ORTHODONTICS

Justin Long's walrus teeth in Tusk

BEST CGI CHARACTER

Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

WORST CGI CHARACTER

The poorly rendered fox that follows Reese Witherspoon around in Wild

MOST DELIGHTFULLY OVER-THE-TOP EVA GREEN PERFORMANCE

300: Rise of an Empire (barely edging out Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)

BEST CANINE AS PROTAGONIST'S SUBCONSCIOUS

Nic Cage's killer pit in Joe

BEST CANINE AS PLOT GENERATOR

The unseen rover in The Rover and the pup left in the trash in The Drop

BEST CANINE WHO ACTUALLY IS A PERSON

John "The Dog" Wojtowicz in The Dog (the Dog Day Afternoon doc)

"PLEASE, ENOUGH JAMES FRANCO ALREADY" AWARD

Palo Alto, The Interview, Child of God

"PLEASE, MORE ALEJANDRO, PLEASE" AWARD

The Dance of Reality and Jodorowsky's Dune

MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2015

Two-way tie...Ben Wheatley's J.G. Ballard adaptation High Rise and Mad Max: Fury Road.


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