Monday, January 19, 2015

The Best Films of 2014

Some may say it was an underwhelming year, and I suppose I can understand that. Yet it was easy to find 30 or 60 movies I loved in 2014. Actually, that's the way I feel about ANY given year. One only needs to look hard enough to find them all. Here are my views as to the best of 2014:

1a) THE CONGRESS (Israel/US, Ari Folman)
The one narrative film that made me cry over its sheer beauty. There's that moment where we hear Robin Wright singing Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" and I'm a freaking mess. I wasn't expecting to love Ari Folman's movie as much as I did--I respected his Waltz with Bashir, but didn't connect with it in the way many did. But The Congress totally moved my entire being. I loved it for being an encyclopedia of all things animated (it seemed like a mash-up of Ralph Bakshi, Max and Dave Fleischer, and Yellow Submarine), but I loved it as much for its live-action sequences, filled with kinetic performances from Danny Huston (who's astounding as the devilish head of "Miramount"), Harvey Keitel (moving as Wright's aging talent rep), and Paul Giamatti (dignified as a sympathetic doctor). And Robin Wright, in what must have been a difficult show playing a distaff version of herself...she just hauls back and knocks it out of the park with easily the most under-appreciated lead performance role of 2014. The Congress is about the future of movies and of entertainment consumption and the danger that lie within, both for consumers and artists, and as such, it just floored me from top to bottom. It's not a film for everyone, but it was definitely for me and, I felt in some part, me alone. (I love that feeling!) On the big screen, it's unmatchable--it totally seems like something you've never seen before, and that's what I look for in movies. It seems difficult to pick this as the best of the year, but I can't ignore my heart...and I have to say, the next film is just as good (and thematically linked), so this will be my first TIE for number one!  

My favorite Orson Welles-like magic trick of the year, and perhaps the only one performed on 2014 screens. I know it's experienced some backlash of late, but I'll be damned if I can explain it. What could be the complaint here? The script is supremely surprising and hilarious right from the get-go, Innurritu's direction is athletic, the Emmanuel Lubezki cinematography is enchanting, the drum score by Antonio Sanchez rumbles and rocks the seats, and the cast--wow. Michael Keaton in an extremely welcome comeback showing, Edward Norton in an almost equally remarkable turn, Emma Stone grounding it all with her big eyes, and Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Zack Galifinakis, Merrit Weaver, and Amy Ryan all providing supreme support. A beautiful, gritty, smutty movie about ego, legacy, and reaching beyond our reach. The scene with Keaton naked in the middle of Times Square is definitely the scene of the year--I was doubled over with laughter at this ironic state of affairs, with a man famous for wearing a suit now without such protection and amongst so many suit-wearing others trying to glom on to his success. And at the end, outside the theater, I was floating on a cloud, and that is always a sure sign for me as to the quality of a film. Totally transporting and totally unique! And I love how Birdman and The Congress share so many elements, right down to their lead characters taking flight in the third act! It seems like an unplanned confluence of universal proportions and, in struggling to explain this boggling coincidence, I deem it a tie for the top spot! 

2) BOYHOOD (US, Richard Linklater) 
What can one say? A singular achievement, completely moving and so well executed. Its transitions from year to year are among the film world's most special special effects, and while watching it you say to yourself "Am I actually SEEING what I'm seeing?" I'm just glad now that Richard Linklater's brilliance is now being noticed, even so many years after Dazed and Confused and the Before series. Perhaps the ensemble of the year, with Ellar Coltrane maybe being the most unlikely hero of 2014, jumping into this performance feet first and bringing so much authentic heart to it. And then we have Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke providing so much meat to the story, making it just as much a movie about parenthood. Then, I have to add Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, who is completely a part of this as she almost steals the movie from them all (seriously, she is terrific here). A shining song score and adept editing adorns Linklater's successful and actually completely wild experiment.

3) INHERENT VICE (US, Paul Thomas Anderson) 
P.T. Anderson does it again, and don't let anyone fool you--even those fans who say they don't like the film now will find themselves going back to and loving it years from today. Lots of huge laughs, incredible moments of dire drama and intense emotions, an anarchic array of beautiful performances by both relative newcomers and veterans, a gorgeous film to look at (and a complete and never overdone trip back to 70s film, with Robert Elswit's superb photography its chief jewel, followed by the subtle  art direction and costume design), totally rad for numerous viewings (since the mystery itself is so convoluted--by design, I should say), and a film that has much to say about how the well-off view the struggling. I think the main thing that most critics/bloggers have a problem with, in their disregard of the film (if not total derision) is that they can't follow the clues. But the clues are not the point. It's the journey that matters. And it's a fantastic, pot-foggy trip and probably a perfect introduction to Thomas Pynchon since it seems completely devoted to his words. Out of its superb cast, I particularly love Joaquin Phoenix (who continues to be cinema's most fascinating actor), a nutty Josh Brolin, a heartrending Katherine Waterston, an untethered Martin Short, the newcomer Joanna Newsom (whose chirpy voice provides the unforgettable narration), a snappy cameo upfront  from Jeanne Berlin, and Martin Donovan (as the slimiest villain of 2014). God, I just ate this film up. I expect to love it more as time goes on. 

4) WE ARE THE BEST! (Sweden, Lukas Moodysson) 
The director of cult films Lilya-4-Ever and Together crafts a brilliant coming-of-age tale wrapped in a celebration of girlhood and the DIY ethic. It's around 1984 and we're following three middle school Swedish girls as they embark on forming a punk band, with the ever catchy "Hate The Sport" as their anthem. (Gotta love a movie with an anti-sports song in it, and wait 'til you hear "Brezhnev Reagan!"). Fun and extra authentic performances from the three young leads--nerdy drummer Mira Barkhammar, troublemaking bassist Mira Grosin, and classically trained guitarist Liv LeMoyne--and a real sense of nervy excitement throughout, not only in the wonderfully cacophonous music-driven scenes, but also in those that find these young women navigating often thorny paths through adolescence, alone yet always together. Sweet without being maudlin, tough without being mean, genuinely thrilling, often hilarious, We Are The Best rocks hard and happy.

5) A CHAIR FIT FOR AN ANGEL (Finland/Canada, Raymond St. Jean) 
I sat down expecting a respectful but average tour through an ancient tradition. What I got was a movie that radically moved me. The director Raymond St. Jean deftly conflates so many art forms in its short running time, it's nearly impossible to put their power into words. The Shakers are a religious community founded in 18th Century England. Their music, transmitted entirely by voice, sounds like something left over from medieval times, as producer/music director/onscreen interviewee Joel Cohen underlines (there's a transcendent moment where Cohen sits in a room filled with 12,000 handwritten transcripts of Shaker tunes and joyfully harmonizes with vocalist Anne Azema, both of whom are sight reading from just one of these tomes). There are powerful moments where the modern works of Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen take over, perhaps against the grain of the Shakers, but I believe these divergent works meld with each other perfectly here. For years now, Saarinen has toured the world with his stage piece Borrowed Light, inspired by the Shaker tunes, and he is seen here directing dancers working in dramatically photographed settings (astonishingly shot by cinematographer Jean-Francois Lord), where the perfection of everything seen is both a tribute to God and a notation to the utilitarian vision of the movement. Though it could be compared to Wim Wenders' 3D masterpiece Pina, I found myself wondering if I had ever quite seen anything like this movie, it felt so fresh. Yes, there are talking heads, sparingly used. And yes, there is a narrator, also sparingly used. Sometimes what this film consists of is silent, radiant shots of American and European Shaker environments--often a shot of a chair and table, immaculately made, in an immaculate surrounding, with gorgeous natural light seeping in through a single perfect window pane, the camera moving ever so slowly through it all. And then sometimes the movie is a powerful look at Saarinen's dichotomous and yet somehow harmonious modern dance, set often with a vocalist present, with the dancers out of focus in the background (how luminous is the direction here; it's so hard getting dance to play on screen and yet St. Jean and Lord do it so brilliantly). And then, as if we needed more, it's a movie that explains the Shakers' spiritually vibrant worldview, and their worshipful approach to their crafts. A Chair Fit for an Angel truly trips us into another existence, all in 75 short minutes. (Seen at the Massachusetts International Film Festival, this film remains unreleased as of March 2015.)

6) WHIPLASH (US, Damien Chazelle) 
It might not be the most original movie--it's basically a cross between Taylor Hackford's An Officer and a Gentleman and Alan Parker's Fame, and even as such, it's not unassailable (jazz isn't nearly all about playing as fast as you can, just to pick on one of the film's notable music-based failings here). But as far as that goes, it's among 2014's most baldly entertaining works, with each of its elements hitting confidently on every point--the music, the superb editing (by Tom Cross), the crisp cinematography (by Sherone Meir), Chazelle's exacting and rhythmically adept direction, and the superb cast led by Miles Teller as a harried collegiate drummer, and terrifying J.K. Simmons as his punishing headmaster (who earns his inevitable Oscar with every sinewy move). I swear, my heart was racing through almost every single moment of this precocious movie, and even though I know some of it might be claimed radically implausible by more experienced jazzbos, I could not help but adore it. While you are watching it, you are hooked.

7) FORCE MAJEURE (Sweden, Ruben Ostland) 
A tale of supreme human insight--very nearly Kubrickian in its closely-observed exactness--which remains absolutely suspenseful right to its very end. A family of four are on a ski trip and the marital tensions are in the air from the outset. Then one huge event sends the family tumbling into the abyss of thought and trust, with its after-effects reverberating out onto their children, their friends, even onto relative strangers. It's absolutely detail-oriented in, exploring the responsibilities both men and women face as spouses and parents, and as members of their respective sex. Riveting on all fronts, replete with complicated and often hilarious silences, and so perfectly executed by Ostlund, his cast (particularly leads Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Bah Kuhnke), and his crew (with special kudos to cinematographer Fredric Wentzel). It's a crime it wasn't nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar.

8) NATIONAL GALLERY (US, Frederick Wiseman)  
Wiseman can do no wrong. At 85, he's just the most perfect, most dedicated and devoted  documentarian out there. He's proven it for decades now, starting with Titicut Follies in the late '60s. But with National Gallery, he really hit my personal wheelhouse (as I'm a bald-faced art enthusiast). In it, he covers every aspect of London's National Gallery, from head to toe, and I just loved every minute of it--the boardroom meetings talking about the direction the museum is taking; the shots of attendants admiring the paintings (and the shots of the paintings looking back at them); the tense scenes of restoration experts scraping away at these prized works, making them all the better; critics pontificating for audiences and cameras; even janitors mopping and buffing the floors. If anyone ever wants to travel the complicated world without leaving their home, they only need to investigate all of Wiseman's movies. I would posit that this as among his most buoyant tours through life's wonders. 

9) UNDER THE SKIN (US/UK, Jonathan Glazer) 
Scarlett Johansson had a particularly great year, starting off with her voice-only performance in Spike Jonze's Her, continuing with great shows in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Jon Favreau's immensely lovable Chef, Luc Besson's Lucy, and capping it off with this superb standoff as an alien trying to figure out the details of humanity, and particularly its male inhabitants. A perfect counterpoint to Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, Glazer's difficult yet utterly transfixing sci-fi entry stands tall as one of the year's bravest films, with its unusual effects and makeup, its exactingly laconic editing, and Mica Levi's eerie score being among its most surprising stand-out elements. Haunting through and through, seriously challenging and rewarding, it may not be a film for everyone, but it is a film you can't ever forget you've seen.

10) TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Belgium. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)  
The Dardennes usually never fail to impress, but their movies can sometimes be so low-key that they fly under the radar. However, this entry in the career of these Belgian brothers is so ridiculously suspenseful (much like my favorite of their films, L'Enfant) that it's kind of impossible to ignore. Marion Cotillard may seem like a surprise Oscar nominee to some, but anyone who watches this movie is forced to concede she gives one of the leading performances of the year--and, indeed, the one to beat. Her harried character vividly careens between desperation and joy as she appeals to those around her for support in a time where it feels like everyone is running in the opposite direction. A great movie not only about the need to connect and maybe even the need to act against your own best interests, but also a sly one about the most crippling aspects of depression.

11) LEVIATHAN (Russia, Andre Zvyaginstev) 
Taking in this crushing Russian drama was like watching a biology experiment in which a big fish swallows up a little one. A clan on a family-owned plot of land is fighting a corrupt town mayor who wants to seize their property. The father (Aleksey Serebryakov) is a mean drunk who plots, along with his best friend, slick Moscow lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), to gather dirt on the mayor. Along the way, this titanic struggle reveals stressed-out fissures in the relationships between this shaky patriarch and his standoffish second wife (Elena Lyadova), his increasingly confused teenage son (Roman Madyanov), as well as friends, neighbors, and even governmental and religious bodies. The drama in this piece, recently nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, is devastating to the point where it places you in a state of abject panic, and Zvyaginstev's painstakingly composed widescreen images of the Russian seaside are both bleak and gorgeous, putting one in mind of, dare I say it, Stanley Kubrick. It's a supremely controversial film in Russia, as it's seen as a vehemently anti-Putin statement. I can see that. But so what? It's a smashing story, vibrantly filmed. See this one on the big screen if you can!

12) JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (France/US, Frank Pavich) 
Breathless and so entertaining, Pavich's movie finally gives lip service to perhaps the most influential movie never made. If nothing else, this documentary should cement Jodorowsky as one of cinema's most insanely eclectic voices--that is, if the movies he HAS made haven't already done that (which they certainly have--go watch Holy Mountain and tell me if you've ever seen anything like it). A film about how one rigorously designed failure spun into success in spite of itself, and how not much has changed in a studio system whose overlords display fear when faced with a profound vision that, no matter how well it has been worked out, stuns them into immobility. 

13) RED ARMY (US, Gabe Polsky)   
A sports movie for people who don't care for sports, but who do thrive on the human drama that goes into it. In a year filled with superlative documentaries, this was the one that surprised me most with its bottomless wells of emotion. Russia's most heroic and talented hockey players--including the dynamic Slava Fetisov, whose undeniable charisma takes center stage here from the first shot on--prove their resilience on rinks around the world, perhaps despite and perhaps because of the torturous discipline they were subjected to at the hands of the Soviet state. Even if you're already a fan who's been following the careers of these five artists (and I call them that because the copious footage of them working together on the ice hails their athletic bond as a thing of beauty), the journey each makes through their lives is nothing short of astounding. Polsky's both worshipful and stylistically irreverent documentary cements their greatness. (Seen at the New York Film Festival, this film got its American release in February 2015.)

14) MR. TURNER (UK. Mike Leigh) 
This is the title on this list that I feel, in a few years, I'm gonna wish I had rated higher. A biopic that doesn't conform to genre tropes, it follows an intrepid and rule-breaking artist many decades ahead of his time, and does so without sentimentalizing him. He can be a "gargoyle," a pig, a sentimental fool, a loner, a winner, and a loser. My first reaction to the film was that it was perhaps not enough of "a Mike Leigh film," and I said that as a tremendous fan of Leigh's work. But I suspect I will see it again and see much more in it that stamps it as such, including an affinity I suspect the filmmaker shares with his often derided subject (I believe Leigh has not yet been fully accepted by the British, despite being the UK's premier filmmaker for at least the past two decades). As it stands now, it's absolutely one of his finest movies on a craft level alone (with special attention paid to Dick Pope's sumptuous photography and Gary Yershon's haunting score), and it certainly features a commanding performance from the infallible Timothy Spall, delivering the most dynamic male lead of the year. The brilliant supporting cast including Marion Bailey, Martin Savage, Dorothy Atkinson, and Leslie Manville, all of whom are veterans of Leigh's visionary past and who prove themselves worthy of his approval once again..

15) STRAY DOG (US, Debra Granik)  
The second unreleased film of 2014 on my list, it's one I'm sure is going to get more play as 2015 marches on. Director Debra Granik, who helmed 2010's Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone, first came into contact with Ron "Stray Dog" Hall when she cast him as that film's menacing biker villain. But when she got to know this imposing character, she began to see there was more to him than originally evident. Hall stands as the most inspiring figure in any documentary of the year--brave in his honesty and loyal in his devotion to a cause, absolutely a friend to all who meet him, gently big-hearted and supremely understanding, particularly to the veterans whom he supports in their efforts to fight PTSD (a condition he feels is an inevitability for those who've experienced the battlefield). Resolutely non-partisan, Stray Dog is a movie that bridges the gap between the political divide consuming the US by showing us a side of Middle America that we rarely see on screen. At the same time, this is a pitch-perfect portrait of a Vietnam veteran, an unconventional father and husband, an avid biker, a loving and multi-cultural family, and of a terrifically tenacious advocate for those whose voices are hailed while in service of their country, but whose needs are often forgotten once their duty is done. Granik is the rare filmmaker who can hop to the documentary form after such widespread success in the narrative field; I hope she will stand as an example to others willing to stray from such bounds, because I really feel this is her very best work. (Seen at the New York Film Festival, this film will be released sometime in the spring or summer of 2015.)

Quite simply, this was the blockbuster of the year. As much I adored the extremely lovable Guardians of the Galaxy, I just found this to be a more chance-taking film, mostly in that humans are an afterthought in it, and in that it corrects the many negatives of the previous installment. As the APES series goes (and I'm including the original series in here as well), it takes a backseat only to Franklin Schaffner's 1968 progenitor in that it is the most apey of all ape movies (the special effects here are unbelievable, and I think the Oscar should go to this team easily, though I suspect the overrated Interstellar will take the award). Reeves, who shocked us with both the underrated Cloverfield and then with the extra-unseen remake Let Me In, continues to impress with his directorial creativity; his camera continually enlivens scenes that would be handled with so much less verve by, say, Rupert Wyatt (who dully directed the previous installment). Also, I should point out, the film further displays mo-cap performance technique as an element of some import, and Andy Serkis as the undisputed master of this relatively new craft. 

17) NIGHTCRAWLER (US, Dan Gilroy) 
Gilroy's prickly film--arguably the narrative debut of the year--feels wonderfully like a recently unearthed late 80s potboiler made by Golan-Globus's Cannon outfit. It's strange, haunting, creepy, unpredictable, and surely a throwback to a time where such films were more evident across the filmgoing landscape. Jake Gyllenhaal bent himself into a gaunt frenzy playing this rank amateur elbowing his way into a scummy realm of media hucksterism, and both Rene Russo (as his immoral producer) and Riz Ahmed (as his desperate second) are each a match to his brilliance. And photographer Robert Elswit fashions this capture of Los Angeles as sort of an evil twin to his more forgiving work on P.T. Anderson's Inherent Vice. He is the cinematographer of the moment. 

18) SUNSHINE SUPERMAN (US, Maura Strauch)  
Maura Strauch's visually and dramatically dazzling Sunshine Superman follows the thrillseeking endeavors of Carl Boenish and his team of intrepid filmmakers (including his equally adventurous wife Jean). Initially a skydiving enthusiast who worked as an adviser to John Frankenheimer on his 1969 movie The Gypsy Moths, Boenish is the inventor of BASE jumping (we find, through this film, that "BASE" is actually an acronym for "building antennae site earth"). We also find that he is an unsung filmmaking genius himself, having staged many of these jumps only because film (shot via 16mm cameras mounted on crash helmets) could record for all their exhilarating quality. As one could imagine, Strauch has a wealth of footage to choose from, and though we're transfixed by the jumps themselves, it's the mysterious, spiritual and impossibly driven character of Carl Boenish that commands this expertly constructed film. Scored with one of the year's most tuneful source music collections, this is a treasure trove of '70s coolness, on top of being--thanks to Strauch, Boenish and crew--an inspiring visual feast that literally soars through the ether.  (Seen at the New York Film Festival, this film will see its release in May 2015.)

19) JOE (US, David Gordon Green) 
Green has long been a master in both recruiting and getting the best out of his casts, and that includes those composed of new and even non-actors. Nothing proves this more than Joe, which has Nicholas Cage in the title role as the leader in a team of rural workers employed by government-ducking industrialists to kill trees with their stashes of poison. Tye Sheridan, a newly-minted actor who was so great in Malick's The Tree of Life and Jeff Nichol's Mud, continues with an impressive career here, and Cage is fine too in his best showing since his collaboration with Werner Herzog a few years ago. But it's the non-actors here that shock us--most specifically Gary Poulter, a homeless street performer who is so magnetic and believably evil as Sheridan's drunkard father that it's difficult to accept it's all a performance. Poulter died scant months after the film was completed, so Joe uncompromisingly stands as a testament to a talent barely explored. And, yet, it also stands as proof of a director's natural-born ability to eke the truth from all who stand before his camera. 

20) NIGHT MOVES (US, Kelly Reichardt)
The helmer of such masterpieces as Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt continues to escape widespread acclaim as this country's finest female filmmaker (and I hate that I have to make that distinction--she's absolutely among the finest of all American filmmakers regardless of her sex, and I wish more critics and bloggers would make note of this), and yet here we are with another of her engrossing yet little-seen films. In it, Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard play devoted environmentalists out to blow up a dam they feel has played a detrimental effect on the Northeastern forest they love so much. A daring and well-observed film about the dangers of extremism, and definitely not a movie that condones this sort of action, though I think it tries to understand it. Also, I should say, this is Eisenberg's best performance since The Social Network, making the most effective use of his unique nervousness.

21) THE TALE OF PRINCESS KAGUYA (Japan, Isao Takahata) 
I'm not usually a fan of the Studio Ghibli style, and yet I was taken in by Takahata's beautifully rendered fairy tale, mostly because of its thrillingly handpainted design, so reverent to Japanese tradition, and its likewise unpredictable plot trajectory. It's the animated movie of the year, along with Bill Plympton's underappreciated Cheatin', which just missed making the top of the list.

22) IDA (Poland, Pawel Pawilikowski) 

Beautifully photographed in a 1:33 ratio and in black-and-white, this year's most well-attended foreign-language film (stateside, at least) also features two of the year's towering performances in Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska. Devastating, revealing, and one of the most distinctive  looking (and feeling) movies of the year. 

23) '71 (UK, Yann Demange)  
Demange's striking debut film manages to simultaneously bring into recognizable focus the unimaginable horror of The Troubles between the Northern Irish and the English. Then, in the process, it also morphs into an exciting and unnerving action film, anchored by a terrific cast led by the increasingly ubiquitous Jack O'Connell, who had a landmark year in Unbroken and Starred Up. (Seen at the 2014 New York Film Festival, '71 is set for release in February of 2015)

24) A STANDING STILL (US, Scott Ballard) 
Ballard's film is a call back to the early 80s films of John Sayles or Richard Pearce or Robert M. Young, and of films about loneliness, like Bruce Beresford's Tender Mercies. In it, a beautifully detached Sara Robbin plays Allison, a worker for the forestry service who spends half of her life in isolation while perched above the Oregon forests keeping an eye out for fires. The other half, she's striving to reconnect with the father (a warm Ted Rooney) and friends she left behind. Ballard acts as cinematographer here, filming in 35mm, 16mm and video, and blending them all seamlessly. His writing is impeccable, surely dramatizing the odd emotions that would befall such a character obsessed with the beauty of the world and yet so strangely distanced from its humanity. And, though the film has the benefit of a superb composer (Rebecca Sanborn), it never overuses its musicality. It knows to stay silent when it needs to, and thus transmits the feeling of being away from sound for so long. This is a unique movie, filled with bravery and emotion and a love for this vividly forested earth. (Seen at the Massachusetts International Film Festival, this film remains unreleased as of January 2015.)

A documentary of incomprehensible breadth, The Oracles of Pennsylvania Avenue first sets its sights on a now-forgotten "terrorist" action of 1982, in which Norman Mayer, an American activist against nuclear arms, took the Washington Monument hostage, threatening to destroy it if more attention isn't paid to disarming the nuclear arsenals held by the US. Director Wilkerson skillfully intercuts the trajectory of this event with the story of Mayer's cohorts, a ragtag band of basically homeless activists who took up ground directly in front of the White House in Layfayette Park starting in 1981 and continuing today. In doing so, three people--William Thomas (a man with an incredibly colorful past, as we find in his dynamic and often funny interviews here), Ellen Thomas (the woman who married him and took up his mantle for peace), and Conception Picciotto, a Spanish immigrant who eagerly joined this movement after meeting William Thomas--began what has now become the longest single continual protest movement the United States, if not the world, has ever seen. 24 hours a day since June 3rd, 1981, this band of activists have found a way to get their message seen and heard by literally millions of American citizens, both in person and on TV. Some have argued with them, some have sided with them, but all have taken in their message. Having been basically okayed by the Washington DC police as permanent fixtures of Layfayette Park, they have been broadcast countless times via national news outlets who've set their cameras up in front of the White House, unable to avoid their warnings against nuclear disaster. Wilkerson, who also skillfully acts as editor here, displays an intense flair for organizing information, deftly juggling the often biographical commentary of his subjects as well as that of more globally-aimed subjects such as Nobel Prize winning peace activist Helen Caldicott, journalists George Stephanopolous and Bill Moyers, and a slew of government investigators. The fact that Wilkerson is able to so powerfully humanize the activists (who, honestly, are taking on a hugely daunting task and all under the light of Norman Mayer, who takes the movement to a tough extreme), while still portraying the massive and justifiable nature of their protest...well, that's just an insanely huge achievement. This is a movie that needs to be seen, absolutely. The nuclear threat isn't over, folks. It lies not dormant as we wish, but still a monster. Though I wish it were a bit more technically adept, Wilkerson's movie--and those it hails--reminds us of the work that remains. (Seen at the Massachusetts International Film Festival, this film remains unreleased as of January 2015.)

26) FOXCATCHER (US, Bennett Miller)  
Chilly and forensic, yes, but a film that sets up a world and follows it through. Steve Carell's lead performance as John DuPont is both a revelation and a bit of a disappointment, but I think that is by design, since the man himself was so impenetrable that he became the richest person ever to be convicted of murder (quite an achievement in this day). Channing Tatum, as the wrestler on whom he fixates, supremely embodies yet another layer of mystery, while Mark Ruffalo provides an unknowing window into this story as the one stumbling, doomed innocent in it all. A memorable account of dread and of living in a bubble of protected wealth, and of the resentment the have-nots have on the haves, and vice-versa. A VERY weird movie. 

Anderson has definitely ventured into self parody with films like The Darjeeling Limited and especially the overrated Moonrise Kingdom. But he came back into the fold with this, a visually resplendent if somewhat twee (of course) fairy tale that happens to have a supreme cast and crew working at the top of their game. It ain't as great as Rushmore or Fantastic Mr. Fox (it's simply not as fun or funny), but it's well-produced enough to make me happy he's finally getting his due. I should note here that it's production and costume design, its exacting makeup, and its inventive, ratio-juggling cinematography by Robert Yeoman are among the most shining examples of movie craftsmanship from 2014.

28) THE FOXY MERKINS (US, Madeleine Olnek)  
The spirit of indie filmmaking lives vividly in this comedic take on lesbian prostitution (a profession that doesn't exist), with leads Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan delivering two of the great performances of the year, all while co-writing this supreme example of DIY-filmmaking with NYC pro Olnek. Very few movies this year provided me with such gut-busting laughs and realistic heartbreak, and the two leads deliver beautifully calibrated comic performances, and I loved the moxie of director Olnek, who really makes the most of her ingredients. 

29) WILD (US, Jean Marc Vallee) 
What I adored about this movie, apart from the superb showings from Reese Witherspoon (in a gratifying comeback) and Laura Dern (so lovely as Cheryl Strayed's beloved mother) was screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director Vallee's approach to the idea of shaping a one-voiced memoir into a film. Editing, score, and sound design are all inventively, collectively employed to put you into the head of our heroine. I found their work completely captivating, and I think THIS is the women's film of the year. 

30) FINDING VIVIEN MAIER (US, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)  
I definitely want to learn something new while taking in any documentary, and Finding Vivien Maier did that to the nth degree, introducing us to an artist that never got her due simply because she wasn't looking for recognition and instead loved only the process of the work itself. While I love the movie for its righting of this, I also love it for highlighting the fact that an artist has absolutely no responsibility to show their work off to the world. I certainly relate to that, because it seems like doing so would be a big pain. 

OF NOTE (in order of preference): Life Itself, Love is Strange, Gone Girl, Forev, Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live Die Repeat), Iris, The Great Chicken Wing Hunt, Blue Ruin, Cheatin', The Babadook, Guardians of the Galaxy, Evolution of a Criminal, Snowpiercer, Selma, Limo Ride, American Sniper, Saint Laurent, Are You Here, Metalhead, Kids for Cash, Tracks, The Homesman, Like Father Like Son, Begin Again, Cesar Chavez, The Overnighters, Top Five, Art and Craft, Fed Up, The Kill Team, Out of Print, Get On Up, Dear White People, Having Fun Up There, Bobo, The Trip to Italy, Eden, Nymphomania, Pride, Chef, 120 Days, Jersey Boys, St. Vincent, Maps to the Stars, Midlife, Cake, 15 to Life: Kenneth's Story, The Sublime and Beautiful, I Believe in Unicorns, HazMat, The Frontier, Obvious Child, Consideration, The Dog, The Fault in Our Stars, The Boss Wants a Happy Ending, Raising Matty Christian, And So It Goes

SHORTS: Thirteen Blue, Me and My Moulton, So You've Grown Attached, Crystal, Painted Lady, Without Fire, The Creed, Butterfly Fluttering, Earth Water Woman, Waging War, When You Can't See the Film, Molly, Talk to Strangers, re: Jess, Sriaracha, Yearbook, Too Many Cooks

TELEVISION: Olive Kitteridge, The Roosevelts, Louie, Silicon Valley, True Detective, Mad Men, Veep, Fargo, Derek, Orange is the New Black, Ray Donovan, The Americans, Rectify, Game of Thrones, Black Mirror, Alpha House, The Affair, Portlandia

OVERRATED: The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, A Most Violent Year, Feast,  Interstellar, The Lego Movie, CITIZENFOUR, The Skeleton Twins, Listen Up Philip, Big Hero 6, Still Alice, The 50 Year Argument, Manakamana, The Rover, The Immigrant, John Wick, Rich Hill, The Internet's Own Boy

BLAH: Big Eyes, The Expendables 3, The Interview, Houdini, The Blue Room, Godzilla, Copenhagen, The Double, Hank: Back from the Brink, The Drop, The Gambler, The Monuments Men, Fury, The Culture High, 1982, A is for Alex, Stripped, Whitey: The United States vs. James Bulger, The Signal, The Two Faces of January, The Unknown Known

BAD: Locke, Reflections of Maya Rose, Jauja, God's Not Dead, Enemy, Left Behind, S.O.B. (Summer of Blood), Bob Birdnow's Remarkable Tale of Survival and the Transcendence of Self, God's Pocket, Frank, Sabotage, The Unwanted, Speak Now, Beside Still Waters, The Dependables, Space Station 76, First Snow

STILL NEED TO SEE: Timbuktu, Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Goodbye to Language, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Winter Sleep, Mommy, Kill the Messenger, Tangerines, The Normal Heart, Virunga, The Salt of the Earth, Cavalry, The Raid 2: Redemption, Stranger by the Lake, The Dance of Reality

GREAT DISCOVERIES FROM THE PAST: Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald, 57), King Rat (Bryan Forbes, 65), Radioactive City (Richard Sandler, 2011), Run Silent Run Deep (Robert Wise, 58), Experiment in Terror (Blake Edwards, 62), She Lives (Stuart Hagmann, 73), Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 40), Fate is the Hunter (Ralph Nelson, 64), Stella (John Erman, 90), Rage (George C. Scott, 72), Summer and Smoke (Peter Glenville, 61), The Life of Emile Zola (William Dieterle, 37), Not as a Stranger (Stanley Kramer, 55), The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton, 53), Up the Sandbox (Irvin Kershner, 72), Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Lorene Scafaria, 2012), Brooklyn Bridge (Ken Burns, 81), Great World of Sound (Craig Zobel, 2007), The Deadly Tower (Jerry Jameson, 75), The Killer Shrews (Ray Kellogg, 59), Caught (Max Ophuls, 49), What a Crazy World! (Michael Carreras, 63), Jacqueline (Roy Ward Baker, 56), My Cousin Rachel (Henry Koster, 52), The Whisperers (Bryan Forbes, 67), The Detective (Gordon Douglas, 68), Comanche Station (Budd Boetticher, 60), Sundays and Cybele (Serge Bourguignon, 62), The Good Old Boys (Tommy Lee Jones, 95)

REDISCOVERED: The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 68), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (John Huston, 57), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 89), Sunshine (Joseph Sargent, 73), House Calls (Howard Zieff, 78), The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 64), The Survivors (Michael Richie, 83), The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 51), About Mrs. Leslie (Daniel Mann, 54), Summertime (David Lean, 55), Buster and Billie (Daniel Petrie, 74), The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir, 86), Helter Skelter (Tom Gries, 76), Hickey and Boggs (Robert Culp, 72), Massacre at Central High (Renee Daalder, 76), Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 90), Bitter Harvest (Roger Young, 81), Old Enough (Marisa Silver, 84), Brubaker (Stuart Rosenberg, 80)

BAD FROM THE PAST: Sphere, Damnation Alley, The Odd Couple II, The Mating Season, The Atomic Brain, Body of Lies, Killers from Space, Eddie and the Cruisers II

My favorite personal achievements of the year, apart from my continued involvement with MOVIE GEEKS UNITED and my wonderful friends Jamey Duvall and Jerry Dennis (whose top tens of 2014 you can hear now):

This--my praising the most underappreciated movie of the year, in the face of its cast and writer/director, all while promoting MOVIE GEEKS UNITED at the New York Film Festival (keep an eye out for my moment at the 6:00 mark): 

And especially this--talking intimately with Mike Leigh, my favorite filmmaker on the planet, and meeting him face to face, too:

Here's to an even better 2015, and thank you all for reading and listening! 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Film #166: A Matter of Life or Death (AKA Stairway to Heaven)


Out of the seventeen movies Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger made together, A Matter of Life and Death was their sixth, sandwiched in between two other humanistic yet fantastical tales, 1945’s “I Know Where I’m Going!” and Black Narcissus (47). This team was, at the time, used to dazzling audiences with their idea-dense, often passionate and visually rich flights of imagination (thanks to their collaboration with legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff). Yet A Matter of Life and Death feels somehow different, maybe because it’s such a glorious mix of so many genres. It first feels almost like science-fiction, with that quick, witty tour of the galaxy at the film’s outset (this is the first glimpse of the subtle but often brilliant special effects featured throughout the movie). Then it most certainly feels like a war picture in the spectacular opening scene between David Niven’s presumably doomed RAF pilot Peter Greene and Kim Hunter’s June, the “Yank girl” he radios as his plane is going down (few movies, if any have had the temerity to begin with such florid and unbound emotions—I mean, what gorgeous close-ups we have here–and yet with the two main characters at the edge of being separated not only by space but by life itself).

For a while, the film becomes a fantasy, as we are taken into another world…a world that may be Heaven (though Powell and Pressberger purportedly wanted to avoid inferring anything such; they balked at the American retitling Stairway to Heaven) or it may be simply another dimension that exists only in a dusty corner of Peter Greene’s brain. It does feel like if the directors truly wished to erase the concept of Heaven from the film, they wouldn’t have had new arrivals in the black-and-white world picking up their made-to-measure wings at the sign-in desk, nor would they have given the young Richard Attenborough—as a breathless newbie–his only line is “It is Heaven, isn’t it?” Either way, the film works in the possibility that all Peter Greene is experiencing--including a ghostly visitation by an erring French “conductor” (Marius Goring)–is a hallucination suffered as a result of something nasty pressing down on his brain. In this way, with the introduction of Roger Lievsay’s Dr. Frank Reeves (who's magnificent here), the film also becomes a tense medical drama.
Goring’s foppish conductor is sent down to the Technicolor “real” world in order to bring Greene back where he belongs—in the afterlife, where the numbers aren’t adding up for the first time in a thousand years. Greene, indeed, was supposed to die after bailing out of his crippled aircraft. But the conductor lost him in the British fog, and instead Greene survives, washing up on the shores of Devon (there’s an unusual scene with a nude shepherd boy that was cut out of American prints). In short order, Peter finally meets June, who’s bicycling desperately along the shoreline. With the tiny sound of her bicycle bell, the two profess their instant love for one another, and this complicates matters greatly. Upon his visitation, the conductor apologizes for the mistake, but Peter refuses to go along with him, reasoning that this new romance has saddled him with a fresh responsibility that he must own up to. That it comes as the result of a mistake by the powers-that-be, he argues, is not his fault and certainly not a reason to punish he and June with a prolonged separation.

This disagreement necessitates an appeal to the authorities of this other world, and so a trial date is set, with Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey), the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War, set as the prosecuting attorney. Peter is told to choose anyone he wants—from Socrates to Abraham Lincoln—as his defense attorney. But it takes an unexpected accident for him to get the representation he truly desires. In its final third, A Matter of Life and Death becomes a dizzying celestial courtroom drama, complete with a white-wigged judge (Abraham Sofaer), a stoic jury (at first composed of members with a certain anti-British bias), and a vast audience of the world’s members, all separated out into their separate cheering sections. It’s fascinating that, in this sequence, the film takes on the subject of rancor between the British and the Americans (this was a big subject in the UK during WWII, with the Americans’ often unwelcome arrival on British shores). Farlan—who naturally despises the British whom he fought against and who killed him–is constantly trying to use Greenes’ nationality against him, while Peter’s defense is just as constantly trying to steer the arguments back to the facts (that June is an American girl, born in Boston, infuriates Farlan even further).

The film ultimately comes to a stalemate on the issue, settling on the equitable notion that there are good and bad things both about those on each side of the pond (this is amusingly done with each of the attorneys sampling bits of radio broadcasts from each country, with Britain’s a burbling, pretentious Churchill-like commentator pontificating endlessly, and America’s a snippet of a goopy Sinatra-like pop song, complete with swooning girls screaming in the background).

Ultimately, though, A Matter of Life and Death is primarily a sublime love story. That very unusual first scene sets it up so perfectly (I adore it when Niven tells the unforgettably red-lipped Hunter, who’s just confessed she could love a man like Peter, “I love you, June. You’re life and I’m leaving you.”). They enjoy a passionate connection, clawing at life, that feels palpably real despite its unusual pedigree. Powell and Pressberger wisely upend the Wizard of Oz color separation, making the Earthly world vibrantly hued with the possibilities of romance, and the other world coldly reasonable in the starkness of black-and-white (what miracles photographer Cardiff performs all throughout). The unforgettable climax is set against the massive stairway (built at huge cost to the filmmakers) that stands as perhaps the film’s most provocative or at least memorable image. While Peter is on the operating table in the real world, he finally also appears in the other world as a witness for the trial. June appears here, too, and it takes a supreme sacrifice on both their parts to prove that their love is substantial. “Be careful,” Farlan warns. “In the whole universe, nothing is stronger than the law.” But the defense counsel counters just as emphatically: “Yes, Mr. Farlan. Nothing is stronger than the law in the Universe. But on Earth, nothing is stronger than love.” Very few movies convince us of this as vigorously, and with such agile intelligence, as does A Matter of Life and Death. 

NOTE: This piece first posted as a part of WONDERS IN THE DARK's overview of the best romantic movies ever made. Take a look at the complete collection here.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Film #165: Breaking The Waves

I first encountered Lars Von Trier’s brilliant Breaking the Waves very much like most American audiences did: in late 1996, a year dominated by indie-flavored movies like Fargo and The English Patient, it was nominated for a slew of Golden Globe awards (including the top three Drama awards, yet it would only garner one eventual and clearly unavoidable Oscar nod). When these nominations came down, I was dumbstruck, because Breaking the Waves had not yet played in my hometown of Atlanta, but had definitely made a splash in Cannes earlier that year. I wasn’t even able to make it out to the one theater showing it that year, it was so low on my priorities. I was a fool (as I still haven't ever seen it on the big screen).

When I finally did catch it on video in mid 1997, I was doubly dumbstruck--I found it to be a complete masterpiece, to the point where it still remains the most recent entrant into my personal top twenty films of all time. As overwhelming as it is, with Von Trier and cinematographer Robby Muller working at their absolute apex, it was Emily Watson that impressed me most. Her Bess, so loving and trustful, passionate about life, and completely devoted to so much she experiences, was unlike any fictional character I had ever encountered. She felt like a wide-eyed child, but yet she was very much an alluring woman, with a woman’s fullest desires, but perhaps without the wherewithal to understand those drives, except to say that she knew she totally had to follow them to what she saw as their natural end. She is like a strong but tiny bird one wants to help survive the cold outside. The fact that she had equal desires to be faithful to God and to her church complicated matters, especially since the church she follows (in early '70s Scotland, where the film is set) has a very dim view of women’s thoughts or contributions, except as earthly birth vessels.

Bess’ love of Jan, an oil rig worker toiling somewhere off the angry Scottish coast, is a force to behold. It’s seriously a love unlike any other I have witnessed in movies. It is complete and devoted, carnal and innocent, wild and reckless. Bess gives herself over completely to Jan (played also impeccably by Stellan Skarsgaard), to the point where the viewer even wonders if Jan is taking advantage of this simple minded girl (which is certainly something the late Katrin Cartlidge, exquisite as Bess’ widowed sister-in-law, wonders as well–her character is a nurse, so she’s deeply investing in Bess’ well-being all throughout, and even sternly yet gently warns Jan not to break her heart).  There is never really a moment where we suspect Jan is truly deceiving Bess, though. He obviously loves her innocence and her devotion to what she believes, and of course her revelry in their shared desire (just look at him as he looks over at Bess adoringly while they’re at the cinema together; her eyes are trained on the movie–she’s the perfect movie watcher, so ready to believe what she sees–and his eyes are trained so intently, deeply on her…it’s all just so ridiculously sweet).

The film begins with Bess confessing her love for Jan to God, to whom she talks–repeatedly throughout the film–in a empty church all by herself (presumably because none of the church father’s will truly listen to her without judgement). Early on, we have a sense that Bess is at least a creative type, if not a tad bit off, because she takes on the role of God in her confession. Her God voice is a deep, chiding one, impatient with her girlish selfishness…it seems like a voice that comes wholly outside of her personality and intelligence quotient, so we sense that maybe there’s a psychosis happening here. But I don’t think she is insane (though I do think she is driven to do insane things, by her own misunderstandings). In the end, Bess is simply trying to reconcile the love of a God who thinks her silly (as she portrays him, or as she has been taught to think of him) with the love of a flawed man who thinks she’s absolutely wonderful. Breaking the Waves chronicles a woman who follows God, but not as devoutly as she does the vital man who loves her, and whom she takes as her husband.

As this is a Lars Von Trier film, Watson’s character is certainly run through the wringer (Bjork, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Kirsten Dunst would also assay tortured females in later Von Trier efforts). Bess begins the film completely lovestruck, dancing with abandon at her low-key down-home wedding and losing her virginity to Jan in the bathroom before the reception is even over (you can sense her complete devotion to sex from the outset; yet intimacy, even without sex, is also a fascination for her, as we see in a brilliant moment where she lies awake, listening and giggling as Jan snores away, asleep). There’s not much time for a honeymoon, as Jan is due back on the oil rig in mere days, and when he has to leave for work (for which he will be away for many weeks), Bess’ rage is unleashed. Now that she’s given herself over to a new “God”–one who has a personality which she cannot provide herself–she is left completely without half of her new self.

Jan, too, is torn asunder by his responsibility to work, which takes precedence over his new marriage. One wonders is Jan, too, is taking on perhaps more than he can handle by marrying Bess–he is genuinely shocked by her anger, but there is clearly part of him that finds it charming and romantic (which it is). But he doesn’t quite see the danger in it. However, honestly, who could predict such a future as this?

Tortured by his absence, Bess begs God to provide her for a way to be with Jan once again, and God does indeed provide that chance, but in a dark, perhaps mischievous and even punishing manner. On the oil rig, Jan is stricken with a serious injury after his probably drunken co-workers mishandle a piece of equipment that crashes into his head, knocking him into a coma. Quickly, he is rushed to the coast, where he is interred in the hospital where Cartlidge’s Dodo works as a nurse (there is nothing in cinema like the scene where Bess gets the word that Jan is seriously wounded: she disappears from the moment in a faint that is painfully, palpably real, especially as photographed in that grainy, handheld sheen by cinematographer Muller).

Bess takes Jan’s new arrival by her side as a sign that God is testing her, and so she takes on the full responsibility for his injury. So, when Jan finally comes to and is presumably paralyzed for life, we can feel his pain too. Here he is, a new husband who abdicated his love for a paycheck, and HE’S responsible for that. The guilt he feels is crushing, especially as he realizes that Bess is worth all the love that he can give to her. But he also realizes that he can never give her the full physical intimacy that she deserves, and so a psychosis enters into his own plate of problems. He asks her–for purely selfish reasons–to go out and experience sex with other men, and then come back and tell him all about it. This is his way of achieving consort with her body, yes, but he doesn’t take into account how this will affect her fragile personality–he seems to do it as a perhaps doped-up, bed-bound lark. But, as he is her new “God,” she follows his instructions, to her own eventual fate.

Breaking the Waves is a steamroller, an emotional workout of immense proportions. It is a story of sacrifice and faith, almost to the nth degree. It is not just Bess’s tale–it is Jan’s as well. It’s a journey to enlightenment that they take together, and by the film’s end–and it surely sports a soaring, surprising ending that one would never EVER forget upon seeing it–you are sure that you have witnessed one of the great love stories ever, even if it’s one that does not take the trajectory that any screen romance, before or since, has taken. With Von Trier’s superb direction, Muller’s unusual and groundbreaking photography, the brilliantly curated British pop music soundtrack (featuring Jethro Tull, Elton John, and Deep Purple, among many others), those unforgettably idyllic chapter stops by Per Kirkeby (done in a color-steeped style very different from Muller’s more grungy, documentary-influenced work throughout), and especially the deeply committed performances by Skarsgaard, Cartlidge, Jean Marc-Barr (as Jan’s best friend), and especially by Emily Watson. She gives an astounding performance that takes it place alongside Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan D’arc as arguably the greatest ever put on film.

It’s incredibly easy–for me, at least–to see Breaking the Waves as a film that staunchly proves its thesis. On its movie poster, the tagline reads “Love is a mighty power.” After seeing it, you truly stumble away, dazed, saying to yourself “Yeah. It goddamn well is.”

NOTE: This piece first posted as a part of WONDERS IN THE DARK's overview of the best romantic movies ever made. Take a look at the complete collection here.