Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 At The Movies

Finished this up a little earlier this year. Most lists are done well before the year ends, which never makes sense to me. Here are the films I liked in 2014. Last year, I wrote that I wanted to see more indies, and I think I accomplished that goal.

To the reviews...

Nebraska

I know, it was technically released in 2013, but we didn’t get it here until after the new year. Shot in elegant black and white by director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), this film stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte, as respectively a cantankerous father and his well-meaning
son.  The father suffers under the delusion that he’s won a lottery contest and is determined to travel from Montana to Nebraska to claim the prize. The story is a simple one, but it centers around a family and its secret histories and subtly shaded relationships. The dialogue is pitch perfect and it bears the trademark of Payne’s films with their sly, gentle humor. The sweeping Midwestern vistas that the pair traverse in their journey are rendered even more beautiful in black and white. A thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a couple hours.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past

My favorite superhero film of the year was this one, despite the financial juggernaut that was Guardians Of The Galaxy.  It’s a conceit adapted from an older storyline that took place in the comics back in the ‘80s and cleverly blends the old X-Men cast with the new one that debuted a
few years ago in X-Men: First Class.  It involves Wolverine’s journey back in time to 1973 to attempt to avert a war which forebodes the certain future extermination of all mutants on earth. The time period inspires some retro laughs, and the film introduces another mutant, Quicksilver, who, in the prison break scene, just about steals the entire film. The character was wonderfully cast (Evan Peters), but they’ll be using a different actor in the upcoming Avengers sequel, which was disappointing news, to say the least. Still, the X-Men franchise continues its revival with this strong chapter. It greatly helps me forget the regrettable X-Men: The Last Stand.

We Are The Best!

It’s the early ‘80s in Stockholm and two girls are huge punk music fans, but the rest of the world has moved on to the synth pop that would rule the decade.  They don’t care, and in true punk spirit, they decide to start their own band.  Their skills leave much to be desired, but they learn and recruit a member of the school band for some much-needed chops. It’s a coming of age film with great chemistry between the three leads, despite probably having little acting experience. Their climactic performance in front of a typically antagonistic punk crowd will have you rooting for them despite the odds.

Snowpiercer

Yet another film adapted from a graphic novel, but this one was nicely fleshed out by Korean director Joon-ho Bong.  It joins a growing list of movies that portray a dystopian future, this time where the earth has experienced a climate change experiment gone wrong, and what’s left of the population resides on the eponymous train that constantly speeds around the planet. It’s the class struggle in miniature, as the unfortunates made to endure privations in the back of the train stage a revolt and slowly fight their way to the engine at the front. Along the way we observe how the elite live and enjoy comforts on the backs of the lower class. The allegory is obvious, but the performances by Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Ed Harris as the man behind the curtain of this disturbing setup (a role which was reminiscent of the part he played in The Truman Show) make this a compelling story of survival against hopeless odds.

Boyhood

The real star of Richard Linklater’s magnum opus, shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast, is time. It’s a film that mirrors the lives of most people, with moments that they’ll find very familiar. The difference here is that the cast actually ages 12 years during the film—makeup or prosthetics are unnecessary. The boy at the center of the film, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), endures a couple of drunken stepfathers after his biological father (Ethan Hawke) leaves the family. We see birthdays, family trips, girlfriends, the inevitable voice change, parties, different schools; and we get that same sense when Mason enters a scene that we get when we see a cousin we haven’t seen in a while. We’re reminded that the miracle of growth is happening when we’re not looking. There are no revelatory moments here, really. The effect of this movie is cumulative. At the end, Mason’s mother, played by Patricia Arquette, begins to cry as her son packs to head off to college. When he asks why, all she can muster is, “I just thought there would be more.” It’s probably a common feeling at such a time in life. And yet, the film shows us there is so much more. But as Mason observes right before the credits roll, all we really have is the present moment.

Filth

Another attempt at turning one of edgy Scottish author Irvine Welsh’s novels into a film, and this one succeeds, though it’s not quite as good as Trainspotting. Still, it’s worth it to witness policeman Bruce Robertson’s (James McAvoy) downward spiral as he tangles with losing his family, drug abuse, and a sartorial proclivity that is only revealed near the end. That reveal felt tacked on and unnecessary, but the film is an at times dark and vertiginous ride as Bruce inevitably bottoms out amongst the seedier denizens of Edinburgh.

Under The Skin

Scarlett Johansson brings her brightly lit name to this small film about an alien that takes human form and entices young men in a Scottish city with the promise of sex, only to lure them to some kind of macabre harvesting operation. The details are left unclear, and the staging of the seduction itself is more theatrical than explanatory. After some time in her deception, Johansson starts identifying too much with the quarry, and seeks cover from her fellow aliens who scramble to locate her and put an end to it. Alas, humanity acquits itself very poorly in its behavior toward her crafted gorgeous image, and she finds herself in a place where she once lured others. Though the filmmaker, Jonathan Glazer, wore his main influence plainly on his sleeve, it was a darkly surreal story of otherworldly exploitation.

A Most Wanted Man

One of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films, where he plays a German intelligence chief intent on divining the true intentions of a muslim immigrant who arrives to claim his father’s fortune. Besides the mystery, there’s the CIA to deal with, the 800 pound gorilla in any room. It’s based on a John Le Carre novel, so you know this will be a nuanced study of the espionage field, nothing like James Bond territory. Hoffman again wears a part like an old bathrobe, conveying the character’s world-weariness and frustration at the forces working against him. By the end, what looks like a victory turns out to be a charade orchestrated by those he thought were allies.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

A documentary telling the story of the efforts made by director and comic author Alejandro Jodorowsky to bring Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel to the screen. There’s a brief look at a couple of very avant-garde films that Jodorowsky did in the late 60s-early 70s that established his career. Despite hiring visionary artists to craft the production design of the movie (HR Giger, Moebius, Chris Foss), and producing a huge book showcasing the storyboards and art, none of the studios would bite. Instead, we learn how Hollywood cannibalized the book for ideas that eventually appeared piecemeal in later films, such as Alien and Blade Runner. It’s a fascinating portrait of creativity and how it can get ground up in the corporate gears of Hollywood. Some filmmakers were just too far ahead of their time, to our detriment.

Locke

Tom Hardy proves once again that he can carry a movie virtually by himself (though this time he does have voices on a phone to swap dialogue with), as he did with Bronson back in 2008. He plays a successful construction manager who one evening decides to walk away from his job before the biggest challenge he’s ever faced. Circumstances pull him away that threaten not only his job but also a seemingly happy family life. As he drives south on a busy English motorway, tempers explode, hearts break, and lives are changed irrevocably, all through heated conversations on his car phone. The viewer only sees Locke’s end of these conversations, as he struggles to maintain a calm, controlled surface amid the tragedies. You can’t help wonder what kind of emotional volcano is roiling just under his formerly buttoned down existence.

Fury

I know, yet another World War 2 movie. But this one, directed by David Ayer, who helmed the excellent End Of Watch, seeks to show the grittier side of the American experience in Germany near the end of the war, as Hitler’s remaining troops, reduced to the very young and very old,
fought with bitter tenacity to defend the fatherland. Tanker troops had it especially tough as they were overmatched by German tanks with thicker armor and superior firepower. This film doesn’t spare anyone in the gore department, as the opening scene depicts a new tanker climbing into the driver’s seat, only to have to clean part of the previous driver’s face off the gearbox. Through this film, we get a hard glimpse of the truism that war is hell, and that the “greatest generation”, while saving the world from fascism, sometimes resorted to smaller atrocities of its own. No one escapes war’s corrupting influence completely.

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan borrows liberally from Kubrick and Scott and probably some other sci-fi visionaries to tell his story of humankind’s attempted escape from a decimated earth to another potential home. We get satisfyingly full explications of the science involved, at least by Hollywood standards; McConaughey’s glassy-eyed stare into the abyss, and Nolan’s particular talent for depicting the kinetic beauty of manned vehicles, whether they be his fluidic setpieces with the batmobile/batcycle, or the tense trip into space toward the wormhole which promises a swift shortcut toward our new home. The whole idea about “love” playing a role in their journey felt like an inclusion to appeal to the female audience, though it’s explained more fully at the end. I’m not sure it reached the heights scaled by the earlier efforts it took inspiration from, but it’s great to see a film shoot for loftier, more cerebral heights when so much of the cineplex has been reduced to flat action and insipid comedies.

Foxcatcher

The true story of John E. du Pont and his ill-fated crusade to support and “mentor” the US Wrestling team in the late 80s. I was never a Steve Carell fan until this film. His performance as du Pont is everything you might’ve heard as the pale, unbalanced scion of an iconic American family. Director Bennett Miller drops clues throughout the film of what his upbringing was like, including a very frustrated relationship with his aging mother. The opulent estate that the Schultz brothers, the premiere Olympic wrestlers at the time, end up spending their time on feels less lived in than haunted. The drama builds to a rather offhand moment of violence and resulting tragedy which changes their lives forever. It’s a riveting story of class, family, and the latent volatility that can be unleashed when the heat of competition meets thwarted ambition. A true classic.


Those are the films that made a deep impression on me this past year.  I did see a few others, such as the previously mentioned Guardians, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and John Wick to name a few, and while they weren't awful, they were more of the mindless entertainment species of cinema. Most of those types of movies garner enough attention as it is.

Have a great 2015, both inside the theater, and out!

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