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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

My Favorite Movies of 2014

Ah, yes, another “Best _____ of 2014” list. I’m a little late to the party, and unfortunately, while I haven’t yet seen all of the worthwhile releases of last year (the most glaring omissions being “Whiplash”, “Norte: The End of History”, “Winter Sleep”, “Leviathan”, “Hard to be a God”, “Goodbye to Language”, “The Raid 2”, and “Stray Dogs”, look for write-ups on those in the future once I see them), I have seen enough (29 so far) to put together a solid enough top 10 list. Here is the list, in countdown form (that is,  in order of least best to most best):

Honorable Mentions: “Snowpiercer,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “The Wind Rises,” “The Immigrant,” “Under the Skin,” “The Lego Movie,” “Inherent Vice,” “Journey to the West.”

I could have really made this a top 20, but didn’t want to write that much. The first two of these films were some of the better action movies I’ve seen in a long time, with more intelligence, humor, and visual pleasure than I ever expected. With “Snowpiercer”, Bong Joon-ho made the most successful translation to English-language film of his Korean contemporaries like Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon, managing to make a movie with an international, diverse cast, relevant social commentary, and bizarre and stimulating action. Meanwhile, “Edge of Tomorrow” follows through on the premise of “Groundhog Day” as a sci-fi action movie in the vein of “Starship Troopers”, led by an amusingly slimy Tom Cruise. It’s just a very fun movie.

“The Wind Rises” is Miyazaki’s enchanting swansong, a beautifully-animated love letter to airplanes, young lovers, and dreams. James Gray’s “The Immigrant” is an impeccably acted character piece, which riffs on old Hollywood studio films in its majestic style, and “La Strada” in its character dynamics. They really don’t make sweeping epics like this anymore, and I’ll be damned if that final shot isn’t one of the best of the last decade. Jonathan Glazer’s spooky, spacey slow-burn “Under the Skin” is a triumph of mood and tone, with Mica Levi’s soundtrack as a perfect compliment to the queasy visuals and Scarlett Johansson’s impressively detached, curious, one might even say alien, performance.

“The Lego Movie” benefits from Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s approach of jam-packing their movies to the brim with jokes and visual gags, which lends itself perfectly to the world of Lego.  It’s also impressive that what could have been a soulless cash-grab of corporate product tie-ins turns out to be a celebration of creativity and individuality in the face of corporate blandness… while still being a product which made the Lego Corporation millions of dollars, but hey, at least it was a good movie. PT Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is a drug-addled detective odyssey, told with great style, another great Joaquin Phoenix performance, and a killer soundtrack (and it would probably be in the actual list if I hadn’t spaced out and forgotten I had seen it).

“Journey to the West” would also probably be included on my list if it was more of an actual movie, but it’s closer to an art installation piece, following a red-robed monk walking ever-so-slowly through the streets of  Marseille, eventually being followed by the always-impressive Denis Lavant. Tsai Ming-Liang has recently been creeping up my list of favorite directors, and this one pushes his slow, long-take aesthetic to its extreme. It’s a mesmerizing experiment. Now begins my wait for his “Stray Dogs” to come out on DVD…

And here is the top 10 list:

10. “The Past is a Grotesque Animal”

As a die-hard fan of the band, there was no way I was not going to love this documentary about of Montreal. One of the most singular, creative groups of the decade, the band has produced over a dozen diverse albums which have provided the soundtrack to my life for the past few years. But as much as my bias inevitably colors my opinion, the film manages on its own merits to be an engaging history lesson and character study on an incredibly interesting band and the man behind it. Their live shows (two of which I have attended) are theatrical, psychedelic trips which go beyond the standard band gig and enter into the transcendental but elusive realm of “art”. The mastermind behind it all, the enigma known as Kevin Barnes, is an endlessly fascinating character, and the film successfully probes the depths of his personal ambitions, troubled marriage, and reluctant fatherhood for all they’re worth.

Right before watching this film, I watched the Archers’ 1948 classic “The Red Shoes,” and it made an interesting double feature, as throughout “The Past is a Grotesque Animal” I was reminded of the conflict between the addictive endorphin rush of artistic creativity, and the stability of a satisfying personal life. As Barnes says, “I think I almost always would choose art over human relationships.” The fallout and fruits of this choice make for compelling footage and even more compelling music. The film-ending quote from Barnes on making art may sum it up best: “It doesn’t matter if you’re destroying your legacy or whatever, you still have to do it. Because its, um, this insane compulsion that you can’t resist or deny. It doesn’t hurt anyone really. Except for the people close to you.”

Featuring guest appearances from Ariel Pink, Susan Saranadon, Solange Knowles and more, it’s a great inside look into one of the world’s most compelling bands. Like the music, it tackles issues like depression, anxiety, loss, and other personal troubles with a sense of energy and fun that makes the emotional fuck-ups of life a little bit easier to take. With my only complaint being that they didn’t focus on one of my favorite albums, “Paralytic Stalks,” the film does a great job exploring the depths of Kevin Barnes’s fucked up, fascinating life. If phrases like “A Pollinaire Rave”, “The Controllosphere,” or “Elephant 6” mean anything to you, this film is required viewing, and for everyone else, it’s a nice look into the mind of one of the great troubled artists of our time.

9. “Frank”

Speaking of troubled artists, Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank” is a deceptively enjoyable film which is actually dark as hell. The plot centers around Jon, played by Domnhall Gleeson (who appears in two films on my list, good job Domnhall!) a wannabe musician who inadvertently becomes the keyboardist of the unpronounceable band Soronprfbs. The band is led by Frank, a fake head-wearing weirdo/musical genius played by the always-great Michael Fassbender. Frank is equally charismatic and darkly mysterious, and as the movie progresses his problems become more apparent.

Partially based on the life of musician/entertainer Chris Sievey and his persona Frank Sidebottom, as well as outsider artists Daniel Johnston and Captain Beefheart, the film treads a delicate balance in its depiction of mental illness and its connection to artistic skill. It does so in a refreshingly knowing and sensitive way, and the end result is a film which is both darkly comic and harshly realistic. As the latter part of the film shifts into more serious territory, Abrahamson handles the material with a deft sense of understanding wisdom, and it always feels more empathetic than exploitative. In the end, it maintains its integrity and avoids sentimentalism, and for that alone it should be applauded. It also helps that it contains great acting, pleasant cinematography, and a kick-ass soundtrack.

8. “Birdman”

“Birdman” is an exceptionally entertaining film starring Michael Keaton and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu which is shot in a breathless one-take style by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki where the preparation of Riggan’s play is given the crackling energy of the best of behind-the-scenes showbiz type films and exciting things happen at every turn because its all so fast and well-acted and witty and maybe a little bit pretentious but that’s also kind of the point and it’s also pretty self-aware and hits the nail on the head when it comes to superhero movies and the current state of Hollywood but is also tongue in cheek and aware of it’s own pretentions and it does all this while also being a pretty funny and sometimes sophomoric comedy which is a surprising left turn for Iñárritu but somehow it works and for all of its ambition its story is really pretty simple but it works really well because of the really really good performances by Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone and others who make the whole thing a surprising and exciting ride from start to finish all the while being carried by a relentlessly energetic pulsing drum soundtrack which ties it all together and makes it one of the best movies of the year.

7. “Two Days, One Night”

The latest from Belgian duo Luc and Jean Pierre Dardenne is my favorite I’ve seen by them. The story is almost mythical in its simplicity: the workplace of a woman returning from a leave of absence has created a ballot where the choices are to either get a hearty bonus check or have her keep her job, she goes to each co-worker individually to convince them to vote for her to keep her job. The woman is Sandra, played brilliantly by Marion Cotillard, and she is a wife and mother of two recovering from a nasty bout of depression. The job is a company which assembles solar panels. The co-workers are a diverse group of individuals, many of which have legitimate reasons that they want or need their bonus money.

The film’s structure, in which Sandra goes from person to person, is close to episodic, but it feels naturalistic and grounded in realism. Each encounter is different, and each feels authentic. The entire film has a palpable sense of empathy, and a deep feeling for the economic struggles that everyone faces in society. Sandra and most of her co-workers are by no means poor, but even at the middle-class level, financial reality takes a heavy toll on anyone participating in the system. Driven by Cotillard’s nuanced performance, the film is a masterclass in restrained storytelling, brimming with respect for its characters and its audience.

6. “Only Lovers Left Alive”

Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite directors, and “Only Lovers Left Alive” is one of his best recent films. His take on vampires as brooding, immortal hispters is classic Jarmusch, and the performances by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (as Adam and Eve, respectively) really sell it. Adam is a mysterious musician who wants to remain as anonymous as possible to his fans, spending his days holed up in a house in Detroit playing awesome retro instruments. Eve, his wife (or girlfriend?) lives in Tangiers, and seems to spend most of her time reading. The couple both have an obsession with art and literature of the past, having lived among many of them throughout their long lifetimes, and the air of nostalgia hangs heavy over the film’s depiction of art and culture.

The movie takes place entirely at night, and the ambiance of the scenes in Detroit and Morocco capture the tragic beauty of Adam and Eve’s nostalgic lifestyle. The soundtrack, done partially by Jarmusch’s band SQURL, is excellent drone-y shoegaze, and it perfectly fits Adam’s moody rocker vibes. Like several of the films on this list, it gets by more on tone than plot, but it also manages to effortlessly bounce between moods, being darkly comic at one moment and wistfully sad at the next. Like all of Jarmusch’s films, it has a detached “cool” vibe, but with Adam and Eve’s relationship at the center, it also has a bloody, beating heart.

5. “Our Sunhi”

Hong Sang-Soo is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors, and “Our Sunhi” put him on the map for me. All his films are similar riffs on the same themes, in the vein of Rohmer-esque relationship dramedies, but with a more modern, cynical, and Korean spin. “Our Sunhi,” is no exception, and it centers around the title character, an ambitious young film school graduate/hopeful director who wants to continue her film studies in the United States. She asks her old film professor for a recommendation, which sets off a series of events and encounters with three different men. Heavy drinking and conversations over meals ensue, as per usual in Hong’s films, and by the end, things aren’t much different than where they started.

Although the film is loose in its focus on characters, the enigmatic Sunhi is at the center of it all, as the is analyzed and deconstructed by the three men pursuing her. The film is heavily conversation driven, and the dialogue is often elliptical and repetitive (not in a bad way), and phrases like “reserved”, “artistic” and “smart” are stated at various times by each man to describe Sunhi to humorous effect. And yet, in all of their attempts to categorize and understand her, Sunhi remains out of their grasp, elusive and mysterious as ever. Book-ended by one of the catchiest songs in recent memory, it’s a very enjoyable film from an auteur at the top of his game.

4. “Ida”

PaweÅ‚ Pawlikowski’s “Ida” is an incredibly subtle film, full of the restrained beauty and muted emotion of a good Bergman or Antonioni picture. The simple story follows Ida, a young nun-in-training, who learns about her family’s past through her aunt, an alcoholic retired judge. The film is shot in beautiful black and white, and it’s anachronistic 1.37 aspect ratio gives it the feeling of a classic from a bygone era. The compositions of the cinematography are absolutely beautiful, and the many geometrically off-center and interestingly-blocked shots give the film a sense of unease and imbalance which is matched by the characters and plot. Ida’s journey of self-discovery is achingly sad, and the film overall is pretty downbeat and cold. But it all rings emotionally true and avoids wallowing in either depression or sentimentality, and there is joy to be found in the small moments as Ida learns who her family was, who she is now, and who she wants to be.

3. “Listen Up Philip”

“Listen Up Philip” follows in the longstanding filmic tradition of neurotic East Coast intellectuals, a path well-trodden by Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and others. But writer/director Alex Ross Perry is not content to merely rehash the past, and his take on the New York bourgeoisie elite is decidedly more acidic and unforgiving than his predecessors. The titular Philip, played by Jason Schwartzman, is a novelist who lives in Manhattan with his girlfriend Ashley, played by Elizabeth Moss. As a writer, he is talented and successful, with a promising career ahead of him. As a person, he is a selfish egomaniacal asshole with very few redeeming qualities. The film charts his friendship with his writing mentor, Ike Zimmerman (played by a crackling Jonathan Pryce), his move out of the hustle and bustle of the city, and his deteriorating relationship with Ashley.

The events of the film are described in detail by an unseen narrator, and the effect is an uncanny exploration of each character’s personal feelings and motivations. It adds another layer of emotional complexity to a film already teeming with it. As Philip’s insatiable ego continues to isolate himself from everyone he cares about, the film lingers on the aftermath and treats every character with a sympathetic eye. The film is brutal in its depiction of interpersonal relationship dynamics, and at every turn Philip seems to be digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole of reclusive selfishness. That said, it is also an incredibly funny film, and Perry’s gifts as a writer of absurd and witty dialogue seem to have carried over from his previous film, “The Color Wheel”. Every actor in the film gives the best performance I’ve ever seen them give, and the film overall is a great unflinching and honest look into the isolating effects of egoism on relationships. Shot on 16mm film, it looks great as well.

2. “Boyhood”

I remember reading about “Boyhood” probably six or seven years ago, when it was still called “Richard Linklater 12 Year Project” on imdb. It sounded intriguing, but it was too far in the future to really get excited about it. I myself was probably only 13 years old at the time. As I was reading about the film, another 13 year-old boy was acting in it, as he did for 12 years in a row. This year, the promise of “Boyhood’s” premise was finally realized, and the results are one of the most impressive and resonant films for anyone who’s ever been a kid, especially a kid born in the mid-90s. Being essentially the same age as the actor Ellar Coltrane, and the character he plays, Mason, watching the film was an almost surreal experience because of how much of my own life I saw in the film. From details like Mason using the old bright plastic iMac G3 in grade school, to the midnight launch of the Harry Potter book and the election of Obama, the movie is full of cultural touchstones which I could recognize and connect to because I experienced them much in the same way as Mason.

I saw a lot of myself in the character, good and bad, as he grows into an artistically inclined, mildly pretentious college-bound young adult. He even went to a high school with the same name as mine. And the most incredible part is that because of the central “gimmick” of the film, all of the details are real, making the film feel at times almost documentary-like in its recording of Mason’s life and the world around him in real time. Even the parts of his life which I couldn’t directly relate to (divorced parents, moving cities, etc.) were things which I recognized in other people I know. Like the best of Linklater’s films, it feels authentic to life in a way that few other films do, and the subject matter and method of filming assured that I, being in the sweet spot of the target demographic audience, would connect to it on a deep level. But that’s just icing on the cake, because it would be hard to find anyone who didn’t see at least a little bit of themselves in the characters in the film. It may not be a perfect film, and it does carry some of the Linklaterian philosophizing and pretension that I find a little grating in his work, but it may be the best thing he’s ever done, and in my mind its one of the finest film achievements of the last decade, if not century.

1. “Calvary”

In a confessional booth, an honest Catholic priest is told he is going to be murdered by a troubled man who was molested by a priest in his youth and has a vendetta against the church. The priest has a week to get his affairs in order, and goes around checking in with various residents of his small town, talking to them and attempting to help with their problems. This is the premise of Irish filmmaker John Michael McDonagh’s latest film, “Calvary”. Like his previous film, 2011’s also excellent “The Guard”, it stars the imposing actor Brendan Gleeson, this time as Father James, a widower and former alcoholic who cleaned up his act and joined the clergy. The plot of the film is pretty straightforward, and most of the action consists of Father James interacting with the townsfolk, a colorful and lively cast of characters, many of whom have serious troubles and a disregard for the church or any sort of morality.

The film’s treatment of religion is unlike anything I’ve seen before, managing to acknowledge the shortcomings of the church and its practices, with many characters being non-believers, but also having at its core a belief in the virtues of humanity and the possibility of goodness. Not to say that it’s upbeat, because it’s one of the more brutal and unsettling movies I saw last year, but it balances this nastiness with an optimism, and for lack of a better word, faith, which is refreshing, and the no-punches-pulled approach gives a weight and validity to the glimpses of hope.

This rambling probably doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to someone who hasn’t seen the film, but I would encourage anyone and everyone to go see “Calvary”. Not only is it a complex exploration of faith and morality, it is also one of the best black comedies I’ve ever seen, with plenty of politically-incorrect humor to balance out the solemnity. The script also has several meta touches which are an interesting choice, and while the black humor and self-awareness may diminish its status as a “serious film”, it makes the whole thing a lot more watchable and entertaining than if the whole thing was played straight. Of all of the films I saw last year, or ever for that matter, “Calvary” may have the most sadness, honesty, faith, love, loss, and above all, humanity. It’s my favorite film of 2014.

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