Sunday, February 22, 2015

My Favorite Movies of 2014

 
HONORABLE MENTION: STARRY EYES
 
Marilyn Monroe once said, “There must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me dreaming of being a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.”
 
No one dreams harder than Sarah Walker (Alex Essoe), the starry-eyed heroine of Kevin Kolsch’s and Dennis Widmyer’s new horror flick, Starry Eyes. She spends her days serving tater tots to middle-age sleazepiles and squabbling with other young starlets, and her nights answering seedy casting calls. When Astraeus Pictures demands she perform a series of morally yucky behaviors in exchange for a role in their new scare pic, she reluctantly acquiesces. Her actions cause a change in her, both literally and figuratively. 
 
Starry Eyes is my kind of movie: an intelligent, independently-financed cheapie with a retro feel and deliberate pace set to a Carpenter-inspired synth score. It kind of sorta has its cake and eats it too, shedding the noisy cliches of contemporary horror for the bulk of its running time before culminating with a gore-drenched finale. Though its themes don’t scream originality, it’s better than most of the movies of its type. It’s certainly my favorite horror flick of the year, besting its allegorical brethren The Babadook and Honeymoon. I can’t wait to see what Kolsch and Widmyer do next.
 
 
10. JOE

Joe (Nicolas Cage), a hard-nosed ex-con trying to stay out of trouble, forms an unlikely bond with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a hard-working fifteen-year-old kid who's physically and mentally abused by his alcoholic father.

Nicolas Cage has been impersonated by more than one SNL cast member. He’s been in so many turds that he’s become a bit of a joke. But when he’s good, when his craziness is reigned in by a capable director, he can be terrific. Leaving Las Vegas, Bad Lieutenant, Raising Arizona: all enormously entertaining films illuminated by a terrific Cage performance. In Joe, he’s as good as he gets. His character is fragile and complicated, his matted beard, discolored tank-top and rough tattoos masking a warm interior. He lays with a hooker, carves a deer, gets shot in the chest and provides dry clothing to a boy he’s helped in from the rain, all in the same afternoon. He knows how precious life is and how quickly it can be misplaced.

Director David Gordon Green captures the bleak yet beautiful atmosphere of the backwoods Texas town. He litters the landscape with authentic feeling characters. You feel the strain of the people as they struggle to get by. (On a sad note, Gary Poulter, a homeless man cast by Green in the role of the alcoholic drifter, succumbed to alcoholism prior to the film’s release.)

Unfortunately, the film premiered early in the year and has been forgotten by short-sighted critics like myself whose top-ten lists consist mainly of movies released in the past few months.


9. THE GUEST
 
Remember being a kid and imagining yourself as a government soldier on a mission of vengeance? The Guest is the kind of story you would have thought up. In a year that saw a ton of great action flicks (John Wick, The Equalizer), The Guest was my favorite. Those other films took the cliche conventions of the genre and crystalized them. They were pure and I loved them for it. The Guest is not that. The Guest is something else. It’s a bit of a genre blender: a little bit action, a little bit drama, a little bit horror. 
 
It toes the line between cool and corny. It took me a bit to decide if what director Adam Wingard had created was a cheesy send up or kick ass throwback. The scene that sealed the deal for me saw the film’s hero, David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), slinging a pair of kegs on his shoulder Magnus Ver Magnusson style.
 
Here’s the story: David shows up on the Peterson’s doorstep sporting fatigues and a KPG sweatshirt claiming to be a comrade of their son who died in action. Over the course of the next few days, anyone who has ever wronged the Pertersons starts showing up dead.
 
I was one of the few horror fans not enamored by Wingard’s previous effort, You’re Next. I argued that the film failed to escape the very cliches it professed to amend. The Guest, like its predecessor, takes notes from other pictures (Halloween, Death Dream, The Terminator), however, it refuses to yield to an established archetype. Just when you’re about to write off the plot as little more than a device to satisfy the film’s excesses, it surprises you and changes gears. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say that super-soldier David receives orders that come into collision with his prior programming. The result is a character unlike any we’ve seen before.
 
This, on top of its John Carpenter-inspired soundtrack, 1980s sentimentality and Halloween backdrop, results in the best action pic of the year.
 
8. INHERENT VICE

Paul Thomas Anderson’s groovy neo-noir about a private detective (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s hired by his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) to investigate a plot by the wife of her new billionaire boyfriend to have him institutionalized. Sound confusing? It is. But so is life. Our lives aren’t neatly arranged. There’s ritual within them sure: we eat, we go to work. But they’re episodic. None more than that of stoner dick, Doc Sportello. 

Vice is his story, his vision of post-Manson Southern California. Massage parlors are fronts for prostitution, jazz musicians are communist supporters and police detectives are douchebags. Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) has “a twinkle in his eye that says civil-rights violation.”

Phoenix is irresistibly charismatic. He staggers from predicament to predicament promoting peace, love and happiness. Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s camera is sure to please. He captures Southern California in smokey blues and reds that carry an air of depravity.

Though it might prove too impenetrable for some audiences, it benefits from zany humor, masterful direction and sublime performances. A must see. 


7. UNDER THE SKIN

Life lesson #34: When a dark-haired chick resembling Scarlett Johansson asks you to take a ride in her rape van, you say no. Wait, let me double check that. Yeah, I was right, you say no.

Scarlett plays a character, billed simply as The Female, who cruises around picking up random guys and luring them back to a seedy townhouse where they fall into an inter-dimensional void? An extraterrestrial portal? An intergalactic happy meal? I’m not quite sure. What I know is that something happens to these guys, something other-worldly and utterly awesome. When she picks up a man with a facial disfigurement, she seemingly has a change of heart. She lets him go and escapes herself into the Scottish Highlands where she hopes to assimilate into the human population. This pisses off her alien brethren who send a Martian fixer? An alien assassin? A live-in carpenter? Anyway, a guy on a motorcycle scoops up the man and sets out in pursuit of The Female.

Mica Levi’s beautiful and strange score turns on the emotions of the characters (anxious, sorrowful, frustrated), yet is so unique and infectious, it’s in regular rotation on my ipod playlist. It leads off with an ominous drone before giving way to a more avant-garde sound, the bizarre knocks and scratches somehow reflecting the emotional journey of the Johansson character.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography is on equal footing with the score. Hidden cameras were employed in early scenes to capture authentic reactions from the street walkers. The scenes of the poor guys following The Female into the townhouse and to their ultimate, icky demise are both poetic and creepy. 

This is a polarizing movie. Some will love it, some will hate it, but all will agree it is unlike anything they’ve experienced before.


6. 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH

Long before Miley Cyrus floated in her swimming pool in Toluca Lake, goth rocker Nick Cave was enlightening audiences with his wildly original lyrics. He found love in a flower shop, pole danced in his birthday suit and took the Almighty to task, all in under 20,000 days. 

Filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard concoct a mythological day in the life of the music icon in this subversive documentary. He waxes ecstatic with Ray Winstone, reminisces with Kylie Minogue and provides archivists materials for the national Nick Cave library. While the events of the day may be staged, the impassioned dialogue is very real. “The words I have written over the years are just a veneer. There are truths that lie beneath the surface of the words. Truths that rise up without warning like the humps of a sea monster and then disappear. What performance and song is to me, is finding a way to tempt the monster to the surface.” Much of the film is devoted to that very concept. We are provided a glimpse into Cave’s meditative process. Self reflection leads to discovery and ultimately disclosure via impassioned performance. 

While the film may appeal most to fans of Cave’s work, it is a truly stirring piece that will inspire all those interested in the creative process. “To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all, because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it.” 


5. BOYHOOD

Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has successfully passed back and forth from art house cinema (Slacker, Before Sunrise) to mainstream fare (School of Rock). Like a number of his artsier pictures, Boyhood is loose on narrative. Its simple tale of a young boy growing up in Texas is actually quite ambitious. Shot intermittently over the course of 12 years, the film sees Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family aging literally right before our eyes. It is like nothing you have seen or will likely ever see again. 

Ethan Hawke is particularly good in the role of Mason’s distant father. A sequence that sees him attempting to reconnect with his kids through bowling is especially emotional. There is sincerity in his eyes when he expresses a desire to spend more time with them. The glow on their faces is genuine. We’re moments into the film and already we’ve forgotten we’re watching a movie. When their mother argues with Mason Sr. about his newfound desire to be a father, we observe helplessly through an upstairs window along side Mason and his sister. 

Hawkes plays the most dynamic character in the picture, his growth best exemplified through his choice in vehicles: muscle car as a young man, minivan as adult. Coltrane is a bit too hip as a teen and Marco Perella a bit over the top as Mason’s step-father, but the collective power of the cast is undeniable.


4. COLD IN JULY

You’re snoozing comfortably when a mysterious clattering shakes you from your slumber. You slink out of the room and discover an intruder stuffing your prized beanie babie collection in a knapsack. Your inner Charlie Bronson kicks in and you karate chop the intruder in the neck. He pulls a gun but you wrestle it from his hand before he gets off a shot.

How often have you had this dream? One of two things happen: you stare wide-eyed at the door, wrapping your ear around every little sound until exhaustion sets in and you fall asleep (usually moments before your alarm goes off) or you squeeze your eyes tight in an attempt to force sleep and return to your heroic fantasy.

Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) lives out that dream in Cold in July, Jim Mickle’s pulp thriller about a family man who is hailed as a hero after shooting a low-life thief in the night.  Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), the father of the thief, shows seeking revenge, but not before Richard again lies down for bed. Richard and Ben end up teaming up to kill a bad man. What does Richard do just before joining Ben in his quest to infiltrate the mansion of the bad man? That’s right, he goes to sleep. Following the mayhem, the movie concludes with Richard back in bed, next to his wife.

Cold in July is badass with a capital B-A-D-A-S-S. Its 1980s design is tense and flamboyant. Its rising, young director demonstrates uncommon confidence. Many have complained that it’s a bit disjointed and uneven. What dream isn’t?


3. WHIPLASH

For those that don’t know, I teach film at a local high school. At a professional development meeting earlier this year, an expert lectured to us on the topic of feedback as a part of formative assessment. He suggested that constructive feedback on work leads to students performing better on future tasks, while both the absence of comments and even positive feedback result in no change in performance. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the celebrated jazz instructor in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, would subscribe whole-heartedly to this theory. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” He berates and belittles his students in an effort to help them become the best they can be. “You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit whose mommy left daddy when she figured out he wasn't Eugene O'Neill and who's now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a fucking nine-year-old girl."
J.K. Simmons is a revelation. You can feel each of his tongue-lashings, every one of his blistering gibes through and through. There was no character worth hating more in 2014 than Terence Fletcher.

The film takes the mentor-pupil genre and tears away all the cheese, resulting in an intense, inspiring experience. The emotional power of the final scene is undeniable.


2. NIGHTCRAWLER

Nightcrawler offers a haunting and visceral examination of psychosis and obsession. Set in LA at night, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an ambitions young man who trades in his career as a thief for one in the field of crime journalism. Aided by a local TV news producer (Rene Russo) Lou quickly blooms into the best nightcrawler in the business.

Dan Gilroy’s gritty aesthetic owes a lot to Scorsese and the hard-hitting movies of the post-classical period. There’s a chilliness to the neon and smoke infused streets and the ease with which Lou openly operates. The picture is driven by Gyllenhaal’s haunting performance as a man who follows through on every opportunity, even if it means breaking the law. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t identify with the character on a primal level. I rooted for him the way I did other charismatic sociopaths in pop culture: Patrick Bateman, Walter White. That’s part of the point of the movie. We eat this stuff up. No one knows that better than the news media. There’s a great scene that sees Lou commenting on the fakeness of the background skyline in the news studio. This scene says so much about the news industry, the formally dressed anchors that deliver the news and Lou himself.


1. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE 

Avant-garde director Jim Jarmusch does brooding vampires who pass the time listening to rockabilly music and playing chess. And it’s awesome. In a year filled with cool movies, Only Lovers Left Alive is by far the coolest.

 Indie rocker Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and his hipster wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) have been in love for years, through wars and despite the deteriorating condition of humankind. But can their romance survive the arrival of Eve’s promiscuous younger sister (Mia Wasikowska) and the schmaltzy state of rock and roll?

Set against the handsomely bleak backdrop of Detroit and Tangier, Jim Jarmusch’s lyrical vampire movie paints an extraordinary picture of romance, its reanimated characters asking viewers to consider what it means to be alive. It restores a sense of nobility to a genre that in recent years has been reduced to sissified musings for WB enthusiasts. Jarmusch’s script adds depth to the vampire archetype, focusing on the banality of the syndrome: getting older while people get stupid and trends grow lame. Only Lovers Left Alive is everything we’ve come to expect from a Jarmusch film: it is quirky and cool, humorous and somber and at all times, gorgeous to look at.


OTHER FILMS I LIKED:
Blue Ruin, Enemy, The Equalizer, Fury, Honeymoon, Interstellar, John Wick, Locke, A Most Violent Year, Night Moves, The Rover, We Are the Best

Thursday, February 19, 2015

We Are the Best

Klara (Mira Grosin) and Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), two thirteen-year-old rebels who wear more hair gel than Pauly D, form an all-girl punk band despite having no instruments and no discernible talent. 

Watching We Are the Best was one of the most fun experiences I had at the movies all year. It’s a sweet little tale of young women experiencing the growing pains of life set to a cool punk soundtrack. Anchored by impressive performances by Grosin and Barkhammar, We Are the Best is a delightfully natural vision of youth. It’s the kind of movie that has you questioning whether the producers cast actors to play their heroines or simply aimed their cameras at real-life girls acting out. A scene that sees the girls shouting, “Crush capitalism” while refusing to climb out of a cardboard box that’s blocking patrons from reaching the counter at a fast food restaurant is a prime example.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

THE BABADOOK

Let me preface this review by saying I love my children...dearly. But sometimes they can be a pain in the ass. I made the decision long ago, probably whilst sweating and quaking beneath the bed in fear of my own father’s belt, that I would not be physical with my children. Hell, in today’s society, that’s not even an option. But sometimes I feel like just maybe pinching them, you know, just a little, just enough so that they maybe rethink their dickish behavior. These are the types of harrowing thoughts that plague Amelia (Essie Davis), the heroine of the new psychological horror flick, The Babadook. In fact, she sometimes has difficulty finding it in herself to even love her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Now, it must be said that Samuel is quite the little prick. I found myself hugging my children a little tighter as I lay them down for bed, their soft cheeks squeezing against my own, after having viewed The Babadook. Suddenly my daughter’s obsession with licking grimy surfaces and my son’s unwillingness to finish his dinner seemed rather adorable in comparison to Samuel’s destructive acts. Watching him break windows with his homemade torture devices and push classmates from open windows made it hard to believe he was even the same species.

When he discovers a pop-up book about a monstrous creature that stalks children in their homes on the shelf in his room, Samuel’s behavior worsens. He convinces himself that the creature, called The Babadook, is out to kill him. Amelia wants nothing more than to curl up in a ball and wait for help. But when a darkened figure floats through her room, it dawns on her that Samuel may not be so crazy after all.

I had the opportunity a few years back to have dinner with George A. Romero. There was a point when someone at the table asked about the social undertones in his films. I don’t recall his exact response, but I remember him becoming slightly enraged by that word...undertones. That the in-your-face attacks on racism, consumerism and traditional notions of masculinity running through his films could be construed as background noise was appalling to him. I imagine Romero would be a big fan of The Babadook. A film that wears its allegory on its sleeve, and its collar, and its pant leg and everywhere else, it builds horror via Amelia’s inability to connect with her son. She wants so desperately to love him, but her face, twisted with tension, belies her apprehension. I don’t recall any closeups of her hands, but if we saw them, I imagine the nails would be chewed down to the quick. The dread of dealing with him each day, once an invisible demon buried deep inside her, has outwardly manifested itself in the form of an inky-black monster.

Davis gives a masterful performance as Amelia . Her bone-white skin and pallid eyes the portrait of a woman on the verge of a breakdown. I loved watching her hair change as she spiraled into the trap of her own mind, warm and coiffured at the start, an unruly nest of tangles by film’s end. Wiseman matches her intensity at every turn. It’s considered taboo in movies to hurt a child. In The Babadook, Wiseman creates a kid you want to punch in the face.

The Babadook is a new horror flick, but it has its roots in the supernatural pictures of yesteryear. In an era dominated by torture porn, it succeeds in building suspense the old-fashioned way. It effectively rejects the showy, gore-slicked inclinations of modern horror movies in lieu of a tense, psychological approach. It is tight, don’t get me wrong. It develops at a rapid rate. I was reminded of the films of Edgar Wright: all the excess fat has been trimmed from the edges. In fact, that’s my one knock against the film. Scenes build torturously only to terminate as the horror hits its peak. The audience is not provided time to ruminate on what they just witnessed. Characters are introduced only to disappear a moment later, leaving the audience a bit puzzled. But this is a minor argument against a film that otherwise approaches perfection.

The movie threatens to regress into familiar territory in its third act, however, hits you with a twist in its final moments that is not only gutsy, but completely without warning. Some demons you just can’t shake, they haunt you for life. You have to learn to deal with them.