My 14 Favorite Films of 2014
As I said in another list, this year was slightly different, not only in that I wrote a heck of a lot more, but also in that I just saw more, at least as far as new releases went. My journey to making these lists was a fun one. Finals were already happening and I thought, oh, I have a couple of weeks to finish the seven or so lists I had to make, I have plenty of time. And then I realized I had just over a week. So I crammed in as many 2014 films as I could, and voila!
So, here it is, folks, my final, locked in list of my favorite 14 films that I saw in 2014 (I’m not worrying about US release date or anything, just counting what I saw.)
You can also find my ranked 2014 list on Letterboxd, my top 20 performances at Under the Radar, some capsules I contributed to Under the Radar’s best films of 2014, and to Sound on Sight (my individual ballot here), and my favorite musical moments in film from 2014. And, also, my superlative year in film. And also, my complete list of all the new releases I saw in 2014. Yes, I made a lot of lists this year.
Thanks for taking this cinematic journey with me! I hope 2015 to be as fruitful and fun! Have a safe and very Happy New Year, folks! Read the rest of this entry »
“I Like Things That Look Like Mistakes”: The Perfect Imperfection of Frances Ha
A young woman in her late twenties pirouettes, jumps, and spins through the streets of New York City as David Bowie’s “Modern Love” pounds in her head, on the screen, and in our hearts. It is not only the city that sparkles in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, but Frances herself. Energetic, prone to folly, and warmly sincere, Frances is perhaps the best illustrated character to come out of film in ages, both a perfect fit for the contemporary environment she inhabits and yet timeless in how human she is. Read the rest of this entry »
So in Love: Heartbeats
“He seduces you,” says one corner of the cinematic triangle of Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats, referring to another corner. There are plenty of films about love, friendship, and love and friendship, but Dolan’s second film, about two friends in love with the same guy, does an impressive thing that few of those films can do: articulate the exact feelings of love and heartbreak through cinematic form. Several films capture moments of love, perhaps even recreate scenes easily identifiable, but the actual emotion itself is hard to render. Wordless, invisible feelings are rendered nearly tangible and very palpable on the screen. The film seems to bleed emotion.
Watch and See – My Favorite 101 Films: Part 3
Welcome back, to my continuing series of my top 101 films! In case you missed it, here’s part 2!
Welcome back to my continuing series of my favorite 101 films of all time, where you’ll encounter: wood chippers, tanks, “Nazi Julie Andrews”, Beauty and the Beast, something precious, whiskey, “In the Hall of the Mountain King” whistled, Nabokov smiling, something too gay to function, the end of the world, memory problems, a smile, and two tragic heroines, who happen to be hookers.
41. Fargo (1996) Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Most of the Coen Brothers’ films, I’ve observed, tend to be neo-noirs disguised under some other sort of other genre clichés. However, their dark classic Fargo is just a straight up noir, studying the lives of criminals, a police officer, a mild mannered guy with a lot of debt, and the small town residents of North Dakota with their funny accents. The Coens described where they grew up as “Siberia with family themed restaurants”, and that description seems to be a good metaphor for the perfect blend of comedy and suspense. The film is dark and cold, but also completely hilarious. Fargo is perfect, dontcha know?
42. GoldenEye (1995) | Directed by Martin Campbell
I have always asserted that the best James Bond films are simply the best espionage films. It works outside of the series and can stand on its own. This is just as true as Martin Campbell’s first Bond effort, GoldenEye, which ushered in Pierce Brosnan as Double O Seven for the first time. Bridging the gap between the hokey escapism of the previous14 films and the gritty realism of the Craig era, GoldenEye works well because aside from a couple key scenes and the fact that, as per usual, Bond recites his name, it doesn’t feel like a Bond film, therefore not weighted by certain expectations. Even if the expectations were there, it would surpass them, and rightly so. GoldenEye was a fantastic way for Bond to enter the ‘90s.
43. In the Loop (2009) | Directed by Armando Iannucci
In the Loop is the Dr. Strangelove for the 21st century. The terrific film delves into the world of British politics and profanely satirizes everything. If it weren’t so gut bustingly funny, it would be deeply depressing to realize how incompetent some of these people are. The screenplay is incredible, its language so vulgar and funny that it shed new light on certain topics. And added some insults to my lexicon. (“Nazi Julie Andrews!”) Based loosely on the BBC show The Thick of It, In the Loop spectacularly mocks the fog of war.
44. Kill Bill (2003/2004) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Kill Bill was Tarantino’s pop art collage. Stealing (or borrowing, whatever you prefer) everything under the sun to create a fast paced, frenetic film, it’s a playscape for the senses. The visceral thrills are second to none, as Tarantino shows off how much he knows about film, provides a badass female lead fantastically played by Uma Thurman, and seems to have an incredibly fun time.
45. King Kong (2005) | Directed by Peter Jackson
If there has ever been a contemporary remake that’s been done right, it is this one. Peter Jackson’s gorgeously realized film is a stunner in every way. The level of detail, the characterizations, and the look of the film. The best thing about it is, though, the Beauty, Ann Darrow (a charming Naomi Watts) and the Beast, Kong (Andy Serkis is a genius, did you know that?). The love that Kong feels for Ann is so beautiful and so real that the ending breaks my heart every time. Animated with integrity, Kong’s fall from grace is painful and beautiful all at once. No one brings me to tears more often than the utterance of “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”
46. Kuroneko (1968) | Directed by Kaneto Shindo
This Japanese horror film with a feminist twist features some of the most stunning cinematography in a horror film. Deriving much of the action and movement from traditional Noh Theater, the stage is lit for ghostly shimmers, as a vengeful woman and her mother, who sometimes appear as cats, rip the throats out from samurais. Its plot is fine, but it is undoubtedly a showcase for the presentation, from the beautiful costumes and sets to the dreamlike cinematography. Spectacularly creepy, it’s like dancing with the demons in the pale moonlight.
47. The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
This seems to be Hitchcock at his jauntiest. He may have made other light dark comedies, and even one deliberate comedy, but The Lady Vanishes is his frothiest film yet. Some of the techniques that would become Hitch’s trademark are featured in the film, but whatever the sense of foreboding; it is driven away by how amusing and funny it is. Its romance and the “opposites attract” would actually leave a little bit of a legacy, with Carrie Fisher quoting the film in When Harry Met Sally… (“You’re the most contemptible man I’ve ever met!”) Hitch keeps the audience entertained by both the comedy and the mystery, but even noted film historians have started watching the film with the intent to analyze it heavily and given up, lying back, and relaxing their ride on Hitch’s train.
48. Lady Vengeance (2005) | Directed by Park Chan-wook
I always go back and forth between this and Oldboy as to which is better. Both are part of a thematic trilogy from Chan-wook, and on days when the Lady takes the cake, she really takes it. The emotional resonance in this film is extraordinary. A beautiful study of revenge and redemption, Lady Vengeance sticks out for its lush colors (or not, if you watch the excellent Fade to White version, in which scene by scene, the film desaturates) and its very Murder on the Orient Express-like conclusion. The treatment revenge has in this film is, in a way, less harsh than in Oldboy. Out protagonist comes to realize what she’s doing and how revenge itself is changing her far more quickly and halfway through the film, her motivations change slightly. It remains one of the most beautiful thrillers of the last decade.
49. The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (2001 – 2003) | Directed by Peter Jackson
There is not very much to say about Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy that hasn’t been said before. Though the pacing is at times problematic (how would you deal with the material?), it’s extravagant and amazingly huge in scope. If anyone could ever tackle these tomes and bring them to life, it was Jackson.
50. Lost in Translation (2003) | Directed by Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola is an expert at capturing the meandering reality of loneliness. She did it, probably in a flashier way, with The Virgin Diaries, she did it with more focus on the costumes than on the plot in Marie Antoinette, but she explored the topic perfectly in Lost in Translation, which won her an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Two lonely people in a place where there is a significant language barrier meet and… do not sleep together. Instead, they find in each other kindred souls and a kind of intimacy that is unmatched with merely sex. The exploration of strangers in a lonely place offering solace to one another is pitch perfect in every scene. It turns out that existential ennui translates perfectly for the screen.
51. M (1931) | Directed by Fritz Lang
Having seen this film several times, there is no way that I will not think of Lang’s noir-ish crime thriller M when I hear the foreboding notes of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. Whistled faux-innocently by the ever creepy Peter Lorre is the first sign that nothing good is to come of this. Almost a critique of the police procedural as we know it, the deliberate pacing, sparsely framed shots, and beautiful chiaroscuro all add up to what is an indelible experience. (And, yes, I do consider it a part of German Expressionism).
52. Manhattan* (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
I’ve gone back and forth between Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan for what feels like ages, but I decided the latter would be in my top ten. More the comedic drama than Annie Hall’s dramatic comedy, the bittersweet tale of unrequited love and intellectuals in New York is a masterpiece. The film’s one liners are perfect, but underneath is the pathos and feeling of desire that everyone feels in the film. The Gershwin filled score adds to these tender moments of drama and romance, aiding the tone perfectly. And, of course, the film features some of the best black and white cinematography ever on screen by the Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis. While some may love New York, I, myself, love Manhattan.
53. The Manchurian Candidate (2004) | Directed by Jonathan Demme
Here’s another remake that was very successful in terms of quality. Though, re-adaptation seems a little more appropriate. Demme re-appropriates the themes of the original film, which circled around Communism, and used them in a contemporary context. Taking place after Desert Storm, the film gears in on various medical testing and the state of terrorism in the real world. It makes for an effective and taut thriller. Live Schreiber and Meryl Streep are incredible in the film.
54. Mean Girls (2004) | Directed by Mark Waters
You may think it odd for me to have this film on my Top 101, but I truly adore it. Tina Fey’s acute study of the teenage girl in high school and the desire for popularity is one of the smartest teen films to ever be made. Endlessly quotable, its astute observations (as I mentioned in my lengthy review) are more than true. Even at the small school I go to, there are things that have happened that have reminded me of Mean Girls. Part of this realism is that the film is based on a nonfiction book, the other part being just good writing. Mean Girls is supported by outstanding performances from its cast, including Lindsay Lohan, Lizzy Caplan, and Rachel McAdams. Yes, I’m going to say it: This movie is so fetch!
55. Melancholia* (2011) | Directed by Lars von Trier
It’s no secret that Lars von Trier is the benevolent sadist of art cinema. His films are rarely easy to watch, always beautiful, and always challenging. With Melancholia, he presents to us an operating staging of the end of the world. Though, the end of the world hardly means anything in comparison to the characters he studies in the film and the lives he analyzes. The fly by planet may be that manifestation of depression for Justine, but it’s Kirsten Dunst’s stand out performance that makes the end of the world so memorable. Charlotte Gainsbourg, too, is outstanding ass Justine’s older sister, and their relationship dynamic slowly disintegrates throughout the film. The cinematography, despite being hand held in nature, still captures beautiful scenes and portraits. The impact Justine has, as her emotions fly out of control, is just as damaging as the collision of Earth and Melancholia. But that’s what great art is: a collision of beautiful ideas, sounds, images, and emotion.
56. Memento (2000) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough art house film is an incredible exploration into memory, denial, and crime. A gloriously fantastic neo-noir with a tight script, amongst the things that make this film extraordinary is the nonlinear narrative. Yes, my friend, linearity goes out the window, as it is played backwards. If I didn’t love this film, I wouldn’t have written my extended essay on it. Guy Pearce plays a damaged man searching for his wife’s killer, but as we go further back into his mind and into the past, the things that are revealed are chilling yet incredibly human. Nolan starts playing his games for the big time in Memento. Stunning in every frame, Memento is one of the greatest film noirs ever made.
57. Midnight in Paris (2011) | Directed by Woody Allen
Woody Allen’s delightful tale of the dangers of nostalgia is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every right note. Owen Wilson brings something new to the Woody archetype, making his struggling screenwriter his own, while the supporting cast is absolutely amazing. From mean girl Rachel McAdams, the pedantic Michael Sheen, and the tons of historical figures that appear as Gil travels back to Paris in the 1920’s (notably Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Dali), Allen is at the top of his game here. Midnight in Paris is a film that both warns one of the dangers of nostalgia, but enjoys it all the same.
58. Modern Times (1936) | Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin avoided sound for as long as he could, and nearly a decade after The Jazz Singer had premiered with its revolutionary synchronized soundtrack, Chaplin was still holding tight keeping his Little Tramp’s lips sealed. The film is not completely silent. Modern Times incorporates some sound effects and probably half a dozen lines spoken by minor characters. And while Modern Times is undeniably hysterical, heartwarming, and as good of a showcase of Chaplin’s pantomime abilities as any of his films from a great filmography, Modern Times provides some interesting social commentary about consumerism, labor workers, and the industrialization of America. The film also ushered in the classic jazz standard “Smile”, which would be famously sung by Nat King Cole. With its ambiguous, but happy ending, Chaplin would move forward with technology and social awareness in his films.
59. Moon (2009) | Directed by Duncan Jones
Duncan Jones’ debut feature is a about a man on the moon, who mines, and feels lonely. Yes, the existential crisis of loneliness in space. It sounds rather trite, but with sharp visuals, a gorgeous and atmospheric score by Clint Mansell, and absolutely stunning performance from Sam Rockwell, Moon is a star amongst emotional dramas. Sam Rockwell’s performance of Sam Bell is the “every man”, a man who has been working and mining for the last three years on the moon. When his time on the moon is about to close and he gears up to head back home, he realizes that he has become so attached to solitude, he does not understand how he will cope with the change in environment. It’s a beautiful, subtle, and at times fantastically suspenseful film.
60. Nights of Cabiria/Vivre sa Vie* (1957/1962) | Directed by Federico Fellini/Jean-Luc Godard
The prostitution of society, religion, magic, celebrity, emotion, and money are the subjects of two of the greatest films ever made. I see Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Godard’s Vivre sa Vie as companion pieces, both dealing with similar subjects, both dealing with similar tragic protagonists, and both ending in similar ways. In Fellini’s film, Giulietta Messina inhabits the outspoken, down on her luck prostitute Cabiria. She aspires to be something bigger, but men constantly, habitually take advantage of her. In Godard’s film, framed around twelve tableaus, Anna Karina plays Nana, a Parisian girl who aspires to be an actress, but soon is relegated to being a prostitute. Both films take place in beautiful places in the world, and show the decrepit nature beneath the façade. Both films are directed with integrity and mastery of the medium. And both films are heartbreaking and tragic. If you don’t cry, or at least shed a tear, at the end of the films, you are a robot or a sociopath. Containing two of the greatest performances by women in cinematic history, both films, exploring complex characters, are the best the world of cinema has to offer.
Origin Story: Prometheus
I am not sure whether it is because I am a cynic or because I am apathetic or because I spend most of my “deep thinking time” either analyzing films or sleeping, but the question of “Where do we come from?” and other “origin of life” and “meaning of life” questions has never really occurred to me longer than that of a piece of Trident gum. I am amongst the blithely unaware, and remain so. Even watching certain films and shows that prod at that very question, like Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even TV’s Lost, aside from analyzing within the context of the given show, I never though more of it outside of that context or applied it to my own life. Even after reading Camus’ The Stranger and even after watching Being John Malkovich (which, for the record, helped me grasp existentialism), I never thought of the meaning of life personally. Prometheus is no different, but I appreciated its probing at such questions nevertheless. While its admiration for Big Ideas is commendable, it is one hell of a messy film. But I enjoyed it anyways. Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in 1979 with Alien is visually spectacular, but its storyline is about as coherent as the theatrical edition of David Fincher’s Alien3 .
Its big questions stick out in the dialogue much like the social criticisms that stick out like an eyesore in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, or the social commentary on race relations sticks out blatantly in Crash. Though, the fact that a mainstream blockbuster would even bother asking those kinds of questions in a world of film where deep thought is usually frowned upon is, to some extent, admirable. Its choppy form and presentation is something that is problematic, but it is nice to see something that asks its viewers to think of those things. Written by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator/executive producer/writer Damon Lindelof, it asks those questions repeatedly, but perhaps not in an incessant manner. A good thing about the film’s screenplay is that, while it asks those questions, and filly in the backgrounds of certain characters with various ideologies, it allows for the audience to consider the answers.When scientists find an “invitation” in the form of archeological digs and subsequent symbols across the world pointing to something shared yet mysterious, it prompts Elizabeth Shaw (the original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to go there. The invitation is a constellation, and with the help of Weyland Corp. (sound familiar?), they bring a crew aboard the expansive ship Prometheus to that very planet. You know, to go look for stuff. The speculation and main plot device is that the planet may hold the key to the origin of life and the creation of humans, even all life forms, something that has intrigued Shaw in particular since she was a little girl. Of course, once they get there, starting messing around a little bit, you know nothing good comes of it.
But its screenplay is the very root of the problem for Prometheus, no matter how “nice” it may be that something so mainstream would dare to make audiences think. The plot holes in the film and the unexplained questions and the abandoned subplots and the randomly inserted subplots… they are, to some, overwhelming and ruin the entire experience. Lindelof was called in for rewrites, and a new story may have developed, but it feels like fragments of the original are still apparent in the way that when you write a second draft of something, your friend will be quick to point out that something from the original is still there, but kind of not explained or even relevant. Some of this information and subplot is supposed to work in favor of the film’s suspense levels, but instead comes off as sloppy and unnecessary. Some of it may be a problem of logic. And while many complain about the issues, some of the questions are supposed to remain unanswered. Audiences hate a film where they are not spoon fed the answers, and while it may be a problem based both with the screenplay as well as the audience, the audience needs to grow up a little and work on its own for a bit. Certain things are supposed to remain unanswered, and intended to remain a mystery. There are certain parts where one could argue that the multiple sources of havoc in the film and not knowing which one is important is again intentional, to show that origins are chaotic in and of themselves. While some of these may be forgivable, the logic problems, as aforementioned, are sloppy and lazy.
Those problems aside, it was certainly a thrilling experience. Rooted in a very similar “haunted house” style of sci-fi horror (like Alien), it amps up the suspense by providing seedy characters, and cavernous set pieces which serve as perfection to haunt a viewer. Speaking as a matter of suspense work, director Ridley Scott is at the top of his game, and his return to the genre is a welcome one. His eye for visual style and his “Star Wars as a horror film” sensibility works well in contemporary film. It is a big film, shot in 3D, which I am pleased to report works in the film’s favor. Making its dark depths even deeper and more haunting and its immaculate rooms on Prometheus even more tantalizing, the 3D works well. Without the grand visual style of the film and its fantastic sense of thrill, the film’s weak points would end up outweighing its strengths.
Its cast, though, is also something to scream about. Noomi Rapace, and her harshly defined cheekbones, gives a very good performance in the film. Her idealistic Shaw, perhaps lost in search of something out there to believe in because of her father’s own faith, is smart, convincing, and yet also naïve. She also screams well, so that is also a plus. But it’s a performance that works very well for the film. Charlize Theron, who plays Meredith Vickers, an exec at Wayland Corp., brings in her full time bitch to the role, something that was sorely missed in Snow White and the Huntsman. Her cold and austere disposition is actually somewhat reminiscent of her bravura turn in Young Adult. But, this is a different kind of “bitch”. She is there to do her job and do it well, and she will have nothing less.
Though, the cast member that blows everyone out of the water is, of course, Michael Fassbender. Michael Fassbender does not merely play the android David. Michael Fassbender plays an Android playing Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, Fassbender’s sociopathic android David plays the David Lean epic on a loop, dyes his hair blonde, and models himself entirely on Peter O’Toole in said Lean epic. Needless to say, if they do not immediately call Fassbender to play O’Toole in a biopic, I, as well as many other people, will be very unhappy. Fassbender’s portrayal is perfect. It’s the right mix of dead emotion, wunderkind android curiosity, and devilish duplicity. Next to the visual style, Fassbender’s perfect performance is the best thing about the film. Though some of David’s actions have garnered questioning and complaint, the fact that David is so emotionless (despite his desire to feel emotion), it makes those unanswered motivations and action seem all the more eerie and frightening. Fassbender’s voice takes on a very smooth, emotionless tone, almost like HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fassbender is so intriguing and insanely good, one kind of hopes for a separate spin off. Fassbender’s is a standout, electrifying performance, and one of the best things about the film.
To really break things down, the enjoyment of the film Prometheus is directly proportional to a) your expectations regarding the film as a prequel to Alien, b) your tolerance for unanswered questions, and c) how much you appreciate grand visual design, excellent suspense, and Michael Fassbender. If you consider the three factors prior to seeing the film, notably the first two, they will probably dictate as to how much you will enjoy the film. I was personally able to overlook its (perhaps glaring) plot flaws in favor of appreciating it as an exercise in sci-fi tension, outstanding visual design, and the fact that the film does ask big questions, even if it does not answer them. Because, if anything, doesn’t it matter that the questions are being asked at all?