Sunday, February 22, 2015

Twenty Five Films for 2014

First things first...
Hi friends! It's been a while, yes? After going back and forth for a while about where to tack up my favorite films list from last year, I wandered into the overgrowth that was this old blog and decided this was as good a place as any. And yeah, this place could use a fresh coat of paint, but that's for another day. Right now, I'm all about looking back on the best films of 2014, which is definitely more important right now than figuring out a banner that will fit on this site.

It was a strong year. Not a year overrun with masterpieces, perhaps, but one where a handful of great directors turned in some of their strongest work, where genre pictures made a welcome return to center stage, and where Tilda Swinton had unquestionably her most Swinton-y year to date. It was also a year of a great many biopics, of which, only one will you find here. It is really best not to encourage these things.

The obvious disclaimer, although I have seen a good number of 2014 releases (63 to be exact) I have plenty of blindspots, and they are: Timbuktu, Beyond the Lights, Citizenfour, Life Itself, Why Don't You Play in Hell, Winter Sleep and every single animated movie that isn't made of Legos.

Finally, twenty five seems even more like an arbitrary number considering that there were way more than 25 films I really liked from last year, including Goodbye to Language 3D, Lucy, Ida, Le Weekend, White Bird in a Blizzard, Edge of Tomorrow and hell, even Into the Woods, but a line must be drawn somewhere, and besides, I kind of want to kick this off with 2014's most fascinating and flawed piece of pop entertainment...

25. Gone Girl
I'm not sure Fincher strikes quite the right tone for this, but there's plenty to marvel at here, specifically, the acting prowess of Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, and even Tyler Perry.

24. A Most Violent Year
Stunningly shot in a way that veers between athletic and majestic. An engrossing anti-gangster movie.

23. Two Days One Night
One of the strongest Oscar nominated performances of the last few years still is only Cotillard's second best work of 2014. She dominates every frame here. An emotionally exhausting performance.

22. Under the Skin
I'm supposed to have this higher, I think. A year ago, I had pegged this as my likely favorite film of the year, sight unseen. Oh well, it's a perfect case of a movie that fascinated me without ever actually resonating, and that's enough to keep it out of my upper rankings. Scarlett is mesmerizing though.

21. The Double
Richard Ayoade is going to make a masterpiece one of these days. We're not there yet, but this is a nice improvement over the already solid Submarine

20. Birdman (or, no, fuck it, I'm not typing the rest of that stupid title)
It's a nifty little magic trick of a movie and I do not begrudge it any of the awards attention it has had whatsoever. Now bring on the Keaton comeback.

19. Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson tackles Pynchon. It goes as well as it possibly could have. Joaquin is in fine form, but Josh Brolin and Katherine Waterston run away with the show.

18. Force Majeure
In the aftermath of an avalanche on a family vacation, hilarity ensues.

17. We Are The Best!
"Hate The Sport" should definitely be vying with "Everything is Awesome" for that Best Original Song Oscar.

16. The Guest
A run-of-the-mill home invasion thriller midway through its run says "Fuck it" and decides to become a bloody insane send-up of John Carpenter movies.

15. Dear White People
Its got style and panache to spare, and makes for one hell of a calling card for Justin Simien. 

14. Leviathan
A tale of oppression, God and vodka.

13. Starry Eyes
A highly visceral horror film of undying ambition.

12. Listen Up Philip
If Woody Allen had the capacity to be more self-deprecating, it might look like this. Jason Schwartzman is the perfect intellectual blowhard, but his companions in misery Elizabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce really steal the show.

11. Guardians of the Galaxy
Odd how so few blockbusters - the pop-confections of the movie world - understand how to truly tap into the power of pop music. This one gets it though, and to glorious effect.

Make your final predictions accordingly. Without further adieu, the top ten...

10. Nightcrawler
This one's had staying power, no doubt about it. Striking turns from Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and especially Jake Gyllenhaal in what is easily his finest work to-date. A darkly funny and deeply unsettling portrait of the American dream run amok.

9. Mr. Turner
Timothy Spall huffs and puffs and grunts his way through the only biopic of the year that truly adopted a warts and all approach to its subject. It is mitigated by the fact Turner's own repulsiveness is ensconced with a film that frame by frame ought to be displayed in a museum. It's the most miraculously shot film of the year.

8. Boyhood
Blinding ambition can make up for a whole host of shortcomings, and here, it's enough to carry it all the way to classic status. A tremendous achievement.

7. Mommy
Xavier Dolan once again assaults the world with pop-melodramatic intensity. Mommy is a firecracker with a three hour fuse, and it sports not one, not two, but three of the years strongest performances.

6. Snowpiercer
No other great movie features a line as ridiculous as "The babies tasted the best."

5. God Help The Girl
Scottish indie pop is good for the soul. Here's a film that is terribly earnest and wholeheartedly charming, and I would gladly revisit these characters and their music over and over and over again.

4. Only Lovers Left Alive
You all should have seen this one coming, because clearly Jim Jarmusch + Tilda Swinton + Vampires equates to everything I could have possibly wanted in a movie.

3. The Immigrant
James Gray takes his cues from Coppola here, and the result is nothing less than one of the greatest takes on the American Dream ever put to celluloid. Even Marion Cotillard has never been better. Joaquin Phoenix just keeps building that resume.

2. The Babadook
We made it through the lean years, everybody. After nearly three decades, the horror genre may just be in strong form once more. And if you need a masterpiece to hang your black top hat on, look no further than The Babadook, which mines terror from far more everyday concerns than pop-up-book monsters.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson, hopped up on balalaika and nostalgia, delivers a finely-tuned cuckoo clock of a film that turns out to be his most complex and melancholic effort to date. I haven't seen it in nearly a year now, and yet it remains fresher in my mind than every other 2014 release since, a sure sign that this is the right pick for my favorite move of last year.

And there you have it. I'll spare any other superlatives, but suffice it to say, yes, there are some obvious omissions here, and yes, most of them were still pretty swell in their own right. But twenty five is enough, right? So let's put 2014 to rest already so I can finally go watch Jupiter Ascending

Monday, September 3, 2012

Day of the Outlaw

The coldest movie ever made, Andre De Toth's DAY OF THE OUTLAW is a film you feel in your bones. It's a Western alright (I felt a certain obligation to have the first American film in my canon come out of this country's signature genre) and few films have ever utilized the great inhospitable frontier quite like this. It also stars Robert Ryan, so often the villain's villain, here the noble antihero, Blaise Starrett.

 He starts off the film, in typical Robert Ryan fashion, as the sort of gruff outlier in a snowed-in frontier settlement, the antagonizing party in a love triangle with Alan Marshal and Tina Louise that is clearly going nowhere. That's when Trouble rides into town, and that's Trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with B and that stands for Burl Ives. He plays a wounded and disgraced cavalry officer turned bank robber, and he soon overwhelms the hard-up town with his marauding band of outlaws.

What follows is a tense and terrifying struggle against impossible odds, as Blaise lures the increasingly uncontrollable band of uninvited guests on a trek into the wilderness to seek out a mythical pass through the snow. It's a bleak and hopeless quest, and one taken on with an air of noble sacrifice, a desperate attempt at atonement by Blaise, and it begets the film's harrowing final setpiece, an epic march of death through the heart of winter. No film, save perhaps for AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD, coveys the feel of certain doom quite as effectively.

Location shooting will do that, I suppose. The film is just an immensely real, visceral experience. It weighs on you, it chills you, and ultimately, it takes the genre deep into territory that even the likes of Anthony Mann and John Ford hadn't dared to do. It's a very primal film, and in that way it feels akin to much of Mann's work, but perhaps then credit goes to Ryan, whose presence is certainly much more dubious than Jimmy Stewart, for coloring this stark black and white landscape with such despair. Bleak, but mighty brilliant.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra

Eastern European cinema was blooming in the late 60s, early 70s, and one of the most fascinating figures to emerge from that renaissance was Polish auteur Wojciech Has. If you're heard of any of his films, it would probably be Jerry Garcia's favorite flick, THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT. But while that one's an epic trip to be sure, Has would only grow more confident, more ambitious, and, if possible, more bizarre. That's what we can gather from his 1973 oft-forgotten oddity SANATORIUM POD KLEPSYDRA, or, if I'm feeling particularly American, THE HOURGLASS SANATORIUM.

The plot in a nutshell. A young man named Joseph arrives by train to a backwater sanatorium where his dying father is interred. From there, we begin a dreamlike path through past and present, real and otherwise, as Joseph participates in these fantastical visions all moreorless dancing around the themes of life and death and the forward march of time.

Interesting stuff, but like all the greatest movies, the real treat is the manner in which it is served to us. What makes this particular vision unlike any other is the mindblowingly cohesive world Has manages to cobble together here, a feat in itself, but this isn't just any world, it's a temporally twisted, stuffed to the gills, surrealist buffet, and it all comes together just beautifully. The elegant camera work keeps the pacing deliberate and unhurried (but never once boring, you could ogle each from for an hour at least) and each episode is stitched together with beautifully fluid editing. 

It's a film that demands relatively little of the viewer, aside from a sizable appetite for the unusual. For those of you like me who are easily distracted by pretty pictures and exquisite framing, there's plenty of love to be had. And did I mention the use of the color green? It's an odd color to lean on in film - I think typically it is associated with nauseous side effects - but ye gods, is it put to exceptional use here, possibly the best that I've ever seen. The results aren't remotely sickening, but they are distinctly otherworldly, which I imagine is exactly what Has was going for. The film itself, like the Sanatorium, is positioned distinctly out of time.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

In honor of the Gene Siskel Film Center's summer long Studio Ghibli retrospective, I've decided to induct the film that made it all possible into my Canon.

NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND may have preceded Ghibli's creation by a few years, but its success was pivotal in the studio's development, and in many ways, this is the prototype for all Hayao Miyazaki films to follow. There's the headstrong female protagonist, the fantastic flying machines, the childlike optimism at odds with a world in chaos - all wrapped up in an environmentalist parable. And despite the string of masterpieces that would follow, I'm still not sure Miyazaki has ever topped this.  

Visually polished to the level we've come to except of Ghibli, NAUSICAÄ was hardly typical for the mid-80s animation slump in which is arrived. Think of this, then, as the first major work in an international golden age of animation, engineers by Ghibli and Disney alike, that stretched well into the 90s (and, with Pixar, could be argued to still be going on today).


Backing up the film is Joe Hisaishi's gorgeous score, an endearing mix of swelling orchestral compositions and nostalgia-inducing synthesizers. It's far and away my favorite work of his, which says something in itself, and I wouldn't hesitate to throw this is with the greatest film scores of all time. Beautiful work.

Bottom line is, this one is unmissable. For those of you able to check out the retrospective, the film will be showing at the Siskel Center Friday June 8th at 6:00pm in the original Japanese dub, and on Saturday the 9th at 3:00pm and Wednesday the 13th at 6:00pm in the 2005 English dub. I just may see you there.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Black Narcissus

How do you follow up the first entry in your Canon when that entry is nothing short of your favorite film of all time? How about with a film from your favorite directors? That film would be Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's BLACK NARCISSUS.

It's a film I was fortunate enough to revisit recently on 35mm, and more than ever it affirmed its place among the all time greats. A cloister of nuns are slowly driven mad by the intoxicating Himalayan air - well, that, and burgeoning sexual desire. It may be the most erotic film this side of Bertolucci, and Jack Cardiff's Pinewood-based production design has everything to do with it. The visuals alone send the mind into sensory overload, and much in keeping with my aim at brevity, they do a nice job of speaking for themselves.



I especially like that last one, which captures Jean Simmons' young beauty Kanchi amidst a private dance. It's one of many moments in this movie in which we feel as though we're eavesdropping, privy to something we are not meant to see. And that is what ultimately sets this apart from other world-is-our-playground type Western stories. The nuns here are very much on the outside looking in at another culture, but what they see is so affecting that they can't help but let it get to them. Any efforts to change what they see are futile. They are, like us, voyeurs at best.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Celine and Julie Go Boating

It all started something like this...

I've been away too long. I've been busy. Lot's of re-acclimating. You understand. And even when I was here in the last year, I wasn't focused. Certainly not consistent. And I feel terrible about that ~ really, I do ~ and I do believe I have a remedy.


Settle down on the fanatical listing, finally accept that you all have more to teach me about music than I ever can teach you, and bring this back to basics. Which is to say, the thousand or more reasons I can think of to fall in love with cinema. An unranked rundown of greatest films large and small, unfurling one by one, maybe as I see them, maybe as they surface in my thoughts and dreams, to be looked upon as nothing more or less than a blindingly cool list of recommendations.

In short, my Canon.

You may have come across my top 100. That's not a canon. That list is a snapshot of my taste in film in the months immediately after my college graduation, and it amazes me just how much I've changed in the few short years since that came into being. Notable, I suppose, is my waning interest in ranking - hence the current project - and I'm not sure whether my resignation to the futility of such pursuits is from growing wiser or just increasingly jaded. Both, I don't doubt.

Anyway, I've loved and loathed and obsessed over many a film in the past few years, but despite everything, my very favorite remains Jacques Rivette's CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING. And that, friends, is as good a place to start as any. It's a good film for beginnings. Freewheeling. Circular. Groundbreaking. Rivette once said of Rossellini's VIAGGIO IN ITALIA that is was a door through which all cinema must pass, but with all due respect to that masterpiece (I don't doubt a future entry in this Canon), Rivette's own magnum opus is for me that door. It is, quite overtly, a film about finding your way between the walls, stepping into a wonderland where narrative structure as we know it is scarcely held sacred.

My kind of movie.

I don't intend to ramble on. The film is structured around the whimsical friendship of two women, who through the course of the story, find their way into an imaginary house, meddle in a recurring murder plot, and, like the bamboozled bourgeoisie in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, devise an improbable solution to an improbable scenario. If that sounds even vaguely in your wheelhouse, then you owe it to yourself to track this one down. MULHOLLAND DR couldn't exist without it. Hell, having seen it, I'm not sure I could exist without it. Which is, of course, why it's numero uno. All films in this Canon may be created equal, but since their has to be an inaugural entrant, here was the only logical beginning ~ the door though which every other film will inevitably pass.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar Predictions 2012

That annual post where I predict, nitpick, and whenever I can, eviscerate the yearly academy award winners.
2012 wasn't a bad year for movies. For all that it may have lacked (see the sorry summer blockbuster season, or the dearth of great performances) it made up for in some ambitious work behind the camera from a host of directors new and old. And as my forthcoming film awards, complete with a top 25 favorite flicks, will bear witness to, it was a year with surprising deep pockets.
Of course, you wouldn't know it from looking at the Academy's choices, collectively the most uninspiring batch since the dreaded 2005 (06' was a worse year, but the nominees made the best of it). It's not without bright spots. Best Director is particularly swanky, even with that pesky Alexander Payne invited to the party, and across the board there are some delightful inclusions that weren't necessarily expected, such as Drive and Jane Eyre nabbing one nod apiece, or the oddball Animated Feature category. But overall, there's just not a whole lot that interests me here, and I'll illustrate that with a small teaser for my own personal top 25. The Academy's Best Picture category of nine manages 3 films in common with my own list, not bad at all in my opinion, but turn instead to the 20 acting nominees and only 2 performances hail from that same grouping on my list. This has really been the season of sad Tristan. Yeah, I do have a few horses in this race (and they will still probably finish ahead of Mr. Spielberg's) but I've braced myself for the most unmagical Oscar ceremony in recent memory. In fact, I'll be working, and not racing home too fast afterward either. That'll show 'em. See how much I care.
Well, enough to still make predictions. So that's what you're looking at. Commentary where it feels right. And yeah, there are still a handful of these I've not seen, a few of which I will continue to avoid.

Best Picture

Will Win: The Artist
Should Win*: Hugo
Shouldn't Be There: The Help

*Should Win reflects only my pick among the nominees. Personal winners coming very, very soon.

Best Director
Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Should Win: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
Shouldn't Be There: Alexander Payne, The Descendants

A great category, with three old dogs who rightly earn there spots, and a frontrunner who at the very least left an impression. This may all just be a dream of Alexander Payne's, who I'm still convinced directed his movie while sleepwalking.

Best Actor
Will Win: Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Should Win: Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Shouldn't Be There: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress
Will Win: Viola Davis, The Help
Should Win: Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Shouldn't Be There: absolutely everyone but Mara, but especially Glenn Close

Rooney Mara's nomination single-handedly stopped my head from exploding on nomination morning. Oh, and yeah, Streep is probably in a good place to take it too, but it would really just be better for all concerned if Davis took it so let's go with that.

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Should Win: Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Shouldn't Be There: Jonah Hill, Moneyball

Jonah Hill is also in Alexander Payne's dream. Really, wtf is he doing here? He did nothing in that movie except speak math. And now we have to call him, Oscar Nominee, Jonah Hill. This fact is slowly killing me.

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Should Win: Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Shouldn't Be There: Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

Not a great category, but not as bad as some of the films involved would suggest. Bejo, McTeer and Chastain are all really good, and Spencer alright I suppose. But let's just not talk about McCarthy, k?

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: A Separation
Should Win: A Separation
Shouldn't Be Nominated: Bridesmaids

There is really only one correct choice here.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: The Descendants
Should Win: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Shouldn't Be Nominated: The Ides of March

Best Film Editing
Will Win: The Artist
Should Win: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Shouldn't Be There: The Descendants (I truly do not understand)

Best Cinematography
Will Win: The Tree of Life
Should Win: The Tree of Life
Shouldn't Be There: The Artist

They may be old as fuck, but I refuse to believe that the average Academy voter is blind. Hence why the only correct choice is The Tree of Life.

Best Costume Design
Will Win: Hugo
Should Win: probably Hugo, but really, Jane Eyre

Shouldn't Be There: Eh, it's all fair

Best Art Direction
Will Win: Hugo
Should Win: Hugo
Shouldn't Be There: Midnight in Paris (really liked the movie, but this is random)

Best Makeup
Will Win: Albert Nobbs
Should Win: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Shouldn't Be There: no complaints

Best Sound Mixing
Will Win: War Horse
Should Win: Hugo

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: Hugo
Should Win: Hugo, but I kinda want to cheer for Drive

Best Visual Effects
Will Win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Should Win: Hugo
But Really: Where the fuck is Tree of Life

Best Original Score
Will Win: The Artist
Should Win: Hugo
Shouldn't Be There: War Horse

Best Original Song
Will Win: Real in Rio, Rio
Shouldn't Be There: this category

Best Foreign-Language Film
Will Win: In Darkness
Should Win: A Separation

Ok, so not fair to really comment here since I've only seen A Separation, which clearly I loved, but given how wacky foreign film always ends up, I just can't go with that for my prediction. And when in doubt, go WWII.

Best Animated Feature
Will Win: Rango

Rango did kind of rock, but it was the only nominee (and animated film!) that I saw all year so I can't really say. Would be cool to see one of the foreign films nab a win.

Best Animated Short
Will Win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Dr. Morris Lessmore

Best Documentary
Will Win: Undefeated

Best Documentary Short
Will Win: Saving Face

Best Live-Action Short

Will Win: Tuba Atlantic

And with that, I am quite ready to go to sleep. This was not supposed to take up so much of my time this year.