Alice Through the Looking Glass
There is no magic, no wonder, just junk rehashed from a movie that was itself a rehash of Lewis Carroll, tricked out with physically unpersuasive…
Yesterday, we released the RogerEbert.com consensus Top Ten Films of 2014. Today, we dig deeper, presenting you with all submitted lists from our wonderful critics and independent contributors. There are over a hundred films cited below as one of the best of 2014, displaying both the diversity in quality at the cinema this year and the unique voices that cover it for our site. We asked contributors to submit whatever they liked in terms of length and some submitted just a list, while others went deeper. It's huge (25 lists!) but it should give you an overall picture of the year in film, complete with dozens of links back to our reviews. Just for visual purposes, the people who just submitted lists are first, followed by those who went into more detail, both groups alphabetical. Dig in.
2. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
3. "Gone Girl"
4. "Under the Skin"
5. "Two Days, One Night"
6. "Mr. Turner"
7. "Force Majeure"
8. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
9. "Edge of Tomorrow"
10. "John Wick"
1. "We Are the Best!"
3. "Stray Dog"
4. "Mr. Turner"
5. "My Name is Salt"
6. "Out in the Night"
7. "Dance of Reality"
8. "Two Days, One Night"
9. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
10. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
1. "Inherent Vice"
3. "Two Days, One Night"
4. "Gone Girl"
5. "The Strange Little Cat"
6. "Goodbye to Language"
7. "The Last of the Unjust"
9. "The Immigrant"
1. "Inherent Vice"
2. "Last of the Unjust"
4. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
5. "Goodbye to Language"
8. "Maps to the Stars"
9. "The Immigrant"
10. "Under the Skin"
CHRISTY LEMIRE (more here)
3. "Under the Skin"
4. "The Lego Movie"
7. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
8. "Gone Girl"
9. "A Most Violent Year"
CRAIG D. LINDSEY
"A Most Violent Year"
"The Raid 2"
"Two Days, One Night"
"Under the Skin"
"Venus in Fur"
Runner-ups: "A Most Wanted Man," "Boyhood," "Dear White People," "Gone Girl," "Happy Valley," "How to Train Your Dragon 2," "Listen Up, Philip," "Love is Strange," "Selma" and "Snowpiercer"
1. "Stranger by the Lake"
2. "The Strange Little Cat"
3. "Force Majeure"
4. "The Lego Movie"
5. "Mr. Turner"
6. "Guardians of the Galaxy"
9. "Beyond the Lights"
10. "The Immigrant"
3. "Life Itself"
4. "Blue Ruin"
5. "The Lego Movie"
8. "The Babadook"
9. "Under the Skin"
1. "Under the Skin"
3. "A Most Violent Year"
4. "Gone Girl"
5. "Inherent Vice"
7. "Two Days, One Night"
Special Mention: "Life Itself," a film that holds such a close place to my heart that I couldn't possibly compare it to others.
1. "Under the Skin"
3. "Stranger by the Lake"
4. "Love is Strange"
5. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
6. "Force Majeure"
7. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
9. "Obvious Child"
10. "The One I Love"
1. "Love is Strange"
All the movies in my top 5 moved me in one way or another, but Ira Sachs’ heartbreaking love story tops this list if only because it made me cry the hardest. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow join the ranks of great cinematic married couples; if you’ve ever been married or in a long term relationship, you will see you and your beloved reflected back in the interplay between them. Marisa Tomei provides solid supporting work as well. Sachs remains unafraid to let scenes run long, fueled by their quiet power. He lenses two of the most moving crying sequences I’ve ever seen, the last of which is a beautiful long take in a stairwell that destroyed me. A great NYC movie, a great love story and the best movie of 2014.
2. "Two Days, One Night"
After years of resisting you, Marion Cotillard, you’ve made me a true fan. See my blurb on this under our group 10 best for the reasons why.
3. "Beyond the Lights"
My review here at RogerEbert.com said all I can possibly say about this film, so at the risk of being redundant, let me once again speak of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s brilliant dramatic and musical turn, Minnie Driver’s wickedly good Mama Rose-style stage mother and Nate Parker’s suave, vulnerable and strong romantic co-lead. Delivers its message of empowerment and self-worth with great music and unabashedly broad emotions. Writer-Director Gina Prince-Bythewood continues her streak of films whose characters feel fleshed out and lived in, regardless of their color, gender or status.
More on this in my upcoming review. All I’ll say for now is that Ava DuVernay’s drama is as good in its intimate moments as it is in its epic scenes of chaotic violence. David Oyelowo embodies Martin Luther King as no other actor has, and he’s surrounded by a series of great character actors and Miss Sofia herself, Oprah Winfrey. Those of us who knew of DuVernay’s immense talent (and this includes Roger Ebert, of course) are not surprised at how skillfully she crafts Selma’s sense of urgency and timeliness.
Now let’s discuss Joon-Ho Bong’s rollercoaster ride of a sci-fi parable about class, climate control and the little engine that could. Taking place on a runaway train that circles the globe, Snowpiercer wears its messages on the same sleeve it uses to slap you silly with excitement. We follow the harrowing adventures of Captain America’s Chris Evans as he and his outmatched ragtag army barrel toward the riches at the head of the train. Each train car promises a new, extremely strange and disturbing set piece, from ax-wielding armies to Allison Pill as the perkiest teacher from Hell you’ll ever meet. Overseeing the mayhem is Tilda Swinton’s evil guardian of this galaxy. Saint Tilda’s must-see performance defies explanation.
6. "The Immigrant"
James Gray’s magnum opus is a hauntingly beautiful and sad meditation on being an outsider. Marion Cotillard is excellent in the first of her two appearances on this list, but Joaquin Phoenix bests her with his Swiss-watch accurate calibration of madness and passion. A tricky Jeremy Renner and a stoic Dagmara Dominczyk contribute fine supporting threads to the narrative fabric Gray weaves inside his impeccably constructed mise-en-scene. You feel transported in time, only to have Gray’s final shot break your heart into a million pieces. A movie this good shouldn’t have been treated as poorly as its famous distributor treated it.
7. "The Imitation Game"
Here’s a case where, as with The Social Network, my life as a programmer interferes with my critical sense. In many ways, The Imitation Game is a standard-issue biopic, one that typically fudges some details and downplays others for the same of dramatic license. Some of these criticisms are valid, but I couldn’t look away from Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Alan Turing. It was like watching the origin story of the personality type of my programming brethren; I was fascinated. Keira Knightley acquits herself nicely and any appearance by Charles Dance is bound to elevate a film a few notches.
8. "Force Majeure"
Want to get into an argument with your better half? Go see Ruben Ostlund’s hilarious and terrifying examination of the roles society imposes on men and women. Never has the question “What would you have done?” been so pointedly aimed at the audience. Contains the single most over-the-top hysterical crying jag in cinema history, bravely delivered by actor Johannes Bah Kuhnke. The discomfort of the audience at the Toronto Film Festival—folks didn’t know whether to laugh or take it seriously—perfectly encapsulates how this film plays on the viewer’s emotional equilibrium. A great provocation.
9. "Muppets Most Wanted"
As good as The LEGO Movie is, the kid in me found a bit more to love about this sequel to the 2011 Muppets reboot. What may have sealed the deal was songwriter Bret MacKenzie’s awesome disco-retro throwback song, “I’ll Get You What You Want.” Sung by an evil Kermit-lookalike who, in the course of seducing the materialistic side of Miss Piggy, smears a “Story Of O” worthy amount of Vaseline on the camera. Delivers on the funny human cameos while finding Jim Henson-like pathos in Kermit the Frog’s realization that his friends don’t even notice he’s gone. Only the original Muppet Movie surpasses this. It’s Face-Off for kids.
10. "Dear White People"
Justin Simien’s potent satire uses the university system as a microcosm for “post-racial” society at large, examining race, class and gender with equal doses of mockery and empathy. Simien’s characters are all quirky and real in ways not often seen onscreen; his refusal to completely beatify or damn anyone forces us to think more deeply about all these people. Tessa Thompson makes an excellent tour guide through the hallowed halls of Winchester University, but I found my alter ego in Tyler James Williams’ Lionel. If only my Afro looked this good back in 1975.
Runner-ups (in order): "Chef," "NAS: Time is Illmatic," "Leviathan," "The Lego Movie," "Top Five," "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," "Clouds of Sils Maria," "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Pride" and "Guardians of the Galaxy"
I was fortunate to be at the Sundance premiere, and I felt overwhelmed by the sense of exultation and release. Linklater’s lyrical realist style is beautiful to behold, like the opening, with its diaphanous cloud formations and the subtle camera movements tracing the face of the young boy lying on his back and staring into space.
“Boyhood” is a work of cinema, but it is informed by other artistic forms, like music, literature, photography. The movie is a free and open work dedicated to the act of seeing and watching. It’s an immersive portrait of a boy we see develop—physically, emotionally, socially—over a twelve year time period. The impact and power is transcendent. Before our eyes, a child becomes a young man, defiant, evocative and idiosyncratic. The movie atomizes the process, and makes it vivid, tenuous, funny, sad, vulnerable and finally rather heartbreaking experience.
2. "Winter Sleep"
The seventh feature by Turkey’s greatest director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, captured the highest prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or. The movie runs more than three hours, and every minute feels earned. The patient viewer is deeply rewarded by the superb way Ceylan negotiates outer and inner space, using length and duration to shape and color movement, feeling and incident.
The director dedicates the work to Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Voltaire. The movie’s protagonist, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), combines characteristics of Lear, Prospero and Prince Hal. The visually stunning opening half gives way to something more caustic and withering, in exposing the sorrow and pain the man has caused in the sister who believes Audin squandered the privileges he was accorded and his beautiful, much younger wife who rebels against his authoritative nature.
Ceylan is more direct and expansive, concerned with how language distorts and conceals the material achieves a sustained and musical flow, despite the bitterness and rancor. It's a different kind of poetry, of faces and the architecture of bodies as the camera is unflinching and locked in. Sure, it’s long, but every moment pulses.
3. "Goodbye to Language"
“Godard forever,” a fan screamed just before the movie’s Cannes debut. For more than half a century, Godard has obliterated the boundaries of narrative cinema, layering image and sound, reportage and language, music and poetry, in ways that thrill, confound and mesmerize. For his first work in 3-D, Godard looks forward and backward, fusing many of the thematic concerns of his first period, especially the social, sexual and political deconstruction of a marriage, to a more ruminative, moral inquiry about to the very act of watching. In just 70 dense minutes, Godard meditates on the history of the art form. The director has mandated the film is to be shown, theatrically, only in 3-D.
4. "Inherent Vice"
The seventh feature of leading American independent Paul Thomas Anderson marks the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Anderson conjures a gorgeous, funny, sad and painful cinematic equivalent from the language, manners and social mores of Pynchon's 1970-set California novel about a private investigator (Joaquin Phoenix, never better) caught in a labyrinth involving a missing real estate tycoon, his dream lover, neo Nazi bikers, counterrevolutionaries, surfer rockers, a Chinese drug cartel and a runaway heiress.
Anderson's porous style is organic and grants a wonderful freedom and privileged aura to the perfect ensemble (this is one of those movies where every part just feels intuitively). Katherine Waterston and Josh Brolin are revelations. The intricate story, riffing on Raymond Chandler, is another of the director's trenchant and sharp explorations of damaged masculinity that here meshes perfectly with the darker edges of the material. Stylistically, Robert Elswit's soft, muted photography and the deft period recreation are a knockout.
5. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
The director's best film since "Dead Man," is also his most autobiographically inflected work. It's a magnificent portrait of love affair of two soulful, rapturous aesthetes (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) whose affair has passed through centuries. The references, from Paul Bowles to Shakespeare, color and accentuate the nervy and subtle interplay of the two. Hiddleston has the most beautiful voice in contemporary cinema and Swinton finds a plaintive emotional register that is haunting. French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux's camerawork, especially the eerie, desolate nighthawk imagery of a fading Detroit, is absolutely sensational.
6. "Listen Up, Philip"
From its adroit use of a narrator to the fonts of the credits and the sharply dramatized social milieu, the third feature of the New York independent Alex Ross Perry is a New York literary movie in the best sense. It achieves the peculiar and the entrancing. The story braids together two great literary works, William Gaddis’ debut novel, “The Recognitions,” and Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” as it meditates on the nature of ambition (especially the literary sort), friendship, jealousy and creative sabotage.
Perry’s great talent is to make the monstrous and self-pitying protagonist funny, reckless and gloriously entertaining. In his most concentrated work since “Rushmore,” Jason Schwartzman is note perfect as a vainglorious writer and misanthrope. Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce are also superb. Visually the film is a marvel in the saturated colors of the Super 16mm photography of Sean Price Williams and the evocative production design of Scott Kuzio.
7. "Norte, the End of History"
My personal introduction to the works of the radical Filipino filmmaker Diaz, a major figure on the film art festival circuit for his long, novelistic works of social history and existential crisis. In this riveting and magnetic work, Diaz draws on Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” in exploring the intertwined fates of two men, the sociopathic law school dropout who kills a local moneylender and the impoverished street vendor jailed for the crime. One of the director’s rare forays into working in color, Diaz demonstrates a poet’s facility for faces, objects and landscapes. Like Edward Yang’s Taiwanese masterpiece “A Brighter Summer Day,” a murder becomes a widening inquiry into a country’s tortured past, a meditation on its fascist origins and extreme inequality.
8. "Mr. Turner"
The enthralling new work by Mike Leigh is a fragmented, impressionistic study of the last 25 years of the life and art of the visionary Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Leigh has been talking about making this movie for at least a decade, and his passion fortunately never suffocates the material. It’s enlivening and provides a bracing perspective of the painter.
Leigh regular Timothy Spall plays (or, more accurately, incarnates) the eponymous Joseph Mallord William Turner, prickly and self-contained, a man of enormous appetites and needs. The byplay between Turner and his father (the fantastic Paul Jesson), gruff and tender, and the widow, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he carried out a clandestine affair, are absolutely entrancing and skillfully teases out aspects of character, reflection and mood that color the portraiture.
In elevating the restrictions of the biographical form, Leigh shows a great acumen and skill with the camera. It has been a revelation to chart his almost radical evolution as a filmmaker, from the early actor-driven, plaintive style of his 16mm works to the deeper range and subtlety of “Topsy-Turvy,” “Vera Drake” and this commanding piece. Dick Pope is his cinematographer.
The first Polish-language feature of Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”) is a mournful and devastating piece examining Poland’s cruel past that also poses tough, essential questions about forgiveness, shame, heroism and honor. Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is an attractive, committed novitiate nun in her late teens who is preparing to accept her vows discovers through her only living relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) that she is Jewish, and that her parents were murdered during the war.
The two women travel to the countryside to the family’s estate to uncover the truth. The austere black and white photography achieves a deft, eerie likeness to newsreel, especially the cold, almost medieval architecture and the empty landscapes. Ida’s innocence and confusion is contrasted with Wanda’s bitter though often riotously bleak dark humor. “Ida” is about two forms of horror collapsing against each other, the abuses perpetrated during the war framed against the privation of post-war Communism.
10. "Jimmy P."
This unfairly neglected film is the second English-language film by the superb French director Arnaud Desplechin (“Christmas Tale”) has almost no relationship to the director’s other work. Benicio Del Toro is a Native American and returning World War II infantryman whose unexplained neurological disorders necessitates the unorthodox treatment of a progressive French psychoanalyst (Desplechin regular Mathieu Amalric).
It was a great year for movies about food: the real stars of "Chef," "Le Chef," "The Hundred-Foot Journey," "The Trip to Italy" and "The Lunchbox" was the food, swoon-worthy lusciousness, delectably displayed.
Even without a new feature from Pixar, it was a spectacular year for animation: "The LEGO Movie," "The Boxtrolls," "Big Hero 6," "The Book of Life" and "Penguins of Madagascar" were all brilliantly imagined and performed.
Every year we get a lot of movies about the importance of friends and families and being yourself and following your dreams. This year, I was very happy that we also got a lot of movies about the importance and the pure, thrilling adventure of being really smart: "The Imitation Game," "The Theory of Everything," "Interstellar," "Big Hero 6."
As each year begins, I especially look forward to discovering new talents, knowing that there are people whose names I might not even know that I won't be able to imagine my life without twelve months later, or some I might have seen but who will transform our notion of who they are and what they can do by the end of December. This year, those actors include Gugu Mbatha-Raw ("Belle" and "Beyond the Lights"), Chris Pratt ("The LEGO Movie" and "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Rosamund Pike ("Gone Girl"), Ben Schnetzer ("Pride" and 2013's "The Book Thief"), Andrew Scott ("Sherlock" and "Pride"), Nelsan Ellis ("Get On Up"), Jillian Bell ("22 Jump Street"), and Jack O'Connell ("Unbroken"). Jon Stewart ("Rosewater"), Chris Rock ("Top Five"), and Angelina Jolie showed exceptional skill and a true cinematic eye as directors and Ava DuVernay's "Selma" was my favorite film of the year.
If you looked hard, you could even find some smart, grown-up, and very romantic love stories: "Beyond the Lights," "Words and Pictures" and "Begin Again."
Documentaries just keep getting better: "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me," "Finding Vivian Maier," "Particle Fever," "CitizenFour," "1971," "The Unknown Known" and, best of all, "Life Itself."
The weirdest theme of 2014 was demonstrating the free spirit and adorableness of the movie's couple by having them run out on a restaurant check: "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," "Le Week-end" and "Elsa & Fred." And in "Top Five" they jumped the subway turnstile. What's up with that?
Even though 2014 was The Year of the Horse, there weren't any horse-related movies that I'd put on my list. I thought 2014 was an exceptional year for animation. We finally got to see the much anticipated "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" from Studio Ghibli and "Song of the Sea" from the Cartoon Saloon. Despite the studio's financial woes, DreamWorks developed new software for "How to Train Your Dragon 2," making the fantasy of flying dragons even more realistic while maintaining a sense of humor.
I think the impact of "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Big Hero 6" will be seen at the comic-cons and it's great to see more humor in superhero movies which sometimes can be too serious as humanity is vanquished by CGI.
The almost frightening importance of technology in today's world was illustrated in two documentaries: "Citizenfour" and "The Internet's Own Boy." The three documentaries on my list were all high tragedies, but "Life Itself" was the most personal and a fine farewell to my friend and mentor Roger Ebert.
Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" had a documentary feel to it. Don't we all wish to someday be able to wrap up our now media-driven lives in such a matter-of-fact way? We could watch our own evolution in the minor events of our lives.
The drama of our times is reflected in "Selma" where people of all races are answering a call for justice and in the more personal "Dear White People" and "Big Eyes." I remember vividly when as a child, a boy my age told me I couldn't be an artist because I was a girl (just as so many people told me what I was and was not because of my race/ethnicity).
Lastly, as I started out as a theater critic, I still have fondness for the stage. "Birdman," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Into the Woods" displayed a theatrical sensibility.
In alphabetical order, I list, not necessarily the best movies, but the movies I loved the most in 2014.
"Big Hero 6"
"Dear White People"
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
"Guardians of the Galaxy"
"Song of the Sea"
"The Tale of Princess Kaguya"
"How to Train Your Dragon 2"
"Into the Woods"
"The Internet's Own Boy"
"Beyond the Lights"
My Rogerebert.com colleague Odie Henderson said it all in his review. I will only add that "Beyond the Lights" is the kind of romance for grown-ups that Hollywood used to specialize in in its Golden Age. Gina Prince-Bythewood's "Love and Basketball" is a masterpiece, and has much in common with "Beyond the Lights". Prince-Bythewood is interested in characters who want more than just their own personal romantic happiness. She is interested in people who have stuff to do in life, giant interests and passions, and how does that fit with romantic love? "Beyond the Lights" creates an enormously emotional impact.
Emily's famous monologue at the end of Thorton Wilder's "Our Town" includes the desperate plea, "It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed." Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" meticulously and patiently presents the small moments of life, the ones that may seem incidental on the surface, casual and everyday, but are, in actuality, the real <i>stuff</i> of life, its guts, what we will want to hold onto at the end. The power of the film is not in what happens. It's in its presentation of minutia, the intricacies of relationships, the flow of time. Life isn't made up of big moments, it's made up of the accumulation of the small. You wouldn't know that from half of the films that are out there, but "Boyhood" understands.
A harrowing and brutal entry in the ongoing "De Profundis" of imprisoned and persecuted Iranian director Jafar Panahi, "Closed Curtain" is the story of a man hiding his dog from the authorities, as well as a cri de couer from the artist behind the camera. At one point, he himself strolls into the story, staring up at the giant posters on the wall, posters of the films that brought him world-wide acclaim: "The Circle," "Offside." At one point, he walks out into the sea across the road, a tiny figure, moving into the waves, perhaps never to return. After "This Is Not A Film" appeared, filmed in secret in Panahi's Tehran apartment and smuggled out of the country to premiere at Cannes, I wondered sadly if this would be the last we heard of him. The fact that "Closed Curtain" exists at all is a ferocious triumph, a lifted middle finger to those who have hounded him. At the same time, it is an intelligent, funny, and very angry film about an artist, a human, trying to do his thing in impossible circumstances. It was one of the most powerful experiences I had in a movie theatre this year.
There are choices one makes in life that are irreversible. What is done cannot be undone. Such choices can have a domino effect, leaving a life in ruins. Ruben Östlund's glorious "Force Majeure" is about a man who makes such a choice in a panicked moment, a choice he tries to deny or laugh off at first, but in the end, has to accept the enormity of it. Taking place over the course of a short family vacation at a mountainous ski resort, "Force Majeure" is a brutal examination of one family's cracking under pressure, surrounded and dwarfed by the towering white slopes. Östlund is ruthless in his devotion to the complete disintegration of one man's sense of self, and how once that avalanche starts, nothing, but nothing, can stop it.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Who knew that nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire would still "play" in this day and age? (It reminds me of Eddie Izzard's crack that that empire did nothing but "slowly collapse like a flan in a cupboard.") Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig (who killed himself in 1942 after fleeing his beloved Austria the decade before), "Grand Budapest Hotel" is an epic poem of nostalgia and slapstick comedy, a longing for a past that was already somewhat rotten, but had beautiful and precious things in it nonetheless. The production design and set decoration is unparalleled, the world created being both strange and somewhat familiar, like a landscape glimpsed in a dream, or in an old photograph. The illusion holds. The illusion holds in all of the performances, the music, the story, and the keening sense of longing running through the whole thing. "Grand Budapest Hotel" is a dazzling film.
A stunning accomplishment of film-making, storytelling, and acting, Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida" tells the story of a young nun in 1960s Poland, about to take her vows, who goes on a quest to find out what happened to her parents. Pawlikowski places the figures at the bottom of the frame, with space looming above them, creating an overwhelming sensation of the burden of the past, the aftermath of WWII and the ensuing Stalinist years pressing down on the characters from above. Pawlikowski only moves the camera twice in the whole film. Each frame is static, and yet filled with electrical charges. "Ida" is arresting from start to finish, with magnificent performances from the two leads, Agata Trzebokowska and Agneta Kulesza.
Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's druggy 1970s L.A. noir is a dreamy druggy masterpiece, with a pulse of longing underlying every moment. Longing for what? A simpler time, a happier time, the hopes of the 60s drowned in the mud of Woodstock and shattered by the horror of what flower children were capable of under someone like Charles Manson. Altomont was coming. California was exhausted, broken. "Inherent Vice" is uneasy, paranoid, goofy, with a distinct sense of unreality, captured in every song choice, every performance. It's a big beautiful tangent of a movie. I reviewed it on my own site.
"Love is Strange"
My review for Rogerebert.com is here.
"Only Lovers Left Alive"
My thoughts are in our top ten films of the year.
"Under the Skin"
The best part of Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" is that its essential mysteries only expand exponentially after the final frame. There is no easy summing-up, no "A-ha!" moment where things fall into place. All we have seen, so strange, and so frightening, seem even more so once the film ends. It's a mood piece, an art film, relentlessly itself, featuring effective non-acting performances, and an unforgettable sound design. "Under the Skin" is an anomaly, and a potent reminder that there is still a ton of room in the multiplexes for challenging material.
1. "Inherent Vice"
To sum up either the plot of Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's screw-loose mystery novel or the countless reasons why I consider it to be the film of the year would require far more space--literally and figuratively--than the sentence of two available here. Suffice it to say, this hippie-era requiem disguised as a sort-of whodunnit (though one where the plot logistics are among the least important things on display) manages to work as both an incredibly successful translation of Pynchon's unique literary style into cinematic terms and as an homage to Robert Altman's blissed-out mystery classic "The Long Goodbye" while also coming across as a work as personal and distinct as anything that Anderson has done to date. Throw in a gallery of great performances across the board (led by a never-better Joaquin Phoenix), any number of huge laughs and other moments of surprising emotional power and the end result is the kind of movie that you will want to see again as soon as it is over--a good thing because this is one of those that actually gets better and deeper with each subsequent viewing.
Linklater's intimate epic, a 12-years-in-the-making chronicle of the childhood of an ordinary Texas boy (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) from age 7 to 18, was easily the most crazily ambitious American film of the year for any number of reasons but that is not why it wound up being one of the very best as well. That was the result of Linklater's increasingly deft touch as a filmmaker ranging from telling a story that is both unique and easily relatable to get top-notch performances from a cast consisting of veteran actors (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke do some of their best work as the boy's divorced parents) and newcomers (Coltrane is a joy to watch throughout and Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter, is great as his older sister) alike. This is the sort of one-of-a-kind film that viewers of all ages are likely to treasure.
3. "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Set in a mythical European country still recovering from the first World War even as it marches inexorably towards the second, the latest cinematic confection from Anderson focused on the sleazily debonair concierge (Ralph Fiennes, in a performance that demonstrated a heretofore unknown flair for comedy) of a lush hotel who finds himself on the run after being accused of murdering a wealthy dowager. At first glance, it appeared to be so completely removed from even the vaguest notions of reality thanks to its highly stylized look and crazy-quilt casting (including turns from the likes of Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Adrian Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Lea Seydoux and Bill Murray, just to name a few) that it almost made Anderson's other films seem like slice-of-life dramas by comparison--it felt like a quaintly raised middle finger directed at critics that have complained that he has gotten more and more insular with each new film. However, as it went on, it quietly reveals heretofore unexpected depths beneath its candy-coated surface and even Anderson's most dedicated fans and foes were surprised to discover how powerful and effective it eventually proved itself to be.
4. "Gone Girl"
Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel about a seemingly picture-perfect marriage whose facade is brutally and publicly yanked away when the wife (Rosamund Pike in her long-overdue star-making performance) disappears on her fifth anniversary and her husband (Ben Affleck, as good as he has ever been) goes from sympathetic to a suspect in the public eye was the subject of huge pre-release hype but the end result was proof that just because a film is an enormous commercial proposition doesn't mean that it cannot be smart and provocative and deeply felt as well. It may appear to be just another conventional pop thriller on the surface but it quickly plunges viewers into unexpected and unexpectedly bracing waters. Fincher's direction of Flynn's own screenplay adaptation never steps wrong for a second, even when the story threatens to derail into lunacy, and the performances from the eclectic cast are equally flawless. (Even Tyler Perry, whose acting performances in his own movies are as sloppy and undisciplined as can be, is flat-out great here as a publicity-hungry lawyer willing to take on the husband's case.) Whether seen as a corrosive indictment of contemporary tabloid culture run amok, an equally incisive examination of a seemingly ideal marriage gone sour or as a superlative adaptation of a favorite book, this is a brilliantly crafted, endlessly twisty and darkly hilarious work that reconfirms Fincher's standing as one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.
5. "The Immigrant"
Under normal circumstances, one would think that Gray's film about the dark side of the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) struggling to make it in New York City circa 1921 would be an automatic front-runner for all the year-end awards. After all, it tells a stirring historical drama in a way that feels fresh, vital and alive, the performances are spectacular (between her work her and in "Two Days, One Night," Cotillard was the actress of the year and as the sleaze who falls in love with her even as he is exploiting her, Joaquin Phoenix delivered another great turn) and was an impressive technical achievement to boot despite its relatively low cost. And yet, having barely dribbled it out into theaters this past summer in a manner that could only be described as grudging, The Weinstein Company seems to have chosen to forgo pursuing any of the awards that it so richly deserves. Ignore the lack of hype and check it out for yourself because this one, despite its apparent red-headed stepchild status among those charged with releasing it, is a real keeper.
6. "Under the Skin"
The basic premise for this film--an alien disguised as a gorgeous woman (Scarlett Johansson) prowls the streets of Glasgow luring men into a trap with her seductive nature until she begins to grow a moral center that causes her to question her mission--makes it sound like one of those silly sleazefests that one stumbles upon inadvertently on Cinemax late at night but this haunting mind-bender from the director of "Sexy Beast" and "Birth" is anything but that. Combining a near-documentary shooting style (with a supporting cast consisting almost entirely of non-actors who were unaware that they were in a movie until after Glazer called "cut") with a brilliant deployment of Johansson's captivating screen presence and some of the creepiest moments to hit the screen in a long time (one of which, a overcast day at the beach gone horribly wrong, is one of the most terrifying things I can ever recall seeing in a film of any kind), the end result was an instant cult classic that is likely to mesmerize moviegoers for years to come.
The year was filled with any number of over-the-top blockbusters but none of them were as stylish, exciting or cheerfully crazy as Besson's wild ride about an unwilling drug mule (Scarlett Johansson) who is transformed into a virtual superwoman after the drug package that has been sewn inside her stomach ruptures and causes her to access 100% of her brain's abilities. Yes, the story is complete nonsense--though no sillier than any other action epic you could name--but you will hardly notice thanks to Besson's exquisite visual style and the verve that he brings to his beautifully choreographed moments of mayhem, Johansson's charismatic and surprisingly soulful performance and a wildly audacious finale that provides all the required thrills while simultaneously managing to evoke the likes of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Tree of Life." This was gourmet eye candy of the highest order and Besson's finest work since "Leon."
See entry on site top ten.
9. "Abuse of Weakness"
Based on her own real-life experience, the always-provocative Breillat (whose previous films have included "Romance," "Fat Girl" and "The Last Mistress") recounts the story of a celebrated filmmaker (Isabelle Huppert) who first suffers a stroke and then, having recovered after more than 18 months of painful therapy, finds herself inexplicably falling under the sway of a slick con man (Kool Shen) who convinces her to eventually fork over nearly all of her savings. Why would a strong and intelligent person do such a thing? Obviously, there are no easy answers and to her credit, Breillat doesn't try to supply any. Instead, she gives us a cooly gripping examination of power, greed, emotional manipulation and simple human need anchored by a stunning performance from Huppert that, in a perfect world, would be contending for all the year-end awards in sight.
Nicolas Cage has appeared in more than his fair share of dreadful movies over the years (several of them this year alone, led by the inadvertently hilarious "Left Behind") but as his work in this rural melodrama in which he plays a man with a dark past struggling with his demons while trying to help a boy (Tye Sheridan) being abused by his monstrous father (Gary Poulter, a non-professional who died soon after production on the film was completed) shows, he is still more than capable of delivering a great performance when given the right material. The film also solidifies Green's standing as one of the most interesting young directors around after a recent career shift that saw him eschew the glories of "George Washington" and "All the Real Girls" for nonsense like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter"--the way that he manages to depict people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder without a hint of condescension is as impressive and valuable as ever. Admittedly, this is a bleak work and perhaps the only one of this list that most viewers might not want to watch a second time but one viewing is more than enough for it to stick with and haunt viewers long after other films are long forgotten.
My ten runners-up, a collection of films that could have made for a more than satisfactory 10 best list if the above films never existed, were Alejandro Jodorowsky's "The Dance of Reality," Roman Polanski's "Venus in Fur," Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive," Pawel Pawilkowski's "Ida," Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac," Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "Two Days, One Night," Gillian Robespierre's "Obvious Child," Kelly Reichardt's "Night Moves," Ruben Ostlund's "Force Majeure" and Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar."
Note: I deliberately took "Life Itself," Steve James's documentary celebrating the life and work of Roger Ebert, out of consideration when putting together this list because of what struck me as being an obvious conflict of interest for any number of reasons. However, if I had allowed it to be considered, it would have landed a high place on the list because it was a beautiful piece of work that showed why he was so beloved, both as a critic and as a person, without ever once bogging down into hagiography. Even though it is occasionally difficult to watch, it nevertheless stands as a wonderful and eminently watchable tribute to a person that I was privileged to know both as a colleague and as a friend.
2. "Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari"
3. "Hard to be a God"
4. "Night Moves"
5. "Inherent Vice"
6. "Over the Garden Wall"
7. "Listen Up, Philip"
8. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
10. "Beloved Sisters"
11 Scarily Good Performances that will not win awards: Michael C. Hall ("Cold In July"), Gene Jones ("The Sacrament"), Misty Upham ("Jimmy P."), Cecep Arif Rahman ("The Raid 2"), William Hurt ("Days and Nights"), Jonathan Pryce ("Listen Up, Philip"), Ryan Reynolds ("The Captive"), Pat Healy ("Cheap Thrills"), Uma Thurman ("Nymphomaniac"), Lisa Loven Kongsli ("Force Majeure") and Melanie Lynskey ("Over The Garden Wall").
10 Low Budget Films That Deserve(d) Blockbuster Treatment: "Actress," "Jealousy," "Night Moves," "Listen Up, Philip," "We Are The Best!," "Rambleras," "Natan," "The Babadook,"
"Obvious Child" and "The Strange Little Cat."
10 Future Candidates for The Unloved: "Automata," "Dracula Untold," "The Captive," "The Zero Theorem," "The Purge: Anarchy," "The Quiet Ones," "The Monuments Men," "Wolf Creek 2," "Dying of the Light" and "Noah"
10 Best B-Movies of the Year: "Step Up All In," "The Two Faces of January," "The Purge: Anarchy," "NonStop," "The Guest," "Seventh Code," "Cold In July," "Cheap Thrills," "Blood Glacier" and "Enemies Closer."
10 films at which I laughed so hard I got looks from fellow patrons: "Listen Up, Philip," "Inherent Vice," "They Came Together," "Hill of Freedom," "La Sapienza," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Force Majeure," "Obvious Child," "22 Jump Street" and "Boyhood."
10 Midnight Movies in waiting: "The Congress," "Vanishing Waves," "A Field In England," "The Town That Dreaded Sundown," "The Double," "Zero Theorem," "Enemy," "The Boxtrolls," "Under The Skin" and "Inherent Vice."
10 Performances that singlehandedly propup dreadful movies: Stacy Keach ("If I Stay"), Michael Fassbender ("Frank"), Michael Parks ("Tusk"), Shia Lebeouf ("Fury"), Ben Schwartz ("This is Where I Leave You"), Stanley Tucci ("Transformers: Age of Extinction"), James Gandolfini ("The Drop"), Radha Mitchell ("Bird People"), Eva Green ("300: Rise of an Empire") and James McAvoy ("XMen: Days of Future Past").
You have to admire this film not just for the amazing 12 year opus director Richard Linklater took us on, but for being an unforgettable cinema experience that has remained at the top of our minds throughout 2014. Linklater just creates worlds and characters we never want to leave, and hopefully this year he will get the award recognition he richly deserves.
2. "The Theory of Everything"
Two of the best and most riveting documentaries I have ever seen was “Man on a Wire” and “Project Nim" so it’s no surprise director James Marsh has moved his considerable storytelling talents to drama. He eloquently tells the story of famous physicist Stephen Hawking and manages to elevate the well worn path of biopic with an outstanding central performance by Eddie Redmayne as Hawking.
3. "St. Vincent"
What a joy to see the enigmatic Bill Murray back in a big role as the unlikeliest of everyday saints in a film that completely fits him like a glove (Who else could keep you riveted while sitting in a ratty lawn chair half singing a Bob Dylan song?) First time feature director Ted Melfi does an amazing job of taking what could have been a sappy story into a blast of comic wit, not only with Murray but rest of cast Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd and particularly his inspiring casting of a hilariously funny Naomi Watts as a Russian pole dancer.
An acting tour de force with Miles Teller as the aspiring jazz drummer and the brilliant J.K. Simmons as the stern, almost sadistic conservatory college band leader determined to drive his young pupil to greatness no matter what the cost. By first time feature director Damien Chazelle who based the script on his own experiences, the movie plays like an explosive percussive piece, unrelenting and unforgettable.
Will never drive the late night streets of LA the same after this eerie on target film by first time director Dan Gilroy about the seedy world of late night news videographers ready to capture the latest disaster for a sensationalist hungry media. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a sterling portrayal as the hungry nocturnal news scavenger who is prepared to cross any ethical boundary to succeed.
6. "Life Itself"
An emotional experience every time I watch this brilliant documentary by director Steve James on Roger Ebert’s life and enduring legacy.
French Canadian Writer Director Xavier Dolan took some interesting risks in making this film, including an unconventional shooting style (1:1 aspect ration) but uses it to such emotional effect in this combustable story of a single mother trying to deal with a violent out of control teenage son. Its fever pitch parenting at its most scariest.
8. "The Rover"
It may not be as riveting as his first film “Animal Kingdom” but director David Michod still paints a compelling “near” future tale in the vast expanses of outback Australia, with an unlikely road tale of two drifters (Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson) searching for a scrap of meaning in a disintegrated society.
9. "God Help the Girl"
A little indy pop musical I caught at South by Southwest this year by first time director Stuart Murdoch who is the lead singer and songwriter for Scottish band Belle and Sebastian. The film began as a suite of songs he wrote between albums and he nurtured it for a decade before making it into a film. Set in Glasgow it stars Australian actress Emily Browning and reminded me of “Once” and also the retro style of Julien Temple’s 1986 film “Absolute Beginners”.
It seems fitting to put this last, not because it was my least fav out of the list, but because well lets end with a bang - and what a crazy ride this film from Korean director Bong Joon-ho is. A post- apocalyptic allegoric tale where humanity’s last survivors travel at high speeds around a frozen planet on a super train separated into a rigid class system. Tilda Swinton’s fearless chameleon performance is brilliant.
Eloquent in its silence, mesmerizing in its black-and-white stillness, devastating in its plot turns.
2. "Mr. Turner"
A rare period piece that feels of the now instead in the past.
3. "Only Lovers Left Alive"
Vampires done right, with a twist of hipster refinement and wry reflection.
A 12-year experiment that could have gone horribly awry but instead came out miraculously perfect.
5. "Le Week-end"
Roger Michell fully redeems himself after his misguided FDR flick with this barbed yet wistful study of longtime British marrieds celebrating their anniversary in Paris. Bonus points for its piquant use of Jeff Goldblum.
6. "Force Majeure"
A painfully acute and amusingly farcical takedown of what it means to be a man, father and husband.
7. "Two Days, One Night"
Brimming with heart-breaking humanity and bolstered by quiet though deeply felt performance by Marion Cotillard.
8. "The Drop"
A mighty fine Tom Hardy is a dark horse Brooklyn bartender with secret powers that a superhero would envy.
9. "The Babadook"
Old-school scares that prey on new-age fears, done with the sort of nerve-wracking aplomb that hasn’t been seen since “The Exorcist.”
10. "Into the Woods"
Not as disturbing as Stephen Sondheim’s stage version, but the cast and the tunes keep this fractured take on fairy tales humming along quite nicely.
Special mention: It is hard to be objective when it comes to "Life Itself," a documentary about the incredible man who gave birth to this website. But having first seen this consummate summary of Roger’s life and contributions at Ebertfest this year was an emotional experience like no other. The laughs were louder, the tears more frequent and the crowd wowed far more than any average audience. One of the best film experiences I have ever had.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
Separating the artist from the art isn't as easy as it sounds.
Part two of Jana Monji's essay about the portrayal of Asian characters in cinema.