2014 – The Year in Review

February 22, 2015 at 6:30 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment

I saw fewer films this year than over the past several years.  Just 57 2014 films, as opposed to 71 each of the past two years.  I not really sure why that is.  IN both of the last two years, I have about 1/3 of the films I saw in the bottom half of my rating system.  However, I did notice that in, 2013, I had almost twice as many films in my lowest rankings (1 and below) as I did this year, so perhaps I am becoming more selective or, perhaps, there were just slightly fewer films that excited me this year.  I guess time will tell us if this is a new trend or not.

As with last year, I have ranked films under the number of lozenges I gave them, focusing on just those films I truly loved.  They are in roughly descending order.

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Boyhood

Whiplash

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Birdman

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Locke

Nightcrawler

Selma

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Love is Strange

Top Five

The Drop

Only Lovers Left Alive

The Babadook

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Wild

Gone Girl

Calvary

The Theory of Everything

Still Alice

Chef

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Life Itself

You can check out any of my above reviews by clicking on the film title.  As I look at this list, I am particularly struck by how truly truly fantastic 8 films are. Please read my reviews and seriously think about seeing these films.

 

Oscar Predictions

February 22, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Well, just in the nick of time (check the time stamp, kids, this is published before the show starts), I have managed to get my predictions out.  Let’s see if I can keep the guessing streak up, though there is little that is up for speculation this year.  Unless, we get some great surprises (and that might be fun), most of the winners are pretty well known already.  Here we go:

 

Best Picture

Should be:  Boyhood.  Really one of the most remarkable films in years.

Will be:  Boyhood or Birdman.  This was a lock for “Boyhood” even up to a few weeks ago but “Birdman” has such momentum right now that it could steal it.  I do really love that movie and it wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world, except “Boyhood” really is truly better.

Best Director

Should be:  Richard Linklater for Boyhood.  This is his moment and he will never get another chance.  And, frankly, he earned it.  Anyone who has the patience to make a cohesive film over 12 years deserves acknowledgement.

Will be:  Richard Linklater.  It could go to Iñárritu for “Birdman” but I’m thinking this one is close to locked up.

Lead Actress

Should be:  Julianne Moore in Still Alice.  Though I never saw “Two Days, One Night,” Moore’s performance is really the stand out here. It is solely responsible for lifting her film into something worth seeing.

Will be:  Julianne Moore. No question.

Lead Actor

Should be:  Michael Keaton for Birdman or Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything.  I genuinely cannot decide here.  Keaton gives the best performance of his career, without a doubt. It is raw and honest and incredibly vulnerable. He is playing himself.  Redmayne, on the other hand, is playing someone else so beautifully that he get’s lost in the character. His transformation is mesmerizing. Steve Carell gives his best performance ever as well and is stunning (he would deserve to win in most years) but just can’t compete against these two. Frankly, David Oyelowo should have been nominated instead of Benedict Cumberbatch.  Sorry, Cumberbitches, he’s good but his performance was not better than Oyelowo’s.

Will be:  Eddie Redmayne.   Keaton could possibly steal it but I doubt it.

Supporting Actress

Should be:  Emma Stone in Birdman.  This one will seem a surprise and, the truth is, I don’t feel strongly about this category this year.  Nobody really blew me away but Stone held her own in some intense scenes, so I give her my nod here. Not that it matters…

Will be:  Patricia Arquette in Boyhood.  Without a doubt.  One of the easiest calls of the night. My problem is that I have never liked her acting. Maybe I am unfairly prejudiced for some reason but she always seems stilted to me, like she’s reading dialogue. It bugs me. Sorry.

Supporting Actor

Should be:  JK Simmons in Whiplash.  Without a doubt. Far and away the best performance.  Nobody else in this category even touches this one.

Will be:  JK Simmons.  Without a doubt.  This one is absolutely THE easiest call of the night.

Adapted Screenplay

Should be:  Damien Chazelle for Whiplash.  An amazing, frenetic and beautifully scripted film.

Will be: Maybe Graham Moore for Imitation Game.  I’m really not sure.  There is little buzz and momentum in this category this year that I know of. So, it could be anyone’s game.  This is my best guess- give a nod here because the film will likely be shut out elsewhere.

Original Screenplay

Should be:  Wes Anderson for Grand Budapest Hotel.  This is a tough call because everything in this category is fantastic.  But Anderson deserves a win and this would be a great one to win it on.

Will be:  Wes Anderson or  Alejandro G. Iñárritu. I think this one is very very close.

Best Animated Feature

Should be:  I don’t care.  I didn’t see a single one. Though I would be kinda thrilled if it went to a non-American film like, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.”

Will be:  How to Train Your Dragon 2.  It’s big and Hollywoody and made lots of money.  It’s possible that “Big Hero 6” could steal it.  Who cares?

Best Foreign Language Film

Should be:  Ida.  Beautiful and disturbing. Every shot was worthy of being still photo. Lavish and stark at the same time.

Will be:  Leviathan.  This is a bit of a guess but this film seems to have the most momentum.  “Ida” could steal it but none of the others have any momentum at all.

Cinematography

Should be:  Birdman. As much as it pains me to not put “The Grand Budapest Hotel” here, the fact that this film was done to look like all one shot was brilliant.  Anderson’s film looks like his other films. It’s brilliant and completely, uniquely him but it looks like him. “Birdman” stands utterly on it’s own.

Will be:  Birdman.  No real question.  This is an easy call.

Best Documentary

I usually include this category but have only seen two of the films: “Citizenfour” and “Finding Vivian Maier” and I don’t feel like either was brilliant enough to make a call without seeing the other two.  That said, I do think “Citizenfour” is likely to win it; Hollywood just loves its message.

 

Finding Vivian Maier

February 22, 2015 at 4:01 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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A rather inauspicious way to wrap up 2014. I had intended to see “Two Days, One Night” but it got away from me, so I caught this On Demand, instead. So, sadly, this year in film for me started (with “Stranger by the Lake”) and ended poorly, though there was much to rave about in between. But more on that later. If nothing else, this minor documentary on a newly discovered photographer was only 83 minutes. However, for as lean as that seems, it still felt like it was mostly filler. Maier’s photography is beautiful and its discovery is a great joy. She had an eye for people and captured them with honesty, empathy and insight. Director John Maloof deserves a great deal of credit in preserving her work and tracking down her past. However, beyond that, there is little there. She was secretive and maybe/maybe not faked her French accent. No one really knew her and some people knew her as Viv, or Ms. Maier or Vivian. This is not the stuff of gripping narrative. In fact, Maloof has to stoop to tabloid level gossip and sensationalism in order to draw the film out. It feels a bit tired and one can’t help but be suspect of his motives. This film does little more than act as an advertisement (and a very effective one) for the thousands of photos that Maloof now owns the rights to and, that he repeatedly points out, the art establishment continues to ignore. Well, you can bet they won’t be ignoring Maier after this film. Which, in truth, is probably a good thing. She was an immense talent and, while a film on Maier may not have much depth, her photos certainly do.

Still Alice

February 2, 2015 at 1:17 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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I admit that it’s a bit of a hard sell to get folks into the seats for a movie on Alzheimer’s. It’s not exactly your typical date fare. However, for all of the tragedy (and melodrama) that you could imagine might accompany such a film, “Still Alice” is remarkably vibrant. There is no easy way to tell the story of a person losing herself, yet this film shows her struggle with dignity and, occasionally, humor. Julianne Moore has been rightly nominated for an Oscar for her role as Alice, the brilliant linguistics professor who is slowly slipping away as her family struggles around her. Moore is a master at subtle performances (see her in “Far from Heaven”) and here she is able to capture the slight changes in Alice’s face and body as she is increasingly less and less present. Moore’s performance is what makes this film work. The other actors (Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth among them) do a fine job but are largely ancillary; they all simply orbit the star attraction. Though I will say that, toward the end and especially in the final scene, Stewart shows a vulnerability and gentle strength that suggests she is a better actor than Hollywood allows her to be. The film ends suddenly, and very effectively, in the middle of the story. We do not see its ending, nor do we need to. This is not a tragedy, meant to have us dabbing eyes as we shuffle out of the theater. Rather, we are witness to courage; the courage of a husband, the courage of children but, mostly, the courage of an amazing woman to face her own fading with whatever dignity she can muster. It was a heavy film but it was also an inspiring one.

Mr. Turner

February 1, 2015 at 5:40 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Is it fair of me to review a film I kept falling asleep in? Well, I shall cogitate on it.  But, at 2 1/2 hours, I feel as though I have already spent enough time with J.M.W. Turner and scarcely need to spend too much longer. I have been a great fan of director Mike Leigh (“Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Vera Drake”) and, in fact, his first full length film, “Secrets & Lies,” was one of my favorite films the year it came out. I loved that film for the way he was able to capture such natural dialogue and draw incredibly real and vulnerable performances from his actors. Here, perhaps it is too natural. The audience is subjected to seemingly endless scenes of Victorian Brits being stodgy and mumbling a lot. For this part, Turner (played effectively by Timothy Spall) is an utter bore. He grunts and wheezes and apparently agonizes but does so so stoically it’s hard to tell. He is insufferable to most who love him. All of this might have been offset if we had learned something about his evolution as a painter. But there is little of that here. In fact, there is little here in terms of a story at all. We go from unrelated scene to unrelated scene, from parlor to parlor, and are forced to sit through gatherings that are as insufferable for us as they are for the attendees, expect that we can’t quite tell who anyone is or why we should care. The film just rambles on until it doesn’t. Leigh does manage to make a beautiful film, with many many scenes looking like they might have been a Turner painting (his point, I am sure). The film is very beautiful in parts. And, as always, he draws strong performances from all of his actors. I was most especially taken by Dorothy Atkinson, who plays his housekeeper (?- it’s never really explained). She really became that sad and dedicated woman so completely. However, that is not enough. Fine acting and sunsets do not justify 150 minutes.

A Most Violent Year

January 28, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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A lot can be said about movie names, how they are chosen and how effective they are. Some are straight forward (“Selma”) and some pointlessly confusing (“Edge of Tomorrow”). Some are evocative and memorable (“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) and others are not (“Two Days, One Night” or is it one day and two nights? Or three days and two nights?). When I heard the title, “A Most Violent Year,” I thought immediately of Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence;” a movie that started brilliantly and ended terribly in an explosion of cartoon violence that belied the thoughtfulness of the first half of that film. Here, I came expecting some similar level of violence. Instead, what I got was a thoughtful, slow moving and painstakingly honest period piece. Set in 1981, this film tells the story of a beleaguered business owner (Oscar Isaac, who has skyrocketed since staring in last years, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) who is trying to grow his company despite a government investigation and unknown crooks stealing from him. His mob-connected wife, played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain, keeps pushing him to deal with his problems in a less-than-legal way. He feels mounting pressure to resolve these issues while still maintaining his honesty. JC Chandor, whose two other films (“Margin Call” and “All Is Lost”) establish him as a director with a keen eye for and investment in realism, paces this story slowly. That is both its strength and its weakness. Everything that happens here seems completely believable. In fact, I imagine that something exactly like this was probably happening in the run-down and corrupt NYC of the early 80s. And, my guess is, if you actually lived it, it would feel like a pretty violent year. However, realistic levels of violence are not Cronenberg levels of violence and that means that “A Most Violent Year” may not satisfy standard movie-goer expectations. This is not “Scarface.” What it is, though, is an interesting window into a particular time in our history. It is also another vehicle for Chastain to prove that she is one of the best actors currently working. This performance, so full of quiet menace, deserved as Oscar nomination. She had all the best lines and her character crackled with potential, as though she could do something terrible at any moment. How much you enjoy this film will depend on how much you need to see that crackling explode and how much you are willing to simply bask in it’s glow.

American Sniper

January 18, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Well, it’s going to be hard to argue with success. This movie has just had the highest box office earnings ever for a January weekend (in fact, it was a blow out). As Stephen Colbert would say, “the market has spoken.” Yet, I still kinda wanna argue. So, here is how I would parse it out: this is not the film to see if you are looking for a nuanced examination of our recent wars. Chris Kyle, upon whose autobiography the film is based, was not a man accustomed to moral ambiguities; there were good guys and bad buys, rights and wrongs and he knew which side he was on. That tone (and all it implies) permeates this movie. This is a hero’s tale and has an epic battle between hero and villain that results in a showdown in a dusty, one-horse town that (thematically) could have been right out of a Clint Eastwood western. And, make no mistake, Eastwood is going for big themes here; on this canvas, Kyle is a modern Odysseus. Perhaps he is. He saved many American lives, at times at great risk to his own. He had courage and skill and a sense of honor that cannot be dismissed and must not be minimized. And, if you want a modern American hero, this may be exactly the story for you. Yet, I could not help but feel hemmed in by the film’s agenda. Are there no uncertainties about the good of having likely killed more than 250 people? Is there not a story to tell about how some Iraqis might perceive us as a hostile occupying army? Of course there is but just not here. As I said, this is not a film that wishes to explore ambiguity. So, if you can understand and accept that lens, there is much of value in this movie. Bradley Cooper continues to prove his versatility and depth as an actor and he portrays Kyle’s moral certitude and later emotional detachment effectively. In fact, in the mid to later half of the film, we get to see the war’s cumulative effect on Kyle. These are the movie’s best moments. The cost to soldiers both physically and emotionally is made very clear and I was prompted several times to think of “The Hurt Locker.” In moments, this film goes deeper than that one, though (for me) the moral ambiguities of that film were more evocative in the end. It is at the end of “American Sniper” that the audience can most clearly see Eastwood’s message; an epic tale requires the epic ending and this one came straight out of “Beowulf.” I don’t blame Eastwood and I certainly don’t blame Kyle. Every opinion is valid and their points are strong ones. Who knows, they may be right. I just think that, personally, I identify more with uncertainty. Had the filmed gone there, it might have resonated more with me.

The Theory of Everything

January 18, 2015 at 12:03 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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I had steadfastly avoided this film when it was released. Frankly, it looked sappy and I could not imagine Hawking’s love life to warrant a film. I was not incorrect, on this front, but I had not taken into account how drawn in I would be by Eddie Redmayne’s performance. Redmayne (“My Week with Marilyn,” “Les Misérables”) wholly transformed his physicality for this role. The effort it must have taken him to walk with twisted ankles, to hold his hands as he did and use his knuckles to stand or hold himself up, to maintain his shoulders at the sharp angle Hawking does and, most of all, to manage the contorted facial expression Hawking has. When he spoke, his voice, while I have no idea if it sounded like Hawking did, was a force of acting in itself. And, once he could no longer speak, he was able to hold that facial posture while still being remarkably expressive. There is a scene where he breaks down sobbing that is just stunning; to maintain the integrity of that character on so many levels in that moment was remarkable. There were other solid performances, as well. Felicity Jones, who has done mostly bit parts before now, delivers a breakout performance (though not really Oscar-nomination worthy, frankly) as Jane Hawking. She has an expressive face and was able to capture Jane’s evolution from young, plucky and determined to older, sadder and exhausted. This is, in the end, an unrelentingly feel-good movie and feel-good movies have no bad guys. Everyone here is treated with genuine affection, their flaws touched on lightly enough that they only serve to highlight their strengths. The story itself is vaguely interesting, though I would have preferred a much deeper dive into Hawking’s stunning insights. But, again, this is not a film intended to teach you, only to move you. And I was. More than once. But not by the story, whose outlines I already knew. I was moved by a single performance. So much so that I now think he should win the Oscar. I had been leaning toward Michael Keaton for his naked vulnerability in “Birdman.” But who do you reward? The person who was courageous enough to play himself or the one who so wholly transformed into someone else?

Selma

January 11, 2015 at 11:01 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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Over the last couple of weeks, a controversy has been brewing over this film’s depiction of the relationship between MLK & LBJ (because there is apparently nothing else going on in the world that might want to occupy our attention). Was President Johnson as obstructionist toward King’s plans as the film suggests or, as others have said, was he actually the mind behind the Selma march? I find this controversy curious. Surely people aren’t suggesting that “The Imitation Game” or “Unbroken” are 100% accurate and yet nobody seems worked up into the same level of ire. In truth, I do not know nor do I care how accurately this film portrays Johnson’s role; it isn’t a film about Johnson. This is a film about the courage it took for a small group of people to stand up against immense odds. To that end, it succeeds beautifully. Though, it follows a standard Hollywood story arc, “Selma” never failed to engage. The core reason for this engagement was the British actor who played King himself, David Oyelowo, who is about to break wide open. He captured King’s accent and cadence perfectly, delivering both his dramatic speeches and his quiet moments. This was a powerful, grounded performance; I felt King’s struggle, his fear, his hope and his courage in that performance. This was a Hollywood film and deeply sentimental but, sometimes, sentimentality works. This story is so important and many people paid so dearly for it that I don’t mind a little sweeping music and well planned closeups. Given everything happening in this country today, it’s important to remember how far they traveled on the march to Montgomery and how far there is left to go.

Inherent Vice

January 11, 2015 at 9:39 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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While I was struggling to explain to my friends what bothered me about this film, one of them summed it up perfectly for me: “Inherent Vice” is the uneasy child of a one-night stand between “The Big Lebowski” and “L.A. Confidential.” It strives for the light-hearted goofiness of Lebowski within the frame work of a plot so convoluted none of us were able to follow it. Director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) is incredibly talented and has a knack for drawing stunning performances from his actors and he has no shortage of them willing to work with him, as evidenced by the huge cast here, some of whom (Maya Rudolph, Reese Witherspoon, Eric Roberts) were willing to show up for tiny roles. It’s a shame most of them weren’t better utilized. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc fumbles and smokes his way around early 70s LA as a cavalcade of capital-E Eccentric characters drift across his path. Some of these characters, like Josh Brolin’s “Bigfoot,” work and are quite funny. Others, like Martin Short’s dentist, do not. Much of the dialogue feels self-consciously funny and relies too much on humor about the era. But if there was a pleasant surprise here it was in discovering that Phoenix is a skilled physical comic. The best part of the film was in watching his facial expressions; they were, in fact, the only time I really laughed. He has an instinct for the scene and how to draw the audience into his thoughts. Through him, we could appreciate the absurdity of his situation. If only that had been enough, though it seemed to be for most of the audience, who laughed riotously many times. For me, the film was otherwise tedious, difficult to follow and (at two and half hours) seemed endless.

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