Monday, January 5, 2015

My Top 10 for 2014

Another year leads to another moment to reflect on the film of the past one.  Honestly, it has been a difficult year for me to catch up with new films.  The one downside to moving from California to Florida is that many of the indies and prestige pictures never reach here until awards season end and finding theaters that is not connected to a tourist trap is surprisingly difficult.  So if one wonders why films like Boyhood, Life Itself, and Inherent Vice are omitted, well, now you know.  That being said, 2014 was a wonderfully diverse year for films. There have been so many diverse and great films this year that, aside from everyone adoring Boyhood, hardly any critics' top 10 lists look similar.  Plus, since anything niche need as much exposure as possible, this has been a great year for finding films online.  Most I of the films in my list I had to see at home instead of a theater which is how I like it. Anyway, these are my ten favorites of the 2014.

10. Snowpiercer
            A wildly ambitious film that is just as much an allegory for revolution as it is for extinction.  Snowpiercer is about an everlasting, apocalypse-proof train where the poor are forced to live in the supply carts in the back of the train while the rich live in the first class compartments upfront.  A stowaway played by Chris Evans leads a revolution against the front and awesomeness ensues.  Snowpiercer is cut like an action film yet plays more like a very brutal satire on the clash between the 99% and 1% yet even then it seem be aiming for something else.  Director Bong Joon Ho always had a satirical edge to with his work (like The Host), yet Snowpiercer in particular has a merciless subtext.  There is a fatalist theme to the film that will rub people the wrong way yet it is presented so compellingly that feels shockingly logical.  Whatever people think of this film it is a wild ride that will stick to people for years to come.

9. The Raid 2
            Sometimes it is really fun to watch people punch other people in the face in a thousand painful ways, so why not honor the film that did it the best?  Mixing the frenetic, gritty energy of Hollywood and the formal choreography of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, The Raid was already refreshing, innovative and badass. Incredibly, The Raid 2 takes best elements of that first film and amplified them to near unpredictable levels of ultra-violence.  At over 2.5in length, hours the film should have been a self-indulgent mess like Transformers 4: Age of Extinction; instead it is an epic series of physical mastery. The film is a ballet with blood, bullets, and teeth on the dance floor. Violence might never be the answer but if it looks as good as in The Raid 2 then this film makes for a compelling counterpoint.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy
            The thing that fascinated me with Guardians of the Galaxy is that is so self-aware about being a blockbuster that it delves into parody yet it more than relishes in its status as one.  It is telling that the film begins with a young Peter “Starlord” Quill watching his mother dying of cancer then it gracefully transitions to an adult Starlord dancing to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” on a desert planet.  It is a small but vital moment that shows how people need a moment of escapism before facing the hardships of reality; whether it is a song from a one hit wonder or Footloose, Guardians of the Galaxy is proud to embrace that style of entertainment. Guardians of the Galaxy is more than an awesome, trippy action comedy it is a wonderful ode to escapism and I love it for that reason.


7. Under The Skin
            I loved it, I think?  Under the Skin is part of a class of surreal art films that only hint at any sense of meaning, narrative or otherwise, like an impossible riddle that needs to be solved. Nonetheless the film looks stunning, cinematographer Daniel Landin plays with elements like stark contrasting colors, blended imagery, and static compositions that would impress the likes of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.  The film revolves around Scarlett Johansson as this unnamed alien being, who is so mysterious that even she does not know why she does whatever it is she does to people, but that is part of what makes this film so fascinating.  There is this existential and tragic character study within this film about personal growth but it feels like a small part of a world that is slowly becoming perilous. Under The Skin is a surreal and disturbing riddle of a film that may seem impenetrable but it is hypnotic and breathtaking experience.  It is a puzzle that is worth the attempt.  

6. Blue Ruin
             Who knew that the most intense film of the year is also the most pitiful? Blue Ruin is a thriller about a bum named Dwight who seeks to avenge his parents after the killer is freed from prison and the cycle of violence that then proceeds.  The film is a perfectly tight thriller in its own right but what makes it so brilliant is how inherently tragic and senseless the conflict is in the film.  This is a rough and weary film where the action is not a moment of spectacle but an ugly reminder of violence begetting violence, it is too shocking to ignore.  Actor Macon Blair brings a tremblingly great performance as Dwight, someone who yearns to be a hero but is too crazy and scared to think about how his actions might affect those around him.  It is like watching someone walk across a freeway. Blue Ruin is a film that flips the myth of the blockbuster thriller that miraculously works as a near perfect thriller.

5. The Babadook
From Australia comes “Mister Babadook,” the scariest monster of the year, as if I needed another critter from that country to fear.  The story is about a widow (played marvelously by Essie Davis) struggling with her troubled seven-year-old boy as he becomes obsessed with monsters.  It does not help that on one rough night the child asks mom to read him the only demon-possessed pop-up book on their damn bookshelf.  The Babadook is a rather timeless ghost story in a unique way; horror fans in particular will notice a heavy influence of Rosemary’s Baby and Nosferatu in its style and atmosphere but it has a distinctly modern plot.  It is not a slasher type of horror film, it is a psychologically disturbing film about the fears of single parenthood and child abuse.  This is a monster film that truly blurs the line between a deep manifestation of murderous frustration and a real monster.  Some people might find it slow but this will creep into one’s skin in ways unexpected.

4. Jodorowsky’s Dune
            Who knew that one of the most inspiring films of the year would be a documentary about a failed film adaptation of a cult sci-fi novel?  Then again, rarely are filmmakers as passionate and charismatic as Alejandro Jodorowksy, the director of said project. The beauty of this “making of” documentary is not about how Jodorowsky failed to create Dune but how his natural magnetism attracted and inspired so many uniquely creative minds like H.R Giger, Dan O. Bannon, and Jean “Mœbius” Giruad. These were restless artists needed a direction which Jodorowsky provided in through this project.  The film then becomes a tragicomic delight as these people discuss how they salvaged the pieces after it failed epic film to create Alien, Terminator, and even Star Wars. Like these artists, Jodorowsky’s Dune mostly rides on the momentum of Jodorowsky’s mad charisma yet one cannot help but be enthralled by him as he talks about his ideas for Dune and the bittersweet aftermath. Jodorowsky’s Dune is more than a eulogy as it is an inspirational look at how persistence can still lead one to creative success, even at their lowest moment.

3. Ida
            In a year of where even the niche films are as loud as the blockbusters it is great that a strong old-school art film like Ida can still exist.  Ida is a Polish black-and-white 1960s period piece about Anna, a novice nun who was raised in the convent as an orphan. She travels the countryside to learn about her missing family.  Anna finds her aunt who then tells Anna that she is actually Jewish girl, originally named Ida, and her parents died during World War II.  Ida looks like a beautiful lost film by Carl Theodore Dreyer or Andrej Wajda but it works because the film itself is about rediscovering roots, which director Paweł Pawlikowski seems to be doing himself.  Through the internal conflict of the plot, Ida plays like wonderfully tight metaphor about the loss of innocence in post-war Poland and a tribute of the art of that time.  Introspection aside, the film hardly rests on the laurels of greats thanks to strong lead performances, quietly brilliant cinematography and near perfect pacing.  People might scoff at the idea that the mellow black-and-white art film is better than the big loud stuff, well maybe they just need to chill out.

2. Gone Girl
Before I saw Gone Girl in theaters I was genuinely skeptical because the adverts made it look like an overly neat pulp thriller with more style than substance, but then I saw it.  At the half empty theater I went to, it was clear that I was the only single person there. Someone might have suggested this was a great date movie.  Everyone was chatting, having a good time during the previews.  Nevertheless, once Gone Girl began everyone hushed, and then they gasped at the end of act one, and nobody breathed until the film ended. Each couple left in stunned silence while I sneaked out back, laughing all the way to the car.
Gone Girl represents everything that I love about good nasty cinema.  I loved how the story simply unravels and turns into a twisted satire on modern image culture.  The film is like a commentary about people’s impossible obsession for not just the perfect lifestyle and how we eat each other alive in order to achieve it. Whether it is belittling the cannon fodder of Nancy Grace or “saving” a marriage with a child, Gone Girl swipes the rug to reveal how toxic the whole thing is.  Gone Girl is a perverse film that will shock and offend people but it is ultimately a thought provoking experience and the best theater going experiences of the year.
[DVD/Blu-ray coming soon!]

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a theatrical class comedy that has unexpected pathos and grace.  The premise of The Grand Budapest Hotel is that it is a film about a girl reading the autobiography of a long dead English author’s time at the titular hotel. The author then meets the elderly owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa, who then narrates about his adventures in the hotel as a lobby boy, under the wing of Monsieur Gustave H. It is an odd way to structure a slapstick comedy but effective because it reveals how people try to hold on to such stories.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s attempt to reinterpret Ernst Lubitsch’s style of “historical” comedy (see To Be Or Not To Be) which have these ominous undertones brought upon by the discourse of WWII.  Yet be recreating that genre of comedy film, Anderson is more than just making a tribute to that genre but a commentary on mythologizing history.
Ultimately, it is just fantastic filmmaking. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a visual treat of a comedy where everything moves with exact purpose. The art direction overall is cartoonish yet feels so natural and comforting, anyone would want visit this hotel.  The film plays to Anderson’s greatest strengths as a comic storyteller in that he can find beauty in dark moments without ever hiding the bitterness; he can create moments of great tragedy with a subtly that most dramatist simply cannot execute. Ralph Fiennes performance as Gustave H. is so hilarious yet so layered and graceful that one will forget that this man once played Amon Goeth or Lord Voldemort.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is an unusual film in that it never seems to try to grasp at true greatness, it simply is.

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