My 10 favorite films of 2014Entertainment News, Movie Review, Online Only, Section 4A Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
A bunch of wonderful films opened in San Diego in 2014. These are my favorites.
Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language film is astonishing, breathtaking in its visuals, bleak in its plot and enraging in its refusal to do what most American audiences expect from their science fiction action films. The film is set in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to fix global warming goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet and killing all life. All life except for those who made it onto a long, high-tech train on a constant circumnavigation of the planet. The train was built by a visionary inventor named Wilford, who predicted the environmental calamity and manages the miraculous engine that keeps the train moving and its inhabitants alive. While the train features greenhouses, a fish farm, livestock, a school, restaurants, clubs, these luxuries are available only to the riders in the front of the train. In the back, the riders live in squalor, surviving on blocks of mysterious, rubbery protein and subject to the violent whims of Wilford’s brutal security forces who steal the riders’ children and freeze the limbs off riders brave enough to fight back. These tail riders are plotting a revolution at the beginning of the film, with Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and the tail riders’ de facto leader Gilliam (John Hurt) trying to find the best moment to push through to the other cars, past the security forces and their absurd, saccharine chief, Mason (Tilda Swinton). When they do, the film takes you on a shocking, weird and wonderful journey unlike anything offered in American films in years. Streaming and on DVD.
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir Wild is based on. Like the book, the film is partly autobiography and partly the story of her six month trek of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. This experience is powerfully cathartic to Cheryl; she has just extracted herself from a failed marriage, an addiction to heroin and some extravagantly self-destructive habits that seem to have been a failed coping mechanism to deal with the grief over losing her mother. While Cheryl walks and hikes and gets blisters and nearly starves and narrowly escapes rape and hypothermia, her earlier life is shown in flashbacks, many of which feature a luminous Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose direction made Dallas Buyer’s Club vastly better than its screenplay, took Nick Hornby’s script and crafted a visual and emotional experience that goes far beyond the words, either Hornby’s or Strayed’s. Vallée dwells on the beauty of the landscapes without sentimentalizing, shows Cheryl’s bad habits without being prurient, and guides Witherspoon and Dern to flawless and naturalistic performances. In theaters.
The power of lust is at the heart of this quiet, erotic, disturbing and very French film. Lithe and beautiful Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) comes to a lakeside beach every day to swim and cruise men. He is infatuated with Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachioed man with a particularly skillful freestyle stroke and a clingy boyfriend. One evening, Franck watches Michel drowning his boyfriend before calmly swimming to the shore, dressing and driving away. Franck does nothing, and the next day, Michel starts flirting with Franck. Despite some apprehension, Franck returns the affection and they begin to have trysts every afternoon. Still, Franck clearly worries that Michel will do to him what he did to his previous lover. The strange and almost cynical morality of the characters and the ever increasing tension about Michel’s potential make what at first seems like a bland sex comedy into something much more complex, metaphorical and even epic. It’s hard to know exactly what writer-directed Alain Guiraudie is doing, whether it is an existentialist homage to Camus’s The Outsider or just the story of how far lust and connection can warp a man’s moral compass. The lack of clarity in the Guiraudie’s message makes the film’s sex more disconcerting, but also more powerful. Streaming and on DVD.
Innovative, hilarious, and moving, Birdman is film about theater, film, and actors, as well as regret, love, family, and, in a way, the meaning of life, and it soars. Michael Keaton is blockbuster star Riggan Thomas, who wants to earn respect by appearing on Broadway, so he writes, directs, and stars in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. His recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and his costar is lauded, but unhinged, method-actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). The film veers from slapstick comedy to melodrama, but the depiction of Riggan’s interior life makes the film wholly original. He has conversations with and sometimes becomes Birdman, the superhero he once played, and whether or not Riggan is crazy or actually super powered is never really made clear. But his depression and frustration and desire for relevance, to the world, to his daughter, and to his ex-wife, are all real. This is by far Keaton’s greatest performance, a true tour de force of versatility, believability, and emotional honesty. Keaton has never had material like Birdman, and he’s never had a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who elicited an epic performance from Keaton and an equally brilliant performance from Norton, whose Mike is a caustic, hilarious, nutty Lothario of surprising depth. In theaters.
The Lego Movie is the greatest advertisement for a toy ever made, but it’s also a great movie in and of itself and easily the best animated film of the year. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker in a city that runs with clockwork precision: Everyone is perfectly regimented, efficient, and properly tasked. Everyone loves the same song “Everything is Awesome!” and the same TV show “Where’s My Pants?” and their leader President Business (Will Ferrell). But the president is actually a dictator with a massive army of evil robots and nasty cops (the leader of which is voiced by Liam Neeson) at his command, and he is planning to destroy the Lego universe using a weapon called the Kragle. Is Emmet their prophesized savior? Some rebels (voiced by Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and others) think he may be, and hilarity and action ensue. Writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, in addition to mixing witty and sly adult-oriented jokes with kid-pleasing slapstick, work on multiple thematic levels, creating a morally and ethically complex film out of what could have been a cynical advertisement. The film sets up a battle between mindless, automated corporate capitalism on one side and creativity, freedom, and, in a way, mysticism on the other. It culminates in a surprising moving third act that left me in tears. And wanting Legos. Streaming and on DVD.
Lewis Bloom, played by a balls-out brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal, is a nightcrawler, a freelance reporter who spends the nights wandering the city, waiting for a police scanner to announce a car crash or a murder that can be filmed and turned into the bloody local TV news. Lewis is pathologically ambitious, solicitous and aggressive, and he speaks almost entirely in the aphorisms of self-help books and online business classes, always with a broad smile and wide eyes, all the more creepy on his tightly gaunt body. He unnerves Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director of a low-rated Los Angeles morning show, but he also brings in great footage, which she craves. How he does it, and how he plays Nina is what makes Nightcrawler thrilling and more than a little bonkers. This is the first film directed by Dan Gilroy, who pulls out Gyllenhaal’s greatest performance and gives us the best thriller of the year. The two are inextricably connected, because it is Gyllenhaal’s unexpected actions and off-kilter affect that kept me on the edge of my seat and muttering “wow” over and over. Gilroy also handles the car chases and random violence on Los Angeles’s iconic streets with skill, evoking the L.A. noir of Drive and Heat. The film is disquieting and, even at its most fantastical, somewhat believable. Lewis may not exist, but the stories that he records for Nina’s broadcasts do. We’ve all seen them. In theaters.
A luminous, sublime, and brilliant Tilda Swinton plays Eve, an achingly-sweet, centuries-old aesthete who happens to be a vampire. Her similarly afflicted husband Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, is a glum musical genius who hides from the world, composing from afar, talking to no one but a clueless hired hand (Anton Yelchin) and his wife, but to her only over Skype. She lives in Tangiers, along with her friend Kit Marlowe (yes, that one, played by John Hurt), and Adam lives in a particularly dilapidated section of Detroit. She decides to come to him after he expresses more suicidally depressive thoughts about the weight of the world. During her visit, as they discuss history and art and their love, Eve’s crass and silly sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives and creates situations that force this short story in the lives of Adam and Eve to climax in hunger and, of course, blood. Funny, haunting, weird and sad, Jarmusch’s movie is the rare one about the undead that is actually about the living. On DVD.
Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic masterpiece follows a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she drives around Edinburgh, stalking men, seducing them and then enveloping them in a gooey blackness. After an encounter with a disfigured man, she seems to develop introspection. She wanders into the Scottish countryside, pursued by mysterious men on motorcycles and less mysterious men with dirty minds. We assume she’s not human, but we don’t know what she is. The audience needs to do a lot of work to piece things together, and this is often the hallmark of what we call “art films.” This kind of abstraction can become pretentious, but in Under the Skin, the abstraction is what makes the art. Glazer’s sublime use of the foggy Scottish landscapes, Mica Levi’s truly haunting string-heavy score, Scarlett Johansson’s brave and subtle performance and our own expectations of science fiction combine to create one of the most original and indelible films of the year. Streaming and on DVD.
In 2002, Richard Linklater cast a boy (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke), and he filmed them as a growing, living, changing family over 12 years. Linklater deserves a slew of awards simply for overcoming such a film’s logistical difficulties – flighty children, lengthy contracts, the ravages of time and history – but he and his actors also managed to create a film as true to the emotional journey of childhood and modern American family life as any other movie in a generation. Like the life that Linklater is depicting, Boyhood does not have a plot as much as it has a series of vignettes focused around key moments in Mason’s childhood. The film feels like cinéma vérité, but the emotional power of the editing, the acting Linklater elicited from his actors both young and old (particularly Arquette, doing the best work of her career), and in the beauty of his landscapes and light is something we usually only see in finely crafted narrative films. Boyhood is not perfect – it’s long and rough in places and the plotting seems a bit forced at times – but it is nonetheless an extraordinary monument to the power of art, film and family. On DVD.
In Wes Anderson’s greatest film so far, it is 1932 and the Grand Budapest Hotel is in its heyday. A treasure of the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, it is packed with suited dignitaries and their bejeweled wives, and the regimented staff is legion; over all of it presides the hotel’s slightly foppish and nearly over-competent concierge M. Gustave, played by a miraculous, David Niven-inspired Ralph Fiennes. Gustave is not only devoted to his hotel, but also to the numerous lonely older women who frequent it, and his favorite is Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), an 84-year-old countess who adores Gustave. When the countess dies, Gustave and his favorite bellboy Zero (Tony Revolori) go to the reading of the will. The countess’ dastardly son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) is livid that Gustave is given a priceless painting called Boy With Apple and demands that this never happen, but with Zero’s encouragement and help, Gustave steals the painting and returns to the hotel. The caper that ensues is thrilling and hilarious and full of idiosyncratic supporting figures played by the likes of Willem Defoe, Saoirse Ronan and Harvey Keitel. The actors are directed to such mannered behaviors as to be almost abstracted; they archly speak as if they have hopped out of a Roald Dahl or JD Salinger story, and they move like gorgeously drawn cartoon characters, sharply and exaggerated, influenced by slapstick and mime. The result is the opposite of natural or subtle, but Anderson’s direction, of actors and art and photography, communicates the themes and emotions – the sadness of nostalgia and growing up, the power of loyalty and courage – with something that achieves grace. On DVD.
Honorable mentions: Locke, Foxcatcher, Begin Again, The Homesman, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Way He Looks, Guardians of the Galaxy, Pride, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash.
2014 movies not opening in San Diego until 2015: Selma, Inherent Vice, Citizenfour, Cake, Ida, and Two Days, One Night.
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