Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Only "Best of 2014" List You'll Ever Need

Finally, the most important Best Films of 2014 list: Mine

But that's not really an accurate title as I make no claims to these being the actual best films of 2014. Rather, these are the films I took the most pleasure from watching and find myself eager to revisit again. And as solipsistic as that may sound, that's all that really matters to me.

The list is no particular order because I hate ranking movies. That’s lame.

Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

Miles Teller is Andrew, a drummer who wants to be the next Buddy Rich. J.K. Simmons is Fletcher, his music teacher who wants him to be the next Buddy Rich. What could go wrong?

Oh how about everything. “Whiplash” is about the world’s worst teacher ever, as Fletcher seems to take some sick delight in terrorizing Andrew in the name of education and the kid bizarrely begins to feed off of it, growing more and more obsessed with becoming a legend. Fletcher swears he’s pushing Miles to make him truly great, but he’s probably just a dick.

Damien Chazelle directs it like a thriller and there’s never a dull moment. 

Pull quote: Finally, a film where J.K. Simmons yells.

Begin Again (dir. John Carney)

I’m sure many would argue this film is too slight to belong on a list like this. Well guess what buddy, this is my list, not yours! And as slight as the film may be, “Begin Again” is truly sweet and delightful in a way few movies nowadays. Keira Knightley plays a songwriter down on her luck who meets Mark Ruffalo, a music producer down on his luck and the two team up to reverse their fortunes. Both actors give wonderfully honest, naturalistic performances and it’s the kind of film where you wish every scene lasted longer because it’s so enjoyable just watching them interact.

“Begin Again” is a film whose pleasures are hard to describe in words so check it out. I dare you.

Pull quote: Kiera Knightley sings! Adam  Levine grows a beard!

Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit)

A group of friends get together one night for a dinner partyb ut when a comet passes by, strange things start to happen (see “Night of the Comet” for further evidence of the problems comets may cause). The friends soon realize there’s someone else lurking around their house and it knows an awful lot about them.

I won’t reveal too much more but there is a scientific explanation and it doesn’t really help our poor heroes. James Ward Byrkit directs the film with a rare economy as the flick races towards a sad but ultimately inevitable conclusion. 

Pull quote: A cautionary tale about the dangers of dinner parties.

Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

Yeah, big shocker, right? Well guess what, this movie’s really good. Nay, great. “Boyhood” is a monumental achievement and probably the best film ever made about the passage of time (yes, even better than “Back to the Future”). Linklater directs with a remarkably steady hand and makes a 2 ½ movie with no plot fly by. Pretty much every sequence is great and you could convincingly argue this is the greatest anthology film ever made. Much has been said about Ellar Coltrane as the titular boy and it’s all true. His essential low-key good guyness reminds me of more people I know than most other teen characters.

And the final shot is about as beautiful a moment as there will ever be in a film.

Pull quote: 12 years in the making and they still couldn’t afford to film a car chase. The hell is this?

The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (dir. Isao Takahata)

Everybody’s all in love with Hayao Miyazaki. Oh, it’s so sad he’s retiring, no more Totoro, etc. Well guess what nerds, Isao Takahata is the real genius at Studio Ghibli and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is better than anything Miyazaki’s ever done. The film tells the story of Princess Kaguya, a girl born from a split bamboo tree to poor peasant parents who decide to raise her to become a true princess. Well, Princess (her first name is actually Princess) doesn’t really want to be a princess, she just wants to live in her rural home but she soon finds herself trapped in a royal hell.

“Kaguya” is animated in a style far different from any other Ghibli joint; the sketchy, spare art style recalls Japanese folk art and the watercolor backgrounds are lovely in a way no CG flick could ever even attempt. Takahata directed one of the all-time great downer films, “Grave of the Fireflies” and this finale is depressing and tragic in a whole new way. This film is like nothing in the Ghibli canon and a fitting final film for the venerated studio.

Except it’s not. “When Marnie Was There” is. Ah well.

Pull quote: If your kids loved “Frozen,” they’ll love this princess movie even more!

The Book of Life (dir. Jorge R. Gutierrez)

The most exhilarating animated film of the year comes from the mind of Jorge R. Gutierrez, who has been battling to get this film off the ground for over a decade. Thankfully for him (and us) Guillermo del Toro fell in love with the project and managed to trick somebody into putting up the dough.

“The Book of Life” is a bright, absurdly stylized epic about the love that lives beyond death set and the burden of living up to our ancestors. Gutierrez is aware that this may be his only movie ever, so he jam packs the film with everything he loves. But the film never feels overstuffed and he manages to juggle all the elements with a sense of wit and style. Very few movies are as joyous and raucous as this one and it’s the perfect tribute to the Day of the Dead. 

I think. I’m not from Mexico so I don’t really know.

Pull quote: Gringos welcome!

God Help the Girl (dir. Stuart Murdoch)

I have no idea who or what Belle and Sebastian is but their front man knows how to direct. “God Help the Girl” will probably be dismissed by most as a by-the-numbers “coming of age” flick but it really isn’t. The film tells the story of Eve, a young woman institutionalized for an eating disorder and showing very little sign of improvement. But she escapes one day and finds herself among James and Cassie, two up and coming musicians, who convince her to join them and exorcise her demons through song. 

That's right folks, it's a musical. A real, honest to God burst-out-in-song musical. And fuck man, I don’t know, I think the songs are pretty damn good. They run of gamut of joyful exuberance to melancholy longing and fit the style of the film perfectly. Of the many musicals released this year, this is by far the strongest (sorry Steve old buddy, I’m sure “Into the Woods” is better on stage).

Pull quote: It’s not as irritating as it looks, honest!

Birdman (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarrittu)

From the man who brought you the monumentally depressing “Babel” and “Biutiful” comes a weirdo comic thriller about a washed-up actor’s mental breakdown. Michael Keaton gives one of the finest performances of his career as Riggan Thompson, the former star of “Birdman I-III” who’s written, directed and starring in a Broadway play in a desperate attempt to regain some sort of relevance. But alas, nothing is going right for him, from working with a prim donna method actor (Edward Norton), dealing with a rebellious assistant/daughter (Emma Stone) and weathering an angry critic’s (Lindsay Duncan) vicious notices. Oh, and his alter ego Birdman keeps talking to him.

Inarritu directs with a surprisingly deft touch, as his arthouse sensibilities elevate what could just be a generic “backstage comedy” into something transcendentally absurd. Emmanuel Luzbeki’s free floating camera and Antonio Sanchez’s relentless drum score combine together to create a truly inspired picture of madness and by the end you’ll feel a little crazy yourself. 

Pull quote: Get excited for the eventual Birdman Cinematic Universe, or BCU.

Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

“Inherent Vice” is many things: a film noir, a 1970s corruption expose, a stoner flick, but most importantly it’s a film about how nobody knows what the fuck’s going on. Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, a beach bum private eye who finds himself in a deeply complicated conspiracy that may-or-may-not actually be a conspiracy. But he plows ahead to the best of his (impaired) ability.
After the grim “There Will Be Blood” and confounding “The Master,” it’s a pleasure to see Anderson kick back a little and have a little fun. “Inherent Vice” is by no means a comedy, but it’s arguably the lightest film he’s ever made and ultimately a film about damaged people trying to heal themselves in a world that may be more damaged than they are.

It also features Martin Short as a drug-crazed, jailbait lovin’ dentist, which is something you don’t see every day, but I don't live in Canada so I can't really confirm this.

Pull quote: Joaquin Phoenix’s hair at first seems really ridiculous but then the more you watch it, it becomes kinda cool.

Big Eyes (dir. Tim Burton)

It seems fitting that Tim Burton, a poorly-received artist as of late would make a film about another poorly-received artist, Margaret Keane, the creator of those paintings of creepy big eyed children. But here’s the thing; Burton doesn’t care about accolades and neither does Margaret. Margaret loves her paintings, no matter how despised they may be by the critical intelligentsia  and all she wants to do is be able to express herself freely. “Big Eyes” is about her struggle to reclaim her art from her shameless huckster of a husband, Walter Keane. 

“Big Eyes” is a truly wonderful, offbeat biopic, alternating moments of joy and levity with sadness and horror. Amy Adams plays Margaret as a quite figure, stoic on the outside but constantly in pain, the only evidence of which can be seen in the eyes of her sad children. Christoph Waltz is also amazing, shedding his overly-wordy persona from his Tarantino films and embracing a character that manages to be both utterly charming and utterly evil, often within the same sentence.

Burton directs with a quiet confidence as he stages each frame of the film for maximum storytelling clarity. Along with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, he’s created one of best looking movies of the year and the fact that NO ONE has noticed this is an absolute crime. In an era of bland, dull-looking movies, “Big Eyes” is a breath of fresh air (“Inherent Vice” as well).

Mark my words, twenty years from now, "Big Eyes" will be considered one of the defining movies of Burton's oeuvre. 

Pull quote: Yes, yes, your jokes about Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are hilarious, just watch the damn movie, OK?

Other Fine Films I Saw This Year: 

Big Hero 6, Selma, Foxcatcher, The LEGO Movie, 22 Jump Street, Guardians of the Galaxy, Godzilla, The One I Love, Nightcrawler, Magic in the Moonlight

Movies Released in 2014 That I Would Still Like To See (During This Year, Which is 2015)

The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Babadook, Force Majeure  

Best Movies I Just Saw This Year That Weren’t Released Theatrically This Year 

Only Yesterday (dir. Isao Takahata, 1991) – An animated movie about a young woman remembering her childhood. Way more compelling than it sounds.

Cleanflix (dir. Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi, 2009) – Those guys who censor movies for “family viewing” turn out to be real weirdos. Who’da guessed it?

Zero Dark 30 (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) –Not only is it a dark rumination on the nature of vengeance, but a kickass thriller as well. Bigelow Bigelowns.

Broadcast News (dir. James L. Brooks) – Still incredibly prescient after all these years. 

Ace in the Hole (dir. Billy Wilder, 1950) – A poisoned pen valentine to journalism and hucksters everywhere. Unbelievably mean and funny as hell.

Surveillance (dir. Jennifer Lynch) – A dark, twisty thriller told in a tight, economical style. 

12 Angry Men (dir. Sidney Lumet) – The greatest courtroom thriller ever doesn’t even take place in a courtroom.

Joe (dir. David Gordon Green) – Nicolas Cage’s finest performance in years is in a film that’s told very simply and very well. 

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne) – This is a low-key gem that captures the tensions inherent in any family reunion. Good shit.

Freeway (dir. Matthew Bright) – A hilariously psychotic take on “Little Red Riding” that just never lets up. Easily Reese Witherspoon’s finest performance.

Los Angeles Plays Itself (dir. Thom Andersen) - The greatest filmed lecture ever made and essential viewing for any movie buff.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Lynch on Lynch

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Lynch on Lynch - David Lynch Discusses Himself

Chris Rodley's collection of interviews with acclaimed director David Lynch is a fascinating peek inside the mind one of cinema's most important filmmakers.

There is no filmmaker working today quite as distinctive as David Lynch. He has created some of the strangest, scariest and most beautiful movies in modern cinema, resulting in a legion of fans dedicated to understanding his work. Analyzing Lynch is no small task, so the best idea is to let him do it himself. Lynch on Lynch, edited by Chris Rodley, is a book-length interview with Lynch that covers the filmmaker's entire career in a candid and sincere fashion.

Rodley structures the book chronologically, following the path of Lynch’s filmography. After two short introductions (one by Rodley for the book’s original printing, another one for this revised edition), the book begins with a section covering Lynch's childhood. From there each subsequent chapter revolves around a film from his career. The book ends with an index listing Lynch's films, shorts, and commercials, along with credits and technical information. Rodley's format for each chapter is a short introduction, followed by a question and answer session focusing on the chapter’s film. For example, the chapter on "Eraserhead" talks about Lynch’s life prior to "Eraserhead," the film’s production, and ending with its release and reaction. Lynch is very open and willing to talk about everything regarding his life and films.

But What Does It Mean?

Well, almost everything. Lynch has always been cagey about deeply analyzing the themes and meanings of his movies, and those looking for interpretations will be very disappointed. Rodley offers some thoughts on the films, but his attempts to probe Lynch into going beneath the films’ surfaces prove fruitless. Lynch usually offers a small, “I don’t want to influence anyone’s opinion,” response, but every once in a while he will completely clam up. When Rodley asks Lynch how he created the hideous baby prop in "Eraserhead," Lynch steadfastly refuses to answer. There’s nothing whimsical or funny about his refusal, as he genuinely seems to believe that revealing how he created the baby will ruin people’s belief in movie.

But even this caginess is fascinating, and the lack of interpretation should not be a problem for most people, as what Lynch does say is informative and enlightening. Throughout the book Lynch reveals his thoughts on growing up, philosophies on life and art, and copious amounts of production information. Lynch’s interpretation of life is one of optimism and wonder, as he really does see the world far differently than the rest of us. In fact, reading Lynch’s own beliefs does in a roundabout way help readers better understand his movies. His belief in the power of dreams in particular will undoubtedly assist readers in further analyzing "Mulholland Drive" and "Eraserhead."
Lynch Unfiltered

The best section of the book is on "Twin Peaks," Lynch’s genre-defying and deeply influential TV show. Reading Lynch’s thoughts on television and the production process are fascinating, and the reader can feel his sadness as the show evolves from a huge TV sensation to a hated feature-film adaptation. Indeed, Lynch’s discussion of the "Twin Peaks" movie, "Fire Walk With Me," is some of the best as he’s so forthright on what he tried to do on an emotional level. His disappointment with the film’s negative reaction is heartbreaking.

Especially amusing throughout the book is the back and forth between Rodley and Lynch. Rodley tries his best to draw out as much possible information from Lynch, but Lynch is a crafty one. He has fun dodging Rodley’s more probing queries into the films’ meanings, and seems to delight in surprising Rodley with his real thoughts and beliefs. Those expecting Lynch’s love of coffee, pie, and Americana to be ironic posing will be surprised to see he’s completely sincere in his appreciation. Mel Brooks describes Lynch in the book as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” and a more apt comparison is hard to find.

A book like this is hard to critique in some ways as it’s simply a collection of interviews. Thankfully, Chris Rodley has made this critic’s job much easier by producing a volume of fascinating insights from David Lynch. The sheer amount of information revealed is astonishing, and Lynch’s beliefs on a whole range of subjects are illuminating and helpful to any Lynch scholar. While David Lynch may never reveal all of his secrets, this book is the best look into his mind anyone could ever want. His world is both frightening and wonderful and no book on him has done a better job examining it.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: Anya's Ghost

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Anya's Ghost - A Coming of Age Ghost Story

Growing up is hard to do, especially when someone feels like he or she doesn’t fit in. That’s the problem facing Anya Borzakovskaya in Vera Brosgol’s terrific debut graphic novel, "Anya’s Ghost." Brosgol, a talented comic and animation artist, skillfully blends a coming of age tale with a classic ghost story, creating a wonderful portrait of teenage life and the struggle for a sense of self identity.

Anya isn’t happy. She has trouble in school, can’t talk to a boy she has a crush on, and is slightly ashamed of her Russian heritage. But mostly she feels like an outsider with no one to call a true friend. After stumbling down an abandoned well one day, Anya discovers the skeletal remains of a person, and a ghost attached to those remains. The ghost, Emily, is delighted to find someone to talk to after years of isolation in the well, and takes a great interest in Anya. Anya is reluctant at first, but soon the two become friends, and Emily begins to devote her time to improving Anya’s social standing. Anya's grades improve, she’s more confident, and that cute boy Sean has taken a shine to her.

However, Anya soon learns there’s a price to be paid for her upward social mobility and assimilation, and Emily’s growing obsession with Anya’s life is a little bit creepy. The secret of Emily’s past is soon revealed, and Anya’s life will never be the same.

The Trials of Anya

The beauty of "Anya’s Ghost" is how well Brosgol captures the pain of growing up. Anya’s angst will feel all too familiar to many readers as she attempts to find her own sense of identity in high school. High school is in fact the perfect setting for a story such as this as it is a holding place for different kinds of people, all trying to create the best self-image for themselves. Some just do it better than others.

What helps Anya’s Ghost rise above the glut of young adult novels is its subtext of identity, particularly cultural identity. Initially Anya is ashamed of her Russian heritage, and insists her last name is the generic “Brown,” rather than Borzakovskaya, to a school administrator. She also tries to ignore the nerdy but kind Dima, a recent Russian immigrant and reminder of her own cultural heritage. Anya’s mom later laments that Anya hasn’t attended her Russian church in weeks.

Anya is a character who wants to ignore her background so she can assimilate into the popular crowd. Her goal throughout the novel in essence is to replace Sean’s girlfriend with herself. Emily gleefully abets Anya in her quest and constantly encourages Anya to push herself farther and farther. But near the story’s third act Anya realizes the consequences of her actions and what her denial could do to her life. She discovers Sean’s current girlfriend isn’t some dumb bimbo and Sean might not be the boy of her dreams.
Anya’s cultural anxiety is a great new spin on the tired “be yourself” maxim. She learns throughout the book that she can’t divorce herself from her background, as it informs so much of who she is. But she also comes to realize that she doesn’t have to be a slave to it either, and the book ends with Anya a little wiser and ready to move on with her life.

Ghostly Images

One definite highlight of the book is Brosgol’s art style. All the characters are drawn in a very round, appealing manner, with big expressive eyes and thick and thin lines. The characters both feel like classic cartoon characters (think 1940s comic strips), while still retaining a modern edge. Compared to the incredibly detailed designs of super hero comics and magna, Brosgol’s style is real breath of fresh air. Emily’s design in particular is very good as her swooping curves and pupil-less eyes create a nice ethereal look, as compared to Anya, who is more realistically drawn. The book’s limited purple-tone color palette is also quite striking and perfectly fits the story’s somber and reflective mood.

Brosgol served as a storyboard artist on the stop-motion feature, "Coraline," and the experience served her well as the staging in "Anya’s Ghost" is both very cinematic and very clear. At no point during the book will the reader ever be confused by the layout as Brosgol has a keen understanding of visual storytelling. Indeed there are a number of sequences in the book where Brosgol completely eschews dialogue, creating wordless scenes that accomplish an incredible amount of emotion and depth.

That depth is all the more remarkable considering "Anya’s Ghost" is Vera Brosgols’s first graphic novel, and hopefully not her last. Her story of teenage angst and cultural identity is a powerful one, and something any reader could appreciate and enjoy. While not every reader had a ghost as best friend during high school, the story’s emotional truth resonates well beyond the supernatural trappings.

For more of Vera Brosgol's artwork, check out her website Verabee.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book Review: Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood

Back in the day I used to do some writing for the website Suite101. That place is long gone now but my writing remains.

I mostly did book and film reviews and I'm still proud of a couple of them. Let's take a look:

Pictures at a Revolution - How the New Hollywood Got Its Start

The 1970s is generally considered to be one golden eras of American filmmaking. During this decade a new generation of filmmakers, who would later be dubbed “The New Hollywood,” created hundreds of films that confronted the changing nature of America with brutal honesty and a love of cinema. However, filmmaking revolutions do not happen in a day, and author Mark Harris believes the late 1960s was the breeding ground for this filmic schism. "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" uses the five Best Picture Academy Award nominees from 1967 to paint a picture of the Hollywood studio system in its decline and to show us how it gave birth to the New Hollywood.

Opening Night

Pictures at a Revolution tells the stories of 1967’s five Best Picture nominees: "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner," and "Dr. Doolittle." Harris tells the story each of film in a narrative fashion, beginning in 1963 with a look at the state of Hollywood at the time. As the decade wears on, the book intertwines between each film, documenting the films’ many production and personnel struggles. Harris ends the book at the 1967 Academy Awards held on April 10th, 1968 and briefly mentions the future for many the films’ participants.

Mark Harris’s greatest strength is his skill as a historian, as the amount of information in this book is truly staggering. The author has interviewed many of the key figures from the five films and uncovered an endless amount of archival interviews and news articles. Simply publishing a book of facts with no attempt to create a narrative would still make "Pictures at a Revolution" a must own; the information contained in the book is of incredible value to any film buff.

Thankfully Harris is no slouch at analysis as the book is fascinating portrait of the Hollywood studio system at the end of the 1960s. He convincing argues that the five films discussed are indicative of both the Old Hollywood studio system and the emerging New Hollywood style. "Dr. Doolittle" and "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" are representative of old-fashioned filmmaking techniques and dated cultural attitudes, according to Harris, while "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," and, to a lesser extent, "Into the Heat of the Night", embody the counter-cultural attitudes of a new generation of filmmakers. Harris sees the 1967 Oscars as the ultimate clash between the establishment and the rebels, and, not surprisingly, the least extreme of the New Hollywood’s films, "In the Heat of the Night," was the ultimate Best Picture winner.

Part of Harris’s strength is his ability to sympathize with and understand filmmakers he ultimately disagrees with. For example, Harris is no fan of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" but he sees it as a legitimately important film and thoroughly analyzes the attitudes of the film’s producer and director, Stanley Kramer. Much time is spent discussing Kramer and his philosophies; a man who saw himself as a political progressive but was hobbled by his compromising instincts, resulting in a director and producer who tackled difficult subjects matter but never wanted to offend anyone. Not surprisingly, he had trouble appealing to the counter-culture, and the book’s anecdotes of Kramer holding college campus screenings of "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner" are heartbreaking. Kramer so wants to fit in, but he can’t. He’s part of the Old Hollywood.

Closing Credits

If there’s one complaint to be had with "Pictures at a Revolution" it is that Harris skimps a bit at the end, and only provides mini-biographies for the book’s main participants that briefly discuss their careers post-1967. Unfortunately this does not cover the influence of the five films, particularly "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," very well. Much time is spent near the end of the book examining the two films’ incredible impact on audiences and Harris does an excellent job explaining how exciting and fresh the films were at the time. However, a discussion of the two film’s impact on other films and the New Hollywood of the 1970s in general would hammer Harris’s point home that they helped birth a filmmaking revolution.

That concern aside, "Pictures at a Revolution" is still an essential book, not only for film enthusiasts, but for anyone interested the changing landscape of film. Harris convincingly argues for the importance of the five films and how some reflected the attitudes of old-fashioned Hollywood values and others protested for counter-cultural change. By the book’s end the reader will have a deeper appreciation for not only the 1970s New Hollywood, but this time period as well. Hollywood was undergoing a massive number of growing pains, but it matured into something wonderful. Maybe it will happen again.