Sunday, January 24, 2016

Finally, A "Best Films of 2015" List That Actually Matters

You're probably asking yourself right now, “Do I really need to read another “Best Films of 2015” list?” Well, what if I told you the list was written by… me?

See, your tune's changed already, hasn't it?

Anyway, 2015 was a year marked by a pretty eclectic set of films, both big and small, so let's get started. This list is in no particular order because I don't believe in ranking movies.

I'll never be polled for Sight & Sound now, I guess.

Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter)

Much has been written about the (supposed) decline in Pixar's filmmaking prowess, but for my money, “Inside Out” is arguably the greatest film they've ever produced. Self-assured, screamingly funny and hugely emotional, “Inside Out” is almost a perfect movie and I'd be hard-pressed to name anything about the film that DOESN'T work.

Of the film's many delights – it's candy-colored color palette, its beautifully cartoony character animation, its perceptive take on emotional heath – my favorite is the film's core cast of characters: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear. Pixar films have long benefited from strong ensembles and this five emotion band is one of their best. Each emotional is totally distinct in their design and personality and it is never less than wonderful to watch them interact with themselves and their host child, Riley.

“Inside Out” feels so effortless despite its incredible complexity of plot and world building; it takes incredible skill to make it look so easy. A more satisfying film this year is hard to find.

Pull Quote: In the sequel, Riley can use Instagram.

Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

What happens when you let a certified genius/lunatic develop a movie for over a decade? Well, by the time the camera's are a-rollin' it means you're getting something of unrivaled craftsmanship. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is difficult to explain; in this age of ludicrously complicated storytelling, the simple bare bones plot of the film seems anemic and its characters thinly sketched by comparison. Who is Max really? Furiosa? And is the film really one long chase? Does anything ELSE happen?

Oh brother does it.”Mad Max: Fury Road” is a film of images, from the sights of gigantic vehicles speeding through the desert, to the tiny details of the old woman's bag. Every single thing about this movie is beautifully designed for maximum clarity and thematic purpose. As the old adage goes, turn the sound off and the movie still makes perfect sense. George Miller in a way has accomplished what George Lucas has always dreamed of creating: an action epic where the visual is truly king.

I remember walking out of a screening of the film with my brother, we were both truly shaken, having seen something truly unique and beautiful. There's never been a film like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and there never will be again.

Pull Quote: Not a single one of these people remembered to use their turn signals!

The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

If there's any film this year that truly lives up to its title, it's “The Hateful Eight.” Quentin Tarantino's eighth film is populated almost entirely by scumbag, and to make matters worse, none of them like each other. With incredible glee, Tarantino has a created Western-tinged exploitation film about the end of the Civil War and the scars that remain.

Of the aforementioned Eight, my favorite is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue, a foul-mouthed, unrepentant racist who gleefully indulges in her worst behavior to infuriate as many people as possible. By the film's end, she's become a deadite from “The Evil Dead,” cackling and hurling invective to her objects of scorn. I've seen people accuse the character as being a misogynistic caricature but Tarantino and Leigh so clearly love the character that you, the audience member, can't help but fall in love with her too.

Maybe that's the truly subversive part about “The Hateful Eight;” Tarantino has crafted a group of nasty, cold-hearted bastards with almost no redeeming qualities but they're written and acted so well they become almost lovable. Unlike his characters, Tarantino isn't a hateful guy. His joy for filmmaking seeps through everything he makes.

Pull Quote: Samuel L. Jackson says "motherfucker" in this movie.

Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)

After the gigantic scale of “Synedoche, New York” Kaufman has decided to go small, telling the story of a customer service spokesman, whose life is as dull and gray as his monotone voice. That is until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman unlike anyone else in his life. Is she his salvation in this artificially-constructed world?

Anyone who has ever watched a Kaufman flick knows there's no easy answer to life's problems and “Anomalisa” is a brutal takedown of middle-aged malaise while also being a moving examination of depression and human frailty. Michael Stone (David Thewlis)  is an arrogant, thoughtless human being but Thewlis imbues him with such soul that he feels intimately familiar. This stop-motion puppet is so… human.

As good as Thewlis is in his role, Leigh is even better, making Lisa a truly distinct character full of life and personality. She isn't just a cipher created to help us view Michael, she's an individual in her own right and her growth makes for the film's most touching moments. By the time the film ends, Lisa and Michael are in very different places and in very different emotional states. As painful as it may be to watch, there's something beautiful about it too. These characters' souls have been laid bare before us, allowing us an opportunity to look inside them and ourselves.

Pull Quote: Finally, an animated movie where the characters do it.

Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy)

There are many “ripped-from-the-headlines” movies out there and most of them are awful. They fail as both compelling filmmaking and fail as a dramatization of real-life events. For whatever reason, these types of movies bring out a filmmaker's worst instincts, rendering compelling subject matter as crude, sensationalist garbage. “Spotlight” is NOT that kind of film.

Of all the entries on this list, “Spotlight” is easily quietest. Director Tom McCarthy eschews overheated storytelling and almost all visual tics to create a simple, spare film about the hard work of putting together a story. McCarthy's camera is observational, acting as an unseen participant quietly watching the other characters work to understand how far sex abuse among priests reaches in Boston. Michael Keaton gives the film's best performance, toning down his usual mannerism just enough make his character Walter "Robby" Robinson a real guy, but keeping enough of them to give him energy and drive. He has the eyes of someone whose always thinking and contemplating his options. Some filmmakers wouldn't be patient enough to hold on Keaton but McCarthy knows that sometimes the best directing comes from just watching characters think.

As heroic as the journalists of “Spotlight” are, the film is also about the decline of journalism in the modern era. The looming billboards advertising websites grimly foretell a future where newspapers fold and hardworking journalists lose their jobs. “Spotlight” may have a satisfying ending but it subtly asks a far darker question: Can newspapers crack a story like this ever again?

Pull Quote: This film is does not meet the National Legion of Decency's high standards.

Chi-Raq (dir. Spike Lee)

In the ballsiest satire of the year, Spike Lee savagely attacks the racist institutions that have turned Chicago into a war zone deadlier than Iraq. Spike spares no one as he lampoons gang culture, the military, the police, the government and gender roles with sledgehammer subtlety. Not everything totally works, but the sheer audacity of “Chi-Raq” propels it to the level of essential cinema.

“Chi-Raq” is an adaptation of the Greek comedy "Lysistrata," which told the story of the titular woman, so fed up with her society's obsession with wars and conquest that she and the rest of the women go on a sex strike to change the minds of men everywhere. Transplanting a satire about the  Peloponnesian War to modern day Chicago shouldn't work (and there plenty of folks who think it doesn't) but Spike Lee makes the film such an absurd satire that the idea of a sex strike is not only appropriate for the film, but totally necessary. The fact that “Chi-Raq” is told through rhyming verse only adds to the film's surrealistic quality. By the time it reaches it's climax at a globally-televised event of two people having sex in a bed on a basketball court, “Chi-Raq” has pushed itself so far past the boundaries of good taste that it becomes almost transcendent.

What sells all this absurdity though is Spike Lee's anger. He is mad about something incredibly important and for all the film's wide-ranging targets it remains tightly focused on the evils of gun violence. John Cusack, as a reverend in the vain of Michael L. Pfleger, delivers a barn-burner of a speech that discusses the relationship between racism, guns and gang violence that is as powerful a sermon that's ever been depicted on film. Spike Lee's newest joint may be a fairy tale but it holds open our eyes to shows us our darkest fears. Chicago wasn't always Chi-Raq, who's to say our own town can't become a Chi-Raq as well?

Pull quote: I wish Samuel L. Jackson narrated my life.

The Revenant (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)

Oh Alejandro, you never make anything easy for yourself, do you?

“The Revenant” is a gigantic film of gigantic ambitions. On the surface, the film tells the tale of Hugh Glass, a participant in a fur trapping expedition who finds himself a survivor of a vicious bear attack. When his fellow fur trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy acting up a storm) decides to double cross him by burying him and leaving him for dead, Glass comes roaring back to life and hellbent on getting his revenge.

But more than that, “The Revenant” is a film about the cycles of violence and cruelty that dominate the American frontier in the 1800s. There is no real beginning or end to what is happening in the film as best evidenced the Ree attack on the American trappers early on in the film. In one long continuous shot, Emmanuel Luzbeki's amazingly fluid camera continually changes focus, first highlighting a trapper, then highlighting the trapper's Native American killer, and then highlight the Native American, and then his trapper killer and so on and so forth. These men have been fighting and killing each other for so long and there's no signs of it ever ending. Hugh Glass himself dies and is reborn multiple times throughout the film both spiritually and physically and as the film comes to an end, it is time for Glass to be reborn once more.

Director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has long been accused of employing empty visual spectacle but I think his films work on an existential level. His characters face tragedy so horrific that it seems to transcend reality and becomes something cosmically huge. In the world of Inarritu people face pain and become someone else. Sometimes a better person and sometimes a worse one. Maybe if they're lucky they can die again.

Pull Quote: I want that T-Shirt that Tom Hardy made of him trapping Inarritu in a headlock.

Trainwreck (dir. Judd Apatow)

Judd Apatow is one of the great comedic minds of his generation. Amy Schumer is one of the great comedic minds of her generation. Together they've created one of the best comedies of the year, alternating hilarity with powerful moments of emotional honesty.

After spending time examining his own life, Judd has turned his attention to Amy Schumer's life, the two of them crafting a story about a woman who tries to escape the all-too-real world of human relationships via drugs and meaningless flings. The film never shies away from the fact that Amy Townsend is far too old to be partying like a teenager but it treats with her empathy and humor. The casting of Bill Hader as Schumer's romantic partner is a genius move as Hader's incredible comic mind and surprising vulnerability ensures their scenes together crackle with wit and charm. There's a specificity and texture to their relationship that helps it feel real and funny. Always funny.

One of the most fervent criticism of Apatow is that he makes comedies that are much longer necessary. But they're long only because Apatow doesn't view his characters as one-dimensional joke machines. He wants to see them grow and mature and change and reveal more and more dimensions to themselves. If it takes another half-hour to tell his stories, so be it. "Trainwreck" is two hours because that's how long it takes to tell the story of Amy Townsend. No more, no less.

Pull Quote: I don't know why John Cena is so funny but I'm glad he is.

Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

“Crimson Peak” shouldn't exist. Nobody on the planet wanted to see an insane Gothic melodrama/romance that's brutally violent and laden with ghosts and weird sex. There just isn't an audience for this film (as the box office would attest!). But God bless Guillermo del Toro for making the damn thing anyway.

I've seen folks complain that the story of the film is predictable and cliché. I suppose one could argue that but del Toro elevates what could be a rote plot to ludicrous heights, layering it with unbelievable color, ornate production design and a sweeping operatic score. Every single actor in the film completely understands the intensely stylized acting del Toro wants to evoke and not a single one gives a bad performance. Jessica Chastain in particular is a highlight at Tom Hiddleston's jealous sister, growing bigger and bigger as we see the depths of her lunacy and tragedy.

What makes “Crimson Peak” so amazing isn't just its technical attributes. Del Toro imbues the film with a real sense of pain and sorrow. The film builds and builds to a climax that isn't just horrific but ultimately tragic. Del Toro doesn't want to only scare us or thrill us, no he want make us feel how the past clings to us, refusing to let go until we either reject it or succumb to it. There are ghosts at Crimson Peak, but its two remaining heirs, Thomas and Lucy Sharpe are the ones that actually haunt the place. They are trapped in the past and the film's final image is as hauntingly sad as anything cinema has given us. A ghost may have warned our heroine to “Beware Crimson Peak” but no one should stay away from this film.

Pull Quote: That house is a real fixer-upper, let me tell you!

Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Of the films on this list, Noah Baumbach's ode to screwball comedy, “Mistress America,” is probably my favorite film of the year. With lightning speed, Baumbach jam packs the movie with a seemingly endless number of jokes, one-liners and non sequiturs, creating a comic rhythm not seen since the heyday of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges. The film's second half is a loving homage to their kind of screwball comedy, capturing its spirit while imbuing it with Baumbach's own peculiar sensibilities.

I don't think I can praise this film enough, so I'll praise it some more. Greta Gerwig as Brooke Cardinas is on fire in this film, playing a sort of bizarro version of Frances Ha, a character so ambitious she never gets around to doing, well, anything. But a little fact like that never stops her from talking about her seemingly endless number of business opportunities. The supporting cast is just as good, in particular Lola Kirke as Tracy Fishko, who acts as an enabler for Brooke, continually pushing her further and further, just to see what kind of crazy shenanigans she can get her into. Brooke views herself as a mentor to Tracy but Tracy views Brook as an endless source of ironic enjoyment and material for her new short story, whose discovery inspires one of the film's funniest scenes.

Noah Baumbach has long been accused of misanthropy in his caustic view of his character, but “Mistress America” is a joyous film that gently mocks its characters only because it loves them too much. Indeed, Brooke and Tracy  form the film's truly sweet heart as their relationship evolves from one of two people talking past each other into sincere friendship. By the film's end they finally accept each other for who they are and what could be better than that?

Pull Quote: White people can be really funny.

Other Fine Films I Saw This Year:

The Good Dinosaur, Creed, Carol, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Bridge of Spies, The Peanuts Movie, The Walk, The End of the Tour, While We're Young, The Nightmare, It Follows and Joy

Films I Still Want To See:

The Big Short, Son of Saul, Room and Brooklyn

Best Older Films I Saw For the First Time This Year:

Immoral Tales (1974, dir. Walerian Borowcyzk) – Borowcyzk is either an artist or a pervert (or both) as this luridly humorous historical anthology film indicates. Please do not show this film to your partner; they 'll either hate it or like it just a little too much.

Wild Tales (2014, dir. Damian Szifron) – Arguably the greatest anthology movie of all time. Each segment is blackly hilarious but I'm particularly fond of the final segment, which depicts a wronged bride exacting her all-too satisfying revenge.

Song of the Sea (dir. Tomm Moore, 2014) – Tomm Moore follows up his excellent “The Secret of Kells” (2009) with this unbearably sweet Irish folk tale. Gorgeous design, gorgeous animation, gorgeous everything.

Crash (dir. David Cronenberg, 1996) – No, not the one about racism, the one about people sexually aroused by car crashes.

Out For Justice (dir. John Flynn, 1991) – The Outlaw Vern ( was right, this is the best Steven Seagal movie ever. That sounds like a backhanded compliment but it really is a great little action film featuring Seagal at the absolute height of his abilities.

Mad Max II: The Road Warrior (dir. George Miller, 1981) – If you can believe it, “The Road Warrior” is even better than “Fury Road.” In just a few broad strokes, Miller creates a masterpiece of action and storytelling and it is easily one of the greatest movies ever made.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (dir. George Miller & George Ogilvie) – This isn't as good as “The Road Warrior” or “Fury Road” which still means its better than pretty much everything else. This is the film that truly expands the world of Max, giving us a peek into something far grander than just one man wandering the Wasteland. If only we could see more…

Salome's Last Dance (dir. Ken Russell, 1988) – Ken Russell does Oscar Wilde. Unbelievably, the talkiness of Oscar Wilde and the lunacy of Ken Russell come together perfectly to create an inspired adaptation of Wilde's classic play.

The Rainbow (dir. Ken Russell, 1989) – This one of the few Ken Russell movies you can watch with your grandma. Assuming your grandma doesn't hate gay people.

Stardust Memories (dir. Woody Allen, 1980) – Solipsistic as hell, but damn if this isn't entertaining. Plus any movie starring Jessica Harper is automatically a must-watch.

21 Grams (dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2003) – This is a brutally depressing movie but it's always engrossing to watch. Naomi Watts, Sean Penn and Benecio del Toro all give amazing performances that no one ever talks about.

Fresh Kill (dir. Joseph Merhi, 1988) – This seems like it's a parody of bad action movies but oh no, it's completely, unbelievably serious. The ending alone belongs in the pantheon of Great Moments in Cinema.

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.