Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My favorite films of 2014


Now is the time of year when we are glutted with lists extolling the best and worst happenstances of the year gone by and there is, after one or two lists of verbal fireworks in the form of inapt metaphors, inept similes, and indiscreet opinions about the personal lives of actors, directors and writers one has never met, it all becomes a persistent noise in the background, like the sprinkler system the spurts on through the day and into the night at the house next door. All the opinions about best and worst movies, spoken at a pitch that nears hysteria and utter, complete, incalculable irrational .
Pretty much everyone has a the same views on the same films, and the best any of us can do is play around with the wording, scramble the choices as to what column they fall into, yay or nay, perhaps do something "daring" by including what we, who collectively regard ourselves individuals with refined tastes and idiosyncratic smarts, select an obscure movie that very few of one's tent-pole addicted brethren would have recognized. In that last instance, a fine argued case for a movie no one you know personally has seen leaves with the duty to over explain the films context , style , and of breaking the news that there are people in capes, no super powers, no destruction of a major American city.
Trust me, I have tried that ploy, I have tried to enlighten the masses with my peculiar selections for the latest and greatest films to be made and released in the 365 days now behind us. It's a grim lesson. Well, not grim, just depressing in a minor key: no knew what I was talking about, nor cared. But the joy of these lists is that it is a grand excuse to hear yourself write , construct absurdly long sentences and make like a dime store Mencken and toss a bit of snark to the rubes and rubettes who are just passing by the soda fountain.
In any case, my best films of 2014:
1.NIGHTCRAWLER: I've already sung praises and lavished ham-fisted metaphors enough on this film, but it bears repeating that Nightcrawler is one of those debut films from a newly minted director, in this case seasoned screenwriter Dan Gilroy, where everything a solid,tense, noirish thriller ought to do. Gilroy has assembled a crackerjack cast and proceeds with a tale of a marginal character , a petty thief with disturbingly skewed frame of mind, who stumbles onto the world of "nightcrawlers", the freelance videographers who respond to police calls and film the worst of what happens in a city like Los Angeles after dark; murders, car crashes, fires, assorted human tragedy.
The film resembles, in theme, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece Taxi Driver, but this film is wholly his own and Gilroy establishes his own personality on this thriller. Los Angeles is seen mostly at night, a tarnished jewel glistening in the distance as we view it from the dank, shadowy vantages of service alleys, side streets rolling down dry, cottage dotted hills, the rooftops of slum neighborhoods. The camera placements and the editing are sublime; Michael Mann, himself a master of interpreting L.A. after dark, would find much to admire in this vision. Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, the titular nightcrawler, has a field day with his twitchy character who speaks and reacts in phrases and ways that make you think of someone who hasn't a center of being but is rather playing a role for the moment that will be sustained until it stops working, a moment after which anything can happen. Nightcrawler kept me rapt. A fine thriller, wonderfully done, splendidly acted.
2.BIRDMAN: This film is a about as meta-textual as it gets, concerning a actor named Riggan who, best known for portraying the cartoon super hero Birdman in three live action films, is attempting a comeback on broadway with a stage adaptation of a collection of Raymond Carver short stories, 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". The first inside joke, of course, is that star Michael Keaton was the first Batman in two Tim Burton versions of the DC icon, who had the oft circulated take away line "I'm Batman" when the Dark Knight introduces himself to the Gotham crime element. Keaton's character in this new film has a mind that is subdivided with conflict, a string of unresolved issues that force him to hallucinate greatly, not the least of which is a voice that rasps only to him "YOU'RE BIRDMAN", and which harshly chastises him for abandoning the super hero for the delusion that he could become part of the New York arts crowd. That's all a bunch of shit, the voice insists, and intrudes on the actor's private moments with more berating and demands that he give up this broadway charade and reclaim his one true calling , the man who is the definitive Birdman. The film, though, is quite a bit more than that, as it brings around a provocative stream of old associations, like an estranged daughter, an estranged daughter he's only recently reconciled with (if imperfectly), acting rivals , all of whom , between hallucinations, have wonderfully nuanced confrontations with Riggan and with each other on the irony latent in the countless attempts we make to rid ourselves of masks and present our true selves to things that matter most , such as marriage, rearing children, authentically gratifying work, only to realize that even the true self presented as evidence of no disguise is itself a mask, a disguise. The conflicted Riggan is jerked about emotionally and has several instances where the hallucinations, the warring desires, take over and the film is transformed into yet another space, a surreal terrain of tall buildings, floating, spectacles that then dissipate as the conflicted hero emerges from his melodrama and attempts to finish what he's begun, the afore said adaptation for the screen. A fine cast of characters abound here, and a superlative roster of actors to bring their quirks and vulnerabilities to the screen; Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts are sublime and each of them have solidly written, deftly directed roles.
3.GONE GIRL: "Gone Girl", for all the intimidating hype, is a terrific piece of work, deftly, skillfully, subtly directed by the increasingly estimable David Fincher ("Fight Club", "Zodiac", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Without going into plot detail and risk spoiling the film for others, lets say here that this is an intricate thriller, a murder mystery or sorts, a black comedy, a tale that evolves from a sort of "Peyton Place" situation of inane passion and betrayals but begins to morph into a taut, edgy thriller and into a dark, bleak comedy. As I said, this is a tale with lots of detail and surprises, but Fincher has a master's control of the material--use of flashbacks and shifting from points of view add texture and bring you in further into this seductive drama-comedy. We do not lose our place anywhere in the telling.
Fincher, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, has a sense of how to introduce complexity in a film at precisely the moment when you think you've accurately assessed where the plot is going. Especially pleasing is the lack of any rickety deus ex machina, the blatantly mechanical plot device in the form of a stock character or clich├ęd situation that appears only to initiate a generic and predictable twist in a genre thriller. "Gone Girl’s changes, cogently devised and deftly deployed, arise organically from the terrain of lying, cheating and infidelity that's already been established. This is a movie that lots of surprises and one in which you have to admit that didn't see coming.


Finding Vivian Maier

4.FINDING FOR VIVIAN MAIER: I saw this film and was thoroughly engrossed. Vivian Maier is such an enigma that she may well inspire continued speculation as to her personality and motivations as her renown grows.She was a housekeeper by trade, someone born in the United States yet feined a foreign accent and fictionalized her background, a woman without an observable social life of her own, an intensely private person who worked for several employers for several years a piece but about whom they couldn't recollect much at all. She was, though, a superbly gifted photographer who had a camera always at the ready where ever she went, taking a picture with an old, conspicuous camera when ever an image, a face, a spontaneous arrangement of objects presented themselves to her. She was a master of the art, as the film reveals in a generous representation of her photography.
The mystery of Vivian Maier unfolds with the discovery of literally thousands of undeveloped rolls of her photos at an estate sale; the purchaser of the photos processes some rolls and is flabbergasted as to the high quality of the work. Who took these photos? Why are so many rolls left undeveloped and nearly lost forever? Who is Vivian Maier and what compelled to live a life as a house servant when she had talent that equaled, on her own terms, the best work of photographers of great fame and praise.
This is a fascinating film, a discovery and appreciation of previously unknown master of photography, but also a mystery story. More is revealed about Maier, but the more we learn about her, the more questions we are inspired to ask. Her black and white photography are simply stunning and really do, as the experts in the film insist, match up with the best photographers of the period. It's an engrossing documentary on a fascinating subject.
5.GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL:Wes Anderson's deadpan absurdity works again. If you're an Anderson, you get the humor and the genre mashups the director brings to the screen: there is something quaint , lovely but a bit frayed into the worlds he to let his imagination move into for a period, while we're laughing at the off- kilter rhythms of the laugh lines and admiring his remarkable sense of art design, there's a sinister world lurking underneath the universe of his whimsical creations.


John Wick

6.JOHN WICK: A terse and true addition to the "payback's a bitch" genre, Kennau Reeves as the titular character, a hit man who has retired from his trade and is in a state of grieving over his dead wife until he is, well, fucked with by the son of the State side Russian mob. We know what happens next, with John Wick digging up the tools of his trade, the idea being like that of "Shane" where the former gun fighter takes his guns out of the saddle bag, and prepares a one man assault against a massive crime organization. It's been done to death, seemingly , premise that is the mark of a straight to video Steven Segal film, but co-directors Chad Stahlski and David Leitch keep this film tightly reined in, efficiently introducing a couple of new ideas here and there, but mostly sticking close to the idea that makes the genre so compelling, that the bad guys, despite their advantage in numbers and fire power, are going to pay for the sins they've committed with their lives. To cut to to the chase, this film works because it's a stylish and unapologetic shoot-em-up; the close quarters gun fights here are enthralling and show a strong influence of Hong Kong martial arts films. As with the exquisite movements in the combat scenes in the Christopher Bale science fiction thriller "Equilibrium", we have a fine illusion here that gun play can , like sword play , be artful, suggestive of dance. It's nonsense , of course, but there is something to be admired with the aesthetic the film makers brought to this violent enterprise and how well they pulled it off. Reeves, rest assured, has his Disney robot mannerisms put to good use here.
7.CAPTAIN AMERICA:WINTER SOLDIER: I am just a bit tired of the Mavel Universe, but Captain America continues to be a fun project. In this case, the bastards at Hydra turn out to be everywhere and the Captain finds himself neck deep in the dark world of conspiracy and secret agendas. This is one property I hope Marvel doesn't lard up with too much noise from the rest of the MCU. The Captain needs movies that can stand apart from the confusion that is already ruining what was once a font of good fun.
8.LIVE, DIE, REPEAT (EDGE OF TOMORROW): Really, this movie should have been a hit, an inspired take on the eternal-recurrence theme of "Groundhog's Day" ; instead dealing with a romantic comedy as the motivation for the activity to follow, we have an alien invasion and the fate of the Earth dependent on the exits and re-entrances on one precise and critical moment in time. Bad title, terrible re-titling, poor marketing, all of which is a shame considering that was the best science fiction movie of the year and was artfully efficient in all departments: taut, well acted, sweetly edited, all elements, from exposition to special effects, in line with enhancing the excitement.