Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best Movies of 2014

Boyhood. Image courtesy of IFC Films.
2014 was a very good year for movies - so good, in fact, that I had a difficult time whittling down my top 20. In most years, I find that a top 20 is more than enough to represent the best work from the past 12 months, but this year was overflowing with very good films.

So, in addition to the 20 movies I have listed below, I'd also like to throw some love at these films, which just missed my top 20, but would very likely have made it any other year - Ruben Ostlund's "Force Majeure," J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year," Morten Tyldum's "The Imitation Game," Scott Frank's "A Walk Among the Tombstones" and Jean-Marc Vallee's "Wild."

Now, here are my top 20 - 10 runners up and my 10 favorite movies of 2014. And I'd love to hear from you. Post your top 10 films in the comment section.

Runners Up
20. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
19. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
18. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
17. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
16. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
15. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
13. Life Itself (Steve James)
12. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho)
11. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

Top 10
10. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
  9. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
  8. The Immigrant (James Gray)
  7. Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
  6. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
  5. Selma (Ava DuVernay)
  4. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
  3. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  2. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
  1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

Review: Big Eyes

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
"Big Eyes" is not one of Tim Burton's best films and does not quite rank among the company of his finest non-blockbuster movies - such as "Ed Wood," "Big Fish" or "Sweeney Todd" - but it's still a good movie with a fine central performance by Amy Adams as artist Margaret Keane.

There have been numerous films about artists of various stripes and painters in particular - in fact, one of the year's best films is Mike Leigh's visually stunning "Mr. Turner." But what makes "Big Eyes" a little more unique than most in its genre is the peculiar story at its center.

As the film opens, Keane - then Margaret Ulbrich - has left a lousy (we are told) husband and fled with her daughter to San Francisco. It's 1958, so her job applications are met with concerned questions about her husband's "approval" of her being in the workforce.

But Margaret's love is painting and churning out haunting pictures of young children with large, doe-like eyes. She meets Walter Keane, an alleged artist who immediately sees something sellable in Margaret's work and quickly finds a market for her unusual, but striking, paintings. Unfortunately, he also takes credit for the work himself, which Margaret, oddly enough, allows him to do for a time.

Christoph Waltz is a great actor and he's especially good as playing characters who are up to no good. His Walter Keane is one of the slimiest snakes to hit the big screen in a while and he takes on the role with verve. Adams has a slightly trickier role, portraying a mostly silent woman who feels more at home with her canvas than the company of others.

So, rather than being your typical painter biopic, "Big Eyes" is a more of a story about an abusive relationship, of sorts, involving a talented person, only this time it's the artist who is doing the suffering rather than inflicting it.

The film nearly gets derailed by a courtroom scene late in the film after Margaret has brought to light the fact that her husband is a fraud. Burton is a fine director with serious material, but this sequence takes on flights of fancy that might have been better suited to his more flamboyant fantasy films. Regardless, while "Big Eyes" may not rank among the director's best films, it's well worth a watch.

Review: A Most Violent Year

Image courtesy of A24.
J.C. Chandor has, in the past few years, been building his resume with a diverse variety of films that have led many a critic to proclaim him a director to watch in the years to come. His "Margin Call" was one of the best films on the economic downturn, while his 2013 picture, "All is Lost," drew raves for its portrayal of a man (Robert Redford) lost at sea. While I liked his second film well enough, I'm even more impressed with his latest, "A Most Violent Year," a moody New York City-set film that might have been directed by Sidney Lumet had it been made 30 years ago.

Set in 1981, reportedly the highest year on record for crime in the five boroughs, "Year" follows the upward trajectory - and near downfall - of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant with ambition to spare who has decided to take over the tri-state heating oil business, a move that does not sit well with his competitors.

At the film's beginning, Abel's company has been plagued by a series of robberies during which armed men have stolen trucks filled with oil from his drivers by force. On top of that, the DA (David Oleyowo) is looking to indict Abel on a 30-plus count indictment for charges unknown. Meanwhile, Abel's wife, mob daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain, in fine form here), wants her husband to step it up a little and, if needs be, fight fire with fire.

If "A Most Violent Year" has any setbacks, it's that it is, perhaps, a bit too spare at times. Scenes during which characters breathe in the silence and talk in short, one-sentence answers occasionally leave viewers with some questions as to character motivations. But on the whole, "Year" is a very good period piece crime epic set in a not-so-distant past.

Isaac, terrific last year in "Inside Llewyn Davis," provides some strong work as Abel, who wants at the same time to be a mover and a shaker as well as a good man, while Chastain is gangbusters as his tough talking wife. Oleyowo and Albert Brooks - as Abel's lawyer - provide some solid supporting work.

Plus, the film features one of the year's best action sequences as Abel takes part in a winding chase late in the movie that begins with two vehicles flying through dark tunnels and graffiti-strewn overpasses and culminates on foot.

Chandor's film carries a gloomy and weighty mood of doom for much of its two hours, but it is never less than compelling. Although I believe the three films I've seen so far from the director range from good to very good, I'm glad to see younger American filmmakers still interested in telling stories aimed at adults and I wouldn't be surprised if we see great things from Chandor as his career progresses.

Review: Two Days, One Night

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
It's been a very good year for Marion Cotillard and in the new film by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, "Two Days, One Night," the actress carries an entire movie on her shoulders portraying Sandra, who is recovering from a bout of depression only to find that her fellow workers must choose between her keeping her job and getting a bonus.

The picture, which is shot in the brothers' recognizable low-key and handheld style, plays almost as a thriller as Sandra spends one weekend tracking down all of her colleagues and attempting to convince them to vote in favor of her keeping her job. Plot-wise, that's about all there is to "Two Days, One Night," but those familiar with the Dardennes' work will find this tale of economic downturn thematically familiar with their previous stories of working class struggles, such as the powerful "L'Enfant" and the heartbreaking "The Son."

During her whirlwind visits, Sandra is met with a wide range of emotions, including crying, sympathy, guilt, noncompliance and even a shoving match. The picture could easily have become repetitive were it not for Cotillar's performance, which gives the proceedings the necessary amounts of pathos and gravitas.

And those who have seen a Dardennes' film or two will know that all will not necessarily be wrapped up by the finale and reality typically trumps happy endings. Their films are about the journey, so to speak, and the ways in which characters become better - or more complete - people through adversity.

Cotillard has been recognized by several critics' groups for her work this year both in this film and James Gray's haunting "The Immigrant" and it's easy to see why. She is one of the finest and most versatile actresses working in world cinema today. Combining her acting talents with the always-fantastic Dardenne brothers makes "Two Days, One Night" a must-see for those who seek out the best in world cinema.

Review: American Sniper

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Based on a true story that is devastating in more ways than one, "American Sniper" is Clint Eastwood's finest film since 2008's underrated "Gran Torino." Most of the best films about the wars in the Middle East have incorporated their own unique methods of telling stories involved in the conflicts, such as Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," which played as a police procedural. Eastwood's film combines elements of the typical combat film, although it features sequences right at home in an action thriller, and the war-brought-home genre, in other words movies about how soldiers acclimate to returning to the States, such as Hal Ashby's "Coming Home."

In many ways, the film is unique to Eastwood's oeuvre in that it isn't marked by the jazzy improvisational feel of his early 2000s movies and moves at a much faster pace. I don't mean this as a back-handed compliment, but the director has made a film of such nonstop intensity that it would appear that the 84-year-old shows no signs of slowing down.

At the center of the film is Bradley Cooper, in what must be one of his finest performances to date. He plays NAVY seal Chris Kyle, who is said to be the United States' most lethal sniper in history, killing more than 160 persons during his numerous tours in Iraq. Much like Bigelow's Middle East movies, Eastwood's picture does not give an overt statement on the war's effectiveness or lack thereof, but the culmination of scenes portraying the hells of combat, others in which Kyle and his fellow marines suffer through post traumatic stress disorder and a vision of Iraq as a land overcome by chaos amid the war says more than enough.

The film's earlier scenes strike a different tone and while they're good enough, I was unsure early on how they would impact the entirety of the picture. In the end, they didn't particularly. We meet Kyle at an early age as he defends his brothers against bullies, prompting his father to lecture him on how "we protect our own." As he grows up into a young man, he aimlessly attempts to live a "cowboy" lifestyle and sleep around with as many women as possible, that is, until a news item involving an overseas bombing on a U.S. embassy catches his attention.

Kyle signs up for the marines and, shortly thereafter, meets Taya (Sienna Miller), his wife-to-be, and life appears to be shaping up nicely for him. Then, of course, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 take place and everything changes. An early scene in the film during which Chris hunts with his father sets us up for the fact that the man has good aim. Kyle becomes a sniper and his first kill is a woman and her young child, who are carrying a grenade.

From there, it only gets worse. On a daily basis, Kyle must use his moment's judgment to determine whether the Iraqi men on the street are innocent bystanders or dangerous persons. His numerous killings are portrayed bluntly with little melodrama, making their impact more harsh.

Kyle becomes involved in the hunt for a man known as The Butcher, a particularly horrid human being who takes drills and other sharp objects to men, women and children who oppose his boss, militant Islamist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was, at one time, the U.S. military's most wanted man in Iraq. He also becomes involved in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with an Iraqi sniper  and former Olympic sharpshooter known as Mustafa. This second plot line could have become a typical Hollywood attempt to make one villainous character act as a stand-in for an entire conflict, but Eastwood thankfully dodges that, for lack of a better word, bullet.

The film is a tragic one, not only because of specific events that transpired in the very real lives of its characters, but also in its portrayal of how soldiers are sent off to war, where they are often faced with the choice of committing inhumane acts against other human beings or meeting horrific deaths themselves. "American Sniper" poses no easy answers to this conundrum and I'm not sure there are any. As I said before, the film does not lay any judgment - positive or negative - on the Iraq War. It merely portrays the horrors of war and the cost which those who partake in it end up paying. It's an intense, often shocking and heartbreaking movie.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review: Leviathan

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Bleak, ambiguous and often visually stunning, Andrey Zvyagintsev's ambitious parable about corruption in Vladimir Putin's Russia is a grim, but worthwhile, epic of biblical - and we're talking Book of Job - proportions. The film requires some heavy lifting on the part of its audience, but those who give themselves over to this languid, but occasionally absurdly funny, tale will find much to chew on.

The picture often switches its narrative focal view point, beginning through the eyes of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a temperamental man who has taken the corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), of his small town to court after his property was claimed for the town's use. Unfortunately for Kolya, the mayor appears to have the court under his thumb, a fact that he learns during an absurdist sequence as the ruling is rendered in the style of an auction chant.

Vadim, a slimy creature, shows up at Kolya's home drunk that evening, taunting him, his wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and moody teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev). Kolya's Army buddy, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who is now a slick Moscow lawyer, happens to be on-hand and tells the mayor that he would like to meet with him privately. Dmitri tells Kolya that he has dug up some dirt on Vadim that he believes will help him to keep his land.

These first few sequences set off a chain of events during which we discover that Dmitri and Lilya are having an affair behind Kolya's back and Vadim brings in some heavy hitters (which appear to include the Russian mob and the church) to fight Dmitri's accusations. Late in the film, a death of one of the characters occurs, although it is never quite clear how the person died or whether foul play was involved. Regardless, one of the characters shoulders the blame, while another is nearly killed in a desolate spot by some Russian mobsters.

"Leviathan" is beautifully filmed and there are some breathtaking sequences, including Kolya's son running away and finding himself facing a gigantic whale skeleton on a beach, Lilya's observing a diving whale in the ocean and a target practice that grows increasingly tense, but offers some comic relief as those involved take aim at photos of past Russian leaders. Those taking part in the shooting declare they will hold off making judgments about the nation's present leadership, although a picture of Putin hanging over the crooked Vadim's desk appears to speak volumes.

The Book of Job is referenced specifically once, but that biblical text is ever-present throughout the film. In the Bible, Job is put through one trial after another by God and questions why the righteous suffer, although Kolya - a heavy drinker and man of quick temper - is no saint. The film also ends ambiguously, never quite answering the question of who killed one character and what became of another. While it is understandable, considering the film's overall tone, why that first question remains unanswered, I wasn't so sure about the second.

The movie was one of the most highly praised at this year's Cannes Film Festival and I can see why. It's a powerful film filled with some stunning images and an impressive bid on behalf of Zvyagintsev - who is responsible for the hypnotic "The Return" and the equally bleak "Elena" - to make a serious work of art. If it falls slightly short of being a great film, I have no doubt that it's a very good one.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: Unbroken

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Angelina Jolie's second film as a director is a pretty typical prisoner of war drama, although its extraordinary story is a true one. And while the film does not break much new ground in its sub-genre, depicting all the horrors one might expect along with the brave struggle and eventual triumph over adversity, it's also a pretty good one.

For those unaware of the tale, "Unbroken" follows the story of Louis Zamperini, a troubled youth whose Italian immigrant parents do not know what to do with him until his older brother realizes his potential as a runner, leading him to eventually compete in the 1936 Olympics, placing eighth overall but setting a record with his 56-second final lap in the 5,000-meter distance race.

Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), who died earlier this year at age 97, became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and flew missions as a bombardier during World War II. During a rescue mission in 1943, the plane in which Zamperini was riding was shot down and he and two other men spent 47 days adrift on a life raft, eating only an albatross and some fish and being tormented by sharks.

After their month-and-a-half on the raft, Zamperini and Russell Allen Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), the only survivor of that ordeal, are captured by the Japanese and sent to a prison camp, where Zamperini is constantly tortured by Mutsuhiro "Bird" Watanabe, a prison guard who was later included on General Douglas MacArthur's list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

Watanabe is pretty heinous and his atrocities against Zamperini include forcing the former Olympian to take part in a race that he clearly cannot finish for the purpose of humiliating him, making him hold up a wooden beam for an entire day or risk being shot, beating him, starving him and requiring all of the other prisoners to line up and punch him in the face. The film runs just under two hours and 20 minutes and, after a while, the numerous torture scenes become a little difficult to bear.

Still, "Unbroken" is an effective wartime drama. O'Connell, whose breakout performance in this year's "Starred Up" has drawn raves, carries the film on his shoulders impressively. And Takamasa Ishihara's portrayal of Watanabe is equally strong, despite his character being given short shrift in that he is merely evil without much motivation, other than that he hates Zamperini due to his inability to completely break him.

As a director, it would seem that Jolie is drawn to war stories. Her debut, the Bosnian war drama "In the Land of Blood and Honey," was uneven, but it provided enough evidence that Jolie should be taken seriously as a filmmaker and she could handle complex subject matter. "Unbroken" may not be the Oscar movie that she and Universal Pictures are - likely - hoping it to be. Its brush strokes are a little too wide and the film doesn't portray much we haven't already seen numerous times in prisoner of war dramas, from Billy Wilder's "Stalag 17" to Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn."

But "Unbroken" works nonetheless, due to O'Connell's committed performance, Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography and Jolie's strength behind the camera. And despite its onslaught of struggles that we know will eventually be overcome, Zamperini's story is pretty incredible. Hollywood bio films often include actual footage of their subjects in their finales, but in this case - Zamperini, at age 80, is seen jogging with a torch during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan - it's more than warranted.

Review: Selma

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The remarkable "Selma" announces the arrival of 2014's most exciting new cinematic voice - director Ava DuVernay, whose previous film, "Middle of Nowhere," was unseen by me and most everyone else. And one element that makes this film, which doubles as one of the year's best and most important, so impressive is how it tackles subject matter so familiar and creates something so unique with it.

For starters, "Selma" is not a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, although King (played with virtuosity by David Oyelowo) is the lead character in the film, there are numerous other players - from other Civil Rights leaders and King's wife (Carmen Ejogo) to politicians such as President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) - who are equally as important to the central action of the story.

Rather than focusing on King's life as a whole, the picture follows the events leading up to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, including blacks fighting for their right to vote in the South, King's tense relationship with Johnson and - taking a warts-and-all approach - the Civil Rights leader's struggles in his marriage.

The film's release falls one year short of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting, but its timeliness goes way beyond that historical marker. In its depiction of blacks being attacked and brutalized by police and the racially motivated animosity in the South toward King and his fellow marchers, "Selma" should hit close to home, considering national news items as of late.

Typically, biopics tend to portray their icons in one of two ways - stoic and nearly without flaw or really screwed up, but brilliant. DuVernay sidesteps these methods by portraying King as a complex man - ordinary in many ways, but driven and fearless. His marriage is often portrayed as having cracks and Oyelowo, whose performance is easily one of the year's best, portrays the Civil Rights leader as a man who occasionally second-guesses himself, such as during a scene in which he calls off a march, much to the annoyance of his friends and followers.

The film incorporates documentary elements, utilizing stock footage but also typed scrawl logging the dates and times when specific meetings or events took place, but then delving into those scenes intimately. A handful of historic moments during the Civil Rights movement are depicted - the original march on Selma during which protesters were viciously attacked by police by orders of racist Sheriff Jim Clark, the walk from Selma to Montgomery and an artfully handled bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

"Selma" is a movie rife with emotion, but rather than incorporating typical Hollywood techniques to draw out emotion, DuVernay just allows the scenes to unfold, allowing viewers to be inspired, angered and profoundly moved all at once.

It helps that the cast is so inspired. As I'd mentioned before, Oyelowo is terrific as King. But despite their bit parts, a number of supporting actors are able to shine as well, including Wilkinson as LBJ, Roth as the bigoted governor, Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Common as James Bevel, Wendell Pierce ("The Wire") as Rev. Hosea Williams, Keith Stanfield as the murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson, Stephan James as John Lewis and Oprah Winfrey, who once again proves her talents as an actress during an especially gripping opening scene as Annie Lee Cooper.

Spike Lee's immense 1992 film "Malcolm X" may have long been the gold standard as the go-to film about the Civil Rights Movement, but DuVernay's film gives it a good run for its money. It's one of the year's best films as well as the arrival of two major talents - its director and star.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Worst Movies of 2014

Sex Tape. Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
I was originally going to include my list of the year's worst films in my post that includes my top 10 and runners up, which will be posted on New Year's Eve along with a handful of last minute reviews. But after seeing a movie last night that possibly qualified as my least favorite film of the year, I decided to do a separate post.

The good news for 2014 was that I saw less awful movies this past year - although, admittedly, I skipped some films that ranked highly on other worst lists ("God's Not Dead" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," for example). And a few of the movies that other critics drubbed - for example, the Adam Sandler comedy "Blended" and the latest "Transformers" movie - didn't receive good reviews from me, but I didn't dislike them as much as some others.

However, although there were less bad films than in previous years (as well as more good ones than usual), the year's worst pictures (at least, several of them) were pretty rotten. Below, you'll find my 10 picks for the lousiest movies of 2014. Let me know if you agree in the comment section and tell me which movies you thought were the worst of the year.

10. The Zero Theorem - Those waiting for the triumphant return of Terry Gilliam might have to continue waiting as his latest, reviewed here, was a mess, despite some intriguing visuals.

9. Into the Storm - This tiresome attempt at combining the found footage genre with a disaster film boasted some decent special effects, but the characters were paper thin and the dialogue often wince-inducing. Reviewed here.

8. The Raid 2 - Yes, "The Raid" films include some pretty awe inspiring stunts, but this unnecessarily long sequel to the 2012 Indonesian action movie is one scene of brutal violence after the next, making one wonder whether director Gareth Evans just enjoys watching human beings reduced to pulp via kicks, punches, shootings and stabbings with a variety of objects.

7. Robocop - Winning the award for most unnecessary remake of the year, Jose Padhila's update attempted to be an action movie, societal critique and satire all at once, without succeeding at any of the aforementioned. Reviewed here.

6. Devil's Due - The found footage horror movie (hopefully) gasped its last breath in 2014 with a slew of awful entries, including this ludicrous tale of possession. Reviewed here.

5. The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears - Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani's previous film, "Amer," was an ode to the Italian giallo film and, while it didn't completely work for me, the film's moody visuals left an impression. This time around, the duo's attempts at a giallo only got one thing right - the ludicrous title which might have fit in with others in the primarily-1970s genre. Otherwise, it's an overdose of style that quickly becomes aggravating. Seriously, does it take four or five shots to establish that someone is exiting a room?

4. Big Bad Wolves - Loved by some, this nasty Israeli revenge drama exists solely for the purpose of watching human beings torture others. The film follows two men who kidnap the suspect in a child murder case and go at him with pliers, a blowtorch and various sharp and blunt objects. Despite a semi-clever twist at the end, the film is just an all-around ugly experience. Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film "Prisoners" handled similar subject matter significantly better.

3. Sex Tape - This catastrophically unfunny comedy pitted two talented, funny people (Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel) against a script that bent over backwards to be as crude as possible, but forgot to include jokes. I don't think I laughed once during this film, which is reviewed here.

2. I, Frankenstein - This horror action hybrid might possibly be the most incompetent movie of 2014. Not since "Battlefield Earth," which has become the go-to movie of comparison for misbegotten studio films, has a movie with this budget been as outlandishly awful. Reviewed here.

1. Moebius - Look, I've enjoyed some of the films of Kim Ki-duk, namely the lovely "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring." But his latest - some sort of grotesque Oedipal horror movie that includes not one or two, but three castrations and absolutely no dialogue other than the occasional grunting or screeching - is virtually unwatchable. The film portrays all of its men as rapists and all the women as castrating psychopaths. If you've read my reviews regularly enough, you'll know I'm all for challenging, bizarre and even disturbing movies as long as they justify their content, but "Moebius" gives us nothing but outrageously cretinous behavior.

Runners Up: These films didn't make my top 10 worst and some of them aren't as awful as those mentioned above, but they're still worth skipping: the wholly unnecessary "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," the neither-funny-nor-scary musical theater horror movie "Stage Fright," the reliably loud and obnoxious "Transformers: Age of Extinction," Sandler's unendurably long "Blended," the unfunny "That Awkward Moment," the silly car chase movie "Need for Speed," Kevin Smith's "Tusk," the overwrought horror film "The Quiet Ones," the much maligned Johnny Depp sci-fi thriller "Transcendence," the silly sequels "Expendables 3" and "Horrible Bosses 2" and the nasty wannabe social critique "Cheap Thrills."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Most Anticipated Movies of 2015

Maps to the Stars. Image courtesy of Focus World.
Unfortunately, my top 10 of 2014 is not going to be up until New Year's Eve and, likely, late that day due to the numerous potentially substantial films being released between Christmas and Dec. 31.

So, in the meantime, I've put together a list of films - 20, to be exact, with a few runners up - to which I'm most looking forward in 2015. I've included "Maps to the Stars" on this list, despite several critics having included it in their 2014 best-of lists. That film was only released for a day or two in Los Angeles to qualify for the Oscars, but it remains virtually unseen by most.

So, I'd love to hear from you - are the films listed below ones you're anticipating? And are there any I've missed that you're excited about? Let me know in the comment section below.

The films below are listed in alphabetical order. And drop back by on Dec. 31 for my best of 2014 list.

Carol - Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There") adapts Patricia Highsmith's novel about a department store clerk in 1950s New York who falls for an older, married woman (Cate Blanchett).

Clouds of Sils Maria - Olivier Assayas ("Carlos") directed this film, which debuted at Cannes last May, about a renowned actress (Juliette Binoche) who is rehearsing for a revival of a play with a scandal-mongering Hollywood starlet in the Alps. Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz also star.

Flashmob - Michael Haneke, known mostly for his austere dramas such as "The White Ribbon" and "Amour," directs this film about a group of people who meet over the Internet and plan to form a, you guessed it, flashmob.

The Hateful Eight - Quentin Tarantino's latest is a "Ten Little Indians" style western set primarily in a bar where an assortment of unruly characters, including a Civil War general and a bounty hunter, have gathered to wait out a blizzard.

Joy - Jennifer Lawrence stars in this biopic from David O. Russell ("American Hustle") about the single, Long Island mother who invented the Miracle Mop

Knight of Cups - Although, as usual, it's a little unclear what Terrence Malick's latest film is about, suffice it to say that the trailer for the movie, which stars Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, is stunning.

The Lobster - Yorgos Lanthimos, who was responsible for the batshit crazy (in a good way) "Dogtooth," directs this film, which stars Rachel Weisz, set in a dystopian future in which single people are arrested, taken to a motel, forced to mate and, if they fail, transformed into an animal and released into the woods.

Maps to the Stars - David Cronenberg's caustic take on Hollywood and celebrity culture has landed on some 2014 top ten lists, although it doesn't get released until late February. Julianne Moore's performance in the film has caused a fair amount of buzz.

Midnight Special - Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter") directs this John Carpenter-esque sci-fi thriller about a father and child who go on the run after the boy is discovered to have special powers. The film stars Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst.

Phoenix - This World War II thriller, directed by Christian Petzold ("Barbara") drew raves at the Toronto Film Festival. The picture follows the story of a disfigured concentration camp survivor who searches for her husband, who might have betrayed her to the Nazis, across Europe in the years after the war.

Queen of the Desert - Werner Herzog's latest follows the life of traveler, writer, archaeologist, cartographer and explorer Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman).

The Revenant - Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's follow up to "Birdman" is a Civil War-era drama is about a frontiersman (Leonardo DiCaprio) who sets out for revenge against the men who left him for dead after a bear mauling.

The Sea of Trees - Matthew McConaughey stars as a suicidal American who befriends a Japanese man near Mount Fuji and the two attempt to find their way out of a labyrinthine forest. Gus Van Sant directs.

Silence - Martin Scorsese has long planned to direct this remake of the 1972 Japanese film of the same name. The story follows two Jesuit priests (Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield) who face persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor.

Straight Outta Compton - F. Gary Gray ("Set It Off") directs this biopic on controversial and groundbreaking hip hop group N.W.A.

That's What I'm Talking About - Although I'm not completely convinced this film will be released in 2015, Richard Linklater's "spiritual" sequel to "Dazed and Confused" is set on a college campus in the early 1980s and follows a series of athletes.

The Tribe - This Ukrainian film caused a sensation at this year's Cannes Film Festival. In the picture, a deaf mute teenager attempts to fit in at a boarding school, where he becomes part of the wild titular organization. The film has hardly any dialogue and mostly features sign language.

Untitled Spielberg Cold War Thriller - Steven Spielberg's new film, which currently has no title, stars Tom Hanks as an American lawyer who attempts to rescue a pilot detained in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

While We're Young - The new film by Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale") follows the story of a middle aged couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) whose lives are shaken up when they become involved with a younger couple.

Wild Tales - This Argentinian film was a big hit at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Described by some as Tarantino-esque, it has been submitted as a candidate for this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar. The movie will be released in February.

But That's Not All: Some other highlights of the upcoming year include Swedish surrealist Roy Andersson's Venice Film Festival winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Upon Existence, Spike Lee's horror film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, the Russian epic Hard to Be a God, Michael Mann's cyber thriller Blackhat, Cameron Crowe's tentatively titled Deep Tiki, Xavier Dolan's acclaimed Cannes hit Mommy, Ridley Scott's The Martian, the untitled Woody Allen movie starring Joaquin Phoenix, the sure-to-be-huge Star Wars: The Force Awakens and a slew of horror movies that received raves at Toronto and elsewhere - It Follows, Goodnight Mommy, Cub and Bag Boy Lover Boy.

And, Just Possibly: These films would all certainly make my most anticipated list, but I'm close to positive that none of them will be released until 2016 or later - Terrence Malick's Austin music scene movie, Malick's documentary Voyage of Time, Kathryn Bigelow's The True American, the Coen Brothers' 1950s-era Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar!, Ang Lee's adaptation of the novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Nicolas Winding Refn's horror movie The Neon Demon, the untitled new film by Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), Hou Hsiao Hsien's long awaited The Assassin, Alexander Payne's Downsizing and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Kings.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review: Winter Sleep

Image courtesy of Adopt Films.
The films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan need some easing into and, I hate to say this, "Winter Sleep" might not be the place to start for the uninitiated. That being said, this three-hour-and-16-minute opus of relationships gone sour and ponderings on the nature of good and wrongdoing is a mesmerizing trip for those willing to put in the time.

The film, which won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is only the Turkish director's seventh feature and the fifth to screen in the United States, but it already feels as if Ceylan is one of the world's most significant filmmakers who brings with him his own patient style and, frequently, dazzling visuals.

His previous film, "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," remains my favorite of his films, but "Winter Sleep" is likely his second best picture. Set in the cold, isolated Turkish steppes, the film observes - and I use that word since the camera is often used as a device perched in a room, watching conversations play out over long periods of time - Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former actor turned writer who operates a lonely hotel on a desolate mountain. Living with him are his significantly younger wife Nihal (Melissa Sozen) and sister Necla (Demet Akbag).

The film opens with an intense scene during which Aydin's hotel manager, Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), gets into a fierce squabble with a man and his family who are long overdue on their rent to Aydin. This scene leaves repercussions throughout the rest of the story, leading to an act late in the film involving Nihal and the surliest member of the family in debt that might make you gasp, not because of any act of violence, but, well, you'll see.

Aside from some gorgeous shots of Aydin hunting with a friend and a man roping a horse, much of "Winter Sleep" is set indoors. It's what you might call a chamber(s) piece. And a majority of the film is centered around dialogue and conversations, most of which begin harmlessly enough but end with the film's characters regretting what they've said to each other.

The first of such talks takes place between Aydin and Necla. She looks down on his writing, which is primarily what you might call "think pieces" for local newspapers, which Necla thinks it's a waste of time. Aydin resents his sister's "laziness" and their conversation soon turns ugly. Later, a similar discussion between Aydin and his wife concerning her involvement in a group that donates to local schools betrays their fraught relationship.

It's the dialogue that drives the film, which is set over the course of only a few days, despite the movie's epic length. All of the anguished talking between the characters leads to a dark night of the soul for at least two of them, whom we are led to believe may or may not eventually reach some sort of reconciliation.

"Winter Sleep" is not an easy film - that is, there's a lot to wade through and its purposes aren't always completely clear. I don't mean that as a criticism, but rather to imply that Ceylan's films present you with material that you have to sort out yourself and some past comparisons between his work and that of Michelangelo Antonioni aren't off base. This is a powerful, visually beautiful, very well acted and thoughtful film. Those who make a point of seeing the best offerings of world cinema won't want to miss it.

Review: Mr. Turner

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" is the filmmaker's second lush, visually gorgeous portrait of an artist - his first being 1999's Gilbert and Sullivan biopic "Topsy Turvy." And among the film's many treasures, it's interesting to line up the iconic painter J.M.W. Turner's work with Timothy Spall's portrayal of the man onscreen.

Similar to many other great artists, Turner is far from being without fault. He's a grump who often neglects his aging and sickly father William (Paul Jesson) and doesn't exactly treat the women in his life much better. He refuses to see his ex-wife and children, misses a daughter's funeral and has a brief sexual liaison with his maid (Dorothy Atkinson), leading the poor woman to believe for years that there is something more to their relationship.

Of course, Turner was - on the other hand - a great artist, often thought to be England's best. His sweeping panoramas, dramatic scenes of shipwrecks and storms at sea and, much later, work that took on an experimental nature are beauties to behold. There seems to be much going on in the "spirit," shall we say, of Turner, even if the way he interacts with others doesn't much show it.

It's appropriate that Leigh should tackle this material, considering that the filmmaker is often thought to be the U.K.'s best filmmaker. His remarkable body of work includes "Life is Sweet," "Naked," "Secrets and Lies," "Topsy Turvy," "Vera Drake," "Happy Go Lucky" and "Another Year." And Spall, who gives one of the year's finest performances, has long been one of Leigh's finest collaborators.

Much ado has been recently made of the critic in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Birdman" and that film was thought to have taken a rather harsh stance on criticism. "Mr. Turner" not only has little love for the critics who did not understand the artist's later work, but for the general public as a whole.

In one scene, Turner and some friends must listen to a young prig prattle on about art and you can tell that Turner can barely hold his tongue. During a later sequence, Turner attends a theater production that eventually ends up poking fun at his late, experimental work. He storms out, clearly unimpressed with the public's lack of intellectual rigor.

Towards its end, Leigh's film also tackles the question of art's longevity and there's a scene of great weight during which Turner, upon finding out that he is gravely ill, asks a doctor, "so I'm to become a nonentity?" Several scenes prior to that, Turner has turned down an offer for his entire collection in exchange for a large sum of money. He refuses on the grounds that he wants his work remembered and hung in a gallery for all of England to see. But that later scene obviously touches on the fact that once we're gone, we'll never know how or if we'll be remembered.

"Mr. Turner" is one of the year's best and it's likely the most visually beautiful film in Leigh's career. The acting is terrific across the board and despite the film being a bit austere, it's funny in the way that Leigh's pictures tend to often be - funny asides or quips make us laugh, but they also point to essential truths. Here is a movie about an artist that is itself a work of art.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Top Ten Album Archives

Image courtesy of The Clash.
Last month, I completed my Top Ten Film Archives, which included my favorite movies from each year, dating back to the dawn of the 20th century. Now, I'm putting up my list of greatest albums by year, which begins in 1959 and runs to the present.

Each year, I will update the list with a new top 10 (next year, I'll add 2015's list, for example). And I might occasionally rearrange the lists as I see fit over time.

And because some years are full of terrific albums, especially during the late 1960s through mid 1970s, I've included runners up.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Top Five

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Chris Rock's "Top Five" is an example of art imitating life - at least, sort of - as the comedian and actor steps behind the camera for his third feature, which blends elements of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" and Richard Linklater's "Before" films, but is - as Rock himself has called it - a rare film that explores black culture from a black point of view. And the film's lead character bares some similarity to its director and lead.

It's a good movie - often funny and occasionally on-point about topics ranging from politics and popular culture to racism in America and how whites perceive black culture. This should come as no surprise as Rock has always been not only a really funny guy, but a pretty astute judge of goings-on in these United States.

At the film's beginning, Rock's Andre Allen is a former comedian turned blockbuster star who is now acting in his first dramatic film in a bid to get people to take him seriously. Not exactly helping his cause is his entanglement in an upcoming wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) that will be, of course, live on TV. Take note that Kanye West was one of the film's producers.

The film in which he stars is obviously doomed to fail. It's an historical drama in which Rock plays the leader of a slave rebellion in Haiti. It's likelihood to go unseen is not due to the fact that it's a bad movie - in fact, we only get minor glimpses of the film itself - but because people would rather pay to see junk than films that are About Something. Andre's previous successes were in a series of idiotic action movies in which he plays a gun-toting bear who happens to be a cop. Naturally, this is what his public wants.

"Top Five" takes place within a single day as Andre walks through the streets of New York City being interviewed by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a New York Times reporter who is not afraid to ask the tough questions. And, naturally, since the film is a comedy - and, at times, a romantic one - those questions nag at Andre, making him question his life's choices. A former alcoholic, he tells Chelsea that he no longer does stand up comedy because he was only previously funny onstage due to his out-of-control drug and alcohol abuse.

The film offers a look at the life of a celebrity, but it's also clearly a personal one for Rock. And there are a number of moments in the film that feel extremely lived-in. He juxtaposes sequences of Andre shuttling back and forth to press junkets with a scene during which he drops in for a bit of real talk with his family in Brooklyn. Tracy Morgan and several other character actors play Andre's family and his scenes with them are not only among the funniest in the film, but they also provide some solid characterization for the film's lead.

A handful of critics have called "Top Five" one of the year's funniest movies. But while I liked the film, it's definitely more the type of comedy that makes you laugh because you recognize something human in its jokes. It's not exactly a gut-buster, although there are a few sequences that might have you rolling on the floor (I doubt there'll be a straight face in the audience when Andre finds himself sitting across from another celebrity during a brief stint in jail).

Rock has matured here as a director (although I admit to having found his "Head of State" to be pretty damn funny) and I'm anxious to see what he'll do next. Here, he gets to have his cake and eat it too. Andre clearly wants to be taken seriously for his art, but late in the film he also gets a reminder of what a joy it is to make others laugh. Most people would likely agree that Rock is very funny, but here he also makes a bid for being a serious filmmaker and provides a solid case for it.

Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
So, here's the thing: Ridley Scott's massively expensive looking "Exodus: Gods and Kings" is not quite the catastrophe you might have heard it was. I'm not saying I'd wholeheartedly endorse - nor even necessarily recommend it, for that matter - but as far as biblical epics go, it has its moments.

Most of those moments tend to be CGI enhanced, which may not come as a surprise. Scott and company have taken great pains to bring to the screen all of the best remembered passages from the book of Exodus and Moses' story, although the 10 Commandments get a little shorted and I don't recall a plague of alligators.

Christian Bale gives a committed performance as Moses, an Egyptian prince turned leader of the Jews who brings the chosen people away from the clutches of Ramses (Joel Edgerton) and on to the promised land. The script portrays Moses in the manner you might expect of a hero in our age of conflicted male leads. In other words, it takes some convincing for him to feel the Jews' plight and God - who, in one of the filmmakers' stranger choices, is portrayed as a grumpy young boy who materializes near burning bushes and the like - believes that he marches to the beat of his own drum. In other words, he can be difficult.

The supporting cast - and it's a vast one - does what it can, but they are mostly there for the sake of star power, rather than fully developed characters. Other than Bale and Edgerton, we have John Turturro (yes, John Turturro!) as King Seti in what has to be the nuttiest biblical epic casting since Harvey Keitel played Judas. There's also Sigourney Weaver as the untrustworthy Tuya, Ben Kingsley as a Jewish leader, a blink-and-you-almost-miss-him Aaron Paul as a slave, Ben Mendelsohn as a sinister viceroy and Hiam Abbass as Bithia.

The sets are pretty elaborate and, as I'd mentioned, the special effects are impressive, especially Moses' parting of the Red Sea and some of the various plagues (despite that inclusion of alligators).

But what ultimately holds the film back a bit is the script. I'm sure there will be those who disagree with my assessment, arguing that the film follows the story of Moses pretty closely to the one in The Bible (ahem! alligators!), but to make a film successful, there's got to be something more than just precise interpretation. Had the film's characters been a little more developed, it would have made all the awe and sturm and drang onscreen more effective.

"Exodus" is not a bad film - it looks great even if it's dead seriousness could have use a little alleviation. At least, in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," we had Anne Baxter as Nefretiri, sounding as if she just stepped off a subway in the Bronx ("Hey Mo-ses!").

And the film pales in comparison to Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," released earlier this year, which is one of the most insane biblical epics ever made and, at times, an outright horror movie with the lead playing both hero and villain. "Exodus" could have used a little bit of that mad vision, but as a sweeping historical epic, it's amusing enough.

Review: Inherent Vice

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Hazier than an enormous cloud of pot smoke, Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" is one of the year's funniest, most mysterious and flat-out unusual films. It just so happens to be great, which shouldn't surprise you, considering that the filmmaker - one of the very best of his generation - was previously responsible for "The Master," "There Will Be Blood," "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights." However, "Vice" is also Anderson's least accessible film and what you get out of it will likely depend on what you're willing to put into it.

The picture is the first ever to be adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel and those familiar with the enigmatic writer's works will likely know what to expect from this film. The ingredients for any Pynchon story typically include a healthy dose of paranoia, obscure pop cultural references, characters with outlandish names (for example, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd and Petunia Leeway), labyrinthine plotting and offbeat humor relative to the time in which the story is set.

In this case, it's 1970 in a fictional Los Angeles corner known as Gordita Beach, where one Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is living in a pot-induced haze and facing the countercultural comedown in the wake of the Tate-Labianca murders (referenced twice here) and Altamont.

One day, a former hippie and ex flame named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam, in a breakout role) shows up and asks for Doc's help. Shasta's in trouble and she spins a wild story about an eccentric millionaire (Eric Roberts) whose wife is attempting to have him placed in a mental institution in order to get at his money. Shasta, who has traded in her Country Joe and the Fish T-shirts for a more conservative getup, is the lover of the millionaire, who has made his money by displacing minority communities for real estate purposes. This, of course, recalls "Chinatown," another near unsolvable mystery involving L.A. land use.

But as Doc looks into the case, the mystery spirals out of control and my advice to those planning on seeing the film would be not to get hung up on figuring out the picture's plot, but rather letting the story and its peculiar vibe just wash over you.

Doc's investigating brings him into contact with a number of odd characters, including a Black Panther type played by Michael K. Williams (Omar from "The Wire"), a former heroin addict (Jena Malone), an assistant DA (Reese Witherspoon), a surf sax player turned informant for the right (Owen Wilson), a dangerous deal maker (Martin Donovan), a maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro), a drug addled dentist (Martin Short) and a tough guy cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who acts as Doc's foil, but also sort of his unofficial partner. Also, one of Doc's pals, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), doubles as the film's narrator, giving voice to some of Doc's thoughts and guiding us through the purposely confusing story.

One of the film's more humorous - but also increasingly mysterious - threads is when Doc stumbles upon an entity known as The Golden Fang, which acts as a stand-in for all things dark and nefarious. At first, Doc is told that the Fang is a schooner, but later finds evidence that it's a heroin drug ring and, then later, a tax shelter for dentists. At one point, Phoenix sits in front of a dry erase board, attempting to link all the clues involving the various characters and how they might be involved with The Golden Fang, but don't expect to find any clarification.

One of the delights of "Inherent Vice" is to watch Anderson's filmmaking talents at work. As usual, he's picked fantastic music (Neil Young, Can, Minnie Riperton and others) to accompany his visuals and his camerawork is never anything less than inspired. But, this is also a film in which any given shot can include multiple ideas, meanings and storytelling devices.

For example, there's a lovely flashback in which Doc and Shasta run out into the rain to the tune of Young's "Journey Into the Past" to score some drugs, but end up spending the day getting soaked together. Later, a postcard from Shasta recalls that idyllic day, but also acts as a clue, of sorts. Then, when Doc shows up to the spot where he and Shasta spent much of that day, the structure that has since been erected there provides some thematic weight to the film's chronicling of the death of the counterculture.

Similarly, a final scene during which Doc and Bigfoot - a gruff, anti-hippie cop who believes drugs to be the root of all evil - attempt to reconcile their differences, at first, might just seem to be an exhibit of odd behavior. But think of how the scene plays to Doc's disillusionment with the way the wind is blowing and consider how Bigfoot himself might be downcast due to circumstances involving the LAPD and the sequence becomes rather poignant. This point in American history gives neither character much to celebrate, although they have yet to experience the national downfall of the Nixon years.

Anderson is typically terrific with actors and "Vice" is no exception. Phoenix plays Doc partly as Jeff Bridges' The Dude and somewhat similarly to Elliott Gould's Marlowe in Robert Altman's "The Long Goodbye" and it's an inspired performance. And Brolin is frequently hilarious as Bigfoot, exhibiting a comedic side previously unseen from the actor. All of the supporting players are equally good, although I'd like to single out Short's delirious scenes as the deranged dentist Blatnoyd, Waterston as the hippie femme fatale who really pulls out all the stops during a scene late in the film which she mostly performs nude and Wilson, who brings much pathos to his role as the sax player who has been forced into cooperating with the LAPD and a group known as Vigilant California.

For a comedy, "Inherent Vice" is very long (nearly two and a half hours) and features nearly as much dramatic material as it does hilarity. That being said, it is very funny and includes several sequences sure to provoke snorts and loud chuckles, including a heroin trade-off, Short's reaction to being pulled over by a cop and, my personal favorite, Brolin's eating a frozen banana as Phoenix looks on.

As I mentioned before, "Vice" is another great movie on Anderson's resume, but it's one that takes a little more work than is typically required by an audience. But those willing to give themselves over to its far-out story and conspiratorial vibe will be duly rewarded.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: Still Alice

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Growing up in the 1980s, I watched my grandmother suffer through Alzheimer's, a disease that causes those afflicted with it to lose their memory and, eventually to devolve into confusion and a difficulty with speaking. "Still Alice" follows the story of a woman (Julianne Moore) who is diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's and whose greatest struggle is losing the capacity to find the right words, considering that she had made her career as a linguist.

While "Still Alice" is a good film, Moore's performance is a great one and could finally be the role to land her the Oscar, which has evaded her all these years. Moore is, in my opinion, certainly among the best actors never to have won an Academy Award. And here, she takes on a very difficult role and nails it.

Alice's family - which consists of her professor husband John Howland (Alec Baldwin) and three kids (Kristen Stewart as her youngest daughter with a dream of making it as an actor, Kate Bosworth as the grouchy older sister and Hunter Parrish as the slightly underdeveloped brother) - finds it increasingly frustrating to cope with Alice's loss for words and eventual incapacity to even recognize them.

The film does a solid job of capturing the essence of the disease, unlike other past films that portrayed Alzheimer's victims as exhibiting strange behaviors while remaining lucid enough to blurt out melodramatic lines. Here, the deterioration of Moore's character begins subtly with her finding herself not being able to grasp a specific word or forgetting that she had already asked a question of a family member. And, in a final scene, the devastating long term effects of the disease are shown in a difficult to watch moment as Stewart's character discusses a play with her mother.

Outside of Moore's marvelous performance and the film's ability to capture the disease with a sense of accuracy, "Still Alice" is not about much more than what it purports to be about. I don't mean to say that the film doesn't work overall, but so much focus is spent on Moore's deterioration that other subplots tend to exist for the purpose of giving the film's other characters some personality.

Some pictures rise or fall on the talents of their star - and "Still Alice" is one of them. Moore's performance is so effective that we forgive some of the movie's weaker elements (for example, a subplot involving Baldwin's character being offered a job away from his family isn't developed very well). It's time she is given her due.

Review: Wild

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Reese Witherspoon gives her best performance in years - perhaps the finest since her Oscar winning turn in "Walk the Line" - in Jean-Marc Vallee's "Wild," which is based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. While on the surface, the film may give the appearance of being one of those tales of an individual attempting to survive while aiming to conquer unforgiving mother nature - such as "Into the Wild" or "127 Hours" - but it's also more than that.

In fact, "Wild," which tells its story via a fragmented narrative, is not only a strong character piece, but also an occasionally grueling tale of an addict seeking recovery and the story of a mother-daughter bond. And all of these elements are handled pretty well.

We are introduced to Strayed in the film's most visually harsh sequence as she removes a toenail that she has broken during her 1,000 mile trek across the lonely Pacific Crest Trail. She has undertaken this long walk as a method of rediscovering herself following her failed marriage, which broke up as a result of her reckless drug use and numerous affairs. Strayed is also attempting to move past the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern, terrific in all the flashback sequences in which she appears), whose demise likely pushed Strayed into drugs and unhappiness.

Other minor characters in the film appear - including Gaby Hoffman in a slightly underdeveloped supporting role as Cheryl's pal Aimee and a handful of random characters Strayed meets during her hike, some of whom are helpful and a few of whom are menacing - but Witherspoon primarily carries the film on her shoulders. It's a very good performance.

While the picture is a little similar to films such as "Eat, Pray, Love" in that it follows a character who takes a journey to reconnect with herself, it's a little more complex. At times, the film is harrowing, especially during flashbacks to Strayed's drug abuse, but also during earlier scenes in which she and her mother struggle to flee from Cheryl's abusive father.

And while Cheryl's primary purpose in walking the trail is to "find herself" again, so to speak, she also learns to reconnect with others. There's a sequence during which she asks for help from a man whose outward appearance is a bit intimidating and, naturally, she is afraid of him at first. There's also a later scene during which she finds herself attracted to a man passing out tickets for a Grateful Dead tribute concert. Neither of these scenes play out exactly as the film sets you up to think they will.

In other words, some might consider taking a walk through nature to "find yourself" as a cliche, but the film does not treat it as such. "Wild" is the type of movie that sneaks up on you in surprising ways. Much like Vallee's previous film, "The Dallas Buyers Club," it follows a complicated individual with whom we might not always sympathize, but it never makes them anything less than compelling subject matter.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review: Horrible Bosses 2

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Since I missed the recent "Dumb and Dumber To," my review for "Horrible Bosses 2" can fill the vacancy for the fall's most obligatory comedy sequel. Yes, the gang - and then some - are all back from the original "Horrible Bosses," although I'm not sure that anything other than that film's $100-plus million gross justifies a second film.

In this one, the everyday schlubs portrayed by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day have created an invention that will make taking a shower easier. The laziness involved in the invention sort of parallels the lack of originality in producing sequels to comedies of this sort, but I digress. They are contacted by a sleazy father-son team (Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine), who operate a major distributor, for the manufacture of their product and, not surprisingly, get royally ripped off.

As revenge, the trio concocts a scheme to kidnap Pine's character, who eventually joins them in the plot to get back at his old man for various reasons. Naturally, nothing goes as it seems, leading to a few laughs and mostly lots of screaming at the screen to no avail.

The picture includes numerous subplots involving secondary characters from the first movie, namely Kevin Spacey as a former boss and now inmate, Jennifer Aniston as the sex addicted boss from the previous picture and Jaime Foxx as a low-rent criminal, of sorts, who assists the film's three leads for no apparent reason.

There are some uncomfortable attempts to litter the film with what could only be described as un-PC material and it's mostly not that funny, but simply squirm inducing. These sequences include Bateman's character getting roped into lying about his sexual orientation at a sex addicts anonymous meeting, the name of the trio's company, which raises some eyebrows from a black talk show personality, and some stereotypes involving an Asian maid.

Also, the picture ups the ante on its predecessor in terms of filthy conversations revolving around sexuality, such as Aniston's being forced to utter virtually every word imaginable to describe the male sex organ as well as her character's later near-involvement in a foursome with the three male leads. I say all this not to be prudish, but rather to once again point out that just because dialogue is taken to extremely profane levels, it's not necessarily funny. The film's screenwriters should take some lessons from Richard Pryor next time around.

"Horrible Bosses 2" is not a bad movie, but just a very mediocre one. Many of the film's jokes fall flat, leaving the talented cast to draw them out to their inevitable conclusions. And despite this being a comedy - a genre that has its own set of rules like any other - I couldn't get my head around the notion that these characters were as dumb as they were supposed to be. This is not, in fact, "Dumb and Dumber," so that these people would be so oblivious to any sort of typical human interaction struck me as unbelievable. Yes, you'll probably see worse comedies this year, but don't mistake that for any kind of endorsement.

Review: The Babadook

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
The past two weeks have seen the release of two of the year's very best horror movies and both of them were made by women. Last week's release was Ana Lily Amirpour's moody black and white Iranian vampire western "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and this week's selection is Australian Jennifer Kent's debut "The Babadook."

Kent's picture is one of the most thematically rich and outright scary horror movies of recent memory. I wouldn't dare give away its secrets, but suffice it to say it takes the type of story you'd typically find in a horror film and uses it to express something about the fragility of the human condition. And, yeah, it's pretty damn frightening in the process.

At the film's beginning, single mother Amelia (Essie Davis in one of the year's best breakout performances) is struggling to raise her rambunctious son Robbie (Daniel Henshall), who may at first appear as a nightmare child due to his wild behavior, constant screaming and crying and troubles at school, that is, until his mother takes a turn for the worse more than halfway through the movie.

Seven years prior to the film's beginning, Amelia lost her husband in a car accident as he was driving her to the hospital to give birth. She's never quite gotten over it and despite her love for him, Robbie reminds her of her dead husband. His birthday falls on the date of her husband's death, so they hardly ever celebrate it on the actual day.

One day, Amelia finds a children's book titled "Mister Babadook" that she reads to Robbie at night, but halfway through it, she finds it too macabre and tries to close it, despite Robbie's insistence on continuing. The book tells the story of the titular fiend, whom, once you have let him into your home cannot be gotten rid of.

Robbie begins to see the Babadook (which is named after the sound of his knocks on the door, "ba ba dook dook!") and Amelia becomes annoyed, thinking this is more of the child's erratic behavior. And then, she begins to see it as well. Mister Babadook, created through stop motion animation, is a tall figure with a hat, coat, creepy grin and long, sharp fingernails. He floats through the house and scuttles across the ceiling like a large insect.

I won't explain how or why he has come about, but when you figure out exactly who Mister Babadook is, you'll likely agree that it's a pretty bold move for a horror movie. Most films in the genre are merely meant to scare - or, in lesser case scenarios, gross out - viewers with little else in the way of purpose.

But "The Babadook" is a horror movie in the grand tradition of those that attempt a little something more, one which uses the horrors of actual human concerns to stand in for the evil lurking under the bed. It's a pretty creepy picture and one that has more going under its surface than your typical example of the genre.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: The Imitation Game

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
"The Imitation Game" should seal the deal for those previously unconvinced by Benedict Cumberbatch's quick rise and cheeky following (the self-titled "Cumberbitches"). As Alan Turing, an eccentric English mathematician who is credited with cracking the Nazis' Enigma code, Cumberbatch brings life and humanity to a man who, on first glance, may strike one as an arrogant, unfriendly prig, despite his genius.

Turing enlisted in Great Britain's war effort due to his knack for code breaking and went on to create a machine known as Christopher that would unscramble Enigma, the Germans' method of morse code during World War II that was thought impossible to crack. In the film, Turing is surrounded by a team of Brits assisting his efforts, including a cad and chess champion named Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and a female code breaker (Keira Knightley), which was virtually unheard of - or, at least, this movie allows us to think so.

The picture is an unabashed crowd pleaser, but I don't mean that in a derogatory sense. It's highly entertaining and filled with strong performances, from the aforementioned leads to Mark Strong's wry head of intelligence and Charles Dance's grouchy commander.

The plotline involving Turing and his team's attempts to crack the code is interlaced with another side story that only slowly reveals itself. It involves an investigation into Turing some years later and the discovery that he is a homosexual - a fact which he does not hide from his pals working with him on Enigma.

And so what begins as a crackling wartime thriller eventually morphs into a very sad story of how a brilliant man who played a significant role in Great Britain's fight against Nazism is rewarded with ostracization by his own country.

And while Cumberbatch does a fine job portraying Turing as the snippy mathematician who doesn't believe his fellow code breakers can keep up with him, he takes it to a whole other level in the film's final scenes as Turing faces melancholy prospects after having been arrested for indecency and realizing that his heroic wartime efforts will likely never meet the light of day (they do, in fact, but some 50 years later).

"The Imitation Game" is the type of film that could be labeled as "Oscar bait" (World War II? Check. Eccentric Historical Figure? Check. British Lead Actor? Check.),  but it does not deserve the negative connotation that typically comes with that phrase. It's an exciting, very well written and acted and ultimately tragic story of a brilliant man who likely saved many lives who was given less than a hero's welcome by his own country.

Review: Force Majeure

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Those who enjoy a bit of acidity in their comedy will not want to miss out on Ruben Ostlund's acerbically, hilariously on-point "Force Majeure," which breaks down male-female relations so bleakly - yet accurately - that it could make for the month's most uncomfortable date. But in the best of ways.

The picture follows a Swedish family of four - workaholic father who can't break away from his cell phone, frustrated wife and occasionally raucous, young son and daughter - during a particularly disastrous trip to a French ski resort.

All is going reasonably well until the family, sitting at an outdoor deck restaurant below a massive mountain, spot an avalanche heading their way. They panic as it appears that the snow slide will reach them (when, in fact, they are merely covered by a blast of snowy air and dust) and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), in a moment of fright, grabs his cell and flees, leaving wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and his kids to fend for themselves.

The incident - which reminds me of a similar sequence of impulsive male behavior gone wrong in Julia Loktev's 2011 film "The Loneliest Planet" - goes unmentioned until the couple's friends Mats (Kristoger Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius) show up and it manages to make their way into their dinner conversation, which becomes increasingly uncomfortable.

Then, in the film's funniest scene, that awkward conversation drags over into Mats and Fanny's relationship as they bicker amongst themselves in their own room later that night. Hardly anyone in the theater where I saw the film could prevent themselves from snickering during their discussion in the dark.

What's so unnerving - and hilariously so - is how Ostlund near perfectly captures the way that men and women argue, rationalize their own behavior and ultimately snap. Ebba appears more angry at Tomas for the fact that his version of events doesn't quite gel with hers (he claims to not remember leaving them there, that is, until she reminds him that the entire incident was filmed on his cell phone) than his having fled his family. He continues to deny doing that of which he is accused, although it's clear to anyone watching that he's attempting to convince himself.

And the film culminates with a sequence of equal peril during which the tables are turned, but only just slightly enough that you have to pay attention to watch how the various characters - all four of the adults, at least - act.

"Force Majeure" is a clever and frequently very funny movie, but it also works as a dour view of a relationship unravelling. The film takes its time to deliver its punchlines and ideas, but those with patience will be amply rewarded. It's the type of movie that will likely make for great conversation - and possibly - heated argument. You've been warned.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Make no mistake about it, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I" is a place holder - that is, for the finale, which Lionsgate has stretched into two films for maximum profits - but it's a good one. The film's success rides mostly on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence, who brings more life and acting ability to the role of a blockbuster heroine than any franchise movie typically calls for. Her Katniss Everdeen has more personality than your typical action movie hero and it's largely due to Lawrence, who is, not surprisingly, currently the actress with the largest box office draw.

There's a fair amount of plot and exposition in "Mockingjay, Part I," so I'll try to keep it at a minimum. Suffice it to say, Katniss is fairly shell shocked after participating in her second Hunger Games and struggling to overcome her experiences in an underground bunker provided by the rebellion.

Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, always an asset) is attempting to convince the rebellion's leader, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, bringing the necessary gravitas), to use Katniss as a figurehead for the movement and inspire the districts to rise up against the Capitol and the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

Meanwhile, Katniss' pal Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is being used by the Capitol as a propaganda tool, urging Katniss and the rebels not to start a war via television. Katniss, on the other hand, is filmed engaging in battle and rallying the troops in the rebellion's own propaganda films, a task about which she has mixed feelings. And speaking of mixed feelings - Katniss must juggle two suitors, the captured Peeta (who is mostly seen here on screens being interviewed) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her friend from back home.

One of the film's more intriguing elements is its portrayal of image making (in this case, propaganda films, which can be a stand-in in for television, film, the news, you name it) as a tool for winning hearts and minds. "Mockingjay, Part I" is not only a big budget action movie, but it also explores the way we interact with media and the obvious benefits and dangers involved.

And yet, the film is mostly a build-up to what is likely to be a clash between Snow's Capitol and the rebels led by Coin and Katniss. This picture is sprinkled with a few such scenes, involving a rebellion in a forest and the bombing of a dam. For a film with only moderate sprinkles of violence, "Mockingjay, Part I" is fairly fast paced and exciting.

But what it all adds up to remains to be seen with next year's "Mockingjay, Part II." Although I still contend that the first "Hunger Games" is the best of the lot, this has been a pretty successful Hollywood franchise that has left many of its ilk in the dust - cinematically, thematically and narratively.

And although she had already been nominated for an Academy Award prior to the release of the first "Hunger Games" movie, this has been a star-making role for Lawrence. However, as the series goes on, I think it's the filmmakers and studio who may owe her a debt of gratitude - she carries these movies.

Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Image courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Ana Lily Amirpour's debut "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" may take on the tired genre of the vampire film and its style may be reminiscent of early David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch films, but it's still a unique creation all its own.

The film has become known as the "Iranian vampire western" in the same way that "Brokeback Mountain" was the "gay cowboy movie." The western element is questionable, although the filmmaker fills the soundtrack with music that might have sounded at home in a Sergio Leone picture, but it's the horror genre that Amirpour is clearly turning on its head here and one could argue that the film is not only the first picture about bloodsuckers to be set in the Middle East, but is also the first feminist vampire movie in some time.

Set in a fictional ghost town known as Bad City (the film is in Farsi, although the movie was shot in California), the story follows two threads that eventually merge. The first involves a young man named Arash (Arash Marandi), who is overly protective of his car and cat and has a father (Marshall Manesh) who is hooked on heroin.

The picture's second thread follows a young woman known only as The Girl (Sheila Vand, in what has to be a break-out performance), who happens to be a vampire and spends most of her evenings strolling the streets of the fictional Bad City decked out in a black chador and stalking prey. Most of The Girl's victims happen to be men - and mostly sinister ones, at that.

There are plenty of bad men to be found in Bad City. Not only is there Arash's drug addict father, who mistreats a prostitute whom The Girl later befriends, but there is also the horrible pimp/drug dealer whom Arash's father owes money, leading to Arash losing his beloved car early in the film as a means of payment. There's also a nosy young boy who comes into contact with both Arash and The Girl and much like the film's male protagonist, he loses his mode of transportation - a skateboard, which The Girl then uses to eerily float through the night, her chador flowing out behind her.

If what I'm describing to you sounds strange, that's because it is - but in the best way. The film, which was shot in black and white, has an early 1990s feel to it and Amirpour fills the movie with unforgettable images of rolling clouds, The Girl rolling on her skateboard along a wall with her back to the camera, a man dancing in a Ronald Reagan mask, a drag queen dancing in the morning sunlight and a wonderful final shot involving Arash, his car, The Girl and the cat.

Some might argue that style wins out slightly over substance in "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" and this wouldn't exactly be an unfair argument. But the picture obviously takes risks. Amirpour's female characters enjoy more freedom in the film than they might in Iran, but it's because they struggle for their liberation, mostly against unsympathetic male characters, Arash excluded. And the film includes images - nudity and drug use, for example - you'd be very unlikely to see in an Iranian movie (and I'm certainly not knocking Iranian cinema, which has has given us some of the richest films of recent years).

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is a very good film - and an experience, if you know what I mean. Although it is stylistically similar to several American indie classics, it has a flow and a personality of its own. It's a moody reinvention of the vampire genre that could be a real cinematic discovery to those who are willing to give themselves over to its dreamy story of complicated relationships, cool cars, wicked men and empowered women.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review: The Homesman

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Tommy Lee Jones' "The Homesman" is a strange little movie in all the right ways. Both a feminist western and a tale of grueling life on the prairie - oh yeah, and also a character piece, although which character is given more emphasis goes back and forth - the picture proves that Jones is formidable both in front of and behind the camera.

The story is set in the Nebraska territory, where a single woman (Hilary Swank) must take on a task that the cowardly men of her hometown refuse - to escort three insane women in a covered wagon for hundreds of miles and drop them off at a church in Iowa that has agreed to house them.

On her desolate journey, Swank's Mary Bee Cuddy comes across a ne'er do well named Briggs (Jones), whom she saves from a hangman's noose on the agreement that he will help her with her errand. At first, Briggs is mostly along for comedic effect, but his relationship to Cuddy eventually deepens and so does his character.

For a western, "The Homesman" is relatively nonviolent. There is one encounter with Native Americans that is quickly defused. And the film's only villains are a group of men (led by James Spader) who lack character and empathy.

One of the elements that makes Jones' film work so well is its ability to surprise. As I'd mentioned, this is a strange film and there is at least one major shock you won't see coming. But rather using this scene, which I wouldn't dare give away, as a plot point, it is put to use to further develop one of the film's characters.

The movie's desolate mood and sequences of frightening behavior - a baby being thrown in a privy hole, an insane woman banging her head against a wagon wheel, a sudden outburst of violence over a doll - create a sense of unease, which is juxtaposed with the general goodness of the picture's two lead characters.

Jones, whose impressive debut "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" was also difficult to classify, has proven to be one of the greater success stories in recent years of actors trying their hand at directing. As a filmmaker, he has a distinctive voice as well as a favored genre ("Estrada" was western themed, while "The Homesman" is a straight-up western). And he's a great director of actors. Here's to hoping that he again steps behind the camera - only, this time, doesn't wait nine years to do so.