Monthly Archives: January 2015

2014 Year in Review

Well, it’s not quite February 2015, so I’m only slightly embarrassingly belated in my 2014 year in review. I just had to spend January catching up on a bunch of movies I missed — a little bit of due diligence before summarizing the year. As I’ve mentioned before, this isn’t any sort of “Best of 2014” or Ten Best list… it’s just my favorite movies of the (82?) films I had a chance to see. I won’t waste space listing all the ones I didn’t get a chance to see, but there are only so many hours in the day.

2014 TOP TEN

1. UNDER THE SKIN — No other film in 2014 or in any other year since probably 2008 held me in such rapture from the opening shot to the final one. Glazer’s masterwork is unforgettable for me; maybe not for all tastes, but I can’t shake it and I think it’s as profound and disturbing as it is technically flawless. One for the ages.

2. BOYHOOD — Wouldn’t be surprised to see this grow in stature over the years, much like BEFORE SUNRISE did in my mind. It’s not just the incredible feat of production; it’s the small moments: the specific, singular, individualized observations of what it means to be alive today in America. Let a dozen other filmmakers each make a project over 12 years and I still don’t think any of them would make something that resonated as emotionally as BOYHOOD.

3. LOVE IS STRANGE — Certainly the sleeper pick of the litter; it escaped me during its theatrical run and bowled me over on home video. This is gorgeous filmmaking, as much for what it doesn’t show as for what it does. It’s respectful of its audience, never pandering or over-explaining, and never once even remotely condescending to any of its characters. A small but unqiue treasure. Warning: you may sob like a baby.

4. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT — So assured, so intelligent, so mature. It’s hard to imagine any other filmmakers in the world able to tell this story this effectively, because the synopsis is pretty dire. And as limited as Marion Cotillard was in THE IMMIGRANT, she was really unleashed here by the Dardennes; this is the performance of the year.

5. THE BABADOOK — If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

6. SNOWPIERCER — It has evaporated a bit in my brain since I saw it over the summer, but what a weird, original piece of entertainment. And it sports quite an arresting, memorable performance from the frequently great Tilda Swinton. Also, it was impossible for me to watch season 3 of The Newsroom without seeing Alison Pill in a totally different light.

7. GONE GIRL — Cleverly written, demonically entertaining. Fincher’s best book adaptation since FIGHT CLUB and I haven’t even read the book; he just found the perfect tone and pacing for this darkly funny look at American marriage and institutions at large. Looking forward to seeing it again.

8. FORCE MAJEURE — Apparently Östlund’s earlier films are just as interesting; I hope I get to see them, and many more in the future. This guy can put an image together.

9. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE — I was surprised to see this received by some as nothing more than “a glorified DVD extra,” or some puff piece documentary praising Jodorowsky. Even weirder, these same critics were up in arms at anyone who didn’t realize ROOM 237 wasn’t endorsing the ludicrous theories it depicted. So why weren’t they aware that this film doesn’t necessarily endorse everything Jodo does? This is a look at megalomania for all its positives and negatives. And I can’t be the only person who enjoyed this movie who also has no interest in seeing an actual DUNE made by Jodorowsky. The behind-the-scenes of the almost-was has to be way better.

10. THE SKELETON TWINS — Another sleeper; I’d seen this dismissed by many, but also as a comedy. This is no comedy. It’s a capital-D drama that happens to star two actors famous for prior comedy work, and who do some funny things in this film. Even Luke Wilson turns in a terrific supporting role, and it’s hard not to get choked up in a couple places. Formulaic at times, and on the surface it’s nothing new, but it’s so well done and it feels like the little engine that could. Nice work.

Didn’t Quit Make the Cut — But See Them Anyway: MANAKAMANA, EDGE OF TOMORROW, THE GUEST

Flawed, But Underrated or Underseen — Give These Films a Chance: NIGHTCRAWLER, LOCKE, PROXY, JOHN WICK, 22 JUMP STREET, INHERENT VICE, NIGHT MOVES, LUCY

And now for my personal Oscars. I never got any good suggestions for what to name these, so here are my unnamed awards:

Best Director — Jonathan Glazer, UNDER THE SKIN

Best Actor — Jake Gyllenhaal, NIGHTCRAWLER

Best Actress — Marion Cotillard, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

Best Supporting Actor — Edward Norton, BIRDMAN

Best Supporting Actress — Patricia Arquette, BOYHOOD

Best Screenplay — Richard Linklater, BOYHOOD

And as usual, I have no Worst List. I don’t really see the point in listing the worst films of the year, or even the ones I liked the least. You could see in my reviews what I didn’t like, and there’s no need to pile on. I also don’t want to bring attention to movies I think other people should hate — if you liked LET’S BE COPS or X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST or A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, then great. We go to the movies to enjoy them; I won’t try to take that away. I hope everyone likes every movie they see. Even if they suck!

So that’s that; please add comments to the comment section with anything I forgot, overlooked, got wrong, or otherwise. Or you can always find me on Twitter (@TwinCinema). Thanks for reading Private Joker’s Head.


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American Sniper — 6/10

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014, Clint Eastwood)

There’s a fine line between conflicted and confused, and I fear that much of this film steps over it. Careful not to be some crazy “oo-rah” recruitment film, it makes sure to include plenty of shell shock and brutal consequences to Kyle’s career — but also careful not to be too critical of it, Eastwood ladles on the sentiment and hero worship too. Usually I like when a film wrestles with itself, and such a struggle is definitely in line with late-period Eastwood work. But there’s something about the tone of this that doesn’t make the struggle seem necessary or even sure-footed.

It’s also paced really strangely. It’s well over two hours long, but breezes through the third act far too quickly, just when the struggle is getting interesting. Instead, it dwells too long on a manhunt but one that’s resolved pretty routinely. (Extra demerits for the slo-mo bullet sequence). As for Sienna Miller, she starts off the film with a character, but once Kyle goes off to war, every scene between them is about him being off at war. Their relationship is about nothing but their family and Kyle’s commitment to it.

On the other hand, plenty of the action scenes are fantastic, tense, and confidently filmed. Yet even with those qualities, there are bizarre continuity errors and technical flaws you normally don’t see in a Hollywood film of this pedigree. How quickly did Eastwood slap this together? Is he just getting too old? Does nobody question him anymore? But then again why would they, when he keeps coming up with isolated but terrific imagery? One great shot comes early: with a bible placed on top of a dresser next to a football and toy soldiers — a brilliant image that says everything without having to shout it; another comes late, when the camera swings around to reveal that a television isn’t even on. Cooper, for his part, is quite good if not particularly revelatory. His lack of an inner monologue becomes both a positive and a negative, much like many things about this interesting but weirdly jumbled effort.

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Blackhat — 6/10

BLACKHAT (2015, Michael Mann)

This is what I get for loving Brian De Palma. Every time I would hear a critic complain that De Palma’s films are poorly written, or they’re beautiful garbage, or lipstick on a shitty script, I would shake my head and think “But, what lipstick!” For me, the lord our god De Palma transcended all material, and no lowbrow story could stop his highbrow art. As punishment for that fanboyism, I am given Michael Mann — a director many adore with the same reverence, yet whom I so often complain is just dressing up shitty material.

Much more MIAMI VICE than HEAT, THE INSIDER, or COLLATERAL, this cybercrime thriller is an exercise in mood and style — and I don’t want to imply the material is completely bad: in fact, I think the script is better than MIAMI VICE (though it’s the first screenplay credited to a guy who used to edit Adam Sandler comedies like CLICK and I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY). But it has plenty of moments of idiocy, and if you think about the plot for a few minutes it kind of falls apart. But it gives Mann a chance to explore some pretty cool things, and overall there are enough nice moments in BLACKHAT to feel conflicted about it.

I think of the themes about how the digital age is outpacing global politics; countries and governments are one step behind computers and their architects — and at the core of this particular story is love between an American man and a Chinese woman (and here, though Tang struggles with English as much as her predecessor, the romance feels more necessary than the one between Colin Farrell and Gong Li). The climactic action showdown involves Hemsworth fighting literally against the flow of culture and tradition (though why doesn’t anyone seem remotely concerned that he’s waving a gun around?), and for anything to get done (whether violent or romantic) it must involve hand-to-hand interaction, not digital wizardry.

Michael Mann seems to make movies for the Film Comment arthouse crowd and blue collar thugs, but nobody in between. When I think of a movie like BLOW OUT or FEMME FATALE, I know what he means.

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Goodbye To Language 3D

GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3D (2014, Jean-Luc Godard)

No grade for this, both because it’s more of a video essay/technological demo reel/philosophical musing than it is a movie, and because I’m not sure what to make of it anyway. Still, there are some things to talk about, and even though those things have been discussed to death for months (just look up the best writing from critics around the world; this movie has been dissected quite often — yet I’ve tried to avoid them before writing my own take; I will read them myself after I publish this), I’ll just jot down a couple of thoughts.

First of all, this isn’t what it is unless it’s in 3D — without the 3D, it doesn’t even exist. And like all things Godard, it’s complicated and ultimately despairing. Thom Anderson introduced the movie by saying Godard has proved that 3D is an invention without a future, and he’s probably right — it can be an annoying intrusion, and it seems Godard has intentionally hurt our eyeballs with this thing. But it also allows for some cool tricks, and the best one is done on two occasions: the left eye stays put on one actor while the right eye follows another one to another location — allowing the viewer to edit the film themselves, by just closing whichever eye they want whenever they want, thus creating the scene.

But for every cool visual (and there are more than just that split trick), there are the windbag voiceovers where Godard sounds like either a stoned college kid or a Jaden Smith tweet: “What’s the difference between an idea and a metaphor?” “The two greatest inventions are infinity and zero.” He also has gender on his mind quite a bit, mostly in a crazy-old-man way, though. Women are described as harmless (except that they can kill), and men are described as knowing other people but not themselves. What does this all mean? Hard to say, especially when it’s piled on top of musings about Hitler, art, nature, and the way dogs run through fields. (“Animals cannot be naked, because they are naked.”). It’s all frustrating, but you can’t say you’ve ever seen anything like it. And it also has cinema’s greatest portrayal of how hilariously annoying it is to put a duvet cover on.

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The Duke of Burgundy — 7/10

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (2015, Peter Strickland)

When I watched BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO on Netflix a year ago, I was in movie heaven for about 15 minutes. Strickland grabs you by the eyeballs right away and keeps you fixated with sound design and editing. But then it crawled further up its own asshole until I was bored and checked out the last half hour or so. Yet even with that mixed reaction, I was eagerly anticipating Strickland’s next effort, hoping it would iron out the kinks and deliver the pure visual splendor he promised early on. And for the most part, he kinda did.

Just as contained and claustrophobic as BERBERIAN, this quiet and bizarre love story keeps its visual mastery going throughout, and only partially crawls up its own asshole (or, in this case, into its own vagina for an ill-advised 10-minute dream sequence before backing out of said spread-legged crotch to continue the narrative). In a curious and admirable move, Strickland creates a world devoid of men — like a parallel ecosystem where only female homo sapiens exist (and perhaps there is an order of butterflies and caterpillars that works the same way). By doing this, he takes gender out of the equation completely: the marriage in this film isn’t between two women in the way a lesbian relationship in the real world would be, but between two people; there is no other option. These women can’t be queer if there are no more conventional romantic partners to choose from.

But as the relationship takes shape, it makes its point early on and then spins its wheels for the middle section. Danish lead actress Sidse Babett Knudsen is so phenomenal in the role of Cynthia that we understand exactly where her mind and heart are every step of the way. All it takes it a subtle shift in her delivery of the script Evelyn writes for her for us to figure out how she feels about the situation — and because of that, Strickland doesn’t need to hammer it for as long as he does. It’s almost as if he didn’t trust Knudsen’s skills enough, and made sure the screenplay conveyed what it needed to. (And he’s right not to trust co-lead Chiara D’Anna — her performance as Evelyn is amateur hour compared to Knudsen).

Yet those shots of laundry soaking in bubbly, soapy water, or of the water glass Cynthia gulps from, or the keyhole Evelyn stares through… images that stick with you not just because of their repetition but because of their composition and timing. Strickland’s interest in this world mirrors that of a scientist studying the peculiar habits of human beings existing in their natural habitats, and the routines they embark upon when choosing a mate. In that way, Cynthia’s career makes perfect sense, and if we’re just insects who will be classified and dissected in death, then love is indeed a strange and heartbreaking endeavor.

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A Most Violent Year — 5/10

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014, J.C. Chandor)

After two terrific (and wildly different) films, Chandor’s third effort is his first misfire. And more disappointingly, his first ordinary one. At several points during this plodding narrative, I knew exactly what was about to happen, and not in a way where consequences are inevitable — more like “I bet if he catches that guy, he’s gonna shout ‘Who do you work for?!’ Who do you work for!!!” and then that exact thing happened. This series of predictable beats comes because Chandor’s thinly disguised critique of Republican America’s oil company-led power grabs (which is certainly worthy of critique, but only if it’s nuanced and cleverly done) is done with a lead foot: it’s a slow and methodical impression of a Sidney Lumet picture without actually being interesting. Isaac and Chastain are fine — the former is workmanlike, the latter is swinging for the fences — but their roles are types instead of humans, and Chandor’s dialogue gives them one note to play. The film is bereft of a sense of humor or levity; it’s all hopelessness and cynicism. But even ALL IS LOST had some playfulness to it, despite its high degree of peril. The weather and the color scheme do the job of imposing doom upon this drama — it would have been nice if the rest of it added shading or surprise. But Chandor just cuts together a series of well-composed shots with ruthless competence, leaving no impression once the snow melts.

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The Interview — 7/10

THE INTERVIEW (2014, Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen)

Watching the events of this film unfold in the third act, I guess I can see why North Korea would be pretty pissed about it. But still, this is as much a critique of American culture and policy as it is one of dictatorial torture, so if anyone should be pissed it’s the CIA.

Credit to Goldberg & Rogen for identifying the troubling national urge to kill, when perhaps public shaming and consciousness-changing would have a greater effect. And the fact that this revelation comes courtesy of tabloid journalists is another bitter pill, because the film wastes no time ridiculing the idiocy, xenophobia, ignorance, and arrogance of TMZ culture. This aspect is underscored beautifully by James Franco in one of his best performances to date — he’s physically assured, gleeful with his dialogue, and vanity-free with his moronic, satirical character.

But enough about all this high-brow criticism. This is a comedy heavy on dick and butthole jokes — so is it funny? Yes, very. Maybe not as revelatory or unique as THIS IS THE END, but it’s close at times, and even though there are scattered bits of weird homophobia and sexism, most of it lands wonderfully, thanks in large part not just to Franco and Rogen but Randall Park as Kim. He relishes this bizarre characterization and avoids the superficial, stupid ways to make fun of the dictator you may expect (contrast this with Trey Parker’s obnoxious, despicably racist accent voicing Kim Jong-Il in TEAM AMERICA, or Margaret Cho’s one-note minstrel act in 30 ROCK). The Sony hacking, the threats, the Obama administration intervention, and the media hype surrounding all this may make this film seem more important than it is — but in 15 years this should still be on cable and will never not be funny.

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