Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in the Year of Our Lord, 2014! Part 2: Best of the Rest!


Well geez, this last year was a fuckin’ terrific year for film. I know if you’ve been reading the blog for awhile it seems like I just watch terrible, obscure horror films that no one would possibly be expected to care about, but believe it or not in-between horror reviews I watched a lot of other movies in theaters this year. In fact, I’d venture to guess I saw more theatrical films this year than any year of my life before this. And that turned out to be a great decision, because man, I saw a ton of good ones. But before I get to them, I should mention that this isn’t exactly fair because I did miss a few biggies, too. I missed THE LEGO MOVIE, for example, which everyone seems to think is basically the best thing since sex was invented. Also missed: Paranormal Activity: Marked Ones, The Legend of Hercules, Frank, Laggies, Dear White People, I Origins, Love is Strange, Young Ones, The Signal, 300: Rise of an Empire, The Quiet Ones, Brick Mansions, Maleficent, 22 Jump Street, TR4NS4M4RS, Hercules, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Get On Up, The Two Faces of January, The Boxtrolls, The Drop, The Maze Runner, Kill the Messenger, The Book of Life, St. Vincent, Big Hero 6, American Sniper, Before I Disappear, Wild, Big Eyes, Force Majeure, Locke, Leviathan, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, We Are the Best, Joe, The One I Love, The Congress and The Hobbit Part Three The End Possibly Unless We Need More Money Later. So tell me which ones of those I gotta get to first; any of them could potentially shake this list up, although frankly I find it highly unlikely given the extremely high quality of the winners here.

In fact, confession time: there ended up being so damn many winners this year that I broke my usual year-in-review post in two: part one is here, with my top 14 of the year (plus one affectionate booby prize). You should check that out first, obviously, since it's the very cream of the crop. But I saw too many movies I loved to stop at 14, so what follows is everything else which I thought was undeniably great this year, in no particular order.

Best of the Rest By Category!
There were so goddam many great movies this year that I thought I’d try and break the honorable mention list up by categories, so it’s a little easier to browse.

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi, Horror, Thriller

John Wick: The best American action flick in a while, Keanu Reeves cements his place as cinema’s most unlikely badass with this elegantly simple, stylishly crafted, and brutally executed revenge tale. There’s a great cast and a suitably outrageous world to bolster things, but the meat of the movie is one over-the-top action sequence after another, masterfully photographed and choreographed for maximum impact. Heartening to know that at least a few Americans remember how to do action cinema right.

Captain America 2: A splendid example of big-studio comic book movies which hit all the right notes, Cap’n A gets the job done by (mostly) remembering that comic books have always been more pulp opera than action movie. Gets points for its light dusting of political commentary, but the biggest pleasures are the charming cast and highly entertaining thriller yarn. Read the Full Review HERE.

Edge of Tomorrow (sigh, a.k.a. "Live Die Repeat"): Delightful action/sci-fi Groundhog-Day-meets-aliens scenario features a fun gimmick but gets the most mileage from its propulsive direction, fun screenplay, and top-notch cast. This is exactly how big-budget genre movies should be done, so it stands to reason even though it made $369.2 million worldwide it seems to have been regarded as such a failure that the studio ignominiously renamed it for the DVD release, something that usually only happens with Z-grade horror movies. Looks like that’s the last time a big studio will try actually making an original property, but oh well, the movie itself is an absolute popcorn-chomping blast. My one complaint is that it lacks a suitable antagonist. What is it with movies today that think we want aliens to just look like blurry rolling nerf balls with no discernable personality?

Godzilla 2014: While I don’t know exactly how necessary an American Godzilla is, director Gareth Edwards (STAR WARS, EPISODE XVLLMI) makes it a worthwhile effort full of great visuals and the exact perfect balance of earnest plottiness and adolescent joy in playing with giant monsters. As fun as last year’s PACIFIC RIM, and for my money a bit more cohesive as a film, too. Edwards gets the Godzilla mythos in a way I didn’t imagine an American would be capable of, so if you have even a little bit of affection for those corny old movies, prepare to enter Kaiju heaven.

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears: Oddball art-giallo features everything great about the genre --stunning visual stylization, funky, seductive music, paranoid atmosphere, shameless sleaze and explicit gore-- and helpfully exises any pretense of plot that might impede your enjoyment of those things. A unique and seductive spirit quest into the mid of Italy.

The Canal: Sharply made and effectively imagined ghost story sometimes gets mired in somewhat predictable spooky imagery, but contains enough pathos and ambition to persevere anyway. Read the full review here!

Horns: Fascinating mixture of comedy, horror, mystery, and religious symbolism finds Daniel Radcliffe imbued with magical horns that help him solve the mystery of who killed his girl and let him take the fall for it. Obviously, you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Offbeat and sometimes given to wild tonal shifts, but strong direction (by Alexandre Aja, HAUTE TENSION) and a compelling story win the day. See full review HERE.

Tusk: The year’s strangest, most uneven work of greatness. Kevin Smith continues to surprise in his second career as a horror director, creating a film of genuinely perverse body-dysmorphia horror and… wacky accent-based comedy? Michael Parks’s performance as a magnificent weirdo holds the entire thing together, but Smith’s direction is unexpectedly strong, too. Read the Full Review HERE.

The Sacrament: Ti West’s found-footage exploration of a Jonestown-esque cult is so darkly believable that it barely counts as horror, but is nonetheless extremely effective (uncomfortably, even). One of the bleakest movies of the year, and a rare example of a found-footage conceit that at least doesn’t actively hinder the effectiveness of the story. Immersive and terrifying.
Byzantium: Neil Jordan returns to moody vampires 20 years after INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, with about the same level of success (and I mean that generally as a complement). Vampire mother-daughter duo Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan have been keeping a low profile for years, and Ronan is getting sick of the lifestyle (she’s been a teenager for hundreds of years, so you can hardly blame her). But there’s a little more to her mom than she realizes, as we gradually learn the history of how they ended up here. Front-loaded with fairly boring teenage moping, but gradually more and more interesting as the focus shifts to mom; Jordan’s sharp eye for poetic visuals balanced against his gritty naturalism remains strong, much to the film’s benefit, and the acting from both leads (especially Arterton) is richly compelling.

The Guest: Genre-shifting mystery/thriller/(spoiler) from the ever-improving Adam Wingard (YOU’RE NEXT) finds a mysterious soldier showing up at the home of a dead brother-in-arms and gradually inserting himself into the family. Presumably there’s some sort of secret here, but what? A patient screenplay which slowly builds unease before the big reveal nicely sets a mood, but Wingard isn’t afraid to yank the rug out from under you either. Surprising and satisfying genre vehicle.

Night Moves (2014): Apparently not a remake of the 1975 Gene Hackman mystery film of the same name nor, alas, a cinematic adaptation of Bob Seger’s classic 1976 single. I don’t get the name, but I like everything else about this quiet, tense, character-driven thriller about three young adults who decide to turn eco-terrorist. Both a terrific crime procedural and a disquieting character piece, the film achieves a nearly unbearable suspense with a deceptively soft touch, each moment of its patiently unfolding screenplay turning the screws a little tighter.

A Walk Among the Tombstones: Unexpectedly potent serial-killer thriller finds washed-up private detective Liam Neeson seeking a pair of truly unpleasant kidnappers in a gritty, run-down NYC. About as silly and grim as any serial killer mystery, but buoyed significantly by surprisingly strong character work, a great sense of time and place, and a slim thread of mordant humor. It would all be for nothing is Neeson wasn’t so great, though; fortunately, he’s Liam fucking Neeson so he has that shit taken care of. A rare Neeson action-thriller which merely benefits from his tremendous talent, rather than coasts on it.

EDIT: Somehow I missed Cold in July: A stylish and beautifully crafted crime thriller which unexpectedly wanders away from the direction you might think it's going and never remembers to come back. Some might find that unsatisfying, but if you stick with it the story goes some seriously dark places, and exactly toes the exceptionally thin line between gritty hardboiled crime thriller and stylish pop art. Every member of the primary cast seems to be acting in a different movie and, hell, the movie sometimes forgets what movie it's in, and yet somehow it all kind of works anyway, probably because fine acting and immaculate scene-building transcend anything as tiresome and dreary as logical narrative structure. An audacious and bold attempt to find something genuinely new in the hoary old grizzled crime genre by STAKE LAND and WE ARE WHAT WE ARE director Jim Mickle, who just keeps getting better.


Borgman: Exquisitely unsettling darkly comic nightmare about a mysterious man who infiltrates a smug bourgeois family in the Netherlands and gradually destroys them. Inexplicable symbolism and magical realism abound in this tale which is (maybe?) some kind of dark parable about the insular rich, but its corrosive atmosphere and jet-black humor are powerful enough to absorb you even without a concrete explanation. The sense of offbeat dread is very nearly-pitch perfect, and if I’m perfectly honest with you this one should really have cracked my top 14, I don’t know what the fuck I was thinking leaving it out.

Better Angels: Delicate, gorgeous black-and-white mood piece detailing the day-to-day backwoods childhood of young Abraham Lincoln. With very little story and almost no dialogue, this is a film to be experienced more than passively watched. The first directorial effort of frequent Terrence Malick cinematographer A. J. Edwards, this shares with Malick’s films a hazy, dreamy meditative quality, but if anything is even more plotless and uneventful, which is either going to be infuriatingly pointless or artistically rewarding, depending on your tolerance for such things. High drama you will not find, but nevertheless Edward’s crisply realized fascination with the rich details of mundane activities in this world --now lost to history-- is fascinating enough in its own right to keep the film from being merely a pretty bauble. Poetic and lovely, this is an evocation of history with its own unique power.

The Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam’s first film since the underrated IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS concerns a mentally ill futuristic tech worker who increasingly isolates himself in hopes of receiving a phone call from God explaining the meaning of life. Though somewhat weighed down by meandering philosophical claptrap that’s not as interesting as the movie thinks, Christoph Waltz’s bizarre performance and Gilliam’s lively images are more than sufficient to drag you into the engagingly prickly, despairingly funny dystopian satire.

Under The Skin: Bizarre and surreal sci-fi horror film finds Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien luring incomprehensible Scottish men into… something? Much of the film was shot on hidden cameras with real people, an intriguing idea, though the actual results are a good reminder that real life can be pretty banal compared to its scripted counterpart. Though director Jonathan Glazer insists the film is merely a parable about an alien intelligence trying to comprehend human life, it’s much more interesting as an apparently unintentional dissection of female sexuality in the male gaze -- Johansson’s turn as the sexually provocative but utterly uncomprehending alien is quite an interesting one for the actress, and a reminder that she’s a lot more capable than some of her recent roles would let on. The movie works only sporadically, but the parts that do --especially the psychedelic surrealism of the alien side of things-- are so filled with greatness that it’s impossible to discount.

Mr. Turner: A splendid antidote to the usual pandering Oscarbait biopics, this unassuming Mike Leigh film avoids turning the life of British painter J. M. Turner (Timothy Spall, WAKE WOODS) into any kind of pat narrative. There’s no flashback to one time in his childhood that explains everything. No overarching conflict. Just the day-to-day of this guy’s life, which is mostly solitary and not especially eventful. He can be kind of funny and charming sometimes and also kind of an ass other times, the movie makes no judgement about him nor does it try to explain him in any way; you can just watch the magnificent performance from Spall and draw any conclusions you might, if you so desire. It’s also sometimes heartbreakingly gorgeous in a totally unpretentious way, capturing the grandeur of Turner’s beloved seascapes without needing to seem clever about it. I thought it was magnificent (although the final 30 minutes suffer a bit from ever diminishing returns) but be warned: it really is almost completely free of both narrative and incident. You’re either going to find it a wonderful, honest, immersive look at a life without eyes clouded by Hollywood pandering... or... you’re going to find it 2 and a half hours of watching paint dry, sometimes literally. But even so, you’d still have to like it better than fucking THEORY OF EVERYTHING.


Life Itself: Heartfelt and celebratory look at the life and work of one Roger Ebert, that great hero of American film criticism who died last year before he got to see all the amazing films from 2014, including this one about his own life. Director Steve James (HOOP DREAMS, STEVIE) finds the perfect balance between Maysles-style footage of Ebert during the last year of his life, a parade of entertaining interviewees, great clips of old TV footage and excerpts from his writings, all of which add up to a wonderfully rich look at the man in full. Though a certain amount of heartbreak is inevitable in his passing, the movie resolutely resists tearjerking; in fact, the year’s funniest moment may be the hilariously juvenile backstage footage of Siskel and Ebert bickering. A wonderful tribute to a great American icon. Two thumbs up.

20,000 Days on Earth: This Rule-breaking semi-fictionalized biographical documentary about singer Nick Cave turns out to be one of the most intriguing cinematic experiments of the year. Cave (no stranger to film, having been a screenwriter, composer, and occasional actor, though he doesn’t mention that here) has a ball revisiting old biographical details, staging fictional reminiscences with real friends and acquaintances, and generally breaking down the rules of the musical documentary into something that might be called subjective gonzo autobiography. Elegant and frequently funny, but also able to transcend its clever meta elements with some real insight into the artistic process and, of course, quite a bit of fantastic music. To a fan of the musician, it’s about the best thing ever, though I imagine Cave novices might just find themselves a bit baffled.

The Unknown Known: Errol Morris’s spirited, frustrating film turns the camera on Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a similar manner to his 2003 masterwork about Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, but with wildly different results. Where McNamara was contemplative and self-critical, Rumsfeld seems to take Morris’ probing questions as a friendly game of dodgeball, parrying and obfuscating and gleefully refusing to even for a second consider the possibility that his tenure was marked by anything short of heroic success. While infuriating for anyone hoping to find ol’ Rummy introspect a little after all these years, Morris nevertheless emerges with a subtly brilliant portrait of both the man himself and his era, a world in which the facts only matter insofar as you can argue them. Playful and revealing (if more by what it isn’t than what it is), but a little chilling, too.  

Jodorowsky’s Dune: The unbelievable true story about that time in 1973 when then-youthful cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky (EL TOPO, HOLY MOUNTAIN, this year’s best film THE DANCE OF REALITY) somehow got the rights to make Frank Herbert’s Dune series into a blockbuster science fiction film featuring the special effects crew of STAR WARS, the art of H.G. Giger, the music of Tangerine Dream, the… well, you just have to see it. The story is mind-blowing enough, but the real animating force here is the same one from 1973: Jodorowsky himself, whose eccentric, rambling commentary so endearing and electrifying that you can see how he almost pulled off making the biggest film in history. In some happier parallel universe, they actually got to see the end result, but at least this universe got the consolation prize of this funny and jaw-dropping saga of the great film that almost was. The only downside, as pointed out by resident killjoy Dan P, is that this highly entertaining film about how great Alejandro Jodorowsky is ended up more successful than the actual great film he made the same year. Good job, world.


Top 5: Chris Rock’s third attempt as actor/director proves the charm; this chatty, of-its-time NYC journey follows a successful stand-up comedian with a checkered film career (hmmm…) as he wanders around the city visiting some of his old haunts with an atypically gorgeous journalist (Rosario Dawson). The script has a few clunky dramatic beats in it, but is so consistently charming and funny that it hardly matters; Rock is a hoot in what one might imagine is a thin pastiche of his own life, making it fairly transparent (if completely understandable) wish-fulfillment to cast Dawson --very possibly the most chic and adorable person on the face of the Earth right now-- as his possible romantic foil. The film has understandably been compared with Woody Allen given the setting and style, but the way in which it most intriguingly mirrors Allen is in its depiction of modern blackness (stay with me here). Just as Allen did for Jewishness, TOP 5 accepts as a given that its characters are minorities (very rarely is a white person on-screen) living in a racially problematic society, but it also expects and invites the viewers to likewise accept that fact and move on to the actual story. It neither discounts the race of its protagonists nor turns them into reductive racial symbols; they’re just characters, and likeable ones at that, for whom race is an important but not remotely defining part of their lives. Now why did it take so long for someone to figure out how to do that? I find it quite an important, trailblazing movie in that regard, but even if you’re not interested in media and socio-racial messages, TOP 5 is so consistently hilarious and ingratiating that you’ll never even notice it’s also kind of brilliant. Bawdy and clever by equal measure, with a parade of riotous cameos (including the obvious cameo highlight of the year) and a great soundtrack (though a little Kanye-heavy), it’s a delight through and through.

Obvious Child: Admirably brash abortion comedy stars Jenny Slate (Marcel the Shell!) as one of those tiresome arrested-development hipster slacker young adults they make so many movies about these days, who gets pregnant after a drunken hookup and needs to grow up a little in order to do the right thing (which, blessedly, for once does not mean getting married to Seth Rogen and raising a bunch of unwanted, silently resented spawn in the soulless suburbs, wasting away any potential and gradually becoming a toxic narcissistic alcoholic). I appreciate the boldness of putting an abortion front and center, and the actors (particularly Slate) actually acquit themselves quite naturally to the dramatic beats. Unfortunately it’s not as funny as it appears to think it is, which can get a little grating after a while; it’s a little too sensitive to be the go-for-the-throat pro-abortion comedy America deserves, and ends up being better drama than satire. But you gotta appreciate it for what it is. Young women of America deserve their stunted (wo)man-child slacker pregnancy comedies too, and this one is ballsier than most. What it lacks in confrontational urgency, it makes up for in acceptance and good-heartedness.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Another winner for Wes Anderson after 2012’s uneven but effective MOONRISE KINGDOM, this one introduces something new for the notoriously prissy auteur: something resembling an actual plot. In a fictional 1932 central European state, hotel concierge Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) becomes the target of a villainous plot to cheat him out of a massive inheritance left by his aged ex-lover (Tilda Swinton, who must have spent only a few hours in 2014 without fright makeup on between this, SNOWPIERCER, ZERO THEOREM, and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE). Did you catch that? There’s actual conflict here, and even something which borders on suspense! Fiennes stands out among a shamefully overqualified cast (pretty much every living actor) with a remarkable, totally unique performance, complicated and contradictory and melancholy while still managing a wild, exaggerated comic quality. The film is characteristically beautiful and subtly morose (and for once in Anderson’s oeuvre, the sadness is about something besides rich attractive people who suffered a stunted adolescence) but considering the cast and the few fitful gestures towards narrative, I wish Anderson took the actual stakes here a little more seriously. Still, a surprisingly energetic and unfailingly eye-catching effort.


Fury: The somewhat played-out genre of WWII men-on-a-mission films gets a bit of new life here courtesy of David Ayer, who creates a refreshing violent war-is-hell portrait of the crew of a Sherman tank pushing into Hitler’s Germany near the war’s end. Gorier than most horror movies and populated by complex and sometimes terrifying anti-heroes, this ain’t your daddy’s WWII hagiography; I’m not sure if it’s more realistic (as Ayer claims) or not, but I do know it’s a somewhat shocking take on the material, and, more importantly, filled to the brim with terrifically executed battle sequences.

Blue Ruin: This patient and gritty take on the revenge genre tweaks the formula a bit by adding at least a degree of awkward realism into the proceedings. The guy getting revenge here isn’t a retired assassin or ninja master, he’s just a homeless, unbalanced schlub, and it turns out getting revenge is something of a tricky proposition for a guy like that. Subtly mournful even as it successfully plays the traditional revenge movie notes, director Jeremy (MURDER PARTY) Saulnier’s skillful management of tone ends up bringing out the best of both worlds: a dreamy, ambiguous indie drama which is also a gripping crime tale.

The Monuments Men: IMHO the most unfairly maligned movie of the year, this critically dismissed minor WWII drama from George Clooney is almost FURY’s exact opposite: it’s old-fashioned and nostalgic, meandering and unflashy, filled with likeable and good-hearted characters. I guess that’s not especially fashionable, but I find it kind of perfect in its own affable way. The great cast (Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin), gentle humor, earnest humanism, amazing history, and quietly escalating stakes add up to something very akin to the earnest 50’s and 60’s war movies that THE MONUMENTS MEN clearly idolizes. It’s kind of weird to call a war film “feel-good,” but the sincere and good-hearted vibe here makes it rather perfect comfort food.  

Rosewater: Textured and surprising debut from John Stewart depicts the captivity of journalist Maziar Bahari (Gabriel Garcia Bernal, not especially convincing as an Iranian but in a good performance nonetheless) in Iran, circa 2009. One would think this would lend itself to a grueling, searing indictment of repressive brutality a la MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, but pleasantly --guided by Stewart’s trademark bruised humanism-- it ends up as something rather more interesting. Though it has its share of harrowing abuse, it spends quite a bit of time with Bahari’s tormentors as well, revealing that behind the intimidating facade are a bunch of normal guys, mostly petty bureaucrats just trying to get through the day and hoping for the next promotion. They’re not sociopaths, they’re not zealots, they’re not even bad guys; they just serve a bad system. But the system’s real secret isn’t that it’s evil, it’s that it’s scared. As, of course, all great bullies are. Impressively, Stewart and Bernal manage to find more compassion and hope --and little hints of humor-- than political rhetoric, even in a manifestly horrible true story. This costs the film something in terms of suspense --which is a clear drawback-- but ultimately it affords them the opportunity to do something you almost never see in movies: respond to violence with a heartfelt humanism which turns out to be a lot more powerful than revenge. Hey, does that John Wick sequel have an attached director yet?

Gone Girl: Finally, David Fincher has found his true calling: directing the absolute hell out of trashy summer beach reads. This is one crazy fucking story, and Fincher finds the exact right way to tell it for maximum impact: absolutely straight-faced, letting the pure outrageousness of the material do the heavy lifting while Fincher pretends (?) this is all very serious grown up stuff. A terrific cast is rewarded with tons of fun moments and the thrills, while unabashedly cheap, are nonetheless legitimately thrilling. Riveting, tense, and gloriously lowbrow.

Foxcatcher: One of the year’s most inexplicable films, FOXCATCHER tells the story of eccentric bajillionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell’s eyes, someone else’s nose and teeth) drawing disillusioned ex-Olympic wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David (Mark Ruffalo) into his weird, dark and obsessive world. The film is absolutely immaculately directed and acted, meticulously building an oppressive world of lingering dread (Du Pont’s palatial mansion grounds are foggier than a WOLF MAN set). The cast is terrific -- Ruffalo in particular gives a phenomenal performance, and Carell’s transformation is almost uncanny-- the cinematography is elegantly ominous, the editing precise, the score elegiac and subtle. Everything about this one is great, the only question is: why exactly was this made? Director Bennett Miller seems more certain he’s onto something profound here than I am; to me it just seems like a bunch of delusional morons gradually losing touch with reality. It would be kind of darkly funny if it wasn’t played so portentously grim. The script does almost nothing to reveal anything relatable or meaningful about its characters, so it ends up artful and gloomy but surprisingly shallow. Still, the technical skill here is too strong to entirely write off; this is absolutely first-class filmmaking, it’s just in service of a screenplay that doesn’t support that ambition.

The Immigrant: A somewhat leaden story about a young Polish immigrant getting royally fucked over in 1921 NYC is redeemed by terrific performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner, and, especially, Marion Cotillard. Director James Gray is not short of ambition and sporadically crafts sequences with real power and beauty, but the script (by Gray and Ric Menello [the director of the Fight For Your Right to Party video?!]) is a bit melodramatic and ponderous. Still, some of the most powerful acting of the year is in here; Phoenix does well with the showiest role, but don’t underestimate Cotillard’s power to get inside your head through a remarkable, crushingly internalized performance.

Calvary: This interesting and literate but also somewhat frustrating (religious parable?) from noted Martin McDonagh brother John Michael McDonagh finds Brendan Gleeson as an Irish priest who receives a phone call telling him he will be shot the following Sunday. He spends his remaining time trying to commune with his difficult congregation and, perhaps, get his life in order. Gleeson is magnificent as the film’s moral center, a truly decent man striving to do right in a world absolutely betset by cynicism, anger, and loutish behavior. But the rest of the film is all over the place; it oscillates between cartoonish satire and dour symbolism with an unwieldy schizophrenia, making some characters and subplots look like they’re coming out of totally different movies which don’t have a lot to do with each other. The townsfolk are so nakedly archetypes that one character even comments on it; it’s always a sign of trouble when a script has to try and hide its cliches behind smirking postmodern meta-criticism. Besides that, the potential whodunnit (or, whowilldoit) angle with the threatening phone call is studiously ignored, leaving the film a little directionless even as it meanders towards what may be a bloody finale. Obviously, there’s plenty to criticize here. But the power of Gleeson’s performance, combined with the sumptuous Irish cinematography, is ultimately enough to overcome the flaws and transfix you anyway. And hey, M. Emmet Walsh in in there, too!

Selma: I’ll be honest, I thought this one was a little overpraised. I mean, it’s fine and all, there’s nothing terribly wrong here (it’s maybe a tad unfocused, even having committed itself to examining a single historical event) but man, does it just feel like the most standard, run-of-the-mill prestige biopic possible. Stodgy, airless, safe. Plenty of competency, not a whole lot of vision. David Oyelowo does a good job capturing King’s voice and to some degree appearance, but there’s no getting around the fact that he lacks the unmistakable, magnetic charisma that made King such a galvanizing figure (compare him to Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s magnificent X -- Denzel has it. Oyelowo is just a talented actor) leaving the whole thing searching a little for its center of gravity. Weird casting of Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth (attempting… some kind of accent, that’s for sure) as George Wallace make for some awkward moments, and a raft of big-name cameos (Oprah, Common, Martin Sheen, Cuba Gooding Jr, Giovanni Ribisi) only serves to distract and pull you out of the story. That’s a whole lot of complaints. So why is it still on my “best of” list? Well, because as a true story --hell, as any story-- it’s just too damn interesting to be sunk by middling execution. I mean, if you can honestly watch this movie and not be moved, you should really check your pulse. The screenplay (probably the best thing the movie has going for it) wisely focuses on a discrete moment in history, effectively communicates the stakes, context, and objectives, and then lets the unbelievable true story speak for itself. Someday I hope a real American master filmmaker takes on the subject of King, but until then, this is still one of the most engrossing civil rights films out there just by virtue of telling a story which even in suboptimal form remains spellbinding.

Also Worth Checking Out
Skeleton Twins
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The Rover
Interstellar (?)
Dawn of the Day of the Planet of the Apes
The Double

OK, that’s it! Thanks everyone for sticking with me this long. Let me know what I missed, what I was wrong about, what I need to go back and re-evaluate. Here’s hoping 2015 is half the cinematic year 2014 was!

By the way, there's 3 days to contribute to Jodorowsky's new kickstarter campaign!

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in the Year of Our Lord, 2014! Part 1: Top 14

Well geez, this last year was a fuckin’ terrific year for film. I know if you’ve been reading the blog for awhile it seems like I just watch terrible, obscure horror films that no one would possibly be expected to care about, but believe it or not in-between horror reviews I watched a lot of other movies in theaters this year. In fact, I’d venture to guess I saw more theatrical films this year than any year of my life before this. And that turned out to be a great decision, because man, I saw a ton of good ones. But before I get to them, I should mention that this isn’t exactly fair because I did miss a few biggies, too. I missed THE LEGO MOVIE, for example, which everyone seems to think is basically the best thing since sex was invented. Also missed: Paranormal Activity: Marked Ones, The Legend of Hercules, Frank, Laggies, Dear White People, I Origins, Love is Strange, Young Ones, The Signal, 300: Rise of an Empire, The Quiet Ones, Brick Mansions, Maleficent, 22 Jump Street, TR4NS4M4RS, Hercules, Lucy, Magic in the Moonlight, Get On Up, The Two Faces of January, The Boxtrolls, The Drop, The Maze Runner, Kill the Messenger, The Book of Life, St. Vincent, Big Hero 6, American Sniper, Before I Disappear, Wild, Big Eyes, Force Majeure, Locke, Leviathan, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, We Are the Best, Joe, The One I Love, The Congress and The Hobbit Part Three The End Possibly Unless We Need More Money Later. So tell me which ones of those I gotta get to first; any of them could potentially shake this list up, although frankly I find it highly unlikely given the extremely high quality of the winners here.

In fact, confession time: there ended up being so damn many winners this year that I broke my usual year-in-review post in two: part one is here, with my top 14 of the year (plus one affectionate booby prize). Part two will follow tomorrow, including everything else I thought was worth praising.

Now, onto the main event. The winners this year were all over the place, covering almost every genre, style, and tone. But one thing about them was consistent: They all ended with a giant spider. Oh wait, I guess only one of them ended that way. But they all SHOULD have ended with a giant spider, so now that we understand this fact, I’d like to see 2015 do a better job on that front. But regardless of their shocking lack of giant spiders, they gave us plenty of good things: bloody jazz hands, Howard the Duck, a giant mechanical vulture, Muslim vampires, muttonchops, top hats, Ethan Hawke wearing a mustache, etc. The one thing they didn’t necessarily give us much of was big mainstream epics. Of the dozens of films I out-and-out loved this year, only a tiny handful even premiered in mainstream theaters, and most of those still focused on smaller-scale, more unusual conflicts. I guess that’s not a huge surprise in a Hollywood increasingly dominated by sequels and remakes and so on (INTERSTELLAR was apparently the only film in 2014 to crack the top 10 moneymakers without being a remake or sequel, although AMERICAN SNIPER crossed that mark in 2015) but man, you do kinda hate to see all that money being thrown into such forgettable fare. Not that Hollywood was ever exactly a consistent machine for cranking out great art, but with the giant price tag on some of these, you feel like they almost go out of their way to be dull and slapdash and forgettable. But, we found some happy exceptions anyway, and hey, if the future of quality really is indie fare, at least it’s more accessible than ever before.

So, without further ado, all the best of 2014, broken into categories but otherwise in NO PARTICULAR ORDER!

Top tier:

Nightcrawler: Jake Gyllenhaal gives the third best performance of the year (after the best two in ENEMY, both also by Jake Gyllenhaal) as a twitchy, glassy-eyed sociopathic freelance photographer in this slick, feverish little nightmare from longtime screenwriter (FREEJACK, THE FALL) Dan Gilroy. While its criticism of the media (hey look! TV news shamelessly peddles fear to boost ratings!) has been fairly criticized as a little pandering, I think it actually has its target on a slightly bigger game: Capitalism itself. Gyllenhaals’ creepy mantra of self-help business buzzwords, combined with this frighteningly aggressive pursuit of self-interest, actually might be a fairly legitimate way of satirizing the way the capitalist system is set up to reward monsters and rope normal people into enabling them (Riz Ahmed, in a less showy role, is fantastic as a mild-mannered loser who gets roped into Gyllenhaal’s insane world, sort of instinctively knowing it’s wrong but not quite having the authority of wherewithal to stand up for himself). All that is interesting subtext that makes the film a little richer, but it’s also a strong enough thriller to stand up on its own as pure entertainment. Gilroy proves himself an able director, cultivating a rich palette of slimy neon contrasts as he explores seldom-seen seedier parts of LA. And it even has probably the best car chase of the year! Even without the amazing performance from Gyllenhaal, the fresh mix of insanely dark themes and light social commentary packaged into a sleek thriller would be potent enough to put this one in the top tier.
Whiplash: This year was full of strange, complicated and gloriously excessive films, but in WHIPLASH, we find that sometimes the simplest scenarios can also be the most elegant. It chronicles the tortured relationship between a teenage jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and a brutal renowned jazz conductor (J.K. Simmons) as they struggle with the concept of what it takes to create truly great art. The movie is absolutely laser-focused on this single relationship and compelling question, creating an absolutely white-hot emotional thriller which somehow manages to create something complex and thoughtful while building to an almost intolerably tense finale. That Simmons is mesmerizing in it is not in dispute (he’s both ferocious and mysterious, creating subtle contradictions and unexpected nuances while still delivering one of the most high-octane performances of his career) but a lot of respect needs to go to Miles Teller, too, for creating his own richly textured but curiously unreadable characterization. And then of course you’ve got the music, the wild jazz rhythms which have maybe never before on film sounded so simultaneously fearsome and compelling. Riveting and emotionally bruising, but also deeply satisfying.
The Babadook: As sharply made as horror films come, this splendidly-acted and deftly-structured mix of gut-wrenching psychological torment and classic monster movie packs a wallop and introduces the world to director Jennifer Kent and actress Essie Davis, both of whom I look forward to fawning over for years to come. It’s mature, thoughtful, and patient, but without ever feeling like it needs to apologize for delivering the genuine horror goods. As a serious cinephile, it’s always a pleasure to see something this strong, but as a horror fanatic, it’s got me positively giddy. See the Full Review here.

Enemy: One of the most intriguing and mysterious films this year, this strange tale of dreamy existential dread finds a college professor (Jake Gyllenhaal, in the best performance of the year) discovering a minor actor (Jake Gyllenhaal in the second best performance of the year) who is his exact double. As the two Jakes circle each others’ lives, each finds his own life subtly shifting in unpredictable ways. Director Denis Villeneuve officially enters my must-see-everything-he-does list with his stunningly fine direction here, crafting a murky yellowed dreamscape peppered by mysterious symbolism and a diffusely ominous atmosphere of gradually unravelling paranoia. It might be some sort of allegorical horror movie (it was loosely based on a novel by Jose Saramago), or maybe not, but its strange magic realism and alluring, engrossing tone are too potent to resist. Without seeming deliberately opaque, ENEMY is simply more interested in creating a hypnotic descent into nameless dread than it is in telling you exactly what’s going on, and I suppose that was probably what kept it out of the mainstream cinemas. But it was America’s loss, because this movie contains some of the most effortlessly sublime cinematic pleasures to be had this year, including one of the best final shots… ever?

The Retrieval: A black orphan and his asshole uncle make a living luring escaped slaves to capture in the South during the final days of the American Civil War in this quiet, moody period piece which works wonders as both a vivid portrait of a unique time and place and as a hypnotic meditation on the horror of life within a system of slavery. Tishuan Scott and Ashton Sanders (both in their first starring roles) are nothing short of astonishing, turning the understated tension in their complex roles into something both powerfully painful and resolutely human with the barest of gestures and the slightest expressions. Probably more than any other film I’ve ever seen on the subject, THE RETRIEVAL tackles slavery with an eye for subtle human detail instead of mawkish pathos, and is all the richer and more piercing for it. Its characters rarely talk and almost never speechify, but still manage to tell us everything we need about the way people deal with the spirit-crushing contradictions of a world in which the only way to survive is to serve a system which is openly evil. In these quiet insights, the film even manages to transcend its historical setting and perhaps address the shared guilt we all have in contributing to a world based on systems which do so much harm; how many of us are secretly going through life like our young protagonist here, eyes cast down, being eaten alive from both without and within while we struggle to survive, knowingly working against every bit of our own innate human decency? Though the movie skews dangerously close to overplaying the drama in its finale, there’s a stark and unsentimental atmosphere, augmented by long takes and the gorgeous but unflashy photography through which our heroes travel, which imparts a sense of clear-eyed honesty about its characters and world. The journey is by turns harrowing and cerebral, augmented by keen observation of human nuance and a sharp visual sense for the scraggly austere Eastern woodland which matches the tone: sparse and prickly, but with a mordant sort of beauty.

Guardians of the Galaxy: What, just because I loved ENEMY, I can’t put a Marvel movie in my best-of list? Fie on that, I say! What James Gunn has crafted here is easily the best comic book movie of the modern era, and there’s a whole raft of reasons why. First and foremost --and this is kind of embarrassing to have to even say at this point-- but hey, it seems like they actually wrote a script for this one before they started shooting it. It tells a complete story, with heroes who actually encounter conflict which changes them, with themes that are developed, which seems to move logically from one plot point to another and which actually presents a suitable finale which provides the necessary scale and genuine dramatic beats. In other words, it passes the screenwriting 101 test, which is in itself a somewhat impressive feat in these days of headless big-budget behemoths like the excretable AMAZING SPIDER MAN 2 savaging the cinematic landscape like the decapitated Nightwalker from PRINCESS MONONOKE. But it gets better, because in addition to a general competence in its structure, it has a cast of enormously likable and unique characters, absolutely bursting with personality and vitality. So likable, interesting characters go on a competently structured adventure, already we’re ahead of the competition. But what really puts it over the top is the design; this is the first 200 million dollar movie I’ve seen in a dog’s life --probably since the last STAR WARS prequel-- that really looked like 200 million bucks. The amount of detail and meticulous, joyful world-building here is virtually unmatched in modern big-budget filmmaking. Pretty much every single image looks like a million bucks (partially because that’s what it likely cost) and it simply adds up to something which is immersive, beautiful, and, you know, just, cool. There’s always something cool going on, and if that doesn’t put a smile on your face, well, at least the idea that this is a 200 million dollar major-studio epic with a Lloyd (Troma Films) Kaufman cameo should. GUARDIANS shows that it’s possible for bloated, big-studio epics to still emerge with a sense of cheerfully adventurous fun, a sense of visual wonder, and a human heart.

Snowpiercer: The other highpoint of sci-fi action filmmaking this year, SNOWPIERCER somehow miraculously survived the Weinsteins Company’s merciless crusade to ruin foreign films and made it to American theaters --even semi-mainstream ones-- intact in both message and content. And that is itself is kinda jaw-dropping, given the massive and bracing indictment of an oppressive classist culture at the heart of the film’s conflict. Maybe we’re finally ready for this kind of angry, populist genre movie. Or, maybe it’s just that whatever the politics here, the heady momentum of this ingeniously staged action-thriller is too potent to resist. With a fantastic cast including John Hurt, Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton (in fright teeth), Song Kang-ho, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris, and the sublimely confident direction of Korean master Bong Joon-Ho (absolutely one of the best directors alive and working today), this is one of those rare cases where impeccable craft, unabashed symbolism, and imaginative genre thrills merge seamlessly into a tightly honed bullet of pure precision. Scene after scene is a triumph of design, imagination, and construction, supporting a philosophical struggle as timeless as it is blunt.
Boyhood: I’ve been following the progress of Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making film nearly as long as I’ve known about the director, and needless to say my years of waiting paid off enormously in this profound, warm, and deeply human window into the whole messy, disjointed process of growing up. I found myself more moved in the 166 minutes here than in any other movie I saw this year, by a long shot. And the genius of it is that it’s not because it has an especially poignant narrative, it’s just that you almost never get to experience a film which feels so raw, so real. I’ve heard people criticize it as plotless and lacking in structure, which is technically accurate, but of course is also the whole point! There’s millions of movies out there that have meticulously structured screenplays which set up and carefully pay off every detail. OK, maybe these days it’s something of a lost art, but you can see tons of movies which at least craft reasonably complete narrative journeys. The joy of this movie is that it deliberately eschews phony hollywood drama and pat, armchair psychology. Real life doesn’t work like a Hollywood screenplay, with setup and payoffs and clear motivations bourne of discrete incidents. It all runs together, it all happens at once, it’s a drawn-out, many-splendored thing which sprawls and runs and makes unexpected turns. And BOYHOOD captures that messiness with a casual brilliance that struck me deep to the core. It makes the usual biographical narrative structure --where a person flashes back to some dramatic event in their childhood to explain how they got the way they are (See: every biopic ever made)-- just seem so phony and shallow and lazy that it was actually a little hard to go back to more normal movies having watched this one. Linklater succeeds so staggeringly not by telling a good story but by tearing down the constrictive framework of plot points and simply letting the pure, messy humanity shine through unadulterated. You just simply don’t usually get to see fictional movies made with this level of raw human honesty (the intriguing continuity of the 12-year shoot augments this, but is not the source), and it reminds you just how powerful the most simple elements of the shared human experience can be when you strip away the alienating layers of artifice that we take for granted in most art. While I’m glad not every movie is like this (hey, I like vampires and robots too!) BOYHOOD stands on its own as a one of the most powerfully affecting motion pictures I have experienced in a very, very long time.

Birdman: From the unassuming simplicity of BOYHOOD, we travel to the opposite end of the spectrum with BIRDMAN, a somewhat empty-headed chatterbox of a film about art, aging, and worth which happens to have a style so sumptuous and overwhelming that you can’t help but be sucked into it anyway. Though the script is intermittently witty, it’s so grossly overwritten that it begins to annoy after a while, but it almost doesn’t matter in the face of such heart-skippingly strong filmmaking. The crafty seemingly-unbroken long take that comprises the entire film, the phenomenal acting from an immensely talented cast (Ed Norton, playing a pointless character who pretty much disappears by the finale still manages one of the funniest and most technically impressive performances of the whole year; the scene where he re-writes his lines and gets progressively more into character is as mesmerizing as it is ingratiatingly hilarious) the propulsive and perfect jazz drum score, the surreal lighting that could have come right out of SUSPIRA… all of it is just so goddam inarguably great that you can hardly fault it for not having quite the thematic depth to justify it. I’ve always thought Iñárritu was one of the best directors alive, but he’s been languishing in weepy, overwrought melodrama since the masterful AMORES PERROS, so even if it’s thematically lightweight I think a stopover in meta-comedy was a great move for him. Besides, who says a movie has to solve the world’s problems? There’s not a minute of BIRDMAN that isn’t tour-de-force filmmaking, and even when it gets out of its depth it remains consistently ravishing and entertaining. What sort of monster would ask for more than that?

The Raid 2: The Original RAID was a tightly-woven and unrelenting  adrenaline-and-blood-soaked martial arts nightmare that unambiguously raised the game on what an action movie could be (it easily made my best-of list for 2012). Its sequel is something different: a bizarre mix of Kubrickian icy crime epic and insanely brutal action spectacle. I’d imagine there are some people who found it fatty and slow in comparison with the  unremitting propulsion of the original; I am not one of them. Instead, I think this one pushes beyond merely being the best action movie of the year into the realm of artistic genius. Its patience, beautiful symmetrical framings, and cold-eyed dread are a jarring mix with the elaborate, over-the-top action sequences which pepper the mammoth 2-and-a-half-hour runtime, but somehow meld together into some kind of bizarre web of coiled tension which is just as effective winding tighter as it is violently erupting. I think it’s kind of stunning how much information Evans communicates about his characters nonverbally, giving us tiny little hints about who they are and how they feel, which greatly flesh out the somewhat boilerplate mob war storyline without wasting time on needless exposition dumps. In particular, I want to give a hats off to Arifin Putra as Uco, arguably the chief villain here. He has a tough job, since he’s pretty much the motivating force in the movie, almost a second protagonist, but he also has to be a completely irredeemable bastard. The actor does a phenomenal job of somehow making him both completely despicable, and yet also sort of tragic. You can really see how torn up he is about doing what he does, even though he does it anyway. And if you can get me to notice that stuff alongside some of the most ridiculous and brutally elaborate fights in living memory, you must be doing something right. If it’s disjointed and larded up a little, so much the better; at this point in his career, I’ll relish every frame of celluloid that Gareth Evans wants to share with me.

Inherent Vice: The year’s most unfairly ignored masterpiece, this wild and joyful explosion of cinema by Paul Thomas Anderson is so absolutely overstuffed with plot, characters, tone, details, heartbreak, idealism, mystery, dialogue, themes and everything else in the world, that I watched it in the theater, walked out into the night with an enormous grin on my face, and had an immediate and overwhelming desire to turn around and go back and watch it again. And I’m not a guy who does that, ever. You don’t see as many movies as I have by going back and reliving the old stuff. Some of my favorite movies, some of the very best movies ever made -- TAXI DRIVER, FULL METAL JACKET, MULHOLLAND DRIVE-- I’ve only seen the one time and never felt especially compelled to run back and revisit. But INHERENT VICE, even at a lengthy 149 minutes, just feels so effusively packed with greatness that I felt physically compelled to return and luxuriate in its universe for as long as I could. PTA, adapting the labyrinthian novel by the famously unadaptable Thomas Pynchon, has basically created his own BIG LEBOWSKI here, a meandering and inscrutable stoner detective ode to a particular time and place, packed to the gills with fascinating vignettes and mysterious implications. It’s both a love letter and an epitaph for the idealism of the 60s, as Anderson gives us an ant’s eye view of the powerful cultural forces swooping in to corrupt and pervert everything that was for a time --if a little bit stupid-- at least innocent and pure and well-meaning. It’s an engrossing and lovely film noir --cinematographer Robert Elswit, who we already encountered in NIGHTCRAWLER, shoots this view into LA mythos with a heartbreakingly vivid rainbow palette-- but also a subtly tragic moan against the death of the last true American age of optimism and idealism. And probably a lot of other things too; its so furiously dense with images and metaphor I’m certain you could watch it a dozen times and still find new layers of meaning. I think it was actually too dense for critics, who gave it a somewhat chilly embrace; there’s literally too much detail to absorb in one sitting, and its baroquely plotted mystery is very nearly utterly incomprehensible upon first blush. But never mind that; whatever else it is, this is a remarkably gorgeous, mythical and heartfelt evocation of an era; if it feels unwieldy and overpacked, it’s only because part of that very experience is being overwhelmed by the unseen and incomprehensible caprices of the end of that age. Both profound and sublimely silly, I consider this to be a rare and wonderful motion picture the likes of which we see only oh so rarely around these parts.

Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: Now here’s something interesting: a slinky, sexy and nearly silent black-and-white California-shot Iranian vampire western. You’ve never seen anything quite like it. It’s a little hard to describe exactly what it’s like. It’s what would happen if Kenneth Anger were an Iranian woman and she made DOWN BY LAW? That do anything for you? Probably not; this is one which should simply be experienced, not explained. Packed with wonderful visual poetry, murmuring 80’s electronic dance music, restless energy, subtle sensuality, prickly horror and earnest romance, this is the most seductive cinematic treat of the year, a juicy little morsel to sink into and lose yourself to its offbeat vibe.

A Most Violent Year: Another year, another magnificent performance from Oscar Isaacs, who, along with and equally-excellent Jessica Chastain, anchors this not-quite-crime saga set in 1981. Isaacs is Abel Morales, a small-time NYC Oil magnate trying to run his business as legitimately as possible in a time and place where everyone is corrupt to some degree. He has an idealistic image of himself as an American dreamer, a guy who came from nowhere, worked hard, and finally made it. But reality has a way of chipping away at that image, sullying and complicating it and pushing him closer to the criminal life he’s always tried to avoid. As the noose closes on him, can he live up to his ideals, and do it without becoming a monster himself? The film, by J. C. Chandor, is at once a sharply observed period drama, a gripping thriller, and a poetic meditation on the American dream, all without even a whiff of pretentious abstruseness or patronizing spoon-feeding. Cinematographer Bradford Young (who also shot the nice-looking SELMA this year, though this looks better) shoots incredibly striking images which ineffably evoke the early 80s milieu without explicitly mimicking it, and composer Alex Ebert (of Ima Robot and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes) compliments it perfectly with a unobtrusive but compelling score. In a year full of messy, contradictory greatness, this film stands alone as an absolute monument to just how potent consummately crafted, finely honed and meticulously precise cinema can be. Chandor demonstrates a remarkable intuition for the many varied tools of cinematic technique here, and the result is one of the most arresting and engrossing films of the year.

The Dance of Reality: Well, here it is, my favorite movie of the year. After nearly a quarter century away from cinema, the minor success of the documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE managed to reignite the crazy fire that led the great maverick director Alejandro Jodorowsky to make EL TOPO and HOLY MOUNTAIN all those years ago, and he returns to the screen with a vengeance that would be the envy of directors a quarter of his age (85!). Simply put, no movie has brought more joy to me in years. Oh, I’ve seen lots of interesting films, moving films, thoughtful films; fun, artistic, impressive, evocative. But the kind of pure, unfettered and passionate wonder that this film brings is all but unmatched in cinema. There’s simply a giddy and overwhelming joy about the totality of life, and our ability to make art of it, which pervades every single second here. On the surface, it’s a surreal fictional autobiography of Jodorowsky himself, and his difficult Chilean childhood; but of course it’s a Jodorowsky film so it’s also about politics, philosophy, sex, drugs, life, death, poetry, art, mysticism and every other thing which has captivated and delighted this auteur during his 80+ years. There’s not a single frame in the film which you couldn’t print and hang on the wall; with a paltry 3 million dollars (which wouldn’t even cover the cocaine budget for TR4NS4RMRS) Jodorowsky routinely crafts images which would automatically be the single most intriguing, iconic thing in any normal movie. But it’s not just beautiful, it’s simply so pure and bursting with… well, love. That word has been so overused in American pop art that it almost has no meaning anymore. It sounds safe, sanitized. Something out of a 50’s pop song. There is nothing safe about Jodorowsky’s love; it’s a fierce and passionate thing, and it knows no boundaries between such superficial concepts and pain and pleasure, it’s a deep and fiery affection for the entire damn experience of life, everything it is, and some things which it is not but also is anyway, somehow. In the entire 130 minutes it runs, there was not a single second that did not absolutely enthrall and delight me. Your experience may vary depending on your tolerance for the strange abstractions and mystical symbolism which take up at least as much of the film’s energy as the plot. But even if that doesn’t sound like your idea of a hot ticket, there’s a powerful, soulful and funny humanity which overrides everything, something warm and wise and forgiving, that celebrates the very condition of being alive and making art. If that’s not something worth experiencing in its purest and most joyful form, I don’t know what is.

And finally…

Special award for great effort in the quixotic pursuit of a profoundly ill-advised idea:

Noah: Maybe the best movie ever made that no one in the world could possibly be expected to like. But oh wow, did I have fun with it. I’ll be honest with you, I had no inclination whatsoever to go see this, and more or less got dragged to it. But I think I’m the only person in the theater who walked out happy. The combination of impeccable filmmaking, utter grimness, expensive production and total fucking insanity is just so spectacularly perfect. I mean, who could possibly think this was a good idea except Darren Aronofsky? This is a 150% earnest expensive biblical epic fixated on the tragic life of giant rock monsters, huge battle scenes, and at the end it turns into a claustrophobic slasher flick, like SUNSHINE. What’s not to love, unless you have the misfortune of being a normal human being or anyone who has even a glimmer of irony?

Way too blasphemous for the religious, way too religious for the secular, too slow for action fans, too much spectacle for serious critics, too dumb for intellectuals but too talky for the popcorn crowd, and the one thing you might imagine would be the easy selling point of Noah’s ark (the animals! Everyone likes animals!) are a tiny, minor plot point. This is a movie for literally no possible demographic. But I have no choice but to love something this absolutely wholeheartedly crazy, and I suspect that some of you will feel the same way. I mean, it’s really good, that’s the thing, in its own wildly ill-conceived sort of way. It genuinely and honestly explores just how fucking dark the Noah story is -- the story which tells us we should worship and love a god who intentionally killed every single human being on Earth. What kind of relationship can one have with a being so incomprehensibly vast and uncaring? It’s full of interesting ideas like that, and it usually has the balls to actually dive into them whole-hog, even if it answers might be a little anemic. Whatever, though, It looks awesome, there’s a terrific score by Clint Mansell (all of Aronofsky’s movies, MOON, STOKER and… SMOKING ACES?!) and some excellent performances which mostly succeed in being rich enough to escape the black hole of pure camp that they’re forever circling. But what audience could they thought would have possibly appreciated something this bananas? I have no idea, but boy, did I think it was a hoot.

Continued Tomorrow, with THE BEST OF THE REST! -- A brief examination of a another 30 or so films that didn't quite make the cut but are just too damn great to be forgotten!