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!

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