Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Best Films of 2014

2014 was a strong year for films. There were several totally original, mind-bending and other superlative-words films. In a previous post, I listed what I thought were the best mainstream films of the year. Here is the link to that post. What follows is my list for the best art-house films of the year. Most of these are what I would call independent or foreign films.

1. Norte, the End of History. A four-hour and ten-minute long retelling of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment set in the Philippines, it's a philosophical commentary on the powerlessness of the very poor and the ineffectual nature of the intellectuals to change anything. Norte tells a bleak story of a man falsely accused of a brutal murder and the parallel story of an intellectual ubermensch who decides to carve out his own moral universe. The style of the film is totally original. Every shot is a long take, each lasting at least five minutes. I fond Norte moving, intellectually engaging, tragic and achingly beautiful. I wish that everyone in the middle and upper classes would watch it. They would learn something about institutional poverty and the undeserved privileges of the rich, but I realize my wish is futile. Still, it's available on Netflix.

2. The Missing Picture. One of the most original documentaries I have ever seen, The Missing Picture is a memoir of a Khmer Rouge survivor who reflects on his childhood and life in a concentration camp. Instead of reenactments, the director Rithy Pahn uses painted clay figurines to reconstruct the events described in the narration. The effect of the figurines is something like the effect of the cat and mouse comics in Art Spiegelman's Maus. In Maus and The Missing Picture, we see the horrors of the Holocaust and Auschwitz in the first and the brutality of the Khmer Rouge in the latter, but there is something of a distancing effect because of the medium and style of the images. The distancing effect actually makes the horrors more accessible, paradoxically pulling the reader/audience in closer. Instead of turning away, we learn something as we watch The Missing Picture. It's a poetic treatment about a tragic moment in history. Also available on Netflix.

3. Birdman. This is a film for those who love film making and the theater. Almost the entire movie (probably 98%) is shot in a single fluid long take, following different characters as they walk up and down stairs into dressing rooms and onto and off the stage. The camera transitions from day to night by simply tilting up and using digital effects. It's a remarkable feat of cinematography and purposeful special effects. Michael Keaton plays an aging actor retired from the superhero films of his younger years (clearly there are loose parallels with Keaton's own life). He risks everything to direct, produce and act in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story to appear on Broadway. He also may or may not have actual superhero powers. And this is what makes the film brilliant--the ambiguity. Nothing is completely clear in this smart rumination on life, theater and performance. Brilliant performances by Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone.

4. Under the Skin. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien life form who borrows the skin of a woman, seduces a series of men, and begins to explore what it means to be human. It's a haunting, mysterious, and enigmatic film that in no way spells out its own meaning. We never find out why the aliens do what they do, nor do we know what the black room scene means (you'll know what I mean if you see it). I couldn't help wonder whether the aliens who are intent on harming and harvesting humans are better or worse than human beings--men specifically--who sometimes manipulate and rape women but also sometimes save strangers from drowning or feed needy people. Under the Skin also includes very little dialogue, which contributes both to its unconventional style and gives it a haunting eeriness that lingers well after the film ends. The visual style, music and themes owe a great deal to Stanley Kubrick, but it's no mere pastiche. This is only Jonathan Glazer's third film (Sexy Beast and Birth were his others), and it's another early indication of more great things to come. Streaming on Amazon Prime.

5. Exhibition. This is an unapologetic art film about not art but artists and the artist's life. It follows the ordinary lives of a British artist couple spending their days working and busying themselves as they grasp for inspiration. It mostly follows the wife. Sometimes she lies around the house, sometimes she looks out the window, sometimes she calls her husband rather than walk upstairs and speak to him, oftentimes her husband demeans her in subtle and not so subtle ways, other times she dresses up, and occasionally she creates. I imagine this is probably what life is really like for some artists. Most people will probably find Exhibition boring, but I found it fascinating. Now streaming on Netflix.

6. Snowpiercer. Chris Evans plays the anti-Captain America (read: dark, brooding) in this philosophical action film about a bullet train continuously traveling across the globe due to a global warming crisis. It's a Marxist commentary on the divisions we place among ourselves and the brutal ways in which the privileged exploit the poor. Smart stuff and cool action sequences to boot. And Tilda's Swinton's over-the-top character is pitch perfect for the film. It's directed by the very talented South Korean director Bong joon-ho (Mother, The Host, and Memories of Murder). This is his first English language film. Available on Netflix.

7. Like Father Like Son, Written and directed by one of the great living Japanese directors Hirokazu Koreeda, Like Father Like Son tells the heartbreaking story of two boys switched at birth and their parents' decision whether to exchange the boys they raised for six years once they discover the truth. The parents come from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds--one set is fairly poor and one set very prosperous--and they have very different models of parenting. The film not only asks the broader question of what a parent is but it also challenges the audience to consider their own parenting. I couldn't help ask myself whether I spend enough time with my son and whether I push him too hard--or whether I don't push him hard enough. Available on Netflix.

8. Wild. A former drug addict decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail with very little preparation or planning. In way over her head, she sticks with it and the film becomes a triumphant story of the power of the human spirit. Encountering a mixed bag of people--some frightening and some genuinely friendly--on her way, Cheryl primarily faces the elements and the power of nature. Stylistically, the film is a great achievement. As she hikes the PCT, we are informed of her back story through a series of flashbacks, but what I thought was totally original is that most of the flashbacks are only seconds long. They are literally flashes of memories and operate the way actual memories operate--with brief images rather than the typical fully drawn-out scene with dialogue. It's ultimately a spiritual quest and walking the PCT helps Cheryl find out who she is. And Reese Witherspoon is excellent.

9. Ida. A black and white Polish film set in the early 1960s, Ida follows the life a a young woman about to take her vows as a nun. Raised in an orphanage, she has no knowledge of her family until an aunt shows up out of nowhere and tells her that her parents were Jewish and died during the war. The young nun goes on an odyssey to discover the truth about her family. The cinematography is beautiful, and one detail that stood out to me is that the frame is almost always shot with characters in long shot where the characters are off balance at the very bottom of the screen.  The background landscape or shots of buildings literally dwarf the people in the frame. I wasn't sure exactly what to make of it. Maybe it was a way for the director to comment on the smallness of people, that people are merely objects of causality too often caught in forces beyond their control. Available on Netflix.

10. Only Lovers Left Alive. A revisionist vampire film by director Jim Jarmusch, Lovers tells the tale of two immortals living worlds apart who have lots of time on their hands, time to read poetry, write music, collect guitars, and simply think. It's a slow, meditative film that refuses to conform to the vampire genre conventions. This is one of the most romantic movies I have seen (and by romantic I mean Wordsworth/Coleridge/Blake/Byron/Keats Romantic).

11. The Immigrant. This movie has echoes of Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, but in my mind it surpasses many of the silly elements in Leone's masterpiece. This is great storytelling about the American experience. Available on Netflix.

12. Blue Ruin. The most original revisionist revenge film I have seen is French director Claire Denis's Bastards, but I found that film too unconventional--for my tastes anyway. Blue Ruin is a smart revisionist revenge film that turns many of the conventions on its head but it also doesn't go so far as to alienate the viewer.

Other films that round out my top 24 include NightcrawlerLe Week-End, It Felt Like Love, Coherence, The One I Love, Jodoworsky's Dune, Night Moves, Tim's Vermeer, Venus in Fur, Foxcatcher, Frank, and Gloria.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Why Boyhood Is Overrated But Still Important

Boyhood has been appearing on many top-ten lists, and it was the number one film on both Film Comment's and Metacritic's lists--both of which survey critics and assign points to those critics' films. I didn't dislike Boyhood, but I do think it is the most overrated film of the year. People should still see it because the concept itself is totally unique. As most people know, it was filmed and edited over the course of a 12-year period, so it literally shows the maturation of young actor Ellar Coltrane beginning at age six . The film attempts to balance the mundane with the philosophically profound, but in doing so it often relies too heavily on heavy-handed dialogue. While Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke put in solid performances, none of the other actors are great, including Coltrane and the director's daughter--especially as they age. I do like the way it respects the role fathers can play in the lives of their children. Too often in the history of film do we have fatherless children or children with emotionally or physically abusive fathers. Ethan Hawke's character chooses to make certain financial and personal sacrifices so that he could remain in his children's lives. And that's admirable.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Aptly Titled American Sniper

I'm still working on my year's best list, but in the meantime I thought I would reflect a bit on Clint Eastwood's new film, which I saw last weekend.

American Sniper has most of the elements that would ordinarily make it an excellent film: strong writing, directing, editing, and acting. The last several films I have seen with Bradley Cooper (Limitless, The Place Beyond the Pines, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Guardians of the Galaxy) have demonstrated that he is one of the finest working American actors today, and he is extraordinary in Eastwood's film. It's a raw, emotional and believable performance. Cooper plays an all-American cowboy sharpshooter, a protector of innocence, a war hero, a man who never quits and loves his country possibly more than his family. I've heard that the actual Chris Kyle was even more unambiguously patriotic, that Cooper toned down his character a bit. If what I hear is correct, Cooper made the right decision. He has some stiff competition in the Oscars this year--I think Michael Keaton should win but it will probably go to Eddie Redmayne for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking. Cooper is just as deserving as anyone else in the best-actor category. Also, in terms of quality film making, this is Eastwood's strongest in a few years. It's well paced and the performances hit the right notes. Aside from all of the strengths of the film, though, its moral absolutist message undermines all of its superlative qualities.

There's an old axiom I heard once that all war films are anti-war films, but this over-simplified truism does not apply to American Sniper. It's not that the film romanticizes or glorifies war exactly, but it clearly and categorically approves of the war in Iraq and suggests that the only problem soldiers have are dealing with amputated limbs and feeling guilty that they didn't kill bad guys before they killed their friends. These are not soldiers traumatized by war, and this is not a film that questions why we were in Iraq in the first place. The film's depiction of the insurgent Iraqis as "savages"--a words that is used several times in the film--is particularly problematic. The depiction of the enemy serves to draw a black and white line between the "good" guys and "bad" guys. While all of the Americans from the grunts to the officers are good: read honest, patriotic, noble, brave, kind, and think of others before themselves, all of the Iraqis are bad: read dishonest, cowardly, and think only of themselves. Compared to something like The Thin Red Line or even Band of Brothers, American Sniper seems pretty backwards in its depiction of the enemy. It's almost as if the film were made in the 1940s.

Another problem lies in Kyle's characterization. The preview for the film implies that the film will grapple with the difficult decisions soldiers have to make on a daily basis. Should a sniper kill a woman and a child--who might be enemy combatants? Are they actually carrying weapons? Is a man simply using his cell phone or is he alerting the enemy of American troop positions? Soldiers surely make mistakes and unintentionally kill innocent people. So, I was surprised when I watched the film that Kyle never struggles with making decisions--everything is simply right or wrong; people are either good or bad. He's never tortured by decisions because he never makes mistakes and his decisions are always right. Even in the scene where the soldiers are in the midst of a sandstorm--where the sand could have been a perfect metaphor for the ambiguities of war, the difficulty to see what is true, Eastwood fails to exploit this moment and simply utilizes the sand for what it is--an obstacle that has to be overcome before the bad guys come.

It is for these, I suppose you could say political, reasons that the film is problematic. It's disappointing because it has so much going for it, but it ultimately proves to be a two-hour long commercial for the military.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Best Popular/Mainstream Films of 2014

This year I thought I would make two separate lists, one with independent and foreign films and this one with mainstream films. Mainly, I wanted to do this because there are very different expectations for art house films than there are for the typical films that play in a suburban multiplex. As a whole this was a solid year for all different types of films, and there were several popular films I really enjoyed.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy. Funny, smart, perfect pacing, and great music. This movie has everything but the kind of big ideas I prefer in films--which is why most people liked it. As both an English teacher and a human being, I loved Drax's inability to comprehend metaphors. He takes everything completely literally. Nothing goes over his head, or so he says. I'm not sure if anyone else noticed this, but I wonder if there is a subtle but unintentional racist message in giving almost all of the Kree parts to African American or black actors. The Other is the Other. Anyway, still loved it.

2. X-Men: Days of Future Past.

3. The Lego Movie. I'm not sure if it's a smart anti-capitalist satire or a really long capitalist commercial for Legos and the DC characters, but I didn't really care when I watched it. Yes, the infectious "Everything Is Awesome" song will stay with you like an unshakable cold, but it's all good fun.

4. Gone Girl. For the first 20 minutes or so, I thought this movie was going to be terrible, but I should have had more faith in its director David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network). It takes lots of twists and turns, and it asks some pretty interesting questions about love and relationships in America today.

5, Edge of Tomorrow. I like action movies that also grapple with ideas, and this is one of them. I would have probably liked it more if it didn't have Tom Cruise, but...

6. The Trip to Italy. OK, I know. This Steve Coogan film isn't exactly mainstream or hugely popular. But it should be. It's a sequel to The Trip, a film in which Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves as they travel the Lakes District in England, stopping at lots of restaurants and doing imitations of Michael Cain and others. The Trip to Italy isn't a great film, but it is funny and entertaining. I haven't laughed as hard or as loud in a long time.

7. Captain America: Winter Soldier. I liked this one better than the original.