Saturday, January 17, 2015

The 2014 Post-Mortem Part 1b: Ye Olde Top Ten (part 2)

Last time at The Third Row.

Really, it's right there. I'm not gonna recap something that's not even a week old.

And now, the conclusion. Same rules as mentioned in the link apply.

"I'm good enough,
I'm smart enough,
and doggone it, people like me!"


As I said with Gone Girl, this has been a good year for films that offer disturbing perspectives on us as a collective. Regarding how easily lead by the nose we as a group can be, Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler takes the idea that was woven into the larger story of Gone Girl and pulls it out to serve as its own horror here. While the idea of the 'perfect victim' is a part of this narrative as well, most overtly exemplified in a grim mental image Rene Russo invokes while explaining to Jake Gyllenhaal what sells in news media, it plays the 'type A from Hell' in an altogether different direction. Where Gone Girl's Amy is someone whose drive is largely focused towards the idea of playing and maintaining a role, Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom doesn't have any sort of appearances to keep up. His is a story of American exceptionalism and the idea of the self-made man as reflected through a darker lens. First turning to the idea of collecting footage from crime scenes as a better job than his gig stealing metal for money, Lou quickly embraces the venture. We then watch as his determination to be the best drives him to increasingly more unethical, dangerous, and illegal means. As everyone around him questions his actions, he remains steadfast and determined to keep advancing, no matter who he has to step on to get there.
As a first time effort for its director, it admittedly does sometimes lay out the moral too overtly, Still, that downside is well off-set by the phenomenal performance at the center of it, some sharp editing, and the pitch black heart of the story. While the telling rather than showing is a shame, the message is still a compelling one.

To get a suitably horrified reaction from Phoenix, Paul Thomas Anderson snuck in a square of paper on which he wrote a reminder to Phoenix that he starred in The Village.

-Inherent Vice

Oh, Paul Thomas Anderson, I've missed you. You aren't the most prolific of filmmakers, but damned if you don't make it worth the wait. Following the previous two hits of There Will Be Blood and The Master, he returns here with a new sort of ambition - taking on the challenge of adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel. The end result doesn't have the impact and isn't as visually stunning as his last two, but it's still a strong offering in its own right. Reuniting with Joaquin Phoenix - a man who I'm really growing to respect as an actor - he takes Pynchon's tale of hippies, infidelity, dentists and heroin dealers (really, you just need to see it for yourself to see how this all fits together) and actually manages to get it to the screen in a fairly coherent fashion, while earning the elusive author's blessing to boot. On top of which, it's nice to be reminded that both Anderson and Phoenix can be pretty damn funny with the right material. Anderson's certainly no stranger to comedy, but after the heaviness of his last few films, it's refreshing to see him returning to it here, especially with the talented cast he has along for the ride. It's the kind of comedy that works really well at delivering absurdity with a straight face, upping the humor in the process. There's a scene near the end of the film between Phoenix and Josh Brolin that is probably one of the single funniest moments of the movie, and the humor is almost entirely conveyed in their expressions in the scene- Brolin's stony stoicism and Phoenix's utterly gobsmacked disbelief play off each other to a great effect. On top of their, their dynamic throughout the movie leads to some fun interactions.
This is another one of those movies it feels strange to sum up in a single blurb (I'll actually be reviewing it in more detail over on Moar Powah! soon) but that's also because, really, it's one of those that needs to be seen to be fully believed. I could recount snippets and examples to try and sell you on it, but really, it's just a plunge to take on its own. It's definitely a weird one - particularly the blend of early 70s retro and noir - but that just further adds to the fact it will stay with you.
Hey, if nothing else, you'll get some great performances out of it.

"Just ignore them. The Harry Potter fans still give me grief over that role to this day. They're not mad at you."

-The Grand Budapest Hotel

I know it's an old cliche to say, but it's one I genuinely felt watching this movie:  "they don't make them like this anymore." I definitely felt the Wes Anderson coming off of this movie like the proverbial Shining, but I was also struck by something older at the core that, the more I thought of it, the more I realized is a rare breed now: this was an honest to God caper comedy. Like, more than the Anderson tics, I was genuinely amazed how at home this storyline would feel in a 60s or 70s screwball comedy, to the point where I felt like, had this been made back in the day, Ralph Fiennes's role would have gone to Peter Sellers. Which is a pretty damn impressive trick when you think about it. To be able to capture the feel of that sort of film that strongly without overtly trying to make it a throwback isn't something a lot of directors will do, and even fewer can do it well. Here, Anderson had a movie he pitched as just a very Anderson-styled comedy and in the process still managed to capture that older feel. Also, to Fiennes's credit, this is a welcome chance for him to show some range as an actor. Over the years, the man's been typecast pretty badly as all manner of ruthless and cold-blooded villains. Here, as protagonist M. Gustave, the man is an absolute scream as a bumbling, somewhat egotistical, but overall goodhearted cad. It speaks to the man that he manages to play this up while also still making him likable in all of his dysfunctional sides. Paired with Tony Revolori as his stoic but dedicated lobby boy, the two make for an unexpectedly enjoyable comedic team.
It's kind of a shame that, later this month, the movie Mortdecai is probably going to murder the reborn caper so shortly after this brought some life back to it. But at least we can still watch this and enjoy it all the same.

"See, honey? No monsters. Only a visibly traumatized 80s-era Kyle Maclachlan."

-The Babadook

Jennifer Kent, you have my attention. Last year had turned up some damn good up and comers in film, especially in horror. In writer-director Kent's debut, she aims for a wider scope than Gilroy's Nightcrawler, but her movie certainly isn't any lesser for that. If anything, the tighter focus of this movie is one of its big strengths. It has a decent number of players, but at its core, it's really only about three characters: Essie Davis as a widow and single mother still coping with her husband's death, Noah Wiseman as her well-meaning but troubled son who has sworn to protect his mother from monsters, and the titular monster. What follows is a well acted, tense thriller with an incredibly personal edge to it. That edge is a big part of what makes the movie work as well as it does: it's a story that can play at two different levels - taken as just the surface monster story, it's fairly strong, but it's also further added to by the more personal reading of the film as a story of guilt and coping. In this regard, Davis gives a Hell of a performance in this movie- her protagonist certainly loves her son, but, as we also see, can justifiably become quite frustrated with him. As the pressure from his behavior, paired with the threat of the Babadook itself, bear down on her, Davis gives the strain an uncomfortable realness. There are a few moments where she angrily snaps at her son that made me recoil a bit in the theater simply because it felt that real.
Which, for a movie that takes its name from a monster from a children's book, is one hell of an accomplishment. As a nice further bonus, this movie plays with one of my favorite things I don't see used in film nearly enough, and plays the unreliable narrator to a great extent. I went into this not fully sure what to expect from all the hype, but it delivered wonderfully. With this as her first time out, I'm genuinely curious to see what Kent has lined up in the future.

...Nah. I don't have the heart to riff this one.

-Life Itself

Watching this made it strange to realize just how (relatively) little time has passed since Roger Ebert died.
Just when it seemed like we could finally move on, this movie opened up the old wound, and despite that, I'm grateful it did.
Biographies are pretty standard material for a documentary. In order to stand out with that in mind, you need to either pick an interesting perspective or a strong subject to work with. In this case, filmmaker Steve James has both and combines them in a genuinely heartfelt tribute. Based on Ebert's own memoir, rather than simply acting as a biopic overall, this is both about the man's life-particularly the final months- and the people he lived it with. On the more 'biography' style end, this discusses his famous collaborations with people like Gene Siskel and Russ Meyer -the former of which leads to some interesting discussion on the nature of their now famous partnership that leaves one missing them both. This is cut with those final months, over the course of which we see Ebert with his family, friends, and loved ones as he first fought his cancer, and, as things turned, began to make preparations for the end. The result is equal parts heartwarming and sad, some of the scenes with his family are genuinely touching, while we also see some messages he wrote near the end that really made it clear just how much this fight had taken out of him. By the end of the movie, it's hard not to feel the loss of the man all over again. Even if you didn't know him too well before, this documentary paints such a vivid picture that it's very hard not to feel the loss even if it's just your first time learning who he was.
In the end, while his death is a big piece of the movie, like the title says, this is itself a celebration of the life the late Ebert led. Even after a year and a half, watching this makes it feel like it just happened. At the same time, it's not entirely a sad feeling. The man may be gone, but as this documentary showed, he leaves a loving family and a great legacy behind him.

All in all, not too bad a year.

As I said before, thanks to life and studio delays there are still some I'd meant to get to that are still in my queue, as well as a few runners-up I'll cover briefly.

Still to see:
-Selma (I can tell this is gonna eat at me later)
-Only Lovers Left Alive
-Force Majeure
-A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Honorable mentions:
-The Lego Movie (this movie really shouldn't have been as fun as it is. But dammit, it was an infectiously fun ride.)
-Captain America: The Winter Soldier (I said it in the write-up at the time, I'll say it again here. Marvel as a baseline is pretty good. This is honestly one of those few times so far they've really gone above and beyond. And yes, I do still consider this to be the stronger Marvel movie of last year. Sorry, Guardians.)
-The Wind Rises (yeah, I still maintain it's one of Miyazaki's weaker movies, but it's still pretty watchable overall. I honestly didn't think it'd make the final cut, but I wanted to give it the salute here all the same.)
-Chef (apology for Iron Man 2 accepted, Mr. Favreau.)

That's one down.
Next comes the last of the Gundam write-ups.
Then I make myself pay for the fact this came late.

God, will I pay.

Till then.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 2014 post-mortem Part 1a: Ye Olde Top Ten (part 1)

Well, it's that time again.

Another year is over and I spend the first month of the new year settling old business to prepare for the new year. Axes to grind, projects to finish, and lists to fulfill, all culminating in a moment of cinematic masochism wherein I must answer for the fact some of these came late.

But, that's for later. I've put this particular off long enough.

So let's start this off with that time-honored custom of the old 'top 10 of 2014.'

I did slightly bend my rules on this from last time. This was partially thanks to my work schedule near the end of the year and the fact that I decided to say 'screw that' to studios holding out titles. I still have some gaps (a list that will be fully noted in part 2) but all in all I'm satisfied with the ten compiled here.

Alongside the list of 'still need to sees' part 2 will also include some honorable mentions, cause I had a few maybes that got edged out at crunch time. But that's for next time.

In the meantime, let's get started.
As always, these aren't ranked in any official order:

There, Internet. Hollywood gave you Batman vs The Hulk lastyear.
You're welcome.

-Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

It really speaks to the quality of a movie when your first feeling upon finishing is 'I think I need to see that again.' It speaks even further when, several months later, you're still feeling that way.
That's the baseline feeling that Alejandro Gonzolez Irritu has inspired with this movie - probably one of the most engrossing and borderline insane looks at the clash between art and commerce in the world of entertainment this side of Barton Fink. The whole deal is a fascinating blend of sheer filmmaking ambition as well as meta-introspection. The former being best embodied in Irritu's bid to shoot the movie in such a way as to give the illusion of a single continuous take. The latter in a talented cast including Zach Galifinakis, Emma Stone, Ed Norton (as a method actor whose temperamental tendencies lead one to believe the part was written for him) and Michael Keaton in some of the best work of his career as a former superhero actor seeking to reinvent himself. In the middle of all this, one of the other impressive elements of this movie that can be lost in the great performances and impressive technical attention to detail is the surprising amount of nuance employed in the film's message. Keaton's protagonist is a man who made his bones on the blockbusters and, while tempted by them, feels compelled to prove himself artistically, even as his ambition seems to crumble around him. In the hands of other filmmakers, his would be a stance that would be championed. He certainly does get his say in this, but so does everyone else. Interestingly, no one in this is entirely wrong: Keaton's passionate to a fault protagonist, Galifinakis's supportive but pragmatic agent, Norton's method actor from Hell who feels Keaton isn't fully throwing himself into his work, even the acid-tongued reviewer (Lindsay Duncan) who becomes a perpetual thorn in Keaton's side. No one is lionized or vilified and each has valid points to make about the battle between meaningful art and crowd-pleasing spectacle.
It's part of why this film lends itself so well to rewatches. There's a lot in it to unpack, but it's presented in a way where said unpacking doesn't feel like a chore, but an interesting mental exercise. That the entire thing is also framed in an ambitiously made, and altogether entertaining comedy, just makes the exercise an even more inviting one.

"So we're adapting Civil War for the next movie, huh?
I had a feeling it'd come to this..."


I already sang this movie's praises earlier this year, so I will try and keep this one shorter. The fact we almost got this movie cut makes me feel like we dodged a bullet. Bong Joon-ho's dystopian action tale is one that was well worth the wait to see on a big screen. Yeah, there's elements of the story that have been done before in other films, I'm not gonna pretend socially stratified dystopias are anything new, but this is one where execution makes all the difference. The changes in set design as the team of determined underdogs fight their way to the front of the train give the film several memorable sequences. Paired with some strong action sequences (the tunnel fight is still up there on my favorite theater experiences of last year) and an ending that completely shifts everything you've expected about the movie, it's an incredibly gratifying action film and one that I'm glad we got to see as Joon-ho intended.

"I've fooled them all!
Even the cat.
ESPECIALLY the cat."

-Gone Girl

Okay, this is something I'm going to into more in the future, but this is as good a point as any to discuss this. 2014 was, all things considered, an interesting year for horror. Yeah, it had a lot of hit and miss, like every year, but when it hit, it hit quite well. I'd consider three of the movies that made this list to be horror -with a fourth not overtly so, but still pretty damn creepy - with this being the first of them. Yeah, that's right, I consider this a horror film, and one with a pretty disturbing message at that. It's a well-acted and well written and directed thriller, don't get me wrong. In fact, on that first note, I'm still holding out for Rosamund Pike to win Best Actress for her downright unnerving 'Type A gone awry' performance as Amy. But the really unsettling part of this movie for me is just what it says about everyone around Amy. It's the idea this movie presents of just how astonishingly easy it is to manipulate people in large numbers. For as disturbing as Amy is, it's the fact she is able to make so many people believe her so easily that is the really sobering part of her story. Granted, this is part of the original author's point - the entire notion of the 'perfect victim' - and damned if she doesn't make it well. Even more unsettling as people, when confronted with contradictory evidence, still choose what they want to see on this. This is one I still want to give a full writeup soon, so I will try not to say too much here. I will in the meantime leave it at this - it's been a while since a movie really gave me this unsettled a sense of people in general like this movie did. An incredibly effective thriller with a darker underside beyond the tale of its two leads. know, even after this much time. This pic STILL captions itself.

-Jodorowsky's Dune

As anyone who's followed these lists knows (and let me say if you have, I am sorry) I have a soft spot for documentaries on the weirder side of film. So when I learned this movie was coming out, that I would be seeing it was all but a foregone conclusion. I mean, it's a documentary about one of the most ambitious and downright insane movies that was never made. It's the kind of thing that was almost tailor-made to get my attention. Fortunately, it did not disappoint. The movie that could have been, from the glimpses we get in this movie, would have been absolutely insane and I can't help but feel sad that it never was.
One small plus to come from this, besides this glimpse into wonderful madness, anyway, was the time spent with its director himself. Jodorowsky is a genuinely fascinating, if somewhat eccentric man. Yeah, there are a few moments where his candidness shoots him in the foot - one particularly awkward moment where he discusses the idea of adaptation as rape is a weak point in this otherwise strong movie - but overall, he's someone whose passion for his projects is genuinely infectious. Even with only storyboards and anecdotes, his sheer energy in describing some of the sequences he'd planned for his adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic novel is almost as good as seeing the movie itself.
That said, if we ever do figure out how parallel universes work, I do plan to find one where the movie actually happened.

Like a cinematic monkey's paw, this movie will turn this fantasy into a nightmare soon enough.

-Under the Skin

This...this is a movie I feel like I may need more time to fully unpack. At the same time, I've taken enough time as it is. It's been about two weeks since I've seen this movie, and next to Birdman it's the one other movie from last year that, more than others, has really stuck with me. It's one that's given me a lot to think on and process, both in terms of ways to read the movie and just everything there is to offer in it on a purely surface level.
Based very loosely on the science fiction novel of the same name, Jonathan Glazer has crafted a film that manages to be both incredibly involving and very cold and distant all in the same breath. This is aided by a phenomenal performance by Scarlett Johannson (who, between this and Her the year before, I have to admit I'm really coming around on as an actress) as the movie's enigmatic, unnamed protagonist. In a way, a lot of what makes her performance interesting is the same thing that makes the rest of the movie so fascinating- there's very little we actually know of them. There's no real explanations made in the movie - even the fact that she's an alien is more inferred (partially thanks to the original story) rather than outright stated. Granted this may also be love for a well-used unreliable narrator talking, but damned if I don't still find it fascinating to watch this movie and be left to infer based purely on what we're seeing rather than what we're told. What we know is this: our protagonist is not human, and picks up unsuspecting male hitchhikers that she then seduces and dispenses of in a way that's as visually striking as it is horrifying. It's a seemingly simple story that, in Glazer's hands, gains multiple layers of meaning and a strong visual identity. Even beyond the layers of story, just everything in the way this is made lends to the impression it makes on a viewer.
Of the movies to make this year's list, this is one of the few I didn't get to seeing in theaters.
But oh, do I wish I had.

That's the first part of the list down.

Part two to follow in another day or so.

Unfinished business month continues.

Till next time.