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.

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