Thursday, January 15, 2015

Best Films of 2014: Four Lists

Best films of 2014: four lists


The Babadook, Birdman, Boyhood, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, Nightcrawler, Selma, Under the Skin--the usual suspects--are not all bad films (when talking 'bad' two titles in particular come to mind), but for one reason or another the flaws felt more significant than the virtues.

Plus said titles have no shortage of supporters and even less need for further promotion. If they happen to be nominated or win the Golden Dildo, more power to them, whatever. No feelings for or against their victory--such as it is--whatsoever.


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Just know your eyebrows shot up. To explain:

Not a big fan of Peter Jackson's recent works, least of all of his previous nine-hour epic. That said, the megatonnage of grief dumped on his latest three-picture extravaganza is arguably unwarranted, for several reasons: 1) Tolkien's The Hobbit was less pompous, less grandiose, more humanly scaled than its overblown sequel; 2) Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins is a funnier, more engaging, more sane protagonist than Elijah Wood's constantly moist-eyed, endlessly insufferable Frodo.

True Jackson blew up Tolkien's slight children's fantasy novel into a three-part epic, but 3) that just creates an interesting aftereffect: Freeman's diminutive Bilbo--no Ringbearer only thief, stubbornly unheroic and unnoble--crawling along the margins of Jackson's massive, grandly staged and scored and photographed conflict, keeping it (so to speak) real. Bilbo is a reminder that the little people persist, that they matter, despite the larger schemes and higher aspirations of Dwarves, Orcs and Elves. 

And for that--however small a reason it may be--the picture at most deserves a mention.  


Bendor (Ralston Jover, 2013)

Jover's debut film followed a band of youths as they dived into the Manila Bay for scrap metal; his sophomore effort follows a woman (the quietly spectacular Vivian Velez) as she hustles trinkets in a Manila street corner and fronts for an under-the-table abortionist. Understated neorealism, with just a touch of surrealism a la Nicolas Roeg. 

Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014)

Burton's latest celebration of arcane American marginalia focuses on the career of one Margaret Keene, painter of portraits of eerily big-eyed waifs, and her husband Walter Keene, who turned the pictures into an international craze, claiming authorship along the way. Burton doesn't present much of an argument for the paintings' value as art but does speak up for Margaret's value as a person, and for the paintings' value as popular kitsch. 

Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014)

Director Edward's tribute to the kaiju movies he loved makes the (somewhat) radical case that audiences simply want to see monsters locked in a titanic struggle, not much else. Immediate objective--survival; ultimate goal--restoring Nature's ever-precarious balance. As for all the helpless humans: the sooner they learn their proper place in the world (tucked safely out of the way in one corner), the better.

The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, 2014)

The Raid was a grim, gritty exercise in non-stop arm-bruising, jaw-crunching, shin-snapping violence; the sequel actually has a plot (borrowed loosely from Shakespeare, about a son struggling to come out of the shadow of his father) but this time the violence has acquired the grace and beauty of an extended MGM dance sequence, with imaginatively used props (a baseball bat, a claw hammer, a pair of sickles). Evan's work puts everything Hollywood blockmeister Michael Bay has ever done--from his gigantic Trans-R-Us flicks to his insipid yet somehow critically respected Pain and Gain--to painful, pitiful shame.

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)  

James Gunn's Slither was the story of a gaggle of small-town losers trying to win the hearts and souls of their community, either as offering to an invading alien lifeform or for themselves; it was only incidentally a horror movie. Guardians is the story of a band of small-time losers trying to win the hearts and souls of--oh, anyone willing to accommodate them; it was only incidentally a Marvel comic-book adaptation. Odd material for a gigantic summer box-office hit? That's the punchline.
The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom, 2014)

Michael Winterbottom's sequel to The Trip is more of the same, only better: Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden again eat and argue and impersonate (Michael Caine, Tom Hardy, and Al Pacino, among others) their way around the countryside, this time of impossibly beautiful Italy. The food is if anything even better; instead of Coleridge they're guided by the biographies and poems of Byron and Shelley, and by films set in Italy (The Italian Job; Beat the Devil). Some poignant ruminations on aging and the transitory nature of life, though a less obvious if more amusing high point would be the film's one reference to a truly great film: Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy, somehow evoked in a brief scene involving Brydon's 'small man in a box' (imagine that if you can).
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, 2013) 

Its sexual politics may be dated, its lead actress (Emmanuelle Seigner) miscast (she's playing a woman almost half her age); this is still a film by Polanski, still sexy, seductive, remarkably personal fun, still perfectly capable of drawing blood when it so chooses.

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon ho, 2013)

Bong Joon-ho's first English-language film. The setup is genius: the last survivors in a frozen world ride a train that circumnavigates the Earth. The lower classes sit in the back, are preparing to fight their way to the front; the upper classes sit in front, are ready to fight for their seats.  

Better than the premise is Bong's outrageous sense of humor, which in this setting makes bizarre sense: the rebels come across the world's last aquarium, and at the center of the aquarium the world's last sushi bar.  What do they do? Sit and enjoy a plate of beyond-delicious sashimi.

Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)

Call him the least reputable of Andersons (W.S. as opposed to Wes or Paul Thomas), then call this his possible masterpiece, a combination disaster film, gladiator flick and love story where the action is crystalline clear, the CGI effects involving the Vesuvius eruption imaginatively (and for once, authentically) done, the filmmaker's (surprisingly poignant) conviction nicely balanced by (well-toasted) cheese. 
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)

A man, a car, a cellphone, for ninety largely gripping minutes. If that doesn't pique your interest...

Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

Carruth's debut feature Primer told a complicated time-travel plot in a nervy, almost entirely obtuse style; Upstream is no less challenging, but its pace is more leisurely, its offerings more sensual, more poignant, ultimately more mysterious--Kris and Jeff fall in love, easy to understand, but who's The Thief? Who's the Sampler? What's the blue dye secreted by the dead animals? More to the point, why is the film so difficult to follow, yet so freakishly fascinating? 

A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 2014)

Corbijn adapting a Martin Booth novel can feel hermetic; Corbijn adapting a John Le Carre novel is if not a perfect match then an inspired one. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman plays one of Le Carre's wounded souls; his target is a possible terrorist financier, his challenge to approach said financier through a former torture victim. Subtleties and slow burns as delivered by a master of espionage fiction, ably translated to the big screen by an up-and-coming filmmaker and an actor--one of the best of his generation--in his last great role.

Violator (Dodo Dayao, 2014)

Problem with Jennifer Kent's The Babadook: while the first half is a harrowing portrait of a single mother struggling to raise a troubled child, the second is an overinsistent about-face of said mother's anxieties, her woes blamed on largely supernatural forces when the film could have done a better job maintaining the delicate balancing act between belief and skepticism (Is she in danger? Is she the danger?)

Dodo Dayao's Violator doesn't even really attempt to evoke ordinary life--more like a fevered dream of that life, as inspired by the coming apocalypse. Or, as described to a potential film programmer: "A Howard Hawks film as directed by an up-and-coming Kurosawa Kiyoshi."

The film programmer's reply: "That sounds...fascinating!"   

Happen to know the man. Hooked, definitely. 


The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013)

James Gray doesn't work near often enough (his last film Two Lovers came out in 2008); anything new from him should be considered a major event. 

This one has the incandescent Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman and her sister, first lost in the labyrinthine hallways and tiled clinics of the Ellis Island Immigration Inspection Station, later on the streets and alleyways of 1920s New York. A melodrama, but so beautifully shot you're transfixed; Gray might be setting himself up as this millennium's Francis Coppola, an old-fashioned storyteller with state-of-the-art visual chops (as with his The Yards and We Own the Night, the cinematography is stunning).  

Joe (David Gordon Green, 2013)

Again a melodrama; like Gray's this is so rooted in its setting (the small towns surrounding Austin, Texas) you can't imagine it happening anywhere else--Green manages to create a slatternly offhand poetry from all the rusted infrastructure steel and junk-stuffed front porches onscreen. 

Nicholas Cage (as Joe) and Tye Sheridan (as young Gary) enjoy a relaxed chemistry together, Cage's modesty an especially welcome  change(usually he comes at you like a Great Dane in heat). From the late Gary Poulter (a homeless man who died only months after this was released) as Wade, director Green luckily gains more: a portrait of quotidian evil, unforgettably, recognizably real.

From What is Before (Lav Diaz, 2014)

Could be said Marcos' declaration of Martial Law is the key event of recent Filipino history and, consequently, of Diaz's cinema; but where his earlier films explore effects and echoes, this one explores sources, root causes--not so much historical and social as psychological, emotional, spiritual. 

It's not all philosophical musings and heavy drama, though; the film can be deadpan hilarious (the army explaining the terms of their occupation to an increasingly uncomfortable civilian population) or harrowing (the last twenty or so minutes). As with most recent Diaz it's basically a tiny independently funded and produced digital film with a weighty agenda and vast ambitions; watching him attempt to marry one with the other can be a breathtaking sight. 
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

Can’t help but feel a sharp tang, knowing this to be Hayao Miyazaki’s last film; can’t help but see this as a valedictory work, a summing up of his thoughts and feelings about art and aviation and everything else at this late point in his life.

That said, the film has been criticized for being a whitewash of the consequences and moral implications of airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi's work on the Japanese Zero, one of the Second World War's most formidable fighter planes.

Disagree--it's a subtler, more troubled film than that, and scrupulously clear about what's actually on historical record, what's speculative fiction (Miyazaki must feel he owes Jiro the honesty). All gorgeously animated of course, mostly by hand, and a great film.  

Hard to Be a God (Aleksei Geran, 2013)

Aleksei German's adaptation of the Strugatsky Brothers' 1964 novel is to put it mildly a labor of love: six years actual shooting (from 2000 to 2006), another six of post-production, with German himself dying in 2013 (the film was completed under the supervision of his wife and son); more, it's possible he'd been thinking of adapting the book through the length of his long if sparse career (five feature films, from 1967 onwards)--perhaps longer (shortly after the book's publication, if you believe some folks).

German's magnum opus is three hours long and in black and white, the decision to go monochrome crucial to the film's look. Mud and blood and manure and vomit (and other substances too disgusting to mention) are rendered equivalent and indistinguishable, spurting from or being smeared into or seeping slowly out of various wounds and faces and fore-and-aft orifices of the people onscreen. Skins are equally textured, with boils and tumors erupting from cheeks and foreheads; teeth are either rotten or snaggled or missing altogether; bones twist in every direction except straight out. As if in response--or in celebration--of their abnormalities the people somersault, turn cartwheels, move on one, two, three, four limbs at once, from mincing little steps to bounding leaps. Can a filthier grimier more virulently corrupt (yet blindingly brilliant) depiction of a rectum of a world be found on the big screen? Don't know; frankly doubt it. 

The Story of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, 2013)  

If talking frugal output, Isao Takahata is a frontrunner: the master filmmaker--he's a colleague of Miyazaki, and artistically his equal--has not done a feature since the effervescent My Neighbor the Yamadas, back in 1999.  

So after a fourteen-year hiatus within which the project underwent eight years of gestation, plus the possibility that this would be the filmmaker's last major project (he's older than Miyazaki by six years), one cannot expect a half-hearted effort. The film may evoke the art of sumi-e, or inkwash painting--evoking texture and emotion and tone, the very essence of the object being painted, with the least amount of strokes--but behind the spareness is an exuberance (that splendid sky-wide cherry blossom tree!), a heedless confidence, as if Takahata (like Miyazaki and German) knew this was his last chance at bat.

The film is based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, one of the oldest of Japanese fables; out of the slim story Takahata fashions a parable on parenthood (every girl is a princess, ever parent a foolish believer in their child's royalty), a poignant sketch of conflicted youth (even she doesn't know what she really wants), a grim depiction of the cruel logic of fairy tales (if you do this, you become that; if you touch this you lose your identity, your sense of your old self, forever)

Despite the visual spareness, the elegance of the storytelling, the film feels full to overflowing. Takahata has made definitive use of his chance; what you experience are the aftereffects. A great film, the best--hands down, head bowed, knee bent--of 2014.

First published in Businessworld 1.8.15

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