2014…Another excellent year of cinema has passed. Much love to my dearest Lily who watched all but two of these films with me. Romania and Chile continue to pour out excellent new work and my favorite is by the great Arnaud Desplechin, who can do no wrong in my book.
Note; At the time of the final edit, I regrettably have not seen the new Mike Leigh film “Mr. Turner,” which I hear is sensational or the new one by Bruno Dumont or Hong Sang-soo but I did just see the new Paul Thomas Anderson film “Inherent Vice” and Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” and both did not make the cut.
MY FAVORITE FILMS OF 2014
1) Jimmy P: The Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian-Arnaud Desplechin (France)
There is much that went into my selection of this film for my pick as the best of 2014. We have all seen the films based on psychological case studies but Desplechin offers no quick solution to this very complex case of a World War Two Native American who is suffering from catatonia and severe headaches. Benecio Del Toro turns in the best performance of his career as Jimmy P, a Plains Indian who is treated and becomes friends with a psychoanalyst named Georges Devereux (Mathieu Alamaric) who is one of the few people in his field that understand the culture of the Plains Indian . There is no buildup to a melodramatic breakthrough as it blends this very particular psychological trauma while fostering a compelling friendship between its leads. As with all work by Desplechin, “Jimmy P” is masterful storytelling on a level that few directors can accomplish these days.
2) Norte: The End of History-Lav Diaz (Philippines)
Cast in the same mold as the films of Bela Tarr and Jacques Rivette, Lav Diaz’s approach to narrative storytelling relies heavily on the duration of scenes to set up mood than most directors working today. A brilliant re-working of the Dostoyevsky’s classic “Crime and Punishment” with a length of 250 minutes, Diaz nuances that classic of Russian literature with the changing social imperatives that have resulted from the political nightmare in his native Philippines. Diaz supplants Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov with Fabian, a law school dropout who quotes Neitzsche and radical philosophies to his friends until he must deliver on his threats of revolution. What truly distinguishes this adaptation of Crime and Punishment from other previous versions is the creation of “Joaquin,” a simple farmer who is sentenced for Fabian’s crime. The story then becomes Fabian’s eventual self-destruction from guilt, but without pressure and fear from a detective like Porfiry; Instead the guilt comes only from what Fabian’s crime has done to Joaquin and his family which causes their lives to descend into a sad hell, which then parallels Fabian’s journey into madness. An epic adaptation that never feels it’s running time. Despite the unrelenting tone of the film, you remain transfixed until the very end.
3) Winter Sleep-Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)
For almost two decades, Nuri Bilge Ceylan has set a standard for filmmaking that few directors can live up to. In fact, Nuri’s major competition has been Nuri himself. With the increasing high standards that he has set for himself with his last three films, all better than the last, it would take a miracle for him to surpass the genius of his 2011 film “Once Upon a Time In Anatolia.” Winter Sleep is a semi-autobiographical sequel of sorts to the wretched character he created in his own image in “Climates.” Here we have Mr. Aydin, a vile egoist who sits like a king inside his mountainside hotel, pontificating about his epic thespian past while his local business interests stifle the village below. Mr. Aydin is married to the beautiful Nihal, who is eyeing the door, and they both live with Aydin’s sister Necla, who tears at Mr. Aydin with sharp, sometimes hysterical barbs throughout the first half of the film. Funnier than any previous Ceylan outing, “Winter Sleep” does not have the complex plot or transcendence of “Once Upon a Time In Anatolia” but it is no less daring and intense on its bold attack of its villain (a Ceylan in the future perhaps?).
4) Under The Skin-Jonathan Glazer (England)
Before I make one single comment about this sensational film from Jonathan Glazer, I would just like to apologize to our director for the hideous Q&A that he endured at the hands of the audience at the Coolidge Corner. Pretentious twats they all were, and I truly feel sorry for the onslaught of the usual Boston, “I must ask a question so you know that I am smart” question/statement: “Why didn’t you adapt the better novel by Michael Faber?” Asked one consistently irritating audience member who should have met the end of many of Scarlett Johansson’s victims in Under The Skin. Now, let’s talk about the film…Glazer took one of the most desirable women the world, Scarlett Johansson, donned her in a black wig to not only hide her celebrity but to enhance her inner femme fatale, and set her lose in Scotland to lure actual unsuspecting men on the street into her van as to then bring them into the eventual destination of her alien abattoir to become a food product back on her world. What remains is a clever essay on what makes us desirable and ultimately human in the same way that Roeg’s “Performance” would challenge our ideas of gender and sexuality.
5) Night Moves-Kelly Reichardt (USA)
To me, Kelly Reichardt, is one of the few great voices left in American independent cinema. Since her debut film, River of Grass, some twenty years ago, Reichardt has established herself as the queen of minimalist filmmaking here in the States. She has been noticeable absent since her last gem, 2010s “Meek’s Cutoff” and she has come back with her best film to date, “Night Moves.” Less the pure observational construction of her earlier films such as “Oldjoy”, “Night Moves” is a critical indictment of the modern eco movement. Here, Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) and Dena (Dakota Fanning) live among the faux-liberal collective farms, ignoring their own privilege as they plot to destroy a seemingly unimportant hydroelectric dam with the help of Harmon (Peter Saarsgard), a hypocritical and marginalized Gulf War veteran. Josh and Dena seem to be existing in an era that no longer exists, and only plot to prove themselves as true believers in the cause as suggested by the title of the film which is drawn from a boat they use in their terrorist action. The boat is interestingly named after the long lost Arthur Penn film from the 1970s when such actions were still relevant. Reichardt skillfully attacks their belief system and methods by getting top performances from the films three leads.
6) Exhibition-Joanna Hogg (England)
Hogg casts Viv Albertine of The Slits as “D” and artist Liam Gillick as “H,” a childless couple who live in their gorgeous modernist London apartment sans children. They are both quite successful, sexually dead, and obsessive over their splendid home, which for some unknown reason, they are dying to unload. While alone, “D” roams about and eroticses her surrounding with a masturbatory array of poses and grindings. As ridiculous as it all seems, Hogg’s purpose it seems is not to humiliate this couple, but to have the audience almost revel in their perverse bourgeois tendencies to find a impossible explanation for their erratic behavior. Are they simply falling apart? Or are “D” and “H” finally understanding that this amount of comfortable living may in conflict with their own creative and intellectual growth? Hogg leaves that decision for you.
7) A Field In England-Ben Wheatley (England)
I might be alone here in my adoration of this psychedelic history piece set during the English Civil War, written and directed by the always surprising Ben Wheatley. Here Wheatley takes a group of war deserters on a whimsical path through the countryside until they meet with the brutal necromancer, O’Neil (Michael Smiley) who doses our deserters with magic mushrooms in order for them to help him on his quest to find a proverbial pot of gold. Shot handheld and in black and white, Wheatley creates a disturbing environment that is unnerving, clumsy, but ultimately victorious as his (Wheatley) determination to tell a story in a way that has never been done before wins out over any small shortcomings that this film possess. All of this culminating in the best three minutes of experimental imagery and sound that I have witnessed from a pseudo mainstream director this year. This may not be for all, but it did make me excited for every scene in a way that only a handful of films have done in this decade.
8) Child’s Pose- Calin Peter Netzer (Romania)
And the winner of this year’s overbearing mother award goes to Cornelia Keneres (amazing performance from veteran actress, Luminita Gheorghiu). Like many films of this Romanian New Wave that we have been graced with over the last decade, older characters such as our Cornelia, represent the old Ceausescu led Romania, a slightly more corrupt world of bribes and favors that still has not died off to this day. Cornelia is a well-off and successful architect who is not pleased at her son Barbu’s (Bogdan Dumitrache) choice of partners, a fact that she makes very clear to her sister early in the film. When Barbu causes a major incident, mom comes to the rescue but not in the intense, unconditional loving way that Kim Hye-ja modest matriarch does in Boon Joon Ho’s.”Mother.” No, Cornelia is packing misery in the form of backroom deals to get her son off, and she is thoroughly despised for her actions by all parties. A critical, mean film from the country that loves a dour moment and a film that also contains one powerhouse performance from Gheorghiu. A phenomenal sour punch in the gut.
9) The Overnighters-Jesse Moss (USA)
It has been said that some documentaries connect an audience simply due to its subject matter now matter how it’s presented (Marc Singer’s excellent 2000 film, “Dark Days” is a fine example) and some receive notice to its production value alone, amounting to little more than eye candy (like 2010s Detropia). Given the subject matter and editing of Jesse Moss’ fine documentary, “The Overnighters,” I would still be impressed if the doc were shot on a 2004 flip phone. Since the controversial technique of “fracking” arrived in North Dakota in 2008, the state has had an employment boom and has also become the second largest oil producing state behind Texas. So, what is there to do with a town like Wiliston, North Dakota, a town that has been besieged by workers from all over America who are looking for a chance to make good money during this dead economy. Considering that there is absolutely no housing available, and that it is illegal to sleep in your car, where will all of these incoming workers sleep? Here enters our hero, Pastor Jay Reinke, who much to the outrage of his fellow neighbors is allowing these workers to sleep in his church and in the church’s parking lot. Herein lies the conflict of the documentary, but the answer to this problem is much more complicated than anyone had ever imagined. Hopeful and heartbreaking, this non-glamourous documentary clearly shows the modern ramifications that result from an act of charity towards desperate group of strangers by a flawed but very good man.
10) When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism-Corneliu Porumbiou (Romania)
Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) , the protagonist and possibly the alter-ego of Romanian director, Corneliu Porumbiou, is faking an ulcer during the filming of his new movie so he could have some extra romantic time with his lead actress Alina (Diana Avramut). This may sound like the beginning of some “rom com” but fans of Pourumbiou’s work fully know that these two characters words and actions will be picked apart clean by the time the credits roll. This film has little to do with their actual relationship but more about how that relationship plays out in the form of cinema. If they speak about nudity for example, the visuals will follow suit and every action will either affirm or condemn the statements that were previously made. Like Porumbiou’s last film, the dark and comedic, “Police Adjective” there is an analysis of the medium and language that occurs here in “When Evening Falls…” that allows the viewer a chance to connect dialog and visuals in a way that only Porumbiou can do. Also, never has there been a funnier colonoscopy scene and if that doesn’t pull you in, I don’t know what will.
1) Gloria-Sebastian Leilo (Chile)
Since the fall of Pinoche, Chile has been experiencing an exciting new wave of film production. Pablo Larraín, Patricio Guzmán, and Sebastian Leilo have all looked back at the days during Pinoche and have also shown us a modern Chile that is both full of hope and promise but sometimes regret for what occurred there between 1973 and 1990. “Gloria,” Leilo’s fourth feature film since 2006 is a sometimes sad and heart wrenching story of two divorced people who are trying to bury a past that never seems to leave them. Wonderful performances from Paulina García and Sergio Hernández in the lead roles make this a can’t miss film.
2) Super Duper Alice Cooper-Sam Dunn (Canada)
Admittedly, I am a huge Alice Cooper fan so my expectations were very high for this biopic on everyone’s favorite horror madman from Detroit. Sure, there are the usual moments of “Behind The Music drug use and abuse” that would be in almost any biopic centered around a musician from the 1970s, right? What does propels this story; Is the absolutely daring use of no on-screen interviews. Yes, all of your information is transmitted through over-narration and a dazzling array of animated photos and graphics, as well as rarely seen archival footage and although I normally repel from such slick documentaries, this particular time the unique presentation of information gives the narrative a timeless effect. Like Alice himself, this doc has a lot of flash and viscera, but inside there is a compelling story of a very entertaining preacher’s son who got very weird, was widely adored, and became a music legend while still being a pretty nice guy.
3) Me and You-Bernardo Bertolucci (Italy)
To be frank, Bertolucci has been on quite a bad tear since “The Last Emperor” won every award possible in 1987. To be blunt, as much as I admire his early work, from “Le Commare Secca” in 1962 to “The Last Emperor,” I am as repelled by most of his output since. To make matters worse, a few of these films during this time have been a kind of clumsy apology for some of Bertolucci’s earlier beliefs and artistic mistakes such as Bernardo’s awful 1993 film, “Little Buddha”, which is clearly an apology for his previously held Marxist beliefs. That said, I truly feel that his superb film from this year, “Me and You” is an on-point correction of all of the mistakes that Bertolucci made with his controversial 1979 film, “Luna”, a film that wasted a superb performance from the late Jill Clayburgh as an opera singing mother who has an incestuous relationship with her junkie son. “Me and You” is the story of Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), the discontented son of a wealthy overbearing mother who is so attached to her son that he schemes to go on a school trip so that he can simply hide in the basement of his apartment building to get a few days of peace and freedom. All is well until Lorenzo’s gorgeous junkie half-sister, Olivia (Tea Falco), shows up with a ton of attitude and crashes Lorenzo’s hideout because she has no place to go. Over the next few days, Olivia begins to fascinate Lorenzo, but where an older Bertolucci would have infused an awkward sexuality, here their relationship turns into several small conversations that help Lorenzo figure out why their parents divorced in the first place. Though not in the realm of his earlier masterworks, “Me and You” is a modest film with real things to say about urban young people in today’s Italy and unlike the pointless nostalgic bore that was Linklater’s “Boyhood,” “Me and You” is a concise film that goes deep into the thought process of its two main characters and is never concerned with just feeding you slices of nostalgia.
4) Jodorowsky’s Dune– Frank Pavich (USA)
The story of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt at producing a film version of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel, “Dune,” has been bandied about for years in film circles. The legend had it that in 1973, Jodorowsky, fresh off the cult successes of his films “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain,” had spent considerable time and resources to assemble a group of some of the hottest young talent in Hollywood to come up with storyboards and a script to make a pitch for funds from Hollywood to make “Dune.” His bizarre selection of actors from Orson Welles, to Salvadore Dali was part of this insane plan, which according to this very entertaining doc was completely true. Jodorowsky himself fuels the narrative of this documentary by regaling sometimes hysterical stories of how he lured in talents like Swiss surrealist painter and sculptor, H.R. Giger and young special effects guru, Dan O’Bannon, to work on this adaptation of a book that Jodorowsky had never bothered to read in the first place! After years of pitches, the job of filming “Dune” went to David Lynch who we all know really made a humongous mess out of the project; A fact that still seems to bring Jodorowsky much joy to this day. A incredibly entertaining documentary, that not only clears up the myths of this attempted version of “Dune,” but also gives you a glimpse into what Hollywood can fiendishly do with the creative remnants of projects that are sent to the scrap bin.
5) Closed Curtain-Jafar Panahi (Iran)
This is Jafar Panahi’s second film that he has made while under house arrest. The sentence carried out a couple of years ago also stated that Panahi could not make any films for the next two decades, so this film was actually directed by Kambuzia Partovi (not really). Unlike his last outing, “This Is Not A Film,” “Closed Curtain” is a sort-of narrative piece that tells the story of a famed writer who arrives at his beautiful home on the shore with a very interesting piece of contraband in tow, a dog named “Boy.” I say “contraband” because the act of walking or owning a dog will soon cost you 74 lashes in the country of Iran because these animals have been deemed “unclean” and a symbol of decadent influence from the West. While our protagonist covers his windows to keep the eyes of the government off of his new friend, “Boy” watches a real television report that shows the grotesque execution of dogs. Our writer then hopes to rest quietly but is awoken late into the night by a brother and sister who are being hunted by the police. Our hero offers to hide the sister who behaves erratically and she is soon tearing down the writer’s curtains. Soon after that, the real Jafar Panahi appears and interacts with neighbors and it is at this point that the narrative of the film gets thrown away. The brother, sister, and the writer occasionally reappear in the film, but these moments are fragmented and this new structure suggests that Panahi does not see a point in making a film under these conditions. As to not give spoilers, I feel that the pervasive tone and structure of “Closed Curtain” is there solely to makes the viewer wonder as to how long Panahi will continue to make films given these circumstances. If Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film” was an act of rebellion, “Closed Curtain” may be his waving of the white flag.
MOST DISAPPOINTING FILM (TIED)
Ida-Pawel Pawlikowski (Poland)
After watching two of his previous films, “Summer of Love” and “Last Resort,” I did not have any desire to see more work from director Pawel Pawlikowski until I read astonishing reviews of his new film, “Ida” in both Film Comment and Cinemascope. Sadly, as I believed about his film “Last Resort” which I found to be an almost shot for shot rip off of Victor Nuñez’s superior 1993 film, “Ruby In Paradise,” “Ida” is an watered down “homage” that carelessly references other masterworks of Polish cinema (here he borrows from Kawalerowicz and Wajda) to tell the story of a novice nun who is met by her Jewish aunt before she is to take her final vows. What follows in this brief throwaway of a film is a kind of road movie where our novice nun is exposed to the hideous truth of her Jewish parents demise during World War Two, which has little dramatic impact given the speed of the narrative. After her aunt’s suicide, our novice then begins an immediate and almost surrealistic transformation (Or is it a dream? Dear Lord, save me) that includes wild jazz musicians, parties, and promiscuity that borders on the comical. A hack job of a film.
The Grand Budapest-Hotel-Wes Anderson (USA)
Everyone’s white hope of direction, Wes Anderson, had been shooting little adorable blanks since his 1999 masterpiece, “Rushmore.” Based on my love for his first two films, I also admit to being as guilty as every other American male of my generation who kept seeing each subsequent film in the hopes that Wes would regain his form. So, when “Moonrise Kingdom” was released to much deserved critical praise in 2012, it reminded all of us that maybe Wes should have possibly slowed down a bit during the last decade so that he could have made something that was a worthy followup to the aforementioned “Rushmore.” That is why I am saddened to say that “The Grand Budapest Hotel” can be tossed into the woodpile along with the other trite Anderson efforts in the 2000s. This star heavy mess neither excels through its leads or its story, a Marx Brothers styled farce whose allegory suggests a condensed World War One style conflict centered around the titular hotel. Ralph Fiennes is the only redeemable thing about this tired, frenetic mess that seemed to wow the audience more with its star power more than any other aspect it tried to present. Let’s just call it “A Mad Mad Mad Mad World Part Two” and file this ornate phone cozy in a cute hand-painted box.
Boyhood –Richard Linklater (USA)
I have been assassinating this film from about a thousand directions since I saw it a few months back, so let me try and take a new angle on this overlong farce..So, if “Boyhood” is just an observational film about a boy and his family with no direct political slant infused into the narrative (or at least that is how it has been explained than Mr. Linklater) then please explain how this “working poor” or even “lower middle class” family can exist in cities like Houston or San Marcos, Texas without one Hispanic or Latino person in their inner circle? I have never pulled the race card in a review, but if this film has no intended statement and it is just a honest look at a boy growing up in this geographic region with those socioeconomic levels, than explain how that could possibly happen? Also, your main character’s celebratory journey to whitebread Austin to hunt for colleges must be the bee’s knees for the milquetoast set who need to escape the world of hard working brown people, but to me it is another reminder that your films have almost consistently been made for the upper class Johnsons and Smiths of this world so if its OK with you, I’ll sit out your next few films.
WORST FILM OF THE YEAR (TIED)
Memphis-Tim Sutton (USA)
Hi Tim Sutton, it is so awesome that you love African American culture, but here’s the problem; After seeing your film, I am fairly confident that you are another useless over privileged Brooklyn hipster who has never really known any African Americans. At least known them in a profound enough way that would have given you the confidence to make a film about their world like you done and failed with here. So your hackneyed, done a million times, sketch of a story which just seems to be the framework for a bevy of Instagram-style imagery to make other sad talent-less children like you think that they are seeing “art,” is actually doing immense disservice to the people and community whom you are trying to lovingly represent. Feel better? Your finished film comes across as one of those mid 1960s well-intentioned, but hopelessly clueless liberal trifles like 1965s “A Patch of Blue” that bored me to tears then so believe me that your little “musical drama” put me into an expensive coma ($13 at the IFC Center in NYC to watch this on a screen the size of a card table). Couldn’t you have just have easily asked mom and dad for less money and made a film about your true roots, like a hard-hitting documentary about your favorite Williamsburg ukulele or cronut shop?
Snowpiercer-Bong Jo Hong (Korea-US/France)
I had feared that this mess would happen last year not soon after seeing Bong Joon-ho’s fellow countryman Park Chan-wook flounder in his American film debut “Stoker,” To make matters worse, Bong Joon-ho has suffered an even worse fate than Park, as he has tried to adapt French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jean-Marc Rochette, into English (a language Bong does not speak) with the help of the meager talent that is playwright Kelly Masterson (who speaks no Korean, of course). You got all that, right? “Snowpiercer” is a dreadful, heavy handed, pandering political “science fiction” film that contains the funniest (not intentional) moment of dialog in cinema this year; The line occurs when our hero played by Chris Evans utters the following line, “I hate them because they forced me to find out what a baby tastes like,” during the supposed dramatic climax of the film. You want more? Tilda Swinton with fake teeth, playing comically spastic (I’m done with her now BTW), a bunch of unsympathetic extras from the “occupy movement,” and a clairvoyant who can predict the future but not what’s through the door in front of her. Also, I cannot count the amount of internet and print media crybabies who posted about upset they were that “the Weinstein’s shuffled the film off to suburban theaters after Bong refused to edit the film down to two hours.” Well, you know what makes me upset? The fact that this film made me agree for the first time in my life with that talentless enemy of the people, Harvey Weinstein. Well, not completely, as I think that “Snowpiercer” isn’t even good enough for the mall theaters that it was forced into and should have been sent directly to North Korea in the hopes that they wouldn’t take the USA (or South Korea for that matter) seriously enough to invade. Lastly, as a loyal devotee of graphic novels for my entire life, I have this message for all of you who have not yet learned from awful graphic novel adaptations like; “Scott Pilgrim,” “Blue Is The Warmest Color,” or this hunk of crap..Just because it was adapted from an indie comic book, it does not make it cutting edge. And before you say anything else..Yes, film adaptations of video games are a much worse proposition.
BEST REPERTORY EXPERIENCE (TIED)
Fat City (1972) Director: John Huston. Novelist/Screenwriter Leonard Gardner’s Q&A
Former boxer turned screenwriter Leonard Gardner’s March 31st, 2014 appearance at the Harvard Film Archive will go down as one of the best experiences that I have ever had at the Carpenter Center. Still as sharp as a tack, Gardner had a bottomless bag of stories about his experiences working with legendary director John Huston on set in Stockton, California during the filming of “Fat City.” To me, the simple fact that Huston allowed Gardner to amend the script during shooting tells me why the film has a brilliant looseness of dialog that is on par with any film made during that period by much younger, more “hip” directors. The only thing that I regret about that night was that I didn’t try to shake Gardner’s hand in fear that I might accidentally kiss his cheek in gratitude for his appearance, and thus possibly me getting a mouth full of fist. Still, that would have been worth it for me.
Killer Joe (2012) Director: William Friedkin
William Friedkin, is a scholar and a gentleman who the evening before the screening of his film “Killer Joe” had stayed at the Harvard Film Archive until almost midnight to speak with film students and fans alike after the screening of his ignored masterpiece, “Sorcerer.”. So, when his brutal, 2012 film, “Killer Joe” screened the next night, I didn’t expect Mr. Friedkin to be as insanely hysterical as he was, culminating with a response to my friend Sean Burn’s question about Friedkin’s choice to use Clarence Carter’s suggestive song “Strokin,” during the credits of what was a very nasty film. Friedkin retorted that “every film and play, even “Hamlet” would be drastically improved with “Strokin” at the end.” The next five minutes of his response were a blur due to my laughter. Somewhere lost in this was Friedkin, whom my wife Lily and I had met the night before, began his Q&A by waving at us and saying; “Hey guys, great to see you again.” All I have to say is; “Wow, what a guy.”
See you next year!