The 10 (+1) Best Films of 2015

2015 didn’t produce as many special films as the previous two years, but it was strong and it was consistent.  So consistent that, I admit, I had a hell of a time putting the films below in any kind of order, and, as you can see, couldn’t help but add an extra slot.  It was also unpredictable.  Some films that I was sure would top this list didn’t even make it (see The Hateful Eight, Anomalisa and the extremely disappointing The Tribe) while a number of erstwhile afterthoughts became favorites.  We saw some great films from prolific auteurs, but perhaps even more from filmmakers just starting out.  And the especially encouraging thing is that these first, second or third efforts weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel with boundary pushing or stylistic bombast.  Instead, they exhibited traits more often acquired over the span of much longer careers: patience, respect for characters, knowing what not to say.  Some of these films have rather tough outer shells, but if you give them some time and just little bit of effort they’ll surely deliver you cinematic pearls.

A few spoilers below, but nothing, in my opinion, that would detract from one’s overall viewing experience.

  1. James White (Dir. Josh Mond)

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James White is the story of a rudderless, twentysomething New Yorker (Christopher Abbott, of Girls fame) caring for his dying mother as he simultaneously struggles to make sense of his own life.  Films that deal with terminal illness can skew sappy, but director Josh Mond and his actors understand that the film’s heaviest aspects work well enough without embellishment.  The writing, too, puts the bulk of the focus on characterization, filling the smallest of moments with just as much detail as the more vital ones.  The look of the film is appropriately naturalistic, but with just enough flourish to feel the filmmaker’s identity.  Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély’s camera often stays tight on James’ face, obscuring everything around him.  This technique is especially well employed in the opening sequence, which also sports some impressive sound design that allows both the character and the audience to drift between thumping club beats and the sweet croon of Ray Charles.  

James White boasts a truly breakout performance from Abbott, who showcases an exhaustive range of emotion without ever chewing scenery, and Cynthia Nixon as James’ mother Gail has never been better (sorry Sex and the City fans).  But these standouts aside, it’s the dynamic between all of the characters (the best friend and girlfriend characters are wisely given equal shrift) that allows the film to reach an impressive level of authenticity.  The ending may feel like it comes a little early, but I admire the film’s focus on a very specific and intense period of the protagonist’s life and the director’s restraint in refusing to give us much closure.  James White is Mond’s first feature length directorial effort (he was a producer on the excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene); it’s a fine debut, one of the year’s best, and I look forward to whatever it is he’s able to cook up next.

  1. Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

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Let me just say this at the outset: Room does not make this list without the astoundingly capable performance of ten year old Jacob Tremblay, and the film does not work nearly as well overall.  Despite its disturbing premise, at its core Room is a film about growing up, and to execute that well you need a child actor mature enough to convey the pain and awe inevitably required.  Held prisoner in a single, bomb shelter-like room by a very sick individual known simply as “Old Nick”, Tremblay’s Jack and his “Ma” (Brie Larson in an Oscar winning performance) pass the many days with creative games, stories, and their almost religious routines.  Ma was kidnapped and confined to Room (not “the room”, or “a room”, just “Room”…more on that later) almost a decade prior.  Jack was born in captivity, the product of Old Nick’s sexual abuse, and as a way to shield his fragile young psyche from the horror of their predicament, we learn that Ma has concocted an elaborate mythology explaining the pair’s claustrophobic existence.  “Room” is their entire world, and every object within (like Bed, Rug and Chair Number Two) is monolithic, finite and elemental, no need for articles.  But Room is just as much about what happens to Jack and Ma after their harrowing escape, a painfully tense sequence providing one of my favorite shots, or series of shots, I suppose, of the year (see picture above).  

The latter half of the film deals with the post captivity adjustment period; the initial elation that eventually gives way to frayed family relationships, intense media scrutiny and the crushing question of “now what?”  Jack struggles to process the big, loud world all around him, often wishing to return to Room, while his mother struggles to reintegrate herself into a world that kept on moving while hers was effectively on pause.  While certainly exacerbated by their unique situation, both characters deal with many of the same issues we all deal with as we mature, and it’s Jack’s sense of wonder, especially, that hit me the hardest on an emotional level.  Even the way he uses language conveys ideas in their most basic form.  “There’s so much of place,” he says to himself at one point, and I think everyone comes to that simple realization at one point or another in life.  Room leaves you with the sense that despite Jack’s ordeal, the rest of his life will be the real adventure.

  1. Inside Out (Dir. Pete Docter)

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There was one animated film released in 2015 that I absolutely could not wait to see.  Helmed by a seasoned and celebrated filmmaker, it seemed poised to provide a ground-breakingly fresh take on the medium.  That film was Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, and while it was certainly an interesting and thought provoking piece, it ultimately disappointed.  Pixar’s Inside Out, on the other hand, stunned me with its creativity and depth of emotion.  Directed by Pete Docter, the member of the Pixar stable of creative minds that brought you Up and Monsters Inc., Inside Out takes place mostly within the mind of a pre-teen girl, Riley, just after a family move from the midwest to San Francisco.  We, the viewers, largely experience this transitional period via the perspective of Riley’s personified emotions (Joy, Fear, Disgust, etc.), voiced by the likes of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling.  The film sucks you in with the details of Riley’s mental machinations, running the audience through the rules and principles that govern her inner world in a way that’s always fascinating and never comes off as unnaturally expository.  These fresh and funny details might carry Inside Out well enough, but it’s the film’s emotional gravitas that really makes it something special.  I mean, who knew a character named Bing Bong could afford me one of the most deep, cathartic cries I’ve had in years?  It’s a movie that aims to literally bring the fear, excitement, nostalgia and bravery of growing up to life, and unexpectedly, amazingly, Inside Out nails it on its own unique terms.

  1. The Revenant (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

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The Revenant was one of the year’s most lauded films: Golden Globe winner for Best Picture (Drama), 12 Academy Award nominations and three wins, including the third in a row for Cinematographer Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezki, second in a row for Director Alejandro Iñárritu, and a hitherto elusive first for Leonardo DiCaprio.  It came on the heels of Iñárritu’s big winner last year, the more successful Birdman, and where Birdman was playful, meta, often silly (though with a surprisingly affecting emotional core), The Revenant is grave, dour and relentlessly punishing.  As engrossing as much of the film was, there was an emotional disconnect for me.  DiCaprio’s 19th century fur trapper Hugh Glass, mortally wounded in a bear attack, betrayed and left for dead, finds himself in such a cartoonishly insurmountable situation that when he ultimately claws his way back to civilization it threatens to undercut the realism that had been so well earned by the film’s cast and production team. Granted, The Revenant follows what the real-life Glass recounted in his own writings (aside from the shoehorned-in creation of a “half breed” son), but there are scant other sources to corroborate this decidedly tall tale.  There’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned yarn, but regardless of the story’s authenticity, Iñárritu’s reach for an emotional response ends up feeling like overreaching.  

Clearly I found flaws in this film, but what it does right it does very, very right.  The Revenant looks amazing, from the production design to the costumes to the hair and makeup to Lubezki’s nimble and naturally lit camera work.  He utilizes his signature long tracking shots superbly; the early encampment attack scene is the stuff of nightmares (if you thought those long takes in Children of Men were intense…).  DiCaprio is fully committed and very good, even if his character is a little flat, but Tom Hardy actually steals the show with his nuanced handling of the story’s “villain.”  Oh, and the score is pretty great too.  The Revenant definitely misses a few marks narrative wise, but it’s skillfully made and ambitious as hell, and for that I must doff my critical cap.

  1. The End of the Tour (Dir. James Ponsoldt)

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My knowledge of David Foster Wallace is more so as an icon, a literary legend, than as an actual writer.  His first novel, The Broom of the System, was the inaugural selection of a short lived booked club I participated in several years ago, and I admit that I only made it about halfway through.  I didn’t dislike it, and it wasn’t impenetrable, it just didn’t pull me in hard enough to urge me towards the conclusion.  My cursory understanding of the author remains based on the facts (and lore) of his life: young, midwestern college professor publishes 1,000+ page opus Infinite Jest in the mid 90s; book has major impact on the literary world while author is thrust into the media spotlight; author has recurring struggles with depression; author commits suicide in 2008 having never published another completed novel.  This is, of course, a facile description of Wallace’s life and career and does little to get at who the man really was, which is why The End of the Tour was, for me, such a fascinating film.  

Read the full review HERE.

  1. Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)

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Based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, Todd Haynes’ adaptation is, above all, a gorgeous film.  Its 1950s setting, the cars, the clothes, the hair, are fertile ground for cinematographer Edward Lachman (who also shot Haynes’ fantastic 2002 period drama Far From Heaven), and his choice to shoot on 16mm film (as opposed to 35mm or digital) gives every color a muted yet saturated hue that feels absolutely authentic.  It’s this aesthetic authenticity that really sets the stage for two wonderfully understated performances by the film’s leads, Cate Blanchett in the titular role and Rooney Mara in her best performance to date as Therese Belivet.

Carol is a simple story of a same sex love affair that happens in a time and place where such things are still very much taboo; we’ve heard these stories before.  What sets this one apart is its execution.  Carol is a film of glances, gestures and things left unsaid, much like real life.  This is not easy to pull of and it’s a credit to the actors and filmmakers that we’re able to sense the beats of the central relationship’s evolution with so little overt expression.  Haynes, thankfully, trusts his audience enough to take this approach.  Carol, has a sociopolitical bent (and ends on a healthy yet well earn note of affirmation), it must; but we also get to know the characters well enough that they come off as real people and not just stand ins for a larger debate.

  1. Amy (Dir. Asif Kapadia)

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The rise and fall of the troubled artist is a perennial tale, and Amy Winehouse is as worthy a subject as any.  Asif Kapadia’s skillfully rendered film is mostly comprised of intimate archival footage, and it stitches together a rich cinematic fabric documenting the English musician’s life and career.  The director’s tactful sensibilities would matter little, though, if it weren’t for the magnetism of his film’s subject.  Before seeing Amy I’d possessed a passing appreciation for Winehouse as a talented neo-blue-eyed-soul singer.  Afterwards, that appreciation morphed into a very real sense of respect for her artistry and vision, and further into sadness.  Not just a sadness for the loss of great music that might have been, but the sadness one feels seeing someone you care about in pain.  Of course I didn’t know Amy Winehouse, but Amy kind of made me feel like I did.

A true prodigy from musical stock, Winehouse began serious vocal training at age 11, took up guitar at 14, and was a featured vocalist in the National Youth Jazz Ensemble by 17.  Ten years, two albums and five Grammys later she was dead.  But unlike most coverage of her explosive career and ultimate demise, Amy refuses to exploit the woman at it’s center. It leaves viewers with more than a sense of Hollywood tragedy; it demands an appreciation for her truest legacy: her music.  Like other singers who, in the true jazz tradition, use their voice as an instrument (Van Morrison comes to mind), Winehouse’s vocals are often unintelligible.  But Kapadia’s choice to use titles during much of the performance footage allows the audience to enjoy her immense talent as a lyricist as well.  Musicianship aside, Winehouse comes across as a genuinely lovely person with a lust for life that no doubt contributed to her astuteness at capturing raw human emotion in song, and Amy makes us feel her absence.

  1. The Look of Silence (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

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Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to 2013’s The Act of Killing, an incredible film that actually found itself in the same position on Moving Pictures’ top ten list that year, tackles the Indonesian genocide from a different angle.  Rather than focusing on the perpetrators, The Look of Silence turns its lens to the victims.  The film’s central subject is Adi, the younger brother of a brutally murdered “communist sympathizer” (read: anyone whose views and lifestyle were not compatible with the military dictatorship that took over in the mid 60s); and when I say brutally, I mean brutally.  Oppenheimer’s film spares the audience no terrible details.  The director once again heavily utilizes the treasure trove of interview footage he amassed over many years spent in Indonesia talking with members of the current regime (yes, the people who carried out these mass killings fifty years ago are still in power).  But Silence adds further layers to the tragedy with its focus on Adi and his elderly parents (both seem unsure of their own exact age), showing us how grief can seep into the soul like a sickness.

Adi, a local optomologist, uses his occupation to secure face time with those responsible for his brother’s death.  As each slowly realizes Adi’s true motives, their responses range from righteous indignation to cold blankness to outward hostility; one high powered politician even suggests that if people continue to ask questions like Adi’s, maybe there needs to be another purge.  One passage, in which Adi visits an aging uncle, ruthlessly illustrates the extent of the complicity that permeates these communities.  Another late scene hints at some hope of healing for the younger generations, but it’s a cold comfort given all that precedes.  There is, without a doubt, significant artistry is the way The Look of Silence is put together, but it’s also a confidently quiet film which understands that the gravity of its subject matter is conveyed best with simple presentation, rather than editorialization.  During the film’s coda, Adi’s frail and senile father skuttles along the laundry room floor, frightened and confused.  “I’m lost,” he says, and in his words we hear the cry of an entire generation.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)

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We have to ask ourselves two questions when critiquing art of any kind: what is the artist trying to accomplish and how well does the piece achieve their self-established goals?  Fury Road is, reductively speaking, a sci-fi action film, but Australian filmmaker George Miller has spent decades fleshing out the idiosyncratic universe of the Mad Max film series that he created.  This most recent installation, the director’s crowning achievement, is essentially one long post-apocalyptic chase sequence, and its use of pacing, staging, editing and effects (mostly practical, as opposed to CGI) nails everything an audience could possibly want out of such a scenario.  But Fury Road ended up so high on this list because it’s able to do and say so much more than what one would expect of it.  It is an overachieving film in every way.

On the surface the world of Fury Road, it’s set pieces, it’s rituals, it’s characters’ garb, could seem like a random assortment of wackiness for its own sake.  But if one considers the context and other bits of information Miller provides, all of these details are grounded in a thoughtful understanding of the world in which his characters desperately exist.  Aesthetically speaking the film is marvelous, both in its most kinetic moments and most quiet ones.  It’s at times a ballet of mayhem, at others a dystopian opera.  Fury Road deals with some relatively elevated themes as well.  Commentary on climate change and water scarcity (something even the most privileged developed countries will have to deal with much sooner than we think) are front and center.  The film has a strong feminist message as well, and makes no bones about it; another refreshing departure for the genre.  Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is effectively the lead, Max is merely the audience’s vehicle through which to witness her efforts to liberate her subjugated sisters.

This is a film one really must see to understand.  It may not be for you, but it would be wrong to lump it into the same category as the mindless Hollywood action offerings that are all too common.  Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film with explosions and blood and guts, but it also has a heart and a head; these days that’s something very rare and special indeed.

  1. Son of Saul (Dir. László Nemes)

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There are so many films about the Holocaust that they’ve basically formed a distinct subgenre, and I’ve seen quite a few of them.  It is, of course, a vital story to tell; as a memorial, as a warning, and, perhaps, for the little catharsis it might provide.  But I’ve never seen a Holocaust film like first time Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul.  Covering only a day or so inside the walls of Auschwitz, 1944, it maintains a laser focus on Saul, a Hungarian Sonderkommando on a singular mission to provide a proper Jewish burial to a young camp victim who may or may not be his estranged son.  There are millions of stories that have emerged from this nightmare period of history and dozens of films that deal with its subjects and themes; what makes this story stand out is the way it’s told.  Nemes utilizes the now rare “Academy Ratio” (which makes the frame much closer to a square than a rectangle), long, point-of-view shots and a very shallow focus that blurs everything outside of Saul’s immediate sphere.  Tamás Zányi’s incredible sound design lends another layer to this immersive film, creating a cacophony of cries and whispers almost as disturbing as the obscured atrocities surrounding the protagonist.  The result is a feeling of claustrophobia and disorientation that puts the audience inside the experience, rather than allowing them to merely observe.  Géza Röhrig as Saul, a former teacher, current poet and first time actor, is mesmerizing in the largely wordless role; his face says it all.

Son of Saul also includes details of a prisoner uprising that actually did happen at Auschwitz in ‘44, and how Saul’s goals come into conflict with those of the larger group; but the film is ultimately more about feeling and experience than narrative.  Some have bemoaned its so-called first-person-video-game presentation, charging the filmmakers with exploitation.  I, on the other hand, found Son of Saul to be authentic and subtle, a thriller so intimate that it forces us to confront the Holocaust up close, and never forget how horrible human beings can truly be if we allow fear to breed hatred.

  1. 45 Years (Dir. Andrew Haigh)

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In many ways, 45 Years director Andrew Haigh’s approach couldn’t be more different than George Miller’s.  This list’s number three film thrives, nay depends, on maintaining a near constant state of kinetic energy; not only via the characters’ movements through Miller’s wasted landscapes, but also through its editing and visual style.  45 Years, on the other hand, uses stillness, silence and a steady gaze to generate a level of tension that stands up to many of the white-knuckle sequences in Fury Road.  What’s not so different about these films, however, is their impeccable attention to detail, the way that little specificities, teased out just enough, can so quickly thrust the viewer into a thoroughly realized world.  45 Years’ premise sounds almost silly on paper: the comfortable, pastoral existence of an old English couple, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling in an Oscar nominated performance), is compromised when the body of Geoff’s long ago girlfriend is discovered, perfectly preserved, in a block of ice in the German Alps.  This woman, Katya, was killed during a climbing accident years before the now-couple met, and her life and death have been minimized to a few passing conversations.  But over the course of a few days leading up to their 45th anniversary party, long buried memories are resurrected, and Kate’s curiosity and Geoff’s evasion begin to fray the emotional fibers that have so long held the two together.  

Stylistically speaking 45 Years is nothing earth-shattering, employing classic Euro-cinema techniques such as long static shots, naturalistic performances, frank sex and ambiguous narrative turns.  But it’s all done so well.  Haigh and Cinematographer Lol Crawley create some fantastic imagery, though much of it is born of a tastefully selective eye rather than a particularly masterful manipulation of craft.  It’s the ever so lived-in nature of the characters’ world and the easy rapport of the actors that make the film superlative; the routines, the stealthily divulged histories, the characters’ unique quirks (Geoff’s tarzan-like chest thumping was a favorite of mine).  45 Years is a film that seems to simply exist, effortlessly.  If I had to pinpoint what made it my favorite film of the year, though, it’d have to be the ending.  The proceedings build, appropriately, to the anniversary party, which seems to take on 45 years worth of significance.  The final shot in particular, its use of music and Charlotte Rampling’s delicate performance, delivers one of the most haunting finales I’ve seen, with implications for the characters that reverberate through the credits and far beyond.  I guess the more simple way to put it is this: 45 Years is the best among several great films I saw this year because it’s the one I’m still thinking about.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Ex Machina…for the best hard sci-fi film in ages, and the year’s most memorable dance sequence!

Spotlight…for a very well made journalistic procedural with solid performances and a genteel handling of its difficult subject matter.

Sicario…for yet another visual masterpiece from cinematographer Roger Deakins and a wonderfully menacing score from Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Queen of Earth…for a weird-as-hell, retro psychological horror film featuring the greatest Elizabeth Moss performance ever (outside of Mad Men of course).

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The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century (Pt. 2)

Art is not a contest, and the consumption of art is largely a subjective experience.  No list is definitive, but lists are fun to read (and to write).  The growing prevalence of listing-making and websites like Buzzfeed are, in my opinion, a blight upon our media culture, another manifestation of our dwindling collective attention span (think: The Top 18 Celebrity Selfie Malfunctions That Will Totally Change Your World).  But ranking and categorizing our favorite films, musicians and books can also give rise to healthy debate.  

In that spirit, Moving Pictures has compiled a list of the 21 Best Films of the 21st Century.  The following is Part 2 of the list; if you missed Part 1 you can check it out HERE.  Please tell us what you think in the comments section, and enjoy!

  1. Under the Skin (2014) – Jonathan Glazer

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Under the Skin is a film that few people saw and probably even fewer enjoyed.  I don’t think that’s right, but it’s certainly understandable.  It’s a challenging film to be sure; scarce on dialogue, it utilizes a B movie-style narrative conveyed through a schizophrenic combination of cinéma vérité and painstakingly manipulated imagery.  It works, and amazingly well, for two reasons, the first being Scarlett Johansson’s transformative, otherworldly performance.  The second is the unique and uncompromising way in which director Jonathan Glazer approaches the potentially pulpy material.  This filmmaker’s dedication and command of craft, just as much as his artistic style itself, evoke the term “Kubrickian” perhaps more appropriately than anything else I’ve seen since the death of the genuine article.  Under the Skin took ten years to make, but it should (and hopefully will) be remembered for ten times that.

(Read the full review HERE)

  1. Grizzly Man (2005) – Werner Herzog 

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The image above is an appropriate representation of what Timothy Treadwell was all about: not simply observing the natural world but becoming a part of it, and indeed, in many ways, forsaking the human world for it.  As it’s divulged in the opening minutes of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, it’s no spoiler to say that his quest ended in tragedy.  In some sense a found-footage documentary, the film largely consists of material Treadwell shot himself, of himself, over 13 summers in the Alaskan wilderness tracking and studying wild grizzly bears.  It is not, however, a nature documentary.  Though Herzog, a giant of cinema in his own right, crafts a bizarre yet successful framework with artfully staged interviews and his own signature narration, the German filmmaker clearly struck gold with his true subject, Treadwell himself.  A man of heartbreakingly childlike wonder and sadness, Treadwell bears his soul (no pun intended) to a camera on a tripod in the middle of nowhere, and many of the moments captured are as real and as human as movies can get.

  1. In the Mood for Love (2000) – Wong Kar-Wai

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In the Mood for Love is the most recent film I’ve seen on this list, just within the last few weeks, and given its pedigree I’d expected to see something special. To say I was not disappointed would be a gross understatement.  Yes, In the Mood for Love is dazzlingly beautiful and formally rich, though these strengths ultimately exist to serve its heartbreaking and universal story of unfulfilled love.  A friendship forms between neighbors Chow and Su when they discover their spouses are carrying on an affair, and that friendship quickly becomes a close and complicated bond.  Director Wong Kar-Wai’s script plays with the idea of repetition throughout, replaying musical themes and even the same interactions to fascinating and hypnotic effect.  The subject of identity, too, is explored; not just in general terms of the characters’ pairing within the film’s conservative social context, but also directly in the form of recurring exercises where the two rehearse conversations and confrontations with their unfaithful partners.  The final sequence is breathtaking; the ancient setting, the significance of the act, the cello weeping through it all.  In the Mood for Love is also the most recent film on the Sight and Sound list, a towering institution, and as innovative as it is, it’s a work that also draws on many of the time-tested sensibilities that make it an obvious addition to the cinematic canon.  Mood has the quality of a memory: elemental and fragmented, but something you nonetheless can’t shake.

  1. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) – Abdellatif Kechiche

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Controversy swirled around Blue is the Warmest Color even before it took the top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (accusations of mistreatment of the cast and crew, backlash from the source material’s author, and of course, the extremely long, graphic sex scenes).  All of this ultimately became a distraction from the fact that Blue is one of the best coming-of-age stories in recent memory, if not ever.  While the film’s main focus is the romantic relationship between a young French woman named Adele, and Emma, a hip art school student several years her senior, it is just as much about Adele’s life before and after the relationship as it is about the relationship itself. Indeed, their connection carries so much weight because we spend those small, quiet moments with Adele both leading up to and in the aftermath of her time with Emma (in fact, the French title of the film is The Life of Adele – Chapters 1 & 2).  That structural choice, coupled with a beautifully naturalistic and emotionally raw performance from Adele Exarchopoulos, makes the nearly three hour film a deeply immersive experience.  Lea Seydoux, as Emma, hits all the right notes as the mature, nurturing lover and the increasingly distant artist, and the entire supporting cast creates a lush tapestry of characters that deepens the world created by Kechiche.  But one really cannot say enough about Exarchopoulos.  A relative unknown prior to filming, she is utterly convincing at every moment, whether chatting with friends, teaching a class full of second graders, making passionate love or eating a plate of spaghetti. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film about a particular relationship, yes, but ultimately it is about how love shapes our lives, how it does not always conform to our plans and responsibilities, how we can learn from the pain we experience, and how some people will always matter to who we are.

  1. Lost in Translation (2003) – Sofia Coppola

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Bill Murray is one of American comedy’s greatest ambassadors, able to create characters of heartwarming silliness (What About Bob? was a staple in my home growing up and remains the most frequently quoted film by far) or caddish cool (see Stripes and the Ghostbuster movies).  Since the late 90s, however, many of his roles have taken on a sense of subtle melancholy that displays the true depth of Murray’s range.  Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is the zenith of that phase, the story of a has-been actor and the young wife of a distant workaholic (a 19 year old Scarlett Johansson), both caught adrift amidst the flashing lights and frenzied pulse of Tokyo.  The film is built around a series of small moments as the two explore the city together.  Coppola’s script is meticulous in its pacing, toying with the nature of the relationship (Paternal? Comradely? Romantic?) for much of it’s runtime.  Murray is at his most genuine while still providing big laughs as an unlikely straight-man.  But Lost in Translation proves to be an even more critical milestone for Johansson, here establishing herself as a serious artist with serious chops.  Its memorable, though muted, climax shows powerful restraint (the director’s choice to obscure Murray’s parting words is a masterstroke) and offers one of the most sweetly sad moments ever filmed.

  1. Caché (2005) – Michael Haneke

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The inspiration of endless debate and at least as much head-scratching, this enigmatic thriller from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke is a beautifully constructed and gripping film, but it’s also a brilliantly conceived viewing exercise that invites collaborative engagement from its audience.  When an upper class Parisian family starts receiving anonymous VHS tapes of a static video feed from outside their home, along with ominous, childlike drawings, suspicion and deceit seep into domestic relationships as a mother (Juliette Binoche), father (Daniel Auteuil) and teenage son struggle to make sense of the bizarre happenings.  Though material like this could easily be handled as cheap horror, Caché focuses on the impact rather than the action, holding a level of tension that defies the very concept of release, let alone resolution.  It also maintains a rich social subtext, adding yet another layer beneath the puzzlebox narrative.  A key clue (not to infer that there is necessarily a singular “answer”) is held in the film’s very last shot, so watch closely.  There will be much to talk about after the credits roll, so definitely watch this one before dinner.

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Michel Gondry 

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Eternal Sunshine has been in my life for a long time.  I was in high school when it was released and it was the first time I saw a film in the theater that ended up being something truly indelible, a new classic.  It’s prompted many intense conversations, as well as many “let’s leave this on” afternoon half-viewings. There’s not a lot to say about Michel Gondry’s film that hasn’t already been said.  Its Wikipedia page calls it a “romantic science-fiction comedy-drama”, and the fact that that’s not a mischaracterization is amazing unto itself.  Under Gondry’s direction, Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar winning script commands a tonal alchemy that allows its dealings in routine memory erasure and surreal mindscapes to blend seamlessly with its tale of love gained and lost, and gained (and lost?).  I’ll refrain from delving into the particulars and assume you’ve seen it; if you haven’t, you should go in free of expectation.  It’s undoubtedly a superlative film: Gondry’s best, Kaufman’s best, certainly Jim Carrey’s most vital contribution to motion pictures.  Kate Winslet’s Clementine is one of the best written and acted female character’s in recent memory; her mix of traits, both challenging and endearing, is a captivating amalgam for both Carrey and the audience.  And the supporting performances (Ruffalo, Dunst, Wood, Wilkinson)!  And the music!  And the English actors doing perfect American accents!  It’s all a revelation, a cinematic mic drop, period.  

  1. Y Tu Mamá También (2001) – Alfonso Cuarón 

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Y Tu Mamá También is many things.  It’s a road trip film, a frank examination of teenage sexuality, a commentary on Mexican society.  It’s a film about many things: friendship, class, youth and aging, time and impermanence.  It’s long been a favorite film of mine but I’ve had a hard time pinpointing exactly what about it hits me so hard.  The plot is rather slight: best friends Julio and Tenoch (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna), on the cusp of college years and with girlfriends absent on a trip abroad for the summer, embark on an impromptu excursion through the Mexican countryside with thirtysomething Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the ex of an older cousin.  But this simple premise showcases a heady brew of ideas and choices from director Alfonso Cuarón. The handheld camerawork, prevalent use of long takes and the lack of close-ups and traditional “two shots” creates a powerful sense that the viewer is watching real people, eavesdropping on real conversations.  On the other hand you have heavily utilized voiceover by a faceless, omniscient, off-screen narrator; obviously not a naturalistic technique, but nothing in this film is technique for technique’s sake.  What this combination does is allow the performances to focus on interactions without needing to waste time adding depth with exposition.  And beyond the principals, it goes much further by fleshing out characters on the fringe, delving obliquely into the sociopolitical undercurrents of the setting. This whole approach is supported throughout by fabulous performances; Luna, especially, shines (his range of emotion during the hotel room fight is stunning).  If this all weren’t enough, there’s a reveal of information in the film’s conclusion that completely reframes one character, but the technique is an enrichment rather than a distraction.  I suppose this is all to say that the true success of Y Tu Mamá También is its ability to marry these seemingly divergent concepts in a way that’s provocative, beautiful and entertaining instead of just busy.  Less is usually more, but if done correctly, more can also be more.

  1. Before Sunset (2004) – Richard Linklater 

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Richard Linklater’s trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight is among the grandest and most skillfully realized of cinematic endeavours.  Before Sunset is the most exciting installment of the trilogy partly because of its urgency.  It unfolds in real time: 80 minutes, no ellipses.  Before Sunrise breathed vibrant life into these intelligent and complex characters and Before Midnight provides a realistic, well-earned conclusion, but in Sunset we witness the real moment of truth: when we find out if Jesse and Celine will, finally, become Jesse & Celine.  These characters are older and in many ways wiser, and the same can be said for the actors portraying them.  While Before Sunset is the second installment in the series, it’s the first that was co-written by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and the ease with which words tumble and burst from their mouths make us feel like we’re witnessing an authentic and intimate conversation rather than watching a performance.  These three films taken as a whole are a grand, ambitious and sublimely successful experiment, possibly the most comprehensive study of the life cycle of love ever committed to film.  Each piece lends greater perspective to the last, but like other classic trilogies The Godfather and Star Wars, “Part 2” is the most essential.  I’ve asked myself why this has emerged as a pattern in film trilogies, and my only answer is that perhaps the freedom from resolution coupled with the benefit of backstory creates the closest approximation of real life.

  1. There Will Be Blood (2007) – Paul Thomas Anderson

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My god, what can’t this film do?  Iconic performances, a story both timely and timeless, breathtaking cinematography, a brilliantly experimental score and a diamond cut script; check, check, check, check, check.  This epic yet subtle study of greed and antisocial behavior in the context of America’s westward expansion is PTA as Kubrick, but with more emotional heft.  The elegantly fluid camerawork and scarcity of dialogue, carried by a mesmerizing and unsettling score from Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, lull the audience into a trance punctuated only by the film’s bursts of physical and emotional violence.  Daniel Day-Lewis, in an Oscar winning performance (if you thought he was good in Lincoln…), creates one of the most disgustingly fascinating characters in American film history, at once powerful and pathetic, a living, breathing embodiment of humankind’s most base impulses masquerading as progress. He is Charles Foster Kane; he is Colonel Kutz; he is Ahab.  Understanding Daniel Plainview is a way of understanding American history and the personalities that forged our present, and like much of said history, it’s not pretty.  Simply put, There Will Be Blood is the crowning achievement of America’s newest best filmmaker.

The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century (Pt. 1)

Art is not a contest, and the consumption of art is largely a subjective experience.  No list is definitive, but lists are fun to read (and to write).  The growing prevalence of “listicles” and websites like Buzzfeed are, in my opinion, a blight upon our media culture, another manifestation of our dwindling collective attention span (think: The Top 18 Celebrity Selfie Malfunctions That Will Totally Change Your World).  But ranking and categorizing our favorite films, musicians and books can also give rise to healthy debate, and that’s a good thing.  

In that spirit, Moving Pictures has compiled this rundown of the 21 Best Films of the 21st Century.  The following is Part 1 only; Part 2 will follow in the next week or so.  Please tell us what you think in the comments section, and enjoy!

  1. The Comedy (2012) – Rick Alverson

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Who would have thought that a film starring the comedic duo behind Cartoon Network’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! could be so sad, so emotionally transgressive.  Then again, the work of Tim Heidecker (the film’s lead) and Eric Wareheim (largely relegated to the background) has always belied darker impulses.  This film isn’t much more than an episodic chronicle of the rambling excursions of a lazy, detached and often mean-spirited man-child, but its handle on the characters and willingness to go uncomfortable places allows The Comedy to act as the defining treatise on Hipsterism.  The film’s final shot suggests a fleeting glint of redemption, but one is left wondering if this character (and all he represents) is too far gone.

  1. Drive (2011) – Nicolas Winding Refn 

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There was significant mainstream backlash directed at Drive upon its release when many theatergoers discovered, to their dismay, it was neither a video game adaptation nor Fast and Furious companion piece.  What they found instead was a film unexpectedly short on dialogue, with only two car chases and a style of violence more disturbing than exciting.  The misunderstanding mattered little in critical circles; Drive earned Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn the Best Director Award at Cannes and it maintains a subtle power to this day.  The first of the aforementioned car chases could act as a veritable master class in tension-building and deftly sets the tone for everything to come.  Drive also features a bevy of stellar performances.  Ryan Gosling reinvents the strong silent type, coloring his getaway driver with shades of chivalry and psychosis simultaneously, and Carrie Mulligan builds a beautifully rounded character almost entirely with facial expressions.  Albert Brooks is cast against type as a cold blooded crime boss, and Oscar Isaac and Bryan Cranston even make appearances in meaty supporting roles.  There’s so much to like about Refn’s film, but his patience and restraint make it shine mostly for what he chooses not to do.

  1. The Master (2012) – Paul Thomas Anderson 

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There’s something about The Master that makes it more than the sum of it’s parts, impressive though those parts may be.  Shot on 70mm (basically IMAX), PTA’s very big yet very intimate film is loosely based on the genesis of the Church of Scientology (Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in his last great performance as the L. Ron Hubbard figure, Lancaster Dodd), but there’s so much more bubbling beneath the surface.  Relatively straightforward yet somehow surreal, the story utilizes a subtly disorienting structure that obscures the passage of time and blurs the lines between dreams, visions and flashbacks. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance for the ages as Freddie Quell, a drunken drifter who falls in with Dodd’s cultish enclave.  His twisted face, simian physicality and mumbling speech allow the actor to disappear completely into the role; an early scene depicting Freddie’s first “processing” session is among the most mesmerizing I’ve ever seen.  The Master is a puzzle of a film that refrains from revealing itself as such in any overt way.  Only with repeated viewings does one begin to grasp how far down the rabbit hole it can take you.

  1. Superbad (2007) – Greg Mottola

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I watch at least part of Superbad about twice a month, and it’s quoted in my house almost daily.  The interesting thing, however, is that the most quotable lines aren’t even funny on paper: “It’s fine, I’ll be fine.”; “Hell…yea we should get some road beers.”; “That was pimp. I feel like a pimp right now.”  It’s not the writing that makes these moments so funny and so memorable (though Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script is top notch), it’s the delivery.  Certainly the best high-school-comedy-unfolding-over-a-single-day since Dazed and Confused, Superbad brings on the nostalgia just as hard as the laughs.  It’s hilarious, yes, but it also has heart, and the cadence and phrasing of the characters’ banter gets at the way real people talk better than 99.9% of contemporary comedies.  It rightly sits atop the Judd Apatow cannon and created bonafide stars out of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Emma Stone (even “McLovin” enjoyed some solid subsequent roles), but Martha MacIsaac was also fantastic as Becca.  What ever happened to her??

  1. Requiem for a Dream (2000) – Darren Aronofsky

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There are many films about substance abuse, and naturally they handle the topic with varying degrees of success.  Some are downright cartoonish in their depiction of the negative effects, others whitewash the same, focusing only on the fun, excitement and cool of it all.  The best films about this subject strike a balance, because the reality is that drugs are fun (that’s why so many people have at least dabbled), but they are also capable of shattering lives, relationships, and even whole communities.  Requiem for a Dream, the sophomore feature from director Darren Aronofsky, is a daunting viewing experience to be sure.  It’s a film that utilizes nightmarish expressionism and graphic portrayals of rock bottom, challenging the audience with the gravity of the characters’ situations.  Aronofsky’s showy and sometimes jarring direction creates the appropriate tone without detracting from the narrative, and the film’s harrowing final minutes build to a peak of such disturbing consequence that upon my first viewing I simply sat and stared at the screen in shock as the credits rolled to completion.  Why would anyone subject themselves to institutionalization, prostitution, imprisonment and horrific bodily harm for a relatively short lived high?  Requiem for a Dream answers that question with its deft setup and characterization.  It’s not just a high these people are looking for, they hope to recapture the past, to have a better life, to be loved.  Sadly, it’s one of the more aptly titled films on this list.

  1. Irreversible (2003) – Gaspar Noe 

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Certainly the most difficult film to watch on this list (maybe ever?), Noe’s sickening backward spiral of violence and vengeance punishes its audience with an onslaught of human ugliness virtually unparalleled in my experience as a viewer.  Irreversible is really a simple story of revenge and vigilante justice told backwards.  Such narrative tinkering can easily turn to gimmickry, but in this case it allows for a slow reveal of the characters’ backstories that adds richness to the performances and emotional weight to the violence.  Vincent Cassel’s fevered performance is a stand-out, but the entire cast is operating at the top of their game.  This is a film that many will struggle to get through, but if you can stick it out to the end you’ll be rewarded with the full scope of this marvelously constructed and visceral accomplishment.  Sometimes we have to be reminded of humankind’s capacity for cruelty to truly appreciate its aspirations to love.

  1. Mulholland Dr. (2001) – David Lynch

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Haunting and confounding, David Lynch’s dreamlike neo-noir/classic horror mash-up draws you in with it’s bizarre pageantry, holds your attention with its central mystery and ultimately leaves you knowing that you’ve seen something significant even as it’s full meaning proves evasive.  Mulholland Dr. explores a familiar Lynchian theme: the rot beneath the surface of the more glossy corners of our society.  Naomi Watts’ archetypal mid-western beauty, fresh off the bus with high hopes of Hollywood success, endures as her most powerful and desperate performance not only because of the depths to which her character plunges but the scope of her transformation over the film’s run-time. Theories abound on what it all means (Lynch even offers some hints on decoding the film), but it won’t immediately matter as you reach the shock-inducing crescendo.

  1. Melancholia (2011) – Lars Von Trier 

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The subversive and mercurial director of Melancholia was a founding member of the Dogme 95 movement, a collaborative of filmmakers with a fully formed manifesto: handheld camerawork only, no non-diegetic sound, shoots must be on location, etc.  The goal was to create a new paradigm in film making focused on completely unadorned storytelling, no bells or whistles of any kind.  It’s an interesting history considering that Melancholia is one of the most beautifully rendered and technically savvy films in recent memory, one in which Von Trier utilizes almost all of the techniques he once rejected to mesmerizing effect. Old-moneyed sisters Claire and Justine (Von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst in a Cannes Best Actress winning performance) share the focus, but the narrative crux is the latter’s crippling depression, an issue very near to the filmmaker’s heart, having experienced his own public battles.  Melancholia is gorgeously shot and superbly acted but its structural choices also contribute in a major way to its unique identity.  An eerie, tableau-like, Wagner scored intro provides a cryptic outline of the entire film, and the first half plays out in a single night within a single set piece.  This is a beautiful film about an ugly topic, and its raw, honest portrayal of a well off and well loved individual battling despair clearly draws on Von Trier’s personal experience.  Oh, it’s also about another planet colliding with Earth…did I mention that?

  1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) – Cristian Mungiu 

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Palme d’Or winner at the 2007 Cannes film festival, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the poster film of the Romanian New Wave in cinema, and appropriately so.  Lean, tense and authentic in its depiction of life under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist regime, it tells the story of a college student’s perilous efforts to assist her friend in obtaining an illegal abortion.  Its darkly saturated cinematography and drab Eastern Block set pieces effectively mimic the mindset of the two leads, and director Cristian Mungiu’s minimalist approach leaves the audience hanging on every moment, leveraging the viewer’s knowledge to create almost unbearable suspense.  This filmmaker is clearly familiar with Hitchcock’s famous lesson that “surprise” is when two characters are sitting at a table talking and all of a sudden a bomb explodes from under the table; “suspense” is when the audience knows the bomb is there the whole time.  The film’s jarring final shot hints strongly that Mungiu has not only been deftly puppeteering his characters, but his audience as well.

  1. Sideways (2004) – Alexander Payne

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Sideways is an immensely enjoyable and endlessly re-watchable film due in large part to the breadth of its tonal range.  It’s equal parts uproarious buddy comedy/road trip film and heartbreaking study of depression and insecurity, and it’s a real feat that it works so well at both ends of this spectrum.  Paul Giamatti (in his best performance to date) plays Miles, a recently divorced middle school English teacher with a deep, aching love of wine.  His best friend and former college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is finally taking the proverbial plunge and Miles has planned a week-long itinerary of tastings, dinners and rounds of golf throughout California’s Santa Ynez Valley to celebrate his friend’s last week of freedom.  As the trip progresses (and is made more complicated by the addition of two female companions), the film explores themes of friendship, loneliness and trust.  Payne’s tasteful direction draws little attention to itself while keenly establishing a sense of space among the film’s gorgeous locations, and Rolfe Kent’s score provides a perfectly calibrated accompaniment, like a fine Pinot Noir to a funky Camembert. Sideways is more than a film about the joys and pretensions of the wine world; it’s a funny and brutally honest look at the struggle to allow others to see you as you are and, perhaps, change how you see yourself.  Aging isn’t easy, but to quote one of the film’s principal characters, when you get it right, “it tastes so fucking good.”

  1. United 93 (2006) – Paul Greengrass 

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Neither sensational nor sentimental, Greengrass’s docudrama is the definitive celluloid statement on 9/11.  The action is relegated solely to the ill-fated plane itself and the military and air traffic control rooms that feverishly yet professionally labored to make sense of the horrific events as they happened. Greengrass takes an added risk in portraying the hijackers not as evil, faceless cogs, but as conflicted human beings capable of fear, panic and uncertainty. When the credits rolled I wept.  Maybe because the events were, at that point, far enough in the past for the shock to have worn off, or maybe because I was more mature than I was in 2001, but for me United 93 crystallized this national tragedy in a way that nothing else could.

The 10 Best Films of 2014

As catalogued in Moving Pictures’ very first article published just over a year ago, 2013 was a spectacular year in film.  2014 was no different.  In fact, there’s an encouraging emergent pattern suggesting that the Hollywood establishment is starting to catch back up, after years of wandering the cultural wastelands, with what constitutes art (and real entertainment) worthy of recognition.  After years of watching my favorite films go unnoticed I’d come to expect the narrow taste of the Academy. But this year, like last year, more than half of the films on Moving Pictures’ top ten list were also nominated for Oscars.  Are award nominations a true barometer of a film’s worth?  Of course not.  But with awards come funding, access and support for future projects.  For that reason, 2014 was an exciting year even beyond the fine cinematic specimens listed below.

This list comes a little late, I know, and there’s a slew of evidently top notch films that I unfortunately have not yet had a chance to see.  In the interest of full disclosure, I missed out on the well received Selma, American Sniper, Leviathan, Listen Up Philip, Mr. Turner and Winter Sleep.  I plan to see them all, and I encourage anyone reading this to do the same, but I can’t in good critical conscience release a 2014 year in review piece beyond Q1 of 2015. Perhaps it speaks to the embarrassment of riches heaped upon filmgoers last year that I simply didn’t have the time.  At any rate, I hope you enjoy these thoughts and please share yours in the comments section below.

10. A Most Violent Year (Dir. J.C. Chandor)

a_most_violent_yearEdging just into this year’s top ten is a film about, more than anything else, a time and place.  1981 was New York City’s most violent year on record up to that point and director J.C. Chandor infuses every frame with a dark yet penetrating quality that brings the period setting to dread-inducing life.  Oscar Isaac continues his artistic hot streak as the complex and conflicted Abel Morales, a business/family man who slowly but steadily becomes a second rate wiseguy in the face of mounting crises.  Jessica Chastain turns in an excellent (and Oscar-snubbed) performance as Abel’s wife Anna, the perennial devil on her husband’s shoulder.  It’s refreshing to see a strong female character with the agency to be a bad person, though Chandor’s nuanced characterization suggests explanations for her behavior via her own backstory. And while A Most Violent Year also happens to be beautiful to look at, its real success lies in its ability to bring together all of it’s moving parts to viscerally convey the rot of NYC in ‘81.

Read the full review HERE.

9. Two Days, One Night (Dirs. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)

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As I write these words, Two Days, One Night is the most recent film I’ve seen (just three days ago).  This latest outing from sibling French directors and Cannes darlings the Dardenne Brothers is a tight, minimalistic meditation on human nature in the form of a modern day fable.  Anchored by compatriot Marion Cotillard’s naturalistic and desperate performance, the filmmakers utilize a spare visual and narrative style that boils Two Days, One Night (an appropriately unadorned title) down to is most rudimentary, and most meaningful, elements.  Cotillard’s Sandra is a young mother and wife already teetering on the edge of a deep depression when she learns she’s been laid off from her factory job at a solar panel plant.  Faced with the possibility of having to move her family into public housing, and more importantly, her own dark impulses, Sandra has one weekend to convince her coworkers one by one to forgo a hefty bonus in favor of keeping her on.  This singular premise provides a nimble vehicle through which to explore a wide range of human emotion and behavior.  The final product is a work of truth and authenticity that, in the end, reveals itself to be about so much more than one woman’s fight to save her job: it’s a different kind of fight entirely, and one that we’ve all faced at one point or another.

8. Foxcatcher (Dir. Bennett Miller)

FOXCATCHERFoxcatcher is a divisive film.  While many applaud its craftsmanship and powerful performances, many others have trouble with its decidedly dour tone and narrative flaws.  It’s true that the third act feels a little clumsy, reading conversely (and perplexingly) as both rushed and dragged out, but personally I land squarely in the former camp.  It helps that the filmmakers’ inspiration is such a fascinatingly bizarre (and for me, local) story of true crime.  Visually speaking, director Bennett Miller and cinematographer Greig Fraser have concocted a film that’s gorgeous in it’s drabness, yet also containing some of the most arresting shots of the year.  It’s the interplay of the film’s 3 leads, however, that really makes Foxcatcher special.  Channing Tatum and Steve Carell play beautifully against type, and Mark Ruffalo, marvelous as always, provides the film’s least showy yet most complex performance.  While not perfect, Foxcatcher is an interesting step in the right direction for all involved.

Read the full review HERE.

7. Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Whiplash-5547.cr2This is a film about the dark side of art, the agony that often outweighs the ecstasy.  Promising up-and-comer Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a first-year student at a prestigious music conservatory with aspirations of becoming a great jazz drummer (or as he puts it, “one of the greats”).  When he’s accepted into an elite ensemble helmed by an infamous, drill instructor of a conductor (J.K. Simmons in an Oscar winning role), the young musician is pushed to the brink of both genius and insanity.  Aside from its harrowing depiction of Neiman’s punishing craft, the film also says a lot about what such a lifestyle can do to personal relationships.  Whiplash is a keenly conceived and deftly executed tale of creative obsession, a student/teacher tug-of-war that culminates in one of more epic filmic finales in recent memory.  And my god, the music!

6. Force Majeure (Dir. Ruben Östlund)

Force Majeure filmWhat a strange and beautiful and ugly film.  Strange in it’s blend of wildly divergent tones, from disaster film to family drama to dark comedy.  Beautiful in it’s construction of the bright and sleekly contoured world of it’s characters, with IKEA-like set pieces that appropriately mirror the film’s Swedish origins. And ugly in its examination of our most unflattering primal instincts. Without divulging too much, Force Majeure is the story of a family vacationing in the French Alps whose entire dynamic and stability is upended by one subtly terrifying moment.  Said moment comes early on and the rest of the film deals with the fallout, though the penultimate scene (and maybe this is just my own phobias talking here) was one of the most tense and unsettling of the year for me.  Possessing the measured pace and patience that characterizes many international imports, Force Majeure is a dazzlingly uncomfortable train wreck from which one simply can’t look away.

5. Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy)

maxresdefaultWriter/director Dan Gilroy’s scathing yet hilarious indictment of media sensationalism run amok and the callow characters who inhabit its landscape has been accused by some of being too on-the-nose.  It’s message it glaringly clear, yes, but there’s no fault in being bold when said phenomenon is still obviously a huge real-world problem.  Beyond that, Nightcrawler is so vividly and expertly realized (whether through Jake Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing performance or Robert Elswit’s laser cut photography) that anything less than its delightfully outlandish plot would be somehow inappropriate.  Gilroy, a first time director, clearly knows how to pull together an A Team of collaborators both in front of and behind the camera, and his dialogue, especially, uses sharp humor to deliver disturbing ideas in a way that’s challenging but not inaccessible.  This, my friends, is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

4. Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Birdman13It’s both shocking and encouraging that a film like Birdman could win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  It’s experimental in structure, self deprecating metafiction in style, and reads mostly as a comedy tonally (usually a non-starter in terms of Oscar buzz).  Ultimately the accolades do more to elevate their bestower than the recipient, which speaks entirely for itself as a formidably made, haunting and deeply funny achievement. Birdman’s use of music, camerawork, and performances coupled with its ability to pack a wide ranging and immaculately rendered depiction of human emotion into one film made it one of the most fun and affecting viewing experiences of the year for me.

Read the full review HERE.

3. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)

25-boyhoodThe Birdman/Boyhood dichotomy created an exciting competition and conversation that came to define this year’s awards season.  Both are amazing movies, vastly different in style and substance, and representing divergent value systems around creating art.  While Birdman is a towering technical achievement heavy on style with a wink-wink type premise, Boyhood (director Richard Linklater’s grand experiment twelve years in the making) is a no filter, small-moments-focused piece that is more or less content to simply observe.  As in life, there are dramatic moments, but much of the film’s almost three hour runtime is taken up by the more mundane.  It speaks volumes to the caliber of each performance that this never gets old, and it’s that ability to create those (sorry for the cliche) slices of life, just as much as the decision to film the same actors over a twelve year period, that makes the world of Boyhood feel so lived in and alive.

Read the full review HERE.

2. The Overnighters (Dir. Jesse Moss)

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This dynamic, funny and heartrending documentary was my sleeper favorite of 2014.  I knew relatively little about it as I entered a free screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival, but I would imagine it was just as surprising and moving an experience to those who had followed the film’s trajectory more closely.  Most documentaries these days are “issue” films, and while there are many issues at play in The Overnighters (the environment, the economy, the justice system), it’s the characterization, the narrative drama and even the Malickesque camerawork that let this film stand up to and above some of the most expertly crafted fiction available.  The confluence of quality, substance and format is what makes The Overnighters such a lasting experience.  Pastor Jay Reinke, the film’s principal subject, is a figure of such desperation, joy and sadness that one could easily imagine finding him between the pages of a tragic novel.

Read the full review HERE.

1. Under the Skin (Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Undertheskin-3This is a film that few people saw and probably even fewer enjoyed.  I don’t think that’s right, but it’s certainly understandable.  Under the Skin is a challenging film to be sure; scarce on dialogue, it utilizes a potentially B movie-style narrative conveyed through a schizophrenic combination of both cinema verite and painstakingly manipulated imagery.  It works, and amazingly well, for two reasons, the first being Scarlett Johansson’s transformative, otherworldly performance.  The second is director Jonathan Glazer’s level of taste and his skill and patience to follow through with such a genius concept so uncompromisingly.  This filmmaker’s dedication and command of craft, just as much as the artistic style itself, evoke the term Kubrickian perhaps more appropriately than anything else I’ve seen since the death of the genuine article.  Under the Skin took ten years to make, but it should (and hopefully will) be remembered for ten times that.

Read the full review HERE.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)

The Immigrant (Dir. James Gray)

Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher)

Life Itself (Dir. Steve James)

Last Days in Vietnam (Dir. Rory Kennedy)

Cinematic Excursions: A Hitchcockian Landmark

During a recent trip to Northern California I found myself passing through the tiny coastal town of Bodega Bay, which immediately brought to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds.  I was in the area, the setting of that film, for the wedding of two dear friends, and the bride let me know that the original building used for the famous schoolhouse scene was still standing nearby and in good condition.  The following clip doesn’t do much to showcase the building itself, but it does contain the most chilling shot of the sequence.

The Birds was the first Hitchcock film I ever saw (I couldn’t have been more than 7 years old at the time) and it remains a personal favorite of his work. It’s certainly not the filmmaker’s best (that, in my opinion, would be Rear Window) but it’s full of interesting and memorable aspects, unique choices. One, which you may not even notice upon a first viewing, is that the film has no score; quite odd for the time and uncharacteristic of Hitchcock. Any music heard throughout, including the creepy childrens’ song heard in the clip above, is sourced from within the narrative itself.  The absence of a score also accentuates the moments of shock and dread (for example, when Tippi Hedren’s character discovers the unfortunate fate of the old neighbor).  The simple yet masterful use of editing and pacing builds tension in a way that only Hitchcock was able to do at the time. IMG_1097 Unfortunately the jungle gym was no longer there, but I recognized the schoolhouse right away.  The vaguely ominous architecture and its placement on a steep hill made it easy to understand Hitchcock’s desire to incorporate the building into his film.  A small piece of film history though it is, I welcomed the impromptu visit and the shot of nostalgia it provided.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights

Of the six features Paul Thomas Anderson has made over the last 18 years, I would consider all of them to be great films.  Last year’s The Master is a strange and beautiful piece exploring themes of fraternal love, the cult of religion and man’s struggle to subjugate the id.  2007’s loose Upton Sinclair adaptation There Will Be Blood is an epic yet subtle study of greed and antisocial behavior in the context of America’s westward expansion, showcasing an instantly iconic, Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis.  Anderson’s preceding effort, 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, brought Adam Sandler closer than he will surely ever come again to greatness with this sweet, sad story of love, rage and the insecurities in between.  1999’s Magnolia is a clinic on the intersecting stories sub-genre and a shining example of ensemble acting.  Anderson is without question one of the most talented filmmakers working today and his impeccable batting average is one of the main reasons why.  But it was his 1997 sophomore feature Boogie Nights that boldly announced the wunderkind filmmaker, only 28 years old at the time of its release, as an exciting and confident new voice in American cinema.

Applying a relatively straightforward rise-and-fall framework to the late 70s/early 80s California porn industry, the writer/director conjures a rich blend of humor and humanity for his characters while truly coming into his own as a visual artist.  The story of Dirk Diggler acts as neither an endorsement of nor cautionary tale about the porn industry, but rather uses the setting to speak about more universal issues of family, addiction and the evolution of industries.

Boogie Nights is an abundantly entertaining film with its brashness and humor, but there’s also so much going on formally.  Anderson establishes a clear visual language from the outset; several early scenes open with three quick stagnant shots of objects in the room (Dirk’s parents’ kitchen, Roller Girl’s classroom, Sheryl Lynn’s bedroom), establishing an efficient introductory motif for each interaction.  In many other cases the camera movements themselves actually say something about what’s going on. Whether mimicking the characters’ actions (zooming in quickly as Dirk, Reed and Todd snort lines of cocaine and then abruptly panning up as they throw back their sweaty heads) or adding meaning to interactions (like when reverse shots at a diner slowly track sideways to isolate Walberg and Moore as their characters key in on each other), the choices are deliberate in adding texture to the content.  The overall look of the film, exquisitely fashioned by cinematographer Robert Elswit (who acted as DP on every PTA film except The Master), has a deep, saturated quality that amplifies the feel of the period setting.

The film’s first half is infused with kinetic energy provided by Elswit’s roving camera, well-paced editing and a ceaseless playlist of authentic yet inspired musical selections (I had a used copy of the soundtrack on CD in high school which figured heavily into my driving-around rotation).  The following party scene is an oft cited example of how Anderson combines these elements to mesmerizing effect.

This beautifully choreographed ballet of music, performance, blocking and camera work drops the viewer right into the middle of the action while also mining expository value from the interactions and giving the audience a spatial sense of one of the film’s key set pieces (Jack’s backyard).  But it’s also just fun! So the camera is going to roam around this sun-drenched California pool party, eavesdropping on several conversations before following a beautifully bronzed body into a pool to the perfectly timed tune of “Spill the Wine”?  And the camera goes underwater?  And then reemerges topside to catch even more dialogue before finally cutting the up-to-that-point unbroken shot?  I mean come on!

But let’s put the technical spectacle aside for a moment and acknowledge the fact that another thing that makes this filmmaker so special is his talent for eliciting amazing performances from his actors (his films have cumulatively yielded 7 Oscar nominations for acting).  The cast of Boogie Nights is comprised of a slew of PTA regulars, and also functions as a veritable who’s who of the best actors of a generation, several of whom were still up and coming at the time.  Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore and William H. Macy all figure into the sprawling cast to greater or lesser extents, and each gives their character a fully realized persona regardless of screen time. Reilly displays a remarkable amount of artistic intelligence with his turn as the dimwitted Reed Rothchild by not only playing him straight the entire time, but also taking it a step further by portraying the character as condescending in his ignorance.  I’ve said it for years: John C. Reilly is better at playing Will Ferrell-type characters than Will Ferrell.  Hoffman also does a lot with an even smaller role as Scotty, a closeted crew member who can barely contain his infatuation with Dirk, ultimately culminating in one of the films sadder and more pathetic moments.  Even in less meaty scenes, such as a quick exchange between Scotty and Dirk as they walk to the set of the latter’s first shoot, Hoffman exudes a palpable sense of nervous sexuality (notice how he gently nibbles the pen on his clipboard).  Walberg delivers a career best performance, deftly shouldering the lead of this two and a half hour film, and Burt Reynolds’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the patriarchal director Jack Horner was absolutely well earned.

Boogie Nights is not Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film.  The writing is excellent; tonally dynamic and very funny, but less subtle than some of his later work.  It also feels just a bit too long, though I can’t pinpoint exactly what I would cut.  It is, however, an extremely important film in the evolution of PTA’s career.  It’s an arresting combination of youthful panache and sophisticated technique that walks a tightrope of appeal to both critics and mainstream audiences.  Without that early success, we may never have been so privileged as to experience his subsequent work.

It’s a little late, I know, but I have to dedicate this article to the memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  He was a genius and a true artist, and his work meant the world to me.  He made me feel like we could have actors like DeNiro, or Brando, or Dustin Hoffman for our own generation.  Sometimes when you look at the quality of top grossing movies today it can be quite depressing, but time and time again Hoffman’s work reminded me, and many others, that great acting and great filmmaking are not dead.

The 10 Best Films of 2013

2013 was a banner year in film to say the least, with a delightfully balanced representation of big box office hits, indie sleepers, documentaries and international imports.  So, for Moving Pictures’ inaugural piece, let’s take a look back at the best films of a year that made it an ideal time to start a film blog.

10.  Prisoners (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Prisoners: Moving Pictures Now

Prisoners is an exciting film because it subverts the elements of an average crime thriller, blurring the lines between good and evil, right and wrong.  It is a film about obsession and grief just as much as it’s about the particulars of the kidnapping that sets the story in motion.  Prisoners is also a flawed film, bogged down in the end by an overwrought third act, but this common genre pitfall is excusable in light of its devastatingly intense performances and masterful cinematography.  Beyond the merits of the film itself, this English language debut from French director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) marks the announcement of yet another promising filmmaker to watch closely*.

Two families are thrown into crisis when their young daughters vanish on a dismal Thanksgiving afternoon, leaving the panicked fathers (Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard) to take matters into their own hands when law enforcement seemingly falls short.  As a sullen, twitchy detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) continues to work the case, questions of truth, justice and the efficacy of the social compact convolute the characters’ motives.  Jackman, and especially Gyllenhaal, are outstanding, and Paul Dano (as a developmentally disabled suspect) demonstrates yet again why he is one of the most interesting character actors working today.  But the key element here is the pitch-perfect cinematography by eleven-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink).  His stark vision acts as a character unto itself, not only adding to the film’s brooding tone but also coloring its themes with his significant compositions.

Third act narrative missteps notwithstanding, Prisoners is an extremely worthwhile film, and in the end it sticks with you more because of its questions than its answers.

*Look for Moving Pictures’ review of Villeneuve’s next film Enemy, also starring Jake Gyllenhaal, later this Spring.

9.  Only God Forgives (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

The latest from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is an unapologetically style-over-substance affair.  Refn’s previous outing, Drive (one of the best films of 2011 in this writer’s opinion, and also starring Ryan Gosling), provides more in the way of narrative and character development, but the pulpy yet absorbing plot of Only God Forgives acts merely as a canvas upon which to display the director’s imposing formal prowess.  The film’s striking visual style could certainly be described as Kubrickian (cinematographer Larry Smith actually worked on the lighting crew of Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut): painstakingly precise framing; patient, fluid camera work; an eerily unnatural sense of symmetry, all drenched in the neon light of its Bangkok setting.  Some have taken issue with the film’s lack of an emotional core (also a common critique of Kubrick’s work) but that criticism is ultimately beside the point. Despite the fact that it is essentially a classic revenge story, Only God Forgives foregoes any sentimental appeals, convoluted plot machinations or extended action sequences and instead functions as a tightly crafted mood piece.  The mood?  Dread.

Only God Forgives: Moving Pictures

Gosling’s actual speaking lines are few and far between, he says much more with facial expressions and body language, but there is plenty else to take in. One character’s recurring visits to a cop karaoke bar are simultaneously humorous and ominous.  Another unsettling scene proves once and for all that the method of torturing someone doesn’t have to be that creative to be truly disturbing if you have believable performances and capitalize on tension.  It also doesn’t hurt that many of the proceedings are set against the backdrop of a dark, throbbing electronic score from Cliff Martinez (who also provided the music for Drive).

This film was only one of two highly anticipated 2013 releases starring Ryan Gosling (if you don’t count Gangster Squad), the other being Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine follow up, A Place Beyond the Pines.  The latter adopts an epic scope, striving to create a multigenerational saga about fathers and sons, crime and punishment, but its bold aspirations ultimately fall short. Only God Forgives, on the other hand, is a gleefully savage exercise in tone; a 90 minute nightmare trance that leaves the viewer feeling more release than resolution by the time the credits (which, by the way, are presented in English and Thai) roll.

8.  Upstream Color (Dir. Shane Carruth)

Upstream Color: Moving Pictures Now

Shane Carruth’s mind bending debut Primer took the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004, which makes it rather odd that the DIY filmmaker hasn’t made anything else until now.  Or is it?  The DIY designation is well earned, as Carruth acts as writer, director, lead actor, editor, cinematographer, composer and producer of his magnificent sophomore effort Upstream Color.  This is clearly an artist who knows exactly what he wants and is willing to use as much time and energy as needed to realize his vision…and what a vision it is.

The story centers on the inexplicable connection between two damaged souls (Carruth, and the fantastic Amy Seimetz) and their subsequent quest to understand the enigma of their shared history.  Sounds a bit vague?  It might, but the narrative is actually rooted firmly in hard science fiction with plot points involving parasitic mind control, fringe horticulture and a mysterious pig farmer.  It’s all quite interesting (the first half hour is especially successful in creating a sense of surreal menace), but what makes Upstream Color so unique is the stunning, expressionistic, Terrance Malick-esque cinematography.  Most science fiction is relatively homogeneous in terms of style, but Carruth’s dreamy treatment fits the heady material perfectly.

Beyond it’s bold visual style and genre-bending tendencies, the film also covers some very interesting thematic ground.  The strange symbiotic processes that reveal themselves throughout the film explore the connectedness of nature in a unusual and fascinating way.  However, for me the film works best as a allegory for how our minds can change, for better or worse, in the context of romantic relationships.  When two people come together they can create a new, shared identity which can be a very beautiful thing, but an unhealthy codependency and hyper-sensative emotional state can emerge and consume those who do not work to understand each other and their feelings.  But this is only one reading, and another thing that makes Upstream Color a great film is that it challenges the audience to interpret its meaning.  Whether or not it all works for you personally, this is a film that will spark much post-viewing discussion, and one must at least respect its ability to engage viewers.

7.  12 Years a Slave (Dir. Steve McQueen)

My initial reaction to 12 Years a Slave, aside from a tightness in my chest and a flushed feeling in my face, was that it reminded me of Schindler’s List in a number of ways.  Both films examine historical atrocities by focusing narrowly on a specific character’s story, and both are shot with a formal astuteness that one would describe as beautiful if not for the subject matter.  Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has once again appropriated his signature technique of applying aesthetically pleasing visuals to ugly topics, and in this case that juxtaposition makes the (true) story of Solomon Northup that much more disturbing.

12 years a slave: Moving Pictures Now

In 1841, Northup, a free man living as a violinist with his family in Saratoga, is conned, drugged and sold into slavery by traders posing as would-be employers. Northup (played with powerful subtlety by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is subsequently sold between several plantations throughout Louisiana over the dozen years of bondage that he ultimately endures, the bulk of which are spent under the iron fist of sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o provides an incredible debut turn as Patsy, the perpetually tormented slave who provides the most pronounced emotional sting of the piece.  Over the film’s 134 minute runtime McQueen never overplays his hand, allowing the events to speak for themselves as his camera simply observes. Films dealing with American slavery can sometimes rely on swelling scores and lofty speeches to convey their message, but 12 Years A Slave paints pictures of suffering that force us to confront the realities of history without the filter of melodramatic Hollywood conventions*.  In one long, stagnant shot towards the end of the film, Ejiofor articulates the full weight of Northup’s experience using only the look on his face and the trauma in his eyes.

This is an important film created by a skilled filmmaker who understands and respects his subjects enough to let them speak for themselves, and we hear them.

*The one exception in my opinion is the handling of Brad Pitt’s character, a Canadian carpenter introduced late in the film who ultimately plays a crucial role in Northup regaining his freedom.  The dialogue between Pitt and Ejiofor is a bit too on-the-nose in articulating themes that any worthwhile person would already understand, especially when held up against the subtle tenor of the rest of the film.  I’ve seen a number of other critics make this point, however some go too far with further assertions that the character itself is too convenient, or even a deus ex machina.  Pitt’s character is based on a real person from Northup’s experience.  The writing may be a little too convenient, yes, but the presence of the character and his effect on the story is simple fact.

6.  Inside Llewyn Davis (Dirs. Ethan Coen/Joel Coen)

Inside Llewyn Davis: Moving Pictures Now

The Coen brothers’ latest effort swings wildly (but elegantly) between comedy and tragedy, leaving one feeling a bit disoriented; but Inside Llewyn Davis is strengthened by a soulful lead performance from Oscar Isaac and a traditional yet freshly interpreted soundtrack.  As someone who played music at a moderate level for many years, it’s sometimes more difficult for me to take films about music/musicians seriously, but in this case the T. Bone Burnett-produced material is deployed in tasteful measure by the directors and skillfully realized by their actors.

Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, a fixture on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s.  For those not familiar, this is the time and place that gave rise to folk icons like Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Joni Mitchell. Though Davis is indeed a fictional character, he is loosely based on the very real Dave Van Ronk. Having already gained some level of success as the film opens (though apparently not enough to spare him the dispiriting nightly routine of finding a friendly sofa to lay his head), Davis struggles to establish his solo act following the disintegration of his now defunct two-man-show.  Isaac’s performance in the opening scene, and throughout the film, is wholly convincing (providing his own vocals and guitar playing) and sets the tone early on that the Coens are going to give these songs plenty of room to breath.

From there we follow Davis on a gloomy winter odyssey punctuated by top notch examples of that rhythmic Coenian comedy so many of us have come to love, but with an undercurrent of melancholy hovering below the surface that breaks through only just enough to suggest a much deeper sadness.  There are passages dealing with suicide, abortion and addiction, and to create an atmosphere that allows those scenes to coexist within the same film that gives us the “Please Mr. Kennedy” sequence is truly a remarkable feat.  At times the story feels overly tangential, all subplot, but the film’s episodic style coupled with a clever narrative structure that would feel gimmicky in lesser hands is fitting to the mindset of our titular troubadour.  Inside Llewyn Davis is yet another exceptional entry to the Coen brothers’ sterling body of work and easily their most successful film since No Country for Old Men.

5.  Her (Dir. Spike Jonze)

Spike Jonze has done it again…and for the first time.  The talented director behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation has also penned the original screenplay for his latest film, and while this is indeed a freshman writing effort from Jonze, he has crafted a funny and affecting story with the ease and instinct of a seasoned veteran.  In short, the film examines the romantic relationship between a lonely, recently divorced writer (Joaquin Phoenix) and his new Siri-like operating system (evocatively voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  The premise is ripe for farce, but Jonze and his collaborators treat the material with a straightforward earnestness that somehow demands to be taken seriously.

Her: Moving Pictures Now

Her also happens to be perfectly cast.  In contrast to his prior role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phoenix’s gentle performance as Theodore Twombly proves a depth of range that may be unparalleled in contemporary American acting (especially now following the tragic death of Phoenix’s friend and Master co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman).  But perhaps the most vital aspect of Her is Johansson’s disembodied performance as OS Samantha. Interestingly enough, Jonze had completed principal photography on the film having cast (the talented) Samantha Morton as Phoenix’s love interest, but eventually felt that Morton’s performance was somehow not quite right. Jonze shows an enormous amount of confidence in the clarity of his vision, making the difficult decision to recast one of his leads after wrapping the initial shoot.

It’s rare when a film that could fairly be deemed science fiction packs such an emotional wallop, but Her succeeds in the end on the strength of its performances and the assuredness of its writing.  An inspired score (from members of Arcade Fire) and idiosyncratic production design/costumes add their own flourishes to the proceedings, and the result is a thought provoking yet accessible film.  For me it was the most anticipated of the year, and simply put, it met or exceeded my expectations in every way.

*Johansson also stars in the forthcoming Under the Skin, one of Moving Pictures’ most anticipated films of 2014.

4.  The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

The Act of Killing: Moving Pictures Now

In a world…where the perpetrators of a mass genocide have become national heroes and pop culture icons, a man from foreign lands is enlisted to create a film celebrating their misdeeds by re-enacting them in gory and surreal detail. While this may sound closer to the setup of a dystopian science fiction movie, it is actually the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest documentary feature.

The world is modern day Indonesia; the genocide was the killing of over half a million alleged communist sympathizers and ethnic Chinese in the wake of a botched military coup in 1965; the perpetrators are Anwar Congo (the “star” of the film) and the enclave of former gangsters who personally assisted him in carrying out thousands of executions, many of which were performed quite simply with a small piece of wood, a post and a strand of metal wire.  It is unknown to this writer how Mr. Oppenheimer gained access to these men, or for that matter gained their trust to the extent that he has.  Their cavalier attitude must be owed to the fact that they’ve never been held accountable in any way for their transgressions.  As one of the film’s subjects puts it, “‘war crimes’ are defined by the winners.”

The Act of Killing is not actually the film that Oppenheimer endeavored under the pretense of making, but rather a behind-the-scenes look at the grisly production that ends up functioning as a film-within-a-film.  These scenes are supplemented by a series of interviews with Congo and his cronies, and as he recounts his killings in scene after scene in sickening detail, cracks in his veneer of rectitude begin to appear.  During one passage late in the film taking place at a former execution site, Oppenheimer’s lens captures Congo literally choking on his own guilt as the cognitive dissonance that he employs so deftly up to that point begins to falter.  While many other films have effectively examined themes of shame, regret and conscience, few have utilized the documentary format to explore these ideas with such a piercing gaze.

3.  Frances Ha (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

Between the endearing neuroses of the titular character and the NYC setting rendered gorgeously in black and white, Frances Ha evokes early Woody Allen, but with a story that speaks to the distinctly modern challenges of many Generation Y-ers.  The film chronicles several months in the life of Frances (played by co-screenwriter Greta Gerwig with the perfect balance of quirk and realism), a 27 year old aspiring dancer living in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn, as she bounces from living situation to living situation after her longtime roommate and best friend, Sophie, moves out to live with her boyfriend.

Frances Ha: Moving Pictures Now

The opening scenes keenly establish the comfortable domesticity and deep friendship that the two young women have cultivated, as well as the inevitable friction familiar to anyone who has cohabitated with friends (“What about the time you made a cake?!”).  After these brief glimpses of life as it has been, we spend the rest of the film following Frances as she crashes with new friends Benji and Lev (played by Girls’ Adam Driver, displaying his usual gift for wit and delivery), takes a trip back home to Sacramento for the holidays, attempts to create a surrogate best friend in a fellow dancer, flies to Paris on a whim for a short weekend getaway and accepts a temporary job at her alma mater as a summer RA.  The film’s closing scenes provide a realistic blend of open-endedness and well earned closure.  Perhaps it’s because I’m the same age as Frances and it was easy for me to draw parallels from my own life, but in the end it all rang truer than I’d anticipated.

In the wrong hands this material might come across as silly, or at least uninteresting, but Director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg) knows how to strike the proper balance of comedy and emotion to make us genuinely care about Frances.  The problems dealt with in this film are distinctly upper-middle class problems, but they’re depicted with a truth and authenticity that keeps the audience from resenting the characters.  Frances Ha is exceptional filmmaking across the board, and I must say, boasts one of the more clever and satisfying final shots that I’ve seen in quite some time.

2.  Before Midnight (Dir. Richard Linklater)

I’m not quite sure how Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy evaded my attention for so long.  Before Sunrise had skirted the periphery of my awareness since a few years after it came out, and I was working a high school job at Hollywood Video when Before Sunset hit the shelves.  I never gave either much thought. Maybe it was the cover art, or simply my general assumptions about American “romance” films at the time, but for some reason I just expected not to like them.  I could not have been more grossly mistaken.  These films taken as a whole are a grand, ambitious and sublimely successful cinematic experiment, possibly the most comprehensive study of the life cycle of love ever committed to film.  It is difficult to write a synopsis/critique of Before Midnight in a vacuum because the now three part story of Jesse and Celine necessarily acts as one unified piece (minor SPOILERS ahead).

Before Midnight: Moving Pictures Now

Taking place 9 years after the events of the second installment and 18 years after the first, both in real time and the chronology of the films, the latest entry takes on a markedly different tone than it’s predecessors.  Now firmly planted in middle age with twin daughters and the myriad responsibilities that inevitably accompany that phase of life, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) confront their long-festering feelings of resentment and doubt about the life they’ve built together and the choices they’ve made.  All of this unfolds during the final day and night of an extended summer vacation to the Greek countryside, and the backdrop of idyllic vistas contrasts starkly with the couple’s often dire exchanges.

This is a film that oozes confidence in the understanding and voice of it’s characters, and rightly so.  Take the feeling that one gets from, say, some of the longer stretches of dialogue in a Tarantino film, crank up the naturalism a few notches, excise the bursts of violence and you’re just about there.  Watching people talk for almost two hours has rarely been this engaging.  It is not just the premier caliber of the performances, directing and writing (Linklater co-wrote Midnight with leads Hawke and Delpy) that makes these films great, but also the structural choices.  Each film takes place over no more than 12-15 hours (Before Sunset is pretty much presented in real time), never really looking away from what is happening in those moments, and Linklater’s useage of long, uninterrupted takes is a helpful formal technique in creating that sense of focus (one unbroken shot of a car ride conversation in Midnight pushes the 10 minute mark).  That relentless continuity allows, and requires, the characters to fully express themselves, never letting them off the hook.  There are no ellipses within these films, only between them, and those hyper focused snapshots taken of moments over such a long period of time in the lives of these characters is what makes the Before trilogy so effective.  The writing nimbly folds exposition into organic conversation and trusts the audience to fill in any remaining gaps.  Each piece lends greater perspective to the others, culminating in an exquisite expression of the true meaning of romance.  This can be quite a sad film at times, but it ends on a note of hope that feels earned rather than inserted.

1.  Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

Blue is the Warmest Color: Moving Pictures Now

Controversy has been swirling around Blue is the Warmest Color since it took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival last May: accusations of mistreatment (and even exploitation) of the cast and crew, backlash from the source material’s author, and of course, the extremely long, extremely graphic sex scenes.  Controversy can help a good film garner attention and build interest, potentially opening it up to a wider audience, but in the case of Blue it has become a distraction from the fact that this is one of the best coming-of-age stories in recent memory, if not ever.

The film’s main focus is the romantic relationship between a young French girl named Adele, and Emma, a hip art school student several years Adele’s senior; but I stress that this is a coming-of-age story because it is just as much about Adele’s life before and after the relationship as it is about the relationship itself. Indeed, much of why their connection carries so much weight is because we spend those small, quiet moments with Adele both before and after her time with Emma has run its course (in fact, the French title of the film is The Life of Adele – Chapters 1 & 2).  That structural choice, coupled with a beautifully naturalistic and emotionally raw performance by Adele Exarchopoulos, makes Blue a deeply immersive experience.  Lea Seydoux, as Emma, hits all the right notes as the mature, nurturing lover and the increasingly distant artist, and the entire supporting cast creates a lush tapestry of characters that deepens and enriches the world created by Kechiche.  But one really cannot say enough about Exarchopoulos.  A relative unknown prior to filming, she is utterly convincing at every moment, whether chatting at the school lunch table with friends, teaching a class full of second graders, making passionate love or eating a plate of spaghetti.

Blue is the Warmest Color is a film about a particular relationship, yes, but ultimately it is about how love shapes our lives, how it does not always conform to our plans and responsibilities, how we can learn from the pain we experience, and how some people will always matter to who we are.  This story happens to be about two young French women, but these are themes that anyone who has lived can understand.

Honorable Mentions:

Captain Phillips (Dir. Paul Greengrass) – Remove the clumsy opening with the Captain and his wife on their way to the airport and this film might edge into the top 10.  While including a scene like this is key to humanizing Phillips and establishing the stakes for the character, a more intimate, day-to-day type of conversation would have been exponentially more effective than shoehorning in the couple’s musings on the pitfalls of the modern day global economy.  Aside from that minor misfire, the film works extremely well. Greengrass (United 93) is the perfect director for this material and Hanks gives his best performance in well over a decade; the final scene alone may be his crowning achievement.

American Hustle (Dir. David O. Russell) – Oddly enough, my appreciation of Russell’s films seems to have declined as his success (both critical and popular) has increased, but I was pleasantly surprised by American Hustle.  Typically for this director, his latest outing excels mostly in terms of style and entertainment value, always straining a bit when attempting to hit more emotional notes, but it’s an expertly made film nonetheless.  The A-list cast is clearly having a blast with the material, as cartoonish as some of the portrayals may be, but Jeremy Renner as the duped Camden Mayor Carmine Polito may be the only one to fully succeed in creating a genuine character.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese) – As impressive and influential as Martin Scorsese’s career has been, his films just haven’t been quite the same since the turn of the millenium.  That being said, Wolf is the best he’s made in quite some time (I’d say since Gangs of New York); more vivacious, more over-the-top (if a little too polished), and certainly quite relevant in the post-recession era.  Leonardo DiCaprio gives a commanding and crazed performance that in a less stacked year could have easily won him that elusive Oscar.  Jonah Hill (a now two-time Oscar nominee) also proves himself yet again as a skilled actor capable of transcending his Judd Apatow-affiliated comedic roots.

The Stories We Tell (Dir. Sarah Polley) – Having achieved ample success both in front of and behind the camera over the last 15 years or so, the Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley most recently tries her hand at the documentary format.  The result is an enigmatic exploration of her own family’s history that reinforces Polley’s Renaissance Woman status.  A series of interviews with her charming father Michael and many siblings work on dual levels as an engrossing genealogical puzzle and a telling study of the nature of memory itself.