Umney's Alley Picture GalleriesThoughtsFilm LogBook Log

 

A Year in Film: 2014

2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014

Essays/Reviews | Alphabetical Index

What follows are my OCD attempts to list and rate every movie I watch in any given year. (I've done the same for my year's reading in the book log.) Given that I watch some relatively obscure films, I've set it up so that the film title links to the IMDb page for the film so you can get more information easily.

Starting in 2009, I began assigning out star ratings (out of five stars) to films I've watched. Five stars is equivalent to an A, 4½ to an A-/B+, four to a B, and so on.

 

11-15 About a
Boy
(2002)
There's something satisfying about watching an adaptation of a book that pretty much gets everything right, from the refusal to tie things up into a neat bow to a willingness to keep some unpleasant edges on its main character, and About a Boy does right by its source material. It lets Hugh Grant play against type as a bit of a selfish, self-involved jerk who doesn't work, dates single moms for the convenience of not having to keep up long relationships, and just generally drifts through life as a solitary island. And it keeps the dark sides of the rest of the tale, where Grant gets involved with a young boy whose mother's suicide attempt ends up changing his life and leaving him unable to cope. I love Nick Hornby's novel, and I dreaded that a movie version would tie things up into a love story, or soften down Grant's character, or something along those lines. But it doesn't, and while on some level I love that, it also ends up making About a Boy merely quite satisfying, not quite great. There's not really enough of an arc to the film, and while that works fine on the page, it makes the film feel a little less substantive and meaty than it really needs to in order to work entirely. And yet, for all of that, it's still an engaging, funny, sweet, big-hearted film, one that I quite enjoyed on a lot of levels. And if it doesn't quite achieve anything all that spectacular, well, that's okay; the fact that it's as engaging and charming as it is, and that it does right by its source material, is really enough for me in this case.
11-14 Birdman
(2014)
I've long been unimpressed with the work of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose directorial skills and ambition are often tanked by his heavy-handed moralizing and thudding, devastatingly unsubtle metaphorical labors. But Birdman looked to be a step in the right direction, moving away from the self-important, "serious" films and giving us something a little sillier and more fun. And at points, that's exactly what you get with Birdman, especially when the film lets Michael Keaton or Edward Norton play to their heart's content. And even when the film gets more serious and explores the darker aspects of its story - in which a washed-up, once famous superhero actor tries to mount a production of a Raymond Carver story for Broadway and struggles with relevance and respect - there's enough great material there (and some magnificent meta-text for Keaton) that you can't help but be swept up into it. Unfortunately, Birdman is still an Iñárritu film, though, and that means you have to be bludgeoned with commentary about how awful superhero films are, the greatness of acting, the worthlessness of critics, and so much more self-important commentary about why art is the most important thing in life and Hollywood is a fatuous, pathetic enterprise. And that's really frustrating, because there's a really fun and even a great movie lurking inside of Birdman, one that mocks self-important actors, has some fun with inside baseball, but generally ends up making Iñárritu seem like he wants to have his cake and eat it too. That's most clear in the justly mocked and scorned critic scene, which ranks right up there with Lady in the Water as a strawman used to defend your own greatness, but the bigger problem is that Iñárritu ultimately agrees with his critic more than he wants to admit - he's just as pretentious and hateful as she is, and refuses to admit that there's more to art than "important" works. And that, more than anything else, keeps Birdman from working and being the blast it should be. It's magnificently made, and the gimmick - that it seems like one continuous shot - ends up mostly paying off great, ratcheting up the tension of the whole thing. And the cast does great jobs, bringing out the pathos and the humor of their roles. But they can only do so much, and Iñárritu ultimately isn't interested in letting subtlety and complexity get in the way of his scolding and point-making, and it bludgeons the life out of what could have been something really wonderful.
11-12 Interstellar (2014)
I've long argued that a flawed, ambitious misfire is more interesting and satisfying than a boring success, and if I ever needed proof of that assertion, Interstellar fits the bill. Not that Interstellar is a true misfire; it's a technically dazzling piece of work, but one whose script issues ultimately keep it from working as well as it should. Interstellar revolves around a desperate space mission to save humanity from a rapidly dying planet, and in the hands of director Christopher Nolan, the space sequences are truly awe-inspiring, and that goes doubly if you get the privilege of seeing the film on a 70mm print like I did. Nolan uses the massive frame to astonishing effect, always reminding us of the scope and size of the universe and how tiny we are as people in it, and that effect never loses its impact, even as Nolan takes us to more and more alien reaches of the universe and dwarfs his cast in beautiful shots that emphasize our tiny nature and fragility. And that doesn't even begin to approach the more surreal aspects of the film, where Nolan takes inspiration from 2001 but makes it his own, creating visual sequences unlike anything I've ever seen. It's a shame, then, when Interstellar starts to fall apart a bit in the final third, beginning with a revelation that serves no purpose, continuing to a surprise cameo whose role in the film is obvious and unnecessary, and culminating in an astonishingly ambitious and incredible sequence that's nearly tanked by heavy-handed, thudding dialogue. Indeed, much of the film's final third really sours only on the script level, and that's frustrating, because every other aspect of the film - the cast, the crew, the visual effects, everything - is firing on every possible cylinder. And yet, even with those flaws, Interstellar remains essential viewing, and on as big a screen as possible; much like 2001, there are truly transcendent and incredible sequences of Interstellar that remind you of the infinite possibilities of cinema, and show that Nolan is, for any of his flaws, a remarkable director capable of thought-provoking spectacle unlike few others. There are better movies this year than Interstellar, and there's no denying that the final product has serious problems...but there's also no denying what an incredible and powerful achievement it is, even with the flaws, and just how amazing it is on so many levels.
11-10 Last Week
Tonight with
John Oliver
:
Season 1
(2014)
I'll be honest: I've been a fan of John Oliver for years. Not long after he started on The Daily Show, a friend tipped me off to his then-just-beginning podcast The Bugle, and ever since, I'm been a fan. He's smart, funny, has perfect timing for a comedian, and brings a great insight to whatever he takes on. But even so, I was both excited and worried about Last Week Tonight. How would Oliver keep his show from turning into The Daily Show only on a weekly basis? And yet, Oliver not only managed, he's eclipsed his starting point, rapidly becoming the best news comedy show I watch, and a weekly highlight. Yes, the lack of sponsorship has helped, allowing Oliver to go swinging for any target in range. But what's really made Last Week Tonight work is its willingness to a) go in depth on one specific issue instead of casting a wide net and b) go after stories that aren't generally covered, whether it be international politics, the inner workings of Miss America scholarships, or even the death penalty. And he's done it all while being hilariously, viciously, caustically funny, keenly intelligent, and always, always entertaining. What other show could feature both a brutally painful look at Ferguson and a tragic ballad to Russian space sex geckos? What else could somehow manage to segue from anti-homosexuality laws in Africa to a breakdancing Abraham Lincoln? And that, really, is what makes Last Week Tonight work: the fact that it manages to marry vicious, trenchant, pull-no-punches social commentary with rampant silliness and absurd jokes, and never short changes either side. Add to that Oliver's strong moral sensibility that he's never afraid to let show, his willingness to go silly when he feels like it, and the show's willingness to include everything from musical numbers to Muppet sing-alongs, and you have something truly magnificent that I'm already sad is over for the year. January can't get here soon enough for my taste. And if you don't have HBO and think I'm overselling this, go check out their YouTube channel (which uploads almost every single segment from the show) and see for yourself.
11-1 Nightcrawler (2014)
If you took the vicious black-hearted media criticism of Ace in the Hole but made the film orbit around the violent, vacant presence that is Patrick Bateman, you might end up with something very close to Nightcrawler, which blends together black comedy, suspense, social commentary, and thriller elements to make a generally satisfying film that's not quite as great as it could be. Nightcrawler is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the film, and while Gilroy doesn't do much wrong, you can't help but think at times what someone like Michael Mann could do with the nighttime LA setting that fills so much of the film's running time. Gilroy's script, too, feels like it could use just a little more work; while what's there is still generally satisfying, I ended up almost feeling like it pulled its punches a little more than I expected, and that the film could have easily gone darker than it did (which, admittedly, is saying something, depending on the moments you focus on). But those are minor issues, and they merely mean that the film is quite good instead of great; that being said, the biggest thing this has going for it is the knockout performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as the strange, unhinged, rarely-blinking Lou, an obsessive young man who knows all the right things to say but never quite seems convincing or even human. Gilroy and Gyllenhaal toe the line beautifully, keeping Lou strange and off-putting but never letting him entirely leave us behind, and there's a lot of American Psycho to the way the film is as much an indictment of the system that allows him to succeed as it ever is of Lou himself. That also means, though, that Nightcrawler works better as a character study of Lou than as a screed on the state of media, and the more explicitly it hits its points, the more it loses some of its impact. But for all of that, it's still a gripping, uncomfortable, nicely intense film, and if the worst I can really say about it is that it's still really good, but I wish it was even better, that's still not much to complain about. And when you get a performance like this, or incredible moments like a late-film pursuit or the most uncomfortable date in recent memory, that only solidifies how well this really works, and how much I hope Gilroy keeps going and continues to hone his craft - I think there will definitely be more to come from him.
11-1 The Bridge:
Season 2
(2014)
It always felt as though the idea of The Bridge was to marry the pulp sensibility of Breaking Bad with the social commentary of The Wire, and during the second season's finest moments - which included most of the back half - the show managed to pull it off, somehow telling a story that could both include a murderous Mennonite-looking woman whose crazed father was held captive and thoughtful exploration of American guilt in the drug wars. That the show took a while to hit that stride shouldn't be surprising; after all, the show's first season was held back by an increasingly silly serial killer storyline that nearly everyone involved regretted, so it's to be expected that the show needed some time to escape that. But for the first half of the season, The Bridge felt so scattered that it was hard to tell what, if anything, it was trying to be about. There were newspaper reporters digging into money storage units, a bearded man trying to help a victimized woman, Marco dealing with the ramifications of being an honest cop in a corrupt force, Sonya dealing with the man who killed her sister, and so on and so forth. I spent a lot of the first half of the season more or less enjoying pieces, but struggled to see what any of it had to do with anything else. But as the season came together, The Bridge hit an incredible stride, and started delivering knockout television. It filled the series with an outstanding supporting cast of characters, turning even the thankless role of a Mexican drug kingpin into something funny, tragic, and beautiful, or fleshing out its government operatives with details like their minifigure painting or their constant eating. Moreover, the storylines started to pay real emotional dividends, paying off long-burning threads in a satisfying way. And the leads delivered and then some, especially Matthew Lillard as an addict journalist who lit up the screen with what's probably his best performance to date. I don't blame FX for canceling The Bridge; the show took a long time to hit its stride, and the fact that so many people bailed before it got there is completely understandable. But for those who stuck with it, we got to see The Bridge fulfill that promising marriage of pulp and social commentary, and it did a great job while it lasted.
10-26 Don't Look Now (1973)
There's no denying the sheer artistry of Don't Look Now. Whatever the film's shortcomings as a coherent piece of plotting - and there are plenty of issues on that front - it's hard not to be swept up in the haunting mood of the film, which often captures the feel of a waking dream or nightmare perfectly, pushing us into a slightly surreal and off-kilter version of reality where nothing quite makes sense or adds up correctly. Add to that the film's painful exploration of guilt and mourning, as our central couple copes with the death of their daughter, and you have all the ingredients for something truly spectacular. And, again, on a technical level, Don't Look Now succeeds incredibly well. The Venice setting provides an astonishing backdrop, and there are no shortage of incredible scenes, from a mishap on a hanging platform to the justly famous sex scene that becomes something more through the power of editing. But Don't Look Now is often lauded as a great horror movie, and on that level, it really never delivers. Yes, those last few minutes are pretty great, but they're also painfully nonsensical, and the sudden buildup comes out of nowhere and disappears almost as quickly. Don't Look Now is a true 1970's piece of filmmaking, and in some ways, I admire its refusal to be easily pigeonholed and the way it intertwines suspense, drama, and horror to become something more complex. But it's also fairly frustrating and often maddeningly unclear, and as great as those final moments are, they're so bizarre and random that it feels almost silly. In some ways, I can understand the film's reputation, but in others, I feel like it's something that nearly coheres but ultimately feels like a collection of great moments rather than a coherent whole.
9-30 Traxx (1988)
Traxx has to be one of the stranger experiences I've had watching a film in a long time. At first glance, it's a gloriously insane 80's action movie, with a former soldier/mercenary cleaning up crime through guns, fists, and lots (and lots) of explosions. Add to that some glorious lines (like Traxx's response when being yelled at about killing a man who shot an old woman and a puppy: "I'd like to hear from the puppy's family, sir.") and you have something that should be a lot of fun. Then, it gradually becomes clear that Traxx is at least a little bit in on the joke, cranking everything up to 11 and turning it into a little bit of a parody, while still telling its story more or less straight. But after that realization, it rapidly becomes clear that this parody feels more like a wet dream from Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, where criminals can be shot on sight or strung up in the street, where drug addicts deserve to be run over with cars without a second thought, where minorities all function as comic relief one step away from a minstrel show, and on and on. Parts of Traxx are undeniably funny, and some of it is even meant to be funny. But there's a lot that's just disturbing and really horrifying, especially a shot where Traxx has decorated the street with the bodies of criminals he's butchered and it's treated as the greatest thing anyone's ever done. (Imagine the climax of Unforgiven played for laughs/cheers.) It's a thoroughly bizarre movie, and among the most cheerfully fascist things I've ever seen. I won't deny that I laughed a good deal, sometimes with it and sometimes at it, but I also can't deny that by the end I felt like I needed to shower off the morass of Reagan and Thatcher attitudes that seemed to inspire the film so deeply.
9-28 Boyhood
(2014)
Clocking in at almost 3 hours, having no real story to speak of, and having a few too many endings, I could probably spend a lot of time discussing some of Boyhood's flaws: that it's a little unwieldy and unshapely, that it needs some trimming and some work, that it can be uneven. And yet, for all of those flaws, I can't deny that I absolutely loved Boyhood, and that those flaws in some ways make it the magnificent accomplishment that it is. Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years, with director Richard Linklater uniting his cast once or twice a year to film a few scenes each year and then editing the final product into a film that charts the growth of a young boy from age 6 to age 18 on screen. And around him, the rest of the cast ages along with him, as does the world around him; we see references to old Presidential campaigns and technology, TV shows and athletic heroes, songs that charted for a while and then vanished. But unlike so many nostalgia pieces, Boyhood never stoops to using dramatic irony; indeed, it can't, given that the scenes were filmed with no knowledge of what was to come in the years after they were filmed. That means that midnight book releases of Harry Potter books fit right alongside scenes of characters smoking in bowling alleys, and both seem like dispatches from a world we don't remember much anymore. And there's more aging than just the world and the characters; we're also watching Linklater evolve as a director, indulging in longer plot arcs before discarding them, incorporating more philosophical musings, taking longer takes, and simply going through the phases we watched him go through over the past 12 years. But while all of that is rich and compelling stuff, what really leaves you astonished about Boyhood is that it's rare to see the passage of time so richly depicted in a single film. The shapelessness that occasionally frustrates about Boyhood is also part of its greatness; rather than focusing on milestones or cultural moments, Boyhood is a life told in moments, from camping trips to tense family dinners to long drives with parents, and it allows its characters to develop offscreen, letting the actors and the audience fill in the gaps along the way. Boyhood eschews the typical coming of age tropes to simply give you slices of life that add up to a picture of a life, and as we watch Mason grow from a Dragon Ball Z watching 6-year-old to a long-haired photography student, we feel like we're watching someone we know grow up - and I'd be lying if I didn't say that wrecked me a bit as a parent of two young children who are growing up awfully fast. So, yes, Boyhood has some flaws. But it's also an incredible accomplishment, and many of those flaws also give it the rich, lived-in feel that it has as the characters come to life and we see their pains and their issues evolve over their lives. And the fact that Linklater guided this project over 12 years and came out with something as focused, thoughtful, and effective as he did is no small accomplishment. Is it a gimmick? If you're feeling uncharitable, sure. But it's also a way of telling a life story that no one's done before, and it's made something wholly remarkable, unique, and deeply moving in the process.
9-23 The Crucible (1996)
One of the joys of teaching the same class again, year after year, is re-watching certain movies and re-reading certain stories. And so it's time for The Crucible again, the solid film adaptation of Arthur Miller's incredible play. I didn't like this take on The Crucible quite as much now as I did a year ago, when I first watched it; I feel like Daniel Day Lewis chews the scenery a bit, especially in that final act, and the girls' "performances" in the trials are so over the top as to be a little absurd. (Which, of course, is sort of the point, but it doesn't keep their scenes from being a little distracting.) But there's also no denying that I'm always thrilled when a movie can crack through my students' jaded facades, and watching them get all worked up around Elizabeth's testimony or the film's ending makes me agree that the film works. It's a little overwrought at times, but it works far more than not, and it does a nice job of sticking to the play's story and simplifying it where the boundaries of film allow it to do so (in depicting more of the trials, in expanding beyond the four sets, and so forth). In other words, it adapts the play into a film, and that's what I like to see in my films.
9-22 The Leftovers: Season 1 (2014)
It's not that I don't understand why so many people dislike The Leftovers; quite the opposite, in fact. Here's a show about a world three years after a Rapture-style event, when a small percentage of the world's population suddenly and without warning vanished, leaving the survivors wondering why they were spared and what, if anything, the event meant. It's a show where what plot threads there are take a back seat to character development, atmosphere, and mood. It's a show where the closest things to villains, apart from a cult obsessed with forcing people to remember and deal with the event instead of repressing it, are mental instability, isolation, and fear of a world where God's existence may be nothing like what we ever assumed. And it's a show without much hope, as characters try to find meaning in their lives as they feel rejected, discarded, or simply adrift in a world that may have already begun to end. That's heavy stuff, and the sheer bleak atmosphere of The Leftovers can be hard to take; what little humor there is is pitch black, and there's no shortage of raw emotional pain, from the families torn apart by the event to the police officer whose mind may be crumbling to the woman who lost every member of her family on the day of the disappearance. And none of that even touches on the Guilty Remnant, the white-clad, smoking cult whose simple presence constantly reminds us and the characters that there is no forgetting of that event, no letting go. But for all of that, The Leftovers may be one of the best shows on television, combining a beautiful visual sense, an astonishing command of tone, honest performances, and raw emotional power to create something beautiful about loss, grief, religion, hope, and how we connect to each other. From the pre-credits sequences, which work almost as perfect short films (my favorite was the story of the town's Jesus doll for its nativity, set the "Not the One" by the Black Keys), to its knack for knowing when to let silence or music do all the talking, The Leftovers used its premise to explore people on the verge of giving up, and did it with honesty, strength, and even some beauty. It's a rough watch sometimes, make no mistake, but it's also profoundly moving and richly human, and it's all the more so for embracing the uncertainty of its premise and making its characters deal with the lack of answers. It's a polarizing show, but count me among those who are floored by it, week in and week out.
9-21 Calvary
(2014)
The title of Calvary is never mentioned over the course of the film, but its meaning isn't terribly difficult to understand; this is a film about an Irish priest who is approaching his own death, after a man confronts him in the confessional booth and tells him that he's going to shoot him in a week. Theoretically, Calvary is a mystery about who the assassin is (or will be, I suppose), but it's never really the focus of the film; rather, the film is focused on the priest as he makes his travels through the town and approaches his death, dealing with the business of his town and doing his best to settle his accounts, whether it's helping his suicidal daughter (from a marriage that ended before he took up the priesthood), trying to deal with an arrogant wealthy investor, navigating the thorny issues around a woman who may or may not be in an abusive relationship, or simply dealing with the abuse, mocking, and need that surrounds him on all sides in his small Irish town. As played by the always excellent Brendan Gleeson, James is a remarkably rich and complex character; while he's undeniably a good man (indeed, such is the reason he's targeted), he's more complex than simple, and his struggles with faith and the issues therein give the film a feel closer to something that Paul Schrader might have made (there's a lot of The Last Temptation of Christ here in many ways). It's not surprising that Calvary is the work of a man who got his start writing plays; it gets a little monologue-heavy at some points, and the characters all end up feeling closer to representatives of ideas or archetypes, even while they're all allowed plenty of room to breathe. But none of that detracts from the power of the film, which grapples with the reputation of the church, the place of faith in the modern world, the role of the priesthood, and what it means to atone and to forgive, not only from a religious perspective but also from a human one. It's a rich, deeply satisfying film, and from the astonishingly beautiful cinematography to the knockout performance by Gleeson, it's a spectacular and wonderful piece of filmmaking that will leave you with plenty to contemplate.
9-21 The Haunted Mansion (2003)
There's something inherently difficult about doing "scary" movies for kids. Go too far, and you're alienating your target audience by giving them something more intense than they can handle. Go too light, and you've made something "for little kids," something that ends up feeling like you're talking down to your audience. But more than that, it's hard to figure out what will end up scaring kids. Take Jumanji, which is a movie most of us remember - a board game invades the real world, filling a small town with stampedes, lions, and a long-lost child played by the late Robin Williams. But Jumanji is more intense and unnerving than you remember it being, and it pushes pretty hard against its PG rating, creating something that feels too dark for kids but too light for adults. Still, my kids enjoyed it more than I expected, with my 4-year-old daughter laughing throughout and my 8-year-old son getting nervous and antsy, so who really knows? As an adult, though, Jumanji is fun enough to watch; Williams brings a lot of energy and heart to his part, there are some great sequences, and it all does a pretty good job keeping up the momentum and bringing some heart to bear. Even if it still falls apart thanks to that weird mismatch of tone, Jumanji isn't a bad watch on the whole, and it stays engaging and fun even for adults. The same can't be said for The Haunted Mansion, a 2003 film made to cash in on the popularity and success of Pirates of the Caribbean, but with weaker effects, Eddie Murphy in place of Johnny Depp, and a story that never works as anything other than a loose framework for some weak gags. It went over pretty well with my little audience (a long battle with skeletons excepted), but as an adult, this one is pretty painful to sit through. Murphy is lacking all of his usual charm and snap, Terence Stamp exudes apathy and irritation so strongly you can almost see it, and the gags are weak, tepid physical ones that might as well come with slide whistles and sad trombones. And while it generally does a better job balancing scares with its target audience, it certainly fails as a movie entirely.
9-20 Jumanji
(1995)
8-29 When You
Comin' Back,
Red Ryder?
(1979)
When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? started life as a stage play about a hostage situation in a small-town diner, but it wasn't long enough to be a feature film. What that means is that the film version of the play starts off with a long, long introductory act that never feels like anything more than the padding and throat clearing that it is - it's all unnecessary exposition that's obviously there to make it all longer. (Trust me - if there's one thing teachers are good at, it's spotting padding techniques.) When we finally get to the hostage situation, the film undeniably picks up; while it all unfolds like these things always do (the couple whose romance has died airs their grievances; the kid who hates his town makes it all clear; and so forth), there's a fairly crippling problem that keeps the film from working: Marjoe Gortner. The former child evangelist plays the hostage taker, but he kicks things off at level 11, which leaves him nowhere to go up as the film progresses. Marjoe isn't awful in the role - his evangelist rhythms give him a nicely psychotic feel at times - but he never learns when to dial it back and when to crank it up again, and it keeps the film from ever working as well as it should. Red Ryder doesn't feel like a great play to begin with - it feels a little generic and aimless, and the hostage taker works less as a character and more as a plot device. But the choice to expand the story and Marjoe's inability to pace himself hold the film back from working as well as it might otherwise
8-22 The War
of the Gargantuas

(1970)
War of the Gargantuas is one of those movies that opens so well that it spends the rest of the movie living in the shadow of its opening scene. When your movie kicks off with a giant red-eyed octopus fighting a gargantuan primate (that looks like the offspring of Swamp Thing and Quasimodo) over who gets to eat a Japanese fishing boat, only for the authorities to comment that this doesn't seem like a typical giant monster attack while Russ Tamblyn phones in a weird performance as the benevolent white scientist genius...well, your movie is writing big checks that it never ends up able to cash. That doesn't mean that War of the Gargantuas isn't awesome, because it definitely is - as long as your version of awesome includes kaiju monster action, copious and obvious use of miniatures, some terrible green-screen effects, and a wonderfully weird plot that almost makes sense but falls critically short. This sounds like I'm saying that it's "so bad it's good," but I genuinely enjoyed War of the Gargantuas, which is an absolute blast to watch and really pretty fantastically paced. Sure, it's all a bit silly, and the ending feels like they ran out of money. But that opening scene is dynamite, there's some great camerawork, there's a charm to almost every shot (even the one that's reused three times in a row), and it just made me happy. So who cares if it's "good"? It's awesome, and sometimes, that's way more satisfying.
8-13 Wilfred:
Season 4
(2014)
Part of what I've loved most about Wilfred over the length of the series was its absolute indifference to its own mythology - or, more accurately, its refusal to take it seriously in the least, instead constantly subverting expectations, logic, reality, and any sort of continuity in favor of just following its wonderfully odd muse wherever it led. But with the show concluding, an answer was apparently called for, and so the final season of the show focused on its storyline and mythology in a way the series had never done before. And while it was still filled with misdirection and oddities, the focus on a throughline robbed the show of some of its anarchic charm, as jokes and sidebars gave way to monologues and investigations. There were still some great moments (especially a long hallucinatory sequence that took "meta" to wonderful new heights), but in general, I missed the silly banter between Wood and Gann and the way the show could waste time on the absurdity of its premise. For all that, though, I can't deny that the ultimate answer as to the reality of Wilfred was satisfying, closing off some of the weirder side trails the series had opened along the way and giving us a conclusive answer that felt honest, appropriate, and character-centered in the way the show always was. And it delivered some knockout moments along the way, too, bringing some heart and pathos that I didn't know the show could do. The final season of Wilfred definitely felt lesser than its predecessors, and you couldn't help but feel it sometimes sacrificed humor for wrap-up. But it nailed the ending, and it did so without ruining the gleeful silliness of the show before it, which is what really matters in the end.
8-8 Birth of
the Living
Dead
(2013)
In his review for The Dissolve, Noel Murray calls Birth of the Living Dead "little more than a glorified DVD featurette," and that's not an unfair assessment of the film. For all intents and purposes, Birth of the Living Dead is just a general appreciation/making of story about Night of the Living Dead, one that doesn't really bring much new to the table that any big fan won't already know. Discussions of how the film reflected its turbulent times, of how casting Duane Jones - a black man - as the lead shaped the film in ways the filmmakers never really contemplated, of how it fell into public domain thanks to a dumb mistake - all of it's here, told in an engaging, if simple, way. But it's hard not to enjoy Birth of the Living Dead anyway, thanks in no small part to the charismatic storytellers (especially Romero himself) and the real appreciation of the film that comes from all of the participants. Whether it's Elvis Mitchell talking about his reaction as a young block man seeing the movie for the first time, a Walking Dead producer talking about how the film influenced the series, or a teacher using the film as a teaching tool (with, it must be said, a bizarrely young class to be seeing such a horrific film), there's a great sense of love for the film and an appreciation of its influence. Yes, it's a little fawning at times; yes, there's a participant or two who drag on and feel a bit pretentious (I'm looking at you, Larry Fessenden). But any fan of Romero's seminal horror film - which, I'd argue, isn't just one of the best horror films ever made, but one of the best films, period - is going to enjoy this, even if they acknowledge that it's a little glossy and shallow at times. Still, worth a watch if you're a fan - and if you're not, why aren't you?
8-3 Guardians of
the Galaxy

(2014)
I can't deny that I've been pretty skeptical about the whole "Marvel Cinematic Universe" idea. In theory, it means some higher quality comic book films, and I'm not averse to that, but there's something about the intertwined nature of the MCU that's rubbed me the wrong way, making each movie feel less like an end in of itself and more like just an extended trailer for the next movie in the series rather than a complete experience. Add to that a lack of ambition and the tendency to rein in or handicap directors (and the whole Edgar Wright debacle certainly doesn't bode well on that front), and you start to maybe understand my issues. But for all of that, I really, really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, which feels like a welcome breath of fresh air to the MCU in so many ways while also managing to be a funny, entertaining movie on its own terms. Guardians is pure space opera, throwing together a team of desperate antiheroes who end up working together as a means to an end, only to find themselves defending a planet from a dangerous threat. On a plot level, Guardians has some issues that have plagued most comic book movies - some shoehorned in backstory here and there, a weakly developed villain, and so forth. But even with those weaknesses, Guardians hangs together simply by being so fun. It's not just the devil-may-care attitude of its heroes; it's not just the fantastic gags; it's not just the sharp dialogue and great comedic timing. No, Guardians works because of all of those things, but it's also the film's sheer refusal to take itself too seriously, undermining its dramatic moments with meta commentary, letting iconic poses stumble, speeches be interrupted, and more. No small amount of the film's success can be chalked up to every cast member, from Chris Pratt as a roguish hero to Michael Rooker as a gloriously over-the-top scavenger - and that doesn't even touch on the voice work by Bradley Cooper (who turns a violent, brilliant racoon into something more than just a constantly funny sight gag) and Vin Diesel (who somehow gets a whole movie out of 3 words and different intonations). But you can't leave James Gunn out of the mix, whose directorial choices make Guardians feel rich and lush in a way that a lot of the Marvel movies haven't been allowed it. From a fantastic opening credit sequence set in an abandoned world to a sequence in a floating alien head, Gunn fills the frame with weirdness, color, texture, and space, creating something richer and more visually interesting than anything I've seen out of Marvel. And if that's enough, there's the rest of his sensibility - just try to imagine this movie without its soundtrack after you see it. Yes, Guardians still has to tie into the MCU, and it does, but tangentially, as though it's clearing an obligation and then wants to follow its own muse. And I couldn't be happier about it. The Ant-Man debacle still looms ominously, but Guardians shows that Marvel might be willing to let go of some control and cut loose a little bit, and if the results can be this satisfying, entertaining, and just fun, I might come around to this whole MCU thing after all.
8-3 Mr. Peabody
& Sherman

(2014)
When you have children, you end up seeing a lot of kids' movies, and while there are some good (and even great) ones, you learn early on that you'll be sitting through some junk, but that watching your kids have fun usually makes up for it. But it's hard to think of a kids' movie in recent memory that's as joyless, charmless, lifeless, humorless, plotless, and just plain awful as Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which takes the original cartoons and sucks them dry until there's just a bland, arid husk left behind. It's hard to know where to begin criticizing Peabody, but you could probably do worse than starting with the absurd, forced emotional beats. As Tasha Robinson points out in her dead-on review for The Dissolve, Mr. Peabody and Sherman feels like someone made a list of the moments they needed to include in order to make the film work, but forgot to actually do any work tying any of it together. Thus, one character develops a crush for no real reason (and it's never mentioned again), bizarre conflicts appear and disappear, Mr. Peabody is sometimes judged as a dog and sometimes not (as the plot demands), and so forth. I could forgive a lot of that - after all, it's basically cartoon logic - if the film around it was fun. At all. But the humor is awful stuff; the few jokes that aren't double entendres or bodily function jokes are wacky pratfalls, exaggerated screaming, and even an ethnic stereotype or two. (It's worth noting that even my two small children never really laughed more than a couple of times in the entire film.) Add to that some blandly ugly animation, a great voice cast given nothing to work with (seriously, how is it possible to put Patrick Warburton in your film and I still don't even crack a smile?), and an utter inability to capture any of the silliness or fun of the original sketches, and you have just an utter wasteland of a film that's luckily so forgettable that it won't stick with you for more than 30 seconds after you leave.
8-1 Night of the
Demon
(1980)
By and large, Night of the Demon is a mostly forgettable video nasty about murderous Sasquatches, one that's probably most well-remembered for a scene in which a urinating biker learns the hard way why you don't drop your pants around forest dwelling cryptozoological nightmares. And for the most part, it's a terrible, silly, badly-edited horror film, where a science team investigates accounts of the creature, allowing characters to recount urban legends, explore the woods, set up camp in a man's front yard, drift in and out of dream sequences without much visual note, and so forth. But right near the end of Night of the Demon, the film gets into the backstory of the creature and its relationship with an outcast woman who never speaks, and that section of film is so relentlessly horrifying and uncomfortable that it feels like it's spliced in from something much more unpleasant - something that earned that segment of film, because Night of the Demon certainly didn't. It's like the horrifying attack in Showgirls; it's repulsive and really horrifying, and it's so at odds with the tone and quality of the film around it that it simply becomes disgusting, not "scary" or "horrifying" in the good way. Night of the Demon certainly isn't a good movie (and I'd be interested to know if the cast and crew realized just how horrible their protagonists were; by the end, they're about as moral and scientific as the crew in Cannibal Holocaust), but that one section is pretty damn rough to sit through.
7-30 Cat People
(1942)
On a literal plot level, Cat People sounds like it should be just a variation on a werewolf story, as a man marries a woman who lives in fear that she will succumb to the curse of her Serbian village, where people were rumored to turn into cats. But that story doesn't really prepare you for the depth and layers of Cat People, which taps into sexual hangups and fears in a deep, deep way, as the woman fears that her malady would be triggered by sexual jealousy but also intimacy with her husband, which only serves to make the former more of an issue. That's some complicated (and surprisingly racy) stuff for a horror film to take on, but in the hands of famed producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, Cat People doesn't really feel much like a typical horror movie anyway. It's a long, slow burn before anything much happens beyond the budding relationship, but the film's peppered with odd, cryptic moments, like the reactions of the animals at a pet store, or a brief encounter with a fellow Serb. And then, just when your guard is down, Cat People hits you with two absolute knockout sequences - one on a darkened street, the other in a swimming pool - that are every bit as creepy and unnerving today as they were more than 60 years ago. Cat People is a strange, compelling, wonderful little film; the subtext is fascinating and complex, the mood beautiful and creepy, and the acting and writing intriguing. A fascinating, beautiful, haunting little oddity.
7-25 The
American-ization of
Emily
(1964)
When you combine the talents of James Garner, James Coburn, and Julie Andrews, and give them all a script by Paddy Chayefsky, you're pretty much guaranteed to get something pretty incredible, so it's somewhat surprising at first that The Americanization of Emily seems to have fallen into relative obscurity, especially when compared with Chayefsky's other films. But having seen it, I understand a bit more why it's less loved, even though it's still a pretty great movie. Garner has a blast with the role, bringing out his charm and his comedic timing and making his cowardly soldier (whose career mainly resolves around taking care of "his" admiral) into rich life. But he can't do much with Chayefsky's monologues, which are well-written (would you expect anything less?) but don't always mesh with the movie or the characters around them. In general, that's kind of the issue with Emily in a nutshell; it's well-written and beautifully acted, but Chayefsky's writing occasionally breaks up the flow, turning Coburn's amiable colleague into a patriot on a dime, or making odd use of an unstable admiral to move the plot along without much logic behind it. For all of those issues, Emily is still a lot of fun; it's wonderfully subversive, both in terms of its approach to sex and its view that war is often fueled by empty gestures and political grandstanding. And it's often hilarious, whether it's letting Garner and Andrews bicker over American and British rivalries, constantly interrupting Coburn's evenings with his dates, or watching as Garner does his job and procures supplies. And it's all anchored by a solid, engaging romance between Garner and Andrews that's contrasted against the mad quest to make sure that a Navy man is the first fatality in the D-Day invasion. Emily isn't a perfect movie, but it's a really fun one, and if the monologues occasionally break it up, that's offset by the interesting ideas and great performances on display.
7-24 Belle de
Jour
(1967)
In some ways, the fact that Belle de Jour is a Luis Buñuel film is genuinely surprising. It's far more straightforward than you would expect from the master of surrealism; with a few exceptions, this is a fairly simple story about a woman whose lack of sexual fulfillment leads her to work as a prostitute during the day without the knowledge of her husband. But in Buñuel's hands, there's the usual expected subversion of all kinds, beginning with the wife's sexual fantasies of domination and humiliation and ranging all the way up to that wonderfully odd ending. I didn't love Belle de Jour the way I loved a lot of other Buñuel films; I miss the wild interludes of insanity, the willingness to go surreal more often. (It's not a coincidence that all of my favorite moments here are the most odd - I loved the fantasy sequences, of course, but there's also that wonderfully odd bit about the box.) And yet, the more I think on Belle, the more I like it - it's a wonderful exploration of one woman's sexuality as she's torn between social expectations and her own desires, and it feels nicely ahead of its time in many ways. Yes, it's a bit more mundane and reined in than Buñuel's other works, but that only allows it to dive further in one specific area - going deeper instead of wider, to steal a teaching aphorism. And the fact that Belle stars Catherine Deneuve only makes it a more fascinating companion piece to personal favorite Repulsion, another study of a woman whose sexual repression is starting to cause some cognitive dissonance. Belle de Jour is pretty compelling, fascinating stuff, and if it lacks some of the glorious oddness of my favorite Buñuel films, it makes up for it with its trenchant, keen looks at sexuality and the unfairness of social mores.
7-24 The
Housemaid
(1960)
I always try to judge a movie against itself, but in the case of The Housemaid, I kept coming back again and again to the 2010 remake, which took the same concept - a married man has an affair with his housemaid, and the affair has horrific consequences for his family - but took it in a fascinating direction that focused on class warfare and social commentary. The original Housemaid, by contrast, is a much more straightforward thriller, albeit one with heaping amounts of strange sexual politics, gender dynamics, and more than a hint of moralizing (especially in a bizarre, fourth-wall-breaking finale). It's also pitched far beyond melodrama into nearly camp levels, as the housemaid starts to show a seriously crazy side, the family all becomes hostages to her moods, the father deals with his guilt, and things get seriously bizarre and wonderfully twisted. It's all a lot of fun, but I kind of missed the sharper, more trenchant side of the remake; while the original Housemaid is a lot of fun, there's something about the baroque class warfare of the remake that really floored me. Still, this is a really engaging watch; it's clearly influenced by Hitchcock, but infused with Korean morals and a willingness to plunge into sexual dynamics in a way that American films wouldn't be for a long time. The ending is pretty remarkably awful (so much so that I can't help but hope that it was intentionally tongue in cheek), and it hurts the film by leaving you with a bad taste in your mouth. But the rest is a fun, off-the-wall thriller that holds its own, and no doubt helped to set the tone for Korean cinema to come.
7-23 Snowpiercer (2013)
A second watch of Snowpiercer really only deepened my appreciation of the film, even while I acknowledge even more its flaws. I can completely understand, having seen it a couple of times, what Harvey Weinstein was thinking with his desire to edit the film; with about 15-20 minutes of trim, Snowpiercer would be a lot more commercially viable, and its streamlining would probably help the film be more "successful". But it would also lose a lot of weirdness that gives the film its personality, and in making it more "successful," it would also be a hell of a lot more boring and conventional. What I love about Snowpiercer is its willingness to follow its muse to odd places and include sections that don't necessarily need to be there. There are scenes that could be cut, tonal shifts that could be smoothed, and you could probably edit down some of the monologues at the end. But all you would be doing is cutting out the touches of life that make Snowpiercer so engaging for me as a cinephile. Maybe it comes with the territory when you watch as many movies as I do, but I've gotten to where I like things that can't be easily pigeonholed, and in its current state, Snowpiercer is a gloriously ambitious blend of science-fiction allegory, action film, Terry Gilliam-esque dystopia, and Marxist theory, all seasoned with equal parts comedy, horror, melodrama, and political theory. And for as much as I'm saying you could trim Snowpiercer into something more commercially viable, I don't think there's that much that genuinely should be cut. I think the film gains from its ambitions and its willingness to experiment, and I think it benefits the final product as something that feels unmistakably like a personal statement, big budget and all. So I'll still concede that Snowpiercer isn't ever going to be a mainstream success, and that it's uneven. But I'll also still argue that I love it a hell of a lot, it excited me and thrilled me more than just about any mainstream big budget film I can think of in recent memory, and I wouldn't change a bit of it.
7-23 Treme:
Season 4
(2013)
I understand why Treme never caught on. I understand that the low-key stakes of the show probably worked against it. I understand that people probably didn't want to see a show that was so constantly broken up by so many lengthy musical performances. I understand that not everyone liked Steve Zahn's overly enthusiastic DJ Davis, or could get past the challenges of the local politics and issues. But screw all those people. Every one of them. Because I loved Treme, and I hated, hated, hated seeing it end. Not that it ended badly; far from it. The characters got the endings they deserved - not necessarily happy ones (it's a David Simon show - would you expect any differently?), but the right ones, with a mixture of hope and cynicism that the show always carefully walked. And if there was a sense of resignation and hurt to this season - as character after character wondered if they were even making a difference with what they did, in what had to be a meta-commentary by the showrunners - it's a fairly earned one, and appropriate for New Orleans in the rebuilding period after Katrina where everyone began to wonder if anything would ever be as fixed as they hoped. But to the show's credit, there's more hope here than in The Wire; while not everything is perfect, there's change, and evolution, and a sense of maturity that's coming to some of these people. And as a TV series? It ends on a perfect image that both represents the frustrations and the glories of the show perfectly, wrapping it all up beautifully in an image that doesn't need a single word. Like I said, I get why Treme never caught on. But I'm already sad that it's gone, and taking with it some of the richest, warmest, most rewarding character relationships I've seen on TV, some phenomenal actors and actresses, and the best soundtrack around, period.
7-23 The
One-Armed Swordsman

(1967)
I think I'm starting to realize that a lot of classic kung fu films just aren't for me. It's not that there's anything particularly wrong with Five Fingers of Death and The One-Armed Swordsman; of course, there's the bad dubbing work and the bizarre plotting to both films, but both are pretty fun for what they are. Five Fingers of Death orbits around a martial arts student who wants to enter into a tournament, while The One-Armed Swordsman features a maimed pupil who is striving to adjust to his new disability so he can protect himself and his master. But really, those stories are just excuses to string together fights, from revenge-fueled combat to students protecting/avenging their masters and so forth. The men are worried about honor and their own purpose; the schools of thought in constant battle over ancient grudges; and so forth. (If there's a surprising touch, it's the role of women, which is more varied than I expected; they're still often put into the love interest role, but there's more to them than that, sometimes.) It's all fine and well-done, but neither film did all that much for me, and I spent most of them more bored than engaged. That's not to say that there aren't great martial arts films, but they need something to them - a style, a hook, a presence (like Sonny Chiba in The Street Fighter, for instance). These two are solid entries and well done, but there's nothing to grab onto apart from the fights, and none of them are interesting enough to really draw me in. Again, I think it's a matter of "not for me" rather than the films being bad, but one way or the other, I was more bored than entertained by the pair of them.
7-23 Five Fingers
of Death
(1972)
7-23 Broken Blossoms
(1919)
Any modern audience member is going to probably have some serious difficulties with Broken Blossoms. It's not just the usual different style of a silent film; indeed, Broken Blossoms holds up better than most in that regard, delivering some solid visual shots and an engaging enough story, if you're open to melodrama. No, Broken Blossoms gets hit hard with practices that would no longer fly, including a white man playing a Chinese character largely through squinting, the same Chinese character not even deserving a name (though he does get the affectionate nickname of "Chinky," so that's awfully sweet), and even a brief shot of blackface to round out the modern discomfort. And yet, despite D.W. Griffith's reputation thanks to Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms is more well-intentioned than offensive, allowing a mixed-race romance to drive its story and letting the best character in the film be Asian (and the villain be defined at least in small part by his bigotry and hatred of other races). That doesn't make Broken Blossoms hold up much better, but it's free of the toxic racism that poisons Nation, and instead just makes it dated. And if you can get past that, it's a sweet piece of melodrama, and one that shows off some of how groundbreaking Griffith's work could be, and just how much influence he had. It's just that it's more interesting as a piece of film history than as a film; while it's undeniably influential, it's also a bit overlong and dull, and the dated aspects are pretty hard to get past.
7-19 Snowpiercer (2013)
Snowpiercer is the English-language debut of Bong Joon-Ho, the wonderful Korean filmmaker responsible for brilliant films like Memories of Murder, The Host, and Mother, all of which mixed wildly divergent tones, off-the-wall plotting, genuine human drama, and rich complexity to make films that felt like little else out there. And while I love Bong's work, I couldn't help but worry that Snowpiercer would lose that idiosyncratic feel when he produced a big budget work for a studio. But I needn't have worried; Snowpiercer is a wonderfully off-kilter work, one that mixes wildly varying tones (equal parts action, comedy, bleak dystopian horror, science-fiction thoughtfulness, and social commentary), follows its plot to places you don't expect, kills characters without warning, and generally just keeps you off balance throughout - and in doing so, delivers one of my favorite films of the year so far. I can't even deny that Snowpiercer has some flaws - some dodgy CGI, a lack of subtlety, some occasionally overwritten monologues - but I can't say I cared at all, and if anything, all of it just made me love the film all the more. If you're the kind of person who can't get past the premise of a film without questioning the physics or the plausibility, a film in which what's left of humanity is riding a perpetually-running train through a frozen wasteland and preparing a revolution to overthrow the caste system in place on the train probably isn't for you. Because Bong couldn't care less about the "realism" of his premise; he's making a science-fiction allegory, a film that takes on class and Marxist theory more directly than just about any big-budget film in recent memory, using its rigidly defined ecosystem to explore the costs of revolution, the relationship between the upper and lower classes, and so much more. And if Snowpiercer isn't always subtle, it makes up for it with its richness, its anger, and its intelligence - and, to be sure, its sheer beauty and spectacle. Bong has lost none of his skill with the big budget, and Snowpiercer delivers no end of memorable moments, from an odd break in the middle of a brutal battle to a surreal interlude in a classroom for children to a gleefully bizarre and wonderful performance by Tilda Swinton. But it all combines to make a genuinely thrilling movie, one whose ideas excited me, whose oddness dazzled me, whose action thrilled me, whose comedy cracked me up, and whose execution blew me away. Yes, Snowpiercer has some flaws, but to me, they only make the film all the more unique and spectacular, and made it one of the most engaging, exciting, involving, and intriguing films of the year for me.
7-18 Dawn of the
Planet of the
Apes
(2014)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a genuinely wonderful surprise - an unwanted, unasked for reboot of a beloved franchise that ended up not only surpassing low expectations but being genuinely pretty great on its own merits. And now, we have a sequel, which doesn't get that benefit of low hopes - we expect it to do the same good job of making the story rich and emotionally satisfying while not betraying the things we liked about Rise. Thankfully, Dawn once again blows up expectations, giving us a sequel that surpasses the original and delivers a fantastic, thoughtful, complex science-fiction tale that works on a variety of levels. After a quick prologue that outlines the wiping out of most of humanity, Dawn opens ten years after the events of Rises, with a world mostly in ruins, a society of apes living in the wilderness, and an isolated community of humans living in San Francisco - and neither knows of the other's existence. That changes early on in the film, and Dawn follows as the groups attempt to co-exist, to overcome fears and their painful pasts, and to deal with their warring ideologies. That sounds like heady stuff, but it's to Dawn's credit that the film manages to deliver both thoughtful, contemplative moments with involving action and truly horrific violence, mixing its elements together to create something deeply satisfying. The film does better with its human characters than Rise did (which mainly stumbled with some of its villains), but this is still the apes' film, and nowhere is that more evident than in the character of Caesar, played through mo-cap by Andy Serkis in a role that shouldn't work nearly as well as it does. But between Serkis's intonations and body language and some truly jaw-dropping CGI, Caesar becomes a fascinating, complex character, one conveyed almost entirely through presence and physical action that lets us understand him every bit as much as we would if he monologued constantly. Indeed, there's a slew of apes who get similar treatment, and it's to the film's credit that it doesn't take more than a few minutes before we forget the wonder of the CGI and merely feel like we are almost watching performances by these apes themselves. The plotting, too, outdoes Rise, with the inevitable turns toward violence feeling both like an outgrowth of the characters (who, in turn, are completely understandable and sympathetic) and the results not of plotting and screenwriters, but tragic misunderstandings, fear, and desire to survive. It's all really spectacular stuff - that rare specimen of rich, complex, satisfying science-fiction that still works as a summer studio blockbuster. Fantastic, entertaining, and deeply satisfying.
7-18 Sita Sings
the Blues
(2008)
By just about any standards, Sita Sings the Blues sounds like it should be a complete disaster. It's a solo animated project done in Flash; it's an autobiography of a break-up that's paralleled with the epic Indian tale of the Ramayana, only it also features shadow puppets providing contemporary commentary on the story while also occasionally turning into a musical scored with the 1920's music of Annette Henshaw, a jazz vocalist. Add to all of that the fact that four of those threads are combined into a film that runs about 80 minutes, and you should have a complete trainwreck. Instead, Sita Sings the Blues is ridiculously charming and fun, threading its tales together perfectly so they create a coherent narrative, letting the Ramayana parallel the breakup, the commentary dissect the tale from a modern perspective and the musical sections convey the emotions of it all. The animation is wonderful, altering itself for each section to underline the transitions and create wholly different experiences for each while also showing off director Nina Paley's versatility. Sita isn't perfect by a long shot; even at 82 minutes, you pretty much get the idea early on, and there's a sense at times that you could trim out sections and not lose all that much, to say nothing of how some of the musical segments lose impact as we see each successive entry. And yet, none of that really hurts the film too much, simply because it's so rich and engaging, and plays with its layers so well that you never get bored and are constantly entertained by the whimsy, intelligence, and playfulness of it all. It's a pretty wonderful film, something that could never come out of a studio system and is all the stronger for that, and really essential watching for anyone who loves animated films and wants to see a wholly original entry to the medium.
7-17 The
Decalogue
(1989)
Between its reputation as a masterpiece, the fact that it's a ten-hour Polish miniseries, and that it's all based on the Ten Commandments, I can forgive anyone for not wanting to take on The Decalogue. And yet, for all of those points, I wasn't expecting what I got, which is far richer, more complex, more engaging, and far more accessible than any of its reputation might lead you to expect. For one thing, while the films are undoubtedly inspired by the Commandments, it's a far more of a conceptual link than a hard-and-fast rule. Some of the episodes, like number 5 (which revolves around a murder and the execution of the murderer), are very obviously connected to a single commandment; others are far more general, leading you to ponder the exact moral question at the heart of the film and how it connects to the overall theme. Indeed, such moral questions are at the heart of every episode, which takes human drama but spins it into complex, thoughtful philosophical questions without ever becoming too direct or preachy. (As Stanley Kubrick famously said about the series, it's the rare series that manages to dramatize its ideas instead of talking about them.) And these are complex issues, make no mistake. A doctor ponders how to answer the question about a patient's chances, knowing that an unborn child's life hangs in the balance. A mother kidnaps her own daughter from the relative who's been caring for her; can we say that taking your own child is still stealing? And it's not just questions like this; there are meditations on lust, false witness, excessive worship of science, and more, all made more universal and far less focused on simple religious dogma. In fact, one of the many compelling aspects of the series is how often these questions are addressed outside of the religious framework and left without answers, leaving us debating for ourselves who was right and wrong. (The only exception is the aforementioned fifth episode, which makes Kieslowski's feelings about the death penalty crystal clear in a way the other films do not.) What results is gripping drama, but not something so pretentious or dense with meaning that it forbids a more casual viewer from enjoying the films. At their core, these are stories about people and their relationships to each other, but done in such a way that grapple with difficult choices and moral beliefs that we hold dear. What results is a different kind of masterpiece, one whose reputation arises from the thoughts and questions it inspires rather than the beliefs it conveys, and whose scope becomes something far more complex and involving than any single film could ever accomplish. It's a truly remarkable accomplishment, and a masterful piece of filmmaking. Whether you call it 10 episodes of a TV series or a single film in 10 segments, it's an astonishing and powerful work, one that's left me debating its nuances ever since I started the first episode.
7-17 Pat Garrett
& Billy the
Kid
(1973)
It's not as though director Sam Peckinpah's earlier Westerns weren't already revisionist in so many ways, but Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid may be his most explicit reversal of the genre of all. With its melancholy tone and story that feels like the end of an era, as Billy the Kid is hunted down by a former partner, Pat Garrett feels like a requiem for the Western, covering some of the same ground that Unforgiven would do so many years later, but in a uniquely Peckinpah way that feels like a meditation on violence and masculinity as well. For all of that, Pat Garrett doesn't entirely work; Bob Dylan's music is a little on-the-nose at times, the film's pacing is languid and a little drawn out, and it feels like it needs a little tightening throughout, especially as it comes to some of the love scenes. (Keep in mind that the version I saw is the newer cut, which is supposed to be closer to Peckinpah's original vision; how much this would all apply to the studio cut or Peckinpah's cut is anyone's guess.) But there's far more strengths than weaknesses to Pat Garrett; it's got great performances, especially by Coburn, and its melancholy tone is frequently beautiful, turning each death and explosion of violence into something more tragic and painful than it might otherwise have been. It's far better than its initial reception would have led you to think, and if it doesn't hold up against Peckinpah's best films, it's still a fantastic Western, warts and all, and it delivered some absolutely beautiful moments that are surprisingly powerful and gut-wrenching, especially coming from Peckinpah.
7-17 Pather
Panchali

(1955)
According to most of what I've read, Satiyajit Ray had never touched a movie camera before he began filming Pather Panchali, and most of his cast had never been in front of a camera before. That's an incredible fact to remember as you watch Pather Panchali, which is a wonderful, rich, heartfelt film about a poor Indian family in an impoverished village. By and large, Pather has little plot; more than anything, it follows a young boy named Apu as he grows up in the village and interacts with his family - his older sister, his parents, and his elderly aunt who lives with them. Though there's an arc to the film - involving the father's efforts to make money for the family as they need it - it's far more shaped by the pieces of life along the way, from a performance by an acting troupe to a trip to see a train to confrontations with the neighbors. There's elements of neo-realism here, to be sure; Ray brings a remarkable grounding to his film, which feels beautifully natural and low-key. But even with its clear links to other movements, Pather Panchali works as its own wonderful portrait of life in this village and among these people. It's unmistakably human and grounded in love and familial bonds, but it's as much shaped by its economic realities and the time and place in which its set, which makes it all the more compelling today. I didn't like Pather Panchali quite as much as I liked The Music Room, whose shape and structure are undoubtedly stronger, but it's still a beautiful, honest film, and the fact that it's a debut feature filmed over years is jaw-dropping; some directors who've worked for years have yet to accomplish something this honest and wonderful.
7-16 The World's
End
(2013)
Over the course of his "Cornetto trilogy," director Edgar Wright has taken on horror (Shaun of the Dead) and action (Hot Fuzz), so it's not all that surprising that The World's End finds him moving in yet another direction, this time turning what starts as a pub run between old friends into a science-fiction film. And just as Shaun had its obvious roots in Romero's zombie films, and Hot Fuzz echoed Michael Bay films, The World's End has a couple of very specific influences, although to name them would be to give away a bit of the surprise as to how the film plays out. What is somewhat surprising about The World's End, though, is the fact that for the first time in the series, Wright's choice of subtext and theme doesn't mesh all that well with his story, and it makes for a bit of a lumpy experience. The World's End casts a sharp eye at nostalgia and the inability to grow up and leave your past behind, and for the first half of the film, this works great, bringing out some painful comedy out of the reunion of some old high school friends, one of whom clearly hasn't grown at all. And by the film's end, the choice of science-fiction as a way of exploring this nostalgia finally makes sense...but it takes a very long time for that relationship to become clear, and it ends up creating a bit of awkwardness as the film feels ungainly for far too long. And that's before an exceedingly odd epilogue that feels even more jarring and odd, as though Wright got a little too ambitious in the final moments. For all of that, I still really enjoyed The World's End a lot; as usual, Wright knows how to play comedy, and between Pegg's abrasive man-child, Frost's resentful teetotaler, and the rest of the gang filling in their roles, there's a wonderful amount of banter and jokes to be had here, even before you get to the increasing intoxication on display. Moreover, Wright knows how to stage an action sequence, delivering a couple of great ones that are equal parts silly and exciting. And as I said, even though the metaphor about the dangers of nostalgia takes a very long time to come together, it's still a rich one, and a fitting place to end the trilogy. The World's End is definitely my least favorite of the three films, but that doesn't make it bad; the fact that it doesn't quite compare to Hot Fuzz of Shaun of the Dead is no shame at all, considering how great those films are. And that it's still so funny, entertaining, and well-filmed makes it well worth a watch, ungainly though it may be.
7-15 The Big
Parade
(1925)
A classic war film, The Big Parade is the story of a wealthy young man who enlists to impress his family and his girlfriend, makes some friends among the recruits, starts up a relationship with a girl in France...and then all hell breaks loose. Until that point, The Big Parade is pretty light-hearted and even comedic, telling a fun little love story and enjoying watching its soldiers bond and joke back and forth. It's engaging and entertaining enough, but there's nothing all that special about it, nothing we haven't seen in so many other films. But when The Big Parade makes its way to the warfront, it displays an intensity and ferocity you might not expect from such an old film. From the opening moments of its major battle, as the soldiers make their way through the woods only to be picked off one by one, until the all-out warfare as the men make their way through the trenches, The Big Parade is more harrowing and intense than I really thought it would ever be. And even without that aspect of thing, there's the way that the film never flinches from the realities of war, from the bloodshed and death to the maiming and amputations. Indeed, for all of its patriotism and seemingly excited, pro-war stance in the early going, it's far more thoughtful and grim than it seems at the beginning, feeling more like something in line with All Quiet on the Western Front and The Best Years of Our Lives than the silly, simple war film it appeared to be at the beginning. It's a suprisingly rich film, and if it takes a long time to get to where it needs to, that's okay; it more than makes up for it with the richness of its take on war.
7-15 The Music
Room
(1958)
Indian cinema in general is a blind spot of mine, and that includes the work of Satiyajit Ray, one of the most acclaimed and beloved of Indian directors, whose work has only recently begin to get a decent release in America. And having seen The Music Room, which is generally regarded as Ray's second greatest work (after the Apu trilogy), it's not hard to understand why. The Music Room is unmistakably an Indian film of its era; it's the story of a landlord whose pride forces him to keep up appearances, especially in his music room, even as his fortunes continue to decline. It's the story, then, of a fading era, as this classical Indian patriarch rapidly watches the world change around him, as cars become more popular, and people who he considers vulgar become more well-known and respected. But it's also the story of this particular man, whose pride drives him to more and more absurd extremes, as he cannot come to terms with his own obsolescence and fading glory. And as if that's not enough, it becomes an exploration of grief and depression, as the man copes with a horrible loss. And all of this is filmed in a beautiful style, using the declining remains of the man's house to reflect his social and mental states in an exceptional way. The copy of The Music Room that I saw was a poor one, to put it mildly, but even without the chance to see this in better quality, Ray's filmmaking is beautiful and astonishing, using shadows and light to explore his character's inner conflict without ever insisting upon it. His ability to capture the power of music and dance only underlines the man's love of his music room, and the way the story allows the actors to convey the story's themes through their body language and expression is masterful. It's a truly magnificent film, and now that I've seen it, the fact that Ray has received so little release here staggers me all the more. This is a beautiful, powerful film, and although it's unmistakably a film of its time and place, it's also much more than that - much more human and universal than you might expect from something so particularly Indian in every way.
7-15 71 Fragments
of a
Chronology
of Chance

(1994)
There's no separating what 71 Fragments is about from how it's told. On one level, the film is about an act of horrific violence, one that the film wants us is coming from the opening moments. And yet, it immediately seems to veer away from that, following an array of characters who seem to have little connection at all with each other. There's an elderly father who feels neglected by his grown daughter, a young immigrant orphan living on the streets, a couple struggling with their newly adopted little girl, and more. Moreover, the stories are told in, well, fragments - brief moments that feel like disconnected glimpses into lives, often that leave us with as many questions and gaps as they give us answers. And yet, as 71 Fragments continues and the threads start to intersect, Haneke's method becomes clearer, making us find meaning in each of these fragmented moments and trying to understand what makes them worthy of inclusion in this narrative. Moreover, as the film reaches its harrowing conclusion, all of it comes into sharp focus, making us create a mosaic picture from all of these pieces and determine a meaning from what we've been given. At times, 71 Fragments feels more like an experiment in storytelling than Haneke's best work, and there's a sense that some of the themes he's exploring here - the alienation of people from each other, the inability to explain senseless acts of violence without considering the societal pressures and factors - have been done better in other Haneke films (particularly The Seventh Continent, which does a lot of what 71 Fragments does but in a more focused fashion). But I can't deny the impact that this has as a cumulative whole, nor how powerful an experience it all is, and that's partially because of the fragmented nature of the film. I'm curious to see Code Unknown at this point, which reportedly is the more assured version of this, simply because I'm fascinated to see this idea put into play again as Haneke continued to develop his already formidable technique, but this is still a knockout - a compelling, haunting portrait of violence and alienation - from the always gripping Haneke.
7-14 Syndromes
and a Century
(2006)
One of the worst things about art films is the way they so often insist on meaning, and it can lead to a frustrating experience as you watch the film and feel baffled by what you're seeing. That's the most pretentious type of art film, when everything is symbolic and dense and you just feel bewildered and exhausted by what's on display. But then there's something like Syndromes and a Century, which clearly has a lot of ideas and themes at play in any given moment, and you can't quite figure it all out...and yet, it doesn't really matter, because what you're watching is so rich and fascinating that it works even without "decoding" the entire film. The plot to Syndromes is simple enough - it's a slice of life revolving around doctors at a hospital as they see patients and two of them court. But what's compelling is that the film tells the story twice - once at a rural hospital and once at a more high-tech, urban facility. And as scenes play out in this new environment, we see them sometimes from the opposite perspective (both literally and figuratively), and then the film starts to branch off in different directions, following the same (?) characters as they take different paths and intersect in different ways. And as the two halves of the film echo each other in intriguing ways, you'll find yourself striving to connect it all, or to make meaning of it in some way or another. Can you? Perhaps. It's obvious, for instance, that the film does a beautiful job of illustrating the way that technology limits us from seeing each other, or how the ability to connect with nature is lost in the urban environment. But other elements - such as a solar eclipse in one half becoming connected with duct work in another - remain more cryptic, defying easy analysis. And yet, it never bothered me or left me feeling frustrated. Instead, I just enjoyed all of the human moments on display, the beautiful filmmaking, and the way the ideas are played with while still allowing the film to work as a document of human behavior. In other words, it's a film that's best enjoyed without stressing about unlocking every secret; you can savor it all and enjoy every moment of it and the thoughts it provokes without worrying about the deeper meaning of every moment, and I loved that about it every bit as I loved grappling with its bigger ideas.
7-14 Pink
Flamingos

(1972)
If we're being honest, Pink Flamingos basically breaks my conventional rating scale, and I think John Waters would be okay with that. As a film, Pink Flamingos is a mess, really. It was low budget, which isn't really an issue in of itself, but that budget is pretty painfully evident in every single frame, and especially in some (most) of the film's acting, which is amateurish and painful a lot. And to call the film "plotless" would be a bit generous; what story there is is mainly present so that Waters has a way to hang all of his depravities and shock moments together. And yet, to some degree, that's the whole point of Pink Flamingos - a glorious cavalcade of shocking moments and twisted humiliation, all done with a sense of silliness and knowing winks at its own images. If Pink Flamingos took itself more seriously, it would be pretty painful and pretentious, but the fact that it's clearly just having a blast with itself makes it all a bit easier to take. That doesn't make any of this a good movie in any sense of the word, but it's more fun than a lot of the experimental films I've seen over the years that played with similar taboos in a more self-conscious and self-righteous way. Waters is clearly being self-indulgent and is playing the game of "let's freak out the squares!" throughout, but the fact that he's so silly about it all makes it more engaging to watch than you might expect. That all being said, it's not a movie I liked very much, nor one I'd watch again. But it's both better and worse than I expected, depending on how you look at it.
7-13 Harry Potter
and the
Order of the
Phoenix
(2007)
The fact that Order of the Phoenix is the longest book in the series but one of the shortest of the films could spell disaster, even for someone like me who feels like slavish adherence to the source material can cripple an adaptation. And yet, not only does Order of the Phoenix survive the heavy editing of the plot, it emerges as one of the best films of the series, condensing the story beautifully, bringing out a strong visual sense, and letting the actors convey the necessary emotions instead of relying on exposition. Much of the film's success has to be laid at the feet of director David Yates, who would end up helming the remainder of the series, and after watching this, it's not hard to remember why. There's no shortage of style on display here (one of my favorite moments is that spectacular shot of Umbridge's decrees exploding), but the real knockout is the climax. From the shadowy walls of the Department of Mysteries to the intensity of the Death Eaters and the constantly shifting battle, it's one of the best action sequences in the series, and it's head and shoulders over just about everything that came before it. But credit is also due to the actors, who are given more room to breathe and let their talent convey their feelings. Of course, Staunton is fantastic as Umbridge, but the often-maligned Gambon is dynamite as Dumbledore (particularly in his showdown with Voldemort), and the main trio has rarely been better, with Radcliffe getting to shine and show off Potter's leadership abilities in the DA scenes. I have mixed feelings about the Harry Potter films, but rewatching this one reminds me just how great they were capable of being, and how ably they could work not just as adaptations, but as genuinely engaging and exciting fantasy/adventure films.
7-11 Who Framed
Roger Rabbit

(1988)
It's been years since I last saw Roger Rabbit, and I couldn't help but wonder how well it was going to hold up. After all, Roger Rabbit was a technological marvel back in 1988, but how well would it hold up more than 25 years later? And would the story still be as engaging and fun as it seemed to me when I was younger? The joyous thing is, Roger Rabbit doesn't just hold up well - it's still absolutely marvelous, a wonder that still leaves me wondering how some of it was pulled off and loving every silly, gleeful moment of the story. It may have been 25 years since Roger Rabbit came out, but the blending of animation and live-action is still absolutely remarkable, often feeling so seamless that you genuinely forget that you're watching special effects and trickery and simply losing yourself in the world the movie creates. Of course, while much of the credit has to go to director Robert Zemeckis (remember when a Zemeckis movie was something to be excited about?), you can't deny the great performances by Christopher Lloyd and especially Bob Hoskins, both of whom make this world work by giving their all to act and react against characters who were never really there. And the plot is a blast, mixing noir-style dialogue with a Chinatown-esque story to create something that's still as much fun to watch unfold on a story level as it is a visual one. But, oh, what a wonder this movie still is - and more important, how much fun it still is, even all these years later. It's genuinely funny and engaging, and its blend of silliness and noir still works wonderfully well, not just as nostalgia, but as great, imaginative filmmaking.
7-11 Life Itself
(2014)
Your feelings about how much Life Itself succeeds at what it does will probably depend largely on what you hope to get out of the film. As a documentary about Roger Ebert, Life Itself isn't all that successful. While it covers the major sections of his life - his relationship with Gene Siskel, his alcoholism, his Pulitzer, his marriage to Chaz, and his battle with cancer - it's a little ungainly, and seems a bit unstructured - unusual, coming from Steve James, who crafted such compelling narratives out of real lives in Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. Moreover, you won't get much depth or complexity here; while the film acknowledges some complaints Ebert detractors have (on the personal level, his ego; on the professional, the way his TV show was perceived as dumbing down film criticism), the film's sympathy and affection clearly reside with Roger. So, as an objective documentary about Ebert and his career, Life Itself doesn't entirely work. But Life Itself isn't intended to be that; it's intended to be a tribute to Ebert, a eulogy and a remembrance, and a reminder of the impact he had on so many people. It's a chance to explore the filmmakers whose careers he shaped, or, in some cases, even created. It's a way to trade great stories about the man, to show his playful side and his quick wit. It's a film that allows us to see the way Ebert faced his sickness and his deteriorating health with courage, dignity, and humor. And it's a window into his marriage to Chaz Ebert, whose strength, love, and bravery can't be understated. If what you want is a critical exploration of Roger Ebert and what he did to film, Life Itself isn't for you. If, however, what you want is a remembrance of Ebert, his impact, the way he changed the lives of those around him, and a look at the man behind the reviews, Life Itself will touch you deeply and move you. And as someone who calls Roger Ebert a hero and an inspiration, I absolutely loved Life Itself, which feels like a worthy farewell to such an iconic figure, and one that Roger would appreciate for its honesty and warmth, especially in the unflinching way it deals with his hospital stays and his struggles with health. It's not perfect, and it's a little shaggy, and it's a little too affectionate to its subject to be objective. But all of that only made it more affecting to me, and I think Roger would have loved it too - and what better praise could there be than that?
7-11 The Times
of Harvey
Milk
(1984)
In 1978, less than 11 months after becoming the first openly gay elected official in America, Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco. It's a fact that The Times of Harvey Milk opens with, and knowing Milk's fate gives the entire documentary a different feel and tone than it might otherwise have. It's gripping to watch Milk gradually become more and more popular, and one of the many things that The Times of Harvey Milk does beautifully is nicely explore how Milk's election was about far more than just his charisma; in many ways, it was a reflection of the changing society around him, and in some ways, about the sea change with regard to LGBT rights that we continue to grapple with today. Nonetheless, while it does a solid job of exploring the societal and social changes that allowed Milk to succeed, this is still a documentary focused on the man himself, and The Times of Harvey Milk provides a solid, entertaining glimpse at Milk, both as a man and a politician, leaving you with a strong sense of not only what he stood for and represented, but also what kind of man he was (at least publicly - Milk's private life is barely mentioned here, which shouldn't be taken as a knock against the film, which is intended as a discussion of his political career). But this is also a document of Milk's death and its impact, and it's here that The Times of Harvey Milk truly touched and moved me. Between the footage of the massive candlelight vigil after his death, the raw anger on display after the absurd verdict, and the powerful closing moments, The Times of Harvey Milk works also as a snapshot of a moment in time, and it's one that's no less powerful today than it was then. Yes, The Times of Harvey Milk glosses over some of the complexity of the trial, and yes, you're almost compelled to want to know more about Dan White, Milk's assassin. But The Times of Harvey Milk works despite these things, simply as a document of a watershed moment in American history, the beginning of a massive shift in the nation's attitudes, and a portrait of a man who helped to usher in that shift.
7-11 Abre Los
Ojos
(1997)
Another case where I've seen the American remake (Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky) before the original, Abre Los Ojos loses something by already being exposed to the plot, simply given how much it's depending on confusing the viewer in its layers and layers of mystery. It's the story of a handsome womanizer who's disfigured in an accident and starts to question his sanity, only...well, it's a lot more than that, as reality starts to twist in some incredibly odd ways and our sense of what's going on. It's been a while since I saw Vanilla Sky, but I feel like I liked that one slightly more than this; it seemed to take its time a little more in letting the characters breathe, and I thought Crowe's use of music and pop culture added some interesting touches here. (I also don't remember it foreshadowing what's going on as much as this does, but that could just be a function of knowing the outcome and being more aware of it.) But again, that could also simply be because I saw it first, so I got to experience the story with all the confusion and mind-bending that I was supposed to. Abre Los Ojos is still well done; it's plotted spectacularly, and the subtle ways it starts to undermine your assumptions are beautifully inserted, slowing pacing out the reveals as it goes at just the right rate to keep you off balance. If you've seen Vanilla Sky, you may know where it's going, but it's still an enjoyable ride.
7-11 Funny
Games
(1997)
It's been difficult to get myself to watch the original version of Funny Games. I've seen the American remake, which is essentially the same film, so I knew what I was in for, and it's hard to get to a place where you're ready to dive back in to Funny Games. And yet, I can't deny what a masterpiece this film is, even while I can happily say that I've now seen this version and I'm good to never watch it again. Funny Games is a home invasion film, but it's an uncommonly intense one, and that's even disregarding the way that it's designed to indict the audience in its horrors. Say what you will about director Michael Haneke - and a lot of people can't stand him for the feeling that they're being scolded - but the man's filmmaking is incredible, using long takes, a natural soundtrack, and painfully honest performances to create a truly nightmarish and unrelenting experience that's hard to shake off or escape from. Famously, Haneke said that the best reaction to Funny Games was to turn it off, and I can't deny that it was a lot more tempting on this rewatch, knowing that things were only going to get worse. But for all of that, Funny Games is masterful, compelling, thoughtful filmmaking, and it serves not only as a devastating experience, but also as a masterful commentary on violence in films and the audience's relationship with horror and violence. It's not for all tastes - to put it mildly - and it's far from subtle (although I have to say that the film's method of bringing in the audience is pretty brilliant, and takes something that could be silly and makes it really chilling and discomfiting), but god, is it incendiary and brilliant. Just expect to want to take a long shower to get away from this one when you're done.
7-10 Dressed to
Kill
(1980)
Brian De Palma is famous for his Hitchcock worship and homages, but rarely has it been so obvious and direct as it is in Dressed to Kill, which essentially plays out like Psycho except with a lot more sex, a veneer of sleaze, and a little dose of giallo films. In other words, it's pure De Palma, and your appreciation of what's on display will vary depending on your affinity for his movies. Dressed to Kill is unbelievably stylish, delivering a handful of virtuoso sequences and some incredible moments, and I can't deny the technical mastery on display through almost every frame. The way he inserts the killer in the background of shots so carefully, or that long pursuit in the museum, or that magnificent build as Angie Dickinson keeps realizing what she's left behind...here are some great scenes here, and I can't deny that they're effective both as suspense and as cinema. But as usual with De Palma, there's a hollowness to his movies, as though he's aping the style of great directors but lacks their passion and storytelling skills. The swerves in Dressed to Kill lack the power they do when they were done in earlier films, and the shocks are gone because all we're mainly thinking is of the films they're homages to. And that doesn't even get into the film's dicey sexual politics, especially as it relates to transsexuals. Dressed to Kill is stylish and spectacularly made, but it never grips like that De Palma's idol Hitchcock could, simply because it never makes the characters live and breathe in the way that he could. I can see why so many people like it, but for me, it's pure De Palma - all style and no substance. But, oh, what style it is.
7-10 Journey to
Italy
(1954)
A couple whose marriage is crumbling travels to Italy to sell a family home, and while they're there, they deal with the realities of their marriage. That's essentially the whole of Journey to Italy, which follows this couple as they come to terms with just how bad things have become and drift apart, all while exploring the beauties of the country. Journey to Italy is beautifully made; the acting by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman is fine, bringing out the tension and pain in this relationship, but more than that, conveying their inner conflicts nicely without saying very much. And the visuals are, of course, frequently astonishing; whether it's in the catacombs or amidst the smoking craters of Vesuvius, there's no shortage of beautiful vistas to be had here. But as a film, the whole thing left me unmoved and a bit bored. It's well done, and while I thought the final scene was unconvincing, I can see what Rossellini was going for, I suppose. But I feel like there's little here that I haven't seen elsewhere in a more engaging form, and I spent most of it mainly impressed with the countryside and indifferent to the story. It feels like something Ingmar Bergman would do, but without some of the poetry and complexity that he might bring to the table. Still, it's a wonderful journey through Italian history, and a nicely made film, I guess. It just did nothing for me.
7-10 Top Hat
(1935)
I wasn't a giant fan of Swing Time, the Astaire/Rogers film that followed Top Hat, but the enjoyment I got out of Top Hat makes me wonder if I just wasn't in the right mood for that movie. The plot of Top Hat is ludicrous - it involves some mistaken identity where Rogers thinks that Astaire is a friend's husband, even though all it would take is anyone saying one line to clear it all up - but that doesn't really matter, because Top Hat is all about silliness and playfulness. It's a screwball comedy that happens to feature dance numbers, and as you'd expect from anything with Astaire and Rogers, the dancing is pretty wonderful. But I also enjoyed all of the playful banter, and while stories like this usually get on my nerves, it's clear that Top Hat knows how ridiculous it is and revels in it, making the absurdity and implausibility of it all part of the joke. It doesn't hurt that Edward Everett Horton is there as Astaire's friend, letting his great voice sell every joke to perfection (and anyone who grew up with Rocky and Bullwinkle will recognize that voice within seconds, which is its own kind of joy). I wasn't a fan of Swing Time's plot and flat characters, but everything in Top Hat worked for me better, so I'm not sure if it's a better movie or simply that I was in the right frame of mind for it. I'm not a giant fan of classic musicals like this (a lot of my favorites are far less traditional), but I had a lot more fun with Top Hat than I expected. Well worth a watch, even if you think you won't like movies like this.
7-9 8 Mile (2002)
There's no reason that 8 Mile should work as well as it does. It's pure formula, one that you've seen in all kinds of sports films (think The Karate Kid, as an easy example) - an underdog who has the talent but doesn't believe in himself, but eventually starts stepping up and fulfilling his potential. But 8 Mile works, and part of it is the film's depiction of poverty and life in Detroit. The final product hews closer to Saturday Night Fever than anything else, with Eminem filling the Travolta role as someone who escapes from his poverty and his home life by doing the thing he loves - here, rapping. 8 Mile plays like a melodrama, to some degree, but it's grounded in the details of life in Detroit, from dangerous abandoned buildings to the lack of jobs to the run down cars everywhere. More than that, 8 Mile lives in the specific details of its story, capturing the banter between friends, the rhythm of rap battles, the drudgery of manual labor, and combines them all to make something richer than your standard biopic. 8 Mile is one of those movies that doesn't do anything groundbreaking or new, but it does what it does incredibly well, and it feels far more authentic than you'd expect from what I assumed was going to be a sanitized, dull biopic. And make no mistake - there's some of that to 8 Mile, which makes Eminem the clear hero of his own story and definitely stacks the deck a bit to make him look good/make some of the villains more cut and dried. But it's to the film's credit that you don't think about that as much as this unfolds, and instead find yourself caught up in the chatter between friends and the quiet struggle to get out of that life.
7-9 The Place
Beyond the
Pines
(2012)
You certainly can't fault The Place Beyond the Pines for its ambition. Dividing itself into three acts so clearly that it could nearly be three short films, The Place Beyond the Pines tells the story of an aimless drifter desperate to provide for his family, a policeman who intersects with his path, and the way their involvement with each other filters down to the next generation. The problem, though, is that very division, which ends up making the film feel fractured and awkward, keeping us from investing ourselves in the characters as much as we might like to. Worse than that, by the time we get to that final section, it's fairly obvious how some of the pieces are going to come together, leaving us waiting for a very long time for a very obvious shoe to drop. The Place Beyond the Pines is incredibly well made, and that opening act is a great one, feeling like a piece of modern neo-noir that I was really enjoying; it made the sudden jolt to the second act all the more frustrating, especially because it never manages to be as compelling or as interesting as it is in that opening section. The acting is all fine, with Gosling stealing the film with an often silent presence, but ultimately it feels like a collection of pieces rather than a coherent whole.
7-8 The Big Red
One
(1980)
In some ways, despite its big scope and large budget, The Big Red One is still a B-movie, and that makes sense; after all, it's a film by Sam Fuller, who specialized in B-movies that had a lot more going on than their simple fronts would suggest. The Big Red One is a war film, following a battalion as they make their way through World War II, from a landing in Africa to a firefight in a town in Italy to a final push into the European front. It's an entirely episodic film by design; to Fuller, war isn't a coherent narrative, but a series of moments that the men experience together, from the bad (the death of comrades) to the beautiful (the birth of a child in the middle of a battlefield) to the wild (drunken celebrations in an inn) and the horrific (a glimpse at the concentration camps). Our only through line are these characters, anchored by Lee Marvin's quietly impressive performance as their superior officer, a soldier for decades who's shepherding these men through the front. But each of the men comes to life in their own way, working both as characters and as the archetypal men that Fuller knew from his own battle experience - the writer, the naive kid, the scared one who still fought, and so on. The Big Red One doesn't aim for any grand statements about war; there are no big speeches where we learn how everyone got here, and there are no efforts to expand our scope beyond the perspective of these men (apart from the occasional glimpse of some German counterparts). But that's what makes The Big Red One so effective - it attempts to capture the grunt's perspective, telling the story of these survivors as a sort of impressionistic portrait of war. And while some have argued that it feels generic or middling, I'd argue that its lack of ambition is precisely why it works; it wants to convey the soldier's view of the war, with all of its chaos, unease, and comradeship, and nothing more. And it does that magnificently, and in such a way that you can feel its imprint upon movies like Saving Private Ryan without ever feeling like you'd rather be watching that movie. It's Fuller's gift for B-movies writ large, as he takes a simple story and turns it into something more without ever making it feel like he's making an effort.
7-8 À Nous la
Liberté
(1931)

À Nous la Liberté is probably going to have to be one of those movies that I re-visit at some point along the way, simply because I feel like I wasn't in the proper mood to really appreciate it. An early sound film, Liberté is the story of two old friends from prison who reunite in the working world and the antics that follow. There's a lot of silliness on display, of course (in general, despite the effective use of music, this feels like it could easily have been a silent comedy), but there's also a sharp sense of satire, as director Rene Clair makes some clever parallels between prison, factory work, and even the educational system. Add to that some nice use of class warfare and a smartly realized love story and you have all the ingredients for what should be a pretty entertaining film. And intellectually, I'd agree with you, but emotionally, Liberté left me pretty bored. There's nothing wrong with the movie; in fact, its direction is great, its use of sound is wonderful (especially given what an early sound film it is), and the gags are genuinely funny. More than that, there's a nice heart to the film that makes it all work, making everything far more warm and charming than you might otherwise expect. (It's no wonder that there was a legal battle when Modern Times came out a few years later, but it shouldn't; Liberté feels inspired by Chaplin, and Modern Times by Liberté, a fact that Clair agreed with.) But it also drags a bit, and it feels like every scene goes on just a little bit too long. Or maybe I was wasn't in the mood for a slight, silly comedy like this. As it stands, I thought Liberté was fine, but it won't stick with me and it didn't make much of an impression. Maybe it's just me, though.

7-7 Lake Mungo (2008)
Lake Mungo may be categorized as a horror film, but anyone expecting to be scared is probably going to be disappointed; at best, you might feel uneasy or slightly unnerved during the film, but it's unlikely to have you screaming or having nightmares. But that's not a criticism, because Lake Mungo isn't interested in being terrifying; what it's interested in doing is using the horror movie framework to explore grief and loss, and it does so beautifully. Framed as a documentary (and exceptionally well at that; too many films ape the documentary format without ever feeling convincing, but Lake Mungo genuinely feels like a documentary that somehow escaped your notice until now, and that's no small feat), Lake Mungo is the story of the Palmer family, who retreated into grief after their teenage daughter Alice drowned on a family outing. But in the weeks after the death, Alice begins appearing in the background of pictures and family video, and as the family starts to investigate, they learn more and more about the secret life of their daughter. Lake Mungo's tagline is "a supernatural drama about grief," and that's a solid way of describing the film; while the movie uses some of the elements we've seen put into play in other ghost stories and horror films, there's an air of grief and melancholy that permeates Lake Mungo, which makes its ghost not scary or creepy, but tragic, as though it's just another symptom of a family that can't quite come to terms with the loss of Alice. And as the family digs into Alice's life and finds both answers and more questions, Lake Mungo becomes a film about the coping process and letting go of the past - heady stuff indeed for something that's ostensibly a ghost story. If you're expecting a horror film, Lake Mungo will leave you disappointed, and I imagine that some of the lukewarm reaction to it comes from that expectation. But if you can leave that behind, you have something surprisingly moving and powerful, a film whose unsettling elements only add to its painful look at death and how the loss of a loved one often leaves us wanting more to the story than we can ever have. It won't work for everyone, but I found it to be surprisingly beautiful and even moving, and that's far from what I expected from the film.
7-7 The
Conjuring

(2013)
Your appreciation for The Conjuring will depend on no small degree to your affection for horror movies in general, and the haunted house film more specifically. On the one hand, The Conjuring feels like a slew of old tropes all mixed together into a single film. There's a bit of The Exorcist, a helping of Poltergeist (although not to the point of distraction, as was the case with Wan's previous film, Insidious), a healthy dose of The Haunting, and a wide array of the old standbys - creaking doors, banging walls, and the like. And yet, even though you've seen it all done before, there's something richly satisfying about seeing it all deployed so superbly here, as director James Wan shows off how to assemble all of these elements into a rich, satisfying horror film that feels at times closer to an amusement park ride than a coherent story. The Conjuring works more on a technical level than on a character or plot level; while the Warrens are depicted as an interesting couple who clearly have a past, the victimized family doesn't really ever stand out all that much, and The Conjuring is far less interested in creating a structured narrative and more interested in delivering scares and tension. But, man, does it ever deliver those scares. My favorite may involve a sheet blowing off of a clothesline, but there's no shortage of great moments here, showing off Wan's talent at structuring his films in such a way that each scare builds on the last, creating a rolling effect that's nicely unnerving. The Conjuring isn't satisfying as a truly "great" horror movie the way that something like, say, Let the Right One In or the original The Haunting are, simply by virtue of being more technical than emotional or plotted. But as pure horror movie fun, it's a pretty great time, and shows off Wan's skills better than any of his previous films have (all of which, to be fair, have been well-directed but sloppily plotted and written). It makes me wish I had seen it in theaters; I imagine that would have been a really fun experience to have with a crowd.
7-7 Mama (2013)
Like The Orphanage, Mama is a horror movie that was heavily promoted using the fact that Guillermo del Toro served as executive producer. And although there's no other connection between the two films, you can't help but notice that, like The Orphanage, Mama is a horror movie fundamentally concerned with family dynamics and relationships, and featuring a ghost who's far more sympathetic than evil. Mama is the story of two young girls who have been rescued after living by themselves in the woods, and their attempts to integrate into their new family - an attempt made all the more difficult by the fact that the girls seem to have brought with them an overprotective supernatural guardian. Mama is undeniably unnerving throughout, creating a great atmosphere and utilizing depth of field and some nicely structured shots to let its scares slowly dawn on the viewer as they realize that what they've assumed isn't true (my favorite involves a shot where we only gradually realize that what we think is a game between the sisters isn't at all). But more than that, it's a film that's constantly anchored by its characters, and none are more compelling and interesting than Jessica Chastain as the girls' surrogate mother. A punk rocker with no interest in being a mother, Chastain gets to play the kind of role for women that's not often played sympathetically, and she makes it not only understandable, but likable, as we see this reluctant woman taking on a mantle she has little interest in but doing it without compromising herself. Mama is an odd film; like The Orphanage, it seems like the kind of thing that's too scary to be a drama, but too dramatic to be a "mainstream" horror movie, and that can often lead to lots of people being dissatisfied with the final result. But I found Mama compelling and gripping throughout, and found its emphasis on characters and honest emotional beats refreshing, making the horror on display all the more effective. Some aspects of the film still don't quite work - the end goes on a little long, and a subplot about a psychologist ends up getting a bit silly by its end. But it's a far more satisfying and thoughtful horror film than you might expect, and worth checking out for fans of the genre.
7-5 A Hard Day's Night (1964)
It's been years since I last saw A Hard Day's Night, but it's a movie I love, so the chance to see an absolutely beautiful new restoration on the big screen seemed like a good excuse to revisit it. As a film, there's no reason that A Hard Day's Night should work as well as it does. There's almost no plot at all to the film; it's sort of a day in the life of the Beatles as they prepare for a performance on a TV show, deal with obsessive fans, and try to find some time for themselves. But what that really means is that the movie wanders wherever it feels like, abandons any sort of logic or realism as it deems fit, and mainly just provides a loose framework for us to enjoy hanging out with the Fab Four back in the days when they were young, loved each other's company, and just felt like being silly. And thanks to their charisma, A Hard Day's Night doesn't just work; it becomes an exercise in pure joy and fun, a document of the band that also helps us remember how they became such a phenomenon. Director Richard Lester lets the band dictate the film, following their muses into odd conversations, silly wordplay, surreal jokes, and fun banter, and filling in the edges with his own gleefully silly touches, including an often-thwarted car thief, a constantly put-upon TV director, and, of course, Paul's anarchic and mischievous grandfather, the "clean old man". What results doesn't really make a lick of sense, but it's hilarious, charming, and utterly joyful, and more than that, it better captures the spirit of the band than any sort of straight, traditional concert film could ever have done. And while it's filled with some of the best music the band made in its early years, what we remember from the film is the way it let each of the members establish their own personality so quickly and effectively, turning them from interchangeable pop icons to thoughtful, clever people with their own feelings and thoughts. There's so much that works about A Hard Day's Night, but what really makes the film such a classic is the sense of playfulness that fills every shot, making it this strange combination of concert film, French New Wave, British sketch comedy, and studio cash-in - and more than that, it works as every one of those, making something that manages to be both product and art. That's a rare thing, but to have something that does it all and makes it as fun and joyful as this? Unheard of, and rarely equaled, even to this day.
7-3 Obvious
Child
(2014)
Obvious Child has rapidly become known as "that romantic comedy about abortion," and my biggest concern going in was just how much the film was about its issue. It's not that I disagree with the film's politics - indeed, while Obvious Child is never strident in its execution, it's fairly evident just how pro-choice it is - but rather my concern that it was going to be a film more notable for its stance than for any execution. Luckily, Obvious Child is less interested in making a moral stand of any sort and far more interested in just making a funny, engaging, and surprisingly unambitious rom-com, and that's something it does quite well. Much of the film's success has to be laid at the feet of Jenny Slate, who manages to be funny, sweet, charming, and yet unapologetically herself - brash, profane, and immature in all the ways that male comedians can get away with a lot more easily. (Indeed, while Obvious Child isn't really interested in subtext, there's something intriguing about the way that the movie reverses the typical gender roles, including the way it creates a male who's fairly bland and inoffensive - in other words, the stock female character of so many rom-coms.) And while the rest of the cast is fine, it's really Slate who makes the movie work, showing that she can handle a wide array of emotions and situations. Really, if it weren't for the choice at the heart of it - as a newly single stand-up comedienne finds out she's pregnant and decides to get an abortion - Obvious Child would just be another romantic comedy, one that's funny and works well, but doesn't do anything truly special. But what it does, it does really well - it's funny and engaging, and it's nicely anchored in its characters and their relationships. And if it's nothing truly exceptional, there's still something to be said for how solid it is at the story it tells.
7-2 Three Colors: Red (1994)
At first glance, writing about the Three Colors series as a single unit would seem to be a ridiculous task, thematic trilogy or no. For all intents and purposes, each film in the series is entirely self-sufficient and self-contained; while there are small connections between them, each film essentially stands alone until the very end of the final film, and even then the connection is cryptic in its meaning. Moreover, the series doesn't even share a genre or a plot. Blue is a story about grief, as a widow retreats from the world as she copes with the loss of her husband and child. Meanwhile, White is a comedy about a man trying to re-invent himself after his divorce, and Red is something wholly its own, a story about a retired judge who spies on his neighbors, a model struggling with her long distance relationship, and more. There are thematic connections between the films, to be sure (all three films feature a character who essentially is forced back into society and human contact after an attempt to withdraw; all are about the way we relate to each other as people and how love can affect us), but they're so broad that you could fairly ask how the films actually relate, or even if they do. And yet, as you watch the Three Colors trilogy, you can't help but feel like there's something profound in the juxtaposing of these films, as if there's something in the combination of such disparate parts that ends up creating something far more than each individual piece would suggest. Over the course of the three films, Kieslowski creates a sprawling portrait of human connections, from the grief we feel during loss to the ways we rebuild ourselves, from the hurt we can feel at betrayal to the great healing that can come from simple understanding and empathy. What's more, the wide array of genres and stories allows Kieslowski to show off his range - to show how devastatingly he can use music to create pain in Blue or how sharply funny he can be in White. And then there's Red, which ends up feeling not only like a conclusion to the trilogy but also to Kieslowski's career, given how it becomes not only a meditation on fate and destiny, but also an exploration of a creator's relationship with his creations. It's a fascinating trilogy of films, and it's all the more profound and thought-provoking in the way it finds us making the connections and exploring the themes without having our hands held for us. And if that all sounds pretentious, it shouldn't; these are incredibly accessible, focusing not on art house theatrics but on human feelings and emotions, which only underlines their greatness. An outstanding and profound piece of cinema.
7-2 Three Colors:
White
(1994)
7-2 Three Colors:
Blue
(1993)
7-1 Only Lovers
Left Alive
(2013)

How much you enjoy Only Lovers Left Alive will swing heavily on how much tolerance you have for Jim Jarmusch films. For me, when he's on (I'm thinking here of Ghost Dog, of course, but also Broken Flowers), he's outstanding; when he's not, he's pretentious, obnoxious, and often dull. Sadly, I found Only Lovers Left Alive to be firmly in the latter category, resulting in a never-ending slog that left me desperate to get away from these obnoxious hipster vampires and their joyless existence. Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch's take on the vampire mythos, and it finds him contemplating immortality as an exercise in tedium, with the vampires only bemused by the actions of humanity and trying to find little joys to motivate themselves. There's a lot of issues I had with Only Lovers, but not the least of which is that these aren't novel ideas; they've been explored dozens, if not hundreds, of times before, and Jarmusch brings nothing new to the table that we haven't seen done over and over again. (Do you enjoy when immortal characters know all the famous people through history? Because of course these guys know everyone who mattered.) Add to that obnoxious, pretentious characters and a feeling that Jarmusch is being smugly clever again and again throughout the movie (especially as it comes to literary allusions), and you have a movie that feels like nothing more than the worst kind of arthouse fare. It's a horror movie that thinks it's above being a horror movie, a character study with one-note, dull characters, and an exercise in tedium that thinks the best way to convey its characters' boredom is by boring the audience. I'll concede that it's beautifully shot, but apart from that, I didn't have a whole lot nice to say about any of it. Your mileage may vary depending on your love for Jarmusch's brand of "cool," though.

6-28 Bears (2014)
The latest entry in the Disney Nature series - a series of short, fairly sanitized nature films released every Earth Day - Bears boasts some absolutely incredible footage that often left me in awe. From up close footage of bears battling to beautiful sweeping panoramas of the Alaskan landscape to slow motion shots of salmon leaping out of the water and into the mouths of waiting bears, much of the footage in Bears is absolutely beautiful, and it serves as a reminder of what a nature documentary can do: allow us to see a world we might otherwise never see. But what Bears also has is some of the most cloying, groan-worthy, painful narration you've ever heard, as though Disney decided it wasn't enough to sanitize the footage, but also to reduce the narration to almost a pre-school level of tone. Combine that with some of the most inundating and relentless anthropomorphizing you've ever seen (it's not enough to name every bear or talk about the perils of being a "single mom"; we needed to add in-character voice-over at times, too?), and Bears ends up feeling like a bigger chore to sit through than the other Disney Nature films have been. Mind you, my children still loved it, so you can't claim that Disney doesn't know its audience. But as a parent, it was frustrating to see such beautiful and incredible footage undercut by such painful narration.
6-27 Raw Force (1983)
Originally titled Kung Fu Cannibals, Raw Force is a movie about...well, cannibal monks that know kung fu and resurrect dead martial art champions to battle for their entertainment. That sounds like it should be awesome, I know, so it's surprising that my biggest reaction to Raw Force was unbelievable boredom. You would think that a movie with this much gratuitous nudity, martial arts fights, and even zombies couldn't possibly be as dull as it is, but somehow, Raw Force manages. It's not just the inept camerawork, though that certainly doesn't help things (particularly when it zooms in so much on the fights that you can't actually see anything other than one man's torso, thus removing much of the fun); it's not just the truly terrible technical aspects (like flame effects that don't line up with the shot, or audio dubbing that's incomprehensible); it's also an incredibly meandering plot, which somehow manages to include jade smugglers, a German criminal with a Hitler mustache, the worst cruise liner ever, a trio of traveling karate instructors, and more, all thrown together and blended with all the art of a chainsaw sculpting butter. It's a pretty dire excuse for a film, and about the best I can say about it is that at least it has the decency to be short.
6-26 It's Such a
Beautiful
Day
(2012)
A trilogy of short films by animator Don Hertzfeldt (edited together into a single feature entitled It's Such a Beautiful Day), Everything Will Be Ok, I Am So Proud of You, and It's Such a Beautiful Day collectively tell the story of a man named Bill, who suffers from an unnamed disease that causes him problems on both physical and mental levels. But that simple summary in no way prepares you for this story, which mixed traditional animation, live action footage, and experimental filmmaking techniques to tell a story that jumps around in time and space, plays with your notions of reality, and is equal parts hilariously funny and deeply, deeply moving and profound. More to the point, it doesn't really prepare you for how Hertzfeldt tells his story, which is to utilize every tool at his disposal to immerse you in Bill's increasingly fractured mind, whether that's by overwhelming you with a cacophony of noise, fracturing the visual style of the film into windows, or simply by wandering along on an emotional level, following the story as it meanders back and forth through time or into Bill's dreams. And accompanying it all is Hertzfeldt's voice, narrating Bill's story in a way that's not quite objective, not quite subjective. The end result is aa dazzling, jaw-dropping, beautiful, incredibly powerful film about mental illness, death, loneliness, family, and so much more, but more than that, it's an incredibly engaging one, doing all of that while being funny, beautifully animated, and incredibly sophisticated in its technique. It's hard to explain how the same movie could make me laugh out loud so many times as well as reduce me to tears with its final act, but such is the beauty of Bill's story, which reminds us that one of the strengths of animation is the way that it can create a world entirely at the whims of its creator. And what Hertzfeldt has made here is staggering in every imaginable way - that rare film that surpasses what you thought the genre was capable of and creates true art somehow. The story may be simple in some ways, but what Beautiful Day accomplishes is so much more, ultimately giving us a surprisingly profound meditation on the human experience that touched me deeply and left me moved in an incredible way.
6-26 I Am So
Proud of
You
(2008)
6-26 Everything
Will Be
Ok
(2006)
6-24 X-Men: Days
of Future
Past
(2014)
I grew up reading X-Men comics, and the shadow of the "Days of Future Past" storyline hung heavy over the franchise. It's one of the most iconic stories the comic ever had, so the idea of adapting it into film is already an uphill struggle; add in the effort to tie together the increasingly erratic (quality-speaking) film series, the choice to focus on Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, and the constant reports of backstage changes, casting choices, revisions, and more, and it's understandable that my expectations were pretty low for Days of Future Past. And yet, I was pleasantly surprised with how successful the movie is on the whole, even though it's got its share of problems. Yes, the future sequences are a little goofy; yes, the movie's a little overlong and shaggy at times; yes, it sometimes tries so hard to be earnest that it ends up being a bit silly. But there's a lot of great points to Days of Future Past too: the evocation of the 1970's era, the surprisingly tightly-woven story, and especially the outstanding cast, who has to rank among the most overqualified comic book casts outside of Nolan's Batman films. While some of the original cast - I'm thinking here mostly of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen - aren't given that much to do, it's still a joy to watch these old pros return to the roles and put on a clinic in how to bring gravitas and personality to even a brief appearance. More than that, though, there's the dynamite "younger" cast, from Jennifer Lawrence to James McAvoy - and then, above all of the rest, there's Michael Fassbinder as a young Magneto, bringing an icy calm, steely resolve, and incredible presence to what could otherwise have been just another comic book villain role. Days of Future Past works well in some of the details, too, from the solid use of Peter Dinklage as an entirely understandable villain to a great set of scenes involving a young version of Quicksilver - scenes that build up to some of the best moments in the film and some of Singer's most inventive staging since that great opening of X2. Days of Future Past doesn't always work; while its heart is in the right place, and its focus on ideas and characters is welcome, it's still overlong, it sometimes doesn't work on screen without feeling silly, and it just unravels a bit at certain points. But it's a really engaging film as a whole, warts and all, and while it's no X2 (or First Class), it's still a solid entry in the X-Men films that left my inner comic book child far more satisfied than he ever expected to be.
6-22 Orphan
Black
:
Season 2
(2014)
Like everyone else, when I watched the first season of Orphan Black, I was blown away by Tatiana Maslany's performance(s) as a slew of clones all of whom had their own lives, their own perspectives, and their own unique sensibilities. But what I also loved was how the show tied the characters together in a simple mystery: who are we, and why are we this way? That it did so while creating such interesting characters was much of the show's charms, as I was just as happy spending time watching Felix and Allison bond as I was figuring out who was behind the cloning operation. Season 2 of Orphan Black is every bit as good at the character work. Watching as one of the clones gets sicker and sicker, or another is abducted, only to find a new purpose in her life, is great stuff, and once again the show excels at creative pairings, bringing new sets of characters together in ways that drive the story and keep us entertained. But where the show stumbled - and stumbled hard - was in its plotting. While season 1 was driven by that one basic question, season 2 opened with not one, but two religious cults, before fracturing its evil science corporation into factions, and then keeping a long-running detective storyline going, and then also having side plots for a lot of the clones individually, and adding in some more twists and some questions of allegiance...and the end result is that a huge amount of the season made little to no sense whatsoever. And when I think back on season 2, I don't think about the plot twists or the reveals; I think of the joyous bonding between sisters that occurred in the final episode, or the genuinely funny character beats as the clones got to know each other, or as Donny and Allison continued to beat against each other. That's what makes Orphan Black so much fun, and while I enjoy the conspiracy and the mystery, it's getting to the point of being vague for its own sake, unclear instead of mysterious, and frustrating instead of intriguing. And worst of all, it's rapidly overtaking the show. I still enjoy Orphan Black, but I feel like it's a show that needs some focus and some clarity if it's going to be the show I really hope it can become again.
6-20 Edge of
Tomorrow

(2014)

In the broadest terms, Edge of Tomorrow plays out like a nightmare version of Groundhog Day, where the main character - a smug, craven PR flack played by Tom Cruise - is stuck reliving a battle that turns into a massacre, meaning that he dies again and again and again without ever being set free from it all. That's a great premise to begin with, and Edge of Tomorrow runs with it fantastically, bringing out not only the horror of the situation, but the intriguing possibilities and even the comedy of it all, to say nothing of using it to develop its plot in satisfying ways. But more than that, Edge of Tomorrow has any number of other pleasures. There may be no movie, for instance, that's more influenced by videogames than Edge of Tomorrow is, often feeling like a save game that's played again and again and again without making any progress, or the world's most complicated speedrun. That the movie turns its videogame concept into something more human and effective about the cost of battle makes it more substantive than you might expect. Or, consider the fact that Cruise doesn't play the noble hero, but a coward who wants nothing to do with battle and in fact admits to often fainting at the sight of blood? How about the fact that the film's badass mentor figure is, in fact, a woman, and there's never really any major need to build a sexual relationship between the two characters? And if you're more of a fan of the technical side of things, you'll love the editing here, which crafts together dozens of versions of the same scene and so disorients you that you often forget which one you're watching. Yes, Edge of Tomorrow stumbles a bit in the final act, becoming more generic and simple than the rest of the movie before it, and turning into something a little blander than you might hope from the rest. But it's not bad enough to ruin the movie, and the rest is so solid that any science fiction fan will find a lot to enjoy here.

6-19 The Fall of
the House of
Usher
(1928)
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a strange Poe story to choose to adapt. What plot there is to the story is oblique, at best - a man waits in his decaying house while his sister dies; after her death, our narrator begins to suspect that his host has lost his mind, but also that his sister may not be gone forever. Mostly, "The Fall of the House of Usher" is about mood and atmosphere, working to build tension out of descriptions of the family manor, unnatural storms, strange noises, and more. How do you turn that into a film? Well, if you're Jean Epstein, you make 1928's silent film The Fall of the House of Usher, which eschews what little plot there is in favor of creating a strange, eerie, dreamlike atmosphere that makes for a riveting watch. There's almost no review of Usher that doesn't use the word "dreamlike," and that's completely appropriate; there's an air of unreality to every moment of the film, and it's conveyed through odd camera angles, beautiful use of surreal touches, and unusual pacing and structure. More than that, though, there's the film's astonishing visual moments, from a veil blowing across a barren field to flames gradually turning the family manor into a hellscape, from the shadowy and vacant interiors of the house to the uncomfortable close-ups of Roderick Usher as his sanity crumbles. The Fall of the House of Usher works because it's silent, not in spite of it; by being robbed of Poe's words, Epstein was forced to convey the story's atmosphere entirely through the visual medium, and he succeeded in spades, creating a strange nightmare whose oppressive mood nearly crushes you over the course of the film's one hour running time. It's a beautiful silent film - one of the most striking and poetic I've ever seen, and one of the finest Poe adaptations I've come across to date.
6-19 Road
Games
(1981)
If you can imagine Rear Window set in Australia and replaced "photographer stuck in an apartment" with "truck driver on a long road by himself," you might end up with something like Road Games, an engaging little thriller that ranked at the time as one of the most expensive Australian productions ever made (despite the fact that the two leads are and play Americans for no clearly important reason other than marketing, presumably). It's all simple enough, with the movie following a truck driver as he becomes convinced that the driver of a green van he keeps seeing may in fact be responsible for a series of brutal killings. And once he picks up a young hitchhiker, she gets involved and everything goes to hell. Road Games is actually pretty light and fun in a lot of ways; the movie gets a lot of play out of the trucker's routine, and his one-sided conversations with the cars he comes to recognize as he drives makes for a pretty entertaining running monologue. But Road Games delivers suspense well, too, whether it's knowing exactly when to reveal the killer's location or how to draw out the tension out of nothing but some unfriendly faces in a local bar. Road Games is a little slight, to be sure, and I can't help but wishing it leaned a little more on the tension it could create and less on its light atmosphere. But it's a fun watch, and a neat homage to Hitchcock that still brings its own unique take on things. Worth a watch.
6-19 Big Night
(1996)
What a rich joy of a film this is. Utterly unpretentious and simple, Big Night is the story of two Italian brothers (Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub) who run a restaurant together - a restaurant that is rapidly failing. Tucci plays Secondo, the younger brother, who has the business sense; Shaloub, meanwhile, plays Primo, the older brother and the master chef who refuses to compromise his culinary skills to give people what they want. As the restaurant fails, the brothers get the chance to cook one spectacular meal for Louis Prima and save their restaurant...but really, that's not what Big Night is about. It's about the bond between these brothers, who both love what the other is doing but could never do it themselves. It's about the women in the lives of each of these brothers, whether it's the steady girlfriend of Secondo or the object of Primo's affection who he can barely speak to. It's about the conflict between commerce and art, and the fact that sometimes quality simply isn't enough. It's about the pains of running a restaurant, and the challenges of watching your dream die. But more than any of that, it's about food, and how good food can truly bring people together in a special way that surpasses any sort of monetary value. There's a story to Big Night - there are betrayals, and arguments, and conflicts, and reconciliations. But more than that, it's simply the story of these brothers and their difficult relationship to each other and their restaurant, and in the moments between the brothers pass some of the richest, warmest moments I've seen in a film in a long time. Big Night is simple, and it's not flashy; it tells its character-driven story perfectly, and lets its characters live and breathe and wander. It doesn't have a big message, and it ends on a scene of absolute silence that couldn't be more perfect. It's an absolute treat of a film, and one whose quiet joys shouldn't be overlooked.
6-18 Santa
Sangre
(1989)
While El Topo and The Holy Mountain felt like fever dreams or deeply allegorical tales of coming to an understanding of the universe, Santa Sangre feels surprisingly approachable and understandable; at its core, it feels like Jodorowsky decided to make his own version of Psycho that was both a horror film and yet unmistakably a Jodorowsky film. The result? Santa Sangre is far less visually astonishing than El Topo or Holy Mountain; while there are still some amazing moments (my favorite is a horrifying visitation in a graveyard), there's a smaller scale to Sangre, meaning that there's not as much of the jaw-dropping spectacle of his earlier films. And yet, what's gained in the reduction of scale is an emotional heft, as Jodorowsky ends up telling the tale of a young boy who witnesses horrifying trauma at an early age and spends his adulthood reacting to it and doing his best to escape from its long shadow. What we get is part Freudian dream, part coming of age story, and part slasher film, all pulled together to make something wholly new and remarkable out of it. More than that, it handles all of its genres equally well, delivering odd poetry in the story of the boy and unsettling horror in some of the murder scenes. And there's plenty of pure Jodorowsky touches, too, including an elephant funeral that's equal parts hilarious, touching, and bizarre. My first reaction of Santa Sangre was that it was my least favorite of the three Jodorowsky films, but as I've thought about it more and more, it's improved in my mind; while I think El Topo may still beat it, there's no denying that Santa Sangre is Jodorowsky's most human film, and that gives it a surprising amount of depth and effectiveness you might not expect from the man.
6-18 Trance (2013)
As you'd expect from a Danny Boyle film, Trance looks spectacular. And given the film's premise - which features a hypnotist working with a gang of thieves to figure out the location of a missing painting - Boyle runs with it, plunging us into hallucinations, diving through layers of reality, and keeping us constantly guessing as to what's going on and where we are in the story. There are some incredible moments here and there - one character's greatest fear being acted out on screen is riveting and unsettling, and the aftermath of a violent moment left me genuinely shocked. It's a shame, then, that Trance doesn't make any damn sense whatsoever. I mean, absolutely none. When you're playing reality games, you've got to have some solid ground to come back down to, but Trance is more interested in constantly shifting the ground we're standing on than telling a coherent story, and by the time you get to the end, you can't even tell how we got there, much less who did what and who was working with who. And what's worse, you don't really care, because it all quit making sense a while back. Boyle reportedly made Trance during a break from working on the Olympics opening ceremony, and as something tossed off as a lark, it's fun enough, I suppose; it's well made, and it features Boyle's usual style. It's just an incoherent mess on a script level, and in a heist movie, that's an unforgivable sin.
6-18 Prisoners
(2013)
It's rare to find a film as uncompromising and bleak as Prisoners coming out as a mainstream release, much less to find a degree of success, but make no mistake: Prisoners is one of the most unflinching films I've seen in some time. It's the tale of two young girls who disappear, a father (Hugh Jackman) who's willing to do anything to get them back, and a police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who's relentlessly doing his best to find the girls before they die. Prisoners never lets up on the tension, whether it's pushing Jackman's character into more and more morally indefensible actions, watching as Gyllenhaal is forced to confront the darkest sides of human nature, or simply refusing to back away from the moral ambiguity of its story as it unfolds. It's not a movie for the faint of heart, and not for those for whom children in peril is a sensitive area; as a father, there are sections of Prisoners that had me pretty shaken to the core, sometimes through something as simple as a police interview asking a grieving parent to identify the clothes of their missing child. Prisoners stumbles a bit in its climax, featuring a killer who monologues a bit too much and a chain of coincidences that don't quite add up as much as you'd like them to. But it's a minor and relatively forgivable misstep in a film that does so much else right, from Gyllenhaal's driven, intense performance to Roger Deakins' spectacular, haunting photography. Morally complex, emotionally challenging, and willing to ask difficult questions without obvious answers, Prisoners is a gripping and tough watch, one that holds up well against the obvious comparison points (Se7en, Zodiac, and so forth). That it does all that while telling such a solid and intriguing story only makes it clearer why Prisoners has been so well received - and what makes it so successful.
6-17 Enough
Said
(2013)
There's so much rich character work in Enough Said - so much wonderful depth to the story of a middle-aged woman who strikes up a new relationship with a middle-aged man. The conversations are beautifully done, and they feel like the conversations people would have, not creations of a screenwriters. The mistakes in parenting, the relationships with exes, the awkward banter of the early stages of a relationship...all of it is pitch perfect. So why on earth does Enough Said self-destruct halfway through, saddling its characters with the hoariest of rom-com traditions and reducing their humanity to awful, painful tropes where characters are keeping secrets and lying to each other? The central hook - that the woman gradually realizes she's dating the ex-husband of her new friend - isn't bad, but her decision to keep it a secret from both of them is painfully terrible, and feels less like something any human being would decide to do and more like something someone from a bad sitcom would pull off. Yes, it's obvious the movie knows what a terrible idea it is, but that doesn't justify the painful reduction of a rich, vibrant, funny story to something far more cliched and terrible. It's all the worse here because every other aspect of the movie is so good - it's well-written, perfectly acted (especially by the late James Gandolfini), and expertly character-driven in every other scene. But, oh, is that plot hook awful, and it ends up poisoning so much of the movie around it that it nearly kills the movie. That it doesn't is testimony to how good everyone involved in the movie is. But it's incredibly disappointing that such a great portrait of a relationship is soured by such a hackneyed idea.
6-17 Slap Shot
(1977)
Slap Shot belongs to that great tradition of brash, vulgar sports films of the 70's - a set of films that include such great movies like the original The Longest Yard or The Bad News Bears. Like those films, Slap Shot is somewhat of a celebration of the less restrained, more violent aspects of the sport, this time focusing on a small town hockey team on the verge of folding that finds a new success when they start ratcheting up the violence in their games. Paul Newman is great, as always, as the team's coach and closest thing to a leader, but the movie's pretty much stolen by the Hanson brothers, a trio of anarchic, violent players the team brings in for no particular reason other than the fact that they're cheap. As soon as the Hanson's come in, the movie really hits its stride, becoming a cavalcade of swearing, violence, and unbridled fun that's hard not to enjoy. All of that being said, Slap Shot doesn't quite work the way that those films do. The Longest Yard works as a stand against authority, and The Bad News Bears embraces its lowbrow charms as part of the fun. But Slap Shot seems weirdly divided against itself, wanting to have its fun but also condemn it, and the whole thing ends up feeling weirdly disjointed and a bit unclear and unsatisfying by the end. It's a fun ride along the way, no doubt, but Slap Shot can't decide if it wants to satirize the appeal of violence, criticize the double standard of sports and what people want out of them, or make a stand against the cheapening of hockey in favor of violence, and it all ends in a way that makes it less clear than ever. For all that, it's a really enjoyable, funny film; as you'd expect, Newman is a blast, and the Hansons are a gleeful force of chaos that bring a great energy to everything. It just never quite makes sense as a film, as though it's trying to do too much at the same time and can't commit to any one idea.
6-17 Easy Street
(1917)
There's a reason that Charlie Chaplin is almost always the universal symbol of silent film comedy. Sure, I'm always going to be a Keaton man, but there's something undeniably effective about Chaplin, who managed to mix pathos and comedy together perfectly, all while bringing his own wonderful physical performance to bear and creating a character through facial expressions and that wonderful walk. And while Easy Street doesn't boast the complexity of Chaplin's best work, at 24 minutes, it's a perfect encapsulation of all that he could do well. The story is simple enough - the Tramp enlists in the police department, only to be assigned to Easy Street, the toughest street in town. From there, you get Chaplin brawling with a massive bruiser, rescuing a damsel in distress, and in general being perceived as much tougher and intimidating than you'd expect from his little frame. That's Easy Street, which doesn't do anything groundbreaking and doesn't get into the emotional heft of something like The Kid, but reminds you just how funny Chaplin could be, even in an off-the-cuff moment like his reaction when he meets a man who seems to have fathered dozens of children. It's not as well known as a lot of Chaplin's more iconic work, but any fan will enjoy this one, even in its simplicity.
6-16 Louie:
Season 4
(2014)
After more than a year off, Louie returned, and came back every bit as odd and idiosyncratic as ever. This time, Louie did perhaps the single most unexpected thing of all: it embraced continuity and spent most of its season telling a single story about Louie and his love life, albeit with a couple of detours along the way (most notably a double-length episode about Louie's first exposure to pot). What the season has lacked, if I'm being honest, is the gloriously weird and surreal touches of humor that the show did best; while the season kicked off with a wonderfully odd moment involving garbage truck workers, most of the season was fairly grounded, finding what humor there was from people, their conversations, and Louie's standup. All of that sounds like I'm bashing this season, but it shouldn't; indeed, in some ways, this may be the best season of Louie to date, even if it's the least experimental and offbeat to date. What Louie lacked in chaos, it gained in depth and complexity, exploring the double standards about men and women's weight, allowing its female characters their own voice, questioning the male gaze, and doing it all while bringing out some fantastic comedy, too. As always with Louie, the show is unmistakably entirely CK's brainchild, and sometimes that leads to odd threads like his recurring relationship with the outwardly toxic and often cruel Pamela. But all of that somehow makes the show almost more fascinating, feeling like part experiment, part therapy session, part comedy, part drama, and part playful effort just to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. And when some of the things that stick are Charles Grodin as an irritable doctor, that phenomenal monologue at the end of "So Did the Fat Lady," the perfect relationship between Louie and his daughters, and so many others, it's hard for me not to love Louie - even if it doesn't always work, it's always a joy to watch unfold, and the end result is so wholly unique and wonderful that it's hard not to love it.
6-16 Wolf Creek (2005)
Over the years, Wolf Creek has gotten a reputation as a pretty brutal, nightmarish film, one that gained the hatred of Roger Ebert and the love of Quentin Tarantino. And now that I've finally seen it, all I can think is, "All that over this?" Clearly aiming to be the Australian answer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wolf Creek follows a trio of young people - two girls and a guy - as they travel the Outback before car trouble finds them in need of help, which they get from a local named Mick Taylor. Only Mick is far from the nice guy he originally seems, and what comes next is stalking, torture, and all kinds of brutality. It's not that Wolf Creek is tame, exactly, but it's nowhere near as horrific as people's reactions to it led me to believe; indeed, with a couple of moments aside, Wolf Creek feels like just another generic take on the slasher film, one that hits all the beats capably, but without doing much interesting with them. Of course, there's the gorgeous and fantastic Outback setting, but a good setting does not a good film make, and Wolf Creek only has one other thing going for it: the performance by John Jarratt as Mick Taylor. In lesser hands, Mick would just be another glowering, intense killer, but Jarratt makes him a man who's truly enjoying what he does, and his clear joy and zest about the carnage he's doling out makes him all the more unsettling - and it also makes him the only real thing about the movie that doesn't feel fairly "by the numbers". Wolf Creek isn't really badly made or anything, but there's just nothing all that special or memorable about it, and the sheer reaction to it kind of bewilders me, especially when there's so many more movies out there to embrace or be horrified by.
6-16 The Hunger (1983)
I'm all about unique takes on vampires, to say nothing of stylish films, so The Hunger ought to be right in my wheelhouse. Opening with a pair of vampires stalking their prey in a blaring discotheque before taking them home for a snack, The Hunger kicks things off promisingly, and that's before the haunting shots of the eerie, shadowy house these creatures call home. Add in the plot thread of one of the vampires facing the inevitability of death and aging, and you have all the elements of a good movie. Instead, you get The Hunger, which slows to an absolute crawl, loses interest in actually doing anything major with its characters or delivering any sort of horror gratification, and essentially just meanders through a moody, slow-paced death-themed music video (without music). It's telling that The Hunger is mainly remembered for bringing a surprisingly explicit sex scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve, but even that's mainly notable just for breaking up the monotony of people wandering around and looking sad. And it all builds to a bizarre climax that makes little to no sense, even though it's at least delivering some action at last. It's all pretty dull, no matter how well filmed it is, and that's a shame; with all the elements at play here, there should be something a lot more watchable than this to come out of it.
6-15 Game of
Thrones
:
Season 4
(2013)
I ended season 3 of Game of Thrones frustrated with the show I was watching, feeling like the series had ended up so focused on its plotting that it had forgotten to allow the characters time to breathe. But with the business of the Red Wedding out of the way, I hoped the show would relax again, letting the characters drive the story instead of the other way around. And that's exactly what I got in season 4, which left me excited about the show all over again. That's not to say that there weren't shocking moments in season 4 - a few more major characters died, among other things, and Martin once again solidified his reputation as the worst wedding planner in existence. But the moments felt driven by the characters again, and indeed, the season's best moments were nothing but conversations between people. None of these brought me more joy than the unlikely pairing of Arya and the Hound, which could have been the entire season for all I cared; watching the grizzled old cynic and the hardened young girl travel together and bond, in their own strange way, was one of my favorite television storylines of the year so far. Others delivered just about as much joy, though, such as the continued development of Brienne of Tarth, Tyrion Lannister's increased independence and rebellion against the world around him, and even Sansa Stark finally getting something to do, even if it was small. It wasn't quite up to the standards of the first two seasons, mind you; while it's understandable that the show is losing focus as the characters scatter, it's getting harder and harder to hold everything together, and I'm worried what will happen as the show continues the broadening of scope that seems to be coming based off of the finale. And you can't discuss season 4 without at least mentioning the disastrous sex scene that was presented as consensual but certainly came across as a horrific rape, poisoning the entire storyline that came after it. But even with those missteps, I enjoyed season 4 pretty greatly; it certainly felt more like the show I originally enjoyed, and even as it's struggling a bit, it's still a blast to watch in so many ways.
6-15 How to
Train Your
Dragon 2
(2014)
The original How to Train Your Dragon was a wondrous surprise - a genuinely great, exciting, even moving piece of animation that worked both as a great adventure story for children and a surprisingly complex story of fathers and sons for adults. That the sequel has taken so long to come out is a promising first sign; such a joy of a film deserves a followup that's worthy of it, even if it won't have the benefit of low expectations or surprise. In general, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a solid sequel; it keeps the emotional hooks of the first film and even raises them to some degree, all while still providing solid, exciting adventure scenes - and, of course, lots of dragon action. At the same time, though, it feels far more jumbled and muddled than its predecessor, essentially taking 2 or 3 storylines and jamming them together a little haphazardly. Here's the thing, though: all those stories are still good ones...but in the combining them, something is lost, and it ends up feeling like the shortened version of something much bigger. There are still some amazing moments - an astonishing flight sequence through the clouds, a moment where the film pauses to let two characters reconnect through a song, a powerful moment of grief - and in what remains, there's no major missteps (with the possible exception of the film's villain, who's disappointingly one-note). But it never hits the peaks of the first film, and it never feels as focused and structured as the first film did either. All of that being said, I still enjoyed it a lot; it's beautifully animated in a way that compares with anything Pixar has done, it's charming and funny, and it's character-driven in a fantastic way, to say nothing of the action sequences it creates. And if it doesn't live up to its predecessor, that's okay, really - how many sequels do? It's still a good time, and it's head and shoulders above most of what passes for kids' entertainment these days.
6-13 The Grand
Budapest
Hotel
(2014)
It's been fascinating to watch Wes Anderson's style evolve over the years. From the low-key heist movie charm of Bottle Rocket to the detail-filled world of The Royal Tenenbaums to the child's-eye-view of Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson has continued to change in small ways while never leaving behind his trademark ability to compose a shot perfectly, his clever and verbose dialogue, or his subtle, glorious wit. And all of that plays into The Grand Budapest Hotel, which finds Anderson plunging through layer upon layer of narration and time to tell a story that's as much about mourning a lost period of time as it is the caper it's more literally about. At its core, Budapest really is a caper film about a hotel concierge who ends up blamed for the murder of one of his elderly clients - and, it must be noted, his lover - after she leaves much of her estate to him. What follows is a deliriously funny and gloriously charming tale of murderous assassins, feuding family members, ski-slope chases, jailbreaks, and legal battles, all of which manages to be both surprisingly dark and hilariously entertaining. But as ever with Anderson, the story is less about the story and more about the telling, as we come to understand our narrator, his relationship with this concierge, and how it all shaped his life and his perspective, culminating in a quietly devastating ending all the more effective for its simplicity. In some ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a love letter to the last, a bygone era of manners and civility, but it's also an acknowledgment that no matter how wonderful Anderson's worlds are, reality is out there and it's ugly. That's heavy material for such a light-hearted, fun film, but Anderson makes it work perfectly, giving us his best film since The Royal Tenenbaums. I'm an Anderson fanboy, so you can take this all however you like, but I loved every minute of it absolutely.
6-13 The Man
with the Iron
Fists
(2012)

I really, really wanted to like this. The RZA is pretty awesome in general; his love of B-movies and martial arts is infectious; the casting is solid; the plotting is pretty ingenious; the visual world on display is richly detailed. But there's so many other problems that it's hard to know where to begin. Reportedly, the rough cut of The Man with the Iron Fists was over 3 hours, and I don't doubt it; what we've been given feels rushed and frequently incoherent, as though more than half of the film's pacing and structure has been pulled away, leaving a mess of characters, betrayals, resurrections, and reversals that end up feeling more chaotic than exciting. The acting is pretty regrettable almost across the board; apart from a couple of exceptions (as usual, Lucy Liu is having a blast, even if it's in the role she always plays, and Russell Crowe is loving getting to play the Oliver Reed role here), everyone reads their lines as though they're trying to mimic bad dubbing, which isn't a bad idea in theory, but it comes across as lifeless and stilted. But the biggest problem is the action, which is pretty poorly done. It's not the bad wire work or the ludicrous amount of gore; it's both, as well as some poor editing that makes the fights just feel like a mess. There are some inspired moments here and there, including a fantastic duel in a hall of mirrors and a few brilliant montages, and in general, the movie leaves you feeling like the RZA probably has a good movie in him. It could have even been this one, maybe. But as it stands, this is a pretty painful mess, and the few strengths can't compensate for all the problems on display.

6-12 Super Fly
(1972)
Standing in sharp contrast to Dolemite, there's Super Fly, one of the earliest blaxploitation films and one whose heart and soul more than makes up for some of the shortcomings - well, that and the justly famous soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield. The story of a drug dealer who wants out but needs one last big score to get clean, Super Fly tells a story you've seen plenty of times, but it's interesting to watch it play out in this setting, as our (anti-)hero is told repeatedly that there's little good for a black man to do but sell drugs, is pigeonholed by cops and friends alike, deals with black power activists, and more. Super Fly is definitely shaggy; reportedly, the script is only about 45 pages long, and that shows in the multitude of long driving sequences and montages. But between those scenes, there's some great moments, and a real sense of frustration at the plight of inner city black men. And even though the driving sequences do drag, they're balanced by Mayfield's soundtrack, which sounds every bit as good today as it did then, giving the film a perfect balance of cool and grit that conveys the film's message nicely. Super Fly holds up well, and deserves to be more than "that film with the great soundtrack"; while it's not perfect, it casts a long shadow, and it holds up as a solid expression of black feelings in the early 1970's. Well worth a look for any fan of the genre.
6-12 Dolemite
(1975)
Whether by luck or through good recommendations, a lot of the blaxploitation films I've seen so far have been bona fide great movies, not the schlock the genre's often associated with. Films like Book of Numbers or Across 110th Street aren't cheesy or badly made; they're rich, interesting, and often gripping films, and even somewhat weaker ones like Shaft are solid enough to watch. But once you see something like Dolemite, the genre's reputation suddenly makes a lot more sense. There's no way to see Dolemite and not see how much influence it had on Black Dynamite, from Rudy Ray Moore's convoluted rhymes to karate-trained prostitutes, from the frequent intrusion of boom mics to ludicrous line readings, Dolemite is a feast for bad film lovers. The editing is gloriously incoherent, the acting as bad as you can get, the storyline incoherent (thanks in no small parts to obvious attempts to placate Moore's ego, whether that means forcing in his standup routines or giving him scenes to undress and have sex), and the whole experience is just inept and hilarious. That all being said, Dolemite still drags like hell, and I have to say that I preferred Disco Godfather's ludicrous attempts at social commentary and rampant insanity to the attempt at a grounded film in Dolemite. Still, it's a really enjoyable movie in its own unique way; it's certainly not good, but it's entertaining as hell, and it helps me to understand the genre's reputation after seeing so many good films and wondering where it came from.
6-11 The Holy
Mountain

(1973)
A gloriously insane allegory about religion, oppression, enlightenment, and society, The Holy Mountain finds Alejandro Jodorowsky taking the incredible imagery of El Topo and cranking it all as high as it can go, delivering a fever dream that's part satire, part acid trip, and part art piece. After seeing El Topo, I commented that for all its reputation, the film was suprisingly easy to follow, if extremely allegorical and frequently fantastic. The Holy Mountain is far, far less grounded, and while parts are intellectually understandable, the film feels far more fragmented and complex and far less plot-driven in any sort of way. Instead, Jodorowsky follows the broadest possible outline of a man questing for enlightenment, albeit in such a way that allows him to satirize organized religion, re-enact the Crusades using lizards and frogs in costumes, create weapons for each major religion of the earth, and so much more. No amount of words that I type here can possibly really convey the experience of The Holy Mountain, which conveys much of its power and impact through its astonishing visuals. And let's be fair about that; no matter what you may think of Jodorowsky and how pretentious he may be (answer: probably more than a bit), the man is a born filmmaker, and the shots and scenes he creates here are breathtaking and jaw-dropping. There were dozens upon dozens of shots in the film that simply left me stunned, trying to figure out how it was even filmed, much less absorbing the impact of it all. And it all comes together in a brilliant final moment that's both hilarious in its audacity and perfect as a way to end the film. It's a hard experience to explain in a review, but the best I can tell you is that it's an essential film experience - it's unlike anything you've ever seen, and probably ever will see. But it's astonishing, incredible, revelatory filmmaking, and I loved every second of it.
6-11 The Play House (1921)
It's been too long since I sat and watched some Buster Keaton shorts, and after the intensity of A Woman Under the Influence, some Keaton insanity was exactly the thing I needed. The Boat finds Keaton building a boat that's too big to get through his garage doors before struggling with his maiden voyage, all of which mainly means that you get a slew of Keaton's usual blend of stunt work, comedy, and priceless reactions. The Boat is endlessly funny and inventive, and there are scenes that stand out as jaw dropping even today (I'm thinking mainly of the sequence of the spinning boat, not only for Keaton's acrobatics, but also simply from the logistics of putting it together). Of course, none of that would matter if it weren't funny, but whether he's trying to reduce a flood with a teacup or setting up dumb verbal jokes with a telegraph (to say nothing of the final gag, a brilliant one based on nothing more than reading Keaton's lips). Keaton remains as funny today as he did almost a century ago. The Frozen North isn't quite as strong; even though it begins with a couple of brilliant gags and gives us the rare chance to see Keaton in a less noble role, The Frozen North feels a bit unfocused and scattershot, and you can't help but feel that some of it is parodying films that have slipped from the public consciousness. Even so, there are some great bits, and it's almost worth the whole thing for the opening stickup alone. The Play House finds Keaton a little more subdued than usual, stunt-wise, thanks to a broken ankle, but while the second half of the film is more about physical comedy (where else can you see Keaton performing as a monkey, and doing it well?), the first half is what everyone remembers - and rightfully so. Through use of a metronome and repeated exposures, Keaton gives us a five minute stage show in which he plays every single person - every person on stage and every member of the audience, often in the same shot. Sometimes the gags are simple (it's inherently funny to see Keaton in drag as the old mother), sometimes elaborate (watching him perform a synchronized softshoe routine is pretty amazing, especially when you think about what it took to do it), but the whole sequence is equal parts incredible and hilarious. In other words, it's exactly what you expect from Keaton. Three solid shorts, and even if The Boat is the runaway best, there's not really a bad one in this set of three.
6-11 The Frozen
North
(1922)
6-11 The Boat (1921)
6-11 A Woman
Under the
Influence
(1974)

It's hard to express how intense and draining an experience A Woman Under the Influence is to someone who hasn't seen it. The story sounds simple enough - a woman with mental health issues escalates to point where her husband has her committed - but that doesn't prepare you for how much director John Cassavetes plunges you into the midst of this turbulent household and the constant drama. A Woman Under the Influence does most of its storytelling indirectly, allowing the plot to unfold through the character interactions, which feel shockingly natural and spontaneous. It's hard to believe how tightly scripted this apparently was when it feels so genuinely and off-the-cuff, but between Cassavetes' script and the incredible acting on display, we feel less like we're watching a domestic drama and more like we're simply watching people talk. And nowhere is that more evident than in the astonishing performance by Gena Rowlands. Madness in Hollywood tends to be played over the top, but in Rowlands' performance, her insanity comes through without ever insisting upon itself. It's her manic personality, the way she's always trying a little too hard for the situation, the way she never seems to quite know how to react to changes in her world. Indeed, she's so gripping that it only adds to the intensity of the film, as we feel we're genuinely watching this woman who's constantly on the verge of a breakdown. But she's very nearly matched by Peter Falk as her husband, who's no less unstable a parent than she is, although in a way that's more socially acceptable, especially for a man. A Woman Under the Influence is gripping stuff, although its intensity makes it a hard watch; what it does, though, is create an honest and realistic portrait of these people that feels not so much like acting, but like genuine human drama, and that makes the pain on display all the more terrible to watch. A phenomenal, powerful experience.

6-10 My Dinner
with Andre

(1981)

I'm not going to lie and say that I loved My Dinner with Andre from the moment it started. (Indeed, I'm not sure I can even say that I loved it; now that I've had some time to think about it, it's a film I think I appreciate more than I enjoyed, if that makes sense.) I spent a lot of the first half of the movie, as Andre tells the stories of his wanderings and his art experiments, pretty bored and wondering what I had gotten myself into. I knew, of course, what the movie was about - that My Dinner with Andre was just a conversation between two men as they eat dinner - so it's not as though I was expecting action or much else. But I didn't really expect this art-driven monologue about a man finding himself, and I spent a good deal of the film's first half trying not to roll my eyes at Andre and his pretentious explanations. But as the film continued, I started to realize that Wallace Shawn was right there with me, and as the two men began to actually have a conversation - not a monologue, but an actual debate - I found myself more and more fascinated by what was being discussed and how compellingly it was all presented. My Dinner with Andre is an odd beast; as a film, it's not all that interesting - it almost works more as a filmed rendition of a play. But as a conversation or an intellectual debate, it works incredibly well, exploring ideas in an intelligent, thoughtful way and refusing to speak down to its audience. It doesn't really look or feel like much else out there, but that's to its credit; it's a thoughtful, charming oddity, and one that works better than you might expect given your expectations. (I still think the Simpsons bit about the My Dinner with Andre video game is hilarious, though.)

6-10 Modern Romance
(1981)
Albert Brooks is one of those people that just makes me laugh; he's got what the old comedians call "funny bones," where he can't help but crack me up with almost every word or gesture. And Modern Romance is pretty much peak Brooks, as he plays a neurotic film editor who keeps breaking up with his girlfriend thanks to his uncontrollable jealousy, only to return to her again and again because he can't stop thinking of her (or maybe simply because he can't bear the thought of someone else having her). That sounds a bit heavy for a comedy, but it's to Brooks' credit that Modern Romance manages to grapple with heavy ideas - the impact of jealousy, the hypocrisy of men, the way our own neuroses can derail our lives - while still being hilariously, incessantly funny. Whether he's delivering a long, rambling monologue under the influence of quaaludes, going on an amazingly brief date, working with a director on the editing of his film, or just trying to win back his girlfriend, Brooks is amazing, knowing exactly how long to pause, how long to hold his double take, how long to wait before speaking. It's riotously funny, but it's also oddly trenchant in its look at romance and jealousy; even better, it's well made, using camera angles, editing, and other directorial choices just as much as it uses Brooks' writing and presence. Obviously, I absolutely loved it; it may be my love of Brooks, but as I've said before, it's hard to imagine how anyone could not be a fan of the man.
6-10 Westworld
(1973)

Westworld boasts a pretty great premise - tourists trapped in an fantasy-fulfilling amusement park gone wrong - that's so good that writer-director Michael Crichton would re-use it years later for his book Jurassic Park. But Westworld holds its own in the comparison, and it's not just the small differences. Yes, Westworld is more about wish fulfillment - allowing people to experience the Wild West or the medieval period safely - and although both are about recreating the past, Westworld is more about creating an illusion rather than the reality. And in the early going, Westworld is fun enough, if a little slow; it takes a bit too long for Crichton to move beyond the establishing of his premise and get into the plot. But once things go wrong, Westworld starts to move like a rocket, driven by a surprisingly great soundtrack and a fantastic performance by Yul Brynner as the unstoppable gunslinger who won't let go of his hunt for our hero. Brynner's performance is widely regarded as influencing everything from The Terminator to Michael Myers in Halloween, and it's not hard to see why; exuding equal parts ice cold demeanor and unstoppable force, he's surprisingly effective and chilling, no matter how he's dressed or how silly the idea of a killer robot cowboy might seem. Westworld isn't particularly insightful or complex; ultimately, it's a thrill ride, and little more. But it's a really fun thrill ride, and a surprisingly gripping one. I don't guess I realized that Crichton was such a solid director before he was an author.

6-9 From
Beyond
(1986)
As soon as I found out that From Beyond was Stuart Gordon's follow-up to Re-Animator, I was there. And there's no denying that it's a film by the same man. From the casting to the splatter, from the fact that Gordon seems to actually get Lovecraft in a way that not many do to the willingness to embrace body horror in a glorious way, From Beyond is pretty gleefully insane in a lot of the right ways. But it's also kind of a mess in a way that Re-Animator wasn't, and it all ends up feeling like a short piece that's been stretched way, way too far to make it into a feature. I like a lot of the individual pieces of From Beyond - Ken Foree brings a nice dose of realism and cynicism to the table, grounding his sections beautifully; Gordon demonstrates a knack for pushing Lovecraft into the realm of human sexual drives, using it as part of what's driving men to do such horrible things; and, as always, there's some fantastic effects work on display, turning people into nightmares straight out of The Thing. But it all ends up feeling like a bunch of short stories that are awkwardly pushed together, and the connective tissue is pretty weak, to put it mildly. It's certainly no generic big studio horror movie, and I love it for its guts and its insanity. But it doesn't work well enough to be a true success, and that's a disappointment, through and through.
6-9 The Steel
Helmet
(1951)
The Steel Helmet reflects its low budget pretty strongly; at times, it feels like the kind of war movie that Max Fisher from Rushmore might make. It's stagy, a bit wordy, and feels a bit more like a play than it does a film at times. But for all that, The Steel Helmet reflects the passions of its writer-director Sam Fuller, and while it's not as strong a film as what Fuller would make later in his career, it shows off his talent and promise in a big way. The story of a seasoned soldier in the Korean war and the platoon he ends up working with, The Steel Helmet isn't about anything so much as it's about the wartime experience; what plotting there is is your basic war stuff, like setting up an observation post, dealing with an ambush, and so forth. Rather, what sticks out in The Steel Helmet are the small moments that feel like a soldier being honest about what he's been through - the disdain for officers with no experience, the rough camaraderie of soldiers, the wide variety of men who end up in war. But the best moments of the film are those where Fuller's brutal honesty and cynicism come through: confrontations about the hypocrisy of American values, discussions about how racism at home is ignored on the battleground, or honest looks at the treatment of POWs. Through all of it, though, it's hard to deny that Fuller respects the men who fight; it's just that he has no tolerance for hypocrisy and inequality. It's similar material he would use in later films (especially the great Shock Corridor), but seeing it in a war film pre-Vietnam is still a jolt, and a pleasant one at that. The Steel Helmet isn't a great film; the small budget hinders its ambitions, and it doesn't end up taking it all to as interesting a place as Fuller would take his films later in his career. But it's a great starting point, and a nice hint as to where his career would take him.
6-9 D.O.A. (1950)
D.O.A. boasts a terrific premise - a man has been poisoned and only has a limited time left in which to investigate his own murder - so it's a shame that it's used on a film that makes such poor use of it. D.O.A. isn't awful, but there are some really, really rough patches, including a long sequence where wolf whistles intrude on the soundtrack every time a woman walks by, or a scene set in a jazz club that feels ripped right from Reefer Madness. Add to that a plot that doesn't make nearly as much sense as you wish it did (to say nothing of a main character who suddenly changes from a mild-mannered tax man to a hard-boiled private detective when the plot needs him to), and you have a film that just doesn't work the way it needs to. That all being said, there are some scattered great moments throughout D.O.A. - some nice dialogue, as you'd expect from a classic noir, and a couple of great action setpieces that really work nicely. And although the lead role is kind of a mess on a screenplay, the lead actor does a nice job with the role, making him just likable enough to carry the film but still unpleasant enough that he keeps some nicely hardened edges that make him fit right into the dark world in which he finds himself. D.O.A. isn't a complete loss, but it's nowhere near as good as it should be, and some of the bad points (god, that wolf whistle) are bad enough that they almost single-handedly wreck the film as a whole.
6-8 Veep:
Season 3
(2014)
Veep only gets better and better with each season, and given that the show was so incredibly good to begin with, that's high praise indeed. This season finds the show hitting the campaign trail with Selina and company as she makes a run for president, giving the show fresh meat to chew on with the same ferocious, take-no-prisoners vicious humor that it's used on all of American politics. More than that, it's shaken up some of the status quo, pushing Jonah into a series of new roles that gives him all new ways to be an idiot and be attacked, rearranging the power structure of the support staff, and pushing Kevin Dunn and Gary Cole more and more into the spotlight. And if all that's not enough, the show's writing is every bit as sharp (and, yes, profane) as it's ever been, delivering a slew of incredible lines that reduce me to tears week in and week out. Whether it's depicting an early campaign debate, following the various ways a piece of gossip can become news, or simply watching people scrabble and fight to attach themselves to the biggest campaign, Veep eviscerates whatever it does with humor, black comedy, and spectacular insight. And the whole season ended on a fairly jaw-dropping note, changing the nature of the show fundamentally into something wholly different, and it's something I'm pretty eager to see. I've argued now for two seasons that Veep is one of the smartest, funniest shows on television, and it's more and more true with each passing year; season 3 was absolutely fantastic, and the season's ending and the possible sea change it promises leaves me eager to see if it can somehow keep getting better.
6-6 Sorcerer
(1977)
Sorcerer is generally regarded as a lost gem among cinema fans, the rare remake that not only justifies its existence but may even surpass the original - and when the original we're talking about is The Wages of Fear, that's high praise indeed. Having finally seen Sorcerer, I can see why a lot of people like it, but ultimately, it comes up pretty short in comparison to the original. That's not to say that Sorcerer doesn't entirely stand on its own. Indeed, it's to the film's credit that it feels less like a remake and more like its own unique film. While Wages started with the characters already in a desolate village, desperate for money, Sorcerer opens with a four-part prologue showing us how each of these men got to the point where they'd be willing to take on such a task. It's not a bad idea at all, and in director William Friedkin's hands, each of the sections makes for its own gripping little mini-story. The problem, though, is how long it takes. We're almost exactly halfway through Sorcerer before we get to the trucks, and given that the meat of the story is these men driving the nitroglycerin-laden trucks through the rainforest, packing that into the second half of the film (not accounting for the final act where things conclude) seems like an odd pacing choice. That being said, my god, are the truck scenes incredible. Friedkin tightens the pace in the truck sequence, delivering intense sequence after intense sequence, and culminating with a nightmarish drive across a teetering rope bridge that almost single-handedly makes the movie as masterpiece in of itself. Alas, once the delivery is made, Sorcerer wraps up a little unsatisfyingly, delivering a better downbeat ending that Wages did, but still not one that feels all that great. For my money, Sorcerer pales in comparison to Wages; as much as I like the idea of investing us more in each of these men, I don't think the film pulls it off well, and it all ends up feeling a bit rushed and piecemeal. (Sorcerer is the rare movie that I think might be better if it were a little longer.) But there's no denying the intensity of some of those scenes, nor the astonishing visual eye that Friedkin brings to the film (there's a late-film dream sequence that's absolutely jaw-dropping, especially to see it in the gorgeous new restoration that's making the rounds). Is it as good as Wages? Not even close. But it's still solid, if not as great as I've heard it was over the years.
6-6 The Women (1939)

You should probably take my thoughts on The Women with a grain of salt, because I'm pretty evidently not the intended audience for this film. And yet, there's a lot I appreciated about The Women, the story of a woman who finds out her husband is cheating on her when the gossip spreads throughout her friends first. There's not a male cast member to be found in The Women, and there's something gratifying about the fact that here's a movie entirely about women and how they relate to each other, be it as friends, rivals, mothers and daughters (of both the grown and small varieties), co-workers, or whatever. And at its best moments (I'm thinking especially of any of the scenes between mothers and daughters), The Women has a wonderful honesty about what it's like to be a woman and how to cope with what your perceived lot in life is. The biggest problem I had with The Women, though, is that for all of the femininity of the movie, the entire thing is about men - who's cheating, who's in love with who, who's dumping who, who likes who, and so on and so on and so on. More than that, there's a lot of characters who feel like stock caricatures, especially as it comes to gossip, and it all makes The Women feel a little more dated and old-fashioned than it should. (Even when one character remarks to her mother that the world has changed and it's different "now," a modern viewer can't help but be aware of how different 1939's "now" is from today's.) But for all that, it moves surprisingly well for a 133 minute film (the fashion show interlude aside). and it's far more entertaining and engaging than I expected it to be. I can't help but feel it's lost something in the interim between its filming and today, and I'd almost be curious to see the modern remake if I thought they would have updated it in any interesting or meaningful way. But taken as it is, it's a well-done dose of female perspective in a major Hollywood film, and even if it didn't work entirely for me, it's almost as important for what it represents as for how well it works.

6-5 Stolen Kisses (1968)
Stolen Kisses is Francois Truffaut's third entry in a series of films about a character named Antoine, who first came to life as a schoolboy in The 400 Blows before being depicted as a young man in love in Antoine and Collette. Now there's Stolen Kisses, which begins with Antoine washing out of the army before drifting through a series of jobs while struggling to figure out his relationship with the woman he more or less loves. It's going to be hard for any film to follow The 400 Blows, and Stolen Kisses necessarily suffers in comparison, simply because it's so much lighter of a film. While there's still a wonderfully bittersweet look at youth and love here (as filtered through Truffaut's autobiographical lens), Stolen Kisses feels a little more free-spirited and silly, both of which work in its favor. The end result is a film that simultaneously feels a little disposable and feels utterly charming and winning in every moment. It manages to create a slew of interesting characters, follows a wife array of stories at any moment, packs in a glorious amount of comedy of all varieties, and does it all while telling a character-driven story about a young man figuring out his place in the world. And if it doesn't have the weight of 400 Blows, well, so what? It's still a joy to watch, as are most Truffaut films, and I laughed a lot and smiled just as much at each hard-won moment. If you enjoyed 400 Blows, it's a must watch, but even if you're just getting into Truffaut, you'll find a lot to like here - it may not change your life, but there's something to be said for something this joyous and charming.
6-5 The
Umbrellas
of Cherbourg

(1964)
At its core, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a love story, and little more. It's the story of a young girl who gets involved with a boy, but when the boy goes off to war and she's left alone (and pregnant), she has to decide whether or not to wait for him or to marry another suitor. It's a fairly typical story, but when it's told in such a charming, rich way as this, it's hard not to be swept up in it. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a musical, one in which every line of dialogue is sung, not spoken. The music carries the entire film, allowing the characters to express themselves not only through their body language, but through the music, the tones, the beats - all of it. It's wonderfully intoxicating and absolutely perfect in tone, through and through, and it keeps you enchanted by all of these characters and their stories. But it's not just the music that makes Cherbourg so perfect; it's the way the story unfolds, changing from a simple love story to a more complex look at those times when love may not be enough, or those times when the world shatters our dreams and leaves us struggling to decide what to do next. The third act of the film becomes something far different than you'd expect based off the first - something more nuanced. something richer, and ultimately something more human than comes with your typical happy love story musical. It all builds to an epilogue that's beautiful and flawless in its bittersweet tone, and caps off an already wonderful movie on a note that turns it from "great" to "magnificent". It's a perfect little gem of a film, one that just made me smile, beginning to end.
6-4 Cold in
July
(2014)
You'll get more pleasure out of Cold in July if you know as little as possible about it going in; part of the joy of the film is the way the first act in no way prepares you for the direction the film will ultimately go. (Indeed, I wish I hadn't seen the trailer beforehand, which tips its hand as to the second half of the film too much.) That's both a good and a bad aspect of the film, though; while Cold in July's twisty plot and tone is fun to watch unfold, it also leads to a strangely split film that feels more like a collection of separate stories than it does a cohesive whole. That's not to say that each of those stories aren't gripping in their own right; the first act, which starts with a house robbery gone wrong and escalates from there, wrings tension out of the simplest setups, and keeps delivering thanks to some fine acting and some knockout camerawork that makes the best of the film's noir feel. Once that opening act ends, though, it feels like we make more than a few jumps - the main character, played by Michael C. Hall, seems to accept the friendship of someone he's got no reason to accept, simply to keep the film moving. And once act 3 - which brings the film's storyline to a violent end - gets rolling, once again Hall seems to get involved not because of any inherent character motivation, but because the film needs him to. That all sounds like it should be enough to ruin the film, but it's really not; every individual piece of the film works absolutely fantastically, and with some great performances - especially by Sam Shepherd, but also by Don Johnson - it's hard not to be gripped by what's going on. (Although, I'd be lying if I didn't say that the film's 1980's period trappings - particularly Hall's mullet - distracted me for the early going on the film.) Cold in July needs a little more transition time between its acts, but as a collection of scenes, it's pretty fantastic; it just doesn't cohere as well as you'd like it to.
6-4 El Topo
(1970)

I've wanted to see some Jodorowsky films for a long time; all I've known about them is their reputation of being visually astonishing and jaw-droppingly surreal and strange. I can't say much about the other films (and by all accounts, The Holy Mountain is far more mind-bending), but El Topo both lived up to that reputation and surprised me simultaneously. There's no denying Jodorowsky's astonishing vision and visual talent; there's no shortage of incredible moments in El Topo that left me stunned with their beauty and composition, to say nothing of their inventiveness. To have created some of the visions Jodorowsky has created - and to do them in the era before CGI - is nothing short of extraordinary, and it gives the things we're seeing a tactile weight that's inescapable, making it all the more incredible to watch. But what surprised me about El Topo was how relatively straightforward it was, albeit in an allegorical sort of way. Oh, make no mistake - there's no shortage of surreal and strange elements to be found in El Topo, from a nightmarishly slaughtered town to a pile of dead rabbits exploding into flames, from a blind mystic who can ignore bullets to a reincarnation and a new purpose in life. But if you can let go of the details, El Topo feels more coherent than I expected, unfolding like some bizarre blend of spaghetti western, religious exploration, and personal drama. More or less unfolding in three quests - one for vengeance, one for greatness, and one for redemption - El Topo moves in and out of the western framework as it deems fit, but populates every inch of the frame with Jodorowsky's unmistakable vision. The result is undeniably surreal, blackly comic, surprisingly horrifying, but undeniably gripping - it's one of the most fascinating cinematic experiences I've had in a long time. And while you're going to have to approach El Topo with a certain openness of mind, if you can open yourself to its wild nature, it's going to be an astonishing piece of cinema.

6-3 Late
Spring
(1949)
There's a quiet simplicity to Ozu's films, and Late Spring is no exception. For all its interpersonal drama, there's not even a raised voice to be found in the film, let alone heightened drama. All there is is a simple story: a widower who wants his daughter to be happy and is worried she'll end up alone, so he lets her think he's getting remarried so she'll find her own match. That's about all there is to Late Spring, and yet there's a beauty and power to the way it tells its story - the way the daughter's face rarely lets its smile go, but the pain shines through; the way the film subtly lives in the occupation after World War II without ever drawing attention to itself; the way the characters are at war between old and new Japan without ever saying as much; and more than anything else, the way Ozu luxuriates in the human elements of the drama at all times, letting his calm steady camera simply observe the nuance in a wonderful way. For all its tranquility, it's hard to ignore the fact that Late Spring is quietly devastating in the way it depicts these people who are both doing something they don't want to do for fear of disappointing the other. Yes, it's a uniquely Japanese story in many ways - not just the social cues and the role of women, but the arranged marriages, the role of family, and so much more - but at the same time, it's something universal that touches on the way we all do our best to care for those around us and somehow manage to botch it anyway. It's a beautiful, elegant film, like every Ozu that I've seen, and perfect in its simplicity.
6-3 Last Year at
Marienbad

(1961)
It's hard to review a film like Last Year at Marienbad, given that it's almost entirely a film best enjoyed as a cinematic experience, not as a story. Indeed, what story there is - a man trying to convince a woman that they met one year ago - is almost entirely vague and unclear, intentionally, lost in memories, time, and space. Over the course of Last Year at Marienbad, dialogue and scenes repeat, characters drift through time and space, people's pasts are told and re-told in new ways, and truth...well, truth only enters into it in the abstract - it may be the goal of all of this, but the film is about the journey to figure out what may or may not have happened, and answers aren't something you should hold out for. That sounds like it would make for an irritating, frustrating experience, but it really doesn't - not when you're watching something that's this incredibly made and told. Whether it's editing together characters through the different versions of their stories, drifting through an audience as it collectively starts and stops conversations, watching the eerie, abandoned hallways of the hotel, or simply listening to people talk, Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most beautiful, haunting experiences I've ever seen, and it's not hard to see how influential the film is on everyone from Stanley Kubrick to David Lynch and beyond. As a concrete experience, it's not for all tastes; indeed, even someone who can lose themselves to its dream logic may occasionally feel lost in all of it. But if you can let go of any desire to "solve" it and figure it out, and simply savor the beauty of it all, you'll find Marienbad to be riveting - beautifully filmed, spectacularly edited, and utterly entrancing, like a dream unfolding in front of your eyes. I can see why it's so divisive, but to me, it's a masterpiece, even if it's a puzzling one.
6-2 Silicon
Valley
:
Season 1
(2014)
Let's be honest: it took Silicon Valley a few episodes to find its footing. No matter how much acclaim the show was greeted with at the onset, no matter the bona fides that Mike Judge brings to the show, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I spent the first couple of episodes wondering if the show was worth sticking with. Sure, the idea of Mike Judge returning to the tech world that he spoofed so well in Office Space sounded like a great idea, but in the early going, Silicon Valley felt a bit weak. But as the show went on and the characters started to come to life, things got better and better. Kumail Nanijani and Martin Starr's rapport and banter started to get funnier and funnier as they stopped being just "the Indian" and "the weird guy" and became something richer. Thomas Middleditch started to be more than just a bundle of tics as Richard, our ostensible lead, found a bit more personality and started to drive the show a little more. And TJ Miller, funny from the onset, started to stand out less and integrate better into the show as a whole. Silicon Valley still isn't flawless; the characters need a little more time to come to life, and the show's plotting sometimes feels a bit forced in. And, like many others, I'm curious to see how the show copes with the loss of the late Christopher Evan Welch, who stole almost every scene he was in. But by the end of the season, I was laughing more and more often and enjoying the show more with each successive episode as it found a voice beyond simply "tech stuff is funny". I'll definitely be back for season 2, and I'm eager to see if the show can keep up the upward trend it's on right now.
6-1 The Right
Stuff
(1983)
At its core, The Right Stuff is a biopic, albeit one more about a program than a person, and biopics aren't really known for being the most adventurous or interesting films. Add to that a runtime of over three hours and you'll understand that I was bit wary of The Right Stuff. But the pleasant surprise of The Right Stuff is how engaging, entertaining, and satisfyingly well-paced it all is. It doesn't hurt things that The Right Stuff has more on its mind than simply retelling the early days of the aerospace industry; it's making some sharp observations about the difference between a true hero and a manufactured one. (Indeed, it's that comparison that necessitates Chuck Yeager being in the film; while many have argued that Yeager's section of the film is extraneous, his presence is essential to set up the comparison between the two types of heroes that the film's fascinated by.) At the same time, The Right Stuff never feels particularly adventurous or inventive; while the satirical tone is a welcome addition, and the film as a whole has a lighter tone than you might expect, it generally feels like a solid but unremarkable film. For what it is, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it's not the kind of film that inspires all that much passion or enthusiasm.
5-31 Deadly Prey (1987)
A gloriously dumb, terrible action movie from the 80's, Deadly Prey is yet another variation on "The Most Dangerous Game," this one about a lethally trained soldier who turns the tables on his hunters. On any conceivable scale, Deadly Prey is a terrible, terrible movie; the acting is hilariously inept, the staging awful, the writing painful. But don't let the one-star score fool you; Deadly Prey is a pretty fantastic movie to watch with people, if you can appreciate it for what it is. The lead actor (who, yes, is also the director's brother) is a personality-free giant piece of meat who mainly has to look suitably bad ass and strike a lot of ultra-masculine poses (and occasionally belt out some manly screams); the rest of the cast has to serve as either victims, foils, or provide us with some sort of stakes (mainly served by our hero's young vacuous wife). Otherwise, the movie mainly serves up hilariously elaborate traps, absurd deaths (with a final battle that has to be seen to be believed), and a lot of cheesy banter. As a movie, it's pretty terrible; as a fun midnight movie experience, it's a lot of fun. So, you know, take that for what it's worth.
5-31 Contempt
(1963)
Once again, a Godard film that leaves me cold. Intellectually, there's a lot to appreciate about Godard's films, and it's no surprise that people like Tarantino love his movies - between his self-referential nature, his playful meta-textual scripts, and his willingness to ignore stories in favor of his digressions, I can see why people would like him. But Godard always leaves me cold, and Contempt is a perfect example of why. For as much heart as Contempt should show - after all, at its core, it's the story of a marriage in turmoil - there's never any heart to a Godard film, only condescension, scorn, and intellectual games. There's nothing inherently wrong with making a movie that criticizes itself; after all, writers like Charlie Kaufman and Martin McDonough have been delivering some knockout screenplays that do that beautifully, making a movie that's as much about movies as it is about the story its telling. But the difference, to me, is that Kaufman and McDonough fill their stories with characters and, more importantly, a sense of fun. When you watch a Godard film, it's all intellect; it's Godard exploring theories, but never truly investing in the film, as if he's above it all somehow. Contempt reeks of his scorn for the studio system, and while there's nothing wrong with that, it prevents the film from being anything other than an angry middle finger at everyone involved. It's hard to enjoy something that's mainly interested in being better than you, but that's Godard in my experience - a showoff who's not interested in actually engaging you, just showing off. And that's frustrating, because Godard is undeniably talented; the compositions of Contempt are astonishing, the individual moments superb, the writing strong. But it's all filtered through the need to be better than everyone else, and it gets exhausting watching a movie by someone who seems to love the idea of cinema but never the reality of it all.
5-30 Andrei
Rublev
(1966)
To say that Andrei Rublev is more accessible and enjoyable than it sounds isn't really much of a statement; after all, when a film is a nearly 3.5 hour long black and white Russian film about a painter of religious iconography who suffers a crisis of faith...well, people aren't exactly rushing the doors, are they? But no matter how dry and dull Andrei Rublev sounds, the film moves far better than you'd expect, and part of that comes from the structure. Rather than being one continuous story, Andrei Rublev is divided into sections, creating a portrait of the the title character not from one story, but from a series of incidents, each of which is revealing in their own way. Of course, Andrei Rublev is not entirely the focus of his own film; rather, Tarkovsky is using him as an entry point into exploring life in medieval Russia, the role of religion in that world, and questions of faith that struggle to find answers against a cruel world. And Tarkovsky's portrait is a fascinating one, from the horrific slaughter of a small village to the small joys of an anti-authoritarian jester in a small bar. By the time Andrei Rublev ends, you feel as though you've truly gotten a window into a long-lost piece of history; moreover, you've come to understand Andrei's crisis of faith perfectly, and it's to the film's credit that it's not interested in easy answers or glib cliches about how the world should work. Neither, though, does it shirk from the beauty of what Rublev painted; as the astonishing final piece of the film reminds us, this man was capable of incredible work that expressed both a love of the divine and a deep unease about the darkness of the world. Andrei Rublev, as you probably can tell from the get-go, isn't a film for everyone. Even as I liked it, I can't deny that it drags in chunks, nor that it occasionally gets pretentious instead of thoughtful. But as someone who's fascinated by films that truly grapple with faith and doubt, to say nothing of movies that serve as windows into obscure history, Andrei Rublev kept me pretty gripped for most of its lengthy running time. It's not an easy film, but it is an effective one, and a powerful one at its best moments.
5-30 Johnny
Guitar
(1954)
Francois Truffaut famously called Johnny Guitar a "phony Western," and really, that's a pretty good way to sum up a film that looks like it should be a typical Western, but feels wholly like its own thing. What other Western is driven not by macho men, but by tough female leads who basically subjugate the men around them? How many are so blatant about the parallels to the HUAC hearings and the witch-hunt atmosphere of the time period? How many would reduce someone like Sterling Hayden to essentially the role of a supportive girlfriend? How many are so nearly explicit in their exploration of sexuality - not just heterosexual leanings, but bi- and homosexual feelings as well? All of that and more comes into play in Johnny Guitar, which feels more like a melodrama with Western trappings than anything else, but with dialogue that could be pulled straight from any noir film. Johnny Guitar was received pretty poorly at the time, and on the one hand, it's not hard to understand why; as a Western, it's not all that satisfying, and doesn't really make a huge amount of sense. It defies expectations and doesn't really deliver the movie people were expecting. But if you can set aside your expectations for a Western (or, really, just be willing to follow as the movie goes in its own strange directions), it's a pretty compelling film, all the more so for the way it follows its own muse. And with some truly incredible sequences - that opening confrontation, a knockout showdown as Crawford plays the piano for an angry mob, a haunting execution by torchlight - it's impossible for me to ever call this bad. It's unconventional and sometimes seems to lose its way, but I'll be damned if it doesn't crackle and feel nicely subversive, even all these years later.
5-29 Salesman
(1968)
I'd like to revisit Salesman sometime, because I think it's a film that would benefit for a time when I'm more in the mood for it, but even so, there's no denying that it's a remarkable and fascinating film for those who can get into its rhythms. Salesman follows four door-to-door Bible salesmen in the late 1960's as they make their rounds, and in the hands of the Maysles brothers, we end feeling like eavesdroppers in these men's lives, watching the pitches, the after-hours poker games, the sales meetings, and every other aspect of the business. Much has been made of Salesman's bigger themes - the subtle critique of the commercialization of faith and religion, the sad clinging to an American dream that may never happen, and so much more. And yes, there's no denying Salesman's influence on pieces like Glengarry Glen Ross. But even on its own terms, Salesman is compelling as a time capsule and a window into a different time and place, where housewives stayed home, men traveled through neighborhoods selling religion on payment plans, and so much more. That there's more meat to Salesman - not just the aforementioned themes, but also the slow exploration of these men and their character - is part of what makes it work so well. Salesman has no big arc, no big dramatic hook, and so those who need a little bit of drama or story to their films should probably look elsewhere. But as a window into a bygone era and a great documentation of these men and the work they were doing, it's a compelling, fascinating film.
5-29 Godzilla
(2014)
The depressing thing about reading some reviews before you write them is that sometimes you find one that pretty much says what you want to say. Such is the case with Godzilla and this review by Keith Phipps, which basically nails both the best aspects of the film and the issues that hold it back. From a technical perspective, Godzilla is fantastic; it does what so few monster movies manage to do and constantly convey a sense of the size and scope of what we're watching, framing every shot perfectly to give us a sense of just how huge and massive Godzilla is or the devastation we're watching unfold really is. But where Godzilla stumbles is the human element, and when that element is as much of the film as it is here (if you're coming for nothing but pure monster action, you're going to be disappointed and frustrated), it needs to work better than it does. There's a strong argument to be made about why the human characters are so disposable (and if you're interested, I recommend this article), but whatever the reason, it doesn't change the fact that Godzilla mostly wastes a great cast, never invests us in a main character who remains as flat as possible, and frequently seems to focus on the people instead of the creatures we're all dying to see. Make no mistake, some of that is by choice; director Gareth Edwards enjoys teasing us with the monsters before delivering the action all at once, and when that works, it's great at whetting the appetite. Other times, it simply feels like we're being teased and manipulated, and that can get old. For all that, though, when Godzilla delivers spectacle, it does so in an incredible way, be it an astonishing parachuting sequence that's absolutely haunting in its beauty, a thrilling sequence in an airport tram car, or any number of other scenes that deliver chaos and destruction while emphasizing just how tiny and insignificant we are as people. The more I think about Godzilla, the more there is to like about it, but I can't deny that I got pretty frustrated with it at times, and often grew weary with the time spent on useless characters. But when it gets going, man, does it get going and then some.
5-29 Warrior
(2011)
Warrior is one of those films that single-handedly proves the truth of Roger Ebert's cardinal movie rule: a movie is not about what it is about - it's about how it goes about it. In the broadest strokes, Warrior is a movie you've seen dozens of times; from the obvious Rocky parallels to the classic conflict between two estranged brothers, Warrior hits beats we've seen before and will no doubt see again. And from the moment you hear the film's setup (in which the two estranged brothers both enter into an MMA tournament for their own reasons), you pretty much know where the movie has to go. And yet, for all of that, none of that really hurts Warrior, which works by breathing life into its characters, giving depth to caricatures, and investing every beat with some genuine emotion beyond the pat tropes. The casting is impeccable, but while Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton shine as the brothers, it's Nick Nolte as their recovering alcoholic father who brings some serious heart to the film, carrying with him the weight of his past sins and his attempts to make things right with his children. Over and over, it's that aspect of Warrior - the family aspect - that makes the film really work, driving home the emotional heft of everything that's happening and truly investing us in the fights and their outcomes. And by the time we get to the fight between the brothers, it's to the film's credit that it's so invested us in these characters that either could win, and we'd be both thrilled for the winner and heartbroken for the loser - there are no easy answers, and no simple people. Warrior remembers that, and it turns another underdog story into something really special and surprisingly effective, engaging, and even moving.
5-28 Insidious
(2010)
Insidious has gotten a lot of praise from horror fans, and in the abstract, I guess I can understand why. There's something refreshing about an old-fashioned ghost story, and while Insidious doesn't have a good deal of originality to it (there's so much Poltergeist in here that it can be distracting at points), it's still nice to have a movie that's more about atmosphere and mood than a horrific killer or a psycho slasher (even if that atmosphere isn't above using a lot of jump scares). And whatever you want to say about James Wan, you can't deny that he brings a technical skill to the film that the genre often lacks, especially in the much maligned third act, which looks absolutely gorgeous and truly unsettles simply through its style. But for all of that, Insidious didn't do all that much for me; the first half never gets much beyond some cheap scares that didn't work as much as I wanted them to, and the second half loses the "slice of life" grounding that's the best thing about the setup in favor of an exploration of the haunting and its origins that plunges us into a spirit world. Insidious isn't without its moments, and even while I disliked the second half from a plot perspective, I thoroughly enjoyed it on a visual one, a statement that I could make for more than a few scenes of the film. But on the whole, it was something that I could understand people liking, even as it ultimately left me pretty disappointed.
5-28 Freaks
and Geeks
:
Season 1
(1999)
Oh, my God, how I loved this series. I've heard people sing the praises of Freaks and Geeks for years, and while it had always been my intention to watch it, I had to wonder if there was any way it could live up to the praises people sang about it. Did it ever, and then some. Set in 1980 in a high school outside of Detroit, Freaks and Geeks follows its two titular groups - an older group of stoners and outcasts (the freaks) and a freshmen batch of nerds (the geeks, of course) as they navigate high school life. And really, that's all the show is about; it's the very essence of low-stakes drama, except that everything feels like it's higher stakes when you're in high school, and Freaks and Geeks never forgets that fact. There's no shortage of moments that ring painfully, devastatingly true here, whether it's a keen look at what it's like to be the good friend of a girl you adore or the discomfort that comes as you start to brush up against your boundaries and the harsh realities of life. But Freaks and Geeks is also riotously, wonderfully funny, whether it's the acerbic wit of a young Seth Rogen, the absolute unchecked enthusiasm of Jason Segel, the off-kilter sensibility of Martin Starr's hilarious Bill, or the constant concern and over-dramatic nature of Joe Flaherty as a worried father. What makes the show special, though, is the way it blends those two elements perfectly, creating something that's laugh-out-loud funny, painfully honest, and beautifully poignant in the best ways possible. It's unafraid to go to painful places (witness the cruel family life on display in "Kim Kelly is My Friend" or the devastating confrontation with a parent's lies in "The Garage Door"), but it never loses sight of the characters in doing so, grounding its pain in something recognizably human and understandable. No matter how many words I write, it's unlikely I can really do Freaks and Geeks justice; the simple fact is, over the course of its 18 episodes, I went from curious to a huge fan within minutes, and by the time I hit the final episode, I was genuinely saddened and upset to be at the end of the series, even if the final episode is pretty much everything you could ask for and then some. There's so much I haven't even mentioned - how have I not discussed James Franco as a slacker whose cool exterior hides so much more than you expect, or Harris, whose geekery is belied by a glorious zen-like calm? How can I not discuss some of the most perfect depictions of high school love I've ever seen, or some of the richest characterization that left every single person on the show a 3-dimensional being, or all the many ways this made me wince in pain that recalled every moment of adolescence all over again? Look: Freaks and Geeks may have ended sooner than anyone wanted, but the upshot is that we have 18 episodes of pretty much perfect television, wonderful storytelling, great acting, and a perfect blend of emotional heft and great comedy. It's everything you've heard and more, and I'm both thrilled that I watched it and saddened that I have no more to look forward to.
5-26 The
Americans
:
Season 2
(2014)
I really enjoyed the first season of The Americans, even as I conceded it was a show with some problems; as much as it used its premise superbly (that of two undercover Russian agents raising a family in America), there was a bit of a disconnected feel to the season, as marital fights and plotting sometimes got in the way of making a consistent theme or direction for the season. But that issue is pretty much entirely gone in season 2, which finds the series hitting its stride in incredible ways. If there's an overarching theme to this season, it's the toll that this job and the lies it requires takes on not only those who have to live through it, but also those they love. Some are forced into attacks of conscience; others have their pasts brutally brought back up when they least want them to be. And others are forced to pay with their lives, sometimes for crimes they never even committed. Indeed, much of this season is driven by the investigation into the murder of a family - not just the parents, who were spies, but also their daughter, who knew nothing. And the ultimate answer as to that killing only drives home the way that these lies have an impact far beyond their origins. The Americans seems a bit sprawling at certain points during the second season, but it all comes together in a searing finale that makes the stakes clear, and forces every character to face up to what they've done and caused to happen. It made for an incredible season of television, and it took the show's already great elements and made them even better, sharper, and more effective. And given the finale, I'm excited to see season 3, which looks to take these themes and push them even farther. If it can keep up this level of focus and power, The Americans could end up being regarded as one of the best series on TV - and rightfully so.
5-25 Mad Men:
Season 7.1
(2014)
A little while back, I heard an interview with Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner in which he explained that he wasn't trying to tell the story of the baby boomers in the 60s, but that of their parents, who had established their place in the world, only to have everything change underneath them. It's a statement that I've come back to several times as I've watched this season of Mad Men, a show that's always defied easy analysis until you can see the big picture. Usually, that big picture comes once you get to the season finale and can see the overarching structure of the season, but as we rapidly approach the end of the series, I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever really truly get what Mad Men is about until I see the end of it all and see where we've been going all this time. But for the time being, all we have are these seven episodes, an abbreviated season as we come to the end of things. Mad Men has always been a show about change, and with Weiner's comments, it's become more evident that it's about people who are forced to reassess their place in the world and either adapt or lose everything. Some, like Peggy, seem to be finding their place in this new world, while others, like Bert Cooper, cling to the past and seem increasingly disconnected from every part of their lives. And then there's Don Draper, who started the series at the top of his game and has gradually bottomed out, ending the sixth season of the show at rock bottom. Season 7.1 seemed to be about Don's efforts to redefine himself, to find a place in this world even if it wasn't the one he once had, and in doing that, we've seen Don come back into his own, albeit wiser and a bit humbler than he once was. But he hasn't been alone here; we've watched Roger Sterling dabble in the 60s life and wonder how much he truly can embrace it; we've seen some, like Ginsberg, utterly unable to deal with modern life and retreating in any way possible; and we've seen others, like Peggy, slowly but steadily coming into their own as the world changes, only to find that it's not all they hoped it would be. What does it all mean, especially in light of the season's final scene, which was equal parts beautiful, brilliant, cryptic, and haunting? I'm not sure, truly; I don't know if we can hope for Don and company to make their peace with the world, or to go down fighting; I'm not sure if Weiner is going to embrace or reject the philosophy of his mentor, David Chase, who seemed to feel that people were truly incapable of changing. But I'm eager to find out, especially now that I've seen a show that's just as capable of transcendent, beautiful moments as it ever was, and seems, in its final days, to be focusing on its people and what this has all meant to them.
5-25 Harry Potter
and the
Prisoner of
Azkaban
(2004)
I've long held Azkaban to be my favorite of the Harry Potter movies, but over the years, I've wondered how much of that was due to how much it broke the dreadful mold of the first two movies and how much was for its own merits. Thanks to a rewatch (courtesy of a son who's deeply passionate about the books right now), I can say that there's no denying that Prisoner feels like a welcome breath of fresh air after its stilted, lifeless predecessors. From the costuming (which ranges from casual clothing for students to a variety of personal expression in uniforms) to the camerawork (is there anything surprising about the fact that Alfonso Cuarón would bring such a great flair to the film?) to the way the film goes out of its way to add some scenes to the film that simply show the kids being kids, Azkaban feels like an attempt to not just tell the story of the book, but to build a world and give everyone in it some life beyond their plot points. And by and large, it works wonderfully, creating the most entertaining and fun of all the films, even after all these years. The characters are allowed to breathe and play a bit, and even the personal interactions feel more grounded in the characters and their personalities, not dictated by the whims of the story. I won't deny that the abridging of the story leaves some occasional scar tissue behind, most notably in the omission of the story behind the Marauder's Map, which would tie up a few loose ends and bring at least one moment home in a beautiful way. But in general, Cuarón turns Azkaban not just into an adaptation, but into a world populated with actual characters, and in doing so, he raised the bar for the rest of the series. And while none quite achieved the perfect balance of character and plot that he managed (of course, all the remaining films had a lot more story to deal with), there's no denying that it's this film that set the groundwork for the best parts to come.
5-23 Hannibal: Season 2
(2014)
Hannibal, in some ways, doesn't feel like it should be as good as it is. I'm not even talking about the concept (but seriously, who would have ever thought that a network TV prequel to Thomas Harris's books would be this good?); I'm talking about the way that Hannibal isn't about complex themes in the way that, say, Mad Men was (or even Breaking Bad); it's pure horror Grand Guignol opera, full of bloodshed, nightmarishly mutilated corpses, disturbing visions, and characters who make you want to hide from the world. But in all of that horror, showrunner Bryan Fuller has created something truly remarkable: he's created something shockingly beautiful and haunting, a meditation on death and what it does to those who study it, as well as an exploration of our own darkest sides. For all of that, though, Hannibal is still a true horror series, and there's no shortage of moments on it that had me cringing and wondering how on earth what I saw made it to network television. Season 2 only ramped up the intensity, and while the season felt a bit meandering and adrift at times, it's clear in hindsight just how tightly structured it all really was. The season's first half revolved around Will truly realizing who Hannibal was and working to clear his own name while making his first moves; the second half was Will's plan put into action, as he set himself up as living bait for Hannibal, a plan which pushed Will to some truly horrific extremes. (One of the classic tropes of serial killer fiction is the profiler who identifies too much with the killer, but rarely has that idea been embraced and pushed the way Hannibal does it, making it something more profound about our own human capacity for evil.) That the season managed to also contain the introduction of the sadistic Mason Verger, his man-eating pigs, and his victimized sister Margo, all without ever feeling over-crowded and still managing to use it as part of the overall story...well, it's just testament to the show's quality. Once again, I say that there's nothing else on television like Hannibal, and that's not surprising; few have the stomach to go this far, or to make it as beautiful as it is. But for those able to stand up to its nightmares, they'll have an experience like nothing else out there, one that's both astonishing and utterly, incredibly disturbing to the core.
5-23 Stanley
(1972)
A recently returned Vietnam vet lives in the woods with his snakes, and when the snakes are threatened, he goes on a rampage. Well, his snakes do. Stanley feels like someone saw Willard and wanted to capture the same vibe, but all they did was make something really, really stupid and terrible. The acting is universally awful (well, Alex Rocco is having fun, but apart from him), the effects hilariously cheap, the script incomprehensible (which matches the often mumbled and incoherent delivery)...it's just awful, and I can't come up with much redeeming about it except that it gave me this pretty entertaining Roger Ebert review where he seems about as baffled as I am with what good to say about the movie.
5-23 Hoop
Dreams
(1994)
Selling people on a documentary is hard enough; selling people on a nearly three-hour documentary about two inner-city young men who have to struggle against their environments in order to achieve their dream of the NBA? That's damned near impossible. But if there was ever a film that deserved to be watched, it's Hoop Dreams, which lives up to every bit of acclaim I've heard it given and then some. Over the course of nearly five years, we watch these two young men - Arthur Agree and William Gates - as they get recruited from an inner-city basketball court, enroll in a private school that's looking for talent, and spend the next four years dealing with grades, absent fathers, family crises, and, of course, basketball. But at its core, Hoop Dreams is less about the sport and more about the way it might provide these young men a way out of their lives. As we become invested in the details of their home lives - as one boy's father returns, for example, only to essentially be absent due to drugs, or as one family struggles to even keep the lights on - Hoop Dreams teaches us what it's truly like to grow up in some place like this and just how difficult it can be to get out. From the inequality inherent in so many school systems to the casual evils of classism to the drama inherent in high school sports, Hoop Dreams packs in so much material that it would be enough for nearly half a dozen great films. Instead, though, what we get may be one of the all-time great films, documenting a slice of American life and truly connecting us with the hopes and dreams of these two young men, and making us care more and more about every bounce of the ball and every cruel twist of fate, all without ever making for a mawkish or overly sentimental film. Indeed, Hoop Dreams does its best to simply document, and let the moments speak for themselves, be they a quiet celebration as one boy's mother passes her certification test or the pain of a doctor writing off someone's season. It's a truly remarkable film, and I'd be hard pressed to argue that it's not one of the all-time great documentaries, if not one of the all-time great films.
5-23 My Best
Fiend
(1999)
I've read some of the knocks people make against My Best Fiend, and they're not unfair ones. Is it a bit of a talking heads documentary? Undoubtedly. Does it sometimes feel like Herzog is the focus of the film, and not Kinski? Sure. Is it lacking some of the inventiveness, the surreal nature, of the best Herzog? No question. And yet, I can't deny that I found My Best Fiend fascinating throughout. In recounting the stories of his relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, Herzog shows off his natural gifts as a storyteller, and the results are equal parts hilarious, frightening, and completely insane. It's no secret that Herzog and Kinski viewed each other with equal parts hatred and love, but hearing the stories behind all of it makes for a great way to spend some time, and often left me shocked, laughing, or some combination of the two. And that doesn't even touch on the stories of Klaus's on set tantrums and antics, from a near-fatal wounding of an extra to a tantrum after another worker was forced to amputate his own foot - a tantrum that began simply because Kinski was no longer the main focus of attention. But through it all, Herzog's wonderful, rich voice anchors things, displaying at all times both his frustration but also his adoration of this man, who was a constant thorn in his side but also his greatest inspiration. "I looked forward to working with him again, even though I had only recently abandoned my plan to murder him," Herzog says at one point, and there may be no better summary of the bond between these men. And in My Best Fiend, you get a glimpse of that relationship in all of its strange, deranged, wonderful glory.
5-23 Cobra Verde (1987)
The final collaboration between Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog, Cobra Verde is the story of a famed bandit who becomes involved in the slave trade before immersing himself into the world of tribal warfare and African life. It's an undeniably solid film (far more than, say, Woyzeck); there's no shortage of great moments, and it's filled with those glorious touches that you'd expect from Herzog, from strange faces to haunting moments of violence or landscapes. And, of course, Kinski brings his all, bringing a more subdued intensity to Verde that's nevertheless gripping at all times. But for all that, Cobra Verde still feels relatively minor and forgettable, even if it's not as dull or weak as Woyzeck. Maybe it's simply that Cobra Verde has the unfortunate task of measuring up to the other Herzog/Kinski collaborations - Nosferatu, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo - and it comes up wanting in a number of ways. Maybe it's that the tension between Herzog and Kinski kept them from working their best. Or maybe it's simply that Herzog doesn't bring enough to the table - Verde is part historical tale, part flawed hero story, and part commentary on the slave trade, but it never quite commits to any of them enough to really stick the landing. The plot is never quite the focus, which is fine for a Herzog film, but the meandering keeps us from ever really getting a feel for any real theme of the film. Worse, as intense as Kinski can be, we never get much of a window into Verde; there's no sense of the inner man that might let us better understand his inner journey - and when there's a last minute moment of conscience, it seems odd and out of place. For all of that, it's still a solid and engaging watch, but it's far from the masterpieces the men were capable of when they're at their best.
5-22 Woyzeck
(1979)
The third collaboration between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski, Woyzeck is the story of a soldier who's abused on all sides, subjected to bizarre experiments, and slowly - or, not so slowly, really - loses his mind. If you're wanting to cast a mentally ill, deranged, unstable figure, it's hard to think of a better actor for the role than Klaus Kinski, and as you'd expect, he makes Woyzeck into a really strange, unsettling figure. Unfortunately, that's about all that Woyzeck really has going for it. Nothing ever really happens until the very end, and the monologues we get along the way are overwrought and fairly tedious, to say nothing of being mostly incoherent. And given how short it is, there's not even that much of an arc to be found; Woyzeck starts crazy and doesn't really change all that much. No one else in the film makes much of an impression, and even Herzog doesn't bring much interesting to the table. It's rare to call a Herzog film utterly unmemorable and forgettable, but that's pretty much what happened here. Sure, Kinski is fine, but he's got nothing to do, and nowhere to go.
5-21 Fitzcarraldo
(1982)
I've only begun to scratch the surface of Werner Herzog's filmography, but each new entry immerses me in a strange new world unlike anything I've seen before, and Fitzcarraldo is no exception. In some ways, Fitzcarraldo plays with similar ideas as Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God - both films find "civilized" men plunging into nature and the wilderness, attempting to bring their own version of civilization with them; in both cases, the men are forced to confront the natural world in an almost literal fashion. But while the conquistadors of Aguirre were only driven by subjugation and the fanaticism of their leader, the title character of Fitzcarraldo is driven by his dreams and nothing more - the dream of making money, yes, but only as a means to bring opera to the wilds and the jungles. Though the film is iconic for the scenes involving the ship - more on that in a moment - there's no shortage of incredible, astonishing moments in Fitzcarraldo, from the uneasy omen of a floating umbrella to a long, silent shot of tribesmen staring at their leader. Once again, Herzog creates something both real and unreal, creating the sense of a fantastic dream or nightmare that is hard to escape. But if there's one moment everyone remembers, it's the idea of dragging a boat over a mountain - and why not, because it results in some of the most jaw-dropping scenes I've ever seen filmed, and gives us a key to unlocking the film. Some men would have filmed the boat another way, but Herzog is so driven by his dream that he can think of no other way to approach it, and can't back down. Was there ever a more perfect symbol of obsession and beautiful madness? It's no wonder Fitzcarraldo is so acclaimed; it's an utterly unique experience, and a film that feels like no other film in history.
5-20 Grey
Gardens
(1975)
What a strange, fascinating film Grey Gardens is. Once again, here's a documentary in the Wiseman style, one which does its best to remove the filmmakers from the picture and simply let its subjects - the Beales of Grey Gardens - tell their own story. There's little overarching structure to Grey Gardens, which almost seems befitting of these women, whose house has sunk into disarray and filth, who hide from the world in their dilapidated home and spend all their time together. Little Edie, the daughter, constantly makes empty threats to leave Grey Gardens and escape from her mother, even though it's evident that she loves being taken care of; meanwhile, Big Edie, her elderly mother, reminisces about her past life and does her best to both watch over and guide her daughter. Oh, and they bicker and argue. A lot, really, but it never feels all that passionate; it feels a bit like a routine, something that they've done for years and will continue to do. Indeed, much of the film feels like a performance, from Little Edie's flamboyant attire to Big Edie's theatrics, and yet for all of that, it's hard not to be fascinated by these women and the closed-off world they've created for themselves. At a glance, Grey Gardens should be tragic, or maybe horrifying; the house is falling apart and filthy, the women on the verge of insanity (or beyond, in some ways), their lives entirely defined by their pasts. And yet, there's no shortage of life in the Beales, and as we immerse ourselves in their drama and relationship, it's hard not to be fascinated and sucked into it all, and even a little charmed - especially as you realize that for all their protesting and claims to the contrary, there's nowhere on earth they'd rather be.
5-20 Marjoe
(1972)
When he was only four years old, Marjoe Gortner had already been put to work by his family - not in photography shoots or even physical labor, but as an evangelist, working the revival circuit and bringing in the collections to keep his family afloat. By the time the documentary Marjoe catches up with Gortner, he's almost 30, and while he's still working the same gig - albeit without the gimmick of being a child, obviously - he's starting to have an attack of conscience. Marjoe follows Gortner as he works the crowds, spending his time between revivals talking with a camera crew about his childhood, some of the tricks of his trade, and some of his feelings about religion and the way he makes his living. Marjoe is undeniably a product of the 1970's; there's a shapelessness to the film, a Frederick Wiseman-style feel of a documentarian working to stay out of the film as much as possible and let the material/subject guide things along. The result is a little frustrating at times; there's a sense that with a little more prodding, a little more digging, a little more focus, Marjoe could reveal a lot more depth than it does, or maybe get a lot more into the evangelist mindset. As it is, Gortner is fairly guarded at all times; it's clear he's having second thoughts about the job, and he's willing to go on the record, but he doesn't want to burn every bridge any more than he has to. Moreover, the film ends up falling back a lot on revival footage, which can only be interesting for so long before it becomes tedious; while Gortner's commentary spices it up, the footage tends to go on for too long at times, leaving everything feeling a bit padded. For all that, though, Marjoe is a pretty intriguing documentary about a fascinating subject; while you can't help but want more depth, more discussion, more insight, what we get is compelling enough to keep you watching and wondering at the world that we're getting an all too rare glimpse into.
5-16 Deep Red
(1975)
I haven't really been all that thrilled with the Argento films that I've seen so far; while the visual style of Suspiria or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is undeniable, I can't get past the ludicrous story (or lack thereof) and the weak pacing. And while Deep Red has some of the same issues and strengths of the other films, the fact that it at least attempts to have some character depth and a little more coherent plot helps it quite a bit for me and makes it the most enjoyable of the Argento films I've seen to date. As always, Argento's style is remarkable, and pairing him up again with Goblin (who provided the score for Suspiria) makes for some great sequences - between the two of them, even a long shot of nothing more than some children's toys can become gripping and unnerving. Mind you, there's still some big flaws with Deep Red; while more time is spent developing the characters, that sometimes means long sequences that go nowhere (while I enjoyed the difficulties with the car, they went on far longer than needed), and even some ostensibly unnerving scenes outstay their welcome (I'm thinking here especially of the exploration of the abandoned house). And, of course, the ultimate resolution is every bit as arbitrary and odd as you might expect from a giallo film. Still, I had an easier time getting into Deep Red than I have with my earlier Argento's, and I ended it liking it quite a bit more. I wouldn't call myself a fan, but to me, it's the film that's best offset his weaknesses and showed off his strengths so far.
5-12 Review:
Season 1
(2014)
For the first few episodes of Review, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was just another sketch comedy show with a pretty good hook and a knack for comedic beats. Review's premise couldn't be simpler: a boring, white-bread man reviews life experiences (ranging from "making a celebrity sex tape" to "eating a lot of pancakes") and reviews them on a scale of one to five stars. But as Review hits its third episode, a few things become apparent. First, there's more continuity to the show than you might expect, and what we're watching isn't just a series of reviews; it's essentially an up-close documentary of this man slowly blowing up his life, bit by bit. Secondly, it becomes clear that Review can go dark - I mean, really, really dark - with its comedy, and does it perfectly, finding the humor even in situations that go horribly, violently wrong. And although that makes Review sound pretty intense, it's not; while it's more tightly plotted than you might expect, and the payoffs more intricate than you plan on, it's also riotously, hilariously, uncomfortably funny throughout. You might think it can't get better than the third episode, which opens with pancakes before going to some wild places, but there's no shortage of brilliant bits to come, from the reviewer's attempts at road rage to a career as a superhero that's hard to let go of to a gloriously weird sequence that starts with an incomprehensible review request and just goes for broke. Review reminds me of nothing so much as the brilliant Sex House, which was a web series by The Onion that similarly started with a gimmick and ran with it in an absolutely insane and bizarre direction, and while Review doesn't go that far, it still takes its idea to the utmost extreme, and does it while delivering some of the funniest scenes I've seen in a show in recent memory. Whether there's a second season of Review is up in the air right now, and while I'd love to see more of this show, it's hard to know where there is to go after the perfect, flawless ending; even so, I can't lie and say I won't be tuning in to find out if (and hopefully when) it returns.
5-6 Jodorowsky's
Dune
(2013)
One of the more famous entries in the "Films That Never Were" canon, Alejandro Jodorowsky's adaptation of Dune has long been discussed in equal terms awe and disbelief. Was it really going to have Pink Floyd performing the music? Would the cast really include Salvador Dali and Orson Welles? Did the creative team really include Dan O'Bannion, Moebius, and H.R. Giger? Jodorowsky's Dune, a new documentary, dives into the history and the vagaries of the production, interviewing Jodorowsky, his producers, and other luminaries, as well as diving into his richly detailed illustrated storyboarding of the entire film. As a documentary, Jodorowsky's Dune is a little pedestrian; it's little more than interviews, and given the glimpses we get of Jodorowsky's notebook, you can't help but think that simply watching an animated version of that would be even cooler than hearing them talk about it. But Jodorowsky makes for a great interview subject, the stories about the film are fantastic (and while you'll really wish the film had been made, you won't for a moment question why it never happened - it's a work of astonishing ambition and absolute madness), and the fragments we see are astonishing in all kinds of ways. And while the film comes a little too close to sanctifying this unmade adaptation (especially in a closing sequence that traces its influence and too often over-estimates it), it's a good enough story that you can't help but have a good time watching it all play out. It's one of those documentaries that works mainly because of what it has to tell rather than its own merits, but the story we get is so enjoyable (and enjoyably insane) that you won't mind too much.
5-5 Under the
Skin
(2013)
Trying to describe Under the Skin is going to be hard to do without overuse of the words "Kubrick" or "Kubrickian". Indeed, such is the influence of the man on the film that no one would be surprised to see his name in the director slot, since Under the Skin feels like nothing so much as the ridiculous film Species if it was filmed as something between the icy cold of 2001 and the unsettling dread of The Shining. But this is a 2014 film, and while it wears its influences on its sleeve, it's unmistakably its own film, through and through. The story is kept to the barest outlines; there's almost no real dialogue to the film, and no exposition whatsoever - all we get are the astonishing visuals, as a strange, beautiful woman (played brilliantly by Scarlett Johansson) prowls the streets of Glasgow and picks up men for her own purposes. How the story gradually evolves into something else should be seen, but it's to the film's credit that it tells its story entirely through the visuals and especially through the acting, letting Johansson convey her character's inner conflict through body language and facial expression. Meanwhile, the film never lets up the dread; from unsettling and nightmarish visuals to the ever-present score, Glazer leaves us constantly ill at ease, even when we can't figure out why. It's a gripping, immersive experience, and while it's undoubtedly too "weird" for a mainstream audience, I absolutely loved it. It's a hypnotic nightmare, an utterly alien horror film that gets under your skin and stays there for every minute up until the end. Johansson has never been better; from the way her pleasantries give way to a dead-eyed state to her gradually emerging doubt, she gives an incredible performance mostly without any meaningful words spoken. But really, this is Glazer's film, and he's created a waking nightmare that never lets its mood of dread and unfamiliarity slip. For those with a taste for heady, surreal cinema, Under the Skin is a knockout; it's full of rich ideas (papers could be written about how it subverts the male gaze of cinema), incredible filmmaking, and great performances, all combining for an utterly unique and unforgettable film.
4-18 The Burning
(1981)

Another summer camp slasher film, The Burning does manage the odd distinction of having a story created by Harvey Weinstein - yes, that Harvey Weinstein. But claim though he might that his story preceded the release of Friday the 13th, it's hard not to look at this and feel like you're watching just another crappy knockoff of something that wasn't that good to begin with. You've got a lot of dumb teenagers, a few of whom are trying to have sex all the time. You've got a generic summer camp environment haunted by a tragedy from a few years before. And, naturally, you've got a murderer stalking them in the woods (this one armed with garden shears). Combine all those elements and you've got just another dumb slasher film, one without much to make it stand out from the crowd. Even the pacing here is slower and duller than most, and the writing...well, the less said, the better. All that being said, the two things that make The Burning tolerable? The first is the gore effects by Tom Savini; no matter what else you can say about the film, you can't deny that Savini brings his A-game to bear. The second? There's an infamous sequence that features the killer showing up pretty unexpectedly and violently that's become, in many ways, the movie's calling card. And having seen it, it's not hard to understand why - it's a great, surprising, and brutal sequence in a movie that mostly wanders around and has little else going on. Is it good because the movie around it makes it look better, or is it just good on its own? Maybe a little bit of both. It's certainly not worth sitting through this piece of crap to get to it, though.

4-18 Dumbo
(1941)
Here's the thing about Dumbo: it would be a really, really great 30-45 minute movie. The story's a classic, and it's gratifying to see how the movie focuses solely on telling its simple tale - there aren't many derails or annoying side characters to be found, just the tale of a little elephant with big ears who never quite fits in. And, yes, the animation is still beautiful, even all of these years later. But, man, does it ever drag. Dumbo clocks in at 65 minutes, and even at that running time, it feels a little overlong. The much beloved "pink elephants" sequence goes on and on, as do a couple of musical numbers, and what little story there is often drags along at a glacial pace. None of that is to say that Dumbo is bad, mind you. It's beautifully and simply told, and while I was wary of the crows, it's nice to see that they're not as bad as I remembered them being - while they're undeniably racial caricatures, they're smarter and warmer than a lot of the film's other characters, and not as offensive as I dreaded. It's just that the whole thing feels very, very slow and ultimately a little bit too simple; while it's great to be focused, it all feels like a slight tale that would have worked better with a little bit more trimming.
4-12 The Raid:
Redemption

(2011)
I'm not sure I have much new to say about The Raid: Redemption on my third watch (once again, I'm making people watch this and fall in love with its badassery). It's still brutally effective, it still moves like a rocket, and it still delivers some of the best action I've ever seen in my life. One thing I was more aware of on this watch was the pacing, especially in light of the complaints about The Raid 2; whatever else you can say about this movie, it wastes almost no time leaping into action. Less than ten minutes into the movie, and you're past most of the exposition; what little bits there are to come are brief and sprinkled in well, placed so as to break up the action and allow us to catch our breath before the next throwdown. (I thought the sequel did the same trick, just with a little more story; your mileage may vary, of course.) It's also nice to see that the sequel is more set up here than I remembered it being; there are name drops of a few characters who have a major role yet to play, and it feels like the segue into the sequel is more effortless than I remembered. But really, the reason you watch The Raid isn't to discuss the pacing or the plotting (though I think both are done well, in subtle ways); it's the action, and even on a third time, it delivers every bit as well as it did on the first, whether you're watching Rama take on a drug lab, the most innovative use of a fridge in a long time, or that absolutely brutal final battle. It's a great action movie, and the fact that the sequel is so good only leaves me hoping that they can keep escalating things - but honestly, how much more brutal can you get? (Here's the thing: I'm both eager to find out and terrified to see how much flinching I'm going to be doing.)
4-11 An American
Werewolf in
London
(1981)
For all of its reputation, An American Werewolf in London is kind of a mess, tonally speaking. There's no denying that horror and comedy can go together beautifully, but American Werewolf mashes them together in bizarre and jarring ways that don't work, segueing from bizarre, violent dreams to light-hearted flirting, from grim and haunting confrontation with the ghosts of victims to banter with friends, all before coming to an ending that feels far bleaker than what we somewhat expected from the movie before it. And yet, for all of that, it's not hard to understand how the movie became so beloved or why it's got such a cult following. The performances are absolutely winning, with Griffin Dunne very nearly stealing the show as a best friend who becomes a horrific and nightmarish conscience that's accompanying our hero through his journey. The effects, as you'd expect, are phenomenal, and they hold up well, even all these years later, giving a physicality to the transformation that's hard to ignore. And the horror sequences are genuinely effective, with the standout being a subway chase that gives us the first real glimpse of the wolf in an unexpected way. As a cohesive movie, it doesn't quite work. It veers wildly in tone, it feels meandering and unfocused (especially in the dream sequence section), and the ending feels unearned. But in pieces or as scenes, it's pretty great, and it's hard not to enjoy it. It just doesn't always work.
4-8 Justified:
Season 5
(2014)
One of the great things about Justified over the years is the way it's managed to juggle episodic television with overarching arcs - look, for instance, at how last season juggled individual cases with the Drew Thompson story for the season, or how the 3rd season used criminal mayhem in Harlan to slowly build up to the showdown with Quarles. It's disappointing, then, to find the show struggling to make anything work as much as it did this season, even as it was delivering some individual pieces that were pretty fun. Sure, Dewey Crowe cracks me up, but the other Crowe siblings ranged from passable (Michael Rapaport, who grew into the role as the season progressed, but never became something great) to eye-rolling (the knife-wielding psychotic brother), and the Crowe story felt like something used to kill time while the show set up for the final season. Indeed, that's the big charge you can make against the season as a whole: whether it's Boyd's long sojourn into Mexico, Raylan's brief dalliance with a social worker that ended abruptly and strangely, or (especially) Ava's interminable prison story, the show felt as if it was working so hard to set things up for the final season that it forgot to have a whole lot going on in this season. And while it delivered some great moments, without a doubt (Boyd got two spectacular scenes, at least, and the whole episode following the aftermath of a shooting is the show at top form), it never felt as if there was any real direction or purpose beyond some basic moving of pieces. I enjoyed the show well enough this season, but it's by far the weakest it's ever been, and it was a pretty big letdown after so many great seasons that just soared. I'm still pretty hopeful for the final season, though; say what you will about this one, but the pieces they've put in place are good ones, and there's a lot there to look forward to. I just hope we don't end up wishing the show had ended at the end of season 4.
4-6 The Raid 2
(2014)
How do you do a sequel to The Raid: Redemption, an action film that left almost every single character dead or brutally maimed and had a premise that wouldn't be easy to repeat? Well, the major change writer-director Gareth Evans brings to bear this time around is adding a story - while The Raid was pretty much non-stop action with about five minutes of plot, The Raid 2 has a somewhat complicated story that finds Rama going undercover to expose crooked cops only to find that he's losing his moral compass. The Raid 2 is two and a half hours long - over an hour longer than the original, and probably among the longest action movies I can think of. And while the original never let up, The Raid 2 probably is about half action, half story (if not more heavily weighted towards story). That's led a lot of people to complain about the pacing of the film, complaining that it took forever to get to the action, and while I agree the film needs some cutting, it never bothered me as much as it did a lot of people - indeed, I thought it moved pretty well, and doled out its action just enough to keep things intense. Which, of course, brings us to the action. The original Raid is one of the most brutal, bone-snapping, incredibly intense action movies I've ever seen, which means the sequel has a lot to live up to. And oh, lord, does it ever deliver. Every single setpiece here is a knockout, from a massive prison brawl to an incredible fight in a small car to a pair of final showdowns that left the whole audience wincing and cheering aiming simultaneously. Even the car chase the movie delivers is an incredible one that outdoes many films that are only about car chases. The short version: if you liked the original The Raid, you need to check out the sequel - while it's a little slower paced, the action is no less spectacular, if not more so, and it's fun to watch how inventive Evans and company can be with their bone-crunching mayhem. If you only see one, it should probably be the original film, but this is a richly satisfying sequel that I had a blast with.
4-6 Teenage
(2013)
Teenage sounds like an intriguing idea for a documentary; it's a look at teenage culture as it evolved from the dawn of the twentieth century until the end of World War II, charting the evolution from the birth of adolescence as a concept until the coining of the word "teenage," all accompanied by a glut of archival footage. And that footage is undeniably interesting; sadly, it's accompanied by soporific, awful narration that has actors reading in the voice of all teenagers (most dialogue is first person plural - "Adults sent us to die in the war, and we hated them for it") and adding nothing to the film. In addition, instead of letting us hear the sounds of the era, it's all drowned out by a constant dull techno-lite soundtrack that never really fits with anything that's going on. And finally, the film never really has anything interesting or new to say - apart from learning where the word "teenage" came from, I can't think of a single interesting or new thing I gained from the film. It's a waste of an interesting idea, even if there is some great footage along the way.
4-5 The
Sacrament
(2013)
I haven't liked either of Ti West's previous films, both of which squandered great setup and tension on payoffs that fizzled horribly and left me irritated at the leadups that went nowhere. And in some ways, The Sacrament really brings little original to the table, simply retelling the story of Jonestown in a thinly fictionalized form with the added conceit of found footage in the form of a VICE documentary crew. And yet, The Sacrament worked for me, profoundly disturbing and bothering me on a visceral level in a way that not a lot of movies do, and I have to lay a lot of credit for that at West's feet. As usual, he has a knack for drawing out naturalistic performances out of his actors, which only adds to the verisimilitude of the movie; more than that, though, his gift at creating unease and building tension works incredibly here, adding to our sense that something is wrong before we have our confirmation. But West is aided by his cast, particularly Gene Jones as Father, the charismatic and unsettling figure at the heart of the commune. Jones gives a knockout performance, turning Father into someone who could easily inspire devotion in a believer while creating unease in those who aren't already on his side, all while making him a man, not a cartoonish villain. By the time The Sacrament reaches the inevitable conclusion, I felt drained, worn out, and emotionally beaten down, and while it's true that West is just telling a story of what happened, he does so in a way that drives home the human cost of that day without turning it into the act of crazy people - it's the actions of scared, misled humans, and that's far more disturbing. It's West's best film, and a testament to his talent, but it's one I don't think I'm going to be up for watching again for a long, long time.
4-5 Cheap Thrills (2013)
Cheap Thrills couldn't have a simpler gimmick: two old friends, both desperate for money, befriend a stranger who offers them money in exchange for increasingly strange (and/or twisted) demands. It's not a new idea, especially in the wake of Saw and its descendants, and yet Cheap Thrills stands on its own nicely in a variety of ways. The main thing, of course, is the humor; Cheap Thrills plays like a sick joke extended to feature length, and although a lot of the laughs are dark ones, the film uses comedy perfectly to shift the mood or break the tension. (It doesn't hurt that you have David Koechner on hand to bring a great comic sensibility to the film.) But there's also the way the movie invests us in its two main leads, ably played by Pat Healy and Ethan Embry; both men become interesting, involving characters, and it allows us to judge them based off their actions and see how they change along the way. Cheap Thrills is best seen with an audience if you can manage it; it's great at manipulating the crowd into reactions, and it definitely brings out the comedic timing of the movie. But one way or the other, give it a shot if you've got a mean enough sense of humor to laugh through the sickness of it all.
4-5 Why Don't
You Play in
Hell?
(2013)
Oh my God, how I loved this movie. Why Don't You Play in Hell? is pretty unclassifiable, so the best I can do is to tell you that it's the most ludicrously and hilariously violent love letter to cinema and moviemaking that I've ever seen. (Think a blend of American Movie and Rushmore with Evil Dead and a Beat Kitano film, and you're SORT of close.) It's the story of some would-be filmmakers who never seem to be able to achieve their dreams, two feuding Yakuza clans, and a former child actress and her besotted fan. How it all collides should best be experienced cold; suffice to say that it comes together in a slew of violence, blood, high energy transitions, and pure insanity. It's alternately hilarious and horrifying (often both simultaneously), sometimes moving, and always ballsy and original. It's one of those rare movies that feels like it doesn't just embrace the media of film, but pushes it in wild new directions, and does it while penning a love letter to the whole thing. In short, I absolutely loved it; I spent a lot of it howling with laughter, quite a bit gasping in shock at its audaciousness, and almost all of it grinning ear to ear. If you love film and are willing to see something wild, see this, no matter what.
4-5 Coherence (2013)
To say too much about Coherence would be to give away just how complicated and mind-bending the story gets along the way, so all I'll really say is that it's about a dinner party on the night a comet goes overhead; all is great, and then all the power in the neighborhood goes out...except for one house a couple of blocks away. What follows from there starts off weird and just gets stranger as it goes, but it does it all in a satisfying way that plays fair and answers all the questions that need answering and leaves the rest behind. Coherence was probably made on a tiny budget, but it never feels like that; for all that the film is basically confined to a house and its exterior and a small cast, the story never feels bound up, and the execution ends up being really satisfying. It's a great little puzzle-box style thriller, one that's rich and satisfying both in its ideas and its storytelling.
4-5 Ernest and
Celestine
(2012)
I was a little worried that Ernest and Celestine would lose some of the anarchic humor that I loved so much in A Town Called Panic (from the same filmmakers), but while the story is far more restrained and grounded, the humor is no less whimsical and charming. The story of an outcast mouse and bear who become friends (much to the chagrin of their respective species), Ernest and Celestine tells a sweet story while leaving plenty of time for silliness and heart along the way. The big draw, though, might be the beautiful animation style, which feels like an oil painting brought to life, particularly in a wonderful sequence accompanying a character's musical musings. It's a charming, heartfelt little movie, one filled with the usual messages of friendship and kindness all told with style and charm to spare. It's hard not to be won over by it, no matter what age you are.
4-4 Witching and Bitching (2013)
A Spanish horror-comedy (emphasis on comedy) about a group of stick-up men who end up stumbling into a witches' coven, Witching and Bitching kicks off incredibly strong, with a gloriously insane robbery sequence that just escalates further and further. Once you get into the meat of the film, things stay agreeably goofy, but the film manages to find a little bit of meat (and a lot of fun) by always anchoring thing in the age-old battle of the sexes. The whole thing is a little overlong (you could probably cut out plot threads about an angry ex-wife and two police detectives and never really lose much from the movie), but it's all a lot of fun to watch play out, and it's got a great sense of design that makes the witch sequences a lot more visually interesting than I expected. More than that, it doles out its horror and gore sparingly, focusing instead on the play between the characters and the growing insanity of the situation around them as it all develops. As horror-comedies go, I really enjoyed it; it's not an all-time classic, but I can see it gaining (and deserving) a pretty solid cult following.
4-4 Mood Indigo
(2013)
Mood Indigo is easily the most Michel Gondry thing I've ever seen, and whether that's a good or bad thing will probably end up depending on how much you can tolerate Gondry's brand of whimsy and invention. There's no denying that the first half to three-quarters of the film is incredibly imaginative and inventive; every frame is packed with astonishing imagination and wild visuals, from a cocktail-making piano to a small mouse played by a French man in a costume. But it all gets a bit exhausting at a certain point, and it ends up distancing you from any sort of emotional investment in the love story that more or less fills the plot (such as it is, between Gondry's digressions) - and when the film takes a dark turn, it's hard to take it seriously, given that Gondry's whimsy separates us from the consequences. It's a gorgeous movie, and it's great to watch in bursts, but as a whole, it wears you out and ultimately feels more frothy than actually emotional.
4-4 Borgman
(2013)
Borgman begins with a trio of men, including a priest, hunting men in the woods - men who are living in strange underground dwellings. When one flees, we follow him as he seeks shelter with a nearby wealthy family and slowly makes his way into their lives. What happens from there really defies description (and shouldn't be spoiled); the best I can say is that it's the most slow paced home invasion movie I've ever seen, and yet one of the most gripping and unusual. There's a fantastic and unsettling atmosphere throughout the film, and the director has a fantastic way of slowly turning the screws until you realize that what's going on is far, far stranger than you expected - and far more frightening. Borgman ends a little quickly, but it does so pretty perfectly, leaving you wanting more but ready for an escape from its unreal world. It's an absolute treat for people with a taste for the unusual - so far, it's my favorite film of the Chattanooga Film Festival.
4-4 Stand Clear
of the Closing
Doors
(2013)
The story of a young boy with autism who wanders away from his family, Stay Clear of the Closing Doors ends up making a gripping and surprisingly intense story out of a remarkably simple premise. (In some ways, it feels like a blend of the film Clean, Shaven and the book The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time.) Mostly, that's thanks to its focus on its characters; whether it's the mother struggling to deal with her children while the father works, the teenage sister who loves her brother but resents being his caretaker, or the boy himself, who's allowed to be a person before a stereotype, Closed Doors gets its tension out of our concern for these people and their lives. As a movie, it's overlong; while it rarely is less than involving, you can't help but feel that some shortening would benefit it, and the ending is a little jarringly abrupt. But on the whole, it's a satisfying experience that exposes us to a difficult situation without ever reducing it to simple stereotypes.
4-3 The
Congress

(2012)
I really can't wait for The Congress to get a wide release, because it's rare that a major film misfires as badly as The Congress does on almost every imaginable level. It's not that the film isn't filled with talented people - the cast (which includes Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Paul Giamatti, and Danny Huston, among others) is great, and the director is the man behind Waltz with Bashir, which I liked a lot. And even the story has promise - there's a great movie to be made about the changing roles of actors in an increasingly digital age and what it means to have your image taken away from you. But none of that matters when you have a fiasco like The Congress, which kicks things off with an hour of live action filled with the most ludicrously overwritten and painful monologues you've heard since creative writing classes in high school. The cast all does their best, but by the time Keitel is telling an insane story about how he was the agent for a kid with a tail in grade school and went to jail for it, you've long since given up hope of any emotional realism, to say nothing of coherence. And then, just when you've resigned yourself to this painfully, badly written film, you shift to the animated half of the film, and the movie loses its mind. The animation is undeniably beautiful, but it's chaotic to the extreme, and you spend most of the next hour bewildered at the pacing, the anarchic visuals, the bad voice acting, and the bizarre shifts in the story that make no sense (without saying too much, it somehow involves a revolution for no reason, people being frozen for indefinite periods of time, Robin Wright (as herself) alternately being called a whore and worshipped for her beauty, a sex scene in front of exploding airplanes, and so much more). I can't say that The Congress is ever boring, but it's an absolute clusterfuck of astonishing proportions; even the things I'm saying can't prepare you for just how pretentious and painful this is to sit through. It's a glorious, wonderful disaster, and the fact that some people find it profound and thoughtful is absolutely delightful to me in all kinds of ways.
4-2 Enter the
Dragon
(1973)
In which we learn that sometimes Americans just can't help but screw up a good thing. A martial arts movie is a relatively simple thing to make, you'd think - you need a story to tie it all together, sure, but most of your time should be spent on action and fighting. Enter the Dragon seems like it's ready for that, using the classic setup of a martial arts tournament on a madman's island and introducing us to a slew of competitors. But there's a surprisingly small amount of action in Enter the Dragon; most of the running time, it feels like, is devoted to Bruce Lee's infiltration of the villain's opium plant and/or facilities, or conversations between secondary characters, or general plot details that only serve to remind you how generic all of this really is. And yet, every time the movie gets out of its own way and lets the action flow, it's easy to see why this is so beloved. Lee is a charismatic guy to begin with (there's a great shot of his bemused boredom waiting for two guards to notice the trap he's set up), but the physicality he brings to his fights is top-notch; every blow looks painful, every kick looks blindingly fast, every attack looks devastating and more natural than choreographed. Enter the Dragon isn't really a very "good" movie; it's sloppy and overlong, and it loses its way in a story that no one's all that interested in. But it delivers some absolutely incredible fight sequences, and they're almost enough to redeem the movie all by themselves. As it is, though, it's a movie you tolerate to get to the action-stuffed goodness that awaits you as it all goes along, and you put up with the rest of the time.
4-2 The
Streetfighter's
Last Revenge

(1974)
The original The Streetfighter was a gleefully violent, grim movie, focusing on a protagonist who made Eastwood's Man with No Name look positively altruistic and kind as he doled out beatings and mayhem with his fists. Apparently feeling the need to soften Terry's hard edges, the next two entries in the series, Return and Revenge find Terry more or less fighting on the side of right, even if he's still mainly doing it to serve himself and his own pockets. But he's drawing a line in the sand, dealing with the aftermath of refusing to carry out a hit in Returns and fighting against drug lords in Revenge. Neither of the films is anywhere near as good as the original, but of the two, Revenge works a bit better simply by virtue of having more action and less reused footage from the original film. It's not that Return is really bad; there's a couple of dynamite fights and at least two or three gloriously violent moments that are equal parts awesome and hilarious. But the climax is annoyingly dark and hard to make out, and Chiba feels checked out for large portions of the film. On the other hand, Revenge is definitely silly (should we talk about the giant sombrero-wearing Mexican who claims to be able to create fire with his mind?), but the fighting is more constant, the plotting a little more interesting, and Chiba definitely having a little more fun. But ultimately, both of the movies offer about what you'd expect if you've seen the original film: a lot of absurd faces and screams, a tiny bit of story to tie it all together, and a lot of brutal (and over the top) violence as Chiba beats down everyone in his path. It's all a lot of fun, even if they're not really all that "good" as films in any meaningful way.
4-2 Return of
the Street
Fighter
(1974)
4-2 Dog Star Man
(1961-1964)
I've been watching a lot of Stan Brakhage shorts, but I've been putting off Dog Star Man for a long time, mainly because I've loathed every Brakhage film I've seen so far. And the idea of a series that leaves me watching Brakhage footage for over an hour? Not appealing. Turns out, I was right to be wary. I'm sure some people must really love Brakhage's abstract style, which involves overlaying footage, distorting and tinting the film, bleaching out the visuals, and so forth, but it does absolutely nothing for me except to bore me to tears. And Dog Star Man is no exception, other than that it takes longer to do. It's a widely acclaimed film, so I know my utter dislike of it makes me a philistine, but I really did hate this thing; I found it pretentious and a waste of time. I'm sure it took him a long time to make and put together, but it really represents what people think of when they hear the words "art film" and get repulsed. And if it was all like this, I'd be right there with them. Abstract, pretentious, dull stuff. Your mileage may vary.
4-1 Rolling
Thunder
(1977)
For all of its grindhouse reputation, Rolling Thunder isn't quite the film you probably expect it to be. Oh, it's unmistakably a grindhouse film - it's (very) violent and a little bit trashy, and it knows what its audience is there to see. But there's more to Rolling Thunder than violence - it's a film that opens with a former Vietnam POW returning home and trying to adjust to life back in the real world. And for a long while, that's all the movie is - no gimmicks, no violence, no nothing except this well-realized and painful drama about a man who simply has no place left for him back in his old life. It's surprisingly effective and understated, and while Paul Schrader claims that the final film bears little resemblance to his original screenplay, you can't help but feel that his exploration of a tortured and damaged protagonist had a major influence in the shaping of William Devane's silent, stoic soldier. Of course, that doesn't prevent things from taking a violent turn, as Devane runs into a criminal element in his hometown, but exactly how bad things get (and how quickly) genuinely shocked me...but it sets the tone for what's to come, a quest for vengeance that parallels with Devane's attempts to connect to another human being, even in a small way. It's all far more complex and thoughtful than I expected, and the human drama is far more effective and even moving than I planned on it being. And while the violence is brutal and still packs a punch, it doesn't define Rolling Thunder the way I thought I did. What defines it is the great performances - not just Devane, but the whole cast, especially Tommy Lee Jones as his friend who's there at a moment's notice and just as stoic as he is - the strong writing, and the willingness to take the time to explore the darker sides of the POW (and PTSD, though it didn't officially exist yet) experience. A dynamite film, and one of those rare movies that lives up to the reputation it has among devoted fans.
4-1 The Wild
Child
(1970)

I wouldn't be surprised to find that David Lynch watched The Wild Child heavily as he prepared to make The Elephant Man; from the subject matter (both films dealt with human outcasts who had been treated as "freaks" before being taken in and cared for by medical professionals) to the style (the old-fashioned film styles, the black and white presentation), it feels like it had to have been a massive influence on Lynch's film. But The Wild Child isn't just interesting as a precursor; instead, it's also a compelling true story about a feral boy (about 11 or 12) found in the woods and the doctor who attempts to "civilize" him and teach him language skills. Much of the film is anchored by the doctor's narration, dictating the experiments, the teaching methods, the results, and his own inner monologue as he struggles with the decisions he's made and whether he's making any progress at all. That choice - leaving most of the dialogue to the narration - allows Truffaut to focus on the performances, which are fantastic. Truffaut himself plays the doctor, a role that he wondered if he would be up to - after all, for the most part, the film is carried by himself and the boy playing the feral child. And yet, Truffaut is fantastic, bringing both the intellectual curiosity and the kindness that the role demands. But more than that, you're constantly fascinated by the performance by Jean-Pierre Cargol, who plays young Victor. It's a difficult role, one that requires no dialogue and a thin line between savagery and fear, but Cargol brings Victor to life perfectly. Indeed, it's easy to forget that he's a young boy and not this savage child discovered by hunters - from his eyes to his posture to his movements, he makes the role truly work, and thus the film. It's a simple film, but a fascinating one, and it's done with intelligence and grace by Truffaut, who brings his empathy for young perspectives and uses it to create something rich and compelling.

4-1 Zero for
Conduct

(1933)
A gleefully anarchic look at life at a French boarding school and the delinquents who attend school there, Zero for Conduct feels like the comedic short film precursor to films like If... and their ilk. It's got a great playful style to it; from the casting of the headmaster to the occasional doses of magic that seem to show up in the house from time to time without comment, it's clear that Jean Vigo is having as much fun with his technique as the actors are with their misbehavior. And while there's undeniably some critiquing of the school system going on here, it's hard to see how people took this so seriously (at the time, the film was banned); it's less that it's condemning the administrators and more that it's reminding you what it felt like to be a child and to want to rebel against the rules and authority that define your life. It doesn't hurt that the film never seems to take itself all that seriously; even the climax seems more like a childlike celebration of fun than it does a defiant middle finger (as opposed to If..., which seemed far darker in its conclusions). Zero for Conduct is a bit all over the map as a movie, and there are big chunks that never seem to really go anywhere, but I had a lot of fun watching it and enjoying the anarchic spirit of it all.
4-1 Meshes of
the Afternoon
(1944)
I don't write about every single short film I watch - for the most part, a lot of them are hard to find much to say about, so I tend to stick to either the really famous ones or the ones that inspire me to really want to share them. Meshes of the Afternoon falls into the former category; it's a well-regarded piece of experimental film, one that's generally held to be very influential and a major step in the experimental movement. The problem, I think, is that experimental film either works for you or it doesn't, and I tend to find myself disliking them a lot more often than liking them. It's not hard to see how Meshes could be held as influential - it's a great piece of surrealism, and in some ways, its bizarre dream logic seems like it's setting the stage for what people like David Lynch really ran with. At the same time, I'd be lying if I didn't say I spent most of it bored or thinking of films I'd seen that did surrealism better (the gold standard being Un Chien Andalou, of course). There's undeniably some great moments here and there, including a mirror-faced Grim Reaper, but there's as many moments that just go on and on and on with no end in sight. I'll keep trying experimental films, but the more I see, the more I wonder just what I'm missing in some of these cases.
3-29 Dallas Buyers
Club
(2013)

In a lot of ways, Dallas Buyers Club really couldn't be more generic. True story or no, it's the kind of biopic you've seen a dozen times, where a gruff, obnoxious character has his life changed by some critical event (here, an AIDS diagnosis) and finds his worldview changing as he begins to do something new and inspirational. It's a tried and true formula, and Dallas Buyers Club clings to it pretty hard, even adding in supplemental characters for the requisite tragic third act bump and so forth. Add to that a fairly pedestrian visual style with an overreliance on cutting to black as the sound fades and you have a movie that shouldn't really work for me that much...but that doesn't factor in the performances of McConaughey and Leto. McConaughey is in a career renaissance right now, and while I might slightly prefer the brutal cynicism he brought to bear in True Detective, there's no denying that he's at the top of his game here, turning what would have been a repulsive, hateable character into some we empathize with and understand, even to the point where his gradual shifts in personality feel earned instead of feeling like a screenplay that's hitting the right beats along the way. And Leto, who's stuck with playing a fictional character that's basically there to teach McConaughey a lesson, nevertheless turns that character into something real, flawed, and human, instead of the magical gay best friend archetype I was dreading. More than that, the two men have such a fantastic rapport that the movie really comes to life, even in the most scripted and stereotypical moments, and it's all thanks to these performances. As a movie, Dallas Buyers Club is okay enough, but thanks to McConaughey and Leto, it works more than it ever should, and becomes far more moving and effective than it has any right to be.

3-28 Willard
(1971)
What a gloriously strange and gleefully odd movie Willard is. I'd seen the 2003 remake (and remembered quite enjoying it), but even knowing the basic story beats doesn't really prepare you for the oddity of Willard. On a pure story level, there's little here that's new - it's the story of a mild-mannered (and easily bullied) young man who befriends some rats living in his basement, and through that relationship, starts to find his confidence developing in unexpected ways - and, this being a horror movie, some violent ones. But that outline doesn't prepare you for the absurdly upbeat feel of the film, the smiling and happy tone that the film brings to Willard's relationship with his rats, or just how effective the movie is at sliding into dark and unsettling territory. Yes, this is a movie about a man who seems to be able to command rats, and that means there are scenes that certainly seem less like rats are pouncing and more like rats are being thrown. And, yes, there are dramatic close-ups of rat's faces, sometimes intended to be menacing. But somehow, it really worked for me, mainly thanks to the lead performance by (a very young) Bruce Davison, who brings out the pathos and humanity of Willard in an effective way, and makes those transitions into something darker believable and more chilling than you'd expect. Make no mistake, Willard is an odd movie, and it's not really great. It looks cheap as hell (which might be a side effect of watching it off such a poor copy), and it's filmed with all the dramatic style of a 70's sitcom...but somehow, that only adds to the oddness and strangeness on display, and almost makes it work all the better. And really, the payoffs you get are so, so worth the ride along the way - and it's a fun ride anyway.
3-21 Shakedown (1988)
There's something glorious about cheesy 80's cop movies, and in this pairing (a double feature curated by my friend Ryan Williams), what you get is two great examples of what the genre had to offer. First, there's Running Scared, which comes from the Beverly Hills Cop school of thought - that is, grab a comedian or two, hang together a plot, and let them act up. The result isn't really very coherent, but it's usually entertaining, and I'd be lying if I didn't laugh pretty regularly. It's nice to remember that Billy Crystal really can be funny when he's forced to reign it in a little bit, and his rapport with Gregory Hines (who more than holds his own throughout the film) makes the whole thing work more than it should. Yeah, the plot is enjoyably absurd, and there's something galling (and dated) about how much amusement the film finds in cops who break the law and abuse Miranda rights (the pre-Rodney King era shows through pretty well here), but it's a fun little movie, and an enjoyable way to spend some time. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there's Shakedown, a movie about a cocky lawyer (Peter Weller) and an undercover agent (Sam Elliott) who team up to deal with crooked cops. Here, the rapport is almost non-existent, the plot meandering, the writing overwrought...but whenever the film moves into action mode, what you get is gloriously insane and unhinged. Want a massively overweight black ninja with a spring-loaded Uzi in a holster? Want a brawl on a moving roller coaster? Want a choreographed intimidation routine that looks like an outtake from a Broadway musical? Want a cop to jump on to a moving airplane packing explosives? You get all of that and more in Shakedown, which only pauses between its action scenes long enough to take a breath and then dive right back in, and amps the craziness every single time. By the time you get to the climax, you get something so incoherent, insane, and bizarre that it becomes a sort of art that I adored unconditionally. Shakedown certainly isn't good, but it's a lot of fun to watch, and in a "throw it all against the wall and see what sticks" kind of way, it's a pretty entertaining little movie. And man, is that climax awesome.
3-21 Running
Scared
(1986)
3-9 True
Detective
:
Season 1
(2014)
And so True Detective's first season comes to an end, with the show having grown from an obscure new HBO drama to something approaching a cultural phenomena. And while True Detective is being greeted as one of the greatest shows on television, I can't praise it unreservedly, not with the faults it has. The show's lack of interest in its plot is pretty evident, and it leads to a police investigation that never feels all that engaging (or even comprehensible at times). And yes, as so many have pointed out, any cast member beyond the two leads has been a bit weak, to put it mildly. But even with those issues, there's no denying that True Detective is a pretty incredible piece of television. There's the acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, both of whom are giving career-best performances as deeply broken men each struggling with their own limitations and issues. (Yes, McConaughey has gotten the lion's share of the praise, and not undeservedly, but Harrelson has matched him in a far less showy way just about every episode.) There's the astonishing camerawork and staging, of course: not just that instant classic six-minute single-shot shootout, but a raid into the den of a murderous killer, the first glimpse of a horrific human monster, or even just any shot where we simply listen to McConaughey's musings - whatever it is, True Detective does it beautifully and incredibly, bringing an art and a mood to even the simplest moment. And there's the arc of these two men, who are forced into confronting their own inner demons and the issues that drive the world, all culminating in a beautiful and surprisingly optimistic monologue that finds hope amidst all the horror the show has immersed us in before. True Detective isn't flawless, as much as people love it, but it's unmistakably a unique and rich vision, and the things it does well, it does staggeringly well, so much so that I can completely understand people forgetting about the missteps. When you have something as astonishing as the plunge into Carcossa, something as riveting as Rust Cohle's monologues about the nature of time, or something as unsettling as the show's numerous brushes against cosmic horror, you feel like you're watching a whole new world of TV, and in those moments, it's hard not to admire and lose yourself in True Detective's vision.
3-6 The Found
Footage
Festival:
Vol. 7
(2013)
It's been a few years since the Found Footage Festival came through town, but the years have yet to diminish their ability to find bizarre, wonderful clips in yard sales and neglected corners of the world. Volume 7 of the Festival may have lacked some of the non-stop greatness of some of the earlier collections, and there are a couple of selections (including a school-filmed talk show) that just aren't quite as entertaining as the hosts seem to find them. But taken as a whole, there's still some glorious insanity and weirdness on display, including a public access host whose fixation on Jehovah's Witnesses gradually gives way to a deeper psychosis, awkward cash-in videos trying to explain the mechanics of cybersex in a gloriously inept way, outtakes from the most insane pet show of all time, and glimpses behind the scenes of a dysfunctional local news team. As if that's not enough, this year found the crew expanding their repertoire by duping local news teams into inviting them on their morning shows under false pretenses, and it's every bit as hilarious as you'd hope it would be. The whole event makes for a really entertaining evening out at the movies; while I'm sure watching the clips on the DVDs would be a lot of fun, it's really something to watch them with introductions and in conjunction with an audience who's staring just as slack-jawed and disbelieving as you are. If it comes through your town, I recommend it as an experience pretty whole-heartedly; even if the collections aren't as good as they sometimes are, it's a wonderfully strange and entertaining night.
3-5 The Great
Gatsby
(2013)
I've been rewatching The Great Gatsby with my students as we've been reading the book, and one thing I'll have to say is that the movie was far, far more faithful to the book than people gave it credit for being. Oh, of course we can get into all the modern music choices if you want, but the simple fact is they do a good job of immersing a contemporary audience into the party scenes at Gatsby's house without the strange disassociation that comes with "old" music choices. No, the problem with The Great Gatsby isn't the music, or a lack of fidelity to the text in general - sure, there are some changes made (particularly to the final chapter - the aftermath of the story's climax is too rushed), but when you're making a film, such things have to be done. No, the biggest miscalculation is turning Gatsby into a tragic romance tale. It's not that Gatsby doesn't have a romance at the core of it, but the movie tries to embrace the romance instead of realizing it for the fool's errand that it is, and in doing so, it turns Gatsby's tragic embrace of a dead dream into a romance thwarted by fate and bad choices. It seems like a small thing, but the change in tone ultimately keeps the film from working quite in the way it needs to, especially as it pertains to Daisy Buchanan, who's presented in a far more sympathetic way than the character should be. Of course, one could argue that a film's free to have its own interpretation of the text, and focusing on the romance is a fair enough idea - but to make the romance work, more changes need to be made to the text, turning it into something different. What plays out as a tragic, one-way romance on the page can't be changed into something magnificent and operatic without some other alterations, and ultimately that choice undermines the film as it commits more and more deeply to a love story that just isn't there. For the first half, however? It's absolutely spectacular - it flies through its world and characters effortlessly, brings style and panache to every frame, and gives it a life and excitement that really works. (Also can't be said enough: DiCaprio really is phenomenal as Gatsby - he's an inspired choice, and the film's greatest asset.) It's a shame that it loses it as it goes along.
3-1 The Oscar Nominated
Short Films 2014: Live
Action

As the title suggests, this was a program showcasing the live-action shorts that got nominated for the 2014 Oscars. In order of screening:

  • Helium: A male nurse at a children's ward tells tales to a dying young boy to bring him some comfort. Helium gets a little maudlin at points, particularly in its final shots, but it's got some great imagination and a big heart, and its visuals have a way of sweeping you up in the charm of it all. It's a little heavy on its heartstring tugging, but it's sweet and well-made.
  • The Voorman Problem: A psychiatrist goes to deal with a prison inmate who suffers from a very specific delusion. The Voorman Problem is one of those short films that feels more like an extended dark joke than a pure "film," but when the joke is this sharp and the acting this engaging, that's a okay by me. I had a lot of fun with it, and so did the audience watching it.
  • Just Before Losing Everything: Just Before Losing Everything opens with a young boy heading off for what we assume is school, only to follow him as he hides under a bridge and plays with some rocks...until a car pulls up and he jumps in. What follows from there is ultimately more simple than you'd expect, but it's no less rivetingly told, drawing out suspense from the everyday details of life and telling its story in an indirect fashion that makes it all the more impactful and powerful. It's a tense, compelling piece of storytelling that makes the most of its simplicity and directness. Easily my favorite of the series.
  • That Wasn't Me: The story of two European doctors who travel to an African country and end up dealing with a warlord and child soldiers. It's well done, but ultimately it feels a bit bludgeoning and hamfisted. There's an interesting narrative shift partway through, but it's never used in as interesting a way as you might hope. It's not a bad film, but it feels like something you've seen before, and seen done better.
  • Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?: Even more than The Voorman Problem, Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? is little more than an extended simple joke. It's 7 minutes long, and pretty much all devoted to its core idea (a family oversleeps on the morning of a wedding and everything goes wrong as they try to get there on time). Luckily enough, it works really well, and I laughed pretty consistently through the whole thing. I'm not sure there's anything all that special about it that merits an Oscar nod, but it's a lot of fun, and a nice capper to the program.
2-28 The Blood
on Satan's
Claw
(1971)
Take an awesome title (seriously, how great is the title The Blood on Satan's Claw?) and a solid setup (a rural British village in medieval times becomes the hub of witchcraft and occult activities), and you ought to have something better than what you get here. Apparently The Blood on Satan's Claw started off as a series of vignettes about witchcraft and evil, and were only gradually tied together in the writing process, but the end product still feels really fragmented and off-kilter. But more than that, it just never really goes anywhere all that rewarding or interesting. There's good movies to be made about occult and pagan ceremonies (check out Kill List or The Wicker Man for examples), but The Blood on Satan's Claw just meanders along and turns its relatively short runtime into an endurance-testing experience that left me bored and just ready to be done with it.
2-23 Fantastic 4:
Rise of
the Silver
Surfer
(2007)
I may have mixed feelings on the whole "Marvel shared universe" approach to moviemaking, but I can't deny that the one good thing that can be said about them is that at least they feel like an improvement on the constant mediocrity that were so many comic book films for so long. There's really just about nothing good to say about Rise of the Silver Surfer - with the exception of one decent sequence (a pursuit through the city), the movie's terribly paced, badly acted, horribly written, and just generally uninvolving and dull. And given that it's all about a planet-devouring monster, alien invasions, and the Fantastic 4, "boring" shouldn't be anywhere near this. But when your movie manages to waste the fantastic and wonderful Andre Braugher as badly as this does, that's not a good sign for the rest of the cast, and they're all about as lifeless and terrible as you could dread. Add to that bad effects and terrible makeup (seriously, the makeup for The Thing is laughably awful) and you just have a dull, inert mess.
2-22 The Lego
Movie
(2014)
There's really no reason that The Lego Movie should be as good as it is. Even the title makes it sound like the laziest kind of tie-in, the worst sort of marketing that's been shoved out at kids in an effort to make them buy toys. But it doesn't take more than a minute or two of The Lego Movie to find yourself caught up in its goofy, winning charm, and it takes just a little longer than that to realize that the title really is perfect - it's a film about playing with Lego blocks, and it perfectly captures the anarchic feel of building your own little world out of these blocks and making up the story as you go. The story sounds fine enough - it's a variation on your standard "everyday guy becomes the savior of the world" kind of story - but what you're probably not prepared for is how hilariously, incessantly, constantly funny this movie is. The Lego Movie had me laughing harder than just about any comedy in recent memory, to the point where tears were streaming down my face on more occasions than I can count. Sometimes it's gleefully immature and silly humor, sometimes it's just the charm of the whole thing (including some of the funniest sound effects in a major Hollywood film release in years), sometimes it's great dialogue, but whatever the case, not a minute goes by without a gag, and they almost all land beautifully. But just when you've accepted that The Lego Movie is going to be just an amazingly fun and funny movie, a third act reveal gives the movie a heart and soul that you won't expect, and lands perfectly, especially for the parents in the audience. There's not a wasted moment of The Lego Movie, not a scene that doesn't create the emotional beat they're looking for (be it comedic or dramatic), not an actor who doesn't carry their weight. Oh, and if all that's still not enough for you? Then savor the spectacular visual style, which creates a true stop-motion, tactile feel that plunges you into a Lego world without ever feeling like it's become too glossy and polished. It really is just a wonderful, true joy of a movie - a family film that's genuinely entertaining without being snarky, crafted with loving care, and filled with humor that works on adults and kids and emotions that feel earned and beautifully integrated. It's an absolute treat, and one of the most sheerly enjoyable times I've had at the movies in a long time.
2-21 Rabid (1977)
For as groundbreaking and surreal as his work would become, it's striking that David Cronenberg's first two major horror films are really just takes on the zombie film. With Shivers, Cronenberg turned zombie aggression into sexual mayhem; with Rabid, he uses porn actress Marilyn Chambers in a more traditional role that nonetheless carries no shortage of sexual energy. The story starts off simply enough, with Chambers being burned badly and needing skin grafts, but when her skin grafts evolve into something more dangerous and hungry, she starts attacking those around her, and then they start getting aggressive in turn...well, you know how this story goes. Rabid's not bad, but it feels like a dry run for things that Cronenberg would do better in later films - and that's odd, considering that he shows more personality and originality on his previous film than he does on this one. Nonetheless, there are some great moments and scenes here and there, and there are definite glimpses of the director I've come to love so much. But in general, it's a curiosity for fans, not essential viewing.
2-18 Orphan
Black
:
Season 1
(2013)
Orphan Black starts simply enough: a young street hustler sees a woman kill herself...but not before realizing that the woman looks exactly like her, and decides to take the dead woman's identity. That's a simple enough starting point, but as the show escalates further and further beyond that original point, Orphan Black becomes something way, way more complicated - and way more fun. I don't think that Orphan Black ever became quite the truly great show that I hoped, but it's undeniably a really fun watch, one that blends sci-fi, thriller, and drama elements to create something nicely unique. But more than any of that, there's Tatiana Maslany. Before I started watching Orphan Black, I heard over and over again that Maslany was giving a masterclass performance; having watched it, not only do I agree, I think that calling her performance incredible is a ridiculous understatement. To say exactly how Maslany is great would be to give away some of the twists that the show has waiting for you; suffice to say that she puts on a clinic on how to create a character through nothing more than body language and voice intonation, or how to build in so many layers into a character that you lose track of all the different things she has going on at any point. I feel like Orphan Black was hitting its stride by the end of the season, and while the show is obviously masterfully planned out in advance, the end of the season found the disparate elements coming into their own, with plot lines hitting incredible final notes and one-note villains becoming something much richer and more interesting. And even for all my (relatively minor) issues with the show, the fact that it's so incredibly character driven - a choice that shows in the acting - is what's going to keep me coming back over and over again, as the show takes its premise and runs with it in a fantastic way that's more focused on the people at its core than anything else.
2-17 The
Emperor's
New Groove

(2000)
There are undeniably "better" Disney movies than The Emperor's New Groove, and that's understandable, really. After all, given the film's deeply troubled production history (if you're unaware, it was almost a very different film - a more serious epic - and was shut down and retooled into the film we got), it's a miracle that we got anything watchable at all. But for as slight as Groove feels, it's also still one of my favorite Disney movies to watch, if only because there's not another Disney movie that's this spectacularly funny throughout. Groove eschews high drama and emotional beats in favor of delivering slapstick, anarchic comedy for its entire runtime, and the end result makes me giggle uncontrollably throughout. It doesn't hurt that the film's got Patrick Warburton, who's incapable of delivering a line that doesn't make me laugh, and he just about walks away with the movie as the thick-headed, clueless henchman Kronk. But the whole cast serves their purpose well; whether it's Eartha Kitt as the washed-up advisor, John Goodman as the warm-hearted but tough villager, or David Spade as the cocky, arrogant emperor, the actors all bring out a fantastic comic rhythm while using their voices perfectly to bring out the personalities of their characters. But really, Emperor's New Groove rises and falls on the strength of its gags, and the fact that the movie delivers so many laugh-out-loud scenes makes it work. From debates between shoulder angels and shoulder devils to malevolent squirrels, from a slew of animal transformations to diner slang, Emperor's New Groove feels like it's a crime to let more than a minute or two go by without something to make you laugh. So, yeah, there may be "better" movies. But there aren't many that I like watching as much as I love the silliness and fun this one has to offer.
2-15 Before
Midnight
(2013)
Back in 1995, director Richard Linklater released Before Sunrise, the tale of two young 20-somethings who ran into each other on a train and spent the evening walking around Vienna doing nothing more than talking and enjoying each other's company. It's a wondrous little gem of a movie, one that feels like nothing so much as watching a perfect date unfold, and even now, nearly 20 years after its release, the movie still captures that essence of young love perfectly; at the same time, it's hard not to see it through the realities of the world, to smile at some of the idealism and naivete that our two young lovebirds display. Nine years later, Linklater released Before Sunset, which caught up with the characters nine years later as they run into each other in Paris and try to catch up on the past nine years of life. It's a movie that I enjoyed the first time I saw it, but as I rewatched it as part of this marathon screening, it became clear that I undervalued it; Linklater (as well as Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who played the characters and helped write much of the dialogue) do a wonderful job of aging these characters, keeping them recognizably the same while letting their personalities age appropriately. It's a joy to watch them laugh at their own faults and bad decisions, or to see the years melt away as they fall back into each other's orbits, or listen as they discuss how that one night changed the rest of their lives in small but irreversible ways. And now, nine years after that, comes Before Midnight, which once again catches up with Celine and Jesse in a European city away from home. Before Midnight is undeniably a different animal from its predecessors; while the first two captured the flirtation of love in its infancy, Midnight is about the realities of marriage, and it replaces much of the banter of the first two with bickering and arguing. But there's something still undeniably honest and beautiful about the film's picture of its couple, and in watching Celine and Jesse evolve over the years - and in taking the three films not on their own, but as pieces in a triptych - you get something far more than the sum of the parts. Taken individually, every film in the Before series is a knockout. Whether it's the young idealism of Sunrise, the slightly older and harder romanticism that shines through in Sunset, or the duller but no less recognizable affection and devotion that forms the core of Midnight, the series is fascinated by love and human interaction. And whether you're looking at the way the characters have evolved over nearly twenty years, or engaged in the small but noticeable changes in the way our world has changed (you can't help but notice how relatively soon after 9/11 Before Sunset happened, for instance), or simply observing the films' portrait of love in all of its forms, the trilogy makes something remarkable out of its pieces. There may be no better trilogy in film than this one; it's beautiful, funny, moving, painful, and absolutely and irrevocably human, and watching them all back to back only drives home just how sharp, observant, and perfect they are in their picture of life and these characters.
2-15 Before
Sunset
(2004)
2-15 Before
Sunrise
(1995)
2-12 Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)
Ugetsu Monogatari is one of those films whose reputation precedes it and makes it a little intimidating to approach. Not only is it generally regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, it's also held up as one of the two films that helped open the doors in America for Japanese cinema (the other being Rashomon). That's a lot for a film to live up to, but within moments of starting Ugetsu, the reasons for both of those beliefs became apparent. Part morality tale, part ghost story, part drama, Ugetsu follows a pair of men as their dreams lead them to increasingly self-destructive places that destroy their lives and those of the women who they've married. One man's greed leads him nearly to his own death and then to something far more dangerous and unsettling; the other man's quest for greatness (in the form of becoming a samurai) leads him to abandon his wife so he can further his own life. That sounds like it could lead to something heavy-handed or moralizing, but Ugetsu never falls into that trap, and that's partially due to how richly drawn its characters are (and how well-acted they are). The stories are always about these people, rather than being some universal fable, and the film never forgets that it's about the human cost of these dreams, not something more abstract and cosmic. It doesn't hurt at all, either, that Ugetsu is so beautifully filmed and constructed. While much is made (and rightfully so) of a haunting meeting in a boat with a wounded soldier, there are so many astonishing sequences and scenes in Ugetsu that it's hard to count them all. Whether it's the chaos of a battlefield or the subtle sense that something wrong is happening in an isolated family manor, director Kenji Mizoguchi handles everything beautifully, mixing unease and drama effortlessly while keeping the human element at the forefront at all times. More than that, Mizoguchi combines the beautiful long takes of Ozu with camera movement, creating something fluid and yet richly human and carefully paced. Is Ugetsu Monogatari all it's believed to be? Undoubtedly. It's wonderfully human while unmistakably Japanese, a personal vision that still manages to be universal, and something that dabbles in numerous genres while never losing focus. It's a beautiful piece of work that deserves its reputation and then some.
2-12 Los
Olvidados
(1950)
A couple of surreal dream sequences excepted, there's very little of Luis Buñuel to be found in Los Olvidados; anyone expecting something along the lines of The Exterminating Angel or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is going to be a bit disappointed at first by how straightforward and relatively "normal" the film is. But to focus on that means you're ignoring just how subversive and revolutionary Los Olvidados is in an entirely different way. Los Olvidados is a portrait of life among poor street-dwelling youths in Mexico City; some are there by choice, some by fate, but all have been hardened by their lives in one way or another, and the film pulls no punches in that depiction. Whether they're fighting over imagined slights, beating up victims to grab money, taking advantage of any kindness with casual cruelty or illegal activity, or simply being rude and obnoxious, Buñuel shows us the roughest aspects of these children while still never letting us forget that they're only children, and that there's more to the story than simple "bad kids." Some are treated with indifference and cruelty at home; some have been abandoned by parents who left without a warning. Others are simply hardened by poverty and doing what it takes to survive. And the end result is a film that takes no prisoners, that indicts the culture around these children just as harshly as it indicts the kids themselves (and probably even more so). One of the first lines in the film tells you that this is an honest film without much happiness, and that's undeniably true; even the harsh ending feels earned and honest (and it's worth reading into the never released "happy" ending that the studio demanded he make, rightfully fearing that the film as it is would be hated and maligned for its honesty and cynicism). No, Los Olvidados isn't some surreal comedy or bizarre art film, but neither is it softened or mainstream. If anything, it's more openly defiant of the rules of the world, more openly hostile to the world's failings and to the society that helped create it. And even more than half a century later, it feels honest, relevant, and trenchant in a way that many contemporary films never will.
2-8 The Warriors (1979)
The first (and only) time I saw The Warriors, I came away complaining that it wasn't a very good film, and in some ways, I sort of stand by that. The Warriors is kind of a mess at points; it's incredibly silly in big sections, the pacing is odd (especially the abrupt jump to daytime near the end), and it ends up feeling far more empty and less intense than it should, given its premise. (And none of that touches on the absolutely awful comic-book transitions added in for the director's cut version; they disrupt the feel of the film, contain terrible effects, and really add nothing - they only detract from the movie as a whole.) And yet, for all that, I had a lot more fun watching the movie this time, and I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than I did on that initial watch. The opening section is fantastic, as all of the gangs gather for their summit, and Hill does a phenomenal job of building the tension as things start to spiral out of control. And each individual run-in on the way home is a knockout; while everyone remembers the Furies' chase (and rightfully so), all of them bring a unique feel that keeps the film from feeling like the same thing piled up again and again. Sure, it's all kind of ridiculous, and if you spend too long thinking about it, it's hard to be too intimidated by a guy on roller skates who seems to have dressed like Mario, or a baseball player covered in KISS makeup. But Hill somehow makes it all work, and if you give yourself over to the movie, it's hard not to enjoy yourself with the whole thing. It's still not "good," really, but it's way more fun than I gave it credit for being, and I understand a lot more why it's got such a following - heck, I may even be part of it, in my own way.
2-6 Her (2013)
More than usual, it seems like people are unable to get past the premise of Her to see the film underneath. Yes, Her is "that movie about a guy who falls in love with his phone," but to sum up the film so simply is to miss out on how rich and complex a film Her really is. Even going in excited about the film, I expected Her to be somewhat a commentary on how technology has left us more isolated and turning inward, but Her defies such easy categorization. To be sure, there's an element of that, but there's also much more - there's a look at how technology has changed our relationships sometimes for the better, how it's shifted the very nature of the way we communicate with each other, what it means to be in a relationship of any kind (be it romantic or platonic), and so much more. Thankfully, Her isn't just about those ideas; it's also a rich character study of a man grieving the loss of his marriage and retreating from the world in an effort to protect himself. How that leads to the blossoming of a most unusual relationship is part of the charm of Her; by the time the two fall in love finally, it feels like the most natural thing in the world for them to have done. For all its unique ideas, Her is an unmistakably human film, and there's not a moment that won't hit close to home for anyone who's ever fallen in love or questioned whether or not they were the cause of their own miseries. And as wonderful as Spike Jonze's script and direction is, the film wouldn't work without a pair of powerhouse performances at the core of it. Phoenix has rarely been better; in his hands, a character who could have been pathetic or just odd becomes far more empathetic, understandable, and rich - flawed, undeniably, but still someone we recognize in ourselves. And Johansson is no less superb; while she may only be a voice in the film, her work here is exceptional, bringing a childlike excitement and wonder to the world as she evolves and develops, and gradually becoming something richer and more complex as the film progresses. Her may be "that movie where the guy falls in love with his phone," but it's also something far, far richer than that: a study of love and relationships, of human pain and isolation, of how technology has changed the way we relate to each other for better and for worse. It's a wonderfully unique and rich film, and it packed an undeniable emotional impact that makes it one of the best films of the year.
1-31 Beneath the
Valley of
the Ultra-
Vixens
(1979)
I usually try to explain the things I've watched, but sometimes, I'm just at a loss for words. Part Our Town spoof, part softcore porn, part broad comedy, and all Russ Meyer film (and scripted by Roger Ebert, wisely hiding behind a pseudonym), Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens is genuinely bewildering. It's great that it's got a fun tone to it and that it's enjoying itself, and I certainly can't say it doesn't deliver what you'd expect from "Russ Meyer does a comedic softcore porn". But I'll be damned if I did much more than just stare at the screen with a puzzled expression on my face for most of the running time. It's fun, I guess, and it does what it does with no sense of shame and with a real sense of joy, but it does it in such a hectic, confusing, and exhausting way that it just kind of washes over you and leaves you wondering what in the hell is going on at any given point. So, yeah. It's certainly something, I guess.
1-26 The Great
Mouse
Detective
(1986)
The Great Mouse Detective isn't generally held up as one of the greatest films in the Disney animated pantheon, but I remember enjoying it a lot as a kid, and I've always been curious to re-visit it. Having watched it tonight with my kids, I can understand both the film's mixed reputation and why I loved it so much. From a technical perspective, The Great Mouse Detective doesn't look that fantastic. We're in the doldrums of Disney's animation period here, and the quality of animation of the film is nothing to get all that excited about. Even the much-vaunted clock tower sequence - the studio's first major foray into computer animation - feels a little off somehow, more like a proof-of-concept than a workable sequence in of itself. And yet, from a story perspective, Great Mouse Detective is a lot of fun. It's a simple adventure story, of course, but it's told with a nice sense of humor, features some fun setpieces, and shows off some good voice acting, including Vincent Price as the film's villain, who just about single-handedly carries the film simply by being Vincent Price. It's not a perfect film by any means, and it lacks the polish and charm that came with some of the studio's earlier lesser works (like The Sword in the Stone, a personal favorite). But it's still a fun little time, and especially when compared to something like Oliver and Company, it's a definite step in the right direction.
1-26 Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Here's what I'll say for Monsieur Verdoux: at least it's not as painful to sit through as Limelight was. It's still mawkish at points, lecturing at others, and ham-handed too often, but at least it manages to be less dreary and maudlin than Limelight and has a few moments where Chaplin's gift for staging comes through. But by and large, Verdoux takes a good premise and robs it of anything that might make it an enjoyable movie. You can't help but imagine what this movie would have been like if Welles had gotten the chance to make it; in his hands, the black comedy would have played better, the hero wouldn't be as absurdly softened, and the lecturing tone of the final scenes in which Chaplin beats the point of the movie home...well, of course Welles wouldn't turn his movie into a moral screed. Unfortunately, Verdoux is pure late-era Chaplin, and the best that can be said about it is there's at least a few moments - a dinner party where Verdoux is desperately avoiding recognition, an attempted murder on a rowboat - where Chaplin tries to have some fun. But even those feel a bit stilted and lifeless - there's none of the fun and impishness that Chaplin brought to bear during his golden years. I love Chaplin when he's at the top of his game, but it's not hard to understand why Verdoux was so badly received - it's dull, lecturing, and just plain lifeless, and that's the worst thing a movie can be.
1-24 Headhunters (2011)
One of those foreign thrillers that really could have made it huge in America were it not for the country's reluctance to read subtitles, Headhunters is a gleefully twisted and dark thriller that seems to revel in pushing things just a little further than you think they're going to go - and then doing it all over again. It all starts simply enough, following a corporate recruiter as he goes about his second job - being a professional art thief. And when the score of a lifetime gets set up for him, he can't help but take it - and then, a quick discovery at the man's house sends the whole operation spinning wildly out of control. What happens from there escalates quickly and in some genuinely surprising and fun ways; suffice to say, Headhunters is the kind of thriller that knows how to work an audience and has a blast doing it, whether it's hitting you with gore when you least expect it, tying back to earlier plot threads in surprising ways, or building the tension beautifully and letting you dread the moment you know is coming. Yes, from a plot perspective, there's a lot that doesn't quite make sense, but honestly, getting hung up on the story here is a bit silly when you have a cat-and-mouse game of this skill being played for our enjoyment. Add to that some inspired casting and character choices (having the hero be so much shorter and average in most ways than the villain makes for a far more engaging ride - after all, we know he's outmatched) and some great filmmaking and you have a thriller that's an absolute blast to watch.
1-20 A Canterbury
Tale
(1944)
You'll appreciate A Canterbury Tale more, I think, if you appreciate it for what it is - that is, if you realize that it's more of a tribute to England and its spirit than it is a narrative film. From a story point of view, A Canterbury Tale is a bit lacking - it wanders and meanders, and although there's sort of a throughline (the quest to figure out the identity and motives of a man who's attacking young women in the town by throwing glue in their hair), it's fairly obvious that it's mainly there as a way to hold the film together. But taken as a piece of its time - and, more specifically, as a propaganda film - A Canterbury Tale comes into sharper focus, and becomes more effective and meaningful. Watch, for example, as the film wanders into a discussion of English lumber techniques, or as it travels into the famed cathedral of Canterbury, or simply amuses itself with its American soldier who's struggling to understand the pieces of English culture (but appreciates them anyway). It took me about a half hour to get onto A Canterbury Tale's wavelength, and even now that I'm done with it and understand it better, I'd still rank it as the least of the Powell and Pressburger films I've seen to date. But even with that said, I can understand why it's so beloved by so many, especially among the English; it's a wonderful tribute to the English countryside and spirit, one that's beautifully filmed and filled with enough personality to cover half a dozen movies.
1-19 Memories of
Murder
(2003)
It's not surprising that so many people compare Memories of Murder to David Fincher's superb Zodiac. Both are films inspired by the hunts for real-life serial killers (and both cases ultimately went unsolved); both cases are about the toll that such a hunt takes on those who undergo it; both are fascinated by the passage of time and what it means to be a police detective. But even though those broad strokes sound identical, there's no mistaking the two films in any way for each other, because only one integrates comedy - even of the darkest variety possible. As you'd expect from Korean cinema (and more specifically, director Joon-Ho Bong), Memories of Murder ignores genre divisions as though they're non-existent, and the end result mixes broad comedy, dark social commentary, police thriller, and dramatic beats to create something wholly unique. Moreover, while Zodiac was a story of obsession, Memories of Murder takes on a slew of other themes, including the corruption of the Korean police, the collision of new investigational methods with old school policework, and the mark left behind by such crimes, all without ever losing focus on the human characters that inhabit its world and have to deal with the evil that men do. And if all that's not enough, it all builds to a knockout climax that's only topped by a truly beautiful epilogue that pulls everything into sharp relief. Memories of Murder isn't quite what I expected, but it's what I should have expected from Joon-Ho Bong; it's every bit as strange and carefully crafted as films like Mother and The Host, combining genres and scenes that shouldn't go together and making something truly remarkable from the combination.
1-19 Up (2009)
I really wasn't planning on sitting and watching Up today, but when my daughter started the movie, all it took was a couple of minutes before I found myself sucked back into the rich, gorgeous world of Up. It wasn't just that iconic, magical opening montage of a life lived together, although that sequence is every bit as effective, heartbreaking, and beautiful as it was the first time. No, of all things that sucked me back into Up, it was the use of color - the wonderful way that the movie contrasted a dried, arid look with the vibrant color of the balloons, or the sharp difference between the inside of Carl's house and the world in which he finds himself. And from there, it's the wonderful use of humor - the charm of Carl's young companion, or the odd behavior of Kevin, or, of course, the way the movie uses dogs. It's the magnificent use of emotion that got to me over and over again, leaving me moved and teary-eyed when I least expected it. And more than that, it's the plain fun of it all - the pure adventure of the whole thing, the imagination that just keeps everything moving in all sorts of ways that you least expect. I've always liked Up, but a rewatch really drives home what a pure joy it is as a film, and just how wonderfully it all works together. Its humor is genuinely funny, its characters genuinely engaging, its emotions genuinely powerful, and the adventure genuinely exciting - it just works, on every level you could ask for and more.
1-18 Phantom of
the Paradise

(1974)
I spent a lot of the time I was watching Phantom of the Paradise trying to decide if I liked it, and whether or not I did, if it was actually a good movie. The answers to those questions, I think: sort of, and not entirely. My friend Ryan argued that the problem with Phantom was simply that it wasn't "enough" - not strange enough to really stand out, not catchy enough to work musically, not funny enough to be a pure comedy, not vicious enough to work as a satire. And in general, I think that's a fair way of looking at the film. Phantom of the Paradise does lots of things - some broad comedy, some showbiz satire, some rock opera theatrics, some riffing on the grandiose nature of 70's rock - and does them all pretty well, but it never commits fully to any of them, and the result feels sprawling and unfocused. But for all of that, there's still a lot to enjoy here. The camerawork and style are undeniable, and it's clear that de Palma is having fun and cutting loose in a way that he often doesn't seem to allow himself to do. And, of course, there's Williams, who brings a strange presence to the film that works in its favor, even if I wish the film had taken his character to its logical extreme and made him the character I assumed he was from the get go. Still, it's an entertaining movie, and if it doesn't all work, that's okay; it's certainly almost always interesting, and that goes a long way with me.
1-11 Juliet of the
Spirits
(1965)
Juliet of the Spirits is unmistakably a Fellini film - from the parades to the wandering camera, from the dazzling spectacle to the dreamlike logic, there's no denying that this is Fellini. And yet, there's a lot here that's different from his classic works - the use of color for the first time, of course, but also the female lead, which is designed to give a wife's perspective to answer the autobiographical elements that dominated his earlier work. And therein lies the problem with Juliet - not the female perspective, per se, but Fellini's inability to keep that focused. Juliet feels sprawling and unfocused, even by Fellini standards, and feels much more like a collection of scenes and ideas rather than an exploration of its main character. It doesn't help, of course, that there's probably a significant conflict between Fellini's thoughts and those of his wife (who both played the main character and served as an inspiration for it). But to some degree, it's that disconnect that makes the movie so interesting, as you can feel that gap almost palpably throughout. I liked Juliet quite a bit - it's beautiful to take it all in, and there's no shortage of amazing moments. But it doesn't coalesce into something great the way other Fellini films that I've seen managed to do, and I can't help but wonder if that failure gets at what makes the film so interesting to so many. (That certainly seems to be part of why Ebert loved it.)
1-11 The Dam
Busters
(1955)
My prior knowledge of The Dam Busters came less from anything about the film and more from the influence it had on other things that I love - between Roger Waters' constant nods to the film (it's used heavily in The Wall) and its influence on the finale of the original Star Wars (which is absolutely unmistakable, in case you're wondering how deep that influence goes), all I knew is that the film cast a long shadow. Luckily, the film itself is still wonderfully engaging and involving, telling the story of a British effort to destroy German dams and flood out some of their steel factories. The Dam Busters almost ends up with the structure of a heist film, with the early going of the film given over to planning and preparation, and the climax to the actual runs on the dam. The planning and prep is genuinely fascinating, and the film does a nice job of getting into the nuts and bolts of the plan (which is a really ingenious one) while letting us get to know the various players and pilots that will make it all happen. And, of course, the finale is great stuff; while some of the effects are pretty badly dated (the flak and explosion effects especially), the cross-cutting between the pilots, the use of the officers waiting for words, and just the pacing of the whole event makes for a gripping section of film. (It's really no wonder Lucas used this as a template; you could do far worse than this as inspiration for depicting a bombing run.) The Dam Busters doesn't resonate with me the way it might with a British audience, and it's a little by the numbers, but it's a fun piece of historical storytelling that's just as interesting in of itself as it is for what it inspired. (A side note about the other thing I constantly heard about the movie: yes, the dog's name is, in fact, the n-word. It's distracting, but much less so than you might expect. It's a little jarring when the dog shows up, but it's such a small part of the film that it's fairly easy to set it aside.)
1-7 The Descendants (2011)
Here's the thing about The Descendants: it's a good enough movie. It's well-acted across the board, as you'd expect with Alexander Payne at the helm; if there's one thing you can say about Payne, it's that he knows how to get great performances out of his cast. There's really no one member who stands out more than the others, but George Clooney got the lion's share of the attention for playing against type; instead of the cocky, swaggering hero, he's a wounded duck, one who's reacting to the world around him instead of ever really acting, and that pushes him to some interesting places. And, yes, the story allows for some interesting themes to be explored - everything from coping with the death of a family member to the way we cope with our legacies and our reputations. But for all of that, there just wasn't much about The Descendants that really stood out to me in any real way. Everything about the film is good, to be sure - it's nicely filmed, well acted, engaging and all of that. But there's little that really lingers about it, little that leaves an impression beyond it being well done. Even now, a few hours after I finished it, I'm struggling with what to really say about it or to come up with anything it's done that other films didn't do far better. And given how solid I usually find Payne's films, that's not exactly a glowing testament. Maybe I'll watch it again some day and see if I feel differently, but I'm not feeling exactly rushed to do so.
1-4 Massacre
Mafia Style

(1978)
A few years ago, I got to see Duke Mitchell's long lost Gone with the Pope, an insane piece of grindhouse filmmaking that ended up being a strange mix of buddy film, crime picture, religious debate, and character study, all while maintaining a gleefully low-budget feel that helped account for some of the ineptness that was frequently on display. (Here's my original review, if you're curious.) Since then, I've been curious to see Massacre Mafia Style, Mitchell's first picture and his only other completed film as writer-director. And now that I've seen it, I'm pretty insanely let down. Massacre Mafia Style has the same look and feel as Gone with the Pope - ultra low budget, not particularly well-filmed or acted, with weird pacing and occasional long monologues from Mitchell about the state of the world - but it's lacking a lot of the heart and soul that made Pope work. Instead, it's basically an episodic batch of moments in the life of a mobster, strung together into something that could charitably be called a narrative if you were being generous. The opening - in which Mitchell and a partner massacre most of a building - isn't bad, but it's never tied into the movie around it, which kind of sets the tone for the film; what you get is basically a bunch theoretically cool moments that have nothing to do with each other. Mitchell's character is no more consistent, either; he goes from a loving father to forgetting about his son, from a dumb thug to a world-weary philosopher, from someone who feels that the Mafia is a disgrace to someone who sings its praises as a the glory days of Italians. I could forgive all of this if it had the heart and personality that Gone with the Pope had - the heart, the genuine humor, the sense of fun behind the scenes that bled onto the camera a little bit. Instead, Massacre Mafia Style just feels like a generic mobster movie made in reaction to The Godfather, only done terribly. What a disappointment.
1-4 Disco
Godfather
(1979)
You can try to convince me all you want that the team behind Black Dynamite hasn't seen Disco Godfather, but I'm never going to believe you. From the screaming, rhyming hero to the inept action sequences, from the half-hearted drug commentary to the terrible editing, there's so much that obviously served as inspiration for the great blaxploitation comedy here that you can't miss it. Of course, that doesn't mean much unless Disco Godfather is still fun to watch. Luckily, it is - it's completely insane, of course, and not very "good" in the purest sense of the word, but it's undeniably a blast to sit through. I knew I was in for something special early on, as Rudy Ray Moore, the titular Disco Godfather, makes a glorious entrance filled with "singing" and "dancing" (to say nothing of numerous uses of his catchphrase, "Put your weight on it!"), but the film only gets better from there. Want to see what the filmmakers thought angel dust did to the human brain? Want hilariously inept fights staged for the camera in a way that makes no one look good? Want bizarre characters that go nowhere, gloriously terrible line readings, tacked-on messages, poor editing choices, inept direction? You'll get all of that and more in Disco Godfather. Really, there's so many joys to be had here that the best thing I can tell you is to go in cold; I'm doing my best to avoid telling you some of the insanity on display here just so you can experience it for yourself. (Like what the church group ends up doing, or the confrontation with the phone bugging crew, or the greatest random appearance of a henchman ever...) Disco Godfather isn't "good" in any way, but is it awesomely watchable and endlessly hilarious? Oh, undoubtedly.
1-3 The Texas
Chain Saw
Massacre
(1974)
What new is there to say about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? It's generally regarded as one of the all-time great horror films, a belief I not only agree with, I may find it to be not strong enough - minute for minute, there may be no other horror film that unsettles and disturbs me on such a visceral level as this one. From the way it defies your expectations for pacing to the way it makes even its villains fascinatingly human but never understandable, from the horrific atmosphere to the relentless way it refuses to let you breathe as it reaches a climax, from the refusal to give a cathartic ending to its plunge into a bizarre nightmare world, there's still never been another film like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and no matter how many times it gets remade, I doubt there ever will be. Look at the execrable Michael Bay-produced remake for example; while it attempts to duplicate the horror of the house, it's so polished and constructed that you can't help but see the set designer working overtime to make it gothic and strange. By contrast, look at the den of the original film, which is all the more horrific for its surreal and inexplicable choices. There's no baby dolls with rotting eyes, no dark shadows; the most memorable image at first is a chicken in a cage, and in Hooper's capable hands, even that makes you uneasy and uncomfortable. And then there's maybe the single greatest moment of all time in a horror movie, which sucks my breath out of my lungs every time I see it. No, there's nothing out there that gets to me the way The Texas Chain Saw Massacre does. For all its low budget, for all the problems filming it, for all the crappy sequels, it creates an environment that truly disturbs and upsets me in a way no other horror film has ever done, and the fact that it still unsettles me so strongly after countless viewings is just testament to the film's greatness. (Adding to the greatness of this particular screening: getting to see it in a tiny room sitting with John Dugan, who plays "Grandpa" in the film and added his own thoughts, commentary, and remembrances as the film played out, and seemed to enjoy it as much as everyone else watching. It was a fantastic way to watch a masterpiece of a film.
1-1 Inside Llewyn
Davis
(2013)
I can somewhat understand the mixed response to Llewyn Davis in some corners. It's the Coens operating in Serious Man or Barton Fink mode, where story is less important than the themes and mood of the piece in question. Because, to be sure, there's not a true "story" to Davis; instead, it simply follows the titular folk singer as he drifts through his life, angering more than a few people and struggling to find anything even close to success in the wake of his dissolved musical partnership. As such, Davis is more of a collection of pieces than a cohesive whole...and yet, the pieces combine to make something beautifully melancholy and heartbreaking in every way. In many ways, the Coens have created a study of loss and fear, and while the exact dimensions of those emotions become clear over the course of the film as we learn more about Davis and his life, there's no missing the pain that's present in his life from the first frame, even if we don't yet know why it's there. I was worried about the Coens not working with the great Roger Deakins for the film, but the work here by Bruno Delbonnel is magnificent, bringing a haunting, melancholy feel to the wintry setting of the tale that only emphasizes the mood of it all. The music, curated by T-Bone Burnett, is no less critical to the story (after all, this is a film set in the folk music world of the 1960's), and again, it's beautifully used here; Oscar Isaacs sings his own numbers, and does an incredible job throughout, bringing a passion to bear that helps us both understand Davis's success and his limitations. Inside Llewyn Davis isn't conventionally satisfying in the way that many movies are, and if you're looking for something more plot-driven or more outwardly comedic, you're going to be frustrated and disappointed here. The story here is more about an emotional journey, and the comedy here is bitter and grim, to no small degree. But the end result is something genuinely beautiful and moving, and it's all the more so for how quietly it goes about it. From the acting to the lighting, from the music to the moments of silence, it's a haunting, heartbreaking film that I absolutely loved every frame of, and one that's lingered with me in the days since I saw it.

 

e-mail me at
clydeumney@gmail.com

page updated:
November 16, 2014