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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.

 

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.

 

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page updated:
April 13, 2014