Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Pretentiousness With Purpose

I’m not saying I’m pretentious, but I can understand the misperception. All this babble on form, “being” and international art cinema, to what end? Why can’t I just enjoy movies for what they are and end a review with a thumbs up or thumbs down? Why the need for this loose syntax and suspension of decisive judgment? And why am I writing with the assumption that you’ve been following my column up to this point?
I’ll accept the last question as a potential problem of mine, but I know, from website analytics and reader emails (or lack thereof), that my audience is slim and composed mostly of friends who also have the time to ask questions of aesthetics. So if I write in an excessively familiar style, The Daily Sun Arts section will survive to see another day. Ya feel.
But the other questions are game, since shouldn’t criticism seek to clarify and not further obscure? Deconstruction, which I have been lately exposed to yet again, says no, but let’s limit our discussion here to the kind of cultural writing you’d find in newspapers, magazines and blogs, not academic journals. Is a lyrical tendency in criticism allowed, or should a critic’s prose seek to explain, determine and solve?
Accessible criticism, especially the sorts you’ll find online, has sided with the latter camp as of late. Most reviews dish out plot summary, with requisite compliments or swipes at the acting, script and image-prettiness, and perhaps end with a note about the film’s sociopolitical relevance. The pieces that ‘go long’ (as in long-form) trace a film’s symbolism and propose one-to-one meanings for choice shots, objects and character actions.
The films of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are exhaustively analyzed along these lines, but as much as I’d like to gender this kind of discourse along ‘white male’ lines, it also thrives in popular progressive criticism. Critiques that claim to uncover a racist or sexist subconscious to mainstream films often raise good points but move so far away from the text at hand or zoom in so close on one aspect, sans context, that they overlook a perhaps resolute, invigorating ambiguity. What if a film embodies not just one stance — say, feminist or anti-feminist — but many of them at the same time? Is this not the age of dismantling binaries?
In her 1996 piece on Pulp Fiction, “Cool Cynicism,” bell hooks set the standard, to my limited knowledge at least, for how to write intersectional film criticism. She uses colloquial language to sneak in innovative theses, like when she starts a paragraph saying, “Tarantino’s films are the ultimate in sexy cover-ups of very unsexy mind-fuck.” That sentence may not make sense when you first read it, but it does if you take your time poring over it and, crucially, reading her supporting evidence.
bell hooks practices a form of criticism veering on poetry, and it is that poetic spirit, and with it an amorphous form, that separates intelligent analysis from superlative, risk-taking work. Yet isn’t poetry kind of antithetical to criticism? Poetry keeps its cards close to the chest, only admitting what it aims to say if the reader focuses, contemplates and re-reads. Which brings me to my central question today: Must a piece of criticism be read once to be appreciated, if not understood?
Methinks those who would say no would also be reluctant to revisit a film that has a reputation, in any way, as difficult. I have not had the chance to review Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice yet, but if I did I would definitely see it once more, maybe twice before attempting to unlock it. I am in the midst of an honor’s thesis on cinema, and repeated looks at certain Thai, French and Iranian selections have divulged details, be they plastic or political, that has increased my respect for these filmmakers a thousand fold. But while I hope to offer some coherent insight on these artistic subtleties, I also shy away from ascribing definitive explanations, opting for a twisty-turny style of prose that may be driving you mad on this very page.
A poetic tendency drives practically all the best critics, from bell hooks to Roger Ebert. “The world as processed by the mind, with finally only the bright bits magnetized by emotion remaining to flash against darkness,” is how Geoffrey O’Brien, a published poet in his own right, describes the sieved reality of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which is no stranger to charges of obscurantism. Manny Farber, one of the most distinct and byzantine voices in the history of film criticism, offers the following when praising the “underground films” of such old Hollywood directors as Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks 1918: “In the films of these hard-edged directors can be found the unheralded ripple of physical experience, the tiny morbidly life-worn detail which the visitor to a strange city finds springing out at every step.”
Do these quotes make sense? Not in any clean, easy sense. But they preserve something attractive and — this is most important — intrinsic to the films under scrutiny, and so testify to their merit. In her treatise On Beauty and Being Just, the endearingly esoteric critic Elaine Scarry writes, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.” Criticism will often fail to match the beauty from which it is inspired, but it should at least keep the wheel of appreciation and close attention ever turning. There is, after all, no community when every critic aims to to have the last word.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Monday, February 23, 2015

87th Academy Awards Breakdown

The Oscars matter insofar as without them, fewer people would have seen or at least have the privilege to consciously ignore small, human-sized movies like Boyhood, Whiplash and Still Alice. Or so the thinking goes; a world where works of art are not pitted against each other in competition, where the long months of campaigning and op-ed defaming makes each final victory feel more than a little pyrrhic, could very well be more egalitarian and receptive to intimate, intrinsic artistry — but that is not the world in which we live.
For better or worse, Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards reflected the conflicted state of things in America today, with every forward-pushing acceptance speech tempered by a nostalgic spectacle or tone-deaf joke. There was, as per usual, no lack of self-congratulation.
Birdman fits the Best Picture profile, given the film’s insular regard for itself, which aligns perfectly with the Academy’s. Along with other recent winners The Artist and Argo, it offered Hollywood the chance to stop, light a smoke and think, “Aren’t we great?” The ceremony’s low points belabored this self-love, stretching the broadcast’s runtime to the longest in eight years, while the brightest moments shined past any one film or celebrity to illuminate, as only an awards show can, a myriad of political issues.
The low points, I am sorry to say, almost always involved the affable, seemingly perfect host, Neil Patrick Harris. He started strong with a song and dance number that ran through movie history and brought Into the Woods star Anna Kendrick on stage for harmonies. A cynical Jack Black jumped on stage to rant, in his own singsongy way, about the omnipresence of superheroes, “formulaic scripts” and, reaching for his smartphone, “screens in our jeans” in movie culture today, to much applause.
Without such an irascible counterpoint for the rest of the show, Harris struck a tone at once overly chipper and flippant. For the whole show, Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer had to go along with a gag where Harris locked his “predictions” in a box that, when revealed, proved how the whole show is predictable, scripted or just ill suited to three-hour joke set-ups. His banter punned on Reese Witherspoon’s name or the furry ball dress of Dana Perry, just after the Best Documentary Short Subject winner opened up about her son’s suicide. His Birdman/Whiplash parody, where he took the stage in tighty whities to Miles Teller’s accompaniment on drums, displayed his most obvious assets without hiding, at least to awards season addicts like me, that Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell made the same joke at the Independent Spirit Awards the night before.
What this show never fails to deliver are the moments of unscripted awkward that, against all the micromanaged rehearsals leading up to it, scramble the evening’s gloss. I should disclose that the so-called disasters, like John Travolta’s garbling of Idina Menzel as “Adele Dazeem” last year, are my favorite parts of any live broadcast — anyone who follows up how embarrassing Travolta was with the decree that “he should never be up there again!” is no fun. Thankfully the show’s producers are fun, and reunited Menzel with Travolta, who after being introduced as “Glom Gazingo” petted the Frozen singer’s cheek as if he were Romeo.
It was the creepiest, most GIF-ready snippet of the night, though equally weird was when Terrence Howard took the stage to introduce Whiplash, The Imitation Game and Selma. Midway through, he paused to say, “Our next film … is amazing. I’m blown away myself right now,” before reading the synopsis not to Selma, but The Imitation Game. Drunk off emotion or some other drug, Howard could barely convey his enthusiasm for the other injustice-themed also-ran in the Best Picture race and not the good one. It felt like anything could have happened during his minute on stage; Imagine if Travolta just wandered, out of focus, in the background.
While Tegan & Sara, The Lonely Island, Questlove, Mark Mothersbaugh and Will Arnett hit peak goofiness during The LEGO Movie’s “Everything Is Awesome,” it was John Legend and Common’s performance of “Glory,” from Selma, that provided the moral center for the night. With lyrics evoking both the march to Montgomery and the Ferguson protests and a grand backdrop of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, “Glory” struck a chord with the audience, bringing star David Oyelowo and Chris Pine to tears. It’s easy to be cynical about such emotional displays at awards shows, but the way Legend brought Dolby Theatre and viewing parties across America to silence during his final solo cut through all the noise to contemplate the seemingly irreconcilable divide that exists in our country, the Academy most certainly included, to this day. Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music medley, though impressive, felt too sweetly nostalgic after such a conscious musical statement
When “Glory” rightly won Best Original Song after, Common and Legend were one of many to unashamedly marry thank-yous with impassioned political statements. Common pleaded for equality and freedom of expression via mention of the Charlie Hebdo and Hong Kong protests, while Legend stressed the disproportionate amount of incarcerated black men in prison. Best Documentary winner Laura Poitras, with her Edward Snowden-starring Citizenfour, urged awareness of the surveillance state, while Patricia Arquette, who won Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood, stumped for gender equality as Meryl Streep, flanked by a cheering Jennifer Lopez, pointed and hollered in approval. Graham Moore, Best Adapted Screenplay winner for The Imitation Game, seized everyone’s breath as he confessed to attempting suicide 18 years ago. He followed this harrowing anecdote with the hope that his presence on stage will inspire those younger than him, who feel like they do not belong, to “stay weird” and “stay different.” It was a powerful speech.
The thing about Graham Moore winning, though, is that he wrote an awful script. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” is a line The Imitation Game trailer holds dear and the movie itself repeats, out of the conviction that historical characters speak as if composing their memoirs. Share that quote on the Dolby stage, however, and it naturally, indisputably belongs. The Oscars so rarely award real art because they, themselves, are not art, and they don’t need to be. The most memorable moments are inspirational, rousing and morally good. Great movies are rarely any of those things, and never all three at once, but “the movies,” the mystique of Hollywood that the Academy and theater chains sell, is, always.
It is that feeling of uplift, if oh so fleeting, that jettisons Eddie Redmayne’s light track record and The Theory of Everything’s deadness from my mind when he took the stage for Best Actor. His youth, his recent marriage and his humility made for an infectiously adorable speech, which filled the room I watched from with high-pitched “Awww”s. Julianne Moore deserved Best Actress not just for her work in Still Alice but for her unparalleled career, yet her speech was what we wanted to hear for its focus on love, family and community. The work itself has no hold on the rapture of the Oscar moment — before all the lights and cameras, only gratitude, conviction and a manageable dose of human weakness thrive.
Birdman’s second-half sweep — in Best Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Directing and Picture — introduced the manic, musky humor of the film into the speeches, which did not vibe well with the prevailing Oscar ethos. I have already expressed my unfavorable opinion of the winning film, which I think is little more than clever. Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel were the rare masterpieces to actually make it into Best Picture consideration, which makes their loss more painful, since cinephiles more often than not revere their favorites in closet-sized shrines, without much notice from the outer, louder world.
But Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman’s director, said something that resonated with me during his acceptance speech, which went as follows: “Ego loves competition, because for someone to win, someone has to lose. But the paradox is true art, true individual expression, as all the work of these incredible fellow filmmakers, can’t be compared, can’t be labeled, can’t be defeated, because they exist, and our work will be judged, as always, by time.” I can’t say I think his film, with its Justin Bieber references and inexplicable gender politics, will survive that ultimate test, but I thank him for taming that ego this awards season has fed so well, for just a moment, to remind us of the absurdity of this whole artless enterprise.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Movies Lack Music

Music is sexier than movies, and I imagine few would jump to disagree. Movies follow people as they bumble and chat and fight, and the good ones will make you feel for those people and understand the context and causes of their unrest. Good music, on the other hand, rides a melody or groove or just a feeling from start to finish, sometimes telling a story through lyrics but more than anything expressing joy or longing — in a word, energy — toward some thing, which even if afforded a name (for Bob Dylan, Johanna, for Mac DeMarco, Viceroy cigarettes) can always, for the listener, stand in for something or someone else.
This is my roundabout way of saying I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie frontloads most of its heat, with bitten lips, steely eyes and rattled breaths overwhelming the first 20 odd minutes. It’s the kind of experience you’re implicitly paying for, and the kind of gaze-fueled desire that movies, whether they aspire to high art or schlock, do best. But when it’s time for the cuffs and cat o’ nine tails to come out, the film cools, stringing together flicks and shudders into montages only a notch hotter than the wind currently barreling over Cayuga Lake. Fifty Shades of Grey lacks music. 
Adapting an erotic bestseller for an audience wide enough to deliver a $94 million opening weekend presents few opportunities for music anyway. The sex scenes are the selling point, so they demand center stage, and not just the sex but the gear, too — leather and ropes and slings, arranged before walls of red deep within Christian’s antiseptic Seattle penthouse. The 13th time Christian pesters Anastasia to sign her submissive’s contract, I swear the leather evolved to become the most sentient creature in the room. With too many studio notes to film a love scene as elliptical as Don’t Look Now or Out of Sight’s, and with too much money to just make pornography, director Sam Taylor-Johnson settles on an aesthetic somewhere between bad camp and HGTV.
The almost yearlong lead-up to Fifty Shades roped in the collusion of a real artist, that of course, being Beyoncé. Accompanying last summer’s debut trailer, her remix of “Crazy in Love” swaps fast for slow, horns for strings and her pop-perfect voice for a feistier tenor scratched up through a filter similar to Julian Casablancas’. In duration and texture, Beyoncé’s new “Crazy in Love” is a better Fifty Shades of Grey adaptation than the feature film, conveying and sustaining a dangerous intimacy for as long as an entertainment medium can. For all the conservative pushback on the sexualization of popular music, sex is something music not only sells but understands, and Beyoncé deserves all the praise for long fashioning the eroticism of her voice and image into messages of empowerment and pride.
There is a lot of strong, lovely music making waves right now, Björk’s Vulnicura being one of the most notable. It aims to fill the heart just as it breaks it, with Björk’s infinitely malleable voice oscillating between defeat and hope as it is besieged by violins, synthesizers and drum machines. Björk is a capital-A Artist, the first popular musician to receive a full-scale career retrospective at the MoMA (due in March), and the indeterminacy of her music lends itself to unfiltered, bewildering expression, which makes her success all the more remarkable. Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, released last week, takes a more deceptive approach to the love album, tempering fuzzy feelings with liberal irony and self-loathing. In “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” after telling his love she is “something else I can’t explain,” Father John Misty adds, “You take my last name,” in effect mocking his gendered obligation of ownership via marriage. The song sounds blissfully radiant, with a mariachi band blasting over the bridge, but Father John Misty can never seem to give himself a break. There’s a poetic density, and not to mention a stand-up’s hilarity, to his lyrics and his particular pairing of word to melody produces an album open to interpretation even as it serves many pleasures.
You can say movies are too burdened by images, and thus some kind of aesthetic obligation to the real world, to capture and critique one man or woman’s personal expression. And so, love and film is not the most natural pairing, even if it is regularly attempted and often enjoyable, if only in spite of its sincere intentions. The sexiest films need the help of music, whether literally on the soundtrack or spiritually through the movement of camera and assembly of images, to power through the awkwardness and achieve a transcendent effect. Classic Hollywood excelled at this better than the studios today, while the French, naturally, are masters to this day.
There is a moment in 35 Shots of Rum, a Claire Denis film from 2008, when the action comes to a full stop and the four main characters find themselves fortified in a bar on a nasty, rainy night. Their taxi broke down, and they missed their show, and not one of them knows what to do, until music starts to play: “Nightshift,” by The Commodores. It’s a slinky, funky song, bringing the characters, one by one, to their feet and to previously untapped life. The dance ends on a note of discomfort, as a young man carries his affection for a girl too far, but there is no disputing there was life on screen for that brief glimpse of time, a connection between clothed bodies more felt than seen.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How So?

Chances are you have enjoyed cinema your entire life, but the fact is the you who started with Sesame Street or Shrek or It’s a Wonderful Life is not the you today. The plastic tray fastened to your high chair no longer collects drool as you watch figures move across a screen. No doubt there are times, in a theater and especially out, when the blankness of youth sounds quite appealing. But if you are reading this, then you have read and lived and thought enough to bring something — education, curiosity, self-awareness — to everything you see.
What do we do with this power? Many do little, while a bilious, often anonymous contingent make a vocation out of belittling it. Comments sections under reviews, especially those that take a less than adulatory tone toward the latest hundred-million-dollar entertainment, charge the critic with overanalyzing or worrying too much about what it “means.” “It’s just a movie,” a regular sight on these forums, is a rejoinder so immaculate in its self-pleasuring logic that it becomes deflatingly clear movie critic and commenter speak totally different languages.
While philistinism in, around and beyond the cinema runs rampant, it can too easily stand in as a straw man for an equally one-sided, and superiorly pretentious, college newspaper opinion column. (What’d I say about self-awareness?) What irks me more are the discrepancies between those of us who, by and large, espouse the same critical language. You and I may regard movies as art, judge one’s worth not (only) for its “mere spectacle” but for its ability to “get at” something deep and still disagree about a particular film. That division springs from the indeterminable calculus of personal preference, plus some more explicable aesthetic expectations.
Chief among these is the expectation that a movie needs to be about Something — and least of all Schmidt — to be good. About The State of Marriage, Russia, The American Dream. I find this a tired, limited, predetermined approach to art, and one highly susceptible to P.R. hype and groupthink. Films so readily demonstrative, if only through dialectic arguments and foregrounded symbolism, of one big idea fail to fill in the little details of human behavior that would complicate such a broad, and thus phony, thesis. And yet these films are so often celebrated for their thematic obviousness, especially when released in the same year or season as other like-minded works. The think piece model thrives on corralling disparate works under one zeitgeist-defining headline, and better when the films assert the same reductive stance, regardless of individual quirks or vitality.
Take A Most Violent Year, the new J.C. Chandor movie starring beautiful people Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. I do not expect you to have seen it, and I did not care for it so I am not here to recommend it. Isaac plays an ambitious oil entrepreneur who shuns his peers and immigrant heritage in order to, you know, be the best. As he gets there, his soul hardens to the climactic point where blood intermingles on-screen with oil in a risible metaphor for the violence of commerce. None of the scenes to that point, except for a grimy, spooky tunnel chase scene, inject the humdrum handsomeness with any personality, and the tunnel vision with which Chandor hones in on his star-spangled target makes for a redundant, lifeless film.
A Most Violent Year currently stands at a 90 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a blurb that praises its “thought-provoking heft.” The National Board of Review named it 2014’s Best Film, and I know plenty of smart critics who have praised it. I must have seen a different movie, or more likely I must hold different criteria with regards to quality. I expect a certain mystery and intricacy as a film follows its characters to the finish, and any sense that the filmmakers constructed their story in reverse, retrofitting a resounding conclusion with the steps it takes to get there, strikes me as antithetical to the mission of art, not to mention the strengths of cinema.
The only “abouts” worth fussing over in works of art have, in some way, to do with the nature of the medium itself. Ulysses is “about” consciousness, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is “about” perspective, Boyhood is “about” time. But each of these masterworks is “about” an infinite number of things as well, because a devotion to and mastery of artistic form leads to all-encompassing, endlessly reflective look at the world. Formal analysis is not an excuse to undermine the superficial pleasures of a film or flaunt a little thing only you noticed and no one else, but a method to truly evaluate greatness — to find words and reasons for what could otherwise be called magic. When a movie like A Most Violent Year, The Imitation Game or Birdman fails to say anything under close scrutiny — that is, say more than what already streamed from the mouths of its characters — it is because either the director had little grasp of the story’s complexity, did not know how to convey that complexity through cinema or both.
So much of the discourse surrounding film and television today latches on to the most obvious “abouts,” the kinds factory molded for think-piecing. High school English class, when we read The Great Gatsby and were told to identify its themes and figure out what the green light “meant,” still defines, and so limits, our expectations for moving pictures, and literature too. No one wants to stay in high school, yet our approach to film is surely stunted, not because it’s not intellectual or theoretical enough but because it likens drama, especially historical drama, to Spark Notes.
Cinema has the power to just look at people be, and in Boyhood, The Immigrant, American Sniper and Inherent Vice they can be compelling, contradictory figures at odds with the subject matter and expected politics of the film. Roger Ebert, the most mainstream film critic we’ve ever had, summed it up when he said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And what he surely implied is that the “how” is the fun part.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blackhat Review

Blackhat
Directed by Michael Mann
Released in 2015


The problem with Rotten Tomatoes and the good-bad polarization it has wrought on the wide release of films is that movies like Blackhat slip through the cracks. Movies like Blackhat: narratively suspect, baldly miscast, frequently silly and profoundly cinematic. Screened before solemn awards fare, Blackhat’s trailer only magnified those first three qualities at the expense of the fourth, which can only beam from the film proper. You need to actually watch the movie, go figure, with its rhythm and texture and flawed yet mindful visual schema. Blackhat is indeed needlessly lunkheaded at times, but then again so are most Michael Mann films and that does not stop any one of them from being essential viewing.
Director of Manhunter, Heat and Miami Vice, Mann shares the mantle with David Fincher as the Hollywood filmmaker exploring the aesthetic boundaries and philosophical implications of digital cinematography. He has long been able to capture human movement in thrilling, strangely emotional ways, as anyone who has seen the ending of The Last of the Mohicans or The Insider can incoherently testify. Since 2001’s Ali, Mann has shot with obviously digital handheld cameras, producing images replete with noise and motion smearing. It is a style offensive to those who look to James Cameron as the future, which might be one small reason among many as to why Blackhat turned in less than $4 million last weekend, certifying it the year’s first, and possibly worst, bomb.
Or perhaps no one could buy Chris Hemsworth, mighty Thor, as the genius hacker protagonist, introduced reading Baudrillard’s The System of Objects in his prison cell and doing handstand push-ups a minute later. I offer no defense for the realism of Hemsworth’s character, Nick Hathaway, nor can I even claim he is a cogently awesome creation. His dinner table oratory about the surveillance state coexists with shots of him coding on his laptop, blue shirt hanging open, ripped chest exposed. Nothing wrong with that, not at all, but with the love interest, Chen Lien (Tang Wei), falling for him the moment she sees him and her brother, Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), also Hathaway’s best friend and a Chinese cyber warfare expert in his own right, convincing the U.S. and Chinese governments that Hathaway is their Foucault-reading savior, the film takes his appeal for granted without including the suffering or neuroses or bed head to clarify that he is actually human.
Which is not to say that Mann fails to do anything with Hemsworth’s presence. Upon his release from prison, arranged so that he may track down a cyber terrorist who is using code he co-authored years before, Hathaway stares down his freedom, quite literally, in Mann’s trademark cool-guy-with-sunglasses-looking-off-into-the-distance move, but it’s not phony in the least. Immediately succeeding his contemplative pause is a long shot with Hathaway wedged at the top left corner, a sea of grey tarmac below him. Instead of endless sky, Mann gives us concrete ground, foreshadowing the tactile trials to come and dwarfing his hero not against nature but the man-made structures surrounding him. It’s an impressive moment, not redeeming of Hathaway’s haphazard characterization but mapping him onto this hostile world.
The globetrotting that follows incorporates its Chinese players to an organic degree atypical of American blockbusters, with a substantial amount of subtitled dialogue that other films with East Asian box office ambitions should seek to emulate, even if they won’t. At one juncture where Chen Dawai suggests their next move, the camera pans from him to Hathaway to FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis, deadly) as they nod in agreement, a swift paean to and marriage of both globalization and bodies coming to decisions in intimate space.
For all its talk of digital warfare and unseen systems, Blackhat is a devastatingly physical film, where high-energy chase scenes and shoot-outs come to startling, silent ends. When a key character expires from an unexpected volley of bullets, Mann juxtaposes their frozen face with a distant skyscraper reflected in a now-lifeless eye, driving home, in a just a couple seconds, the totality of human life lost, the indifference of the modern cityscape and the possibility of salvation.
Mann packs a million little metaphors like this into Blackhat’s brisk two-hour, 10-minute runtime, spinning action poetry out of admittedly silly material. The opening, in particular, is a roller coaster: We start in space, gazing at an Earth carved by its electronic networks, and get gradually closer and closer, soon riding along an Ethernet cable and finally zooming down an information superhighway of 1s and 0s.
The film’s climax realizes this special effects sequence in human form, as Hathaway closes in on the bad guys by cutting through streams of worshippers observing a Hindu festival in Jakarta. The representational politics are anomalously regrettable (so the faceless Indonesians might as well be code?), but the sequence affirms Mann’s commitment to telling his story, almost purely, through movement, as only expressive, hyperreal digital photography can. It’s not like he has much choice, the script being what it is, but Mann’s authorship makes Blackhat the first work of cinematic art of 2015, as inventive as it is flawed.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Beyond Outrage

It goes without saying that the Sony hack — in all likelihood North Korea’s response to the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy The Interview — and the Charlie Hebdo massacre vary in the severity of their crimes. But in both cases, strong and articulate progressive voices have countered all the calls to defend “freedom of expression” and #JeSuisCharlie’s by criticizing the content of the debateably satirical works themselves. Adrian Hong wrote a popular piece for The Atlantic titled, “North Korea: Not Funny,” while many on the left, in publications like Vox, Slate and Jacobin, criticized the content and motives of Charlie Hebdo. For The Hooded Utilitarian, Jacob Canfield said Charlie Hebdo’s “cartoons often represent a certain, virulently racist brand of French xenophobia.” These are well-meaning, well-informed lines of argument that raise issues we should be considering in 2015.
While in theory I should consign these critiques, I do not, because theory has no claim on comedy. While watching The Interview, I laughed a good many times, even as the critic in me groaned this has got to be Franco’s worst performance to date. While decoding the seemingly offensive cartoons via the blog Understanding Charlie Hebdo, which provides translation and context, I did not laugh, necessarily, but I understood how the caricaturists effectively put air quotes around their most egregious creations, often lampooning the perspective of their country’s serious and seriously racist National Front party. The politically engaged French citizen, knowing the context, could find these cartoons humorous, because their inherent shock value can catalyze in said person a needed second or two of reflection during his or her average, busy day.
Because if there is one thing art does that political criticisms of it too often forget, it provokes a response from the viewer — an emotional, physical, automatic response that imbues that art, no matter its quality, with an individual significance. So I may laugh at The Interview, a stupid film, and not be considered callous to the suffering of North Koreans or — worse of all! — a bad critic. It is a superficial, irresponsible movie with many many flaws, but it succeeded, for me, as passable entertainment. To judge The Interview as a failure because it does not convince its viewers to “do something to help change this odious regime and bring about human rights for North Koreans,” as Hong does, is to freight it with an Oscar-baiting importance that would induce fatal cases of eye-rolling in its target audience.
But I am grateful Hong wrote that Atlantic piece. While I may disagree with the parameters he chose for critiquing a particular film, he brings a far more significant issue — the plight of innocent North Koreans — to the attention of many. For every thousand Facebook shares fueled by schadenfreude, there has got to be one person who read Hong’s story and felt a pang of profound moral outrage, worth exploring more and taking action against. That positive outcome is something only the popularity, and stupidity, of The Interview made possible. Whether Franco and Rogen respected or trashed their film’s sensitive subject matter, the media will be there, assuming its post-Twitter role as a spontaneous and widely visible corrective to the sins of popular culture.
For better or worse, this chatter only crescendos when the object of passion is a challenging, thrilling piece of bona fide art. It is for this reason that no one is talking about The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game, with their spectacularly unearned denouements,and why we cannot stop arguing over Selma and American Sniper. Pitted by opportunists as ideological enemies, the latter two films both complicate their heroic narratives through changes of perspective (in Selma, Coretta Scott King rightly accuses her husband of something he does not fess up to) and uncomfortable pauses (as a V.A. psychiatrist questions the historically efficient sniper Chris Kyle, the camera lingers on the soldier’s face as he conclusively denies any feeling of regret). Neither film is totally devoid of sentimentality, but both provoke thought through emotion, ensuring that any moral misgivings will fester and leech.
I know there are some fine, smart people out there who will disagree with my praise for Selma and American Sniper especially, and that they could pursue more productive routes of attack than “Selma gets LBJ wrong!” or “That Chris Kyle was a liar.” That is how these things go, as they should. But it does us little good to go on about what A gets wrong about X or Y, because a great film’s politics should be difficult to reduce to binaries and viral polemic. Find a recruitment poster if you’re looking for a call to action, and go outside if you’re looking for facts. Emotion remains the only barometer of truth, so long as that emotion stubbornly resists translation.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Top 25 Films of 2014

We’ve got a lot of words below, so I will keep this short. Yes, 2014 was a great year for movies, and if you don’t think so I invite you to catch up with some of the selections below. Or better yet, harass me online or in person as to what I got wrong. A lesson I have come to terms with this year is that cinema only flourishes when faced with passionate, well-argued criticism.

In 2014, I found a lot of it at the well-respected venues (Kent Jones’ history of auteurism at Film Comment, Richard Brody on National Gallery at The New Yorker, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis on the year in film) as well as at Letterboxd, a Goodreads-like movie database/community that has become pretty much an addiction of mine. The site encourages you to file short reviews for each film you log as seeing, which for me has not only honed my writing but changed the way I think and watch. It’s all for the better, I’d say, though after you skim through/slowly savor the list below I invite you to browse my profile and make that judgment yourself.

And one last thing about Letterboxd: it tallies how many films you see. The damage for 2014? 411, and only 130 of those were movies released this year. “Only," ha.

Anyway, here are my picks for the year’s best, with links to my original reviews and Netflix when applicable:

1/25/15 EDIT: After second viewing, Boyhood promoted from #6 to #3


1. The Immigrant
It is disingenuous for a critic to set rules for what constitutes greatness, since masterworks, by nature, surprise and redefine their medium’s potential, at least in the minds of those enraptured by such works. But I found have found one constant across the films I consider the best, and that is something I would call the “Vertigo effect.” Contrary to debilitating dizziness, this feeling overwhelms me at various points (including, almost always, the ends) of great, great films, of which I use Hitchcock’s Vertigo as just about an unbeatable yardstick.

This feeling is a vast, complicated one, not necessarily sad but definitely incompatible with happiness. It is the feeling of knowledge, summated and rendered ineffable, departed from one fallen soul to another and yearning to converse without the burden of circuitous language. It is both a transcendent feeling and one rooted in the earth, for it is only through sounds and images that these films give form to poetry. It is a feeling of collapsed time and palpable history. It is a feeling multitudinous and impossible to do written justice, for it exists only in the medium of its making and even then, just barely.

The Immigrant, as is obvious by now, left me with such a feeling. It tells a simple story, of one woman spurned and coerced into prostitution by a covetous pimp (Joaquin Phoenix, perfect), a story far from new. Many character actions come and go without clarification, and much of the time our protagonist, Ewa (Marion Cotillard, also perfect), drifts by in a haze of reluctance and indecision.

But writer-director James Gray, with a touch of the sacred from Darius Khondji’s photography and Chris Spelman’s music, never allows Ewa to suffer for suffering’s sake. She always has an eye on meaning, self-worth and agency — in a word, the future, and how to make it hers. If the film leaves you with a heavy feeling, as described above, that feeling also emanates from two final acts of compassion, which together constitute progress. Progress may be antithetical to loss, but so rarely does art convey, with a clarity that transcends polemics and approaches gospel, how one cannot arrive without the other.  (My review) (On Netflix!)

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is at once Wes Anderson’s most challenging work and his most fast-paced and farcical. Which means there is a dissonance at its heart that most will overlook, not necessarily out of ignorance but incompetence. Lest that sound like me, the arrogant elitist, casting shade on the groundlings, know that I’ll readily admit to my inability to keep up with the speed of Grand Budapest’s invention, which manifests through shifts in color, intrusions of artifice (miniatures, key lights turning on, Gustave lecturing to the camera, etc.) and skips across time and aspect ratios. It might just be too fun to engage with “properly,” i.e. to discern its nuances from a distance.

All the more reason to watch it over and over. I’ve seen this film three times now, twice in theaters, and none of the jokes, which depend on framing (see above, and David Bordwell's essential essay here), sound (see here) and deep space (“She’s been murdered, and you think I did it.”) as much as words, have staled. It is truly an excellent piece of entertainment, in league with such obvious influences as The Grand Illusion and To Be or Not to Be. And like those classics, there is so much more going on under the surface than one viewing might be able to discern.

Most recently, I’ve been chewing on the idea that Gustave’s cultivated, decadent world not only “vanished before he ever entered it,” as Mr. Moustafa’s last lines conclude, but never existed at all. The constant, jarring reminders that this film is founded on artifice dislodge it from any historical reality, even as it makes unmistakable gestures to WWII. Anderon’s camera quickly surveys the hotel’s interiors yet leaves us with a near-complete image of every chamber, bath and staircase, including where and how they all relate to one another. Picture the concierge desk, with Zero behind it and Jason Schwartzmann later, and it will come to mind as a real place, one decaying across decades, if not in our memories. It is Wes Anderon’s humility that makes us long for a time we swear we could touch, even when it’s nothing more than his creation.




3. Boyhood
As easy to love as to hate, Boyhood has attracted and sustained so animated a discussion because of its perceived “relatability.” Some see themselves in Mason Jr.’s every milestone and indecision, while others resent that the all-encompassing sweep of the title points to yet another white boy from Texas. Both takes are correct, but what else is there in Boyhood? Its main subject, more than Mason, turns out to be time, and how it shapes who we are by virtue of its passing alone — doesn’t matter if you change for the better or keep making the same mistakes, because you’ll always be defined by your past. The film responds by moving ever forward, to the point where the story merely stops rather than ends. Past and future are palpable specters in Boyhood, pinned loosely by the enrapturing present of watching them all collide at once. (My review)


4. Manakamana
I am not being facetious when I say that Manakamana is one of most thrilling films of the year. It is two hours long and composed of 11 shots, each of which studies, in contemplative stillness, the occupants of a cable car gliding to and from the titular Nepalese temple. Most of those occupants are humans, though you spend one 11-minute stretch staring at goats, whose initial cuteness subsides once your mind wanders to their reason for inclusion, viz. their role in Hindu ceremony.

Your mind will wander a good deal, which is not a symptom of boredom but engagement. Blown up on a cinema screen, these men, women, children and, yes, bovids offer but a fraction of their lives for the camera, and the mystery of what transpired before and what will after takes on a most pressing importance. This introduces matters of modernization, representation and cultural relativism, all of which directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez (affiliates of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the breeding ground of such other adventurous documentaries as Leviathan and People’s Park), have in mind. But beyond theory and beyond words, Manakamana makes palpable the beauty of human connection, through the creation of art (as during that transcendent passage seen above) and the very act of existing in time and space. (On Netflix, with a hilariously low average star rating)

5. Inherent Vice
Where There Will Be Blood told the story of one man in monstrous control of his environment, Inherent Vice tells what can only loosely be defined as a story of one man, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), completely overwhelmed by his. Between these two Paul Thomas Anderson films lies the gap between modernism and postmodernism, Great Men and everyone else, capitalism and whatever comes next. From the erratic appearances of Doc’s ex, Shasta Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), to the ever-shifting “Golden Fang,” which takes on forms insidious and innocuous, the elements of Inherent Vice contradict and confound, as you might expect of a Thomas Pynchon adaptation.

This not just narrative but tonal and thematic murkiness has led to downright hostile reactions from some, but there are two reasons I believe this to be a great film: First of all, it is hilarious, pretty much non-stop for the first hour. You got Joaquin shuddering at doors slamming behind him and white nuclear families running drugs and Josh Brolin blowing a frozen banana in the out-of-focus foreground of a minute-long shot. This is endearingly bizarre and very formally precise comedy that feeds into what I believe to be the film’s primary mission: to make strange, and thus apparent, the corruption, hypocrisies and queasy power structures of American society.

This Anderson and D.P. Robert Elswit do through filmic, undoubtedly sober images, which constitute my second reason. Inherent Vice is a weird movie but not a surrealist one, for it uses the indexical, this-is-reality properties of the cinematic image to see its subjects anew. The world is screwed up enough without it needing to be filtered through and conflated with a dream, basically. If approached in such a manner, that Anderson and Pynchon are not just out to “mindfuck” you, then not only will you enjoy Inherent Vice but you may learn something from it too. It’s just that those lessons happen to indict the systems of meaning and value most of us take for granted. Funny, isn’t it?

6. John Wick
Coming to terms with John Wick’s greatness requires a few concessions. One: Keanu is preternaturally good at what he does and I feel that’s a truth we don’t bow to enough. Two: Cinema is such an audiovisual medium that a mediocre script, as in John Wick’s case, does not preclude but actually facilitates greatness — that is, if the directors are game. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, veteran stuntmen but first-time auteurs, most certainly are, crafting thrills, laughs and uncannily beautiful moments out of choreography, color, camera movement, music cues and precisely timed pauses. Three: Subtext means nil if it does not spring out of a vital, vibrant piece of art, and once in a rare while that art can also front as a dumb action movie and be easily, blissfully enjoyed as such. (My review)

7. Two Days, One Night
A moving and riveting act of witness, Two Days, One Night strikes the perfect balance between politics and character study as it follows one factory worker, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who must convince her colleagues to forfeit their €1000 bonus so that she may keep her job. Her scramble for votes finds form in a deliberate, door-to-door structure, which would be stiff and overly schematic if not for Cotillard’s ability to register each victory or setback with a shift in gait, a return inward or unspooling out, a raising or quieting of the voice also dependent on the outcomes before. By condensing her struggle into a thriller-like race against time, the Dardennes push Sandra out of depression and into action, into the hands of those who may ignore her pleas but must at least look into her eyes as they do so. It all builds to one of the least sentimental triumphs of optimism in art cinema history, filled with grace and will and hope for the unknowable future.


8. National Gallery
“Sublime” is somehow a word both archaic and overused, but it is apt to describe and praise Frederick Wiseman’s latest. On paper a cinematic tour of London’s prestigious art museum, National Gallery builds to something far more limitless and mysteriously affecting by the time its final frame cuts to black. It takes three hours to get to that point, and in trademark Wiseman fashion no protagonist or clear-cut goal carries the narrative. In fact, this documentary is looser and quieter than his last film, the four-hour masterpiece At Berkeley.

But it’s anything but boring, considering how Wiseman’s camera observes the museum’s brilliant docents, restoration facilities and stringent director, Nicholas Penny, whose frank, borderline contemptuous impatience with some of his colleagues affirms, once again, Wiseman’s unsung talent at capturing the often heated climate of the workplace. As educational and even funny it may be moment-to-moment, this film glides with a kind of unpretentious majesty, through history and through all the mediums of art, from painting and music to dance and discourse. It left me stunned yet empowered, as if I came upon a banquet with every great Western artist in attendance and Rembrandt caught my eye and pulled out the empty stool between him and Holbein.


9. Under the Skin
As cold and cruel a vision you will ever see, as well as one of the most vibrant, Under the Skin is a lot of movie. The events as they occur are legible enough, but some of them exact an emotional toll (particularly a scene on a beach and its nocturnal follow-up) so traumatizing to throw the narrative and its larger ‘point,’ or at least your perception of these things, into disarray. Which is, itself, one of the movie’s points: to distance you from Scarlett Johansson’s protagonist to such an extreme so that you become aware of your own affect, and how affect is perhaps the key tenet to being human.

The film’s second half brings Scarlett down to earth, as it were, and introduces such human qualities as emotion and sensuality (as opposed to just sex) into her bloodstream. But with morality comes vulnerability, which is especially strong when you’re a woman who looks like Scarlett. The terror at the end confirms the feminist undercurrent that will have been so obvious for some since Scarlett’s entrance and, in turn, contextualizes the film’s dispassionate violence. There is indeed a point to Under the Skin, many of them, but with Jonathan Glazer’s visuals, Mica Levi’s score and Scarlett’s ultimate femme fatale rumbling at the surface, there comes a point where the mystery becomes more enticing, and distressing, than any of the assemblages of words that could solve it.


10. Selma
I don’t need to tell you how Selma is an indisputably, unbelievably relevant film. That it takes place 50 years in the past makes this fact all the more alarming, but again, this you know. What I can tell you is that Ava DuVarney’s Selma is just about a miracle of filmmaking intelligence, the awards-hungry biopic premise executed with poise, perspective and artistic panache. Sure, you’ll have no choice but to stump for Best Actor hopeful David Oyelowo, who does justice to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by foregrounding the unknowable bustle of his inner life, or Best Supporting Actress contender Carmen Ejogo, who not only is a dead ringer for Coretta Scott but makes flesh her strength and compassion. There are innumerable obvious assets in Selma’s favor, but I have a feeling it won’t vanish in a few months time because it was all flash, no truth, as is the case with its competitive peers.

Like Lincoln, Selma pays very close attention to political procedure, and how it forms those who hack through it as much as the other way around. The ideology that is spoken hews closer to moral philosophy, and some of the most moving passages turn to God (like after the second Selma bridge impasse) or his earthbound translators (Martin’s phone call with Mahalia Jackson). Meanwhile, during the traumatic “Bloody Sunday” reenactment, the crack of the lash from a horse-riding policeman to a fleeing protestor’s back not only drives home the act’s cruelty but sends the waves of history crashing down on you in the theater, a witness to violence spanning eons.

Selma feels so uncommonly wise because it’s not about a historical moment or the idea that fuels that moment (justice!), but how only through the conflict between embroiled motivations and coolheaded tactics do those moments appear. A great man once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and the brilliance of Selma is how it embodies that “universe” more than any other word.


11. Mr. Turner
Selma excepted, Mr. Turner is my ideal of a biopic: a mosaic of non-events, scenic rambles and moral contradictions without a three-act structure leading it all any one place. This will frustrate those who hope to learn about Turner's technique, or what hardships he so valiantly had to overcome, or why his art ‘matters.’ The first and last time we see J.M.W. Turner, he is sketching outdoors in silhouette, bookends to remind us not only of Dick Pope's gifts but how the alchemy of genius cannot be explained by language, filmic or otherwise. Which is all to say the portrait this film interprets out of the relatively calm life of J.M.W. Turner is incredibly complex, hinting at his disgust for pollution, violence and bourgeois custom as motivations for his art and demeanor while depicting his casual cruelty without apology. If the film lacks thematic through lines, it more than makes up by lining each scene with a quiet yet universal revelation. (Excerpted from a longer review here)

12. Force Majeure
The only movie on this list, the only movie this year, that feels like it should have a Janus Films logo at its start, for better or worse. The “worse” parts, for me, are actually among Force Majeure’s assets: Its modernist trappings, and embedded critique, evoke Tati and Antonioni more than those of contemporary cinema’s groundbreaking artists; its husband-wife sparring owes a great deal to Bergman, who is out of fashion in critical circles today but who I adore nonetheless; and its ambiguous, literally foggy ending echoes Fellini, if not the Neorealists.

Which is all to say that if Force Majeure is not the year’s most original film, it is also one of its most splendidly argued, excoriating gender roles through meticulous frames that also allow space for passion, humor and bug-eyed delirium. I submit the shot where Mats and Tomas sit on pool chairs, fumbling with girls, beers and their own bodies, as the answer to the leading question in A.O. Scott’s much-read essay: “Who or what killed adulthood?” (My review)


13. Bird People
It’s safe to say nothing can prepare you for this, which, for once, does not portend a ghastly Michael Haneke or Gaspar Noé nightmare but a hopeful, winsome story of freedom. I’d advise you go in cold with Pascale Ferran’s latest, but do know that alongside its romantic pleasures, this film interrogates the inhuman efficacy of working class labor, the privilege of the jet set exploiting them and technology’s effect on the flesh-and-blood relationships relating to both parties.


14. Stranger by the Lake
"I'm gonna soak up the sun
Before it goes out on me
Don't have no master suite
I'm still the king of me
You have a fancy ride, but baby
I'm the one who has the key
Every time I turn around
I'm looking up, you're looking down
Maybe something's wrong with you
That makes you act the way you do
Maybe I am crazy too"
—Sheryl Crow


15. Snowpiercer
The sushi to Marvel’s roach bars, Snowpiercer is a blockbuster about many things — inequality, revolution, father-son relationships, shoes — that dares to be funny, heartbreaking and weird. That Bong Joon-ho covers a wide tonal spectrum should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen The Host or Mother, two of the most inexplicable yet oddly affecting genre films of the last decade. Bong knows an audience, regardless of taste, wants to feel something from a movie, and so he tunes every moment for maximum impact. It’s a post-apocalyptic movie where the weight of each human life impresses upon you even as Bong throws so many away, one by one.  (My review) (On Netflix)


16. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
It’s nice, every now and then, to watch a movie that totally wrecks you and remember that you have a soul.


17. Goodbye to Language
I need another go at Godard’s latest to see if my reserved admiration can blossom into full-on love. There’s a good chance it will, since I will not make the same mistake of expecting a narrative to cohere and order its pleasures. For the pleasures here are gloriously formal: the heart-sinking twirl of Gia Kancheli’s “Abii Ne Viderem”; the frizzled outline of Roxy Miéville, Godard’s exceptionally cheery hound; the z-axis distance between fingers curled around a gate and the woman those fingers belong to, gazing off somewhere else. It is insufficient to say that every shot is beautiful because shots do not exist adjacent to one another in Goodbye to Language. Images not only superimpose upon another — they fill different eyes, due to Godard's deconstruction of 3D's left-right polarity, at the same time. This is interactive cinema that needs to be picked up by a Kiarostami or Weerasethakul, but no one will forget the confounding thrill of watching Godard master it first.


18. The LEGO Movie
“All I'm asking for is total perfection.” (My review)


19. The Last of the Unjust
Everything about this movie, from its title to its length (three hours, 40 minutes) to its subject (the Holocaust), screams a pretty miserable time at the movies. But a good two hours of The Last of the Unjust fly by, in the company of Benjamin Murmelstein, the last Jewish Elder of Theresienstadt ghetto. Interviewed by Claude Lanzmann in 1975, he defends his controversial spot in Jewish history, and how his impossible task was to “accomplish something without having any power.” Lanzmann neither vindicates nor condemns him but lets him speak, and an engaging, jowly presence he is. Juxtaposing Murmelstein’s testimony with tours of Theresienstadt’s relics today, Lanzmann stresses language’s failure to unlock the Shoah and yet our incessant need to try. (My review)


20. American Sniper
I did my patriotic duty with this film right here, which I, naturally, invite you to read. The film is not some rah-rah “U.S.A.!” piece, but the story of one brutally efficient soldier, stripped of all moralizing. What you take from it will depend on your view of a soldier killing another soldier — not war, which is played by politicians — as a “necessary evil.” Simply “necessary” and thus incapable of being “evil,” or vice versa? You and I lean one way or the other in our individual interpretations of the phrase, but American Sniper sits right at the middle, proposing an unholy equilibrium between the two. No film this year demands or deserves a moral grappling so much as this one.


21. Lucy
Yes, Lucy is actually amazing and, yes, I also included Lucy on this list to piss off the haters, who must be punished until the end of time. Lucy will be waiting for them there. (My review)

22. Venus in Fur
Roman Polanski’s answer to that three-word, one-star review of Certified Copy on Netflix: “needs more BDSM.” This two-hander sees narrative progress as razing gender binaries and yet, somehow, none of my friends have heard of it. Cinema is still the new cinema! Watch this! (My review) (On Netflix)


23. The Strange Little Cat
If you have ever leaned against the wall of your narrow apartment hallway, and your relatives suddenly poured in through the door in front of you, and your dad called from the other room asking you to greet them, and the old familiar voices drowned out each other, and the dog couldn’t stop barking, and the chop-screech-chopping of carrots in the kitchen somehow grew louder over this bedlam, and you remained pinned there to the wall, in hell but wearing a smile, then rest assured that The Strange Little Cat knows you.


24. Night Moves
The movie where Mark Zuckerberg relapses back to his previous life, Norman Bates, and all hell breaks loose. A sensuous slow-burn, which I enjoyed wallowing in more than Only Lovers Left Alive and other protracted, nocturnal affairs, Night Moves sees Jesse Eisenberg weaponize his introversion to a chilling and finally devastating degree. The great Kelly Reichert catches some of the creepiest angles, from afar and up suffocatingly close, of this young star and another, Dakota Fanning, that this world will ever have the privilege to see. Eisenberg’s environmental terrorist is the embodiment of psycho male creepiness today, the weirdo who would torture you with dental tools and not even have the courtesy to ask, “Is it safe?” (My review)


25. Non-Stop
I think we can all agree this is really the best film of the year. (My review)

How About 10 More, This Time in Alphabetical Order:
Beyond the Lights
Coherence
Edge of Tomorrow
Foxcatcher
Listen Up Philip
Love Is Strange
A Most Wanted Man
Nightcrawler
The Trip to Italy (My review)
Wild (My review)

The Actors:

Best Lead Female Performance: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night and The Immigrant
Six Other Great Ones: Julianne Moore, Still Alice; Essie Davis, The Babadook; Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Belle and Beyond the Lights; Lisa Loven Kongsli, Force Majeure; Reese Witherspoon, Wild; Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

Best Lead Male Performance: Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Six Other Great Ones: Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant and Inherent Vice; Ralph Fiennes, Grand Budapest Hotel; David Oyelowo, Selma; Philip Seymour Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man; Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler; Jesse Eisenberg, Night Moves

Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton, Snowpiercer
Five Other Great Ones: Carmen Ejogo, Selma; Patricia Arquette, Boyhood; Julianne Moore, Maps to the Stars; Kim Dickens, Gone Girl; Melisa Sözen, Winter Sleep

Best Supporting Actor: Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Five Other Great Ones: Rob Brydon, The Trip to Italy; Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher; Ethan Hawke, Boyhood; Tyler Perry, Gone Girl; J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Other Random Superlatives:

Five Amazing Non-Narrative Non-Features: Glistening Thrills (dir. Jodie Mack); Never Catch Me (dir. Hiro Murai); Too Many Cooks (dir. Casper Kelly); Transformers: The Premake (dir. Kevin B. Lee); Pizza Freaks Unite (dir. Tim & Eric)

Best Soundtracks: Under the Skin, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice

Gotta Throw in a Good Word For: Still Alice

I Actually Really Enjoyed: Need for Speed, Hercules, Pompeii, new Hobbit, Oculus

The Ten Greatest Older Movies I Saw for the First Time in 2014 (see a list of 50 here):

  1. Certified Copy (2011, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
  2. My Darling Clementine (1946, dir. John Ford)
  3. The Birds (1963, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
  4. The Shop Around the Corner (1940, dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
  5. Tropical Malady (2004, dir. Apichatpong Weerasekathul)
  6. Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)
  7. The Long Day Closes (1992, dir. Terence Davies)
  8. Trouble in Paradise (1932, dir. Ernst Lubitsch)
  9. Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme)
  10. Sherlock Jr. (1924, dir. Buster Keaton)

Most Revelatory Rewatches: Vertigo (1958, dir. Alfred Hitchcock), Mulholland Dr. (2001, dir. David Lynch), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)

Best Film Book I Read This Year: Films and Feelings by Raymond Durgnat

Worst Films: A Million Ways to Die in the West, A Field in England, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Potentially Great Movie Ruined by General Fatigue and the Noxious Perfume Emanating from the Woman Sitting Next to Me at the Film Forum: Leviathan

I Bought This Acclaimed 2013/2014 Movie on Blu-ray But It’s Not Gonna Arrive Until Like February: Stray Dogs

Limited Release Movies I Regret Not Yet Seeing But, Honestly, There’s Only So Many Times I Can Bus in From New Jersey — That Is, When I’m Actually in Jersey and Not Upstate, as Is the Case for Eight Months of the Year — And See What May Be Less Than a Slam Dunk (in order of decreasing regret): Closed Curtain, Actress, What Now? Remind Me, The Overnighters, Miss Julie, Concerning Violence, Beloved Sisters, Story of My Death, The Blue Room, Jimmy P., Life of Riley, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baby Yaga, See You Next Tuesday

Well-Received 2014 Festival Releases That Won’t Open Until 2015 (Or At Least I Think): The Iron Ministry, The Duke of Burgundy, Clouds of Sils Maria, Jauja, Respire, Hard to Be a God, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, The Princess of France, Mommy, Timbuktu, The Look of Silence, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

The 130 Movies Released in 2014 That I Saw This Year (with hyperlinks to my original reviews, bolded if they are full length):
Abuse of Weakness; The Amazing Spider-Man 2; American Sniper; The Babadook; Belle; Beyond the Lights; Birdman; Bird People; Blue Ruin; Borgman; Boyhood; Calvary; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Citizenfour; Coherence; Dawn of the Planetof the Apes; Dear White People; The Double; Dumb and Dumber To; Edge of Tomorrow; Enemy; Exhibition; The Expendables 3; A Field in England; Force Majeure; Foxcatcher; Frank; Fury; Get on Up; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night; Godzilla; Gone Girl; Goodbye to Language; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Guardians of the Galaxy; The Guest; Hercules; The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies; The Homesman; How to Train Your Dragon 2; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1; Ida*; The Imitation Game; The Immigrant; Inherent Vice; Interstellar; The Interview; It Felt Like Love; Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit; Jealousy; Jersey Boys; Joe; John Wick; Land Ho!; Last Days in Vietnam; The Last of the Unjust; The Lego Movie; Leviathan; Life Itself; Like Father, Like Son; Listen Up Philip; Locke; Love Is Strange; Lucy; Magic in the Moonlight; Maleficent; Manakamana; Maps to the Stars; The MazeRunner; A Million Ways to Die in the West; The Missing Picture; A Most Wanted Man; Mr. Turner; Muppets Most Wanted; National Gallery; Need for Speed; Neighbors; Nightcrawler; Night Moves; Noah; Non-Stop; Norte, the End of History; Nymphomaniac; Obvious Child; Oculus; The One I Love; Only Lovers Left Alive; Palo Alto; Particle Fever; Pompeii; Proxy; The Purge: Anarchy; The Raid 2; Rosewater; The Rover; Sabotage; Selma; Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; The Skeleton Twins; Snowpiercer; A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness; Starred Up; Still Alice; Stranger by the Lake; The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears; The Strange Little Cat; The Tale of Princess Kaguya; The Theory ofEverything; The Trip to Italy; 22 Jump Street; Two Faces of January; They Came Together; Thou Wast Mild and Lovely; Top Five; Tracks; Transcendence; Transformers: Age of Extinction; Two Days, One Night; Under the Skin; The Unknown Known; Venus in Fur; A Walk Among the Tombstones; We Are the Best!; Welcome to New York; Whiplash; Why Don’t You Play in Hell?; Wild; The Wind Rises; Winter Sleep; X-Men: Days of Future Past; TheZero Theorem

*I cooled on this one considerably after a second viewing.