Minority Rules: Movies Most Loved But I Hated

Snowpiercer (2014)

Have science-fiction socioeconomic allegories declined since Fritz Lang, or what!?! Lang’s Metropolis was a brilliant Marxist cautionary tale about a future when the poor work underground to sustain the lavish lives of the rich above. Bong Joon-Ho never saw or never understood Metropolis when he fever-dreamt Snowpiercer, a ripoff dystopian thriller about the last vestiges of humanity riding a train through a frozen wasteland on tracks that never need repairs with the poor (dead-weight in the caboose) saved from expulsion for harebrained purposes I won’t reveal; but I will suggest sterilization as a less convoluted alternative. Steely-eyed messiah Chris Evans, who retains a perfect buzz-cut despite living in claustrophobic squalor, leads a revolt up to the deified conductor. Ignore the flimsy premise, forget the asinine plot, overlook the dunderheaded classism metaphor—and Snowpiercer is still an overly violent and cynical train wreck which I loathed pretty much from “all aboard” to “last stop”.

10 Best Movies Of 2014

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood"

Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”

1. Boyhood

Boyhood is director Richard Linklater’s portrait of the artist as a young man. Shot over twelve years with the same cast, it follows Texas kid Mason, who ages from six to eighteen as both he and the actor playing him mature before our eyes. No film I’ve seen has so humbly toed the line between fact and fiction, between character and performer, between screenplay and real-life. As his childhood years are conveyed in a succession of small formative moments, Mason splits time between his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), who we watch change as well, physically and emotionally. In that way, Boyhood suggests that growing up is a process that occurs everyday and lasts a lifetime.

2. Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch’s far-out hipster cinema takes an appropriately supernatural turn with Only Lovers Left Alive. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries-old vampire lovers who hang around Detroit in an abandoned house that evokes Dracula’s castle. The demon-rock score is like haunted heaven; the actors are brilliantly droll; the art direction transforms rows of condemned auto plants into a gothic wonderland. In a canny metaphor for the lethargic routine of a junkie lifestyle, the two crave blood and then spin into satisfied ecstasy once they consume it. More than anything, Only Lovers Left Alive is a great love story about how intellectual unity can transcend an eternity of tedium.

3. Ida

In the tradition of post-war art cinema, Ida is a devastating drama about confronting the hidden horrors of World War II. In sixties Poland, an orphaned nun leaves the convent days before her solemn vows to learn how her parents perished during the war. In artful black and white, the cinematography is beautifully symbolic, as subjects sink down to the bottom of the frame, crushed under the weight of history above. The heroine and her dejected aunt, a Holocaust survivor who now ironically works as a Soviet bureaucrat, literally unearth and reinter family skeletons. But Ida isn’t interested in resolutions, rather the painful ambivalence of coping with the past or choosing to ignore it.

4. Leviathan

Like most noteworthy Russian art, Leviathan is a magnificent bummer. A mechanic in a seaside village enlists an army friend, a Moscow lawyer, to help stop the mayor from seizing his property. He’s unaware, however, how helpless he is before the larger familial, legal and spiritual powers at work. First keeping its distance, the film then surreptitiously pulls you in, until eventually the troubled faces become unshakeable. The title makes dual allusions—to both the biblical sea-monster described in Job and Thomas Hobbes’ book on the freedoms we sacrifice for protective government. Hence Leviathan shows how Russia’s corrupt church and state collude to steamroll everyday people, one hand washing the other.

5. Under The Skin

Jonathon Glazer’s Under The Skin is the rare sci-fi horror film with the philosophical heft of early Cronenberg. Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial spider-woman who drives around Scotland luring Johns to their dooms and harvesting their tissue for unspecified purposes. With a disregard for exposition the story unfolds like a microscope over a virus coming into progressively clearer focus. The indelible images cast a trippy variegation of colored filters, and the hypnotic score features the scratchy strings of The Shining. By the end, Under The Skin’s chief concern is the discovery of self, which it suggests could mean the distinction between bestial indifference and human empathy.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s dollhouse filmmaking has never felt as rich and melancholy as in The Grand Budapest Hotel. The central farce recalls Lubitsch: in Europe, between world wars, a smarmy concierge vies to recover a valuable painting he inherited from a deceased crone. That plot, however, is merely a nesting doll within a more substantial epic. The caper occurs under the looming cloud of war, and the persecutory hand of Fascism appears often. Like most Anderson films, The Grand Budapest Hotel has plenty of deadpan whimsy, but what resonates is its underlying tragedy of love found and inevitably lost, of nostalgia and regret, of lives swept up in the unstoppable flow of history.

7. Mr. Turner

As British Romantic-era landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, Timothy Spall communicates more through gurgles and grunts than most actors can doing Shakespeare. In Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh’s eloquent biopic, the subject is a revered master but also a cad who ignored his wife, shacked-up with an Irish widow, and abused the servant woman who loved him. Spectacular photography illustrates how pictures made it from his private perception to the gallery wall. But most poetically the film depicts how he became an overnight laughingstock for experimenting with abstraction centuries before it was acceptable. Mr. Turner concerns a complicated man whose genius was both his legacy and downfall.

8. Whiplash

Great art often emerges from toxic situations. In Whiplash, a young Jazz drummer at a prestigious New York conservatory butts heads with his martinet instructor. The teacher (played with terrifying vigor by character-actor J.K. Simmons) hurls both insults and objects while the pupil counters with impregnable ambition. Like the Black Swan of band movies (minus the hallucinatory nonsense), the film demonstrates what an artist sacrifices for his art. But the showstopper finale, as the editing assumes the thrilling tempo of the music, channels the freeing rhapsodic spirit of Jazz itself. Thus Whiplash ultimately insinuates that greatness is borne from the synergy of all inspirational forces, positive and negative.

9. Night Moves

Who knew such a suspenseful thriller could come from Kelly Reichardt’s naturalistic, understated direction? Night Moves follows a trio of environmental terrorists (Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg, in my favorite male performance of the year) as they plan and execute the bombing of a hydro-electrical dam in Oregon. The centerpiece crime unfolds so patiently it’s harrowing; the characters reveal their true selves only once the heat of exposure surrounds them like homemade napalm. Even before the ambiguous conclusion, Night Moves proves a captivating study of impotence, or the combustible frustration wrought by repressed sex and an inadequacy to effect change in the world.

10. Force Majeure

Like a great Polanski film, Force Majeure is about the perils of intimacy. A Swedish couple and their two children take a ski-trip to the French Alps, where a natural near-disaster causes a serious rift. The location’s chalk-white placidity and the hypnotic patterns and sounds skiers create as they traverse fleshly groomed runs may put the mind at ease. But like a mountainside before an avalanche, the calm is startling, the silence deafening, and this nuclear family quietly boiling with anger and shame. Force majeure means a term-of-contract wherein parties agree to shed liability after an extraordinary occurrence. This deftly funny, complex film uses that to symbolize the roles men and women expect each other to play.

Honorable Mentions: Locke, The Lunchbox, Venus In Fur, Palo Alto, Nightcrawler

Response Journal: Nightcrawler (2014)

How to make it in America

A chilly satire about perverted entrepreneurship and the unscrupulous media, Nightcrawler is worthwhile. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a sociopathic self-starter who finds his calling with nocturnal freelance news photography. Eavesdropping on police scanners he speeds around Los Angeles’s hairpin highways and mountainsides to capture the bloody aftermaths of crashes, structure fires and homicides. He then sells the footage, the more shocking the better, to the highest bidding networks. With greasy hair, a suit pulled from a manikin at a department store for recluse pedophiles, and the grin and gait of a released mental patient, Gyllenhaal plays creepy surprisingly well. The character’s antisocial peculiarities manifest in the way Gyllenhaal speaks as if he’s reading an instructional brochure and turns every conversation into a negotiation: Bloom’s sexual advances toward a desperate TV producer (Rene Russo) fall somewhere between bartering and blackmail. The baroque cinematography and seedy production design combine to turn LA landmarks—Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Park, and Hollywood Boulevard, et al—into stops along the River Styx as Bloom becomes the Beelzebub of ambush journalism, more aggressively chasing premium stock and attempting to establish a successful brand, which includes eliminating the competition (Bill Paxton) and exploiting a naïve intern (Riz Ahmed). Moreover writer-director Dan Gilroy blends various genre elements rather smoothly—in a car-chase Bloom films police on a high-speed pursuit; a suspense set-piece unfolds as he sneaks into a home, burglary in progress; gory images complement breakfast for morning-news consumers; and in an astonishing instance of black comedy Bloom explains good business practices to a dying gunshot victim. As a character study of a nighttime loner who descends into madness amid urban sprawl, the movie is like Taxi Driver for the Internet Age; but whereas Travis Bickle was a misguided romantic, Bloom is a coldblooded misanthrope whose unsavory ambitions make him closer to some machine-like metaphor for cutthroat capitalism than a breathing human being. Such simplistic characterization, dialogue that too explicitly conveys themes and James Newton Howard’s emotionally pushy score deprive the movie of the psychological illuminants of finer pulp filmmaking. In the end, though, I think Nightcrawler prefers the shadows and makes engaging enough the morbid cynicism it finds there.

Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Production design by Kevin Kavanaugh.

Response Journal: Birdman (2014)

Batman by way of Laurence Olivier

In Greek mythology, Icarus famously flew too close to the sun on wings made from wax then plummeted to his death once they melted. An obvious inspiration, Birdman makes mention of Icarus more than once, but I think the myth applies more to the director—Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu—than to the movie. The running theme with his work is that his ambitions outmatch his abilities, and he always crashes midflight. A backstage musical (of sorts), Birdman cannily casts Michael Keaton as a washed-up movie star who headlined a popular superhero franchise in the nineties. To prove his worth as a serious thespian he adapts a Raymond Carver novel into a play to direct and star in himself. Naomi Watts and Edward Norton play his impertinent costars, but since everything is intended as raucous Theater, the company also includes Zach Galifinackis as a stressed-out financier, Emma Stone as Keaton’s bratty assistant/daughter, Amy Ryan as his pensive ex-wife and Lindsay Duncan as Broadway’s haughtiest tastemaker. All are terrific, particularly Keaton as a wistfully self-deriding joke on his own diminishing celebrity and Norton as a genius prima donna so engrossed in performing that he’s forgotten how to experience reality. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably noteworthy, with fisheye close-ups that spotlight Keaton’s roadmap of wrinkles (likewise Stone’s lizard-face) and handheld long-takes that follow the characters through narrow corridors and into lonely dressing rooms. With invisible transitions borrowed from Hitchcock’s Rope, the editing conveys an illusion of impromptu seamlessness. Accompanied by a jazzy drum score, the overall aesthetic suits the world of high-strung actors, histrionic misbehavior and raging egos. For all that, the movie overexerts in the final third, taking off into befuddled flights of fancy and faltering to jejune storytelling, thus accomplishing little beyond entertaining bombast (especially compared to the other film this year set in a playhouse—Roman Polanski’s Venus In Fur). While I enjoyed this Inarritu picture more than any other, an Inarritu picture it remains, so alas, Birdman concludes feeling long, disjointed and thematically ambivalent when not painfully obvious. Despite tremendous work, the cast and crew cannot rescue their director from soaring into the sun yet again, though it must be said, soaring is itself an astonishing feat.

Costarring Andrea Riseborough. Music by Antonio Sanchez.

Response Journal: Fury (2014)

“It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.” – Robert E. Lee

If Fury director David Ayer is so convinced of war’s awfulness why does he also seem so damn fond of it? In the last days of World War II an American tank commander (Brad Pitt) leads a crew comprised of shallow genre stereotypes—a religious guy (Shia LaBeouf), an ethnic guy (Michael Pena), a vulgar guy (Jon Bernthal) and a new guy (Logan Lerman)—as they rumble through bombed-out Germany. Lerman’s hastened arc from a wan puking rookie to a hardened Nazi-killer extraordinaire provides some semblance of narrative structure, though all the characters are unlikable, appear closer to a band of pirates than a band of brothers and drop more mumbled platitudes than machine gun shells. The only good scene is when they confront a superior German tank and the two behemoths circle one-another in an armored combat waltz. The most ambitious sequence, however, occurs immediately before in an awkward attempt at quieter human drama when the men sit down for eggs and coffee with two petrified fraulein hostages. It’s heavy-handed at best and hateful at worst since the only aspect of humanity David Ayer really wants to explore is our entrails. Feebly aspiring to match the apocalyptic air of Ingmar Bergman’s Shame and the visceral carnage of Saving Private Ryan, Ayer’s picture is nothing besides dung-ugly exploitation with so much gratuitous violence (a man commits suicide to end the pain of burning alive, civilians hanged from power lines decorate the roadside, bulldozers shovel heaps of dismembered corpses into mass graves) and tastelessly morose production design (somber skies, fields chewed into muddy pits, wrecked smoking vehicles). Sure everything serves to remind that war is hell, but not all wars are the same and zero insights on this particular conflict are ever opined which dooms Fury to resolute bleak pointlessness. That description, while apt for many historical events, is one no movie should ever proudly advertise.

Costarring Jason Isaacs. Cinematography by Roman Vasyanov.

Response Journal: Venus In Fur (2014)

Getting into character

Roman Polanski is a wanted man, has been since 1977. Yet he continues to make movies, especially ones that echo his clandestine existence. A fascinating adaptation of a Tony-winning play, Venus In Fur features just two cast members and one location, a perfect setup for the filmmaker’s brand of intimate malevolence. In an antiquated theater in Paris, a director (Mathieu Amalric) has about quit auditioning actresses for his latest production, when in enters one final candidate (Emmanuelle Seigner), an overeager, mysterious blonde whose name coincidentally is the same as the character’s. She reads with him substituting as her scene partner. Soon the text’s sadomasochistic chamber drama manifests itself anew as line-readings blur and overlap with directorial notes and creative interjections. Polanski always enjoyed setting his scenarios in claustrophobic places, and Venus In Fur is confined not merely to the playhouse but almost entirely to its stage, where the filmmaker can posit his philosophy that nothing—not even art—can protect people from themselves. Essentially a play-within-a-play-within-a-film (not to mention the original literary source and the props left onstage from an ill-advised iteration of Stagecoach), the film’s layers of artifice seep insidiously every which way. Lacing Polanski’s customary apprehension with doses of sexuality and wry humor, Venus In Fur is simultaneously good theater and intoxicating cinema.

Music by Alexandre Desplat.  Screenplay by David Ives and Roman Polanski.

Response Journal: Boyhood (2014)

In search of lost time…

Had Marcel Proust been a filmmaker from Texas, he might’ve directed Boyhood. Like any painstaking modernist opus, Richard Linklater’s remarkable coming-of-age drama had a notorious development. It was shot annually with the same cast for twelve years. Though the concept has existed in similar forms (Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, to name one), none has in a single installment so acutely explored the spaces where life and art intersect. The story follows Mason (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane, the film’s other subject) as he ages on camera from a quizzical moppet to an artistic graduate, splitting time between his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). A dozen years of shifting fashions, fads, and Top-40 tunes repurpose Mason’s upbringing into a cultural artifact, a time capsule of America in the early 21st Century. His physical maturation (height, weight, hairstyle, clothing and inflection) indicates an ongoing spiritual conflict with social expectations and clueless authority figures. It’s clear his parents had children before they were even adults themselves. The conclusion insinuates not the end, but the dawn of many more transformative years. Boyhood shows that life, comprised of millions of character-shaping moments, is a continual process of growing up.

Editing by Sandra Adair.  Costarring Lorelei Linklater.