Monday, January 12, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

2014 was an uneven year. There were some great films out there, but they came at unusual times. Even though the summer movie season had its typical run of duds, there were some surprising gems in the hot months as well. 2014 also restored a little bit of faith in the power of creativity, as original films outshines remakes and sequels more prominently than in recent years. From big to small, fun to furious, here are the ten best of 2014, in my humble opinion...

10) Interstellar - Christopher Nolan's space epic has plenty of warts. But where it loses points in its faults, it gains just as many with ambition and awe. A film about the end of the earth and a search for a new one must be big, and Insterstellar carries breadth in spades. Matthew McConaughey continues to dedicate himself fully to his roles, and the moments of breathtaking action and suspense shine brightly.

9) Guardians of The Galaxy - This seemed like a risky proposition for Marvel, throwing a lot of money at a relatively unknown property like Guardians. But everything worked, from top to bottom, and the result was the biggest box-office hit of the year and a rousingly funny and exciting action flick. A perfect end to the summer.

8) Blue Ruin - The smallest and most intimate film on this list is simple at its core, a man seeking revenge. But Blue Ruin is executed with such minimalist focus and tension, it burns itself into your consciousness. Director Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair take familiarity and tighten the screws on the suspense to create a seamless story, full of quiet rage.

7) Wild - Ever since her Oscar win in 2005, Reese Witherspoon has floundered through roles she has admittedly not been that enthused about. But with Wild, Witherspoon delivers her career best. As Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail in order to regain control of her life, Witherspoon keeps the story grounded and emotional. Laura Dern also delivers a heartfelt performance as Cheryl's eternally optimistic mother, seen in flashbacks.

6) Gone Girl - The sensational story at the heart of David Fincher's film adaptation of Gillian Flynn's sensational novel feels ripped from the TV tabloids. I expected this story to pop up on 20/20 or 48 Hours. Rosamund Pike deserves an Oscar nomination for her role, and the film remains true to the source material while adding a whole new level of energy. Part media satire, part murder mystery, part gender role reconfiguring, Gone Girl is a salacious sensation.

5) Snowpiercer - Joon-ho Bong's visceral sci-fi action film takes the post-apocalypse and traps it on a speeding train where a caste system keeps the train society separated. The psychological unraveling of the people aboard this train is the most overlooked aspect of the film, an action film with plenty to say about society, and plenty to do in the realm of sensationalism. Action scenes are inventive and fresh, and Chris Evans gives the best performance of his career.

4) Whiplash - I didn't expect much from this film when I walked in, aside from a few memorable performances. What I got was a gut punch. Whiplash is a simple story about a talented young jazz drummer and the sadistic, borderline psychotic band leader at a prestigious New York music school (J.K. Simmons, Supporting Actor frontrunner) who pushed him to the brink. Whiplash is an intense experience, and Miles Teller, who plays the lead, is about to become a star.

3) Birdman - This is a film that grows on you as you watch it. the closeups and claustrophobia of the cinematography takes time, but a few minutes in you are used to it and the film blossoms. Michael Keaton delivers the performance of his career as Riggan Thomson, a washed up actor trying to revive his career and find credibility on broadway. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt, Birdman is an unforgettable experience, a wonderful bit of magic realism in the end.

2) Nightcrawler - Slinking about like a sick coyote, Jake Gyllenhaal channels Travis Bickle in this LA thriller. Nightcrawler is a hypnotizing and unsettling look at the state of media these days, and Gyllenhaal's performance is singular. But what mustn't go overlooked here is the job Rene Russo does, revitalizing her career as Gyllenhaal's has-been boss. This is a quiet masterpiece.

1) Boyhood - What is so magical about Richard Linklater's Boyhood is the way it is so unassuming. The story itself does not force anything upon the viewer, it is observant, it simply watches as Mason (Ellar Coltraine) grows up throughout the 12 years the film was shot. There are no swelling melodramatic moments, no hard moments, just life unfolding. I recently watched it again, and was blown away by its omniscient genius. Boyhood deserves all the awards.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Inherent Vice

INHERENT VICE: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (148 min.)

I knew this was going to be a tall task, even for a director as gifted and, up to this point, as flawless as Paul Thomas Anderson.

I read Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice in 2013. At least I think I did. The book was open, my eyes fixated on the page, reading the words in front of me, but to try and remember anything I read would require a feat of recollection of which I am incapable. The book is a muddled stoner masterpiece to some, but to me it was simply incoherent, impossible to follow, not nearly as funny as everyone said. And yet, when I heard Anderson was directing a film adaptation, I figured if anyone could iron out the kinks of the novel and make an entertaining picture it would be Anderson. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

Inherent Vice is true to the roots of Pynchon's novel, which is its ultimate downfall. It captures the essence of the story, a pot-fueled post hippie California crime story that lives on the flip side of the film noir coin. The story's vessel, Larry "Doc" Sportello, a stoner private investigator played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, is put upon by an avalanche of shady and increasingly grating characters in this southern California, a land reeling from the Manson murders and adrift in the years after the hippie movement began to unravel. Doc's ex flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up at his house one night, delivering an ominous tale of her lover, her lover's wife, the wife's lover, and murder. None of it is very clear, and that is merely a harbinger of things to come.

Doc gets into, or falls into, the investigation surrounding Shasta's lover, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real-estate magnate who is nothing more than a human MacGuffin for the film. Wolfmann disappears, everyone wants to find him or one of his associates, a mysterious ship on the coast is brought in, women come and go... Along the way, Doc runs into characters on every corner of the hippie lunatic fringe. The oversexed, overmedicated, smoke filled crooks and miscreants drop their own little bits of information into Doc's clouded brain, thickening the investigation and confusing things even more.

There is Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, the flat-topped detective played by Josh Brolin, who takes joy in harassing the dirty hippie Doc. Reese Witherspoon shows up as an FBI informant, I think, who also enjoys slumming it with Doc to get a little high and watch political coverage on TV. There is Owen Wilson, who plays a heroin-addicted musician drawn into this convoluted plot of missing persons and shady real estate deals. Benicio Del Toro plays Doc's counselor of sorts, a casting choice I feel was deliberately made to harken back to Del Toro's turn as a whacked out lawyer to Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Martin Short plays a shipping magnate who enjoys cocaine and women, and none of them really even matter in the end.

Inherent Vice is meant to be seen as an episodic tale, a series of little vignettes that don't even make an effort to pay off in the end. Segments work individually, sometimes, and sometimes they go on much too long and the dialogue drowns into noise. Meant to be comedic most of the time, the laughs become increasingly sparse as the film drones on and on, well past two hours. Everyone does their best job with the characters they are given, a testament to Anderson as a director. But the film becomes an endurance test, losing steam rather than gaining.

I never knew what was going on in Inherent Vice, but I don't think the intention of anything in the film was to be clear. Anderson takes an un-filmable work, films it, and the result is about what one would expect.