Thursday, January 29, 2015

My Thirty(one) Most Anticipated Films of 2015

Hey, have you guys heard they're making a new Star Wars movie?

Conventional wisdom dictates that all of the good, award-worthy movies come out at the end of the year while all of the billion-dollar popcorn movies run May-July.  Don't get me wrong, I'll consume all of that as well, but it is almost always the films that fall between the cracks that make the biggest impression on me.  Here's what I'm most looking forward to as we wave goodbye to the 2014 Oscar™ parade caboose.  For a much shorter read, check out a list of My Wife's Most Anticipated Films of 2015.

30. White God (Fehér Isten) (d. Kornél Mundruczó)
This Hungarian film opened to mixed reviews at Sundance despite winning the Prize Un Certain Regard at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.  It looks like a pretty hokey drama but a pretty sweet B-horror.  It'll be interesting to see how the two are reconciled.
U.S. limited release: 27 March 2015

29. Seymour: An Introduction (d. Ethan Hawke)
Another audience favorite (taking second runner-up for the People's Choice Award in Best Documentary at Toronto last fall), Ethan Hawke's examination of concert pianist Seymour Bernstein is hopefully the musical equivalent of Golub.

28. Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller)
His first non-Happy Feet movie in almost two decades, George Miller's return to roots looks like the best kind of over-the-top, Drive Angry, grindhouse exploitation.
U.S. release: 15 May 2015

27. The Look of Silence (d. Joshua Oppenheimer)
Danish documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer has won huge accolades on the festival circuit with his sequel to 2012's The Act of Killing.  This is sure to be harrowing.
U.S. limited release: July 2015

26. Ned Rifle (d. Hal Hartley)
The third, final and-- if it lives up to the hype-- best chapter in Hal Hartley's extended Henry Fool trilogy casts Parker Posey alongside Aubrey Plaza.  The film is scheduled for screening at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and will hopefully get a limited U.S. release by the summer.

25. 3 and 1/2 Minutes (d. Marc Silver)
On the heels of #blacklivesmatter, Marc Silver's documentary debuts at the Sundance Film Festival and recounts how gun culture and racial bias culminated in the 2012 death of 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida.  Like last year's Citizenfour, this appears to be a timely, relevant and uncompromising historical document and, hopefully, work of art. 

24. Round Up (d. Sufjan Stevens)
This is a weird Sufjan Stevens "documentary" that appears to be an environmentalist art installment of a slow-motion rodeo.  Maybe this one is only for me, and who knows if I'll ever even be able to see it.
Release: It'll probably show up on Vimeo in like three years.

23. Killers (d. Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto)
This seems like a crazier (and probably more straight-genre) version of I Saw The Devil.  Brutal.
U.S. limited release: 23 January 2015

22. It Follows (d. David Robert Mitchell)
This looks like a really stylish genre piece in the vain of Starry Eyes and The Guest.  This is the kind of thing that seems fit for VOD nowadays, but I hope I can see this somewhere outside of FilmBar.
U.S. limited release: 27 March 2015

21. High-Rise (d. Ben Wheatley)
The prolific Ben Wheatley has given us Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England all since 2011.  I don't even know what this movie is about; I'll be there.

20. Mistress America (d. Noah Baumbach)
Baumbach has found his muse in Greta Gerwig in what looks like a combination of mumblecore and screwball comedy.  #mumblescrew
Release: I'd guess limited late-summer

19. The Witch (d. Robert Eggers)
Sundance darling that apparently sounds like exactly what it is.  You had me at "witch."

18. Spring (d. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead)
In their follow-up to the genre-bending Resolution, Benson and Moorhead return with a "romantic horror" which looks to buck convention while making me real uncomfortable.  This is a lot of what I loved about Under the Skin and Trouble Every Day, so I have high hopes for this one.
U.K. release: 17 April 2015; hopefully U.S. will follow suit

17. Nie yin niang (d. Hsiao-Hsien Hou) 
His first feature since 2007's Flight of the Red Balloon, marking his longest professional hiatus by some distance, this film-- which I know nothing about (including pronunciation)-- is on here by reputation alone.  It's currently listed on IMDb as in post-production and sounds like the kind of thing that will debut at Cannes and half of the audience won't be into it.  

16. The Sea of Trees (d. Gus Van Sant)
I'm hoping this is Van Sant's return to form (like "Death trilogy" form, not self-congratulatory crowd-pleasing form) in teaming with Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts in something that sounds an awful lot like Gerry.  Gerry with trees.

15. Z for Zachariah (d. Craig Zobel) 
I can't say enough good things about the under-recognized Compliance, but where Zobel turned huge performances from a non-recognizable ensemble cast, his latest currently credits only Margot Robbie, Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor who are, possibly, the last known survivors on earth.  This title may compete on my short list of "favorite Z-titled films" alongside Zelig, Zero for Conduct, Zero Dark Thirty and a few Zatoichi pictures.
Danish release: 16 April 2015.  Thanks, IMDb.

14. The Duke of Burgundy (d. Peter Strickland)
Technically, this thing is already out.  From the guy who brought us Berberian Sound Studio and the Björk: Biophilia Live concert film, the unofficial prequel to Anchorman.  
U.S. limited release and VOD: 23 January 2015

13. Kamakura Diary (Umimachi Diary) (d. Hirokazu Koreeda)
A domestic drama adapted from the manga of the same name, this thing seems to be right up the alley of Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (Still Life, Nobody Knows).  I wouldn't be surprised if this thing debuts at Cannes as it's set to open in Japan a month later.
Japanese release: 13 June 2015 

12. Love in Khon Kaen (d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) 
From Thai director Weeransethakul's website, Love in Khon Kaen "tells of a lonesome middle-age housewife who tends a soldier with sleeping sickness and falls into a hallucination that triggers strange dreams, phantoms, and romance." Sounds par for the course for the guy that brought us Uncle Boonmee.

11. The Lobster (d. Yorgos Lanthimos)
From the crazy Greek who brought us Dogtooth, here's hoping that The Lobster follows the recent European arthouse tradition-- alongside Attenberg and Borgman-- of confounding fever dream.
U.S. limited release: March 2015

10. From the Dark (d. Conor McMahon)
Irish creature-feature which casts only two actors.  From the director of Stitches.

9. Crimson Peak (d. Guillermo del Toro)
"But basically what it is is a really, really, almost classical gothic romance ghost story, but then it has two or three scenes that are really, really disturbing in a very, very modern way. Very, very disturbing, it's a proper R rating. And it's adult."
— Guillermo del Toro
So, basically, Pan's Labyrinth with Jessica Chastain?  This could skyrocket close to #2 on my list, but my excitement is tempered by my disinterest in returning to Pacific Rim
U.S. release: 16 October 2015

8. Green Room (d. Jeremy Saulnier)
I'm looking for Saulnier to catapult to the forefront of American directors (genre or otherwise) after the exceptional Murder Party and Blue Ruin with this killer tagline: "A young punk rock band find themselves trapped in a secluded venue after stumbling upon a horrific act of violence."  Starring Imogen Poots and featuring Patrick Stewart as a Neo-Nazi. 

7. Darkness by Day (El día trajo la oscuridad) (d. Martín De Salvo)
I've been excited about this movie since I first heard of its existence and it still has no U.S. distribution.  I hope someone picks this up before it hits Latin American torrents.

6. Yeezus: The Film (d. Hype Williams)
No one knows anything about this movie, including if it even exists.  Kanye released a teaser trailer last February.  Expect me to be camping out if this gets a theatrical release.

5. Tomorrowland (d. Brad Bird)
The next in the proud tradition of theme-park related films, Brad Bird will again play King Midas to something that would sound like a dumpster fire in anyone else's hands.
U.S. release: 22 May 2015

4. '71 (d. Yann Demange)
Full disclosure:  I've seen this one and it rules.  I don't expect this to play well this side of the Atlantic, but it should further flex Jack O'Connell as an A-list actor where his last few American features let him down.
U.S. release: 27 February 2015

3. The Hateful Eight (d. Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino continues his foray into historiological metafiction through redemptive violence and blissful cinematic commentary.  Inglourious Basterds was no mere Dirty Dozen knock-off, Django Unchained re-Americanized the essence of the spaghetti Western, and we have every reason to believe The Hateful Eight will play genre in a way that pays healthy respect to, but completely transcend expectation and source material of, its Magnificent Seven reference.  I mean, look at that poster.
U.S. release: 13 November 2015

2. Midnight Special (d. Jeff Nichols)
Jeff Nichols may very well be the next true American auteur.  Midnight Special seems to follow familiar themes in Take Shelter and Mud of the disillusionment of childlike wonder and the seams where the fabric of paternal leadership begins to tear.
U.S. release: 25 November 2015

1. Knight of Cups (d. Terrence Malick) / Untitled Terrence Malick Project (d. Terrence Malick)
I'm cheating by ending this list with a twofer, but it is an unprecedentedly exciting place in cinema where the short distance between 2011 and 2015 can produce as many Terrence Malick films as the previous 39 years.

What do I know about Knight of Cups?  Very little.  I don't even understand what the title possibly refers to, and I'll keep it this way.  Remember when The Tree of Life was coming out and people were touting how it took Malick a long time to balance the harsh representation of fatherhood with the developing technology which made the dinosaurs look legitimate?  There was no way to wrap my mind around a statement like that without actually seeing it, and my visceral and emotional connection was heightened by this ignorance.  I know Christian Bale is in it.  I know Natalie Portman is in it.  I know Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett and Nick Offerman are in it.   I know '70s posterboy Ryan O'Neal adds Terrence Malick to his already crowded résumé of New Hollywood directors he's worked with (including Stanley Kubrick, Peter Bogdanovich, Blake Edwards, Norman Mailer, Richard Attenborough).  But I'm not convinced any of them could even tell us what it is about at this point.

I know even less about the second feature.  Including its title.  I know it has a slightly improved cast (if that can be fathomed) with a few carryovers and I know the two films were shot, more or less, concurrently. Maybe Untitled will come out in 2015?  If not, the recent trove of Malick will hold me over for a lifetime.

I also know To The Wonder is my favorite film of 2013, and I know The Tree of Life is my favorite film of my lifetime.  That's all I need to know.  By all means, watch the trailer.  But I haven't.

U.S. release: 11 December 2015 (Knight of Cups)

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Friday, January 9, 2015

The 40 Best Films of 2014

What does the cultural barometer tell us about ourselves in 2014?  I think our films tell us that we are resilient.  Look at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken: these films aren’t Jessica Chastain crying in the back of a military transport, they’re about heroes doing heroic, American things.  Funny, then, that the latter is a story of forgiveness that never gets to the forgiving, and the former is a tale of war-caused PTSD which ends before its real-life protagonist’s life is cut short by a veteran with PTSD.  They’re jingoistic smoke and mirrors with the guts to only look at the smoke.

A recurring theme in this year’s films is the uncanny valley: doppelgangers abound, enemies disguised as ourselves, emasculation of and prescribed heroes and, in the case of Doc Sportello, learning he couldn’t see the mirrors for the smoke.  We need the movies not for, as Detective Rustin Cohle says, the “transference of fear and self-loathing to an authoritarian vessel,” but to see what is ugly about ourselves and why this demands we approach others with grace.  This bumper crop projects our lives back upon us, reminding that sometimes what is hardest to watch is the most necessary.  Our resilience was never called into question, only its cost.

With no intention of being contrarian, my list avoids the much fawned-over Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue or Ignorance) and I find much of their praise misguided herd mentality.  The best of the three, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a hell of a gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless and one that would be better served with a more cohesive through line and character depth.  Writer Guild and ACE editing nominations belittle much of the work on my list which didn’t have the luxury of twelve years.

I used to be an unabashed, card-carrying member of the Cult of Wes Anderson and still hold The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited in my top 100 films of all time.  Crushing to me is that, since the naval-gazing increased with his last two features, he has finally achieved universal acclaim.  His work has become a parody of itself and leaves me hollow where it was once edifying.  The notes are pristine, but they ring untrue.  The Grand Budapest Hotel is ramshackle, fun and a throwback to classic screwball comedy—kind of in the same way Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight is a throwback to classic romantic comedy.  One is seen as a shallow disappointment, one has bloggers lobbying behind it for Best Picture nominations.  Both lie somewhere in the middle.

Birdman is another beast altogether.  Perhaps the most critic-proof of the three, the film attempts to both vilify Hollywood’s franchise inclination (a lazy critic’s m.o.) and eat its cake too, lecturing a one-dimensional critic.  Embarrassing, then, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Godzilla are all better and more human films.  The indictment on critical herd mentality isn’t unfair, only misplaced: the critic’s job is to trace culture’s de Broglie-Bohm theory.  To express what is objective, in our souls, about the arts.  To expose pretention and put words to the poetic ineffable.  Birdman, as it turns out, is indeed quite effable.  Eff Birdman.

The punchline is all of this is likely moot as far as the Academy is concerned, for The Imitation Game certainly looks most like a Best Picture™.  Kudos for being honest enough among the contenders to eponymously name its feign at art.

I initially intended to wait to compose my list until A Most Violent Year grew legs into the Phoenix suburbs.  As it turns out, that won’t be until at least January 23.  It is with a heavy heart that the film joins a short list of contenders which I found no way to see in 2014: A Girls Walks Home Alone At Night, National Gallery, Citizenfour, The World of Kanako, Stray Dogs, Mommy and three films which have yet to find distributors: Darkness by Day, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga and Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait.  I hope this working list is usurped by a few of these in the year to come.  Conversely, it was hard to bite my tongue and leave Yann Demange’s ’71 off the list as it is due for U.S. distribution in February.  Even with spots reserved for the possibility of two Terrence Malicks, it’s assured a top ten finish in 2015.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Best Short Films of 2014

Before I wrap my list of favorite films of the year, I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorite short films from 2014.  Academy Award nominations will frustrate completists in a couple of weeks and I feel safe in my prediction that, not only will none of these compete for a prize, their online availability proves that (sorry, Academy) the Internet is the most viable medium for the format.

10. Sean (d. Ryan Reichenfeld)

SEAN from Ryan Reichenfeld on Vimeo.

Ryan Reichenfeld of Justin Timberlake music video fame has created an oddly philosophical everyman piece about a teenage Jack In The Box employee from Lake Havasu, Arizona: a naive nihilist in the land of Spring Breakers.

9. Breathe (d. Laron Murray)

Eric Garner BREATHE from Laron Murray on Vimeo.

Turning a dying man's pleas into a spoken word call to justice and solidarity, the brevity of Laron Murray's Breathe is harrowingly self-referential.

8. Are You Okay (d. Bret Easton Ellis)

Following the ever-growing trend of blurring the line between short film and music video, Bret Easton Ellis's cut of Dum Dum Girls' "Are You Okay" certainly benefits from one of the finest dream-pop songs of the year and from Dee Dee Penny's long-established persona of grindhouse feminism.  (see also Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself" with similar bubblegum-goth, L.A. subversion in another of the best music videos of 2014).

7. Verbatim: What Is A Photocopier? (d. Brett Weiner)

Brett Weiner's New York Times Op-Doc is a word-for-word historical recreation highlighting the unintentional humor of legal deposition.

6. Kid Danny (d. Andrew Cohn)

ESPN's best "30 for 30" short film of the year catches up with Danny Almonte who-- amidst a teenage Miguel Tejada scandal--  threw a perfect game in the 2001 Little League World Series.  Typical of the best ESPN films, it is both sappy and redemptive in the best way.

I've fought with ESPN's video player for the whole year, so it is of no surprise that their embed feature doesn't work now.  The film can be viewed here.

5. Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' (d. Travis Mills)

Jack London's A Piece of Steak - Clip - 52 Films in 52 Weeks from Running Wild Films on Vimeo.

The pinnacle of Travis Mills's "52 Films in 52 Weeks" project (though closely followed by Ring Lardner's 'Harmony'), the adaptation of Jack London's 'A Piece of Steak' (quotations added to avoid an awkward insult) is a one-man highlight reel put on by Jonathan Medina.

As the only film on the list not currently available online (I suspect Mills is curbing his proliferation in preparation for his upcoming "Lose Yourself"-moment in his next film, Durant's Never Closes), keep an eye out as this will be available again at some point in the year.

4. The Dream (d. Errol Morris)

The best of Errol Morris's trio of Op-Doc "Peace Films," the biographical documentary of Nobel winner Leymah Gbowee avoids schmaltz and approaches profundity.

3. Gan-Gan (d. Gemma Green-Hope)

Gan-Gan from Gemma Green-Hope on Vimeo.

The heir to Joseph Cornell.  A Scott Stark contemporary without a shred of pretension.

2. The Time-Eaters (d. Harry Dodge)

The Time Eaters—Harry Dodge from Futurepoem on Vimeo.

A Kierkegaardian Before Sunrise re: hydrophilic chemistry, the cremasteric reflex and pie crusts.

1. Too Many Cooks (d. Chris "Casper" Kelly)

I initially wrote this off as a clever (and musically brilliant) meta riff until it subverted my expectations so many times I could no longer keep track.  There's a serial killer (the only uncredited character) who stands in for us as we demand these characters live out this hell in a piece that finds commonality between "Roseanne" and Lars von Trier's The Kingdom.  It's a condensed, Internet-era marriage of Chris Elliott's "Action Family" and T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland which manages the impossible: it is sincere in its irony.

It also understands itself to its core: an Adult Swim "infomercial" that I only wish I discovered while awaking from a hangover, on the couch, at 4:30 A.M.  I want to meet the person who unknowingly walked into that nightmare.  I Am A Strange Loop, indeed.  (See also their follow up-- and cousin-- Unedited Footage of a Bear).

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