So here’s my Top 21 for 2014. As always, this is not some kind of attempt at an objective “Best Films of 2014,” these are my personal 21 favorite films that I could have legitimately seen in 2014 in the States (theatrical, VOD, cable, import DVD/Blu-ray, screener copy) that I actually watched during the 2014 calendar year. If I didn’t see it during the year, it’s not eligible for my list. Them’s the rules! Also, there are 21 of them instead of the traditional 20, because 2014 was a ridiculously good year for movies. And now, on with the show:
21. CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY (dir. Jerzy Rose, USA)
Sometimes it’s a legitimate complaint that every character in a particular movie is completely unlikeable. Sometimes, though, that’s entirely the point. Chicago filmmaker Jerzy Rose’s second feature film, CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY, follows miserable couple Lewis (Mike Lopez) and Brownie (Lyra Hill) on parallel story lines. Lewis, an insufferably self-centered Dean’s Assistant at an unnamed university, has been tasked with investigating an ethnomusicologist who may be sleeping with his students and/or running a Satanic cult on campus. Brownie, grieving the death of her rabbit Meagan, has a series of spectacular accidents that barely register any of Lewis’s attention. Rose surrounds them with a wealth of strange supporting characters, and the combination of the hilariously loose detective story and upper-class academic setting makes the film feel like THE BIG LEBOWSKI by way of Hal Hartley and Todd Solondz. CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY is one of the best and most original independent comedies of the year, and if you have a Fandor subscription you can actually watch it right now. You probably should.
20. SNOWPIERCER (dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
Was there a movie in 2014 more misunderstood than SNOWPIERCER? It seemed many viewers were bewildered by the film’s streak of absurdist humor, but Bong Joon-ho is no stranger to including humorous elements in his work. And it’s not like we weren’t warned in advance, with plenty of stills and trailers showing Tilda Swinton’s character available long before the film finally landed in U.S. theaters. While I felt like it neatly blended its disparate elements, many viewers seemed to think it was either too goofy, too violent, too obvious, or too something. Almost regardless of who you asked, SNOWPIERCER confounded expectations, whatever they were, and some people were excited by that and others dismissive. I was in the former camp, and believe it is one of a handful of exemplary English-language debuts for Asian filmmakers from the last few years including Shunji Iwai’s VAMPIRE and Park Chan-wook’s STOKER. It’s a beautifully made, carefully designed surrealist action/satire that perfectly exhibited the strengths of its director. However, it also acted as a strong callback to a high watermark of 90s foreign cinema. If you showed me SNOWPIERCER and told me that it was the movie Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro made after THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN, I would have no reason not to believe you. It’s solid advice for pretty much any movie, but it’s particularly relevant to this one: try to go in with as few expectations as possible and see where you land.
19. PING PONG SUMMER (dir. Michael Tully, USA)
Writer/director Michael Tully’s last film was 2011’s bizarre comedy SEPTIEN, and maybe being familiar with that film helps make sense of his follow-up, PING PONG SUMMER. Even more than WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, this film feels like something that could have actually been *made* in the 80s, but Tully’s focus on unique, realistic characters sets it apart from straight parody. Newcomer Marcello Conte is fantastically awkward in the lead role of Rad Miracle (!), but Myles Massey totally steals the show as Teddy, Rad’s new best friend for the summer. The film evokes the weirdness and discomfort of being a teenager on extended family vacation perfectly, following Rad as he hangs out with Teddy at the local arcade (The Fun Hub) and makes an enemy of a local rich kid, but also spending a lot of time with Rad’s family–including a visit to Rad’s beach bum aunt and uncle played by Amy Sedaris and Robert Longstreet that’s as creepy as it is funny. If you’re expecting a straightforward parody of 80s teen movie tropes, you’re probably going to be utterly perplexed. However, if you’re willing to engage PING PONG SUMMER on its own terms, you’re in for a treat.
18. WE ARE THE BEST! (dir. Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
Lukas Moodysson, coming off a string of hard left turns (I’m sorry, I still haven’t been able to sit through all of CONTAINER), takes another one by delivering absolutely, unquestionably the funniest, sweetest, most out-and-out entertaining “girls starting a rock band” film since LINDA LINDA LINDA. A pair of bored preteen girls living in Stockholm in the early 1980s and convinced that punk is not dead decide to start a band, well before they have any concept of how to actually play instruments or any other junk like that. They eventually recruit a third girl who has no friends because she’s a Christian, but she knows how to play guitar. The three girls hang out, talk about boys, cut each other’s hair, complain about their families, and even occasionally practice their song (“Hate the Sport!”). The three lead actresses are all amazing, and in a lot of ways this plays like a comic companion piece to Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, using 80s Stockholm as a backdrop to a completely different kind of story about bored kids. Moodysson avoids “band movie” cliches like the practice montage, instead spending a lot of time with the characters and their families, as well as the goofy but well-meaning guys who run the community club where they practice.WE ARE THE BEST! leaves the viewer with a surprising moral: Being in a band with your friends is great, but being in a really terrible band with them is even better.
17. DISCOPATH (dir. Renaud Gauthier, Canada)
Filmmaker Renaud Guathier is clearly a student of Italian exploitation cinema, and DISCOPATH is to Poliziotteschi, giallo, and “schoolgirl in trouble” films of the 70s what BLACK DYNAMITE is to blaxploitation action films. Duane Lewis (Jérémie Earp-Lavergne) is a young man living in New York. It’s 1976, and disco is taking over the world. This is bad news for Duane, who is driven into an involuntary murderous rage whenever he hears that disco beat. He flees New York to pose as a deaf janitor at a girls’ school in Montreal, but disco follows him everywhere. Soon enough New York detective Paul Stephens (Ivan Freud) reads about the girls’ school murders and teams up with grizzled Montreal Inspector Sirois (François Aubin) to find the killer before it’s too late. The attention to period detail in DISCOPATH is excellent, sold not just through wardrobe and a few well-chosen licensed songs on the soundtrack, but with an excellent original score by Bruce Cameron and a canny replication of 70s exploitation film structure. DISCOPATH feels like a tribute to Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES (a bizarre giallo/slasher) and Alberto de Martino’s BLAZING MAGNUM (an Italian crime film shot in Montreal) with a healthy dash of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. It’s one of the best and funniest horror oddities of the year, and more proof (as if we needed it) that Canadian filmmakers are almost eerily in tune with ’70s exploitation cinema.
16. SUBURBAN GOTHIC (dir. Richard Bates, Jr., USA)
Richard Bates, Jr. follows up his debut EXCISION with this excellent, hugely entertaining comedy/horror. There’s a sense of fun here that is all too rare in genre films of any type, and Bates sustains that energy and light tone even through the darker parts of the story. Matthew Gray Gubler stars as Raymond, a directionless young man who moves back home with his parents and rediscovers a long-dormant ability to see ghosts. Before he knows it, he has a wisecracking partner, Becca (Kat Denning), and multiple spirits with problems that they are more than happy to share with him. It takes a little while to get up and running, but once it does SUBURBAN GOTHIC is a riot, and when the perfectly-chosen end credits song started playing, I nearly teared up. The cast is great all around, but Ray Wise stands out as the Raymonds’ father, a racist high-school football coach who makes no effort whatsoever to hide his disappointment in his son. This is an independent movie not afraid to just be flat-out fun, and I hope it gets a wide release in 2015, because it deserves to be huge.
15. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (dir. James Gunn, USA)
And then on the other side of the scale, James Gunn brought the party back to gigantic sci-fi blockbusters with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Easily the funniest and most unique film to come out of the Marvel “shared universe” so far, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY delivers a sweeping space opera with an engaging cast of characters and eye-popping distant worlds without losing sight of the fact that anything this basically goofy should always be *fun*. Sure, there are nitpicks to be made about the story falling into the typical Marvel blueprint, but with characters this enjoyable, that’s easy to overlook. Everybody seems to be having the time of their life making this movie, and it’s infectious–even Michael Rooker, under layers of makeup, is clearly having a blast. Gunn even manages to pull off the damn-near miraculous feat of recontextualizing a bunch of tired old pop songs that you’ve heard a million times before and making it feel like the first time you’ve ever heard them. This is basically the perfect blockbuster, one that doesn’t take itself too seriously and delivers a great ride with a group of endearing characters–and tons of stuff blowing up, of course.
14. A FIELD IN ENGLAND (dir. Ben Wheatley, UK)
And now, as the old man said, for something completely different. Ben Wheatley has proven over the course of four features that he’s one of the most interesting directors working in the UK. His fourth and latest film, A FIELD IN ENGLAND, is a huge departure from his previous work. Taking place during the 17th century civil war in England, the film follows Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a timid literate who flees his commanding officer and takes up with a trio of other deserters, Cutler (Ryan Pope), Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover). Cutler leads them into a vast field by promising a neutral town with an ale house lies on the other side, but in fact his plan is to lead them to his master O’Neil (Michael Smiley), magically imprisoned in the field and searching desperately for a treasure that may not exist. The setting and style would be enough to set A FIELD IN ENGLAND apart from just about any other feature film released this year, but Wheatley takes it even further by shooting the whole thing in gorgeous black & white, with some crazy psychedelic imagery to simulate the hallucinogenic effects of the mushrooms the men eat. There is some genuinely horrific imagery in this film, but it’s not all as grim as that suggests. Wheatley gives the film welcome moments of humor that help keep the proceedings from getting overly dour. It makes a perverse kind of sense that Wheatley’s next film is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, and after A FIELD IN ENGLAND, I can hardly wait to see it.
13. IDA (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland)
I only managed to see IDA once this year on the big screen, but it made a deep impression. Part of that was the experience of watching a 35mm print of the film at the Music Box, possibly one of the last major independent or foreign films that will be projected in that format. But mostly, it was the film itself, a quiet, gorgeous, thoughtful little drama that also serves as a masterclass in black and white cinematography and framing. IDA is a series of static black & white shots, one after another, in which the characters appear and interact. Agata Trzebuchowska stars as Anna, a young woman raised by the church and about to enter a convent in 1960s Poland. Shortly before she is due to take her vows, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) contacts the church and requests that Anna come visit her. Reluctantly, Anna goes to meet her, and Wanda reveals to her the story of her family and how Anna ended up in the care of the church. During her visit, Anna is exposed to the outside world for the first time, and she must decide whether she wants to remain there or return to the convent. Everything about IDA is quiet and understated, and its cinematography is exquisite. Every shot is more beautiful than the last. It is appropriate that Music Box Films should be distributing IDA, a film that feels like a delicate music box itself.
12. UNDER THE SKIN (dir. Jonathan Glazer, UK)
There is a scene in UNDER THE SKIN that is one of the most harrowing, upsetting scenes from any film in recent memory. Our unnamed protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) stands on a cold, gray Scottish beach and watches from a distance as a family’s visit to the ocean turns deadly. She stands quietly and watches dispassionately; the camera does the same, just letting the scene play out. It takes a while to even figure out what is happening, because we are so conditioned as filmgoers to seeing this sort of thing covered in particular angles and cuts. We are not accustomed to just watching things like this happen. It’s a way in to Glazer’s approach, his way of showing us that what we are seeing in this film is from the viewpoint of a different kind of intelligence. UNDER THE SKIN is cold, brilliant and terrifying, anchored by a disturbing lead performance by Johansson as a predatory alien who takes the form of a human woman and lures unsuspecting men to their doom. It is a concept that, in other hands, could have been a cheap pulp entertainment. Glazer turns it in to a singular art-horror film of the first order. Special mention must be made of Mica Levi’s unnerving score, one of the best of the year. It is deeply unsettling on its own, and it’s impossible to imagine the film without it.
11. THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (dir. Gareth Evans, Indonesia)
THE RAID was basically a perfect movie that set a goal and met it over and over and over again: let’s watch a bunch of badasses beat the living shit out of each other in as many different ways as possible. Fists, feet, elbows, shins, knees, knives, guns, WHATEVER, just keep it coming. Virtually every fight sequence in THE RAID was damn near the best fight sequence ever filmed. So what the hell were they going to do for a sequel to that? Well, fortunately they kept the amazing, inventive fight scenes, but they also filled in the space around those scenes with a dense (if familiar) plot featuring undercover cops, underworld betrayals, and a huge cast of characters. For some critics, the familiarity of the plot components of THE RAID 2 sunk the film, and it’s true that anyone who has spent much time with old John Woo movies and/or the countless films they inspired isn’t going to find anything new on the story side. However, for me it still feels like a solid structure on which to hang the film, especially considering how flat-out awesome the fight scenes are. While THE RAID 2 may not innovate on the storytelling side, it continues to push the boundaries of action choreography, climaxing in an unbelievable car chase/fight scene that features a breathtaking shot that starts inside one car, moves into a second car, and then finishes in a third car in one unbroken take. It’s easily one of the most impressive shots in any movie I saw this year, but it’s just one of many moments in THE RAID 2 that had my jaw on the floor. My expectations for THE RAID 3, if it ever happens, are now totally unreasonable.
10. HOUSEBOUND (dir. Gerard Johnstone, New Zealand)
It’s been a good long while since we’ve had a big, zany horror/comedy from New Zealand, and HOUSEBOUND follows proudly in the tradition of early Peter Jackson by presenting a goofy and hugely entertaining horror story with plenty of twists and turns. Would-be ATM robber Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly) is arrested after a botched job, and sentenced to house arrest in her childhood home with her mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and stepfather Graeme (Ross Harper). Once she returns, Kylie notices odd things happening around the house, and learns that her mother is convinced it’s haunted. This greatly interests her case worker Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), who offers to help investigate the potential haunting while making sure Kylie doesn’t violate her house arrest order. The cast is great, the sight gags are hilarious, and the story veers in unpredictable directions. The film also features some gorgeous widescreen composition, making it feel almost like a comedic counterpoint to Jim Mickle’s COLD IN JULY in its obvious debt to John Carpenter’s visual style (they use the “John Carpenter font” for the title cards, too, just for good measure). HOUSEBOUND is one of the best original horror/comedies to come along in quite a while, and is one of a number of impressive feature film debuts from this year.
9. BLUE RUIN (dir. Jeremy Saulnier, USA)
A lot of movies about revenge make it look cool, if not exactly easy. BLUE RUIN, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to his blackly comic 2007 debut MURDER PARTY, takes the revolutionary approach of depicting what an average person’s revenge plot might look like. Spoiler: it’s not as cool or easy as it usually looks. Macon Blair plays Dwight, an itinerant drunk who learns that the man who killed his parents is about to be released from prison. Dwight plans revenge but doesn’t count on the logistics of vengeance being so difficult. BLUE RUIN plays with the cinematic conventions of action and revenge films throughout, allowing Dwight to put himself in situations in which he has no idea what to do. While it’s not as much of a straight comedy as MURDER PARTY, BLUE RUIN has a lot of dark humor and a few big laughs. Despite the dark tone, Macon Blair makes Dwight a sympathetic protagonist, albeit one who makes one seriously bad decision after another. In other words, we empathize with Dwight because we can easily imagine ourselves doing the same stupid stuff if we were in his shoes. BLUE RUIN is the best take on the revenge film since Simon Rumley’s RED, WHITE, AND BLUE, a taut, messy little thriller that looks at the genre from a completely unexpected angle.
8. THE EDITOR (dir. Adam Brooks & Matthew Kennedy, Canada)
Astron 6, the Canadian comedy collective responsible for THE EDITOR, rose to prominence in the independent horror scene in 2012 with a pair of amazing feature films: MANBORG, a tribute to late 80s/early 90s straight-to-video sci-fi/action films made on a reported budget of $1,000, and FATHER’S DAY, an incredibly ambitious grindhouse satire produced by Troma that made even fellow Canadian Jason Eisner’s HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN look like a Merchant Ivory Production. Their latest feature does for Italian horror and exploitation cinema of the 70s and 80s what FATHER’S DAY did for gritty 70s revenge films. Rey Ciso (Adam Brooks) was the finest editor in Italy until an accident claimed the fingers on his right hand. Now he is reduced to cutting cheap horror films with his beautiful assistant Bella (Samantha Hill). When actors on his current project start turning up dead, Detective Peter Porfiry (Matthew Kennedy) shows up to investigate, and Ciso is his number one suspect. Combining their signature dark humor with garish colors, bad English dubbing, plentiful nudity and excessive gore pulled right from the films of Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci and countless others, THE EDITOR delivers more than any horror fan could possibly ask for while lovingly and hilariously sending up those films. Like FATHER’S DAY before it, THE EDITOR had me laughing until I was crying and out of breath. You’ll never look at a birthday cake the same way again.
7. INTERSTELLAR (dir. Christopher Nolan, USA)
I’ve started and scrapped about a dozen different paragraphs about INTERSTELLAR, but I’m still not sure how to approach it for this list. I feel like a defense of Christopher Nolan is in order, but ultimately that’s a (never-ending, pointless) discussion for another time. Instead, I’ll just talk about what I like about INTERSTELLAR: I like that Nolan has made a movie with the intent of stirring the imagination of audiences in the hopes of jump-starting renewed enthusiasm for space exploration. I like the cast. Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of great lead performances, and Mackenzie Foy is excellent as his young daughter. I like the crazy science stuff like the planet where time relativity is an issue due to its proximity to a black hole. I love the robots, real creations that are as far from the standard issue humanoid things we’re used to seeing in the movies as they could be. I love their endearing personalities. I love the gorgeous visuals. I love Hans Zimmer’s score, the best of any film this year and probably the best of his career. I love that I left the theater actually thinking about things I had just watched and inspired to read more about the science in the film and the possibility of manned space exploration. I love the tesseract. I love that Christopher Nolan was brave enough to put this big, awkward, almost painfully earnest thing out there on thousands of screens, and that he was willing to trade in the bleakness of his Batman films for something so unapologetically optimistic. I love that Christopher Nolan loves making movies, and that this is the result. This is about as great as big-budget Hollywood movies get. Hugely ambitious, gorgeously shot, thoughtful and poignant.
6. FREQUENCIES (aka OXV: THE MANUAL) (dir. Darren Paul Fisher, Australia)
It’s exciting enough when a movie is willing to take on unusual scientific concepts, but FREQUENCIES goes one better by marrying a storyline that deals with multiple difficult concepts to the structure of a low-key indie romance. That’s grossly oversimplifying, of course, but it’s about the closest approximation of describing the film as I can get without tipping off any of its astonishing secrets. FREQUENCIES takes place in a world where people in society are divided by their “frequency.” The higher your frequency, the smarter and luckier you are. We follow two characters from childhood: super high-frequency Marie (Eleanor Wyld) and super low-frequency Zak (Daniel Fraser). Zak is hopelessly in love with Marie; “hopeless” because the two can’t even stand in close proximity to each other for more than a minute without something happening to force Zak away from her. But high frequency comes with a price in the form of a sort of mild sociopathy; Zak has genuine feelings, but Marie has to maintain a facade of normalcy when talking to other people. As adults, Zak discovers some manner of frequency manipulation that allows him to spend time with Marie, but the cultural repercussions of such a discovery could be massive and catastrophic. This is barely scratching the surface of FREQUENCIES, a brilliant film that deals with more big ideas than than any ten modern big-studio science fictions films combined, all while keeping its principal focus on the relationship between Zak and Marie. It’s a thoroughly impressive trick, and keeping the film grounded in that relationship helps keep the more heady aspects of the story from becoming overwhelming. This may all make FREQUENCIES sound like a much more “difficult” film than it actually is, though, and I wouldn’t want to scare anyone away from watching it. It’s a smart, well-made sci-fi romance that uses some very unusual ideas in service of a solid human story.
5. IT FOLLOWS (dir. David Robert Mitchell, USA)
David Robert Mitchell follows up his pleasingly formless debut, THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, with this exceedingly effective teen horror story. Like that film, there is almost no hint that these kids even have parents, and if they do their influence over the characters’ lives is minimal. Also like that film, IT FOLLOWS is largely defined by its careful attention to the details of the lives and relationships between the characters. The setup is simple: Jay (Maika Monroe, in one of her two standout lead performances this year) has sex with her new boyfriend, but he reveals to her that he has passed something on to her. An evil, shape-shifting entity will now follow Jay wherever she goes until she either is killed by it or she has sex with someone else, at which point it will stalk them instead (and come after her when *they’re* dead, back down the line). The “monster” in IT FOLLOWS is one of the most genuinely scary creatures in recent memory, and Mitchell works his setup brilliantly, putting his characters in a series of creepy set pieces and leaving questions tantalizingly unanswered. More than almost any other modern horror film, IT FOLLOWS taps into a deep, lizard-brain fear of an unknown, malevolent force that cannot be understood beyond its desire to kill. As far as this year’s major horror films go, THE BABADOOK works on the level of psychological horror, but IT FOLLOWS digs its claws in somewhere deeper and more primal, someplace too few horror films are willing or able to go.
4. WHIPLASH (dir. Damien Chazelle, USA)
I was pretty excited to see Edgar Wright mention WHIPLASH on his 2014 round-up as a “horror film,” because in a way it is. It would certainly make a killer double feature with STARRY EYES. But the form of WHIPLASH is such that we don’t really know it’s a horror film until the very end, so discussing it that way is something of a spoiler. Still, it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the flat-out incredible performances by Miles Teller as Andrew, a young drummer obsessed with becoming one of “The Greats,” and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher, the abusive teacher who believes shaping Andrew or anyone else into a great player requires psychologically destroying them first. This is just about as intense as movies get. I can count on one hand the number of films that trigger a similar physical reaction in me to what is happening on the screen, and this one ranks up there with Zulawski’s POSSESSION. Watching Fletcher lay into his students is straight-up terrifying, and watching Andrew power through bleeding hands and marathon practice sessions to the point of abandoning everything and everyone else in his life is disturbing. It’s also something you can’t bear to look away from, an utterly compelling battle of wills that all but dares you to give up watching. And it all comes together in a glorious, nerve-racking, virtuoso finale that is one of the most unforgettable scenes of the year in any film. When the credits finally rolled at the end of WHIPLASH, my body finally relaxed and I smiled, but not because the movie is “fun.” I felt like I’d just been expertly put through the wringer, and was surprised to find myself eager to watch it again.
3. THE GUEST (dir. Adam Wingard, USA)
If the “Snoot Films” logo that opens THE GUEST looks somewhat familiar, it’s because it was likely modeled after the famous logo for The Cannon Group, the premiere purveyor of 80s action cinema on a budget. The kind of cheap action they specialized in–films such as DEATH WISH II, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, and Chuck Norris’s DELTA FORCE series–is one of the obvious main influences on Adam Wingard’s colorful follow-up to YOU’RE NEXT. The other major obvious influence is what gives the film its sci-fi/horror flavor: HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. Days before Halloween, David (Dan Stevens) shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, claiming to be an army buddy of their son Caleb, who was killed in action. David ingratiates himself to the members of the Peterson family over the next few days: helping mom Laura (Sheila Kelley) around the house, drinking and watching the game with dad Spencer (Leland Orser) and helping younger son Luke (Brendan Meyer) deal with some school bullies. The only member of the family who seems immune to David’s considerable charms is daughter Anna (Maika Monroe, as great in the lead here as she was in IT FOLLOWS), who suspects David may not be what he claims. The plot of the film recalls 80s action films as well as playing like an inversion of later direct-to-video thrillers in which a (usually female) stranger moves in on a family for ulterior motives (see also: POISON IVY), and in combination with the almost cartoonish finale, THE GUEST almost plays like a tribute to and satire of direct-to-video “guilty pleasures” of the video store era. Of course, if you want to throw all that intertextual junk out the window, THE GUEST is also just a hell of a good time. The cast is fantastic, the soundtrack is awesome, and that last act is almost the David Wain/John Carpenter collaboration we never knew we needed. Hugely entertaining and totally, unapologetically badass.
2. THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS (dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, Belgium)
One of the things I love about cinema is that it is the art that can most closely approximate the experience of dreaming, and many of my favorite films are those that attempt to duplicate that experience. THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS, like co-directors Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani’s debut feature AMER, uses the cinematic vocabulary of the Italian giallo film to tell an abstract story. The experience of watching this film is sort of like watching a triple feature of Sergio Martino’s ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK and THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH and Giuliano Carnimeo’s WHAT ARE THOSE STRANGE DROPS OF BLOOD DOING ON JENNIFER’S BODY? directly before going to sleep, with your subconscious processing them together and returning to you a mystery that you feel must be solved, but probably cannot be. People who complain about AMER and THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS being “style over substance” are completely missing the point: these are films in which the style literally is the substance. The entire aim of this film is to create an overwhelming atmosphere through intricate visual and sound design–truly, if you haven’t seen this film with a good surround sound system, you’re missing a huge part of the experience. There are hints that the strands of narrative running throughout may be resolvable into something approximating an “answer” to its mysteries, but I suspect much like David Lynch’s INLAND EMPIRE (and like a tantalizing dream), this is a trick to tease you back into its grasp. THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY’S TEARS is is a gorgeous, unsettling cinematic dream, one that I look forward to revisiting over and over again.
1. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (dir. Wes Anderson, USA)
MOONRISE KINGDOM felt like the logical endpoint of the aesthetic Wes Anderson had been working toward his entire career. Here was a tiny island community, the ultimate snow globe world of the past for him to populate with his peculiar characters. It was honestly almost impossible to imagine where he might go from there, but instead of going smaller, Anderson turned his imagination outward and further into the past, creating an entire alternate-history Europe for THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Even better, he embraced and incorporated some of his major influences in more concrete ways: the playfulness of Jacques Tati, the gorgeous colors of Powell & Pressburger, and the precise framing and camera movements of Stanley Kubrick are all implemented to spectacular effect, but this is still a film that only Anderson could have made. From a purely visual standpoint, watching THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL on the big screen was one of the great filmgoing experiences of the year, each viewing yielding more amazing details in the intricately-designed sets, the incredible images threatening to burst the seams of the 4:3 frame in which Anderson chose to shoot the majority of the film. But enough about the technical brilliance of the film, about which I could harp on forever: this is also the funniest film Anderson has ever made, and that is mostly thanks to Ralph Fiennes in one of the greatest performances of his career. There are plenty of sight gags, but nearly every line of dialogue that comes from the mouth of M. Gustave is genius, desperate struggles to sound cultured and erudite laced with carefully chosen profanities. It takes a very special kind of film to pull off the punchline of the year with a simple, shouted “HOLY SHIT,” and that’s exactly the kind of film this is. With all this said, though, it must be noted that there runs throughout the whole of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL an undercurrent of mournful nostalgia, and as the film comes to a close, it ends with a final shot that is the most exquisite emotional gut-punch since Guy Maddin’s MY WINNIPEG. Anderson is one of the best and most distinctive major American filmmakers working, and this film finds him at the absolute height of his powers 20 years into his filmmaking career. We’re all very fortunate to be along for the ride.
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