10. The Past
Farhadi's acclaimed A Separation was a film I had a number of problems with, though the most egregious was how on the nose the idea of separation manifested in the film. So, with a title as big and looming as The Past, I entered his latest with similar apprehensions. There are moments where he indulges too much in this discussion of heavy themes in simplistic ways, but he builds a slightly more nuanced take at times that isn't as weighed down by the camera as one would imagine. The film is also stacked with great performances, which helps elevate the material.
9. The LEGO Movie
It is with great regret that I have not seen a lot of Clone High, the work that likely led to Lord and Miller being given the chance to make the middling Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and the slightly funnier 21 Jump Street. And eventually this film. At this point I'm fairly sure that, while I can appreciate what they do on a visual level, Lord and Miller's sense of humor doesn't always line up with my own, but despite the pretty big void at the center of this film between Emmett and his quest to be a master builder or whatever, the side characters are so delight (particularly Neeson's cops, Brie's manic Unikitty, and Arnett's masterful Batman) that it's easy to overlook the fairly pedestrian plot.
Another excellent entry in the Liam Neeson action film series of films that probably connect to each other in some weird multiverse way, Non-Stop is occasionally goofy and unbelievable, but the visual flair that adorns the film is so good and the ride so enjoyable that I was never compelled to poke too hard at any of the questionable plot devices set in motion during the film. There's also maybe the craziest use of a gun I have seen in a film in a long time.
7. The Immigrant
Been a while since James Gray directed a film, but seeing him reteam with Joaquin Phoenix once again in this almost prosaic yarn about early America would have fit in perfectly with the American Dream theme that dominated 2013 (when the film was probably supposed to release anyway, and when I had the chance to see it at the Philly Film Festival). Gray leans in to melodrama in the way that many modern films do not, and the results are mostly magical, evoking a wide range of emotions that all feed back in to the film's real core: Marion Cotillard's titular immigrant.
6. Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons
Stephen Chow, how long has it been? Far too long. Hong Kong's master of humor returns with his take on the Chinese classic Journey To The West. Of course the film is packed with Chow's signature brand of comedy, so much so that at times it almost feels like he is breaking out a collection of greatest hits. But they still work as perfectly as they do in King Of Comedy, the action is as tight as it is in Kung Fu Hustle, and the character work as engaging as Shaolin Soccer. No one makes films like Chow, and yeah it would have been great to see him in front of the camera, but when something is as funny as Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, it's hard to complain about the little details.
5. Ernest & Celestine
A Town Called Panic is one of the strangest animated films I have ever watched. I still can vividly recall the adventures of Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. So my excitement for the follow up from Stephanie Aubier and Vincent Patar, with Benjamin Renner as well, was pretty high. Though not nearly as crazy as A Town Called Panic, the central relationship between the two titular characters (a large vagabond bear named Ernest and the tiny mouse Celestine) is stronger than the core relationships between many live-action pairings I have watched. The film never loses this childlike storybook quality, but the layers of social commentary give it welcome depth. If I ever have kids, I want them to watch this film.
Spectacle is hard to accomplish, but even harder is to make it resonate with some kind of substance. Taking on the story of Noah, Darren Aronofsky creates a visually masterful representation of humanity's rebirth in the way that only the director of Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan could. Since he's working with a well known story and in a narrative tradition hundreds of years old, Aronofsky does not need to spend as much time setting everything up, rather he's able to make free associations between loaded cultural images to explore much larger ideas about the human condition. There are sequences in the film that thread together photographs, evoking a cyclical sense of time that is impossible to escape. He captures the sublime, which is one of the hardest things for an artist to accomplish.
3. The Wind Rises
Maybe once a year I have the pleasure to see an animated film from Japan, and it's often even fewer times that I have the ability to see anime films on the big screen. Even last year's great Wolf Children was one I had to settle seeing on the small screen. What is possibly Miyazaki's last film as a director, The Wind Rises is in many ways far different than most of the the animation master's more magical works of the past. Essentially a biopic that recounts the life of famed Japanese aerial engineer Jiro Horikoshi, Miyazaki is also able to examine natural and man made atrocities that have occurred in recent Japanese history. It's here that this film begins fitting more squarely in to his cannon, creating one of his most overtly mature and occasionally disturbing works. There's also this beautiful relationship that is heartbreaking and quiet, like so much of this film. If this is how Miyazaki does end his career, he goes out with one of his best.
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
It's finally happened. While I can still recognize the flaws in many of Anderson's earlier work, he has now cemented his spot as one of the best filmmakers currently working. The way narrative functions in this film, telling three or four tales simultaneously, bouncing between aspect ratios to create different sensations during its run time, is a delicate balance that does make its full force known until the very final minutes. Each frame is so perfectly constructed, as has always been commonplace with Anderson's films, but once again its how he steadies the camera that allows all the artifice to simply exist. It's damned impressive, the mark of a master.
Provac-auteur Lars von Trier's epic (not really two-parter) Nymphomaniac is usually discussed outside of what it is as a film. There's been conversation about its lack of rating, its graphic depictions of sex, the advertising campaign leading up to its release, Shia's paper bag, and so on. In the end that's all mostly rendered meaningless. Yeah, there's sex in the film that is ostensibly shot with real penetration or whatever, but over the course of the four hours the sex scenes not only feel mostly tame but also don't make up all that much of the film. It's really the more clinical aspects that are harder to watch (with the exception of the Jamie Bell portion, which is pretty rough to take throughout). Not that it matters, because what von Trier accomplishes with his script, with such gorgeous prosaic qualities and dramatic construction that never loses focus on some genuinely funny moments, is so marvelous.
Nymphomaniac doesn't use sex as the stopping point for anything, but rather as a barrier to entry for examining the patriarchal systems in place throughout society. Discussing this film without throwing up a spoiler alert is near impossible, so I may save that for a later post if I am so inclined. But for now I can honestly say that I have not been hit this hard by a film in quite some time. The set up for everything, while overt, is so meticulously crafted that I couldn't help feeling invigorated when it finished. It resparked my love of cinema. That's really the highest compliment that can be paid to any film.
And for like the three other films I have watched this year, here's the full list:
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- The Wind Rises
- Ernest & Celestine
- Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons
- The Immigrant
- The Lego Movie
- The Past
- “One Man And His Dog”
- “The Powerpuff Girls: Dance Pantsed”
That's the end of this quarterly review, but with heavy hitters like Bong, Linklater, Jarmusch, and more releasing films over the next three months I expect this to change dramatically by that time. What do I need to catch up with before then? Let me know below in the comments!
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© 2014 Richard James Thorne