Saturday, December 20, 2014

End of the Year Roundup 2014

For me, the most impactful films of 2014 include MaleficentSnowpiercer, Mockingjay Part 1, Boyhood, Gone Girl, Birdman, and Belle. I urge you to read my complete review of Belle, to which I have nothing substantive to add. Here follow my comments on the other most interesting and memorable films of the past year. 

I am inclined to agree with most of the points made in Andrew Barker's review of the visually stunning, narratively imperfect, yet holistically quite wonderful Angelina Jolie starrer Maleficent, which I saw in Brockport's own Strand Theater early last summer. Barker writes:
[The] film often lurches where it ought to flow, rarely latching onto the proper rhythm. [. . .] For example, an expensive-looking yet utterly inconsequential battle sequence plopped into the middle of the pic sees Maleficent neutralize a squadron of nameless soldiers with neither motivation nor consequences, but the scenes in which she bonds with the 16-year-old Aurora (Elle Fanning) – ostensibly the most important, emotionally weighty relationship in the film – feel rough and rushed.
Now I personally enjoyed the action sequences in Maleficent, in part because, unlike so many similar scenes in today's blockbusters, these ones were comprehensibly shot and I could actually tell what was going on. Yet I concur with Barker when he states that "this is a story that would actually benefit from some slow-paced indulgence" in its character development moments. Furthermore, the visual world created by this film is so compelling that I don't think many viewers would object to spending an additional five or ten minutes there in order to get more deeply invested in the inner lives of these potentially great characters.

I should add that despite some unevenness in the narrative balance, Jolie herself is flat-out terrific in the lead role, which Barker himself observes, saying that she is "perfectly cast" and that her performance is nothing short of  "remarkable."

In the end, Maleficent is one of the best mainstream films I saw this year, pleasurably memorable due to its breathtaking visual style (THIS is how digital effects should be used IMO) and its focus on female stories and characters. It is amazing how fresh and exciting a female-centered action-adventure movie feels in today's male-dominated blockbuster mediascape. More please!

Speaking of female-fronted blockbusters, I declare Mockingjay Part 1 to be my favorite Hunger Games film so far. True, it may not be as action-packed and narratively tight as the previous two films in the franchise, but I like moody character studies and do not mind at all when an "action" blockbuster takes some breathing room between action sequences. That strategy tends to make those sequences stand out all the more, and the key Mockingjay sequence suggested by the still above is the best action moment in the whole trilogy so far. And while I have always despised the villainous President Snow, this movie finally made me fear him. Yes, I really enjoyed Mockingjay Part 1 and I look forward to Part 2 next year.

Snowpiercer is the best blockbuster-type movie that not enough people heard about this year. At the tail end of his brief review of Bong Joon-ho's latest masterpiece, my friend A.J. asked:
[What] the fuck is up with all these great independent and international films taking about a full year to go theatrical in America? Are the studios afraid we might realize what we're missing and that we'll revolt? 
This is a sharp question, for as this informative article documents, The Weinstein Company consigned this exciting and accessible film to limited release after director Bong Joon-ho refused to cut twenty minutes out of it. As Ty Burr insightfully marvels, "[Harvey] Weinstein is rightly celebrated for almost single-handedly cultivating a mass audience for independent films over the decades, so why is he refusing to get these challenging new movies to audiences that would best appreciate them?"

I have already expostulated at length about why I love Snowpiercer in my review -- I stand by my assessment of the film as an "epic, action-packed, beautifully made, perfectly paced blockbuster" that is head-and-shoulders more artfully made, entertaining, and involving than the vast bulk of today's formulaic action showpieces.* Also, Tilda Swinton.

So it saddens me that such a truly great and entertaining movie as Snowpiercer isn't getting as much exposure in the States as it deserves. This just proves that Jonathan Rosenbaum is correct about the U.S. film industry's suppression of non-U.S. films in our markets (see sidebar quote). Even a distributor like Miramax/Weinstein Co. that distributes such fare always seems to ghetto-ize it at the same time. (Cue sad trombone.)

Speaking of independent fare, Boyhood might be my all-out favorite film this year. It is my view that director Richard Linklater, of whom I have always been a big fan, is only getting better with age. His last several films, including Me and Orson Welles, Bernie, Before Midnight, and now Boyhood, have all been top-notch, highly enjoyable, warm, memorable efforts. Boyhood is the most nuanced, seasoned, and provocative of his recent films, and one of the few such downbeat "slice of life" type films that has held me so enraptured during its running time that I was both surprised and sad when it ended. I did not want it to be over; I immediately wanted to see it again.

However, if any film is in serious competition with Linklater's masterpiece for my top slot this year, it is BirdmanAlejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's mindbending, kinetic, and visually audacious critique of the contemporary entertainment industry. There are so many reasons why this film sticks firmly in my mind weeks after I saw it: all-around great performances by everyone involved (especially Michael Keaton and Edward Norton), a brilliant approach to the camera technique that could have lapsed into gimmickry but miraculously doesn't, and most important, a heady, funny, razor-sharp satirical take on the price of stardom and the workings of our celebrity-driven entertainment industry. While some viewers might not have much interest in the film's critique of stardom, which I take to be one of the most nuanced and devastating such takedowns since Sunset Blvd., that hardly matters, because the film is so energetic and crazily funny that I think practically anyone will be entertained by Birdman even if one doesn't catch or care about the deeper criticism of show business it assays. Very highly recommended, Birdman is easily the most bracingly provocative film I saw this year.

Which does not bode well for David Fincher's much-anticipated thriller, Gone Girl. To be fair, I thoroughly enjoyed Gone Girl as it unfolded -- it had me on the edge of my seat the whole way through, no doubt. A few key scenes really stuck with me afterward, and I would probably ultimately place it above Fincher's English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for sheer thrills. But as I chewed over certain aspects of Gone Girl after the fact, I became increasingly dissatisfied with its gender politics.**

For a film that seems to want to present two sides of a twisted and violent relationship, Gone Girl strongly favors the man's side. Ben Affleck's Nick is our main identification figure, and whatever empathy we have for Rosamund Pike's Amy dissipates once we see her commit an incredibly graphic and disturbingly violent act near the end of the movie. Plus, where is the back story that explains why Amy feels compelled to avenge herself upon Nick in the first place? The film begins with her "gone" already, and all we learn of her in the first half of the film comes via flashbacks from Nick's point of view. I have not read Gillian Flynn's novel so cannot speak to the differences between the book and its adaptation, yet as Eliana Dockterman notes in point #2 of this rundown, "The movie [omits] Amy’s stories of taking care of Nick’s dying mother, of Nick skipping their anniversary to go to a strip club with laid-off coworkers and her suspicions of his cheating."

Furthermore, much as I generally admire the work of David Fincher, non-sexist gender representation is an area in which he tends to struggle. As Nico Lang puts it,
This isn’t the first time that Fincher has struggled with the inner life of his female characters. While The Social Network overtly functioned as a critique of the misogynistic underpinnings of the Facebook revolution, its most narratively prominent woman was an unstable girlfriend who sets a trash can on fire. In Fight Club, Marla Singer spends most of the film being insulted, emotionally abused, neglected, and/or raped by her schizophrenic boyfriend, only to be trapped in a toxic relationship with him when he blows up the world. If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo offered a step forward for Fincher, Gone Girl takes it right back.
I might even take issue with Lang's implication that Dragon Tattoo is an unqualified victory for feminism, but in any case I agree with her general assessment of Gone Girl: it is an amazingly well-wrought thriller with an unfortunate, mile-wide misogynist streak.

Pre-2014 films I finally saw include The Book of Eli (2010), The Master (2012), Life of Pi (2012), Wolf Creek 2 (2013), Martyrs (2008), and Ida (2013).

The Hughes Brothers' The Book of Eli is flat-out awesome. As part of some research I was doing for a forthcoming project about post-apocalyptic films, I finally checked out this three-year-old religiously tinged action adventure flick. I was not disappointed. The scenery and cinematography are top-notch, and Denzel Washington is as intense and charismatic as ever. The film may not "transcend" its genre and it may not be Shakespeare, but it is a well-made and fresh feeling entry in its genre, a movie not to be missed by post-apocalyptic cinema fans.

P.T Anderson's The Master seems to have divided critics and fans a bit, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and was not troubled by some of its odd situations and inexplicable ambiguities. To be fair, any follow-up to Anderson's 2007 masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, was going to have big shoes to fill, but for me that was a liberating factor -- I did not expect as much from The Master, assumed it would be smaller-scale and quirkier than the bombastic Blood. By going in with less grandiose expectations, I was able to appreciate and enjoy The Master's artsy oddness, which reminded me of the quirky humor to be found in some of the director's earlier films like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love. I got a real kick out of the film and plan to watch it again, not least for its remarkable central performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

However, expectations -- this time internal to the film -- are precisely what led me to feel underwhelmed by Life of Pi. As I wrote in my review, I enjoy a slow-paced, visually dazzling film as much as -- probably more than -- the next guy, but Life of Pi set me up to expect certain things via its frame story then didn't quite deliver the goods. I love Ang Lee but would not count this among his strongest films, though I suppose I must at least classify it as a noble failure.

John Jarratt as Mick Taylor in the fun-filled Wolf Creek 2

Wolf Creek 2 is a fun-filled sequel to the excellent Aussie slasher Wolf Creek (2005). Both films are knowing send-ups of the rural slasher genre, and both are huge fun due largely to the over-the-top performance of John Jarratt as Mick Taylor. I probably even enjoyed the sequel more than the original, as it featured one particularly great sequence that pays effective homage to Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971), one of my all-time favorite movies. If you enjoy slasher horror films that keep their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, then both installments of this heartily amusing franchise are well worth your time.

However, if you prefer your horror to take itself seriously and to earnestly explore existential / metaphysical themes, then I must recommend the audacious and very well executed French horror film Martyrs. There is not a lot I can say about this film without giving away its remarkable premise, but suffice to say that while the film is not for the faint-hearted -- there are some very realistic scenes of psychological torture, as well as extended graphic scenes of a vaguely surgical nature -- the payoff is definitely worth it. This is not a film one watches for cheap thrills or laughs, but instead to be taken on a mind-bending journey -- it is a graphic horror film with an almost science-fictional twist. My spring viewing of Martyrs left a deep and favorable impression on me, though parts of it were grueling to watch. Maybe now that I've seen this I will finally work up the gumption to see Hostel.

Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida (2013).

Ida is a beautiful slice-of-life film with a bit of a dark edge, dealing as it does with the life of a Catholic nun who discovers her Jewish past, and her family's connection to the Holocaust. Ida is remarkably funny and wry, given its premise, though perhaps the main reason to see it is its stunningly beautiful black and white cinematography. I have not seen a film this well shot in some time -- the perfection and artistry of its shot compositions remind me of the work of John Ford, consisting mostly of static shots with a lot of headroom and a preference for wide shots. Beautiful work and a delightful movie.

David Hemmings as Thomas in Michaelangelo Antonioni's hip thriller Blow-Up.

Noteworthy 1950s and '60s films I saw for the first time this year include Blow-Up (1966, dir. Antonioni), Anatomy of a Murder (1959, dir. Preminger), Our Man in Havana (1959, dir. Reed), Night of the Demon (1957, dir. Tourneur), and two William Castle films: House on Haunted Hill (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960).

I have gushed about the work of Michaelangelo Antonioni before, and his work continues to impress and speak to me. Blow-Up is one of his most famous films, and rightfully so. This upbeat yet sinister thriller captures the essence of swinging London through the eyes of young, hip fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) as he witnesses a possible murder. There are several suspenseful, life-or-death moments as Thomas becomes unwittingly embroiled in the dynamics of the potential murder plot and conducts his own haphazard investigation into what thinks he saw. Yet the overall tone and pace of the film is more slice-of-life-ish than relentlessly plot-driven. That is, Blow-Up maintains its suspense and meanders a little (no mean feat), taking time to show us a young swinger enjoying this singular moment in cultural history: racy (for 1966) sex scenes, shots of a quirky troupe of young, masked street performers, and glimpses of rock and roll icons onstage (Jimmy Page in the Yardbirds!) place us right in the heart of mid-sixties swinging London.

Look everybody! It's Jimmy Page!

I think that is the key to Antonioni's greatness: he is a master of tone. His films just feel lived-in and real, even when they are going a little over the top, as Blow-Up does, especially in some of its fashion shoot scenes. Yet its spooky thriller plot makes this film more widely appealing and accessible (I should think) than his more existential earlier film L'Avventura (1960). And since those are the only two Antonioni films I have seen thus far (no Red Desert yet!) I will simply conclude by saying: do yourself a favor and treat yourself to seeing Blow-Up.

Any true film buff should know and admire the work of Otto Preminger, one of the greatest directors of the sound era and a key figure in pushing the limits of censorship and ultimately "breaking" the Production Code. Film noir fans will know him as the director of Laura, one of the most romantic yet uncanny noirs ever made, and his filmography, which includes The Man with the Golden Arm, the Production Code-bending The Moon is Blue, the epic Exodus, and the queer-themed political thriller Advise & Consent, is incredibly impressive. Yet perhaps Preminger's most famous film is 1959's Anatomy of a Murder, which I finally saw this summer. I found the film so compelling that I watched it straight through with absolutely no breaks -- I was in its grip and could not pull myself away, not for snacks, not for the bathroom, not for anything.

Ben Gazzara and James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder.

Why should you see Anatomy of a Murder? First, the performances: Jimmy Stewart is great as the laconic small-town lawyer, and Ben Gazzara is intensely compelling as the murderer he defends. Second, the level of cinematic craft on display here is incredibly high, even if largely unobtrusive, even "invisible." Preminger reminds me a little bit of William Wyler, both directors whose level of technical and artistic mastery is so high that it is easy to miss. Check out that still above: see the deep-focus composition, the police officer glimpsed through the glass between Gazzara and Stewart? That's what I'm talking about, a subtle approach to shot composition and use of moderately long takes that conveys more visual information to the viewer and gives a sense of depth and reality to the settings and mise-en-scene.***

Finally, Anatomy is great because its plot is so compelling and its themes surprisingly mature, even taboo -- it is ultimately about the aftermath of a rape. The frankness with which the film's characters discuss this matter is groundbreaking, and lends a dark edge to this taut procedural. In sum, Anatomy of a Murder is Hollywood filmmaking at its boldest and most accomplished.

Joseph Cotten and director Carol Reed on the set of The Third Man.

I have been aware of British director/producer Carol Reed for some time but my sole exposure to his work (until quite recently) was The Third Man, his most famous film. However, thanks to stumbling across this informative post listing great films about Brits abroad, I figured out which of Reed's films to see next: the comedic spy caper Our Man in Havana, starring Alec GuinnessOvertly a farcical comedy, Our Man is nevertheless suffused with a nostalgic melancholy feeling similar to that found in Reed's much-lauded Viennese film noir. Both films serve as elegies for a time gone past, be it postwar Europe or pre-revolutionary Cuba. Both films also deal with an ordinary man -- in Our Man's case, Guinness' Jim Wormold -- unexpectedly thrust into mysterious and deadly circumstances. But Our Man is lighter in tone than The Third Man, and though it does contain a few sobering dramatic moments, it is best characterized as a comedy spy caper. Guinness is terrific as always, and while this may not be the greatest film I saw this year -- it has a few pacing problems and its basic premise is a bit silly -- I got a kick out of it and would recommend it to any fans of Guinness and/or spy capers.

In late October I went out of town to attend an academic film conference and in the evenings I would hole up in my hotel room and watch whatever was on Turner Classic Movies. As it happened to be Halloween weekend, the channel was airing many spooky haunted house type movies, so I was fortunate to see a couple William Castle productions, The House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts, back to back.

The talented Mr. Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill.

The House on Haunted Hill is flat-out excellent, a well-made campy-yet-spooky haunted mansion thriller starring the ever-delightful Vincent Price. Now for me, Price alone makes this film worth seeing, as I love his sinister, unctuous, knowingly campy performance style. But the film is also perfectly suited to his presence and features other great character actors as well, most notably Elisha Cook Jr. as an hysterically drunken participant in Price's scheme to have a group stay the night at his supposedly haunted mansion. Quite entertaining with some unexpected plot twists, this is one of the most out and out enjoyable haunted house films I have ever seen. As this insightful blog review concludes: "Original, funny, clever and twisted, [The House on Haunted Hill] remains a forerunner in the genre, not to be missed." Indeed!

Sadly, I cannot recommend producer/director Castle's 1960 film, 13 Ghosts, quite so highly. Similar in tone to House yet not as gleefully wicked, Ghosts suffers for not having an effervescent personality like Price's to hold the thing together: instead, we are stuck with a fairly straight-arrowish family that lacks Price's brilliantly ironic approach to the material. The best things about 13 Ghosts are (1) its brilliant central gimmick, i.e. a pair of goggles that allow the wearer to see ghosts, and (2) Margaret Hamilton, whose witchy housekeeper is easily the film's most interesting character.

Margaret Hamilton, former Wicked Witch of the West, as Elaine the mysterious housekeeper in William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960).

Finally, I was lucky enough to catch Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (released as Curse of the Demon in the U.S.), a 1957 British/U.S. co-production about an occultist who is killing people by cursing them with runic symbols. Though the film is slightly marred by the scenes in which the titular demon appears -- shots that Tourneur objected to but was overruled by his producers -- even those moments of unintentional camp cannot diminish the chillingly effective suspense and terror of the film as a whole. All the leads -- Dana Andrews, personal favorite Peggy Cummins, and the truly remarkable Niall MacGinnis as cult leader Julian Karswell -- are superb, and Tourneur -- best known for his Val Lewton collaboration Cat People and his haunting film noir Out of the Past -- has a special talent for conjuring dark, oppressive moods and feelings of palpable fear and danger on low budgets. This is a very special movie, one I plan to acquire on home video for my personal horror film collection.

Niall MacGinnis as demon summoner Julian Karswell in the superb occult thriller 
Night of the Demon.

On the list of Directors I knew a little about but got to know better this year are David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha), Joe Wright (Anna Karenina), Mike Leigh (Naked), Zhang Yimou (Hero), Danny Boyle (Sunshine), and Lynne Ramsey (Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher).

I saw David Gordon Green's latest film, Prince Avalanche (2013), at the Dryden Theater last winter, and enjoyed it very much. The film is essentially an "odd couple" buddy film about two men of different ages (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) trying to get along as they work together as a line-painting crew on a remote road in a national park some months after a devastating forest fire has swept through the area. The film is a wonderful rumination on mens' lives and the ways men of different ages can help and mentor each other through transitional periods. It is funny and intimate and very well shot. I liked it very much and it makes me want to go back and see some of Green's early work, particularly George Washington (2000).

Noah Baumbach I mainly know through his amazing and intense family drama The Squid and the Whale, a personal favorite, though I have been meaning to see his Margot at the Wedding for some time now as well. In any case, I saw Frances Ha this past summer and really enjoyed it a lot, though it hasn't haunted or provoked me as much as some other films I have seen this year. But it is a delightful, wry, and warm character-driven piece that is worth seeing for Greta Gerwig's compelling and lived-in performance alone. Plus Frances Ha's frank depiction of female friendship and coming-of-age is something we don't see often enough, especially shot so beautifully in glorious black and white.

I have never read Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina but I saw Joe Wright's visually arresting but emotionally hollow 2012 film adaptation of it this year.† The film's problems lie entirely with casting: Aaron Taylor-Johnson is disastrously miscast as Vronsky, and Keira Knightley, who I have seen give fine performances elsewhere (e.g. in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method), is fairly two-dimensional as Anna. By contrast, the two other lovers, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) are quite believable throughout, especially in their wonderful "blocks" scene late in the film. Jude Law is also, as always, excellent -- in fact, he is so likable even when playing a repressive bastard like Karenin that his presence in the film makes it impossible to believe that Anna would ever throw him over for the utterly one-dimensional and unappealing Taylor-Johnson-as-Vronsky. Thus the whole film is broken.

Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson deliver the most tender, romantic, and emotionally resonant scene in Anna Karenina, a movie that is supposed to be about two other people's all-engulfing love affair. 

Even this mostly positive review of Anna admits that Anna's and Vronsky's "mutual self-absorption makes them harder to root for as a couple, which diminishes the emotional wallop expected from the material." And this harsher (yet accurate) review by Christy Lemire says the film "depicts the tragic heroine as a victim of her own doing rather than society's," thereby diminishing the film's sense of tragedy as well as our ability to sympathize with or care about Anna. She stumbles around making an histrionic mess of things, all over a guy we cannot fathom why she (or anyone) would like.

The Guardian's reviewer writes that "As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson certainly brings conceit and a callow self-regard. He preens well. As in his earlier movies Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy, he is an attractive, open presence, but he is out of his depth here, especially when he has to suggest Vronsky's later agony and wretchedness."

In the end, I would advise fans of Wright's or of visually "theatrical" cinema to check out Anna Karenina, but to go in with low expectations as far as the two leads go. As the Lemire review puts it, the members of the stellar supporting cast are "all working as hard as their surroundings – if only all that effort resulted in an emotional payoff."

I plan to write a separate appreciation of the great British director Mike Leigh after his much-anticipated next film, Mr. Turner, comes out later this winter, but allow me to say a few words about Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002) and Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) before concluding this section with some talk about the remarkable Lynne Ramsay.

Zhang Yimou is the best-known of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland Chinese directors, and his arresting visual style is characterized by long takes, stunning close-ups, and an artful use of vibrant primary colors (especially red) in his usually period-set films. I have seen Zhang's Red Sorghum several times and am a major fan of his breathtaking domestic melodrama Raise the Red Lantern, which I have seen countless times and which numbers among one of my all-time favorites. This past spring I finally saw Hero, Zhang's take on a wuxia (or martial arts) film. I hardly have the words to describe how beautifully staged and shot this film is. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves movies. It is remarkable.

Danny Boyle is not my favorite director, but I have enjoyed enough of his films (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Shallow Grave) to want to take a chance on his 2007 science-fiction outing, Sunshine. I like the movie very much overall, as will folks who like "hard" sci-fi films (like 2001, Moon, etc.) that focus upon the human dramas that emerge under the extremes of realistic space travel. There is action in this film, to be sure, and the film is briskly paced (not quite slow enough for my tastes actually) yet the emphasis is on psychological choices, severely tested loyalties, and logic/reason/science vs. emotion and ethics in survival situations. Sunshine is a good sci-fi movie in my book, with maybe only one weakness: a slightly over-the top third act. I think this is germane to other Boyle films also, but whereas it works great in the escalatingly bonkers/paranoid narrative of Shallow Grave, I think it works less well in films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which depend on a kind of documentary realism to compellingly establish their onscreen worlds, then seem to change tone and go a bit "off the rails" near the end.

Amazing Scottish film auteur Lynne Ramsay. 

However, no such inconsistencies mar the works of Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, who is surely working her way toward being one of my all-around favorite directors. Scott Tobias writes that "to my mind, Lynne Ramsay is one of the most talented filmmakers in the world," and as loyal readers will know, Ramsey's We Need to Talk about Kevin ranked very highly in my last year's end-of-year roundup -- I singled it out in my "Concluding Thoughts" as one of three films I saw last year that everyone should see.

So this year I made it a point to see Ramsay's two earlier features: the poetic yet neorealistic Ratcatcher and the more upbeat (if darkly comic) female buddy road movie Morvern Callar. Tobias describes the latter film thus:
Working with a plot that could fit comfortably on a cocktail napkin, Ramsay has to rely almost entirely on cinematic effects—and Samantha Morton's revelatory performance—to decipher a woman who's so deep in an existential funk that her behavior is always curious and sometimes extraordinarily callous.
Indeed. One of Ramsay's great strengths is that she is both a brilliantly visual director -- with a background in still photography, each of her shots is beautifully and artfully composed -- and someone who seems to understand the depths of the human soul. I would describe all three of her feature films as "heartbreaking" to varying degrees, depicting emotionally challenged characters who must grapple with horrifying, even traumatic, circumstances. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their bleakness, Ramsay's feature films are also hopeful, showing us that these somewhat broken protagonists can endure, maybe even improve their lot (though Ratcatcher is arguably the most ambiguous on this score). The films' conclusions feel earned and, even at their most artsy, grounded in reality -- the social reality of our world and the interior realities of her minimalistically yet richly crafted characters. I recommend all of Ramsay's work but I suspect that We Need To Talk About Kevin or Morvern Callar will be more generally accessible than the bleaker Ratcatcher.

The more great films by directors I know well list includes works by Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, The Underneath), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight, Bernie, Boyhood), Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, The Fearless Vampire Hunters, and The Tenant) and, perhaps most importantly and intriguingly, John Frankenheimer.

Frankenheimer is a director I have been aware of for some time, mainly due to his best-known film, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Last year sometime I saw his highly enjoyable, criminally underrated, environmentally themed monster movie, Prophecy (1979), which I loved so much that I am quite surprised in retrospect to discover that I forgot to include it in last year's roundup.

This year I got to know Frankenheimer's work even better by taking in Grand Prix and Seconds (both 1966). Both of these films are nothing short of amazing, absolute must-sees in my book. Grand Prix may be of special interest to folks who enjoy racing movies (not me) or who (like me) love any movie that allows the viewer to immerse into a "scene" and really see how people involved in that scene or subculture live their lives. For me, I tend to gravitate toward movies about movie productions (Living in Oblivion, State and Main, Bowfinger), submarine crews (Das Boot, Destination Tokyo, U-571) and/or the popular music and entertainment scene (Almost Famous, Nashville, Showgirls) most of all, but Grand Prix is one of the best films of this general stripe I have ever seen. I do not give a crap about car racing in real life yet I found this film to be utterly absorbing, and the cinematography of the races is breathtaking.

Seconds is even better, I recommend it to everyone. It is simply one of the best "mind-fuck" thrillers I have ever seen. I cannot say too much about its premise without giving away surprises, so suffice to say: go see Seconds. It is a masterpiece.

Next up on my Frankenheimer viewing agenda will be Black Sunday (1977) and Seven Days in May (1964).

My Best Moviegoing Experiences this year include seeing The Thing From Another World on the Dryden Theater's big screen and seeing Snowpiercer at The Little Theater upon its initial U.S. release. The Thing screening was a chance to see an old favorite on the big screen for the first time, and the spooky 1950s theremin music that they played in the theater before showtime was priceless.

Seeing Snowpiercer when I did, within the first week of its (belated) U.S. release last spring, was very special. I do not typically rush out to see movies on their opening weekends, but this was a film I eagerly anticipated and it was fun to meet friends at the Little and feel like we were on the leading edge of seeing a very special movie indeed.

Concluding thoughts: If you only see three of the films I've discussed here, make them Birdman, Boyhood, and Snowpiercer. And if you see three more after that, make them Belle, Seconds, and Ida.

2014 movies I still want to see include Nightcrawler, The BabadookLocke, Inherent Vice, and Force Majeure (the latter enticingly described thus: "If Michael Haneke grew a sense of humor, he might make something as pitilessly funny as Force Majeure." Count me in!).

The first few films I plan to see in January 2015 include Wild, The Imitation Game, and (the film I am most excited about) Mr. Turner.

Happy New Year!

Timothy Spall sez: Come see my award-winning performance in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner 
or I'll splatter paint in your face.

* I want to go on record saying that I have not yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy, and while I don't expect to be surprised by it in any way, I have been hearing that at least tonally, it is more in line with the kinds of fun, upbeat blockbusters I usually prefer. So I will probably check it out on home video.
** I am far from alone in this: other writers who have commented upon Gone Girl's misogyny include Lindy West, Joan Smith, and, in a particularly nuanced analysis, Eliana Dockterman.
*** For more on the "classical" Hollywood mode of composing and shooting, see Tony Zhou's excellent video essay on "The Spielberg Oner" in which he claims that Spielberg is the last great practitioner of patient, well-composed semi-long takes of the kind that prevailed in Hollywood's Golden Age. Or see Steven Soderbergh's loving ode to Spielberg's amazing sense of "staging."
† I cannot speak to Anna Karenina's fidelity to the novel myself, but this writer informs me that "if you know and love the novel, something about the movie just doesn’t feel right. The problem, I think, is that it’s too romantic. The film, as Wright promised, is all about love, but Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” isn’t a love story. If anything, “Anna Karenina” is a warning against the myth and cult of love."

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