Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 2)

Since I still have many movies of 2014 to write about and it's now 2015 and all that biz, I'm going to take a speed dating/hot dog eating contest/Irish exit from the keg party hit-it-and-quit-it approach to the remaining films I saw in a theater and give my one- or two- or three- or four-sentence appraisal of the ones my procrastinating ways neglected. Here's the second of a few batches.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
Everything I said about Meyer's Up! in the last post applies here, too, except the budget is a lot higher, there's not as much sex (though this is a bit like saying there's not as much tin foil in the world's biggest ball of tin foil because you took off five or six pieces of tin foil), there's a lot more rock and pop music, the satirical target is Hollywood instead of rednecks and Nazis, the tone is darker and more perverse yet it feels more accessible to a general audience, and the montage editing is even zippier and more reminiscent of comic books and classic cartoons. Roger Ebert's screenplay is so funny, so weird (sample line of dialogue: "You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"), and so innately attuned to the midnight-movie/cult/exploitation mindset that it's odd how much of a blind spot he had for those kinds of films as a critic, regularly panning some of the best and most notable psychotronic-oddball-freakout-cult-weirdo-drive-in-B-movie movies.

Je t'aime, je t'aime (Alain Resnais)
We lost Alain Resnais last year, which is sad not only because he's emblematic of an artistic generation that is slowly but steadily leaving this astral plane, but also because he was still making great movies. However, the death of an old man is not a tragedy, to paraphrase another deceased old man, and Resnais left an astounding body of work, of which this restored 1968 film is a solid example. Je t'aime, je t'aime is a melancholy piece of science fiction about the tense but symbiotic relationship between memory and narrative, and how we move around the fragments of our memories to create the stories of our lives.

Life Itself (Steve James)
Speaking of Ebert, this documentary about his life from the talented Chicago-based filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is a little too uncritically fond of its subject and uses an effective but fairly conventional mixture of fly-on-the-wall and talking-heads interview footage, but otherwise is a funny, entertaining, and moving portrait of a guy who was a lot of things: a small-town Illinois son of working class liberal Catholics, a Chicago newspaperman, a movie lover, a critic, a popular TV personality, an arrogant clown, a recovering alcoholic, a husband, a screenwriter for Russ Meyer, a cancer survivor, and a sick man nearing the end of his life. Ebert let James film him in personal, unflattering, and difficult circumstances, and this film's greatest value is in its honest and compassionate look at subjects people in this country love to avoid: illness, aging, and dying.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
I really loved this movie, despite some nitpicky quibbles with the occasional line of dialogue, but I feel like I don't have anything to say about it at the moment, now that it's nominated for a bunch of Oscars and won some Golden Globes and was at or near the top of a ton of best-of-2014 lists. I hope the film's virtues don't get lost in a sea of hype and overpraise and the inevitable backlash, and I'm sympathetic to a few detractors who put forth the idea that a film focusing on the sister or the mother instead of the son would have been more worthwhile. (I want all three of those movies to exist, if I could have my way.) At the risk of adding my enthusiasm and praise to an already giant and ever-growing pile, I'm really impressed and touched by what Linklater's done here. There's a lot of beauty and sadness and warmth in seeing these characters and the actors who play them age 12 years onscreen. I like how Linklater focuses, mostly, on the small moments that actually define and shape our lives, instead of the big events that mostly don't. Even though it's his longest film, it feels like one of his most focused, pared to its essentials. Films nominated for the big awards, even the really good ones, always get more attention than they deserve, but I'm glad this one's chiseled through. It's actually about people and living and the passage of time, and not the usual Oscar staples like American exceptionalism, self-congratulatory celebrity backslapping, insincere and mawkish inspirational uplift, middlebrow art-as-display-case, the Cliff's Notes lives of notable famous people (aka the parade of indistinguishable biopics), the noble terminally ill/disabled/no-makeup/prosthetic-nosed tragic hero who overcomes obstacles, bloodless literary adaptations, etc.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 1)

Since I still have many movies of 2014 to write about and it's now 2015 and all that biz, I'm going to take a speed dating/hot dog eating contest/Irish exit from the keg party hit-it-and-quit-it approach to the remaining films I saw in a theater and give my one- or two- or three- or four-sentence appraisal of the ones my procrastinating ways neglected. Here's the first of a few batches.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Psychotropic atmospheric feminist science fiction horror art film about how women are seen, not seen, evaluated, used, objectified, idealized, hated, and feared, from an alien's perspective. Maybe my favorite movie of last year. Great score by Mica Levi. Has the feel of one of those mindblowing '70s cult obscurities that falls apart in the final third, exhausted by its own strange energy, only this one doesn't fall apart in the final third.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Very funny, and romantic, self-critique of the aging hipster as cultural, and literal, vampire with expressive use of Detroit locations. Maybe a little slight, but maybe not. Great music. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston were born to play vampires. Don't lump them together, though. They're two very different characters, despite sharing the fangs.

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
Wish she hadn't appropriated the title of a great Arthur Penn movie, but this is another fascinating anti-crowdpleaser from Reichardt. Her work is hard to write about. She gives us characters and situations that, though underrepresented in American film (especially in this past decade), tap into something essentially American, but her approach to narrative makes this familiarity deeply strange. Her visual composition is subtle but lingering. I loved the first half of this film and struggled with the second half, but it's that second half that keeps coming back to me at odd moments.

Up! (Russ Meyer)
Soft-core sex, impossibly buxom women, dumb jokes, goofball visual gags, redneck violence, hilariously strange dialogue, and a twisted, delirious comic-book eye for shot composition and montage. This is real art, in my book. Cram the middlebrow rubes' condescension with walnuts. I'll take any Russ Meyer movie over almost any Oscar winner almost all the time.

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Nutso bit of ultra-violence on a train with an unsubtly mallet-heavy but appreciated message about the disparity of class in our rich-make-poor-devour-themselves-while-rich-accumulate-everything society we made happen. I like the structure of moving from one train car to the next without knowing what will be waiting there, the international cast, and the intensely weird approach to the fight scenes and gore. Some heavy-handed speechifying, but a lot to enjoy otherwise. The CGI doesn't even make me puke. Joon-ho's first English-language film has some studio gloss and uninspired dialogue, but his weirdness and unconventional gift of breathing fresh life into familiar genres remains.

Friday, January 02, 2015


I failed in my goal of writing about every movie I saw in a theater in 2014, but what can you do? I'm currently in the process of shrinking down my social media usage to spend more time in the analog world of reading books, listening to records, avoiding pointless online political arguments with relatives, allowing more space for solitude and thought instead of constant opinion-generation and content-absorption, and decreasing time spent on my phone and the Internet. My work schedule is about to get temporarily crazy for the next five months, and when things settle down again in late May, I want to spend more time working on my non-blog writing. I'm still going to keep my blogs going, but the posts will continue to be infrequent for the next several months.
But in the spirit of online content generation and unsolicited opinion-sharing, here is my annual list of my ten favorite movies of the year, the runners-up, and my favorite revival, reissue, and film society screenings. To be eligible, the movies had to be released in the city of Austin between January 1 and December 31 of 2014, and I had to get off my couch and see them on the big screen. As always, my choices are based on my personal and idiosyncratic taste, and limited by the insanity and shortsightedness of capitalist distribution of art, the whims of the marketplace, my schedule and motivation, and the fact that I don't live in New York, Paris, or Los Angeles. Many 2014 films I have a great interest in seeing, including the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, the Dardennes, and David Cronenberg, won't play here until 2015, and many foreign films and independents won't play here at all or may only get a few film society screenings if they're lucky. I have no idea if I'll ever get to see the new Godard or Tsai Ming-Liang on the big screen, for example. Decent distribution for films that aren't blockbuster garbage or sanctimonious Oscar-grubbing has grown increasingly scarce in the last half-decade and is only getting worse. In that spirit of optimism, here are the movies that grabbed my eyeballs, ears, and imagination this year. Omissions are not necessarily judgments.

Top 10, in a somewhat preferential but also arbitrary and ridiculous order
1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
2. A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
3. Joe (David Gordon Green)
4. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
8. Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier)
9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
10.  Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry)

Movies I liked, just not as much as the above, but maybe that could change given some time (and to be honest, I had some issues with at least half the movies in my top 10, it was a weird year, etc.)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Life Itself (Steve James)
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones)

Reissues, revivals, and film society screenings (just a side note here that Austin Film Society has been kicking so much ass since moving into their own space, and I missed a bunch of screenings I wanted to attend, including the Jerry Lewis series and a bunch of one-night-only things):
1. Alamo Drafthouse complete David Lynch retrospective (I couldn't make it to all the screenings because life gives you too many obligations and choices, but I saw Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, and The Straight Story on the big screen for the first time and Inland Empire for the second)
2. Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Up! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
4. Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks)
5. Je t'aime, je t'aime (Alain Resnais)
6. The Return and Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
7. Othello (Orson Welles)

Too much death 2014 edition (I'm using TCM's In Memoriam video to jog my memory)
R.I.P. Eli Wallach, Richard Attenborough (the actor, not the director -- yes I know they're the same guy, but I love his acting and don't care for his filmmaking, except Magic, that's a weird movie, eh?), Gordon Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Nichols, George Sluizer, James Rebhorn, Bob Hoskins, Paul Mazursky (I had mixed feelings about him as a director, but I liked his acting -- should I start calling this the Attenborough-Mazursky Effect?), Elaine Stritch, Alain Resnais, Gottfried John, H.R. Giger, Lauren Bacall, Juanita Moore, Ken Takakura, Lorenzo Semple Jr. (particularly for the Real Geezers web series he costarred in with Marcia Nasatir), James Garner, Karlheinz Bohm, Donatas Banionis, Dick Smith, Harold Ramis, Robin Williams, and Ruby Dee. 

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