It reminds me that — for a variety of reasons (including the fact that I’m working full-time and going to school, and the fact that Seattle is getting major releases much later than New York and Los Angeles) — I have not yet found opportunities to see many of the best-reviewed films of 2014.
A few of the films I am still eager to see include National Gallery, Episode of the Sea, Norte (The End of History), Closed Curtain, Coherence, and Actress… for starters.
It convinces me that, unless I am head-over-heels about some of the films I have yet to see, this was a strange and disappointing year at the cinema, with a lot of “good” and very, very little “great.”
This is a strong candidate for the weirdest year-end list of my lifetime so far. The top five alone are quite a bizarre mix, and the #1 film is one that hardly anybody has seen (although it is available for streaming on Fandor).
The things that interest me at the movies have changed so much over the past 30 years, leading me into stranger territories and an increasing variety of styles and genres, that I have fewer and fewer films I can recommend with confidence to a general audience. Some of them would require a good deal of explanation to a moviegoer who only goes to movies that star familiar names and play at the local cineplex.
That’s not a bad thing; it’s just … interesting.
It goes to show that our encounters with art are personal and distinct. I can’t guarantee my interests will lead you to “a good time at the movies.” But I can promise you that each one of these movies has stayed on my mind for a variety of reasons, offering us a great deal to appreciate and discuss. And if you have a hard time figuring out what’s worthwhile about any one of them, feel free to ask me! I’ll suggest some lenses to look through, some questions to ask, some ways to appreciate them.
It gives me tremendous hope for the future of commercial American cinema that something like The LEGO Movie can pack so many surprises and ideas that it ends up a strong contender for my #1 spot, within shouting distance of a work of creative genius like The Strange Little Cat. If we’re open to it, we might discover greatness anywhere.
PLEASE NOTE: I will revise this list in the next few months as I catch up with as some significant 2014 films that did not play in Seattle, or that played so briefly that I missed them.
A NOTE OF THANKS: Many of the reviews that I wrote and published this year would not have been possible without the donations from readers who enabled me to see some of these films, and to carve out the time and resources necessary to blog about them. You made it possible for me to turn my moviegoing into writing. And your votes of confidence are more encouraging to me than I can express.
Okay, here we go. For this first-draft version of the list, I’ll count them down in 30 trailers…
American Sniper: I may write a full review of this film at a later date. For now, here are some first-impressions, along with an insightful commentary by my Facebook friend Brian McLain. Suffice it to say that I find it to be a solid, well-made movie about a character whose zeal to defend his country is deeply compromised by personal agendas, and whose participation in the war so damages his conscience that he fails both his family and his country. The tragedy is that his fellow soldiers — and his country — hailed him as a hero as if he were a video game icon, someone to be congratulated for having “scored so many points.” The film’s spectacular box office success, and spectacular misinterpretations as a film about patriotic heroism, only serve to reinforce the point: America’s war machine is so popular that people seem blind to the damage it has done to our global influence, our national integrity, and to many of the young men and women who serve us. If viewers would pay attention to the whole movie, and to its many paradoxes, they’d come away more troubled than inspired.
Birdman: The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, unfortunately. Everything here is both grand and grandiose, sensational but also show-offy, artistry in service of artifice, with one of the most aggravatingly ambiguous conclusions I’ve ever experienced. While it spoofs the self-importance of egomaniacal artists, it really does, in the end, buy into that self-importance. It’s a film that reminds us of how bold cinema can be even as it congratulates itself for that very thing (and in that way, it reminds me of last year’s The Great Beauty). It’s no wonder that it’s more popular — like The Artist was — with the Academy than with film reviewers and audiences. So yeah, I have very mixed feelings about it, but there are many reasons I’m glad that I saw it. My full review is here.
The Trip to Italy: I could have done with a lot less Al Pacino screentime, but this sequel thickens the plot, complicates the character development, and like the first it achieves surprisingly poignant moments of reflection on success, family, and in-person intimacy. It’s also more cinematic and beautiful than the first, making this series increasingly similar to Linklater’s Before trilogy.
Chef: High spirits. A celebration of good food prepared with love and served with generosity and enthusiasm. An examination of what is possible when an artist unburdens himself of ego. A celebration of fatherhood. An appreciation for family. All crafted with energy and love. Jon Favreau has made his best film, one that’s more rewarding than the whole Iron Man franchise that he launched. More here.
Locke: A powerfully restrained and controlled performance by Tom Hardy, set within a dream of lights. Another fierce exploration of ethics from the director of Dirty Pretty Things. More here.
Finding Vivian Maeier: Vivian Maier’s photography is wondrous, and if the film had given us more of it, or offered it more slowly so we could really study the images, it would have been stronger. For those first 30 minutes, I was smiling through tears, overwhelmed by the glory of Maier’s images on a big bright screen.
Moving pictures about non-moving pictures are always a challenge, and movies about artists are so common that it’s difficult to avoid cliches and formulas. John Maloof had an impossible task before him, presented with so much raw material and yet lacking the artist herself to help him understand what he was seeing. But what he did have was a compelling, contagious curiosity. And the film he’s made represents an astonishing work of inventory, organization, detective work, and obvious love. It’s all sewn together with imagination, humor, and energy.
It’s also sewn together with more than a little self-congratulation in its reenactments of Maloof’s jackpot. And every time he talks about his hopes of seeing Maier’s work achieve tremendous success, it’s hard to ignore the conflict of interest. More here.
Muppets Most Wanted: I expected this one to be a one-timer. Surprise, surprise: I enjoyed it much more the second time through.
The songs are stronger than I remembered — very Muppet-worthy, especially the “No More Questions” interrogation-room sequence, which rates up there with my favorite sequences from all Muppet-world movies. (Ty Burrell and Sam the Eagle are such a great partnership, I’d like to see them return as the same characters in future Muppet movies.)
It feels true to the spirit of Henson and Oz in that it is working on several levels of comedy at once — genre spoof, gags that require knowledge of the previous films, slapstick, puns, groaners, cultural commentary, and even some wince-worthy morbidity. If one gag falls flat, several more hit every 30 seconds. (My favorite bit is watching the wicked Kermit doppelganger practicing his Show-Host Kermit impression, which smartly plays with the complaints from Muppet fans who didn’t accept Steve Whitmire’s remarkable Henson approximations last time around.) Celebrity cameos range from Brilliant to “Wow, everybody wants to be in a Muppet movie” to the “What? Was that Tom Hollander? It was? Well, if he showed up, why didn’t they at least give him a line or, well, anything?”
People will complain about the voices sounding less and less like the original voices all of the time, and I’m sympathetic, but I care less and less about that. I care more about the performers, writers, and musicians staying true to the spirit of the original show and the first two Muppet movies. And so far, this team is two for two: Last time they made an “A-” and this time a solid “B.” Let’s hope they bring their “A game” next time.
My biggest complaint is the same this time as last time: Tina Fey is so talented that I *know* they could have worked with her to achieve better lip-synching during her “Big House” song. I mean, come on.
Ida: Beautiful cinematography; complex and vivid performances. I’m conflicted, as I think the film is self-consciously straining to have the look of a great art film while the substance itself is lacking. But still, quite a thing to see. Here’s my review.
The Babadook: A widow’s incapacity to move through her grief and face her fears dooms her and her fragile but insightful child to being terrorized by a gleeful demon who feeds upon her fears.
This first-rate horror film features the most effectively creepy sound design and practical effects I’ve seen since Sinister. And the most searing depiction of traumatic grief I’ve seen since that terrifying flashback scene in The Fisher King. I was expecting a scary movie, but what I experienced had more to do with anguish than fright.
I’m not entirely down with the conclusion. And there’s a point just past the hour mark where the film feels like it’s straining to take what amounts to a short-form horror story all the way to feature length.
But still, jeepers… what a movie.
At its best, horror gives us distorted lenses through which certain truths become more visible than they are through clear glass. This is a dark, revealing window to the truth about what some quietly suffer in broad daylight. Viewer discretion — and, more importantly, viewer discussion — advised.
Edge of Tomorrow: It’s built out of parts scrapped from other movies. It has that dirty, obviously CGI, 55-laser-blasts-per-minute, adrenalin-frenzy look that characterizes too many sci-fi movies now. And I can’t say it’s given me much to ponder. (Its obvious ancestor, Groundhog Day, was deeply profound compared to this.)
Edge of Tomorrow — a bad title made even worse for its video release (Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow) — is surprisingly enjoyable due to a smart, funny screenplay; fantastic editing that gives the humor and the action some serious punch; and one of the most engaging Tom Cruise performances of his career. In a way, watching the movie felt like watching Tom Cruise’s career: He commits himself to a formula over and over and over and over and over again until he finds a way to make a character live. More here.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1: A strong installment in an increasingly impressive franchise. It goes right wherever Peter Jackson’s Hobbit franchise goes wrong: It sticks to what is essential; it never makes a move that doesn’t enhance the whole; it focuses on human elements of the story; it explores the subject of violence in a way that makes us grieve, rather than relish, violence. This is smart, lean, focused action-adventure filmmaking.
It must be strange to be Jennifer Lawrence, rising to become an icon for a generation, willfully playing the game of celebrity while trying to maintain her integrity, knowing full well that she’s being exploited, knowing full well that the public that loves her now could turn against her in a moment, knowing full well that the media exploiting her only gives her this glory so long as it serves their ends…
…because the role that’s making her iconic is about a young woman who becomes an icon for a whole world, who willfully plays the game of celebrity while trying to maintain her integrity, knowing that she’s being exploited, knowing that the people who love her now could turn against her in a moment, knowing that the media exploiting her only gives her this glory so long as it serves their ends.
Snowpiercer: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil + Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen + Peter Weir’s The Truman Show + Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men + John McTiernan’s Die Hard.
Link them cars together and, wow, what a helter-skelter train. More here.
Blue Ruin: “That’s what bullets do.”
A solid, riveting, nail-biter of a revenge thriller. It builds suspense so assuredly that its swift bursts of humor are as shocking as its gory blasts of violence. And the more intense it gets, the funnier it gets.
It refrains, thank goodness, from glorifying revenge or valorizing the revenge-seeker. We can feel empathy for him while objecting all along to the stupid decisions he makes, laughing in grim dismay as he makes bad situations worse.
I love this film’s shout-out to No Country for Old Men: A simple jug of water.
I love the title — which makes it the second film (with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to include this very specific reference/tribute to Tom Waits.
I look forward to whatever Jeremy Saulnier writes and directs next.
Jodorowsky’s Dune: Crafted with care, imagination, and efficiency, Jodorowsky’s Dune is an excellent example of how to make a documentary engaging, provocative, and compact. It never wears out its welcome; it keeps descriptive stretches lively with animation and clever typography; and it edits its various interviews down to the most essential and revelatory nuggets.
It also has the advantage of focusing on two equally astounding subjects — Alejandro Jodorowsky’s wildly ambitious Dune project, and Jodorowsky himself, a hilariously unhinged creative genius who is as admirable in his creative zeal as he is dangerous and irresponsible in his recklessness. More here.
Interstellar: Ambitious science fiction filmmaking, in which the obvious flaws are quite alright in view of the grand scheme. This is what science fiction is for: it’s a way of pushing employing what we know to push further into the realms of what we suspect — a mix of hard science and heartfelt intuition, what some call faith: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here’s my review.
Noah: Like Interstellar, this is enjoyable because it feels so personal, so go-for-broke ambitious, so willing to risk being ridiculous in order to achieve things that movies rarely achieve. I’ve engaged with this film on several occasions: I wrote a two-part review: Part One, Part Two; I wrote a commentary and a “review of other reviews”; and then, I participated in a lively podcast discussion which you can download or stream.
Gone Girl: I haven’t reviewed this film yet, although I offered some first impressions here. I enjoyed it very much as I watched it, and I think it is crafted with imagination and expertise. But my experience was compromised by what seems to be a case of terrible timing.
In an era when too many husbands resent their wives as “psycho-bitches” as a way of avoiding responsibility for their own neglect, unfaithfulness, disrespect, and abuse, this movie has the potential to throw fuel on the fire. The character of Amy is fine as a specific character for the purposes of this story… but she could easily become an unhealthy sort of mythic figure for a culture that needs the opposite. This film could easily promote the cause of husbands throw up their hands and say ‘What? Me? Irresponsible? It’s all her fault! She’s crazy!'” (And yes, I know that there are exceptions. Men and women are equally capable of behaving wickedly.) If this is a film set up to work as a cultural commentary, I think our culture needs very different provocation.
Having said that, I’m a big fan of this movie when I focus on David Fincher’s artistry; the caliber of the performances; the way the film exposes the soullessness of the news media and the mad-dog rabidity of talk-show sensationalism; the way it eventually admits that it’s an outrageous satire; and the way it explores how all of us are capable of shaping our personal narratives to our own best advantage. My opinion of this movie improved over time, as I watched others engage in a rewarding and fascinating dialogue about it at Arts and Faith and elsewhere. I highly recommend this intriguing conversation at Filmwell. This has been a great example to me of seeing how my own first impressions are just that… first impressions. If I maintain a spirit of curiosity and openness, I may find myself blessed to receive insight from others.
Whiplash: What an adrenalin rush of a movie! And what’s more — it’s a powerful way of making us ask questions about the difference between the drive for excellence and the drive for fame, and the cost of either pursuit. More here.
As It Is in Heaven: Perhaps you remember that moment in The Polar Express when the conductor said, “The thing about trains… it doesn’t matter where they’re going. What matters is deciding to get on.” Yeah, that sounded nice, but it’s total b.s. It’s a seductive idea, this notion of climbing on board the Gospel train. And it’s an exciting thing for a lonely, lost soul to be embraced by a community in Jesus’ name. It’s even more exciting if you’re assured that you have arrived and that you are now among the Chosen. You know how that inspiring song goes: “People get ready, there’s a train comin’, pickin’ up passengers coast to coast… And faith is the key!” Ah, but faith in what? In whom? And to what end?
This is an admirable, effective, artful first film for director Joshua Overbay. He shows remarkable patience in developing this community of lost souls who fall under the influence of a backwoods-Kentucky cult leader. Obviously a student of Malick (but not an imitator or a wannabe), Overbay moves the camera and the storytelling at an impressively contemplative pace before tightening the screws. More here.
Gloria: This lonely, tipsy, flirtatious woman in the middle of a busy nightclub — the one looking for love through glasses so large and round that several critics have noted her resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie — held my attention more than any of the steroidal superheroes dominating the box office this year.
And I’m not the only one. Gloria currently has a 99% “fresh” rating among film reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes, and 83% positive among reviewers at Metacritic. Maybe that will help kindle some moviegoers’ interest.
Now, before you schedule a family movie night… be warned. Gloria is too intense and explicit for younger viewers. Adults only, please. (Ah, there! I suspect I have more readers’ attention now.)
Gloria gives us a very intimate portrait, one that follows this lonely soul through various states of emotional and physical undress. But it is an incredibly compassionate portrait, intent on revealing everything from her ebullient humor to her mischievous intelligence to the open wounds of her heart.
Actress Paulina Garcia commits fully to this performance, giving us a raw and complicated portrait of a woman who wants nothing less than true love, full commitment, and an enthusiastic embrace of possibility… but who, in her zeal to embrace that, ends up letting idealism guide her into a relationship with a man who isn’t quite ready to leave his past behind. Garcia’s performance is so striking, she won the Silver Berlin Bear “Best Actress” Award at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. More here.
Life Itself: Here’s what I wrote right after seeing the great Steve James’s film about that complicated, wise, and wonderful man who was, for me, in many ways, an influential and inspiring role model.
Only Lovers Left Alive: Dreamlike. Playful. Curious. Tongue-in-cheek. Gorgeous. Set to a fantastic soundtrack. And featuring my favorite Tilda Swinton performance. Here’s my review.
A Most Wanted Man: The last leading role by Philip Seymour Hoffman is also one of his finest. And Anton Corbijn is becoming a remarkable filmmaker. Everything about this film is a pleasure to watch, and it respects our intelligence far more than most thrillers. This doesn’t feel like fiction; it feels like the way things work. More here.
Journey to the West: If asked “What’s the funniest action movie you’ve ever seen?” I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better answer than Journey to the West. Come to think of it, have I ever seen a more imaginative action movie?
Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson’s funniest and weirdest film. It’s also purposefully ugly, and the saddest thing he’s ever set to film. It builds to what is, in my experience, the most difficult devastating scene of his career, revealing that, for all of the stoner-culture hilarity, this is a film that takes the despair, distraction, and irresponsibility of its characters with a deadly seriousness.When the people feel powerless, the weak-willed will fail in many ways: they’ll allow their righteous anger to sputter uselessly as they drink or smoke or otherwise anesthetize themselves; they’ll allow themselves to be exploited and abused by the powerful in the hopes that they might taste some power themselves; they’ll chase after trends in religion and psychology in hopes of finding enlightenment by some means other than accountability and responsibility.
Inherent Vice is a story without a hero. The rich and heartless stay rich and heartless. The poor and conscientious are despondent. The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. The voice of wisdom is drowned out by the seductive overtures of power. Innocence is quickly lost, and was never so innocent in the first place. The light of nostalgia becomes an alluring and dangerous lie. And yet, once in a while, when we muster the courage to behave generously and selflessly, we can help good things happen, and strengthen the things that remain.
Alissa Wilkinson’s review, by the way, is very, very good.
In view of all of this, please understand: While I am grateful for this film, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this film. Due to the characters and the context, there is much in this movie that is explicit (nudity, sexual behavior) and profane (obscene language) and violent. Note: I don’t count that against the artist or the art — nothing here recommends or condones the behavior on display. He is adapting a book that deals with heavy subject matter, and so heavy cautions are necessary. But all of this is presented as a meditation on painful truths about wounded and misguided people, about the nature of abuse and destruction. Let the moviegoer beware.
Calvary: John Michael McDonagh’s movie has its weaknesses — primarily in its resemblance to UK comedies about country communities full of colorful characters; you know, shows like Ballykissangel, in which characters who reveal more than one character trait are the complicated ones. But the movie’s strengths are remarkable and, in the case of its lead actor, formidable. I have a feeling that its reputation will grow, and that critics’ respect for it will deepen over time. More here.
Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey: Director Scott Teems of TV’s Rectify has crafted a reverent, observant, funny, and downright inspirational portrait of one of America’s greatest (and most underappreciated) actors. What’s more, he’s made what could have been a standard talking-heads tribute into a visually exquisite work of art. It’s been playing at festivals here and there. I sincerely hope it’s available for general audiences soon.
Boyhood: While I hold that the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy are the greatest work of Richard Linklater’s career, I am grateful for this one-of-a-kind experience.
What Richard Linklater has done here, drawing (I suspect) from his own experiences, is distill one boy’s growth from elementary school uncertainties to cocksure college-bound young-adulthood. And in doing so he invites us — all of us, men and women, boys and girls, singles and spouses, parents and children — to ask ourselves a world of questions about the forces that have made us (parents, siblings, friends, teachers), the damage we’ve suffered, the glories we’ve seen, the desires and convictions inspired by those experiences, and the grace we offer and receive.
Boyhood is about so many things, in so many ways. What impressed me most? This film shows just what a huge responsibility it is to be a parent. Sure, it’s a celebration of boyhood, yes, but it is also a lament. The pain in this movie rings very true, as if it’s a very personal story for Linklater. Look at Mason Sr. and Olivia — they’re so much like so many American parents, failing each other but still trying to be good role models for their kids. It’s so easy to make promises in a rush of idealism and affection, dazzled by each other’s goodness. But it’s hard to keep those promises when the New becomes Familiar, and when we have to learn to live with each other’s weaknesses. That’s what love requires. And when we abandon love because it’s difficult — thinking that we’re doing ourselves a favor — we end up doing incredible damage to our families and ourselves. There’s conviction and authenticity in every glimpse of the damage in Mason’s family.
I feel like I am watching Boyhood, as well as Girlhood, and various forms of Adulthood (especially Fatherhood and Motherhood) on social networking platforms all of the time now, browsing personal records to see a fuller picture of my friends and neighbors. Thus, this movie feels more like an inevitable product of its time — a film that captures and sums up a new phenomenon particular to this chapter of history — than some out-of-the-blue vision. But that’s good. We need it, in order to ask (as young Mason Jr. eventually does) which is more important … the life that is happening “in the flesh” around us, within reach, in personal connection, or the world that is available to us on screens, second-hand.
In a sense, Mason Jr.’s eventual inclination to unplug and be present with his family and friends is a criticism of all screens, even the one on which he now appears, in favor of personal relationship in the now… a value that Linklater has celebrated before in films as different as Waking Life and The School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly and Before Midnight.
Mr. Turner: In one February 2015 weekend, I saw two movies about stout, huggable Brits: Paddington and Mr. Turner.
Well, J. W. Turner he seemed huggable at first.
But let’s just say I’d rather not witness Spall putting his arms around anyone ever again. “It can never be too salty for me, Madam.” Yeesh, I can’t un-see that.
Fortunately for moviegoers, Mr. Turner‘s moments of human ugliness are overwhelmed by tidal waves of beauty. This is easily the best-looking movie Mike Leigh has ever made; the most breathtaking visual cinema about a visual artist that I’ve seen; and the finest film about a visual artist I’ve seen since Seraphine.
As per usual, Leigh’s view is both merciless and compassionate. He humbles those whom others would depict as heroic even as he lifts up and honors those who lived poor and neglected. And he does not suffer fools gladly: know-it-all art critics and egomaniacal artists are portrayed as monsters and buffoons here.
And Turner — he is, all at once, a man of deep feeling and strong convictions, a masterful artist (now here’s an artist who actually deserves the title “The Painter of Light”), and an insensitive brute to his housekeeper — a woman so desperately lonely that she welcomes the abuse.
Spall’s performance is fearless, complicated, and often hilarious. I think he’s one of the finest screen actors in the world — I’ve been a big fan since Leigh’s Secrets and Lies — but he rarely gets a role suited to his talents. It’s a shame that moviegoers are more likely to know him as “That guy who turns into a rat in Harry Potter” than they are to know him for his best roles. J.W. Turner is the biggest task he’s been given, and he’s spectacular. His absence from the Oscar ballot is one of many reasons to look at this year’s nominations list with incredulity. He won Best Actor at Cannes, for crying out loud. And no actor commanded two hours of screen time in 2014 the way Spall does here.
As Turner himself grunts: “Humans!”
I’ve heard some complain that the narrative just wasn’t particularly interesting, that it left them “unmoved.” I believe them. But I just don’t think that matters much. I wouldn’t say I was “unmoved” by the film, but then… it’s not really that kind of movie. It’s not interested in breaking our hearts or inspiring us. I think this movie exists to honor a great artistic vision and to be painfully truthful about the complicated character who captured so much beautiful light. The stories of artists’ lives are rarely crowdpleasers or particularly profound. The focus here is on “the majesty of mystery” as it is seen and translated into art. And along the way, there are more than enough moments of affecting human tenderness, appalling human weakness, hilarious absurdity, and intriguing historical detail to make the film deeply satisfying. At least for this moviegoer.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: We are blessed to be moviegoers in the age of Wes Anderson, whose films are so rich that they make most American movies feel like two hours of impoverished imagination. Has any film ever made presented so many magnificent sets? I had a flashback to watching Miyazaki’s Spirited Away on DVD for the first time, and how I kept pausing the video just to state at those beautiful rooms. But with Grand Budapest, the music has such energy and momentum that I can’t bear to interrupt it. Here’s my first review. And the movie is so good, it prompted a second one.
The LEGO Movie: Nobody is more surprised to find this in my Top 5 than me. What’s more, nobody is more surprised that my review of The LEGO Movie is the single most popular post I’ve ever published on this blog. (1.24K Facebook “shares” and counting.) So I guess I did okay with this review.
The Immigrant: So self-consciously old-fashioned, so aware that any “period piece” like this is as much imagination as history, The Immigrant almost qualifies as a fantasy film. It has a Cinderella-like “princess” from a faraway land who charms both a romantic magician and a lord of the underworld. To save her sister, she “descends into hell” and allows herself to be sacrificed in the hopes of saving the one she loves. It’s also a Beauty and the Beast story, as we watch a reluctant charlatan forced to reconcile with his crimes against vulnerable women, and wrestling with an awakening of conscience triggered by beauty and innocence.
This is the most beautifully photographed film I saw this year. Some complain about the acting — that it feels forced and awkward; but I’m inclined to think that everything here is purposeful, using the methods of older films to enhance the power of a contrarian perspective on American history.
From my review:
For all of its artistry, The Immigrant‘s most surprising aspect is its wonderfully straightforward, non-cynical portrayal of Christian faith. When Ewa turns to the church for solace and hope, we might expect that it’s a setup for yet another betrayal, yet another revelation of corruption. But no — Ewa needs to kneel in prayer, needs to confess. And what follows from that experience transforms the narrative and brings its central storyline into view. After that point, there are more important stories to tell than whether or not Ewa reunites with her sister. After that point, both Ewa and Bruno are answerable to a higher call, ruled by something more than the summons of survival.
The film concludes with a turbulent, emotional resolution that is entirely earned, entirely surprising, and yet I can’t imagine an ending more truthful than this one.
It also culminates in one of the most glorious last shots I’ve ever seen.
Two Days, One Night: I’m adding this one late, as it arrived in Seattle finally in February 2015. No surprise that it lands in my top 5… as it’s the Dardenne brothers. My review is in progress.
Virunga: “It’s bizarre, but there is a new African proverb: ‘Pray that we do not discover oil.'” – Bono
I’ve only just discovered this film, but I don’t think I’ve overestimating its greatness. It’s a documentary that demonstrates just how timely, important, and powerful a documentary can be. It is full of essential information, but it is artfully made, and that makes all the difference. It is about horrors, but it is attentive to beauty — it makes us care not by trying to shock us (although it does), but by making us care about the goodness that is at risk, the resources that are being lost even as we speak. This is courageous, heroic documentary filmmaking. An edge-of-my-seat experience unlike anything I’ve seen. Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo and Mélanie Gouby are more inspiring than anybody I’ve seen onscreen in 2014.
Selma: Thank God Almighty.
Ava Duvernay had a monumental task before her, making the first major motion picture focused on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But she has surpassed all expectations with a masterfully crafted film that will become a standard by which historical film are measured.
Selma gracefully avoids stumbling into any of the classic biopic ditches. It doesn’t over-glorify its subject; Dr. King is portrayed as a complex, flawed, human character. It marches from beginning to end with remarkable intimacy, focus, historicity, conscience, beauty, and soul. It never becomes showy. It never becomes heavy handed. It does not shy away from portraying the centrality of Christian faith in this story (I’m looking at you, Unbroken), but bravely models how King’s faith was not an accessory or a badge or a brochure, but a deeply integrated part of his life.
Selma is, quite simply, everything I could have hoped for in a film about Dr. King. It is artful, inspiring, perfectly cast and powerfully acted, beautifully shot, scored with sensitivity rather than sentimentality, efficiently edited, and profoundly dignified.
Let it play from screen to shining screen. And the sooner, the better.
The Strange Little Cat: In one scene, two young people play Connect Four.
Do you remember Connect Four? I loved playing this game when I was a kid. There was the tic-tac-toe fun of trying to see connections before somebody else did, but it was more complicated than tic-tac-toe, and it also had tactile elements that made it more satisfying: the sound of the chips clattering together, the sound of them dropping into the grid slots, and the oh-so-satisfying sound of unhinging the rack at the end of the game so the chips fell out and cascaded across the tabletop like reward tokens from a Las Vegas slot machine.
It seems an incidental moment in The Strange Little Cat, Ramon Zurcher’s one-of-a-kind, somewhat experimental investigation of the controlled chaos in a French family’s overcrowded flat.
But there are no incidental moments. All things here are important, a little strange, interconnected in ways obvious and subtle, potentially revelatory.
Or perhaps it is better to say that all things here are incidental, and that one of the movie’s most rewarding endeavors is in the way it makes that very incidental-ness its subject, so that we begin to see that “incidental” is actually quite meaningful; “incidental” is anything but arbitrary or insignificant. The incidental details of this day, as it plays out with so many bodies in such a small space, are alive with clues to secrets, hints of stories, unusual relationships, mysterious histories.
That game of Connect Four? It’s almost crying out for our attention, saying, “Do you see what they’re doing? Isn’t this the strangest thing? In the middle of a busy home, on a day when guests are coming, and the air is full of anticipation, they’re sitting down to play this silly and seemingly meaningless little game: they’re taking time to stack things up, to try and make connections, to see the possibilities within a grid. And that, moviegoer, is what you’re invited to do here. What connections do you see? Can you discover enough connections here to make sense of something?”
What’s more — there is a fantastic particularity to everything in the picture, a tactile specificity, that gives us the sense of a real family, with a real history, in a real flat, where they interact in so many ways that anybody new to this home will be somewhat uncomfortable, trying to decipher the codes and cues, the roles and relationships, at work here.
I may be totally overreaching in my interpretation of why there’s a Connect Four game.
But when you begin to sense a poetic meaningfulness in one element of a work of art, you begin to get the sense that there are other elements just waiting to reveal themselves to you. And if you go on making those connections, finding that your intuition about one thing leads to ensuing intuitions about other things, the work of art comes alive. As film critic Michael Sicinski writes, “[A]ny fragment of Cat could be productively subjected to close analysis and could conceivably serve as a synecdochal emblem for how the film operates as a whole.” (I highly recommend his excellent review at Cinema-scope.)
When, as you lean forward and began fishing for meaning in what appears to be madness, you begin to suspect the significance of a particular gesture or offhand remark, the movie becomes like one of those “Magic Eye” paintings, and you begin to feel that excitement of something mysterious revealing itself. The details of the film become like a net cast over something elusive and alive. What is this net for, and what is caught within it? Can we make out its contours?
What is this movie about?
Is it really about the cat (who seems to play such a small role)? Or is the title referring to something else entirely — perhaps the spirit of curiosity that teases us and draws us into the space, leading us about on quite unnatural paths between people, places, and spaces?
For a lot of viewers, the film will create a claustrophobic feeling. You may find yourself desperately hoping that we eventually leave this rather chaotic apartment — this kitchen, this narrow corridor, these bedrooms, the noisy dishwasher, the clamor of the washing machine, the layering of conversations as people (Who are they? What are their relationships?) keep coming and going?
But I had a very different experience. I felt more and more exhilarated the more that I began figuring out what the hell was going on. It was as if the space was getting smaller (as more and more characters, human or otherwise, and more and more stories filled up the flat) but the world was getting bigger. No, take out the “as if.” This is exactly what was happening. As I became aware that this entanglement of signs and suggestions would go on revealing itself to be more and more complicated the more I paid attention, the more I felt free to explore and guess and discover surprises.
And as we continue to make connections, to make sense of things, surprises become that much more startling. There is a moment – I won’t say what happens — that made the whole audience jump and laugh. It caused everything onscreen to change a little. It brought something new out of the characters in response. One character in particular responded in a way we hadn’t seen through the whole film.
Many reviewers have pointed out the influence of Jacques Tati on these proceedings. (But where Tati observed comical “chaos” in large metropolitan environments, Zurcher finds that much misadventure in one small residence.) Others have thought of Bresson for the lack of conventional drama and emotion — Acting with a capital “A” — onscreen. It can go on and on. I thought of Wim Wenders and his dedication to purposeful meandering, to serious-minded haphazardness, in films like Wings of Desire and The End of Violence. For cinephiles, there is a wonderland of reference (and… references?) to discuss and postulate. At ArtsandFaith.com, my Filmwell colleague Michael Leary wrote, “I would love the chance to talk more about Strange Little Cat…. There is Vertov in the edits, a Dardenne interest in family as a base unit of society, a Varda love of mothers and daughters, a Truffaut appreciation of children, a Berlin School economy, a Wes Anderson curiosity in setting, a… Godardian sound design?” I added, “And there is a Kieslowskian interest in reaching up to shove plastic bottles into recycling bins.”
Makes me want to shout “Connect Four!”
I also observed that, while many films that ask us to “look closer” at our lives lead to an increasing sense of wonder and delight, The Strange Little Cat does something different. While there are some joyful and celebratory moments, there is a pervading sense of anxiety — which I suspect has something to do with the effect of modern technology and efficiency and automation on our lives. The cyclical sounds of this apartment become the stressful ones, whereas the sound of a bottle spinning waywardly and unevenly inspires delight. Sometimes, the tyranny of the automated overwhelms, and when it does, anxiety builds to a fever pitch.
I began to wonder: Is there a connection between this, and the sense that something might, at any moment, break down?
And then I began to wonder: Does that have anything to do with why one character in this family seems frequently… offline? As if she knows something that nobody else does? Or, even worse, maybe she doesn’t know something. Maybe she’s losing something. Her memory. Her ability to exist within this extravagance of connections. Maybe that’s why her favorite thing is to go to a cafe and surround herself with strangers.
I don’t know.
I’m not completely off-base, feeling such anxiety. One of my favorite reviewers, Darren Hughes, has seen it several times, and he says he feels more anxious every time. And then there’s the fact that the film began as an experimental retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. So, yeah — that’s intriguing. (A moth does play an important role in the film… since all roles here seem important.)
But I really don’t know.
And I love that. All the more reason to revisit it.
How can you see it? Well, right now it’s streaming for subscribers at Fandor. Otherwise, good luck. I sincerely hope you get the chance to see it on a big screen, with an excellent sound system. Anything less than that, and the experience will be less immersive.
I am extremely grateful that I had the chance to see The Strange Little Cat on the big screen at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. (Thank you, Northwest Film Forum!) I proceeded to sing its praises on Facebook and elsewhere, hoping to persuade my Seattle friends to catch it while they could. That moment came and went, and I’m not sure if I sold a single ticket. But I tried.
What’s more, I had the chance to see it while two of my favorite people — the attentive art photographer, writer, and director Tom Wilkinson and Christianity Today’s chief film critic Alissa Wilkinson — were in town, and we were joined for the screening by another extraordinarily talented writer, Lauren Wilford. And after the movie was over (there were only about 20 people in attendance), we had the pleasure of sampling excellent ales at the nearby Elysian Brewery while discussing our varying interpretations of what we had just experienced.
And that, my friends, has a great deal to do with why this great moviegoing experience became even greater. How often do we “chew our food” like that? How often do we spend time retracing, reliving, reviewing, and rethinking the experiences we just had? That second part of the experience is what makes a moviegoing adventure complete. It is what allows us to ruminate and to participate. In recreating the movie in our imaginations through memory, reflection, and interpretation, it becomes a part of us and we, in a small way, become a part of the movie itself and its life in the world. Moreover, we learn things about ourselves and each other, which draws us closer together, learning from other perspectives and coming to respect just how different we are from one another, just how much we can enhance one another’s experiences.
The experience of seeing and discussing The Strange Little Cat was the most enlivening, enthralling, and joyful time I’ve had at the movies in years. It woke me up in ways that I like to be awake.