Friday, January 23, 2015


It's very hard for me to completely describe my feelings of love and admiration for Darren Aronofsky's uber-ambitious, boundary pushing The Fountain -- it stands as a towering artistic achievement made by a filmmaker in total control of his vision. This is awe-inspiring cinema-magic, crafted by a director who is interested in stretching the limits of the form, delving deep into his wild, fertile imagination, and delivering something completely uncompromising and unique. The Fountain lives in the same cinemaverse as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life, Enter the Void, Cloud Atlas, and Under the Skin, and as in those world-creating films, The Fountain has been hand-crafted by a filmmaker with an intensely personal vision, resulting in a work that is beyond thought provoking and visually astonishing at every turn. Matthew Libatique's cinematography on this film is transcendent; I'll never completely understand how some if it was achieved. Originally intended to be a $70 million production with Brad Pitt in the lead role, the film was delayed, scrapped, then resurrected with Hugh Jackman in the hot-seat and a comparatively "low" budget of $35 million. Even though I wouldn't change a frame of what Aronofsky delivered, I'll always be curious to know what the larger, Pitt-led version would have been like. And it's also been on my mind for a while now: is there a "director's cut" of The Fountain in Aronofsky's back-pocket waiting to be unleashed at some point in the future?
The complex narrative is going to be extremely dense for some, and to be honest, I'd be lying if I said that I "got" everything from the story. And that's fine. I'm not sure I need or want to know all of the secrets of The Fountain. Something this heady and layered needs to be experienced more than once, and as with all of the best art, every time you view The Fountain it will mean something different. At least that's how it's worked for me. The Fountain is an intentional and surreal hodgepodge of various elements from multiple genres, inspirations, and topics: history, religion, science, science-fiction, nature, and above all else: love. Aronofsky devised his mind-bending tale over three story lines, each one featuring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. Both actors deliver some of their best work in The Fountain, providing rich, full-bodied performances that are somehow never overwhelmed by the film's visual grandiosity. The narrative is set in three vastly different eras, in which Jackman and Weisz play different sets of characters who might possibly be the same two people in the grand scheme of the universe. In the present day, Jackman is a fevered scientist racing around the clock, trying to save his dying wife (Weisz) from cancer. A second track follows an ancient conquistador (Jackman) and his queen (Weisz), and the third bit is that of an advanced astronaut (Jackman) who ostensibly hallucinates (reincarnates?) his long-lost love (Weisz). Arnofsky and his editor, Jay Rabinowitz, brilliantly match-cut and jump-cut all throughout the film, creating an All-is-One type sense of encompassment. Add in the legendary score from Clint Mansell, which soars to grace notes previously undiscovered, and the overall results are nothing short of hallucinatory.
I vividly remember seeing this film in the theater on opening weekend, in a massive, mostly empty auditorium, and the experience I had at the time was extraordinarily different than the one I had last night while watching it in my living room (probably my fifth time taking it in from start to finish). As a piece of filmmaking, The Fountain feels like an organic creation, a living and breathing piece of art, something that reveals new sides and textures of its being each time you sit down to view it. And over the years, as my life has changed and as my cinematic tastes have expanded, the themes of The Fountain -- love, death, life, the power of hope -- have come into focus on an even stronger level. When you boil it down, The Fountain is an almost overwhelmingly sad film, filled with desperation, the longing for your soul mate, and our intrinsic desire to spend as much time with that one special person we love the most. The film makes you contemplate all that you value and hold dear to your heart, which is something that can't be said for too many pieces of filmic fiction. The surreal nature to the filmmaking heightens each segment of this constantly over-lapping tale, which gives your mind a wonderful mental work-out. Aronofsky seemingly designed The Fountain to be something unique for every viewer, with each viewing holding the potential to teach you something new about yourself and the film in general. This is a cosmic and trippy ode to the very idea of love and the process of loving another human being, a work that allows itself to be constantly rediscovered and reinterpreted.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Crimson Tide remains one of the very best Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer collaborations with the late, great Tony Scott at the helm.  Don’t you miss that old lightning-bolt logo crashing down before a big-budget pop-corn movie?  Shot for a now-paltry $55 million and released in May of 1995, it featured an on-the-rise Denzel Washington going head-to-head against Gene Hackman as dueling nuclear submarine commanders engulfed in a hostile battle over command of the sub and the fate of the free world.  An interrupted communications message leaves the crew of the sub unsure of what to do during a tense military stand-off with the Russians; will we or won’t we launch our warheads which will inevitably lead to WWIII?  This film excels because Scott cared enough about his believable screenplay and his full-bodied characters to the point where his uber-stylish creative leanings didn’t overpower the entire production – it was a perfect match in material and filmmaker.  Recalling the claustrophobia of Das Boot and the grittiness of The Hunt for the Red October, Crimson Tide sits alongside those genre classics and many others as a first-rate submarine drama with narrative complexity to match its high-powered pyrotechnics, of which there are plenty.  Intelligently written by Michael Schiffer (Colors, Lean on Me, the underrated The Peacemaker) with uncredited punch-ups by Quentin Tarantino, Crimson Tide has story tension, strong, macho dialogue, and a credible finale after all of the angry dust settles between Hackman and Washington.  Both thesps deliver power-house performances, sweating and snarling their way through each adrenaline filled scene.  Budding master cinematographer Dariusz Wolski bathes the widescreen images in greens, reds, and blues, playing off of the submarine’s read-out screens with fantastic shadows covering the actor’s faces in numerous sequences.  As Scott and Wolski’s camera darts down the sub’s narrow corridors and swings back and forth with almost primal ferocity, the film picks up a tremendous sense of visceral energy that continues all the way to the heated finish.  The heavy use of extreme close-ups in tandem with Chris Lebenzon’s razor-sharp editing only heightens the intensity.  Hans Zimmer’s epic, often-borrowed score is one of his best, filled with moments of soaring grace that stir your insides.  And then there’s the ridiculous supporting cast, assembled by the legendary Victoria Thomas, which includes no less than James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen, Matt Craven, George Dzundza, Ricky Schroder, Rocky Carroll, Steve Zahn, Danny Nucci, Lillo Brancato, Ryan Phillippe, and an uncredited Jason Robards.  The film was a hit with critics and audiences, grossing $160 globally ($91 domestic), thus putting Simpson and Bruckheimer back on track after two previous hits that year in Bad Boys and Dangerous Minds.  It also garnered three Oscar nominations (Film Editing, Sound, Sound Editing)  I’ve watched Crimson Tide probably 50 times and I’ll likely watch it 50 more. 


Only Robert Altman would have had the wily nerve to release his cynical, ultra-revisionist Western oddity Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson on the bicentennial anniversary of the United States. It's a film easier to admire than it is to outright "love." Casually ripping apart the shared notions of "white nobility" and the "violent Native American savage," this is a darkly comical, defiantly strange movie with a careening tone and a hazy, sometimes murky visual style that relies heavily on long shots with multiple characters in the frame, all of whom are talking at once, without any close-ups to establish which voice is coming from which mouth. Altman's use of sound has always been a point of conversation, but in this film, it may have reached its apex in terms of the use of multiple and simultaneous audio tracks. Co-written with frequent collaborator Alan Rudolph, the film has an episodic, farcical approach to the material, and arriving immediately after his much celebrated Nashville, my guess is that critics and audiences didn't know what to do with Altman's latest at the time of its release. Paul Newman is terrific as Buffalo Bill, taking the myth out of the man, and layering him in alcoholic glee. This is a phenomenally ambitious, wholly original, and totally unique item in the legendary filmography of one of America's greatest and most influential filmmakers.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Memorable Films from 2014 that won't make my Top 20 but are nonetheless excellent in their own ways and very much worth watching include:

A Most Wanted Man
A Field in England
Obvious Child...
Breathe In
Big Bad Wolves
The Drop
The One I Love
Gone Girl
Skeleton Twins
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Edge of Tomorrow
Before I Disappear
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
Big Eyes
The Signal
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
They Came Together
Life After Beth
Guardians of the Galaxy
22 Jump Street
The Double
Cheap Thrills
The Interview
The Gambler

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Tony Scott’s Domino.  Wayne Kramer’s Running Scared.  Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces.  Michael Davis’s Shoot ‘Em Up.  These films, guided by the work of others in previous years, spawned what I’d like to refer to as Cubist Action Cinema, a sub-genre of modern action films that are seemingly shot through the aesthetic lens of a painting by Picasso.  These films have a hyper-realistic quality to them, and while they aren’t meant to be taken 100% literally, they traffic in real ideas, themes, and emotions.  The imagery in these movies (and in other films that fit this mold, of which there are many) are seemingly jacked and juiced for maximum impact, while their respective narratives jumble and blur into a cacophony of freewheeling expression (both verbal and visual) and overall flamboyant artistry.  The phrase “in-your-face” applies, but only in the crudest sense of the term; yes, these filmmakers are hurtling their visions at their audiences, but not without serious intent or regard for the form and the content they’re purveying.  It’s the maximization of the medium, and these movies are as engrossing and as accomplished as this sort of fare will likely get.  Movies such as Domino and Smokin’ Aces and Running Scared and Shoot ‘Em Up are a blitzkrieg of color, sounds, movement, and filmic ferocity that slap the viewer wide awake, never letting them off the hook for a second, winking a sly wink one minute and then playing for keeps the next. 


After the stylistic cinematic experimentation that he developed on 2004’s Man on Fire, Tony Scott brought out all his directorial tricks for his magnum opus and career-defining masterpiece, 2005’s Domino, which is easily the *Toniest* Tony Scott film ever crafted.  A pulsing, racing, fever-dream biopic of the famed female bounty hunter Domino Harvey (the fantastic Kiera Knightley), this was Tony Scott unleashed, uncompromised, and totally off the reservation.  Independently financed with no bean-counters sitting over his shoulder to tell him no or what to do, Domino was his Freedom of Expression Movie, the film where he was able to cut loose as an artist and be the filmmaker he always wanted to be.  Critics hated it (except for a small, passionate core of supporters).  Audiences ignored it (though it’s becoming something of a cult-classic).  And it sent Tony back to the Bruckheimer well (2007’s underrated and experimental-in-its-own-right Déjà Vu) for a more popular styled hit.  Many complained that Scott’s directorial tricks and kinetic editing patterns were a major problem in Domino but I couldn’t agree any less.  First off, lest anyone forget, the film is framed through the P.O.V. of a main character who is tripping on magic mushrooms – that should be the first sign to the viewer that the film is going to be a bit off-kilter.  Daniel Mindel’s super-saturated, kaleidoscopic cinematography bleeds and jumps off the screen, assaulting and overwhelming the viewer’s senses.  It’s a wild, semi-true, semi-insane movie that genuinely does new stuff when it comes to the moving image, and stands as Scott’s undying love letter to cinema as a whole.

Arriving after one of the best cop films of all time – 2003’s Narc – writer/director Joe Carnahan unleased the extra-crazy and wildly entertaining action/comedy Smokin’ Aces in 2006, and despite critical swats and mediocre box-office, it’s become something of a cult-favorite and talking point for extreme action-cinema lovers.  Boasting an immense and varied cast (Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Common, Jeremy Piven, Ben Affleck, Peter Berg, Martin Henderson, Chris Pine, Andy Garcia, Alicia Keys, Taraji P. Henson, and a hilariously sleazy turn from Jason Bateman), this is a hyperactive ballet of chases, arguments, shoot-outs, vulgar humor, plot twists, reversals, showgirls, cocaine, FBI agents, gangsters, and lots and lots of high-powered ammunition.  Cinematographer Mauro Fiore goes the glossy and gritty route, concocting extremely stylish images all throughout, while the frantic editing creates a mad-cap sense of lunacy and dangerous thrills.  There’s some solid social commentary throw in for good measure, and there’s a lot of jet-black humor that graces the edges of the screenplay.  I loved how each rambunctious character in Smokin’ Aces gets enough time to shine, and because of the oversized personalities, the oversized filmmaking technique fits the proceedings like a glove.  I get the sense that Carnahan was at times tipping his stylistic hat to Scott, knowing that his frenetic energy was channeling the late auteur’s magic.  Excessive, loud, potentially obnoxious, and over the top in all the best ways, Smokin’ Aces is unapologetic blood-letting that goes for broke at all times.

Speaking of go-for-broke-cinema, Wayne Kramer, the fiercely independent and tremendously gifted writer-director of the Oscar-nominated drama The Cooler (2003), made a splash in the extreme action genre in 2006 with his underrated and supremely stylish hybrid actioner Running Scared.  This is a movie that takes elements from the traditional cop film and mixes them with magical realism (the nastiest kind, naturally), gritty 70’s flourishes, and modern violence ‘n mayhem which results in an intoxicating brew of kitchen-sink-cinema.  Roger Ebert’s famous review of Running Scared says it all: Speaking of movies that go over the top, "Running Scared" goes so far over the top, it circumnavigates the top and doubles back on itself; it's the Mobius Strip of over-the-topness. I am in awe. It throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Then it throws in the kitchen sink, too, and the combo washer-dryer in the laundry room, while the hero and his wife are having sex on top of it.”  I couldn’t have said it any better myself.  This is one of my all-time favorite action flicks, a joyous celebration of all things wild and wooly, with an engaging lead performance from the late Paul Walker, a terrific supporting turn from Vera Farmiga, and tons of great character actors showing off their gruff faces.  The narrative pivots on a gun used in the murder of a cop; it’s up to gangster underling Jimmy (Walker) to dispose of the weapon in question without it ever being found.  But when the gun goes missing, all hell breaks loose, and he’s on the run looking for the pistol while trying to evade the dangerous crosshairs of corrupt cops, psycho pimps, child killers, and the Russian mob.  This is a dangerous, perverse, adult-oriented flick, replete with graphic violence, sex, nudity, and the liberal use of the “F” word. In short – it’s terrific fun, a movie in love with its own movieness, while still operating within the parameters of genre entertainment.  The cinematographer Jim Whitaker goes berserk, filming the action in jagged, extreme close-ups and slick Steadicam to create a sense of danger and immediacy.  Oh, and it must be mentioned – for once – the thankless role of the “on-looking wife” has been given some heft and texture thanks to Kramer’s inventive screenplay.  Instead of relegating Farmiga to the sidelines after so memorably introducing her character, the narrative involves her in interesting and complex ways, giving her character her own arc, and giving the film a menacing edge it might not otherwise have had.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’ll just say this: scumbags get what they deserve in this outrageous world that Kramer created.

Shoot ‘Em Up is the silliest of all of these movies but amazingly fun on its own terms.  Playing like a Looney Tunes adventure on a few hits of crystal meth, this is pure comic-book-movie shenanigans, but instead of superheroes from outer-space, the characters in this oddly eccentric actioner bounce off one another with crazy glee and nasty aplomb.  There’s a lactating hooker, a shoot-out in the middle of coitus, and enough scenery chewing from Paul Giamatti as one of the most incompetent villains in the history of action movies to choke a horse.  Clive Owen basically reprised his role from the BMF Films short series, this time with a carrot fetish (you’ll see!), as a take-no-nonsense Driver who shoots first, steps on the gas second, and rarely has time to ask questions.  Pseudo-amateur filmmaker Michael Davis famously got this film made by showing New Line execs the entire movie via pre-viz artwork, and it’s a shame that someone with this level of creativity hasn’t been allowed to work since (the movie flopped big time at the box office despite mostly positive reviews).  There’s a careening sense of ebb and flow to Shoot ‘Em Up, with the film’s wicked energy level never stopping for a moment.  This is a playfully violent, R-rated cartoon that while being less graceful and artistically inclined as the other films up for discussion, still manages to talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to extreme, outlandish thrills.
There’s a post-MTV quality to all of these films –  let’s call it Pre-Futurist – with filmmakers like Oliver Stone paving the way for auteurs like Scott and craftsman like Kramer and Carnahan to branch out on their own both stylistically and narratively.  Stone’s seismic contribution to the landscape of world cinema, 1994's Natural Born Killers, represents both the apex and a new jumping-off point for this sort of adrenaline-fueled aesthetic.  That film acted as a crescendo of sorts for Stone, who had refined his aggressive filmmaking style over the years with films such as Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and The Doors, but seemingly influenced Scott with his handling of many elements in his brilliant 1995 film True Romance.  It’s no coincidence that both Natural Born Killers and True Romance were birthed by the pen of Quentin Tarantino, that man of many, many genre influences.   Graphic violence mixed with black comedy would become a staple element of these types of movies, with abrupt and forceful tonal shifts signaling the idea that anything’s possible.  All of the films discussed herein demonstrate a common sense of excitement and openness to the idea of what genre cinema can and should be, and have blown open the stylistic doors so that other filmmakers can sample the goods and develop new trends of their own (Gareth Evans, here’s looking at you, kid!)

Monday, January 12, 2015

How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Oscar and Remembered to Just Love Movies in General

People need to calm down and relax.  Movie lovers, I mean.  This is that time of year when Top 10 Lists are floating around everyone, all the critics groups are chiming in, the various guilds start bestowing their awards, and the Two Big Shows (The Golden Globes and the Academy Awards) are right around the corner.  But for anyone with a serious love for world cinema, all of these insipid statue giveaways are meaningless and inconsequential.  People shouldn’t be as obsessed about what gets nominated for Oscars, but rather, when exploring the “best” that cinema has to offer, they should be obsessed with the idea of seeing challenging works that have something new to say.  But instead, many people get caught up in the hysteria and the excitement.  Listen, I won't lie – I enjoy watching the Oscars as much as the next person.  The glitz and the glamour and the dresses and the (sometimes) fantastic speeches are all exciting to watch.  But I never take them to heart, or at least, over the years, I've learned to stop taking them to heart.  Right around 1994/1995 is when I became a budding Cinefile, and when Pulp Fiction lost the big trophy to Forrest Gump, I was pretty much in tears.  But over the years, I’ve realized that it’s silly to take that much stock into awards shows.  There's no concrete way to discern what the "best" movie of any given year actually was/is.  Movies connect with people for all the right (and wrong) reasons, and they are personal experiences which are collectively shared with strangers in a darkened theater.  People project themselves into the stories they’re watching which makes the process of experiencing a movie a uniquely personal one.  There are plenty of reasons why people love certain movies while those specific films are hated by many others.  So to reduce one of our greatest art forms to a series of contests seems a little disingenuous; it chips away at the foundation of what great cinema is supposed to represent.

It's useless to even remotely dissect the Golden Globes.  It's a night for celebs to get loaded for free, to have a good time, but nobody cares and nobody remotely takes the awards seriously.  The Globes have no impact on Oscar voting.  None.  People need to stop trying to make correlations between the two.  There are thousands of voters in the Academy.  Who are these 75 people in the "Hollywood Foreign Press" and what credentials do they have to tell us what the "Best" of something is?  It's a charade done for advertising dollars, nothing more, nothing less.  Now, the Oscars are clearly more prestigious based on the name and history, but they are no less irrelevant when it comes to distilling what the most important works of filmed entertainment are from any given year. The Oscars are a joke in terms of their ability to shine a light on the true greatness of cinema.  Sure, they get it right sometimes (recent winners No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker come to mind) but too often, the selections made for Best Picture are tired and lazy and done so out of knee-jerk reactions that stem from political attitudes and old-school cronyism, rather than true artistic merit.  The King's Speech over The Social Network?  Argo?  Crash?  Chicago?  The Lord of the Rings?  Shakespeare in Love?  The English Patient?  Dances with Wolves?  Driving Miss Daisy?  I bring these good if sometimes ordinary titles up because all of these movies have won Best Picture, but how many times since their year of release have you actually re-watched them?  Fine, Argo was pretty damn good.  But for me, in my mind and heart, if the Academy cared about what "Great Cinema" truly is, they'd honor a film with their top prize like The Tree of Life or Enter the Void or Blue is the Warmest Color or City of God or The New World or Children of Men or The Fall or Synechdoche, NY or Holy Motors or dozens and dozens of other films that transcend the medium and become something else entirely: form pushing works that are worthy of repeated study and discussion.  If we're supposed to be looking to the Oscars as the end all be all of cinema, I'd hate to think that what the Academy feels are the most important is all that the majority of the populace seeks out.
In terms of 2014, my favorite movies will hardly get any Academy recognition.  This happens almost every year - the stuff that makes the biggest impact on me are the movies that tend to be a little different or challenging and not up to the Academy’s standards of greatness.  I'm always down for a good historical drama (Selma) or a whiz-bang action flick (The Raid 2) or a nice piece of Oscar-bait (Unbroken) just like the rest of us, but what sets my cinema soul ablaze is the idea that I'm going to experience something unique and something powerful in ways that I don't upfront expect.  Which is why, for this year's Oscars, I'm hoping that Boyhood pulls a sweep in all categories.  Now, mind you, Boyhood is not my absolute #1 film from 2014 (it's certainly top 10 material), but what Boyhood represents is something that cannot be denied: It's a one of a kind movie, a one of a kind experience, not likely to be attempted again, completed almost by miracle, made by a filmmaker who has done consistently good to great work for 20 years without getting any acclaim or notice.  What Richard Linklater was able to accomplish with Boyhood is something special and something that advances the notion of what cinema is capable of.  Which is why it needs (and deserves) to win any award that it's nominated for – if – and only if – we have to reduce our greatest art form to a series of contests. Birdman (which will find some love, I think, from the Academy) and Under the Skin (destined to be blanked, except possible for Original Score) are two of the other transcendent, medium-pushing works from 2014, and for me, represent two of the boldest cinematic visions in years.  These are the movies I'll be re-watching for years to come rather than solid but unspectacular works such as The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything or Unbroken, films that are likely to resonate more with the Academy than with someone like myself.

Top 10 lists from critics can be a great resource, because, if you're smart, you'll keep your Netflix queue minimized while looking through everyone's list and you can add movies you've never heard of immediately to your lineup of films to see.  Over the years, I've come to trust a few key critics (Ebert when he was with us, Manohla Dargis , Andrew O'Hehir, A.O. Scott to a certain degree, Todd McCarthy, Scott Foundas, Justin Chang) and I look to those people to see what's moved them or made them excited about cinema.  Some of my favorite films are movies that have terrible Rottentomatoes scores, and as dangerous as I think Rottentomatoes can be to genuine critical analysis in certain ways, there's no doubt that without it, we wouldn't be exposed to numerous voices that have added something interesting to the discussion of world cinema.  What I choose to see has more to do with how I perceive the overall quality of a film to be, whether it's the subject matter, the cast, or the filmmaker behind the camera.  Too often, people become discouraged to see something genuinely brave or different because of a low Rottentomaotes or Metacritic score.  You need to go with your gut before being swayed to see something or not by someone you've never met.  If the trailer looks interesting and there's an element to the film you're interested in, see that movie in question, because you might be missing out if you don’t.
Which brings me to the ultimate point of all of this:  When it comes to movies, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and there's no "correct" or "incorrect" feeling that you can have with a film.  Movies hit us in certain and often times inexplicable ways that are unexplainable; we all invest a different amount of ourselves in the things we watch depending on the other circumstances that surround our lives.  Movies provide an escape, but most importantly, a glimpse into worlds we’ll never explore in person, and often times we find ourselves sucked into stories that showcase something that we'll never be able to do or experience in the real world.  The idea that movies act as a transportation device for the mind is not something new, but it’s something that constantly reinforces itself to me as each year passes.
So, in closing, watch The Big Show in February, have a fun night, place your Oscar bets, and fill out your at-home ballots.  Just don't take it too seriously and always remember that you're not wrong for loving a movie (or 10) that gets no Oscar love.  There are so many great movies from all over the world that come out every year that it does a disservice to only use the various award shows as a barometer of what's out there and available to experience.  The true film lover should constantly be seeking to broaden their horizons, ready to explore unfamiliar genres, and submit themselves to challenging viewing experiences that seek to disrupt the idea of traditional, A-to-B-to-C cinema.  I'm not saying that every single viewing has to be Cloud Atlas or a Michael Haneke or some buried treasure from Estonia.  I just want people to remember that there’s more than 31 flavors in the ice-cream parlor of cinema, and what's great about today's distribution outlets (Netflix, On Demand, Amazon, Hulu, Roku, Redbox, etc) is that there are more ways than ever to constantly expand upon your cinematic horizons.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


No less than the film of the century so far, Terrence Malick’s staggering work of art The Tree of Life is existential cinema worthy of awe, respect, and admiration for its deep rooted interest in expanding the form as a whole. Like the best of all great art, it’s a film that’s open to interpretation from any angle, from any perspective; no two dissections of the film are correct or wrong..., correct or incorrect. This is a deeply personal movie, made by a profoundly private artist, and it will either immediately connect with the viewer or totally alienate them. The Tree of Life dares to explore where we come from as a species, how we’ve evolved as humans, and where we’re headed as a planet. It goes without saying that the performances, production values, and overall directorial vision are unified to the extreme, and in many cases, the film achieves an overall grandeur that’s above and beyond what’s normally considered perfect. Emmanuel Lubezki’s haunting, forever-dazzling cinematography may be the finest ever captured by a moving-pictures camera; there’s a distinct and unique quality to each and every image in The Tree of Life, and via the Blu-ray format, it’s beauty is next to impossible to stop admiring. The sprawling nature of the narrative is both intimate and epic, a feat that is tough to pull off, but Malick does so effortlessly, creating a dreamlike state almost immediately with his constantly darting camerawork, dreamy voice-over narration, and elliptical storytelling style. The camera always seems to be on the prowl, observing life as it unfolds, primed to capture both innocence and cruelty with a clear, non-judgmental eye. With his customarily uncanny sense and use of voice-over, startling visual imagery, layered sound design, and orchestral music, Malick takes the viewer on a tour de force journey through the creation of our universe, and then settles into a deceptively simple story of small town American life in 1950’s Texas seen thru the prism of the “traditional American family.” It’s a juxtaposition that may seem strange at first, but upon further reflection and repeated has come to symbolize one of the boldest narrative decisions this side of Kubrick’s epic jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, quite possibly the only other film that the Tree of Life bears any overall resemblance too, and even that’s a stretch. Malick wants you to consider the idea that we’re all just tiny pieces of a much larger puzzle, and that the intricacies of our life will undoubtedly remain a mystery no matter how hard we try and figure them out. The Tree of Life is cinema to be treasured, studied, and revisited countless times.


Experimental. Daring. Seductive. Intoxicating. Those are all words that I’d use to describe Gaspar Noe’s pulsating masterwork Enter the Void, a movie that for many will be too much, but for some, will be just right. I am interested in seeing new stuff when I sit down to watch a movie, and to paraphrase something that Manhola Dargis said in her New York Times review, Noe is a filmmaker intereste...d in showing you something new and startling and taking you to a place that you’ve never been. Now…the places that Noe likes to explore…those places won’t be of interest to everyone. This is as explicit of a movie that I’ve ever seen where nothing is left to the imagination: sex, drugs, death, hallucinations, conception, abortion, birth – Noe doesn’t leave anything out. Loosely inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and shot through the lens of a DMT-trip-gone-terribly-wrong (Google DMT to learn more…), Enter the Void is an almost entirely first-person point-of-view cinematic experience (meaning the camera is literally the main character, complete with a “blinking” shutter to approximate regular ocular blinking) and as a result the audience is all but flung head-first into Noe’s outrageous and purposefully excessive madness. This is extreme, outlaw cinema, more accomplished and even more provocative than Noe’s previous freak-out-fest Irreversible. Nothing is traditional about Enter the Void and there’s nothing simple about the themes that Noe explores in Enter the Void; it’s a film that’s clearly coming from a very personal space, a work that refuses to be hand-held to any narrative destination. Oh, and have I commented about the opening credits? They are some of the best I’ve ever seen, putting you literally in a trance, and setting a feverish tone for things to come. Enter the Void is a film that travels beyond our expected definitions of what cinema is and can be, and it’s a piece of work that will be better understood through multiple viewings.

BEST OF 2010-2014 #3 ALL IS LOST

All is Lost is as simple and as straightforward as storytelling will likely get, but at the same time, it strenuously avoids (or upends) cliché at every turn and is totally devoid of obvious, cheap-seats sentimentality. It’s a nearly wordless motion picture, relying on clear-cut visual storytelling to communicate its ideas and feelings. Writer/director J.C. Chandor and screen legend Robert Redford..., in a historic performance, take the viewer on a harrowing and breathtaking journey with a finale that shakes to the core – this is vital cinema for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the medium. Recalling the sadness and melancholy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea but also infused with a sense of pride, elegance, and grace under pressure, All is Lost will likely test the limits of most moviegoers, as it offers little in the way of backstory or easily identifiable character traits; it values patience and quiet like few recent films. The primal muscularity and overwhelming visceral tension that Chandor and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco achieved harkens back to 80's-era Friedkin and Mann, recalling past glories such as Sorcerer and Thief, while sharing familiar beats with modern classics such as Castaway and The Grey. Shooting on the open water in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, while also utilizing hand-held cameras which were fitted with wide-angle lenses, the filmmakers presented themselves with a huge task, and the film possess a near-constant state of nervousness and excitement. Alex Ebert’s moody and inventive score surrounds the film but never overpowers it, allowing Redford’s remarkable face to do the heavy emotional lifting rather than a cloying soundtrack; it’s the smartest use of music in a film that I can remember. All is Lost is a masterwork for all involved, a work that’s interested in pushing boundaries and expectations, and is clearly the closest we will get to pure, existential filmmaking in the current Hollywood landscape.

BEST OF 2010-2014 #4 THE GREY

The Grey is tough-guy poetry, wearing its bruised, wounded heart on its heavy-flannel sleeve, a force of nature cinema experience that leaves me crushed every time I watch it. Quiet, oppressively cold, and deeply introspective, this is a brilliant, Jack London-esque tale of machismo in the face of all-but-certain-death. Had this movie been released at the end of 2011 the Oscar nominations would have bee...n different, as Liam Neeson’s towering performance would surely have been recognized with a nomination. Jumping into this project almost immediately after the death of his wife, he couldn’t have known how real life would have informed his aching, forceful work in The Grey. When the final 10 minutes of The Grey arrive, there’s a major twist, and it makes the entire film even that much more moving and powerful. I’m aware of the fact that many meat-head audience members were near riotous over the fact that The Grey wasn’t some sort of WWF-style smack-down between the guy from Taken and a pack of rabid wolves. With certain movies, the job of Hollywood marketing teams seems to be to hoodwink potential ticket buyers into thinking they’re seeing one thing, and this is what happened when people saw the ads for The Grey – they saw guys running away from wolves and Neeson throwing up his dukes. Yes, this stuff does happen, just not in the way you’d think it would happen. And when things get rough, they’re believably rough. And besides, the wolves in this movie are merely metaphorical creations; to literalize every single thing we see in a feature film is to do a disservice to the artists who are asking more of us as viewers. Carnahan is a 70’s influenced filmmaker, interested in character as much as action, and his output over the years has been interesting to observe. I’ve always felt that he’s constantly at odds with the money-guys, as he’s always interested in digging beneath the surface of things, whether or not that’s what people want to see. He’s due to have that film that truly blows him up and I can’t wait for that day. With The Grey, I was not prepared for how still and patient the filmmaking would be one minute, and then how visceral and violent it would get the next. It's a slug-to-the-gut type movie, a piece of work that will haunt anyone who encounters it. Featuring one of the most harrowing depictions of a plane crash ever captured on film and ending on a note of tremendous ambiguity and narrative power, The Grey isn’t a film for the weak stomached or weak willed.

BEST OF 2010-2014 #5 MARGARET

Kenneth Lonergan's almost-never-released masterpiece Margaret is a film that many don't even know exists, and that's truly a shame, because it's as compelling and as powerful as dramatic cinema can get. Lonergan’s lone previous directorial credit, You Can Count On Me, was as perfectly observed indie dramedy with black humor and lots of heart. With Margaret, he goes large, and the results are no impressive. Featuring a volcanic lead performance from Anna Paquin (never better), the film centers on a tragic city-bus accident and the aftermath that it creates. It's a story about guilt, grief, acceptance, and finally, forgiveness, and nothing about the narrative is easy or simple. The film utilizes an Altman-esque sound design with tons of overlapping dialogue; Lonergan's decision to also have the casual conversations of extras and passerbys audible on the soundtrack and audible to the main characters further heightens the anxious mood and frenzied atmosphere of this unobtrusively engrossing tapestry of people and events and places and emotions. The superb Mark Ruffalo pops up in yet another soul-searching supporting turn, and the film is enlivened with the likes of Matt Damon, Allison Janney, Kieran Culkin, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Broderick, Olivia Thirlby, and Lonergan himself. We'll never know exactly what happened behind the scenes with this film. The oft-rumored "Scorsese-Schoonmaker Cut" would certainly be interesting to see, but what we're left with is a film of enormous ambition, a multilayered magnum opus from one of the best, most underappreciated voices that Hollywood has come across in years.

BEST OF 2010-2014 #6 CARLOS

Forceful. Commanding. Absolutely gripping. There’s a brooding sense of danger and impending violence that hangs over every frame of Olivier Assayas’s five hour epic Carlos. Edgar Ramirez went all out in his searing, terrifying, completely transformative performance as the infamous terrorist Carlos “The Jackal”. The verisimilitude of Assayas’s filmmaking is exquisite, and as the film swiftly progre...sses due to the dynamic and exhilarating pacing, the viewer can’t help but be fully engrossed by the stunning craft and meticulous details on display. With procedural elements that are worthy of Pakula/Fincher comparisons and showcasing a sprawling narrative that spans the final years of the Cold War, Carlos is vast in scope yet intimate with its fine details. Considering the elephantine length, multiple viewings are necessary in order to distill each and every plot-point, fact, relationship, and motive. The viewer is treated to Ramirez burning up the screen with an intensely physical, Brando-esque performance of transformation and verbal command. French filmmaker Assayas utilizes hand-held camera work, a propulsive musical score, nimble editing, and a variety of spoken languages which all helps to create a totally real and organic atmosphere and viewing experience. Much of the film feels like a documentary, and the ability of Assayas and his crew to transport the audience into many of these frightening sequences makes the film feel incredibly vital. Carlos sort of feels like distant cousins with Steven Spielberg’s Munich, another terrorism epic set all across Europe. The international hop-scotching and zigzagging of Carlos is extremely impressive especially when you consider how many speaking parts there are in this massive film. It’s a towering achievement for all involved.


Under the Skin. Kubrick has been re-born. I’ve said a lot about this film over the last few months and I’ll be saying more about it in the near future. Jonathan Glazer has made an indelible work of art, something that allows itself to be constantly studied and pondered, and like the best of cinema, truly takes you somewhere that is strange and foreign and new. (More thoughts and ruminations on Under the Skin will appear in my upcoming Favorites of 2014).


Cynical. Ruthless. Unmerciful. A modern day Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Ridley Scott’s uncompromising neo-noir gem The Counselor is tack-sharp filmmaking, never afraid to head into the bleakest of territory, always ready to inflict a death-blow. Boasting a career-defining performance from Cameron Diaz as the ultimate femme fatale and a rogues gallery of sleazy supporting turns ( Bardem, Brad Pitt, Bruno Ganz, Ruben Blades, Toby Kebbell, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo), the film is anchored by Michael Fassbender’s brilliantly modulated performance as a man who thinks he knows how to swim with the sharks but fast realizes that he’s but a mere guppy and dinner is about to be served. The Counselor died a fast death at the box-office and critics sliced into it with as much vicious aplomb as writer Cormac McCarthy brought to his ultra-sadistic landscape of drug-dealers and killers. I think that this movie scared people too much; they didn’t like their sexy Hollywood stars getting killed and acting like ass-holes and it was a turn-off for many people. I think people were afraid of what McCarthy’s prose has to say about the human condition, how we’re all just lions lying in wait, looking for our next meal, no matter the consequences or repercussions of our (potentially disastrous) decisions. Being that The Counselor is the work of Ridley Scott, there’s a sexy élan to the visual style, with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski bathing the film in a sinister gloss that reflects the new-money-opulence of the morally bankrupt characters. Nobody is safe in this film, nothing is what it seems, and the final moments are some of the nastiest to come out of Hollywood in many years. Scott’s choices in projects typically veers towards the epic, but it’s interesting to note that two of his most interesting works as a filmmaker (The Counselor and Matchstick Men) find him playing on a smaller scale. This is a cold-hearted, brilliant anti-thriller that doesn’t play by any traditional rules.


Blue is the Warmest Color is one of the most romantic movies I’ve ever encountered, often times transcending what we normally expect from a “love story,” and on numerous occasions becomes something else entirely: a direct peek into another person’s soul. A raw and incredibly open glimpse at a woman experiencing a sexual and spiritual awakening filled with both her inner most desires ...and deepest uncertainties, Blue is the Warmest Color unfolds with grace and simplicity, and is guided by two of the most fearless performances that I’ve ever seen from any actor or actress in my lifetime from Adele Exarchopoulous and Lea Sedoux. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche favors naturalism above all else, and he’s clearly fascinated with the daily minutiae of everyday life. As his camera fixes its stare on his characters, you get the sense that he’s a filmmaker who’s constantly searching for that perfect moment of clarity: that one beat where you can say to yourself – that’s life at its purest. This film reminds you that love is unexplainable and comes at us in various forms and shapes and sizes, at any moment that it chooses, and that when we’re least expecting it, our lives can forever be altered by just a glance at the right (or wrong) person. Blue is the Warmest Color is a study of human behavior, and how we act and react in a variety of situations and contexts. What does it mean to love and what does it mean to know when your love isn’t enough for another person? Every kiss in this film is felt, every bite of food or sip of wine is tasted, every moment is savored as if it might be the last. The sexuality on display will leave many people speechless; you become privy to two people exploring the boundaries of themselves and one another, and in those moments, you feel as if you’re in that room with them, a curious observer to something private and extraordinary. Everything in Blue is the Warmest Color feels real. There’s a lover’s quarrel that feels as scary and as intense as any cinematic fight has ever felt (or at least that I’ve seen); it’s shockingly believable and phenomenally sad because every verbal sling feels like an honest dent in the armor.

BEST OF 2010-2014 #10 THE RAID 2: BERANDAL

The Raid 2: Berandal is the greatest action movie I've ever seen. No contest. It's not even close. Gareth Evans runs circles around his directing competition, and literally blasts a mile-wide hole in the genre that's unlikely to be topped. Until, that is, Evans makes The Raid 3. Iko Uwais is some sort of martial-arts God; I've never seen anyone that comes remotely close to having this set of s...kills. Outlandishly violent and excessively in your face, this is an action-lovers dream come true, and it furthers the notion that the MPAA truly has their heads in the sand when it comes to how they judge a film's content. Expanding upon the tightly confined events from The Raid, this sequel picks up literally 5 minutes after the conclusion of the first film, and it couldn't be any different in overall execution or ambition. This is an epic crime film, blending elements from the classic Yakuza picture, John Woo-esque ultra-violence, and an "undercover-in-prison" plot-line that echoes Infernal Affairs/The Departed. From set-piece to set-piece, Evans keeps upping the ante in terms of violent spectacle, but still pays close attention to plot, story, motivation, and character. This is a two and half hour work of head-splattering art that truly needs to be seen to be believed. From the rain-soaked prison fight to "Hammer Girl" and "Bat Boy" to the positively insane car chase and then on to the final one-on-one-smack-down (absolutely the best fight I've ever seen in filmed entertainment), The Raid 2 shatters any preconceived notions of what to expect from an action picture; this is pure cinematic adrenalin, a thousand kicks to the ribs and face, and easily the bloodiest, craziest action film that I've ever come across.