Wednesday, April 29, 2015


Steven Soderbergh's King of the Hill is grotesquely underrated, an absolutely fantastic movie that feels like a unique anomaly in the filmmaker's eclectic oeuvre.  Released in 1993, this was the indie master’s third film, after the breakout success of the highly influential Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, which was followed up in 1991 by the little seen, black and white oddity Kafka, which is better than its reputation suggests, but still not a 100% success.  Still finding his voice as a filmmaker at the time, King of the Hill is a painterly, 1930's set drama that looks at the harsh realities facing a family during the Great Depression.  The film would find warm critical embrace after a rocky Cannes Film Festival debut, and was one of the first releases from Universal's independent label Gramercy Pictures.  King of the Hill flopped at the box office, grossing just over $1 million in the United States; I'm not even sure if an international theatrical release was attempted.  Featuring a cast of child actors and extremely talented character players rather than big Hollywood stars, the film was always going to face a struggle to get noticed, which is a shame, because this is the warmest, most emotional movie of Soderbergh's often cold and clinical career as a filmmaker.  I've long been fascinated with his lightning quick turnaround in between projects, how he often times shoots and edits his own features, and how he's been able to swiftly move from genre to genre throughout the last 26 years, almost always with spectacular results.  He’s made experimental, form-pushing movies for himself and has also been able to play at the top ranks of the studio level, delivering big box office when needed.  Up front: I've not seen a Soderbergh movie that I haven't liked on some sort of level, and a few of them, most notably Schizopolis, Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, The Informant!, and Contagion, are films I feel to be masterpieces for the filmmaker, and his late-career run of Magic Mike, Haywire, and Side Effects were a total triple threat of genre skewering brilliance.  His recent work on the Cinemax series The Knick is bold and convention breaking, infusing a period atmosphere (a turn of the century NYC hospital) with his modern camera style and anachronistic musical choices.  But it's King of the Hill that feels so remarkably different for Soderbergh as a director, a movie that he made almost in response to his down and dirty indie cred that he had developed on his first two features, looking to expand his abilities and further confound his critics.

A young Jesse Bradford is Aaron, a 12 year old boy who is struggling to survive on his own in a shabby motel after his mother is sent to a hospital for having tuberculosis, and his father is forced to hit the road as a travelling salesman.  Set in the Midwest, King of the Hill painfully examines the disintegration of the family unit and the crushing reality of the “American dream” for so many people during that turbulent time period.  Heartbreakingly, Aaron is also forced to say good bye to his younger brother, who is sent off to live with moneyed relatives who thankfully offer to lend a helping hand.  Bradford is extraordinary in this film, conveying desperation, hope, humility, and humor, all sometimes within the same scene, as he learns to navigate the uncertain and sad situation that he's found himself in.  There's one unforgettable sequence that shows him, in an act of starvation and imagination, cutting out pictures of food items (a chicken breast, potatoes, corn, a pad of butter) from a magazine, which he then plates, mentally examines, and eats with a fork and knife, trying to approximate the taste of the food through the flavorless morsels of paper.  The way Soderbergh directed this film was perfect, really.  Scene after scene of poignant drama unfolds, with moments of honest laughter spiking the edges, and it’s a testament to Soderbergh’s involvement with the material that the film never feels overbearing or maudlin. He also avoids cheap sentimentality, so even when things might be taking a turn for the better, you’re left with the implicit understanding that things could just as easily unravel all over again.  Soderbergh got as close to these characters as he's ever possibly been as a storyteller with one of his narratives, telling a wonderfully humanist story that anyone can relate too. A teenaged Katherine Heigl makes a strong supporting turn as Bradford's potential girlfriend, while Jeroen Krabbe is perfectly cast as Bradford's German immigrant father, a man who believes in the "Tough Love" school of parenting, and while not the most trustworthy of men, he makes the case that for all his faults, he truly loves his sons, despite doing some things that in retrospect seem a tad harsh.  Karen Allen, Spalding Grey, Elizabeth McGovern, and a barely able to shave Adrien Brody all round out the excellent cast with memorable, scene-stealing moments, further underscoring Soderbergh’s inherent gift for casting.

Shot on gorgeous Super 35 film by Elliot Davis and fully utilizing the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, Soderbergh crafted what's undoubtedly his prettiest movie to date, a film that he feels is "too pretty," a comment that can be heard while watching the highly informative interview that's included on the superlative Criterion Collection Blu-ray platter.  He seems curiously disappointed with himself as a filmmaker in regards to King of the Hill, openly stating that he wished he had shot the film in a more rough and tumble, grittier fashion, which is more in line with his late era work and aesthetic. But I think one of the best things about King of the Hill is how the film is overwhelmingly beautiful at times, evoking a lost, calamitous era, with the juxtaposition of the luscious images bouncing off the hard-scrabble nature and plight of the characters.  The production design is supremely evocative of a long ago era, forever lost to pictures in books, with period appropriate cars and clothes filling the frame without ever coming off as precious or ostentatious.  Soderbergh has often been a filmmaker, much like David Fincher, who likes to look back at his work and talk about the problems that he sees and how he'd do things differently if he were to make the movie all over again.  This must be a constant source of mental nagging and anguish for storytellers, as the best of them are always challenging themselves to make their movies better and more artistic.  While I don't agree with the criticisms that he throws at himself, I can respect him for having the hunger and desire to critically look at his own work from more than two decades ago and contemplate what he’d like to have a chance to redesign or reinterpret.  But in its current form, King of the Hill stands as a serious, important work for Soderbergh as a craftsman, and easily rests as one of his finest overall efforts.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


Michael Mann's Heat represents the finest distillation of the filmmaker's stylistic and narrative obsessions, and his ultimate masterpiece as a storyteller.  Mann, a writer/director who has often reached greatness throughout his career, appears to be most comfortable when telling stories about crime and its effects on the various people that surround his multilayered stories.  A reworking of Mann's earlier NBC movie of the week, L.A. Takedown, Heat turns 20 years old this year, and looking back on it, it's incredible how little it has aged, and even more remarkable to notice how many other filmmakers have been lifting Mann's striking visual aesthetic since the film's initial release.  Critics took Heat a bit for granted when they first encountered it, as response was mostly positive and respectful, though not overly effusive, and while a solid success at the box office, it didn't do massive numbers.  However, over the years, audiences have turned the film into a cultural touchstone, as it represents the type of film that rarely gets made anymore: The introspective Hollywood drama with smarts and action that features big stars and a name director working at the top of their games.  The work that Mann had done preceding Heat clearly influenced his decisions on his magnum crime opus, and the films he'd go on to make in the future have all been fairly (or unfairly) compared to this epic 1995 crime saga.

Mann has found his obvious home in the crime genre, with his name associated on TV projects (Starsky & Hutch, Police Story, Police Woman, Miami Vice, Crime Story, and the wildly underrated Robbery Homicide Division) and on various feature films (Collateral, Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Blackhat), all of which hum with a distinct personality and unified vision, no matter in what capacity Mann served.  Part of what differentiates Mann from other filmmakers is his unique sense of place and dedication to realism; no matter how busy the narrative and how jargon fueled the dialogue may be, there’s always a clear sense of how every detail might fall into place, allowing the audience to follow the rigors of the plot while still having the capacity to be surprised. And in Heat, there’s a level of clarity to the story that might have been unattainable by another, less in control filmmaker, considering just how many moving pieces are involved in making Heat the success that it became. What I love so much about Heat is that, like James Mangold’s 1997 policier Cop Land, the film operates as a sly, contemporary Western, but Heat, unlike many other genre efforts, transcends the themes that it so dutifully explores, vaulting the picture into rarefied, existential territory that Mann always seems interested in exploring no matter the milieu. He also managed to craft the Ultimate Los Angeles Movie, but more on that later.

Not that a plot explanation should be necessary, but I’ll break down the basics.  Robert De Niro is a master thief.  Al Pacino is a master cop.  They both have dedicated crews that will follow them anywhere.  The city of Los Angeles is their deadly playground.  The film revolves around the notion of duality, and how the De Niro and Pacino characters are essentially the same person, just on opposite sides of the law, completely consumed by their work, with a constant sense of professionalism and integrity guiding them through their perilous daily life.  De Niro assembles his team to do a major score, the daring robbery of a bank, and it’s up to Pacino and his band of fellow officers to bring them down.  Mixed into the main story are the various relationships that De Niro, Pacino, and their men have with the women in their lives: Wives, girlfriends, and in one instance, a step-daughter.  Instead of just a nuts and bolts crime film, Mann opened up his generous narrative to include real conversations between real people that drive all of the action in a grounded, thoughtful manner.  How it all ends is the stuff of cinema legend, and if you don’t know by now I’ll allow you to discover for yourself, but I will concede that Heat operates on multiple narrative tracks all at once, with side-jobs bringing along potentially fatal consequences for De Niro and his men, and the emotionally taxing rigors of having to balance your family life and your cop life for Pacino. 

De Niro’s Neil McCauley is a criminal driven to perfection.  He lives by a code: Never become attached to something that you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds if you spot the heat around the corner.  No wife, no family, a true lone wolf in a sharp grey suit (a costume obsession of Mann’s for years), McCauley is the kind of man who thinks he has everything under control.  Then, things change when he meets a woman who might be a reason to leave his dangerous life behind for.  She gives him a new reason to live, or at least he thinks she does from time to time, because the way that De Niro brilliantly plays the character, all inward quiet and small glances to suggest intent and feeling, you never truly know what he’ll do at any given moment.  We know he’s pulled off vaious high-stakes jobs with total ease and precision, but he’s not used to letting his emotional guard down, and then when coupled with the fact that he’s got a Super Cop looking for him, he understands the need to take decisive action in an effort to complete his goals.  This is one of De Niro’s least flashy and totally reserved performances, bringing a masculine grace to the role of leader and friend to his teammates, and while clearly a man capable of more than just violent action and air-tight planning, he’s still a human being, capable of making emotionally misguided mistakes which could prove to be his undoing.

In Pacino’s Vincent Hanna, Mann has created an amazing dichotomy between the MacCauley character, because while both men certainly share similar traits and attributes, the recklessness of the Hanna character is what allows him to constantly move throughout the night, always trying to one up his stealth opponent.  Pacino brings a live-wire spark to the role of this driven detective, hollering out orders at his underlings, busting down doors, always ready to mix it up with an opponent.  While listening to the Blu-ray audio commentary with Mann, it’s revealed that he had written a casually under control cocaine habit into the Hanna character, which would help explain the sudden outbursts of energy and profanity, as well as all of the jaw chomping that he exhibits all throughout the film.  I’m ot fully sure why this angle was cut out of the film (I guess it cuts down on the sympathy factor for the character), but I really do wish that Mann had kept this edgy bit of business in the final cut, as it would have further contextualized Hanna as a man of steady habits and unpredictable behavior.  Pacino, no stranger to large emoting, especially during the 90’s in films such as Scent of a Woman and The Devil’s Advocate, chews the scenery when called for, but also allows small moments of stern quiet to seep in around the edges. He’s a man who is always assessing the situation, whether on the job or at home, and it’s the way that Pacino burrows deep into Hanna as a man that we come to understand the method to his madness.  I also find it curious how Mann introduces his top-cop character at the start of the film, during a morning lovemaking session with his wife, as opposed to on the streets chasing down some bad guy. Romance is another aspect that Mann's films always deal with, and the way that Pacino balances his home life and professional life is of key consequence to his character and the story in general.

The romantic angle and the film’s concentration on the female characters also help separate Heat from lesser genre entries. Not content to tell an all-boys story with guns and explosions, Mann, as he’s been prone to do in the past, allows for the leads to have personal relationships which amp up the narrative tension and reason for being.  McCauley meets an enchanting young woman who he feels might be worth running away with (a super young Amy Brenneman), and it isn’t until the film’s final moments where you learn his ultimate decisions regarding their unique relationship.  This relationship takes the normally rigorously disciplined McCauley out of his comfort zone, which allows for shards of humanity to creep in around the edges.  Hanna, meanwhile, is a two time divorcee who is in the middle of an about to fail marriage (Diane Venora is his sharp witted wife); it’s clear that he can’t keep things on the up and up at home while still traversing the streets of Los Angeles looking for all of the city’s transgressors.  The scenes between Pacino and Venora have a palpable tension, because while they clearly loved each other once, they are so obviously drifting away from each other, and their confrontations carry a verbal weight and sting that elevates the material from mere soap opera to fully fleshed-out human dramatics.   To further complicate Hanna’s life, his mentally unstable stepdaughter (played by a then emerging star Nathalie Portman) also looms over the proceedings, creating a sense of unease that becomes essential to one aspect of the script.  In retrospect, Heat does sort of resemble a male soap opera of sorts, as the two lead characters are emotionally stunted and need to sort out their issues through a variety of ways, some involving words, and others involving action.

Heat has action peppered all throughout the runtime, but the film’s opening set-piece, involving the robbery of an armored truck, and unfortunate execution of the truck’s owners, immediately grabs the viewer by the throat, never letting you up for air.  De Niro and his team orchestrate the perfect smash and grab, stealing only what they need, and leaving hardly a trace of evidence.  But the scene that everyone loves to discuss and re-watch is arguably the greatest single sequence of action ever put on film, the robbery of a downtown Los Angeles bank in broad daylight.  This bravura sequence is nothing short of staggering, with very few (if any) other films capturing the same sense of immediacy and violent impact throughout the years, no matter how hard they try, Mann included (the gun battles in Public Enemies, Miami Vice, and Blackhat are terrific and at times extraordinary, but none match the rawness of what was captured in Heat).  While never overly bloody, the street rampage is filled with all sorts of deadly implications, from numerous police officers and innocent bystanders being killed in the crossfire, and various members of De Niro’s crew either getting hurt or killed.  Thousands of rounds of ammunition were expended during this blistering sequence of sustained fury, with the sensational sound team capturing every single bullet strike and muzzle blast.  Mann saves the bloodiest bits of violence for the moments that really count (Waingro, Van Sandt, the climatic moments between McCauley and Hanna), so that when we see someone go down hard and viciously, we feel it all the more rather than everything being a senseless blur of unending graphic violence.  As a filmmaker, Mann knows more about what to show and when to show it than few other currently working directors.

The cinematography, editing, music, and production design are all in total harmonious synch in Heat.  Dante Spinotti's naturalistic if at times slightly heightened images, in full 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, fill the edges of the frame with visual information and precise detail, with Mann's "always-looking-into-the-future-of-the-night" style mixing with Spinotti's elegant use of color and depth of field.  Shots are framed a tad off center, with the character’s heads filling the foreground or background or side of frame, almost so that the camera is entering the minds of the story’s inhabitants, creating a lyrical and thought provoking tone that suggests a cerebral nature as much as it does anything else.  The physical locations chosen for Heat showcase Los Angeles in all of its ethnically diverse and cement-sexy splendor, with the vapors of street lamps bouncing off the flat street surfaces, as industrial landscapes dot the horizon, with parking garages, empty lots and fields, side-streets, and the vast expanses of the city's various skyscrapers and office buildings suggesting endless possibilities.  And then there’s the amazing music, which ranges from ambient to grand, sweeping to soft, always in perfect tandem with the bright daytime and dark nocturnal images on screen, with some Miami Vice-inspired guitar riffs for those paying close attention. Heat is a nearly three hour picture, but because of the crispness and the judiciously timed editing, the film never sags or allows itself to slow down; once the story kicks into gear it never lets up, with a final hour that packs various dramatic conflict and incident into the narrative yet never feels rushed or forced. The swift pace created by the seamless editing patterns goes a long way in keeping this lengthy but forceful film moving along, with Mann pulling all the elements together in a way that few could ever have when it comes to material such as this. 

At the end of it, Heat is a film that is consumed with the professionalism and the costs of committing 100% to any area of life, but in this story, that area of life is the criminal vs. the cop. And during the film’s electric final moments of action at a busy LAX and in the galvanizing final scene accompanied by Moby’s epic and poetic song God Moving Over The Face of The Waters, you get the sense that Mann has crafted two characters that, while resting on opposite sides of the law, have come to mutually respect each other as men and as adversaries.  It all goes back to their fantastic meeting at the coffee shop at the film’s midsection, and how the two of them look clear into each other eyes and tell one another that the life they’re living is the only life they know how to live.  More than any other great piece of work from Mann, Heat is his definitive masterpiece of filmmaking, the A-1 end result of all of his ticks and tendencies as a storyteller, filtered through that indelible and totally dynamic visual aesthetic that has subtly morphed over the years while still retaining its core elements.  It’s a film that I remain blown away by every single time I take in a viewing, and I love how I can vividly recall the first time I experienced it on the big screen with my father back in my high school days; I had a second opportunity to see the film on the big screen with Mann doing live Q&A (he took a break from editing duties on Ali to run over to LACMA for the screening).  Heat will always be one of my favorite films of all time, for so many reasons, not the least of which, is that, simply put, it is great, enduring cinema that stirs the soul.   

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Here's who I think WILL win and who I think SHOULD win out of what was nominated for this year's Academy Awards:

Will Win:  Birdman
Should Win:  Boyhood

Will Win:  Richard Linklater
Should Win: Richard Linklater

Will Win:  Eddie Redmayne
Should Win:  Michael Keaton

Will Win:  J.K. Simmons
Should Win:  J.K. Simmons

Will Win:  Julianne Moore
Should Win:  Rosamund Pike
full disclosure: haven't seen the performances from Moore and Cotillard

Will Win:  Patricia Arquette
Should Win:  Emma Stone
full disclosure: haven't seen Meryl Streep's performance

Will Win:  The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win:  Boyhood

Will Win:  Whiplash
Should Win:  Inherent Vice

Will Win:  Ida
Should Win: X
full disclosure: sadly, haven't seen any of the nominated films

Will Win:  How to Train Your Dragon 2
Should Win: X
full disclosure: haven't see any of them. disgraceful that The Lego Movie isn't here

Will Win:  Interstellar
Should Win:  Interstellar

Will Win:  Boyhood
Should Win: Boyhood

Will Win: America Sniper
Should Win: Interstellar (though I'd be TOTALLY fine if Sniper takes it)

Will Win:  America Sniper
Should Win:  Interstellar (though I'd be TOTALLY fine if Sniper takes it)

Will Win:  The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win:  Interstellar
full disclosure: haven't seen Into the Woods or Mr. Turner

Will Win:  Birdman
Should Win:  Birdman
full disclosure:  haven't seen Mr. Turner

Will Win: The Theory of Everything
Should Win:  Interstellar
full disclosure: haven't seen Mr. Turner

Will Win:  Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me
Should Win:  Begin Again
full disclosure: haven't seen Beyond the Lights or Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

Will Win:  The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win:  The Grand Budapest Hotel

Will Win:  The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win:  Guardians of the Galaxy

Will Win:  Citizenfour
Should Win:  X
full disclosure:  sadly, haven't seen any of the nominated efforts

The Dam Keeper



Thursday, February 19, 2015


Under the Skin is as singular as cinema gets, and out of every movie from 2014, it’s the one that keeps begging for more viewings.  And like Kurbrick’s 2001: A Space Odyseey, Under the Skin dares to show a new and startling science-fiction tableaux that appeals to the mind just as much as it does to the eyes.  This is an endlessly debatable and extremely challenging movie, forcing the viewer to draw their own conclusions in order to form the complete story.  Glazer believes in the power of cinematic obfuscation, which can drive people crazy, but for me, makes all three of his works beyond fascinating and immediately ripe for reinterpretation.  The unpredictability of Under the Skin and the way it constantly subverts our expectations is what compels the most, and because so much is left for the viewer to put together, anyone's guess of what's transpired isn't exactly wrong. Mental mind-trick cinema isn't new, as filmmakers have been tormenting their audiences for years with narrative reversals and late- in-the-game twists. But what's so unique and ultimately haunting about Under the Skin is the way Glazer makes us examine the human condition and our constant desire for primal lust, and why we're all so drawn to outward beauty but repelled by the sight of anything different or potentially otherworldly. Because the film operates in reverse fashion from what we're used to seeing in mainstream cinema (it spoils nothing to reveal that the film is about a female alien in human disguise preying on unfortunate male victims), we're forced to see why the male cinematic gaze is so powerful and hardened when it's put into opposite context. Casting Scarlet Johansson as a lethal predator in sheep's clothing was a stroke of genius because of what she, as a human being, has come to represent in our culture: The Most Desirable Woman, but here, she's an unremorseful, icily detached killer.  And when Scarlet’s alien starts to learn more about humanity, and starts to add up all of the unique experiences that she’s(?) had, the movies reaches some startling conclusions about how our brains operate and why we do the things that we do.  This film is one surprise after another, both on a visual and narrative level, and some of the sights and sounds on display will remain in your head long after the movie is over. The cinematography in this film is beyond transfixing and each shot should be endlessly celebrated. Under the Skin is the sort of film that rewards with multiple viewings, and now having seen it roughly five times, I can easily that that I’ve picked something new up each time, and each viewing has informed and improved upon the last.  I simply cannot get the images from the final moments of Under the Skin off the brain-pan. This is an endlessly inquisitive film that gets richer the more one experiences it. And given our current cookie-cutter studio system that keeps shoveling out the same “product” each and every month, it’s bracing to see a vision this stark and seemingly uncompromised end up on the big screen.  Glazer spent roughly a decade working on this film from the planning and scriptwriting stages all the way through production, music, and post-production.  Micha Levi’s brazenly creepy score exemplifies the film’s title, burying deep within the viewer, keeping them unsettled for the entire running time. Contemplative science-fiction will always be one of my favorite cinematic cups of tea, and I knew when I first saw this unqualified masterpiece it would remain as my Favorite Film of 2014.
Birdman is totally amazing and distractingly brilliant. But don’t tell Birdman that!  He’ll spread his wings, let out a roar, and get ultra pissed-off! This is an uncontrollably original and all together brilliant piece of outraged filmmaking, the type of movie that pounces on the opportunity to bite the hand that’s feeding it, all in an effort to explore movies and art and creativity as a whole, while debating the notion of what constitutes “Great Art” in both an emotional and visceral fashion.  The positively overwhelming cinematography makes you feel like you’re high as a kite and free-form-floating from scene to scene.  How it all comes together feels very 8 ½ and Fellini in general, and I love the fact that it’s probably the most expensive art-film ever crafted with flights of fancy that just need to be seen to be fully believed.  Birdman is a poison pen letter to the conventions of cranked-out Hollywood cinema and a massive Fuck You to the Hollywood Superhero Machine, something that’s been coming for a while now. And yet Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s movie was fully funded by the Hollywood machine (20th Century Fox) and felt totally uncompromised which just makes me laugh – every now and again an artist sneaks one by the bean counters and it’s wild to behold (works like Punch Drunk Love and I Heart Huckabees and Synecdoche, NY and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all come to mind when mulling over Birdman).  It’s a movie about movies and Broadway and actors and directors and about the challenges of creating and about how we’re never as good as we think we are, and never as good as we want to be. I haven’t even attempted a traditional plot description, because, well, there’s nothing traditional about this ultra-ambitious, and scaldingly funny black comedy.  One sharp line after another of caustic, self-referential but never overly precious dialogue after rolls out of the various character’s acid-tinged mouths, and in tandem with the near constant percussive drumming score, it’s the sort of assaultive work that you’re able to get totally lost inside of.  The perfectly calibrated performances from a sterling cast of A-listers (Michael Keaton MUST win the Oscar as this is the performance of a lifetime) are all in perfect harmony with one another, as Emma Stone, Edward Norton, and Naomi Watts truly cut loose, giving bold and passionate performances. The entire endeavor feels like some sort of cinematic high-wire act where all participants shot for the moon and nailed the landing with sarcastically poetic grace. Birdman is an embarrassment of cinematic riches. But please, I beg you, don’t tell Birdman ANY of this stuff. Otherwise, he’ll come after me.  And you.  And all of us…

What I love so much about Christopher Nolan’s breathtaking and gorgeous sci-fi journey Interstellar is the seemingly unlimited imagination that it seems to possess. The birth of the anti-blockbuster is here with this visually astonishing, thought provoking science-fiction epic which feels like the most expensive “indie” blockbuster ever made, a $165 million production based on an original idea, one that never feels like a pre-determined, manufactured “product” that’s eager to sell toys and video games and lunchboxes. There’s no “made by committee” feeling here, and I applaud the fact that it offers the audience very little in the way of traditionally overt “fun,” instead placing an enormous emphasis on ideas and hard-science and hypothetical thought, while still telling an intimate and emotionally gripping story that’s relatable, honest, and impactful.  Nolan, often labeled cold and humorless by his critics, has made his wittiest, most heartfelt movie yet with Interstellar, and it’s in his expert and patient blending of the earth-bound dramatics and the life or death stakes in the cosmos that an enormously involving story is crafted.  Anchored by an immensely appealing and dead-serious movie-star performance from Matthew McConaughey, (the sort of role Tom Cruise would’ve been asked to do 10-15 years ago), Interstellar takes its time but never feels its length (it’s close to three hours), allowing the first act on earth to breathe and take shape before we blast off. After a brilliant jump-cut from the back of a speeding pick-up truck to the fiery rocket engines of the shuttle, we’re in the vast reaches of space, heading for Saturn and beyond, with wormholes and black holes and new dimensions and galaxies to explore.  Our Earth can no longer sustain itself and it’s up to a brave crew of three astronauts to traverse the galaxy in the hopes of finding a habitable planet, thus ensuring the continuation of the human race.  To be honest, the less that’s spoiled about this trickily involving narrative the better, because as with all of Nolan films, there’s layer upon layer that will be open to dissection, interpretation and surprise.  There are shades of 2001 and Contact and Primer all felt throughout, but Interstellar is definitely its own thing, operating on a massive canvass and utilizing top-flight craft contributions from everyone in the top-flight crew. The jaw-dropping cinematography is by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, Let the Right One In) and each shot is worthy of the pause button, with the IMAX format allowing for some incredible vistas.  The flawless and seamless special effects are used to propel the story, not as a story-telling crutch, but the most impressive aspect to Interstellar may just be how much was done practically and in-camera.  Again, no spoilers, but this is an intensely beautiful movie at times, with images that will simultaneously thrill and haunt the viewer, and I’d suspect filmmakers like Jonathan Glazer and Terrence Malick will go bananas for this otherworldly, cosmic trip. But most importantly, as a filmmaker, Nolan seems incapable of not engaging his audience on a cerebral level every time he gets behind the camera. The last 30 minutes are as mind-bending as it’s going to get for big-budget cinema, with the narrative constantly coming around on itself again and again.  And as usual, Nolan sends you out of the theater, yet again, looking to converse with people about what you’ve all just collectively experienced.  Viewing number two of the film only reinforced how I felt after my first viewing – this is Nolan’s most accomplished effort to date.  This is an overwhelming space epic, and the more one watches it, the more emotionally involving the film will become.  The wormhole and black-hole segments are filmmaking at its most bravura, literally taking you to places that you will never, ever see with your own eyes. Hans Zimmer's magisterial score is one for the ages, possibly the greatest of his already legendary career.  Interstellar is a gloriously trippy and brain-teasing ride through the cosmos and beyond. As a filmmaker, where does Nolan go from here?  I couldn’t possibly imagine but I absolutely can’t wait to find out.

Just as great, troubling American war films from our past (Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Casualties of War) that were scorned by some during their initial release, Clint Eastwood’s bold and bluntly powerful anti-war statement American Sniper has become a lightning rod for our society.  No longer “just a movie,” it’s a legitimate cultural phenomenon; you’ve either seen this important, devastating film and you can join the conversation, or, for whatever reason, you haven’t.  This is a film that will leave its mark on you and one way or another, and it’s doubtful you’ll leave the theater unaffected.  It might make you angry.  It might make you cry.  It might make you feel empowered.  We’ve all been living through the war in the Middle East for quite some time now, some of us for our entire lives, and it’s shaped our society, our world, and our future.  Like any politically resonant piece of work to come out of Hollywood, audiences are going to show up with their own agenda at hand, bringing their own ideologies into the theater.  And what they’ll see on screen in America Sniper is anything but simple and easy to digest, but rather, it’s a subtly complicated film about the horrors and impact of violence on one’s psyche, and a sobering reminder of how there are those of us out there willing to lay it all on the line in the name of their country.  I’d like to point to the integral scene in American Sniper where Kyle is justifiably horrified by the collapsing twin towers, and you see his emotional response to it.  For many people with an already gung-ho, patriotic up-bringing, this was a seminal event in their lives – a call to action and a reason to enlist in the military.  Yes – from the movie – it's made clear that the attack on America on 9/11 is what drove Kyle to finally join the military.  But what’s the problem with that?  This exact same thing happened all across our country in the days and weeks post 9/11 – these men and women, for the most part, wanted to serve the country professionally and have done so proudly.  Why are people ignorant to the idea that an attack on our country would have spurred some people to act?  Again - Kyle was sent to Iraq by our military - he didn't walk up to someone and say: "Iraqi's flew planes into the towers, let’s go kill Iraqis!”  He was fed lies by his government and military about Iraq.  He didn’t create the “intel” – he followed orders and was asked to do stuff that very few people have the intestinal fortitude to carry out.  Why is it that tons of people seem to forget that soldiers don’t get to pick their deployments. Unless I’m way off base here and then do and if that’s the case then I’m sorry.  It’d just be news to me.  All of the anti-war subtext is right there in the film.  It’s just that Eastwood knows how to do it without obviously ladling it on for viewers.  For me, there is no such thing as “too soon” when it comes to thoughtful explorations of our darkest hours in history via the cinema.  When United 93 and World Trade Center were released in 2005, I can remember a chorus of “too soon” and “No!”  And it never made sense to me.  Are we supposed to ignore these things that happen to us in the real world?  Are we to set them aside and just focus on empty-calorie entertainment that, while entertaining in the moment, leaves no lasting impression?  The war film is one of the most important genres in Hollywood, and some of our very best filmmakers have made some of their very best films exploring the futility of war and the inherent warrior spirit that some of us have deep within ourselves.  American Sniper joins the ranks as one of the best, most tough-minded, and most subtly provocative entries that has come out of the Hollywood studio system.  It’s the Iraq war film that Hollywood has been toying with making for the last few years. American Sniper is a masterpiece. Clint Eastwood has an inherent understanding of the power of violence, and with this staggering anti-war statement, he's crafted one of the best films of the genre, standing alongside greats such as Platoon, Casualties of War, Black Hawk Down, Paths of Glory, The Thin Red Line, The Hurt Locker, and Saving Private Ryan. Eastwood shows the absolute terror and horror of war while also proudly paying tribute to the Warrior Few, the men who are willing to put themselves in harm's way and do the unthinkable. Very similar in spirit to last year's gut-wrenching Lone Survivor, American Sniper plunges the viewer into the chaos of violent conflict and near constant action. Eastwood's connection to the image of the gun and the seriousness of death is something that this film benefits from. Bradley Cooper delivers easily the finest work of his career; this is a quietly devastating piece of acting, and in scene after scene, you see the anguished pain that this many must have felt every time he looked down the scope of his rifle.  Taking a life can’t be easy, and Cooper infuses his character with sorrowful notes that deepens the character and allows the audience to undertand the pain he was going through.  Kyle was a solider, like so  many, who always felt the need to be doing something – anything – for his comrades, and if it wasn’t covering them from afar at an elevated spot as the grunts kicked the doors down on the city level with no idea of what awaited them on the other side, he was more than happy to talk with returning soldiers suffering from immense bouts of PTSD, something that America Sniper casually but forcefully suggests is the true evil in this new-fangled “war on terror.”   Sienna Miller should have gotten a Supporting Actress nomination for her forceful work as Kyle’s wife back at home.  This is the sort of role we’ve seen countless times, but here, under Eastwood’s sensitive direction, Miller is able to hit grace notes not previously afforded to other actresses who have taken on similar roles.  The entire physical production is extraordinary and fully believable. The sound effects are stunning as is the entire sound design in general, and Tom Stern's patient, un-showy cinematography captures every horrifying moment with supreme precision and clarity. Jason Hall's screenplay is on-target, free of speechifying, and wholly gripping.  For this viewer, American Sniper will easily stand the test of time, and when the dust settles, will be seen for what it is: a sad reminder of what’s become of our world and a further demonstration of the powerful and dehumanizing effects of violence that can take hold of so many people.
Foxcatcher is as chilling as true-crime cinema can get.   The vice-grip direction from the extremely erudite filmmaker Bennett Miller in tandem with a supremely intelligent screenplay fashioned with scalpel-sharp dialogue from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye creates a film that is unshakeable and grim.   Funereal in tone and sad to the core, Foxcatcher is a richly textured a masterpiece of filmmaking and storytelling, daring to explore America at its worst, never cheapening anything during its all-consuming, slow-burn runtime.  This film will be massively off-putting for many people – a true bitter pill – but for those who have cinema running through their veins, this is the equivalent of a five course meal at a Michelin rated restaurant.  With the clear and clean screenplay at his disposal, Miller captures the dark, rotted soul of the corrupted male psyche, utilizing a cold and detached directorial aesthetic that fully absorbs the audience.  Greig Fraser’s quiet, measured, and totally unassuming cinematography unfolds in a deliberately patient fashion; I was blown away by the unnerving quality of Foxcatcher, as Fraser and Miller use empty visual space to convey the alienation of everyone in the narrative.  The performances are astounding with the big-three trio of Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and Mark Ruffalo providing transformative work, anchoring this exceedingly gripping tale of obsession, paranoia, ritualistic sport behavior, and blunt, psychological turmoil.  Carrell imbues self-professed “patriot” John Dupont (ex-heir to the Dupont family fortune who hosted the 1988 wrestling team at his estate) with a staggering false sense of importance and pride; his consistent uttering that he’s “helping America” is one of the creepiest elements to the character of Dupont, and something that Carell does so well in the film.  The fact that when you see Carell in this film and you never once think of Michael Scott from The Office – that’s a testament to how deep Carell went in his portrayal; the rest of his work as an actor will be judged against his menacing turn in Foxcatcher.   He’s a sociopath to the extreme, bordering on outright psychopath.  Yet, nobody calls him on it, none of his handlers or business managers or associates.  Because, had they raised concerns, they wouldn’t have gotten paid.  And, as I see it, one of the many key themes of Foxcatcher is just that – how much is a person’s life worth?  It’s a crime that Tatum wasn’t talked-up for Best Actor because, for me, he’s Carrel’s equal in every way.  Using his already physically intimidating body to maximum effect as 1984 Olympic wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz, his jaw jutted out, with a shuffle of a walk, Tatum forces the viewer to confront this socially awkward character head on.  He’s a man in the shadow of his brother, fellow gold medal winning wrestler Dave Schultz, having never grown up with the love of a father, looking for something – anything – to latch onto.  Ruffalo plays Dave Schultz as a good and decent family man, and as always, is astonishingly natural, never hitting a false note, always nailing the little details just as much as the big scenes.  As the film progresses, you watch as he begins to possibly understand the madness that he’s allowed himself to become a part of. The scene with Ruffalo being coached by the documentary filmmaker to say that he loved Du Pont and that Du Point was his mentor has got to be one of the more upsetting movie moments of the year.  As Foxcatcher builds towards its inevitable conclusion, one is left with the impression that Miller wants us to examine the very fibers of what it means to be a “winner,” and how people of high-net worth and little actual talent delude themselves into thinking that they are somehow entitled to greatness, without having to earn it.  This is a phenomenally layered and erudite piece of work that chills to the bone.

Pauline Kael once said something along the lines of: “Great movies are rarely perfect movies.” If she were around today, she’d hopefully think that Whiplash is both great and perfect, because after only one viewing, I’m pretty much convinced that it’s a flawless piece of great cinema., something that couldn’t possibly be improved upon, made with exacting care and precision.  Writer/director Damien Chazelle has made one of the most promising debut features in recent memory, demonstrating commanding technique and a raw understanding of how to ruthlessly move your narrative forward without shortchanging character and emotion and depth. Led by two of the best performances of the year from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Whiplash tells the laser-focused story of a determined college drumming prodigy (Teller) and his psychotically passionate band instructor played with fierce force by J.K. Simmons (chaneling R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket), who will stop at nothing in order to bring greatness out of his students. I will spoil no more about the twists and turns that the high-voltage story takes but I will allow this: there’s not a false moment to be had at any point during the two crisp hours that the story unfolds. To say that Chazelle has been influenced by Full Metal Jacket would be an understatement; Whiplash feels like a war movie, from Simmons’s intensely verbal (and vulgar) taunts to the fetishizing of the instruments and the obsessive details of rehearsals and recitals. This is clearly a world that Chazelle feels in his bones and he’s made a picture that grabs you from frame one and never lets you go.  Sharone Meir’s dynamic and agile cinematography gets up close and personal to the all of the musical action, bringing the viewer one step closer to the loud and rhythmic world on display. It goes well beyond being just another Mean Teacher Movie because of the way that Chazelle explores the psyches of his stop-at-nothing-to-achieve-greatness characters.    Whiplash is about striving for greatness, never losing sight of the task at hand, and how certain people have an almost obsessive desire to always be perfect, no matter what’s being asked of them. And just wait for the dazzling and utterly impeccable final shot – it’s the best single shot I’ve seen all year.  In any movie.  Not just because of how it looks visually, but for what it suggests thematically.  It’s a wowser of a cinematic moment.

Boyhood is a once-in-a-lifetime-movie.  For everyone involved:  Richard Linklater, his crew, his cast, the studios who funded it, and the audience watching it.  Other films have dabbled in this “shoot for a small period of time over a number of years” style (Apted’s Up series and Winterbottom’s Everyday immediately come to mind) but nothing is like Boyhood whatsoever.  This is a scripted narrative drama, using the same actors over the course of 12 years, where Linklater and the cast and crew met for one week per year, every year, in an effort to chronicle and trials and tribulations of a boy, his sister, and his single mother, as they navigate all manner of tricky waters, in an effort to create a home for themselves.  Doesn’t matter what your race, religion, or gender is – I dare you to watch this movie and not find at least ONE thing about it that mirrors your own life, and whether it’s a big or small moment in the film that reminds of you something personal, Boyhood is that unique project that will mean something different to all who experience it.  This is a nearly three hour story told in linear fashion (albeit with a ton of jump-cutting, obviously), and it carries the same relaxed, unhurried, and observational style that all of Linklater’s films have employed.  He’s the least show-offy director I can think of, and while I wouldn’t call his directorial aesthetic bland, I love how he refuses to call attention to himself as a filmmaker; his graciousness as an artists can be felt in every department of the filmmaking process.  All of the performances are a joy to behold.  You watch as Ellar Coltrane ages 12 years, effortlessly, right before your eyes, and Patricia Arquette is worthy of all of the acclaim she’s received thus far, etching an unfortgettable portrait of a woman trying to right by her children, while still trying to maintain her own life and grasping on to the things she finds important.  Ethan Hawke, a regular Linklater collaborator, is perfectly cast as the “here one minute and gone the next” father to Arquette’s children, and the way he interacts with Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater (the director’s daughter playing the daughter in the film) has a familiar ease that’s refreshing and candid; you feel as if you’re watching a father talk with his own children.  And that’s why Boyhood is so special of a movie – it’s free of artifice, and instead of taking a potentially gimmicky narrative conceit (ahem, The Artist, ahem…) and not doing much with it except creating an homage to what’s come before, Linklater expands upon the form, telling his story in the most unique manner possible, and cementing his reputation as one of the most underrated filmmakers of the last 20 years.  While it’s not my absolute favorite films of the year, I’d love to see Boyhood win Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars, if for no other reason than that the movie is a milestone for the form, and Linklater has been paying his dues, making very good if not great movies consistently with little to no acclaim being thrown in his direction.

If you’re searching for two perfect hours of fully transporting cinema then look no further than the Swedish import Force Majeure. It’s a devastating masterpiece, slyly satirical, aesthetically unnerving, deeply emotional, and incredibly powerful, with icy-cold cinematography that would make Michael Haneke giggle with sadistic joy. Director Ruben Östlund is unknown to me; it’s now time to search for anything else he’s made and to actively look out for his name in the future. This is the sort of dark, disturbing look at marriage that will be seen as a psychological endurance test for some viewers, but for others, it will serve as a caustically funny and penetrating glimpse at a relationship under extreme pressure. It’s ironic that both Force Majeure and Gone Girl would come out in the same year, but after seeing the former, the latter feels all the more like a beautifully appointed cartoon in comparison. The two films seek to disrupt the notion of the “perfect marriage,” with Gone Girl taking a trip down the Grand Guginol highway, and Force Majeure taking a more elevated, cerebral approach to the highly dramatic proceedings. The film centers on the perfect Swedish couple with their two perfect children. They are vacationing at an uber-perfect French ski resort that’s literally carved out of a post-card-perfect mountain. Money is no object, everyone’s happy, everyone’s in love. Then, while the family is having an outdoor lunch, they are witness to a controlled avalanche, which suddenly becomes less controlled than the resort probably ever anticipated. The narrative thrust of Force Majeure centers on the exact moments when the avalanche reaches the family and how both the husband and wife react in a moment of crisis. This movie will make you question what you’d do in the same situation, and there’s a dark wit that permeates so much of this movie which results in a severely biting tone that’s both arresting and unique. Using classical musical cues to heighten individual scenes and shooting in 2.35:1 widescreen via mostly long and medium shots, Force Majeure has an overwhelming visual and sonic beauty that fills in the gaps when there’s long stretches of silence, of which there are many. This is a haunting, quiet, totally masterful exercise in filmmaking, one that is worthy of multiple viewings. The end sequence is sweaty-palms-brilliant, true white-knuckle stuff, and the final act on the part of one of the characters makes the entire movie all the more rich and priceless.

James Gray’s The Immigrant is the masterpiece that got away from 2014.  The Weinsteins should be ashamed of themselves for the embarrassing way they treated this movie – it’s like they thought they had a dud on their hands they pretended that it didn’t exist.  It’s better than pretty much every other movie they put their company logo on in 2014, and over time, I truly hope it attains the status it deserves as a brilliant, completely consuming work of American historical art.  Every single shot in The Immigrant is worthy of museum placement. Legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Evita) is a visual genius, and the way he plays with light is a marvel to behold.  Engrossing doesn't cover it as this work of art overwhelms you with both epic and intimate details. It's easily the best, most fully realized work from Gray, and he's made some great movies (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), so that’s no small compliment.  There’s an ambiguous nature to the patient narrative, and by the end of this tragic and distinct piece of work, you’ll have run through a gamut of emotions. Marion Cotillard is a magnetic screen presence, portraying a European immigrant coming to America in the early 20’s, arriving with nothing at Ellis Island (how were these scenes achieved?) and meeting the potentially nefarious Joaquin Phoenix, doing customarily intense work.  He’s smitten immediately, and whisks her away to his apartment, eventually putting her to work as a high-end call girl.  She then meets a frisky and upbeat stage magician played by an always in-the-moment Jeremy Renner, who also starts to fall in love with her.  From there, Gray tells a tale about love, the American dream, and the idea of people coming to this country and trying to navigate the slippery waters of trying to become a citizen.  It’s simply mind boggling why this haunting, uniquely adult, and magnificently mounted production got buried with a half-assed release last summer. This is as "fall prestige season" as it gets, and I hope that Gray puts a hit out on the Weinsteins down the road.  And just wait for the final shot – astonishing its quiet beauty and narrative implications.

Bleak.  Grave.  Arid.  Desolate. Angry.  Internal. Methodical. Australian writer/director David Michod (Animal Kingdom) has crafted a haunting companion piece to Cormac McCarthy's The Road with The Rover, a gut-punch movie for people who are fascinated by nihilistic, end-of-times scenarios.  We’re not sure exactly what has gone down in society but life is on the downward slope in The Rover – nobody has gas or oil, food and water seem to be in short supply, the streets are seemingly lawless except for military types roaming from town to town, and there’s a general air of despair that feels as if it’s there for good. Guy Pearce is yet again fantastic as a man on a mission and with one purpose in life – to get back the car that’s been stolen from him by a gang of dimwitted thieves.  That’s all you need to know about the “plot” of The Rover, because it’s less about ticking off plot points and more about the sun-scorched way this sad, and introspective movie is unraveled.  Pearce is raw, dirty, quiet, and doing some serious acting with only his eyes; you can’t look away when he’s on screen.  His emotionally ravaged and quietly forceful performance as a man with literally nothing to lose is as haunting and affecting as anything I've seen in recent memory (Robert Redford's legendary work in All is Lost comes to mind but that's about it). His weathered face and sullen eyes, framed often times in close-up, dominate the widescreen space, conveying more than written words could ever provide.  Michod knows that Pearce's mere presence is enough. And there lies the genius of Michod's storytelling technique - dole out just enough information verbally but allow the unspoken to fill in the blanks.  Natasha Braier's expansive, controlled 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography captures Michod's penchant for sudden, graphic violence with an unflinching eye, while also capturing the dusty, dangerous, ominous vistas of the Australian outback. The patient shooting style is matched by the exacting editing by Peter Sciberras, and the PTA-esque musical score, filled with discordant chords to keep you off kilter, allows for a constantly intense mood.  And Robert Pattinson proves he can act, playing a slow-thinking pseudo criminal who crosses paths with Pearce, after his brother (the always awesome Scoot McNairy) has left him for dead after a botched robbery. There's nothing happy to be found with The Rover - this a film about bad, desperate people in tough, deadly situations. One gets the sense that Michod made exactly the film he set out to make, having to make no concessions, with nobody standing over his shoulder taking notes or offering suggestions.  Stark and pare, The Rover is a great piece of contemplative cinema, with an absolutely devastating final shot that haunted me for days.

How does an honest man working in a corrupt industry stay on the right side of the tracks?  What’s wrong with cutting corners and being shady if all of your competitors are taking extra, morally questionable steps to ensure their success?  What drives people to do the things they do?  These are only some of the questions that the thematically rich film A Most Violent Year covers in an intimate, very 70’s way.  Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) summons the ghost of Sidney Lumet with this down and dirty, early 80’s NYC fable consisting of businessmen, politicians, cops, wives, children, and the constantly shifting dynamics between men of power and those who are needed to allow that power to continue and thrive.  Every character in this slow-burn drama (with a tad of melodrama thrown in at the end, possibly unneeded) is out to get their own; everyone has an agenda and enormous reason for wanting the things they want.  When one character asks another in this beautifully written story about ethics and morals “Why do you want this?”, the question takes on multiple meanings.  And when the character answers with simply “I don’t understand your question” you know that this is a film that isn’t interested in black and white notions of good and bad, but rather, the gray areas that separate us from doing right and wrong.  A Most Violent Year carries a metaphorical title that extends more to the atmosphere of NYC in the early 80’s then it does to constant violent action, which is something that this talky, low-key, and wonderfully observed movie is most definitely not interested in.  Yes, you get some fantastic foot chases and one sensational, hair-raising car chase that echoes the POV car chase in James Gray’s The Yards (another Lumet homage), but A Most Violent Year is all about the performances and the writing and the burnished, dark, early morning and late night cinematography from shooter-of-the-moment Bradford Young.  His work here is elegant and smoky, all browns and blacks and golds with splashes of orange and red for accent.  I loved looking at every image in this movie.  Oscar Isaac is sensational as Abel Morales, a man trying to run a home heating-oil company with his wife Anna (a juicy, sexy Jessica Chastain, playing the ultimate snake-in-the-grass), and always attempting to run an honest business without cutting too many corners.  Interesting in always being “mostly good,” Abel knows he could call his wife’s gangster father for support in any number of ways (someone is jacking his oil tankers and beating up his salesmen and drivers; people are waiting for him outside his new mansion in the late hours with pistols, etc.) but he doesn’t want to do that.  And despite probably knowing that his wife is more than meets the eye in any number of respects, he keeps his head up, doesn’t ask too many questions, and lets the assorted pieces to his complicated business puzzle take shape.  By the end of this tense and gripping drama, if you loved it as much as I did, you’ll want to know more about what happens to the various characters as the screen fades to black – I know I did.

The sweet stench and hazy after-effects of marijuana can be found all over Paul Thomas Anderson’s hysterical, bewildering, utterly zonked-out shaggy-dog detective movie Inherent Vice.  This film didn’t make a splash with general audiences and it’s not all that hard to guess why.  Based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel, this is a spacey, ridiculous, totally original work that has “cult-classic” status written all over it. Different and yet similar to obvious inspirations such as The Big Lebowski, The Big Sleep, and The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice is going to anger a lot of people looking for easily identifiable plot points and then it’s going to be groovy for many others who are willing to accept the notion that this film is all about the journey, not necessarily the destination. And also, it must be said that you’ve got to be interested in watching a perpetually stoned, lackadaisical, potentially hallucinating lead character (Joaquin Phoenix, completely incapable of never not being awesome) who can’t seem to get out of his own way.  As this is a PTA movie, the cast is reliably peppered with tons of stars (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, a debauched Martin Short in one of the best scenes in the film) but Phoenix owns this picture. Coming on the heels of his exquisite and varied work in both The Master and Her, he delivers a totally different performance in Inherent Vice, bringing his chameleonic quality to any role he takes on, investing every performance with integrity, intensity, and odd, sympathetic charm.  The “plot” of Inherent Vice can be followed, but I’ll admit this after only one viewing: I’d be lying if I said I caught every last little detail, every line of dialogue, every flight of fancy.  And that’s fine. Great movies allow for constant exploration. And this is one of the ultimate “multiple viewings” movies that I’ve ever encountered. Because Phoenix’s character is essentially an unreliable narrator, and because everyone he comes into contact with screws with him in some way, there’s this sense of randomness to the plot that won’t be to everyone’s liking. Inherent Vice is more about the crazy characters and the druggy aroma and the floral dialogue and stony voice-over and the minutiae of the time period – those looking for an “air-tight” plot need to go find something else. It’s also about the collision of two subcultures, and how America, in particular Los Angeles, was rapidly changing during the late 60’s and early 70’s.   Josh Brolin absolutely nails his could-have-been-a-farce supporting role as an angry LAPD officer who butts heads with Phoenix multiple times throughout the story.  He’s the complete opposite of Phoenix – buttoned up, repressed, clenched, and waiting to explode.  Their scenes together are gold.   There’s also some of the bravest nudity I’ve ever seen from an actress on the part of the lovely and talented Katherine Waterston, who injects her character with an earthy, hippie sensuality that you don’t normally see on the big screen.  I loved watching this film I can’t wait to let it glide over me again, as I’ll be ready to waft it all in.   Inherent Vice makes you feel intoxicated even if you’re not already before watching it, and because of PTA, I’m now totally obsessed with the band Can, and in particular, the song Vitamin C.  This film has a dynamite soundtrack that’s a total play-thru.

The Raid 2: Berandal is the greatest action film I’ve ever seen.  It eviscerates the competition.  I’ve been ranting and raving for months about it and for just cause: there’s nothing else that even remotely comes close to matching the overall level of bad-assery that you’ll find in this movie.  It’s two and a half hours of punching, shooting, maiming, garroting, car-chasing, slicing, dicing, hammering, base-ball-batting, kicking, and shanking, and yes, if you can believe it, there’s more plot to choke a horse.  Picking up mere moments after the obscenely bloody events of The Raid, this sequel ups the ante in every regard: characters, plot-lines, set-pieces, and overall level of lunatic abandon when it comes to the mind-blowing action sequences.  You’ll see one of the very best car chases ever captured by cameras in The Raid 2, and you’ll also see the single most vicious and bloody one-on-one fight that I could ever possibly imagine.  Honestly – after the stuff done in this film – I’m not sure what else needs to be attempted with this sort of thing.  But leave it to director Gareth Evans as he’s currently working on The Raid 3.  This is legendary action cinema, taking cues from genre masters like John Woo, Takashi Miike, and Paul Greengrass, mixing an undercover-cop-in-prison narrative ala The Departed with classic tribal feuds straight out of a Japanese Yakuza picture.  The Indonesian setting makes for an exotic backdrop for all of the insane bouts of mayhem, with the impossibly agile cinematography covering all of the action from the most bezerk angles possible.  This is a movie where you feel every punch, hear every bullet whizz past your ears, and every single scene seems to have been designed to top the last.  This is outstanding action cinema that will be very, very tough to beat.
What can one really say about Ari Folman's bold, breathtakingly alive hybrid movie The Congress? It's like nothing you've ever seen, I can promise that much. Half animated, half live-action, all totally blazed to the extreme, this is a colossal artistic statement about Hollywood, art, culture, society, and our unending preoccupation with make-believe and hero worship. It operates on multiple levels of reality and surreality simultaneously; this is super-charged cinematic acid that feels like it’s being dropped directly onto your corneas. The purposefully sprawling and messy structure plays to the film's wild and operatic strengths. This isn't a movie to be taken 100% literally, as it’s more of an existential crisis fable that begs to be viewed multiple times for maximum appreciation.   I've been able to watch it twice now, and I can’t wait for another trip – and I mean trip – into this wild and wooly world where you never really know what’s going on. Robin Wright plays a tweaked version of herself, a mid-40's actress who is about to be abandoned by the major studios due to her being “old,” an actress beaten down by the pressures of the Hollywood machine and the demands of the studio movie-star system. Thanks to her lively agent (the awesome Harvey Keitel) and an extra-slimy studio chief (Danny Huston, twirling his moustache with glee), she's given the chance to have her mind, body, and soul digitally transferred into a computer so that her likeness can be used and re-used throughout the years, preserving her "Princess Buttercup" good-looks and charm, thus transforming her into the ultimate movie-star for years and years and years. The Congress then makes a 20 year jump cut at the mid-point and leaps head-first into a hallucinatory outpouring of odd and crazily unique Anime-inspired images. It seems that the only way that one can enter the movie studio of the future (playfully referred to as Miramount) is to drink a magical potion which turns you into a digital avatar of yourself, and then, once inside this madcap universe, you're able to drink yet another potion which can literally turn you into whatever you want. This is a dense, packed-to-the-gills experience, one that shouldn't be immediately shrugged off as just another esoteric artistic experiment. Folman is the real deal, a man with a singular vision, and now, after Waltz with Bashir and The Congress, he's a filmmaker that I will actively anticipate each new film with baited breath. The Congress will be on repeat-watch-mode for weeks to come.

With the exuberant and hysterical The Lego Movie, filmmakers Phil Lord and Chris Miller have crafted a work that's as accomplished as the best offerings from Pixar. Bursting with creativity from first frame to last while stacking the deck with an almost assaultive amount of verbal and visual humor in tandem with note-perfect voice performances, this is one of the rare "kids movies" that transcends the genre and becomes something of a pop-culture touchstone.  The songs are bouncy and beyond-catchy, filled with witty humor that will delight everyone.  I remember seeing this film with a packed crowd of families and children, and the responses from everyone were a joy to observe.  The kiddies loved the wild animation and abundant silliness, and the adults could latch on to a touching story that reinforces the notion that our childhoods are important and special and that everyone deserves a little fun every now and again.  I’ve watched this movie countless times now on Blu-ray, and I’m constantly in awe and amazed by the technical skill that was required to pull the entire thing off.  The colors are virbrant, literally screaming off the screen.  The script is smart without being pretentious, satirical without being cynical, silly without being stupid, and above all else: Massively Entertaining.

Unnerving. Unforseeable. Unforgettable. Writer/director Dan Gilroy's thrillingly caustic media satire Nightcrawler shows some seriously vicious teeth, taking you on a dark and twisted trip through nocturnal Los Angeles, all shot in 2.35:1 Mann/Refn-vision by the estimable Robert Elswit, with James Newton Howard's synth score pounding away in the background. Jake Gyllenhaal is utterly brilliant as Lou Bloom, a diseased creature of the night, appearing in virtually every scene, totally live-wire, spewing rapid fire dialogue with sociopathic glee. Shades of Travis Bickle abound in his portrayal of a freelance videographer hustling from crime scene to crime scene trying to sell his exploitive footage to the highest buyer. This is the best performance of his career so far, and over the past few years, he seems incapable of not being thoroughly excellent in whatever he appears in (Brothers, Source Code, End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy). It’s great to see Renee Russo in a substantial role again, as she brings sass and class to her role as a beleaguered news producer.  She gets to cut a nasty portrait of what it might be like to run a big-city local news station struggling for a piece of the competitive ratings pie. Original movies from a single voice seem less and less common these days, and as Nightcrawler races through its propulsive and lurid narrative, you begin to realize that you're watching something that's playing by its own sick and cynical set of rules, unafraid to peek at the nastiness that's running through our cities, news outlets, and members of society. This is an instant classic that defies expectations that I can't wait to watch again and again.
Locke is a mesmerizing film to study.  Cemented (no pun intended...just see the film...) by a spellbinding, tour de force performance from Actor of the Moment Tom Hardy, Steven Knight's brilliant existential drama Locke is nerve-rackingly intense, fully absorbing and completely unpredictable, due in no small part to the narrative conceit of the entire film taking place from the interior of a car. Confined to the driver's seat of his BMW SUV, Hardy gives an all-stops-out performance – this guy is the real deal, seemingly capable of any role that’s asked of him, always able to elicit sympathy no matter how ragged the character, going from subtle to big at the drop of a hat. The dreamy, artsy cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos leaps off the screen; it’s London-street-lamp-at-night-gorgeous, cousins with Collateral in some respects, with reflections and window patterns dotting the 2.35:1 widescreen space. Because the story is exclusively delivered via a series of desperate phone calls that Hardy is having with a variety of people, there’s always the question of how realistic can this scenario play out. But because Knight is so strong with his words and so precise with his visuals, the film becomes more than just a trick-stunt – it’s a gripping, all-together brilliant ride that will leave you with sweaty palms by the finish.

Wetlands is singular, gross, nauseating, highly sexual, strange, lovely, smart, insane, icky, depraved, uber-graphic, and sort of monumental.  It’s never, ever going to be remade for American audiences and it’s likely to appeal strictly to fans of “cinema-as-art.”  I’ve never seen anything remotely like it.  You get to see a POV shot from that of an STD-infected pubic hair, a woman uses a variety of vegetables as sexual pleasure devices, and the camera lovingly details a shaving accident that, let’s just say, will pucker up a certain part of your hind-quarters.  And that’s all in the first act!  Directed with energy and snap by rising star David Wnendt with a constant attitude of “I’ve Got Something To Prove,” Wetlands, at times, feels like a hybrid of Enter the Void and Blue is the Warmest Color with a dash of the sweetness of a Farrelly Bros. enterprise, and while I probably won’t re-watch it as much as Void and Color, I’m glad I subjected myself to this off-the-wall, intensely stylish, totally uncompromised, fully deranged, and boundary-pushing German import.  Carla Juri gives an absolutely fearless, wholly committed performance as a young woman named Helen with any number of unique sexual and bodily fetishes.  There’s isn’t one American actress who would ever dare take on the challenge of this role.  Known in some circles as “the anal fissure movie,” Wetlands will prove to be an endurance test for many viewers, offering wildly graphic sights you’ll never be able to un-see.  After the previously mentioned shaving accident, Helen winds up in the hospital and falls in love with a male nurse, but this being the type of movie that it is, their meet-cute is over discussions of bloody buttocks injuries and the benefits of abundant oral sex.  After her surgery, Helen fakes the inability to pass her bowels, in an effort to remain in the hospital so that she can win the heart of the nurse she’s falling in love with.  So it’s the classic girl meets boy story, filled with the requisite amount of heart and honesty that makes you care for the characters, but ups the gross-out elements way past what Apatow and the Farrelly’s could ever dream of creating.  This is outlaw cinema to be sure, replete with constant full frontal female nudity, extraordinarily graphic sexual behavior, and a general air of chuck-it-all-unpredictability that is bracing to behold and keeps you on edge. And while there is a rather sweet and simple story that gets told, many viewers will be too caught up in the moment to make heads or tails of whether or not Wetlands has something interesting or valid to say.  And I think it does.  At its heart, this is a film about acceptance, and about love, and about how one woman, no matter how different or odd her behavior may seem, is living the life that she wants to live, bloody orifices or not.  Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, Wetlands is a romantic comedy that defies general description.  In short, see it with the fam!  

Mood Indigo has a hand-made feel that I adored.  Cinematic whimsy is tough to pull off; done wrong and it can be quite annoying, but when done by someone like Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Human Nature), the results are typically dream fun, and his latest (maybe greatest?) is no exception.  I’m shocked by the relatively muted response that this wildly original artistic triumph received.  It feels like the sort of movie destined to find a cult audience down the road, but I’m afraid that it’s maybe too out there to possibly find the fans it deserves.  This wondrous filmmaking and a further demonstration that the best movies in any given year are the ones that feel the least artistically compromised. Sustained cinematic surrealism is rare these days, and as this majorly tripped-out film began to unfold, I doubted whether or not the anything-goes-style and charmingly frantic pace could sustain itself. It did – Gilliam eat your lunatic heart out. This is maximum Gondry, unfiltered imagination, whimsical and poetic and over the top, all in the name of visual storytelling.  The story is simple: man meets woman, they fall in love, and then she gets sick because a water lily is growing in the pit of her stomach…you’ve heard this story before, right? Mood Indigo will be a patience tester from the outset for many…you’ll either be smitten or totally turned off by the heightened performances, the free-for-all spirit, and the purposefully artsy inclinations. Gondry’s DIY-aesthetic is pushed to the breaking point, then it breaks, then it becomes something all-together-new. The phrase “How did they do that?” will be uttered repeatedly while watching.  This film feels like the deranged lovechild of Amelie and The Science of Sleep and if that doesn’t get you excited then I’m not sure what to tell you. You don’t even need the sound on with this one as the visuals transport you away to some bizarro world where everything is alive with the sound of cinema. (Note: I viewed the two hour and 10 minute “extended cut” – I gather there’s a 95 minute version lurking around somewhere. The horror!)

Enemy, the glorious head-scratcher from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies), is a twisted mystery with all sorts of loaded implications.  Is it the slyest version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers that’s ever been pulled off?  Is it a metaphysical exploration of divided souls hovering in a unique state of otherworldliness?  Is it the simple yet complex story of one many having a nervous breakdown?  Or is it none of those things and something completely different?  That’s the brilliance of this tricky, multi-layered, and extra-creepy piece of work, which features an on-fire Jake Gyllenhaal in dual performances.  One version of Jake is a regular office dweller, repressed and atypical, going about his daily routine without much in the way of surprise, and the other Jake is the ultimate version of himself, what we project ourselves to be: commanding, sexy, dangerous, and strong.  When the two of these entities meet, the film becomes a mind-twisting exploration of identity and fate, all filtered through the always intriguing notion of the doppelganger.  Based on Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, Villeneue shoots in Fincher-esque pea-soup green and piss-yellow, giving the film an ominous visual sheen that’s both sketchy and slick.  The films’ final shot is a doozy, and show-stopper, and a candidate for the most WTF moment of the year.  It’ll create the impulse to hit the rewind button on your Blu-ray remote, as the stunned look on your face quickly gives way to nervous laughter.  This is a hot-blooded mental-mind-fuck that will play twister with your brain.

The Hollywood biopic is a tricky thing to pull off.  You have to respect and honor the individual in question while also providing a complete, sometimes unflattering portrait that might upset some members of the chorus.  Then there’s the question of Historical Accuracy vs. Poetic License.  I try not to get bogged down in such details; I understand that a movie is a movie, it’s not real life, it’s not a documentary, concessions have to be made, and dramatic flow for the cinema must be adhered too.  With all this being said, Ava DuVernay’s Selma, an impassioned look at a chapter in the historic life of Martin Luther King, felt urgent, vital, topical (especially given our current social and political climate), and important.  This isn’t a film you should feel “obliged to see” because of the subject matter; you should WANT to see this film.  It should anger you, shock you, and pull you out of your seat.  DuVernay’s style, in tandem with Bradford Young’s striking widescreen cinematography, is immediately engrossing and undeniably powerful.  David Oyelowo’s magnetic performance as Dr. Martin Luther King is immense, nuanced and beautiful to observe. Rather than a tired and traditional biopic narrative, screenwriter Paul Webb focuses on the Right to Vote protest and bridge-march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. It was there that King and his followers gathered in an effort to show that the illegal and oppressive anti-voting tactics of racist southerners wouldn’t be tolerated any more. Selma is necessarily brutal at times, with Young’s fluid and unflinching camerawork capturing all of the harsh violence and angry hysteria that accompanied the various protests. Sound effects are used to maximum effect during all of the confrontations, giving the audience the sense of the ferocity that racist whites felt while fighting for what they disgustingly believed in. Not enough can be said about Oyelowo’s mythic performance; you can’t look away when he’s on screen.  His voice and physical resemblance to the real Dr. King are uncanny, and there’s a gravitas to his presence that few actors currently possess. Selma is yet another film to highlight an embarrassing chapter of intolerant behavior on the part of simple minded and backwards thinking people, but rather than overly preaching and going the “message movie” route, DuVernay smartly allows the ugly facts of the story to take center stage, and with Oyelowo front and center, Selma becomes more than just “that movie about Martin Luther King,” but rather a glorious portrait of people who refused to sit quietly and allow our society to be further poisoned.

Spare.  Menacing.  Near constant tension.  Vice-grip direction.  Airtight plotting that MAKES SENSE when you stop to think about the fine details.  Graphically violent yet never exploitive.  Virtually faultless. Blue Ruin is writer-director-cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier's big coming out as a top-notch genre-buster.  Reminiscent of the Coen brothers with its dark thrills and formal precision, this is a true screw-turner, a grab-your-date-on-their-arm thriller that takes no prisoners.  It’s like no revenge movie I've ever seen, and I admired how Saulnier used the blackest of comedy to somewhat lighten the heavy, nihilistic load of neo-noir mayhem. Macon Blair's uncommonly focused, award-worthy, multi-layered lead performance is one for the ages and totally mesmerizing to behold.  It helps a ton that this is an actor I've never seen before and that I had no preconceived notions of, as you don’t bring any baggage into a film when the actors are unfamiliar.  I don’t want to spoil the plot to Blue Ruin, but I’ll allow that it’s a “man on a mission” narrative that gets turned upside down due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, each escalating in violence, and culminating in a fierce finale.  This is a dangerous, all-consuming work, strangely beautiful, and horrifyingly bloody. I loved all 90, ultra-precise moments and I can't wait to see what's next for Saulnier.

Begin Again is a pure delight from start to finish.  A tad melancholy to be sure, but like John Carney’s previous heartfelt musical-romance Once, his newest effort is long on charm and inherently likable.  Mark Ruffalo, in one of his best performances, is a sloppy, beaten-down, old-school music executive who, after a night of heavy, depressing drinking, stumbles into a NYC bar and just so happens to hear the voice of a talented, equally-down-on-her-luck singer (the effervescent Keira Knightley, who should have been nominated for her work in this film rather than her solid but unspectacular showing in The Imitation Game); it’s mutual respect at first sight but will it blossom into something more?  The two music lovers decide to record an original album, preforming all of the songs all throughout NYC, out in public areas, in an effort to create something special and organic and long-lasting.  Carney is a sadist with a smile, a guy who loves the tropes of the romantic dramedy but enjoys tweaking the formula just enough so your expectations are subverted at almost every turn.  He’s also a massive fan of keeping his potential love-birds apart from one another for as long as humanly possible, which will annoy some, but delight those of us who know that life isn’t as simple as “I do” or “I don’t.”  If Begin Again isn’t quite the movie-miracle that Once was, well, that would have been impossible to replicate for a variety of reasons, but it’s still a hugely entertaining movie that will likely prove impossible to resist for anyone who gives it a chance.

White Bird in a Blizzard is something unique: a touching coming of age story, a tense whodunit with a dynamite final twist, a study of marital discord, a time capsule of the late 80’s, with some surrealistic touches and flights of fancy for good artistic measure.  Directed with customary style by Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Smiley Face, Mysterious Skin) who also wrote the genre-defying screenplay based off of Laura Kasischke’s novel, White Bird in a Blizzard feels like one of those movies that’s just waiting to be discovered.  Shailene Woodley, so good in The Spectacular Now and The Descendants, grows WAY up in the lead role of Kat Connor, a sexually blossoming high-school student with a phenomenally messed up mother (a whacked-out Eva Green) and a put-upon father (a quiet Christopher Meloni) who is trying to figure out what kind of woman she’s growing up to be.  The narrative is framed around Kat meeting with her therapist (a kindly Angela Bassett), flashbacks to Kat’s childhood, and the various romances that Kat embarks upon (the boy next door, an older police officer).  Woodley is naked here – physically and emotionally – and I absolutely love watching her as an actress.  She’s able to express vulnerability very well, and she has an unforced and extremely natural air about herself as an actress.  Green steals all of her scenes as the Mom From Hell, and I loved how Arakki upends expectations in more than a few instances, and then throws a killer twist at the viewer during the final moments.  This film was a big surprise, and hopefully it finds a large audience at home.

Fury is a reminder of how hellish life must’ve been like for guys suffering through tank warfare during WWII.  Embracing the gung-ho spirit of old-school Hollywood action flicks, writer/director David Ayer has considerably upped his game as a big league filmmaker with this ruggedly fashioned, butt-kicking trudge through the rain-soaked and bombed-out battlefields and cities of late WWII combat in Germany.  The film carried the hardened spirit of a late-era John Wayne movie, with just as much anti-war sentiment as pro-American image making.  The Americans are good and Nazis are bad – it’s the same template Hollywood has used for eons, and for good reason: Who doesn’t like some dead Nazis?  A gruff, grizzled Brad Pitt and a surly band of supporting actors (Shia LeBeouf as the introspective one; Michael Pena as the wise-ass; Logan Lerman as the rookie; and a skeevy Jon Bernthal as the potentially unstable wild card.) confidently carry this combat ready and extremely graphic depiction of the horrors of war.  Had Fury been based on an actual event, it probably gets a Best Picture nomination from the Academy, because when you look at the film, it has all the requisite ingredients for that audience.  I’m surprised it didn’t do a tad better at the domestic box office (roughly $90 million) and with critics in general (78% at Rottentomatoes), because while not an earth-shattering entry into the genre, it’s dependable, entertaining, and effectively brutal when it comes to showcasing the bloody battles that tank operators went through.  The ending doesn’t go all Hollywood which was also a plus; while one might question the final outcome slightly, it makes enough sense within the scenario that Ayer created.  Fantastic, gritty cinematography and excellent, lived-in production design went a long way in creating a dangerous, volatile atmosphere, but my one complaint might be the slightly overbearing musical score; sometimes less is more but I get what Ayer was going for – maximum, blunt impact.  This is a rock-solid action movie that will be a dependable choice for many viewers for years to come.