19 January 2015

Best of 2014

Allow the WTT to quote the WTT this time last year:
I am comforted by patterns. 2013 confirmed that in even-numbered years the Giants win the World Series and in odd-numbered years all the best films come out. 
All I'm saying is don't doubt science or my rectitude. Madison Bumgarner gave one of only two onscreen performances I couldn't live without in 2014. (Spoiler alert: If I had not spent a stray Sunday afternoon watching a four-hour Filipino film I might not have even had the will to generate my traditional "Best of" post.)

In 2014, my rapidly eroding patience with our cinema found words in T.I.'s summer jam "No Mediocre."

As is often the case with rappers, you have to see past the T&A, the veneer of misogyny and get to their artistic concerns. T.I. is tired of mediocre shit being praised for greatness and I'm right there with him. As he scans the Billboard Top 40, I scroll down the vista of movie listings, unmoved by the indistinguishable B-average prestige pictures that Rotten Tomatoes encourages one to see (which one is The Imitation Game and which one is The Theory of Everything again?). If what's left for me to love is American Sniper, Boyhood, Interstellar, Gone Girl, et al, I'm at sea, I'm Robert Redford last year--all is lost.

Best Supporting Actresses

The finest seven minutes of actressing in a supporting role were lip-synched by Emma Stone on Jimmy Fallon but I suppose I ought to confine myself to film performances. In Listen Up Philip, Elisabeth Moss's humorous cat ventriloquy is as necessary as oxygen between Jason Schwartzman's wannabe Philip Roth and Jonathan Pryce's Philip Roth. Minnie Driver does some excellent scene-chewing in Beyond the Lights, possibly because her jawline is so pronounced it appears she has mandibles on her like a stag beetle. I'll take a stab at rating the female performances in Inherent Vice which, as far as I can tell, exists only to provide zany supporting roles: 1. Joanna Newsom's voice, 2. Jena Malone's teeth, 3. Katherine Waterston's nipples, 4. Maya Rudolph's wig, 5. Hong Chau's eyeliner (though, in the end, Jeremy Renner wore it better in The Immigrant). But the finest performance is in Ida--Agata Kulesza gives us a character of sublime brilliance and self-hatred, an ideal foil for the young nun at the center of the story. Kulesza makes us feel the utter necessity of pushing the self-destruct button.

Best Supporting Actors

(Best supporting actor is a tough race but worst supporting actor is easy: Christian Slater in Nymphomaniac. Good god, that tree metaphor...)

I admire The Lego Movie because, in a film that is otherwise full of absurd cartoon characters, Will Ferrell gives a stunning bit of vérité as President Business, who would stroll to election in 2016 if only he were a real person. Because I like the occasional nod to actual Oscar candidates, I support J.K. Simmons in Whiplash--I found real menace there, remembering my own arrhythmic terror, not knowing whether I'm rushing or dragging. "Not quite my tempo, no worries." Credit has to be given to Neil Patrick Harris in Gone Girl--you really appreciate his throat being slit (though perhaps that was more about my giddy realization that the film was almost over). To return to the sketch comedy drive-bys of Inherent Vice, props to Josh Brolin, who brought actual heft to the film--I guess I'm voting for his haircut and pancake ordering style. The ultimate kudos go to the genuine chills provided by Stranger by the Lake sex panther Christophe Paou and his fine, fine mustache.

Best Actresses

As with Suzanne Clément in Laurence Anyways last year, Angeli Bayani's performance in Norte, the End of History is so immense I can't even deal. Bayani hit that Falconetti level and may now ascend directly to heaven. Prepare yourself by rewatching The Passion of Joan of Arc, then stream Norte, and then give yourself a couple weeks to recover. Elsewhere, Marion Cotillard's life is somehow even more fucked up in Two Days, One Night than it was in Rust and Bone, even though she didn't have her legs bitten off by an orca. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and her subtly-metaphored theme song "Blackbird," impressed in Beyond the Lights (even if the film is somewhat undone by the fact that her exploitative, faux-Top-40 single "Masterpiece" is a much better song). Charlotte Gainsbourg dragged the second half of Nymphomaniac to some semblance of competence. Congratulations as well to the three young Swedes (Mira Barkhammer, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) who star in We Are the Best! and elevate what would be a by-the-numbers indie with their closeup camaraderie and hair-based bonding.

Best Actors

I'll just get it on the record here: I think Miles Teller is going to be a great one and Whiplash will be one of his early landmark roles. Macon Blair looks alarming as a bearded and blood-soaked hobo and somehow even more frightening as a pudgy and clean-shaven junior insurance salesman on the lam in Blue Ruin. Still, Blair is handsomer than Timothy Spall, who made a grabby, smudgy, don't-give-a-fuck-y Mr. Turner. In Cannibal, Antonio de la Torre is an exquisite table manners and savage display of appetite type of a guy. He makes me want to be a better man or at least wear better suits (overall he seems like a chill dude and I wouldn't fear him eating me at all). But I'll give the prize in this tepid year to Ralph Fiennes, who at least takes on a big role like a dang ole movie star in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  

Best Pictures 

(But first, a confession of blind spots (I mean, blind spots to films that might have made this list, not blind spots like Into the Woods): Actress, Goodbye to Language, Horse Money, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Winter Sleep.)

12. Two Days, One Night - The Dardennes have done it--they've made another film that's exactly as good as all of their other movies. This is praise that is also a criticism. Though perhaps if the directors had selected for Cotillard a white tank top rather than a salmon one this would be a couple of spots higher on the list. I still hold out hope that their next Cannes darling will feature hot Franco-Belgians fucking without consequence and eating decadent snacks.

11. Lucy - ScarJo's Lucy is a piece of meat, a human being based on a lecture by Morgan Freeman, conflated via intercuts with an antelope, spattered with blood on her cheetah-patterned coat, intergalactic fireworks before her eyes, following Romy Schneider into L'Enfer or Gaspar Noe Into the Void, restructured genomes like the finest graffiti, her limbs disintegrating into frosted doughnut sprinkles, strings of Matrix code tethering us to our cell phones, the cosmos of Luc Besson, the skin tag spots across Freeman's face. I got my eleven dollar's worth just for Lucy's excellent, direct summation of her motivation: "Someone put a bag of drugs inside me and I need you to get it out."

10. Citizenfour - On 26 December, 2014, I was politically radicalized because of this film. I'm done voting for presidents from the major political parties in the United States. Conscious Americans are all on a path like Edward Snowden's, where the day comes and we have to tell our loved ones, "I can't really speak out loud here." The documentary is depressing on two levels: we are fine with living in a surveillance state and we can't even be bothered to watch this crucial documentary about living in our surveillance state. As always, holler at your boy if you've got a lead on Norwegian citizenship. 

(This feels a little too serious for the WTT so I'll add this: the way Snowden's hair stuck up in the back drove me nuts. I know director Laura Poitras felt the same way because she included a scene of Snowden fussing with his 'do before going on the lam, perhaps for the rest of his days.)

9. Whiplash - Much as this list gives me a chance to allow only one Hollywood film in the top dozen, Whiplash afforded learned critics the ability to reveal themselves as jazz as well as film snobs (talking about you, Richard Brody, hilariously eager to expound upon all the things he's heard and you never will). For those of us who don't know any better, the film delivers pithy artist-at-work kicks and a climax as audacious as the last 15 minutes of The Red Shoes.

8. The Naked Room - This is a documentary film of relentless closeups, shots you'd expect to see in hostage videos, circumstances not unrelated to the children brought before the camera in this anonymous hospital in Mexico. Near the end of the film, one severely depressed teen, Hayde, is asked to promise that she will not hurt herself when she leaves the office but cannot state the affirmative. When she breaks down, she raises her arm to brush the tears from her cheeks and we see for the first time her left wrist wrapped in heavy gauze. It is a heartbreaking moment of grace. She wept, I wept.

7. Mr. Turner - There have been many great metaphors for what Timothy Spall looks and sounds like in his title role. I'm going to go with a lowland tapir in rutting season at the Brookfield Zoo (indelible childhood memory). A big thank you to Mike Leigh who, across decades of good work, continues to remind the viewing public that people over 40 still have sexual intercourse. The brilliance of this film, as with Topsy-Turvy, is not just in the climax (though shouting "The Sun Is God!" on your deathbed is a solid way to go out) but in the diminuendo that sketches the aftereffects of Turner's death, the shittiness for all of us lesser lights when the master's show is over.

6. Rich Hill - Tracy Droz Tragos' documentary is full of Malick, great following shots of cartwheeling kids and nighttime photography of fireworks hanging in the air above Rich Hill, MO. And much of the dialogue is as pungent as Kit's Badlands line, "I'll give you a dollar if you eat this collie." The three boys at the center of the story have surprising areas of knowledge. Harley explains that "you can get mango on food stamps." Appachey (that astonishingly American name!) expresses a stunning career plan: "I was thinking of moving to China...and becoming an art teacher." And Andrew says, wiser about his life in deep poverty, "I have no say in what happens; they're the parents, I'm just a kid." After watching this documentary you'll want to keep up with these boys as much as I do.

5. Ida - Pawel Pawlikowski made the most composed film of the year--without upsetting Wes Anderson I would buy a book of postcards of the shots from this movie first, from the mist on the rural fields to the grill work on dingy hotel windows (note the name of the cinematographer Lukasz Zal). The performances are also excellent: the aforementioned Agata Kulesza's Wanda as the long lost aunt to Anna/Ida, dark of eye, dimpled of chin, the Jewish nun, and the jazz musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) who charms them both, sort of a Polish Pattinson playing "Naima" by John Coltrane. It's the music you'll hear for the rest of your life, saving souls in a nunnery or drinking yourself to death in a Lodz apartment. 

4. Stranger by the Lake - Apparently the only sexy movies this decade are from France, far away from the Hollywood's flaccid, anti-dream factory. The death spiral attraction between Christophe Paou and Pierre Deladonchamps emphasizes the lengths to which I need to step up my mustache AND chest hair game. The film revels in the claustrophobia of only ever being at the lake and never indoors. The delirium of lust and cum in the afternoon is slowly replaced by fear in an endless dusk, enough to make the rabbit wish to be caught. Strangers builds to a climax that made my hair stand on end. A voice calls out, "I won't hurt you."

(Gillian Flynn and David Fincher are assuredly already plotting a ruinous Hollywood remake.) 

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel - The seventh best Wes Anderson film is still the third best film of 2014--it was that kind of year. Bu that doesn't mean Grand Budapest isn't excellent. As Ralph Fiennes' M. Gustave knows, the rudeness of Wes Anderson haters is merely an expression of their fear. I can only offer a rueful smile at someone who would take something as sumptuous, as beautiful, as well-crafted as a cake from Mendl's and say, "I don't like it, it's too sweet." 

2. Under the Skin - Scarlett's Johansson's Renaissance year allowed me to revisit a WTT post from 2008 (before the tabloids had even settled on ScarJo as a nickname!). It's a time capsule of my early approach: more pictures, more discussion of boobs. What's happened since? A tragic amount of films with colons in their titles. Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the impending drivel called, and I don't exaggerate: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. This lucrative dross is interspersed with failed comedy vehicles He's Just Not That Into You, We Bought a Zoo, Chef and Hitchcock (that was supposed to be funny, right?). She's had, for ten years, a distinct inability to pick auteurs (Jon Favreau does not qualify). 

In popular conception, actors read scripts (or actors' assistants read scripts) to select their next films but what I'll always wonder is why they don't just choose by director. Juliette Binoche works globally, with the finest directors, and has had the best career of anyone in the past 25 years. How difficult is it? When Johansson finally arrived at Besson and then Jonathan Glazer this year there was a respite from the suck.

Like Stranger by the Lake, Under the Skin will discourage you from spending time on rocky beaches.
The best parts of the film are documentary, with non-actors being talked into a van by a very attractive someone they don't know is Scarlett Johansson. The ridiculous, porn setup dialogue shows us the bottom line--a Celtic fan will get into a car with ScarJo for any reason. The sexy voice, the trashy clothes and dull men willing to go to their death after that ass. A gorgeous sadism pervades the piece, as if Frederick Seidel decided to direct a picture. When her 20-film deal with Marvel expires, I hope ScarJo will take a ride with more auteurs.

1. Norte, the End of History - For director Lav Diaz, a four hour film is shortform. But this is slow cinema so good that I didn't need to check my cell phone, I didn't need to urinate. Norte is not just the longest film on the list but the most profound and, moment to moment, the most beautiful. Diaz begins with an adaptation of Crime and Punishment but far exceeds Doestoevsky in artistry. 

To quote Fabian (Sid Lucero), the film's protagonist, whose murder of a moneylender is the least of his problems, "How can I be at peace with the world's shallowness?" Joaquin (Archie Alemania) goes to jail for Fabian's crime and leaves his wife (the Falconetti-channeling Angeli Bayani) to survive without him.

To select a single sequence to set the mood: a long shot of a window propped open pre-dawn, insects whispering, a cock crowing, the putter of a motorbike that stops and allows a woman out, bags of vegetables piling on a cart, a dog observing, a younger sister appearing, a cooperative effort. A cut: the sky is lighter, bluer but it's still early, we look over the river as the women arrange the vegetables on the cart, trying to work the kinks out of their sore shoulders, a goat wanders by, a young daughter appears to help, they discuss the dawn of another day, their endless work.

As I wrote in my notebook many times, wow, wow, WOW. The digital camera is so crisp and bold you can't believe there aren't special effects involved. But it's just the blockbuster of Diaz's imagination. In the last hour you might ask yourself, as Ian Darke has deep into World Cup stoppage time, "how much more of this can their possibly be?" but the payoffs keep coming. This gorgeous suffering, this epic accomplishment.

Lav Diaz: no mediocre.

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