Force Majeure – 4

An oxymoronic Swedish comedy and two hours of passive aggression, Force Majeure was a highly touted major disappointment. I can’t think of a single scene that rang true (especially compared to Wet Bum, seen earlier the same day), most fatally the husband’s fleeing his children at the onslaught of an avalanche. So much of the movie seemed to depict the unraveling of a marriage, but other than their mutual use of electric toothbrushes it was never clear what the couple’s relationship was built on. She was beautiful, and he appeared pretty much a loser from the start. When he was locked out of his hotel room, why didn’t he ask the front desk for another key? When they faced blizzard conditions at the top of the run, how could he possibly have made everyone ski on, after getting reamed out for endangering everyone during the avalanche? How could the wife pretend to get lost on the hill, forcing her husband to rescue her and leave their children in danger or protect the children and abandon her? And most irritating, why would everyone get off the bus, miles from nowhere, because the wife panicked? The filmmaker resolved nothing, just left us glad to be rid of these people, who had ruined a quite lovely ski resort with their labored and unconvincing psychological drama.

Wet Bum – 7.5

A very sweet look at the difficult life of a 14-year-old girl, struggling with all the issues an uncool teenager faces: mean friends, menial job, older brother, first crush, mother who doesn’t understand you, etc., etc. The actress is remarkable, as most of the film is told through lingering closeups of her face, and I didn’t detect a false note in the entire film. Some cliches, maybe – like the scary old man at the nursing home with a heart of gold – and the recurring feather symbolism was a bit overt, but as a first feature by a young Canadian woman, drawn from her own experience, this was charming.

Top Ten 2014

Four of my ten highest-rated movies in 2014 were actually 2013 releases. This has caused me to add a PS to my last year’s Top Ten (see below) and acknowledge what a bad year 2014 was for movies. There is a chance that there will be 2014 releases still to come my way that will improve the list – A Most Violent Year and Two Days, One Night come to mind – but I suspect that this year will go down as one of the weaker in history. The fact that 7 of my 10 are Oscar nominees reflects a lack of depth: I don’t think I’ve ever been so short of idiosyncratic choices. So, with apologies for being so unoriginal, here is my list:

1. Boyhood – Far and away the best movie “experience” of the year as well as the most innovative moviemaking. It was more real than reality TV, with situations that everyone could identify with. The plot was life itself, only with better actors.
2. Selma – An important story, skillfully told. Perhaps the best thing is that the movie didn’t try to do too much. It left me curious, and hungry for more.
3. A Most Wanted Man – Just as Selma was filmed in brown, this was filmed in gray, a bleak, smoke-filled tone that encapsulated the spirit of this Cold War spy thriller, a worthy ending to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s great career.
4. The Imitation Game – Two stories on parallel tracks probably shortchanged each other, but both had impact and both came with delightful period attire and a great cast.
5. American Sniper – I read this as a strong, if subtle, anti-Iraq War statement, but more to the point a probing character study of what it takes to be a soldier, or what being a soldier takes from you.
6. Ida – Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography matched the purity of nun Ida’s faith and reminded me of Eastern European New Wave cinema of the ’60s.
7. Grand Budapest Hotel – The cleverest film of the year, from our most idiosyncratic director, held together by Ralph Fiennes and the spirit of a Charlie Chaplin silent movie.
8. The Theory of Everything – Two of the year’s best performances made this a story about a relationship, more than “a crippling disease and super-difficult math,” although that did add a dimension of importance.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy – Maybe nothing original here, but every scene was rollicking fun and nobody took themselves too seriously (cf. Interstellar).
10. The Drop – The year’s best straight action film, with a good story, gritty setting, unusual lead character adroitly played by Tom Hardy and the usual fine work from, RIP, James Gandolfini.
Acting Awards: Without seeing Julianne Moore or Marion Cotillard, my nod goes to Patricia Arquette, who gave life to Boyhood. She is Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress instead (for which she’s a shoo-in). I have seen all the Actor nominees, and while Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper are totally deserving, I vote for Eddie Redmayne, who acted with his eyes when his body couldn’t move anymore. In addition, I liked the score of The Imitation Game, and I thought The Homesman was the most beautiful movie I saw, although it’s not nominated for anything.

Top Ten 2013 – Part II
1. Big Bad Wolves – Quentin Tarantino couldn’t’ve done it any better.
2. Omar – The agony of Palestine, personified.
3. Nebraska – Bruce Dern and June Squibb are wonderful, but it’s Will Forte’s son that caught my attention.
4. August Osage County – As good as the stage play, which is unusual, thanks to Streep and Roberts.
5. The Wind Rises – An animated look at the engineer who designed Japan’s WWII airplanes, sheer artistry.
6. The Past – Ambiguity, in people and relationships, kept us guessing, and thinking.

American Sniper – 8

I worried that my visceral opposition to the Iraq War would color my appreciation of a war film from Clint Eastwood, Republican spokesman and director of Gran Torino. I needn’t have. Yes, the movie glorified Chris Kyle, “the Legend,” credited with killing 160 of the enemy, and we certainly rooted for him to accomplish his mission, survive four tours of duty and make up with his beautiful wife (Sienna Miller). And certain of the enemy were made to look pretty evil – using a drill on a young boy, collecting body parts in a meat locker. But the question of why U.S. troops were there in the first place was left wide open: Kyle’s reasons – revenge for 9/11 and preventing the war’s coming to San Diego – were obviously spurious. The disillusionment of others, including Kyles’ brother, allowed the viewer to think about this. Then there was the nature of the American operation: rather than defending against attack, our troops were going door-to-door, knocking down barriers, terrorizing whomever they found, often women and children who had done no wrong. It hardly seemed unreasonable that some Iraqis, and even a Syrian, would be trying to defend their homes and their country against alien invaders.
In this confused situation, Kyle was a beacon of certainty, but only because, as remarkably portrayed by Bradley Cooper, he wasn’t too smart. And that, more than his skill as a marksman, is what made the movie so engrossing. How did he handle the pressure; how did it affect his relationship with his wife; how did he recover his equilibrium when his war was over? It was this intense study of a personality that fascinated and carried the story. One last thought: I wonder if the characterization would have been the same, or, indeed, if the movie would have been made, had Kyle not been murdered after he wrote his book?

Selma – 8.1

A very good story told well, not biting off too much or chewing anything too hard. Seemingly filmed in brown-and-white, the film captured a moment in our nation’s history that is worth preserving and thinking about, raising questions of what is different 50 years later and what isn’t. The acting was excellent – including Oprah – and if things seemed slow or occasionally hard to see, the gravity of events always kept our attention.

Interstellar – 5.5

If a little Matthew McConaughey – as, say, in Mud – goes a long way, more than two hours of him saving the human species is a very long trip. Anne Hathaway is more to my liking, but like Sandra Bullock in Gravity she was quite buttoned up. “Interstellar” seemed to refer to all the stars that were assembled for even bit parts: beyond the three names above the title, we were treated to Michael Caine, Matt Damon (miscast), Casey Affleck, Ellen Burstyn, , David Oyelowo, John Lithgow – even my old favorite, William Devane (although I have no recollection of his role). Almost none created a character beyond their persona, which was partly due to the comic-book nature of the script. The conclusion, instead of bringing things together, was one big contradiction, which kept me from thinking too seriously about the movie, if I had been inclined to in the first place.

Wild – 7.5

Reese witherspoon was extremely nice company to spend two hours with, and I don’t begrudge any awards she might garner. Not having read Cheryl Strayed’s book, however, I never quite got why or how she carried out such a daunting wilderness trek, why she didn’t get lost or sick or see more fellow hikers. The views of nature disappointed – compared to The Horseman – but the feel-good vibe, typified by the Jerry Garcia memorial concert, made the journey pass pleasantly – for this viewer, at least.

The Imitation Game – 8

This was a schizophrenic film: was it about Alan Turing’s cracking the Nazis’ Enigma code, or was it about Britain’s cruel criminalization of homosexuality? The film’s scenes jockeyed back and forth, up to and including the closing credits. Fortunately, both stories were quite good, although my two biggest reservations sprung from the latter: Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent acting went over the top in his final scene with Keira Knightley, and the boy Turing was too adorable to justify being picked on so brutally. My other complaint relates to the film’s trailer, which we saw a good half-dozen times: every one of the best lines, and I do mean every one, had been given away before we could experience them in context. What I especially liked in the actual film were the cooly, crisp characters played by Mark Strong, Charles Dance and Matthew Goode. The complete competence and intelligence displayed by MI6’s Menzies (Strong) was refreshing in a government official. The period sets and costumes drew me in right away and I remained engrossed until the end. The character played by Keira Knightley (not to mention others) may have wildly diverged from historical accuracy, but there is little I wouldn’t forgive for the chance to watch Keira Knightley.

Top 5 – 5.5

This romcom was more romance than comedy, and once you got past the disappointment of its not being very funny you could see its sweetness, in a hip-hop way. Rosario Dawson was the center around which it swirled; if we didn’t know Chris Rock was a star in his own right he would have seem miscast. Then again, so is Woody Allen, and you could think of this as a black Annie Hall.