Best of 2014
Six categories covered most of my favorite films in 2013, with one stand-alone exception. Thus I decided to mix narrative and documentary movies and list them in groups. The result is a Top 20 list, but it was a very good year.
The Wolf of Wall Street – Director Martin Scorcese has created a testosterone-fueled orgy of sex, drugs and money. The violence of his best gangster films gives way here to madcap comedy, but it is no less obscene. DiCaprio is insanely brilliant. If you think it glorifies these money-men, write Washington, not the filmmaker. We are all culpable. America went off the rails with greed and hubris. There’s a powerful and subtle message in the very last shot of the film. Fuse Review
Love and Sex
1) Her – It is creepy and romantic and poses all kinds of questions about the nature of relationships in a solipsistic age. The acting and photography are superb. Actor Joaquin Pheonix never fails to maintain the perfect histrionic pitch in nearly two hours of close ups as he talks to his operating system. Fuse Review
2) Blue is the Warmest Color – The heavily erotic scenes got much of the attention, receiving both positive and negative criticism. Shot largely in close up, actresses Léa Seydoux and young Adèle Exarchopoulos (in particular) nimbly create the emotional topography of first love. The eroticism is needed to anchor the director’s portrait of passion. I was riveted. Fuse Review
3) Spring Breakers – Harmony Korine marches to his own drummer and this gonzo beach party gangsta movie came off as a brilliant stunt, a Situationist act of commercial debauchery. Exiting the theater, I heard a mother apologizing to her daughter: “I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t realize what we were seeing.” Fuse Review
Non-Fiction / Fiction Blends
1) Stories we Tell (documentary) – It’s best to know nothing about how this film was put together when you see it for the first time. Its elegant construction patiently peels away layers of family history and psychological rationalization as it plays with notions of truth and story telling.
2) Caesar Must Die – I expected something like the 2005 documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, but here the Taviani Brothers use real-life inmates from the maximum-security wing at Rome’s Rebibbia prison to create a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that is carefully constructed to look like a documentary. Their neo neo-Italian realist approach to filming the process of staging of a play about murder and power with real gangsters playing actors playing conspiratorial roles is dizzying and magnificent.
3) The Act of Killing (documentary) ¬ Indonesian murderers and thugs who had been at the service of the dictatorship in the mid-60′s (America looked the other way) describe their atrocities, demonstrate their methods, and reenact their crimes by way of surreal, Hollywood-like scenarios. It is equally comical and disturbing, leaving the viewer to confront his or her own sense of guilt and helplessness at the madness in the world.
1) Inside Llweyn Davis – While it may leave out much of the politics of the era, the film conjures up the look and music of the pre-Dylan ’60s folk era. The excellent casting and spot-on performances explore the frustrations and hard scrabble life of a struggling musician. Fuse Review
2) Francis Ha – While this story may not take place in the ’60s, the film has the black and white spirit of the French New Wave tattooed all over it. Greta Gerwig finally found a wonderfully rambling and antic script for her energetic talent. Fuse Review
3) Muscle Shoals and 20 Feet From Stardom (documentary) – The former is a history of the Alabama studios that produced unique American music, from Etta James and Aretha Franklin to Lynyrd Skynyrd and many others. The latter is a celebration of great voices that preceded our age where show biz glitz, slick production, and contest winners garner our attention. These ‘back-up’ voices enabled great American music to find its soul.
4) Ginger and Rosa – Writer, musician, and feminist Sally Potter uses the anxious period of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis to background a bittersweet character study and coming-of-age story that involves two working-class British girls. The preternaturally talented Elle Fanning leads a perfect cast that includes Timothy Spall and Christina Hendrix (Mad Men) in a film that leaves you hoping and dreaming.
5) Not Fade Away – This David Chase (The Sopranos) sleeper proffers a rambling ambience that captures the hopes and conflicts of ’60s youth. Having myself been there and done that, I was amazed by the film’s attention to detail, no doubt assisted by knowledge of Steven Van Zandt. The film nails the milieu, and while there are a few clichéd plot twists, the result is honest and charming. Fuse Review
1) Fruitvale Station – This is an amazing debut film – directed by Ryan Coogler – that celebrates an imperfect perfect life in a way that dignifies its subject. The view of the obscenity of Oscar Grant’s murder by the police reminds us of the tragic injustice of a life wasted, including all its lost potential.
2) Let the Fire Burn (documentary) – Jason Osder uses only archival footage to chronicle the tragic overreaction of police as they removed the radical African-American Move Organization from its Philadelphia row house in 1981. The result was the destruction of 61 homes. It is narrated in part with excerpts from an interview with a survivor, Michael Moses Ward, who at the time of the upheaval was a child known as Birdie Africa. Neither side is blameless, but it is essential to keep the memory and history of the debacle are alive. Sadly, Ward died mysteriously in a cruise ship hot tub before the film was released. Fuse Review
3) The Butler – Lee Daniels tells unconventional stories with a go-for-it attitude. This film appeared to be conventional, but look at it carefully. It dares to take a kind of cartoonish approach in order to educate a wide audience about civil rights for years to come. Any film that casts Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan is not short on irony. Fuse Review
1) Paradise: Love – Middle-aged Austrian women exchange their money and their souls for sex with beautiful young black men. It’s a mutual hustle with all the charm of a horse trade. The movie morphs from presenting a facile illusion of romance to exploring the exploitation of one race and culture by another. This a brave and surprising film.
2) 12 Years a Slave – British director Steve McQueen’s unblinking look at American slavery is true to its source, the 19th century memoir by Solomon Northup. It is a harsh exploitation of the horrors of the subject, but one that needed to be done by a black director with a steady gaze.Fuse Review
3) Blackfish (documentary) – An expose of the exploitation and damage done to killer whales and their family herds. Tilikum, a performing killer whale, murdered several people: he had been driven psychotic while kept in captivity. The film makes the case that these are creatures of high emotional intelligence and using them to serve as public amusement is obscene and wrong.
1) Beyond the Hills – Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s fascinating examination of the limits and abuses of religious faith as well as superstition and law. Like his masterful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the movie exudes a patience and beauty that overwhelms. Fuse Review
2) Post Tenebras Lux – Arrestingly beautiful images, careful sound design, and long patient shots in an ambitious narrative whose meaning comes upon the viewer as if he or she were waking from a dream. It should be viewed more than once — and best on a big screen. Fuse Review