Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Watched in 2014: Movies

The Ten Best New Movies I Managed To Watch This Year:

1. We Are The Best! - Three middle school girls in 1981 Sweden decide to form a punk band.  Two of them can't play at all, but they have a lot of fun.  We Are The Best! is a perfect example of a small indie film brimming over with enthusiasm, and focusing in on character and relationships.  And the band's anti-P.E. anthem, "Hate The Sport," deserves to be this year's "Let It Go." Also, lots of Ebba Gron.

2. Grand Budapest Hotel - You often hear about such-and-such a movie being "like a live-action cartoon."  I don't think that phrase has ever been more apt than it is to this film.  Look at all those perfectly-framed shots, all that vibrant color, and marvel!  It's also fascinating as a pitch-perfect parody of a genre of fiction that I've never encountered, but which must exist, or how else would Wes Anderson have nailed it so well?

3. Jodorowsky's Dune - I've heard people talk about Alejandro Jodorowski's failed attempt to make a movie out of Dune before, but it always sounded like a joke to me.  I guess I thought it was just an idea in Jodorowsy's crazy brain, and I was sure if it actually had been made, people would be talking about how they wish David Lynch had had a chance to make it.  This documentary changed the whole way I look at the project.  I had no idea how far the thing had gotten, and the collaborators that Jodorowsky had signed on.  There was a thousand-or-so-page storyboard/comic drawn by Moebius, additional design work by H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, Dan O'Bannon was signed on to design the special effects, Pink Floyd and Magma were going to compose original music for the film, and Orson Welles, David Carradine and Salvadore Dali were attached to key roles.  It seems as though the only reason it didn't get made is that Jodorowsky insisted, quite insanely, that it be 14 hours long.  AND the documentary goes on to argue that the project was strip-mined for inspiration for dozens of influential sci fi films of the late 70's and 80's, a sort of ghost-father to the modern blockbuster.

4. Inherent Vice - IV is an odd film.  It's not like any other film P.T. Anderson has made, but it totally feels like a P.T. Anderson film.  It's a hilarious stoner comedy--I can't think of a film with more pot smoking in it--but probably not destined to become the kind of Saturday night pizza party staple that, say, Dazed and Confused or The Big Lebowski or Up in Smoke are.  It's just a bit too odd, and most of the jokes are sort of thrown away.  It feels like it was written by someone really, really stoned (which, I guess, would be Thomas Pynchon).

5. Night Moves - Not even sure what I like about this movie, which tells the story of some eco-terrorists attempting to blow up a dam, but looks at everything from an odd angle, focusing on small moments while the "big action" is taking place in the background.

6. Obvious Child - Jenny Slate is great in this indie drama/comedy.  Gaby Hoffman is pretty great too.  Even if it weren't that great, I'd probably want to put it on my list just as a fuck you: this is a movie where the main character wants an abortion, and goes through with it.  And not even in some worst-case scenario that absolves her of responsibility!  Since we're on the subject of SNL actors doing a great job with semi-dramatic roles, let me also use this space to give a shout out to The Skeleton Twins, with Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig delivering some kick ass performances.

7. The Rover - It's the slow-burn neo-noir version of Mad Max that you didn't know you needed!

8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - It was a pretty good summer for blockbusters: two good Marvel films, a Godzilla film that left me very satisfied (even if it failed to make me care about the human characters), and another excellent entry in the rebooted Planet of the Apes series, which is really surpassing the original in my mind.  The secret is that these films understand what made the original so appealing, and they work at bringing those qualities into the modern film universe.  It's emotionally upsetting, politically honest, and still a thrilling action film.

9. Locke - I dunno, I'm just a sucker for these high-concept films.  You tell me "it's just a guy in his car on his cell phone for 90 minutes," and I'm hooked!

10. Journey Into the West - Unlike Stephen Chow's recent films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Journey Into the West is a big ol' mess.  It makes little sense in terms of character motivation or plot mechanics.  But if you like wild monster design and crazy kung fu moves (and of course you do!), there's more than enough to satisfy you here.

The Best Old Movies I Watched This Year:

Sante Sangre (1989) - This film has been on my radar for years.  A friend told me about it, and was very enthusiastic that I had to see it, but also made it sound like a real slog to get through, a dark, nonsensical and very long, slow film.  Maybe I was just reading that into what he said (I keep meaning to talk to him about it), but now that I've seen it, this impression was completely wrong!  Sante Sangre is easily Jodorowsky's masterpiece, a completely flipped-out tribute to Fellini (with some Hitchcock and Browning thrown in), as lively and colorful as anything from the 80's, AND just as weird as I expected.

Sweet Charity (1969) - Did you know that the first film Bob Fosse directed was a musical version of Fellini's Nights of Cabria starring Shirley McClain?  And, as you might expect, it's a completely bonkers musical that makes beautiful use of the wide screen.

Privilege (1967) - I'm obsessed with the rock musicals of the late 60's and early 70's.  This is one of the most interesting, portraying the music industry as a sort of fascist brainwash machine.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - This movie came out when I was in elementary school, and I remember a couple kids who got to see it.  They all seemed particularly fascinated with the shot near the end of a dog with a human face (the story may have gotten a little confused--I remember being told it was Leonard Nimoy's face).  Finally watched it this Halloween, and man, what an interesting movie.  Lots of visual references to the original (one of my favorite films), but all in that New Hollywood style, like Philip Kaufman was taking everything done over the course of the decade and applying it to a sci fi-horror film. 

Something Wild (1961) - This is a weird one.  Starts with a young woman sexually assaulted, and for the first half it's a surprising (for its time) portrayal of PTSD, as she walks around in a daze, disconnected from the world and always on alert.  Halfway through, things get weird, as another man holds her prisoner in his home.  I can't really figure out what I'm supposed to take away from this, but it's so offbeat that I have to go with it.

The Gang's All Here (1943) - Busby Berkeley in eye-bleeding technicolor, with some really psychedelic Carmen Miranda numbers.  Makes even less sense than Berkeley's 30's movies, but who cares?

Zardoz (1974) - I'd heard a lot of different opinions on Zardoz: it's a bizarro masterpiece, a complete disaster, a "so bad it's good!" classic.  Having finally seen it, Zardoz is a movie that exists beyond "good" and "bad."  It's outrageous, trippy, satirical and awful in equal measure.  I will say this: it would be improved a LOT by casting someone other than Sean Connery to play the barbarian protagonist.  I don't know if he's a bad actor, or just so completely miscast that it can't be overcome, but I can't look at him and see anyone other than Sean Connery.

The Avenging Eagle (1978) - Saw this Shaw Bros. flick on the big screen at the New Beverly, and I loved the way the fights build.  Early on, they seem pretty standard, but each fight is just a little bit crazier than the last, until the final showdown, which is just an off-the-charts acrobatic extravaganza!


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