By Robin E. Simmons
This year, especially the last six months, has delivered a rush of excellent films. In no particular order, here’s my top twelve. There were at least a dozen more titles that might have been included, but for various reasons those films did not linger as long in my mind as those listed here. And for me, that’s’ the final test for a worthy film.
Filmed over a period of 12 years, director Richard Linklater’s ambitious, technically adroit, and truly epic (nearly three hours long) fictional movie is nothing less than an intimate look at the mysterious forces that impact the transition from childhood to young adult. This remarkable coming-of-age story may seem ordinary on the surface but it is that very ordinariness that makes it profound and beautiful. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are the parents. Arquette is a wonder. We see our own lives anew as we live it through Mason (Ellar Coltrane) while he ages from five to 18. This is not only a hope-filled, life-enhancing movie experience but also a timeless work of art. Maybe the best film of the year.
Michael Keaton is Riggin Thomson, an actor mostly remembered only for BIRDMAN the comic book superhero movie he made years ago. Now, to revive his career and remind critics and fans that he still has what it takes, he is mounting a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story as both star and director. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (GRAVITY) shoots the movie as one long take. The wonderful cast includes Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Stone. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu drives this backstage comedy drama into a soaring experience about the adrenalin rush of riding a creative high and discovering a greater reality and a more authentic identity.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a feral predator, a kind of demon, prowling the night for the most graphic human carnage he can record for the ravenous consumption of LA’s media outlets. He has no qualms shifting from observer to participant in a crime scene. Lou understands there are no boundaries in the exploitation of human depravity. It’s a tour-de-force performance in a lean, gripping thriller that has all kinds of implications and meaning. Rene Russo is perfect as competitive, highly stressed TV news director. Dan Gilroy’s tight screenplay and minimalist direction propel this story like a bullet that stays on target to the chilling end. A disturbing, brilliant masterpiece that mirrors a reality we share.
Maybe the secret of longevity is to stay fueled by a self-ignited creative fire that cannot be doused. Alejando Jodorowsky, the 84 year-old Chilean born Mexican filmmaker (EL TOPO, THE HOLY MOUNTAIN) is in full-throttle mode in Frank Pavrich’s compelling documentary.
I was blown away by this incredible documentary that is as wonderfully entertaining as it is inspiring. It is not only about a failed movie project; it is about what it means to be an unfiltered, fully committed artist. It is about a single-minded, full-blown passion so intense that it consumes fellow artists, musicians and performers. It is also about how so-called failure has amazing and unexpected rewards.
Jodorowsky is mesmerizing as he recalls his creative venture that does not exist except in the minds of those who created it. It is not Herbert’s “Dune,” but a morphed vision that was only triggered by Herbert and then given a new incarnation by an obsessive, Chilean surrealist. It’s a “What if” story written without restraint. Jodo’s stated goal was “to mutate young minds “ and change the world. His movie was about the redemption of a planet. It’s not clear why the studios did not want to work with Jodo; the impression I got is that they were afraid of him and his disregard of the film’s cost and length. Jodo has disdain for money to be factor in the creation of true art. I can’t recommend the movie highly enough.
I can think of no other film in recent memory that has received such divided, impassioned reviews. I am not sure what this visually stunning film means (if anything), but I was blown away by the almost out-of-body, hypnotic experience that transports the viewer to another place — maybe another universe.
Scarlett Johansson is an alien who appears as a voluptuous human woman who forages for isolated, disconnected men in Scotland. She lures them into her nest and rips away their last, tenuous, vestiges of humanity. Or, I think that’s what’s going on. In any case, Johansson is a potent force with which to reckon, perhaps impossible to deny -– if you’re a human male. In some ways, this film I reminded me a bit of Wim Vender’s 1987 film WINGS OF DESIRE in which an angel considers the mortal lure of humanity.
Based on Michael Faber’s equally strange novel, the story may be about what it means to be human but here we are forced to consider this question from a decidedly alien perspective. I liked the enigmatic ending of what happens when one dons a costume of human skin and forsakes one’s original identity. However, I was as enthralled by Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic images — the incredible cinematography’s by Daniel Landin — as I was by Johansson’s striking and rather brave (full nudity) and hugely memorable, performance.
Brendan Gleason is magnificent as a rural Irish priest whose life is threatened during a confession. This incident sets him on an inexorable moral path into a dark place where he confronts real evil with the only thing he has left. John McDonagh directs with a sweet finesse. Chris O’Dowd and Kelly Reilly co-star in this memorable and unexpected drama of life, death, faith and penance.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
The deliciously complicated adventures and relationship of Gustave H, the legendary concierge of the world famous hotel in the fictional republic of Zubrowka between the two World Wars, and his most trusted friend, lobby boy Zero Moustafa may require multiple viewings. I don’t now anyone who has only seen it once!
The artists at Look Effects, especially Gabriel Sanchez, VFX Supervisor, made Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic touch palpable. Two miniatures were created for the hotel’s different eras set in the 1930s and 1960s. Making real the world of a movie is a big draw for me and here the story and look are about as perfect as it gets. With: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
A meticulously crafted film in every department takes us on an intimate journey that is enveloped by the grandest cosmic mysteries. The love story of the famous, physically challenged physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife is sweetly satisfying in ways I did not imagine. Director James Marsh has a sophisticated eye for composition and effortlessly capturing the emotion of a scene without hammering it home. Felicity Jones is perfect as Hawking’s devoted wife, but it’s Eddie Redmayne who inhabits the great mind with the tormented body that makes it a perfect film. I was never taken out of the movie.
April 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), a battle-hardened sergeant, commands a Sherman tank’s five-man crew. They’re out-numbered and out-gunned. Against smothering odds, they bravely make a heroic stand in the very soul of Nazi Germany. David Ayer’s superbly crafted film puts you in the tank and under the skin of the men who gave all for our freedom as they fight against a real evil. With Shia LaBeouf and Logan Lerman.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
In Peter Jackson’s conclusion to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” – remember, it’s a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” and set at least 60 years earlier — Bilbo and friends wage war against a terrifying array of opponents including the dreadful dragon Smaug. Will Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company succeed in preserving not only the great treasure but also Middle-Earth itself? What’s new in this final chapter? A lot. Besides extraordinarily detailed sets and the requisite battling dwarfs, bats, elves and eagles, there’s an eye-popping army or Orcs, massive crowd scenes, the chaos of Lake-town and the grandest, most breathtaking of environments and awful destruction on a scale so far unseen in the series. But above all else, there’s an emotionally satisfying conclusion that ranks this installment as perhaps the best of the trilogy. It’s cutting edge filmmaking. Astonishing on all levels. Not to be confused with the superb LORD OF THE RINGS film trilogy, but I include it here mainly for the sheer audacity of adapting a relatively slender story into a massive, intentionally over-the-top, visual spectacle for all time and all ages.
THE IMITATION GAME
Formulaic in structure, but so utterly compelling, this little-known personal and historical story, must be given it’s due. English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a closeted homosexual (and likely highly functioning with undiagnosed Asperger syndrome), helps crack the Enigma code during World War II. Cumberbatch is terrific as troubled genius Turning, a man who saved untold lives and helped end the war only to be arrested for sexual identity. A real hero. Written by Graham Moore. Sure direction by Morton Tyldum. With Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode
Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) is a human orphan who lives with the Boxtrolls — a community of strange, nervous, quirky creatures who live in a cave under the city of Cheesebridge. When villain Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) devises a plan to exterminate the relatively harmless critters, Eggs ventures above ground, where he befriends gutsy Winnifred (Elle Fanning). Together, Eggs and Winnifred devise a daring plan to save the Boxtrolls from what appears to be certain extermination. This is the most detailed stop-motion film I have ever seen. It is absolutely stunning in its originality of design and character. But what puts it in the top movies for me is the core story about prejudice and fearing what we don’t know about the “other.”