Rob Harmon’s Picks 2/17/15

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’s PICKS 2/17/15

Top 10 Movies of 2014

The red carpet is being rolled out, the statuettes polished up, and the envelopes sealed, but what speaks “closing the book on movies of last year” like a good ol’ fashioned Top 10 list? Let’s take a look (all are available on DVD/Blu-ray unless otherwise noted):

10. WHIPLASH (dir. Damien Chazelle, available on DVD/Blu-ray Tues., Feb. 24th)

Films about the act of artistic creation seemed to be a major theme of last year (see BIG EYES, THE WIND RISES, and MR. TURNER below) and it was hard to ignore the sheer visceral power of this story of up-and-coming jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) incessantly butting heads with Machiavellian teacher-from-hell Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Aside from the great lead performances, WHIPLASH was one of the best written and most tightly-edited pictures of the year.

9. NIGHTCRAWLER (dir. Dan Gilroy)

Exploring dark material is nothing new for actor Jake Gyllenhaal but he seems to especially be on a roll of late, with last year’s kidnapping drama PRISONERS and this film — a remarkable slice of L.A.-set neo-noir. NIGHTCRAWLER — one of the most breathtakingly shot films of last year — seems perennially set in that moment just after the sun has set in the desert, when the warmth of the sun can still be felt on the skin but darkness has quickly moved in. Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a chillingly amoral blank slate, who drifts from one place to the next, attempting to nose out job or economic opportunity from his bleak surroundings whilst spouting strange business-ese and corporate-isms until he chances upon his destined avocation: enterprising and unscrupulous cameraman for the “if it bleeds, it leads” local news cycle. Needless to say, Bloom takes to it like a fish to water: NIGHTCRAWLER is a fascinating hero’s progress for our time.

8. BOYHOOD (dir. Richard Linklater)

Much has been said and written in recent months about Richard Linklater’s ambitious drama about one boy’s (Ellar Coltrane) growing up. Though large and unwieldy — due to the film’s unprecedented structure (cast and crew assembling to film for only a few weeks each year, over a 12-year period!) — BOYHOOD is really a marvel and gets better as it goes, with the final half being easily the strongest of the movie. This should come as no surprise: Linklater’s stock-in-trade are characters who move freely (usually either walking or driving) and talk, so it makes sense that BOYHOOD would not really take off until its protagonist has finally “grown up” and wrested control of the film from the half-baked subplots which held the film hostage early on.

7. SNOWPIERCER (Bong Joon-ho)

Based on a French comic book about a dystopian future world which has been encased in ice and snow after a climate-engineering accident, SNOWPIERCER is set on a state-of-the-art juggernaut of a train which endlessly circles the earth and contains the final remnants of the human race, living in a strictly class-divided society and battling for survival. In spite of its bleak and strange scenario, SNOWPIERCER – the English language-debut from Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST, MOTHER) – proved to be one of the most thrillingly visual films of last year, a marvel of effects and production design. As an added bonus, Tilda Swinton chews the scenery, in what was easily the scene-stealing role of the year.

6. BIG EYES (dir. Tim Burton, available on DVD/Blu-ray – April?)

Destined to be overlooked this film award season is Tim Burton’s latest, about artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings and mass-produced prints of sad-eyed waifs in the late 1950’s and 60’s became the essence of American kitsch and whose work was for years claimed to be that of her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz). While the film is — in typical Burton fashion — a brightly-colored, comic book-ish, and, yes, even googly-eyed evocation of time and place, it is hard not to see that Burton sees in Keane a compatriot. BIG EYES is a clever, understated, and warm tribute to the artistic impulse and the need to create, even when the value of one’s labors is a little in doubt.

5. THE WIND RISES (dir. Hayao Mizazaki)

Is this Miyazaki’s swan song? I hope not, but if it is, he picked an excellent, and fitting, note to end on. THE WIND RISES tells the story of Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of Mitsubishi aircraft used during World War II, which at first seems like strange subject matter for a committed pacifist like Miyazaki. What emerges, though, is a portrait of an obsessive artist and one man’s struggle for meaning through the years – themes which Miyazaki would naturally take to heart. THE WIND RISES is an all-around lyrical and beautiful film about the value of persistence.

4. MR. TURNER (dir. Mike Leigh, available on DVD/Blu-ray – April?)

Mike Leigh — best known for kitchen sink realism of the likes of LIFE IS SWEET, SECRETS AND LIES, and NAKED — has made occasional forays into period drama (TOPSY TURVY, VERA DRAKE), which he here returns to with his portrait of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), famed 19th century British painter of seascapes. Many of Leigh’s troupe of favorite actors are on display, as is the gorgeous cinematography of frequent Leigh collaborator Dick Pope. A slow and ponderously-paced film, that – in typical Leigh fashion – builds to an emotionally powerful, though quiet, climax.

3. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (dir. Wes Anderson)

Part rollicking buddy movie, part paean to lost love and the vanished past, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was the most fun one could have at the movie theater last year: a sickeningly-sweet confection, a treat that can’t be beat!

2. GONE GIRL (dir. David Fincher)

Perhaps the most talked-about film of last year was also one of its best, and certainly the twistiest and most serpentine of thrillers, proving that David Fincher is still in top form. Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn GONE GIRL details the fallout over the apparent murder of wealthy housewife Amy (Rosamund Pike) by her bored, philandering alpha male husband Nick (Ben Affleck) in a middle-class Missouri neighborhood. A stylish and moody evocation of the desert of modern emotional life GONE GIRL really gets under the skin (not to be confused with Under the Skin, see below). Pike’s Amy emerges as one of the most complex female characters in recent memory, while Nick and Amy themselves may just be the cinematic couple for our time.

1. UNDER THE SKIN (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Mind-blowing, strange, and eerie to the max, UNDER THE SKIN was also the most substantial film of last year. Jonathan Glazer’s whats-it about an emotionally-detached alien vamp (Scarlett Johansson), nocturnally roaming the streets of Scotland and searching for male victims, is far more than it initially seems: a sustained and austere meditation on the search for identity in a modern, scorched landscape.

New Releases 2/10/15

Top Hits
Rosewater (Jon Stewart-directed political drama, Gael Garcia Bernal. Rotten Tomatoes: 74%. Metacritic: 66. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Among its virtues, ‘Rosewater,’ the directorial debut of Jon Stewart, is an argument for filmmakers to start their trade after they’ve looked beyond the limits of their own horizons. This fictional movie tells the story of the real Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-born journalist living in London who was arrested in Iran while covering the 2009 elections for Newsweek. Accused of being an agent for foreign intelligence organizations, he was thrown into the Evin Prison, where he was interrogated and beaten, partly for the surreal reason that he had appeared on ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.’ Mr. Stewart’s interest in the material is obviously personal, but his movie transcends mere self-interest.” Read more…)

Predestination (science fiction, Ethan Hawkes. Rotten Tomatoes: 81%. Metacritic: 68. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Jumping across time and space is tough, thankless business in ‘Predestination,’ a slab of science-fiction speculation draped in old-fashioned detective story crepe. The story centers on a temporal agent, a futuristic enforcer [he tries to right wrongs before they happen] nicely played by Ethan Hawke with a hungry, hangdog look that suggests that his character has spent long nights howling in the wasteland, often without either a scrap or a prayer. Whether slinking through 1985 or another vintage year [usually while chasing down a bomber], the temporal agent looks like a classic lone wolf.” Read more…)

Laggies (romantic comedy, Keira Knightley. Rotten Tomatoes: 69%. Metacritic: 63. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Ten years after senior prom, Megan [Keira Knightley]  herself in limbo, no longer adolescent and not yet fully grown. It’s a familiar place for the protagonist of a movie comedy to be, and perhaps a further symptom of the shaky state of American adulthood. In Megan’s circle of high school friends, the one who is about to get married [Ellie Kemper] and the one who already has a husband and a kid on the way [Sara Coates] seem kind of awful. Who would want to be so judgmental and shallow, or so blissed-out and dim? Not Megan. But then again, it isn’t as if her own life were anything fabulous.” Read more…)

Nightcrawler (thriller, Jake Gyllenhaal. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 76. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “Really, though, the chasing after important themes is a distraction. ‘Nightcrawler’ is a modest and effectively executed urban thriller, suspenseful and entertaining in its clammy, overwrought way. [actor Jake] Gyllenhaal’s performance, while not remotely persuasive, is disciplined and meticulous in its creepiness, and [writer and director Dan] Gilroy keeps the audience off balance, fascinated and repelled, half rooting for Lou to succeed, and half dreading what he will do next.” Read more…)

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (family, Steve Carell. Rotten Tomatoes: 62%. Metacritic: 54. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ is the latest example of a wonderful children’s book turned into a mediocre movie. This kind of thing happens so frequently — exceptions like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and, arguably, ‘Shrek’ prove the rule upheld by every recent big-screen Dr. Seuss adaptation — that you could almost believe that there is malice involved. Movie studios do a pretty good job of making pleasing, sometimes transporting family entertainment out of original ideas or ancient folklore. Why do they keep messing up the kiddie lit? Are they doing it on purpose?” Read more…)

Kill the Messenger (political drama, Jeremy Renner. Rotten Tomatoes: 77%. Metacritic: 60. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The director Michael Cuesta started as an independent filmmaker [his credits include ‘L.I.E.’] but, like many other indies, also works in television. He directed the pilot of “Homeland” (he’s one of its executive producers) and helped establish its insinuatingly intimate, often claustrophobic feel and nervous rhythms, partly through its hand-held camerawork. The look that Mr. Cuesta and his director of photography, Sean Bobbitt, give ‘Kill the Messenger’ at times evokes ‘Homeland,’ but the movie’s cinematography isn’t as frenetic and self-consciously raw, and there’s less bobbing and weaving. Even so, the visual choices in the movie, including all the close-ups of Gary’s face as it lightens and darkens, help create the sense that something deeply personal is at stake.” Read more…)

Starred Up (prison drama, Jack O’Connell. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 81. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “The title of ‘Starred Up,’ David Mackenzie’s brutal and boisterous new prison drama, refers to the status of its main character, Eric. Though he is legally still under age, Eric, played with method actor inwardness and movie star magnetism by Jack O’Connell, has been promoted to adult status in the British penal system. It’s not hard to see why. Brawny and athletic, he looks less like a child than like a young bull, and his capacity for violence unnerves even some of the hardened older criminals in whose midst he finds himself.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
Rosewater
Nightcrawler
Kill the Messenger
About Schmidt
A Late Quartet

New Foreign
Force Majeure (Sweden, drama, Johannes Bah Kuhnke. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 87. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “Just under the surface of a seemingly blissful marriage run fissures that a sudden jolt can tear open to reveal a crumbling edifice. That’s the unsettling reality explored with a merciless lens in the Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s fourth feature film, ‘Force Majeure.’ This brilliant, viciously amusing takedown of bourgeois complacency, gender stereotypes and assumptions and the illusion of security rubs your face in human frailty as relentlessly as any Michael Haneke movie.” Read more…)

New TV
Olive Kitteridge (HBO Miniseries drama, Frances McDormand. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 89. From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times television review: “‘Olive Kitteridge,’ directed by Lisa Cholodenko, is a rare treasure, a measured, understated portrait of a marriage that finds poetry in the most prosaic of settings and circumstances: flinty, stolid citizens of a small, insular town in coastal Maine. There is no glamour and little romance, yet there is a fine-grained mystery to the most ordinary, blunted lives.” Read more…)

Nurse Jackie: Season 6 (comedy/drama series, Edie Falco. Rotten Tomatoes: 67%. Metacritic: 64.)

Children’s DVDs
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (family, Steve Carell. Rotten Tomatoes: 62%. Metacritic: 54. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ is the latest example of a wonderful children’s book turned into a mediocre movie. This kind of thing happens so frequently — exceptions like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and, arguably, ‘Shrek’ prove the rule upheld by every recent big-screen Dr. Seuss adaptation — that you could almost believe that there is malice involved. Movie studios do a pretty good job of making pleasing, sometimes transporting family entertainment out of original ideas or ancient folklore. Why do they keep messing up the kiddie lit? Are they doing it on purpose?” Read more…)