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 10/21/14

Top Hits
Snowpiercer (sci-fi/action, Chris Evans. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 84. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “In the mood for allegory? Have a look at Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Snowpiercer,’ which proceeds from a fantastical premise rich with real-world relevance. After a human-engineered planetary catastrophe (trying to arrest the planet’s warming, we accidentally froze it solid), the remaining people are stuck on a train that never stops moving. A few thousand survivors live in railway cars, sorted into a rigid and ruthlessly enforced social order… But perhaps, since a summer holiday weekend is approaching, you’d prefer an action movie. ‘Snowpiercer,’ based on the graphic novel ‘Le Transperceneige’ by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, is unusually satisfying in that regard as well. Mr. Bong, whose previous films include the brilliant psychological thriller ‘Mother’ and ‘The Host,’ a sublimely moving monster flick, is a playful and rigorous visual thinker.” Read more…)

Sex Tape (comedy, Cameron Diaz. Rotten Tomatoes: 18%. Metacritic: 34. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The Internet, it has been said, is a series of tubes. So is the human body. The intersection of these two systems — each one sticky, nasty and fascinating in its own special way — is a fact of daily life and also the subject of ‘Sex Tape,’ a new R-rated comedy starring Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz. Don’t get your hopes up. Or maybe I should say don’t worry. Because in spite of a title that evokes everything tawdry and salacious in contemporary on-line culture [at least circa 2007], in spite of a steady cascade of obscene language, and in spite of a naked buttock here and there, ‘Sex Tape,’ directed by Jake Kasdan, is as wholesome as a spoonful of nonfat Greek yogurt.” Read more…)

Mad Men: Final Season Part 1 (TV series, Jon Hamm. From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times TV review: “And fittingly, ‘Mad Men’ is living out its own Peter Principle: A series that was so original, fresh and authoritative when it began in 2007 has stayed on television beyond its creative peak. The season premiere seems as exhausted as the decade it has chronicled so intensely. The cinematography is striking, as always; the sets and costumes remain as telling as the dialogue — this is when Peter Max was on the cover of Life magazine. But many of the characters are repeating themselves or pedaling in place, and the historic underlay that was once so piquant is now dreary: This season it’s the inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon. That sagging of energy happens to any long-lasting series, but it’s oddly apt in the case of ‘Mad Men,’ because the show’s trajectory so closely follows the era it portrays.” Read more…)

Earth to Echo (sci-fi/family, Teo Halm. Rotten Tomatoes: 48%. Metacritic: 53. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “A chipper, shallow knockoff of classic suburban adventure movies, ‘Earth to Echo’ rolls out a YouTube-and-smartphone update to the little lost alien tales of the 1980s. Technology remains no substitute for well-written characters and genuine intrigue and atmosphere, so despite the cute special effects and camera jostling, this film feels like an extended episode of an after-school show by Disney [which reportedly developed the project initially].” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
Snowpiercer

New Foreign
Generation War (Germany, World War II mini-series, Volker Bruch. Rotten Tomatoes: 61%. Metacritic: 57. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “‘Generation War,’ which was broadcast as a mini-series on German television last year, is perhaps more interesting as an artifact of the present than as a representation of the past. As the Second World War slips from living memory, as Germany asserts its dominant role in Europe with increasing confidence, and as long-suppressed information emerges from the archives of former Eastern bloc countries, the war’s cultural significance for Germans has shifted. Coming after the silence of the ’50s and early ’60s and the angry reckonings of the ’70s and ’80s, ‘Generation War,’ emotionally charged but not exactly anguished, represents an attempt to normalize German history.” Read more…)

A Coffee in Berlin (Germany, comedy, Tom Schilling. Rotten Tomatoes: 72%. Metacritic: 63. From Rachel Saltz’s New York Times review: “This first feature directed by Jan Ole Gerster has plenty of style. Maybe too much. Mr. Gerster has a tendency to aestheticize Niko’s aimless angst and his city, full of the young and the hanging out. The mood-setting music — jazz and melancholy piano — and the beautiful black-and-white images [by Philipp Kirsamer] of light-soaked rooms, street scenes and rooftops serve to dull the story’s barbed comic edges.” Read more…)

Violette (France, biopic drama, Emmanuelle Devos. Rotten Tomatoes: 83%. Metacritic: 72. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “In Violette,’ Emmanuelle Devos plays one of those impossible women who can’t give anyone, most of all herself, a break. For Violette Leduc, a black marketeer turned celebrated writer, life is a series of crushing disappointments, from the mother who never took her hand to the friends who never stay. Early in the film when a friend leaves the home they share, he sneaks out like a thief. He knows her too well. She doesn’t let him go; rather, she chases him down a road, frantically pulling at him and howling. This is a woman who doesn’t feed on misery: She gorges on it.” Read more…)

New Classic DVDs (pre-1960)
Cry Danger (1951, film noir, Dick Powell. From Bosley Crowther’s 1951New York Times review [requires log-in]: “Looking for excitement and suspense? And perhaps a few laughs, too? Then accept this recommendation to a very tidy package of fictional extravagance called ‘Cry Danger.’ The place is the Paramount Theatre. Usually you don’t find much occasion for laughter in a picture that is concerned with revenge and murder. But in ‘Cry Danger’ scenarist William Bowers has found room for some sardonic lines that are tossed off most effectively by a young actor named Richard Erdman, who has been around Hollywood since 1943—just waiting for the right chance, no doubt, ‘Cry Danger’ gives it to Mr. Erdman and he makes the most of it in the role of an unscrupulous ex-marine with a wooden leg who is interested in turning an easy dollar. Obviously he has no moral principles, but the boy sure has personality.” Read more…)

The Big Combo (1955, film noir, remastered version, Cornel Wilde. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. From H.H.T.’s 1955 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “‘The Big Combo,’ an Allied Artists release that opened yesterday with the Palace’s new stage bill, isn’t very big or good. Even with the “combo” of a capable cast, headed by Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte, and the kernel of a provocative plot, the result is a shrill, clumsy and rather old-fashioned crime melodrama with all hands pulling in opposite directions.” Read more…)

New American Back Catalog (post-1960)
Ghost Story (1981, horror, Fred Astaire. Rotten Tomatoes: 36%. From Vincent Canby’s 1981 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “John Irvin, the director of ‘Ghost Story,’ and Lawrence D. Cohen, who adapted and considerably reduced Peter Straub’s best-selling novel for the screen, begin very well, right in the opening credits. It is night, which seems tranquil enough, with a bright, full moon. Clouds pass in front of the moon. Nothing odd about that, but then suddenly the clouds don’t seem to be clouds. They’ve become liquid and are dripping down over the moon like thick water. By the time the movie starts, the once-ordinary moon seems to be drowning in a foreign substance.” Read more…)

Cujo (1983, horror based on Stephen King novel, remastered version, Dee Wallace. Rotten Tomatoes: 59%. From Janet Maslin’s 1983 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “As directed by Lewis Teague, ‘Cujo’ is by no means a horror classic, but it’s suspenseful and scary. The performances are simple and effective, particularly Miss Wallace’s. And Danny Pintauro does a good job as the frightened child. All three of the principals have done either commercials or soap-opera work in the past, which perhaps accounts for the all- American blandness that, in a film like this, is almost an advantage.” Read more…)

New Television
Mad Men: Final Season Part 1 (TV series, Jon Hamm, in Top Hits. From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times TV review: “And fittingly, ‘Mad Men’ is living out its own Peter Principle: A series that was so original, fresh and authoritative when it began in 2007 has stayed on television beyond its creative peak. The season premiere seems as exhausted as the decade it has chronicled so intensely. The cinematography is striking, as always; the sets and costumes remain as telling as the dialogue — this is when Peter Max was on the cover of Life magazine. But many of the characters are repeating themselves or pedaling in place, and the historic underlay that was once so piquant is now dreary: This season it’s the inauguration of President Richard M. Nixon. That sagging of energy happens to any long-lasting series, but it’s oddly apt in the case of ‘Mad Men,’ because the show’s trajectory so closely follows the era it portrays.” Read more…)

New Children’s DVDs
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (animated feature, Ty Burrell [voice]. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “If you think of ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ as the latest attempt to turn small-screen baby boomer nostalgia into big-screen fun, you have plenty of reason to be afraid. Hollywood’s obsession with cashing in on old television shows has yielded a grim harvest — remember Nicole Kidman in ‘Bewitched’? Sorry to have reminded you — and the work of Jay Ward has been singled out for particular abuse. Ward, who died in 1989 and whose brainy cartoons were staples of the early space age, has been dishonored by lame live-action movie versions of Rocky and Bullwinkle. George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right. Luckily, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman,’ about a supersmart dog and his adopted human son, breaks the curse and respects the nutty, nerdy humor of the original. This DreamWorks Animation production, directed by Rob Minkoff [‘Stuart Little,’ ‘The Lion King’] from a screenplay by Craig Wright, is not perfect, but it is fast-moving, intermittently witty and pretty good fun.” Read more…)