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 11/18/14

Top Hits
22 Jump Street (action comedy, Jonah Hill. Rotten Tomatoes: 84%. Metacritic: 71. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “More is more and is, at times, just right in ’22 Jump Street,’ an exploding piñata of gags, pratfalls, winking asides, throwaway one-liners and self-reflexive waggery. This is, of course, the sequel to ’21 Jump Street,’ the 2012 hit that borrowed its title and undercover brother shtick from the old television show best known for its hair-gel hottie, Johnny Depp. For a second time, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play lovable undercover cops who — in between dodging danger and jokes that fly almost as fast as they do on ‘The Simpsons’ — insinuate themselves into a juvenile population, whose resistance to these charmers has been rendered completely futile, much like that of the movie’s audience.” Read more…)

And So It Goes (comedy, Diane Keaton. Rotten Tomatoes: 18%. Metacritic: 48. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “A grump remembers how to care and gets together with his unsettled singing neighbor in Rob Reiner’s jokey and schmaltzy geriatric romance, ‘And So It Goes.’ It’s about as galvanizing as that shrugging title.” Read more…)

If I Stay (romance/drama, Chloe Grace Moretz. Rotten Tomatoes: 36%. Metacritic: 46. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “This summer has been bookended by two movies, both based on young adult best sellers and starring gifted and ambitious actresses, about smart, independent-minded teenage girls finding love in the shadow of death. It is hard to avoid comparing ‘If I Stay,’ which opens on Friday, with ‘The Fault in Our Stars,’ but there is also no reason to choose between them. Each one is a cleanly directed, credibly acted machine for the production of tears.” Read more…)

The Wind Rises (Miyazaki animated feature, Joseph Gordon-Levitt [voice]. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%. Metacritic: 83. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “[Japanese animator Hayao] Miyazaki remains enchanted with the idea of being airborne, which animation freely lends itself to, having sent little girls, castles and even swine into flight. ‘The Wind Rises,’ his newest film, tells the fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, a gifted aeronautic engineer who is historically notable — or infamous — for designing deadly warplanes used by Japan in World War II. Mr. Miyazaki’s lyrical chronicle of the inventor’s creative process and his poignant romance reminds us that staying aloft is a fraught endeavor. Yet even in this film about an absorbed artist of the floating world, premonitions of the calamitous events to come cannot be entirely absent.” Read more…)

Into the Storm (tornado/weather disaster action, Richard Armitage. Rotten Tomatoes: 21%. Metacritic: 44. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “A series of tornadoes and laughably poor evacuation decisions batter a town in Steven Quale’s ‘Into the Storm,’ which regales us with voluptuous images of devastation. Per disaster movie tradition, people trade banter, jargon and heart-to-hearts: a crew of storm chasers, a vice principal and his two sons, and other walking targets. But the tornadoes are the stars, and the giveaway is the filmmakers’ pedigree: Mr. Quale and company have logged time in the ‘Final Destination’ franchise, amassing macabre expertise in orchestrating destruction.” Read more…)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (comic book action, Bruce Willis. Rotten Tomatoes: 44%. Metacritic: 46. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “It has been almost a decade since ‘Sin City’ heaved itself on to our movie screens, a dark parade of ugly mugs and uglier behavior. Back in 2005, the film’s worshipful, impeccable realization of Frank Miller’s graphic novels was divertingly original, even if none of its characters looked quite human or breached two dimensions. Little has changed, except perhaps that the novelty has worn off.” Read more…)

Line of Duty (crime/action, Jeremy Ray Valdez)

New Blu-Rays
The Wind Rises
22 Jump Street
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

New American Back Catalog DVDs (post-1960)
Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982, drama, Cher. From Vincent Canby’s 1982 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “are some interesting things about Robert Altman’s ‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,’ but they have less to do with anything on the screen than with the manner in which the film was produced and with Mr. Altman’s unflagging if misguided faith in the project. Ed Graczyk’s screenplay, based on his flop play as directed by Mr. Altman on Broadway this year, is small, but less likely to be salvaged in the near future than even the Titanic. It’s a sincerely preposterous, bathetic, redneck comedy-drama that sounds as if its author had learned all about life by watching ”Studio One” at his mother’s knee.” Read more…)

New Documentaries
America: Imagine the World Without Her (history, politics, Dinesh D’Souza. Rotten Tomatoes: 8%. Metacritic: 15.)

New Children’s DVDs
The Wind Rises (Miyazaki animated feature, Joseph Gordon-Levitt [voice], in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%. Metacritic: 83. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “[Japanese animator Hayao] Miyazaki remains enchanted with the idea of being airborne, which animation freely lends itself to, having sent little girls, castles and even swine into flight. ‘The Wind Rises,’ his newest film, tells the fictionalized story of Jiro Horikoshi, a gifted aeronautic engineer who is historically notable — or infamous — for designing deadly warplanes used by Japan in World War II. Mr. Miyazaki’s lyrical chronicle of the inventor’s creative process and his poignant romance reminds us that staying aloft is a fraught endeavor. Yet even in this film about an absorbed artist of the floating world, premonitions of the calamitous events to come cannot be entirely absent.” Read more…)

The Man Who Saved Christmas (holiday feature, Jason Alexander. From Anita Gates’ 2002 New York Times television review [may require log-in]: “America has been in need of a hero from the business world. ‘The Man Who Saved Christmas,’ a good-natured film that has its premiere Sunday night on CBS, offers one: A. C. Gilbert, the toy maker who invented the Erector set. Of course, he made his money shortly before World War I and has been dead for 40 years.” Read more…)