Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, I’ve held off long enough (read: finally caught up with some films I needed to see).  Before I get to my top 10 of 2014, a few thoughts…I saw more than 40 movies, and it was a pretty solid year overall.  Not extraordinary, though the big summer releases resonated in a way that they haven’t for a while.  For the purposes of year-end lists, I generally don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This top 10 really represents a mixture of the two.  Okay, here’s my #6-10…

10.) “Nightcrawler”

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One of the keys to unlocking “Nightcrawler” is James Newton Howard’s music.  The film is about an amateur videographer, Louis Bloom, prowling city streets to find footage — home invasions, auto accidents — that he can sell to the local news.  While it has the trappings of a character study and a thriller, Dan Gilroy’s film is a rag-to-riches story.  Rather than offer a traditional moody score, Howard’s music has a hopeful quality.  It pines for our character’s success, as though it’s the music he might hear inside his head.  That his actions are morally murky at best and downright psychotic at worst is, well, beside the point.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the wannabe newsman, and it’s easily the best performance of his career.  He talks with reporters and supervisors as though human interaction was something he learned from a book or website.  With each encounter, I grew more and more anxious, waiting for Louis’s psychosis to finally boil over.  Surely someone is going to get this guy help…or have him arrested.  Right!?  In an insidious bit of commentary on our media, help never comes.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”

9.) “Selma”

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I’m always a little resistant to award season biopics.  They’re often more “history lesson” than “film.”  Not the case with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which is about the voting right marches of 1965.  I love the opening, when Martin Luther King Jr. (played wonderfully by David Oyelowo) is rehearsing a speech.  “It’s not right,” he sighs.  We assume he’s talking about the language, but it’s nothing so lofty.  He just doesn’t like his tie.  There’s flesh and blood in this monument.  A horrific and racially motivated act follows.  The film plays like a thriller, keeping the pressure on and never letting us forget what’s at stake.  And it moves like gangbusters, swiftly covering a lot of characters and events.  I loved the backdoor dealings.  As much as this movie’s about a man, it’s also about politicking and enacting change.  Some have criticized “Selma” for its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wasn’t a roadblock to the civil rights movement as dramatized in the film.  While I can appreciate those complaints, it frankly doesn’t bother me.  This isn’t a documentary, it’s not bound to factual constraints.  Rather, it’s a stirring account of fighting systematic oppression.

8.) “Godzilla”

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A couple of questionable plot turns and a wooden performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson aren’t enough to kill this gargantuan summer blockbuster.  Not by a long shot.  Director Gareth Edwards delivers spectacle of the highest order.  Sure, a number of mega-budget productions attempt the same thing, but few remember that there’s nothing less spectacular than non-stop spectacle.  Edwards is judicious in dolling out his setpieces, offering a wink and a nudge (see: a wry cutaway from a brawl in Hawaii) while making us wait for the hugely satisfying final showdown.  Another word for spectacle, at least as far as “Godzilla” is concerned, is scale.  Duh, it’s a movie about the grandaddy of giant monsters!  Everything about this film is intended to give us that sense of awe — from the structure to the evocative sound design to the camerawork that keeps us on the ground level.  Despite our best (and not-so-best) efforts, all we can do is stare up and appreciate the titans overhead.  “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.”

For more of my thoughts on “Godzilla,” click here.

7.) “Gone Girl”

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Gloomy serial killer movies like “Seven” and “Zodiac” make it easy to forget what a lacerating sense of humor director David Fincher has.  But “Gone Girl” puts it on full bloody display.  The film, written by Gillian Flynn and based on her novel, is about a man, Nick (Ben Affleck) under investigation when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.  Much of the humor is derived from the media circus that surrounds her disappearance.  During a painfully funny press conference, Nick makes a brief statement that doesn’t sound particularly heartfelt.  He’ll later point out that that doesn’t make him a murderer, though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  A great ballet of looks between Nick and his sister (Carrie Coon) ensues as Amy’s parents make long, prepared statements.  Top to bottom, the performances here are excellent.  So many of the casting decisions seemed odd on paper — Tyler Perry as a New York lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as, well, a creeper — but they pay off big time!  And of course there’s Rosamund Pike, bringing so many shades to Amy.

For more of my thoughts on “Gone Girl,” click here.

6.) “Ida”

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In Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) visits her worldly aunt (Agata Kulesza) before taking her vows.  The aunt reveals that the nun’s parents were Jewish, and both were killed during World War II.  After finding their resting place, the aunt urges her niece to experience more of life before committing to the church.  In one of my favorite images of the year, the nun, slightly intoxicated, twirls within a curtain.  Sunlight streams through the window and illuminates the fabric producing a warm cocoon.  It’s such a wonderfully evocative depiction of a young woman coming of age.  This film is filled with striking compositions.  Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s black and white cinematography emphasizes institutions, often placing characters in the lower part of the frame so that these structures — the church, for example — tower over them.  Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are terrific, the latter saying anything that pops into her head and the former speaking hardly at all.

Stay tuned next week for my #1-5 picks!  What were some of your favorites of 2014?  Comment below.

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Review: “Godzilla” (a.k.a. “Gojira”)

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the original “Godzilla,” known as “Gojira” in its native Japan.  The Japanese cut of the film wasn’t available in the States until 2004, so for roughly 50 years, Americans had to make do with the U.S. edit, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.”  It featured Raymond Burr, thanks to some…unique editing.  The biggest crime of the U.S. version wasn’t Burr’s haphazard inclusion, but the way it muted — eradicated even — the cautionary aspects of the original.

Warning: giant monsters and spoilers ahead!

Director Ishiro Honda’s film begins with a dramatization of an event that would have been fresh in the minds of Japanese citizens.  In early 1954, the S.S. Lucky Dragon 5 and the men on board were exposed to fallout from H-bomb testing.  “Godzilla” begins similarly, a group of fishermen are consumed by flames after witnessing a blinding flash of light.  Honda invites our curiosity by completely concealing the monster.  Staging the scene so obliquely, he positions the film as a haunting and even cathartic nuclear allegory.

As more ships disappear, the Japanese public demands answers.  In one of my favorite effects shots – “favorite” not to be confused with “best” — what’s clearly a model boat bursts into flames.  It floats along the surface of the water, a ghost ship, before sinking beneath the waves.  When the full nature of these disasters becomes clear, we get varying perspectives on how to deal with the problem.  Salvage ship captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) wants Godzilla destroyed.  It poses too great a threat.  Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (played by Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura) wants to preserve the creature for study.  What is it?  How long has it been there?  How did it survive the atomic tests?  They’re linked by Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Kyohei’s daughter and Hideto’s lover.

Among the franchise’s 30 entries, this first film boasts the most compelling human drama.  Emiko’s allegiances are torn between her father, Hideto, and Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who she’d been sworn to marry despite her true affections.  Frankly, some of the romantic melodrama could go, but the human element is juiciest when it centers around Serizawa.  Unintentionally, he’s developed a weapon of mass destruction: the Oxygen Destroyer.  When guns, tanks and planes prove ineffective against Godzilla, Emiko and Hideto urge the doctor to use his device.  Only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he’s reluctant.  “I can’t add another terrifying weapon to humanity’s arsenal.”

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The film’s special effects centerpiece is Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, made possible by “suitmation.”  Pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya, an actor in a monster suit storms through a miniature city.  Though the technique is dated, many shots hold up.  Honda and Tsuburaya frame Godzilla from low angles with foreground elements — buildings, power lines, and a bird aviary in one case.  This creates scale while inky cinematography hides the seams and contributes to a sense of dread.

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But, in the infancy of suitmation, there are plenty of geographical inconsistencies.  Firefighters barrel through the streets only to careen off them…presumably due to Godzilla, but we never have a sense of their proximity to each other.  Still, those mishaps are easily overlooked when you consider the number of chilling moments.  A mother comforts her children as the city falls around them.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be with Daddy soon.”

So many films, post-9/11, attempt to channel the apocalyptic sense of doom from that day, but few achieve what this one does.  The morning after the attack, an eerily-calm establishing shot of Tokyo shows the city in ruins.  A young girl cries as her deceased mother is carried through a hospital corridor that’s bursting with wounded citizens.  A doctor examines a patient with a Geiger counter.  A children’s choir sings for peace.  These moments carry all the weight and immediacy of a documentary.  Despite this film having only one city-leveler — not the smorgasbord* of later installments — the stakes have never felt higher.

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The sorrowful tone is carried through to the film’s final moments.  Dr. Serizawa, seeing the aftermath of destruction, concedes to use his weapon.  In doing so, he takes his own life.  Now that the world knows of his invention, he can’t be coerced into making another.  Where many films might strike a triumphant note with the demise of the monster, this one does not.  Akira Ifukube’s mournful score recalls the choir’s prayer earlier in the film.  Like many great movie monsters, Godzilla is a victim of man’s overreach.  As Kyohei watches, the ancient creature lets out a death cry and finally succumbs.  He warns — in a bit of dialog that’s just a shade too on-the-nose — against further atomic tests.  Alongside science fiction classics like “Frankenstein” and modern classics like “Blade Runner,” “Godzilla” stands as a stirring reminder of the reckoning that follows from man’s hubris.

* – Not that I’m casting judgments.  I’m all for a smorgasbord of giant monsters!

DAM

Have you seen the Japanese cut of the original “Godzilla?”  How about the American cut?  Comment below!

Review: “Godzilla” (2014)

In honor of the disc release of this summer’s “Godzilla,” I wanted to offer my thoughts on the film. You might remember that I’m a huge fan – gargantuan, even – of the character. The following is pretty spoiler free, with one exception, but I’ll give you a heads up.

“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man…”

Those words were sung by Blue Öyster Cult in their hit song, “Godzilla.”  It’s a philosophy director Gareth Edwards took to heart in this summer’s dazzling reboot.  A nifty title sequence sets the stage.  We learn that the presumed nuclear tests in the South Pacific of the 1950s were in fact attempts to kill the creature.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a rousing score, as we get a brief glimpse of the titular monster, his dorsal spines cresting the surface of the ocean, like the world’s largest super shark.

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Cut to 1999, a strange incident causes a Japanese nuclear power plant to go into meltdown.  Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, a supervisor at the plant, provides our emotional hook into the film, as he spends the next 15 years trying to figure out what happened.  His son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home after a tour of duty.  Having spent only a few hours with his family, he’s reluctantly called to Japan to bail his father out of prison.  Joe was trespassing in the quarantine zone in an effort to discover the cause of the disaster.

Turns out it wasn’t an earthquake, as reported.

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There’s a passing of the baton, and Ford becomes the main focus.  This brings us to the film’s biggest liability: its characters.  Especially Ford Brody. The supporting roles are thin, but they’re played by talented performers, so the mediocre writing is tolerable.  In addition to Cranston, the cast includes Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, and Sally Hawkins. Sadly, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t equipped to imbue his character with any gravitas or charisma, and questionable character beats and developments land with a thud.

One such moment occurs near the end of the film.  In the interest of remaining spoiler free, I’ll just say Ford gives up at a critical juncture when he should be fighting tooth and nail.  Some have criticized the movie for the characters’ insignificance and lack of impact next to the monsters, but that isn’t an inherently bad thing.  What do the protagonists accomplish in “Seven?”  Nothing.  In fact, drama is derived from their inability to change their fate.  That’s what this “Godzilla” needed, but make no mistake, Godzilla should confound mankind at every turn.  After all, the character was born out of Japan’s anxiety over nuclear attacks.

Much has been made about Godzilla’s lack of screen time – a complaint that frankly boggles my mind.  Gareth Edwards understands, like Spielberg and Ridley Scott before him, that the quickest way to take the majesty and menace out of a main attraction is to overexpose it.  Each and every time Godzilla is on screen, Edwards makes it count.

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Indeed, he and screenwriter Max Borenstein allow their film to build toward a distinct and succinct climax, shrewdly dolling out spectacle in small doses until the thunderous ending.  I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see filmmakers respect their audience in this regard, particularly when so many blockbusters are structured for itchy teens.  Climax upon climax upon climax – after a while, it stops meaning anything.

Edwards and Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey rigorously adopt P.O.V. camerawork, with much of the action being framed from the ground level.  This creates scale, placing us in the action, and combined with the well-timed set pieces, gives the film a genuine sense of awe that’s been missing from multiplexes.  So many blockbuster directors are seduced by their budgets, and they use shots that showcase their resources but fail to involve the audience.

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Despite the bleak subject matter, and contrary to a criticism that the film takes itself too seriously, Edwards knows how to have a good time.  Just as things start to heat up, he wryly cuts away from a bit of action at the Honolulu International Airport.  (Gotta leave enough fuel in the tank for the big finish.) Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise” scores the destruction of Las Vegas.  And there are so many playful uses of the camera.  As Ford waits on a tram to get to his flight, the power goes out.  When the lights come back on, we follow their progress from inside the tram.  Suddenly, they illuminate this hulking titan as it lumbers into the airport.  It’s a motivated camera movement, an organic reveal, and it provides a nice little scare to boot.

And Edwards isn’t just adept at money shots.  He’s got a true filmmaker’s eye, hanging entire sequences on simple images that are so lo-fi, they could have come from his low-budget debut, “Monsters.”  The camera lingers on an empty hallway in a power plant in crisis, as we wait to see what will round the corner.  A group of marines storm a nuclear waste site searching for something.  Nothing out of the ordinary in the first two containment facilities, but when a marine pulls back a sliding door on the third one, he’s greeted with a blinding shaft of light.  What’s that about?

Okay, it’s gonna be difficult for me to avoid spoilers here.  If you haven’t seen the film, go ahead and skip to the next bit of bolded text.

At the end of the film, Godzilla slides into San Francisco Bay, having defeated an ancient menace that threatened the city.  Onlookers cheer as a news broadcast proclaims, “King of the Monsters — Savior of our city?”  I love the nod to the Americanization of the original film and the clever commentary on our media’s propensity to slap labels on things.

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The celebratory nature of the ending has been ribbed in some corners, but I thought it was a wonderful continuation of the film’s main theme: man’s hubris.  What could be more arrogant than to assume that a force of nature acted on our behalf?  “He did this for us!” Think I’m overreaching? Check out how Edwards’ camera descends as Godzilla submerges.  We’re left at the surface, as though we were treading water, a precarious place to be when there’s a massive beast swimming beneath your toes.  The shot holds after Desplat’s triumphant score has faded, creating an eerie calm, as though waiting for the creature to re-surface for one last attack.

Okay “Godzilla” virgins, it’s safe to come back now.

“The arrogance of man is assuming nature is in our control, and not the other way around,” Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa intones.  It’s there in the way tsunami waters wipe away a coastal street.  It’s there in the way a dog surveys bodies at a train wreck.  And it’s there in the way nature has retaken the quarantined city in Japan, plants and animals clinging to every surface.  Rest assured, nature will retake more major cities before the movie’s over.

What did you think of “Godzilla?” Comment below!

Rest in Peace, Summer 2014. You Deserved Better, Box Office-wise.

Personally, I had a great time at the movies this summer.  Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” bucked the trend of prematurely blowing its action/monster/explosion load.  I enjoyed “Edge of Tomorrow’s” original concept and snappy script.  And it was great to see Marvel inject its cookie-cutter formula with a little personality for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Nothing disappointed me on the scale of last year’s “Man of Steel” or “Stark Trek Into Darkness.”

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And I’m not alone.  According to Entertainment Weekly, critics preferred this summer’s crop, and audiences only marginally preferred last summer’s.  Sure, 2014 didn’t have any Dark Knights or Avengers, but that didn’t stop last year’s record number of moviegoers.

Still, the summer box office suffered tremendously.  Why, after a summer of good movies, did The LA Times report that domestic ticket sales were down 15%?  Actually, 2014 was the worst summer since 2006…1997 if you consider inflation.

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So what gives?

At a quick glance, the season was pretty overcrowded.  Between the beginning of May and the end of August, theaters saw ten major releases plus five high-profile projects with comparatively modest budgets*.

That’s a lot of movies…particularly in May and June.  Of those ten major releases, seven were out by July.  Not the greatest scheduling.  But the good news is that 2014 marked a shift in the release dates for tentpole productions.  Outside “Guardians,” the year’s biggest hits — “The Lego Movie” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — came out in February and April, which isn’t typically when films of that size hit theaters.

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Studios are learning from this summer’s shellacking.  Rather than go up against the third Captain America in May 2016, Warner Brothers recently announced “Batman v Superman” would move to March.  Legendary also declared plans to release a sequel to “Pacific Rim” in April 2017.

While overcrowding might be responsible for lower box office receipts, I don’t think it accounts for such a steep decline.  Something should have been sucking up the dollars.  What say you, loyal readers?  Did you find yourself going to the movies more or less often this summer?  Why or why not?  Comment below.

*Here are the ten big-budget (i.e. comfortably north of $100 million) releases with five additional high-profile projects that had comparatively modest price tags:

May
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Godzilla
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Maleficent
Neighbors
A Million Ways to Die in the West

June
Edge of Tomorrow
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Transformers: Age of Extinction
The Fault in our Stars
22 Jump Street

July
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Lucy

August
Guardians of the Galaxy
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

“They don’t make movies…they make fun of them!”

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of seeing a screening of “Godzilla” (1998) Rifftrax Live.  For those who don’t know, Rifftrax is from some of the stars of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” specifically, Mike Nelson (below left), Bill Corbett (below center) and Kevin Murphy (below right).  Though “Mystery Science” is certainly a niche show, it’s one of my favorites.  My wife and I actually played the show’s theme song at our wedding reception.

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Rifftrax is a project very much in the vein of MST3K, as Mike, Bill and Kevin offer humorous commentary during movies.  Customers download the commentaries online and sync them to their disc player.  This allows Rifftrax to tackle larger movies, like “The Dark Knight” or “Avatar,” without infringing on copyright laws.

Occasionally, Fathom Events hosts screenings of their work, which is how I came to see “Godzilla” on the big screen. I’m a huge fan of the original Japanese character, but Roland Emmerich’s take on him was truly deserving of the Rifftrax treatment.  Apart from being an abominable adaptation, jettisoning essential elements of the character, it’s just an outright terrible film.

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I mean…Matthew Broderick as a scientist/action hero!?  Oscar-nominee Michael Lerner plays Mayor Ebert, a corrupt politician who looks suspiciously like Roger Ebert and whose campaign slogan is a thumbs up.  No lie.  He even has an assistant named Gene.  Undoubtedly a petulent “screw you” on the part of Emmerich, as Ebert was not a fan of his previous films, “Stargate” and “Independence Day.”

Characterizations are similarly poor, with the filmmakers succumbing to the most crass stereotypes. The film opens with a Japanese fisherman watching sumo wresting and eating noodles, at which point Mike Nelson quipped, “I don’t think they’ve established his ethnicity enough.” French special agents are obsessed with coffee, cigarettes and croissants, and the New Yorkers are doing their worst Ratso Rizzo impressions.

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The attempts at humor, of which there are many, are likewise…poor.  If you made a drinking game out of the number of times someone bungles Broderick’s character’s last name, Tatopoulos, you would be hammered by the end of the first act.  The sad thing is, the joke isn’t funny the first time.

Finally, the sense of scale here is non-existent.  Godzilla’s size is completely dependent on the needs of the script.  He should be menacing and imposing, make him bigger!  Okay, now we need to be able to hide him.  Better slim him down, so he’ll fit in a subway tunnel.  If there’s one thing you want missing in your giant monster movie, it’s a sense of…scale…???

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Rifftax did not disappoint despite an interminably long running time.  There’s about 100 minutes of story in this 140 minute slog. There’ll be an encore presentation this Tuesday, August 19th, and I hope some of you will check it out!