Once again I give you a list of the last few movies I watched ordered by my increasing opinion of them. Ones that didn’t impress me so much are at the top and further down you scroll the more I loved them. Weirdly, for this time, even the movies I didn’t really like I still found interesting. Basically, there’s nothing on this list I wouldn’t recommend. I’m not sorry any of these movies were made.
Those who know me know I love me some Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), but since the dawn of the aughts I haven’t been wild about any of his cinematic fever dreams. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was the most interesting recent outing of his, but even that felt troubled and jerky. Christoph Waltz stars in the low-budget sci-fi, The Zero Theorem (2013). There are a lot of ideas going on and most of them are good ideas; the meaning of life, the loneliness of existence, the persistent search for understanding, the desperate desire for connection and control, the alienation of a technological society, etc. Some of the imagery and background gags were enjoyable too. Gilliam’s got some tricks up his sleeve, but why does this film feel like an unfinished student play at times? A lot of it feels stagey and the comedy feels a little out of place. I like some of the surreal turns, but I sort of wish this was a darker movie with less awkward comedy and less bright colors. I wanted to feel the heaviness and emptiness that I believe it was trying to convey. I’d call this movie “leftovers from Twelve Monkeys and Brazil”, but those would have had more balls and personality.
Snowpiercer, aka Seolgungnyeolcha (2013) seems to have gotten a lot of high praise from critics and I’m somewhat baffled as to why. It is a vaguely smarter dumb action movie than the average dumb action movie. It’s quirky humor/bloody violence combo rings profoundly of either tone deafness or an awkward cultural translation. Korean filmmaker, Joon-ho Bong (The Host), is no slouch behind the camera, but the mostly non-Korean cast seems lost or weirdly out of place. Tilda Swinton is fun as a sniveling, Coke bottle-eyed cartoon character villainess, but ultimately the film’s stifling depression and dourness outweighs its more fun and imaginative strokes. The satire feels stale and obtusely obvious and the dialogue probably could have withstood a few more once-overs. Maybe if it had been a wholly Korean movie with a more consistent tone it would have been great. Who knows? It needed more Kang-ho Song. Less Chris Evans.
Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain) has not directed a movie yet that is not worth seeing. That said, Noah (2014) ranks rather low on my Aronofsky totem pole. It’s a far more consistently joyless experience than Snowpiercer, but I suppose that’s to be expected in a story about God killing everyone. The mythic quality is what worked best about it. I guess I just wanted less mopey-ness in a biblical epic. Aronofsky’s take on the Nephilim—turning them into creaking rock monsters—was interesting but, dare I say it, abrupt and overused. The last act had me yawning and checking my watch. This is a movie with a lot of interesting ideas and is artfully made and it actually feels closer to a biblical legend than anything I’ve seen before (yes, including The Ten Commandments), but it just wasn’t my cup of tea and maybe I can’t exactly put my finger on exactly why. Did it want to retell a famous religious epic? Did it want be a character study of a man’s quest to please his maker? Did it just want to get an environmentalist message out there? Perhaps all in one? I wish this movie was as fun for me to watch and dissect as was the absurd religious controversy surrounding it. Chalk it up to my artless personal taste, but watch it anyway.
Let there be fun:
If you liked Anchorman, then you’ll probably enjoy Anchorman 2 (2013). It’s more of the same and still pretty funny. While the zany spark of madness that was “What is this movie?!” in Anchorman is gone, this sequel manages one or two worthy qualities. Kristen Wiig is hilarious as Brick Tamland’s equally infantile love interest and the plot surrounding the sensationalization of 24 hour news is on point with the real travesty of the state of modern media. It may not be as fresh, sharp, and guffaw-inducing, but you get what you pay for.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was fast, exciting, fun, and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Was it one of the best Marvel movies to come around? Yes, but I haven’t exactly been a huge fan of the Marvel superhero movies. Not being familiar with the comics, however, this was an enjoyable and consistently entertaining space adventure with some welcome humor (and there could have been more…let’s see if this baby gets the Hellboy 2 treatment in the sequel), some likable characters (big surprise that Drax was more than a bloodthirsty oaf—he turned out to be very interesting), and a healthy dose of classic rock surging through its central nervous system. I liked it. I’m glad it was so successful. I hope director James Gunn is allowed to take even more risks in the sequel.
Chris Pratt was in another fun movie this year: The Lego Movie (2014). It’s colorful and clever. More colorful and clever than I was expecting. There were some genuinely smart and innovative gags and the story was fun and functional oo. Who knew a move based on a child’s building toy would have had so much life?
“Seriouser and seriouser,” said the White Rabbit:
One of the last films to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman is a spy thriller about German counter-terrorism based on a novel by John le Carré called A Most Wanted Man (2014). It is a pensive, decidedly un-glamorous story of the war on terror as seen through the eyes of Intelligence operatives. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had more stylishness, but this is a welcome gritty edition to a genre that seems to have few admirers these days. When a Chechen refugee comes to Hamburg he has the eyes of several spy factions watching him. The central pull of the subdued drama deals with the emotions on the personal level of espionage and the backstabbing and calculated, sting-like setups. Director Anton Corbijn trusts the story, his talented cast, and grounded realistic approach to pull us in. Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, and the rest of the cast are good as well.
Martin McDonagh and John Michael McDonagh have allowed us to see Brendan Gleeson in some of his finest performances. They’ve also apparently made some sort of deal where they get to kill him a lot in their movies too. J. M. McDonagh’s Calvary (2014) is an enjoyable character study. Gleeson is a country priest in a small Irish village where everybody knows each other. The first scene has a hidden man behind the confessional tell the priest that he will kill him the following Sunday. The priest knows who it is, but doesn’t tell anyone. Instead we get a week long of soul-searching. There are many memorable scenes of poetic simplicity. Just watching these folks interact with each other would be entertaining enough, but the added suspense of the fatal secret the protagonist carries adds much tension and weight to this thoughtful, beautifully shot film.
Dawn of the Docs:
Extracting twisted pleasures from observing the destructive delusions and inevitable failures of others is why the Germans invented the word schadenfreude. An Audience of One (2007) is a documentary that follows the big Hollywood dreams of a strange pastor (only recently introduced to the movies) who pools his congregation’s money to make a Christian-themed Star Wars space adventure. Between the amateur casting, the lack of production coordination, the costly trips to Italy, and the electricity being cut from not paying their bills and illegally staying in the studios, this man’s poor obsessed vision is a woeful trainwreck of biblical proportions. By the end of the film you get the impression that Pastor Richard Gazowsky is insane and running his church’s money (and congregations faith and patience) into the ground. Thank god they got it all on film.
Borut Strel aids his father, Martin Strel, an internationally championed distance swimmer from Slovenia, in this documentary by John Maringouin, Big River Man (2009). Strel is overweight, borderline alcoholic, and he has swum the Danube, the Mississippi, as well as the Yangtze, and, at age of 53, he set his sights on the Amazon. The film introduces our peculiar protagonist and then follows him on his preparations and eventual arduous tackling of the Brazilian behemoth. All 5,268 kilometers of it. We watch as the river takes its toll on him and his psychotic American navigator descends into madness and the doctors tell him to stop and his son looks on and watches. It’s like Herzog and Colonel Kurtz rolled into one (if that isn’t redundant). Strel’s stubbornness and charisma are ultimately what steer this film and they are mighty rudders indeed.
Three documentaries in a row?! Deal with it. As a film nerd, I have long been obsessed with the film that never was; Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain) had planned to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune and he planned to use the talents of H.R. Giger, Pink Floyd, Jean Giraud, Dan O’Bannon, David Carradine, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, and more. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), directed by Frank Pavich, chronicles the obscure Chilean artist’s doomed project. Jodorowsky is one of the pioneers of the midnight/cult movie and one of the most personal and bafflingly bizarre filmmakers of all time. Watching him retell the tale of how his most ambitious project went kaput is both dazzling and heart-breaking. If this charming documentary is the closest we will ever get to seeing Jodorowsky’s vision of Dune then so be it.
A wonderful place:
Robert Altman (M*A*S*H) is responsible for some of the great American movies and his contemporary retelling of Raymond Chandler’s mystery, The Long Good Bye (1973), is definitely worth a look. It’s a small movie with seemingly little frills. Set in 70s LA, Elliott Gould stars as detective Philip Marlowe, but honestly the mystery hardly matters. Great mystery stories, for me anyway, are more about the detective character and the atmosphere. Altman’s film has both atmosphere and character so little else matters. The dialogue crackles and the scenes unfold unpredictably.
Georges Franju (The Blood of Beasts) directs this enchanting pulp mystery and homage to early 1900s Louis Feuillade serials, Judex (1963). A mysterious cloaked figure threatens the life of a corrupt banker and our story begins. The sumptuous photography and healthy smatterings of surreal delirium create a charming atmosphere full of intrigue, poisons, capes, disguises, blackmail, stage coaches, bird masks, magic, and murder. It’s pulpy fun with enough twists and turns to keep things going, but the look of the film is really what sold me. I’ve never seen Feuillade’s Judex from 1916, but having seen his entire Fantômas series I’d say this seems like a worthy tribute.
Waltz with Bashir director, Ari Folman weaves a refreshingly weird tapestry of impeccable animation, surreal plot devices, and societal allegory with The Congress (2013). Robin Wright stars as herself. She’s an industry star who made it big with a few early hits, but has since become difficult, torn between work and personal life, and acting less and less (although she’s also in A Most Wanted Man). Her agent (Harvey Keitel) pushes her to sign a new contract that will give her entire identity to Miramount Studios. They scan her whole body and own her emotions, figure, expressions, voice, etc. and can keep her forever young to sell movies, products, whatever. Years into the future she will travel back to the studio to see what they’ve done to her soul. In a drug-induced cartoon hallucination we see the future: humans will eat and drink their favorite personalities in order to don their artifice…but it will all be a fictitious delusion, a sinister, apathetic distraction. This is easily the most intriguing and innovative film on this list and while it’s not my number one today, I can’t recommend this fever dream enough.
The bell chimes midnight:
So yeah, apparently Tarantino did borrow copiously from Toshiya Fujita’s bloody revenge thriller, Lady Snowblood (1973). Meiko Kaji stars as the baby conceived and born for the sole purpose of avenging the rape of her mother and the murder of her mother’s husband and son. Broken up into chapters with such epic titles as “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworld”, this blood-soaked journey into unrepentant slashings is full of fantastic scenes of violence and murder. It’s pulpy, but beautifully shot and the main heroine proves a formidable force. If you liked the Lone Wolf and Cub series or the Kill Bills then watch this beast. I love the ending too.
Stephen Elliott’s road comedy about two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and an aging transexual (Terence Stamp) leaving Sydney to cross the outback for a mysterious drag show is fabulous entertainment. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) has become a bit of a cult classic and it’s actually a lot of fun. Stamp absolutely steals the show as the Eeyore-esque Bernadette and the surreality of gaudy, bawdy cross-dressing colors shimmering in the Australian desert is great to look at. While episodic and some of its plot elements feel somewhat contrived, the movie is grounded in its characters and the real problems of prejudice they sometimes face. It’s funny, exciting, and it packs some emotional punch as well.
The Mission director, Roland Joffe, took on Khmer Rouge and foreign spillover into Cambodia from the Vietnam War as the subject of this next movie, The Killing Fields (1984). Sam Waterston and Haring S. Ngor star as journalists, Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran. This is a truly harrowing story of survival—think All the President’s Men meets Hotel Rwanda. When the embassies evacuate and all foreign citizens are forced to leave, Dith Pran is left on his own and must withstand hellish ordeals including both physical torture and violence and psychological manipulation. This is one of those historical footnotes that gets glossed over in American textbooks and it is an important lesson. We should be confronted with these images and humanize the victims. The Killing Fields comes strongly recommended.
Yeah, I sandwiched the heavy political survivalist drama between two quirky, funny movies. What of it? My favorite film of late was Tampopo (1986). Like Bad Boy Bubby, I had been meaning to see this for awhile now and what a treat it turned out to be! Directed by Juzo Itami (A Taxing Woman), this adorably weird celebration of Japanese noodles was a breath of fresh air at the end of a hard day. A tough as nails truck driver and ramen enthusiast (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rides into town (along with his sidekick played by Ken Watanabe) on a stormy night. One fistfight at a noodle shop brings him into the life of demure shop owner, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). The trucker agrees to help Tampopo make the best noodles in town and together they enlist the help of old masters and experts to get every detail absolutely perfect. Apart from the main storyline, there are several non sequitur subplots involving various characters and their humorous interactions with food. There’s a spaghetti-eating instructor, a gangster and his lover who love to incorporate edible elements into their intimate activities, a man returning from the dentist, and more. Most of these side-stories do little more than remind us that food is loved and experienced by all of us. Tampopo is a sumptuous medley of tasty bites to nosh and ponder.