Tag: 2014

Top 100 Movies (2014 Edition): Scenes from Numbers 34, 12, 59, 57, and 76

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Does the title confuse you? Let’s break it down together. First, it’s my annual top 100 Movies List time. Every year I update my top 100 movies list with things newly watched and rewatched, and newly ordered based on whatever whims were coursing through me roughly 2 hours ago, when I (mostly) finalized my list for 2014. I say mostly because summer has become my most fruitful movie watching season and it isn’t quite over yet, so I want to give myself some room to mess around with the back end of the list by having only 99 movies on the list as currently composed and with the last two in the list holding temporary spots. This leaves between 1 and 3 spots available for movies that wow me in the next month or so, and that’s certainly possible, as two movies that I watched over the weekend will be appearing here at some point in the future.

Now, for the format of the presentation. I’ve grown tired of just doing a mini paragraph about each movie with a quote and a link to a full review. If you want that, go to last year’s version of the list. For this year I’m doing something completely different. I’ll be picking one outstanding scene from each film and doing a write up about just that scene. And, to make it even more fun, I’ve run my list through a randomizer and will present five random movies from it every other day or so (don’t worry, fans of order, my full ordered list is available on letterboxd). Wherever possible, I’ll link to a youtube or vimeo version of the scene so you can play along. Where that isn’t possible, I’ll do a quick recap of the scene so that we’re all on the same page. And as always, the title of each movie will link to my full review if I’ve written one. Ready, begin.

34. The Long Day Closes – A Boy’s Places

The Long Day Closes is one of a good few coming of age movies on my list. It’s something I’m really attracted to in stories, for whatever reason. This particular one is a fictionalized autobiography of director Terence Davies focuses on four places which shaped him: his house, his church, his school, and the movie theater in which he would escape the above three for a few hours at a time. The conclusion of the film takes us back to all of those places and does so in a way that emphasizes their similarities and differences. The entire sequence is shot from above and tracking to the left and as church pews fade into school desks and one authority figure dissolves into another, we see the summation of the forces that guide an shape a young man, this young man. And that song is just perfect.

12. Modern Times – The Tramp Eats

Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp is one of the most indelible characters of cinema. Always disrespected but never disrespectful, he is the hero of genteel politeness in a body that distracts everybody but the lucky few from his underlying humanity. In this scene he is the test subject of a new machine which will allow factory workers to continue eating while they work, doubling their efficiency. The first fourth or so of the film is as lucid a critique of the modern factory system as we have and the silly invention is the height of both hilarity and satire. When it fails spectacularly, the boss rejects it: “It isn’t practical.” Nevermind the human toll, as the Tramp has collapsed on the floor from the invention’s cruel(ly funny) aberrations.

59. The Seventh Seal – Burning a Witch

“Will you every stop asking questions,” Death asks Antonius Block. Max von Sydow’s voice answers, but it’s director Ingmar Bergman’s words, “No, never.” The three Bergman movies I’ve seen are all about questions without answers, and the sometimes joy and sometimes terror they can bring. Here, it’s terror, as a young woman is burned for consorting with the devil. Block inquires about the devil, if only to ask him about God. His constant search brings him to much suffering, and only Death remains absolute.

57. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – A Phone Call

Max von Sydow makes another appearance here, this time towards the end of his acting career. It’s 50 years after The Seventh Seal and he’s playing the father to Mathieu Amalric’s Jean-Do, a paralyzed man who can only move his left eye. This scene captures the difficult relationship between the two, as they are both trapped, one by age and the other by his body. The movie is about the failings of our physical beings and the triumphs of our spirits, but it’s the gradual defocusing at the end of this scene that seals the movie for me. Throughout the film, the camera often takes the POV of Jean-Do and here, as elsewhere, it tells as much as the words through just the image. 

76. Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs – Snowball!

There is something to be said for silliness. Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs has silliness in spades, and rarely is it more on display than in this fun scene that involve karate, ice cream, breaking and entering, poop, and weather reportage. Sometimes you’re asking questions about if God exists, other times you’re throwing mint chocolate chip snowballs at a grown woman’s face.

Do you have a favorite scene from any of these movies, or anything else to add? Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you!

The Zero Theorem (2014)

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Terry Gilliam is one of the most insane directors we have currently working. There’s nothing he won’t do, it seems, and every movie feels like an effort to top himself. Sometimes that creates greatness (12 Monkeys, Brazil, parts of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) and sometimes that way leads to madness (the little of Tideland I could watch, and parts of The Fisher King). Say what you will about the actual quality of his films, he rarely holds himself back. The Zero Theorem, his first movie in five years, is no exception as he gets as philosophical as he has ever been when he ponders the meaning of life and what happens if everything is nothing.

Of course, a bunch of movies have these kinds of questions in mind, but they hardly ever have the pluck or sense of humor that Gilliam at his best brings to a film. I know it’s probably blasphemous to say this, but The Zero Theorem might be his best work. I’m probably super biased, as I love these psychobabble movies, but I can’t deny that the movie really really worked for (on?) me. A large part of that credit goes towards the story, written by Pat Rushin, which constantly straddles the line between comprehensibility and insanity, between profundity and pretentiousness, between mundanity and exoticness. It’s a delightful script, too, as it allows Gilliam his usual playful exuberances visually and tonally. Although the film is pondering the Deep Thought-type questions of the universe, Gilliam and Rushin never allow it to get too serious. The actors, led by Christoph Waltz who proves for the first time that he can carry an entire movie on his back, perform their own silliness extremely well. It must be difficult to get all of these ideas, both intellectual and emotional, across while not delving into parody or archness, and from David Thewlis as a hapless middle manager to Lucas Hedges as a hardware whiz-kid to Matt Damon as the possibly malicious corporate head with a chameleon wardrobe, all the actors are wonderful. A special mention must go to Mélanie Thierry, who performs her semi-Manic Pixie Dream Girl role as admirably and charmingly as such a role has ever been played. She’s wonderful.

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If this all ended poorly, it might be an interesting failure. It would join Tideland as one of those movies which has its supporters but never found the success it deserves. Heck, I might very well be one of those crazies shouting from the hilltops about its glory. But damn, does it stick the landing. There’s a lot going on in this movie, and some of it involves some complex-ish literary theory to grasp fully, but suffice it to say that it revolves around the author’s we and performative utterances, plus some Bible knowledge (thanks Wikipedia!) and some heavy lifting. I guess The Zero Theorem probably won’t be a huge hit, and it is very likely going to divide audiences with its deliberate insanity which masks the film’s loftier intentions. I really fell for it.

Musical May 2014 Wrap-up

As you might have noticed if you follow me on Letterboxd, frequent the Filmspotting forum, or know me in real life, I spent much of the past month watching musicals. They were a big blind spot for me and I used the month to fill in some holes and add some depth to my understanding of the genre. Of course, I’m whatever the opposite of a genre-snob is, so I counted movies like That Thing You Do and Almost Famous alongside the more traditionally defined movies like Meet Me in St. Louis and Swing Time. Here’s the list of all the movies I watched and a quote from my full review, which can be found by clicking on the title of the movie. They’re listed in order of increasing quality.

12. Tommy

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A modicum of restraint might have gone a long way towards making this an enjoyable experience. Instead, everything is blown to its biggest possible proportion and then beyond that.

11. That Thing You Do

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Other things to like include most of the actors involved (even the perpetually bored Liv Tyler shows some vivaciousness and tenacity here) and the kind of shambolic plot progression, which hits all the notes you expect in a rise to fame kind of story but never feels entirely perfunctory thanks to Hanks’s twists on old tricks (see the band members run around a playground map of the US during a travel montage as a prime example).

10. Meet Me in St. Louis

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Garland is charming as ever, and the rest of the cast feels nicely lived in, rather than the, um, theatrical way that a lot of these musical actors can end up being. But the songs again didn’t get my toes tapping nor did they have me humming later.

9. Funny Face

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 Thoroughly enjoyable is about as high praise as I can give it, not that that’s a bad thing at all. Astaire and Hepburn have a tangible chemistry so strong that even the age difference isn’t that big a deal.

8. The Wizard of Oz

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The music is… ok. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an undisputed classic for a reason, it’s a perfect combination of whimsy and nostalgia for a place she’s never been. “If I Only Had A Brain” is a delightfully play on what it means to be smart, but all of the other versions (Heart and Courage) don’t match up.

7. Swing Time

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Give me as much Astaire and Rogers singing and dancing as you possibly can, and ditch almost everything else. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy those more normal elements of the film, I mostly did. It’s more that those song and dance numbers are so freaking good that I could probably watch an entire movie of them.

6. Dancer in the Dark

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What makes this film stand out from those other two movies are the sheer power of Bjork’s half-horrible and half-amazing performance and the truly fantastic musical numbers. I’m not a fan of Bjork’s music but what she does here is really great, taking the emotional and thematic happenings and melting them into a musical melange which features a lot of percussion and diagetic sound becoming the rhythm and melody of the numbers.

5. Phantom of the Paradise

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I’ll admit that I don’t really love this style of music, and the end credit song which acts as a kiss-off to the villainous Swan, played delightfully by Paul Williams, is probably the best of the bunch, but at least I didn’t hate most of them.

4. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

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Things almost always follow the same sad-happy-sad-happy wave, and the technical showmanship is often the best element. So yes, the huge dance number and fight scene at the middle of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the 1954 version of 2014 Godzilla (yes, I understand that the original Godzilla also came out in 1954). And that’s kind of awesome.

3. All That Jazz

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Gideon is played by Roy Scheider, whom I’ve only really seen in Jaws. Here he’s pretty much the opposite of Brody. In fact, though I probably wouldn’t have picked him to star in a musical, he gives the best male performance I’ve seen in this month-long marathon.

2. Almost Famous

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And now, “Tiny Dancer” will be about letting go of all the junk that we throw into our lives, all the pettiness with which we treat each other, and just embracing being alive, in our times and in our places and with the people around us. As the band and hangers-on join in with Elton John one by one the audience, too, follows suit and gets carried away in the moment. It’s a wonder.

1. The Sound of Music

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The opening scene has Julie Andrews as Maria enjoying a sunny afternoon on the top of a mountain in the Austrian Alps. She sings the title song and basically just radiates joy. Throughout the course of the film, Andrews brought to mind light words. Radiant, incandescent, brilliant, luminous.

Alright, that’s the large picture. Let’s get a little more focused. Top 5 music scenes!

10. Tommy – “Pinball Wizard”

Despite my problems with the movie on the whole, this scene is a classic. Elton John makes most things better and I love the idea of competitive pinball played in a concert hall. Throw in the shoes and you’ve got a great scene in an otherwise terrible movie.

9. Meet Me in St. Louis – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

It’s sadder and slower than the more popular versions of the song, but this is the only song that really stood out to me from Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland is a treasure and plays the melancholy here perfectly.

8. All That Jazz – “You Better Change Your Ways”

This hails from the much weirder second half of the film as Fosse stand-in Joe Gideon wrestles with his mortality. It features the three women in his life pleading with him to change his bad habits and is directed by his more lively subconscious or something. I love the almost unnatural choreography here. If you’re going to do a dream scene you better make it appropriately strange!

7. Funny Face – I Feel Like Expressing Myself

This scene also features nutty dancing, but here it’s the ever wonderful Audrey Hepburn rebelling against the fashion world embodied by Fred Astaire by going silly and modern. It is goofy and impressive at the same time.

6. The Sound of Music – “The Lonely Goatherd”

Speaking of goofy, “The Lonely Goatherd” is a wonderfully absurd little interlude which has the most minor of plot importance but showcases just how much music can mean to a family. It is also another example of the ever-present awesomeness that is Julie Andrews.

5. All That Jazz – “On Broadway”

Whoever uploaded this video to Youtube called it Pure Cinema and I can’t really disagree. It’s impressive that Fosse is able to use his sense of timing and motion to not only capture dance on stage but to make it a uniquely cinematic expression of those ideas through his use of framing and editing. Remarkable, and lots of fun.

4. Swing Time – First Dance

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. That should be enough to get you watching. What happened to the multifaceted star? Is Hugh Jackman the closest thing we have? That’s kinda sad.

3. Seven Brides For Seven Brothers – Barn Raising Dance

An amazing mix of dancing and gymnastics that uses the widescreen presentation perfectly and looks like the most fun anybody will ever have. I mean, those shirts. Seriously.

2. Almost Famous – “Tiny Dancer”

I went on at length about this song in my review. It’s one of those scenes that you’ll never forget.

1. The Sound of Music – “The Sound of Music”

It works astoundingly well as an introduction to the character of Maria, the landscape that plays such a large part in making the story feel real, and the theme of the power of music to lift, enhance, and propel us to our greatest heights.

 

The Immigrant (2014)

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Call it counterprogramming to the influx of big explosion-y movies filling the multiplexes in the summertime. Call it beautiful, painterly, radiant, dingy, gloomy and gloam-y. Call it a melodrama. Call it moving and patient. It will answer to all of these names. But is it any good? Yes and no.

The dichotomy there is embodied in the film by way of the two leads. One, Marion Cotillard, is extraordinary. She’s reminiscent of Frank Borzage’s heroines, both full of life and almost constantly oppressed by outside forces. She’s a truly wonderful character, a woman who, along with her sister, comes to America in 1921 and is immediately snatched up by a less-than-reputable man who seems to have a history of doing this kind of thing. He recruits her as a seamstress for his burlesque shows but she is soon thrust on stage and that’s not the first indignity she must suffer, nor will it be the last. The key to the film, though, is that she never feels pitiable because she doesn’t need the audience’s pity. She can fend for herself and she can stand up to the men who want to control her.

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The problem, then, is the other lead. Joaquin Phoenix is one of those actors that just doesn’t often click for me. I think I get really turned off by people who don’t seem to have a sense of humor, who don’t seem to get the cosmic joke of existence. Until very recently, Edward Norton felt like one of those guys, but his roles in Wes Anderson movies (Moonrise Kingdom in particular) showed that he gets it, he can take things less seriously sometimes. I don’t think Phoenix has that. The last thing that even hinted in that direction was Signs, but everything else he’s done in the past decade has been so darn serious. So when he’s doing practically the same thing here as he did in The Master, the same intensity and single-minded pursuit of physical pleasure to the detriment of interpersonal relationships it feels like he didn’t learn the lesson of that film. This is all an oversimplification, of course, but there’s something to it, I think, and it really holds back what might have been an all-time great film.

Because the rest of the movie, including a nice but ultimately forgettable performance from Jeremy Renner and some spectacular direction by James Gray really does work. It feels like one of those old 30’s melodramas and a modern film at the same time. There are numerous shots which show a level of craftsmanship that has few equals in today’s landscape. And that last shot is a doozy and a half. The mood, the atmosphere, the recreation of early 20’s New York City, they’re all really grand and work towards making the story of Cotillard’s Ewa feel real (emotionally, at least). If only it weren’t let down by a clunky and unconvincing Joaquin Phoenix.

Mistaken for Strangers (2014)

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I feel like I should start this review off with a disclaimer. The National is probably my favorite band still playing music and their second most recent album, High Violet, placed at number three on my top albums list. So yeah, I was probably already in the bag for this rock doc about their tour playing that album. But rock docs usually aren’t my thing, so it would take a special twist on the old formula for me to really get behind it.Luckily for me, that twist is right there from the beginning. This isn’t just a concert film, it’s a soul-searching movie about growing up in the shadow of a rock star, and about the creative struggles of a guy who’s down more than he’s not. It’s a movie about making itself, and it’s a triumph of the genre.

The National is a band of brothers, as the five main members are comprised of a duo of brother guitarists and a bassist and drummer who just happen to be twins. That leaves singer Matt Berninger as the only guy without a brother in the band. He does have a brother, though, Tom, who seems to have taken up being a younger brother as a full time job. Tom is not a fan of The National, he prefers the metal end of the spectrum and derides the band’s music as coffee house rock. That doesn’t stop him from joining the band on their European tour as a roadie who spends his free time making a documentary about the tour. Early on he tries to get all of the things we expect to be in a tour doc into the film: one on one interviews with all the band members and behind the scenes squabbles, though these are both filtered through his singular lens. See, Tom is a bit focused on his own relationship with his older brother, and the ways that Matt’s fame has twisted their already kind of distant relationship. Most of those interviews with the band members become a kind of therapy session as Tom either asks about times when Matt has been a jerk to them or questions why there isn’t as much crazy drug-fueled parties happening. It seems like Tom forgot which band he was following.

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He’s also not a very good roadie, and the film chronicles his misadventures as he loses guests lists and forgets to get water bottles and towels together for the band before a show. This puts his relationship with his brother on even rockier ground. There’s not a whole lot of good times captured on record here as the film dispels the myth of the rock tour with the truth of overwhelming logistics and stress. Tom is unafraid to show us exactly how much he screws up and when he is fired once the group gets to New York it is not so much a surprise as it is inevitable. He’s not cut out to do this kind of thing and his first stop is to return to his parents house and ask them on camera what the difference is between him and his famous brother. He’s trying to figure himself out by contrasting himself against his wildly successful brother. Nobody is going to stand up to that kind of self-scrutiny. As Tom spirals further and further into himself we see him starting to edit the footage he captured throughout the tour. Here is where you’ll either lose patience with the film or get even more engrossed in his struggles with depression and creative consternation. Matt and his wife (who is also credited as an editor on the film) put Tom up in their daughter’s playroom to give him enough space physically and emotionally so he can create the film he needs to create. There are further struggles as Tom realizes exactly what the movie has to be about, and when he changes the post-it notes that serve as an outline of the film from a sprawl of multi-colored near-randomness into on straight line of red notes detailing all of his screw ups we begin to understand exactly how and why this movie is what it is. The film a fantastic work of self-realization which ends with the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen. It’s a powerful statement that signals a new phase in this man’s life and is inspiring to anybody who has ever had a creative bone in their body.

A final note on the the music, which, if this were a typical rock doc, would probably take up the majority of the review. The film saves it’s biggest music scene for last, a performance of “Terrible Love” in which Tom is serving a new role in the crew of the band and Matt goes out into the crowd and eventually into the lobby to use its echos as amplifiers of the line, “It takes an ocean not to break.” We’ve seen the ocean at this point in the film, and Tom has not been broken. The National provides the perfect backing to this kind of self-examination as their songs are full of people in similar situations to Tom, trying to find their way in a world that feels indifferent to them. There’s another part in the film where Tom goes into the studio with the band and hears them working on a song from their most recent album, Trouble Will Find Me. It’s a song about the relationship between Tom and Matt called “I Should Live in Salt” which has lines like “Don’t make me read your mind/You should know me better than that” and it’s chorus “I should leave it alone but you’re not right”. Throughout the film we get Tom’s point of view on their brotherly relationship, or lack thereof. In the song we see Matt’s side, his recognition that they aren’t alike and his guilt over leaving Tom behind as he pursued his rock and roll career. It’s the film in four minutes and from the other point of view, and is must listen material for any fan of the movie.