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Decalogue: Top 10 Films of 2014

January 2, 2015 1 comment

Although I can’t say that I’ve seen many more new films during this past calendar year than this selection of ten, I can say that this selection of notable films released in 2014 all moved, entertained, or challenged me in some way or other and are worthy of mention at this time of annual listified recaps. Links to relevant full RandomDanglingMystery reviews are included by each ranked entry, and my similar list for 2012 is here.

1. The Lego Movie (Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

The Lego Movie delights in its contradictions and that saves it from being swallowed up in them. It thrills at the suggestion of its own self-negation, repeatedly flips the concept of tonal or metaphorical consistency head over heels, and spirals off giddily in clever asides, inventive visuals, and boundless, wall-demolishing energy. Though its text self-consciously celebrates the disordered, nonsensical creative exhilaration of a child with only a Lego set and a limitless imagination, the construction and character of the text itself is the greatest celebration of that enervating impulse imaginable.”

Review – February 19, 2014

2. Tim’s Vermeer (Directed by Teller)

Tim’s Vermeer makes the master’s achievement seem grander and more ingenious even while systematically demystifying the amorphous cult of the genius. The technical ingenuity and problem-solving acumen that Tim Jenison demonstrates and implicitly attributes to Johannes Vermeer need not preclude the evolved creative instincts and aesthetic vision that are breathlessly (and lazily) imparted to ineffable ‘genius’. Tim’s Vermeer suggests that sophisticated technical achievement is its own form of genius, and can tessellate seamlessly with loftier visions to form the genesis of a most memorable art.”

Review – July 20, 2014

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Directed by Matt Reeves)

“Who would have reasonably believed it? The summer’s most intelligently crafted blockbuster is descended from a long line of stiff, heavy-handed sci-fi B-movies; Hollywood’s most emotionally and politically resonant statement of this silliest of movie seasons features a gaggle of simians (some of them riding horses!) as its protagonists. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be (and at its core truly remains) ridiculous. And yet it’s serious without being pedantic, suffused with soulful feeling instead of cornball manipulativeness, a powerful spectacle whose inevitably conflict grows organically from situations, characters relations, and ideologically differences.”

Review – July 28, 2014

4. Frank (Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

“Abrahamson’s film, a sort of outsider riff on This is Spinal Tap for the millenial hipster subculture, is a sharply absurdist and frequently hilarious satire of indie culture’s indulgent meta-embrace of creative expression for its own sake, as well as a dismantling of the bohemian ideal of artistic genesis as an outlet for transference of suffering and turmoil.”

Review – December 30th, 2014

5. Godzilla (Directed by Gareth Edwards)

“Director Gareth Edwards tantrically holds off on a full frontal of his titular iconic reptilian monster for nearly an hour. Even this reveal is tantalizing brief, if also so powerfully iconic as to merit actual in-theater applause and conclusively prove his adoration for the material. Much of his film is vivid rising action and subtle, realist, almost zen-like enormity leading to spikes of even greater enormity.”

Review – May 31, 2014

6. Mr. Turner (Directed by Mike Leigh)

Mr. Turner is one of the year’s most gorgeously photographed films, and will surely earn cinematographer Dick Pope an Oscar nomination (if not a win) if enough Academy members have the right kind of eyes. In exquisitely-shot landscapes that often directly recreate Turner’s grand canvasses in the motion picture frame, Leigh and Pope demonstrate the occasionally-glimpsed sublimity that Turner was able to muster out of his mostly mundane daily life.”

Review – January 1, 2015

7. Interstellar (Directed by Christopher Nolan)

“Like most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is a transporting, entertaining, impressive cinematic experience. The operatically monumental long-building climax is tremendously tense, a marvel of interwoven performance, effects, technical excellence, and emotion-manipulating editing acumen elevated to the level of the visually symphonic by Hans Zimmer’s rising, resonantly dramatic score.”

Review – November 23, 2014

8. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Directed by Peter Jackson)

“From its opening sequence, The Battle of the Five Armies strives for a much less flippant tone [than that of its predecessors]. Picking up moments after The Desolation of Smaug‘s cliffhanger with that film’s titular dragon swooping down with fiery catastrophe on wooden Laketown, The Battle of the Five Armies is a relentlessly paced wringer of a dire war movie. Unlike the book, in which Bilbo gets a bump on the head and naps through the meat-grinder of the battle, Jackson shows us thousands of beings breathing their last (some of which we might even have come to care about) and does not treat the slaughter with anything less than a stiff-lipped seriousness.”

Review – December 23, 2014

9. Snowpiercer (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)

“The alternately viscerally brutal and thoroughly ludicrous dystopian action thriller Snowpiercer is such an indescribable cinematic text that even an accurate synopsis does not begin to scratch the surface of its bleak, steely, bloody vision. To state it matter-of-factly, Snowpiercer is about a stark future in which the entire surviving remnant of humanity travels through a permafrozen landscape aboard a self-sustaining, socially-stratified train running on an eternal global loop. But this description does little justice to Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s harshly ambitious, remarkably designed, and often functionally insane visual, thematic, and sociopolitical embellishments to a much simpler French graphic novel narrative along the same lines.”

Review – August 4, 2014

10. Guardians of the Galaxy (Directed by James Gunn)

Guardians of the Galaxy also suggests a fine pop song with its aesthetic appeal, throwaway wit, and brief but penetrating stabs of emotion. It breezes by in a burst of slick, violent, energetic delight. It’s what Marvel Studios films, in their generally successful but often joyless quest for a balance between storytelling coherence, character integrity, and sociopolitical resonance, often forget to be: tremendously, often transgressively, fun.”

Review – December 20, 2014

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Mr. Turner

January 1, 2015 1 comment

Mr. Turner (2014; Directed by Mike Leigh)

The cinema in 2014 gave us several fascinating perspectives on the nature and source of artistic genius and inspiration. It was defined alternately as an innate gift divorced from experience and formative circumstances (Frank), a collaborative hybrid of pure creative outpouring and regimented organization (The Lego Movie), and a product of technical ingenuity and dedicated work ethic (Tim’s Vermeer). Its ossified and fragile patrimony was worth protecting from the violent upheaval of history at the cost of human lives (The Monuments Men) and its blistering self-expression was worth wringing out of willing vessels at the cost of human kindness (jazz-school drama Whiplash).

In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, artistic genius is simply a fact of everyday existence. The sublime cannot be summoned, captured, or marshalled; it simply is, and those with the right kind of eyes and the proper technical training can occasionally craft a slight reflection of it. Suffering or pain do not motivate or inspire an artist to greater work any more than these common bedfellows of human existence motivate a baker, a tailor, or a factory worker. Art is an object that many people can craft but some can craft better than others, and profound treatises considering the reasons for this discrepancy are unproductive, wrongheaded follies.

This grounded, realist approach is symptomatic of Leigh’s filmmaking, but it is not an impediment to aesthetic beauty or sympathetic insight. Indeed, Mr. Turner is one of the year’s most gorgeously photographed films, and will surely earn cinematographer Dick Pope an Oscar nomination (if not a win) if enough Academy members have the right kind of eyes. Portraying the key adult creative years of Britain’s greatest painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (played with grunting, Falstaffian, bearish reality by the ever-excellent character actor Timothy Spall, who might also get an Oscar call this year), Leigh’s film is chocked full of the stuff of a complicated but earthbound life with little of the romantic bohemianism of the myth of the genius. But in exquisitely-shot landscapes that often directly recreate Turner’s grand canvasses in the motion picture frame (including a breathtaking Low Countries field with sunlit windmill as well as the full panorama of The Fighting Temeraire), Leigh and Pope demonstrate the occasionally-glimpsed sublimity that Turner was able to muster out of his mostly mundane daily life.

That daily life included the loss of his proud ex-barber father (Paul Jesson) after years of the elder Turner assisting the younger in his work, his refusal to acknowledge a mistress (Ruth Sheen) who bore him two also unacknowledged daughters, his blithe disregard and occasional sexual exploitation of his psoriasis-afflicted housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and his eventual quasi-marital bliss with widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). He meets with wealthy patrons and fellow Royal Academy artists (there’s an amusing episode at the annual salon between Turner and his landscape rival, John Constable), learns of the scientific nature of light and colour from a natural philosopher and foresees the fundamental shift that the embryonic practice of photography will herald in painting, and endures and then wittily mocks the insufferable erudition of influential art critic (and hagiographer of his future reputation) John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). He lives long enough to sees major shifts in fashions in art and to witness the increasingly abstract works of his later years dismissed by early Victorian society (and even by the aesthetically particular Queen Victoria herself).

The constant through it all is Spall as Turner, swaying his trunkish form with observant determination. There seems to be little corporeal distinction in the man’s body from hips to shoulders, but he has the interesting face to end all interesting faces, to borrow a Hollywood casting director term. Spall’s Turner is consistently unlovable in his behaviour and especially in his relationships to others. He often speaks abruptly and directly, grumbling frequently, vocalizing his reactions in ursine grunts and groans of an astonishing variety and expressive breadth. Leigh’s script is peppered with understated humour, but the film’s truest chuckles (and Turner’s ultimately winning personality) stem inevitably from Spall’s communicative croaks.

Strokes of painterly beauty aside, Mr. Turner is a deeply realist biographical portrait of an artist who could pull the sublime out of the natural (and the unnatural) world. A different filmmaker might have elevated Turner as his work elevates what it depicts, but Leigh keeps things stubbornly grounded. A good exemplification of his approach can be descried in a famous episode in which Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a sailing ship to observe (and later to paint) a maritime snowstorm. It’s a wonderful image of borderline-insane artistic commitment, and another filmmaker might have used the full technological toolbox of modern moviemaking to make an epic, sweeping sequence in long shots approximating the grandeur of a Turner canvas. They might not have even been wrong to do so.

But Mike Leigh shows Spall being tied to the mast in medium close-up, cuts wide briefly to demonstrate his crow’s nest elevation, and then goes back in close, showing Turner splashed by clumps of snow, hooting in exhiliration at the experience. Then he shows him coughing and breathing heavily, his doctor fretting that he’s given himself bronchitis. It’s a choice of mundane reality over the mythically grandiose that is highly representative of Leigh and, if we share his view of the great artist and not-quite-so-great man, ultimately of J.M.W. Turner as well.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews