The best of 2014 … so far: “Skin,” “Boyhood,” “Lovers,” and “Ida”

Boyhood

I’m just going to say it: 2014 has been a fantastic year for cinema. There have been years in which we were forced to wait impatiently for the fall awards season in order to start pondering the year’s best, and while this summer has been mostly horrendous (for blockbusters, at least), there have been several truly great films. In fact, my top 10 for the year to date would be a respectable list five months from now, and that’s pretty extraordinary. Without further ado:

  1. “Under the Skin”: Still the most entrancing, bold, memorable cinematic experience of the year for me. Watching it a second time only affirmed my belief that this is a complex masterpiece of the first degree.
  2. “Boyhood”: While the backlash is likely starting to stir, I stand by my belief that Richard Linklater’s film is one of the finest studies of adolescence ever made.
  3. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama is structured like a circle — the end is another beginning, and I could sit through several more.
  4. “Ida”: It took me awhile to catch up with this powerful Polish drama, but it was worth the wait. Its ending is one of the boldest and most engaging in years.
  5. “The Immigrant”: It’s on Netflix, right now. No excuses.
  6. “Snowpiercer”: The best action film of the summer? Undoubtedly. Probably the year.
  7. “Grand Budapest Hotel”: I still believe this is Anderson’s best since “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and a glorious study of one era changing into the next.
  8. “The Double”: There have been two great doppelganger films in 2014. This was the darkly funny one …
  9. “Enemy”: … and this was the comically disturbing one. But I’m not sure I can watch “Enemy” again, so terrifying is its final shot. Shiver …
  10. “The Raid 2”: I’m as surprised as anyone that I found this hyperkinetic sequel so involving. It makes most action films look rudimentary and utterly dull.

There are a number of fine films hovering on the outside:

  • “Like Father Like Son”
  • “Palo Alto”
  • “The Lego Movie”
  • “Jodorowsky’s Dune”
  • “Abuse of Weakness”
  • “Blue Ruin”
  • “Mistaken for Strangers”
  • “Joe”
  • “Stranger By the Lake”
  • “In Bloom”
  • “Ukraine is Not a Brothel”
  • “Nymphomaniac” (both volumes, although I prefer Vol. 1)
  • “The Lunchbox”
  • “Jimi: All Is By My Side”
  • “Locke” (best film of 2014 involving the pouring of concrete)
  • “Finding Vivian Maier”

And there are also some that I still need to see. Note the absence of “Transformers.” These include:

  • “We Are the Best”
  • “Obvious Child”
  • “Hellion”
  • “The Rover”
  • “Life Itself”
  • “Night Moves”
  • “Edge of Tomorrow”
  • “22 Jump Street”
  • “The Fault in Our Stars”
  • “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
  • “Cheap Thrills”
  • “Closed Curtain”
  • “Lucy”

One final note: My wife and I are expecting our second child to enter the world any day now, so I will likely be unable to post for a week or two — out on baby business.

It’s almost TIFF time, so let’s look back to one year ago

Under-the-Skin-feat-Scarlett-Johansson

Tomorrow, the Toronto International Film Festival will hold its annual kick-off press conference, which sees the first announcement of some of its selections. This year’s crop, in particular, should be fascinating, as there has been much talk of premieres being true TIFF premieres, rather than films that already showed in Telluride or Venice. Does that mean a less-scintillating lineup? Hard to say. Hopefully it does not.

It is interesting, as well, to look back at the films announced at last year’s kick-off, which saw the tepidly-received “Fifth Estate” at the top of the bill. Of course, one of the other reveals, “12 Years a Slave,” earned a Best Picture Oscar months later.

Because I think it’s fascinating to look back at it now and see what I was oddly stoked about (“Labor Day”?), and what I was correct about (“12 Years,” “Under the Skin”), here is my post-announcement feature for BuffaloSpree.com from one year ago. (Note that I stuck with Spree style here, which italicizes titles.)

The Toronto International Film Festival is the only major fest I am able to attend each year, so it’s a bit like my Super Bowl. Covering TIFF for Buffalo Spree has been an amazing experience—here is my post-festival analysis from last year—and each year seems to bring new pleasures. In many ways, the festival is an indicator of all the hits (and misses) audiences in Buffalo and beyond can expect for the remainder of the year.

I’m always thrilled to hear the first batch of announcements, and Tuesday morning’s press conference certainly included some films I was hoping would hit TO. Some thoughts:

  • 12 Years a Slave skips Venice for Toronto: This is big. Steve McQueen’s Shame was my favorite film of TIFF 2011—and of 2011, period—so I’m personally thrilled. Skipping Venice and debuting in TO is a major coup for Cameron Bailey and his fellow TIFF organizers.
  • The full Midnight Madness line-up is coming on July 30: It is always fun to see what’s in store here. Last year, I did not make it to any of them. Funny, I recall DESPERATELY wanting to attend the Seven Psychopaths midnight screening. Glad I waited …
  • TIFF’s 2013 MVPs: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, and Mia Wasikowska all appear in multiple films. Cumberbatch is in three (!), most notably opening night film The Fifth Estate, in which he plays Julian Assange.
  • Under the Skin finally arrives: Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy BeastBirth) Scarlett Johansson-starring quasi-sci-fi film has been in production for a lonnng time. Very exciting to see it here.
  • Lots of Cannes hits: The controversial Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest ColourLike Father Like Son, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive were three of the most buzzed-about Cannes 2013 entries.
  • The return of Jason Reitman: The first movie I ever saw at TIFF was Reitman’s Juno, and Jared Mobarak and I had the privilege of shaking the director’s hand afterwards. (I’m sure he was thrilled.) Labor Day, starring Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet, seems like a perfect story for his typical blend of humor and drama.
  • Oscar buzz: August: Osage County, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Rush, The Fifth Estate, and Gravity are already in the mix.
  • The return of hometown TIFF favorites: In addition to Reitman, Don McKellar and Atom Egoyan are back; the full Canadian lineup is coming soon.
  • Some films I did not even know were in production are screening here: I had no idea Jason Bateman was directing a film (Bad Words), that the late James Gandolfini was starring with Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Nicole Holofcener’s next project (Enough Said), or that Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to Meek’s Cutoff was finished (Night Moves).
  • Missing in action (so far): There is still lots of time for more announcements; TIFF maestro Cameron Bailey said the first batch only included about one-quarter of the complete lineup. But some I’m still hoping to see added are Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (it is playing Venice), and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. Also missing, so far, are three of the best-reviewed films at Cannes: the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Robert Redford in All Is Lost, and Alexander Payne‘s Nebraska.

Now playing at the North Park: “Aftermath”

aftermath

The controversial Polish drama “Aftermath” opened today at the North Park. While not without its flaws, it is certainly a fascinating film. Here is my three-star review from the Buffalo News.

The Polish drama “Aftermath” comes bearing the label “inspired by true events,” and with press notes stating that “Polish nationals have accused the film of being anti-Polish propaganda as well as a distortion of a sensitive piece of Polish history, leading the film to be banned in some Polish cinemas.”

It is not hard to see why director Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s film has inspired so much debate. (The Hollywood Reporter called it the “most controversial film in the country’s history.”) Its subject – the fate of Jews living in World War II Poland – would make waves anywhere “Aftermath” is shown.

Does the film warrant such intense opinion? Undoubtedly. It tells an involving story, to be sure, albeit in grim, one-note fashion. It is more effective as a history lesson than as drama.

Still, this is a worthy production, and an often gripping study of the lasting effects of the July 1941 Jedwabne pogrom, which saw the murders of more than 300 Polish Jews.

Maciej Stuhr and Ireneusz Czop star as brothers Józef and Franciszek “Franek” Kalina, sons of a poor farmer in central Poland whose lives went in different directions. Franek left home for the United States and severed ties with his family. Only when his brother’s wife arrives in the States is he forced to return home.

The community Franek returns to is fractured and strange. Józef is a paranoid outcast, shunned by the glowering villagers for reasons that soon become chillingly clear.

Józef discovered that a village road was actually paved with the tombstones of long-deceased Jews, and this was not the only spot in which these tombstones could be found. The local church was another.

He took it upon himself to “rescue” the tombstones, moving them to his farm and learning to read the names engraved upon them. The anti-Semites in the community are displeased, as the unearthed headstones betray a startling, devastating truth.

As Franek discovers, 26 Jewish families were executed in the village during World War II, and their land was stolen by many still living in the town, as well as the brothers’ late father. Soon, other disturbing details are unearthed, bringing to light atrocities long forgotten.

This is powerful stuff, and director Pasikowski deserves credit for illuminating this sad history under the guise of a “thriller.” Yet this is also a bit jarring, as an overwrought score, over-the-top acting and vaguely inappropriate thriller tropes often undermine the proceedings. (An unintentionally humorous “chase” involving a tractor just seems silly.)

Still, the revelations are effectively unveiled, the acting from Stuhr and Czop appropriately intense, and the mood nicely dour. It makes for a grim bit of cinema, and that is as it should be.

“Aftermath” also succeeds in piquing the interest of audiences in taking a closer look at a time period many of us do not know well. Perhaps the general details are stored in our memory banks, but is the Jedwabne pogrom common knowledge?

Probably not. And that’s why “Aftermath” is an essential film. As the great Andrzej Wajda (the Polish master behind “A Generation,” “Danton” and “Man of Iron”) said about the film, “Some say it’s best to forget about this, but artists, Polish cinema, we’re here to remind people.”

As a study of a nation’s past and present identity, then, and of the past deeds of some its people, “Aftermath” is certainly effective. It is disturbing, and very grim, but so is the time in history the film seeks to highlight.

NIFF’s first year was a success

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I love to support a new film festival, especially an ambitious one, and the Niagara Integrated Film Festival (NIFF) certainly falls under that designation. The fest debuted a few weeks ago and apparently drew more than 10,000 people. That’s a fine tally, and it likely means NIFF will be back. Here is a short preview I wrote for the Buffalo news “Gusto” blog.

The first Niagara Integrated Film Festival might not have the flashiest name, but it is hard to top the location. Running from June 19 to 22, NIFF will take place in and around the Niagara Wine Region, with a number of Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries serving as venues. (Other venues include two locations in St. Catherines.)

The four-day event is the brainchild of Toronto International Film Festival co-founder Bill Marshall, and his ambitious plan seeks to connect film, food and wine. The festival website, www.niagarafilmfest.com, has a full rundown of the unique events, dinners and screenings on tap.

Yes, the location is lovely, we know the wines will be wonderful, but what of the films? It is a nice mix of features and shorts, including a special Mary Pickford program featuring the silent icon’s recently discovered “Their First Misunderstanding.” (Pickford was born in Toronto.)

A few additional highlights include:

“Love Is Strange”: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina received huge praise when director Ira Sachs’s drama about a same-sex couple forced to live apart premiered at last winter’s Sundance Film Festival. Sachs, the consistently interesting filmmaker behind 2012’s “Keep the Lights On,” will hold a Skype Q&A following the film’s June 21 screening.

“Frank”: Yes, “Frank” is the one in which Michael Fassbender wears a giant, weird, fake head. He plays the lead singer of a dysfunctional band in this Sundance breakout, which is directed by Irish filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson.

“God Help the Girl”: The songs of twee indie icons Belle and Sebastian always have felt vaguely cinematic, often telling short, witty stories of lovelorn, bookish individuals. It is no surprise, then, that band leader Stuart Murdoch has written and directed a musical, “God Help the Girl.” The reaction to this one so far has been … mixed, at best. But for Belle and Sebastian fans, “God Help the Girl” could not seem more intriguing.

NIFF is a festival to keep an eye on. Closer to Buffalo than TIFF and certainly more ambitious than any Buffalo-based fests, it could be a welcome addition for film lovers.