Christopher Schobert’s top 10 films of 2014 (via The Film Stage)

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I was thrilled to contribute my thoughts on the this year’s best films to The Film Stage. Take a gander, and see if you agree. (See the site’s top 50 list here.)

I saw the best film of 2014 in April, but do not take that as evidence of a weak year. It was, in fact, a rather wonderful 12 months of cinema, perhaps the finest in some time. Consider some of the enthralling films that did not make the cut: The Raid 2, The Double, Enemy, Gone Girl, The Trip to Italy, Snowpiercer, Locke, Jodorowsky’s Dune, The LEGO Movie, The Theory of Everything, Joe, Edge of Tomorrow, Life Itself, Palo Alto, Nymphomaniac, Like Father Like Son, Land Ho!, and Big Hero 6. And many came nowhere near a list of the top 15, but offered distinct pleasures: Lucy, Neighbors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Belle, Godzilla, The Skeleton Twins, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Fault in Our Stars, In Bloom, The One I Love, Blue Ruin, We Are the Best!, and Magic in the Moonlight.
Consider, also, that I have not had the chance, for one reason or another, to see Inherent Vice, Goodbye to Language, Selma, Love is Strange, Calvary, Unbroken, Citizenfour, Pride, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, among others. Oh, and there are also two biggies that were handsome, well-acted, but, to me, disappointing: Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game. Incidentally, the worst film of the year was an easy one — the Cusack-De Niro abomination The Bag Man — but I must also acknowledge the three big-budget wannabe-monsters that wasted time, money, and talent: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transcendence, and RoboCop. Now, on to happier thoughts.

Honorable Mentions: Force Majeure, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Immigrant, Maps to the Stars, Obvious Child

10. Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski)
Ida is the definition of a seemingly out-of-nowhere, quietly powerful spellbinder. The performances from Agata Trzebuchowska as Ida and Agata Kulesza as her aunt Wanda rank among the year’s finest, and deserve Oscar consideration. (It’s not going to happen, but they deserve it.) Ida is a haunting experience, with an ending that ranks among the boldest and most engaging of 2014.

9. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
Between Enemy and Nightcrawler, it was one delightfully creepy year of Jake Gyllenhaal. The latter, from director Dan Gilroy, is an incisive, acidic view of the creation of a monster — in this case, Gyllenhaal’s amoral videographer. Watching it at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was downright exhilarating, as Nightcrawler revealed itself to be more than just a goosebump-y thriller. Indeed, this is bold, go-for-broke filmmaking that will look even more impressive in years to come.

8. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The buzz emanating from Cannes was on the money: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a Russian tragedy that lingers in the memory. What is perhaps most interesting is how the story slowly develops, moving from small-town politics to gender study and, eventually, a meditation on luck, fate, and violence. The imagery here is unforgettable, and the performances stunning. Leviathan is a dark and incisive look at life in modern Russia.

7. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Like the imagery in Leviathan, the faces in the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night are unforgettable. Well, one face, actually: that of the great Marion Cotillard. As spare and contemplative as the Dardennes’ best work, Two Days, One Night has an emotional urgency that is almost overwhelming. Cotillard makes the fate of Sandra — a factory worker attempting to persuade her co-workers to give up their bonus, allowing her to keep her job — the fate of the audience. This is her finest performance. And that’s saying something.

6. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
The Sidney Lumet talk is apt, as J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year certainly captures the scope and pulse of the late master’s dramas. But this is a dark-side-of-the-American-dream epic with a reach all its own. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain create the most compelling couple of the year, and by the time the credits role, the viewer feels as if they have just witnessed the most significant moments in the birth of a giant.

5. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
It seemed almost impossible that Iñárritu’s Birdman could live up to the festival hype, but indeed it did. Yes, it is a technical marvel. But, above all else, it is an actor’s showcase. Watching Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson levitate, contemplate, rage, and annoy makes the film one of this year’s most pleasurable, and he is equaled by Edward Norton and Emma Stone, especially.

4. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s romantic, cool, mesmerizing love story is an idiosyncratic gem, and a vampire film that feels utterly, thrillingly fresh. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are remarkable as the central couple, the visuals are lush and mysterious, and the soundtrack enhances vistas both urban and exotic. The overarching feel is unmistakably that of a Jarmusch picture, but on a heretofore unreached scale, and its open-ended conclusion is thematically appropriate. It makes the audience feel as if Jarmusch’s dreamlike film could loop back to the beginning, in a circle, and run again, again, and again. How wonderfully fitting.

3. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater’s film is one of the finest studies of adolescence ever made, and a remarkable achievement that pulls off something extraordinary: It makes one feel as if you’ve watched a fictional character grow up before your eyes — because you have. Sort of. Admittedly, being a parent made Boyhood resonate on a deep level, but its force is obviously not limited by age or life status. I think audiences have embraced Linklater’s film so strongly because it makes so many other coming-of-age stories seem trite and overblown. By focusing on the little things, Linklater made a film that can speak to nearly everyone.

2. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
Whiplash is one of the most exhilarating films in years, and certainly one of the finest of 2014. It’s also one that may end up severely misunderstood. Many reviews see the theme as very direct: the only way to become a great artist is through merciless practice, preferably under the tutelage of a tyrant. I’m not sure it is quite so clear-cut. Yes, the movie ends — SPOILER — with Andrew finally winning the respect and approval of the drill sergeant-esque Fletcher. For a few moments, at least. It’s a victory, to be sure, but not necessarily an indication of stardom, or even greatness. This success does not mean director Damien Chazelle necessarily believes it was all worth it, or that he agrees with Fletcher’s methods. It is the appropriate ending, and a great one at that.

1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is the film I referenced at the start, the one that I saw in April and never stopped swooning over. But what is it, exactly, that makes this film come in so far ahead of any other in 2014? Perhaps it is the way Skin makes the Scottish landscape look positively, well, alien. Maybe it is the incredible performance from Scarlett Johansson, an absurdly fascinating score, and the brain-searing imagery. Or perhaps it is how those elements come together for one entrancing experience. This is the most haunting, complex film of the year, and a sad, disturbing work of art. There are scenes that continue to linger in my memory months after that first viewing — chiefly the sight of a crying baby, alone on the beach. That sequence, and others, still resonate, and they will for some time to come. Quite simply, any year in which there is an Under the Skin is a great year for cinema.

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

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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.

One of 2014’s best: Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”

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I think it has been a stellar year of cinema so far, and while “Under the Skin” is still safely at the top of my personal best-of-the-year-so-far list, Jim Jarmusch’s vampire drama “Only Lovers Left Alive” is in the top two or three. Here is my four-star Buffalo News review.

“I’m a survivor, baby.”

So says Eve (Tilda Swinton) to Adam (Tom Hiddleston) in Jim Jarmusch’s romantic, cool, mesmerizing vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive,” opening Friday. The story of a centuries-old couple reunited in present-day Detroit is an idiosyncratic gem, and a vampire film that feels utterly, thrillingly fresh.

It is Jarmusch’s most hypnotic and finest creation since 1995’s “Dead Man,” and is arguably more satisfying than that black-and-white Johnny Depp film. In fact, “Only Lovers Left Alive” might be the director’s strongest film since his trio of 1980s masterpieces, “Stranger Than Paradise,” “Down By Law” and “Mystery Train.”

It certainly offers a more straightforward narrative than his last film, the underrated “Limits of Control.” Happily, though, it retains the quirky feel of his best work, while also jettisoning some of Jarmusch’s often forced sense of whimsy to create a compelling, memorable romance.

Swinton and Hiddleston are remarkable as the central couple, a pair whose epic personal history spans centuries. As the film opens, Eve is in Tangier, strutting the streets in white from head to toe on her way to meet fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe, played by a delightfully wizened John Hurt.

Yes, the very Christopher Marlowe some theorize authored Shakespeare’s greatest works. (More on that later in the film.)

Meanwhile, in a dark, seemingly deserted part of Detroit, Hiddleston’s Adam gracefully slinks around his decaying house in a 100-year-old dressing gown. He is a reclusive musical genius – Adam once gave Schubert a string quartet, you know – whose post-rock “funeral music,” as he calls it, swirls on the soundtrack.

Adam’s only contact with the outside world is Ian (Anton Yelchin), a sweet, dopey hanger-on who aims to please, and Jeffrey Wright’s Dr. Watson, whom he visits, in disguise, for clean blood. But his greatest connection is still his Eve, who FaceTimes Adam from Tangier.

Saddened by his declining mental state, Eve crosses the Atlantic for a reunion. The couple’s peculiar domestic bliss is fascinating. Eve asks him to describe his old acquaintance Mary Wollstonecraft (“delicious”), they play chess, they drive around Detroit – at night, of course.

Soon comes conflict, as Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) rockets into the film in a slinky dress and mussed makeup. Ava is a Los Angeles underground rock-club kid – a different kind of vampire – and she maximizes the dark comic vibe of “Lovers.”

Wasikowska is a treat. The actress has never had the opportunity to play a character quite like Ava before, a giggling, unhinged, ever-thirsty mini-diva who excels at detonating almost every situation she finds herself in.

After Ava makes an unsurprising mistake (and exits the film far too quickly), Eve and Adam are forced once more to clean up her mess. From here, “Only Lovers Left Alive” embraces paranoia, leading our couple into desperation and possible danger.

Jarmusch elicits memorable performances from every member of the small cast, especially Swinton, Hiddleston and Wasikowska. The director’s script is endlessly witty, the cinematography from the great Yorick Le Saux (“I Am Love”) is lush and mysterious, and the music composed by Jozef van Wissem enhances vistas both urban and exotic.

The overarching feel is unmistakably that of a Jarmusch film, but on a heretofore unreached scale. Here is a film in which the appearance of a vampiric Christopher Marlowe does not feel the least bit incongruous, and one in which the admittedly overused vampire-as-addict motif is handled with winking elegance.

It is appropriate that a film about centuries-old vampires lusting for safe, uncontaminated blood would end on a rather pessimistic note, and indeed, the final half hour of “Only Lovers Left Alive” is downright sad. It is not a hopeless finale, but does see Adam and Eve regressing back into survivor mode, with an unsettled future ahead of them.

The open-endedness of the film’s conclusion is thematically appropriate. It makes the audience feel as if Jarmusch’s dreamlike film could loop back to the beginning, in a circle, and run again, and again and again. How wonderfully fitting.

 

Lovers, Neighbors, and The Dead: An early-May round-up

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The last week-plus has been busy, and I am especially pleased with my 4-star Buffalo News review of Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive.” I must admit, I did not expect to embrace the film so strongly, but it was that good.

I also wrote a 3-star Buffalo News review of the funny Seth Rogen-Zac Efron comedy “Neighbors.”

I continue to contribute a number of blog posts to BuffaloNews.com, including, a look at the final film of the Buffalo Film Seminars’ spring semester, John Huston’s “The Dead.” And I wrote about the Coen Bros.’ series at Rochester’s Dryden Theatre.

As usual, more is on its way, including reviews of “Wolf Creek 2” and “Don Peyote” for The Playlist, previews of a couple Cannes entries for The Film Stage, and more …