2014 in review: My Buffalo News top five

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One more 2014 list from me: Here’s my top five from the films I reviewed last year for the Buffalo News. It’s a limited list, obviously, but some fun picks here.

From the News’ most frequent contributing movie critic, Christopher Schobert, a list of his Top Five of 2014:

Vampires. LEGOs, sullen teens, and pot-smoking octogenarians would make for a wild party, and all figure in my top five News-reviewed films of 2014. Several just missed the list – Marvel’s “Big Hero 6,” the Bill Hader- and Kristen Wiig-starring “Skeleton Twins,” Scottish musical “God Help the Girl” – while the ludicrously enjoyable “Endless Love,” missed by a mile. Here are five of the year’s cinematic treats.

  1. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: Jim Jarmusch’s mesmerizing vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an idiosyncratic gem that feels utterly, thrillingly alive. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston created 2014’s most memorably romantic couple, and the hypnotic, Detroit-set film ranks among the “Mystery Train” director’s finest, most hypnotic efforts.
  1. “The LEGO Movie”: You would be forgiven for thinking an animated film called “The LEGO Movie” would be a soul-crushingly corporate nightmare, but you would be incorrect. For even with the LEGO name, it is a colorful, fast-moving affair with a wildly clever message of creativity. The film is also a rare creation with all-ages appeal.
  1. “Palo Alto,” a rarity in recent American high school cinema – a downbeat drama focused on the sudden, foolish accidents of teenage life. First-time director Gia Coppola has her aunt Sofia’s eye for adolescent ennui, and deftly captures how it feels to be young, bored, lustful and a little bit scared.
  1. “In Bloom”: A somber but electrifyingly vivid Georgian drama, “In Bloom” is a gripping portrait of thwarted adolescence in war-torn, early-90s Republic of Georgia. The film rightfully earned worldwide praise as an insightful document of semi-recent Eastern European history.
  1. “Land Ho!”: As the exclamation point in its title indicates, “Land Ho!” finds just the right crowd-pleasing tone. This wonderfully entertaining travelogue buddy-movie about two seniors vacationing in Iceland is the antithesis of the tired dudes-on-a-road-trip comedy.

Review: Gia Coppola continues the family tradition with “Palo Alto”

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A film I was dying to see at TIFF but unable to catch was Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.” I was thrilled to have the opportunity to review it recently for the Buffalo News. Here is my 3 ½ star review.

“Palo Alto” is a rarity in recent American high school cinema. It opens not with a raucous party or a messy make-out scene, but with two teenagers sitting in a beat-up old car, getting stoned, drinking and talking nonsense. Suddenly, the driver hits the gas, and the car smashes into a wall.

Such sudden, foolish accidents are often a reality of teenage life, and opening with a scene such as this makes it clear that first-time director Gia Coppola is aiming to create something greater than the typical high school drama.

Like her aunt Sofia, the already accomplished photographer has an eye for adolescent ennui, and in “Palo Alto,” she deftly captures how it feels to be young, bored, lustful and a little bit scared. In doing so, Gia Coppola has firmly established herself as a thrilling, intelligent young director, one every bit as unique and bright as her aunt Sofia, uncle Roman, grandmother Eleanor and grandfather Francis.

Yes, the Coppola dynasty continues to startle, and if the results were not so noteworthy, it might seem obnoxious. Interestingly, “Palo Alto” stars Emma Roberts, the daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia, and Jack Kilmer, son of Val Kilmer and Joanne Whaley. Both stars are self-assured and wonderfully “real,” just like the film.

Based on actor James Franco’s short-story collection – yes, Franco is seemingly on a quest to win the award for busiest man in show business – this ensemble drama is centered on a group of realistically complex, often troubled teens.

April (Roberts) is a shy, introspective virgin with an odd home life and a crush on her soccer coach, “Mr. B,” played by … James Franco. She often baby-sits his young son, and finds herself the wide-eyed subject of his attention.

Things develop into an expected situation, but the performances of Roberts and Franco keep the clichéd student-teenager affair from feeling rote. Neither character is one-note, and under Coppola’s direction, both are memorably authentic.

Kilmer is Teddy, a quiet, floppy-haired youth who harbors a secret crush on April. After a post-party drive home results in a DUI, Teddy is forced to perform community service, and actually seems to take to it. However, the behavior of his best friend Fred (Nat Wolff) grows increasingly erratic and dangerous.

All of these sexual, drug-and-loneliness-fueled entanglements occur amid school days, parties and soccer games — the monotonous elements of high school life in suburbia. It is an emotional mosaic in which little “happens,” but every look, gesture and touch is bursting with desire.

“Palo Alto” is, then, clearly the work of a photographer, and there are shots of haunting beauty and bleak elegance. The film’s final third, especially, contains several startling moments, visually and thematically. Even the fate of Fred, a character who at first seems the dullest individual onscreen, becomes surprisingly involving.

What keeps “Palo Alto” from qualifying as a truly great film is the sense that it never arrives at any particularly new insight. Coppola’s findings about the teenage wasteland of high school are truthful and wise, but never quite surprising. This means that “Palo Alto” is a coming-of-age drama – period. But it is a successful one, and that is more than enough.

If the film heralds the arrival of a fine new director, it is also noteworthy for establishing that Franco is capable of subtlety as both an actor and a writer (who knew?), that Kilmer is a star in the making, and, most of all, that Roberts is one of her generation’s finest young actors.

The 23-year-old Roberts has perhaps the most perplexingly emotive eyes in recent cinema, coupled with a casual elegance and strength. She has now dabbled in indie films (“It’s Kind of a Funny Story”), genre fare (“Scream 4”), and television (“American Horror Story”), but “Palo Alto” indicates that Roberts’ most fascinating work is yet to come.

As for Coppola, her maturation as a writer and director will certainly be intriguing. Remember that aunt Sofia followed her debut, “The Virgin Suicides,” with the startlingly wonderful “Lost in Translation.” Gia Coppola’s next cinematic effort should be just as memorable.