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.

“The Immigrant” is one of 2014’s best … but good luck seeing it

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It took me a year to have the opportunity to see James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” but the film was worth the wait. What a shame that it has been seemingly buried in the United States, and Canada. (A Toronto friend told me it was actually released in Buffalo before Toronto. That never happens!)

I’m not sure why exactly the film has been treated so poorly. It is the newest work from a critically acclaimed director, stars an Oscar winner (Marion Cotillard) and two former nominees (Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner), was shown to some acclaim at Cannes, and, at the very least, should be attractive to anyone who with even the slightest bit of interest in 20th century American history.

“The Immigrant” takes its time, plunging the viewer into Ellis Island and then letting events play out. It is anchored by the lovely Cotillard’s latest great performance, as Ewa, an immigrant seeking to reunite with her sister, who has been detained due to illness. Phoenix is the slightly seedy businessman who “saves” Ewa, but pushes her into prostitution. Renner is a charming magician perennially at odds with Phoenix’s Bruno.

It is a stunningly photographed, moving story of survival, and one that grows stronger upon contemplation. Its last shot might be the most memorable and perfectly composed of 2014.

But good luck seeing it at a theater near you. Hopefully, it will arrive soon on DVD/etc., and receive the audience it deserves.

Missing in Action at TIFF 2013 (So Far)

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The Toronto International Film Festival has jusssst about finished announcing its 2013 crop, and there are some killer selections. Some are playing other festivals first (including Alfonso Cuaron’s long-awaited “Gravity”), some already did (“The Past,” “Blue is the Warmest Colour”), but a number of the selections are making their international debut, including Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.”

Still, each year there are movies that were rumored to play TIFF, and never do. Here are a few that I’m still hoping make the cut.

“The Immigrant”: James Gray’s film stars Marion Cottilard, the actress I consider to be my favorite, as well as Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner. I was a huge fan of Gray’s last film, the Phoenix-starring “Two Lovers,” and while “The Immigrant” drew a mixed response from Cannes, its story of new arrivals to America in the 1920s could not intrigue me more.

“Inside Llewyn Davis”: This is a biggie. The Coen Bros.’ folk-music odyssey also played Cannes, where it earned typically ecstatic reviews. It does not open until December, and that seems a ludicrously time to wait for the film, which stars Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

“All is Lost”: I just watched Robert Redford’s last film, “The Company You Keep,” and while it was a pretty standard affair, the TIFF 2012 entry was a reminder of how strong an actor he can be. This mostly dialogue-free tale of one man caught in a storm at sea looks mesmerizing. It is J.C. Chandor’s follow-up to his very strong debut, “Margin Call.”

“Nebraska”: I love the state of Nebraska, especially the Cornhuskers, and I’ve liked just about every Alexander Payne picture, but I haven’t been too charged up for this one yet. Still, it’s Alexander Payne, it stars the great Bruce Dern, and the black-and-white looks lovely.

“The Zero Theorem”: Christoph Waltz stars in the return of Terry Gilliam, another future-set bit of Gilliam-ana (I’m coining that). “Zero” is already booked for the Veince Film Festival.

“Oldboy”: Spike Lee’s remake recently shifted release dates from October to November, and while that is often a signal of bad things to come, it may prove wise, since October is a busy month for an action-y film. Anyone interested in cinema is dying to see this Josh Brolin-starrer. I wonder if he eats squid.

“Palo Alto”: There are a number of reasons to be intrigued by this adaptation of James Franco’s story collection. But tops, for me, is its director: Gia Coppola, the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola. She is the daughter of Coppola’s late son Gian-Carlo, and if her aunt Sofia has proven anything, its that the female Coppola’s are a force to be reckoned with.

There are others that perhaps were not ready, and instead are playing later fests — Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” — or perhaps skipping the festival circuit entirely. I would not rule out some biggies like Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” or George Clooney’s “Monuments Men”

And note that TIFF still has its “Masters” program to unveil. Last year at this time, I was hugely disappointed that Haneke’s “Amour” was not playing the festival … and then there it was, on the “Masters” list. The full schedule arrives on Tuesday (August 20), so I would expect it then.

All of the films mentioned above would have made nice TIFF selections; I’m especially surprised not to see “The Immigrant,” “Llewyn Davis,” and “Nebraska” on the list. But with so many great films over the festival’s 11 days, who can be disappointed?

Robert Redford stars in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost”; photo credit: Daniel Daz

Stream This: Aimes-tu Marion Cotillard? Then “Little White Lies” is Worth Watching

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(Please excuse my likely incorrect French.)

How many times have you searched an actor, actress, or director’s name on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video and been stunned to find … nothing available? If you are a longtime member of either, chances are that is a frequent occurrence.

Case in point, one of my favorite actresses, the stunning French powerhouse Marion Cotillard. There is a strong argument to be made for Cotillard as the greatest working actress in cinema, and I think “Rust and Bone” is exhibit A. She has a starring role in James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” which screened at Cannes, which should put her in this year’s Oscar conversation. She was absurdly ignored last year.

Of course, Netflix offers her biggies … on disc only. There is the great “Rust and Bone,” her Oscar-winning performance in “La Vie en Rose,” the hits (“Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception,” “Midnight in Paris”), the quasi-hits (“Public Enemies,” “Contagion”), the flops (the underrated “A Good Year,” “Nine”), and a few other more obscure Marion films for rental, including Abel Ferrara’s “Mary,” “Toi et Moi,” and “Innocence”; I must admit, I know little about the latter two.

But one of my early faves, “Love Me if You Dare,” is not available. I have fond memories of seeing that strange romantic-comedy at the Dipson Amherst upon release, and it won me over with its heart-on-its-sleeve insanity. It was the first time I noticed Cotillard, as well as Guillaume Canet, her real-life boyfriend and frequent costar.

Amazon? For Prime Instant Video members, there are no free streaming options, but there are some nice rental choices, including “Love Me if You Dare.”

What about free streaming choice starring the great Marion C? There are two choices, both from Netflix: “Big Fish” and “Love Me if You Dare.” You already know “Big Fish”; it’s the Tim Burton comedy-drama that starred Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, and, in a small role as Billy Crudup’s bride-to-be, Marion Cotillard.

“Little White Lies,” though, is a must-watch … If you love Marion Cottilard, that is. Is it a great film? No, certainly not. It is self-indulgent, overlong, and often falls very flat. But if you are a Cotillard fan, you will find it a worthy drama whose successes are chiefly due to casting. This is really a Gallic “Big Chill” — a group of longtime friends come together for a summer holiday — with a cast of attractive French heavyweights, and the melodrama is a tad overwhelming, but it mostly works.

Part of the reason is that the cast really is believable as a group of friends. As Canet told ScreenDaily around the film’s Toronto International Film Fest premiere:

“We shot the movie in the summer, but in May I asked them to come to the house where we were shooting the film. I wanted them to spend three days in this house, feeling the place and using the boat, using the kitchen. I wanted them to remember the place when they were coming back to shoot — they would feel they had already spent years of vacation in that house.”

But what really stands out is the casting itself, chiefly the big three stars: François Cluzet “The Intouchables,” Canet’s “Tell No One”), Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”), and Marion Cottilard. It is a treat to see Cotillard here, playing a relatively “normal” character, and doing it well.

Perhaps we will see more streaming Marion soon, and we can look for her soon onscreen in Canet’s “Blood Ties.” If that’s not enough for you, have you watched the video for her lovely song with Franz Ferdinand?

(Incidentally, “Lies” famously suffered a disastrous first screening at TIFF 2010 — the subtitles did not work.)

Photo from the NY Observer