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.

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

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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.

TIFF Preview: Jonathan Glazer and Scarlet Johannson team up for “Under the Skin”

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Jonathan Glazer directed two of the most fascinating films of recent years: “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.” His new film, “Under the Skin,” will not be showing while I’m at TIFF, but  I could not be more intrigued — reviews have been fascinatingly mixed.

Scarlett Johannson stars as a voracious alien seductress who scours remote highways and backroads for human prey, in this sci-fi thriller from director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”).

Fans of Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast” and “Birth” have been anticipating “Under the Skin” with a yearning usually reserved for superhero franchises. Based on Michel Faber’s acclaimed novel, the story’s premise is perfectly suited to a director known for compression, focus, and cool shocks.

On England’s lonely back roads, a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson also appearing at the Festival in “Don Jon”) stalks unwitting men. Her identity and her motives unclear, she is simply, and quite literally, a sexual threat. Her eyes deadened but alert, she prowls night streets and deserted locales in a white van, seeking male victims. More could be said about the plot, but it’s best to allow “Under the Skin” to reveal itself. From its arresting first image — a pure, white pinpoint of light — it expands outward to become an increasingly absorbing mystery. It’s also a Rorschach test for everything one might fear about relations between men and women.

Johansson is sometimes cast for her physical sensuality, and Glazer makes ample use of that here. But the film is anything but lascivious. Having directed landmark music videos for Radiohead and Massive Attack, he was known as a supreme stylist even before his feature films. Here, he offers shades of Kubrick and Hitchcock in his depiction of sexuality, capturing a cool, predatory impulse rather than simple heat. For that matter, Under the Skin shows little interest in simply arousing the audience, be they enamored of Glazer, fantasy fiction, or Johansson. It proceeds at its own rhythm, accumulating one eerie detail on top of another, serving up sometimes baroque encounters between predator and prey, pushing inevitably towards its disturbing conclusion.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF