Top Ten Performances of 2014

Long time no talk.  I know, it’s been almost four months since my last post, but it’s been quite the hectic fall/winter season, but the most wonderful/stressful/frustrating/awful/awesome time of the year is upon us.  Well, watching these films are a visceral experience.  Analyzing their awards potential, rewarding/not rewarding them, and seeing all this obnoxious campaigning (specifically whisper campaigning AGAINST certain films) is disgusting, but it’s part of the process… I guess.

Anyways, as a certain tradition of mine, I’ve chosen ten performances that I felt were unmatched.  I kind of cheated combining some a few performances, but who cares.  Here are my ten favorite performances of 2014.

MICHAEL KEATON (Birdman)

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson in BIRDMAN is a revelation, divulging into an extremely flawed, egotistical, and overtly ambitious man child who looks for meaning and fulfillment through praise and adoration.  For how artistically driven the film is, this entire thing would’ve crumbled if Keaton was anything less than prolific and completely devoted.  This is one of those performances where you have very little reason to appreciate the character on paper, but through the moving image, Keaton brings out the emotions and the flaws that we all suffer from — just on a more upscale level.  He drips with insecurity and confusion, moving through the halls of the St. Regis Theatre unsure of where he’s walking towards and when it’ll end, just hoping… HOPING he becomes what he desires to become.  Keaton kills it here, and though this is an ensemble piece with an excellent visual execution, Keaton is the beating heart of BIRDMAN.

MARION COTILLARD (Two Days, One Night)

Premiering at Cannes at steamrolling through Telluride and Toronto, the latest film from the Dardenne Brothers encapsulates a simple narrative of a hopeless and weak person turning into an example of strength and will.  Similar to Birdman, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT fails if they don’t nail the central figure, Sandra, a wife and mother of two who tries to retain her job by convincing each co-worker to not accept their bonus.  Cotillard’s performance is quiet, but doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful and gutting, expressing her depression and attitude through incredible facial expressions and body language.  This is a risky film, though being small, mainly because it’s hinged on our attachment to the main character, and if we don’t bond with her, empathize with her, understand her battle, then it all fails.  But thankfully, it magnificently works with plenty of credit going to Cotillard.

J.K. SIMMONS (Whiplash)

This image above is everything you need to know about WHIPLASH, J.K. Simmons’ award winning performance, and pretty much the thesis behind the brilliant film of 29 year old Damien Chazelle (yes, that’s correct).  Simmons is the grim reaper of all music instructors, a dark world that’s brutal and violent but rarely ever gets a spotlight on, pushing his students in ways that is criminal… but also rewarding.  I can’t imagine anyone else that could pull this role off the way Simmons does.  His mannerisms, his bulging biceps in a tight black shirt who soaks in darkness, and his execution of obscene language that’s both awful but yet artistic.  He’s so respectable and pulls of this tight rope act of making us appreciate his persona even though he emotionally and physically violates these young, hopeful students.  Simmons will win Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars and rightfully so cause he’ll go down as one of the greatest villains/instructors/inspirations/motivators/devilish characters of all time.

TILDA SWINTON (Snowpiercer)

Tilda Swinton is the pinnacle of coolness.  She’s too good for all of us and human kind in general, and I’m so thankful I live in the age of Swinton as her choices and performances are precise and brilliant, always pushing the envelope for what she can do.  In SNOWPIERCER, she turned a male role into probably the most memorable element in the entire film, which says a lot considering the movie itself is a marvel.  Every second of Swinton is a masterpiece, and she’s pretty much unrecognizable here, though that’s true for almost all her performances.  Just like any auteur filmmaker, we should anticipate a Swinton film because she’s a gem in today’s entertainment world.

EDDIE REDMAYNE (Theory of Everything)

Watching Eddie Redmayne play Stephen Hawking in THEORY OF EVERYTHING was an indescribable experience, mainly seeing an actor speak less and less and evolve into an individual limited physically but mentally boundless.  So much in the mind, so much to express, so much to seek and understand, but unable to do the basic of human behaviors because of an unfortunate case of ALS.  I can’t imagine the preparation and technique that went into playing Hawking, saying so much through his eyes, his positions, his crouched stillness on his wheelchair.  It’s things like that where a performance is earned, and Redmayne deserves all the credit he’s receiving.

ANNE DORVAL (Mommy)

I can’t rave enough about Xavier Dolan’s films, specifically I KILLED MY MOTHER and MOMMY, which of course has Anne Dorval starring in both.  In MOMMY specifically, Dorval plays an immature and naive mother who slowly realizes that she’s unable to take care of her wild and emotionally uncontrollable son, and that experience of watching her coming to that realization is so painful and difficult.  Dorval plays another flawed character (see the trend?  Flaws are good) where she pulls off another work of magic with Dolan.  I pray that she gets more exposure (maybe she doesn’t want it) and gets to play ripe roles where we see her breathtaking talent more and more.

STEVE CARRELL, CHANNING TATUM, & MARK RUFFALO (Foxcatcher)

I’m cheating, I know, but it’s too difficult to choose between the three in FOXCATCHER, where each performance is so greatly intertwined with the other two characters and their intimate and sensitive relationships with one another.  It truly is a love triangle, all trying to manage quite carefully who the others are and what they’ll slowly become.  This is a film driven by suppression, wealth, failure, disappointment, fulfillment, and irrevocable emotions, making this such a complex and dense work of art.  And though I regard Bennett Miller as one of the great American directors, Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo round out this powerful film with their devotion to this unfortunate story.  It sucks to see Tatum become so irrelevant in the discussions for best performances of the year with the other two getting appropriate praise.  No individual sticks out from the rest in my opinion.  All three are vital pieces that create a fascinating piece of human dilemma.

REESE WITHERSPOON & LAURA DERN (Wild)

Something about this film kills me within, and the more I think about it, the more I realize so much of it’s emotional stake is because of the relationship between Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) and her mother (Laura Dern) and how the loss of such an important life can impact our own journey.  WILD works so well because of this relationship told in flashbacks, and much credit is given to Witherspoon for her courageous and revealing performance as a sex and drug addict who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, equal praise should be given to Dern who plays that motherly figure so well it makes me cry.  Literally.  She captures that gentle, tenderhearted soul in ways that makes you feel like she’s your mother, and realizing how this film is more about the discovery of self through the loss of loved ones rather than your typical escape through nature narrative, their performances have so much more weight now.

DAVID OYELOWO (Selma)

Excuse my language, but this fucking film is so damn good and David Oyelowo is damn good as MLK.  This should be required viewing.  Every school in the U.S. should put SELMA in their syllabus, making all students, Black, White, Asian, Hispanic watch this because it’s so important and artistically immaculate.  Oyelowo kills it.  Simply kills it.  The speeches, the politics, the way he revolves around conflict and individuals, his relationship with his wife and the revealing of his flawed moments — it’s all there.  This is a performance that should be reveled for years, and I can’t speak enough about how amazing Oyelowo, the rest of this cast, Ava Duvernay, and all involved are in this piece about American history.  Arguably, this is probably one of the most important films on our country, being so relevant today and our fight for progress FOR ALL.  I still can’t believe how Oyelowo pulled it off, and it easily goes down as one of the best performances of the year.

ROSAMUND PIKE (Gone Girl)

This look, this face, this image is EVERYTHING.  I think GONE GIRL deserves such a huge conversation and study that covers a multitude of topics include American marriage, gender roles and expectations, Women in film, the definition of feminism, media fascination and exploitation, etc.  That’s how great David Fincher is.  He can throw a heavy amount of themes and elements and still make this film feel seamless and proficient.  What else he does so well is get the best out of his actors, and I really can’t think of a performance that’s had such polarizing reaction and discussion other than Rosamund Pike as  Amy Dunne.  Pike nails the complex state of Amazing Amy, stretching the blurred boundaries of who she actually is — from her narrations, her diary entries, her innocent & victimized self, or the violent, aggressive, and capitalist Amy, this is a role that requires one to explore the darkest of human capabilities.  There’s nothing more cinematic and bone tingling in movies of 2014 than the “Cool Girl” monologue.  The fact that that picture above is the fear of men everywhere across this country shows what kind of an affect this film has.  This is the year of Rosamund Pike and GONE GIRL, and our true feelings of women, who women should be, who women actually are, and what women can be.

It’s Finally Here: The 41st Telluride Film Festival

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My favorite time of year has now changed from Thanksgiving and Christmas to the Telluride Film Festival, and those who’ve attended know this is completely valid and justified.  It’s an unbelievable four days of films, fellow cinephiles, good food and drinks (though I can’t drink), and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in the world.  It’s surreal and I hope everyone gets a chance to experience this once in their lives. 

Well, through the complicated situation between Toronto International Film Festival and Telluride, we’ve gotten a good sense of movies will play at the usually discrete and secretive Telluride lineup.  Telluride doesn’t reveal their lineup until the day of the film festival, which eliminates most press and paparazzi, only allowing people who want to be there to attend.  From what we’ve heard and seen throughout, this is my meaningless and insignificant attempt to spitball what we can expect this year at TFF41.  

Wild-2014-MovieWILD
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), this is almost a lock for Telluride, from its Canadian Premiere status at TIFF and Reese Witherspoon rumored to be receiving a Tribute.  And come on, you can’t have a hiking, finding yourself through nature film and NOT have it premiere at Telluride.  Regardless of my legitimate reasoning, it’s a surefire guarantee at this point, and would be shocked to see it not play.  

michael-keaton-birdman-movieBIRDMAN
Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu’s anticipated film with Michael Keaton playing the title role as a washed up actor looking for another shot at glory looks like an interesting and exploratory piece of work with quite the visuals.  Inarritu was at Telluride last year supporting his good friend Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and like WILD, it’s a lock for Telluride. 

chilling-first-trailer-for-foxcatcher-with-steve-carell-6FOXCATCHER
One of the films I’m most anticipating this year and I think can really do some damage come awards season is Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller with a spectacular cast of Steve Carrell, Mark Ruffalo, and Channing Tatum.  It was raved in Cannes, and will definitely be on the top of my list to watch, if it comes.  I’m pretty confident that it will, having a Canadian Premiere status at TIFF. 

benedict-cumberbatch-the-imitation-gameTHE IMITATION GAME
The Weinsten Company’s gem for this fall, The Imitation Game was a well-regarded script that finally made its way through production with Benedict Cumberbatch filling out the main role of a WWII British codebreaker, which ultimately created the way for the first computer.  It’s been rumored to play at Telluride for a long time, and will be shocked if it didn’t play. 

27186-film-wild-talesWILD TALES
This Cannes gem from Argentina is a black-comedy full of short stories that is supposedly an incredible and hilarious experience.  After its success at the famed French film festival, it’s path to Telluride has been documented, and it seems like it’s in play, especially it being a Sony Pictures Classic product, which likes to show its film at Telluride. 

mr-turner-2014-002-turner-walking-to-hilltop-stone-cabinMR. TURNER
Another Cannes hit, Mr. Turner from Mike Leigh was a well regarded film that many think can have a potential chance at awards this fall, and many are predicting it for Telluride.  I can’t imagine it not playing, and am excited to see Timothy Spall’s award-winning performance as the famous painter. 

Bernal-585x329ROSEWATER
Jon Stewart’s directorial debut has been rumored and confidently predicted to premiere at Telluride.  His story about a journalist that’s detained in Iran for 100 days has been well-reported, especially considering John Oliver took over his spot on the Daily Show desk, which led to his deal at HBO.  I’m more excited to see Jon Stewart at Telluride with his availability to its filmmakers, but am slightly distant and unsure how this will play out.  We’ll see, but it seems like it’s a likely play. 

sundance-whiplashWHIPLASH
Though it already had it’s North American Premiere at Sundance, and though Telluride has a pretty strict NA Premiere status for all its films, I’ve heard rumblings that Whiplash will in fact play at Telluride, and that they have been willing to let go of its restrictions for certain films.  I would totally be fine for this ease up because Whiplash has been highly respected and reviewed, winning both the Audience and Jury awards at Park City, Utah.  I’m still a little hesitant considering it already premiered in the U.S., but I’ll go with what I’ve been hearing so far.  It’s a coin-toss at the moment. 

Mommy-Movie-660MOMMY
Being a huge fan of 24 year-old Xavier Dolan’s work, I’m extremely excited to hear that MOMMY could play at Telluride, the first time he’s ever come.  Getting a convincing stamp of approval at Cannes (lots of Cannes), it got a potential play from TIFF as it was labeled with a Canadian Premiere.  I’m still slightly hesitant in being confident that it’ll play, but I’m going with my gut feeling and my hopes that it will. 

Other films that will most likely play or is rumored to play:

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (CANNES)
99 HOMESLEVIATHAN (CANNES)
THE LOOK OF SILENCE (sequel to The Act of Killing documentary)
’71
RED ARMY
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS: A 50 YEAR ARGUMENT (Martin Scorsese… TRIBUTE!!!)

If this is the lineup that we do get, there can’t be much complaining involved cause this is one hell of a lineup.  But I do think we are missing a few titles, maybe one big one, that has been kept secret.  It’s obviously a film that isn’t premiering at Toronto and there’s no way films like GONE, GIRL, INHERENT VICE, INTERSTELLAR, UNBROKEN, INTO THE WOODS, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, FURY are in play… I think.  My guess is that a film like BIG EYES (Tim Burton) might sneak preview and…. now this is a total guess and I’ll be wrong, but I do think one of the films that were listed previously might play.  My guess would be UNBROKEN, though it’s been denied for any fests.  We’ll see.  Anyways, it’s an exciting time and as I leave tomorrow morning to the San Juans, I can’t wait for the best film experience ever.  Au revoir. 

Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children Teaser Trailer

Cause of a strong-armed, slightly immature move by TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN will have it’s World Premiere at Toronto, instead of Jason Reitman’s usual path of showing it at Telluride right before Toronto, which he’s done for all his films except for YOUNG ADULT.  Though it’s slightly disappointing, it won’t be long until it’s released.  Good news is that this trailer looks great, more of a grounded, human drama then Reitman’s lighthearted and unique tone.  But it looks promising.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood: A Film That We All Can Relate To

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Every so often, a film comes around that strangles me in a way where my mind and thoughts are unable to leave the impressions it left. It’s not just an exuberant amount of emotions that come out like tears or laughter, but a reaction inside where I feel this chord that’s being gently struck, signaling a reflective reaction where what I’m watching isn’t just two hours of enjoyable entertainment, but something much more meaningful and important. I can sense my heightened pulse, a rise in my breathing, and just this overall intensified reaction that what I’m witnessing on screen is relevant.

All my favorite movies of all-time have done this, especially the likes of 2001, CITIZEN KANE, MAGNOLIA, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, and more recently, SHORT TERM 12 and BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR. They are outstanding pieces of work, ranging from wide genres and stories, but all striving for that simplistic goal of discovering the human spirit.  And I think that’s the key to any great film: the ability, regardless of how ridiculous or high concept your story is, to make us relate and see ourselves in these characters.

If there’s ever been a film that really captures the essence of this, it’s BOYHOOD, Richard Linklater’s 12 year project in which all the principal cast remains throughout.  The idea of shooting a movie over a long period of time like over a decade is, in itself, a great form of increasing awareness and publicity in your project.  The sheer craziness and ambitiousness nature of taking upon something like that is admirable but also slightly insane, but with Linklater, the master of cinematic time (Before Trilogy), this is something that he’s clearly infatuated with and knows much about.

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So with Boyhood, you get this movie, which at the very core, is all about growing up.  Plain and simple.  There’s nothing really more he’s going after other than to capture this difficult but universal phase in our lives.  There are lots of potential themes or messages he might be going after personally but nothing so obvious or vividly.  At a screening, he stated himself that all this film really is is about someone going through their adolescence, but being able to capture it in a unique way where we actually see this growth progress on screen.  We’re watching people grow up physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.  And though the film centers around Mason (Ellar Coltrane), it’s not only about him.  It’s about his sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter), his divorced mother (Patricia Arquette) and his every other weekend father (Ethan Hawke).  We’re observing this family’s experience through their existence in this world, surviving their own struggles and fight to just make it out alive and happy.  And there’s nothing more relatable than watching another human being struggle to make sense of their own lives.

The most powerful mechanic in all forms of storytelling is the ability to invoke empathy.  That is the emotion that makes us who we are.  We are beings that need to be empathetic.  It’s what makes us move, and what gives us our purpose in life.  When we lose empathy, we lose a big part of our DNA that allows us to see others in a way that’s relevant for us, and without it, our world would not exist.  So ignoring that grand and bullish statement, let’s look at it through BOYHOOD, easily one of the best films that understands empathy and how to use it without making it feel unauthentic and calculated.  Today, so many movies attempt empathy (more like sympathy) through forced character traits or plot lines that are so on-the-nose that it at the VERY BEST, it only allows us to realize that this character struggles.  Realizing and discovering a character’s struggles are nowhere near the same thing as experiencing it, and the best way for the audience to live with it is, simply, to show it.  Now that’s a rule in cinema that’s been held ever since the beginning of the moving picture.  Show us, don’t tell us.  But that’s a rule that needs so much more context to each individual story or film, not just this universal thing that works for every single idea or project.

But even then, the rule reigns because of its truth, and with BOYHOOD, it’s done in a way that shockingly, is rarely ever done.  Subtlety.  Simplicity.  Realistic.  Honesty.  Let’s ask ourselves this.  When was the last time you saw a studio film that used these four elements?  Everything now is so obvious, so forced that even if we move away, we still get smears of emotional manipulation seeping through the screen.  Unfortunately, you can’t force empathy.  It’s a feeling or emotion that happens when the viewer is so engaged and so involved that it naturally occurs in a manner that we, as the audience, have no idea it’s actually happening after the film ends, or may not even realize until way later.  This is something that I didn’t discover for the longest time, but yet lived my life loving the movies that I did because I just loved them.  I think a lot of people are that way, and it’s not a bad thing, but a lot goes into making a good movie, let alone a great one.  And I know I’m speaking in hyperbole in a borderline excruciating way, but that should show you how effective BOYHOOD was.

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When looking back on my experience with BOYHOOD, I realized that why it works so well, for met at least, is that it doesn’t explain to us what’s going on.  We’re not told how characters feel, or how this will affect them now or in the near future.  I think that’s the biggest problem with cliche narratives and formulaic storytelling.  It’s as if movies now follow this set in stone process of how to reveal things within our character, and though there are basic structures that work well, we’ve abused them in ways that make it unappealing and unnatural.  But with BOYHOOD, there are no post-discussions, no character reveals through exposition and or soliloquy-like speeches, or your typical one-on-one “this is what happened to me and this is how I felt and this is how I’m going to show the audience who I am” type tropes.  They do work, but using elements that work doesn’t mean they’ll actually work.  It’s a failure of actually understanding the big picture of your story.

BOYHOOD, instead, lets these situations or events happen, and let’s us fill-in-the-blanks.  The movie itself is a small picture as in nothing big happens and it’s all about these small but important moments that slowly shape us into the people we are now.  The wonderful thing about how it’s done is that the characters DON’T EVER KNOW that this change is happening.  Change doesn’t shape who we are knowingly, it’s a developmental transition.  And I love how BOYHOOD understands this so well.  Though these are small moments, they are big moments in the average life lived, especially for a child.  And I think something that Linklater, intentional or not, did so well is to show Mason’s firsts.  Mason’s first kiss, first girlfriend, first traumatic experience, first fight, all these firsts that you don’t realize are his firsts, but reflect highly on our viewing experience because we’re not just thinking about his, we’re thinking about ours.  We’re thinking about what it was like for our to grow up, to witness beautiful, loving, and highly important moments in our lives, and then remembering those painful and difficult memories that have stuck with us through time.  In essence, BOYHOOD shows the power of innocence or the power in having that innocence broken.  That is real magnitude that’s felt during our time growing up.  When we witness things that are bigger than us at the exact time, and how it stays with us.  This is what BOYHOOD really does well.  We don’t forget what Mason goes through when he was five or six, when he witnesses a fight with his Mom’s boyfriend or moving away.  We’ve grown up with him, and though he doesn’t speak of those moments at all, we know it’s there, we know it’s part of him, and we know it’s affected him the way these events affect all of us.  Empathy.

I think what I appreciate most about It BOYHOOD is that it doesn’t preach.  It doesn’t make any statements on alcoholism, domestic violence or abuse, divorce, drugs, school, relationships, etc.  These all happen throughout the film, but nothing more.  And I think that’s one of the hardest things to do as a storyteller/filmmaker.  We sometimes try and make things so obvious and so clear, but we forget that the best way to approach the goal of empathy is to almost say nothing.  Let the audience fill in those aftermaths, those discussions, those reflective moments.  The beauty in film is to not force all viewers on singular experience and endpoint, but to see the many different types of reactions and messages they received from it all, regardless of it being intentional or not.

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I know how we perceive films are so subjective, but with BOYHOOD, I couldn’t help but look back at my own life.  There were so many instances that Mason went through that I couldn’t help but see myself in that scene.  When Mason is upset or hurt by things that happened to him, he would refuse to go to school, claiming he was sick or didn’t feel well enough.  When Mason watches through the creeks of his bedroom door, watching his Mom struggle, watching her cry, watching her do everything she can to give her children the best life possible even though life to her still doesn’t make much sense.  To have an older sibling annoy you when you’re sleeping and then blaming it on you when you’re totally innocent.  Experiencing your first true heartbreak with a girl.  When life seems to shatter when that one important person has all but left.  When we find our calling or passion in life, and how nothing else seems to matter except doing what you love.  When we’re in those moments, like at the very end, that regardless of all the shit that you’ve gone through and seen, that at this very moment, at this exact place and time, you feel this comforted feeling that, yeah, things will be okay.

And yeah, maybe my experiences are more similar to Mason’s, but that does not explain the power and infatuation people are having with this film all over the globe.  It’s success isn’t limited by its country of origin, and people from all backgrounds and cultures are able to connect to BOYHOOD.  Maybe you haven’t gone through divorce, or witnessed abuse, or had an alcoholic father, or through some statistical anomaly, never had your heart broken.  But life is something that needs to be shared with.  Our story needs to be told, passed along through our friends, our family, our significant other, our children.  Regardless of how easy or how difficult life has been, no life is easy.  We’re filled with wonder, curiosity, confusion, instability, knowledge, growth, pain, suffering, loss, denial, acceptance, motivation, passivity, delusion, dreams, fears, nightmares, love, hate.  The list goes on and on, and though we’re all different and unique in many ways, we’re also a lot more alike than we assume.

I’m making grand statement after grand statement, but I think that’s what BOYHOOD has achieved.  It makes us a little bit softer, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more accepting… a little bit more empathetic.  To our parents, our best friends, our lovers, our enemies, strangers.  We are more willing to reflect and look back, and, hopefully, not be so hard on our identity and who we are.  Sometimes the person we need to be kindest to is ourselves.

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Go see Boyhood.  Go see it in a theater with a group of friends, by yourself, with your family, with someone important.  Go drive extra miles for it.  Go spend some money it.  Go discuss it with people who have seen it.  If you didn’t like, which could very well happen since all the hype, talk about why you didn’t like.  If you did love it, reflect on it.  Write about it.  Start a conversation.  When we see something that moves us in a way that is so distinct from anything else, we need to react properly.  When I think about BOYHOOD, I think about how it is very reason why film exists, why story exists, and it gives me hope that movies like this can be made.