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.

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The Best Films of 2014 So Far

My goal is to blog at least once a day, and though that’s really hard because I’m undisciplined, I’ll still try and take a whack at it.  And what’s easier to blog then a Top List?!

Though it’s only been eight months in 2014 (already???), a slew of movies have come out already, and there have been some good ones.  These are the seven best films I’ve seen in 2014 and in no order.

IDA
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Though I caught this beautifully quiet and small film at Telluride last year, it’s officially a release in 2014, so… yeah.  From acclaimed Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, IDA is one of those films that you’re completely mystified and stumped by.  Centered in on Anna, a young nun searching her family’s past, it’s accomplishment is creating such a moving piece of work through silence and grace.  Most films try to achieve this by large set pieces and deafening sound.  IDA wants you to drown in its quaint personality.  It’s got a wonderful story with great characters, and it looks incredible.  Black and white forever.

I ORIGINS
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This is a film that’s extremely polarizing, creating a pretty even split down the middle between those who love it or hate it.  But what I ORIGINS really goes after is discussion.  It’s a sci-fi love story that’s drenched in the controversial worlds of science and religion.  Personally, I think Mike Cahill does an excellent job allowing both worlds to co-exist.  It works on many levels, and I found out absolutely gratifying.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
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Seriously, what’s not to like about A Wes Anderson film?  I don’t think I need to explain myself much, but this is a charming, delightful film that screams Anderson’s quirkiness and vision.  Bright colors, elaborate sets, an impressive ensemble full of great actors and actresses, and a unique story that takes you on a wild journey (and you gotta love the aspect ratio changes!).  It’s one of my favorite Anderson films, and something I’ll always enjoy going back to.

SNOWPIERCER
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I don’t think I need to say a lot considering I just wrote a post about it yesterday, so go read that.  But all I have to say is… GO SEE THE DAMN THING.

UNDER THE SKIN
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I don’t recommend this film for everyone, and I will say a majority of people will be confused, despise it, or totally hate it.  It’s for a particular taste, but if you enjoy tone, environment, and the world slowly being revealed and created through the eyes of a character, then UNDER THE SKIN might be your thing.  Jonathan Glazer is quite the filmmaker, and he pulls some of the riskiest choices in a movie I’ve seen.  Scarlett is a knockout, and the score is just… genius.  If you we’re willing to take a chance on it, please do, but don’t get angry at me.  Just saying.

NYMPHOMANIAC PT. 1 & 2
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Okay, here’s another film that I adored, but like UNDER THE SKIN, is not for everyone.  I don’t think I need to explain to you in great detail why, but if you can get past all the sex (which you should expect from the title and it being a Lars von Trier film), it’s actually a poetic piece of intriguing storytelling and literature, giving it a real good glimpse of an addict’s life.  It’s beautiful, gorgeously shot, and it’s classic Lars von Trier.

BOYHOOD
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I want to write like a 2000 word article dissecting Boyhood, so I’ll save a lot of the good stuff for that, but simply put, BOYHOOD IS ONE OF THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENTS IN CINEMA TODAY, AND EVERYONE SHOULD WATCH IT BECAUSE IT’S SO FREAKIN’ GOOD AND SO WELL TOLD.  AHHHHHHH!!!

And those are my favorite films of 2014 so far.

Thoughts On: Why SNOWPIERCER is More Than Just Your Average Action Flick

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SNOWPIERCER is one of the more innovative and inspiring action films that I’ve seen in a very long time, and that includes anything this summer has brought us or anything in the last few years.  In my opinion, Bong Joon-Ho’s adaptation of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige is an achievement in modern filmmaking.  The problem is that most people won’t see the film or if they do, don’t know what the hype is all about.

The film is all based inside a high-speed, non-stopping train in a post-apocalyptic world where society and class has been clearly established within these connected cars.  It’s pretty simple: the poor in the back, the rich and powerful in the front.  But like we’d expect, the poor, who are mistreated, underfed, malnourished, and disrespected constantly, are fed up and are willing to fight to take over.

This simple but underused plot device and structure provides a moving and thrilling journey for our protagonist Curtis Everett, played by the impressive Chris Evans, and his small but loyal and useful band of rebels.  It’s rounded out by an always spectacular Tilda Swinton and the best role Allison Pill has done in her young career.  The film moves level by level, opening doors to new and odd environments that constantly put these characters and the audience in an uncomfortable and mysterious position.

This narrative alone is a satisfying take, and would work for any escapist entertainment, but there’s so much more to SNOWPIERCER than what’s transpiring on screen (or VOD…).  As these survivors keeping moving and inch closer to the desired engine room, the film has taken us on this integrated adventure of violence, confusion, and tragedy.  And that’s something that I think most people have forgotten about why SNOWPIERCER works so well.  The best films are the ones that make the audience experience a wide range of emotions.  Laughter, joy, depression, sadness, anger, etc.  This kind of tactic in bringing out all these different reactions is what keeps the audience wanting more, giving most of the audience, an unaware sense of need and motivation to keep watching.  It tells us that this is something different.  We don’t know what to expect.  When movies can deliver such a vast amount of emotions and reactions, it’s saying something within us that is one of the strongest connections a film and audience can make: originality.

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The feeling of seeing something original is one of the purest experiences you’ll have in cinema.  It’s being unable to put a finger on a film, relating it to a specific something else where you can guess where it’s headed and what’s going to happen.  This happens in almost every film now, especially the big summer blockbusters or action films where they try to do everything EXCEPT be original.  But when you’re watching something that illicit all these different reactions within you, and you’re unable to figure out what’s going to happen next, that’s when you experience originality because you can’t figure out where you’ve seen this before.  You can’t pinpoint your past film knowledge or narratives, and all you’re really aware of now is what’s happening in front of you.  That’s movie magic.  That’s what movies are about.

This is attempted a lot on independent projects, where writers and directors are taking major narrative and plot risks to provide something “original”, but outside a few, most of them eventually fall back into the comfort of redundancy, and though it doesn’t damage the overall film, it does soften your overall impression and wonder what it could’ve been.  But let’s be honest here: originality is unimaginably difficult.  To be original in the creative sense, especially in cinema, is almost nearly impossible because things like inspiration, story, characters, these are prior notions we’re given by… yes, other films and stories.  So what we may think is original is actually been inspired by something we’ve seen or read before, and unintentionally we’ve become a cliche piece of work that has become unfortunately predictable.

Now I want to ask you, my few readers, what film reminds you of SNOWPIERCER?  Ready?  Go.
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Thought of any?  Now if any of you have brought up train action films like Unstoppable or Under Siege 2, then I need you to stop thinking.  Yes, they’re on a train, but that’s like comparing GAME OF THRONES and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON as similar stories just because they have dragons, or ALIEN and E.T. cause they have aliens.  No, no, no.  Let’s really think.  And if you’ve really thought about it, there’s really not much that comes to mind.  The only film that I can kind of get a similar feel for is The Matrix or The Matrix Reloaded, but it’s only because it has an underlying genius behind it that many didn’t get or refuse to understand.

SNOWPIERCER is a really, really, really smart movie, and I don’t think people are giving it enough credit for being such.  If you’ve watched any of Bong Joon-Ho’s films (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder),  you know this guy is a special talent, and to take SNOWPIERCER as on-the-nose summer action film is to do him and his film injustice.  Outside of his ability to create mystery and throw at us something new and unknown in so many different ways, his depth and subtext is what really wowed me.

The biggest idea or theme that Bong Joon-Ho seemed to really go after is this idea of purpose vs. pointlessness.  Positivity vs. negativity.  Gloom vs. hope.  I don’t want to give away much or spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but this struggle between these two vastly different mindsets and emotions is at the core what SNOWPIERCER is all about.  We have these highly motivated group of people trying to overturn the train in favor for them, but near the end of the film, the question of why is thrown out there.  “What are we trying to accomplish?”  “What will happen if we do take over?”  “Will anything change”  They’re on a non-stop train that circles the globe, but there is no final destination.  There moving but in reality, they’re absolutely still.  It reflects a lot about how Bong might feel about “progression in society” and if there is such a thing, but it’s all within the mindset, it’s all about what we perceive or see (as by the ending).

It’s an attitude that we rarely ever seen in an action film, especially now, and it should be celebrated for it’s ballsiness and ambition.  Now I’ve read and seen some reactions to SNOWPIERCER, much of the negativity stemming from “I don’t get the hype”.  And yes, films are subjective, and the hype machine can definitely kill a first time viewing, but I beg of you to give these kinds of films another chance.  My biggest problem with today’s audience is that we complain about the movies we’re getting today, but yet we only support the same crap we complain about.  You go pay for the big blockbusters, and then won’t see or will watch on the internet the stories that deserve your $10-$15 ticket.  I have no problems with people spending money on super heroes or disaster films, but if that’s what you like, okay fine.  But if you’re complaining about it, critiquing it, and finding it repulsive and annoying, but only spend and support films like that, then you’re the problem too.

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Audiences have just as much say as the executives and studios, and they will only make movies that they know audiences will watch.  So when you pay to watch an all white-cast, complain about a lack of diversity in Hollywood, and then put your money again for a film that only casts white people then your money speaks louder than your mouth.  if you pay for a mindless action film, raise issues with a lack of story, characters, or depth, and then the next movie you watch in theaters is another mindless action film…  See the cyclical problem?

I know it seems like I kind of have gone on a tangent, but I think it’s all related.  When I read or hear about a few thoughts on SNOWPIERCER, it kind of just amplifies the current problem of movie-going audiences today.  We’re not willing to spend our money on characters, originality, strong narrative or structure, and art, but on spectacle.  Spectacle is great, but only if the foundation of it relies on sound storytelling.

SNOWPIERCER is a film that demands your full attention, a heightened awareness, and a focus that’s zoomed in one thing only.  That’s how it’s supposed to be anyways.  When you watch a movie, give to the movie completely, not just half or a little.  No filmmaker ever said I only want 50% or 75% of your attention.  They want it all, and if you give films like SNOWPIERCER a chance, I promise your experience will be much better if you actually care and dive into it.  That’s why cinema exists.