Columns, Editorials

THE BEST OF 2014 Films, DVDs, BluRays, Books, and whatever else our writers care to list…

By , • Feb 3rd, 2015 •

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FROM ROY FRUMKES

DVDS & BLURAYS:

DEMONS – Synapse – This may be nothing more, finally, than exploitation, but it’s high-grade exploitation, warm and rewatchable and great fun. Synapses’s restoration, spearheaded by Don May, is so extraordinarily nuanced in terms of color and clarity that, while up till now it was easy to accept it as a Lamberto Bava film, in its new wardrobe it is definitely and undeniably a Dario Argento film – that’s how dramatically different it looks. There’s a handsome tin or a less gorgeous, lower-priced form of packaging, but either way you choose, you must own it.

THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI – Kino Lorber – Well, miracles obviously will never cease. We’ve lived with damaged imagery on this title for at least the last fifty years that I’ve been watching it. Now, from the original negative, comes a print so clear, so alive, that it could have been made after the turn of the new century. This is a pivotal film in cinema history, and we’ve got it as it originally was. Phenomenal. You’ve got to see it to believe it.

PETE KELLY’S BLUES – WB Archives – A film that never overcame it’s odd style and even odder central performance by director Jack Webb when it played theatrically has been reborn as a quintessentially quirky, quasi-noir, after a dose of rejuvenation alchemy from the Warner Archive team. The art direction’s stunning, shepherded by Harper (2O,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA) Goff, the use of the wide screen is thoughtful, and the offbeat casting is compelling. (This title is a VOD, and to obtain it, which I recommend, you should visit www.WarnerArchive.com)

SUNDAYS AND CYBELLE – Criterion – I screened this one for my International Film History class at the School of Visual Arts and they were enraptured by it just as I was fifty years ago. The director (Serge Bourgignon) claims in a supplemental interview that he was boycotted by the other New Wave directors after this film took the honors for Best Foreign-language Film at the Academy Awards, etc., and his career was nipped in the bud. It must be a gratifying acknowledgment of his skill that the film holds up so perfectly well. And there’s a touching blow-by-blow of the film’s creation by star Hardy Kruger, also included as a filmed interview.

SAMSON AND DELILAH – Paramount – The DVD was lovely. The BluRay could burn your retinas. The colors, the costumes, the props, the beautifully photographed cast (Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury & Victor Mature). It almost makes one wish they’d lived back then. But without flu vaccine, I don’t know…

(Alejandro) JODOROWSKY’S DUNE – SONY – A fascinating meditation on what would have happened if this film had gotten off the ground. For certain, popular cinema wouldn’t be what it is today. Beyond that, we can only regret, without knowing, what we might have had.

BLOOD AND ROSES (ET MOURIR DE PLAISIR) – Released in Germany, and mastered in criminally mediocre fashion off of a 35mm release print, there’s nothing to recommend this DVD technically. But it’s one of the last grand hold-outs of Horror Cinema, a lush and (at times) poetic vampire story (from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” rather than Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”) with teasing lesbian overtones, shot in wide screen Technirama by Claude Renoir, directed by Roger Vadim, starring Vadim’s then-wife Annette Stroyberg, and delicate, ravishing Elsa Martinelli, with male support on the sidelines by Mel Ferrer, and with a passionate score by Jean Prodromides. There were different cuts of the film depending on which country’s release you were watching, but up until now there have been none of these versions to watch. This is at least something. A shadow of its beauty, but a shadow being preferable to nothing.

BOOKS:

THE ART OF NOIR by Eddie Muller, published by Overlook Duckworth. This is a sumptuous coffee table volume highlighting the striking posters and graphics from the Classic period of Film Noir – 1940-1960. Muller, an unpretentious historian clearly in love with the subject, graces the commentary tracks of many Noir DVDs and BluRays, even daring to bring James Ellroy to the table with him once or twice. Talk about courting danger… With each poster there is a succinct paragraph identifying the stars, the subject matter, and essence of the film, as artists from the US, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Japan, etc., capture it in ways their particular country desired. Muller has broken the book down into several wieldy sections, including ‘Prominent and Prolific Noir Writers’, ‘Noir’s Most Acclaimed (And Some Neglected) Directors,’ and ‘The Usual Suspects – Noir’s Most Familiar Faces.’ Here you find, among others, Humphrey Bogart (recently named the top film star of the 20th century by the AFI), Joan Crawford (“Poster artists loved to paint Crawford’s expressive eyes and flawless cheekbones.”), and Gloria Grahame (“…the clear favorite among obsessed noir cineastes…”). I love this book, but if, in the spirit of balanced reviewing, I had to offer at least one criticism, it would be that Noir’s poster child, Elisha Cooke Jr., isn’t represented in the ‘Usual Suspects’ chapter.

HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN by Kier-La Janisse, published by FAB Press.
I can’t recall another memoir this intense and articulate which revolves around a psyche molded by horror and exploitation films. I’m working on a memoir myself, but I have no illusions about it being any more than a marginal trip around the genres worthy of an historical footnote. This is entirely different, and reading it I felt rather guilty about having given the author a hard time when she invited me to attend an Austin Fantasy Film Festival and show STREET TRASH some years ago. She didn’t need me to add another iota of difficulty to her already soul-wrenching life. Her observations about the plight of women in the aforementioned genres are provocative indeed. Her first memory of life, cinematically, was of viewing HORROR EXPRESS. “HORROR EXPRESS would play a pivotal role in my development and watching it is likely my first fully-formed cognitive memory.” (For me it was something else again. A good friend of mine, Arnaud D’Usseau, co-authored the screenplay. He was a black-listed writer, and the film contains the paranoia he felt, pursued from his home country to Europe where he had to use a pseudonym to keep the HUAC wolves from his door). Ms. Janisse’s book is a great read. I urge you to pick it up.

And another for the Noir addicts among us, an interesting tome which has just cracked the bookstores:

THE WORLD OF RAYMOND CHANDLER IN HIS OWN WORDS, edited by Barry Day, published by Knopf. The book tracks Chandler’s life, his feelings on writing, on hard-boiled literature, on Hollywood, on the “extravagant use of the simile” which he claims to have invented, on LA, on cops and sleuths. Here’s an example: (On drinking) “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.” Want another: about Los Angeles – “Under the thinning fog the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.”

THEATRICAL RELEASES (AND ONE TV COMMERCIAL) (NOT IN ANY PARTICULAR ORDER):

BEST FILMS:
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
WILLOW CREEK
EDGE OF TOMORROW
TRUE DETECTIVE
THE GEICO AD WITH THE COWBOY HITTING THE “THE END” TITLES
BIRDMAN
NIGHTCRAWLER

BEST PERFORMANCES:
ENSEMBLE – BIRDMAN
MCCONAUGHEY & HARRELSON – TRUE DETECTIVE
ENSEMBLE – THIRD PERSON
CRUISE & PAXTON – EDGE OF TOMORROW
ANDY SERKIS (ENHANCED) – DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
GENE JONES – THE SACRAMENT
ENSEMBLE – GONE GIRL
ENSEMBLE – MEN, WOMEN, CHILDREN
JAKE GYLLENHAAL – NIGHTCRAWLER
BRADLEY COOPER – AMERICAN SNIPER
OSCAR ISSAC – A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (and a most misleading title)
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH – THE IMITATION GAME
CHLOE GRACE MORETZ – THE EQUALIZER

MUSIC:
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
TRUE DETECTIVE
THE EQUALIZER
DANCE OF REALITY

WORST MUSIC:
MONUMENT MEN

ART DIRECTION:
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
SNOW PIERCER
THE HOMESMAN
THE BOX TROLLS
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

CINEMATOGRAPHY:
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
BIRDMAN

DIRECTION:
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
THE SACRAMENT
BIRDMAN
EDGE OF TOMORROW
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
AMERICAN SNIPER

SCREENPLAY:
TRUE DETECTIVE
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
THE IMITATION GAME
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

EXPERIMENTAL:
BOYHOOD
UNDER THE SKIN
LOCKE
DANCE OF REALITY
IN THE CROSSWIND (RISTTUULES)
BIRDMAN

SOUND DESIGN:
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN (THAILAND)
EDGE OF TOMORROW
AMERICAN SNIPER

WORST TITLES:
THIRD PERSON
MEN, WOMEN, CHILDREN
BIRDMAN

EDITING:
THE NEIGHBORS
THE EDGE OF TOMORROW
HOUDINI
THE EQUALIZER
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN
AMERICAN SNIPER

MAKE-UP:
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
HOUDINI
MALEFICENT

TITLE SEQUENCE:
THE BOX TROLLS (END TITLES)

DOCUMENTARY:
THE 60S
ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN

FROM BEN PEEPLES:

1. CALVARY
John Michael McDonagh’s mediation on faith and sacrifice was surprisingly absent from most year-end best-of lists, and totally absent from the awards process, which is baffling given how uncompromisingly brilliant it is. Brendan Gleeson and Kelly Reilly both outdid themselves in their respective roles, and the supporting cast is populated with extraordinary character actors.

2. LIFE ITSELF
Who knew a film critic could lead a life worth making a documentary about? Much less about film and more about Roger Ebert’s personal story, and his marriage to the charming Chaz Ebert. It’s extremely difficult to watch at times, but inspiring and uplifting without being saccharine or too wrapped up in nostalgia.

3. CITIZENFOUR
The revelation of the NSA’s massive spying program was a shock to the system for most Americans, but watching it unfold from the perspective of the people leaking it sheds new light on why this information needed to be exposed to the public. The chilling immediacy of watching Edward Snowden, director Laura Poitras, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill realize their lives are now forever changed is exactly the kind of emotional impact that only documentaries can give a viewer.

4. THE TALES OF PRINCESS KAGUYA
In what is almost undoubtedly his final feature, Isao Takahata crafted a sort of revisionist fairy tale, and an incredibly memorable lead in the form of Kaguya. The film uses a centuries-old myth and the backdrop of feudal Japan as a way of confronting gender roles and the way in which a society tries to mold people into something they’re not. It’s surprisingly thought-provoking, which coupled with the gorgeous animation and distinct visual style pushes the film very high in the ranking of Studio Ghibli’s great films.

5. IDA
Delivers the best visuals of the year, with shots that look more like something out of a photography portfolio than a feature film. Its very short running time helps give the slow pacing and grim subject matter maximum impact.

6. BOYHOOD
A big part of BOYHOOD’s achievement is that it’s more than just a gimmick movie with a celebrated director behind it. It’s extremely well-written and constructed, with great performances to boot. As for the gimmick, it connects emotionally in a way that very few other films have, save for Michael Apted’s UP series and Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doniel films, in which the viewer gets the full impact of watching someone age and change on screen.

7. FOXCATCHER
An uncomfortable, stark slow-burn with fine performances by Channing Tatum and Mark Rufallo, and an eerily stilted Steve Carrell. Bennett Miller has quite a track record, and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

8. SELMA
It’s depressing how relevant the event of the Selma marches has become in the last year (the end credits song “Glory” even references Ferguson), and how much more has to be done to stamp out institutionalized racism. Not only is SELMA timely, it’s also a great piece of filmmaking, with David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo absolutely perfect in their respective roles, and Ava DuVernay proves herself a skilled director. The film is also commendable in that it doesn’t sugarcoat the disagreements and infighting among civil rights organizations.

9. NIGHTCRAWLER
Between this and ENEMY, Jake Gyllenhaal has re-emerged as an actor whose presence automatically makes a movie worth seeing. First-time director Dan Gilroy (whose writing filmography runs the gamut from FREEJACK to Tarsem Singh’s THE FALL) created a great 70s vibe and slimy but compelling characters.

10. BLUE RUIN
The less one knows about BLUE RUIN, the better it plays, but like NIGHTCRAWLER, it harkens back to an earlier era of filmmaking, and manages to be bluntly, brutally effective.

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