There was enough reaction to our favorite movies query that we split it into two parts this year. What was the most popular choice across both parts? Seems to have been a tie between picking Whiplash and picking Interstellar, assuming everyone else was going to pick Interstellar, and so talking about something else instead. But that’s part of the fun – what else was that good and so overlooked that it takes precedence?
What I love about this exercise is it shows the sheer number of different ways people watch movies. Two of our writers picked Gone Girl, for instance, but for completely different reasons. As I read these pieces, I’m given new ways to look at these films as well. To me, that’s the best thing a critic can give – not a rating or judgment on a film, but new ways to see it.
Take a look at Part 1 here. Otherwise, let’s dive in:
by Russ Schwartz
I usually dislike doing favorite-movie picks, since I always feel like I have four competing desires: One, to choose the film with the most overall merit (whatever that means); two, to choose the film that I want to like the most, regardless of its ultimate success at achieving what it sets out to do; three, to choose the film made with the greatest ambition; and four, to choose the film that engrosses me the most completely, cause me to just experience.
Last year I picked The Hunger Games: Catching Fire completely on desire number four. I was surprised because I was engrossed (having felt pretty meh about the original) and more engrossed because I wasn’t expecting to be in the first place. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen many of the best films of 2013 at the time, or I might have chosen differently; it doesn’t matter now, I suppose.
The absolute best movie experience I had this year was Selma. It wins on all four counts, thanks to immensely strong performances, surprisingly quick pacing, and director Ava DuVernay’s ability to make the psychology and resolve of each character drive suspense. Though David Oyelowo anchors the film splendidly, nearly its entire cast is called upon to communicate how their characters deal with fear, either through reserves of conviction, faith, anger, love, humor, or some combination of these; the tension of this struggle runs through the entire film, and makes every moment feel alive. As Gabe noted in his review, this feels like a war film.
There are so many ways a biopic can stumble – its legends can be legendary rather than human, spectacle can overwhelm storytelling, the need to entertain can cheapen or reduce its subject matter rather than propelling it. Selma makes none of these missteps, thanks to DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s tight focus on the strategy sessions, negotiations and gambles behind an historic moment. It also succeeds marvelously as a study of Dr. King, delivering an intimate vision of him while keeping us just far away enough that, at key moments, we can be thoroughly lost in trying to guess his mind. This is what I mean by engrossed.
Apart from the larger decision points, a moment that sticks with me is when he makes a late-night call to a woman the audience hasn’t seen on screen yet. There’s a long pause before the phone gets answered. Suddenly, we realize it’s Mahalia Jackson (played by singer Ledisi), whose voice helps maintain his resolve, and perhaps his faith. It’s a beautiful scene and one that, rather than breaking the tension of the story, hints at how he is able to withstand his role in it.
Russ Schwartz is an actor, playwright, and producer who co-founded The Penny Seats Theatre Company in Ann Arbor, MI.
by S.L. Fevre
Soulless and cold to the touch. Performances viewed through lenses of celebrity: the disappointing husband is everyone’s favorite actor to hate (Ben Affleck), the perfect wife gone missing is a Bond girl (Rosamund Pike), a comedian known for fat suit comedies (Tyler Perry) is his high-powered lawyer, a false lead – or is he – is a comedian (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother. Even the college girl on the side is the nude model from the controversial “Blurred Lines” music video (Emily Ratajkowski).
Is it cold and soulless? If so, only in the way a Rorschach test is. It uses the baggage viewers bring with them to the film to lead you into false assumptions. Gone Girl‘s plot is about how we sabotage real investigations by creating celebrities out of their participants, but what it’s really about are the perceptions of celebrity we bring into the film as viewers. The participants inside Gone Girl can’t judge the case objectively because of its celebrity trappings, just like those who watch the movie can’t watch it objectively for the same reason. Is it a movie first, or is it a judgment on Affleck’s ability to act, or cinematic redemption for Pike, or a crossover for Perry, or a career shift for Harris, or a real “breakthrough” into Hollywood for Ratajkowski? We judge these celebrities first – the job they do and the effect the movie has on their career. Only then do we remember to figure out what we think of the movie. Where else in our lives do we practice that ass-backwards way of looking at the world?
S.L. Fevre is an actress and model who escapes L.A. as often as possible. She once beat an abusive director up with her shoe. She is working on launching her own production company.
by Rachel Ann Taylor
Kirk Baxter’s editing. My god. Here’s the most David Fincher of director David Fincher movies. It’s so airtight, if you took away the dialogue, you could still follow every moment. For a twisting, winding thriller full of double crosses and red herrings, that says something. One thing it says is the Oscars were insane for overlooking it.
I can’t talk about the ending without giving everything away, but what it says about our obsession to fulfill every cultural norm that’s expected of us – marriage, picket fences, kids – at any cost is haunting. Amazingly, Fincher never judges these characters. He’s just the narrator. For such a perfectionist, this is incredible restraint. It also leaves us to make the judgments after, remarking on how insane, unrealistic, and out-of-date these expectations are.
Rachel Ann Taylor is an actress living in L.A. She wants you to know it’s warm there and there’s no snow, so next time you diss California, just remember that.
and Clouds of Sils Maria
When I was around the ages of 9-10, there were a series of films that captured my imagination and yearning of what life must be like for those just a little bit older than me. The sports-themed The Sandlot and Rookie of the Year, both released in 1993, stand out the most in my memory, but there were many others that came along fast on their heels. My attention to those types of films faded right around the time of the Star Wars re-releases in early 1997, and I remember being especially disappointed how that year’s remake of That Darn Cat, possibly the last PG rated film I saw in the theater for a number of years, failed to capture the spirit of the 1965 original and seemed to be aiming for an even younger audience than my then-ripe age of twelve-and-a-half.
More than any other film in our current millennial era, Boyhood taps into the opposite side of that yearning, a wistful memory for what was, wasn’t, and could have been, as those of us in our early 30s reflect on the choices we’ve made and the now-hazy memories of childhood adventures and formative experiences. Those little things that make big impacts loom large in different individual lives, and Richard Linklater sharply observes that truth in his film. In the central figure of Mason, emphatically portrayed by Ellar Coltrane, we can attach our own recognition of certain individual yet universal experiences: doing homework, playing with friends, getting a talk-down from a parent, staying out too late, the first kiss, deliberate dirtiness with smoking or alcohol, leaving home and the familiar life behind for a new beginning at college.
Mason’s family are archetypes of their own, yet still strongly individual, with his mom (newly minted Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette) displaying the sharpest character arc as she works her way up to a satisfying career as a college professor. But the film’s focus on sharp individuality means that we see the other side of her thoughts in a quietly devastating closing scene for the character. Dad (Ethan Hawke) initially is a murky figure, but comes into clearer definition in a series of fun and poignant outings with his children, and especially for Mason in a tender, spare camping trip sequence (where they discuss no less than Star Wars). And Big Sis (Lorlei Linklater) develops from a combative to thoughtful supporter of Mason, as she also branches off from the central family unit and eventually starts her own life.
Since this site has been an active and vocal supporter of Kristen Stewart’s recent work, I’d like to offer sneak preview praise for her work in Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she recently became the first American actress ever to win a Caesar Award. In this film, which I was delighted to see at the Windsor International Film Festival last November, Stewart and Juliette Binoche are a surprising, revelatory pair, spending most of the film acting opposite just each other in a remote Swiss mountaintop home. Director Olivier Assayas creates an enigmatic intensity with the material as the story blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Yet throughout the story it is Stewart herself who seems more honest and humane than ever before on screen, and she’s matched by Binoche, adapting a new role as a sort of elder stateswoman of the acting profession. I would argue that this is the film Birdman wanted to be.
J.P. Hitesman is the Renaissance Man of any theatre or stage he steps on. He blogs about theatre and film at TheatricalBuddhaMan.
The Raid 2
by Eden O’Nuallain
Actually, the movie I loved most last year was Interstellar. I know I will watch it often and cry every time, but it doesn’t need the advertisement. When you’re done wiping away your Matthew McConaughey-induced tears, turn to The Raid 2, a martial arts movie with the drama of an opera and the brutality of a war film.
It’s Indonesian. There are subtitles. Deal with it. If the first Raid was Die Hard in an apartment building, the second is Barry Lyndon in the slums of Jakarta. It is an artful film. There is hidden meaning toward Indonesia’s messy politics, where gangs stand in for the military old guard. There are beautiful locations – blood-red hotel amphitheaters, snowy back-alleys, muddy prison yards, fertile green fields where the dead are buried.
It is a wonderful time to be a martial arts fan. Every year, martial arts movies tread new territory while old-fashioned drama stagnates. The Raid 2 tells a mythic narrative of superhuman feats with real world consequences and meaning.
Eden O’Nuallain moonlights as our editor and makes sure all our punctuation is in the right plac.e
by Cleopatra Parnell
Nothing compares to Interstellar. It is one of the top 5 science-fiction movies I have seen, but someone needs to stand up for I Origins. We keep referencing it but no one’s written about it.
The biggest divide in the U.S. is over science and religion. I Origins is the only film I’ve seen to address that in a reasonable way. It treats both with respect – a scientist seeks to disprove religion, but is faced with possible scientific evidence for reincarnation. The ultimate meaning of the film is left up to us, but it guides its characters into places where the two can coexist and even reinforce each other. It shows how each is stronger with the other one assisting. They are each humanitarian in their own way.
And if you rated movies on the volume of tears they induced, I Origins is the best movie ever made.
Cleopatra Parnell is a session singer, actress, and model who calls Austin, TX home. She writes for us regularly on music videos.
My own pick is a tie between Under the Skin and Interstellar. I write about this more What the Oscars Missed. The two films are so different and represent such opposite ends of the science-fiction spectrum that I find more value in thinking of them together rather than choosing one. If you’re curious about what we chose last year, check out our Movies We Loved in 2013.