Tag Archives: Whiplash

The Movies We Loved in 2014: Part Two — By Friends of the Blog

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:

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

Selma
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.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl
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.

Gone Girl Pike Affleck

Gone Girl
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.

Clouds of Sils Maria Binoche Stewart

Boyhood
and Clouds of Sils Maria
J.P. Hitesman

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 heartbreak

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

I Origins Michael Pitt Brit Marling

I Origins
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.

The Movies We Loved in 2014 — By Friends of the Blog

We don’t tune into awards shows to be told what the best movie is. That’s not why they’re so popular. We tune in to disagree, to do it with friends and family around us, because the real show that night is what’s happening in front of the TV – it’s your arguments for and against the choices being made. It’s your chance to stand up for the movie you feel closest to and defend it.

My own views on movies are shaped by the people I’ve gotten to make and discuss movies with over the years, the critics I read or the actors I pay attention to. So I asked them – What was your choice for best film of 2014? What movie most connected with you? Which one will you take forward with you into the rest of your life? I’m excited to see both some expected choices and some very unexpected ones in the mix:

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Birdman
by Kaylyn Aznavorian

Of all the Oscar nominees for Best Film this year, I can honestly say I best connected with Birdman. Besides the obvious – fantastic acting, great writing, and an overall brilliant film, as someone who is actively working in the film and television industry, this film perfectly addresses the life of a person in entertainment. The entertainment business is almost like the relationship between candy and children. If the candy’s good, kids keep buying, but then perhaps a new candy comes out. Sure, the first candy’s good, and sales continue, but over time, that candy’s sales will decrease until it eventually retires. Why? Kids like new. They like change.

As an actor, you’ve got to be able to deliver that change they crave. We experiment – different roles, different moods, and in the case of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), different means of presentation, such as the stage rather than the screen. If you fall in your prime, it can be difficult to brush yourself off and get back in the limelight, because you have GOT to convince people you’re worth watching over the shiny new actor with the nice abs or pretty hair. You’ve got to convince them all that you’re the classic – the Hershey’s Milk Chocolate, if you will- and worth investing in.

Not only that, while putting everything you have into redeeming yourself as an actor, personal relationships can be difficult to handle, especially whenever most of those you care about don’t understand what it is you’re going through. Although I have yet to have my big Hollywood breakthrough, I absolutely get it, and my biggest fear, much like anyone else who is serious about a career in entertainment, is becoming that reject candy after I’ve finally made a name for myself. Bravo to Keaton and the rest of the Birdman cast and crew. By far, one of the best movies I have seen in a long time.

Kaylyn Aznavorian is a model, actress, and screenwriter from Bedford, Virginia. She has recently been featured on a 25-story billboard in Times Square, on season three of the award-winning series House of Cards, and is currently in preproduction on an original screenplay titled The Price of Beauty, which will raise awareness of domestic violence in the United States. You can follow her work here.

Boyhood lead 2

A “Boyhood” Searching for “Birdman”
by Qina Liu

I believe the best film of 2014 was Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). I was in awe of Emmanuel Lubezki’s seemingly one-shot takes; and the wonderful performances of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and the rest of the ensemble cast; as well as the self-aware and satirical script. The members of the Academy would agree with me; the film was nominated for nine Oscars and won four of them, including best cinematography, best original screenplay, best directing, and best picture.

But while I loved how Birdman appealed to me on an intellectual level, that wasn’t the 2014 film that I connected with most. Birdman didn’t keep me up at night or leave me with a gnawing hole in my heart, wondering what I am going to do with my life. As much as Birdman spoke about art, the film was essentially actor/director Riggan Thomson’s story. You could safely watch from afar as Thomson suffered humiliation after humiliation for the sake of art and “super realism.”

Instead, my story is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a nostalgic and poignant film that captures the mundane experiences of everyday life. I know people who didn’t enjoy the film. “If I wanted to watch someone pump gas and take pictures, I’d go on a car ride with you,” one of my friends wrote on Facebook.

But to me, Boyhood didn’t feel long or ordinary. It’s my story and one I don’t want to end. Like Boyhood‘s protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane), I spent summers “soaking up the sun” to Sheryl Crow and Queueing bookstores for midnight releases of Harry Potter. Boyhood was my childhood, and to re-watch it is to re-live it.

Of course, I’m not done growing up. Like Coltrane and Patricia Arquette’s characters, I’m still searching for meaning. I still find myself at late-night diners questioning my existence. I still haven’t figured everything out. But as I watch art, I’m slowly learning to live.

Qina Liu is one of my favorite critics, a Buffalo native who excels at digging out the subtle motivations that make film narratives work. Read her work at Pass the Popcorn.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal Russo

Nightcrawler
by Roy Sexton

The movies this year that spoke to me at the most instinctive and visceral levels all seem to focus on people living in the margins, people faced with a world that chews them up and spits them out, people who won’t go down without a fight. Bad Words, Foxcatcher, Whiplash, Still Alice, and Nightcrawler all still resonate with me for these reasons – I was immersed in those five cinematic, corrosive worlds and I can’t (won’t) shake them off.

Perhaps this reflects a midlife dyspepsia on my part, but these films captured my feelings toward a culture that seems more combative by the minute. In a strange way, they gave me hope – that there are others (the respective filmmakers) who view things as I do.

As individuals, we are all one bad day away from utter collapse, but a kind word, a career opportunity, a tough life lesson, a toxic moment might save our souls, while still damning us to hell.

Of these five films, Nightcrawler haunts me most. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo are dynamite as two sides of the same Horatio Alger coin. Americans can be opportunistic and relentless to a fault, but the film never writes these characters off as sick parasites. We are them, and they are us. Bathed in noir blue light, Gyllenhaal’s predatory hustle is a fractured fairy tale of the American Dream as it exists today. Everyone wants to be an American Idol, a Snooki, a Kardashian. We don’t like admitting it, but we want to be something, to be remembered, perhaps at any cost. Nightcrawler is a cinematic allegory for the ages – of the lengths we can go to survive and thrive – giving us the antihero our troubled times deserve.

Roy Sexton is a theatre actor and movie critic based out of Ann Arbor, MI. He writes witty, insightful film reviews at Reel Roy Reviews, you can check out his book, and he is closely involved with The Penny Seats Theatre Company.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal

Nightcrawler
by Amanda Hatheway

As I’m still catching up on last year’s films, I am going to say that Nightcrawler left the biggest impression on me. Yes, of course it (mostly Gyllenhaal) was creepy, it’s supposed to be. I had my own theories about sensationalism in TV news before seeing this film and my concerns spiraled into a dark place of enlightenment. It almost grows to be a most twisted black humor piece. It comments most brilliantly on entertainment, stats, shock-value, and asks what really is “the news?”

Amanda Hatheway is a fashion blogger and photographer with a focus on cruelty-free and animal-free products.

Butter Lamp lead

Butter Lamp
by Kunsang Kelden

Clocking in at just 16 minutes, “Butter Lamp” by Chinese director Hu Wei and French producer Julien Feret was my surprise favorite of the year. The Oscar-nominated short takes place in front of a series of kitschy Chinese-made backdrops used by a traveling photographer who has set up shop in a small village in Eastern Tibet. The film follows the photographer at work, ushering in Tibetan nomads for photos, sometimes encouraging them to swap their traditional clothes for sleek looking modern garb. Each photo in the series speaks volumes with the juxtaposition of nomadic life high in the Himalayas and modern Chinese kitsch.

Each scene is a little vignette, with an almost Checkhov-like quality in the way they’re told, the most moving of which I found was an old grandmother who was having her photo taken for the first time. The backdrop chosen was of the historic residence of the Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace in Lhasa, of which she has dreamt visiting her entire life. When the backdrop is unrolled, she is so moved she immediately begins prostrating to the image and refuses to turn around to take a photo. Eventually, the backdrop is replaced with one of a beach and a palm tree. Regardless of whether the director or producers would like to admit it, this film is inherently political. Its commentary of China’s colonialism and globalization in Tibet is a creative and refreshing narrative style that I hope influences many more filmmakers in China to come.

Kunsang Kelden is one of the most impressive human beings I know (no pressure) and is currently studying in London. She cares deeply about a free Tibet. You can read more about Tibetan culture at her blog Lhakar Diaries.

Liver and fava beans

Under the Skin
by Vanessa Tottle

I am here to be put on a hook and bedded. If I say something against this, I am here for your ridicule. I am a target and an opportunity. In a bar, I am not to be left alone. From the front of a classroom, you might hint at reciprocity, as if the grades I’ve earned have a cost to be taken from my flesh. You might cop an awkward feel in a train and apologize with a shit-eating grin on your face. You might dig in my bag and hold my passport like a ransom as I refuse to show you my panic and my mind races for options. You might crawl into my tent at 2 a.m. There are times in the field I’ve slept with a knife at my side.

I am lucky. I have resources. I said no to tougher and bigger as a kid, when I was meek and small and bruises were a victory. I can make you feel “no” in your bones when I say it now. I can fucking haunt you with “no.” I have learned how to withstand the most ridiculous confrontations and pressures, but that’s never the same as feeling safe. It’s not the same as feeling what I’m told is normal, as if I’m not just here to be put on a hook and bedded.

There are many who can’t make you feel it in your bones, who don’t have resources, who didn’t learn what I forced myself to in order to feel confident and protect myself, or who may know all these things and have still been beaten or raped or killed in similar situations.

Under the Skin puts the shoe on the other foot. It’s the men on the fringes of society who won’t be missed, who no one will listen to, who no one will search for if they go missing. An unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) preys like a rapist, a social predator hiding in plain sight, who makes you feel her approval is worth a cost in flesh, is worth a ransom, because you serve no more purpose than to be put on a hook and bedded. Even if it makes you feel it for two hours, it makes you FEEL it. It makes you feel unable to withstand. It makes you feel unsafe. But you get to walk out at the end and call it “horror.” For a woman, sometimes we call that “just another day.”

Vanessa Tottle is a paleontologist by trade, and is the creative director for this site. She’s written powerfully many times on the treatment of women in the media and the increasingly organized war on women’s freedoms.

Guardians Assemble

Tie – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
and Guardians of the Galaxy
by Erin Snyder

Yeah, yeah: ties are cheating. But I’ve got a good excuse. First of all, I’m not calling these two movies the “best of the year” because I think they each deserve that title individually. In fact, if only one of these movies had come out this year, I don’t think I’d have picked it. It’s the two of them together that delivered something exceptional.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t great: I thought they were. But I saw a lot of great movies in 2014. What set these apart is the larger Universe they’re part of. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is easily the most ambitious project going on in Hollywood right now. Of course, this is old news: the MCU has been around since 2008.

These two films didn’t just occupy completely different sectors of the same shared Universe; they dramatically expanded that Universe in new directions. I don’t just mean in terms of plot or setting: these movies introduced entirely new tones and genres to the Marvel Universe.

I had a lot of great experiences in the theater this year – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The LEGO Movie, Edge of Tomorrow, Her… but in my opinion the clear winner is Marvel. They’re building something we haven’t seen before, at least on film. We’re seeing plot lines developing across multiple franchises and platforms. We’re seeing characters interacting with each others’ stories without realizing it. And most importantly, we’re seeing movies try to do something they haven’t done before.

These two movies expanded the possibilities for where Marvel can go. They’re developing larger, connected stories on a scale we’ve never seen on film.

And that, hands down, is the best thing I saw in a theater in 2014.

Erin Snyder is a novelist and critic. You can check out his latest novel Facsimile, read his reviews at Welcome to the Middle Room, and experience some seasonal shock to the system at Mainlining Christmas.

Interior Leather Bar lead

Interior. Leather Bar.
by A.E. Larsen

When I was asked to submit a brief piece about what I thought the best movie of the year was, I was initially hesitant, both because I haven’t seen a lot of the big releases this year and because most of what I have seen simply hasn’t moved me or stayed with me in any real way. But eventually I decided that I did have a choice, though not an obvious one by any means: James Franco’s arthouse piece, Interior. Leather Bar. The film is a docufiction that purports to be about Franco’s attempt to reconstruct the lost 40 minutes of William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 movie Cruising. Franco casts a straight friend, Val Lauren, in the Al Pacino part as a straight cop going undercover in a gay leather bar where he watches men having sex and engaging in sadomasochistic acts.

I say the film “purports to be” about reconstructing the lost footage, because as a number of critics pointed out, only about 10 minutes of footage actually gets reconstructed, and instead most of the film is a discussion about how Franco, Lauren, and other straight actors feel about what they’re watching. But what many of the film’s critics failed to recognize is that the film isn’t actually about Franco’s attempt to reconstruct the lost footage. It’s actually Franco using the reconstruction to study the reactions of vanilla straight men when confronted with open demonstrations of kinky gay sexuality. Lauren is confused about what he’s doing because Franco hasn’t told him that what he’s really filming is Lauren’s discomfort with the loss of his heterosexual privilege that has kept him from having to view gay sexuality in action.

So why am I calling this the best film of 2014 (or more precisely, the best film of 2014 that I’ve actually seen)? It definitely has problems; it’s very talky, and at times it gets way too meta. But it actively pushes its audience to think about the way that conventional cinema privileges heterosexual romance over all other forms of sexuality to the point that, as Franco comments in the film, he’s internalized his hetero privilege even though he doesn’t want to. He complains that audiences are trained to accept extreme violence but to blanch at gay sex. Whereas The Imitation Game embraces its heterosexual privilege by exaggerating the meaning of Alan Turing’s brief engagement to Joan Clarke and cannot bring itself to show Turing actually engaging in homosexual activity even when that activity is central to the plot (he’s being investigated for homosexual sex, after all), Interior. Leather Bar. actively pushes its audience outside the bounds of hetero privilege and dares to treat explicit kinky gay sex as a suitable subject for a movie. It’s not the best movie of the year by any conventional set of standards, but it was a far more thought-provoking and bold film than any other I saw this year.

But if you want a more conventional best film of the year, I’ll say Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was fun, had a smart plot, had lots of violence, and absolutely no sadomasochistic gay sex.

A.E. Larsen writes the absolutely essential An Historian Goes to the Movies, which considers how far movies stray from historical reality. Sometimes, a movie is forgiven and sometimes it’s not. Either way, I always learn something.

Interstellar Anne Hathaway

Interstellar
by Jessica Greenberg

My pick is Interstellar, if just to bring focus to the sound design. The score is evocative, sometimes minimalist, and the sound as a whole has a retro-futuristic flavor that I love. The use of silence, or near silence, at appropriate moments is equally well done. I thought it was interesting that the world of the spaceship was less dominated by the typical beeps and blips you might find in a sci-fi blockbuster, which I think supports the more philosophical tone of this movie. Sound design by Richard King, and music composed by Hans Zimmer.

Jessica Greenberg is a lighting designer and assistant professor of Theatre Design at Weber State University. Check out her impressive design portfolio.

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Whiplash
by Keith Ward

“There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than ‘good job.’” – Fletcher

Most stories about the relationship between a mentor and student are safe, empowering, predictable, and frankly hokey experiences. Whiplash subverts this cliché genre in surprising new ways. Out of all the movies I watched in 2014, it both disturbed me and challenged my preconceived notions the most.

Whiplash focuses on aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller). A first-year student at a Julliard-like music school, he rejoiced when renowned instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) recruits him into his band. Neyman soon must re-evaluate his ‘good luck.’ Fletcher’s methods are brutal. Rather than offering praise to encourage the best in his students, he uses humiliation and sadism to push them past their limits. To him, the ends always justify the means. But Fletcher’s cruelty is matched by Neyman’s own obsession with becoming a great musician. As the story progresses, the line between victim and accomplice becomes increasingly blurred.

I was raised in the “feel good” generation. It was during my childhood that kids started to get awards at sporting events just for participating. Many of us never really knew what it was like to be a loser until we were thrown into the terrible post-2008 job market. I certainly didn’t learn to appreciate criticism until halfway through college. Maybe my generation’s fear of hurting other people’s feelings has held us back. Personally, I like to think that positive reinforcement is important and feel pride in some of my generation’s accomplishments. Whiplash’s narrative does not side with Fletcher, depicting the dark repercussions of his methods, but it does show us that his mean-spirited technique can be effective. Achieving greatness in any medium, from music to acting to filmmaking, must come at a personal cost to the artist.

I recommend that you go see Whiplash. But keep in mind that it is definitely not a date movie. The story revels in making its audience feel uncomfortable and it kept me on the edge of my seat. It features an excellent jazz soundtrack, creative editing, brilliant performances by Teller and Simmons, and an intelligent story that challenges the viewer. I couldn’t ask for much more from a motion picture.

Keith Ward is an actor making his feature film debut this year as the lead in a film I’m very excited about, the upcoming romance Beyond Hello.

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Whiplash
by Justine Baron

Sometimes, the films that speak to you the most are the ones you never imagined you would love so much. To me, Whiplash is one of the most affecting films of 2014, and this is coming from someone who has little knowledge of jazz music and no musical skills whatsoever. When someone comes along and creates a story built in a world you don’t necessarily relate to, about a subject you know little of, and you become not only pleasantly lost in it but also so on-edge the whole time that you feel physically tense, that is what I believe is a part of great filmmaking.

Some of the credit goes to the performances, and I think plenty of us who saw this can agree that J.K. Simmons was the most intense and scary he’s ever been. Miles Teller also stepped out of the box and into a role that really showcased his true talents as not only an actor, but a musician as well. I had no idea he had those skills. Credit also goes to Damien Chazelle for a smart, bold, and engaging script with plenty of witty dialogue and layered themes, the biggest of which asks the question: how far is one willing to be pushed to achieve greatness? A question I don’t often ask myself. Along with the outstanding performances and great writing/directing, the music, the editing, and the cinematography here work so well in accordance together. Whiplash is such a skillfully crafted film. It shocked me and really made me question the moral implications of this abusive student/mentor relationship. I fell in love with this film instantly, and that’s why I believe it’s the best of 2014.

Justine Baron is a production assistant with a passion for movies. She runs the incredibly informative film site Justine’s Movie Blog. I may not always agree with her, but I do always read her, and she’s one of the few critics I consider go-to.

Whiplash Tim lead

Whiplash
by Tim O’Neill

Let’s talk about Whiplash. It may not be my definitive favorite of 2014, I had a few this year, but it fills a dark horse niche that I’d like to celebrate. Like Foxcatcher, another favorite of 2014, Whiplash is a nail biting, mano a mano study of masculinity, whose plot evokes yawns when explaining it to friends. This movie isn’t great because of what it is, but how it is. This lean story of ambition, competition, and motivation almost feels like it spontaneously appeared out of the hands of its craftsmen: the actors, cinematographer, editor, and sound mixers. To his credit, Damien Chazelle’s direction feels like the invisible hand of a composer himself, letting the instruments do the talking.

Like Black Swan, Whiplash confronts the horrifying sacrifices one makes in the pursuit of artistic brilliance. But not since Fight Club have I seen a movie that so daringly grapples with the subject of masculinity. Most films that do center on stories of extreme violence, and of course here there is a little of that. But here, violence – or perhaps more accurately machismo – comes in the form of competition. Men learn by doing, and doing better than the next guy. Fathers scold, brothers fight, and the scars define us. Or at least that’s what J.K. Simmons is yelling at me. I had a theatre professor in college a lot like Simmons’ character, Fletcher, who offended a lot of students with his abrasive style. He used to say that we would never learn if he wasn’t brutally honest about our work, emphasis on brutal. This idea that artists, like athletes, have to be pounded into the ground in order to be great is certainly compelling. I still think what few basketball skills I have are primarily the result of the pickup games I played with my cousin, whose early growth spurt gave him a full head over me. On the other hand, you can’t throw a chair at a student, c’mon guys. And would he have thrown a chair at a female student? Oddly, I found Whiplash to be a fairly positive portrayal of masculinity. This isn’t a depressing movie about an alcoholic father who beats his son, there is something genuinely, unsettlingly rational at its core. I may not completely agree with Fletcher’s philosophy, but he does seem to get results.

People have been calling Whiplash a horror movie, or a monster movie. I can get on board with that, but perhaps what’s truly horrifying is the notion that Fletcher might be right, or at least not entirely crazy. The ending certainly leaves that question up for debate. Speaking of which, the ending alone makes this one of the best films of 2014. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie climax so dependent on editing.* Plenty of movies have great action climaxes built around superb editing, but those would still read well on the page. I haven’t read it, but I assume the script for the final scene of Whiplash reads something like “then Andrew takes control of the band and proves that he has what it takes.” Seriously, the last 5 minutes are essentially a live jazz performance covered from every conceivable angle cut together by the ghost of Keith Moon. I saw the movie weeks after it came out in a small, half-full theater and the audience still erupted in applause. Now THAT’S filmmaking.

*Full disclosure, I’m an editor.

It’s true, Tim O’Neill is an L.A. based editor, whose credits range from the feature The Unidentified to the TV documentary Tracker and the comedy series Compulsive Love. His edit reel shows a rare flexibility across genres.

The Rover Pearce

The Rover
by Olivia Smith

Australia. Our art is driven by what pleases American and English critics who hardly matter to America or England anymore. We want to be like our bigger brothers. We’ve killed our own art. While New Zealand poaches local and Polynesian artists, we chase them all out like dogs. Where once we loomed large, Australian movies now make up 3.5% of our domestic box office. We even chased the new Mad Max trilogy to Namibia. The Australian movie industry has been choked to death.

When something like The Rover arrives, it’s special. It’s not just special because it’s Australian – like writer Joel Edgerton, director David Michod, and most of its stars, including Guy Pearce. It breathes Australian. It feels the desert. It features actors of Cambodian and Chinese descent, which may seem inconsequential but is something much Australian film ignores. It feels like the madhouse circus this place can be, finds brilliance hidden in among the xenophobia and paranoia that pervades our politics. Its story is simple, yet deceptive. A man (Pearce) and his kidnapped protege (Robert Pattinson) pursue the man who stole his car. Along the way, Pearce trains Pattinson to interact with the world by dominating others, by murdering them. Yet Pattinson only ever does it for Pearce’s respect. Both men are haunting. The film is parched of all emotion, cast in the pall of a hurt Pearce won’t reveal. Pattinson feels like the wood from the bonfire a night before – crisp, flaking apart where the wounds are, disintegrating before your eyes. You watch with tremendous sorrow, but it makes no difference. What you watch has already burnt. It can no longer be fresh again, it can no longer be restored.

Olivia Smith is an Australian-based writer who’s offered us a unique perspective from a country struggling with whether to publicly fund or privatize the arts.

Babadook lead

The Babadook
by Andy Crump

Horror movies tend to be treated as though they’re disposable; this is as true today as it has been for most of horror fiction’s existence. But then a person like Jennifer Kent comes along and makes a horror film that makes 90% of what her genre peers output, as well as most of 2015’s Academy Awards nominees, look like absolute clown shoes. Few horror yarns founded on a driving metaphor work that metaphor as beautifully as The Babadook does. The film is terrifying, but it’s also heartwrenching, gorgeously made, and indelibly true. How can a movie about a boogeyman feel more authentic than most films that purport to root themselves in reality?

Andy Crump is a film writer and critic at Movie Mezzanine and Screen Rant. He and I get in some pretty legendary battles over films, but I always appreciate the writing he does and the care he puts into it.

We had enough reaction that we’ll be featuring Part 2 of this article next week. That’ll be featured and posted here once it’s up!

Trailers of the Week — True Stories

FOXCATCHER
Nov. 14

Steve Carell’s often hinted at some deeper pathos in his comedy. It’s what makes characters like Michael Scott on The Office compelling. His asinine comedian of a boss spoke to Scott’s lack of confidence, his social maladjustment. He tried to correct this through behaving, through women, through spending every cent he had, and found in every iteration, he found no real comfort.

It was only when he started to grow up and become comfortable with himself that others became comfortable around him, started rooting for him rather than against him. That Carell may deliver one of the better performances of the year in Foxcatcher isn’t a surprise. It’s that it took so long for someone to put him in a dramatic role like this, playing an historical character, that’s the real surprise.

(This isn’t really the first trailer. It’s about the 7 millionth, but it is the first “official” trailer.)

WHIPLASH
Out in select markets, expanding soon

Whiplash has been engineering one of those frustrating holiday releasing strategies. Is it in limited markets? In previews? Expanding? Yes, yes, and is molasses a releasing strategy? Technically, it’s already out, but it better start expanding far more if it wants to capitalize on the buzz that’s been going around about it. All I know is it looks brilliant. I know a very few folks who have seen it already and describe it as the defining role of J.K. Simmons’s exceptional career.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
March 13

I’m not sold on Chris Hemsworth yet. He’s fun to watch as Thor, but his other projects really haven’t launched.

I should be sold on director Ron Howard by now, but I always have reservations going into his movies. With the exception of Apollo 13, his films that aren’t designed to be hits (The Missing, Frost/Nixon, Rush) tend to be better than the ones that are (Ransom, A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code).

It’s ironic that Rush is one of Howard’s better films. Hemsworth was fine in it, but the role wasn’t exactly a stretch for him. He played it in very broad strokes and it never felt like he reached the level of his costars. Personally, I’d rather see his Rush-costar Daniel Bruhl in a role like this.

It also makes me wary that this isn’t a Moby Dick adaptation. It’s based on the “true events” that inspired Moby Dick. In fact, a youthful Herman Melville is one of the characters here, played by Ben Whishaw. That’s always dangerous territory. It’s also off-putting that the whale in the trailer is some flame breath or an EMP-burst away from being a Pacific Rim kaiju.

Actually, Ron Howard’s “Pacific Rim: Colonial Edition”…I’m beginning to get the Chris Hemsworth casting now.

Do I have a whole host of worries about In the Heart of the Sea? Absolutely. Does it look good anyway. Yep.

UNBROKEN
Dec. 26

This isn’t Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, but for the vast majority of viewers, it will be. That alone leaves me rooting for it. Since most women filmmakers don’t enjoy the ability to step into a fully-financed studio film, if she’s successful, she may change Hollywood’s minds on backing female directors.

All of that is immaterial to the film itself, however, and the film looks damn good. All its trailers have come across as a bit schmaltzy, but coming out in the holiday season, that’s how they’ve got to appeal. It doesn’t look like the film itself will subscribe to that. Instead, this looks like an old-fashioned, rousing, biographical picture. That’s exactly my cup of tea. It is based on a true story, and is probably going to stick to the facts of that story a little more closely than Ron Howard’s Whaleformers above.

Needless to say, I’m rooting for Unbroken for a lot of reasons.

WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?
No date set

Yakuza send-up gone mad, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? follows a gangster who wants his gang war revenge on film, starring his daughter, and done before his wife gets out of prison. Because why not?

Japan might have the best film industry in terms of skewering its own genre standards. That’s a fancy way of saying they make the best comedies. This doesn’t mean every one is a hit, but I’ve heard good things about Why Don’t You Play in Hell? and the trailer hints at a movie that knows precisely the overbloodied gangster movie tropes it wants to lampoon.

DYING OF THE LIGHT
December 5

When you click on a trailer with Nicolas Cage’s name attached, you’re already thinking “Worst Trailer of the Week.” And Dying of the Light certainly starts out with that potential. As it develops, though, you start to see where it could go and it’s another Nicolas (Nicolas Winding Refn, in this case) that makes me view the trailer through another filter. The writer-director of Drive and Only God Forgives is producing, with hit-or-miss writer-director Paul Schrader, well, writing and directing this time out.

His last film was the execrable The Canyons, a movie so wretched I broke out the word ‘execrable’ to describe it. A Bret Easton Ellis performance art project starring Lindsay Lohan, porn star James Deen, and in which the movie itself was secondary, Schrader was the hapless director used in a Producers-like plot to create the perfect modern train wreck. Ellis’s success was contingent on Schrader’s failure, but that doesn’t mean Schrader should be forgiven his directorial decisions on The Canyons.

All this is a way of saying Dying of the Light is a high-risk, moderate-reward kind of venture. I have more confidence in Winding Refn to get something good out of Schrader than Ellis, and the trailer surprised me by looking like something I’d watch. Given the amount of crap I give Nicolas Cage (despite honestly liking him in many roles), it’s nice to highlight a performance of his with true potential.

Worst Trailer of the Week:
SEX ED

Haley Joel Osment! Jokes about this Internet thing! Crappy comedies about lazy-ass guys whose lazy-assitude is rewarded with beautiful women just because that’s the way the world works, right?

It’s like the early 2000s all over again.

He gets drunk and throws up on someone! I’ve never seen that before! Look, when even Steve Zahn moved past this stuff, it really should’ve signaled the end, guys. Please don’t make Haley Joel Osment our new Steve Zahn.

Here’s some Chris Hemsworth to wash the taste of whatever that was out. I might start pretending he’s really Thor stripped of his powers in every film. It already makes Red Dawn a much better film.

Chris Hemsworth In the Heart of the Sea