Best of 2014: Movies

What a diverse year at the movies 2014 was, and what a thrilling adventure every trip to the theatre has been. I’ve been tinkering with my Top-10 list for days and have come up with this group of 10. Enjoy.

10. 22 Jump Street

22 Jump Street surprised me. I thought 21 was OK, but was looking forward to 22 because of what Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum had been up to since the first film’s release. The duo’s chemistry and the film’s fun silliness make it one of the best buddy-cop films of the decade. Among my favourite moments of 22: a Golden Girls reference about Blanche doing heroin, Jonah Hill trying to convince himself he is Beyoncé post-Destiny’s Child, and an end-credits sequence for the ages. Sometimes a movie’s just fun. (112 minutes, dirs. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)

9. Whiplash

Who knew a movie about a drummer and his teacher could be this nerve-wracking? J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller star. Look for Simmons to clean up on the awards trail. (107 minutes, dir. Damien Chazelle)

8. Mommy

With five films to his name in his short career (and life – he’s 25), Xavier Dolan’s specialty has become the lush, over-emotional melodrama. With Mommy, he hits all the right notes. And bless Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément, who turn in incredible performances. (139 minutes, dir. Xavier Dolan)

7. Force majeure

I prematurely tweeted out my thoughts on Force majeure after I left a screening of the Swedish film during the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma in the fall, suggesting the film was a force moyenne. Almost three months later, I still think about the film. Daily. It’s funny, tragic and poignant, often in the same frame. A vacationing family has a close encounter with an avalanche at the amazing ski resort they’re staying in (seriously, I don’t ski and would start if it meant staying where these guys stay in the film!), which puts more pressure on what we find out is a very strained marriage. (118 minutes, Ruben Ostlund)

6. Locke

Two words for why and how Locke, a movie that takes place entirely inside a car in which you ever only see one man, works: Tom Hardy. The British actor made a splash in Christopher Nolan’s Inception in 2010 (though he has been active since 2001, with a small role in HBO’s miniseries Band of Brothers) and he’s been busy ever since. In 2015, he’s slated for five movies, including the Mad Max reboot and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s The Revenant, which will also star Leonardo DiCaprio. Locke shouldn’t work at all, but it very much does. (85 minutes, dir. Steven Knight)

5. Enemy

After Incendies and Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve changes gears without toning down the intensity with Enemy. It’s just a wallop of a film with a knockout ending. Can’t wait to see this one again. I quite liked this analysis of Enemy, via Slate. (90 minutes, dir. Denis Villeneuve)

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is what summer blockbusters should be like. Smart and epic in scope, the franchise continues on the right path since its impressive 2011 reboot. Andy Serkis is back as as ape Caesar, with a new human cast (Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke) and director Matt Reeves, who’s signed on to the next Apes instalment due in 2016. (130 minutes, dir. Matt Reeves)

3. Nightcrawler

I was expecting Jake Gyllenhaal to be getting the kind of attention and recognition for Nightcrawler that Matthew McConaughey got for Dallas Buyers Club last year. Then I remembered that unlike McConaughey, Gyllenhaal wasn’t in terrible movies for almost a decade before turning his career around. People love a redemption story, and Gyllenhall has become astonishing after being good for a long time. Nightcrawler made me nervous. Mostly, it felt like it could teeter out of control at any moment; mostly, it was because of Gyllenhall’s unhinged portrayal of a sociopathic, psychopathic, greedy Louis Bloom. Nightcrawler is the Wolf of Wall Street of broadcast journalism. (117 minutes, dir. Dan Gilroy)

2. Gone Girl

To make this as spoiler-free as possible, here’s what I’ll say about one of the best thrillers (and most fun/frustrating literary and cinematic experiences I have had in a while) of the year: David Fincher directs this adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel for which Flynn also wrote the screenplay. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star as a couple with problems (“Marriage is hard work,” after all), as do Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Missi Pyle, Casey Wilson and Kim Dickens. Pike’s character, Amy Dunne, goes missing on her and Nick’s (Affleck) fifth anniversary. A search is launched, of course. And the shit hits the fan. Again. And again. And again. Even though I knew what was coming, it felt just as exciting and new as it would have had I been totally unfamiliar with the story. I think. (149 minutes, dir. David Fincher)

1. Under the Skin

Under the Skin

My biggest cinematic regret of 2014 is missing Under the Skin in theatres. I ended up watching one summer night (it’s available on Netflix Canada) on my modest 40-inch TV with the sound turned way, way up – I’d heard how great the score by Mica Levi was. Under the Skin was the most astounding, hypnotizing, immersive movie experience I had in 2014. Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien on a mission in Scotland. Director Jonathan Glazer has the ability to craft an intriguing and satisfying mystery around this character, an opportunity Johansson truly relishes, giving a gentle humanity to a creature who’s up to some terrible deeds. (108 minutes, dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Honourable mentions: Boyhood; Chef; Dear White People; Edge of Tomorrow; Guardians of the GalaxyThe LEGO Movie; Life Itself (as a rule, I keep documentaries off my Top-10 lists because I think their goals are different and should not be judged against artistic works of fiction. Life Itself moved me. Like thousands, I am sure, Roger Ebert introduced me to film writing and dozens, if not hundreds, of films I would never have thought to watch.) The One I Love; Snowpiercer; Veronica Mars.

Best of the rest: Blue Ruin; Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me; Godzilla; Grand Budapest Hotel; Happy Christmas;Neighbours; Obvious ChildOnly Lovers Left AliveTop Five; Wild.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Here’s my Top 10 list for my favourite movies of 2013.

Film review: Sleeping Beauty Diamond Edition on Blu-Ray

The motivations of Maleficent, the villainess in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty, always struck me as a tad exaggerated.

Does Maleficent really curse Princess Aurora to die (actually, just go into a never-ending sleep from which only true love’s kiss will wake/save her) because she didn’t get an invite to the baby’s big unveiling/party/sorta-baptism in King Stefan’s castle? That’s what I believed as a kid when I first watched it, and I kind of couldn’t get it out of my head watching it last week, in the crisp and gorgeous Blu-Ray edition of the film, out Oct. 7.

This Sleeping Beauty Diamond Edition set comes exactly six years after Disney released a Platinum Edition of the 1959 film. If you own that one, there may not be much for you here – but the movie’s never looked better. Ever. And I doubt it could ever be topped or improved. The restoration is, simply, beautiful.

We all know Sleeping Beauty: Princess Aurora is cursed by Maleficent that on her 16th birthday, she’ll prick her finger on a spindle and go into a deep sleep.

Younger Disney fans may have gotten their first taste of the Maleficent/Aurora story in Disney’s live-action villainess origin story Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning. The production design, costumes, makeup and art in that film were eye-popping. Jolie, undoubtedly, had the cheekbones to play Maleficent, but the film just did not do it for me. It was CGI-heavy, often at the cost of the story. I do appreciate the twist the live-action version did on the ending. What struck me most in the animated Sleeping Beauty is how heroic Prince Phillip is made to seem, even though he barely does anything, and barely speaks. The fairies – Flora, Fauna and Merryweather – do most of the heavy lifting here.

Among the special features on the Diamond Edition set is a short documentary on the storied Disney villains, a staple of these animated films. The doc features new and archival interviews with the animators from FrozenThe Lion King and Aladdin. The set also has a deleted and alternate scene, which animation geeks will get a kick out of.

If animation is your jam, though, this Sleeping Beauty set is a no-brainer; the film has always been one of the most lushly and gorgeously animated Disney film, and this version is totally mind-blowing.

Sleeping Beauty

Film review: Xavier Dolan’s Mommy

Xavier Dolan Mommy

Quebec cinema wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature Mommy is his best by far.

In hindsight, Mommy is also Dolan’s first masterpiece. This isn’t a knock to his debut, J’ai tué ma mère, or the lush Laurence Anyways, or even the Hitchcockian Tom à la ferme, but none of his previous films are nearly as moving, captivating or artistically assured as Mommy is. Knowing what he can do now with Mommy, a passionate, beautiful and unique film about a Québécois family, with a script that is biting and emotional, it makes his previous efforts pale in comparison.

Set in 2015, when a new law is passed allowing Canadians with a problem child to give him or her up to a federal institution, Mommy follows Diane “Die” Després (the perfect Anne Dorval, in her fourth Dolan film) and her son Steve, whom Die picks up from what appears to be a boarding school that’s at wit’s end with what to do with the troublemaker (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Steve set one of his classmates on fire and is being expelled, leaving widowed and severely underemployed Die no choice but to try to homeschool him. The pessimistic woman at the school reminds Die that “It’s not because we love someone that we can save them.” Immediately, we get a glimpse into the mother-son relationship of Die and Steve. Dolan is in his element: they have fun together and love each other, clearly, but Steve is sometimes violent and dangerous, and Die can’t help but blame herself. Their relationship is toxic but codependent. Die can never be sure what will set Steve off. After a misunderstanding leads to an argument, Steve starts destroying things around the house and Die scrambles to find a safe space to hide from her boy until he calms down. Suddenly, that new law sounds like it could literally be a lifesaver. Die and Steve get some relief when the shy and stuttering neighbour from across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clément, in a beautiful and heartbreaking turn), begins to tutor Steve.

Mommy hits you when you least expect it with a ferocity that left me thinking about it for days after I watched it. Even almost two weeks later, I get chills thinking of certain scenes and sequences, and Dolan’s use of music is especially effective in the film. It felt odd at first, hearing Dido’s “White Flags” or Oasis’s “Wonderwall” used in the soundtrack un-ironically, but when Kyla, Steve and Die belt out Celine Dion’s “On ne change pas” after a hilariously awkward dinner scene, I was floored at how such a soapy moment could be so moving. It just works. Everything in Mommy meshes so well for the world and characters of Mommy.

The 1:1 aspect ratio in which it is shot leaves no room for distraction either. You’d think that you’d be missing out on something with the square frame, but it’s more than enough to be completely immersed in the characters’ worlds, their living rooms, kitchens, lives. Dolan also isn’t afraid of extreme closeups, leaving no room for the actors to not emote and commit fully.

To have five directorial efforts to your name at age 25 is a feat in itself, but for those five to be critically acclaimed, well… It should surprise nobody that Dolan’s reported next film is going to be his first English-language feature and will star two-time Oscar nominee Jessica ChastainMommy, like three of four Dolan films before it, screened at the Cannes film festival (Tom à la ferme premièred at Venice, but did not make it to the South of France) and was awarded the Jury Prize. It screened at TIFF and had a big red-carpet première in Montreal earlier this month. The hype is real and it’s worth it.

Mommy opens in Montreal on Sept. 19.

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Film review: The Hundred-Foot Journey

THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY

Director Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey is like a dessert: sweet, but too much of it is a bad idea.

Car trouble leads the Kadam family, Indian expats travelling from London – where the “vegetables have no soul,” according to the family’s gifted cook/middle son Hassan (Manish Dayal) – to spend a night in the small town of Saint-Antonin in the South of France. Out on a stroll and guided by fate or the voice of his dead wife, Papa Kadam (Om Puri) sets his sights on an abandoned building across the road from the Saule Pleureur, a Michelin-starred restaurant run by the stern and tough Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). Logic would have it that the kind of clientele that would visit the Saule Pleureur and Maison Mumbai, the Indian restaurant the Kadams want to open 100 feet from Mallory’s eatery, could not be more different. But this is a movie that defies logic and completely deaf to how real, sensible people would react in the situations in which it places it characters. Mallory and Papa are on a mission to sabotage each other’s establishments, unbeknownst to them that Marguerite (Catherine Le Bon), a sous-chef at the Saule Pleureur, and Hassan have become friendly. In fact, Marguerite has turned Hassan on to French cuisine, and now he is pursuing an apprenticeship at Madame Mallory’s sophisticated restaurant. The conflict throughout the film is mostly playful and resolved almost as quickly as it arises.

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Film review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy

Science fiction has already had a great year at the movies – the warped Snowpiercer, the excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America 2, and the critically-acclaimed-yet-to-be-seen-by-this-writer-who-hangs-his-head-in-shame Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch, Jonathan Glazer film Under the SkinGodzilla reboot, and Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow. With Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the genre’s streak of greatness continues, and will likely do so until the end of the year, with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and the penultimate Hunger Games instalment still to come.

In Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel and director James Gunn (known before this for the great indies Slither and Super) make an action star out of Chris Pratt (known before GOTG for mostly playing loveable, bumbling, well-meaning fools, like Andy Dwyer on NBC’s fantastic Parks and Recreation). Pratt is Peter Quill, a resident of Earth who gets abducted by aliens as a child in 1988. Fast-forward 26 years and he’s an intergalactic thief with a penchant for ’70s pop and Motown music on his “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” tape. We follow him, dancing, singing and lip-synching his way through a heist: Quill steals a sought-after orb as easily and confidently as Pratt owns the lead role in what is likely to become Marvel Studios’ new “it” franchise. A sequel, to be helmed by Gunn, is already slated for 2017.

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Film review: Boyhood

BOYHOOD - 2014 FILM STILL - Ellar Coltrane

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has been wowing critics and audiences since its première at Sundance in January. The acclaim is universal, boisterous and very enthusiastic. (The film has a score of 99 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average rating of 9.4/10)

Boyhood follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 5 to age 18 as he goes to school, plays video games, goes to college, and everything in between. The film is gorgeous and exquisitely shot, finding beauty in the mundanity of everyday tasks, of life and its ups, downs and middles. There is no plot to speak of, just the journey you are on with Mason and his family.

It’s not unusual for films to span years or decades. Boyhood does, but it’s unique in that it was filmed a few weeks at a time over 12 years using the same cast and crew. Kudos to everyone involved for committing and trusting that the end product would be spectacular, and not just a feat or gimmick. The cast includes Coltrane, who does great work though he doesn’t get the meatiest or juiciest bits; many times, Coltrane’s performance was just a look, a sigh or an eye roll. But if Linklater is Boyhood‘s brain and Coltrane’s Mason is the film’s soul, then Mason’s mom Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, is the film’s heart, turning in her best work ever. The cast is rounded out by Lorelai Linklater (the director’s daughter) as Samantha, Mason’s older sister, and Ethan Hawke, who plays their absentee-but-wants-to-change dad. Hawke is no stranger to Linklater films: he starred in the director’s sublime Before Sunrise trilogy, which follows a couple (Hawke and Julie Delpy) at different stages in their relationship. Boyhood isn’t a four-person film, just like lives aren’t shaped by just parents and siblings: Marco Perella, Cambell Westmoreland, Richard Robichaux and Cassidy Johnson may not get top billing on Boyhood, but their characters helped build Mason into the 18-year-old we see at the end of the film.

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Seven reasons you have to see Life Itself, the Steve James documentary about Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert Life Itself

Any fan of cinema owes it to him or herself to see Life Itself, which premièred in Montreal on July 11 and is screening exclusively at Cinéma du Parc. (It’s not available on-demand in Canada yet.) The most famous film critic of all time died at the age of 70 in April 2013, but he leaves a rich legacy behind, to say nothing of all the people he’s inspired and turned on to cinema. Life Itself is a great biographical documentary with compelling, raw and honest footage. Here are seven reasons you have to see it:

It’s directed by Steve James, the acclaimed director of Hoop Dreams.

It’s incomplete, and that’s OK.  There were questions director Steve James asked Roger Ebert (about the future of film criticism and Ebert’s own career) via email but Ebert never got a chance to answer due to his deteriorating health. It lets you imagine what he would have answered. I think he would be optimistic, arguing that the Internet has made film criticism a wholly collaborative endeavour. His own website, rogerebert.com, is the perfect example of that, archiving every review he’s ever written and enlisting contributors from around the world to write and report about cinema.

Interviews with Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Ava DuVernay, Errol Morris help shed a light on the kind of impact he had on cinema and filmmakers. Scorsese said when Ebert gave an unfavourable review to The Colour of Money, even though Ebert had presented Scorsese with an honorary award a few years prior for Raging Bull, Scorsese knew Ebert was being fair and doing his job – Scorsese cared what Ebert thought not only because of his influence, but because of his respect and love of the art form; Herzog dedicated his documentary Encounters at the End of the World, a gorgeous film, to Ebert; DuVernay appreciated the exposure he gave her film I Will Follow, which likely wouldn’t have been seen by as many people without Ebert’s praise; similarly, Errol Morris’s first documentary Gates of Heaven was lauded by Ebert, to whom Morris credits his career. Morris has gone on to direct the documentaries The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, an Oscar winner for best doc.

An anecdote by Ramin Bahrani helps reaffirm the generous man Ebert was. The director of Man Push Cart recalls receiving a gift from Ebert, which Ebert himself received from actress Laura Dern: a jigsaw puzzle that Alfred Hitchcock once gave Marilyn Monroe. Ebert said it’s Bahrani’s responsibility now to give it to someone he deems worthy.

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