The Best Films of 2015

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25. It Follows
24. Respire
23. Lost River
22. Ex Machina
21. Tom at the Farm
20. Anomalisa
19. Love
18. Magic Mike XXL
17. Mississippi Grind
16. Buzzard
15. Sicario
14. The Look of Silence
13. World of Tomorrow
12. Entertainment
11. Heaven Knows What

10. Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii: The Movie

The funniest film in years, Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii: The Movie is a product of its larger On Cinema at the Cinema universe. Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington have lovingly crafted something major that started from something minor. Playing movie “experts” on the web series, the two characters, also named Tim and Gregg, have developed a push and pull relationship where they sometimes can’t stand each other, but at other times can’t imagine a world without one another. There’s backstabbing, passive aggressive insults and, of course, lots of bags of popcorn handed out to the movies they review.

After a few seasons of development between the characters, which includes weekly YouTube episodes and live Oscars specials, the two were able to pull off the first Decker series, which led the way to this feature length film sequel (originally debuted as a series of short episodes) that goes beyond spoofing the action and spy genres with its layers of comedy and references to their characters on the show.

Sure, you stand to gain a lot more from Decker: Port of Call: Hawaii: The Movie the more familiar you are with On Cinema. But for those who aren’t, even those who are only mildly familiar with Heidecker’s style of comedy, there’s lots to enjoy here. The film’s intentional blunders – bad editing, poorly delivered lines and off camerawork – are perfectly unintentional. Decker truly feels like it was an honest attempt by Heidecker’s On Cinema character at making art and not as the joke the two actual smart and more capable Heidecker and Turkington behind it all made it as.

9. The Hateful Eight

There are so many strengths in Quentin Tarantino’s latest that it’s hard for me to begin praising it. I mainly loved how much intrigue and paranoia this film carries throughout its entire runtime. Each character is a new face, a new person to understand and a new potential source of danger or trouble.

The film itself is gorgeous, even though most of it takes place inside a cabin, and Tarantino’s screenplay is, again, outrageously good. Whatever he does, he makes his characters talk in the most engaging and interesting way. You hang on most words and in turn each scene. And The Hateful Eight is another example of that.

8. The Mend

John Magary’s directorial (and screenplay) debut is a raging comedy about brotherly love and hatred. As The Mend begins, we know little about its players. It’s a film that slowly reveals itself to the audience with every passing minute. We learn about a relationship we previously didn’t know about, we find details through conversations that start out as being pointless and we begin realize why these characters feel so tense together.

The Mend very much resembles something that could work on stage. Its signature moments come in the film’s third act. An uninterrupted sequence inside the claustrophobic New York apartment between the two brothers, and later the girlfriend of one, spirals deeper and deeper down a hole of madness. It’s funny, crass and brutally honest.

Josh Lucas’ performance as Mat is a highlight of the year for me. And Magary’s direction, stylish at the right times and perfectly steady at the others, is just enough to carry The Mend as one of the finest directorial debuts in the last many years. Truly, though, it’s his screenplay – and the way the actors execute those words – that is winning awards with me.

7. Phoenix

I appreciate Phoenix for many reasons, and one of them is finding a way to tell a World War II era story in a refreshing way.

Christian Petzold’s near-perfect film is about identity and what it means when your face no longer represents who you once were. Nina Hoss is wonderful as Nelly, the disfigured concentration camp survivor, who tracks down her husband who can no longer recognize her.

The film’s final scene is among the best closing moments to a film all year. It’s perfect.

6. Queen of Earth

From start to finish, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is a tightly wound drama about two friends trying to find a balance in their relationship. The performances from Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston are two of my favorites of the entire year and they just happen to be in the same film. They work so well together, each assuming versions of their characters in the present and the past. Through them, the tension is made.

Perry also creates a wonderful juxtaposition between the desired serenity and peacefulness of the lake home the two friends are staying at with the emotional and internal drama being fought inside their minds. There are a lot of questions you can raise about the two main characters in their movie, and probably many ways to interpret their motives and feelings, and that lends to something I could watch over and over again.

5. Mommy

At the young age of 26 (one year younger than me!), Xavier Dolan has crafted five great films. Mommy might be his best yet. It tells a relatable (to a degree) story about a single mother and her troublemaker son, but places it into a fictional Canadian society where parents can place those troubled children in a hospital with no argument from anyone.

I think what works so well for Dolan is a really nuanced handling of the small moments that are actually explosive in good and bad ways. These aren’t twists and turns. They are parts of our normal family lives, although perhaps exaggerated at times to better fit Steve’s personality (played wonderfully by Antoine-Olivier Pilon).

The use to film in a 1:1 aspect ratio actually worked for me. The moment in the film where Steve, finally happy, reaches out and pushes the screen to a more familiar aspect ratio is exhilarating. That might be the first time an aspect ratio gave me chills.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road

There really isn’t another film like Mad Max: Fury Road. It topples George Miller’s three Mel Gibson Mad Max films. There’s an energy unfound in other action movies that can be found in Miller’s instant classic. This is some imaginative stuff.

Fury Road‘s editing and plotting is beat by beat, never missing a single step, and that rhythm is what really makes every action sequence so much fun to watch and study. Nevermind how beautiful the entire film is to the eye.

3. Hard to Be a God

Watching Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God is like throwing yourself face first into a pile of mud. The film, about a group of scientists sent to a planet similar to Earth where the inhabitants have resisted a renaissance, thus making them stuck in the middle ages, is the most immersive film experience I had all year.

German’s work on this science fiction/middle ages hybrid of an epic places the viewer right alongside its characters. You feel, through stark black and white photography and a camera that isn’t afraid to get close to its surroundings, that you are getting a first-person view of this hell hole. You bump into dead animals and clutter handing from the ceilings, you hear the sound your feet make as they trudge through piles of mud and you recoil in disgust from the discharge of bodily fluids coming your way. Watching this, I felt part of every conversation and every bewildering character interaction. For three hours, I was a resident of this strange planet.

It’s easy for me to say I’ve never seen a film like this before. Not of this style and not of its ideas. Though its non-structured narrative can be confusing to follow, it doesn’t detract. It only adds to the chaos of the location and social structure that, because we are the alien visitors, don’t quite understand. We are the outsiders.

2. Blackhat

Michael Mann’s unfairly maligned Blackhat is a great example of movie storytelling through images. Abandoning any kind of classical form, Mann’s characters do a lot of their emotional talking through glances and gentle touches.

Behind it all is a highly stylized Michael Mann film that begs you to devour its gorgeous locations and perfectly choreographed action with your eyes, your mind and your heart. Chris Hemsworth, so wonderfully strong, brooding and handsome, gives the character of a hacker some weight and force.

In Mann’s film, we don’t need words spoken between Hemsworth’s Hathaway and love interest Chen Lien (Wei Tang) to know they’re entangled romantically. Our eyes tell us that. This is filmmaking poetry in all the right ways.

Blackhat is a hefty and perfectly paced film full of meaning that can be found in the eyes of its characters. It’s one that many critics in the future will be saying “Oops” about when they revisit their takedowns.

1. Carol

Todd Haynes, with such care, has delivered us one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever seen told on film. Every frame and shot matters in this movie. Haynes did everything with a reason and with a purpose. The decision to use 16mm for a film set in 1952 is stunningly perfect. The grain on the screen pops, adding a certain kind of special feeling that wouldn’t be achieved without the real thing.

This is a film where two characters gazing at each other from across a room can mean just as much as the words they say after that. It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking and it all hits you right in the heart. And Cate and Rooney are the best at making sure that happens.

2015 October Horror Movie Challenge

A * means it’s a new watch.

Sept. 30 (after dusk)
1. Martin****
2. The Stuff* – ***
3. Body Bags* – ***

Oct. 1
4. The Beyond**** 1/2
5. Killer Klowns from Outer Space*** 1/2
6. Return of the Living Dead****

Oct. 2
7. Christine* – *** 1/2

Oct. 3
8. TerrorVision* – ***

Oct. 4
9. Motel Hell* – ***
10. Savage Weekend* – *** 1/2
11. Deathgasm* – ****

Oct. 5
12. Pumpkinhead* – *** 1/2
13. Trick or Treat* – ** 1/2
14. The Innkeepers****
15. Prince of Darkness* – ****

Oct. 8
16. Black Sunday*****

Oct. 9
17. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre*****
18. Dead Alive*****

Oct. 10
19. Don’t Look Now*****
20. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – **** 1/2
21. Trick ‘r Treat**** 1/2
22. Repo! The Genetic Opera***

Oct. 11
23. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage**** 1/2
24. Halloween (1978) – *****
25. The Touch of Satan (MST3K) – *

Oct. 12
26. The Final Girls* – *** 1/2
27. Halloween II (1981) – *** 1/2
28. Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh* – ***

Oct. 13
29. Dead Kids* – ** 1/2
30. Halloween III: Season of the Witch* – *** 1/2

Oct. 14
31. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers* – ***
32. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers* – ** 1/2
33. Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except*** 1/2

Oct. 16
34. The Green Inferno* – ***
35. Eaten Alive* – ****

Oct. 17
36. Dawn of the Dead (1978) – *****
37. The Rocky Horror Picture Show****

Oct. 18
38. Tales of Halloween* – *** 1/2
39. Goodnight Mommy* – ****

Oct. 19
40. A Bay of Blood****
41. The Nail Gun Massacre* – ** 1/2

Oct. 20
42. The Funhouse* – *** 1/2
43. The Taint* – ***

Oct. 21
44. Creepshow****

Oct. 22
45. It Follows**** 1/2

Oct. 23
46. [REC]*****
47. Maniac Cop* – *** 1/2
48. Dude Bro Party Massacre III* – *** 1/2

Oct. 24
49. Night of the Demons****
50. Night of the Demons 2* – ***

Oct. 25
51. Two Evil Eyes* – *** 1/2
52. Patrick (1978)* – *** 1/2

Oct. 26
53. The Curse of Frankenstein* – *** 1/2
54. Dolls* – ****
55. Bloody Moon* – *** 1/2

Oct. 27
56. Just Before Dawn* – ***
57. A Virgin Among the Living Dead* – *** 1/2

Oct. 28
58. Evil Dead (2013) – *** 1/2
59. The Evil Dead*****
60. Evil Dead II*****

Oct. 29
61. Night of the Demon* – ****

Oct. 31
62. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown* – **** 1/2

The Best Films of 2014

10. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

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Shion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is the most wonderfully twisted genre film of 2014.

This, like Holy Motors from a few years ago, is a love letter to filmmaking. Bolstered by the rogue filmmaking crew the Fuck Bombers, Sono shows the love of filmmaking as being like a destiny and urge that artists need to have fulfilled.

The hunger of the crew and the unlikeliness of their assignment – filming an actual fight between two rival yakuza clans – is what brings Why Don’t You Play in Hell? into a cartoon universe of spilled blood and flying body parts that is so fully aware of what it’s accomplishing.

The Fuck Bombers’ energy and enthusiasm seems to embody Sono’s crave to be creative and through them he creates one of the most surprising and delightful films of the year.

9. Maps to the Stars

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Though David Cronenberg’s last many films have had their share of strange, Maps to the Stars is the closest we’ve come to returning to purely weird Cronenberg.

Though the film has a sort of critique of how obsessed we can all become with celebrities, it really is more about what Hollywood, fame and fortune can do to an already unstable family.

Agatha Weiss returns to the family she was kicked out of. That family, home to teen superstar Benjie Weiss, has its own share of problems that digging up its tragic past with Agatha and how they handled her sends the entire family into turmoil.

The film is supplanted by characters who are living outside of the family but share their interactions with them. Julianne Moore’s Havana Segrand, an actress dealing with aging, and Robert Pattinson’s Jerome Fontana, a limo driver who wants to crack into the business, represent the industry’s fierce nature of turmoil.

Cronenberg approaches the bizarre and twisted story of love, obsession and desire with his usual approach of unexplainable feeling that can’t be put into words. It’s weird.

8. Nightcrawler

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Nightcrawler appeals to the ethical journalist in myself.

“This isn’t Hartford,” a television producer tells an assignment editor. She’s right. This is Los Angeles and, from what Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler tells us, ethics can take a backseat to ratings when you’re in the middle of a hotly contest ratings battle with other networks.

The work of Louis Bloom, who is the maniacal result of a terrific Jake Gyllenhaal performance, would never get shown on television in Hartford. Truth be told, I don’t watch enough L.A. cable news to know how graphic it gets, but the obsession we they have with high speed chases should tell you enough about that.

Nightcrawler is at once a scathing take down of the broken cable news system and a character study of a man who aspires to be something more. Bloom is a self-made man. He’s fearless and tenacious when it comes to his work. He wants it done right, but he also will get what he wants at any cost.

Watching Bloom move bodies of a crash scene around to get the perfect shot was hard to see. Watching him enter a home and filming murder victims was hard to see. But Gilory makes it all very attractive to watch.

Nightcrawler carries a grim moral message all the way to its conclusion. Bloom hardly does things “the right way” but he still gets what he wants. And that’s truly upsetting.

7. Borgman

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Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman is a suburban and modern take on what could comes off as a centuries old fairytale or fable. And at the end of it all we never learn just exactly who, or what, our titular character is.

After an opening scene that throws viewers through an intriguing rush of confusion, we finally get to meet an on-the-run Camiel Borgman. He seeks refuge at a nearby house in an upscale neighborhood and is initially turned away.

What follows is a domestic and scheming overtaking by Borgman and his other magical friends that builds with each scene. Every moment and permission that Marina, the woman of the house, allows Borgman to have pushes the process further. It starts at taking a bath and ends at something much more consuming and intense.

The truly scary thing about Borgman is how difficult it is to assess his character. We don’t know what he is, we don’t know what his intentions are and we don’t know what he’s doing. The film’s opening scene can only help us surmise that he’s up to no good, but because of how well Jan Bijvoet plays Borgman we can’t write him off as a bad guy just yet.

Van Warmerdam’s darkly funny fable is something that leaves interpretation up to its viewers. And that serves Borgman much better.

6. Leviathan

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Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is a fearless take on Russian government.

With a tale of biblical proportions, Zvyagintsev makes a land struggle a contested drama. The drunken, crooked politician wants to repossess property from the drunken, simple homeowner.

Fueled by alcohol, Leviathan is a loathing journey of the human nature. Zvyagintsev shows viewers the darkest our relationships with family, friends and opposition can be. With that said, the film is surprisingly more funny, with all its dark glory still reigning supreme, than you could imagine after reading its description.

The moments that make Leviathan’s tragic explode are all conflicts between this cast of humans. They are an angry husband and his unhappy wife, a father and his misbehaving son, two friends who have lost each other’s trust and a man facing the person who is trying to ruin his life. And it’s all so hard to watch.

5. Under the Skin

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The best thing about Under the Skin is the way it can trap a viewer into thinking it’s about much more than it really is. It makes you want to go under its skin to find its depth and its other meanings. You can search, but I don’t think you’ll have much to find. And I say that all as a compliment.

Jonathan Glazer’s film is really a story of growth that can be made without aliens and without a captivating visual and audio experience. To maintain intrigue, the film doesn’t explain anything to its viewers. There are no conversations that tell us what is happening. But we can figure it out from visual cues and general understanding.

What really hooks us is Scarlett Johansson. Her sexy, dominating and fearless performance is one to behold and was severely unappreciated by the Academy. Under the Skin relies so heavily on her character’s transformation, which is mostly seen and not heard, as she turns from a stone cold being from another place who is harvesting men to a compassionate and conscious being who could begin to emotionally pass for the skin she wears on the outside. Johansson owns this tall responsibility.

The film’s awe-inspiring finale, filmed without an abundance of dialogue, is a thrill. Under the Skin is one of the best science fiction films of the last many years and will remain at the top of that category for more to come.

4. Boyhood

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Richard Linklater’s ambitious Boyhood is the director’s most recent exploration of how time, space and moments can affect our lives.

Boyhood’s lengthy filming process was not just a gimmick used to sell a film. It was an experiment. By using the real life time and experiences of the actors in the film, Boyhood wasn’t just characters changing in a film. The actors did too. The older actors gain more wear and tear. The younger actors gain more experience and insecurities. Everyone was changing throughout this project. And look at how Patricia Arquette comes out of it all with a well-deserved newfound respect and a likely Academy Award.

Linklater’s Boyhood is an autobiographical tale about the growth of a child, Mason, and his family. The things he sees aren’t at all uncommon for most of us to experience. In comparison to the subject matter of many other films, these are small and sometimes insignificant moments. But the bigger ones are impactful and used to show how they can impact a young and impressionable person. Mason grows, he becomes a more rounded out character, and you know why.

The consistency and patience of Linklater and his cast is remarkable. Performances, even those of the younger actors, remain consistent throughout, as does Linklater. The tone and approach never changes and that’s impressive considering Linklater completed several other projects during the elapsed time. Boyhood is a true triumph and a movie-going experience I’ve never felt before.

3. The Dance of Reality

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Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first film in 23 years has the surrealist filmmaker looking like he hasn’t lost a step.

The Dance of Reality is an autobiographical and exaggerated story about Jodorowsky’s upbringing in Tocopilla, Chile. Never playing things straight, Jodorowsky so wonderfully molds his personal life, the history of that time and more through his surrealistic approach.

Consider that Jodorowsky himself appears on film, speaking directly to us and acting as an anchor, crutch and voice to his young self. This is a bold film that is for Jodorowsky and by Jodorowsky. The process is so personal that it comes off as if he is working through some things while in his later stages of life and to me it’s an honor to watch that. Jodorowsky indulges not only in his personal problems, but also takes issue with his mother and father, and ties it all together with a biting look at the societal issues his family and others faced at that time.

And aside from the pure craft, The Dance of Reality is incredibly fun, amusing and consistently surprising. I found every scene to be full of something funny, scary, sad or upsetting. To have a Jodorowsky film this good in 2014 is a cinematic blessing.

2. Inherent Vice

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Watching Doc Sportello hop around Los Angeles in the search of answers that aren’t there was the most fun I had watching a movie all year.

Paul Thomas Anderon’s Inherent Vice, in all of its sun-soaked acid-noir glory, is very much a tale of mystery. But its deliciously absurd narrative isn’t this film’s true calling card. Sure, Thomas Pynchon’s novel crafted a dizzying tale, drawing back to the confusing plot of The Big Sleep and the style of The Long Goodbye, but I wasn’t focused on finding out what happens at the end of it all.

Inherent Vice is very much a film about its era. It’s about the 1960s becoming the 1970s and how maligned and paranoid hippies like Sportello are dealing with changing times and adversaries like Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen.

So what’s driving Sportello to go on his wild chase? It isn’t money. He doesn’t want it. Is it the intrigue? Maybe. But he can do without that. Sportello’s drive is love. When his ex old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth comes to his door in that dreamy opening sequence we learn all we need to know about what Sportello thinks of her. So say he solves this puzzle. Will things ever be the same again? Probably not, and he knows that, but he still sure as hell tries.

Anderson’s take on Inherent Vice is fun and stylish. I haven’t finished the novel yet, but from what I’ve read so far, he captured the essence of Pynchon’s words.

1. Winter Sleep

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Even the smallest of moments can feel explosive in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. A window is broken. A child is punished. And a conflict between two families is reborn.

The film, which makes three hours feel like a breeze, captures a cold winter life at its most vulnerable. Aydin, who embodies success and wealth in a village that doesn’t have much of it, is having struggles with his wife, his sister and his business.

Drawing closely to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Ceylan’s film is an intimate portrait of conflict. Ceylan locks viewers into small, dark rooms full of intense, scalding conversations, many dealing with Aydin’s failing marriage to his young wife. We join them at the end of their relationship. We don’t see the beginning. And we don’t need to see it to understand what is at stake between the two.

Brimming outside of his family is a dispute with a family that may be evicted from a property Aydin inherited from his father. It’s the event early on in the film that puts Winter Sleep’s wheels in motions, making it an emotional vehicle of conflict that never stops.

Winter Sleep is truly about its incredibly tense and private moments. Intimacy is channeled through the lens of the camera. It is shot closely when we enter the character’s private chambers where lengthy conversations and stand out performances from every actor rule the screen.

Winter Sleep is a major work from one of the greatest working filmmakers.

The Best Films of 2013

10. Her

her

In Spike Jonze’s very rich Her, he presents us with ideas about relationships, society and technology that are sure to push at the emotions of many of us. And the way they push at us will be different based on our own experiences. Whether you’ve had strong relationships or not, you can find something worthwhile to take out of Her. It isn’t about whether our society will be able to interact with a computer any time soon, it’s about the tenacity and fragility of relationships. Her is also a beautiful and consuming film to take in and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is something to admire.

9. The Counselor

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Author Cormac McCarthy arrives in Hollywood with his first screenplay and boy is it something we all needed. There’s an ideal sense of madness, insanity and pure dread that creeps along in The Counselor. It’s a terrifying film. There’s trouble, fear and death around just about every corner. The world that Ridley Scott and McCarthy creates is full of these kinds of things without ever needing to tell us that. We know it and we can feel it from the pure terror displayed through the characters. This is Scott’s most interesting film in years and we are better for it.

8. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet

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Alain Resnais is 91 years old and still making some of the most unique films in existence. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet caught me totally off guard. Starting with phone calls being made to various people asking them to attend a will reading of their friend, Resnais grabs early with intrigue and mystery. As the film develops, we understand they are all actors of different generations who have worked with the recently deceased playwright Antoine d’Anthac. When together, the actors who play themselves, are asked to watch a new performance of one of d’Anthac’s plays that they performed at one time or another.

What happens next captivates. The actors, sitting in d’Anthac’s home, begin acting out the play they are watching on screen. They begin reliving their parts. Some actors, now too old to resemble their younger characters, reach deep to find inspiration in a film that completely breaks from a sense of normalcy. We have breaks in the action, where the characters seem to remember what they are doing, but those last short moments. As a director, Resnais is paying tribute to the beauty of the stage, the way these wonderful actors can transform any setting into a believable and well-told story. We have three different versions of one play happening in front of us, and we can follow every note. Resnais keeps things interesting by tapping into his roots of surrealism by transforming the ordinary house into elaborate and hazy set pieces. He proves that even at 91 he has more energy and inspiration than some directors that aren’t even half his age.

7. Drug War

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Johnnie To, man. The word craft comes to mind immediately after watching Drug War. As in, the way To crafts what is otherwise a rather simple and often seen story. What we could have here is a run of the mill story about police officers trying to bust up a drug cartel. Instead, we have one of the freshest films of its kind in the last many years. For starters, the film has this very fluid timeline of events that involves the viewer. There’s no disconnect and no filler. It all matters and it’s all good. To’s confidence shines through in that. The staging of many scenes, including the thrilling finale, are tops in the business. And the Haha scenes? Outstanding. To has been making interesting movies for a long time and it’s wonderful to see he still has it.

6. A Field in England

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Ben Wheatley’s ability to tackle just about any subject, theme or genre in his films and make those films incredibly interesting and unique is rather unbeatable to me. A Field of England has all the psychedelic feel of a drugged out trip but without the colors. Wheatley opts for black and white for his story about a group of men who flee from battle. What starts innocently enough soon turns into a freaked out and surreal experience. For me, Wheatley has nailed it in all of films in his still young career and this bold and out there work is my favorite so far.

5. Before Midnight

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To watch Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy grow throughout the trio’s Before series is wonderful. What I would give to have watched Before Sunrise on its release and to follow the three until the release of Before Midnight, the strongest in the series. Not surprisingly, this is Linklater, Hawke and and Delpy at their most mature. The power of their performances, their writing and Linklater’s directing is all that’s needed her. Celine and Jesse are one of the most entertaining couples to watch in film.

4. The Great Beauty

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Paolo Sorrentino’s ambitious, beautiful and contemplative journey through the life of writer Jep Gambardella is one of the boldest films of the year. This seems like such a huge film, even though it’s about one man. It, without surprise, evokes the talents of Federico Fellini and other surrealists. Gambardella ponders life as he enters old age. He moves between friends, to party after party, meeting acquaintances new and old. And Sorrentino makes watch it all such a treat.

3. Laurence Anyways

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I absolutely adore everything in Xavier Dolan’s three hour tale about male-to-female transsexual Laurence. From start to finish, I was enamored by Laurence’s life, mind, relationships, thoughts and decisions. They all mattered to me, making the character a standout in the year of film. This is also one of the most important films of the year and to think that people are turned off by it because of its length is troubling. If The Wolf of Wall Street can have three (very entertaining) hours to make us laugh, certainly Dolan can give Laurence the same amount of time. And it’s not like there’s nothing to see here. Dolan’s approach of telling Laurence’s life story is unique. As we travel time throughout Laurence’s life we are treated to visual candy. The opening scene, by far, is enough to suck in any viewer. And what makes Dolan’s achievement even greater is that though Laurence’s acceptance of being a transsexual, and the social issues that come with that, are the focus point, the film is about so much more. It’s about the loss of love, the loss of friendship and a struggle that no one else but Laurence can truly understand. All that is bolstered by outstanding direction and vivid imagery from Dolan and wonderful performances by Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément.

2. The Hunt

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Mads Mikkelsen’s painful, shattering and powerful performance in The Hunt would be enough to carry a film if that’s all it had going for it. In the case of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, there’s a lot more to it that makes it one of the best films of 2013. Vinterberg tells the story of Mikkelsen’s Lucas, a man accused of sexually assaulting a young girl, and other children, at the kindergarten he works at. What makes The Hunt as strong as it is goes beyond a singular performance. The depiction of character, both before the accusation and during the backlash, is a strength. We see Lucas’ intimate, sweet and kind interactions with Klara, the accuser, and her family. And because only the viewer, Lucas and Klara know the truth, the emotions are swelling. This isn’t about finding the truth. It’s about a mob dealing with accusations and how we, as a society, react to these claims. The Hunt only exists in the tight-knit community that Lucas calls home. And the way we watch Mikkelsen portray Lucas’ pain is what makes his performance the best of the entire year. The Hunt will live long in my memory.

1. Spring Breakers

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Of all the films I saw in 2013, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is the one that has never left my head. Korine’s neon-splashed fantasy is electric noir. It’s loud, it’s sizzling and it doesn’t stop. I liken the entire thing to a flashy pop music video but with a narrative that blends and flows at every corner. Korine does not hit the brakes, he just keeps pressing go. James Franco’s monster performance can’t be missed. Style aside, Korine’s film is a substantial one. I don’t think it’s made with much irony, I don’t think it’s made as an inside joke. That, at least, is how I read the film. There are messages of chasing dreams and wanting to find something better and more exciting that a lot of people can relate to, and watching how Korine plays those desires out is fascinating. This is Korine’s most accomplished film.

From ‘Gummo’ to ‘Spring Breakers’

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Gummo.

It must have been after midnight. IFC, before commercials interrupted the movies, must have been on my television. Now showing: Gummo.

Everything about Harmony Korine’s directorial debut stuck with me. The images, the sounds, the music, the dialogue, the characters, the people’s faces, the locations. Everything. It made a great impression on a high school kid just starting to find his way through the depths of cinema.

That’s why I smiled from ear to ear when I saw “A Harmony Korine Film” in neon letters boldly flashed up on the screen at the local cineplex before the first frames of Spring Breakers.

The latest (and possibly greatest) film from Korine, Spring Breakers is electric noir basking in the glow of acidic neons. It’s the most polished film Korine has made yet. With Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and James Franco at his will, Korine has made the mainstream his audience.

Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens star in Spring Breakers.

Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, James Franco and Vanessa Hudgens star in Spring Breakers.

There are a lot of ways to take Spring Breakers. Is it condemning of a generation? Or more cautionary? Is it satire and parody rolled into one? It’s likely that Korine intended to make his film do a lot of things (he takes on so much over the course of 90 minutes), for which there’s not one or two or three good labels or ways to describe it. Just don’t try to tell me that Korine is trying to “troll” anyone. That’s discounting the man’s entire process and accomplishment.

I’m more interested in Spring Breakers for its infectious merits than its commentary. Korine films, for me, have always been like chaotic poems. They are lucid and dreamy. While Spring Breakers has one of the more connected narratives of all of Korine’s films, it’s still this very disconnected and surrealistic voyage of human existence and self-discovery that pushes forward on the strengths of Korine’s ability to create hypnotizing combinations of images and sounds. There are moments in all of his films that seep into your brain and never leave like a catchy song you’re singing to yourself all day long, whether you want to or not.

Gummo presented people existing in a sort of psycho-American hell, living in the cultural wasteland of a post-disaster scenario and getting by in the only way they know how. Julien Donkey-Boy is a disturbing portrayal of a dysfunctional family that’s so distorted it almost seems real. Mister Lonely, the profiling of a collection of lost minds belonging to celebrity impersonators, and the “elderly” pranksters of Trash Humpers round out Korine’s films.

But back to Korine’s debut, Gummo. There are a lot of moments in film that have been etched into my mind. This is the kind of film that when I watch after not having seen it for more than a couple of years I can still finish entire sequences of dialogue. It’s very much like revisiting an old folk tale or an old song. Korine’s lack of narrative and structure in Gummo is what helps it, not haunts it. It doesn’t need a beginning, middle or end.

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Jacob Reynolds in Gummo, Harmony Korine’s directorial debut.

Take, for example, the relationship between Tummler (Nick Sutton) and Solomon (Jacob Reynolds). The cat-killing and glue-huffing friends are certainly two of the main characters in the film. Nothing really happens with the two as far as conflict and result is concerned. They go through their days and we watch. We watch them kill cats to sell, we watch them buy milkshakes, we watch them visit a prostitute and we watch them talk like any similar real life incarnations of the two might after huffing bags of glue. There’s something so interesting about the two. In an interview with Werner Herzog that Korine did in 1999 he talks about how these were people that he was interested looking at.

“When I go to the movies, there’s usually nothing on the screen that compels me, and with this film I wanted to see people who were amazing looking. I was watching an episode of Sally Jesse Raphael called “My Child Died From Sniffing Paint,”and I saw this kid on it named Nick [Sutton] who’s a paint – sniffing survivor. They asked him, “Where are you going to be in a few years?” and he said, “I’ll probably be dead.” I loved him and wanted him to star in the film, so we tracked him down. He told me he’d been on acid on the show.”

“Jacob Reynolds. I’d seen him in a small part in The Road to Wellville [1994], and he was also in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial I liked, so we cast him. He’s got an amazing face. Most of the others I’d grown up with or gone to high school with or knew from hanging out.”

– Harmony Korine “Gummo’s Whammo” [Source]

It wasn’t until I read Korine’s take on the people in his film that I really understood it. It isn’t a connected or complete narrative, it was instead peering into another kind of lifestyle. It’s not exploitative, it’s not voyeuristic. It’s not the trash some critics wanted you to think it was. While it’s disturbing and sometimes questioning of a certain lifestyle, it’s also honest and sympathetic. Gummo is a poetic tribute to a place he once knew, to people he once met. He captured life around him in a devastating and beautiful way.

I found myself glued to the screen throughout Spring Breakers for similar reasons. While the nubile female leads sure are interesting to look at, also pay attention to the rest of the film and the way Korine fills it. You can’t take your eyes off of Alien (James Franco), the rapper from another planet with all the shit, and his curious friends. Korine’s films, all of them, are interesting to look at.

There’s also the fact that Spring Breakers is this amazing and flowing film. The collection of images and sounds set to a truly mesmerizing score by Skrillex and Cliff Martinez keep on coming and coming. One scene pierces into your eyes and ears and then connects with another one that does the same. It’s Korine’s rhythmic pacing, evident in all of his films, that keeps you interested despite the often lack of a clear narrative or structure. Even though it appears distorted, it feels more like a seamless montage.

Also helping, especially in Spring Breakers, is the fact that Korine’s dialogue is so lyrical, poetic and nearly songlike. His use of repetitious dialogue doesn’t just slam a point into your head (“Pretend it’s a video game,” etc.), but it creates a flowing and rhythmic beat. It’s been funny and a little confusing to hear complaints from the more mainstream viewers of Spring Breakers. They don’t gel with a repetition chorus in a movie, but you’d be willing to guess that they wouldn’t have a problem with that kind of technique in other art – like a pop or hip-hop song.

What it’s all about, though, are the moments. There are moments in all of Korine’s film that you’ll never forget. We won’t forget the scene in Gummo where Solomon is taking a bath in dirty water and there’s a piece of bacon taped to the wall. You don’t forget Werner Herzog’s rambling soliloquies spurned on by abusing cough syrup in Julien Donkey-Boy. You can’t forget the strange portrayals of Abraham Lincoln and other celebrities in Mister Lonely. These are the moments Korine injects in to his films that become lasting. They are strange, bizarre, dangerous, disturbing and so much more.

Spring Breakers also has its great share of moments we won’t forget. The barrage of crime and violence beautifully set to Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” Alien showing us all of his shit, the girl’s preparing to commit their first big crime. Spring Breakers is an interesting film with a lot of motivations. It isn’t flawless, and sometimes might tackle too much for its own good, but it’s one more success in Harmony Korine’s bank of passionate and unique accomplishments.

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Moments like these is why Spring Breakers will last a lifetime.

The Colossal Nature of ‘Fitzcarraldo’

At the heart of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is a madman with a dream.

The Irishman Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) wants to bring an opera house and some of the most distinguished performers to the Peruvian jungle.

Behind this grandiose and spectacularly staged film is Werner Herzog: a certain kind of madman in his own right. He wants Fitzgerald, who is the won’t stop at anything kind of madman, to drag a steamboat over a steep hill from one river to another.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald has dreams of bringing the opera to the Peruvian jungle.

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald has dreams of bringing the opera to the Peruvian jungle.

The similarities between both Herzog and Fitzgerald are great. They’re accentuated in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s fantastic making of documentary that shows the struggle and strife of Herzog, who also wrote the film, and his crew while trying to make such a chaotic, stunning and disagreeable film. This isn’t a peachy production. Kinski, not the first choice for Fitzgerald, wasn’t having the most fun and Herzog ended up reshooting the film from the beginning after Mick Jagger had to drop out.

But such an ambitious project shows both men as visionaries. Fitzgerald has swung and missed before – a failed attempt at constructing the Trans-Andean railways, a blunder that has lost him respect amongst the fat cats in his home of Iquitos. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to raise money for the opera house of his dreams by becoming a rubber tycoon in the most ambitious way possible. He buys a rundown steamboat, hires a crew of misfits from the local villages and sets off against the stream of the Amazon River – quite uncommon for some of these explorers. His idea? Bypass the rapids by going upstream and dragging the boat over a steep, mountainous hill to reach rubber trees.

From the documentary 'Burden of Dreams.' Werner Herzog's quest to drag a 320-ton steamboat over a steep hill.

From the documentary ‘Burden of Dreams.’ Werner Herzog’s quest to drag a 320-ton steamboat up and over a steep hill.

Herzog’s vision is staging and capturing all of this. There’s a certain level of astonishment in Herzog’s man versus nature films that ditches studios and finds exotic and sometimes scary locations. If you actively consider the effort and work that goes into Herzog’s productions like FitzcarraldoAguirre: The Wrath of God or Cobra Verde while soaking up their haunting images and ideas you’re bound to gain more appreciation for films that can often be challenging and chaotic in structure.

Both Fitzgerald’s money-making plan and Herzog’s artistic vision clash cultures. Fitzgerald is trying to bring the opera – what many in first-world countries might already consider upscale – to the jungle of Peru where the locals have never even heard the music before. Herzog is bringing a production with a size and scale that would probably be more suitable to Hollywood to the jungle. He’s using local places, local people and local conflict.

There’s this underlying sense of invasion and ignorance on the part of the “white man” that adds to the frenzied nature of Fitzcarraldo. They are using and in some cases abusing their land for profit, for dream and for luxury. This is all amplified when an unfriendly and dangerous tribe begins to work alongside with Fitzgerald, who they envision as a god-like figure, and help him towards his maniacal dream. These people live in the same jungle often characterized in the film as a dangerous, deadly place of the unknown. As one character spouts: “The jungle plays tricks on your senses. It’s full of lies, demons, illusions.”

I have the most admiration for Herzog, who like Fitzgerald goes to any length to complete their visions. Because dragging that 320-ton steamboat up and over the hill – that’s no joke, no trick, no special effects. Herzog actually does it. The creative madman in Herzog is the ambitious madman in Fitzgerald and vice versa.

Fitzcarraldo (and the accompanying documentary Burden of Dreams) is a total spectacle and one of the most rewarding film experiences in cinema. This colossal and challenging film is at times too chaotic and messy for its own good, but watching both Herzog and Fitzgerald strive toward their dreams is ultimately a masterpiece of the grandiose kind.

For my money, this is one of the greatest cinematic images as far as spectacle is concerned.

For my money, this is one of the greatest cinematic images as far as spectacle is concerned.

Warning: ‘Side Effects’ May Include Astonishment

Steven Soderbergh, who for my money is the most versatile filmmaker of the last 25 years, seems to still be planning that retirement from film.

If I may be allowed to beg and plead otherwise, I’d gladly use his last theatrical film Side Effects as reason for him to hang around a little while longer. But that’s not an option, and I believe an artist should go where they want, fulfill themselves and not others.

And so if the psyco-pharma-thriller Side Effects is the last new Soderbergh film I’ll be able to watch in the cinema for five years, 10 years or longer, I can at least be content and satisfied with what is one of the stylish filmmaker’s best efforts in a long time.

Side Effects stars Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor, a woman struggling with depression while welcoming her husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) home from a stay in prison for insider trading. Taylor soon becomes a patient of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) and begins to receive all sorts of psychological and pharmaceutical treatment.

Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor in 'Side Effects.'

Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor in ‘Side Effects.’

The film quickly establishes itself as yet another very Soderberghian production – a phrase that I’ve yet to understand how to explain in words and can only grasp by image and feel. Side Effects, like other recent Soderbergh features ContagionHaywire, The Informant! and Magic Mike, is a very professional, composed, stylish and film enveloped in warm tones. It also is another collaboration with writer Scott Z. Burns.

There’s a lot about Side Effects that I don’t want to talk about for reasons of spoiling plot. It’s a film that, while not utterly dependent on its plot and character maneuvers, is certainly structurally all about them. Through Burns’ screenplay and Soderbergh’s direction, the viewer ends up in a completely different place at the end of the film than they were in at the middle of the film and certainly the beginning of the film. A dynamic, rousing story that critiques the health care system and pharmaceuticals is the blistering reason for this. Burns writes key characters into well-developed human begins, all with faults and glimpses of evil. In that way, it is one of a kind.

The characters in 'Side Effects' are sometimes thinking more than they're saying.

The characters in ‘Side Effects’ are sometimes thinking more than they’re saying.

But perhaps most key to hanging on to the astonishing, exciting and gripping story that Burns and Soderbergh document is to have fun with it. The characters do a lot of quiet thinking and decision-making, that is to say, things are done and decided without the audience being privy to it. As the film has more than one “main character” we are more observers of a depressing and troubling interaction between multiple than being given any single person’s point of view. These are wonderful, fun characters in the most morbid and morally corrupt way. They are conniving, controlling and convincing. It’s more than just Burns screenplay, it’s Soderbergh’s way of showing, not telling, and the performances that key us in to a lot more than what is just on the outside and shown through their actions.

Soderbergh dominates every genre he touches. He seems to retain originality by approaching all of these different kinds of films with no hang ups and no idea about what a psychological thriller has to be or needs to include. All of the films, as different as they sometimes are, share things and lend bits of themselves to the other ones. Side Effects is certainly a great example of that.

I sat through this Soderbergh film like I’ve sat through all of them. I’m overcome by the beautiful pictures and taken by the strong storytelling tactics. Only this time, I was saddened by the idea that this could very well be the last film from Soderbergh, one of my favorites in the business, that I get to watch in the cinema for a long time.

Mara and Tatum in 'Side Effects,' the last theatrical Steven Soderbergh film...for now.

Mara and Tatum in ‘Side Effects,’ the last theatrical Steven Soderbergh film…for now.