Best Films of 2014: 20-16

This is a continuation of my series on the Best Films of 2014. It began yesterday here and will continue with a post on 15-11.

20. Misunderstood

Misunderstood (2014, Orange Films)

Making its North American debut at the New York Film Festival Misunderstood is an independent seriocomic coming of age story that should hopefully land US distribution but so far as I know has yet to. Here were my closing thoughts on the film upon having first viewed it:

Misunderstood is refreshing inasmuch as its a coming-of-age tale that does not focus solely on one rite. It’s a slice of life for Aria’s character with many of the usual concerns: schools, friends, first crushes and the like, as well as some other concerns conveyed in somewhat more unorthodox circumstances such as her relationship with her siblings with the spiritual world and more. It’s a film that wants you to laugh along with it as it’s trying to strike that universal chord that rings true to all regardless of circumstances. Misunderstood is aptly named very ably portraying not only its protagonist’s being misunderstood but also understanding her at a deep, fundamental level and conveying her story clearly.

19. The Boxtrolls

Boxtrolls (2014, Laika)

For those who enjoy animation for all audiences and a bit of diversification in technique and producers for the animated medium there is not a better place to turn at current than Laika. Their latest stop-motion venture is idiosyncratic, and is a marvelous example of world-building as well as the ever-increasing virtuosity of their departmental prowess. As the BAM Awards exemplify The Boxtrolls is a film that excels in various facets of production and tells an entertaining and charming story. It’s proof that animation is not just for kids stories and that there are many great players in the animation game at the moment.

18. 20 Lies, 4 Parents and a Little Egg

20 Lies, 4 Parents and a Little Egg (2013, Waterland Film)

A film that handles some complicated ground with excellent acting, heart and humor it made an impression early in the year that stuck through the year as a whole:

20 Lies, 4 Parents and One Little Egg doesn’t tread easy ground. When you’re dealing with a family-based comedy-drama that concerns two sets of same-sex couples the dangers become either insensitivity or faux-edginess. What this film opts for instead is heart and humanity and a brief toe-dip into the complexity of human emotions, and that’s the right path and it’s well-navigated here.

17. The Jewish Cardinal

The Jewish Cardinal (2012, Film Movement)

As was touched upon in an earlier op-ed, and will be again with the BAM Award prizes, dealing with religious matters in film can be a complicated matter when the virtues of entertainment and faith aren’t always synchronized. The biggest hurdle to overcome is perhaps creating effective drama and not giving in to the lowest common denominator:

To preserve the surprise of it, I will avoid describing the detail the peace that Jean-Marie comes to and the conclusion he reaches regarding his identity at is really only discussed at the most pivotal points of the film. However, it is an intriguing way to look at it.
Clearly, as described above, this is a film that’s not afraid to discuss matter of faith, but also take those discussions into some difficult, challenging places. It’s a story wherein it could be tempting dumb it down and mollycoddle but it does not, quite the opposite it respectfully challenges those watching it to think – proving that faith-based films needn’t be neither propaganda or mindless.

16. Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, Warner Bros.)

Typically some semblance of intelligence is not necessary to make an effective action film. However, when a bit of thought is there and exhibits itself it can elevate simple action or sci-fi conceptions to bigger heights. This is a film that revels in the cleverness of its narrative constructs and edits, but has more to offer than just meta intrigue. While the ending does not serve it as well as it could it is still one of the most complete viewing experiences of the past year that is another testament to Tom Cruise’s stardom and testament to multi-talented Emily Blunt.

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The Lone Ranger’s Unbankable Intrigue

At the beginning of Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of The Lone Ranger he encapsultes exactly what’s right and wrong with the film in my eyes:

Like “Speed Racer” and “John Carter” before it, “The Lone Ranger” is a movie with no constituency to speak of. It’s a gigantic picture with a klutzy, deeply un-cool hero (Armie Hammer of “The Social Network”), based on a property that most young viewers don’t know or care about. It arrives in theaters stained by gossip of filmmaker-vs.-studio budget wars, and concerns that its star and co-executive producer, Johnny Depp, would play the Ranger’s friend and spirit guide, Tonto, as a Native American Stepin Fetchit, stumbling around in face-paint and a dead-crow tiara. The film’s poster image might as well have been a target. Too bad: for all its miscalculations, this is a personal picture, violent and sweet, clever and goofy. It’s as obsessive and overbearing as Steven Spielberg’s “1941” — and, I’ll bet, as likely to be re-evaluated twenty years from now, and described as “misunderstood.”

You really should read the whole review it’s simply replete with brilliant observations about the movie, but what struck me most was that beginning wherein it enumerates not only kind of how I walked out of the film feeling but also what was miscalculated about it in terms of its being a tentpole.

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

As I tweeted when the numbers started coming in, and I should’ve put it out there earlier, you could’ve seen the box office failure of the film coming. It was a film that almost didn’t happen and after John Carter flopped you thought it might not. It’s almost like they went back to a well that ran dry hoping to find water this time because they brought Johnny Depp along.

Lack of Bankability

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

Not to sound too crass, as I did like it, but clearly the same inherent issues that John Carter had in terms of bringing out the masses The Lone Ranger was sure to have. It seems tiresome but every time there’s some sort of box office bomb it makes me want to list who is involved. Yes, there are still plenty of good actors and movie stars, but guaranteed draws are very few.

Off the top of my head it seems only Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler get people to show up, but even Cruise had the under-viewed Jack Reacher just recently. As with Sandler, I have to wonder how much of that is morbid curiosity because after seeing Grown Ups 2 I wanted to curl up into the fetal position, weep and wish it was still 1999.

So, in spite of the fact that this film also is a good one, likely a much better one than John Carter, I never saw it as a money-maker. I couldn’t have predicted how insanely Despicable Me 2 would open (It really is Universal’s year it seems; R.I.P.D. notwithstanding) but in a vacuum this is not one I had high hopes for in that regard.

Disney Issues

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

It’s even more frustrating because if you follow what Disney does you know they acquired Lucasfilm and will be bringing Star Wars back. Sure that cost a lot of money both in acquisition and the production of the five announced films, but could they just grin and bear it for a while and know they’ll see a return on that investment, especially with the Marvel leviathan growing ever bigger? No, they just had to gut their hand-drawn animation staff.

Yes, hand-drawn is costly, but it did all begin with a mouse and all those investments will yield dividends but you can’t forget where you came from. New Mickey cartoons are great but it’s bittersweet to say the least.

Reflexive Western

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

Back to The Lone Ranger, as for the film itself, it’s constructed in such a way that we can likely go back to it and start parsing the visual cues and narrative references to diagram the deconstruction of the western, as Zoller Seitz does and this review does.

It takes an old character, and perhaps a cynical, nihilistic advantage of older connotations of Disney films and toys with expectations and creates this The Lone Ranger perhaps the only way he can exist now and re-creates Tonto perhaps as he always should have been.

Does Depp being Depp undercut some of the commentary being made on race and the old west, Manifest Destiny and all the rest? That was something I grappled with as the film played. In the end, I don’t think it does for narrative perspective has to be taken into account. This is really Tonto’s story from the opening shot to when he tells The Lone Ranger to “Never do that again,” after finally breaking out the anticipated (by those who know something of the character) catch phrase “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” at the very end.

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

There’s lamentation and regret from both characters in this tale: The Ranger for his lost ideals, and Tonto for his naive mistake. In some ways the film plays like a lament of the loss of the old Western, not the Old West. When film and society was more naive the Western was the canvas of absolute ideals, as we’ve come to terms with our past as a nation and further world events have stripped that naïveté; the Western had to grow up. The films are now adult tales for adults who remember the genre as children and don’t cater as well to a young audience anymore because it’s not really in the pop culture landscape anymore, not for kids.

While this allows the film to do some interesting thing in terms of commenting on genre, history, race, the country in general; it’s not box office material, especially considering the amount of money invested in this film.

Lastly, the character of Tonto, for how it used to be portrayed, is likely a racist symbol to many. Honestly, the only exposure to the character I had as a kid was in SNL parodies of Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein. I don’t think there will be a consensus of where this rendition falls. All I know is in culturally sensitive matters there is never a unanimous sentiment and hardly ever a consensus. From my perspective, as one who had my defenses up waiting for something that crossed the line, I really don’t think it did. Especially when the tribe s introduced and explains Tonto’s story.

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

When one went in not knowing what to expect it was far too easy to be caught off-guard by the film; far too easy too take it at face value as over-produced, overly-expensive fluff, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, which is what makes it interesting even if it won’t make it profitable.

The Gray Area 2013

To put it in its simplest terms this piece is my best attempt to keep myself and my BAM Awards process honest. What this means is that if I had a legitimate opportunity to see a film in 2012, but for whatever reason it falls through the cracks, its review ends up here, rather than rolling over into 2013. There have been some good films that have appeared here in the past and I have found a home for them after all. For a guide to what these ratings mean go here.

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher (2012, Paramount Pictures)

This is the kind of film that looks pretty good based on the trailer, but I’ll admit I didn’t rush out to see despite the fact that this film boasts the brilliant move of using Werner Herzog as its villain. My reaction to the trailer was that it seemed like those bits would be the highlights. It does, however, expound upon that with good action sequences and an intriguing web of mystery that’s well executed in visual and cinematic terms. It’s another winning project for Tom Cruise, who remains one of the few actors who can consistently find star vehicles that work on a narrative, financial and aesthetic level.

8/10

Clandestine Childhood

Clandestine Childhood (2011, Film Movement)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, for I mentioned this when I reviewed Teddy Bear, not only do I truly enjoy the fact that Film Movement pairs a short film with its feature, but whenever possible its by the same director, and on occasion the short that inspired the feature. Here that is the case and it’s interesting inasmuch as the short serves as a springboard to the feature rather than just being expounded upon. The film is very well-shot with creative use of color and effective lighting throughout. It illuminates the oppressive atmosphere rebels in Argentina faced living under the regime of the late-70s/early 80s with human characters, humor and sensitivity. It’s not a wonder that Avila’s first feature earned him a spot at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes.

8/10

The Impossible

The Impossible (2012, Summit)

Out of all the films that will likely end up appearing in this post before it peters out, this one was the most lamentable. This past year was the first time I that I jotted down a list of films I wanted to see before the year was out in order to create my lists and awards. This was the only one left on the the outside looking in.

All that aside, be it my awards, the Oscars or anything else, the film still stands and should be seen. The film has a very smooth and even flow, such that the climactic sequence feels like it may be a prelude of false hope. On the technical end the film is a small marvel, not only in terms of effects work but also in terms of sound design and scoring. That’s before you get to the narrative and the performances. There’s a wonderful, pitch-perfect cameo, which is as much as I will say. As for the leads: Ewan McGregor’s work in one particular scene is likely the best moment of his career to date, and he’ll have many more to come, Naomi Watts is brilliant and all her accolades for the film are more than deserved. Most critical is the involvement of Tom Holland. He’s the audience’s bridge to the narrative, we divide time between his mother’s plight and father’s search, and he shoulders much of the burden and has a star-making turn that out not be drowned out in the award season buzz and should be seen.

Perhaps the best thing one can say about this film is that its impact as a piece of cinema is not immediately felt because it really is a harrowing and intimate portrait of a tragedy, and all that credit goes to director J.A. Bayona. The tonality of the film never wavers in its intent so it for the most part continues to feel like an account of an event rather than fiction. It never really feels over-dramatized or sensationalized, it’s real enough such that it’s engaging if not entertaining in the traditional sense.

9/10

The Thompsons

The Hamiltons (2012, Film Harvest)

Essentially part of the criteria for falling through the cracks in one year is cognizance. The release date on video for this film was 12/31, which made it a tough one to acquire and view before the end of the year.

This film reaches an honorable and rare duality of being a sequel that one could watch without having seen its predecessor and that continues the trajectory of a series properly. This sequel builds upon its own vampire myth, which is one whose origin is genetic rather than viral. What this film does infinitely better than its predecessor is build mystery, and suspense but also has reveals and significant plot points at a persistent pace. The necessary information, both new and old, is relayed quickly enough such that the raising of stakes happens early and often. You also have here a rather unusual paradigm wherein humanity is the outside world and you’re purely in a vampiric world. What The Thompsons does is firmly establish a foothold for the Buthcer Brothers concept in the genre, one that should be supported by those who like seeing new takes on old creatures, and specifically, want vampires to be brutal.

8/10