Monday, 29 December 2014

Movie year 2014

Since it's become more or less a tradition, I decided to write a blog post about my favorite movies from this year (2014). I think I'll try to keep my reasoning brief. First up, though, I want to give out a few additional shout-outs.

The year's most talked about movie:

Nymphomaniac, parts I & II
Dir. Lars Von Trier

Yeah, certainly not The Interview. I don't have Nympho on my proper list, because I feel it's less a movie, more a theraphy session with Lars Von Trier. That's not to say there's not plenty of interesting content within. Actually so much so, that I talked about and thought about this movie more than any other this year. I also saw it twice, both the theatrical and extended versions.

Trier seems to take basically any complaint people in general have had with his work, particularly concerning his films' treatment of women and his status as a provocateur. In the movie he has segments built on countering these complaints. Particularly in the extended version of part II this even reaches the dialogue. This meta-movie approach suddenly popping up is frustrating, since Charlotte Gainsbourg does a magnificent performance, and one would really like to appreciate her character as her own, not just an extension of Trier's public (and/or artistic) personae.

But yeah, it is certainly a fascinating piece of work. I personally would have liked to be the sort of movie that engages and stands on its own, but it is one of those take it or leave it deals. Trier really wants to specialize in those.

My review (in finnish)

The greatest scene in an otherwise disappointing movie:
The school cart, Snowpiercer
Dir. Bong Joon-ho

The start of Bong's postapocalyptic thriller rolls along nicely, with plenty of time used to show how desperate the lower-class passengers are in their position of the life-sustaining train. They haven't seen much of life outside their cart, and by extension, neither have us viewers. The initial push later, comes the first of the movie's surprises, with cheery kids being taught outrageously fascist lies about the world. We also get a bit of the train's backstory.

Now, this sunny cheerfulness has a satiric stride that brings to mind Paul Verhoeven's future fascist-bashing in RoboCop and Starship Troopers. It's also funny how the so-far main antagonist Tilda Swinton seems to join in the fun, thinking herself so righteous that influencing kids might tone down the rebellion.

But then the film has nowhere to go but down beyond this high point. Boring action takes over most of the film, which still tries to justify itself with tepid twists that only manage to stretch the already thin premise to breaking point. Any previous set-ups are contradicted almost immediately. To add the insult, Swinton's delicious baddie has nothing more to offer, and she is replaced with a boring mute, unstoppable assassin-type antagonist. The rest of the movie makes me think of Elysium in terms of squandering a perfectly good allegory in order to have the most boring and unrealistic gun-fights possible. The frustratingly regenerating villain is another similarity.

Geez, I really would've wanted to like this film a lot more.

The opening scene of RoboCop
Dir. José Padilha

Padilha seems to have had some good sense on how to update Verhoeven's satirical scifi-action to the modern age, but sadly it seems that studio interference (mostly over the PG-13 rating, I'll bet) cut out most of his bite. Scattered throughout the film, there are flashes here and there on the film that might have been. None more so than in the very first scene, depicting ED-209's patrolling in Iraq, shouting "Salaam Aleikum" to the natives, and of course blowing any possible terrorist subject to pieces on live television.

Festival films top 10:

Several of the most interesting films of the year never got a proper release in Finland. This is a list of those. Drawing the line seems to get trickier this year.  I've allowed limited releases to be on the main list. Then certain, films, namely Whiplash and Turist (a.k.a. Force Majeure), should definitely be on this list, but they will get a theatrical release next year. Thus, I'll leave them out of this now since I might want to have them on my 2015 list.
10. The Babadook

This twisted parental horror is at its best in the middle when it balances reality and a fever dream together.

9. The Trip to Italy

More witty word-playing between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, now on beautiful Italian landscapes. They have seen what was it people liked in the first one, so now there's less shots of food being prepared and more imitation battles. A little less of the latter would also have sufficed, but even as such it's very funny and likeable.

8. The Look of Silence

Joshua Oppenheimer offers another look into the heart of Indonesian war criminals, this time with the viewpoint of the victims as well. Now he doesn't have to rely on staging fantasy film sequences, the interviewees provide all the necessary drama.

7. The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

This French comedy is as dry as the driest of wines. It's first and foremost about its author. But luckily Houellebecq is game about making fun of himself.

6. The Rover 

A tough-as-nails post-apocalyptic road movie, that showcases the only two paths for the weak when all chips are down. 

5. The Guest

Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett finally come to claim what You're Next promised. The Guest is so much fun from the soundtrack to the movie referencing plot devices. It starts out Killer Joe but ends The Hitcher - with a little Shining in the mix.

4. The Salt of the Earth

A surprisingly touching and heartfelt documentary about the photographer Sebastião Salgado. During his lengthy career, Salgado has seen the best and worst of the Earth. In the end the film has a hopeful outlook for tomorrow.

3. The Unknown Known 

Donald Rumsfeld spoke to Errol Morris and didn't at all come across as reasonable, intelligent nor altruistic. Instead, the man doesn't seem to care if he seems uppity, snooty or downright unscrupulous. As a companion piece to The Fog of War, this also manages to showcase how much the foreign politics have turned more and more ruthless in the course of recent history.

2. Starry Eyes 

This horror film offers everything I wish from the genre. I particularly like that all the horrors in the movie reflect the anxieties and personality flaws of the main heroine. The plot is also a twisted mirror image of A Star is Born -type of story in an unique way.

1. Winter Sleep

Distribution in Finland is so bad, Cannes Palm d'Or winners are routinely left out of movie theatres. This is a shame, since this 3,5 hour drama would deserve to be seen by more. Basically, it concerns the image of a wealthy author, who works as a patron for his home town. Although he holds himself in high esteem, lengthy dialogues begin to bring cracks to his image and way in the world. But will he learn from his mistakes? There are plenty of layers at work here, making the lengthy run time still feel rewarding.

The List:

The requirement to get to the list is a Finnish release in the year of 2014 (even if it was limited to a single theatre). That's why this mixes films that were completed in both 2013 and -14. I didn't list films like Borgman, Moebius, Nebraska or The Dance of Reality, since I listed them last year on the Outside distribution side.

These are mostly listed alphabetically. Since I have already singled out the top 5, they are seperately, as is the film I found to be this year's best. 

To be seen:
As much I'd like to, I haven't got the possibility to see every interesting movie there is. These ones are those recommended to me by various other lists and I'll be sure to check them out soon.

'71, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Locke, Mr. Turner, Återträffen

Runners up:
These warrant a mention, if only to make it to a round 20.

12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, USA)
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, USA)
Emergency Call - A Murder Mystery (Ulvilan murhamysteeri; Pekka Lehto, Finland)
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones, USA)
The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, USA/Denmark/Australia)
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, USA)

Places 14.-6.


Grand Budapest Hotel (USA/Germany/UK)
Dir. Wes Anderson

Anderson has been on a roll for his two previous films, but it still took me by surprise on just how much he has mastered his craft. It is rare that he has as vicious a stride as in this film, where people are brutally murdered, fingers cut off and stabbed. but he gets away with it with his laconic sense of humor that makes this film such a hoot.

Her (USA)
Dir. Spike Jonze

It isn't just that the ethereal style and the unconventional romance depicted in the movie feel real and heart-felt. It's that this is a futuristic movie that feels realistic without having to depict big technology or major inventions, just develop a bit those that we have today. The glances we get of a city of tomorrow feel peaceful and warm, yet this utopia still has its wrinkles, the major one being the loneliness that still plagues many in big cities.

Ida (Poland/Denmark/France/UK)
Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

Ida is one of those films you would not have any trouble believing was a lost classic from 40-50 years ago. That has to do with the way the film is shot, with every B&W image closely thought out and giving the characters the weight of the world to carry. The other part is the universality of its story, with a search for roots that turns ever more recluctant when it starts to become clear that even if Ida finds the final resting place of her parents, the burden will not lighten, but maybe even get heavier.
Inside Llewyn Davis (USA)
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

A wicked circle of a movie. Drying funds have made making a living with art harder than in a long time, and the Coens reflect on this. The thing is, there might be no escape even with giving up. The bleak lighting, using natural light or unhealthy looking greenish fake lights make no mistake that the times are tough all around. While the film has plenty of that trademarked Coen humor, at heart it is one of the darkest they have ever done.

My review (in finnish)

A Most Wanted Man (UK/USA/Germany)
Dir. Anton Corbijn

The sudden and sad loss of the brilliant character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman casts a shadow over this downplayed spy thriller. Hoffman carries one of his final roles with a powerhouse performance, as usual, but what makes this such a notable film is the way it portrtrays the doubt and shades of grey involved in studying immigrants who have already lost everything in the name of the war on terror. The film maintains that with all the paranoia, and with various agencies having petty contempt over each other, the humanism tends to get forgotten.

The Tale of Princess Kagya (Kagya-hime, Japan)
Dir. Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli has been threatening to call it quits (although I'm not sure if they really mean it), since their two grand old men and founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have decided to retire. From their final goodbyes, I was more taken by Takahata's historical fable, that also finds some time to study the expectations and role of women in general. Always one to try out different styles more, the film has an exquisite line-drawn style that to my mind makes it unique.

They Have Escaped (He ovat paenneet, Finland)
Dir. J.-P. Valkeapää

The most notable Finnish film of the year stunned many for once not relying on plot. Rather, the film is told symbolically, with a heavy emphasis on visuals. What seems to be a regular teenage rebellion story in the beginning, turns out to have universal implications on the outside world creating cages around us, and never allowing us to just be free.

Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit, Belgium/France/Italy)
Dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Yet another film about being driven to a corner. The Dardennes do manage to keep a very basic and self-repeating Herculean task interesting. But the most important element that really makes the film is Cotillard in the main role. She gives another performance nothing short of incredible. There are some fumbles (like the handling of the main character's depression) along the ride, but as a whole, the movie is catharctic.

Wolf of Wall Street (USA)
Dir. Martin Scorsese

Scorsese still has that spark that used to produce some of the greatest, most innovative American movies of the last 40 years or so. Here, he does repeat the pattern of some of his greatest hits, but the bitterness he feels about the recklessness of the 1% wrecking the economy carries out the movie. It's an exhausting movie, but in the end feels like we at least got a little kick back at these vultures.

My review (in finnish)

Places 5. - 2.

To my Finnish-speaking audience these may already be familiar from this questionnaire I filled. Nevertheless, here they are again, with some added commentary.

Boyhood (USA)
Dir. Richard Linklater

A mosaic-like impression about the last decade. It is a film not only about time and those sensitive, forming ages. It is also a view of America itself, its people and culture. Linklater has a knack of making his actors become multi-dimensional characters seemingly easy. It's also important to have scenes that seemingly don't connect to anything to give the impression that life is not just those moments that change everything, but a collection of fleeting little things. In some places it's a little cheesy, but it's always compelling.

Clouds of Sils Maria (France/Switzerland/Germany)
Dir. Oliver Assayas

I still plan to write something about this film (at least now I've gotten some of my blogging mojo back), so I'm not sure about what to say here. In a way, while there's plenty of themes of time passing, the film is about the contrast between art and nature. Nature's miracles come punctually, art may work if the time is right. I haven't liked any of the previous films by Assayas as much as I liked this.

Gone Girl (USA)
Dir. David Fincher

Fincher handles a good bait-and-switch from first presenting this as a thriller, but slowly unravelling this to be a pitch-black comedy where bad people plot against each other. So he basically gets to play with all the best storytelling toys from his three previous projects; House of Cards, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network. Some reviews have suggested this represents the relationship between men and women in modern relationships. I wouldn't go as far, but Fincher definitely feels that the sensation-hungry media chases revolving personal tragedies have a knack of leading these situations from bad to worse.

Only Lovers Left Alive (UK/Germany/France/Greece/Cyprus)
Dir. Jim Jarmusch

When a good movie somehat reflects your feelings, you sometimes can't help but to fall for it. For me, Only Lovers Left Alive is among there with Jarmusch's best films. It captures the sense of dread about the tomorrow, and the worry that the best days of movies, music, art and culture in general are behind us. But it's also oddly comforting, bleakly funny, and has characters you want to hang out with, even if they don't do much but whine.

1. A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding, China/Japan/France)

Dir. Jia Zhangke

To complete my preference of stories of desperate people in bad situations, this magnificent Chinese movie presents four (or four-and-a-half) heartbreaking stories where getting cornered by an unforgiving society eventually leads to bloodshed.

Supposedly, all stories are based on true human fates that the national media in China has not reported. In any case, it helps to understand China to understand the difficult situations small, ordinary people can find themselves rather than to just look at the booming business and hear the info official sources hand out. The completed movie was very controversial in China for fears it might raise social unrest. That, to me proves, just how powerful the film really is.

Us westerners tend to see foreign, far-away countries through the prism of the pop culture we consume. Director Jia Zhangke's brilliant idea is to build the stories in the way martial arts movies or revenge-driven Asian thrillers are built, towards the final confrontation. It makes the social message get across with a lot more ease. But in the end there's no grace or catharsis in the bloodletting, it only ends stories or serves to make them worse. None of the main characters survive the movie intact, there's bound to be at least psychological damage, also the threat of punishment looming in the horizon.

Many of this year's finest movies have a grim quality and a sense of dread on what tomorrow may bring - to these parts of the world, too. A Touch of Sin may serve as a cautionary example on a society that has no real value on a persons life. It also serves to remember how much suffering there may lurk beyond the reach of news channels. Luckily films are an excellent way of making these difficult subjects visible.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Death of the Bohemian: The Great Beauty and Only Lovers Left Alive

I saw two movies this week that dealt with similar kinds of subject matters: Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) and Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive are both movies about the connection between historical art and the modern day. Both feature bohemians that have lost their way somewhere along the way. And they are not so much plot-driven films as mood pieces, dashing out various scenes presenting ideas and pondering them. So, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at both movies from these angles. Since this analyzing means dealing with some plot points, it should be reminded here that this post may contain spoilers.

The Great Beauty opens with a scene showing Japanese tourist so overwhelmed by the ancient city of Rome that he has a heart attack. This is cut to a outrageous megaparty where tattood strippers lure men in glass booths and drunken upper-class art connisseurs dance in line to the music of hot DJ's mixing traditional sounds to modern beats. In the middle of all this hullabaloo, the birthday-celebrating Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is introduced smiling with a cigar in his mouth, looking like Silvio Berlusconi. He has done this kind of partying for a long time.

Not until someone close to him dies does he realize that he should perhaps want to spend his life also as a creator, not just a partyer. He starts to consider writing another book, but he has trouble getting the inspiration, which he calls "The Great Beauty". But he has trouble spotting it, due to the banality of the performance pieces he tends to visit, and being so used to classical architecture (his own penthouse apartment has a view over the Colosseum).

Only Lovers Left Alive deals with two immortal vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) who have been lovers for centuries. At the start of the film they are "living" seperately, however. While Eve binges on old literature and lives somewhat happily in Tangier, Adam is brooding in his Detroit home, composing music but sheltering himself away from fans. In his desperation he has produced himself a possible exit from this bleak world: a bullet made out of hard wood, that would effectively work like a stake when shot through the heart of the vampire. When the pair reunites, there's plenty of discussion on whether the world has gone astray or if the world's problems are just a permanent glitch.

Adam has a bleak outlook on the future. Humans (or zombies, as vampires call them) are on the verge of self-destruction which has manifested itself also in contaminating their blood. Eve, as an elder vampire, has seen the worst history has to offer from floods and plagues. She shrugs off the problems as long as she herself is living comfortably. The brooding Adam, however is waiting for the global climate crisis to reach the point humans start World War III over fresh water. He has lost his faith on humanity, his idolized poets, authors and scientists throughout the ages being mostly long gone, and left only humanity's self-doubt over their abilities and their subsequent refusal to figure out a way to save themselves.

During The Great Beauty, Jep keeps being disappointed when a potential source of beauty turns sour. A grace-fallen love interest he seeks to redeem dies on him, modern art consists of meaningless performances trying to gain the attention of rich buyers and even spirituality is reduced to status-seeking. People don't pray but rather take similar photographies of themselves with a priest that's to be a strong contender to be a pope or an ancient nun that's to be pronounced a saint after her death, Jep's companions try to hint to him to try to search the Great Beauty from within, not just looking from the outside. It isn't until the grotesquely old nun spells out to him how important "roots" are, does he fully get it and remembers entirely the night he lost his virginity.

So, The Great Beauty has an optimistic look that one may find one's muse when looking at moments of beauty at one's roots. Only Lover Left Alive is far more pessimistic. Art-loving vampires have trouble functioning at a celebrity-crazed culture that insists every popular creator is to be fitted into a spotlight. It prevents the sort of art bohemia of yesterday when poets could feed from one another (so to speak). Even though Adam tries to keep his musical creations to himself, they seem to find a way to leak out and to be played in underground clubs around the world, much to his dismay. He is in it purely from a love of the instruments. He also helds a popular hipster opinion that nothing popular can't be too good, since at the end he hears a Morroccan singer, he comments that she's far too good for fame. Adam seems to find that the more attention things get, the easier it is for money-hungry people to push it to the limits and totally ruin it.

During OLLA, the vampires suffer one indignity under another and are increasingly pushed to the edge. As much as they loathe the modern humans, the more they find themselves to resemble them as their back is pushed against the wall. Even Eva's comforting outlook starts to show cracks. They can't plan for the future when their current needs start to weigh too heavily. Blood is a sort of drug in the movie. When the supply of pure, good stuff runs dry, the desperate vampires have to start taking risks in acquiring it on the streets. The safest bet seems to be drinking from young lovers, since what else is pure in this world any more?

In the end, The Great Beauty is a movie looking back, trying to get people to make the right choices to feel good about their lives in general. It has the stance that happiness can't come from mere self-indulgence or hedonism, one has to have spiritual experiences as well and remember the parts of life that matter. But if this balancing act is reached, it doesn't see why a rich life can't go on as it used to.  

Only Lovers Left Alive has a much bleaker outlook.It sees that the fractured world can't anymore produce a sphere for artists to meet and discuss and create. The future of the vampires is either self-destructive retroactivity (as with Mia Wasikowska's Ava) or death. The demise of John Hurt's cultural vampire Marlowe (revealed to have ghost-written Hamlet as well as other world-famous writings and poems over his multiple lifetimes) represents the death of the culture. This is a sign of how dog-eat-dog the world is about to get as things get more and more difficult for everyone. There's no room for new ideas in the world if the only idea that's going to matter is the instinct for survival. Jarmusch's film is nothing short of heralding total apocalypse. it's a good thing that the film has a sense of humor about it too, or it might be harder to swallow.


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