10. Prince Avalanche
I have a few bones to pick with this director. A few years back David Gordon Green made some disparaging comments about the works of Kevin Smith and David Mamet, two directors I have tremendous respect for. If I remember correctly, he said that Kevin Smith had turned independent film making into a special Olympics. All I’ll say is this: don’t insult the work of another director then turn around and make Pineapple Express…and then Your Highness…AND THEN THE SITTER. But thankfully it seems he’s decided to make good movies again, because I enjoyed Prince Avalanche tremendously. The movie has beautifully naturalistic cinematography and fantastic performances by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. I found Paul Rudd’s performance to particularly impressive. He plays his character with such a lack of inhibition, without any thought of sophistication or dignity to his appearance. There’s one scene in particular where he’s essentially playing house by myself in the charred remains of house destroyed in a forest fire. He walks around, pretends to call to his pretend wife and hold causal conversation, the typical 50’s sitcom American dream. But it never comes off as hokey or creepy or sad because of how natural and real Paul Rudd’s performance is. There is a difference between watching an actor pretend that they’re alone, and watching an actor truly act as if they are alone, with absolutely no thought given to how they would appear to an outside observer, simply behaving as their truest selves no matter how silly or sad they would appear to an onlooker. Paul Rudd delivers this performance brilliantly. This was one of two scenes that really stood out to me, the second being a phone call made by Paul Rudd to his now ex-girlfriend as the two argue. The audio of the phone call is played over a montage of the passing road (the entire movie takes place on this road as Rudd and Hirsch paint traffic lines down the middle of it). The road rushes passed the camera at various angles and distances, turning something as visually mundane as a phone call into something beautiful and vibrant to behold. What I loved about this movie is embodied in these two crucial scenes. Whatever issues I may have with this director, I have to respect the good work he’s done here and I look forward to what he has in store, unless of course it’s sequel to Your Highness.
9. Don Jon
Don Jon marks Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first foray into directing for a feature film, and if this film is any indication, Levitt has a promising career as director ahead of him. The editing alone injects this infectious energy to a film about routine and repetition and JGL delivers a likable and layered performance as a character who I would probably think is a douchebag if I were to meet him in real life. This comedy is both hilarious and potent in it’s messages about how American media sensationalizes love and relationships, whether it’s romantic comedies or pornography. There’s even a bit of analysis of the “pornification” of American Media, or the overtly sexualized material that is available for public consumption in the form of commercials and magazine ads. For example, the film opens with a montage of porn clips interspersed with various commercials and news footage featuring sexually objectified women. Later there is a scene of Jon and his Dad both leering at the television as a commercial plays featuring a bikini clad model seductively eating a hamburger. Basically the film is saying “No wonder this guy has such a fucked up view of women and relationships, look at what he’s got as a frame of reference.” The difference between fantasy and reality is a prominent theme throughout the film, drawing a pretty strong thematic parallel with another of JGl’s movie, (500) Days of Summer, which also featured the process of emotional maturation within a young man with a very fantasy driven paradigm of what constitutes love. The film does tend to drag in parts, and it can be predictable, but it’s immensely charming and insightful, making for one of the most relevant romantic comedy’s made in years…along with (500) Days of Summer, go see that as well.
8. The Grandmaster
I’m not a massive aficionado of martial arts films, so all I knew going into this movie was that it was about the guy who trained Bruce Lee. To be honest what really attracted me was the director, Wong Kar wai, who I’ve mostly seen associated with gorgeously shot cerebral dramas. The idea of this guy making a Kung fu movie was fascinating to me, and I wasn’t disappointed, in fact I was the farthest from disappointed as I could have possibly been. To put it lightly, with the exception of maybe one other movie (which will be listed later) The Grandmaster is the most visually beautiful movie I’ve seen this year. From the intimate close up framing to low key lighting, this movie is a visual orgy of poetry made tangible. Even when there isn’t any fighting going. The performances are all great, and Zhang Ziyi’s character is very compelling, but the visuals were the true star of this movie. Normally I would describe specific scenes but I feel my words can only disservice the artist here so here’s an actual clip:
And another because my words cannot adequately describe why I love this:
Couple this with the beautiful musical score and my own personal love for Chinese cinema, there was pretty much no way I was not going to love this movie. I will say, however, that some of the facial close-ups do tend to linger on subjects of questionable importance in the overall scheme of certain scene, leading to one or two moments of head scratching, again it’s something you would have to actually watch the movie to understand. With that as the closest thing I have to a criticism for this movie, I will let the numerical standing of this movie on my list speak for itself. While nothing revolutionary from narrative standpoint, the level of cinematic artistry in this movie cannot be ignored.
7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
For me Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the best blockbuster of the year on every conceivable level. Before this movie all the other blockbusters I have seen, while enjoyable, have failed in various respects. I really enjoyed Pacific Rim and Star Trek Into Darkness but I have no illusions that those movies work as anything other than fun actions movies (though they both do broach some interesting and relevant themes). Iron Man Three failed to engage me on dramatic and emotional level while Man of Steel failed to engage me on a cerebral or intellectual level. The Wolverine, like I said earlier, had a great first two acts but was hampered by it’s bargain bin bad guys while Thor: The Dark World provided some good escapist fun but offered very little in the ways of a compelling story. The story of The Hunger Games: Catching fire had dramatic resonance and a clear purpose on a subtextual level. The writing was conservative and concise for purposes of the story, and it featured a fleshed out cast of characters, each with a distinct personality and motivation. The directing is clean and smooth and really works wonders in immersing the audience in this world in a way that the first movie (and I really liked the directing of the first movie) failed to to do. The scope of this movie is quadrupled from that of the first with sweeping wide shots of the dystopian districts of Panem, designed with obvious inspiration from Ancient Rome and Nazi Germany. The acting ranged from good to fantastic across the board. Even Josh Hutchinson (who I really didn’t care for in the first one…or any other movie before this for that matter) was not only tolerable, but likable and compelling. Jennifer Lawrence as usual proves to be one of the best young actresses working today in a character that belongs in a pantheon of strong female characters for young girls to look up to (with an entire generation of young girls being subjected to Bella god damn Swann, thank God for these books/ movies). Donald Sutherland makes for a great villain in the sinister but reserved President Snow, never going for the hammy, over the top route with his performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman is new to the franchise as Plutarch Heavensby, a secondary character who spends much of the film behind the scenes but wound up being my favorite character in the movie (as somebody who has not read the books). In summation, of all the various Young Adult sci fi/ fantasy franchises having millions of dollars being thrown at them, The Hunger Games is by far the most deserving and I looks forward to its continued success.
stay tuned for part 3!