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A bad year for good movies

Nighttime soaps, voices behind the toons, God, and sci-fi

Alan Partridge
  • Alan Partridge

By way of indicating just how terrible a year it’s been for movies, for the first time in I don’t know how long English language films outnumber foreign entries. Sequels, comic books, and young adult novels still lead the pack — this accounts for my once again managing to cold-shoulder half of this year’s top ten grossing movies — but at least quality blockbusters such as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are outgrossing slick, impersonal reboots like Godzilla and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

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Alan Partridge 4.0

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10) Alan Partridge

Is this Steve Coogan’s way of paying reparations for his ill-at-ease semidramatic turn in Philomena? Capable of self-assured incivility, measured with just enough obsequiousness to avoid getting punched in the nose, Coogan brings his quick-witted and eminently inflated fictional radio and television host to American multiplexes. The result is the funniest film of 2014. Ten minutes of Partridge yields ten times the laughs of both Anchorman films combined.

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Most Wanted Man 4.0

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9) A Most Wanted Man

A Chechen Muslim enters Hamburg in the guise of a homeless man seeking asylum and captures the attention of intelligence operative Philip Seymour Hoffman’s anti-terror unit. Those who find excitement in dry­-as­-a-crumpet-fart British spy snoozers like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will want to stay away; too much excitement is bad for the heart. Venturesome viewers will delight in Anton Corbijn’s intelligent adaptation of John Le Carre’s espionage best-seller.

This was to be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last role. If had to make an early exit, at least he did it with style.

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Nymphomaniac: Volume I 4.0

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Nymphomaniac: Volume II 4.0

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8) Nymphomaniac Parts I & II

Lars von Trier caps his so-called “Trilogy of Depression” with the funniest movie of his career.

Stellan Skarsgård heads an all-star international cast as a book-learned virgin who hits the jackpot upon discovering a battered and bloodied sex addict (Charlotte Gainsbourg) — one who is eager to recount her multitudinous carnal encounters in vividly lurid detail — half-unconscious in the alley next to his house. Not all of the episodes pan out — the sex tape Shia LaBeouf and his girlfriend allegedly submitted as an audition reel probably coaxed a more cogent performance. But Von Trier’s serrated take on a society so covetous and steeped in jaded lust that nothing short of a raw sexual encounter can get them off makes this the most darkly amusing satire of its kind since David Cronenberg’s Crash.

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Like Father, Like Son <em>(Soshite Chichi Ni Naru)</em> 4.0

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7) Like Father, Like Son

Children switched at birth is both a parent’s worst nightmare and the basis of untold movie-of-the-week melodramas.

Master filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda spins this heartbreaking tale of Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), a businessman whose idea of mentoring his son is seven days a week spent at the office. When the boss puts in a rare Sunday appearance, he comments on how his employees’ dedication frees up time for him to spend with his family. It takes five reels and a family-splintering act of titanic proportions for Ryota to finally grasp the importance of his boss’s seemingly offhanded remark.

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Force Majeure <em>(Turist)</em> 4.0

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6) Force Majeure

An ominous “controlled avalanche” at a Swiss resort sparks a tidal wave of emotion when Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) discovers her work-addicted husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), places his own safety, and that of his smartphone, ahead of that of their two kids.

Unrest and tinges of black comedy lurk beneath every one of director Ruben Östlund’s strikingly placid exterior shots, with arrhythmic editing patterns and crisp dialog aimed at further contributing to audience anxiety. One suggestion: leave five minutes before it ends and draw your own conclusion.

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Boyhood 4.0

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5) Boyhood

Would it really have made that much difference had Boyhood been filmed over a period of three months with a range of actors playing the leads at various stages of their lives, as opposed to a 12-year shoot that affords its cast the relatively unheard-of luxury of literally aging before our eyes? Much of the picture’s appeal stems from its structured commitment to chronicling growth, without relying on improvisation as a crutch.

The film’s facile attempt at Republican-bashing and dull lead tend to make it drag a bit, but overall, Richard Linklater’s casual hand at storytelling — dealing out reel after reel of naggingly forthright enlightenment — turns this simple tale of a mother trying to do best for her kids into something much more than an exquisite gimmick film.

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Pompeii 1.0

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4) Pompeii

Slow to start, and the Orlando Bloom stand-in who stars should try his luck at modeling underwear. Still, the 3D effects are nothing short of spectacular, particularly the all-seeing and ever-present volcano’s-eye view aerial shots, complete with fireball vapor trails banding across the deep ’Scope foreground. Keifer Sutherland has fun vamping on Karloff, but God forbid he should get a period haircut: he looks like he just walked in off the Sunset Strip.

The climactic 40-minute spectacle of destruction is an absolute delight, with enough sweep and visual complexity to leave the standard issue CG video games Marvel pumps out in the ashes. Those quick to fawn over Grand Budapest Hotel clearly put their faith in the wrong Anderson.

P.S.: There will be no sequel. Everybody dies in the end. Amen!

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Nightcrawler 5.0

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3) Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, a determined drifter who taps his inner-video journalist to become a successful network news stringer. This scraggily effective modern-day noir deserves a bucket of best screenplay Oscars if for no other reason than coining the term “flirtationship.” (A dinner date in the Mexican diner yields a delightful serving of chutzpah and slime with a wedge of lime.)

From its airtight script, seamless performances, and stunning night cinematography (praise be to Robert Elswit), no American film this year has reminded me why I fell in love with movies in the first place quite like this incandescent masterwork.

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Heli 5.0

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2) Heli

“You’ll get to know God in the land of the damned,” mutters one of the vast array of scumbags on tap in Amat Escalante’s shocking crime drama Heli. From its bold opening long take — one of the most audaciously disconcerting and seductively executed lead-ins in many a moon — Escalante sends viewers hurtling downward on a topsy-turvy journey through his hellish depiction of Mexico’s war on drugs. Those quick to fault movies for glamorizing criminal behavior will be glad to learn that Heli is far from a hoodlum recruitment film. Some will find the film’s graphic “do the crime, do the time” tack difficult to brave. Not for the faint of heart, but then, brutal honesty seldom is.

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Tracks 5.0

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1) Tracks

Whatever you look for in a movie — action, adventure, drama, romance, integrity, spiritual and artistic enlightenment — is contained within these 112 minutes. In what can only be called the thinking-person’s Wild, a young woman (Mia Wasikowska), wanting to escape her bigoted, misogynistic small-town upbringing — and with little but four camels, a dog, and her wits to guide her — embarks on a 2000-mile trek across the Australian desert. We may never grasp the motivation behind the real-life Robyn Davidson’s harrowing journey, but as her surrogate “crazy camel lady,” the exceptional Ms. Wasikowska never gives cause to question veracity.

An uplifting, profoundly moving experience that left me in tears, and though not through any willful manipulation on the part of director John Curran.

Ten runners-up:

Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Till Sunday, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father Like Son, Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jill D’Agnenica’s Life Inside Out, Neto Villalobos’s All About the Feathers, Michael Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, Dave Boyle’s Man From Reno, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Will Eubank’s The Signal.

Five documentaries worth noting:

Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, Jennifer Baichwal’s Watermark, Leslie Zemeckis’s Bound by Flesh, Matt Wolf’s Teenage, and David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud’s The Hornet’s Nest.

Standout performances:

Reese Witherspoon will get the glory for her solo hike in Wild, but it’s Mia Wasikowska who steals the show in Tracks; Obvious Child’s Jenny Slate aka the future Mrs. Marks; Jake Gyllenhaal bleeding charm in Nightcrawler; Uma Thurman guiding her kids through an over-the top tour of “the children’s father’s” cuckold bedroom in Nymphomaniac: Volume 1; Rachel McAdams holding her own with a determined Russian accent in A Most Wanted Man; the whist dignity Pepe Serna brought to Man From Reno; Susan Sarandon handing in her best work in years playing stage mother to Errol Flynn’s child bride in The Last of Robin Hood; the rooted presence and boomerang-shaped grin of Shaina Vorspan in Gone Doggy Gone; Tom Hardy, as my partner Matthew Lickona so elegantly stated, “hunched and shuffling, folded in on himself both physically and otherwise” in The Drop; The November Man’s Bill Smitrovich, this year’s villain to beat; Imogen Poots, Addison Timlin, and particularly Mackenzie Davis for their trio of well-rounded secondary female characters played to perfection in the enjoyable That Awkward Moment.

Standout ensemble:

Clive Owen, Juliette Binoche, and the sublime underplaying of Bruce Davison in Fred Schepisi’s Words and Pictures.

Pictures:

Robert Elswit’s Nightcrawler, Mandy Walker’s Tracks, Glen MacPherson’s Pompeii, Fredrik Wenzel’s Force Majeure, Ian Baker’s Words and Pictures, and Dick Pope, the only thing keeping me awake during Mr. Turner.

Words:

Marion Nelson’s Tracks, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Andrew Bovell, A Most Wanted Man, Peter Baynham’s Alan Partridge, Peter Landesman’s Kill the Messenger, and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child.

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Comments

Never heard of "Alan Partridge" but I was hoping it was a sequel to "The Partridge Family" (a series that was so bad that it was good!). Hey c'mon get happy, Alan could be the son of Keith or Danny!

Thanks for your service, Scott! I missed some of these movies, but I appreciate that you remembered "Alan Partridge" with wonderfully funny Irishman Steve Coogan from early in the year. I went twice to understand the icy modern-day spying in "A Man," set in super-photogenic Berlin with disheveled humane spy Philiip Seymour Hoffman, but once was enough for aptly-named "Nightcrawler" and the horrifying business-model creepiness of Jake Gyllenhall as a TV news film freelancer. Linklater's "Boyhood" was most remarkable for its warm-hearted depiction of lifelong affection among the characters and their personal resilience than for the director's much-discussed gimmick of filming the lead actor over many years. "Tracks" also had a sub-theme of generosity among all characters depicted which softened the heroine's great journey.

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