Keith’s Top Ten Movies of 2014

This year, far too many prominent movies shackled themselves to real-life stories – with all the unfortunate compromises that entails.  Many of the most critically praised movies (Birdman, Boyhood, The Lego Movie) were disappointing.  And the blockbusters often seemed more accomplished – and more resonant – than the “serious” films.

The first five spots on this list were easy to fill; after that, I had to do some digging to come up with movies I could feel comfortable praising.  Does that make it a bad movie year?  Possibly.  But then again, I saw only 34 new movies in 2014, so maybe it’s all my fault.

#1: Whiplash

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A breath of fresh air, a punch in the gut – a tight, propulsive, delicious thriller, and a blaring announcement of director Damien Chazelle’s arrival in the ranks of major filmmakers.

#2: Life Itself

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A rich and moving celebration of Roger Ebert, the art form he loved, and the exceptional life he lived.

#3: Edge of Tomorrow

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Tense, funny, imaginative, and thrilling – everything a Hollywood action movie should be.

#4: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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Another piece of sharp and ruthless storytelling from the series that’s probably the best franchise going.

#5: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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A welcome return to form for Bryan Singer, who brings a great deal of precision and style to the now-crowded superhero genre.  Some of this movie is clumsy, but what’s good is really good.

#6: The Theory of Everything

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Of all this year’s shameless glut of biopics, this is the most warmly human – and Eddie Redmayne’s performance is jaw-droppingly good.

#7: I Origins

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Imperfect, but distinctive and thought-provoking – as well as a tribute to how effective low-budget sci-fi can be.

#8: The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Nobody makes a Wes Anderson movie like Wes Anderson.  Is there something inescapably precious about the whole undertaking?  Absolutely.  But is there real feeling underneath the compulsive dazzlement?  In this case, I think so.

#9: Foxcatcher

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It’s an icy little number, and a bit too deliberate – but it’s superbly made.

#10: Boyhood

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Yeah, I know I said it was overrated – and I stand by that.  But it’s also a warm-hearted portrait of a loving American family, and I’d say there are worse things a movie can be.

 

Honorable Mention: Penguins of Madagascar.  Not a deathless classic, but lots and lots of fun.

Worst Movie of the Year: The Monuments Men.  So bad and so smug that I wish it were a person, so I could slap it in the face.

Most Overrated: Birdman.  “Half-baked” is the best word.

 

For the record, here’s the full list of 2014 movies I’ve seen to date:

 

American Sniper

Big Eyes

Birdman

Boyhood

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Chef

Edge of Tomorrow

Foxcatcher

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

God Help the Girl

Gone Girl

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

I Origins

The Imitation Game

Interstellar

The Interview

Into the Woods

John Wick

The Lego Movie

Life Itself

Low Down

The Monuments Men

A Most Wanted Man

Nightcrawler

Penguins of Madagascar

Selma

The Skeleton Twins

The Theory of Everything

Two Days, One Night

The Two Faces of January

Whiplash

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Published in: on February 22, 2015 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Shawshank Redemption

(Frank Darabont, 1994)

with Jess de Martine, Barn Screening Room, 12/28/14

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Finally!  I’ve seen it!  And you know what?  It’s very good.  I love the way Andy Dufresne is presented as both a hero and a cipher – both a likeable guy, and a bit of a cold fish.  Tim Robbins is perfectly cast in the role of Andy – and Morgan Freeman, playing the much more grounded and relatable narrator, makes a perfect foil.  In a sense, The Shawshank Redemption is a spiritual brother to Cool Hand Luke; like Luke, Andy is less a protagonist than a legend, and the movie – in its calm, laid-back way – has the feel of a tall tale.  Warm and mellow even in its darkest moments, Shawshank unfolds like a summer afternoon – and if the last ten minutes feel a bit slow and redundant, that’s a small fault that we can easily forgive.

Published in: on January 6, 2015 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Keith’s Top Ten Movies of 2013

The Oscars are over, so it’s time for me to weigh in on what the best movies of 2013 really were.  Unfortunately, of the 289 feature films released in the US last year, I’ve seen only 36.  I wish it were more!

All in all, it was a disappointing year for blockbuster cinema, but a very strong year for smaller films.  Here are my favorites:

#1: Her

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Intimate, searching, visionary, and heartfelt – a gorgeous and many-layered movie.

#2: Mud

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Proof that a simple story artfully told can be rich, seductive, and memorable.  Featuring this year’s other great Matthew McConaughey performance.

#3: American Hustle

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A deeply enjoyable film.  Gutsy, rough, irreverent, and acted to the hilt.

#4: Nebraska

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Almost monastically spare, but full of warmth, nostalgia, and wry humor.  A wonderfully modest and evocative movie.

#5: Inside Llewyn Davis

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One of the Coen Brothers’ most expertly realized works.  A cautionary fable, packed with dead-on musical selections, and with a chilly beauty all its own.

#6: Frozen

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Satisfyingly epic, with plenty of humor and tenderness.  The movie that Brave should have been.

#7: World War Z

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The first act is some of the most riveting, up-for-grabs action I’ve ever seen.  The rest ain’t bad, either.

#8: Philomena

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A far sharper and more trenchant movie than we were led to expect.  Not that it doesn’t inspire a tear or two also – but it earns those tears.

#9: Ender’s Game

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There’s a fair amount of awkward kid acting in this movie – but if you get the big stuff right, you can get away with a lot.  Ender’s Game gets the big stuff right.  Story is king!

#1o: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Idris Elba could easily have landed an Oscar nomination for his powerful turn as Nelson Mandela.  Unfortunately – as Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Joaquin Phoenix, and Oscar Isaac will attest – it was a pretty tough year.

 

Honorable Mention: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Twisty and exciting, with a great sequel hook at the end.

Worst Movie of the Year: The Counselor – a movie so thoroughly despicable that I’d rather not say anything more about it.

Most Overrated: Gravity.  Boring, shallow, and inept.

 

Just for reference, here’s the full list of movies I saw last year:

About Time
American Hustle
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
Blue Caprice
Blue Jasmine
Captain Phillips
The Counselor
Dallas Buyers Club
Elysium
Ender’s Game
Frances Ha
Frozen
Gravity
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Her
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
In a World …
Inside Llewyn Davis
Iron Man 3
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Man of Steel
Mud
Nebraska
Philomena
The Place Beyond the Pines
Red 2
R.I.P.D.
Rush
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Star Trek: Into Darkness
Stories We Tell
This Is Martin Bonner
Thor: The Dark World
12 Years a Slave
The Wolverine
World War Z

Published in: on March 3, 2014 at 11:50 am  Comments (2)  

The Sting

(George Roy Hill, 1970)

alone, IFC Center, 2/22/14

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Has there ever been a movie as artfully made, and at the same time as sheerly enjoyable, as The Sting?  If so, it doesn’t spring to mind.  Funnier than most comedies, deeper than most dramas, light but never disposable, serious but never solemn, here is a movie that exemplifies the idea of art as a form of entertainment – or perhaps entertainment as a form of art.

Published in: on March 1, 2014 at 5:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Whiplash

(Damien Chazelle, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Eccles Theatre, 1/26/14

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This is it.  This is why we go to the movies.  Whiplash is tight, smart, relentless, exciting, funny, grounded, and terrifyingly assured.  The editing is sharp and crisp and musical, the performances rich and lived-in, the cinematography clever and beautiful but never self-indulgent.  Best of all, Whiplash remains unpredictable, in spite of its clean, stripped-down premise and ceaseless forward momentum.  What starts out as a portrait of perfectionism in all its reckless and destructive glory slowly evolves into a breathtaking battle of wills between two driven, uncompromising, fiercely competitive men.

Why are unrepentant assholes such a gift to the cinema?  Because 1) they’re funny; 2) they say what we can’t; 3) they force other characters to react (and thus drive the story forward); and 4) their rare moments of tenderness are all the sweeter for being unexpected.  The character of Terence Fletcher, played pitch-perfectly by J. K. Simmons, is an unrepentant asshole for the books.  He’s also a fully-rounded human being who believes in music – so much that he may be willing to kill for it.  How many music-lovers can say the same?

See this movie.  Whenever and wherever you can.  It’s bracing and galvanizing.  It will make you glad you exist.

Published in: on January 27, 2014 at 5:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Life Itself

(Steve James, 2014)

with Robb Stey and Mike Lavoie, Sundance Resort Screening Room, 1/23/14

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Roger Ebert taught me how to love movies.  How could I possibly be objective about this one?  Ebert has influenced the course of my life more than almost anyone; ever since a thirteen-year-old version of me haphazardly picked up his 1993 movie guide at my grandparents’ house in Maryland – out of sheer boredom, more or less – I’ve understood that the movies are an art form worthy of study, discussion, obsession, and worship.  I wouldn’t have started coming out to Sundance if it hadn’t been for Ebert.  I wouldn’t have started this blog if it hadn’t been for Ebert.  I might well have never made a movie of my own if Roger Ebert hadn’t turned me on the medium in the first place.  That puts him up there in my pantheon of heroes with people like Jimmy Stewart, Tom Stoppard, and Steve Martin.  He’s that big for me.

Where it all began.

Where it all began.

I never spoke a word to Roger Ebert, and he never spoke a word to me.  The closest I ever came to him was using an adjacent urinal at the Eccles Theatre in January of 2000 – my very first year at Sundance.  It was a trivial, almost laughable moment, but it kind of meant a lot to me.  I was eighteen.

I’m thirty-two now; I’m out at Sundance for probably the twelfth time; and Ebert is still pushing me into new places.  Last night Mike and Robb and I drove deep into the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains, and found ourselves for the first time at Sundance Resort Screening Room, where we took in Life Itself.  It’s a rich and beautiful movie, edited with uncanny insight and clarity.  It gives us an Ebert as stubborn and childish as he was warm, brave, and perceptive – an Ebert who fought ignorance, indifference, cancer, and Gene Siskel with the same unshakeable tenacity and unflagging humor.  The portrait of Siskel and Ebert’s friendship that emerges here is both caustically funny and deeply moving; it’s clear that they cared for each other a tremendous amount, and it’s equally clear that they never knew any way to express it other than by endlessly bickering onscreen and off.

I can’t tell you how glad I am to have had this chance to say goodbye to Roger Ebert.  He was a titan in the world of cinema, and he was a personal titan to me.  The world is a little poorer for his passing – but if this movie reminds us of anything, it’s that life is to be cherished.  Every last goddamn minute of it.

Her

(Spike Jonze, 2013)

with James Fauvell, Mike Lavoie, Lindsay Joy, and Adam Cohen, Union Square Regal, 12/18/13

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Funny and profound, personal and universal, gorgeous and raw – Her is that rare film that blends consummate artistry with real, unguarded emotion.  It’s the definitive Spike Jonze movie, at once whimsical and filled with heartache – a story of broken and hopeful human beings fumbling for grace in a beautiful, indifferent world.  It’s goddamn poetic, is what it is.  What a joy to see a movie that fulfills the potential of its quirky premise – and goes so much farther and deeper at the same time.

Published in: on December 27, 2013 at 9:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Spirited Away

(Hiyao Miyazaki, 2001)

with Lauren Sankovitch, IFC Center, 1/10/12

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An extraordinary, transporting, meticulously layered fairy tale, powered by its own strange mythology, bursting with life and humor and menace, making almost any other film look timid by comparison.  This was my introduction to Miyazaki, and it’s a great one.  Now I’m unspeakably eager to dive into the oeuvre

Published in: on January 20, 2012 at 3:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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It’s a Wonderful Life

(Frank Capra, 1946)

with Mike Lavoie, James Fauvell, Meredith Holcomb, Chelsea Salyer, James Creque, Elizabeth Edmonds, etc., 12/18/11

Yep, THIS is the best Christmas movie in history.

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I’ve seen this movie God-only-knows how many times, but somehow it struck me afresh.  It’s a marvel – damn near a miracle.  How many movies can boast of so perfect a synthesis of theme, story, lighting, dialogue, acting, music, and heart?  How many movies can get away with such a daring structure – flashbacks for more than half the duration, followed by a present-tense third act that plunges the hero into a bleak alternate version of his familiar world?  Jimmy Stewart’s gut-wrenching performance alone would put  It’s a Wonderful Life on the “must-see” list, but every element rises to meet him at the top of his game, and it all adds up to a mind-boggling achievement.  For extra fun, follow the the trajectory of the money in the scene where Uncle Billy goes to the bank and runs into Potter.  The whole thing plays out in plain sight, but Capra misdirects us so brilliantly that we don’t know what we’ve seen until later on when Billy tells us.  It’s a small example of the film’s attention to detail, but it speaks to the kind of smarts and dedication it takes to make a truly indelible film.

Published in: on January 19, 2012 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Keith’s Top Ten Movies of 2010

And now, the moment you didn’t know you were waiting for: my top ten movies of 2010!

2010 produced 248 movies that were eligible for the Best Picture Oscar; I saw 38 of them, down from 52 the year before.  Been busy, I guess.  Below are the ones that stood out for me.

#1: Exit Through the Gift Shop


Richly ambiguous, slyly humorous, head-spinningly subversive – so good that it’s hard to believe its events are real. This is the first documentary I’ve ever really loved.

#2: Inception


Unnecessarily complicated?  Maybe.  Guilty of redundant action?  Yes.  Bracing, brilliant, and heroically ambitious?  Absolutely.

#3: The Ghost Writer


Smart, ruthless, and deliciously paranoid – a lesson in mercilessly exact filmmaking.

#4: How to Train Your Dragon


A bold and lovely fairytale – proof that really good movies are immune to the cheapening effects of 3D.

#5: Shutter Island


A sweaty, feverish nightmare fantasia with a secret weight of real-life horror.  No one does melodrama with as much mad conviction as Martin Scorsese.

#6: Winter’s Bone


Lean, spare, sinewy quest movie, with a vivid setting and coldly beautiful images.  John Hawkes is extraordinary.

#7: The Social Network


Elegant brain candy for nerds and geeks of all stripes.  The movie’s distinctive pleasure is watching really bright people ridicule fairly bright people in elaborate, unanswerable ways.

#8: Buried


For those of you who haven’t heard, this is literally a feature-length movie set inside a coffin.  And no, it’s not boring.  And yes, it’s harrowing.  And yes, Ryan Reynolds is terrific.

#9: True Grit


When it works, it works like hell. The first act of this movie is sensational on every level. After that, it starts to meander.  Still, an accomplished film, with a marvelous performance by Hailee Steinfeld.

#10: Restrepo


Another documentary on my top-ten list?  Am I getting soft in my old age?  This one is much more straightforward than Exit — just a penetrating ground-level portrait of soldiers coping with boredom, isolation, fear and grief — and in many cases, coming back for more.

*     *     *

Worst Movie: Cop Out

Most Overrated: Black Swan

Most Underrated: The Tourist

*     *     *

For the record, here is the full list of 2010 movies I’ve seen:

ALICE IN WONDERLAND
THE AMERICAN
BLACK SWAN
BLUE VALENTINE
BURIED
CATFISH
COP OUT
DATE NIGHT
DESPICABLE ME
THE DRY LAND
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
THE EXTRA MAN
THE FIGHTER
GET HIM TO THE GREEK
THE GHOST WRITER
GREEN ZONE
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
HOWL
INCEPTION
IRON MAN 2
JACK GOES BOATING
THE KING’S SPEECH
KNIGHT AND DAY
MEGAMIND
MORNING GLORY
127 HOURS
RESTREPO
THE RUNAWAYS
SHUTTER ISLAND
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
THE TAQWACORES
THE TOURIST
THE TOWN
TOY STORY 3
TRUE GRIT
WINTER’S BONE
YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 11:30 am  Leave a Comment