Discoveries of 2014

The Celebration

Nothing brings a family together like dark secrets! There’s a lot of naturalism to the filmmaking and performances that makes The Celebration feel a lot tenser than a more dramatic than a staged film would feel. There’s also a lot of beauty that bursts forth after the secret is released and the family attempts to move forward.

Clueless

This film is like that vain-looking girl you meet, don’t really talk to for most of the year, and then discover is actually super smart and witty once you get to know her. What initially looks like just another dumb teen comedy is actually a delightfully witty and smart romantic comedy that plays on genre expectations and turns out all sorts of great verbal quips. I’m still chuckling to myself about the “crimson wave” line.

Daisies

Two sisters toy with the emotions of men while acquiring lots of food and drink. This leads to crazy drunken pratfalls and general hilarity. Better yet are the moments of insane cinematic assault as the fabric of film itself is attacked. It’s such a zany film with the joyful abandonment of conventionality and consistency that there’s something magical about the entire affair.

Dead Alive

What a disgusting film Guts flying all over the place, organs of every type strewn about, and then there’s the blood flowing like the geysers of Yosemite Park. I love it! The full-blown commitment to campy horror and the delightfully perverse sense of grotesque humor allows Dead Alive to shine as a gorgeous piece of trashy visual exploitation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Fire Within

Brooding with the existential dread of existence, The Fire Within chronicles the burden of life with a gentle sympathy for its protagonist. Even though the overwhelming amount of darkness, the film never feels cynical or overbearing.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

At a cursory glance, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes has two of the most superficial women, one looking to catch a man with money, the other looking for an eye-pleasing hunk. However, as the film progresses, the story and characters play with these desires and expectations. The musical numbers are also wonderful and Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell are absolutely gorgeous. Also, let the record show that if gentlemen prefer blondes, then I’m no gentleman.

The Innocents

There are only a handful of terrifying images in the runtime of the film, but those few images are placed within an absolute master class of mood and sound design. The Innocents leaves so much of its horror to suggestion, only giving small glimpses and leaving a lot unsaid. And the actual subject is one of the most disturbing and taboo subjects that the idea alone makes the skin crawl.

Invasion of the Body Snatcher (1978)

Going more for the scientific angle, the reinterpretation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers touches on a lot of the same social fears but presents a more grotesque and pulpy set of scares. Also, the cast is absolutely mind-boggling in this film. One of the great horror ensembles. The final act does a much better job of bringing things to a close than the original, making it one of the few remakes that passes its original in quality and craft.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

People always make film sound like one of the most testing and droll films ever made, but there’s a lot going on here. Watching a housewife go about her work renders all sorts of interesting observations for the careful viewer, especially as the film unfolds into something else entirely in the final act. It’s as compelling as anything else I’ve watched this year and worth the careful viewer’s time.

Mean Streets

It’s the naturalism that gets me in this film. Scorsese’s filmmaking is far more subtle and subdued here, which makes it a lot easier to immerse me into this world and set of characters. Everything feels more vibrant, alive and organic than most of Scorsese’s later crime films. The film feels more about entering the world of the characters and less about giving performances and punctuating drama with violence. It’s wonderful stuff, the kind of filmmaking from the ‘70s I love.

My Night at Maud’s

I’ll admit I probably enjoy this film more for its ethical and theological underpinnings than the plot. It’s a film where the characters and story feel like jumping points into deeper questions and as those kinds of films go, this is one that certainly gives the audience a lot to ponder.

Ringu

For as much as horror films subject us to the abject and the unknown, very few explore our fascination with watching the horrific. Ringu very much is interested in our fascination with watching and our desire to understand what we see. The supernatural conceit and the film’s conclusion about our interest in horror is one of the most thought-provoking self-reflexive works in the genre.

Salaam Cinema

And here you were worried I might not slip an Iranian film on the list. Don’t let the shorter runtime deceive you, this film packs in a wealth of ideas into the small runtime. The nature of performance, ideas of cinema, its impact on viewers, and the systems of control and manipulation are all picked at as the film unfolds into one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking things I’ve seen.

Sense and Sensibility

I read the book earlier this year and the film does a great job of translating the best parts of the book. Austen’s delightful humor and the general intricacies of miscommunications and misunderstandings of love are strong and intact. However, it’s the performances by Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet that make the film strong. Lovely stuff.

You’re Next

Nothing brings family together like a good old-fashioned home invasion. Horror can often be dumb, sometimes deliberately so, but this film feels so smart about its setup, conceit and execution. Add a dry sense of dark humor and great music cues and this film is an absolute thrill ride from beginning to end. It’s to kill for.

 

Director

Yasujirô Ozu

I’ve seen Tokyo Story before, but my take on it was one of my most controversial reviews. This year, I delved into more of his film and my goodness, these are some of the most immaculately framed and carefully crafted films I’ve ever seen. So many shots are picturesque and astonishing. Out of the lot I saw, Late Spring, Floating Weeds and I was Born, But…, were the best, but each film was worth watching and an absolute joy. I’m eagerly looking forward to watching more Ozu in 2015 and rewatching Tokyo Story.

 

TV

Oi, you say, you can’t do TV on your list again. To which I say this is my list and I’ll do whatever I want.

Broadchurch

This one took a few episodes to grow on me, but when it finally hit, it hit me hard. In the wake of a young boy’s death, a pair of detectives investigate the murder while the family struggles to find any sort of balance in life. The portrait of grief and how it slowly churns away at the community grows steadily leading into an astounding final episode. It’s worth sticking with for the final movements of the show.

Extras

Once you get past the goofy jokes and the hilarity of seeing famous people play types, Extras is a thoughtful comedy. In exploring the lives of extras, it examines how we ourselves go about performing through life, pretending who we’re not in order to be loved, accepted, and respected by others. It doesn’t go so well for the main characters, which is where the fun begins.

Paranoia Agent [1-4][5-7][8-10][11-13]

I’ve adored Satoshi Kon’s work since I first saw Perfect Blue, which many regard as his masterpiece. However, after seeing his miniseries Paranoia Agent, I’d argue this is his finest work. A complex portrait of the perceptual disconnect many characters have about the world, Paranoia agent is the culmination of his body of work into a fever-pitched anthem of madness.

The Sopranos

This ended up being my big summer project. While the show started over a decade ago, this still feels as fresh, relevant, and artistic as it must have when it came out. TV has grown a lot in the last decade, but there’s still moments in this show that are so artfully crafted, built with a consideration for audience intelligence, that few shows are even worth mentioning as being a step or two below what The Sopranos achieves on an average episode.

© 2015 James Blake Ewing