Boy what a love letter of a movie this is. Martin Scorsese is my favorite living filmmaker, and this is like his tribute to the movies themselves. It has a nostalgic tone for the silent era of movies, and in particular the work of fantasy master and former illusionist Georges Melies, most known now as the man behind the famous 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon. Main character Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is our guide through the bustling Paris train station whose walls he lives in. He meets a variety of characters, played by wonderful actors like Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and Christopher Lee, and but in particular is drawn to Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) who eventually leads Hugo to "Papa Georges" (Ben Kingsley) who has accused Hugo of thieving before, from his desk in his trinket shop in the station. Papa Georges' back story eventually intertwines with Hugo's, as Hugo tries to rebuild a sort of robot his father (Jude Law) left to him.
It's a glorious visual marvel, so obviously fake in many scenes, but fittingly so, with a style evocative of the types of children's storybooks the movie itself is adapted from. Scorsese creates these amazing adventurous worlds for us to inhabit. The hissing and fog filled walls and clocks of the station, so different from the busy people-crammed place outside its walls. The whole thing has a kid-like adventure feeling to it that no other movies I can think of have. I wouldn't characterize it as a "kids movie" like so many have, I'd say it's a movie for adults who remember what it was like to be a kid.
14. Toy Story 3 (2010) directed by Lee Unkrich
In Toy Story 3 we get back to Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Potato Head and the whole gang yet again. Andy is now 17-years-old and getting ready for college. His beloved toys lay in his toy chest, unplayed with for years. Misunderstandings ensue, and the toys are donated to the Sunnyside Daycare. There they meet a host of other toys led by the fluffy, strawberry scented, Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (voiced by Ned Beatty), and Ken (Michael Keaton), who immediately falls for the Barbie doll that Andy's sister had donated. They're told that Sunnyside is an ideal place for toys. They're played with all day, 5 days a week. But after one day in the "caterpillar" room, with the youngest kids (or, "not age appropriate" as Buzz says), they begin to doubt the sincerity of Lots-O and the other toys. Meanwhile, Woody has been snatched up by a sweet little girl named Bonnie and taken to her home where he meets another set of lovable toys, but he's determined to get back to his friends and to Andy.
There was something about Toy Story 2 that didn't connect with me. It didn't have the simple magic that the first Toy Story had, but didn't have its own magic to ride on either. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, has that magic. There's an amazing amount of heart poured into this movie; the characters and relationships (both positive and negative) drawn with more care and developing in much more interesting ways. I even found Lots-O's backstory fascinating on its own in how it shaped the toy we see. There's also a wonderful development between Jessie and Buzz, made most hysterical when Buzz gets accidentally switched to Spanish mode, taking on the over-the-top poetic lover mode of a stereotypical Spanish hero.
Pixar delivered us another masterpiece, with the best ending since the perfection of Monsters, Inc's. Toy Story 3 may not reach the poetic brilliance that Wall-E did, or cut straight to my heart like Remy's love of food in Ratatouille did, but it easily sits next to the family saga/action bonanza of The Incredibles and the unadorned majesty of the original Toy Story as not only Pixar's best work, but among the great gifts the art of animated cinema has ever given us.
13. Boyhood (2014) directed by Richard Linklater
In the summer of 2002, Richard Linklater began one of the most ambitious movies in film history. In his home town of Houston, Texas, Linklater started shooting an unnamed movie starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, his own young daughter Lorelei Linklater, and then 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane. Each year for the next 12 years he got the cast and crew back together for a handful of shooting days to tell the story of the boyhood of Coltrane's character Mason, from the ages of 6 to 18. And that's what we get, following Mason from 1st grade into his first days as a college freshman.
The movie is made up almost only the small moments of life. During its 164-minute epic length run time, Linklater gives us a series of life moments. They're not all big speeches or scary incidents. Sure, there are talks about the nature of life and thoughts on the magic all around us in our world, as well as fights and drunken step fathers and all that, but nothing is played to the back of the room. It's all very intimate and insular to Mason's life. After all, life isn't made up of the big moments, but of a series of small moments with occasional spikes in emotion. As I was watching it the first time, like Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), I expected more, I expected better, I expected bigger. It wasn't until the end credits rolled that I really understood what it was I'd just watched, which was a truly extraordinary movie. I realized how many times Linklater and his cast, especially his two still growing stars, could've stepped wrong and didn't. Could've hit false notes and didn't. Could've gone for the big Oscar moments, but didn't. Linklater doesn't even give us milestone markers like "1 year later" or "age 14" or whatever, and the movie is better off for it. We realize we're in different times through changed hair cuts or subtle signs of growth (or braces), and it was startlingly fascinating to see both the kids and adults grow older over the course of the movie.
I don't know if it's the best movie of Linklater's career, I'd put it behind Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Dazed and Confused from his oeuvre, but it may end up his most iconic. And since Linklater has always been fascinated with time as a filmmaker, it may be the most Linklater-esque movie he's made.
12. Jauja (2014) directed by Lisandro Alonso
Lisandro Alonso is a filmmaker I'd never heard of before diving into his 2014 film Jauja. But it's obvious to me that he's a director of great talent and one to watch and look forward to in the years to come. Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen as Danish Captain Gunnar Dinesen in 1880's Argentina, leading an engineering project as well as working with soldiers on the eradication of the local native people. In tow is his young teen daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger), who is in love with one of the young soldiers in the group, and lusted after by one of the older soldiers. Inge and the young soldier, Corto, run off together one morning. When the Captain awakens to find his daughter gone, he sets out after her, alone. This is pretty much the extent of the story in Jauja.
We are told in the opening titles that Jauja is an El Dorado-like fabled earthly paradise that many looked for, but that they always "got lost along the way." Lost could certainly fit the description of the characters, as Inge doesn't really know where she's going with Corto, and the Captain doesn't really know where he's going in looking for Inge. Lost could also describe the experience of many viewers to the approach Alonso takes as a filmmaker. The movie is very slow moving, few if any close ups, long takes, with beautifully filmed landscapes that made me feel often that it was like Hou Hsiao-Hsien had made a western about a man looking for his daughter. But in the last third, things take an odd, and fascinating turn down the rabbit hole of surrealism, leaving many viewers lost as to what it all means, or maybe what even actually happens. Perhaps that's the "getting lost along the way" that we're told up front happens with Jauja.
In the lead role, Viggo Mortensen gives one of his best performances. Speaking both Danish and Spanish, Mortensen has such command over his body language and the way he's presenting himself that although there isn't a ton of dialog in the movie, we're never left wondering where the Captain is emotionally. It's terrific work from one of our best actors, who we haven't seen enough of lately. It's also remarkable to think of how many languages Mortensen has now spoken on screen. By my tally he's now spoken English, Spanish, Danish, French, Russian, and the fictional language of Elvish.
We know from the opening shot that Inge wants a dog, so when the Captain runs across one in his quest and he follows, where is the dog leading him? When he gets to where the dog led him, where is he? Who is this Danish speaking old woman in the middle of the Argentinian desert? How is she who we think she is? In Norse mythology Hell is presided over by a woman and her dog. Is this Hell? Is the Captain searching through Purgatory, unaccepting of returning to see the woman? What kind of western ever gets us to ask these kinds of questions? One of the greatest, that's what kind.
11. Midnight in Paris (2011) directed by Woody Allen
I have a soft spot for Woody Allen movies. Even supposedly terrible ones like Scoop are films I can generally enjoy a great deal. Granted I've only seen about half of his movies, but there hasn't been even one that I downright disliked, simply a couple I haven't cared for as much. Owen Wilson plays the lead role of hack screenwriter Gil Pender. He churns out crappy Hollywood movies but yearns to write a book and be important and worthy like his literary heroes. He's in Paris on vacation with his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams), they tagged along with her parents who're there on business. While the clock strikes midnight one night, a car pulls up and a jovial group of people pull Gil in with them and take him to a party. At the party he sees a guy who looks mysteriously like Cole Porter singing songs to adoring listeners, and meet a couple who introduce themselves as the Fitzgerald's, Scott (Tom Hiddleston) and Zelda (Alison Pill). Scott takes a liking to Gil and offers to take him along to a bar they're going to to meet up with Hemingway (Corey Stoll). Gil finds himself magically drawn into the world of 1920's artistic Paris, a time and place he'd dreamt of his whole life. He runs across Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody), Luis Bunuel, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), Picasso, Matisse, and TS Elliot, among others during the few extraordinary nights he's able to return to this magical place. He also happens to run across the beautiful Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who has Picasso, Hemingway, and legendary bullfighter Juan Belmonte fighting for her affections. Gil falls for her just like the others do as he dreads the inevitable end of his miraculous journey through 1920's Paris.
Owen Wilson is one of the better actors when it comes to playing the traditional "Woody Allen" role. He has a bit of Allen's neurosis, while also keeping his strangely laid back charm, and some shades we've not seen from him before. His ability to portray Gil's hopeless romanticism, while those around him try to destroy it, is essential to making the movie work. Wilson's Wedding Crashers love interest McAdams is pitch perfectly hateable as Gil's relentlessly unsupportive fiancee. Marion Cotillard is as luminous as Paris itself, making it unsurprising that so many of these artists are inspired by her as their muse.
The script is Allen's strongest since Sweet and Lowdown, the sweetness and romance fully coming through without being forced in the slightest. The gorgeous photography by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji brings an extra amount of warmth to the movie that fits in nicely with the unassuming romanticism Allen's going for. I also like Allen's comments on coming to terms with the times you live in and not getting bogged down in the nostalgia of the past, because the people in that time probably didn't think everything was so great, and idealized an era previous as well. Even with a little bit of intellectual comments on nostalgia, it's still hard not to think of this movie as simply one of the sweetest love stories I've seen in a long time, and always glad to see one of my favorite filmmakers working at such a high level.
10. Sing Street (2016) directed by John Carney
John Carney’s Sing Street was one of the most unfairly overlooked movies of 2016. It’s the coming-of-age story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager in 1985 Dublin, Ireland. His family is falling apart, his parents constantly fight, economic times are tough, he’s being transferred to a new Catholic school full of bullies and harsh administration, and (as we all do at that age) he’s trying to figure out who he is as a person. Conor plays a bit of guitar and writes a bit of poetry, but he doesn’t really know who he is yet. What 15-year-old does? Into the mix, as usually happens in these stories, steps “the girl,” Raphina. Conor asks her to be in his band’s next video, to which she agrees. He then promptly walks away and up to Darren, the only friend he’s made at his new school, and says “We need to form a band.”
Conor gets lessons in music from his hash smoking college dropout brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), and finds a songwriting partner in multi-instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna). Quickly, the boys form up their band (which they call Sing Street) and even have an original song written for the video Conor invited Raphina to be in, which they cheaply shoot in hodgepodge costumes and makeup. The shoot is a success, the song is actually good, and it leads to more of both happening. Conor, of course, falls hard for Raphina.
Conor ends up finding himself through the band and through music. It all started because he wanted to impress a pretty girl, but it took hold of him and became a much deeper experience than that eventually. And this is where the movie really shines. I don’t remember other fiction movies being able to capture the unexplainable joy and soul connection of playing music together. We can watch great concert documentaries, but never had a movie captured that with characters in a way that spoke to me (as someone who has played music for a long time, both in bands and by myself) until John Carney’s 2007 movie Once. He then recaptured that magic on a much larger budget with his next movie Begin Again, which is wonderful even if it’s not got Once’s charm. He then moved on to Sing Street, which is one of the most joyous movies I’ve ever seen. Carney has a way of playing off the looks between band members, the sideways glances and just the energy between the performers. Like in Once, he got real musicians to play the lead roles, which I think made a huge difference. These guys aren’t faking their abilities or their joy. They’re just playing these great songs (which Carney co-wrote, alongside his duties as writer/director of the movie) and we feed off their performances.
Carney started out as the bass player in the great Irish band The Frames (led by his future Once star Glen Hansard), before leaving to pursue filmmaking. So he has music in his bones, and it has shown in his three brilliant music driven movies. Carney gets the music so right, but this movie doesn’t work if the love story falls flat, and thankfully he also wrote two great lead roles in Conor and Raphina. Raphina isn’t just a pretty face, and she isn’t a manic-pixie-dream-girl there only to spur Conor’s character development. Raphina is a fully well rounded character, played in a beautifully heart felt and vulnerable performance by Lucy Boynton. She has her own arc, her own insecurities and strengths and weaknesses. And Conor loves her through all of it.
9. Ex Machina (2014) directed by Alex Garland
Ex Machina has all the elements of great science fiction. Mostly, it has the greatest element of science fiction: ideas. There's a lot going on here, comments on human nature, sexual politics, bro friendship, and, of course, it's central theme: artificial intelligence. The story is very simple: Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a low level employee of billionaire tech developer Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Nathan invites Caleb to his secluded mountain cabin for unknown reasons, only to eventually find out that Nathan wants Caleb to give the Turing test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), an AI robot Nathan built. Things begin to disintegrate quickly, as Ava asks Caleb to break her out of the cabin, and Nathan seemingly plays endless mind games while also drinking and partying like it's the end of the world. Ex Machina was the directorial debut of screenwriter Alex Garland, and it's extraordinary in its directorial control. The uneasy mood, intellectual engagement and intrigue, and the framing shots and careful unfolding of the narrative show that Garland is obviously a big fan of Kubrick, but he never apes or steals. It's just obvious in its inspiration. And Garland doesn't abandon the intellectual approach in the finale, even as he ramps up the tension and lets the sparks start flying. It would be remarkable storytelling even from the most experienced of filmmakers. From a first time director, it's very exciting and I hope it points to big things to come.
8. The Assassin (2015) directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world, and has been a favorite of mine since I first saw his Three Times back in 2009. Long time passion project, The Assassin, stars the impossibly beautiful Qi Shu (her third collaboration with Hou) in the title role. Her magnetic work carries the movie despite the fact that I think she only says about 5 sentences. She plays Yinniang, a 9th century woman who was taken away from her family as a child and trained to become an unparalleled killing tool. We join her as she starts having that downfall of many a movie assassin, human emotions. Tasked with a target of her former betrothed husband, Tian Ji'an (Chang Chen, reuniting with his Three Times cohorts), Yinniang must decide whether or not to defy her master or to betray her heart.
All of this plays out in Hou's typical elliptical and slow storytelling. I've read that the original script explained much more of the story and either through the shooting or during the editing process Hou took things out so that the final product is much more opaque and not straightforward. It lends a wonderful intrigue to the movie, because even though it's not fast paced we are often trying to figure out what's going on, and why. There was a point late in the movie when I had an epiphany as to what was going on and how certain characters related to each other. On the first viewing it makes for a very layered and fascinating viewing experience, and on re-watches lends an even deeper experience.
All of that on top of the fact that this is one of the most beautiful, visually striking movies ever made. Not just the impeccable costuming and set design but also the landscapes (filmed in central and northern China) and Hou's genius in photographic framing in addition to the staging of the action. Hou has always made beautiful movies, but this is no question his most beautiful yet. It won him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival the year it premiered there.
Viewers who come into the movie based on the exciting trailer or the promise of the typical wuxia (ancient martial arts) movie will be numbed by the pregnant silences and even the way Hou shoots the action, not up close and flashy like a Hollywood director, but from his usual medium or long shots, with the action often over before you know it. And yet, because it's so different from what we're conditioned to expect, that's why I find so many of the sequences still vividly in my mind even days and weeks after watching it. The birch tree forest fight (and I didn't even realize who Yinniang's opponent was until later, reading about the movie), Yinniang taking on hordes of guards in the trees outside Tian Jian's compound, shot from long distance so that most of the action is obscured by the trees. It's really extraordinary stuff for us Hou fans. I'm glad he made a wuxia film all his own, instead of trying to make an action movie to have a hit or something. And the fact that it got him some of the best notices of his career was just icing on the cake.
7. La La Land (2016) directed by Damien Chazelle
A great love letter to the cinema and to Los Angeles itself, La La Land was a movie I didn't think would happen. That is, I didn't think that Damien Chazelle could have really followed up Whiplash with a movie in the same realm of greatness. What La La Land is, though, is the work of a truly brilliant filmmaker. Seeing it in the theaters, with all the expectations I brought with, and the Oscar hype that surrounded it at the time, I loved it but wasn't quite as in love with it as I felt I wanted to be. Watching it without all that build up recently, I was bowled over by the visual brilliance, the low key charm of its lead actors Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (reteaming for the third, and by far best, time), and the directorial choices in both shot selection and framing, and the camera movement. It's audacious in almost every way, unabashedly uncool in what it loves (old school musicals, classic Hollywood dancing, and jazz), and defies expectations by being indebted to all these old school Hollywood and French New Wave (Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort in particular) movies, while being decidedly modern and relevant. The nostalgia element that is so central to Midnight in Paris comes up again here, though Chazelle gives weight to the other side (here personified by John Legend's modern jazz/pop star, Keith) more than Allen did in his movie. To get lost in this movie is to get lost in a perfect melding of the old and the new.
6. Gravity (2013) directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Alfonso Cuaron has my money any time he makes a movie. I've liked or loved every single movie of his I've made. My least favorite in his catalog, the third Harry Potter movie, is typically considered the epitome of that franchise. I'd closely followed the production of his follow up to "best movie of the 2000's" Children of Men (named as such on this very blog). When he finally released Gravity in 2013, I was completely blown away. Sandra Bullock's central role as astronaut Ryan Stone was the best work of her career, and she was supported by one of the most visually ambitious movies ever made. The opening shot alone is 17 minutes long, and all of this was done with Bullock and co-star George Clooney the only non cgi items on screen. The planning that had to go into the lighting of the actors faces, to match what would be done in the computer, is staggering to think about. The simplicity of the movie, though thematically ambitious, is its key. It lets the realism it presents to become a kind of horror movie. A survival horror movie. But then it touches on things like making the decision to keep fighting for life when the universe seems destined to kill you. The decide to live even when you're grieving an unimaginable loss. There are beautiful images of womb-like safety, and triumphant rebirth. How many $100 million budget Hollywood movies have the poetic and artistic talent and balls to try and get you to think and feel these kinds of things? Only the type Cuaron makes.
5. The American (2010) directed by Anton Corbijn
The American is a startling and brilliant movie for a multitude of reasons. It contains one of George Clooney’s best performances, is shot mostly in the picaresque Italian countryside, and is the engagingly subtle tale of an assassin hiding out in a small Italian village. Based on British author Martin Booth’s spy novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American follows Jack (Clooney) as he flees Sweden, running from men who are trying to kill him. We’re not sure why, but Jack’s handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) says it’s because Jack has lost his edge now that he’s getting older. Jack goes to where Pavel sets up a safe house in Italy, but a paranoid Jack runs away on his own to a different town. He’s eventually set up with a job to make a gun for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, the innkeeper from In Bruges). While in the town, Jack becomes involved with local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), despite Pavel advising not to “make friends” with anyone, telling him “you used to know that.” Jack also crosses paths with local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), with whom he has many philosophical conversations. But Jack never lets down his guard, even as we can tell he wants to for Clara.
Violante Placido, as Clara, is kind of the heart of the movie, at least in regards to what she means to Jack. Placido is even more beautiful than her mother Simonetta Stefanelli (whom most of us know better as Michael’s Italian wife Apollonia in The Godfather), but with the same expressive eyes, sweet smile and intriguing Italian sensuality. Possibly the best scene in the movie is one in which they go out on a real date at a restaurant and her girlish excitement at being with a guy she could actually connect with is endearing. When a man comes over selling roses and she tries to shoo him away, trying to tell Jack, “He thinks we’re a couple,” Jack retorts simply with “It’s okay.” The look in her eyes, seeing that Jack isn’t embarrassed she’s a prostitute and actually enjoys being with her, being seen with her, and thought to be her guy, almost brought tears to my eyes in what that means to Clara and how beautifully Placido expresses that. But, of course, this movie works because of George Clooney. There may be no other actor as interesting to watch as he thinks. Jack’s mind is always going, even as he keeps a relatively stone faced exterior. Clooney says so much with his eyes and his body language, and even the tone of his voice, so much more effectively than most actors. He has always been able to sell that there’s a lot going on under the surface, and Jack is one of his best characters. Jack is lost, at a crossroads in his life, and he’s a broken man in many ways. He sees possible redemption for himself in his relationship with Clara, maybe, as long as he can stop wondering if she’s a fellow assassin out to kill him.
There’s not a wasted scene or even moment here, really. Everything tells us something, as long as we’re paying attention. Corbijn’s photography here (along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe) is extraordinary. The movie is beautiful to look at, for sure, but it’s also framed so gorgeously and often in a way that assists the narrative. There are shots where there are things in the background that inform the foreground, or shots that show us the labyrinthine streets of the Italian mountain town, or ones that frame Clooney in a way that underscores what’s happening narratively. It’s a movie that could and should be studied by film students for the brilliance of the shot selection.
Corbijn’s allowance of silence in the movie is likely what turned off some viewers, but it’s what captivates me. He lets words hang in the air as we contemplate something as simple as two different people calling Jack “Mr. Butterfly.” Well, he has a butterfly tattooed on his upper back, which we’ve seen multiple times, but have both of these people seen it? Is it connection or coincidence that these separate people used those specific words? Jack doesn’t live in a world of coincidences. Other movies point out this kind of possible connection, but The American knows it made its point and doesn’t need to bash us over the head with it. It doesn’t insult our intelligence, it respects us as viewers.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) directed by Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson makes movies like no other. They don't look like other filmmakers' movies, they don't feel like other filmmakers' movies, and the characters don't talk like other filmmakers' characters talk. I've been hit and miss on his movies over the course of his career, loving a few, hating one, and the others falling somewhere in between. I've often said that the Wes Anderson-ness of his movies keeps them at a distance from real emotions and characters and thus keeps us in the audience at a distance from his movies. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most Wes Anderson-y of his movies yet, and his most extraordinary.
Reminding me a bit of The Saragossa Manuscript in its Russian doll-like unfolding of the story, though not nearly as down the rabbit hole as that movie can be, we eventually arrive at the central story of Monsieur Gustav, who is played by the great Ralph Fiennes in what might be his greatest performance. Gustav is funny, profane, intelligent, well put together, and always in control. His protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) narrates a good part of the story, even though it's done by the older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham. What follows is a series of funny, exciting, ridiculous, thrilling filmmaking of the highest order.
Anderson assembles a great and large cast, as always. But this is his largest, and greatest cast yet. All of the regulars are here, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and others, but thankfully even when they're mere cameos (as they are by those actors) they fit within Anderson's crazy world of a movie. And he gets wonderful work out of all of them, most particularly Abraham, Revolori, and Fiennes. This is also, by far, I think, Anderson's best looking movie. That the budget for this movie is listed at $30 million is ridiculous when thinking about how distinct every part of this movie is, and how bland movies with many multiples of that budget are. The sets, costumes, locations, everything is impeccable and I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd seen a $100 million budget attached to it. But Anderson does so much with what he has, proving that cinematic creativity isn't dependent on budget in the slightest.
I laughed out loud many times while watching this movie. It is simply a delight from start to finish. I found myself resisting a bit at first, almost even thinking I may not be in the mood for a Wes Anderson movie right now, but he won me over with this magical, wonderful movie.
3. Whiplash (2014) directed by Damien Chazelle
"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'"
So says Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to his student Andrew (Miles Teller) as justification for his abusive and manipulative teaching style at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Whiplash. Andrew is a 19-year-old, Buddy Rich worshipping, aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional academy (obviously meant to evoke places like Julliard). When he catches the eyes and ears of the notorious Fletcher, who conducts the prize jazz band of the school, he feels like he's made a break on his way to being a legend like Charlie Parker. But things aren't easy in the hyper competitive world, and Fletcher doesn't make anything easier. He flings many things at his students (racial and homophobic slurs, general insults, even occasionally furniture) in relentless pursuit of perfection.
We see Andrew, through the confidence gained by being accepted as an alternate in the band, ask out the pretty girl that works at the concession stand of the theater he frequents with his dad. Melissa Benoist is charming and cute as the girl, Nicole, while Paul Reiser is wonderfully real and loving and supportive as the dad. Andrew progressively uses Fletcher's motivation to push everything but drumming out of his life, even to the point of getting rid of the bed in his dorm room for a drum set so he can after hours and all hours practice. The movie asks us (and its characters) if a single minded pursuit like this is good for the musician or the person who's doing it. Certainly Andrew achieves more under Fletcher's exacting demands than he would have otherwise, but does he actually gain any creativity or artistic understanding? Or is it merely an athletic feat of becoming a human metronome. The movie's moving finale leaves us with this question. Is it a triumph? A descent into madness and inhumanity? Is it a talented slap in the face to Fletcher as a teacher, or an endorsement of him?
Miles Teller and JK Simmons could not have possibly given better performances. Simmons is all bulging veins and muscles and intensity, while Teller strikes a remarkable balance of shy self doubt and growing confidence and even arrogance. Teller also does the majority of his actual on screen drumming, a body double being used only for insert shots and whatnot. This gives a real lived in feel to the character, as they aren't forced to cut around the fact that the star isn't actually playing the instrument we believe he is, as is usually the case. It also gives Teller a chance to really imbue Andrew with telling physicality, so that we don't even need a lot of extra dialog because we can read his body so obviously. Simmons is likely soon to hear his name announced as Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, and it will be with great reason. It will go down as the defining role for the great character actor, even above his lovable Mac MacGuff from Juno, his loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spidermanmovies, or even his terrifying white supremacist prisoner on the TV show OZ. He finds a humanity and sense of really caring about the students he's abusing, giving us at least some sympathy for his extreme approach to teaching.
Finally, the work of the filmmaking team of writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Sharone Meir make this personal drama in the world of school jazz bands into a psychologically and viscerally thrilling movie. They get the camera right in there with the action of the band, while often cutting to the rhythms of the music in a wonderfully propulsive manner that often has the same effect on us in the audience that a car chase or a shootout has on us in a traditional action movie. Chazelle, in just his second time behind the camera, made a truly personal and affecting movie and announced himself as a filmmaker to really watch.
2. Cloud Atlas (2012) directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis
What is the point of a movie like Cloud Atlas? I'd say that the point of a movie like this is to shame other filmmakers for their lack of ambition and insistence on giving us the same ole shit. Not a film for people who don't pay attention, or those uninterested in thought provoking art, Cloud Atlas is a movie for those of us that thirst for greatness. This is one of the great movies ever made.
To give a plot synopsis is futile. Writer/directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer weave together six or seven different plot lines from across hundreds of years and many locations. It's a thriller, a romance, comedy, sci-fi/action movie. It's everything you could want in a movie. It was adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, unread by me. If the novel is anything like the movie, I would've thought it completely unfilmable. What Tykwer and the Wachowski's have done, however, is extraordinary work on every conceivable level. The movie has wonderful and distinct looks across all of its stories, which also takes many recognizable faces and reincarnate them across the stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, and many others appear across many, if not all, of the stories. Korean actress Doona Bae was my favorite, although everyone is flawless in their roles, stepping up their game since the filmmakers were setting such an ambitious bar. Also obscenely amazing make-up allows the actors to jump not only through the timelines to play their differing characters, but also jump through ages, races, and even genders.
Unsurprisingly, with what I've just said, Tykwer and the Wachowski's were unable to get any studio financing for the project. Ultimately they raised a little over $100 million independently to make the movie. I wouldn't have been surprised if you'd told me the budget was $400 million. It's expert filmmaking through and through, making more of its budget than any movie in recent memory.
Ultimately, Cloud Atlas takes on themes of love, kindness, friendship, and human decency. Actions ripple across time and space and give us the sense that no persons life is without meaning or influence, even if we don't feel it while we're alive. It's a life affirming movie of the highest order. It's also the type of movie that comes along not very often that affirms the great power of cinema. I think the filmmakers were laying down the challenge to all other artists to push themselves into greatness. Although I've not been a fan of their previous work, this film is exhilarating and enriching to the soul.
1. Upstream Color (2013) directed by Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth got strong notices (and many awards) for his 2004 debut film Primer, a mega-low-budget movie about two friends who stumble into inventing a time machine. Made for just $7,000, the film is remarkable in many ways. My favorite way is the elliptical and complex storytelling, so that we’re not always sure where we are in the timeline of the movie. Carruth feels no need to spell everything out for us, and has even said that although he had to figure out the complex timeline of the movie in order to make it, it’s not necessary for the viewer to. I love that he didn’t spoon feed us everything, or anything, but also that it’s not just a puzzle to figure out. You can work to figure out the logistics if you want, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the movie. There’s also the immortal line “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.” Unfortunately, he struggled through financing his next picture, a sci-fi masterpiece of a script called A Topiary, before eventually abandoning it to make 2013's Upstream Color, which for my money is the best movie of the 2010s.
Upstream Color is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, nearly silent movie. Not silent like The Artist, I say it's silent simply because it relies very little on dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue in the movie, but it doesn’t rely exclusively on it to tell its story or convey ideas. The movie is more about the rhythm of the narrative, the extraordinary cinematography, and the overall sound design. Or I guess I should say that these elements are elevated more here than they are by other filmmakers. The sound design is integral to the story in a way you pretty much never see, and can’t really be explained unless you’ve seen it. Also low budgeted (though Carruth has refused to say, because he felt Primer got too much press for its budget and not for the movie itself, but I've seen estimates showing this one around $50,000), still absolutely gorgeously made, you’d never guess from looking at it that it was a low budget movie, except for the fact that it’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.
It's told non-linearly and often abstractly, but the basic story of the movie is that of a woman, Kris (played by the intriguingly beautiful Amy Seimetz) who is drugged and kidnapped by a man known in the credits only as Thief (Thiago Martins) who, through the drug he slips her (which has some sort of worm in it), is able to put her in a hypnosis-like state. Eventually he leads her to liquidate her bank account and all other money and give it to him, before he disappears. Somehow she’s then led, still in a hypnotic state, to the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) a pig farming sound recorder, who removes the worm from her body and transfers it to that of one of his pigs.
Suddenly, Kris awakens in her SUV on the side of the highway, unaware of anything that has happened in the previous days. She returns to find her house littered with blood stains, things missing, food all over, and eventually no money in her bank accounts and fired from her job (go mysteriously missing for days with no explanation and this is what would happen). Later, on a train, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) whom she has an almost metaphysical connection to. They fall in love, and both start to unveil their secret pasts and what happened to them, with more in common than we would've anticipated.
The story is told without any rush, with a beautiful, Malick-esque intermixing of natural and urban settings. Stolen moments helping to fill in the gaps of what would normally be a big Hollywood thriller of kidnapping and thievery. Carruth gives a nice leading man performance, but the star here is Seimetz, whose work is truly extraordinary. She gives Kris a look haunted from her past, but also her brief smile lights up her face and lets us see that Kris really is in love with Jeff. They weren't drawn together because of their pasts, they were drawn together seemingly in spite of them. Weirdly, I could continue detailing the entire plot and it still wouldn’t ruin the movie, but I’ll leave it there for you to discover on your own. The movie works the first time around, no matter how much you know about it. But like all the great pieces of art, it enhances upon each viewing as your understanding of it and emotional connection to it grows.
I first saw this movie in 2013 when it came on Netflix streaming (where both of Carruth’s movies still are), but it has stuck in my memory since then and I’ve revisited it multiple times. It’s always less confusing than the first time around. But even then, I didn't care that I was confused on a story level because Carruth had me mesmerized by every second and so it was more that I didn't know what to expect and wasn't always sure where we were headed. Now I know, and so the atmosphere works even better because I can give myself over to the movie and let it wash over me while also picking up on a ton of little things I'd missed in previous viewings. I "got it" the first time around, Carruth's movies don't beg re-watches because you don't understand every little thing, you don't need to. They beg re-watches because he respects the audience’s intelligence and refuses to explain every little thing to make sure we understand it. I enjoy Upstream Color much more than I did Primer (which I also really like) and will continue going back to it over and over again. And at just 96 minutes, Carruth doesn't overstay his welcome, he ends things perfectly and in a way that makes us want to enjoy the ride again and again.