The Top Five for 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and Vol. 2
Only Lovers Left Alive
Venus in Fur
Honorable Mention: Birdman, Mr. Turner, Foxcatcher
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
I watched Wes Anderson’s first movie, *Bottle Rocket*, a few days before seeing *The Grand Budapest Hotel*, and I’ve now seen all of his movies: *Bottle Rocket*, *Rushmore*, *The Royal Tennenbaums*, *The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou*, *The Darjeeling Limited*, *Fantastic Mr. Fox*, *Moonrise Kingdom*, and now *The Grand Budapest Hotel*. He’s definitely a director whose every movie I’ll want to see in the theater. His movies are masterpieces in art direction, which isn’t why everyone goes to the movies, but it sure works for me. *The Grand Budapest Hotel* is like a pop-up book brought to life, it was darling and full of charm, bursting with charm. So many fantastic performances, especially from Ralph Fiennes in the leading role. I could give you a laundry list of all the great performances, but it would turn into a list of the entire cast! I’ll single out F. Murray Abraham, such a joy to see him having a little career resurgence, with this and *Inside Llewyn Davis*. One other note: Tilda Swinton’s old age makeup was brilliant, the best ever.
NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. 1 AND VOL. 2
The latest masterpiece in sadism by Danish director Lars von Trier. My brother Howard likes to point out that many of his previous leading ladies (Emily Watson, Björk, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst) say, “That guy is a lunatic, I’m never working with him again” - - but Charlotte Gainsbourg has now done her third consecutive film with him! Clearly he’s doing something that she understands, and vice versa. She’s so amazing in this movie, has such a stunning transparency.
Vol. 1 opens, after the title, with a black screen. You gradually hear water running, and then see water running down a brick wall. The camera pans down, and you see and hear the water dripping off roof, and finally the water dripping onto a metal garbage can. Von Trier is Tarantino-esque in his attention to detail, so the question is: what does this mean? Stellan Skarsgård comes upon Gainsbourg lying, beaten, in an alley. He brings her to his apartment, cleans her up, and asks her what happened. She tells the story of her life, her experiences as a nymphomaniac. I’d seen the previews, and was prepared for something shocking and offensive. It delivered that, in parts, but I wasn’t prepared for the warmth and tenderness in the movie. Skarsgård repeatedly assures Gainsbourg that what she’s done isn’t as depraved as she’d like to believe, he’s very sweet to her.
A few other similarities with Tarantino: Von Trier has a brilliant way with music. He knows when to use music, what music to use (ah, the Franck violin sonata!), and most importantly, when NOT to use any music. And Von Trier and Tarantino are the only directors I know who’ve given Uma Thurman material worthy of her talent. She tears the joint apart in her brief role.
Vol. 2 wasn’t as satisfying as Vol. 1, but it was still damn good. I think it would make more sense as one very long movie. The ending wasn’t entirely satisfying, but the more I think about it the more I understand why it ended that way. That doesn’t mean that’s how I think it should have ended, but I know what he was going for. Uma had the most jaw-dropping performance in Vol. 1 - - that distinction goes to Jamie Bell in Vol. 2, as the title heroine’s go-to sadist. He had just the right mixture of intensity and distance. He looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t quite place him. He played the title character in the movie *Billy Elliot*!
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
I’m a Jim Jarmusch fan from way back. *Stranger Than Paradise* is such a delight, I also love *Down By Law*, *Night on Earth*. I’ve seen nearly all of his movies, and not all of them are great, but they’re all worth seeing. This is his masterpiece. The sweetest, most delicate vampire movie ever! Tilda Swinton is so perfect, I agree with the New Yorker film critic - - she might actually BE a vampire. Tom Hiddleston is deliciously languid as her husband, and Mia Wasikowska takes over in her briefish role as her sister. Oh, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe! So much to love in this movie, such smart dialogue and beautiful locations. Tangiers, no less. And Detroit, which looks like a vampire itself, in all its glamorous decrepitude.
I saw the movie at Sunshine Cinemas down in SoHo. I had a concert that night with Richard’s chorus, so I was wearing my tuxedo. I had built in a little time for dinner after the movie, and thought I’d go to the Chipotle near the concert venue, but I passed the cutest little knish place when I left the theater. I had to go there. And what was on TV? *The Partridge Family*. And break my heart, I had to leave just as an episode of *Maude* was starting. It was the perfect dinner experience, after seeing that movie.
VENUS IN FUR
Richard and I saw the play on Broadway a couple years ago. The play itself was brilliant, but was maybe overshadowed by the star-making lead performance by Nina Arianda. And Hugh Dancy was no slouch as the other character, he totally held his own. The New Yorker had a profile of Arianda when she was in the show, which said that Mike Nichols was a big fan - - I hatched a hope that he would do a film version with her, for HBO.
I was a little disappointed to read that Roman Polanski was doing a film, starring his wife, Emanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric. The two of them were so lovely in *The Diving Bell and the Butterfly*, so I knew they’d be good, but could she be as good as Arianda? She’s Polanski’s wife, after all, which raises some red flags. And would the play lose something, being done in French? And, most importantly, was the magic of the play stage magic? Would it work as a movie?
My fears were completely wiped away in the first five minutes. The movie was a frisky delight. Seigner is a commanding actress - - she’s older than Arianda, which gave greater depth and urgency to the character. Arianda was ferocious, Seigner had gravitas. Both work! Amalric was wonderful - - it’s a tricky part, because the woman is the star, but the guy has to be her equal partner.
It works perfectly in French, maybe even better than in English - - French captures the Old World flavor of a lot of the text. And Polanski is such a genius, of course he’s the perfect man to do this play. Adapting a play can be tricky, especially when it all takes place in one set. It can seem stagey, which doesn’t work in a movie. Polanski embraces the staginess on the one hand and opens up the movie in delicate ways on the other hand. His use of music is a big part of that. I loved this movie. And hey, Mike Nichols is dead, but somebody else could STILL do a version with Arianda for HBO, no?
OK, it’s official - - I’ve always said there are four directors on my Must See List, directors whose every new movie will be sure to bring me to the theater, and be a strong contender for that year’s Top Five. Those directors, for years, have been (in alphabetical order) Pedro Almodovar, Sofia Coppola, Mary Harron, and Quentin Tarantino. As of this year, I’m adding four more names to my Must See List: Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Lars von Trier, and Richard Linklater, the director of *Boyhood*. I’ve been fans of these guys for years, and have seen nearly all their movies, but this year they really delivered.
Linklater is the director of *Slacker*, *Dazed and Confused*, *School of Rock*, *Before Sunset* (Honorable Mention, 2004), and *Bernie* (Top Five, 2012). *Boyhood* is a unique film. He spent twelve years filming it - - the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, was seven when the movie started and nineteen when it wrapped. It’s the story of a boy/young man, Mason, simply growing up, dealing with his parents, who are divorced when the movie starts (played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and his sister (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei). One of the most impressive things about the movie is that it’s so light on story (very little happens over the course of its 165 minutes), but you’re never bored, not for a moment.
The most shocking moment in the movie is the first time you see that Mason has grown. He’s gone from seven to eight, and is a little taller, a little less boyish. We’ve all seen movies where the characters age over the course of the movie, and it’s done with makeup and hair and acting. This is a movie where the actors literally age over the course of the film. It’s amazing.
Glamorous Decrepitude is the greatest band name of 2014.
*Birdman*. What a fun movie! I love any movie that makes fun of how indulgent and weird actors are. What a cast - - Michael Keaton gives the performance of his career, Emma Stone is marvelous (it’s nice to see her in a role where she has something to do), Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are total pros, and director Alejandro González Iñáritu approaches the line of overly clever, but never crosses it.
*Mr. Turner*. I’ve been a fan of writer/director Mike Leigh back to *Secrets and Lies* - - also loved *Topsy Turvy* and the best film of the first decade of this century, *Vera Drake*. *Mr. Turner* is about the English painter J. M. W. Turner, best known for his marine paintings and landscapes. It felt about a half hour too long, but it’s the kind of movie I’ll only see that one time, so where’s the harm? Leigh always creates the quirkiest characters, and this movie is chock full of them. Timothy Spall (who played Wormtail in the Harry Potter movies, also played Churchill in *The King’s Speech*) plays Turner in all his grunting, mad genius glory. The most stunning moment of the movie is a scene that shows Turner painting. You see many closeups of the canvas, bleached blotches of color and cloud, then cuts to what looks like an abstract heap of green and grey paint - - the camera moves down and you realize that what you’re looking at is the side of a cliff in a windblown corner of England. An astonishing moment. I’ll mention three other high points of the movie: the most abrupt death scene I’ve ever seen, one of the strangest interactions with a whore, and the most amusing conversation about gooseberries.
*Foxcatcher*. Such a creepy movie. About an hour into the movie I put on my scarf - - then I realized it wasn’t because it was cold in the movie theater, it’s because I was chilled by the movie. What I was watching onscreen was literally lowering my body temperature. Great performances by everyone - - we expect Mark Ruffalo to be great, but Steve Carell and Channing Tatum both surprised me with their fantastic work in this movie, really showed that they’ve got chops. I was bothered by Carell’s prosthetic nose, I found it distracting, but the guy has a very distinctive and rather comical nose, so I can see why they’d want to do that.
Can I say a word about spoilers? A friend at work saw *Foxcatcher* at the New York Film Festival and loved it. I went to see it a couple months later.
ME: I’m seeing *Foxcatcher* tonight.
HIM: I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.
ME: I don’t know anything about the story, so don’t tell me anything about it.
HIM: You don’t remember the real story?
ME: No, don’t tell me anything.
HIM: You don’t even know about ____?
And then he told me a major point of the plot. Why do people do this. I guess the lesson to be learned: don’t tell people you’re seeing the movie, tell them you saw it after the fact.
The other categories:
Best Cameo, Female
Uma Thurman in *Nymphomanic Vol. 1*. God bless Lars von Trier for giving Uma Thurman her first great post-*Kill Bill* role. She has maybe five minutes onscreen in this movie, as the wife of one of Gainsbourg’s lovers, and she completely takes over. She’s the most exciting, jaw-dropping thing in the movie.
Best Cameo, Male
Three actors in *Inherent Vice*: Martin Short, Eric Roberts, and Martin Donovan. Owen Wilson and Benicio del Toro also give sweet, short performances in this movie, but those guys do plenty of work, their cameos don’t really have the same impact as the other three. But Short, Roberts, and Donovan - - it was such a thrill to see them grabbing onto their roles with their chompers and chewing them to bits. All three had big careers a number of years ago and have sort of faded away. Roberts gave the quietest, loveliest performance in the movie, he was the calm center of the tornado. Hopefully this will show other directors and he’s not just Julia’s brother and Emma’s dad - - he’s an immensely talented actor.
Remembrance of Movies Past
*Arthur*. Not a great movie, not by a long shot. Dudley Moore is so unfunny as the sloppy drunk bazillionaire, he grates on my nerves. I guess Liza Minnelli gives a good performance as the girlfriend - - a good performance, for Liza. Is that rude? I was a little puzzled that a diner waitress would have a wardrobe by Halston, but it’s a romantic comedy, roll with it. I’m glad that Burt Bacharach had such a hit with the theme song, but I don’t need to hear that song. Ever. Again.
What makes *Arthur* worth seeing, you ask? John Gielgud gives a performance for the ages as Arthur’s butler. He won the Oscar, and boy did he deserve it. He blazes with understatement and panache, he makes the most of every barbed witticism. A few examples: at his first meeting with Liza: “Thank you for a memorable afternoon. Usually one must go to a bowling alley to meet a woman of your stature.” And my favorite: when Arthur tells him he’s going to take a bath, he says, with icy disdain, “I’ll alert the media.” And he warms the heart in a few key points in the story. I imagine, when he read the script, that he thought this movie was below him, and he was right. I can hear his agent saying, “Honey, ya did *Caligula*. You have nothing to lose.” Thank God he took this part, his performance really is a gift to the world.
Movie That Needs To Be Made
I would love to see a miniseries adaptation of J. D. Salinger’s *Nine Stories*.
*The Little Mermaid* - - the next movie by Sofia Coppola, written by Caroline Thompson, who also wrote *Edward Scissorhands* and a few other Tim Burton creepfests. Sounds enticing, no? I hope it’s a live action movie. I’m sure most of Hollywood’s actresses under 30 will be beating down Sofia’s door, hoping to play the mermaid.
*The Hateful Eight*, the new Tarantino movie. Allegedly out in November 2015. Look at this cast: Sam Jackson, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Amber Tamblyn, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern. It takes place in Wyoming just after the Civil War. I’ll be there opening weekend, whenever it opens!
*The Dressmaker*. The tagline on the poster is, “Love, revenge, and haute couture.” Starring Kate Winslet and Judy Davis. Need I say more?
The next *Star Wars* movies. Directed by J. J. Abrams, who did the new *Star Trek* movies, also the TV show *Alias*. Episode 7 comes out in December.
Follow-up on previous Eagerly Anticipated:
*Lovelace*. Not very good, and so many talented people in it. It feels like it was a vehicle for Amanda Seyfried to play an adult (truly adult) role. It was dull.
*In Secret*. This was in pre-production under the title *Therese Raquin* for years and years. I first read about it maybe 15 years ago, it was going to be with Lynn Redgrave as the mother-in-law, Franka Potente as the daughter-in-law, and Joseph Fiennes as the lover. Redgrave died, so then they got Glenn Close. I also seem to remember talk about Ludivine Sagnier playing the young wife, and I read on wikipedia that Jessica Biel and Kate Winslet were also lined up to play that role, and Gerald Butler the lover. The final cast: Elizabeth Olsen (she has those famous twin sisters) as the wife, Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy) as the husband, Jessica Lange as the mother-in-law, and Oscar Isaac (from *Inside Llewyn Davis*) as the lover. It’s a good movie, but not worth the wait.
Most Deserving of a Comeback
Whatever happened to Jeremy Northam? He’s one sexy bugger, and bursts with charisma. It was high season for him between 1999 and 2002: he did *The Winslow Boy*, *An Ideal Husband*, *The Golden Bowl*, *Enigma*, *Gosford Park*, *Possession*, and the Martin and Lewis TV movie. Then he did a load of crap and TV. Is there more to this story than we know?
Viva La Diva
Angelina Jolie in *Maleficent*. Chewing up the scenery with great relish. I think she saw Charlize Theron in *Snow White and the Huntsman* (winner in this category in 2012), called up her agent, and said, “Get me an evil queen role, but quick!”
*Inherent Vice*. I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, and have seen all of his movies except his first (*Hard Eight*) in the theater. His movies are always challenging, always unique, always worth seeing. Not always good! I really hated *The Master*. *Inherent Vice* is like *The Maltese Falcon* on psychotropic drugs. But come to think of it, you don’t really understand what’s going on in *The Maltese Falcon* either, so it’s not that long a journey.
*Inherent Vice* is wacko. And yet at the same time, it really holds together. How does Anderson do this? The movie, even when it goes off in the strangest direction, always gives the impression that it knows what it’s doing. I’m going out on a limb here, but I think it might be because the camera movement is minimal, and he often uses long takes. This presents the material in a careful, measured way, makes it easier to take in.
So if I liked it so much, why is it a Nice Try and not in my Top Five? It was a little too much hard work. I would not recommend it to anyone. And I definitely don’t ever have to see it again.
*Under the Skin*. I read about this movie in The New Yorker, in a profile of Scarlett Johansson, and it sounded right up my alley: experimental, sort of sci-fi, set in Glasgow, with Johansson luring guys into a van to possibly eat them! That’s what I call one-stop shopping. Richard also became interested, and we saw it together. I liked it MUCH more than he did.
Two possible unprecedented things about this movie: I get hopped up to see a movie at least once a year, like the new movie by a director I love, or an actor I love, or a topic or genre that turns my crank. This movie was in the category of “I think I might like that”, so I wasn’t exactly hopped up to see it. Well, I can’t remember the last time I was so amazed by a movie about which I knew so little. I sat there with my mouth open for at least the first half hour.
The other thing: I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a movie that opens with something so abstract, arty, and seemingly devoid of meaning - - it made me think of the ending of *2001: A Space Odyssey*. This movie OPENED that way. That’s what I call nerve.
The director, Jonathan Glazer, is now someone I’m watching closely. His two previous movies, *Sexy Beast* (with Ben Kingsley as a maniacal gangster) and *Birth* (with Nicole Kidman in the bathtub with the 10-year old boy she thinks is the reincarnation of her dead husband), are both very strong. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
How Could I Have Missed It?
This award has always gone to a movie from a year or two before, a movie I regret not having seen in the theater. *Jason and the Argonauts* came out in 1963, so I never had the chance to see it in its initial release - - it was on PBS one night last summer and Richard thought it would be fun to watch. He said it was on TV all the time when he was a kid. I’d never seen it before, and it blew me away! The stop-motion animation is unbelievable, cheesy and thrilling at the same time. Part of the reason it works is the use of sound: the metallic creaking of the giant metal statue, and especially the clicking and clacking of the sword-fighting skeletons at the end of the movie. As an added bonus, Hera is played by Honor Blackman, better known as Pussy Galore in *Goldfinger*.
Break-Out Performance, Female
Kim Dickens in *Gone Girl*. I’ve seen a couple of the movies in her list of credits (*House of Sand and Fog*, *Hollow Man*, *Thank You For Smoking*), but don’t remember her in any of them. Her face is familiar, which doesn’t really mean anything. She was maybe the best thing in *Gone Girl*, playing the lead detective on the case. She was crackling with intelligence, it’s always exciting to watch that onscreen.
Break-Out Performance, Male
Timothy Spall in *Mr. Turner*. It’s doubtful that this movie will catapult him to leading man roles, he’s just not built that way. I suppose people said that about Dustin Hoffman, though, and look what happened with him. Anyway, Spall is tremendous in this movie, and maybe it’ll lead to bigger, more demanding supporting roles.
I have two winners this year - - *Birdman* for the opening credits and *The Grand Budapest Hotel* for the closing credits. *Birdman* used a distinctive and amusing typeface, and had a still image very briefly flashed on the screen, which made me wonder what that was all about. It turned out to be an important image in the story. *The Grand Budapest Hotel* had the most delightful closing credits, full of high-energy balalaikas and animated dancing Cossacks. The perfect finish to an adorable movie.
You get two this year, no extra charge.
Top Five Worst Movie Mothers
Eleanor Shaw Iselin in *The Manchurian Candidate*
Joan Crawford in *Mommie Dearest*
Margaret White in *Carrie*
Mary in *Precious*
Violet Weston in *August: Osage County*
Top Five Worst Movie Fathers
Dr. Austin Sloper in *The Heiress*
Big Daddy in *Cat On a Hot Tin Roof*
Lt. Col. “Bull” Meechum in *The Great Santini*
Larry Cook in *A Thousand Acres*
Daniel Plainview in *There Will Be Blood*
The New Yorker ran a profile of director Darren Aronovsky a few weeks before *Noah* opened. I'm a fan of two of his previous movies, *Requiem for a Dream* and *Black Swan*, so I read it with interest. *Noah* sounded like a fascinating movie, I thought I might end up going to see it. My friends Susie and Jim saw it opening weekend, and Susie said it was one of the dumbest and worst movies she'd ever seen. So then I knew I had to see it.
It wasn't just awful - - it was awesome in its awfulness. If Aronovsky had set out to make a bad movie, I don't think it could have been this bad. The actors, Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connolly, Emma Watson, seemed to really believe in what they were doing. Maybe they had tunnel vision, maybe they have bad taste, or maybe they're just really good actors. We may never know.
A few amusing moments pop out: Crowe comes back from an outing and tells Connolly, his wife, that he saw a flower pop up out of the earth. She looks at him with concern, puts her hand on his forehead, and says, "You need to rest." Am I the only person who was reminded of the last time they played a married couple, in *A Beautiful Mind*? There's a moment early-ish when the Crowe character sings a lullaby to the Emma Watson character. I was amazed - - Russell Crowe is singing in another movie? Didn't he read the reviews of *Les Miz*?
The pace is sluggish. I brought four cookies with me, ate two of them early on, and decided to save the other two for the storm. And that storm felt like it never came. It was worth the wait, though, because the high point of the movie was the flood - - big geysers coming out of the ground, huge oceans of water sweeping people away, it was fantastic. It made me wonder what the movie might have been if it had been good.
Without a doubt the worst thing about the movie were The Watchers. Aronovsky, like most movie directors doing a Biblical epic, I suppose, felt that the Bible was missing a little something. Cecil B. DeMille added Technicolor and a score by Elmer Bernstein - - Aronovsky added The Watchers. They’re giants made out of rocks, who formed an alliance with Seth, the loner son of Adam and Eve. They end up working for Noah, helping him build the ark and keep it safe. They're voiced by Frank Langella and Nick Nolte, and doubtless a few other crusty codgers with names we don't know. The Watchers, or "The Rock People", as Susie calls them, are such a stupid idea. They're the Jar Jar Binks for the new millennium. For those of you who aren't familiar with Jar Jar Binks, he was the Butterfly McQueen-esque sidekick in *Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace*. Jar Jar took a movie that probably wouldn't have been very good to start with, and by his sheer force of character, made it laughably bad. The Watchers did that to *Noah*.
I always wonder if a horrible movie by a great director is really that bad - - *Heaven's Gate* has gone through a radical shift in critical circles. I wonder if anyone will ever rush to defend *Noah*.
*Lucy*. Fun action movie, directed by Luc Besson (*The Fifth Element*) starring Girl of the Moment Scarlett Johansson. Lots of deep issues being discussed for a sci-fi action movie. The biggest thrill of the movie is that it was not just #1 at the box office that weekend, but made $14 million more than *Hercules*, which also opened that weekend. Let’s hear it for female-driven action movies!
*Alive Inside*. A gentle, moving documentary about a man bringing iPods into nursing homes, drawing out people with dementia and other isolating illnesses.
*Sin City: A Dame to Kill For*. Fun, but too similar to the first *Sin City* movie.
*Gone Girl*. This is the best movie that Hitchcock never made! Oh wait, *Atlas Shrugged* holds that distinction. Anyway, the author shows great skill in crafting the story, but so much of the dialogue put me off in the first half hour of the movie. Too clever, too cute. People don’t really talk like that, and it annoys me. Hitchock would not have stood for that. Plus Rosamund Pike gives one of the greatest Hitchcock Blonde performances ever.
*Into the Woods*. An adequate adaptation of the stage musical (which never really rang my bell to start with). The movie has a sweet, fairy tale look, and good performances by everyone, but it misses the mark. It made me think of the director’s last movie, *Nine*, and not in a good way: that movie starred Daniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, and Sophia Loren - - but the best thing in the movie is Kate Hudson? Huh? Something’s wrong here. *Into the Woods* has Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Tracey Ullman, and Christine Baranski - - and the best performance is by Lilla Crawford, as Little Red Riding Hood?
New Category: Guilty Pleasure
The new category for this year, Guilty Pleasure, is a movie from the past that might not be very good, but I love it and have seen it many times. The movie that leaps to mind is *The Long Kiss Goodnight*, an action movie from 1996 starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson. Also with David Morse, Brian Cox, Craig Bierko, and little Yvonne Zima (the youngest child on *The Nanny*) as Davis’s daughter. The movie is about CIA assassin Charly Baltimore who nearly dies, wakes up, and think she’s Samantha Caine, the suburban frump that was her cover story in her last assignment. Samantha gradually remembers her life as Charly, and the plot thickens. Jackson plays the salty private investigator who helps her track down her previous life. It’s ridiculous but also a whole lot of fun. Davis does nearly all her own stunts - - it’s directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin, so it has that added layer of love.