2014 Best in Cinema: Features.

2014 Best in Cinema_Features_ATG FINAL

I can’t say with conviction that 2014 will go down as one of my favorite years in cinema. Of the nearly 70 films I saw this year at theaters across Los Angeles, there were very few times I walked away with that “wow” feeling. It’s that awareness that spending two hours of your life with a film, eventually become countless hours, because you can’t stop thinking about the lives and stories of the characters long after you’ve left the cineplex. As I think about it, my last “wow” came as the screen faded to black during Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, 12 Years A Slave. More, I can’t say that I saw many films this year that made me want to delve further into how I felt about them, to try to rationalize what I saw on-screen by dedicating a one-off blog post as I did for 2013’s Fruitvale Station.

This doesn’t mean 2014 wasn’t a strong year in cinema. What 2014 certainly did was create a space as one of the more memorable times in the industry, as the art of filmmaking continues to push itself harder. Through films like Boyhood, Locke, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby – it’s clear that the intricacies of physical production when it comes to telling a narrative is changing. Filmmakers are becoming more and more aggressive and innovative in the craft of storytelling.

Sometimes this aggression and innovation helps a story (i.e., Boyhood), other times it might hurt it (i.e., The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), but as the saying goes: “you can’t blame a guy (or girl) for trying.” Naturally, there is some nobility in that.

Here are my top 10 picks for the best feature films of 2014…

Boyhood_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_10Film: Boyhood
Date: 07.11.2014
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Director Richard Linklater holds a very special place in cinema. He’s responsible for what I personally consider to be one of the best trilogies of all time, the “Before” series. Unlike nearly every sequel ever created that often falls into the trap of becoming one big diluted and uninspiring cliché; the “Before” films, like fine wine, get better and better with age. Five minutes after I sat in the chair to watch Jesse and Celine’s 20 year love story continue in 2013’s Before Midnight, I knew I was in for something exceptional…and it was. Before Midnight was my favorite film of 2013. Taking a moment to preface this, I went into Boyhood with extremely high expectations, that weren’t wholly fulfilled. Ultimately, why Boyhood is deserving to make any top 10 list is because Linklater experimented with the genre of film itself in one of the most unique and innovative methods in film history. Filmed over the course of 12 years, this is a coming-of-age tale more rooted in reality, for a fictional narrative, than ever seen on-screen. Every year Linklater and the same core group of actors would gather to further Mason’s tale of Boyhood. My biggest complaint about this film was that outside of the gimmick, while extremely commendable, the film wasn’t conflict-driven enough. Sure there were scenes capturing difficulties at any given point of Mason’s 12-year story-line, but given that we’re following a young boy into the complexities of manhood – it was surprising how little actually happens to our protagonist. One might argue that compared to your average human being navigating the journey of growing up, that Mason had a rather easy, uncomplicated life. Due to this weakness in the script, the audience doesn’t emotionally connect to, or cheer on or our “boy” with solid investment because of the inherent lack of true conflict. That being said, the dedication and commitment to see this film to completion, coupled with outstanding chemistry among the actors skillfully maintained over a 12 year period, rectifies its weaknesses. Undoubtedly, it must have been a labor of love for everyone involved given the demands of making it, and should be applauded, rightfully. It’s a delightful film to watch.

Abuse of Weakness_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_9Film: Abuse of Weakness
Date: 04.26.2014
Location: Director’s Guild of America, Hollywood

Solely because this film is based on Director Catherine Breillat’s own true story, does Abuse of Weakness seem even the least bit fathomable. And yet, the more you examine it, the more all too human it legitimately becomes. Breillat recreates her story through Maud, portrayed by the incomparable Isabelle Huppert, as a filmmaker who suffers from a life-altering stroke. Maud desperately wants to continue her work despite her newly acquired physical limitations, resulting in her having to re-learn even the most basic of human functions. Though she eventually learns to adapt to her physical restrictions, albeit it with much struggle, what becomes all too clear as you follow her journey toward building a new life while focusing on her work – is how much Maud hasn’t accepted or adapted to the emotional ramifications of her situation. She knowingly pursues an admitted con man, Vilko, to play her main character in her new film. The result of this choice creates one of the most maddening narratives of the year. Vilko’s timely and charming presence, spent making her feel important, while being of help through the difficulties of adjusting to her handicap, sets the stage for the con to come. Vilko swindles Maud out of all of her money over the course of the film. The caveat here is that though she’s aware of his history, he still manages to build trust with her in such a way that she willingly writes checks to support his questionable endeavors. The complicated part about their relationship is that Maud is clearly an intelligent, successful woman. As such, it’s hard to believe that she cannot see the outright manipulation taking place before her eyes. One might question whether or not Maud let it happen for the sake of having his presence in her life, and therefore, purposely continues to turn a blind eye as she loans him money to the point of bankruptcy. Alternatively, it’s possible she considered it a genuine loan and simply wanted to help out a friend in need, who helped her. When it comes to what took place in reality, Catherine Breillat asserts that she was purely taken of advantage of due to a “diminished mental state” at the time, which is also entirely possible. However, I interpreted Maud’s actions to be more gray. By virtue of how intelligent and strong, yet vulnerable and lonely Maud is characterized throughout the film, it’s hard to truly ascertain her motives other than that she seems to appreciate the attention. Abuse of Weakness is a remarkable exploration of how much and how low one will go to feel valued, and to hold on to a human connection, even as the ugly truth is staring you in the face.


Two Days, One Night_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_8Film: Two Days, One Night
Date: 11.07.2014
Location: Egyptian Theater, Hollywood

Marion Cotillard gives a stellar performance as Sandra, a Belgian woman who spends her weekend after an extended medical leave of absence for depression, convincing her co-workers to forgo their bonus checks so that she can keep her job. Upon learning that a majority of them voted for her dismissal in favor of their bonuses, the film follows Sandra as she swallows her pride and personally visits each co-worker, petitioning them to re-consider their stance. It is a portrait of a woman desperately seeking not only monetary, but emotional security as they seemingly continue to slip away from her over the course of Two Days, One Night. What a complicated, yet delicious predicament, when you consider that most not only relish bonuses, but that her co-workers are in dire financial straits themselves and can certainly use it. It’s an examination of a modern-day version of Darwinian theory, rooted in the foundation of what provides both physical and emotional self-preservation, our jobs. It speaks to a variety of themes: the survival of the fittest and stepping on others to get ahead; humbling oneself to ask for help when needed; but more so, having the capacity to help our fellow-man by making the responsible choice, even as it comes as a personal sacrifice.

Enemy_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_7Film: Enemy
Date: 03.26.2014
Location: Laemmle Theaters, Santa Monica

Adapted from José Saramago’s 2004 novel “The Double,” Enemy takes on the arduous task of creating two characters and two worlds that brilliantly merge together toward what has to be one of the most mind-blowing endings in film history. Enemy introduces us to Adam, an off-beat history professor, who one day finds that there is another person in the world who looks exactly like him. Determined to meet his doppelganger, named Anthony, Adam eventually locates his double and is immediately transfixed by the life Anthony leads. What ensues is a rather complicated and hard to describe narrative that forays from a well-executed mystery, to an intense thriller, leading toward an almost science fiction-like finale. Incredibly, as much as this film takes the audience on a perplexing, hallucinatory journey with the incredible Jake Gyllenhaal at the wheel; it does an impressive job of balancing your interest enough to keep you invested. The duplicity, and eventual mergence, of Adam and Anthony’s world is unlike anything seen on-screen this year. Enemy’s unusual plot-line, unique premise, strong performances, and phenomenal cinematography all lend to its success, but what must be its core strength is how much it can brazenly confuse the hell out of its audience, yet still produce a top 10 film!

Obvious Child_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_6Film: Obvious Child
Date: 06.13.2014
Location: Landmark Theaters, West LA

On the surface, Director Gillian Robespierre’s first feature-length narrative may appear to be your typical, quirky, small-scale, independent film. Surprisingly, what she created was a prototype that illustrates how a typical, quirky, small-scale, independent film can still cultivate finesse and substance. Obvious Child follows Jenny Slate as Donna Stern, an up-and-coming comedienne who learns she’s pregnant after a one-night stand. Unlike most films that would then accompany Donna as she agonizes over what to do about her unplanned pregnancy, this film breaks stereotype by immediately making it known that Donna has already made a firm decision to have an abortion. The film subsequently escorts our protagonist over the next few weeks as she waits for her procedure, not once doubting her decision, but certainly doubting where her life is going. The unique thing about Obvious Child’s narrative structure is that after she’s made the decision to proceed with her abortion, her one-night stand reappears during those weeks, interested in pursuing a relationship. Again, Donna maintains her decision about the abortion, but takes the risk of letting her one-night stand and the father of the baby into her life. What both Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate create through Obvious Child is in effect, the backwards romantic comedy, more comparable to real life. Not all women necessarily agonize over unplanned pregnancies knowing their station in life isn’t right for a child. Not all women meet their Prince Charming, fall in love, get married, and then start a family. Sometimes it happens the other way around. Unlike the formulaic romantic comedy, Obvious Child, takes a regret-free and often crudely hilarious exploration at life, love, and sex with refreshing authenticity.

Skeleton Twins_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_5Film: The Skeleton Twins
Date: 9.13.2014
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

If there was one film of 2014 that did a near-perfect endeavor of inviting the audience to a familiar portrayal of a place, time, and relationship, it’s as a result of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader’s seamless stint as bother and sister in The Skeleton Twins. Estranged twins Maggie and Milo reunite after each attempt suicide on the same day, using rock bottom as the foundation toward mending their broken relationship. Writer/Director Craig Johnson creates a realistic version of fiction through the struggles plaguing Maggie and Milo, both as individuals and as a unit. On some level, we can relate to their problems, and see hints of our own inadequacies and insecurities in them. Further to that, the film’s setting during the nostalgia of the fall season, not only forms ornate visuals to carry the story, but somehow feels symbiotic. We watch our protagonists literally “fall” from grace in many areas of their life throughout the course of the film, but also “fall into” each other, effectively returning to what they know, what’s always been there. Maggie and Milo find home in each other in such a way that becomes more than just the basis for a feel good film, which it undoubtedly is, but an illustration at how core relationships, particularly between siblings, ground us in a way that no other relation can.

Love is Strange_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_4Film: Love is Strange
Date: 09.02.2014
Location: Private Screening, Culver City

When it comes to romances, a 40-year love affair is ideally expected to have already been sealed through the bonds of marriage, living and growing together, happily ever after. When Ben and George, played by the delightful John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, consummate their fate and finally marry once the state of New York recognizes gay marriage; a joyous occasion ultimately becomes yet another obstacle. George loses his job soon after exercising his right to marry, causing the newlyweds to have to look for alternative housing options in New York’s highly competitive market. Sadly, after decades spent together under the same roof, our newlyweds are forced to separate and move in with others as they seek a permanent solution. Love is Strange couldn’t be a more quieter film in terms of execution. Outside of the daily relational conflict, as a result of their separate living situations, not much else happens in terms of plot point apart from the beginning and end of the film. And yet, it’s because of the natural chemistry between Lithgow and Molina that make it such a treat to watch their story unfold on-screen. Somehow between the daily nuances that erupt from living apart, their commitment and relationship remain the most normal part of the film, cultivating a loving silhouette of a same-sex couple. Love is Strange paints a believable portrait of the many facets of love and our relationship to people because of it, suitably referring to “love” as “strange.”

Locke_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_3Film: Locke
Date: 04.29.14
Location: Landmark Theaters, West LA

One might say that Tom Hardy’s assignment as Ivan Locke is this year’s All is Lost. Locke receives a phone call that a one-night stand is about to give birth to a child he never knew about. On the night before an important career highlight takes place, Locke gets into his car to make the long journey to the hospital to meet the woman he thought he’d left behind months before, but not before having to make the difficult phone call to his wife while on the road. Locke is one man, one location, and one phone call after another that skillfully details the destruction of a life carefully built. Hardy’s impeccable performance within the mere confines of a car for 85 straight minutes, unwaveringly captivates the audience. This stems from the sharp narrative structure, savvy direction, and stunning camera-work, that instantly pull you in for the ride…literally. Like Robert Redford, Hardy alone carries the weight of a story that on paper would come across as extremely difficult to pull off. The risk was worth it. With every conversation, we watch Locke’s personal and professional life fall apart in one of the most unique manners ever told on-screen. Simply put, Locke takes the practice of filmmaking to a whole other level, leaving behind a cinematic masterpiece as the perfect thumbprint.


Selma_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_2Film: Selma
Date: 12.22.2014
Location: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood

Selma couldn’t be a more timely film given the continued and growing animosity that took center stage between urban American communities and law enforcement in 2014. It speaks to how far we’ve come, yet how far we have to go. Selma’s uncommon approach to what might have otherwise been conceptualized as a traditional biopic, effectively bypasses the core traits of a historically based film. Essentially, it avoids the typical chronological engagement of its subject from childhood through death. Instead, it intelligently enlists its audience by thrusting them right in the middle of King’s fight against oppression; assuming, rightly, that King really needs no introduction. The accomplished work of David Oyelowo as King brought by far, the most formidable performance on-screen this year. Director Ava DuVernay, along with writer Paul Webb’s dialogue-heavy script creates a sophisticated snapshot in time, following three short months of his life in 1965. Therefore, what Selma does do with extreme grace is re-acquaint audiences to King’s legacy through the turmoil and specific actions of the preeminent march from Selma to Montgomery, without diminishing the established intellect of the audience. It trusts its audience to know everything they need to, to appreciate this work of art, the man, and the message. Unanimously, we do.

Whiplash_Best Films 2014_ ATG FINAL_1Film: Whiplash
Date: 12.02.2014
Location: Laemmle Theaters, North Hollywood

Definition: to “jerk or jolt (someone or something) suddenly; to affect adversely, as by a sudden change.”

Miles Teller gives a redeeming and phenomenal performance as Andrew, a student at a music conservatory that will go to no end to become one of the greatest musicians of all time. To get there, he craves the approval and tutelage of Terence Fletcher, played with staggering and nail-biting intensity by J.K. Simmons; whose career goal is to find the next best Charlie Parker. The battle that ensues between teacher and student is arguably one the most ruthless, complex, and inspiring stories captured on film. It explores the lengths one will go to in pursuit of being “the best.” When thinking about the definition of “Whiplash” along with the errorless execution of this masterpiece, I cannot help but be more and more impressed by writer/director Damien Chazelle’s mere second feature film. Every single aspect of this film is as succinct and apt as its title. From the razor-quick editing, to the sharp dialogue, to the physical demands of Andrew as he strikes the drums with tireless energy to prove his worth, to Fletcher’s enduring need to not give it to him. The inexhaustible intensity that continues to build from the first frame to the last, comes at the price of authentic transformation to everyone involved with this film, even as a viewer. You certainly don’t leave this film the way you came into it. As a viewer you walk out of this experience with a physical and emotional case of Whiplash, unable to fully let go of Andrew’s harrowing journey. Four weeks before the end of the year,  did I finally find my “wow” film of 2014.

A look back at my thoughts on the best films of 2012 and 2013, too.

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*Header image credit: My DVD Library by snkhan used under CC BY 2.0 | Modifications: cropped, filtered, and text added to original.

*Movie poster images sourced via IMDB.


2012 Best in Cinema: Features

I know you’ve been on the edge of your seat all week in anticipation of today’s big reveal! (Okay, a bit dramatic, I know). Reflections of my movie-filled year concluded today with a well deserved shout-out to my picks for the top 10 feature films of 2012.

Here we go! In alphabetical order:

Amour – A heartbreaking look at how a partnership is tested while struggling with the inevitability that will touch us all, the end of life: how it will happen and when. What struck me most about this portrait of an aging couple is how quiet it is in its approach. We spend most of the film in the same place, over a span of time, simply watching Anne and Georges go about their daily routine, making adjustments as needed and experiencing their frustration and difficulties with them. Instead of doing what most Hollywood driven films would do (i.e. overly dramatic music piercing through every single scene) to bring about emotion, Amour does the opposite. We sit in silence and allow the circumstances and the poignant chemistry of our protagonists penetrate beyond this gimmick. This was such a moving film that sticks with you. As a viewer, it very much made me think about what life might be like with a spouse in my golden years.

Argo – What works so well about Argo is that it plays off a combination of aspects fused together so well it’s gratifying. You have a based on a true story concept, set against a tumultuous political climate, shot with a late 70’s cinematic vibe, a little action, plenty of suspense, married with the comedic twist of John Goodman and Alan Arkin. The highlight of this experience will always be the last 20 minutes, executed so effectively I think my heart stopped and I didn’t take a breath until the end credits. Ben Affleck has come a long way and proved to be a force to be taken seriously.

Celeste & Jesse Forever – This was one of those films that I left the theater with such a high thinking THIS is why I LOVE movies. Celeste and Jesse are the best of friends, but terrible as husband and wife. The story picks up with their struggle at sustaining a friendship while in the midst of a divorce and pursuing other romantic interests. Rashida Jones (Celeste) and Andy Samberg (Jesse) have such a fluid and natural on-screen chemistry between them that drew me in immediately. What I was most enchanted by was not only the precise well-written dialogue; but the indie feel to how this narrative was told through its stunning salute to another main character, the sweeping city of Los Angeles, via its cinematography choices. I experienced almost every major emotion in 90 minutes of being in Celeste and Jesse’s world and I didn’t want to go. I laughed, felt my eyes water, and smiled at the very complicated, yet entertaining and relatable situation. This is also the first film I’d seen in quite some time where the music was used so impeccably it enhanced the overall experience of the film and introduced me to some of my favorite music of the year. If I had to pick my top film of 2012, this would be it (or closely tied with Zero Dark Thirty).

The Hunt – I’m not quite sure if it was the immaculate photography of the small Danish community the plot is set in because it’s so vividly quaint and unlike my personal world, or if it was solely the performance of Mads Mikkelsen that made me instantly cling to this film. In retrospect, it was both. The interaction between the main character within the beautiful  but modest Danish town mirrored each other purely to form such skillfulness in film-making. Lucas (Mikkelsen) is a beloved school teacher who is falsely accused of child molestation and is subsequently ostracized by this peers. One of the finest acting performances of the entire year came from a single shot, that said it all in the expression of his eyes, not a word uttered. I adored this film. I adored its simplicity, its use of the atmosphere around its actors; and while the circumstances of the story are very upsetting, it treated the subject matter so genuinely it scared me as the viewer about the true nature of the human condition when pushed too far.

Lincoln – At the risk of being cliché and selecting an obvious choice (alongside our Academy voting members with 12 current Oscar nominations), I cannot help but give Steven Spielberg his props. My experience with Lincoln was very reminiscent of my appreciation for the sweeping epics of the 60’s (please see my thoughts here). It was in the tiniest of details that kept us steadfast in 1865 America, the depth of a very intricate script, the uncanny and moving performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, the costume design, the art direction, and yes, I was a total sucker for John Williams’ brilliant original score. These components unified together with a very memorable sequence as we watch our 16th President proudly make his way down the long hallway after a hard fought battle was satisfying. This was a film that I went into with a rather nonchalant air, but left completely fulfilled at what had happened on the movie screen.

Middle of Nowhere – Admittedly, I went into the screening of Middle of Nowhere with the resolve that I was going to like it no matter what. Completely inspired by Ava DuVernay’s first feature film I Will Follow in 2011, I knew this was going to be something equally special. My instincts to believe in this film were dead on though I think DuVernay out did herself this time. We follow Ruby, a young medical student, who sacrifices all that she is and wants to be for the sake of supporting her incarcerated husband. We learn that despite her efforts, it’s not enough and her world is turned upside down. We thus begin Ruby’s journey to slowly find her way back to some sense of normalcy, whatever that is. The strength of this film unequivocally comes from the solid force of Emayatzy Corinealdi (Ruby) and her ability to mold into a scene with any of the other actors so naturally. Aesthetically, I was also very absorbed by the purity of the look to this film. Its use of subtle muted lighting brings the narrative to a sacred place enhancing the mood that despite the city setting, you are authentically experiencing Ruby’s middle of nowhere.

Moonrise Kingdom – Eclectic and quirky but in the best way fathomable. The town of New Penzance is on the hunt for 2 missing children that co-conspired to run away from their existing lives together. The power from this film unquestionably comes from 2 big things: excellent casting paralleled with excellent dialogue. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like conceiving and developing this project and not be somewhat worried that it might not quite come together. If you think about it, it seems like such a risky film to make, one that could easily come across so quirky it’s just outright awful. Then again, Wes Anderson, with more experience than I, knew what he was doing. He did a phenomenal job. Moonrise Kingdom was unlike any other adventure in 2012. Add the intelligent production design, unique camera positions and framing used, as well as the fantastical elements that take place in New Penzance and you’ve got yourself one crazy “out there” hit.

Polisse – This was easily one of the most engaging, emotional, and exhausting dramatic films of the year. This French gem takes the viewer on a harsh, complex, gritty and work-obsessed journey into the lives of a group of cops in the Police Department’s Juvenile Protection Unit. What made this piece so powerful, was not only the horrendous stories of endangered children that our main characters came into contact with on a daily basis, but how they interacted among each other and in their personal lives given these difficult circumstances. I was impressed given the amount of storytelling and the number of characters followed at how solid the character development was in this film. The emotional 2 hour roller coaster of Polisse led to one of the most climatic and unforgettable endings to a film that I think I’ve ever seen.

Your Sister’s Sister – A grieving man accepts his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend’s invitation to get away from it all by taking a little break from life with a solo vacation at her family’s picturesque cabin. Unknowingly, the cabin is currently occupied by his dead brother’s ex-girlfriend’s lesbian (or bi-sexual?) sister who is also taking a much-needed mental break from life. They get drunk and…you can fill in the blank here. The following day, the brother’s ex-girlfriend (who also happens to be his best friend) arrives to keep the grieving man company and so begins our complicated love triangle, though it’s not your typical one. Of all the films I saw in 2012, this was the most surprising. Not only because of the rare story line but because of how smart it was with the material. Parts of the film were so organic that it felt like portions were  simply improvised between the three actors, done so fluidly, you felt like you were watching real sisters, best friends, and love interests maneuver this complex narrative. Again, well-written dialogue, spot on casting, and a graceful setting for such ungraceful circumstances culminate into a film that is funny and touching.

Zero Dark Thirty – The most intense on the edge of your seat aggressive experience I had at the theater. A film so flawlessly paced, acted, written, and accomplished, it doesn’t at all feel like a nearly 3 hour film and I could have easily spent another 3 seeing where our heroine was off to next in her obsession for justice. Zero Dark Thirty takes us through the decade long capture and defeat of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain is Maya, a woman on a mission who is not meant to be liked, doesn’t care to be liked, but demands to be taken seriously. (You go girl !) While much controversy surrounds this film in its accuracy and depth of knowledge of the events depicted, at the end of the day you cannot deny that what happened on the screen was anything short of a masterpiece. I was very disappointed by Director Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar snub as this was a better crafted film than the The Hurt Locker. Easily my favorite film of the year (or closely tied with Celeste & Jesse Forever).


With that, my 2012 movie year in review is now behind me. You can read about my takes on the top classic films I spent time with last year as well and the documentary stories that moved me most here and here. Looking over this list I’m proud at how all over the place and diverse it is. As I agonized over this list for the last month before sharing it with you, I’ve come to realize and like how I can appreciate a commercial film as much as an independent film, love a quirky story as much as a political one, or cherish a foreign narrative in the same breathe as a domestic narrative. That’s the beauty of cinema, it’s an art form that has always tried to compete with itself, and like me, who wants to be placed in a box?

I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings to the silver screen.