YEAR IN REVIEW: Six gems you may have missed in 2015

Each year, as I set out to compile my list of the best films of the year, a handful of smaller films that also affected me in strong fashion get left behind.

With 2015 being a blockbuster year for movies, there was no shortage of films that told more intimate stories or accomplished big things with small budgets. The following films—a nice mixture of genres—definitely fit that description and deserve to be recognized on their own merits.

Presented in alphabetical order, here are six gems that got lost in the shuffle last year and are well worth your time. 

BONE TOMAHAWK (dir. S. Craig Zahler) – One of the strangest and nicest surprises of the year, the mash-up that is Bone Tomahawk combines the western genre with a heaping helping of horror and a sprinkling of comedy. Kurt Russell plays the no-nonsense sheriff of a quiet town who is forced out of comfort zone when a group of people, including a convict (David Arquette) and the town doctor (Lili Simmons), are abducted by Indians. Leading a rescue mission that includes his deputy (an unrecognizable Richard Jenkins), a cocky gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and the doctor’s injured husband (Patrick Wilson), the men soon find that they’re dealing with something far, far worse than they could’ve imagine… Giving away anything else would ruin the fun. While the film suffers from a sluggish second act (this despite two editors), Bone Tomahawk succeeds where so many horror films fail, delivering an unforgettable third act that is shocking, fearless, and definitely not for the faint of heart while also featuring the single most disturbing cinematic death of the entire year.

GIFT, THE (dir. Joel Edgerton) – Actor Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Zero Dark Thirty) made a formidable directing debut with this minimalist, Hitchcockian thriller with the most gut-wrenching twist ending since Se7en. Edgerton also wrote the script and plays Gordo, whose chance meeting of old classmate Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife (Rebecca Hall) triggers a series of events that changes their lives forever. Like Bone Tomahawk, the less you know of this taut thriller that smartly pulls a bait-and-switch on the “fill-in-the-blank-from-hell” genre (made popular by such films as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) by messing with the audience’s perception of what’s black and white, the better your experience will be. Bateman, playing against type, and Hall are superb as the harried couple, while Edgerton succeeds both behind and in front of the camera as a triple threat worth paying attention to.

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (dir. Brett Haley) – Blythe Danner is absolutely luminous in her first lead role in this very funny and touching film. Playing a widower who finds love late in her life, and must deal with the confusion and sadness that comes along, Danner delivers a performance that is not only commanding but endearing. I’ll See You in My Dreams does take a surprising turn in its third act but it never feels cheap or exploitative. Featuring a wonderful supporting cast, including the always welcome Sam Elliot (playing the object of her affections), Martin Starr (as her pool boy who sparks an unorthodox friendship), and the trio of June Squibb (Nebraska), Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place (as her best friends), Dreams proves that great things truly do come in small packages.

LOVE & MERCY (dir. Bill Pohland) – 2015 was a great year for music in film and definitely include Love & Mercy on that list. Eschewing a straight biopic on Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, the film instead focuses on Wilson during the group’s beginnings and heyday of their popularity, where he is portrayed by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), and much later when a middle-aged Wilson (now John Cusack) deals with his mental illness under the tutelage of his maniacal therapist (Paul Giamatti). Elizabeth Banks is superb asWilson’s future wife, who helps him move out of the fog of mental anguish and gives him a new lease on life. While much has been made of the fact that Cusack is hardly a dead ringer for the real Wilson, you completely believe the actor in the role, while the scenes of Wilson and the group at their creative peak, particularly a thrilling sequence involving the recording of “God Only Knows” with The Wrecking Crew, are superbly anchored by Dano, proving once again that he is one of the best young actors working today.

MR. HOLMES (dir. Bill Condon) – Sir Ian McKellen deserves a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his turn as the titular character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective, now a 93-year old retiree struggling from impending of dementia and haunted by his one case that remains unsolved. Bill Condon, finally free of the creative purgatory known as the Twilight franchise, adapts Mitch Cullin’s book A Slight Trick of the Mind with assured direction that, in an age where we have not one but two television shows based on Doyle’s timeless character, still manages to say something new about Holmes. While Condon manages to craft a winning mystery here, Mr. Holmes is first and foremost a character study, showing us the cost of obsession and regret and that it is never too late to leave it all behind and start anew.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (dir. Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi) – For almost 30 minutes, What We Do in the Shadows offers more laughs than the entirety of most comedies released in 2015. While it eventually settles into something more traditional once its pesky plot kicks in, this is nevertheless one hilarious film. A faux documentary in the vein of This is Spinal Tap by way of TV’s Big Brother, WWDITS chronicles the lives of vampire roomies Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), Viago (Taika Waititi), and Deacon (Jonny Brugh) as they deal with the many ups and downs of their situation. Utilizing a small budget, co-directors Clement and Waititi do a still manage to dazzle us with some neat filmmaking tricks (it’s no wonder that Waititi has been tapped to helm the next Thor film) and the script is loaded with Clement’s signature dry humor (a running gag involving a pack of werewolves is a personal fave). WWDITS is destined for cult status and is a must for comedy fans.

© Shantipedia 2016

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YEAR IN REVIEW: The Worst Films of 2015

If I could describe the 2015 movie year through a movie title, I would probably call it The Blockbuster Strikes Back.

Big movies dominated the year and, in a pleasant surprise, most of them were pretty damn good.  Filmmakers as diverse as George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road), J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and Colin Tevorrow (Jurassic World) delivered huge films that resonated with audiences long after the theater lights came back on.

A star’s untimely death added an aura of poignancy to a franchise that has reached a level no one expected when the original was released in 2001 (Furious 7), while a still-strong series with a star who demands to risk life and limb delivered yet another stunt-filled entry that proved a winner (Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation).

Still, every year has its share of films that didn’t quite reach their potential. While it was a tad harder to pick out the five worst offenders of 2015, this is still a nice variety of films to avoid at all costs.

5. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson) – The rumors are true: the film adaptation of E.L. James’ ridiculously popular book of the same name really blows (and not in the way you’d think). With the average Victoria’s Secret commercial offering more titillation than this so-called “erotic” drama, don’t waste your time and money watching two attractive people—college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and millionaire playboy Christian Grey (Jamie Dormer)—psychoanalyze each other for two hours while having lame, R-rated sex. Dormer, in particular, seems to resent agreeing to replace Charlie Hunnam (FX’s Sons of Anarchy) every second he is on screen, in a performance that is so boring it might actually cure your insomnia. Screenwriter Kelly Marcel went on record stating that she refuses to watch the final product. If only we were all so strong…

 

4. THE GUNMAN (dir. Pierre Morel) – A movie titled The Gunman and directed by the guy who helmed the first Taken has to be at least a little kick ass and fun, right? Well, thank Sean Penn’s dour mug for ruining what could’ve been a nice thriller but instead turns into an “activist” action flick along the lines of Steven Seagal’s On Deadly Ground (and we all know how that turned out). Even worse, The Gunman had a ridiculously mismarketed ad campaign that promises, aside from cool action, meaty roles for Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, and Idris Elba, only to have them appear in exaggerated cameos. Only Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) seems to be having fun and it’s too bad it didn’t rub off on Penn (who co-wrote the script), as he shows off his ripped physique and kills a lot of people then asks us to care about the ongoing corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

 3. PROJECT ALMANAC (dir. Dean Israelite) – While this year’s Unfriended showed that the “found footage” genre still has some life, we’re faced with more turkeys like this Michael Bay production that proves otherwise. Three high school buddies stumble upon a machine that allows them to travel back in time and manage to screw everything up because they slacked off in class and never read Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder (or watched Back to the Future Part II). The characters are annoying, the camerawork is annoying, and by the end of this “film” I was pretty…annoyed. I could probably include a time travel joke here, but you probably know what I’m going to say (and you don’t even need a time machine).

2. WILD HORSES (dir. Robert Duvall) – Oscar-winner Robert Duvall is one of our finest living actors who immediately adds class to any film by showing up for a minute’s screen time. In Wild Horses, he plays a rancher in the twilight of his life who must come to terms with the actions of his past when a cold case investigation comes knocking on his door. Duvall, who also wrote and directed, may have attempted to construct a Shakespearean tragedy along the lines of King Lear, but his ambitions simply get the worst of him in a film that is poorly constructed, acted, and directed. Scenes of high emotions between him and his three sons (one of whom, played by James Franco, is gay) are intermingled with sloppy car chases and subplots involving corruption in the Texas Rangers office. It’s hard to tell if Duvall had a grander vision, but the resulting film is so disjointed and bipolar that it’s simply hard to care.

1. TERMINATOR GENISYS (dir. Alan Taylor) – It’s ironic that in a year where we saw many a blockbuster franchise dusted off and successfully rebooted, it was the Terminator recharge that may have just ended one for good. Exhibit A on how not to reboot a venerable series, Terminator Genisys gets just about everything wrong in a film that is lazy, uninspired, and just plain offensive to any fan of James Cameron’s original and its sequel, T2. Taking the Star Trek route, Genisys attempts to change the narrative of the first film, but thanks to poor casting, tired action sequences, and a twist that was blown in one of its trailers (!!!), it self-destructs in an ugly way. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the role that made him a star, only to serve as a deadly dull exposition machine. Emilia Clarke (Sarah Connor), Jai Courtney (Kyle Reese), and Jason Clarke (John Connor), all good actors, are simply no match for Linda Hamilton, Michael Beihn, and…Edward Furlong? Simply put, Genisys is a worst-case blockbuster that manages to do nothing to bring back the magic of the originals. This one is just obsolete.

© Shantipedia 2015

 

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CELEBRATING HITCHCOCK: Five films that would make “The Master of Suspense” proud

Today marks the 35th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s death. To say Hitch is still relevant after all these years would be a gross understatement.

No other filmmaker beside Steven Spielberg is as branded as “the Master of Suspense”. His films, starting with such silent classics as Blackmail and continuing on with unforgettable titles such as The Lady Vanishes, Notorious, Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and, of course, Psycho, have influenced a countless number of filmmakers and spawned a wide range of imitators.

In movie theaters, David Fincher, the one modern filmmaker that comes closest to Hitch’s sensibilities (he’s rumored to be developing a remake of Strangers on a Train), scored a hit last year with Gone Girl, a chilling and darkly comic piece based on Gillian Flynn’s humdinger of a novel that had his DNA imprinted in almost every scene.

On television, Hitchcock, who so famously hosted his Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthology series, has gotten a new lease with the Carlton Cuse/Kerry Ehrin-run prequel series Bates Motel, which chronicles the early years of Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) and his beloved mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga).

Screenings, podcasts, articles, books, and more continue to keep the filmmaker’s spirit alive. With his film’s having been watched and rewatched countless times over, let’s celebrate the day by singling out five films that pay the best respects to Alfred Hitchcock, five that the master himself may have approved…

CHARADE (1963, dir. Stanley Donen) - The best Alfred Hitchcock film not directed by the master himself, Charade is a fast and funny thriller with excellent lead turns by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, who exude flawless chemistry despite a 25-year age difference. Newly widowed Regina Lampert (Hepburn), who had been planning to divorce her husband Charlie before his untimely demise, is thrown into a whirlwind caper involving his death and teams up with a mysterious stranger (Grant) to uncover the truth about a husband who wasn’t entirely who he says he was. Backed by the gorgeous Parisian locale and a sterling supporting cast which includes Walter Mathau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy, director Stanley Donen knocks this one out of the park.

LAST EMBRACE, THE (1979, dir. Jonathan Demme) - Before he won Oscar gold for The Silence of the Lambs, and even before his quirky period where he directed edgy comedies such as Something Wild and Married to the Mob, Jonathan Demme helmed a little seen thriller based on Murray Teigh Bloom’s novel The 13th Man. What makes this one stand out was Demme’s intention to go full-Hitchcock, delivering a homage which allowed the filmmaker to really cut his teeth. Roy Scheider (Jaws) plays Harry Hannan,  a government spook who walks away from the job only to find himself marked for death. But by whom? Janet Margolin (Annie Hall), in a greatly effective turn. plays the bookish medical student who may hold the key. All of Demme’s trademark film quirks seem to have been borne from The Last Embrace and the film’s quick pace, lush Miklós Rózsa, and excellent lead turns (not to mention off-kilter supporting bits from John Glover, Sam Levene, Demme regular Charles Napier, and, best of all, Christopher Walken) offset a weak denouement explaining why Harry’s been targeted. The climactic chase at Niagara Falls, however, is a winner and a nice reference to Hitch’s trademark use of National Monuments in his film endings. Fun Fact: Demme would later direct The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade.

BODY DOUBLE (1984, dir. Brian De Palma) - In 1972, Alfred Hitchcock went back to his British roots and directed Frenzy in response to critics who deemed Psycho too violent. In 1984, Brian De Palma, who has made a career of emulating Hitch in his films, directed Body Double in response to critics who were put-off by the sex and violence in 1980′s Dressed to Kill. To say that De Palma pushed the envelope with this film is not enough; he literally pushed it over the cliff. Craig Wasson plays an unemployed actor who beats the depression of catching his wife cheating on him by house sitting the affluent hilltop house of a friend. One night, he witnesses his female neighbor across the way perform a titillating striptease. The next night, he sees her brutally murdered. Or does he? A mash-up of both Rear Window and Vertigo, dialed to 11, Body Double needs to be seen to be believed. The ending is kind of a letdown, but you gotta give De Palma credit: he goes all the way with this one (not even holding back during the end credits).

BEDROOM WINDOW, THE (1987, dir. Curtis Hanson) - One of my all time faves, The Bedroom Window essentially remakes Rear Window, but adding a neat little twist in the mix. Terry (Steve Guttenberg) is having an affair with his boss’ wife, Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert). When she witnesses an attack from—da dam—the bedroom window, Terry lies that he was the witness in order to keep their affair a secret. And that is when the real problems begin. An early effort by director Curtis Hanson, who would later direct The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and would win an Oscar for co-adapting L.A. Confidential, The Bedroom Window is a solid and low-key homage that film buffs should eat up. The real surprise is Guttenberg, who delivers a solid, serious lead turn despite having been the guy from those Police Academy movies at that point. Downton Abbey‘s Elizabeth McGovern is also very good as the attack victim who ends up being Terry’s most crucial confidante. Give this one a shot…

NON-STOP (2014, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra) - If an Alfred Hitchcock film and a film based on the works of mystery writer Agatha Christie spawned a love child, it would probably look something like Non-Stop. Liam Neeson plays Bill Marks, a disgraced (and alcoholic) air marshal who finds himself on a plane trip from hell who receives an anonymous text stating that unless $150 million is transferred to a secret bank account, a passenger will die every 20 minutes. Part of the fun is seeing how this is accomplished and in that department, which references Christie’s Ten Little Indians, the film delivers. Neeson is perfect in the role,playing the prototypical “wrong man” hero that has been a staple in a number of Hitch’s films. Those let down by the reveal in the final act should be comforted by the fact that the journey to get there was one helluva ride.

© Shantipedia 2015

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YEAR IN REVIEW: The Best Films of 2014

Year after year, studios repeatedly keep all the prestige films till the end of the year—beautifully wrapped Christmas presents for those moviegoers dying for high art. The year 2014 was no different. In fact, last year will probably be best remembered as the perfect example of that habit…

From September through December, the cinemas saw a deluge of films that were complex, mature, and most importantly, highly entertaining. There was nary a comic book movie or gross out comedy in the bunch (ironically, one of the few raunch fests scheduled to come out in December, Sony’s The Interview, got pulled due to some, ahem, internal problems at the studio). And that’s just the way we liked it.

While the year 2014 had a dearth of “great” studio pictures, it was a truly phenomenal year for the small film. Independent cinema had a banner year with an uncommonly rich palate of character-driven dramas, documentaries, and foreign films. Experimental was also the name of the game, with the ultimate example, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, garnering a bounty of Oscar nominations.

The list of the best movies of 2014 has something for everyone. While I felt there was a slight dip from 2013, it was a year that proved that great filmmaking is alive and well. And that’s the best kind of gift.

10. MOST WANTED MAN, A (dir. Anton Corbjin) – Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s unexpected death early in the year sent shock waves through the industry. With A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman sealed his legacy as one of the greats with a performance that is simply put the best of his career (yes, even better than his Oscar-winning role in Capote). Playing German spy Günther Bachmann, who  finds an opportunity for atoning for past mistakes when he recruits a Chechen Muslim, the titular character, to take down a possible terrorist only to see history sadly repeat itself, Hoffman gives a master class on understatement acting. Director Anton Corbijn implements the same kind of quiet intensity he brought to the underrated The American, delivering a thriller that is short on action but not on suspense. Based on the novel by John le Carré, who can best be described as the anti-Ian Fleming, Günther shares a kinship with another le Carré hero, George Smiley from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Hoffman makes him one to remember.

9. MOST VIOLENT YEAR, A (dir. J.C. Chandor) – With A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor, following his previous films Margin Call and All is Lost, cements his status as one of the finest filmmakers of his generation. As far from All is Lost the way that film was wildly different than Margin Call, Year chronicles a crucial period in the lives of power couple Abel (Oscar Isaac) and Anna (Jessica Chastain) Morales during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of New York City. Isaac and Chastain, friends since their days at Julliard, are absolutely convincing as a married couple on the cusp of elevating in power, with Abel determined to do it in a legit manner and Anna, the realist, insisting that such a way does not exist. What follows is a morality play with Shakespearean undertones that would make filmmaker Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Prince of the City), the king of corruption tales set in New York, proud.

8. SELMA (dir. Ava DuVernay) – Films about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have been few and far between and while Selma is not a traditional cradle-to-the-grave biopic, instead focusing on Dr. King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama and the passing of the Voter Rights Act, it is nevertheless a powerful and unforgettable film filled with authentic performances by a superb cast and assured direction by Ava DuVernay, who refuses to sensationalize the events, giving them a haunting, “you-are-there” quality. David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) is superb as Dr. King, giving us a refreshingly human account of the civil rights activist that never hits a false note, with Carmen Ejiogo (The Purge: Anarchy) on equal footing as his wife Coretta.

7. UNDER THE SKIN (dir. Jonathan Glazer) – Imagine the B-movie Species crossed with John Carpenter’s Starman and directed by Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now) and you’ll have a pretty good idea what to expect from Under the Skin. Not for all tastes, Under the Skin stars a convincing Scarlett Johansson as an alien who takes the form of a beautiful woman in Glasgow and proceeds to feed on men in order to survive. The difference between this film and every other of its ilk is the way commercial director Jonathan Glazer gives it a vérité style that makes the whole affair, well, get under your skin. Anchored by a tremendous turn by Johansson, a haunting and unforgettable score Mica Levi, and a surprising third act that gives an outsider’s perspective at just what it means to be human, Under the Skin is one of 2014’s greatest achievements.

 

6. FOXCATCHER (dir. Bennett Miller) – With Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller of Capote and Moneyball has delivered a true crime tale that is also the finest film of his career. Steve Carell is absolutely chilling as blue blood millionaire John E. du Pont, whose dreams of Olympiad glory involving wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) lead to tragic results. While Carell is the real find here (there is no Michael Scott-like mugging to be found, although like that Office character, du Pont desperately seeks acceptance), Tatum and Ruffalo are equally good, delivering authentic turns as the brothers caught in du Pont’s warped web of achieving the American Dream.

5. INTERSTELLAR (dir. Christopher Nolan) – No one does smart, exciting big studio pictures better than Christopher Nolan and Interstellar does not disappoint. The difference here is the surprising amount of emotion captured in a tale featuring a doomed, Dust Bowl Earth and the ex-pilot/corn farmer (Matthew McConaughey) tapped to save the human race by finding a new, habitable planet. Nolan, who considers Stanley Kubrick a huge influence, goes heavy on the science and visuals (done old school, of course) but seems to be more interested in chronicling the heavy burden of human frailty, the power of faith, and the bond between a father and his daughter. McConaughey, fresh off his Best Actor Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, is perfectly cast and is backed by a superb, all-star cast, including Jessica Chastain as his grown daughter, Murphy. But Nolan is the real star here, delivering an exciting space adventure with a powerhouse, emotional final act.

4. AMERICAN SNIPER (dir. Clint Eastwood) – Based on Chris Kyle’s memoir of the same name—Kyle was dubbed ‘the deadliest sniper in American history”—Clint Eastwood’s war film puts the spotlight on the soldiers who fight for our freedom while also chronicling the horrors of battle and the scars these men and women bring home with them. It’s a slippery slope, but Eastwood directs with a confident veteran’s prowess and is partnered with a career-defining turn by Bradley Cooper as Kyle. With a structure that crosscuts between Kyle’s four tours in Iraq and his days at home with his wife (well played by Sienna Miller) and family, American Sniper doesn’t take the easy way out giving us an Everysoldier of sorts with Kyle and unafraid to show the consequences of conflict. The resulting film is one that was hard to shake off, especially considering the tragic ending of Kyle’s story.

3. GONE GIRL (dir. David Fincher) – Based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling book of the same name, Gone Girl, David Fincher’s darkly comic treatise on married life, is a knockout of a thriller and a master class in how to adapt a book to the screen. Perfectly cast and superbly acted by not only leads Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike but, in a superb example of tongue-in-cheek casting, an off-kilter ensemble that includes Neil Patrick Harris, Scoot McNairy, Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry), and Kim Dickens (unfairly robbed of a Best Supporting Actress nod), Gone Girl takes the oft-told missing-persons tale and spins it on its head, leaving the audience dizzy and enthralled. With this film, Fincher cements his reputation as the supreme manipulator of our time, the best since Hitchcock, delivering shocks and surprises even to those familiar with Flynn’s novel.

2. WHIPLASH (dir. Damien Chazelle) - Like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is a sophomoric effort that will be remembered for years to come and welcomes a brilliant new filmmaking voice to the fold. A harrowing drama that chronicles the lengths one goes to achieve fame and success, Whiplash moves at breakneck speed, a crescendo of volatile acting and furious sound. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now)  and the amazing J.K. Simmons (Juno) play the ultimate game of chess as student and teacher, allowing their passion for jazz to envelope their lives. Chazelle depicts this dance in ways that rarely allows the audience catch its breath, resulting in one of the most thrilling and unforgettable films of the year.

1. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, THE (dir. Wes Anderson) - While Whiplash impressed in so many ways, it was Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel that gave me the most joy at the movies in 2014. Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but Anderson’s sweet and salty comedy was a fabulous take on nostalgia, with a supreme ensemble lead by the one and only Ralph Fiennes, delivering a perfectly tuned comic performance as concierge M. Gustave, best described as a cross between Jack Benny and Errol Flynn. Gustave is framed for the murder of one Madame D (Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable) and goes on the run with his loyal lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). Everything, from the candy-colored sets and costumes to the boisterous score by Alexander Desplat (who also scored The Imitation Game) and the kooky cast which includes the likes of Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and Harvey Keitel as well as Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Bill Murray in cameos, add to the richness of his idiosyncratic vision. If every filmmaker has one “great” film in them, one they have been working towards their entire career, The Grand Budapest Hotel is no doubt Anderson’s and truly is the best film of 2014.

© Shantipedia 2015

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YEAR IN REVIEW: Six gems you may have missed in 2014

As I prep my annual “best of” list (coming real soon – promise!), I always find myself leaving out several films that, while not “top ten” worthy, still left a considerable impression.

The following is a short list of six films that either had short theatrical runs or didn’t get the proper audience recognition they most certainly deserved. You’ll find a nice array of genres here – action, comedy, even foreign – and each film is definitely worthy of your time.

Presented in alphabetical order, here are six gems you may have missed in 2014…

BLUE RUIN (dir. Jeremy Saulnier) - As pure genre exercise, Blue Ruin hits the bull’s-eye. A revenge thriller that pretty much begins after the revenge act is successfully committed, Ruin puts an interesting spin on a subgenre that one would think has been played out for good. A vagabond (Macon Blair) gets word that the man who killed his parents is being released from prison after serving his sentence. He decides to track him down and kill him. What follows is a nightmarish descent into a neverending circle of violence that threatens to destroy both men’s families. While the film’s twist and turns are far from mind-blowing, the lack of originality is offset by moments of pure filmmaking, with cat-and-mouse sequences that amp up the suspense beautifully. The acting, with a cast that also includes Devin Ratray (Kevin’s brother Buzz from Home Alone) and Jan Brady herself, Eve Plumb, is also a cut-above, starting with Blair’s unorthodox turn as a (anti)hero who really doesn’t have the brains and tact to pull off a wild act of vengeance. Bloody and bleak, Blue Ruin kinda gets under your skin and stays there long after the credits have rolled.

CALVARY (dir. John Michael McDonagh) - Brendan Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) deserves an Oscar-nomination for his turn as Father James, a small-town Catholic priest who gets his life threatened during a confessional and is determined to find out the identity of the person while continuing on his everyday duties. Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), who along with brother Martin (responsible for In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) are kind of the independent film world’s answer to the Nolans, Christopher and Jonah, has devised a bitter pill of a film that teeters between comedy and tragedy. Blamed for the Catholic church’s past sins, Father James develops into a character who wants justice served while still determined to do the right thing. Utilizing his deadpan demeanor brilliantly, Gleeson creates an unforgettable character, backed by a sterling supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd), Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), and the incomparable M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple).

FORCE MAJEURE (dir. Ruben Östlund) - A family of four are vacationing in the French Alps. During a mountainside lunch one afternoon, they witness an a potentially catastrophic avalanche headed their. While Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), the mother, cowers to protect her children, the father, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), flees. When the disaster turns out to be a false alarm, Tomas finds himself in a shameful predicament that begs explanation. So begins Force Majeure, a pitch black comedy that debunks the Alpha male myth and chronicles the institution of marriage in all its fragility. Kuhnke and Loven Kongsli are utterly convincing as the married couple taken aback at just how imperfect their union truly is. Eschewing coverage/close-up shots, director Ruben Östlund gives the film an uncomfortable voyeuristic quality while pulling off an effects hat-trick with a truly convincing avalanche sequence seamlessly combining the practical with the digital.

JOHN WICK (dir. Chad Stahelski) - You never expect a former stuntman-turned-director to deliver a stunning piece of cinema, but here’s Matrix stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski outdoing Smokey and the Bandit‘s Hal Needham (who never delivered a stunning piece of cinema) in that department. Starring an all-in Keanu Reeves, John Wick is a tightly wound thrill ride wrapped in a B-movie facade. After his dog is killed and Dodge Charger is stolen, the titular character, a former hitman, goes on a rampage to get the men who done him wrong. What makes Wick standout from the usual action fare is the fact that Strahelski and his writer, Derek Kolstad, go the extra mile to create a unique and breathable world for these characters (brought to life by a remarkable cast that includes Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Lance Reddick, and Ian McShane, among others) to embody, giving the film an added dimension. You also get a fully committed Reeves, delivering one of the most physically tasking (and finest) performances of his career. The resulting film is pure action bliss.

LOCKE (dir. Steven Knight) – Tom Hardy fans, here’s the movie for you. For a taut 85 minutes, Hardy is the only actor onscreen, playing a construction manager who must pick up the pieces of his broken life during one laborious car ride. Having intermittent conversation via phone with his subordinates, sons and wife, and pregnant mistress, Ivan Locke finds himself standing before one helluva fork in the road that is his life. Written and directed by Steven Knight, who made millions creating the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire then went on to write such great films as Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, Lock wears its scrappy pedigree on its sleeve, delivering master class in no-frills filmmaking and powerhouse acting. This is Hardy’s show from start to finish, and the actor, known for playing such heavies as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, seesaws through emotions in ways that will leave you in awe.

OBVIOUS CHILD (dir. Gillian Robespierre) - All it takes is one and former SNL-er and current Parks and Recreation player Jenny Slate has found it in Obvious Child, a funny, honest, and often touching film that tackles the taboo subject of abortion. Slate should definitely see her stock rise thanks to her turn as woman-child Donna Stern, a stand-up comic whose drunken one-night stand with a straight-laced guy (Jake Lacy), leads to a surprise pregnancy that sends her life in a tailspin. Based on Gillian Robespierre’s short film of the same name, also starring Slate, Obvious Child eschews the obvious by staying true to its main character and refusing to cop out to a standard ending. Nice turns by Richard Kind (TV’s Gotham) and thirtysomething vet Polly Draper as Donna’s divorced parents compliment Slate’s performance and layer it in unsuspecting ways.

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