Monday, March 16, 2015

Dargars 2015

Well, well, well, spring is beginning to spring, "awards season", as it's called, is long over with, and it is time once again for the Dargars (a portmanteau of "Darian" and "Oscars"). As most of you know, it has become a tradition within our erudite little crowd to recap our favorite films of the year and engage in rich film discussion. I admittedly did not start this tradition, but I aim to keep it going. So here are the Dargars 2015, a recapping of my favorite films of 2014 (and some of 2013). But before we begin, watching this will help get you in the mood, and perhaps bring about some teary-eyed nostalgia if you're like me.

2014 in film took a shape that is beginning to be pretty standard: a slow spring with maybe a few gems gives way to the summer blockbuster season. This summer movie season, however, was particularly bad, with very few good popcorn chompers to write home about, save for one (see #5 below), and it technically came out in the spring. But as fall arrives, the Oscar contenders start marching out, and by winter, the season of "good movies" and Oscar buzz is in full swing. Although I might prefer to spread things out a bit, I've really begun to embrace this reality. It seems like winter has just become the season of good movies, with practically every weekend featuring the release of another acclaimed movie that aims to win awards and that I can knock off the "to see" list. But upon the arrival of the Academy Awards, the wave of "good movies" go back into a slumber, waiting for next award season to see the light of day. I realize I'm probably too much of an Oscar sucker and generalizing a bit, but so it goes.

On that note, one brief aside about the Academy Awards themselves: they were as dull and boring to watch as ever this year, but I was pretty surprised by the amount of art films the show featured and how little mainstream movies were nominated. The highest grossing movie discussed by far was American Sniper, and that didn't win anything. I often end up being an Oscars apologist, and one argument in my camp is that they still refrain from catering to a mainstream audience/teenagers. They are not the Grammys of film, and they still at least try to award innovation and skill, even if they feature loads of politicking bullshit.

But anyway, let's get to the movies. Here are my top films of 2014:

Top ten:
1. Boyhood
2. Whiplash
3. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
4. Inherent Vice 
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
6. CitizenFour
7. Ida
8. A Most Wanted Man
9. The Drop
10. A Most Violent Year

Honorable mention (some of these are from 2013, but saw them in 2014 and wanted to recognize them):
The Imitation Game, Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mr. Turner, Rush, Philomena

Conspicuously Unseen by me:
American Sniper, Guardians of the Galaxy, Selma, Theory of Everything, Still Alice, The Babadook, Force Majeure; Two Days, One Night

Now, a little blurb about each of my top ten:

Boyhood: A brilliantly crafted coming-of-age film for the 21st Century. Some have been saying that it could have been just as good without the 12 years of filming, and that may be, but the film is certainly not dependent on the gimmick (if you call it that); it is a great movie from beginning to end. It manages to capture so well many of those strange, painful, awkward, joyous, and revelatory moments we all experience in youth, and that's easier said than done. For example, the tremendously painful and awkward moments of discovering your mother is the victim of spousal abuse. Or the light and carefree sensations of adolescence (Linklater has demonstrated he is a master of depicting that period of life before). And it is a candid and real depiction of being an unplanned pregnancy in lower-middle class America. The story therefore feels quintessentially American, and yet I think people of any culture can see something of themselves in the film's protagonist, Mason, as the greets the many exacting forces of growing up, despite the fact that he is a white male. It didn't win Best Picture, not that Linklater cared, but I bet it will probably be the most enduring film of the 2014 year.

Whiplash: Because of my background in jazz music, this one hit close to home for me, and thus it ranks high on my list. Though that's not to say it doesn't deserve it on its own accord; it is a sharp film, excellently edited, performed, and directed, making great use of jazz as the score to express the intensity of the character drama. Much attention has been showered on the two leading actors, and they deserve it; JK Simmons has been a fabulous character actor for decades, quietly stealing every little scene he pops up in (though he's not quiet in this movie), and Miles Teller arguably has the more difficult role, carrying the movie on his back and holding his own to Simmon's tour de force. Others have pointed out that the movie is something of a sports film, as it asks a fundamental question of what price is one willing to pay personally for greatness and the praise of society at large. It's a salient question that anyone who has dared to be great has asked themselves, but the film's story does lose touch with reality along the way. Though band directors in competitive music schools can be intimidating, none of them who want to keep their jobs and not garner lawsuits would ever strike or verbally abuse a student. Nonetheless, the movie certainly ranks of one of the year's best.

Birdman: I think in the not too distant future people will look back and be utterly shocked that this kooky, avant-garde dark comedy starring an actor who hadn't done anything noteworthy in decades won Best Picture. Maybe that speaks more to what I was saying before about the Oscars than anything else, but I did really enjoy this film, even though I'm convinced most people did not, of the very few who even saw it. And I'm still not even sure myself what the movie is saying thematically. It is no doubt deliberately ambiguous, but also undoubtedly making a critique of the perverse drive for affirmation of the fragile ego. Indeed, this award winning movie is actually making a pretty blatant criticism of the entertainment business itself! But you don't have to think about it that hard to enjoy it. You can just laugh at its dark wit, enjoy some amazing performances (the scene where Keaton and Edward Norton are rehearsing the play with each other for the first time is a showcase of two masters at work, and Emma Stone steals the show at times), and not worry too much about what exactly the film is saying with the appearance of the Birdman alter-ego. I also like its elemental score of solo drum set, and the way the movie is made to appear as if it is one long, continuous scene, though I don't think this necessarily adds that much to the experience. Anyway, odd as it is, I believe Birdman is a great cinematic achievement, and I'm just glad we got to partake.

Inherent Vice: This film went largely unheralded in award season, and I can see why. Though it displays the remarkable craft and technique of the mighty PTA, it lacks the gravitas and self-importance of his earlier films. Instead, it is light and whimsy, and therefore one of the funnest movies of the year for me personally. Much like a Robert Altman movie (and, as I understand it, the original book by Pynchon), the film's twisting, convoluted plot is of little consequence in the end. It is merely a mechanism to carry individually crafted scenes between an array of wacky characters. I would single a few of them out as my favorites, but I can't, because they're all so well cast and acted. But you probably won't get too emotionally involved with any of them as they come and go so often (except for Joaquin as Doc). As I say, this one is a lot of fun and memorable, but not to be taken too seriously, like a happy cult film in the making.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Those of you reading this who know me well, and that's all of you, are probably wondering what the hell a big-budget, comic book movie is doing on this list. Well I had no reservations about putting this movie in my top ten. I thought it was badass and very well made, to the point that Captain America has sort of become my new favorite super hero. The film sures up the vague powers and identity of "Cap," a virile character with a conscience who kicks some serious ass, too. I particularly like its grounding in 20th Century history (the scene where Cap and Black Widow encounter the dated-technology incarnation of Arnim Zola is especially cool), its strong match of a villain for Captain America (well, him and Robert Redford), and an engaging and even topical plot. I downloaded it and have found it has excellent re-watch value as well. I'm telling you, this film is the real deal. It even has me very excited for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (though also because I like James Spader). Though that movie won't be made by the same people and probably won't be half as good.

CitizenFour: This film is kind of on the list more for its topical importance than its cinematic craftsmanship. I have seen better-made documentaries. But this film is something everyone in America should probably see, and I'm still not even sure how I personally feel about the debate it raises. The film has a tone of deliberate, ominous paranoia, like the sensation you feel when you're worried your every move is being watched. Though that tone is appropriate for the subject matter, I think it's a little forced. What most enlightened me though were the conversations with Snowden himself. I was unsure of what to think of Snowden before seeing this movie, but now I am convinced that he is an honest, extremely intelligent guy, who took a stand for what he thought was right, and nothing more. He knew what the consequences would be, and he was not seeking fame or fortune. That's why this movie is on the list, and I encourage you to see it if you have not.

Ida: A Polish film and the winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film. The film is shot with beautiful simplicity in black and white, and tells an equally simple story of a young girl raised as a nun in a convent who in 1962 discovers she is actually Jewish and was hidden in the convent during WW2. It's sparse on details, but you will feel for the very human characters of Ida and her aunt who try to cope with the past tragedies of WW2 and living in Poland under communism.

A Most Wanted Man: Released early in 2014, this film is something of a sleeper. But being the Germanophile that I am, I rather enjoyed its setting of contemporary Hamburg, and casting of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German spy (his last lead performance). It too features a poignant and topical plot, as the battle against terrorism ventures into many grey areas. All in all, it is a compelling drama, and very sadly, the last from one of the greatest actors of our generation.

The Drop: This film, also a sleeper but from later in the year, may not be the best New York crime thriller of all-time. But it is worthy of some praise for some smart directing, a strong cast, and a new take on what is a thoroughly explored genre in New York crime dramas. I would describe it as having "blue collar intrigue," where a lot of shady characters engage one another, and you're not sure who to believe or if the characters truly mean what they say. Sadly, it too features one of the last performances of one of the greatest actors of our time in James Gandolfini.

A Most Violent Year: Rounding out the top ten is another New York crime drama, set in New York's year of record crime rates, 1981. It tells the story of a self-made man, a Latino immigrant, as he struggles to build his business empire with honesty and propriety, despite being in a system dominated by crime and deceit. Oscar Isaac shows he has real acting chops as his sense of internal conflict and struggle is palpable to the audience. Oh, and I typically like anything with Jessica Chastain.

And that rounds out the Dargars for 2015! I admit that my word on movies is not definitive, and if you have objections with this list or comments to make, I'd love to hear them. It's also clear I still have yet to see what are likely some very strong movies from the year. But all in all, I got my money's worth in 2014 movies, and I hope you did, too. Here's to what's to come to cinemas in 2015!

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