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Inside Out

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on June 27, 2015 at 5:25 PM Comments comments (0)

INSIDE OUT   ***1/2

Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen



IDEA:  A young girl's personified emotions experience turbulence when her family relocates to a new home.

BLURB:  One of the cinema’s many transcendent faculties is to reify the intangible, to visually represent a spectrum of abstract thoughts, feelings, and ideas so that the world can become just a little clearer. Pixar’s Inside Out does just this in a text that simultaneously puts into digestible terms the processes by which this is made possible, and even more crucially, why it’s so important. Easily the studio’s most cerebrally ingenious concept yet, the film audaciously probes memory, emotion, and identity by cross-cutting between depictions of material reality and simple yet cunningly thought out visualizations of mental operations. The juxtapositions, fluently and fluidly expressed by both the animators and writers, articulate the multifaceted ways in which we experience and react, deal with current situations and reconcile past ones, become subtly reconstituted as our perceptions evolve with growth and understanding. Docter, Carmen, and the Pixar team somehow manage the task of pulling off a metaphor that seems at once basic and ineffably nuanced, an adventure through legible, maybe even facile psychological representations that nevertheless edifies while preserving poignant ambiguities. Even its bluntest moments serve the point: this is how we can grasp ourselves and be better for it.

Love & Mercy

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on June 20, 2015 at 1:45 AM Comments comments (0)

LOVE & MERCY   ***

Bill Pohlad


IDEA:  A biopic about Beach Boys maestro Brian Wilson during two periods in his life: the artistically productive but increasingly fraught 1960s of Pet Sounds and the burnt-out 1980s.

BLURB:  Right from its dual openings – a long documentary-like confessional and a pitch black screen accompanied by nothing but a sea of distorted, swelling audio – Love & Mercy establishes itself as a film intimately concerned with character and sound. The two are never separated: Pohlad’s film homes in on the psychology of its real-life character, Brian Wilson, by locating the rush of sounds both real and imagined that serve as the source of his drive and the manifestation of his burden. In uniting their artistic virtue with the handicap they reveal, Love & Mercy evokes the mercurial interplay between grief and expression, internal and external spaces, richly layering snatches of dialogue and reincorporated Beach Boys songs to immerse us in the mind of Wilson at two distinct points in his life, as he is alternately propelled and stifled by psychological and social anguish. Paul Dano and John Cusack bring enormous feeling to their disparate yet linked portrayals, and Pohlad, along with DP Robert Yeoman, linger on them as they talk their way through things or silently contemplate the sounds swirling in their heads. Even with some regrettably literal-minded dialogue and the prominence of a thankless stock role (although Elizabeth Banks admirably enriches the cliché), Love & Mercy finds its way on the strength of faces, places, and the sounds that bring them to life.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on May 26, 2015 at 10:00 PM Comments comments (0)


George Miller




IDEA:  In a post-apocalyptic future wasteland, a despot sends a fleet of warriors to chase down and stop the renegade Imperator Furiosa and her distaff crew.

BLURB:  A hard-driving salute to action movie excess and an emphatic rebuke of the capitalistic, patriarchal systems that traditionally order such spectacle, Mad Max: Fury Road gratifies moviegoers’ adrenaline lusts while offering satisfying subversions. Its influences are wide-ranging and proudly displayed: not just the American western, which informed the original series, but more pronouncedly silent cinema, the go-for-broke stunts of Buster Keaton and the visceral collision of Soviet montage. Also in play are grindhouse and late 60s counterculture, exhibited by Miller’s delirious collection of grotesqueries and his forceful, lovingly crude takedown of establishment. The film is strongest when these influences coalesce in operatic action set pieces that are allowed to unfold across the screen unabated; when the action halts for some rather dodgy, perfunctory dialogue, Miller’s desire to make us care for characters best left as allegorical signifiers clashes with his inclination for pure, grimy visual expression. Even if it can’t entirely sustain its barreling momentum, Fury Road’s brash fusion of action physics and progressive politics provides a potent and welcome charge.

Magnificent Obsession

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on May 8, 2015 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (0)


Douglas Sirk




IDEA:  A reckless millionaire playboy decides to help the widow he inadvertantly blinded, and whose husband's death he unwittingly caused.

BLURB:  Douglas Sirk melodramas exist in a reality all their own, one where ripe American pop iconography becomes emulsified in the heightened emotions and comforting artifice of the movies. A negotiation in much of his work, between sincere melodramatic intent and distanced ironic commentary, finds perhaps its most ambiguous manifestation in Magnificent Obsession, Sirk’s outsize homage to harebrained Hollywood kitsch. But is it homage? To what degree is the director indulging a deeply genuine affection for melodrama, in all its lachrymose and patently silly mechanisms, and to what degree is he mocking it? Is the sheer fact of the cockamamie plot, not even Sirk’s own, supposed to implicitly tell us not to take it seriously? Other Sirk films conceal obvious social criticisms that counterpoint his delicate worlds in bitterly revealing ways. But in the absence of notable social targets – consumer-packaged pseudo-spirituality is the closest thing here to an object of ridicule – Magnificent Obsession seems kind of hollow, less a trenchant analysis than a cockeyed love letter to its own dumb, shiny surfaces. It’s melodrama wrapped in more melodrama: whether that makes the film a crafty meta-movie or just exaggerated nonsense is unclear, or maybe part of a point we can only understand in the context of Sirk.

Ex Machina

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on May 6, 2015 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

EX MACHINA   ***1/2

Alex Garland




IDEA:  A computer programmer is invited to his boss's secluded research facility to evaluate an advanced female AI.

BLURB:  Ex Machina updates ancient inquiries for the Internet era: it is no small feat that its general ruminations on consciousness and reality, already engrossing, find such chillingly plausible and specific applications within the evolution of 21st century technology. Though its network of conversations on gender, self, and social structures are not new, they are shrewdly tailored to concepts that call for redefinition and reassessment as frequently as software warrants updates. How, for instance, does the digital age affect systems of power? What becomes of subject and object positions when watching and interacting are over-mediated two-way mirrors, and concepts of identity are reduced to what can be digitally mapped and programmed? Then again, some things are constant, and Ex Machina evokes its most simultaneously incisive and frightening implications when recognizing the things that never change reflected in the things that do. Garland gives his ideas luxuriant room to percolate in both dialogue and image, letting the accumulating questions acquire prescient stings. He argues, on terms equally conducive to genre thrills and philosophical meditation, that perhaps it is not the artificial intelligence that comes to resemble us, but we who exhibit the qualities of the AI.

The Smiling Lieutenant

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on March 6, 2015 at 2:45 PM Comments comments (0)


Ernst Lubitsch




IDEA:  Austrian Lt. Nikolaus von Preyn is in love with band leader Franzi, but an ill-timed wink prepared for her is instead seized by the visiting Princess Anna of Flausenthurm, causing an international incident and forcing the Lt. to take the princess' hand in marriage.

BLURB:  The Smiling Lieutenant is a fizzy high point of the early Hollywood romantic comedy and an exemplar of the genre’s tropes at their most wittily distilled. Of course, it’s not just any romantic comedy but a Lubitsch one, which means it’s in a class of its own: piquant, self-effacing in style and charm, drolly absurd and pulsing with a crafty, barely contained bawdiness only this master at his pre-Code best could pull off, it’s not just a pleasure but a preternaturally sophisticated one. Working in but also slyly subverting some of the codified sexual politics and gender roles endemic to the territory, Lubitsch has a way of effortlessly avoiding sourness that may plague other movies of the sort, pitching his relationship drama and comic dalliances at a level always skirting irony. Everything is a euphemism for sex; nothing can be or should be taken too seriously. The targets are desire, romance, marriage, diplomacy, and the upper class, but the lightness of the Lubitsch touch ensures that nothing is sunk by mean spirits. From Claudette Colbert’s independent flapper to the hilariously ritualistic and alphabetically insecure royalty of Flausenthurm, everyone is allowed a smile and a laugh, and, lest you forget it – a wink.

87th Academy Awards Predictions

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 19, 2015 at 4:45 PM Comments comments (0)

The 87th Academy Awards are just days away, and what we’ve got on our hands is, for once, an atypically unsettled and exciting race. That’s largely because the once-expected Best Picture and Director triumphs for Boyhood have become increasingly tenuous over the past few weeks as Birdman has racked up guild win after guild win, starting with its surprising PGA victory and followed up with auspicious wins from SAG and DGA. Only one film has ever won all three and lost Best Picture. And yet, Boyhood’s support is considerable – could its sentimental hold on voters’ hearts and historic filmmaking feat be enough to mitigate Birdman’s prodigious industry endorsement?

Outside of the top category, which hasn’t seemed this uncertain this late in the race in almost a decade, there is the difficult Best Actor category, which has followed an unusual reverse trajectory for Birdman as Michael Keaton’s seemingly surefire path to the podium has been steadily complicated by young Brit Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything. After taking down SAG and BAFTA honors, many are predicting a full coronation for Redmayne at the Oscars. Still, could Bradley Cooper be lurking for the wildly popular American Sniper?

And that’s just in the major races. Further down are hotly contested categories like Best Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score, and both Sounds. What will happen on Sunday? Below I make my educated guesses – and go out on a limb or two.

NOTE: I have not seen any of the Short Film contenders, so my predictions there are (perhaps) most susceptible to being wrong.

BEST PICTURE: Again, a doozy. Boyhood seemed like the early victor after winning nearly every critics group prize and dominating the 2014 film discourse. And then came Birdman’s guilds windfall and everything seemed to change in an instant. Major echoes of the 2010 race, when a similar baton pass from critic-approved The Social Network to guild-honored The King’s Speech took place, leading the Brit-pic to a Best Picture win. Boyhood is perhaps stronger now than Fincher’s film was then, however, making this more of a toss-up. But with the holy trifecta of PGA-SAG-DGA, I’d predict against Birdman at my own peril.

WILL WIN: Birdman

BEST DIRECTOR: Obviously the directors of the two Best Picture frontrunners are the ones duking it out here, and it’s neck-and-neck between Richard Linklater and Alejandro González Iñárritu, the former the recipient of the Golden Globe and innumerable critics’ group laurels and the latter the all-important DGA victor. Will the winner here have directed the Best Picture, or will we see yet another split, making for three years in a row of mismatched Director/Picture winners, which hasn’t happened since the early thirties? Anything can happen, but it seems most likely the DGA winner and director of the film leading the pack will triumph.

WILL WIN: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman

BEST ACTOR: Unfortunately, the seemingly infallible narrative built around Michael Keaton has slowly unraveled even as his film has risen, leaving the impressive but very traditional Oscar-baiting performance of Eddie Redmayne room to wiggle in and usurp his lead. Keaton has the BFCA, the Globe, and the lion’s share of critics prizes; Redmayne, perhaps more significantly, the SAG and BAFTA in addition to his Globe. And then there’s a dark horse in Bradley Cooper, who doesn’t have nominations from any of those groups but whose film came around at exactly the right moment and who, on his third consecutive Oscar nod, has proven to be the real deal. Perhaps this is an obvious get for Redmayne, but I’m obstinately sticking to the only guy here one could reasonably call a veteran, hoping the heat that carried him all season is still fervent enough to push him across the finish line.

WILL WIN: Michael Keaton, Birdman

BEST ACTRESS: On her fifth nomination, already honored by the Globes, SAG and BAFTA, this one is a done deal for Julianne Moore.

WILL WIN: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: J.K. Simmons took this category by the horns early and hasn’t let go. Too bad; there are better, richer, more nuanced performances here that got all too easily gobbled up by Simmons’ vituperative psychopath.

WILL WIN: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Another sure thing, with Patricia Arquette so far out in the lead the other nominees seem immaterial.

WILL WIN: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: A tight race in one of the weakest lineups of 2014, in which the best nominee by a country mile, Inherent Vice, is the only one without a shot. Sigh. This one could literally go in any of the other four films’ favors, with the WGA-winning Imitation Game most likely out front. But watch out for The Theory of Everything, which won the BAFTA in a bit of a surprise, or Whiplash, which is here by truly mendacious political maneuvering, or even American Sniper if it rides a wave of populous support.

WILL WIN: The Imitation Game

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Many wish to call this for Wes Anderson, whose Grand Budapest Hotel is a multi-tiered marvel of fanciful, literary structure and prose, and whose win would be a way to honor his singular whimsy barring wins in Picture or Director. He’s got the BAFTA already, and the WGA, but Birdman was ineligible at the latter and beat out Budapest when they competed together at the Globes. Close call, but if Birdman is our Best Picture winner, I expect it to take down this category as well for a script just as memorable and distinctive.

WILL WIN: Birdman

BEST EDITING: No film without a Best Editing nomination has won Best Picture since 1980, but Birdman isn’t nominated here so that stat doesn’t seem to have much purchase when it comes to this race. Expect this one to be a three-way battle between the taut American Sniper, second Best Picture frontrunner Boyhood, and the frenetic, BAFTA-winning Whiplash. Toss a coin.

WILL WIN: Whiplash

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubezki, whose epic, serpentine single-take Birdman illusion was the talk of the 2014 cinematographic landscape, will win his second consecutive Oscar.

WILL WIN: Birdman

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: As clear a win as any for the delectable, dioramic confections of the Grand Budapest.

WILL WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST COSTUME DESIGN: Milena Canonero for Oscar number four.

WILL WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Alexandre Desplat is nominated twice, his seventh and eighth nominations in just nine years. The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably the more likely of the two to triumph, but I’d wager the Academy goes with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s very pretty Philip Glass-esque Globe-winning score.

WILL WIN: The Theory of Everything

BEST ORIGINAL SONG: The only place to award Selma outside of the top prize, which it isn’t winning. Plus, it’s a rousing and important song.

WILL WIN: “Glory” from Selma

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Interstellar is easily the most nominated film here and thus the most respected, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the one to best display the groundbreaking advancements in CG and motion capture technology. The first Apes reboot failed to win back in 2011, losing to the far more popular and Academy-endorsed picture. A repeat?

WILL WIN: Interstellar

BEST SOUND MIXING: Whiplash has the BAFTA, and the rich, percussive musical tapestry that is impossible not to appreciate. American Sniper has the immersive war elements. Birdman has the Best Picture heat. Drum roll…

WILL WIN: Whiplash

BEST SOUND EDITING: War movies tend to excel here, and American Sniper is just the sort of precise, distinguished sound showcase that the category loves (see: gunfire-heavy Letters from Iwo Jima, Zero Dark Thirty). Interstellar brings the sci-fi effects, which boded well for Gravity last year, but warfare and broad Academy respect probably win out.

WILL WIN: American Sniper

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: The only Best Picture nominee here is The Grand Budapest Hotel, and it boasts a surfeit of prominent yet subtle aging work in addition to handsome period hairdressing. Foxcatcher is even more subtle yet distinctive for a particular prosthetic, while Guardians of the Galaxy could be a spoiler for its vivid fantasy elements.

WILL WIN: The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Annie-sweeping and Globe-winning How to Train Your Dragon 2 seems like the safest best, but I suppose Disney could get in the way somehow.

WILL WIN: How to Train Your Dragon 2

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: A toughie. Ida is beloved and twice nominated, but Leviathan is the Globe winner and has the added cachet of being a Cannes darling. Then there’s Wild Tales, which is apparently exuberant and crowd-pleasing. Sounds fit for the Oscars.

WILL WIN: Wild Tales

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Citizenfour is far and away the critical favorite and the most widely seen and honored picture here. But the Academy has shown in the past it doesn’t always side with the obvious, so I’d keep an eye out for any of the other four.

WILL WIN: Citizenfour


WILL WIN: Joanna


WILL WIN: The Phone Call


WILL WIN: The Bigger Picture

That's it! Tune in to the Oscars on February 22 to see how all of this pans out. Happy predicting!

News from Home

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 16, 2015 at 2:05 PM Comments comments (0)


Chantal Akerman




IDEA:  Images of New York City are set against the narration of a mother's letters to her daughter abroad.

BLURB:  Spectatorship, authorship, absence and presence become poignantly reified in News from Home, Chantal Akerman’s homesick city portrait turned structuralist symphony. With cultural displacement and alienation as her most immediate themes, Akerman juxtaposes yearning letters written to her from her mother with long perspectival shots of grungy mid-70s New York City, its streets and subway platforms transformed into eldritch sites of communal ritual of which we are not a part. Some locations are eerily desolate, landscapes of forbidding concrete and iron. Others are teeming with people who move languidly about their urban dwellings, natural civilian habitats taking on a decidedly alien air through the dispassionate and detached camera. But Akerman, who is pointedly filming but never seen in the flesh, and whose voice assumes her mother’s words over the disjunctive soundtrack, is also very present, her camera apparatus often noticed by the pedestrians who pass in front of it, their stares solicited by its gaze. We watch, absent from the image as she is and yet authoring its look, providing it with the necessary perception to give life to its astonishing audiovisual sensations. An ethnographic time capsule of a place long gone and a singular simulation of what it’s like to be dislocated, within yet without, News from Home welds thrilling form to haunting considerations of estrangement, and ends up transcendent.

American Sniper

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on February 5, 2015 at 4:35 PM Comments comments (0)


Clint Eastwood



IDEA:  Chris Kyle takes on four tours of duty in Iraq, becoming in the process the most lethal sniper in US military history. At home, however, his domestic life slowly disintegrates.

BLURB:  At the heart of American Sniper is a dilemma Clint Eastwood suggestively raises but never sufficiently negotiates: how to tell and honor the legacy of a real person while also depicting the insidious and deeply troubling cultural condition that molded that real person. Because he is too morally ambivalent a storyteller and too nuanced an artist, the portrait is admittedly complex, and often smartly provocative. Eastwood doesn’t repudiate the unmissable horror – Chris Kyle’s dangerous ethical and ideological certitude, inculcated in him by righteous yet dangerous pride in country, is evident, always kept on the disquieting periphery through Bradley Cooper’s impressively unsettled performance. But Eastwood is wanting to show that condition as being somewhat virtuous, too, an integral part of the American character, and this is where things get muddy. If he had kept something of a balance between reverence and anguish during the tense, appropriately brutal battle sequences, he hedges during the home front scenes, minimizing PTSD and gun hazards to weakly soften the edges of a character with whom our identification is never properly complicated. After subtly avoiding so much mythologizing and glorification, his denouement gives in, deifying a man and implicitly shirking uncomfortable realities in favor of red-blooded adulation. What is here is often accomplished; Eastwood’s craft hasn’t been this sharp in years. It’s what’s been left out – details omitted, ideas deferred, facts outright ignored – that perturbs.

Top 10 - 2014

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on January 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM Comments comments (0)

The Oscar nominations were announced yesterday, but you needn’t look at them to know what the greatest cinematic accomplishments of 2014 were (as if the Academy would tell you, anyway). Listed below are my Top 10 films of the year, ranked in general order of preference, with runners-up and honorable mentions.

A quick note on the year before we get down to it: like any other year, 2014 had plenty to offer in the way of diverse, compelling, thought-provoking, and artistically and culturally prodigious cinema. If it seems to somewhat pale in comparison to 2013, at least for me, that’s because there were fewer films I unabashedly loved, and decidedly none I would deem masterpieces. In other words, there was no Inside Llewyn Davis. I awarded only one film all year the full four stars, although a few others came close. But in the absence of undeniable knockout punches, there was a lot to like.

Notable films I regrettably missed or couldn’t see in time for this list: Nightcrawler, Goodbye to LanguageThe LEGO Movie, Manakamana, Leviathan, American Sniper, Still Alice, National Gallery, The Tale of the Princess KaguyaTwo Days, One Night.

10. Selma / Ava DuVernay

Nothing really more needs to be said about this film's staggering social resonance with current events. It's all there, and you know it long before Common mentions Ferguson in the stirring closing credits tune. DuVernay's film, a "biopic" about Martin Luther King Jr. and the seminal march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, is a hard-hitting and politically astute film that trades embalmed history for raw, jagged modern rhythms. With its digital cinematography and askew camera angles showing us sides (literally) of the Civil Rights Movement we've never seen before, it's a startling and surprisingly distinctive window into a horribly recent past. As King, David Oyelowo is brilliant, and DuVernay's shrewdest move is in not letting him absorb the picture, because she knows no movement is brought upon by one person, no change instigated by a few. In this refreshingly modest portrait of an outsize hero as in history itself, it takes many. King was the one, but he didn't do it alone.

9. Edge of Tomorrow / Doug Liman

The most exciting and satisfying summer release of 2014 was also one of the year's most narratively innovative pictures, mainstream or otherwise. Working off a fiendishly clever and impressively structured script, itself an adaptation of a Japanese manga, Liman takes gonzo sci-fi action trappings and video game logic to throw Tom Cruise and viewers into a looping narrative machine that reveals and elides crucial information in tirelessly cunning ways. Thanks to pin-sharp editing from James Herbert and Laura Jennings, each repeating episode feeds viscerally and wittily into the next, the ceaseless accumulation of experience and knowledge acquiring tense dramatic friction as time keeps resetting physical progress. Never before has the concept of an alien invasion been so cannily distilled in terms so singularly cinematic.

8. Pride / Matthew Warchus

"There is power in a union," sings Billy Bragg over the soundtrack at the end of Pride, a film whose timely and timeless sociopolitical import is matched in every way by its heart-swelling exuberance. There is power, indeed, and director Matthew Warchus, screenwriter Stephen Beresford, and one of the most infectious and uniformly developed ensemble casts of the year use that power to tell of the 1984 alliance between gay and lesbian activists and Britain's striking miners, an unlikely relationship promulgating the world's most useful virtues: compassion, empathy, and solidarity. Yet nothing about the film is didactic or pandering - this is as purely humanistic as cinema gets, a fervent paean to understanding and gay rights, to equality and community, to charity and to the seismic social and moral profit of collective action. Bringing one of the pivotal events in Britain's LGBT rights movement to bustling life while intimately detailing the individual arcs of his lovingly portrayed characters, Warchus and his team do their real life heroes proud. Solidarity forever.

7. Foxcatcher / Bennett Miller

In Bennett Miller's unsettlingly fastidious drama, a queasily bizarre true story is used as the groundwork for an unblinking study of the perverted American ethos. But the true horror comes not necessarily from what was done - Miller and screenwriters Frye and Futterman indulge in inevitable speculation, even as they underplay or omit some of the most disturbing details - but why it was done and what cultural conditions let it happen. The picture that is painted is one of an ethos gone awry, aspirations and claims to exceptionalism stunted by psychology and economy and sublimated into impulses both capitalistic and animalistic. It's all carried out by one of the most impressive combined acting feats of 2014, with Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo providing three very different but intertwined visions of masculinity, determination, and pursuit, all caught up in a very American mire.

6. Force Majeure / Ruben Östlund

A sharp, uncompromising dissection of marriage, gender roles, social expectations and assumptions, and the sanctity of the family unit, Ruben Östlund's pitch-black relationship drama makes a great companion piece to that other domestic nightmare from 2014, David Fincher's Gone Girl. But don't get the wrong idea: like Fincher's film, Force Majeure weaves a mordant streak of humor through its heavy themes, surveying moments of social behavior in deliciously awkward and scathingly funny detail. Östlund's rigorous formal control, meanwhile, imbues ski slopes, restaurants, and hotel corridors with a discomfiting stillness, as if the ideals and false facades of this already shaky relationship could shatter with the slightest of movements. Watching the fallout and the tireless ensuing dialogue - philosophical, sociological - is a reminder, both scary and absurd, of how tenuously the equilibrium of a relationship can be set, and how much we invest to keep it and ourselves stable.

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel / Wes Anderson

Giddily delightful and effervescent but with a considerable melancholic undertow, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the indie king of quirk's version of a war-time historical drama. In other words, it's a carnival-esque confection of impossibly rich colors, dioramic architecture, and stylized olde-worlde fashion playing host to a story of the decline of civilization. Anderson has always incorporated the dark, wistful, and caustic in his quaint dollhouse universes (Moonrise Kingdom, my favorite of his until this point, does so with a coming-of-age narrative), but here he takes it a few steps further, crafting what is his most physically, emotionally, and thematically textured work yet, a madcap period caper as snappy as an Ernst Lubitsch comedy and as suspenseful and pointed as 1930s Hitchcock. The tremendous, multi-tiered script underlines a poignancy inherent in the film's themes: what we're seeing is so long gone, or perhaps so imaginary, it can only be told through multiple levels of mediation.

4. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) / Alejandro González Iñárritu

Pulling off a truly astonishing technical gambit with incomparable verve and unwavering confidence, Alejandro González Iñárritu and DP Emmanuel Lubezki make the illusion of Birdman a dazzling cinematic accomplishment unto itself. But it's hardly an empty showboating magic trick: the (nearly) single-take premise is visceral and heady and immersive, but it's just as much the film's galvanizing aesthetic identity as it is the story's - and the film's - raison d'être. That's because Birdman is preoccupied with illusion, simulation, and the line between authenticity and artifice in the digital era, and so Lubezki's snaking camera captures all of those disorienting permutations of reality on a single plane. Here, nothing is to be taken at face value: movies are reality, characters are real people (a notion helped out by some brilliant casting), and reality and ego are all informed, and formed by, a media culture that has devoured and replaced daily life. Part sizzling backstage showbiz dramedy, all weird, wonderful meta-commentary, Birdman is a one-of-a-kind plunge into the hyperreal.

3. Inherent Vice / Paul Thomas Anderson

Inherent Vice is a cinephile's dream movie, and stands out in particular as a striking example of the kind of audacious and atmosphere-heavy American cinema that seems to be in short order today. It's also, blessedly, shot on film, and every frame of it is cinematic euphoria: this is the type of movie you can fall into and explore from the inside. Hazily nostalgic for an idealistic era before the visible encroachment of government corruption, political recuperation, and conservative hegemony, Anderson locates his magnificently meandering story on the precipice of a disillusioned cultural transition, weaving a deliberately and absurdly convoluted tale of conspiracy around a stoned hippie P.I. longing for more than just weed. Following him around Anderson's marvelously rich and expansive world is a loosey-goosey pleasure; he doesn't know where he's headed, and neither do we, and that's half the fun. The rest comes from Anderson's tongue-in-cheek direction of Pynchon's baroque prose, and his truly inimitable ability to craft this lavish noir homage as alternately silly and serious, lackadaisical and scrupulous, flippant and ambling but always committed to emotional sincerity and lucid narrative control. Sun-baked and just plain baked, it's a vision of a lost LA that belongs only to the movies.

2. Mr. Turner / Mike Leigh

Strangely, Mike Leigh's unusual and intensely human biopic of English painter J.M.W. Turner has quite a bit in common with Inherent Vice, which helps explain why I fell so hard for both of them. Where Anderson fleshed out an immersive and tactile 1970 LA brimming with character and mood, Leigh brings to magisterial life 19th-century England, populated with artists, aristocrats, innkeepers, patrons and critics. Anderson's film was about an individual caught in the unremitting tides of a rapidly changing culture; Leigh's is as well. Focusing only on the last few decades of Turner's life, Mr. Turner's greatest success is not in detailing the specifics of an artist's process, but in showing the artist living in and interacting with the world around him, its overwhelming beauty and equally overpowering sadness channeled into art considered both rapturous and vile. Leigh and his extraordinary team capture an entire idiom of early Victorian England, transporting us to noble houses, galleries, parlors, and seemingly everything in between while effortlessly outlining the beliefs and mores that constitute this robust social milieu. Huffing and grunting with blustery precision as Turner, Timothy Spall embodies the contradictory emotions of an artist in love with this world and yet ambivalent to it, understanding of it and yet misunderstood by it. It's the year's greatest performance in one of the year's most deeply felt and observed films.

1. Nabat / Elchin Musaoglu

I wrestled with including this film at all, as it has not been released theatrically and, as far as I can tell, has no imminent distribution plans. But I saw it as part of the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival, and the country that made it, Azerbaijan, did choose it as its 2014 submission for the Academy Awards, so I decided I would go for it. If you object to its inclusion, feel free to disregard it altogether and hold the rest of the list as is.

Nabat, about an elderly woman who refuses to leave her village in Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region after everyone else has evacuated due to war, is an astoundingly enveloping audio-visual experience and a serene, gravely moving portrait of a woman and a nation braving ravages both natural and horrifyingly man-made. Every element has been paid meticulous attention to here: from the irreproachable elegance of long dollies and tracking shots to the precise fluctuations of weather and character disposition that they capture, Musaoglu commands the frame and everything that takes place inside and outside of it. In some of the most breathtaking long traveling shots this side of Dreyer or Angelopoulos, he follows his steadfast protagonist as she withstands isolation and hunger, observing her waning resilience as the tempest of nature convenes around her. Images and sounds haunt us, so tangible we can feel, smell, and hear them as if they were right next to us: mud under our feet during a downpour; mist on our faces; the wet hide of a cow; the howl of a wolf or a gust of wind through a creaking door. Nabat is not a happy watch - it's exceedingly somber and sobering - but it is an enriching, plangently powerful one that honors the entwined suffering and strength of a land and its people.

And the great runners-up:

BOYHOOD by Richard Linklater

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE by Justin Simien

GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz

GONE GIRL by David Fincher


NOTE: I didn't mention Lukas Moodysson's ebullient WE ARE THE BEST! or Jim Jarmusch's languidly romantic ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE because I consider them 2013 films, but if we're going purely by 2014 US release dates go ahead and add them to the above.

Honorable mentions (films I really liked in some significant way):

IDA by Paweł Pawlikowski


INTERSTELLAR by Christopher Nolan

INTO THE WOODS by Rob Marshall

SOMETHING MUST BREAK by Ester Martin Bergsmark

I liked them, but they're not that great:

UNDER THE SKIN by Jonathan Glazer

WHIPLASH by Damien Chazelle


About the Author

Jonathan Leithold-Patt is a 23-year-old student of film. In addition to watching lots and lots of films and writing about them, he is an avid painter.

Contact at

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