The Double (2014)

The Double

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Richard Ayoade

Starring Jesse Eisenberg as James Simon/Simon James

Mia Wasikowska as Hannah

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A shy, socially awkward office worker named Simon is challenged when James moves into the building next door and starts working at his office. A man with an identical face and an opposite personality.

This is a surprise addition to my top ten of the year. The Double is like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil meets Wes Anderson meets Enemy, and it is pretty spectacular. I had previously seen and not enjoyed Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, so my hopes were not all that high for this one, but I thought it seemed like it could be good, and I really liked Enemy which is this film’s doppelgänger about doppelgängers, and I was curious about this. Somehow, I ended up loving The Double even more than I did Enemy. This movie is just off the walls crazy, it’s full of some really great deadpan humor, some darker stuff, and a whole lot of references to Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi stuff except set in a non-science fiction setting. Brazil is one of my ten favorite movies, and the fact that this film comes so close to doing what Brazil does but taking a completely different path in terms of story and setting makes me love it all the more. Jesse Eisenberg does an incredible job with his two roles, and though it’s hard to buy him as a womanizer, I could suspend my disbelief enough, and I really enjoyed the subtle differences between the two characters, he really does a good job here. I love the production design as well, how it manages to look almost timeless by having sets designed like a mix of 195os Los Angeles and a strange surreal painting. The Double is an incredible film, it’s a lot of fun, really well made and creative, and ultimately one of the best films of the year.

Nymphomaniac: Volume 2 (2014)

Nymphomaniac: Volume 2

★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Lars Von Trier

Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe

Stellan Skarsgård as Seligman

Shia LaBoeuf as Jerôme

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Joe continues to recount her stories of her life, how her aging hurt her sex life, and how she ended up in the alleyway, beaten.

After really enjoying Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 despite a few little flaws, my expectations went through the roof for Volume 2, which might be why I think the film series went from “excellent” to a “ah, I guess that was OK.” The second half of the series takes a much darker turn, and shows the downfall of Joe, how her addiction pulled her life apart, and how it ultimately took her to very dark places. This film goes through Joe’s aging, the birth of her child, the loss of her husband and child, her turn to S&M to try and get her to enjoy sex once more, and eventually her new, crazy job. What really makes the film disappointing is the sudden loss of energy that it has. It seems like while Volume 1 is fast paced, and keeps you on your toes, Volume 2 suddenly feels devoid of all the life and energy the first had. I understand it’s trying to be more depressing, but that doesn’t mean it has to lose the atmosphere that the first had. Also, they definitely could have done the transition from Young Joe into middle aged Joe a lot better, because it felt like all of a sudden Joe aged 20 years although everyone around her stayed the same age. Then of course the ending just made me say “What the fuck.” It came out of nowhere and didn’t really suit the tone of the ending. Really, just all together, this movie was very underwhelming compared to the first. I still think it was decent, but an enormous step down from Volume 1.

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (2014)

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Lars Von Trier

Starring Stacy Martin as Young Joe

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe

Stellan Skarsgård as Seligman

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Seligman discovers Joe, beaten bloody and lying in an alley, and takes her home to care for her, where she recounts the tale of how she got there.

I’ve been waiting for the right day to marathon Nymphomaniac for a while, and I finally found the day, what I can say now is that Volume 1 surpassed every expectation I had, and Volume 2 disappointed the hell out of me, but I’ll talk about that later. To focus on Nymphomaniac: Volume 1, this is a film that in no way belongs in a series of films called the “depression trilogy”. The first part of Nymphomaniac is a lot of fun, it’s a lighthearted, good humored look at the life of a sex addict, and doesn’t really look at any of the consequences to Joe’s actions just yet. It really works as a tragic hero’s rise, before her ultimate downfall, and it becomes so much fun because of that. It would be like if Martin Scorsese split The Wolf of Wall Street in half, so we only see Jordan Belfort’s rise to the top of the stock market, and his debauchery, and we have to wait for the sequel to see all the trouble he gets into. You might lose some of the themes and messages in the process, but it would still be a very fun film where we don’t really get to see the consequences. Yet despite it being a very fun look at an incredibly active sex life, Nymphomaniac never feels in any way like pornography, it’s never provocative, it’s just fun. There were some moments that I really hated in the film, like pretty much anything involving Seligman, the character who rescues Joe from the alley, who was so annoying and whose sole purpose was to explain every single metaphor throughout the film. We’d get through a chapter and all of a sudden he would say “wow, like fly fishing?” even though Lars Von Trier’s cuts between the sequence and footage of fly fishing should have been sufficient to get the metaphor across. I love Lars Von Trier’s style in this film, the superimposed footage, the titles on top of the screen, the way he edits. It’s a lot of fun to watch. Even though you can tell Von Trier has a very cynical world view, that doesn’t stop Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 from being a very entertaining picture. I would love to see a version of the film that cuts Seligman’s terrible digressions out though.

Ida (2014)

Ida

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Starring Agata Trzebuchowska as Anna

Agata Kulesza as Wanda

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Anna is a nun in 1960s Poland who is about to take her vows when she is given a chance to meet her one living family member, her aunt Wanda, who can tell her the dark secrets that lay behind her family history.

Ida is a haunting film with an incredible story, full of some really interesting themes that kept me thinking for days afterwards. I think what really got me thinking the most in Ida though was not the story or the themes, but the cinematography. Filmed in black and white with the aspect ratio of an old photograph, and mostly using the bottom part of the frame also to resemble an old photograph. The cinematography looks stunning by itself, despite the fact that I didn’t like the look of the lower frame stuff at first, but I got used to it. However, the cinematography is even more stunning when you think about what the directorial choices are trying to say. The way that it’s shot resembles Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, using a lot of whites and grays. Then of course there’s a ton of significance to making it look like an old polaroid picture, that shows we’re watching events unfold in the past, we’re not watching it unfold in the present, we’re watching past events as though we’re looking through old family photographs. For that, I think the cinematography is gorgeous, and the direction is done quite well. The one thing I have to say to take away from the film is that even though it was thought provoking and by all accounts an incredibly done film, I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. I would not want to watch it again, even though I think it’s a great film, I can’t say I really “liked” it. Ida is probably objectively one of the best films of the year, full of amazing thematic content, some incredibly smart directorial choices, and a good story, yet subjectively, I have a hard time liking it as much as it deserves to be liked.

Field of Dreams (1989)

Field of Dreams

★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson

Starring Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella

Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe

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A corn farmer, Ray Kinsella, starts hearing strange voices while he’s out in the corn, telling him to build a baseball field.

While I was watching this I kept thinking, “this is overly sentimental, cheesy, ridiculous to the point that it’s hard to suspend disbelief sometimes, and pretty much nonsensical, so why am I enjoying it so much?” And the answer is because Field of Dreams is one of those films that feels like those that they don’t make anymore. This is basically It’s a Wonderful Life with baseball, it’s the type of movie that Jimmy Stewart could have starred in. Even though it does seem overly sentimental, and a lot of the plot points make no sense even in a fantasy movie, it’s just so enjoyable, which can help you look past those flaws. I didn’t have to believe everything that I was seeing, it’s more about the themes than the plot. The themes are really what holds the film together. Without such nice messages about family, about chasing your dreams, and about life after death, the film can make you think. I wouldn’t say it’s a great film or one of my favorites, Field of Dreams is just pleasant, it has lots of flaws that keep me from loving it, some of which I’ve already mentioned, the plot doesn’t keep me from liking it, but it does keep me from really loving it, then of course there’s Kevin Costner, who I can’t stand as an actor, and he made some scenes hard to watch. Also, I don’t think it’s really an incredibly well crafted film. The direction is fine, nothing outstanding, the editing works well, the camera work is nothing special. It’s all just very passable, nothing spectacular. Field of Dreams is like chicken soup for the soul, it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and nice, it’s not the best kind of soup, it’s not really the classiest or most lavish soup, but it’s a soup that everyone can at least enjoy.

Happy Christmas (2014)

Happy Christmas

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Joe Swanberg

Starring Anna Kendrick as Jenny

Joe Swanberg as Jeff

Melanie Lynskey as Kelly

Lena Dunham as Carson

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After a bad breakup just before the holidays, Jenny moves in with her brother Jeff and his writer wife, Kelly, but Jenny proves to be a lot more trouble for them than they expected.

Happy Christmas is the latest experimental mumblecore film from director Joe Swanberg, whose claim to fame is not writing scripts, but giving actors situations for their characters and having them improvise, just to see where the film goes. I could not imagine this going well, or providing a very entertaining film to watch, but I was wrong. While Happy Christmas may not be a great film, or even a very good one, it’s still incredibly charming, and definitely worth watching. The filmmaking may not be great, most scenes rely on one awkward camera angle that is completely stationary, because you can’t really get coverage from lots of different angles in an improvised sequence. I understand, but I can’t forgive it entirely. The film is not very well made, and honestly, you see a lot of better stuff on YouTube in terms of production values, but what makes Happy Christmas entertaining is the talent that they have just being themselves here. Anna Kendrick is very gifted at improv, and while she doesn’t make you laugh much in the film, there’s an emotional resonance that she really hits, and it’s hard to believe a lot of the stuff she’s doing isn’t scripted, it seems to good to just be off the top of her head. Lena Dunham is the comedic relief and she steals every scene she’s in, she says all the funniest lines in the movie, really an enjoyable performance, and one that everyone can relate to, because we all have that one friend who acts exactly like her. Happy Christmas is a charming and entertaining little film that does some great stuff. Never thought something like this would be this enjoyable, again, it isn’t a very good movie, but it is definitely a pleasant surprise.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything

★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by James Marsh

Starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking

Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking

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Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane’s struggles through Stephen’s diagnosis with ALS, and the love that kept the two of them strong.

The Theory of Everything is kind of exactly what I expected it to be going in, a very average film with above average performances. This is one of those films that takes no risks, which is its ultimate downfall, it is conventional in nearly every sense of the word. James Marsh took the life of Stephen Hawking and made a completely passable biopic, but that’s really the problem, watching The Theory of Everything is like watching a screenwriter transfer this man’s life into a Save the Cat beat sheet, it is formulaic, it feels like we’re watching a movie, and not actually watching someone’s life on screen. It’s designed to please a crowd, to hit all the right emotional notes, to make us smile, to make us possibly even tear up a little, and it succeeds at doing all of this. But it feels so damn uninspired while doing it. Yes, it works, and yes I would say I enjoyed it, but even though I didn’t know the story, it felt like I had seen everything before. With that said, there are two things that make me glad that I went and spent $12 on a ticket, and those two things are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. These two actors did everything the filmmaking could not do in making me believe. I nearly forgot that these were actors at points, Redmayne and Jones had me immersed, they had me believing. Eddie Redmayne gives a nearly perfect performance as Stephen Hawking, portraying every bit of emotion, every bit of struggle perfectly. I would compare him to Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, although I might actually say that Redmayne is even better here. Felicity Jones also does a spectacular job, although she has a less flashy role, she does marvels with it. As a movie, The Theory of Everything is nothing special, but it would be a shame to miss out on these performances.

The Untouchables (1987)

The Untouchables

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Brian De Palma

Starring Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness

Sean Connery as Jim Malone

Robert De Niro as Al Capone

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Elliot Ness is a cop in Chicago who decides to take down Al Capone’s criminal empire with his group of four cops who call themselves “The Untouchables.”

The Untouchables was the ending to a shitty week of films that I needed. The Untouchables is everything I could ever want in a gangster movie and more. I love the story of Al Capone’s downfall, he’s one of the most interesting criminals in history (speaking of which, I’d love to see a biopic of his rise to power), and I also feel some personal connection to it because my grandfather was born in prohibition era Chicago, and his father bought bootlegged alcohol from Al Capone before Capone’s gang became an empire. While I know that The Untouchables takes a lot of artistic license in making this an action film, when in real life, Capone never tried to kill any of the untouchables and simply tried to bribe them, I think they did the story justice. I love Brian De Palma’s style of filmmaking, he uses a ton of slow motion, close ups, and lots of homages to old films. My favorite sequence in the entire film is the train station shootout on the stairs, entirely slow motion, referencing Battleship Potemkin‘s Odessa steps massacre scene with the baby rolling down the steps. I keep telling myself that I really need to watch more of De Palma’s films, because I really like his style. He’s one of the best auteurs in the game, and when he’s working with the right team, he can really do something special. One thing I’ve noticed in the few films I’ve seen by him is he really likes focusing on music. Phantom of the Paradise has one of the best soundtracks of the seventies, and Scarface tries to feel modern by using synthesizers (I hated Scarface’s music, but it is a big part of the style of the film). With The Untouchables, De Palma brings classic spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone in, one of my favorite composers of all-time, and he uses the music to make this gangster epic feel like a western. The trumpets, guitars, harmonicas, and everything else in this score would feel right at home in a Sergio Leone epic. I think De Palma chose to use this music to establish prohibition as a kind of lawless society, even though cars are driving around, and everyone is in trenchcoats and fedoras instead of cowboy boots and hats, this society is operating just like the wild west. Morricone’s score might not be something I’d like on my iTunes playlist, but it fits the film like a glove. I also really have to praise David Mamet’s script, he’s one of my favorite playwrights, American Buffalo is one of my ten favorites plays ever written. Mamet’s script is awesome, the man knows how to write dialogue like no other. It’s quick, clever, yet realistic and believable. The cinematography looks stunning, the use of shadows is reminiscent to old film-noirs, and the lighting reminds me of The Godfather.  In the end, everything about this movie was great (except for Kevin Costner, that guy can’t act). It’s an incredibly entertaining, action packed adventure through gangland Chicago.

Fair Game (2010)

Fair Game

★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Doug Liman

Starring Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame

Sean Penn as Joe Wilson

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Valerie Plame is a CIA operative whose husband writes an article in the New York Times, criticizing the Bush administration, and the war in Iraq.

Fair Game is one of the most dull spy movies I have ever seen. I understand that real life spy work is not like a James Bond film at all times, and this is based on a true story, but that doesn’t mean that it can be excused for being so uninteresting. It’s an interesting story that’s suited for a magazine article, “my fight with the Bush administration” or something like that, but as a feature length film, it does not work. Fair Game tells the story of Valerie Plame, a covert operative in the CIA who sent her husband to check out some alleged uranium mines in Niger, and returned to say that nothing is there, only to have the government put out a report that Niger had sold uranium from these fields to Saddam Hussein. So he writes a controversial article in the New York Times, which leads the government to reveal his wife’s identity, and leads to Sean Penn giving a bunch of political speeches about how much the Bush administration sucks. This movie is not a thriller, this is not a spy movie, this is not a military intelligence thriller about how wrong we were in going into Iraq. This is a movie that is just one huge political message of “fuck George Bush.” I agree with the political messages, and I think George Bush sucks, but seriously, I’m not watching your film so that you can tell me exactly how much George Bush sucks. I want a story, compelling characters, interesting filmmaking techniques. I want to watch Sean Penn perform, not yell about his actual real life political views. I have no problem if a film has political messages, that’s completely fine by me, but I definitely do not like when the only thing a film has to say are political slander, and the film only exists as a piece of hate mail to someone. Aside from that, Fair Game does nothing interesting in its filmmaking, it plays it very safe, the camera angles are very ordinary, the lighting is a typical “we’ll make this look dark so that it looks gritty,” type thing, the editing is passable and nothing more. I will say however, that Naomi Watts does quite a great job in this film. I was impressed with her performance, however, it wasn’t portrayed as a lead role, even though this is a biopic about Valerie Plame, she seemed to be the supporting character to Sean Penn’s politics.

Salt (2010)

Salt

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Starring Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt

Imdb Link

Evelyn Salt is a CIA agent who is accused of being a Russian spy, sent to assassinate the Russian president while he visits a funeral.

Well, with this and The A-Team, I got two action movie failures in one day. Both for incredibly different reasons. Salt is one of the most convoluted films I have ever seen, with more plot twists in its 90-minute runtime than in M. Night Shyamalan’s entire career. This is the story of a CIA agent, who is accused of being a spy for the KGB, and instead of defending herself from the accusation, she runs away, and kills a bunch of CIA agents, just because, then it turns out she actually is a part of the KGB, but maybe she doesn’t want to be? And which side is she on? And why does everything have to be so confusing in this movie, it’s like they couldn’t do anything the straight forward way, like it would actually happen in real life. No person would ever act like anyone in this film, even spies have logic, no scratch that, spies should have more logic than anyone else, yet it seemed like no one did a single rational thing in the entire runtime of the film. The characters were incredibly poorly written, and we never learn anything about any of them other than “I’m a spy.” The tagline for the movie has had me curious since its release in 2010, “Who is Salt?” it asks, and after watching the movie, I ask the same question. Seriously what was going on in that character’s brain, is she secretly working for North Korea and fucking over both Russia and America? Who is she really? I had no clue by the end of the film. Another thing that’s bothering me about the film is the fact that it lacks any heart or fun that ridiculous action movies need. In movies where people are defying nearly every law of physics with stunts, you need to keep that in perspective and have a sense of humor. A sense of humor can show it isn’t meant to be realistic, and so it becomes acceptable. Salt has no sense of humor, so it’s just a very dark and serious movie where the universe seems to not obey physics. I will admit that I laughed a good deal at Salt’s husband’s ridiculous accent and his speeches about spiders, though I don’t think that was meant to be funny, they couldn’t have chosen a worse actor or job for Angelina Jolie’s love interest. Salt was an incredibly convoluted movie that seemed to be so interested in surprising the audience that it forgot to have a coherent plot and what makes my favorite action films my favorites, a sense of fun.