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The Double (2014)

The Double

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Richard Ayoade

Starring Jesse Eisenberg as James Simon/Simon James

Mia Wasikowska as Hannah

Imdb Link

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.

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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

Imdb Link

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 A-Team (2010)

The A-Team

★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Joe Carnahan

Starring Liam Neeson as Hannibal

Bradley Cooper as Face

Quinton Jackson as Baracus

Sharlito Copley as Murdock

Imdb Link

A high skilled group of military operatives are framed for the theft of some money printing plates.

I think that recently I’ve been noticing frustrating trends in action movies more than I used to. Shaky cam fight scenes and incomprehensible edits to mask actual violence are all over the place, and it has really been bothering me. Never have I been so bothered by shaky cam in any action movie as I was in The A-Team though. This is the first time that any film has actually made me feel motion sick from the way it’s filmed. It was just constant shaking, swooping, swerving, and other camera moves that were obviously meant to conceal violence that would otherwise be witnessed. Aside from that, the plot is ridiculous, and not in a usual, “fun action movie” way. It was ridiculous to a point where any logic went out the window, and it was nearly impossible to suspend disbelief and enjoy it. The performances from all of the actors felt more like imitations than actual performances, for example, Quinton Jackson didn’t make his character his own, he was simply doing a very poor Mr. T impersonation. I haven’t seen the original TV show, but I’d imagine that all the other actors were doing the same. I did often find Sharlito Copley entertaining to watch, but he got really annoying at times, and seemed like he was simply there to be “zany.” Overall, I was definitely not a fan of this film. It has occasional moments where it looks like it could be getting better, but it never really does. I wouldn’t recommend it.

City Lights (1931)

City Lights

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Charles Chaplin

Starring Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp

Imdb Link

2nd watch

The Little Tramp falls in love with a blind girl, selling flowers on the streets of the city, and pretends to be a rich man to impress her.

I’m incredibly impressed by the Criterion Collection’s blu-ray of City Lights, which makes this film look like it could have been made in the same year as The Artist. The transfer looks incredible, and I think it even helped me appreciate the film even more than I already did. City Lights is everything anyone could wish for in a Chaplin film. It is hilarious, sweet, heartwarming, while also having some very deep, subtle themes about love in it. This is by far my favorite Chaplin film, mainly because it feels to me as though it explores so many different things. City Lights, if broken up, could be four or five great short films, each with a separate gag. What really makes the film special though, is how even though these scenes could all be separate classic short films, they manage to bridge between each other to tell the most beautiful story possible. The variety between the different gags keeps it interesting and fun, and somehow, none of it ever feels like it belongs to a different film, it never becomes disjointed, and every moment goes towards the greater purpose of the piece. In the end, this movie is the most touching Chaplin film, with the reunion that Chaplin has been avoiding, fearing the flower girl will be disgusted by his appearance. In just a few glances, and a smile, we know exactly what is going to happen next in the story. This is silent film done right. We don’t need to be told everything, we don’t need to hear words to know that they’ll end up together, all we need are the faces of these two wonderful actors. Chaplin’s City Lights is a masterpiece of silent cinema, one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

Please Give (2010)

Please Give

★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Starring Catherine Keener as Kate

Rebecca Hall as Rebecca

Oliver Platt as Alex

Imdb Link

Kate and Alex have bought the apartment next door to them, which is inhabited by an elderly woman who just won’t seem to die, the elderly woman’s two granddaughters feel that Kate and Alex are like vultures.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much from Please Give seeing as I hadn’t enjoyed Nicole Holofcener’s previous film, Friends with Money. However, Please Give was a really charming, funny, and wise film. One major problem I had with Friends with Money was that it felt like it was basically a film that’s theme was “it’s hard to be a rich white woman.” I really enjoyed Please Give because it seemed to be making fun of that. Yes, the film centers on the upper class in New York city, but it makes fun of them more than it celebrates them. Here, we see these people as hypocrites, they’re nice people, but Holofcener has actually given them flaws this time. Kate, for example, is very self righteous, and there are a lot of funny moments where she feels she has to give to the less fortunate. She’ll give homeless people twenty dollar bills, while saying things that would really just make them feel bad about themselves. You can really see how Holofcener has written this as a character point where Kate thinks she’s being a good person, when she’s really just trying to prove to everyone else that she’s better than them. You can really see Holofcener’s growth in this film, as she writes actually realistic, developed characters in this film. Please Give is a comedy that never makes you laugh out loud, but it’s one that is always very charming. I don’t think I laughed out loud once, but that’s not a bad thing as I was always amused. Please Give is one of the better films in the slice of upper class New York life genre, a group of films I’ve never cared for much. It doesn’t have much of a plot, and relies on the characters interactions overall. It feels kind of insignificant in the end, like we didn’t really need to be told this story, but it is a pleasant ride.

Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)

Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Starring Michael Keaton as Riggan

Emma Stone as Sam

Edward Norton as Mike

Imdb Link

Riggan Thomson is a washed up actor, famous for playing a superhero, Birdman, who hopes to get his career back on track by mounting a Broadway play, which he wrote, directed, and is starring in.

So what everyone has been saying is true, the best movie of the year has arrived in the form of Birdman, a clever, surrealist black comedy satirizing superhero films, Hollywood, Broadway, and fame in general. This is what I’ve been waiting to see all year, something that I think about non-stop for days afterwards, something that I can’t wait to watch a second time. In a year full of an enormous amount of great movies, Birdman blows everything else out of the water. This film manages to be one of the most technically impressive, as well as one of the most subtle films I’ve seen in a while. Usually it’s one or the other, but Birdman really is both. The technical side being supported by the whole “made to look like one shot” thing that I’m sure you have heard about, which works perfectly, making the film feel exactly like a piece of theater, but in the most cinematic way possible, as well as having some very impressive CGI (actually, the film wins the award for having both the best and worst CGI of the year in the same scene, having a very shitty looking floating Birdman following Riggan, followed by one of the most impressive looking monsters I’ve ever seen on top of a brownstone apartment). The subtlety is supported by a brilliant script, full of witty dialogue, and symbolism and metaphors that I’m going to need to rewatch the film to fully understand, as well as some great understated performances by Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, and a standout performance from Edward Norton. Even though all the actors give career best performances, the real star of the show in Birdman is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his direction. You can tell how perfectly everything comes together because of his vision. The film is full of incredibly strong choices, and without these choices, I doubt the film would be even a quarter as impressive as it ended up being. This movie is one of a kind, and it’s the kind of thing that you don’t see often. This is a brilliant film, and I can’t wait to see it a second time.

The Lunch Date (1990)

The Lunch Date

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Adam Davidson

Imdb Link

A lady misses her train, and goes to the food court to get a salad to pass the time till the next train departs.

My English teacher decided to show me his two favorite short films, this and The Hockey Sweater, which I’ll talk about soon. For now, this is all about The Lunch Date, which I didn’t love, but I really did like it, and I think it’s a great example of how to do character development in a short film right. The film centers around a neurotic old lady who seems to have a fear of the homeless. She misses her train, gets a salad, goes to get a fork and returns to find that a homeless man is eating her salad. It’s a hilarious premise, and one that allows for a really solid amount of character development. Look at the old lady polishing her fork as she goes back to her table, telling us that she’s probably a very neurotic person, who is definitely a germaphobe, and watch her reaction to the homeless man eating her salad. Shocked, and hateful at first, but she gradually accepts it. My English teacher thinks that the old lady doesn’t change over the course of The Lunch Date, but I have to disagree. I think that we start to see the beginning of a character arc, and her acceptance of other people. In the end of The Lunch Date though, I didn’t find myself absorbed into the film. I think that it’s a fantastic short film, and one that should be studied when looking at short films, but it’s not one that I would say I got enough enjoyment out of to say that it’s among my favorites.

Leaves of Grass (2010)

Leaves of Grass

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson

Starring Edward Norton as Bill and Brady Kincaid

Imdb Link

An Ivy League philosophy professor, Bill Kincaid, goes home to Oklahoma after hearing his equally brilliant drug dealing twin brother has passed away.

When compiling a list of movies from 2010 that I needed to see (yes I am still doing catch up work on four years ago), Leaves of Grass showed up purely because it was mentioned in a single best of the year list, and nowhere else. So this was kind of just a “just in case it’s actually not half bad” and was kind of a movie I was dreading watching fearing that the mediocre to bad reviews would be true. Leaves of Grass pleasantly surprised me with a really clever script, and one of the best performances of that year from Edward Norton. The premise of the film involves an ivy league philosophy professor who has distanced himself from his dysfunctional, Oklahoman family, and who has to return home after his twin brother fakes his death. His twin brother is now a drug dealer, who actually has a higher IQ than the professor, and the whole film centers on the drug dealer’s attempt to make himself an alibi by using his brother. It’s a very fun story, and it’s told in a very darkly comedic way. The sense of humor may not be for everyone, but it really hit me the right way. Also, the film has one of the funniest uses of Chekhov’s Gun that I think I’ve ever seen (actually, I can’t think of any other comedic Chekhov’s Guns at the moment) and I can’t spoil it, because it really surprised me. Anyways, I really need to talk about Edward Norton, who is simply outstanding in his two roles that are practically complete opposites. He rocks it in his caricature portrayal of a redneck drug dealer, as well as his more straight laced counterpart. The way he managed to play off himself is incredible. I found myself trying to figure out how they pulled off having two Edward Norton’s on screen at a time. Everyone gives credit to The Social Network for putting two Armie Hammer’s on screen, but both those twins looked the same. They would have to do very elaborate hair and makeup changes to Edward Norton every time he changed characters. I was marveling at the technical skills and patience it would take to pull the shots with both of them off. Leaves of Grass does have some tonal flaws, and a few pacing issues, but for the most part this is a really fun and funny dark comedy. I highly recommend checking this one out. It seems to have flown under the radar, but it really shouldn’t have.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Starring Takashi Shimura as Kambei

Toshiro Mifune as Kikuchiyo

Imdb Link

2nd Watch

A town of farmers hire seven samurai to protect them from bandits who will attack them and steal all their barley.

This was the first movie that really got me into Japanese cinema, and more importantly, Akira Kurosawa, who has since become my favorite director of all-time. While Seven Samurai may not be my favorite film of his (it comes in at second place just behind The Hidden Fortress), it is still thrilling, fun, and an incredible feat of filmmaking. This movie is three and a half hours long, which is definitely a drawback because a movie of that length is hard to find time to watch, anyways, it’s three and a half hours long, but feels no longer than two hours. The quick pace makes us hardly notice how much time has passed by. The pacing, supported by the constant action, is also helped by the character development throughout. We spend so much time on exposition because the film wants us to really get connected to each samurai, which makes the final battle sequence have so much more weight. As these seven are no longer the nameless “seven samurai”, but now they become people that we feel we really know, and we know that only a few of them will survive the final confrontation. The pacing is also supported by Kurosawa’s editing. I’ve always heard it said that “Kurosawa was a great director, but he was the best editor” and I have to agree with that statement. Every cut gives off a percussive, rhythmic sense to it. Akira Kurosawa’s editing does not linger on any shot, it doesn’t ever cut too early either, it feels as though every single cut is timed perfectly. Watching any of Kurosawa’s Samurai films, but most specifically Seven Samurai, you get this sense that Kurosawa injected energy into every scene through his actors, through his comedic writing, through his choreography and blocking, and through his editing. Seven Samurai remains one of the most entertaining action movies, even sixty years later.

Rejected (2000)

Rejected

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of 5

Directed by Don Hertzfeldt

Imdb Link

4th Watch

A selection of commercials made by animator Don Hertzfeldt, that were all rejected because of their creators failing grip on sanity.

This was an old favorite YouTube video of eight year old me. My friend and I watched it pretty much every time we were together. I haven’t seen it for at least six years now, but I was just waiting after school, and I saw on Reddit that this was actually an Oscar nominated short film. So I watched it again to get a fresh opinion. I don’t even know what to say about Rejected. This is the most absolutely ridiculous, batshit crazy, surreal, and hilarious short I’ve seen in a long time. I didn’t expect to still find it as funny as I did, the humor might not be for everyone, but it’s definitely not just something lame I found funny when I was eight years old. The opening, “my spoon is too big” and “I am a banana” is one of the most inexplicably funny scenes I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why a lot of this is funny, but it is. One of the most surreal, and fun animated shorts out there.