Birdmen, Babadooks, and Full Metal Bitches: The Best of 2014



Been kind of a strange year for cinema, with Hollywood lacking those brassy, tried-and-true "event" movies that typically come out of its woodwork . That's alright, though, because in their place comes a robust arrangement of less-assertive films tackling themes of troubled childhoods, domestic suspicion, recovering from creative stagnancy, zealous belief and ... uh, pet revenge. It's also been a unique year for horror to be hiding in unsuspecting places, from pop-up storybooks to the psychological force from a music instructor. Thankfully, of course, there are a few old reliables: pulpy thrills elevated by David Fincher, a science-fiction blokbuster with Tom Cruise behind the wheel, and a slice-of-life depiction from Richard Linklater built on a singular concept. As usual, below follow my picks for the ten most prominent films that I'll be taking away from the year, arranged in alphabetical order since I'm not too hot on numerical ranking.



The Babadook

Australian director Jennifer Kent emerges on the filmmaking scene in a deafening way with The Babadook, using the space between dark fantasy and horror as a mean of telling a chilling story of mystical literature and burgeoning psychosis. Most of the film's effectiveness comes in the ominous mood crafted in the shadowy space of single-mother and widow Amelia's house, where the deep-blue textured walls become an interpretive playground for how she handles her still-traumatized son and his obsessive coping mechanisms: hunting monsters and reading storybooks. When they find the book, the hidden pop-up nightmare that plants the idea of "The Babadook" in their minds, Kent's film descends into relatively subtle horror that plays with insistent sights and sounds suggesting the manifestation of the Boogeyman-like creature, leaving it up to the viewer to decide on the veracity of its presence. The paths it leads Amelia and her son down might not be the most terrifying, resisting the urge to lash out with tons of knee-jump scares for the sake of a consistent mood, but Essie Davis' electric performance doing battle with the film's gloomy ambiguity produces its own disconcerting amusements.


Birdman

Having grown up with Michael Keaton as "my" live-action Batman, it felt like there was an underlying layer of personal context present while watching the actor's character in Birdman, Riggan, struggle to find his relevancy some time after his stint as the titular comic-book superhero. There's a lot of depth present in Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's film that doesn't rely on this added perspective at all, from raising a daughter amid immense fame to the hollowness that can come from performing classic plays and the heartless power of critics. There are also several divine performances that not only elevate Keaton, but find their own complex characterization amid Riggan's doomed theater debut; Watts and Norton are fantastic, but there's a rawness about Emma Stone's turn as the daughter that's captivating. Yet, it's hard not to embrace the transcendence of life and art while observing Riggan within his predominately one-take journey through the theater, dressing rooms, and streets of Broadway, deftly commanded by Keaton in a mesmerizing depiction of an ex-hero that literally seems designed for him.


Boyhood

Few films are as appreciated sight unseen as Richard Linklater's Boyhood, his decade-long project in depicting the maturation of a boy from his prepubescent years all the way to his high-school graduation. The idea itself, filtered through the lens of the slice-of-life director responsible for Dazed and Confused and the Before ... series, amasses its own mix of expectation and respect for its ambition before the first frame even appears: the sporadic gathering of the same actors across a twelve-year period to tell an observable and cohesive coming-of-age story, of both the boy himself and the family around him. For the film to exist at all is a marvel; however, Linklater does things with the material befitting a director whose artistic method goes beyond simply gluing together scenes that sprawl across time. Cleverly perceptible transitions between years and unostentatious references to each time period allow Mason's story, at times subtle and other times harrowing, to blossom into a marvelous portrayal of growing up, parenting, and the path that leads someone towards discovering who they are.


Chef

In a fit of professional crisis, Chef Carl Casper drops his professional gig at a fancy restaurant and takes up the wheel of a food truck, cooking simple food for people to enjoy as a way of getting back to his roots, both creatively and mentally. In a way, after his stint on the Iron Man franchise and with Cowboys and Aliens, Chef looks like it marks the same style of transition for Jon Favreau's directorial talent, stripping away the big drama and set pieces for a straightforward and immensely satisfying fusion of comedy and drama. Favreau ties in endearing themes of raising a child between amicably divorced parents and the process of overcoming public shame, juxtaposed with a clear -- dare I say, savory -- love for food through exhilarating scenes of cooking. Likable characters and a very easily relatable premise make for the cinematic equivalent of a comfort dish, dashed with some of Favreau's friends in high places for a little additional character. Put simply, it made me smile and feel fulfilled more than just about any other film released this year.


Edge of Tomorrow

Mech suits and time-travel aren't really two of my favorite things among the science-fiction genre, so expectations going into Edge of Tomorrow -- no, not Live.Die.Repeat, dammit -- hinged more on curiosity toward what Bourne Identity director Doug Liman would make of the material than legitimate enthusiasm. Imagine my jubilation upon seeing a film that starts out with Tom Cruise not as a seasoned expert in combat or science, but as a weaselly military spokesperson who's forced to the front line of battle against alien forces, strapped into a exosuit with the barest of hands-on military training -- and the results aren't pretty. With the introduction of the film's eventually-explained jumps through time to the same point before the invasion, Cage takes the opportunity to incrementally better his skills through repetition, recalling the joy of playing a video-game level until he's figured out all the idiosyncrasies enough to locate the real soldier, "Full Metal Bitch" Rita (an exceptionally-realized and authentic female heroine thanks to Emily Blunt), and find out how to prevent a slaughter on humanity from happening at all. Fierce action, shrewd humor, and a strong thematic backbone built on redemption, fortitude and taking time for granted makes for an utterly absorbing blockbuster that gleefully relishes the idea of, essentially, "Phil Connors vs. Aliens".


Gone Girl

David Fincher's talent for shining a spotlight on the poignant underbellies of pulpy stories reaches another pinnacle with Gone Girl, his adaptation of Gillian Flynn's twisted psychological thriller. Her book, which she personally adapted for the big screen, takes a lot of crazy turns throughout the investigation into the disappearance of Nick Dunne's wife, Amy (an enigmatic and alluring Rosamund Pike), the storied daughter of a children's book author who based his central character off her, making her something of a cultural darling. An underlying degree of suspicion about Nick Dunne's integrity overlaps with themes of mistrust in marriage and the subjectivity of domestic arguments, elevated by Fincher's perceptive grasp on photography and musical accompaniment (again sporting a mood-propelling score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But the story only really gets started once the truth unravels about Amy's fate, flipping characters' motivations on their heads as Fincher does his damnedest to relish -- and distort -- the light and dark sides of Amazing Amy and her admirers. Even knowing what was coming, I was entranced and thrilled, laughing quite a bit at its dark humor alongside its unsettling descent.


John Wick

After struggling with inconsequential indie dramas over the past five or so years, martial-arts enthusiast Keanu Reeves finally found the right venue for his talents by directing Man of Tai Chi, while also starring in it as an intense dark-suited villain with fighting skills and brooding motivations. It proves to be a uniquely fitting segue into his performance in John Wick, hinged on a retired and aged ex-assassin who's lured back into the underground circuit after gangsters violently intrude on his life -- including killing his dog -- shortly after his wife's death. Some of the year's best action comes out of John's onslaught on his former employers, but it's not of the dodged-bullet and infinite blocked-attack variety: the gunplay is tight and precise with few wasted bullets, and the hand-to-hand brawls are built on both brutal maneuvers and infallibility of the combatants. It proves to be the ideal vehicle for the actor's physicality some fifteen-plus years after his iconic role in The Matrix, while delivering a satisfying amount of bittersweet depth over John Wick's recovering, revenge-seeking psyche.


Noah

Going into Noah with the expectation that Darren Aronofsky's going to color within the lines of gospel would be a mistake, though it's understandable why some might expect him to do so. The name Noah in itself and the premise lying underneath his narrative are, after all, modeled from a brief, fantastical story told in the book of Genesis (and also appears in other religion's texts), which Aronofsky became interested in at a very young age. What he sees in the parable will differ from the way others view the saga of the great flood, though, and the man tasked by a higher power to build an animal-preserving vessel worth weathering it: Aronofsky embraces the line between devotion and madness, the harshness behind purging all life from the planet, and the haunting moral conflict in standing by and observing the benevolent creator's judgment. There's a lot of room for interpretation around "Noah's Ark", and Aronofsky uses that freedom to craft a mesmerizing vision with a flexible grasp on spirituality and the integrity of mankind, though it's also an unsubtle tonal departure that won't be for everyone.


Under the Skin

Perhaps Under the Skin might have been better off had it not been Scarlett Johansson's first time appearing nude on-screen. Her other-worldly character's perception of her body in the film, and how she uses it in her pursuit of hapless human men for her incredible vague and interpretive purposes, commands a strong thematic presence in Jonathan Glazer's lyrical science-fiction trip. Focus falls directly on her discomfort in this foreign skin of her and how her identity's shaped by it, guided by a tense yet stoic performance from Johansson that speaks volumes through her character's pointed gazes and discomforting body language. Abstract visuals serve as their own storytelling devices around the largely straightforward premise, protracted and harsh in its perspective on humanity in ways that can be both maddening and mesmerizing. The experience lingers long after Glazer peels its many layers away; whether it's in a good way or bad, by virtue of its lustful provocations or its moody and drawn-out visual prose, will lie with the viewer. I find it spellbinding.


Whiplash

Whiplash contains one of the year's most effective villains, and I'm not exactly talking about the deftly-crafted, haunting presence of J.K. Simmons' Terence Fletcher. Sure, his menacing harassment of talented first-year drumming student Andrew is certainly potent enough to earn that distinction, nudging the film into the unsettling gap between drama and psychological horror with the sheer volume of tension generated in their interactions. What I'm referring to as the villain here is the abstract concept of failure coupled with the fear of mediocrity, whose influences pushes teachers to punish their pupils beyond their limits and for aspiring creative professionals to wreak irreparable damage -- both mental and physical -- upon themselves in competitive pursuit of perfection. The jazz music world of Whiplash becomes a cutthroat atmosphere in the midst of disarming rhythms and nimble wood and brass instruments, a perplexing atmosphere for a young musician's struggle with unrewarded excellence as he sheds literal blood, sweat, and tears for greatness, both in the eyes of his relentless instructor and his family.


Honorable Mentions




Most Disappointing: Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1

If we're being completely honest here, I went into the first part of Francis Lawrence's end to the Hunger Games saga with the expectation that it could, very well, end up in this position. Clearly, the wisest idea when bringing the not-so-warmly received final book in a trilogy to the big screen is to split it in half, right? Precisely what one might expect plays out on-screen: lots of build up with very little payoff. Oh, the folks who wrote the adaptation tried rather hard to give it an individualized arc, hinged on the fate of a lead character endangered at the end of Catching Fire, yet it still feels exactly as if we're cut off just as Katniss' fiery resistance to the Capitol has truly ignited. It doesn't help that Jennifer Lawrence seems to be yelling to the rafters with her dramatic PTSD-fueled fury in order to justify the gears of war, to supplement the lack of resolution with gravitas. Instead, Mockingjay Part 1 feels like introductory, grim escalation halfheartedly fed into a Zero Dark Thirty-esque sequence that extinguishes one conflict while we're waiting for the real one to catch fire.


Best Videogame: Dragon Age: Inquisition

Admittedly, my gaming experience over the past year has largely been dedicated to getting through my backlog whenever possible -- some of which gets covered in this article: Last-Gen's Overlooked Games: Ten From a Movie Geek -- but Dragon Age: Inquisition still stood out from the new releases I did play as an absorbing rebound for developer BioWare following their difficulties with Dragon Age II. While it's not quite the hearty role-playing experience found in DA: Origins, lacking a substantial back-story for the player-character and restricting skill options in the otherwise invigorating combat, it comes surprisingly close in its incorporation of past lore and the player's ability to control their Inquisitor, their eyes and ears in orchestrating a resistance against a power-hungry darkspawn who feels they have a right to deification. Expansive environments across Thedas are peppered with a mix of substantive side-quests and traditional MMO-style gathering operations that urge the player to explore the beautifully-rendered fantastical world, while a host of well-drawn characters accompanies them on their journeys, supplying BioWare's signature charm through world-shaping decisions both big and small. Not a true return to form, but a huge step in the right direction.


Favorite Blu-rays Covered in 2013 (Click Each for Review)





In Closing

All the films on this list really stuck with me once the year was over and done, ending in a mix of nostalgia and personal identification with a lot of the ideas touched on in them. In that, despite some disappointment and a lack of monumental heavy-hitters, I'd certainly chalk this year up as a success. Here's hoping the coming year delivers yet another wonderful run at the movies, dear readers. Speak with you all soon; keep in touch.

'Coherence' a Sci-Fi Engima that Bravely Lacks Coherence



Directed by: James Ward Byrkit; Runtime: 89 minutes
Grade: B

Coherence proves to be an interesting title for writer James Ward Byrkit's Twilight Zone-esque indie project, since an intentional lack of coherence ends up being one of the film's most intriguing attributes. What starts out as a relatively simple dinner party interrupted by cosmic events ends up being a crazy trip down the rabbit hole: the result of pulling together a collection of actors over a brief shooting schedule, giving them vague directions of where to take ad-libbed conversations, and letting the unfiltered chaos ensue during an astrological event. Based on aspiration and eerie atmosphere alone, it's an enthralling puzzle box with a bevy of intricate twists and turns in the enigmatic space between science-fiction and fantasy. Beyond the surface, however, lies a maddening airburst of rigged plot apparatus and unlikely interactions amid a dangerous anomaly from outer space, hinged on theoretical gimmickry that'll look familiar to sci-fi lovers, arthouse cinema enthusiasts ... even fans of the show Community.

On the eve when a comet is set to come abnormally close to the Earth's atmosphere, a group of eight relatively close friends drop by a Santa Monica home for a planned get-together. While their initial convos take enough time to sketch out each of the characters and their histories -- the washed-up actor (Nicholas Brendon) and his Skype-creating wife (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World director Lorene Scafaria); the transcendent health nut (Elizabeth Gracen) and her bearded husband with an astronomy-focused brother; the guy who brought someone else's ex-girlfriend to the party -- Coherence finds its point-of-view largely centered on Em (Emily Baldoni), a down-on-her-luck dancer going through a rough patch with her boyfriend, Kevin (Maury Sterling). Over their meal, their discussion ebbs and flows from stifled catch-up banter to mysterious talk about the comet as a diversion, with Em's "expertise" on the matter spinning stories of the weird stuff that's happened in previous comet flybys. Lo and behold, starting with broken phones and lights going out, the evening begin to reveal its own bizarre turns of events when the group spots one lone lit house at the end of the otherwise pitch-black neighborhood.

Diretor Byrkit, whose creative eccentricity can be found under the hood of Gore Verbinski's Rango and Pirates of the Caribbean, intentionally shunned the confines of big-budget productions as much as he could with Coherence. Instead of following a blow-by-blow script, he gave his actors loose notes throughout the shooting process that pinpointed where their conversations and dramatic developments would eventually end up, allowing them to organically engage each other so as to create the illusion of a casual, developing party gone wrong. While this works for shaping well-defined, often repellent characters that naturally come from their respective actors -- a provocative home-wrecker, an unpredictable drunk, a dejected girlfriend preoccupied with celestial oddities -- the chemistry between them all doesn't convince enough as a gathering of friends, nor as an arrangement of couples. This makes for individuals that work well enough as chess pieces moving along a grand stratagem, but the resulting distrust and lovers' squabbles only work as observable cogs in Byrkit's mystery machine instead of authentic dramatic beats.



Therefore, there's a certain element of mystery at the core of Coherence's maneuverings that's worth preserving for the sake of the characters, but it's safe to say that the comet's impact on Earth goes beyond interrupting power supplies and means of communication, tossing together both physics and metaphysics into a chillingly unfathomable scenario. James Ward Byrkit deserves credit for concocting an elaborate exercise that makes the audience scrutinize details of the dinner party with each bend and break of their perceived reality, forcing the characters to both literally and figuratively wander in complete darkness for answers about what's happening. Unfortunately, the way things do happen are frequently, and frustratingly, manufactured for the sake of complexity: how often they emphasize objects in their surroundings, how hastily they jump into drama-causing situations, how frequently they feel the need to leave the house under these circumstances. The script intentionally creates a lot of variables to track hinged on reckless decision-making, and most of them lack the organic flow of the ad-libbed conversations generated by Byrkit's hands-off scripting desires.

Some unavoidable, light spoilers follow when you get any deeper into a discussion about Coherence, which delves into the messy world of alternate realities, duality, and the repercussions of circumstance through the many-worlds branch of quantum theory. At first, writer/director Byrkit appears as if he's got a simplistic grasp on the divergence of reality through the decisions people make, going either this way or that way; however, the writing gradually reveals that it's merely Em and the people around her with that limited perception at first, turning the film into a chaotic mess of possibilities based on any number of variables introduced throughout their evening. Thing is, a lot of what happens overtly feeds the gimmick instead of playing out like natural conditions of a dinner sent reeling by other-worldly interruptions, where everything's randomized and dramatized just enough to keep the gears moving, traversing time and space at convenient moments and with self-fulfilling restraint so it doesn't prematurely upset the balance. By the end, Byrkit's broadened the scope of the comet's effects so far that the transpiring events can't be taken in earnest, even while subtly reassuring that, yes, worse happens elsewhere. End spoilers.

Coherence has a plan for its endgame, though, an elaborate maze of variables and dramatic tension underneath the comet's spell, navigated by a deep and intuitive performance from Emily Baldoni. In a scenario where the laws of the universe are put on hold, director Byrkit uses this science-fiction base to depict what choices certain people might make and what lines they'd cross to better their circumstances or simply ensure their self-preservation, savoring the eerie insecurity of not being able to predict what we, ourselves, might be capable of under anarchistic conditions. He generates a capable amount of suspense and unknowable atmosphere out of what's essentially a one-room setup shot out of his home, bleeding together several influences -- some admitted and others not -- to form the cosmic turmoil unleashed on Em and her friends amid their haunted observations and puzzle solving. Despite familiar dice-rolls, advantageous paradoxes, and shifting personas over a dinner party, it ultimately arrives a novel mind-boggling resolution that's content to wander in the void of uncertainty for the sake of its own thought experiment, reaching for a mix of eeriness and philosophy in the vein of Rod Serling's work and nearly grasping it.

Lau, Scorsese Squander Opportunity on 'Green Dragons'



Directed by: Andrew Lau, Andrew Loo; Runtime: 94 minutes
Grade: D-

Ray Liotta looks as if he's been crying on the cover artwork for Revenge of the Green Dragons, and it's easy to understand how that might be the case after finishing director Andrew Lau's return to organized crime drama. Expectations run high when a name like The Departed's Martin Scorsese aids in the production of the latest film from the director of Infernal Affairs, as if cosmic forces deemed the movie-going public worthy of seeing what the two minds could concoct together in a fresh thriller about Chinese gang activity in the streets of New York. It's a surprise -- disheartening, really -- to see such a blandly acted, tirelessly formulaic, and clumsily thematic waste of potential from these two voices who have largely defined the genre, halfheartedly showing cinematic flourishes confirming their involvement while adding nothing of substance to the equation. Even Liotta playing the almost-literal opposite of his character from Goodfellas doesn't really make a dent.

Revenge of the Green Dragons starts out by depicting the state of affairs for the New York Chinese underworld in 1989, with a pair of children, orphaned immigrant Sonny and his "adoptive" brother Steven, getting roped into organized crime by frequently dodging fights with the Green Dragons in and around their school. As an aftereffect of a particularly brutal incident where they didn't get away, Steven actually finds himself a recruit into the gang, to which Sonny follows shortly behind. They learn the ropes of how things work -- fighting, gun work, obeying orders -- which leads to the point where they're required to kill someone in a somewhat ceremonious initiation. Years pass, the gang grows and organizes, and the boys grow into higher-level enforcers for the Green Dragons with expected temperaments: as the once-battered Steven (Kevin Wu) violently lashes out and makes mistakes, Sonny (Justin Chon) calmly does his job with as little conflict as possible. This continues as the Green Dragons dabble in drugs, battle rival gangs, and earn the attention of FBI investigator Michael Bloom (Ray Liotta).

Despite the fact that the general atmosphere focused on '90s-era Chinese immigrants derives from an article published in the New Yorker by Fredric Dannen, there's so much of Revenge of the Green Dragons that lands unnaturally flat in setting up the young boys' ascent through the gang. Director Lau lathers on an odious, hollow representation of America's perception of foreigners, needlessly provoking instead of enriching whatever points it'd like to make about racial bias and mistreatment. There's enough wrong with the operations of the gang atmosphere itself, however, that dwelling on that real-world aspect isn't really necessary: writers Michael Di Jiacomo and co-director Andrew Loo hurl every gangster cliche in the book at Sonny and Steven's environment, from young kids loading guns to oblivious patsies and point-of-no-return murders. Everything's dressed up with scenes of violence that are both volatile and entirely banal, probably done in hopes that stylized stabbing and dismembering might elevate the material's gravity. It doesn't.

Glimmers of Scorsese and Lau can be spotted throughout Revenge of the Green Dragons' cinematic style, from the colorful introduction to the area's six gangs to black-and-white still frames that fake an archival look, but the entire film desperately lacks what elevates both filmmakers: characterization. There isn't a distinctive personality among the entire batch, whether it's Sonny and Steven's entirely predictable development into a romantic and loose-cannon respectively or the largely forgettable horde of Green Dragons, White Tigers, and other gang members. Some of that comes from questionable one-dimensional performances across the board, but it also comes from an inability to draw empathy for the "bad guys" and invite someone to really explore the characters' outlook on the crime syndicate. The complicated psyche of a Chan Wing-yan or a Henry Hill doesn't exist here, only the faint sympathetic conflict in Sonny's good-natured head as he explores romance with an innocent girl who could stir up conflict with the Dragons.

Without many distinguishing characteristics beyond a heavy-handed depiction of the era's sociopolitical climate, the entirety of Revenge of the Green Dragons plays out as little more than a blood-soaked imitation of the crime-drama films made by the names attached to this production, something even more obvious upon the arrival of the film's hokey last-minute twist. The mortal chaos generated by the Green Dragons' escalating influences and vendettas reaches this abrupt conclusion that just kinda ... happens, matter-of-factly justifying the film's title, without much dramatic build-up or true impact once the lights and cuffs start flying. There's no ironic glorification or gritty commentary to bolster things once all's said and done, either, only the shrug-worthy point that America's "Wild West" of opportunistic crime can easily find immigrants missing some teeth and fingers, if they don't end up with a bullet in the head first. Lacking little new to see or significant to say through its inspired-by-reality premise, things I'd expect from the filmmakers involved, there's little point in enduring this Green Dragon's abuse.