Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
As 2014 comes to a close, it's time to take stock of the year in cinema and post the requisite "Best of" list. However, this one won't look like any other you may see. And for good reason. Rules, disclaimers, and those good reasons follow for those who are as passionate about the subject as I am.
This year was quite out of the ordinary for me in three significant ways. First, I was able to attend a number of festivals which I had to skip for years due to scheduling conflicts. I'd attended the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2008, 2009, and 2010 but had to pass on it for the next three years. In 2014 I happily returned to this Film Independent-run festival in the City of Angels. The Santa Barbara Film Festival was one of my early favorites as well, but I was only able to make it in 2007 and 2008 as it overlapped with Sundance. This year I was able to return to this gem of a festival for the first time in six years. Second, 2014 was my first time on the other side of the fence, as I took the position of Operations Manager for the Palm Beach International Film Festival. Third, I broke with my career tradition and ventured out into the world of Hollywood movies to an extent I never had before. I was impressed by some -- enough to warrant a mention in this article -- but which will still be kept separate, as explained below.
My world revolves around independent films and festivals so this list includes only indies which I saw at festivals, and only titles which I saw for the first time in 2014. I specify "first time" because there are several which I saw in 2013 but were still on the circuit this year and saw again. Obviously I don't count those even though they may still have been among the best I saw at those particular 2014 fests.
Next, defining an independent film is something else entirely. I try to avoid including pictures produced and/or distributed by Hollywood studios or major studio specialty arms like Fox Searchlight, even though I may have seen them at festivals. However, in some cases there are truly independent films which were acquired for distribution just prior to, during, or after the festival in which I saw it. In those cases I simply use my best judgment.
It follows from the above that while many of these do not yet have distribution (and, perhaps, never will) there are some which have already been released in theaters. So you may see some of these films on other critics' lists. But you'll find that this list can be quite different from others because most critics use date of theatrical distribution as a rule. Therefore, you may see some being nominated and winning awards now which were actually on my list last year because they weren't released until this year. It's not uncommon. This year is a perfect example. I saw Concrete Night at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and selected it as one of my favorites. it made my Top 7 Foreign Films of 2013. But it's Finland's entry for the 2015 Academy Awards and is showing up on Best of 2014 lists. So you won't see it here because I picked it a year ago. The same applies to a number of other films I honored in 2013 that are now being recognized by critics.
There have been many instances of this situation in previous years. Submarine was on many 2011 year-end critics' lists and won a slew of awards that year. It played dozens of film fests and hit theaters in June 2011. But it was on my list in 2010 because I saw it, and selected it as a Top Pick, after its World Premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival. Alpha Dog, which I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006, made my year-end list in 2006 but it wasn't released until January 2007. Fierce People debuted at Tribeca in April 2005 and had a small release in theaters in September 2007, but most didn't see it until it finally came out on DVD in February 2008, almost four years after it was shot. I attended the World Premiere of Cook County at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival and it opened Christmas season 2011, over three and a half years later. But perhaps no film will ever surpass All the Boys Love Mandy Lane in this category. I attended the World Premiere at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, placed it on that fest's Top Picks, and then on my year-end Best of 2006 list. But it took over seven years for the film to finally get a proper theatrical release, in the fall of 2013. There are quite a few movies that come to the attention of other critics long after they've debuted at festivals which had been on my Top Picks in the years I first saw them. So my lists are often quite ahead of the curve.
While I do choose a list of Top Picks for each individual event I attend, taking a list from one and comparing it to another is like apples and oranges. First, the quantity of films at each one is different. For example. I saw around 30 films this year at both the Santa Barbara and Toronto International Film Festivals but less than 20 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Since my favorites list for each festival is based on how many I saw, my LAFF Top Picks has only eight films on it, but I named 14 Top Picks from Santa Barbara and Toronto. Second, the quality of the lineup can vary greatly from one to another. For example, my #1 Top Pick from one festival might not even make a list of Top Picks from the next. So to then compile some sort of grand list becomes quite difficult. At first glance it would seem to make the most sense to slice off the cream of the crop for each festival to come up with an overall list of Top Picks. But, alas, some simply fall short when compared to others. I'll leave it to the reader to do some research and read between the lines.
So those are my criteria. Now my job is to tally up all my 2014 film festival Top Picks and see what stood out. But forcing an artificial limit of 10 begs the question -- why 10? Looking back, I posted a Top 20 at the end of 2006. In 2007, I attended 11 festivals, saw 200 films, and narrowed that down to 25. In 2008, I attended 10 and saw about 150. I did manage to choose 10 but only with great difficulty. (I'm still not sure why I didn't just do what I did the year before -- maybe it was just a bad year overall.) In 2009 I went to nine festivals and saw around 125 films. I thought the smartest thing to do was to go back to my 2008 criteria and simply pick the ones with the biggest "wow" factor, so I chose 16. I did the same in 2010. I was able to come up with a meaningful Top 10 without much difficulty in 2011. Then again, I did also name 10 Honorable Mentions. I also named five I liked but had "limited audience appeal" (like rock docs). Oh, and I singled out four others for good measure. Okay, so I guess it really ended up being a Top 29 list. In 2012 I separated my favorites into Narratives (15), Foreign Language (five), and Documentary Features (four), for a total of 24. I threw in eight Honorable Mentions for good measure. It was a big list but I'd seen over 200 films at 10 festivals in 2012, including a cumulative 70 Top Picks. That was surpassed in 2013, when I saw 220 films at seven festivals, including a cumulative 82 Top Picks. My year-end list included 15 English Language Narratives, seven Foreign Language Narratives, and seven Documentaries for a total of 29 films. I also selected 14 Honorable Mentions in those same three categories, consisting of five English Language Narratives, six Foreign, and three docs.
So do I try to chop them down to 10 as I've been trying (and occasionally succeeding) to do for the past eight years? Or do I do what I've always ended up doing and just go with my gut? It's a dilemma -- and I'm not alone. Even such esteemed critics as The New York Times' A.O. Scott has not limited his Ten Best list to ten. Several years ago he chose 19 titles for the same reason. But 2014 presents new opportunities. For the first time in years, I'll be combining all my favorites into one list -- no breakdowns by categories. But I've separated my favorites into two parts: a Top 10 and what I'll call a "Next 10." Note that while I have included some films on this year-end list which played the PBIFF, for which I was the Operations Manager, in order to avoid any conflict of interest these are films which I'd actually seen at earlier festivals or prior to my attaining that position. Also, as I noted earlier, there were a number of studio films which filled out my non-festival days. I will, for the first time, include some of these in a separate list titled "Studio 6."
Here are my Top Picks of 2014 (countries of origin in parentheses).
Top 10 (in alphabetical order -- click titles for my reviews, photos and videos of Q&As, interviews, trailers, clips, and stills where available):
Birdman (USA) -- For this cinematography geek, Birdman was an orgiastic cornucopia of "how did they do that" shots, a steadicam Cirque de Soleil. Whew. I could wax poetic about the magnificent acting of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone...and even Zach Galifianakis, under the masterful hand of director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu. And much of Birdman's captivation lies in the brilliant writing of Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo. But Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography was so stunning that it distracted me from the movie at hand. Birdman is a joy and wonder to watch. I had to see it again in order to focus on the film instead of the magical camerawork. Some day camera operators won't have to sit and study the craft. They'll just watch Birdman.
Boyhood (USA) -- A monumental achievement in filmmaking for writer/director/producer Richard Linklater, Boyhood is truly in a league of its own. This epic two and three-quarter hour movie chronicles 12 years in the life of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), beginning at age seven, along with his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Yes, it's a concept that's been done before -- but in documentary style, not as a narrative shot in real time. Such an ambitious project hinges on the film's subject being there every year, physically and emotionally, and that one casting choice may have been Linklater's winning lottery ticket. -- See my discussion with director Richard Linklater and cast, Q&A pics, and a half hour audio of the entire Q&A at the Arclight Hollywood screening on June 16. I posted three additional articles about Boyhood, as well: "A little rant about “Boyhood” and the MPAA - What’s wrong with this picture? I mean, really?", “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Boyhood”...and finding your own personal connections, and Watch “The Making of Boyhood - 12 Years on Film”
Clouds of Sils Maria (France, USA) -- Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders, an aging actress slash diva about to take on a revival of a play she did 20 years ago. Back then, she played a brash young assistant to an older woman in an enigmatic relationship. This time around, however, she's portraying the grande dame...the upstart is to be played by a cocky American actress (Chloë Grace Moretz). In reluctant preparation for the role, Maria enlists her trusted personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), to rehearse and run lines with her for the lion's share of this two hour plus epic. It's this life imitating art imitating life conundrum between Binoche and Stewart that drives the narrative, making Clouds of Sils Maria one of the best films of the year. See my photos of the North American Premiere Q&A, capsule review, and trailers
The Humbling (USA) -- This gem's magical formula starts with a multi award-winning creative team, tracing back to the 2009 bestseller by the great American novelist Philip Roth. Star Al Pacino bought the movie rights later that year, with screenwriting duties turned over to two-time Oscar nominee Buck Henry (for 1967's The Graduate and 1978's Heaven Can Wait) and Michal Zebede. Finally, the reins were handed to iconic director Barry Levinson, whose six Oscar nominations include a Best Director win for Rain Man (1988). See my photos of the North American Premiere Q&A, capsule review, and trailer
Maps to the Stars (Canada, Germany) -- With an award-winning cast featuring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Emilia McCarthy, and Ari Cohen, iconic Canadian director David Cronenberg uses the backdrop of Hollywood, with its legendary superficiality, to tell a tale of family dysfunction that demands multiple viewings. In fact, I saw it twice at TIFF -- something I'd only done once before in my nine years there (The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012). See my photos of the Gala North American Premiere cast intro, capsule review, and trailer
A Most Wanted Man (UK, USA, Germany) -- Philip Seymour Hoffman's aggressive performance, along with his indelicate dance with Rachel McAdams as an earnest public interest lawyer on a Chechen suspected terrorist's behalf, Willem Dafoe as a wealthy banker, and Robin Wright as the American agent, underscore how tragic was the loss of this brilliant Oscar-winning young actor earlier in the year at the age of 47. Director Anton Corbijn's A Most Wanted Man serves as an apt epitaph, a final bit of punctuation on a long, illustrious career cut too short. See my review, stills, and trailer
Still Alice (USA) -- The word "Oscar" is often tossed around flippantly among fans and press, but that exalted word just may apply to Julianne Moore's gutsy performance in Still Alice. Based on the best-selling 2007 novel by Lisa Genova, Moore plays Alice Howland, a brilliant professor of linguistics at New York's Columbia University whose life begins to fall apart in the wake of a devastating diagnosis. Those tasked with keeping her whole and alive include her husband John (Alec Baldwin) and adult children Lydia (Kristen Stewart), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Anna (Kate Bosworth). See my photos of the World Premiere Q&A and capsule review
The Tribe (Ukraine) -- This is one film that I would definitely see again but don't feel comfortable recommending to all audiences. It was easily one of the most disturbing pictures of the year. But that's not necessarily why I recommend it with qualifications. The film is entirely in sign language -- a Ukrainian version, at that -- with no subtitles, narration, or voiceover. I found it surprisingly watchable but worthy of its prominent disclaimer. It took home three awards at the Cannes Film Festival in May, including the Critics Week Grand Prize, France 4 Visionary Award, and Gan Foundation Support for Distribution.
uwantme2killhim? (UK) - Back in 2003, 14-year-old "John" (played by Toby Regbo) and 16-year-old "Mark" (Jamie Blackley) made UK crime history (which says a lot in itself). Their horrific story, widely circulated in the British press in the mid '00s, eventually made its way into the hands of writer Judy Bachrach and a 2005 Vanity Fair magazine article. Transforming that magazine article into a movie script began shortly afterward by writer Mike Walden. Bryan Singer was brought on to direct the project. After a series of delays, he ended up producing it with Executive Producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and Andrew Douglas was brought on to direct. It debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, 2013, where stars Blackley and Regbo shared the award for Best Performance. -- See my non-spoiler capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailers
Whiplash (USA) -- J.K. Simmons is devastating in the role of taskmaster music teacher Terence Fletcher along with wunderkind Miles Teller as drummer Andrew Neyman in director Damien Chazelle's second feature. Whiplash debuted as the Opening Night Film at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it nabbed a rare double win with the Grand Jury Prize as well as the Audience Award for Dramatic Feature. It premiered overseas in competition for the LGBT-themed Queer Palm at Cannes in May. The movie received a rare standing ovation in Toronto and was one of my few "wow" films in the lineup this year. Jaws dropped as the credits rolled. See my photos of the Canadian Premiere Q&A, capsule review, and clip
Next 10 (in alphabetical order -- click titles for my reviews, photos and videos of Q&As, interviews, trailers, clips, and stills where available):
BFFs (USA) - Director Andrew Putschoegl received a Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema nomination from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It was also selected for the Narrative Feature Competition at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in April.
Boy Meets Girl (USA) -- Robby (Michael Welch) and Ricky (Michelle Hendley) are early twenty-somethings who've been best friends since childhood. He's a man's man, with a frisky eye on every hot lady who passes by. She happens to be one herself but, being more like a sister to him, it's strictly hands off in the carnal department. There is one catch, though. Ricky was born a boy -- now a pre-op transgendered woman -- enduring all the added emotional and physical pain that a kid in that position would be expected to face in a stereotypical small town (in Kentucky, in this case). Enter young Southern belle Francesca, engaged to a Marine fighting in Afghanistan, who is oddly drawn to Ricky, and vice-versa. The ensuing interweaving of storylines, deftly balancing complex characters filled with fear and curiosity, is writer/director Schaeffer's masterstroke. -- See my complete review
Calvary (Ireland, UK) -- In a sea of cinematic sameness, Calvary is a cerebral exercise in self-analysis. Another Brendan Gleeson tour de force as a priest forced to deal with incomprehensible threats. Further comment would be spoilery. A shocking film, too tough to take for some, but too timely not to appreciate.
Earth to Echo (USA) -- The Goonies meets Super 8 x 10. With some E.T., Gremlins, and Wall-E thrown in there as well. The kids are adorable, the story is somewhat plausible, and the effects are stunning with some jaw-dropping "oh wow" moments in the third act. Featuring fast-paced found footage from the teens' perspective, kids will love it. For a non-studio film it's pretty impressive. Sure, it's derivative, but what's not? The negative reviews will call it a knockoff. I'd call it an homage. Nobody calls a murder mystery with adults a knockoff because it's been done before. So I don't see why kids and aliens can't be done as many times as the story, actors, and production allow for an entertaining film.
Elephant Song (Canada) -- Quebec's filmmaking wunderkind Xavier Dolan puts the camera down and takes center stage. In a tour de force performance, Dolan plays a psychiatric patient who matches wits with a doctor (Bruce Greenwood as Dr. Toby Green) who suspects foul play in the disappearance of a colleague. The always-delightful Catherine Keener and Carrie-Anne Moss are excellent in support. Charles Binamé's Elephant Song was one of the biggest surprises of this year's Toronto International Film Festival, and flew under the radar -- where it still sits. This is one sleeper that is waiting to be discovered.
God's Slave (Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina) -- SBIFF awarded God's Slave The Nueva Vision Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film. It was selected for the Narrative Feature Competition at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in the Art of Filmmaking. It also won both the Audience Award and Best First Work Award at the Lleida Latin-American Film Festival. At the Huelva Latin American Film Festival, director Joel Novoa won the Prize of the City of Huelva while writers Fernando Butazzoni and Joel Novoa won the Manuel Barba Award for Best Screenplay
It Follows (USA) -- Writer/director David Robert Mitchell's second feature, a spine-tingling blend of sex and horror, wowed audiences in the Midnight Madness section at TIFF and won the Dell Precision Next Wave awards for Best Picture and Best Screenplay at Fantastic Fest. His first film, The Myth of the American Sleepover, was one of my top films of 2010. The teen ensemble cast includes Keir Gilchrist, who starred in several of my festival favorites over the years.
Life Inside Out (USA) -- One of the most acclaimed films on the 2013-2014 festival circuit. It won the Jury Award for Best Feature here in Palm Beach. It won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, Phoenix Film Festival, and Lighthouse International Film Festival. At the John Paul II International Film Festival, Maggie Baird and Lori Nasso won Best Screenplay and the film won the Peoples Festival Award. Life Inside Out was a Festival Award Winner at the Heartland Film Festival and was honored as Best Premiere - Narrative Feature. It also took the prize for Best Feature Film at the Black Hills Film Festival. The awards have continued to pile up throughout the rest of the year.
Siddharth (Canada, India) -- The film was nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards at the Genie Awards, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Rajesh Tailang, Achievement in Overall Sound, and Original Screenplay. Writer/director Richie Mehta won the SIGNIS Award - Special Mention from the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
The Well (USA) -- Appropriate to the title of the section it was programmed in, the Los Angeles Film Festival went deep into The Beyond with The Well, led by a tour de force performance from 17-year-old Haley Lu Richardson and a career changer for Booboo Stewart, who lost a shocking amount of weight to play the role of a young man on the verge of death from kidney disease. They killed (in many ways). As expected, indie darling Michael Welch turns in yet another head-turning performance, stealing every scene he's in and leaving an emotionally powerful impression on the audience. Chinatown meets The Road in a post-apocalyptic neo-water wars world where years of drought have turned H2O into a commodity more precious than oil. -- See my capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailer
Studio 6 (in alphabetical order -- click titles for my reviews, photos and videos of Q&As, interviews, trailers, clips, and stills where available):
Fury (UK, China, USA) -- Brad Pitt's name may be above the title, but Fury's heart and soul belongs to 22-year-old Logan Lerman, one of the best and most in-demand young actors in America. His ability to play across genres owes itself to a physical transformation he brings to every role. It's that chameleonic quality that writer/director David Ayer and Executive Producer Brad Pitt saw in Lerman, and why they made the wise decision to cast him in the role that truly defines this film. The performances are uniformly solid, but it's the relationship between Pitt's Don 'Wardaddy' Collier and Lerman's Norman Ellison that drives Fury. Lerman's star has been on the rise for almost 15 years. Maybe it's time for the rest of the world to take notice.-- See my capsule review and clip
Gone Girl (USA) -- Hitchcock is smiling from the grave. David Fincher's Gone Girl is the suspense thriller of the year. This is what a movie should be -- totally engrossing, gorgeous to watch and listen to, with stellar acting and an unpredictable story. The challenge after seeing it is to avoid spoilers. For that reason I can't say much. So go see it, if you haven't already. Then let's talk. -- See my capsule review and trailer
The Giver (USA) -- This film works because of the very palpable chemistry and affection between Jeff Bridges (The Giver) and Brenton Thwaites (Jonas). As teacher and student, surrogate father and son, the often-delightful pas de deux between The Giver and Jonas is central to the narrative, which required matching personalities rarely seen among men in cinema -- both are intelligent, thoughtful souls, with a sweet and gentle nature that runs counter to the macho, dominant male characters that dominate movies. In contrast, this allows Chief Elder Meryl Streep to play a convincing villainess. Jonas' mother and father (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgård) are excellent in support as pseudo-parental nonentities, along with the boy's peers -- Cameron Monaghan as the fiery Asher and would-be romantic interest Odeya Rush as Fiona -- and nine-year-old sister Lilly, played by the precociously talented Emma Tremblay. (Only the children have names.) Taylor Swift has some brief but delightfully surprising onscreen time. -- See my review, trailers, and clip
Guardians of the Galaxy (USA, UK) -- I'm not big on comparing movies...and I'm certainly not about Hollywood blockbusters as an indie film journalist. That said, I'm one of these guys for whom Star Wars will always be a benchmark against which all other humans-as-superheroes-in-space movies will be measured. What I loved about that film is it created an entire universe, literally, with state-of-the-art special effects, where good fights evil, there's a clearly defined narrative, and, most of all, characters we can laugh at and relate to. It's the latter that is sadly lacking in most of the films which have tried to duplicate Lucas' efforts over the years. They get the others right but lack the humanity (or animality). Guardians has all that. It brought back some of the feelings I had way back when...and, perhaps not ironically, the music, as well. It's no accident that this film's soundtrack is packed with mid-70s pop classics. Marvel gets it right on this one...aurally, visually, and emotionally.
Interstellar (USA, UK) -- A major issue that occupied social media and news outlets this year revolved around the science at the heart of this film. As more and more took to the internet to voice their opinions, there seemed to be a consensus that the film's science is "wrong." Numerous articles listed "plot holes," some of which may exist but many of which are based on the notion that the science doesn't add up. And that's an issue that I take issue with. I have a degree in geology from an Ivy League university. I only say this to point out that one might think that anyone with a science background ought to be the first to see these inaccuracies, yes? Even more to the point, the courses I needed to take for this degree were, in number order, geology, astronomy, and physics. That is, exactly the disciplines needed to understand the specifics of the theories explored in Interstellar. With those academic credentials, you'd expect me to have joined the cacophony of viewers decrying the fictional depiction of the laws of physics in the film, right? Wrong. I had no issues with the science of the film. I thought it was a very realistic speculation of Einstein's laws carried out to their "logical" conclusions, or at least the possibilities they present. I suspect most of the people who said the narrative isn't logical were basing it on their own knowledge of the scientific theories involved, and I appreciate that. Granted, one shouldn't have to know geology/physics/astronomy to "get it," but to dismiss it as illogical is simply invalid. To those who believe the more you know the science the less believable the plot is...it's actually the other way around. One man's plot hole is another man's wormhole. And Einstein is laughing at those who ranted about Interstellar getting the science "wrong." It is my #1 Hollywood movie of the year. -- See my article Interstellar: The Sound Mix is Unsound But the Science is Sound
The Maze Runner (USA, Canada, UK) -- Lord of the Flies meets Alien. Dylan O'Brien moves from YouTuber to MTV star to big screen leading man. He commands the screen in a testosterone-fueled sausagefest that's surprisingly slow-paced, with just enough big reveals to keep the jaw loosened. As a Twilight Zone/Outer Limits baby I was drooling throughout (and the women may, too...for other reasons). One female does enter the picture late in the game (the stunning Kaya Scodelario) but I believe they cut what happens to her after she enters this community of teenage boys who've been alone for three years in order to get a PG-13. AMAZEingly, this is the directorial debut for legendary graphic artist Wes Ball. Produced by The Twilight Saga team of Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen
Some of these films have already played theaters and come out on VOD, DVD, or are awaiting home video release, others are playing now or will be soon, and the rest don't yet have distribution in the States or overseas or both. But all are worth your time. Try to see them if you can -- I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…