The Top Ten of 2014

Dusting off the digital pen after a two year hiatus from the Filmibuster. I received some sad news this weekend, as my friend and co-worker Greg passed away. Around Halloween, our department hosts a scary movie night in one of our classroom studios. A cinephile of the strange and unusual, Greg attended each year’s screening without fail. He also ensured our audio/video equipment ran smoothly. This year’s top ten list is dedicated to the big guy.

 

First, here are the Honorable Mentions:

Chef

Jon Favreau is back to Swingers form with this delectable peek inside the kitchen. Head chef at one of LA’s trendiest restaurant, Carl is constantly at odds with its conservative menu-minded owner. After his food is given the gong by a popular critic, the chef’s responding tantrum goes viral. The meltdown spawns a fortuitous road trip with his son across America, as scents of grilled Cubanos in Miami and Austin-style brisket stir olfactory senses. While Carl attempts to bond with his son through food, young Percy only yearns for his father’s presence. Chef refuses to compromise authenticity by firing off local cuisine to regional soundtracks. Old school sensibilities clash with social media-driven efficiency in the feel good reservation of summer. Stay for the closing credits- Chef Roy Choi’s interpretation of a perfectly grilled cheese may cause drooling.   

 

Starry Eyes

From action-starved lines in China to the avant-garde intelligentsia in France, the cineplex is an abbreviated escape for the global citizen. Yet Hollywood’s darkest machinations remain hidden to outsiders. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer create a literal translation of Tinseltown’s hushed contract, where stardom literally costs one’s soul. Slog through the first few minutes of a wannabe industry soirée. What follows is Amanda Fuller handing herself over completely to the character of Tracy. For 90 minutes, the gifted Fuller’s potential is on full display. Let’s just hope she didn’t permanently lose part of herself after visiting the dark places her role required.

 

Wild

Reese Witherspoon has certainly established a successful career, highlighted by her Oscar-winning efforts as June Carter. While she’s not chastising police officers for lacking celebrity worship, Witherspoon’s career spans beyond profitable romantic comedies. Her early filmography includes cult favorites and dark comedies, such as Freeway and Election. With Wild, Witherspoon revisits her indie calling with one of the year’s strongest leads. Based on her memoir, Wild follows Cheryl Strayed’s daunting hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. As she trudges towards each post, Cheryl uses the solitude to contemplate several life-defining events. As weather conditions test her physical limits, memories of a troubled history push her forward. Cheryl’s strength is derived from an upbringing molded by her independent mother Bobbi, gracefully handled by the underrated Laura Dern. Following last year’s Matthew McConaughey showcase, Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallèe once again directs a contender into awards season. Cheryl’s trek is a feminist metaphor without loud politics. Every step forward doesn’t necessarily move her further away from the past. Each mistake is a chapter essential to reaching her self-awareness.

 

Oculus

Set to the year’s most foreboding score, a malevolent mirror reflects one of the more creative horror films of late. Brother and sister reunite in their old home to complete a pact. Efforts to destroy the shiny source of their tragic childhood intertwine with flashbacks to a haunting past. The mirror has other plans, however, steadily ramping up the hallucinations and misdirects. Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff and Dazed and Confused’s Rory Cochrane (sans bong) are the flashback’s unnerving parents. Once the curtain drops, you’ll be grateful for your own overbearing mom and unimpressed dad.   

 

Two Days, One Night

The Dardenne brothers create films to foster discourse, knowing exactly how to strip away commonly held notions of morality. An audience traditionally follows the protagonist around for 100 minutes, cheering minor victories and empathizing during each roadblock. The French, on the other hand, enjoy clouding viewers with abstraction. While films often allow the mind to wander, French titles force the brain to work. Marian Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman who discovers she’s lost her job during a phone call. As if the impersonal bombshell isn’t bad enough, she discovers her layoff was the result of a vote by her co-workers. The team will receive their annual bonus checks in exchange for her release. Sandra’s husband convinces her to visit each co-worker during the weekend to establish a re-vote Monday. After each confrontation, our emotional ties waver alongside her internal struggle. The Dardennes create a world which forces us to look past our protagonist; one with real people who refuse to serve as bit players on her stage.

 

The Lunchbox

Humans will find affection in the unlikeliest of places. Newcomer Ritesh Batra chooses the sense of taste to reinvigorate two lives tied together by lunch. Nimrat Kaur dances around her kitchen as Ila, a housewife who prepares an aromatic feast for her neglectful husband. One day, the lunch delivery service accidently sends the meal to the wrong building and into the mouth of nearly-retired Saajan (played by India’s Morgan Freeman, Irrfan Khan). After the first bite, Saajan’s fire is lit. He sends the empty canisters back to Ila with a note, seeding the film’s narrative. Ila and Saajan’s connection edges closer to its emotional core as their growing feelings jump off the pages. The letters ultimately remind us to slow down and appreciate the details, including life’s curveballs. An inevitable meeting tests the wonder of dreams against the virtue of responsibility.

 

And congratulations. The Top Ten has patiently awaited your arrival.  Drum roll please…

10. The Guest

Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett share filmographies with a unique trajectory. In an industry where consistency is considered rare, this creative duo actually improves with each project. Their first collaboration, the low budget A Horrible Way to Die, flashed glimpses of potential. Horror festival favorite You’re Next’s sardonic edge sharpened an already nasty home invasion trope. Their creative partnership hits a crescendo with The Guest, a genre-bending thriller starring Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens. Military boots hit the ground running even before the title sequence begins. Paced by a synth-heavy industrial score John Carpenter would love, David’s mysterious yarn spins into chaos.

 

9. Boyhood

Unlike a few of this year’s lists, Richard Linklater’s social experiment doesn’t get my ribbon solely based off its groundbreaking 12 year shooting schedule. The film’s merits stand on its own. Boyhood works because Linklater allows his talent to breathe while maintaining a consistently sound script each year. Impressively, the dynamic between young Mason and his parents never stretch beyond the margins. The family’s major life changes create fluidity around Linklater’s trademark philosophical musings. While raising Mason as on-set parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette both rode rollercoaster careers. Boyhood is a testament to both phenomenal dialogue and sheer perseverance.

 

8. The Babadook

The surviving heroine is an essential archetype of horror. Essie Davis exhibits sneaky range as Amelia, a tortured mother and widow. However, The Babadook’s strong female presence also extends behind the camera. While certainly not the first female-inspired scare fare, Jennifer Kent’s debut may be the spark that finally ignites a movement. When the villainous Babadook leaps from a children’s book into reality, mother and son open the gates to a living nightmare. Outstanding sound design emits unsettling creaks throughout the house, where expert lighting casts menacing silence behind the shadows. The screenplay flexes its muscle with Kent’s dramatic prowess, all towards an ending that will no doubt elicit discussion within horror circles. Such unique balance crowns this Aussie export the Queen of 2014 horror.

 

7. Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch’s slice of life offers a unique approach to vampire cinema, substituting its more horrific elements with a rather observational meditation on humanity. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton wax poetic, as an undead couple separated by choice. Hiddleston is Adam, a recluse inspired by Detroit’s gloominess and musical history. The worn neighborhood is a perfect studio for his sound, akin to funeral music performed by The Doors. Swinton’s Eve wanders the Tangier nightlife, with its bright lights and bold colors accentuating her curiosity. A FaceTime meeting reveals Adam’s suicidal mood swing, prompting Eve’s flight to Motown. Their rekindled passion extends to a robust compendium of art, science and technology. In addition to a fine glass of O-Negative, they also share a thirst for knowledge. Eve’s mind is open to the world’s ever-changing winds, in contrast to Adam’s nihilistic view of mankind. The lovers spin at the vinyl speed of 33 rpm, their evening wonders captured in beautiful composition. Jarmusch defies vampire mythos with ultra-realism. When birthdays are counted in centuries, boredom is the real wooden stake.                     

 

6. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal’s creepy turn as independent news documentarian Louis Bloom fits Dan Gilroy’s dreary Los Angeles nightscape. The calculated go-getter zips his Challenger around the city in search of the evening’s bloodiest accidents and crime scenes. The news footage gets rawer as his journalistic scruples begin to fade away. Partnering with a local producer and a naive assistant, he quickly moves up the news gathering ladder. As stakes are raised, Louis’ grip tightens around his comrades. Gyllenhaal wears Bloom’s uncomfortable mask a bit too seamlessly for the ultra-conservative Academy. Social commentary aims its crosshairs squarely on broadcast news. Louis is Gilroy’s mouthpiece, spotlighting its unapologetic slant towards gratuitous exploitation. The film’s momentum builds to an explosive climax that will shape the trio’s destiny.

 

5. Birdman

Amores Perros’ Alejandro González Iñárritu transforms the Broadway stage into a dazzling exhibit of cinematic excellence. The two mediums collide to paint a washed up actor’s portrait of relevance and legacy. Michael Keaton digs deep to navigate Riggan’s journey through unforgiving critique and self-doubt. In what will likely be considered Keaton’s tour de force, the film’s meta arc is not lost. Riggins’ ego forces the audience to view the world through his lens, brilliantly imagined by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Long tracking shots weave the magic on stage with the fantasy flying around it. Iñárritu orchestrates a technical achievement, despite rare instances of intentional melodrama. As viewers discover the real stage play, the bloviated dialogue reveals its design. Offstage, the viewer becomes voyeur while witnessing Riggins’ self-destructive behavior and subsequent alienation. Like a twisted tennis match, these players serve vitriol and lob insults. Star-studded billing will undoubtedly overshadow an abnormally restrained Zach Galifianakis and the under-appreciated Amy Ryan.

 

4. The Raid 2: Berendal

Raid: Redemption was 100 minutes of pure adrenaline. Transport a swat team into Indonesia’s most dangerous high rise and hope they can survive their way to the top. An endless barrage of bullets, knife play and violent fight choreography set the bar for an entire genre. Welsh expat Gareth Evans turned the action world upside down. The sequel drops three years later and now he’s just toying with us. Unlike its predecessor, Berendal wraps an involved story around its visual wizardry. Casting directly from Indonesian cinema’s A-list, the sequel is much more than eye candy. With an extra hour of run time, the pacing is much different than Redemption. Nonetheless, Rama’s undercover assignment remains engaging throughout. The action sequences are epic in scope, the camera work is innovative and the editing is insanely stylish. Berendal barely cleared $2.6 million domestically. The lack of exposure both masterpieces receive is a damn travesty.

 

3. The Drop

For a throwback flick set around an Irish bar in Brooklyn, The Drop features uniquely international talent.  Director Michael R. Roskam’s Bullhead delved into the nasty Belgium underworld of illegal beef trading. Taking the reins of Dennis Lehane’s grimy screenplay, Roskam successfully captures the criminal belly across the Atlantic. Tom Hardy eschews Bane’s immense persona to summon the much quieter role of Bob. Sparse with words, Bob seems to enjoy the mundane tasks of tending the bar. In his last role before passing, James Gandolfini slips back into his Tony Soprano skin as Bob’s cousin Marv. A stick-up at the bar disrupts their daily routine, putting them in the hole with the establishment’s not-so-rosy Chechen owners. Nailing the borough’s accent and never breaking a simple demeanor, Hardy is an absolute chameleon. Lehane’s character study progresses with a subtlety that demands multiple viewings. The Drop feels like a European film that just happens to overlook the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

2. The Rocket

Australian Kim Mordaunt ships his mystical fable of loss and determination to post-war Laos. Circumstances surrounding young Ahlo’s birth stamp him cursed among his people. His tribe is forced to relocate due to impending floods and Ahlo’s journey to fulfill a promise (and erase his bad luck) begins. When tragedy strikes, his fate aligns with a pair of unlikely companions. Purple, an alcoholic veteran, emulates James Brown in raggedy threads and pure soul. His young niece Kia shines light into Ahlo’s darkest corners. When a local rocket contest promises hope of a better life, Ahlo enlists the help of new friends (and old ghosts?) to turn his curse into a blessing. Mordaunt beautifully captures moments of youthful innocence amidst a suffering nation’s despair. Ahlo’s grandmother is a jukebox of hilarious insults, offering sporadic reprieves from the film’s weight.

 

1. Whiplash

The road to greatness is a lonely one, often forged in sweat and paved with blood. J.K. Simmons owns the screen as apoplectic jazz instructor Fletcher, dropping the gavel as the year’s best performance. Combine Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman with Entourage’s Ari Gold and we’re just scratching the surface of his madness. Fletcher’s obsession to discover the next Charlie Parker-like prodigy lands squarely in young drummer Andrew’s hands, for better or worse. Miles Teller, whose talented chops actually performed his own percussion, reverently sits second chair to Simmons during much of the first two acts. As unrelenting teacher pushes aspiring student to the brink, the spotlight shifts across stage to Teller’s slow burning powder keg. Fletcher’s ego-maniacal armor is cracked on occasion, allowing signs of humanity to pierce through. These rare scenes of vulnerability elevate an already nuanced script penned by 30-year-old Damien Chazelle. Extracting masterful performances from his two leads, Chazelle is a revelation-in-waiting. Killer jazz and slick editing trigger sensory overload. Whiplash grooves at a different tempo than the rest of the field.

 

And that’s a wrap folks. Feel free to heap your praise and hurl your tomatoes in the comments. Also be sure to add your favorites of last year. I plan to start writing my own stuff in 2015, so wish me luck.

The Top Ten of 2012

What started as a fun write-up has turned into an obsessive ranking system over the years. At the behest of a few buddies, my last list kick-started a film blog. I already watch a ton of movies, but I still managed to break my personal viewing record in 2012.  The pressure is mounting, but I’m still having fun.

First, here are the Honorable Mentions:

Flight: If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, don’t. You can thank Zemeckis for the film’s early adrenaline shot. Once you realize where the story is headed, Denzel’s already taken control of the cockpit. Although Malcolm X remains his career-defining role, Whip Whitaker is Washington’s most nuanced performance yet. For those bored with his last few choices, Flight showcases the man’s range.

Headhunters: From the studio that tattooed the original Dragon Girl, this Norweigian thriller is a much more satisfying piece.  A professional art thief moon, er, daylights as the country’s top job recruiter. His lap of luxury masks an insecurity, which eventually leads to desperate measures when stakes are raised. Regardless, the audience can’t help rooting for the everyman, underneath. Which leaves the Jaime Lannister dude still the asshole.

Skyfall: While Casino Royale certainly has merit as the reboot’s flagship, Skyfall is now my favorite. As Bond’s latest adversary, Javier Bardem revisits his No Country creepiness. The series’ wide-aged audience will appreciate the subtle snark between 007 and Q. Adele’s sultry voice complements a nifty title sequence.

The Hunger Games: Calling you out, Battle Royale fans. Read Lord of the Flies or Stephen King’s A Long Walk. Watch The Running Man or any movie depicting Coliseum gladiators. Battle Royale is far from the bastion of originality. Everyone steals. THG, however, had more than a few key differences to distinguish itself. According to Godard, “It’s not where you take things from. It’s where you take them to.” If you’re a Tarantino fan, you should be the last one shouting BR war cries. Without Godard, QT’s Fiction has no Pulp. Disappointed book fans, please stop with “The movie left __ out” or “The movie didn’t develop xx’s character” complaints. The book is 500 pages of small font text. A movie usually has two hours to visualize the same story. If you disregard the constraints of medium B, you aren’t meant to judge the film separately. A legitimate gripe? The cut / two seconds rule. I’m sure the editors were thrilled with that executive decision. Wow, this rec veered into a rant. THG is nonetheless a worthy effort, highlighted by outstanding costume design and competent acting.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi: The art of sushi begins with Jiro. Technique, perseverance and attention to detail create culinary nirvana. Who knew a train station could host a master chef deserving of three Michelin stars?

JGL double feature: Rian Johnson’s Looper was hailed by many as the year’s best sci-fi. Joseph Gordon-Levitt reunites with Johnson in this mind-bending twister. The first half puts a creative spin on time travel. Johnson takes a commendable risk by humanizing the second act. However, the conclusion’s emotional weight didn’t resonate. The last few lines were perfectly penned, despite the ending’s abruptness. Perhaps I was spoiled by the duo’s first collaboration, BrickPremium Rush is a much simpler story, yet the more enjoyable JGL showcase. Think updated version of Kevin Bacon’s Quicksilver, only with a fixed-gear and the Chinese mob. Sadly, Michael Shannon’s crooked cop charisma is diluted with Jamie Chung’s terrible immigrant accent. It isn’t Breakfast at Tiffany’s bad, but still…

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Imagine Pan’s Labyrinth constructed in a bayou. Newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis shines as the year’s newest discovery. Six year-old Hushpuppy processes nature’s unforgiving destruction with the boundless imagination smiled upon youth. Grounding her fanciful flights are harsh lessons of survival taught by her father, Wink. Released from melting polar ice caps, the mythical Auroch creatures represent an ecological allegory inside Hushpuppy’s fantastical journey.

Butter: Eliciting lukewarm reception at best, this butter-carving comedy falls victim to an unsure identity. Why is it worth checking out? I had no idea Olivia Wilde could be this funny.

The Master: Watching a PT Anderson film is akin to staring at a masterpiece inside the Louvre. Between the grandiose shots, flawless composition and inventive sound design, the results are intimidating. The Master stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, no doubt inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and his unique take on spirituality. The film’s momentum is buried in the third act, eliminating Top Ten consideration. Unlike my Olivia Wilde preconception before watching Butter, I did have an idea Joaquin Phoenix could be this crazy.

Pitch Perfect: Anna Kendrick’s vocal vehicle is everything Glee ain’t- funny and not eye-gougingly annoying. John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks dispense side-splitting commentary during ear-pleasing perfection.

The horror genre: Considering the breadth of film dominating my time, some may be surprised to learn that horror is where my heart is. For the first time in seven lists, not a one lands in my Top Ten. However, feel free to use Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods as an introductory compendium to non-believers. The UK’s Hammer Films continues its return to form with the atmospheric Lady in Black. For a wide release, Sinister had some very wicked images flickering from Ethan Hawke’s projector (not to mention the year’s moodiest score). Australia exported the year’s top foreign horror, The Loved Ones. Released down under three years ago, TLO can be described as Fatal Attraction meets The Descent, written by Cameron Crowe (circa 1989). My favorite fright flick of 2012 is the quirky coming-of-age shocker, Excision. Full review here.

 

These four were the Heisman Hopefuls, just missing invitations to the Top Ten green room:

Detachment

A powerful wake-up call to parents everywhere, this inner-city portrait paints a grim picture. We’re losing our kids to the easiest facilitator of failure- apathy. Adrian Brody gives a layered performance as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher-poet entrenched in an academic environment designed to fail. To win back the minds inside his classroom, Barthes must first choose to break free from self-imposed isolation. Unlike most teacher-saves-student films, Detachment refrains from solving systemic problems with a neat bow tie. Doing so only neglects the urgency threatening this generation.

 

The Grey

Liam Neeson utilizes his Taken alpha skills to survive a pack of man-hunting wolves, instead of sex-trafficking Euros. Add a deadly snowstorm to the mix and death by plane crash may not be the worst fate imaginable. The survivors’ dire situation tests the extreme boundaries of human condition. The Grey marketed itself as a wolf chase through the Alaskan elements. Beneath the fangs and hypothermia breathes a meditative exercise, a rediscovering of one’s will to live.

 

Compliance

How far will we be coerced under duress from authority? A fast food manager receives a call that one of her employees has stolen money from a customer. The accused is detained in the restaurant’s stock room and the caller’s demands stray further from civility. Overheard at my screening: “Nobody is that dumb.” “You don’t have to do what he says!” Until the viewer realizes the film is based on a true story. Social psychologists have studied these concepts before, specifically with the Milgram and Stanford experiments. While most of us share confidence in a sense of moral action, history remembers otherwise. Wholesale extermination wiped out millions while mouths remained silent.

 

Silver Linings Playbook

The only thing I loathe more than a rom-com is the phrase rom-com.  The only thing I hate more than the phrase rom-com is typing rom-com four times in two sentences. Matthew Quick’s fiction-turned-screenplay hints at the familiar, but takes a refreshingly unexpected route to get there. Bradley Cooper nails his performance as a released mental patient adjusting to life on the outside. However, Jennifer Lawrence absorbs the screen as Cooper’s wacky equal. Scrapping Katniss heroism for flawed humanism, J-Law delivers the best female performance of the year. Don’t worry… The Academy will screw it up again (cough, Winter’s Bone, cough). And just when I thought De Niro had left the building, thespian Rob shows up for game day. *The toughest omission, by far. I agonized for days thinking of ways to slip Playbook into the Top Ten. Dropping any other finalist proved impossible and slotting #10 a tie would have been a copout.

 

Without further ado, my Top Ten (Most readers probably skipped down here immediately. Don’t think otherwise… Your noses are all growing.):

10. The Sessions

 

The main reason why Silver Linings Playbook is on the outside looking in, an essay titled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” serves as inspiration for 2012’s most unlikely feel-good movie. Struck with polio as a child, Mark O’Brien is paralyzed from the neck down. When he’s not being transported on a gurney, he scribes from home with the breathing assistance of an iron lung. Determined to authenticate his poetry’s emotional foundation, the 38-year old virgin enlists the professional aid of a sex surrogate. Cheryl schedules six sessions designed to educate Mark about the sensual nature of the female (and his own) body. In a bold career move, Helen Hunt goes au naturel while providing tender assurance to Mark’s bedside vulnerability. In an industry where youth is stretched with Botox and scalpels, Hunt unflinchingly bares maturity in its unmodified beauty. With Mark’s gift of gab and an array of facial expressions, John Hawkes throws his hat into the Academy’s ballot box. The Sessions hits all the right notes and strikes more than a few chuckles. Take a bow, Mr. Hawkes. You’ve busted my Top 10 three years running.

 

9. Klown

This Danish export leads the year in laughs. Desperately trying to prove fatherhood readiness to his pregnant girlfriend, Frank “chaperones” her 12-year old nephew on a canoe trip. The only problem? Besides potential kidnapping charges, Frank’s buddy Casper planned the “Tour de P***y” without adolescent contingencies. The awkward trio descends upon Casper’s carnal objectives, despite their obliviousness to social mores. As Frank scrambles for parental intuition, his bad decisions only agitate their predicament. Just when Klown bares a little bit of heart, inappropriate humor rudely takes a bite. And it’s still okay to smile.

 

8. End of Watch

Michael Pena and Jake Gyllenhaal concoct a winning formula in this buddy-cop thriller. Full review here.

 

7. The Imposter

In 1994, a 13-year old boy disappears in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, Nicholas has been found over 5,000 miles away in Linares, Spain. The teen’s missing years tell quite a story, but the documentary really surges post family reunion. After a relatively short time apart, their son now looks noticeably different and speaks with a heavy accent. Despite the drastic changes, the family is adamant the boy is theirs. While family members, investigators and an adult “Nicholas” spin an incredible yarn, the stomach knot gets tighter. As the film digs deeper, extraordinary details emerge in a case almost too implausible to believe.

 

6. Chronicle

What happens when three normal teenagers are suddenly bestowed super powers? Chronicle dodges traditional found footage constraints by incorporating creative camera work into its storyline. After exploring a mysterious crater, the enhanced high schoolers test their newfound abilities by amplifying pranks upon an unsuspecting public. The light-hearted tone takes a dramatic detour when the group’s introvert begins acquiring skills faster than the others. An interesting character study unfolds in a fable Greek in scope.

 

5. Zero Dark Thirty

Katherine Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is a much tauter production than her 2008 Best Picture. Accusations of American jingoism had ZDT on the defensive even before release. The CIA’s denouncement of torture scenes lobbed complaints from the opposite spectrum. Despite its inevitable conclusion, the film’s moral ambiguity deflects criticism from both sides. Hollywood darling Jessica Chastain develops Maya’s subtle changes while leading the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The skirmishes are connected by a fascinating investigation, constantly impeded by the barrage of red tape. Between the explosions, Maya’s head remains buried in documents, photographs and maps. Despite the nearly three hour run time, ZDT sears at a blistering pace. The payoff is phenomenal and the last 20 minutes will leave viewers exhausted. With a possible second BP trophy on the mantel, Mr. Cameron may start learning a few things from his ex.

 

4. Sound of My Voice

A pair of journalists infiltrate a cult, whose leader claims to be from the future. Quite a setup, eh? Co-writers Zat Batmaglij and Brit Marling swing the audience between belief and skepticism, challenging our collective schema in the process. The investigative couple’s subtle transformation is organized into ten chapters throughout the film. Marling also doubles as Maggie, the cult’s enigmatic leader. Several instances border on the absurd, particularly the indoctrination scenes. However, levity is quickly silenced by a single voice. The audience is completely transfixed during Maggie’s teaching moments. The ending is sure to spark discussion, yet the script’s overall brilliance can’t be fully appreciated upon initial viewing. Following last year’s Another Earth, Marling has quickly achieved the “It girl” label among indie circles. Quite a rise for a gal who turned down Goldman Sachs to pursue silver-screened dreams.

 

3. Holy Motors

Like most art French, writer/director Leos Carax thumbs his nose at cinematic convention with an avant garde take on technology and film. Denis Lavant is literally the actor’s chameleon, transforming into an astounding 11 different faces throughout film. Lavant is whisked to each new assignment inside a stretch limo that serves as his dressing room. From his breathtaking choreography inside a motion capture studio to an unsettling romp through the Parisian sewer system, Lavant’s day swims along with the fluidity of its innovative narrative. Intermission is announced when Lavant’s accordion leads a flash mob of musicians around town. American blues legend R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” colors the neighborhood in the coolest scene of the year.

 

2. The Raid: Redemption

Harkening back to John Carpenters 1976 classic Assault on Precinct 13, a swat team is trapped inside an apartment complex inhabited by the city’s worst criminals. The cops attempt to reach the top floor, where the crime lord sets the chess pieces in motion. All hell breaks loose when the big boss offers free rent in exchange for total police extermination. Gareth Evans trims the dialogue by conducting a bloody symphony of violence. A cinematic orgy of bullets, impaled necks and broken bones replace any semblance of character development. Unbelievable fight choreography is rhythmically arranged to Mike Shinoda’s gritty electro-score. Indonesia’s top Pencak Silat fighter and his real-life teacher (starring as the boss’ badass enforcer) defy physics in the greatest action flick of the young 21st century.

 

1. Miss Bala

Y Tu Mamá También co-stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luno produce the Queen of 2012 cinema. Full review here.

 

That a wrap, folks. As always, you can lodge comments and complaints to the feedback box below. What were some of your favorites last year?

Excision (2012)

Unrated | 81 Min. | Horror, Comedy, Drama

Future Remake TitleI Just Want Mom to Love Me

In a nutshell: “Can you contract an STD by having sex with a dead person?” No stranger to the inappropriate, Pauline manages to befuddle even her second period sex ed. teacher. Then again, normalcy is light years from Pauline’s universe. Drifting through life with zero friends and a family with whom she fails to connect, she splits her “me time” between prayers to God and dreams mixing blood, sex and body parts. As she begins to discover her own sexuality, her private thoughts start leaking into reality… and that’s where the fun really begins.

Cobra’s Bite:  AnnaLynne McCord has flown under the radar with roles often accentuating her beauty. Her credits are highlighted by a darkly delicious turn as doc stalker Eden, in the FX sitcom Nip/Tuck. I hear she also makes a fairly believable elitist in the newer 90210, but I’ll take a fan’s word for it. Stealing a cue from Charlize Theron’s Monster, McCord bravely allows a makeup crew to work their magic in reverse. Bad skin, jutting jaw and ratty hair aside (don’t let the insert above fool you), McCord displays impressive range transforming into the eccentric. Sliding into a seemingly uncomfortable skin, she nails Pauline’s nervous ticks and wary mannerisms.

Although off-putting to nearly everyone she meets, Pauline’s tactless demeanor drives the film’s situational humor. However, Excision’s most incendiary moments spring from Pauline’s sleep. Executing her dream sequences must have been a cinematographer/production designer’s wet dream. Over-stylized, over-saturated and (over)shocking, the more sensitive viewers may smash the remote control’s stop button on Pauline’s journey prematurely. However, the dreams are key motifs that ultimately construct her thought processes. These visuals may reveal a diagnosis of absolute lunacy, but they also provide the film’s subtext of unrealistic beauty expectations.

At its core, Excision has surprising heart. As Pauline’s overbearing mother, Traci Lords may have finally shaken the former adult film star label. The complex struggle between mother and teen-angst daughter comes to an emotional head during the film’s explosive climax. Familial dysfunction seems to be a trending theme in American horror lately, most recently explored in Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2012). The film also borrows a bit from McKee’s earlier classic May (2006), an excellent character study of another woman misunderstood. Excision does stand alone in one regard: The grotesque has never been this erotic (or as wacky).

The Verdict:

Excision is available on DVD and Blu-Ray October 16th, 2012.  

End of Watch (2012)

R | 109 Min. | Drama, Action, Comedy

Future Remake Title: Cartels, Speeding Tickets & Paperwork

In a nutshell: A pair of LADP officers return to active duty after being cleared of a previous shooting. The next few hours take viewers on a simulated ride along, as the city’s finest uncover a serious case amidst their routine calls.

Cobra’s Bite: Boasting a strong resume of writing and directing credits, End of Watch is David Ayer’s second release wearing both hats. Ayer’s pen manifested one of last decade’s most ambiguous villains in 2001’s Training Day (and subsequently helped Denzel nab an Oscar). While Harsh Times (2006) wasn’t without its missteps, the freshman director cultivated a very rare chemistry from its two leads.

End of Watch balances an extremely taut narrative with enjoyable moments of natural levity. The film eschews thematic cliches exacted in most cop dramas, most notably police corruption and department politics. Instead, the audience is dropped inside South Central Los Angeles street theater, brought to you by Officers Taylor and Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaall and Michael Peña, respectively). Shaky cams catch the action, thanks to Taylor’s video project for his off-duty fine arts class.

* In the endless debate of shaky versus still mounted cameras, I’m a huge believer that the former works beautifully if done correctly. Detractors call shaky photography disconcerting, ultimately frustrating those who demand a clean view of each moment shot. Others become nauseous while watching erratic motion on such a large screen- this crowd should probably stay away. But if you prefer roller coasters to carousels, don’t let this film’s creative choice prevent you from seeing it. The free-flowing action is much more visceral when your eyes move in sync with the characters’ own. With each foot chase, knock down and recoil, the film replaces passive observance with active immersion.

While a good portion of the film explores the dynamic between Officers Taylor and Zavala, End of Watch is much more than a glamorized episode of Cops. The script never spoon-feeds the characters’ pasts, opting for expositional glimpses nestled within sound dialogue. The comparatively lighthearted peace-keeping sequences are suddenly splintered when the partners open a crime scene’s Pandora’s Box. The jokes remain steady, but the ominous arc grips tighter the rest of the way.

Much like police officers, actors must wear masks when called upon. Gyllenhall and Peña spent nearly half a year riding with officers, during late night beats in South Central. Witnessing the darker edges of urban sprawl together can’t help but forge a unique bond. The shared experience translated seamlessly onto the screen, as the two play off each other like childhood friends. The dashboard scenes are filled with hilarious banter, interspersed with relatable life quandaries. However, hands are never far from holsters and the mood is flipped within seconds. Peña continues to prove himself as one of the business’ most under-appreciated talents. His portrayal of Mike Zavala is equal parts assertive, comical and introspective. Gyllenhaal delivers an equally jarring performance as the rangy Brian Taylor. The audience rides an emotional volley throughout his most transformative scenes.

Although not at the forefront, the female leads are equally impressive. The entertainment industry often ladles female officer roles with emotional baggage or overcompensating egos. Thankfully, Watch’s America Ferrerra and Cody Horn exercise believable control over perps, while deftly shooting quips at their male peers. On the flip side of the law, a rare, yet twisted, example of feminism is highlighted within the ultra machismo gang environment. In both cases, each woman isn’t just trying to be one of the guys… she really is. Oh, and hearing Anna Kendrick sing along to Cam’ron is nearly worth the price of admission.

The Verdict:

End of Watch is now playing in theaters.

Killer Joe (2012)

NC-17 | 103 Min. | Mystery, Thriller, Comedy

Future Remake Title:  Now That’s Fried Chicken!

In a nutshell:  So your mom stole an ounce of blow to fix her dilapidated Cadillac. Gosh darn it, you’re now in the hole with the dealer. (Gee, thanks ma!)  But wait, she’s got a $50K life insurance policy. And you know a guy who knows a guy that can expedite the natural cycle of life?  Hey Mensa, there’s another layer to this sterling inspiration of Machiavellian profundity… The cleaner also moonlights as a Dallas PD detective. Pass me a drumstick and let the games begin.

Cobra’s Bite:  While known for such iconic titles as The French Connection and The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s last few projects translate material imagined for the stage. His screen adaptations tap into a hyperbolized, yet focused, illustration of psychological conditions. Friedkin’s previous feature, 2006’s Bug, was so bizarre that many audiences left theaters confounded.  If his goal was to produce irregular palpitations conduced by relentless paranoia, Friedkin succeeded in spades.  Bug’s two leads consume each other’s exhausting suspicions, but the original playwright’s own distrust ultimately paints the film’s timely verisimilitude.

* A quick tip before watching Friedkin’s last two efforts:  Skip the trailers.  Bug’s biggest obstacle was its marketing.  Audiences were promised a horror flick, driven by the promise of an entomological monstrosity. Honestly, the studio probably played the advertising as best it could.  The trailers had to appeal to a wide audience, despite the film’s niche scope.

Six years later, the enigmatic director returns with the similarly eccentric Killer Joe.  Thankfully, the studio was smart enough to push this film through the independent circuit (helped along by its NC-17 rating, naturally).  Regional vernacular and a serious score keep the characters believable in this Southern gothic noir. Panic is established with the first shot, as Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) barges into his family’s trailer home. With shortages of collective brainpower and any sense of scruples, the family’s dangerously underdeveloped scheme isn’t exactly an original narrative. However, the film takes a serious turn after a Texas-sized pair of black cowboy boots walks across the screen.

If there was any doubt as to Matthew McConaughey’s range, Killer Joe effectively puts the notion to rest. His portrayal of Joe Cooper is masterfully creepy, unstable and surprisingly touching. Hitchcock believed a scene’s real power lies not when the bomb goes off, but in its audience knowing the bomb is ticking underneath the breakfast table. McConaughey pulls off two such instances with an authenticity that temporarily erases any memory of David Wooderson cruising for high school chicks (Linklater fans aside). These scenes are highly uncomfortable and perversely hilarious. Friedkin’s sardonic wink will likely elevate these visuals to cult-status, joining those immortalized in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

As Chris’ bumpkin father, Ansel, Thomas Haden Church provides much of the film’s deadpan humor. Gina Gershon completely submerses her body and spirit into the dark places her role demands. Despite being asked to leap out of any sane comfort zone, Gershon conveys brilliant subtlety during Sharla’s key moments. Unfortunately, Hirsch falls a bit flat while driving Chris’ persistent edginess.

Keep an eye out for British import Juno Temple.  The casting of dim, yet hopeful, Dottie Smith required a young actress capable of executing a measured performance. The fast rising starlet effortlessly displays a nuanced maturity beyond her years. As the film’s singular expression of innocence, Dottie represents a harsh truth: If purity stands alone in a grotesque world, it will grab love from the most despicable of places.

The Verdict:

Killer Joe is now playing in theaters.

Miss Bala (2011)

R | 113 Min. | Drama, Action, Thriller

Future Remake Title: Miss Congeniality 3: Tijuana Gone Wild

In a nutshell: Convinced by her best friend Suzu, Laura Guerrero decides to enter Miss Baja’s annual beauty pageant.  After the tryouts, Laura reluctantly meets Suzu at Club Millenium.  Unfortunately, the next few days thrust Laura into the center of a violent and very real drug war.  Oh yeah… In between bullets and bloodshed, there’s still a pageant to win.

Cobra’s bite: AFI graduate Gerardo Naranjo creates a dreary tapestry of a people under siege. Controlled by an unholy trinity of government officials, corrupt cops and ultra violent drug cartels, the everyday citizen is forced to juggle poverty’s puzzle with hopeless perpetuity.  Despite the city’s dilapidated buildings and ubiquitous military presence, Naranjo’s long tracking camera shots capture Mexico’s inherent beauty.  The juxtaposition is analogous to Laura’s shift between the harsh reality of war and the dream-encapsulated Miss Baja contest.

Naranjo’s rising star is certainly attached to Stephanie Sigman’s performance as Laura. Miss Bala follows a woman whose extraordinary beauty serves as both hope and curse. Sigman’s facial expressions and body mannerisms sprint through the emotional gamut.  Laura’s wistful eyes gaze over a skyline speckled with smoke and gunfire.  The very next scene may show her entire being consumed with fear, as she executes her next move.  Laura’s only reprieve is during a short visit to the dress shop. When the camera flips between her and the dressing room mirror, viewers may not even realize their own sudden relaxation. The relief is short-lived, however, as Sigman’s character is unforgivingly shoved back into the fire.

Miss Bala works because Naranjo transports viewers to a third world environment without exploiting its realism.  The violence, while raw and unglamorous, is rhythmically paced with the disturbing quietness simmering inside Lino, the cartel boss (played by the extremely scary Noe Hernandez). While the film ultimately revolves around Laura, Naranjo expertly weaves several nifty story lines into the three day snapshot.  Even scarier than Laura’s cinematic nightmare?  The film is loosely based on the true story of Miss Sinaloa 2008.  Miss Baja is also the best film I’ve seen in young 2012.

The Verdict:

Dead Hooker In A Trunk (2009)

R | 92 Min. | Horror, Comedy

Future Title Remake: Twins of Sin

In a nutshell: The title pretty much sums it up. Twin sisters Badass and Geek find a surprise in their car’s trunk. With the help of Junkie and Goody Two Shoes, the gruesome twosome sets out to find a burial spot. With a serial killer one step behind, the merry gang finds itself in all sorts of shenanigans along the way.

Cobra’s bite: Who said chicks can’t do horror? Vancouver natives Jen and Sylvia Soska co-wrote, directed and starred in their debut feature. The duo’s obvious love for the genre had an interesting beginning. Sylvia, older by 19 minutes, was born twice as heavy as Jen. Apparently, elder sis tried eating younger sis inside the womb.  The inauspicious births may actually have been blessings in disguise. While most girls were marrying off their Ken and Barbie dolls, the Soska kids were too busy looking for spiders.  Eventually, their arachnid playdates evolved into a fascination with fear, itself.  A lifetime of horror flicks spurred their own filmmaking dreams, eventually manifesting in Twisted Twins Productions.

Working on a shoe-string budget, Dead Hooker is certainly rooted in the grindhouse tradition. Uneven storytelling, coupled with a few moments of shoddy camerawork and sound design, will be tough sledding for some viewers. However, fans of the genre will appreciate DHIAT‘s overall vision. Select scenes deliver glimpses of genius, waiting to break through. Effects and makeup certainly displayed a professional aesthetic, surprising considering the budgetary limitations. In between the blood and guts splashed about the lens, the film’s most defining moments are stroked with an authentic horror sensibility. The dark comedy never hides from its camp, but the Soskas understand when to jolt viewers back to an unsettling reality.

Dead Hooker is far from perfect, even by grindhouse standards. In all likelihood, DHIAT will have a tough time gaining cult status.  Nonetheless, the film doesn’t sell itself out- DHIAT knows exactly where it comes from and never apologizes for what it lacks. At the very least, it’s a cinematic exercise conducted by two very knowledgeable students of horror.  Most importantly, the Soskas have injected a female perspective into the hardcore horror spectrum. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion Dead Hooker only scratches the surface of their depravity (the twins’ next project, American Mary, looks incredible).  Are they good news for female filmmakers attempting to break into the fear business? You never know… The Soska twins may prove to be pioneers when the blood settles.

The Verdict:

Dead Hooker In A Trunk is available on DVD, January 31st.