Ten Best Films of 2014

You’ll find few Oscar nominees on my list of the Ten Best Films of 2014. You’ll find even fewer mainstream films. And you won’t see any blockbusters. But there are several smart, challenging, memorable, artistically crafted films, nearly all of which played in Seattle theaters; and all of which are, or will be, available on DVD or VOD in the coming months. There are also, I’ll admit, at least three Oscar nominees, including one that is the favorite to win it all.

Inherent Vice: A hymn to dishevelment

One of the many earthy delights of Inherent Vice is the fact that it was shot on 35mm film, the celluloid looking like it was dipped in bong water and left to dry on a Manhattan Beach veranda, ca.1970. Digital would have been all wrong for this movie, steeped in the funk of dirty feet, sand in the crotch and purple in the haze, a shaggy-dog story ambling through shag carpeted halls, boho pizza joints, weed-fogged mansions, gleaming corporate insane asylums run by dentists, and the always slanting sun of another day in la-la land, guided by a quizzical paranoid stoner with a perfected So-Cal slouch and muttonchops that look like, well, legs of furry lamb pasted to his cheeks. If nothing else, Inherent Vice will remind you of a time–the 1970s (here I go again)–when movies didn’t have to make total sense or play to the pre-fab expectations of the marketplace. They just had to smell right.

Selma: A moving and gripping surprise

Selma could have gone wrong in so many ways. It could have been a bloated, sanctimonious biopic. It could have been an earnest, low-budget weeper. It could have been a superficial Lifetime miniseries. Or, even worse, one of those awful, fill-in-the-blanks, overfunded PBS American Masters specials, cobbled together by editors working from a cue-the-highlights crib sheet. But thankfully–and here a “praise the Lord” may be in order–Selma was made by a relative newcomer to feature-length filmmaking who, unfazed by the demands of legacy, and working with a not-yet-famous cast, chose economy and modesty over grandiose gestures. Selma, as directed by Ava DuVernay, is a personal and moving portrait of a man and a people seizing their historic moment.

Foxcatcher: Odd tale, bleakly told

Foxcatcher makes its bleak and rather obvious point early on. The filthy rich, unable to pursue the common man’s idea of the American dream, simply buys it instead. In the case of John du Pont, a lonely heir to the chemical fortune, this takes the form of installing a team of prospective Olympic wrestlers on his vast Pennsylvania estate and hiring a gold medal winner as his training coach. He wants to ensure his own legacy as man of philanthropic accomplishment and impress his invalid mother, an impossible lifelong task that has left du Pont a wealthy and worthless fool. It’s a decidedly quirky tale, but one that director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) has strangled all the life out of. Foxcatcher is an unremittingly gloomy parable, astringently told, focused on an unpleasant loser who exists in a vain fantasy of his own design. The fact that he damages several lives in the course of this film should cause someone to rage or to at least run away, but the characters trundle on in mute acquiescence.

My Last Year With the Nuns: Inventive re-imagining of Matt Smith's one-man show

My Last Year With the Nuns is local actor, comedian and sometime auctioneer Matt Smith’s cinematic re-staging of a one-man play that debuted here in 1997. Subtitled as the story of “a white 13-year-old boy in Seattle, Wash. in 1966” you might be tempted to ask, “Who cares?”  Smith might respond, “Guilty!” But that would be the Catholic part of him talking. Judging by the time frame of this film, Smith’s 8th grade year at venerable St. Joseph’s school, and the young Smith’s insouciance to religious proprieties, the actor’s Catholic influences seem to have been short-lived. His story here is not a memoir of faith, doubt, God, celibate priests or sadistic nuns, it’s about Matt’s rollicking boyhood adventures as a scamp on the cusp of adolescence.

Top Five: Chris Rock's raunchy, riotous, directorial surprise

Chris Rock takes a good hard look in the mirror with his new film Top Five and sees a superstar celebrity comedian trapped by his own success. Rock’s Andre Allen, who learned his chops in stand-up comedy clubs before hitting it big in a trio of blockbusters playing a costumed crime fighter called “Hammy the Bear”, wants to change the narrative of his career. He stars in and directs a film about the Haitian slave rebellion he’s calling “Uprize!” which features a key scene in which Allen and his fellow revolutionaries heroically massacre several thousand white people. The idea is funny but the film is not supposed to be. “Uprize!” is as commercially irresponsible as a minstrel show, as is Allen’s decision to marry a reality TV star who insists on shooting the wedding live. And just for good measure, he allows a New York Times reporter to shadow him while he’s going through the worst two days of his life. Or are they the best two days? Such is Chris Rock’s sly, subversive, and very funny feature-length selfie, a journey of raunch and romance that leads ultimately to the rebirth he was looking for all along.

The Interview: Please, I beg you, don't waste your time

In September of 1997 I was a freelance cameraman on a three-person CBS news crew invited into North Korea to report on a nationwide famine. This was a rare opportunity for the Western media to get a glimpse inside the secretive country. Even though our access was tightly controlled, I saw a nation bursting with raw, natural beauty, huge sweeping highways that were always deserted (rumors were the freeways were built mainly to be used as military landing strips), scenes of farmers toiling in fields that yielded little food, expertly trained police directing traffic on streets where the only vehicles were official government sedans, and the ubiquitous, gargantuan gold-plated statues and unfurled banners depicting North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. If ever there was a bizarre modern dictatorship ripe for a pointed political satire, this was it. Sadly, the much-ballyhooed movie The Interview doesn’t even come close. It is simply another dumb, gross, disposable piece of American movie trash aimed at 13-year old boys and their older, developmentally arrested brethren.