Maps to the Stars: Cronenberg's satirical sideshow

David Cronenberg may have discovered the perfect setting in which to conduct another of his emotionally refrigerated examinations into perversion. Hollywood is a petri dish for the kind of parasites the director likes to watch breed and consume their human hosts. In this case the evil germ is narcissism, which mutates into a thoroughly distasteful vehicle for all sorts of ugly behavior. Murder, self-immolation, insanity and particularly incest are the main characteristics on display here, and they make for a film that is fascinating to watch but impossible to like.

Leviathan: Of vodka and monsters

Leviathan, the damning and ruggedly beautiful Oscar-nominated film from director Andrey Zvyagintsev, begins as a story about a property dispute, and ends up being a fable about God, fate and vodka. It charts a relentlessly brutal and unforgiving path in which a marriage, a family, a friendship and a future are savagely transformed. The film can be read as an example of life within the perpetual corruption and baffling bureaucracy of post-Soviet Russia, in which the corrosive ills of the state are medicated by epic quantities of alcohol. But it’s also an allegory about God’s mercurial wrath, and the sins that are most likely to be forgiven. For Kolya, the tragic homeowner at the center of the tale, the answer is none too pretty.

A Most Violent Year: A most non-violent misfire

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year could be called his “difficult third film.” More ambitious than his star-studded debut Margin Call and more expansive than his second picture, All Is Lost, the movie is admirably controlled, powerfully atmospheric and studiously paced. It is well-acted and designed, and it simmers with a minor key tension. But it’s also emotionally thin, repetitious and, sorry to say, rather dull. Since I’ve found Chandor’s first two films to be fine, intelligent works that even improve with second viewings, the thud of A Most Violent Year ranks as an irksome disappointment.

Hard to Be a God:This mud's for you

If you have the stomach for it, sitting through the three-hour, black-and-white Russian film, Hard to Be a God, may rank as one of your most unforgettable cinematic experiences. The last picture made by Aleksei German, considered the greatest Russian filmmaker after Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker, Nostalgia), Hard To Be A God is a science-fiction movie caked in the eternal mud of a medieval epic. German died in 2013 at the age of 74, having completed the movie after dreaming about it and working on it for his entire career. A one-of-a-kind film, it combines a daunting, unrelenting, uncompromising and anti-commercial personal vision with a thoroughly disgusting–but weirdly, rather awe-inspiring–aesthetic built on Muck (yes, with a capital M).

Two Days, One Night: Cruel, cruel world

Jean-Pierre and Luc, known together as the Dardenne Brothers, have crafted another sneak attack on our sense of social justice with their latest picture, Two Days, One Night. In the last twenty years, films such as The Kid With a Bike, L’Enfant, The Silence of Lorna, Rosetta and La Promesse have focused on the overriding concern of these two vibrant, compassionate, humanist filmmakers: the desperate struggle of the working class, and the borderline criminal class, to not only earn a living wage within our heartless economic climate, but to also retain–or discover for the first time–their self-esteem, or at least their capacity to care for their fellow human being. This is the theme of Two Days, One Night, perhaps their most timely and incisive film yet. It puts several human faces on the cruel calculus of “profits above people” which seems to be the only factor at play in the business world’s headlong rush to the bottom line.

The Duke of Burgundy: Coy kink

Viewers with little tolerance for the specific delights of kinky esoterica will be baffled or bored by director Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, and those hoping for titillating soft-core nudity will be disappointed. But if a slavish homage to 1970s era erotica, bedecked in the handmade aesthetic of B-movie, 16mm optics, featuring lesbian lovers, butterflies, bits of bondage and sado-masochistic game-playing is your thing, then the movie is right up your…well, right up your something.

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.