Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2014

With so many incredible movies released in 2014, this year's film ranking may have been the toughest one yet. Out of the 176 first time views this year, 58 were new releases (you can view a full ranking of every 2014 release I watched this year here:  In any other year the films that ranked 11-20 would have definitely made it to the top of my list, so my top 10 are the ones I thought were really something special. 

Top 10 (originally published at

1. Whiplash
When I first bought a ticket for Whiplash, little did I expect I would be watching the tensest movie of the year. To put things in perspective: I usually don’t sit through the credits, but the film was such a punch in the gut that I couldn’t move until after the house lights came up.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians is the most fun I had at a movie theater all year, and it’s clear that everything from its performances, direction, and awesome mix are done with love. As a lifelong comics fan, I can attest that James Gunn celebrated the weirdness of the Marvel Universe, and introduced characters I never through I’d see on the big screen.

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
A Shakespearian drama by way of apes, Dawn brought allegorical gravity to the summer movie season. Andy Serkis is a cinematic treasure and if anyone still had any doubts that motion capture could stand with regular performances, this movie should clear that right up.

4. Boyhood
Linklater’s magnum opus takes full advantage of the capabilities of film, continuing the philosophical themes and experimentation with time that made many of his previous films so remarkable. Boyhood is one of the best coming of age movies, one that works with just as much intelligence as it does heart.

5. Gone Girl
David Fincher dangles his audience on a string, swinging us from scenes of caustic, honest humor to those of shocking horror. With Amy Elliot Dunne, Fincher and Flynn create one of the year’s most memorable and complex characters.

6. Interstellar
With Interstellar, Christopher Nolan creates a thrilling science-fiction film whose answers you have to work for. The film undoubtedly has its flaws, but when so many films play it safe it is undeniably exciting to see a director aim so high with his ambition.

7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Russos, who had ironically been my last pick on the shortlist of Cap 2 directors, delivered one of the best and most politically relevant comic based films of the decade. Winter Soldier doesn’t just operate under 2001 notions of terrorism, but looks at the world  today while offering all the excitement and humor we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios.

8. The Lego Movie
There hasn’t been a satire of genre movies this smart and fun since Mel Brooks rode in with Blazing Saddles. The Lego Movie was an unexpected surprise, an exercise in wit that’s more than just an animated kids’ movie.

 9. Godzilla
Godzilla relies on atmosphere more than action scenes, and instead of wearing the audience out with battle fatigue, Gareth Edwards ensures the climax is worth the weight. In its focus on family and an impending sense of doom, Godzilla is reminiscent of blockbusters from the 70s and 80s while remaining modern in its examination of man’s arrogance.

10. Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 70s set neo-noir eschews modern plot sensibilities, yet still manages to craft complex characters that are parodic yet honest. It’s one of the year’s funniest films, and one that I had to learn how to watch, in order to fully appreciate it.

Honorable Mentions: Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Foxcatcher, 22 Jump StreetNightcrawler, Snowpiercer, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Dear White People, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Oculus

Worst of the Year: Sabotage, Pompeii, Hercules, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

2015’s Most Anticipated:

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2. Avengers: Age of Ultron
3. Spectre
4. The Hateful Eight
5. Crimson Peak
6. Trainwreck
7. The Revenant
8. Inside Out
9. Ant-Man
10. That's What I'm Talking About
11. Knight of Cups
12. Jurassic World
13. Friday the 13th

Lastly, I'd like to thank everyone who visited my blog this year and read my reviews. This first year has been quite exciting and I owe a lot to this blog and to those of you who have supported it in various ways. Your opinions are immensely valuable to me, and the feedback I've received has helped me to become a better writer and viewer. Looking forward to great things in 2015!

--Richard Newby

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Inherent Vice Review

(dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Warner Bros. Pictures

“Doc may not be a ‘Do-Gooder’ but he's done good.”

     We’ve all got vices, but it just may be that the characters of Paul Thomas Anderson’s L.A. set film have a few more than the rest of us. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Inherent Vice is a neon-tinted, soft-boiled neo-noir that takes the genre away from the Raymond Chandler tropes and into the psychedelic world of the early 70s. Inherent Vice follows, as best it can, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a Private Investigator, whose ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterson) pulls him into a case concerning the disappearance of her lover, a real-estate mogul. Doc becomes wrapped up in a conspiracy involving the cops, the FBI, Chinese heroin shipments, an underground band, a dental association, and possibly even Nixon himself. The thing is, Doc’s penchant for dope makes it difficult to determine how much of the conspiracy is real and how much is the product of poor memory, hallucinations, and a broken heart.

     Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely incredible in this film, and it’s impossible not to watch his antics without a big stupid grin on your face. He imbues Doc with the perfect amount of good intent and sheer stupidity. It’s refreshing to see Phoenix in a looser role, one that allows him to experiment with his comedic abilities. The rest of the cast is stellar, completely devoid of a weak link. There are quite a few big names who lend their talent to small, but memorable supporting roles. Katherine Waterson is definitely an actress to look out for. Her sultry portrayal of Shasta makes it clear why Doc would go through all this trouble for her, but there’s something unreadable about her too, a mysterious trait that makes her intentions hard to pin down. Of all the excellent supporting roles, it’s Josh Brolin who steals nearly every scene he’s in as a civil rights violating cop/actor with a (possibly subtextual) affection for chocolate covered bananas. It’s Phoenix’s show for sure, but the film assembles one of the year’s best ensembles.

     Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing is as masterfully composed as ever. With the help of his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Robert Elswit, Anderson creates one of the most attractive looking films of the year. Out of Anderson’s recent films, Inherent Vice is his most enjoyable. While it’s not as straight forward as There Will Be Blood, I think it’s an easier film to connect to on an emotional level than The Master. The film relies more on emotional readability than plot readability, and often asks the audience to focus more so on what’s happening than why it’s happening. If the main intent of stories is to answer the question of “who am I?” in regards to the central character(s), then I think Inherent Vice does a fine job of letting us know who Doc Sportello is by the film’s end.

     There’s been a lot of discussion about the plot specifics and a number of critics and audience members have been trying make sense of it. I think the complexity of the plot has been somewhat exaggerated and looked at in a negative light. Yes, it’s impossible to follow all the details of the case in its entirety, but I think to even attempt to do so misses the point of the film. The attentive viewer can follow most of it, given the understanding that the narrative is purposefully loopy, structured in such a way to mimic Doc’s own foggy mind. And perhaps in a throwback to the famous nonsensical noirs of yesteryear, The Big Sleep and The Lady From Shanghai, Inherent Vice’s successes exists beyond plot. I’ll admit, in our age of serialized storytelling, and non-linear structures used as plot devices, it’s difficult to wrap my mind entirely around Anderson’s notion of action taking precedent over plot, of not needing answers for everything. I think, with a few exceptions, it’s something that has prevented me from fully appreciating Anderson’s films. As someone who thrives on exploring themes, it’s difficult for me to stop looking for logical explanations. But with Inherent Vice I was able to sit back, enjoy, and allow logic to fall by the wayside. On a personal level, what’s most remarkable about Inherent Vice is that it made me aware that sometimes it’s necessary to relearn how to watch and analyze certain films.

     Inherent Vice is a film that deserves multiple viewings, and I’m sure it will clear up some of the plot discrepancies but I doubt “solving” the film will give it any more or less meaning. The meaning instead comes from the thrilling character work, comedy moments, and extraordinary filmmaking, all of which feel completely honest and unpretentious despite the occasionally nebulous plot. If you can just sit back and go with the flow, Inherent Vice is a positively groovy film.

Grade: A

Wild Review

(dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

“What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here?”

     After his success with last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, Jean-Marc Vallee explores a markedly different, but no less transformative tale with the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Struggling with the loss of her mother, a heroin and sex addiction, and a divorce, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) decides to hike alone, for over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in order to heal and find herself again.

     The film is far more of a scenic, personal journey than a plot driven narrative. As a result there aren’t many noteworthy supporting characters. Though Laura Dern gives a solid, if underused performance as Strayed’s mom, the rest of the characters feel mostly ancillary, like snapshots on the road. Wild is largely a one woman show, and Witherspoon is given ample opportunity to stretch her acting skills in both the main film narrative and the flashbacks. The flashbacks which are mostly nonlinear and occasionally treated as fever dreams or deep moments of self-reflection, give Witherspoon the opportunity to portray the many sides of Strayed. Because of the film’s structure, Witherspoon as allowed to explore dramatic shifts in the character, ranging from the bitter, haughty college girl, the grieving daughter, the heroin addicted wreck, and finally the serene wanderer. All of these character shifts feel like necessary insights into the character but the flashbacks only provide glimpses into places and moments that I felt needed expansion. Strayed’s mother had such a profound effect on her, so profound that her death almost lead her to complete ruin, and yet I’m not convinced the film did the best possible job syncing up these facts with the narrative. In terms of the journey the audience is asked to witness, the film felt short to me and full of missed acting opportunities.
     As with Dallas, Valle handles the seriousness of Strayed’s physical and emotional transformation with humor. Wild excels at creating a unique tone and refrains from slipping into the melodrama it could have so easily become. With the film’s lush scenic shots, and lingering looks at the landscape, there’s no debating that Wild isn’t a beautiful film. It’s also boasts a fantastic soundtrack that elevates certain scenes in the film. But despite all of these beautiful surface details, I still felt like something was missing. For me this came from the fact that memoirs are difficult to adapt because film can’t fully capture the internal narrative. The film attempts to solve this problem through the use of voiceovers and aforementioned flashbacks but I’m not sure they were entirely successful in capturing the character depth or emotional rapids that readers of the book were so captivated by. While I’m not one to stress over the necessity of adaptations, I am curious as to what the film offered that the book didn’t. Yes, Wild contains a wonderful performance by Witherspoon and Valle is a capable director but I felt like the movie through all of its shifting landscapes and shifting side characters, only provided me with a sketch rendering of Cheryl Strayed.
     Wild is a solid book club movie that I think is probably a more rewarding experience for those who read Strayed’s memoir. It’s an enjoyable trek, and at times it’s even a heartbreakingly tender one, but it’s also ironically too tame for its own good sometimes. Wild is admirable in its attempts, but I can’t help but wish there was something more substantial to hold onto.

Grade: B

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Foxcatcher Review

(dir. Bennett Miller)

Sony Pictures Classics

“A coach is a father, a coach is a mentor, a coach has great power in an athlete's life."

     There’s an inescapable feeling of wrongness that permeates Foxcatcher, a feeling that extends beyond the terrible crime and tragedy the film depicts, reaching into the foundations of something older. The story follows Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) whose wrestling career has taken a nosedive after the 1984 Olympics, leaving him in poverty. Prone to self-abuse and feelings of inadequacy when compared to his protective older brother, and wrestling partner Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), Mark struggles to find self-worth in a country he feels has abandoned him. Everything changes for him when patriotic millionaire John du Pont hires Mark to train for the 1988 Olympic Games on his estate, Foxcatcher Farms. But DuPont’s belief in Mark, turns into a paranoid and deadly obsession. Foxcatcher is a narrative built on the delusions of the American Dream and the country’s values established in money, ownership, and violence.

    Steve Carell makes a startling transformation into du Pont, creating a frightening depiction of paranoid-schizophrenia. What’s most chilling about his performance is how calm he plays du Pont. With the exception of a memorable cocaine-fueled scene in a helicopter, he speaks in deliberate, carefully structured sentences that create the illusion of control, while his eyes, watchful and greedy, show the jealousy, depression, and madness that’s roiling in his brain. Given how extreme du Pont’s behavior went in reality (highlighted in this insightful Courier-Post article by Ryan Cormier), Carell and the script show a surprising measure of restraint. Despite his manipulation and calculated cruelty, Carell taps into du Pont’s humanity, creating a character that isn’t quite sympathetic but not entirely opaque either.

     While Carell’s performance is the most gripping in the film, Ruffalo and Tatum also give standout performances. Ruffalo, who gives life to the affable Dave Schultz, continues to be one of the most consistent actors in Hollywood, never failing to deliver. Dave is the one fixed point in the film, an unwaveringly good and honest family man, who is content with his own level of achievement. Channing Tatum, who has really come into his own as an actor in the past few years, delivers his best performance yet. Mark Schultz is a complex role, one that requires Tatum to cycle through broody bouts of depression and a childlike eagerness to please. Tatum uses Mark’s pain and dissatisfaction with his life to create a unique symmetry with du Pont. While Tatum hasn’t been attributed with a phrase as catchy as McConissance, there’s no doubt that he has steadily been experiencing a career renaissance of his own.

    Bennett Miller’s film is chilly looking, the cold gray color palate reflecting the characters’ dark state of mind.  The often striking shot compositions have a rigidity to them, emphasizing the confinement of the characters, both in terms of space and their ideals. There are strange leaps in time in a couple places, purposefully disorienting to the viewer as to how long Schultz has been under DuPont’s watch. Miller’s directorial choices create a thriller that doesn’t mount in tension but rather creates a sense of unease throughout.

    While wrestling does figure heavily into the film, Foxcatcher is more than a sports story, even if it does utilize that rise and fall aspect in many ways. Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye, and Dan Futterman are concerned with a system, similar to Miller’s concern with a system in Moneyball.  In Foxcatcher, the system is not only the professional sports arena, but also the system of old money. In du Pont’s case, that old money came from supplying weapons for the military, a fact du Pont takes great pride in. du Pont is the product of a society in which he never had to achieve anything to gain his fortune, and was never equipped physically or emotionally to even begin to achieve anything. His mental illness is fueled by a desire for recognition he believes he deserves, and the prospect of losing the respect that was never his to begin with. He is plagued by discomfort as a result of his comfort. du Pont’s delusions of being America’s greatest patriot (the golden eagle, as he refers to himself), of being a father, brother, and mentor to Mark are a result of this. He’s an absurd man, a fact the film never fails to remind you of. While I don’t want to overstate or misrepresent the film’s themes, I believe Miller’s film speaks to modern issues of fame, fortune, and ultimately to the impossibility of achieving the ever-shifting American Dream.

    Foxcatcher handles big ideas, speaking to social concerns, making the film an innately personal movie, just not personal in the way we expect biopics to be. It allows for many character motivations to exist in subtext, offering more to think about than these “based on a true story” films usually do. The film offers such thematic insights that it’s hard not to believe it’s not a work of fiction. This doesn’t downplay the triumphs, evils, and losses of those involved with and effected by the events, but speaks to the depth of human desire. Foxcatcher is uniquely impactful and perceptive in its aim.

Grade: A