Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my 75th blog entry at Let Us Nerd!
Once again, it’s time to start announcing the best films of the year. And just like last year, I separate my list into Hollywood films and indie films, with the disclaimer that sometimes I know some of the folks involved in these, and that not all of them are technically 2014 films, but this was the year in which I first saw them. Let’s get started:
This is a very moving film from South By Southwest with basically a cast of just three. Some of these tropes are a bit cliche to the indie film (the estranged son, coming back home after many years, working out old wounds) but the heartfelt performances and strong direction elevate the material. The heart of the film is veteran actor Max Gail, best known for BARNEY MILLER. My one criticism, and it’s the only reason this is so low on my list, is the predictability of the story. Without spoiling anything, there is one death you see coming miles away. Even still, this film’s heart is in the right place.
The most pleasant surprise of this year, this inner-city comedy about a pizza delivery man who gets caught up in crime but has a heart of gold is going to one day be a cult classic. I saw this as a midnight movie and didn’t have much hopes for it, but the plot is a very funny thriller and the production value is incredible. My personal favorite gag involves a mob boss obsessed with having a nice couch who asks his victims to rate its comfort level. It’s always a nice surprise to sit down to watch what you think will be a small indie film and end up with a feature of better quality than much of Hollywood’s output.
This is a short film you MUST see on the big screen to fully appreciate. I’ve often said that animation is the most cinematic medium, and you definitely feel that while watching this impressionistic piece, which played at Cannes. Very reminiscent of FANTASIA, here is a stop-motion parable about birth, death, and renewal. And the music’s great too!
Due to embedding issues, I can’t post this one, so click here to watch the full film. The strongest influence on this beautiful short film is obviously TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, both in story and tone. Shot in glorious 16mm, this nostalgic look at childhood and its fears is haunting, poignant, and creates its own Boo Radley in the form of a strange man named Woo Woo. It’s always difficult to direct children, particularly in a small film, but these two girls carry the piece and truly feel like sisters.
As with THE HARBOR STORY last year, this film contains no dialog, except for the final third. It’s a beautiful film about living with trauma and being haunted with memories of a horrible attack, but also learning to move forward. The first few minutes might make you think you’re just watching a music video, but then the act of violence comes, so shocking because it’s so senseless. Aguinaga shows tremendous promise as a director, focusing on small details from the gun’s trigger to the assailant’s tattoo’s. But the star of the film is Juan-Pablo Veza and his sad face. It is one of the saddest faces I’ve ever seen. In addition to this, the film features great songs, all used by permission.
You know a film does something right when it manages to leave a quote or catchphrase in your head. Three of the films on this list have an immediate catchphrase that comes to mind. For this film it’s: “In order to understand recursion one must first understand recursion.”
This time-travel adventure tells the story of Sherwin, who’s the Best Man at his friend’s wedding. When he discovers he’s lost the ring just as the ceremony’s about to start, he must run home and use his elevator-time machine to go back in time and not only retrieve the ring, but also keep his past self from noticing. But he messes up on his mission, and so must do it all again, this time staying out of sight of two of his past iterations. And so forth. The plot in intentionally convoluted, fast-paced, and well acted, reminiscent of THE PANDORICA OPENS or BLINK meeting INCEPTION. I was really jealous of this film when it played in the same festival as my film, GODDESS OF TIME. Seriously, what are the odds there would be two separate 22-min time travel films in the same festival? And this one, being more action-oriented and lighthearted, was the more popular. But seeing it multiple times since, I’ve come to really appreciate all that went into it, especially the editing. Also, I used to live right by that bridge.
This cute comedy about a sex therapist and a rather surprising set of circumstances is a nice, intelligent, character-driven piece. Molly struggles with professional success but personal failure. Until she meets an odd couple and discovers that maybe sex, along with intimacy, really is the best therapy. With so many indie films being made by young people who like to play with cameras and do tricks, here’s one from a Nicaraguan director that feels like it was made by an adult and takes an adult look at sexuality, something Hollywood never does.
Another film with a catchphrase that chants away in my head: “Shadows connected to the light.”
Just watch the trailer above. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Then take that two-minute pause you will inevitable take afterward and go “What–the fuck did I just watch?” This is the ultimate midnight movie; a retro-expressionist world of rock and roll, VHS tapes, and immortal women called Lillans. Much like Warren Beatty‘s DICK TRACY, this film really does create an entire world with its backgrounds, and fans of the forthcoming HEAVEN IS NOW might be interested in checking it out. I had the good fortune to see it late at night in a small theatre alongside WOO WOO; now that is a great double-feature of female-oriented cinema. As strange and out there as the film’s plot and visual aesthetic is, what keeps it grounded is a strong central performance by Priscella McEver, who has the perfect face for this material, and is the loveliest succubus you’ll ever meet. I love this film so much that I must confess it came very close to being my #1. The one slight flaw is that there are quite a number of 180-breaks, which I suspect was due to the amount of green-screen cinematography and shifting spatial dimensions in each scene. It must have been crazy to film a movie like this. But when I’m on my deathbed, I will look back on this one as one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen.
And once again, we have a catchphrase I’ll always think of when I remember this film: “Ride your bicycle! Accidents happen when you don’t ride your bicycle!”
This remake of Terry Gilliam‘s BRAZIL manages to take the old trope of the dystopian future and do something new with it. The location space and costumes alone in this film are enough to creep you out. It begins with a stylized propaganda film of the 1950’s, telling viewers to ride their bicycles and how to think. We cut to an apparent future (or it could be happening today for all we know. Take a look at North Korea and you’ll see very little difference) and see that nothing has changed. Everyone is controlled by an oppressive government, told to pedal endlessly on their bikes, and consume whatever “slop” the government feeds them. Our hero tries to beat the system, and just like BRAZIL, we get two endings, one happy but artificial, one tragic but resonant.
Chris Farrell is the center of the film; his face perfectly embodies the feeling of being an everyman and of having more intelligence than those around him. Sarah Seeds is the emblem of his dreams and emotes a sense of wonder; much like Corsica Wilson in the next film on this list, she carries a feeling of vulnerability that makes her seem real in a very unreal setting. The presentation of this film is amazing, from the music to the bright lighting to the video-game style movements. If I had one small criticism, it’s the reveal of the villain having a “boar’s head.” Just seems a little unnecessarily random; just his glove alone does a great job of conveying a sense of menace. Maybe he should have been a gorilla.
…and the best indie film I saw in 2014 was…
And so, after a long list of crazy films featuring time travel, immortal women, and dystopian futures involving men who have boars’ heads, my personal favorite indie film of the year is a very old fashioned, simple coming-of-age road movie. At first glance, you might think “Haven’t we all seen this before? Young people being vulgar, going on a road trip and finding out who they are? Isn’t this every Judd Apatow movie meets SIDEWAYS?” But as the film unwinds, you soon discover that it has a layer of sadness to it. Tom and Charlie are on a cross-country road trip to “rescue” Tom’s ex-girlfriend from her wedding. It’s obvious right from the beginning that Tom is chasing a pipe-dream, but we believe in him. Soon they are joined by Hannah in what initially seems like a throwaway character, but who ends up being the heart of the film. All three of these characters are damaged, all three have emptiness in their lives, and as they ride in the van, get in adventures, and sing songs (“Ain’t had no pussy”) we come to care about them.
It’s easy to sympathy with Tom as the sensitive one. But the film throws us a loop with Charlie, whom we go from liking to disliking to liking again. This could easily have been a clown character, but he has quite a bit of depth. Hannah is the free-spirited middle ground between them. You might remember how last year I raved on and on about indie actress Dasha Kittredge deserving a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the small film GREEN EYES (now available on Amazon)! Well, if THE LENGTHS were able to qualify for Academy consideration this year, Corsica Wilson would be equally deserving of that same award. She really creates a beautifully-tragic character who goes from being funny to sad throughout this film, and does it with just her eyes. In a lesser film, you’d expect Hannah to fall for Tom because, of course, the nice guy has to get the girl. In this film, you don’t quite see romance in her eyes when she looks at Tom; you see pity and empathy. I really wish Corsica Wilson the best in her career and trust me, comparing someone to both Dasha Kittredge and Sarah Seeds in the same breath is one of the highest compliments I could ever give.
Why did I connect with this film so much? I think it’s because, as I turn 30, I take a look at my generation and I see a group of pseudo-intellectual hipsters obsessed with superhero movies and video games, and all of us are carrying a feeling of emptiness inside us. Given the similarities with my favorite indie film of last year, GIRLS WHO SMOKE, this might be a theme that resonates with me. This film, its three damaged characters, and their intentionally purposeless quest feel like an emblem for my vagabond generation.
Hope you liked my list. Stay tuned for my list of the Top Ten Hollywood Films!