Monthly Archives: January 2015

“The Babadook,” Reviewed: Chapter and Curse.

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in “The Babadook.” (Causeway Films/eOne Films)

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis in “The Babadook.” (Causeway Films/eOne Films)

Note: This review originally ran in the December 5, 2014 Canandaigua Daily Messenger, when area movie fans could only see The Babadook on cable VOD. It’s now set for a limited release at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave. in Rochester, beginning this Friday.

Right now The Babadook (not rated, but consider it R), a beguiling first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, can only be seen locally in our homes; the Video On Demand release is too small-scale to have attracted the wide-screen theatrical distribution deal it richly deserves. But in a way, that venue is chillingly appropriate – as this is one horror movie whose terrors hit us where we live.

Increasingly, VOD is becoming a haven for movies that are short on budget but long on intelligence and storytelling craft. Kent’s debut effort, adapted from a short film she created in 2005, is a terrific example. It’s unquestionably a genre work, with its share of things that go bump in the night; but it also subverts the expected elements of that film category, with imaginative leaps reminding us that everyday life can be a lot scarier than any knife-wielding sicko.

Set in a quiet suburban town (it was shot in Adelaide, South Australia), The Babadook focuses on Amelia (Essie Davis), a mother whose last nerve is fraying. Eight years ago her husband died in an auto accident while driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child; now she and young Samuel (Noah Wiseman) are alone, and neither is doing very well. Samuel’s unpredictable behavior is attracting the wrong kind of attention in school, and Amelia is frustrated and frantic at not being able to reach her boy.

Things get much worse when a new storybook appears without explanation in Samuel’s room. “Mister Babadook” starts off a fanciful pop-up tome but swiftly turns macabre and threatening, suggesting the title character is some kind of boogeyman stalker. At this, Samuel goes from bad to worse: He begins scaring other kids with the story, and inventing dangerous traps to protect him and his mom. Soon both mother and son are creeping toward different kinds of antisocial madness – and that’s all before the shadowy creature actually shows up.

Kent smartly avoids too much explanation: We’re never told where the book came from, why Amelia and Samuel have been targeted by this demonic presence, or even how much of it might be all in their minds. She also pulls tremendous performances from her two lead actors, who convey not only the organic love of a mother and son but also the panicky realization that love might not always be enough to see them through.

Horror movies aren’t for everyone, but The Babadook isn’t just a great example of its genre – it’s a great film, full stop. Highly recommended.

“Unbroken,” Reviewed: King of Pain.

Jack O'Connell in 'Unbroken.' (Universal Pictures)

Jack O’Connell in ‘Unbroken.’ (Universal Pictures)

Years of watching movies containing scenes of torture have taught me that the most effective way to do it – i.e., the kind that hurts the most – involves giving the victim an occasional rest. By letting them relax and recover, they’re unable to become inured to the pain they’re experiencing.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true and I hope to never find out; but regardless, there’s a lesson in there that applies to storytelling in general, and to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (rated PG-13) in particular. The film, as you may have heard, presents the story of the early years of Louis Zamperini, a second-generation Italian immigrant (born in Olean, NY, by the way – I looked it up) who competed in the 1936 Olympics and set a record-breaking pace for the final lap in the 5,000-meter event; who became a bombardier in World War II and survived a crash-landing over water that left him adrift in a life boat for 47 days; and who subsequently endured two years of misery as a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp.

Each of these milestones in Zamperini’s life could have made for their own stand-alone movie, and with Jolie’s casting of Jack O’Connell – a young British actor, previously impressive playing violent punks in Eden Lake (2008) and Harry Brown (2009) – I’d gladly watch any of them. O’Connell excellently conveys Zamperini’s inexhaustible grit that allowed him to endure years of adversity, pain and abuse in those life-altering trials.

By collecting all those trials into for one extended feature, however, Jolie – working from a screenplay of impressive pedigree by Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese – forgets to heed the lesson mentioned above. So much happens to our hero that we never get a chance to contemplate how he could survive – we can’t catch our breath. O’Connell’s never allowed to show us the grace moments in which he recovers his strength, loses and regains his faith in his own endurance, or simply copes emotionally with all he has to go through. There’s no time for the film to show us everything it wants to, and also present Zamperini as anything other than a Terminator. To paraphrase the poet Chumbawamba, he gets knocked down and he gets up again; lather, rinse, repeat.

During the POW years, the film allows minor fissures to form in the otherwise relentless focus on Zamperini’s ordeals – not in Zamperini’s character, but that of the commander of his POW camp, Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe, played by the Japanese actor and rock musician Miyavi as an enigmatic sadist determined to break the spirit of his Olympian prisoner. If Zamperini’s heroism takes on a metronomic quality after a while, his captor conveys an almost jazzy malevolence in his few big screen moments: His arrival is never good news, but the way in which he presents his menace is leavened with unpredictable traces of insecurity and even sympathy.

(Ironically, the film’s end credits tell us that years after the war, Zamperini found forgiveness for his torturers and returned to Japan to meet them. Watanabe was the sole man who refused to take that meeting; that’s a coda that should have made it to the film.)

Unfortunately, this villain isn’t around enough to imbue Unbroken with more of that emotional variety; and it never rubs off on the rest of the picture. What persists is a sense of noble suffering, an idea visually reinforced by the absolutely gorgeous camera work from cinematographer Roger Deakins, a fixture in most of the Coen Brothers’ movies. Whether he’s showing us young Louis getting beat up by the immigrant-hating kids in his neighborhood, lost-at-sea Louis staring into the unrelenting sun or POW Louis living in forced squalor, Deakins takes an almost painterly approach that finds beauty amid all that pain. Deakins is up for his 12th Oscar for his work here – one of the film’s few nominations – and he’s never won before. I’d give it to him this time. He’s endured enough.

“Selma,” Reviewed: He Had a Dream.

David Oyelowo in 'Selma.' (Paramount Pictures)

David Oyelowo in ‘Selma.’ (Paramount Pictures)

Early in The Untouchables (1987), director Brian DePalma constructs a quaintly banal Depression-era scene in which a young girl enters a corner market, carries on an innocent exchange with the shopkeeper – and is horrifyingly struck down with a sudden act of violence. That sequence could be dropped whole into a filmmaker’s textbook, both for its narrative skills at establishing the vital stakes for the story that will follow and for its cinematic canniness at riveting our focus to the screen. Pay attention, it tells us, because this is the casually brutal world in which these characters live.

If such a textbook exists, director Ava DuVernay has absorbed every page. Her third feature, Selma (rated PG-13), is a stirring account of a crucial few months in the civil rights battles of the 1960s, imbued with all the respectful dignity that such a subject demands. It’s a riveting biopic of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the undisputed leader of that historic movement, embodied here by the British actor David Oyelowo without prosthetic makeup or even King’s own legendary speeches to lean on. The rights to rhetorical masterpieces like King’s “I Have a Dream” speech are now in the hands of Steven Spielberg for an MLK film to be named later, and yet Oyelowo rises to the occasion with a performance of gravitas and mortality – a grand turn, working without a net.

More than anything, though, Selma is just a great film, constructed with sincerity and the knowing perspective of an auteur who’s fluent in the craft of cinematic storytelling. Understanding that traditional film histories can be boring, she deftly sidesteps that pitfall by bringing us into the middle of the story: The film opens with King accepting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, circa 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (In movie terms, Selma is the Empire Strikes Back of the civil rights movement.)

Of course, King’s work was far from over. The ink is still wet on his passport when he arrives back at the White House to grapple with Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) on next-step legislation that will force southern states to simply register Black voters instead of concocting barriers to their equal rights. Passage of that bill becomes the film’s narrative objective and the motivation behind its dramatic centerpiece, a series of attempts to stage a protest march across 50 virulently racist miles between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.

As with Spielberg’s not-quite-biopic Lincoln, Selma explores the life of its human subject mostly through the lens of a specific historical event; this shows us the man in action rather than forcing us to kill time watching him spend his early days preparing for a life of greatness. It has the added benefit of providing exposition through conversations – between King and his trusted advisors, many of whom weren’t afraid to tell a great man when he wasn’t being so great; between King and LBJ, with POTUS evincing a politician’s utterly credible unwillingness to cede his executive authority to a civilian*; and between Johnson and his fellow politicos, including a menacing J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and the positively reptilian Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

(*Historians have mounted a protest of their own against this depiction of LBJ, saying DuVernay and co-screenwriter Paul Webb took liberties. I’ll leave the question of a film’s obligations to absolute historical accuracy for another day; in this case, it doesn’t affect Selma’s overall power.)

These scenes of political gamesmanship serve as the huddles before the action takes to the field – whether with King at a church or on a dais, his powers of oratory turned up to their legendary 11; or on the streets of Selma, where DuVernay portrays violent expressions of southern racism with blistering intensity. A scene early on echoes DePalma’s Untouchables moment in its out-of-nowhere horror; in another sequence, the retaliation of white Alabama troopers against King’s marchers during the first attempted Selma-Montgomery march is filmed as a kind of obscenely violent poetry that recalls the classic Odessa Steps scene in Battleship Potemkin (1925) for its portrayal of human suffering as a civic act.

Above all, Selma articulates the humanity of the figures who are now so much larger than life – none more than King himself, played by Oyelowo as a flawed man who loved his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) but let her down all the same, and who viewed his life’s work as a privilege and a wearying responsibility. It’s hard to believe that it’s taken Hollywood 50 years to craft a full-on cinematic tribute to this man’s life – but DuVernay’s sturdy masterwork is almost enough to make us feel it’s been worth the wait.

Oscar Watch: Why I Hate the Word “Snubbed.”

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in "Selma." (Paramount Pictures)

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo in “Selma.” (Paramount Pictures)

The Oscar nominations were announced today at 8:30am eastern time, and by 8:40 the world’s entertainment media were tripping over themselves, professing outrage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and its absolutely unconscionable omission of [INSERT FILM / PERFORMANCE HERE] from [CATEGORY].

If I could afford a Lexis/Nexis account I’d do a global search for use of the word “snub,” and surprise no one at all when my results revealed that the planet saves up its use of that term for this day, and only this day, each year. After all this time, you’d think the people most likely to care about their favorite film not getting enough Oscar love are the same ones who would accept that this sort of thing happens with the predictability of Tax Day. On this day each year, film aficionados reveal themselves to be the cinema-loving equivalents of Charlie Brown, constantly surprised that Lucy has pulled that darn football away again.

And you know what? Of course it happens this way. It has to happen this way. The only thing that legitimizes the Academy Awards is the existence of a finite number of slots in any given category*. Even in a weak year there are always more great and/or interesting potential choices for, say, Best Actress than there are available nominations. In life, when more choices exist than can be selected, someone’s going to walk away unhappy. I don’t know why this has to be explained to people, every year.

(*This, by the way, is what’s wrong with AMPAS’ half-decade-old decision to expand the Best Picture category to include up to 10 nominees. More slots don’t mean there are more great movies; it just means the Oscars lower their standards.)

In the last 12 hours, much has been made about the omission of Ava DuVernay’s Selma from most of the big categories. Selma, a retelling of the story behind Martin Luther King’s 1965 civil rights marches, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, and that’s it. Granted, two Oscar nominations is a lot better than most films received – and one of them is for the top prize, for Pete’s sake – but for a film widely expected to run the table at the Oscars, only two probably seems paltry to a lot of people.

But do we honestly think the Academy “snubbed” Selma? Are we imagining some kind of anti-woman, anti-minority campaign in which AMPAS voters conspired to kick that movie and its director to the curb? Isn’t it more likely that, of all the films in serious contention for the major awards, voters just happened to like the films that actually got nominated a little bit more than DuVernay’s MLK biopic? Would they really have voted it into the Best Picture category if they had it in for the project?

I’m not saying the plight of women in Hollywood didn’t receive another blow with today’s nominations. (And as a white male, I understand that all this is easy for me to say.) But this is a year-round issue, not one we suddenly woke up today to find dropped on our collective doorsteps. And in truth, the Oscars – a secret-ballot competition designed to reflect subjective individual opinions about artistic merit – are the wrong target for this kind of ire anyway. To paraphrase The Hunger Games, until more mainstream movies are made by and about women and minorities, the Oscar odds will ever not be in their favor.

And now that I’ve gotten that off my chest: Jake Gyllenhaal? TOTALLY SNUBBED!

The Year in Film, Part 3: Enter the Oscars.

J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash." (Sony Pictures Classics)

J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” (Sony Pictures Classics)

No matter which films and individuals are named during tomorrow morning’s Oscar nomination announcement ceremony, there’s only one guaranteed sure thing: J.K. Simmons will win Best Supporting Actor for Whiplash when the Academy Awards are handed out on February 22. Even if he’s not nominated tomorrow, he’ll still win in five weeks – he’s that much of a lock.

Simmons aside, here are the rest of my predictions for tomorrow morning:

Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette will probably win for Boyhood, which I suppose means she’ll be nominated tomorrow. Look also for Meryl Streep, Into the Woods; Emma Stone, Birdman; Laura Dern, Wild; and Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year. (Dern, admittedly, is a longshot; Keira Knightley is a possible substitute for The Imitation Game.)

Actress – This category feels sewn up. I predict Amy Adams for her role in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes; Julianne Moore as an early-onset Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice; Reese Witherspoon as an extreme hiker in Wild; Jennifer Aniston (yes, you read that right) for Cake; and Rosamund Pike as the world’s most lethal spouse in Gone Girl.

Actor – I expect to see nominations for Those Reedy British Fellas Playing Mid-20th Century Blokes, Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything); Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel; Michael Keaton, who must now be considered the front-runner for Birdman; and David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma.

Supporting Actor – In addition to Simmons, look for Edward Norton in Birdman; Ethan Hawke for Boyhood; Mark Ruffalo (or Steve Carell), Foxcatcher; and Robert Duvall in the annual “Really? You’re Kidding, Right?” slot for the simply terrible The Judge. (I’d love to see Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhall and Riz Ahmed slip in as Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively, but my hopes aren’t high – particularly for Ahmed.)

Director – My picks are Richard Linklater, Boyhood;
Alejandro Inarritu, Birdman; Ava DuVernay, Selma; Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel; and the least-likely-but-still-probable Morten Tyldum for The Imitation Game. Clint Eastwood and American Sniper could edge past Tyldum, but I’m sticking with Morten.

Picture – Up to 10 films can be nominated, which is moronic but fine, whatever. The mandatories tomorrow will be Boyhood, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Imitation Game. In addition to those, I expect to see four more: Gone Girl, Wild, The Theory of Everything and Selma.

How’d I do? We’ll see at 8:30am tomorrow….

The Year in Film, Part 2: 2014 Movies You Should Seek Out, If You Haven’t Already (And Let’s Face It, You Probably Haven’t).

Keanu Reeves in "John Wick." (Summit / Lionsgate)

Keanu Reeves in “John Wick.” (Summit / Lionsgate)

Last week we covered my picks for the Ten Best Films of 2014, but the most interesting films of last year is a different list altogether. Here’s a rundown of films that, for various reasons, didn’t get the audiences — let alone the love — they so richly deserved:

The Age of LoveThis locally produced doc is centered around a speed-dating event for seniors. First-time director Steven Loring brings to the screen an honest, intimate and occasionally hilarious film.

Coherence and The One I LoveThese two indies never made it to our region’s screens, but deserve to be seen as a spiritual double-feature. In Coherence, a group of friends experience a Twilight Zone-style night to remember when their dinner party coincides with a once-a-century passing of a comet through the sky. The One I Love is quirkier still: A couple (Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass) get away for a weekend of couples therapy, only to find they’re not the only couple on the scene. To explain too much would be criminal — you’ll have to see these for yourself.

Edge of Tomorrow. It feels a little silly to suggest that a big-budget Tom Cruise movie could be considered “under-seen.” But Doug Liman’s smart, well-made action/sci-fi extravaganza was an unsung hero in last year’s summer movie cavalcade. Cruise is strangely unpopular in real life, but this film is the best recent proof of how he usually delivers on screen.

Jodorowsky’s DuneA must-see for sci-fi fans, this doc explores the coulda-woulda-shoulda plans for a film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune that was in the works for years from offbeat Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky. Much of his artistic vision was eventually co-opted for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), but when Dune finally made it to the big screen, all we got was a bloated disaster from David Lynch.

JoeNicolas Cage’s well-publicized money troubles keep forcing the actor to take any role he’s offered, which means he’s making a lot of junk. But Joe, a backwoods thriller that’s a masterpiece of mood, is worth seeking out for a glimpse of Cage the way he used to be – intense and at the top of his game. 

John Wick. Keanu Reeves hasn’t wowed anybody since The Matrix, but he connects sharply with this lean action film. The movie works as well for its plot – a gun-fu extravaganza in which Reeves’ former hit man comes out of retirement to wreak vengeance on the men who killed his dog – as for its moody underworld ambience.

LiltingA tender, affectionate drama about love and loss, this premiered locally at the ImageOUT Film Festival last fall. It stars Ben Whishaw (the voice of Paddington, in theaters this week) as a man trying to connect with the mother of his dead lover. It’s coming to iTunes and DVD next month – check it out.

LockeA construction foreman hits the road and ties up a bunch of loose ends over the phone while he’s driving. That’s the whole plot of Steven Knight’s film, but this one-man-show has a few tricks up its sleeve – and a remarkable, nuanced performance from Tom Hardy (Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) to knit it all together.

The RoverThis one was released for about a week in area theaters last summer, but didn’t make a ripple. A bleak near-future drama, it stars Guy Pearce as a loner whose car is stolen, and he’d like it back, please. Robert Pattinson co-stars in a performance almost good enough to make you forgive him for all those Twilight films. (Almost.)

“Actress,” Reviewed: Real Life is Her Stage.

Brandy Burre, at home in 'Actress.' (Cinema Guild)

Brandy Burre, at home in ‘Actress.’ (Cinema Guild)

“This is my creative outlet now,” says Brandy Burre in Robert Greene’s documentary Actress (not rated), amid a domestic tableau that’s striking in its mundane normalcy. A few years back Burre was a working actress with a recurring role on the acclaimed TV series “The Wire,” and after that success she took a break from the job to pursue another vocation: She became a full-time, stay-at-home mom.

But the film – which sees its regional premiere with a one-night-only screening Tuesday, January 13 at the Little Theatre in Rochester – isn’t called Full-Time, Stay-at-Home Mom. Burre’s devotion to her children is evident, as is her plaintive itch to return to acting. Greene’s film assays her longing to get back into the game, both in terms of what she does and how she does it: We see her modeling for a new set of headshots and tentatively contemplating upcoming audition opportunities, but we also see her incorporating a certain level of performance even in those tasks – a dramatic tilt of the head, an artful hand gesture, a longing gaze steeped in meaning. There’s a camera right here, right now, and she’s the object of its affections.

That sense of layered self-awareness injects Actress with a strain of performance art, and gives the doc remarkable depth. It’s the story of a woman who, at 40, faces an uphill climb to get back into the Hollywood game; but it’s also an exploration of what it means to be an actor in the first place, and the instinctive dynamic that exists between actor and audience. Burre can play Theresa D’Agostino on “The Wire,” but she’s also playing Brandy Burre, in a way, as she putters around the house with her children and struggles in her relationship with their father. Meanwhile, she’s definitely playing to Greene’s camera – it’s not difficult to envision this as a feature-length audition tape. Where does the performer end and the performance begin?

Greene is content to tee up that question rather than seek obvious answers. He’s acknowledged in interviews that he knows Burre socially, and believed her story would make for an interesting film – and he keeps himself and his queries firmly off-camera, giving his subject the sole spotlight. Actress is a stirring portrait of self-absorption and ego, but also a plaintive study of creative longing and the ineffable sadness that accompanies the fear that one’s best professional days may be past. More than anything, it gives weight to the notion that while Hollywood may distinguish between lead roles and supporting roles, in reality we’re each the star of our own life story.

The Year in Film, Part 1: The Best Movies of 2014.

In alphabetical order:

the babadook (eOne) blogThe Babadook. The fiendishly clever horror yarn from first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent hinges on a mother’s love for her son – and the sense of panic that arises from realizing that love may not be enough to protect him. Is the storybook demon terrorizing widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and eight-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) real, or a product of Amelia’s overwrought emotional state? The power of Kent’s film is in its careful disinterest in answering that question; with a parent’s pragmatism, this film advances the idea that if it’s real to your child, that’s all that matters. (Still available on cable VOD and iTunes.)

beyond the lights (relativity) blogBeyond the Lights. It took me a few films – and the arrival of star-in-the-making Gugu Mbatha-Raw – to appreciate the work of Gina Prince-Bythewood. A fine, old-school romantic drama that explores the addictive power of stardom, Lights pulls every melodramatic lever while inhabiting a world of music videos and behind-the-scenes music-biz machinations that feels an awful lot like the real thing. Mostly, though, it offers a luxe romance between Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker that takes its time and gets us to care about these characters. Even when we know where it’s going, it’s still a treat to watch it get there. (Coming to DVD on February 24.)

_AF_6405.CR2Birdman. Perhaps the year’s most effective combination of directorial artistry and acting chops, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gives grand life to the inner monologue of a tortured artist. As we watch Hollywood has-been Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) and his fellow actors ping-pong around the inside of a Broadway theater, rehearsing for the play Thompson hopes will restore his reputation, director Alejandro González Iñárritu shoots them with the fierce resolve of a documentarian – which makes his visualist flights of fancy, such as when characters literally take flight, all the more spectacular. Anchored by a tour de force performance from Keaton, it’s a surreally inspiring piece of work. (Still in theaters.)

blue ruin (blog)Blue Ruin. A small-scale rural thriller, reminiscent of the best work by the Coen brothers, Ruin is remarkable in its absolute commitment to its modest goals – much like the motivations of its vaguely inept but determined antihero, Dwight (Macon Blair), who returns to his hometown to enact vengeance on the man who murdered his parents. Dwight’s resolve – and his slowly growing confidence as he deals with the ramifications of his hunt for payback – make for a grimly authentic crime drama. (Now screening on Netflix.)

Boyhood (IFC Films) blogBoyhood. Yep, this was that “stunt” movie – the one that writer/director Richard Linklater shot over the course of 12 years, reuniting his gradually aging cast annually to chronicle the passage of time for a typical Austin, TX, family. Boyhood deserves recognition for that feat alone, but I was skeptical about giving it too much credit for its creator’s offscreen determination. Instead, when you watch the film, let the performances wash over you – especially Patricia Arquette and newcomer Ellar Coltrane as mother and son – and see if you’re not genuinely transported into their homes, their relationships, their lives. (Now on Amazon Instant Video; coming next week to DVD.)

grand budapest hotel 1 (fox searchlight) blogThe Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson has always been a precise filmmaker, but as his career has taken off his movies have become increasingly like those dioramas I used to build out of shoeboxes in elementary school – everything is a set piece, even the actors, and everything feels glued into place. But that’s only a criticism if the movie itself doesn’t work, and in Hotel Anderson finds a gorgeous synthesis between frustrating rigidity and storytelling joy. The tale of a surprisingly heroic concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who must clear his name of a murder charge takes us on a madcap journey of stylish chases and soaring romantic gestures. It’s a hoot and a half. (Now on DVD.)

guardians of the galaxy - spaceship (marvel) blogGuardians of the Galaxy. Making a hit out of Captain America or Iron Man is easy; building a brilliant adventure comedy out of a cast of little-known comics characters, much harder. But director James Gunn, an indie filmmaker at heart (Slither, Super) was the right man for this particular job – he maintains an immaculate balance between space-opera heroics and candy-colored whimsy, and never forgets to keep it fun. (Now on DVD.)

Roger Ebert & Gene SiskelLife Itself. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) looked back at the life and times of Roger Ebert in a doc that was – much like its subject – elegiac and funny, profane and wise. Ebert died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer, and that fight was chronicled here as well, but the emphasis was appropriately on a life of critical analysis; we learn what drove Ebert, what enraged Ebert, and what causes could inspire that fabled thumb of his to twitch upward or downward. (Screening Sunday, January 4 on CNN.)

listen up phillip (tribeca) blogListen Up Philip. Probably the least-seen film on this list, Philip never made it into wide release but enjoyed a brief run on VOD and is now available on iTunes. The third film from writer/director Alex Ross Perry was a character drama featuring a thoroughly unlikeable character – an insufferably snooty writer (Jason Schwartzman) who openly belittles colleagues and friends and doesn’t learn a thing over the course of the film. This is a natural role for Schwartzman, who’s been honing his bizarrely appealing obnoxiousness since Rushmore (1998), but Perry magnifies the effect by resisting the urge to redeem his character. If you seek this out, watch for a splendid turn from Elisabeth Moss as Philip’s girlfriend.

SNOWPIERCER 4 (weinstein) (blog)Snowpiercer. When the premise is established that a man-made climate change “solution” accidentally turns our warming planet into a barren, frozen husk, Korean director Bong Joon-ho (2006’s The Host) isn’t inviting a debate about science. Nor is he asking us to ponder the engineering wizardry of a prescient inventor who pro-actively creates a perpetual motion engine to power the Rattling Ark, a massive train that circles our icy globe, once a year, without stopping. Gifts like Bong’s film don’t come around often, and we shouldn’t worry about the “why”: Instead, try to kick back and enjoy the dizzying, dystopian ride. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

Runners-up this year included Chef, Gone Girl, Whiplash, Begin AgainNightcrawler, Jodorowsky’s Dune, The One I Love, Lilting, and Locke. Look for more about a few of those in the next couple of days.