It seems like every year, I see more and more Oscar-hungry campaigns for films and performances than the year before. This past year especially saw an excellent crop of actors and filmmakers contribute above-stellar work to the art of moviemaking. However, in the rush to place the ads, view the screeners and attend the parties during this most high-profile time in the film world, a large amount of first-class work has been forgotten. As a result, I have put together an alternative Oscar list featuring films and performances, which struck me as some of the best of the year and more than worthy of some well-earned recognition.
Best Picture: The Two Faces of January (2014)
How could the writer of Drive and the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley NOT conspire to create perhaps the most captivating thriller of the year? Featuring three complex characters and a multi-layered plot full of suspense and intrigue, this tale of an American guide (Oscar Isaac) who encounters a mysterious couple (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) in sun-drenched Greece was pure Hitchcockian and one of the most gripping films of 2014.
The Sundance Institute Artist Services program recently announced the availability of 14 independent films through digital video on-demand platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vudu. Launched in 2011, Sundance Institute's Artist Services is designed to connect consumers directly with films associated with the Sundance Film Festival and Institute through partnerships with key online distribution platforms.
Four films in this new collection are from Texas, all of which received support from the Austin Film Society. For details on the additional titles available in this new collection, visit the Sundance Institute's "Now Playing."
Before You Know It -- Three gay seniors (pictured at top) "navigate the adventures, challenges and surprises of life and love in their golden years." Check out Don's SXSW review and Jordan's interview with director PJ Raval. The documentary is available for purchase at this new website featuring bonus extras including Gary and Ose's wedding video and behind-the scenes-material. (on iTunes)
The Austin Film Society is launching a new series this weekend that arrives in town straight from New York and Los Angeles. "In Case Of No Emergency: The Films Of Ruben Ostlund" aims to turn American audiences on to the work of the Swedish writer/director who earned rave reviews for 2014's Force Majeure. That breakout hit, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Golden Globe, screens tonight at the Marchesa and is followed by Ostlund's 2011 feature Play. The series continues on Sunday afternoon with his 2008 film Involuntary and closes out on Tuesday night with his 2004 debut film The Guitar Mongoloid. All films are screening from 35mm prints except for Force Majeure, which is digital.
On Wednesday night, the AFS Screening Room (1901 E. 51st St.) is hosting a selection of scenes from "Avant Garde Cinema of the 1920s" from the Soviet Union. You'll see work from Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Kuleshov and Dovzhenko. AFS closes out the week back at the Marchesa with another "Essential Cinema" selection focusing on the work of Jacques Rivette. The Duchess Of Langeais, his 2007 film that was released stateside by IFC Films, is screening Thursday night in 35mm.
Violet Crown Cinema launches the "'Round Midnight Film Series" this weekend with 11:30 pm screenings of Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys tonight and tomorrow. The theater also has another installment of "Arthouse Monthly" with Johanna Hamilton's political documentary 1971 on Wednesday night. Over 40 years before the recent NSA scandal, this movie examines illegal spy programs by the FBI against American citizens.
We may currently be in the midst of a pop-cultural infatuation with the antihero archetype, but A Most Violent Year presents us with a more elusive figure. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis) is surrounded by those who want to bring him down to their level, where firearms and shady business practices abound. A wealthy owner of a heating oil company in 1981 New York, his trucks are carjacked, his workers attacked, and his business investigated by a power-hungry DA (David Oyelowo, Selma). Morales is determined to stay above it all, working hard to respond in a way that’s legal and yet still gets results.
The Texas Hill Country town of Luckenbach may be little more than a few buildings, including a general store and a dance hall. But few places are more symbolic of mythic Texas than this honky-tonk mecca, party venue and tourist destination a few miles south of Fredericksburg.
Luckenbach owes much of its fame to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, of course; their 1977 hit "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" introduced the tiny town to a vast audience and made it an essential part of Texas pop culture. But modern Luckenbach might not exist at all if not for another legendary Texan -- Hondo Crouch.
A satirist, writer, rancher, musician, artist, swimming coach and self described "imagineer," Crouch bought the nearly deserted Luckenbach in 1970. He proclaimed himself mayor (the three residents apparently didn't object) and pursued his grand vision for the place. Along with partners Kathy Morgan and actor Guich Koock, he quickly transformed Luckenbach into a popular hangout and venue for all manner of quirky events: no-talent contests, hug-ins, a mud dauber festival, a women-only chili cookoff and the Luckenbach World's Fair. Crouch also turned Luckenbach into a storied music venue; the town's association with country music was cemented in 1973, when Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band recorded their classic live album Viva Terlingua in the Luckenbach Dance Hall.
Jette asked me to reprise the theme from my post last year, so here are the female characters I found most memorable in 2014 film:
8. Mom, Boyhood
I may not have adored this Linklater movie as so many of my colleagues do, but I do find the mother played by Patricia Arquette the most layered in this cast of characters (and the best part of the film, IMHO). She stumbles through marriages, survives an abusive partner, works her way through an advanced degree, and questions her decisions all the while. (Debbie's Sundance review)
7. Mason, Snowpiercer
The Sundance Film Festival begins tomorrow -- Thursday, January 22 -- and runs through Saturday, February 1. Although Texas isn't as heavily represented as the last two years I've attended, I see plenty of Texas-related content to choose from.
Local filmmaker Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) wrote and directed Results, which was shot in Austin and stars Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce. The comedy is about two incompatible personal trainers who experience more challenges than usual from a wealthy client's demands.
Texas actor Tye Sheridan (Mud, Joe) continues his run of Sundance appearances with a pair of movies premiering at the festival this year. Sheridan co-stars in the historical drama Last Days in the Desert, an addition to the trials and tribulations of Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus (Ewan McGregor) struggles with the Devil for the fate of a family in crisis that he encounters in the desert.
I made up this list before the Oscar nominations (grr) came out, and strangely enough, none of my picks for Best Score received a nod, even the one I assumed was a sure thing. Nevertheless, some movies this year featured phenomenal music, and I'd like to recognize them here.
I'll repeat my standards from a 2010 post: "The best film score complements the film perfectly and doesn't distract from the action onscreen, but is still distinct enough to stand on its own. Shoddy film music can ruin a movie (for me, at least), but a great film score serves to make a good movie even better."
5. Birdman, Antonio Sanchez
It seemed a given that, along with the other recognition this frenetic film received from the Academy, the percussion score would make the cut, but alas. The music by Sanchez adds so much to the Michael Keaton film (frankly, it's the only part of the movie I could appreciate) and easily adds to the frantic feel of the story (Mike's review). Here's a taste:
"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a new weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.
From the instant the first trailer debuted this summer, there was never any doubt that David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's bestselling mystery novel Gone Girl would be one of the year's breakout movies. With Fincher at the wheel, Flynn's gripping tale of a missing suburban wife (Rosamund Pike) and her accused husband (Ben Affleck) was exquisitely transferred to the silver screen and resulted in huge box-office receipts as well as critical praise for Fincher, Flynn, producer Reese Witherspoon and Pike (who also collected an Oscar nomination).
While Gone Girl finally provided Pike the perfect showcase for her continuously untapped talents, it seemed a shame that her brilliant work overshadowed Affleck's quietly intense turn as a man slowly losing his already shaky hold on reality. Affleck's first-rate work in Gone Girl ranks close to what some might consider his best and certainly most acclaimed performance to date: that of late actor George Reeves in Hollywoodland (2006).
Here are my top ten and other notable films of last year.
To be eligible for my lists, a movie had to release in the U.S. in 2014 and screen in Austin in 2014 also. Some well-reviewed 2014 releases have not yet screened in Austin.
Nicolas Cage is at his understated best as an ex-con who hires a desperately poor teenager (Tye Sheridan, also terrific) to help clear a forest for development. Shot in Central Texas, David Gordon Green's haunting film explores the ravages of poverty and the nature of redemption. (Jette's review)
Every year, I hope to discover a low-budget local indie that deserves a place on my top 10 list. This year's honoree is Austin filmmaker Matt Muir's Thank You a Lot, a poignant tale of a hard-luck music manager who will lose his job unless he signs a reclusive country music singer who's also his estranged father. In his acting debut, Austin music legend James Hand gives one of the year's best performances as a fictional (mostly, that is) version of himself. (my review)