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2014 in Review: The Slackerwood Top Ten

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Nightcrawler

Just in time to be entirely irrelevant in terms of Oscar predictions, the Slackerwood contributors have voted on their top ten 2014 films. I think our picks are much better than the ones the Academy nominated for Best Picture (they didn't even pick ten this year, did they).

Our criteria were very laid-back -- it is called Slackerwood, after all. Eligible films included movies released in Austin in 2014 and movies that had a limited release for awards purposes in 2014. Ten contributors (including myself) each submitted a top ten list, and I tallied up the votes. No, I did not stuff the ballot box, as you can see by the absence of Snowpiercer on the list.

The first and second movies on this list were one point away from one another in the final tally. And of the ten films on the list, only two had votes from five contributors -- the first and fourth. Everything else had four or fewer votes. The list includes one movie shot in Austin, one movie directed by a former Texan, and one movie co-starring/produced by a former Austinite. Here we go:

10. Nightcrawler (pictured at top)

"... a slick thriller, even though it plays out like a gritty B-movie. ... The world of Nightcrawler is not exactly firmly grounded in reality, but it takes a slightly elevated, pitch-black look at a world where having questionable morality is celebrated as long as it increases the bottom line." -- Matt Shiverdecker (full review)

Lost in the Awards Rush: Best Picture Edition

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This year's list of Best Picture Oscar nominees for me has been one of the most eclectic lineups in years. While some of the choices (not to mention some of the omissions) have caused some stirring, the fact remains that each film is a unique peek into areas of society and life that are never anything but true and compelling. Though I feel there were a couple noticeable snubs (Gone Girl, A Most Violent Year, Nightcrawler), this is one of the few years where it could be said that every film on the list has earned its place. In celebration of these movies' triumphs, I've compiled a list of additional viewing choices made by some of the actors, actresses, directors, writers and producers who were responsible for this year's nominated films.

The Words (2012)

Few films surprised this year in terms of both acclaim and box office impact the way American Sniper (2014) did. The ferocious true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was a testament to the passion and drive of director Clint Eastwood and producer/star Bradley Cooper. The film has earned Cooper his third consecutive Oscar nomination, furthering his profile both in front of and behind the camera. Yet his most unheralded work as both producer and actor comes with the highly involving drama The Words.

Equal parts mystery, romance and period piece, The Words (J.C.'s review) features Cooper as a struggling author who discovers a long-lost manuscript which he presents as his own; leading to instant success and an encounter with a haunting older gentleman (Jeremy Irons). Films such as The Words simply do not exist anymore, which is a shame because this intricately crafted tale about destiny features not only features stellar acting and an exquisite screenplay, but also reinforces the notion owning up to the choices each person makes in their life.

2014 in Review: Jette Says Check 'Em Out

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Blue Ruin

My criteria for movies to include in "best of the year" lists are very loose, as compared to various critics' organizations and other film-awards groups. For example, I would never disqualify Birdman from Best Score because it includes music from other composers. (Otherwise I'd never be able to qualify my all-time favorite score, from The Bad News Bears, but I digress.) The point is to present an interesting list of notable movies I saw in/around 2014, not to nitpick.

So my "notable films of 2014" list includes movies that were released in 2014, no matter when I saw them, as well as movies I saw in 2014 even if they haven't had a theatrical release. And, you know, whatever the hell else I want. If I'd done a 2013 list I probably would have topped it with A New Leaf (1971) because that was by far the best movie I saw that year. (It's on Amazon Prime and Blu-ray. It's funnier than anything else I'll mention in this article. Go watch it now.)

I planned to only include a few films because I never feel constrained by "top ten" or other numbers, but excellent and enjoyable movies kept popping onto the list. These are sort of in order -- my favorite is the one at the top -- but once we get past that, I can't really quibble about whether this one is better than that one. I'd recommend every one of them, is the point.

Lone Star Cinema: The Rookie

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Still from The Rookie

My alternate Super Bowl programming this year was a DVD of The Rookie I checked out from the library. I had first seen the baseball drama closer to its original theatrical release in 2002 and remembered enjoying the story, but hadn’t really thought of the Disney film in the past ten years.

Dennis Quaid (Frequency, The Day After Tomorrow) leads the movie based on the true story of Jimmy Morris, a Texas high-school baseball coach who makes a deal with his team that he will try out for the major leagues if they win district and go on to state. Rachel Griffiths (Muriel's Wedding) plays his wife Lorri, the school counselor. I had forgotten that before he started the sitcom mega-hit Two and a Half Men, Angus T. Jones played the adorable son here. See how young he is in the still posted above.

We are shown the origins of the strained relationship between adult son Jimmy and his father Jim Morris Sr. (Brian Cox, only about seven years older than Quaid). It feels like this is something that might have been compounded more in the screenplay than in real life. Still, it is an interesting contrast to the relationship Jimmy has with his own young son, who helps in team practices and is almost a little shadow to his dad.

2014 in Review: The Year's Biggest Duds

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Edge of Tomorrow2014 had a lot of great movie releases, as you'll see in our Slackerwood Top Ten later this week. Picking out favorites was easy. Limiting them to just ten choices was much tougher.

However, there's no question the following titles were big losers for the year, and I'll tell you why these are my picks.

10. Edge of Tomorrow

This Tom Cruise-starring adaptation of the Japanese manga All You Need is Kill was one of the critically best films of the year and thus its place at number 10. Unfortunately, due to uncertainty over marketing, the opening weekend box office take was just under $30 million for this $178 million blockbuster. As of September, it had barely grossed $100 million. It failed again with the home video release which had "Live Die Repeat" splashed across the cover causing confusion among people who had seen the marketing for the edgier title. (my review)

9. Interstellar

Do you science? You'd be a lot cooler if you did. This movie is a controversial pick with many people on the "loved it" side of the debate. Still, Interstellar was saddled with very high expectations that many felt it failed to meet. Notes circulated on some of the original script ideas that had many wanting something more than they got. Much as I enjoyed it, the final act abandoned hard science in favor of fantasy, and the sound problems reported from across the country were a distraction. (Marcie's review)

8. Godzilla

Another one of my dud entries that was actually a pretty good film. This year, and with this remake, "pretty good" wasn't good enough. Gareth Edwards' heart was in it, but he took too long to build up the action to the point where the audience really felt he should have started. The most common complaint was that the title character doesn't show up for the first 40 minutes of the two-hour movie. My biggest complaint was under-use of Bryan Cranston (and over-use of Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This only has a 6.6 rating on IMDb. (my review)

Lost in the Awards Rush: Two Lovers

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"Lost in the Awards Rush" is a weekly series Slackerwood is running during the awards season, to suggest lesser-known but excellent alternatives to popular frontrunners for big movie awards.

Many authors and their works have been deemed as unfilmable by Hollywood because of unorthodox plots and characters that defy conventionality to great extremes. Nowhere is this more evident than with the works of Thomas Pynchon. The revered author may be the godfather of the postmodern detective, yet due to a number of dizzying elements within his books, none of Pynchon's works ever received the big-screen treatment. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, who after securing Pynchon's blessing, brought Inherent Vice, one of the author's most acclaimed novels, to the screen. The 60s-set tale of a hippie private eye (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes on a bizarre missing persons case was heralded as one of the year's best comedies and earned Anderson a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.

While it's certainly a marvel how a seemingly unfilmable novel made such a dynamic transition to the screen, its a true shame that Phoenix's work as Doc, the oftentimes stoned detective, has been all but forgotten this awards season. The three-time Oscar nominee can already claim a laundry list of performances that reach levels of characterization other actors can only dream of. Though its a definite 180 from his work in Inherent Vice, Phoenix's work in the small independent drama Two Lovers (2008) is probably his most complex and poetic turn to date.

Ready, Set, Fund: Show These Local Film Projects Some Love

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peace officer still

Ready, Set, Fund is a column about crowdfunding and fundraising endeavors related to Austin and Texas independent film projects.

Valentine's Day has come and gone, but it's never a bad time to shower up-and-coming filmmakers with a little attention. The film projects included in this month's roundup deal with family strife, community safety, horror and world travel. If you're feeling generous, feel free to donate to whichever ones appeal to your movie-loving heart.

Leading off is a film that sounds pretty timely in terms of content and will be premiering at this year's SXSW in the Documentary Feature Competition. Peace Officer (pictured above) examines officer-involved shootings in one community and questions when (or maybe whether) law enforcement officers have the right to use deadly force. Directed by Scott Christopherson (an Assistant Professor of Documentary Film at St. Edward's University) and Brad Barber, Peace Officer is collecting funds to help with distribution and various other expenses through Kickstarter until March 7.

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

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Fifty Shades of Grey

Ouch!
-- Anastasia Steele, far too infrequently in Fifty Shades of Grey

Oh, Hollywood, why do you tease me so, only to leave me sorely disappointed?

I'm referring, of course, to your tepid cinematic treatment of my most favorite kinky novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. I longed for ecstatic screams of agony and agonized screams of ecstasy, but the film delivered little more than one-percenter fu and some really lame spanking scenes.

I know that many a fine novel has suffered greatly in its journey to the big screen; such is the nature of turning books into movies. But your treatment of the brilliant Fifty Shades of Grey is downright disrespectful and, dare I say, deserving of a sound thrashing.

Before I get to the thrashing, I'll give those unfamiliar with Fifty Shades a Grey a two-sentence plot summary: College student Anastasia "Ana" Steele (Dakota Johnson) meets kinky billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who wants nothing more in life than to tie her up and beat her. Initially shocked, she finally submits to him -- and to the wanton desires of the naughty girl she truly is. That's really all there is to the story; great literature need not be complicated.

Movies This Week: February 13-19, 2015

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Quite a few special events are happening this weekend for Valentine's Day that don't include the supposedly kinky sex of Fifty Shades Of Grey. Tonight at the Marchesa, the Austin Film Society is having a special premiere screening of 5 to 7. The movie stars Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) and Berenice Marlohe (Skyfall). If you'd rather go for classic romances on Saturday, Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane is having a Gone With The Wind feast and Ritz is having a Casablanca feast. If you're a single women or gay man, you may prefer a Valentine's Day screening of Magic Mike at Alamo Lakeline. For that movie, the Alamo's typical "Don't Talk" rules are suspended and specialty cocktails are on the menu for a real free-for-all.

If you're completely twisted, then Alamo South Lamar has you covered too. They're teaming up with Chiller and Mondo for a Cannibal Holocaust screening on Saturday late night. Celebrating Mondo's vinyl release of the soundtrack, they'll be showing this notoriously disgusting film will play along with a meal that includes turtle soup and monkey brains. All right then. 

On Sunday, Alamo Ritz has programmed a double feature of "Avant Erotica" that pairs with Fifty Shades Of Grey. Described on the website as a "double-shot hangover remedy of sexual disorientation," it begins with a 16mm print of Peggy Ahwesh's The Deadman and also features legendary exploitation director Doris Wishman's Let Me Die A Woman in a 35mm print. Monday night, the Ritz begins a series featuring the Films of Aleksei German with his 1985 feature film My Friend Ivan Lapshin, screening in 35mm. Cinema Cocktails digs back to 1942 for Rene Clair's classic I Married A Witch, starring Veronica Lake and Frederick March on Wednesday night. Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights has two more screenings this week. You can catch it on Tuesday at the Alamo South Lamar or Thursday at Lakeline. South Lamar is also set to host two more screenings of Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Sunday and Wednesday nights. 

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Kingsman: The Secret ServiceFilmmaker Matthew Vaughn's already well-established catalog (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass) gains a new entry this week with the release of his comedy spy adventure and arguably best film to date, Kingsman: The Secret Service. This James Bond meets Attack the Block romp was scripted by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, and is based on the comic The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.

Taron Egerton stars as Eggsy, a study in wasted potential due to bad influences and an unsteady home environment who's recruited to a secret organization of upper-crust spies by Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth). Only one recruit can complete the training, and Eggsy is at a disadvantage competing with his well-heeled rivals. This theme of class warfare is reflected in the larger story as quirky internet billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) carries out an evil world-wide plot that the Kingsmen must foil.

Let's talk about Jackson for a minute. He is prolific, to say the least, and diverse, but his character Valentine is something entirely, hilariously different, with a comical lisp and vague OCD tendencies. The character is something of a clothes horse, always sporting stylish threads but wearing the same leather baseball hat in different colors to match his outfit. Valentine is an obsessive movie buff and as much a product of pop culture as a shaper of it. He rationalizes his twisted views with grade-school logic, and he's at once the most unique and memorable character Jackson has ever brought to life.

Jackson isn't the only character playing against type. Mark Strong, usually at home as the villain, appears here as Merlin, the technical expert. Firth, however, is as usual the perfect, polished English gentleman. The picture of refinement and class, he explains to Eggsy the origins of the Kingsmen among the elite tailors of London and the virtues of manners and a bespoke suit.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is exactly what you have come to expect from Vaughn. He cleverly riffs on spy films with satire, not spoof, delivering a continuous stream of laughter on top of an action story you can really sink your teeth into. I loved little throwaway lines like the mention of a shoe phone that call back to other spy properties, and spectacular fight choreography and effects lead to an explosive climax that is more over-the-top than anything Vaughn has done in his career.

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