As each year ends, I hear from friends who say, "It was a really mediocre year for movies." While I know I watch more movies than your average person, I never understand that argument when it's presented to me. There's no question that I'm spoiled by living in Austin and being able to attend several film festivals a year, but even when I tried to make a Best of 2014 list, I struggled to put together anything less than a Top 30. For this post, I've narrowed it down to just my Top Ten. If you're curious to see my picks beyond this, you can check out my "Favorite Films of 2014" list on Letterboxd.
To be eligible for my list, a film had to be released in the U.S. in some capacity in 2014. As a member of the Austin Film Critics Association, I was fortunate enough to be able to screen films like Selma, Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year early, even though they didn't actually open in town until January.
10. Obvious Child -- Director Gillian Robespierre adapted her 2009 short film into this comedy that truly walks a fine line, creating an often hysterical film that deals with the life-changing topic of abortion. Jenny Slate is perfectly suited for a lead role that requires such a tightope act. When she's performing as a stand-up onscreen, her material is not just edgy, it's frequently over the edge. Some viewers may find the movie to be as well, but I loved the way it approached the subject matter. It's not easy to create a melancholy romantic comedy about a woman who has decided to terminate an unexpected pregnancy, but Obvious Child turns this very difficult decision into a relatable (and gleefully offensive) comedy without reducing it to an "issue" movie. (Elizabeth's review) (available now on home video and Amazon Prime streaming)
The number of parties in Park City, Utah, during Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals can be overwhelming for any festgoer who wants to experience more than just the extensive film programming available. To balance between screenings, interviews and parties, I select a few events to attend each year.
Most important are the film commission events, which provide a great opportunity to network with industry colleagues and learn about movie projects supported by the film associations. The Texas Association of Film Commissions hosted their annual Film Texas reception last week, with representatives from various film commissions including Kim LeBlanc from the Texas Film Commission and Janis Burklund, director of the Dallas Film Commission, both seen above with Results star Tishuan Scott.
The San Antonio Film Commission also hosted an event with director Drew Mayer-Oakes in attendance. Both events provided a great opportunity to discuss the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program. Many of the conversations that I took part in focused on filmmakers expressing their concern about the impact of legislative changes that could come about in the upcoming legislative session under a new governor. A reduction or elimination of the incentive program could result in the relocation of film projects that are currently on hold.
After a successful run last of week of "In Case Of No Emergency: The Films Of Ruben Ostlund," the Austin Film Society is adding an encore screening of last year's acclaimed Force Majeure this evening at the Marchesa. This is likely your last chance to catch it on the big screen, so don't miss out before the film is released February 10 on home video.
On Sunday evening, fans of Euro exploitation will want to head to the AFS Screening Room where longtime film collector Fred Frey will screen a secret double feature of rare 16mm films from his private collection. The films "will interest those who relish obscure delights." The Jacques Rivette "Essential Cinema" series closes out on Thursday at the Marchesa with a 35mm print of 1981's Le Pont Du Nord.
Over at the Violet Crown Cinema, the "'Round Midnight" series continues this weekend with Danny Boyle's stylish debut Shallow Grave, which screens tonight and tomorrow. The theater will be offering $2 off all draft beers starting at 11 pm each night before the film begins at 11:30.
The Alamo Drafthouse is having several Groundhog Day dinners on Monday night. You can buy tickets for Lakeline, Ritz or Slaughter Lane and enjoy a menu of "Pie Three Times." The theater chain is also offering several free screenings of Blade Runner: The Final Cut this week exclusively for Alamo Victory members. Get details here.
Romantic comedies are not exactly known for being rooted in realism. Movies in this genre always include an element of fantasy, whether it is minor or major, to make viewers wonder if it could ever happen to them. There are elements to Amira & Sam that feel surprisingly authentic and even when it begins to feel a little contrived, I do think its heart is in the right place.
Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) is Sam, an army solider who has recently returned home and is struggling to reassimilate. He returns to civilian life by working security as a doorman for a highrise apartment building. One night, he makes the mistake of chastizing an elevator full of privileged assholes after seeing one of them urinate outside the front door. They mockingly call him a "redneck cop" and dare him to do something about it. Sam lets the elevator doors close, but quickly shuts down the elevator banks, trapping them while he grabs a mop to clean up the mess.
Tangerine captures a seedy side of Los Angles rarely seen on film, in the bowels of a subculture that was not of personal interest until I watched this crudely engaging tale at Sundance Film Festival.
Transgender prostitute Sin-Dee (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) has just been released from jail on Christmas Eve when her best friend and fellow sex worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor) reveals that Sin-Dee's pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been sleeping with a meth addict "fish," Dina (Mickey O'Hagan), during Sin-Dee's incarceration. Sin-Dee strikes out with Alexandra in tow to find both Chester and Dina so she can settle matters.
"There is nothing out here but the hustle," states Alexandra, and that's what the pair do as they embark on a fast-paced journey through the streets of Los Angeles. Their stories are intertwined with that of Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who has a weakness for transgender prostitutes, and especially for Sin-Dee. Days spent dealing with difficult customers and nights with his overbearing mother-in-law have Razmik desperate for his own release through carnal pleasure.
The 2015 Slamdance Festival opened on Friday night with a splash -- or rather copious amounts of blood -- in Bloodsucking Bastards, a horror comedy directed by Brian James O'Connell and penned by Ryan Mitts and the Dr. God comedy group. The well-attended opening-night party included the cast and crew in attendance, and plenty of complimentary libations for attendees.
Not since the Spierig brothers' 2009 vampire horror movie Daybreakers have I witnessed such a deluge of fake blood, but the action and humor keep the gag reflex at bay in this film that has been aptly described as "Office Space meets Shaun of the Dead," but with vampires instead of zombies.
Fran Kranz stars in Bloodsucking Bastards as Evan, the acting sales manager in a regional office of a big corporation. He is frustrated with his current work situation with his co-worker and ex-girlfriend Amanda (Emma Fitzpatrick), as well as his slacker buddy Tim (Joey Kern) and the rest of the underperforming sales team. When his boss (Joel Murray) brings in his old nemesis Max (Pedro Pascal) to take on the sales manager position, officemates begin acting strangely and some even go missing. It's up to Evan to convince everyone that an evil force is taking over the office and more than just their jobs are at stake.
"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.
Upon its Broadway debut in 1987, Into the Woods was praised as an innovative, dark, bold and musically astounding work that, to this day, remains unequaled. Naturally, a movie version had to follow of this re-imagining of classic fairy tales and what happens after "happily ever after." Though there were plans for a Rob Reiner-directed movie adaptation featuring Cher, Goldie Hawn, Elijah Wood and Robin Williams in the early '90s, that sadly fell apart -- the notion of bringing a project so well regarded and towering in both story and scope seemed virtually impossible.
Enter Rob Marshall, who successfully brought Chicago (2002) (another seemingly un-adaptable Broadway sensation) to the screen and had set out to work similar wonders with what was possibly the most daunting project of his career. Though there were some gripes by theater purists concerning changes that made the story more Disney-esque, Into the Woods proved a smash hit with critics and audiences, while earning Oscar nominations for the film's costumes, production design and supporting actress Meryl Streep.
The film added much-needed luster to Marshall's movie musical resume when recalling his lavishly mounted yet unfairly dismissed adaptation of the Broadway musical Nine (2009). Nine follows celebrated Italian film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he prepares to shoot his eagerly awaited ninth film. However, Guido finds himself in a creative and personal crisis, which prevents him from creating the grandiose masterpiece everyone is expecting. At the heart of Guido's turmoil are the frustrating relationships he has with various women in his life including his wife (Marion Cotillard), mistress (Penelope Cruz), mother (Sophia Loren), muse (Nicole Kidman), costume designer (Judi Dench), an American journalist (Kate Hudson) and a scandalous woman from his childhood (Fergie).
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.