2014 Top Ten


01) The Tale of Princess Kaguya – Isao Takahata (Japan) **** 1/2
02) We Are the Best! – Lukas Moodysson (Sweden)
03) Whiplash – Damien Chazelle (USA)
04) Locke – Steven Knight (Britain) ****
05) Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu (USA)
06) The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson (USA)
07) Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski (Poland)
08) Ernest and Celestine – Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner (France/Belgium)
09) Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer (Britain)
10) The Great Passage – Yuya Ishii (Japan)

We Are the Best! – Lukas Moodysson (2014)



Based on a comic book by Coco Moodysson, We Are the Best reminds me of this famous old punk flyer — here are three chords, now start a band.

The girls in this film, Bobo and Klara (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin), a couple of seventh grade punks living in Stockholm in the early 80s, don’t even know the three chords when they start their band on a whim to get one over on a group of metalheads who torment them on a daily basis, calling them ugly and dykes.

They learn to piece it together and make a good, loud racket once they enlist fellow classmate and misfit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) after she is mercilessly booed during a school talent show for playing classical guitar in the time of ABBA.

Punk is dead, they’re constantly reminded, and worse (!), they’re girls.

Struggling against the idea that young girls in a punk band are a novelty act (a girl band), cute to look at but not much else is as much at the core of the film as friendship. It’s that sense that makes the whole “aww, adorable” critical reaction to the film a burden. To watch even part of the film is to know that Bobo, Klara and Hedvig would roll their eyes and make vomit faces at the idea that they’re aww, adorable.

It’ll be fun to have a girl band, one of the clueless counselors says when they’re invited to play a Christmas concert. Roll eyes.

Look at Bobo, she cut her own hair. Roll eyes.

The energy you dive into things when you reach your teenage years, when you’re this new person in your own eyes, but the same old person in everyone else’s eyes, will always be fascinating to me. It’s hard to watch the awkwardness at times, especially dealing with parents who can’t accept the new person they see, but that’s the stuff that binds all of us together, misfit or not, punk or not.

As much as the film shows off a return to form for Moodysson — who hasn’t made a film this good since his first, Fucking Åmål (aka Show Me Love) — it’s the killer chemistry between Miras Barkhammar and Grosin that make the film jump off of the screen and dive into your soul.

Sleeping over at Klara’s one night, Bobo has a drunken emotional breakdown — over so much: never being as cute as Klara, never getting attention from boys, having shitty parents, getting picked on, feeling like a loser and how everything is worthless — Klara is gentle, hugging her best friend as she spills her feelings and calmly reminds her that she is in the best band in the world. She is in the best band in the world and has two friends who love her. That’s all you need.

Palo Alto – Gia Coppola (2014)



Gia, the next Coppola in line, on adapting Palo Alto and being her own Coppola
By: Rob Boylan

Like the Kennedys in politics or the Mannings in football, film has its own dynasty in the form of the Coppola family. Along with the Hustons, the Coppolas are the only family in Oscar history to have three generations of winners. Together, the family owns 8 statues (double the Hustons’ 4), spread across Carmine, Francis, Sofia and Nicolas Cage, with a combined 24 nominations. And now there is a new generation starting to wade out into the world being spearheaded by Gia Coppola and her film Palo Alto.

But when I ask her about growing up in a dynasty over the phone, the tenor of conversation shifts. “I mean, I don’t know any other way of living. It’s very normal,” she says with a slight sense of frustration growing in her voice. “I have such an appreciation for my family and their movies. I’ve learned so much from them just growing up on their movie sets, but at the same time I wanted to grow and face my own challenges.

“[But Palo Alto] was made through James’s production company [instead of American Zoetrope], so it was really important for me to do this on my own and find my own voice.”

The James in that sentence is James Franco, whose book of short stories was adapted by Coppola for the screen, and who also co-stars as the charming-creepy girls soccer coach, Mr. B.


The stories are somewhat separate in the book, but have been combined by Coppola to form a rotisserie of angst, alienation, abuse and ennui where bad decisions and drugs abound for the loosely affiliated group of friends, April (Emma Roberts), Teddy (Jack Kilmer), Fred (Nat Wolff) and Emily (Zoe Levin).

April and Teddy make up much of the film’s focus. They are mutual crushes, but because of crossed wires neither realizes it and both look elsewhere for someone to love them back. That leads them down different paths, but both of them only find emotional landmines in their way.

April is the sensitive soul who puts on a nonchalant front, who smokes and drinks because she wouldn’t fit in otherwise. Even with that front, she doesn’t really fit in. She flits from group to group searching for a comfortable niche to fit into, but never really finds anything but a parody of comfort when Mr. B begins to take an interest in her as more than Coach.

Teddy is more sensitive than the rest as well, but its to a more skewed degree than April. He is sensitive and still childlike — in one piece of the film he dreams of being in a wolf suit, playing an anguished Max from Where the Wild Things Are — but he stops a few steps short of April’s sensitive nature. Even with a loving family at home, his front goes a few steps beyond when Teddy crashes his car while drunk and flees the scene.


“James’s book is dark at times. I tried to make certain things a little hopeful, but I also knew I didn’t want to totally change it … That stuff does go on and life is dark sometimes.” Things do seem darker of late, kids more wired than I remember. “I don’t think emotions change,” she says when I ask if kids are under more pressure to succeed than when she or I were their age. “Its kind of an organic thing that we all go through where we’re physically and hormonally changing. It feels really heavy.”

It makes me wonder if a film can be too organic though. In my head I can counter the idea that the film meanders or doesn’t find its dramatic ending by telling myself that teenagers meander and only have dramatic endings if they die. If being a teenager weren’t intensely boring, it wouldn’t lead to drinking or seeing which drug is the most fun to abuse the hell out of. The fact that teenagers need something else to make them more interesting maybe means that films about teenagers need something else to make them as interesting as they can be. Maybe not always as extreme a basketball playing wolfman, but something. In that sense, Palo Alto only manages to get to third base. As an audience, it’s a good time but we keep our underwear on.

Nobody makes a perfect first film though. To harp on the family angle again for a moment, neither Dementia 13 nor The Virgin Suicides were perfect either. It takes a minute to learn the rules of the game and how to bend them to your will to make the picture you want to make. To distinguish yourself in the T-Rex-sized footprints of such a famous family can’t be an easy task, but on the other hand, who would bet against a Coppola?

Sex Criminals Volume 1: One Weird Trick – Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky



For most of its history, comics have been a man’s man’s man’s world – or more accurately, a boy’s boy’s boy’s world. They’ve been the place where uncool boys went to escape the various rejections they found in the real world and live in a world of hulking he-men and impossibly beautiful, powerful (and, of course, half-naked) women. But something strange happened in the early ’90s. New creators like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton’sBatman, The Death of Superman, X-Men Volume 2and Image Comics all created a swirl of hype. Comics became collectibles, coveted like baseball cards. Cool people started to read them, and, even weirder, so did girls.

For all their readership over the years, girls haven’t been so warmly welcomed into the mainstream comics world, and female characters haven’t typically been written with as much attention to detail as they’ve been drawn. Though it’s saddled with a ridiculous title, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals looks to hack away at that perception by mixing sex and superpowers in a novel way, one that opens up a heretofore unmined deposit of dick and butt jokes that would make any teenage boy giddy. But the thing is, the main character isn’t a boy.

The first volume, One Weird Trick, covers the first five issues of the monthly series from Image. It follows the strange life of Suzie, a 20-something librarian who learns as a kid that she has a special power: She can stop time when she has an orgasm. It’s a feel-good-yet-scary place for her – one that she dubs “the Quiet.” She has questions, but none of the adults are willing to explain things to her. Turning to the school slut, Rach, for help, she proceeds to get a lesson full of the most absurd, hilarious sex positions ever penciled onto a bathroom stall wall: “bloobing,” “quisping,” “swaffling” and “E.T. the Sex Move” – but none of them explain the stopping-time business.

It’s not until adulthood that anyone can help, when she meets Jon, a handsome actor-slash-secretary who charms her by quoting Lolita. In her room, as she enters the Quiet, something new and alarming happens: He’s there too, glowing penis and all. It’s a startling but magnetic discovery for both of them, that they’re not alone in this strange, embarrassing world anymore.

Sex isn’t usually well-defined in comics. We’re aware that Mary Jane and Peter have sex, but there has never been a curiously tight-cropped panel of MJ’s eyes in any Spider-Man books. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have anal sex in Alias, but that was just some shock-and-awe for Marvel’s adult imprint, Max.

It starts to feel a bit like a cop-out by Fraction when Jon suggests they rob the bank he works at (where Suzie’s father also worked) to help save her library, but the idea is ill-conceived on purpose by Fraction. Things don’t go as planned, and Suzie and Jon find out the Quiet is a much larger place than either of them could have guessed, one that is even patrolled by its own superhero team.

As much as the Quiet becomes a place of revenge for Jon, it’s more complex for Suzie. It’s about sex, but it’s also wrapped up with her father’s death and her mother’s alcoholic near-catatonia. Like comics for uncool boys, the Quiet becomes her escape from rejection. She doesn’t use it for quiet; she uses it to scream at the top of her lungs because it’s the only place where she can. In that way, Sex Criminals goes far beyond novelty, maybe even far beyond what we think of when we think of comics.

AMC’s new computer drama “Halt and Catch Fire” does just that



The history of computers on the big or small screen bears little resemblance to the reality of computers. A few films like The Social NetworkUnderground and The Pirates of Silicon Valley aside, too many directors go for the cheap way out and try to dramatize computing beyond all concepts of reality. The worst offenders, like The Net and Hackers, are so laughably wrong about the way the subculture works that they’ve become more valuable for irony’s sake than anything else.

Maybe the best thing about the series pilot for AMC’s new drama Halt and Catch Fire, is that there is no movie bullshit in it at all.

We are not invited into a world where the circuit board is a model city, where we are an electrical current riding the rails to the file being called up. There are no graphics being projected onto anyone’s face to heighten the idea of “hacking”. No one drops a logic bomb to gain root access through the Gibson’s GUI backdoor loophole protocol.

The series takes place in the 80s, a time when IBM was firmly in place as the industry leader in computing, when Jobs and Wozniak were still at Mac who had their niche market, and Gates and Allen had yet to send the computer into mandatory status with Windows 95. Big Blue play the villains of the piece, which plays out an elaborate rouse by a slick hustler named Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) leads an trod upon engineer, Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), to do the unthinkable: clone a PC.

In the pilot’s biggest set piece, Joe and Gordon sit in a garage and transcribe 65,000 lines of hexadecimal code that the IBM BIOS is written in. IBM catches wind of the dastardly intellectual property violation and threaten to sue the company they work for, Cardiff Electronics, a mid-tier Silicon Prairie computer company led by Toby Huss (aka ARTIE. The strongest man… in the world).

In a strange legal gambit, they may actually be able to get away with it as long Gordon and Joe can prove they haven’t shown the hex code to anyone, which is where Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), a punky, bored comp-sci major who is smarter than the curriculum comes in to save their asses.

If all that sounds boring, it’s only because it’s impossible to convey the silky smooth style and tension that the showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers build up to. Cracking the IBM motherboard is exciting as it plays out. The schlubby Gordon is an engineering whiz who is had been defeated by the failure to launch a system he and his wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), designed, and as he picks apart the circuit board with his oscilloscope you can see the blood come back into his face. The excitement becomes contagious as they get closer and closer.

If the show has anything earmarked for a potential breakout element though, it’s Cameron, who doesn’t get nearly enough screentime in the pilot. Davis plays her tough and sarcastic, much the same way Katee Sackhoff played Starbuck in the early Battlestar Galactica episodes, and her half new wave/half punk style only adds to that edge. She is fiercely independent, maybe because she’s surrounded by idiots. Even though she signs on for the job, Joe and Gordon still have to prove that they’re something more than typical. They have to prove it to us too, but they make a good start at it.

Ida – Pawel Pawlikowski (2014)



If there have been institutions more maligned in film than the Church and the iron curtain, they can’t have been by much. It’s one of the few things that religion and communism have in common in this world, and it ends up making for a sublime road movie in Pawel Pawlikowski’s black & white, full frame Ida.

The Ida of the title (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young novice nun who was orphaned during the war and who is on the verge of taking her vows. It’s the winter of 1962 and she has barely been beyond the walls of the convent she was delivered to as a baby when she is abruptly sent by the Mother Superior to see her last remaining family member, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who would not take custody of her once the war was over.

Wanda is a Party judge, a severe and sharp woman who looks completely defeated by life by the time we meet her. The photo album she shows Ida — full of pictures of the family before the war, even photos of a very young Ida — does seem to spark her somewhat, but there is so much pain buried behind the photos that it doesn’t last.

Piqued by the photos, Ida wishes to visit the family’s home town and see the graves of her parents once before she returns to the convent and takes her vows. In the end though, this is a World War II story, and nothing is pretty and neat. Her parents have no graves, Wanda tells her. The family is Jewish and was betrayed by neighbors who had been helping to hide them.

Ida, maybe partly from naivety, is undeterred in her wish and the two set off to the country knowing the potentially destructive power of what they might find.

Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is a revelation as Ida. It’s an unassuming, quiet role, one that requires that she spend most of the film covered in a habit, but it doesn’t hold her back in the slightest. She smolders under her coif, giving a teasing, knowing performance where less is more, doling out hints to a much richer inner life than one might imagine from the outside. It’s remarkably assured and minimalistic, not at all kind of performance you expect from a first time actress.

As her travel partner, Agata Kulesza has a more traditional repressed role, but expresses it with aplomb at every step. The pair are at their best when Wanda asks Ida if she has sinful thoughts. The smirk that Trzebuchowska delivers is playful and devastating you want to bonk her on the head with an Oscar for it.

The stark black & white cinematography is gorgeous, conveying the coldness of the scene and Ida and Wanda’s emotional states perfectly. It’s something that the full frame aspect ratio helps with as well. I haven’t been a fan of the reemergence of full frame photography, but something about it here is so fitting that I can’t find fault with it. It almost gives the film a sense of being in a time machine, as if the film were actually shot in the 1960s when the wounds of the war were still fresh and just starting to scab over. In a film full of opposites in an orbit of attraction and repulsion, it helps adjust our focus. It’s a declaration that Pawlikowski doesn’t want to waste our time, and he doesn’t.

John Canemaker’s “The Lost Notebook” documents Disney at its best moment



If you’ve never heard of Herman Schultheis, you’re not alone. Ironically a relentless self-promoter who may have suffered from a persecution complex, Schultheis was a minor employee at the Disney Animation Studios from 1937 until 1941, during the period that saw their best output: PinocchioBambiDumbo and Fantasia.

Schultheis was born in Germany at the turn of the century and emigrated to New York just before the Depression. He considered himself a jack of all trades (though some of his co-workers would contend that he was a master of none), and was fixated on working in Hollywood to show off the talents he thought so highly of.

Though not an animator like Ub Iwerks or Ward Kimball, Schultheis did have an art of a kind: his technical skills in photography and photo manipulation. Once he was finally hired at a studio after years of doggedly trying, he helped improve the studio’s workflow with tests that brought greater clarity to animation photostats and Kodak’s photochemical wash-off relief cels, which reproduced animation sheets more faithfully than hand-inked cels did.

But anything he may have added to the films seems dwarfed now by the release of this immaculately kept and fully annotated notebook, which contains innumerable notes and diagrams on effects shots, research photographs, promotional stills and photographs of life at the Disney Animation Studios: men and women at work creating timeless films.

From an animation standpoint, the notes and diagrams are an amazing discovery. The trove of details and technical drawings about how effects and gags were done, diagrams and test drawings (especially of the multiplane camera shot that opens Pinocchio) is an especially exciting find. From a film history view, it’s the behind-the-scenes photos on the lot at the new and old Disney Studios that make the price worthwhile.

But I would come to a full stop before calling this Disneyana, which is, let’s be honest, a catchall term for the least interesting of all things Disney. This is an animation history book that just happens to document Disney. If Schultheis had worked at Warner’s or Hanna-Barbera, it would be just as insightful — though the period he worked at Disney was particularly interesting because it was during a time before the employee strike, when Walt didn’t seem to care about inflated budgets as much as the quality of the animation.

Schultheis was a polarizing figure inside the studio, however. He had his champions, but also his critics, the most vocal of whom was fellow effects man Bob Broughton, who called Schultheis a glory hog, allowing that he made contributions to the films, but never as the chief innovator. In the notebook that Canemaker’s book reproduces in full, it’s rare to see anyone else’s work, or at least anyone else credited for their work. If you didn’t know better, you might think that Schultheis was Walt Disney’s secret identity, so much credit is taken. It goes further still: There were whisper campaigns about Schultheis being a Hitler-lover (doubtful) and a Nazi spy (very doubtful), and in maybe the worst insult someone could give at the time, Broughton called him the least member of the Disney family. He may have had personal failings and been the least enmeshed member of the Disney family, but sometimes that’s the only way you get to take all of the pictures.

Can the Maya Rudolph Show survive the fact that no one likes variety shows?



Last night NBC aired the pilot for The Maya Rudolph Show, an hour-long variety show that featured Sean Hayes, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen, Kristin Bell and Craig Robinson, with Janelle Monae as the musical guest performing Electric Lady.

Hosted, of course, by Rudolph, the show doesn’t exactly throw it back to the Sid Ceaser Caesar or Muppets-style comedy-variety show, but sticks very close to its SNL roots — a little too close to separate itself from the superior Saturday show.

Overall, the show featured too much Sean Hayes and too many 12:50 slot quality sketches, including a dance off with Andy Samberg’s as Tony Manero (that could have been funny without Samberg), a kind of unbearable parody of The 25,000 Pyramid and Frozen sketch, with Rudolph, Bell and Hayes write the sequel:

Variety shows have been dead since the 80s, and with good reason. They’re a terrible television format, especially as the media landscape grows and tries to consume all of out waking hours. No one needs to rely on network television to see the stars they like as they did in the 40s and 50s. These days it’s harder to avoid seeing the stars you like than it is to see or read about them in far too much detail. We have little need for variety shows because everything else we can see on a screen to so tailored to our specific wants that the format falls to pieces the second something we don’t 100% like comes on.

You could argue that SNL is a comedy-variety show, but it’s so extremely tailored to its audience that it doesn’t really meet the “something for everyone” idea.

Those thoughts aside, there wasn’t much variety to this variety show. Outside of the monologue song (which featured backup dancers, a pony and plate spinning), it was a steady sea of dance numbers and sketch after sketch, with the enumerated guests (notably missing her more famous friends, Kristin Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler) playing all of the parts.

I could easily see this working as a stage show, especially a Vegas stage show, but on TV it’s just not a format that works anymore. We don’t want something for everyone, we want everything for us.

The Double – Richard Ayoade (2014)



I have a suspicion that The Double, the second feature by The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade, will end up being one of the most sneaky films of the year, psychologically speaking. The film, which mixes everything from Dostoevsky and Kafka to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, is the kind of thing that says more about the viewer than it ever could about the artists.

The film stars Jessie Eisenberg and Jessie Eisenberg as Simon James and James Simon, employees at the same faceless bureaucratic conglomerate who look remarkably alike, though no one seems to notice.

Simon is a smart, hard worker who is held back by his timid anonymity; James is a confident, charming social climber who gets ahead by using Simon’s work as his own to impress their dipstick boss, Mr Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn). If they sound like George McFly and Biff Tannen, they’re not. Simon is much more of a doormat than George ever was.

Though it gets there quickly, Simon and James’s relationship doesn’t start out in the dumps. In exchange for doing his work for him, James agrees to help Simon get the attention of his office crush, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the cute girl who works in the copy office that Simon admires from afar.

Naturally, she falls for the charismatic James instead of the insubstantial Simon.

And she falls hard.

It’s hard to find an aspect of this story that hasn’t been picked over at great length in so many indie films in the past that I’ve lost count at this point. Identity crises and unrequited love — not to mention visually quoting Billy Wilder and Franz Kafka — are the motor oil that keeps the indie film machine going, but there is something else going on in The Double too that makes it special.

We’re not necessarily asked through cinematic means to side with the painfully lonely and socially awkward Simon, as we usually are in an unrequited love story. He’s basically, whether he realizes it or not, a creepy dude who doesn’t really deserve Hannah. He spies on her with a telescope and picks through her trash for the artistic scraps that she throws away. Through the lens of the the telescope, Simon should be able to see that Hannah also isn’t the manic pixie dream girl he’s in love with in his head, but he’s such a blank personality that he can’t tell the difference.

Nor are we necessarily asked to identify with James, which is where the sneakiness lies. Ayoade keeps his distance from typicality, deflecting the identity question with a free riffing symphony of beautifully deadpan comedy (aided by a great supporting cast of Shawn, Cathy Moriarty, Noah Taylor, Chris O’Dowd, Paddy Considine, and Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige who played opposite one another in Ayoade’s first film Submarine).

Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (brother of Harmony Korine) don’t seem to hold Simon in contempt, but they don’t hold back making him the butt of their film’s cosmic joke either. It’s an existentially cutting film. Even though we’re not manipulated into identifying with either Eisenberg, the divide of love and hate for this film might exist in whether you do or don’t. If you do identify with Simon or James, or at least with the central question of the film, it’s an insightful film; if you don’t, it’s a pretentious art school waste of time.

The Devil’s Knot – Atom Egoyan (2014)



If you don’t know the story of the West Memphis Three by now, I’m not sure where you’ve been living. Even rock-dwellers have heard it. There have been four documentaries, a handful of books, news stories and countless rallies with musicians as diverse as Metallica, Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam lending their names to the cause of three misfit teenagers from rural Arkansas who were convicted of the murder of three pre-teens in the early 1990s.

Whether they were wrongfully convicted or not has been contested in the court of law and of public opinion for much of the last two decades, since the first documentary, Paradise Lost, aired on HBO in 1996, three years after the murder and two years after their conviction.

If, by chance, you’ve somehow never heard of it, this film – a “based on a true story” feature, not a documentary – re-creates the story of the murder of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in May 1993. The nature of the murders – the boys were found in the woods naked and hog-tied with their own shoelaces – led investigators to believe this was an occult murder, and they eventually set their sights on three local misfits: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.

At the center of the film is Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie Branch, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth), a private investigator who is suspicious of the style of justice meted out by the local police. Overwhelmed, the police let the pressure of the case, and of the media interest in it, lead them down a rabbit hole of bungles and fabrications in order to send the boys to trial as quickly as possible in a kangaroo court.

It’s unclear what the director, Atom Egoyan, intended to do here. The film has no personality or authorship. There is no arc or drama, only scenes lined up one after another. Egoyan gets so bogged down in the facts of the case that he sidesteps telling the story at all. It has no point of view.

That leaves Colin Firth largely wasted as the film’s conscience, and Witherspoon has not exactly found her comeback as the emotionally erratic mother of Stevie Branch; but it’s Egoyan who has failed the story, not their performances.

What might end up being the most interesting thing about this film is that it was eventually the wedge that drove two of the suspects, Baldwin and Echols, apart. Echols, who was an executive producer on the documentary West of Memphis, objected to how he was portrayed in the script for Devil’s Knot, for which Baldwin was an executive producer. Being too close and too protective of their own stories and their own personas may be the downfall of both films, but that’s especially the case with Devil’s Knot, which not only has no suspense to speak of, but also has no closure, art or direction. If you’ve come to expect more from Egoyan over the years, he’s failed you as well.