2014 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part I

mortenson-isaac-dunst-januaryI am devoting the entire week of Thanksgiving to cramming for my best of 2014 lists and SFFCC awards ballot – catching up on the movies I missed, screening as-yet-unreleased awards season hopefuls, and rewatching some of my favorites from earlier in the year.

Friday, November 21

The Two Faces of January (Dir.: Hossein Amini; GRADE: B) This silken Patricia Highsmith adaptation is the directorial debut of long-time screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove, Drive), and while it is well-crafted and alluring, it could have benefited from a more assured hand.  Oscar Isaac is an American con man living in Greece who projects himself into the orbit of a dapper American couple played by Viggo Mortensen (smoking the fuck out of a cigarette) and Kirsten Dunst, seeing them first as marks, later as father figure and lover, respectively, and finally as accomplices in murder.  There is a thrilling, who’s-conning-who elasticity to the film, but it feels vaporous and unsteady, lovely to look at and yet visually unrealized and indistinct.

happy-christmas-anna-kendrickSabotage (Dir.: David Ayer; GRADE: B+) Along with The Lego Movie, Edge of Tomorrow, and to a lesser extent The Equalizer, David Ayer’s profoundly scuzzy Sabotage  is my nominee for The Unexpectedly Awesome Film of the Year.  Another movie from a screenwriter turned director, but this fourth film from David Ayer has a visceral visual confidence. This is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Clint Eastwood film, an ultra-violent shock of steely-eyed action electricity that merges a heist film, a revenge film, an all-star action film, and an Agatha Christie whodunit into everything I ever wanted but never got from The Expendables franchise, minus Dolph Lundgren.

Saturday, November 22

Happy Christmas (Dir.: Joe Swanberg; GRADE: B) Fun fact: Joe Swanberg will have written, directed, produced, and starred in four films by the time you finish reading this sentence.  That said, this is only the second Swanberg movie that I have seen after last year’s Drinking Buddies, and it makes a nice, low-key companion to that nice, low-key film.  The Swanberg twist – and it’s a good one – seems to be that the female characters are complex and self-destructive and searching, while the men are simple and domestic.  Anna Kendrick is very good as an overgrown screwup who comes home to live with her brother (Swanberg) and his wife (Melanie Lynskey), but despite a relaxed and intimate atmosphere – a nice touch is that babies and animals behave naturally and uncoached – there is barely any movie here to grasp onto.

Frank (Dir.: Lenny Abrahamson; GRADE: C+) A hack songwriter thrusts himself into the cult-like orbit of a mentally unstable avant-garde bandleader, a man who lives life in a papier-mache head, onstage and off.  Abrahamson flings the film in so many directions – by turns, it’s a zany comedy, a serious portrait of mental illness, a story of showbiz ambition, a social media satire, and more – that there is no center to hold it together.  Fine performances by Michael Fassbender (mostly hidden under the head) and Maggie Gyllenhaal can’t save it.

indexPoint and Shoot (Dir.: Marshall Curry; GRADE: B+) This unbelievable documentary about American thrill-seeker turned Libyan rebel soldier Matt VanDyke is the missing link between Grizzly Man and American Sniper.

Code Black (Dir.: Ryan McGarry; GRADE: B) Just as bloody as Sabotage, but this time a documentary going behind the scenes in the emergency center at L.A. County Hospital, directed by one of the hospital’s doctors.  Beyond the graphic realism, this is more of an aggravated state-of-the-state than a pick-a-side political treatise.

My updated ranked list of every 2014 release that I have seen to date is HERE.