List-making season: That time of year I pretend to hate but secretly love. As of writing, I’ve seen 35 films released in 2014. You’ll find my 10 favorites below along with an as-yet-undistributed pick from the festival circuit. A number of themes emerge from this year’s crop: dark comedy, subversive genre movies, Tilda Swinton. As always, feel free to mock me in the comments or hate-share this post as an example of what bad taste looks like. Follow these links to see my top-10 lists from 2013, 20122011, and 2010.

Honorable Mention: Ne Me Quitte Pas


Of the films I caught during the 2014 New York and Tribeca Film Festivals that remain unreleased, my favorite was Ne Me Quitte Pas. This tragicomic documentary charts the friendship of Marcel and Bob, two ungovernable alcoholics living in rural Belgium. As an intimate portrait of two outcasts in toxic codependence, the film plays like a masculine Grey Gardens, dark humor and all. Directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels Van Koevorden capture the beauty and queasiness of this friendship with almost uncomfortable immediacy. We see the men drunkenly stumble into the directors’ cameras and drive drunk into the night. It’s a rather raw look at addiction blanketed by a much cheerier story of a friendship held together (and torn apart) by whiskey and beer. Depending on your experiences with alcoholism, you’ll find the material either cruelly funny, humane, in poor taste, or, as I did, all of the above. Continue Reading »


Heaven Adores You is the film Elliott Smith super fans have been anticipating and dreading for 11 years. The first feature-length documentary released about Smith, the film made its New York debut last week at the DOCNYC festival. You’ll find the first few paragraphs of my review below and the entire review at Next Projection. Given my very close relationship to this material, this was one of the more personal reviews I’ve ever written. The film disappointed, but I’m happy it exists.

For a long time, Elliott Smith was just another guy. He traipsed around Portland, his home of many years and the central location of Heaven Adores You, like any other face about town. He did drywall jobs to pay rent and played in a grunge band at small dive bars. He put out records that did OK in his own city. He was a regional darling, if that, within a thriving local scene.

By 1998, Smith was doing interviews on “Total Request Live” and getting mentioned in the same sentence as Celine Dion. How did this happen? To chart his ascent from Portland secret to obsessively beloved singer/songwriter, we can point to two facts. The first: Smith had a superhuman talent for writing melancholic pop songs. The second: Smith lied about the song “Miss Misery” to make it eligible for an Oscar. Smith and director Gus Van Sant claimed he wrote the song for Good Will Hunting – thus qualifying it as a Best Original Song – when it was just another unreleased number he had lying around. That lie lead to an Oscar nomination, a record deal, world tours and a level of fame that left Smith with profound unease.

“I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” he says early in Heaven Adores You. The film, now playing at DOCNYC, strives to both celebrate Smith’s music and prove this essential point. Smith entered the world of celebrity on a lie, and his very presence there was a mistake. Heaven Adores You, despite its rather strange collection of shortcomings, makes do as a primer on Smith and the impact his music has on people. It’s a respectful if far too safe first cinematic draft of the Elliott Smith story.


My New York Film Festival coverage culminated last week with a review of Inherent Vice, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson. You can read my piece on the film over at Next Projection. You’ll find the first few paragraphs below. Like all of PTA’s more recent films, Inherent Vice made for a beguiling but hypnotic first sit. I can’t wait to revisit it in December. To browse all of my 2014 NYFF pieces, click here.

Sometimes life hits you with a bunch of complicated shit when all you really want to do is spin a Neil Young record and roll another number. Inherent Vice is a film about that feeling. It’s about other things, too: capitalism, counterculture, California. It’s also about how much Paul Thomas Anderson, the film’s director, loves convoluted film noir plots, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, and the prose of Thomas Pynchon. Inherent Vice throws a lot at you in 148 minutes. It’s a chaotic noir odyssey – all comic mayhem and mournful weirdness. But really it remains a simple thing: the story of a man (and a decade, the ’60s) whose good times get interrupted by larger forces.

It’s the latest fascinatingly strange, sublimely cinematic look at a moment of American history as rendered by Paul Thomas Anderson.

The first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice tells its story of a nation in flux through Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a Southern California stoner and half-assed private eye. The film opens as Doc gets a visit from Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), a meaningful ex from his past. Shasta tells of her current affair with Mickey Wolfmann, a real estate goliath so big even Doc knows his name. Wolfmann’s wife has her own illicit lover, and together the two have planned to have Mickey thrown into one of California’s recently privatized “loony bins.”

The men of Last Hijack, a documentary by Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting.

The men of Last Hijack, a documentary by Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting.

My third review from the 2014 New York Film Festival is live. Follow this link to read my piece on Last Hijack, a documentary look at a Somali pirate. Click here to see all of my NYFF reviews. You’ll find the first few paragraphs of my review of Last Hijack below.

Put a face on it. This maxim of journalism classes and newsrooms is often the chief ambition of an issue-based documentary. Where daily news accounts can speak to a phenomenon at large, an on-the-ground documentary can turn the abstract players involved into real people. Last Hijack, which screened earlier this week as part of the New York Film Festival’s Convergence lineup, seeks to put a face on Somali piracy with its portrait of a single pirate in the town of Eyl.

The filmmakers have chosen a curious face in Mohamed, a crass absentee father who went “from pauper to president” after he began hijacking cargo ships for money. Mohamed drives around town like a self-styled king and says things like “If your wife starts complaining, you divorce her with a text message.” His parents plead for him to give up piracy, to which he replies simply, “It’s fun being a pirate.” Last Hijack charts his reluctance to sacrifice a lucrative and electric life as a pirate to become a husband and father.

The film was co-directed by Tommy Pallotta, a producer on Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped pictures (A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life). As such, it sprinkles bits of fantastical animation within the mix of interviews and footage of Mohamed and his circle of fellow pirates and family members.

Martín Rejtman's Two Shots Fired made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival earlier this week.

Martín Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival earlier this week.

My second review from the New York Film Festival is now up at Next Projection. Click here to read my piece on Two Shots Fired, a baffling (but not unenjoyable) dark comedy from Argentina. To browse all of my NYFF reviews, follow this link.

Two Shots Fired opens on an act of irrational violence: A 16-year-old boy, devoid of any expression or motivation we can register, shoots himself twice after a quick swim. The film ends, 100 minutes later, having fully convinced us that it’s no more logical than that impulsive act. Two Shots Fired operates just beyond our understanding, which befits a film about human behavior that makes no sense. It’s a quietly mystifying comedy about confusion itself. Buried in it, deliberately obscured, is a sad little movie about the rippling effects of self-harm. We’ve seen that material before, but never from an angle so oblique as this.

We begin with Mariano (Rafael Federman), an Argentinean teenager who inexplicably shoots himself and even more inexplicably survives. Despite taking point-blank shots to the chest and head, Mariano shows no signs of trauma or physical harm upon return from the hospital. He does, however, still have a bullet lodged inside his torso, which causes strange sounds to come out of his flute and metal detectors to chirp outside clubs and office buildings. Mariano seems unfazed – both by his own actions and by his total lack of an emotional response to his near death.

One by one, the marginal characters around him become the subjects of Two Shots Fired. The film strays from Mariano to follow his brother Ezequiel (Benjamín Coehlo) and his romance with a fast-food cashier (Laura Paredes). Mariano meets Lucia (Manuela Martelli), an amateur flute player who auditions for his medieval woodwind ensemble and seizes control of the film. Mariano’s mother Susana (Susana Pampkin), frazzled from overwork and her son’s apparent suicide attempt, takes a trip to the beach with a group of friends and strangers, and the camera follows her. It soon gets distracted and leaves her for Liliana (Daniela Pal), an outsider on the beach trip who has no real connection to Mariano or his mother.

Roxy, star of Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language.

Roxy, star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language.

Earlier this week, I began my coverage of the New York Film Festival over at Next Projection. I hope to review five films over the course of the festival, which runs September 26-October 12. My first dispatch concerned Goodbye to Language, the 3-D cinematic essay from Jean-Luc Godard. It is, as of time of writing, my favorite film from the festival thus far. You can read the complete review here and the first few paragraphs below.

Goodbye to Language is a crazy quilt of the obsessions of Jean-Luc Godard. War imagery collides with domestic hostility collides with footage of the filmmaker’s dog. The scenes change like channels on some spastic, possessed television. For many, the film may play like unwatchable chaos – all noise and no signal. Getting on its wavelength requires a certain level of masochism. You have to enjoy, to some degree, getting provoked and assaulted by Jean-Luc Godard. I’m here to tell you that it’s possible.

Godard is that rare filmmaker who’s grown more jagged-edged with age. Could the man ever go soft? More than 50 years after he popularized the jump cut to disrupt the film-watching experience, Godard continues to antagonize us with moving images that look nothing like the ones we consume on a daily basis.

The difference between peak-period Godard and the 83-year-old of today, however, comes down to a line from Goodbye to Language: “I hate characters.” Contemporary Godard has no interest in the quirks of individual humans. His cinema has long ago entered the realm of pure abstraction. He’s weaponized the harsh sound design, abrupt transitions, and non-sequiturs of his beloved ‘60s films. Cinema is now a tool to explore his passions, full stop, and he uses it like a master with no care for such niceties as plot, character development, or coherence.


Liao Fan stars in Black Coal, Thin Ice, winner of the Golden Bear at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

Today marks my final review from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. We end on a good note with Black Coal, Thin Ice, a Chinese thriller from director Diao Yinan. It’s an odd, dark, and altogether very compelling entry into the film noir canon. You can read my complete review over at Next Projection. You’ll find the opening paragraphs of my piece below. For all five of my 2014 Tribeca reviews, click here. As always, thanks for reading.

As a 15-year-old, I’d never heard the word “pastiche.” Still, I understood that urge: to create your own version of the things you loved. If you grew up on action movies, maybe you tried to make one as a teenager. My own attempts never went well. I lacked the technical skills to translate my ideas into something that looked and felt like the real thing. But even if I did have some virtuoso knack for crafting action spectacles in my parents’ backyard, I still had nothing to say. I just wanted to imitate the films that enchanted me. There was no goal, no purpose, but artful recreation.

You could say the same about most pastiche efforts. You couldn’t, though, about Black Coal, Thin Ice, the new Chinese thriller from director Diao Yinan. The film transcends mere mimicry. It captures the mood and narrative turns of a classic film noir, and it adds to them an emotional depth and light surrealism you don’t associate with the genre. It plays with our knowledge of the noir pantheon; it subverts some expectations and satisfies others. It’s a fine tribute to films like The Maltese Falcon and an elegant noir in its own right.

Having won the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival in January, Black Coal, Thin Ice made its North American debut this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film opens on a severed hand half buried under a mound of coal. For the next 100-odd minutes, Diao’s movie will explore that one image from every angle: Whose limb is it, how did it get there, who’s next? Officer Zhang Zilli (Liao Fan) heads the search to answer those questions. The pursuit goes wrong fast. After the botched arrest of a coal truck driver — the first of many moments of abrupt, expertly staged violence in Black Coal, Thin Ice — Zhang leaves the force and the film glides five years into the future.


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