Bio: Ashleigh Coffelt and I have been making experimental short films for about a year now. After two full length features, and 15 shorts later we are now sponsored and have moved over to California to continue making our dream happen. I always told myself that I could be anything that I wanted to be, but never did I think that an independent filmmaker would be in the mix somewhere. I have finally found my passion. I just hope that everyone who watches this short appreciates it as much as I do. Courtney Birk.
As Voltaire wrote: Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. The perfect is the enemy of the good. I take something similar away from the 2014 year in film: while the year was, I think, short on absolute masterpieces, 2014 constituted a varied, dynamic year in cinema, a year possessing a greater depth of high-quality offerings than almost any I remember. Just as Hollywood continued its obsession with war films and stodgy scientist-biopics (or combinations thereof), noteworthy auteurs took chances, creating idiosyncratic works of unique beauty, if not of hands-down perfection. Visually rigorous cinematography loomed large (Winter Sleep, Leviathan, Birdman, Ida, Inherent Vice, amongst others) just as thoughtful romantic-relationship films impressed (Love Is Strange, Top Five) and hipster vampires haunted our dreams (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, Only Lovers Left Alive). But in the end, it was simple old solidarity which prevailed.
As with any year, there are some promising films I have not yet seen which may have easily found a place on this list. To name a few: Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh); Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez); Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang); Citizenfour (Laura Poitras); Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller).
Without further ado, here is the 2014 film list:
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne): Marion Cotillard paces this superb parable of the dog-eat-dog globalized economy as observed in rugged, industrial Belgium, with nearly every move by the brothers Dardenne coming off as pitch-perfect. Vive la solidarité!
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan): This Palme d’Or winner may lack the mesmerizing mystery and poetry of Bilge Ceylan’s recent otherworldly effort, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, but he astonishes here with this potent character study of a compromised, half-intellectual landowner in Cappadocia.
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson): Smoked up and dazed and confused, P.T. Anderson’s ode to Thomas Pynchon, shady crooks and corrupt cops, and early 70s Los Angeles druggie, beach and low-life cultures captivates with numerous stand-out scenes, consistently powerful imagery, and a pervasive moody, wistful tone.
Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson): Anderson, for the first time in years, insists on providing his finely cultivated cinematic menagerie with compelling stakes – in this case an interbellum Europe about to explode – and the result is a spry, sensitive work seeped in an undercurrent of sad, regret-soaked loss.
Boyhood (Richard Linklater): The annual installments of this twelve-year-in-the-making film ebb and flow in quality and interest, but the sum of these dozen vignettes is nothing short of outstanding in terms of the scope of Linklater’s accomplishment.
Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu): This zany movie detailing a shambolic, doomed theatrical production helmed by a fallen action flick hero brims with punchy, unhinged energy. Its long tracking shots through tight backstage hallways and its tête-à-têtes in cramped dressing rooms dazzle.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski): A journey toward deeper self-identity leads a 1960s young Polish nun to learn of family secrets tangled in the tragic events of Europe’s recent past. Painterly camerawork, masterfully efficient writing.
Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs): A gem of a film, understated in its emotional intensity, precisely, subtly performed, and memorable for a poignant third-act ellipsis.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer): A finely rendered, offbeat sci-fi thriller. Scarlett Johansson handles alien material perfectly as Glazer’s film becomes progressively more uncomfortable and bleak.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (Ana Lily Amirpour): The most inventive American indie of the year is this Farsi-language, art-school-kid vampire movie, sardonic in tone, cleverly cultured, proudly singular in vision.
HONORABLE MENTION (in alphabetical order): Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev); Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch); Selma (Ava DuVernay); Top Five (Chris Rock); We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
American Sniper opens with a scene full of tension. A convoy of American soldiers walks through the desolate streets of an Iraqi town. Our hero, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), overlooks the scene from a nearby roof, rifle in hand. He sees a mother giving a grenade to her young son, who runs towards the convoy. Kyle has to make an impossible call: either he kills the kid or his fellow marines could die. Eastwood takes us to the edge of our seats. You can feel the audience holding its breath. At this moment, we flashback to Kyle’s childhood, youth, and the reasons he became a NAVY Seal and the most deadly sniper in American history.
Clint Eastwood is one of the last – maybe the last – classical directors in Hollywood. His pulse behind the camera is always firm. His talent with actors is also obvious and he has never shied away from controversial themes, sometimes even presenting ideas against his own beliefs as when addressing euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby. All of this is true about American Sniper. It’s good drama, with a strong, complex character. It delivers a great performance and addresses a delicate issue. I was excited through the whole film and there are some scenes that are masterfully done, including the fore-mentioned scene when Kyle is forced to kill a child and the final showdown in the middle of a sand storm.
Nonetheless, I can’t call American Sniper a great film and there is something about it that bugged me throughout. Eastwood decided not to make a political comment with this story, not acknowledging that that is impossible. Therefore, what happens is that everybody brings to the theater his or her own views of this issue and filters the movie through them. Is Chris Kyle a psychopathic murderer elevated to an American icon, or is he a true hero, a patriot who scarifies his life for his country?
By the end of the film, it’s clear that Eastwood’s main concern is to add to the myth and portrait of a sympathetic hero – damaged by war, perhaps, but an honorable man who, despite all he goes through, is also a great husband and father. In doing so, he gives us a simplistic, good versus evil, black and white view of a war that should never have happened. In point of fact, American Sniper makes some dangerous associations: Kyle decides to join the SEALS after seeing the Twin Towers go down; a few months later he is killing people (every male 16 to 65 he encounters) in a country that had nothing to do with those attacks in New York. All of them are refereed to in the film as “savages.”
The film’s lack of a clear ideology has motivated a lot of hatred and irrational comments on its Twitter feed, which could stand as a lesson to artists that they should be very careful when addressing complex issues in a simplistic way. “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fucking Arabs,” one Twitter user wrote. Another commented: “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us.” And yet another: “Teared up at the end of American Sniper. Great fucking movie and now I really want to kill some fucking ragheads.”
Contrary to what what Kyle’s father tells him in the beginning of the film, we cannot divide people in this world into “sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs.” Life is much more complicated than that. And the Clint Eastwood who directed Unforgiving and Letters from Iwo Jima knows it.
Andrés Rosende is an LA based writer and director. He holds an MFA in screenwriting and directing from Columbia University. His films have played at festivals around the globe including Cannes, Sitges, Cleveland and South by Southwest, winning more than 40 international awards.
This straight drama, unusual for director Tim Burton, is based on the true story of 1950’s painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her struggle to step out of the shadows and make public that her manipulative husband Walter (Christoph Waltz) had been taking credit for her unique work for years. It’s refreshing to see a Tim Burton film free of the gothic and to find him working with actors other than his usual Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Big Eyes marking the first major Burton film not to feature Bonham Carter in a role since they began their parternship in 2001 which ended with their break-up in 2014. Still, there are some nice Burton touches here and there, his visual flair most evident in a shot of an eyeball peering through a keyhole; a scene set in Hawaii in which colors from flowers pop off the screen; and most notably a nightmarish moment in a supermarket where Margaret hallucinates shoppers around her sporting the huge eyes that defined her art.
Other than these occasional flourishes, Big Eyes is a largely straightforward telling of Margaret Keane’s story and her (often creepy) portraits of mostly children with huge dark eyes that at best straddled the border between pop art and kitsch. As Margaret, Amy Adams does an admirable job of portraying a strong yet conflicted woman pushing against the constraints of the era’s patriarchal society. Adams is particularly adept at expressing conflicting emotions and in scenes in which doubt, self-doubt and self-recrimination play across her face simultaneously, she fully inhabits the character, well earning her Golden Globe for Best Actress for the role. She even does a credible job of smoking, something many actors seem clearly awkward at, though perhaps her perfect teeth are a bit too perfect when Burton’s camera goes in for a close-up, which is often. Speaking of teeth, Christoph Waltz can always be counted on to chew his way through a scene like cud and, if you like that sort of thing, he doesn’t disappoint as Keane’s charismatic, ambitious-to-a-fault husband who at first takes credit for her work knowing it will be easier to get the paintings sold but continues the ruse as the money pours in.
In the end, the unveiling of his deception depends upon Walter being able to create a “big eyes” painting in the moment, in front of a judge and jury. The court proceedings are presented rather comically, in large part due to Waltz’s grandiose gestures and posturing especially when acting as his own counsel and cross-examining himself. Walter, apparently completely lacking any artistic talent, doesn’t even try to paint while Margaret immediately sets to work, creating another signature piece. It does make one wonder though that in all those years, Walter never picked up a brush and taught himself to replicate Margaret’s style; we’re not exactly talking Picasso here. Ultimately, Big Eyes is an entertaining fact-based film about a female artist eventually coming into her own despite a society predisposed to male artists and a con artist husband passing off her work as his own, well worth re-visiting for its period detail and strong performances.
Review by Mike Fishman.
Mike Fishman has an M.A. in Film from American University and has worked for ICM, IFP, Tribeca Film Institute, Hamptons International Film Festival, and the Columbia University Film School.