Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My top 10 non-2014 movies of 2014

Just under the wire for the end of the year, here's my annual list of my favorite movies I saw for the first time this year that were initially released in previous years. (Some comments reproduced from Letterboxd.)

1. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Ronald Neame, 1969) I watched this movie on an old tube TV in what was almost certainly the wrong aspect ratio, while I was visiting my grandmother over the summer (it was one of a random assortment of DVDs she had gotten from the library) -- and yet it completely captivated and surprised me the entire time. It's a brilliant inversion of the typical inspirational teacher drama, with a young (and lovely) Maggie Smith as a history teacher at a girls' school in Britain on the eve of World War II. At first she seems like the typical iconoclast who connects with students over the objections of the stuffy administrators, but soon it becomes clear that her influence is toxic and even deadly. The movie is impressively frank and forward-thinking about sex, not afraid to take dark turns, and incredibly well-acted. It was easily the most welcome surprise of my movie-watching this year.

2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) After seeing Unbroken, I have an even greater appreciation for this classic World War II epic about prisoners of war being forced by the Japanese army to help build a bridge in Thailand. Not only is the movie's sheer scope amazing (the final sequence, for which the filmmakers blew up an actual bridge, is one of the best in movie history), but the characters are also incredibly well-drawn, with Alec Guinness, William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa giving great, multi-layered performances. The movie is long but consistently engrossing, with a sense of tragic inevitability as it reaches its end. I can only imagine how immersive it would be to see on a big screen.

3. King of the Hill (Steven Soderbergh, 1993) I'm glad I managed to watch this before it left Netflix streaming (with literally a minute left), because it's easily one of Soderbergh's best, and possibly the most heartfelt, emotionally affecting movie he ever made. Jesse Bradford (who has gone on to a mostly undistinguished career) is wonderful as resourceful teen Aaron, who is forced to fend for himself thanks to a combination of irresponsible and/or sick parents, poverty and callous authority figures. The cast is filled with future famous faces, including Adrien Brody, Katherine Heigl, Lauryn Hill and Amber Benson, all of whom give strong performances. Soderbergh realizes the Depression-era setting masterfully, and his screenplay finds the perfect balance between nostalgia and disillusionment.

4. Ain't Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013) "The best Terrence Malick movie of 2013," I called this on Letterboxd a few months after seeing Malick's To the Wonder, which I did not care for. But I wouldn't want to reduce Lowery to a simple Malick imitator; although he also uses hushed narration (in the form of letters sent from one character to another) and idyllic nature shots, he's more plot-focused than Malick, and offers up more concrete character detail. Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster are all excellent, giving the movie's central tragic love triangle a sense of real stakes, without one obvious correct path. Lowery builds up emotions that are real and honest, tied to a suspenseful, thrilling narrative, and that's more than Malick has been able to do for a while now.

5. Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939) I'm grateful for this year's 75th-anniversary theatrical re-release, because otherwise I probably would have kept putting off seeing this movie (it takes dedication to set aside four hours for a single movie). It's quite the theatrical experience, too, complete with overture and intermission, and I think seeing it with an enthusiastic audience helped me to get swept up in the epic story. The flaws (mainly in the whitewashed portrait of slavery and Southern life and the gender politics) are obvious, but as an embodiment of old Hollywood grandeur, it's pretty spectacular. And Vivien Leigh is amazing. I was kind of blown away by the depth and complexity of Scarlett O'Hara, especially given how sexist and limited the movie's view of women can be.

6. A Life Less Ordinary (Danny Boyle, 1997) This has to be due for a reassessment, right? I remember it getting mostly negative reviews when it was released, and in general I think it's dismissed as one of Boyle's lesser films. Sure, it's a bit of a mess, but it's a delightful mess, with winning performances from Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor and an invigorating anything-goes mentality. The one lovely mid-film musical number makes me think it would probably work like gangbusters as a stage musical.

7. Easter Parade (Charles Walters, 1948) In past years, the TCM Festival has been responsible for a number of top picks on this list, and while I didn't make any amazing discoveries there this year, I did catch up with some enjoyable classics and obscurities, including this beloved Judy Garland/Fred Astaire musical. It's a strong mix of plot-driven and revue-style musical, with an infectious sense of joy and a typically spectacular performance from Garland, who is absolutely magical. I still haven't seen a lot of classic musicals, but whenever I see Garland onscreen, I want to see more.

8. Employees' Entrance (Roy Del Ruth, 1933) This campy pre-Code melodrama (another TCM Fest viewing) is basically Sexual Harassment: The Movie, but it's completely entertaining, with Warren William as the world's most ruthless department store manager preying on Loretta Young's vulnerable young employee. Loads of sexual innuendo, some gay subtext, and plenty of hilarious nastiness from start to finish.

9. Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013) I have very little patience for the social-issue advocacy that dominates documentaries these days, so I'm always happy to see acclaim and attention for a movie like this, a lovely and moving personal story about people who've lived fascinating lives. Both temperamental artist Ushio Shinohara and his endlessly patient wife Noriko are complicated, talented people who can't be reduced to simple talking-head interviews, and Heinzerling takes in the range of their daily experiences with insight but without judgement.

10. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell, 1997) It's sad that we're at a point where it's a relief to see both Johnny Depp and Al Pacino playing normal human beings in a movie. They both do solid work here, in a crime drama that may be derivative of better movies but still packs a punch thanks to the slow-burning tragedy that is the relationship between the two main characters.

Honorable mention: Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009); Concussion (Stacie Passon, 2013); Curse of Chucky (Don Mancini, 2013); I Never Sang for My Father (Gilbert Cates, 1970)

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