12.19.2014

The Films of 2014: The short takes

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—by which I mean awards season.  As the nation’s critics begin to cast their votes for the year’s best films, and as I prepare my own list of favorites, I’m catching up with some notable titles that I missed the first time around.


Ida (dir. Pawel Pawlikowski): This is Poland’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, and it very well could win; it’s already proven the favorite of over a dozen critics’ groups.  It’s set in the early 1960s and, with its black-and-white cinematography and weighty subject matter, feels like a vintage art house film from the same period.  The title character is a Catholic novice who learns that her parents were Jewish, victims of the Holocaust.  This news, which comes during a visit to her aunt—her first time away from the walls of the convent—causes her to question her identity, her religious faith, and her life’s mission.  It’s a lean, spare, intimate work, and while it didn’t resonate much with me it does have one sublime moment, when the curious Ida hears the sounds of John Coltrane’s “Naima” wafting up the stairs from the jazz club below her aunt’s hotel room.


Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-Ho): In Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho’s ham-fisted dystopia, Society Is A Train: the poor and the oppressed live in cramped darkness in the rear cars, fed on protein bricks made out of gelatinized insects, while the idle rich enjoy the comforts of first class.  The whole mechanism is kept in motion by Ed Harris (who appears to be reprising his role from The Truman Show), with help from right-hand woman Tilda Swinton, a kind of prison matron-cum-Nazi commandant tricked out with old-lady glasses and bad dentures.  Swinton chews the scenery with relish, but watching her is the only joy this otherwise humorless and tiresome film affords.  It’s selling the same watered-down Marxism that Hollywood has been selling since the ’30s, ever-so-slightly updated to seem relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street.  It’s about as hard-hitting as one of those Jell-O bricks.   


Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy): Jake Gyllenhaal has recently gotten some awards traction for his creepy-crawly performance as Lou Bloom, a socially awkward loner who begins taping gruesome footage of crime scenes and car accidents, which he then sells to local news stations desperate for ratings.  It could stand to be tighter, especially in its third act, and as a satire its targets are frequently on-the-nose (this is Gilroy’s debut effort).  Even so, Nightcrawler is not without a certain sleazy charm, and Gyllenhaal’s attempts to push himself here are to be admired.  Even better is Rene Russo (remember her?), playing the TV news editor who buys Bloom’s tapes.  Their relationship is wonderfully queasy, and because her character is damaged and loathsome in ways that are less bug-eyed than Gyllenhaal’s is she becomes the more compelling of the two.  Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is repeatedly figured as a vampire or werewolf throughout the film (he comes out at night when the moon is full), but Russo plays the type of monster—sad, amoral, and all too human—that really haunts you. 

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