Like many reviewers who publish year-end recaps featuring top-10 rankings and such, I keep a running list of every new movie I see during the year, arranged in order of preference. (Wow. Seeing it in writing, that seems really anal-retentive. Maybe only I do that.) And after updating this list over the weekend, I scanned my current 10 favorites and thought, "For July, that's a pretty great lineup."
Of course, that lineup is only impressive because five of its titles - Life Itself, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Stranger by the Lake, Nymphomaniac: Volume One, and Snowpiercer - are 2014 films I caught on home video and through streaming services. If I only included movies that played at area cineplexes, my top-10-to-date wouldn't look so hot. I mean, sure, Muppets Most Wanted, 22 Jump Street, and Hercules were a lot of fun, but come on ... . Two sequels, both inferior to their predecessors, and Brett Ratner directing The Rock? (With apologies to Dwayne Johnson, who's actually awesome.) Hell, the new-to-our-area indie musical Begin Again would almost land in my cineplex top 10, and I didn't even like it that much.
What I did like about it, though, I absolutely loved. Written and directed by John Carney, and enjoying an unanticipated area booking (at Davenport's Cinemark venue) after the film's June 26 release in larger markets, Begin Again stars Keira Knightley as a romantically rejected singer/songwriter planning an escape from Manhattan, and Mark Ruffalo as a washed-up record producer who finds personal and career inspiration in the woman's gentle folk tunes. The movie's real selling point, though, is that it's a musical fable in the spirit of Carney's word-of-mouth hit Once, the 2007 Irish romance that inspired a Tony-dominating stage success and one of the more endearing Oscar acceptance speeches of recent years.
I wish I could say that Begin Again was on a par with that lovely, low-key gem, but it's not. (Nor are its songs nearly as good.) Though clearly designed as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, albeit one boasting sufficiently rough-edged New York City locales, Carney's narrative involving Knightley's and Ruffalo's recording of an outdoor folk album is too contrived for comfort, and its dialogue sounds consistently like the too-practiced banter on a mildly witty sitcom. And the film really could've used some genuine conflict. Even Knightley's D-bag boyfriend (Adam Levine), Ruffalo's cheating spouse (Catherine Keener), and the profit-minded business partner (Yasiin Bey, a.k.a. Mos Def) who fires Ruffalo turn out to be resolutely courteous, kind, and helpful. (CeeLo Green also shows up, quite conveniently, as a rap star whose limitless funds and intimidating Twitter following make our leads' recording dream a reality.)
Yet Begin Again also features individual sequences so breathtakingly charming that it's easy to imagine watching the film again and again - at least at home, with your finger poised above the fast-forward button. The nightclub scene in which Ruffalo first hears Knightley sing and imagines her acoustic set backed by an invisible orchestra (with nearby piano keys moving independently and drumsticks keeping the beat from mid-air) delivers some of the delirious musical thrill of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge. And although their relationship remains platonic, Knightley and Ruffalo display a marvelous near-romantic rapport; there's an especially gorgeous montage of them walking through Manhattan wearing earbuds, delighting in one another's iPod playlists. (When they hit the dance floor, their shared pop rock drowns out the thumping techno everyone else is grooving to.) It's overly obvious and a little bit shameless, but the unfailingly likable Begin Again has sweetness and sincerity to spare, and sometimes, particularly during a typically Hollywood-blockbuster-heavy summer, that's enough.
Carney's film, however, still pales next to the nine 2014 indies I've seen at home (or - don't tell anyone! - at the office) over the past month or so, a list that's easily topped by Life Itself, director Steve James' fascinating, wildly entertaining, extraordinarily moving documentary on the late Roger Ebert. James, who also helmed the masterful high-school-basketball doc Hoop Dreams (one of Ebert's all-time favorites), gives fans of the legendary Chicago Sun-Times movie reviewer all the factoids and found footage we could've asked for: Ebert's editorial battles as a journalistic tyro; tales of booze-fueled ego and his lightning-quick decision to stay sober; Cannes Film Festival anecdotes; legitimately vicious squabbles, both on-air and off-, with eternal friend/foe Gene Siskel. (Life Itself's funniest segment shows the TV reviewers so visibly irritated during a promo taping that you half-expect them to use their famous thumbs to gouge each other's eyes out.) There are also excellent new interviews with Ebert's professional colleagues, admirers, and old drinking buddies, plus several touching recollections by the critic's widow Chaz. Yet what makes the film essential, if frequently painful, viewing are its scenes of later-years Ebert - interspersed throughout the entire film - after thyroid cancer forced the removal of his lower jaw. Ebert's obvious physical struggle is heart-wrenching, but the alertness and passion in his eyes are unmistakable; he continually looks at the camera, at us, with an expression of profound gratitude and deep love that suggests that this was where his life lived in darkened movie houses was leading all along, and he's at peace with that. At last, Ebert became the star of his very own movie, and not even he could have hoped for a more tender, spiky, satisfying cinematic obituary.
One week after seeing Life Itself, I caught, via Netflix's streaming service, another celebrity documentary in director Chiemi Karasawa's Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. One week after that, on July 17, the iconic performer passed away, and as with Ebert, you could say that Stritch - bless her irascible heart - saved the best for last. (An opinion that Stritch, who made no bones about detesting the aging process, would likely counter with "Bullshit.") A less-thorough work than Life Itself, possibly because so many of Stritch's best stories were already served up in her one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Karawasa's movie is still a fabulous look at its subject's astonishing career, and an even better look at the subject herself in her mid-80s, a tireless, capital-T Trouper and unapologetic truth-teller for whom the phrase "piss and vinegar" may have been invented. As with Life Itself, however, this movie's finest moments are oftentimes its most uncomfortable to watch. Those of us who hoped Stritch might actually beat the odds and never die can't help but be taken aback by Shoot Me's scenes of its star looking pale and fragile in bed, and beating herself up for her failing health and forgetting Sondheim lyrics she's known for decades; Stritch is livid about this whole getting-old thing. Yet it's that sort of piss and vinegar that kept Elaine Stritch so dynamically, inspiringly unsentimental, a quality she shares in abundance here - and a quality shared by Karasawa's documentary. So here's to the lady who lunched. Everybody rise! Or, at least, make immediate plans to see her doc.
Another streaming title hovering near the top of my 2014 favorites is writer/director Alain Guiraudie's French-language thriller Stranger by the Lake, which feels like something Alfred Hitchcock might've come up with if he spoke French and was allowed to sneak in the occasional money shot. (This film truly puts the "cock" in "Hitchcock.") Set almost entirely on a lakeside beach where clothing, for the gay men who frequent it, is less an option than an inconvenience, this evocatively creepy, sneakily funny outing finds Pierre Deladonchamps' Franck falling for Christophe Paou's Michel after watching the man, from a discreet distance, in the act of drowning his lover. (This sequence, by the way, is a terrifying, bravura piece of filmmaking. With the victim's drowning shown in an unbroken long shot that lasts a good two minutes, you find yourself, after the initial shock of the scene's casual brutality, wondering how that actor could hold his breath for so long.) Eventually, Jérôme Chappatte's inspector arrives on the scene, and it's hinted that a serial killer may be on the loose, and Franck still falls deeper and deeper in love, and through it all, Guiraudie maintains the film's ever-thickening suspense and fatalistic dread. With no music employed, and only ambient sounds used to ratchet up the tension, Stranger by the Lake casts a magnificently eerie spell. It also culminates in a queasy yet giddy game of cat-and-mouse followed by, to date, the year's most haunting final shot, a lengthy one implying that the only thing more dangerous for Franck than having a murderer nearby is not having a murderer nearby.
Still, I'll suggest again that Guiraudie's film might not be ideal viewing for those uncomfortable with a lot of on-screen male nudity and, more specifically, erections - though after Jonah Hill's party foul in The Wolf of Wall Street, we're all probably a lot more inured to that. Such formerly porn-specific sightings, however, have actually appeared in a surprising number of 2014 indies. (A few of them - and unlike Hill's, not prosthetic ones - even made their way into the R-rated Under the Skin.) You'll certainly find them in the streaming Interior. Leather Bar., a mock-doc that follows James Franco's mission to re-stage, for mostly indecipherable reasons, the notorious "missing footage" from William Friedkin's gay-unfriendly thriller Cruising. There's really not much to this hour-long stunt by co-directors Franco and Travis Matthews: Franco talks a straight pal (Val Lauren) into participating; the straight pal gets nervous; the scenes are staged; the straight pal gets freaked out. Yet it's an unexpectedly bold exploration of celebrity ego - of James Franco's determination to take on an impossible, meaningless project just because he's James Franco, damn it - and an intriguing meditation on holding politically incorrect views in the insistently (hypocritically) PC world of Hollywood. But no, you don't get to watch James drop trou. You do, though, get to watch James watching others drop trou, and asking yourself why you're watching this becomes a big part of the film's point. Interior. Leather Bar. is strange, unclassifiable, and engaging almost despite itself. Sound like any famous people you know?
Meanwhile, leave it to that wily Danish mischief-maker Lars von Trier to come up with a hardcore tale so epic that is had to be released (in the U.S., at least) in two parts: Nymphomaniac: Volume One and Volume Two. Through the course of this new-to-home-video saga's sometimes embarrassing, sometimes exhilarating, not-for-a-minute boring four hours, Charlotte Gainsbourg's sex addict regales Stellan Skarsgård's expert listener with tales of her erotic past, and if von Trier has an idea or attitude about sex that he's somehow failed to express here, I can't imagine what it could be. Of the two volumes, One is the much better time. Skarsgård's analogies regarding Gainsbourg's conquests, and her blasé rebuttals of those analogies, are legitimately funny - his middle-aged-virgin character has a penchant for religious-icon and fly-fishing metaphors - and there are spectacular brief performances by Christian Slater and, especially, a memorably grief-stricken and wrathful Uma Thurman. (There's also a lot - a lot - of Shia LaBeouf in both films. You've been warned.) Things, however, get more expectedly grim in Two, and in a particular bit of perversion, it all ends with a sick-joke capper that you just know made the writer/director cackle while many of the rest of us feel like throwing rocks at him. But all told, this energetic, visual-style- and genre-hopping, deeply probing (in more ways than one) work is an amazing achievement - not on the level of von Trier's 2011 masterpiece Melancholia, but certainly not a wrist-slitter à la Dancer in the Dark or Antichrist.
For more cerebral penetration, or at least the attempt thereof, you may want to check out Errol Morris' The Unknown Known, the Oscar-winning documentarian's feature-length interview with, and theoretical unmasking of, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. With his patented camera setups that view Rumsfeld from about a half-dozen different angles simultaneously - plus one that allows the man to look directly into the lens as he tries, occasionally in vain, to explain many of his cryptic memos over the years - Morris allows us a closer exploration of his subject than we might've thought we'd ever be granted. It turns out it's not close enough. Rumsfeld is so cagey, so unwilling to reveal the particulars of his career decisions and mysterious missives, that his patented grin comes to seem frighteningly malicious; he could be laughing at Morris, and at us, for presuming that he'd ever, for an instant, let his guard down. The Unknown Known is beautifully constructed and, given Danny Elfman's insistent, Philip Glass-y score, frequently hypnotic, but it's not terribly insightful, and it left me feeling empty and a bit depressed. Morris is a brilliant filmmaker. Not for a second, though, is this anything but Donald Rumsfeld's show, and he ain't showin'.
You'll get more traditional satisfaction in writer/director James Gray's newly streaming The Immigrant, the touching story of a Polish Catholic (Marion Cotillard) who arrives in 1921 New York and is quickly forced into the employ of an unstable theatre impesario (Joaquin Phoenix) who eventually doubles as her pimp. In the end, your satisfaction might be too traditional; this unusually simple, straightforward melodrama is made only mildly more complex by the arrival of Jeremy Renner's kindly magician (and potential romantic interest), and otherwise emerges as a fairly generic, if undeniably earnest, cautionary tale about the perils of poverty, desperation, and hanging out with Joaquin Phoenix. But with its period-perfect production design and the sublime cinematographer Darius Khondji bathing his images in a washed-out color palette that suggests a fading memory, The Immigrant looks absolutely stunning. Phoenix, meanwhile, gives an exciting and unpredictable performance as a man who may not necessarily be the bastard he seems, and Cotillard is a true heartbreaker, her silent terror and determination so subtly yet radiantly expressed that although she cries sparingly, I got teary-eyed along with her every single time.
Finally, while you may not cry, you'll likely wince, tense up, and occasionally shout with abject surprise at South Korean director Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer, a futuristic action thriller with a big-name cast that recently made news by becoming available through streaming services a mere two weeks after its theatrical debut. What a blast this movie is! Set in 2031, the setup finds all life forms on Earth extinct after a misguided, 2014 attempt to curtail global warming. (Oops!) All life forms, that is, except about a thousand human survivors - and quite a few insects - who are left constantly circling the globe on a locomotive that never stops, with the well-to-do resting comfortably in the front cars, and the other, oh, 99 percent or so relegated to the back.
In other words, everyone's riding together on a giant rolling metaphor, and Snowpiercer concerns the violent revolution that transpires as Chris Evans' caboose-leader and his fellow insurrectionists steady their nerves, pack their weaponry, and make their way to the head of the train. I'll say no more about the narrative, which, seriously, was sometimes so startling that I audibly gasped, and then laughed out loud for gasping. But if you're a similar fan of Bong's 2006 monster epic The Host (and I'm embarrassed to have not seen 2009's Mother yet), know that his latest is equally suspenseful, unnerving, and scary/funny, just without the tentacles. Know that the stuntwork is fantastic, the staging superb, and the production design topnotch. Know that the laughs are plentiful, and almost always unanticipated. ("Happy New Year!") And know that despite their comic-book-bubble dialogue, the cast boasting John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, and the vibrant South Korean performers Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-Sung is marvelous - and that none of those actors is more marvelous than Tilda Swinton. In her role as an alternately sneering and sniveling villain with comically oversize glasses and teeth, Swinton is so forceful and fearless and cheerfully weird that this might mark a new high point in her estimable gallery of screen eccentrics. We may not be getting her on the screen size she deserves in Snowpiercer, but thankfully, as ever, Tilda Swinton doesn't need a cineplex to be gloriously larger-than-life.