Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Best (and Worst) Films of the First Half of 2014

At the halfway mark of a relatively poor year in movies, let's pause to review the highlights in feature and documentary film, starting with the cream of the crop:

The best film of the first half of 2014 is "The Best Offer," by Italian master Giuseppe Tornatore, who gave us the affectionate tribute to moviegoing "Cinema Paradiso" in 1990 and also made my top-ten list with "Malena" in 2000. 

Geoffrey Rush, in another terrific performance, stars as Virgil Oldman, the owner and auctioneer at a high-end Vienna consignment house. His eye for beauty is infallible, his expertise in art and antiquities unimpeachable. Virgil can instantly tell you the piece you've brought him is a forgery, educate you about the forger, and console you that even as a forgery it's worth a fair amount of money. Phobic of germs, he wears gloves most everywhere and has rarely (or maybe never) known the feeling of a loving touch.

His only friends are Robert (Jim Sturgess), a young restorer of mechanical objects, and Billy Whistler (Donald Sutherland), his longtime accomplice. Virgil, you see, also knows when an artwork is undervalued, and over the years has amassed an immensely valuable collection of portraits - all of women - by intentionally misattributing them to lesser artists or setting artificially low estimates. In such cases - auctions in which Virgil announces the item will go to "the best offer" - Billy bids up to an agreed price and, if successful, delivers the work back to Virgil, pocketing five or ten thousand Euros in vigorish. Tornatore spends the first half-hour of the film sumptuously limning Virgil's world of connoisseurship (set to a lush and evocative score by the great Ennio Morricone), and for us in the audience it's a besotting vicarious thrill.

The plot kicks into motion with a series of phone calls on Virgil's 63rd birthday. They come from a Miss Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), whose parents passed away a year earlier and who wishes to engage Virgil to inventory and appraise the furniture and objets d'art they left behind. For this, he must come to her villa, a home with so many rooms the longtime handyman (Philip Jackson) says he stopped trying to count them. After Claire misses a few appointments, Virgil becomes suspicious. Finally, she confesses that she cannot meet him. She is agoraphobic and has not left the villa for over a decade. When he or anyone else enters, she retreats to her room and will not come out for anything. He resigns the commission several times - and she fires him just as often - but an unknown connection keeps them coming back to each other.

On each visit to the villa, Virgil finds one or more large round gears lying about, which he tucks into his briefcase and brings to Robert. His friend believes they may be part of an old-fashioned mechanical automaton, which he sets about attempting to reconstruct. As Virgil's feelings for Claire deepen from paternal concern and protectiveness to something more romantic, Robert, who has a steady girlfriend and several flings on the side, coaches Virgil on the ways of womankind. At the bar across the street from Claire's villa, the publican's daughter - a dwarf and mathematical prodigy - sits by the windowsill, rattling off an endless string of numbers.

And here I shall refrain from revealing any more about the plot, except to say that there may not be one more ingenious all year. Tornatore has crafted it intricately and painstakingly. It has the rare and great quality of surprising you in the theater and blowing you away as you reflect on it over time. You remember lines of dialogue, little details, and see how meticulously they all fit. It's almost scary. The ending is exquisite and shattering. 

I've seen "The Best Offer" twice now, and I kind of sort of…love it. The best news: "The Best Offer" is already available on DVD and other home and online platforms. 

Honorable Mentions (in chronological order)
Sebastián Lelio's "Gloria," with Paulina Garcia in an unforgettable performance as a Chilean divorcee of 58 looking for new love through her endearingly oversized glasses. Implacable and unsinkable, Gloria reacts with the same wry, silent smile when one man looks right past her as when another proclaims his eternal love. 

The best date movie so far this year, the sexy, sweet and often riotously funny "About Last Night," in which Regina Hall gives the comic performance of the year (just edging out Leslie Mann's work in "The Other Woman"). Her dental hygienist's love-hate relationship with Kevin Hart's restaurant supplier is gold ("This is Bernie. He suffers from gingivitis due to a lack of flossing"), and between her snarky self-centeredness and unabashed sexuality, I laughed almost the whole time she appeared onscreen.

"Child's Pose," by Romanian New Wave pioneer Calin Peter Netzer, spends much of its runtime near a four-star level, anchored by the towering performance of Luminita Gheroghiu as Cornelia, a well-connected, domineering Bucharest architect (her browbeaten hubby calls her "Controlia") who, when her son kills a teenage boy in a car crash, tries to bribe cops, witnesses and even the victim's family to get him off. 

The directing debut of Italian actress Valeria Golino, "Miele" ("Honey") stars Jasmine Trinca in a strong performance as a registered student who spends most of her time helping terminally ill individuals end their own lives. Much of the film is devoted to several of these assisted suicides, and we know from little details (Honey's instruction to an elderly woman's husband not to touch the drinking glasses once they've hit her nightstand, the manila envelopes in which her customers place her cash) that Golino knows her subject. She conveys the uncertainty in her characters' minds with fascinating oblique angles and the play of faces on glass, a recurring motif. 

Until Matthew McConaughey's 2013 (and 2012, for that matter), no actor had had a better movie year since Billy Crudup's 2000, with completely winning lead performances in the two best films of that year, "Almost Famous" and "Jesus' Son." I truly believed he would be the next big thing in film, and in Guillaume Canet's old-fashioned Cain-and-Abel crime saga "Blood Ties," Crudup reminds me why, crafting a compelling portrait of the good, responsible brother (the cop to Clive Owen's career criminal) who's spent a lifetime internalizing resentments and seeking approval he shouldn't need from one who can never provide it. Canet prioritizes the human relationships above the action sequences, but still delivers scenes of moment-to-moment unpredictability, tension and genuine excitement.

In her gripping and keenly observed "The German Doctor," director Lucía Puenzo hypothesizes about Josef Mengele's interlude in Argentina before the notorious Nazi fled to Paraguay and later Brazil. She tells her story from the point of view of a twelve-year-old girl, Lilith, the smart and sensitive eldest daughter of parents planning to reopen a lakeside hotel. A German expatriate who calls himself Dr. Helmut Gregor (Alex Brendemühl in one of the best and most menacing performances of the year) asks to become the refurbished hotel's first guest and shares extended eye contact with Lilith that bespeaks mutual curiosity. Puenzo's strong sense of time and place informs "The German Doctor," and I like that the international game of hide-and-seek is only as sophisticated as the setting allows.

Another superior thriller is Jeremy Saulnier's spare, taut "Blue Ruin," with Macon Blair as a shaggy-bearded Delaware drifter who learns that the man who killed his parents - sending him into a score-long tailspin - will soon be released from prison. He drives to Virginia and at the prison gates watches as the man's family jocosely collects him and peels out to get their drink on. In this Appalachian part of the South, scores are settled extralegally, by means of internecine family feuds. Saulnier stages the violence in sporadic bursts punctuating long, patient periods of rest that build exquisite tension. He has a superb eye for the framing of shots, and knows like a master chef how to let the flavor of the region seep into the bones of his film. "Blue Ruin" may be a genre piece, but Saulnier's skills will serve any material well.

Steven Knight, writer of "Dirty Pretty Things" and "Eastern Promises," constructed the one-man filmed play "Locke" and cast Tom Hardy (Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises") as Ivan Locke, a well-respected, punctilious construction foreman who, on the night before he is to spearhead the largest civilian concrete pour in history, makes - and does not retract - the decision to drive from Birmingham to London, in order to attend the birth of a child he fathered during a one-time, alcohol-fueled affair. During the 90-minute drive (which comprises the entirety of the picture), this decision threatens his marriage, his job, his relationship with his young sons - yet his particular undeterred integrity forges a connection with us in the audience. By trying to do one good thing, he may have lost his former life, and thanks to Hardy's first-rate performance, we feel that loss like a punch to the gut.

Kelly Reichardt's "Night Moves" stars Jesse Eisenberg (Josh), Dakota Fanning (Dena), and Peter Sarsgaard (Harmon) as environmental activists who plot to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon. There's no substitute for confidence in a director, and no surer sign of confidence than quietude: allowing scenes to play out naturally, without succumbing to the impulse to fill silences with needless dialogue. This Reichardt does expertly in a film of three parts: the preparation, the act itself, and the aftermath. Eisenberg has always been the smartest guy in any scene he graces, but it hasn't always translated into an emotional connection with the audience. Here, it does. He paints a memorable portrait of a serious, intentioned young man who has dug in way over his head and knows no way out, and who comes to embody the danger of a little bit of knowledge and a lot of zeal.

Clint Eastwood's film of the jukebox musical "Jersey Boys" is the definitive telling of the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, richer than the stage show because Eastwood takes the time to develop the characters of the (heretofore largely indistinguishable) "three other guys." I like that Marshall Brickman's script draws several sharp supporting roles for women, often the wisest and most honest people in the picture, and especially that Eastwood shows respect for this great American music by letting each song play in its entirety. Erich Bergen as songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio is first among equals in the excellent cast, and Christopher Walken has a lot of fun with the part of Valli's Mafioso protector. Be sure to stay for the closing credit sequence. 

Jalil Lespert's biopic "Yves Saint Laurent" came as a pleasant surprise, not just a cinematic catalog of beautiful clothes but an exceptionally frank, knowing and unflinching portrayal of fidelities and infidelities both carnal and affectional, of that which is and is not fluid in human sexuality, and of a lifelong partnership that changed in nature without losing its foundation. Same-sex entanglements - and opposite-sex ones, too - have rarely been depicted on film this honestly and matter-of-factly. Grounded by the excellent performances of Pierre Niney as YSL and Guillaume Gallienne as his longtime companion Pierre Bergé, Lespert's film shows us how both men compartmentalized their anger and disdain for the sake of the couture house and the life they had built together.

With enthusiasm for World Cup at a fever pitch, let me remind you of the best documentary so far this year, a great sports movie but even more, a great human story, beautifully told. It's Mike Brett and Steve Jamison's stirring and heart-warming "Next Goal Wins," about, of all things, the American Samoa soccer team, perennially dead last in FIFA's world rankings. As the team prepared for the first round of WC qualifying in 2011, it had lost every match it ever contested, scoring a total of two goals and suffering the most lopsided loss in soccer history (by 31-nil to Australia). This is a program in which soccer is played purely for love of the game and of one another (on an island whose 65,000 residents view themselves as one extended family), in which scoring a goal is the stuff of dreams and actually winning a game a prospect too extravagant to contemplate. 

When U.S. Soccer posts the coaching job online, only one candidate applies: the former Dutch player and MLS Cup-winning coach Thomas Rongen. There is great humor in watching Rongen's first practices with the team. He knows the standard will be far and away the lowest he's ever seen, but is amazed to find it's infinitely worse. Half the players lack the physical fitness to remain on the pitch for a full ninety minutes. At a tournament among island states in New Caledonia, the players take pride in losing by only 8-nil to Vanuatu. Vanuatu! Yet, as Rongen teaches them the fundamentals they've never properly learned, they teach him life lessons through their cohesion, openness (one of the defenders is transgender), and indefatigable resilience. 

I never thought I would care about a qualifying match between American Samoa and Tonga (which, it goes without saying, had won thirty straight games in the "rivalry"). I can tell you that I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat and looked up to find my fists clenched over my head. "Next Goal Wins" is one of the most feeling experiences I've had at the movies in 2014.

Honorable mentions (in chronological order): "The Great Flood"; "Particle Fever"; "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me"; "Jodorowsky's Dune"; "Finding Vivian Maier"; "Big Men"; "Bears"; "Cyber-Seniors"; and "Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon." 

Worst Film
Finally, the worst film of the first half of 2014: "A Million Ways to Die in the West." Two long hours without a single laugh, a single chuckle, a single smile. Two long hours of silent, open-mouthed, slack-jawed stupefaction. For us in the paying audience, a bottomless bowl of insult and degradation.

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