Gabe Toro's Top 10
10. “Blue Ruin”
There are two things I strongly dislike about end-of-year features. One is including a film like “Blue Ruin” that the general public has not had a chance to sample, as the picture awaits a 2014 bow. The other is the phrase “game-changer” for how it further trivializes cinema, already a trivial enterprise, as something that can be won, like a unanimous victory can somehow be achieved. With that out of the way, Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” is a genuine game-changer, the type of picture that’s going to capture the imaginations of several future filmmakers for decades to come. This ripcord-tight suspense thriller, about a meek loner who engages in an ill-advised attempt at revenge, debuted at Cannes, and after seeing it at TIFF, stuck in my head all throughout fall and winter. As I sat through a raft of ineffectual revenge pictures like ”Out of the Furnace” or the “Oldboy” remake, I was reminded of Saulnier’s film, which takes every silly genre trope and reveals it as the petty gimmickry it really is.
9. “The Act of Killing”
There are few words that accurately capture a human reaction to the horrific truth at the heart of “The Act of Killing,” a contemporary are-you-watching-this shock that prevents you from looking away. Joshua Oppenheimer’s doc is a close analysis of the history of modern Indonesia through the eyes of the “victors,” elderly members of Indonesian death squads who dealt death door-to-door and lived to laugh about it, free of judgment. What starts out as horrifyingly grotesque becomes perverse, bizarre, darkly funny and in the end almost touching: the picture commits the rare feat of feeling breathlessly alien, and also achingly intimate, crafting contradictions that force the viewer to re-evaluate whatever fake social consciousness one derives from watching heavily-politicized documentaries. It’s cinema as catharsis, and it’s unforgettable.
8. “Sun Don’t Shine”
There are few young actresses as electric as Ms. Kate Lyn Sheil, and as the leading lady at the start of Amy Seimetz's feature-length directorial debut, you see her and immediately register concern. The blush of her cheeks is both disarmingly vulnerable and ponderously threatening, as if she were a volcano ready to explode. This gripping thriller finds her in the passenger’s seat for a long, unexplained drive, with gas running low and secrets in the trunk. Each hint regarding the nature of the plot not only informs the relationship between this doomed couple, but also the chasm that separates them, one they don’t even realize exists until it’s far too late. “Sun Don’t Shine” lives up to its title visually, but it’s also insanely hot, beholden to the Florida humidity seen onscreen; it almost makes it seem as if the screen is raining. Within that vibe is the feeling of desperation, of outrunning the world, the sexual charge that comes from having someone by your side to dodge your troubles.
7. “Like Someone In Love”
Abbas Kiarostami’s latest gently playful exercise about identity and perception follows a feeble, elderly Japanese man who orders a young escort, only to insert himself into her life. His transaction is one of gentle companionship, even though she plays up a kitten-ish sex appeal, and ultimately they find a common ground. It’s when her boyfriend makes the mistake of interpreting him as the girl’s grandfather where a peculiar sort of love triangle occurs, with each side having their own truth. It’s a sweetly observed story about the illusions of relationships, yet one that features a provocative final scene, a moment that suggests the ugly repercussions of relationships as active performances. Kiarostami’s experiments with formalism have settled into a playful observational style, and “Like Someone In Love” carries an almost-musical sense of back-and-forth between its characters, a song that ends in a way that makes the singers almost sound like prophets.
6. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
This loosely-drawn but detailed sketch of the early '60s folk scene narrows its focus to capture a very specific, earthbound sort of Coen character. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, fantastic) himself is a bastard of a guy, a broke, careless snob who sneers at the success of others and persists in an unattainable sense of integrity that he hides from those who would ostensibly love him. If you haven’t experienced failure in your life, if you haven’t been forced to scoop the bottom of the barrel, if you haven’t surfed couches and relied on the kindness of strangers you treat terribly, if you haven’t broken someone’s heart, then I’m honestly not sure what one can derive from “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It’s a movie you almost want to hide from family and loved ones, to shield them from the beast that emerges from the failure to live up to expectations.
Claire Denis remains one of the most provocative filmmakers in the world, and I fear her dip into “genre” waters with her latest led her usual fans to dismiss this as something inherently skippable. But the fact that this is, superficially, a revenge noir hasn’t dulled her evocative storytelling skills, which take hold of a straightforward story and twist, mangle and pervert it to cast doubt on the morality of violent justice. “Bastards” is a picture that sickens and disturbs, but in Denis’ usual way it also titillates and mesmerizes: the opening alone, with its typically erotic slow-burn Tindersticks score, is a masterful miasma of images and sequences, each of which tells a thousand stories on their own. As the core narrative of “Bastards” takes shape, those stories don’t fade away, down to the most upsetting final few minutes of the year.
Inevitably, I am uneasy calling “Her” a romantic film. There’s a lot going on in this, the latest from a director who has quietly been building a staggering filmography of classics about the co-opting of joy and pleasure in a crooked world. Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombley, just the latest in a string of near-classic post-“retirement” performances, is a broken man in a lot of subtle ways. But whereas his kindness, pleasant demeanor and emotional intelligence are tremendously endearing traits, he’s like a lot of people, too selfish to accommodate a mature relationship, a companion that is consistently changing, growing, maturing. “Her” is ultimately something of wish fulfillment, a harrowing metaphor for humanity in the days before a technological singularity approaches. But it also has the warmth and laughs that come from the caress of a lover, the shared laugh between you and another person, the ways in which we can suddenly see the world through someone’s eyes. In some ways, it may be the loneliest comedy ever made.
3. “Computer Chess”
I sat through the first five minutes of “Computer Chess” like an absolute snob. Why does this movie look like shit? Why do all these actors look like blotchy nerds? Why am I wasting such nice weather watching something that looks like crappy cable access when I could be in the park, sipping on a nice Scotch underneath a waterfall? It wasn’t until a half hour later when I settled in and realized that I probably wouldn’t nearly have as much fun at any movie this year than I would at Andrew Bujalski’s wonderfully acerbic no-fi comedy. The setting is simple, a weekend hotel summit by computer programmers attempting to teach artificial intelligence to defeat humans at chess. What’s really going on is the birth of the modern world, in slow, tentative steps, the kind of minor evolution that serves greater notice about the world we would soon live in than any jejune rock montage in “Jobs.” Eventually the look, which spotlighted a truly unique black-and-white palette, weaved into the film’s many period-and-place signifiers, all of which were loaded, like the hotel lobby prostitute with a flimsy wig, the sweaty Luddite who brings too many drugs, or the repeated, uncomfortable “inclusive” acknowledgement of the single girl present. By the time the film ended, I laughed long and hard and wished the projectionist would let it unspool again.
2. “Spring Breakers”
Harmony Korine’s sly deconstructionist crime film is considered a treatise on “youth culture,” which seems horribly minimizing. It really seems about the accepted birthright that is hedonism, a birthright the movie doesn’t outright condemn. Which makes others uncomfortable because of course it does. Korine is a pusher, and he’s pushing sex, drugs and hip-hop as the currency of the 21st century. Maybe technology isn’t the enemy: maybe, as drug-dealing fool Alien notes, it’s “humblin,’” the only thing that keeps us on the ground when the excess of bad behavior lifts us up. The degradation implicit in the beach scenes feels primeval, rooted in ugly traditions of human behavior, divorced from a young-old divide. This is something America has had coming, Korine is arguing. As Selena Gomez (not a girl, not yet a woman, she would sing) rambles on the phone to her grandmother, we see the spirit of inclusion, the sense that yesterday’s transgression is today’s transcendence—her obliviousness comes from how she feels closer, almost assimilated with her elder. I don’t think Korine is mocking these characters: Alien himself has a slight dorkiness that manifests at random times, but he’s genuine in his feelings, and these girls see in him a chance to become something new, to transform, to transcend. By the time they’re in front of a judge, he calls them “spring breakers” as if he were addressing “The Avengers.” Korine’s proudly cinematic movie would be worth it even if it looked like garbage. But in fact it’s thrillingly cinematic, with Korine rifling through filters like a restless child, creating images that burrow deeply inside your brain. No one walked away from “Spring Breakers” and forgot about it.
1. “Upstream Color”
When I saw Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder,” I was transfixed, seduced, and like all Malick films, ultimately in love. It says a lot about the quality of this year that I couldn’t find a spot for it in my top ten (or 20). But I couldn’t avoid this nagging sensation that the experience was overshadowed by Shane Carruth’s second feature, which I had seen a day earlier. Malick’s vocabulary always seemed interested in pushing narrative forward, evolving film into something ethereal, supernatural. And here was Carruth, pushing the medium more than any other filmmaker this year, utilizing a few of the Malick tricks to create something thorny, difficult, and in its own way quite romantic. I have never seen narrative storytelling quite like this, so evolved beyond the clunky plot-point-to-plot-point way of processing film that we continue to humor from inept, intellectually-bereft film school grads given massive studio budgets. In Carruth, here was a man determined to push things forward: it kills me that such narratively polite pictures like the pedestrian “Philomena” and the ethically-dimwitted “Saving Mr. Banks” are figuring into end-of-year conversations when Carruth has made a picture so intoxicated with the spirit of invention He’s crafted a bent, upsetting love story from two lovers, one that jumps back and forth into the narrative to properly convey the way time shifts when you find yourself unwillingly falling in love, against your wishes, and beyond circumstance. Real romance isn’t like film romance, where one person selects the other; more often than not, falling in love is like entering a slipstream, where time becomes an oval, and we rock back and forth inside it. You can see “Upstream Color” five times and it’s never once the same film, each moving part feeling like it’s shifting into a separate direction, breaking off towards a pattern you only recognize from a dream. It’s the sort of narrative leap-forward no one’s been making, like taking a time machine to 1937 and showing them “Fight Club.” As our film culture evolves—and it’s bound to evolve if we have many years like 2013—we’ll see in “Upstream Color” the seeds of what we’ve become.
I look forward from the discussion raised by Catherine Breillat’s “Abuse Of Weakness” as well as Aaron Schimberg’s peculiar, distribution-less festival hit “Go Down Death.” There’s a strange David Lynchian Iranian movie called “Taboor” that has future cult classic written all over it, and James Gray’s “The Immigrant” is another success in the increasingly personal filmmaker’s body of work.
As mentioned, I was greatly shaken by the work of Kate Lyn Sheil in “Sun Don’t Shine.” But I also found great humanity within Michael Shannon in the otherwise-dubious b-picture “The Iceman,” as he brought a rocky gravitas to the sadistic Richard Kuklinski. Julia Louis-Dreyfus also gave one of the all-time great romantic comedy performances in “Enough Said,” quite nearly matched by the late James Gandolfini—she’s absolutely radiant, even when other characters attempt to shame her into spinsterhood. And while the film was roundly ignored, Rosario Dawson completely held court in the daffy heist film “Trance,” reminding Hollywood that we’ve been ignoring this generation’s most over-qualified on-screen Alpha Female.
WORST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
I found the politics of “The Purge” to be odious and insincere, and its execution laughable, just another one of the horror industry’s attempts to remake “Home Alone” (and another in a consistent line of garbage from Platinum Dunes). Similarly, the politics of “Saving Mr. Banks,” sexual or otherwise, seemed cowardly and dull, though I shouldn’t have expected anything different from the director of “The Blind Side.” In a surprisingly decent year for massive blockbusters, the storytelling in “Star Trek Into Darkness” was remarkably retrograde, and its visuals tacky and empty. And if I had to guess, I’d say a certain generation was being pandered to with the glittery yearbook that was “CBGB,” the credit-card commercial called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Big Chill” for even worse people that was “Grown Ups 2.” Though there was something special about the awfulness of “R.I.P.D.,” sort of a found-badness that almost feels accidental. For something so big, loud and expensive, it was preciously awful. I want to wrap it up in a shawl and be nice to it, without ever once contradicting the terrible things people have said.
THE WORST MOVIE OF 2014
Let’s call it: it’s obviously going to be Platinum Dunes’ “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
DIVERSITY, ON OUR TERMS
There are many reasons why the end-of-year awards are going to the punishing “12 Years a Slave” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” over stuff like “The Best Man Holiday,” and I get it. That makes sense to me. What doesn’t make sense is how the industry isolates those films, as if it’s only acceptable to see black men and women struggling, and in the past. Contemporary black exceptionalism feels like some sort of verboten topic in Hollywood, and the tokenism of casting people like Idris Elba and Anthony Mackie in bit parts is no longer any sort of progress (nor is it progress to keep Elba out of “Pacific Rim” posters and Mackie removed from “Pain and Gain” DVD art and replaced by an anonymous white woman). This is an industry that didn’t even bother to screen “Baggage Claim” for critics, but whom sent me a DVD for “12 Years a Slave” with a fetishistically-fancy “For Your Consideration” flip book and a reminder before the DVD to “enjoy” Steve McQueen’s tale of the horrors of slavery. I sat in during a screening of “The Inevitable Defeat Of Mister And Pete,” from director George Tillman Jr. (“Notorious,” “Soul Food,” “Men Of Honor”) and stuck with it for twenty minutes. And during those twenty minutes, there was academic expulsion, drug abuse and prostitution, with the peerless Jeffrey Wright as a homeless man on the street, and Jennifer Hudson injecting drugs in front of her son. I didn’t even stick it out for Mackie’s appearance, never mind a reversal of sorts towards hope from Mr. Tillman, a director who tends to push that sort of positive narrative. Instead, I left. I look forward to seeing it during a different period, where this sort of problem isn’t an industry epidemic.
What I don’t understand is that we can have both, miserablism and hope, tragedy and success. “Blue Caprice” was credited for Isaiah Washington representing some sort of black boogeyman, but his work in that film is stellar, hypnotic even, and the film properly captures the sort of mental chemistry imbalance seen in Lodge Kerrigan’s “Clean, Shaven” and “Keane.” And if the sweet pot comedy “Newlyweeds” earned as much positive talk as the handwringing from white critics over a new 'Madea' movie that they aren’t even going to watch, it would be an awards contender. These films feature upsetting violence and drug abuse in equal measure, but also feature brilliant performances, superb direction, and a portrait of the contemporary black experience that doesn’t feel mired by the requirements of a contemporary “black” film. This is a world where Jay-Z and Wyatt Cenac have to put their names on “An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty” just to get it into a tiny East Village theater, while Zack Snyder is given $200 million budgets. That doesn’t seem correct.
FAVORITE FILM EXPERIENCE OF THE YEAR
Every year I head down to Philadelphia for Exhumed Films’ 24 Hour Horror-Thon, a full-day experience where older horror films from all countries, decades and sensibilities are screened. And every year, it’s the highlight, as Exhumed manages to secure prints of films both classic and unbelievably obscure. The magic of the experience, which usually crams 14 films into a 24-hour period in addition to vintage trailers and shorts, is that none of the ticket-buyers are told in advance what will be shown.
The event needs no help being publicized, as this year the tickets sold out within two hours. Ironically, I was in the theater when this happened, seeing “The Canyons,” an acidic movie about how the movie industry basically ends (I was eventually able to procure a ticket from a friend). But ultimately, this is what a movie lover is all about: dimming the lights with others in front of a big screen, where you have no idea what’s going to unspool. You only know that it’s going to be something different, something unfamiliar, something exciting. Original prints too, some of them scratchy, blotchy, beat-up, and none of them in high-definition or projected digitally, because all great movies look and sound exactly the same: great. No matter how many braindead action films come and go, how many covertly capitalist or racist messages are embedded in movies, how many dull wastes of time there might be, you can’t remove the purity of the viewing experience itself.