Top Five (2014, Chris Rock)

Good combo of the Before Sunrise slow-romance and the maturing-artist drama, a nice surprise from Rock after two Grown Ups and three Madagascars. Between the Chaplin references, the wonderful Cinderella ending and the overall walky, chatty New York vibe, it feels like he’s got a sense of movie history, is trying to craft something more timeless than the usual hard-mugging studio comedy. The movie doesn’t aim for laughs in every scene, casting Rosario Dawson instead of a comedian as Rock’s foil and spending much of the plot on struggles with alcoholism (although while in jail after a drunken relapse, Rock gets serenaded by DMX, singing Chaplin’s “Smile”). Rock’s fiancee (Gabrielle Union of Bring It On, Bad Boys 2) is prepping their wedding for a Bravo series, but Rock doesn’t waste time mocking reality TV, even with both Tracy and Angie “Queen of” Jordan in his supporting cast. Dawson’s character seems to have plenty of time to hang out even though she juggles a kid, a series of relationships, alcoholics anonymous, and at least three writing personas (sex columns for Cosmo, pseudonym film reviews, plus the feature interview she’s supposedly writing on Rock). JB Smoove is cool as Rock’s friend/handler and Cedric the Entertainer is hilarious as a hedonist promoter in a low-point flashback sequence.

Maps to the Stars (2014, David Cronenberg)

“I have the flu. I need cigarettes.”

Julianne Moore is an actress who sees ghosts, trying to get a film part where she’ll play her own mother in a bio-pic (like a terrible Clouds of Sils Maria remake). Evan Bird (of TV’s The Killing Remake) is a horrid child star, son of Rosemary Cross and new-age massage therapist John Cusack. Evan’s older sister Mia Wasikowska is out of an asylum and back in town, gets a job as Moore’s assistant and hangs out with limo driver Rob Pattinson.

Eventually connections fall into place, and people start dying. Moore gets the role because her rival’s son drowns. Evan murders a young costar who’s been upstaging him. Mia bludgeons her employer Moore with a film award. Rosemary Cross somehow catches on fakey digital fire. Then Mia and Evan creep away and take handfuls of pills. Throughout, the music and editing and shots are pretty unexceptional and I’d be worried about Cronenberg except that I read his terrific novel which released around the same time at this movie.

M. D’Angelo:

Mostly, though, it’s just an excuse for [writer] Wagner to depict “scathingly” bad behavior, as when Moore’s fading starlet leaps around her house with joy upon learning that a rival’s adorable little son has just drowned, freeing up the plum role that Moore had just lost to said rival. Cronenberg, for his part, shoots this cavalcade of random potshots as functionally as possible — this is easily his least visually distinguished film (and also, perhaps not coincidentally, the first film he’s ever shot in the U.S.). Hollywood may be a nest of vacuous vipers, but it deserves a less feeble takedown than this.

White God (2014, Kornél Mundruczó)

Deserved winner of the Palm Dog at Cannes. Truly, the dogs were great. However I was frustrated and confused by the rest of the movie, which was relentless misery until the climactic explosion of dog vengeance. The movie has been compared to Au Hasard Balthasar, but it’s maybe closer to I Spit On Your Grave.

Girl is abandoned by her mom to live with her shitty dad for the summer. She is devoted to her dog Hagen, gets kicked out of her orchestra by the asshole band leader because of Hagen, but after pressure from horrid neighbors, Dad kicks the dog out on the street. Horrible people + handheld camera = no fun. Dog catchers, dog fighters, etc. The fighter trains Hagen to be hateful and violent, a la this movie’s great namesake. The girl’s bike is stolen, woman at dog shelter is a liar and dog murderer, and so on. Then: a well orchestrated bloodbath of revenge, with a picturesque but mysterious ending.

M. D’Angelo:

This movie’s stupid. I suppose it’s slightly less stupid if one views it allegorically — that is, if the dogs are supposed to represent minorities — but that barely seems tenable, especially w/r/t the laughable ending. Otherwise, its sole point of interest is its use of real dogs at the climax, which isn’t remotely scary (Mundruzcó has no feel whatsoever for horror) but does at least represent an impressive feat of screw-you-CGI logistics. And then he goes and ruins that by using said climax, which should arise out of nowhere, as a surreal flash-forward “grabber” at the outset, a ploy that smacks of bad television. At best, this might have worked as a segment of Amores perros (which it explicitly apes for a while); two hours is beyond laborious, and every cut away from Hagen to the little girl and her dad feels like Mundruzcó deliberately wasting your time.

Proxy (2013, Zack Parker)

“I would never hurt you. I just came to do the things you couldn’t do.”

Nice, unusual twisty horror/thriller, with a different (slower) editing rhythm. Opens with a victim (pregnant woman whose belly is smashed by a street robber) who turns out to be less of a victim than once thought – and crazier. In fact, everyone here is somewhat of a victim, somewhat of an unsympathetically insane, traumatized monster.

The formerly pregnant Ester meets Melanie (Alexa Havins of Torchwood) at a dead-children support group. But wait, Ester’s jealous girlfriend Anika is actually the one who robbed/beat Ester, at Ester’s request. But wait, Melanie’s son isn’t dead or missing, she just enjoys playing the victim. Ester discovers this and solves it by sneaking into Melanie’s home and drowning her son, then gets shot by Mel’s husband Joe Swanberg (first time I’ve seen him in a good movie), prompting a revenge spree from Anika.

M. D’Angelo for Dissolve:

Still, the film’s excellence lies not in its “twists” (which are actually just straightforward actions made uncanny by the withholding of ordinary emotional cues), but in its unemphatic portrait of aberrant behavior. In more ways than one, Proxy doesn’t have a protagonist—just various individuals struggling to maintain a façade of normalcy.

Phoenix (2014, Christian Petzold)

Had to see this since I also just watched Obsession, another semi-remake of Vertigo. Nina Hoss (star of Petzold’s Barbara and Jerichow), of a rich family, escaped the holocaust but is presumed dead. She has actually had reconstructive facial surgery and looks like a different person, but still obsesses over her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld of Beloved Sisters and The Pasta Detectives) even though he may have saved himself by giving her up to the nazis.

Most of the movie is the tension of wondering how she could be so stupid to return to Johnny, leading to the very satisfying ending when she reveals her true self, thus claiming her family’s fortune while rejecting Johnny, who has been a slimeball the entire movie.

Petzold also made my second-favorite of the Dreileben trilogy (what’s Dominik Graf up to these days?). The final film by late cowriter Harun Farocki – my only previous experience with him was an essay film better talked about than watched.

A. Nayman:

What’s remarkable about Phoenix is how its Farockian didacticism – the fact that Nelly would rather try to reclaim her place and her identity in a German society that tried to exterminate her rather than go with Lene to settle in Palestine – is blended into its drama so that it becomes a film of ideas that is also a film of emotions.

The Loneliest Planet (2011, Julia Loktev)

Enjoyable to watch but with less of a game-changing twist than I expected from the reviews, which I didn’t actually read, because I was warned that they might give away the movie’s game-changing twist. Anyway it sounds like the same twist as Force Majeure, which I’m hoping will be even better.

Engaged American couple is on a mountain trip through eastern Europe. She is Hani Fursternberg (Yossi & Jagger), and has a terrific naked introduction scene, and he is Gael Garcia Bernal (between The Limits of Control and No), without a whole lot to do except for one scene. At least I think this is the big twist: when some motherfucker pulls a gun and Gael’s instinct is to hide, thrusting his girlfriend into the line of fire – then almost immediately realizes what he’s doing and switches their positions. They go from being carefree, lovey hikers before that scene, to trudging unhappily in opposite corners of the frame afterwards.

Also on the trip, their Georgian guide Dato (played by an actual guide), who starts to become more important after the incident, opening up to Hani about his past since she’s barely speaking to Gael anymore.

Language lessons: “I take my biiitch to the beeeach”

J. Kuehner: “Loktev persistently evokes a mysterious feeling that courses through us, at home and abroad, of beauty and dread pulsing in equal measure.”

Won an award at AFI Fest, played Locarno alongside Terri, Another Earth, Goodbye First Love and Policeman. Loktev made the acclaimed Day Night Day Night, which came out among a flurry of other terrorist dramas that I skipped. Cinematographer Inti Briones worked with Ruiz, shot Days in the Country and Night Across The Street. The best parts are between story scenes, massive wide shots of the scenery as our tiny heroes walk along and Richard Skelton’s crazy string music takes over the soundtrack.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011, David Fincher)

Fincher brings his sleek style to an exasperating, overlong, coincidence-filled thriller. If I was a proper auteurist the story wouldn’t matter and I’d go on about the great technique – but I’m not, so I was bored.

A Man Without a Country:

Disgraced journalist Daniel Craig is hired by Christopher Plummer of a rich nazi family to discover who killed Plummer’s granddaughter forty years ago – and since there’s no body, we already know that Racer X is really Speed’s bro… I mean that the girl is still alive. Halfway through the movie Craig meets (hooks up with) antisocial goth hacker Rooney Mara. First part of the movie sets up horrible, dangerous people: the businessman who sues Craig, Rooney’s rapist parole officer, Plummer’s evil nephew Stellan Skarsgard, then in the end our heroes take bloody revenge on all of them.

Fuck You, You Fucking Fuck:

Stellan’s fiery end:

I love that everyone knows all about Craig’s life and work – for an investigative journalist he’s quite bad at keeping secrets. A few amusing parts: most of the dragon-tattoo hackery-fakery, and Stellan soundtracking his torture chamber with an Enya song. Rooney Mara won best actress at Cannes (for Carol) the same day I watched this.

You and the Night (2013, Yann Gonzalez)

Fully bizarre and exceptional movie, which I think I need to watch again before attempting to say anything about it. Immortal couple with their undead “maid” hosts orgy which never quite gets off the ground, as participants exchange (hi)stories, then one host sneaks off and kills himself. Great lighting and imagery, action taking place in a stylish, dream-logic void.

Kate Moran (Goltzius and the Pelican Company) and Neils Schneider (Heartbeats, I Killed My Mother) are the hosts, Nicolas Maury (Regular Lovers) the “maid”. Guests include The Stallion (former soccer star Eric Cantona), The Star (Fabienne Babe of Rivette’s Hurlevent), The Teenager (Alain-Fabein Delon) and The Bitch (Julie Bremond).

Special appearance by whip enthusiast Beatrice Dalle (The Intruder, Inside):

Surprising restraint on use of music considering the director is a member of M83.

Welcome To Me (2014, Shira Piven)

Kristin Wiig goes off her meds and spends her lotto ticket winnings on a talk show with no guests, spending hours each week just talking about things she loves, doing things she enjoys, gradually gaining an audience of hipsters, driving her producers (Joan Cusack, Wes Bentley and Cyclops) insane, and unknowingly insulting everyone who loves her, including best friend Linda Cardellini. More mental illness than comedy, though her televised reenactments of traumatic events from her past (using real names, which gets the studio sued) are good. Wiig gets fired by her psychiatrist Tim Robbins, romances Wes and tears the studio apart, then all gets wrapped up nicely at the end.