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40 Nights at the Movies (in the Comfort of Your Home): The Franchise

Back by popular demand! Recommendations from "40 Nights at the Movies" will keep you, your dog and your elephant glued to the couch for months.

My fans went wild, and my enemies wilder, when I published my notes on movies I’ve been watching in two previous PopMatters columns (“50 Nights at the Movies — at Home!” and “60 Nights at the Movies: The Sequel“). Maybe it’s the personal, informal, irreverent style, beholden to no PR flack or corporate conglomerate or overpaid auteur or spoiled actor who consistently refuses to return calls about my screenplay. (You know who you are.) Maybe it’s the bite-size yet penetrating acumen in these little jottings, which don’t require you to plow through a ton of verbiage to grasp the good parts. Maybe it’s the notion, never spread by me, that hidden clues lead to several million dollars in treasure buried on one of the continents. (I’ve heard it might be the one with lots of penguins on it.)

For whatever reason, the “likes” skyrocketed and Twitter had a coronary. I exaggerate only slightly. Perhaps.

The point being, the lads and lasses in marketing have begged me for a follow-up, and I’m nothing if not easy with the lads and lasses. That didn’t come out right.

Anyway, everyone knows that the third entry in a franchise is always the best, or at least generates the most revenue, or at least builds your character. So look at it this way: while you’re overwhelmed this season by the doom and gloom of what pretends to be important, just relax and take a refreshing huff of a big old cozy diversion of the good, the bad and the curious from the past year of watching DVDs. It’s free, and it feels so good.

Literary Cinema, More or Less

1. Let’s begin with two movies based on Russian novellas about miserable sods. Shot in Croatia to look like Yalta on a beautiful lake with wooded hills, Dover Kosashvili’s UK production of The Duel is exquisitely period and slow and careful. It could be termed a serious comedy of manners, or at least observation, and focuses on a schlep who wants to dump the married woman he ran away with.

He gets on the tit of the local Darwinian zoologist and it leads to a duel. Actually the movie shows several tits to keep us interested. The trick is to wind you up with apprehension and disapproval of the foolish conventions of the duel, only to have it become a salutary thing after all. Where the original Chekhov tale included the intervention of the church, this movie downplays that.

It’s a kind of link between Dr. Johnson’s observation that being executed in the morning concentrates one’s attention wonderfully. (Or does it? Remember the brilliant Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown quotes the bromide that you should live every day as if were your last, and Lucy tries it out by running around screaming?) Also, there’s the Misfit’s belief in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” that “She’d have been a good woman if there’d been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Quibbles: They didn’t quite do the Russian names right. The accent should always be on the third to last syllable, and you wouldn’t say “Miss Fyodorovna”. You’d think the Georgian director should know.

2. A duel, or at least a dual, defines Dostoyevsky’s The Double, updated by British comedian/music-video director Richard Ayoade into a surreal dystopia with low ceilings, dashes of Orwell and Terry Gilliam, and saturated wrong colors. You can see why Jesse Eisenberg (or any actor) wants to play two roles, one a cowering doormat and one a successful prick (shades of Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor), though in this case the two roles don’t add up to one personality as interesting as Eisenberg’s role in The Social Network.

Mia Wasikowska plays the object of his creepy obsession. Wallace Shawn is Wallace Shawn. James Fox is barely glimpsed as the Colonel who runs the company in this retro-world, a ’50s/ ’60s vision of the bleak corporate future. Cathy Moriarty for some reason in the surly waitress at a greasy spoon.

The ending is more hopeful than Dostoevsky’s, which isn’t a bad choice — and after all, he approved of redemption. It’s a film that often looks arresting, and I’m sure it gets points for that alone. Throw in the literary pedigree, and you get a critical darling that made no money.

3. Not to be confused with Dostoevsky’s The Double, although he probably wished it, is José Saramago’s The Double, turned into the Canadian-Spanish production Enemy. It’s a very arty moody piece quite unlike the suspenseful action as it’s packaged and trailered. Shot as if the entire world were dropped into a glass of urine like Andres Serrano’s photo of Piss Christ, it’s about a college lecturer on totalitarianism (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose life is repetitive and unrewarding and who discovers a minor actor exactly like himself, whom he then contacts.

The opening sequence misdirects us by not revealing that the kinky club scene is actually an activity of the actor and not the teacher, and anyway the movie keeps implying enigmatically that they might somehow be the same, or one as a projected fantasy life of the other, with the college boy wishing he’d been an actor and living in a much better pad with a sullen pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon) on whom he steps out, instead of a messy apartment with a prickly girlfriend (Melanie Laurent) who recoils from him.

It also keeps throwing in symbolic spiders of desire that, as director Denis Villeneuve explains in his “open interpretation” interview, aren’t in the book. With Lynchian ambient sound (to evoke his identity-switch movies?), Isabella Rossellini as mom (more Lynch nods), and coolness bonus points for closing on a song by the Walker Brothers.

4. Ari Folman, the animator who did the wonderful Waltz with Bashir, now presents us with an ambitious work called The Congress, inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress as re-imagined from communist satire to Hollywood capitalism. The first 45 minutes consist of characters explaining the concept to each other: Robin Wright (as “herself”, allegedly a self-destructive has-been) will collect royalties for being scanned so they can create projects for her while she never acts again (sounds like a deal).

Then we get to the dazzling part as she attends a congress in a “restricted animation zone” out of Roger Rabbit and turns into a cartoon in a world populated by retro Max Fleischer rubberized figures and more modern designs. Of course there’s a revolution going on because there always is. People have the power to hallucinate in an animated paradise or shamble around in rags amid debris. Doesn’t really hold together as narrative or philosophy, but it does hold together as a crazy jumble.

5. This Is Where I Leave You, which perhaps should be called The Big Chillax, is about four grown children who gather for dad’s funeral when the mom informs them that his last wish was for them to “sit shiva”, or sit on chairs for seven days. Thus they get reacquainted, open old wounds, get stoned, blah blah.

Of course we must ignore the standard convention of casting, based on who they can get, which would have us believe that two parents, one of whom is Jane Fonda, offsprung Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and a bald guy. Why not Chris Rock?

Written by Jonathan Tropper from his novel, this is one of those heartwarming dysfunctional family dramadies about which the filmmakers have the temerity to say, “The studios don’t believe there’s an audience for this”. I’m not surprised if this one doesn’t convince them, but haven’t there been about a thousand?

Generally a predictable and non-credible series of scenes, which wouldn’t be bad if the dialogue were as witty as it supposes, and all of which is underlined by “poignant” piano-based score that’s more or less constant, like the annoying kid raising his hand in class, and that we associate with TV news pieces about wounded warriors and homeless pets. The only thing that keeps it from being Lifetime-Channel-ready is the language and raunchiness.

6. Style-conscious Anton Corbijn offers A Most Wanted Man from John Le Carré’s novel, a dour spy procedural in a damp blue-green Hamburg anchored by slumping, smoking, drinking, bedraggled German-accented Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of this author’s weary frumpy spymasters. A suspected terrorist approaches a banker (Willem Dafoe) and becomes a pawn to lure a philanthropist who skims money for terrorists, while our German spy is badgered by an American (Robin Wright) who wants to pull some extraordinary rendition.

Despite its anti-melodramatic leanings (for example, nobody gets killed), it does indulge in plotwisely gratuitous scenes of legal violations by the “good guys”, e.g., kidnapping a human-rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams), which is an insult because she’s so foxy, when it would be just as or more effective to persuade her by showing up at her office, but that serves a thematic purpose to foreshadow a karmic what-goes-around ending. Could be called The Spy Left Out in the Cold.

7. Gone Girl is scripted by Gillian Flynn from her novel, unread by me but which got a lot of acclaim, which makes me wonder if the dialogue is equally awful in print. I had to turn on the captions during the meet-cute flashback (the supposedly true parts) to grasp its full stupidity. This is partly why the first 45 minutes had that evervated don’t-give-a-rat’s-ass vibe, on my part certainly.

When the twists start kicking in, it becomes more interesting for logistic reasons, but then we still have to deal, as so often, more holes than the Great Barrier Reef of the sort that’s hard to believe cops and FBI would overlook them– after all, this isn’t some poor kid shot in the street. The cherry on top is an ending that succeeds in being both unbelievable and unsatisfactory. Most endings are one or the other, and it takes special talent to combine them. 

The apparent purpose is to portray strong women as psycho bitches, or just manipulative bitches, or just dimwits. Oh, there’s the female cop who turns out to be strangely helpless for the purpose of pursuing the theme, and the twin sister/extra limb who’s reduced to crouching in tears in the kitchen because the story won’t let her do anything sensible either. See? Some women really do have their hands tied.

David Fincher settles for laying on his ambience, not too thickly, for he’s a director at the mercy of his scripts who mostly has the sense to work with good ones. What happened here: he optioned a buzzy bestseller in the heat of the moment and found he was stuck with it. Better luck next time.

8. Wow, here’s a thing of wonder: Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, based on Michel Faber’s novel, is an avant-garde creation loosely disguised as a feature film. Scarlett Johansson plays a plastic predatory cypher who cruises Scotland in a white van, picking up guys, taking them home, getting them naked with erections wagging, and then something happens to them that’s both literal and symbolic and totally eerie.

Spoiler: You may eventually extrapolate that she’s an alien on a body-snatching mission (at least that’s the filmmakers’ story and they’re sticking with it), though it can also be seen as some form of vampire tale or just a conceptual dance with buzzing sound design. The literal buzzing in her seduction motif implies something insectile, as does an early scene where she gazes upon an ant after stripping the clothing from her dead double and a later scene of personal crisis where she looks at her reflection and is distracted by a fly.

Chilly, beautiful, alien, and one of my favorite creations of 2014. It encouraged me to read Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things, which also blew me away.

9. From the sublime to the cantankerous: In exposing myself to the cultural milestone that is Fifty Shades of Grey, I chose the version extended by a few minutes for maximal thrustage. The story is told with a few arguable exceptions from the POV of our klutzy virgin English major (Dakota Johnson) who literally stumbles into the office of a 27-year-old billionaire (Jamie Dornan) hiding his Scots accent and his painful history of — what else in contempo fiction — child abuse (not when he became an older woman’s submissive at 15, since he enjoyed that) before adoption away from a crack-whore, which means his thang (“I’m 50 shades of fucked up”) is identified as pathology instead of what I thought it was spinned as, a liberating walk on the wild side and discovery of one’s boundaries, so that’s having your beefcake and whipping it, too.

Anyhoo, just one look, that’s all it took, and he’s courting the virgin klutz even though “I don’t do girlfriends” (a line too good to be ignored), before he introduces her to Chanel-commercial silhouette-and-loud-song romantic ravishing (with 9 1/2 Week ice cube) after also claiming “I don’t make love”. “What are you doing to me?” he breathes, and “You’re the one who’s changing me”, in case we don’t get that this pure beauty is taming the wealthy beast after a few decorous sessions where he tosses three or four strokes of silk lashes in her direction like a cat playing with yarn as she tenses and stretches with open mouth. The ending, where she drops him like a tepid potato, would actually be a good finalé to this farrago if we didn’t already know Part 2 is on the way.

Don’t forget the most gratuitous bits of (consumer) pornography borrowed from the likes of That Touch of Mink  and Indecent Proposal, involving more songs as we fly in copters and gliders and I don’t know what all. For this movie’s nothing if not one sleek, glittery, shiny mofo, sometimes almost as precisely framed as Pasolini or Greenaway, but let’s not get carried away.

10. At its most superficial, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is the millionth cheap shot about how Hollywood people are shallow, greedy, egotistical, aggressively vulgar, and value-free, presented in his sense of drugged detachment that’s classically composed and emotionally dampened, the better to proffer grotesque moments. One way to appeal to critics is to tell them what makes them feel better about their own humdrum lives.

However, there’s something afoot in Bruce Wagner’s self-conscious script, which begins with a young woman with facial burns (mostly hidden by hair) asleep on a bus at night. Is she dreaming the movie, like Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, or is that too easy?

Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) gets off the bus at Hollywood, where she’s already made an online connection with Carrie Fisher (as herself) and quickly gets a job as assistant to Julianne Moore (not as herself). The latter is Havana, an actress whose actress mother died in a fire in 1976, and now Havana wants to play her mom’s role in a remake (the clips vaguely resemble Lilith  with Jean Seberg), and she’s also doing the talk show circuit claiming that mom fiddled with her. Mom’s ghost (Sarah Gadon) shows up to chide her for making this up, unless she’s transposing what actually happened with a stepdad.

Meanwhile, Agatha’s arrival triggers ghost visions for several people, including the spoiled actor teen brother she unsuccessfully tried to “marry” in the house fire she set long ago. Now Agatha is either as she appears (in recovery seeking to make amends) or already dead or some precognitive Cassandra or possibly the reincarnation of Havana’s mother, often reciting an Eluard poem from that star’s movie. She claims not to be aware of Havana’s mom, but she’s lying, and at one points strokes her star on the Walk of Fame. She refers to a script she’s working on about her parents, a self-help flack and his brittle wife (John Cusack, Olivia Williams) who are actually siblings, and Agatha says she knows incest is old hat nowadays but they could play up “the mythological angle”.

The most aggressive bit of black comedy is a scene where people process the news about a dead child, of which this script has a lot. Not to mention a couple of overwritten scenes of obvious portent, one involving a convenient dog and Chekhov’s gun rule, and the other a perfunctory seduction that has a hidden level about an actress’ limo driver (Robert Pattinson, slurry Yank accent) as her symbolic “stepdad” in that his girlfriend is symbolically her mother. It all sounds like a crazy misfire, yet I cannot dismiss a movie that, after initially presenting an actor’s nude scene with standard discretion, suddenly has him turn around and play with himself on camera.

Wikipedia tells me after the screenplay initially fell through, Wagner turned it into his novel Dead Stars, and he’s also written screenplays for Paul Mazursky’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills  and Oliver Stone’s TV serial Wild Palms, and he’s directed I’m Losing You from his own novel about a wealthy LA family and their child’s death. So I conclude this new item should be regarded more as Wagner’s movie than Cronenberg’s.

Literary Cinema: Kids Section – and – Vampires and Other Horrors

11. The Giver is a very good looking adaptation of Lois Lowry’s teen future dystopia, and Jeff Bridges, who bought the rights 20 years ago for his dad to star, mentions that it was impossible to get funding until all the other recent teen future dystopias based on books inspired by Lowry.

He plays the title role, a gruff hermit who bears the burden of knowing history in a world where everyone takes drugs to remain on an even keel, and it’s kind of like Logan’s Run  and kind of like Gattaca, and you can tell his house is different because instead of a modern box it’s a labyrinthine library with real books lining the walls, but they’re for decorative purposes only, because the neatest thing about this future is that you don’t need to read anything to learn, since you can download knowledge instantly by touching wrists.

Their world is black and white but you can see color if you stop the drugs. And Meryl Streep is running the joint with pained wisdom, and there’s a chosen boy messiah who can restore universal memory by passing a boundary, so even the wrist-touching isn’t necessary. I don’t quite follow it either but it was enjoyable to watch, as directed by Philip Noyce.

12. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1 continues a series that’s not only popular and well-made but smart as well. I was afraid it was going to be a bunch of noisy battles now that it’s revolution, baby, but it’s more refreshing. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has known that she’s valued as an image for propaganda and entertainment, and now she continues that role for the rebellion.

When the rebel president (Julianne Moore with Cassandra streak) gives a rousing speech at the end, we cut to the words being mouthed by her writer/propogandist (Philip Seymour Hoffman), which is an effective way to distance us from both the leaders and the crowd being speechified to and encourage us to approach the scene analytically. The deleted scenes show the excellent decision of cutting those without Katniss’ presence, so the film hews closely to what she knows.

12. Speaking of girl-centered YA future dystopia trilogies, Divergent is drawn-out (the current standard) and less compellingly characterized than the Katniss saga, but I was never bored. This future caste system finds the intellectual-scientist elites (Erudites) chafing to overthrow the post-Chicago rulership of the selfless class of Abnegaters. (And where are the legal system Candors? Unclear.)

This fanciful notion doesn’t reflect any problem in our own society, since we don’t have such leadership. With ambiguous help from a high-tech sorting hat, our teen heroine (Shailene Woodley) chooses to join the rowdy gang of Dauntless, who are… the cops? Anyway they live in a big warehouse that looks like they’re having a rave all the time. We don’t actually see them keeping order.

During her Full Metal Jacket training, she’s loaded with drugs for hallucination sequences where the real action is. There’s been a wall around the city for 100 years but soon enough, like the kids in The Giver  and The Maze Runner, she’s going to have to find what’s Out There. Those who are Divergent, like she, have more than one admirable quality, which we’re told makes them dangerous.

Ashley Judd plays her Abnegator mama while Kate Winslet plays the bad scheming Erudite leader who wants to seize dictatorship, which makes you wonder how she has so much power if the Abnegaters are supposed to be calling the shots. Maybe they really are poor leaders.

In the next film, Insurgent, the cavalry/revolution arrives at the last convenient moment while our heroine is undergoing her trial by virtual reality, for her self-analysis is the movie’s true battlefield, and the set-up for the next movie is that now everyone’s passing outside into the brave new world that set them up as lab rats to discover the divergent multi-tasking messiah.

Naomi Watts drops in as the long-lost mama to our heroine’s hunky boyfriend. I hope you got that, because there will be a potentially fatal quiz.

13. In contrast to such drawn-out sagas, the 80 minutes (with credits) of Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day reimagines Judith Viorst’s kids’ book as a brisk and breezy if equally implausible entertainment about a family that likes each other, and it gets the job done with slapstick and blunt dialogue in a way that must surely please the little set and most of their stressed parents. Nor does it overplay the animal invasion at the end, complete with kangaroo and adorable wallaby.

There’s pee and vomit humor, but no farting or feces (well, there is a Dick Van Dyke joke about taking a dump), so we have something else to be grateful for. Oh, and this Disney movie does have drunken teen humor and a gay incest joke–and no, I’m not kidding or reading into it–but it’s all good clean fun.

Vampires and Other Horrors

14. Jim Jarmusch’s contribution to vampire chic is Only Lovers Left Alive, an amalgam of cool signs. Wearing sunglasses at night, the vampires are decadent bohemians who utter quotations and hoard junk.

John Hurt plays Christopher Marlowe, whose repeated joke is that he wrote Shakespeare’s plays, now residing in Tangier with his Moroccan disciple like Paul Bowles. Christopher Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve — not quite that old, although viewers might assume so, because the deleted scenes include dialogue stating that Eve hails from a post-Stonehenge Druid culture.

Eve has the power to date anything to time and place of origin, and reads multiple languages as rapidly as Evelyn Wood. Also, she has a sister, Eva (Mia Wasikowska in her third film on this list), whose trouble-making dynamic is like in Xan Cassavetes’ (better) Kiss of the Damned.

Adam is holed up in dying Detroit, collecting old music equipment, guitars, mixing boards, etc., and producing anonymous underground music consisting of minimalist guitar drones. He hung out with Byron, that pompous bore, but Mary Shelley was delicious. And they’re so tired, so very tired. They make arrangements about blood, but things are getting dicey because humans have poisoned their blood “like their water”.

They feel like patrons and curators of a dying civilization, with Adam’s gloomy despair balanced by Eve’s openness. Not since The Hunger have vampires worked so hard for fashionably bored ambience, although it does feel like a personal statement.

Fun facts: The credits inform me that one of the pictures on Adam’s wall (Poe, Kafka, Twain, etc.) is of French director Claire Denis, in what I assume is a nod to the disturbing, little-seen Trouble Every Day. Wikipedia tells me the title dates to a ’60s sci-fi novel in which only kids are left after all adults commit suicide (wasn’t that a Star Trek  episode?), and that it was mooted as a Nicholas Ray project to star the Rolling Stones! The head spins.

15. Afflicted stars its writer-directors as “themselves”, Canadian buddies documenting a world trip on their website, their footage provided by lots of digital cameras with elaborate editing software in the opening reel. Wouldn’t you know, one dude gets bitten by a hot vampiress in Paris and goes through a nerve-wracking transition.

While it’s not credible that everything would be posted live as it apparently is (so the cops track him down several times), and much time is spent in love with the expository and declamatory form, it’s a watchable cross of the found footage movie (or what I call more exactly the “diegetic camera movie”) and the vampire happening. It’s also unique for starring a Chinese-Canadian hero. One quibble: the vampire babe claims they can’t be killed and proves it, but he never asks about decapitation.

16. Continuing the vampire renaissance, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a widescreen black and white creation in Farsi, shot in oil-field California pretending to be an Iranian town where virtually nobody’s on the streets at night.

Many forms of addiction and parasitism are here: a junkie, the pumping oil wells sucking out the earth’s blood, a weary prostitute and her pusher-pimp with gangsta accessories and a swanky house, and our pompadoured male protagonist, a drug dealer (and gardener) who dresses like Dracula in a party scene. He meets a vampiress who wears a chador like a cape and rides a skateboard. The scene of their second meeting is giddy with tones, and then capped by the scene where they go to her house and put on a record.

The soundtrack of Persian artists and Morricone-like passages turns much of the film into a music video, with balletic self-consciousness and intuitive digressions in the narrative. One such moment is a semi-drag queen dancing with a balloon; the deleted scenes have more of this character who even addresses the camera and must have been cut as too unbalancing. Amirpour, in an interview with Roger Corman, says that since she lives in California and doesn’t have to wear the chador, it feels like a superhero cape when she tries it on. They also discuss LSD.

Bonus: a great cat in a major supporting role.

17. If we’re in a renaissance of smart, original variations on classic horror tropes, then we must also be surrounded by mediocre knock-offs, which brings us to The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death. The first film’s Victorian setting is moved up to WWII, where the same house that gets surrounded by tides has fallen into condemnable state, so naturally the hostile local doctor on the wartime relocation council thinks its suitable for kids being transported from the London blitz, perhaps because children have a history of drowning there or because the village consists of one gibbering blind hermit.

One sullen boy is forgetting to keep his upper lip stiff because his parents were just killed last night (literally!), which didn’t change their plans to drag the sudden orphan along, but he’ll learn to soldier on and get over it — if he can snap out of his mute mood clutching the evil old doll bestowed by the house. Spunky governess wanders through predictable jumps that tap into her own secret history of childbirth. Handsome pilot keeps dropping by to hit on her while her older brisk colleague dismisses everything.

The worst aspect isn’t the mixture of routine and contrived, but that the photography is tweaked so dark you can’t see crap, and if not for the annoying stings on the soundtrack, you wouldn’t know anything spooky was happening. Compare with the deleted scene, which is perfectly visible, and the trailer, which not only shows everything clearly but indicates some scenes had bright colors. Since the trailer tries to show everything in the movie, it made clear the content of some shots that were mystifying shades of mud while watching. Sometimes darkness is a lousy idea. Just for critical overkill, compare the scintillating clarity of night shots in Amirpour’s movie, which is black and white!

18. Speaking of odd movies, the German Der Samurai is about a cute young closeted backwoods cop named Jakob (after Grimm?) who, instead of trying to catch a wolf in the local forest, is feeding it because the wolf symbolizes his repressed hungry identity. Then the wolf shifts into a feral psycho in a dress who gets a samurai sword delivered to him care of the cop and goes on a rampage to provoke said cop into admitting his proper lusts.

This is a movie where even a close-up of an erect penis is symbolic, which doesn’t stop it from being an arty horror-action piece. Very Lynchian, it leans heavily on its subtext and runs less than 80 brisk minutes.

19. A Spanish horror film called The House at the End of Time is one of the year’s pleasant surprises. It’s dressed up like a ghost story and takes its sweet time unwinding in what seems at first a random manner in between standard ooga-booga moments, slipping between what happened 30 years ago to a wife/mother and the fact that she’s now an old woman spending the remainder of her prison sentence under house arrest in that same odd mansion.

It’s rescued by an amazing third act that reveals how carefully constructed the whole thing has been, and that it’s a different type of story than we guessed. I won’t say more, but it joins a raft of similar intriguing movies. Also, being Spanish, it’s about the redemption of finding faith in God once more. Well done.

20. Oculus is a very good horror film that almost makes you overlook a flaw common to the genre: in order to get to the ending it wants and not finish after half an hour, it must needlessly complicate a basic situation: destroy an evil mirror! The heroine sets up a bunch of devices (so that more can go wrong), makes the fundamentally misguided decision to record the event as “proof”, and then when she’s got all the proof she’s going to get, she doesn’t just leave.

It’s basically set in one house, and slips back and forth in time between the sister and brother today and 11 years ago, when their parents went bonkers. Eventually, the child and adult actors are sharing the same shots as each timeline hits its climax.

Today’s horror films share with those of the early ’70s a tendency towards an inevitable pessimistic narrative arc, which is by no means standard in other eras. It’s necessary to point out that director Mike Flanagan previously made a terrific no-budget horror film called Absentia, which is better than this one.

Skin Crawlers – and – Time Travel and Other Head Trips

21. Here Comes the Devil is Catholic horror from Argentina’s Adrián Garcia Bogliano of the excellent Penumbra. One premise seems to be that the orgasm opens a perceptual door to a deeper realm where shadows lurk. All acts of sex lead to the influx of evil, from the opening lesbian scene, where a discussion of regrets and conscience and flashbacks to the priest’s confessional causes a serial killer to come to the door, to a married couple’s public truckstop masturbation while trading memories/fantasies of losing their adolescent virginity as crosscut with their kids vanishing into a vaginal hole in a hill.

The parents will commit an atrocity under the impression of revenge for an adult forcing sex on kids when the real horror is incest, so this is a thoroughly desgraciado  scenario. (Remember Agatha in Maps to the Stars, who says incest is old hat but you can play up the mythological angle.)

You can tell an artist by his sources. The credits thank movies and people for “spiritual help”, incuding. Nicolas Roeg (no doubt for Don’t Look Now ), Donald Cammell (perhaps Demon Seed ), Henry James (Turn of the Screw, natch), The Entity  (a gratuitous shot of manipulated breasts, and yes I admire that underrated movie), Neither the Sea Nor the Sand (obscure ghost romance), giallo director Sergio Martino, Eloy de la Iglesia (transgressive gay Spanish director who did a version of Turn of the Screw ), Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Centerfold Girls, Dust Devil, David Cronenberg (for The Brood ?), novelist T.E.D. Klein, and William Finley and Marilyn Burns, who were both in Eaten Alive.

22. Jennifer Kent’s Aussie horror The Babadook has all its ducks in a row. This old dark house movie (the old symbol: house/mind, basement/unconscious) is also a psychological breakdown study of a single mom, repressing many of her emotions since her husband’s traumatic death on the day her son was born — including that part of her that hates and resents her son, which the kid senses and acts out with behavioral issues, leading to a vicious circle.

This movie’s strongest aspect is the mom’s POV and how she must lead the viewer on a grinding path into psychosis. You really do want to kill the kid.

That’s the realism side, while the symbolic supernatural side manifests in a strange pop-up book about this destructive force, the return of the repressed coming back stronger, etc., so “you can’t get rid of the babadook” but must learn to recognize and live with it — shades of Barbara Hershey in the above-named The Entity. In the interview, actress Essie Davis compares it to The Shining but says she has to be both Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson!

23. Wyrmwood: Road of Death is described by its self-funding (Indiegogo) Aussie brother filmmakers as Mad Max  meets Dawn of the Dead Well, we’ve seen that before (or it seems like it). Even so, this has not only kinetic energy and expressive color timing but bits of real ingenuity in plotting and action, thus demonstrating again that there’s room within the zombie genre for freshness within formula.

As with the vague references in Night of the Living Dead to something falling to Earth, this film blames a meteor shower tied by one bloke to the Book of Revelations. Nobody ever turns on a TV or listens to the radio, but that seems somehow almost credible in the backwoods panic. It feels infused by comics and, with the detail of the crazy doctor who plays rock music, a nod to Tarantino.

24. Felt is a textbook example of an unusual, ambitious, provocative, personal indie ruined by a cliched ending that feels like they suddenly realized their arty character study needed an obvious commercial catharsis, but which only reminds us over-viewed schmucks of more successful examples — Taxi Driver, Jeanne Dielman, Ms. 45, arguably even Lucky McKee’s May.

The movie consists of naturalistic scenes of a young woman who’s apparently a rape victim, and she indulges in awkward passive-aggressive (or active-aggressive) social interactions and retreats into fantasy, mingled with semi-surreal moments of wandering the woods in homemade grotesque costumes, like a well-endowed naked man suit. This whole two-thirds of the movie radiates discomfort in a good way, a way that feels real-edgy instead of fake-edgy.

Then because they need a narrative (or so they think), she dates up a guy on the street who isn’t turned off by her vulgar sexual humor and “acting out”, which would make anyone ordinarily run in the opposite direction, and we keep hoping that the movie will surprise us by not capitulating to the predictable crazy psycho-bitch route, which is a sexist stereotype even with the proviso that sexist culture makes her looney tunes. Now that it’s decided at the last minute to become a horror movie, it succumbs to something that often annoys me in the genre.

Humans have instinctive, unthinking defensive reactions. Some people might freeze at danger, but only when they see it coming. If I suddenly put my hand in your face, you bat it away instantly. This guy’s in a position (literally) to stop what’s happening and he’s more than physically capable; the fact that he doesn’t means he’s a symbolic puppet in a script, not a credible person, and that doesn’t jibe with the naturalist aesthetic. If we argue this ties in with “objectification” and his symbolic feminization, that’s a cop-out and part of the problem it critiques.

By the way, it’s revealing that life after rape is a reasonably common reality but extremely rare in movies. The best “aftermath” movie I can recall is a Tunisian film called Fatima that I caught at the San Francisco Film Fest early in the century. It simply follows the heroine’s ordinary life for several years, with our perceptions colored, like hers, with the knowledge of her history.

25. Okay, if we exempt the unclassifiable bewitchery of Under the Skin (#8 above), David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is the most remarkable horror film I’ve seen in some time, and a great entry in the horror renaissance from its seductive yet unnerving opening circular tracking shot around a leafy suburban Detroit neighborhood to its carefully framed Lynchian occlusions.

The idea is a Ring-like chain of sexual predation passed on from partner to partner, so the fear of sex is a big theme, but the stalking monster, which can look like anyone including loved ones and is invisible to others, has rich metaphorical implications about the adult world, to which sex is the ticket. With her friends, the heroine must finally defeat a missing father (to which she’d been clinging?) that tries to drown her (and electrocute her with middle-class appliances) before she can “move on”.

As the DVD’s critic-commentators note, it feels ’70s/ ’80s in a Carpenter/Craven way yet it also felt to me like shortly into a future where, despite such gadgets as a seashell-shaped compact e-reader, young people are fixated on past works–so the girl with the e-reader is reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot — and the heroine goes to a movie, but it’s Charade. That’s a carefully chosen title, as it turns out, and I think of that movie as a false promise of grown-up sophistication that we post-1960 generation film buffs saw as kids and teens. It also has a bouncing ball scene that’s echoed here.

One skinny geek who hangs out with the gals and moons over one of them is identified by the e-reading girl as the Idiot, ha ha, but that novel’s idiot does the same mooning, as does J. Alfred Prufrock when that poem is read aloud in the freaky college English scene. (My inner re-writer wanted the heroine to grab a fire extinguisher to see what would happen if she doused her follower.) The geek gets his notions from cheesy old horror films: Killers from Space (Peter Graves utters gobbledygook about electricity) and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (women as aliens).

In another scene, there’s a weird unidentified cartoon with “Father and Son” written on a hot-air balloon. Other rich details include the card game Old Maid, where the object is not to get stuck with the Old Maid, who represents virginity as well as getting old.

I like how “it follows” also means “therefore”.

Time Travel and Other Head Trips

Time travel is possibly the most overworked trope of the moment, and yet virtually all such movies are worth seeing. At the moment, I can’t recall a recent one that isn’t, but perhaps there are a few I should go back and have skipped. Anyway, all of the following aren’t time loops but they’re mindbenders.

26. Aussie twins Michael and Peter Spierig (who did the vampire movie Daybreakers), adapted Robert Heinlein’s story “All You Zombies” into Predestination, which keeps the amazing central concept intact. Ethan Hawke plays a time traveler for a secret organization who chats up Sarah Snook in a bar. She’s currently playing a man who had a sex change, but she also flashes back to her female life.

It’s a tight, well-done movie, but the added plotline of tracking down a bomber feels like an encumbrance for the sake of creating movie suspense, and then the movie doesn’t know what to do with that extra plottage except settle for modern ambiguity in place of Heinlein’s existential (if paradoxical) certainty. There’s also an unfortunate height differential in two of the characters, which matters. Still, a valorous effort.

27 and 28. Coming into this category are two good cheap indies from the Duplass Brothers as executive producers and starring Mark Duplass, and both with weird plot gimmicks to drive the relationships and take the story to a new level: Safety Not Guaranteed and The One I Love.

The first title centers on an angry, cynical, lost post-grad girl (Aubrey Plaza) working as intern at the Seattle Times newspaper. She’s dragged along to investigate a classified ad for time travel placed by an intense wacko loner (Duplass) who gradually penetrates her defenses. We’re less sure of the ending’s literal function than its metaphorical one.

The second film stars Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as an angry arguing couple whose marriage counselor (Ted Danson) sends them to a beautiful house to spend time together. There they discover something uncanny that’s either a fun fantasy or sinister plot, with their personalities reflected in how they explore it. Thanks to ingenious writing, the twist works as surprise and provocation.

29. While we’re at it, I can’t recommend another Duplass production, The Skeleton Twins. It opens with a queer brother (Bill Hader) opening his wrists (“another fucking gay cliché” — thanks for reminding us, and later he even dresses up in drag, though admittedly it’s Halloween) and being taken in by his sister (Kristen Wiig), who’s having her own depression issues stemming from daddy’s suicide and her intense dislike of mom (whose offense is that she drops in to see them “only” because she’s visiting a nearby town on a retreat, which most people would consider a good reason). This causes her own fear of motherhood with a decent boyfriend (Luke Wilson), who’s so nice she screws around on him.

Glibly witty bro moons over the high school writing teacher who popped his cherry at 15, and who now wants him to read his rom-com screenplay for Jennifer Aniston. This is the most potentially unusual angle, and not enough is made of it before the predictably pat yet hardly believable ending. The only couple of halfway interesting scenes are moments of rapport between the siblings in which they do nothing in particular (a song lip-synching interlude is always good to kill a few minutes), reminding us that brother-sister movies aren’t common.

The best I know is Love Streams, but let’s not crush this movie entirely with the comparison. It fails on its own terms.

30. More on the diegetic camera movie (my term), which the industry calls “found footage” movies: In the Cloverfield/Chronicle tradition of handheld self-shot nerd reinventions comes Project Almanac, very much in third place to those masterpieces. A brilliant sciency yet studly yet lonely high school fox and his traditionally nerdy virgin pals discover his lost dad’s time machine in the basement, and this naturally leads to scoring the hottest girl in school. It’s all fun and games (winning the lottery, going to Lollapalooza with VIP passes) — until you twist the fabric of reality.

The thankless female appendages are the hot chick and the little sister who’s not a brain but is around for the ride and usually holding the camera. Once you get over the convention of “recording everything” (and who’s editing?), the ending is intriguing and justifies the form. The self-aware kids refer to Looper (“I love that movie”), Terminator, Time Cop and the Bill & Ted movies.

Now, Let’s Get Into Some More “Adult” Films

31. Terry Gilliam is alive and well and revisiting Brazil in the dazzlingly designed and crammed The Zero Theorem, in which a depressed cubicle “entity cruncher” (Christoph Waltz, bald as Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys) in a bright, shiny, noisy, corporate future is tapped by Management (Matt Damon), who might be God or the Devil since he denies it, to prove that reality came from zero and will go back to it.

While our hero lives in an empty church formerly inhabited by monks and is a monk himself with no desire to leave his house or interact with people, he’s become a Henry James character wasting his life waiting for Something Important, the meaning of life to arrive via phone, which is associated with belief in God (the head of Christ replaced by a Management camera, always watching). A calling, get it? To redeem his life.

The black hole in his imagination/depression, which is the origin and end of the universe, is associated with vaginas, through which he can enter a fantasy world of unreal bliss, leading to a Brazil-esque ending in which he accepts his hole and rejects reality, living alone to Radiohead’s “Creep”. There’s a lot going on, paradoxically in a screenplay that’s mostly like a single-set play. It’s aware that the female characters are representing adolescent sex fantasies, except Tilda Swinton as the electronic shrink (two women pull off their wigs), so the adolescent boy-genius (Lucas Hedges) who’s having a hormone festival in this way represents the movie as well as being a younger version of the guys.

32. I Origins is from Mike Cahill (Another Earth) and combines the same elements of over-intimate handheld “realism” with melodrama and spiritual exploration, albeit more clumsily and perfunctorily.

A scientist (Michael Pitt) investigates the evolutionary development of the eye, apparently more to annoy believers in “intelligent design” (a losing battle) than to establish a breakthrough, and he falls in love with a wacky crazy French girl of the “get me a wacky crazy French girl” school of casting who makes mysterioso comments and then dies in a horror-movie manner, so the second half has the hero and his instant-rebound refreshingly practical scientist bride (Brit Marling of Another Earth ) discover through an iris-typing database that some people are reincarnated!

He goes to India to track down the new girl in a dramatically and conceptually weak construction (signaled by the silly pun in the title) that’s nevertheless watchable because you can hardly believe a movie dares to be this peculiar. For a couple of scenes of scientific tests, the film adopts a brighter-lit, classical, “clinical” style that looks better than the rest of it.

33. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence is a tight, 90-minute, improv dialogue, micro-budget, handheld twister shot in the director’s house with eight actors. There’s now a subgenre of “dinner party gone wrong” movies — end of the world, toxic disaster, murder spree.

This is an intelligently conceived bit of speculation in what I call Millennial Unreality, and I had an argument with a friend over whether it counts as a time-loop movie. It depends on whether you’re as pedantic as I am.

It was shot over five nights, with each actor given briefs about doing this or bringing up that and having the others react with surprise, nobody knowing where it was going, then cutting the improv fat and hewing close to the plot. Truly benefits from multiple viewing, not that I’m into that. The result is a complex bonkers movie that really is coherent, unlike many others with budgets. Very impressive.

34. Plus One is yet another low-budget time-loop movie, set entirely at a wild college-age party that suffers freak effects of a meteorite causing electrical problems. The result: everyone is duplicated in a time lag that’s somehow occupying the same time-space. Confusion and panic ensue, with different characters reacting differently and one dumped boyfriend seeing his chance to “Groundhog Day” his girlfriend.

The schizoid ending is both happy and dark, and nicely ambiguous. As in Coherence, an extra-planetary rock is the convenient device for an unexplained structural gimmick that reveals human behavior.

35. Can a sci-fi adventure be both mournful and optimistic? Yes, such was Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars, and even more so is the long Interstellar, which warps time around us for over two and a half hours without quite feeling that long (due to steady pace with exciting bits) while the daughter of a chastened top-dog pilot (Matt McConaughey) is played by three actresses: Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn. Anne Hathaway plays the astronaut who launches an intelligent aria about the power of love that, surprisingly, works because it’s such a desperate rationalization bordering on prayer.

The script is smart conceptually, making this Christopher Nolan’s best movie by a long shot, or a sling shot; his brother Jonathan is the primary writer. Their vision of a near-future Earth is green but depopulated, ruralized, and dumber if possible, and things aren’t looking up — literally. Grounded pilot Matt: “Now we look down and try to find our place in the dirt.”

Reminiscent in good ways of 2001: A Space Odyssey, except the wormhole/ stargate is by Saturn instead of Jupiter and the mysterious “they” are posited in a sensible way that I’m glad to say occurred to me and was possibly intended to, and in retrospect might apply to Kubrick’s movie too. With Michael Caine, John Lithgow, William Devane, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, an eyeblink from David Oyelowo, interview clips from Ken Burns’ TV doc on the Dust Bowl, and blocky robot puppets.

36. Wow, so 2014 was the year of Scarlett Johansson, who starred not only in my fave Under the Skin but in Luc Besson’s dazzling Lucy, which pretty much knocked my socks off, then put them back on, then knocked them off again. After marking time with the disposable The Family  (American mafia family in France, with Robert DeNiro), Besson’s pulled off something worth making and watching, and all in 80 minutes plus credits.

At first, despite a few eye-catching visual parentheses, it comes on like another slick violent gangster story centering on an abused heroine, although it’s refreshing that from the first scene, she’s shown to be so intelligent that she must literally be forced by the plot into the situation it requires. Why, though, is Morgan Freeman lecturing on the capacity of the human brain? Then, before our wondering eyes, the movie becomes richer, stranger, and more amazingly ambitious. Far more than a butt-kicking babe adventure, this is about nothing less than the human race and the universe.

For a moment, I wondered at the convenience/contrivance of letting bad guys go when reason dictates that they’ll wreak more mayhem if not taken care of now, but then I realized I was thinking with my backward human values and not the post-human perspective of someone who single-mindedly leaves behind such petty notions as justice, revenge, and death. When your insight is that “nobody ever really dies”, preventing tragedy becomes inconsequential. Her last act of empathy is advising her friend’s medical issues, and then she’s on the road to the cosmos. These two movies, along with Scarlett’s voice role in Her, form a remarkable trifecta defined by the arc of transcendance, of leaving her shell behind.

37. Since I’ve mentioned more than once that Under the Skin was one of my favorite movies of 2014, perhaps now is the moment to add that the other contender is Lars Von Trier’s flabbergasting two-part Nymphomaniac in its five and a half hour “extended director’s cut” (not the mere four-hour version). Before anything else, I must address the special effects, which are Oscar worthy in themselves but never would have been nominated (and weren’t).

I’m reminded of the amazing effects in the BBC series Orphan Black, which allow one actress not only to interact with different versions of herself in one shot, but to have them touch each other and even fight, thanks to meticulous work with body doubles and motion-capture. It’s a long way from the pioneer work of David Cronenberg’s mobile camera duplications in Dead Ringers, but it’s derived from that concept.

Anyway, you watch Von Trier’s movie with its “porn” scenes (I guess we’ll have to start calling one actor Not-So-Shia LaBuff) and you get to the announcement that the actors didn’t have “penetrative sex” and that doubles were used, and your jaw just drops. I believe one actress even indicated a prosthetic vagina was involved, but it’s mostly porn actors blended seamlessly into the shot.

Mind you, my impression is that there’s less than ten minutes, tops (as it were) of actual hokey-pokey, for each encounter usually only has a few seconds and there are no “money shots”. I also have the shorter version but haven’t bothered to watch it, and I wonder what must have been cut. All the philosophical digressions, complete with whimsical illustrations, that buttress the flashbacks between a battered heroine (Charlotte Gainsbourg, also Oscar-worthy) and her intellectual virginal interlocutor (Stellan Skarsgard)? Those are some of the best parts! They’re what make the film so fearlessly intellectual and arty.

It’s not the length, it’s what’s done with it. I swear, the entire thing is riveting. Divided into bite-size chapters of intriguing themes and forms, it never seemed long to me, although apparently reviews of the four-hour theatrical version found otherwise.

Two scenes are humorous: Uma Thurman’s brazen uncomfortable confrontation as injured wife turned drama queen, dragging her children behind (note: Von Trier made a version of Medea years ago!), and the scene of two Africans whose attempt at double-penetration becomes uncomfortably touchy for them while the camera adopts the woman’s reductive or “objectifying” POV to focus on the witty synecdoche of their aggressively waggling hard-ons, a literal cockfight. It’s the only thing about them that interests her, but their relationship with each other gets in the way of her pleasure, so she ducks out while they argue.

38. Oh, compare the previous with American timidity! I refer not only to the damp squib of Fifty Shades of Grey, but consider the tease of the more intelligent Adult World. Emma Roberts plays a clueless, annoying poetry major who stalks her favorite poet (John Cusack) while clerking at an adult video store with a cute manager who must be the guy for her. She establishes her street cred by hanging out with a gratuitous drag diva who exists for that purpose, although he does get just about the only funny line: “Oh my god. Jonathan Franzen.” (It’s in the delivery.)

Despite the edgy feints, this is standard coming-of-age territory, predictable without being credible (a common failing, as you’ll have noticed). After setting up the angle about the porn store (with Cloris Leachman as the owner), it keeps as far from that element as possible, even though it’s the title and the logline hook. The movie’s best aspect is being good-natured instead of cynical, but this falls far short of, say, an episode of Girls (a handy index for how most movie dramadies fall short).

Also, its habit of quoting bits of poetry might please frustrated English majors turned critics. (Another drag quip: “Emily Dickinson, bitch.”) By the way, this is one of those movies that tries to bait our interest by opening with a climactic moment from the two-thirds point (our heroine tries to emulate her suicidal idol Sylvia Plath) in order to double back up to it.

39. Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani is an amazing Hindi thriller presented in glossy, handheld, rapidly edited fashion. I don’t know if I can call it Bollywood since it’s only two hours and doesn’t have any musical numbers, but they’ve been increasingly going in that direction while Hollywood bloats its popcorn movies to much longer.

The heroine (Vidya Balan) is a pregnant woman, as in Fargo, who arrives at the Calcutta airport big as a house and goes to the police to report that her computer tech husband is missing — the one who mysteriously resembles a wanted terrorist and who everyone denies ever arrived in Calcutta with a job offer. She retraces his steps and uses her hacking skills and the assistance of a tall handsome doe-eyed cop within a story of many conventional elements — conspiracy theories, secret service bullies, wacky hitman going about his business — and we keep watching because of the implacable woman at the center.

Meanwhile, there’s a local mythological festival going on in celebration of a mother-goddess, and the poster depicts the heroine with multi-armed visual puns in this manner.

This story handles narrative conventions in what turns out to be an invigorating way. I’ll just say that the last reel floored me. No, you couldn’t predict anything from what I’ve written.

40. Damián Szifron’s Argentinean film Wild Tales tells six stories of revenge at the collision of modern life and animal instincts. They are outrageous and cartoonish, accented by bright colors and sleek widescreen design to give the gloss of a poisoned sugar candy, yet the stories are also chilling and resonant because, after all, the exaggeration of human behavior is only slight. Gustavo Santaolalla contributes a slinky sinister theme that sounds resurrected from a spaghetti western.

Each story seems a little longer than the previous one, beginning with a pre-credits anecdote that’s simple yet on a grand scale, and ending with a protracted epic at a wedding party where intimate emotions are displayed before a cast of dozens. The settings: an airplane, a restaurant, a desert, the city, a rich home, a wedding party. Every story is driven by a “me vs. them” inability to identify with the other’s position, which the stories imply may be the basis of society rather than its opposite impulse. Power and class are stronger elements than sex, although that’s the arena of the final story with its apparently happy resolution that what has sundered can also unite. Another theme: the appetite for destruction is also a desire for self-destruction.

In other words, it’s a vicious and elegant entertainment that makes valid comment on human behavior. Did I mention that it’s fun?

Right now we’ll call it a column before it becomes too unwieldy. Look for the exciting sequel coming soon to a digital screen near you!

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