Before I Disappear – solid rock fist up
At times, Before I Disappear, the feature-length adaptation of the 2013 Academy Award-winning short Curfew, feels as aimless as the suicidal protagonist Richie (played by writer/director Shawn Christensen). It’s shagginess feels like The Big Lebowski as the disinterested protagonist stumbles through a plot involving a dead girl and two rival club owners with criminal connections. The only thing he does care about is doing a favor for his estranged sister by watching the niece he hardly knows. It is through the eyes of the young Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) that his exhaustion and pain starts to abate. It manages a delicate balance between heartbreaking and heartwarming, through dark humor and a chaotic spark. (Before I Disappear won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature).
Boyhood – rock fist way up
Every year from 2002 to 2013, writer/director Richard Linklater took a weekend and filmed another segment in a domestic family drama. The resulting ambitious film is called Boyhood. It follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and their often absent, aloof father Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke). One of the most remarkable aspects of Boyhood is that it feels like it was all shot at the same time through a consistent look and editing style. It has the easy going charm that Linklater brought to Dazed and Confused and the Before Sunrise trilogy, while still feeling more structured and less experimental than Slacker or Waking Life. There isn’t much plot to speak of, but that makes the proceedings feel even more universal as we watch a family age and change. Boyhood is an extraordinary achievement.
The Dance of Reality – solid rock fist up
Writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky has completed his first film in 23 years, and it is just as fascinating, humorous, and odd as can be hoped. The semi-autobiographical film tells of Jodorowsky’s formative years in the coastal Chilean town Tocopilla, but does it through a mix of humor, metaphor, philosophy, and surrealism that is unmistakably Jodorowsky. Such details include a mother (Pamela Flores) who spends who sings all her dialogue operatically, Jodorowsky appearing on-screen frequently with the actor playing his as a child (Jeremias Herskovits), and Jodorowksy’s own real life son Brontis playing the fictionalized version of his own grandfather Jamie. While the beginning of the film felt rough at first, once I accepted the film and its lack of rules I was thoroughly engaged for the remainder of the anarchic and episodic journey.
The Grand Budapest Hotel – rock fist way up
Wes Anderson is a treasure and I hope he never stops being Wes Anderson. After the perceived critical failure of The Life Aquatic, he could have chosen to make films that were more grounded in reality. Instead, he went the opposite direction and is operating at his full creative potential and making films no one else can including the delightful and delightfully convoluted The Grand Budapest Hotel, his most audacious film yet. It captures the same madcap energy as the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox, through a very storybook journey to the world famous hotel and the concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) who has made its reputation his life work. This film is pure joy.
Joe - solid rock fist up
Director David Gordon Green has had a very interesting career, bouncing between indie fare such as All the Real Girls and last year’s Prince Avalanche to more commercial studio films such as Pineapple Express and Your Highness. Joe, featuring Nicolas Cage in the title role, is very much an indie in the vein of last year’s Mud. Based on the novel by Larry Brown, it tells a tale of a homeless boy Gary (Tye Sheridan) who is eager to make a living to provide the support for his family that his abusive, alcoholic father (the heart-breakingly real Gary Poulter) never could. His resolve impresses Joe, a respectable man who struggles to avoid potentially violent confrontations. Green delivers one of his strongest and most affecting films, which showcases an excellent performances from Cage, Sheridan, and Poulter.
The Legend of Shorty – solid rock fist up
Before notorious Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested in February, documentary filmmaker Angus MacQueen and a small crew set out to do what the Mexican and American governments publicly claimed they could not do: locate the first man to be declared “Public Enemy No. 1″ since Al Capone. Through their quest they present a rare insider’s look at the drug trade, from a demonstration of preparing drugs to be smuggled to graphic crime scene photos of the very real cost of the empire El Chapo (“Shorty”) built. The resulting film is thrilling, provocative, and makes a sobering companion piece to entertainment such as Breaking Bad.
Predestination – minor rock fist up
The Spierig Brothers, whose previous forays into genre film include the vampire thriller Daybreakers and the zombie film Undead, tackle time travel in the mostly successful Predestination. Once again teaming with Ethan Hawke, they tell a very contained story about a time agent sent to investigate a terrorist in the past. It does a good job of telegraphing where it’s going, so the ending will only feel like a twist for those who haven’t been paying attention. Based on a 1959 short story “All You Zombies” by Robert Heinlein, the film is much more sedate than what you would expect based on their previous work. It ends up feeling more like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits; there are much worse fates.
Stage Fright - swiss fist
Stage Fright is the best slasher/comedy/musical hybrid ever made. But being unique in that regard does not excuse the all the little failures that combine to make Stage Fright unfortunately disappointing and underwhelming. The plot about a killer at a summer camp of musical theater geeks is exactly as generic as the ’80s movies it clearly loves. The films biggest problems all revolve around the budget and the compromises the first-time feature filmmaker Jerome Sable and composer Darren Morze presumably had to make to get Stage Fright filmed. But while the are jokes and songs and performances are all a mix of good and bad, the enthusiasm of everyone involved keeps it very watchable throughout. If you can find charm in its shortcomings, or have ever said to yourself “Someone should make Sleepaway Camp: The Musical,” you may have just found a new favorite movie.