7. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
As bittersweet and elegiac as a great folk song, and set to provoke as much thought in its conclusion, the Coen Brothers certainly pitched their 16th film rather high. It is rather remarkable then that despite being set in the year 1961, the film sees the Coens looking as in touch and youthful as they have in some time. It could be said that this film sees the return of the “hip” Coens, the “happening” Coens. Llewyn Davis is a character that might well haunt any given twentysomething.
Young, directionless, and disenfranchised, aspiring folksinger Llewyn makes the same mistakes over and over; with his guitar in tow to chronicle his vagabond existence in music. His label boss is a decrepit old man, his former band mate is nowhere to be found, he lives on couches, and he can never keep a hold of his cat, things truly do not look good for Llewyn Davis.
Between references to cats scrotums and Private Elvis Presley, not to mention a hysterical musical cameo from Adam Driver, the film does manage to establish its themes. The film is best summarized by a striking road trip sequence in the company of a drug addicted John Goodman, this film is a one way trip to nowhere.
Why watch it? Because, like the music of the 60s, in oozes charisma and humanity. Like the songs Llewyn sings, his own sadness has a wisdom to it. His interactions with his “love interest” Jean should stand as testament to this, he truly weathers a storm of vitriol. The photography is bleak but stunning, typical of New York in Winter. The period recreation, too, is sublime. Still struggling after the meaning to the ending? Remember, the cat’s name is Ulysses.
6. Melancholia (2011)
If the sight of Kirsten Dunst nude in the dead of night, lying under and worshiping the coldness of the Moon isn’t typical of Lars Von Trier, I don’t know what is. Few but Von Trier would deal with the difficult subject of depression in as lofty a manner as this, which to many is nothing short of endearing.
Impending apocalypse cannot be an easy thing to deal with and, as the planet Melancholia crashes towards Earth, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) who is nihilistic from a life of depression, her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsburg) who is warm and fond,
Claire’s innocent son, and cynical husband John (Kiefer Sutherland), all await their doom. We learn how their characters deal with the worst and, in turn, are conveyed many interesting observations on humanity. Claire’s section of the film ends with the film’s conclusion-spectacularly.
More surprising still, however, is the first half of the film, Justine’s story. Why is this section surprising? Well, because there is hardly any reference to the apocalypse at all. Instead, this section deals with Justine’s dismal attempt at marriage to her fiance Michael. It is during the wedding that we truly learn about these characters.
Justine’s self-destruction is the least of their worries. A cold mother, a vagabond father, and a hysterically cruel employer (brilliantly played by Stellan Saarsgard) are all part and parcel of the tragedy. In many ways, Von Trier is able to make these moments of brazen humanity in every nuance as devastating as the apocalypse. This is some feat. As Justine collapses with despair, the viewer may well feel the same.
5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
“What kind of bird are you?” So begins one of cinemas most tender summer romances. What distinguishes the romance on display in Moonrise Kingdom from other depictions of youthful romance on film is the startling maturity. It is almost preternatural to witness Sam and Suzy, both twelve, so certain in their devotion, and mature in their decisions to be together.
What makes this romance striking is the fact that Wes Anderson’s script manages to balance the maturity of two intelligent children eloping together, whilst still allowing them moments of juvenile silliness. Sam presenting Suzy with flowers as they plan their route through the wilderness is played to deadpan comic perfection. The moment in which Sam giggles upon learning that Suzy is a “troubled child” is undeniably an act of juvenalia. Yet, I defy you to deny the maturity and wisdom behind lines lie “I love you, but you don’t know what your talking about.”
There is the usual Anderson shtick. The sight of Bill Murray throwing shoes, lifting tents incredulously, and declaring his intention to chop down a tree in the middle of the night will have Anderson fans in familiar territory. But, when was the last time there was such a beating heart to support these jokes? Murray and Frances McDormond lying in separate beds, apologizing to one another for a loveless marriage is heartbreaking, as is the occasional loneliness in Bill Murray’s police chief.
However, the tale of fictional island New Penzance in the wake of a great storm in 1965 belongs to newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman as Sam and Suzy. Their romance feels eternal, yet still flawed and human. As they share their first kiss on a beach, the audience may be at first uncomfortable, but the moment is undeniably human. You may even see this as a metaphor for the film itself.
4. Tree of Life (2011)
Early on in Tree of Life, Jessica Chastain’s Mrs O’Brien hears two ways of life, the way of nature or the way of grace. It appears central to the film’s ideology that it seems to follow both paths. The film is fascinated with organic life, both nature and the organic growth of the animal kingdom.
From dinosaurs traversing reservoirs to the precocious growth of children in humble American family, life and the evolution of being is central to the film’s loose plotted, montage heavy conceits. However, there is something going on that is beyond animal, something spiritual and ethereal. Match cuts are forged from garden sprinklers to DNA strands, Jessica Chastain soars through the air. This is a film about nature, but there is a strong presence of an unnamed grace.
Yes, many people will hate this film. It has little to no narrative structure. However, most film theorists will assert that story is the cornerstone of film narrative, with plot being incidental. The story is solid with this film. The liking of the evolution of life to the growth of child, both owing triumph and tragedy to their biological routes, is ubiquitous.
In its own bizarre way, Tree of Life could be seen as quite focused. The performances, too, are exceptional. The film chooses its captured moments fascinatingly well and you feel you know the characters innermost cognition intimately by the end. Sean Penn’s appearances may feel extraneous, but perhaps that is the point. Tree of Life is a cinematic rubik’s cube, and it is assured in its identity.
3. Short Term 12 (2013)
To be unassuming is not always a bad thing cinematically. A film with a natural aesthetic needs to rely on its actors and scenarios to anchor it, tighten it, draw you into its world and fell for that world’s inhabitants. Short Term 12 has a typically underwhelming opening, but one perhaps rife for larger metaphor.
As a bunch of camp workers stand around sharing a rather crude story, we get a sense of a very relaxed, mumblecore tone being established. They are a bunch of late twentysomethings, directionless, moping about and telling stories. It is the kind of indie film pastiche seen many time. Yet suddenly, a disturbed child rushes from an adjacent door and hurtles towards an exit. Suddenly, there is panic and shouting, the mood becomes tense. This is the essence of Short Term 12 . From the relaxed tone of mumblecore comes real shock and, occasionally, real darkness.
Yes, the camp is a camp for troubled youths. Where escape attempts are but minor worries when put in context of suicide attempts. Indeed, any plot arch that attempts to reach outside the realm of the camp almost seems futile.
For instance, viewers may struggle to even remember the presence of a romance between Grace (Brie Larsen) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr) after the fact, as the discussion will no doubt center so strongly on the scene involving the teens. Petty squabbles become major threats, and any attempt to get to close to troubled youths may be dangerous.
The film’s universe carries the sort of consequences inherent to a war film. A rap performance in particular may leave you breathless; a scene in which the teens decorate a fellow housemates walls carries devastating weight. Yet, the film has an optimistic undercurrent, one that manifests in the viewer a possible fulfillment amidst emotional exhaustion.
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
A young woman escapes a Manson Family-esque compound after two years. She calls her estranged sister from a payphone, only to be taken in by her sister and her well to do husband in their holiday beach house. While there, the girl stands to break up a healthy marriage and turn lives upside down as she battles her demons and the threat of her cultist associates catching up with her.
Some stories sound so good that you may think that they write themselves, which makes it all the more impressive that first time feature filmmaker Sean Durkin has conceived a script that keeps you guessing literally to the very last frame. Is Marcy insane? Is she the product of conditioning? What was real and what wasn’t? Questions abound and only some are given answers. Still, the journey is what matters, the journey is the story.
A star is truly born in Elizabeth Olsen. She plays Marcy with wit and occasional sarcasm, but she never loses the vulnerability that might drive a viewer away. Her occasional exhibitionism in the first half of the film is met with sheer hysteria in the second half. This is so much more than its juicy premise. As Martha’s family wilts under the pressure, we can truly relate. Whether you will be smiling or scratching your head at the final shot is up to you.
1. Boyhood (2014)
Finally, for those who still require evidence of the worth of the last 5 years in cinema, look no further.
Boyhood is not just compelling, nor is it simply entertaining, though it is both of those things to be sure. Yet, Boyhood is more, it is a landmark. the film was shot over only a few weeks, weeks that were stretched out intermittently over a period of 12 years. The same cast would return for a week or two each year to film. They performed this sacred ritual of trust and creativity from 2001 to 2013. The final result, released in August 2014, is something truly remarkable.
Remarkably, we witness young Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, playing siblings Mason and Samantha respectively, grow from children into young adults over the course of three highly immersive hours. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette evolve as divorced parents too, through copious partners, marriages, additional children, acrimony and peace. This is not so much a film about a family as it is an invitation for the viewer to join a family.
By the way, it is a great film, too. Ethan Hawke is sensational as the Dad who refuses to submit to middle age, forever wearing his youthful rebellion on his sleeve, even when eventually somewhat tamed. Patricia Arquette’s Mom weathers a frightening storm of bad relationships to self destructive alcoholics, she stands as a great insight into the capacity of people to repeat self destructive patterns.
Still, the cornerstone of the film is Ellar Coltrane as Mason. Mason is sweet, he is obnoxious, he is brave. he is selfish, he is everything the story asks of him. He plays Mason with skill, but with a level of naturalism that still feels as though he may not even be acting. He hits each note so effortlessly that each scene feels half remembered from our own adolescence.
So many characters come and go from his life, and his attitudes, views, and capabilities age gradually over the lengthy runtime as they did for all of us. Boyhood is Mason’s story, Boyhood is our story. Moreover, Boyhood is quite an indie film.
Author Bio: Ross Carey is a Film Studies graduate from County Cork In Ireland. He is an award winning short filmmaker and is in the midst of writing his debut feature film. Before joining Taste if Cinema he was ran a popular blog entitled “Kino Shout! Films”. He will discuss the subject of film at any opportunity.