It’s December, and you know what that means. It’s the last month of the year. Also, there are some holidays in there somewhere that are pretty relevant, but really, honestly—at The Taste Basket, we have to first focus our energy on covering this year’s best media before we throw you folks the inevitable mindless “Christmas Songs” post. Business first. Then casual.
So as to tip our hats to the outgoing year, (and, as a young start-up blog, to jump on this whole “year’s best” bandwagon to increase readability—no secrets here) we’re introducing a series called First Watch. The Taste Basket Twist on the standard “important films of 2014” compilation is this: each writer will cover two films, one released in 2014 and one which he or she just saw for the first time in 2014.
Why are we doing this, you might ask? Like, why jeopardize our street cred by admitting to the Internet that until this year, we hadn’t seen some of the classics? Well, it’s like this: nobody, of course, is perfect. Especially snooty arts and entertainment/pop culture bloggers. Seriously, we’ve got baggage.
And, with an enormous number of films out there, not one of us can say we have seen everything. Honestly, we’re perpetually filling in our viewership gaps. That almost comes with the job.
True to our mission since we started this thing back in June, we strive to write openly and personally about art and entertainment, old and new. So why just focus on the new stuff when there are so many memorable movies out there? The objective: to celebrate a good year, and good (and while we’re at it, bad) movies, on all fronts.
Here’s our thoughts, our critiques, our recommendations, our tributes. And a toast: Here’s to cinema. Here’s to First Watch 2014!
The Taste Basket Team
Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook has made its way onto a slew of Internet features—notably, one from film editor David Ehrlich (shared by The A.V. Club), where it’s placed among the year’s best releases, and on countless rankings of “The Best Horror Films of 2014,” from sources the likes of Fangoria and Sound on Sight. The Exorcist director William Friedkin even Tweeted, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK.” Reading stuff like this gives you the best kind of heebie-jeebies. You know, that feeling of double-edged excitement: you’re utterly creeped out, but curious and eager to press on. The whole car crash cliché.
Needless to say, I was tucking into bed and streaming the Australian film as soon as I possibly could—and I was not disappointed. Kent has given us a gift in her feature-length debut as writer/director, as it both celebrates and makes long overdue adjustments to the modern horror formula. The former assistant to Lars von Trier has expressed her fascination with the great monster movies of the 1930s, pointing to their particularly choppy editing and frightening silences as catalysts for her own filmmaking. And The Babadook is clear evidence of such inspiration, operating less on popular jump-scares and more on color, sequence, and a kind of soft-shoe psychological terror. It is a shockingly human story, one which manipulates the dangerous vehicle of a child’s imagination to its great advantage. More props go to Alex Juhasz for designing the scariest storybook I’ve ever seen on film, and actors Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman for two seriously impressive performances. I just cannot stop thinking about The Babadook.
For years, I’d heard from friends and colleagues alike that Adaptation. (2002) was a must-see for all aspiring writers. I believed them all, and always remarked I’d see it as soon as possible—but alas, I was lazy. I even read less about the Spike Jonze-directed, Charlie (and “Donald”) Kaufman-penned film in comparison to other personal recommendations. The great shame is that I know a lot of the movies I was reading about and subsequently watching surely did, and do not, have as much power as Adaptation. For the longest time, I didn’t exactly know why I was ignoring it.
When I found it for a buck at a garage sale this summer, I took it that the universe had finally intervened; I was finally ready. I bought it, threw it on the tube, and took it all in. The verdict: Adaptation. is a beautiful film, but not quite “beautiful” in the sense that your roommate with an elephant tapestry might describe something. It’s not particularly gritty, either. It just exists, and I think that’s the point. With Kaufman writing, it’s certainly sharp in its self-awareness and cosmic in its humor, and through the lens of Jonze it finds its comfortable estate in drama. For extra points, we get a double dose of Nicolas Cage, who is truly acrobatic in this film.
In fact, Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper play human paradoxes: they are ordinary and extraordinary at once; not drooling caricatures or products of some hip subcultural fantasy, but not well-drawn one-noters either. The film’s commentary on writing is as organic and complicated as these characters—and the very orchid which finds them all together.
Christopher Nolan’s a pretty hit-or-miss director with many people nowadays (myself included). However, this film is a complete hit for me. It all just feels like old school cinema with its dazzling visuals, emotional core, and tremendous organ-centric score from Nolan’s go-to composer, Hans Zimmer. Unlike the dour and absolutely terrifying Gravity from last year, Interstellar focuses both on the awe-inspiring aspects of space travel and the scary vastness of it. While I enjoyed the film for the most part, there were some distracting “Nolan-isms” I just can’t ignore. Like Nolan’s other films, this one includes very unnatural exposition, weighty dialogue, heavy-handed foreshadowing, and on-the-nose thematic motifs that occur ad nausea (“Do not go gentle into that good night…” Ugh.) Other than that, I enjoyed Interstellar immensely. If I ever get the chance, I would love to see this film in IMAX before the end of its theatrical run.
Then there is the granddaddy of all science fiction films, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick, who is one of my all-time favorite directors, is at the helm here in a big way. It’s widely regarded as his masterpiece. Having watched Interstellar before this film, I could understand why and how Kubrick’s film has greatly influenced it (along with virtually every other science fiction film that has come out post-1968). In a case similar to Interstellar, 2001 treats space as something that needs to be respected and feared, while remaining wondrous and fantastical in its own right. Kubrick masterfully uses classical music to represent both sides of this spectrum on space, from Strauss’ playful “Blue Danube Waltz” to Ligeti’s haunting and unnerving “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra.” Despite my love for Kubrick and this film, though, I felt that it was a bit too long. Oddly enough, I didn’t really enjoy the second half of the film as much as the first half. And a criticism I have that most other audience members have had since 1968 is that I just didn’t exactly get the film at some points. Perhaps that is its charm, though, and the reason why it has captivated and inspired many who have seen it—even to this very day.
Ten years ago, the three men pictured at left were at very different points in their careers and far from household name status. A year away from his famous performances as Michael Scott and the endearing 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell was practically only known for his frequent collaborations on The Daily Show and a few ‘Hey, it’s that guy!’ movie roles. Pre-Hulk Mark Ruffalo had only just solidified his leading man status in 13 Going on 30 and was gaining further recognition in movies like Collateral and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
And Channing Tatum, years away from the first Step Up movie, was forgetting his Dew:
Now, in 2014, we have this movie. Based on a true story, Foxcatcher sees Mark Schultz (Tatum), an Olympic wrestler meandering through his post-gold-medal-winning life, speaking at public schools to make ends meet, eating Ramen noodles, and wrestling intensively with his more successful brother, Dave (Ruffalo), in preparation for the next Games. Mark’s life changes seemingly for the better when he’s offered the opportunity to train and squat at the prestigious Foxcatcher Farm along with a generous compensation. The owner? The conniving paranoid-schizophrenic John E. ‘Eagle’ du Pont (Carell), a self-proclaimed wrestling coach with whom Mark forms an abusive, tumultuous relationship over the course of the mid-to-late 90s.
This movie is one of the vilest, most wretched, and downright disturbing films I’ve seen in recent memory, and I absolutely mean that in the best way possible. It’s an un-enjoyable experience that makes for a gripping, yet quietly subtle bio-drama that had me genuinely nervous. Ruffalo and Tatum are fantastic as the Schultz men; their love as brothers oozes authenticity from their bloody wrestling sessions to their quiet, emotional conversations. But the real star here is Steve Carell, who immerses himself so much in this role that you completely forget it is him. Gone are Michael Scott and Brick Tamland, here is John du Pont, an unpredictable, slimy monster of a human being whose creepiness seeps from the seams of the movie screen. It’s a master class performance that had me shaking long after leaving the theater, a feeling for which most horror films aim but rarely succeed in following through. Expect to see at least one of these guys, perhaps director Bennett Miller or even screenwriters Dan Futterman & E. Max Frye, on the Oscar stage next year.
I know, I know. I’m late.
The legendary, quintessential high school coming-of-age film from 1985 that everyone who is everyone has been telling me to see since I’ve hit puberty. And here I am in 2014, a full two years out of high school, watching it for the first time: The now-classic story of the athlete, the brain, the criminal, the princess, and the basket case spending one day together in Saturday morning detention under the watchful eyes of their cynical assistant high school principal.
At the very beginning of this movie, throughout the opening credits to be exact, I had this pessimism about it. And I couldn’t shake it. I know that probably sounds weird, since the movie’s considered a classic of the 80s and has been critically acclaimed since its release, but I just felt that maybe, just maybe, I missed the boat with this one. Could it be possible that being a sophomore in college would hinder my enjoyment of what is regarded as the best high school movie of all time, because the aesthetic was gone? It was a thought that genuinely scared me. And just as I was about to proclaim myself as the very first person in the universe to dislike The Breakfast Club, I’m presented with a black screen with the text:
…And these children
that you spit on
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations.
They’re quite aware
of what they’re going through.
Lyrics to David Bowie’s “Changes.” And then the screen shatters, and there it is: The exterior of Shermer High School on a particular Saturday. The day is March 24, 1984. And just like that, my pessimism is gone.
Guys, The Breakfast Club is phenomenal, and I apologize to everyone who told me to see it, for waiting this long to do so. The movie just oozes with so much of its own personality, a personality as memorable as each of the five leads’. It’s just really something seeing these five kids shed their respective armor just to show off how they really feel behind the typical high-school caste system, and the result is both hilarious and tear-jerking. And what can I say? I relate to each and every one of these characters to a certain degree, and I mean, how couldn’t you? They’re all so wrapped up in their own goals and maintaining a certain level of hierarchy that they completely lose sight of what it all comes down to in the end: they’re all just people. And whether you’re in high school, in college, or out of college, it’s good to be reminded of that.
Thirty minutes before Birdman fades to black, it forgets half the cast is in the movie. I will say, before that, it’s one long, affecting, bizarre and vertiginous tracking shot of a movie. But I want to talk about Michael Keaton right now. I always want to talk about Michael Keaton and nobody else does. Now they will and that makes me mad. In Birdman, Michael Keaton plays an over-the-hill matinee idol famous for playing a superhero in a popular film franchise. People who don’t understand Michael Keaton like I do will promptly call to mind the parallel with his character, Riggan Thomson, and his own life. They’ll shout autobiography and they’re dumb to. The reasons: The Phone Not Ringing and Suicidal Ex-Superhero trope belongs to Superman and not Batman; Michael Keaton has been working steadily in my VCR for years with such classics tapes as Mr. Mom and Multiplicity (which is all sorts of scan-liney for being a copy of a copy); and lastly, Michael Keaton is in the hearts and minds of those who deserve him and would never do anything as dumb as adapt a Raymond Carver short story collection for the stage in a last ditch attempt at artistic legitimacy.
So what am I talking about? I won’t waste words on how amazing he is because anyone who’s seen Beetlejuice knows this to be true. What happened to Michael Keaton? You. You did. And now you pretend to be into him? Fuck you. If you were into him he wouldn’t have had a career gap. He’d be a bankable actor. So now you’re all gonna go out to your limited release cities and throw money at a knotty movie with a wasted Zach Galifianakis and the woman from The Office-Wire and pretend like you’ve been waiting for this? Well, I have and I don’t need to share my hopes with you.
Anyway. The movie is actually a nifty artifact for this stagnant stretch of Broadway history. It is an amazing document for the behind-the-scenes drama of mounting a new show with difficult talent. It is a weird entrée into insanity and the idea of an artist’s swan song. It is a technical marvel with only eleven or so discernible cuts. It is a comprehensive character study and it is pretty much a goddamn mess.
It was directed by a guy who makes overly serious movies people pretend to like and who has too many accents in his name, loses track of Naomi Watts, never sufficiently explains the root of Riggan’s unraveling or the superpowers and origins of his alter ego. It was written by four people with pulls straight from the text of a guy who has been dead for 26 years. It resists synopsis which is why I can’t really give you one. I will say this: this thing couldn’t work without Keaton. Not because he was in Batman, but because you have consistently undervalued him.
I may not be being fair to the maudlin, not-all-that funny or romantic hanky-wringer that is Cameron Crowe’s 1989 film Say Anything… And that’s largely because I’d seen it before seeing it. In a roundabout way, I mean. There are people in obscure, bronze age South Pacific Islands that worship Prince Phillip who can’t shake the image of John Cusack holding his boom box aloft to the earnest strains of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” It’s part of being human. Which is why, upon viewing, I was surprised to find that this stereo action was not in fact the denouement, it was not raining and that the newly-graduated Lloyd Dobler has nothing of value with which he could effectively court the pretty high school valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye). It doesn’t matter, though, because as Pop Culture ideologue and professional solipsistic douchebag Chuck Klosterman argues in his essay “This is Emo,” males of the species are still living up to his standard. “For upwardly mobile women in their twenties and thirties, John Cusack is the neo-Elvis… when they see Mr. Cusack, they are still seeing the optimistic, charmingly loquacious teenager he played in Say Anything...” Mind, this was written about twelve years ago and a good eight before The Raven. Klosterman has a larger point to make about artifice, and hating Coldplay, and how we can never be satisfied because we’re primed for romance by the unrealistic conceits of Hollywood. But whatever. I’m gonna obviate the point right there.
Lloyd sucks. Any woman who wants to be with a Lloyd is delusional. He is a man without prospects or any larger ambition or than to kick box and date a girl he barely knows. He does terribly at dinner parties. He collects car keys at regular parties. Diane’s dad (played by Marty Crane actor John Mahoney) is right in labeling him a burden. He’s a raven-haired albatross Diane will be too sweet to buck on her scholarship in England. And even if it manages to work out between the two of them, Lloyd will never amount to more than a dedication on the fly-leaf of whatever the hell book Dianne publishes next week.
The man says to her dad (Frasier’s too) that what he really wants to do, like, vocationally, is be with his daughter. That and he doesn’t want “to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or… process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought or processed, you know, as a career I don’t want to do that..” that’s the word salad he served up for an appetizer at Diane’s dads the first time they meet. Then we find out right before the main course that same house is built on the graves of the dead people Mr. Court-Crane embezzled from at his retirement home. This of course as far as subplots go is a bit undercooked. But if it’s designed to drive a larger wedge between Lloyd and Diane or eventually draw them together it should, in theory, make me sympathize with Lloyd over the dad. Now, granted, Frasier/Diane’s dad did something pretty unambiguously immoral by stealing from his dotage-afflicted tenants, but at least he did it for Diane. Would Lloyd Dobler launder money from old people to give Diane the best? No. Because we know from that one scene where he says old people chewing with their mouths open reminds him of his mortality that he doesn’t even like looking at them; and secondly no, because he’s too busy writing stupid letters that his girl friends think are dreamy and get all moon eyed over even though they’re two fucking sentences long and don’t even rhyme.
Fuck Lloyd Dobler. He doesn’t deserve you, Diane. Though I guess, in the end, no one does because by the time Purple Rain came out, a guy whose name was briefly a combination scorpion-tail-female insignia decided you were too bat shit to work with and no one deserves that kind of crazy.
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash might just be the most frightening movie I’ve ever seen. Focusing in on young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman, played with perfect timidness by Miles Teller, and his striving for absolute greatness under the drill-sergeant-esque tutelage of JK Simmons’ ferocious (and Oscar-worthy) Terence Fletcher, Whiplash’s intensity and suspense plays like a building drum roll, consistently rising every second. Neiman is in peril at all times as he braves the bark and bite of Fletcher, whose chair-hurling mid-song because of Neiman’s teeter between rushing and dragging the tempo, is the tamest of abuse he serves up, and while any normal student enduring this emotional and physical torture would call it quits, we see as the film progresses that Neiman is as, if not, more, deranged than Fletcher.
The two seem to be made for each other: Fletcher’s journey to find and carve the next great player (even if it means a few scars) intertwined with Neiman’s journey to be the next great player make for a raw, haunting, nail-biting, stomach-churning, dread-conjuring, and all-around magnificent film that might make you a little bit grateful for any (hopefully less stressful) mentors and teachers you’ve had, and have, in your life. A notable scene, for me: Fletcher demands a strict rotation of the three drummers in the jazz band because not one of them seems to performing a double-time swing beat to the standards of his impossible tempo. They’ll keep rotating until one of them gets it right, even if it means for hours, which it does for the drummers. The rest of the band take a break while the out-of-breath, sweaty, bleeding drummers rotate in and out of the drum stool until one of them—Neiman—gets it right, at least in the eyes of the crazy, downright animalistic Fletcher.
The night I watched David Lynch’s 1977 surreal opus Eraserhead, I had some crazy dreams. They were nonsensical, there was no real plot or motive for anything that occurred, and they left me feeling uneasy. However, these dreams made as much sense as the ABC’s when put up against the film, which also has a similarly serpentine plot, empty reasoning, and a tone of endless nervousness. It’s very difficult to try and contain what goes on, and I don’t think a film like this demands much from a plot. It’s more about the feelings that stay with you, the disturbing imagery, the cold sounds of the wind—amid silence—that echo in your ears and send shivers throughout your body long after the end credits roll, and the realization that you won’t be able to eat chicken again for a long time, and the next time you do, you’ll probably still be thinking about that one scene.
In Eraserhead, Lynch has expertly captured a dream and a nightmare on camera, and while the entire thing is disturbing and creepy, it’s also beautiful and inventive and unlike anything you’ll ever see. So, if you haven’t seen this classic, grab a comb, brush your hair upwards, and get ready to have your eraser-head filled to the brim with a whole lot of weird. That’s what I did this year.
I knew The Skeleton Twins would make me laugh. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are super funny and delightful to watch. What I didn’t know was that it would make me cry. Granted, it doesn’t take much. I’m moved by sprinkles. Regardless, this film made me think about the bond between siblings, how deep and inescapable and fucked up they can be. How we are often reflected in our siblings, the best and worst parts of us. How there is often this shared sense of humor and misery, which pervades the film and makes me most verklempt.
When I left the theater, I was reminded of this story I wrote about the relationship between a brother and a sister. The sister character narrates the story and observes her brother floating on his back in the ocean, this person she simultaneously loves and misunderstands. I will continue to be fascinated by the way siblings relate towards each other, the way they sabotage each other and how this somehow does not negate that love. The Skeleton Twins explored these themes with dark humor and honesty.
I still find myself thinking about Milo (Hader) and Maggie (Wiig) getting high in an empty dentist’s office and farting together. This will always make me laugh because their own laughter feels completely genuine. There’s a real sense of love and comfort that can only be found between siblings, a willingness to expose your silliest and most vulnerable parts.
This scene is unforgettable. I dare you not to smile:
I watched Reality Bites right after I graduated college, which made it all the more poignant. It’s a movie about postgraduates trying to find their purpose, their voice, or more pressingly, a job. I related to this movie so completely that I refused to delete it off my DVR.
Elaine (Wynona Rider) is an aspiring filmmaker making a documentary about her friends. Reality Bites exemplifies the extreme closeness between college friends and the terror of being thrust into the world with a degree that people don’t care about. It’s about knowing what you want your life to look like but not having the slightest idea how to make it happen. There is a sense of entitlement too, that I admittedly identify with—believing you deserve something more, believing the world owes you something at twenty-one years old.
Jonathan Glazer’s loose adaptation of Michel Farber’s 2000 novel Under The Skin is a haunting exploration of what it means to be human—specifically, what it means to be a woman. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien disguised as a woman whose job it is to seduce men and lure them back to an apartment where they get sucked into a black void and pop like a balloon. She begins to question her role, however, and seeks to find out what being a human female is all about.
It’s hard not to compare the visual and narrative style of the film to the work of Kubrick, and its slow pacing and sparse dialogue creates the perfect indifferent atmosphere for its story. As she’s running away from her menacing, motorcycling boss, she learns that some men are kind and respectful towards women. She also learns, with more grave consequence, that some are not. With stunning imagery, an immaculate score from Mica Levi, and a subtle yet powerful performance from Scarlett Johansson, Under The Skin has remained my favorite film of the year.
This year I saw another fantastic film that focuses on non-female persons learning what it’s like to be female. Some Like It Hot, the 1959 Billy Wilder-written and directed film, stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as 1920s jazz musicians running away from the mob after witnessing a murder. They look for a band to join on the road, but the only job available is in an all-girls band. So, of course, they dress up as women, join the band, and both fall in love with the lead singer, played by Marilyn Monroe. As Curtis pursues his relationship with Monroe, both as her female friend and her male love interest, Lemmon’s character finds himself—as a woman—in a heterosexual relationship of her own.
I had always been told that this was one of the greatest comedies of all time, and it’s not that I didn’t believe everyone, but I didn’t fully get it until I saw the film myself. It’s laugh-out-loud funny throughout, but also thoughtful, heartfelt, and empathetic. If you have been passing over this movie like I had been, do yourself a favor and watch it.