My Favorite Films of 2014

February 20th, 2015

If I were an Academy voter, these would qualify as the year’s best movies.

Maybe it’s just my imagination (game), but it seems like more movies made news this year than in most previous years. It might just be the zaniness surrounding The Interview or the controversies about American Sniper that grabbed a lot of the headlines recently. But I think it’s because so many of the notable films were based on real-life people or events.

Movies like Pride, Wild, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Unbroken, Selma, Foxcatcher, Big Eyes, Million Dollar Arm, Monuments Men, Rosewater, etc. were all stories based to a greater or lesser degree on reality.

But other movies were newsworthy as well, even given their fictitious nature. Boyhood was revolutionary since it took director Richard Linklater 12 years to film. We got to witness Ethan Hawke grow up and come of age. Just kidding. The best part about the film was watching seven-year-old Ellar Coltrane grow up to become a young man. It was a wonderful time lapse. The director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, also grew up on camera and admitted watching the film was pretty painful.

Recalling the experience with Dazed Magazine, the younger Linklater said about watching the movie,  “Oh my gosh, I look terrible. I can’t believe this. Why was I ever filmed?!”

The film fell sort of flat for me; the gimmick was more impressive than the movie itself. But it was still noteworthy nevertheless.

I enjoyed The Interview maybe more than I would have, had there not been so much controversy surrounding it. The jokes, as my daughter Skye — who has studied lots of drama — pointed out, mostly all landed. It would be a fun weekend rental if you’re into Seth Rogen’s humor (which I totally am, dude).

Most everyone I spoke with liked Birdman. It’s star, Michael Keaton, has been all over the news media. I hate to admit it, but the film really did nothing for me. I’m pretty good with arty, independent films. This one just felt too arty, too independent. They filmed it to look like it was shot all in just a few takes. That actually took me out of the narrative and made me concentrate more on the technical aspects. I don’t know; none of the characters resonated with me, so maybe that’s why I wasn’t a fan.

American Sniper surprised me. I went in expecting to hate the movie, given all the publicity surrounding it. But lo and behold, there was a subtle anti-war message. And taken on it’s own — just a war movie, not a political statement — it was pretty decent. Although there was one little element that, like in Birdman, took me totally out of the narrative flow and made me irrationally mad.

This won’t spoil the movie for you, but Bradley Cooper becomes a father. What may spoil the movie for you is that he becomes a father to perhaps the fakest looking baby in the history of modern movies. Seriously, the inanimate actress has her own Twitter handle, @TheFakeBaby.

Go to Google and type in “fake ba” and up pops “fake baby american sniper.” Apparently both of the real babies scheduled for that day didn’t work out, so Clint Eastwood swapped in a plastic one. It could’ve been worse; he could’ve had Bradley Cooper talking to an empty chair.

Okay, enough about movie news. Let’s get to the list.

Which movie is my favorite film from 2014? It’s a tough call this year. It comes down to two fantastic movies, both of which are based in Britain, are inspired by real events and involve gay or lesbian characters.

The movies are Pride and The Imitation Game.

 

Pride

Pride takes place in the mid 1980s, centering around a group of British lesbian and gay activists who pledge their financial support to the striking coal miners in Wales. Whether or not the miners want their help is the subject of controversy. The miners and the “Lesbians & Gays (who) Support The Miners” both were oppressed by society and the Thatcher government. But shared experiences and shared goals don’t necessarily make for harmonious relationships.

It’s funny, socially relevant, heart-breaking and pretty close to being a perfect film. Plus, it features one of my favorite actors of all time, Bill Nighy. I wrote a piece last year titled simply Go See Pride. On that, alone, I guess that makes the movie my favorite film of the year.

 

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is a great true-to-life story about the brilliant man who helped break the impenetrable Nazi code during World War II. Some estimates say it helped shorten the war by two years. A decade later he was convicted for being gay and underwent chemical castration.

It was a moving portrayal, jumping back and forth across the man’s lifetime, expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Even though the film plays a bit loose with the facts, the machine he helped build was very real. It is one of the forerunners of the modern day computer.

Keira Knightly again showed why she’s A-list talent. I’m glad she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar.

These next eight films round out my Top Ten list of favorite films from 2014.

 

StillAlice

Julianne Moore plays a Columbia University professor who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice. It’s a fantastic movie about a devastating illness.  She’s my clear favorite to win Best Actress. Her slow slide into oblivion is riveting. You feel so deeply for her. When she gives a lecture and suddenly gets completely lost, it’s heartbreaking. Even though that hasn’t happened to me — per se — having stood at podiums before, it was extremely nerve wracking to watch. I found myself empathizing with her many times.

And if you wrote off Kristen Stewart after all the Twilight films, pencil her name back in. Even though she wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she did a fantastic job. As did Alec Baldwin, Moore’s sometimes distracted husband.

 

A Fault In Our Stars

Like with Pride, I also wrote a piece last year where I told readers to go see The Fault In Our Stars. I think The Academy must not like giving certain movies their proper respect. The Fault In Our Stars may be viewed by some as a young adult movie or a typical teen tear-jerker, ala Nicholas Sparks. I’ll admit that maybe I liked it so much because I had cancer too. But generally I’m pretty critical of films that tackle the Big C if they don’t do it authentically and with honest emotion. One of the characters even gives a nod to this, saying sometimes cancer struggles portrayed in the media are cliche. This film hit all the right notes and followed the book faithfully.

The two young stars, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, also teamed up in a pretty lackluster Divergent. But in this movie, they were absolutely splendid. Laura Dern could’ve been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the beleaguered mother in this movie. But instead, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the beleaguered mother in my next favorite film of 2014.

 

Wild

Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, was a fantastic journey. For the majority of the movie, she’s all by herself hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Though the director uses a large number of flashbacks to explain why and how she’s here, it still feels like she’s mostly alone.

In those flashbacks, Laura Dern plays her loving mother who deals with all manner of problems and has become the perfect role model for dealing with adversity. Witherspoon’s character also deals with adversity, including an ominous encounter with another backwoods trekker. Come on though, it was Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad; we all knew he was a no-goodnik.

I think the film is best viewed through your own personal lens. Remember the last time you took on a monumental quest; remember the last time you faced something alone. That sort of thing. It was quite powerful and yes, uplifting and triumphant.

Those first five films were really my top tier movies for 2014. These next ones that round out my Top Ten are fine, solid films. But they’re just half a notch below.

 

Begin Again

I spoke with several disparate people throughout the year who liked Begin Again. It’s fascinating that this movie received virtually no recognition. Mark Ruffalo stars as a down-on-his-luck music exec who works to develop an unknown singer-songwriter played by Keira Knightley. Ruffalo’s other film — Foxcatcher, for which he was given a supporting actor nomination — was a badly edited, boring piece of film making. If you want to see him shine, check out this one. It’s a fun film, brought to us by the team that created Once.

One criticism I’ll make, though, is they missed a golden marketing opportunity. In the movie, a few of the characters release an album on the internet for just 99 cents. They make a big deal about that, doing it their own way. Go to iTunes and the album for Begin Again costs anywhere from $9.99 to $13.99. Boo hiss! The movie would’ve felt far more real if it practiced what it preached.

 

The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig were great in The Skeleton Twins. It wasn’t a comedy, really, though it had lots of dark humor. It was mostly a movie about figuring out life while dealing with depression. Since these two SNL alums are incredibly funny, I appreciated their serious turn and the appropriate weight they gave the topic. Another fine comedian — Ty Burrell from Modern Family — also starred in the movie and no, he wasn’t funny either. Nor was he supposed to be.

Come to think of it, Luke Wilson also starred in the movie and he generally plays more comedic roles as well. I’m not sure why they chose this particular cast, but it worked. Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post said it best; it’s “a lovingly calibrated mix of heartbreak and hopefulness.”

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

In The Grand Budapest Hotel I continually got the feeling that Wes Anderson was trying to outdo Wes Anderson. The movie was quirky from beginning to end. I usually appreciate that about his movies — all of which I’ve seen dating back to Bottle Rocket. Sure, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a clunker. But The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore were sort of forerunners to this, his latest installment. Not only are his characters, dialog and scenes quirky, so are his aspect ratios.

The movie was projected in three different formats; normal, squarish and extremely elongated. They were meant to represent different eras in film history, but they just served to up the quirk factor, the fun. There wasn’t a thing to take seriously in the movie and I spent my time looking for characters from other Wes Anderson movies. I loved it. It’s nice seeing Ralph Fiennes, too, in comedic roles apart from Voldemort or his ghastly character in Schindler’s List.

 

The Theory of Everything

Hopefully Eddie Redmayne will win the Academy Award for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The other four actors in this category did fine work, but nobody embraced his role like Redmayne. As with Julianne Moore in Still Alice, his work was full-on, in-your-face method acting. He became Hawking. The famed physicist actually visited the set during filming and after seeing it’s completion wrote on Facebook, “I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well.”

But he didn’t stop there, saying “At times, I thought he was me.”

 

What If

The last of my 10 Favorite Films from 2014 was What If. You could classify it as a RomCom, but you’d be losing the point. The movie reminded me more of an upbeat Girls, the HBO series. I guess that’s not a coincidence since Girls co-star Adam Driver stole the show in What If.

Don’t get me wrong, Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan are magnetic as best buddies who deal with each other’s love interests. The dialog and acting are natural, not at all strained, and you feel as though you’re maybe just one of their casual friends, joining in on the conversation or their travels. Kazan is always great fun to watch. I first saw her in Ruby Sparks (as mentioned in My Favorite Films of 2012) and was captivated. Catch her if you can, too, in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge miniseries.

 

Two other movies almost made the cut, but sit respectively and respectably at number 11 and 12. They are Calvary, filmed in Ireland starring Brendan Gleeson, and The Drop with Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini in his final role. Both are crime dramas with interesting twists.

CalvaryCalvary opens very cleverly. Brendan Gleeson’s priest character is told outright during confession that he will be killed in one week’s time. There is no mystery. He knows the killer, but the audience doesn’t. He spends the movie meeting with the members of his small flock, apparently trying to ascertain why he’s being threatened, while we in the theater (or in my case, on a plane) try to figure out which one of his parishioners want him dead, and why.

 

 

 

The DropThe Drop features a robbery gone wrong, a lonely bartender and gangsters funneling money via cash “drops” in Brooklyn bars. All is not as it may seem. Neither of these two movies are high level art. But they do offer a different spin on traditional car chase and shoot ‘em up crime dramas that are the norm for Hollywood. They’re both thinking-person’s films, or so I like to think as I pat myself on the back.

 

 

And as has become usual for me, I like to offer up good, solid weekend rentals via Netflix, Redbox, Amazon, iTunes or anywhere you can find good movies being shown.

They are:

Whiplash featuring a psychotic J.K. Simmons as a jazz band conductor. Having played trombone in a jazz band and experiencing a few crazy conductors over the years, I felt a little kinship with the characters in this film which was shot in just 19 days.

Gone Girl was a good whodunit with Best Actress nominee Rosamund Pike as a missing wife. The best part about it was we all knew whodunit.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a better than normal comic book adaptation. It seemed to actually be laughing at itself at times and apart from Chris Pratt, everyone’s favorite character was Ent-like Groot.

This Is Where I Leave You had a great ensemble cast featuring Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda and Adam Driver again. This film typifies the perfect weekend rental for me.

Chef featuring Jon Favreau and a dramatically underutilized Scarlett Johansson told the story of a chef who loses his job and starts up a food truck business.

22 Jump Street was just a rollickingly silly sequel to 21 Jump Street where everything is “exactly the same.”

A Million Ways to Die in the West isn’t for everybody. Some folks aren’t fans of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s comedy, but my wife and I are. We found ourselves laughing more than we would’ve guessed at this send up of old Hollywood westerns.

The Interview too, held a lot more in its reels than initial reviews would’ve suggested. Don’t take it as an anti-North Korea movie as much as a dopey buddy comedy that doesn’t even take itself too seriously.

And there you have it. Suddenly, I find myself unbelievably hungry for fresh popcorn with real butter drizzled all over it. I would love to know what you think, what your favorite movies are. Use the comments section if you care to share, or connect with me on Facebook or @rcurtis on Twitter.

Thanks for reading!

Bin Recyclin’

February 13th, 2015

Talking trash with Rodney Curtis

Time was, we were the only ones on the block recycling. Now in 2015, most of our neighbors drag their recycling out to the curb. Multicolored bins line our street like giant Pez candies.

We’ve noticed since our girls left the house, that we generally only have a small bag of trashy garbage and two large bins of recyclables. That’s a lot of television time.

What?

Recycling in Troy, MichiganYou read that right; we are helping you watch more television. Okay, so maybe it’s a stretch, but hear me out. According to timetorecycle.org, recycling just one single aluminum can saves enough energy to run a television set for three hours. Recycle one and you’re doing yourself and the planet a good deed. Toss it in a landfill and it’ll still be an aluminum can in 500 years.

What about styrofoam? Did you know styrofoam — aka Plastic #6 — is now accepted by many, if not most recycling facilities? Recycling it saves twice as much energy as incinerating it.

We Americans generate an enormously disproportionate amount of the planet’s waste, yet we only take up about 5% of the population. Some estimates even say we produce between 25% and 40% of the world’s trash. Whatever the actual amount, we can do a whole lot better.

In 2012, Americans generated roughly 251 million tons of trash, but we only recycled and composted about 87 million tons of this material. That’s about a 34 percent recycling rate says the EPA.

According to many different sources, we throw away enough paper each year to construct a 12-foot-high wall from New York to Seattle. That wall would block the Keystone XL pipeline — which may be one positive benefit — until it rained somewhere in the country.

But there’s good news too. Right now, according to another EPA study, by recycling and composting, we’ve saved the same amount of energy that’s consumed by almost 10 million households each year.

Since I grew up in the Motor City, let’s put this into automotive terms, shall we. Remember that one recycled can that you were running your TV set with? It’s also the equivalent of half a gallon of gasoline for your car. Every ton of aluminum cans we recycle saves the energy equivalent of 1,665 gallons of gas. And every ton of paper we recycle saves the energy equivalent of 165 gallons of gas.

So listen up, patriots, if you want to watch more TV, drive further, or not worry about a paper wall crashing down on you, start recycling. Nah, that’s not the message here. Actually, it’s really simple:

Don’t kick the can down the road. Put it in a bin and feel a bit better about yourself.

 

FUN FACT: The US National Soccer Team wore jerseys made almost entirely out of recycled plastic bottles.

Coming of age in the pre-digital era

January 30th, 2015

Back in my day, we had to walk uphill to get to the darkroom.

Things Photographers Hated

When your assignment said, “shoot Color and B&W,” you had to carry two different cameras and shoot the exact same thing twice.

When you spent forever photographing a subject and at the end, they asked you what channel they’d be on.

When the photographer just before you only left three or four inches of film in the bulk loader.

And along those same lines, when you went to develop your film on deadline and there’s barely a splash of D-76 left in the jug (or worse, no fixer after you’ve developed your film).

When you began your shift at 3:00 pm in the middle of winter and had to drive around looking for two random Feature photos to fill blank holes before shooting your 7:00 pm game.

When somebody told you your photo was “wire sharp,” meaning once you transmitted it out to AP or UPI, nobody would know it was originally just a bit too blurry.

The Sports editor wanting color photos on deadline from a dimly lit high school gym out in BFE.

Spawned from the pits of Hell, those evil densitometers that certain newsroom and production people would whip from their belt holsters, plop down on your gorgeous photos, and proclaim, “you need more tone in your highlights or less black in your shadows.”

Rushing out to get a Feature photo of snow because it’s the middle of winter and the readers have apparently never seen snow before, (then getting beaten out by the punk intern who never lets you forget it — cough, cough, Dick Van Nostrand ).

Shooting a deep, layered, compelling photo and getting beaten out in the clip contest by a shot of a cute kid with a puppy.

Shooting a deep, layered, compelling photo and having the Metro editor not “get it,” and instead running a shot of a cute kid with a puppy.

Transmitting your own shot of a cute kid with a puppy over the wire and 29 minutes into the 30 minute color transmission, some yahoo from Dubuque ruins your picture by picking up the dedicated phone line to send his much more meaningful cute kid with a puppy photo.

When you were asked for the tenth time that week, “what do you do with the pictures you don’t use?”

That time when somebody swiped your pica pole or reduction wheel, but you didn’t really mind because you secretly didn’t know how to use them (except for the pica thingy; it made a great letter opener).

Due to the continual fear of staffing cuts, you never knew if you had job security (the more things change …).

(Rodney Curtis is an award-winning photographer and writer based in the Greater Detroit area who sometimes adds tag-endings to his posts purely in hopes that they’ll help his darn SEO analytics. You can see more of his photography at RodneyCurtis.com)

My Prius priority

January 29th, 2015

Saving gas while saving the planet

It’s the end of January and looking back over the month, this Wanderer blog has been pretty bleak. I blame the cold and the grayness mostly. But I don’t want you to think that I haven’t accomplished anything. Apart from a super top-secret bit of long form fiction I’ve been writing, (my great American novel), I also made it through the month on just under $12.00 worth of gas!

Like others here at Read The Spirit, I drive a Prius. Unlike the others, mine plugs into the wall (but boy, do I need a mighty long extension cord when I go somewhere! — rim shot, please). My plug-in allows me to barely sip gas, filling up generally about once each month. Like The Chevy Volt and the Ford C-Max, the car runs on electricity, mostly, until it needs to be recharged. Then the gas engine takes over with some help from electricity generated whenever I brake. Residential electrical power is still much cheaper than gasoline — especially when I charge it overnight during off-peak hours — so I save even more.

People wonder if I’m bummed out about my purchase, in light of the currently low gas prices. Here’s the thing. Low gas prices are low gas prices. What helps you, helps me too. $12.00 a month is wonderful. We buy all our cars used so they’re typically a lot less expensive. And we buy them from local dealerships so we’re still contributing to the area economy.

More and more, people are doing the same thing. I parked in an Ann Arbor parking garage and found myself taking the last available spot of the dozen or so provided free of, ahem, charge.

Yes, I realize our electricity doesn’t always come from clean sources (cough, cough, coal). But the trend is moving in that direction. If I can get some solar shingles attached to my roof or maybe buy some wind power from those wonderful turbines in Michigan’s thumb area, I’d be all set. Until that time, I’ll cruise along at 60 miles per gallon (58 MPG, actually, during the dead of winter).

I don’t mean to come across as self-righteous or holier than thou. Making a conscious effort to help the environment just makes me happy, that’s all.

My Prius priority

I joined a dozen or so other cars charging in an Ann Arbor public parking garage.