Wednesday, December 31, 2014


Top Ten Films in 2014

Once again, it's the time to compose a list of a year's best films. As always, I stay with the plain and simple format: I select ten (no more, no less) films from the almost three hundred feature films (including documentaries) I saw during the calendar year of 2014, no matter if the film is released in the US in 2014, because it's almost impossible to define the term "a film in 2014."

Here are the top ten best feature films I saw in 2014.

  1. Boyhood (USA 2014 | 164 min. | My review)

    The renowned writer/director Richard Linklater unprecedentedly created an insightful and delightful epic over twelve years.

    Boyhood Official Site

  2. Foxcatcher (USA 2014 | 134 min. | My review)

    Steve Carell is anything but repeating himself when playing millionaire John du Pont in this masterfully composed and outstandingly performed character-driven drama.

    Foxcatcher Official Site

  3. Bauyr (Little Brother) (Бауыр | Kazakhstan 2013 | in Kazakh| 97 min. | My review)

    With an observant and affectionate lens, Kazakh writer/director Serik Aprimov (Серік Апрымовтың) humorously tells a heartbroken story about an innocent boy's survival and his longing for love.

    Bauyr at the Festival Site

  4. The Overnighters (USA 2014 | 100 min. | Documentary | My capsule)

    In this director Jesse Moss's compelling documentary, charismatic Pastor Jay Reinke opens his church's door to migrant workers, newcomers, and anyone in need to stay overnight. In return, he pays a heavy price.

    The Overnighters Official Site

  5. The Fault in Our Stars (USA 2014 | 126 min. | My review)

    While the film is not shy away for being sentimental about its subject matter of dying young, it does surprises us with its uplifting life-affirming attitude toward the love journey traveled briefly by its protagonists that are fantastically played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort.

    The Fault in Our Stars Official Site

  6. The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho | Brazil 2014 | in Portuguese | 95 min. | My review)

    Brazilian writer/director Daniel Ribeiro beautifully captures his adolescent protagonist's subtle feelings in dealing with love and friendship.

    The Way He Looks Official Site

  7. At Berkeley (USA 2013 | 244 min. | Documentary)

    Captivating, thought provoking and eye-opening.

    At Berkeley Official Site

  8. Club Sandwich (Club sándwich | Mexico 2013 | in Spanish | 82 min. | My review)

    The director Fernando Eimbcke pitch perfectly positions his lens to capture the subtlety among a trio's intriguing relationship.

    Club Sandwich at Festival Site

  9. Red Army (USA 2014 | in Russian/English | 85 min. | Documentary | My review)

    Just like a fast moving ice-hockey game, the directory Gabe Polsky sleekly tells an engrossing story about charismatic formal Soviet Union's hockey players.

    Red Army Official Site

  10. Harmony Lessons (сабақтары | Kazakhstan/Germany/France 2013 | 114 min. | My review)

    The director Emir Baigazin confidently crafts his film with memorable characters and striking images.

    Harmony Lessons Official Site

Until next year...

Sunday, December 21, 2014



Unbroken official site After competed in the 1936 Summer Olympics, Louis "Louie" Zamperini fought in World War II. He escaped enemy fire in the air as a bombardier, drifted in the sea for 47 days after his plane crashed, and suffered unimaginable brutality in Japanese's POW camp on land. Many decades later, his incredible war experience is finally shown on the big screen in director Angelina Jolie's well-crafted and engaging biopic "Unbroken" (USA 2014 | 137 min.). Although the film's screenplay is penned by veteran filmmakers Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson based on Laura Hillenbrand's bestselling book, and despite Angelina Jolie's impressive direction, the film comes up short in displaying the extraordinary strength that kept the war hero's body and spirit alive.

The film opens with a breathtaking battle in the air when Louie (Jack O'Connell) and his pal encounter enemy fire during a bombing operation. Between the bullets, the film smoothly flashes back to Louie's teenager years (C.J. Valleroy) when he was a restless naughty boy. Under the encouragement of his brother Pete (John D'Leo), Louis trains hard and becomes a distance runner. At the 1936 Summer Olympics, Louie performs remarkably during the last lap of men's 5000 meters final competition. Although the film reenacts the unforgettable moment, it noticeably leaves out the episode that Hitler was so impressed by Louie's performance and met him in person to shake his hands. Probably the incident doesn't quite fit into the undertone of the film, or perhaps there is no time to tell that story, because the film swiftly brings us back to the fierce fight in the mid air.

After the excitement in the air is over, the film shifts to its second act in the sea after Louie's plane crashes. Three survivors—Louie, the pilot Russell Alan "Phil" Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson), and tail gunner Francis "Mac" McNamara (Finn Wittrock)—hang on their lives on a raft. Like in "Life of Pi" without a tiger but plenty sharks, the three drifts in wide open water for 47 days until Louie and Phil are miraculously spotted and captured by a Japanese war ship. From one hell to another, they are put in a POW camp in Tokyo.

The third act of the film becomes the most unbearable to watch when it depicts Louie's misery in the Japanese POW camp. An unpredictable, mood swinging, and terrifying officer Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), also known as "The Bird," is the worst nightmare and the most evil monster in the camp. He repeatedly tortures Louie and other prisoners, often for no reason at all or maybe to satisfy his personal sadistic desire. Yet, Louie is unbroken by the brutality and endures the unbearable for more than two years until the end of war.

Unbroken Official Site

With this solid sophomore feature, Angelina Jolie attracts the spotlight as a fine director in a male-dominated crowd. This is a fine piece of work that is full of confidence and top-notch technical details. Each scene is impeccably composed to tell the amazing story about this unbreakable war hero. The first act of the film especially stands out to be exhilarating. It's a chaotic and thrilling fight, yet we are clearly shown what is going on.

However, Angelina Jolie seems to be restrained by the material in the screenplay. Her ability on exploring the source for Louie's strong mind is unfortunately confined to nothing more than a few words from his buddies and his brother Pete. What keeps Louie going while floating in the sea with little hope to be rescued? How can Louie endure the horrific physical torment and hideous living condition? The film says little about that. Particularly in the second and third section, the film spends more time showing Louie's suffering than portraying his increasingly stronger mentality.

Japanese rock star Miyavi gives a striking performance as the malicious Watanabe, but the film also tends to focus more on what crimes he committed and less on why he lacks of any humanity in his soul.

It's heartwarming to see the footage of 80-year-old Louie ran a lag in 1998 Winter Olympics Torch Relay during the end credit, which also states that Louie has forgiven Watanabe. Given what Louie went through in the film, it's extremely remarkable as well as intriguing about how Louie comes to term of reconciliation. That should be another, perhaps more interesting, movie about this exceptional human being.

"Unbroken," a Universal Pictures release, opens on Christmas Day, December 25, 2014.

Friday, December 12, 2014


The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game official site The name Alan Turing should sound quite familiar to you, especially if you enjoy your computers, tablets, and smart-phones that you are using right now. He was a distinguished British mathematician who was a pioneer in computer science and artificial intelligence. His significant contribution in cracking Nazi's encrypted messages helped the British and its allies to win World War II. After the war, he was ordered to keep his accomplishment as a top secret. But when the secret about his sexuality was discovered, he was bigotedly prosecuted for being gay in 1952 when homosexual activity was a crime. Alan Turing's fascinating and extraordinary story is dramatically unfold in Norwegian director Morten Tyldum's engrossing new film "The Imitation Game" (UK/USA 2014 | 114 min.). During Toronto International Film Festival few months ago, The New York Times amusingly summarized this film as "The King's Speech" met "A Beautiful Mind" on "Brokeback Mountain." That actually isn't too far from the truth. Benedict Cumberbatch's terrific performance as Alan Turing likely will add more goodies in the gift-basket during the upcoming award season.

During World War II in 1939, British forces' fight against the German looks bleak. Although the British can intercept German forces' radio transmissions encrypted by a machine called Enigma, they cannot decode these messages. When Royal Naval Commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) recruits a team of experts to crack German's unbreakable code and to turn the war around, 27-year-old prodigy Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) joins the ambitious effort.

Although Alan is a genius in mathematics and in solving puzzles, he is remarkably awkward at social interactions. While keeping his homosexuality as a deep secret, he finds comfort by submerging himself in his code-breaking work inside the heavily guarded mansion in Bletchley Park. With the support from the Prime Minister, no less, he assembles a team of sharp minds including a brilliant Cambridge mathematics graduate Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and a chess champion Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode).

Firmly believing in machines (later we call computers) to process logic like a human brain, Alan and his team build a complex electro-mechanical device bombe which he names it Christopher after his only childhood friend in a boarding school. With their passionate work, persist dedication, and pure luck, they finally crack German's encryption which changes every 24 hours. Their work eventually helps the British to win the bloody war.

The Imitation Game Official Site

Clearly, the director Morten Tyldum is gearing toward to entertain a broader audience when he tells Alan Turing's remarkable story in this film. The film is gripping from the beginning to the end and it's full of dramatic moments, even some of them are ostentatiously choreographed and less convincing. However, the superb performance by the cast and the incredible story keep us captivated.

It's unfortunate that the film doesn't have any illustration about Alan Turing's intelligence in mathematics. All we can see is that Alan works on a bombe like a handyman or an electrical engineer instead of a mathematician. The film shies away from explaining any mathematical algorithm or encryption theory which is at the center of the film. That omission raises suspicion about the filmmakers' diminishing of viewers' intelligence. For example, Instead of elaborating how Alan Turing's mathematical mind cracks the enigma, the film invents an aha-moment during a bar-talk that inspires a breakthrough. While it makes an exciting scene for the movie, it's quite ludicrous in science.

However, despite the lack of scientific element, the film undoubtedly makes Alan Turing an iconic name for generations to remember.

"The Imitation Game," a Weinstein Company release, opens on Friday, December 12, 2014 in San Francisco Bay Area.


Top Five

Top Five official site Without doubt, Chris Rock is one of the funniest comedians today. His jokes are fierce, witty, socially relevant, and sometimes offensive. However, he has not been content by doing what he does the best—being a stand-up comedian. Instead, he has been flirting with the notion to be an earnest filmmaker and already directed two forgettable comedies "Head of State" (2003) and "I Think I Love My Wife" (2006). Would the third time be a charm? Apparently, despite the fundamental flaw in the story's setup, the writer/director/actor Chris Rock makes an impressive stride in his latest dramady "Top Five" (USA 2014 | 101 min.). He blends the reality and fiction together and creates a protagonist that is sometimes hard to be distinguished from the filmmaker himself. With his star power, he assembles an impressive group of fellow comedians to help him telling a story about an actor who is stuck at a crossroad in his career.

Introduced by Charlie Rose as the funniest man in America, comedian Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a recovering alcoholic who is famous for playing a character called Hammy, a cop in a bear costume. Looking for a breakthrough in his career, he makes a new ridiculous movie about Haitian slave's rebellion.

During a publicity tour before the movie's opening, hilariously persuaded by his agent (Kevin Hart), Andre agrees to an interview by a reporter, Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) for a profile story in The New York Times.

Perhaps due to the fact that Chelsea is also a recovering alcoholic, during the period of one day, Andre and Chelsea quickly click and are able to make deeper connections while walking around the cinematic streets of New York City and flashing back to Andre's wild days in the past.

The "interview" is constantly interrupted by the Andre's superficial and demanding reality-star fiancé Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who is preparing their wedding as a live event on the TV network Bravo. Meanwhile, Chelsea spills the beans to Andre about her ambiguous and unfaithful boyfriend Brad (Anders Holm) as a comic relief.

Top Five Official Site

Being a work by Chris Rock, the film is expected to be funny, if not funnier. Some jokes in the film are smart and laugh-out funny, and some are over-the-top and raunchy. The film certainly has plenty amusing or surprising moments, but it's not a brainless slapstick farce.

Often shot in a documentary style and use actors' real name in the movie, the film essentially is crafted as a drama and puts the characters before the jokes. However, that would work better if the story were set on a solid foundation.

The truth is that if Chelsea were indeed a reporter from The New York Times in real life, she would have been fired right on the spot. Chelsea's job is to interview her subject, Andre. Yet, she not only lets Andre turn the table around and dig stories about her past, but also she gets involved with her subject romantically. No matter how long they walk and talk on the streets, these two characters are nothing like Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" (1995). It's perplexing how they can hit off so quickly, and in New York City, not in Vienna. Yet, their relationship is crucial to the character development.

One the best moments in the film is when Andre performs a standup gig at a comedy club. You can immediately tell how Chris Rock feels at ease in his most familiar territory. That might indicate which direction the green light has been turned on at a crossroad.

"Top Five," a Paramount Pictures release, opens on Friday December 12, 2014.

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