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  • Don’s Favorite Narrative Films of 2014 (Part 2)

    Best of 2014

    By | January 2, 2015

    land-ho

    This is Part 2 of my Favorite Narrative Films of 2014. If you missed Part 1, I suggest starting there. Otherwise, please read on…

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    Happy Christmas (dir. Joe Swanberg)


    The second Joe Swanberg film on this list, Happy Christmas is one of his most personal [in an oeuvre of sublimely personal] films functioning as a loving ode to his wife Kris Swanberg, who had to put her creative career on the back burner after the birth of Jude. Swanberg intelligently discusses some of the challenges that two creative (read: financially insecure) parents might face while trying to raise a young child. First and foremost, this is a story of female empowerment as Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) navigates her way to becoming more than just a mother. Unabashedly a woman-centered film, Happy Christmas presents two devastatingly authentic female characters who may have been roughly outlined by Swanberg but were fully colored in by Lynskey and Kendrick. The result is a beautiful and loving portrait of these two women, warts and all.

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    Hellion (dir. Kat Candler)

    Shot in the hazy sunshine of the Gulf Coast, writer-director Kat Candler’s Hellion captures the difficulties of a single, working class parent, carefully examining the effects that local economics can have on families. The gritty, handheld cinematography (Brett Pawlak) hearkens back to the glory days of 1970s American independent cinema while also reflecting the working class livelihoods of this East Texas community. The visuals are accented by a much more modern heavy metal soundtrack that vocalizes Jacob’s pent up anger and hormonal rage. By no means a female-centric film, Hellion is a tale that certainly benefits from Candler’s female vantage point.

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    Hide Your Smiling Faces (dir. Daniel Patrick Carbone)

    Reminiscent of David Gordon Green’s George Washington and Matthew Gordon’s The Dynamiter, Daniel Patrick Carbone’s feature-length debut Hide Your Smiling Faces relies heavily upon its mood and tone to drive the narrative. The sporadic dialogue is mostly inconsequential, though necessary in order to maintain the high level of realism. Even the characters are almost, dare I say, unimportant; though excellently portrayed by Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones, the brothers seem to be mere pawns who are leading us towards something…but only Carbone knows what. It is this prevailing air of uncertainty regarding which direction(s) Carbone will take the story that makes Hide Your Smiling Faces something unique and worthwhile. It is extremely rare that a minimalist [“slow cinema”] production can pack such extreme levels of anticipation; I don’t know how Carbone pulls it off, be he does so with spades.

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    I Origins
 (dir. Mike Cahill)

    An infinitely profound examination of the faith versus science debate, Mike Cahill wraps his heady existential diatribe around the adage that the eye is the window to the soul, specifically utilizing the presumed uniqueness of an individual’s iris patterns in this contemplation of god’s existence. Being that eyes are directly connected to the human brain, and the brain retains memories, I Origins suggests the possibility that if two people (one living, one dead) share identical iris patterns that they may also share memories, possibly even the same soul (thus proving reincarnation). Whether or not this is sound science is up to the molecular scientists in the audience to decide, but Cahill’s entertainingly thoughtful hypothesis is sure to incite a chain reaction of theological contemplation among even the most ardent non-believers.

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    It Felt Like Love

 (dir. Eliza Hittman)

    Writer-director Eliza Hittman’s feature-length debut It Felt Like Love takes an observational perspective on teenage sexuality, never explicitly telling us what to think. I love the visual elements of It Felt Like Love: Lila’s geisha-like face, whitened by sunscreen; her not-quite-form-fitting, one-piece swimsuit; the props she chooses to look more mature. Concepts like self-expression, self-confidence and identity are photographed with a dreamlike gaze as It Felt Like Love beautifully captures burgeoning sexuality and the brevity of youth; it is like a reminiscence of the past that takes place in the present. The world needs a lot more films like It Felt Like Love and we certainly need a lot more films by Hittman.

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    Kelly & Cal (dir. Jen McGowan)

    Jen McGowan’s feature-length debut Kelly & Cal features the best Juliette Lewis performance to date — and I state that as a huge admirer of her work. Kelly & Cal exemplifies the creative spark that occurs when you get the perfect casting at the right time. Benefiting greatly from its subtly feminine perspective, Kelly & Cal is a very unique take on a teen boy/adult woman friendship.

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Land Ho! (dir. Martha Stephens, Aaron Katz)

    By no means another Grumpy Old Men rehash, Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho! is presented with the utmost level of realism, relishing in the everyday moments of these two average men who are presumably being played by variations of the actors themselves, Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson. Coming from two young writer-directors, Land Ho! is a surprisingly contemplative meditation on the social concerns of seniors, specifically in relation to aging and marginalization. With complete trust in Eenhoorn and Nelson, Stephens and Katz know that these two actors will provide the camera lens with a hefty dose of cinematic truth and make it as entertaining as humanly possible. There is something practically primordial or prehistoric about the Icelandic landscape which frees Eenhoorn and Nelson from any social pressures or constructs. As if pressing their proverbial reset buttons, Eenhoorn and Nelson delve deeply into existential self-analyses that will hopefully help them start anew.

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    Lilting (dir. Hong Khaou)

    In his feature-length debut, writer-director Hong Khaou confidently maintains a languidly contemplative pacing that mirrors the overwhelming feeling of sadness that pervades the narrative. Lilting is shaped by a loose assembly of scenes that seamlessly drift between reality and memory, permitting the existential struggle brewing within Kai’s mother to run parallel with Kai’s struggle with his sexuality. Mostly removing the gayness from the narrative, Khaou creates an asexual film that is essentially gender-neutral. Rather, Lilting is about the importance of defining oneself while maintaining a connection with those around you.

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    Lily (dir. Matt Creed)

    Whether purposefully or not, Lily’s (Amy Grantham) Jean Seberg-esque (circa Breathless) natural hairstyle and the Chantal Goya-esque (circa Masculin Féminin) wig help transform her into an iconic Godardian heroine (though, Lily’s situation and personality seem a bit more in line with Anna Karina’s characters in A Woman Is a Woman and Vivre Sa Vie). In fact, the perspective of Matt Creed’s feature-length debut is not all that different than Jean-Luc Godard’s in the early-to-mid 1960s. Lily is a hyper-realistic slice of life, focusing on a feminine story that is rarely represented in cinema. Godard’s early films may not deal so blatantly with women’s health issues but they do represent the female struggle for financial security and independence; and just as Godard always questioned how men could fit into the equation, we are left contemplating Aaron’s role in Lily.

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    Listen Up Philip (dir. Alex Ross Perry)



    With the purposeful font selection in the opening credits, writer-director Alex Ross Perry slyly suggests Philip Roth as a literary reference point for us to approach Philip (Jason Schwartzman), the cringingly acerbic protagonist of Listen Up Philip. The title alone suggests that Perry might be attempting to one-up Roth, telling the presumed master how to more effectively create ego-maniacal protagonists who are self-referential to the point of self-loathing. Perry’s perpetually profound film functions as a microcosmic examination of a misanthropic novelist whose rapid rise to notoriety has further exaggerated his narcissistic tendencies. Portrayed with uncanny candor by Jason Schwartzman, Philip is an almost too perfect personification of the arrogant yet neurotic tendencies of New York intelligentsia, specifically in the fragility of their egos.

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    Stay tuned for many more favorites…

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