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  • Don’s Favorite Narrative Films of 2014 (Part 4)

    Best of 2014

    By | January 6, 2015

    Retrieval

    This is Part 4 of my Favorite Narrative Films of 2014. If you missed Part 1 thru Part 3, I suggest starting with those posts. Otherwise, please read on…

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    The Retrieval


    Independent filmmakers have typically steered clear of historical dramas because of the unruly budgets that are associated with recreating accurate costume and production design, but that didn’t scare away Chris Eska from making a Civil War drama. Eska enlisted the people who care most about historical accuracy, Civil War reenactors, to round out his cast and assist with the authenticity of the costume design and props. It also helps that The Retrieval is limited to only three primary characters who spend a majority of the film roaming across the densely wooded (and ageless) forests of East Texas. Eska’s unwavering desire to achieve perfection in his productions doesn’t hurt matters either, because the production quality of The Retrieval is damn near flawless. Speaking of flawless, that just about describes Ashton Sanders, Keston John and Tishuan Scott’s performances as well.

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    Soft in the Head

    Just as The Idiot‘s Myshkin struggles to find his footing in St. Petersburg after being released from a Swiss sanatorium, Soft in the Head‘s Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría) life becomes increasingly aimless in Brooklyn after getting kicked out of her abusive boyfriend’s apartment. Shamelessly inebriated, the 25-year-old dons a strikingly ridiculous blonde wig as she stumbles to have dinner with her best friend Hanna’s (Melanie J. Scheiner) family. Divided — literarily — into chapters, Nathan Silver’s Soft in the Head maintains the structural integrity of a novel, but avoids the inherent deceits of intellectualism and authorly devices. Channeling the precepts of Direct Cinema, Silver’s role is purely observational. He delves deep into the mire and dreck of humankind and drags the audience down with him. A dark and menacing offspring of early John Cassavetes, Silver’s relentlessly gritty, micro-budget approach to achieving an astonishingly high level of realism is quite commendable, yet the unbridled ugliness of Soft in the Head is sure to discourage a lot of viewers from persevering with this story. Alcohol-fueled carelessness and callousness does not make an empathetic protagonist, instead Natalia is destined to be judged fairly harshly by the audience.

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    The Strange Little Cat



    I know you won’t accept it as a reason to be on my Favorite Films of 2014 list, but just check out the trailer… and if you don’t like where that trailer seems to be going, just forget about it; otherwise, continue to observe the of this odd little, oh-so-quirky German, film…

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    Summer of Blood

    Pairing his sardonically existential, rambling rapid-fire dialogue with a sloth-like lack of initiative, Eric is like if Issac (from Woody Allen’s Manhattan) stumbled into an alternate universe of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Summer of Blood thus allows Onur Tukel to showcase his naturally clumsy comedic vigor that babbles from his lips with the ease of stream of consciousness. The words are almost too effortless for him, as if Tukel is presenting himself, warts and all, to be judged by us all… Although Summer of Blood presents itself as a bloodthirsty (and sexy) genre flick, it is just a simple tale about a seemingly hopeless man-child who recognizes his wrongdoings and may or may not want to improve upon them.

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    Swim Little Fish Swim

    As the title suggests, Swim Little Fish Swim is about the importance of giving loved ones the freedom and support to do what they want to do. The more Lilas and Leeward are held back, the more they rebel; the more they rebel, the more frictional the relationships with their loved ones become. Regardless, writers-directors Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar thankfully do not make Lilas and Leeward out to be artistic martyrs. Instead, they are equally at fault for refusing to take the advice of others out of sheer stubbornness. The intimately observational perspective and the wandering randomness of the scenarios lends the film a naturalistic-yet-surrealist vibe; additionally, experimental filmmaker Nathan Punwar contributes stunning Super 8 video footage that is artfully sprinkled throughout the narrative. By immersing themselves in the independent film community in New York, Bessis and Amar clearly thrive off of the creativity and experimentation that is going on around them. This strange, hyper-real view of the city makes Swim Little Fish Swim one of those special little films that is utterly impossible not to fall in love with.

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    Test

    For better or worse, 1985 signifies a tremendous shift in the history of gay culture. A culture that was presumed to be promiscuous was suddenly given an indisputable reason to practice safe sex and monogamy, just as Frankie’s “fuck art, let’s dance” mentality shifts to a more responsible and calculated approach to living. Test perfectly encapsulates the uniqueness of this time, place and culture. From the production design to the soundtrack to the overall mood and tone, Johnson nails it. For some of us, the mid-1980s may not seem all that far away — that is until we see just how archaic the Sony Walkman and rotary telephones seem in comparison to modern technology. It gives humanity some hope that in less than 30 years, the Sony Walkman and telephone have come to be combined and replaced by the iPhone; just as in a relatively brief span of time, a cure has been developed for AIDS (though not everyone who needs it has access to it).

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    Thou Wast Mild and Lovely


    The strength of writer-director Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely is its adroit manipulation of our vision and hearing (thanks to Molly Herron and Jeff Young’s haunting score) to the point that we become immersed in the same woozily seductive sedation as Akin. A uniquely transformative experience, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely puts us in the same psychological framework as its characters, directly projecting their feelings and desires on us. The highly impressionistic lensing (thanks to Ashley Connor’s affinity for shallow depth of field) creates a fantastical mise-en-scène in which nightmares and libidinous desires coexist, albeit not very peacefully. The sultry voice of a disembodied narrator adds a fairytale-esque whimsy as she recites passages about her lover while suggesting some oblique connections with the onscreen characters. Decker’s luridly poetic vision luxuriates in the ethereal and the mythical yet grounds everything in the organic elements of nature, such as water, wood, dirt and blood. Textures and patterns also carry a significant weight, but most amazing is the purposeful coordination of colors, as the characters’ wardrobes always seem to perfectly compliment the backgrounds. Decker studies the inherent power struggles between her characters, specifically how Sarah and Akin exploit each other’s repressed sexual desires while Jeremiah relies upon psychological abuse. Sex and violence flirtatiously encircle each other, developing into a much more menacing relationship as the film progresses.


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    Vic+Flo Saw a Bear


    With Vic+Flo Saw a Bear
, Denis Côté observes two women and a man in a wooden cottage with pale blue walls and roof covered with rust. Vic+Flo… seems almost to be a really peculiar, but brilliant sequel to Bestiaire. At 61-years-of-age, Victoria (Pierrette Robitaille) doesn’t want to return to society with a normal life; her silent, uncle’s cottage in the forest is essentially a safe haven for her. Her solitary existence becomes even more true when her lover, Florence (Romane Bohringer), arrives. Totally isolated, everything appears to be simple for them; even if Vic’s probation officer, Guillaume (Marc-Andre Grondin), appears way too often. Vic+Flo — two lesbian women living alone in a small town — evolve into two passive animals in a trap; Côté singlehandedly creates a world for them, an uneasy reality that hides unpredictability marked with black humor and death.

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