My Top Five Favorite Films of 2014

I had a really great time at the cinema in 2014, and these are my top five favorite films.

1. Interstellar

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I loved this film! I went to see it three times, it moved and inspired me, and even
brought me to tears. Interstellar feels like a return to the cinema of the past. It’s full of grand imagery, thundering romantic music cues and features an epic science fiction adventure plot that has very real human stakes. It’s fitting that a film so closely modeled around Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey would have a similar weight and gravitas, but unlike 2001, Interstellar is a much more emotional and idea-centric film, and director Christopher Nolan isn’t afraid to communicate these emotions and ideas through dialog that may seem overly theatrical to some–but for me it works. Nolan is dealing here with themes that most filmmakers never will, and he needs a broader dramatic vocabulary to examine them: the way in which humans feel abandoned by the divine, the concept of a higher power governing the universe, and the way the passage of time effects us. Though it’s editing stumbles slightly near the end, the film never slows down or feels dull, even at it’s almost three hour running time. The acting is superb, the music is glorious, and the finale is perfect. If you haven’t already done so, watch this film!

2. Boyhood

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As everyone has already noted, this film was shot over a period of 12 years. It
focuses on a boy, his relationship with his family, and the joys and turmoils of
childhood and growing up. The camera follows him from year to year as he literally
grows up in front of the lens. What resonates so much with me is that I was a boy
during some of the years this film was shot, and as my younger brother and I watched,
we found ourselves identifying with the cultural touchstones that appear on screen:
Presidential elections, computers and video game systems, Harry Potter mania, sports events, popular music and fashion trends–the best part is that these touchstones aren’t
being recreated like most period films, they’re actually being captured as they
happen. Director Richard Linklater has a wonderfully relaxed cinematic style, and he’s not
afraid to make a film with low stakes that breathes. You’re not going to find much
dramatic tension or classical storytelling here, but what you are going to find is an
uncanny capturing of an era, and a bittersweet, dead-on look at what growing up as a
boy in the United States is like. What pleases me most about Boyhood is that it’s
permanently captured the period of my childhood, and it’s something I come back to
and enjoy for the rest of my life.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Grand Budapest

The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably the darkest, most violent Wes Anderson film to
date, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny, and it has all the wit and mannered charm
of the rest of his filmography. The film centers around a hotel somewhere in Europe and its larger than life, gold-digging clerk who inherits a priceless painting from a family
that is clearly up to no good. Told through multiple narrators, time periods–and
even aspect ratios–the film remains a fairly simple heist story, featuring a
hilariously complex prison break and some cartoonish action sequences–I think
Anderson is still kind of hung up on the wonderfully two dimensional stop motion
effects he achieved in Fantastic Mr. Fox. In the end, the film is about the darkness
of Fascism and the way in which it permanently changed Europe, but that’s mostly lost
in the cacophony of it’s slapstick climax and ornate art design. That’s not to say the film
doesn’t work. It’s a joy to behold as well as a dramatic punch in the gut, and
perhaps one of Anderson’s most emotional films to date. The ending is simply
devastating, but not without its sweetness. Critics have observed that Wes Anderson
is in love with the past and has never really felt comfortable with the modern world
he lives in, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

4. Nightcrawler

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I’ve reviewed Nighcrawler already, and you can read that review here. It was one of the most engaging films I saw in 2014. Lou Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is an amazing cinematic creation, and the way this character plays with your emotions throughout the film has to be seen to be believed.

5. Edge of Tomorrow

EDGE OF TOMORROW

Edge of Tomorrow is that rare summer film that doesn’t pander to it’s audience. Instead it presents it’s complex science fiction plot through a smart, economical series of images and relies on the audience’s intelligence to sort everything out. It’s also rare for its character development–there are no lazy “types” here and even the smallest side character gets his moment to develop. Tom Cruise is excellent as an unsympathetic military PR man fated to become a selfless hero questing to save mankind, and Emily Blunt is surprisingly believable as a battle hardened warrior, despite her petite frame. Did I mention the excellent art design? It really is nice to look at and makes the world of the film feel both mundane and lived in, even as men in CG mechanical suits fight giant CG robot octopus aliens. All around a rare feat and a pleasant surprise, Edge of Tomorrow feels like a film that will be considered a classic someday.

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Dusk and Water

Water becomes beautiful at sunset and dusk. This film is made up of some test footage I shot for the company I work for, both at a Lake where I live and a bay up in Door County, Wisconsin. I used a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and various retro 35mm film lenses.

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Mini Reviews: 2015 Summer Films – Part 1

Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is as close as filmmaking has come to capturing the feel of reading a super hero comic book. It’s jammed full of thrilling action scenes, muddled plots and subplots, sci-fi techno babble, obscure character cameos, and iconic images. An elaborate fight scene near the end is staged in slow-motion, almost like the individual panels of a comic. It’s not a great film, and it’s certainly not as well conceived or paced as it’s predecessor, but it sure is a joy to behold if you’re a fan of the genre, and especially so if you like super hero comics.

Mad Max: Fury Road

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Now THIS is how you make a movie! I don’t even like the Mad Max series or the post apocalyptic genre, but this film is a 10. When the last frame cut to the credits I found myself applauding, and I wasn’t alone. Everything is perfectly crafted in this film–perfect plot, perfect character development, perfect art design, perfect cinematography and editing, perfect action choreography; even the violence was handled perfectly–not overly gory or mean spirited but still realistic and scary. There’s not a wasted frame or a self-indulgent moment–except maybe that electric guitar flamethrower that everyone is talking about. I’ve read some reviews complaining that the film’s story is too simple, but I think that’s one of the its strengths. Fury Road‘s story is stripped downs and iconic, like a western, and most of it is shown rather than told, a unique trait of cinema that most blockbuster directors have ignored in recent years. Mad Max: Fury Road is my favorite film so far this Summer, and maybe the coolest action adventure film I’ve ever seen–right up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you like movies at all you should go see it right now!

Jurassic World

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Jurassic World is a bizarre, laughable parody of the original Jurassic Park. Where the original was beautifully crafted and paced, this “soft reboot” as some are calling it is flat and one-noted. Park was full of wonder and hard science fiction, World is jaded and made up of goofy dinosaur fan service. It may not be a bad cheesy monster movie, but it’s no science fiction classic like Spielberg’s original. Avoid this film unless you just want a good chuckle.

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Shooting Retro Video with Holga Lenses

Me with Holga

The Holga is a cheap plastic film camera with a plastic lens that captures dreamy vintage images. I own both a 120 and 35mm Holga and I shoot with them extensively. Below is an image that I captured with my 35mm model.

I discovered that Holga also makes lenses for modern digital cameras, and I’ve recently acquired two of these: a Canon and a Micro Four Thirds mount version. Here’s the latter lens, mounted on my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.

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Both lenses have plastic optics, simple zone focusing wheels and fixed apertures–they’re basically identical to the lenses found on Holga cameras. This combination of cheap optics and narrow apertures, plus some pretty heavy distortion and vignetting, creates digital images that look like they were captured on a consumer film camera in the 1960’s. Shooting video through them gets a similar result–the footage looks like Super 8 film!

Below are two recent test films that I shot with my Holga lenses. The first was shot on my Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, and the second on my Canon T2i with the addition of a Holga .5X Wide Angle Adapter. I really like the extra distortion this adapter adds.

I love the retro film aesthetic and I’ve shot projects on retro movie cameras before, but the price of motion picture film is a huge limitation. I’m so pleased to discover that I can get a similar look with a $20 lens on my digital camera, and I’m already planning projects based around this look. Stay tuned!

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Pine Rows

Pine Whirl

The pine woods by the house where I grew up have always fascinated me. I used to go there by myself and wander for hours, padding quietly over the soft floor of needles through the gloom, staring at the crisscrossed fallen branches and the textures in the bark. The trees in this wood were originally planted for lumber, and they stand in surreal ordered lines, like the columns of an ancient church.  They inspired me to write a narrative poem about vikings and a script idea that became my Senior thesis film. In high school I shot a silly horror film there, and I’ve returned several times since to shoot other projects. A while back I returned to these woods to shoot a short demo video with a Sony NEX 5 and a soft focus lens adapter. I love the look I got with this set-up, and I hope to recreate it for a future short film. For now, here’s the demo video.

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