December is traditionally a time when studios release their specialty films, award contenders, grownup films, holiday favorites, movies for kids on Christmas vacation, etc. Some of the following films were December releases, many of them were critical favorites that received some year-end accolades, and mostly they just make good wintertime movies. All 10 of the movies are new to Netflix and highly recommended for your end-of-2014 viewing.
One of the top contenders for Best Foreign Language Film of 2014, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2014) sounds fairly dreary, but actually watching it is an extraordinary experience. In the 1960s in Poland, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) has been raised in a convent and is ready to take her vows to become a nun, but the mother superior urges her to visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) first. An ex-judge, Wanda sleeps around and drinks too much. She informs Ida that she is Jewish and that her parents were killed in the Holocaust. They take a road trip to find out more, and they meet a handsome young saxophonist along the way. Pawlikowski shoots in bleak black-and-white with highly unusual compositions: characters are often shunted to the lower regions of the frame, or pushed off to one side in wider shots. Pawlikowski gazes for several beats at a shot and cuts away at abrupt moments. It’s a powerful and effective way of looking at a tragedy, there’s a slight remove, but the impact is powerful enough to make you avert your eyes and blink.
One of the finest horror films of the year, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus(2014) features a creepy mirror as well as several fresh twists. After having killed his father as a boy, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from an 11 year-stint in an asylum. His sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) immediately asks him to participate in a ritual to destroy the mirror she thinks caused all the trouble. Once in the house, no more rules apply. The mirror has the power to create illusions, which lead to flashbacks with the children’s homicidal father (Rory Cochran) and hysterical mother (Katee Sackhoff). The flashbacks are meant to be deceptive, folding into reality and into falsehoods, and sending the characters on unhealthy tangents. Unlike in most horror films, the characters are smart and attempt to stay one jump ahead of the scares, and nothing quite unfolds as it seems like it’s going to. It’s a reflection of fine filmmaking.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
It’s not quite as classic or as beloved as the original Anchorman (2004), but this sequel is very funny and quite clever in its own way. Moving from the 1970s to the early 1980s, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) finds Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) divorced and unemployed when he is approached to work for a brand-new 24-hour cable news network. Burgundy is just the kind of shallow, self-serving type that will eventually turn actual news reporting into “infotainment,” i.e. car chases and statements about how great America is. The movie walks boldly between this satire, spoofs of movie conventions (the “assemble-the-team” montage, the climactic rumble), and the strange, rhythmic line readings by Ferrell and his cohorts, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, and David Koechner. (“Andre the Giant gave a surprisingly nimble foot rub.”) Harrison Ford, Christina Applegate, Kristen Wiig, Meagan Good, and James Marsden are among the very funny supporting scene-stealers. Adam McKay directs.
The Wolf of Wall Street
The fifth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) feels like a dare: how filthy can we get and still keep the audience onboard? DiCaprio plays real-life trader Jordan Belfort who uses mostly illegal stock market techniques to earn enormous profits. His whirlwind of success, and indulgence in sex and drugs, is intoxicating. The movie has a monstrous energy, fueled by something equally exciting and rotten. It’s a frenzy so fast and absurd that it becomes the flat-out funniest film Scorsese ever made. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker also deserves credit for keeping up the pace for a whopping 179 minutes. Jonah Hill is terrific as Jordan’s sidekick, equally indulgent in various vices, especially Quaaludes. Margot Robbie is the astoundingly beautiful girl that captures Jordan’s eye. The film received five Oscar nominations, for Best Picture, Director, Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Hill), and Screenplay, but did not win anything.
Released on Christmas Day, Michael Mann’s Ali (2001) felt a bit like an attempt to get Will Smith an Oscar. The 157-minute movie has a great deal of territory to cover, including the great boxer’s transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, his involvement with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles), his refusal to be drafted and fight in the Vietnam War, and his amazing “Rumble in the Jungle” comeback. With Mann’s typically stylish direction, the film manages many powerful moments, but also general skims over the story’s surface. However, Smith is indeed very powerful in the role, pulling off an impressive physical transformation into a heavyweight champ, and the movie finds its soul in the relationship between Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell (Jon Voight). Both Smith and Voight received Oscar nominations, but lost.
The Truman Show
A masterpiece from director Peter Weir, The Truman Show combined a brilliant screenplay by Andrew Niccol and a great leading performance from Jim Carrey, already a million miles away from Ace Ventura. Truman (Carrey) has lived his entire life, since birth, as the star of a reality TV show; the catch is that he doesn’t know it. The show must be kept secret from him at all costs, even if people around him like to talk a bit too much about various products they use, and even if he doesn’t seem to be able to leave town. Eventually, certain clues spur on an unquenchable desire to see more than just this little world has to offer. Weir perfectly uses the story’s environment to constrict and highlight the character’s emotional state, while underlining the confounding themes of media, privacy, and entertainment. And, of course, it’s very funny. Ed Harris is remarkable as Cristof, the show’s omnipotent director. The movie was a staple on critics’ top ten lists at the end of the year; it earned three Oscar nominations, for Weir, Harris, and Niccol (but not for Carrey).
This wintry thriller is deceptively simple, yet insidiously effective and remarkably intelligent besides. In Runaway Train (1985), two escaped convicts, Manny (Jon Voight) and Buck (Eric Roberts), board a train, hoping for freedom. Instead they discover certain doom as the engineer has died and the train is abandoned, hurtling at top speed through frozen lands, with no way to stop it. To make matters even more tense, the two hardened criminals discover a beautiful railroad worker (Rebecca De Mornay), who is also trapped on board. The performances are mesmerizing, and both Voight and Roberts received Oscar nominations for their work. The tight editing by Henry Richardson earned a third nomination. The Russian-born director Andrei Konchalovsky had been a screenwriter on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969), widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Runaway Train was an adaptation of an unfilmed screenplay by the late, great Akira Kurosawa.
One from the Heart
Coming off of perhaps the greatest four-film run in history (The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now), director Francis Ford Coppola inevitably hit a snag with his musical One from the Heart (1982), a huge flop that lost millions, causing Coppola to declare bankruptcy. Publicity surrounding the film did not help, including the fact that Coppola insisted on building expensive sets and directing from inside a trailer. Critics complained that it was emotionless and artificial. But when the movie was restored and re-released in December of 2003, it was possible to see it with fresh eyes, and to understand just how passionate and heartbreaking it could be. Indeed, the movie is all about appearances and fantasies, as ordinary couple Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr) fight, go out into the Las Vegas night, and find gorgeous new lovers: Ray (Raul Julia) for Frannie and Leila (Nastassja Kinski) for Hank. For this film, Coppola invented several story elements that would go on to become cliché in the decades following, but the battle between artifice and reality rages on. Vittorio Storaro provided the bold cinematography.
Arguably the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s greatest film, The Conformist(1970), features more astoundingly rich cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, some of it shot in the snow. Jean Louis Trintignant stars as Marcello Clerici, a part-time fascist who uses his honeymoon in Paris as a cover to kill a former professor. Instead, he meets the professor’s wife (Dominique Sanda), and all notions of either politics or love go swirling down the drain. The movie’s complex editing pattern highlights this idea of nothing being nailed down; images flit back and forth as if they were memories or flashbacks, but with no literal definition. It takes a bit of work, but many of the movie’s powerful images will stick with you. Bertolucci adapted Alberto Moravia’s novel, and received an Ocsar nomination for his screenplay.
Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) features striking, black-and-white widescreen cinematography, but not used for beauty; rather, it emphasizes sleazy, low-down rooms, late nights, sweat, exhaustion, and desperation. Paul Newman stars as Fast Eddie Felson, a small-time pool hustler who goes up against the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and loses. Hitting the absolute bottom, he re-groups with sleazy gambler Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) and his new girlfriend Sarah (Piper Laurie) and prepares to build himself back up again for a rematch. Boxer Jake LaMotta appears in one scene. The movie received nine Oscar nominations and won two Oscars, for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Newman was nominated, and won 25 years later for playing the same character in Martin Scorsese’s sequel The Color of Money (1986).