Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Experiential Pagan's Book Reviews

Over at Experiential Pagan, syrbal-labrys has started a series of book reviews. She has an interesting and personal take on Go Set a Watchman, the Harper Lee book recently released with some controversy. Regardless of the book's origins and publication history, it's sparked some good discussions. (The review is hard to excerpt without spoiling it, so I won't.) Syrbal-labrys also provides a short review on Angela Carter's work. Check 'em out.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Independence Day 2015

Happy Independence Day!

The history of the United States of America contains some shameful chapters as well as moments that merit legitimate pride. It's far better to view the country as a work in progress instead of something unimpeachable. I've often featured E.J. Dionne's framing of these dynamics from 2006 in "A Dissident's Holiday." An excerpt:

...The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

There is, moreover, a distinguished national tradition in which dissident voices identify with the revolutionary aspirations of the republic's founders.

As usual, here's a mix of videos. First up, here's the Declaration of Independence, read by an interesting and somewhat odd collection of actors:

This piece incorporates some great quotations, many pushing for social progress:

I've featured the Muppets before, but here's their new piece:

Finally, it's hard to top Pete Seeger singing his pal Woody Guthrie's most famous song:

Have a good Fourth! Feel free to link any appropriate pieces in the comments (and I may update the post as well).


Digby has a piece up at Salon about The violent history of "real Americans."

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Courage to Make Others Suffer

On the eve of war in Washington, journalists and others gathered at a cocktail party at the home of Philip Taubman, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times. . . . Judy Miller was one of several Times reporters there, and she seemed excited. Another journalist present asked if she was planning to head over to Iraq to cover the invasion. Miller, according to the other guest, could barely contain herself. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "I've been waiting for this war for ten years. I wouldn't miss it for the world!"

Hubris, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn (via Jon Schwarz).
“I must say, I’m a little envious,” Bush said. “If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed.”

“It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks,” Bush said.

– A 2008 videoconference between Bush and U.S. military and civilian personnel.
In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic.

Richard Cohen, looking back on the Iraq War in 2006.

There's a breed of pedigreed dolt endemic to Washington, D.C. They determine their opinions socially, not empirically; what "everybody knows" trumps facts any old day. Their notion of tough, hard-nosed realism invariably entails that other people should suffer, from the blithe imperialism that cheers on unnecessary wars to the 'sensible centrism' that insists that unnecessary cuts to the social safety net are absolutely imperative. (The occasional safely contrarian view offers some novelty and the gloss of independence without truly challenging the establishment framework.) They remain cheerfully cloistered from the effects of their pronouncements about what the less privileged should be doing (and should be having done to them).

Among this crowd, going to war – or rather, sending others to war – is not a matter of careful deliberation; it is a matter of fashion.

Supporting and opposing war are not automatically respectable and equally valid positions; requiring a high threshold for war is the position of basic sanity, akin to a doctor making sure that amputating a limb is actually necessary before proceeding. A truly unavoidable conflict can be argued for with evidence and reason. If instead a war advocate lies, or constantly shifts rationales, or routinely exaggerates and fear-mongers, or slanders the patriotism of skeptics, or seems eager for war… it's cause for grave concern. Human beings will die in a war; death cannot be undone. Inevitably, not only supposed villains will suffer. Someone who can't be bothered even to pretend to treat war with the appropriate weight should not be trusted.

With a new presidential election cycle starting, we've seen many politicians, pundits and supposed journalists make revisionist claims about how the Iraq War started. It's crucial to remember that it wasn't an honest mistake nor was the case for war honestly made. Fighting against memory hole efforts are Digby, Paul Krugman (one and two), James Fallows, Josh Marshall, Greg Sargent, driftglass (one, two and three), Steve Benen, David Corn, Duncan Black, Matt Taibbi, the Columbia Journalism Review and The Daily Show, Balloon Juice, and I'm sure many more I've missed. (It's worth noting that the revisionism started almost immediately, and generally went unchallenged.)

Some war advocates had reservations; far more were largely uncritical of the Bush administration's case for war. There was a disturbing (if sadly unsurprising) trend of treating war skeptics as unpatriotic or even traitors. The key problem with belligerently cheerleading war (at its worst, gleeful bullying), wasn't that such people were socially obnoxious, although they were – it's that they helped create a climate where authority wasn't questioned, and skepticism was pilloried. They increased the chances of an unnecessary war. They increased the chances of unnecessary death and destruction. Avoiding those consequences – requiring a high threshold for armed conflict – is the entire point of war skepticism. It's not a game. Likewise, the reason to point out that the Iraq War was sold dishonestly, and that war advocates were wrong (or dishonest), is not for social bragging rights, but to prevent unnecessary wars in the future.

All of this should be completely obvious, but among the political class, it isn't. Far too many war advocates then and now treat such decisions as an issue of status and face, an abstract, intellectual game or "a low-stakes cocktail party argument" (to borrow a phrase from Jamelle Bouie). A few former war advocates have learned something profound, but for most of them, a true self-accounting would be too painful (and deep reflection has never been their nature anyway). Cloistered dolts rarely suffer for their careless decisions. And for many advocates, whether delusional or coldly clear-eyed, war was and is profitable. In Greek and Shakespearean tragedies, the instigator often suffers the effects of his own hubris, and it can lead to reflection, redemption, or at least recognition – for the audience if not the character. In politics and warmongering, hubris characteristically entails that someone else pay the costs.

(For more, see a 2013 post, "The Dogs of War.")

Thursday, April 30, 2015

National Poetry Month 2015

April is National Poetry Month. As usual, I'll link the wonderful Favorite Poem Project.

For this year, I wanted to feature a lovely poem that I wasn't familiar with before this year. (At a memorial service for my favorite professor, one of his daughters read it.)

Monet Refuses the Operation
By Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Feel free to link or post a favorite poem in the comments.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Blog Against Theocracy 2015

Over at Mock, Paper, Scissors, Tengrain has a stellar roundup for 2015's Blog Against Theocracy.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Fool's Day 2015

Happy Fool's Day! This year, here's Eddie Izzard at his witty, silly best:

The 2012 installment covered a study of the most popular jokes by nation.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Kurosawa's Birthday 2015

Akira Kurosawa would be 105 today.

Tony Zhou has put together a superb video on Kurosawa called "Composing Movement." (Zhou has a Tumblr blog, Every Frame a Painting, and a YouTube channel of video essays.)

Kurosawa buffs will find much of this material familiar, but it's well-organized and features some excellent clips (no surprise):

Meanwhile, here's a list of Kurosawa's 100 favorite films.

(My most extensive post on Kurosawa is this one.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day 2015

I've featured this song before, but here's Dead Can Dance (with Lisa Gerrard singing) performing a striking rendition of the 19th century Irish tune, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley":

My copy of the The Irish Songbook says:

This is an excellent example of many songs that serve both as love lyrics and rebel song. The scene described refers to the 1783 rising. The words are the work of Robert Dwyer Joyce, a professor of English Literature at Catholic University at Dublin. In danger of arrest for rebel activities, Joyce fled to the United States. He later returned to Ireland and died in Dublin in 1883.

Wikipedia gives some more information, including a nice list of the many bands who have recorded the song. (Ken Loach's 2006 film takes the song for its title.)

Feel free to mention or link any favorite Irish songs or poems in the comments. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Thursday, March 05, 2015

2014 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. Scroll down for the rest.)

2014 featured some excellent blockbusters, both serious and fun, but the prestige films were a much thinner crop than 2013. The line I found myself thinking over and over was I wanted to like it more than I did. That said, some 2014 films are well worth seeing.

I liked Neil Patrick Harris as an Oscar host overall. My favorite host probably remains Steve Martin, and like Martin, Harris is a triple threat, capable of acting, singing and dancing. Harris has enough raw charisma that he was able to deliver a marginal joke and then just stare down the camera, daring the audience to turn on him. His opening number, with assists by Anna Kendrick and Jack Black, was fantastic, and the projection effects looked pretty cool. I could have done without his "treason" comment about Edward Snowden, because the documentary about Snowden, Citizen Four, had just won the Oscar – why steal its thunder? Why not let people see it and decide for themselves about Snowden? It was editorializing, and with very establishment views that seemed like pandering. Still, Harris was an able host for the most part and kept things interesting.

As for the awards winners, they were mostly worthy recipients. Birdman is probably the most avant-garde film ever to win Best Picture, and that's a minor coup. Alejandro González Iñárritu was a worthy choice for director given both the quality of the performances and the technical complexity of the shoot. Likewise, Emmanuel Lubezki was a lock for another cinematography Oscar for making Birdman's sinuous, difficult shots look easy. (I wasn't offended by Sean Penn's "green card" joke about González given their friendship; Penn knew González would laugh. However, I thought it was it was dumb and self-indulgent, because Penn's audience was millions of people, not just one person.)

I was happy to see The Grand Budapest Hotel win for Production Design and Costuming, but most of all for Alexandre Desplat's whimsical, wonderful score. The Theory of Everything's score is a lovely, lyrical piece by Jóhann Jóhannsson, but also more traditional. The playfulness of Desplat's score – down to its fake folk music – really sells the tone of the film, and it's the sort of work that often doesn't get recognized. (Traditionally, comedies don't get much respect.) Sticking with music, the performance of Selma's tune "Glory," which won Best Original Song, was probably the highlight of the evening. John Legend and Common made some on-target remarks about current voter suppression efforts, a trend made all the galling given the subject of Selma. I'm not a Lady Gaga fan, but she's got a good voice and did a nice job singing a medley from The Sound of Music.

As for the acting awards – I haven't seen Still Alice with Best Actress winner Julianne Moore, nor Whiplash with Best Supporting Actor winner J.K. Simmons, but I admire their other work, so I was glad to see them win. Moore has been exceptional for years (I've liked her since 1994's Vanya on 42nd Street), but many of her previous nominations came for so-so films. Meanwhile, Simmons has been a workhorse with impressive range, delivering both terrifying and hilarious performances (consider Oz, Juno and his work in the Spider-Man films, for starters). I'm not a huge fan of Patricia Arquette (I haven't been able to shake the memory of her painful performance in Stigmata), but she did a pretty good job in Boyhood, and it wasn't an overwhelming year in the category. (Plus, Arquette's pro-mother, pro-woman acceptance speech was rousing.) I'd have given Michael Keaton Best Actor for his offbeat, vulnerable performance in Birdman over Eddie Redmayne's work in The Theory of Everything – playing disabled isn't as hard as the voters seem to think (and a certain Tropic Thunder clip comes to mind). Still, Redmayne's genuinely good in the film. The observation that the nominations were the whitest they've been in years was accurate. That said, I thought David Oyelowo gave a solid performance in Selma but not one of the top five by an actor, for instance. (However, I haven't seen Chadwick Boseman in Get on Up yet and likely missed some other contenders for the four awards.)

I was disappointed but not surprised that The Imitation Game won for Best Adapted Screenplay, considering the other awards it's received. Given how interesting its subject matter is, it was frustrating to see how formulaic and calculated the script seemed (the cast sells it, though). As with sections of Selma, The Imitation Game chose to invent scenes that were louder and more conventionally "dramatic" than real life, but also more clichéd, less subtle and less interesting. (Your mileage may vary, of course. Also, Imitation Game writer Graham Moore did give a great acceptance speech about life's injustices and 'staying weird and different.') Birdman was a decent pick for Best Original Screenplay, but I'd have given it to Dan Gilroy's dark and dazzling script for Nightcrawler.

Nightcrawler, Edge of Tomorrow and Gone Girl were the most snubbed films among those I saw. I wouldn't have given Interstellar's muddled sound mix a nomination for Best Sound Mixing, but at least it didn't win. Its win for Best Visual Effects was more defensible, in that it was a less conventional and more subtle job than many, especially an artful dimension-bending sequence. (I've heard that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes's chimp face and fur work is very impressive, but I haven't seen it yet.) The most fun sequence of the year, visual effects or otherwise, though, was the Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

It seems the Oscars have finally adopted (for two years now) the "designated speaker" model for multiple award winners, made better because (more often than before) the lead speaker speaks briefly, shuts up and doesn't filibuster his or her fellow winners (who can at least give a shout-out to their families). I'm glad, because it always killed me to see some techie or other non-famous person denied their one shining moment (typically after years of toiling).

None of the presenters were particularly memorable – at least not in a good way. John Travolta appeared in a segment with Idina Menzel that poked fun of him butchering her name the previous year, but he grabbed her face too fervently and too long, and just came off as creepy (even if it was rehearsed).

I wish the Montage of Death would go back to the model of singing during the montage, which was used several years back with Queen Latifah. It's an unnecessary time waste to sing afterward, especially since it's easy to cut occasionally to the singer. My theory is that Babra Streisand's ego wouldn't allow for that the year she sang, and unfortunately, that format has stuck.

As for 2014 films, they featured a neat oddity: In two Marvel films (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), the music of Marvin Gaye not only improved the soundtrack but played a minor plot point. This is a wise trend.

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. For the second year, I've hidden spoilers with toggle buttons. (As always, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). Meanwhile, I've added the usual interview links (mostly audio). The reviews are split into The Top Six, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2014 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): "I'm not an actor – I'm a movie star!" goes the classic line from My Favorite Year, and Birdman essentially delves into one man's attempt to prove the opposite. Birdman winds up being part character study, part backstage drama, and part meta-commentary on the creative process, with all its attendant insecurities, ego trips, inspiration and insanity.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), an aging, fading movie star best known for playing the title character in the popular superhero franchise "Birdman," wants to prove he's a serious actor, so he bankrolls a theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." We're in Riggan's head from the start, and he's an unreliable narrator, so it's not entirely clear whether some of the weirder moments (telekinesis, levitation, the voice of Birdman) are fantasy or reality. The entire film, built of long, sinuous takes, is made to look as if it's been done in a single shot, and while it's impressive craftsmanship, it's more than a gimmick – it also helps build a sense of single-minded obsession and claustrophobia revolving around Riggan, even when he's not on screen. His daughter, Samantha (Emma Stone), is a recovering addict and thinks the play is a desperate and foolish vanity project. His relationship with her is strained; he wasn't the best father to her, nor a great husband to ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan). Three other actors appear in the play with Riggan, and Riggan thinks one of them doesn't get his concept; one of his other costars, Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests bringing in her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) as a replacement. At first Riggan is thrilled by Mike – he's a fine actor, quick study and critics' darling – but he's also a hardcore method actor and increasingly, a pain in the ass. Mike starts to challenge Riggan and upstage him. On top of this, Riggan's friend and manager, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), warns Riggan that he could go broke if the play is a flop, things aren't great between Riggan and his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), and the most influential critic in town, Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), threatens to give him a scathing review. An involuntary trip through Times Square captures an actor's worst fears, just as a cocky walk down the block exemplifies performer braggadocio.

Keaton's two films as Batman are obvious meta-references, but this is also the best work of his career – he's got quirky intensity down pat, but also brings a vulnerability, desperation and selective self-insight to Riggan that make him a compelling character. Emma Stone is good as always as Samantha, with her finest moment a blistering speech to her father that she almost immediately regrets – but only partially. Norton's performance is hilarious and self-mocking (he has a reputation for being difficult to work with), a perfect sendup of the serious "method" actor. The rest of the cast is also strong, with Amy Ryan as Sylvia especially impressive given her scant screen time – she's trying to be supportive of Riggan and wants to help him improve his relationship with their daughter, but it's only a matter of time until she's reminded of why they divorced.

I'm not entirely settled on some key ambiguities in Birdman, but director and cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu doubtless wants it that way (I'll have to see it again). Some viewers might dislike that uncertainty and what's arguably a magic realism aesthetic. (As noted in the year in review roundup, this is probably the most avant-garde movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and that's a minor coup.) I thoroughly enjoyed this film, with only a few quibbles (that subsequent viewings might change). I didn't like two moments involving the critic, Dickinson (her certainty before the performance, and her immediate yet expressionless reaction during it). I also wasn't thrilled about the climatic action, because it's easy to see coming – but González at least makes the aftermath less predictable (and then some). I'm not entirely sold on the film's subtitle, either, but I suspect it's intentionally and self-mockingly pretentious, and perhaps also indirectly references cartoon physics and the film's finale.

(Here's Alejandro González Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki on The Treatment, González on The Business, and Michael Keaton on The Treatment.)

Boyhood: Writer-director Richard Linklater has never been shy of experimenting, and here he follows one boy (and his sister, mother, and father) from elementary school to starting college, using the same actors and filming sporadically over 12 years. (The actors helped develop their characters and the story with Linklater.) As usual with Linklater, the performances are natural and believable, and the film has an episodic structure built of character moments versus a tight plot. Ellar Coltrane is a non-professional actor, but gives a plausible performance as protagonist Mason Jr. – mostly, like a real kid, he just tries to do his own thing and navigate the vagaries of the adults in his life, seeking to avoid their often unnecessary confrontations. His sister is played by the director's real-life daughter, Lorelei Linklater, and although the film and its title focuses more on Mason Jr., the film spends plenty of time on her coming-of-age as well. Patricia Arquette plays their mom, Olivia, who has an admirable self-improvement streak but questionable taste in men, as well as a tendency toward parenting meltdowns. Linklater regular Ethan Hawke plays the kids' biological father, Mason Sr., who flits in and out of their life and tries to be the cool dad, with all its attendant benefits and drawbacks.

The realism is the most interesting aspect of Boyhood. Mason Jr. doesn't have big screaming matches with other people, whether they're adults or surly teens; he tends to just shrug his shoulders and try to move on. (The film nicely shows that adults are often caught up in their own crap, which has little to do with the kids they interact with.) Mason's interactions with other kids are likewise plausible – occasionally contentious with his sister, impassive in the face of bullying, playing it cool with friends, sweet or petulant with a girlfriend... Olivia and Mason Sr. are refreshing as cinema parents in that they're clearly well-intentioned but often pretty bad at it. They're not horrible people and they don't do any irreparable harm, but sometimes they find themselves in over their heads and react self-indulgently or otherwise poorly. Linklater can be faulted for meandering too much, but the final 30 minutes or so features several of the film's strongest scenes – a parental freakout, a teenager's frustration with life but also insight into his parents, romantic relationship woes, plus new beginnings and a trip to nature. Linklater shows great instincts with his restraint in the final sequence, and it makes a nice cap to the film.

Boyhood has its flaws as well (although I found it worked better on a second viewing). At 165 minutes and with an unhurried pace, it's longer than it needs to be; some of the scenes get repetitive, and it would be easy to cut 20–30 minutes. It's true that this specific experiment in film hasn't been tried before, but several elements can be found elsewhere and deliver better results. Seeing how people change over time is better captured in the astounding Up series directed by Michael Apted for Britain's Granada Television, and has the benefit of being documentary versus fiction, following 20 children initially, and covering 49 years and counting. Éric Rohmer and Ingmar Bergman both used some actors repeatedly over decades, so that an actress who was a supporting teenage character in one film winds up being a middle-aged lead in another – and these films often resonate off each other. (Meanwhile, Bergman's last film, Saraband in 2003, revisits the central couple from 1973's Scenes from a Marriage.) Mike Leigh develops the characters and story with his actors as well, building comprehensive backgrounds and improvising countless scenes before finally filming. All of this is to say that Boyhood is a genuinely good movie, but I found it overpraised and lacking the greatness of these other works. There's not the same depth of insight of the Up series or Secrets & Lies or the best of Rohmer and Bergman (Rohmer being a closer comparison to Linklater; see below). I'd rather see those films again. That said, Linklater's experiments are more interesting than plenty of mainstream fare, and there's plenty to like in Boyhood when taken on its own terms beyond the hype. (Side note: The extras on the disc are stingy — a behind-the-scenes featurette, but no commentaries, which would seem like a natural inclusion.)

(Here's Richard Linklater on The Business and Patricia Arquette on The Treatment.)

Gone Girl: Gone Girl is the best latter-day Hitchcock film of recent memory, with the material a great fit for exacting director David Fincher. Based on Gillian Flynn's novel (and adapted for the screen by her), Gone Girl centers on a seemingly perfect young married couple. (Her: "We're so cute. I wanna punch us in the face.") On their anniversary, the wife, Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), goes missing, and the husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), becomes the chief suspect. Twists, reveals, reversals and ambiguities abound, and one of the great virtues of Gone Girl is how we're asked to reevaluate characters and events over time. (I haven't read the book yet, but the film seems to do a pretty good job of adapting unreliable narration, a tricky thing for film. Fincher's earlier film, Fight Club, cheats a bit despite its other merits.) Ben Affleck's real-life history as a target of tabloid gossip creates a layer of meta-commentary (and probably helped him prepare for the role). Rosamund Pike's given the juiciest role of her career, and makes the most of it. The supporting cast is superb in their roles, including Carrie Coon as Nick's sister and confidant Margo, Neil Patrick Harris as a shady ex-boyfriend of Amy's, Tyler Perry as a celebrity lawyer/PR expert, Missi Pyle as a Nancy-Grace-type TV personality, Sela Ward as a more upscale version, comedienne Casey Wilson as a neighbor, and Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as the main cops on the case. (The comic chops of Pyle and Wilson serve them well.) It's hard to discuss much more without giving away crucial plot points (see the spoilers below). Gone Girl's leads aren't always likable, but they're never boring, and while the film does have its detractors, you can't accuse it of being forgettable. (SPOILERS)

Edge of Tomorrow: Edge of Tomorrow wasn't marketed well and it's a genre picture, so it didn't receive nearly the reception it deserved as one of the best films of 2014. The planet Earth is under attack by aliens called Mimics, and the war isn't going well. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is a public relations officer with a keen streak for self-preservation who runs afoul of General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), head of Earth's forces. Cage is branded as a deserter and assigned to combat duty under tough-as-nails Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, having a blast in the role). He's inept with his battle suit and a coward on the beach battlefield during a doomed attack, but manages to kill a Mimic, leading to him getting sprayed by its acid blood – and wakes up earlier that day, before the attack. This keeps occurring, and during one of his repeated days, he runs into celebrated soldier Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who figures out what's going on with him and tells him to 'find her when he wakes up.' It turns out he's caught in a time loop, as she once was, and they hope to exploit this not only to win the battle but also potentially the war. The problem is, this requires a painful process of trial and error, with Cage (and Vrataski, and those around them) dying over and over again to progress toward their goal. (This leads to plenty of dark humor as well as occasional poignancy.)

Edge of Tomorrow works decently just as an action film or thriller, but it's compelling for several reasons. Cage starts off pretty unlikable, but gradually and plausibly changes over time. Emily Blunt, while always good (often as a romantic interest), is convincing as a battle-hardened heroine. (Vrataski's not fond of Cage to begin with, and even if they develop camaraderie, she's not falling for him in some contrived manner.) They're also refreshingly smart about what they try, given their situation – you won't find yourself yelling at the screen, and will occasionally find yourself impressed by their cleverness. Although the external stakes are high – potentially saving the human race before Cage's special condition wears off, as it did for Vrataski – their internal turmoil naturally proves considerable as well. Dying again and again, watching one's comrades and loved ones die repeatedly, trying to make some small piece of progress despite constant setbacks – it presents quite the existential crisis.

Many reviewers have described Edge of Tomorrow as Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day or a video-game-inspired movie. These are decent descriptions, although it's adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka's Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill and sci-fi literature has plenty of partial precursors (Algis Budrys' 1960 short novel Rogue Moon and the short stories of Frederik Pohl come to mind). Still, Edge of Tomorrow is genuinely original in its combination and overall approach, legitimately superb in its execution and a master clinic in editing (and screenwriting and directing for continuity). There's a fair amount of violence given the storyline, but it's not gratuitous. I'm not the biggest Tom Cruise fan, but he's genuinely good here, as is Blunt, while Gleeson and Paxton are standouts in a solid supporting cast. Director Doug Liman has the reputation for being a perfectionist, and it pays off splendidly here. This is also lead writer Christopher McQuarrie's best work since The Usual Suspects. Unless you hate sci-fi and action, you should check this out.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: This may be Wes Anderson's best film to date. He has a tendency to be too precious and mannered for some tastes, but here, he delivers a delightful romp primarily set at the title location in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka in 1932. (Some parallels to real life will become apparent.) As some viewers will note, the film is a story within a story within a story, and really gets rolling when a young "Author" (Jude Law) in 1968 visits the faded Grand Budapest Hotel and interviews its mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who then tells the remarkable take of the hotel's glory days and how he rose from lobby boy to owner.

As usual, Anderson gathers an impressive cast (some famous actors essentially have cameos – I won't spoil the surprise), and the impeccable production design and Alexadre Desplat's playful score (including invented folk music from the fictional country) create a silly but plausible world and add to the fun. (It's not a world without menace nor heartbreak, though.) Selling the whole affair is a fantastic performance by Ralph Fiennes as Monsieur Gustave H., the ridiculously debonair and cultured concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel, especially beloved by the aging, rich women who frequent the venue (and his bed). Fiennes excels at playing villains and hasn't played a character like this in a while, so it's a real treat to see him employ his considerable charms as Monsieur Gustave. The emotional core of the movie is the relationship between Monsieur Gustave and his idolizing young protégé, Zero (played in 1932 by Tony Revolori), who's as deadpan as Gustave is effusive. Zero's budding romance with local girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) adds a sincere sweetness to the proceedings. The main plot, however, revolves around one of Gustave's elderly admirers expiring and bequeathing a valuable painting to him. This enrages one of her surviving family members, Dmitri (Adrien Brody), who covets the painting, plots Gustave's ruin, and unleashes his vicious henchman J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to achieve this. (Be warned that The Grand Budapest Hotel has a few surprisingly violent scenes, mostly involving Jopling.) Really every character has at least one great scene, with one of my favorites involving Gustave realizing he's been an ass – it's funny, but a little biting, and possesses some depth. Likewise, The Grand Budapest Hotel is charming, delightful and drenched in wistful nostalgia, but also features a couple of meaningful tragedies that make it moving in addition to being entertaining. (If you don't like this one, I doubt you'll like any of Anderson's movies.)

Here's Wes Anderson on The Treatment.

Nightcrawler: (No, it's not a film about the X-Man, although that would have been cool. It's still a good movie, though.) Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) can be called the protagonist of Nightcrawler, but he's not really a hero – he's more of a sociopath, albeit a fascinating one – unflinching, single-minded, hustling and hard-working, and a quick study. He always has his own agenda, but in his own weird way he's occasionally more honest than some of the sleazier people he encounters, in that he likewise considers human relationships transactional, but drops the pretense. Louis witnesses a flaming car accident late at night, and shortly thereafter, a freelance camera crew arrives that films it and talks about selling it to the local news. Louis becomes fascinated, and decides to try to break into the business, at first with only pretty lousy gear – but his first footage pays decently, and he finds he's got a knack for the work, which can be exciting. "If it bleeds, it leads," the old TV news adage goes, and Louis quickly learns that the more sensationalistic the footage, the better the payout – especially given how competitive the local news business is, with bumps or drops in ratings helping or damaging careers. In time, Louis recruits his first employee, the overly trusting Rick (Riz Ahmed, who's very natural and plausible in the role), and has a few clashes with rival Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), the best local provider of freelance footage. Louis also seeks to become cozier with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a veteran of the business who's the head of a local morning news show. At times, you may wonder what the hell Louis is doing – and be amazed and appalled by the results. At other times, you'll probably be able to anticipate what's going to happen, but will be transfixed nonetheless. The extended climatic sequence probably amounts to about 20 minutes, and is masterfully put together – thrilling, disturbing and memorable.

As a critique of the seamier side of TV news, Nightcrawler is on point but exaggerated, and I watched it primarily as a character study. Louis Bloom is a weird mix of charisma and creepiness, made sharper by Gyllenhaal's unblinking stare and gaunt appearance (reportedly he ran to and from set every night to keep thin and hungry). It's probably Gyllenhaal's best performance to date. Writer-director Dan Gilroy is an experienced screenwriter (and brother to fellow writer-director Tony Gilroy), but this is his first feature. Kudos to him for recognizing that "interesting" isn't the same as "likable" and for fully exploring the premises of his own story.

(Here's Dan Gilroy on The Treatment.)

Special Mention: A Summer's Tale: Éric Rohmer's 1996 film finally received its official U.S. release in 2014. I had seen the other three "season" films as part of a wonderful National Gallery of Art retrospective on Rohmer, so it was nice to round out the set (The Winter's Tale is one of my favorite Rohmer flicks). Rohmer's subtleties and unhurried pace are not for all tastes, but those who like him will treasure his work; he's the cinematic equivalent of an Anton Chekhov short story (if cheerier, being French) in that he captures real life in art. His films typically feature non-professional actors, and the naturalness of their performances and the authenticity of the moments in his films make a refreshing change of fare.

In A Summer's Tale, as usual, Rohmer offers up a slice of real life with a simple plot. Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is a shy math student and decent amateur musician, spending his vacation at the beach in Dinard, a resort town. He doesn't know anyone, but his semi-girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin) told him to meet her there. (She runs with the popular crowd.) In the meantime, he meets the low-key and sweet Margot, who works in her aunt's café. They hit it off quite well and spend time together, but she's got an out-of-town boyfriend herself. (Margot is played by Amanda Langlet, who also was the title character in Rohmer's 1986 film Pauline at the Beach.) Meanwhile, Gaspard exchanges meaningful glances with Solène (Gwenaëlle Simon), who's attractive, sensual and risk-taking – and with Lena increasingly looking like a no-show, he gives things with Solène a chance. They have a grand time, including writing and performing silly songs together. But then Lena might be arriving after all, and Solène wants an exclusive commitment from Gaspard – she's offended by the idea of being anyone's second choice. Gaspard is a decent guy who winds up way out of his depth as he somehow finds himself juggling three women. He thinks he loves Lena, but she can go extremely hot or cold toward him; Solène is exciting but a bit possessive (not entirely without reason); Margot is probably the best of the bunch, but seems unavailable. Gaspard makes for a likable protagonist because he's not trying to play anyone and he's stuck in some amusingly impossible but entirely plausible situations. (This isn't one of Rohmer's "morals" or "proverbs" films, but if there's a moral to this one, perhaps it's: love is a puzzle; when in doubt, bet on the arts.) My favorite Rohmer films are probably still Claire's Knee, Chloe in the Afternoon, The Green Ray and The Winter's Tale, but this makes for a lovely summer treat and aesthetic change-up from big CGI blockbusters.

(My remembrance on Rohmer, who died in 2010, is here.)