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As sometimes happens, one of the year's best films is a brand new post-holiday release that won't open until after this story is published. A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost, Margin Call), takes us to the outer boroughs of New York in the early 1980s, in which a man in the heating-oil business (Oscar Isaac) and his ambitious wife (Jessica Chastain) encounter disturbing stumbling blocks with every step they take. Both Isaac and Chastain turn in sharp performances, and Chandor's tense screenplay is counterbalanced by a hushed tone of menace. A Most Violent Year will receive a full review soon, when it arrives in theaters.
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin, however, is one of the most carefully hidden gems of all, a true fell-into-the-cracks anomaly that played SF IndieFest, then opened commercially in San Francisco in May (it didn't last long), and eventually made its way to Netflix. The single biggest surprise of an already surprising year, it's a revenge story, neither plain nor simple. Any more synopsis than that will spoil it for home video viewers, although we can't let it go without applauding Macon Blair's performance as Dwight, the dazed, scruffy avenger. Cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Saulnier's second feature was an unheralded sensation last spring at Cannes, but don't hold that against it. Recommended for fans of intense indie thrillers.
A handful of very good movies didn't make the cut, but rate honorable mention: Justin Simien's Dear White People, an incisively funny (read: bitchy) social satire that takes on racial relations at a university; Michaël R. Roskam's The Drop, a tough urban crime pic with fine perfs by Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini (his last); Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the sexiest horror film of the year, in Farsi with English subtitles; Jeff Preiss' Low Down, a superior art film about a junkie and his daughter, with actors John Hawkes and Elle Fanning heading a strong cast; Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's Two Days, One Night, another Dardenne excursion to the land of the working class, with a knockout job by Marion Cotillard as a picked-on (what else?) employee; English director Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall crab-walking his way through a biography of nineteenth-century painter J.M.W. Turner; writer-director Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, perhaps the scariest horror flick of the year; and Jean-Marc Valée's Wild, with Reese Witherspoon at her most glorious while on a personal redemption backpacking trek in the beautifully shot terrain of the Pacific Crest Trail.
In the overlooked-value department, these pics gave more pleasure and received less recognition than the competition: A.J. Edwards' The Better Angels (the woodsy early life of Abraham Lincoln, from the Terrence Malick school of history); Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger (the saddest movie of the year for ink-stained wretches of the print news industry); Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake (a mystifying murder story set in a gay cruising spot in the South of France); Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Dance of Reality (in which the old eccentric filmmaker shows he's still got it); and Jan Ole Gerster's A Coffee in Berlin (the misadventures of a selfish nosebleed, done with flair).
It should come as news to no one that the Great Recession is still alive and well. A full slate of this year's entertainments reflects that reality. The "recession special" lives on, but let's give that glib-sounding subgenre a new name, "The Have-Nots' Top Sixteen." Off the top of my head, they are: The Overnighters, Rich Hill, Low Down, Siddharth, Night Moves, Fed Up, Cesar Chavez, The Rocket, Omar, Labor Day, The Rover; the aforementioned Two Days, One Night; Snowpiercer; Leviathan; Gimme Shelter and If You Build It (the latter two were released in 2013, but debuted in the Bay Area this year). Forget movie stars and meaningless "glamour." The above, most of them in and out of theaters in a week or two, trade fantasy for everyday life, the illusion of easy money for a bus ride to nickel-and-dimesville. The documentaries — The Overnighters, Rich Hill, Fed Up, If You Build it — deserve special mention, but so do the movies from overseas: Siddharth (India), The Rocket (Laos), Omar (Palestine), The Rover (Australia), and Leviathan (Russia). More than ever before, it's obvious that the poor are getting poorer everywhere in the world.
What constitutes a "guilty pleasure" these days? Try one of these on for size: Adam Wingard's The Guest (don't answer that doorbell!); Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (Tilda Swinton's most satisfying perf in a busy year, as a literature-devouring vampire in Tangier); Scott Waugh's Need for Speed (see sideshow racers wreck San Francisco's Nob Hill!); Alex van Warmerdam's Borgman (just plain weird, Dutch-style); David Wendt's Wetlands (just plain nutty with high squeamish quotient, German-style); Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child (second entry, after Wetlands, in this year's female bodily function gross-out derby); Fedor Bondarchuk's Stalingrad, the Russian answer to Fury; and François Ozon's Young and Beautiful, the director's French-as-hell answer to The Girlfriend Experience.
Nominated for the Oblivion category: After we take quick note, let's forget all about these — John Turturro's Fading Gigolo; Neil Burger's Divergent; Noam Murro's 300: Rise of an Empire (what did you expect?); Phillip Noyce's The Giver; and Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods and Kings.