"This is a very, very depressing year for film," critic David Edelstein tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "because none of the great material came from Hollywood studios."
Studios, he says, direct their financial resources into sequels and comic-book movies, which leaves little room for "creative expression, and for doing something weird and potentially boundary-moving."
However, Edelstein says, in an era in which some 1,000 films may be released in the U.S. each year, the law of averages dictates that there will be some great movies. Edelstein says it was a wonderful year for indie films.
Here are his favorite movies this year:
Boyhood: Richard Linklater's film is about a boy in Texas whose parents have separated. Filmed over 12 years, audiences watch him grow up — and his worldview evolve. The movie catches the passing of time like no other movie, because it's literal.
Selma: Ava DuVernay's epic is about Martin Luther King Jr., played by the great David Oyelowo. It takes a deep look at the civil rights movement, from King's relationship with President Lyndon Johnson to the battle for voting rights for black Americans — and the incident on March 7, 1965, when state police beat peaceful protesters trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.
The Babadook: In this Australian chiller by Jennifer Kent, a bogeyman announces himself in a rhyming, pop-up book on a 7-year-old's shelf. But the real horror is that the boy's mom, a grieving widow, is battling psychic demons. It's a phenomenally scary pop-out storybook of a movie.
Whiplash: Director Damien Chazelle's film centers on the agony of a drummer in a high-powered music school. The movie ties you into knots: The fear of failure is omnipresent. So is the jazz vibe.
Only Lovers Left Alive: Jim Jarmusch's film is about vampires Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, who are deadpan, undead hipsters in a dying world.
Mr. Turner: Mike Leigh's marvelous J.M.W. Turner biopic stars that great grunter Timothy Spall, who adds a dollop of the grotesque. Spall depicts a man whose mind is barely engaged by anything other than his work. He's a mystery, and his art is magically indefinite — just like the movie.
Two Days, One Night: The Belgian Dardenne brothers' latest triumph stars Marion Cotillard as a desperate woman begging co-workers to forgo a big bonus so she can keep her job.
The Immigrant: Marion Cotillard plays a Polish woman trying to free her sister from the island's infirmary in this moody period drama. Joaquin Phoenix co-stars as a shady businessman.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper: Nick Broomfield's documentary will come to HBO in 2015. It's an incendiary look at a South Central Los Angeles serial killer who murdered as many as 100 women, and Broomfield finds out more about the case in a few weeks than the Los Angeles Police Department did in 25 years.
Citizenfour: Laura Poitras' avant garde paranoid conspiracy thriller is the real story of Edward Snowden and the technological infrastructure that can monitor everyone in the world. It will make you look both ways when you're on the street.
The Overnighters: Director Jesse Moss tells the story of a North Dakota pastor who provides shelter for economically desperate temporary workers — and discovers that no good deed goes unpunished.
On why Boyhood was his favorite of the year
There are all sorts of ways on film to denote the passing of time, and Richard Linklater has done that by setting a lot of films in real time and using time as a kind of marker, [like in] Before Midnight. ... But, you know, time is really important to him, and here, when he follows over 12 years this one boy aging, we get to see the changes on a kind of molecular level. ... Since the movie is about things that are lost that can't be recovered, you can't go back in time. Once you see him age, you can't bring the little boy back. ... That, to me, makes the movie so poignant and so profound. It gives a kind of documentary element, but it kind of transcends documentary.
On the best performances of the year
Julianne Moore gives a performance in a film called Still Alice: She plays the victim of early onset Alzheimer's disease; she's 50 when the diagnosis comes in. ... Moore gives an extraordinary performance. She plays a character who has always defined herself by her intellect, and so for most, if not all of the movie, you're just riveted on her face. You're just watching her think. There's more and more distance between her thinking the thought and being able to articulate it, being able to chase it down — it becomes heartbreaking in a kind of visceral way that I've really never seen.
The other major performance of the year is by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King [in Selma]. How do you play Martin Luther King convincingly? Well, for one thing, he's a British-trained actor, he's got this marvelous voice, and when you can take Martin Luther King's words, many of which we know already, and you can make it sound like they're coming out of your head and, more important, your diaphragm, then you've gone a long way. He's a spectacular actor.
On Into the Woods
Into the Woods is an extraordinary case, because early in the movie, I was jumping out of my seat I was so happy. We know it's the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical, which farcically mixes up a bunch of Brothers Grimm fairytales. And ... they've said they wrote it to explode the sugary Walt Disney treatment of fairy tales, and here it is, opening on Christmas Day, a big-budget Disney movie and working amazingly well. ...
But, as most people know, the musical takes a turn into the apocalyptic in the second half, really the last third, and man, it doesn't work in this context. I didn't much care for it when I saw the show on Broadway in 1987, but I respected it. But in a Disney movie opening Christmas Day — and pitched to the whole family — this sudden wave of awful things, it seems like child abuse. I say see it, and I say leave at what's clearly the end of Act 1. I'm actually not being facetious. You get all the enchantment and even some of ambiguities and the ... doom, but you won't come out thinking the Big Bad Wolf directed the ending.
On indie films
This year was a wonderful year for indie films. I mean, I actually consider Selma an indie film; I consider The Babadook an indie film; I consider Whiplash an indie film, even though they were released by a major studio, in some cases the smaller divisions. ... Kids are coming out of film schools; the cost of making a movie has plummeted in terms of your equipment; you can always find a lot of out-of-work actors; people are creating really meaningful movies from nothing. It's just the gap has been widening every year between indies and studio pictures — and it has never been wider.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is a FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our film critic David Edelstein is going to talk with us about his best of the year list. But first, we're going to talk about the film that made the most news this year, "The Interview." David is one of the few people who have actually seen it. Sony had pulled it from distribution last week before it was scheduled to open. This was after Sony was hacked, apparently by North Korea, and that was followed by threats of terrorist attacks against theaters that screened "The Interview."Last week, President Obama said he thought Sony made a mistake in pulling the film. Yesterday, Sony decided to release the film Christmas day, although the theatrical release will at least be limited. Today, a deal was reached to also stream the film. "The Interview" was cowritten and codirected by its star Seth Rogen. He and James Franco play the producer and host of a TV tabloid talkshow who have booked an interview with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un and then are asked by the CIA to assassinate him. I spoke with David this morning.
David, happy holidays. Welcome back to FRESH AIR. So let's start with "The Interview." Did you like the film?
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I loved it. I love low, low, lowbrow comedies. This is a lowbrow comedy, there's no question it's incendiary. It's rude and it's lewd. It is a raspberry blown at a sitting, totalitarian, repressive dictator. And I am completely in the movie's camp. People who say it's just some dumb, you know, broromance haven't seen the film obviously or aren't getting just how subversive this thing is.
GROSS: In what way is it subversive? I mean, obviously it's mocking Kim Jong-un, but in what way is it deeper than that?
EDELSTEIN: First of all, it shows him making a case, I mean, creating essentially Potemkin villages within North Korea to fool journalists into thinking that the grocery stores are well-stocked. And he has a fat kid planted on the street to wave at the car in which James Franco and Seth Rogen are driving by in order to illustrate the fact that his people aren't starving and that, as he says, we have fat kids in North Korea, too. It satirizes the propaganda, the insane level of propaganda on behalf of their dear leader and also, you know, against other regimes, particularly the United States.
GROSS: I guess you agree with the idea of satirizing Kim Jong-un, but is it done in an effective way? Is it funny? Is it interesting?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I think the movie is funny. I think about 50 percent of the jokes work - and given how many jokes there are in the movie, that's a fairly respectable percentage.
GROSS: I normally wouldn't ask you to give away plot points of a movie like this, but I think we would agree that in this case the news value of this movie trumps the spoiler alert issue.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask you; how is the assassination depicted?
EDELSTEIN: Well, the idea is that they're trying to kill him via ricin, via ricin patch. And they keep fouling it up, Seth Rogen and James Franco. James Franco initially becomes enamored of Kim Jong-un because he's playing a somewhat Ted Baxter-like idiot news men and he's wooed essentially by Kim Jong-un. He thinks they're brothers. He trusts him. So the whole ricin patch thing keeps getting screwed up. And then in a spectacularly bloody, gory climax, he is in fact brought down by a missile from a tank at the instant in which he is going to be launching his nukes.
GROSS: So who plays Kim Jong-un? His name is Randall Park. I don't know much about him.
EDELSTEIN: Well, he's playing Kim Jong-un as a little boy, as a man-child, very similar to the way that Seth Rogen and James Franco are depicted. He is someone of very base and basic appetites, incredibly insecure, clearly someone who has been bullied into submission by an overbearing father. And it's a very, very amusing portrait. If they had just made him - if they had given him another name, it wouldn't be as amusing. Part of what's amusing about it is that his name is Kim Jong-un and that he's giving a hot foot to a real leader. It's a really good performance.
GROSS: Well, I'll tell you, I've been wondering so much what Seth Rogen has been experiencing and what he's been thinking, and I hope when things quiet down, he's able to write about it or maybe make a movie about it. I think that would be awfully interesting.
EDELSTEIN: I think so, too. But I think that he is going to come out of this smelling like a rose, I really do. And I actually really respect Sony for making it, and I respect them for doing a semi-about-face.
GROSS: So Sony, you know, had to make a decision about whether to release the film or not and then they reversed the decision. So what are some of the business issues at stake for Sony? We know there's the free speech issues.
EDELSTEIN: Well, I don't know that there were free speech issues predominate here. The exhibitors pulled out. I mean, it was great that President Obama went on and said that he, you know, he wished the film had been released, it was a little naive of him to present it as an issue of only of patron safety and of free speech. There were - if people were not going to go to the multiplex because they were afraid of an attack, then all holiday movies would suffer. All the studios would suffer.
GROSS: So, David, now that we've talked about the film that made the most news this year, let's look at your 10 best list. Why don't you read it for us? What order would you like to read it in?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I'll read my list from 1 to 11 - yes, it's 11 this year, with one counted sentence about each movie, but I'm going to put the docs at the end because it's easier to wrap my head about it. Number one - gee, this is inevitable, and it is Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," which I think catches the passing of time like no other movie 'cause it's literal. Then comes "Selma," which is Ava DuVernay's epic in which Martin Luther King, played by the great David Oyelowo, meets LBJ. Number three is "The Babadook," the Australian director Jennifer Kent's phenomenally scary, popout storybook of a movie.Number four is "Whiplash," Damien Chazelle's drama of jazz and abuse. Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive," where vampires Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are deadpan, undead hipsters in a dying world. "Mr. Turner" is number six - Mike Leigh's marvelous J.M.W. Turner biopic with that great grunter Timothy Spall adding a dollop of the grotesque. "Two Days, One Night" is the Belgian Dardenne brothers' latest triumph with Marion Cotillard as a desperate woman begging coworkers to forgo a big bonus so she can keep her job. And Marion Cotilalrd is also the best thing about my last fiction film. She's a young Polish woman in James Gray's moody, period drama "The Immigrant." Now, those are eight. Let's go to the docs. Not a lot of people have seen Nick Broomfield's "Tales Of The Grim Sleeper," which will come to HBO in 2015. It is an incendiary look at a south-central Los Angeles serial killer who murdered as many as 100 women, and Broomfield finds out more about the case in a few weeks than the LAPD did in 25 years. Number 10, "Citizenfour," which is Laura Poitras' avant-garde paranoid conspiracy thriller that just happens to be the real story of Edward Snowden and a technological infrastructure that can monitor everyone in the world. And my last doc is also little seen, it's called "The Overnighters," in which director Jesse Moss tells the story of a North Dakota pastor who provides shelter for economically desperate temp workers and discovers that no good deed goes unpunished.
GROSS: So tell us more about why "Boyhood" is number one on your 10 best list this year.
EDELSTEIN: You know, there are all sorts of ways on film to denote the passing of time. And Richard Linklater has done that by setting a lot of films in real-time and using time as a kind of marker, you know, before midnight, before dawn, before lunch, before brunch. I don't remember even the names of the movies. But, you know, time is really important to him and here when he follows over 12 years this one boy aging, we get to see the changes on a kind of molecular level. We get to feel the passing of time.And since the movie is about things that are lost that can't be recovered, you can't go back in time. Once you see him age, it's as if you can't bring the little boy back. You know, how actors in movies are usually - they have a little boy playing the character at a young age and then they have a middle one and then they have the grown-up - you can't bring the little boy back. This guy is aging before your eyes. And that to me makes the movie so poignant and so profound. It gives a kind of documentary element, but it transcends documentary.
GROSS: So "Selma" is number two on your list. What makes it stand out as a historical movie because historical movies often get history wrong in their attempt to make the movie concise and to fit the arc of a dramatic film rather than them be as messy as actual history is.
EDELSTEIN: Well, I'm not necessarily sure this film doesn't make many of those same mistakes, it certainly condenses, it certainly takes a lot of shortcuts. What I love about it is that it focuses as much on the politics as it does on the idealism. I mean, Martin Luther King had a dream, but that dream wouldn't have mattered if he couldn't organize people and if he wasn't able to convert people, among them Lyndon Baines Johnson to his cause. What I think is most fascinating about this movie are the scenes in which he's opposite LBJ in the Oval Office. And LBJ, you know, if you've read Robert Caro and you've listened to those crazy Oval Office tapes of LBJ, he wasn't a visionary speaker, he was a sort of Texas backroom wheeler dealer.And he had an agenda here. His agenda was to pass the Great Society legislation. He didn't want to come down, he didn't want to use up all his chips on the civil rights fight. And it was Martin Luther King, who by talking to him and also by his actions in Selma, got him finally to go on national television and say what no president had ever said or maybe has said since then which is we shall overcome. What a moment, what a moment in this movie.
GROSS: David, what do you think were some of the best performances of the year?
EDELSTEIN: Well, I want to mention a film that's going to loom very large at the Academy Awards, which by the way I hate but I feel like I have to acknowledge. Julianne Moore gives a performance in a film called "Still Alice." She plays the victim of early onset Alzheimer's disease. She's 50 when the diagnosis comes in. She is a professor at - well, it was Harvard in the novel, it's Columbia in the movie. Julianne Moore gives an extraordinary performance. She plays a character who's always defined herself by her intellect and so for most if not all the movie, you're just riveted on her face, you're just watching her think. And as there's more and more distance between her thinking the thought and being able to articulate it, being able to chase it down, it becomes heartbreakingly in a kind of the visceral way that I've really never seen in that kind of movie.
GROSS: Any other performances you want to single out?
EDELSTEIN: The other major performance of the year is by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King. How do you play Martin Luther King convincingly? Well, for one thing, he's a British trained actor. He's got this marvelous voice. And when you can take Martin Luther King's words, many of which we know already, and you can make it sound like they are coming out of your head, and more important, your diaphragm, then you've gone a long way. He is a spectacular actor. And the performance, too - the way Martin Luther King is characterized in the film, he's very much a public figure. And a public figure is someone who every utterance he is sort of carrying the weight of millions of people on his back. But he's also a men who we know had some private quirks, some of which were exploited by J. Edgar Hoover, who tried to blackmail King. And there's something very moving about the way that David Oyelowo makes it clear that Martin Luther King can't reconcile the public and private man, he can't do it. It's like he doesn't have the emotional equipment. That gives him an astounding vulnerability that I've never seen in that kind of portrait.
GROSS: David, what would you recommend that we see over Christmas?
EDELSTEIN: Well, let's talk about all the major Christmas releases because I think they're all significant. "Into The Woods" is an extraordinary case because, look, early in the movie I was jumping out of my seat, I was so happy. We know it's the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical, which farcically mixes up a bunch of Brothers Grimm fairytales. And they wrote it, they said they wrote it, to explode the sugary, Walt Disney treatment of fairytales. And here it is, opening on Christmas Day, a big budget Disney movie and working amazingly well. You've got Meryl Streep as the witch and she's really fun, and Anna Kendrick is Cinderella, and she has a gorgeous soprano. You've Chris Pine as a prince and Johnny Depp the Big Bad Wolf and James Corden, who you know is going on after Colbert on CBS. My favorite is Emily Blunt, who's dizzy and blurty (ph) and funny.But as most people know, the musical takes a turn into the apocalyptic in the second half, really the last third. And man, it doesn't work in this context. I mean, I didn't much care for it when I saw the show on Broadway in 1987, but I respected it. But in a Disney movie opening Christmas Day and pitched to the whole family, this sudden wave of awful things just - it seems like child abuse. So I say see it, I say leave at what's clearly the end of act one. I'm actually not being facetious. You get all the enchantment and even some of the ambiguities and portents of doom, but you won't come out thinking that the Big Bad Wolf had directed the ending.
GROSS: Well, you know, a movie that's opening for Christmas that is not exactly a joyous film - though, I suppose in the end it's uplifting - is "Unbroken," which is based on the true story of someone who was a prisoner of war during World War II in Japan. What did you think?
EDELSTEIN: It's a good movie. Most people know it's about Olympic runner Lewis Zamperini.
GROSS: And that it's based on a book by Laura Hillenbrand.
EDELSTEIN: Yes, a book that actually in some ways was more difficult to take than the movie. I mean, if you read it, those final chapters in which this poor guy gets broken in every way imaginable, I mean, Angelina Jolie is actually a lot more discreet and tasteful than the descriptions in that book. It's a very, very good film. It's very well made. Its enraging. I'm not sure, though, that Jolie's making the principal Japanese torturer sexually ambiguous - I mean, he almost looks like a cross-dresser - is a good idea. It adds this really kind of peculiar psychosexual element to the whole thing that I found disturbing and even offensive.
GROSS: Have you seen "Big Eyes" yet? And would you recommend that for Christmas?
EDELSTEIN: Yeah, I really like "Big Eyes." Most people know it's Tim Burton's story of Margaret Keane who painted all those round eyed waifs that her husband Walter took credit for. It's not the usual Tim Burton style, but Burton has always loved the purveyors of kitsch if he thinks that their work reveals some interesting strange mind. I mean, that's why he loved Ed Wood. I mean, he genuinely loved Ed Wood. And he got together with the same screenwriters to do this one. And it's a much straighter film, a much more earnest film. But Amy Adams gives a really lovely, vulnerable performance. I thought Christoph Waltz as Walter was too cartoonish, he's very broad so that Adams has to make her stupider than she (inaudible). The last part of the film is so cool, it's like this suburban noir in which Margaret is trapped in her own world of big eyes, which suddenly look as if everybody in the movie is catatonic with terror. It's really, really fun. Yes, I do recommend the film.
GROSS: So, David, on the whole, would you say that this was, like, a good year for film?
EDELSTEIN: No. I would say this is a very, very depressing year for film because none of the great material came from Hollywood studios. We know in this era in which potentially a thousand films may be released in this country every year that you're going to get some great movies. I mean, the law of averages says you are. But it would be very nice if every so often you got one from a major studio rather than what's happening now with the studios directing so much of their financial resources into these sequels and comic book movies and movies that really leave very little room for creative expression and for doing something weird and potentially boundary moving.
GROSS: So, David, you basically told us that this year you've kind of written off the major studios, you're not looking to them to make good movies because they're doing, you know, spinoffs and big budget blockbusters. But what about the indie films? There's no shortage of indie films. How is this year for indie films?
EDELSTEIN: This year was a wonderful year for indie films. I mean, I actually consider "Selma" an indie film, I consider "The Babadook" an indie film, I consider "Whiplash" an indie film - even though they were released by a major studio, in some cases the smaller divisions. It's a terrific year. Look, kids are coming out a film schools, the cost of making a movie has plummeted in terms of your equipment. You can always find a lot of out of work actors. You know, people are creating really meaningful movies from nothing. It's just the gap has been widening every year between indies and studio pictures and it has never been wider.
GROSS: Well, David, thanks for talking with us about the year in film. I wish you a happy new year and happy holidays.
EDELSTEIN: It's my pleasure, Terry. I wish you a great holiday. I hope you catch up with everything you haven't seen, and thank you so much.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for FRESH AIR and New York magazine. Our interview was recorded this morning. You'll find the list of his best films of the year at our website freshair.npr.org.
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