best film: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) from Alejandro González Iñárritu

  • Birdman’s bold camerawork and visual high-wire act transcends a film that already had superior writing and acting. Like all of Iñárritu’s work, the multiple narratives (usually three characters) are intertwined. . With his long take work here, Iñárritu puts himself in the company of his countryman Cuaron, Hitchcock (Rope), Welles (Touch of Evil) Godard (Weekend), Scorsese, Murnau, Ophuls and Renoir. He even borrows from I Am Cuba and Kalatozov in terms of how actors are framed- this is a stunning achievement.
  • Utterly astonishing cinematography in the Bordwell definition of cinematography—the camerawork—audacious— Iñárritu is a virtuoso— it is Rope, Russian Ark,  I Am Cuba– Iñárritu talks about I Am Cuba and Ophüls but the hidden cuts here (16 visible edits) line up a bit better with Rope (even if I agree with him that the free flowing nature of the camera is closer to La Ronde or something). I actually admire how innovative each invisible edit is—whether they tilt the camera to the sky or use a blank canvas—each transition is thought out – some blending the passage of time.
  • The camera creates momentum- it gives the narrative energy- it  pushes open doors, follows characters down the street– floating down from the rafters and weaving in and out of rooms, down and upstairs —it is timing, blocking (a major cinematic triumph here).
  • A brilliant drum score from Antonio Sanchez– it is a perfect match to the camera – movement—adds such immediacy, a  hustle to each moment and scene. It is a dance- even the titles dance in with the score.
  • Unlike Russian Ark there is a real engaging narrative here, unlike Victoria  there is beauty here in the mise-en-scene (even more so than 1917) – the changes in lighting on stage (the blue day for night in one scene, yellow another, red lighting in yet another), the framing of the faces (again closer to Kalatozov’s work). Birdman is still the most picturesque of all the one-take or one-take simulated films in cinema history
  • The screenplay and acting — passionate, clever and angry. A meditation on celebrity—both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton (as ex-Batman and well known difficult actor) riffing on their persona—one wonders if they thought about a Lindsay Lohan-type for the rehab daughter role.
  • “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” – the opening title from Carver
  • Strong scene of Keaton losing it alone in his dressing room accompanied by the camera and genius musical score. It makes a good pairing with Leo losing it in his trailer with the whiskey sour scene in Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood

Iñárritu is not content with just the camera movement and complicated blocking– he uses color (blues below, yellows here) sublimely

Actor-friendly close-ups with the framing during monologues an arguments

  • Love the empty hallway show at the 77-minute mark with cheering from the stage- unfortunately the 86-minute liquor store chili pepper lighting mise-en-scene is lifted from Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009).
  • It is comedy (not that genre definitions are important when talking about a great auteur or work- which this is)- which is a change for Iñárritu, as are the dedication to camera moving and long tracking shots – but it still has a lot I common with his previous body of work. He is blending three characters here (even if Norton and Stone do not have as much of an arc as his split narratives in Amores PerrosBabel, 21 Grams) and it is gloomy—painful— Keaton telling the story to his ex-wife about how he got stung by jellyfish on his way to a suicide attempt is just about Iñárritu’ s incredibly bleak worldview in a nutshell—black comedy or not.
  • We slide into diegetic vs. non-diegetic with the drummer in the film—Iñárritu is making loud choices ( this speaks to Keaton’s character’s psyche) – and all the choices land perfectly.
  • For a film that is essentially a thoughtfully constructed simulated “oner” – there is actually a gorgeous montage at the 103- minute mark—drummers on stage, shot of the jellyfish
  • There is more here- even after three viewings—flowers a big part of so many frame arrangements- a motif

Fitting conclusion and finale image with Emma Stone and those Margaret Keane eyes looking at the skyline


most underrated:  The two films that stand out in 2014 are Mr. Turner from the great Mike Leigh and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence from Roy Andersson. These are two of the best five films of the year- and they land at the #30 and #35 spot on the TSPDT consensus 21st list for 2014 films.


Mr. Turner is partly true to form Mike Leigh (plotless, rich characterizations) and partly paving new ground (some of the visuals here put David Lean to shame). The gauntlet is thrown down early by Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope—the film starts on a windmill landscape. It may be as beautiful as cinema gets. Then the camera rolls into another stunner of Timothy Spall (as Turner) sketching in the tall grass.

The exteriors are breathtaking  but the Ozu-like open doorway shots in these immaculately crafted interiors around his house with his maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) are nearly as fine. It is a biopic and about the creation of art so it is a fitting companion piece with 1999’s Topsy-Turvy – the details of the process- this is Leigh’s 8 ½. 

The final film of Roy Andersson’s “Living trilogy”—one of the great feats of cinema in the 21st century—the compositions are among the greatest in cinema history—it is on that level. Winner of the Golden Lion in Venice. Andersson’s trademark color palate with a slight tweak, we have the overcast grays and life-sucking bland colors—but here he adds his sort of faded yellow or mustard color. Certainly a visual motif (in a film already loaded with visual and formal traits).

Like the other films in Andersson’s oeuvre it has great reviews from critics—but a few seem to be ready for him to try something else. I could not disagree more—Andersson is Ozu in this regard—he could remake the same film over and over. Please do. Many candidates for 2014’s greatest mise-en-scene frame—28 minutes there is a regular at a bar (for sixty years)– Limping Lotta’s bar — and then goes into a flashback to 1943 (time travel a big part of Pigeon for the first time in Andersson’s films). Andersson’s shots of bars and restaurants are some of his greatest and his work here is no exception.


most overrated:  Godard’s Goodbye to Language has managed to hijack the #2 slot on the TSPDT consensus list of the best films of 2014- so that is the easy choice- in reality it is nowhere near the second best film of the year. Timbuktu and Force Majeure land safely in the TSPDT top 10 of the year and they simply do not belong there either. Also, I was surprised to see both The Babadook and It Follows in the top ten of 2014 on the consensus list. I watch a disproportionally high amount of horror films and pride myself in being a decent student of the genre.- but having these two in the top ten feels like a stretch.


trends and notables:

  • It does not fit nicely into a shorter time span like German Expressionism, the French New Wave or Italian Neorealism but the Nuevo Cinema Mexicano with Iñárritu leading the way in 2014 is a major ongoing story in the world of cinema. Emmanuel Lubezki is a part of this, undoubtedly, and he wins to back Oscars for his work here with Birdman and in 2013 with Gravity. 
  • It is far from his best work but, tragically, 2014’s A Man Most Wanted would be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last archiveable film (22 films in the archives). He would leave us far too early at age 46 (about the age like Nicholson was in 1983 and think of all he has done since then and PSH is as talented as Jack). It seems inevitable that PSH would have 30+, maybe even 40+ archiveable films with decades more of work to give us… sad.
  • The Marvel movie dominance at the box office continues- Guardians of the Galaxy wins 2014 as far as money goes- with Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I in the second slot. It was released at the back of 2014- but American Sniper is a non-IP box office smash and makes Bradley Cooper one of the biggest stars working.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel is clearly Wes Anderson on a roll- even for him. This is this third top ten of the year film in the last six years.

Wes Anderson- playful aspect ratio work and art within art narrative structure and pontification…

…not to mention mise-en-scene mastery and an audacious use of color

  • It is mentioned above in the underrated section but Swedish auteur Roy Andersson finishes his trilogy- The Living Trilogy- here in 2014. Andersson has been one of cinema’s greatest auteurs of the 21st century.
  • Xavier Dolan’s incredible run since his debut in 2009 continues with 2014’s Mommy. At the age of 25 in 2014 this is Dolan’s fifth archiveable film. Unfortunately, now looking back- it looks like Dolan’s run is sort of over in 2014 as he has not made anything else especially noteworthy since to speak about.

from Dolan’s Mommy– when he has Antoine-Olivier Pilon literally expand the frame with his hands it blew me off my chair

with the subject of troubled youth and the stylistic innovation- one had to invoke Truffaut’s The 400 Blows

  • Richard Linklater may not be the visual master Iñárritu or Wes Anderson are- but Boyhood is a landmark in cinematic realism. Just like the Before trilogy marks a realistic relationship over time, Boyhood’s attempt to realistically capture the youth of a single young boy is unparalleled in cinema history. Boyhood is Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy via Richard Linklater.

This is back to back years in 2013 and 2014 with top five of the year films from Linklater. The daunting task of capturing a character over the course of twelve years- a formidable undertaking- extremely ambitious in its own right.

  • Damien Chazelle storms into the archives for the first time with Whiplash-a certainly remarkable accomplishment for an auteur still on the sunny side of thirty years old in 2014.

From the opening of Whiplash– a superb tracking shot with Miles Teller practicing with the open door framing him. Everything in Whiplash is studied and intentional- a whale of an achievement for any director- let alone one 29-years old

  • Elisabeth Moss is a a very gifted actor- and her first archiveable film is 2014- Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. Timothée Chalamet
    has a small part in Nolan’s Interstellar as his first archiveable film.



gems I want to spotlight:  Auteurs have been releasing work on television since at least Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ingmar Bergman in the 1970s and 1980s- and Cary Fukunaga’s True Detective is piece of cinema worth of spotlighting here in 2014.  Sadly, nobody is watching the work of Peter Strickland and The Duke of Burgundy released here in 2014 is his best work to date. Strickland has great aptitude and technical skill.  Oscar Isaac appears in two very worthy films that just  barely missed the top ten of 2014: Alex Garland’s Ex Machina and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. 


A Most Violent Year– painterly images from up and coming cinematographer Bradford Young

Ex Machina is a promising debut from novelist (The Beach) and screenwriter (28 Days Later…) Alex Garland

location scouting for the tree- and an inspired camera location chose from Cary Fukunaga here in True Detective

even in a year with Birdman, True Detective’s six-minute tracking shot (episode four) feels like a stylistic sonic boom in the world of cinema



best performance male: Not to take anything away from the actors themselves, but through the six films in the career of Alejandro González Iñárritu,  ten (10) of his actors have received Academy Award notations. Birdman has three of them and Michael Keaton is where you have to start for this category in 2014. Keaton has had a fascinating career. He is Batman in Tim Burton’s smash hit Batman (1989) of course. He had a career trajectory that paralleled Tom Hanks (and comic everyman talent oozing for both) in the 1980s. Keaton fell hard in the early 1990s- so by 2014 this is a full blown career resurrection like Tarantino has become so famous for doing. The camerawork adds to the immediacy and spontaneity of Keaton’s performance. Extremely close behind Keaton in 2014 is Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Fiennes gives a comic performance that at least the equal of his dueling dramatic turns during the 1990s  in Schindler’s List (1993) and The English Patient (1996). Some critics actually thought Edward Norton gave the best performance in Birdman and although I would disagree, it is not an uninteresting debate- so he has to be third here. Timothy Spall as J. M. W. Turner needs a spot here as well. Spall in the lead and he won the Best Actor award at Cannes. This is more of a one-man show than any Mike Leigh film since 1993’s Naked. Spall’s accomplishment cannot be overstated either. He is making choices, spitting and grunting, the penguin-like scowl and hobble. Turner is a dream character- he is contradictory—he is terrible to his child and ex-wife, he denies his daughter to a colleague— but he is great with his father and others. Whiplash is a film that deserves two slots here. The film is one long epic battle with between JK Simmons’ character and Miles Teller’s character. This is sorcerer and apprentice, cat and mouse, or The Duelists.  Undoubtedly one could draw a directly line from Whiplash to Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with Simmons as R. Lee Ermey’s Sgt. Hartman and Teller as D’Onofrio as the Pvt. Pyle. Though he won the Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club and stole scenes from Leo in The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, 2014 marks the peak of Matthew McConaughey as an actor to date with tremendous work in both Interstellar and True Detective. The final mention of 2014 goes once again to Ethan Hawke for his performance in Boyhood. Hawke plays Ellar Coltrane (as Mason)’s father. It is Hawke and Patricia Arquette that do the heavy lifting in the film as far as the performances go and by 2014 here it is time to start talking about Hawke’s four films with Linklater among the all-time great auteur/actor pairings.


This is the role of a lifetime for JK Simmons- a long-time solid character actor from Juno to Burn After Reading– and he is phenomenal here.


best performance female:  Four actors stand along at the top here in 2014. Anne Dorval is back in this category again and back with Xavier Dolan- this time in Mommy. Emma Stone starts an incredible five-year run and three-headed monster of big performances in masterpieces here in Birdman. Rosamund Pike is as good as anyone here in this category in 2014 for her work in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Lastly, Patricia Arquette is, in many ways, the heart and soul of Boyhood- and you have to admire the foresight of her and Hawke for taking on this ambitious project.


top 10

  1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  3. Boyhood
  4. Mr. Turner
  5. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
  6. Whiplash
  7. Mommy
  8. Gone Girl
  9. Horse Money
  10. Two Days, One Night



John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary– a dedication to background as well as the obvious foreground action

The place is Gordita Beach and the time is 1970 for Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh film- Inherent Vice. One of the best compositions in the film takes place in the opening as PTA places the camera between houses watching the ocean waves. It was five years between Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood and then again five years before The Master- so with only two years between films here, it is fair to ask if PTA is an artist that extra time.

a poetic landscape shot – Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Three films into his career (Capote, Moneyball), Bennett Miller seems incapable of making anything less than a meticulously crafted character study. Foxcather (also based on a true story, and also, like Moneyball, is about the sphere surrounding athletics)  here in 2014 explores the tragic events surrounding John du Pont (a horrifying Steve Carell) and the wrestling Shultz brothers- Mark (Channing Tatum) and David (Mark Ruffalo). Miller also uses the lighting panels over the wrestling mats throughout the film to fantastic effect- both spotlighting the characters and capturing them in handsome compositions–making for a strong background as the camera is at a long enough distance and a low enough angle to enjoy the ceiling lighting as mise-en-scene.

the Svínafellsjökull glacier captured by Christopher Nolan for Interstellar

Horse Money is easily Pedro Costa’s greatest triumph so far in his career in 2014. In many ways it is similar to his previous work—his Fontainhas trilogy (which has now been expanded beyond a trilogy because all of his films from 1997 are about similar subjects and set in Fontainhas)- Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth. Horse Money is clearly the work of the same, single-minded (and that is a compliment) auteur. Costa is concerned with the Cape Verde Immigrants, poverty, regret, suffering and sorrow. Characters play themselves (Vanda is not in this one but Ventura is) and setting (darkly lit) is as important to Costa as anything. This is the subject matter of the Dardenne Brothers with a composition that could be from WKW.

David Fincher’s Gone Girl- every frame soaked in his lighting design

there is a visual design consistency throughout

a cinematic painting worth of recognition among 2014’s finest



Archives, Directors, and Grades

71- Demange R
A Most Violent Year- Chandor HR
A Most Wanted Man- Corbijn R
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Andersson MS
American Sniper – Eastwood R
Birdman: or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance -Iñárritu MP
Black Coal, Thin Ice – Yi’nan Diao HR
Boyhood- Linklater MS/MP
Calvary- John Michael McDonagh HR
Clouds of Sils Maria – Assayas R
Cold In July- Mickle R
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes- Reeves R
Ex Machina- Garland HR
Force Majeure – Östlund R
Foxcatcher – B. Miller R/HR
Gone Girl- Fincher MS
Guardians of the Galaxy- Gunn R
Horse Money – Costa HR/MS
How To Train Your Dragon 2 – DeBlois R
Inherent Vice – P.T. Anderson HR
Interstellar – Nolan HR
It Follows- Robert Mitchell R
Leviathan- Zvyagintsev R/HR
Listen Up Philip- Ross Perry R
Love and Mercy- Pohlad R
Love is Strange- Sachs R
Maps to the Stars- Cronenberg R
Mommy – Dolan MS
Mr. Turner – Leigh MS
Nightcrawler- D. Gilroy HR
Phoenix – Petzold R/HR
Pride- Warchus R
Selma- DuVernay R
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – F. Miller, Rodriguez R
Still Alice- Glazer, Westmoreland R
The Babadook – Kent R
The Drop- Roskam R
The Duke of Burgundy – Strickland R/HR
The Grand Budapest Hotel – W. Anderson MP
The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies – Jackson R
The Imitation Game- Tyldumm R
The Theory of Everything- Marsh R
Timbuktu – Sissako R
True Detective- Fukunaga HR
Two Days, One Night – Dardenne HR
While We’re Young- Baumbach R
Whiplash – Chazelle MS
Wild Tales – Szifron R
Wild- Vallée R
Winter Sleep- Ceylan R



*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives