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For the first 30 minutes or so, The Wailing (Goksung), has its charms, but as the film wears on, those moments become more and more sparse. Director Na Hong-jin has moments of blending horror and humor with deft cleverness, yet the film unravels. As it lumbers along on its exorbitant running time, The Wailing bobs and weaves with redundancies, inconsistencies and the classic horror problem: frustrating logic, that makes the film feel like a bit of a slog. It isn’t a terrible film, and critics have been adoring to it. However, several note problems in storytelling or a loss of substance in cultural translation.

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It’s the end of the year, and once again here is a list of the best films I caught this year. As opposed to other years, I’m including short films and even a couple of multimedia experiences, including some works that some might exclusively consider “art.”

If there is one characteristic I search for in moving image experiences it is the feeling of transcendence. To this writer and lover of the art of the moving image — sometimes above narrative and definitely beyond the confines of the classical Hollywood cinema form — that often means subverting the medium. It would be unfair to place the burden of that on narrative films that often come up this time of year, begging to be noticed for an Oscar award. But it was a grueling awards season this year only because not many of these films stood out as genuinely spectacular (I’m thinking Unbroken, The Gambler, Into the Woods and Interstellar)

In this two-part post, I hope to give you a taste of films that you would not expect for an end-of-the-year summary, including links to some that you might be able to see now, on-line. All of these were true surprising experiences and many, yes, had that moment of transcendence. But of course there were indie, world and even some studio films that impressed with acting and narrative technique.

Though I must take personal acquaintance out of the mix, as that has an effect on opinion, allow me to note that I saw wonderful films by some local Miami filmmakers this year. The Miami International Film Festival gave us the incredible short documentary “Cherry Pop: The Story of the World’s Fanciest Cat” by Kareem Tabsch, co-founder of Miami’s chain of O Cinemas. He cracked up when I asked if it was a mockumentary. It’s not.

MIFF also gave us “Ectotherms,” an atmospheric film of suburban malaise distinct to Miami by Monica Peña, operations manager at the Miami Beach Cinematheque (read my interview with her here). She also finished a short documentary that captures a side of Miami Beach few who haven’t been there have ever seen. It premiered at Miami’s Borscht Film Festival. Watch “Pink Sidewalks” below:

Speaking of Borscht, I saw only a few of this year’s offerings, but they inspired lots of writing on my part in the “Miami New Times.” “Cool As Ice 2” is an amazing meta sequel to Cool As Ice by the talented duo of Lucas Leyva and Jillian Mayer. Then there is “Papa Machete,” by Jonathan David Kane, a poetic short documentary about an elderly Haitian Machete Fencing master that is now headed to Sundance. I also lobbied hard to get Borscht the “Golden Orange” from the Florida Film Critics Circle. They won it (read all my Borscht coverage and check out videos by following this link).

Finally, though Art Basel – Miami Beach this year meant a preview for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, it more importantly allowed me to spend a lot of time with Auto Body, an group exhibition in response to gender inequality in art that featured art by women artists. It was a performance and video-based exhibit with nothing for sale. A lot of it was based on destruction over creation or vice-versa. It opened with Cheryl Pope destroying hundreds of water balloons sustained from the ceiling using only her head and closed with Naama Tsabar leading an all-girl band through an immaculate cover of Pulp’s “Babies,” which descended into abstract noise at song’s end, while Tsabar spent a half-hour bashing the stage to pieces with her guitar. In between my friend dancer Ana Mendez choreographed a fall down and “up” a metal staircase she titled “Liminal Being,” which she repeated several times each day of the exhibit. It was raw, real and visceral, showing both strength and human vulnerability, something that could be said for much of the art in this exhibit.

But much of what made Auto Body were short films, and indeed some of the most incredible visuals I saw this year unfolded on those 25 screens. I wrote a preview here, with several interviews. Next I wrote a reactionary summary of part of day 1 of the event here. The latter includes some of the video highlights at the exhibition, which lasted four days and even caught the attention of the “New York Times.” Here’s a snippet of one of the highlights (those offended by naked female bodies should not play this):

There are some terrific film experiences above that made 2014 memorable, there’s also a distinctive style coming out of Miami, be it abstract or narrative-based, that is worth further exploration in another post. Some are already using the term “Miami Wave.” I just feel too close to them to rank them among the films I feel less personally attached to in the list below and in part 2 of this post, which will appear on this blog tomorrow. Though, recalling this year in local art and film, I do feel like I have already written about my favorite film of 2014.

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I’m going to start this list by presenting an example of one of the great short films I saw in 2014, which I will consider number 20 of my top 20 film experiences of 2014, then I’ll present the rest of the first half of this list. Where available, all titles link to the item description page on Amazon. If you purchase via the specific link, you will be financially supporting this blog. If we reviewed it here, there will be a link to the review under the poster art. Finally if we haven’t reviewed it, I’ll try to share a few words about the film’s significance.

20. Collection petites planètes • volume 7 • Maricel Yasa

Do not dismiss this as a music video. It’s a slice-of-life exploration of Buenos Aires with the beautiful accompaniment of the music of Maricel Yasa. Her soft, airy vocals and active acoustic guitar plucking is sometimes accompanied by a droning, high-pitched violin but it mostly melds with the sounds of the city, be they rumbling buses or kids setting off sporadic fireworks in a park. Filmmaker Vincent Moon (we wrote a lot about him here), shows no shame in his probing camera work, which is as spontaneous as the scenes he captures, he drifts close to his subjects and shows as much respect for their surroundings. His work has beauty and an earthy quality that is both beautiful and sometimes sublimely poetic.

19.  Blue Ruin

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With Blue Ruin, director Jeremy Saulnier gives us a suspense film not driven by plot twists but a human incompetence that reveals the blinding power of a grudge allowed to fester for way too long. The performances by these unknown actors are handled with great care. There’s an every-man quality to them that far from glamorizes the revenge flick. There’s little panache but great sensitivity in showing how hard it is to kill, adding to the nerve-racking pace of the film without contrived enhancements of editing and music.

18. Whiplash

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Refreshingly intense, Whiplash not only features two of this year’s great male performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, but it  has an unrelenting pace fueled by twisted passion. They may not be musicians, but Teller and Simmons give a lot to convey their weirdo drive for technical musical perfection. The crazy thing is that it’s jazz, a music to be loved for its human imperfection. However, to get to that — ahem — transcendent level of greatness in the music, you have to master perfect form, and it comes through pain, and, man, is pain conveyed to the hilt in this film.

17. Wild

Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

16. Force Majeure

Force_MajeureRead my review

15. Listen Up Philip

LUP-Poster-WEBRead my review

14. Lake Los Angeles

lake laRead my review in “Miami New Times”

13. Snowpiercer

snowpiercer_ver20Read Ana Morgenstern’s review

12. Birdman

posterRead my review

11. Hide Your Smiling Faces

smilingfaces_smRead my review

Tomorrow: the top 10 films (or videos) of 2014. Update, it’s live:

The best movies of 2014, according to Hans Morgenstern — Part 2

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

snowpiercer_ver20Snowpiercer is an enthralling, fast-moving sci-fi action film about a post-apocalyptic world where the few survivors of a frozen planet earth are the occupants of a train. The film starts off in 2031, a failed attempt at curbing rampant global warming is depicted by distant rockets streaking across clear blue skies, the voice of an unseen news anchor providing the background and an ominous symphonic score. Seventeen years later, all that is left of humanity are those who have boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that loops the globe once a year, without stopping thanks to a supposedly brilliant breakthrough in engineering called “the eternal engine.”

The entirety of the film’s action takes place within the train, a long, narrow series of cars, defined by a hellish class system, that gives off a feeling of oppressive, almost claustrophobic confinement, on more than one level. The action starts at the back of the train, where we meet Curtis,(Chris Evans) the reluctant hero with side-kick Edgar (Jamie Bell) as they strategize their escape from the back wagon. Under the counsel of wise elder Gilliam (John Hurt), Curtis and Edgar plot to take over the train and undo 17 years of injustice. The mammoth task soon seems insurmountable as we meet an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton playing Mason, the enforcer of control, keeper of the order and representative of Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s inventor/conductor and its de facto ruler, whose sole concern is balance and order inside the moving train. Serving as spokesperson for Wilford, Mason talks at people in the back of the train— and therefore at the bottom of the social ladder— in a forceful tone, reminding them constantly to “keep their place.”

Tilda Swinton and officers in Snowpiercer

The rule-of-law inside the train, constantly moving at high speeds and bursting through errant snow drifts, makes use of not only heavy force but also information control. Mason is the best example of this mind control, as she exacerbates every statement with a heavy assertion of “… and so it is” with a ritualistic hand gesture. Beyond coercion and the train itself, power also emanates from the hegemonic Wilford through information and thought control. As Curtis and company move up towards the front of the train, they encounter an elementary school-level class of children in session. There, a teacher (Alison Pill) indoctrinates children on the life and many feats of their train conductor Wilford, and the laughable idea that things might be different by setting foot outside the train.

Tilda Swinton Snowpiercer still

The visual narrative of Snowpiercer is clearly inspired by graphic novels. The stunning quality of the fast-moving shots in many of the fight scenes feels like an extraordinary page-turner. There is an extended scene once the revolutionaries reach the “water” wagon. Here, the establishment gains the upper hand as the train enters a tunnel and lights go off. The frames, and the action within them, move so fast you’re almost afraid of blinking.

Besides these fast scenes, there are some serene moments that focus on the emotional state of its characters, a prime example is when one of the windows of the train breaks and a single snowflake drifts into the scene stopping door-cracking expert Kang-ho Song (Namgoong Minsoo) in his tracks. It is no surprise then, that South Korean director Joon-Ho Bong has said he was inspired by the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The aesthetics will please sci-fan fans as much as art house cinephiles. While the film is dark and crowded in the beginning, as our heroes move up to the front of the train they encounter light and what privilege looks like — a lot better in terms of creature comforts but also increasingly more bizarre with every door that they open.

Higher classes in train

Lest you think Snowpiercer is just another sci-fi, good-time film, there is an enduring quality to it. Its underlying environmental message points to the hubris of human control of its environment. Once you have living, breathing organisms, an ecosystem soon follows. Control of the environment necessarily goes together with coercion and in extreme cases — such as the self-contained train— there is also a political system that is hierarchical, the mantra of Wilford: “Everything in its place.” People, animals, everything is ordained. A rigid class system was developed and enforced via the compartments in the train, which inevitably led to authoritarianism.

The articulation of injustice done to humans and the environment is not subtle but is far more thoughtful than many of the action flicks produced by Hollywood every summer. Director Joon-ho Bong’s depiction of the class system and its ties to political and environmental factors is reminiscent of Robert Reich’s critique of the current American system of inequality. Indeed, this film redeems the best qualities of sci-fi: the ability of entertaining while depicting a satiric, exaggerated picture of the ills of the current times.

Snowpiercer runs 126 minutes and is rated R (expect some disturbing scenes of violence). It is playing exclusively in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which is hosting a retrospective of Joon-ho Bong’s films throughout the month of July (see their calendar for details). For nationwide screening information visit the film’s official website (that’s a hot link).

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)