Here are seven notable highlights from this year's official slate.
1. 1. Whiplash (Now in limited release)
A real coup for J.K. Simmons, a dependable character actor who appears in every other movie, TV series or ad (The Closer, Juno, State Farm), often as nice or at least sensible dads. Here he's Terence Fletcher, a well-regarded jazz-band teacher and instructor who considers it his right, if not duty, to destroy his students while he searches for musical genius. It's the principle of crushing coal while dreaming of diamonds. Terence is a bully, a sadist, a disciplinarian who himself is out of control and, perhaps, not all that great a musician. He finds a too-willing pupil in drummer Andrew (Miles Teller). Whiplash is a little gimmicky, but then again it might otherwise have wound up feeling like all work and no fun. And Simmons is electric. – T.G.
2. Birdman (Oct. 17)
How to describe Birdman: Is it an insider’s view of a theater production? The comeback story of a faded movie star? A groundbreaking experiment in film editing? More like a mad genius brew that blends all three. Michael Keaton stars here as Riggan Thompson, a one-time movie icon who rose to fame as the big-screen star of the Batman, er, Birdman franchise, but fell off the pop culture radar long ago. He has written an adaptation of tale by short-story master Raymond Carver, has given himself the best part, and now must somehow rein in Mike (Edward Norton), the eccentric and erratic theater star who’s been cast in the production at the very last second. Jockeying for control of the runaway production and challenging each other's beliefs in what fuels great art, the Keaton-Norton feud is intense, fun (at one point they duke it out with fists while Norton is wearing nothing but his tighty whiteys) but also surprisingly philosophical, distinguishing Birdman as a film concerned as much about the psyche of the artist, and the comic-ification of the movie industry, as it is about the fates of these four specific characters. We follow their play over the span of a week, through its final rocky rehearsals and into its tense opening performance. And while the stage suspense is palpable, and the backstage drama – between Riggan and Mike, between Riggan and his assistant-daughter Sam (Emma Stone), between Riggan and himself, as he hallucinates career arguments with his Birdman alter ego – intense, the more audacious achievement here is how we transition between stage and sideline. Built around insanely long takes that are then seamlessly stitched together, Birdman plays out as if it is real time, floating between the rehearsals and the dressing rooms of the St. James Theatre in midtown Manhattan, taking walks up to the roof or out onto the streets of Times Square, subtly jumping forward in time as the cast quickly rearranges themselves in meticulously-choreographed sequences. It's an immersive experience unlike anything I've experienced, and surely one of the year’s most ambitious visions. – S.J.S.
3. Gone Girl (Now in theaters)
David Fincher's version of the best-selling novel has opened nationally both to strong reviews (read my longer take) and good box office ($38 million opening weekend) since kicking off the New York Film Festival. The talk now is mostly about the Oscar chances of a story that (a) would be most easily categorized as a thriller and that (b) in terms of audience uplift falls somewhere below Norman Bates's basement. Add to that, the movie is a completely, confidently successful integration of performance and narrative daring, as well as a cold collective portrait of an America in the grips of a bleak economic transition and a too-quick-to-judge media. In other words, Oscars are not likely. – T.G.
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4. Inherent Vice (Dec. 12)
The marijuana is bountiful and the pot haze thick and trippy in Paul Thomas Anderson's (There Will Be Blood) stoner caper – a funny, colorful but only sporadically coherent period piece that evokes memories of both Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a permanently altered private eye who runs a makeshift sleuthing business out of a doctor's office. He's visited one night by ex-girlfriend Shasta (newcomer Katherine Waterston) who wants his help in shutting down a conspiracy that’s threatening her current beau, a wealthy real estate kingpin. She’s convinced his wife is going to try to commit him to a psychiatric hospital and begs Doc to help, but before he can even begin investigating both Shasta and her man disappear from the city, leaving Doc without clues or explanations. As he stumbles through his days, however, the real estate mogul's name keeps popping up, as does the term "Golden Fang" – which could mean anything from a drug cartel to an international society of dentists – leading Doc to take his vague suspicions of foul play to Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a hippie-hating cop who stands proudly against the dying counterculture of 1970. Doing his best impersonation of Jeffrey Lebowski, Phoenix plays Doc as if he might be one of the more incompetent investigators in movie history. When not eagerly puffing on a joint, he seems startled and surprised by every new wrinkle, and discovery, in his quest for Shasta. When he's not accidentally stumbling into a trap he's inadvertently escaping – and always scribbling down incoherent clues into a notebook as he struggles to understand a criminal web that very quickly reveals itself to be inscrutable. The "plot" is largely incoherent here, but that seems to be precisely the point in a film that propels itself largely on atmosphere and vibe. Anderson, adapting the dense novel by Thomas Pynchon, seems far less interested in a kidnapping mystery than in evoking this unique time period, where the drug-fueled free love of the '60s counterculture quickly gave way to a straight-laced, gentrifying Los Angeles. The men and women of Inherent Vice seem to be adrift in this transition, and ultimately it’s the complex characters that hold things together: Phoenix’s ultra-slacker is far more confused and lonely than he initially lets on, Brolin's rigid man of the law isn’t as buttoned up as we might think, and Waterston, in a true breakout performance, seems scared, shrewd, sinister and seductive all at once. A new star is born. – S.J.S.
5. Foxcatcher (Nov. 14)
Steve Carell empties himself of just about every ounce of empathy to give an astounding performance that's completely disturbing and, on some level, horribly funny. He plays John du Pont, one of THOSE du Ponts, who died in prison after being convicted of shooting and killing champion wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). That calamity was the endpoint of du Pont's weird, self-glorifying stint running an Olympics-aimed wrestling camp on his Pennsylvania estate, Foxcatcher. Carell's du Pont is a pathetic, ash-gray lump of middle-aged putty, almost as disconnected from reality as Peter Sellers in Being There or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, but the weight of his name and wealth make the delusional du Pont very dangerous to ordinary citizens lured into his society. He addresses his wrestlers as if he fancies himself General Patton before the troops and clumsily acts out his homoerotic attraction to Schultz's brother, Mark (an excellent Channing Tatum, thrusting his jaw out like a construction crane). Foxcatcher is about two pillars of the American masculine character, money and sports, crumbling into dust and death like twin Ozymandiases. – T.G.
6. Listen Up Philip (Oct. 17)
Philip is his own worst enemy. As played by Jason Schwartzman, in his most complicated performance to date, Philip is a successful writer who’s so insecure about his modest level of fame that he begins systematically sabotaging his life. With one hit novel on his resume, Philip informs his publisher that he refuses to do any press for book number two, and then accepts an invitation from a middle-aged literary titan – Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) – to escape the noise of New York City at his remote country house. In lengthy monologues, a narrator informs us of how Philip views his life – the tortured existence of a solitary, unappreciated writer. But the further Philip retreats into his hermit hut, the more we realize this has less to do with his fractured art than his failing heart: He has a loving girlfriend in Ashley (a stellar Elisabeth Moss), a kindred mentor in Ike, and a publisher that is unfailing in its championing of his work. And yet for all the warning signs around him – Ashley's increasing distance as she grows apart, Ike's loneliness after he’s spent a life pushing loved ones away, the suicide of another author he met at his publisher's office – Philip clutches tighter and tighter to his self-image as the Great Tortured Artist, while losing hold of every meaningful relationship in his universe. Philip may be a miserable chap but director Alex Ross Perry saves Listen Up Philip from being a miserable film. Despite his attitude we root for Philip, ache for those he's hurting and marvel at how such a smart and successful man can be so ignorant of his gifts. There's a palpable sense of life coursing through every scene. Now if only Philip would realize that. – S.J.S.
7. Mr. Turner (Dec. 19)
Mike Leigh, who for years now has been the single greatest cinematic chronicler of contemporary Britain, directs one of his rare excavations of the past. The subject here is painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), whose later landscapes announced a radical brushwork style that bordered on abstraction and, consequently, has kept him in high international regard in modern times. If Mr. Turner isn't quite as good as Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, about the creative partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan, it's because it lacks a crystallizing moment that fuses Turner's artistic vision and personal worldview. Then again, maybe for Turner these two things were indistinguishable, in which case why worry? The movie conjures up the literary and artistic fervor of the age with a liveliness that's also meticulous, and the performances are magnificent. Timothy Spall's Turner, a gauche genius, grunts, snuffs and pauses to squint at the sea's horizon, his fellow painters and his own canvases: a Snuffleupagus with brushleupagus. – T.G.
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