The Brothers Bloom : Before he finally scored a massive critical and commercial hit with Looper, before he was tapped to take on the eighth installment of Star Wars, Rian Johnson was just a newbie filmmaker trying to follow up his indie hit Brick. He came up with something 180 degrees from that debut (and from the film that followed): a high-spirited, globe-trotting con artist romp. Critics unaccountably shrugged and audiences did the same, but this one holds up beautifully; the screenplay is appropriately twisty, the cast (Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rinko Kikuchi) is aces, and Johnson’s direction is wonderfully giddy.
Dear White People : First-time writer/director Justin Simien helms this wickedly funny, whip-smart, and sharp-edged satire of campus politics and racial dynamics, focusing on a quartet of black students among the mostly white student body of Ivy League Winchester University. The spiky dialogue is frequently, head-shakingly hilarious — and hats off to Simien for picking and naming such worthwhile targets as Fox News, VH1, Tyler Perry, Quentin Tarantino, Big Momma’s House, and Gremlins. But there’s real anger and indignation at its center; it’s provocative, loaded filmmaking, one of the best and brainiest pictures of 2014.
John Wick : On paper, it sounded like a tired Keanu Reeves vehicle from a couple of stuntmen who’d never made a movie; in execution, it ended up being the most energetic, inventive, and enjoyable action movie in many a moon. Reeves stars as a recent widower With A Past who is brought out of retirement by a really terrible accident of random auto theft; long story short, he’s done wrong, and bent on getting back at anybody remotely responsible. Derek Kolstad’s script tees up the expected action beats, but also builds the character and the world he inhabits with wit and intelligence — and those action beats, expected or not, are downright exquisite.
Amazing Grace: If you got a look at Whoopi Goldberg’s entertaining HBO documentary on Moms Mabley, you’re probably champing at the bit to check out Moms’ final starring vehicle, this 1974 comedy from director Stan Lathan (out for the first time on Blu-ray from Olive Films). It dates from the “blaxpoitation” era, and boasts the same cartoon villains and basic but workable aesthetic. Yet the picture’s unexpected identity politics make for some interesting subtext (early on, a young brother calls Slappy White an Uncle Tom; Stepin Fetchit and Butterfly McQueen pop up in cameos), while Moms makes what could have been a stereotype into a living, breathing comic creation. And her big speech to a college crowd at the film’s climax is surprisingly warm and poignant. It’s a wonderful performance, and a fine tribute to a truly one-of-a-kind performer.
A Hole in the Head : Frank Sinatra stars in the penultimate feature film from Frank Capra, but with its songs and Nelson Riddle score, its color, Cinemascope photography, and its Miami setting, it feels much more like a Sinatra movie than a Capra. But that’s not a bad thing — Sinatra is very, very Sinatra (one of his first lines is, swear to God, “My current Eve is a lulu”), and his byplay with little Eddie Hodges, as his 12-year-old son, is charming. (This was a key entry in that subset of ’50s and ’60s movies, like The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, about swinging bachelor widowers.) Some of the filmmaking is oddly sloppy and the picture is a bit overlong at a full two hours, but it’s snappy and fun, and Sinatra’s clearly having a great time.