The Lego Movie (Phil Lord/Christopher Miller, 2014)
Young Emmet (voiced perfectly by Chris Pratt, also in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy) lives a peaceful existence as a worker in a factory in a Lego™ paradise, where “Everything Is Awesome.” The only problem is that it’s only awesome if you do what everyone else does. Otherwise, beware … One day, he stumbles into a rebellion against the status quo, and is mistaken for “the Special,” a man who will overthrow the dictatorship of “Lord Business” (voiced by a very funny Will Ferrell, who also scored big in Megamind). Terrified, he nonetheless embarks on a series of adventures that lead to an eventual showdown with Business that will decide the fate of the world … or at least of Lego™ Land.
I finally watched this film after it came out on DVD some time this fall, since I missed it in its original theatrical release. How happy I was to see it! I had long heard students, colleagues and friends rave about it, and so I assumed it would be fun, but I was unprepared for how smart it would be. Indeed, not only is this movie a wonderful parody of all hero-quest stories, it is also an extremely sharp satire of contemporary popular culture, all the while being a super-enjoyable traditional three-act narrative with a cathartic climax and happy end. What’s not to love? Sure, it may, in some ways, be an extended advertisement for Lego™ toys, but what big commercial movie these days is not hawking some kind of product? The disarming fact is that this movie never lays claim to any higher purpose other than to entertain and sell its wares, and yet manages to be so much more than most other big Hollywood films (which helps explain how it could be the #4 box-office earner for 2014). It is one of my favorite films of the year.
The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013) – released in the U.S. in 2014
I saw this film, by Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, in March at the SXSW Festival, and though it only played one night in Baltimore, on November 26 (as part of the Charles Theatre’s Revival Series, for some reason), it is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and I strongly urge all to watch it. It is also one of my favorites of the year. Here is what I wrote back in March:
The only other Jodorowsky film I’ve seen is Santa Sangre, and boy, was that a trip! It was about an armless mother who dominates her son by forcing him to act as her arms for her, often murderously. It was extremely bloody and disturbing, and I’m still not sure to this day if I liked it, but it was deeply memorable (I often recommend it), which is what we want art to be, no?
This new film – Jodorowsky’s first since 1990’s The Rainbow Thief, is bizarre yet majestically beautiful, and compared to Santa Sangre, it is a model of filmmaking restraint. Of course, if you’ve never seen a Jodorowsky film, you’ll marvel at that description (and immediately rent or buy Santa Sangre, I hope, to see how The Dance of Reality could be called “restrained”). Billed as an autobiographical film about Jodorowsky’s childhood in Chile, The Dance of Reality is a magical-realist coming-of-age fable with a twist: it’s not the boy (young Alejandro) who grows up, but the father, Jaime (played by the marvelous Brontis Jodorowsky, the director’s son). In order for Alejandro to become a man, first the tyrannical father must die and be reborn as a kindler and gentler soul, able to appreciate the ways in which his son is different, and to celebrate that difference.
Filled with striking images and fantastical sequences, the film might turn off those looking for strict narrative coherence, although it is fairly linear in its plot development. I recommend that you stick around for the full journey, as it will surprise you and mark you as only a truly unique and inspired work of art can do. And now I have to go off and watch some more films by Jodorowsky, as two is not enough.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) – released in the U.S. in 2014
In the 1970s, Alejandro Jodorowsky established himself as a director of twisted cult-hit masterpieces with El Topo and The Holy Mountain. The films were considered visionary (I have never seen them), and they were successful enough that Jodorowsky was approached by a group producers with an offer to direct yet another potentially visionary film, which this time would be an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science-fiction novel Dune. Jodorowsky threw all of his considerable creative energies into the project, eventually producing a beautiful graphic-novel quality storyboard that is, sadly, the only remaining testament to what this project might have been like. For a variety of reasons, the movie never got made (although David Lynch did produce his own mess of an adaptation in 1984). Based on what I have seen of Jodorowsky’s work (see above), I deem that a cinematic tragedy.
Even if you have never read Dune, nor seen any films by Jodorowsky, this is a must-see movie. Along with Lost in La Mancha, about director Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt to adapt Don Quixote, Jodorowsky’s Dune ranks as one of the best documentaries about filmmaking ever made. Filled with entertaining anecdotes about the creative process of this one-of-a-kind filmmaker, the film takes us on a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the artistic brain. It is also one of my favorite movies of the year. Chalk up two for Jodorowsky!