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Column Fri Jan 02 2015

Best Films of 2014, Selma, Winter Sleep, Pelican Dreams, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night & Viva La Liberta

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

I'm the idiot who waits until the year actually ends before rolling out my Best Of... list every year, and that's because I'm often able to squeeze in about a dozen or more films in the last couple weeks of December, mostly stuff that others have told me is worth checking out that I either missed when it came out in Chicago or simply never came out in my fair city.

By my count, I saw 465 films in 2014, either in a theater or via screener. This number does include a few vintage titles, but only if I saw them in a theater (sometimes via a restored print; sometimes not). If I simply watched an older film at home, that doesn't make the list. As I do every year, I've separated out the documentaries because I want an excuse to call out an additional bunch of films (15 this year) that might go unnoticed on my main list. Plus, it's always seemed strange to me to mix docs and features; the same way you don't usually see fiction and nonfiction books listed together.

You've heard it before, but I'll repeat it: 2014 was an exceptional year for films. I don't say that every year, because it simply isn't true. I was genuinely shocked at how many great films weren't making my Top 10, or even my Top 20. I often feel that, after the first 10, the numbers don't mean much, and that's never been more true. In fact this year, I had the hardest time figuring out my Number 1 because there were four or five solid candidates. In 2014, I also saw more films at least three times than I can remember seeing in any previous year. Of that 465 films I saw in 2014, probably 20-25 of them I saw three times (a couple of them, I saw more than three). In fact, of my top 10, the only one I saw once was Selma because there was only one press screening before the Chicago Film Critics Association voting deadline this year. But I will see it again soon, since it opens in some markets this week, including Chicago.

I also say every year that if you think 50 is an annoyingly huge number of titles, feel free to stop at 30, or 20, or 10. Of course 50 is overindulgent, and I think I've earned the right to be so; you'll find ways of dealing with it, I have faith. I've included sections of my reviews of my Top 10 film, with the exception (once again) of Selma, which I've included my full review. Hope you dig the list and that it gives you some ideas for purchases, rentals, viewing, etc. A few of these are still in theaters, and if they are, that's where you should view them. A couple of them will make their way to you in January.

Best Feature Films of 2014

1. Foxcatcher
I've seen Foxcatcher three times now, and each time I noticed such different things about every aspect of the story, from the depths of the betrayal and corruption to the layers of familial bonds — real, imagined, and desired. The first time I saw it, it left me impressed with the performances but cold in my soul; the second time, the emotional content of the film leapt out at me, especially through Ruffalo's soulful performance, in the way the protective Dave never wanted to make an enemy; he might not have anything nice to say about you, but he'll be damned if that means he's going to say something nasty. Man, is Ruffalo good here, and if he's doing his job well, you won't even notice.

Foxcatcher is the ultimate, slow-spinning, downward spiral, surrounded by smaller spirals going in every direction. Director Bennett Miller chooses to end the film with a rather bittersweet postscript, verifying what we already knew — no one got out of this situation better for the experience, and there's no reason to let us think otherwise. Although it doesn't happen often, it is possible for a masterpiece to leave you feeling empty and chilled to the bone; you may even hate the feeling. But if that is, to a degree, exactly the feeling the filmmaker wanted to instill in you, maybe the film worked. Do me a favor if you walk out of Foxcatcher not sure how you felt about it — see it one more time a couple weeks later. It's a different experience when you can actually focus on the subtext and not get pleasantly distracted by the flawless, transformative makeup and mannerisms surrounding the performances. Foxcatcher is a layered, death-defying journey into the misguided minds of lost American souls. In other words, it's about a lot of us.

2. Inherent Vice
Here's another film I've seen three times, and I firmly believe that you have to see it at least twice for the true genius and value it contains to reveal itself. The latest from Paul Thomas Anderson has its own language that takes a couple viewings to crack, and while you may think that the story (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon) doesn't matter because it's all about the characters, that's not quite true. The mysteries of the film aren't as interesting as the plethora of character studies, but that doesn't mean they don't matter; they certainly hold up. Inherent Vice requires a trippy combination of your total attention and an appreciation for those times in our lives when we have a... loose connection to reality. Might be the most fun I had in a movie all year — times three.

3. Boyhood
Boyhood is meant to capture universal truths through the eyes of young Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) over the course of 12 years. Against all types of logic and odds, director Richard Linklater was able to gather us the same core cast members — Coltrane, his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason's slightly older sister, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy's divorced parents — each year for a couple of days or weeks at a time to shoot a new small sequence that chronicles some small but significant moment in Mason's life. Although the framework isn't specifically said to be a flashback, it's clear that everything we see is meant to be viewed as a remembrance from Mason's perspective. They aren't meant to be seen as individual moments, but rather as the ingredients that when mixed together become the young man the film presents us with at the end.

The film refuses to be nostalgic in traditional ways, instead making each scene feel like the present and all around us. Boyhood can be appreciated as a pure cinematic event or as a trigger for your own memories. I couldn't help but wonder what moments might appear in a version of Boyhood surrounding the same 12-year period in my life. Don't be disappointed if watching the film doesn't result in a wave of devastating callbacks flooding back into your brain. It won't do that for everyone; it isn't supposed to. Use it as you see fit, and enjoy the experience on your own terms and not the way others might. You'll get the most out of it, believe me.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
In many ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like a Wes Anderson greatest hits of visual tricks, methods and acting styles. But it's also the film that finds him borrowing the most from other sources, most notably the credit "inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig," the Austrian writer who used dry humor to convey his societal commentaries, and the films of German-born Ernst Lubitsch, who made a career in Hollywood (The Shop Around the Corner being one of the best known). Anderson isn't stealing from these artists so much as paying tribute to their all-but-lost works in the memories of filmgoers. It's a worthy endeavor, but hardly the sole reason to see this film.

The real reason to make seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel a priority is that it's the sly, hilarious and darkly brilliant culmination of all that Anderson has been building toward, and it features several eye-opening performances by actors whose limits we had assumed we knew (first and foremost Ralph Fiennes) in the hands of a director who still has the capacity to surprise us in small but significant ways. It's joyous and melancholy in the same breath, a cautionary tale about nostalgia and a very funny romp through a fictional troubled time that still feels familiar. Send me a postcard from the Republic of Zubrowka anytime.

5. Nightcrawler
First-time writer-director Dan Gilroy has made a movie that almost dares you to find something redeemable about its lead character. In Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, in easily the best performance of his career) is a man composed of uncut ambition and drive, but he can't find an outlet for his level of dangerous energy. You don't have to like your lead character to enjoy the hell out of a film, and Nightcrawler might be the best example of that in a very long time. You'll be disgusted and morally outraged by Lou's behavior and journalistic ethics, but you won't be able to avert your eyes for even a second while he's on screen, setting the stage for some truly appalling behavior. On top of that, the film works as a fully-functional thriller, with tension building exponentially as the story creeps on to its inevitable conclusion. Nightcrawler comes closer to capturing the world we live in than you'd care to admit.

6. Snowpiercer
A lot of people are using works like "crazy" and "insane" to describe Snowpiercer, the latest visionary work by the great South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, but the truth is that, although some truly outrageous and exaggerated things happen during the course of this film, by the time it's over, it all feels quite inevitable and weirdly prophetic. The film is aggressively intelligent, whacked out of its mind, and loaded with some of the coolest performances you're going to see all year. It shouldn't surprise you that the film is the highest-grossing film in South Korean history, and that's because it's that rare combination of pure entertainment and unashamed commentary on the present day. Don't let that scare you; let it thrill you.

7. Under the Skin
On the surface, Under the Skin is about an alien that steals the skin of a young woman (played by Scarlett Johansson, in her most compelling performance to date) and sets out to capture random men in Scotland for reasons I don't want to give away here. The men think they're being seduced, which in a sense they are, but not for sex. But what the film is really about is a creature (we don't even know if the alien is male or female or either) who is slowly learning about how Earth and its inhabitants work, and how sights and sounds that we would react to might have no significance to someone from another world. The film has a haunting, hypnotic, ethereal tone to it, and Johansson manages to pull off being charming and slightly seductive, while also having a cold, ruthless look in her eyes.

The sci-fi elements are no less fascinating, and when we finally do see the ultimate destination where these men are being led, it's as dark and empty as the alien's eyes. The film is about many things, but discovering what it means to be human is certainly at the top of the list, and I was surprised how emotionally responsive I was to Glazer's vision of Under the Skin and how disturbingly predictable we are as a species (at least men).

8. Blue Ruin
If you're tired of tales of specially trained men or women (many of whom are in retirement) suddenly having to call upon their instinctual abilities, often in defense of a loved one, then Blue Ruin is the film for you, because in all likelihood the central character, Dwight (Macon Blair), handles his brand of revenge and justice a lot like the rest of us would. Blue Ruin is small but powerful gut-punch of a film, in which nearly every act of violence comes with real consequences. The situations may be familiar, but the way each scene plays out often is unexpected and shocking. Saulnier's skill as a screenwriter, director and even cinematographer are all on full display, and I bet that after a couple more films under his belt, he'll become one of those directors whose work you eagerly anticipate. He's taken one of the most familiar (some might say overused) story set ups in filmdom and done something exciting and new with it. That alone should earn him high praise.

9. Birdman
I would not have guessed that director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest work Birdman would be one of the most divisive films of the year, but these things are so rarely predictable, I guess I shouldn't be terribly surprised. If you allow yourself to get caught up in the parallels between the lead character of the film, Riggan Thomson, an actor who became a massive star after playing the title role in the Birdman superhero movies before walking away at their peak, and the real actor who plays him (Michael Keaton), you'll probably drive yourself crazy and ignore what is truly great about the film. Birdman manages to be sloppy and elegant, dreamlike and nightmarish, a technical wonder that feels like a confessionary piece from Iñárritu, who acknowledges that his earlier work may have been a tad too self-serious, bordering on pompous. Hell, even this film borders on bloated, which I think, for once, is on purpose. However you slice it or interpret it, Birdman is a singular vision from a director whose Mexican-born contemporaries — Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron — join him as some of the most inventive and awe-inspiring filmmakers working today. Above all else, it's great to see Keaton back in a leading role, where he belongs, losing his mind like the rest of us.

10. Selma
You'd think after 50 years, there wouldn't be much more to learn about a man as high-profile and whose accomplishments were as well documented as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But Selma proves to us that isn't at all true. Far less a history lesson than a character study, the latest film from director Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere) certainly covers the undeniably important three months during which King led a campaign to gain equal voting rights for all U.S. citizens by leading a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The resistance by white Southerners, the physical abuse and other barriers put up against the largely black organizers and marchers is all there. But what makes DuVernay's version of the King story so different and compelling (thanks in large part of Paul Webb's worthy screenplay) are the peaks behind the curtains, into his role as a husband, a savvy politician, a bullheaded leader, and man who didn't like to admit when his way might not be the best way.

A lot has been written about the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as "anti-Civil Rights" in the film. I'll admit, that's not how I read Selma's take on the man, who was put in an almost impossible situation by King (played with such perfect nuance by David Oyelowo), and with good reason. King wanted voting rights and he wanted them now; Johnson said they would come but in good time (which is never the right answer). One interpretation of Johnson's actions here is that he had to publicly tell King to be patient, knowing full well that that would motivate King and his followers to plow ahead, causing the American people to demand an end to the inequality sooner rather than later. However you interpret them, it's fascinating to watch the conversations between the two men, with King pushing Johnson for a little more each time and Johnson, not so much pushing back, but trying not to lose votes in the process of stopping the South from falling into total civil unrest.

One of the true wonders of Oyelowo's performance is that King is shown offering up different faces to different people. When he's with the president, he's respectful and courteous, while remaining just forceful enough for the president to respect him back. With reporters, he's a bit more to the point, aggressive, bordering on militant in his speech. With his family and friends, he's relaxed, far less concerned with his public face. We all do this, depending on where we are and who's around us, but to see it represented in a movie about someone as well known as King is rare.

Perhaps we are never more aware of the uniqueness and depth of Selma than in the scenes between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), some of the most difficult to watch in the whole film. She confronts him with various concerns about their marriage and family. He's rarely home, he doesn't know where anything in their modest house is because he's never spent much time there, and most shockingly, she asks about his behavior on the road with regards to other women. There's a question she asks that forces King and the audience to hold their collective breath awaiting his reply. It's an absolutely stunning singular moment that feels like it last an eternity, and Oyelowo's delivery of his reply sends shockwaves through everything that follows.

Selma is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to supporting performers, with the likes of Tim Roth (as Alabama's shifty governor, George Wallace), Cuba Gooding Jr., Martin Sheen, Oprah Winfrey (in a beautiful early sequence), Giovanni Ribisi, Common, Wendell Pierce, Niecy Nash, Alessandro Nivola, and Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover. With the exception of perhaps a little too much evil mustache twisting by Roth as Wallace, there are no false notes here in the acting work. There's even a great deal of humor in spots, in particular when King is allowed a moment of calm before the storm with his co-organizers and a home-cooked meal.

Director DuVernay comes from a filmmaking background of making small, intimate films with just a few characters and a great deal of emotion. So it shouldn't be surprising to see her nail those types of moments in Selma. The true surprises for me was seeing how deft she negotiates the larger sequences, involving hundreds of extras and scenes of violence that many of us are more familiar with through documentaries on the history of the civil rights movement. She not gives King his due on the big screen for the first time, in my opinion, but she captures the history in an exemplary fashion, especially the three marches the serve as the film's final act.

To say that King was a master manipulator is far from an insult. To be able to stir people's hearts and minds is not easy task, and he did it better than just about anyone in history. One of the more interesting aspects of Selma is that the filmmakers don't rely on familiar speeches from King (I don't think they could afford the get the rights to them), so Oyelowo has to essentially give us his preacher version of King from scratch. I especially liked an opening sequence in which we see King rehearsing a speech he's about to give after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize; his oratory gifts, we learn, may have been instinctual, but that doesn't mean he didn't practice.

Selma is a reminder of many things, but chief among them is that we sometimes need to look to our past to recognize our present. The film has it's minor flaws, but what it seizes upon and accomplishes is nothing short of remarkable. I have never referred to a film as "important," and I'm not about to start now — even I respond poorly when I hear that about any movie. But Selma succeeds in so many ways that you'll be genuinely lifted by both its story, its messages, and its purely cinematic achievements. It's playing in select cities now, and will open wide on January 9.

To read my exclusive interview with Selma director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo, go to Ain't It Cool News.

11. Whiplash
12. Calvary
13. A Most Violent Year
14. Only Lovers Left Alive
15. Guardians of the Galaxy
16. The Babadook
17. The Imitation Game
18. Ida
19. Gone Girl
20. Force Majeure

21. Wild
22. Two Days, One Night
23. A Girl Walk Home Alone at Night — see review below.
24. The LEGO Movie
25. Winter Sleep — see review below.
26. The Raid 2
27. John Wick
28. Love Is Strange
29. Mr. Turner
30. We Are the Best!

31. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
32. Obvious Child
33. Locke
34. The Guest
35. Edge of Tomorrow
36. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
37. Frank
38. The One I Love
39. The Congress
40. The Trip to Italy

41. X-Men: Days of Future Past
42. Kill the Messenger
43. Big Hero 6
44. Joe
45. Land Ho!
46. Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1
47. Venus In Fur
48. How to Train Your Dragon 2
49. Hellion
50. Listen Up Philip

Best Documentaries of 2014

1. Citizenfour
2. Life Itself
3. Finding Vivian Maier
4. Last Days in Vietnam
5. Jodorowsky's Dune
6. Happy Valley
7. To Be Takei
8. Red Army
9. The Dog
10. Keep On Keepin' On
11. Code Black
12. Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon
13.Now: In the Wings of the World Stage
14. National Gallery
15. Point and Shoot

Winter Sleep

It's often difficult to describe the appeal of or the impact that a film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Climates) will have on someone. I know that by the end of the film, you feel like you live among the people he is showing us, people the likes of which you will never see in any other film from any other country. They can be as grim and painful as a Bergman movie, but there's something so brutally direct and honest about his works that I've never once been bored by them even though his last couple of works, including the newest one, Winter Sleep (which clocks in at three hours and 15 minutes), are marathon adventures of self discovery.

Winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Winter Sleep centers on Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a former Turkish actor who made enough money on the stage to purchase a sizable piece of land to build a hotel for the infrequent tourist traffic. The film has something of a narrative — there's a story involving a family that rents a place from Aydin that is behind on rent and the drama that comes from that situation — but that isn't truly what propels the film. A series of people come in and out of Aydin's life during the course of the time we spend with him, both familiar faces and visiting ones.

Nihal (Melisa Sözen), his much younger wife, is attempting to make the best of this isolated living situation by doing charity work for the community, but the minute Aydin finds out, he attempts to insert himself into the work and it destroys her confidence. His sister Necla (Deme Akbag) has been living with them in the hotel since she divorced her husband and has become a sponge and a parasite on his hospitality and resources. Aydin spends his spare time writing a weekly column on living like a good Muslim, and she spends her time picking apart his writings and pointing out the hypocrisies in it. And then there's Aydin's right-hand man Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). Something of a lackey, he's the guy called upon when hands need to be dirtied.

The filmmakers leave judging Aydin up to the audience. At times, he seems like a put-upon old man who can sometimes be soft, leaving himself open to being taken advantage of; other times he's a calculating bully whose mere refusal to walk out of a room when his wife is suffering is cruel and unusual punishment. Aydin is the type of man who never admits to being wrong, even when he apologizing for making a mistake. He carefully considers others' opinions and then does what he wants anyway. But he's also a man with boundless curiosity. He loves talking to his foreign guests and getting a sense of their lives. He particularly bonds with one guest, a cross-country motorcyclist who lives a free and easy life with no destination, plan or boundaries in the way he lives.

Winter Sleep is loosely based on a couple of short stories by Anton Chekhov, but director and co-writer Ceylan had spun those stories with his own unique tapestry of misery and awareness. And with bleak yet stunning mountains in the distance, the stage is set for some genuinely back-breaking picking apart of the soul. All of the characters and their philosophies on self deception, morality, charity, and kindness are easy to follow and are articulated beautifully, and that helps an audience stay glued to every word.

Don't let the running time scare you; you'll come out the other side of this work with ideas bouncing around your head that you probably haven't had in quite some time. The film is wonderfully engaging, perfectly acted, and shot like a love letter to rolling barren landscapes. It's one of the more impressive works that I saw in 2014. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Pelican Dreams

If you see a whole lot of films in a given year, especially documentaries, you're bound to stumble upon a few directed by hippies. That's not a judgement call (unless you hate hippies), but it's clear that in many of these nature-oriented docs that the prevailing belief is that nature and animals can do no wrong and human beings are terrible, destructive murder machines. That doesn't necessarily mean the film will be bad, but when it is, it's often unbearable. One of the great hippie-made works in recent years was director Judy Irving's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which was something of a hit in the doc world.

With her latest film, Pelican Dreams, Irving traces to path of a wayward California brown pelican named GiGi (short for Golden Gate) that somehow ended up on the Golden Gate Bridge a couple years ago. We follow the bird's care and rehab, and Irving gives us just enough history on Pacific migratory patterns, nesting, and how global warming is throwing off many birds' senses. If all of this sounds a little too warm and feathery, you probably won't enjoy this particular slice of nature. But there is something charming and moving about how passionate Irving and those that she interviews are about caring for these pelicans and eventually sending them back into the wild.

During the course of her following Gigi's path, Irving also meets Morro, whose wing injury is so severe that it will never fly again, which often means putting the animal down. That scenario adds an entirely different depth and drama to Pelican Dreams that I wasn't expecting. So often in films about nature or the environment, the message is more vague about the dangers and risks of not caring for the planet, and certainly the solutions to the problem are often even more unfocused. But Irving knows what she's doing, and by putting faces and names to the problems of protecting rare birds and the importance of wildlife in our lives, audiences will be able to make connections, which is sometimes all it takes.

Admittedly, sometimes Irving's tone (both as the visual storyteller and narrator) is a little too much like your mom telling you to eat your kale salad for lunch, but the beautifully awkward mannerisms of the pelicans are endlessly fascinating. There's an intimacy and grace to the way the film is shot, and if you don't mind the message being driven home rather pointedly, you might get drawn into Pelican Dreams. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Boy, did I love this movie, so much so that it managed to crack my Top 25 of 2014. There is something about a pale young woman walking around in the dark wearing a full-length black chador that just freaks me out and makes me giddy all at once. The Girl (with no name apparently) is played by the hypnotic Sheila Vand, and she lurks in the shadows of a place called Bad City, which I'm guessing is doubling for a location in Iran, based on the dwellings, the fact that everyone speaks Farsi, and because the film is the stunning feature debut of Iranian-American director (and former rock musician) Ana Lily Amirpour.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a film shot in crisp black-and-white and takes advantage of the location's shadowy angles and minimal street lighting. We follow the handsome young Arash (Arash Marandi) as he attempts to make ends meet while taking care of his junkie father, who can barely stand up, let alone leave their small dwelling. His only true possession is a sweet muscle car that he drives with such pride. While attempting to negotiate with the local drug dealer, he is forced to give up the car for money owed for his father's drugs. Meanwhile, The Girl patrols the night, and has been watching Arash closely.

I don't think I'm giving anything away (the film has been around the festival and art house circuits since it premiered at last year's Sundance Film Festival) by saying that The Girl is a "selective" vampire, only appearing to select victims who are less worthy of living, by her standards. For example, she allows the drug dealer/pimp (Diminic Rains) to think that he has drawn her into his lair, and then she butchers him; you get the idea. And in this town of dirt bags and dark alleys (hell, the score sounds like a dusty '60s Spaghetti Western), she has quite a lot of potential food sources. Naturally our male and female heroes begin to develop feelings for each other, and find ways to protect the other as a result.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a rare example where style and substance walk hand in hand in equal measure. The sheer level of cool reminded me a great deal of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (which ranked in my Top 15), but this particular approach to the vampire myth is fairly original and certainly hasn't been this lovingly photographed (courtesy of cinematographer Lyle Vincent) in quite some time.

To only talk about plot is to miss the point of this visual masterwork from Amirpour. But there are just as many silly touches that add a real charm to the proceedings. For example, The Girl's taste in music made me smile many times over. She also sometimes coasts around the city on a skateboard, which is covered by her garment, making it appear that she is gliding over the ground. And I haven't even mentioned Atti (Mozhan Marnò), apparently the city's only prostitute, whom The Girl hasn't quite made up her mind about. The film is dripping with mood and atmosphere, but it's also the story of a young (-looking) woman just trying to find her place (and a steady blood supply) in the world. That how I like my vampire stories. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Viva La Liberta (Long Live Freedom)

In the last few years, I've marveled at the recent works of Italian actor Toni Servillo in works like Gomorrah, Il Divo, Dormant Beauty and the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. While only 55 years old, he is often called upon to play men much older, while still being asked to keep that spark of youth in their eyes. In his latest effort (at least the latest to hit stateside), Viva La Liberta, Servillo plays wildly unpopular political party leader Enrico Oliveri, who is on the verge of a complete mental meltdown as a result of his party and the rest of the country turning against him. On the eve of a major speech that is supposed to spell out the future of his party, Enrico get the hell out of Dodge and heads for France, where old lover Danielle (the luminous Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is working alongside her movie director husband Mung (Eric Nguyen). Without explaining much, Enrico asks if he may hide out with them until he gets his head on straight enough to return to public life.

Left leaderless, the party heads are ready to move on without Enrico, but his top aide Andrea Bottini (Valerio Mastandrea) uses a healthy combination of stall tactics and out-of-the-box thinking to come up with an impossible plan to stall things long enough for Enrico to return. He tracks down Enrico's estranged, bipolar twin brother Giovanni (also Servillo), recently released from a mental hospital, to pose as Enrico. The plan is to feed Giovanni just enough lines to sound like his brother without saying anything radical, but Giovanni is slightly crazy and quite opinionated, and he goes on an honesty rant that promises a new direction for the party that stirs up the party loyal in the best possible way. He also starts to become the most popular politician in the country. Even Enrico's wife (Michela Cescon) likes him better.

Obviously, Viva La Liberta isn't meant to be taken seriously, but at the same time as a biting satire, it's committed enough to make the film an interesting study on Italian politics, courtesy of writer-director Roberto Andò (who also wrote the novel on which the film is based). The problem is, while Giovanni is riling up the masses, Enrico is busy attempting to seduce his ex-girlfriend under the nose of her husband. The man most in need of life lessons isn't paying any attention to what his brother is up to. The film doesn't have quite the sting it needs to be memorable or important as a Being There-type work (or even Ivan Reitman's Dave).

Servillo does a remarkable job creating two distinct personalities who look almost completely identical (one has gone totally grey), but the story simply isn't compelling enough to recommend Viva La Liberta as anything more than a political trifle that tries to turn into a sappy story about something resembling redemption. The parts I enjoyed, I did so because I love these actors so much, but certainly not because the film was pushing any vital buttons. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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About A/C

A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
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Editor: Nancy Bishop, nancy@gapersblock.com
A/C staff inbox: ac@gapersblock.com

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