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Under the Skin

It's not very hard to determine what makes a great cinematic moment. A more than efficient barometer for judging such things is simply if an audible gasp, a bewildered stare, or even a small laugh was unconsciously produced. These moments can be wholly visceral in nature or challenge what we're seeing and have seen (sometimes even a little bit of both), ranging from technically extravagant escapism to minor gestures that induce an overwhelming emotion or past memory—occasionally with the capacity to be seen on its own, regardless of context. (Then again, where's the fun in not experiencing the entire film?) From Stray Dogs's penultimate marathon take to Force Majeure's avalanche sequence, 2014 saw no shortage of aesthetic pleasures. Here are 10 essential moments that kept our eyes open and thoughts racing more than any other.  Wes Greene

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TAGS: force majeure, godzilla, only lovers left alive, snowpiercer, the grand budapest hotel, the guest, the immigrant, the rover, the tale of the princess kaguya, under the skin


Citizen"For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing," wrote the 19th-century critic Walter Pater, "but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake." Credited as a major influence of Oscar Wilde, and heralded as the prominent figure of aestheticism, the so-called "art for art's sake" movement, Pater was a controversial figure in his own time—lambasted for his alleged hedonism—and his writings would seem to have little in common with those of Claudia Rankine, the Jamaican-born author known for her projects on contemporary America. A professor at Pomona College and a frequent collaborator with her filmmaker husband, John Lucas, Rankine frequently blends images and poetry and essayistic meditations, and her fifth book, Citizen, is no different. Here, she brings together historic quotes, one from Zora Neale Hurston ("I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background"), with paintings, video stills, and other visuals from the past and present: J.M.W. Turner's The Slave Ship, Henry Youngman's ART THOUGHTZ, David Hammon's In the Hood. Broadly speaking, the result is an apt piece of hybrid art, a record of the current state of race in the United States.

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TAGS: amy pascal, citizen, claudia rankine, Daniel Handler, david hammon, don't let me be lonely, graywolf press, henry youngman, j.m.w. turner, james craig anderson, john lucas, mark duggan, scott rudin, trayvon martin, walter pater, zora neale hurston


Cuba

1. "U.S. to Restore Full Relations with Cuba." The move would erase a last trace of Cold War hostility between the two nations.

"President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to 'cut loose the shackles of the past' and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War. The surprise announcement came at the end of 18 months of secret talks that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro. The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis."

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TAGS: anton ginzburg, avant-garde film, cuba, fandor, inherent vice, jordan cronk, kim jong-un, north korea, pan, paul thomas anderson, peter strickland, richard brody, scott foundas, seth rogen, sony, the duke of burgundy, the interview, thomas pynchon, united states, variety


American Horror Story: Freak Show

"Orphans" finds American Horror Story: Freak Show taking a surprisingly earnest detour from its usual preachy, ultra-violently "relevant" shenanigans. The episode is mostly concerned with pinhead Pepper (Naomi Grossman) in the wake of her husband Salty's (Christopher Neiman) sudden death in his sleep, which is to say that, for the first time in eons, the series is centered on an actual narrative idea that serves to unify most of its tangents. Acting out, thrashing about the freak show, Pepper is inconsolable. Her depression, coupled with the fact that the freaks are finally appearing to notice that they're dying left and right since the arrival of Stanley (Denis O'Hare) and Esmerelda (Emma Roberts), spurs Elsa (Jessica Lange) to talk strategy with Desiree (Angela Bassett), which leads to a conversation about the formation of the freak show as the two knock back schnapps.

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TAGS: american horror story, american horror story: freak show, angela bassett, denis o'hare, emma roberts, evan peters, jessica lange, jyoti amge, naomi grossman, orphans


The Talos Principle

The Talos Principle has an answer to the age-old question of "Why do we play games?" The answer, simple enough to understand, is that "They make us human." The trick is that The Talos Principle then sets out to prove that point, crafting a first-person puzzler that's Biblical both in terms of its epic story and 20-plus-hour playtime. The content isn't religious or preachy (it's far more passively philosophical), but it does begin with your unnamed robotic protagonist awakening in a garden at the foot of a forbidden Babel-like tower, choosing between the booming instructions of the omnipresent Elohim and the serpentine suggestions of the Milton Library Assistant. Solving puzzles may demonstrate that you have "predictive capability" and "spatial awareness," but the scattered text and audio logs question whether such feats demonstrate consciousness—and if not, if anything can. The Talos Principle, then, is a Turing test in reverse, with you (a human playing the part of a robot) attempting to convince the game (a robot playing the part of a human) that you are in fact more than a machine.

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TAGS: antichamber, croteam, Portal 2, quantum conundrum, the stanley parable, the talos principle


Run the Jewels

1. "The 50 Best Albums of 2014." Pitchfork unveils its list of the best albums of the year. Below is Andrew Nosnitsky on Aphex Twin's Syro.

"Perhaps no figure in electronic music casts a heavier shadow than Richard D. James. He spent the '90s reinventing himself perpetually, trampling through aliases and existing subgenres—acid house, ambient, drum'n'bass, whatever—and emerging with strange and brilliant derivatives on a near yearly basis. So it came as a surprise (and maybe a slight disappointment) when Syro, his first official album after 13 years of relative reclusiveness, proved to be anything but a surprise. In fact, if you had imagined a new Aphex Twin album in 2004, it probably would've sounded a lot like the one he ended up releasing in 2014. But here's the thing: Despite the incessant projections of his audience, Aphex Twin was never principally about innovation. His discography is merely a running series of genre studies, warped instinctively by a perfectionist with a bizarre creative voice. Syro feels like the logical culmination of these efforts, as the genre he's bending and perfecting this time is the amorphous one that he instinctively spent his career creating: a bubble-and-spazz hybrid of acid squelches, spongecake melodies, and scattershot rhythms."

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TAGS: actress, adrian curry, aphex twin, borgman, calum marsh, fandor, frank, mike leigh, pitchfork, stephen colbert, syro, the criterion collection, the dissolve, under the skin, whiplash


Force Majeure

Ironically, for an awards program meant to highlight standout performances, the Academy Awards have turned into the 800-pound gorilla of fall and winter entertainment coverage, stomping out other movie news to deposit mounds of hype about a relatively small group of "frontrunners." Some of our favorite performances of the year were in movies that are being talked up for Oscars, but many were in films too quirky or dark or subtitled for the Academy of Arts and Sciences's taste, and it would be a shame if that consigned them to the shadows. With this list, we hope to shine a little light on these brilliant, touching, often funny performances, which enrich our understanding of what it means to be human. Elise Nakhnikian

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TAGS: agata kulesza, agata trzebuchowska, anna kendrick, bill hader, brendan gleeson, elisabeth moss, Essie Davis, gene jones, isabelle huppert, jack o'connell, jake gyllenhaal, johannes bah kuhnke, john hawkes, kate lyn sheil, kristen wiig, lisa loven kongsli, marion cotillard, melanie lynskey, pat healy, philip seymour hoffman, ralph fiennes, Tessa Thompson, timothy spall, tom hardy


The Birdcage

1. "The Birdcage." Mark Harris on how Hollywood's toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.

"Today we have a different model: The modern studio chief loves business, success, replication, and reliability, and nobody expects him to offer even the most cursory nod to anything that smacks of ideals that relate to content; that's not what he's there for. [Kevin] Tsujihara has an MBA from Stanford. He started out managing Time Warner's interest in Six Flags theme parks, then moved to home entertainment, and early last year took over the whole business. He has never produced a movie; in fact, he is the first studio head to rise in the ranks purely through brand extension and ancillary divisions, and brand extension is what he's all about. Besides the DC announcement, his big accomplishments have been to nail down those three additional Rowling movies to add to the studio's portfolio of eight, and to turn one Lego movie into four—a ninja Lego movie, a Batman Lego movie, and (for purists, I suppose) The Lego Movie 2. This is what successful purveyors of goods do; they make more of what sells, they cull what doesn't from the lineup, and they seek to create products in which quality-of-execution variability is never going to be too much of a wild card. MGM's old, gloriously lofty motto was 'Ars Gratia Artis'; today, the only thing written in invisible ink on every studio gate is 'More of What Works,' a credo that would be right at home at the entrance to any manufacturing plant."

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TAGS: ava duvernay, dc comics, fandor, grantland, hollywood, jerry saltz, kevin tsujihara, knight of cups, kyle turner, manohla dargis, mark harris, michael sicinski, mommy, selma, terrence malick, vulture, warner bros., xavier dolan


Exodus: Gods and Kings

If the best posters of 2014 constitute a vibrant harmony between marketing and product, the worst ones merely amplify the already contemptuous elements present in the films being advertised. Of course, this isn't always so, as with The Immigrant, which is more a case of the Weinstein Company attempting to market the film as something it blatantly isn't, but on the whole, these posters are dreadful teases for grievous fare.

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TAGS: draft day, exodus: gods and kings, left behind, million dollar arm, ouija, pride, sex tape, tammy, the expendables 3, the homesman, the immigrant, the judge, walk of shame


Inherent Vice

1. "IV Drip." Wesley Morris on Paul Thomas Anderson's Postlapsarian Comedy Inherent Vice.

"Anderson's strategy for capturing Pynchon is to roll him up and smoke him, until the smoke passes on to you and some confusion and conflation set it, until it's all just Paul Thomas Pynchon. In the opening scene, the singer Joanna Newsom appears as Doc's artsy pal. She stands in a low-angled shot and narrates the setting, using lines from the novel. By the time Inherent Vice is over, she has gone from talking over the movie — sketching background details and conjuring states of mind — to talking to it. The densely polished joshing of the book becomes a hazy, bleary movie farce. Being stoned here is a joke. But so is lucidity. Anderson doesn't overdo the high. This is as much a druggy wild goose chase as The Big Lebowski, but he opts not to make being stoned an extravagantly surrealist experience. To that end, people vanish and materialize like smoke, the frame speeds up toward the end of coked-up scenes. But it's never over the top. It doesn't have to be. Whether it's sex or love or pot, everybody's on something. Drugs aren't special. They actually are a food group. In one of the movie's few moments of casual surrealism, Bjornsen gobbles a tray of marijuana like a cartoon bear."

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TAGS: california split, Elliott Gould, frank sinatra, George Segal, inherent vice, j. michael lennon, james dean, Joseph Walsh, kim morgan, marilyn monroe, norman mailer, paul thomas anderson, phil stern, pitchfork, r.i.p., richard brody, robert altman, selected letters of norman mailer, the gunman, wesley morris







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