Monthly Archives: February 2015

Oscar Preview: My Favorite Films of 2010-2014

With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, I thought it would be fun to put together a list of my favorite and least favorite movies from the last few years.  As always, your comments are welcome!

– John

Highest Rated Feature Films: 2010-2014

5 stars
The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011) US
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012) US
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) US

4 1/2 stars
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) US
جدایی نادر از سیمین [A Separation] (Asghar Farhadi, 2011) Iran
Le gamin au vélo [The Kid With a Bike] (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2011) Belgium
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) US
Des hommes et des dieux [Of Gods and Men] (Xavier Beauvois, 2012) France
Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) France
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012) US
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013) US 
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013) US
Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) US 
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, 2013) US
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013) US 
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) US
La grande bellezza [The Great Beauty] (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) Italy
Ida (Pawel Pawikowski, 2013) Poland
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013) UK 
Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg, 2014) US
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014) US
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014) UK

4 stars
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) US
The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) US
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010) US
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, 2010) UK
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010) US
The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011) US
Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) Denmark
Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011) US
50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011) US 
Hugo (Martin Scorcese, 2011) US
Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, 2011) US 
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) France 
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, 2011) US
Bonsái (Cristián Jiménez, 2011) Chile
Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011) US
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) US
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra, 2011) US 
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011) Canada
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012) US
The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012) US
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) US 
Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) US
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012) US
A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman, 2012) US
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese, 2013) US 
The Spectacular Now (James Ponsoldt, 2013) US
American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013) US
The Conjuring (James Wan, 2013) US
Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013) US
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013) US
Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013) US
Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013) US
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014) US
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014) Australia
Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014) US
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014) UK

Highest Rated Documentary Films: 2010-2014

5 stars
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2012) Germany/US

4 1/2 stars
Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg, 2010) US
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010) US
Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (Werner Herzog, 2011) Germany/US

4 stars
Restrepo (Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington, 2010) US/Afghanistan
Buck (Cindy Meehl, 2011) US
Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011) Germany
Muscle Shoals (Greg “Freddy” Camalier, 2013) US
Cutie and the Boxer (Zachary Heinzerling, 2013) US
Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, 2013) US/Switzerland

Lowest Rated Films: 2010-2014

2 stars
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) US

2 1/2 stars
Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) US
House at the End of the Street (Mark Tonderai, 2012) Canada/US

Why King Aethelred Was Unready and Other Tales of Royal Epithets

While the demise of the absolute monarchy and the decline of the aristocracy have generally been heralded as progress in human events, they have deprived us of a most ingenious way of labeling our rulers: the epithet. Gone are the days when one could refer to leaders as Barack, the Osama-Killer, Vladimir, the Crimea Annexer, or Angela, the ATM of Europe. To recapture some of the strangeness, braggadocio and occasional hilarity contained in royal and aristocratic epithets, I took a look back at the epithets of yesteryear. The practice, which goes back to at least the 6th Century BCE seemed to reach its peak in the Middle Ages, between about 1000 and 1500. Here’s what I found.

1.  They’re Grrrrrrrreat!

For much of history, the best thing you could say about a ruler was that he or she was “Great.” From the Persians Cyrus and Darius and the Macedonian Alexander to the Russians (Peter and Catherine), the designation “Great” signified a ruler whose accomplishments – often in the area of empire building – were unparalleled in their time. The list that follows shows a few of those designated as “the Great.”

Cyrus the Great                      (King of Persia, 559-530 BCE)
Darius I, the Great                 (King of Persia, 522-486 BCE)
Alexander the Great              (King of Macedon, 330-323 BCE)
Mithradates II, the Great      (King of Parthia, 123-87 BCE)
Constantine I, the Great       (Roman Emperor, 324-337 CE)
Theoderic the Great              (King of the Ostrogoths, 493-526 CE)
Justinian I, the Great             (Byzantine Emperor, 527-565 CE)
Charles I, Charlemagne (the Great)   (Holy Roman Emperor, 800–814 CE)
Alfred the Great                     (King of England, 871–899 CE)
Otto I, the Great                     (Holy Roman Emperor, 936–973 CE)
William V, the Great               (Duke of Aquitaine, 993–1030 CE)
Canute the Great                    (King of England, 1016–1035)
Knud I, the Great                    (King of Denmark, 1019–1035)
Sancho I, the Great                (King of Castile, 1029–1035)
Ferdinand I, the Great           (King of Castile, 1035–1065)
Valdemar I, the Great            (King of Denmark, 1157–1182)
Peter III, the Great                  (King of Aragon, 1276–1285)
Albert II, the Great                  (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1329-1379)
Ivan III, the Great                    (Grand Prince of Russia, 1462–1505)
Peter I, the Great                    (Tsar/Emperor of Russia, 1682–1725)
Frederick II, the Great            (King of Prussia, 1712-1786)
Catherine II, the Great           (Empress of Russia, 1762–1796)

Only one prominent ruler ever earned an epithet that exceeded “the Great” – Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire for 46 years in the 16th Century, must be granted a special place in the book of epithets, for “the Magnificent”, even if hyperbolic, must outrank “the Great” on any scale.  (Giving Suleiman a run for his money, though, is Otto I, the Illustrious (Duke of Saxony, 880-912), although while Suleiman the Magnificent works for the Sultan of a giant empire, “Otto the Illustrious” seems a little too much for the Duke of Saxony).

2.  Not Great, But… 

Most rulers did not reach greatness, and their epithets reflect an attempt by followers to pick out a quality – preferably a positive one – that represented the best or most characteristic aspect of the ruler.  For some, this quality was goodness, presumably a moral quality, not just a step down from “Great.”

Magnus the Good                   (King of Denmark, 1042–1046)
John III, the Good                    (Duke of Brittany, 1312–1341)
John II, the Good                     (King of France, 1350–1364)
Philip the Good                       (Duke of Burgundy, 1419–1467)
René the Good                        (King of Naples, 1434–1480)

In some cases, “Good” wasn’t good enough, so ancient peoples found other epithets to describe the goodness of their ruler.  Three kings of Aragon, in Spain, for example, were Alfonso III, the Generous (reigned 1285-1291), Alfonso IV, the Benign (reigned 1327-1336) and Alfonso V, the Magnanimous (reigned 1416-1458).  Assuming that “benign” refers to kindness and generosity and not a diagnosis, all three Alfonso’s had goodness running in their Aragonese blood.  The folks seeking an epithet for 12th Century Danish King Erik I decided he was not just good now, but good always, so they named him, “the Evergood.”  (I have yet to find a ruler with the epithet “the Ever-ready”, but I will keep looking.)

  1. Here I Come to Save the Day! 

After “the Great” and “the Good”, those affixing epithets to their rulers’ names had to pick from several paths: (1) war; (2) religion; (3) physical characteristics; or (4) going negative.  Going on the ‘war’ path could mean focusing on the ruler’s personal strength and bravery.  Polish King Augustus II, the Strong (reigned 1694-1733) got his epithet in part by breaking horseshoes with his bare hands.  We assume that William IV, the Strong-Armed (Duke of Aquitaine, reigned 963-993 CE) earned his sobriquet by feats of strength, not by having someone take advantage of him.  William VII, Duke of Aquitaine (reigned 1039-1058) was “the Brave”; John, Duke of Burgundy (reigned 1404-1419) was “the Fearless”, and Alfonso VI, King of Castile (reigned 1072-1109) was “the Valiant.”  Defying categorization are Alfonso I, the Battler (King of Aragon, 1104-1134) and Alan IV, the Iron-Gloved (Duke of Brittany, 1084-1112).

Then there were The Bold Ones:
Philip III, the Bold   (King of France, 1270–1285)
Philip the Bold        (Duke of Burgundy, 1363–1404)
Albert the Bold       (Duke of Saxony, 1464-1500)
Charles the Bold    (Duke of Burgundy, 1467–1477)

Leaders who were known for a particular victory or conquest often acquired the epithet “the Victorious”:
Erik the Victorious                   (King of Sweden, 980–995)
Valdemar II, the Victorious    (King of Denmark, 1202–1241)
John I, the Victorious              (Duke of Brabant, 1267–1294)

or “the Conqueror”:
William I, the Conqueror      (King of England, 1066–1087)
James I, the Conqueror        (King of Aragon, 1214–1276)
John IV, the Conqueror        (Duke of Brittany, 1364–1399)

In a deviation from the standard procedure, after Danish King Erik II (reigned 1134-1137) led his troops to victory in a successful rebellion, he was given the epithet “the Memorable.”

Another way to recognize your ruler for his military feats is to give him an epithet that is the name of an ancient Greek warrior:
Albert III, Achilles     (Elector of Brandenburg, 1440-1486)
Albert, Alcibiades    (Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, 1527-1553)

Another way to show the bravery and boldness of your leader is to compare him to a ferocious animal.  We all know about Richard I, the Lion–Hearted (King of England, 1189–1199), but what about these other lions:
Henry III, the Lion (Duke of Saxony, 1142-1180)
Louis VIII, the Lion (King of France, 1223–1226)
Henry II, the Lion (Lord of Mecklenburg, 1287-1329)

In second place, far behind ‘lion’, is the bear, as exemplified by Albert I, the Bear (Duke of Saxony, 1139-1142).  A more confusing animal epithet belongs to Erik III, the Lamb (King of Denmark, 1137–1146).  Is there a religious connection (Jesus as the Lamb of God?) or was he seen as meek and mild, not usually qualities valued in 12th Century kings?

(While on the animal comparisons, take a look at Harold I, Harefoot (King of England, 1035–1040) who was renowned for his speed and skill as a hunter.  Eric II of Denmark was also known as Harefoot for a time.)

  1. Holy, holy, holy. 

Before the separation of church and state, the religiosity of a leader could go a long way toward winning him or her support.  For that reason, many epithets refer to religious and spiritual qualities, the most common being piety:
Louis I, the Pious             (Holy Roman Emperor, 814–840 CE)
William I, the Pious         (Duke of Aquitaine, 898–918 CE)
Robert II, the Pious         (King of France, 996–1031 CE)
George, the Pious           (Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, 1536-1543)
Frederick II, the Pious    (Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, 1756-1785)

Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (reigned 1002-1024), known as “the Saint”, was canonized in 1146.  Spanish King Ferdinand III, the Saint (reigned 1217-1252) was canonized in 1671.  King Edward of England, who reigned from 1042-1066, received the epithet “the Confessor” because he led a saintly life but was not a martyr.  (Even after Edward was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161, he was not called “the Saint”).  Though of royal blood, Ramiro II, the Monk (King of Aragon, 1134–1137) actually grew up in a Benedictine monastery and after three years as king, he returned to the contemplative life.  John I, the Theologian (Lord of Mecklenburg, 1227-1264) was a religious scholar in his spare time and Henry I, the Pilgrim (Lord of Mecklenburg, 1264-1271, 1298-1302) liked to travel to religious sites.

It is a bit puzzling why both Ferdinand, King of Aragon (reigned 1479-1516), and his wife Isabella, Queen of Castile (reigned 1474-1504), received the epithets “the Catholic”, when the Reconquista of Iberia from the Muslims was nearly complete and the Protestant Reformation had not yet begun.  I have also been unable to find the basis for the epithet given to Alfonso II, the Chaste (King of Aragon, 1164–1196).  Alfonso appears to have had a long married life, which produced many children.  There is even some hint that he may have engaged in extramarital affairs.  Maybe they meant “chased.”

5.  Now It Gets Ugly

The physical appearance of the ruler was apparently fair game for epithets, whether merely descriptive or downright insulting.

Some rulers were known for their height:
Knut the Tall         (King of Sweden, 1229–1234)
Albert the Tall      (Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. 1252-1269)
Philip V, the Tall   (King of France, 1316–1322)

And others, not so much:
Pepin the Short                      (King of the Franks, 751-768 CE)
Władysław the Elbow-high   (King of Poland, 1320-1333)

Some were handsome and fair (meaning fair in appearance, not in meting out justice):
Albert VII, the Handsome    (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1503-1547)
Philip I, the Handsome        (King of Castile, 1504-1506)
Philip IV, the Fair                  (King of France, 1285–1314)
Charles IV, the Fair              (King of France, 1322–28)

Redheads were distinctive, then as now:
Haaken the Red           (King of Sweden, 1066–1079)
John I, the Red             (Duke of Brittany, 1221–1286)

Light hair was also a mark of distinction:
William III, the Towhead      (Duke of Aquitaine, 934–963 CE)

Beards were notable:
Godfrey I, the Bearded      (Count of Louvain, 1106–1128)
George the Bearded          (Duke of Saxony, 1500-1539)

Red beards were even more notable:
Frederick I, Barbarossa (Red-Beard)      (Holy Roman Emperor, 1155-1190)

And so were beards with unusual shapes:
Alan II, Twistedbeard     (Duke of Brittany, 937–952 CE)
Svend I, Forkbeard        (King of Denmark, 986–1014 CE)

A number of rulers are identified by their substantial girth:
Charles III, the Fat      (Holy Roman Emperor, 881–887 CE)
William VI, the Fat      (Duke of Aquitaine, 1030–1038)
Louis VI, the Fat         (King of France, 1108–1137)
Conan III, the Fat       (Duke of Brittany, 1112–1148)
Henry IV, the Fat       (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1422-1477)

At least one by his leanness:
Henry, the Gaunt       (Duke of Mecklenburg-Stargard, 1417-1466)

Others by lack of hair:
Charles II, the Bald      (Holy Roman Emperor, 875–877 CE)
John II, the Bald           (Lord of Werle-Güstrow, 1316-1337)

Or possibly too much hair:
Bernard II, Plantapilosa (hairy or hairy-footed)     (Count of Auvergne, 872–885 CE)

Some rulers were crippled by disease.
Sigobert the Lame       (King of the Franks, 483-507 CE)
Charles II, the Lame    (King of Naples, 1285–1309)

Others were missing parts:
Frederick II, the One-Eyed      (Duke of Swabia, 1105-1147)

Or had dental issues:
Harald I, Bluetooth (King of Denmark, 940–986 CE)

Other epithets can only be regarded as insults:
Nicholas IV, Pig’s Eyes (Lord of Werle, 1350-1354)

6.  It’s What’s Inside that Counts

Physical characteristics were visible to all, while other qualities could only be revealed by the ruler’s actions.

One of the most popular such qualities was wisdom:
Leo VI, the Wise         (Byzantine Emperor, 886-912 CE)
Robert the Wise         (King of Naples, 1309–1343)
Charles V, the Wise   (King of France, 1364–1380)
Frederick the Wise    (Duke of Bavaria-Landshut, 1375-1393)

Is it better to be wise or learned?  Ask Alfonso X:
Alfonso X, the Learned     (King of Castile, 1252–1284)

Not sure where to put this one but I’m sure Peter IV would know the protocol:
Peter IV, the Ceremonious      (King of Aragon, 1336–1387)

It’s hard to tell whether some epithets are meant as praise or denigration:
Peter, the Cruel          (King of Castile, 1350–1369)
John III, the Pitiless    (Duke of Bavaria-Straubing, 1418-1425)
Ivan IV, the Terrible   (Russian Tsar, 1533–1584)

Are these epithets referring to the rulers’ treatment of their enemies or their own subjects?  (Maybe their own subjects are their enemies.)  My guess is that “cruel”, “pitiless”, and “terrible” were meant as high praise.

We all know that pride goeth before a fall, but what if it follows a ruler’s name?  Once again, my guess is that the quality of pride is here seen as positive.
Henry X, the Proud   (Duke of Bavaria, 1126-1138)
Henry II the Proud   (Duke of Saxony, 1137-1139)

It is difficult to find the positive spin on the next set of epithets, which describe unpleasant traits of the ruler.  I don’t think these were run by the publicist first.
Arnulf the Bad                        (Duke of Bavaria, 937-938 CE)
Aethelred II, the Unready     (King of England, 978–1016 CE)
Louis V, the Sluggard            (King of Western Francia, 986-987 CE)
Henry II, the Quarrelsome   (Duke of Bavaria, 955-976 CE)
Louis X, the Stubborn           (King of France, 1314–1316)
Otto VII, the Lazy                   (Duke of Bavaria, 1347-1351)

The hope at the bottom of the box:
Henry V, the Peaceful      (Duke of Mecklenburg, 1503-1552)

  1. Miscellany

Because of the rules of royal and aristocratic succession, it was not uncommon for an infant or small child to become a king.
Louis III, the Child             (Holy Roman Emperor, 899–911 CE)
Otto the Child                   (Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, 1235-1252)
Nicholas I, the Child         (Lord of Rostock, 1282-1314)

In one case, the baby was only king for five days:
John I, the Posthumous      (King of France, November 15-20, 1316)

Rulers could be young…
Louis VII, the Young      (King of France, 1137–1180)

Or old.
Emund the Old      (King of Sweden, 1050–1060)

Adopted:
Childebert the Adopted      (King of the Franks, 656-657 CE)

Or born out of wedlock (at least I think that’s what they mean):
Ebalus the Bastard      (Duke of Aquitaine, 927–934 CE)

Sometimes, there is a story attached to the epithet.  Queen Mary of England (reigned 1553-1558), earned the name “Bloody Mary” after executing Protestants.  Holy Roman Emperor Henry I (reigned 919-936 CE) was called “the Fowler” because he was fixing his birding nets when informed that he was to be king.  Ferdinand IV, King of Castile (reigned 1295-1312) was given the epithet “the Summoned” after two brothers about to be executed specified a time for him to answer for their deaths in the afterworld.  Danish King Erik IV (reigned 1241-1250) earned notoriety for his hated tax on ploughs, and is now known as “Ploughpenny.” Henry III, the Sufferer (King of Castile, 1390–1406) died at the age of 16 after a long, painful illness.

Regarding Joanna I, the Mad (Queen of Castile, 1504-1555), there is conflicting evidence about whether Queen Joanna was mentally ill, but the move to have her relinquish her rights after the death of her husband Philip I in 1506 and confine herself to a convent seems like a naked power grab.

Sometimes the epithet indicates a favorite pastime:
William IX, the Troubadour        (Duke of Aquitaine, 1086–1126)
John, the Alchemist                     (Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach, 1440-1457)
William IV, the Sailor–King        (King of England, 1830–1837)

Regarding Conan I, the Crooked (Duke of Brittany, 990–992), it is unclear whether “Crooked” refers to a physical ailment or some character trait.

Regarding Charles III, the Simple (King of Western Francia, 898-922), it is unclear whether King Charles suffered from a mental ailment or whether he was merely straightforward and uncomplicated.

The love of the subjects for their king is the focus of these French epithets:
Charles VI, the Well–Beloved       (King of France, 1380–1422)
Louis XV, the Well–Beloved         (King of France, 1715–74)

These French kings have well-known nicknames:
Louis XIV, the Sun King                    (King of France, 1643–1715)
Louis–Philippe, the Citizen King    (King of France, 1830–48)

Two more for good measure:
Henry IX, the Black      (Duke of Bavaria, 1120-1126)
Henry XVI the Rich      (Duke of Bavaria-Landshut, 1392-1450)

NOTE: THIS IS ONLY A SMALL CROSS-SECTION OF THE ROYAL AND ARISTOCRATIC EPITHETS GIVEN TO RULERS IN THE PAST. 

Oh, and about Aethelred the Unready – the term “Unready” is a mistranslation, but it has stuck for several hundred years and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Scholars now say that a better term would be “Ill-advised”, which is a critique of Aethelred’s participation in a failed coup attempt, which forced him to flee England for a while.

 

 

 

 

It’s About Time: The Timelines of Human History

A timeline is a sort of chronological list and so it is fitting that Make Lists, Not War should include some timelines.  I’ve already published a timetable of scientific discovery, so now I’ve created a much larger set of timetables covering human history, beginning with our hominid ancestors 6.5 million years ago and concluding (for now) with 2014 in the Common Era (CE).  I’ve included scads of photos and maps, and tried to reduce the text to a minimum.  Where there are multiple items with the same date, I have followed a rough hierarchy, as follows:

Climate/Natural Disasters
World Population
Political Events
Religious Events
Cultural Events (incl. sports)
Scientific Discoveries
Exploration
Inventions
Architecture
Sculpture
Painting & Other Visual Arts
Literature: (1) Non-fiction, (2) Fiction/Poetry
Music: (1) Classical; (2) Jazz; (3) Other
Film
Photography
Deaths
Births

I realize that some (perhaps most) historians would find these timelines anathema to the true study of history, and I would have to agree, to some extent.  Anyone familiar with the study of history will tell you that the days of memorizing names and dates are long gone.  This is the time of understanding causes and movements, even going so far as to analyze the various ways in which scholars have studied particular historical events or trends over time.  Concepts, ideas, meaning and purpose are the substance of today’s history, not who invented this and which general won what battle.

But I suspect even the most up-to-date historian or history teacher would admit that a few facts now and then can anchor those theories and movements to real people at real times.  A concept or an idea, after all, must be thought of by a mind of a specific person who must communicate it or act it out.  It is true that a list of events without a deeper context lacks the threads of the narratives that carry them from person to event to person, etc. (e.g., there is no timeline event labeled “nationalism”, “humanism”, or even “Industrial Revolution”).  Should I hit  the delete button, then?  Is publishing these timelines going to do more harm than good?  I somehow doubt it.  To me, they constitute a treasure chest of interesting, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing facts about human history, with the political events of the day set alongside scientific and technological achievements, the great works of art and literature and various aspects of culture (from sports to gay rights to the labor movement).  The timelines have rekindled a passion for history; instead of sending me back to the “just the facts” mode of  studying history, these lists have made me want to read more about the deeper narratives that weave these disparate facts together.  I hope they do the same for you.

Timeline of Human History I: Prehistory-1499
Timeline of Human History II: 1500-1799
Timeline of Human History III: 1800-1899
Timeline of Human History IV: 1900-2014

Favorite Movies Seen in 2014*

The following is a list of movies I saw for the first time in 2014 that I rated 4.5 or 5.0 stars out of 5.  The list includes movies that were made in 2014 and before, and also includes a couple of 2014 movies that I saw in January 2015 (hence the asterisk above).  The idea of reducing one’s opinion about a movie to a single 1-5 rating has always seemed a bit ridiculous to me – there are so many facets to filmmaking that I sometimes wish we could rate each facet separately: the writing, cinematography, editing, sound, soundtrack, acting, etc.  (Or just discuss them without ratings – there’s an idea.)  But I do find it useful to rate the movies, if only for occasions like this list.

5 Stars
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
Transcendent – Linklater and his actors have the power to create moments of true life that are evocative without being melodramatic; it is as much a story about parenting as growing up.
Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)
An unevenness almost brought it down to a 4.5, but the chase sequence is the best I’ve ever seen, and the surreal section in which Buster steps into the movie screen is a timeless work of genius.

4.5 Stars
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
Joanna Newsom reading Thomas Pynchon as a manic pixie voice over; Omar in a cameo; Josh Brolin gruff but lovable; Owen Wilson, wacky but lovable; Katherine Waterston deceptive but lovable; and over them all is Joaquin’s Doc in a haze of pot smoke continuing to prove that he is the best of his generation (not just Her and The Master, go back to Gladiator, and Inventing the Abbotts and especially To Die For)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014)
Remember Topsy-Turvy?  This is that history-buff Mike Leigh, not the contemporary working class dramedy director of Secrets & Lies (OK, they’re the same person). Timothy Spall gives the performance of a lifetime, but just as important are the women in his life – each of whom is etched in acid.  Thankfully, Leigh never tells you who to vote for.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Like Fellini before him, Sorrentino is not afraid to let you know there is a real person behind the camera as well as in front of it; he has a photographer’s eye for great shots; the aging central character has many loves, not the least Rome and himself.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowksi, 2013)
In early 1960s Poland, a young novitiate has a chance to explore the secular world before taking her vows – she goes on the road with an aunt and a journey of self-discovery, through the gray snowy towns and forests.  The tone is never sentimental or cliche – but there are secrets and surprises.
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)
Alright alright alright! This has been an amazing run for Matthew McConaughey – I’ve seen this, Mud, The Paperboy, and Bernie in the past couple of years and he is stellar in every one.  Once again, the writing, direction and acting manage to take a potentially maudlin, sticky-sentimental tale and keep it real.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013)
Almost every Coen brothers movie is a bit of a disappointment to me, because they are usually very close to perfect, but just miss the mark somewhere.  Still, they are so good that a near miss still rates a 4.5 from me.  Is Goodman right on the money or way over the top?  What does the cat symbolize?  (It symbolizes his pet.)  Are the songs his voiceover?
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
Spike Jonze likes to start with an out-there concept (his own or Charlie Kaufman’s), but it doesn’t work without real human emotion.  The conceit here is that the ‘real’ relationship is with a machine, a kinder, gentler HAL 9000 who sounds just like Scarlet Johansson.
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, 2013)
The third part of the trilogy that might be called Boyhood: The Prologue.  Every 10 years or so, we check in with a couple we met on a train so long ago.  This one is about marriage and so there is of course, a big fight.  And a reconciliation?
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2011)
A heartbreaking unpredictable tale of an abandoned boy and the woman who tries to make a home for him.
Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)
Werner Herzog doesn’t get the death penalty.  And he is not afraid to voice his criticisms in his Werner Herzogian way while interviewing two boys who committed a random murder, one of whom is on death row.
Crazy Love (Dan Klores & Fisher Stevens, 2007)
A typical American love story, except for the part about hiring someone to throw acid in your girlfriend’s face.
Caché (Hidden) (Michael Haneke, 2005)
Hitchcockian suspense tale about a family that is being watched, but they don’t know why.  Keeps you thinking right until the very last frame.
Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)
Just young people doing what they do, except for the raping maybe.  The Thing that Wouldn’t Leave.
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
Casting Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe was like casting Woody Allen as Superman – and Robert Altman knew exactly what he was doing.  Altman’s 70’s rethinking of the detective flick involves self-indulgence, ennui and worshipping lots of false idols.  Oh – and Marlowe’s cat is missing (what does that symbolize?).
A Woman Is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
Take Belmondo and Seberg’s conversations from Breathless and convert them into a parody of sit-com dialogue and you’ll get an idea of this light-hearted experiment from Godard.
Earth (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1930)
Wheat, wheat, fields of wheat.  And a tractor.  Change comes to the Ukraine.
Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
American actress Louise Brooks made her best movie in Germany.  It’s a morality tale about a good-time girl who gets her comeuppance, but it’s the fun times we remember.
Safety Last (Fred C. Newmeyer & Sam Taylor, 1923)
The famous climb up the side of the building is the highlight, but there are lots of gags before and after, and even a fair amount of character development.