Ella Taylor

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.

Born in Israel and raised in London, Taylor taught media studies at the University of Washington in Seattle; her book Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Post-War America was published by the University of California Press.

Taylor has written for Village Voice Media, the LA Weekly, The New York Times, Elle magazine and other publications, and was a regular contributor to KPCC-Los Angeles' weekly film-review show FilmWeek.

The adolescent girl at the heart of Hiromasa Yonebayashi's haunting When Marnie Was There has the cropped dark hair, wide eyes and square-peg awkwardness that will be familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli animated movies. Unlike the feisty, willful sprites of Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away and many other Ghibli treasures though, Anna is a cowed, sensitive soul with artistic leanings. At school she's friendless and bullied.

Every Secret Thing, a clammy little thriller about missing babies and bad family karma, bristles with heavy female artillery on both sides of the camera, most of it working unaccustomed turf. The script, adapted from a detective novel by Laura Lippman, is by Nicole Holofcener, whose usual territory is wisecracking urban comedies. The executive producer is actress Frances McDormand, who got the project off the ground and recruited documentary filmmaker Amy Berg to direct.

Early on in Bertrand Bonello's extravagantly imagined portrait of designer Yves Saint Laurent, strict orders come down from the Great One to the stressed-out sewing room, or whatever they call it in that etherized milieu. The tone is hushed but the message is clear: the stitching's all wrong; it must be put right; it must be put right now. In every other respect, Bonello's film has nothing — believe me, nothing — in common with The Devil Wears Prada.

A fierce spirit ahead of her Victorian time, vacillating between love, sex and business in choosing a partner to run the farm she refuses to see go under, Far From the Madding Crowd's Bathsheba Everdene is also a woman for the ages and therefore amenable to endless re-imagining, up to and including Katniss Everdeen. All in white and gamboling through green meadows with adorable lambs and a very hot Alan Bates, Julie Christie made an unforgettable Bathsheba in John Schlesinger's 1967 steamed-up adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 pastoral novel.

In the 2012 drama Fill the Void, Israeli actress Hadas Yaron was incandescent as an Ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv girl who, following the sudden death of her beloved older sister, is pressured by rabbis and relatives to marry her brother-in-law in order to preserve family unity. She suffers agonies over the decision, but never doubts the legitimacy of the Hasidic community that sustains her.

For a while The Sisterhood of Night, a spry, heartfelt first feature about teenage girls doing strange things in woods by night, appears to traffic in every easy cliché we adults use to bind female adolescents into knowable aliens. Led by charismatic underachiever Mary (played by former Narnia child Georgie Henley, all grown into a slightly unsettling resemblance to the young Eileen Brennan), a growing band of girls in a small Hudson Valley town take to the forest after dark, apparently to grow a satanic cult or something.

Gustav Klimt's famous painting of a dark-eyed beauty encased in shimmering gold lozenges is often dismissed by art critics as a disappointing excursion into kitsch by the avant-garde Austrian painter. But the portrait, commissioned by a wealthy Jewish family not long before the outbreak of World War II, has brought visceral pleasure to countless owners of postcards, posters and key-rings who have yet to set foot in New York's Neue Galerie, where the original hangs today.

The Salt of the Earth, a documentary about famed photographer Sebastiao Salgado, ends with tranquil images of his family farm in Brazil, a leafy earthly paradise restored from the ravages of severe drought. That's where Salgado went to recover from his experiences in war-torn Rwanda, and, perhaps, a life spent bringing back pictures of the self-inflicted horrors of mankind: genocide, drought, famine and the unspeakable suffering they bring to those caught in their wake.

Al Pacino as a jaded, aging rocker re-juiced by a road trip to settle accounts with himself and his long-lost family? By all means roll your eyes — the star has one brow goofily raised himself — but don't give up on Danny Collins. In a (slightly) lower key than he's wont to play, Pacino puts a sweet spin on Danny that makes him more worth attending to than you might expect from the drifting geezer we meet, decked out in regulation gold chains and a bleary cocaine haze.

In the mid-1960s, pop music moved its center of gravity from New York to Los Angeles. It was a seismic shift, but growing up in the cold drizzle of post-World War II London, what did I know from the West Coast Sound? I was just a rapt kid with my ear glued to Top-40 radio, dreaming of sun, surf and sex via the Beach Boys, the Mamas and Papas, Sam Cooke, The Supremes. In my fevered imagination, Spector's towering "wall of sound" had to have been recorded in a cathedral.

At 55 years old, Patricia Clarkson retains the golden glow and throaty delivery of a siren out of 1940s women's melodrama. But her home turf lies along the edgier margins of indie cinema (High Art, Far From Heaven, The Station Agent) and television (Six Feet Under, Parks and Recreation). There, Clarkson has thrived as a character actress who can do arch, sinister, smart, sexy, goofy and wistful on demand.

Even when he's walking through the shambling shtick he can do in his sleep, Hugh Grant always gives good value.

In Marc Lawrence's sweetly undemanding new comedy The Rewrite, the British actor is in familiar mode, rumpled and stammering as Keith Michaels, a once-successful screenwriter now left behind in Hollywood's mad scramble for "edgy comedies with a kick-ass young woman." Down to his last option, Keith reluctantly accepts a gig as a writer-in-residence at a public university in upstate New York.

Tucked into the dance documentary Ballet 422, there's a nice cutaway you might miss if you blinked: An ordinary-looking young man wearing a backpack waits quietly for his late-night train on a New York platform. Another weary student or barista on his way home in the city, perhaps.

Early on in Celine Sciamma's striking Girlhood, a deft twist confounds what you might expect from a teen movie set in a mostly black, poverty-stricken suburb of Paris. Shut out of conventional paths to realize her ambition to be "like others, normal" and fed up with the tyranny of a bullying older brother at home, 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Toure) takes up with a gang of tough-talking girls whose charismatic leader, Lady (Assa Sylla), fights other girls and wields a knife.

At first blush, Diane (Anne Dorval), the working-class, French-Canadian woman in her forties who dominates Xavier Dolan's Mommy, seems no more than a tired movie cliché, the single-mom slattern who drives other parents in her orbit to come on like the Harper Valley PTA.

In Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev's melodrama about a motor mechanic's desperate struggle to hang on to home and family in the New Russia, a photograph of Vladimir Putin gazes impassively down from a wall in the office of a corrupt mayor.

My favorite movie of 2014 is three hours long, and it's about Turkish people who live in caves. Winter Sleep is all talk and vistas of steppes so beautiful and so desolate, they'll make you weep. Don't go away: Like all of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's work, the film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year, is about life itself, in general but with thrilling particularity. You want to know why we can't get along, don't you?

Paul Thomas Anderson probably wouldn't take kindly to being called a period filmmaker. And it's true that one of our finest pulse-takers of the American predicament is so much more than that. Anderson's movies track warped obsessives who come to define the particular times and places from which they get the tarnished American Dreams they pursue.

Given the times, the Norwegian thriller Pioneer is hardly the first thriller in recent memory to delve into the poisonous fallout from a nation's suddenly acquired wealth. But it may be the first to conduct business from the floor of the noirishly cinematic North Sea, a roiling stretch of gray water where huge supplies of oil and gas were discovered off the coast of Norway in the 1980s. Trust me, this is not Bikini Bottom.

Fun though it is that women in American film have begun to dip their fingers into the macabre genres, they're way behind Australia's curve. If you're old enough to remember Jane Campion's 1989 debut feature Sweetie (about a family almost as crazy as its psychotic daughter) or Jocelyn Moorhouse's 1991 Proof (about a blind photographer), you'll know that women filmmakers from down under have long embraced the sick and twisted — so long as it's firmly grounded in the domestic.

In the late 1970s, a young American took leave of his well-heeled, cosmopolitan life to become a Tibetan monk in a remote Indian monastery. Given the times, this was hardly an unusual step, especially among trust-funders who could afford to step away from the daily grind for a spell longer than the obligatory backpacking trek to Katmandu.

Hilary Swank is a real looker in ways that tend not to get her cast in what the industry is pleased to call "women's pictures." She has seized the day to snag all manner of bracingly offbeat roles, the latest being Mary Bee Cuddy, a bonneted Nebraska frontierswoman in The Homesman who keeps repeating that she's "plain as an old tin pail," a slur thrown her way by a heedless neighbor. No one wants to marry Mary, even though she's smart, resourceful, cultivated and — like many who have suffered hurt early and often — endlessly kind.

The bloodshot eyeball that opens to greet a brand-new day — and I mean brand-new day — in the thriller Before I Go To Sleep belongs to wealthy English homemaker Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman). Christine suffers from psychogenic amnesia, the fright-moviemaker's best friend. She can store memories during the day, but they reliably vanish overnight, marooning poor Christine in what is either a hapless attempt to upstage Memento or a remake of Groundhog Day in noir.

Off to the side of the wickedly funny Swedish black comedy Force Majeure lurks a minor but significant figure with a sour, slightly saturnine face. The man is a cleaner in a fancy French Alps ski hotel and he hardly says a word. But his wordless hovering inspires dread, nervous laughter or both. Which pretty much sums up Force Majeure's adroit shifts of tone, and quite possibly its director's take on the ways of the hip urban bourgeoisie.

My first encounter with the lovely 10th-century Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter was in the Sesame Street special Big Bird Goes to Japan. A kind and beautiful young woman named Kaguya-hime appears out of nowhere to take the Yellow One and his canine pal Barkley on a jaunt to Kyoto. They have fun, and then the mysteriously sad woman reveals that she is royalty in civilian dress and must return to her home on the moon. Bird and Barkley were marginally less inconsolable than were my toddler daughter and I.

The grumpy geezer Bill Murray plays in Ted Melfi's gentle comedy St. Vincent is not exactly a stretch. Vincent is a down-on-his-luck gent festering in a falling-down row house on the butt end of Brooklyn. Familiar stuff happens: A little boy named Oliver with bowl-cut hair and a noticeably absent father moves in next door with his mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy).

I feel like a churl for voicing qualms about The Good Lie, a big, eager puppy of an issue movie that plants its paws on your chest and licks away at your cheek in eager expectation of praise. The story it tells, about a group of Sudanese refugees who, after a grinding journey to escape endless civil war at home, find refuge in Kansas, can't help but grab our sympathies. But this fact-based movie smothers an epic humanitarian crisis in a gooey parable of American largesse administered by Reese Witherspoon, serious brunette.

Scenic and a touch bloodless, Tracks is a tastefully off-Hollywood version of the upcoming Wild. Wild is bound to make a lot more noise, and not just because it has Reese Witherspoon in the lead as a grief-stricken Cheryl Strayed hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to get over her beloved mother's death. Tracks is a little too subdued for its own good.

Working back through a raft of bad-seed twins to 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? the sibling drama has, with few exceptions, been ignored or pathologized to death in movies. I see why: no prospects for sex, unless we're talking incest. Yet that relationship, with all its potent friction of solidarity and competition, comes stuffed with dramatic potential that the fairly new director Craig Johnson means to mine in The Skeleton Twins, an intermittently absorbing dramedy about a brother and sister who have reached adulthood in years, if not in maturity.

In Rocks In My Pockets, a lively animated documentary billed (a touch reductively) as "a funny film about depression," Latvian-American Signe Baumane describes in detail one of her several attempts to commit suicide after she turned 18.

The minutiae of her planning are more graphic than you might care to hear, and the tone, delivered in Baumane's fetchingly accented voiceover, is breezy and droll. "One must be considerate to one's fellow citizens," she says, her voice rising to comic hysteria edged with existential panic.

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