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Doubling Up

This piece was originally published on the now-defunct blog of Vérité Film Magazine.

Documentaries about influential artists are a dime a dozen. They constitute their own rigidly codified subgenre, and it’s one beset by numbing sameness, united by certain familiar narrative rhythms. That’s why Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013) feels so refreshingly different. Absent are any talking head testimonials from the artists’ collaborators or admirers. No critics pop up to pontificate about how these men are major figures of 21st century cinema. Nor does Klinger preface his subjects’ conversations with linear rundowns of their biographical details and work to date. Instead, everything comes straight from the horses’ mouths. Aside from occasional film clips or archival interviews, anything the audience learns about Benning and Linklater emerges from their chats, whether at lunch or at the Austin Film Society (which Linklater co-founded), with Klinger’s unintrusive camera tagging along.

That’s the “doubling” conceit which provides both Double Play’s title and structure. It allows these two filmmakers’ decades of experience and honed techniques to bounce off one another as the men and their films engage in dialogue. In fact, it makes Double Play resemble nothing quite so much as one of Linklater’s Before films, with the arid countryside around Austin standing in for Paris or Vienna. Benning and Linklater may not have as contentious a relationship as Céline and Jesse, but they do have similarly voracious intellects and eclectic interests, which makes their banter comparably engaging. They discuss favorite cameras and film vs. digital; they shoot hoops, play catch, and talk baseball. (That latter digression’s supplemented by passages from Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake and Benning’s American Dreams: Lost and Found). Personal minutiae, artistic nitty-gritty, big philosophical picture: it’s all fair game.

The film leans most often toward Linklater, since his filmography is more accessible and easier to excerpt. Around Double Play’s rough “climax,” Klinger even segues into a full-on video essay piecing together dream and pinball-related sequences from Slacker, Dazed and ConfusedWaking Life, and his other films, showcasing several clear thematic preoccupations. However, while Benning’s non-narrative features may lose some of their impact in tiny doses, the clips from movies like One Way Boogie Woogie and 13 Lakes are still tantalizing, especially when juxtaposed with Linklater’s more restrained experiments in space and time. Benning himself adds immeasurably to the film’s conversations as well, whether he’s interrogating Linklater or pulling from his own memories. His recollection of seeing John Cage perform a piece derived from Finnegans Wake when he was in college, for example—the experience he says made him want to be an artist—is deeply moving.

“The one relationship we all have that endures to the end,” says Linklater, “is our own relationship with our past selves, you know, and the stories we create to connect ourselves to who we were.” It’s a meandering profundity of the sort that pervades his films, one that could even serve as a loose thesis statement for Boyhood. (Clips from that film, at the time incomplete, appear near the end of Double Play as Linklater and Benning examine its year-to-year transitions with editor Sandra Adair.) That sentiment is also typical of this documentary which is, sure, a cross-section of two major directors’ oeuvres, but beyond that a sit-down with two middle-aged friends who like to share their perspectives and work through creative problems. It’s not a set of authoritative answers, nor is it a glorified DVD extra like so many movies of its ilk, but rather a long, thoughtful talk about the role of life in art and art in life.

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2014: Darkness and Light

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The act of making an end-of-year top 10 list is an exercise in futile vanity. It’s reductive, repetitive, more in keeping with the behavior of a butterfly collector than that of an aesthete. (I wonder: do butterfly collectors ever get sick of being used in stale metaphors?) But, as with so many critical bad habits, the fact is that it’s also perversely fun. So here’s my end-of-year top 10 list.

I’ll preface it with a trio of “honorable mentions” which I couldn’t include on my list proper due to byzantine, self-imposed eligibility guidelines: (1) the first season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, which straddles the increasingly permeable TV/movie border and contains some incredible “filmmaking” (or whatever you want to call it); (2) YouTube user Mia Munselle’s minute-long found footage opus “Camera falls from airplane and lands in pig pen–MUST WATCH END!!” which to my knowledge has never screened theatrically yet which is still an accidental gonzo work of substantial artistic import; and (3) Hong Sang-soo’s heartbreaking comedies Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi, both of which have been consigned to an inter-year limbo (as far as American critics are concerned) by the vagaries of distribution. Whether any of these items falls into the category of “2014 movie” is up for debate, but all are nonetheless relevant to any discussion of film form as this particular year winds to its close.

And now, about that “list proper”… well, first I have more honorable mentions; 15 of them, in fact, in alphabetical order. I just can’t help myself. They are ActressBlue Ruin, CitizenfourThe DoubleDouble Play: James Benning and Richard LinklaterErnest & CelestineGone GirlThe Grand Budapest HotelIt Felt Like LoveJealousyA Most Wanted ManObvious ChildOnly Lovers Left AliveSnowpiercer, and Stranger by the Lake. If you were to gently nudge my top 10, it’s possible that one of those could fall into a slot of its own, because listmaking is (enjoyable) bullshit.

I have 10 “runner-up” performances to cite, too! Patricia Arquette, for her maternal weariness in Boyhood; Emily Browning, dancing and lip-synching her way through God Help the Girl; Macon Blair, a hangdog sad sack out for blood in Blue Ruin; Zac Efron’s comic Adonis in Neighbors, especially impressive given the incoherent writing of his part; Charlotte Gainsbourg, agonizing to watch as the title character of Nymphomaniac; Liam Neeson as a brick-hewn embodiment of human duality in The Lego Movie; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl as the year’s definitive femme fatale; Tilda Swinton as a Yorkshire-accented burlesque of bureaucracy in Snowpiercer; Paul Rudd as They Came Together’s archetypal romcom leading man (“handsome, but in a nonthreatening way”); Christoph Waltz further proving his versatility while (like Efron) making bad writing sound better in The Zero Theorem; and lastly Robin Wright, acting with body and voice as a sci-fi-skewed iteration of herself in The Congress. Whew! (Oh, and if for some sick reason you want a fuller picture of my year-end activities, I voted in both the Indiewire and 12 Films a Flickering polls.)

These past few years, I’ve handed out awards for Best Performance in a Documentary. Recipients have included Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Joyce McKinney in Tabloid, Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter, and Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing. This year’s addition to that informal hall of fame is Brandy Burre in Robert Greene’s Actress.

And now, the list proper.

Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

10) Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Although its frames are heavy with the ethical weight of 21st century living, this is still a crackerjack thriller: formally exact, noose-tight, never the slightest bit didactic. Bank heists have been pulled off with less precision than Reichardt brings to her camera angles and shot durations, which over time make even the Oregon wilderness feel as restrictive as a jail cell. Though its point (you can run, you can hide, but somebody’s always watching) has been reiterated by generations of paranoid thrillers, seldom has it been expressed with such rigor.

Kim Dickens plays Gone Girl’s hard-ass policewoman with screwball agility, her performance divvying up sympathy between the misled law and Ben Affleck’s patsy.

Though loosely inspired by Philip Roth, the aging literary giant played by Jonathan Pryce in Listen Up Philip functions broadly as a stand-in for a whole generation of successful assholes, their book sales counterbalanced by impotent rage.

9) We Are the Best!, directed by Lukas Moodysson

The mere fact that this is a positive, realistic movie about teenage girls’ friendships is refreshing enough, even if that alone may not a great movie make. (“You know,” I tweeted recently, “between Whiplash, Birdman, & Listen Up Philip, I really appreciate Vi ar bäst! depicting art as not strictly a macho pursuit.”) What does a great movie make, however, is ensemble energy yoked to episodic coming-of-age plotting and sharp-eared dialogue. We Are the Best! nails both the pains of growing up and the giddy pleasures of artistic collaboration.

Amy Seimetz’s role in The Sacrament could’ve been a throwaway “horror tour guide” part. Instead, she invests it with sisterly affection and evangelical zeal, drawing a straight line from friendly “hello”s to mass carnage.

Unlike many of my cinephile friends, I don’t follow wrestling, but I am consistently impressed by wrestlers onscreen: The Rock was my #1 supporting actor last year, and Dave Bautista is the best part of Guardians of Galaxy, as endearing with his deadpan line readings as he is lethal with a blade.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

8) A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

This tripartite avant-garde/doc whatzit is like an invitation to a trance state. Its audio plumbs the extremes of black metal and forest-shrouded silence, mostly forsaking dialogue; its ambulatory camera pushes on through open-air baths, firelit nights, and lakes whose waves lap against a lonely rowboat. It’s maybe baffling, definitely abrasive, yet still tantalizing as it weaves that wondrous spell.

I don’t expect Emily Blunt’s work in The Edge of Tomorrow to receive any awards attention; as far as Academy voting is concerned, acting rarely happens within action movies. But she’s the real deal (here, in Looper, in Your Sister’s Sister, in The Five-Year Engagement), providing the battlefield bravado that makes Tom Cruise’s death-by-death redemption possible.

I keep imagining Birdman as a mediocre remake of His Girl Friday, and maybe that’s in part because Edward Norton has such an old-fashioned charm to him. (See also: his “Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith” riff in Death to Smoochy.) I could see his strut, ego, dick, and all transplanted into the 1930s with minimal fuss.

Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

7) Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

By now, I’ve seen innumerable 2014 “best of” lists that foreground Boyhood, whether by naming it an ecstatic #1 or by crowing about its conspicuous absence. But I want to get away from all that, away from the “for or against” atmosphere fostered by a movie’s status as consensus favorite, and back to my feelings when I walked out of the theater this past August. I was gobsmacked, not merely by the unorthodox longevity of the film’s production, but by its dialogue and its complex ideas about family and the self, as well as its frequent grasps at the sublime from within the quotidian. It speaks to cinema’s possibilities, but also to its limitations, like the tragedy that a movie can only run from its beginning to its end.

With her bloodlust and blond mane, Mia Wasikowska injects a necessary dose of goofy id right into the middle of Only Lovers Left Alive. (She’s not half bad as the flawlessly coiffed object of “nice guy” desire in The Double, either.)

J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash is admittedly blunt and showy, alternating between a couple of vicious notes for the whole of his screentime. But sometimes a movie needs an actor to be like a wrench to the rear of the skull, and Simmons is exactly, fatally that.

Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

6) Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

Watching this acrid comedy is like having a vial of misanthropy splashed in my face, yet counterintuitively it remains a pleasurable experience. The film zigzags through novel-emulating arcs of asshole behavior with no real comeuppance to be found at the end, yet still I relish its sour aftertaste. That’s because Listen Up Philip is satire that doesn’t resort to caricature, instead frankly replicating the headspace of a very intelligent young man (i.e. the worst type of human being) then dismantles its subject from the inside out.

Typically with a movie like Listen Up Philip I’d expect the antihero to have a “woman who holds him back”; instead, Elisabeth Moss plays “the woman he held back,” and her face (caught in close-up over the span of their break-up) says as much as Philip’s reams of smartass dialogue.

Although Boyhood’s most ballyhooed spectacle is that of a child aging from 6-18, it also depicts Ethan Hawke’s progress through his thirties into early middle age, accompanied by his character’s steady evolution: from songwriting “cool dad” to the uncool dad who drives a minivan and accepts his responsibilities.

The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

5) The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

I think of myself as pretty inured to horror movies’ scares at this point. I still watch them and love them, but—well, it’s like that bit in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman punches a plank of wood until her fist is numb. And watching The Babadook is like someone chopping that fist off at the wrist. Not only does the film boast immaculate craftsmanship (metronomic editing, monochrome production design) but it also makes motherhood—this fundamental fact of human existence—scarier than any bogeyman you could conjure up. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” indeed.

In Night Moves, all of Jesse Eisenberg’s usual mannerisms are tamped down, everything shoved below a stolid surface, with his interiorized fear and despair only bubbling up through his quavering voice and forced half-smiles.

As the author surrogate in Catherine Breillat’s autobio-drama Abuse of Weakness, Isabelle Huppert provokes sympathy and terror, her body put graphically through simulacra of strokes, PT, and a halting recovery.

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

4) Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

You can break this experimental doc’s conceptual simplicity down into numbers: 11 shots, 2-3 people (plus occasional animals) per shot, 1 angle from which a static camera captures it all. Yet even forgoing most conventionally “cinematic” embellishments, the film still supplies a myriad of sights to see and miniature dramas to experience. It’s simultaneously a retreat back toward the basics of filmmaking and a leap forward via the primal power of the frame.

Even saddled with a phony German accent, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a fitting farewell performance in A Most Wanted Man. The nexus of the film’s anti-terrorist web, he visibly bears the weight of its moral compromises on his wide, world-weary shoulders.

What impresses me most about Jenny Slate in Obvious Child isn’t her motor-mouthed joke delivery, nor the way she subtly shades her sardonic reactions with pathos, but instead her fully demonstrated capacity for joy—a trait too often undervalued among performers.

3) Goodbye to Language, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

If Manakamana can be both a retreat and a leap forward, then the same is true of Godard’s foray into 3D, albeit in a more berserk fashion. It’s as if this old film-historical trickster god had invented a time machine that could carry him simultaneously into the future and back toward a pre-Lumière past. Breaking old rules, inventing new ones, taunting the viewer with unsolvable visual riddles: this is Godard all right, crafting (with the aid of stereoscopy and a curious pup named Roxy) a movie as fun, beautiful, and mind-bending as it is inscrutable.

Joaquin Phoenix may play a villainous pimp in The Immigrant, but his performance also disrupts such easy labels; though he may radiate wickedness and abjure audience sympathy, he’s still playing a human being first.

Scarlett Johansson’s anti-star turn in Under the Skin is a testament to her wealth of thespian imagination. It awes me that she even attempted to play an incomprehensible alien being, let alone that she succeeds to a terrifying degree.

The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

2) The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

Even though this rich melodrama only squeaked into theaters in 2014, it already feels as if it’s been around for decades. As if it’s an artifact from a bygone era, perhaps carved by Gray from a chunk of solid history, as one might make an amulet out of an elephant’s tusk. Walking into a new release this year, I never expected to see anything so pure, full, emotionally direct, and morally thorny. But then, The Immigrant has zero interest in playing to expectations.

The same applies to Marion Cotillard, who takes on a timeworn character type (“Gish-esque waif”) as the star of The Immigrant and makes the part hers. You can add her close-ups (like Elisabeth Moss’s) to the annals of great screen acting, right alongside Bergman and Garbo.

The aspect of Jason Schwartzman’s performance in Listen Up Philip that cuts me the deepest is the obvious sadness that will never be met by another human being’s compassion, because he lacks even a shred of the requisite humility.

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

1) Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

I hate to hyperbolize, but this is probably a new landmark in science fiction history.  Here, let me put that in hacky pull-quote form: “First came Metropolis, then 2001Star Wars, and now… Under the Skin.” To be terse: it’s just not like other movies.

No actor this year got to me quite like Essie Davis in The Babadook, whose performance incorporates notes of depression, abject terror, and homicidal resentment. She melds uncomfortable realism with outsize metaphor in the way she moves and screams.

And finally, Davis’s total inverse: Ralph Fiennes as the cosmopolitan Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He handles the role’s ornate dialogue, physical comedy, and latent melancholy with the same foppish grace.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beyond the Lights, Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, Love Is Strange, National Gallery, Selma, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and Two Days, One Night.]

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