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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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2011: It Was a Very Good Year

Back in May, I saw my first 2011 movie: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I was pleasantly floored. Seven months later, it’s become the consensus Movie Of The Year. But in the meantime, I’ve caught up with a few dozen other new releases, some of which smacked me even harder. It’s been a rich, ripe year for movies. Here’s a highlight reel of my favorite bits and pieces…

Scenes

  • The opening heist in Drive. I love the full movie, but it peaks early with this thrilling set-piece that doesn’t waste a shot or second. The sound design alone is as meticulous as any I’ve heard this year, balancing layers of aural information while keeping the viewer on edge. I can’t imagine a better way to kick off a crime thriller.
  • The dueling Michael Caine impressions in The Trip. It’s just two performers (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon) showing off, fighting to out-funny and out-ego one another. As such, it’s both an ideal comic showcase and the film’s midlife crisis narrative boiled down its essence.
  • The insult competition between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and a bitchy teenager in Bridesmaids. It’s an exercise in pure, improvised cruelty as Wiig and Mia Frampton, daughter of Peter, trade verbal daggers. (“You look like an old mop” might be my favorite.) Wiig isn’t afraid to get dirty or self-deprecating, and in this scene she’s at her funniest/lowest, losing her job with the checkmate line “You’re a little cunt.”
  • The performance of “The Show” in Moneyball. Kerris Dorsey and Brad Pitt sit in a music store. Dorsey, talented but a little shy, starts strumming a guitar and singing. It’s an understated scene of father/daughter bonding, one that studiously avoids cliché while setting the film on course to its emotional climax.
  • The climax of Attack the Block. Moses (John Boyega) finally gets his “hero” moment as he runs down a hall: sword in hand, firecracker in mouth, with gorilla-wolf motherfuckers snapping at his heels, and all in slow-motion. Add Basement Jaxx’s riveting soundtrack, and you’ve got an adrenaline-infused scene that plays like the best kind of side-scrolling video game.

Performances

  • Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, for blending vulnerability, eroticism, and despair in her reaction to the end of the world;
  • Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for being so silently perceptive he might’ve had X-ray vision, a bastion of maturity in a nest of childish spies;
  • Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin for turning her face into a portrait of motherhood-as-PTSD;
  • Brendan Gleeson in The Guard for cutting loose and flaunting his appetites as a 21st century Falstaff;
  • Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre for her ultra-Victorian restraint and her ability to match Michael Fassbender’s heights of passion;
  • Ben Kingsley in Hugo for concealing a father of cinema and inveterate showman beneath a mask of grumpiness;
  • Monica del Carmen in Leap Year for treating extreme sexuality as of a piece with the quotidian, lonely stretches of life;
  • Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris for bringing energy and comedy to his take on a literary icon;
  • and Pollyanna McIntosh in The Woman for being feral, fascinating, and terrifying.

And now, my top five movies of the year…

#5: Martha Marcy May Marlene, directed by Sean Durkin

Every frame of Durkin’s debut feature made my skin crawl. A threat was palpable even in its most innocuous moments, and I’m not merely talking about the threat of physical violence. The danger in MMMM is much scarier than that in a typical horror film: Patrick’s cult threads its evil dogmas through the title character’s brain, leaving her with severe psychic hemorrhaging. She’s cleft into two times and lives, and it’s to Elizabeth Olsen’s credit that she plays both halves—the quivering bundle of fear and the would-be “teacher and leader”—within the same role, sometimes within the same gesture.

Olsen’s unease is supplemented by Jody Lee Lipes’ zoom-happy camera, applying the ambient paranoia of ’70s thrillers to the lakes and forests of the northeast. The whole film is colored by Martha’s anxiety; even a tree, branches shuddering in the wind as she flees the cult, is imbued with sinister intent. A story of atmospheric horror and systematized violence, Martha Marcy May Marlene itself has crawled into my mind and taken up residence. My one major misgiving lies in the treatment of Martha’s sister and brother-in-law. They feel too schematically bourgeois for this otherwise loose, suggestive film. Nonetheless, I’m dying to see what Durkin tries next.

#4: Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Steeped in the tedium of frontier history, streaked with political subtext, Reichardt’s revisionist western muffles its narrative progress. Its story expands through gestures, accidents, and mistakes. The film’s survival-oriented, focusing on the compromises and sacrifices necessary for human life in the wilderness. For the seven settlers led by guide Stephen Meek, every decision is a life-or-death decision: can a captive Native American lead them to water? Does salvation lie just over a hillside? Either they act together and make the right choice, or they die.

These colossal stakes drench the story in tension. Even as Reichardt dwells on textures and period details—the toil of reloading a rifle; the clash between dusty pink dresses and the parched landscape—the threat of endless wandering hangs over the pioneers’ heads. The actors wear it well, exchanging dazed, exhausted looks. And from this tired band, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) emerges as the only real hero, an understated, proto-feminist badass. With its arid compositions, Meek’s Cutoff turns western myth into tragicomic reality.

#3: Certified Copy, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

This discursive duet poses a riddle: “Are they or aren’t they?” But Certified Copy’s delights go far beyond its core mystery. That question is an intellectual spark, lighting up a dozen other points of inquiry: the film dives into art history, relationships, academia, and more through the ruminations of author James Miller and the nameless French woman leading him around Tuscany. Despite being one long conversation, the film never lacks for visual dynamism; Kiarostami tends toward beautiful static shots, but his camera often orbits the couple in graceful, deliberate movements.

And as if to complement Certified Copy’s technical and natural allure, Juliette Binoche gives the performance of the year. Binoche is always an exceptional actress, silently adding wrinkles to her every role, but this is something new. She’s sweet but tough, giving the impression that every delicate word she speaks is forged from a lifetime of experience. Her sparring partner, opera singer William Shimell, is a decent enough actor, but Binoche draws my eyes even when she’s off-screen. Midway through the film, she has a sudden breakdown in a café, and it’s unlike anything else I saw this year. You can see the shape of the movie totally changing as a single tear runs down her face.

#2: Weekend, directed by Andrew Haigh

Russell (Tom Cullen) is relaxed, receding, sometimes melancholy. Glen (Chris New) is iconoclastic and impulsive. They’re the two poles of this bittersweet, naturalistic gay romance, and two of the year’s most unforgettable characters. Weekend hits all the right notes; it has all the awkwardness and tentative desire of an embryonic relationship, all the embarrassment and incidental comedy of sex. It astonishes me with its range of moods, as it shifts from funny banter to heartbreaking revelations in seconds, without ever seeming forced or jerky.

It’s such a humanistic film, too, so sympathetic to its couple’s pains as gay men in a homophobic world and as lovers whose relationship is squashed by circumstance before it has a chance to blossom. It has no “Notting Hill moment,” as Glen says derisively. Instead, its climax is a quiet little conversation about coming out as they lie in bed. It’s just a handful of lines, but it still tears me apart. Cullen and New have plenty of sexual chemistry, but beyond that, they have a powerful rapport. They work as an onscreen couple. 2012s romantic comedies will have an incredibly hard time topping them.

#1: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

I’ve written about Uncle Boonmee here and at 366 Weird Movies. My point remains the same: it’s a spellbinding experience, an invitation to another world, and a collection of weird folk tales all rolled into one feature film. As I sat watching it for the first time in the Walker Art Center’s movie theater, I was utterly hooked. All it took was that opening scene, where a bovine pack animal shuffles through a velvety forest. Apichatpong handles his vast themes (death, morality, the afterlife) with the humor and imagination they deserve, and it makes for one hell of an entertaining movie.

Touring through past and future, caves and glades, human and animal worlds, Uncle Boonmee is dense with narrative tangles and metaphysical conceits. But it doesn’t gloat about its ambitions. It wears them lightly in a spirit of friendliness and warmth. I’ve never seen a ghost story or an art film like it. Open-ended, curious, and unusual at every turn, Uncle Boonmee is exactly what I want out of a movie.

[I have yet to see A Dangerous MethodHouse of PleasuresLe Quattro VolteMargaretPoetryA SeparationShame, or Take Shelter.]

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