6.5. Prisoners (Villeneuve)
A man's (Hugh Jackman) daughter and friend go missing. He enlists the help of a detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find them. Trailer.
There is a tendency in film criticism- by professionals and amateurs alike- to confuse evaluation with taste. The criteria for evaluating a film has more to do with its craftwork achievements (acting, direction, below-the-line), and what the film intends to accomplish than whether or not it jives with our ethical and entertainment preferences. The next time you dislike a film, ask yourself: was it because the story structure was problematic, or the cinematography was lacklustre, or was it simply because the content was morally offensive or the material wasn't to your interest?
In this respect, there are aspects of whether or not a film is well-made that are not a matter of opinion. There are swaths of gray areas, to be sure, but certain aspects of the filmmaking process can in large part be objectively evaluated. Thelma Schoonmaker's editing cannot be said to be "bad," even if it's not to our taste. We can hardly say that Ridley Scott's painterly directorial eye "sucks," to quote the common parlance; it is too proficient, too rooted in film history and painting theory to be termed incompetent. It's perfectly reasonable to dislike his visuals, but we can't get away with saying he's untalented.
Prisoners is a film which pulls at this divide harshly. It possesses a brutality in its images and depiction of humanity that is crushingly difficult to stomach. Viewers of Villeneuve's previous work (the Oscar-winning Incendies, one of the best recent films and one of the most troubling) will have an idea of the level of diabolical intensity they are in for. Our theatre was filed with a chatty crowd during the previews, but once the film began, you could hear a flake of popcorn hit the ground.
Villeneuve's command over his craft, particularly his camera choices and organization of scenes, overwhelmed a typically fickle audience into complete submission. The characters are developed so robustly- the film's two and a half-hour runtime allows for rich psychological detail- and the story events wound so tightly no one could turn away. That Villeneuve accomplishes this without resorting to shock tactics is an undeniable confirmation of his skills as a director, and the skills of his talented cast- Jackman's performance is a career-best.
I will admit, however, that despite my tremendous appreciation of the film's skill, it is so disturbing I hesitated as to where to place it on this list. This is a work so powerful as to destroy one's belief in God, or shatter one's perception of a just universe. It makes you not want to have children.
Film is among the most potent delivery devices for communication we have, if not the most, and Villeneuve and co. take full advantage. Roger Deakins' cinematography, with its slow movement and deep blues and blacks, enforces a level of dread rarely felt. The films has ideas and situations it wants to share with us, and it does so with stunning force. Your concept of the world may not be the same as some of the ideas espoused in this film, but they will doubtless get you to thinking, and that is the point of great art. This has been a year of finely-tuned, focused films of high intensity, and Prisoners is among the best.
7. Her (Jonze)
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer, develops a relationship with an operating system designed for such. Trailer.
There are lines in Spike Jonze's Her so cutting in their truth you want to write them on walls and consider them as mantras for living by. The plot allows for rich exploration of character and consideration of so many facets of love in the modern age- the pervasive effects of technology, its isolationist tendencies, the ramifications of loss and the hangdog persistence of memory. Most films about relationships are only about the beginnings of relationships. Her explores the full course of Twombly's relationship with sentient computer Samantha, as well as charting the emotional closure of his divorce with Catherine (Rooney Mara).
Jonze seems to have an uncanny knack for knowing what the associated emotions feel like, and how to communicate them cinematically; the memories of Twombly's former wife surface at unexpected moments in the way that poignant memories do, and tell us all we need to know about how much she continues to dwell in Twombly's mind. We know all we need to know from the look on a face, and from this and so many other emotionally truthful moment sin the picture, there's no denying this is the work of somebody who's been there.
Also notable is Amy Adams' performance in a key supporting role, the production design that suggests a near future without overwhelming us with it, and Hoyte van Hoytema's (Tinker Tailor) stunning cinematography. Deep rich blues and reds, a warm color scheme that maximizes the elegant and unusual production design, and a lot of shallow depth of field. Nearly every shot is onion-skin levels of focus. Like American Hustle, the images here are quite challenging to achieve. Hoyte's focus pullers must have been miserable, but their hard work pays off. A profound and eye-opening emotional experience.
7.5. Fruitvale Station (Coogler)
A dramatization of the final 24 hours of Oscar Grant's life, the young man murdered by police on New Year's Day 2009. Trailer.
Fruitvale stuns with its simple depiction of everyday life. Not unlike the first hour of United 93, another film in which routine actions are shown in great detail prior to a catastrophe, Fruitvale heightens the ordinary to a level of intense fascination.
Most viewers will be familiar with how the day ended for Oscar Grant. Far from diminishing the film's dramatic value, this only increases the film's effectiveness. The banal and commonplace are heightened by a sensation of impending dread. Mistakes and urges toward goodness resonate all the stronger.
Aside from its value in the telling of an outrage, director Coogler's film is valuable for its relation of all sides of a typical, contradiction-filled human being. He and actor Michael B. Jordan understand how we are all made of disparate parts, components of our personality with nothing to do with each other save that they all occur within ourselves- and that these seemingly contradicting sides are all equally authentic parts of us. In their hurry to sketch the essence of a character, many a film avoids such complexity. Even if the real-life incident had never happened, Fruitvale would still be a great film for offering such a nuanced portrait- particularly that of an exterior "type" we see so often, and project so much onto. There's much more to that young black boy in the back of the bus than what's piping out of his headphones.
The film is naturally depressing for its unavoidable conclusion, but it's also oddly heartwarming in its deep-rooted belief in the goodness of people. Coogler, who also wrote, takes the time to show Grant's duality of self. He is neither good nor bad, but rather both, all together, all at once. Grant blasts gangsta rap in his car, then pauses it to chat with his mother. He's equally invested in both moments. His desire to give up selling drugs is as strong as his compulsion to do so, and we understand his thought processes on both fronts. He's raring to attack the man intimidating him in jail, and in the next breath crying over a dead dog, or asking his mother for a hug. The film gives its humans the benefit of doubt, as we should all do in life. Such an outlook fills me with positive energy, and makes me excited about humanity- and all the more disappointed in how the events transpired.
In the end, looking at Oscar Grant's broken body on the platform, I couldn't help but think it hardly matters what sort of man he was. Nothing about his quality as a person can deny the egregious and unforgivable assault on humanity that was his death. There were so many chances for the incident to have never happened, but the inexorable passage of time can't be turned back. There was goodness in his soul, and there are those who think this was impossible.