I'm doing shorter, more bite-sized writeups of films this year– a number of various projects are reaching out for my time. In a moment I'll post my thoughts on the best films. Here are some ruminations on a few other of 2014's movies being talked about (or not) right now, as we head into the Oscars:
Thoughts on the Nominations (besides those mentioned in my top ten, in the next post)
American Sniper (Eastwood). Trailer.
There are many excellent war films. If they didn't exist, American Sniper could be considered great, but the fact that there are pictures far more accomplished and powerful in their depiction of the inhumanity of war and its lasting damage on the people who take part in it renders this one minor in importance. Chris Kyle had a simplistic view of war, and by extension so does this movie; however, I can't help but think it's a crime to perpetuate the idea that the US went to war with Iraq because of 9/11. Hopefully people know by now things were a little more complex. Additionally, the ending is so ripe for irony and meaning, and the film, made so soon after the events (and before Kyle's murderer had even gone on trial) render some significant dramatic possibilities a complete moot point. As well, knowing some veterans, I find it insulting that a film would suggest that one can get over one's PTSD with relative timeliness and return to family life after a short, unspecified time frame. Eastwood has made more challenging, thought-provoking, and visually strong films than this (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Letters From Iwo Jima). As for the argument that Sniper still stands as a great you-are-there documentation of what it feels like to be at war, look no further than Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down for something crafted several levels of magnitude higher, particularly that second hour, which takes place in real time.
Selma (Duvernay). Trailer.
An important film, and incredibly, the first film to feature Dr. King as the main character. We forget that the Civil Rights movement was a triumph of the middle-class; Dr. King and his associates were educated men living generally comfortable lives, and who had the means and the passion to get something done. I hope similar strides can be made in the future. Ms. Duvernay directs capably, eliciting powerful performances all around and maximizing the impact of harrowing moments without resorting to the R rating– this will be shown in schools for decades. She lets Mr. Oyelowo really go for it on those speeches, to the film's benefit– King's great skill was his oratory, and it shines here. Duvernay explores the complexity of organizing such marches, including internal conflicts between different civil rights groups– all very fascinating. King's marriage to Coretta is given ample screentime, and the moment where she addresses his adultery is a masterclass in effective understatement. Not as powerful nor as aesthetically accomplished as McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave (nor as unremittingly brutal, simply because of the different content), but nevertheless a valuable contribution. These are films all Americans would benefit from seeing.
Boyhood (Linklater). Trailer.
It's unfair to accuse this film of the whole "if you take out the twelve years thing, it's just okay" angle. You can't separate the two. The "whole twelve years thing" is the film. I take issue rather with the execution of some of the scenes. I found the dinner argument with the stepfather less than convincing, and no doubt the moment in the restaurant regarding the Latino worker who is now a student was very affecting in life, but in the scene it plays like a TV movie, in that it doesn't seem told from a specific perspective. From whose viewpoint are we seeing the event? If that of the son, why doesn't the camera reflect that? This is where you really want the subjective camera of someone like Michael Mann or Scorsese. Linklater is a great observer of life, but there were times when I wanted more or different handling. It may also be that I simply had a very different childhood than what's portrayed, and also that I went into the movie aware of its unheard-of 100 metascore. I went in expecting sliced bread, and instead had to settle for merely a very good film!
The Imitation Game (Tildum). Trailer.
A classic prestige picture– the mid-level budgeted fourth quarter piece, usually based on historical material, with an eye for awards consideration. It's a good one, and a piece of history worth telling, but it's quite digestible and soft around the edges. I found nothing overtly flawed, but nor was I blown away as I was by other films. Mr. Cumberbatch, always enjoyable to watch at work, finds just the right line between being utterly annoying and entirely compelling.
The Theory of Everything (Marsh). Trailer.
The least successful of this year's hagiographies for me. It benefits from being told largely from Jane Hawking's perspective (it's based on her book), and from two truly terrific lead performances, but after a while I can only take so much saint-making. There is also the issue of believability regarding the passage of time; I am simply unable to accept the leads as anything other than people in their twenties. Slightly better photographed than one would expect, however; the vivid colors gives life to the story of a very sedentary protagonist.
Not Great, but Worth Mentioning
Begin Again (Carney). Trailer.
I am filled with a feeling of warmth upon completing this film. It takes a more realistic look at love, family, and friendship than many similar works, and thus feels more worthwhile to sit through. Films about friendships (as opposed to romances) are rare enough; here is one about two friends who allow each other to find their respective ways in life, as they work through very different problems while taking inspiration from working on the same creative musical project.
Ed Norton once spoke (in Seattle!) about how what he likes seeing most in performances are extemporaneous moments in acting, where the actors appear to be experiencing the emotions of the character during that moment and react accordingly. There are several such moments in Begin Again, which are all the more affecting for not using dialogue. I love moments in films where characters take time to think– this is more rare than one might imagine (think Sam Jackson in the car in Jackie Brown, silently putting together the plot).
An example of moments of characters thinking extemporaneously in Begin Again is when Keira Knightley silently realizes that her boyfriend has had an affair, simply by watching to how he listens to a certain song. Another is when Knightley approaches her friend on the street who is at first excited to see her, notes her emotional state, and runs forth to offer a hug. To witness such thoughts happening in action feels special. Knightley reminds me of the great silent movie actresses with her expressiveness. Sure, she may not be the greatest actress of her generation, but she more than gets the job done in her own highly effective way.
A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn). Trailer.
No recent actor or filmmaker's death haunts me so like that of Mr. Hoffman, who was just hitting the prime of his career. He would have easily had another decade of stellar performances had he lived. We are left instead with this achingly affecting final parting gift, whose themes and ending are all the more powerful when we consider who's in that lead role. He wears an infectious accent that sounds like it comes from a country not yet discovered; he slumps and sloughs through the film, acting his socks off with apparent ease. It's a spy film, about people with binoculars and fake names and meetings in shipyards at night and all the rest, but there's an undercurrent of loneliness pervading the film that lends a gravitas one might not expect from a genre piece. Rachel McAdams is very effective in a supporting role. Corbijn isn't afraid to really go there with the ending, which is just searingly brutal– not graphically, but emotionally. He makes his point, and with force. Brilliant. I don't know why this isn't on my top ten list.
Under the Skin (Glazer). Trailer.
Like nothing you've seen before, except perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey. The moments where Scarlett Johansson approaches men on the street with her huge white van were real, done with men who didn't know it was a film. The climax is one of the great jaw-dropping 'wow' moments I've ever had in a film (Side note: my friend and I were the only ones in the theatre, at the now defunct Harvard Exit. Did I take advantage of this rare opportunity to stand for an entire film? You bet!).
The Interview (Rogen, Goldberg). Trailer.
I found this to be highly amusing, while also being very aware of the gravity of the nature of what it was depicting. The inclusion of a sympathetic North Korean character is meaningful, and the depiction of Mr. Un is more sympathetic than expected, and certainly not as one-dimensional as North Korea's depiction of the United States. Appropriately irreverent, and cleverly constructed.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Scott). Trailer.
If nothing else, it's a series of stupendously marshaled painterly images, from one of the most visually capable directors of our time. Initially just called Exodus, but retitled to avoid lawsuits regarding a highly suspect litigation issue pertaining to the Paul Newman film of the same name– Fox would've easily won the case, since titles can be used on multiple films as long as one can't prove the title was chosen to latch onto the earlier film's market, and these two have nothing to do with each other, but never mind– Exodus: Gods and Kings worked for me. As soon as you get over the Caucasian casting in Egyptian roles (necessary for financing reasons), and the use of the English language (same reason), the film works very well as a creative take on the classic Jewish tale.
Ridley Scott goes for the grounded approach, creating a world that feels cohesive and lived-in even when playing fast and loose with facts (having chariots and pyramids in the same scene is, as Kristin Thompson writes, "sort of like William the Conqueror checking his email to see how preparations for his invasion of Britain were going." Read more of Thompson's fascinatingly detailed– but largely sympathetic– exploration of the film's deviations here. As an emotional journey, however, the telling of a questioning man's developing his own belief system is moving on multiple levels, religion put completely aside. Doesn't it feel good to feel sure about something? We end on a man in room alone, with just him and his beliefs. He has arrived at a brief but felt peace.
The Better Angels (Edwards). Trailer.
Staggeringly beautiful series of images realized by one of Malick's assistant directors– give that trailer a whirl! Very Malick-like, but lacking in the depth of substance Malick always brings. Let's just say you can tell Mr. Edwards hasn't translated Heidegger or taught at Oxford, as Malick has, but he sure does know his way around a camera, and shares many of Malick's interests– man's relationship to nature, the transition of love from one figure to another upon the loss of the former, and tough father-son relationships.
Love is Strange (Sachs). Trailer.
Most films about relationships are actually just about the beginnings of relationships; we know in life that there's a lot more, and it can get complex. This film, about an older couple in their sixties (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) explores the dilemmas of life and love in the twilight years. Impeccably acted. I liked everything but the final scene, which doesn't involve the main characters and feels tacked on and false. Don't let that depreciate your estimation of all that has come before, though. I once spoke that we'll know we've hit a milestone when a black actor is cast in lead role that's not about being black; we've got there. In films like Man on Fire, I am Legend, or Seven Pounds, Denzel and Will Smith are black and nobody in the movie cares. Another milestone awaits, where the main character of a large film is gay, and that's not what the film is about. Love is Strange is that film, albeit on a small scale.