Sunday, February 22, 2015

More Interesting Than the Oscars 4: The Year of Taking What You Can Get

By around late December, a sense of panic had started to creep in.  I'd been haunting the movies all 2014, and for the first time in a long time, I hadn't found anything that I was comfortable proclaiming as my favorite film of the year.  I don't wish to say that this was an off year for movies; there were more than enough worthwhile events.  But rather, all pleasures seemed to come in a somewhat compromised form.  By the end, the quest was complete and I filled up 24 spots—even if I had to cheat a bit to get there.

At the multiplexes, the surprise hit of the summer was Guardians of the Galaxy, which took one of Marvel's most esoteric properties, gave it legs, and turned TV co-star Chris Pratt into a desired leading man (Spielberg is reportedly eying him for an Indiana Jones reboot, so brace yourself).  The movie itself was less witty and creative than the average episode of Firefly, but it's a sign of how multiplex audiences yearn for personality and eccentricity that the mere act of aspiring to Firefly was a genuine tonic.  Then there's Interstellar, which was supposed to ride in as the great white hope of intelligent blockbuster cinema.  The result is something of a mess, overwrought in some places and underdeveloped in others, landing neither the critical clout or the box office that a Nolan film portends.  But then again, its practical FX, musical score, and hard sci-fi ambitions are something to cling to in this day and age: this is the closest Hollywood came all year to the thoughtful fantasy spectacle of an Alien or an E.T.

Then there's the Oscar bait.  The Imitation Game shows how polish and star-power matter more at awards season than inspiration.  The cast is good and the product is slick, but just about everything the filmmakers changed or added made the real-life story less interesting, not more.  Selma was a better film, with a few remarkable sequences to call its own and real fire in its belly.  But the snubs aren't worth the controversy they caused, in part because the movie isn't that exceptional, and mostly because even if the voting went a different way and gave the film a few more token nominations, it still wouldn't change Hollywood's systemic issues with race.

Which brings us to the major contenders, in a year praised for auteurism charging the Oscar stage.  Birdman is a magnificent achievement that can't help but feel a little fraudulent, a kind of have-its-cake/eat-it-too movie where everyone involved, from the actors to the DP to the drummer, is top notch, only it's all in service of a statement that doesn't add up to nearly as much as it would like.  Whiplash is a movie that isn't only about showing off, but embodies it.  Boyhood is the best American film of the year practically by default, showing an ambition, sincerity, dedication, and purity that nothing else matched, and that can successfully overshadow how parts of the film are downright embarrassing (I'm thinking of the Hispanic day laborer who Patricia Arquette apparently saves with an off-hand comment).  The Grand Budapest Hotel is some of the most fun to be had all year, but Anderson's usual undercurrent of melancholy is thinner than before; it's the only of his films that seems less substantial with each viewing.  American Sniper stands out as deserving perhaps the most ink spilled on it, especially in the light of the controversy it's caused through face-value readings of its take on the Iraq War, but that piece will have to wait for another time.

Then there was the festival circuit.  This year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, Winter Sleep, must have had the most muted reaction in years.  Amour, Blue is the Warmest Color, and Tree of Life got people arguing.  Winter Sleep is an excellent film that doesn't seem to have surprised or galvanized many people at all; if anything, it was like a given for a director who's been in and out of the spotlight for over a decade.  Far more of a lightning rod was Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, which contains two of the most mind-blowing shots of the year, but compared to his best work (including his underrated films from the 90s) is more like an exercise than a feature.  Inherent Vice showed P.T. Anderson going further off the deep end.

And yet, now that I officially sound like a bitter curmudgeon, let it be known that I found something (sometimes many things) valuable in every film I've just named.  Surprises around every corner, too.  Much to the dismay of my friends in high school, I could never get into anime, yet anime takes two spots near the top of my list for the year.  As for the Oscars, there's plenty of good you can see in it, and not just because Neil Patrick Harris is hosting.  Three godheads of 90s independent cinema—Richard Linklater, Julianne Moore, and Wes Anderson—are serious contenders to finally get their Oscars this year, and even if it's not for their best work, it's a good thing.

Speaking of good things, on to my list of favorites.  As always, here's a top 10, wide 2 wild card picks, and another 12 runners-up.

12. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

Perhaps the most valuable contribution Inherent Vice made, aside from getting Chuck Jackson stuck in our heads, is jump-starting a conversation about the importance of plot vs. story.  P.T. Anderson's film takes an intentional glee in all its loose ends.  Its narrative is like a river emptying into a sea.  But the sense of loss and paranoia that pervades it, how the twilight of an era is sliding away and leaving its heroes in an uncertain future, makes it a unique film to treasure.  A pulp noir fantasy, a twist on movie cliches, and a paranoid trip through America's most schizoid chaos.

11. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, USA)

Moneyball was good, but Bennett Miller didn't seem to know what to do with an Aaron Sorkin script. He thrives on a slow tempo and an icy palette, which is why Foxcatcher is a more natural fit.  Steve Carrell gave the type of performance that gets awards, prosthetics and all.  But don't discount Channing Tatum's best performance to date, as something of a brute with dreams of American exceptionalism, even if all the evidence he can see—including in himself—points to something darker.

10. Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA)

Fincher's latest is one of the slipperiest films of the year, looking initially like an episode of CSI but turning into a sly, subversive satire of forensic drama, marital strife, happy ending, media circuses, Ben Affleck's blankness, and the post-modern career of Neil Patrick Harris.  Film history may yet recognize it as a comedy.

9. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

A rich, sprawling drama, a long series of conversations full of richness about the gaps between rich and poor, men and women, young and old, working its spell upon you gradually.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)

Anderson's most fleet-footed caper to date, full of visual and verbal wit.  Forget the ending about the collapse of Old Europe in the face of World War II—those movies have already been made.  The real potency here is the melancholy feeling that Anderson was born too late to be Ernst Lubitsch.

7. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yi'Nan, China)

This year's Golden Bear winner (still unreleased in the States, for reasons unknown) is a tricky film to get a grip on, especially if you expect a film noir and find out that so much of the movie leans towards the absurd.  This is a police procedural where the police are practically clowns, not solving so much as stumbling upon a solution—and even then, they don't grasp the significance. A dig at both Western cliches and Chinese authorities. Which, come to think of it, is the opposite of Transformers 4.

6. Under the Skin (Jonathon Glazer, UK)

A cold, spare science fiction tale, one that would be a little too basic if it were told in straightforward Screenwriting 101. But since it's told almost exclusively in (stunning) imagery, it becomes a mesmerizing nightmare, where Earth feels like the surface of the moon and being a woman among men is like being an alien presence. Watching it is definitely taking a plunge.

5. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Japan)

Now that Hollywood animation is almost exclusively ironic pastiches with celebrity voices, I'm glad someone is holding up the old school: animation that looks like the drawings of a children's book, perfect for fairy tales.  A truly beautiful film about the expectations placed on women, far more mature and troubling than Brave.  The scene of Kaguya bolting off belongs in any highlight reel of 2014.

4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA)

Linklater's masterpiece?  I'm not so sure.  But he follows his method of finding beauty, heart, and transcendence in life's little moments to their fullest possible conclusion: a twelve year epic where we dip in and out of characters' lives, seemingly at random.  I'm not sure how Boyhood will fare in years to come, whether it will be viewed as a filmmaking triumph or a gimmick.  But lovely moments abound, and it's inspiring to see audiences rally around such a film.  It shows that we do like movies and life to be connected after all.

3. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan)

It's Capraesque in its simplicity, but fuck it, we could use some Capra. Six years into a deep economic slump, a time when you'll regularly see asshole pundits on TV slagging the poor, Kore-Eda's film makes the beautifully simple argument (in tribute to Ozu) that everyone could be everyone else's family. It gets by on the sort of sentimentality that would seem schmaltzy if it weren't so delicate. But delicate it is.

2. Leviathan (Andrei Zvagintsev, Russia)

Russia has gone from the Tsars to authoritarian communism to whatever the hell Putin is, and Zvyagintsev, with this sense of history, confirms his rep as a master of the slow-burn allegory. A brilliantly written drama, surreptitiously laying out important details as it draws a chilling (yet often comical) look at how corrupt systems can't be challenged because the challengers are only human.

1. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

Deeply humane and strikingly classical, Miyazaki's farewell film is a departure for him, but is like the sort of movies Kurosawa and John Ford used to make.  And if it's a "kids' movie", it's the most morally complicated ever made. Miyazaki's animation is rich, taking history partway (but not too far) into fantasy.  Its view of an attempt to live life outside of history is a provocative work of true heartache.  It played in 2013 for one week in L.A., to qualify for last year's Academy Awards, and then slipped quietly into theaters in 2014 for the rest of us.  Putting it here may be cheating, but either way, it's perhaps the masterpiece to find playing in American theaters this year: the one that shows that what we admired about the old masters is still here.


The Honor Roll: 12 more films that made following movies worthwhile this year...

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, USA)

Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, USA)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, USA)

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden)

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/Netherlands)

The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller & Chris McKay, USA)

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada)

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, USA)

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, France)

We are the Best! (Lukas Moodyson, Sweden)

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