We’re Here to Get There

The ten 2014 films I liked best. I didn’t do one of these last year; the 2012 list is here. Notes on what missed the cut.

Loosely speaking, I like them more as the list goes on. The top three could easily switch places, and they’re a cut above everything else.

Honorable Mentions: The GuestObvious Child

shasta-inherent-vice-katherine-waterston

Events have a sequence, and we have a reason to care. We call the first, plot, and the second, story. Without the former, we have nothing to situate us, and nothing meaningful can gain purchase. Without a hook, things just happen.

Inherent Vice sure gives you a bouncing ball to follow, in Doc and the thread he pulls. Yet what we see in one place is not in conversation with what we see in another. Instead of reinforcing each other, the various scenes venture out on their own, and at every new start Doc, and the viewer, have to learn the rules all over again. These hard resets are a great recipe for the brand of absurdist comedy the film is deploying. It’s less helpful for bringing everything together. A sensibility and a shared universe only gets you halfway toward coherence; if you adapted the film back to words, you’d call it an anthology rather than a novella.

Two of the last entries can almost convince you otherwise. Twice, we watch people reunite after a long time apart. The first pair, our lead and his ex-lady, find each other in a scene of total vulnerability for the actors and bracing intimacy for the audience. The camera moves in close, ony barely able to contain two people in the frame. The second pair embraces with the same relief, yet in a doorway far in the distance. The moment is, in the abstract, accessible, but its specifics remain entirely private.

The rest is puns and dry humor in a place short on water, a warm cadence brought to a cold world, a merry melody in tribute to our hero, Doc. It’s not enough on its own, though those two make you wonder, when you see them reach beyond themselves. Being funny, being human: maybe the whole lunatic enterprise has a point after all.

enemy-jake-gyllenhaal-motorcycle-double

A philosophical thought experiment unfolding like an unearthed Stanley Kubrick B-side, Enemy avoids the pitfall of many an “art” film: it’s clear what it wants to do. Its mind-game central motif feels both inexplicable and far from arbitrary; nothing else would have worked.

If you look past the conceit of two identical people, what we see is someone reach out to a person through the Internet, and the bad things happening afterward. This is far from abstract. Nothing could be more contemporary than terrifying realities existing where we never thought to look, thrown abruptly in our face. And any dread of a collective near future should include what occurs in venturing outside after too much time indoors.

Amid everything that rings true, the lectures are the only details that do not convince. The evidence that matters is tactile, visual, non-verbal. A palette of wan browns, sharp blacks, and sickly yellows, and the comparative technicolor of a man on a motorcycle. A tan on a ring finger. Shrieks.

A long look—poised between a sigh and a smirk.

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The two great varieties of Tom Cruise are needy desparation and apex predator confidence. One of the many smart decisions Edge of Tomorrow makes is to provide a process for building from one to another.

Another: letting Emily Blunt go to work. Source Code already laid down the path of translating the structure of Groundhog Day from meditative comedy to propulsive science fiction. Including two people in the loop is the more impressive trick for opening up the storytelling. The constant shift betwen who knows more and who learns for the first time gives Blunt her own notes to play, a spectrum of resolve ranging from resignation to determination.

The riskiest call, though, and maybe the most clever, comes in making a metaphysical reset button a tangible destination. If endless repetition invites video-game-like-persistence in pursuit of personal transcendence, then you might as well make the boss battle an actual life and death battle over escaping the inevitable. And asking “why not” is the root of why Edge of Tomorrow is the rare blockbuster you don’t have to talk yourself into enjoying.

Making plot machinery literal, depicting the contents of a work actively trying to destroy the form, and refusing to believe that marines versus aliens has given all it can give: this is the brand of unhinged commitment that gets things done. And if the middle stretch charms more than the claustrophobic beginning or the slightly-burnt-out ending, it’s only appropriate. Under all the money is the beating heart of a road movie.

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About as fun as a film can get where a dog gets murdered and this many people die, John Wick gets by on complete, unerring control. The filmmakers know what used to make pop comics fun to read, and provide a feast of lived-in surroundings, backstory, and character history to fill out the margins. And if first-unit directors have too long treated action as an afterthought, the folks in charge here know the most exciting approach to tending the flame is through a healthy dose of gasoline.

John Wick acts like it’s always been here, and that’s the most delightful part. People keep tossing around the main character’s name like we should know it already, and damned if it’s not earned branding by the close. There’s a rhythm announcing the man, his signature moves. Tap-tap, step, tap. Tap-tap, step, tap. A Morse Code transmission in an almost-forgotten language.

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The King of Comedy with the screws turned, Nightcrawler sees an outsider sizing up a situation and proceeding forward on audacity and shamelessness. I could care less about its social commentary—Anchorman 2 has a more accurate and incisive look at media and public appetites. Yet you’re rarely ever going to see a story wind this beautifully around a central character. There’s the right sense of the difference between what the audience might think and what its subjects are thinking.

Having a firm grasp of the second matters far more, and Lou has a way about him. He speaks in About.com entries, and woe to the world if he ever discovers TED talks. For now, he has found his place. And if the mark of a perfect match of character and story is usually to exhaust both in the process, then the way in which this one ends on a “to be continued” makes a certain deranged sense. The space ahead marks an implied threat. Let him have screens, or he’ll move somewhere else.

miles-teller-whiplash-drums

The most salient criticisms of Whiplash: its subject didn’t have to be drumming, and its shaky grasp on specifics of jazz or musical history gives this away. In other words, the central purported “point” is basically arbitrary, and fails to prove itself on the ground it stakes out.

The first response: whether Fletcher is “right” or “wrong” is a boring question; Whiplash is not a boring movie; and this should tell you it’s not offering an answer.

The second: it did have to be drumming. The most jarring way to tell a story in the milieu of elite education and rarified culture is to center it on grueling physical labor. Tell this story somewhere else and you could have the raising of a sail to catch the wind, someone driving an axe into wood, a hard left to a square jaw. In this set, you get blood on your hands during your residency, not because of something you’re working on. Drumming until his hands get cut up, driven to furious limits, Andrew gives us the one thing and the other, like nothing else would.

For all this, the fact and nature of a character’s endurance need not be didactic, and mistaking the way Whiplash connects process to result for a guidebook or a worldview is an unfortunate error. Worse, you miss the ride.

You can tell how this one moves by the way it takes a breath. When Andrew and Fletcher pretend to break bread at a bar, the scene tips its hand as a false reconciliation far before the overt reveal. Sitting down to talk about their feelings isn’t how these two are going to bond, and it isn’t how they’re going to fight. It’s a medium inappropriate to their talents or their sensibilities.

Later, when there’s a chance to walk out the door? Most people would walk out, and most films would let them. Whiplash is about the people who don’t. The spellbinding result is a performance in a packed theater to an audience of one. The drummer’s head cranes up, the conductor leans down, and the curtain drops on a modern romance.

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Scaling up from a focused statement of purpose to a sprawling crime epic, The Raid 2: Berendal has to both live up to its predecessor and prove itself among new peers. The first shot sends the same message telegraphed by the Chicago skyline in The Dark Knight. And the opening sequence features a character monologuing on ambition, before killing the one person saved in the first film.

What defines the aims here is less anything new to crime narrative and more the integration of this much action to the old structures. We’ve seen this story, one has to admit, yet we’ve never seen its beats dished out in quite this fashion.

On the other hand, come on. Few things in cinema can match seeing Iko Uwais, Gareth Evans, and company do their thing. Consistently varying weapons, settings, and approaches, Berendal draws itself taut in moment after moment where the filmmakers could get away with slack. A stunning car chase intercuts forward motion in open space with fists-of-fury punishment confined to one of the hurdling sedans, and you could plausibly substitute a half-dozen other sequences for what most impressed. There’s something here for any taste.

And if the expansion taking place is not without growing pains, Berendal mostly gets to where it wants to go. Two iconic henchmen’s lengthy introductions, seeming digressions at the time of their appearance, turn out to provide pre-game highlight reels for the evil dream team Rama will have to take down. Yayan Ruhian, who played an unstoppable force in the first, reappears in a short story all his own, ending with a chance to test his skills in a crowded club and a turning point in the central gang conflict. The whole movie is like this: with rare exceptions, its indulgences and action sequences have a role in the story, whether for stakes or forward motion. And of course, like the first, the action sequences themselves both have internal narratives and a cumulative build.

Serving two masters, like his surroundings, Rama is both man in the middle and army of one. Each role poses challenges. Through to the end, he achieves more than anyone could, and yet always finds himself more overmatched than ever before. Bloody and broken, cowering behind a couch, all enemies down save one, his reward is to fight a loaded shotgun. “Watch over me,” he asked earlier, addressing himself to someone above. You could hardly look away.

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No more than ten minutes into We Are the Best!, I was rooting for the two lead girls more than I’ve ever rooted for anyone. When they form a trio, all the more. When a line like “we will influence her away from God” can sound authentic to a character, land a laugh, and somehow read unapologetically sweet, then you’re in good hands.

Specificity carries the day. You come to recognize the words Bobo would speak, the nonsense Klara won’t tolerate, the way Hedvig will process what she sees. Every single moment follows the authentic logic of people their age. To grow confident without growing up, to advance meaningfully at a time when most things conspire to keep you in place, asks a lot of a character. It asks even more of a story, and somehow, the confines of their lives by the end feel like no meaningful obstacle at all. Though the leads are at a time in their lives you can’t navigate without some missteps, the film never errs.

No jail can hold superheroes. And if they’re too young to scale the prison walls, they can shoot fireworks over them and raise a middle finger at the guards. All the better.

noah-angels-siege-ark

Genesis is the most important book in human thought and literature. And the first of a litany of indications that Arnofsky gets it, that Noah isn’t remotely fucking around, is in the film’s absolute obsession with children and fertility and lineage. People understand who they are by reference to who they came from. They outline and anticipate their futures based on likely unions. And at moments of life and death, the call is both to protect loved ones and to safeguard what they represent. A human race of ten generations has a small-enough family tree to make sense of all creation. Even a trace of the garden remains in their possession.

When Naameh asks her husband about the Creator, her concern betrays the proximity to an active God: “Will he help us?” When Noah replies, “He’s going to destroy the world.” it is not a yes or a no. This is the problem for everything going forward: finding a question suitable enough for such an overwhelming answer.

You don’t need Auerbach to recognize that words might not contain everything here. The script lays out its concerns and hesitations, and chews them over at length. The film blasts forward with pop-art confidence. The camera moves constantly on two axes, up-down and forward-backward, and only rarely left to right, the better to take in skies that look like dreams and vision-quests that tread on real ground. The effects clash wildly, like the design teams worked independently: angels encased in rock move in stop-motion style across a mixture of natural landscapes and CGI backdrops. Yet their every step progresses, and the drive does not falter.

By the close of the second act, the combination of the script’s subject and the film’s momentum brings the viewer to a place that should not be possible. A leader of a weary people delivers a rousing speech, calling on them to fight for their lives amid the end of the world. And a viewer will want him to fail, rooting for divine beings to slaughter humans, all to keep them from occupying an ark with more than enough space to hold them. The invaders will surely spare no mercy for those within, and perhaps those inside would not have killed if the situations reversed. Yet to cheer for genocide to avert murder is a curious place to arrive.

When the waters rise and the cries of the dying echo outside the vessel, Noah does the only thing he can: he tells a story. He lays out his best interpretation of the traditions available to him and the events he has witnessed. The story of humanity—up to that point, defined by the succession of generations—will now end. He and his family will be the last made in the image of God. It’s a logical and creative read. Thus, the crux of the film: if Noah kills two children, then the deaths of countless other children, and adults, will have a meaning and a justification; and if he spares these two children, then the other children and adults will have been killed for no reason at all.

His family can affirm, and we can perhaps believe, that those meant to be in the ark are “good” and the people who died are “bad.” But we’ve seen so little of the other people; and we know their ranks extend beyond a core band of rival warriors, to children and women and young and old, even if we hardly ever directly encounter them. Our glimpse of their supposedly unbridled savagery is almost certainly in the form of a dream. And most important of all, Noah does not believe there is a difference between those inside and those he has left to die. The love of his family premises itself upon a vision of some distinguishing goodness which he cannot affirm.

Yet he spares these two children, after leaving hundreds of them to die. The staggering inconsistency he cannot help but recognize marks a triumph, where a steadfast and humble consistency would have doomed all there is and would be. There is no better thing, in that moment, that he could do.

It is no difficult thing to recognize inherent contradictions in scripture. It is no easy thing to embrace them rather than willing them away. Noah does so without falling into the syncretic traps of so much purported spiritual work. And if the text of this one is heresy—and for the life of me, I don’t think it is—it is the real kind, a contrasting belief rather than an outright rejection.

Close Encounters might be the best film ever made about the effects faith can have on individual psychology; this one might be the finest ever recreation of the nature of Biblical text. It asks more of you. And in the mischievous wisdom of Hopkins’ Methuselah, in the shattering intensity of Jennifer Connelly in the final stretch, and in the eyes of a man necessary to his moment and exhausted by its demands, you see actors respond to material that demands everything they have.

Weird is one way to describe a place where nothing is normal, and exceptional is another. Noah may be deathly serious. It may possibly be insane. But this is more than a magnificent film. It’s a major argument. Pretenders past and present get slain here and laid to rest, be they works of art or ideas about life. And this one will last until the final high-definition digital image turns, once more, to dust.

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A passenger looking out a window will feel the road, and see the world passing by. Milestones and landmarks and signposts will provide a sense of the progress toward a destination. When speed picks up, the blur of motion will still provide clues; and when things come to a stop, poised for motion in a new direction or a resuming of the path forward, the glimpse will resonate.

Driving will get you there, and you have something to take in on the way. Most of the time, it’s the right call.

Even when it spends time in cars, Boyhood walks. It makes all the difference.

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