(cross-posted from Facebook; spoilers, but if you’re curious, you can just skim for the titles.)
I saw many more new movies in 2014 than in recent years. I only missed two or so that I felt I wanted to see. Here’s my list, with some notes about them and why other flicks didn’t quite make it.
These are numbered, but they are all pretty much equal until it gets to the top two, which is listing technique I stole for Quentin Tarantino.
8. Blue Jasmin.
I almost jettisoned this Woody Allen movie because if it’s ridiculously unrealistic presentation of San Francisco, until I finally realized that that didn’t matter. San Francisco here is representing “Not Manhattan or the ritzy part of Long Island.” This movie has been compared to Streetcar and other works by Tennessee Williams, and that’s accurate. Cate Blanchette (who’s pretty much always good anyway) is power as this person who has spent her whole life construction a self, only to find forces out of her control making that persona un-viable. The last scene is pretty heartbreaking.
This is, strangely, the only Matthew McConaughey movie on my list this year. Mainly because I didn’t see Dallas Buyer’s Club. I saw the trailer at least a dozen times and it’s the kind of trailer that hits every single story beat. You can even tell that McConaughey and Jared Leto will gets tons of well-deserved accolades. And it’s an important story. I’ll certainly rent it online at some point. “Mud” is a wonderful coming of age story. Or maybe two coming of age stories. That of a boy, and that of the title character, who is a man-boy. Though I like “Mud” better, it reminded me a bit of “Tree of Life”, it has a bit of the same mood (though none of that movie’s experimentation), but its same sort of contemplation of the complex emotional bonds everyone inevitably forms in life.
6. A Field In England
This is a trippy (literally) low-budget black and white four-character film set during the English Civil War. Like other Ben Wheatley films I’ve seen, it appears heavily influenced by low-budget British horror of the sixties, particularly, in the case, “The Witchfinder General”. It’s one of my favorite types of movies, a genre a like to refer to as “people talking.” Sounds uncinematic, but it isn’t, not if the performances, the writing, and the direction (I can’t bring myself to say the “mis-en-scéne” all work as well as they do here. (By the way, as shown below, my other favorite film genre is “people not talking”). There’s one scene (which begins with the horrifying cries of a man evidently being tortured offscreen) and that ends with long dolly shot, that’s as disturbing as anything in any movie I’m ever likely to recommend. I didn’t understand everything about the end of this movie, almost everything, but there is any action taken by a character right before credits roll that I didn’t get. Still, it’s the kind of weird, and visionary experience that, if it WASN’T a little inscrutable, would lose something. Sometimes it’s fun to be a little freaked out.
This is the Seaworld documentary. And as a work of film, I feel like it has implications far deeper even than its very important message about the inhuman and (at this point, at this level of civilization) is unforgivable. The implication I mean is that this movie also shows how corporations, this faceless, soulless killing machines, perfected to grow and grow and produce returns, and to do so with no other moral imperative, can manipulate and confuse their own employees, and their own customers, so that no one knows up from down and wrong from right anymore. If you’ve ever had that horrible feeling in your stomach, the feeling of “this is not right” but have had to swallow it or give up your paycheck. If you’ve caught yourself telling yourself “this must be okay, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it otherwise). Then this is the movie for you. You are not alone, and many times the things they are telling us, and the things that they say are not lies, really are lies. (Pro tip: After this watch “Dirty Wars” about the US’s current covert wars in 15 Muslim countries.)
4. The Heat.
I loves me some Melissa McCarthy. I loves me some casting by Allison Jones (Veep, Eastbound & Down, Arrested Development to name a few) AND I loves me some Sandra Bullock; but until this year she never made many movies in genres that appeal to me. I recommend “Speed” until the bus stops, then it is horrible, and also “While You Were Sleeping” which is adorable. Very funny movie. A standard sort of plot about two buddies who start out hating each other, but end up learning from each other, so it all depends on the chemistry (check) and the comedy (check). And that bobbie pin in the hair? That’s a very good character touch.
3. Drinking Buddies
This is directed by the mumblecore guy, Joe Swanberg (aren’t you impressed that I know what mumblecore is? I’ve never seen any of his other films so I don’t know, but this one has a cast of well-know actors like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, and also has good, if inexpensive, production values. About half an hour in I was on board, and I thought I was pretty sure where it was going. Half an hour later, still there. By then end, it has gone completely in a direction I could not have guessed. This is a really beautiful film about, well, buddies. It’s very very hard to do something truly simple. It takes a lot of confidence, a lot of vision, and a lot of artistic courage.
Speaking of which, here are my top two picks, both of which have that courage…
2. All Is Lost.
There is a particular scene in “Gravity” where George Clooney gets Bullock to start talking about her past. And this is the point in the film where is inserted one of the most tired and overused backstories in all of contemporary Hollywood cinema. It’s the back story given in over and over again in Hollywood movies, year after year, when the protagonist is either a single woman over thirty or so, or a young couple. (A different back story is given when the protagonist is a man. The lone male protagonist’s back story is, 9 times in 10, that his alcoholism caused him to become estranged with his adolescent daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in years. If it is more common than the dead child tragedy assigned to so many female protagonists, that is only because there are so many more movies with male heroes.)
During this scene between Clooney and Bullock, I actually has the fully-formed thought “how great would this movie be if they had cut all this”. Does Bullock’s character really need extra motivation to save her life. I liked Gravity a lot, and it might have made this list if I hadn’t seen the masterpiece All Is Lost, in which we are introduced to a character, alone in the universe. We don’t know his name, we don’t know what he does for a living, all we know is that he has people somewhere that he loves and wants to get back to. We can surmise what his class and worldly status is. after all it’s Robert Redford for fuck’s sake. It’s still a movie. But we watch him. He hardly speaks, there’s no one to talk to. He makes decisions, he make other decisions to deal with the outcomes of those decisions, and we watch, and we root for him. That’s about as pure as it gets. Not too many people saw it, which is too bad. It’s not going to be half so compelling on home video. And if they remade it with Sandra Bullock, it would still be great.
1. Inside Llewyn Davis.
Until a few years ago I wasn’t very much of a Coen Brothers fan. I liked their crime movies: Blood Simple and Fargo. I loved their sort-of crime movie turned cult sucess, The Big Lebowski. I thought Raising Arizona was an unfunny mess. I thought Barton Fink was pretentious shit, that Miller’s Crossing, Hudsucker Proxie, the one with Tom Hanks, and Oh, Brother Where Art Thou, and The Man Who Wasn’t There, were all boring as fuck. I thought the deus ex machina, not to mention the plot holes in No Country for Old Men, showed just plan ignorance of narrative skills, but I guess Cormac’s probably more to blame for that. Then something happened. I responded to the political satire of “Burn After Reading” I thought “A Serious Man” was one of the best movies about metaphysical ideas I’d ever seen, and I thought “True Great” was the best western since “Unforgiven”. So there. I feel compelled to put all that down because apparently, from what I’m seeing online, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of those kinds of works of art, like Joyce’s last two novels, that by it’s very existence just pisses some people off. Obviously, anyone claiming to like “Inside Llewyn Davis” is just a poseur/hipster/liar whose giving a pass to an inferior movie just because it’s a Coen Bros. movies. Snobs and cretins in other words, snobs because of their professed tastes, and cretins because they can’t think for themselves. But has it occurred to anyone that snobs, of all people, LOVE to tear down the work of sacred cows. A snob likes nothing more than to trash a new work by an established master. Makes them feel good. Then there’s the infuriating belief that if something doesn’t appeal to you, then it must be making fun of you. That after the screening everyone else retreats to a fancy wine bar somewhere and laughs and laughs about your philistine response to the work that was intended for no other purpose than to instigate your humiliation. These people couldn’t actually like this artsy-fartsy stuff. No. And if they are not doing if FOR themselves, the must be doing it AGAINST me. That’s, if you’ll forgive me, a little narcissistic, don’t you think?
So if you don’t like movies that induce those sorts of emotions, be warned, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Maybe I can best explain why I loved this movie by going first to its correllary, “Francis Ha”, which almost made my list and is on a similar familiar theme: the struggling New York artist. Francis is played by Greta Gerwig (who co-wote and produced the movie as well). Greta Gerwig who is one of the most adorable people in the currently known world. Llewyn Davis, on the other hand, is a bit of a dick. He’s hard to root for (if you can’t, or more likely, won’t, root for Greta Gerwig, then you’re the dick), although they do both exhibit some of the same unpleasant behavior. They impose themselves on others excessively; they seem to find themselves on the taking end rather that the giving end of most transactions, at least at the point in their lives that we encounter them: the struggling phase. Because in both movies there is a real sense that they are struggling, not only with making a living, but also with themselves. They are excessively self-involved. They turn down very generous offers that could help them in their careers. They do this by gut instinct, as if their brains hardly work at all. Ultimately, “Francis Ha” becomes an inspiring movie about a young woman finding her niche, and that makes a very good movie, when, as here, done right. Inside Llewyn Davis (the title is ironic, we go all the way from Greenwich Village, to Chicago, and then, by later implication, all the way round again, but the one place we will never go is inside Llewyn Davis). Throughout the movie, Davis sings beautiful songs, he demonstrates almost no love or kindness toward any other person, yet he’s extremely concern about a cat he accidentally lets escape a friend’s flat. The question is often raised against such people “how can such a sensitive artist” be such an asshole? Some people don’t like movies about unsympathetic characters (though I’ll argue that Llewyn isn’t such a character anyway, in a moment), but if you’ve ever met any artists or actors or musicians or painters, you have probably met some assholes among them. Or, if you won’t call them assholes, then flakes, or drunks, or at very least crybabies. You’ve probably met some people who are truly inspiring in one minute and big pain in the butt the next.
I’m suggesting that these are all occupational hazards of creative people, and that theses traits are not to be romanticized, or excused, but lack they hazards of any other occupation, they ought to be examined. Hence a legitimate subject for movies.
Llewyn has a crust over him. It’s sad. It’s sad for him that he’s an asshole. And it’s sad that he doesn’t know if. The crust that started to form long before we meet him, and has been getting harder through the years of life’s inevitable trials. A big crust was formed when his former partner committed suicide, a year or two prior to the start of the film. That incident if crucial (in the middle of the film when Llewyn is offered a shot a joining a group that a big promoter is forming — a group based on Peter, Paul & Mary, Llewyn rejects the offer firmly, “NO! No double act!” Even if it’s a trio. For what it is worth, all of that makes him a sympathetic character to me.
I don’t want to talk about it any more, but to me this movie is a classic narrative of a classic sisyphean hero. This is beautifully and elegantly revealed in only the very last scene when the Coen unveil the true and previously hidden structure of this particular narrative. And of course, by the last words, Llewyn, that common French phrase that means something different in it’s literal translation, and which John Collier used for something of a similar effect as the concluding two words of one of his most famous stories, “The Chaser.”
As a side note, the movie has a beautiful imagery. Great dark humor. Really lovely songs, and great quirky performances. It maybe has symbolism. I have the sense that the Coen’s but stuff in their movies that even they don’t understand. Stuff that just feels like it ought to be there, or maybe just seems like its worth a gamble. In a young artist this kind of thing can often be a mistake (not that young artists should be afraid of making mistakes). But in a couple middle-aged guys like the Coen’s its damn good. An effort to understand like begins with incompetence and enthusiasm in youth, moves to control and confidence in adulthood, and then, for the the very awake and the very lucky into a middle or late age of “well, who the fuck knows?”