The Oscars: still meaningless, and now they’re over! Let’s get back to what’s really important: me, ranking movies in a seemingly arbitrary manner.
5. The Act of Killing
This movie is crazy. It’s also socially relevant and historically important, so much so that it deserves a deeper analysis than a slack-jawed sort of awe, but I’m afraid that’s the only way I know to describe it. This. Movie. Is. Crazy.
Indonesian gangster Anwar Congo leads us through the killings he perpetrated on behalf of the Indonesian government in 1965 and 1966, and right from the beginning it is unbearably surreal, surreal on a level you couldn’t reach with a one-hundred percent pure blast of Lynchian filmmaking. As we watch Anwar walking around, talking and laughing with the people of Indonesia, he performs a series of mental gymnastics to justify his crimes and two things become apparent. One: Anwar has been performing these ethical tricks for so long that, while it leaves us with a feeling of cognitive dissonance that is physically overwhelming, it doesn’t affect him in the slightest. It’s not even second nature to him, it’s just reality.
Two: the Indonesia government also believes in this reality.
Director Joshua Oppenheimer lays it out best in an interview that accompanies the film’s DVD release: most of the time, when you examine a situation in which a crime has been committed, the criminal has been punished, or at the very least, the world around him realizes he has done something wrong. Because the people who backed Anwar are still in power, he’s never been punished, never even had to admit to himself that what he did was wrong.
I don’t want to give anything away–it’s a great documentary and a truly unique experience and you ought to watch it–but towards the end of the film, we do get a brief look at the physical toll it takes on the human body to live in evil for so long and call it good. And it is not pretty.
Craziest Documentary Runner-Up: Tim’s Vermeer
Once again, this movie so thoroughly blew my mind that the only response I had was “that’s crazy. that is crazy! this is crazy.” Unlike The Act of Killing, Tim’s Vermeer didn’t leave me feeling horrified and empty inside, so I feel better about not having more to say. Once you see this movie, you’ll understand why I was so impressed. It’s not a crazy ride, so don’t expect too many twists and turns, but I’ll just tell you this: this movie is about a guy named Tim who believes that Johannes Vermeer may have used some form of a camera obscura to assist him with his paintings. Tim, filmed by his close friends Penn & Teller (who are currently on a nice streak of not promoting any libertarian nonsense), decides to pursue this theory by developing his own version of the device. In the process, he makes a subtle point about the relationship between technology and art, but man, the real draw here is seeing what he does with the device. Because let me tell you: it’s crazy.
4. The World’s End
The third entry in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy lacks the indie scruffiness of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, which isn’t surprising since Wright is now a big-boy director working a gig for Marvel. The World’s End also lacks the rapid-fire joke count of his early works, which is a bit more jarring. Even though Wright has always preferred character moments or stylistic homages over blatant punchlines, the more subdued tone of The World’s End threw me for a loop at first. But as the movie settled in my mind, I realized that Wright had set his sights a little higher this time. Or is it lower? Anyway, it was the heart. He was aiming for the heart.
Shaun of the Dead had some pretty serious pathos, but Wright and co. were riffing off of zombie movies, a genre that comes with tragic deaths and tearful goodbyes built right in. Hot Fuzz had just enough of a real connection between Angel and Danny to hold the movie together, but a lot of the emotional content had quotation marks around it. This isn’t to say that Edgar Wright doesn’t know storytelling, or to minimize the accomplishment of his earlier work, only to emphasize the deftness with which he integrated the prominent and somewhat complex emotional content of The World’s End.
Consider the first thirty minutes of the movie, where Wright tells a story about five old friends getting back together, while slowly dropping hints that things are not quite right and building up a mood of slight discomfort. It’s not until the story of the five friends reaches a breaking point that this atmosphere explodes into pure science fiction. Once the “genre” plot kicks in, it’s easy to overlook how Wright keeps the original story moving inside of it, matching every sci-fi beat (the mistaken identity, the final confrontation) with a character beat.
And let’s also take a moment to appreciate Simon Pegg’s fantastic and layered performance, because it’s easy to undervalue comedic acting and Gary King is probably the most interesting character of last year.
Why Did You Make This Movie?: Dallas Buyers Club
I don’t even know where to start with this stupid thing. I guess I’ll just ask, why? Why, when telling the story of a community in crisis, a community and a time period that is criminally under-represented in popular culture, would you make the main character someone who isn’t a member of that community? Why, in other words, did the filmmakers decide to make a movie about a Straight Savior coming to heal the gay community? More than that, it’s a guy who doesn’t even like gay people. Of all the stories to come out of the AIDs crisis, why in the world would you choose the story of how it affected a bigoted straight man?
And guess what! It’s very likely that Ron Woodruff wasn’t even straight! I have a hard time deciding if this makes the whole thing more or less offensive, but I’m going to err on the side of ‘more’.
And ANOTHER thing: the movie’s not even good! It fails as drama, since none of the characters, not even Rod Woodruff himself, get enough development for us to really care for them, and Woodruff’s journey from homophobe to defender of the gay community is either too underplayed or completely nonexistent, I can’t decide. It also fails as a non-fiction story, since the most potentially interesting aspects of Woodruff setting up the titular club are glossed over in a couple of montages.
Sure, McConaughey does a fine job, but there’s only so much to be done with the script, and ‘Lost The Most Weight’ doesn’t equal ‘Best Actor’ Sorry, this whole thing is turning out pretty negative. Let’s move on to more stuff that I liked.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
Here’s something I haven’t talked about on this website: my life! More specifically, the fact that I moved to New York City last October. I also had the foresight to move here during one of the top-ten worst New York winters of all time. On top of all that, if you couldn’t tell by the fact that I am writing this for free, I am something of a struggling artist. You see where I’m going with.
I have not reached depths of despair and displacement that poor, awful Llewyn faces during Inside Llewyn Davis, and I hope that I never will, but seeing him trudge around in an ever-ending snowstorm while muttering a lot of grand statements about artistic purity does strike a chord with me. Even though the movie ends on a note of perpetual failure and defeat, Llewyn’s defiant spirit makes the whole thing into a cosmic joke, one that he might finally be in on. I don’t know how rousing it’s meant to be, but it filled me with hope. A weird amount of hope.
I’m probably reading too much of my own life into Llewyn’s, and I’m definitely ignoring the way that the Coen Brothers expand their legacy as all-time greats with every movie, but you’ll have to forgive me if I get a little distracted. It’s really, really cold up here.
Movie Of Questionable Quality With Most Lingering Effect
The Place Beyond The Pines may be a deeply flawed movie with some serious plotting problems, but it’s insanely ambitious for what first seems to be a simple crime movie and the last few minutes have stuck with me like nothing else I’ve seen this year.
I don’t want to get too spoiler-y, in case the one guy who wants to see it but hasn’t yet is reading this, but in the ending hammers home the movie’s theme of how fathers are affected by their sons. Viewed in totality, the movie argues this: no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, if you are a father, you will fail your son in some way. This failure is inevitable AND it’s going to mess up your son’s life like crazy. Plus, your mistakes are going to ripple down through time, so your son is going to take your mistakes and put them onto HIS son.
It’s a pretty pessimistic view of parent-child relationships, but I love the way it doesn’t tip fully into nature-over-nurture genetic-determinism-style nonsense. It’s an honest attempt to grapple with the legacies that parents leave for their children filtered through a melodramatic crime epic. Of course, you could say the same thing about The Godfather, a comparison that does Pines no favors, but hey, how many movies can stand up to The Godfather? This I ask you.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
Wolf of Wall Street is such an overstuffed movie of wild excess that it’s hard to narrow in on the best thing about it. There’s a lot to like: the looseness of the cast, the bright, clean cinematography just barely holding back a world of filth, the funny, unorthodox Terrence Winter screenplay (what up, T-Dubs), the way it pushes past glamorization into much dirtier, uncomfortable territory while using that same gorgeously-shot hedonism to indict American society. There’s also one thing not to like about it: the very uncomfortable fact that Jordan Belfort made money off of this movie. At the very least, that dude should probably not still be earning any more income. BUT I think everyone’s probably tired of debating the morality of this movie, so let’s just accept that without Belfort’s book we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation and we’d get caught in a paradox and possibly cease to exist.
Here’s my favorite thing about Wolf Of Wall Street: it finally got me to like Leonard DiCaprio.
The internet’s favorite overlooked actor has been on an upward trajectory for the last ten years, with a run of stellar role choices that is really incredible when you remember what a flash-in-the-pan heartthrob he seemed like in the 90’s. But this run of “serious roles” came with the downside that all the roles were really, really serious. DiCaprio specialized in playing a violence-prone man on a mission in over his head with a wife who was either dead or just about to die. He spent so much time furrowing his brow that it seemed like his forehead might get permanently creased, and as someone with a weird vertical dent in his forehead, let me tell you that it’s no fun. I haven’t even been nominated for an Oscar!
Everyone who wanted to see Leo have a little fun got their wish in Django Unchained, but even Calvin Candie was a sadistic slave-owner who smashed skulls with a hammer. In Wolf Of Wall Street, Leo took that same energy and poured into a vicious, free-wheeling performance in a full-on comedy. Yeah, it’s a dark comedy, and yeah, Jordan Belfort is still pretty much evil. But Leo deserves some kind of award, if solely for his dancing in the wedding scene.
… just maybe not an Oscar. Hi-yo!
Ugh. I know. What a cliche, right? The sensitive white-guy writer chooses a Spike Jonze joint as his favorite movie of they year. Trust me, I feel it, too. It’s so inevitable that it’s kind of gross.
I didn’t want it to be this way! When I first heard about this movie, my first concern wasn’t the ridiculous plot, but the fact that Jonze was holding down directing AND writing duty, solo. All his best work had been done with certified genius Charlie Kaufman, and even his lesser films (a category consisting solely of Where The Wild Things Are) had a co-writer to lend a helping hand. I just didn’t think Jonze had the talent as a writer to create a compelling film to back up what sounded like a silly, lightweight sci-fi story.
Fortunately, I was wrong on all counts.
First of all, the love story of Her isn’t nearly as stupid as it seems at first blush, and people still referring to it as “a guy falling in love with his phone” either haven’t seen it or just can’t get past their original impression. It seems like a movie that’s going to require a lot of concessions from the audience, but the buy-in is pretty low: if you can accept a world where Artificial Intelligence exists, you’re already on board. Beyond that, Jonze does all the work for you (with a lot of help from Joaquin).
This is an obvious irony, but here it goes: for a story that has been touted by myopic social critics as an example of how disconnected we are from one another, Her is deeply, deeply humane. Every action, every character beat, every moment comes directly from a recognizable, understandable human emotion. Everyone in this movie, even the minor characters like Amelia and Catherine, is aching with hurt, need, confusion, love… you know, human-being stuff. And every facet of the film is so soaked-through with that emotional truth that it washes right over you.
Plus the whole thing is just gorgeous. Every shot is soaked through with warm, bright colors; the set and costume design both evoke a world similar to ours but just different enough to be unfamiliar; the score is unique enough to notice but not to a distracting degree, even if the people who composed it (Win Butler and Owen Pallet) do contribute to the so-indie-I-want-to-puke vibe. Or is that just something that I’m imagining? Does anyone actually care? I’m not some sort of self-loathing hipster caricature, am I? Oh, I hope not. I would hate that.
Anyway, what was I saying? I kind of lost track there. Maybe Her hits me in such a deep, emotional place that I have trouble expressing why I like it so much. I mean, people much smarter than me have said that the secret truth of all criticism is that art just hits you a certain way, and you try to justify your opinion after the fact.
But let’s not get into all that. Let’s focus on the positives, like the scientifically proven fact that gratitude reciprocates. Or the way all our fathers are looking down on us from heaven, eating gumbo and lemon meringue pie. And don’t forget, when you’ve got God, you’ve got a friend… and that friend is YOU.