1. Gone Girl, Selma, Boyhood
Three films stand out as the year’s best to me for different reasons. If our taste in movies is a reflection of who we are, I am splintered three ways with three different expressions of the human experience. I don’t love or watch movies that only depict the good in humanity. Like darkness needs light, the shared existence of human beings is spattered with complexity. The best films offer up varied commentary.
No character except Kim Dickens except Kim Dickens, as the female character with the purest goals, escapes the absurdist’s brush in Gone Girl, which makes fun of itself, its genre, and the way women fetishize the notion of the perfect fairy tale life. In Gone Girl, each character is working out their own fantasy – a glossy illusion that inevitably blows up in their faces. Detective Boney is being strung along by Amy’s narrative, Nick’s sister Go still believes she can count on her honest brother, Nick plays his part while getting a little something for himself on the side – the pretentious writer/teacher who has almost started to believe the puffed-up illusion of himself Amy created. The women who huddle to shame Nick, the news reporters who think they have the story, even the lawyer who thinks he’s dealing with one thing until that other thing presents itself.
Gone Girl dwells so much in the absurd, in fact, that some don’t quite know what to make of it, especially since it’s become a box office phenomenon, earning $165 million here and another $200 overseas. From the quick cut montage at the beginning, through the methodical drum beat of the plot led around by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, all the way to the film’s black heart, Amy herself. She is the anti-heroine our repulsive consumer culture deserves – able to manage all requirements with ease: blonde, thin, pretty, married. But the real Amy is hunched somewhere under a bridge, always watching.
Fincher fans almost always prefer the male driven stories, like Fight Club, like Seven, like Zodiac, like The Social Network. But whenever Fincher has flipped the narrative, which he’s done an equal amount of times, not only does he not get any credit for that by female critics who continually lob accusations of misogyny at him, but the critics down vote these films: Alien 3, Panic Room, Benjamin Button (about both, really), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and now, Gone Girl. In case you’re wondering what my fascination with David Fincher springs from it’s partly this: no other director in mainstream Hollywood, not this year or any year recently, unzips the female archetype like Fincher does. Or even cares to try anymore.
Thus, the complaint came that Gone Girl wasn’t “Fincheresque” enough, it wasn’t as serious as his other works, it’s popcorn, airport novel trash. Ah, and you see how easy it is to dismiss stories about women that way? Dismissed by women because it depicts Amy Dunne in a negative light, erasing the plucky Amy from the novel that they kind of even liked and replacing her with a sociopath, covered with a layer of frosting to look like the perfect doll. You don’t go see Gone Girl looking for the definitive “you go, girl” narrative. But if the notion of “you go, girl” narratives makes you so suffocated you want to break plates? Gone Girl’s your movie.
The accusations of misogyny are more misogynists than the movie could ever be; after all, who said women don’t have the capacity to be dangerous sociopaths? The need to portray them in a good light not only limits the opportunities women have overall in film but it is insulting and oppressive. No thanks.
Gone Girl tells us that Amy has power and when that power is unleashed it’s virtually invincible. Like Hannibal is freed at the end of the Silence of the Lambs, Amy is still out now, on the loose. She doesn’t represent all women, nor should she have to. But when you start to think about what women should represent be careful, be very careful where you step. Fincher has such command of his canvas within seconds you know exactly who directed the movie you’re watching. But you must sink into the rhythm and abandon expectations of what you wanted the film to be (like the book), or what you thought it might be (Fatal Attraction) and instead watch it for what it is – a sick and twisted black comedy that takes place in a world where illusion is no more real than the golden threads the sun makes as it splinters through the afternoon rain – it’s so pretty you think you can reach out and touch it when it was never there at all.
The best films can make us catch our breath with surprising ease. Even if these moments aren’t planned in advance, though they usually are. The best moment of this year’s Oscar race was when Ava DuVernay decided to show Selma in its entirety at the AFI Film Fest. So many much-anticipated films had played to disappointing results, had failed to deliver. For whatever reason studio seemed nervous about Selma. They were going to show just 30 minutes, which usually means something really wrong, or raises the specter of questions not yet solved. They would do the embargo dance, keeping the Twittersphere quiet until the votes were counted. But DuVernay just let go, took the moment and ran with it.
As her film played, one moody scene after another, tightly edited, deeply moving, it felt like seeing a high-wire feat, watching with trepidation for that fatal misstep. But DuVernay never faltered. From start to finish Selma is a truly great film in a year with not many of them. Circling around the oppression of the continuing segregation in the South that prevented American citizens from voting, here comes Martin Luther, King, Jr., an imperfect savior at a time when America needed him. DuVernay’s Selma takes us deeply and intimately into King’s life, in his quieter moments. A war was being waged on the streets between white cops and state legislature and the black majority citizenry. They needed King to lead the movement, and that movement was the March on Selma, uniting black and white citizens in protest – they were protesting the brutality of the police (still witnessed today), the oppression of the majority black citizenry under the arm of the minority government (still plaguing us today), and the right of every American to register to vote and exercise that right anywhere.
Selma brings back the importance of the right to vote with urgency, through King’s voice, directed at an apathetic, distracted, blitzed out, drugged up populace that have bought the line that it doesn’t matter whether they vote or not – they have no power. King brought power to the people through his magnificent speeches, many not widely seen nor sufficiently celebrated until DuVernay revived them. Selma is one of the finest films of the year because it isn’t a history lesson, it isn’t a lecture, and it isn’t even a pleading rallying cry. It is a great story well told by a careful and precise filmmaker who painstakingly went over every cut, every minute detail, holding onto her film until the last possible second. That is how great directors are born.
DuVernay previous two features told stories of women making choices about their own identity growing up in our culture. Her last film, Middle of Nowhere, which won Best Director at Sundance, does not bog down in a happily ever after. It is a coming of age story about a woman who isn’t yet sure who she wants to be, whether she wants to hitch her wagon to a man at all. She took a big gamble with Selma, a film on a much larger scale about a pivotal moment in American history — and she nailed it.
Soaked in rich hues of deep browns and blacks, meaningful colors with this narrative, DuVernay chose cinematographer Bradford Young who, she said, “loves black skin” and it shows, particularly in how DuVernay showed King at the podium, or from, simply, the back of his head. Those familiar with her work know that DuVernay brings much sensuality to her work, which explains why King does not come off as a symbol or a statue but very much as a man.
Selma is one of the few genuinely feelgood films that springs not from one white protagonist overcoming obstacles and achieving – but from hope itself, the thing with feathers that perches on the soul. This is ultimately what DuVernay herself brings as a new voice in black and white cinema, always bridging the gap where conflict opposes it. That hope carries on the tradition of King’s own dream, one that was not ready to give in to the continuing forces that divide and oppress American citizens. Thus, Selma ends with a celebration of our collective voices united. It’s a thrilling moment that maybe we can only feel when we fully consider what is really at stake.
The third number one film of the year doesn’t really need me writing about it. It’s already winning every award and will win the Oscar for Best Picture, as well it should. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the sum total of a twelve-year leap of faith. These actors, the director and the crew agreed to come together when any unplanned life event could have taken any of them out. But like the film itself, the beauty of Boyhood isn’t in the extraordinary, but in the very ordinary. It’s a coming of age story that follows a young man as he goes from innocent, sweet misfit growing up in Texas where they eat guns for breakfast, to an awkward young man and finally to a thinking, interesting formidable young adult.
I’ll never forget the feeling the first time I saw Boyhood watching Ellar Coltrane graduate. Just standing there, with his cap and gown, his proud friends and parents — what a trip. For a film to make you feel as though you were there the whole time, almost a part of the family is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Boyhood is inexplicably, almost accidentally magnificent. It is not improvised but is well thought through. Each character has a whole year to sit with what’s going to happen next, where they might be, where they should be. The twists and turns in a young boy’s life mean so much yet we see them pass in the blink of an eye. And so does life. Memories will flood your imagination when you’re older. They will flicker, sometimes brightly, sometimes beautifully, sometimes horribly. They flicker and they’re gone. Your life’s path happens whether you’re paying attention to it or, trying to control it or not. Though we’d all like to think we can make the moments count – the truth is, they come anyway and they turn into the sum total of one’s life.
Linklater’s gift is in the grand tradition of Southern storytelling. If you’ve ever listened to him talk he can roll on like the best of them. To talk and to listen is at the heart of Linklater’s work. To think about and absorb something so small — something so large – as what people say is a marvel. Boyhood is unlike any other film this year because it is unique. Somehow its story becomes universal because if there’s one thing each one of us does in this is life is get born into it and die out of it. We age. Time flies. And it only moves in one direction.
Boyhood does not promise a good life. It does not tell the story of a personal triumph. No other film hold up such a naturalist’s mirror to what it’s like to both grow up and to watch others grow up. It took twelve years of dedication for all involved. It isn’t just that about it, though you can’t help but get caught up in the breathless speed of time passing measured through lengthening limbs and widening jaws and breasts swelling and wrinkles forming. Boyhood above all is a thank you to the teachers. We find them in good and bad ways. We always learn from them. It isn’t often one is reminded that life is a gift. Every morning we wake up alive is another gold ticket to ride in this beautiful/horrible world. No film has ever made me think about that more than Boyhood.
And the rest:
4. Inherent Vice – how easy to dismiss this movie as a critics’ darling where the Emperor is wearing no clothes. If you stuff it into the Oscar mold that will be true. It certainly does anything but tell a linear story. But in each of its pores and threads is a memory of love. It’s a sense memory exercise that takes us back to California at a time when the silent majority was doing battle with a cultural revolution. It is an absurdist’s dream, one that has abandoned the need for making sense.
5. Maps to the Stars – Maybe movies, and especially the Oscar race, aren’t open to dark and dirty films like this one anymore. PG-13 has come on like a virus, sanitizing movies for adults while the Oscar race continues to coddle Oscar voters. Cronenberg can always be counted upon to walk that creepy line. Here, the monsters live in the nice houses, incestuous, corrupt, greedy. It is a sad kind of love story on top of that with a magnificent script by Bruce Wagner.
6. Mommy – It isn’t always easy getting a filmmaker acknowledgment from the critics or the Academy. It’s dangerous to assume that’s the only attention that matters. It was a long shot, thinking the Academy voters would go for Mommy, being that they are mostly white straight men in their 60s, but it was worth a shot. Xavier Dolan is a powerfully inventive new voice in film. He wanted to follow Jane Campion’s lead by making a film with juicy roles for women. Like Gone Girl and Maps to the Stars, Mommy is packed with two powerhouse performances of women who defy expectation and definition. Would that every young filmmaker found women as interesting.
7. Under the Skin – for most of this film I thought I would end up hating it. Lucy was more my speed because at least Scarlett Johansson got to do something other than walk around with a calm yoga face as she devours men. But by the end of the film it suddenly became brilliant. By the end I’d realized I’d just seen one of the best films of the year. I was moved by the character Johansson plays, which is funnily enough not all that off from whom she becomes in Lucy. You could watch them on a double bill and feel like you’ve just entered a dimension of the future that forgot men rule the world.
8. Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller’s slow burn is really about the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country. There doesn’t seem to be any way out of this mess we’re in. Miller delivers it without commentary, and in so doing he illustrates with beautiful metaphor how the rich exploit and ruin the poor, while simultaneously envying them all of the good that comes with having to work at something to achieve success. Top to bottom, Foxcatcher is a beauty of a film, with some of the year’s best acting in the top three performances.
9. Mr. Turner – If ever there was a film that captured the artist, this is it. In typical Leigh fashion, he does not try to dumb down the story for easier digestion or entertainment. This is a meditation on a man who chased the light and in so doing found something like God. Turner’s paintings were evidence of that search. Restless, repulsive, all he seemed able or willing to do was fuck women and make beautiful paintings. This is Leigh’s masterpiece, subtle though it is. One of the standouts of this year.
10. Birdman – Alejandro Inarritu’s razzle-dazzle of a movie follows the rhythm of jazz in its delivery. It centers around a former super hero who now must navigate the modern world of viral videos, YouTube generations and a life that no longer holds any real meaning. It’s hard not to feel that way when looking at what has become of studio films. In attempting to adapt a Raymond Carver short story he inadvertently stumbles into the theme of that story — missing out on love, the one thing he tried hardest not to do. In the end, Birdman has nowhere to go because where is there to go? The magical realism elements confound watchers who need sense to be made of the ending. But movies are movies for a reason. They allow us to stretch out of the confines of reality.
11. The Babadook – Far and away one of the most frightening films I’ve ever seen, though upon second viewing nowhere near as scary. The brilliance shines through on multiple viewings once you know where writer/director Jennifer Kent is headed. What a thrill to watch such an astonishing debut.
Honorable mentions for a variety of reasons: St. Vincent, Ida, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Rosewater, The Homesman, Lucy, Obvious Child, Into the Woods, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash, Snowpiercer, Wild, The Grand Budapest Hotel, A Most Violent Year, Leviathan, Elena
The best Documentary I saw this Year:
Last Days in Vietnam
And others I liked: The Overnighters, Fed-up, CitizenFour, Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
Films I still need to see (and readjust this list in the coming days):
Beyond the Lights
Only Lovers Left Alive