It’s that time of year. The time for laughter, good cheer, charity — and a whole lot of really swell movies. It’s also the time of year when using words like “swell” really makes sense.
In any case, it’s been a minute since I’ve posted anything, let alone anything movie related, so below is a list of a few movies I’ve seen recently that I enjoyed quite a lot. At the end of the list I go on a little rant about how to possibly rank these movies, or compare them, and how it’s not really possible. These are quick little reviews, so although lacking in specifics they get across my feelings on the movies. If you don’t care to read the reviews, skip to the end for the “rant”.
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are incredible talents to watch in this mesmerizing film, all shot as though it’s a single take moving fluidly through a week in the lives of the performers and producers of a Broadway play. Keaton plays an aging actor who once starred in a string of superhero movies, now trying to make a comeback and prove that he’s a talented performer, that it all meant something, that he’s contributing in his own small way to the art world that means so much to other people. If that sounds corny, the movie rarely is, and though the plot is fairly predictable by about halfway through the powerful acting by everyone involved — specifically Emma Stone — makes the film very worth watching.
Interstellar – Christopher Nolan’s attempt to blend 2001: A Space Odyssey with the modern Hollywood Blockbuster doesn’t quite reach its’ lofty goals, but the result is still quite great. The slow burn first act opens the door to a bleak future for earth’s residents, as food supplies are dwindling and the planet is essentially giving up. Enter McConaughey’s Cooper, who joins what remains of NASA to zip out into a previously undiscovered wormhole beyond Saturn, in order to seek and find a possible inhabitable planet for the future of mankind. Visuals are stunning, and later sequences cut together like an intricate ballet. But even the slightest of missteps are noticeable — characters acting out in order to advance plot, overly sentimental focus of later scenes. Regardless, it’s a great film and looks best on the biggest screen possible.
Nightcrawler – A thriller in the City of Angels, Jake Gyllenhaal is an eerie “stringer”, a freelance videographer filming crime scenes during and after the crime in order to sell footage to local news and build his reputation. He’s thin, a devious weasel, but throughout the film it’s hard to think that he’s technically “wrong” in most cases. While the film lacks in an emotional connection with the character, I enjoyed watching Gyllenhaal and thought Los Angeles was captured quite well overall. Broadcast News, with a touch of To Die For.
Whiplash – One of the best of the year, JK Simmons brings down the house as the manipulative and frightening music teacher Fletcher. There’s a natural kinetic energy inherent in jazz music that makes this film really pop off the screen, and although we easily want Miles Teller’s Andrew to succeed and prove himself to Fletcher, we also see a lot not to like about the kid. There’s a great thought in the creative world that specificity equals universality, and a film like Whiplash shows a great example of just this: The specifics of jazz drumming, practicing, seeking approval and the congratulatory pat on the back, wanting to be the best, troubling relationships because of it, these are just some examples of the focus of this movie, but these moments really shine because they cause us, as audiences, to reflect on ourselves. Whiplash is one of the best of the year.
Gone Girl – Rosamund Pike steals almost all of the show in this adaptation directed by David Fincher. She’s diabolical while also playing the cute romantic female love interest, and Ben Affleck matches her every step, at once a total douche bag and then a hopelessly romantic husband. The static tone of the shots almost push the audience too far away from the emotion, but each plot twist is enough to keep us interested. Also, the great Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney is quite the scene stealer herself (*Please, awards people, let’s keep her in our sights).
Dear White People – Sometimes funny, sometimes strikingly on point about race relations in younger (and older) generations, this first feature from Justin Simien is a solid piece of entertainment. As I watched, I found myself drawn away from some of the more poignant scenes by the simple photography and awkward dialogue — but this occurrence was rare, and the characters sparked more than enough to keep me along for the ride. Special standout to Lionel (Tyler James Williams) for rocking the boat from funny and observational to downright angry and judgmental.
Big Hero 6 — Yes, this is a Marvel property as presented by Disney, and it’s a hell of a fun right. The story follows the lovable, intelligent Hiro who has an immediate connection with his brother’s robot, Baymax. Their adventure of revenge brings Hiro a new set of friends and a feeling of placement in the world. The film starts and just keeps on trucking along, rarely giving the audience a chance to breathe and re-evaluate emotions and story. And to a great degree, this works in the movie’s flavor. But about 2/3 the way through, I found myself wanting just a little more time to absorb, and for the characters to show their reversals rather than immediately react.
Now, I was asked recently by a friend, “what’s better, Gone Girl or Nightcrawler?” I didn’t know how to answer. And perhaps these aren’t the two finest examples to use for this bit, but regardless…
Look, both are thrillers, yes, and both feature characters that we oddly root for despite the devious acts they commit. Anti-heroes, if you will. But I find it difficult to compare two almost completely different films as if one HAS to be better than the other.
The idea of comparing two or more movies is often an arduous task. For one thing, everything is subjective. Yes, there are elements of filmmaking as an art form that are universally accepted as “good”: Engaging characters, story structure, is the shot in focus, etc. But what’s “good” in Hollywood, studio system standards doesn’t necessarily apply to every audience member. Transformers is “technically” an example of “good” filmmaking, but that doesn’t make it high-art, or a great film. That doesn’t make it worth seeing more than Nightcrawler, or Dear White People. But the same is true of the reverse.
Sometimes I get caught up in pointing out Transformers knows what it is, what kind of film it intends to be, and it succeeds, thus it’s a good film. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s better than Gone Girl, or Nightcrawler.
I feel like I’m going off on a tangent, but at the same time…maybe this makes sense?
Regardless, I’m not able to tell you which movie is better, Gone Girl or Nightcrawler, because I’m a different person than you are. Maybe that’s what you want to hear. You want my subjective opinion that I liked Gone Girl better because it had more variety of characters. some actually like-able, and it had more twists, and felt overall like a movie I really enjoyed watching unfold. Sure. But to then say “Gone Girl is better than Nightcrawler” is a bit out of context.
I think what sparked my feelings towards comparisons was a weird sense of pushback by friends on Twitter and Facebook when Marvel announced their slate for the next five years. I enjoy Marvel’s movies. I enjoy comic book movies, for the most part, and think that not only are they fun movies, but the stories are usually quite good, the filmmaking quality is very high, and the structure of what Marvel is doing with the cinematic storytelling form — making it a bit serialized, tonally consistent films, utilizing director strengths within a structured style — is interesting, innovative, and I want to know what’s going to happen next.
But a lot of the folks on Facebook and Twitter who took umbridge with Marvel were saying that their movies are “what’s wrong with the industry”. That, because of superhero movies taking over the box office, independent movies don’t get enough attention, or support. Hard to argue with, independent movies aren’t exactly eating up the box office. But how is that Marvel’s fault? Look, at the end of the day, it’s a business, an industry, and money needs to be made. Sometimes, in doing so, a movie will advance the medium.
Where would we be, technologically speaking, without the expensive, blockbuster innovations of, say, James Cameron? Or the audience manipulative ways of Spielberg?
I digress, but I think you get the point.
As a cinematic community, we can be appreciative of all forms of the cinematic language, prefer some forms over others, and still survive as an industry. This past year was one of the best in recent memory, and it had everything from big budget crowd pleasers (Hello Guardians of the Galaxy) to independent fare that critics hounded after (Whiplash and Birdman).
It’s a great time for cinema, let’s embrace it and support the films we like instead of shitting on the ones we don’t.