Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: #s 23-17

As the Manifesto continues its countdown of every movie we saw in 2014, we've now entered the top quartile. If you missed it, here's what we've covered so far:

Nos. 92-79 (Tiers 12 and 11)
Nos. 78-71 (Tier 10)
Nos. 70-64 (Tier 9)
Nos. 63-56 (Tier 8)
Nos. 55-48 (Tier 7)
Nos. 47-40 (Tier 6)
Nos. 39-32 (Tier 5)
Nos. 31-24 (Tier 4)


Tier 3: Where Style Meets Substance

23. X-Men: Days of Future Past (directed by Bryan Singer, 91% Rotten Tomatoes, 74 Metacritic). Despite its nervy, complicated, time-jumping structure, X-Men: Days of Future Past mostly plays by the rules. After a disorienting opening that feels like a deleted scene from one of the Matrix sequels, the movie settles into a comfortable comic-book rhythm, balancing high-octane action sequences with bulky exposition and obvious allegory. But this sense of familiarity is more of a strength than a detriment, as it allows Singer to dispense with tedious origin-story development and get right to the good stuff. He remains a thoughtful and skillful arranger of set pieces, and many moments in Days of Future Past are awe-inspiring, such as Quicksilver's (Evan Peters) casual stroll through a time-stopped firefight or Magneto's (Michael Fassbender) wholesale transplantation of RFK Stadium. Singer also knows how to leverage his eye-popping cast; the movie receives strong performances from all involved, most notably Fassbender, again locating the internal conflict buried within his smirking narcissist, and Jennifer Lawrence, improving dramatically from her work in X-Men: First Class and turning Mystique from a special-effects curiosity into a tragic figure. Most importantly, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg deliver a smart, sinewy story that's mostly self-contained—you don't need to possess expert knowledge of every super-being in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in order to appreciate this parable of scientific hubris and fractured allegiance. You just need a pulse, and an admiration for studio filmmaking, the kind with little fuss and lots of craft.





22. What If (Michael Dowse, 70% RT, 59 MC). The blueprint for What If is simple: Walter (Daniel Radcliffe) meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) and instantly falls in love with her due to their electric chemistry, only to discover that she has a boyfriend. But because Chantry finds herself undeniably attracted to Walter as well (again, that chemistry), the two strike up a non-reciprocal friendship, one that is saturated in an intimacy that cannot be consummated (again, that boyfriend). This blueprint, of course, has been followed countless times in the dank, dark genre known as the romantic comedy. But it's rarely been brought to life with such buoyant vim. Radcliffe and Kazan really do look great together—he with the slight frame and the pale-blue eyes, she with the sharp green ones and the careless blonde hair—and more importantly, they feel great together, with a natural rapport that's playful but never precious. Equally enjoyable is Wallace's relationship with Allan (the great Adam Driver), his free-swinging friend whose counsel proves both profound and hilarious. (He also gets the movie's best line, involving sex and nachos.) And Dowse chronicles everything with a plain, unfussy style that captures the characters' delirium without ever feeling twee. What If is safe, predictable, and conventional. It is also one of the most charming times you're likely to spend at the movies.





21. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, 88% RT, 73 MC). "Every good man has a little bit of bad," a CIA agent tells Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) early in A Most Wanted Man, a tense, sprawling spy thriller based on a John le Carré novel. It's a truism that doubles as a sort of mission statement for the movie's grey moral universe, one in which the heroes are not gun-toting athletes but paunchy, cigarette-smoking operatives who attempt to manipulate pawns from behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the enemy they wage war against is not a cigar-chomping terrorist but the very institution of intelligence, a bureaucratic morass that prioritizes self-interest and cheap headlines over actual solutions. It's all very complicated, and Andrew Bovell's screenplay struggles to streamline le Carré's bulging book into a tidy and coherent narrative (though he's more successful in this regard than the overwhelmed screenwriters of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another adaptation of le Carré's work). But even if A Most Wanted Man can be difficult to follow, Corbijn creates a portentous atmosphere, one in which every ostensibly minor action seems freighted with global significance. He also receives a terrific, deeply soulful performance from Hoffman, who plays Günther with a weary, rumpled dignity; watching him, you get the sense of a beaten man who has sacrificed himself for a far-flung hope of human decency. A Most Wanted Man is not perfect—it is a bit leaden and deliberate in its storytelling, and the typically reliable Rachel McAdams is shaky as an idealistic German lawyer. But it is nevertheless a grim, forceful account of one man's doomed faith in himself and others. Besides, the film's flaws simply feed into its ethos. After all, every good movie has a little bit of bad.

20. Bethlehem (Yuval Adler, 79% RT, 68 MC). If A Most Wanted Man takes place in a world with only the slightest flicker of hope, Bethlehem is set in a land where that flicker has been snuffed out. A microcosm of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it's a tale of two men attempting to make sense of a senseless world. The first is Razi (Tsahi Halevi), an Israeli detective trying to keep the peace by hunting down Abu Ibrahim, an unpredictable terrorist who may be involved with Hamas. The second is Sanfur (Shadi Mar'i), Ibrahim's teenage brother, who passes nuggets of information to Razi while also trying to maintain loyalty to his elder sibling. Neither Razi nor Sanfur is a bad man, and under different circumstances, they might be able to use their intelligence and goodwill to broker a partnership between two colliding cultures. But Bethlehem depicts a landscape so choked with factionalism and prejudice that the prospect of reconciliation seems laughable. Razi works for superiors who demand results at all costs, while Sanfur struggles just to stay alive while surrounded by hotheads and extremists. (In the movie's most illuminating, blackly comic scene, rival groups nearly murder each other while squabbling over the right to bury a fallen comrade.) It's a persuasive piece of political filmmaking, but what makes Bethlehem memorable is its intimacy. It compresses an entire history of recursive violence into the particular struggles of two desperate men. Both of them just want to do some good, but in this land of bile and blood, neither of them stands a chance.

19. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 89% RT, 70 MC). Before Captain America: The Winter Soldier embarks on its obligatory action climax, it pauses for a moment of winking reflection, with Falcon (Anthony Mackie, always welcome) asking the title avenger (Chris Evans, steady as ever), "How do we know the good guys from the bad guys?" The lengthy effects-laden extravaganza that follows may be par for the course in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that wry question is indicative of the movie's surprising intelligence, and of the Russos' ability to shoehorn authorial personality into the blockbuster blueprint. Indeed, until its banal finale, The Winter Soldier barely feels like a Marvel movie at all. It's more of a retro conspiracy thriller, if one craftily updated for the NSA age of surveillance and mistrust. Steve Rogers may brandish a star-spangled shield, but he's increasingly wary of his directives from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, given his meatiest part yet in an MCU production), and he ponders whether his acts of ostensible heroism are tainted with complicity. Of course, this is still a superhero movie, but the Russos demonstrate a real knack for concocting kinetic, suspenseful set pieces, whether it's Rogers cutting the tension prior to a close-quarters battle in an elevator ("Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?"), or Fury barking orders to his sentient Chevy during an electric car chase. Even better, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's script is smart and funny, especially when Rogers is engaging in charged, playful banter with Natasha Romanoff, whom Scarlett Johansson (rounding out a terrific 2014) has transformed from eye candy into a legitimate character. Rogers may be paranoid, but he needn't worry—he's driving a vehicle that all American superhero movies should aspire to.





18. The Immigrant (James Gray, 87% RT, 77 MC). The American Dream may be a myth, but it has rarely been deconstructed with such haunting beauty and bravery as in The Immigrant. Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island in search of a better life, only to be informed that she is a woman of low morals and thus swiftly ticketed for deportation. She is rescued, however, by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), a benevolent stranger who swoops in and spirits Ewa away to his tenement in New York, where she receives shelter, a meal, and a warm bath. Of course, Bruno is no saint, and Ewa quickly finds herself enmeshed in a cycle of prostitution and debauchery. At this point, you may anticipate The Immigrant to become wracked with misery, and to watch dolefully as Bruno abuses his power while Ewa, robbed of the autonomy of her body, struggles to cling to her soul. But Gray and his actors are too subtle and sensitive to paint with such broad strokes. Ewa may be a victim of circumstance, but she is also a pragmatist, and she does not relinquish her body so much as use it to barter and improve her position, with Cotillard evoking a woman of fiery independence and strength. Bruno, meanwhile, is neither savior nor reprobate, but a broken man seeking to improve his own pitiful situation, and Phoenix portrays him with the perfect combination of menace and despair. Gray shoots everything in rich, golden hues, capturing the splendor and the squalor of 1920s America. The film teeters toward melodrama in its second half—Jeremy Renner is miscast in a superfluous part as Bruno's brother—but even that shift is in keeping with the grand, allegorical magnitude of Ewa's story. And it concludes with a sublime final shot, a breathtaking image that encapsulates the movie in miniature: One character moves toward an uncertain future, while another recedes into the past.

17. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 90% RT, 79 MC). I often criticize summer studio productions for paying insufficient attention to their human characters. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is guilty of the same sin, but it's less an artistic failure than a consequence of relativity; the colony of primates at the film's center is so richly detailed and fully developed that the humans can't help but seem extraneous. The apes don't talk much, but in observing their behavior—the shelters hewn out of wood and rock, the maxims carved into stone, the hierarchical structure of leadership—Reeves illustrates the intricate depths of their society. Their leader remains Caesar (Andy Serkis, remarkably expressive), a wise and wary governor who rules with a carefully calibrated mixture of generosity and force. Humans do show up, of course, and as the conflict between people and primates plays out, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cleverly locates mirrors between the two species. Caesar's counterpart is Malcolm (Jason Clarke, nicely restrained), a cautious engineer who hopes to use a dam to harness electric power without disturbing the apes' livelihood. And while Caesar must continually placate Koba (a terrific Toby Kebbell), a warmongering lieutenant, Malcolm finds himself struggling to leash Carver (Kirk Acevedo), a trigger-happy bigot. The tensions within the two camps are palpable, and even if the humans are somewhat one-dimensional, the power struggle between Caesar and Koba feels Shakespearean in its tragic inevitability. Once it erupts, the movie's suspense leaks out a bit, but it's still a barnstorming success; Reeves has a great eye—there's a stunning shot where he affixes his camera to a tank turret and just lets it rip—and thanks to the exquisitely invisible motion-capture V/X work, most of the action scenes have both weight and clarity. But it's the meaning behind that action that matters. Apes fight both humans and each other, until the two sides seem to blur into one another, and we aren't sure whether we want the apes or humans to win or lose. But with a movie like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we all win.





More coming soon.

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