Monday, January 19, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: #s 31-24

The Manifesto is ranking every movie we saw in 2014. 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)

Tier 4: Nerve and Verve

31. Maleficent (directed by Robert Stromberg, 49% Rotten Tomatoes, 56 Metacritic). This is how you reboot a classic. Maleficent takes Disney's Sleeping Beauty for its skeleton, then twists it inside-out, creating a narrative that's compelling, funny, and even touching. With piercing green eyes and cheekbones that can cut glass, Angelina Jolie stars as the title fairy, an innocent woodland sprite who turns to vengeance after suffering a betrayal. She imposes a curse on the king's newborn baby, Aurora, prophesying that... well, you know the story. But maybe you don't, because from here, Maleficent takes a surprising and inspired turn. Whereas in Sleeping Beauty, the wicked fairy hunted Aurora desperately but failed to find her (thanks to the camouflage of three cockamamie mother-hens, reprised here by the daffy, talented trio of Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple), here she locates Aurora almost immediately, then watches over her with a withering disdain that grows first into fondness and then, finally, maternal love. Maleficent hits most of the designated blockbuster beats; it has some flashy action scenes, and it boasts a killer production design, as well as a strong score from James Newton Howard. That's all well and good, but it's in the movie's breathtaking inversion of true love's kiss that it smacks at becoming a bona-fide classic.

30. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 95% RT, 90 MC). Ida sneaks up on you. It begins in a convent in 1960s Poland, where a young nun, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), is preparing to take her vows, only to learn that she's actually Jewish. Anna—you can guess her real name—resolves to locate a vestige of her true family, leading her to Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a cranky judge who's less interested in a reunion than her next drink. Ida moves languidly, and as enjoyable as it is to watch Anna and Wanda's oil-and-water repartee—the young girl is tender and tentative, the old woman worldly and cruel—you could be forgiven for wondering if it's ever going to go anywhere. But as Anna digs deeper into her past, it becomes clear that her own history is emblematic of a Europe engulfed by terror and savagery, and that Pawlikowski is using this slender story to vent his own broader, more universal outrage. Shot in luminous black-and-white that's never more ravishing than when capturing the light of Trzebuchowska's eyes, Ida is a bold, powerful piece of work, but as enraged as Pawlikowski may be, he never loses sight of his characters. That's why, for all of Ida's justified anger, it's never more enchanting than when watching Anna quietly indulge in a dance, savoring the briefest sensation of peace.

29. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 92% RT, 89 MC). Birdman is a stunning, triumphant endeavor, even if it's also a gigantic mess. The story of a washed-up movie star (Michael Keaton, cleverly cast) trying to rediscover his true talent by adapting Raymond Carver for Broadway, it wants to be a grand treatise on the sacrifices that artists must make to the altar of commercialism, and on how audiences will always clamor for mass-produced blockbuster mayhem rather than poetic works of actual genius. That's bunk, and Iñárritu's finger-wagging could grow irritating, but he's having too much fun for Birdman to turn into a drag. Hell, everyone in the movie seems to be having fun, no one more so than Edward Norton, delivering one of his finest performances as an obsessive Method actor who turns into a shambles whenever he's off-stage. (He's also party to one of the greatest hard-on jokes of all-time.) Most of all, Birdman is an astonishing feat of bravura cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki won last year's Oscar for Gravity and should repeat next month), with the entire movie appearing to be shot in a single take. That may sound a bit gimmicky, and despite Iñárritu's pretensions, Birdman never really adds up to much beyond its surface pleasures. But it's still a hoot, and a valuable (if unwitting) reminder that art can sometimes pale when compared with brilliantly executed trash.

28. Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 70% RT, 62 MC). Typically, the "based on a true story" tag doesn't mean much to me, but parts of Big Eyes are so bizarre that they practically demand post-viewing research to confirm that they actually happened. A wan Amy Adams stars as Margaret, a meek single mother who flees her husband—whose home appears to be located in the bright, eye-popping suburbia of Edward Scissorhands, one of the film's few Burton-y touches—and hightails it for San Francisco, where she hopes to make a living churning out portraits with exaggeratedly large eyeballs. There, she remarries to Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), a fellow painter who lacks Margaret's artistic talent but more than makes up for it with slick self-promotion. Walter initially appears to be charming, but we soon learn that he's a monstrous narcissist who forces Margaret to produce paintings only so he can take the credit. He's a terrifying screen villain made all the more mesmerizing by Waltz, who cannily shows how Walter's queasy salesmanship masks a brittle ego that gradually morphs into something demonic. And while Big Eyes is a jumble of tones—it veers from light comedy to domestic drama to horror movie—Burton wisely reins himself in and lets the absurdity of history do his work for him, most notably in an extended courtroom sequence that seems lifted right out of Woody Allen's Bananas. It's the kind of stuff that seems too ridiculous to be real, but with a flimflammer like Walter around, the definition of real is highly subjective.

27. Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 81% RT, 73 MC). Fame has its rewards, but also its poisons; even as it brings people wealth and power, it can rob them of their privacy and infect them with isolation and misery. That's the case for Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a tarted-up glam-girl who harbors dreams of a singing career but instead makes bank as a clichéd sex object in rap videos. She's so lost that early in Beyond the Lights, she tries to throw herself off her hotel balcony, only to be rescued by Kaz (Nate Parker), a straight-arrow cop with designs on political office. From there, Beyond the Lights follows their tentative romance against the backdrop of an especially virulent popular culture. As a love story, it's less than thrilling, mainly because Kaz is part-bore, part-scold. Beyond the Lights excels, however, as an incisive examination of modern celebrity, particularly in the context of the music industry, a breeding ground of sexism and exploitation. That's why the most fascinating relationship in the movie is not the one between Noni and Kaz but between Noni and her mother, Macy (a very good Minnie Driver). Does Macy simply want what's best for her daughter, or is she just another toxic manipulator preventing Noni from discovering her true calling? The answer is complicated, and Beyond the Lights is never better than when exploring the fraught history between these two strong-willed women—except, that is, when it's letting Mbatha-Raw flash her musical talent. (The film's most shattering scene features Noni delivering a naked, a cappella version of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" to a crowd of stunned onlookers.) Noni's story is compelling even in the abstract, but it's Mbatha-Raw's quiet, aching yearning that really makes this movie sing.

26. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 87% RT, 73 MC). "That doesn't happen anymore," Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) says early in Like Father, Like Son. "That" refers to the mishap of children being switched at birth, and Ryota's dumbfounded comment comes after he's been informed that his six-year-old son is actually someone else's child. He may be right, but the plausibility of this nightmarish scenario is beside the point. Like Father, Like Son is really a delicate fable about the rites and responsibilities of parenthood, and of the dueling forces of nature and nurture. A tireless white-collar executive, Ryota loves his son dearly, even if he is somewhat nonplussed by the boy's cheerful disposition, a passivity that chafes with his own cutthroat work ethic. So when he receives the life-altering news, he is understandably shocked, but he is also a bit... relieved? Would he be happier raising a child he never knew, secure in the knowledge that he's finally overseeing his own flesh and blood? Like Father, Like Son can be didactic in its themes—suffice it to say there is only one right answer to the preceding question—but Kore-eda handles his freighted material with sensitivity and compassion, observing his characters' response to this predicament but never judging them. Meanwhile, Fukuyama anchors the film, essaying a patriarch who is prideful to the point of being pathetic, but who is also confused, decent, and helpless. He just wants to resolve the situation logically, only to discover that logic doesn't always apply when it comes to children, or to fathers.

25. Noah (Darren Aronofsky, 77% RT, 68 MC). Who says The Bible can't be a blast? A gonzo marriage of The Ten Commandments and The Lord of the Rings, Noah is unlikely to be assigned as homework for Sunday School students. But Aronofsky, who demonstrated his talent for demented fantasy in the hypnotic Black Swan, is too focused on giddy entertainment to be bothered with literary accuracy, and Noah recognizes that The Bible can provide a sprawling canvas on which a gifted filmmaker can gleefully paint. Russell Crowe stars as the title prophet, and as he dutifully obeys God's message to construct an ark, the movie delivers a strangely literal first half; that ark may be a metaphorical monument, but it's also a massive physical undertaking, and Noah pays tribute to the labor and toil required to build something of such colossal significance. (Lest this sound dull, Aronofsky pauses halfway through the film to inform viewers of the seven-day creation of the world, an exhilarating sequence of fast-motion CGI conveyed with startling beauty and color.) It's when the rains come, however, that Noah becomes truly crazed and glorious. Noah's faith, which he follows with such blind devotion, comes into conflict with his humanity, and Crowe expertly conveys the roiling turmoil of a man who realizes he may be the villain of his own story. (Emma Watson, meanwhile, is supremely empathetic as Noah's adopted daughter.) It's a grand, wild ride, made all the more mesmerizing by Aronofsky's superlative craft and, more importantly, his earnest commitment. Noah doesn't make a lick of sense, but as that magnificent ark crashes among the waves while its passengers scheme of murder and sacrifice, you'll hardly care. It's enough to lend credence to the notion that The Bible really is the greatest story ever told.

24. Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, 93% RT, 87 MC). The upper-crust family of four in Force Majeure wants for nothing. On a leisurely ski vacation in the French Alps, they're initially seen posing for a picture, their relaxed smiles the embodiment of satisfaction and entitlement. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) playfully chides her husband, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), for spending too much time on his iPhone and neglecting their two children, but for the most part, they're in paradise. But then, something happens, and Tomas' devotion to his family—and perhaps his very manhood—is called into question. From there, Force Majeure plays out like a cutting comedy of manners, with Ebba and Tomas using polite conversation to mask the splintering cracks that are spreading across the foundation of their marriage. But even if Östlund's screenplay follows the blackly comic rhythms of a domestic drama, his direction—combined with the movie's elegant, precise framing and its repeated, blaring use of a Vivaldi concerto—suggests he's making a horror movie. The result is a rare and unpredictable film, one that makes you wince, then laugh, and then, ultimately, hold your breath.

More coming soon.

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