Monday, January 12, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: #s 39-32

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)

Tier 5: Stimulating the Senses, and the Brain

39. Calvary (directed by John Michael McDonagh, 89% Rotten Tomatoes, 77 Metacritic). Priests are supposed to provide solace, but in the stark, wintry universe of Calvary, there's only so much Father James can do. Played with the perfect combination of decency and world-weariness by Brendan Gleeson (he was equally brilliant, if wildly different, in McDonagh's prior feature, The Guard), Father James wants desperately to think the best of his congregation, even when it repeatedly gives him reason to think otherwise. In the movie's stunning opening scene, with McDonagh framing Gleeson in unbroken close-up, an anonymous parishioner informs Father James through the confessional that he intends to murder him in a week's time. From there, you might anticipate Calvary to proceed as a thriller or a mystery, but it's really a gentle character study, watching quietly as Father James tends his flock. It isn't half-as-entertaining as The Guard, and it doesn't succeed as completely; its supporting characters are uneven (though Aiden Gillen shines as an acerbic doctor), and its bleak mood eventually grows oppressive. But Calvary works as an intimate portrait of a tired, noble man. After watching it, you may not recall much about the other inhabitants of Father James' chilly Irish town. But you'll remember the man in the black cassock with the wounded soul.

38. Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, 78% RT, 62 MC). "I'm a marshmallow," Veronica announces at the beginning of Veronica Mars, your opinion of which will almost certainly hinge on your appreciation of that self-identifying statement. If you find yourself puzzled why this perky blond lawyer is comparing herself to a popular campfire dessert, that sense of bemusement will only mutate into irritation as you follow this shaggy-dog detective story, with its innumerable characters and threadbare plot. But if you belong to the group of enthusiasts who turned the weekly adventures of a teenage private-eye into one of the premier cult television properties of the prior decade—if you, yourself, are a marshmallow—then you'll be enchanted by this wry, playful story of a dogged sleuth and her gang of plucky pals. The ultimate exercise in fan service (it was funded by Kickstarter, after all), Veronica Mars isn't a very interesting movie on its own terms. There's a murder mystery, and some other intrigue, but it's mostly just an excuse to hang out with old friends. That's just fine with me, especially given the vivacity that Kristen Bell brings to the title role, whether it's sparring with her old beau, Logan (Jason Dohring), or trading good-natured insults with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni, one of the all-time great TV dads). It's all very familiar, and Veronica Mars is little more than an extra-long episode of a beloved TV series. In other words, marshmallows couldn't be happier.

37. Lucy (Luc Besson, 66% RT, 61 MC). My problem with Superman was that I always figured he'd be bored. He's so much faster, tougher, and more powerful than the rest of us that his sheer invulnerability renders any human task effortless for him. It's like playing a videogame on the easiest difficulty level—if the computer can barely fight back, what's the point? But Lucy toys with this concept in odd, interesting ways, making it less of an action thriller than a metaphysical think-piece. Scarlett Johansson stars as a floozy who gets roped into some nasty business with Taiwanese gangsters and ends up ingesting a revolutionary drug that turns her superhuman. A lesser, more straightforward film would then watch as Lucy used her newfound powers to enact vengeance on her captors. Lucy does that to an extent, but it's more interested in how an extraordinary being would actually behave in our mundane, ordinary world. And so, Lucy calls her mother and breaks down while recollecting her infancy in exacting detail, and she ponders her place in our dimensions of time and space. It doesn't always work, but it is always fascinating. Of course, Besson is still an action filmmaker, and Lucy has its share of set pieces, but they unfold with startling unpredictability, most notably when Lucy immobilizes a cadre of foes out of mere curiosity. Once Besson's heroine is transformed, she no longer has to play by the rules of contemporary entertainment. Gratifyingly, neither does he.

36. Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller, 73% RT, 68 MC). For the most part, you know what you're going to get from Neighbors. It's consistently funny, indulging in a wide variety of humor, from awkward sexual situations to uncanny Robert De Niro impressions to dick jokes. It features a typically sharp performance from Seth Rogen as Mac, a man whose propensity for collegiate behavior is flecked with desperation. And despite its insistent outrageousness, it's thoroughly sweet and old-fashioned, ultimately endorsing the traditional norms of monogamy, honesty, and all-around niceness. But what's noteworthy about Neighbors is its surprisingly sincere depiction of the institution of marriage. In most stoner-age comedies, the wife is the villain, a wet blanket who constantly needles her husband and prevents him from doing the one thing he enjoys most: hanging out with his buds. But in Neighbors, Rose Byrne's portrayal of Kelly, Mac's spouse, is so inspired and bracing that it feels revolutionary. She's funny, she's vulgar, and she has the exact same childish and selfish desires as he does. It's a performance that taps into the film's smart and reciprocal representation of matrimony, illustrating it not as a soul-sucking void but as a hard-fought partnership. Boys will be boys, and Neighbors gets by just fine on crass humor and gleeful impropriety. But it's by adding Kelly into the mix that the movie really becomes a party.

35. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois, 92% RT, 76 MC). Animation is so accomplished these days that commenting on the quality of the craft almost feels rote. But the visual palette of How to Train Your Dragon 2 really is extraordinary, especially when the film takes to the skies and captures the thrilling rush of freewheeling flight. That sense of improvised wonder doesn't quite carry over to the rest of the movie, which expectedly but effectively expands the mythology of the first installment. If the former film was a slight but enjoyable tale of self-discovery and friendship, this sequel feels bigger and bolder, featuring more colorful dragons, more glorious worlds, and, most of all, more darkness. Parts of How to Train Your Dragon 2 are legitimately scary, never more so than when Toothless—that sleek, lovable, blessedly silent black beast with the inquiring eyes and tender heart—gets his brain hijacked, turning him from a loyal friend into an unblinking dispenser of death. The film's ultimate resolution is fairly pat, and for the most part, How to Train Your Dragon 2 operates per the studio playbook. But DeBlois nevertheless shows a willingness to shake things up, and that rebelliousness bodes well for the third (and supposedly final) entry in the franchise. As for the second, as beautiful and precise as this movie is, it's never more intriguing than when it's coloring outside the lines.

34. Burning Bush (Agnieszka Holland, 100% RT, 83 MC). A grim, unsettling portrait of the grinding gears of tyranny, Burning Bush is not your typical polemic. Running nearly four hours (it initially aired as a three-part miniseries for HBO Europe), this based-in-fact story opens in 1968 with a Czechoslovakian student setting himself on fire in protest of the Soviet occupation. From there, Burning Bush takes its time, circling its numerous characters as though trying to decide who's important. It's a somewhat blurry approach, and it takes awhile before the main story—involving the defamation lawsuit of a government official who disparaged the motives of the deceased student—eventually emerges. That's a problem, but not a crippling one, because the specific faces here don't really matter. Burning Bush is really about the mechanics by which an autocracy stamps out the slightest spark of citizen unrest. Its heroes are not triumphant rebels, merely a weary lawyer and a defeated detective. Its villains, meanwhile, are not sinister spies but officious bureaucrats, dutifully operating the machinery of repression and injustice. (In the film's most sobering scene, a judge is handed a pre-made copy of a verdict she is supposed to render herself.) Burning Bush may not create many memorable characters, but that's almost fitting for a film about an unstoppable force that is, by definition, chillingly faceless.

33. The Drop (MichaĆ«l R. Roskam, 89% RT, 68 MC). In his opening voiceover for the sharp, seedy crime thriller The Drop, protagonist Bob succinctly informs us of the night-to-night operations of the Brooklyn underworld, then concludes by saying, "I just tend bar." Sure you do, Bob. But given that this noir-ish picture (based on a Dennis Lehane short story) seethes with buried secrets and hidden agendas—and given that Bob is played by Tom Hardy with characteristic mysteriousness—you can be sure that Bob is no ordinary bartender. What he is, however, is not made immediately clear, and the pleasure of The Drop lies in the way its potboiler elements gradually unfold within an idiosyncratic, oddly detailed landscape. There is violence and suspense, yes, but there are also Bob's sustained efforts to rehabilitate a discarded pit bull with the help of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and his tense, unnerving conversations with Nadia's unpredictable ex-boyfriend, Eric (the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in Roskam's Bullhead). Like most adaptations of Lehane's fiction, The Drop is grungy and dank, with an ominous atmosphere soaked in human ugliness. But it is also surprisingly warm, peculiar, and even—thanks to Hardy's sly, enigmatic performance—humane.

32. The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 79% RT, 72 MC). Stephen Hawking is a genius, which explains why making a biopic detailing his exploits is particularly challenging. Hawking's contributions to astrophysics are renowned, but they're also far too technical to make sense to laymen. As such, Marsh struggles to communicate anything of substance regarding Hawking's breakthroughs—watching others comment on Hawking's general brilliance doesn't help us understand his actual discoveries. That's OK though, because The Theory of Everything is less about Hawking's work than about his life, specifically his strained, complicated marriage to Jane. The movie initially appears to be a love-conquers-all story in the vein of A Beautiful Mind, but it proves itself to be messier and trickier than that. That's why, as impressive as Eddie Redmayne is in expressing Hawking's whip-smart mind and crumbling body, the real star of The Theory of Everything is Felicity Jones as Jane. Is it despicable that she should respond to her husband's disease with fear and resentment rather than kindness and devotion? It's hard to say, and Jones portrays Jane's predicament with devastating anguish and self-doubt. Despite Hawking's pioneering research into black holes, The Theory of Everything doesn't have much to say about the larger universe, but it's uncommonly insightful in its depiction of the frail bonds of love.

More coming soon.

No comments: