Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: #s 47-40

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)

Tier 6: Getting the Job Done

47. The Wind Rises (directed by Hayao Miyazaki, 89% Rotten Tomatoes, 83 Metacritic). "I just want to make beautiful airplanes," Jirô Horikoshi laments in The Wind Rises. And so he did, and those beautiful airplanes went on to kill a lot of people during World War II. But Miyazaki is not a scold, and he is not particularly concerned with history. What really interests him is creative ambition, and The Wind Rises is a powerful paean to the nobility of hard work and innovation. His animation is typically delicate and gorgeous, which works to intriguing effect here, given that he's drawing not fantastical creatures (as in Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away) but rigid, metallic aircraft. But Miyazaki locates the poetry in Jirô's clean and angular designs, even as he also takes time to explore the melancholy permeating his relationship with a sickly love interest. The Wind Rises is not as imaginative as Miyazaki's best work, nor is it as exhilarating. But it is lovely, and even if Jirô's airplanes were ultimately warped into tools of destruction, this elegiac tale of their invention feels entirely pure.

46. Nymphomaniac: Volume I (Lars von Trier, 75% RT, 64 MC). Don't worry, the first half of von Trier's maniacal opus is just as lunatic and offensive as the second. But here's the surprising bit: It's fun. Von Trier is a punishing filmmaker, but here he actually seems to be enjoying himself, and despite his best efforts, that enjoyment bleeds through to his audience. The obvious highlight is Uma Thurman (on fire in her single scene as a female cuckold), but the real find is Stacy Martin, a debut performer whose natural, unaffected air is the perfect counterpoint to von Trier's aggressive zaniness. Parts of Nymphomaniac: Volume I are as inane as anything von Trier has ever made. But for the first time in years, there's some pleasure to be had in watching him go nuts.

45. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, 65% RT, 64 MC). Cleaving the final installment of Suzanne Collins' trilogy into two parts may have made economic sense, but it doomed Lawrence from the start. There's just very little to work with here, and apart from some interesting ideas about manipulating its heroine into a propaganda machine, Mockingjay—Part 1 seems to run in place, never generating any real momentum until its finale. Still, it's a professional production, and Lawrence's craft elevates the inferior source material, as do his committed performers. Philip Seymour Hoffman, an ungainly fit in Catching Fire, is terrific here, as are Elizabeth Banks (providing some much-needed levity) and newcomer Natalie Dormer (sparking the screen with those electric-blue eyes). Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence continues to carry the franchise, flawlessly conveying Katniss Everdeen's cowering fear as well as her blistering defiance. And the film finally comes alive in its last 20 minutes, delivering a suspenseful raid sequence that's inspired in its canny cross-cutting. Mockingjay—Part 1 lumbers for far too long, and while it's conceptually intriguing, it rarely works as cinema. But as its conclusion shows—and as Katniss understands—there's reason to hope for the future.

44. Top Five (Chris Rock, 89% RT, 81 MC). Standup comedy isn't about narrative. It's about leaping from bit to bit, never relinquishing your grip on the audience's attention. Top Five, Rock's jumpy, sporadically brilliant third feature, attempts to translate the rhythms of standup to the screen. It fails as often as it succeeds. The movie has a ton going on, and its organization is an absolute mess. Flashbacks pop up suddenly, characters arrive from out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly, and the whole thing feels like it was assembled at random, like someone hit the "Shuffle" button on a playlist. But on a micro level, Top Five works, partly because it can be very funny, and partly because there's real chemistry between Rock and Rosario Dawson, who's excellent as a curious reporter with her own problems. Rock's pointed barbs at celebrity culture are a bit rote, and his insights into America's racial dynamics are less scathing than they once were. But he's shrewdly self-deprecating as well as angry, and Top Five has an authentic, lived-in feel that's tough to fake. It may not journey anywhere in particular, but the road trip is still worth taking.

43. The Boxtrolls (Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, 74% RT, 61 MC). Laika Entertainment makes some of the strangest, most original movies around, which is why the ordinariness of The Boxtrolls' story is a severe letdown. A young boy called Eggs is raised underground by a tribe of boxy scavengers who are wrongly accused of terrorizing the neighborhood's children, when they're really just playful beings who are fascinated by junk. It's basically The Nightmare Before Christmas crossed with Elf, and Eggs' journey of self-discovery is far too familiar to resonate with any triumph. Nevertheless, The Boxtrolls shines in its wondrous, weird details, from the lovingly textured stop-motion animation—a product of unmistakable sweat and affection (see the post-credits sequence for proof)—to the dystopian aboveground society, with its aristocrats clad in white hats who are obsessed with sampling fine cheeses. And while Eggs is a bland hero, the movie's villains are fascinating, particularly Lord Portley-Rind, a civic leader who's less interested in his own daughter than he is in brie and gouda, and the nefarious Snatcher, a sadistic social climber who desperately wishes to join the white hats even though he's allergic to cheese. And then there are Snatcher's bemused henchmen, who consistently ponder things like whether they're actually the bad guys, or whether boxtrolls "understand the duality of good and evil". Their clever banter helps elevate The Boxtrolls from a whimsical trifle to something odd and memorable.

42. Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée, 91% RT, 76 MC). In 1995, Cheryl Strayed walked a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail and, in the process, changed her life. Wild, adapted from Strayed's popular memoir, faces the unenviable task of condensing her three-month journey into a two-hour film that must somehow encapsulate Cheryl's epiphany and translate it into the language of cinema. Vallée certainly does his damnedest, regularly interrupting Cheryl's trek with images that are less formal flashbacks than jagged images of memory, the pain of which are underscored through frenetic editing. Wild's frantic visual style is designed to mirror Cheryl's own tortured thoughts as she clambers solitarily up mountains and across deserts. It's a valiant approach, but it doesn't really work. We learn that Cheryl (played by Reese Witherspoon) used to be a mess, but we never understand why her walk is so profoundly meaningful or how she changes as a person along the way. That said, Wild has a lot going for it, most notably Witherspoon, who refuses to make Cheryl heroic and thus makes her more appealing, even when her behavior is appalling. It also exhibits an appreciation not just for nature but for the nutcases who follow the Trail, detailing the spirit of community that binds them. Cheryl means something to them. And thanks to Witherspoon, even if we can't fully comprehend her journey, she means something to us too.

41. Big Hero 6 (Don Hall and Chris Williams, 88% RT, 74 MC). For its first hour, this caffeinated blend of Pixar and Marvel is smart, breezy fun, with gorgeous design work (it's set in a global metropolis called San Fransokyo) and snappy writing. It also takes the rare step of exalting intellectual research; although the movie's protagonist, child prodigy Hiro, initially shuns education, he finds his mind blown when visiting an elite scientific university, thus making school look cool. Most significantly, Big Hero 6 introduces the landmark character of Baymax, a bulky, pillowy robot who looks like the Michelin Man and who's more concerned with assuaging Hiro's grief than with piloting an aircraft or punching out a bad guy. It's a shame, then, that the movie transforms into a shambling superhero yarn, an Avengers Lite for teenagers. Baymax is too unique, and too preoccupied with feeling, to be wasted on something as humdrum as an action climax. That he indulges Hiro's desires only because it makes the boy happy suggests he knows this. With any luck, before Big Hero 7 rolls around, Hall and Williams will figure it out as well.

40. The Babadook (directed by Jennifer Kent, 97% RT, 87 MC). The Babadook is scary, the same way any horror movie can be scary. Its opening act is a capable, formulaic escalation of tension, with Kent briskly establishing both her setting (a spare suburban house in a too-pleasant Australian neighborhood) and her main characters, including Amelia, a harried single mother (a terrific Essie Davis), and Samuel, her unstable six-year-old son (Noah Wiseman, unapologetically obnoxious). And its conclusion is a suitably horrifying nightmare, with Kent delivering scares both visual (as when the phantom of the title takes disturbing, literal shape) and aural (the film's sound design is ingenious). It's well-done, but it's nothing new. What's really interesting about The Babadook—and what makes it the rare horror movie that lingers rather than dissipates—is its middle passage, during which Amelia becomes increasingly unreliable. She is undoubtedly the film's heroine, but could she also be its villain? The more frayed her nerves get, the more unpredictable and dangerous she appears to be, to the point that she becomes even more frightening than the spectral being that's haunting her and her son. But surely she wouldn't harm Samuel, no matter how much he grates on her. She's a mother who unconditionally loves her child and would do anything to protect him. She'd never hurt him... would she?

More coming soon.

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