Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: #s 55-48

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)

Tier 7: Still Problematic, But Lots to Like

55. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (directed by Marc Webb, 53% Rotten Tomatoes, 53 Metacritic). Sam Raimi's seminal Spider-Man 2, this is not. The villains are boring, the action is uninspired, and the plot is stale. But I don't really care. The focus on character remains strong, and Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are so warm and natural as Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy that their romance feels grand. With most superhero movies, the character-building stuff is incidental, mere filler before the next big showstopping action sequence. This is the opposite. Hell, Webb barely seems to give a damn about his set pieces. But he does know his characters, and he wisely brings them to the fore. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a poor summer movie, but strip away the banal explosions and the splashy special effects, and it would play just fine at the art house.

54. A Walk Among the Tombstones (Scott Frank, 66% RT, 57 MC). Brutish, joyless, and sometimes just plain sick, A Walk Among the Tombstones is not cheerful stuff. But it does give Liam Neeson a chance to do some legitimate character work, and he's effective in playing a former cop who swills booze when he's not taking hopeless cases as a private investigator. He's kind of like Denzel Washington's character in The Equalizer, only he feels like a real person instead of a remorseless killing machine. Frank has no qualms with getting his hands dirty, and occasionally, the severity of A Walk Among the Tombstones' violence feels exploitative. But it's nevertheless compelling as the tale of a haunted man who's finally trying to do some good, if only as a way to get through the day.

53. Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 59% RT, 55 MC). Dom Hemingway is infantile, a schmaltzy redemption story with a half-baked plot and paper-thin supporting characters. But Dom Hemingway is also awesome, and that's because of, well, Dom Hemingway. More specifically, it's because Jude Law has such tremendous fun in the title role that you can't help getting swept up in the tidal wave of energy and enthusiasm that his performance wreaks. As with James McAvoy in Filth, Dom Hemingway allows Law to eschew his debonair persona in favor of something far more memorable and irresponsible. But Law brings real pathos to the part, portraying Dom as a hedonist who isn't a bad guy so much as an egotistical hothead whose bursts of rage repeatedly swallow his core humanity. With the exception of the always-reliable Richard E. Grant (as Dom's exasperated confidant), there's little reason to see Dom Hemingway beyond Law's performance. But that's plenty reason enough.

52. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 85% RT, 78 MC). Trust me on this: You've never seen a movie like Under the Skin. This is not entirely a good thing. Originality is important, but Glazer's defiance of cinematic norms is sometimes more off-putting than bracing. But even as Under the Skin's elliptical plot and utter strangeness keep you at a distance, its exotic beauty and haunting ambiance suck you in. So, too, does Scarlett Johansson, delivering the bravest and most challenging performance of her career as... well, I'm not entirely sure what she is. (Neither, apparently, were a number of the movie's non-actors, who didn't even know they were being filmed until later.) And try as I might, I can't quite say that this stark, monumentally ambitious movie ever clicks. But it is nevertheless arresting, and it whispers at greatness, even if those whispers are scarcely heard. Is it genius, or nonsense? I'm not sure I know, and I'm not sure that this striking, forbidding film really cares.

51. Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, 86% RT, 66 MC). Trust me on this: You've never seen a movie like Borgman. Wait, I just used that line. But where Under the Skin is chilly and dispassionate, Borgman is playful, funny, and at times just plain nuts. A demented satire of white privilege, the movie follows a woodland gypsy (Jan Bijvoet) who worms his way into the lives of an affluent European family, which is ruled by a callous businessman and his guilt-ridden wife. Part home-invasion thriller, part moralistic fable (think Michael Haneke's Funny Games crossed with The Pied Piper of Hamelin), it initially coasts on sheer weirdness, defying its audience to keep up with its absurdity. Its illogic is often quite amusing, whether it involves the title character—whose sunken eyes and filthy beard make him look crazed, at least until he suddenly transforms into a clean-cut civilian halfway through the film—telling parables to the family's children, or his confederates casually murdering anyone who crosses their path. Eventually, though, Borgman's lunacy grows from mystifying to merely tedious. When Borgman first knocks on the family's door, his arrival foretells their inexorable doom. Sadly, the longer the film goes on, the same sense of inevitability plagues Borgman.

50. The Double (Richard Ayoade, 82% RT, 68 MC). As with Enemy, The Double is a strange, often silly movie about two identical-looking people. Unlike Enemy, The Double is highly enjoyable. Part of that is due to Jesse Eisenberg's sly, crisply calculated dual portrayal; one of his characters is meek, pained, and unbearably awkward (in other words, he's Jesse Eisenberg), while the other is an assertive immoral lothario, and Eisenberg shrewdly plays up their differences without making either too extreme. But the real star here is Ayoade's craft. Clearly inspired by Terry Gilliam's Brazil, he's created a splendidly weird world, one where industry remains reliant on antiquated technology, everything is caked with soot, and all work seems to take place underground. The Double goes haywire in its third act, but even then, there's plenty of quirky analog beauty to behold.

49. Joe (David Gordon Green, 86% RT, 74 MC). Nicolas Cage is basically a meme at this point in his career, but when he's motivated, he's still capable of delivering a quality performance. He certainly does in Joe, playing a bulked-up ex-con who spends his days systematically poisoning trees for a developer (I'm not an environmentalist, but I'm fairly sure this is frowned upon) and his nights drinking and cavorting with prostitutes. What's interesting about Joe is that, notwithstanding his vicious temper and shady past, he's actually a pretty nice guy. Whether he's taking an abused teenage boy (Mud's Tye Sheridan) under his wing or just showing a neighbor how to skin a deer, he's gregarious and bighearted, except when he's kicking the shit out of a rookie cop who has the gall to pull him over for drunk driving. But while Joe is an intriguing contradiction, Joe is a muddled movie, as Green is unable to channel Cage's wild, dyspeptic energy into an interesting story. As it lurches toward its over-the-top conclusion, the film somehow becomes both melodramatic and rudderless. How ironic that Cage, that crazy bug-eyed actor, grounds the movie with his discipline, even as Green loses his way.

48. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 86% RT, 82 MC). Foxcatcher is a scary and moody work, with a palpable feeling of dread pervading every frame. But Miller relies so heavily on sinister implication that he never achieves dramatic coherence. All sorts of disturbing things happen in Foxcatcher, and that alone makes it compelling viewing. But the motivation behind the disturbance is left blank, and that blankness is an indicator less of deliberate ambiguity than artistic failure. Miller does coax superb performances out of his actors, particularly Steve Carell (as the awkward, muffled billionaire John du Pont) and Channing Tatum (as Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz). And some of the wrestling scenes have a quiet beauty, particularly when Mark grapples with his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo, equally good) while the camera watches impassively, or when John, with pitiful eagerness, attempts to train virile athletes under the gaze of his disapproving mother. There's much to admire here, and the individual pieces of Foxcatcher suggest a strange, plaintive tragedy. But try to add them all up, and it just turns to smoke.

More coming soon.

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