Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: #s 63-56

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)

Tier 8: Enjoyable, Unmemorable

63. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (directed by Peter Jackson, 60% Rotten Tomatoes, 59 Metacritic). The last and weakest of the three Hobbit movies, The Battle of the Five Armies doesn't suffer for lack of ambition. Jackson wants this to be the stirring conclusion to an epic trilogy, and in a number of ways, he delivers. He still displays a sure hand with spectacle, and several of the action sequences are invigorating, particularly the one-on-one skirmishes late in the film. (My favorite moment involves Orlando Bloom effortlessly leaping from a crumbling sheet of ice, like a practiced gymnast dismounting the uneven bars.) But the scenes of mass carnage are dull, CGI-laden bombast, and there are few valuable characters, especially with the role of Bilbo Baggins (the terrific Martin Freeman) minimized. Jackson wants us to care deeply about a small band of dwarves, which is fine in concept. But he'd fare better if he differentiated them enough so that his audience could tell them apart.

62. Ernest & Celestine (St├ęphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner, 97% RT, 86 MC). Slight and sweet, Ernest & Celestine is the mildly enchanting tale of the friendship between a plucky mouse and a misunderstood bear. It's notable for its restraint; it doesn't pander, nor does it lather on excess sentimentality. But take away the delicate hand-drawn animation and the intriguing depiction of the mice's underground society (a land where order and fear rule the day), and all that remains is a wispy story that fades shortly after watching it. There's a genuine sweetness to the movie that's hard to fake, but also a lack of substance that's hard to ignore.

61. The Equalizer (Antoine Fuqua, 61% RT, 57 MC). Taken literally, The Equalizer is deeply disturbing. Its casual sadism is thoughtless and grotesque, while its veneration of vigilantism is even more troubling. But there is undeniable, vicarious pleasure to be had in watching Denzel Washington annihilate a multitude of Russian mobsters. Washington's range as an actor is disputable, and his character here—with the exception of a wonderfully sudden soft-shoe routine—is disappointingly flat. But few performers are better at exuding supreme competence, and for its entertaining first hour, The Equalizer generates great mileage in simply watching Washington tap into his reservoir of unflappable cool as Robert, a solitary man with a mysterious past and an even more ominous wristwatch. But if Washington is occasionally subtle, the same cannot be said of Fuqua, whose insistence on a tone of dour seriousness drains the movie of its vitality. Robert's invulnerability eventually grows tiresome, and the film's outrageous, extended finale—in which Robert executes a number of nameless bad guys with a power drill and other home-improvement tools—resembles a series of videogame battles more than a movie. Robert seemingly can't be killed, but his director does his best to murder the movie anyway.

60. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 96% RT, 77 MC). Blue Ruin is a gritty revenge fable that indulges in its share of genre pleasures: blunt violence, contemptible heavies, creeping suspense. The twist here is that the hero, Dwight (Macon Blair), is alarmingly incompetent in fulfilling his role as righteous avenger. It's a clever modification, and it makes for some compelling set pieces, as when Dwight haplessly attempts to booby-trap his own house. But after a time, Blue Ruin's taut, white-knuckle mood recedes, and Saulnier seems to become as confused as his protagonist. He's a young filmmaker, and like Dwight, he dives into his plan without sufficient forethought. Fortunately, unlike Dwight, he'll get another chance.

59. We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 97% RT, 87 MC). Can girls who know nothing about music start a band? Sure, why not? The tender story of three girls who channel their frustration with the world into punk rock, We Are the Best! is a bit aimless, and it doesn't really go anywhere in particular. But as he demonstrated in the sublime Show Me Love, Moodysson possesses a keen understanding of teenagers and their rambunctious desires to fit in, act out, and generally just make a mess. Two of the band members here are not especially talented musicians, and We Are the Best!, for all its insight and compassion, is not an especially good movie. But it does capture, with warmth and specificity, the unique turbulence of adolescence.

58. Kill the Messenger (Michael Cuesta, 77% RT, 60 MC). Kill the Messenger tells the story of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a Sacramento journalist who wrote an explosive article about the connection between the United States' crack-cocaine epidemic and the government's arms sales to Nicaragua. Investigative journalism is as much about research as it is writing, but while Kill the Messenger is overflowing with characters and information, Cuesta struggles to streamline everything into a coherent narrative. Nor do oblique references to Webb's shoddy personal life make much of an impact. (If you're going to cast an actress as good as Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb's wife, at least give her something to do.) But Renner is persuasive as a self-destructive man on a mission, and he receives our sympathy even while eliciting our outrage. Indeed, the most powerful aspect of Kill the Messenger is its anger. It may not have its facts perfectly aligned, but it does communicate the passion—and the tragedy—behind those facts.

57. Unbroken (Angelina Jolie, 49% RT, 59 MC). Unbroken works like gangbusters, until it doesn't work at all. The triumphant true story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell, steady), it begins with some unfortunate flashbacks to his days as an Olympic athlete. When it returns to its World War II present, however, it sharpens its focus, especially once Zamperini's bomber crashes into the Pacific Ocean. The story of man versus wilderness is inherently gripping, and Jolie's unvarnished style bluntly articulates the terror of trying to survive in a pathetic life raft while surrounded by nothing but vast blue water (not to mention enemy aircraft and hungry sharks). But once Zamperini finds himself in a Japanese prison camp, the movie becomes unrelentingly grim. Zamperini's story of perseverance may be heroic, but in Jolie's hands, it's also oddly impersonal, reducing him to a saintly cipher rather than a particular person. It doesn't help that his struggles with a sadistic commandant feels like a pale echo of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Much of Roger Deakins' cinematography is hauntingly beautiful, but Jolie needed to turn his painterly compositions into cinema. Unbroken feels more like a still-life.

(That said, any trailer that features both M83 and the score from Beasts of the Southern Wild scores points with me. Take a look:)

56. Begin Again (John Carney, 83% RT, 62 MC). As with We Are the Best!, Begin Again pays tribute to the power of music, only instead of being sloppy and improvised, its compositions are manufactured and precise. And as a movie, Begin Again is fairly obvious, with its scolding rebuke of the modern music scene and its familiar evocation of lost love. But even if it breaks no new ground, Begin Again is thoroughly, irresistibly pleasant. Mark Ruffalo is effortlessly appealing as a maverick producer, and Keira Knightley is equally delightful as a winsome songwriter just trying to survive in a cold, cruel business. And while it lacks the intimacy of Carney's Once, Begin Again retains that film's joyous spirit, along with its evident pleasure in the process of music-making. The song may remain the same, but the artists creating the song are pure charmers.

More coming soon.

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