Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: The Missing Pictures (Part I)

Last month, the Manifesto began a Herculean undertaking: We decided to rank every movie we watched in 2014. At the time of our first post on the subject, we'd seen 92 releases from the 2014 theatrical year. We've since ranked the first 82 of those, with the top 10 still to come. In the meantime, however, I've watched an additional 13 films from 2014—some in theaters because their limited-release 2014 run didn't reach me until 2015, some via Netflix and Amazon Prime. For the sake of completeness, I feel it's only appropriate to add these into our ongoing rankings.

As such, our next three posts will look at "The Missing Pictures": those movies that I was unable to watch before formally compiling these rankings but that I'm nevertheless shoehorning into the final list. In theory, this exercise could continue indefinitely; thanks to the power of the home-viewing market, I expect to be watching 2014 releases for the foreseeable future. But I need to cut the cord at some point, and with one regrettable exception, I've now seen virtually all critically acclaimed films from last year. (That exception, of course, is the Dardenne Brothers' Two Days, One Night, as it's yet to arrive at a theater in Denver despite Marion Cotillard's Oscar nomination. Thanks a lot, IFC.) And so, next week we'll present our finalized list of the Best Movies of 2014.

But first, enjoy these next three posts. As before, we'll be presenting the movies in ascending order of quality. Unlike before, when we proceeded in ruthlessly linear fashion, there will obviously be some sizable gaps in the numbers this time around.

85. Cold in July (directed by Jim Mickle, 85% Rotten Tomatoes, 73 Metacritic). The opening act of Cold in July plays like gangbusters. It begins with Richard (a mulleted Michael C. Hall) waking in the dead of night after hearing a noise, fumbling for his revolver, and then killing an intruder almost by accident. It's a gripping sequence, and the immediate aftermath is equally absorbing. Richard is hailed as a hero in his small Texas town, but he's fairly sheepish about the whole thing, and his mood hardly improves when he discovers that the dead man's father, Ben, is an ex-con who's just been released from prison. (Nor can it soothe his mind that Ben is played with oozing menace by Sam Shepard.) At this point, Cold in July recalls Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin, and it appears set to tell a durable, chilling tale of an overmatched everyman attempting to outwit a ruthless and sinister villain.

But Cold in July declines to follow that well-worn path, a choice that could be to its credit, if the path that it did follow weren't so stupefyingly dumb. Richard and Ben somehow wind up joining forces—apparently that whole incident where Ben broke into Richard's house and threatened to kill his son is water under the bridge—and they collaborate with a jocular private eye named Jim Bob (Don Johnson, enjoying himself). From there, Cold in July abandons not only plausibility but suspense, turning into a schlocky gore-fest of frontier justice. It's a pity, because Mickle shows promise at building tension and uncertainty, and in Cold in July's early stages, you question where it might be going. But once this ugly movie starts trafficking in exploitation and sleaze, the only thing you're left wondering is when it's going to end.

77. Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, 77% RT, 66 MC). No one speaks in Moebius, but that doesn't mean nothing happens. Boy, do things happen. It opens with a father and mother (Jo Jae-hyeon and Lee Eun-woo, respectively) grappling with one another while their teenage son (Seo Young-ju) watches impassively. After the father goes out and bangs his mistress (also played by Lee), the mother enacts her revenge by—wait for it—castrating their son, then swallowing the fruits of her labor.

Had enough yet? Don't worry, there's plenty more. (Seriously, this all takes place within the movie's first 10 minutes.) But if you can get past Moebius' utter grotesqueness—which isn't easy, given that the movie is unashamedly revolting—it eventually becomes a demented sort of fun, just waiting to see what sort of sexually depraved lunacy Kim can cook up next. (Think you've seen all forms of foreplay? Try stabbing your partner in the shoulder. Did you know men can orgasm simply by rubbing a rock back and forth across their feet at extreme speed? You do now.) I'd like to say there's more to it, but while there are some echoes of Oedipus in the plot, and The Great Gatsby makes a brief appearance in paperback, Moebius isn't looking to enter the literary canon. It just wants to provoke, and it does so through increasingly preposterous, twinned spectacles of sex and violence. Depending on your tolerance, it's either grossly intriguing or just plain gross, but it's empty either way. Maybe it actually means something, but if Kim has hidden any metaphor about sex or parenting in here, he's buried it beneath the sickness and absurdity. In the end, Moebius offers only one valuable life lesson: If you're going to masturbate while your mother is home, lock the door.

59. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, 93% RT, 82 MC). The lake looks like a slice of paradise, the sunlight glinting off its bright blue water. It's the idyllic vacation spot, only instead of a destination for families, it's a haven for cruising. Men amble across its rocky beach, lounging carelessly on towels before heading into the neighboring woods for some casual sex. Not just any sex, mind you, as Stranger by the Lake is pornographic in its explicit carnality. It's an approach that could be deemed provocative—Guiraudie would no doubt contend that he's defying arbitrary cinematic taboos—even if it also feels accusatory and distracting. In any event, Stranger by the Lake shambles along for a time, watching as Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps, recalling a young Ethan Hawke) samples the beach's wares while eyeing Michel (Christophe Paou), a ruggedly handsome man with powerful swimming strokes and a fearsome moustache. One evening, however, Franck spies from a distance as Michel drowns another man in the lake. It's a terrific sequence, filmed in a single shot with Hitchcockian flair; the camera assumes Franck's point of view, forcing us to squint into the distance to make out the crime, then sharpening its focus as Michel swims ashore.

From there, Franck must reconcile his mounting obsession for Michel with his knowledge that the man is a murderer. And Stranger by the Lake has its own dueling impulses to reconcile. It seeks to be both a stimulating study of desire and a nerve-wracking thriller, but it doesn't quite work as either. We're supposed to sympathize with Franck's agonizing predicament, but his behavior often feels ridiculous, while his friendly conversations with Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), a potbellied loner, feel transplanted from a different movie altogether. (Also: Do any of these men have jobs? Are they all on vacation at the same time?) That said, Guiraudie showcases impressive genre chops, creating scenes of escalating dread through steady photography and dim lighting. (When night falls on the lake, its ambiance shifts from tranquil to chilling.) Ultimately, Stranger by the Lake is a lot like its title character, Michel. It's eye-catching and alluring, but something about it just seems off.

56. Love Is Strange (Ira Sachs, 94% RT, 82 MC). It's virtually impossible to dislike Love Is Strange, a gentle, sensitive love story of two people kept apart through cruelty and circumstance. It opens with the long-awaited wedding of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), finally gaining legal recognition of their 39-year partnership. It's a ceremony that comes at a cost, however, as George is swiftly fired from his job teaching music at a Catholic school. (In the film's angriest and most bitter scene, a school official conveys the news, then asks George to pray with him; George responds, with barely controlled fury, that he'd rather pray alone.) Deprived of George's salary, the couple can no longer pay their rent and must live separately to make ends meet, leading Ben to move in with his nephew while George crashes on the couch with some neighborly friends.

From there, Love Is Strange idles in low gear. It observes with clarity how interloping family members can disrupt a home's dynamic, as when Ben's propensity for chitchat irritates his niece by marriage, stay-at-home artist Kate (an effectively low-key Marisa Tomei). But its restlessness can grow frustrating, especially when Sachs bizarrely shifts his focus to the erratic behavior of Ben's great-nephew, Joey. The problem with Love Is Strange is that, while its best and most intimate moments occur when Ben and George are together—a late scene of the two men reminiscing in a bar is powerful and surprising—its narrative conspires to keep them apart. That speaks eloquently to the injustice visited upon the two men, and to the extent Sachs seeks to upbraid society for its prejudices, he succeeds. It's just that he does so in a way that is fundamentally dissatisfying. Ben and George deserved better, both for their sakes, and for ours.

54. White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki, 48% RT, 49 MC). "You scratch the surface, and there's just more surface," Kat says early in White Bird in a Blizzard. She's talking about her empty-headed boyfriend, Phil—a hunky dimwit who's fond of glorious malapropisms such as "It's a vicious circus" and "Cut me some slacks"—yet her comment is less a criticism than an observation. (In this, it evokes Kathleen Turner's famous come-on from Body Heat: "You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.") But if Phil is exactly what meets the eye, the same can't be said of White Bird in a Blizzard, a movie that has plenty going on beneath the surface—perhaps too much. A strange, often ungainly amalgamation of coming-of-age story and mystery, it's a movie that seems unsure of where to go, so it veers wildly in all directions. Principally, it's about the relationship between Kat (Shailene Woodley, cutting her usual grace with shards of petulance) and her mother, Eve (Eva Green, wacked-out but consistently mesmerizing), who disappears during the film's prologue.

Kat informs us all of this, and loads more, in a needless voiceover that tells us nothing Woodley can't convey with a flash of her eyes or a shrug of her shoulders. But while White Bird in a Blizzard's narrative is both too messy (it pinballs around uncontrollably) and too tidy (it holds our hand every step of the way), it remains an engrossing experience. Araki has a great eye (not to mention an ear for kickass '80s synth anthems), and much of the film, especially its early scenes, is gorgeously composed, with exacting framing and exotic use of lighting and color. (The movie's numerous dream sequences feel truly dreamlike.) And even if Kat's story is a muddle, Kat herself is a marvel, thanks to Woodley's assured, dynamic performance. Proving she can play naughty as well as nice, she portrays Kat as prickly, sexually assertive, and generally cocksure, even if it's all clearly an act to mask her trembling vulnerability. As with Phil, Kat is a looker, but they're nothing alike. You scratch her surface, and she bleeds.

Coming Thursday: Part II of The Missing Pictures. And if you've missed it, here are our previous posts ranking the movies of 2014:

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)
Nos. 31-24 (Tier 4)
Nos. 23-17 (Tier 3)
Nos. 16-11: The Honorable Mentions

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