Monday, February 9, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 10 & 9: Locke; The LEGO Movie

After having analyzed 95 different 2014 releases over the past month and change, we arrive at last at the top 10. We'll be splitting these into five separate posts of two movies each, with the top two titles dropping on Friday.

10. Locke (directed by Steven Knight, 91% Rotten Tomatoes, 81 Metacritic). He just can't stop talking about the traffic. Ivan Locke is cruising down the motorway in his BMW late at night while chatting nonstop via his Bluetooth, and he has a lot on his mind. He's hurtling at high speeds toward a hospital so he can be present for the birth of his third child, but the woman he's meeting isn't his wife, it's his mistress, Bethan (Olivia Colman). He's abandoning his lucrative position as lead architect on a high-profile project that's about to break ground, and he needs to constantly provide instructions to his panicky associate. And he has to call his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), to inform her that he won't be home for dinner because nine months ago, he and a coworker split a bottle of wine and fell into bed. This is a man whose life is disintegrating as his Beamer flies past one mile marker to the next. Yet whenever he finds himself speaking with Bethan, he acts less like an expectant father than a news reporter. She tells him she loves him; he responds, "I should be there in an hour—the traffic is very good."

This is not the behavior of a normal man, and in structural and visual terms, Locke is not a normal movie. It takes place entirely within the luxurious, claustrophobic confines of that BMW, and while Locke converses with a half-dozen different people over the course of his solitary drive, he's the only person to appear on screen. It's a dangerous gambit that could be a death sentence, but thankfully for Locke, its title character is played by Tom Hardy, who's on the short list for greatest actor alive. A vocal chameleon, Hardy's mastery of dialect cements him as the heir apparent to Daniel Day-Lewis; here, he adopts a Welsh accent that meticulously enunciates every round vowel and clipped consonant. But this is no mere gimmicky oral performance. Hardy never leaves the driver's seat, but in his pained expressions and too-patient line readings, he fashions Locke as an intensely precise individual who is also helplessly self-destructive. He's a man so consumed with minutiae and exactitude that he refuses to acknowledge the utter chaos that's enveloping him. In his conversations with his wife, his mistress, and his associate, he maintains an unflappably pragmatic tone, never wavering in the conviction of his decisions. He is at once ruthlessly sensible and completely delusional.

As you might suspect, not much of substance happens in Locke. Though Knight shoots the BMW from a variety of angles, the streetlamps streaming light through the windshield, he doesn't do all that much to artificially enliven the proceedings. Locke does occasionally glance into the rearview mirror and address an invisible passenger in his backseat, a fairly clumsy approach that nevertheless illustrates just why he's so steadfast in his choice to drive toward Bethan and thus ruin his life. (Also demonstrative of this: He has labeled a particularly odious superior as "Bastard" in his phone.) For the most part, though, Knight just trains his camera on Hardy and lets him work, and with his fastidious speech patterns and haunted eyes, the man can work wonders. Locke disappeared from cinemas shortly after it arrived, but it's enough of a cult property to reappear as a midnight release in art houses in the future. When it does, get in your car and go see it. You should be able to get to the theater without difficulty, if the traffic is good.

9. The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 96% RT, 83 MC). The LEGO Movie is such a blast that you're liable to overlook its hidden genius. But about that blast part: A swooping, unabashedly playful romp, The LEGO Movie is kinetic, imaginative, and frequently hilarious. It begins when Emmet (Chris Pratt), a singularly ordinary worker bee, stumbles upon a buried MacGuffin called the Piece of Resistance (pièce de résistance, get it?). At that point, he's mistaken by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) to be "The Special", a Neo-type revolutionary who can liberate the legos from the nefarious reign of Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his half-ruthless/half-clueless enforcer, Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson). (In a display of the movie's meta wit, Wyldstyle explains all of this in an exposition dump, which Emmet hears only as, "Blah blah blah, proper name, place name, backstory stuff.") From there, he's off to meet a gang of motley legos who double as an assemblage of some of history's most famous faces and cinematic heroes, from Lincoln to Gandalf to Superman. (Another brilliant throwaway touch: There are appearances from both Michelangelo, the artist, and Michaelangelo, the Ninja Turtle, the pronunciations of which are distinguished accordingly.) Most notably, he receives solemn guidance from a bearded leader, Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman, obviously), and battles for Wyldstyle's affections with none other than Batman (a hysterical, gravel-voiced Will Arnett, ad-libbing song lyrics like "Darkness, no parents/Super-rich, kinda makes it better").

It's all a ton of fun, and despite The LEGO Movie's obvious affection for the action-adventure pictures of yore, it always feels entirely like its own movie. It also decidedly looks like its own movie. In committing fully to their impeccably detailed animated universe, Lord and Miller haven't just made all of their characters legos—they've made everything out of legos. This extends not only to the film's sets, which you can envision as having been painstakingly constructed by industrious eight-year-olds, but to the way characters and objects move. And so, the legos don't walk and run so much as bounce and lurch, while inanimate forces like water tumble forward, one infinitesimal block at a time. It's a daring stylistic approach, and while it obviously lacks the fluidity and beauty of Pixar's and DreamWorks' best work, it makes up for it in its bold and striking originality.

And in the end, originality is what The LEGO Movie is really all about. Its sly story and whip-smart dialogue are a hoot, but its themes are profoundly meaningful. Emmet begins the film as a happy but relentlessly dull automaton whose sole purpose in life seems to be following instructions; this abiding philosophy informs not only his work but his entire way of life. He eats exclusively at chain restaurants, he adores generic television ("Where Are My Pants?"), and his favorite song is "Everything Is Awesome", a fantastically catchy Tegan and Sara earworm whose chorus—"Everything is cool when you're part of a team/Everything is awesome when we're living our dream"—exposes a disdain for individuality at the expense of mindless conformity. Emmet's journey, then, is not merely a familiar story of world-saving heroism but a personal awakening of self-discovery. He starts out as a drone, and he ends up as a person.

That may sound high-minded, especially when applied to such a giddily entertaining film whose marketing undeniably encourages children to go out in droves and buy legos. But The LEGO Movie proves its philosophical mettle in its third act, delivering a reveal that's astonishing not just in its surprise but in its tenderness. This is a massive, franchise-spawning studio blockbuster, one systematically designed for mass appeal. Yet it is also an insightful and persuasive argument for the virtues of eccentricity, haphazardness, and imagination. In other words, it's a wildly enjoyable, populist movie with a rebellious soul. When you put it all together like that, everything really is awesome.

Coming tomorrow: numbers 8 and 7.

Previously in the Manifesto's Rankings of 2014 Movies
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
The Missing Pictures: Part I
The Missing Pictures: Part II
The Missing Pictures: Part III

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