Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 2 & 1: Edge of Tomorrow; Whiplash

And at long last, we come to the two best movies of 2014. If you missed the Manifesto's previous installments in this series, you can find them at the links below:

Nos. 10 & 9: Locke; The LEGO Movie
Nos. 8 & 7: Nightcrawler; Boyhood
Nos. 6 & 5: Guardians of the Galaxy; The Imitation Game
Nos. 4 & 3: Interstellar; Gone Girl

2. Edge of Tomorrow (directed by Doug Liman, 90% Rotten Tomatoes, 71 Metacritic). Licking its wounds after Edge of Tomorrow barely scratched out $100 million at the domestic box office, Warner Bros. rebranded the movie Live Die Repeat for its home video release. It was a savvy marketing maneuver that also subtly tapped in to the film's structural brilliance. Groundhog Day for the blockbuster age, Edge of Tomorrow is, in essence, the most ingenious videogame ever filmed. Its hero comes upon a particular level and loses countless times, constantly honing his technique and refining his strategy in the process, before ultimately achieving victory and moving on to the next level. It's proudly (if originally) formulaic, but within this fundamentally blocky layout is a movie of remarkable surprise and wit, one that continually reshapes its identity and locates clever crannies of intrigue and humor. It repeats itself over and over again, and yet it always feels fresh and new.

Our aforementioned hero is William Cage (Tom Cruise, fantastic), and given the pedigree of the actor playing him, you may expect him to be an immensely capable action warrior. He's not. Instead, Cage is a PR man for the military, the type who talks confidently about tactics even though he doesn't know the proper end of a rifle. He's selling a war against the Mimics, a race of powerful mechanized aliens that have quickly and mercilessly invaded Europe. He's good at his job, with a slick smile and gift for gab, especially when he's lauding the exploits of one Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt, excellent), a decorated soldier whose heroic actions and chilly demeanor have earned her the moniker "Full Metal Bitch". But when a gruff general (Brendan Gleeson) insists that Cage join the front to better promote a Normandy-esque assault, he blanches and makes a run for it before getting knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, it's in the shadow of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, funny), a squad commander prattling happily about "the fiery crucible" of combat. He slaps Cage into a futuristic armored suit—the bulky kind with lots of buttons and heavy-duty hardware—and throws him to the wolves with the rest of his hardy and wisecracking platoon. Cage is woefully unequipped to deal with the swirling chaos surrounding him—those aliens are fast, and they're mean—but when he finds an especially large Mimic lurking over him, he detonates an explosive in a figurative and literal burst of inspiration, killing both himself and his foe. And then... he wakes up, and there's Master Sergeant Farell, yammering merrily once again about that fiery crucible.

If Groundhog Day was about the existential torment of being trapped in a place of stupefying boredom, Edge of Tomorrow is a far more visceral kind of nightmare. Cage does everything he can to avoid repeating his death, but no matter how plaintively he pleads with his superiors or how drastically he alters his own actions, he still ends up on that beach getting splattered into goo, then starting the same sequence all over again. It's a fun and dynamic routine, and Liman enjoys subjecting Cage to a startling variety of deaths. (My personal favorite comes when he tries to escape his comrades by rolling between the tires of a passing Humvee, and squelch.) But just when you think the movie might flatline into familiarity, Cage finds Rita on the beach and beseeches her for salvation. Rather than ignore the ravings of an apparently insane man, Rita gives Cage a searching look and solemnly intones, "Come find me when you wake up." And then, once again, death begets life.

At this point, Edge of Tomorrow delivers quite a bit of hurried exposition, but it's all gracefully done, thanks to the delightful contrast between Cruise's numbed disbelief and Blunt's prickly impatience. Rita, it turns out, was once in Cage's cursed fate, doomed to relive her death until she somehow broke the cycle. With the help of a radical scientist (the always reliable Noah Taylor), she discovered that the Mimics are a hive mind with the power to turn back time, and the only way to thwart their assault is to kill the brain, called The Omega. It's all rather ridiculous, but it hardly matters, not when it leads to Liman indulging in one of the great tropes of modern movies: the training montage. Rita determines that she and Cage must get off the beach together, and so she resolves to whip him into shape, transforming a simpering bureaucrat into a killing machine.

The most extraordinary thing about Edge of Tomorrow is that, despite repeatedly covering the same terrain, it never feels repetitive. It also never stops being funny. For example, whenever Cage gets injured during his high-intensity training, Rita has no qualms firing a bullet into his head—in other words, pushing the reset button—despite his inevitable protests. And there is also considerable humor to be derived from Cage, who ends up replaying the same scenario hundreds of times, possessing infinitely more knowledge than everyone else. Whether he's reciting entire conversations before they happen or leading Rita in a balletic series of movements in order to avoid detection, Cage constantly catches his audience off-guard, and it's a treat to watch him both out-hit and out-think his opposition. The film's breezy feel and heedless pace is a testament to the superlative quality of James Herbert and Laura Jennings' editing, which duplicates certain scenes but also continuously pares them down to ensure that we receive just the right amount of information.

Yet as entertaining and meticulously ordered as Edge of Tomorrow is, it wouldn't work nearly as well if it didn't create such terrific and sympathetic characters. Rita is a phenomenal action heroine, and Blunt invests her with a no-nonsense toughness to go along with her sleek athleticism. (In one of the film's most memorable and most regurgitated images, she slides into a pushup like she's touring with Cirque du Soleil.) But the key here is Cruise, who absolutely hammers an incredibly tricky part. At the start of the movie, Cage is all lightness and charm, but as it progresses, his burdensome trials make him seem heavier, and despite redoing the same basic material over and over, Cruise somehow adds metaphysical weight to his performance over time. The videogame structure also results in a fascinatingly asymmetrical romance; every time Cage and Rita meet, he's bringing his knowledge of all of their previous interactions to bear, while she's seeing him for the first time. That's why the movie's most affecting scene occurs not during one of its many kinetic, impressively choreographed action sequences—Liman has a strong sense of how to wield special effects to his advantage, rather than letting them overwhelm the frame—but when Rita recognizes the extent of Cage's devotion and responds by telling him a sacred piece of personal information.

Edge of Tomorrow goes traditional in its final act, and its last 15 minutes are the only time it feels ordinary. But until that point, it's a revolutionary experience, one that redefines what a summer sci-fi spectacle can be, and one that proves that smart writing and brawny action are hardly mutually exclusive. It's the kind of exhilarating movie that you want to restart as soon as it's over so that you can relish its colorful details and painstaking plotting. Or, to cast it in the film's marketing parlance: Watch. Love. Repeat.

1. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 95% RT, 88 MC). We're told as children that we can accomplish anything if we just follow our dreams, but what if those dreams cost? What if, by pursuing our passion with reckless abandon, we hurt other people, forgo the possibility of love, and forfeit our very humanity? With exacting craft and remorseless honesty, Whiplash lays waste to the notion that dreams are realized through mere hope, instead illustrating how greatness is really achieved: an agonizing combination of blood, sweat, and pain. It observes, with piercing clarity, as two ferociously committed artists push one another to the brink, leaving us breathless in the process.

Andrew Neiman (the perpetually underrated Miles Teller) is a promising young drummer at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York. He's a dedicated student, practicing constantly and listening to old Buddy Rich tapes for inspiration, and he certainly aspires to a successful career in music. But, at least when Whiplash opens, Andrew is still a relatively normal 19-year-old. He frequently watches classic movies with his father (Paul Reiser) at a local art house, where he screws up the courage to ask out the attractive ticket-taker named Nicole (Melissa Benoist), with whom he begins a shy and tentative romance. Things change, however, when he crosses paths with Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, soon to be referred to as "Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons"), a revered and fearsome conductor who spies Andrew's undeniable talent and resolves to mold him into one of the greats. This is more than Andrew could have hoped for, as Fletcher is the vessel through which he can fulfill his dreams. He is also Andrew's worst nightmare.

In its vigorous energy and propulsive rhythm, Whiplash is a blessedly rare film, but its basic contours follow the familiar format of the sports movie. Andrew is the gifted young athlete, committed and cocksure, perilously unaware of the challenges that lie ahead. And Fletcher is the iron-willed coach, commanding absolute respect and demanding utter perfection. (When he strides into a chattery classroom, biceps bulging out of his black T-shirt, the silence falls faster than if he were Severus Snape.) That the competitive arena in question is the music hall rather than the gridiron or the boxing ring hardly matters, or it wouldn't, if Chazelle didn't stage the drumming scenes with such punishing flair. Andrew spends most of the movie banging furiously on his snare, a motion that isn't inherently cinematic, but Chazelle captures the clipped rhythm of every sixteenth-note to the point that you're gasping for breath. Towering over Andrew's drum set is Fletcher like a grand inquisitor, subjecting Andrew to a constant stream of verbal and physical abuse. Whenever Fletcher begins conducting his ensemble, the forthcoming music soundtracks an atmosphere of unbearable tension; when his conducting hand turns into a clenched fist and he declares, "Not quite my tempo," he may as well be condemning Andrew to death.

With a less compassionate director and less nuanced screenplay, Whiplash could have veered into a musical form of torture porn, wallowing in Fletcher's cruelty and Andrew's desperation. But Chazelle has more on his mind than mere punishment, and he and his actors probe beneath the surface of the movie's outer ruthlessness to reveal an antagonistic partnership of remarkable depth. Fletcher is apparently a man without mercy, but Simmons portrays him not as a sadist but as a hungering artist, someone keenly devoted to the Platonic ideal of musical perfection. Simmons is so titanically good—so revoltingly captivating and secretly sad—that he's liable to overshadow Teller's own extraordinarily self-assured performance. His physicality is estimable; as Andrew bends lower and lower over his kit, Teller makes you feel every strained muscle in his wrung-out body. But he also evokes the quieter trauma of Andrew's frayed emotions, and of how he loses perspective on everything else in his life, so obsessed he is with his music.

And indeed, as Fletcher continuously pushes Andrew further and further, Whiplash appears destined to develop into a tragedy, with Andrew sacrificing his soul in the blind pursuit of his art. (In one heartbreaking scene, he preemptively breaks up with Nicole, not because things are going badly but because he's convinced that her presence will eventually impede his path to stardom.) But once again, Chazelle refuses to assume the role of didact, and he leaves the question of Andrew's fate deliciously ambiguous. Is he destined to remain in this cycle of helpless destruction, a loop that prevents him from developing functional relationships and drains him of his very identity? Or will he actually achieve his lifelong goal of becoming the next great drummer? Could it be both? The movie only hints at an answer in its absolutely transcendent finale, a virtuosic display of sound and editing that pummels viewers with its potent singularity. Whiplash may ostensibly function as a sports movie, but you've never seen a Final Game quite like this.

Whiplash concludes with a priceless exchange of smiles, the one truly happy moment in a film drowning in agony. Was it all worth it? Again, from Andrew's perspective, it is hard to say for sure. But for the rest of us, the fortunate witnesses to this riveting war of wills, the answer is resoundingly clear. We aren't like Andrew, or Fletcher—we aren't great artists. All we can do with Whiplash is sit back and appreciate, with wonder and admiration, the creation of great art.

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
The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 10 & 9: Locke; The LEGO Movie
The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 8 & 7: Nightcrawler; Boyhood
The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 6 & 5: Guardians of the Galaxy; The Imitation Game
The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 4 & 3: Interstellar; Gone Girl

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