Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 4 & 3: Interstellar; Gone Girl

In the penultimate post of our year-end rankings, we're looking at the fourth and third-best movies of 2014. If you missed previous installments, check out the following links:

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

4. Interstellar (directed by Christopher Nolan, 72% Rotten Tomatoes, 74 Metacritic). Nobody makes movies like Chris Nolan. He is the world's brainiest blockbuster auteur, developing stories of extraordinary depth and originality, then telling them in the grandest, most evocative way possible. Interstellar is so packed with fascinating ideas, and so overflowing with narrative and technical ambition, that it often feels as though it's about to burst. But even if it cannot entirely maintain control of its enormous plot and epic scale, its monumental effort is its own glorious reward. This is a bold, triumphant saga of intergalactic space travel that also happens to double as an exploration of the human condition. It doesn't always succeed, but even when it fails, it fails marvelously.

After opening with some decidedly unexpected talking heads in the style of Warren Beatty's Reds, Interstellar settles on a Dust Bowl-like future, where crops are dying and blight and sandstorms ravage the land. Our hero is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, opening eyes yet again), a former NASA pilot plagued with nightmares of a past crash. He's a scientist at heart, but now he quietly farms corn while raising his two children, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy, very natural). But when Murph uncovers mysterious coordinates embedded in sand at the foot of her bookcase, Cooper stumbles upon a hidden NASA facility. There, he learns from his former superior, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), that Earth is in its death rattle, and that the only chance for humanity is to relocate to a more habitable planet. And so, Cooper dutifully agrees to temporarily abandon his children and to pilot a spacecraft through a conveniently placed wormhole in the far-flung hope of discovering a better world.

As you can tell, Interstellar is loaded with plot, and these stage-setting events unfold at a leisurely pace over the film's first hour. By the time Cooper takes to the skies, the film has the feel of a classic expedition picture, if one colored with Nolan's immaculate detail and technical knowhow. Thus, in addition to recognizing the gravity of his mission, Cooper also spends time bonding with his fellow astronauts, most notably Brand's daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway, sensitive and restrained), but also Doyle (the forever unappreciated Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi). The ship's final passenger is a delightfully sarcastic robot named TARS (Bill Irwin), an inimitable Nolan creation whose ingenuity of movement—he appears primarily as a hulking tripartite rectangle, but he can shift his metallic form into a variety of shapes—is matched only by his acerbic wit.

It's a motley crew, but Nolan isn't just using his end-of-the-world setup as the scaffolding for a platoon-style adventure. Like Cooper, he's sincerely interested in science, and Interstellar routinely pauses for discussion of heady concepts like wormholes and time dilation. The veracity of these conversations is obviously debatable, and they can feel faintly tedious, but their presence nevertheless marks Interstellar as a strange and committed work of science-fiction. As much as Nolan worships at the altar of the action movie, he is also a devoted disciple of big ideas, and he wants to make viewers think as opposed to just flattening them with spectacle (though he does that too). Independently, some of the film's mumbo-jumbo might feel superfluous, but in the context of its colossal space adventure, it deepens the movie's significance and draws you further into its orbit.

It's once Interstellar actually breaks orbit that things start to heat up. Shortly after the one-hour point, it drops from the skies to the sea and smacks viewers in the mouth with three electric scenes in a row, a triptych of astonishing power and directorial daring. The first is a spellbinding action sequence in which CASE (TARS' robotic cousin) scampers across the rolling ocean in an attempt to rescue a marooned Amelia as gigantic waves threaten to swallow them both; it's a breathtaking visual sequence, heightened in its majesty by Hans Zimmer's appropriately outlandish organ-based score. Then, Nolan adroitly shifts gears to a plaintive discussion between Cooper and Amelia, in which they assess the tragic consequences of their actions—in Interstellar's singular universe, this involves recognizing how many years they've literally lost because of their folly. And then, Nolan pivots sharply but gracefully yet again, as Cooper returns to the ship and watches prerecorded messages from his now-adult children at home, the camera holding McConaughey's face in close-up for near eternity as it registers the thundering pain his character is feeling. Combined, the entire passage comprises maybe 15 minutes of screen time, but it unmistakably establishes Interstellar as yet another peerless Chris Nolan movie, which means it was also the point where I stopped watching it as a film critic and started experiencing it as a bedazzled moviegoer, staring up at the screen in slack-jawed awe.

I should scarcely say more. Suffice it to say that Interstellar never downshifts from that point, instead blazing forward with legitimate unpredictability and staggering imagination. We visit an ice-encrusted planet of stark beauty, where we meet a character played by a certain high-profile actor who proves himself perfectly cast in a sly, slippery part. We also spend some time back on Earth, where Murph (now played by an agitated Jessica Chastain) engages in a war of wills with her brother (now a taciturn Casey Affleck), leading to a bravura sequence of magnificent cross-cutting. Things go completely crazy in the film's final act, which somehow finds Cooper floating within a three-dimensional space, attempting to send coded messages to his daughter across space and time.

Does it all make sense? I don't know, but more importantly, watching it, I didn't really care. Interstellar is such a heedless and joyful experience—a movie so courageously willing to strive for greatness—that its plot points are almost irrelevant, even if they are also vexing and fascinating. By that score, the movie to which Interstellar most obviously compares, in terms of both its subject matter and its technical aspirations, is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, another space epic whose finale left viewers scratching their heads. But where that film was chilly and spare, Interstellar is grandly, unashamedly sentimental. It's the kind of movie where characters engage in a frank and startling discussion on the chemical nature of love and whether it possesses cosmic significance. They aren't sure, and even Nolan doesn't seem to know. But he asks, and that's what really matters. Interstellar doesn't shy away from failure, it practically courts it. Some may label that foolish, but I call it fearless. Nolan has always understood an essential cinematic truth: If you want to make a great movie, the first thing you need to do is reach for the stars.

3. Gone Girl (David Fincher, 88% RT, 79 MC). A rush of ambient sound and digital color, Gone Girl starts out in high gear and never takes its foot off the gas. It's a movie of relentless momentum, continuously amping up its energy, every scene somehow crescendoing into the next. It would be exhausting, if it weren't so damn exciting. You occasionally think you've caught up with its spiraling plot and fiendish surprises, and then it fires another shot. Only in this movie, the next bullet isn't from a gun; it's an ominous gift lying on the lawn, or a box cutter to the throat.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck, craftier than you'd expect) thinks his marriage is failing, but he doesn't know the half of it. One morning, he returns home to his comfy Missouri house to find a glass table upended and his wife, Amy (a stupendous Rosamund Pike), gone baby gone. Before long, cops are swarming the house, the media is hounding his every move, and he finds himself the lone suspect in Amy's apparent murder. But Fincher isn't Hitchcock, and Nick isn't exactly the Innocent Man Wrongly Accused. His behavior is a bit peculiar, combining aw-shucks Midwestern charm with churlish irritation, and Affleck cleverly laces his somewhat bland persona with spikes of anger and frustration, to the point where you aren't quite sure if you should cheer for Nick or despise him. It's why, when lead detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens, solid) asks her partner, Gilpin (a drily funny Patrick Fugit) why he doesn't like Nick, he responds rhetorically, "What's to like?"

Good question. But we gain at least a partial answer thanks to Gone Girl's structure, which proceeds on intriguing parallel tracks. One is set in the present, where Nick attempts to fortify his defenses against both the police and the increasingly hostile cable news media. He talks bitterly with his loyal but exasperated twin sister, Margo (The Leftovers' Carrie Coon, very good), and when the pressure continues to mount, he jets to New York and hires acclaimed defense attorney Tanner Bolt (a terrific Tyler Perry). Together, they scramble to uncover pieces to a mystery that just doesn't add up, but mostly they just ask each other the same crucial question: Where, oh where, has Amy gone?

Which brings us to the second and more alluring track, a series of flashbacks chronicling Nick and Amy's courtship and subsequent marriage. These are narrated, in Pike's strikingly mannered voiceover, by Amy as though she were reading from her diary, and they at first have a frolicsome feels that clashes sharply against the dour events of the present. They portray Amy as a keenly intelligent but unfulfilled woman, one who has been overshadowed by "Amazing Amy", her literary counterpart; apparently her parents made millions turning their daughter's adventures into children's books, replacing reality's disappointments with perpetual happy endings. But Amy's own disillusionment changes when she meets Nick, a white knight who shares her mischievous sense of humor. They initially prove to be virtual soul mates—as Amy puts it, "We're so cute, I want to punch us in the face"—but gradually, their marriage curdles, until...

It take more than an hour for Gone Girl to hurl its first major curveball, but from that point on, all bets are off. The screenplay is by Gillian Flynn, adapting her own bestseller, and she expertly ratchets up the tension without ever squandering the film's sense of inherent playfulness; with its blithely funny dialogue and light satire, Gone Girl is always a good time, even as it dims the lights and disgorges the blood. It also becomes increasingly suspenseful as it charges into its electric second half, mostly because we get to spend more time with Amy and the magnificent actress playing her. Part Stepford wife, part Medusa, Amy is a true fire-breather, and Pike brings her to vibrant, mesmerizing life. When she moves, it's with coiled and purposeful force, but she's never scarier than when she's sitting still, sapphire eyes fixed on the camera, curtain of blond hair hanging like a guillotine. She, more than anyone else, exemplifies this deadly noirish universe, the kind where no one can be trusted.

Except, that is, for the man behind the camera. Fincher has always excelled at turning genre pictures into high art, but he's less ostentatious here, shrewdly delegating to his typically stellar crew. Jeff Cronenweth's photography is sharp but not showy, but Gone Girl's more notable stylistic flourishes are aural. The film makes brilliant use of sound, not only in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' eerily ambient score—their third and best collaboration with the director—but in its bursts of silence, as when Fincher spies a character screaming via a video feed, the grainy footage and absence of noise magnifying the image's starkness. Still, he can't entirely resist indulging his flamboyant impulses, and near the film's end, he delivers one of the most stunning sequences of his career, a terrifying sex scene that is utterly hypnotic in its gory beauty.

You will not need multiple guesses to determine who is the star of that scene, or of this movie. Amy Dunne is a singular creation, and you will enjoy meeting her, even if she will haunt your memory long after you leave. Midway through Gone Girl, Amy savors a moment of triumph with a sudden, improvised scissor kick. It proves to be a critical plot point, one that Fincher deftly calls back later on in the film. At the time, though, it feels like the perfect encapsulation of Amy's supremacy, as well as a fleeting gesture of whimsy in Pike's sublime, razor-sharp, spectacularly controlled performance. With her piercing blue eyes and vivid body language, she has created a femme fatale for the ages. "Amazing Amy" doesn't even come close.

Coming tomorrow: the Manifesto's picks for the top two movies of the year.

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

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