Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 6 & 5: Guardians of the Galaxy; The Imitation Game

The Manifesto is wrapping up its rankings of all of 2014's movies with its look at the best movies of the year. If you missed previous installments, check out the following links:

Nos. 10 & 9: Locke; The LEGO Movie
Nos. 8 & 7: Nightcrawler; Boyhood

6. Guardians of the Galaxy (directed by James Gunn, 91% Rotten Tomatoes, 76 Metacritic). It is so, so hard to make a good comic-book movie, much less a distinctive one. The genre's myriad requirements—the commercial imperative for outrageous spectacle, the numbing obligation of fan service, the daunting duty to connect with installments from other franchises—all conspire to make comic-book productions feel more like prepackaged, interchangeable morsels of formula than actual movies. But despite its cutting-edge special effects and dazzling space-opera aesthetic, and despite a cameo from the mega-villain of The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy never once feels like it rolled off the blockbuster assembly line. This is partly due to what it lacks: It doesn't feature any historic action sequences, it doesn't conjure a particularly menacing antagonist, and it doesn't even tell an especially original story. What it has, however, is something far more important: a personality.

This movie is entertaining, surprising, and often just plain weird. As such, Guardians of the Galaxy is an anarchic and swaggering rebuke to all comic-book pictures that snuggle safely within the confines of the studio blueprint. It doesn't advertise its defiant eccentricity so much as smuggle it into its traditional superhero universe, with Gunn consistently and brilliantly undercutting viewers' expectations at every turn. This is evident in the movie's first post-prologue scene, when a mysterious masked man floats ominously into a foreboding cave, a place redolent with danger that would give Indiana Jones pause; he carefully surveys the landscape and then, suddenly, takes off his mask, pulls out a Walkman, and starts grooving to the punchy beat of Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love". It's evident in its thoroughly unpredictable non-finale, when a glowering supervillain (Lee Pace) intones his plans to eradicate an entire planet, only to have his speech interrupted when someone challenges him to a dance-off. And it's evident in the film's overall devotion to the random and the bizarre, as when a jailbreak mastermind insists that his conspirators steal a prisoner's bionic leg because it's a critical element of his escape plan, then later confesses he just made that part up to be funny.

Most of all, it's evident in the characters. That masked man from the opening is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, absolutely owning the part), and while he comes equipped with a quasi-tragic backstory, he spends most of the movie puffing up his own ego and being as irresponsible as possible. (He's also consistently deflated whenever the law refers to him by name, preferring to be known as "Star-Lord".) Quill has a price on his head, because so did Han Solo, and he eventually finds himself entangled with two of the strangest bounty hunters you've ever seen—Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a misshapen raccoon with a sharp tongue and a nasty temper, and Groot (Vin Diesel), a gigantic walking tree that speaks exactly three words, in one order—as well as Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned assassin with her own, highly opaque agenda. They eventually wind up in prison, where they meet Drax (Dave Bautista), a hulking warrior who is incapable of appreciating the nuances of metaphor.

Drax may lack a sense of humor, but Gunn has plenty to spare. Guardians of the Galaxy is consistently, breezily funny, from its snappy dialogue to its canny staging (Groot is always doing something hilarious in the background) to its subversion of established genre elements. And if the film's plot—involving a cadre of glum, oversized heavies, a hectoring police force, and a MacGuffin-esque orb called an Infinity Stone—is both too complicated and too boring to take seriously, it more than compensates with its outsized flair and peculiar flavor, not to mention its killer soundtrack. It's the kind of movie where the hero saves the heroine's life and then, while whispering soothingly to her as she stirs back to consciousness, informs her that he just did "something incredibly heroic".

"Ain't no thing like me except me," Rocket says at one point. And despite some parallels with Joss Whedon's Serenity, there really isn't another movie out there like Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel handed Gunn the keys to the kingdom, and instead of churning out a boilerplate action picture, he's crafted a strange, funny, chaotic, flawed, beautiful mess. It's a massively successful comic-book movie that doesn't follow the standard superhero template at all. And that, in its own inimitable way, is incredibly heroic.

5. The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 89% RT, 73 MC). The Imitation Game has all the trappings of classical prestige fare, but its slippery story is far more forceful than your typical piece of Oscar bait. This is not to suggest the movie is anything but expertly made. Impeccably acted and smartly photographed, featuring exquisite production design along with one of Alexandre Desplat's most delicate and emotive scores, it is a handsome period piece of undeniable pleasure. But as effortlessly enjoyable as The Imitation Game may be, it is equally memorable as a raw and angry work of social commentary. It never falters in its sublime craftsmanship, but you can nevertheless sense it seething beneath the surface, crying out in horror and dismay.

But we begin, after a vaguely ominous prologue, happily enough. We are in Britain shortly after the outbreak of World War II, and Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) has resolved to join (and perhaps dismantle) the team of code breakers attempting to crack the infamous German machine, Enigma. Turing is a mathematical genius, but he isn't exactly a patriot, a fact not lost on Denniston (Game of Thrones' Charles Dance), the military commander who reluctantly brings him aboard. When The Imitation Game opens, Turing's obsession with Enigma is plain enough, but it isn't born out of selfless desire to serve his country—he just likes solving puzzles. As the film follows Turing's efforts to decipher the indecipherable, it tracks not only his individual exploits but his struggles with teamwork. Turing is academically brilliant but socially inept, and one of the easy pleasures of The Imitation Game is to watch as he gradually refines his eccentric behavior in a strained effort to cooperate with his compatriots, who include the by-the-book Alexander (Matthew Goode) and the sympathetic Cairncross (Downton Abbey's Allen Leech). In a development indicative of the film's subtlety and grace, Turing forces himself to adapt, but he never quite sheds his eternal awkwardness, nor his abiding belief in his own superiority. His colleagues, meanwhile, grow to accept Turing less out of true friendship than exasperation, as well as the honest acknowledgement that, deep down, he is simply smarter than everyone else.

Everyone, that is, except perhaps for Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, and thank God for that). First seen breezing through a set of double-doors and instantly breathing life into the picture, she becomes Turing's most trusted associate, as well as, in yet another nuanced twist, his bemused romantic partner. Turing and Joan don't exactly fall in love—their relationship is more an invention of administrative convenience than a declaration of ardor—but they do share a unique and quixotic chemistry, a sense that their minds are made for one another's, even if their bodies think otherwise.

That, of course, is because Turing is gay. His homosexuality is a biological fact that most people in the movie seem to silently accept, even if they would perish before admitting its truth aloud. And as skilled as Tyldum proves himself in charting The Imitation Game's crackerjack code-breaking elements—his deft illustrations of Turing's computer-presaging methods are far more exciting and cinematic than one would expect—he demonstrates even more ability in attacking the bankrupt moral codes of mid-century Britain, a hypocrisy of pious traditionalism and stiff upper lips. That a nation would criminalize homosexuality is contemptible, but the intensity of The Imitation Game's condemnation derives from its heartbreaking specificity. Turing and Joan may never be intimate, but Tyldum understands them intimately, and the jagged, uncertain nature of their relationship is devastating.

Miraculously, this anger and anguish never deprives the movie of its bountiful entertainment. The Imitation Game is consistently, supremely watchable, and even if its narrative occasionally recalls A Beautiful Mind—there is even a moment where a romantic flirtation yields a scientific epiphany—its spectacular acting ensures that the film stands entirely on its own. The supporting cast is certainly capable—Mark Strong is particularly perfect as a bewigged MI-6 operative who treats espionage as though it were no more stressful than ordering lunch—but it's Cumberbatch and Knightley who truly elevate The Imitation Game with their tender, heartfelt performances. He silently communicates Turing's inner torment without ever sacrificing his outer prickliness, while she accentuates Joan's defiance even as she also recognizes her sadness and fear. And fear itself is the subject of the film's fury, as it depicts a society frightened of what it fails to understand. You will enjoy this movie, with its wonderful and generous acting, its pulse-quickening wartime story, and its estimable craft. But you will also be struck—perhaps even overpowered—by its rage.

Coming tomorrow: numbers 4 and 3.

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

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