Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014, Nos. 8 & 7: Nightcrawler; Boyhood

If you missed the first entry in the Manifesto's Top 10 Movies of 2014, you can find it here.

8. Nightcrawler (directed by Dan Gilroy, 95% Rotten Tomatoes, 76 Metacritic). What's the creepiest thing about Louis Bloom? Perhaps it's how he looks, with his lank and greasy hair, skeletal frame, and bulging blue eyes that never seem to close. Or perhaps it's how he talks, constantly spouting mind-numbing corporate rhetoric that he seems to have memorized from a self-help seminar. Most likely, it's how he acts; an amoral creature, Louis has no use for other people except to bend them to his will, and to use them to slake his lust for power and control. I'd say he was born without a moral compass, but he probably just sold it for a better video camera.

Louis, then, is the latest in a long line of American antiheroes, a soulless Travis Bickle crossed with Kirk Douglas' unscrupulous reporter in Ace in the Hole. As played by Jake Gyllenhaal—in a riveting, impeccably controlled performance—he is a man who knows what he wants and methodically goes about getting it, never raising his voice and never blinking (figuratively or literally) at the collateral damage left in his wake. When Nightcrawler opens, Louis is an amateur thief with no apparent long-term interests beyond vague self-improvement. That changes when he spots Joe (Bill Paxton) walking away from a flaming car crash, humming happily to himself about the video footage he just captured. Once Louis learns of morning news networks' appetite for blood and viscera—as Joe merrily puts it, "If it bleeds, it leads"—he resolves to become the industry's foremost purveyor of real-life carnage, even if it means manipulating a crime scene or two in the process.

Gilroy wants Nightcrawler to be a scalding satire of the news industry's ruthless approach to ratings, an eye-opening exposé in the tradition of Network. In this, he is only moderately successful. It is hardly earth-shattering to learn that network news is less a public service than a numbers-driven business that panders to its audience, a viewership with a repellent interest in death and destruction. But it is nevertheless invigorating to watch Nina (Rene Russo)—a desperate producer who becomes Louis' most reliable buyer, as well as his reluctant bedroom companion—direct a broadcast with flagrant disregard for journalistic ethics, transforming an upsetting crime report into a macabre melodrama. Gilroy may not have much new to say, but he says it with flair, with a valuable assist from veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit, who shoots nighttime Los Angeles as a dimly lit breeding ground of violence and sin.

Mostly, though, Nightcrawler is all about Louis, which means it's really all about Gyllenhaal. The movie is spellbinding whenever its fearless lead actor is on screen, which is fortunate, given that he's on screen virtually every second. With a disturbingly modulated voice and those magnetic, unblinking eyes, he creates the impression of a pitiless man who is somehow both perpetually frenzied and unnervingly calm. Whether he's coolly demanding sexual favors from Nina or systematically dressing down his pathetic subordinate, Rick (Riz Ahmed, very good), Louis always seems to be in absolute control. "I like to say, 'If you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life,'" he casually informs a detective investigating some of his ill-gotten news footage. It's a mantra that makes literal sense, given that he makes it his mission to film people in various stages of agony. But even if you aren't the subject of his sleazy surveillance, you still don't want to see Louis, a man who, with his unsettling stare and unfeeling nature, will stalk you through your nightmares.

7. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 98% RT, 100 MC). Art is supposed to imitate life, but no fictional movie has ever followed this imperative as religiously as Boyhood. Filmed over the course of 12 years, a handful of sun-bleached days at a time, it opens on six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) staring blankly into a bright blue Texas sky, the guitars of Coldplay pealing on the soundtrack. It then proceeds as a deceptively straightforward coming-of-age story, charting Mason's physical and emotional growth. That Boyhood chronicles Mason's childhood and adolescence makes it similar to many movies; that it does so with the same primary cast of actors over its dozen-year span makes it unlike any movie ever made.

But critics have already exhaustively applauded the sheer audacity of Linklater's approach, not to mention its improbability. (Seriously, good luck pitching a 12-year plan to your investors.) What's equally remarkable about Boyhood is how gently and persuasively it evokes the unique rhythms of youth. Naturally, Mason's most powerful influences are his family: his divorced parents—known only as Mom (Patricia Arquette, solid) and Dad (Ethan Hawke, magnificent)—and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter). But he also finds himself shaped by his interactions with teachers, friends, and girls, not to mention a pair of scarily abusive stepfathers. In following Mason through the years, Linklater uncannily conveys an experience both universal (everyone grows up) and individual (everyone grows up differently). And while you will undoubtedly find yourself responding to particular pieces of Mason's journey—for my part, I favored Mason and Samantha excitedly awaiting the release of the latest Harry Potter book, or Mason and his father engaging in a sincere, blissfully unironic discussion of the likelihood of another Star Wars movie—your reactions will undoubtedly differ from those of the audience member sitting next to you. Boyhood is about everyone's childhood, but it's also exclusively about Mason's.

You may find Boyhood's plotting to be a bit aimless, lacking in spectacle or significance. True enough. Mason gets a girlfriend, smokes some pot, and discovers an interest in photography, but in terms of narrative development, not that much happens. But ask yourself: How often do important things happen to you, in your daily routine? Is your life a series of seminal moments? Or is it a subtler collective of colors and feelings, rushing by and silently molding you as a person without you even noticing? Boyhood posits that real life need not be eventful to be interesting, and that a movie's protagonist need not be buffeted by crosswinds of plot and pretense to be fascinating. It can occasionally feel preachy, as when Mason delivers a diatribe against technology's pernicious influence on society, one of the rare instances where he seems to serve as a mouthpiece for Linklater's views rather than his own person. But it recovers from that beautifully by detailing the moment that every teenager dreams of and every parent dreads: the boy, now a man, heading off to college.

Arquette owns that scene, but as sturdy as she is in anchoring the film, and as gratifying as it is to watch Coltrane mature as an actor before your very eyes, Boyhood really belongs to Hawke. Proving once again that he's never more casually charismatic than when Linklater is behind the camera, he invests Mason's father with an effortless charm and rueful smile, a free spirit whose eyes nevertheless conceal whispers of regret. The film never feels more vibrantly alive than when Mason is simply palling around with his Dad, learning about bowling and baseball and guns and girls.

Boyhood is a historic cinematic achievement, and Linklater's startlingly innovative approach to filmmaking will be analyzed for years to come. But it is also a quiet, aching, lovely movie, the kind that arrests your attention without ever grasping for it. It is not about anything in particular, which is to say it's about absolutely everything. You know, kind of like life.

Coming tomorrow: numbers 6 and 5.

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

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