Friday, February 6, 2015

The Last of the Missing Pictures: Selma, A Most Violent Year, Still Alice, and a Sci-Fi Mind-Bender

Welcome to the third and final installment of The Missing Pictures. This is the last supplement to our rankings of every movie from 2014. If you missed the prior issues, you can find Part I here and Part II here.

37. Coherence (directed by James Ward Byrkit, 85% Rotten Tomatoes, 64 Metacritic). Aside from the ominous comet glittering across the night sky, all seems well at the beginning of Coherence, a spooky sci-fi yarn drenched in metaphysical inquiry. Eight privileged adults gather at a suburban house for a dinner party, the kind where someone blathers about the feng shui while passing around the ketamine. It's the sort of pompous get-together that seems ripe for a cinematic home invasion (think Adam Wingard's You're Next), but Coherence indulges in a more introspective form of terror. The power does soon goes out (as does all cell phone service), but instead of intruders bursting through the door, the frights begin when two of the more manly guests venture down the block, peer through the windows of the only lit house on the street, and see...

Well, see for yourself. Suffice it to say that the guests have to confront some harrowing questions, both about themselves and their dinner companions, not to mention the very nature of reality. It's a dizzying, mind-bending plot, but Byrkit invests it with a refreshing what-would-you-do? plausibility. Several of the characters behave with irritating stupidity ("Wait, we're splitting up?" "No, we're just dividing into two different groups."), but for the most part, they try to address the situation rationally. They also make clever use of the random tools at their disposal, such as when they create identifying markers through the employ of Yahtzee dice, some colored pens, and a ping-pong paddle. And while the handheld digital photography feels flat and unsteady, Coherence delivers some memorable images, most notably when a quartet of wanderers carrying blue glow sticks look across a darkened street and see their doppelgangers, only bathed in red. It also benefits from a star-making performance from Emily Foxler as Em, a plucky heroine who isn't afraid to dirty her hands. Coherence falters a bit in its second act, relying on excess exposition and contrivance—a conveniently helpful book on metaphysics just happens to be in the trunk of someone's car—without ever really making sense of its overflowing bundle of ideas. But the ideas are still there, and they coalesce brilliantly in the film's finale, one that proves that even the most gargantuan action climax can't compare to a sci-fi movie with a brain.

31. Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 89% RT, 72 MC). Still Alice may not nominally be a horror movie—there are no zombies shuffling about, no masked killers lurking in the shadows—but it's nevertheless one of the scariest films I've seen all year. The terrifyingly plausible tale of one woman slowly losing her mind, it stars Julianne Moore as Alice, a brilliant linguistics professor whose quality of life—she lives in a handsome Manhattan brownstone with her husband, John (Alec Baldwin), with whom she's raised three beautiful grown-up children—is matched only by her unshakable grasp of the English language. But when Alice starts stumbling over her words, she recognizes something is very wrong, and she eventually learns that she's afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer's.

It's a horrifying diagnosis, one that Glatzer and Westmoreland hardly need to oversell, not least with an actress as capable and emotive as Moore at the film's center. But they do anyway, hammering viewers with soft-focus visuals (to reflect Alice's fraying state of mind) and Ilan Eshkeri's syrupy score, plus some treacly flashbacks. It's an overly showy approach, but it has its payoffs, and Still Alice remains gripping throughout. And while Glatzer and Westmoreland's antics are undeniably manipulative, they're keenly observant of how Alice reacts to and fights her disease. (Glatzer himself suffers from ALS.) That's reflected not only in her solitary struggles—a scene where she can't find the bathroom in her own house is especially agonizing—but in her complicated relationships with her family, particularly Lydia, her youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart, understated and excellent). "That's not fair," Lydia complains when her mother attempts to leverage her illness to encourage Lydia to change her career path. Maybe not, but if anyone's entitled to behave unfairly, it's Alice, and Moore beautifully expresses not only her character's failing mental state, but also her heartbreaking pain and impotent anger.

In one late scene, Alice delivers a speech to a crowd of fellow Alzheimer's patients. Schematically, it's a bit on the nose, but Moore makes it her own, and with every halting pause and crack in her voice, she turns a flutter of words into something profound and powerful. It's a microcosm of the movie, as Still Alice on the whole, while touching and sensitive, is not overly memorable. But its lead performance is one you are unlikely to forget.

29. Selma (Ava DuVernay, 98% RT, 89 MC). It would be callous to suggest that Selma's release in theaters was blessed with good timing, but its arrival is certainly timely. It takes place in an America ravaged by racial strife and clamoring for social change, a description that's as likely to set its events in 2015 as in 1965. But as topical and galvanizing as Selma feels as a politically charged document, it's important not to overlook its virtues as a movie. Angry yet gentle, universal yet specific, it functions both as a robust study of unrest and a sneakily insightful look at the machinery lurking behind such unrest. Not only do we witness seminal moments in American history—in this case, a series of marches organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) in the vicinity of Selma, Alabama—but we gain a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their genesis. King's legacy is that of a grand orator and non-violent crusader, and while Selma pays fitting tribute to this representation (even if it cannot replicate his actual speeches as a matter of intellectual property), it also paints King as a savvy strategist, jockeying with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and expertly maneuvering his forces for maximum political impact. In this, it is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, allowing us to spend a few months in the life of a legend and, in the process, revealing the man behind him.

Selma isn't as good as Lincoln (which doesn't mean much, given that Lincoln was one of the best films of 2012). Screenwriter Paul Webb lacks Tony Kushner's barbed wit, while DuVernay possesses neither Spielberg's visual elegance nor his discipline. (And while I'm making impossible comparisons, Oyelowo is very good, but he's no Daniel Day-Lewis.) She occasionally fans the flames of her combustible material too heavily, attempting to magnify its significance through showy filmmaking when a more restrained approach is called for. More problematic, Selma is overcrowded with supporting characters, few of whom receive enough screen time to really connect with the audience.

Still, DuVernay spends enough time coloring in the margins to make Selma both more invigorating and more perceptive than the typical hagiographic biopic. In addition to the sequences of historical import, it's filled with subtle, striking scenes, such as when King shares a brutally quiet moment with his wife (Carmen Ejogo) regarding his infamous infidelity, or when he explains the efficacy of his policies to a band of skeptical firebrands. "We negotiate, we demonstrate, we resist," King says more than once. And Selma feels like its own form of carefully applied demonstration, telling an urgent and decidedly important story by way of cinema's more durable techniques. It may not be a historically great movie, but it understands and conveys just how history is made.

19. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 90% RT, 79 MC). A Most Violent Year looks and feels like a gangster movie. Its muted palette, its period setting and costumes, its gunplay and shadowy backroom meetings, and even its title suggest a crime saga following the template of The Godfather or Goodfellas. But the genius of A Most Violent Year is the way it repeatedly upends audience expectations, twisting its seemingly preordained narrative in strange and surprising ways. This begins with its main character, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, magnificent), the president of a New York oil company. As soon as you lay eyes on Abel, with his immaculate suits and his too-steady gaze, you are convinced he's a gangster with something to hide. So, for that matter, is the city's district attorney (David Oyelowo, struggling with a New Yawk accent), who is determined to bring racketeering charges against Abel and his company. Abel proclaims his innocence, but it's difficult to believe him, especially with the way Isaac's unnerving calm combines with Chandor's dark digital photography to deepen the film's secretive mood.

The shock of A Most Violent Year is that Abel actually is a legitimate businessman, continually resisting the allure of illegal shortcuts and instead relying on the more mundane values of sincerity and hard work. The problem, however, is that while Abel operates on the straight-and-narrow (he even hates guns), everyone around him seems to succumb to the underworld's less virtuous temptations, whether it's his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, sexy and scary), or his attorney, Andrew (Albert Brooks, rocking a god-awful hairpiece). If the tragedy of Al Pacino's Michael Corleone—Abel's most obvious and misleading cinematic counterpart—is that he cannot help bending others to his will by preying on their weaknesses, Abel's own weakness is his unyielding faith that others will abide by his code of honesty and civility. He makes for a fascinating character, and Isaac, in a flawless, riveting performance, renders him deeply sympathetic while also making him seem dangerous and unpredictable.

Chandor deftly extends this sense of uniqueness to the movie's more hot-blooded elements, such as a car chase that is remarkably clear and suspenseful, or a gun battle on a bridge in which the participants shoot and miss, then run like hell from the cops. He suffuses everything with peril, which is all the more remarkable given that the plot involves Abel simply trying to secure financing for a loan to purchase a piece of property. That may sound dull, but in the chilly universe of A Most Violent Year, even the most simple tasks carry a charge of doomed inevitability. Abel may be exactly as he seems, but this sly, subversive movie is far more than it appears.

Coming next week: the top 10 movies of 2014

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

No comments: