Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Missing Pictures of 2014, Part II: Feat. Clint Eastwood's American Sniper and Paul Thomas Anderson's Latest Marvel

The Manifesto is ranking every movie from 2014. Before getting to our top 10, we're supplementing our rankings with the handful of films we saw over the past month. This is the second installment of The Missing Pictures; the third will arrive tomorrow. And if you missed the first, you can find it here.

49. Mr. Turner (directed by Mike Leigh, 97% Rotten Tomatoes, 94 Metacritic). At one point in Mr. Turner, the film's title character, played with glowering disdain by Timothy Spall, inquires about the mechanics of an invention called a camera. It's a question that befits Turner's intellectual curiosity, but it also carries a touch of irony, given that the movie's director has been wielding a camera for the past several decades. Mr. Turner is not Leigh's best film, but it may be his most exquisitely pictorial, and its painterly images (courtesy of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Dick Pope) might even satisfy the lofty standards of its protagonist.

But as pleasing as Mr. Turner may be to the eye, it is not an entirely enjoyable movie to watch. The story of J.M.W. Turner's final 20-odd years, it primarily revolves around his relationships with two different women. One is Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), the pockmarked housekeeper of his London abode, who appears steadfastly loyal to him and whom he casually molests during an early scene. The other is Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey), a widow who offers him lodging in Margate and who eventually becomes Turner's common-law wife, even though he conceals his identity from her. The latter relationship is the emotional heart of the film, with Mrs. Booth's unflagging cheerfulness contrasting marvelously with Turner's gruff dignity. The former is more enigmatic, and it seems incomplete almost by design. We never really learn why Turner mistreats Hannah or why she cares for him so devotedly, but to the extent Leigh makes their connection opaque, it feels more like a failure of character development than a calculated suggestion of mystery. Even less developed is Turner's relationship with Sarah (Another Year's Ruth Sheen), the mother of his two daughters, whose existence he ignores. As a result, while the film runs long, it nevertheless feels thinly sketched.

All the same, Mr. Turner is a thoughtful and persuasive character study, and it serves as an overdue showcase for Spall, one of England's most reliable character actors who finally proves he can carry a movie. In a sly and often funny performance, Spall acquits himself effortlessly with Leigh's Victorian-era dialogue (which can feel mannered when spoken by lesser actors), but his bulldog face and guttural rumble are the film's most expressive instruments; he's never more articulate than when he grunts, glares, or growls. Some of the film's most intriguing scenes involve its subject either engaging in or talking about his work—Leigh regular Lesley Manville shows up for a charming interlude where she and Turner muse about philosophy, magnetism, light, and color—and Spall fashions Turner as a prideful painter in pursuit of both personal glory and artistic purity. Leigh is an artist of the more graceful and generous sort, which may explain why Mr. Turner, for all its insights into the creative process, is a portrait of puzzling intrigue rather than unshakable greatness.

46. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 73% RT, 72 MC). Since its release on Christmas Day, American Sniper has been an explosive cultural force. It's already racked up $250M in domestic gross (it has a chance to pass the latest Hunger Games movie as the top earner of 2014), not to mention six Oscar nominations, even as it's also received criticism for its purported jingoism. For my part, I tend to find American Sniper both overrated and misunderstood. The true story of highly decorated Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (a beefy Bradley Cooper), it's a blunt, fairly obvious war movie, with a limited trajectory and a thin supporting cast. Eastwood has a steady hand with the camera, and a handful of scenes where Kyle surveys the dusty ground beneath him through his rifle's scope feel exciting and unpredictable. For the most part, however, American Sniper's war sequences are fairly mundane, possessing neither the white-knuckle suspense of The Hurt Locker (its most obvious recent analogue) nor the poetic grandeur of Saving Private Ryan. The film supplies a few villains, including a Syrian sharpshooter who serves as Kyle's de-facto mirror, but there isn't much urgency to the conflict.

That's OK though, because the more compelling conflict in American Sniper is the tempest raging within Kyle himself. He's a killing machine, but he's also a man, and he struggles to process his actions and reorient himself within polite society. That's why the movie's best moments occur not in Iraq but on the home front, such as when Kyle tries to deflect unwelcome praise from a wounded veteran or when he finds himself defending his sky-high blood pressure during a medical visit. These scenes of ostensibly tranquil domesticity feel anxious and clammy, and Cooper plays up Kyle's escalating discomfort without mortgaging his fundamental decency. They also illustrate why concerns regarding the film's extreme nationalism are misplaced. (Seth Rogen took fire after he casually compared the movie's plot to the propagandistic film-within-a-film in Inglourious Basterds, a comparison that a certain blogger made regarding David Ayer's Fury, though one that incited rather less controversy.) American Sniper is not a starry-eyed recruitment video. It's an appropriately narrow study of how one soldier's zealous patriotism yielded not only death (in the form of recognized "kills"), but also confusion and estrangement. Eastwood fails to translate that into kinetic entertainment, but even if he can't quite grasp the particulars of Kyle's military missions, he understands the man.

43. Starred Up (David Mackenzie, 99% RT, 81 MC). The protagonist of Starred Up is just 19 years old and is classified as a "Young Offender", but there is nothing youthful about Eric (Unbroken's Jack O'Connell). From the film's near-wordless opening passage—when a prison guard peers at Eric and instantly deems him "high-risk", followed by Eric deftly concealing a razorblade inside a light panel in his cell—it's clear that this impassive, muscular teenager is familiar with doing time. Yet while Starred Up proceeds to gradually soften Eric's ferocity, he behaves throughout very much like a juvenile: sullen and proud, prone to spasms of rage and episodes of withdrawal. He's also something of an animal; an early scene in which he greases himself up before doing battle with club-wielding guards—recalling Tom Hardy's monstrous career criminal in Bronson—is electric in its savagery.

Filming with a bleached-out style that emphasizes the jail's spartan interiors, Mackenzie follows Eric's interactions with two very different men. The first is Neville, his father (Ben Mendelsohn, disappearing into his character per usual), a gruff inmate whose history with Eric is clearly fraught with strife and complication. The second is Oliver (Homeland's Rupert Friend), a volunteer therapist who runs a strange support group in which prisoners engage in coarse talk that allows them to tap into their emotional core, a heart the system seems designed to suppress. Unfortunately, despite Friend's best efforts, Oliver comes off like a construct, and the well-intentioned group scenes feel forced. (It doesn't help that the sharers' thick Irish brogues often render their speech unintelligible to this aurally challenged American.) And while Eric's strained, shifting relationship with Neville is fascinating and even moving, a number of the film's supporting characters are inadequately developed, especially given their importance to the plot.

With that said, Starred Up is remarkably effective in capturing the bizarre rhythms and realities of prison life, a world teeming with the threat of bloody violence but also with its own curious social codes and rituals. It also benefits from a powerful performance from O'Connell, whose edgy physicality establishes Eric as both a lost little boy and a coiled, virulent man. It would be inaccurate to say that Mackenzie has affection for this unstable Young Offender and the cold, cruel world he inhabits. But he clearly knows that world—and its youngest, most volatile resident—all too well.

38. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 72% RT, 81 MC). Inherent Vice doesn't tell a story so much as convey an experience. That isn't to suggest it lacks a plot. To the contrary, it is overflowing with incident: double crosses, false identities, police corruption, sinister conspiracies, drug trafficking galore. It's vaguely reminiscent of Chinatown in the way its Los Angeles private eye wades through a wealth of data in the course of uncovering a mammoth crime. But where Roman Polanski's epic was meticulously structured, Inherent Vice is a gigantic jumble of haphazard culs-de-sac, twisting itself into a marvelously messy maze. For its first half hour or so, you'll be scrambling to follow its indecipherable plot, which starts to unravel when femme fatale Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, and hello) glides into the seaside home of her ex-boyfriend, Doc Sportello (a superb Joaquin Phoenix), and asks him to locate her missing mister. From there, following along proves exasperating and exhausting, not to mention futile; there's no hope in untangling Inherent Vice's multitudinous threads on first viewing, so you'd be better served to—if I may quote a famous phrase from one of Anderson's earlier pictures—give up, surrendering yourself to the movie's wayward pleasures.

And lo, are there pleasures to behold. Inherent Vice may not make a lick of sense overall, but from scene to scene, it's majestic, as Doc slithers through its serpentine narrative, meeting a host of colorful characters, each seemingly more memorable than the last. His most obvious rival and apparent antagonist is Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a muscle-bound detective with a surly disposition and a spectacular flattop; their mixture of hostility and grudging respect is one of Anderson's gentlest touches. But Doc is too busy to spend much time with Bigfoot. He has to solve the crime, whatever it is, which means he interviews Hope (a heartbreaking Jena Malone), a heroin addict who now sees things all too clearly; snorts coke with Rudy (Martin Short, having a blast), a hedonistic dentist; and earns threats from a well-coiffed lawyer named Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan, holding your gaze). Every now and then, he even catches up with Shasta Fay, leading to the film's most ravishing scene, a single-take stunner of extended foreplay that's both legitimately disturbing and exceedingly hot. Anderson captures everything in burnished hues of nostalgia, with Robert Elswit's glorious cinematography evoking a bygone era of casual pleasure.

Still, well-made as it is, Inherent Vice would be little more than a hodgepodge of erratic vignettes if it weren't for Phoenix's unifying, soulful performance. With his muttonchops and slow shuffle, he makes Doc less an intrepid gumshoe than a devoted free spirit, sleuthing through the case not just to appease Shasta Fay but to protect his way of life. Skip past the wisecracks and squint through the cloud of pot-smoke, and you can discern a man with a strong moral code. He finds himself in life-threatening situations more than once—a late scene of out-of-nowhere explosive violence really hits hard—but he doesn't want to hurt anyone; he just wants everyone to chill out and have a good time. Thanks to Anderson's craft and Phoenix's talent, he gets his wish.

Coming tomorrow: the last of The Missing Pictures.

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

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