Instead of the usual top ten, I offer you my year at the movies in a series of moments—some that failed in one manner or another, and others that worked beautifully. At the end I present five reasons (in moments) for my choice for the best film of the year.
I’ve organized each section chronologically by the month I watched the film, so you get a sense of my year as it progressed. Note that I’m including 2014 releases that I caught up with during this past month (filed under January).
Lastly, be warned: spoilers abound!
Five Movie Moments that Didn’t Work
March – 300: Rise of an Empire, dir. Noam Murro
Does anyone even remember that this movie came out last March? I didn’t, until I looked through my movie journal. Take pretty much any moment of slow-mo spectacle in this action epic—the Greeks storming Persian ships at sea, say—and it proves that you can’t do the same outrageous thing a second time and expect it to have the same effect. Even with Eva Green’s madcap performance (which Aren praised), this movie’s only mildly exciting in comparison with its electric predecessor. When will producers learn?
August – Magic in the Moonlight, dir. Woody Allen
As I wrote in my review, I was enjoying the witty batter and philosophical debate, but then Woody Allen has to go and make a romance happen between the young spiritualist (Emma Stone) and the older cantankerous, sceptical illusionist (Colin Firth). The age difference between the two actually made me uncomfortable, especially considering this is a movie by Woody Allen. (As critics have pointed out, Allen has essentially made a movie about an older man proving that a young woman is a liar.) But even setting aside the allegations and rumours that plague Allen’s personal life, the film itself bothers me. The fact that in Magic in the Moonlight Allen’s happy to fall back on the irrationality of love and its emotional justifications (“the heart wants what the heart wants”) yet refuses any sort of emotional justification for belief in the supernatural suggests the increasingly narrow limits of this great filmmaker’s vision.
October – The Lego Movie, dir. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
I’ve heard nothing but praise for how smart and how satirical this animated action comedy is. I like the frenetic fun of most of the film, but I can’t stand the super-lame, live-action ending that reveals . . . it all took place in the head of a boy playing Lego. You see, the boy’s orderly, fussy, and thus bad dad (Will Ferrell) treats his Lego like serious models, but when he’s at work the boy mixes and matches and plays creatively. Ferrell’s performance is hammy, the tone is sappy, and it’s shot like a sitcom dream sequence. After all the zingers and wild energy that have driven the film, are we actually supposed to take this tagged-on family drama and cheap moralizing seriously? The fact that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller—the directors of no less than the insane, idiotic, hilarious 21 and 22 Jump Street—made the movie, makes me want to cling to the idea that the ending is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but sadly I believe it’s actually meant to be taken seriously. Look, I agree that creativity is important, but since I was once a boy who both built at will with his Lego and constructed model towns following the directions, I don’t like the issue being reduced to instructions and super-glue versus free play, totalitarian order versus sparkly rainbows. Go ahead, mix your Lego. Or don’t. That’s real free play. What’s even worse, though, is that after giving us a lesson on creativity, they’re already planning two more Lego movies.
December – Birdman, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
Emma Stone’s moment of surprised calm and realization after an angry outburst against her father (Michael Keaton) about the meaningless of life is supposed be one of those raw moments of authenticity and pure acting (and it’s probably the scene that earned her an Oscar nomination), but her pause comes across as rehearsed, her expression feigned. What is more, any admiration I had was lost when I took a step back from the intense display to consider the clichés Stone’s troubled daughter stereotype has been spouting off. Not to pick on Emma Stone, though. Moments like this reflect back on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s entire film: the presumed realism and authenticity of Birdman (epitomized by the much-lauded “continuous” takes) is nothing but attention-grabbing yet shallow artifice masking unoriginal and incoherent ideas.
January – The Imitation Game, dir. Morten Tyldum
“Are you paying attention?” Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing growls in voice-over. It’s an arresting opening, but it’s also a rip-off of The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s tangled 2006 thriller about stage magicians, which opens with the voice-over, “Are you watching closely?” The Imitation Game indeed. Both films are about secrecy and deception, and both films circle back to their opening to make us reevaluate what we’ve seen. One of these films does this well, and the other does it, oh, I don’t really know why. When the big revelation seems to be that Alan Turing was a homosexual, which anyone familiar with twentieth-century history probably knows, I couldn’t help wondering why screenwriter Graham Moore makes this some sort of code for the audience to crack. Now, to be fair, The Imitation Game is decent overall, but there’s nothing truly special about it. “Are you paying attention?” Well, a lot people are at the moment, but I don’t think many will be in a few years.
Nine Moments That Did
March – The Grand Budapest Hotel, dir. Wes Anderson
Early in Wes Anderson’s richly detailed film, we get our first view of the “picturesque, elaborate, and once widely celebrated establishment” of the title. The camera shows an alpine lookout crowned with a stag (a statue?), and then it pans across pointy mountaintops and a distant mountain range to reveal the elegant pink hotel atop a large foothill. A trolley leads from the town below up to the hotel. The unashamedly fake-looking scenery is a combination of models and matte paintings. The scene wonderfully evokes the pleasures of old-fashioned special effects and movie-world charm (I’ve written about these qualities in Hitchcock’s Saboteur) and that vision of “the Continent,” a blend of Central, Alpine, and Eastern Europe, the film is so infatuated with (as I explored in my essay on the film). I would adore The Grand Budapest Hotel for this moment alone, but happily the movie is laden with such detailed, evocative, precise treasures.
April – Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky
I think Noah’s telling of the creation story is far and away the most amazing part of this film, but within that sequence (which Aren greatly admired) is the striking image of Cain killing Abel depicted as occurring throughout all of human history. Darren Aronofsky shows a series of still images quickly cut together to create the illusion of movement. Each new silhouette is a different murderer, a different weapon, a different victim from throughout history, from ancient Cain to modern day riot police. It’s a visually stunning moment, and as one made up of visual patterns, it argues for the pattern of hatred and murder embedded throughout the human story, no matter the time period. Whether Aronofsky had this in mind or not, I can’t think of a better visualization of original sin.
June – Edge of Tomorrow, dir. Doug Liman
Live. Die. Repeat. That’s the movie’s premise and runs with it. For some reason, the image that sticks with me now is of Emily Blunt’s Sgt. Rita Vrataski doing yoga when Tom Cruise’s Maj. William Cage first meets her. At first, it seems like a gratuitous shot showing off Blunt’s toned body. But the shot is repeated each time Cage dies, tries again, and finds Vrataski anew. However, each time Cage still knows her. He remembers his deaths and carries his experiences forward. Each time is new for her though. As he begins to fall in love with her, what we thought was a gratuitous shot ogling the lead actress becomes a fond, felt look. The image gains a bittersweet poignancy. It’s not only a good example of how Edge of Tomorrow actually has a strong female character who’s not just around for her looks, but it also interestingly gives evidence of the Kuleshov effect. This same image being repeated means something different each time we see it in a different context.
September – The Trip to Italy, dir. Michael Winterbottom
I didn’t laugh as much at anything this year as I did over their bit about a cumquat. It’s a funny word, cumquat. The film is mostly a collection of improvised banter over dinners in Italy between English comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Merely repeating the lines wouldn’t do the bit justice, especially when the chemistry between the comedians and their command of voice generates so much of the humour. Their impersonations littered throughout the film are great (and easily worth the price of admission), and there is more going on in the film than jokes (as I discussed in my review), but this hilarious bit of improvisation takes the cake.
October – Gone Girl, dir. David Fincher
When Amy Elliott Dunne (Rosamund Pike) flicks her hair to avoid getting it bloody after killing Desi Collins (Neil Patrick Harris), this little gesture becomes a great movie moment. The hair flick is not only hilarious, being a moment of feminine finesse coming after a graphic and twisted killing (she slashes his throat midway through sex), but it also precisely conveys the finicky obsession of Amy’s character. Little moments like this make me think Rosamund Pike has crafted a character for the ages.
November – Nightcrawler, dir. Dan Gilroy
After negotiating for a good price for stolen metal with a construction manager, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) asks for a job. This weird character we’ve just been introduced to, with a face like a coyote’s, haunted eyes, dead arms hanging at his side, and a creepy, earnest grin, begins to use lines straight from a business self-help book. We might not expect this guy who looks like a loser to espouse our best business-speak, but as the film develops, we see how much American “gumption” and business “acumen” help this ruthless weirdo rise. When the manager ends the negotiation saying he wouldn’t hire a thief, Lou just smiles, nods, and wags his finger knowingly. He knows he’s a crook. And he loves it.
January – Snowpiercer, dir. Bong Joon-ho
The film is about a revolution onboard a super-train carrying the remnants of humanity during a new ice age. At one point, as the downtrodden “freeloaders” who live at the back of the train make their way to the front, they enter a car only to be stopped by a group of masked men carrying axes. One man holds up a large fish and cuts into it. Is this some sort of butcher or fishmonger car? The two groups stare at each other and Bong Joon-ho amps up the tension with close-ups of the gang and their implements. Not only are we in for a crazy fight, but it shows off another of the film’s key pleasures: you never know what the next train car will hold.
January – The Immigrant, dir. James Gray
Fairly late in this sad film, the poor suffering immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) gives confession. It has been a long time since her last, for she has been working as a prostitute in New York City to help her sick sister escape quarantine on Ellis Island. Outside the box, her conniving pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) listens to her confession. Surprisingly, she is not voicing hatred for him, but rather pity. He was recently beaten up defending her, and she cares that he suffers now because of her. A confession overheard is just the sort of melodramatic and possibly silly moment that James Gray makes beautiful and moving in The Immigrant. Credit must go to not only to Gray’s restrained style though, but also the excellent acting.
January – Ida, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
As Aren noted, most of Ida is composed of precise, static, black-and-white Academy-ratio off-framing: small parts of the subject are often just out of the frame—a chin, an ear, etc.—while a great deal of space is left above the characters’ heads. At the end, however, the visual style is changed with a long take using a handheld camera, as Ida walks forward towards the viewer down a country road. Where is she going? Does the shift in form reflect Ida shaking off the shackles of her religious order (she was preparing to be a nun), or does it simply suggest a new beginning, even perhaps one for her faith? The ending also offers an intelligent reworking of the ambiguous endings (often in long takes) of postwar European art cinema, such as Cléo de 5 à 7.
And Five Reasons Why Interstellar Is My Favourite Movie of the Year
To quote from one of the best parts of The Interview, haters just be hating and ain’t-ers be ain’t-ing. I know some filmgoers hate Interstellar (and maybe also The Interview), or at least think it’s actually very silly, or resent its grand aspirations and its claims at intelligence. I mean, how dare Christopher Nolan make a mainstream movie that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence while also being expository enough for the average filmgoer to understand! How dare he make a big-budget spectacle that tries to tackle difficult ideas and scientific theories, when there are so many comic books to still put on-screen! How dare he make a movie that is earnestly emotional or have a character say that love transcends dimensions! Doesn’t he know that serious artistic movies should be cynical? And if this is supposed to be a blockbuster, you just tag that sentiment on, usually at the end.
Why do grand ambitions and the daring to deal with both science and sentiment offend so many people?
There are many reasons why I love Interstellar, and I’ve just alluded to some of them above (others I discussed in our roundtables). I appreciate Christopher Nolan’s grand ambitions, and frankly I’d trade the next five years of superhero movies for more attempts at big Hollywood productions like this, even if they don’t all work. I think Interstellar works, though. Here are five moments when it does sublimely.
5) The black hole, Gargantua
Interstellar’s ability to tap into undercurrents of memory and deep-set feelings is what makes it so powerful for me. I don’t know about you, but black holes have always terrified me. The idea of their inexorable pull (at a certain point, you can’t escape their gravity) frightens me on a physical level, while the fact that they trap even light makes them potent emblems of the unknowable, which always unsettles. The film’s imagery as Cooper approaches Gargantua in his little ship conjured exactly those feelings—that sense of the sublime, something extraordinarily beautiful yet deeply disturbing because it is so much beyond us.
The best action sequence in the film comes when the crew, in their lander, is trying to connect to the mothership that is spinning out of control and tearing apart. They have to spin their lander at the same speed as the mothership in order to latch on at just the right time. Nolan composes the scene with a combination of clarity (we always know what is happening and what needs to happen) and expressionism (the shots and editing convey the dizzying action, but not incomprehensibly). Hans Zimmer’s organ score thunders away, so incredibly loud in the movie theatre. Nolan even fits in a beautiful shot of the racing ships in silhouette over the ice planet.
3) 7 years for every hour
Aren’s already talked about the emotional power of Cooper watching what he’s missed during the 23 years he’s been gone on the water planet. I want to highlight the narrative power of drawing on the relativity of time. Some people have complained about the implausibility of the water planet or the too-neat-ness of it all. In contrast, I thought it was a brilliant device for upping the stakes, and I remember hearing a collective shudder from the audience at the statement that seven years will pass for every hour down on the planet. For me, it’s one of those moments when the weight of a movie’s tension bears down almost unbearably. Nolan did a similar thing in Inception, when they talk about Limbo.
2) The sound of rainfall and crickets over Saturn
A beautiful juxtaposition, the image of Saturn with its rings and the spacecraft a tiny moving speck with the sound of rainfall and crickets from a terrestrial jungle at night awed me with the beauty of the universe, earthly and not. Seeing and hearing this in 70mm IMAX was astonishing. The giant screen conveyed the scale in a way no TV ever can.
1) Blast off!
A simple sound-bridge is used for maximum emotional effect. Hearing the rocket countdown as we see Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) drive away from the family farm signals that the film’s central interest lies with the human element and family story. At the same time, the allusions to the actual sounds and footage of NASA rockets suggests the sacrifices real human achievements have demanded. This is form and content working beautifully together.
What moments worked for you this year? What didn’t?