Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 1
Kevin Allesee, Julian Walker, Nikki Jane, Gary LeRoi Gray, Wanita Woodgett, and Torrey Laamar in Blackbird.
"The thing that counts the most with me is the friendships, and the love, and the sheer joy we have shared making movies together. My friends."
If you don't know who said that and when, it is conceivable that you are reading the wrong blog, but that's okay. It just means our lives are very different, which is fine. The first reason these words linger in my mind today, even more than it does every day (no, seriously), is that during a month when everybody's making lists of the best single films and most outstanding individual accomplishments of the year in film, I realize how little we salute collaborations. Outside of acceptance speeches or unbreakable ties on Ten Best lists, it's hard to pay tribute to the aspect of movielove that isn't about beholding solo artists' achievements but about relishing teamwork among filmmakers, or bonds between characters, or resonances across films.
The other reason is that New Year's Eve and New Year's Day are always occasions when I dwell on my own gratitude for the relationships that sustain my life and enable my good fortune. This blog isn't the place to repay more private debts, but much of the thankfulness I feel is toward movie artists, for how they inspire, educate, and move me—often via their own visible camaraderie. I genuinely feel happier in my life and better able to communicate, empathize, rebound from hardships, and admit my limitations because of the impressions of life, however reassuring or confronting, that I glean in the cinema. So here are 52 occasions, one per week of the year, when the currents running between characters or the collaboration nourished among creative artists filled me with joy, admiration, humility, or insight. I've limited myself to movies either released in 2014 or bowing at festivals in the last year, hopefully to arrive on screens near you in 2015. I didn't love every movie, but that's the whole point: all of these relationships were gems to me, even the ones that were nestled in the rough.
1. Regina Hall and Kevin Hart, About Last Night - In their support of Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant and in their frisky, cantankerous rapport with each other, Hall and Hart generated the closest thing I saw in any 2014 romantic comedy to the vivid, spiky ensemble work that sustained the genre in the classic decades. They don't play down to the genre, or defer to their co-stars. Contemporary and frequently raunchy as they are, they act like they're in Libeled Lady, or a sexed-up, 21st-century Palm Beach Story. As tasty as the whole film was, I wanted to keep watching their characters, even though you wouldn't necessarily want to be them or count on them in real life. And with so many filmmakers giving Hart a long leash to improvise or ceding him his own unchallenged spotlight, which he's often very good at filling, it was great to see an actress go so fully toe-to-toe with him (among other bodily contacts).
2. Catherine Breillat and Isabelle Huppert, Abuse of Weakness - With typical flintiness, Breillat answered my question to her at TIFF '13 by saying that Huppert was the only professional actress she had any interest in working with. As a piece of acting, Huppert's rendering of a palsied, embittered, undisguised surrogate for Breillat is often impressive but somewhat uneven, though less so than the film, which starts out strong, stagnates for a while, but sticks its pointed landing. Setting all that somewhat aside, as an instance of making oneself a conduit for a forceful, sui generis filmmaker with something angry, complex, and somewhat inchoate to say about an extremely difficult time in her life, Huppert's work is exceedingly generous without being at all soft.
3. Alex and Ali, Alex & Ali - I hope more people get to see this documentary about a man from the U.S. South and a man from Iran who were friends and lovers a half-century ago, when the latter's family hosted the former as an exchange student, and who are now attempting to reconnect at a very different time, personally and politically. The story is as harrowing as it is happy, and I won't reveal how they resolve their very difficult circumstances, but their willingness to be filmed at all was inspiring enough. Their candor about thorny matters of head and heart, unfolding unpredictably in real time, is all the more so. Sobering and valuable storytelling, straight from life.
4. Joanna Hogg and Tom Hiddleston, Archipelago, Exhibition, and Unrelated - A major thrill of the movie year was seeing Hogg's first three features, made over a seven-year span, finally get released to U.S. audiences—or, at least, New York audiences, though anyone can watch them now on Amazon or on Kino DVD. When you do (and you should!), one of the delicious threads running across them is Hogg's recruiting of a handsome, charismatic, and talented unknown for a key role in Unrelated in 2007, moving him to the center of Archipelago in 2010, and inviting him to contribute a cameo to Exhibition in 2013, at which point he's likely doing her a favor by drawing some post-Thor, post-Avengers spectators. A happy confluence of two new talents, each helping the other to be discovered. (And it clearly means a lot to both of them; until its recent abbreviation, Hiddleston's Twitter bio listed his character names in Hogg's tiny films alongside "Loki" as a fond précis of how he sees himself.)
5. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, The Babadook - I might just as easily have cited Davis and Jennifer Kent, the first-time writer-director whose eccentric, trenchant, and terrifying vision the actress helped instrumentally to realize, just as Kent pulled the veil further off one of Australia's best-kept thespian semi-secrets. But The Babadook for me is also about the uncanny bond that Davis and Wiseman construct as a mother and son living in several forms of extremis at once. Both give vivid, outsized performances, yet they're never too much. The professional and the young upstart push each other to great heights they couldn't attain alone. As specific as their circumstances are, their co-authored essay on codependency, post-traumatic inertia, and ardent but ambivalent love have something for everyone...
6. Samuel Lange Zambrano and Samantha Castillo, Bad Hair - ...as does the year's other deeply strained yet wholly credible mother-son bond, between the two stars of Venezuela's breakout hit. If Davis feels like The Babadook's center, Bad Hair foregrounds the young kid, who has strong but only semi-articulate questions to ask about everything, from who his father was to why his kinky hair won't sit straight. And Mom's got lots of questions about him. Sometimes these questions are asked, sometimes suppressed, and sometimes they are channeled into outrageous, symptomatic behavior on both sides. I was hit by this film the way others were impacted by Xavier Dolan's Mommy, for which I credit the sterling actors and their exciting writer-director, Mariana Rondón.
7. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, Beyond the Lights - These two put over the year's most delicious love story: melodramatic in the best sense, informing the world just how much we'd been craving a Douglas Sirk movie about Rihanna and her paramour-protector. Parker and Mbatha-Raw are both heaven to look at, which doesn't hurt, but the stealthiest, trickiest part of their on-screen success is that each gives such a low-key, slow-burn, fundamentally sad performance. Even as romance is kindled between them, you see the private places and sputtering wicks in her eyes and in his, not just the glowing embers of attraction, the shared hearth of companionship (though you certainly feel that, too). Introspection is always tough to translate on screen, as is bone-deep depression, not least in a love story. But Mbatha-Raw and Parker aced those challenges, with their director and crew's tremendous and agile support. And they did so without shutting the audience out. Noni and Kaz's encounter has the fragile quality of private, precarious experience, even on a thousand screens.
8. Pretty Much Everybody, Birdman - People who don't like Birdman really don't like it. I often grasp the criticisms, even as I found the movie electrifying, and much more layered and smarter about itself than many detractors allow. Love it or hate it, though, surely we can agree that this cast and crew invested enormous trust in each other to make the movie in such a high-wire fashion: not just by negotiating the ongoing obstacle course of so many extended takes in a complicated set under multiple lighting regimens, but also the focused commitment to spry, funny, credible characterization by all involved. Nobody's acting like they're in a movie that was difficult to make. Their ease with each other is a tribute not just to the cast members themselves but to the enormous safety they must have felt in each other's company, and in their director's hands, and from their attentive, sympathetic, and endlessly resourceful cinematographer. A team effort to beat the (jazz) band.
9. The Teenagers, Blackbird - Patrik-Ian Polk's semi-musical, semi-comic, over-stuffed ensemble piece is not, in my view, a good movie. I'd be hard-pressed to imagine the review that could rationalize its hectic narrative, erratic tones, and uneven performances. But the kids in the lead roles, especially Julian Walker, Torrey Laamar, Gary LeRoi Gray, Nikki Jane, and Wanita Woodgett, have more than just screen presence. They seem fully aware how few movies take any interest in African American adolescence, much less in the South, much less under the penumbras of sexual ambiguity, romantic crises, trials of faith, and tribulations of growing up. They're naturals on screen, but they also fight beautifully for their right to this stage and for the value of their stories. Moreover, as budding professionals, they surely recognize how few chances they'll get to establish their bonafides as actors, singers, comedians, Shakespeareans, etc., so they do every last thing on Polk's crowded itinerary, movingly and well. When the movie throws too much at us, it plays like a series of miscalculations, but when these young actors strut their stuff, it feels like a rare occasion brightly seized, auguring (I hope) even sturdier vehicles for all of them in the future. This year, even more than most, we needed their vitality and unfakeable potential.
10. Michelle Hendley, Michael Welch, and Alexandra Turshen, Boy Meets Girl - Another LGBT festival title, and one that I hope will find its audience, Boy Meets Girl centers around a teenage transwoman in Kentucky (Hendley), her cisgendered best pal (Welch), and a straight, pretty, effervescent stranger (Turshen) who's about to get married. All three characters surprise themselves with whom they love, what friendships mean, and what they're prepared to embrace or forgive. They also have to be funny, and clear a few hurdles of scripted contrivance. Welch has been cast as handsome window-dressing in the Twilight films, I gather. Turshen I know nothing about. Hendley, herself trans, and a teenaged fashion vlogger based in Missouri, had never been in a movie before. As her father said of his newly famous daughter, "She's thrown me curveballs her whole life, but thank goodness, I like playing baseball," a great line incorporated into the film. They are all possessed of great comic timing, all energetic, all capable of disarming sincerity, and more than up to the tasks of a movie that seems simultaneously feather-light and subtly demanding. Hendley could carry any number of films, whether cast as trans or not. I hope she gets to, and that she gets costars this able and appealing, and that more filmmakers see the humor and joy in trans characters' lives, and that more audiences can see past their stereotypes of rural America, as this film so gamely does.
Stay tuned for more installments (2, 3, 4, and 5), and have a wonderful new year!