Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 2

Jafar Panahi, or is that Kambuzia Partovi, in Closed Curtain

(For context on this series, visit Part 1. For continuations, see Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.)

11. Cast and Crew, Boyhood - One of my favorite morsels in this year's Hollywood Reporter Actress Roundtable came when Patricia Arquette described the experience of having to be these characters on- and off-camera during short spurts over a 12-year period.  Playing a mom to two young kids who had to buy her as their mom, or at least as a second mom, involved the usual interruptions of motherhood. Thus, when one of them needed a sandwich, there was no more line-running or ruminating on the character, just a trip to the micro-budgeted craft-services table to see who wanted what.  In her way, it feels like Arquette is speaking for lots of folks involved in Boyhood, from Ellar Coltrane to the perfectly-cast grandparents to the people who paid for the shoot, edited the footage, and stocked the lunch table with sandwich stuff. They all kept it real. So, fine, I'm in the camp that admired Boyhood without quite absorbing it as a religious experience.  On the sheer scale of artistic accomplishment, I see a prodigious if uneven experiment, a great performance by Ethan Hawke, and an above-average family chronicle with angles and textures a more conventionally produced movie couldn't have, for better or worse.  But as a collective enterprise of trust and long-term devotion, among collaborators who showed us a family and were a family, this was awfully special.

12. Kristen Stewart and Peyman Moaadi, Camp X-Ray - I have, thank goodness, never been to Guantánamo or to any facility resembling it, so I can't fairly assess this film's encapsulation of that environment or of the experiences people have there, on either side of the jail bars. But Stewart and Moaadi certainly convinced me I was privy to a nascent, plausible, and variously friction-filled relationship, hard to put into words, between a mysterious captive and an erstwhile captor, herself a vulnerable underling by virtue of her age, her inexperience, and her gender. Their performances really land.  And as an Army brat, I particularly admire Stewart's strong, persuasive hold on what many young soldiers are like. Movies often seek to show that, but few past the smell test.  In a year where Stewart also showed agility and sensitivity in scenes with Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche, she was best with Moaadi.  He continues Stewart's laudable run with world-class duet partners.

13. Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, and Glenn Greenwald, Citizenfour - Doesn't it seem silly to group what this trio pulled off, and the context in which they did so, alongside the collaborative work of even the best actors and storytellers?  Yes and no.  One thing this team understood was that the filming of Snowden's disclosures wasn't finally separable from the disclosures themselves; image and representation are seminal, as boon and as danger. With that knowledge in mind, they construct a scene of History in Action that we can trust, even as they acknowledge the labor that goes into even the most "unvarnished" depiction—and even as they hope out loud that information might just this once travel at a speed of light before cults of personality and image-making inevitably overtake it.  What a heroic and endlessly debatable enterprise. What a rare look at such a pivotal circumstance, reflecting so much thought about what these people were doing, at concentric levels of critical remove from their own minute-by-minute and all-but-unprecedented experience.

14. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Closed Curtain -  Also at the knife-sharp intersection of art and politics, Closed Curtain represents Panahi's second completed effort at producing films while under heavy sentence to produce no films.  His earlier and even more celebrated This Is Not a Film took a more austere approach to that conundrum.  That was his prison notebook; Closed Curtain is his Pirandellian joust, with Partovi as collaborator, co-writer, and on-screen surrogate.  Over time, the relationship shifts, and shifts again.  As bodies, as visual signs, and as political actors, they step in and out of each other's spaces and shoes.  The whole thing is an adroit and intimidatingly risky endeavor, and deserved more than the passing glance it seemed to receive from U.S. critics, as though Panahi's plight had fallen too far below the global fold to still be news. (Speaking of collaboration: one of my favorite memories of the movie year involved discussing Closed Curtain on the consistently rewarding Hello Cinema podcast. Thanks to Tina and Amir!)

15. Robin Wright and Ari Folman, The Congress - So many actors have pulled a "Malkovich Malkovich" in the last fifteen years that playing oneself onscreen barely seems novel anymore.  But Wright, with lower stakes than Panahi, but higher ones than most actors on this list, restores some intricacy and risk to that decision.  The first part of the film percolates with actual criticisms the actress has doubtless heard many times: where'd you go, why'd you turn down this film and that one, what about your kids, what'll you do now that you're old, how come you can't look like Buttercup forever?  The second half is a vortex into narrative and conceptual madness that would be intimidating enough even if it weren't delivered as surreal animation.  Here again is an unusually tall order of trust from an actor to a filmmaker. But Folman is just as surely inspired by his fearless, smart, impressively self-aware headliner as she is by him.  The film gave me headaches and thrills.  The inquisitive and complicated collaboration more straightforwardly impressed me.

16. Ned Benson, Jessica Chastain, and James McAvoy, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby - Anybody who followed the year-long publicity trail around this film heard endless reprisals of the "How many versions are there?" question. Amid that current of conversation, one also heard a delightful anecdote about an utterly green actress seeing a film at a mid-size festival and loving it, and tracking down the director, and enthusing so brightly that they've remained fast friends.  That kind of backstory is one for the books, with Benson now the gutsy impresario of a long, ambitiously yin-yanged story of marital turbulence, and Chastain the Oscar-nominated celebrity who brings his idea a serious budget and global attention.  And let's not discount the contributions of McAvoy, the rare, Ruffalovian leading man who seems utterly un-anxious about co-headlining a "woman's film."  As executed, I didn't like the integrated Rigby at all, which was the only version I saw—if anything, I felt less clear about these characters and less pulled into their experience than I'm accustomed to from these performers. But everything ain't for everybody, and admiration can overcome skepticism, or at least co-exist with it. These artists dared to do something different, and they projected a confidence in their efforts and a belief in each other's abilities, touchingly rooted in life.

17. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow - So many collaborations unfold across this film: a standard band-against-the-aliens storyline; a conspiracy among the endlessly rebooted protagonist and his serially killed-off former selves; a very tricky negotiation among the hardworking Cruise, his shiny-toothed persona, and a public that's both rooting for and riled against him.  The sheer chemistry between Cruise's robosoldier and Emily Blunt's battlefield queen is less convoluted than the film's looping temporalities, knotted metaphysics, and startling auto-commentary, but it's the hardest thing to shake. I'd never have matched these actors, and if Cruise's character is practically built for him, Blunt's seems inconceivably far afield from her prior roles, as eclectic as they've been.  I'm undecided whether she's a lead in the film, or so impressive that she just feels like one.  Cruise and Blunt both have class and sex already, so I'm not sure how to articulate what they "give each other" here, but in the process, they bestowed upon us the year's most thrilling pair of action heroes.  I'd take them over any two Avengers, or indeed, over all six.

18. Chiemi Karasawa and Elaine Stritch, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me - I can't possibly be the only gay alive who's put off by Elaine Stritch, in every one of her incarnations. (A note to film writers: you are never "the only one" who thinks or says anything. Nobody is.) It's not like she disguises her rude braggadocio or gives a whit if you don't like her Sprechgesang, but I always found the first too much, the second not enough, and the prospect of watching another documentary about her flatly uninviting. So I'm all the more taken with what Karasawa achieves here, which is a further canonization of Stritch that operates simultaneously as a demystification, as attentive to the actress's on-stage triumphs as to the surly sight of her stabbing the hell out of some shrink-wrapped muffins (and censuring the cameraman for doing his job wrong).  The director inspired enough confidence for Stritch to share, with sobering sincerity and humbling self-perception, her textured and nervous, proud and frightened views of her own life and career, and of the obviously impending ends of both.  It's an impressive movie, more subtle than it seemed, and much more so than I'd guessed.

19. Darius Clark Monroe and the folks in the bank, Evolution of a Criminal - I wish Monroe's documentary had received half the attention Karasawa's did, because who doesn't want to see this: a bright and promising young kid who made a desperate but awful choice, later imprisoned for armed robbery, and now a college graduate and NYU-certified filmmaker telling his own story as his debut movie, and including in the documentary his attempted rapprochements, years later, with the terrified souls who were trapped in the bank he shook down with two accomplices.  Monroe's Q&A after Evolution of a Criminal at this year's Chicago Film Festival was one of the most eloquent and unblanching testimonies I've ever heard a filmmaker give about his art, his life, his family... few would even put themselves in that position.  His own bravery puts the former victims in their own difficult spots, often without realizing they're being filmed, but Evolution doesn't play as sensational voyeurism. We're watching human temerity and honest communication, on many sides and of many colors.  Really, I should cite Monroe's family here, too, since his mother, stepfather, siblings, and other relatives are crucial abettors in getting this story told, and helping us all see so much of ourselves in it.

20. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars - Honestly, I don't care if you're like, "Whaaa? That film? Those two?" Because the point is, the actors show none of the reflex condescension that so many people exhibit when the title comes up, and that I certainly exhibited, too, before I took the trouble to actually see it.  In character, I believed everything these two did. I believed that they loved each other, that they were dying, that they remained who they were before they got sick but were also irreversibly changed, and that they were both happy and sad about pretty much everything that happens to them. Out of character, I trusted on available evidence that they earned each other's trust as actors but also that of Laura Dern (excellent), Willem Dafoe (excellent), and some other, more proven talents that Stars puts in their path.  After The Spectacular Now and this, I'm eager to follow Woodley anywhere.  I never thought I'd say that, but prior skepticism is my own fault.  Movie reviewing means having to say you're sorry, and even being glad to admit you're sorry, when you find you've pegged two people incorrectly.

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Anonymous Liz said...

A note to film writers: you are never "the only one" who thinks or says anything. Nobody is.

Going off on a tangent here, but for "film writers," I would substitute "everyone on the Internet and probably in the non-virtual world, too." This claim drives me up a wall. It seems like a disingenuous way of begging for validation from other people.

Anyway, loving this series!

7:46 PM, December 31, 2014  
Anonymous BVR said...

Nick, thank you for always offering unique and insightful write-ups. I only wish you would write more often, and please let us know when that Best Actress book is on the way. I'll be first in line :)

Also, thank you for the Edge of Tomorrow write-up. I gave that movie a chance after critics, including you, celebrated it, and I haven't stopped singing its praises since June. Cruise is terrific, and Blunt is Oscar-worthy.

8:56 PM, December 31, 2014  
Anonymous Dave S. said...

For this chunk of the 2014 movie alphabet, I'll suggest the cast and creative team of "Coherence", especially the editors. Commending them for largely coherent improvisation sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it succeeds as a film, too, not just a high degree of difficulty juggling act. I think I prefer it over "Primer", although "Coherence" is arguably more audience-friendly by design.

10:05 AM, January 01, 2015  

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