Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 4
Ukrainians gathered on Independence Square in Maidan
(Catch up on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, and afterward, keep reading through the big finish.)
31. Claude Lanzmann and Benjamin Murmelstein, The Last of the Unjust - Critics largely treated Unjust as though it were extra recommended reading attached to the prodigious syllabus that is Lanzmann's Shoah. But the projects are very different, and this is a prodigious event in itself. Murmelstein, once the Chief Rabbi of Vienna and later the appointed supervisor of the Jewish ghetto and concentration camp at Theresienstadt, remains for many people an emblematic face of Nazi collaboration, and he knows it. So not only is he rare for being the unambiguous center of an epic-length Lanzmann documentary but he arrives to his interviews as Lanzmann's subjects seldom do: fully aware of the frameworks and biases that many, many people will apply to his testimonies, if they even listen at all. He seems to have decided that all he can tell is the truth, his truth, and hope for some benefit of the doubt. The documentarian seizes on Murmelstein's candor and his amazing recall of salient details, including the horrible fates of prior Theresienstadt supervisors. The narrative appeals to the part of Lanzmann that likes to complicate received narratives, even if Murmelstein isn't always prepared (who is?) for such astringent, indefatigable probing. He tows a line of asking for understanding without begging for sympathy, with Lanzmann both helping him draw that line and repeatedly shoving him off it. As heavy as the film is, it's remarkable how invigorating it is to see a weighty conversation about an absolutely intractable circumstance get the screen-time and thorough contextualization it deserves, sustained by a vigorous inquirer and an impressively reflective subject.
32. Roger Ebert and Steve James, Life Itself - A lighter documentary, but far from insubstantial, particularly since neither Ebert nor James is interested in doting hagiography. Affection for Ebert flows across Life Itself and from multiple sources; anyone eager to honor his memory or his durable, capacious careers as journalist, critic, and media personality would do well to rent the film. But the scenes that stick are those where James wants to shoot something Ebert doesn't want filmed (like the excruciating suction of his esophagus), or where Roger and his wife Chaz are of different minds about how much to broadcast of his ongoing medical challenges or of bad news arriving in real time. Occasional conflicts like these help make Life Itself a Steve James film, not just a loose facsimile of Ebert's memoir or a straightforward extension of his self-perceptions. The same could be said of the fair hearing Gene Siskel gets in Life Itself, neither sidebarred nor sentimentalized nor set up as the obvious lesser of two equals. Just as Jamesian is the prismatic view of complex professional pressures, the tough ligatures linking work to family or individual to community. It says plenty about Ebert that he wanted an actual filmmaker to document his life, not just a trusted friend, and that he'd want the movie to be good, not just fond.
33. Cheng Pei-Pei and Ben Whishaw, Lilting - It's difficult to play two characters who, beyond misunderstanding each other, have absolutely no context for grasping or reading each other. It's even harder to do that without the actors suggesting that they themselves are out of sync, or without resorting to the kind of broad, superficial semaphores of impatience that suggest a clean, improbable rapprochement is just around the corner. Cheng Pei-Pei and Ben Whishaw clear all these obstacles in Hong Khaou's delicate film. They offer Lilting such a strong center that it survives the vaguer storytelling and characterizations all over its margins. Cheng is an elderly, unassimilated Chinese immigrant to the UK who has recently lost the son who placed her in an assisted living center. She does not realize he did so only temporarily, until he could screw up the courage to come out to her as gay and convince her to live with him and his boyfriend, whom Cheng's character already doesn't like. The son died before he could clarify anything, so now the mother and the boyfriend glare at each other across linguistic, cultural, and generational barriers, and across chasms of secrecy and grief, while also contending with other, private matters that add to their sorrow and anger. Much of this is communicated via silent expressions; even when they speak through a translator, all we need to know is written on the features of Cheng's and Whishaw's faces. The film is a tiny labor of love, kept aloft by the year's unlikeliest star pairing, and one of its most moving.
34. Adi and Joshua Oppenheimer, The Look of Silence - Lots of documentaries this time around, none of them riskier than Oppenheimer's complement to his own Act of Killing, furthering his investigation into Indonesia's genocidal past and ghost-filled present. This time, Oppenheimer filters that story through the survivors rather than the perpetrators, and specifically through his aging protagonist Adi, still seeking the truth about his murdered brother—the kind of question harbored by so many Indonesians, usually without hope of answer. The pursuit itself is touching and deeply tragic. Remember, too, that these are films that conclude with endless credits to "Anonymous" participants, because it is still too dangerous to pose direct queries about the still-ruling regime, which only makes Adi's stamina and quiet heroism more daunting. The challenges keep mounting: imagine sitting in a living room, bearing up through a family's jocular remembrance of a husband and father's merry career as a mass-murderer, only to deny any memory of that past once you've revealed to them that your brother may have been one of this man's victims. That's just one scenario that Oppenheimer's difficult, debate-stoking, but enlightening project entails for Adi. Remarkably, the film illumines as much about Adi's steel and grace as it does about his and his country's unresolved anguish.
35. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, Love Is Strange - Lithgow and Molina sell the audience on the year's most credible and textured long-term relationship, and they do so without getting to spend much time together on screen. The whole point is that their characters are separated after news of their long-awaited marriage gets Molina's character fired; no longer able to afford their Manhattan apartment, they rely on the worn-thin kindness of relatives and the blithely inattentive hospitality of friends. Love Is Strange is such an exquisite film that, arguably, Lithgow's and Molina's performances may not even be its best. Which is saying a lot, given the decades of adoration, compromise, frustration, prejudice, privilege, vacillating optimism and pessimism, and deep reciprocal knowledge that are palpable when they perform at a piano, or visit a social worker's office, or sift through tricky reminiscences at a bar, or switch bunks, or seek each other's company on a rainy night, or simply walk down a quiet street. That these two actors, usually so boldfaced in their effects, encourage each other toward their quietest, most translucent characterizations only adds to the pleasure of witnessing them. I'd never have predicted it. Acting, too, is strange.
36. The People of Ukraine, Maidan - I have loved Loznitsa's fiction and nonfiction films in the past and expected to feel more educated or moved than I was by Maidan, his revealing yet somewhat dispassionate chronicle of recent civic protest and violent pushback in his Ukrainian homeland. But whatever levels of insight or engagement Maidan arguably loses through its static camera and lengthy, distant shots, the sheer impression of popular solidarity packs a wallop. In shots like the one above, including the film's opener, it's hard to calculate the graphic impact of that many heads and bodies standing in stalwart fellowship, putting aside whatever needed putting aside so they could gather on these squares with strangers and acquaintances, sing these anthems, and face in the same directions. All of them knowing what must be coming. This image repeated in shifting configurations in so many world sites in 2014. But as bleak as it is to be surrounded by so many reasons to protest, it's empowering to see formalized outrage and collective identity making something of a comeback, amidst a world culture that so aggressively incentivizes individualism and acquiescence.
37. Timothy Spall and Mike Leigh, Mr. Turner - No one has told us to receive Mr. Turner as Mike Leigh's last film, but it certainly plays like one, devoted to the evolving circumstances of a brilliant, aging artist who perceives his medium and his era forging ahead without him. One of Mr. Turner's many great strengths is that it refuses to focus on Turner to the exclusion of other characters, and captures so many indispensable textures of being alive in that part of the world in the 19th century. We take a lot in, as Leigh typically ensures that we do. But if Turner is something of a mirror for Leigh, he is also a gift to one of Leigh's most steadfast accomplices. Spall's long, sturdy career is as improbable a success story as Leigh's, particularly given his stature and pugnacious countenance, and the lingering threat of typecasting. His performances outside that repertory had been getting broader of late, and even within the Leigh portfolio, he's been shown to better effect (Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy) and worse (Life Is Sweet, All or Nothing). In Tim Burton kitschfests, Harry Potter pageants, and even in Leigh's more meticulous life-studies, you started to know what you were getting whenever Spall showed up. Now he's in a movie and giving a performance that surprise you at multiple turns, making it as much a resuscitation of the performer as a valediction for a very fruitful actor-auteur collaboration, jointly premised in a careful, observant, distinctive way of working that they proudly share with their subject.
38. Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, and Nicholas Stoller, Neighbors - At a time when even the most famous film critics must fret about keeping their jobs, I know one who thought about quitting after he saw Neighbors, out of sheer despair at how many more dick jokes he could possibly withstand after years and years of this stuff, with no end in sight. I get where he's coming from. There are parts of Neighbors I could do without, or that the filmmakers themselves apparently could do without, like the bevy of supporting characters who do little and go nowhere. In movies like these, you expect The Wife to fall squarely in that category: kvetching instead of behaving, nursing instead of talking, gamely shouldering a marriage that everyone in the audience perceives as beneath her. So hosannas to Rose Byrne for refusing to play that character, and to the screenwriters and director for being uninterested in reprising her, and especially to Rogen and Byrne together for constructing a believable, humorous, saucy, and multi-faceted marriage in the middle of a mall-theater comedy—a marriage replete with narcissisms, passive aggressions, and vestiges of arrested or unclaimed adolescence, but also, somehow, an appealing union of likable equals whom you never stop rooting for.
39. Jenny Slate and Gaby Hoffmann, Obvious Child - Even the most glowing reviews of Obvious Child had me expecting a blatant launching pad for actress-writer-comedian-producer Jenny Slate. She doesn't fill all those roles on this project, but what she does furnish she does in spades: humor, heart, intelligence, clarity, even an undisguised inexperience that she shapes into something articulate, entertaining, and utterly in service of her character. Still, beyond not being a one-woman show, Obvious Child makes a surprising bid as one of the year's richest ensemble efforts. Credit is due to almost everyone on screen and, of course, to helmer and tuning fork Gillian Robespierre, but if I had to single out the most rewarding collaboration in the movie, it's the best-friendship shared by Slate's Donna and Hoffmann's Nellie. They don't have oodles of dialogue. We have to accept their bond on sight, but not through an overt charm assault or spastic laughs or sappy hugs. Donna is already picking up pieces by the time Nellie arrives to the film. Through highs and lows, Donna's always got a mess at her feet, and Nellie looks and sounds aware of the mess, ever-ready for the mess, sympathetic to the mess, and somewhat befuddled by the constancy of the mess. Slate and Hoffmann show us a friendship where one partner is often observing and tending to the other, without tilting all the way into exploitation or codependency. You feel Nellie's judgments of Donna and feel, too, that Donna probably needs them, as we all often need them. "No judgments" is not always the best life mantra, or the fairest expectation to lay on your friends. And when Nellie draws one sharp line in a conversation that's gotten too flippant for her tastes, the audience sits up straight as instantly as Donna does.
40. Mark Duplass, Elisabeth Moss, Elisabeth Moss, and Mark Duplass, The One I Love - The movie suggests what Shane Carruth might have devised if hired to write a subplot for Love Actually. It's a decent idea, not worth spoiling if you haven't seen it, engaged primarily with the fantasy of your romantic partner being a different person—not a completely different person, but a slightly different person, in ways that currently count, because of whatever you bickered about last night, or because things are fine at present but not, of course, what they once were. Also: what if you could neither accept this revised partner permanently nor sprint nostalgically back to the original, but had to handle them both at once? The One I Love is clearer and cleverer in some scenes than others about how it grapples with these comic and philosophic dilemmas, but unquestionably its greatest asset are the multiple performances apiece by Duplass and Moss. Neither performer is inclined to ostentation, ever. The light but eloquent adjustments of voice, demeanor, and energy that this script solicits from them suit both performers perfectly, even working as a kind of brief on what makes them both special: sexy without being Sexy, smart without flaunting Smarts. But it can't have been easy, especially resisting any temptation to polarize their multiple incarnations, making them too boringly "opposite" or easily differentiable. Moss and Duplass rise to that challenge even more skillfully than their writer-director does. They collaborate and negotiate with themselves as well as they do with each other.