Friday, January 02, 2015

Best of 2014: In Salute of Collaboration, Pt. 5

Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar, and Mira Grosin in the aptly titled We Are the Best!

After installments 1, 2, 3, and 4, we reach the final dozen partnerships I want to salute from the last year of ticket-buying and festival-hopping.  Please note that I hadn't seen Selma when I plotted out this series, or else I would have recognized its sprawling and sterling supporting ensemble of activists—Stephan James, André Holland, Wendell Pierce, Tessa Thompson, Common, Lorraine Toussaint, Henry Sanders, Keith "Short Term" Stanfield, Niecy Nash, Oprah Winfrey, Colman Domingo, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and more. They convey so much with few if any King-like moments to seize the spotlight, evoking several historically august personages without pulling focus or acting "important." And I still haven't screened Leviathan, A Most Violent Year, Cake, The Good Lie, Top Five, Inherent Vice, American Sniper, or several other commercial releases that seem like viable plays for this type of recognition... to say nothing of the many, many festival titles I've missed.  But conceding all those necessary omissions, there's still so much to savor.

41. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive - Talk about directorial conceptions that would be hard to penetrate: Only Lovers is a mordant hipster globe-hopping comic romantic political vampire story about devotion over time, the dying world, the gutting of Detroit, dysfunctional relatives, and rad taste in guitars. It's funny, spooky, taciturn, and strange. As much as Tilda Swinton seems like an osmotic chameleon—capable of turning into anything she touches, the weirder the better—I refuse to believe it doesn't take work. Even though Tom Hiddleston joined the movie late, when Michael Fassbender had to bail, he seems like he's always been there: not just throughout pre-production, but for the last 2,000 years. One imagines that pretending to be in love with Swinton or Hiddleston would be easy, but wittily conveying several centuries of familiarity and un-gloopy admiration is surely a special skill. I was in the seeming minority in being spellbound by Jarmusch's Limits of Control a few years ago, which also featured Swinton and John Hurt, but that was unmistakably one man's weird vision; actors offered themselves as manipulable pawns. Only Lovers Left Alive is just as idiosyncratic, yet it feels co-authored by everyone in it, but especially by its leads, like a funky hallucination they had together. Pull up a popsicle and enter the dream.

42. The Miners and the Queers, Pride - Matthew Warchus directed one of the year's largest ensembles; there must be two-dozen actors with speaking parts and legible arcs in Pride. The clear mapping of everyone's journeys, both common and private, plays like an unpretentious miracle. More than most films in this feature, Collaboration is the explicit theme of Pride, and its ethos of empathetic mobilization is impossible to refuse. It's hard enough these days to drum up people's energies in solidarity of their own tribes, as evidenced by how little business Pride did compared to what it deserved. WTF, gays?? But it's even harder to mobilize people on behalf of folks who don't remind them of themselves, particularly across the urban-rural gulf. Even free-thinkers and anti-patriarchs like Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm) and Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) seem openly terrified of crossing that particular divide. So at risk of just effusing over this movie's blatant message and with all due respect to how expertly it pulls off its projects, the common cause hammered out within the story between the Welsh laborers and the lavender Londoners was one of the most transformative spectacles in a year of cinema. Extra points for the film's repeated attention, witty but pointed, to the vestiges of sexism among even the most emancipated or outwardly effeminate of men.

43. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait - Have you ever painted a self-portrait? Have you ever done it with your paintbrush on one continent and your canvas on another?  And also while the canvas is on fire?  That's more or less what Mohammed and Bedirxan accomplish in the year's most bracing movie, and arguably its most urgent.  He's a renowned film artist who has expatriated to France to escape the burgeoning Holocaust at home, and also to safeguard and disseminate footage of that violence that has already been entrusted to him. She, a Kurdish activist more recently settled in Syria, is now a stalwart holdout. Intent on documenting the ravages and tending to the mostly-abandoned children of Homs, she is eager for an expert's advice about what to shoot and how to export the footage. These two never met until "their" film premiered at Cannes. What is indescribably horrifying to watch is also indescribably ennobling to behold: two swimmers caught in strong, bloody currents, clinging to each other across time zones, surviving the cataclysm, inciting us to action and inspiring us to realize our own potentials as witnesses and testifiers.

44. Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Luke Wilson, The Skeleton Twins - Bill Hader is so textured and true as the fragile gay brother in The Skeleton Twins that, no offense to Stefon, it's hard to believe it's the same guy who lisped and giggled as Stefon. That was surprise enough, even after I'd already seen Hader do good character work this year in Eleanor Rigby. More surprises: I expected to leave this movie impressed at how Hader and Wiig translated their tangible connection, built across their shared years at Saturday Night Live, into a new and tonally different platform, but I didn't leave The Skeleton Twins thinking about Hader and Wiig at all. I thought only about Maggie and Milo... and about Luke Wilson's Lance, a husband endearingly dim but not dumb, capturing better than anyone I can remember the effusive but vaguely uncomprehending affection that is often the sweetest thing you can expect from an in-law, or a straight ally, or your own spouse.  There are other good performances in Twins, but it's principally Hader, Wiig, and Wilson who build this dream together.

45. Saga Becker and Iggy Malmborg, Something Must Break - Another benchmark in a strong year for trans cinema, Sweden's Something Must Break relinquishes "positive" representations, noble suffering, and hard-earned respect and opts instead for amorous risk addiction. It's a startling and promising debut for helmer Ester Martin Bergsmark, who's got style to burn and an interesting feel for cadence, editing, and tone. But the real treasure of Something Must Break lies in how the characters of Ellie and Andreas as well as the actors playing them, Becker and Malmborg, explore the limits of their craving for each other. Alternately pleasurable and painful, Ellie seems infatuated with Andreas and intrigued (but not necessarily surprised) that a cis guy seems so besotted in return. Andreas hardly seems to understand his feelings and frequently retracts them in a panic, at which point Ellie makes another fiery play for them, or else a spectacular show of bitterness or disdain. This level of amour fou, the provenance of movies like Head On or Heaven Knows What or anything by Carax, is always hard to pull off without looking ridiculous. But nobody appears worried about that, in or out of character. The characters' sexual discoveries of each other, entailing significant discoveries about themselves, are remarkably envelope-pushing without seeming prurient—intensifying the film's message that everyone can be surprised by passion, and anyone can move too fast or love too much.

46. Ben Rivers, Ben Russell, and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness - Of all the non-commercial esoterica I saw at TIFF '13, this was the last one I expected to open in U.S. cinemas. It's tempting to call the sensibility here "Kelly Reichardt meets Rob Zombie," but it's simpler and truer to call it "Ben Rivers meets Ben Russell," since the three-part experience (commune, climb, caterwaul) represents the combined efforts of two experimental filmmakers who've been making separate albeit very similar names for themselves. Cult musician Robert Lowe embodies the linking figure across all three segments, sturdily holding the camera's gaze whether he's scaling a bluff or bellowing out a black-metal dirge. His eccentric portmanteau of talents inspires new things from Rivers and Russell, who inspire new things from each other.  The whole immersive spectacle inspired me in new ways, too, nudging me to spend more time in the new year on experimental works. Finally, as starved as we are for specific stories about black characters, it's just as welcome when movies nonchalantly cast people of color in the role of all-purpose audience surrogate. Black lives matter, including the most anonymous, mysterious, and abstract.

47. Rodrigo Guerrero, Emiliano Dionisi, Nicolás Armengol, and Carlos Echevarría, The Third One - I gather it would be hard to make a film as moribund in its "insights" as Jason Reitman's Men, Women, and Children, but this steamy Argentinean mini-feature looks ready to make a go of it in the opening minutes.  An attractive male couple, at the fresher end of middle-age, have been getting in some X-rated FaceTime with a cute teenager, which writer-director Guerrero evokes through a series of on-screen browser windows and liberal flashes of all-male hardcore. Happily, the early implication of a "look how we're living now!" noncomment dissipates, wending instead toward a story that feels specifically gay for more than the obvious reasons. Sexual attraction is what gets young Fede into a room with Franco and Hernán; it's not clear what else would. But once they've convened, their nervous dialogue over dinner yields some nuanced accounts of gay adolescence, gay adulthood, and gay couplehood—admissions that impress the listeners in a series of long-held master shots as much as they gratify the speakers, who probably didn't expect to confide so much. A thoughtful tribute to what gay men of different generations continually learn from each other, commemorating how mentorship and erotic interest have often blended in this community, The Third One doesn't take sex off the table just because it reveals sets of interests that are tempting but wrong to describe as "nobler." The three-way still happens, and vividly so, but it means much more because of what precedes and follows. Guerrero shows real skill and sensitivity here, and the beautifully orchestrated performances reward the camera's unblinking focus on their faces, their bodies, their stories, their unspoken thoughts, and their sweet, evanescent rapport. 

48. Marion Cotillard and the Dardenne Brothers, Two Days, One Night - Another movie, like Pride, whose explicit theme is solidarity. Two Days resolutely reminds us, though, of the compelling reasons why we don't always rise to each other's defense, even amid strong moral claims that we do so. The whole ensemble adroitly advances this interrogation of ensemble as both ideal and conundrum; I don't think I've felt as much for any onscreen character in the last year as I did for Timur Magomedgadzhiev's, dissolving in tears at a chain-link fence. One of many inspiring things about the movie is that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who've hit upon one of the most successful recipes in modern movie-making, take a risk of their own in casting Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as their lead. Though Cecile de France may not like to hear this, they've never devoted a film to a performer of Cotillard's stature or one who operates through a carefully-honed actor's process. Beyond the general challenge to their m.o., it could really have upset the politics of the piece if Two Days, One Night felt for a moment like the story of a superstar begging some common folks for sympathy. Everyone before and behind the camera, from the co-stars to the costume designer, deserves credit for how deftly the film avoids this impression, but the surprising synchronicity of the actress with her directors gets a bonus.

49. Jonathan Glazer and Mica Levi, Under the Skin - How did mercurial, meticulous visionary Jonathan Glazer find a young woman who so perfectly grasped his all-but-ineffable conception, rewarding him with creative work as idiosyncratic and enthralling as his own? I'm not talking about Scarlett Johansson, though I could be. Everything about Under the Skin is an astonishment, but amid so much staggering stimulation, so many of us keep coming back to its alien music, composed by a twenty-something prodigy who never worked on a film before. What should it sound like when an extra-terrestrial strips down her own lifeless imago in silhouette?  What should we hear as a series of men wade into a diabolical destiny, in a space that's both a built location and a borderless idea?  How can Under the Skin unfold a terribly poignant trajectory about an increasingly vulnerable protagonist without ever tipping into sentiment, or even into emotion? Levi's bizarre and indelible orchestrations are foundational to how and why the whole movie works, so much so that I assumed Glazer must have solicited the score and crafted his eerie, experimental montage around it. Yet, if I can remember his answer to my own question correctly (I was so blown away by the film I can barely recall...), that's not how it went. Levi saw a movie this deranged, seized on what is nonetheless utterly coherent in it, and responded with a soundscape equally deranged and coherent, in ways similar to and different from the intractably strange images.

50. Coco Moodysson and Lukas Moodysson, We Are the Best! - Some movies inspire irresponsible fantasies. I don't mean of the Purge: Anarchy kind, I mean baseless projection onto the makers and wanton idealizations about their lives. While many friends have been enthusing about that other Swedish movie where a marriage quivers under an avalanche of new stresses, I've been daydreaming about the Moodyssons, assuming they have achieved matrimonial perfection. We Are the Best! derives from Coco Moodysson's graphic novel-cum-creative memoir about her pre-teen years in the early 80s, including her ginning up of a punk band with some pals. Her husband Lukas (Show Me Love, Together), apparently recuperated from his Everything Is Terrible period, wrote and directed such an effervescent, pitch-perfect comedy from this material that it's hard not to wonder: has any husband ever understood his wife and her childhood so well, and has any wife ever communicated such a kick-ass tale so exceptionally clearly to her partner, culminating in such a snazzy, warm, hilarious, co-authored entertainment, replete with individualizing detail and so much sense of life?  Are they the coolest people ever?  Are they, in fact, the best?  If they have children, do they relate to them as gorgeously as they obviously do to child actors, time after time in their movies, but never better than here?  Do you just start out ahead by the time your name is "Coco Moodysson," and it only gets better from there?

51. Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, Le Week-end - Meg and Nick are too young for Amour but nearly too old, already, for Albee. People used to describe the elderly years as "second childhood," by which looping logic Broadbent's and Duncan's characters are in something like a second adolescence: they're not Old yet, but you can see that from here, and they're seemingly committed to making some feckless, seat-of-their-pants miscalculations, separately and together, before it's harder to get out. The sheer joy of misbehavior, plus a baseline fund of fondness shared between this longtime couple (though, like all their other funds, it may be running out), give Le Week-end an enticing comic sheen and some moments of outright slapstick. But it's also disconcertingly serious, more Hope Springs than Mamma Mia!, and both actors commit fully to the moments and motives of their characters' fears: of being alone, of staying together, of dying, of being worth nothing, in more than one sense. It's a lot of tonal ground to cover, frequently obliging Duncan and Broadbent to paint in multiple colors at once. They're geniuses at it. Watching their loose yet focused performances and their push-and-pull rapport was a way better jazz show than Whiplash provided, and a better movie, too. Several folks have voiced that it's a crime Duncan isn't near any Best Actress conversation. Fewer, for some reason, have attested that Broadbent is equally sublime, impressively unrecognizable from other Broadbent characters.  If you haven't been, you should visit.

52. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, in but mostly out of Wild - I got an e-mail today, 30 minutes ago, while writing this, from someone I only know professionally and have never personally met, who was inspired to send a kind note about my book because of what Laura Dern says in this year's Actress Roundtable about the importance of reaching out to people whose work you admire. That was incredibly touching, and perfectly to my point: Witherspoon and Dern are charming and adept as mother and daughter in Wild but even better as themselves.  On screen, they overcome their slim age difference and the sight of Reese in a high-school wig and the occasionally sticky sanctification of Dern's willowy bliss and the script's reluctance to probe further into why Cheryl's investment in Bobbi was thiiiis overdetermined. I admired both performances, but it's nothing compared to how I've savored their press appearances, taking more joy, insight, and professional corroboration from each other than any two actresses since Davis and Spencer, or maybe since Dench and Blanchett.  And maybe that's because only once in a blue moon do two actresses of comparable stature get to feed off each other's creativity so fully, and pour that energy into a film that means so much to them, artistically and personally.  Every story about Laura body-checking reporters away from invasive questions about Reese is as wonderful as every beautiful, earnest compliment Reese pays to her fellow actress (see also: Reese on Rosamund Pike).  It's not just the movies, the audiences, and the world that get better when women make opportunities to collaborate.  Even the coverage gets more fun!

Thanks, everyone, for reading.  As always, keep sharing your thoughts.  And hey: it's January 2, and I've already started and finished a website project.  Huzzah!

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Blogger Jonathan said...

I looooooooooved Luke Wilson in Skeleton Twins. "Dim but not dumb" is so on-the-money that I actually applauded my laptop screen when I read it. Congrats on completing this seemingly monumental feature in such a small space of time!

4:01 PM, January 02, 2015  
Anonymous Dave S. said...

Aw, closing with a shout out to Reese's "Wild" wig. First rule of filmmaking: everyone has bangs in a flashback.

Thanks again for sharing all these.

4:06 PM, January 02, 2015  
Anonymous JLPatt said...

I love the mention of "Something Must Break." The chemistry between Becker and Malmborg is sensational. One of the best onscreen romances of the past few years.

5:58 PM, January 02, 2015  
Blogger Tim said...

This whole series has been the absolute perfect start to a new year. Incredibly generous and loving thoughts expressed in terrifically insightful prose. And of course, every time you post something, it's like Christmas came early. Or a week late, or whenever.

11:48 PM, January 02, 2015  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Jonathan: Wasn't he stellar? Maybe not final-ballot material, but what a delicious and sweet performance.

@Dave: Hilarious. Thanks for all your suggestions along the way.

@JLPatt: I'm so excited for corroboration on that choice in particular... I wonder how many people have even seen Something Must Break, which truly deserves more eyeballs. It's so sexy and risky and well-made. I lobbied as hard as I could to get it the grand prize when I was on the LGBT jury at CIFF. All the jurors liked it; they just liked another one better. I thought they were crazy, but they probably think that about me. Anyway, thanks for piping up!

@Tim: So sweet of you. A week late sounds right. Several months late, usually. x

12:39 AM, January 03, 2015  
Blogger Glenn said...

That WE ARE THE BEST write up is divine.

12:08 PM, January 04, 2015  

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