Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top 10 U.S. Releases of 2014

Click here for some context on this list, or here for its companion list.

Stay tuned for #1-#7!  In the meantime...

8. The Missing Picture Especially compared to the two films further down this list, Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture inspired no controversy at all—except, perhaps, on the question of when exactly it opened. A tiny commercial bow was planned late last year for LA, though evidence suggests no ticket-buyer saw it until last March. Such are the vortices of minutiae into which a Top 10 list gets pulled, when the point is to showcase artistry as keen, inventive, and affecting as Panh's, narrating his country's and his family's experience of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in the 1970s. Forsaking a talking-head approach to history, Panh assembles an eclectic archive of stock footage, movie clips, superimpositions, and abstract sound elements that testify to the unstable, prismatic qualities of public and personal history, even as his soft-spoken account of genocide and systemic oppression evokes the stubborn, harrowing factuality of the past. Famously anchoring the film's mix of styles and source materials are Panh's handmade dioramas of Cambodians usurped, imprisoned, indentured, and buried. Watching the film again for the first time since TIFF 2013, I realize how many times I've misremembered these wood-carved villagers as clay sculptures: they're as poignantly expressive as stop-motion figures, as palpably stamped with their creator's doting attention, to such an extent I conflated the two. Whittling and painting them by the dozens—suggesting a mass-production of bodies, but evading tyrannical-conformist connotations by subtly humanizing each doll—Panh tells a gruesome history in terms that he and his audience can bear. Still, The Missing Picture remains, of course, a deeply sobering experience. You could see it as a document of traumatic repetition: not just of immersion in an intolerable history but of daily, painstaking labor that simultaneously puts the past to sleep and wakes it back up. The viewer gets enfolded in a similar ambivalence: you'd love for the man and the country to be able to forget, but you also recognize the necessity of never forgetting how a nation of people were stripped of every individual possession but their spoons; how 250 grams of rice somehow fed 25 people per day; how a nine-year-old boy reported his starving mother for stealing a mango in a field; how the regime's oddly poetic prohibition on poetry ("the spade is your only pen, the rice field your only paper!") unwittingly inspires painful, poetic reflection among those few who survive. Through the titular, oft-repeated conceit of the "missing picture," Panh asserts that despite his film's expressive diversity, notwithstanding every photo and figurine and audio collage, this period in Cambodia's past is defined by what nobody can show. The kernel of history remains out of reach and surpasseth understanding. The Missing Picture may in that sense be a film structured around an omission, but look how beautifully and bravely it struggles to fill that gap.

9. American Sniper You know what Clint Eastwood's movie about the "most lethal sniper in American history" lacks even one of? A single scene where Chris Kyle embraces that tag. Every time someone tries to print the legend to his face, he opts for non sequiturs, quick subject-changes, or J.M.W. Turner-esque grunts.  Clearly, the film has roundly reimagined Kyle from his real-life namesake, who seemed only too proud to trumpet and embellish that mythological reputation, for reasons that invite a separate inquiry. Just as clearly, the film's Chris Kyle—an utterly coherent characterization of its own, more challenging to hawks or doves than the real Kyle was—is caught within a vertiginous experience that his own legend does nothing to ease or elucidate. Nationalistic, mission-oriented, smart, dim, haunted, gruff, focused, arrogant, repeatedly humbled, empowered and chilled by a red-meat upbringing, prone to racist word and deed, prone to selfless thought and act, capable of moral reflection but seemingly uneasy with it, capable of giving and receiving and reneging on love, Chris emits a plethora of contradictory attitudes and positions. Sniper never reduces these, even as its hurtling momentum, its inductive approach to character, and the exigencies of battle preclude it from flaunting its own complexity or apologizing for its compromises. "It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man," William Munny apostrophized in Eastwood's grim and heavily lacquered Unforgiven, an accomplished film that foregrounded its own rhetoric; it anticipated and even wooed an audience of artistically inclined revisionists, assuring us that it grasped its moral paradox, that it felt the clamp of guilt. American Sniper, faster, brighter, bloodier, and lodged inside contemporary quagmires, radiates a similar but less articulated moral despair.  Its agonies are expressed everywhere from the arrogant, overwhelming roars of American warcraft to the utterly un-rousing score to the sickening, raspberry blasts of blood that accompany every kill. It neither characterizes a single Iraqi in depth nor presses very far into most of its American characters nor shows almost any Iraqi (with one Guignol, discordant exception) doing anything I wouldn't imagine an American doing in the reverse position... if we can even imagine ourselves in the reversed position. Sniper's reception suggests that many pro- and anti-war audiences and critics expect films on this subject to come right out and flatter them in undiluted terms. This film doesn't do that.  Exceptionally well-made, well-shot, well-mixed, and with a tension in the cutting that few Eastwood movies and few modern war films have achieved, American Sniper is as cinematically deft as it is culturally divisive.  Op/eds and awards pundits keep trying to spin it as the anti-Selma.  I look at the pair of them, one an exhortation for justice and the other a hydrochloric assault on ethical conviction—one a study of a group challenging The System, the other a study of a man who, for better and worse, subsumed himself to a system—and I think these two Best Picture nominees are the two bravest, and the two most worth saving.  In serious terms, with both feet planted in the real world, they showcase complex men and communities that too few movies ask us to consider, much less to assess in such rounded, inspiring, but discomfiting ways.  Which, speaking of...

10. Selma A great tweeter called @DanBlackroyd came up with these apt words, angry but beautiful and totally on-point, following that notoriously low tally of Oscar nods: "Selma will be written about for years to come. Its legacy is intact. The Academy needed Selma way more than the other way around. Trust." He's so right. But if you wanted to parse the thought differently, part of why the Academy needs this movie, and why this movie merits more awards, is that it's the rare film that unabashedly needs us—that reaches for us and involves us. It's not the kind of historical drama that unfolds behind plate glass.  Beyond its epic yet intimate staging of events in the mid 1960s (superlative), beyond its close but woeful presaging of events in the mid 2010s (urgent and humbling), observe the consummate engineering of the film. Its broadest arc moves from an opening, monolithic close-up on one man to a closing, diamantine montage of thousands. It pivots on sequences like the second attempted march toward Montgomery, which King unexpectedly halts.  Minutes go by before the film spells out his thought process, enlisting us in the meantime to do the necessary work, to practice thinking like an activist, to deduce why this counter-intuitive move could possibly make sense in the moment... which does not, by the way, mean forbidding us or the other characters from questioning King's wisdom.  Selma inspires us to feel and to cogitate, and to act in our communities.  To act as communities!  The film percolates with expansive ideas and also with subtle filigrees of framing, figuration, and form.  Not just in content but in its texture and its frequently self-effacing technique, Selma honors the candid but deceptively complicated man at its center, and it honors even more that ethos of coalition, resilience, and solidarity for which both Kings and Lewis and Abernathy and Nash and Rustin Cooper and Boynton and Young and Williams and their many colleagues all stood (and sometimes knelt, and occasionally fell).  Selma sparks our memories, solicits our horror, and mobilizes our sense of what's right—not for each of us individually, but for all of us together.

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Blogger Tim said...

I don't agree with every word, but this is the first time I've read anything about American Sniper longer than a tweet that made me feel like somebody else actually watched the same movie I did. THANK YOU, even though it's unsurprising to find out that it's the case. FWIW, I've already linked to it in the comments section back at my place.

10:59 PM, January 24, 2015  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Nick, my own private response to American Sniper aligns greatly with yours, and even more so with Tim's. To wit: the movie is a blistering character study that seeks to replicate the sensorium of a war veteran who is so good at his job—no, his calling—that he cannot commit himself to any other life. I was blown away by how the movie's potent screenplay and sound design positioned me to feel exactly what "Chris Kyle" feels when a car mechanic's drill whirrs in earshot, or when a dog nuzzles a child with salivatory gusto. Because of his wartime experiences, "Kyle" had trained his entire body (and the movie ours) to flare up at environmental threats to the point where he could no longer shut it off. (Right after the movie, I had to walk through a parking lot and kept flinching every time a car wheel screeched.)

This interpretation thus aligns me too with Jane Fonda, who viewed American Sniper through the lens of the Vietnam-vet movie that netted her the Oscar, and tweeted that Eastwood's movie offers another view on American troops "coming home." For someone like this movie's "Chris Kyle," there can be no coming home, because his entire worldview has prepared him to be the defender of a homebound peace that remains forever under attack.

This reading undergirds the otherwise Forrest Gump-y origin montage that valorizes the “sheepdogs” of the world, and smash-cuts from the televised 9/11 attacks to his mission in Iraq. For me, we aren’t meant to take this montage at face value for anything other than what Kyle took from it to become who he became. And, if anything, the movie unfolds precisely to show us the fallout of such an ideology, to the point where the ending title “Chris Kyle was killed by a veteran he was trying to help” reads as much like a po-faced eulogy as it does an ironic statement on Kyle’s own preferred idiom for “helping.” See also: the sandstorm scene, where Kyle kills his rival sniper against an officer’s will and mortally endangers the fellow troops that he is “trying to help.” (Also, holy crap, I don’t recall Eastwood having ever worked in a similar palette and opacity to what he does in that scene.)

But here—and this is a big but—let me paraphrase another blockbuster that had its morally gray leanings sidelined by a debate over its under-editorialized “support” of dubious American heroism, and say that American Sniper may be the movie America deserves, but it isn’t the one that it needs right now. I suspect I’m less sanguine than you are, Nick, that a movie like American Sniper can help to re-orient viewers towards a more sincere appreciation for the appeal of sheepdog ideology as well as the costs of war, heroic pedestals, and American jingoism. Rather, I believe the movie acts more as a Rorschach inkblot that reflects our own predilections as humanist movie critics trained to attend to nuance and irony, whereas it serves only to amplify other American viewers’ xenophobic bloodlusts or anti-conservative outrages, depending on where they began. Given these beliefs, American Sniper clearly underestimated its intended audiences, both pro- and anti-war, or worse: it knew exactly to whom it was pandering.

(A final irony: Eastwood was the filmmaker who not only critiqued America’s views of its own iconic war heroism in Flags of Our Fathers, but who also decided the film needed a counterpart in Letters from Iwo Jima, which went on to receive even more attention. If any movie deserves a similar treatment, it’s his latest film. In this light, the absence of an accompanying Iraqi-POV film is pretty damning.)

2:12 PM, January 25, 2015  
Blogger Colin Low said...

That ran long, but here's more: my reading of American Sniper makes it an apt sibling to the equally lean and robust Hurt Locker. And I agree also with Tim that Zero Dark Thirty furnishes a great parallel to American Sniper as a contemporary American war movie that points an amoral laser focus onto its own myopically mission-driven protagonist, but that nonetheless remains too under-editorialized too soon to avoid being hijacked for a politically hysterical and aesthetically inattentive debate. (And, as I've tweeted before, I read Zero Dark Thirty through the same lens as Captain Phillips. Both movies turn the screw on its viewers very late in their running time, confronting us with the death of those who have figured for so long as the faces of the death of American freedom. But, as Lee Edelman might claim, that figuration can be so potent that it runs roughshod over any conflicting impulses that those moments might otherwise evoke. The same problem can be said for American Sniper.)

2:31 PM, January 25, 2015  
Blogger Tim said...

Colin- The last two paragraphs of your first comment are so, so perfect. Everything you wrote, but especially that. I'll admit that my own response comes from a certain perspective of wanting to "win" against other critics (some of whom are just breaking my heart with how bluntly they're reading the movie, in contrast to the insight I usually see them writing with), and having forgotten that the movie exists in the real world. Whatever we might think about it academically, clearly enough people are taking it as a red-meat call to arms against the Islamic world that whatever meaning we can tease out because we are crafty is probably less important in the short run.

I hadn't, somehow, managed to stumble across the info that Jane Fonda was pro-Sniper. Coming Home isn't the first comparison I'd have thought to make, but it's a useful one.

3:20 PM, January 25, 2015  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

refreshing daily. AHEM.

11:32 PM, February 10, 2015  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Nathaniel - Glad I'm not the only one doing so. I actually had a weird dream that, after a very late viewing, the surprise #7 on both sets of lists was Transformers: Age of Extinction! In the dream, my first response was to comment: "Do I need to see the first three before watching this one!?" In reality, the first thing I did when I woke up was to confirm it was all just a horrible dream.

But, yeah. Refreshing daily!

4:35 AM, March 01, 2015  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

waiting impatiently for #7 ;)

11:56 PM, March 14, 2015  

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