Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Top 10 World Premieres of 2014

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

Stay tuned for #1-#8!  In the meantime...

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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