A conversation about the year in movies

—By Liam Knox & David Yaffe-Bellany—

The drama of last December—the unlikely involvement of a Hollywood farce in a long-running geopolitical standoff, the surreal spectacle of President Obama calling on Sony Pictures to release a Seth Rogen movie—has distracted some commentators from more important matters, like the odds-makers’ take on the Best Adapted Screenplay race and the correct pronunciation of David Oyelowo’s surname.

Here, we ignore the North Koreans and instead discuss films that moved, frightened, excited and infuriated us.  Consider yourself thoroughly alerted: Spoilers abound.

Dear Person in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou T-shirt,

Before we begin, I want to remind our readers—yes, all four of them—what happened last time we held a debate about the year in movies.  I correctly predicted the winners of seven out of the eight major Oscar categories.  You bet on American Hustle for Best Picture.  I launched an impassioned assault on the misogynistic sex-fest The Wolf of Wall Street.  You wrote the words, “I think Jonah Hill deserves a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.”  To be fair, we agreed that Inside Llewyn Davis’ Best Picture snub amounted to a crime against humanity.  But frankly, you’ve got to up your game.

Because I don’t think that last bit was sufficiently provocative, I’m going to get us started with a couple of quick assertions I’m sure will annoy you.  1) At the end of Birdman, Michael Keaton’s character has finally achieved true artistic fulfillment.  2) Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a trivial film with a few cute visuals and nothing particularly interesting to say about the world.

Discuss.

—DYB

Dear Person in Absurdly Economical Black Pants,

First, I will never apologize for loving Jonah Hill.  He’s the bomb.  Deal with it.

Second, I think your email is a bit wrongheaded.  My “game” is on point—the Oscars are an excuse to discuss films we love, not an absolute gauge of artistic achievement.  I concede that some level of statistical and historical knowledge probably underpins your spot-on predictions, Mr. Self-proclaimed Nate Silver.  But awards results usually lack any actual credibility.  I mean, Alfonso Cuaròn won best director for Gravity last year, and Joaquin Phoenix wasn’t even nominated for Her.  Let’s be honest for a second: I don’t need to up my game; the Academy does.

Now let’s talk about the movies.  Without a doubt, the best I’ve seen so far is Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman.  It’s fantastic—and I know you agree with me about that.  But I strongly disagree with your claim that the ambiguous ending is meant to show Keaton’s character, Riggan Thompson, reaching some sort of artistic peak.  I think what he realizes is more human than that.  The last shot is of Emma Stone gazing in amazement at Riggan as he flies out the window of a hospital where he just received reconstructive surgery after shooting off his nose on a Broadway stage.  I suppose a not-particularly-insightful viewer might interpret his flight as an indication of artistic fulfillment.  I thought it demonstrated Riggan’s newfound freedom from any expectations, his own or the critics’.  Sure, he’s escaped from his arrogant, power-hungry Birdman alter ego, but he’s also abandoned the stupid impulses that consumed him, like the desire to be remembered for the “integrity” and “prestige” of his work.  Riggan learns that you soar in life only by deciding for yourself what truly matters.

Wes Anderson is my favorite director.  You know that, man.  Why you gotta say somethin’ like that, huh?  Trivial?  If anything, this is the first time Anderson has made a film about something genuinely important.  He examines the movie’s historical backdrop—European war, fascism, the works—in a unique way: through the eyes of a hotel staff.  It’s hilarious, it’s gorgeous, it’s fulfilling, it’s sad, and it’s executed beautifully by an all-star cast.  Sure, some of the images are cutesy—but they’re also innovative.  I loved Grand Budapest and was delighted it received a Best Picture nod.  Also—and don’t take this personally, man—but your claim that the movie has nothing interesting to say about “the world” is total nonsense.  The kindness of Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave shines through the pervasive suspicion and sleaziness, telling us all that we should think twice before assigning roles to characters before we really get to know them.  Budapest isn’t about a national crisis or a depressed musician—but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial.

Let’s try to be a bit more friendly in the next round, eh partner?  I really liked the jazzy, angry flow of Whiplash.  (See—a nice, positive comment!)  Your thoughts?

—LK

Dear Wes Anderson Enthusiast,

To be honest, I actually kind of liked The Grand Budapest Hotel, just as I kind of liked Moonrise Kingdom, and just as I will surely kind of like whatever little confection Anderson releases next.  But let’s move on.

Whiplash—or, as I’ve christened it, Battle Hymn of the Scary Bald Guy—is one of the angriest movies I’ve seen in a long time.  If this were actually a thing, I would give it the Zero Dark Thirty Award for Unbridled Intensity.  J.K. Simmons, who’ll probably take home the Best Supporting Actor statuette, spends much of the film launching sharp objects at Miles Teller’s head, and his performance is even more menacing in the seconds just before he explodes, when he deploys such passive-aggressive critiques as “not quite my tempo.”

About halfway through Whiplash, I started to wonder where the movie would ultimately stand on Simmons’, um, pedagogical techniques.  Is he a brilliant teacher or an abusive tyrant?  Does his claim that no true genius would ever get discouraged—that to become the next Charlie Parker, one must endure years of physical and emotional torment—really hold water?  The director, Damien Chazelle, had no obligation to answer those questions—and Whiplash certainly isn’t some kind of manifesto—but I think the final scene, a triumph of fast-paced editing and bloody-minded drumming, resolves any lingering ambiguity.  The smile on Teller’s face as he finishes that amazing drum solo, and the pride with which Simmons conducts the performance, conveys a clear message: The pain was worth it.

—DYB

Dear Scary Bald Guy Enthusiast,

I totally agree with your take on Whiplash—but for me, much of the raw, unbridled anger comes not from J.K. Simmons’ anxiety-producing educational strategies, but from Miles Teller’s arrogant and self-destructive attitude.  I loved them both.

Interesting question about Chazelle’s vision.  Looking at the film analytically, I’d have to agree that the ending seems to make a statement of some sort.  But it’s hard to watch a film from the director’s point of view—or from anyone’s but your own, for that matter.  I think the film is ultimately supposed to make you think and draw your own conclusions.  Kind of like jazz, I suppose.

Another incredibly angry movie that blew me away this year was Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher.  Steve Carrell stars as another flawed mentor, the narcissistic murderer John du Pont.  Channing Tatum’s also superb as the sensitive, self-loathing Olympian Mark Schulz.

The cinematography in both Whiplash and Foxcatcher is pretty astounding.  People tend to ignore this award category, unless they’re budding filmmakers, but it’s a critical component of a great film.  Consider Birdman‘s breathtaking and immersive tracking shots, Grand Budapest‘s picturesque Andersonian quirks, the jazzy blurred edges of Whiplash, the painfully intimate camerawork of Foxcatcher.  This is always a field to watch.

Well, we managed to suppress some of the earlier animosity there!  Hats off to you, Siskel—I know it’s hard.  Feel free to let loose next time—I don’t want you to explode from pent-up cynicism.

—LK

Dear Four-time National History Day Medalist,

Everyone’s rushing to proclaim the reinvention of Steve Carell.  I’m not convinced.  Carell’s brilliant in Foxcatcher—a haunting, poetic, altogether terrific movie—but the character he plays, creepy billionaire John du Pont, has a lot in common with Michael Scott: pettiness, narcissism, delusions of grandeur.  At one point, du Pont anoints himself “America’s golden eagle,” which sounds exactly like something Michael would think up.  Carell’s work on The Office was always a lot more sophisticated than many viewers assumed: He imbued his comedic shtick with an essential sadness that deepened as the show progressed.  In Foxcatcher, Carell takes Michael to a chilling new extreme, downplaying his endearing qualities and amplifying his complex insecurities.  By the end of the film, du Pont is consumed by a sort of sociopathic desperation.  It’s brutal to watch.

This seems like a good time to weigh in on the Internet’s annual crusade against historically inaccurate Oscar contenders.  Mark Schultz, the moody wrestler Channing Tatum plays in Foxcatcher, has taken to Twitter to protest director Bennet Miller’s version of the story.  And LBJ apologists have expressed varying levels of chagrin at Ava DuVernay’s movie Selma, which they say casts the president as an obstacle to voting reform.  I’d like to point out that this whole debate is titanically stupid.  As a student-reporter, I’ve become accustomed to hearing interviewees complain that they weren’t portrayed with the appropriate level of fawning adoration.  But, however self-serving, at least those objections are directed at a legitimate factual record.  Selma and Foxcatcher aren’t journalism.  They’re movies based—based!—on real events, and they should be evaluated as works of art, not as accounts of history.

Liam, take over before I throw something at my computer screen.

—DYB

Dear Four-time Screen-smashing Champion,

I definitely agree with your assessment of Carell’s du Pont.  But just because he didn’t undergo a McConaughey-esque rebirth doesn’t mean his performance was anything less than friggin’ amazing.

I’m glad you brought up Hollywood’s tendency to overlook historical facts in films based on historical events (and my medals! Nice touch, friend).  And I totally sympathize with your frustration—movies, after all, aren’t intended to educate the public.  But unfortunately, many viewers haven’t gotten the memo.  I think in a case like Selma‘s—where the inaccuracies, which ultimately boil down to mere details, bother only hardcore archivists—this doesn’t matter so much.  But when a film seen by millions of susceptible viewers, many of whom trust their screens more than they do the newspaper, blatantly disregards whole chunks of history to advance a director’s agenda, things become a little more problematic.

The most insidious example is D.W. Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, a highly innovative, profoundly influential film that happens to extoll the KKK and promote violent racism as a form of southern justice.  The Klan, which had been dead for years, revived in 1916 and started showing the film at initiation meetings.  Griffith’s revisionist account of Reconstruction was taught in history classes for decades.

And then there’s Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which tells the story of real-life sniper Chris Kyle with the reverence of a Fox newscaster.  Eastwood, a raging conservative (remember his performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention?), never acknowledges the political mischief that led to the Iraq War, an ill-conceived conflict whose devastating aftereffects are still roiling the Middle East.  Eastwood also ignores the fact that most of the people we were fighting (civilians and soldiers alike) had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks that supposedly inspired Kyle to risk his life over four tours of duty. That’s not art—it’s propaganda.

I’m not saying you were wrong to be angry.  But when I see celebrity directors feeding moviegoers incomplete or mendacious historical narratives, I sometimes consider hurling a chair through the window.  (And hope that invisible Barack Obama isn’t sitting in it.)

Keep on hangin’ on,

—LK

Dear Clint Eastwood Hater,

I think you’re being a little harsh on Eastwood, who has lots to say about the dangers of blind patriotism and the emotional ramifications of combat.  What American Sniper lacks in historical verisimilitude it makes up for with a fascinating exploration of Chris Kyle’s psyche.  It’s a devastating war movie with a strong anti-war message.

On a lighter note, here’s my one-sentence ad campaign for Inherent Vice: Joaquin Phoenix stars in Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s tribute to Raymond Chandler.  No movie—repeat: no movie—could squander that much, like, inherent coolness.  As it happens, Inherent Vice manages to elevate its source material, and its source material’s source material, to awesome new heights.  The plot is entirely incomprehensible, but I suspect Anderson wanted it that way: Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who kidnapped whom, or whose heroine wound up in whose bedroom, or which corrupt LAPD officer teamed up with which reactionary cult to coordinate the killing of Bigfoot Bjornsen’s partner.  Inherent Vice is a touching love story and a rollicking account of late-60s paranoia.  The mechanics of the conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and counter-counter-conspiracies that Phoenix’s detective character investigates, usually amid a cloud of pot smoke, are beside the point.

The Academy, of course, prefers more conventional fare.  The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game both got loads of Oscar nominations, because they are exactly the sort of slickly produced crowd-pleasers the voters love.  The latter film is enjoyably hackneyed; Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley are just about good enough to make up for a recurring line—“sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”—that sounds like it was plagiarized from a fortune cookie.  The Theory of Everything is sweet, funny and terrifically acted, but its anti-intellectualism rubbed me the wrong way: Stephen Hawking, played by an outstanding Eddie Redmayne, makes a crucial scientific breakthrough in a bar, watching his beer swirl.  Give me a break.

—DYB

Dear Beer Science Hater, 

Anderson definitely intended Inherent Vice to be a paranoid, incomprehensible romp through a hippie PI’s doped-up, lustful psyche.  The movie was so trippy I think it gave me a secondhand high.  Normally, I’d rip my hair out over the Academy’s failure to recognize Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant leading performance (he’s the greatest actor alive and don’t ever tell me otherwise), but this year, given the depth of talent in the lead actor category, I’ll let it slide.  But I’m absolutely furious about the snubbing of Josh Brolin.  He inspired many of the movie’s best moments (and some amusingly confused grimaces from Joaquin Phoenix): the long sequence in which he suggestively consumes a chocolate-covered banana, the restaurant argument in which he spews phony Japanese, the bizarre finale in which he eats fistfuls of marijuana leaves for no reason whatsoever.

For the record, I have no interest whatsoever in The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, which sound like shiny, boring, conventional biopics.  I’m rarely in the mood for films about geniuses with bad social skills; I prefer lucid insanity.

In Gone Girl and Nightcrawler, I found precisely what I was looking for.  This year’s most thrilling films both featured crazy, murderous sociopaths posing as normal members of society.  Gone Girl was a lot of fun, but I found Rosamund Pike’s performance sort of superficial.  (Not that I know of anyone to take her Best Actress nomination; the field was pretty thin this year, and anyway, Julianne Moore’s certain to win.)  However, I was beyond impressed by Jake Gyllenhaal’s creepy turn as the sociopathic entrepreneur/thief/self-proclaimed “news gatherer” Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler.  I will have nightmares about his professional stare, which seemed to cut straight through the camera and into my soul, and the nonchalance with which he concocted a scheme that left two criminals and a score of innocent people—including his partner, played with remarkable sincerity by Riz Ahmed—dead and gory.  Gyllenhaal was incredible.  I’m appalled, but not particularly surprised, that the Academy overlooked him.

—LK

Dear Fellow Owner of a Y-Chromosome,

Hooray!  This is the part where we discuss the gender politics of Gone Girl!  Is Amy, played by Rosamund Pike, a powerful feminist antihero or, as The Times’ Maureen Dowd put it, “the latest in a line of stereotypical she-monsters and vagina dentata dames”?  Is the “cool girl” speech an attack on women who watch football or on men who fantasize about women who watch football?  I think some of Gone Girl’s complexity—including the fact that the answer to each of those questions is a resounding “both”—was lost in the Internet food-fight that accompanied the movie’s release.  But I also believe that, first and foremost, Gone Girl is not some high-falutin’ examination of the male gaze, but rather a slick and entertaining yarn filled with underrated acting.  I sort of loved it.

You’re right about Gyllenhaal.  The man blinks, like, three times in the whole movie.  He was one of the chief casualties of American Sniper’s sudden awards-season surge, which puts him in pretty good company: Wonder why Foxcatcher didn’t nab a Best Picture nomination?  The Academy digs Clint Eastwood’s action scenes.

But on to less polarizing territory.  Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the rare three-hour film that wouldn’t benefit from a little trimming, is virtually everybody’s favorite movie of the year.  It’s fresh and funny and moving and…you can fill in the rest of the adjectives.  I saw it in July, and I’m still pretty much speechless.

—DYB

Dear Linklater Fetishist,

Sorry, old chap, but I’m not particularly interested in the gender-politics aspect of Gone Girl, not just because there really isn’t one, but also because I hate it when people criticize art for lacking political correctness.  I agree with your point, but I wish it didn’t have to be made in the first place.

Now on to the real stuff.  About as real as you can get, actually.  Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is unabashedly real—Holden Caulfield would have nothing to complain about.  The writing, the acting, the emotions—all of it could happen in the life of an average American boy.  But while this represents a truly admirable achievement, it doesn’t always make for an exciting movie.  I enjoyed all three hours, no doubt about that. But Best Picture?  I’m sorry, but no.  Birdman is probably the best movie released during my lifetime.  It’s definitely top five.  But unfortunately for Iñárritu, the Academy just can’t resist those sweet gimmicks!  The fact that Linklater took 12 years to make Boyhood (a production quirk that has been way over-publicized) certainly contributes to the film’s power, and watching the actors grow up on screen is pretty amazing.  But does that make it a better picture than the brilliant, poignant, revolutionary masterpiece Birdman?  The Academy would probably say “yes.”  And that’s a shame. Because while hardly anybody will want to watch Linklater’s sweet little time capsule ten years from now, Iñárritu’s film will continue to grace Netflix queues and art house theaters across America.  And that’s a more significant measure of success than some awards-season bauble.

The one thing I truly loved about Boyhood was Ethan Hawke’s performance.  I would not begrudge him a Best Supporting Actor win, which says a lot, because I loved J.K. Simmons and Ed Norton.  Hawke’s phenomenal in the most genuine, revealing, down-to-earth way possible.  His acting makes me proud to say I once shook his hand outside Hoagie Haven, thereby bringing attention to him and his daughter.  He probably hates me for it, but whatever.

–LK

Dear lasdfjas;dfkasd,

That was meant to be our last exchange, but your infuriating Boyhood commentary has left me banging on my keyboard.  I’ll keep this one short, because we’re fast approaching our word limit.

Boyhood is not gimmicky Oscar bait.  With breathtaking economy, it relays a story that is simultaneously specific and universal: an account of one boy’s childhood that holds a mirror to the lives of millions.  I’m convinced that fans and critics will still be watching it a decade from now.

Bye, Liam.  Enjoy the Oscars–and don’t shoot your nose off when I win this year’s predictions sweepstakes.

DYB

David’s Top Ten Movies of the Year

  1. Boyhood
  2. Inherent Vice
  3. Birdman
  4. Selma
  5. Foxcatcher
  6. Wild
  7. Whiplash
  8. A Most Violent Year
  9. Gone Girl
  10. Love is Strange

 Liam’s Top Ten Movies of the Year

  1. Birdman
  2. Foxcatcher
  3. Whiplash
  4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  5. Selma
  6. Inherent Vice
  7. Boyhood
  8. Nightcrawler
  9. We Are the Best!
  10. Under the Skin

Oscar Predictions

Category Should Win (DYB) Will Win (DYB) Should Win (LK) Will Win (LK)
Best Picture Boyhood Boyhood Birdman Boyhood
Best Director Richard Linklater Richard Linklater Alejandro Iñárritu Richard Linklater
Best Actor Steve Carell Michael Keaton Steve Carell Michael Keaton
Best Actress Reese Witherspoon Julianne Moore Julianne Moore Julianne Moore
Best Supp. Actor J.K. Simmons J.K. Simmons Ethan Hawke J.K. Simmons
Best Supp. Actress Patricia Arquette Patricia Arquette Emma Stone Patricia Arquette
Best Original Screenplay Birdman The Grand Budapest Hotel Foxcatcher Birdman
Best Adapted Screenplay Inherent Vice Whiplash Whiplash The Theory of Everything

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