by Gabriel Valdez
Yesterday, we tackled 10 films and talked about everything from diversity in action movies to a burgeoning influx of Tom Hardy roles. Today, Thor’s on a boat, I wonder why the “best actors of their generations” are always considered men, and I have a theory about Ridley Scott.
30. IN THE HEART OF THE SEA
It’s hard to watch a non-Marvel Chris Hemsworth film and not think, “Why’s Thor fighting North Koreans?” or “What’s Thor doing in that race car?” or “How did Thor get on that 1820s sailing vessel?” He always delivers solid performances, they’re just all a little similar. I like him, but the jury’s still out on his acting. Maybe this is the project to break that mold – In the Heart of the Sea is based on the true story of the Essex, the first whaling ship sunk by a whale. Director Ron Howard is usually at his best when telling offbeat adventure tales, and you’ve got something that’s built for Hemsworth to be physically engaged throughout. Trailers clearly show the loudest, most awe-inspiring moments, but it’ll be the quiet ones in between that make or break a film like this.
While the wreck of the Essex served as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, we tend to treat the idea of whales attacking sailing vessels as science-fictional. To the contrary, whales attacked whaling ships every few years. To think such a social and intelligent species didn’t put two and two together, and consciously seek to combat their hunters, is to ignore a glaringly obvious piece of recorded history. I’m particularly curious how they speak about that reality in the lead-up to the film. December 11.
I remember when the very forgettable The Score came out, everyone kept talking about Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, and Edward Norton joining forces as “the best actors of three generations.” All I could think was, “Wait, Meryl Streep’s in it?”
We tend to think of the best actors of their generations as men, so if I call Carol the meeting of the best actors of two generations, please don’t be surprised when I tell you I’m talking about Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. See, it’s 1950s New York. Mara plays a clerk at a department store. She dreams of bettering her situation, and falls for a married woman played by Cate Blanchett.
That’s intriguing enough, but the director of all this is Todd Haynes. Safe. Velvet Goldmine. Far From Heaven. I’m Not There.
It’s also adapted by Phyllis Nagy from a Patricia Highsmith novel, whose work has been adapted before into Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, among other films. That gives her work an incredibly good cinematic track record. It’s attracted a diverse array of directors over the years, but Todd Haynes might be the most unpredictable of them all. It remains to be seen what Carol looks like in the end. All that behind it, and how can you not be excited? No date set.
28. APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR
This has been making the festival rounds, and Desiree Akhavan’s feature debut feels like one of the few comedies I’m truly excited for this year. The story of a Persian bisexual caught between what her culture tells her to be and what our culture tells her to be…it speaks in certain ways to cultural issues I’ve struggled with. Sometimes you can be good at inhabiting the identities you’re told to without feeling like any of them are are perfect fits for you. That can be cultural, sexual, social, even academic – it can take shape any number of ways.
That’s been the social struggle of my generation. The Americana answer of the 80s and 90s told us the solution was partying: women, cars, and money as rites of passage. Everybody find their place in that hierarchy or it’s just you who’s to blame. That’s only ever been salve for a symptom, ignoring and exacerbating the underlying problem. There’s a reason identity comedies have become the comedic voice of this particular generation, much as they were in the 60s. Identity isn’t something to be cured and normalized, like a cancer that needs to be cut out. It’s less broadly cultural now, more individualized. These comedies aren’t trying to give advice to the masses the ways 80s and 90s comedies (many of which I love) did. They’re simply transmitting personal stories in the hope of finding common ground. January 16/Out now/You’ll probably have to wait to DVD to have a realistic chance of seeing it.
27. THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART TWO
And I thought Untitled Cameron Crowe Defense Industry Romance was an unwieldy title. Look, it’s the end of a franchise that’s had a lot to say along the way. I haven’t read the books, so I have no idea what’s coming. Some people didn’t enjoy the third film. It wasn’t what I expected, but it settled into the world, its characters, and its internal politics in a way the other films hadn’t. That I enjoyed. Even though it was a little less exciting, it was also a little less broadly goofy. It felt important, but it also felt like it was building toward something far more relevant.
I’m not as concerned with how Peeta’s brain gets saved as I am with what happens to Panem and what Katniss, President Snow, and President Coin all have to say to each other at the end. November 20.
26. THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
That’s right. It’s in the #26 spot. (And Ant-Man isn’t even on this list, because that trailer looked awful.) It’s behind a historical drama about a painting, starring Helen Mirren. Look, this isn’t a knock on Avengers. It beat out 150+ other films that didn’t make it to #26. My biggest worry is that, after the realizations that were two Marvel films that were really about something – Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy – we’re in for another beat-em-up. I like my beat-em-ups, especially when Joss Whedon is helming them, and Avengers 2 could have a very important message. It just hasn’t hinted what that message might be yet, so it’s sitting in the middle of the top 40. Nothing wrong with that. I also thought Guardians was going to be a disaster, not a lovely piece of emotive space opera. I’m just careful about overrating Marvel movies before I see them, particularly when Robert Downey Jr. (much as I like him) threatens to take over any individual film he stars in.
That and I’ll probably be rooting for James Spader as the villain. Why? He’s James Spader. It’s a life decision. Frankly, I’m shocked and disappointed that the rest of you will probably be rooting against him. I really expected more from you guys. Sorry, Avengers. Go Team Spader! May 1.
25. WOMAN IN GOLD
One of the most forgotten movies of the year – well, by critics, since audiences made it a success – was The Monuments Men. It was loosely based around a real-world team of art historians who tracked down French and Jewish art stolen by the Nazis. The German army had orders to destroy the art as they were pushed back in the closing days of World War 2. It was the job of these art historians to discover where the art was being kept and get to it before the Germans could do this. That film is half the story.
The other half is the art that never was found, that made it into private German and Austrian collections, never to be seen by its rightful owners again. Woman in Gold tells this side of the story. Helen Mirren plays a Jewish refugee who tracks down a Gustav Klimt painting that once belonged to her family. In a very un-Ryan Reynolds-like role, Ryan Reynolds plays the lawyer who decides to take on her case and fight the Austrian government for the painting. It will be interesting to see how they handle the complicated history of the painting and what was done with it after the whole affair was settled. April 3.
24. DARKNESS BY DAY
An Argentinian vampire film about a shy, young woman who becomes more confident, outgoing, and bloodthirsty once she…well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but it is a vampire film. It’s been getting raves for its atmosphere and beautiful cinematography on the horror festival circuit, and Argentinian horror is an industry still finding its footing and community. No date set.
23. CHILD 44
What’d I tell you yesterday? 2015 is the year of the Cold War thriller. This one stars Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and…. No. No, it can’t be. I thought we were done with him.
It’s…it’s Tom Hardy, you guys. He’s back. And this time, he’s Russian!
Child 44 takes place in Stalin’s Soviet Russia, and follows a disgraced investigator (Hardy) who must navigate corrupt orphanages, decrepit mental hospitals, and the secret police in order to track down a mass murderer.
It’s based on the novel by Tom Rob Smith, which is apparently the author’s real name and totally not a super-generic deep cover. April 17.
22. THE MARTIAN
Movies that include stranded astronauts facing dire circumstances have gotten a huge boost from Gravity and Interstellar. Unfortunately, movies that take place in deserts and directed by Ridley Scott took a hit with Exodus: Gods and Kings. Throwing the two together makes…I’m not sure what exactly. Me nervous, mostly.
Based on the novel, the concept of an astronaut (played by Matt Damon, no less) having to jury-rig his own survival on Mars – that should shoot to the top of this list. But Scott, legend that he is, has been anything but consistent lately. He still puts forward beautiful movies, but he doesn’t make them matter as much as the audience would like to care for them. It leaves a strange empathy gap between a willing audience and movies that put the effort into everything but connecting.
Scott’s always let actors do what they want, preferring to focus on the design and technical portions of a film. This has given us flat performances by stellar actors ranging from Julianne Moore (Hannibal) to Christian Bale (Exodus). It’s also given us career-best performances from Nicolas Cage (Matchstick Men) and Noomi Rapace (Prometheus). Hell, Russell Crowe owes part of his career to the five films he’s made with Ridley Scott. What a Scott films turns into depends entirely on its actors’ abilities to work in beautifully realized spaces with some of the least direction for acting they’ll ever get in their lives. The more green-screen used, the faster the story is told, and the faster scenes whip by one to the next, the less opportunity those actors have to stretch their arms out into a space and exist in it as their characters. So I’m very nervous for The Martian, which could rely on green-screen, or take place entirely in fabricated sets, depending on how you decide to film it. November 25.
21. MARY KOM
India has a rape epidemic. That isn’t to say other countries – including the United States – don’t have their own, as well. One of the most important aspects of addressing issues of inequality and marginalization is to tell the kinds of stories that aren’t being told, that champion the subjugated and offer them examples of strength. Mary Kom has hardly solved such a large issue on its own, but as part of a greater movement that crosses art, politics, and a melting pot of cultures, it is a piece of the puzzle. As more movies like this are made, they begin to define a battle that takes place between a country’s civil rights and its status quo.
So to you and me, Mary Kom may play into Bollywood narrative tropes that seem melodramatic or overwrought, but Mary Kom isn’t made for you and me. That’s what makes it more interesting – films like this aren’t just about the narrative on-screen, they’re also about the narrative off-screen. They’re a chance to witness and have just a glimpse of greater understanding into how and why another culture is telling certain stories today. That’s an incredibly special opportunity, and it makes Mary Kom – based on the true story of a female Indian boxer who won multiple world championships, but was barely known in her own country – a very important movie.
It’s a film that has – since its Indian release – effected rulings of discrimination by Bombay’s governmental authority on sports, and that has inspired a dance style that helps teach women how to defend themselves. Pirated copies have flooded Kom’s home region of Manipur, which bans Hindi films from the theaters and has a long history of suppressing women’s equality. In these ways, it may be one of the most important films in terms of women’s rights of the past year.
So I don’t care if the boxing looks a little stiff or the plot looks a little trite. I care that I can watch something that is rare and special in the effect it can have in the world. Some of the best, most classic films can’t say they do that. And there is a certain feeling of awe when watching films that demonstrate the ability to effect change in the real world that all the best cinematography and Oscar-winning acting can’t match. Out now/Available on DVD.
Keep an eye out as we count down the top 20.
If you want to see yesterday’s choices, here they are.