Let’s talk about stunts, the forgotten category long left hanging in the wind by an Academy that has failed to award an element of filmmaking as old as film itself. And then they wonder why people think the Oscars are boring.
There will be a separate article for best choreography of the year, but I want to focus on stunt work for the time being. This is an article awarding the most singular achievements in stunt coordination this year.
Stunts can include everything from someone sent flying out of a building to being lit on fire, from precision driving to retraining an actor how to move like a different species. Stunt teams do some of the most difficult work on film, often to little or no credit.
I’ll be avoiding CG stunts. A performance can be aided by CG, motion captured, even take place in a set created through visual effects, but a stunt still has to be a performance. I won’t list anything here that’s entirely created through visual effects.
Hayley Saywell, stunt department coordinator Ben Cooke, stunt coordinator
Fury, aside from being one of the most egregious awards show oversights, pulled off a rare trick. For a mid-movie tank battle, it employed a real German Tiger tank. It was the first time since 1946 that one was used on a film set. Mock-ups were used to develop the battle choreography. On lend from the Bovington Tank Museum for exactly one day of shooting opposite the American M4A2 Sherman tank that played the film’s namesake, the crew had to practice the sequence to the point where they knew what every member was doing every second of each shot. They had to recreate in their mock-up the exact control scheme and sense of response a Tiger tank has so that there were no surprises in the choreography once they were shooting.
It’s the rare mechanical stunt whose complexity won’t be realized by most viewers. On top of all that preparation, the sequence required the crew pave unseen paths in a muddy field, keep to a tight schedule, and keep an eye on mechanical issues.
Fury is filled with other stunts as well, but this tank battle – the above clip only represents a brief moment in the entire sequence – is the showpiece that demonstrates one of the best displays of coordinating a battle scene in recent memory.
Pamela Croydon, precision driving team coordinator Lance Gilbert, stunt coordinator
That clip is all practical. None of the stunts in it are CG. Look, Need for Speed is a very average movie, but the sheer amount of stunt driving crammed into it is pretty audacious.
In an age when Fast and Furious is making money hand over fist with ridiculously CG driving sequences, Need for Speed focused on making everything practical. To do so, it employed no less than 38 stunt and precision drivers. It shows in the end result. Whatever else one says about this film, what you’re really paying to see – the chase and race sequences – are second to none.
Charles Croughwell, Marny Eng, Terry Notary, stunt coordinators
This doesn’t look like it involves much stuntwork. It’s just a bunch of CG, right? Not exactly. When you watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and realize that each of those CG apes spilling out of the woods is being played by an actor: climbing rigging, leaping, and bounding across sets in coordination with each other (often using prosthetic extensions to do so), it becomes one of the most overwhelming stunt accomplishments in recent history.
Motion capture has to have an actor performing the role in order to work. To coordinate dozens upon dozens of actors playing apes requires extensive movement training, complex staging, climbing coordinated between dozens at a time, and a brand new and unique fight choreography based on another species. The list of accomplishments here is stunning. It begins to blur the lines between stunt work, acting, movement training, motion capture, and fight choreography, and it does so to brilliant and moving effect.
The logic used to choose this year’s Oscar nominations is…what’s the right word? Unfathomable. There’s the odd technical category in which I agree with them completely, but the nominations are riddled with head-scratching decisions.
Selma, for instance, is nominated for Best Picture without being nominated in any other category but Best Original Song, “Glory” by Common and John Legend. The Academy must be really big Common fans.
All 20 nominees in the acting categories are Caucasian. I’m not of the opinion that nominations in an awards show should be subject to any quota for minority nomination. I am of the opinion, however, that there’s no way the 20 best performances this year include zero roles performed by other ethnicities.
To paraphrase a friend’s reaction, it’s almost as if the Academy is saying, “We gave you 12 Years a Slave and Lupita last year, leave us alone,” and chucking Selma into the Best Picture category just to dissuade criticism of how whitewashed the Oscars are this year.
In each category, I’ll be naming a film or person who deserved a nomination this year, who the Academy overlooked. I won’t focus it on minorities – I have my own rankings for our awards, which we’ll present before the Oscars, and I’m just taking the first person off each board who wasn’t nominated by the Academy. But I look at those boards and then I look at the Oscar nominations, and I see a big difference.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Nominated: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Forgotten: Actually, we’re all good here
One of the most controversial choices I make today is going to be agreeing with the Oscars wholeheartedly. I don’t believe The LEGO Movie is enough of something to earn a place alongside the awe-inspiring texture of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, the gracefully epic How to Train Your Dragon 2, or the surprisingly rousing and emotional Big Hero 6. I’m not as high on The Boxtrolls, but I would still choose it over LEGO. I have not seen the Irish animated film Song of the Sea, but even if I had to take it out, I’d only replace it with The Book of Life.
BEST FILM EDITING
Nominated: American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Whiplash
My two favorite awards at the Oscars are always Editing and Cinematography. I’m weird like that. The oversight of Kirk Baxter’s work in Gone Girl is surprising, but like much of what David Fincher does when he’s not de-aging Brad Pitt, the finished product itself may be too audacious for the Academy to process. Gone Girl‘s narrative game of shells is handled with greater editing precision than any other film this year. It is perfectly cut, creating rhythm and tension from a story that could have easily been a complete mess in the hands of a lesser editor. I can understand and forgive most oversights on technical awards, but this one is nothing short of astonishing.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Mr. Turner
There’s one film here that should walk away with this, and it rhymes with “A Man To Arrest For Smell” (work with me here). That said, there is a nomination missing, and it’s from a film I would not expect most members in the Academy to have even heard of. That would be Indonesian martial arts epic The Raid 2. Imagine if Stanley Kubrick had been in charge of designing the sets for a gang epic, half of it taking place in majestic hotels redder than blood and tiered dance clubs of glass, the other half erupting into the slums, snowy back alleys, and dismantled housing projects of Jakarta. Does it even snow in Jakarta? I don’t know, but it does in one scene in The Raid 2, and it’s not because of Jakarta, it’s because of the sheer operatic power it holds in that moment, to take your breath away, to make you feel profound loss.
The production design in The Raid 2 isn’t just nice to look at, it is emotionally evocative: unsettling, touching, beautiful, and glum each in turn. It can evoke emptiness in its richest moments, fear in its most overpoweringly banal form, and the threadbare desperation of a moment. It’s rare that you come across a martial arts film in which you could take away all the fight scenes and still have a deeply compelling drama in a fully realized world left over.
Nominated: American Sniper, Birdman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Unbroken, Whiplash
I know everybody came here for Best Sound, but I’m combining Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, since the split between these categories is largely vestigial, and every year only serves to double the nomination count across four movies. A fifth (Hobbit for Editing, Whiplash for Mixing) is always included just to maintain the illusion that these categories don’t overlap in most of their qualifications. Anyway, who cares about all that? Where the hell is Fury? I’ll admit, I’m normally the one tossing a non-war film into the mix for Sound. I’m tempted to do that with Gone Girl‘s thick, white-noise silences or Under the Skin‘s candid, on-the-street backgrounds. But this year, Fury is one of the few films to create so much through so many sound cues. Half the film takes place inside a tank, and we need to hear not just what war sounds like, but what war sounds like when you’re behind inches of armor with barely enough space to turn your head. Fury crafts this beautifully, and I’m disappointed to see one of the year’s best films with zero nominations in any category whatsoever.
Additionally, I love Interstellar. Love it. Like, Interstellar and I are thinking of moving in together and getting a puppy just as a test run to see if we want to have little Matthew McConaugheys running around crying all the time. But the one nomination Interstellar does not deserve is sound, not when 10% of the dialogue is drowned out by Hans Zimmer beating the everloving tar out of a pipe organ. I recognize it was a directorial choice, and I won’t say it was the wrong choice, but sound is Interstellar‘s pianissimo, not it’s forte.
Can’t disagree with anything here. If it’s just about fidelity, you look for a place to include The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, but I’d like to see this award continue trending more toward the artistic use of visual effects, and not just how many you can have moving on-screen at once. Which is why I’m ecstatic to see no Transformers nomination.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Nominated: Patricia Arquette – Boyhood, Laura Dern – Wild, Keira Knightley – Imitation Game, Emma Stone – Birdman, Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
Rene Russo in Nightcrawler and Carrie Coon in Gone Girl both deserve more acclaim than they’re getting for what they did this year, but the disinclusion of Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King in Selma is very puzzling. She holds two of the most powerful scenes on film this year. In Selma, she isn’t just tasked with portraying her character, she also has the responsibility of communicating and then reacting to the emotions that Martin Luther King must restrain. Every moment she’s on-screen, she’s portraying two characters: Mrs. King and her husband. She creates the shape and space for David Oyelowo’s performance as Dr. King, and – with the possible exception of my next two choices – there is no joint performance this year in which two actors better realize a give-and-take relationship.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Nominated: Robert Duvall – The Judge, Ethan Hawke – Boyhood, Edward Norton – Birdman, Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher, J.K. Simmons – Whiplash
There are some actors I’m very happy to see nominated – you cannot be unhappy that J.K. Simmons is finally nominated for an Oscar. But the best supporting role this year, and not just a nomination missing, is the best performance this year, period. It belongs to Robert Pattinson in an overlooked Australian film called The Rover. He gives us an immature man whose faculties are very questionable, who starts as the enemy to Guy Pearce’s unnamed kidnapper, yet who quickly comes to idolize his captor and seek to impress him through greater and greater violence.
Pattinson plays a blank slate who doesn’t belong in this world, who would have been gentle and allowed himself to be weak if he’d only seen kindness, yet who is taught to see the world instead through a lens of brutality and so suffers his injuries like some dog kicked and used by his master, and all the more loyal for it. It is an awesome and staggering performance from an actor I never expected could deliver it.
Nominated: Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, Bradley Cooper – American Sniper, Benedict Cumberbatch – Imitation Game, Michael Keaton – Birdman, Eddie Redmayne – Theory of Everything
I’m drawing from the top of my list, and that means Guy Pearce in The Rover. There’s a scene in which he’s captured by the authorities, fully expecting and seemingly wanting the release of finally being punished for his crimes. There is a look in his eyes that defines desperation. When the unlikely event of his rescue comes to pass, we don’t focus on that rescue. We hear it. But we focus on this dirty man in a chair coming to realize that he won’t be sent to jail, that he’ll be thrown back into the world and have to continue his journey in it. And those eyes…they communicate such disappointment, such a resignation to that reality. Few actors could play a protagonist so terrible, so ruthless, and yet so human.
There are many nominations I’d replace with others, not just one for each category, but here, I really do have to point out the inexplicable lack of a nomination for the #2 actor of the year on my list, David Oyelowo. We nominate not just for performance – which Oyelowo would deserve on that merit alone – but for the moment in time those performances arrive, for what those performances have to teach us. Oyelowo’s role as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma deserves to be here for the quality of his performance, but it doubly deserves to be here for when it arrives and what it reminds us about our country.
I’d also kick a third nominee out in favor of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, but that’s a whole other conversation.
Nominated: Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night, Felicity Jones – Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore – Still Alice, Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild
These are fine. I’m glad to see Marion Cotillard nominated again. I didn’t expect the Academy to give Under the Skin the time of day, and I was right. I’m not exactly shocked that an experimental Scottish film about an alien in the skin of a woman seducing and consuming men didn’t warrant a nomination, but Johansson delivers a brilliant performance as a predator who gradually learns to identify with her prey. Under the Skin is many things: a film that asks complex questions about identity, that embodies the relationship between urbanization and nature, and that – most astonishingly – tricks you into inhabiting the perspective of a serial rapist. It is not every actor who could anchor so many questions or communicate a worldview of sociopathy in this disturbingly plainspoken a way.
Nominated: Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida, Mr. Turner, Unbroken
These are all phenomenal choices, but there’s a glaring exception here. Again, I don’t expect most of the Academy to even know what The Raid 2 is, let alone know about how Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono are changing how we shoot movies. Like I wrote above for its production design, you could take away every martial arts setpiece and still have a complete, beautiful looking narrative. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick in the production design also carry over to the dramatic cinematography.
What Flannery and Subhono do on top of this, however, is nothing less than completely change how martial arts movies are shot. No longer are we watching complex martial arts sequences shot from a series of static angles and crane shots. No longer are we watching long form choreography filmed from a handheld shakycam. Now, we weave in and out in extended shots that are comparable to the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, whose unbroken one-takes created the tension behind Children of Men, Gravity, and this year’s nominated Birdman.
There’s a sequence that demands performers and cameramen run through a muddy prison yard the consistency of pudding, complete with complex, timed choreography and opportunities for the cameras to not just witness, but to weave inside and through the choreography itself. A later fight scene involves three people in a narrow hallway. While there are edits, they are very specifically at the easiest points. The hardest choreography is not achieved through edits, but through a hidden choreography for the camera. It becomes a four-person choreography that demands precise staging so that the camera can weave in and out of actors’ full speed movements, still able to land on precise shots that can evoke the emotion of more classical, dramatic cinematography. There are rare steps taken in the technical elements of film that open whole new ways of shooting movies, that create brand new visual grammar for how we understand the language of an entire genre. This is one of those steps.
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Maleficent, Mr. Turner
While the fidelity of the visual effects in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies shouldn’t earn it a nomination in that category because of how they are used, the costume design in this third Hobbit deserves nothing less than our awe. You feel that, knowing this was their last hurrah in Middle-earth, designers Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, and Richard Taylor went whole hog, creating an array of costumes that is the film’s true standout. From the gold leaves of the beautiful elven armor, each a complex reproduction of the last, to the individualized armor pieces that change from one orc to the next, from the fur and filigree of the dwarves’ armors to the tatters of the humans, the costuming here does more to realize the world of Middle-earth in this entry than any other technical element. The franchise has won this before, and perhaps the Academy felt like they needed to create territory for other nominees, but if The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies deserves to be nominated for anything, it’s in this category.
BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
Nominated: Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy
Only three nominees, so I may not bump any of these out (Guardians of the Galaxy should win this walking away), but it’s hard to see The Hobbit ignored in this category, for many of the same reasons I list right above in the Costume Design section. If you gave the category a fifth nomination, I’d be hard pressed to ignore the work of Judy Chin’s crew on Noah.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Nominated: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Interstellar, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything
You can always tempt me with a Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross team-up, as in Gone Girl, but the finest score this year belongs to Mica Levi and her wild experimentation on Under the Skin. There’s absolutely nothing like it, and its combination of mechanical regularity and teeming natural architectures is stunningly disturbing. Her score is also the most thematically important, turning the film’s key moment in a way no other musical cue does this year. It’s rare that I can hear a piece of music and feel as if my body’s temperature has dropped to freezing, but that’s the effect this music has.
I make fun of it, but out of what’s nominated, I’d like to see Hans Zimmer’s How to Beat a Pipe Organ for Dummies get Interstellar the win.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Nominated: American Sniper, Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
I’ll get flak for this one, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes possesses an incredible screenplay that riffs on Pierre Boulle’s original novel, the Charlton Heston film, Biblical allegories, and contains plain, old-fashioned, incredible adventure writing. It is structural perfection, it is stylistically strong, it builds a world, entirely new cultures, and it is both patient and daring in how it gets to the places it’s going. The film’s best moments don’t involve its action scenes (although these are good, too); they involve characters trying their best to bridge differences, communicate, and avert a disaster they should know all too well is coming anyway. Strip the modern visuals and the central allegory about war and you have a brilliant 1950s historical epic. Toss on the war allegory and you’re suddenly discussing too many regions of the world where cultures seek to violently eradicate those different from them.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Nominated: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler
David Ayer’s screenplay for Fury deserves recognition as the finest balancing act of the year. The idea of using World War 2 to examine and break down the inner mechanics of how patriarchy trains violence – toward women, toward “the other,” as a way of functioning in the world – is mind-blowing. I have never seen anything like what David Ayer does here and it requires him to balance on the edge of a knife. He instills an honest admiration and respect for the heroism of soldiers while also using the training of their mindset to define the tragedy of something that is a modern, everyday, cultural problem: too many think they’re soldiers in cultural, gender-based, and religious battles that demand us-or-them victory conditions. We enable greater, everyday violence toward those with less as a rule of our culture. It is a remarkably difficult message to convey in the trappings of a war film, especially in terms of this particular war.
What Paul Webb does in Selma also deserves recognition. He creates poetry that discusses race in a way that connects 1965 to 2015. He writes characters not as celebrities or icons, but as people burdened by the responsibility of living up to the titles they’re given. As much as anything else, he deserves credit for finding a way to communicate the words of King without being able to use any of the words of King, since Dreamworks and Warner Bros. have licensed the film rights to Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches for a Steven Spielberg biopic that will probably never get made. It’s just one of the many nomination oversights for Selma that baffle me.
Nominated: Alejandro Inarritu – Birdman, Richard Linklater – Boyhood, Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher, Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel, Morten Tyldum – Imitation Game
I’m completely lost as to how this doesn’t get nominated. Until Selma came out, the year’s been a three-way race between Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin), Christopher Nolan (Interstellar), and Gareth Evans (The Raid 2). The three Davids – Fincher (Gone Girl), Ayer (Fury), and Michod (The Rover) are in the conversation with a few of the Oscar nominees, and Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) keeps hanging around because she turned one of the most godawful scripts of the year into compelling drama, which isn’t easy.
And then Ava DuVernay came along, and then there was that moment early in Selma, when the conversation just stopped. There was no conversation to be had: Ava DuVernay is the best director of the year. And then there was that moment midway through Selma, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and you realized why. Her grasp of one of the most impossible moments in American history to translate, her ability to take the incomprehensible and help you begin to understand the texture and emotion of that moment, her ability to connect what happened 50 years ago to what is happening today…she is the director all other directors should be looking to this year. I cannot fathom what reason the Oscars have to overlook it.
Nominated: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
It’s really nice to see comedies like Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel recognized. I’m incredibly glad Whiplash found its way here. American Sniper I’ve mostly avoided because there is a great deal of controversy surrounding just how much has been changed to patriotize the figure at its center.
So what’s missing? The Academy gives what feels like a very cursory nod to Selma, having forgotten it in every other category but Best Original Song. I almost want to list it here again. While I’d feel pretty warm and content in my snark, it would defeat the spirit of this exercise.
You can probably guess it’s going to come down to Interstellar, Under the Skin, and something out of left field – Fury, Nightcrawler, The Raid 2, or The Rover. Those are six very deserving films, and I hate to be so boring, but it really is all about Interstellar and Under the Skin.
This is what I’ve been wrestling with when figuring out the best film of the year. Interstellar is a movie that emotionally communicates to me in a way no other film does. It makes me feel like a little kid, makes me feel like I’m going on a space adventure, but it talks about so much more along the way. Its tension and emotion are unparalleled for me as far as film experiences go. Of all the films this year, it will easily be the one I watch the most in my life.
Under the Skin speaks about important issues of identity, and it goes to terrifying places intellectually that I’ve never been taken before. On a level of experiencing and understanding the unfeeling nature of sociopathy, of being tricked into inhabiting it for two hours, of being asked to experience the world both as predator and victim, it leaves me disgusted and aghast and yet – seeing how its real, understanding all the better how that mindset operates – it makes it so very much more terrifying.
So it becomes comparing apples to oranges, or comparing apples to the guy in that shady Buick parked halfway down the block all day. Do I choose the film that makes me feel best about the world, or the one that makes me feel worst? Truth be told, that answer’s going to change day by day. It’s going to change by the successes I have and by the suffering I see in the world. I might tell you Interstellar is one of the best adventures ever put to film one day, and I might insist Under the Skin is going to change your life the next.
I hope you’ll understand that I won’t choose, that I prefer to leave it a two-way tie. Film is about the stories we need to keep on going, and the stories we need to see to better help others keep on going. To me, it’s an odd poetry that my top two films this year come down to the opposite ends of science-fiction. It might be frustrating to you, it might feel like a cop-out, but to me it feels fitting. It feels as if each film becomes more important by not winning out over the other, that one film can be the emotional heart and the other can be the intellectual reality into which that idealization walks every day thinking it can make a difference. I feel like choosing one would be denying reality, and choosing the other would be denying possibility.
Criticism isn’t just about ranking and choosing what’s best and what isn’t. It’s about finding the films that speak to you and using them to speak to others. The best films teach critics new words, new translations, whole new ways to communicate what’s inside them, to be memoir writers who point out new possibilities through the windows art gives us. These are the films that teach me the most, that make me feel like I can communicate so much more completely.
So go see Interstellar. It’s one of the best adventures ever put to film.
And go see Under the Skin. It’s going to change your life.
For a long time, the purpose of a movie critic was to tell you if a movie was good or bad, and to let audiences know if they should spend their time and money on it.
Yet marketing has surpassed the critic and figured out how to gets butts in the seats on opening weekend, while sites like Metacritic and IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes (when it’s not spamming viruses) can tell you in a number what a critic says in hundreds of words.
So what the hell are we here for anymore? We can’t simply be an industry of vestigial navel-gazers, can we?
Here’s my thought – audiences do not care if a movie is good or bad anymore. I’m not sure if they ever did, but especially now, they’re more concerned with having certain types of experiences. We don’t just buy a ticket for a story, we buy a ticket for an emotional reaction. For decades, critics have reviewed the story and its technical delivery. As an industry, we’re still not very good at reviewing the emotional experience.
After all, you can’t just say an emotional experience is good or bad. It will be good or bad in different ways for different viewers – that’s how emotion works. You have to do your best to translate what that experience is like, to be a conduit for what sitting in the theater and looking up at that screen for two hours feels like. Different readers have to feel good and bad in different ways about your review. That means you have to be an open book, and that’s hard.
When I worked as a critic 2006-2009, my biggest concern was whether a film was good or not. Since I came back to doing this just last year, I threw that out the window. Quality of a film is still a core component in my reviews, obviously, but I’ll often get the “it’s good” or “it’s bad” and why out of the way pretty quickly. Why spend extra words on what Metacritic could tell you?
What Metacritic can’t tell you is what the experience of watching that movie is like. That’s the half of our job that movie critics have brushed into the corner for the greater part of our existence.
Let me give you an example: one of the most impactful scenes of the year involves the police shooting a black man wearing a hoodie because he seems threatening…in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) successfully calms the confused Electro (Jamie Foxx) down. Then those Times Square mega-screens kick on like CNN fumbling all over an ongoing tragedy. They redefine a successfully defused situation into a media popularity contest, which leads to a shootout.
Mainstream criticism focused on how messy the narrative was, and reviewing the film essentially became a pile-on of who could insult it the best. That’s fine, insult away. I have just one question – How is that useful to an audience?
To me, it’s criticism’s equivalent of reality television.
I can tell you The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is messy in one sentence: “It’s messy.” In my own review, I spent a few more sentences than that because different viewers will tolerate different kinds of narrative messiness, and it’s important for them to understand what they’re walking into.
I did not spend a thousand words saying this, however. Fine, it’s messy. What else is the movie trying to do? That’s more important to me because those are the things communicating to audiences week after week, and honestly, that has as much to do with an audience’s experience as simple good or bad does.
Criticism is falling woefully behind the curve by not translating the emotional experience of watching movies, especially at a time when mainstream filmmaking is trading in technical perfection for more aggressive social commentary. Critics are only focused on good or bad, or worse yet, lifestyle reporting, as in how a film effects our interpretation of an actor’s celebrity. Many critics treated Fury as a film about redeeming Shia LaBeouf’s career instead of the inherent ugliness of patriarchy. What good does that do our readers?
Only focusing on good or bad misses half the film. Film review as lifestyle reporting misses the whole film. Each makes you blind to the big sea change in modern filmmaking that’s happening all around us. Many critics like to think that our job is using superior knowledge and superior analytical skills to tell others what to think. That’s ridiculous and insulting, and that mentality automatically means audiences are utilizing something those critics don’t have – superior emotional maturity.
When we decide if a movie’s good or bad, we come from a place of judgment. When we understand something despite that judgment, and look at the world from that movie’s perspective, we empathize. The challenge of modern criticism is to figure out how to judge a film and empathize with it all at once.
Otherwise, we’re just a wordier version of Metacritic teaching readers to be cynical about film. That sells criticism short at a time when it has the opportunity to communicate so much more.
Oscar season is upon us, and that means one thing – everyone’s opinion is about to change. When many of the best films of the year are held until the holiday season, top 10 lists will completely transform by January. Earlier movies will be seen a second or third time and will climb or fall down lists accordingly. As was the case with my top two films of 2013, The Place Beyond the Pines and The Grandmaster, I’ll even catch up with smaller or foreign films on DVD.
On the cusp of Oscar season, let’s do an experiment. I’ll list my top 10 films today and we’ll check back in with the list come January:
10. How to Train Your Dragon 2
The list is rounded out with big-budget fare that’s more ambitious than the average summer blockbuster. How to Train Your Dragon 2 might be the best American animated film since Pixar’s sadly passed golden age, but it’s not just about kids and their dragons. It possesses an epic visual streak rare in animation and speaks to the dispossessed of our society – children of broken families, the disabled, and war veterans alike.
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This is our best (non-Batman) superhero film in a cinematic era overrun with them. Like many blockbusters of the last two years, it’s incredibly socially-minded, using comic book tropes to deliver a sharp critique on the oxymoron of a marriage between the Pentagon’s mandate for freedom and the rise of private military contractors.
8. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
For all its visual effects wizardry, this boasts one of the best-told stories of the year. It also challenges Noah for number of Bible references, posing original sin, Cain-and-Abel, and Jesus conceits against the backdrop of civil war in what’s effectively a third-world country. It’s rare that you could take away an action movie’s bigger setpieces and still be left with one of the best films of the year.
Noah is just on the outside of the top tier looking in. I’m big on its style and message, which were enough to make me forgive its unwieldy stretches on first viewing. I’m still a huge fan of its screenplay, which conflates various cultures’ flood myths, the entirety of the Old Testament, and a very meta approach to film narrative into a single story. That’s no easy feat. Darren Aronofsky’s “story of creation” is the best three-and-a-half minutes on film this year, and reveals that the film is better viewed as a postapocalypse fever dream than a direct religious adaptation. It tackles so much that I’m still putting it above much tighter films, but its unevenness can’t help but detract when we’ve had so many off-kilter masterpieces this year.
I just recently wrote on this film and, if you read on Monday how personally it struck me, you’ll accept my apology if I’d rather not write more on it for the time being.
5. Gone Girl
I don’t know if this is Gone Girl the movie so much as it’s David Fincher the movie. Rarely has a film been so precisely directed. You get the feeling that if there were a fleck of dust out of place on set, it would be moved into position before the camera rolled. It’s an accomplishment to be sure, and Gone Girl says a lot with a wry smile.
It’s a perfect film, essentially, but it knows it a little too much. It’s still pretty secure in the top 10, and I suspect it may move up once I see it again, but is it as important as some of the other films here? No. ‘Important’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘good,’ but it can add a certain weight to a film. Gone Girl is an artistic triumph, but it’s also like looking at a date who’s a little too perfect. Like its protagonists when they meet, there’s no messiness there, and you get the sense their personality is a put-on. It’s intriguing and you might see where it goes, but really you’re looking for someone who’s more willing to make a mistake or embarrass themselves.
4. The Raid 2
What the hell’s a martial arts movie doing this high? Imagine if Stanley Kubrick had ever designed the sets for a martial arts film with a gangland story told by Martin Scorsese and choreography that harkens back to the riskiest stunts of Jackie Chan’s youth. That might be a mess for a film without a motive, but The Raid 2 is a tight gangster story that reflects Indonesia’s frustration with powerful organized crime.
What’s most impressive is its cinematography. Quiet, emotional moments barely move, as if trapped in a snow globe. Yet you never see the most impressively choreographed stuntpeople – the ones holding the cameras, who weave in and out of the action with as much exacting complexity and artful nuance as the actors themselves. For martial arts films, this doesn’t just create a new way of filming fight scenes, it creates new opportunities for telling more story through them.
3. The Rover
Capturing the sensibility of a short story in a feature length film is incredibly difficult. In The Rover, it requires a narrow focus on character and something shrouded and immaculately protected in their souls. You feel compelled to learn more, to stick with disgusting characters because you need to know what it is that drives them toward a task so meaningless and without consequence. What makes it personal?
In a postapocalyptic world, following a character who couldn’t care whether you live or die, what makes his journey important at all? Something does, you get the sense of it haunting every moment Guy Pearce holds the screen like some cornered, wounded animal, vicious and feral about protecting himself yet already given up to the idea there’s no point left in living. Then there’s Robert Pattinson, playing the dull-witted boy who makes up his mind to be like Pearce’s nameless drifter, play-acting the part of wounded animal. Both are performances for the ages in as sparse and unforgiving a film as I know. It’s a film that – once it finishes – makes you thankful for stepping into the sunlight and hearing the noise of cars and seeing planes in the sky. The Rover is a masterpiece of what it’s like to be desolate not just in the world around you, but inside yourself.
And then there’s Fury. Like The Rover, it presents us with a young man (Logan Lerman) being trained to survive through developing a skill for hatred. In fact, many films this year – Nightcrawler, the villain in Maleficent, and even Lerman’s role in Noah – give us characters who demonstrate the hatred created through uniquely male pressures. These characters are taught to find strength through layers of domination, learning to abuse the “lesser” violently and sexually in order to secure a role in society. None of them communicate it like Fury, however, its metaphors stripped to the bone in as stark a depiction of war as has ever been put to the screen.
1. Under the Skin
A Scottish art film in which each artist – sound designers, composer, cinematographer – was allowed to go wild when creating their own, unique perspective of a central vision, edited into a horror film about identity and sexual consumption. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien in human form whose job is to capture and digest human beings. She does so by luring drifters and other lonely men away from the public, tempting them with sex, and consuming them in some of the creepiest visual metaphors you’ve ever seen.
What Under the Skin does best is tricking us into viewing the narrative through the perspective of a sexual predator, and later using nontraditional means – inverted lighting schemes and Pavlovian musical cues – to coldly bring us out of it and make us consider what we’ve seen. It’s a mad, pulsating, unnerving film you don’t always know what to do with, sometimes frustrating but always captivating. What’s most impressive is that it doesn’t organize every artist’s contribution beneath a single directorial vision, which is usually better for a film – each perspective and artistic layer can still be seen in the final product. In truth, it’s the only way a film like this could have worked so well, as a rarity that can be viewed from so many different angles.
What will change by January? Probably a lot, even though I have a very hard time seeing those very top films unseated. Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to go check out one of them. Is there anything I’ve missed that you feel strongly about?
There is a review for Fury in my head that I will never write. I’ll try to tell you why:
Fury follows a tank crew pushing into Nazi Germany late in World War 2, but this is merely what happens. It’s not what Fury is about. I could call Fury the best war movie since Clint Eastwood made his Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima double feature. I wouldn’t be wrong, but it doesn’t hit the nail on the head. Instead, I’ll call Fury one of the best movies about indoctrination since A Clockwork Orange.
You see, Brad Pitt’s Sgt. Collier, the tank commander who leads four young men into battle, cannot be called a “good guy.” If beating his subordinates or forcing them to shoot unarmed prisoners helps them to survive, then that is what he’ll do. If allowing his crew to blow off steam by assaulting the local women helps them to survive, then that is what he’ll allow.
When Collier’s tank gets a new assistant driver, a fresh-faced clerk named Norman (Logan Lerman) with zero combat experience, Collier will beat him, emotionally abuse him, and force him to murder and rape. The strange thing is – the utterly difficult thing about this movie – is that writer-director David Ayer forces you to understand Collier. His only goal is to keep his crew alive. His every decision contributes to this. Everything outside that tank – enemy, civilian – is only there to keep his crew breathing that much longer.
There are beautiful, fleeting moments when Pitt lets you see the toll this takes on Collier’s conscience. This is a man who’s made a judgment that his crew’s survival is worth every other moral transgression. Later in the movie, it’s revealed he knows the Bible verse-for-verse, yet he’s kept this hidden. Why? Because he’s rejected its applicability. Living morally in war, he believes, will get the men around him killed, and they are his responsibility. His duty is to mold men and make them hate – him, themselves, the enemy, it doesn’t matter so long as that hate takes away any hesitation before pulling a trigger.
One of the most nerve wracking scenes involves Collier playing house during a lull in combat. He uses Norman and two German women hiding in an apartment to create a pale reflection of a normal family supper. It’s Collier’s momentary reprieve from war, and yet it’s terrifying for these two women.
Are the things Collier does wrong? Of course they are. But to make men kill each other for years on end and then be shocked that they’ve committed sins is perverse: judging them for it is perverse, not judging them for it is perverse.
Fury is rousing, its tank battles brilliantly intense. Collier is among Pitt’s best characters. Lerman, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal deliver nuanced, touching performances as the tank crew, and of all actors, Shia LaBeouf is going to make you cry.
Fury is not interested in being an easy movie, nor a palatable one. It is difficult. There are no good guys by its end, just men who judged for themselves what sacrifices they were willing to make of others, and in their own souls, in order to keep the men beside them alive.
And though many young men aren’t faced with platoons of enemy soldiers, we are often brought up to act as if we will be, to believe the shortest route to strength is in hating some perceived weakness in ourselves or in others. We’re often taught to be manly is to bury sentimentality and sensitivity and mercy in order to make our way in the world.
There is a review for Fury in my head that I will never write, because in some way, every young man grows up with the expectation that we will be willing to trade those pieces of our soul in order to survive, that emotion makes us weak and exerting our willpower on another makes us strong, that our flaws can be cured with our worst behavior. We’ve each been taught our own small portion of perversion. In its own way, Fury lays that bare.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Fury have more than one woman in it?
Yes. The two women in the apartment with whom Collier tries to play house.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Possibly. Some of their German is subtitled. Some isn’t.
Truth be told, I’d have to watch again to see if they talk only about the soldiers, or if they discuss something else. Most of their interaction is silent because they are so terrified – there’s not much dialogue at all and whether they pass or don’t pass the third rule is essentially immaterial. Their conversation takes place under the fear of being raped, so even if they are talking about dinner, they’re not really talking about dinner.
Can it be forgiven? No, nothing in Fury can be forgiven, and that’s the point. Plot-wise, it’s a movie about a World War 2 tank crew, which were only composed of men. Thematically, it’s a movie about men molding other men by threatening them with violence, making them commit violence, and using peer approval and women as the prizes for doing right (i.e. killing without hesitation).
World War 2 is often considered one of the last righteous American wars. This doesn’t mean it was any easier for those involved. What Fury does best is make us still feel for the men who do these awful things – not just to the enemy, but to each other and to innocent bystanders. We begin to understand why, not to give it a pass, but to comprehend just how mad and hellish struggling for one’s life day after day can become.
To watch characters who commit atrocities and still feel for them, to cry over their internal struggles and shake as their fates are decided…it’s a rare experience in any form of storytelling. The point isn’t that these things are forgivable. It’s that they aren’t, and yet we force soldiers into situations where they will increasingly choose the unforgivable just to stay sane.
By extension, what does it say that we use these same tactics to train and reward men for being “manly” in times of peace, or at home during wartime? To be manly, must we always be in a constant state of war with someone, must we always be finding something new to hate in order to draw strength, must we always beat down the sensitive among us until their own window to hate is opened, so they can become manly like us?
The most important way you can understand Fury is to not forgive it. Ayer and Pitt and those involved have created these characters and moments to be unlikeable for a reason. It’s no mistake that the last person in the world you’d ever expect to show mercy is the one that does. It’s the only time two characters connect in the film, understand each other with all the B.S. removed, see in each other what they’ve lost along the way.
Can Fury be forgiven? I’ll be troubled if it is. It’s the rare piece of art that wants you to talk about why it can’t be.
As the summer ends and we begin shifting toward Autumn, we also change movie seasons. Gone are the glossy superhero blockbusters that ruled the hottest months. In their place will come art films, Oscar bait, and more than a few crime thrillers. There are still a few event films left. The next Hunger Games arrives November 21, and I’m sure it will dominate at the box office. It just barely misses my top 10, but this mix of films big and small captures my interest just that much more:
Nov. 14. While Jon Stewart’s directorial debut Rosewater is the movie that’s gotten all the press, fellow Daily Show alum Steve Carell is the one more likely to get an Oscar nomination. He portrays John du Pont, an unstable millionaire who invested considerable resources into America’s olympic wrestling program, only to kill his friend, olympic wrestler Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum). Director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) is known for getting singular performances out of his leads.
9. Men, Women & Children
Oct. 1. Director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) is known for using his comedic eye to plumb the dramatic depths of everyday life. His latest centers on the role technology plays in our modern romantic lives. Like Carell above, Adam Sandler has hinted at a dramatic core – most notably in Punch Drunk Love – that’s rarely been tested. Jennifer Garner is one of the most underutilized actresses of her generation.
8. Inherent Vice
Dec. 12. P.T. Anderson directed There Will Be Blood, arguably the greatest American film since the turn of the millennium. With Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, and Reese Witherspoon, Inherent Vice has the pedigree of a captivating, off-beat mystery. This really should be higher, but the sheer lack of information about it makes it difficult to form any expectations.
7. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Dec. 17. Who hasn’t wanted to see Peter Jackson’s treatment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s defining moment – the battle between human, elf, dwarf, giant eagle, and goblin? There’s also that pesky dragon, the One Ring, and an evil necromancer left to deal with. If any movie has ever guaranteed three straight hours of high-fantasy swordplay and magic battles, this is the one.
6. The Guest
Unscheduled. You’re Next was one of the hidden gems of 2013, a smart horror movie that was intensely frightening and profoundly funny at the same time. Director Adam Wingard’s The Guest follows a young man who claims to be the friend of a family’s dead son. He moves in to “protect” them and takes the duty much too far. Wingard puts complex psychological storytelling into his horror movies, evoking humor and empathy. Being scared is so much more fun when it’s not the only emotion you’re feeling.
Oct. 17. Ever since I watched Clint Eastwood command his tank crew deep into German territory in Kelly’s Heroes, I’ve had a fond fascination for tank warfare in movies. It’s not tackled often, which is why the Brad Pitt vehicle looks so captivating. The tale of one surviving tank crew left to hold off a full company of German soldiers echoes the brilliant Sahara, and what they’ve shown of the tank warfare thus far looks frighteningly realistic.
4. Exodus: Gods and Kings
Dec. 12. If anyone can tackle the epic of Moses, it’s director Ridley Scott. Christian Bale remains an odd choice to play Moses, and trailers make this look like a fantasy-hued reboot of Gladiator. That’s a lot of flavors to chuck in one pot, and Scott’s storytelling can sometimes suffer at the hands of his art. I have hope, but even if it’s a disaster, it’s going to be one of the most fascinating disasters in movie history.
Oct. 31. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a freelance reporter who, in the name of ratings, dresses up the crimes he reports to make them appear more fantastic. In an age of networks reporting narratives instead of news, it’s a metaphor that hits close to home for all. At some point, we’ll have to recognize Gyllenhaal in the pantheon of great American actors. This role looks to get him one step closer.
2. Gone Girl
Oct. 3. Arguably the most important director since Alfred Hitchcock, no filmmaker has changed film in the last 25 years as much as David Fincher. From Madonna music videos to Fight Club and The Social Network, he’s consistently re-invented both himself and the technology and storytelling of film. Gone Girl investigates a husband (Ben Affleck) whose wife has gone missing. We’re left to figure out whether he’s guilty of her disappearance or not.
Nov. 7. The Dark Knight. Inception. Memento. Director Christopher Nolan needs no introduction. His tale of humanity reaching out to the stars as the Earth dies looks inspirational, chilling, thought-provoking. It sparks of Golden Era science-fiction, when ideas were bigger than the people who thought them. When a two-minute trailer can completely command your emotions and attention, you know you’re in for something truly special.