The big story of the weekend is that you should avoid the Fantastic Four reboot at all costs, but what should you see instead? Consider psychological thriller The Gift.
Its premise seems familiar on the surface. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California, close to where he grew up. An awkward former classmate of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), thrusts himself into their lives with a cloying and creepy attachment. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Simon and Robyn are terrified by Gordo. Yet The Gift holds more secrets than your average Cape Fear knockoff. It’s a tightly wound thriller of well-paced deceptions and reveals that holds moments of real fright and disturbing vengeance.
The Gift works so very well because control over its plot evolves from one act to the next. Doing this in a spoiler-free way, during the first act, Simon is making the decisions. He’s the one who guides the direction of the story. The most important element is also the most subtle: Robyn acts out of a need to fill many of the expected roles of a wife to Simon. Yet the viewer can catch blink-and-you’ll-miss-them instances that point toward Simon bullying her. He feeds her those expectations and controls her through them. She’s restless, but she doesn’t know why.
The second act is entirely Robyn’s, and it’s the most compelling. She’s paranoid and trapped in her own home, but it’s not just because of Gordo – it’s also because of the subtle pressures Simon exerts over her life. She confronts her own doubts and begins to uncover hidden truths about Simon as well.
I’ll refrain from divulging anything about the third act except to say it’s all about Gordo realizing his control. This makes for a disturbing ending that doesn’t play to any familiar expectations. The final twist is not one that you’ll guess. That’s a rare feat in cinema.
Its twist is clever because it’s right in front of you the whole time, but it’s also a jolt. Suddenly, the film is making the viewer do the work, hiding answers and forcing the viewer to create their own from whichever truth they decide to put faith in. Since most of the film is about revealing truth and getting closer to being whole, the film gives you an option of what to believe in the end. Is it a story of physical brutality, or psychological manipulation, or of discovering freedom? Only Ex Machina this year has created such a complex and challenging ending, although Ex Machina was much clearer on what homework exactly it wants the audience to take home.
Here’s where the audience will split. For those expecting a more traditional horror movie, a deliberate slow burner might not possess the right kind of big events. There’s creep factor to The Gift, and two of the most effective jump scares I’ve experienced, but this is squarely in psychological thriller territory, not pure horror.
For those wanting a psychological suspense piece with a lot of character, this is your film. It gets inside your head very well, and it keeps you guessing throughout. Its ideas are disturbing and play off the paranoid inferences our own minds start creating everywhere.
All three leads deliver superb performances. Bateman is most famous for Arrested Development, but he shows a skill for subtlety and misdirection here I didn’t expect. He has a scene two-thirds through the film that is perhaps the best moment of his career. Rebecca Hall (The Town) powers through films and has a knack for characters who feel real and accessible. Her role is quieter yet more demanding than the two men. Edgerton (Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings) also wrote and directed the film. You can see why he cast himself as Gordo. He’s note perfect, making a small role cast a large and toxic shadow across the rest of the film.
The three fuse and play off each other exceedingly well. Explaining the talent each actor displays on their own doesn’t quite express the devious synergy at play between them. It’s a perfect trio for this kind of film, each one charming, guarded, and needy in turn, one pulling for something the minute another pushes.
One day, The Gift will make a vicious double-feature with Gone Girl. Re-watching the trailer, I’m also impressed that half the things you’re about to see are red herrings:
Yes. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn. Allison Tolman plays Lucy. The awesomely named Busy Philipps plays Duffy. Mirrah Foulkes plays Wendy Dale. Katie Aselton plays Joan. Melinda Allen plays a real estate agent, although she remains unnamed.
Do they talk to each other?
About something other than a man?
This clearly and easily passes the Bechdel Test. It’s also interesting because so much of what Robyn speaks to her friends about results from the subtle pressures Simon puts on her to fulfill the stereotypical role of a wife. Robyn says she wants to have a family, and she feels it in a removed way, but you never get the idea that she’s made the decision about it. It’s what she wants because Simon puts pressure on her to want it.
The movie’s acts are broken up by scenes of Robyn jogging, yet this seems less for her than it does as a way of releasing something she can’t understand or deal with herself. In fact, the only times she seems to be herself are when she’s around Gordo. She objects to Simon shutting Gordo out of their lives completely, but she allows Simon to bully both her and Gordo into acquiescing to his desires.
It creates a dynamic where Robyn is concerned with stereotypical gender roles not as a self-fulfilling desire, but rather as one that fulfills Simon. Part of the reason why the ending is troublesome on the surface is because Robyn is turned into something to be possessed in the third act. Of course, this isn’t the movie’s commentary on women – it’s a commentary on how Simon views the world and how Gordo can punish Simon. It’s a commentary on men. That doesn’t change the fact that women might suffer in order to make that commentary.
It’s difficult and something of a slippery slope that will inspire a wide range of opinion, but I will say that The Gift finds a way to make many perceived realities into conjectures on the parts of different characters. You really can’t be sure walking out what does or doesn’t happen, or the degree to which someone did or didn’t suffer. In this way, The Gift has its cake and eats it, too.
The implications of all this are right there on-screen, so even if it’s cruel, it’s cruel in order to call out the toxic masculinity that Jason Bateman’s Simon exhibits. Counter-programming Bateman and Edgerton into roles that might make more sense with the casting reversed also serves to exhibit how that toxic masculinity can hide itself in many forms, not just the obvious mustache-twirling, evil villain, film versions. In many ways, The Gift lets you decide just how cruel you want its truth to be, and it forces you into a place where deciding either way is a form of cruelty on the part of the viewer. Do you want to believe in violent, paranoid cruelty or everyday, mundane cruelty?
For that, it relies on Rebecca Hall to thread a needle in a performance that will not be praised as much as Bateman’s and Edgerton’s skilled-yet-showier roles. Hall’s performance offers a third argument: the rejection of both forms of cruelty. In the end, what you walk out of the theater believing may belie your own presumptions and those presumptions that are reinforced by storytelling themes that are repeated in other media ad nauseum. That’s where the genius of The Gift lies, in all senses of the term.
Most will walk out seeing it from Simon’s or Gordo’s perspective, believing in one or the other’s presented truths. To believe in either is to put your faith in victimizers who simply operate on flip-sides of the same coin. Some will walk out recognizing a third route in Robyn’s, a conclusion that must rely on one or the other of the male truths, yet that still exists as its own reality going forward.
The Gift doesn’t say all this or handle it as perfectly as it could – it’s a clear notch below movies like Ex Machina and Gone Girl in how expertly it throws the audience between different perspectives. Yet it does have its own unique way of forcing the audience into a corner, of making us take the homework of thinking and thinking and thinking about it home with us in a way few movies do. That rarity is something special, and it’s unique in many ways to, as David Fincher once put it, “Movies that scar.”
The Gift is very unfair, and that’s the point. It’s left to the audience to decide just how fair its reality is, and how fair everything is after the credits roll, both in the movie’s world and in our own.
There was enough reaction to our favorite movies query that we split it into two parts this year. What was the most popular choice across both parts? Seems to have been a tie between picking Whiplash and picking Interstellar, assuming everyone else was going to pick Interstellar, and so talking about something else instead. But that’s part of the fun – what else was that good and so overlooked that it takes precedence?
What I love about this exercise is it shows the sheer number of different ways people watch movies. Two of our writers picked Gone Girl, for instance, but for completely different reasons. As I read these pieces, I’m given new ways to look at these films as well. To me, that’s the best thing a critic can give – not a rating or judgment on a film, but new ways to see it.
I usually dislike doing favorite-movie picks, since I always feel like I have four competing desires: One, to choose the film with the most overall merit (whatever that means); two, to choose the film that I want to like the most, regardless of its ultimate success at achieving what it sets out to do; three, to choose the film made with the greatest ambition; and four, to choose the film that engrosses me the most completely, cause me to just experience.
Last year I picked The Hunger Games: Catching Fire completely on desire number four. I was surprised because I was engrossed (having felt pretty meh about the original) and more engrossed because I wasn’t expecting to be in the first place. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen many of the best films of 2013 at the time, or I might have chosen differently; it doesn’t matter now, I suppose.
The absolute best movie experience I had this year was Selma. It wins on all four counts, thanks to immensely strong performances, surprisingly quick pacing, and director Ava DuVernay’s ability to make the psychology and resolve of each character drive suspense. Though David Oyelowo anchors the film splendidly, nearly its entire cast is called upon to communicate how their characters deal with fear, either through reserves of conviction, faith, anger, love, humor, or some combination of these; the tension of this struggle runs through the entire film, and makes every moment feel alive. As Gabe noted in his review, this feels like a war film.
There are so many ways a biopic can stumble – its legends can be legendary rather than human, spectacle can overwhelm storytelling, the need to entertain can cheapen or reduce its subject matter rather than propelling it. Selma makes none of these missteps, thanks to DuVernay and writer Paul Webb’s tight focus on the strategy sessions, negotiations and gambles behind an historic moment. It also succeeds marvelously as a study of Dr. King, delivering an intimate vision of him while keeping us just far away enough that, at key moments, we can be thoroughly lost in trying to guess his mind. This is what I mean by engrossed.
Apart from the larger decision points, a moment that sticks with me is when he makes a late-night call to a woman the audience hasn’t seen on screen yet. There’s a long pause before the phone gets answered. Suddenly, we realize it’s Mahalia Jackson (played by singer Ledisi), whose voice helps maintain his resolve, and perhaps his faith. It’s a beautiful scene and one that, rather than breaking the tension of the story, hints at how he is able to withstand his role in it.
Soulless and cold to the touch. Performances viewed through lenses of celebrity: the disappointing husband is everyone’s favorite actor to hate (Ben Affleck), the perfect wife gone missing is a Bond girl (Rosamund Pike), a comedian known for fat suit comedies (Tyler Perry) is his high-powered lawyer, a false lead – or is he – is a comedian (Neil Patrick Harris) from How I Met Your Mother. Even the college girl on the side is the nude model from the controversial “Blurred Lines” music video (Emily Ratajkowski).
Is it cold and soulless? If so, only in the way a Rorschach test is. It uses the baggage viewers bring with them to the film to lead you into false assumptions. Gone Girl‘s plot is about how we sabotage real investigations by creating celebrities out of their participants, but what it’s really about are the perceptions of celebrity we bring into the film as viewers. The participants inside Gone Girl can’t judge the case objectively because of its celebrity trappings, just like those who watch the movie can’t watch it objectively for the same reason. Is it a movie first, or is it a judgment on Affleck’s ability to act, or cinematic redemption for Pike, or a crossover for Perry, or a career shift for Harris, or a real “breakthrough” into Hollywood for Ratajkowski? We judge these celebrities first – the job they do and the effect the movie has on their career. Only then do we remember to figure out what we think of the movie. Where else in our lives do we practice that ass-backwards way of looking at the world?
S.L. Fevre is an actress and model who escapes L.A. as often as possible. She once beat an abusive director up with her shoe. She is working on launching her own production company.
Gone Girl by Rachel Ann Taylor
Kirk Baxter’s editing. My god. Here’s the most David Fincher of director David Fincher movies. It’s so airtight, if you took away the dialogue, you could still follow every moment. For a twisting, winding thriller full of double crosses and red herrings, that says something. One thing it says is the Oscars were insane for overlooking it.
I can’t talk about the ending without giving everything away, but what it says about our obsession to fulfill every cultural norm that’s expected of us – marriage, picket fences, kids – at any cost is haunting. Amazingly, Fincher never judges these characters. He’s just the narrator. For such a perfectionist, this is incredible restraint. It also leaves us to make the judgments after, remarking on how insane, unrealistic, and out-of-date these expectations are.
Rachel Ann Taylor is an actress living in L.A. She wants you to know it’s warm there and there’s no snow, so next time you diss California, just remember that.
and Clouds of Sils Maria J.P. Hitesman
When I was around the ages of 9-10, there were a series of films that captured my imagination and yearning of what life must be like for those just a little bit older than me. The sports-themed The Sandlotand Rookie of the Year, both released in 1993, stand out the most in my memory, but there were many others that came along fast on their heels. My attention to those types of films faded right around the time of the Star Warsre-releases in early 1997, and I remember being especially disappointed how that year’s remake of That Darn Cat, possibly the last PG rated film I saw in the theater for a number of years, failed to capture the spirit of the 1965 original and seemed to be aiming for an even younger audience than my then-ripe age of twelve-and-a-half.
More than any other film in our current millennial era, Boyhood taps into the opposite side of that yearning, a wistful memory for what was, wasn’t, and could have been, as those of us in our early 30s reflect on the choices we’ve made and the now-hazy memories of childhood adventures and formative experiences. Those little things that make big impacts loom large in different individual lives, and Richard Linklater sharply observes that truth in his film. In the central figure of Mason, emphatically portrayed by Ellar Coltrane, we can attach our own recognition of certain individual yet universal experiences: doing homework, playing with friends, getting a talk-down from a parent, staying out too late, the first kiss, deliberate dirtiness with smoking or alcohol, leaving home and the familiar life behind for a new beginning at college.
Mason’s family are archetypes of their own, yet still strongly individual, with his mom (newly minted Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette) displaying the sharpest character arc as she works her way up to a satisfying career as a college professor. But the film’s focus on sharp individuality means that we see the other side of her thoughts in a quietly devastating closing scene for the character. Dad (Ethan Hawke) initially is a murky figure, but comes into clearer definition in a series of fun and poignant outings with his children, and especially for Mason in a tender, spare camping trip sequence (where they discuss no less than Star Wars). And Big Sis (Lorlei Linklater) develops from a combative to thoughtful supporter of Mason, as she also branches off from the central family unit and eventually starts her own life.
Since this site has been an active and vocal supporter of Kristen Stewart’s recent work, I’d like to offer sneak preview praise for her work in Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she recently became the first American actress ever to win a Caesar Award. In this film, which I was delighted to see at the Windsor International Film Festival last November, Stewart and Juliette Binoche are a surprising, revelatory pair, spending most of the film acting opposite just each other in a remote Swiss mountaintop home. Director Olivier Assayas creates an enigmatic intensity with the material as the story blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Yet throughout the story it is Stewart herself who seems more honest and humane than ever before on screen, and she’s matched by Binoche, adapting a new role as a sort of elder stateswoman of the acting profession. I would argue that this is the film Birdman wanted to be.
J.P. Hitesman is the Renaissance Man of any theatre or stage he steps on. He blogs about theatre and film at TheatricalBuddhaMan.
The Raid 2 by Eden O’Nuallain
Actually, the movie I loved most last year was Interstellar. I know I will watch it often and cry every time, but it doesn’t need the advertisement. When you’re done wiping away your Matthew McConaughey-induced tears, turn to The Raid 2, a martial arts movie with the drama of an opera and the brutality of a war film.
It’s Indonesian. There are subtitles. Deal with it. If the first Raid was Die Hard in an apartment building, the second is Barry Lyndon in the slums of Jakarta. It is an artful film. There is hidden meaning toward Indonesia’s messy politics, where gangs stand in for the military old guard. There are beautiful locations – blood-red hotel amphitheaters, snowy back-alleys, muddy prison yards, fertile green fields where the dead are buried.
It is a wonderful time to be a martial arts fan. Every year, martial arts movies tread new territory while old-fashioned drama stagnates. The Raid 2 tells a mythic narrative of superhuman feats with real world consequences and meaning.
Eden O’Nuallain moonlights as our editor and makes sure all our punctuation is in the right plac.e
I Origins by Cleopatra Parnell
Nothing compares to Interstellar. It is one of the top 5 science-fiction movies I have seen, but someone needs to stand up for I Origins. We keep referencing it but no one’s written about it.
The biggest divide in the U.S. is over science and religion. I Origins is the only film I’ve seen to address that in a reasonable way. It treats both with respect – a scientist seeks to disprove religion, but is faced with possible scientific evidence for reincarnation. The ultimate meaning of the film is left up to us, but it guides its characters into places where the two can coexist and even reinforce each other. It shows how each is stronger with the other one assisting. They are each humanitarian in their own way.
And if you rated movies on the volume of tears they induced, I Origins is the best movie ever made.
Cleopatra Parnell is a session singer, actress, and model who calls Austin, TX home. She writes for us regularly on music videos.
My own pick is a tie between Under the Skin and Interstellar. I write about this more What the Oscars Missed. The two films are so different and represent such opposite ends of the science-fiction spectrum that I find more value in thinking of them together rather than choosing one. If you’re curious about what we chose last year, check out our Movies We Loved in 2013.
How do you split up screenplays and genres of film? Best original and adapted screenplay? The lines bleed into each other. Inception was nominated for Best Original Screenplay a few years ago despite being based on an unpublished short story. How do you judge something like Foxcatcher, which was based on real events. Certainly, it’s more adapted from existing material than, say, Birdman.
And what about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the film that spurred this entire conversation among us. Sure, it’s derived from Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, but does a franchise in its second reboot and third adaptation really have much to do with the original novel anymore? Or is it adapted from the first film franchise? Or Tim Burton’s second (let’s hope not). The point is, while Pierre Boulle certainly deserves credit, is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that particularly adapted from source material, or is it more part of a franchise that chucks as much of the previous Apes baggage overboard in an effort to tell a new story?
So let’s throw adapted and original screenplay out the window.
As for splitting up films, how do we judge these? The Golden Globes split films into drama and musical/comedy categories. This results in some incredible cognitive dissonance, such as In Bruges competing with Mamma Mia! or the entire 2013 slate (American Hustle, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, The Wolf of Wall Street) having as much claim to dramatic status as they do comedy. Too often, the category is used for films that don’t make the cut of 5 to be considered drama, as if musical/comedy is an extended second class of dramatic film.
I’m not one to complain, either. My comedy of the year for 2014 would be Nightcrawler, the most disturbing and unsettling film I saw. It follows the structure of a rags-to-riches comedy almost to the letter, and it creates audacious moments of black humor – these are key to helping you understand the attraction of its main character’s sociopathy. Nevermind that much of the substance inside the film is dramatic – if we use the old Greek definitions, Nightcrawler is a comedy through and through.
The Oscars don’t bother with categories, but this usually results in less serious films being completely tossed to the side.
So let’s throw drama and comedy categories out the window, too.
What we decided on is budget. Screenplays are written and rewritten for specific budgets, and it’s the primary factor directors must use in shaping their film. How else are we supposed to compare Interstellar and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to, say, Nightcrawler and Birdman?
The demarcation between Best Low Budget Film and Best Big Budget Film is a tricky one. For now, we’re going with $25 million, and our numbers are cobbled together from Box Office Mojo, The-Numbers, and Google Reports. Could someone be lying about their budget? Sure, that happens often, but no one claims a $50 million movie only cost $25 million. It’s not that egregious.
In the future, we may expand this. Right now, a $30 million film like The Grand Budapest Hotel is above the cutoff, and so is in the same category as Interstellar. That’s a little unfair. Maybe we’ll have low, mid, and big budget categories. For now, we’re just sticking to low and big, and it’s a way of recognizing and pushing smaller films while also not discounting films that have more resources and support behind them. To us, it’s a fairer way of doing things than splitting movies up along increasingly fuzzy genre lines or declarations of what is or isn’t adapted. Here we go:
BEST SCREENPLAY, LOW BUDGET
SL: Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo)
Eden: Selma (Paul Webb)
Cleopatra: I Origins (Mike Cahill)
Amanda: Selma (Paul Webb)
Rachel: The Double (Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine)
Vanessa: Selma (Paul Webb)
Gabe: Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
WINNER Paul Webb, Selma
Birdman is a marvel of timing, and that begins with the script. I Origins is the hidden gem of 2014, a microbudget thriller that boasts two of the most beautifully break-you-down moments in film I’ve ever witnessed. The Double is based on the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. I’ve discussed Nightcrawler above – its plot and language are a gift to its actors, filled with high tension scenes and commentary on how we produce and watch news today.
Selma wins, though. Technically, the screenplay’s by Webb alone, but both he and director Ava DuVernay have been open about the fact that she rewrote much of it on the fly. The result is undeniable – a film that considers the place of social activism in a modern world by peeling back the strategy that made it work 50 years ago. Its toughest obstacle was not having the rights to any of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches – Steven Spielberg has those locked up for a film that has yet to come to fruition. This meant that they had to recreate King’s speeches without being able to quote them. In the end, they turn this into a strength of the film, allowing Webb and DuVernay to create commentary that acknowledges many of the struggles African-Americans face today, while still dealing with the plot taking place in 1965.
BEST SCREENPLAY, BIG BUDGET
SL: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Eden: Interstellar (Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan)
Cleopatra: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver)
Amanda: Noah (Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel)
Rachel: Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Vanessa: Fury (David Ayer)
Gabe: Fury (David Ayer)
WINNERS David Ayer, Fury & Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
I don’t think we can pretend there’s any agreement here, but that’s OK. This exercise isn’t about agreement, but rather seeing where our choices converge and where they don’t. I have problems with Interstellar‘s script at points, but there’s no questioning what it achieves in the end – an audaciously philosophical journey with some of the tensest adventure scenes in recent memory. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes boasts one of the most underrated screenplays of the year. Noah is a mad creation that has moments of pure transcendence – when it works, it works like a fever dream.
Gone Girland Fury are the only two that come away with more than one vote. Gone Girl is such a precise creation, it’s difficult not to marvel at just how well constructed it all is – as a thriller, as a put on, as a takedown of marriage. It’s a beautiful film, and it boggles the mind that it only received one Oscar nomination. Fury, on the other hand, is a singular conceit that uses war to define how men are broken down and retrained in a patriarchal image. It recalls films like Full Metal Jacket not in style, but in how completely it breaks down how men are taught to hate and possess.
BEST DIRECTOR, LOW BUDGET
SL: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Eden: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman
Cleopatra: Mike Cahill, I Origins
Amanda: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Rachel: Ava DuVernay, Selma
Vanessa: Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin
Gabe: Ava DuVernay, Selma
WINNER Ava DuVernay, Selma
I’m glad to see Cleopatra sticking up for I Origins. It really is something special, and if we had a microbudget category, I’m pretty sure it would walk away with everything we could give it. Jonathan Glazer was winning this for me most of the year – he lets his artists and performers loose inside the structure of Under the Skin, allowing them each to create elements of it from their own perspective, and then he manages to marry it all together so that those unique perspectives remain intact inside the larger, fused film.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu almost takes this for Birdman, which is an incredible vision, but I think Ava DuVernay simply cannot be denied this year – unless it’s by, you know, the Academy. Her framing, the Edmund Pettus bridge sequence, and how she uses one early moment to completely define the lens through which she wants the viewer to inhabit the rest of the film…there’s as sure a hand to Selma as in any film this year.
BEST DIRECTOR, BIG BUDGET
SL: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Eden: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Cleopatra: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Amanda: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Rachel: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Vanessa: David Fincher, Gone Girl
Gabe: Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
WINNERS David Fincher, Gone Girl
& Christopher Nolan, Interstellar
Well I guess that’s it. David Fincher and Christopher Nolan in a death match. Sorry Wes Anderson. In contrast to our low budget directors, Fincher and Nolan are two very tightly controlling personalities. Fincher, especially, has a reputation for obsessing over every small detail in each scene. This carries over into his films – they each boast a suffocating atmosphere that seems half-intentional, half-artistic byproduct.
Our low budget directors – DuVernay and Glazer, especially – seem to create out of a sort of organized chaos. There’s less opportunity for control when you have less money, and there’s more room to let a day go because things aren’t absolutely perfect when the budget can afford it.
For the next two awards – Best Film for low and big budget – I asked everyone to name their top 3 of the year.
BEST THREE FILMS, LOW BUDGET
SL: Birdman, I Origins, Whiplash
Eden: Under the Skin, The Raid 2, Birdman
Cleopatra: I Origins, Under the Skin, Selma
Amanda: Selma, Only Lovers Left Alive, Belle
Rachel: Selma, Nightcrawler, A Most Violent Year
Vanessa: Under the Skin, Selma, The Raid 2
Gabe: Under the Skin, Selma, I Origins
WINNERS Selma (5) Under the Skin (4) I Origins (3)
Surreal comedy Birdman and Indonesian martial arts epic The Raid 2 both get 2 mentions. Old-fashioned crime epic A Most Violent Year, period drama Belle, Nightcrawler, vampire rock meditation Only Lovers Left Alive, and Black Swan-for-drummers Whiplash also get a mention apiece. I’m surprised there’s nothing her for Foxcatcher.
I’m happy to see that I Origins is being remembered by others, too. It knocked The Raid 2 and The Rover out of that third and fourth place for me, and I Origins makes me lose it (i.e. cry) as much as any film since Requiem for a Dream– albeit for very different reasons.
Under the Skin is a unique experience. It’s been compared to the work of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, but it’s very different from each, and it’s not “art house” either, no matter how many people like to abuse the term. It has more to do with Scotland’s visual arts movement than any of those other comparisons. It gets three first places where Selma gets two, but Selma gets more mentions, so take that however you like. They’re both must-see films if you’re anything of a cinephile. Selma feels like it speaks directly to this moment in U.S. history by offering us a defining look at another.
BEST THREE FILMS, BIG BUDGET
SL: Gone Girl, Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Eden: Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Cleopatra: Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Amanda: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Interstellar
Rachel: Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Unbroken
Vanessa: Gone Girl, Interstellar, Fury
Gabe: Interstellar, Fury, Gone Girl
WINNERS Interstellar (6) Gone Girl (4) The Grand Budapest Hotel (3)
Captain America: The Winter Soldierand Dawn of the Planet of the Apes both get two mentions, which goes to show you just how far our comic book and action movies have come in reflecting harder messages (Captain America‘s real assault is against the relationship the military, private contractors, and government hold with each other, while Dawn creates a commentary on the wars of race and hate we can’t seem to escape right now). Fury also gets two mentions, and I really do think it’s the military movie for our time. Hmm, there seems to be an awful lot of commentary on how our military is misused these days.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a beautiful animated movie, and Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s big budget directorial debut about a World War II POW also get a mention. Not many have seen Kaguya, and Unbroken‘s interesting in that critics were repulsed by it and audiences loved it. Go figure.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, the kind of time-hopping, deeply personal confection of a frame story only Wes Anderson could create, gets three votes, and deservedly so.
Gone Girl and Interstellar both get three first places, although Interstellar is on 6 of our lists while Gone Girl only on 4. Again, interpret how you will and, again, both are musts if you’re a cinephile.
Gone Girl is the tightest thriller of the year and suffers mostly because of its intentionally cold exterior. It’s a film that tricks and misleads you the way the best thrillers do, but that values its meta commentary more than the plot and couldn’t care less. Few masterpieces are built around so willfully and unabashedly manipulating their audience.
Interstellar, on the other hand, wears its heart on its sleeve and, if you still don’t see it, will have Matthew McConaughey weep until you do. It’s a brilliantly felt movie, complex and elusive at times, but simple and accessible when you need it to be. Few masterpieces are this honestly emotional without being cloying. Like Under the Skin and Selma, Gone Girl and Interstellar are about as opposite as movie experiences can be.
We hope this is useful to you. It’s not meant to necessarily declare “the best” in something as it is to introduce films you may not have heard, and to remind you of some of the films we liked that were overlooked by awards ceremonies this year.
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.
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?
Kirk Baxter has edited every David Fincher movie since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
In fact, Baxter’s only edited four Fincher movies and a Fincher TV pilot. Everything he’s done has been nominated for an Oscar (he won in 2011 for The Social Network and 2012 for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or an Emmy (House of Cards).
Gone Girl is going to be nominated for and may win another Oscar for its airtight editing. That’s a nice career, isn’t it?
He spoke to IndieWire’s Bill Desowitz about the strategies behind editingGone Girl and the different versions that were trashed along the way. Spoilers ahead, but if you have seen Gone Girl, READ THIS. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?
Gone Girl is the movie you go to in order to have your mind race, and to keep yourself up well past any reasonable bedtime because you’re still thinking about and discussing it afterward. It’s the chill up your spine you feel not when something is lurking in the shadows, but rather when everything is in the light, smiling at you, and you still can’t shake the feeling that it’s not quite right.
The plot for director David Fincher’s latest movie can only be described in basics. A couple’s marriage goes south. She disappears. We see the evolution of their relationship via flashbacks from her diary. As these flashbacks turn violent, we begin to suspect that the husband Nick (Ben Affleck) has killed his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The police, and the public, slowly turn on him.
To say any more would be to ruin any of the mystery’s dozen twists and turns. Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also adapts the screenplay, Gone Girl is a tone poem of steadily mounting tension and gradually revealed half-truths.
While I’m a fan of the Fincher who directed Se7en, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, dark films that batter your defenses down and overwhelm you, Gone Girl is his gentlest delivery yet, and at the same time his least sentimental. The film is uncomfortably cold in the way a brutally honest truth is.
Much of the film’s intrigue is in learning how every character starts off a sociopath, or learns (or remembers) to become one in order to survive and cope. In order to deal with a predatory media, the honest learn how to act honest for TV. The liars don’t need to; they already know how. Even the film itself adopts these traits – half the fun as a viewer is in realizing exactly how you’ve been played, by characters and by the filmmakers alike.
This may sound unappealing, and it would be in a lesser director’s hands, but Fincher takes a haunting snapshot of modern society. I’d be willing to call Gone Girl a dark comedy in places, but this is comedy that scars. The national media culture lampooned here, tripping over each other for exclusives and making up stories on the fly, bears close resemblances to our own. The film’s most disturbing elements have little to do with murder, and everything to do with the appetite we’ve developed for it. In one scene, a ridiculous Nancy Grace analogue and guest experts judge public figures they’ve never met by analyzing brief mannerisms, as if you can judge a human being’s makeup by how they raise their hand or nod their head.
Gone Girl is a Rorschach Test of a movie that everybody’s meant to fail. Like the ink blots you’re asked to assign shapes and stories to, Gone Girl can reveal where your head is in its mystery. How much do you base assumptions of guilt on facts, and how much do you base those same assumptions on personality, presentation, and narrative?
This is complicated by using actors we’re familiar with more for their status than their talent. Affleck is a lightning rod, in the news more often as a celebrity than as an actor. Pike is best known for her role as a Bond girl in Die Another Day. Comedians like Tyler Perry (the Madea franchise) and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother) hold serious roles, and are quite good. Even Emily Ratajkowski, best known for her role in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” music video, plays a crucial supporting role. We can’t help but bring our presumptions about these actors into our experience watching the movie. Fincher knows this, plays with our assumptions, and never misses a chance to undermine you as a viewer.
Gone Girl is a masterful thriller that stuns with its complete ability to misdirect you. Staging, casting, editing, the musical score by Trent Reznor – Fincher may not want to coddle his audience, but there’s no mistaking that every detail here is built around the viewer. That’s what makes a consummate storyteller. Gone Girl is not the Fincher thriller I expected; it’s something far more subversive. There is no way to anticipate how it evolves, but its twists and turns are handled deftly and the film’s satirical elements are discomforting in all the best ways.
This is one to experience in the theater, with a picture three stories tall and the sound coming out of dozens of speakers. Be warned, it’s not a movie for kids.
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 Gone Girl have more than one woman in it?
Yes. It stars Rosamund Pike, an incredible turn by Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, and Sela Ward. In fact, women outnumber the men nearly 2-to-1 in the picture.
2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes. This would ordinarily be the section where I name the conversation or two that women have together in the film, but Gone Girl has too many to cite.
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. The mystery of the film – investigating the murder of a woman – means that conversations center around Amy as often as they do her husband Nick.
The lone difficulty lies in Nick’s resentment of being molded by Amy over the years. It’s made a point in Nick’s mind, and I have no doubt that some viewers out there will hold sections of the film up as banners for Male Rights. This would represent a complete misreading of Gone Girl, however.
As I said earlier, everyone learns to be a sociopath by the end of the film, but Nick and Amy start that way. He writes for a men’s magazine, she writes online quizzes for women. The two are meant to represent what we teach young men and women to be, what we teach them to value. As such exemplary students of these lessons, they act the way those magazines always tell us to act.
As creepy, walking satire so dark it’s chilling, the murder investigation on hand interacts with the satire of our media and celebrity culture. So yes, you could insist that Nick is a Men’s Rights hero or a victim of Feminism, as some have, but it would mean you have a blind spot a mile wide when it comes to his character. If you do that, you’re either the most selective viewer I’ve ever met, or you have an agenda.
If anything, most of the women in Gone Girl are by the end forced to act counter to their natures. The film’s very critical of how society forces both men and women into preconceived roles. Most of the film is spent watching characters perfect the roles society expects them to play, regardless of who a character really is. I spoke with Eden, S.L., and Vanessa after the movie. We’ve each had an opportunity to see the film, and we all agree – Gone Girl is a deeply Feminist movie. It’s a vicious indictment of what movements like Men’s Rights Activism have made of us, the roles our most conservative critics expect men and women to play, and how those roles make us so much easier to exploit.
This is the “Come on in, I’ll make you a drink” at the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, extended into a frightening movie of people playing into the deep expectations our society mines.
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.
March 19 — Rithy Panh tells his memoir of the Khmer Rouge massacres in 1970s Cambodia, using clay figures to fill in for the archival footage that’s missing from one of the most forgotten genocides in 20th century history. It’s an idea that sounds like a student art project gone wrong, but it’s one that in its simplicity becomes overwhelming even in a 2-minute trailer. The Missing Picture is currently up for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. You can watch that trailer here.
9. Gone Girl
October 3 — If Se7en, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have proven anything, it’s that David Fincher is the greatest modern director of the movie mystery. Gillian Flynn, who wrote the bestselling novel, is handling the screenplay solo, and it’s rare for a first-time screenwriter to be given that kind of carte blanche for a major release. Rosamund Pike joins Ben Affleck, Tyler Perry, and Neil Patrick Harris in what has got to be the strangest cast Fincher’s ever lined up. This last gives me pause enough to not rank this higher, but Fincher’s track record is just too strong to keep it out of the top 10.
March 28 — Darren Aronofsky makes dark, disturbing films like Black Swan. His Requiem for a Dream, about the drug addictions of four New Yorkers, requires emotional recovery time after viewing. Noah is out of left field for him, though he says it’s been his dream project since youth. No one knows how accurate to Judeo-Christian interpretation his adaptation of the Biblical Flood will or won’t be. Previews make it look like he’s playing it straight. Some test screenings for religious groups resulted in criticism, some didn’t. It was enough to cause the studio and Aronofsky to fight publicly over final cut, which any Aronofsky fan could’ve predicted miles off. Let’s hope Aronofsky kept his vision intact. Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, and Emma Watson star. You can watch the trailer in all its madcap visual glory here.
7. Inherent Vice
No date set — There Will Be Blood was a statement film that immediately took its place as one of the most important movies in America’s cinematic history. Director P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Jena Malone, earns a place based on the fact that Anderson has yet to misfire. Phoenix is already one of our best actors. Malone is overdue for recognition. They’re joined by Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, and Reese Witherspoon.
December 12 — Starring Christian Bale as Moses. If that’s not event viewing, I don’t know what is. The last time director Ridley Scott ventured back in time in the Middle East, it was for the Crusade-era epic Kingdom of Heaven. The theatrical release was a gutted mess that cut out entire protagonists, and it was only in the director’s cut that the film evolved from a middling action movie into a profound contemplation on faith, moral obligations, and one’s place in the world. That director’s cut is Scott’s best film by far, and most will never see it. It’s exciting that he’s finally returning to his favorite subject matter, and with Bale, Ben Kingsley, Aaron Paul, and Sigourney Weaver on board to boot.
5. The Wind Rises
February 21 — I hit on this in my Godzilla preview, but the most important filmmaking in the post-World War 2 era was done in Japan. It was a country possessed by regret and a national shame for blindly following its fascist leaders into war, and traumatized by the dropping of two atomic bombs. Hayao Miyazaki is the director responsible for Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. His animated worlds are evocative and emotional, but in his swan song, he trades in the fantasy genre to tell the story of an idealistic dreamer, a Japanese airplane designer, whose creations are used for war. The Wind Rises is currently up for an Oscar as Best Animated Film. Watch the trailer here.
4. Lawless & Knight of Cups
No date set — Terrence Malick is one of the most enigmatic directors in history. He made only three films in 30 years, each more lauded than the last, and now he’s made four films in the last four years. Both Lawless and Knight of Cups star Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman. Knight of Cups is about a man’s celebrity and excess in Hollywood. Lawless, which will likely be retitled, is about two intersecting love triangles in the Austin, TX music scene. It’s the higher profile of the two and also stars Angela Bettis, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Holly Hunter, Val Kilmer, and Rooney Mara. These aren’t to be confused with Voyage of Time, which is Malick’s upcoming film about…the universe?…and was filmed in Kenya, and may not arrive this year. Heck, it’s Malick, we might not see any of these films until 2029, but chances are we’ll get the Bale pairing this year.
No date set — Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007. Her In a Better World won it in 2011. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are both nominated in acting categories this year for American Hustle. It’s Lawrence’s third nomination. She won Best Actress last year.
In Serena, Lawrence is Serena Pemberton, a depression-era Lady MacBeth to Cooper’s timber baron George. Serena is the single role I’m most excited to witness in the coming year. Based on its pedigree, if a man had directed this, it’d be on everyone’s top 10 lists. As is, it’s virtually nonexistent.
2. The Raid 2
March 28 — The usual answer to, “What is the best action movie ever made?” is Die Hard. This is wrong. The correct answer is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Well, it was. In 2011, The Raid: Redemption complicated that answer. It was an Indonesian film by a Welsh director about an ill-fated police raid, and it combined the best of martial arts, gangster, horror, and Western action movies. The action was brutal, fast, emotional, and intelligent, but the tension that gave it its context was unparalleled. It wasn’t just a superb action movie, it was a superb movie, period. The sequel looks every bit as artful and intense while broadening the scope of its story. Watch the trailer here.
November 7 — Little is known about director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight trilogy. It’s about space travel and the discovery of a wormhole. A mysterious, heartbreaking, and inspirational trailer is our only clue, yet it doesn’t give a shred of plot away. The cast is a you-pick-’em of top flight actors – Anne Hathaway, Matthew McConaughey, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, John Lithgow. Nolan’s last standalone film was Inception, and that was worth the wait. Interstellar is the movie event of the year. Watch the trailer here. It’s worth it.