“A Most Violent Year” is a unique accomplishment. It’s essentially a gangster film about the one virtuous man in the entire plot, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). What’s unique is that it is not a plot of suffering or loss. Abel’s dedication to doing things the right way is itself a power that stands toe-to-toe with those who rob him, beat his employees, steal his trucks, and kidnap his salespeople.
His biggest fault and his biggest advantage is Anna (Jessica Chastain). She’s the heir apparent to a mobster, but she’s given up that life in order to build a family and a business with Abel. Yet she’s clearly finagled the accounting. She’s clearly kept things from him. And she will take on the war he refuses to engage in if things get much worse.
Abel must outmaneuver both sides as they clamor for outright war, as well as a district attorney who wants to make an example of him. There are also shades of the immigrant experience. As a Hispanic immigrant who’s become a business owner, it’s important to Abel that he subscribes to doing things according to the American dream. If he’s been sold on the idea this is the land of opportunity, then he will treat it that way even if no one else does.
As he maneuvers, as he makes concessions, as he forgets about those who have sacrificed to get him where he is, does he remain connected with the virtue he champions? If cheating is part of the game, and you have no choice but to ally yourself with cheaters to survive, are you still playing by the rules yourself? And are these the rules of business that “make America great?”
“A Most Violent Year” keeps you in the dark about many of its truths, but it also keeps Abel in the dark, and we feel allied to him in his determination to shed light on what’s been happening to his business. It’s one of the least predictable movies of the year, but while it draws from 70s crime drama, it takes its own path. It’s a surprisingly unassuming film, and it will not do the work of reading into its layers of meaning for you. If anything, “A Most Violent Year” suffers for being quieter than the films we usually acknowledge as American masterpieces. It’s a shame, because “A Most Violent Year” deserves that consideration.
Mid-budget films are an interesting breed these days. There’s been a great deal made about their extinction, though much of these claims exist in pretty selective territory. While it’s true that David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and John Waters have more trouble getting films funded these days, Clint Eastwood, Todd Haynes, and Denis Villeneuve don’t.
Google a couple of articles about the death of mid-budget film. Try this one, for instance. They lament that “L.A. Confidential” could never be made today, but wasn’t “Sicario” made just this year?
“The Insider” would never find a budget today! Except “Spotlight” found a budget without the benefit of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.
“Zodiac” could never be made! Except “Gone Girl” was made just last year.
“In the Line of Fire?” If only lead actor Clint Eastwood had built an entire career of directing successful mid-budget films.
And certainly “Apocalypse Now” couldn’t be made for $32 million today! Well, considering that $32 million in 1979 is $104 million today, no it couldn’t.
Critics also lament that Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray are essentially retired. Well, yeah, but funding for mid-budget comedy didn’t go with them. You may not like Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Anna Kendrick, Melissa McCarthy, or Seth Rogen, but their films are getting funded and make money.
These arguments also ignore the rise in what the industry rather derisively refers to as “urban” films. If you ignore the rise of Black and Hispanic filmmaking, then yes, the mid-budget film industry is struggling because you’re cutting half of it out. Yet Black filmmaking, and especially African-American comedy, is based almost entirely within the mid-budget realm. The spate of Mexican and Spanish directors Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have brought up through the industry operate across that same mid-budget range.
When we talk about the death of the mid-budget film, we’re being incredibly selective with our choices.
For our purposes, we are defining a mid-budget film for 2015 as any film that cost between $15 million and $50 million to produce, and was either shown in at least 100 theaters for the first time in 2015, or (failing the theater requirement) became widely available to audiences through rental or streaming during 2015. The following was voted on and written by: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez:
Best Supporting Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
We liked Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs” quite a bit, as well as Mark Ruffalo’s role in “Spotlight.” Both earned Oscar nominations. What didn’t were Benicio Del Toro’s and Josh Brolin’s roles in “Sicario,” which also got a great deal of support from us. In the end, it was a close vote (that required a second ballot), but we decided on a role from a film that tried to play last year’s Oscar race, failed, and subsequently fell between the 2015-2016 gap.
Behind every great man is a great woman. That’s how the saying goes, isn’t it? In “A Most Violent Year,” the reality is a bit different. Behind Oscar Isaac’s upstanding businessman Abel Morales is a terrifying power player in Jessica Chastain’s Anna.
Abel handles their business legally, even as competing suppliers start hijacking their trucks, kidnapping their salesmen, and beating their drivers at gunpoint. It’s Anna who threatens to start doing things her way. As the daughter (and perhaps even heir apparent) to a mob empire, she’s largely given up those responsibilities in order to build a life with Abel on his more honest path.
Yet she’s constantly keeping her finger on the pulse of the film. In fact, as the company’s accountant, she often knows more than anyone else. She makes all involved aware that if and when she’s needed, she will involve herself in ways that others will not like. It may be Isaac who’s embodying an Al Pacino-style role here, but it’s Chastain who brings to life the lurking indignance, the quiet rage, and the unspoken threat of what happens when you make her angry.
And yes, this is the second supporting actor award we’ve given Chastain this year (the other being in big budget films for her role in “Crimson Peak.”)
All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Jessica Chastain, “A Most Violent Year”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario”
Josh Brolin, “Sicario”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Yo-landi Visser, “Chappie”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”
Elyes Gabel, “A Most Violent Year”
Olga Kurylenko, “The Water Diviner”
Best Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
TIE: Rooney Mara, Carol
& Emily Blunt, Sicario
When we did a check-in last September, Oscar Isaac handily led this race because of his performance in “A Most Violent Year.” Nobody even came close. Then Gabe saw “Sicario” and insisted we all needed to see it in the theaters. Then Eden saw “Carol” and insisted we all needed to see that in the theaters.
Now, all seven of us have either Emily Blunt or Rooney Mara at the top of our shortlists. Although their order varies, five of the seven of us have them going 1-2 on our shortlists. Blunt got a few more points in our system, but we unanimously decided to call it a tie. Sorry, Oscar Isaac. Both Blunt and Mara dominated their films, albeit in tremendously different ways.
Mara has been doing remarkable work for years. Her run from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Side Effects” is one of the more impressive and rangy stretches of acting in the last decade. Mara’s performance in “Carol” is as vulnerable as acting gets. As the shopgirl and photographer swept up in the charms of a glamorous woman, Mara’s performance is made of utterly human reactions. From helplessness to confidence, from confusion to realization, it’s a performance to break hearts. Yet first it demands the actor break her own so that the rest of us can be let in.
Blunt is the polar opposite as Kate Macer in “Sicario.” The leader of an FBI SWAT team, she is tasked to an anti-cartel operation that doesn’t seem to be telling her the entire truth. Tough, commanding, sure of herself but distrusting of others, Blunt makes Kate one of the strongest heroes in recent thrillers.
Despite playing a very different sort of character, the unspoken treatment of Kate by the men around her most recalls Jodie Foster’s role in “Silence of the Lambs.” “Sicario” puts Kate’s life at stake a few times, but what it’s really doing is putting her entire reason for being at stake. It puts all of who she is and why she is on the table, and when Kate is finally confronted with making a choice between that and survival, Blunt makes you inhabit the impossible choice of that moment like few actors can.
All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Emily Blunt, “Sicario”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”
Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”
Best Screenplay in a Mid-Budget Film
We had to do three ballots to finally figure this one out. See, we liked “Carol” for its lack of frills – for its ability to get at the story, yet it’s a film that puts a little more on its performances, direction, and design. We adored “A Most Violent Year” because it depicts a gangster film from the perspective of the one honest person in the entire plot. It also depicts that determination for honesty as something that can be wielded very powerfully.
Ultimately, we chose “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that revealed systemic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Catholic priests. Making a film about a procedural investigation is difficult, not least because we’re inundated with procedural TV series that increasingly make procedure up as they go. “Spotlight” manages to find the drama in the process of uncovering research. It also boils down the essence of editor-reporter relationships: when you pursue a story and when you don’t, how you keep a story churning when it gets put on the backburner, when you have to break the rules that protect yourself in pursuit of a breakthrough.
“Spotlight” is a special film in how it gives its entire cast a process to work through as their characters. It also presents the investigatory process to audiences as a living mechanism to reveal truth and affect change.
All writers receiving a vote (descending order):
Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Phyllis Nagy, “Carol”
Charles Randolph & Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Taylor Sheridan, “Sicario”
Aaron Sorkin, “Steve Jobs”
Matt Charman, Ethan & Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies”
Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington, “Creed”
Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff, “Straight Outta Compton”
John McNamara, “Trumbo”
Best Director of a Mid-Budget Film
We liked “A Most Violent Year” and “Carol,” but this was a runaway vote. “Sicario” is just too perfect of a beast. There’s a sense that every speck of dust in the film has been consciously placed where it needs to be, yet the film doesn’t feel passionless because of this. If anything, the film is yearning yet melancholy, dissatisfied yet resigned. Those are rare descriptions for a thriller about the Drug War.
Despite its sense of control, however, the actors seem to have been given free reign. They’re taking chances routinely, which is something that’s come to define Denis Villeneuve’s films. There’s a sense of history, of lives lived, of both small and large sacrifices made in each of their lives that bring them to this point. “Sicario” is less of a story, and more of a culmination of lives thrown together.
It’s this mix of organic, loose performances in a tightly controlled world that makes “Sicario” feel most real. Sometimes we feel like the universe is against us, as if we’re responding too organically to something that’s consciously leading us down a path without our knowledge. “Sicario” is drenched in that feeling because it’s more or less the truth of this film. Villeneuve has made this feeling, this sense of inevitability, his calling card on film. It is rare and powerful, and it makes his films feel truly unique and purposeful.
All directors receiving a vote (in descending order):
Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario”
Todd Haynes, “Carol”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Ryan Coogler, “Creed”
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies”
F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton”
Best Mid-Budget Film of 2015
If you’re guessing this came down to a four-horse race, you’re right. Even on our final vote, the difference between “Spotlight” (4th) and “Carol” (1st) was a difference between 2 points out of a possible 21. “A Most Violent Year” and “Sicario” were stuck in between.
Ultimately, “Carol” carried it, and for good reason. The love story at its core is exquisitely realized. Few films are able to carry their emotions on the surface while also hiding them from view. There’s a sense of privacy to the film, as if we’re looking in on someone else’s life from the outside. It makes us feel both invited and intrusive. “Carol” occupies a beautiful middle space that runs counter to the world continuously buzzing around its characters. That helps us feel the impossible space a lesbian relationship had to occupy in 1952, and in many ways in our society, still does.
It’s a beautiful film and one that travels in ways you don’t expect. Its snub for Best Picture at the Oscars is inexplicable.
All films receiving a vote (in descending order):
A Most Violent Year
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton
Where did we get our images? The featured image from “Carol” comes from Roger Ebert’s site, still maintained by a host of other reviewers even after the great critic’s passing. The image from “Sicario” is from Fox Force Five’s review.
by S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez
We’re doing something supremely weird this year. We’re breaking up the films of 2015 by big, mid, and low budget categories. We’re qualifying big budget as anything that cost more than $50 million to produce.
The reasons for doing this are multiple. The idea of genre is a lost concept. In a year when the Golden Globes award “The Martian” as best comedy, we’ve lost some sense of what a comedy even is. It also allows films to compete with other films that had about the same level of access and spending. How do you decide a best film race between, say, the $200 million “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and something like “Tangerine,” which was shot on iPhones for $100,000? The two have completely different goals in terms of how they interact with audiences.
Now, let’s talk about one thing that’s quickly apparent in the list below. It’s overwhelmingly white. Isn’t that just what the Oscars are being criticized for this year? We noticed a funny thing splitting films between budgets. The big-budget films we considered were cast far more homogenously than the mid- and especially the low-budget films. Welcome to Hollywood.
You’ll also see that “The Revenant” is nowhere to be seen in this category. We made ourselves a rule – a film has to open in at least 100 theaters in 2015 (or to come out on rental or streaming that year) to be considered a 2015 film. “The Revenant” opened in no more than four until January 8.
The reason for this rule is this: we want to consider a film when audiences actually get a chance to see it. We do this because it allows us to consider a wider range of smaller films that slip through theaters but are worthy of consideration and acknowledgement. Obviously, these don’t tend to be part of the big budget category, but the rule also means that to us, “The Revenant” is a 2016 film.
Oh, and also: we’re not separating the acting categories by gender.
Let’s dive in:
Best Supporting Actor in a Big Budget Film:
Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak
There was also energy for Viola Davis’s FBI handler in “Blackhat.” Playing a federal agent who knows how to exert political pressure to open the right doors, Davis enjoyed a role women rarely get to inhabit in thrillers. Simon Pegg got some love from us for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.” He does some remarkable work, not the least of which is buddying with Tom Cruise in a way that creates a more human space for the action star. Pegg embraced the “supporting” part of “supporting actor” in a way most actors don’t know how.
Ultimately, however, Jessica Chastain’s role in “Crimson Peak” appeared on six of our seven shortlists. In fact, she appeared on the seventh, but that was for her role as mission commander in “The Martian.” As opposed to the heroic leader she plays there, in “Crimson Peak” she is the best villain of the year. Simultaneously measured and out of control, she embodies the madness of Guillermo Del Toro’s world like few before her. She seems to be the entire Grand Guignol genre on her own, both chewing the scenery and delivering on a profoundly nuanced dramatic level. She is the single most important element of the film, playing her role with a range the Oscars overlooked. Even for her vast array of work before this, her role in “Crimson Peak” is still a performance no one expected from her.
All actors receiving a vote:
Jessica Chastain, “Crimson Peak”
Viola Davis, “Blackhat”
Simon Pegg, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”
Jessica Chastain, “The Martian”
Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”
Nicholas Hoult, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Donald Sutherland, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”
Julianne Nicholson, “Black Mass”
Michele Rodriguez, “Furious 7”
Best Actor in a Big Budget Film:
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
We liked Matt Damon in “The Martian” quite a lot. The film is carried on his back much more than it is in its design or presentation of another world, and that says something. Charlize Theron came close to nabbing this for “Mad Max: Fury Road.” She gives the angry, yearning performance that most expected out of Tom Hardy going in, and she’s the beating heart of one of the best movies of the year.
It’s Johnny Depp in “Black Mass” who deserves this most, however. Either that, or we just like our villains. Most critics had written Depp off as unable to convey these sorts of roles anymore. As the ugly, terrifying Whitey Bulger, Depp plays the most disturbing character in his career. The movie slightly fails him, being more of a historical checklist than an actual theory of the man. Nonetheless, Depp brings his ‘A’ game. His presence makes the viewer cringe in anticipation of what horror his character might commit next. Depp makes the role work even when other actors fail to make theirs work (like Dakota Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch, in a rare miss). He also seems to center Joel Edgerton’s performance, which is all over the map except when Depp’s on-screen. In that way, Depp seems to transcend even the failures of the film around him, raising “Black Mass” from good to must-see territory almost entirely on his performance.
All actors receiving a vote:
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
Matt Damon, The Martian
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Mia Wasikowska, Crimson Peak
Alicia Vikander, The Man from UNCLE
Best Screenplay in a Big Budget Film:
Mad Max: Fury Road
This came down to a two-horse race between “Inside Out” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It’d be hard to find two more different films in 2015, but ultimately, we went with “Mad Max.” The film is simply a perfect storm of storytelling, both on the page and on the screen. Writers George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, and Nick Lathouris had the benefit of a decade of poring over story treatments and tightening the screenplay. There’s something special about a film that goes through that much editing.
Since it’s an apt metaphor, consider films like cars. A screenplay that a studio shops around, written and re-written by different teams of writers, is like a car taken to different mechanics. Some you can trust, some you can’t. A film that’s held by one team as a project you tinker with over years and years – it all runs as one machine. Every part is geared toward the same purpose. Nothing in the film is working against another element. That is the feeling that pervades “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Few films are brave enough to take apart the concepts of toxic masculinity that drive so many in the real world to possess and violate. Fewer still manage to address these concepts through fantastical or science-fictional means. These are too often treated in writing as the realm of by-men, for-men. A screenplay that can buck that trend, especially in such an immediate emotional way is invaluable.
All writers receiving a vote:
George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris, Mad Max: Fury Road
Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Inside Out
Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Guillermo Del Toro & Matthew Robbins, Crimson Peak
David O. Russell, Joy
Christopher McQuarrie, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight
Andy & Lana Wachowski, Jupiter Ascending
Drew Goddard, The Martian
Best Director of a Big Budget Film:
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
This became a logjam in voting pretty quickly. The winner just about lapped the field, but “Inside Out,” the underrated “Jupiter Ascending,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” all got some love, tying for third place. It was Christopher McQuarrie for “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” who took second. His beautiful sense of pace, his theatrical approach to designing a set piece, and the unexpected performances he lured from Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, and Simon Pegg all made us remember the job he did as, well, surprising.
Yet there really was no competition. “Mad Max: Fury Road” was phenomenal. Four of us named director George Miller tops in this category. It is the fusion of so many pieces working in concert together that makes a film this special. Every element of the film was in tune with the next. This is the same kind of fusion of technical and design elements you saw with the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, yet with a far more urgent thematic message:
Even to the nuances, like bringing Eve Ensler in as a consultant to ensure that Miller didn’t direct the women in the film on topics he wasn’t qualified to direct. It’s not some mastery of all the moving parts of a film that’s important in a director. It’s recognizing when you aren’t best qualified to speak to something in your film, and acknowledging and bringing in someone who is.
All directors receiving a vote:
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Christopher McQuarrie, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen, Inside Out
J.J. Abrams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Andy & Lana Wachowski, Jupiter Ascending
David O. Russell, Joy
Guillermo Del Toro, Crimson Peak
Scott Cooper, Black Mass
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Best Big Budget Film of 2015:
Mad Max: Fury Road
Big surprise after those last two categories. But let’s look at the films that came near. “Jupiter Ascending” already won our Most Thankless Role of 2015 for Mila Kunis. As a film that refuses to take itself seriously while also conveying messages about feminism and gender fluidity that you often don’t see, many of us held onto it as something rare and special.
We gave “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” our Best Diversity of 2015, for featuring positive women, Black, and Hispanic characters, and speaking to the relationship between misogyny, racism, and toxic masculinity through the actions of its characters.
“Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the best films ever made, period. Yet there’s something more important than just saying this is the best film of the year. It’s recognizing the trend across all these films. They all follow leading women and champion perspectives of feminism. They may not all agree on those perspectives, but feminism is hardly a movement limited to any individual’s perception of what it should be. They also all feature roles for men that aren’t sidelined to feminism, but rather engage actively as part of the cause.
The notion that these films don’t make money or aren’t as good is ridiculous. If anything, we may be proving the opposite – that the age of films geared simply to play toward poisonous concepts of misogyny and racism is over. Today, we want films that are more inclusive – of gender, of race, of sexuality, of disability. We’ve already talked about why “Mad Max: Fury Road” is good. It’s more important to begin talking about what “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a part of as a movement in film and storytelling. It’s echoed through all the films that received a vote this year:
All films receiving a vote:
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film is a very old-fashioned ghost story, albeit with a modern sense of bloodletting. “Crimson Peak” is a fairly perfect fit for Halloween, equal parts tense chiller and delectably intentional melodrama. It’s also one of the most beautiful looking films you’ll see this year.
We follow young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an idealistic writer who is swept up in a whirlwind romance by Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Being the end of the Victorian era, he whisks her away to his lonely mansion on a windswept hill. They are joined by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) and a bevy of ghosts with dire warnings.
Del Toro’s critically lauded for his quieter, profoundly haunting Spanish-language films such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” He’s loved by audiences for zanier, louder English-language endeavors like “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy.”
Few directors can successfully make films across such a broad spectrum. To which does the English-language “Crimson Peak” belong? It’s altogether something different, neither quiet and meditative like his smaller films nor brash and cheeky in the same way his big-budget fare is. Instead, Del Toro has crafted a riff on Gothic romances like “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca.”
“Crimson Peak” treads increasingly into that genre’s deliberately melodramatic mood, while dressing everything as if Edgar Allan Poe had imagined the sets into existence. “Crimson Peak” is scary, yes, but it’s not interested in the overwhelming terror of which Del Toro is capable. Instead, mystery and atmosphere are front and center. While all of Del Toro’s films have enjoyed fantastic designs and incredible atmosphere, “Crimson Peak” reaches even greater heights of macabre beauty.
All that said, this is a very particular kind of movie. It has the same fun with its material as “Pacific Rim,” but instead of riffing on the giant robot movies we know all too well by this point, he’s riffing on Gothic romance fiction. It’s not territory that will seem as fresh in many viewers’ minds, but if you’re willing to go along with Del Toro, this is his best job yet of treating genre as his playground.
To understand the movie is to understand Chastain’s role as Lucille. You may recognize Chastain as the lead from “Zero Dark Thirty,” the grown-up Murphy in “Interstellar,” or Matt Damon’s best chance at rescue in “The Martian.” From whichever role you know her, she’s something altogether different here. Her very first scene, Lucille is introduced playing the piano. Her fingers dance across the ivories with both a practiced skill and a flexed rigidity. The camera travels up the back of her dress, not evocatively, but to show that the design on its back resembles a satin vertebrae.
This is the level on which “Crimson Peak” works. Every scene holds a new detail if you’re paying close enough attention. Every piece of design and every edit hints at something crucial. Even the lighting in a painting quickly glanced can tell you whom to trust. The design is stellar in how it’s all put together to subtly direct the viewer. The way it’s filmed understands every nuance of that design. You could pick apart certain shots like you would paintings.
“Crimson Peak” will suffer with viewers somewhat because it’s been advertised as straight-up horror and there isn’t necessarily a large audience with a well of knowledge regarding Gothic romance. That’s really how you might best enjoy the film, recognizing how it exists both inside of and as a commentary on Gothic and Victorian literature. Without that background, the film may seem beautiful but outlandish. Fans of such literature, lovers of costume and set design, those who appreciate old-fashioned ghost stories, mystery fans, and even (perhaps especially) fans of giallo filmmaking will love “Crimson Peak.” Those expecting a more modern horror, or something particularly oppressive or jumpy in its scares, may be disappointed. “Crimson Peak” is a creepy film with beautiful tone, not really a scary one designed to make you leap from your seat.
In an odd way, “Crimson Peak” feels close kin to Tim Burton’s 1999 take on “Sleepy Hollow.” Both movies are gorgeous to take in, featuring some of the best set and costume design ever put to film. Both are filled with performances that are more clever in their melodrama than seeking to be real, although Chastain’s master-class performance in “Peak” somehow manages to encompass both extremes. “Sleepy Hollow” is more action- and comedy-oriented where “Crimson Peak” is literary-minded. They are both utter joys to watch, but more for the sake of their stunning craftsmanship and the fun the actors are having than as complete crowd-pleasers. Suffice to say, I plan to make them into a Halloween double-feature one day. Perhaps “Clue” can be the chaser for that cocktail.
On one last note, I very occasionally have synesthetic reactions to films. It’s not often – I can count the number of times it’s happened on one hand. I don’t imagine it’s a reaction most viewers will have, but to describe just how complete and different “Crimson Peak” is as an exercise in design, it brought me to that place in a powerful and overwhelming way. The woodwork felt tangible. The colors haunted me. You could feel the suits and dresses, taste the cold in the air, huddle at the dark of its night. It didn’t give me goosebumps through its scares, but rather because I could feel the temperature drop and the drifts of its blizzards on the back of my neck. If you are at all interested in seeing the film, don’t wait for a second. See it in the theater, see it on the big screen.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Crimson Peak” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing. Jessica Chastain plays Lucille Sharpe. Leslie Hope plays Mrs. McMichael, Emily Coutts plays Eunice, and Sofia Wells plays Young Edith. Briefer speaking parts include Joanna Douglas as Maid Annie, and Karen Glave and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as a pair of unnamed maids.
There are also women ghosts with speaking parts, but these are played by men, including Doug Jones, who is Del Toro’s go-to creature actor.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
“Crimson Peak” is a film with feminism in mind. Edith is a writer who isn’t taken seriously because she’s a woman. She even types a manuscript up because she believes her handwriting betrays feminine qualities. Her father has faith in her ability to do as she will, but the rest of the world doesn’t understand why she rejects the game of suitors and marriage prospects. Wasikowska plays her as a smart mix of idealistic yet practical, and she’s most often in the hands of saving herself.
Lucille is a challenging role that could’ve gone rather badly in lesser hands, but Chastain absolutely obliterates the part. She’s not just threatening, she is the very idea of threat itself. You’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop here, you’re waiting for Chastain to close jaws on your jugular. It is a testament to Chastain that inside of three weeks, she’s delivered my favorite hero of the year (via a supporting role in “The Martian”) and my favorite villain in “Crimson Peak.”
Yes, Tom Hiddleston matters and gets more screen time than Chastain, but he’s really in the middle of things here. (Wasikowska easily gets the most screen time.) This film is really about its two women leads, the agency they exert over each other and their surroundings, and the game of cat-and-mouse they play.
This includes the dialogue they hold, the nature of it, and the topics covered. Equally importantly, it covers the way they’re portrayed, especially as the film inhabits something of a commentary on the nature of Gothic romance, the studio system of filmmaking, and the expectations of women within each.
Where did we get our fantastic images? The feature image with the yellow dress is from Slip Through Movies trailer article. The house and ghost images are from The Busybody’s Review in Pictures. The last two images, both with Jessica Chastain, are from a Bloody-Disgusting image feature.
An astronaut in the third manned mission to Mars becomes stranded during a storm. Believing him dead, his crew aborts their mission, abandons the planet, and launches back toward Earth. A botanist by trade and trapped in a harsh climate, the stranded Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to figure out how to collect water, grow plants in unfriendly soil, and survive the harsh temperatures of Mars.
All the while, NASA must figure out how to help him, communicate, and (perhaps most interestingly) navigate the needs of a rescue mission through a politically aggressive media.
At the center of the story, Damon balances desperation with a sort of positive, confident, self-deprecating attitude, as if playing Chris Pratt with a dramatic range. It’s a superb display of trying to remain mentally healthy and positive in what would otherwise be a depressing and hopeless survival situation. Even if the focus of the film isn’t on big moments of acting, Damon textures the role with a great deal of nuance. The film doesn’t use elongated, weepy moments as a crutch. Watney loses his cool, enjoys success and failure, and struggles to remain stable at points, but this isn’t “Cast Away.” Damon is excellent, but his emotional state isn’t the focus here; his actions are. In this way, he carries the film’s momentum on his shoulders.
Damon is something special in the film, but he’s not the only one. As his mission commander Melissa Lewis, Jessica Chastain (“Interstellar”) continues conveying entire character histories with just a glance. Her ability to be an emotionally open book and a consummate professional all at once is recognizable to audiences because most of us struggle with that balance in our daily lives. Even if Lewis gets a fraction of the screen time Watney does, everything about her is humanity at its best and most responsible. Few actors could command so much loyalty in the space of a handful of scenes.
On the ground, NASA is in the hands of administrators played by Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Kristen Wiig. Decisions range from assembling another supply mission to keep Watney fed, to whether to tell the crew who left him that he remains alive. Surprisingly, these decisions hold as much intensity as Watney’s unique struggle. Balancing the practical with the political on Earth becomes as life-or-death for Watney as things like food and water.
There’s an incredible translation of science happening in the film. Watney relies on his scientific know-how, on knowledge of botany, chemistry, electronics, and astrophysics that are masterfully translated for the audience. Complex ideas are skillfully communicated in simple, practical ways.
This plays into one of the most remarkable things about “The Martian.” It is by far the least “Ridley Scott” of director Ridley Scott’s movies. After a string of films that’s gone from “Prometheus” to “The Counselor” to “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” each one more trapped inside of its own style than the last, it’s refreshing to know Scott can still just tell a story. “The Martian” isn’t subject to strange visual experiments or odd editing. If anything, its visual storytelling errs on the side of safe. That works for a film like this. The story is so compelling, the actors so commanding, too much extra style might have ultimately become too distracting. Scott instead relies on techniques he’s often avoided in his career: rapid jump-cut editing, voice-over, point-of-view shots, fast-motion, and a relatively still camera.
The easiest comparison in subject matter would be the most recent stranded-in-space film, “Gravity.” These are two very different movies, however. “Gravity” envelops viewers in a visceral experience reminiscent of horror movies. “The Martian” offers a very different kind of intensity. It evokes something less existential and more practical. If anything, “The Martian” takes on a very matter-of-fact tone that resembles one of the most realistic portrayals of space disaster, “Apollo 13.”
One extra note: Ridley Scott has become one of the premier directors of 3D. As many other problems as “Prometheus” and “Exodus” had, their 3D was downright sumptuous. “The Martian” is no different, and its otherworldly setting offers up a lot of opportunities both before and beyond the screen. Flying dust, bits of debris, and a looming spaceship all feature. So do vast Martian canyons and valleys, calling upon the haunting beauty and loneliness of being stranded in a strange wilderness. His 3D is exceptionally detailed and makes tremendous use of the foreground. Nausea’s not a problem because there’s not a ton of fast movement, but if you get headaches, that’s from the foreground detail. In this case, sit a little further back in the theater, so that you’re at least the height of the middle of the screen. Of course, the film will play exceptionally in 2D as well without losing its beauty.
There’s language, brief rear nudity, and a scene of injury, but it’s very safe for children and I’d highly encourage it as a family film that can help spur discussions about science and space.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “The Martian” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Jessica Chastain plays Mission Commander Melissa Lewis. Kate Mara plays astronaut Beth Johanssen. Kristen Wiig plays NASA Public Affairs Officer Annie Montrose. Mackenzie Davis plays specialist Mindy Park.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. There are points when it could be read either way – in talking about rescuing Watney, are they talking about him or are they talking about a rescue operation? Either way, there are other things discussed outside of this.
In space, women seem to be in charge, and I detailed just how well Jessica Chastain delivers her role as the mission commander. It’s also worth noting that – after Chastain’s Lewis – Kate Mara’s Johanssen seems to have the most agency within the crew.
On the ground, it’s a different story. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean exert more power and enjoy more agency in their characters than Kristen Wiig and Mackenzie Davis do. Wiig and Davis play characters whose jobs involve being answerable to these men (well, at least to Daniels and Ejiofor).
It’s therefore a mixed bag, and because the focus of half the story is on Watney alone, it makes the film difficult to judge along these lines. In other words, it features three storylines, in order of screen time given to them:
Watney surviving alone on Mars, which does not pass the Bechdel Test for obvious reasons.
A male-driven corporate structure in NASA, which briefly passes at least the first two questions of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, but not really their spirit.
A kick-ass group of astronauts powered by two strong, intelligent, and decisive women leaders and role models that passes both the rule and spirit of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, including an incredibly heroic leader in Chastain’s Lewis.
The only other thing I’ll note is that I appreciate how much Chastain’s performance gives us someone who can lead without being emotionally closed off. The unfortunate perception among many is that women cannot share emotion in the way a man can and still be trusted to lead; a woman leader has to be cold in order for many to think she’s qualified. It’s bullshit, of course, but it’s also a perception that many women have to at least acknowledge and be aware of when taking on leadership positions in the U.S. I appreciate that Chastain threw that on its head. She delivers an engaging, inspiring, emotionally forthright leader who commands not through coldness and aloofness, but through collaboration, communication, and a refined and experienced sense of moral, logical, and emotional judgment.
On another note, I have read some accusations of race-bending many of the roles. I have not read the book, so I cannot speak to this. “The Martian” does feature people of color more than most films, but that’s not necessarily saying much. For NASA especially, it does seem heavy on white characters. I don’t know how accurately this lines up with its source material.
Yes, we do get Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, and Michael Pena in very positive roles and positions of responsibility, but that’s still merely 3 of the top 12 actors billed.
Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image comes from Collider’s review. The top and bottom images (both with Jessica Chastain) come from Collider’s interview with Chastain.
The Oscars award the best performance of the year. They don’t take into account the sum total of an actor’s work across that year. What if you took every project an actor worked on, and used that to judge the best actors of 2014?
This year, we have to recognize the 2014 that Scarlett Johansson had. She led the action movies Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Lucy. She displayed incredible range going from a restaurant hostess in the foodie comedy Chef to an alien sociopath in the experimental horror Under the Skin.
Years ago, I had dismissed Johansson as nothing more than a “show horse,” an actor who’s trotted out to look good and not say much. It’s the same way I look at, say, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) now – an actor with limited talent who is nonetheless charming when he’s not asked to do much.
Either Johansson evolved or I was wrong – probably a little bit of both. She was the best thing about Captain America and expanded her Iron Man and Avengers role into a more complex, layered character. Even the Captain doesn’t develop in his film – he’s the same at the end as he is in the beginning. It’s his ethical constancy we admire (and, the film suggests, that all sides in government have lost). It’s Johansson’s Black Widow who’s asked to develop and change over the course of the film. She has to do this without ever taking center stage from Captain America (Chris Evans). That’s a demanding task and, at the same time, she even goes toe-to-toe against the film’s titular villain. It should’ve been called Captain America & Black Widow, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.
Lucy isn’t what I’d call a good film – it’s very average – but Johansson is very good in the role, bringing a confused humanity to bear in a character who becomes a demigod. She also proved that her $40 million action movie could beat a more established star’s big budget extravaganza. The two opened the same weekend, but Lucy earned twice as much as The Rock’s Hercules on less than half the budget, adding one more nail in the coffin to the idea that women can’t launch films or lead action movies.
Chef is a joyous comedy that features Johansson at her charming best. She infuses her character with far more nuance than the role demands, and she adds some of the film’s best comedic timing to her scenes with co-star Jon Favreau.
Under the Skin is the most challenging film here, a mature psychosexual thriller in which Johansson plays an alien in the skin of a human. She picks up hitchhikers and others who won’t be missed from the Scottish countryside. In order to film this, hidden cameras followed an unrecognizable Johansson as she prowled the streets of Edinburgh in a nondescript van, talking strangers into the van while completely in character. Most of the later film is scripted, but it’s in these early, improvised moments that Johansson communicates a master manipulator to whom conscience is an incomprehensible notion.
It’s a deeply disturbing role – she is a sociopath and sexual predator every bit as disturbing as what Anthony Hopkins does to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, except she’s more single-minded. When she arrives at a moment of horror that isn’t of her own making – some swimmers drowning as their lonely child cries on the shore – she communicates a terrifying and inhuman depth of dispassion.
Johansson deserved an Oscar nomination for it, although Under the Skin is the type of film the Oscars wouldn’t recognize in a million years. If her action roles are her calling card as a box office heavyweight and Chef keeps up her indie viability, Under the Skin is the role that reminds us she’s one of the best actors working today, someone who is far more than the show horse I once pegged her as, a high caliber talent just as capable of unsettling and disturbing an audience as she is of charming them.
Does Johansson give the best performance in a single role from last year? The Academy awarded a superb Julianne Moore performance. When we took a poll of seven writers on my website, Johansson barely lost out to the similarly un-nominated Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle. Look at her entire body of work for 2014, however, and it’s hard to deny that Johansson is the Most Important Actor of the Year.
When I asked the six other critics who joined me in our End of Year Awards for best acting and best films, we came up with the following ranking for actors across multiple projects. Here’s the top 10, and the others who earned multiple votes. Obviously, this is very Western-centric. Most of us haven’t had a chance to enjoy very many non-English films from 2014, so please take these rankings with a grain of salt. The world is full of a lot of performances we haven’t seen yet:
1. Scarlett Johansson. We were all in agreement here.
2. Martin Freeman, for his roles in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, BBC’s Sherlock, and FX’s Fargo. Benedict Cumberbatch gets all the fame and glory on Sherlock – what people overlook is that Freeman’s the real gem of the show.
3. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for her roles in Belle and Beyond the Lights. This group voted her performance in Belle as the best performance by an actress this year.
4. Jessica Chastain, for her roles in A Most Violent Year, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Interstellar, and Miss Julie. Only four films in a year is an off-year for Chastain, who would’ve walked away with this in her six-film 2011.
5. Viola Davis, for her roles in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Get on Up, and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. She’s taking part in a sea change on television where minority actors are getting the leads Hollywood refuses them.
6. Matthew McConaughey, for his roles in Interstellar and HBO’s True Detective. Sure, it’s only two projects, but you can’t get much better than these two.
7. Reese Witherspoon, for her roles in Devil’s Knot, The Good Lie, Inherent Vice, and Wild. For launching four films, it’s been an absurdly quiet year for Witherspoon, with little recognition for the amount of work she’s done.
8. David Oyelowo, for roles in A Most Violent Year and Selma, as well as a brief part in Interstellar. Selma is obviously the standout role. The other two are supporting, but he’s just that good in Selma.
9. Willem Dafoe, for roles in A Most Wanted Man, Bad Country, The Fault in Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, John Wick, Nymphomaniac, and Pasolini. Too bad we don’t give out a workaholic award.
10. Kevin Hart, for his roles in About Last Night, Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too, and Top Five.
Others who got multiple votes included:
Benedict Cumberbatch, for his roles in The Imitation Game, BBC’s Sherlock, and his motion capture performances in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Common, for his roles in Every Secret Thing, X/Y, Selma, and AMC’s Hell on Wheels.
Michael Ealy, for his roles in About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too, and Fox’s Almost Human.
Mireille Enos, for roles in The Captive, If I Stay, Sabotage, and AMC’s/Netflix’s The Killing.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for being the only watchable actor in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and – more importantly – for creating and hosting Pivot TV’s game changing HitRECord on TV.
Chloe Grace-Moretz, for roles in The Equalizer, If I Stay, and Laggies.
Eva Green, for her roles in 300: Rise of an Empire, The Salvation, White Bird in a Blizzard, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and despite her role in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
Shia LaBeouf, for his roles in Fury and Nymphomaniac, as well as his Crispin Glover-level performance art that both inhabits and trolls method acting and our obsession with celebrities and their lifestyle.
Jennifer Lawrence, for her roles in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Serena, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. In my eyes, she won this in 2013, but while she was good in 2014, her roles didn’t seem as crucial.
Logan Lerman, for roles in Fury and Noah that both find a young man who wants to co-exist with the world being taught to dominate it instead.
Andy Serkis, for his motion capture roles as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, his uncredited work as Godzilla in Godzilla, as well as behind the scenes motion capture consulting and second unit director work on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.
Emma Stone, for her roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Birdman, and Magic in the Moonlight.
Shailene Woodley, for her roles in Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and White Bird in a Blizzard.
A Most Violent Year follows a virtuous man in a time of thieves and gangsters. Its style recalls 70s crime films like The Godfather and The French Connection.
Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant in New York City who’s trying to expand his successful heating oil business. It’s 1981 and his fuel trucks are being hijacked at toll booths and on-ramps, his drivers beaten and left barely breathing in the middle of the road. His competitors, who are either gangsters or rely on gangsters, want to put him out of business.
What’s an honest businessman to do? Most modern Hollywood films would see him pick up a gun and start getting even. In the style of those 70s crime dramas, however, Abel chooses to respond to this as a businessman first. He knows arming his drivers will result in shoot-outs and all-out war. He knows staying the course will be more difficult and more painful, but he has a vision.
His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of a gangster, the one from whom Abel bought the company. She constantly threatens Abel that if he won’t rise to his aggressors, then she will. You’re given the feeling that she could end all this in one vicious heartbeat: a street war or a bloodbath. That’s not what Abel wants. He’s dedicated to taking the high road and earning his victory by outmaneuvering his opponents. And yet he trusts Anna enough that when she hides the ledgers from investigating police, he sits hidden along with them.
Avoiding the violence in which everyone else partakes doesn’t mean the film is void of action and tense sequences. A Most Violent Year features a shoot-out and the best chase scene of the year, involving cars, trains, and a plain old footrace. There are strong shades of Dustin Hoffman classic The Marathon Man in these moments.
All that’s not to say that A Most Violent Year quite lives up to these films, but being a half-step away from greatness still means you’re very, very good.
It also carries a deliciously mixed message. Abel’s shadow is a gang lawyer named Andrew, played perfectly by Albert Brooks. While Abel’s marriage to Anna is contentious at times, his business marriage to Andrew is all too perfect. These two figures, Anna cooking the books on one end, Andrew treating Abel on a need-to-know basis on the other, means that Abel can take the honest and virtuous path, but only so long as he enables and ignores the actions of partners who don’t.
It offers a theory on American business that may not be popular, but is in keeping with the gang and crime movies of the 70s: that cheating is part of the game, that being an honest success is very possible, but it may require you to ignore all the dishonest things that have allowed your success. It may require you to sacrifice some of the people who worked so hard to get you there.
A Most Violent Year contains tragedy, but it doesn’t treat this concept as tragic, just inevitable. It leaves the viewer to pick up the pieces and draw his or her own conclusions. In that way, it’s a chilling portrayal of American business politics. I wouldn’t call its treatment especially conservative or liberal either. It has a strong enough story that it doesn’t need to make political metaphors. In fact, it’s thankfully drained of these, relying on its ideas, tension, and superb acting to play out the concepts according to the rules of this 1981 New York City we’re given.
The ensemble also includes David Oyelowo (Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma) as a District Attorney investigating Abel. Elyes Gabel is emotionally resonant as a driver whose truck is hijacked.
A Most Violent Year is a film that got overlooked at the Oscar nominations, not as Best Film, but certainly for its acting and writing successes. All its tension comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next, how characters will respond to the larger story and to each other. So many movies follow the same structures these days that being this “in the dark” as a story progresses is a refreshing reminder of one of classic cinema’s strengths. A Most Violent Year is able to feel tense by slowing down and making you think and learn about its characters.
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 A Most Violent Year have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Jessica Chastain is incredible as Anna Morales. The underappreciated Catalina Sandino Moreno appears in one scene. Annie Funke plays Lorraine Lefkowitz, the owner of a competing heating oil company.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
This question is dependent on question 2, which it doesn’t pass, but when women do speak, it’s about business or escalating conflict. It’s always directed to men, but it’s never about men.
The Bechdel Test is a tool, not a hard and fast guide to a film’s worth. They could have featured more women – I’m not about to excuse it for that. The women they do feature, however, are all capable professionals. The dynamic between Abel and Anna is fascinating. In some ways, he’s the “rock” of the family only because Anna has decided he’s better suited to that guise.
They are both willful characters, but you get the sense he has no real control over her. Oscar Isaac might dress the part of The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, but it’s Chastain who’s the real threat. Anna contains herself not because Abel makes her, but rather because you get the sense the conclusion is never in doubt for her. She is patient with him and it’s revealed in clever ways that, no matter how capable Abel is, he is in many ways her Lieutenant and not the other way around. It’s an important difference that manages to avoid the old Lady Macbeth route.
The Lady Macbeth route means that he’s powerful and she knows how to manipulate that power. It can be done well, but it’s all too often abused on film. Not so here – Anna is the more powerful, but she restrains herself because Abel is the more legitimate face for the business. There are moments where she seizes that power from him in other parts of their lives, and when she gives it back it isn’t because she’s a wilting flower, it’s because she’s done with the moment. She’s patient, and you get the sense her Plan B is so violent and terrifying that she can afford that patience.
The tagline for the movie doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: “The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.”
The fork in the road is the very definition of Abel and Anna’s marriage and business partnership. His path speaks to the struggles of legitimacy in a world that devalues such things. Her path speaks to doing what needs to be done, no matter the price. And yet, that marriage works because she could win every battle between the two, but relents on enough of them to allow him his continued belief in legitimacy and honesty. And, in that way, she is one of the most powerful characters on film this year.
A Most Violent Year could have done better on the Bechdel Test without changing the course of the rest of the film, but it does give us one of the most interesting, confident, and dynamic women of any film from 2014.
Interstellar is the best movie I have ever seen. As a critic, you’re expected never to say things like that, but that’s never how we watch movies. We invest our emotions, put ourselves into another world, develop faith in characters, we give our entire body over – our pulses race, we tremble, our mouths drop, we grip the armrests, our minds reel. We watch movies because that very next one might be the best we’ve ever seen.
We watch films as engrossing and challenging as Interstellar to find that awe and wonder we had as kids, when we looked up at the sky and dreamed that this very moment – as a people – caught us midstep in becoming something greater. We dreamed that as kids, and we never stopped dreaming it, even when we struggle.
When we struggle, we hope, or we wouldn’t struggle anymore – we’d just let things be. But when we hope, we fear, and Doctor Who tells us fear is a superpower. We rage, and Dylan Thomas tells us rage is the driving force of pioneers. We wonder, and Star Trek tells us wonder is the thing that can unite entire races in the midst of destroying themselves. We’re driven by love, and Robert Heinlein tells us love isn’t a wild, unpredictable emotion, but rather the mastery of our pettiest stresses and insecurities.
Science-fiction houses its what-ifs in scientific theory and social experimentation, but its curiosity is invariably driven by hope. Interstellar poses an Earth that’s lost hope, caught in a postapocalypse driven not by the violence of nuclear war or excitement of zombies, but by crop plagues and soil deterioration caused by overpopulation.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) was once a NASA pilot. Now, like everybody else, he’s a farmer. Corn is the only crop left. One can’t escape the feeling that his daughter Murphy’s generation will be the last on Earth.
But…Murphy has a ghost that keeps knocking books off the shelf in her bedroom. Cooper doesn’t believe her until he witnesses it during a ferocious dust storm. It’s not a ghost, it’s a gravitational anomaly, and it carries a message.
That message means Cooper will leave his family, discover the remnants of NASA and – being the last experienced pilot around – lead an expedition to find another planet for humanity’s migration. He’ll be joined by Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and a sarcastic robot named TARS on a journey that will take them through wormholes, past black holes, and onto other planets.
The laws of relativity mean that, while their journey will take a few years, decades will pass on Earth. Murphy will grow up. Our pioneers don’t just need to make choices about fuel and food and air supply. Time is the resource they can’t afford to lose. On one potential planet, an hour on the surface equals 7 years back on earth. Every conversation, even about minutiae, carries the weight of the world. Our species hangs in the balance of philosophical debates.
There will be personal betrayals, nerve-wracking space maneuvers, haunting and inspiring sights of space in all its lonely glory. Pioneers will be heartbreakingly lost, the laws of physics will be bent, teary-eyed arguments will be had. Interstellar is an action movie, a tale of discovery, a crash course in both philosophy and astrophysics, but more than anything else it inspires awe in a way few pieces of art ever do.
Interstellar is nothing short of a narrative masterpiece. Director Christopher Nolan’s past narrative contortions, like Memento, The Prestige, and Inception? Those seem like training runs for what Interstellar pulls off. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted science-fiction to be, and as the movie delves further into quantum mechanics, it isn’t just a science-fiction movie anymore; it becomes magical realism.
(The ending may throw some viewers – it’s heavily based in concepts like quantum consciousness. Interstellar will explain it to you fast, but it never stops too long to run down its more difficult concepts, favoring emotional reaction and more plot over understanding every little nuance. If you’ve got a basic understanding of quantum mechanics – say, you watch PBS or other science programming occasionally – you should be fine. If not, you’ll still have the film’s complete emotional journey, but you may lose out on some of the finer plot logic.)
Nolan favors an old-fashioned approach to narrative – the journey is told through simply presented story and excellent performances. Even the special effects are grounded in live action. CGI isn’t abused, but saved for exceptional moments, making their impact far greater. For my money, McConaughey delivers a performance that knocks his two last year (in Dallas Buyers Club and Mud) out of the park. There’s no trace of ego there, just a completely internalized character. Hathaway and our two Murphys, young Mackenzie Foy and adult Jessica Chastain, are nothing short of remarkable.
If hope contains fear and rage and wonder and love, it’s what gets us through our struggles. The single greatest gift a parent gives to a child…that’s hope. That’s practicing hope, learning hope, being disappointed in hope, and being surprised by it. It’s learning how to use it, how to make it bring out the best in us and – when all is at its worst – allowing it to master us despite all evidence to the contrary.
So you’ll understand when I tell you that, for a child raised on enough hope for himself and every other person he’s ever met, who’s been inspired by hope, betrayed because of hope, who’s been ruined by hope, achieved things he never thought he could but always suspected he would because of hope, who thinks the most important thing he can do after seeing a movie that inspires him is sit and write like a hurricane…you’ll understand when he comes away from a film like Interstellar and tells you: “This is the best movie I have ever seen.”
I don’t say that as a critic, I say that as someone who looks up at the stars every night and wonders why the hell we’re not up there in droves, who stayed up late to watch Star Trek and the really old, boring Doctor Who where every planet was the same old rock quarry, who read Asimov and Heinlein and Le Guin and Pullman until four in the morning, and who learned from them all that hope is the real superpower of the human race.
Interstellar is a movie that tells its story through impossibilities, that finds a way to treat emotion as a dimension through which you can move and marries this to complex, cutting-edge science that tells you why. It’s a rare film that reminds us “it’s hopeless” is not a state of being. It’s a challenge to do better, not just in the world’s eyes but in your own. That doesn’t mean we always will, but it does mean we should always try.
Interstellar was designed for the child who looked at the stars and wondered, and learned all he could about them, and grew up to still look at the stars and wonder. Is it the best movie ever made? Who knows, who cares? For that child, and I suspect I can’t possibly be the only one, it is the best film he or she may ever see.
Interstellar is an astonishing love letter to the human race. What else is science-fiction but exactly that?
We’ve all been waiting for a return to form by Tim Burton for quite some time. His best film is an argument that will never be solved, but many cinephiles – myself included – will make the case for his kooky, emotive biography of the legendary B-movie director, Ed Wood.
Burton can go off the rails sometimes. It’s the emotion that can’t help but shine through in his most restrained moments that gives his best films their heart. So when Burton finally returns for another biography, let alone one centered on painter Margaret Keane and starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, it’s cause to pay attention.
That and, if you know me at all, you know I’ll watch anything starring Krysten Ritter, one of our most unappreciated screen comedians.
Elle Fanning. Peter Dinklage. John Hawkes. Glenn Close. Lena Headey.
You simply don’t get better casts than this. What’s it like to grow up under a drug abusing, drunkard jazz legend? That’s the premise, and while that’s a stellar cast, this looks like Fanning’s movie. She’s been moving further and further out from older sister Dakota’s shadow and at this point may be the better actress – or at least the one choosing more interesting projects (I’m sure Dakota is crying into her Twilight money as I write this).
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Jessica Chastain is one of the most fearsomely commanding actors we have. She’s worked a career’s worth of roles in just a few short years. In 2011, she starred in seven films, including Take Shelter, Tree of Life, and The Help. In 2012, she starred in four films, including Zero Dark Thirty. 2013 saw two more films, and this year, she’s in another five or, depending on how you count The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby‘s different his and her variations of a troubled romance, six. Or seven. It’s complicated.
The point is, since her performances announced to the cinema world in 2011 that she’s the kind of force we may not have seen since Meryl Streep first brought her talents to bear, Chastain’s starred in at least 18 films, garnering two Oscar nominations. Anything she does is must-see because across those 18 films, she’s unfailingly created unique and compelling characters. Yeah, Oscar Isaac’s great, too, and J.C. Chandor is the very definition of an up-and-coming director (he helmed last year’s All Is Lost), but Chastain is the reason to see this.
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
And, of course, the latest Men, Women & Children trailer. This is looking incredibly good. I featured an earlier trailer a few weeks ago and, aside from championing Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer as under-utilized actors, I stand by the idea that this could echo Adam Sandler’s touching and scary dramatic break in Punch Drunk Love several years back.
And it doesn’t fit the theme, but all the trailers rarely do, so feast your eyes on this beautiful preview for The Liberator. We aren’t offered many Latin American heroes, let alone in a film that looks so sumptuous and epic.
Worst Trailer of the Week (Tie) – THE HOUSES THAT OCTOBER BUILT
Oh dear. Normally, I don’t include films made on the cheap. That’s why Bigfoot’s film debut in Exists was excused from Worst Trailer a few weeks ago. But this is from some pretty major found footage talent and it manages to look profoundly atrocious inside of two minutes.
Worst Trailer of the Week (Tie) –
I also don’t normally feature straight-to-DVD in this section, but Kite was a groundbreaking anime. Why? Not so much for its cliché storyline, but rather for how stylishly it delivered such an incredible amount of violence in so short a time. Centering on an assassin who gets close to her targets using methods of distraction that sometimes involve her underage sexuality, it either bordered on the tasteless or took Japan’s silent cultural endorsement of child sexuality to task. Depends on who you ask. Certainly the imagery in the movie was deeply controversial.
This live-action, English language adaptation? Well, it stars Samuel L. Jackson, who does a film like this every year just to keep his B-movie cred shiny. It otherwise presents itself as a wannabe Hitgirl movie. Will it contain the confrontational gore of the original, or present action free of consequence and saturated in American-style one liners? Will it use the disturbing sexuality of the anime to hammer home a real social commentary, or will it use the premise as an excuse for cheap titillation and provocation? I have my worries.
I haven’t seen the original in so long, I don’t think I could give an accurate opinion. I remember liking the cinematic techniques in the action scenes, but that’s about it. You don’t adapt this project as a cheap cash-in free from addressing in some way what made it so controversial in the first place, and that’s what this trailer reeks of.