Best Films of 2014: #13- Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night- Title

The first time we see Sandra Bya (a frankly never better Marion Cotillard), the reluctant, frazzled heroine of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s working class drama, Two Days, One Night, she is lying on her side half asleep. Her cell phone buzzes offscreen, vying for her attention like a needy child. Its best efforts to rouse her do not appear to be working. Finally though, Sandra manages to stand. She groggily pulls herself from the bed to answer the call and remove some half-forgotten food from the oven. Sandra will soon learn from her friend, Juliette, that she is being let go from her job at the local solar plant, but this beautiful, young woman’s demeanor is frail, stooped and defeated before she even receives the news. Sandra has been in this feeble state since six months ago, when she experienced a nervous breakdown and took a sabbatical from her job. After learning that the plant could function without her, Sandra’s boss, Mr. Dumont, gave her 16 coworkers the option of either keeping Sandra or taking home a $1,000 bonus. 14 out of 16 decided they would rather keep the money. Sandra acquiesces to defeat almost as soon as she hangs up the phone. She begs herself not to cry and takes a couple of Xanax, ready to sleep the weekend away and meet her sorry fate on Monday.

Two Days, One Night- Asleep

It seems all hope is lost until her husband, Manu, returns home with a silver lining. He has spoken to Juliette, who learned that Jean-Marc, the factory foreman, intimidated the other workers by falsely implying that one of them would be laid off if it were not Sandra. The choice Sandra’s co-workers thought they were voting for was not to get a bonus or keep Sandra, but rather to get a bonus or potentially lose their own jobs. Sandra, Manu, and their two children have great need of her income, but Sandra’s depleted physical and mental condition has left her in a poor position to fight a battle of this magnitude. Nonetheless, she is just barely able to summon the strength to go down to the plant and explain the situation to Mr. Dumont. Juliette actually does most of the talking for her, as Sandra stands meekly to the side, unsure if she even wants to be there; unsure any small sliver of hope she might have is worth the strain on her psyche. Sandra is being held up on invisible strings by her devoted friend and indefatigable husband, but it is enough to give pause to Mr. Dumont, who wants to avoid any suggestion of impropriety. He agrees to hold a revote on Monday, with a majority needed to overturn the decision. Juliette and Manu are relieved for her, but Sandra looks like she just wants to be back under her refuge of blankets. She is content to wait until Monday to see how the vote turns out. Manu prods and coaxes her into speaking personally with her 16 co-workers. The hope is that seeing the human cost of their decision will move them to change their minds. More importantly, Manu wants Sandra to reengage with a world that she no longer feels capable of even looking in the eye.

Two Days, One Night- Family

Two Days, One Night is a film of both deeply felt emotion and remarkable economy. In the first 10 minutes, the Dardenne brothers, Belgian masters of beautifully minimalist storytelling, introduce a flawed, relatable character and her two closest allies, fill us in on her backstory and her most damaging character flaw, and set up the entire conflict that will unfold over the next 90 minutes. What follows could have been a drab and preachy slice of social realism, forcing us to watch a mentally ill woman unravel in the face of redundancy and become a martyr of today’s unforgiving economic conditions, but Two Days, One Night is one of the most unexpectedly joyous films of the year. As with any film by the Dardenne brothers, it is certainly a proud example of social realism, but it never sinks into a quagmire of pessimism. In the same way that Manu and Juliette continually nudge Sandra away from her anxiety and self-pity, the Dardenne brothers take a film about the plight of the working class and push it in the direction of optimism, solidarity, and courage in the face of life’s hardships. In this regard, the arc of the film mirrors the arc of its character, who starts enshrouded in a deep malaise and never seems more than two seconds from collapsing in a heap, but who learns to find her footing through the help of her family and close friend, through allies she never knew she had, and finally on her own initiative.

Two Days, One Night- Baby

The two days and one night of the title are the amount of time that Sandra has in which to change the minds of 7 of the remaining 14 coworkers. In following her through each of these 14 encounters, Two Days, One Night crafts a rich tapestry of human beings, each giving a unique slant on the battle between generosity and self-interest in the human soul. Sandra gets a bit of misleading hope at the start of her first day when one coworker not only says he will change his vote, but does so over the phone. The Dardennes and the great Marion Cotillard have a deep psychological understanding of Sandra, who is a smart, resourceful woman under the best of circumstances, but initially has trouble standing fully erect when life rains down in sheets. We all cling to the outside hope that life will not only blithely give us the answer we want, but that it will do so without asking us to walk out of our own front door. Naturally, adversity soon rears its head. She vistis the homes of her next two coworkers, who apologetically explain that their financial situations are too dire for them to reject the bonus out of loyalty to her. One is sending his daughter to college, the other starting a new life after a divorce. Sandra does her best to put on a brave face, but these early moments of rejection send her just as quickly back into her tailspin, scrambling for pills and pining for her bed. “I don’t even exist,” she laments. Manu must remind her that she does and that she must stand and fight, not close her eyes and slump. After a particularly bitter rejection, he shuts off the radio to protect her from hearing a sad song at the wrong time. Showing a heretofore unseen strength, Sandra turns it back on. She may not be in ideal state to meet this arduous task, but she is striving mightily to face the music.

Two Days, One Night- Smile

Remarkably and blessedly, Two Days, One Night is not the story of a fragile woman whose kind, sturdy husband teaches her to fight for her job and her self-actualization. Even if that were its intent, Marion Cotillard’s slow, halting climb out of the depths of self-pity and dejection is too vital, beautiful, and wholly convincing to let Sandra become a secondary character in her own working class hero’s journey, even when she is at her most downtrodden and despondent. Moreover, Cotillard is not alone in believing in Sandra, because the Dardennes are squarely in her corner too. They are wholly entranced and moved by both the lows of her melancholic vulnerability and the heights of her rekindled agency. I have talked at length of Sandra’s initial frailty, but this is no portrait of a weak, floundering woman. This is quite honestly one of the most wonderfully strong, fantastically faltering, and naturally empathetic characters to come around in a long time. Cotillard and the Dardennes have created for Sandra a narrative of slow, painful growth so natural and cathartic that our hearts positively soar for her, when they are not breaking. And they have done it all under the banner of an unadorned social realist drama about working class redundancy. Two Days, One Night is a painful, hopeful, occasionally even funny reminder of how conflict can destroy or rejuvenate us, with a vibrant, achingly human character staring down both roads, often simultaneously. It was one of the year’s great pleasures to travel with her as she reluctantly, then tentatively, and then confidently went out to meet her fellow human.

Two Days, One Night- Community

While the Dardennes provide Sandra with a very moving, even inspirational narrative path, there is nothing pat about it. As surely as the film deftly sidesteps bleak miserablism, the film is not interested in portraying Sandra’s journey as one from adversity into perpetual sunlight. This is a story of empowerment, but it is not the story of a woman shaking off her mental illness for good and all, as no responsible story about depression should be. I will pass on this easy opportunity to pile on Silver Linings Playbook, a film I do like quite a bit. But I will say that the Dardennes have created a film that is neither a miserable, defeatist slog, nor a myopically cheerful tale of self-belief paving over mental illness and human frailty. Sandra seems to suffer from depression from the start of the film, and the film never suggests that she has broken free of that completely. What she has learned is the value of fighting to assert her dignity and identity. Two Days, One Night has a number of themes, and one of the major ones is the notion of struggle. What makes it such an unexpectedly exuberant and lovely piece of working class social realism is that it acknowledges that struggle is ongoing, but argues that it need not only be a source of strife. It can also be a wellspring of purpose, satisfaction, and even real joy.

Two Days, One Night- Soccer

More than that, it can be a source of solidarity. On second viewing, what emerged most clearly was how much Two Days, One Night is the story of how we are never alone, even in our darkest trials. Sandra asks each coworker to reflect upon her situation with empathy, and she encounters a wide range of reactions to that request. Some agree reluctantly to help her, some meekly decline, some respond with anger that she has asked them to make such a tough decision. Regardless of how each new worker responds, the more of them Sandra meets, the harder it is for her to want to go back to sleep. Two Days, One Night is a work of naturalistic neorealism in the way it paints a working class tableau out of a vast ensemble of non-professional actors. But, instead of using neorealism solely to observe lower class oppression and economic hardship, it weaves a teeming, lived-in world of persons. It does so just to remind us that there are so many faces we have still not gazed into, and could if we only knocked upon their door. Just as Sandra does with her coworkers, Two Days, One Night asks us to look to the person next to us and to consider their situation. Each one of them could be the person who saves our lives, or the person that we save. In the span of hours, someone who was only a passing acquaintance could be a new traveling companion, sitting beside us in the car, belting out “G-L-O-R-i-A!” on the radio. What a difference a day makes. To watch Sandra is not only to dwell on how hard it is to break the inertia of sadness and fatigue, but also to remember how contagious it can be to remember that we are alive and surrounded by people just as flawed and frail as we are. In perhaps the film’s most moving moment, Sandra interrupts a coworker at his soccer practice, and is utterly taken aback by his emotional response. He weeps, he begs her forgiveness, and he smilingly recalls a time when she stood up for him at work. When we forget to value ourselves, we also forget to consider how valued we are by those around us. Sandra walks away from the encounter beaming like the sunshine. Life presents so many opportunities for loss, but the possibility for gain is just as ever-present. We may lose our money, our spouses, our jobs. We stand to gain a community.

Two Days, One Night- Gloria

Best Films of 2014: #14- Citizenfour

Citizenfour- Title

Midway through Laura Poitras’ great, infuriating documentary, Citizenfour, Edward Snowden sits in a Hong Kong hotel room, well into the eight-day June 2013 interview that would make history. This interview would reveal the full depravity of the United States’ surveillance into the private lives of its countrymen. Poitras and the two journalists she has entrusted with breaking Snowden’s story, have taken every precaution to guarantee that nobody knows where they are, who they are speaking with, and what they are talking about. Nonetheless, days into the interview Snowden remembers a chilling fact. The hotel phone, which sits hung up on the receiver next to him, could be used to listen in to their entire conversation. Surveillance technology has brought us so far that it we no longer need to use the telephone for someone to use it to spy on us. 40 years ago, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation) tore his entire apartment to smithereens out of fear that someone could be using some object, any object, to record his private life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now living in Harry’s world. Citizenfour is the best of this year’s numerous worthy documentaries, but that almost seems like faint praise for what it achieves. The facts that Laura Poitras presents with grim, journalistic fury are so alarming and disheartening that I almost feel bad carrying on a normal film review, which suddenly seems an especially insignificant thing. Part of me feels I should delve into a detailed analysis of the subject matter itself, but I fear I would not have much to add. Better that I stick to what I know. I know about movies and I know that everyone should see Citizenfour.

CItizenfour- Moscow

Citizenfour begins inside a tunnel, with traffic anonymously whooshing by. The voice of Laura Poitras reads messages from a mysterious informant who calls himself Citizenfour, and who will soon be revealed to be Edward Snowden. He has information. He knows the National Security Agency (“NSA”), where he has worked for many years, and our government as a whole, are embroiled in the most widespread invasion of human liberty in United States history. If Poitras and Snowden are to meet, she must confirm that she has an extremely strong password and that no one knows that they have communicated. Even then, they will have to undergo an elaborate set of steps to make sure that nobody can follow her. She should “involve Glenn Greenwald”, of The Guardian newspaper’s American division, to help break the story that Snowden will give to them. Poitras also involved Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian’s defense and intelligence correspondent. Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras herself would receive the 2013 Polk Award for Journalism for their efforts. Snowden asks that they place total blame on him in order to protect innocent parties and to safeguard the integrity of the story. Poitras must go to a Hong Kong hotel and look for a man solving a Rubik’s Cube and she must ask him about the hotel’s restaurant hours. He will tell her the restaurant is closed and pretend to escort her to a lounge on another floor. They will go from there to his hotel room, where he will allow them to capture riveting, dismaying, and historically groundbreaking footage of his controversial disclosure of National Security Agency secrets. The details will be myriad and sickening. As a former NSA analyst, Snowden learned that the United States was spying not only on potential terror suspects, but on every private citizen. We learn that drones are being used to spy on millions of American citizens, and that NSA workers can access footage of these private individuals from their desktops. And, where the NSA had purported to only collect data about the identities and times of private communications, Snowden reveals that they actually intercept the entire content of private conversations. Privacy has become almost entirely a thing of the past, and Citizenfour is a rigorous and almost unbearably immediate examination of its downfall. As directed by Laura Poitras, it is also a fascinating look at a brave and controversial man, a detailed look at the vast scope of how citizens are being monitored, and, in a way that seems almost perverse, an entertaining jolt of high-octane anxiety.

Citizenfour- Snowden and Greenwald

Prior to watching the film, I was unable to avoid hearing some criticism about its value as a piece of documentary filmmaking. The line went that Citizenfour was “merely” the year’s best documentary subject, not its best documentary. I personally feel that the value of a film’s subject often coincides with its content, but I concede that the two are not always one and the same. Suffice to say that point is moot because I think that Citizenfour is nigh unimpeachable on both fronts. Anyway, the nagging doubts seemed to be centered more on the film’s craftsmanship. It may be possible to argue that there were more kinetic documentaries this year than Citizenfour, which spends a substantial portion of its runtime in one hotel room, listening to a few men talk. Does this alleged shortage of kinetic verve make it less than perfect as a piece of cinema? Maybe, but then I may be the last person in the world to ask, as my most perfectly styled documentary of the year involved watching people ride a gondola in near silence. I will say that, if Citizenfour prioritizes its subject over its packaging, it is in keeping with Ed Snowden’s own wishes. He tells the three journalists that they must minimize his role in the story, and even obscure it completely for as long as they can. The media is quick to skim over dense, complex facts in favor of the glossier human interest angle. In the same way, it would have been easy for Poitras to make style the focus of her documentary, out of fear that viewers might have trouble unpacking the staggering amount of information it presents. Thankfully, Poitras has faith in her audience’s ability to parse through the meaning of it all. She lets the litany of cold facts and chilling implications largely speak for themselves. If we need to watch it again to catch it all, maybe we should. The film’s purpose is not to render fantastic images on the screen, but to ask us to picture in our own minds the burgeoning global surveillance state that Snowden’s confession paints for us. The big story of the film is that the interview Poitras was able to capture is the very same one that blew the lid off of the NSA surveillance scandal. However, Poitras does not sit proudly atop her footage, content just to be the one to bring it to us. She builds a shrewd, stimulating essay filled with knowledgeable persons. Instead of making “The Edward Snowden Film”, Poitras has respected Snowden’s wishes and made a great film with the information he disclosed. She darts from symposiums, to Congressional hearings, to clandestine Occupy Wall Street meetings. Snowden did not wish to become the lone face of the story he was unveiling, and Poitras wisely does not force him to be. This is not the story of a single citizen, but of a global citizenry awakening to find itself in a nightmarish predicament. Citizenfour is a real-life, globe-hopping John Le Carre novel, where we all have roles in the ensemble.

Citizenfour- Encryption

Citizenfour consistently finds ways to make the dawning knowledge of living in a world without privacy sickening, dizzying, and disorienting. Poitras’ editing is lean, heart-pounding, and tonally sinister, sustaining a sense of mounting dread that never relents, even when we are just sitting still and absorbing information. A low, droning score regularly buzzes in the background. During one conversation with Snowden and Greenwald, fire alarm bells continually sound off in the background, as if someone is trying to interrupt their exchange. Even a routine call from the front desk seeking a customer service review feels wracked with paranoia. Complete, uninterrupted privacy is an impossible dream. Snowden insists on placing a blanket over his head when he types in a computer password because the NSA could conceivably read the screen. The image is scary and silly in equal measure. And there is something strangely unsettling just in seeing the encrypted messages Poitras and Snowden use to communicate. Seeing recognizable words jumbled into an unruly mish-mash of numbers, letters, and symbols somehow captures the soul of what we have become since the towers fell. Without spelling it out, Poitras seems to imply that this is the world we now live in. A world at war over information, where the only way to protect your privacy is to dice and julienne what you say into ribbons. The alternative is to not say anything at all. Far from being a verbose and listless, Citizenfour is one of the best spy films ever made. No James Bond movie in history has felt this suffused with panic and claustrophobia.

CItizenfour- Mantle of Power

One of the most visually chilling moments in the film comes from observing the construction site for a facility in Bluffdale, Utah, that will house intercepted data. Poitras does not need to goose the film to make these images resonate with frightful power. In the real dystopia taking shape as I write these words, these cold, monolithic blocks of concrete will store our words, our private confidences, and our lives. At a lecture in Brazil, Glenn Greenwald explains that governments will not only be able to collect our conversations, but will be able to assemble a narrative about who we are and what we will do from analyzing it. And all the while, real contractors and bulldozers and cement mixers have been arranged for to help erect the fortresses that will horde this treasure. Many political documentaries seek to stroke our ego and send us out into the fray ready to fight unjust conditions. Citizenfour is different. It does want us to feel enraged and it celebrates the journalists and citizens trying to undermine these brazen attacks on our civil liberties. But it is not hot-blooded. It is frigid to the core. It sits like a patient in shock and takes in Snowden’s intelligence with flabbergasted disbelief. It hopes to incense us all, but it also trembles with the gnawing suspicion that the wheels of this sinister new society have been irrevocably set in motion. Maybe it is too late.

Citizenfour- Bluffdale

Poitras has constructed both a disquieting expose and a ripping spy yarn, and the feeling it left me with was one of horror of the most enlivening kind. The information this film reveals is dreadful and dismaying. Once one fully acknowledges and appreciates the ramifications of the world Snowden has exposed, the only natural reaction can be some mixture of disgust and despair. And yet there I sat enjoying the hell out of this disturbing political documentary as if it were Three Days of the Condor. The heroes and villains of CItizenfour are all spies of varying kinds. The spies we root for are journalists and concerned citizens trying to take down, or at least expose, a larger, more sinister network of cutthroats, stretching all the way to the President of the United States. By end, we learn that 1.2 million American citizens are now being targeted by government watch lists. Poitras constructs her documentary as a spy movie because that is the world where we now awake to find ourselves. This world of fear and perpetual surveillance will be our homeland for the foreseeable future. The giddy technical bravado on display is like some kind of sick, all too appropriate joke on the audience. I left the theater riding a wave of adrenaline, but the next day’s aftertaste was one of great sorrow. I did not watch another movie that weekend.

Citizenfour- Julienned Information

Best Films of 2014: #15- A Most Violent Year

Only three films into his career, young J.C. Chandor is the quintessential wunderkind director. Of any director working today, he is perhaps the least easy to pigeon-hole, as not one of his films is stylistically comparable to the other. But each one points to his knack for peering inside very specific universes, while using those closed settings to explore broader social issues. If pressed to come up with a theme for his work (and, God knows, he could shake this theme off with the next picture and leave us all completely at a loss to contain him!), I think he is curious about what it means for human beings to live in a world built on goods and services, on economies, on business. Margin Call, his most direct film, was a rich ensemble drama about a brokerage firm on the eve of the financial collapse and the elaborate hierarchy of people trying to make sense of their ethical and professional responsibilities to the company, the public, and themselves. Last year’s All Is Lost, a near-silent look at a shipwreck at sea, used one man’s survival ordeal to suggest a world where individuals shout to be heard over the automated whir of sterile commerce. With his third film, A Most Violent Year, Chandor continues to be interested in the omnipresence of money and professional survival in our lives and the corrupting influence that can have on even the most morally steadfast of us. It is interested in how a world built on business dictates the morality of those who take part in it. To be moral in such a world is not to operate at some higher, God-given level of honor, but to simply obey herd ethics. There is no golden moral standard, simply Standards and Practices. And sometimes it is inadvisable to even follow those to the letter.

AMVY- Standards and Practices

As its title implies, A Most Violent Year is a film set in a very specific time: the year 1981. The setting is New York City in its grimiest, seediest state, blanketed in a layer of dirt, smog, and dilapidation. 1981 was one of the most turbulent years in the City’s history, with over 120,000 robberies and over 2,100 murders. The details of this violence are not the film’s focus, only its milieu, as much a part of the setting as the trash on the streets and the smog hanging over the Hudson. This is the world where Abel Morales (a beautifully observed turn by Oscar Isaac) and his wife, Anna (a spirited Jessica Chastain), must make their way. The two of them run a heating oil business that used to belong to Anna’s father, a gangster of some renown. Since purchasing it from his father-in-law, Abel has taken every effort to ensure that his business expands without falling to the lower ethical standards of his competitors. However, in spite of his doggedly decent nature and his insistence on abiding by the law, the heating oil business has come under investigation by the New York City District Attorney’s Office (the investigator is played in another good performance by Selma’s David Oyelowo). This legal quagmire comes at a horrible time, because Abel has finally managed to make an offer on a waterfront property that will be crucial to the continued success of his business. The old Hebrew family who is selling it have given him 30 days to come up with the funding and close the deal, or they will keep the half of the money he has already given them. The legal investigation is affecting business and the situation is further exacerbated by the City’s crime wave, which subjects one of his drivers to a violent hijacking. The union leader starts demanding that all drivers carry firearms. Abel resists the suggestion, but the injured, traumatized driver chooses to return to work with a weapon anyway, and subjects the company to further liability. Violent criminals with mysterious intentions come looking around the family house, and, in the morning, Anna finds a loaded gun by the front door. With legal trouble brewing on all sides, the bank with whom Abel has spent years building trust retracts more than a half a million dollars in funding, leaving Abel just two days to find the money from some other source.

AMVY- On Top of Truck

It all sounds fairly frantic, but the tone of the piece is that of a somber, simmering, evocative character study. It might even better to say that it is a study of character; what it means to have it, how difficult it is to cling to it, and what value it still has in a ruthless, market-driven world. Abel is a character of remarkable decency and gumption, and A Most Violent Year is the story of the world, in all its avarice and corruption, transacting with him for his principles. As Anna Morales, Jessica Chastain provides Abel with a source of unwavering support, but also acts as a foil to his somewhat oblivious sanctimoniousness. As a man, Abel may adhere to a strict moral code, but the film makes it clear that his business owes a good deal of its success to being less morally defined. The film has many interesting ideas about what it means to do business with the world, and one of the most intriguing may be that business thrives on corruption and moral fortitude singing together in harmony. Business demands a fresh, honest face on the newsletter, and a dirty, ink-stained pair of hands cooking things in the back room. Abel believes in a world where success requires nothing more than grit, intelligence, and courage of one’s virtuous convictions. Those around him, such as his wife and his lawyer, know it is best to let him persist in this belief. They also know better than to let him steer the ship without some subtle, not entirely ethical course correction.

AMVY- Stop

A Most Violent Year is a detailed, finely crafted portrait of a specific time, but it is also a film of many times, and a film that speaks very pointedly to our own times. I do not yet know if this will make the film timeless. I just know that Chandor and his team have made an allegory and a tone poem that luxuriates in nostalgia without once making it feel like window dressing, and that is a very impressive feat indeed. The team is full of talented players doing commendable work, from Alex Ebert’s dignified, lonesome synth score, to John P. Goldsmith’s pitch-perfect production design, to a great ensemble giving subtly energized performances. However, more than anything, A Most Violent Year is a collaboration between three focused, confident, highly intelligent young men, each at the beginning of potentially legendary careers. The first is the almost hyperactively smart J.C. Chandor, who came out of nowhere with 2011’s Margin Call and does not show any sign of hesitating. He has a literate ensemble morality play about Wall Street, a wordless maritime survival action parable, and a sinewy, allegorical period crime film under his belt. He has yet to return to the style of a previous film, and each individual film sounds and feels like its own unlikely hybrid. I can only hope he continues to be as simultaneously restless and focused. The second major talent on display in A Most Violent Year is Bradford Young, the great cinematographer who sumptuously and sensitively lit Selma’s great, bustling cast of black actors. His camera work is absolutely indispensable to A Most Violent Year’s period specificity and, more importantly, allowing New York City to become the great stage in a mythical poem about the nature of success and moral compromise. His use of shadow on the dirty, crumbling buildings of the city capture the paranoia and tension of trying to walk a narrow path in a crooked time. But his beautiful, golden lighting of the sky and distant cityscape also evoke the same New York City that called so many immigrants like Abel to find their destinies there. Almost every frame is a reminder of the war of light and dark taking place against the backdrop of this banal business transaction. Finally, Oscar Isaac adds another observant, dynamic, perfectly modulated performance to his oeuvre. It can proudly stand with his surly, self-destructive, and effortlessly hilarious lead turn in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Like Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke, Isaac makes Abel Morales a portrait of essential decency that is riveting and soulful, rather than pious and dull. Every righteous decision Abel makes renders him more vulnerable and every mercenary one he makes takes a little piece of his soul. Isaac makes the painstaking process of making those hard choices feel as existentially exhausting as it should.

AMVY- Snowy New York

While I was watching the film for a second time, my girlfriend, Tessa, came in halfway through and said that it looked like I was watching a gangster film. To a certain extent she was right. A Most Violent Year is filled with violent scuffles, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, tense conversations in dimly lit restaurants, and even the occasional burst of gunfire. Abel’s father-in-law was a gangster and Abel even considers turning to a close friend with gang ties when things look truly dire. With criminal charges pending against the company, Abel’s lawyer tells him they must talk outside to avoid incriminating themselves, and Abel is taken aback by how much it seems like something an avaricious mercenary would have to do. He never intended to be a gangster, and he does not recall taking any steps to become one. He has spent his whole life running in the direction of right. At its heart, A Most Violent Year is most probing and insightful for not strictly being a gangster film. A good description of it would sound fitting coming from a gangster’s mouth though: “It’s just business.” It is the story of a man trying to close a normal real estate offer at a particularly violent and unprincipled time and place. It is the story of a very honest, steady, and virtuous man, living in a world that preys upon those same qualities, who must decide how much of his better angels he is willing to part with in exchange for some modest measure of success. All the world is a bargaining table. Sooner or later, we all sit down and make a deal.

AMVY- Train Station

Best Films of 2014: #16- Selma

Film is a force of great importance in my life, but I think the word “importance” does film a disservice. The ways in which a film can be valuable are, and should be, as diverse as the medium itself and Importance tends to miss all but one of those ways. It is important to educate ourselves about the people and historical events of the world we live in, but I see no less importance in being able to laugh at our world and our own natures. Nor is it any less important to think about what scares us and surrender ourselves to the act of being frightened by a piece of fiction. Importance is a haughty headmaster who asks us to settle down and talk seriously for a moment. It has trouble even recognizing the lofty matters it claims to hold dear when they are dressed up in the clothes of satire, surrealism, or science fiction. It ignores not just the pleasure, but the intellectual value that laughter or fear or even giddy excitement can have. Importance does not understand why an expression of pure joy could ever trump a frank, educational discussion about a great historical person or period. In 1984, when awards bodies were having sincere, hushed conversations about the Cambodian genocide (The Killing Fields), it did not occur to Importance that a high-concept comedy about grown men capturing ghosts would be the work with a more lasting cultural footprint. In 1993, Importance recognized Schindler’s List, the rare Important Film to be made with some verve and passion, but utterly failed to find the social and spiritual insight in the tale of an arrogant weatherman getting stuck in a time vortex. When The Big Lebowski arrived in 1997, Importance clicked its tongue and said, “You’ll have years to watch your silly stoner detective curio. Now is the time to reflect on the tragedy that befell those poor souls on the Titanic.” I have a fractious relationship with the important films that dominate discussion when it comes time to decide what that film year “meant”. In 2014, well-meaning, watery gruel like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything gave the earnest chin-stroker in us all our annual history lecture, while the more interesting and incisive messages were buried inside tales of toy blocks, predatory aliens, hipster vampires, and old Japanese nursery stories. In the end, the world is certainly better for having a medium that can give people prestigious introductions to serious events and influential figures they might not otherwise know about. I would not wish the Important Film away, but I will continue to demand that it use its imagination. If the Important Film is here to stay, then my only request is that it carry itself with a measure of vivacity. For that reason, I am always grateful for the rare high-minded historical film that can break through stilted sincerity to find its own beating heart. This is what makes Ava DuVernay’s Selma the very good film that it is.

Selma- King On Brdige

Selma is primarily the story of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King, Jr., but it makes the important decision to not focus myopically on the man. This instantly separates it from the majority of films about great men and women. Like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Selma is interested in a small and specific window of time within the larger moment, the Civil Rights Movement, and it locates an abundance of detail there. That moment is 1964, between the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act President Lyndon Johnson would sign in 1965. The film cares very much for its large ensemble, but it is even more interested in the small details of process and politics. If it is not as bracingly intricate in that regard as great films like Zodiac, Zero Dark Thirty, or even Lincoln, DuVernay still does more than enough to paint a rich, thorough portrait of the times. When we first see Martin Luther King, Jr. the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has already been enacted into law, nominally promising African Americans the right to vote. The legislation lacks the teeth to make good on its promise though, for a number of reasons. Local registrars, particularly those in the South, are still free to bar black citizens from registering to vote, through arbitrary questioning, unfairly high poll taxes, and asking that they produce vouchers from registered voters before their voices can be heard. They also face the threat of disgusting acts of physical violence and humiliation any time they set foot in the court houses.

Selma- Johnson

Like Harvey Milk, King recognized and utilized the value of spectacle as a means of effecting political change. With Johnson balking at the idea of passing controversial legislation to protect black voters, King knows the success of this political aim depends on waging a public battle that will capture the national spotlight, thereby forcing Johnson’s hand. Selma is smart and direct about how rhetorical wars are waged and it shows that the first step is choosing your venue. King and his supporters head to the town of Selma, Alabama, to peacefully protest. Because King’s enemy is the status quo, he shrewdly deduces that any victory for change rests on the powerful making mistakes that will rock their own boat. It is an astute theory. To put it into practice, King and his supporters must put themselves in the way of the South’s whips, chains, and billy clubs. King is banking on the town’s bigoted sheriff, Jim Clark, to abuse his authority and put the voting rights movement on the front pages. The activists must calmly welcome aggression against their very persons and they must never retaliate or defend themselves.

Selma- Surrender

DuVernay does an excellent job of making police and citizen violence feel sudden, visceral, and brutal. An early scene, depicting the infamous church bombing that murdered four young African American girls, is swift and gutting. As the four children walk down the stairs to the church basement, they talk in adoring tones about King’s wife, Coretta. They see her as a role model, the way today’s young women might look up to Michelle Obama or Hillary Clinton. They are thinking about who they will become. Then they are gone. The racism King fights is indiscriminate about the lives it ruins and when it chooses to strike. Eventually, neither Sheriff Clark’s brutality, nor the murder of a young activist by National Guardsmen brought in by Governor George Wallace are enough to persuade Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act, so King must stage an even larger battle. King decides to march protestors the 50 miles from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. King hopes that the very real possibility of violence and death along the way will force Johnson to relent. Through the prism of this one effort, Selma examines the numerous modes of voter oppression, generously observes the way large political movements impact and complicate the lives of their leaders, and views a web of political schisms on both sides of the voting rights conflict.

Selma- Church

Selma is also a great work of ensemble acting and an invaluable showcase for a host of great, underused black actors, from Carmen Ejogo to The Wire’s Wendell Pierce to Keith Stanfield (nicely following up his nuanced work in last year’s Short Term 12). Henry G. Sanders gives a delicate, heartbreaking performance as a blind man whose grandson dearly wants him to vote before he dies. That said, the highest honor belongs to David Oyelowo, whose performance as King is beautiful, rousing and wrought with a simmering intensity that the film itself could use just a bit more of. The less impressive acting comes from the white cast members. Tom Wilkinson is a great actor and he does a reasonably good job of presenting President Johnson as a man both socially progressive and politically selfish, but his sturdy performance is difficult to feel enthusiastic about. More problematic is Tim Roth’s opaque depiction of Governor George Wallace. Roth mostly keeps the character from tipping over into sheer villainous caricature but he never presents any real sense of the man’s inner logic or demons. Even when DuVernay has Johnson privately ask Wallace why he would jeopardize his career over the issue of black voter registration, Wallace cannot provide a truly honest answer to the question. Perhaps there is not much to be gained from staring into the soul of a man like George Wallace, but the decision to look away nevertheless causes the film to briefly scrape against the shallows of formula whenever he is on screen.

Selma- Henry Sanders

On a broader level, the film as a whole occasionally falls into a kind of inertness that is characteristic of the biography film. Some of the editing choices feel a bit predictable, such as a cross-cutting between King’s activists, a rival activist group, and a group of racist policemen on the eve of the Selma marches. Selma is never anything less than a good film, but it has moments where it may tell its story too economically to become truly transcendent. It is by no means a simple-minded film, but it is a film of relative simplicity, for better and just occasionally for worse. This mostly has to do with the script, which DuVernay rewrote herself from Paul Webb’s initial version. For the most part, she does a very good job, especially considering that she did not have permission to use King’s actual speeches. As a result, DuVernay wrote new speeches for King, and they are undoubtedly the most well-written moments of the film. Like Tony Kushner’s script for Lincoln, DuVernay’s script is rigorous and clear-eyed about the nuts and bolts of pushing the needle of social progress forward. However, DuVernay does not quite have Kushner’s ear for tight, scintillating language. It would be too harsh by half to call Selma prosaic, but it often wants for true poetry.

Selma- George Wallace

Nevertheless, Selma is a perfect example of what the Important Film can be at its very best. It is straightforward without being rote, sincere without being didactic, and moving without being saccharine. There is not a single thing heady about it, but it is absolutely as smart and alive as it needs to be. It gracefully explores an important moment for human rights and points subtly to racial issues that still plague our society. Ultimately, I do not feel I have the right to criticize Selma too harshly for what feel like minor shortcomings. Its goal is to raise awareness of a sad, arduous, and eventually triumphant moment in American history, not to give a temperamental white cineaste another thorny auteur piece to masticate over. Besides, by being something less than a bold, cerebral masterpiece, Selma puts itself in position to achieve what surely must be its real goal. It has the power to educate on a grand scale, from concerned young adults to the older citizens who were there to experience this injustice firsthand. And, above all, it can educate children who will one day decide the direction of this country and this world. This is a film that unblinkingly depicts the horrific oppression African Americans faced during that time, and yet can still be shown in any classroom in this country. That makes Selma a film of genuine importance, not just one masquerading in Importance’s finery. It feels strange to praise a film’s broad accessibility, particularly when I think it would be a more vital film without it, but I also believe Selma knows exactly what it’s doing in being less cinematically dynamic than it could be. President Woodrow Wilson famously spoke of the very racist, but highly influential film, Birth of A Nation, as feeling like history written with lightning. By this, he meant that events of the past were rendered with a galvanizing immediacy and an exhilarating cinematic electricity that made them breathe on the screen. Selma is too gentle and earnest a film for me to call it dazzling, either as a sensory experience or as a piece of screenwriting. But it is an exceptional history lesson, and one whose relevance to the present cannot be overstated. DuVernay is a humane and confident filmmaking talent, and I have no doubt that she will soon direct with her own special kind of lightning. For now, it is enough that she has taught herself to write history with soft sunlight and the low rumble of distant thunder.

Selma- Grapes of Wrath

Best Films of 2014: #17- Locke

Locke is a wonderful, exciting, deeply felt character drama starring the great, multi-faceted Tom Hardy, and I am eager to delve into why it is such a mesmerizing piece of work. But first, I must clear the air. There has been a lot of talk this year of gimmicks, from Birdman’s single take to Boyhood’s 12-year scope to Grand Budapest Hotel’s decade-specific aspect ratios. Frankly, I am wary of this word, which seems to have become more of a qualitative judgment than a description. For instance, I might be tempted to call the 5-minute tracking shot in Atonement a gimmick, because I think it does little more than call attention to itself and inject some impressive spectacle into an occasionally listless film. But others would argue that the shot carries immense emotional significance, giving a full sense of how far the film’s tragedy stretches. And they would not be wrong. In fact, I rescind that opinion, because Joe Wright deserves a lot more respect than that, my issues with the film notwithstanding. To reduce a film to its gimmick is to make the conclusory statement that the stylistic device does not accomplish much and that its other merits (or even flaws!) do not even deserve further analysis. Of course, there are films that do lean too heavily on clever tricks and even use that style to cover up glaring deficiencies. And they should certainly be called out on that. In detail. I would much rather hear specifics as to why a film does not work than to see it slapped with the lazy “gimmick” tag. It does little more than beg the question of why a film does not otherwise work on its own terms. I would never call the chronological slicing and dicing in Pulp Fiction a gimmick because it is so essential to the moral weight of the story. I would never call Rashomon’s use of unreliable narrators a gimmick, nor would I use this dismissive term to describe Chantal Akerman’s all-encompassing focus on domestic tedium in Jeanne Dielman: 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. So-called gimmicks that actually improve great films deserve a less condescending word for crafting their own intelligent style. But those that do not work still merit a better description than gimmicky. As I see it, the word bypasses interesting discussion, and just as often tends to shut it down entirely. All of this is to say that, if all you know of Locke is that it takes place entirely in a car with a single human being, I urge you to see past its catchy conceit.

Locke- Exhausted

         Locke is the story of one seismic night in the life of Ivan Locke, a British construction foreman who is very good at his job. Over ten years working for his construction firm, he has amassed a great deal of clout, largely through being steady, forthright, and open with his co-workers. He carries the same noble straight-shooter demeanor with his wife and two sons. On the night we meet Ivan, his family is eagerly waiting for him to return home where they will all eat sausages and watch the football match together. What we quickly learn is that Ivan will not be returning home tonight and may not ever see his home again, at least in the way he has come to know it. In spite of his steadfast nature and cool head, Ivan is still a human being, and he has made a critical error. On a business trip to London nine months earlier, he drank too much and made the mistake of cheating on his wife with a lonely hotelier. On this fateful night, Ivan learns that her water has broken two months early, on the exact same night construction is scheduled to begin on the project of Ivan’s career: a massive, 55-story skyscraper in the heart of Birmingham. In spite of the enormous professional jeopardy it brings him, Ivan places an underling named Donal (smartly voiced by Andrew Scott, from Sherlock and Pride) in charge of everything and starts driving the 117 miles between Birmingham and London. On the way, he must negotiate with his supervisor, explain his infidelity to his wife for the first time, check on his sons, guide Donal in doing Ivan’s job, and soothe the frightened woman giving birth to their child. This all sounds like a recipe for the story of a man slowly losing his sanity. But, while Locke has a lot to do with loss and change, its hero remains a constant. Rather than letting the strain crack him, Ivan Locke consistently eases the minds of those he talks to, even when the fear or sorrow in their voices is there on his behalf.

Locke- Tears

         More than the claustrophobic setting, which Knight and his cinematographer shoot with just enough visual panache to help keep our eyes on Hardy rather than our watches, the biggest risk the film takes is in portraying Ivan Locke as a man of almost unflagging decency. Knight and Hardy set themselves the challenge of taking a man who mostly just wants to do the right thing and making him interesting rather than a saintly bore. When I first heard a friend describe the film with excitement and then explain that it all took place in a man’s automobile, I was certain that the filmmakers would spike the virgin punch somehow. Cynically, I figured there must be a shoot-out or a car chase somewhere along the way, or at the very least an antagonist. But such rash action would be anathema to both the film and its character, who is only interested in owning up to the wrong he has done in the past, not creating more for the sake of excitement. Ivan even refuses to break the speed limit, because an officer might pull him over and keep him from reaching the birth in time. Moreover, Locke has no real antagonists, not even the departed, deadbeat father to whom Locke periodically delivers furious soliloquies. That father may have been a weak man, but Locke would be the first to say that the nearest thing the film has to a villain is himself, or at least the human frailty he acted upon nine months ago.

Locke- Freeway

         To reiterate then, Locke is a film about a good man driving for a couple of hours to make the best of a bad situation he created, overseeing a construction project from his phone, and dutifully accepting the resulting indignation of his loved ones and colleagues along the way. Thankfully, the film speeds over this hurdle of boredom with aplomb. Perhaps, the biggest ingredient in their success is Hardy himself, who makes moral fortitude gripping and moving. He speaks in an accent that is both soothing and allows Ivan’s anxiety to occasionally bubble to the surface. What could have been a parade of tics in lesser hands, is both tremendously entertaining and wholly realistic because of Hardy’s gift for dialing back what must have seemed like bombast on the page. He trusts the writing and seems to know those scenes will still feel big even if he does not knock himself against the rafters every time. Ivan allows himself one moment to bellow out a curse and, much like Robert Redford in All Is Lost, the momentary lapse into profanity feels completely earned. After watching Locke, I was both taken aback at how exciting it was to watch a person do the right thing and still unsurprised that very few directors and actors have the talent to make such a simple act crackle like it does here. Knight also gives the mise-en-scène just enough variety to keep things visually interesting. Police sirens frequently appear behind Ivan’s vehicle and then pass in front of it, keenly capturing the feeling of being on the run from some invisible force. And, finally, the script is sharp, observant, and often funny. Even though Ivan is a paragon of virtue, the writing does not allow him perfection. He makes a fatal error in forgetting to give Donal the folder for the project, and must fight dearly to correct that mistake. A late conversation with his wife about Ivan’s driven nature reminds us that there is a thin line between noble dedication to one’s work and the megalomania of careerism. It is to the film’s credit that Ivan is a just a flawed, focused man striving mightily to be good, rather than a virtuous cipher out to correct the only error of his adult life.

Locke- Lights

         Locke is an exciting, exceptionally acted morality play, like the steeliest, most stylized film Eric Rohmer ever made. While it has several verbal fights, it is not nearly interested in melodrama as it is in the small details that our worlds rest upon. “Do it for the concrete, which is as delicate as blood!” Ivan urges Donal when his young charge is mired in inebriation and self-doubt. Respecting the fragility of the lives we build is the core of Ivan Locke’s character, and he stands by this mantra even if it may be too late for him to save his old world from crumbling. The film is interested in concrete, as both a metaphor and an important tangible part of Ivan’s world. Doing right by the concrete details of our lives, whether in a large-scale business project or the nuances of our relationships, is the noblest thing a person can do. Rather than trying to make boring subject matter falsely exciting, Locke insists that the details of something seemingly banal, like the proper pouring of concrete, can be the most riveting thing in the world, when the world of a great character depends upon it. It is never too late to do the right thing, though that does not mean we can ever live in a world free of consequence. Sometimes even the process of making good on our mistakes can change our lives irrevocably, close doors and roads behind us. Nonetheless, if we have the integrity to continue down a good road, it must surely be worth the while. There must be a fine new world waiting to embrace us, even when there are no roads left to lead us home.

Locke- Run Like A Kid

Best Films of 2014: #18- “The Elevator”

“The Elevator” is a unique entry on this list because it is not a feature film, but rather six consecutive episodes of Louis C.K.’s great, boundary-pushing television comedy, Louie. As the time came to take the final snapshot of 2014, however, I could not rightfully deny these six episodes their collective right to be called one of the year’s funniest, most candidly sad, and exhilarating motion pictures. Do not let the credits at the end of each segment fool you. Louis C.K.’s “The Elevator” is a bona fide movie and one of the finest relationship dramedies I have seen in quite some time. “The Elevator” begins with a child’s frightened scream and ends with two grown-ups sitting in bittersweet silence in a Hungarian restaurant. In between, it finds a wealth of ways to explore the folly of human beings strivng to hear one another and be heard. The opening scream belongs to Louie’s 10-year-old daughter, Jane, who snaps awake from a nightmare. Louie runs into comfort her and assure her she is now awake, but she has her own take on what is going on. She concludes she has woken from a bad dream into another nicer dream.

Elevator- Scream

The new “dream” is so nice that she decides she is still experiencing it the next day, as she prepares to board the New York City subway system with her father and older sister, Lily. As children of divorce, Lily and Jane are making their regular journey between households to spend a few days with their mother, Janet, a brusque, witty, and whip-smart woman who regards her ex-husband with equal measures of strained protectiveness and impatience. Jane, wishing to fully explore the possibilities of being in a dream New York City, darts off the subway platform right before the train exits the station, leaving her sister and panicked father on the departing car. When Louie finally recovers Jane unscathed and drops his daughters off with their mother, it is a chance for us to see how they speak with one another and the subtle ways the divorced parents mishear one another. In the coming days, as Jane starts to get in trouble at her elementary school, the cautious truce between them will be tested as they are forced to actively parent in a way they have not had to do for some years. This opening is an almost tangential, and yet wholly connected, vignette in what becomes a psychologically rich look at miscommunication, relationships, and what it means to be both a parent and a flailing human being. As Louie and Janet continually lose and regain their conversational balance, the new boyfriend, Patrick, may have the best approach. He listens, observes the dynamics, and says only what he needs to in order to calm the situation. From the outset, “The Elevator” is a quietly complex dance of human interaction, and all before Louie gets to the fated elevator.

Elevator- Janet

The titular elevator, a handy metaphor for the film’s themes of self-imposed isolation, brings two perfect strangers careening into Louie’s universe of characters. Coming home one day to his New York City apartment, Louie attempts to use the elevator and finds it has broken down. Inside of it, crying out for help, is an elderly woman. Her name is Ivanka, but we will not learn it almost an hour when Louie finally realizes he does not know it. We can miss a lot of even the most basic information if we do not bother to talk to the people around us, be they neighbors, daughters, or spouses. Ivanka is a Hungarian woman in her late 70’s. When she asks for Louie’s help, he stammers that he does not know how to get her out of her predicament. She understands that, but that wasn’t her question. “Can you help me?,” she reiterates. She needs him to fetch her medication from her apartment upstairs. While there, Louie finds a middle-aged woman asleep on couch, who turns out to be Ivanka’s niece, Amia. When he attempts to wake her so she can keep her aunt company in her lonely predicament, Amia panics, curses at Louie in Hungarian and justifiably tries to batter him of out of the apartment. When she realizes her misunderstanding, she goes up to his apartment to apologize with a fruit tart. Over the course of six episodes, Louie and Amia will begin a tentative, fumbling, and finally ethereal relationship, in which they come to care deeply for each other. However, they must confront an immense challenge: neither one speaks the other’s language. Complicating matters further, Louie eventually learns that Amia must return to Hungary in a month to reunite with her son. They must both weigh the ecstasy of developing feelings for a new person against the finality that hangs over it all. In the background of all that, Louie and Janet must figure out what to do with Jane, who has now been sent home from school for accosting a yard duty. Casting a shadow over that is the memory of their own separation. And looming over everything, in the film’s most surrealistic touch, is the giant hurricane heading for the City, a reminder of how small the stakes of human connection are when set against the world’s catastrophes.

Elevator- Ivanka

Having now seen “The Elevator” a second and third time, it is apparent to me that Louis C.K., maybe the most gifted comedian of the 21st century, is more than just an able and imaginative funnyman making a droll and keenly observant show. Of course, the pairing of boldly absurdist humor and sweet, humane insights would already be more than enough for me to recommend Louie as a terrific piece of short-form television. But I am not writing an episode review, or a show review. I am writing a film review. And, my goodness, in grouping these six episodes, Louis C.K. has thrown down the gauntlet and made one lovely, uproarious, and sad film. With a strong eye for both the multicultural dreamland and the agitated human sprawl that is New York City, and a fixation on funny, fallible urbanites bouncing into and out of each others’ lives, Louis C.K. continues to demonstrate he has the talent to honor and even transcend the legacy of vintage Woody Allen. They share a sense of humor that is tinted with melancholy and a beating heart whose cynicism never tips over into misanthropy. If anything, C.K. is a healthier, more generous human observer than Allen ever was. Where Allen often played into the role of an intellectual neurotic who could barely stand to look at his fellow man, C.K.’s often ruthless observations of human folly never allow him to pretend that he is above the fray. He is curious, bemused, and irked by this poignant, frustrating farce we have all been sentenced to live out together.

Elevator- Jane

Because each segment is its own self-contained episode, as well as a sequence in the larger story, there is a remarkable wealth of detail in just over two hours. “The Elevator” is positively brimming with character and incident. It is almost novelistic in its focus on people and conversations. C.K. is able to juggle a vast ensemble and blend their voices into the themes of his piece. There is scene after scene of fantastic dialogue between Louie and the main characters, from Janet and Jane, to Ivanka and Amia. American national treasure Ellen Burstyn is relaxed, lovely, and funny as Ivanka. The sweetly awkward scenes between Louie and Amia reinforce the theme of how hard and rewarding it is to connect, while always foregrounding the sweetness of the romance first. Even smaller characters who have been a part of the show’s universe in the past take their brief moment on stage to deepen the humor and pathos of the piece. Pamela, the mostly reluctant object of C.K.’s affection, returns from taking her son to Spain and suddenly wants to pursue a relationship. A surly doctor, played to hilarious effect by Charles Grodin, reminds C.K. of how unimportant his relationship dilemma is in the grand scheme of legitimate human tragedy. Louie’s chuckleheaded older brother turns up for a comfortably fraternal squabble over smart phone expertise. In a beautiful, sad flashback, comedian Connor O’Malley delivers an uncannily accurate portrait of the young Louie at the moment he and Janet realized they should divorce. Perhaps best of all, comedian Todd Barry turns up for a single scene to give a fantastic soliloquy in defense of pigheaded selfishness. Barry details a typical day as a single man unafraid to embrace his own brazen pettiness. Todd Barry is a self-possessed misanthrope, never too shy or self-effacing to ask the world to grant him one more perk, to press for another favor, or to force the owner of a rundown comedy club to spell his name right on the dressing room door. Barry’s monologue is a hilarious hosanna to the simple, self-interested joys of the bachelor lifestyle, and a wonderful, blunt counter-point to the film’s yearning tapestry of human beings struggling to find solace in one another. If you have the constitution for it, it may just be a whole lot easier to be Todd Barry, wiping your hands of the whole human comedy and enjoying life one stolen nap or free donut at a time.

Elevator- Flashback

Louie may be a comedy, but “The Elevator” finds Louis C.K. using sharp humor to enrich a deep, personal drama. It is tremendously exciting how rapidly he has matured as an editor, writer, and director of his own work. “The Elevator” is the work of an artist who is hungry to tell stories, and if that occasionally makes it feel overstuffed with ideas, that is just the kind of problem an evolving auteur wants to have. Every scene provides a new observation on the way human signals get crossed. There is a wonderful moment when young Jane meets Amia for the first time and Louie learns that his young daughter knows more Hungarian than he does. It is a startling and humbling revelation for Louie. Sometimes even the people we are charged with raising find ways to grow and develop that we knew nothing about. Seeing that Jane is coming from a violin lesson, Amia enters her apartment and emerges with a violin of her own. And they stand in a New York City stairwell and play. For a full minute, the two women, one young and one middle-aged, connect ineffably with one another through music, as Louie looks on tongue-tied, with a mixture of pride, wonder, and bashful longing. This humble moment is the unspoken hope flickering in the heart of every lonely soul in New York City. All the walls have crumbled. True communication is so rare that there is value in just being a witness to it. When we find ourselves dumbstruck, that may be the universe telling us to start listening.

Elevator- Violin

Best Films of 2014: #19- The Lego Movie


            I can easily explain what The Lego Movie is at the most basic level. Its fundamental building blocks have all been culled from countless other movies about heroes, shadowy tyrants, and underdogs. In Bricksburg, an anonymous Lego city in a Lego universe, a construction worker named Emmett carries on his life with cheerful conformity. He is also a Lego, as is just about every character in the film. Unbeknownst to him, the city’s scheming Lego mayor, President Business, is planning to attack the city with a superweapon that will ensure conformity on an even wider scale, creating a world devoid of all idiosyncrasy. While exploring his construction site, Emmett stumbles upon a powerful, lost artifact, which brings him to the attention of both the city’s dystopian authority figures and the guerilla movement that is resisting them. The movement against conformity is headed up by a society of innovators who refer to themselves as the Master Builders. They are led by Vetruvius, voiced by a deliciously senile Morgan Freeman. Like Neo from The Matrix, Emmett joins up with the resistance and gradually comes to realize he has a larger role to play in repelling the sinister social forces he took for granted. He eventually leads the counter-culture in throwing off the shackles of lockstep thinking. Along the way, Emmett also stumbles into a portal to an alternate universe, which seems to guide events in the Lego universe. In the end, he learns to value creativity, while teaching his new friends the value of being organized and working as a team. If this synopsis is anything to go on, then it seems I am no better at detailing why The Lego Movie is special than your average publicity team would be. But The Lego Movie is certainly special.

TLM- Dark World

            The Lego Movie is a difficult film to expound upon, but not for any reason that could be considered a failing on its part. It is not muddled in what it communicates, nor is it a film whose insights are buried so deep as to require significant unpacking. The Lego Movie may just be something completely new: a deep blockbuster animated comedy whose depth can be found right there on its energetic, glossy surface. Perhaps that makes it sound like the film is a bit didactic, presenting its insights directly and without fuss, but at the expense of subtlety. But The Lego Movie resists that charge, as it resists every other trap that a high-energy, child-friendly, innately brand-centric film about a line of toys could possibly fall into. While it occasionally slows down for old-fashioned sentimentality, the film is mostly too caught up in being breathlessly funny and playful to ever climb up on its own soap box (or soap blocks, as it were). The Lego Movie offers valuable, earnest lessons to children and adults on the importance of imagination, the benefits of organization and mental discipline, and how the two should walk hand in hand. But almost all of these lessons are delivered with the same high-wire, machine gun gusto and spry comedic timing as the barrage of consistently uproarious jokes. More often than not, the valuable messages are jokes. The pearls of wisdom are hilarious! The jokes are insightful! The schnozzberries taste like schnozzberries!

TLM- Team

            No, the difficulty with reviewing The Lego Movie is that it frankly does not need my review. It is a madcap social satire that charges forward with utmost ideological clarity. Any reflections I can make on its sweet, healthy ideas are nothing that the movie itself does not state more succinctly. This is the honor it earns by being a movie for both children and adults, in the most open and honest way. The messages are forthright enough for a child to understand, and thought-provoking enough for all but the most cynical adult to appreciate. I imagine the impact of this is doubled if you are an adult who now has a child in your life. But, as difficult as it is to speak on a movie that speaks so eloquently for itself, I have had just as much trouble explaining to people why it is such a phenomenal jolt of pure comedy. It is a genuine shame that this film missed out on a Best Animated Feature Film nomination, while the likes of Big Hero 6 and How To Train Your Dragon 2 were recognized, but those movies are not its true contemporaries. While The Lego Movie is an engaging and inventive piece of animation, its peers are not be found among most animated films, even the very good ones. At the risk of hyperbole, its peers are Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and Harold Ramis. This speaks to just how confidently directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (2012’s unexpectedly funny 21 Jump Street) announce their comedic voices.

TLM- Star Wars

            On the numerous occasions I urged people to seek out The Lego Movie, I found myself at a loss to adequately explain why it was one of year’s best and most exuberant films. I struggled to convey the simplicity of its humor and poignant grace. Its joys are so unexpected and counter-intuitive to its commercial packaging that I was reduced to impotent stammering. Yes, it is that 3-D animated movie based on a perennial children’s toy, and the film is an impeccable piece of salesmanship for the Lego brand. In the next breath, I would add that it was also the best honest-to-God comedy of the year, but I think the first part, the pitch meeting synopsis, is what tended to reverberate most loudly. I could intone with all the conviction in the world that it was really, really funny, but it was hard to explain why, short of rattling off a laundry list of context-free one-liners. Perhaps the best thing I can say for a film that had so many mercenary stumbling blocks set in its path, is that one just needs to watch it to understand how deftly it sidesteps them. The Lego Movie just deserves to be seen and enjoyed, plain and simple.

TLM- Pirate's Face

            The Lego Movie is a giddy valentine to the act of playing with things, and by extension the creative process. It is a reminder that, even as adults, we should value spontaneous creation first and then seek to mold it with our great gifts for rational thought. While the movie supports these themes through its dialogue and story beats, the greatest embodiment of its worldview is to be found in the margins, which teem with funny, clever details. In planting the flag for our inner children, the movie strives, first and foremost, to lead by example. Rather than simply sermonizing that we should engage with our sense of play, the movie plays with us. The gleeful energy on display is the movie’s theme in action. And every single cast member, from Chris Pratt’s Emmett, to Nick Offerman’s bellowing bionic pirate, to Will Arnett’s loving takedown of Batman, seems to be having the time of their lives. For the definitive proof of this, look no further than Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson. These two talented veterans have tended a bit toward rote self-parody lately, with Freeman leaning on his sonorous voice to play carbon-copy wise men, and Neeson using his dignified gruffness in the service of no-nonsense authority figures who play by their own rules. After a time, even actors of great intelligence and imagination can start to go through the motions. Who can blame them for ossifying a bit when studios give them the same old routines and personas to repeat? The Lego Movie even tempts fate, casting Freeman as the wise mystic and Neeson as the gruff authority figure. But, once again, the movie pivots around formula and something unexpected and altogether magical happens. Instead of playing these archetypes in the same tired key, both deliver performances that are alive, gloriously self-winking and endlessly funny. To give Lord and Miller their full credit, maybe the best thing a couple of young directors can do is invite some awesome actors over and let them play with their toys again.

TLM- Doont

Best Films of 2014: #20- Manakamana

            In writing up my #20-11 films of 2014, I did not plan my list around any kind of running theme. That said, the best movie of the year and the 20th best movie are kindred philosophical cousins. Both are closely observed examinations of time’s inexorable passage, though one is fictional and the other is a documentary. Both make use of subtle stylistic devices to explore the sprawl of time’s relentless course. They are not merely observations of time passing, but meditations on what it feels like to be vessels swept up in the current of time. To bear witness to the way time seems to undulate and swirl like a heat wave. The way time plays games with our expectations for it, sometimes easing us along, sometimes hurtling us forward with great speed. At certain points, both films observe the dynamic between children and adults, the young and the elderly. Both involve us as passive surrogates in the torrent of time, and that approach  has earned them the distinction of being uneventful by their detractors To me, both are proud examples in their own genres of a very unforced kind of humanism; a willingness to watch subjects with a curious, sympathetic, but unobtrusive eye. Both involve unique “gimmicks” and, in both cases, the stunt is so inextricably bound up with the substantive content as to seamlessly blend style and subject. For a certain kind of film, style merges with content, transcending it, shaping it and informing it.

Manakamana- Silhouettes

            I have begun this review cryptically to protect the identity of my top film of the year. Those who know me, and a great many cinephiles who do not, can probably hazard a safe guess as to what will receive the honor. While I cannot yet speak to that film, I can say that the presence of the beautiful, serene, and entrancing documentary, Manakamana at the back of my list brings great closure to a somewhat maligned year. I have personally accused 2014 of being slighter than the two years that preceded it, and I maintain that view. On the whole, the year certainly did not match the enormous harvest of 2013, but I feel that was always going to be a daunting task. That said, if we are in a sparer year for great cinematic works, maybe it just goes to show that film is as susceptible to cyclical forces as corn crops, hurricanes, and human beings. It is a notion that the unfailingly patient Manakamana would doubtlessly agree with. Even art is governed by the ebb and flow of the universe. All of which is to say that if this fine, perceptive, and hypnotic documentary is the outlier in my Top 20, I can make peace with 2014 and curl up contentedly with all that was interesting, vibrant, and yearning about its numerous beautiful and accomplished films.

Manakamana- Basket

            Manakamana comes courtesy of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, the same group of rigorous film scientists that gave us last year’s mesmerizing fishing documentary, Leviathan. The fact that I can sincerely write the words “mesmerizing fishing documentary” feels about as intuitive as my being able to say that there now exists a great documentary about riding a Nepalese gondola. In the documentary, we watch a host of tourists, pilgrims, and animals, travel by cable car over the steep, green foothills of Nepal to the Manakamana Temple, a popular religious site. The destination is both important and yet perhaps also irrelevant. It is every party’s immediate motivation at the moment we meet them, and it is particularly significant to a car full of goats, ascending the mountain to take their roles in the Temple’s animal sacrifices. However, we never actually see the temple. Instead, the film is confined to the eight-and-a-half minute cable car trips that shuttle travelers to or from the pilgrimage site. We watch six cars go up and five cars go down over the course of less than two hours. Each ride begins and ends in the dark of the docking station. What the passengers say or do not say, do or not do inside the gondola will vary, but the limited duration of the trip will not. As passengers, they cannot alter the finite nature of their trip. They can only choose what they say or do within that limited space. If one thinks of the gondola as a metaphorical microcosm of time, Mankamana recalls Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill”. Time holds them green and dying, though they sing in their chains like the sea. The film is quietly fixated on both the overwhelming insignificance and the beautiful intransience of human faces and voices.

Manakamana- Goats

            This is where Manakamana overcomes gimmickry and becomes more than the rote process of watching passengers ascend and descend a mountain. The film effortlessly shirks the sin of being too ambiguous through the people and conversations it chooses to gaze upon. While the film, like Leviathan before it, does not offer any narration, interviews, or written text to explain its perspective, the intentness of its focus has a clarity that speaks volumes. Manakamana surrounds its temporal experiment with just enough discourse about ethereality and change that the vignettes engage with the conceit without ever upstaging its overwhelming visual impact. The sense I got was not only that of seeing the nature of beginning and end, hello and goodbye, birth and death in tiny 9-minute pockets, but of viewing miniature vignettes on history, progress, aging, and memory. In the first segment, we ride with a very old man and a very young boy. They sit hushed for the entire trip. We view young and old in juxtaposition, with not a word said between them. True to a meditative style that is both serene and buzzing, the film asks us to simply watch them together for 9 unblinking minutes.

Manakamana- Girls

            The act of watching, more than anything, seems to be Manakamana’s chief plot and its guiding theme. We are meant to watch the passengers, some silent, some chatty, some bleating hysterically. They speak of ancient religious histories, memories of childhood, or what band they will see next weekend. Sometimes they just sit in silence, alone or in each other’s company. There are dialogues between the young and the old. Some of them ponder their youth. Many of them ponder the impact of change. We can sense years of conflicting pride and tension in the way a successful daughter now gently chastises her aging mother for making a mess of her ice cream bar. A group of elderly woman talk of Hindu parables. Two young women have a banal conversation about the climate. Two older musicians quarrel fondly and then let their instruments speak for the remainder of the ride. We watch them talk of time and we watch time hold them, if only for an instant. Many of the passengers look out at the mountains and speak of days when travelers would have to hike the steep trails to the Temple. The very existence of the gondola is a symbol that we are always moving forward. One woman says to her husband, “Things only started changing recently.” Of course, this cannot be true. Change has always been the constant. Life is never static, even if it can occasionally feel that way to the passenger.

Manakamana- Elderly

            There is something disarming and entrancing in the way Manakamana captures the finiteness of everything. We know how long each ride will last, and yet we regularly find time sneaking up on us. As the car reaches the low-hanging tree that signals each ride’s halfway point, we remember that we have just barely begun to know these passing faces. In short order, they will leave us for good. Like life itself, time seems to amble gently when we have it in abundance and course swiftly once we see the other end of the shore. Each time the cable car reached the halfway mark, I found myself asking, “Where did all the time go?” But the journey had begun less than 5 minutes ago. It is uncannily hard to make sense of or even properly describe how attached you can become to a person, group of people, or even herd of goats after you spend 9 minutes with nothing to do but look at them. Trapped in this temporal riptide, we too rarely look at those around us and acknowledge that they are being swept along beside us. Here are roughly 20 souls I had never been aware of before. And I am now writing about their insignificant tourist experiences with an overflowing heart. Without saying very much overtly, Manakamana gets at sweet and subtle truths about what is both painful and beautiful about meeting and seeing human beings. This film about having to say goodbye to people carries an implicit feeling of tenderness for the fact that we get to meet at all.

Manakamana- Rockers

            Manakamana and its thematic 2014 counterpart both remind me that the simple act of watching people go through the minutiae-laden process of being people can be a source of genuine, soul-filling pleasure. Both films make the unseen forces around us tangible. Both films filled me with a tranquility that I have rarely even found in the solitude of nature, much less in a semi-populated movie theater. Manakamana captures the invisible hand of time, while seeming to record nothing of any great event. It is a serene ode to mortality. That serenity feels true to the otherworldly calm of the film’s environment. It can be no accident that a film that watches passengers ride a suspended tram to a holy site casts its own spell of peaceful bliss. As an avid documentary lover, I am gratified to be able to say that the genre cannot only inform, incite, and pontificate, but also provide a bracing, meditative experience. Manakamana is a superlative example of how documentary film continues to grow and evolve after so many years. It is a work of art that ripples and shimmers and sighs. Within its isolated pockets of time, there are long strands of memory and unspoken histories. We are only looking at a small hole in the ice. The currents that burble past began their course long before they reached us and will continue on after they have passed out of our sight. The whirring cogs and groaning cables of the gondola will still carry human lives up to the mountain, after we have said our last, dark goodbyes.

Manakamana- Ice Cream