About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Next Best Films of 2014

I saw around 100 movies that opened in 2014, which is a pretty typical year for me.  Rarely less than 90, hard to see more than 120.

Of those 100 movies. Boyhood is the best.

Here are the next dozen or so movies that I consider to be my 90th percentile for the year:

2.  Whiplash

This is the one other film from 2014 that I've seen twice, though it's possible there are one or two others I'd try to see again.

JK Simmons won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the film also won Oscars for editing and for sound mixing.

Simmons is the leader of the top ensemble at a Juilliard-like performing arts school, and Miles Teller is a student who yearns to be playing drums in this ensemble.  And the two are both crazy.  Simmons might be an actual psychopath, or he might just take a little bit too seriously the idea that you've got to tear down in order to build up.  Which, just to say, is the entire premise behind boot camp for the US armed forces.  But what would drive Miles Teller's student to put up with this?  He's obsessed in his own way, firm in his belief in a youthful romanticism where it's clearly better to be famous and dead than a living nobody.  Which belief he'll happily advertise to his girlfriend, to family at a holiday dinner, to anyone -- though there are so few people who want to be around someone so obsessed that his world is defined entirely by the JK Simmons character.

Simmons is a long-time character actor who's done great work in films like Juno and who hits it out of the park here.  Teller is one of the best young actors around, who amazed in The Spectacular Now and amazes again here.

The film's technical excellence is key to its success.  We have to hear the music, the drums, the subtle change in tempo from one playing of the riff to the next.  And its edited to within an inch of its life, especially in the closing ten or fifteen minutes.

It's in those final minutes that we finally come to understand why these two characters are together. JK Simmons' entire life relies on Miles Teller for validation.  If Teller isn't a great drummer, then there's no mark left on this world for all of Simmons' teaching career.  And Teller can only survive if there's someone to appreciate the greatness he yearns to have.  They might hate one another forever and always, but they need one another as deeply as life itself.

3 & 4

American Sniper & Interstellar

Like Boyhood, Interstellar kept me going for some three hours without much looking at the watch.  The story may or may not make sense.  Belay that; like most time travel the story is a mess when you sit down and think about it.  But it's imaginative and different.  The acting might be better than the movie deserves.  The effects are well-done without ever feeling like video games.  Hans Zimmer provides good musical accompaniment.  I'd be interested to see how it holds up on a second viewing.

And American Sniper hasn't quite left my mind in the month since I've seen it.  If anything, its call seems to be getting louder as the days go by.  Bradley Cooper's performance as the Chris Kyle is sensational.  He submerges himself in the role.  There's no trace of the Bradley Cooper in Silver  Linings Playbook.  There's just this man in this role.  The direction by Clint Eastwood does good service to a script that manages to glorify the lead character's actions in Iraq while being unflinching in its depiction of the damage to the character and his marriage on the home front.  As such, it's pro-war and anti-war and can be read as one wishes.  It's quiet, powerful film-making, another demonstration of Clint Eastwood's stature as one of the leading directors of the past three decades.

And in no particular order:

The documentaries Citizen Four, Remote Area Medical, Elaine Stritch Shoot Me and Life Itself.

Citizen Four won the Oscar.  Set mostly in a single hotel in Hong Kong during the days when Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's spying programs were beginning to be reported.  It works on multiple levels.  Snowden is someone who understands in abstract and theory the risks of what he's doing who in a matter of days comes to understand the reality of it.

Remote Area Medical is a little-seen movie which depicts one weekend of free medicine at a NASCAR track by the Virginia/Tennessee border.  Who are the people who'll line up in the dead of night for the opportunity to have someone look at their teeth or their eyes?  Who are the people who'll give up a weekend to provide the necessary services?  The documentary never stops to score political points.  It lets the footage speak for itself.  I'm the kid who grew up fixated on the behind-the-scenes aspect of things, the secret corridors at Disneyworld or the secrets of putting up skyscrapers or bridges, or the secrets of making Kermit ride a bike.  The film appealed to the kid by spending lots of time on the logistics of the clinic while simultaneously appealing to the adult who's thinking about the policy issues of our health care system.

The Elaine Stritch movie is very narrowly tailored for people who like showtunes, and isn't quite on a league with the other two.  But the film is such a perfect embodiment of its subject that I feel it deserves mention.

Life Itself is the documentary about Roger Ebert that was overlooked entirely by the Oscars.  It's from the director of Hoop Dreams, another documentary that the Oscars overlooked which was fiercely advocated by Ebert.  In spite of, or perhaps because of, the level of trust between the subject and the filmmaker, it stays just shy of hagiography, taking pains to ask if not to fully tackle questions raised by Ebert's career (prime example, how close to the filmmakers he critiqued should Ebert be?).  Which is fine in the end, because there are people who are better than the rest of us, and Ebert was clearly one of them.

Fault in Our Stars and Edge of Tomorrow

If only every movie for teens could be as good as Fault in Our Stars, and every sf adventure as good as Edge of Tomorrow.

Fault in Our Stars has an excellent cast, in both the primary and supporting roles, holds some surprises to those who haven't read the book, and elicits tears without ever being too (or at least not too too) blatantly manipulative.  Edge of Tomorrow falters a bit in its final scene which is poorly set up, poorly blocked, and thus incoherent, but before then...  Tom Cruise gives a performance with surprisingly little ego, well-matched by Emily Blunt and by a script that is unusually intelligent for the sf action movie.

Locke.

So it's basically a guy talking in a car for 90 minutes.  And I don't think you'll ever find the concept done better than this.  Tom Hardy shows he's much more than Bane.

Nightcrawler

Fierce acting by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo helps cover any ethical uncertainties in the script.  And from a co-writer of Freejack!

Gone Girl

Good performances, a surprisingly puckish sense of humor, Hollywood gloss at its best and most powerful.

Pride

Surprisingly good, based on a true story of gay & lesbian Londoners coming to the aid of striking miners during the Thatcher era.  Paint-by-numbers as based-on-true-story movies often are, but the quality of the performances and of the script put it well above average in the genre.

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