As I began watching this Ben Zuk tribute recap of 2014 films, I said to myself, “Gee, with all this spritzy, pop-pop energy and visual whammo you’d never realize that 2014 was a relatively weak year.” But then that awful tinny music began seeping into the bloodstream and I became quickly apparent that Zuk was making no attempt at all to capture the interior rumble in all these films…the themes and ideas and the character bits and the dialogue…zero interest in the adult undercurrent stuff. This video is like all the other year-end recaps, pitched to the easy-lay submentals who want nothing more than rapid-fire cutting and fast-flash bullshit.
A little over seven months ago I completely flipped over Andrey Zvagintsev‘s Leviathan, which finally opens today. My 5.22 mini-review was titled “Crushes It — Almost Certain to Win Palme d’Or.” Two days later the Cannes jury gave Leviathan a piddly screenwriting award and handed the prestigious Palme d’Or to Nuri Bilge Ceylan‘s Winter Sleep, which I’ve since seen and quite enjoyed. The Ceylan is a mesmerizing, superbly constructed character piece — I was completely in its spell and barely noticed the running time — but it lacks the epic, symphonic power of the Zvagintsev (which is pronounced ZivYAHgintsev). Leviathan is a drop-dead brilliant, awesomely-composed-in-every-respect melodrama and moral tale that concurrently serves as a microcosm of (or metaphor for) a morally compromised, ruthlessly malevolent, bare-knuckled Russia. Political corruption, lust and infidelity, way too much vodka, blackmail and thuggery, gunshots, bromide-dispensing priests who kowtow to powerful scumbags, huge whale skeletons, crashing waves, rotting ships — this puppy has it all plus the aura of a majesterial art film plus opening and closing musical passages by Phillip Glass plus the most beautifully lighted, handsomely composed widescreen photography (by Mikhail Krichman) I’ve seen in a long time. And the acting — Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Dmitri Seleznev, Aleksey Serebryakov, Anna Ukolova — isn’t ‘acting’ but rooted, rock-solid behavior that kicks ass all the way around the block and back to your driveway.”
There’s a line in a review of J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, written by Metro‘s Matt Prigge, that caught my eye this morning. The New York-based crime and heating-oil film, he said, is “all foreplay, but it’s good foreplay.” It’s actually mostly foreplay, not all. Because the movie “comes” at least four or five times. Or seven or eight times if your definition of a cinematic orgasm is on the liberal, less-strict side. What Prigge means is that A Most Violent Year never explodes in any kind of wild-ass, gun-crazy, super-splatter showoff fashion. It doesn’t give you an orgasm that leaves you panting and spent.
That’s because Chandor is keeping it “real”, which is a concept or approach that 90% of the action-film directors have pretty much thrown out the window. Their movies have foreplay, of course, as all action sequences have to deliver some kind of semi-realistic, semi-logical motivation, but the emphasis is always on climaxes, and as many as can be fit in. Except life in general is almost entirely foreplay. How often do people experience orgasms in their lives, apart from sexually? Damn seldomly. And yet 90% of moviegoers buy tickets with the expectation of experiencing one shuddering Kama Sutra moment after another.
Chandor’s film currently has a 92% Rotten Tomatoes and 84% Meteoritic rating, which obviously places it in the upper bracket of must-sees. But of course, as I noted on 11.7, there’s that title to get past.
“Violence certainly happens from time to time [in the film] but why J.C. decided to call it A Most Violent Year is…well, I don’t get it,” I wrote. “It’s about a highly disciplined, super-determined guy (Queens-based heating-oil supplier Oscar Isaac) trying very hard to solve his problems with honor and smarts and without resorting to violence or allowing his employees to do the same. It’s about clannish groups and predatory behavior and laws and bank loans and oil storage tanks and the whims of prosecutors. It’s an urban-jungle story in which violence only punctuates the story like periods and commas punctuate a typical paragraph.
Bennett Miller‘s Foxcatcher is about how a strange, obsessive, ostensibly Olympics-driven relationship between Pennsylvania millionaire John Dupont (Steve Carell) and former Olympic wrestling champ Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) led to Dupont shooting Mark’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). The real-life Schultz has been highly complementary of the film and Miller over the last several months, but he’s suddenly changed his tune and thrown both under the bus, apparently over concerns that the film points to a homoerotic undercurrent between Carell/duPont and Tatum/Schultz.
Schultz has totally ripped into Miller on Twitter, calling him “scum” and declaring that “we’re done” and that he’s going to take Miller down, etc. He’s obviously quite upset but why the sudden turnabout? The film opened nearly six weeks ago, but Schultz seems to have suddenly decided that homoerotic interpretations by reviewers are hurting his reputation. It’s possible, I suppose, that Schultz’s Twitter account has been hacked (?). I’ve asked Miller and a Foxcatcher publicist what they know or suspect about this, but you know how people get when something like this blows up — they hunker down and dive into the bunker.
If Schultz has literally tweeted all this stuff it sounds to me like a delayed case of homosexual panic — not literally about gayness but media perceptions of his having had some kind of suppressed gay dynamic with duPont, which Schultz believes is harming his rep. Although he’s written that the gay element in Foxcatcher “wasn’t explicit [and] so I didn’t have a problem with it,” he’s now blaming Miller and the film for slipping this perception into the conversation.
I’m presuming Schultz might also be pissed that Channing portrays him as scowling, emotionally constipated and seriously inarticulate, which usually indicates some degree of emotional repression…but again, why six weeks after the film opened?
If Foxcatcher reps don’t get in front of Schultz’s charges and try to frame them in a fair and proper context, this will probably harm Foxcatcher as far as Academy nominations are concerned, particularly Carell’s possible Best Actor nomination. It gives people a reason to step back and say “hmmm, maybe not…maybe vote for someone or something else.”
Anyone can tap out a worst-films-of-the-year list. Pick this or that from the slush heap and it doesn’t matter. What can “worst” possibly mean in this, an era of corporate franchise zombie films overwhelming almost everything in a megaplex sense? How many years ago did Andrew Sarris note that “the bottom has fallen out of badness in movies?” In the early ’80s, I think it was, and he could’t have foreseen how absent that “bottom” would truly become. The point (and I realize this paragraph isn’t exactly flowing from thought to thought) is that mature and knowledgable film lovers will never dismiss a formidable, strongly flavored, well-made film just because they didn’t enjoy watching it. You have to take yourself out of the equation and step back and evaluate a film cold and clean. Once you’ve done that, jump back in and fire at will.
Hundreds of times I’ve said “I didn’t like watching this film and in fact I kind of hated it on a certain level and I was enormously relieved when it ended, but it’s not half bad, and in fact I respect where it’s coming from and I would never call its admirers wrong or delusional.” I know enough about movies to be able to say this. Just because a flick didn’t ring my little personal cowbell doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve praise from others and perhaps even tribute from the Movie Godz (although I’m in fairly close contact with those guys and rarely have a difference of opinion with them).
How then to start my list of 2014 films that I personally found agonizing or depressing to sit through, but which are far from bad or dismissable? I know from experience that I can always start by referencing Karina Longworth‘s best of the year list. The author and former L.A. Weekly/Village Voice film critic is a brilliant filmologist and knows her stuff cold, but her personal end-of-the-year favorites are almost always “what?” to me. Ditto New Yorker film critic and columnist Richard Brody. There are plenty more where these two are coming from. Dennis Lim, Gavin Smith…guys like that. Elite sensibilities. Ivory tower-ists. Year after year I ask myself, “How could these guys live on more or less the same planet that I do and sincerely praise these movies as among the very best? What am I missing? Do I need to change my diet?”
This is the final day of 2014…big deal. Tomorrow will be the first day of 2015…and what of it? I feel great about a lot of stuff, mind. Best time of my life. I just don’t care about New Year’s Eve bullshit, and staying out until 3 am ruins the following day. This is a lousy town to celebrate in anyway, time-zone-wise. Everyone has already whoo-hoo’d and guzzled the bubbly and stumbled home and gone to sleep by the time midnight hits Los Angeles. Paris is the place to be.
The cooler and deeper you are, the quieter and more away-from-the-madding-crowd your New Year’s Eve is. I know a lady who says she always does it solo — meditating, painting, incense. Okay, maybe that’s taking it a bit too far in the other direction. I suspect that those who take really long showers are almost certainly among those who whoop it up on New Year’s Eve. In both instances they’re looking for comfort, for that womb-like security and sublime relaxation that comes from steaming hot water and alcohol and the embrace of fair-weather friends.
Every new day is a renewal, and the time to celebrate that is the early morning. And yet I’ve known people in my life who actually wake up in a bad mood. (My ex-wife was one of them.) How is that possible? How could the metaphor be lost on them?