The Films of 2014: A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are the stars of J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, and they’re electrifying.  Many viewers will know Isaac from last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he played a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village stubbornly determined to find success without selling out.  He appears radically transformed here—tough, and tightly strung.  With his black hair swept up into a modified pompadour he looks like a young Pacino.  (He acts like him, too.)  His character, Abel Morales, runs a heating oil company with his wife Anna (Chastain) in early-80s New York, and even though he likes to think of himself as running a clean business he’s already dipped one toe in the crime world.  In some ways Abel is not so far removed from Llewyn Davis: he wants to get ahead through honest means (note that surname), without resorting to violence or corruption or getting help from Anna and her father, a shadowy figure who may have ties to the mob.  But in this lean, pitilessly dark parable about making it in America, it turns out to be impossible to get ahead without hurting someone else.      


The Films of 2014: Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice isn’t exactly a misfire, but it’s the first time that he’s made a film that doesn’t feel thoroughly, incontrovertibly his.  That may be because, as readers are no doubt aware, Inherent Vice has been adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name (unread by me).  In theory, Anderson and Pynchon should make an ideal match: they’re both artists who seem to be working on some other, slightly zonked wavelength.  It’s not the same wavelength, though, and while there is much to like about Inherent Vice it comes to life only in brief, fleeting moments.


The Films of 2014: Two Days, One Night

Over the past twenty years the Dardenne brothers have perfected the art of telling stories about ordinary people plunged into desperate situations.  The eye of the Dardennes’ camera watches, probingly and unflinchingly, as their characters fight against the systems that have failed them.  I’m of the opinion that their new film, Two Days, One Night, is their best yet, in part because it’s got such a crackerjack premise: Sandra, a Belgian factory worker, stands to lose her job unless she can convince a majority of her co-workers to each forego a 1,000-Euro bonus.  The film takes place over the course of a weekend, during which time Sandra attempts to track down each of her co-workers at their homes in order to plead for their mercy. 


The Films of 2014: Selma

It’s just about impossible not to be moved by Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and not just because of its uncanny (and unplanned) coincidence with a fresh wave of anti-black racism in America.  Even if the film had come out last winter instead of this winter—before Ferguson, before Eric Garner—its impact would no doubt have been just as deeply felt.  That’s because DuVernay has somehow managed to make a historical drama that’s smart without being pretentious, polished without seeming mannered, and emotionally powerful without stooping to cheap sentiment.  What are the odds that a movie about Martin Luther King could come out in January and not feel like Oscar bait? 


The Films of 2014: Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall grunts, snarls, and snorts magnificently in Mike Leigh’s new film, in which he plays the irascible J. W. M. Turner, arguably Britain’s greatest painter.  The film runs on the tension between Turner’s gracelessness as a person and the beauty of his paintings.  As portrayed by Spall, the man is a lumbering, ill-tempered but not entirely heartless grouch; he likens himself to a gargoyle, though he rather resembles a George Cruikshank illustration, or Charles Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame—a gentle monster.  Leigh’s method is to repeatedly pull the rug out from under our feet, undercutting a moment of nastiness with one of benevolence (Turner decides to forgive a debt owed to him by a down-on-his-luck Benjamin Haydon), or vice versa (his affection for his second wife is made to contrast with the coldness with which he treats his devoted housekeeper).       


The Films of 2014: Wild

Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film of the Cheryl Strayed memoir about her experience hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, comes fast on the heels of his Dallas Buyers Club, for which Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars last year.  I’m not yet convinced that Jean-Marc Vallee is a great filmmaker, but it’s clear that he’s able to get actors to relax into performances that feel raw, lived-in.  Wild is ostensibly about Strayed’s grueling three-month hike from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada, but it’s a meandering, impressionistic film that wanders in and out of memories and flashbacks, stitched together by snatches of popular songs and embroidered with quotations from Strayed’s literary influences (Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost, Joni Mitchell).  Not all of the individual pieces work, but the whole thing hangs together to form a loose, jagged mosaic.  Vallee’s willingness to leave some of the edges unfinished is to be commended in an age when so many films are scrubbed, color-corrected, digitally enhanced, and CGI-ed within an inch of their lives, or are otherwise made to hit a series of pre-fabricated emotional beats.  Wild rambles. 


The Films of 2014: Into the Woods

A disclaimer: I come to Into the Woods, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s stage musical, with what might be called loaded expectations.  The musical, a mélange of fractured fairy tales (“Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Red Riding Hood,” and others, with all of the violent bits left intact), has been in my life for a long time.  Since it premiered in 1987 I’ve seen at least three live productions, acted in a fourth, and listened to the original cast recording more times than I can count.