Best of 2014, #1: Boyhood

Of course this movie is #1. I’ve always said that the problem with Cassavetes is that his movies have to either be the worst stuff out there or the very best, because if he can make his “super-long-take unblinking-gaze” device work, then every other movie suddenly looks phony and shallow in comparison. The same is true of Boyhood: it’s so startlingly brilliant and hyper-real that it can’t help but make every other movie look a bogus sham, so it’s hard to do an honest comparison.

It’s also hard to say anything much about the movie. If you’ve seen it, it’s already had its impact on you, and if you haven’t seen it then you should know as little as possible about it beforehand, so as to maximize it power.

The only thing I can say is that this movie powerfully proves a rule that was hiding in a “What’s the Matter with Hollywood” post: Innovation Doesn’t Require New Technology. This movie could have been made anytime in the last 100 years by anyone who had the dedication. It was made on the cheap and on the fly, and yet it shatters all of our assumptions about what a film can and should be.

Writer/Director Richard Linklater suddenly remembered, “Oh yeah, all this stuff we do, all these tried-and-true tricks we’ve built up over the years to cleverly simulate life on the screen, we don’t have to do it that way. If we want, we can jettison all that stuff and try something totally different. We can find a new way to powerfully capture the nature of life on screen.”And so he did.

But then he did something that was terrifyingly bold: he waited twelve years to let the rest of the world in on his flash of inspiration. He worked periodically on this movie while also making School of Rock, Before Sunset, Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation, A Scanner Darkly, Me and Orson Welles, Bernie, and Before Midnight, never letting on that he also had this other movie brewing totally out of sight.

Note also that none of the movies between Before Sunset and Before Midnight was much of a critical or commercial success, and there was a three year gap in there with no movies at all. Surely he must have felt at times that he was being written off and forgotten, and his last best hope was to simply declare Boyhood to be done and unleash its brilliance upon the world. But no, he would sell no wine before it was time, and he let it continue its slow fermentation, no matter what ups and downs his career might experience in the meantime. That is fierce dedication to art.

The result is a masterpiece, and a reminder that we have barely scratched the surface of what this medium can do, if we stop focusing on post-production innovation and devote more time to pre-production innovation.

Best of 2014, #2: Selma (And Storyteller’s Rulebook: The “Ironic How” is Better than the “Ironic What”)

This remarkable movie crystallized a thought I’d been developing for a while, about the difference between the “ironic how” and the “ironic what.”

I frequently recommend maximizing the irony of a story in every way, but there are actually limits to that. It always annoyed me that Spielberg made his Holocaust movie about a heroic German industrialist, and his slavery movie about a heroic McConaughey, but then I thought, “Hey, wait just a second, isn’t that exactly the sort of thing I recommend?” Isn’t that the most ironic choice? Aren’t these the heroes who start off with a false goal and a false philosophy, only to be forced to do things that are hard for them to want to do?

The traditional way to do a movie like Selma is to focus on a white hero, not necessarily because of racism on the part of the filmmakers, but because it genuinely seems like the most interesting choice: a white southerner joining the civil rights cause is ironic, whereas a black person joining is unironic, and the ironic choice is usually the best choice. But Selma shows that rather than focus on an inherently ironic character, you can derive just as much meaning from a consideration of the ironic tactics MLK actually used. What he's doing is not ironic, but how he's doing it is ironic (going county by county until he's able to find a sheriff who will beat his people up, for instance.)

There are many problems with “ironic what” stories, especially where historical injustices are concerned: Most obviously, you’re silencing the victimized group and lionizing the victimizing group, and often you have to falsify the actual story in order to do so (as in both Spielberg movies listed above and Mississippi Burning).
The most offensive “ironic what” story was no doubt Ang Lee’s ridiculous Ride with the Devil. This is one of the few American movies about our Civil War, and it features only one major black character, who happens to be fighting for the slavers. That’s certainly “ironic”, but it’s also deeply offensive. Did a tiny handful of blacks fight for slavery of their own will? Sure, in any group there’s always going to be a few sick, sad individuals with bafflingly self-destructive behavior, but of course, Jeffrey Wright didn’t play the part as stupid or evil, because (oh irony of ironies!) that would seem offensive to our modern sensibilities. We like our lone black characters onscreen to be good and smart and brave—even if what they’re doing is actually depraved and idiotic.

Irony is always necessary for good storytelling, but easy ironies can twist the truth in offensive ways. Find the hidden ironies that arise from the difficult decisions of the real heroes and/or victims, instead of creating easy irony by focusing on an unrepresentative scenario that reverses the roles of victim and victimizer.

Next: Oh, come on, you know what it’s going to be...

Best of 2014, #3: Whiplash

It’s shocking that this is only at #3, because this is one of the most intense viewing experiences I’ve ever had. My mouth was dry, my muscles were knotted, and I was on the edge of seat for two hours, and the ending only left me gasping for a catharsis that never came. This is a movie you have to “come down from”, waiting nervously for your pulse to slow back down.

Let’s look at some of the rules that this movie exemplifies:
  • Always Have a Left Turn: We have seen so many tough-coach movies that we enter this movie supremely confident in where it’s going, only to be thrown for many, many loops. It’s so rare to sit through the second half of a movie, exclaiming to yourself in awe: “I just have no idea where this is even going!
  • The Hero Can’t Stand Outside of the Problem: The biggest thing that keeps us unsteady is the fact that both of our combatants are fairly repellent, and as each one becomes worse, we’re naturally inclined to shift our identification to the other, but unable to do so. The snarling masochist and the snarling sadist trap each other (and the audience) in a feedback loop that ratchets up the the tension exponentially. It’s easier to write about a victimized prodigy getting abused by a sadistic teacher (as in The Black Swan), or a rapacious pupil scaring his teacher (as in The Color of Money), but this movie puts the most dangerous pairing in the same room and lets each escalate the other’s intensity higher and higher.
  • The Ending Doesn’t Determine the Meaning: One problem with these sorts of movies is that it’s so hard to keep the ending from determining the meaning—If the pupil succeeds, it was all worth it, and if he fails, it wasn’t, right? Some great movies have tried to have it both ways (The two movies listed above, as well as Downhill Racer and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) but this movie just may top them all. The climax of this movie mercilessly toys with our hard-wired need to determine if it’s “all worth it”, whipping our emotions back and forth several times. Ultimately, the only conclusion we can reach is that, no matter how this ends, both sides will lose, because “greatness” itself may be an unhealthy and inhumane concept.
Next: A movie that was a long time coming…

Best of 2014, #4: Birdman

Be a Good God: There’s so much interesting stuff going on in this movie that it’s hard for any one reviewer to cover it all, so I’d like to focus in on one element that I haven’t seen many people discuss: The hero’s delusional belief that he has raging telekinesis that disappears when anyone else is looking.

On many layers, this is a movie about power-fantasies: An actor agrees to play out the public’s superhero power fantasy, but then he feels powerless to stop, so he rebels and creates his own power-trip in the form of a Broadway vanity project, only to find himself humbled and overpowered at every turn, but in a way that he finds ironically liberating.

Co-writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu implies that our current infatuation with superhero movies isn’t a wish for power we don’t have, it’s a confirmation of the power-fantasies we’re already living every day, certain that our faces are masks, hiding the secretly-omnipotent beings within, just waiting to be revealed to the world. Only by acting on our delusions and tearing down the screen that separates us from real life (as Keaton does by subjecting himself to a live audience) do we discover that no, we’re neither super nor heroes...and that’s probably for the best, because it’s hard enough to just be human.

When art is made, who has the power? The writer? The director? The producers? The star? The audience? The critics? Are each of these parties trying to prove the others wrong, or to reach out across a divide and make a connection? For each, it’s always a little of both. This movie is a intense, funny, sad, and profoundly weird examination of that tension, and it’s pretty great.

Next: A similar score…

Best of 2014, #5: Nightcrawler

Tap Into Real-Life National Pain: There’s been a lot of talk about the whiteness of the Oscar picks this year, both in terms of the snub of Selma’s star and director, and in terms of the lack of black roles that were available overall. The best place to examine this problem, it seems to me, is not by looking at Selma nor its natural counterpoint, American Sniper. Instead, the movie that really lays bare the underlying problem here is Dan Gilroy’s intense little thriller that also works as a brutal parable about the modern vampire-squid economy.

I share the anger about Hollywood’s narrow-minded young-white-male obsession, but, as with almost any protest from either the right or left in America, the discussion always puts the blame on “the culture” instead of actually examining the systems in place. Frequently, people seem to be asking, “Why doesn’t that executive who makes twenty movies a year deign to have some of them be about women/minorities/older people?” And nobody ever speaks up with the correct answer: Because he died forty years ago.

An incisive discussion of Hollywood’s young white male problem has to include an understanding of how Hollywood itself has essentially ceased to be. Like most American corporations, Hollywood studios have figured out how to shift all the risk outward and all the profits inward. All development in Hollywood is now done by independent producers, who spend years getting each movie made, with no “development money” whatsoever. Each movie is its own start-up, with the producers sinking a fortune in development costs out of their own pocket (or the pockets of their investors) in the hope of making that money back with a blockbuster. The studios, using their monopoly on distribution, then swoop in and “partner with” these producers, co-releasing the movies, and taking half of the profits for themselves. This is why every movie now has five “producer cards” up front.

So what does any of this have to do with Nightcrawler? Everything. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is unable to find any regular job, so out of desperation he becomes an “independent contractor,” seeking out nighttime car crashes and selling the tapes to the morning news. At first, he naively treats all crimes the same, but the producer tells him she’ll pay much more for anything involving black or Latino crime in white neighborhoods. Soon Gyllenhaal has totally internalized these values, jovially mocking his assistant for wanting to tape a crime in a poor neighborhood.

The station has laid off its own cameramen and denies all responsibility for the actions of the contractors who have taken their place, creating a “race to the bottom”, in which both sides push each other to pursue the least common denominator of viewers without either side having to consciously make that decision.

The same thing happens on the big screen. Movies are increasingly hyper-focused on young white men because that’s the least common denominator of viewers, and it’s no one’s job to say, “hey, let’s serve another viewership with some of our movies.” There is no “our movies” anymore, there’s just “my movie”, and no producer wants to sink years of work into a risky proposition (or even a proposition that looks like it will make a decent-but-not-spectacular profit).

Louis B. Mayer (or somebody else, I can't find the quote) once said something like “Don't talk to be about ‘quality pictures’. Every week, 52 times a year, a truck pulls up and expects us to put new film cans in the back, and that truck driver isn’t going to wait to make sure that it’s a ‘quality picture’.” But of course his quote was disingenuous: Such a system was actually ideal for ensuring that each studio could cultivate multiple audiences (old and young, male and female) and even produce a few low-profit “prestige” or “social problem” movies, just to make themselves feel good. But if each independent producer is betting the bank on one picture at a time, the financial disincentives are huge, just as they are for Gyllenhaal’s character.

As far as I'm concerned, the only real solution (other than forcibly restructuring corporate America, which also needs to happen) is to do what almost every other country in the world does: have a federal film fund to commission movies that make less profit but take more risks and/or portray underrepresented communities. But of course here in America nobody is ever allowed to say, “they’ve already solved this problem in every other country in the world, so let’s do the same thing here.” Don’t you know that we’re exceptional?

Next: The best cast of the year…

Best of 2014, #6: Guardians of the Galaxy

According to a lot of my theories, this movie shouldn’t work:
  • The hero is motivated by money for most of the movie, and even when he does decide to ditch the money and become a true hero, the heroic motivation is too small because he decides to save a planet that is not his own, nor is it the home planet of any of the Guardians. Why should he or we care about Glenn-Close-world? It’s bizarre that the movie remains compelling. The filmmakers must have been tempted to replace these weak motivations with a more straightforward emotion goal, such as searching for his missing father, or trying to avenge his dead mother, but the movie goes precisely the other way. In fact, you could say they break another rule: Instead of simplifying the motivation they multiply it: Pratt’s primary motivation is money, but his secondary motivation is something that seems equally superficial, but isn’t: he want to be cool. His social humiliation is delivered right away when he announces he’s Star-Lord and Djimon Hounsou says “Who?” (Nicely paid off when the same character later warns his boss, “That’s Star-Lord!”) This seemingly shallow goal becomes deeply heartfelt because we see how closely tied it is to his severed relationship with both parents. His hapless attempts to be cool ultimately are an attempt to search for his dad and bring his mother back. Threading that tricky emotional needle was a big part of this movie’s unexpected success.
  • But wait, here’s another violation: The concept seems to be too complicated. The interplanetary politics of this world are bizarrely labyrinthine, and after the very-relatable first scene we suddenly jump into the middle of a complicated story that we never quite catch up with, so why doesn’t this alienate the audience (literally and figuratively) as badly as Pacific Rim? Obviously, beginning in a recognizable place goes a long way, allowing us to step into this world with the hero, at least briefly, but beyond that, the movie greatly benefits from a rule hidden inside this post: the value of “I’ll tell you later” Guardians pushes this to its extreme, because this was basically one big movie of “I’ll tell you later.” The filmmakers use weirdness as wallpaper, much in the same way that Star Wars does, but they never ask us to care about that stuff any more than the hero does (and he’s wonderfully dismissive of most of it.)
This movie puts a very human hero in a very weird galaxy and allows us to hang on tightly to the hero’s emotional throughline as everything else goes crazy. You don’t have to believe in any of this craziness, you just have to believe in him. Pacific Rim does the opposite: It quickly becomes clear that those filmmakers care more about the concept than the characters, which makes it impossible for the audience to care about either.

Next: Back down to Earth…

Best of 2014, #7: The Lego Movie

Show Your Theme Instead of Saying It: All of my top five movies are intensity personal artistic statement, but there’s another type of greatness exemplified by this movie: the deceptively-complex fun-time fable. Like Frozen, this is a thematically complicated movie aimed at little kids, trusting them and their parents to unpack the meaning over several viewings.

 At first this movie seems to set up an easy dichotomy right out of The Matrix: unimaginative conformity bad / creative rebellion good, but then things get more and more complex. Soon it’s going places that few movies would dare to go and challenging deep-set orthodoxies of 21st century parenting: showing that a world in which everybody is expected to compete for a place in the creative-elite is equally problematic because both sides punish normality.

One could say that the shock-ending, despite its undeniable emotional punch, dials things back to a more straightforward moral, but a writer must trust that the doubts raised will linger, even after the ending seems to tip towards one side or the other of the thematic dilemma.

Tomorrow: A familiar voice...

Best of 2014: #8: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Make the Sequel Totally Different: What I liked most about this movie was something that was equally true of Apes: It was sequel that bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Where do they get this notion that we want a retread? As I wrote about with Pacific Rim, setting the dial back to zero before the credits roll sabotages the first movie and the second one.  This movie, I’m glad to say (as opposed to Iron Man 2 or Thor 2) doesn’t have the slightest bit of retread to it.

The previous movie created a pure hero for a pure war, and it must have been very tempting to inject cynicism or subversion into that narrative, but instead, they set themselves the challenge of playing it totally straight, and knocked it out of the park. When I heard that the first movie was going to be set entirely in World War 2, I was baffled, because that would miss half of the appeal of the character: the “man out of time” aspect.  But as it turns out, that was exactly the plan.

Marvel plays the long game, and by devoting a whole movie to half the appeal, they guaranteed one hell of a sequel once they finally cashed in all of that potential energy three years later. This movie mercilessly plucks that idealistic hero out of his place, time, and comfort zone, thrusting him into a new world that makes his code, his methods, and his beliefs appear to be totally obsolete.  Refreshingly, the goal is not to impeach or degrade those ideals (as many modern movies do) but to put them to the ultimate test, which makes it all the more thrilling to see the hero win. It’s hard enough to fight true evil over there, but it takes so much more courage and cunning to fight true evil over here, which made this the ultimate escalation.

Tomorrow: A movie that really, really should have sucked. 

Best of 2014, #9: Snowpiercer

The Hero Must Have Something Everyone Else Lacks: This movie has the quickest and simplest version of this: We begin with Fascist troops ordering a traincar of people to stand and then sit back down in rows.  Everybody sits down except one man.  Okay, so now we know that he’s our hero.  But can we trust him, or is he just engaging in empty rebellion?  No, his friend asks, “What were you doing?” and he says, “Counting,” and we see that he was timing the number of second before the doors close.  Okay, so now we now we trust him, but will he be too heroic to empathize with?  Will he be vulnerable?  Yes: The next time the soldiers demand they sit down, it is someone else who won’t sit, for non-strategic reasons, and we see the anguish on our hero’s face.  Should he wait for the right time, and leave this man (who was probably inspired by him) to his fate?  Now he must choose between strategy and bravery, which is a painful dilemma.  Empathizing with that dilemma, we are now fully bonded to the hero.

Art Requires Distance, and Tough Decisions Must have Tough Consequences: After this series, we’ll do another Meddler week on another 2014 movie that didn’t quite work, and one problem with it is that it sets up a critique of video-game logic but ultimately replicates that logic when it should be subverting it.

Even moreso than that movie, Snowpiercer cleverly establishes a real-world Double-Dragon-style linear sidescroller, as our heroes have to “clear each board” before they move on to a new self-contained environment.  The movie however, uses this set-up to totally impeach the video-game storytelling mode.  Our “everyman” hero turns out to be not so every (we find out he has some very disturbing motives) and his relentless march forward turns out to be ironically self-defeating precisely because he foolishly believes in the myth of linear progress. Even when he succeeds, the results are so instantly catastrophic that the cure is clearly worse than the disease, with no reset button to undo the consequences.  The result is a seemingly clean, linear narrative that ends up being anything but.

Tomorrow: A familiar face...

Best of 2014, #10: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

So it was a good year for movies, once again. So good, in fact, that my year end countdown swelled to ten, and since I always like to get these out of the way before the Oscars, that means I’ll be bumping the next meddler back two weeks.

I should warn you upfront that, for whatever reasons, the top half of the list is all sci-fi and the bottom half is all drama, lest you come to fear this week that I’ve officially gone all-geek-all-the-time. As always, I’ll be pairing each movie with a storytelling rule that the movie exemplifies. (And as always, I should also preface things with a list of the movies I missed, in this case Theory of Everything, Imitation Game and How to Train Your Dragon 2)

#10: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Everybody Only Wants What They Want: We had a lot of discussion about psychopathy last week (as we always seem to do) and debates about whether the presence of a psychopath is necessary to generate thrills. This movie gives us the resounding answer of no. Everybody in this movie can confidently justify their actions, and each is ultimately proven right, in different ways.

This is a heart-breaking fable of self-fulfilling prophesies: if you’re trying to protect your community from existential threats, you will find enemies that prove you right, and if you’re trying to make peace, you will find allies to prove you right. If your community tries to pursue both paths at once, a tragic chain of consequences can occur, in which the warmakers doom the peacemakers and the peacemakers doom the warmakers. The greatness of this movie is that we see both sides of this debate on both sides of this war, and we are unable to entirely disagree with any of these four factions.

Tomorrow: More dystopia!