You’re the Best Around (Nothing Is Ever Gonna Keep You Down)

Favorite movies of 2014:

the-rover

8. The Rover (dir. David Michôd): Harsh. This movie is harsh. A post-apocalyptic road trip, with Guy Pearce as a purposeless survivor who turns into a steely ball of rage when some crooks steal his car. Robert Pattinson is a pleasant simpleton who gets dragged into the resulting vengeance quest. The lawless nature of the film is communicated in the first frame, Pearce staring into the middle distance, a million emotions on his face and all of them bad, before segueing to a population of apathetic layabouts. David Michôd shoots conversations the same way he does violence–stunted exchanges between two or more individuals, barely cognizant of anything beyond themselves.

strange-color-body-tears

7. The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani): Superficially, it’s a Belgian homage to giallo, with spectacular colors and a series of disorienting, disgusting scenes unafraid to follow their tangents down the rabbit hole, dragging audiences kicking and screaming. Below that artifice, the movie only gets more unsettling.

need-for-speed

6. Need for Speed (dir. Scott Waugh): The lunatic personalities of Death Race 2000 wrapped around a solidarity plot befitting 80s Cameron–a collective of working class friends and a posh interloper drop everything to travel across the country and equalize a personal injustice. Aaron Paul is great, so’s Michael Keaton, Imogen Poots, and the actors in Paul’s crew, but this is a pure car chase movie, successful because of its minute details (state-specific police cruisers, the modified Shelby-Ford mustang which serves as the film’s centerpiece for its first 2/3, the use of environments in chase scenes [including a beautiful sequence in downtown Detroit]). Sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most.

grand-budapest-hotel

5. Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson): As expected from Anderson, there’s lots of film references and in-jokes, quirky characters (Edward Norton as a fascist with a silly mustache) and model sets, bright colors and actors with forlorn expressions. Anderson also, as usual, makes a movie loaded with pain, specifically a longing for people or things we can never have again: his bellhop lead lost his family before the story unfolds, and spends the course of the film finding a new one he will only lose again.

oculus

4. Oculus (dir. Mike Flanagan): Total surprise for me. A mean, Christopher Nolan-style mindbender masquerading as a super-generic ghost movie, in turn a fable about abusive relationships. Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears is technically the better horror film, but this scores points for being so visible, so mainstream, and still willing/able to challenge its audience.

one-i-love

3. The One I Love (dir. Charlie McDowell): Science fiction had a good year. Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Noah, Snowpiercer, even Transformers 4 (and that surprises me) brought big ideas and unexpected moments of virtuoso acting, directing, editing, you name it. By comparison, The One I Love is sedate, almost minimalist, only three actors in the whole thing–primarily a married couple, played by Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, who encounter doppelgangers during a weekend retreat to fix their relationship. Just a really funny, disarming movie about two people who still (kinda) love each other, but hold onto idealized versions of their spouses, made flesh and blood. Every way they try to rekindle that lost passion only sabotages themselves. Those big blockbusters are good and all, but how many existentialist romantic comedies with body snatcher plots are there?

2. John Wick (dir. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch): It’s only one step above a highlight reel for its freshman directors, with fight scenes that play like cover versions of action movies’ greatest hits, but it’s done with such style and skill. Furthermore, the fights aren’t merely technical achievements, but character pieces unto themselves, showing the titular former-hitman (Keanu Reeves, who is incredible in this) frustrated, desperate for an outlet for his grief. The best he can manage is to pull a trigger, then pull it some more.

1. The Raid 2 (dir. Gareth Evans): Where to start with this one? It’s bigger, messier, noisier than its predecessor (the best action movie of 2012). It’s not as good, either, but that still puts it leagues above so much of what’s come out this year. Like John Wick, fight scenes are also character pieces, stories told in the choreography. The added benefit is Raid 2’s star, Iko Uwais, is far more game to play up the fragility of the human body. Uwais, as undercover cop Rama, gets battered, bruised, cut up, you name it. He wins, like 80s Jackie Chan, not through skill necessarily, but by refusing to give in. Rama only ever has a marginal impact on the gangster drama unfolding around him, his goals more personal, but he’s all the more sympathetic for this. The Raid 2 is less about destroying corruption than surviving it without getting dragged down. When everything in the news seems so monolithic and frustrating, it’s nice to remember that, sometimes, staying alive another day, to return to those we care about, is an accomplishment. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment.

Also liked: Noah, Locke, Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Enemy, Only Lovers Left Alive, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Frank

Wished I’d Seen: Inherent Vice, The Guest, Gone Girl, Top Five, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, About Last Night, The Wind Rises, Housebound

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Need for Speed

need-for-speed

Dangling inside a souped-up Ford Shelby Mustang, hooked to a helicopter flying over a cliff, drag racer Tobey (Aaron Paul) keeps his passenger Julia (Imogen Poots) calm by asking her “What color are my eyes?” This results in the two amusedly arguing over whose are bluer, marking a development in their relationship (and later romance). It’s a moment which could have teetered Need for Speed into twee territory, if director Scott Waugh and screenwriters George and John Gatins hadn’t consistently built up these two–and the larger group they work in–as equals with genuine camaraderie. Operating first out of a struggling body shop, the crew are a bunch of blue-collar specialists who complement one another. They move as a unit, demonstrated early on in a rural street race: Tobey as the lead driver and figurehead, backed by an eye in the sky, a mechanic, a techie monitoring the race, and a second driver serving as both protege and ringer. Trust is implicit. When the upstart is killed by a sneering trust-fund dickhead, who pins the death on Tobey (resulting in a two-year stint), it takes hardly any effort to bring the band back together for a cross-country revenge trip doubling as attempt to enter a prestige drag race. Julia at first seems an interloper; a condition on which Tobey gets to use the Mustang he borrows from an impressed benefactor. Tobey is reluctant at first, but won over (curious, even) by her confidence, communicated in Paul’s infectious smile and David Carradine cool when conversing with her. While not attuned, initially, with the group’s jargon or the way they play loose with the laws of physics, Julia more than proves herself capable. She assists with a mobile refuel, makes keen observations about various players (challenging the masculinity of a Hummer-driving bounty hunter working for Tobey’s 1%-er rival, Poots delivers the phrase “inferiority complex” with a posh pinky wag serving as a double entendre), and readily takes the wheel when needed. Rather than undercutting, or even threatening, the others, she becomes a new, key component to the whole.

Here, Need for Speed comes dangerously close to James Cameron’s 80s oeuvre. The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss highlight inclusive collectives with natural gives-and-takes. If a member falters, the others pick up the slack. If the group’s existence is threatened, an individual sacrifices him/herself to keep the others moving. This trait runs throughout Need for Speed, but is notable in two scenes: first, a lengthy detour in Detroit from the cross-country plot, so the crew can rescue a crew member from a humdrum office job. Superfluous as the scene is–largely it becomes an excuse to show off Campus Martius and Woodward Avenue via car chase (with accurate State Trooper vehicles and uniforms, to boot)–it speaks to the unwillingness of Tobey’s crew to go on this personal crusade without one of their own. Later, when an attempted hit on Tobey leaves Julia injured, the group rallies to ensure her safety and recovery–importantly, she isn’t used as a prompt to reignite the revenge quest. All that matters is the group. This theme is so resonant, even when it ends on franchise-setup, Waugh’s film preserves its integrity.