The Armstrong Lie (2013; Directed by Alex Gibney)
Lies are narratives. Narratives are lies. If those fortunate among us who have seen Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell learned anything from it, it’s that it’s very hard to separate the two, especially in the dimly-lit halls of human memory. But what about in the bright glare of the public eye? Is it easier to tell a purposely-shaped narrative from a lie when it’s told to millions of people, with millions of dollars riding on it?
This is one of the questions you might be asking at the conclusion of Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie, a troubled, open-ended examination of the controversial career of Lance Armstrong, the 7-times Tour de France champion cyclist, cancer survivor and crusader, and inspirational media icon who was exposed as a drug cheat in 2012 and stripped of his titles. Gibney’s documentary began its production life on the road with Armstrong as he attempted a high-profile comeback at the 2009 Tour de France, four years after winning the most prestigious cycling competition in the world for the seventh consecutive time. Gibney, known for his complex and conflicted issues documentaries, seemed an odd choice to document a legacy-cementing victory lap for an apparent living inspirational poster like Armstrong. Indeed, during the 2009 Tour, he was chided by those who recognized him for doing a puff piece on Armstrong.
Fortunately for The Armstrong Lie, the performance-enhancing drug allegations that followed Armstrong throughout his record-setting career like ravens came home to roost and Gibney found his valued conflict. Interviewing Armstrong and those around him during his career, Gibney gets at versions of the truth, but in Armstrong’s case they were always mitigated by his prickly, intense dedication to his own image as a self-confident, all-American winner whose story could change the world if the haters would just let it. Though he can no longer deny that he doped during his now-vacated dominance of the Tour a decade ago, Armstrong clings to certain details of the tale as tenaciously as he once clung to the claim that he never doped at all.
Gibney asks the right questions about how and why Armstrong maintained the illusion of himself as a clean cyclist, and gets some hard answers (respectively, how: with outright, aggressive denials and threats and bullying to potential whistleblowers, and why: for the money and the fame). He subsumes what must be his own bitterness at being duped and used by Armstrong for his own ends, alluding to the desire held by not only himself but by many millions of people to be fooled by Armstrong, to believe in what he called the “miracle” of his cancer recovery and subsequent sporting triumphs. At the core of this will to delusion is a most American willingness to buy into stories that are too good to be true, which almost inevitably are.
The specific question that neither Gibney nor any of his subjects bothers to ask, however, is why Armstrong was wrong for employing a drug-enhanced means that practically every cycling champion for years has likewise employed to reach the same victorious end. Of course Armstrong doped. If all of the men he was beating did too, then how could he beat them? The margins in a high-level sport like cycling are thin, and they cannot be so easily extended by means of work ethic and stirrings of inspiration. The question that no one bothers to ask is, Why is doping illegal in cycling if everyone will always do it? Why not explicitly allow and regulate rather than ban and implicitly allow on the sport’s dark side? The preference for ineffective moralizing and scattershot enforcement over pragmatic integration hurt cycling deeply, but then it’s been hurt that way for a century and seems able to stand the affliction.
No one can ask the question on camera, of course, since most everyone has a past, a present and a future in the sport to protect. There’s also a strange code to cycling, a set of arcane rules to team racing and the peloton, that compels cooperation and silence about what goes on behind the scenes, especially if what goes on happens to be against the rules of the sport. In such a closed world, what Lance Armstrong got away with seems entirely predictable and appropriate. His lie was a narrative, and his narrative was a lie. Public outrage is directed at him for telling it (and for using federal taxpayer money to do so, through the US Postal Service’s sponsorship of him and his team in the 2000s), and he doesn’t not deserve it. But that outrage must be directed inwards too, at those who accepted his lie as a narrative when really, truly, they ought to have known better.
The Third Man (1949; Directed by Carol Reed)
One of the great film noirs, The Third Man is a rare confluence of titanic talents. Directed by Carol Reed, the English filmmaker who would later win a Best Director for Oliver!, written by master novelist Graham Greene, and thoroughly conquered in its late stages by Orson Welles (a top billed star who doesn’t even show up until the last act), this is a mega-atmospheric mystery of divided loyalties in a divided postwar Vienna where corruption and alienation are the main currency of trade.
Its relatively upright protagonist is Holly Martins (Welles’ Citizen Kane co-star and fellow Mercury Theatre player Joseph Cotten), who finds himself in Vienna after his childhood friend Harry Lime (Welles) offers him a job. He arrives to discover that Lime is dead in mysterious, ever-shifting circumstances that involve a car crash and the body being carried from the scene by, at first account, two men and then the titular third. As Martins looks into his friend’s apparent demise, he unravels a complex and cynical tapestry of intrigue, black market trading, and cynical exploitation of dire and chaotic social circumstances.
Reed’s film is a masterclass in black-and-white cinematographic atmosphere, all encroaching shadows and revealing pools of light, scored with the eerie zither music of Anton Karas. Of course, almost no one talks about any portion of the film before Orson Welles makes his iconic and memorable entrance in a darkened doorway, a visual, theatrical bow for an inebriated and surly Cotten (Welles called it a “star part”, where they talk about a character for an hour an then they appear, dramatically). Shrouded in darkness, a light clicks on in a window across the street, and Lime is revealed, a knowing smile on his lips. Just as quickly, the light switches off. From darkness to a revelation in light, and just as quickly back into a cloak of black obscurity. We need no more statement of what Harry Lime is all about.
We get it, though, in the dialogue of the film’s other legendary moment. In the midst of an ominous, threatening ride on Vienna’s Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel, Lime brushes aside any hint of remorse that Martins expects him to feel for the deaths his black market medicine trade has certainly caused. Their elevation on the wheel separates them from the crush of humanity below, which Lime labels blithely as insignificant. He emphasizes his point by comparing the internecine struggles and frequent brutality of Italy during the artistically rich Renaissance with the peace and stability of Switzerland, which could produce nothing more enduring than the comic cuckoo clock. This is sociopathically (as well as historically) disingenuous on Lime’s part, as if trading illegal penicillin is an art comparable to Renaissance painting. But it’s a thoroughly modern justification of ill conduct, a disavowal of the committing of injustices via intellectual fabulism. Welles apparently added the dialogue himself, most probably pinching the Swiss cuckoo clock bon mot from the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
In the mode of many film noirs, the transgressive, anti-social picture of dissolution and nihilism is course-corrected somewhat by The Third Man‘s conclusion, as Lime is tracked down and brought to lethal justice by Martins and the police in the Expressionistic sewers beneath Vienna. Deeply influenced by German Expressionism in its visual construction and surfaces, film noir returns near to its source in The Third Man and reaches one of its aesthetic peaks. There were top-notch exercises in the genre to follow (Welles himself made one of them, A Touch of Evil, to say nothing of the influence of Kane), but noir was perhaps never more noir than in The Third Man.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013; Directed by Frank Pavich)
For every great film that gets made, released, and added to the annals of cinematic history, there are many more that peter out before filming even begins. Lack of funding tends to be the primary impetus for failure in most instances. Films are tremendously expensive undertakings, and the more ambitious a vision, the more costly it is to bring it to the screen. Those holding the purse strings, be they Hollywood studio executives or independent producers, are notoriously hesitant to give over a healthy budget to anyone whose work does not promise significant returns on investment. Unlike, say, fine art, which can appreciate in value following its initial purchase, movies make their money at the box office and on home entertainment sales. Thus films with major popular appeal are rewarded more than those with less, and the larger budgets go to the projects that can draw the crowds.
This brings us to one of film history’s most legendary uncompleted projects, a conceptually spectacular and sprawling adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sociopolitically rich desert-planet science fiction novel Dune helmed by the enthusiastic, mystically-inclined Chilean-French surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Frank Pavich’s fascinating documentary examines the tremendous promise of the Dune project, as well as the persistent ripples of influence that it cast out on 1970s and 1980s speculative film despite sinking helplessly beneath the surface. It argues insistently and not unconvincingly that this unmade movie cast a longer aesthetic shadow than many of its era that were finished and released.
Jodorowsky’s name is not well-known outside of film geek circles, but before attempting to adapt Dune he was one of the key figures of the countercultural cinema of the early 1970s. He made the widely-agreed first “midnight feature”, the loopy blood-soaked Western El Topo, followed by the visually astonishing but insensible surrealist trip The Holy Mountain. With the European success of the latter, Jodorowsky’s producer was willing to let him chase his muse, and that muse lead him to Dune.
To adapt Herbert’s expansive novel for the screen, Jodorowsky assembled a tremendous group of design talents, showing an artist’s eye for conceptualization unheard of before him but now characterisitic of blockbuster film design. Initially storyboarding extensively with French bande desinée illustrator Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Jodorowsky also approached British artist Chris Foss to design spaceship, buildings, and sets, Dan O’Bannon to execute the sure-to-be-revolutionary special effects, and the now-iconic Swiss painter H.R. Giger to lend his unsettling, dark organic-technological hybrid images to the film’s villains, the Harkonnen.
The storyboards and concept art that Pavich shows us portend a vision of rare magnificence impregnated with metaphorical resonance; Nicolas Winding Refn, director of Drive, attests to having been talked through Dune‘s storyboards and conceptual designs by Jodorowsky and refers to the resultant imagined film as “awesome”. Little wonder that O’Bannon, Foss, Giraud, and Giger formed the core of the art department for Ridley Scott’s Alien a few years later; O’Bannon wrote that script, inspired to make a film by his first glance at one of Giger’s unworldly nightmare beings after Jodorowsky threw them together.
Jodorowsky‘s Dune traces the stillborn project’s influence through the following decades of film, its ideas seeding Star Wars, Blade Runner, Prometheus and more, in addition to the bande desinée work that Jodorowsky worked on in subsequent years (it includes little discussion of his later films, rarely rated very highly by film buffs). Speculating that the compendious Dune concept books that Jodorowsky presented to Hollywood studios who passed on funding the project were pillaged for ideas by those who saw them, Pavich’s interview subjects make a compelling case for the power of Jodorowsky’s vision and the breadth of its influence, even without a final celluloid product. The motion re-creations of conceived sequences demonstrate that Jodorowsky was working on a level of ambition and visual prowess fully 30 years ahead of its time at least. Even now, in a Hollywood suffused with large-scale effects-heavy speculative genre blockbusters that share the wild fan-fiction assumptions with which Jodorowsky approached Herbert’s material, this film might be a bit too fantastical to be financed and made.
Pavich has constructed this story in a way that sometimes skirts around the real reason that this Dune was not made, blaming penny-counting Hollywood suits for passing up on a chance to shift the paradigm on filmmaking a couple of years before George Lucas dragged them into a new future with Star Wars. There is always something to this complaint, and few will go to bat for the hated figure of the studio executive, ever waiting to thwart artistic freedom in the name of commerce (which is generally agreed to be what happened to David Lynch’s released version of Dune in 1984).
But it becomes quite clear before too long that the Achilles’ heel of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune was Alejandro Jodorowsky. He presents as exactly the sort of massively talented and uncompromising auteur who could oversee a $15 million budget’s catastrophic ballooning to twice that amount, the stuff of studio executive nightmares. He was deeply involved in mystical beliefs, which have developed over the years into a semi-religious practice called “psychomagic”, and proposed changing the ending of Herbert’s tale into a galactic vision of spiritual unity. He refused to consider cutting down his film to manageable commercial feature length, insisting that if the story took 12 or 20 hours to be told onscreen, then that was what was demanded and had to be respected.
Jodorowsky is more visual artist than narrative filmmaker, and he had absolutely no instincts for the sort of commercial filmmaking that his proposed budget required in 1975. Peter Jackson had never made a big commercial hit before New Line Cinema gambled its financial future on The Lord of the Rings, but the studio must have recognized his populist instincts and anticipated that he would be capable of crafting Tolkien’s books into accessible but visionary works of mass art, as he did to great success and acclaim. Jodorowsky is at least two parts raving madman, a mindset typified by his casting choices. He proposed casting his own son as the lead, and tasked the boy with two years of ruthless martial arts training in preparation; apparoched David Carradine and Mick Jagger for central roles; had his producer offer surrealist painter Salvador Dalí $100,000 per minute for a cameo as the Emperor of the Universe; and convinced Orson Welles to play a disgustingly obese villain by pledging to hire an elite chef to make him meals on set.
Jodorowsky’s Dune includes a statement by its subject early on concerning the essential interrelation between madness and art, and then proceeds to demonstrate the truth of the statement for the rest of its running time. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s conception of Dune was truly impressive, but because it was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s conception, a conception was all it could ever be. The ambitious, impractical imagination that made it look so remarkable also made it unfeasible in its time and place (and, to be honest, maybe in any time and place). It now exists only in its creator’s mind and in his copy of the storyboard book, a brick-sized testament to artistic purity that remains unsullied by market forces but also unseen by the people. This documentary is about the incommensurability of art and commerce at its extreme fringes, and about the one mad film director would thought that just maybe he could convince them to accord, if only once.
What, if anything, does having a view into the text entered into internet searches tell us about the psychology of those who entered it? Are they mere impressionistic doodles, ephemeral short-attention-span bursts of spectral curiosity? Or do searches tell us more about the underlying psyche of the searchers? About their belief-systems, unconscious desires, or deepest intentions? Governments certainly think so, which is why they’re farming all of that content and sorting through the data to find something to detain you over. And you thought this post would only be good for light entertainment.
vanity fair novel as a satyrical comment on contemporary english society
I am very much in love with that spelling of “satyrical”, although contrary to popular (or maybe less popular and more marginal) belief, the word “satire” does not derive philologically from the Greek mythological creature.
casting of richard armitage as thorin oakenshield, objections
I’m sure that Stuart Townsend was pretty pissed about it.
tolkein orcs politicals england
For whatever reason, every other search result yielded by this phrase was about the Scottish independence movement.
what are the stage names of borden and angier
Siegfried and Roy.
I went searching for the most bizarre and hilarious Siegfried and Roy images and the one above was only barely in the Top Five. Though it involves only Roy, the one below is likely #1.
hochschild leopolds ghost why was there colonization
As complex a question as it is possible to ask, quite probably. But can be summed up roughly as: where there’s honey, there will be flies.
what is ridley scott trying to say in the ibelin scene of kingdom of heaven
I’m not even certain that Ridley Scott knows what Ridley Scott is trying to say with his period epics at this point. Other than “I like sand”.
why is huxley such a prude
I’m assuming this question is rhetorical. Even if it isn’t, ten points to Gryffindor.
This phrase is forever heartening.
innocuous ambiguous gallery
Very good name. Is it taken?
the hobbit trilogy is underappreciated
Is that you, Peter Jackson? Go back to finishing the Extended Edition DVD. Slacker.
The Heat (2013; Directed by Paul Feig)
It’s a central tenet of feminism that women are as good as men (if not better) and deserve every fair opportunity to demonstrate it. But an equally key feature of the feminist project must be to allow women to be as bad as men and to be treated and understood in equivalent terms. Just as “successful” women are often objectified and victimized by pervasive tropes that proscribe their individual agency and personal integrity, “unsuccessful” women are likewise pigeonholed and limited by distinct (but often related or adapted) stereotypes. Feminism in its ideal form allows women not only the unfettered chance to be at their best that men evidently receive, but also a level of sympathy and regard equivalent to that afforded to men when reduced to their worst.
Comedy director Paul Feig has been doing decent if aesthetically unremarkable yeoman’s (yeowoman’s? yeoperson’s?) work for the image and perception of funny women in Hollywood since at least 2011, when his Judd Apatow-produced women-centric comedy Bridesmaids was a surprise box office smash. Feig had cut his creative teeth on Freaks and Geeks, a critically-acclaimed but little-watched television show from the turn of the millennium that has become, in retrospect, the biggest non-SNL American mainstream comedy incubator of the past 20 years (Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow helped develop it, and current established comedy leads Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segal were among its principal young actors). But it was Bridesmaids that pushed him to the forefront of big-screen comedy.
The Heat is his follow-up to that galvanizing success, and like Bridesmaids it’s more a movie prominently featuring women in screen roles generally occupied by men than it is a specifically feminist movie. That the former is quickly construed as the latter is a telling comment on the popular perception of feminism, but in either case it’s as major a step as Hollywood is able to make at the moment in the representational direction of gender equality, so let’s offer our tempered support as encouragement. The aim of trope conquest is not unlaudable in a form increasingly defined by the demographic fragmentation of genre films. Indeed, from a certain perspective, it’s downright revolutionary: the patriarchy perpetuates itself in low culture as well as on society’s elite echelons, so let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that gender representations in comedy movies don’t mean anything.
Bridesmaids established that the dominant contemporary American comedy milieu of the crude, anarchic, semi-improvised buddy-antics farce could appeal equally well to audiences when inhabited by female characters as opposed to male ones (that Apatow, the Caesar of the American big-screen comedy empire built on such dude-dominated farces, oversaw its expansion to include female leads mustn’t escape our critical notice). The Heat, for its part, integrates women characters into the highly masculine-centric and generally chauvinistic buddy cop genre, a frequently mocked genre that is perhaps the most ideologically revealing and societally troubling type of Hollywood product in light of the expanding police state of post-Reagan America.
The Heat is not a satirical commentary on buddy cop movie tropes the way that Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz is, to select one example. It predominantly reproduces the common tropes of the genre and inserts women into them as opposed to men. Therefore, the hyper-competent by-the-book FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock learns to relax, loosen up, and bend the rules and procedures (and, you know, laws) that govern police work by working with the vigorously proletarian street detective played by Melissa McCarthy (the breakout scene-stealer of Bridesmaids) to take down a shadowy, violent drug lord. Feig works in references to obstacles faced by professional women in largely homosocial workplaces everywhere, from the glass ceiling that confronts Bullock’s careerist Sarah Ashburn and denies her a coveted promotion to the derision that McCarthy’s appearance and working-class associations inspire in her male colleagues. But if The Heat is feminist, it is feminist more in general premise than in specific textual detail.
Does it matter whether The Heat is feminist, as long as it’s funny? It is intermittently funny in the scattershot, half-improvised, throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks manner of much American comedy from the Apatow stable. McCarthy overcomes some early obesity humour to carve out her own particular foul-mouthed, fiercely loyal, absurdly self-confident take on the loose-cannon cop archetype. Her Detective Mullins is a motormouthed bulldozer, and if any specific utterance doesn’t flatten you, another is coming along in a moment to try its luck. Bullock is an able foil for her, and is gifted with many of the funnier (likely written) lines. That the same actress is at the centre of this movie and the taut space thriller Gravity in the same year is testament to a rare range and versatility that goes unappreciated. Little of the supporting work is notable, though comic Spoken Reasons has some humourous moments as a low-level street dealer named Rojas who keeps popping up in their investigation.
What The Heat achieves in a wider sense is to inculcate female officers in the consistent process of discursive justification of growing police power and supralegal enforcement activities that cop movies with male protagonists have been carrying out for decades. Mullins is introduced busting a john (Tony Hale) soliciting prostitutes and then pursuing Rojas for drug possession. Both of these crimes, while incontrovertibly illegal, are controversially so in terms of public opinion, but Feig’s movie has no inclination to question the terms of social order (an order that limits the options of the low-income women and minorities disproportionally arrested for those respective offenses) that their enforcement supports.
Like in conservatively-tilted cop movies stretching back to the era of Dirty Harry at least, Mullins and Ashburn show that disregarding all of those limp-spined politically-correct liberal procedures and bothersome criminal laws is the only way to effectively dispense justice to the truly guilty (and the officers always have sole discretion in deciding who that is). Hollywood convention conceives of the rogue cop as the modern symbolic heir to the Old West gunslinger, but both figures have been subaltern foot soldiers in long-standing processes of hegemonic enforcement of discriminatory conditions. The rogue cop figure has provided important populist discursive cover for the increase in police brutality, overreach and militarization in America, a deepening nightmare that the country is only beginning to wake up to.
The Heat does not challenge this structure of representation but merely muscles women into a comparable position as men in buttressing it. It seeks to break up the boys’ club of the patriarchy but not the oppressions that the patriarchy inflicts upon anyone other than white professional women. Although Hot Fuzz reproduces many of the same buddy cop flick tropes as The Heat (their over-the-top satirical titles are even similar), a key distinction can be seen in one of Hot Fuzz‘s underappreciated core ironies. Unlike in The Heat and most other American cop movies, Wright’s satire of the genre utilized the rogue extralegal vigilante police(man) officer in usurping the power of a closed, untouchable conservative social elite, in putting a firm end to the discriminatory enforcement of a restrictive social order of conformity and obedience to authority.
What The Heat does achieve, or work towards achieving, is the above-defined feminist project of gender equality on its lower registers. It allows that women can be as crude, violent, and loud-mouthed as men without incurring special discrimination, and that they can also be pocket-fascist assholes with guns and badges with every bit as much alacrity. It might also give clues to Feig’s forthcoming, sure-to-be-contentious all-female Ghostbusters reboot, which will no doubt take on the stubbornly patriarchal geek culture just as his earlier work tackled gross-out farces with hearts of gold and buddy cop action-comedies.
Although I can’t say that I’ve seen many more new films during this past calendar year than this selection of ten, I can say that this selection of notable films released in 2014 all moved, entertained, or challenged me in some way or other and are worthy of mention at this time of annual listified recaps. Links to relevant full RandomDanglingMystery reviews are included by each ranked entry, and my similar list for 2012 is here.
1. The Lego Movie (Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)
“The Lego Movie delights in its contradictions and that saves it from being swallowed up in them. It thrills at the suggestion of its own self-negation, repeatedly flips the concept of tonal or metaphorical consistency head over heels, and spirals off giddily in clever asides, inventive visuals, and boundless, wall-demolishing energy. Though its text self-consciously celebrates the disordered, nonsensical creative exhilaration of a child with only a Lego set and a limitless imagination, the construction and character of the text itself is the greatest celebration of that enervating impulse imaginable.”
2. Tim’s Vermeer (Directed by Teller)
“Tim’s Vermeer makes the master’s achievement seem grander and more ingenious even while systematically demystifying the amorphous cult of the genius. The technical ingenuity and problem-solving acumen that Tim Jenison demonstrates and implicitly attributes to Johannes Vermeer need not preclude the evolved creative instincts and aesthetic vision that are breathlessly (and lazily) imparted to ineffable ‘genius’. Tim’s Vermeer suggests that sophisticated technical achievement is its own form of genius, and can tessellate seamlessly with loftier visions to form the genesis of a most memorable art.”
3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Directed by Matt Reeves)
“Who would have reasonably believed it? The summer’s most intelligently crafted blockbuster is descended from a long line of stiff, heavy-handed sci-fi B-movies; Hollywood’s most emotionally and politically resonant statement of this silliest of movie seasons features a gaggle of simians (some of them riding horses!) as its protagonists. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes should be (and at its core truly remains) ridiculous. And yet it’s serious without being pedantic, suffused with soulful feeling instead of cornball manipulativeness, a powerful spectacle whose inevitably conflict grows organically from situations, characters relations, and ideologically differences.”
4. Frank (Directed by Lenny Abrahamson)
“Abrahamson’s film, a sort of outsider riff on This is Spinal Tap for the millenial hipster subculture, is a sharply absurdist and frequently hilarious satire of indie culture’s indulgent meta-embrace of creative expression for its own sake, as well as a dismantling of the bohemian ideal of artistic genesis as an outlet for transference of suffering and turmoil.”
5. Godzilla (Directed by Gareth Edwards)
“Director Gareth Edwards tantrically holds off on a full frontal of his titular iconic reptilian monster for nearly an hour. Even this reveal is tantalizing brief, if also so powerfully iconic as to merit actual in-theater applause and conclusively prove his adoration for the material. Much of his film is vivid rising action and subtle, realist, almost zen-like enormity leading to spikes of even greater enormity.”
6. Mr. Turner (Directed by Mike Leigh)
“Mr. Turner is one of the year’s most gorgeously photographed films, and will surely earn cinematographer Dick Pope an Oscar nomination (if not a win) if enough Academy members have the right kind of eyes. In exquisitely-shot landscapes that often directly recreate Turner’s grand canvasses in the motion picture frame, Leigh and Pope demonstrate the occasionally-glimpsed sublimity that Turner was able to muster out of his mostly mundane daily life.”
7. Interstellar (Directed by Christopher Nolan)
“Like most of Nolan’s films, Interstellar is a transporting, entertaining, impressive cinematic experience. The operatically monumental long-building climax is tremendously tense, a marvel of interwoven performance, effects, technical excellence, and emotion-manipulating editing acumen elevated to the level of the visually symphonic by Hans Zimmer’s rising, resonantly dramatic score.”
8. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Directed by Peter Jackson)
“From its opening sequence, The Battle of the Five Armies strives for a much less flippant tone [than that of its predecessors]. Picking up moments after The Desolation of Smaug‘s cliffhanger with that film’s titular dragon swooping down with fiery catastrophe on wooden Laketown, The Battle of the Five Armies is a relentlessly paced wringer of a dire war movie. Unlike the book, in which Bilbo gets a bump on the head and naps through the meat-grinder of the battle, Jackson shows us thousands of beings breathing their last (some of which we might even have come to care about) and does not treat the slaughter with anything less than a stiff-lipped seriousness.”
9. Snowpiercer (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)
“The alternately viscerally brutal and thoroughly ludicrous dystopian action thriller Snowpiercer is such an indescribable cinematic text that even an accurate synopsis does not begin to scratch the surface of its bleak, steely, bloody vision. To state it matter-of-factly, Snowpiercer is about a stark future in which the entire surviving remnant of humanity travels through a permafrozen landscape aboard a self-sustaining, socially-stratified train running on an eternal global loop. But this description does little justice to Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s harshly ambitious, remarkably designed, and often functionally insane visual, thematic, and sociopolitical embellishments to a much simpler French graphic novel narrative along the same lines.”
10. Guardians of the Galaxy (Directed by James Gunn)
“Guardians of the Galaxy also suggests a fine pop song with its aesthetic appeal, throwaway wit, and brief but penetrating stabs of emotion. It breezes by in a burst of slick, violent, energetic delight. It’s what Marvel Studios films, in their generally successful but often joyless quest for a balance between storytelling coherence, character integrity, and sociopolitical resonance, often forget to be: tremendously, often transgressively, fun.”
Mr. Turner (2014; Directed by Mike Leigh)
The cinema in 2014 gave us several fascinating perspectives on the nature and source of artistic genius and inspiration. It was defined alternately as an innate gift divorced from experience and formative circumstances (Frank), a collaborative hybrid of pure creative outpouring and regimented organization (The Lego Movie), and a product of technical ingenuity and dedicated work ethic (Tim’s Vermeer). Its ossified and fragile patrimony was worth protecting from the violent upheaval of history at the cost of human lives (The Monuments Men) and its blistering self-expression was worth wringing out of willing vessels at the cost of human kindness (jazz-school drama Whiplash).
In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, artistic genius is simply a fact of everyday existence. The sublime cannot be summoned, captured, or marshalled; it simply is, and those with the right kind of eyes and the proper technical training can occasionally craft a slight reflection of it. Suffering or pain do not motivate or inspire an artist to greater work any more than these common bedfellows of human existence motivate a baker, a tailor, or a factory worker. Art is an object that many people can craft but some can craft better than others, and profound treatises considering the reasons for this discrepancy are unproductive, wrongheaded follies.
This grounded, realist approach is symptomatic of Leigh’s filmmaking, but it is not an impediment to aesthetic beauty or sympathetic insight. Indeed, Mr. Turner is one of the year’s most gorgeously photographed films, and will surely earn cinematographer Dick Pope an Oscar nomination (if not a win) if enough Academy members have the right kind of eyes. Portraying the key adult creative years of Britain’s greatest painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner (played with grunting, Falstaffian, bearish reality by the ever-excellent character actor Timothy Spall, who might also get an Oscar call this year), Leigh’s film is chocked full of the stuff of a complicated but earthbound life with little of the romantic bohemianism of the myth of the genius. But in exquisitely-shot landscapes that often directly recreate Turner’s grand canvasses in the motion picture frame (including a breathtaking Low Countries field with sunlit windmill as well as the full panorama of The Fighting Temeraire), Leigh and Pope demonstrate the occasionally-glimpsed sublimity that Turner was able to muster out of his mostly mundane daily life.
That daily life included the loss of his proud ex-barber father (Paul Jesson) after years of the elder Turner assisting the younger in his work, his refusal to acknowledge a mistress (Ruth Sheen) who bore him two also unacknowledged daughters, his blithe disregard and occasional sexual exploitation of his psoriasis-afflicted housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson), and his eventual quasi-marital bliss with widow Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). He meets with wealthy patrons and fellow Royal Academy artists (there’s an amusing episode at the annual salon between Turner and his landscape rival, John Constable), learns of the scientific nature of light and colour from a natural philosopher and foresees the fundamental shift that the embryonic practice of photography will herald in painting, and endures and then wittily mocks the insufferable erudition of influential art critic (and hagiographer of his future reputation) John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire). He lives long enough to sees major shifts in fashions in art and to witness the increasingly abstract works of his later years dismissed by early Victorian society (and even by the aesthetically particular Queen Victoria herself).
The constant through it all is Spall as Turner, swaying his trunkish form with observant determination. There seems to be little corporeal distinction in the man’s body from hips to shoulders, but he has the interesting face to end all interesting faces, to borrow a Hollywood casting director term. Spall’s Turner is consistently unlovable in his behaviour and especially in his relationships to others. He often speaks abruptly and directly, grumbling frequently, vocalizing his reactions in ursine grunts and groans of an astonishing variety and expressive breadth. Leigh’s script is peppered with understated humour, but the film’s truest chuckles (and Turner’s ultimately winning personality) stem inevitably from Spall’s communicative croaks.
Strokes of painterly beauty aside, Mr. Turner is a deeply realist biographical portrait of an artist who could pull the sublime out of the natural (and the unnatural) world. A different filmmaker might have elevated Turner as his work elevates what it depicts, but Leigh keeps things stubbornly grounded. A good exemplification of his approach can be descried in a famous episode in which Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a sailing ship to observe (and later to paint) a maritime snowstorm. It’s a wonderful image of borderline-insane artistic commitment, and another filmmaker might have used the full technological toolbox of modern moviemaking to make an epic, sweeping sequence in long shots approximating the grandeur of a Turner canvas. They might not have even been wrong to do so.
But Mike Leigh shows Spall being tied to the mast in medium close-up, cuts wide briefly to demonstrate his crow’s nest elevation, and then goes back in close, showing Turner splashed by clumps of snow, hooting in exhiliration at the experience. Then he shows him coughing and breathing heavily, his doctor fretting that he’s given himself bronchitis. It’s a choice of mundane reality over the mythically grandiose that is highly representative of Leigh and, if we share his view of the great artist and not-quite-so-great man, ultimately of J.M.W. Turner as well.