Let’s Talk About All the 2014 Movies, Part 5- Back From the Dead

12 Mar

I didn’t give up on this, I’ve just been super busy lately. Working on a novel and planning on moving back to the East Coast, so not as much time for blogging. After I finish up this and the Assassin’s Creed list I will probably give it a rest for a while. I do kinda want to write an article about how awful it is living with Hare Krishnas and how I wish Californians would be less passive-aggressive and indignant all the time, but I feel I always get flak for being too negative, so probably best to leave that one by the wayside.

13. Nymphomaniac

By far the weirdest movie I saw all year, stranger even than Noah, stone giants and all. But Lars Von Trier is always weird, so this was nothing to be surprised by; really, it’s why I wanted to see the movie in the first place. Well… that and sex. Mostly the sex. I like sex. A lot. It’s a topic that fascinates me, and I’m drawn to movies that explore sex and sexuality in interesting ways.

Von Trier is known for putting sex under the microscope, but like all male filmmakers, this can get tricky when dealing with female sexuality. While not outright hated by critics, the film was divisive among the Jezebel/rich white lady feminist types as its plot focuses on a woman with a long and torrid sexual history, the titular nymphomaniac, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. For most of the movie she is pursuing pleasure not love, and the film includes actual sexual penetration and all sorts of other taboo shit, including a scene in which two African men argue in their native tongue over who gets which of Gainsbourg’s orifices.

So the sexual politics are a bit shaky, but the film operates in a heightened reality and covers a lot of thematic ground, so I wouldn’t really call it misogynistic. Gainsbourg’s Joe is a strong, nuanced character that is always fascinating to watch, though Part I is considerably more engaging than Part II, which finds Joe working as a dominatrix torturer for criminal underlords… it gets a little too out there by the end, even by Von Trier’s standards.

Not much shocks me, so the sex didn’t make me gasp or anything, though I did find it interesting how unsexy the sex was, how it was approached in a more clinical, almost anthropological manner. I also think this film doesn’t get enough credit for its special effects. Though the actors’ characters have sex in all sorts of ways, they themselves did not engage in any of the on-screen penetration. This was achieved by digitally pasting their heads onto the bodies of porn stars, which doesn’t sound that impressive, but is when you consider how seamless it all was. There’s one particular shot, in which Stacy Martin is on top of Shia LaBeouf, and it’s a sort of gonzo close-up of penetration with LaBeouf’s face in the background, slightly out of focus, and I had no idea how they achieved that. See! Even weird sex movies can have good SFX, unlike, you know, half the blockbusters they churn out these days.

Also this movie kinda made me like Shia LaBeouf. #iamnotfamousanymore

I think I like Shia LaBeouf the most when he plays douchey sex perverts.

12. Boyhood

Redlettermedia is my favorite movie website and I almost always agree with the tastes and opinions of Mike and Jay, hosts of Half in the Bag. Fans of schlock and genre film, the duo aren’t generally the best source of criticism for independent film, and Boyhood was no exception. They despised Boyhood, so much so that it has become a running joke on the site, with them recently rubbing salt in the wound that is the film’s dearth of Oscar wins (save for Patricia Arquette, who definitely deserved her acting award, and now gets to make buckets of cash with Dawson from Dawson’s Creek on CSI: Cyber, which yes, is a real TV show, I didn’t just make that up).

I didn’t expect to like Boyhood, not just because of RLM’s curmudgeonly opinion, but because it did come of as pretentious in trailers and promotional materials. I don’t trust mainstream critics anymore than RLM does, so the “Fresh” Rottentomatoes score meant little to me. I figured critics were blinded by the novelty of a film made over the course of a dozen years.

Let’s start with that. I’m not impressed. I’m impressed from a logistical standpoint, in that it must have been difficult securing financing for the film, negotiating the actors’ contracts, and lining up all their schedules so they could come back and shoot more movie every few years. Whoever produced Boyhood deserves an award, because getting everything locked in place must have been a total nightmare. But telling a story that spans twelve years and uses the same actors isn’t much more to me than a novelty. It isn’t innovative; it’s just clever.

That being said, it does add to the experience of the film. If they had used old age makeup on Arquette and Ethan Hawke and cast three or four actors to play their children, that would have been a far less effective film than the one we have here. The obsession over the “it took twelve years to make” aspect really does shine a light on just how far Hollywood has its head up its own ass. I mean, this is what most TV shows are, right? One long story told over many years? I’ve watched Carl from Walking Dead grow up. I watched the creepy kid from Weeds go through puberty in the interim between seasons. I watched a bunch of Harry Potter movies. The only reason Boyhood gets more attention than those is because of the illusion of prestige: it’s an independent film directed by art house darling Richard Linklater.

Regardless of how innovative you believe Boyhood to be, it is a pretty good movie and nowhere near the pile of shit Redlettermedia led me to believe it was. However, I think it resonates much more if you’re a white man like me, as this story is pretty exclusive to our personal experience. I think it will also resonate with children of divorce, regardless of background, and though my parents are still together, I felt that aspect of the story was handled truthfully. I appreciated how realistic the film felt, and how the progression of Mason’s life and the trials and tribulations he experienced recalled my own, regardless of individual differences. It’s a film that’s more about the experience of growing up and life itself than telling a story, and that’s why someone looking for a more traditional structure, like RLM, would hate it.

I too generally prefer films with strong narratives, but all the same I’ve never seen a more touching rendition of the coming of age archetype. Near the end of the film, Mason’s mother breaks down, realizing that after three divorces and two children gone to college, she is now truly alone, her life and all her dreams tossed to the wayside. It was a really telling moment that struck home just how quickly life can pass us by.

11. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

God, I love these Marvel movies so freaking much. I never thought I would. I didn’t really like Iron Man when it came out. 2007 was the year of Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, so I was pretty tired of the superhero genre, content to just watch Christopher Nolan’s Batman growl angrily for another movie or two. The Avengers changed all that, and other than The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 & 3, I can’t say I’ve ever disliked any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and I regularly watch both Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter on ABC.

Along with the first Iron Man, The Avengers and this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, The Winter Soldier is the best of the best when it comes to the MCU. What I love about the Marvel movies is how each individual franchise has its own unique style (I think that’s why the Iron Man sequels failed, they were too all over the place stylistically, relying solely on Robert Downey Jr.’s charm). Thor is a Nordic-themed space fantasy, Guardians of the Galaxy is The Dirty Dozen meets Star Wars, and The Winter Soldier is a high stakes espionage thriller that takes cues from the best of the genre, 70s films like The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor. Hell, it even stars Condor’s Robert Redford!

The filmmakers wisely understood that while a great hero, Cap isn’t the most compelling character. Thus, they populated the film with more vivid side characters, giving a lot of time in particular to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury, while Cap acts more as a symbol for all that is good about America. I love that Cap isn’t a tool of the government like say, Superman, that he only believes in upholding American values and defending the innocent, and doesn’t answer to whoever happens to be in office. To make sure the audience can relate to him, the writers add little bits of comedic humanism, like Cap’s running list of pop culture references he needs to catch up on.

While the film ends with a bombastic set-piece in which three flying aircraft carriers crash and burn over the National Mall, in general the action was more low key and realistic, which I really, really appreciated. In 2013 I had to watch Superman destroy Metropolis FOR FOUR HOURS STRAIGHT so it was nice to see a summer (or spring I suppose) blockbuster that was more about straightforward gun action. Blowing up cities? Meh, not for me unless Godzilla’s involved, I’m more into people just shooting each other to pieces, thank you very much.

And Winter Soldier delivers, particularly with the film’s best setpiece, in which Fury is ambushed by Hydra assassins and pinned down in the streets of D.C. I’ll take character-driven action over large-scale destruction any day of the week.

Continue to #10-6

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