#5: Django Unchained:
I’m going to make a statement sure to spark some controversy among my friend group: Django Unchained is the best film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Whereas Pulp Fiction represents the writer-director as a youthful force to be reckoned with, with its disjointed narrative structure, extended “cool guy” monologues, and general influence on the filmmaking landscape of the 1990s, Django is Tarantino at his most refined as a filmmaker. The story is the most straightforward and linear of any Tarantino script, the character motivations are real, true and easy to understand, and the direction does not cave to some of his more indulgent behaviors.
My main gripe with Tarantino’s previous film, Inglourious Basterds, was not its example of “revisionist history,” but that it revised history so extensively. I mean, they kill Hitler and end WWII. In Django, Tarantino wisely tells a much smaller tale: its title character, a freed slave, does not end the institution of slavery, but he brings emancipation to a few select people in his circle, and in this way, becomes a relatable hero.
Tarantino also provides us with some unexpected moments of gravitas amid the gleeful manipulation of genre tropes and anachronisms: Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” plays, and we hear the words, “…and I carry it with my like my Daddy did.” At the same moment, Django is presented with his very own saddle, brandished with his first initial. It’s an incredibly touching moment: here is a slave, a man whose humanity was stripped form him, whose name was not handed down but was forced upon him, now able to establish that name as a free man.
The performances, as with most Tarantino films, are excellent: Christoph Waltz, in particular, steals the show quietly from his scene-chewing peers Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz’s character, King Schultz, may also be one of the few Tarantino characters who both begins and ends the film as a totally decent person committed to real morals. As a screenwriter, Tarantino’s greatest strength here is his restraint: he’s smart enough to know what can be joked about and what can’t when it comes to the horrors of the Antebellum South, and he shows maturity in presenting even some of the vilest characters as people to be taken seriously (except, of course, for those buffoonish KKK members).
This most terrifying film I saw in 2014, Whiplash remains a haunting and unsettling piece of cinema. Its ending, praised not just for its technical merits, but as a triumphant, inspiring, and uplifting conclusion, is sorely misunderstood. At the heart of this film is the question, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”
Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is an aspiring drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where every jazz musician is aspiring to be selected for Terence Fletcher’s (an imposing J.K. Simmons) studio band. Andrew is no different: he idolizes jazz greats like Buddy Rich and toils away in lesser school bands, longing for his chance to prove his worth to Fletcher at whatever personal or moral cost. Fletcher is sadistic in his methods, often citing a story about Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head by Jo Jones, and Parker’s subsequent growth into one of the greats as a result of the embarrassment. Fletcher sees his role as having to “push people beyond what’s expected of them,” and his extreme lengths take Andrew to his physical and mental breaking points.
At the film’s conclusion, Andrew overcomes Fletcher’s deliberate on-stage sabotage, unleashing a ferocious and groundbreaking drum solo that instantly connects teacher and pupil in a transcendental experience. In that moment, Andrew refuses to leave his recital and put Fletcher’s betrayal behind or beneath him. We see one last image of Andrew’s father shrinking away from the stage doors, horrified at the transformation he’s just seen in his son, unable to recognize what Andrew is becoming. The message of the film is twofold:
1) Fletcher’s method “worked,” but does that make it the right method? Did the ends justify the means?
2) From Andrew’s perspective, is it worth it? To be “great,” is it worth losing one’s soul? Did the means justify the ends?
#3: Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
I’ll never understand why Birdman became a movie accused of “pretention,” but Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was not accused of the same. Birdman turned the 2014-15 awards season on its head, pulling ahead of critical darling Boyhood and eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar. This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the Academy’s general aversion to rewarding comedies, let alone hard-bitten, cynical satires.
Make no mistake: Birdman is a comedy, and often a very funny one. Michael Keaton (playing a meta version of himself) and Edward Norton (doing the same) fist fighting in their underwear borders on farcical, and it’s a sight to behold.
Speaking of sights to behold, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is stunning, getting within mere inches of actors’ faces, capturing such minute details and subtleties in the performances that it’s unlike any film you’ve seen.
Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is a mentally unstable former movie star whose on-screen superhero persona, Birdman, haunts him in more ways than one. The specter of his cartoony films looms over his efforts to adapt a serious Raymond Carver production for Broadway, where critics are waiting to revile him. What’s more, he’s hearing voices—specifically, the voice of Birdman. The triumph of director Alejandro G. Inarritu is in adding to the mystery of it all: it appears to us as though Riggan actually has the superpowers that Birdman had. Is Riggan a superhero among us, or are we as the audience watching his own delusions and hallucinations?
Birdman has a lot to say, about the nature of criticism, the effects of age on a career, the appreciation of art, and whether we misdiagnose the unstable as the “brilliant.”
#2: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
I could write paragraphs on paragraphs about this film. It is, in my opinion, about as perfect as a 3-hour action-fantasy film can get. It’s a near-perfect example of how to adapt a novel to the screen—and yes, I say “adapt,” not “transliterate.” Scenes have been cut, timelines rearranged to make The Two Towers work on its own, and not simply as the obligatory sandwich film between the first and last installments of a trilogy.
There are, of course, three major developments in The Two Towers that must be mentioned. The first is the true introduction of Gollum as a character, and the enormous leap forward in CGI rendering and motion-capture provided by Weta Digital and the brilliant actor Andy Serkis. Fifteen years on, Gollum holds up, and that’s saying something in an environment where computer-generated imagery is instantly obsolete.
Secondly, the culmination of the film’s plot threads in the Battle of the Hornburg at Helm’s Deep. Peter Jackson proves his worth as the David Lean of his generation, expertly choreographing war scenes, placing the camera in such a way that the audience is always aware of the geography of the scene. The blending of miniatures and real sets, extras and CGI armies, is seamless and effective. The buildup to the battle is tense and suspenseful. The resolution, in which the resurrected Gandalf leads the Rohirim down the hill at dawn, is such overt and obvious symbolism that, in the hands of lesser filmmakers, it would have been silly. Instead, it’s the crowning moment of the trilogy: a foreshadowing that the coming dawn will scatter the clouds of darkness, that the armies of light will prevail.
And then there’s the beautiful monologue by Samwise Gamgee, which cemented itself as one of the most powerful speeches in the trilogy, giving shape and focus to what the whole enterprise is about: there is goodness in the world, and principles are worth sacrifice. No trilogy (no, not even the original Star Wars trilogy) has so effectively used its middle chapter to bring purpose to the saga, to establish the expectations for the final chapter, not along lines of simple plot resolution, but along thematic fulfillment.
The reason Return of the King works is only because of The Two Towers. Every major event that occurs in RotK is foreshadowed here. It’s a microcosm of the larger picture we get in RotK: the battle in RotK is ten times larger, but we get the sense that Helm’s Deep is the more crucial battle: our heroes need a win here, if only to stave off the impending despair. They will sink to even lower depths in the third film, full of fatigue and doubt, but it’s only because we’ve seen the glimmer of hope offered here that any emotional payoff is possible in Return of the King.
#1: Children of Men
Children of Men is dystopian cinema at its finest: director Alfonso Cuarón followed up his foray into the world of Harry Potter with a bleak, uncompromising vision of the world as fundamentally hopeless—until hope arrives. The film works as metaphor, typography, allegory—but most importantly, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki craft a filmic environment that is enveloping, as meticulously detailed as any sci-fi universe.
The setting is 20127 London. Humanity has, for unexplained reasons, become unable to continue bearing children. The world’s youngest person—a distinction which earned the young man worldwide celebrity—has died. The fragile peace that humans had crafted in accepting their slow demise is shattered: rival gangs and fanatical groups wreak havoc on England, one of the few remaining bastions of livable space. Refugees are rounded up, brutalized, and often (illegally) executed.
Through this hellscape travels Theo—“theo,” get it?—played by Clive Owen, who has become severely jaded after the death of his own son and his subsequent separation form his activist (and now radical activist) wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian reappears to introduce Theo to the young woman Kee, who is revealed to be—somehow—pregnant (because she’s the key to the future of humanity, get it?). Theo is roped into escorting the girl to the sea, across hostile territories and dangerous refugee camps besieged by soldiers. He discovers that he can trust no one, as the few people who come to learn about Kee’s pregnancy seek to leverage her for power in what they see as a new world order.
Cuarón’s film, despite its dark premise, is about the possibility of a better future for the human race. It’s obviously also a religious metaphor, but beyond that, on a deeper level, it’s about the mistakes of previous generations, the havoc and destruction they wreak senselessly on each other, and the hope presented by our children. By completely removing young people from the picture, the viewer is left to ponder the meaning of what it means to be human: is this all there is? Are adults destined to destroy each other? In Cuarón’s world, the continuation and betterment of our species is what gives us purpose—here, it’s the possibility of just one new birth, but in the real world, it’s a call for us to see the next generation as infinitely precious and valuable. Perhaps the most poignant moments of the film come in the closing credits, where, over stark black-and-white title cards, we finally hear the uninterrupted sounds of children playing, laughing, yelling. We, the audience, are reminded of that which has been missing from the world of the film, and encouraged to look for the hope offered in those little people as we come away from its harrowing tale.