So, it’s been a while. So long, in fact, that if you scroll down just a little, you’ll see that my previous post on this here site was my list of the best movies of 2013 (and that one wasn’t three weeks late, even). I could get into why I haven’t written anything in so long, starting with the fact that I’ve actually been writing a lot but focusing on the novel instead, to the point that the end of the first draft is actually in sight, but who cares, right? Still, at the end of the year I couldn’t help but make a top 10, and once you start doing that, you might as well write it up and publish it, so here we are. And since 2014 was such a strong year for movies (which you wouldn’t know if all you’re interested is serious Hollywood prestige pictures, the one area that kinda sucked, but again, who cares?), and since I haven’t written anything movie-related in a while, I figured I’d do things a little differently this time and give you a top 25, while writing a short thing about ten of those movies (only four of which are in my top 10). If all you’re interested in is the list, you can just scroll down to the bottom of this post. I won’t hold it against you.
The completely arbitrary selection criteria remain the same: in order to be eligible, a movie must have been released in France in 2014, unless it was released in the US in 2013 or earlier, in which case, well, that’s too bad. (Hey, that still makes more sense than the rules for Academy Awards nominations.) Among the films that came out in 2014 here but are excluded per the above rule, a few would have had a strong shot at making it into my best of the year list, namely, Spike Jonze’s Her, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and Sébastien Betbeder’s 2 Autumns, 3 Winters (the last of which was actually a 2013 release that I didn’t get to see until last January). This also means that a number of films that have yet to be released in France won’t be included (duh). Among those, the two I’m most looking forward are Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (as both a P.T. Anderson and a Pynchon fan, how could I not?) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
And now, without further ado, a bunch of nonsense about some fine movies:
Best Live-Action Cartoon: Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui Hark)
A prequel to 2010’s Detective Dee: Mystery of the Phantom Flame (which makes its French title, Detective Dee 2, particularly baffling), Tsui Hark’s Young Detective Dee is about as pulpy as it gets. And as fun, too. Part-Indiana Jones, part-Scooby-Doo, it features everything from political machinations to supernatural curses, with such colorful characters as a Fu Manchu-like villain with one hell of a convoluted plan to take over China or a doctor with a gorilla paw for a hand and a disturbing love for dangerous experiments. Newcomer Mark Chao portrays the title character as one smug son of a bitch, which makes for a nice contrast with Andy Lau’s older, wiser Dee from the first movie. Although it relies a little too heavily on often-awkward CGI for its own good, Young Detective Dee provides a number of impressive, beautifully choreographed action set pieces (this is Tsui Hark we’re talking about, after all) and never takes itself so seriously that it’s above going for a silly slapstick gag or throwing in yet another shot of Chao smirking like an insufferable bastard.
Best Romantic Comedy: Love at First Fight (Thomas Cailley)
2014 was a surprisingly strong year for romantic comedies, a genre that has come to be dominated by mediocre run-of-the-mill (as well as terrible run-of-the-mill) offerings in recent years. Obvious Child dared to be awkward and honest, What If featured people who look and act (mostly) like normal people, and even Begin Again had its charms, even if it failed to recapture the magic of Once. The best of the bunch, though was Thomas Cailley’s Love at First Fight (Les Combattants in the original French), which gives us a most unlikely pair: Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), a young man barely out of his teens who seems destined to take over the family business (carpentry) with his brother, and Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), with her Master’s in macroeconomics and her deep-seated conviction that the world is about to come to an abrupt end. Haenel is hilariously deadpan as Madeleine (my favorite gag has her explaining that macroeconomics consists in looking at past patterns to predict the future, before adding “but there won’t be any future, so there’s no point”), but the film works because, like Arnaud, it’s willing to engage with her point of view all the way to the end. It’s also not afraid to take chances and experiment, both narratively and visually, or to end without tying everything together neatly.
Best Coen Brothers Knockoff: In Order of Disappearance (Hans Peter Molland)
Set in an isolated village cut off from the rest of the world by what looks like perpetual heavy snowfall, Hans Peter Molland’s In Order of Disappearance is Norway’s answer to the Coen brothers, by way of Quentin Tarantino. What begins as a straightforward revenge tale starring Stellan Skarsgård as a grieving father trying to understand why his son got killed soon turns into a violent and often hilarious black comedy as Skarsgård unwittingly becomes the cause of a turf war between two equally inept gangs. Writer Kim Fupz Aakeson has an ear for surreal dialogue (one of my favorite bits has a gangster explaining to another why all welfare states are cold countries like Norway), and Molland adds many arresting visual gags (the local kingpin’s house has to be seen to be believed). A lot of the fun of In Order of Disappearance comes from watching a bunch of idiots running around while the few competent characters try in vain to get things done, before it all culminates in a predictably bloody finale that’s not without its surprises.
Best Action Film: John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch)
Directed by two veteran stunt coordinators/second-unit directors, John Wick is the rarest of beasts in American cinema, an action movie that features action scenes that are actually understandable and fun to watch. No shaky cam, no shots with an average length of half a second, no constant close-ups, just perfectly choreographed action. Seriously over-the-top action, too, which only makes the whole thing better. In fact, John Wick feels like a comic book movie, except it’s not based on any existing property. While the plot is paper thin (John Wick, played by a perfectly-cast Keanu Reeves, wants revenge from the thugs who killed the dog his dead wife gave him), the world the movie builds is rich and peopled with colorful and hilarious characters, from manic kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist, giving some of the best line readings of the year) to Wick’s friend and rival Marcus (Willem Dafoe). It’s the kind of film you wouldn’t mind turning into a franchise, as long as Stahelski and Leitch remain at the helm.
(Seriously, watch this clip, particularly the bit that starts at 0:30, and tell me it doesn’t look great.)
Runner-ups: Edge of Tomorrow, which is so fun and smart that an ending that feels like a cop-out isn’t enough to ruin it. Also, The Raid 2, which at its best is as intense as the first one, but gets bogged down in an overly-complicated plot in an unsuccessful attempt to be a martial arts-heavy version of Infernal Affairs.
Best Animated Film: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
If The Tale of the Princess Kaguya really is to be one of the last Studio Ghibli movies ever (When Marnie Was There will be coming out here in a couple weeks, although it doesn’t seem to have any scheduled release date outside of Japan and France), what a way to go out. Based on a traditional Japanese tale, it tells the story of a bamboo cutter who discovers a tiny girl inside a glowing bamboo shoot and takes her in, before moving to the city with his wife and their fast-growing adoptive daughter when another magical bamboo shoot provides them with a fortune in gold. Exquisitely drawn and animated, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a story about the struggle between the desire to find one’s place in the world and one’s duty that eventually comes back to its supernatural roots in a most surprising and heartbreaking way in its final act. Then again, what did you expect from the director of Grave of the Fireflies?
Runner-up: The Lego Movie, which is indeed awesome.
Best Hollywood Satire: Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
In Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg gives us a funhouse-mirror version of Hollywood populated by psychopathic movie stars, snake-oil salesmen, and fucked-up child actors. So, yeah, pretty much the same as real-world Hollywood. Cronenberg’s funniest movie since eXistenZ, it’s at once a brutal comedy, a silly ghost story, a revenge thriller, and everything in between. While the parts don’t necessarily add up to a cohesive whole, there’s a lot to love here, particularly when it comes to the performances, starting with a great turn by Julianne Moore as an aging actress with deep-seated mommy issues and a distinct lack of anything remotely resembling empathy (watch her sing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” to celebrate the death of a child that allows her to land her dream part). It’s the kind of movie that looks like it could crumble at any moment, and some would argue that it eventually does, but while it’s going, it’s quite the rush.
Most Brutal Indictment of Capitalism: A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Chandor’s third feature, following the drastically different but equally impressive Margin Call and All is Lost, A Most Violent Year looks and feels like a classic gangster movie, with the notable difference that it features no actual gangster. Set in January of 1981, it follows Abel Morales (the great Oscar Isaac, delivering a performance that couldn’t be more different from his turn as a tormented folk singer in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis), a young New York heating-oil tycoon and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, who once again manages to turn a somewhat underwritten part into a complex, fascinating character), as they try to survive a number of professional, personal, and legal calamities. Beset on all sides by people determined to see him fall, most notably his competitors, who in 1981 still see themselves as robber barons (emphasis on the robber part), Abel tries desperately to cling to his principles, fighting to the end to keep his integrity intact. “I’m not a gangster,” Abel says repeatedly, but, well, by the end of the movie, he kinda is. And if a man as righteous and principled as Abel has no choice but to jettison his integrity if he wants to survive in the capitalist jungle, just imagine what happens to those without his scruples.
Runner-ups: Nightcrawler, which is actually about ethics in morning news journalism, and Two Days, One Night, which doubles up as one of the most honest and devastating cinematic portrayals of depression.
Best Coming-of-age Story Not Named Boyhood: Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
Another third feature, Girlhood isn’t exactly a departure from the themes Céline Sciamma explored in her first two movies (2011’s Tomboy and 2007’s Water Lilies, one of the best directorial debuts of the past decade), more of a sideway move. The film focuses on Marieme (Karidja Touré), a young black girl growing up in the projects right outside of Paris, but it isn’t one of those inspirational movies chronicling the rise of an individual out of adversity and poverty through, say, academic, athletic, or musical achievement. No, Girlhood is more interested in the people those movies usually forget about. Marieme is not wanted at school, and she faces tremendous pressure at home, forever tormented by an older brother who keeps tabs on her at all times and physically abuses her, all in the name of protecting her. So Marieme falls in with a gang of girls (the literal translation of the film’s original title, Bande de filles) who, like her, are outsiders, and becomes Vic. Girlhood is a great coming-of-age story, with many a fantastic scene (including a wordless one set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that reduced me to tears both times I saw it), but it’s also an astute look into how we collectively fail kids like Vic and her friends every day, and what consequences this has for them and for society at large.
(It also led to one of my favorite moviegoing moments of the year: the first time I saw it was on opening day, and the theater was packed with teenage black girls, come to see the rare film starring people who actually look like them. They were a rowdy crowd, for better and worse, and while they made a lot of noise and comments, it was always in reaction to the movie, not because they were bored and talking about something else. Near the end, though, there’s a scene in which Vic and a drug dealer get into a staredown, and the scene’s so tense that not a sound could be heard. And then the dealer growls at Vic to lower her eyes, and a girl in the back cried out, “Don’t!” Talk about identifying with a character.)
Best Film Not Named Boyhood: The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
For the longest time Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was my favorite film of the year. In fact, nothing that came out during the first half of the year even came close. A zany comedy that moves at breakneck speed anchored by Ralph Fiennes’s brilliantly controlled performance as Monsieur Gustave, the concierge of the titular hotel, and peopled by Anderson’s usual collection of colorful characters (including Adrien Brody as the evil Dmitri, once again proving that he’s much better at doing comedy than drama), The Grand Budapest Hotel is also a movie about nostalgia, its attraction and its dangers. (In that sense, it has more in common with the movie that occupied this very spot on my list last year than you’d think.) An accusation sometimes levied at Wes Anderson is that his films are all style and no substance, that his carefully-framed shots and his incredible eye for detail are but smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that he has nothing to say, but it couldn’t be more wrong. If The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most Andersonesque of his movies, it isn’t only because it is the culmination of an aesthetic he’s been refining ever since Bottle Rocket, but also because, through the characters of Monsieur Gustave and his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori), it reiterates his belief in the inherent decency of people, and his frustration at the madness of the world.
Best Film: Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Yeah, it’s not the most original choice, but what can I say? Boyhood is at once incredibly ambitious (shot over twelve years, etc., etc.) and extremely intimate. Following Ellar Coltrane as Mason from age 6 to 18, it’s as much about him as it is about his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and their more-or-less successful attempts at becoming responsible adults. Proceeding through a series of often-disjointed scenes (how else are you going to shoot a movie over twelve years anyway?), Boyhood is at once universal and very specific. (All three times I saw it, the two scenes that got the biggest laughs out of the French audience I was with were the “Do I look like a Barack Hussein Obama voter to you?” line and Mason’s sixteenth birthday, for which he receives a suit, a bible, and a gun. The latter in particular must have felt particularly alien to those Parisian crowds.) Among the movie’s impressive accomplishments are the way it perfectly captures the malleability of teenage identity (something Girlhood also does, in different ways), which allows Mason to bro it up when drinking cheap beer and talking about girls with his buddies and their older brothers before, a couple years later, turning into a nail polish-wearing artist/slacker, as well as the way it gives a voice to the adults and to their experiences (Arquette’s “I thought there would be more” breaks my heart every time). It’s a movie that could have been little more than a gimmick and which, in Linklater’s and his actors’ hands, turns into much more than that, a meditation on many of Linklater’s favorite themes and a reflection on what it means to grow up, on what is gained and what is lost in the process. Boyhood, in short, is joy.
And here it is, my top 25, in reverse order:
25. Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui Hark)
24. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
23. Locke (Steven Knight)
22. Mister Turner (Mike Leigh)
21. Love at First Fight (Thomas Cailley)
20. The Lego Movie (Phil Lord & Chris Miller)
19. Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice (Lucie Borleteau)
18. Han Gong-ju (Lee Su-jin)
17. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
16. In Order of Disappearance (Hans Peter Molland)
15. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
14. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata)
13. John Wick (Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)
12. Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
11. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
10. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
9. Love is Strange (Ira Sachs)
8. Mommy (Xavier Dolan)
7. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
6. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
5. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
4. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
3. Girlhood (Céline Sciamma)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
And honorable mentions, movies that didn’t quite make it for one reason or another, but are well worth checking out (in alphabetical order):
’71 (Yann Demange); Black Coal, Thin Ice (Yi’nan Diao); Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier); Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo); Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves); A Girl at my Door (July Jung); Godzilla (Gareth Edwards); Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn); Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski); Joe (David Gordon Green); A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn); Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch); The Rover (David Michôd); Starred Up (David Mackenzie); Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan); We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson).
The above title is misleading. It’s something I mention every year, but it bears repeating nonetheless: the above title is misleading. It implies objectivity when in fact there is nothing more subjective than those end-of-the-year lists. “My favorite films of 2013” would be a better title, or at least a more accurate one. I mention it every year, and every year I still go with “the best films of whatever year it is,” because tradition, and because it sounds much better, and because it gives me an excuse to talk about this objectivity/subjectivity thing and to acknowledge that my lists always end up looking somewhat weird. As in different. (To a certain extent, of course.) Not that different’s bad, obviously. The last thing we need is for all those lists to include the exact same films in the exact same order. (See also Yeezus topping way too many best albums of the year list while not even being the best rap album of the year by a long shot.) Those lists are meant to encourage discussion, so different’s not bad, as long as it’s justified. Being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian is just trolling. Armond White may have made a career out of it, but it’s not a terribly interesting position.
The reasons my lists tend to look a bit strange are twofold. The first and more obvious one is taste; Blue is the Warmest Color, for instance, is a film you’ll see pop up on quite a few of those best of the year lists, but while I liked it well enough, I didn’t quite love it as much as many did. The second reason is simply that I live in France, not the US, so when I talk about “the movies of 2013,” I’m not actually referring to the same set of films many list-makers are. There’s a lot of overlap of course, but also significant differences. For example, Twelve Years a Slave and Her, two of the most acclaimed movies of the year, won’t be coming out until January 22 and March 19 of next year, respectively; meanwhile, two of the films on my list won’t be coming out in the US until next year at the earliest. Other well-received films not yet out here include Nebraska and American Hustle (although I haven’t been a fan of the recent output of both Alexander Payne and David O. Russell), Fruitvale Station, The Spectacular Now, and Short Term 12, and even Johnnie To’s Drug War and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. (That last one is unlikely to ever be released here, so I went ahead and got it on DVD instead of waiting for a theatrical release that’ll never come; for a good long while it was my favorite movie of the year, and it likely would have ended up 3rd or 4th.) That also means that quite a few 2012 movies were only released this year here; those include Django Unchained, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, all of which would have had a solid shot at my top 10 had I considered them. Instead, as usual, I only considered movies that came out in France this year while arbitrarily excluding those that had an American release in 2012. I’ll readily admit it doesn’t make much sense, but that’s the way I’ve been doing it for the past four years now, so yay tradition. (I also somehow missed The Act of Killing, A Hijacking, and The Great Beauty while they were playing here, three movies that received significant critical acclaim in the US.)
And now, without further ado, the list.
10. The Past
Asghar Farhadi follows up A Separation with another heartrending drama, set this time in the suburb of Paris. Ali Mosaffa stars as a man coming back from Iran to finalize his divorce from Bérénice Bejo, only to get caught up in a conflict between her daughter and her new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim). The characters of The Past, like those of all of Farhadi’s movies, are all decent people trying to do the right thing and struggling to figure out exactly what that is. The Past isn’t quite the masterpiece that A Separation was, but what it is is a very good movie about our inability to escape from our own lives. “The past is the past,” Tahar Rahim says at one point, but of course that’s not true (Farhadi doesn’t quite quote Faulkner, but the idea’s the same). Farhadi once declared he is more interested in questions than he is in answers, and with his latest, he once again provides plenty of questions, and precious few answers.
9. Pacific Rim
Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was the most fun I had at the movies this year, so much so that I went back to see it four times (although to be fair I saw all but two films on this list at least twice, if not three times). While most blockbusters have taken a cue from Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and gotten more and more grim and serious, Pacific Rim went in the opposite direction, and the result was phenomenal. Its flaws may be obvious (Charlie Hunnam isn’t exactly the most compelling of leads, the exposition-heavy dialogue is sometimes a bit stilted), but it does so many things right that it doesn’t really matter. It’s an amazing feat of world-building, and if the characters are indeed little more than stereotypes, there’s quite a bit going on under the surface. And of course the fight scenes are a ton of fun.
(Here’s my take on what differentiates Pacific Rim from many modern blockbusters, and why I don’t think it’s a “dumb” film.)
Let’s get it out of the way: yeah, the screenplay to Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut, isn’t the strongest, although it’s much better than some may have you believe. But any flaw in the writing is more than made up for by the incredible visuals. This is a marvel of direction and editing, a film that’s at once gorgeous and incredibly creepy, and by far the best horror movie of the year. Matthew Goode makes for a most unnerving villain, and Mia Wasikowska continues to impress in what turns out to be the origin story of a monster. Much like Pacific Rim, Stoker is more style than substance (which is true of most of Park Chan-wook’s movies to begin with), but when the style is so compelling, who cares? Plus, it closes with a kick-ass Emily Wells song that perfectly fits the mood of the movie.
7. Like Father, Like Son
After the relative disappointment of Air Doll and the solid-but-not-spectacular I Wish (although many will disagree with me on that one), Like Father, Like Son marks a return to form for Koreeda Hirokazu. The story of two families (one well-off, one not so much) whose 6-year-old sons were switched at birth, it explores the questions of class you would expect it to, but focuses just as much on what it means to be a parent. Never sentimental but often heartbreaking, Like Father, Like Son manages to avoid the clichés it could have easily wallowed in and refuses to pass judgment on any of its characters. It also once again showcases Koreeda’s ability to film children like nobody else, although this time most of the film is seen from the point of view of the adults, who seem to have at least as much trouble adapting to the situation as the kids.
The thrill ride of the year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is an incredible feat of filmmaking. Following Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she tries to make it back to Earth however she can after getting caught in a storm of asteroid-like debris that kills everyone on her team but her and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), it is a visceral experience that grabs you right away with its amazing opening scene, one of Cuarón’s trademark long takes that lasts some seven or so minutes, and never lets go. Gravity is a breathtaking technical achievement, a movie that uses 3D in a more interesting and convincing manner than any other film before (although I have a soft spot for the way 2011’s Final Destination 5 embraced the 3D gimmick in its opening credits). I literally saw it twice in a row on opening night, after seeing it a week before at an advanced screening, and it felt every bit as awesome (in the strongest sense of the world) every time.
5. The Wolf of Wall Street
By far the best American comedy of the year, The Wolf of Wall Street also just so happens to be about a bunch of drug- and money-crazed crooks. Anyone who thinks Scorsese is endorsing Jordan Belfort’s deeds and lifestyle isn’t paying attention; we’re meant to laugh as much at these assholes as with them, and it’s made abundantly clear that for all his charm, Belfort is a monster. “Money makes you a better person,” he claims at some point, before doing everything in his power to disprove that notion. “Stratton Oakmont is America,” Belfort tells his cohorts, calling his company the real “land of opportunity,” but five minutes later his closest associate is leading them in a chant of “Fuck USA!” This is the American dream taken to its logical extreme, where all that matters is the individual, and fuck everybody else. The Wolf of Wall Street is insane and brilliant and exhausting, but at almost three hours, it doesn’t feel a minute too long.
4. Before Midnight
Nine years after Before Sunset (and eighteen after their first meeting in Before Sunrise), Céline and Jesse are back, this time as a married couple with children. The opening scene, which has Jesse say goodbye to his now-teenage son going back to his mother thousands of miles away, makes it clear that their getting together at the end of Before Sunset did come at a cost. And now that cost is threatening to become too high to bear. “This is how people start breaking up,” Céline says early on, and for the longest time it feels like we might very well be looking at a break-up about to happen. For the first time in what’s now become a trilogy, Céline and Jesse fight, arguing not only about abstract concepts but also about their own day-to-day life, and they do so in realistic fashion, jumping from one topic to another, bringing up old grudges the other didn’t even know existed, getting caught up in ever more hyperbolic arguments that quickly spin out of control. Before Sunrise was a movie about falling in love, but this is a movie about what it takes to stay in love in the face of time and the routine of life. Here’s hoping that, nine years from now, we get another sequel that’s just as good as this one.
3. The World’s End
The final installment in Edgar Wright’s so-called Cornetto trilogy is also arguably the best. Simon Pegg (who once again co-wrote the screenplay) stars as Gary King, a former high school rebel now pushing forty who wants nothing more than to relive his youth by dragging his old friends through their hometown to complete the pub crawl they attempted twenty years before. Except this time they also have a bunch of Stepford Wives-like robots to contend with. The World’s End is just as funny as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but it’s surprisingly affecting, too (Gary’s “They told me when to go to bed!” is, in context, pretty fucking heartbreaking). Pegg and Wright understand both the attraction of nostalgia and the danger of living in the past, which makes their Gary King, alternatively a charismatic leader and a drunken buffoon (and often both at the same time), more than just a cautionary tale or the butt of the film’s joke. And then there are those crazy fight scenes, a reminder (especially to those who haven’t seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) that Edgar Wright is also a pretty great action director.
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coens’ latest follows Llewyn Davis, a doomed folk singer in early-1960s Greenwich Village. A tragicomedy that’s part Barton Fink and part O’Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis is an almost pointless odyssey that has Llewyn (Oscar Isaac finally getting the part he deserves) run in circles and learn seemingly nothing, except perhaps that closing the door before the cat can get out is a pretty good idea. Llewyn is another one of those characters the Coens like so much, an asshole we can’t help but feel sympathy for and a talented artist (Isaac does all the singing, and damn does he have a good voice) who keeps getting in his own way. For all the laughs it gets (and it gets a lot of them), the movie hits surprisingly hard, and a little too close to home at times. When Llewyn tells his sister that working as a sailor and not making art is “just existing” in a way that makes it clear what he thinks of that, it’s hard not to relate, while at the same time realizing that he is being a huge dick. Some have argued that the Coens dislike their characters in general and Llewyn in particular, but to do so is to forget the fact that, for all his dickishness, Llewyn is profoundly human, and often profoundly touching.
This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read that glowing review I wrote a couple weeks ago (or who follows me on Twitter, where I’ve repeatedly called it the best film of the year). Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut is everything one could have hoped for and more, a crazy action thriller packed with twists and turns, a movie that’s funny and brutal and that’s got more to say than all most of those other science fiction allegories put together. This is Bong Joon-ho showing Hollywood how it’s done, and then some. This is, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, a masterpiece.
Honorable mentions: Jeff Nichols’s Mud and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (my review) were the last two films I cut from this list. Other movies that didn’t make the cut for one reason or another but deserve a mention include, in alphabetical orders, Ain’t them Bodies Saints, All is Lost, Behind the Candelabra, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Fast & Furious 6, Frances Ha, Les Apaches, Mama, A Simple Life, To the Wonder, A Touch of Sin, Venus in Fur.
A blockbuster production with a devilishly unpredictable plot. This is how, towards the end of the movie, a character describes the events of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, in a brazen moment of meta commentary. Because of course that description applies to the movie itself. For his first English-language film, South Korean genre-mashing master Bong does indeed go blockbuster-big, with a movie that’s larger in scale than anything he’s done before and a star-studded cast that includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Bong stalwart Song Kang-ho. At the same time, that one-sentence description can be seen as Bong acknowledging the fears of some of his fans that his idiosyncratic style could be compromised by his working with a bigger budget and additional creative constraints. (See Kim Jee-woon’s Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, a perfectly serviceable and enjoyable movie that nevertheless can’t touch any of his South Korean output.) Of course, by the time that sentence is uttered, those fears have long been proven unfounded. Devilishly unpredictable, as it turns out, is quite the understatement.
Based on an ‘80s French graphic novel (and co-written with Before the Devil Knows Your Dead writer Kelly Masterson), Snowpiercer is set in 2031, aboard a train that houses the last remnants of humanity. The prologue explains that in 2014, several countries dispersed a chemical in the atmosphere in order to try to counteract the effects of global warming, a move that backfired when said chemical proved too effective, leading to a new ice age and to the extinction of all life on earth. (Those familiar with the rest of Bong’s oeuvre will notice the similarities with The Host, which opens with scientists dumping formaldehyde into the Han river, inadvertently creating the movie’s mutant monster.) The only survivors were those lucky enough to board a giant train built by the mysterious Wilford, which now runs around the world without ever stopping. Unfortunately, not all passengers were created equal; those who were able to afford an actual ticket live in the front section of the train, enjoying, we are told, steak dinners and fine music, while stowaways are parked in the tail section, living in abject squalor and at the mercy of Wilford’s brutal police force.
It has now been seventeen years since what was left of humanity boarded the train, though, and revolution is brewing. Previous attempts at revolt have been unsuccessful, but this time the tail-sectioners have a secret weapon, a mysterious informant who sends them messages hidden in the protein rations they’re given to eat every day. The de facto leader of the rebellion is Curtis (Chris Evans), a smart and driven man who seems nevertheless uncomfortable with the responsibilities others want to saddle him with, and who would much rather defer to the tail-sectioners’ spiritual leader, Gilliam (John Hurt). The enemy is the never-seen Wilford and the face of his oppressive regime, buck-toothed Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) and her small army of guards. Once the revolution starts, the plan is for Curtis and his forces to make their way up the train until they reach the engine room, Wilford’s inner sanctum, and to seize control of the engine and, therefore, of the train. It all sounds so simple.
The revolution, though, doesn’t start right away. Bong takes his time in setting up his movie, devoting almost half an hour to showing us how the tail-sectioners live, the violence to which they are subjected daily, the injustice of Wilford’s regime. We meet Curtis’s enthusiastic second-in-command Edgar (Jamie Bell), who doesn’t remember his mother’s face or what steak tastes like, and mama bear Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and her adorable tyke Timmy, who wants nothing more than to be allowed to play with ‘the ball’ (for there appears to be only one in the whole tail section) for an hour. Bong’s in no rush to get to the action and as a result, when the action does finally happen, we are entirely aware of what’s at stake for everyone. The opening stage of the revolution is over almost as fast as it started, but this two-minute action sequence is more tense and thrilling than half the year’s blockbusters put together, because we know what the characters stand to lose if they fail (if not exactly what they stand to gain).
From there Curtis and his ragtag crew of rebels slowly advance towards the engine room, enlisting banished engineer Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) to help them open the gates separating each car from the next. The train setting works to Bong’s strengths beautifully: each new car is like a different self-contained world, which lets him showcase his knack for switching from one genre to another effortlessly and seamlessly. Bong makes transitioning from a brutal fight in a dark hallway to a comedy scene set in a brightly-colored classroom (complete with a crazy song-and-pantomime number) seem easy and, above all, logical. Every new car is its own crazy set piece, but the whole somehow makes sense. It’s a style Bong’s perfected over the course of his career (see in particular The Host), but it wouldn’t work half as well if it weren’t for his brilliant cast. Chris Evans sheds the squeaky-clean Captain America persona to provide a most compelling performance as Curtis, the balanced center without which the film’s craziness just wouldn’t work, while also hinting at deeper issues that don’t get hashed out until a couple of scenes late in the film (and Evans sells the hell out of what could have been corny reveals and instead turn out to be quite the emotional one-two punch). Tilda Swinton is barely recognizable as the grotesque Minister Mason, alternately haughty and grovelling, a villain that’s almost too pathetic to hate. And then there’s Song Kang-ho, probably the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a modern Toshiro Mifune, capable of going from broad slapstick to subtle drama and back all within the same scene. Snowpiercer is Bong Joon-ho and Song Kang-ho’s third feature together, after Memories of Murder and The Host, and it’s hard to think of another actor that would be better suited to Bong’s style.
Snowpiercer is also the latest in a series of politically-minded science-fiction movies that includes films like In Time or this year’s Elysium and, of course, the Hunger Games series. The metaphor at the heart of Bong’s film isn’t subtle, nor does it claim to be; “The train is the world,” a character says at one point, “We, the humanity.” However, unlike, say, Elysium, Snowpiercer never sacrifices story or character in service of its metaphor. Here again, the setting works in favor of the movie, providing an endless source of forward momentum (no pun intended), as the rebels advance towards the head of the train. At the same time Bong remains a master of pacing who knows exactly when to slow things down and provide a quiet scene or two that will only make the action to come hit harder. (Chances are, if Harvey Weinstein does get to chop up Snowpiercer like he wants to, those essential quiet scenes will be the first to go.) Violence is something that’s always present in the film’s universe, right below the surface, but Bong knows to build towards it, to have it explode in sudden and, if at all possible, surprising bursts, and that makes it all the more effective.
Because Snowpiercer, as it turns out, is a brutal, brutal movie. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Bong’s work, but it does, perhaps because by now we’ve become so accustomed to science-fiction movies providing large-scale destruction and violence that’s at the same time largely devoid of real stakes and human drama. Not so here. Curtis’s revolution is bloody, and it comes at a great and often horrifying cost. The question of whether it is worth it is actually at the center of the movie; it’s something most of those science-fiction-metaphor movies rarely touch on (although to its credit Catching Fire does, if only briefly), because the revolutions they offer are anything but. Perhaps this is the most impressive thing about Snowpiercer, the boldest thing about it, this deliberate avoidance of easy resolutions. While movies like In Time or Elysium admit that the system is broken, they also offer reassurances that it can be fixed (in Elysium’s case with the laughably literal push of a button). Snowpiercer, on the other hand, argues that perhaps the system is broken beyond repair, that the only way to fix it would be to scrap everything and just start over. It’s a much more unsettling thought, especially since Bong eschews definite answers, but it makes for a much, much more interesting movie. In the end, Snowpiercer once again proves that Bong Joon-ho’s a master. And this is his masterpiece.
Four years ago, Neill Blomkamp scored an unexpected hit with his first feature, the science fiction/action film District 9. Carried by a manic performance by breakout star Sharlto Copley, the movie adroitly (or not so adroitly, depending on who you ask) morphed from faux documentary into shoot ‘em up, without ever losing sight of the central metaphor that made it a vicious critique of South Africa’s immigration policy. Now Blomkamp is back with Elysium, which he wrote and directed, another high-concept science fiction offering. Working with a much higher budget and actual big-name stars, Blomkamp delivers a mindless action vehicle that’s at least often visually arresting. It’s one step above most of the terrible science fiction blockbusters of the year (I’m looking at you, Oblivion and Star Trek Into Darkness), but several steps below Blomkamp’s own debut.
Elysium opens with some expository text explaining that by the end of the 21st century, our planet got so polluted and overpopulated that the rich and powerful just up and left for a space station, the eponymous Elysium, leaving the poor behind to toil away in giant factories. This is accompanied alternatively by shots of Elysium, so lush and green it looks like Naboo in the Star Wars prequels, and of a run-down Earth where all cities seem to have devolved into slums (in one of the film’s cooler shots, we see a dilapidated tower with people camping out on makeshift balconies). We then move from this global scale to a much personal one, as we’re treated to a series of flashbacks showing us how two kids, Max and Frey, met in a Los Angeles orphanage run by Spanish-speaking nuns. This sequence feels rushed and awkward, a clumsy way to provide generic backstory and heavy-handed foreshadowing (“One day I’ll take you up there,” Max tells Frey as she’s drawing a symbol she says means “Max and Frey forever” on his hand). This doesn’t prevent Blomkamp from coming back to those flashbacks throughout the movie, just in case we didn’t get it the first time around.
Finally we get to the present, or at least to 2154, when the film’s action takes place. Max (Matt Damon) is now in his 30s, and he’s just finished a 3-year stint in jail for grand theft auto. He works at the local droid plant, building the very robots that then harass him as soon as he sets foot outside his apartment. This part plays like a black comedy, with Los Angeles as some sort of fascist state ruled by robots that threaten you with jail time before offering you pills to calm your nerves, and the conversation between Max and his “probation officer” (a crude mannequin that asks at some point if Max is “being sarcasting-slash-abusive” towards it) seems like something right out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Yet the whole thing is undermined by the fact that Max brought this all on himself, willfully antagonizing security droids when he knows full well they’d be suspicious of him to begin with. Max’s idiocy is short-lived and plot-mandated: in the ensuing scuffle, his arm gets broken, which sends him to the hospital so that he can then run into Frey (Alice Braga) and reconnect with her after years spent apart. Unfortunately, most of what happens in the film similarly does because the plot demands it, and acts of inexplicable stupidity and transparent contrivances are commonplace.
While Max is trying to convince a less-than-willing Frey to go grab coffee with him, local kingpin Spider (Wagner Moura) is busy sending illegal shuttles towards Elysium. The station’s Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who gets to show off her flawless French), will have none of it, though, and she calls on psychotic agent Kruger (Copley) to shoot down the shuttles. Elysium doesn’t seem to be equipped with any defense system of its own, which seems like a pretty big oversight until you realize that Blomkamp needs to introduce Kruger as working in Los Angeles somehow; once again, plot takes precedence over logic. Delacourt’s handling of the situation is met with disapproval from Elysium’s President, so she comes up with an elaborate plan to stage a coup. Meanwhile, back at his job, Max gets accidentally (as in, by being stupid) irradiated, and when he gets told he has five days to live, he decides to find a way to go up to Elysium to use one of the station’s Med-Pods, which have been shown to be able to cure every ailment. Of course, Max soon gets himself tangled up not only in Spider’s machinations, but in Delacourt’s as well.
If that sounds a little complicated, well, it is and it isn’t. There are theoretically many players in Elysium, but in effect, the film quickly comes to revolve around Max and Kruger, while the others sit around and watch. And I mean that quite literally: Spider and Delacourt both spend a good chunk of the movie sitting in front of computer screens, watching the other two running around or shooting at each other. Frey has it even worse; the introduction makes it seem as though she’s going to be a major character, but what little screen time she has she spends either following Max around or cowering in terror from Kruger and his henchmen. (To be entirely fair, she does get to patch up a wounded Max at some point, but that’s about it.) That’s because Frey isn’t so much a character as a prop to move the plot forward. So is everyone else; Spider can be a ruthless crime lord one moment and a humanist working for the greater good the next, and Kruger can make the most baffling decisions, all based on what the story needs them to be and do at a certain point. Everything about Elysium is similarly mechanical (insert joke about Max’s goofy-looking exoskeleton if you will), meant to take you from point A to point B with little regard for things like character motivation or development. If District 9 worked, it’s because Wikus van de Merwe and Christopher Johnson were actual characters; the whole point of the movie was Wikus’s transformation from a callous bureaucrat into a more compassionate individual. But there’s no such thing at Elysium’s core.
Movies should be judged on their own right, of course, but Elysium really seems to invite the comparison to its predecessor. Not only are both science fiction actioners built around a central allegory, but whole parts of Elysium seem lifted straight from District 9. The basic story is exactly the same: guy gets irradiated/infected by something that will kill him/turn him into an alien within days and tries to find a way to save himself. Max, like Wikus, spends most of the movie motivated only by his own survival, and finds himself forced to fight a psychotic South African mercenary working for a nefarious government (Copley’s intense and creepy Kruger is one of the best things about the movie, but he’s no match for David James’s Koobus Venter). Frey and her leukemia-addled daughter even serve the same role as Christopher and his son did in District 9 by forcing the hero to reconsider his actions, but unlike the alien duo, they don’t get to actually do anything. It’s as if Blomkamp had decided to remake his own movie, replacing the characters by hollowed-out versions, and making whatever cosmetic changes are necessary to accommodate the allegory he is working with this time.
When it comes to that central allegory, Elysium has the subtlety of a sledgehammer (I mean, the rich live in a space station named after the closest thing Greek mythology had to Heaven, come on). That isn’t necessarily a problem; after all, District 9 was hardly a model of subtlety itself. What is a problem, though, is the fact that Blomkamp doesn’t seem particularly interested in what his premise has to offer beyond a basic setting for his movie, an excuse for his action scenes. Sure, having Kruger, the film’s main antagonist, be under the heel of the Elysium elites for most of the movie is a nice touch (the poor fighting the poor while the rich prosper), but that’s about as far as Elysium goes. We’re never made to understand just how that world works, what the exact consequences of Max’s actions might be. In Elysium, class inequality is a problem that can be fixed by strapping on a nifty exoskeleton and duking it out with a South African psycho, or so it seems. But as Delacourt points out early on in the movie, resources on Elysium are not infinite, and giving everyone access to it does nothing to solve that problem. By the time Matt Damon is punching Sharlto Copley in the face on a suspended bridge, though, Blomkamp seems to have long lost interest in that question, and the film’s class politics dissolve in a barrage of explosions and barely intelligible action. One man changing the world with his fists, the Hollywood way. If only it were so easy.
Warning: The following contains some minor spoilers for Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 (if you count a very oblique reference a spoiler).
Over the past couple weeks I’ve had what basically amounts to the same conversation with several different people who didn’t seem to have enjoyed Pacific Rim as much as I did, to put it lightly. Most of them actually seemed baffled that I could love it so much. “But the story’s so predictable!” they said. “And the characters are a bunch of clichés!” And, to a certain extent, they’re right. Pacific Rim’s story is rather straightforward and traditional, and most of its characters are broad archetypes. But my response to that is, why is that such a bad thing?
I’m not trying to be glib here. I mean it. Why is having a story whose shape you can recognize considered a weakness? Why is relying on archetypes suddenly a problem? Of course, Pacific Rim’s detractors will argue that its story is too predictable, its characters too archetypal. I’d contend that you can only reach that conclusion if you refuse to engage with the movie at all, if you only look at it at a surface level. But there’s something else. The more I think about it, the more I realize the problem is not with Pacific Rim. The problem is with modern blockbusters, and with the expectations they have created.
Do you know what other movie has a story that fits a very traditional mold and characters that are barely more than archetypes? Star Wars. You’ve got the farmhand destined to be a hero, the mysterious mentor, the princess in distress, the wisecracking mercenary who turns out to be a valuable ally, the seemingly all-powerful evil adversary, etc. (Yes, things get slightly more complex once you hit The Empire Strikes Back.) Star Wars is high fantasy in space, and it hits every tope in the book. What makes Star Wars so good, though, is the way it manages to create an entire world, to give us a glimpse into this place and make us believe it really could exist… which is exactly what Pacific Rim does, too! And it does it using the same tricks, giving people and places names that stand out, making things look striking and unique. Luke Skywalker and Stacker Pentecost. Tattooine and the Shatterdome. The Mos Eisley Cantina aliens and the kaiju. Pacific Rim is like Star Wars in many, many ways (down to the exposition-heavy dialogue and at times awkward acting).But we don’t want our blockbusters to be like Star Wars anymore.
Nope, nowadays, we want our blockbusters to be like The Dark Knight. We want our heroes to be dark and tortured, our plots to be as convoluted as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Dark Knight; I just hate what it’s done to Hollywood.
Don’t believe me? Just take a look at this year’s crop of blockbusters. Everywhere you look, it’s brooding heroes and excessively complicated stories. I say complicated, not complex, because most of those stories have little in the way of complexity. Complex is hard to pull off, after all, but complicated is the next best thing, and with any luck, people won’t be able to tell the difference, especially if you re-use the same tired thematic cues everyone else is using in order to make it seem as though you’ve got something to say. We’ve been made to think that a complicated story is a smart story, and that a straightforward one is dumb. So blockbusters are packed with reveals, reversals, betrayals, and other plot twists, most of them to the point that they stop making any sense.
Take Star Trek Into Darkness, for instance. Into Darkness features not one but two villains, about half a dozen dramatic reveals, and more War on Terror imagery than The Dark Knight itself. Into Darkness is also perhaps the most stupid film I’ve seen all year. And I’ve seen Trance. The problem (or, rather, one of the many problems) with Into Darkness is that, in order to seem complex, it refuses to reveal any of its characters’ motivations for the longest time, which in turn means that the villains’ respective plans make no sense at all. (Seriously, Khan’s plan has got to be one of the dumbest I’ve ever heard.) But, hey, Khan’s a terrorist, and there’s some vague mention of drone-like weapons, too, so this must be a deep movie, right? Nope, sorry, it’s just a super dumb film trying to trick you into believing it’s not. And Into Darkness isn’t the only movie to suffer from this problem. So does Iron Man 3, an otherwise much, much better film: the Mandarin reveal works beautifully, in large part because Ben Kingsley sells it so well, but the main villain’s plan is at best vague, at worst incoherent. Even blockbusters in which the entire world isn’t at stakes (a rarity these days) aren’t immune, as The Wolverine proves. As long as it tries to be The Grey with Hugh Jackman instead of Liam Neeson, it works alright, but when it finally starts delving into the machinations that have been going on in the background, it stops making sense altogether.
Pacific Rim doesn’t suffer from this problem. Pacific Rim makes sense throughout. Sure, the science is a bit wonky, but in terms of story logic, of going from point A to point B without having to make a stop at point “everyone becomes really stupid all of a sudden,” Pacific Rim is super solid. Is the story simple? Yes, absolutely. Is it dumb? I’d argue it isn’t. Star Trek Into Darkness is dumb. Prometheus is dumb. Hell, Man of Steel is pretty fucking dumb. (Man, the whole Pa Kent thing is so irredeemably stupid.) But Pacific Rim’s story, as familiar and straightforward as it may seem, isn’t dumb. And the main reason for that is that we understand why the movie’s characters do what they do, and that those motivations actually make sense.
Which brings us to, yeah, characters. As I’ve already said, there’s no denying that Pacific Rim’s characters are, for the most part, broad archetypes. But at least they’re actual characters, with their own motivations and personalities, traits that come out in their interactions with one another. Again, that’s more than can be said about most blockbusters these days. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, again. Into Darkness has, what, perhaps two actual characters, Kirk and Spock, and I’m being generous. Everyone else can be defined in at most a sentence (Khan is evil (because he’s evil), Simon Pegg is the character Simon Pegg plays in every non-Edgar Wright movie, and Karl Urban frowns a lot) and, more importantly, they barely interact with anyone that’s not Kirk or Spock. They’re not characters so much as props standing around, which wouldn’t be that bad if Kirk and Spock had fully-fledged, vibrant personalities, but, yeah, not really. (I’d argue Spock’s only interesting because he truly feels alien, which is due more to Zachary Quinto’s performance than to the limp script he’s saddled with.) The Wolverine is even worse, in that no one but Logan seems to have any personality whatsoever. At least Logan gets some kind of character development, which is more than can be said of anyone in Into Darkness. (If it seems like I hate that movie, well, it’s because I do.)
But the characters in Pacific Rim do get to interact with one another, they get to show us why they’re the way they are, even when the way they are feels very familiar. Raleigh, who would have spent half the movie moping around after his brother’s death in any other blockbuster (man that would have sucked) serves as a catalyst; much like Jack Burton in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, he may be the movie’s protagonist, but he’s not the hero (that would be, of course, Mako). Thanks to him, we gain access to the Mako/Pentecost relationship (still what I consider by far the best thing about the movie, and a much more interesting relationship than you’ll find in pretty much any modern blockbuster), and to the one between Hercules Hansen and his son Chuck. And while the Raleigh/Chuck sorta-rivalry may feel rehashed, here it’s not so much about the protagonist earning the respect and loyalty of an ally, but about understanding why a character is acting like a dick (because, hey, Chuck’s actually got very good reasons not to be thrilled about Raleigh and Mako piloting a Jaeger) and having him turn into, well, somewhat less of a dick. (The exchange between Pentecost, Chuck, and Herc as the first two set out to kick some kaiju ass at the end packs a surprising punch, if you accept to actually engage with those characters. Herc’s “That’s my son you’ve got there!” gets me every time.) If Raleigh’s so bland, and there’s no denying he is, it’s because Pacific Rim belongs to its secondary characters, to Stacker Pentecost and Mako Mori (again, the movie’s real hero for me), to Herc and Chuck Hansen, to Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb. And, of course, to Hannibal Chau. All archetypes, sure, but all much more real and interesting in their interactions with one another than most other blockbusters’ characters.
Because, as del Toro clearly understand, and as so many Hollywood execs seem not to, simple isn’t the same as dumb, and complicated sure as hell isn’t the same as smart.
There’s a moment in Fast & Furious 6, that featured heavily in the trailers, where Dom (Vin Diesel) jumps off the roof of a moving car to save (ex-)girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), miraculously brought back after her apparent death in the series’ fourth installment. What the trailers don’t show you, though, is the way director Justin Lin builds up to that moment. The scene takes place on a two-lane bridge, with Letty riding atop a tank in one lane and Dom driving his muscle car in the other. Between the two lanes is a large gap; if Letty falls, she’s unlikely to come back this time. As Letty climbs on top of the tank, Lin cuts to a reaction shot of Dom, who puts his car in higher gear to catch up with the tank. Letty’s going to fall, we know, but Lin drags it out, cutting from the tank to Dom’s car to the various other players in the chase and back to Dom again. And then, in one instant, it happens: Dom, a hand still on the steering wheel, climbs out the window, and just as Letty is catapulted into the air, he jumps. His aim is perfect, and we watch (in slow motion, of course) as he catches Letty in mid-air, wraps his arms around her, and twists his body around to break her fall, right before they slam into the windshield of a stalled car. At that point, just as Dom’s body comes to rest against the windshield, the entire theater I was in erupted in laughter—and applause.
The Fast & Furious franchise is all about moments like that one, big, preposterous moments that invite equally big reactions from the audience. No one understands that better than Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan, who have helmed the franchise since the third installment and know exactly how to please the fans. Dom’s motto is “ride or die,” but it might as well be “go big or go home.” And since 2011’s Fast Five, no franchise has gone more outrageously and enjoyably big than this one.
Fast Five was built on the genius idea of bringing together almost every single character in the franchise, creating a criminal superteam not unlike that of Ocean’s Eleven (except more racially diverse, and with more female members). For this installment, the team is joined by DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who spent the previous movie chasing after them but now needs their help catching an even bigger fish. The target is one Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a former SAS operative and the leader of a gang that includes Letty, who’s trying to assemble a device that would allow him to black out all military communication in a country for 24 hours. This story, of course, is little more than an excuse for a series of set pieces each more outrageous than the last, from several races through London to a climactic sequence taking place on what has to be the longest runway in the world.
The danger with any long-running franchise is to have later installments turn into little more than a collection of nods to previous entries in the series, of in-jokes that make the new films inaccessible to anyone but die-hard fans. It’s a pitfall Fast & Furious 6 doesn’t entirely manage to avoid. The opening credits, for instance, consist of nothing but shots of the previous five movies, a sort of “previously on…” segment that will paradoxically make little sense to those who are new to the franchise. The Letty storyline also calls on stuff that happened in the previous two movies, and although Lin uses flashbacks to fill new viewers in, having prior knowledge of what happened sure helps. There’s a surprisingly large amount of backstory here, for a film whose story is mostly inconsequential.
The callbacks and in-jokes aren’t so numerous as to make the film incomprehensible for newcomers, though. Here it actually helps that the story is so simple, the characters barely more than archetypes, slight variations on their usual screen persona. Letty is the quintessential Michelle Rodriguez character, Dom’s the hotheaded badass Vin Diesel plays in almost every single one of his movies, and Dwayne Johnson is, well, Dwayne Johnson. (In what is perhaps my favorite throwaway gag of the year, his caller ID on Ludacris’s—sorry, Tej’s—phone is “Samoan Thor.”) New additions to the cast include Gina Carano, the former-MMA-champion-turned-action-star (who starred in Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant Haywire), as Hobbs’s aide Riley, and The Raid: Redemption’s Joe Talsim as one of Shaw’s henchmen. Neither has much in the way of dialogue, but needless to say, their respective fight scenes are among the best the franchise has ever had.
Fast & Furious 6, like Fast Five before it, is a modern action blockbuster done right. It’s big and loud and way, way over the top, and it’s self-aware without being self-conscious. It has Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson hamming it up and having the time of their life, Tyrese Gibson and Ludacris endlessly trading lame barbs, and Sung Kang (the breakout star of the franchise as far as I’m concerned) and Gal Gadot making googly eyes at each other and being surprisingly convincing about it. It has huge set pieces skillfully put together by a director who actually knows how to film tense action scenes that make visual sense. And above all, it has many, many big, preposterous moments that’ll make you want to cheer and clap and revel in the outrageousness of it all.
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers tries very hard to make you believe it is a really dumb movie. This is a film, after all, whose opening sequence looks like one of those late-night Girls Gone Wild commercials, only in slow-motion and set to Skrillex. A film that has James Franco playing a rapper who moonlights as a drugs and arms dealer (and vice versa), calling himself Alien and driving a convertible with a “BALLR” license plate. No, seriously. Picture James Franco with cornrows, grills, and a huge dollar sign tattooed on his neck, speaking in a dubious accent and ending every other sentence with “y’all.” That’s how all-up-in-your-face stupid Spring Breakers is. Of course, there’s always a chance that it doth protest too much.
And in fact, after that ultra-aggressive introduction that shoves a good fifty different pairs of breasts in your face in under two minutes, Spring Breakers soon proves to be a much more contemplative movie than one might expect. We move from the beaches of Florida to some small town up north, where we meet our bored heroines. Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and pink-haired Cotty (Rachel Korine) are your stereotypical wild college girls, partying hard, smoking pot, doing the occasional line of coke. Faith (Selena Gomez) is quieter, an apparently tame churchgoing girl whose preacher looks like a somewhat less douchey version of Guy Fieri forever going on about how awesome Jesus is. All four are bored out of their minds and only dream of leaving their dull lives behind, even if only for a short while. Young people bored and dreaming of change; that’s been the basis for many a movie, and many a great one, too. It just so happens that the only thing those four can think of to get away from their boring small town and their boring lives is to get on a bus to Florida for Spring Break.
Except the girls don’t have enough money for the trip. We watch them sit around listlessly, wander the empty hallways of their dorms, go to parties where the only people there are those who didn’t manage to leave for Spring Break. Candy’s always carrying a squirt gun which she uses to squirt alcohol into her mouth (in case that wasn’t clear already, you can’t accuse this movie of being too subtle), which gives her, Brit, and Cotty the idea to rob the local fast food joint to finance their trip. Which they do. With Candy’s squirt gun, and a hammer. They brag to Faith about it afterwards, play it up as the coolest, most exciting thing they ever did. They mean it, too. Robbing a fast food restaurant so they can afford to go on Spring Break. This complete lack of ambition, even when committing crime, is kind of depressing.
So the girls get to St. Petersburg, and for a while everything’s alright. They party, they drink, they lounge in the pool. Do coke off of each others’ bodies. Until they get arrested because, well, even in Florida, coke’s illegal. (When the girls are made to stand before the judge, in the bikinis they were wearing when they got arrested, he hilariously concedes that he can’t charge them with possession, “because you didn’t have anything on your person.”) That’s when the aforementioned Alien (“Real name’s Al, but truth be told, I’m from another planet”) shows up, bails them out, and decides that he likes them so much that he wants to make them his right-hand women. Which Brit, Candy, and Cotty are more than happy to be.
In its second half, Spring Breakers has all the trappings of a crime film, including a turf war between Alien and his former best friend turned enemy, Big Arch. But it’s not a crime film, not really, not any more than the first half was really a Spring Break movie, or a female version of Project X. The same sense of being adrift with no clear purpose still permeates it all. Korine plays with the chronology, replays the same scenes over and over again, flashes forward to some detail we can’t make sense of yet, plays the same dialogue over slightly different images. “Spring Break,” Alien keeps repeating. “Spring Break forever.” Earlier, Faith complained that she couldn’t just pause life, freeze it, to live in the same moment forever. To be on Spring Break forever, as it were, and although her idea of Spring Break differs quite a bit from that of Alien, they’re expressing the same feeling, the idea that “normal” life makes no sense at all to them.
It would be easy to see Spring Breakers as an indictment of its characters’ pettiness and materialism. The film itself makes it almost too easy. When Alien invites the girls to his home, he shows them his large collection of guns, his countless baseball caps, his shorts that come in every single color. He literally makes them roll around in money, on his bed that’s not a bed, “but an art masterpiece.” “Look at my shit!” he keeps shouting. “This is the American dream!” Yet he isn’t beyond self-awareness, beyond the occasional ironic jab at himself. “I’ve got blue Kool-Aid!” he says. “I mean, look at my teeth, y’all!” And Franco sells it with a semi-goofy grin, displaying his grills.
No, Korine feels too much sympathy for his characters to be that judgmental. They’re messed up and lost and desperately looking for some form of validation, even if they’re looking in all the wrong places. “This is the most spiritual place I’ve ever seen,” Faith tells her grandmother on the phone, and she means it. How do you fill a void like that? Later, Alien sits at the piano by his pool, and at the girls’ request starts singing Britney Spears’s “Everytime”. Then Candy, Brit, and Cotty, wearing pink ski masks and armed with shotguns and assault rifles, join in. Korine films it as if it were the most profound thing in the world, and to them it is. That song, as generic as it may be (or maybe because it is so generic), actually speaks to them. Then the scene segues into a slow-motion montage of Alien and the girls attacking some of Big Arch’s henchmen, still set to the same song (with Britney actually taking over on vocals), and the whole thing is brutally stripped of all meaning. Until, at the last moment, we come back to Alien and the girls standing by the pool, singing together, watching the sun set. It’s fake and tacky, maybe, but it’s all they’ve got.
In the end, that’s what Spring Breakers is all about. “If you wanna go home, you can go home,” Alien tells Faith when she starts feeling uncomfortable around the gangster and his clique. “But then you’ll be home,” he adds. Back to square one. Back to the one place she couldn’t wait to leave. “Whenever you encounter temptation, God will offer you a way out,” the Guy Fieri preacher told her earlier, which would sound like a heavy-handed moral to the film if leaving were obviously the right decision to make. Which of course it is, from our point of view at least. From that of the girls, not so much. Spring Break can’t last forever, not even for Alien, not even for Brit and Candy, and it’s not where, as Faith believed, the girls can be “who they’re supposed to be.” Spring Breakers is pretty pessimistic about whether there is even such a place. Maybe Spring Break, even Alien’s version of it, really is the best the girls can hope for.