Another year, another Academy Awards ceremony. Funny, isn’t it, how every three hundred and sixty five days we go through the same ritualized process of spurning the Oscars and then gluing ourselves to the television the day they air; we like to pretend that we’re above all the pomp and circumstance, but for better or worse we’re helplessly addicted to it. (It’s usually worse.) Back-patting and myopia make for a shameful way to celebrate the movies.
However you feel about the Oscars, a single night dedicated to a single year’s slate of releases is never enough to capture the cinema’s full spectrum. A lot more happened in the movie world than The Imitation Game, or American Sniper, or Boyhood; if you’re not interested in exploring the space beyond the AMPAS, more’s the pity for you. If you are, however, then have a look at some of the ignored, overlooked and forgotten films of 2014 for alternative viewing:
When you heard about Muath al-Kasesbah’s horrible demise at the hands of the Islamic State, did your hand fly to your mouth? Did you shed a tear for the men and women killed in the Charlie Hebdo attacks? Have you stopped for a moment to light a candle for Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Tamir Rice? Were you repulsed by news of Boko Haram’s massacre of over 2,000 human beings in Nigeria? If you can answer “no” to any of these, you’re in likeminded company: Father James Lavelle, the protagonist of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, might respond to each of these tragedies in kind.
Lavelle isn’t a bad person by any stretch of the means. He is, however, indifferent to anguish that he can’t touch, see or hear, and perhaps a bit wary of the misery that he does observe in his calling. Calvary isn’t an easy movie to watch even when it’s being funny; McDonagh has disposed of the broader comedy of his debut picture, 2011’s buddy cop flick The Guard, and replaced belly laughs with the inkiest gallows humor. You may chuckle at Calvary’s jokes, but the chuckles tend to come at the cost of self-dignity. Cannibalism, cuckoldry, spousal abuse, racism and general mortality aren’t exactly easy subjects for punchlines. Maybe Calvary’s bleakness explains why it isn’t one of 2014’s more widely embraced films.
Reteaming with Brendan Gleeson for the second time gets McDonagh results; the film rests on the great Dubliner’s shoulders, sparing him from appearing in only a precious few frames out of its running time. His is one of the year’s most accomplished performances, a complex portrait of a moral man living in an amoral world where everyone else either flounders through goodness or simply lacks the taste for virtue. And yet despite his humanity, Father James’ greatest flaw is intrinsically human: he’s apathetic, even with a literal gun to his head in the film’s climax. (Hey, at least he’s honest!) Calvary’s final scene justifies the price of admission on its own, but the sophistication seen in McDonagh’s and Gleeson’s respective crafts makes for a pretty strong recommendation, too. This is a challenging, unforgiving movie that forces us to confront our own detachment from global suffering.
A Most Wanted Man
Speaking of pictures that boast great performances from leading men of immense talent, how did Anton Corbijn's John le Carré adaptation fall through the cracks and out of view from the general public? A Most Wanted Man may only be a minor masterpiece in le Carré’s accomplished bibliography compared to his more towering works (it’s no Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), but in Corbijn’s hands the story of Günther Bachmann feels like a necessary examination of post-9/11 spycraft and how that event has changed (and continues to change) the ways in which nations approach counter-terrorism.
It’s also a showcase for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, who in a career littered with high point after high point manages to outdo himself one last time in his turn as the harried, cautious Bachmann. Hoffman’s work here is tremendous, though in fairness, the role plays perfectly to his skillset. Bachmann is gruff but polite, unyielding and yet sympathetic; he’s persuasive enough to bend his assets to his will, but he convinces through kindness, or, failing that, through the veneer of kindness. Most of all, he’s exhausted and beaten down by the relentless demands of his job. (It’s a bit too tempting to speculatively read Hoffman’s fatigue as an obvious sign of declining health. After all, Hoffman can play “worn out” in his sleep.) Bachmann is just the latest in the long line of coarse, self-driven and decent men Hoffman played throughout his life, and he’s one of the most memorable.
This is a superb thriller, handsomely made and smartly written in the language of empathy. Whatever qualms we might have with Bachmann’s methods, or indeed his profession, he’s dedicated to avoiding the past mistakes that lead to catastrophes like the attacks on the World Trade Center. His devotion is shattered in the film’s final scene, where harsh reality drives home the futility of honor and due process. It’s a somber farewell for Hoffman and a nail in the coffin of democracy.
With Belle Amma Asante carves out a very specific niche in socially conscious cinema; we’re all familiar with the grotesque history of global slavery, but less accustomed to seeing that history interrogated from the perspective of the gentry. This is the tale of of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, daughter to an enslaved African woman and a British Royal Navy officer. By her birthright, she belongs to two separate worlds and is consigned to exist only in one of them. She’s also regarded with immediate prejudice by many and treated as a second class citizen even by her own family. Belle is about her fight to be seen, to be recognized as a rightful member of high society, and to be respected simply as a human being instead of an oddity or an exotic plaything. As anyone might expect, that’s all easier said than done. Things get ugly before they get better.
In another year, and in a different industry climate, Amma Asante’s Belle could very easily be seen as awards bait. It’s glossy and gorgeous, it’s brimming with eye-popping costumes, it’s a period picture, it’s based on a true story and it’s about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. But it’s 2015, and Belle’s main character is a black woman rather than a white man. Not that the Academy’s current crop of nominees needs to be excoriated any more than it already has been, but they’re so white that they blind angels. After the victory of 12 Years a Slave, the overwhelmingly Caucasian facade of the upcoming Oscar ceremony feels somewhat like a kick in the teeth, a brusque reminder that in Hollywood, not all prestige pictures are treated equally.
Which is a real shame, because as prestige goes, Belle is top notch stuff. This is a very beautiful film to behold, one with sterling production design seen in its coterie of fancy dresses and lavish sets. But don’t let the film’s appearance define it as a sweeping romantic drama. There’s romance here, yes, but the romance isn’t the whole of the story so much as a function of it; there’s drama, too, courtroom drama even, stemming from a little matter we refer to now as the Zong massacre. (And of course, there’s dry British banter.) But most of all there’s an aching need to belong that chaffs against the frictions of racial tension. Ultimately, Belle is a window that lets us see a world curated by whites through the eyes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s delicate yet iron-willed heroine. In a word, she’s incredible. In several more, she’s probably the best decision Asante makes within the film’s framework.
Feel-good British productions are practically a dime a dozen, but they’re rarely ever this good. If Pride is fluff, it’s well made, remarkably effective fluff; this is perhaps to say that the film isn’t fluff at all, but passionate social filmmaking that’s relevant in 2015 despite its '80s setting. Matthew Warchus balances levity so well against gravity that he makes it look easy. Why can’t other movies of Pride’s sort be this good? Warchus handles the demands of adapting reality for the big screen so well that he dodges the biggest hurdles to all movies that make their foundation in real life: overbearing scrutiny from armchair historians.
Basically, if Pride plays fast and loose with facts in any way, you’re not going to feel all that inclined to give a damn. Pride works by pulling us forcefully into the throes of its central historical struggle; Warchus doesn’t spare a lot of time coaxing us, and instead more or less just airdrops us into the 1980s during the UK miner’s strike, introducing us almost immediately to the gay and lesbian activists responsible for spearheading a relief effort for Welsh miners. The activists see a common bond between them and the unions, and in that bond Pride suggests that whether we’re fighting for equality and tolerance or just for our jobs, we’re all fighting for for the same thing. You may feel free to guess what that thing is, though if you need a hint, just return to the title.
Pride is a lot of things. It’s hilarious, for one, and it’s also home to one of the best ensembles of 2014, boasting the likes of Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Andrew Scott and Paddy Considine; Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay and George MacKay round out the veterans of the cast. But as heartfelt and funny as the film may be, it has teeth. We bear witness to hate crimes in the making and to their aftermath, though never to the crime itself. Warchus makes the build-up to moments like this unbearable, and in the end that’s what separates Pride from the chaff with which it shares cinematic space. The film is a joyful celebration of what can be achieved through unity and inclusivity, but it’s not afraid to confront the ugliness of prejudice head-on, either.
Dear White People
You might be the type to take the title of Justin Simien’s debut film as a dare; you might assume that it’s intended as a censure of white society, that Simien is decked out in a judge’s robe on the other side of the lens. And if you are that type, and if you do make that assumption, then you’ll probably assume a defensive position toward Dear White People without even taking a gander at the trailer. Frankly, that might be exactly what Simien wants. Maybe, just maybe, he wants to egg on potential viewers with his movie and create a space for them to reveal their own ignorance.
But then again, maybe that’s not the case at all. In fact, scratch the “maybe,” because if you’re a reasonably progressive person who likes diversity, then you’re the exact person Simien is reaching out to. Dear White People wants to appeal to his audience’s sense of decorum by staging an outrageous college campus scenario where decorum isn’t an option (or at least an attractive option); it’s often a very, very funny movie, but it’s also uncomfortably real. Turns out that racist college parties are still very much a thing even in 2015. Through his personal cinematic lens, which blends influences ranging from Wes Anderson to Stanley Kubrick, Simien explores the factors that allow racism to flourish in post-Obama America.
Watching Dear White People, you get the sense that you’re watching the birth of an important new voice in cinema. The conversations that Simien’s film hopes to foster are the kind of conversations people aren’t willing to have of their own volition; it takes serious chutzpah to lay bare the symptoms of modern racism in the US and the culture of denial that allows it to persist. Kudos to Simien for having guts, but more than being ballsy, Dear White People is simply a great movie. It may make you smile, it may make you cry. Above all else it may - it should - piss you off. Aren’t we supposed to have advanced beyond a point where blackface is acceptable public practice?
Picture this: you’re a family man on vacation with your spouse and your kids, enjoying your idyl without a care in the world. Then, all of a sudden and without forewarning, all hell breaks loose in the form of a natural disaster and your reverie is shattered. What do you do? Do you spring forth in full-on papa bear mode, ready to do whatever lies within your capabilities as a testosterone-fueled engine of masculinity? Do you grab your partner with one arm and your brood with the other and haul your clan’s collective asses to safety? Or do you pick up your gloves and cell phone and scamper off like a weasel, leaving them at the frigid mercies of an avalanche, only to come crawling back looking like a total asshole when calm is restored?
Tomas, the cowardly hero of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, unwisely goes with the latter decision and spends the better part of two hours being made to pay for it by his supremely disappointed wife, Ebba. Like Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave or Eli Roth’s Hostel II, Force Majeure is calibrated to make men squirm in their seats; those films literally snip the male member, so the comparisons are admittedly far-fetched, but their graphic fakery inflicts only fleeting feelings of unease. Here, Östlund better executes the illusion of reality, so the jitters caused by Tomas’ gutlessness stay with us even when the poor bastard manages to win some redemption for himself in the film’s final act. His emasculation is self-administered, and it’s a castration of the spirit rather than the flesh.
Force Majeure, written without a single intentional gag in its script, is black comic genius. It takes a particular sort to sit through Östlund’s film without fidgeting over its sharp human satire, but do make the effort; nobody ever said that dissecting gender dynamics is easy, and if you can accept that, then maybe it’ll make the experience of Force Majeure that much more palatable. The real draw here, of course, is Östlund’s refined and steady directing style. He keeps his distance from his characters and from his narrative, which lends an immediate chilling effect (no pun intended (okay pun intended)) to the proceedings. But by drawing back in the way Östlund does he actually highlights the intimacy of his powerful family drama instead of defusing it.
I’ve studiously avoided speaking in the first person throughout this piece, but for Jennifer Kent’s debut film I’ll make an exception. This is far and away the best movie I saw throughout all of 2014, a movie that not only fulfills my insatiable need for well-considered metaphor in my horror viewing but also satisfies my wish to see the genre taken seriously. I’m as much a fan of goofy horror flicks as the next guy, and I don’t think that any genre necessarily needs to take itself seriously to have intrinsic value or respectability; at the same time I’m giddy at the idea of filmmakers approaching horror from the ground floor, using human hardships as a lead-in to the eldritch supernatural terrors that we expect from the archetype. (Plus, what can I say, I love seeing horror movies made with this level of craft.)
It would be weird to say that The Babadook was made for me; I’m a married dude with no children. I have no practical experience with child-rearing, and I haven’t lived alone since my teenage years. But The Babadook isn’t just a horror movie made for single mothers, even though the foundation of its plot is built on the relationship between a child and his desperately lonely mom. Yes, it’s about that, but in being about that, it ends up being about the deep-rooted fears that dog us throughout our daily existences. We all have a babadook lurking in our basements, our armoires, our closets, our kitchens. For Amelia, the beleaguered heroine of Kent’s film, the monster just happens to encroach upon her unresolved feelings toward her son, Sam.
In fairness to Amelia, Sam is a handful. But that’s because Sam has his own crap to deal with, which Amelia is often numb to as she struggles to deal with her crap. For a sick thought experiment, imagine Hollywood trying to remake this movie, and imagine how much the rawness that Kent embraces would get swept under the rug; the “single parent” metaphor would remain but only ostensibly, and everything that makes The Babadook so special would just fade away. Kent, though, has so much empathy for her characters and for their situation that the creature she devises feels secondary to the film’s emotional crux. You can’t make a horror movie that looks this great and feels this classical without caring.