It Was a Very Good Year

11 Nov 2014 | 11:34

     Last year was a terrific year for movies—maybe as good or better than 1989, which was outstanding in nearly every way. In the parched late-winter months, as distributors dump their time-wasters, my thoughts keep returning to the great movies released last year, and to the not-so-great ones that nevertheless contained moments, scenes or images that left an impression.

    This ragtag column has one purpose: to obsess over stuff that obsesses me until I run out of space. For starters, there’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, the first Anderson movie where he could truly be said to speak entirely in his own voice. I loved the silhouettes, the calliope music and color bars, and the elaborate, long-take camerawork, which for once seemed designed to ratchet up tension and expand emotion rather than show off its director’s facility with a Steadicam. I also think of Patricia Clarkson’s cool, cruel racism in Far from Heaven, letting heroine Julianne Moore know her best pal isn’t as liberal as she thinks, and Viola Davis’ incredulity at her dream-struck crewmates in Solaris, who reject rationality for mysticism.

    I think of the predatory flicker in Jennifer Aniston’s eyes in The Good Girl, a split second before her remorseless heroine decides to use somebody. I think of the slow, silent pans across the faces of torture survivors in The Pinochet Case, which force us to imagine, without words, the pain they all endured, and similarly quiet, concentrated closeups in Domestic Violence. I fondly recall Richard Gere’s joyous strut in Chicago, Diane Lane’s conflicted moment of carnal reflection on the train in Unfaithful, the hapless rage of Robin Williams’ chain store hermit in One Hour Photo as he accuses a repairman of not taking cyan levels seriously, and abused single mom Kyra Sedgwick contemplating a dumbass teenage yokel’s lust in Personal Velocity. And I’ll always be chilled by the image of the boy hero of Road to Perdition witnessing a gangland slaying through a hole in a warehouse wall. (The film’s cinematographer, the late Conrad Hall, might get a posthumous Oscar for shooting Perdition, and he deserves it.)

    There were big studio movies and lavish quasi-indies worth seeing, even if you ended up disliking them: Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Gangs of New York, The Pianist, Adaptation, Human Nature, 8 Mile, About Schmidt, Solaris, Drumline, Chicago, Auto Focus, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Hours, Road to Perdition. (I found Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, a movie admired by many people I respect, way too glum and slow, but I’m glad it was made. It was bracingly uncommercial, and its Tinkertoy gloom revealed that Soderbergh’s biggest influence isn’t Richard Lester, but Michelangelo Antonioni in his alienated-bourgeoisie-in-turtlenecks mode.)

    I loved the street noise and off-camera violence of Beijing Bicycle, the freakish stillness in Rin Taro’s Metropolis, the dreamy grotesqueries of Spirited Away and the meditative monologues in Talk to Her (so simple and sincere that they caught even Almodovar’s biggest fans off-guard). I thought The Hours too noble, tidy and serious, but its much-debated Philip Glass score, while monotonous, struck me as an appropriate, maybe inevitable choice—the musical equivalent of Nicole Kidman’s false nose, a strident declaration of integrity.

    Steven Spielberg, a hopeless crowd-pleaser, got four-fifths of the way through Minority Report before hauling out his usual, "Don’t worry, folks, evil was punished and the good guys lived happily ever after" ending. The rest was astounding—a sci-fi satire in action-movie armor whose every frame was consumed with the idea of seeing. (Tom Cruise’s hero starts the story plucking video dailies from thin air like some inscrutable Director-God; by the halfway mark, he’s chasing his own eyeballs down a hallway.) I’m not convinced Stanley Kubrick would have liked A.I., but I bet he would have loved Minority Report, and Maya Deren would have seen it 10 times. It was a deeper, more controlled work than Catch Me If You Can, a shaggy sociological fantasy that stood Frank Abagnale’s cynical memoir of impostorhood smack on its pomaded head, and turned the tale of a disempowered teen who just wanted to get laid into a dazzling but preadolescent power fantasy about an innocent manchild who becomes an impostor because he wants his divorced parents to get back together—North by Northwest meets The Parent Trap. Spielberg is a great pop artist, but his greatest flaw is that he tends to reproduce ideology rather than challenge it. Catch Me never seriously questions the innocence of American business, law enforcement or government, or the American tendency to view the rare privilege of reinvention as a birthright.

    Minority Report, in contrast, is a hive of critiques and warnings. The spider setpiece, in which apartment dwellers interrupt their private melodramas to let police robots rape their retinas, quotes the overhead tracking shot in Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, but deepens its sense of violation. A prophecy of total surveillance, it’s one of the bolder political statements to come out of Hollywood last year.

    The rest of those statements are collected in Gangs of New York, a studio-compromised but often dazzling popular melodrama that has been arbitrarily and peevishly nitpicked by way too many reputable critics. Yes, it’s flawed. But few of the film’s detractors admit how gutsy it was for director Martin Scorsese and Miramax to break the bank to produce a revisionist urban western that insisted (1) that tribal brutality and reactionary paranoia are embedded in America’s character; (2) that intelligent people must assume that all groups, from beat cops to rich industrialists to ragtag hoodlum armies, are variants of the same social unit (the gang); and (3) that when a leader claims to be acting for the greater good, watch out. Post-9/11, this is heretical thinking.

    Some of the year’s most written-about nonfiction films struck me as pompous and shallow (Biggie & Tupac and Bowling for Columbine were eclipsed by the tiresome clown acts of their self-styled filmmaker-heroes). But other notable docs were as focused, serious, demanding and moving as the best nonfiction-in-prose: Domestic Violence, The Pinochet Case, Family Fundamentals and Long Island filmmaker Josh Khoury’s adolescent dispatch Standing by Yourself. America’s serious nonfiction filmmakers, still ignored by critics addicted to Hollywood fiction, should not be surprised to learn that a group of self-styled rebel pranksters in the New York Film Critics Circle seriously proposed giving Best Nonfiction Film to the fratboy-pandering, poop-chute clip reel Jackass. In retrospect, I wish it had happened. That way, at least nonfiction filmmakers would have had formal proof of what they always suspected: that deep down, most critics fear serious documentaries the way little kids fear veggies.

    American independents (and quasi-independents) didn’t break much new stylistic ground. The year’s signature American indie, Far from Heaven, expended every glucose molecule of its energy recreating the look and mindset of 1950s weepies—either to make us think about how far away yet close that era seems, or to enable Todd Haynes to direct a Douglas Sirk picture. (I was impressed but not moved; the film compounded my longtime fear that Haynes, for all his wit and fluency, is perpetually at risk of becoming Paul Thomas Anderson, PhD.) Elsewhere, the level of craft was consistently solid, and the caliber of acting was often superb. Even visually unspectacular comedies like Secretary and The Good Girl found room for fun, smart acting, by fresh faces you wouldn’t mind seeing again. The above two movies formally announced the arrival of a talented brother-sister team, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, who have the hazy-cheerful demeanor of prep-school dropouts and the spooky, naturalistic concentration of old school, Method-trained superstars.

    I could go on, but I’m out of space.