Second part of this post about the films I’ve seen this year.
Well, how about I count down in reverse order:
9. Robocop. Now hang on a second, no sniggering. I was actually pleasantly surprised by Robocop. Sure, it was junk. Sure, it wasn’t the original. Sure, a key fight scene was basically made entirely of some random video game footage that was lying around the studio somewhere. But actually, I found it pretty fun. The action scenes, while not the best, weren’t terrible. The acting wasn’t terrible. There were some nice little cameos and jokes. I don’t regret seeing it. I certainly preferred it to, say, Man of Steel
8. Calvary. Oh dear. There were things about The Guard that I really liked, and things I didn’t like. I hoped that Calvary would retain the former and remove the latter. It was mostly the other way around. Brendan Gleeson gives a good performance. The scenery was stunning. There are some good funny lines, and in particular there’s a little two-hander in it that was the funniest thing I have seen all year. But the director has never seen a performance he thought was too loud, too ridiculous or too broad, and has every actor ham up massively (other than Gleeson, who instead downplays everything and seems to be floating in an entirely different film). This perhaps wouldn’t be such a problem if the screenplay weren’t headbangingly obvious, unsubtle and patronising. At times it was brilliant, but at other times it was difficult to keep watching it was so bad.
7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Half an hour in, I thought to myself: ‘ok, narrative cinema is dead’. But actually, by the end, I’d mostly changed my mind. It’s clunkingly obvious and wholly conventional with scarcely an iota of distinctive genius to any of it. But once it’s cleared the painful infodumps and foreshadowings, it becomes a respectably well-made film with a plot and characters and everything, and I came out of the cinema having moderately enjoyed it.
6. The Imitation Game. You know, I was tempted to bump this down behind Dawn… but that would have been spite, and would represent my problem with the reception of the film, rather than with the film itself. The film itself… well, it’s hard to think of anything wrong with it (other than Keira Knightley, obviously). It looks very pretty, it’s well acted, the writing has no glaring faults (except perhaps the lurch into cheesy psychology at the end), the score is exactly what you’d expect… everything is exactly what you’d expect from it. Exactly. If you designed a film to win Oscars and be generally well-liked, this is what you would design. There is no risk in it anywhere. My bigger problem, however, is perhaps the trend it seems to represent to me: the idea of the ‘biopic’ that has absolutely sod all interest in the subject or their works. Turing was a fascinating character; ‘Turing’ in this film has very little in common with him, and is instead just the generic ‘genius with Aspergers’ stock cartoon character that has become fashionable. Turing, incidentally, did not have Aspergers, and was by all accounts a sociable man with a witty and pleasant sense of humour. Turing was among those who broke the Enigma code, but the film has virtually no interest in the substance of this, reducing most of it to a brief and early “obsessive genius scribbles incomprehensibly on bits of paper” montage copied from a dozen other films. As for the other code-breakers, the film shows them as mere irrelevences (rather than, say, showing how Knox independently broke the form of Enigma used by German military intelligence, by an entirely different method). Turing developed some of the first functioning computers, but there is little discussion of this – it’s just something for him to stand in front of looking dramatic. His contributions to the philosophy of AI? Food for a brief and disconnected scene that serves mostly to provide the title. How about his life as a gay man at a time when it was illegal? Nope. We don’t even meet any of his lovers. Apparently his entire sexual life was one chaste infatuation as a child followed by a life spent pining for that one true love. Yeah right. The investigation that led to his arrest? A framing device with no time spent on it. His sensational trial? No. OK, how about the idea of a man voluntarily opting for chemical castration to change his sexual orientation? No, just tell us that it happened, don’t explore that, nothing interesting there. And an exploration of his death – was it suicide, and if so why? (His hormone treatment had actually already been discontinued, and he had apparently regarded it with good humour). Or how about public attitudes toward him? No. No, there is basically nothing here actually about Alan Turing or what he did or what was done to him. There is a generic Hollywood Biopic, and then there are few lines of trivia here or there to connect this Biopic to a real historical person. To be honest, I’m actually kind of offended that this was nominated for Oscars. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t hate it. Like I say, it’s very well put-together, for what it is. I mostly enjoyed watching it. If it were on TV when I needed to, say, do some ironing, I would not object. The production qualities are somewhat higher than something like, say, an episode of Foyle’s War, even if the depth of the writing and the historical specificity are not…
On which note: the film is also a good example of a worrying modern trend among filmmakers: not giving a shit about responsibility. The Imitation Game is essentially a gross slander of a bunch of people who lived not very long ago – some may still be alive, while for others their children, grandchildren and friends are still alive. The director has responded condescendingly to complaints by explaining that this is a film, not a documentary, and thus Art, and thus has no responsibility to be accurate – even the post-film text, which is untrue, is only Art, not an attempt at fact. But this is not written on the tin. The film is marketed as a historical film – indeed, it’s only real selling point is that this is the true story of persecuted genius Alan Turing. The fact that it is not anything like the true story of Turing is therefore a cogent objection to it. People were coming out of the cinema say “wow, I never realised that…” – because they thought, as all the advertising said, that it was a true story! Now of course, we all know that minor alterations must be made to almost any true story to make it fit the dramatic requirements of a film – but those alterations must be made responsibly, with the adapter balancing the requirements of drama with a responsibility to history and to the memories of real people, particularly when, as here, the film deeply slanders real people who cannot defend themselves against it. It is only filmmakers who seem not to understand it – if a biography were presented in written form that was so wilfully negligent of reality, people would not passively accept this. The only reason I think they accept films like The Imitation Game is that for many people cinema is their main source of information on many subjects (which only adds to the responsibility filmmakers have not to lie). And of course it’s not just The Imitation Game – this year alone, those responsible for Selma and American Sniper have issued similar “Art has no responsibilities” defences for the historical liberties those films take, with varying levels of “all truth is relative, I’m just showing the subjective experience of the reality” cod philosophy alongside (which I would have less problem with if it were made clear to the general viewing public, in advance, that that’s what they were trying to do). And perhaps I would feel less strongly about this issue if these films took liberties to make surprising or novel claims, to show new perspectives. Instead, all three films (from what I’ve read in the case of the latter, and from what I’ve seen in the case of TIG) re-write history to conform to more simplistic, more infantile, more conventional and reassuring tropes. For these filmmakers, ‘historical drama’ seems to mean trying to make history conform to the expectations of drama viewers, reducing history to cartoon and blockbuster, rather than trying to show viewers the drama inherent in the real history. The three films all profess different political views, but in their desire to infantilise the audience they are all fundamentally reactionary, conservative propaganda.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy. Genuinely a good film! Fun, and funny, and quirky. Not very original (other than the wallpaper), and not exactly a work of genius or anything, but solidly good film.
4. Birdman. A very professionally-crafted film. Some good acting, camerawork, some good lines. But… sorry, but this is just a good mile up its own arse. It is hollow and soulless. There is one line in it that did resonate with me: when Keaton’s character talks about how he was miserable as a Hollywood star, but then answers himself back saying “yeah, but Hollywood miserable”. Not real miserable. That, to me, encapsulates the film. It’s not that Hollywood Miserable isn’t genuinely, life-destroyingly, suicidally miserable in some cases. It’s that it’s hard to care, because it’s so artificial. It’s the sort of misery where the guy has to find reasons for himself to be miserable, because he’s bored of feeling fine and because everybody else is doing it. A combination of narcissism, martyrdom and attention-seeking. That’s this film. I can see why Hollywood loves it, and even why it might be a good film for Hollywood. But for everybody else? It’s unimportant. Now, sure, it claims to know this – a character even yells at Keaton that he doesn’t matter and nothing he does matters (because nothing in this film is left to the imagination, every subtext must be yelled). But here’s the thing: telling people loudly that you don’t matter at all is still a form of narcissism. It’s still megalomania, it’s still attention-seeking. It’s just the B-side to the self-aggrandisement. Put simply, this is a film that showbusiness types will come away from feeling smug about: because look how enlightened and self-aware and open to criticism they are to like a film that is willing to criticise showbusiness… and because nothing here will actually sting any of their egos because hell, they’re still the star of the show. It’s the annoying old lady who monopolises dinner conversation by telling everybody loudly how humble and self-effacing she is. Because of course it only dares to judge itself by its own standards. If you really want to take on Hollywood, if you really what to show us how irrelevent it is, show us some glimpse of the world outside showbusiness. Take us to the slums, show us what really matters. [But of course, that would also risk showing how showbusiness is important…] Instead it’s a bunch of shallow people patting each other on the back for how deep they are. And again, I did actually enjoy this, as a piece of entertainment, for a little while, and it is impressively constructed, in many ways. But it’s a vacuous and hollow technical exercise designed to appeal to vacuous and hollow Oscar voters (while explicitly seeking to look as though it doesn’t care what they think).
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is also a hollow and vacuous technical exercise! However, I preferred this to Birdman because Budapest authentically recognises its own limitations – not only does it not try to be more, it even sets out to limit and distance itself (the nested story frames, for instance, or the way that the most “important” facts are mentioned in an off-hand manner while “trivial” details get extensive coverage). This is the film that really discusses the virtues and limitations of storytelling, and it does so by breaking out of the clique of storytellers, rather than by a bunch of storytellers arguing with one another as in Birdman. If it doesn’t seem as emotive and as relevant to real life as Birdman does, that’s because Birdman revels in its illusions of relevence, is never afraid to throw in a gritty, meaty speech about something that doesn’t really matter, whereas Budapest has genuine meat to it, but, as often happens in real life, the emotional core is kept confined, only delicately touched on. There is always something terribly unrealistic about realism – something theatrical and artificial about soul-bearing honesty. Even in real life, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that grand speeches about feelings and the meaning of life may be playing to the crowd, and that the most genuine emotions are those that we keep concealed, or that we have no words for. Meanwhile, in its own way Budapest is every bit as technically proficient as the more acclaimed film. It was, I’ll confess, something of a disappointment to me – it lacks the passion and specificity of The Royal Tennenbaums (one of my favourite films) – but it was nonetheless a distinctive and memorable film that I’m sure will end up somewhere on my shelf of films to rewatch over the years.
2. Edge of Tomorrow. You know, I actually thought about putting this #1. But in the end I can’t quite defend that. I do feel, however, that I can defend #2. Edge of Tomorrow is a popcorn film, sure – but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. What, after all, is really wrong with this film? There are a range of exciting and visually impressive action shots. The pacing is almost perfect; I never became bored (and I get bored easily in action films). Perhaps it is five minutes or so too long, but that’s quibbling. It’s true that the ending isn’t perfect, and there are also a few too many tropes employed – but that has to be seen in the context of the film as a whole, which is continually enjoyable, and surprisingly original. It’s always finding new angles and developments. It doesn’t speak down to the viewer (much). It’s got two really good central performances (and if you hate Tom Cruise, don’t worry, that might make you enjoy this film even more!) and a bunch of good minor roles. It’s got real emotion – not a huge amount, sure, because that’s not what this sort of film is for, but it is there, and it’s enough to provide us with stakes we care about. The writing is good throughout, with some really great lines. As a result, it’s really funny. Not, again, an outright genius comedy, but funny enough to lighten the mood, make the film likeable, keep our attention when the action slows, and provide a bit of tonal whiplash to keep us on our toes. The special effects look good, and the sound is great. It’s a really clever film. It’s a popcorn action film and it’s really clever, and that’s the sort of film there really needs to be more of.
Will Edge of Tomorrow enter my personal favourites? Probably not, but for some people it probably will. It will enter my ‘things to suggest watching whenever I’m having a pizza with friends’ list. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, it’s probably the film I’m likely to want to rewatch most often – and while a film can be great without being rewatchable, anything I want to rewatch a lot must be a pretty damn good film. After all, entertainment is the aim!
Now, don’t get ahead of yourselves. Whiplash is not a perfect film. In fact, it’s got some glaring errors in it. There are two or three scenes here that had me going ‘nooo! baaad wriiiting!’. The thing is, though – those are a tiny fraction of the run time overall. More importantly for me, those are things you expect from a new writer who hasn’t quite polished off the rough edges yet. For the most part, this was a seriously, seriously good film. Every element of it was working excellently, and I probably had higher adrenaline levels watching a guy hit a drum with a stick than I did for any other film I saw this year. It’s a claustrophobic, intense little martinet of a film. As much as I love Natalie Portman and lesbian sex scenes and adore Tchaikovsky (and, I’ll confess, I’m really keen on all three), this feels like the film Black Swan should have been. And Birdman? Hey, Iñárritu, this is a film about the importance/unimportance of art! This is what real passion and obsession look like. Not Hollywood-passion or Hollywood-Art, but real art. And the music! Speaking as someone who likes classical rather than jazz, there’s some really appealing jazz in this film… and that drum solo! That’s how the drums are meant to be played. [Although apparently ‘real’ drummers consider that sort of thing to be ‘very passé’ (quoting here from a noted drummer) and not fashionable at all. Yeah, well, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth was passé too – but who do people listen to now, Tchaikovsky or Cui?]
Did I want more from Whiplash than it delivered? Yes. Yes, I wanted more, and I was a little disappointed by it. But that’s only because it so good. It’s so good that I perhaps I wanted it to do everything. Watching films like The Imitation Game (conventional) or Birdman (Hollywood-unconventional), you can be drawn in, seduced, made to think “well what more could a film do?” – those films couldn’t have done more than they did, their limitations were built into them and you applaud when they do exactly what they say on the tin. Whiplash is a film that feels so free, so authentic, so capable that you have to remind yourself that it’s only mortal, or else you get disappointed when you realise that it can’t actually fly.
So there you have it. My last year in films. I’m pretty pleased – there was nothing I saw that was a total disaster. Some films disappointed me, some irritated me, but they all had things to like about them. Even Robocop was non-awful. In terms of all-time rankings, I would put them in the following categories:
Wouldn’t give recommendation for or against, but don’t regret seeing: Robocop
Might recommend to some people, if they like this sort of thing: Calvary; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; The Imitation Game
Would recommend widely, though with caveasts: Guardians of the Galaxy; Birdman
Will passionately recommend: The Grand Budapest Hotel; Edge of Tomorrow; Whiplash
All-time favourites: probably none (so far – films may be upgraded on a re-watch).
Of course, I did watch other films this year too. There’s no point listing everything I’ve watched, but I can think of two other films I got around to watching for the first time: Let the Right One In, and Oh, What a Lovely War!
Both films were very impressive, but neither will be all-time favourites. Let the Right One In probably ranks somewhere around Grand Budapest for me – I didn’t quite get the general adulation, but it was really good. [I rarely get the general adulation, just as I rarely get the hate. Most films – most art – tends to seem to me more mediocre than other people think it is, neither as brilliant nor as terrible]. Oh, What a Lovely War! probably ranks even higher than Whiplash – it’s not as well-made a film as Whiplash, but it benefits from insanely catchy songs and more powerful subject matter. It’s not going to be a favourite film of mine per se, but I may find myself rewatching it a lot just for the music…
However: the best three hours of film I’ve seen this year wasn’t Whiplash, or Oh, What a Lovely War! – it wasn’t a film at all. It was probably the first three episodes of this season of The Americans. Or perhaps it was the last four episodes of the third season of Person of Interest. Maybe it was an early-to-middle stretch of True Detective or of Hannibal. In any case, it was on TV, not in the cinema. Whatever your interests, so long as you don’t need a colossal budget of explosions, it seems there’s better writing, deeper themes, more character development and more risk-taking in modern TV series. [I’d also put the visual appearance of Hannibal or True Detective or even the noirish affectations of some Person of Interest up on the level of the best films – and even The Americans, which is much more visually conservative, is still really pretty]. So maybe this year of watching more film has come too late? When we get right down to it… aren’t films a bit passé?