Ours is a film culture of extremes: of masterpieces and disasters, of frauds overrated and treasures misunderstood—and you have to decide which in an instant. That middlebrow period biopic, with its award nominations and halo of prestige? Tripe, trash; I’ve tweeted it. That low-budget action extravaganza, with its clean lines and elegant use of visual space? Extraordinary, exquisite; it obviously eludes you. When taste is privileged over thought, and opinion matters more than analysis, niceties like nuance aren’t readily accommodated. Perspectives become positions: You adopt one and it defines you. And what’s lost is the sprawl of the in-between.
Well, I said as much last year. I wanted this list to be a space for consideration—or perhaps consideration in process. Some of the films I highlighted, I can see with twelve months’ distance, have dimmed to faintness in my memory; others continue to brightly gleam. (One of them, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, has expanded immeasurably in my estimation, and I regard it a year out with deep, unwavering affection.) As I set to work on this year’s list it occurs to me that I made far less time over the last twelve months for risky prospects—for films of poor repute whose idiosyncrasies I may well have warmed to. (johnnydelmonicos.com) I’m told I’d find much to enjoy in John Wick, Lucy, and A Walk Among the Tombstones, despite their cool reception, and I look forward to catching up with them on DVD. But I take that as a testament to the vastness of the intriguing in-between: If you can get past the best and worst there are always more curiosities to delight in.
Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow vanished from theaters about as quickly and unceremoniously as it arrived, and it wasn’t until its home video debut last month that I had the chance to have a look. I’m very glad I did. This is a sprightly, buoyant blockbuster, deftly realized and frightfully clever. Unlike Joseph Kosinski’s tiresome Oblivion, last year’s Tom Cruise science-fiction vehicle, Edge of Tomorrow isn’t a remotely self-serious affair—indeed, it’s a comedy. And it’s a comedy, furthermore, that for two-thirds of its running time seems at Cruise’s own expense: a far cry from the waning star’s recent string of glamorizing vanity projects, whose nadir was reached only two Decembers ago with Jack Reacher. Here Cruise handily redeems himself. Its inexhaustibly amusing high concept, alas, is abandoned after the second act, and its comparatively dull third strains to recover. But what fun while it lasts.
Its slender premise is irresistible: A decorated U.S. air marshal, played by Liam Neeson, boards an overnight transatlantic flight. In the air he receives an intriguing text: Arrange the transfer of several million dollars into a specific bank account within one hour, or a passenger dies. So far, so good. But it soon transpires that the dilemma is rather more complicated: The bank account, Neeson’s superiors inform him, is in his name, and victim number one—nixed at precisely the one-hour mark—dies at Neeson’s own hands. Director Jaume Collet-Serra plays this pressure-cooker thriller like a modern Lady Vanishes, ever teasing the mystery as the stakes continue to raise; the film isn’t of the Hitchcock order, of course, but, extraordinarily, Non-Stop sustains its fascination until the very end. If only all blockbusters could invigorate with such economy.
The Drop is, I think, a plainly ridiculous movie: A gritty Brooklyn crime saga whose tough-guy hero spends most of its running time hugging a puppy. It isn’t clear to what degree the director, Michael R. Roskam, takes any of this seriously; certainly his last film, the practically operatic Bullhead, suggests that he very much does. Nevertheless, I found The Drop’s silliness sort of endearing. It helps that Tom Hardy exudes warmth so naturally, here playing the ne’er-do-well heavy in a hapless, even dopey way, with an accent that reminded me a little of Adam Sandler. And since seeing the film in September I’ve thought often of the scene in which Matthias Schoenaerts, playing a sadistic thug called Eric Deeds, barges into Hardy’s house on a sunny afternoon only to leave, inexplicably, with a stolen umbrella. What a bizarre scene. And what a likeable movie.
Speaking of ludicrous movies whose intentions aren’t apparent: Denis Villeneuve‘s Enemy, a real lark, whose humor seems rather hard to reconcile with the man who made Prisoners and Incendies. I’m not particularly concerned about whether or not Villeneuve, or any other director, meant for his film to be funny; what matters is the text, and based on the evidence Enemy is indeed a playful, terrifically amusing film. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a college professor in Toronto, and also Daniel St. Claire, an actor and apparently Adam’s exact double; Adam notices the coincidence when he rents a film on the recommendation of a colleague, and devotes himself thereafter to investigating the man with whom he appears to share a face. This plays out with the droll, pseudo-noir intrigue of the second half of Eyes Wide Shut—and with a similar fixation on the theme of infidelity.
I continue to struggle with Whiplash. Some observations, in any case: The rigor it advocates doesn’t extend to the filmmaking, which concedes too much to convention; a film of greater discipline would have (for instance) excised the superfluous girlfriend. For a film about the scourge of artistic compromise, it seems doggedly ingratiating: The scene at the dinner table, in particular, has been calibrated to maximize audience satisfaction, urging us to cheer for our hero as he wittily eviscerates his extended family, whose one-dimensional philistinism exists simply to hate. Its conception of jazz is, at best, meager. Its turns of plot are preposterous. And yet. And yet…I was enthralled by Whiplash. It is an invigorating thing, despite (or perhaps because of) its stupidity. By the time its hero has launched into a blood-splattered ten-minute solo before a sold-out Lincoln Center, my intellectual resistance meant very little: I’d already given myself over to it. Is that an inexcusable compromise? I still haven’t decided.