Films I loved in January 2015

Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson and Edward Norton as Mike Shiner
Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson and Edward Norton as Mike Shiner in Birdman

A week after seeing Birdman – or to use its full title, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – I went back to the cinema to see it again. And I loved it just as much that second time. I think it’s a masterpiece and it is more than likely that at the end of this year it will be the top of my favourite films of 2015 list. It’s easily the best thing that director Alejandro González Iñárritu has ever done as while it’s his most technically ambitious film to date it is also enormously entertaining, whimsical, melancholic and profound in its ability to wrestle with complex questions surrounding the nature of art, authenticity and identity in the modern world. The way it pays tribute to the power of cinema and theatre feels timeless, and yet its commentary about social media, celebrity culture, the role of the critic and the commodification of culture is extremely contemporary and relevant.

The whole cast is astonishing but Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, a former superhero actor who is making one last ditch to achieve legitimacy, delivers a career best. The greatest achievement of the film is its commitment to conveying Thomson’s mentally subjective perspective through the use of what appears to be an impossible continuous long take, delivering the sensation of time and space collapsing in on itself, and visualising Thomson’s various fantasies and delusions. At some point the film completely loses all sense of reality and just becomes a projection of what Thomson is imagining – part of the fun is figuring out when that moment happens. Birdman is a triumph that delivers a blend of black comedy, self aware commentary on the nature of art and the business of creating art, and pathos for its tragic lead character.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild
Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild

I tend to be ambivalent at best when it comes to films about people trekking solo out into the wild in order to find themselves. However, all of my preconceived notions about the limitations of such films were completely shattered by director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, adapted from the memoir by Cheryl Strayed who is played by Reese Witherspoon. Rather than presenting the audience with a lengthy prologue explaining Cheryl’s motivations, it gets straight into her journey and very effectively uses flashbacks to show us her thought process and memories during her trip, all of which fill in the backstory exactly when required.

Not only does the film successfully convey the immediate physical hardships, setbacks and small victories of her hike, but it frames them within the context of various painful memories. By so skilfully reflecting Cheryl’s experiences in the physical world along with everything running through her mind, Wild becomes a thoughtful film about grief, recovery and self-acceptance. On top of that are some extremely sophisticated observations about what it’s like for a woman to be travelling alone, plus incredible performances by Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who plays Cheryl’s mother in flashbacks.

Night Will Fall
Night Will Fall

I regrettably did not get to see the newly completed German Concentration Camps Factual Survey when it screened in Melbourne last year. Originally intended to be released in 1945, it was produced by Sidney Bernstein with the supervised direction of Alfred Hitchcock, and contains footage taken by English, Soviet and American camera-operators attached to army divisions at recently liberated concentration camps. The documentary Night Will Fall by Andre Singer looks at the background of the original film, exploring how it was designed to document the unbelievable horrors of what humanity is capable of.

Originally given full  governmental support to demonstrate what the Allies were fighting against, German Concentration Camps was shelved once the war had ended to help build international relations with post-Nazi Germany and to avoid generating too much domestic sympathy for the survivors seeking refugee status. Night Will Fall contains a lot of footage from the original film and it is indeed harrowing and confronting. This new documentary also provides substantial interviews with many people involved in the original film, including some of the Allied soldiers and some of the survivors, many of whom appear in the original footage. Their testimonies provide essential context and humanity.

Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz and Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher
Channing Tatum as Mark Schultz and Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher

First there was The Master, then Behind the Candelabra and now Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is the latest American film to portray an intense and destructive male relationship where the mentor/student dynamic becomes more like an homoerotic father/son dynamic (although in the case of Behind the Candelabra there was an actual sexual relationship). The key difference in Foxcatcher is while multimillionaire John du Pont is the father figure who’s taken the childlike Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz under his wing to train him for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, du Pont is also a child figure in the film, forever trying to win the the approval of his mother.

This is a cold and bleak film, not just in its themes of regret, bitterness and resentment, but visually with its stark lighting, empty frames and distancing cinematography. While Steve Carell’s performance as du Pont has deservedly attracted a lot of acclaim for his still and mannered menace, I was most impressed by Channing Tatum as the hulking and imposing Mark. Within the context of the film Mark is unreadable, but Tatum and Miller find subtle ways to convey his frustrations, vulnerability and anger. An early scene where Mark trains with his brother David (Mark Ruffalo) is a masterclass in using the body and movement (not unlike dance) to convey to the audience everything they need to know about the characters and their relationship to each other.

The King’s Speech from 2010 remains the modern standard for me when it comes to high quality ‘prestige biopics’ that while not especially remarkable films, are nevertheless well-made, competent and very enjoyable films about remarkable people. Both Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game and James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything very neatly fall into this category and I really liked both. Like any films that are based on true stories, these two films deliver an impression of the people and their importance to the world rather than adhering strictly to precise historical details. So I’m not going to enter into some of the current debate about the ‘truth’ of these films because I consider the films to be self-contained works that come across as authentic to the spirit of the subject matter.

I feel that The Imitation Game conveyed the enormous significance of Alan Turing’s work and legacy, as well as the injustice of how he was treated after World War II. And while I had a bit more awareness about the groundbreaking work achieved by Stephen Hawking, I was impressed by how much The Theory of Everything delivered not only an insight into the kind of person he is, but also acknowledged the significance that his first wife Jane Wilde had on his life and career. And besides, I’m a sucker for any films that celebrate people who have changed the world for the better by being studious and intelligent, as opposed to many other far more dubious characteristics that are often framed as being heroic.

Thomas Caldwell, 2015