2014 was a pretty lackluster year in entertainment media. I say that now even though the year isn’t over and I have not seen every film, but it just doesn’t have the energy, variety, and competitive spirit last year’s assortment of award winners did. The bright spots were mostly in TV with the birth of True Detective, the return of 24, the promising second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and the success of the wildly acclaimed (but in my opinion still terrible) Game of Thrones fourth season. And don’t even get me started on gaming.
All in all, it seems I picked a perfect year to plunge into the gaping maw of law school.
But there is one thing 2014 has going for it. Three great films that explore the culture of violence in some way all came out around the same time. And I can tell you now that all three of these are sure to make my list of the year’s best.
We begin with the fun one – John Wick, a 100 minute action romp that succeeds through expert minimalism. The directors are both stuntmen who had never directed a feature film before, but there isn’t a trace of amateurism anywhere to be found. Unlike its genre sister, The Raid 2 from earlier this year, Wick doesn’t stuff its narrative or wear the viewer down with tiresome exposition about what this line of business is really all about.
A group of thugs breaks into a grieving widower’s house to steal his car, and in the process beat him senseless and kill his dog, a dog his deceased wife bequeathed to him as a companion to love in her absence. Little do these kids know, they’ve just awoken what might as well be a slasher villain from his slumber.
The rules, themes, and more fantastical elements of this rather fascinating underground world of crime and punishment, are explained without being explained. Characters show up, do their thing, and then they shut the f*** up and let the movie continue, trusting that you can fill in the blanks for yourself. The most repeated lines involve them telling each other how unstoppable Keanu Reeves’ John Wick is, but it works because (1) the central ones all have a past relationship with him, and (2) you see him clear a house full of a dozen hitmen in less than a minute in the first action scene. He racks up a total kill count of over seventy, and even though you know every step of the way exactly what’s coming, it’s a thrill to see it unfold. The directors infuse Van Damme’s martial arts stunts, spaghetti western homages, and John Woo techniques into this film and they make it look effortless. It’s fast paced, bloody, and all to the theme of a kickass rock anthem by Tyler Bates.
Fifty years old and without losing a step, this is Keanu Reeves at his best once again. Check it out.
We continue with the Scorsese-inspired dark horse. The trailers for Nightcrawler have been selling a more conventional journalistic crime thriller, but the film is much more than that. It’s a pulpy, gritty study of a sociopath who finds a career niche in indulging other sociopaths by making movies. It’s Taxi Driver, but where the main character decides to document crime instead of stop it.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou, a criminal salvager, barely scraping by on the pennies he makes transporting metal to junk farms, when he sees a horrific accident on the freeway. After seeing a camera crew pull up, shoot the scene, and then seeing that footage make the local news, he decides to do the same. So he buys a tiny camera, hires an assistant, and patrols the town at night looking for bad news in upscale neighborhoods to film.
That would be an engaging and interesting movie in and of itself, but Nightcrawler takes it two steps further. Our main character is a student of corporate rhetoric, who regurgitates it without irony, and who genuinely thinks he’s producing something of value. He lectures his employee frequently on stuff you hear at leadership seminars and carries himself like he’s always being interviewed. But the worst thing is that he actually *is* producing something of ‘value.’ Media sensationalism has been the name of the game since there was such a thing as a media, but Nightcrawler points the finger directly at the American audience for having an appetite for the kind of bad news and horrific tragedies these days. Even worse, the outlets that push them do so without a shred of empathy or ethical considerations. When facts arrive that contradict from their message, or in their words ‘distract’ from the real story, they ignore them. By turning on the news to see violence, by participating in the circulation of such fearmongering, we enable sick, twisted people like Lou, and we unwittingly incite more needless violence in our cities.
Nightcrawler could probably use a ten minute trim, but otherwise, this is a slick and scathing critique of our media consumption culture with Jake Gyllenhaal’s best and creepiest performance. Do not miss it.
I’ve always liked David Ayer. He’s written and directed a lot of duds, but he gets great performances out of a lot of actors in what are often their rawest and manliest roles. Say what you will about Harsh Times, Street Kings, Sabotage, and End of Watch; Ayer grinds his leads well. His weakness is in the fact that his movies lose their brains over their runtimes. That is, what semblance of intelligence their scripts have get diluted from the broil of spectacle.
I’ve heard some make a similar accusation about Fury, but of all the films, this is the one where that kind of hard-bitten conventional pacing actually works.
This is a film about a group of jerks who drive a tank. Neither admirable nor lovable as members of the Greatest Generation; they’re the good guys because they wear the flag and speak the language of the war’s good guys. Now in Germany, and with Hitler having declared Total War, recruiting every able bodied man, woman, and child into the war effort, the good guys faced some of their toughest resistance in Europe. That resistance chiefly came in the form of armor superiority. The American Shermans were outclassed, outgunned, and outmaneuvered in just about every way by the German Tigers.
Ayer uses that framework of history to construct a gritty and realistic war environment a la The Thin Red Line. The story begins with a kid (Logan Lerman) joining the crew of Fury, a veteran Sherman tank commanded by “War Daddy” (Brad Pitt), driven by “Gordo” (Michael Peña), loaded by “Coon Ass” (Jon Bernthal), and gunned by “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf). His first task is to the clean what’s left of the last machine gunner before the allies push out.
Whereas most films that start out this way go for the boy-stepping-up-to-heroism arc, Fury inverts that idea, initially showing how war breaks young idealists like Lerman’s character and molds them into psychopaths by being in a company of psychopaths. The tank they drive is maintained, explored, and even characterized like the jaegers in Pacific Rim. The action is loud and brutal, but the quieter moments are no less entertaining, with the veterans’ gaudy personalities and awful table manners interfering with a person’s ability to briefly escape the horrors of war. Yet Ayer’s aim is not to restate the pointlessness or tragedy of war, but instead to illustrate that not all is lost with it. He knows that what you see and the circumstances behind the premise (keep pushing just to do it until the civilian bosses are worn out) make that statement by itself, so he structures the story like an action movie and shrinks the scope for the big finale.
As an action movie with the grim realism of war, Fury gets you acclimated to the violence, and then it even gets you to love it, but not to a point beyond reminding you that even the Nazis were human beings. There were men under the enemy banner who were just as ruthless yet redeemable as our heroes. In war, a kid with the right weapon can wreak bloody havoc upon a company, and mercy is the mark of those unbroken by it.
Fury contains the best .50 cal action movie since Rambo, the best acting by Brad Pitt since Moneyball, the best acting by Shia LaBeouf ever, and the best tank vehicle action in film history. It is David Ayer’s masterpiece, far in away the best war film since Black Hawk Down, and (at least in the opinion of yours truly) the best film of the year thus far.