Monday, December 22, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2014

It's awards season. That's good news for audiences and writers, alike. The former because it's important to remember how important good storytelling is. The latter because the storyteller must be in a constant state of self-education. How can we, as writers, become better? Foremost by writing, but also by reading and watching successful stories. What makes for a commercial and critical success, such as awards-season fare?

As a trained (and continually aspiring) writer, I like to be reminded of why I went into writing in the first place. So I'd like to offer a different sort of top list. This is targeted primarily toward those with an interest in storytelling and character development. What makes certain stories work? Which employ the tenets of good storytelling effectively? What makes them my favorites of the year?

Each of these has something in common. Namely, they're about the process of becoming leaders, both willing and not. What does it take to lead? What mistakes must be avoided? Can just anyone call the shots? This year's best films ask these questions.

In no particular order:

The Lego Movie
Written and Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Protagonist: Emmet
Tangible goal: Emmet must prove himself "The Special" by using the piece of resistance to destroy the "kragel" super-weapon.
Character flaw: Emmet tries too hard to fit in.
Theme: Prove yourself special by being yourself.

With a cast of dynamite characters and enough cultural references to even make Shrek blush, The Lego Movie is an exercise in balancing fan service with phenomenal storytelling. Emmet's goal is simple and clear-cut. In a world where so many things are the same, what can stand out? Not just Emmet, of course, but everyone. The critical element about the concept of "special" is that it always changes. Unlike the permanent-glue state in which Lord Business wants to preserve his world, to be truly special isn't about being unique: it's about becoming unique. Everything is awesome, indeed.

The Imitation Game
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Adapted by Graham Moore
Protagonist: Alan Turing
Tangible goal: Alan Turing must crack the Nazis' Enigma code.
Character flaw: Alan Turing's refusal to trust others jeopardizes the very existence of the machine that may be the allies' only hope.
Theme: Trust others and they will come to trust you.

What makes a hero? Is it one who puts their passions aside for others? Is it one who makes the tough call that the needs of the many outweigh the lives of the few? Perhaps more importantly, how do we treat those we brand as heroes? No less than the entire allied effort of World War II is at stake in The Imitation Game, the once-secret true story of the allied effort to break "unbreakable" Nazi codes. A film about secrets and those who keep them, mathematician Alan Turing's extreme introversion, mistaken as vanity by his peers, threatens to derail the one good lead the British forces have at cracking Enigma. But who is Alan Turing? Is he all that he appears to be? How is a man who is possibly the world's foremost expert in code-breaking quite possibly himself the world's greatest cypher? Excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley turn a film about a room full of eggheads into an ever-engaging, heartbreaking tale about how the human heart is possibly the most unbreakable code of all.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo
Protagonist: Riggan Thomson
Tangible goal: Riggan Thomson must successfully run his Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
Character flaw: Riggan wants to matter to everyone for the wrong reasons.
Theme: Far better to matter to just one person than to be a spectacle to everyone.

Be somebody. Easier said than done? Emma Stone's Sam shrieks to her father, Riggan, "You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t." Birdman is a lot of things, but it never lies to its audience. As much a critique of itself as it is of the very industry it lampoons, it treads the fine line between those who stand on pedestals and those who are the pedestals. What is a celebrity worth but the value his/her audience ascribes to them? Do performers perform for performance's sake? Is it the performance itself or the results or rewards of the performance that drives them? At once silly, surreal, dark, uncomfortable, and ultimately incisive, Birdman gives us a cast of characters who are each desperate for adoration while asking what any of them have done that's remotely worthy of it. If Riggan only ever mattered because he was once Birdman, then this film is about how Riggan can matter by being himself.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Written and Adapted by Dean DeBlois
Protagonist: Hiccup
Tangible goal: Hiccup and friends must stop Drago's conquest of the known world.
Character flaw: Hiccup's too reluctant to lead.
Theme: Leadership – indeed, heroism – means putting yourself on the line for the good of others.

An unusual sequel that builds and expands upon the considerable strength of its predecessor, How to Train Your Dragon 2 gives us more dragons, more action, and most importantly, more Hiccup. The second block of a trilogy, another (albeit more boring) title for the franchise could be, How to Be a Kick-Ass Leader. We're sitting front row to Hiccup's education in how to become a brave, forthright chief. Like Lego, we're treated to another simple story (with a far less humorous and arguably more dangerous antagonist) with an ever-complex protagonist who finds clever, unexpected ways to outwit his nemeses and bring honor to himself and his kin. Hiccup (and his dragon, Toothless) is presented with a number of different leaders and leadership styles over the course of the film, ultimately shaping him into a capable commander who trusts, relies upon, and values his lieutenants. After all, as Reverend Charles Bayard Miliken of Methodist Episcopal in Chicago (and Harry Potter's Sirius Black) said, "It is the way one treats his inferiors more than the way he treats his equals which reveals one’s real character." 

Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Protagonist: Father James
Tangible goal: Father James must find a way to survive after an anonymous parishioner threatens to kill him in a week.
Character flaw: Father James sees the townsfolk as a collection of problems to be fixed.
Theme: Compassion is the best way to prove yourself as a true example to others.

John Michael McDonagh clearly shares his brother Martin's (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) considerable talent and pulls off an explosive story of sin, redemption, and sacrifice. When a vengeful victim of a pedophile priest targets good Father James for assassination, Father James must not only contemplate fleeing rather than be crucified for the sins of others, but also what would be best for his flock, all of whom are quite obviously sinful, themselves. As an unappreciated (perhaps the most unappreciated) member of his community, how can those who sin without a care in the world come to care for a priest whose mere presence reminds them of how much better they could have been? What can Father James do in a week to save his life and change - truly change - a town who seems to have passed him by? What will it take to save them? Are they worth saving? Is Father James?

Honorable mentions:

The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Adapted by Anthony McCarten
The marriage of physicist Stephen Hawking is our protagonist. While I found the film of average quality, it was Eddie Redmayne's breakout performance as Hawking that far and away stole the show. He is the one to beat for Best Actor.

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Childhood and growing up never really end. What kind of a man is Mason going to be? Like Dragon's Hiccup, he's presented with a series of potential role models, all of whom shape him into the man he will be for the rest of his life. And while the story takes a long time to bring us there, we ultimately like him.

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Like a negative-space Dead Poets Society, we're treated to a music professor who encourages greatness in his protégé, an aspiring drummer, by tearing him to microscopic shreds. Every scene is a powder keg. It will make you shake as you ask what you're willing to pay for greatness.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Adapted by Nick Hornby
Love and loss are two of my favorite archetypal themes (indeed, once you're past a certain age, they're unavoidable) and Wild treats us to Reese Witherspoon's career-best performance in an exploration thereof. After the death of her beloved mother (a masterful Laura Dern), a spiraling young woman hikes the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail in search of a home she doesn't have. As an avid hiker and road-tripper, I found the cinematography and moments of solitude amidst nature particularly resonant.

Not sure which of these to see? See them all. Support storytelling. And remember:

"If your destination is the journey, you are the map." - Me

Happy holidays!

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