While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956). This noirish drama from director Fritz Lang takes aim at the seediness of the newspapers and the cutthroat competitiveness of those in the media, tiltimng at both with equal vigor. When the newspaper owner’s son (Vincent Price) takes control upon his father’s death, he uses the recent emergence of a serial murdered dubbed “the lipstick killer” to pitch his various reporters and editors against each other in an effort to preserve their jobs or even claim one of the plum new positions available. Lang’s curiosity about the darker instincts that drive people gives the film a brutish authenticity, but a lot of the film ultimately feels too pat. None of the characters really come to life as distinctive figures, despite ace actors such as George Sanders and Ida Lupino in the supporting cast. Lang is often a fascinating stylist, even in his clear work-for-hire efforts. Little of that comes through, making While the City Sleeps a fairly pedestrian picture.
Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014). Inspired by Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom persona and drawing further on any number of outside musicians, Frank is a consistently fascinating and amusing film. Even when its structure sometimes threatens to hit some overly familiar beats, Abrahamson (working from a scripted credited to Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) maintains a pleasing edginess, largely by making the lead character (a fledgling musician, played by Domhnall Gleeson, who finds himself a member of a resolutely strange art rock band) more prickly, complicated, and ultimately unlikable than the expected passive protagonist agog at the weirdos he’s thrown in with. Michael Fassbender plays the title character, a damaged genius who consistently keeps his head covered with an oversized, cartoonish facsimile. Largely working without his facial expressions as an instrument in the portrayal, Fassbender injects a remarkable amount of soulfulness into Frank. It’s an offbeat and riveting performance. Abrahamson directs with a fine sense of pacing and an inspired visual panache. The cast also includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, who pushes her performance a little too hard as a combative band member who’s highly protective of Frank.
The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940). This adaptation of John Steinbeck’s monumental novel was released less than a year after the publication of the book, giving the film the same sense of immediate, urgent commentary on the devastated state of the nation. The Great Depression was still weighing on the country, the agony it was still causing distilled into the saga of the Joads, Oklahoman farmers knocked off of their land who strike out for California and the distant promise of achievable subsistence. Prosperity has been scratched off the list of options for their American dream. In bringing the story to the screen, Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson downplay some of the novel’s bleakness, especially in the later chapters. Even so, there’s astounding power in the portrait of a citizenry abandoned and abused by a system that responds viciously against any individual or group effort at reclaiming the upper mobility that is presumably capitalism’s foundational promise. Ford directs with understated visual elegance, and Henry Fonda fills the lead role of Tom Joad with a temperamental integrity.
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2014). Lukas Moodysson needed look no further than a graphic novel created by his wife, Coco Moodysson, to find the material for his latest, a lively and marvelous film about a trio of girls at the beginning of their teenaged years who form a punk band. The conflicts in the film are wisely kept on the modest side — parental disapproval, disputes over cute punk boys — giving it a genial looseness that mirrors the simple, satisfying clash of a great punk song. All three girls are winning in their straightforward roles, with mohawked Mira Grosin proving especially charismatic. Her Klara is one of those kids whose every reaction plays out vividly on her face, especially when she’s ecstatically amused at the foolishness of others. There are already better films this year, but I’ll wager the remaining calendar won’t bring another near-great film this exuberant.
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, 2014). The smart sophomore feature from writer-director Jeremy Saulnier is a revenge film that argues against revenge. Or it at least posits revenge as an inescapable cycle. Operating with the same sort of deadpan gallows humor the Coen brothers bring to their more downbeat work, Saulnier builds the narrative with an admirable patience and commitment to detail. As Dwight, the devastated man who sets out to even the scales in response to the murder of his parents, Macon Blair does a nice job with the emotional dysfunction of the character while making it clear how quickly the mess he’s created overwhelms him. Sharp as the writing and directing both are, the film sometimes struggles just a bit to become anything more significant than a well-executed exercise in flipping a well-established narrative. Of course, the same mild complaint could also be leveled against Blood Simple. That seemed to work out well in the long run.