Then Playing — Gideon’s Army; They Drive By Night; Five Feet Apart

gideons army

Gideon’s Army (Dawn Porter, 2013). This documentary examines the grueling, perpetually disheartening work undertaken by public defenders, vital contributors to the principle of equal justice that are severely undervalued. The prevailing storytelling scheme of the day calls for picking a couple cases and follow them through. Director Dawn Porter doesn’t entirely set aside this approach, but the through line cases are visited and revisited in a more sidelong way. She’s concerned with the lawyers actually under the strain of serving the system, assessing their different relationships with the nobility of their work and the echoing inside their respective bank accounts. The film lacks polish, which somehow seems appropriate to the creative mission. Documentary filmmaking is its own form of serving the greater good with only the weakest hope of making a decent living. Gideon’s Army isn’t meant to stir or inspire. Instead, it offers a clear-eyed view of the willful neglect of a primary protections for U.S. citizens.


drive by night

They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940). Based on a 1938 novel by A.I. Bezzerides, this pulpy drama use the plight of truckers as a jumping off point, but eventually incorporates all manner of sordidness, including the requisite femme fatale (Ida Lupino, in a ferocious performance). Director Raoul Walsh knows his way around this sort of material more than most, and he crafts the film with the appropriate interplay of gallows humor and headlong conflict, coming up with the occasionally sly visual, probably smothered in shadows. The film is peppered with colorful performances, including Humphrey Bogart as a hangdog trucker, Alan Hale, Sr. as a guffawing company boss, and Ann Sheridan as a sardonic waitress who gets all the best lines until the dictates of the era relegate her to simpering love interest, a development that happens as quickly and easily as snapping on headlights.


five feet apart

Five Feet Apart (Justin Baldoni, 2019). Built like an young adult novel adaptation, Five Feet Apart is actually an original work, albeit one based on a real couple that inspired the press to routinely evoke John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in covering their sad, lovely story. Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) are both teenaged cystic fibrosis patients accustomed to regular hospitalizations. She’s bravely optimistic and regimented. He’s pessimistic and sloppy about his own care. Naturally, they fall for each other, and the film is largely a chronicle of their bittersweet romance with conditions that mandate they stay six feet apart from one another at all times (the five feet of the title is an act of defiance). In his feature debut, director Justin Baldoni handles the material with care and just enough inventiveness to make the mundane, predictable story work, at least until the last act which amps up the drama to level of overt manipulation and, in turn, painful implausibility. Sprouse is solid in his role, but it’s Richardson who continues to prove herself one of the strongest young actors working regularly and prominently in film today. She brings an easy authenticity to every moment, including small, strategic flickers that convey major emotions. Given the chance, she could be her generation’s equivalent of Michelle Williams. She has that kind of talent and onscreen immediacy.

Greatish Performances #41

larson 12

#41 — Brie Larson as Grace Howard in Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2013)

Written and directed by Destin Danile Cretton, Short Term 12 is intensely focused in portraying the tender existences of people connected to a group home for struggling teens. There are big moments in the film — troubling revelations, devastating individual choices, acts of violence — but it’s even more compelling in the attention it gives to the emotional gashes that can last a lifetime, never quite healing over enough to become scars. Some bruises are forever tender.

At the center of the film, encompassing all of its trembling complications, is the performance by Brie Larson as Grace Howard. One of the supervisors in the group home, Grace is fiercely dedicated to her charges and, it seems, has more of knack for reaching troubled young people than some of her colleagues. She’s no noble saint, though It is not a portrayal of beatific delicacy. As acted by Larson, Grace is strikingly human. Even as she approaches the residents of the group home with thoughtful care, she can be impatient, stern, and visibly worn out. There is therapy and compassion at play, but it is also a trying job, and Larson wears the day-by-day of it all like a lead-lined coat.

There’s also a lurking risk in Grace’s involvement with the group home residents. Her ability to sympathize is strong in part because of the dark secrets in her past. She can be rash in her decision-making and a righteous in her certainty of the best course of action, qualities that sometimes derail her. Larson artfully plays the conflicts that keep Grace in a precarious stasis. There are moments that flare, but much of Larson’s performance is notable for its simmering uncertainty, the hesitant reaching for a handle she knows has a high likelihood of scalding her. The people who support her, including a coworker who is also her kind, adoring romantic partner (John Gallagher, Jr.), are eyed by Grace with skepticism, less because of they have demonstrated themselves to be untrustworthy and more out of a grim certainty that the universe twirls on the axis of betrayal. Larson makes this emotional hardship experienced by Grace into an ache so real it’s almost solid.

Larson probes into her character with a commitment beyond developing many layers. Instead, Larson builds those layers and then manages to show them all at once, draped across one another like sheets of vellum that shift subtly as the light changes. At times, the intimacy of the performance is so truthful that it can seem like Grace’s gradual opening up of herself is a real thing, coaxed by Larson rather than acted by her. In committing fully and ferociously to Grace, Larson honors the character. More laudably, Larson honors the many people in the world who are living their own versions of Grace’s quietly heroic endurance.


About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight
#32 — Essie Davis in The Babadook
#33 — Ashley Judd in Heat
#34 — Mira Sorvino in Mimic
#35 — James Gandolfini in The Mexican
#36 — Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man
#37 — Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
#38 — Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit
#39 — Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient
#40 — Katie Holmes in Pieces of April

The Unwatchables — The Counselor


I don’t inherently have a problem with films that go a little bonkers. And I can muster up an appreciation whether the offerings in question are good or bad. Bong Joon-ho devising brilliant storytelling around dystopian science fiction taking place almost entirely within a locomotive endlessly circling the planet? Yes, please! Neil Labute disastrously fumbling with a limp gothic horror remake in which Nicolas Cage overacts his way through fisticuffs while wearing a ratty bear costume and torture by bee helmet? I’ll take seconds and lick that plate clean!

Maybe the real problem in when a film the tilts toward lunacy lands somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, marked by neither inspiration nor ineptness. What happens when material that is relentlessly nutso is handled with dull competence?

The Counselor happens, that’s what.

Directed by Ridley Scott, The Counselor assembles a first-rate cast and sets them wandering aimlessly across a plot of creeping criminality and addled sexual intrigue. I’d like to provide a little more detail on the mechanics of that story, but I could barely discern what was going on besides the different characters — led by the title attorney, played by Michael Fassbender — slipping in and out of each other’s orbits to deliver coyly menacing dialogue. The gears of the story don’t connect. They just spin and spin.

The most notable name in the opening credits is revered novelist Cormac McCarthy. The Counselor is his first produced original screenplay, following adaptations of his books that include one flat-out classic and many more big screen works that implicitly, inadvertently argue that his distinct brand of terse, tense prose doesn’t travel well when moved from the page. In this instance, there’s no condemning the translation. McCarthy presumably believed these lines could be spoken aloud and sound like human communication. But actors imbued with boundless talent straight from the heavens couldn’t pull off a moment such as the one in which Javier Bardem reacts to a grim comment from Cameron Diaz by asking her, “You don’t think that’s a bit cold?,” and she responds, “I think truth has no temperature.” And then there’s Fassbender’s cooing to Penélope Cruz, “Life is being in bed with you. Everything else is just waiting.” It one of the grossest approximations of seductive romance I’ve encountered in a film in quite some time.

The above litany doesn’t even start digging into the nutty plot points: the bikini pool party with a leopard sedately hanging out, the intricate highway beheading that mystically stirs an incarcerated woman (Rosie Perez) awake, the scene of Diaz mounting — in both the dictionary and pornographic definitions of the word — a sports car windshield as Bardem gazes up in confusion. Scott films all this with an odd placidness bordering on dull-eyed indifference. It’s an exercise in riled perversion presented as a chain of plainly framed close-ups, like a TV movie from decades ago. Decadence has rarely seemed so dull.

I made it approximately halfway through The Counselor.


Previously in The Unwatchables
— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman

Dominik, Howard, Junger, Miller, Wolchok

Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016). And so we’ve reached the point in the superhero era of cinema that allows for a caustically deconstructionist take on the genre to become one of the biggest hits of the year. There might be no better methodology for tracing the chronology of the genre’s takeover than measuring the comparative impact of Mystery Men (a dud in 1999) to Kick-Ass (a solid hit in 2010) to Deadpool (a sensation in 2016). Technically, Ryan Reynolds first played Wade Wilson in the dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, release in 2009. Besides the smirking countenance of the actor, that iteration of the character bears no resemblance to the jabbering, comic sadist who romps through Deadpool. Taking cues from most of the Marvel comics featuring the character, director Tim Miller and credited screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick imbue Deadpool with an awareness of his own fiction, letting him comment on the narrative manipulations and pile-up of tropes that dog him as he marauds against a big batch of colorfully brutal opponents and tries to rescue his lady love (Morena Baccarin). It has amusing moments, but the redundancy of the central gag wears thin quickly. Reynolds reverts back to the Jim Carrey, Jr. routine that sustained him when he was one of two guys hanging out with a girl in a pizza place, which only demonstrates how tiresome that performing style becomes when not laced with Carrey’s dark ingenuity.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? (Sebastian Junger, 2013). Subtitled “The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” this documentary essentially serves as Sebastian Junger’s tribute to his co-director on the exceptional Restrepo. Hetherington was a photojournalist with a special commitment to fearlessly documenting some of the most dangerous corners of the planet. He was killed after being hit by shrapnel while on the ground covering the 2011 Libyan Civil War. More of an admiring remembrance than a sharply-drawn piece of cinema, the film does make a compelling argument for the immense contribution of those reporters, whether armed with cameras, audio recordings, or notebooks, who put their lives on the line to bring stories of global dismay to the public, a reminder that couldn’t be more timely.

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Director Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford aptly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of his filmmaking approach. More pertinently, it shows just how those opposing qualities intertwine, resulting in a hopeless knot. Based on the 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik’s film maintains a sleazy, downscale vibe that calls to mind the urban noir films of that era, but updates the action to the fall of 2008, drawing in the presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain and the financial collapse that shaded it into a rueful Greek chorus, singing from televisions and radios in the background of various scenes. It’s presumably meant to give the proceedings a different heft, a heightened pertinence. Instead, it’s a busy distraction from the meaty dialogue and decent, lean drama involving the layers of retribution surrounding a poker game robbery. There’s similar conflict with the visuals, which are both marvelously shot (by Greig Fraser) and sometimes so fussed over they become stultifying. One sequence involving an assassination on the roadway is prime example. It’s objective resplendence doesn’t prevent it from being woefully indulgent.

Very Semi-Serious (Leah Wolchok, 2015). This documentary about the cartoons that speckle the pages of The New Yorker is wispy and enjoyable. While a few of the figures who move through the film are fascinating, notably the endearing oddballs Liana Finck and Edward Steed (the latter of whom approaches genius in his comic creations), the film is strongest as a consideration of process. In detailing the multitude of steps required before a cartoon sees print, director Leah Wolchok highlights quietly makes the argument that nothing should be taken for granted, even that material that, at first glance, appears to be little more than filler.

In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015). Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the travails of the sailors aboard the whaleship Essex, a story that helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this attempt at a resounding adventure film is primarily notable for its grinding dullness. Ron Howard capably handles the sequencing of shots — despite swirling chaos, there’s rarely confusion about what is transpiring — but can find no passion within the tale. The various characters are thin as fraying thread, informed more by cliche than recognizable humanity.

Bernstein with Hooker, Chaplin, Friedkin, Lowery, Taylor

Terminator: Genisys (Alan Taylor, 2015). The reeling lesson of the just completed summer box office season is that the recycled repetition of brand-driven moviemaking may finally be sputtering its last. The ideal case study as to why arrived one year earlier. Arriving six years after the previous attempt at franchise revivification, Terminator: Genisys shows precisely how hollow the endeavor can be. The film trots out a procession of touchstones — familiar lines, restaged scenes, echoed character beats — without a hint of a central vision or an ounce of soul. Director Alan Taylor brings that same sluggish blandness that made Thor: The Dark World the weakest film yet released as an official part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The filmmakers can’t even exploit the built-in benefits of an overall time travel storyline that creates endless possibilities for tinkering, instead using it to indulge in narrative switcheroos that obliterate established details and, even worse, defy basic logic. It’s nonsense presented as shocking reinvention, mistakenly equating difference with quality.

Everything is Copy (Jacob Bernstein with Nick Hooker, 2016). This examination of the life and career of Nora Ephron is veers between point-by-point documentary and personal essay. The more it skews to the latter, the better it is. Directed by her son Jacob Bernstein (with an assist by Nick Hooker), the film is at its most intriguing when the intimacy of his attention comes through, even when its no more overt than the occasional interview subject referring to “your mom” when talking about Ephron. Simultaneously, the contradictions of Ephron’s openness in writing about herself while being highly selective and even secretive about what was shared is introduced without being fully explored, an example of the reticence that naturally comes when making a documentary about family instead of a subject that allows for greater willingness to expose with something that might feel like unkindness but which is actually honesty.

City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931). Could any film that came before this be described as a melancholy comedy? Whether or not Charlie Chaplin finessed a new complexity into the cinematic fabric with this film is certainly up for debate. What’s clear is that he firmed up the certainty that his voice was vital and transformative, which would be further cemented by his next feature, the masterful Modern Times. Though City Times has a compelling wholeness and a notable emotional resonance, it’s also a clear product of its time, betraying Chaplin’s background in two-reelers (as well as the general dominance of those shorter form works). There’s an overarching story involving Chaplin’s regular tramp character and a romance with a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherill) that’s based in part on some inadvertent deception, but the film is also somewhat fragmented, making room for every clever set piece Chaplin devised. The best of the bunch is a boxing match that’s a feat of choreography. An artifact of its time, it nonetheless sparks with the enduring thrill of a whole art form being invented on the spot.

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011). This film adaptation of the first play written by Tracy Letts, before he remembered that less twisted depictions of familial discord held the key to official artistic reverence, builds to a cacophony of florid human gruesomeness. Directed by William Friedkin, who previously brought Letts’s Bug to the screen, the film is hobbled by a fevered intensity that feels forced, like an overt attempt to demonstrate that the boundary-battering of nineteen-seventies cinema can be transmogrified to suit a more jaded twenty-first century. The basics of the plot are borrowed from dozens of crime drama ancestors: gambling debts, insurance policy, a hit man, and a klatch of seedy people on the edge of desperation. That puts the burden of shock and surprise on the details, leading to an overlong scene with a KFC drumstick. There are some nice performances in the film, led by Thomas Haden Church and Juno Temple, the latter giving a stereotype surprising depth of feeling. Emile Hirsch brings his typical wooden line readings and feigned, needy grittiness to a central role that requires an actor with a stronger sense of craft at hiss disposable. This film was also the starting point for Matthew McConaughey’s respectability revival. He’s strong through the first half, when the script calls on him to rein in his energy, but when the character pivots to bolder gestures, McConaughey’s passion for playing unhinged brings him dangerously close to Nicolas Cage territory.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (David Lowery, 2013). Director David Lowery can evidently bring a fable-like gentleness to just about any story. Ahead of this year’s notably affecting Pete’s Dragon, Lowery brought similar care and restraint to a very different story, involving a criminal (Casey Affleck), the woman he loves (Rooney Mara), and a concerned police officer (Ben Foster). There’s a love triangle in there, but it’s mostly a tale about the grip of the past and the quiet redemption in moving on. Lowery is occasionally so refined and careful in handling the narrative particulars of the piece that he pushes the film toward an emotional aridness. He clearly has a greater investment and corresponding gift in crafting imagery that will convey feeling all on its own. Collaborating with cinematographer Bradford Young, a ringer who’s worked on two of Ava DuVernay’s features, Lowery delivers enough shots of aching beauty to reasonably invoke comparisons to early Terrence Malick.

Carey, Harvey, Hill, Maloof and Siskel, Shepard

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). The film begins with a car crash, the vehicle careening off a cliff into the murky drink. Though the authorities are unable to find the vehicle’s female occupant (Candace Hilligoss), she eventually emerges, carrying no memory of how she survived. She proceeds with her plan, traveling to Utah for a job as a church organist. From there, writer-director Harvey, along with co-screenwriter John Clifford, comes up with downright ingenious ways to build scenes with unsettling layers with an obviously meager budget. The movie is ticklishly amusing given some of its more dated elements and amateurish acting, but it’s also almost moving in its pure conviction, standing as a sterling example of unabashed independent filmmaking.

Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974). Originally conceived as a sequel to the hit film Coffy, this scruffy revenge saga settles Pam Grier into yet another no-nonsense character with a spot-on name. Like a lot of films that hinge their stories on acts of retribution, there’s a certain amount of laziness to it, relying so heavily on the primal appeal of the instinct that any attempts at nuanced motivation are set aside. Grier is blessed with charisma and hampered by a dearth of acting craft, compounding the sense of the film as a grinding, empty exercise. The film’s primary merit is as a useful artifact of a certain sliver of American cinema, when the sudden swell of content freedom was applied with equal vigor to the aspirational art and the sputtering trash.

Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2014). This documentary works incredibly well as a act of specific advocacy, but falters as nonfiction cinema. The likely culprit for the flawed execution is the direct involvement of Maloof in the creation of the film. He was the person who unearthed the treasure trove of the title figure’s photographs, largely snapped while she was serving as the in-house help for a series of well-off Chicago families. Where the film could have used a touch of journalistic distance, Maloof keeps nudging it toward his own righteous passions about the established art world’s reluctance to belatedly embrace Maier’s work. It starts to play less like genuine concern about the artist getting a fair shake and more Maloof pitching a tantrum that the discovery hasn’t played out to his full benefit. I’d wager Maloof’s status as co-director is also instrumental in the film largely side-stepping the introduced notion that Maier would have despised her art being shared so freely after her death. It’s an especially rich conflict to set aside, because Maier’s photography, as selectively curated for the film, practically demands to be seen, earning favorable comparisons to masters of the art form such as Walker Evans and Rebecca Lepkoff.

Dom Hemingway (Richard Shepard, 2013). Maybe it’s the specificity of the genre. Dom Hemingway proves there’s a clear limit to how many films about comically colorful British gangsters the cinematic firmament can bear. The screenplay and direction, both by Richard Shepard, are soundly constructed, and Jude Law delivers admirable in precisely the sort of shift from sexy centerpiece to ragged character role that should be the prevailing course of his career from here on in. And yet it all feels drab and familiar, banging artistic pots that have made more notable noises in the hands of Martin McDonagh or even Guy Ritchie. The film does provide the blessed sight and sound of Khaleesi covering the Waterboys, and for that I will be eternally grateful.

The To Do List (Maggie Carey, 2013). Maybe there will eventually be an inclination to round up, just as is the current norm with loads of nineteen-eighties films aiming for laughs, but I suspect instead that retrospective surveys of comedies from the current era will take note of how many could have achieved greatness were there a little more discipline. The feature film debut of Carey cannily hit a slender mark, appropriating the tropes and rhythms of the dopey sex comedies of the eighties and nineties while simultaneously deconstructing and slyly mocking them. Aubrey Plaza stars as Brandy Klark, uptight valedictorian of her graduating high school class who decides she needs to catch up on her sexual experiences before diving into the deep pool of higher education. She approaches it with the same meticulous organization that earned her top grades. When the character is locked down, Plaza is quite good, showing how confusion and curiosity go hand in hand. But there’s inconsistency across the board, including the outlook of her character, defined by awkward innocence one moment and barbed self-assurance worthy of April Ludgate the next. It’s consistently amusing and just insightful enough to be disarming, but it also lets sloppiness undercut its smarts to a unfortunate degree.


Garland, Howard, Mangold, Ross, Taylor

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). Novelist and screenwriter Garland makes his directorial debut with this smart, chilly science fiction film about a reclusive tech magnate (Oscar Isaac) who flies up an employee (Domhnall Gleeson), supposedly selected at random, to help him test out some remarkable new artificial intelligence he’s created. Complicating the test subjects reactions is the little detail that the A.I. has been loaded into an android with a notably lovely female form and visage (Alicia Vikander). Garland builds his script with almost malicious psychological cunning, fomenting uncertainty as to whether the genius inventor is a simmering madman or a master manipulator, which creates a dynamic between the two male leads that sometimes makes it feel — a little unfairly, I’ll admit — that Gleeson is simply repeating his performance from last year’s Frank. Overall, the film is strong and intriguing, demonstrating that Garland has a fine sense for visual construction and pacing. The ending lingers like an echo that mysteriously won’t die down, but until that point, it’s a sterling debut.

Rush (Ron Howard, 2013). Howard reunites with Frost/Nixon playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan for this docudrama about a Formula One racing rivalry, primarily as it plays out across the 1976 season. By most accounts, Morgan is fairly faithful to the truth, mainly goosing the drama only to heighten the conflict between the two principals. Howard is the one pushing for something a little different, enlisting Danny Boyle’s regular cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, to give the film a stylish, almost dreamy look, miles away from the director’s usual plainspoken visuals. It’s more intriguing than transformational, especially since Howard sometimes seems a little flummoxed by the task of coming up with a satisfying variety of ways to shoot the redundancy of cars roaring in laps. Chris Hemsworth is well cast as golden boy racer James Hunt, maybe too much so, making him come across as Thor in a jumpsuit. Daniel Brühl fares better, thanks to relative unfamiliarity with his acting, but also because his character, Niki Lauda, has a fascinating edge that never dulls.

Get On Up (Tate Taylor, 2014). This biopic of legendary performer James Brown benefits from a sensational lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, one-upping his own fine work playing Jackie Robinson in 42. The role obviously lends itself to the sort of mercurial shifts that any actor would relish, while also placing him on stage to replicate the boisterous showmanship of the Godfather of Soul. It can sometimes make it seem like Boseman is completing an especially exhausting acting obstacle course rather than building a fully rounded performance, but he does it with so much vigor and style that it’s applause-worthy anyway. The film itself is an exuberant mess, with Taylor lingering on the musical performances very nearly to the film’s breaking point and screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth trying so fervently to avoid lapsing into tired biographical rhythms that they wind up with an ungainly snarl of ping-ponging chronology and intermittent breaking of the fourth wall. It might not work, but it’s bizarrely fascinating when it doesn’t.

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973). Written by the unlikely team of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim, the film reportedly came about when producer-director Herbert Ross encouraged the duo to dramatize one of the elaborate scavenger hunt style games they concocted for their famous friends. It naturally became a murder mystery in the elaborate style of Agatha Christie, with a bevy of Hollywood folks invited for a weeklong cruise on the yacht of producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn), a devotee of games and puzzles who’s still smarting from the hit and run death of his wife (Yvonne Romain) about a year earlier. The plot deals with secrets, retribution, and the instinct for malice that pumps through everyone, with the constantly doubling back to reveal hidden truths reaching dizzying intensity by the last reel. It’s often ingenious and staged nicely by Ross throughout. There’s also a fantastic supporting performance by Dyan Cannon, playing a chatterbox, self-involved talent agent.

The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013). The second solo outing for Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) on the big screen draws loose inspiration from the character’s landmark 1982 limited series, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller, which sends the snarliest X-Man to Japan to deal with Yakuza and samurai and family honor and all sorts of other tired nonsense overvalued by Westerners when they craft stories around the island nation. The film is almost relentlessly dour, enthralled by its own supposed edgy coolness. It buys into the grim and gritty aesthetic so thoroughly that even the sequences of the sort of high lunacy that could only work in a movie drawn from superhero comics — a protracted fight atop a moving bullet train, a character performing open heart surgery on himself to remove a mysterious spidery gizmo from inside his chest — wind up intensely serious instead of bounding with the spirit of happy abandon that could have made them work.

Bendjelloul, Bobin, Boone, Lee, Stiller

Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014). Once the cinematic franchise is revived, the next task is to prove it can be prolonged and maintained. Muppets Most Wanted is agreeable but oddly inconsequential. Lacking the fanboy passion that Jason Segel seemed to inject into The Muppets all by his lonesome, this new installment is drab and prone to drifting. The plot manages to evoke The Great Muppet Caper, the original Muppet sequel, while also playing around with a mistaken identity gimmick that takes full advantage of the pliability of the characters’ identity. Yes, it’s amusing at times, and the celebrity “guest stars” are game (especially Tina Fey as a Russian gulag guard whose main priority is staging a great follies show for the inmates). That’s not enough though to truly provide purpose. The Muppets are stuck in the same low, idling gear that has been their domain for too much of their shared film career.

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012). Ang Lee admirably commits to this adaptation of Yann Martel’s smash hit novel, embracing the very parts of it — the stillness, the existential ache, the horrid beauty of nature, the fable-like qualities — that would have sent most directors fleeing from it. If Lee acquiesces too readily to the painterly phoniness of the heavy CGI effects of telling the story of a shipwreck survivor (Suraj Sharma) sharing his life raft with a small batch of wild animals, most notably a powerful, fierce tiger, at least the film operates with a distinctive and bold visual palette. It doesn’t particularly work for me — I think Lee drifts too far from the keen attention to the nuances of beset humanity that mark his best work — but I can see how some could reasonably turn themselves over willingly to the lushness of the imagery. The film is nearly rescued fully by the caring, world-weary work of Irrfan Khan, telling the story. Unfortunately, he’s countered by Rafe Spall, as the writer taking the tale in for his book, delivering one of the most wooden performances I’ve seen in a major film for a good long time.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, 2013). This is one of those projects that kicked around for an awfully long time before Stiller adopted it as a passion project, believing with all his heart that it was the movie that would finally establish him as a real director, which has long been his goal. Stiller also plays the title role, a nebbishy fellow who works in the photo department of the struggling modern version of Life magazine. He finds his inner wherewithal in pursuit of a missing frame by the magazine’s star photographer (Sean Penn). Stiller has a clear panache with the camera, but he can never quite decide what he wants this film to be. Is it meant to be sweetly sentimental or just another launching band for broadly satiric character comedy. I’m as excited as anyone to see a parodic takedown of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it sits awkwardly against the more serious segments of the film, which are, quite honestly, more effective. This was positioned as Stiller’s stab at respectability (there was even a New Yorker profile about him in the lead-up to the film’s release). There’s enough that strong and interesting here that hints he may have actually accomplished something of note if he’d allowed himself to fully forgo the safety net of easy comedy.

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). This documentary about Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter whose albums in the nineteen-sixties and seventies were largely ignored at home but became enormous hits abroad without his knowledge, is warm and smartly constructed. Bendjelloul extracts maximum pathos and emotion from the story. Even if it feels forced when the director attempts to preserve a sense of mystery about Rodriguez’s current existence — for too much of its running time, the film is positioned to blindly pretend there’s potential validity to fan confusion over whether or not the performer is even still alive — the various manipulations of the film heighten the emotional potency of the eventual triumph awaiting in South Africa, where Rodriguez is greeted like it’s the second coming of Elvis Presley.

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014). There are no shortage of intense feelings surrounding John Green’s bestselling 2012 novel about a teenaged girl struggling with cancer who enters into a naturally fraught romance. Boone handles the story admirably, albeit with a touch of understandable reticence. It’s safer to preserve the fundamentals of the story than to push a little harder to come up with something more daring and cinematic. That doesn’t make this film version bad. It’s just a little tame. It does have one unassailable strength in the lead performance by Shailene Woodley, who captures the intense whirl of a character suffering from pending mortality and a body that betrays her in the face of the simplest tasks while still trying to hang of to some sliver of experiencing life as a regular teenager.

Burton, Limon, Melfi, Segal, Tyldum

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014). One of the great frustrations of the Oscar season was watching Selma and, to a lesser degree, American Sniper battered by criticism over supposedly terrible transgressions in their depiction of historical record while The Imitation Game, the “true life” story receiving the phoniest treatment among the Oscar contenders, sailed along unperturbed. The story of Alan Turing’s secret, indispensable contributions to the Allied effort in World War II is fully deserving of big-screen veneration, just as his own government’s cruel retribution against him a decade later because his “lifestyle” was considered illegal is the stuff of sad high drama. Sadly, the film takes those complications and buffers them down to tidy act breaks and rote characterizations. Every storytelling beat of this film is as predictable as it is painfully contrived, ringing of falseness throughout. Benedict Cumberbatch does his level-best as Turing, but Graham Moore’s Academy Award-winning screenplay gives him unconnected mannerisms and emotional notes to play instead of a character. Tyldum’s direction is paradoxically both perfunctory and off-puttingly self-enamored.

Big Eyes (Tim Burton, 2014). Following a decade or more of what was can be charitably called artistic flailing, Burton reunites with the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the team behind what remains the director’s finest film by a large margin, Ed Wood. The film tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the painter behind the avalanche of saucer-goggled urchins that became a sensation in the nineteen-sixties. Her huckster husband initially took credit, a situation that grew more intolerable as the marriage soured. Eventually, she had to fight in court to claim her kitschy legacy. Burton never finds the right tone for the film, letting it veer from the stylized era admiration that helped distinguish Ed Wood to surprisingly bland domestic drama. Adams is similarly uncommonly stranded. She never seems to figure out who Margaret is, much less how to portray her. And Christoph Waltz, as Walter Keane, continues to suggest that he may not have much available to him outside of the Quentin Tarantino films where he prospers. He plays Walter with an ugly unctuousness that should suit the character but somehow doesn’t. Most of the time Waltz is onscreen, the already wobbly film teeters into near-disaster.

St. Vincent (Theodore Melfi, 2014). Bill Murray plays a scraggly misanthrope named Vincent who accedes to looking after his new neighbor’s socially maladjusted son (Jaeden Lieberher) in exchange for dribbles of cash that he desperately needs as he’s mired in dangerous debt. There’s little mystery as to where the plot is going in this one, making presentation points especially key. Melfi, who also wrote the screenplay, does decently well but finally can’t outrace his story’s abundance of cliches. The movie would be unthinkably trite without the presence of Murray, who’s never been afraid of pushing the limits of his likability. While keeping Vincent a finely-calibrated comic creation, Murray also shows the real ugliness percolating up from his soul and simultaneously allows brief glimpses at the fragility inside necessary to make the last act work. It still may not be a great film, but it could have been so much worse without St. Bill.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Limon, 2014). Until it collapses into nonsensical mayhem towards the end, Edge of Tomorrow is wildly clever, vividly engaging, and a totally unexpected winning argument for the continued validity of big, bold blockbusters. In a future that finds the Earth at war against alien invaders, a military public relations flack (Tom Cruise) finds himself pressed into battlefield service, very much against his will. In short order, he becomes infested from contact with one of the outer space baddies and finds that he’s immediately resurrected every time he dies, placed back at a set, earlier point on his timeline to enact the same progression over again, like a video game character spirited back to the beginning of his quest. It’s probably not accurate to say Cruise gives a strong performance, but he’s ideally cast, with the role smartly exploiting his slightly curdled movie star charm and his untethered manic energy. Especially across the first half of the film, when he’s continually trying to discern the parameters of this bizarre situation, Cruise prospers by almost sending up his well-worn persona. Emily Blunt offers a nice counter-balance of steely calm as the star soldier who partners up with Cruise’s replicating man, helping him figure out how to make it past each new deadly impasse. Limon struggles a little bit with the more chaotic action, but he gets the exuberant tone of the film just right.

Grudge Match (Peter Segal, 2013). A film that is the pure definition of insignificant, Grudge Match is most notable as just one more indignity in the later career years of Robert De Niro. The taste is a little more bitter this time around because he’s blithely exploiting his greatest screen performance in the process. It’s unclear why anyone thought audiences would be desperately excited about a nostalgic quasi-crossover between Rocky and Raging Bull, the boxing film that won Best Picture and the one that actually deserved to do so, but here it is, mixed up with a little grizzled feuding imported from Grumpy Old Men. Ultimately, it’s more pedestrian than offensive, like an abomination that can’t be bothered to muster up the energy to be truly stupid and artistically tragic. Segal directs the film with precisely the sort of point-and-shoot plainness and overreliance on unfunny ad libs (this might be a good place to note that Kevin Hart has a sizable supporting role) one would expect from a guy who cemented his place in the Hollywood pecking order by serving as one of Adam Sandler’s go-to filmmakers.

Ford, Hancock, Huston, McDonagh, Robespierre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948). Huston’s famed exploration of greed tainting a slapdash partnership of aspiration gold miners in the Mexican mountains is so deviously ingenious that the director booming cackle virtually echoes through the most feverish scenes. The best Tim Holt can do as the most upstanding, straightforward member of the trio is stay upright against the buffeting winds of Humphrey Bogart, all sweaty paranoia and flash fire intensity, and Walter Huston, delivering a just Oscar-awarded turn as the weather-beaten old-timer whose the one member of the party who’s not a neophyte. The film is simultaneously bleakly mean and a comic marvel, flicking away at the spreading rust at the heart of the money-hungry.

My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946). This moody western offers a depiction of the Earp brothers initially unwilling relocation to the town of Tombstone, their upstanding inclinations helping to clean up a lawless town. Henry Fonda plays Wyatt Earp with the sort of lean ease that was his trademark. When he unfolds himself, using a deck post to lean back in an old wooden chair, he looks like a grizzled praying mantis at rest. Much of the story is just another blade on the cycling fan of Hollywood westerns, save maybe for the flintiness in the relationship with Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holliday (Victor Mature). It’s Joseph MacDonald’s cinematography that distinguishes the film. Drenched in impossibly black shadows, multiple scenes play out in silhouette or something perilously close to it. That makes My Darling Clementine into a fascinating experiment in setting mood through visual concealment, a fairly daring choice for a director with rare skill for unfussy narrative mechanics.

The Guard (John Michael McDonagh, 2011). In its simplest interpretation, The Guard is just another variant on the shopworn buddy cop film standard, pairing temperamentally mismatched lawmen on a case that is more complicated than it appears. One in uncouth and the other is rigid and by-the-book. The even have the markedly different shades of skin, adhering to the preferred casting methodology in place since at least 48 Hrs. Two elements of the film make the difference. One is the performance by Brendan Gleeson as the slobby Irish cop who reluctantly works with a visiting FBI agent (Don Cheadle). The other is the precise sense of place and culture fostered by McDonagh. It is a quality that pushes the creation past smarts to something approaching wisdom, proving that even the most familiar material can feel fully reinvented if it plays out with an attentiveness to the world in which it is set. The Guard‘s mechanics may be tropes, but it comes across as a film that could have only been made in one place, in one way.

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013). There’s probably a decent movie that lasts, say, around 100 minutes lurking within this bloated stab at genial prestige. Depicting the arduous process of taking Mary Poppins, the creation of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), from book to screen, the film has some nice moments that capture the pleasures of the creative process (a brief scene showing a key development in the writing of the song “A Spoonful of Sugar” is emblematic of what the film could’ve been). The march to the screen was made especially tough by the persistent dissatisfaction and combativeness of Travers, who resisted any cheerful, Disney-esque softening of her creation. The portion of the film that resides at the studios still presided over by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) are agreeable if imperfect, shaped by the game but ultimately unconvincing portrayals of Thompson and Hanks. The real problem is that the film goes dead anytime tit cycles back to one of the the plentiful flashbacks to the youth of Travers, raised in hardscrabble Australia by a depressed mother (Ruth Wilson) and joyfully childlike but mentally unbalanced father (Colin Farrell). The background that could have been handled in a few deft strokes instead plays out as a sort of parallel film, a really dull one.

Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre, 2014). Robespierre’s expansion of her 2011 short film garnered hefty praise for its frankness in dealing with abortion as an undesirable but realistic option in a woman’s life, earning further agog marveling because it did so as a sharp-edged comedy. That’s a significant part of its surprising artfulness, but dwelling on that as the film’s signal achievement requires a fairly superficial reading of what’s on screen. Jenny Slate plays a struggling New York City comedian whose rebound one night stand leaves her with a pregnancy that she never doubts she will terminate through the medical procedure that’s been constitutionally protected for over forty years. Simultaneously, much of the rest of her life is crumbling around her. Besides the demolished romance, her day job is going away and even a paycheck to paycheck existence requires a lot of agonizing stretching between the two points. Robespierre pulls it together with a vibrantly alive, caustically witty tone, correctly relying on the charismatic, lived-in, and wildly expressive performance of Slate. A couple moments of cartoonish, fantastical absurdity are the only minor mars on an otherwise roundly winning film.