A mediocre film elevated by a very good performance from Julianne Moore and an excellent one from Kristen Stewart.
Year of Release: 2014 Directed by Joshua Overbay. Starring Chris Nelson, Luke Beavers, Shannon Kathleen Baker, Jin Park, and John Lina.
What if the wolf in sheep’s clothing really believes he is the shepherd? That is not unusual, many false prophets take themselves seriously. But what if the wolf really, deeply believes he is helping and pasturing the sheep and putting their interests ahead of his own even as the sheep’s lives become increasingly miserable? That is the angle of As It Is in Heaven, and for me that is a thought provoking and semi-unique take. Even Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher from The Night of the Hunter, perhaps the greatest film about a wolf in sheep’s clothing, knows he is first and foremost helping himself, even though he thinks he is doing the Lord’s work.
David (Chris Nelson) is not only convinced he is doing the Lord’s work, he also thinks that he is helping to prepare his followers for life as it is in heaven. Having recently taken over a doomsday cult after the unexpected death of their prophet Edward (John Lina), David believes he has been chosen by God to prepare the community for the rapture in thirty days, as predicted by Edward. Further complicating matters, Edward’s final act was to anoint David as his successor, passing over his son Eamon (Luke Beavers). Naturally, a sort of rivalry begins to form between Eamon and David; however, it is not motivated by jealousy, but a difference of opinion on what the cult was supposed to be. With David’s increasingly strict guidance as he mandates a thirty-day fast to purify everyone for the rapture, Eamon is genuinely concerned for the well being of the community, which is a family to him.
As It Is in Heaven is interested in much more than just a conflict between two ways to lead a doomsday cult. It explores the dangers of interpreting scripture without any guidance, the trust people naturally feel for a respected leader, and the confused emotions of the members of a religious sect through a period of upheaval.
David has all the fire and enthusiasm of a recent convert (which he is, having been baptized only one year ago), and along with that comes a stubbornness and arrogance that he knows exactly what God’s will is. Chris Nelson is excellent at portraying the passion of a man who truly believes his own words and that he is preparing the last remnants of the faithful for the second coming of Christ. He makes David surprisingly sympathetic to a point, until his actions become truly monstrous, at which point it is hard to know what to think of him. As Eamon, Luke Beavers conveys a deep respect for this way of life and a reluctance to do anything that might harm the community, but he balances that with increasing determination as he witnesses the costly consequences of David’s orders. As the newest member Abiella, Jin Park is reserved and portrays the conflict of someone who wishes to believe she made the right choice even as nothing turns out as she expected.
First time feature director Joshua Overbay beautifully films the community and its quiet rural setting. Opening with a couple fluid long takes, the camera slowly follows one member to the river for a Baptism, by which Overbay suggests an idyllic world where a community lives in peace. When that world is shaken by David’s leadership and harsh proclamations, the camera begins to shake as well. The effect is not overdone, and it subtly suggests the upheaval through which the community will soon go.
It has been remarked that Night of the Hunter ruins then redeems the favorite hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the similarly themed and nearly as compelling As It Is in Heaven ruins then redeems not only its very flawed protagonist, but also the entire doomsday cult. Although the community could at first appear to be nothing more than a group of fundamentalist extremists with a monstrous leader, As It Is in Heaven portrays misguided, sympathetic characters who struggle to do what they believe is best. The result is gripping and tragic, and it underscores the film’s greatest irony: as these characters become more confident that they are doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, their society becomes less and less like heaven.
Information on viewing As It Is in Heaven can be found here.
Content Advisory: Mature themes including the death of an infant, a non-graphic murder, and implied off-screen adultery. Not Rated
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: A-
Year of Release: 2015 Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Sammy Sheik, and Keir O’Donnell.
It is always unfortunate when a film generates such strong political reactions that those reactions dominate any discussion of the film. Such reactions make it difficult to discuss the film and its merits without first addressing the controversy. I must admit I’m baffled disappointed to see the intense politicized responses American Sniper is receiving because it supposedly celebrates the Iraq war and glorifies a man who may have been a war hero, but was apparently less than a role model in real life. I think that in calling the film a straightforward defense of the Iraq war, critics are seriously undermining the film’s strengths and selling short its sense of conflict and its depiction of the tragic effects of the war and a career dominated by violence.
In his four tours of duty during the Iraq War, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (a very good Bradley Cooper) is credited with 160 kills out of a probable 255, and he feels confident that every shot he took was the right thing to do. Kyle, having a penchant for violence, is eager to join the army, fight for his country, and kill those damn terrorists. Having hunted all his life he is a natural sniper, and he soon becomes a hero to his fellow soldiers who feel safe when he is overseeing them. American Sniper is the story of a very pro-war, pro-gun soldier, and thus, it makes total sense that the Iraq War is accepted as something that happened. Just because the film depicts the war without questioning its wisdom or lack thereof, does not mean the film glorifies the war or condemns it. American Sniper is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it is just war.
More importantly, there are many scenes which show the tragic effects and heavy toll of both the war and Kyle’s many killings. I really do not understand how someone could watch the scenes between Kyle and his wife, his son, and his colleagues and call the film unapologetically pro-war. When Kyle takes his wife for her prenatal checkup, his resting blood pressure is 170 over 110. He screams at a nurse who does not respond to his crying daughter quickly enough. He is unable to accept a complement from a marine when he is out with his son. The breakdown he has at a child’s birthday party is very painful to watch. To call the film a celebration of the Iraq war is to badly sell those scenes short.
American Sniper undoubtedly has some pacing problems, and there are a couple miscalculated subplots which should either have been removed or developed into much larger segments. The standoff/manhunt between Kyle and rival Iraqi sniper Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) plays too much like a conventional thriller, and the half-baked attempts to set up a rivalry between them would only have worked if Mustafa had been given much more back story. As it is, the scenes of him hunting Kyle distract from the story and make it too obvious how their standoff will eventually end. The resolution of that subplot is the film’s weakest moment, because it is handled like a triumphant moment out of a mediocre Marvel movie.
I also wish the final twenty minutes had been developed into a full hour. There is rich, poignant material in that section concerning PTSD, guilt, adjusting to a quiet life after being one of the deadliest SEALs, and one’s duty as a husband and father. While some scenes do capture the tension, raging emotions, and painful consequences, as a whole that part of the story is rushed through too quickly.
As a point of comparison, when Francis Ford Coppola was asked to write the screenplay for Patton, his first thought was, “Oh crap. Half the country loves him because they think he won the war, and half the country hates him because they think he was a sadistic war criminal. If I chose either side, I’ll alienate half my audience.” He chose to respect both sides, portraying Patton as a brilliant general who loses his temper and gives in to nasty violence, a conflicted character who too often gives into his violent nature but still has a strong sense of dignity. Jason Hall did something similar with his script for American Sniper. He does not shy away from portraying Kyle’s violence and even showing it to be at times successful, but he also portrays a damaged human being whose choices harm not only on himself but his family as well. The scene when Kyle’s brother (Keir O’Donnell ) makes a disparaging comment about the war, only to have Kyle look at him as if he were a stranger is a particularly acute example.
Kyle’s first kill, which opens the film, is another powerful example of the cost of violence. As a mother hands her son a grenade, Kyle hesitates to shoot. It is the first scene, we have no context, and this a perfect textbook example of self-defense. Taking the shot seems like a no-brainer. Before Kyle pulls the trigger, there is a half hour flashback to his childhood and training, showing him bonding with his equally violent father, protecting his little brother, grieving on 9/11, and flirting with his wife-to-be (Sienna Miller). After witnessing the hardships and joys of Kyle’s life, when the film returns to Iraq, his hesitation is perfectly natural, and the tragic evil of deliberately ending any life is fully dramatized.
Finally, if anyone doubts Eastwood’s stance on violence, remember, he wrote and directed this:
Content Advisory: Some brutal wartime violence, disturbing gory images, profane and obscene language throughout, intense themes of PTSD and family discord, and mildly sensual foreplay. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: B-
Updated 2/25/15 to include A Most Violent Year. Snowpiercer was dropped from #20 as a result.
I don’t have a hard fast rule about eligibility. The purpose of a yearend list is to highlight the films that I found most rewarding over the past year, not document which year a film was released. I made a pretty good effort this year than last to track down my most anticipated films in time for this list, but I’m sure there are still some great films which I missed. I have highest hopes for Force Majeure, Beginning with the End, Siddharth, Virunga, and The Strange Little Cat.
In addition to a top ten, I’m also including five runners up, and five honorable mentions.
As a necessary disclaimer, just because these films from last year that meant the most to me, does not mean I necessarily recommend them. If you think any of them sound like something you might like, research them and make an informed decisions. And with that, onto the lists:
20. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Lima)
19. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
18. As It Is in Heaven (Joshua Overbay)
17. The Sublime and Beautiful (Blake Robbins)
16. A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor)
15. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson) – There’s almost no one to whom I’d recommend this; the plot is a semi-incoherent mess, and the story itself is more than a little disturbing, but that’s basically the point of this neo-noir comedy, in which the hippie, stoner private eye “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself in the midst of an increasingly convoluted, dangerous mystery in which everyone seems to want his help for different reasons, but the Doc is just as lost as his clients.
14. Birdman or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu) – An aging Hollywood star (Michael Keaton) tries to prove his relevance by conquering the Great White Way, and amidst disastrous rehearsals, the messy backstage life of actors raises interesting questions as to whether these foolish conceited actors have any insight to offer. Carefully edited to appear as a single take live performance, Birdman will likely either enthrall or infuriate you. (full review)
13. Noah (Darren Aronofsky) – Not everything works – the film stumbles a bit once onboard the ark – but Aronofsky’s vision of the antediluvian world is fantastic to behold, and his interpretation of the story of Noah adds new depth and insight to one of the oldest stories about the consequences of original sin. (full review)
12. Selma (Ava DuVernay) – A powerful dramatization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery, as well as the dynamics between King, his family, his friends, and politicians. Especially touching are the scenes between David Oyelowo (King) and Carmen Ejogo (his wife Coretta). Portraying real, flawed human beings and their struggles, Selma is not one to miss.
11. A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn) – A sleek espionage thriller helmed by great performances, especially from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, this adaptation of John le Carré’s novel is surprisingly effective and unnerving.
The Top Ten
10. Gone Girl – I haven’t always been the biggest fan of David Fincher, but Gone Girl may be changing my mind. Combining several Hitchcockian elements with biting dark satire, Fincher’s latest film is a brutal exposé of obsession with appearances, media manipulation, maintaining fake personas, and the public’s gullibility. When amazing Amy (Rosamund Pike) disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, passive husband Nick (Ben Affleck) finds himself the chief suspect in the subsequent police investigation. Featuring two antiheroes (not one, as some reviews have said) and a psychopathic protagonist, Gone Girl deliberately plays into the nastiest examples of sexism in order to expose just how shallow and absurd they are. (a lengthy, spoiler filled discussion here)
9. The Immigrant – Beautifully tinted with sepia tones, The Immigrant immediately sets up an haunting contrast with the cold brutal world of 1920’s New York that Polish immigrant Ewa (Marion Cotillard) arrives in. Looking for work to help her sister, she is exploited by the pimp Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) who will do anything for his own survival even as he suffers flickers of conscience due to his cruel treatment of Ewa. Director James Gray expertly frames each scene, and with careful pacing and subtle foreshadowing throughout, all of the film masterfully comes together for a powerful, thought-provoking finale indicating that there is often much depth beyond mere surface appearances.
8. The LEGO Movie – Containing references to Star Wars, The Matrix, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, The Incredibles, and Buster Keaton’s The General to name a few, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s witty and hilariously self-aware parody of and tribute to blockbuster entertainment is undoubtedly this year’s biggest surprise. Not just an exciting adventure story for children, The LEGO Movie deconstructs the standard tropes of many superhero and kids movies with lines like, “Always follow your intuition…unless your intuition is terrible.” It also emphasizes the importance of fantasy and creativity as a way which children learn. Indeed, everything is awesome.
7. Ida – When a young woman about to take her vows to be a nun learns of her family’s dark history, her entire world is shaken and she undergoes a crisis of identity. Embarking on a journey with her aunt, she uncovers painful secrets which test her resolve and remind the viewer that nothing should be taken for granted. Director Pawel Pawlikowski frames each shot with stunning precision, and his use of still camera and a full screen aspect ratio creates the sensation of a window into a world and even into a soul. (full review)
6. Begin Again – This is a heartfelt story of second chances in which a song really does save several people’s lives. As drunk, washed up music producer Dan, Mark Ruffalo is very likeable and as Greta, a down and out songwriter, Keira Knightley effortlessly shines. The two meet in bar and decide to record an album outdoors in New York City. Eschewing Hollywood clichés, Once director John Carney crafts another story about a once in a lifetime opportunity for decent, empathetic human beings to pursue their art and make something unique and magical with it. There is no tense drama or overblown indecision, but rather quiet moments of grace and generosity that are touching and inspiring in their direct simplicity. (full review)
5. Only Lovers Left Alive – Jim Jarmusch’s moody rumination on desire, temperance, art, its place in society, and eternity is beautifully realized in the story of two vampires: the melancholic perfectionist Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and the knowledgeable, pragmatic Eve (Tilda Swinton). Cursed to destructively feed on others throughout eternity, their search for beauty and great art is threatened by the increasingly prevalent mediocrity that supplants excellence as well as the carelessness, drugs, and pollution of the last couple decades, which has poisoned much of their blood supply. The vampires’ need for blood acts as a metaphor, suggesting we need to be careful what we consume; bad art and good art affects and influences us, and allowing mediocrity to permeate soon makes bad art (blood) more prevalent. Only Lovers Left Alive recognizes the power of art’s influence on a culture as well as the tragedy of its destruction.
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel – (modified from a review published here) The second film on the list to utilize full screen framing, Wes Anderson’s latest film is as whimsical and eccentric as to be expected, but this story of nostalgia for a fantasy world of secret societies, crazy hijinks, unattainable goals, murder mysteries, and above all, friendships is rife with bittersweet humor and surprising poignancy. As the concierge of the titular hotel Ralph Fiennes effortlessly captures the typical self-centered deadpan of Anderson protagonists as well as a longing for something beyond this imperfect world. Told through the eyes of Zero (Tony Revolori), the devoted lobby boy of the Grand Budapest, the film chronicles the final glory days of a time and a world long since past.
3. The Babadook – (originally published here) The festering of grief and the frightening ways such grief manifests itself is at the heart of The Babadook, director Jennifer Kent’s horror film about the relationship between a mother and her son. Amelia (Essie Davis) has never really accepted her husband’s death, which occurred as he drove her to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). With Sam’s seventh birthday approaching, Amelia is feeling increasingly overwrought, and she copes by isolating herself and Sam in their gloomy Victorian home, making an ideal setup for Mister Babadook, a sinister popup book character, to come knocking. Despite their misguided choices, neither Amelia nor Sam ever loses our sympathy. Kent expertly plays upon the audience’s sympathies and fears, reminding us of the beauty of the love between a parent and a child and the tragedy that occurs when it is threatened. (full review)
2. Two Days, One Night – The Dardenne brothers have crafted what may be their finest film to date. When Sandra (a phenomenal Marion Cotillard) loses her job after her coworkers vote for a bonus which entails her being fired, she persuades her boss to hold a second ballot, and she will have the weekend (two days and one night) to persuade her coworkers to vote for her to stay. Each encounter with her coworkers is filmed with increasing drama and tension, and the film never demonizes anyone as it emphasizes the dignity of work and the human person. Best of all, when you think the movie has to end one of two ways, falling on one side or another, the Dardennes find a third way that logically and incredibly ties everything together and finds quiet moral triumph in putting up a good fight.
1. Into the Woods – Admittedly, I am one of the world’s biggest Stephen Sondheim fans, but Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Tony award winning 1987 musical is a lovingly crafted, faithful adaptation that preserves the essence of Sondheim and James Lapine’s story about being careful what you wish for and the far reaching consequences of our wishes that often go well beyond what we can imagine. With a fantastic score and an all-around great cast, Into the Woods is a delight from the first frame to the last. (full review)