The Movie Club

Best movies of 2014: Beyond the Lights, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Mr. Turner.

Entry 4: In praise of the tender, preternaturally cool vampire Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).
Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy Sandro Kopp/Sony Pictures Classics

Greetings, you guys, and Happy New Year!

First off, my thanks to you three for already writing a lot about The Interview and the geopolitical incident it spurred, which means I can write less, which is fine by me. I’m not sure I could defend The Interview as a satire of modern media, a subject almost beyond satire at this point (at least in terms of anything Rogen and Goldberg are capable of pulling off). Maybe Kim Jong-un is too, though I did think Randall Park was super, so good that he tilts the movie in a direction far more interesting than the one the filmmakers ultimately force it into. Like all of you, I’m of course happy that Sony found a way to get the movie out there—nice save, guys! It’s kind of charming to see that a giant Hollywood studio can actually be shamed. It just takes the president wagging his finger at it.

But as far as late-2014 pick-me-ups go, the critical response to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights was more heartening to me—and maybe more significant in the long run—than the way we all dutifully but glumly waved our flags for The InterviewBeyond the Lights—in which Gugu Mbatha-Raw is superb as a pop star who’s lost sight of herself amid the glam trappings of fame—was one of the most enjoyable pictures I saw all year, as well as the sharpest in terms of its sexual and racial politics. (Though, as I hope we’ll be able to discuss more in the coming week, between Beyond the Lights, Selma, Dear White People, and Top Five, this was a strong year for bringing conversations about race—sometimes exceedingly painful ones—into movie theaters.) Beyond the Lights wasn’t screened much for critics, but many sought it out anyway, and if my Twitter feed is any indication—indulge me for a moment in my fantasy!—lots of people were wowed by it. Not to be too smug about tooting the horn for critics’ relevance—I’m under no misconceptions about how many people listen to us about the blockbusters that rule the multiplexes—but now that so many movies sweep into and out of theaters so quickly, with just one weekend’s worth of box office receipts to prove themselves, this may be one place where we can help a movie find its audience, at least on DVD or streaming. That’s cold comfort to a filmmaker in terms of making big money, but I hope it’s reassuring to know that movies can have long and unpredictable lives once they leave filmmakers’ hands, and critics can help to keep those movies vibrant.

Wow, you guys have laid so much groundwork already! Which thread to chase down next? Amy, I’m with you on Zac Efron: He’s a totally charming presence, and the fact that he can sing and dance must not be wasted. Why, oh, why can’t we have more movie musicals—ones that are not Sondheim-derived? (My extreme distaste for Sondheim is something we can discuss later in the week. Or not.) And Dana, it’s true, I disliked Tilda Swinton for the longest time. The aristocratic punkiness she was going for should have worked for me but just didn’t. But I flipped when I saw her in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love. Either I changed, she changed, or maybe both—and this, I have discovered, is the most wonderful thing about working as a critic over a number of years, 10 or 20 or beyond: It’s so joyous when someone surprises you, changes you. Now I’m totally in Tilda’s camp.

Well, not totally. I didn’t care for her in either Snowpiercer or The Grand Budapest Hotel. That kind of extreme cartooniness may be fun for her as a performer; I find it less fun as a viewer. But I adored her in Only Lovers Left Alive—her preternatural coolness, the way she carries off those floaty Moroccan clothes with a white leather jacket. That yak hair! The color of a moonbeam. She also brings such tenderness to that character—she’s the caretaker in that relationship, the one who keeps fellow vampire Tom Hiddleston (who’s also pretty terrific) grounded in the here and now. Which is probably quite a task in a marriage that has lasted, what, 300 years or so? Vampire Tilda is up to the task.

“Men are the Annie of genders”—David, I nearly did a spit-take over my keyboard when I read that one. And in answer to your question to me about Under the Skin, as to how the film’s having been directed by a man complicates my take on it: It doesn’t. Like all of us, I’d like to see more films directed by women, because widening the pool of voices will get us better movies overall. And I’m thrilled to be able to praise the work of Prince-Bythewood or Selma’s Ava DuVernay, because it’s terrific work. I’ll also note that women do look at things differently: Beyond the Lights’ director of photography is a woman, Tami Reiker, and I couldn’t help noticing something a little different about the way the movie’s sex scenes are shot and composed—chiefly that Reiker and Prince-Bythewood revel in the beauty of Mbatha-Raw’s and co-star Nate Parker’s bodies equally. There’s an exuberant sensual audacity to those scenes.

All that said: I can only look at movies with my eyes, and they glaze over when I see terms like “gender roles” and “female sexuality as a construct.” I find it so restrictive to look at movies through that lens. I know some people write their dissertations on these sorts of things or base their whole lives’ work on them, but it’s just not for me. I remain silent, sometimes conspicuously so, in most conversations about the need for “more women’s stories,” because I’m more interested in the gloriously wide spectrum of human experience, which of course women are a part of. Also: Men are fascinating to me, chiefly because I’m not one. They are the extraordinary and often maddening Other. I do love it when movies illuminate an angle of “women’s experience”—whatever that is—in a fresh or vital way. But, God help me, I’m already damnably familiar with the experience of being a woman, whereas I’m nothing like J.M.W. Turner. (At least, I hope not.) And so to see him in Mike Leigh’s quietly sensational Mr. Turner waving away his impossibly cherubic baby granddaughter (only to succumb to her charms, in his grouchy way, a few minutes later), or to watch him add that one necessary daub of red to a painting that already seems perfect—I love that beyond words. As for Scarlett Johansson, I see her, to some degree I am her, I am a man looking at her: When I watch Under the Skin, the No. 1 movie on my top 10 list, I can do and be all of those things at once. For me, the greatest experience is to look at the screen and say not “That’s me,” but “That’s us.” It’s all I ask of movies—I guess it’s a lot!

Now, off to get that yak-hair weave I’ve been saving up for. Ciao!