The Movie Club

The Grand Budapest Hotel and the other best movies of 2014: Critics discuss.

Entry 16: Everything Wes Anderson makes feels touched by human hands.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Movie Club is a weeklong conversation about the year in film. Read all the entries here.

Dear Dana, Amy, and David,

Dana, I’ve gone back and forth on Whiplash. I kind of have whiplash from going back and forth on Whiplash. As much as I love J.K. Simmons in general, I have big problems with that character, not because he’s so obviously unlikable, but because he fits too easily into the movie’s calculated “Wait, he’s not a hard-ass father-figure type, he’s just psychotic!” scheme. I think some people were relieved that Whiplash wasn’t your stock movie about a teacher’s tough love turning musicians—or athletes or schoolboys or whomever—into the best, most accomplished people they could possibly be. You know, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, only with drumsticks. But I actually wish Whiplash had gone that route, because then Simmons’ character—the ballbreaker music teacher—might have been genuinely complicated, instead of just a boring old crazy dude. Simmons may add some interesting shading, because he’s a wonderful actor, but I think he’s limited by how that character is conceived. And there’s a reason the Goodbye, Mr. Chips formula has been done to death: It’s satisfying in a way Whiplash is not. I just couldn’t take pleasure—nor find any meaningful dramatic fulfillment—in watching a bitter nut job take out his psychosis on a bunch of desperate aspiring jazz musicians. As if they didn’t have enough problems already.

But I like Damien Chazelle’s go-for-broke, young-filmmaker-on-the-loose bravado. And Whiplash did capture the joy and the terrifying challenge of playing that music. Those sweat-inducing shots of the charts, which look like a nonsense thicket of notes and rests—I think even musicians adept at sight reading probably have that moment of looking at something new on the page, laid out in all its orderly insanity, and thinking, “I’m supposed to make music out of this?” But then you finally get it right, and it feels like flying. That made Whiplash feel alive to me.

Amy, there was so much about American Sniper that just didn’t sit right with me. Chiefly, as you noted, there was the fact that Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle was just a flattened-out heroic role model. And I was dumbfounded when the most interesting part of his story—the fact that he was killed by a fellow veteran who also suffered from PTSD—was just tacked on at the end in a title card. I wanted to know more about that. Now that you’ve explained how many liberties Eastwood took with the facts—and I think we all agree that fiction filmmakers need to bend reality, to a point, in order to make art—I like it even less.

And David, although I liked Foxcatcher when I first saw it, it has faded in the months since, leaving a residue of unpleasant dullness. You nailed it when you said, “Foxcatcher isn’t exploitative because it takes liberties with the facts, it’s exploitative because it doesn’t go anywhere with them.” But the one thing I do love about Foxcatcher, still, is Channing Tatum’s performance. I just love that guy—and his emails!—but in this particular turn, he pulls off something extraordinarily difficult: He’s playing an athlete who has closed down emotionally, and although an athlete may be able to hide his feelings as they show on his face, his body keeps on speaking its own language. Tatum sends all his character’s anxiety and frustration straight into his muscles; his eyes may be guarded, but you can always tell what he’s feeling or thinking by the set of his shoulders, by the soldierlike stiffness of his stance. That performance is a marvel of physicality, and I think it’s been underappreciated in all the year-end assessments. I hope the academy recognizes him, instead of falling for Steve Carell’s fake schnoz.

David and Amy, I loved reading about your love for Grand Budapest Hotel. In fact, I love it even more than I love my own non-love for Wes Anderson. I’ve wrestled with my Anderson issues a great deal this year, and though I’m crazy about only one of his movies, Fantastic Mr. Fox, I do value the fact that everything he makes feels touched by human hands. The level of old-school care he puts into his work, whether I like the result or not, counts for something. Plus, he’s helped me understand what it really means to stake your claim for or against a filmmaker’s work: Wrestling with what you don’t love in a filmmaker can be more illuminating than singing the praises of one you do. And I do believe he’ll surprise me again—next time, maybe, without puppets.

Well, my dear friends, this is it. The end of Movie Club always makes me feel a little sad. The year has just begun, yet we’re already saying good-bye to something. Let’s turn it, then, into a hello: Let’s suppose that the movies awaiting us in 2015 will be just as good as, if not better than, the ones we’ve just spent the week talking about. Our new adventure is just beginning.

Love to you all,