10. Blackhat by Michael Mann. Many filmmakers have taken a crack at making the writing and execution of computer code look thrilling. A bunch of people typing does not make for compelling cinema, unless you Matrix it. Michael Mann tries to liven up proceedings by showing a visual representation of information flowing, which doesn’t work for us, and by casting People’s Sexiest Man Alive as a genius hacker and surrounding him with hot Chinese actors (Leehom Wang from Lust, Caution, Andy On, Archie Kao of CSI), which does. Whenever we heard ourself thinking, “Chris Hemsworth as a computer genius??” Hemsworth would take off his shirt or something and we would forget our reservations. Yeah, parts of the movie are slow—they’re meant to be slow. Michael Mann will not change his pace to suit your attention span.
Blackhat is terrific, a moody thriller set in the new Wild West: the digital frontier, which laughs at national borders. With Viola Davis and Tang Wei, star of Lust, Caution.
If you liked Miami Vice with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, which we find woefully misunderstood, you’ll love Blackhat. By the way, every Michael Mann movie is about manhood. Deal with it.
11. Selma by Ava DuVernay. In truth we expected to sleep through it. Movies about important historical moments usually feel like a duty, with their tendency to canonize their subjects. (Confession: We haven’t seen Gandhi and Lincoln in their entirety.) But from the first scene, in which Martin Luther King (the commanding David Oyelowo) is dressing up for the Nobel Prize ceremony, we were riveted. Ava DuVernay has made a powerful film that puts you right there on that bridge with the people marching for Civil Rights in 1964 and the policemen waiting to crack their skulls. It makes us ashamed of our ignorance of recent history.
Critics have torn into Selma for portraying President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson—why are the major roles played by Brits?) as the villain. We don’t know what movie they saw, but Johnson wasn’t the bad guy in Selma. He was being what he was: a politician.
Which brings us to the Oscars, which many say have been whitewashed. How many times has the Academy’s Best Picture been unquestionably the best picture? It doesn’t have to be. “Best Picture” is a political message: it’s the Academy saying, “This is how we see ourselves, this is what we aspire to.” Boyhood is a worthy contender, and Birdman, and Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice and Whiplash, but in the year of Ferguson and “I Can’t Breathe”, Selma is both worthy and timely. It captures a moment that continues to impact on today’s America. Just because Barack Obama is African-American doesn’t mean it’s over.
12. The Imitation Game by Morten Tyldum. We are the target audience for this one: Benedict Cumberbatch fans who know how Alan Turing was maltreated by his country and take an interest in the cracking of Enigma. (Polish mathematicians laid the groundwork. They started working on it in the early 30s because they knew the Nazis were coming. Turing built on their work.) And we liked Tyldum’s art crime movie, Headhunters.
We fell asleep at the Merchant-Ivoriness of the first 30 minutes. We’ll take another crack at it next week.
13. Whiplash by Damien Chazelle. Whoa! This is thrilling filmmaking. You know the oft-told story of the teacher who is tough and cranky because he wants his student to be the best he can be, but is really a kind old geezer? J.K. Simmons as the mentor is a monster on the outside, and when you get to know him he’s even more monstrous. Miles Teller is excellent as the aspiring drummer, and their final face-off is so tense we kept forgetting to breathe.
And yet we detect, in the film and in ourselves, a yearning for a mentor who will push us beyond our limits, resulting in either irrepairable breakage or greatness. “But what’s at stake?” some may ask. “No one even listens to jazz anymore. He endures all that torment, and what’s the point?” That IS the point. Greatness is not measured in fame, fortune, or the approbation of award-giving bodies. The public doesn’t care, but you will know.
That said, you do not have the right to be that mentor and condemn mediocrity if you yourself are mediocre. Also, practice is for developing discipline, it’s not a substitute for talent. Without talent, that kind of brutal training will only produce assholes.