Did you guys know that R.A Montgomery, the creator of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, died a few days ago? For the most part that news was eclipsed by more prominent celebrity deaths and scandals, but as someone who was obsessed with these books between the ages of 8 -13, I feel like it’s definitely worth taking a moment to acknowledge his genius. Here was a guy who figured out that instead of one boring old story, you could have a book filled with dozens of plot twists and turns, all determined by the whims of the reader. As a kid especially, that feeling of having control over how things turn out was incredibly empowering. In the “Choose Your Own Adventure” world, you could find out where Path A might take you (and these stories weren’t playing around, if Path A was agreeing to transport a highly toxic poison for an evil scientist, it was probably going to end with you dead in a pile of noxious goo) and then go back to the starting point and try Path B instead. Gah! I just realized, it was teaching me about decision-making and consequences as it was entertaining me. Oh, Montgormery, you rascal you!
With the long holiday weekend looming, we all have the opportunity to decide our fates: sweet potatoes or mashed, engage your drunken Republican uncle or just smile and nod. If you’re anything like me, you know there’s no better way to spend those post-feasting hours than in a darkened cinema where you can unbutton your pants and no one will know. In that vein, here are four of your best options for hitting up the theater this weekend (this is assuming that you’re also sick of dystopian YA franchise nonsense). But choose carefully, because unlike in Montgomery’s fanciful world, in reality there’s no going back to the front of the ticket line to try again.
1. The “Donnie Darko grows up and moves to LA” Freak Show:
Typically we save the best for last, but Nightcrawler is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, and I’m jumping right in. The film does the same, introducing Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom without giving us anything in the way of background or exposition. He’s a creep in every sense of the word – always there, slinking off to the side or hiding half in shadow, his giant, bulging eyes seeming to never even blink. Part of the fun of watching this movie is seeing how the star has transformed himself so completely from a stud with action-hero potential (has everyone successfully forgotten that Prince of Persia ever happened?) to a gaunt and cutthroat loner. Gyllenhaal commits so fully that you never really need to ask “why” about Bloom – what childhood trauma he might have experienced, who might have abandoned him in the past. It’s easy to accept that he just is. And what he is, what he becomes over the course of the film, is a nightcrawler. Members of the media are sometimes called vultures, and nightcrawlers seem to be an even lower level of scavenger – waiting hunched by their police scanners, drooling in anticipation for the kind of news most of us never want to be on the receiving end of – the devastating car crash, the home invasion that takes a violent turn. As Bloom starts his career filming these tragedies and selling the footage to a local new station, we see that even as a bottom feeder, he dreams of so much more. And it helps that he seems incapable of registering other people’s pain or desires – he won’t let a little thing like that get in the way of his piece of the American dream.
We also get an electric performance by Rene Russo as an aging station manager who thinks that no one can play the game better than her and cinematography that brings L.A’s endless highways and canyon walls alive with the night (think Drive but with fewer dragon jackets). Even the movie’s faults – a lack of thematic delicacy and sometimes clunky dialogue – only add to the delicious B-movie sleaziness of its atmosphere. But it’s Gyllanhaal, with the best performance of 2014 for my money, who delivers the dark truth in scene after scene. For all his repugnant qualities, there is no question that Louis Bloom is our hero, the hero we deserve. We hear the gloriously synth-y soundtrack swell when he completes a new conquest, manages to snag the bloodiest and most outrageous footage by whatever means possible.The movie’s message is not a subtle one: we are not just complicit in making this monster,we, the American public, are the Dr. Frankenstein on the other side of screen
2. The Surrealist Fairytale for Those of Us Who are A Little Bit Dead Inside
I don’t just want to see Birdman for a second time, I really need to. It’s been a little over a month since I first caught it in the theater, right after a work party that included some of Chicago’s best and strongest margaritas. But while I might be blurry on some of the details, I certainly remember the magic – it’s that rush you get usually only once or twice a year when you’re sitting there in a movie theater, ready for the same old ups and downs, romance and violence, hollow laughs and manufactured happy endings, and instead something completely unexpected unfolds in front of you. Her was the magic moment of 2013 and I’m hoping we can still squeeze in another before this year ends (come on, PTA), but for now, Birdman will absolutely do. This movie is about the manic energy that drives an artist’s ego. It’s about how creativity and popularity and commerce get twisted together in an incestuous sort of package that’s just goes along with fame and recognition. It’s about the transcendence of getting it right once – some performance, some play, some moment of your life – and the dreary day-to-day disappointment of not knowing if you’ll ever get it right again. In case I’m being too opaque, here’s the trailer to clear things up:
For all Birdman’s big ideas, ideas about art and criticism, fame and regret, if it took itself too seriously, or played them with too heavy a hand (and god knows Iñárritu can do serious and heavy), the magic would be lost. Instead, it stays light on its feet, in part thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki‘s brilliant camera work, which shoves us along the backstage corridors of the theater like we’re a haggard stagehand. That frantic energy extends to the performances, all of which are all so so good – touching and funny and tragic and raw. Much has been made about this being Micheal Keaton’s big comeback vehicle and he nails it – his washed-up Riggan Thomson is a sad clown for the ages, a pop culture punchline with a superhero voice in his head. But then there’s Edward Norton and Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and even Zach Galifianakis, all giving as much to Birdman as their characters do to Regan’s impossibly ambitious vanity project. They’re all cynics who want to dream big and then let us laugh at them for even considering it. And Riggan is the king of them all – king of the idiots, a man so broken inside, it sometimes seems impossible that he can go on standing and walking, but just wait till you see him fly.
3. The Best Looking, Most Expensive Hallmark Card Commercial Ever Made
Ugh – I can gauge exactly how much I disliked Interstellar by how hard I tried to like it. You know, you’re sitting there as the minutes tick on, trying to connect to something on screen and instead thinking things like:
- I hope I’m going to be able to ignore these gaping, nonsensical plot holes because the IMAX 70 mm looks so good.
- Anne Hathaway sure is crying a lot (well, everyone is) – and man does her hair look cute. Only in Hollywood does someone’s hair grow out so nicely after they shave their heads.
- This AI character is great – go TARS! In fact, I’d say it’s the most charismatic, relatable character in the whole movie. I wonder what that says about this director’s capacity for conveying authentic human emotion….
- Oh, it’s over. Huh… When does Inherent Vice come out?
So this recommendation comes with a caveat – only if there’s an IMAX theater within driving distance of your turkey dinner. If you’re at all into the whole “going in to space” thing, then in that case, the visuals alone are worth it – just be careful not to drown in the needless exposition and Oscar-quality tears. Hmm, maybe I should get a pixie cut….
4. The Light-hearted Scandanavian Romp
That’s sarcasm by the way – this film will not only destroy your faith in humanity but make you question those with whom you share the closest, most intimate bonds – the Nordic people everybody!
Force Majeure is a powerhouse of a film, the kind of movie in which the psychological and emotional tension becomes so great, you’d swear that someone has cut off the oxygen to the theater. That effect feels particularly relevant in this setting – a high altitude vacation soon turns to one with very high stakes for a seemingly well-adjusted Swedish family who just want to get some quality time on the slopes. Also, there’s this badass, red-bearded guy, from Game of Thrones:
And if any of you can tell me what his character’s name is without looking it up, you are better Game of Thrones fans than I am.
Back to the movie – after a few days of looking perfectly European and beautiful in a picturesque setting, the family is shattered when the father deserts the rest of them in a seeming moment of crisis. After this betrayal, everyone initially tries to keep up appearances, but the first tiny cracks that start to show in their demeanor soon widen in to rivers of disconnect and suspicion. In the best of times, these affluent people are polite and affectionate – except for the father’s bad work habits, a model of synchronicity – but as the circumstances deteriorate, their family dynamic follows close behind:
The real triumph of Force Majeure is that it makes you think and feel in equal measure. Even as you’re physically squirming at the unbearable awkwardness on screen – I saw the movie with five people and we were all twisting in our seats – you also can’t stop those mental wheels from turning. The movie forces you to run a gamut of similar hypothetical scenarios in your head and wonder, would my husband/wife/friend be brave enough to stay behind to die with the people they love….would I?
And that’s a cozy thought I’ll leave you with for now.
Happy Turkeyday and a Merry Moviegoing to you all!