Well, here we are. Earlier today I put up the long list of movies I’ve watched and liked this year. Now, the three that made the biggest impact, in one case literally. Click through for discussion, trailers and pivotal music from each movie.
Years in the making, Gravity is unlike any other movie and for once that’s not hyperbole, as two generations of the Cuarón family tell a story that’s both simple and richly nuanced. Trapped in orbit, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski and Mission Specialist Ryan Stone are low on air and have to get out of orbit before a debris cascade finishes its 90 minute orbit and returns to rip them apart.
The movie unfolds in real time and huge, graceful arcs of shots, racing to fill the massive space it occupies. The first five or so minutes are the only respite we get. A day at the office, a hundred miles up, as Kowalski tells yet another of his stories, playing with a new Manned Manouvering Unit whilst Stone tries to finish her maintenance job on the Hubble so she can go home.
Right there, the movie’s interesting. Kowalski is an old school astronaut, a sports car driving ladies man who wouldn’t have looked out of place standing with six other men in the Mercury Project group photo. Stone is female, intellectual, deeply uncomfortable in space and quietly crippled with grief. The only things they have in common are their work place and their need to breathe. Both are stripped away inside the first 20 minutes of the movie.
Stone and Kowalski orbit each other, their co-dependence balanced by a subtle, unforced conflict of approaches. Stone is crippled with panic whilst Kowalski is calmly making his way down the decision trees he’s been taught will save his life. They’re both terrified, but, for the first half of the movie, they’re terrified in a way that Kowalski is used to. The two astronauts make for the International Space Station, with us sitting in their helmets and the Earth always beautiful and so very, very far beneath them.
It doesn’t last. Kowalski’s self-sacrifice is the first place the movie really shows its depth. On one hand its absolutely standard heroism, the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the one. On the other it’s exactly what he always wanted. Matt Kowalski is very bad at being everywhere but space and for him to die in orbit is the equivalent of a Viking dying well in battle. We even get a cheery send off from him as he makes the call and drifts off so Stone has a chance at making it home.
Then we hear Clooney’s voice break. It’s a tiny, almost inaudible moment but it tells you everything you need to know. This event is unprecedented and, whilst Matt Kowalski is a hero, he’s also human. Everyone feels small at the end, and everyone feels smaller when the end comes hundreds of miles up.
From the end of the first act, Stone is completely alone. The cascade has destroyed every communications satellite, the shuttle she was on is in pieces, Kowalski’s gone and the International Space Station is falling apart. It’s literally a one woman show and there isn’t a single moment where you can take your eyes off the screen. Bullock, who let’s not forget showed her comedy prowess in The Heat this year too, gradually peels the layers back on Stone as she realizes just how much has been taken from her. The scientist becomes the victim, the victim becomes the survivor, the survivor becomes the astronaut and finally, the astronaut becomes the woman who has stared death in the eyes, waited for it to take her and realized she isn’t ready. It’s an extraordinary performance in an extraordinary movie, one that defies categorisation but demands viewing. As it’s a genre movie, Bullock is all but certain to be overlooked by the Academy and if that happens then the case for their growing lack of engagement will only get stronger. This is a performance of total honesty under extreme duress. It deserves recognition by the ton and, frankly, to be used as a textbook example of subtlety and nuance in movie acting.
But even when Stone reaches Earth, the movie isn’t done. This is an inciting incident for a much larger story. After all, the primary orbits satellites and stations are placed in have been wiped clean. Even worse, the debris storm is still orbiting the planet, a silent, mile wide raptor looking to tear apart anything that gets in its wake. How do you deal with that? How do you make space safe to work in again? As important, what sort of chaos has the loss of every primary communications satellite unleashed on the world. This isn’t quite a soft apocalypse but it can definitely see one burning up in the upper atmosphere from where it’s lying.
Then there’s the multiple ways you can read Stone’s decision to live. Firstly there’s how the movie presents it; she hallucinates Kowalski as the embodiment of her desire to live and uses him to communicate the information she needs to survive. That certainly fits everything we see but so does another, equally literal approach; she talks to Kowalski, after he’s dead, and he helps her rescue herself. Clooney plays the veteran astronaut with absolute gusto and charm throughout the scene and there’s just the tiniest hint of something otherworldly to him, if you choose to see it. There’s also the fact that he ‘tells’ Stone something she may not have known. Most interestingly, there’s an echo of The Shepherd to the whole thing. A short, illustrated story written by Frederick Forsyth, it deals with a young airman, lost in a storm, being guided into land by a vintage aircraft. It’s only when he jumps out to thank the other pilot that he discovers the airfield he’s been guided to hasn’t been used since World War 2 and no other planes were in the area. It’s a beautiful piece, and one that Max Brooks echoes in one of the most affecting sections of World War Z. There’s certainly a case to be made for it here as well, with Kowalski finishing the mission by bringing the last person under his charge home safely.
Of course this explanation could be seen as undercutting a lot of the strength and courage that Stone displays. The version I choose to believe is a little of both, and Stone seems to make the same choice. Her final speech in the movie, where she asks Kowalski to look after her deceased daughter, acknowledges the possibly supernatural element of the scene absolutely head on. Couched in those terms, it actually adds to the immense courage Stone displays. Not only does she escape three separate craft being cut away beneath her but she embraces the one thing that’s anathema to her, faith, in order to survive. It’s not religious faith by any means, but rather the faith that there will be something there when you step outside your comfort zone. That, especially when viewed with the Ascent of Woman imagery in the final scene, suggests that the entire movie is about rebirth and the inevitable pain that comes with it. It also cements Gravity as an astonishing piece of movie making at every level, and one of my movies of the year.
How I Live Now
Some of my first exposure to film came through the Friday Film Special. This was a slot on BBC1’s Children’s Programming which recycled the old Children’s Film Foundation movies from the 1970s and 1980s. They were short, mostly about 55 minutes long, and varied wildly in content, style and genre. They were also, to be honest, often pretty difficult to love but when they hit, they hit you right between the eyes. One, dealing with the growing friendship between a small boy and one of the gang who kidnapped him, has stayed with me for years.
How I Live Now plays like a CFF movie with a longer running time, a slightly larger budget and absolutely no barriers. The punky opening, set to ‘Do It With A Rockstar’ by Amanda Palmer sets the tone for the movie as we, and Daisy, are hurled into a UK which is very, very frightened. Soldiers at the border, terrorist attacks and hushed adult conversations about national death tolls are a constant rising backbeat, contrasting with the idyllic rural life Daisy slowly embraces. The first half hour especially is a note-perfect exploration of what happens when you put a teenager somewhere they don’t thing they want to be. It’s like the five stages of grief; Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Hormones.
The children are left alone. The countryside opens up in front of them like a canvas made of Summer and the final stretch of childhood and then?
The world ends.
A nuclear bomb hits London. War breaks out. The country is put under martial law and the kids do what they always do; hide in the physical woods around the house and the psychological woods of their social status. The youngest pull the duvets over their heads whilst Daisy and her cousin Edmond wrap themselves up in love and pretend nothing can harm them. It’s idyllic, perfect and completely fragile.
The army comes. Edmond and his brother Isaac are sent off to training camp, Daisy and her youngest cousin Piper are sent to a work farm. The world continues to end, even as they struggle to escape and reunite.
The film never pulls a single punch and yet still manages to hide a lot of the blows from you until they connect. The war marches inexorably towards the characters constantly but always slowly. It’s in London. Then the next valley over. Then the village. Then the work farm, then half glimpsed armed men at the end of the road. This is conflict as abstraction and it both emphasizes both the mortality of the leads and how impossibly, horrifyingly large the events happening off stage.
It would be easy to lose the characters against a backdrop like that but the entire central cast all register as strong, vibrant presences. Tom Holland as Isaac is especially great, acting as the point of entry into the world for both the viewer and Daisy whilst George MacKay as Edmond is dashing enough to register, and intelligent enough to be just a little naïve. Both have very strong presences throughout the film, even when they’re not on screen.
Saoirse Ronan as Daisy and Harley Bird as Piper are the two characters that stay with you though. Ronan is always excellent and this is arguably her best turn to date. Daisy is spiky, over articulate and, as we find out through a clever audio cue, suffers from OCD. She’s angry and alone, desperately wants to be neither but can’t let go of either. Ronan shows us every agonized moment, every conflicted choice and every scar left on Daisy by the horrors she witnesses. One scene, involving nothing more than an abandoned farmhouse courtyard and a pair of glasses is one of the most horrific things I’ve seen this year. Partly because of Kevin Macdonald’s naturalistic, dialled back direction but mostly because of Ronan’s performance; horror, grief, terror and compassion, all in a few seconds of silent cinema. It’s an astoundingly good performance.
Bird, at first, seems to have the easier job. Piper is younger, completely innocent and seems untouched by the horrors around them. But the film’s best scenes, often little more than her and Daisy walking and talking, show how much Piper is taking in. The film is never subtler or more moving than when Piper lets Daisy know she’s aware of what’s going on and she can take some of the load for a while.
No one is ever the same after trauma, whether that trauma is war, bereavement, adolescence or all three The nuclear attack on London doesn’t just act as an inciting incident and a central metaphor, it wipes the movie’s slate clean. Daisy is given a chance, and no choice but, to reinvent herself. The film isn’t about victory, or even survival, it’s about the simple, strong belief embodied in the title. Things are different, this is how I live now and it’s more than good enough. That message, that survival is victory, is what really ties it to the Children’s Film Foundation movies and is the foundation for one of the strongest, most difficult, films of the year.
That sound you can hear is hackles being raised across the internet. Pacific Rim is the most divisive, and biggest, big movie in years. To some it’s another Transformers, a movie packed with stock characters and pointless excess and filled with epic scale fights that take place at night in the rain and barely fit on the screen anyway. To others, it’s a remarkable look into a world that’s one part love letter to kaiju movies, one part plucky underdog story and one part an excuse to wander around Guillermo Del Toro’s mind again.
I’m in the second group.
I know, I’m shocked too.
What I love about the movie is how textured it feels. Yes, this is, fundamentally, a story about gigantic mechanical suits of armour punching equally gigantic monsters in the face but to say that’s all there is here is doing it a huge disservice. There’s decades of history behind the story we see, and screenwriter Travis Beacham and director Del Toro use that to create a remarkably lived in, pragmatic world. Humanity is at war with aliens but those aliens have corpses that fetch a fortune on the black market, dung that can fertilise entire fields at a time and skeletons so large we simply build into them rather than remove them. We win enough, we survive enough, we adapt and relax instead of adapt and overcome. It’s a well reasoned, plausible approach to the implausible and it’s the foundation the film builds its wildly eccentric central cast upon.
Raleigh Becket, whose accent endearingly moves around as much as he has, is a washout. He’s not the best of the best, he’s the best, like the gag goes, of what’s left. Raleigh is Maverick in Top Gun without the redemptive closing dogfight, a man who still feels the losses he’s suffered and is quietly, constantly grieving.
Raleigh isn’t the usual hero, and Mako Mori isn’t the usual heroine. A young woman who has dedicated her life to fighting the Kaiju, Mako is a thin skin of precision and grace over a bottomless sea of grief and rage. Like Raleigh she’s lost everything. Unlike Raleigh she’s been building a way to fight back. They become each other’s missing pieces in the most intimate, non-romantic relationship in recent movie memory.
That idea, of the missing piece, echoes through the movie. Scientists Gottlieb and Geiszler find it in their hard-won, white knuckled scientific vindication. Herc and Chuck Hansen find it in the Drift, the only place they can relate to each other as father and son. Most tellingly, Stacker Pentecost, owner of the new, undisputed Best Fictional Name Ever, finds it by letting go. The adoptive father of Mako Mori, and a man holding off a fatal illness as much through will as medication, Pentecost describes his importance as being ‘the last man standing.’ His realization that he can’t be, along with the willingness to put everything aside for the people he loves is deeply moving and strangely positive. This is a film fascinated by the idea of the Good Death, and Pentecost’s is arguably the best of them all.
These characters are the core of the movie, all of them damaged, all of them still standing. Wrapped around them is the joyous conceit of the Jaegers; immense two-person suits of armour designed to fight the Kaiju, equally immense monsters. Del Toro throws every ounce of his love for mecha and monsters alike at the screen and the resulting action sequences are by turns delightful and brutal. This is a hard world, as we and Raleigh find out very quickly, and the Jaeger pilots live fast, die young and usually leave no corpse at all. But they still volunteer, still fight and there are always people behind them, waiting for their turn. This may be the best plucky human movie ever made, it certainly has the best ‘plucky humans beating the odds’ music ever. As dumb, or brilliantly clever, as you want it to be, it, and the other two movies here, were unlike anything else I saw this year. For that, and all the reasons above, they’re my movies of the year.