A version of this post originally appeared at Reel Spirituality. Movies blend into each other. They always have. And in a world where the experience of movie-going has been standardized more than ever (compare the $20 two-Cokes-and-popcorn identikit shopping mall mulitplex combo with the rough-hewn character of the downtown theaters that some of us grew up with), movies blend even more. It’s getting harder to remember where we saw them and which is which. When I look back on the 2014 movie year, I’m more captivated by moments than by individual films (there’s really only one new movie I saw this year that I felt had it all - we’ll get to that later).
The way life is like the movies is the way that life is made up of moments that resonate on the inside of us. Life is lived mostly in the in-between spaces – weddings and funerals and births and graduation ceremonies and declarations of first love and war-making and peace treaties do not dominate our lives. Looking out the office window, preparing breakfast, going for a walk, being stuck in traffic, not finishing a novel, having a cold, asking questions - these are the substance of our life scripts. We may never put on a Broadway play in an attempt at being taken seriously, but we’ve all felt exhilarated at the anticipation of something whose unfolding we’re not sure of; we’re not going to be faced with the challenge of leaving our families in order to save the world, but we all know the pain of loss and how one door closing means another opens; thankfully, the vast majority of us will never experience direct violence, but each of us gets the opportunity to be both the bearer of wounds and in need of forgiveness. My movie year granted me access to these moments, these feelings that, as Proust would have it, enable me to be "the reader of my own self."
The big movie tapestry that is 2014 includes:
The opening scene of Birdman, which begins with a man levitating and ends with him leaving his room, but the magic of cinema allows him to do it without a perceptible cut. You’ll believe a man can fly, and you might just be intrigued enough to wonder what parts of your own life are lived a few inches off the ground, for better or worse.
There are many scenes in Whiplash that left me wondering if the normally delightful comic actor JK Simmons had been abducted by aliens and replaced by an impostor whose circuits had been poorly wired. The most lively is the one in which the rotation of three drummers trying to please his abusive taskmaster lasts until the early hours while Simmons repeats his brickbat “Not my tempo." It’s both kinetically on fire and emotionally resonant, reminding me of times I have not felt understood, and the intolerance I too often show myself and others.
Pride is a rare thing - an inspirational true life story that is also actually a pretty good film. The large canvas is the intersection of the 1984 British coalminers’ strike with supportive LGBTQ activists who saw that when one suffers, all suffer. The singular moment is when two older people are making sandwiches, he comes out to her, the burden of years falling, and his old friend responds with such simple grace and affirmation that it doesn’t even interrupt the buttering of bread. In movies as in life, drama does not have to be melodrama.
Richard Linklater understands this, so in Boyhood he portrays a universal grief so subtly that you can’t be sure it’s real until the movie is over. But it’s what remains for me, when I think of Boyhood - when our hero moves to another town, and his best friend cycles by the car to wave goodbye, and is gone, just like that. We never see him again. There’s no portentous music, no close up, no line of dialogue to underline this most common experience - the loss of friendship through ordinary circumstance.
And the regaining of hope amidst the most ordinary of sadnesses is what makes the last scene of Asgad Farhadi’s ThePast - when a single tear on a single cheek seems both utterly real, and transforms the world.
Meanwhile, in Rome, The Great Beauty’s opening sequence will wake you up - a prologue set amidst ruins and a capella tourism gives way to a raucous birthday party that appears to be the product of a one night stand between Caligula and Blue Velvet. We’re ten minutes into the movie before the protagonist even appears, but by the time we see him, dancing and affecting Bette Davis with a cigarette. We’re wondering who is this guy? He seems fascinating and pretentious. Are we like that?
His opposite reveals herself throughout and especially in the final moment of The Immigrant, when Marion Cotillard (best actress of the year) grants absolution to Joaquin Phoenix (best actor) in an Ellis Island warehouse (best warehouse) on a cinematically foggy day (best mist). “You’re not nothing” - for me, new and perhaps even more valuable three little words than the blunted through overuse "I love you."
And on and on we go, moments projected digitally onto screens that aren’t as big as they used to be (unless you’re lucky and saw Interstellar in an IMAX canyon), speaking to us about what it means to be alive. I guess I’m getting simpler as I get older - I love the uniqueness of cinematic craft, the discussion of the how and why of putting movies together, but the what can’t be divorced from the how. The purpose of architecture, my friend the Scottish designer Colin Fraser Wishart says, is to help people live better. So it is with cinema. And here are the five cinematic moments in 2014 that touched me most, and made me think most about living better, the ones I can’t easily get out of my memory and wouldn’t want to. I’d love to hear yours.
In The LEGO Movie, when a villain is invited to stand down and accepts, thus having the hero actually change the game rather than merely beat the bad guy at the old one.
In The Congress, which, for me, got more things right than any other film this year, when love is defined by trying to see the world through the eyes of another.
In Interstellar, when a heartbreaking scene of goodbye is replayed later in the movie as an opportunity to embrace the reality that we may already know what we need to learn.
In Calvary's final scene, when a character we have earlier seen stumbling to stay emotionally upright offers hope for the future of humanity, forgiving her victimizer, embodied by a look and a hand gesture.
And in Love is Strange, which moved me more than any other film in 2014, where after an hour or two in the presence of two lovely central characters, we end with a dreamlike focus on a young man skateboarding in evening light, the one he loves at his side, Chopin’s "Berceuse" animating us into the memory of times when we let go of burdens or closed a chapter, knowing that there would always be a new one awaiting, that the dance of life would continue, always, deeper, into the mystery.
If you want to have more conversation about this kind of thing, please do join us at the first Movies and Meaning festival, happening at the end of May. Details are here.