The Imitation Game
Dir. Morten Tyldum
Whether you knew it or not, WWII might have been won by a bunch of math nerds. The Imitation Game tells the true story of mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), an arrogant savant tasked with cracking a Nazi encryption machine called Enigma. Though his efforts are noble, his personality gets in the way of his work, alienating his co-workers, one-upping his boss, and gaining the suspicion of local law enforcement as being a Soviet spy, complicating matters in this race-against-the-clock thriller. Adding to the mix Turing's closeted homosexuality and Joan Clarke's (Keira Knightley) woman-in-a-man's-world position in Turing's team, the film is wrapped in multiple layers of meaning, and with a script as tightly woven and entertaining as this, The Imitation Game will definitely land in my Top Ten this year!
The movie is notably funny for such weighty subject matter, and the script by Graham Moore (placed as the #1 Black List screenplay of 2011), along with Cumberbatch's dedicatedly "Aspergian" performance, brings some much needed levity. The story moves at a quick pace and never lets up, and makes usually boring sequences like a "recruitment montage" into something intriguing; Turing hired his crew by placing an ad in the paper with a crossword puzzle, promising a lucrative job to those who could solve it in under 10 minutes.
The theme of repression is also key here, as Turing himself has secrets he's hiding, just as the Nazis are, because of his homosexuality (which was seen as a big "no no" in the '40's). Admittedly, some parts of the flick were perhaps a little too sensationalized/cliched (in one moment where Turing is about to be axed, one by one his fellow workers come up: "If you fire him you'll have to fire ME as well." "Yeah! And ME!" "And ME!") While I don't know how much of this is real life vs. creative liberties with the story (especially since the information about these people wasn't broken until decades after the fact), the film still stands as a strong piece of work. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, but The Imitation Game was a fresh take on the WWII drama, where the world isn't saved on the front lines by soldiers, but in a dank, claustrophobic room filled with crossword puzzle enthusiasts.
Dir. Bennett Miller
Steve Carell almost always plays characters with warm, gooey centers, but in Foxcatcher, detailing the real-life exploits of Pennsylvania millionaire John du Pont, the often comedic actor turns darkly serious with a performance unlike any we've ever seen from him. Running an expansive farming estate and living under the shadow of his equestrian mother (Vanessa Redgrave), du Pont decides to pour his fortune into Olympic Wrestling, recruiting Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to travel to his estate and lead him to the gold. Foxcatcher is a disquieting, disturbed take on the American dream, and though it's glacially-paced, there's a lot going on under the surface.
Whether you take this film as du Pont's story or Mark's, it's extremely depressing. Unrecognizably caked under layers of make-up, Carell depicts du Pont as a sad, strange, lonely man. His social life is as barren as the Foxcatcher Estate he lives on (his mother paid for his one friend growing up), which likely led to such odd behavior as calling himself "Golden Eagle" and having actual Army tanks shipped to his house. He truly believes that organizing a wrestling team makes him a monumental American figure. His look alone is strange, with a distinct bird-like nose that reminded me of The Penguin from Batman Returns. Because of his cold heart, the casting of Carell is deliciously ironic here.
Channing Tatum has never been better, playing a former Gold-Medalist that still lives under the shadow of his similarly talented brother David (Mark Ruffalo), who unlike Mark has a family and prospects. Tatum plays up his yearning for a father figure and displays a pure, animalistic quality in a surprisingly good performance. And Ruffalo, who's essentially the voice of the audience, is also quite good, putting this whole tale in perspective. The mostly music-less soundtrack and dark grey color palette adds to the somber tone of the film. While not exactly the perfect "date night" movie, Foxcatcher is an interesting, small-scale story of how wealth, class, and life aspirations figure into the yearning for the "American Dream." Drawn-out and depressing, but a solid film.
Dir. Tim Burton
Reuniting screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski with Tim Burton, who last worked together on Ed Wood, Big Eyes is a refreshingly Johnny Depp-less story (with limited CGI!) about repressed creators. The film is true story number 3 out of 4 in this particular blog post, this time about artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose work, consisting of doe-eyed, slightly creepy children, was fraudulently claimed by her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz). While those more interested in a "copyright" story may be dissappointed (since Margaret was "in" on her husband the whole time), I found the dynamic between the two actors fascinating, if slightly cartoonish on Waltz's part. Adams sells her character's struggle to part with her "children" and how she was manipulated by Walter, who is surprisingly not completely villainized in the film - after all, if it wasn't for his carnivalesque showmanship, Margaret's paintings probably wouldn't have turned into the million-dollar business it did (if he didn't take credit they could've been a healthy couple). This film may be predictable and oddly play a little too close to convention, but the acting and colorful, "pop art" cinematography make this stand out in this crowded "true story" time of year.
Dir. Angelina Jolie
Unbroken, directed by one-half of Brangelina, is based on the TRUE STORY (again? really?) of Louis Zamperini - a US Olympic runner-turned-bombadier who in WWII was shot down, survived in a life raft surrounded by sharks for 47 days, and subsequently sent to one Japanese POW camp after another. This against-the-odds survival story plays out in the most bland, style-less way possible, filled with one-dimensional characters and a simple, A-to-B, going-through-the-motions script (which is beyond surprising seeing as the Coen Brothers penned the screenplay). Despite some strong performances, the movie is ultimately too safe, and never tries to delve into Zamperini's psyche a la 12 Years a Slave, we just see what he endures, not how he takes it all in. I don't have much else to add that isn't spoiler-ridden, this is simply a very middle-of-the-road movie that strains to hit those "prestige picture" checkpoints but doesn't earn any of them. Maybe as a documentary it would've worked better for me, but this film really didn't do anything new or creative with the "war film" genre.