If you were to name the five chief motivations for making a film, it seems inevitable that “showing people the formerly unseen” would be in the mix. And with the profusion of new technology in film, this desire to create from imagination tends to result in pure fantasy; characters and places that are, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Not that I’m complaining. This trend has led to a golden era of fantasy film, and a collection of worlds most of us would give a kidney to visit. What have been neglected are the films intent on revealing not just the astonishing, but the astonishingly real. Gravity is one. It endeavors to show us a world that exists a hundred miles straight up, where you and I will never go. A world where our textbook understanding means little, and death and beauty are braided together, indistinguishably linked.
Two weeks ago, three teens shot a 22-year-old man in the back and killed him. They said they did it because they were bored. One week ago, a pair of teens beat an 88-year-old war veteran to death for the money in his pockets, of which there was, presumably, not much. There are good people and there are bad people, and often age has little to do with where each of us falls on that spectrum. Yet there is something especially disturbing about a young person committing atrocities. It’s important to us that youth equate to innocence or naiveté, that young people stay young, and nothing evaporates innocence like taking a life. Harmony Korine understands this relationship our community has with its young people, and plays with it liberally in Spring Breakers.
Setting a film in the future is tricky. You can have fun with it and create eye-popping visuals unconcerned with authenticity, or you can try to build a convincing projection of the world we live in now. What you should avoid is landing somewhere in the middle, as Neill Blomkamp has in Elysium. Certainly pieces of Elysium‘s world feel possible, like the disconcertingly ubiquitous biotechnology; some of it even probable, like the bastardized mélange of languages or the lack of paying work in an overpopulated world. But between the magical healing tubes, the utterly structureless society, and the absurd lack of humanity in damn near every character, Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s slick District 9 spends far too much of its screen time asking you to meet it halfway.
“You’re a good man, Ellis.”
This approbation comes near the end of Jeff Nichols’ Mud, and serves as crucial validation for the film’s 14-year-old hero. Much of Mud finds Nichols exploring the lengths to which a boy will go to be treated as an equal by a man he respects. Through selfless labor and violence and love, Ellis tenaciously builds up the ground beneath him in a grasp for equal footing, and every last action rings of utter truth. Because Jeff Nichols understands that most of us are still boys, falling over ourselves to prove that we’re not.
Despite my best intentions, I’ve always treated black people differently than whites. I’ve never had a close black friend, and while my racism tends to reveal itself in an obnoxiously patronizing amiability opposed to a violent bigotry or snide superiority, my presence here isn’t bringing us any closer to a post-racial America. Maybe that makes me the perfect audience for Fruitvale Station, a film that endeavors only to tell the dreadfully true story of Oscar Grant in all its agonizing detail, and ends up carving a portrait of a man whose humanity is what makes his story so compellingly universal.
There is a great Superman film out there somewhere. There’s nothing inherently challenging about telling this story, other than the powerful ownership so many fans have over it. And I suppose there’s an argument that Zack Snyder has gotten closer to it than anyone else; Man of Steel paints its main character’s neurosis and isolation in wide swaths, and these elements are necessary for any modern rehash. But, as is often the case with mega, ultra, super blockbusters, they’ve put the horse before the cart with this latest iteration of the world’s first superhero, building a flashy skyscraper on the rickety foundation of a David S. Goyer-penned screenplay.
Way back in 1982, Vertigo debuted on BFI’s Sight & Sound Poll of Best Films at number 7. Since then it has slowly ascended, finally summiting the list in 2012, displacing the oft-thought irreplaceable Citizen Kane. No list is gospel, but the collaborative nature of the Sight & Sound, along with its tenure and visibility within the world of film lend the list a weight that few can counter. Which makes Vertigo a legitimate contender for the throne—the protean, elusive, much debated Best Film of All Time. Except, here’s the thing: it’s not.