Yes, most people have already written their Top 10 movie lists for 2014. We're saving ours for the last week of the year, but while we wait for this full, rich, and weird movie year to end, we're going to start looking back at certain highlights. Today, it's our favorite individual scenes. Tomorrow: the year's best overlooked performances.
Philip Seymour Hoffman's last scene in A Most Wanted Man
Whenever a great actor dies, particularly at a younger-than-expected age under particularly tragic circumstances, there is an inevitable rush to watch his or her final film, often released posthumously. The idea, however elusive, is that maybe you can see something, something even the tragic figure didn't realize at the time. Every minute that person is onscreen, the film turns into a documentary going on entirely within a viewer's own head: "No one else involved with this movie knows what's coming, but I do." Could anyone have known?
This can venture on the absurd: I saw several otherwise intelligent writers attempt to glimpse the eternal in Robin Williams' final performance, which just happened to be as Theodore Roosevelt in the newest endless Night at the Museum sequel. But sometimes it works. Technically Philip Seymour Hoffman's last film was the latest Hunger Games sequel, which he was filming when he died. But we're all going to remember his swan song as A Most Wanted Man.
I'm certain that the final scenes of A Most Wanted Man would have been tragic and sad even had Hoffman not died of a drug overdose a year after filming. But in that context, they're devastating. Hoffman's Günther Bachmann, head of a secret German spy ring investigating a local Muslim community in the first couple of years after September 11, has spent of the movie slowly, methodically trying to piece together every tidbit of a labyrinthine terror plot that might not even exist. (The movie is based off a John le Carré book, and you can tell: You'll have to follow along closely.) Gunther is not some eager new kid: He is a weary, mostly beaten-down man who has no illusions about the work he does, who knows that in his business, the most brilliant spycraft can all be undermined and destroyed by spineless bureaucrats. Even his small victories feel like defeats: He knows how all this ends.
Except in the final scenes (spoiler alert), where, after risking everything, it turns out that he's right, that the beloved local Muslim philanthropist is in fact funneling money back to Pakistan to fund a terror plot. This has been what he has been working for: This is the point of it all. There is a brief moment, as Guenther hears the cleric say the words that confirm his theory, when he gives a little fist-pump, and a flash of a smile: He did it. We won.
Thus, what happens next, when American authorities bust up the stakeout for their own self-interest, destroying everything Guenther had fought for, is particularly tragic. Guenther, a man who never let himself believe, believed for just one second … and then had it all snatched from him. He curses to the heavens, but only for a second. Then he slumps back down: This is why you don't believe. He shuffles off, betrayed, defeated. There is no pride of a good fight fought. It's just a loss. And this loss, for the character and the actor both, feels like the final one.
The car chase in The Raid 2
The Raid 2 is a greatest-hits reel of superb action sequences: the prison-yard melee, the after-hours nightclub battle, the subway-car clash, the mano-a-mano kitchen face-off. At two and a half hours, the movie not only tops the close-quarters original in balls-out bravura, but also in terms of grandeur and scope.
But my favorite sequence is the inspired car chase that happens about 110 minutes in. Our hero cop Rama (Iko Uwais) has successfully infiltrated Jakarta's deadliest mob, but his loyalty to the boss puts him on the outs with the guy's son (Arifin Putra) once he takes power for himself. Now in a car surrounded by his enemies, Rama has no choice but to do what he always does: punch and kick like crazy until he's out of harm's way.
Written and directed by Gareth Evans (and assisted by stunt choreographer Bruce Law), the sequence quickly evolves in all sorts of dynamic ways. We've all seen car chases in movies, but what makes the best ones stand out are two factors: degree of difficulty ("Oh god, how did they do that and not die?") and inventiveness ("That was awesome how they went the wrong way on the freeway!"). This Raid 2 sequence nails both criteria. It's clever because it actually consists of two insane car chases going on simultaneously. (Rama's fellow undercover cop is following after him and gets into his own scrape.) But, most importantly, the sequence is a jaw-dropper technically. Using handheld cameras run by operators strapped into trucks driving parallel to the cast's cars, the scene feels as dangerous to film as it was to make.
Now that we live in a heavily CGI-aided world of action movies, filmmakers can push the limits of their imagination, but often at the expense of a tangible connection between the viewer and what he or she is watching. Though it's surely helped in terms of safety, this new landscape of overly fake spectacle robs us of a certain amount of suspense. Obviously, we don't wish for actors (or stunt performers) to get hurt, but we want to at least believe they're in peril—otherwise, the heroism their characters are supposed to be portraying doesn't register as deeply. There were plenty of times in The Raid 2 when I grinned in sheer, giddy excitement: Hyper-violent while focusing on cathartic, stunning non-CGI sequences, the movie is almost a musical of carnage, the choreography balletic and visceral. Don't try this at home—but I'd love it if other moviemakers at least gave it a shot.
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