At the beginning of one of this summer’s biggest blockbusters we are treated to maybe the craziest thing anyone will see in theaters this year. Respected actors like Russel Crowe and Michael Shannon are dressed up in super-nuts outfits and barge in on a council meeting of people with silly hats to argue about eugenics. After a quick fight, Crowe jumps on the back of a giant four-winged beast and flies back to his house to witness the birth of his child, the first naturally born and conceived child on his home planet in ages. While all of this is happening, a battle rages outside among a planet that seems to be exploding at all times. It was crazy, it was weird, and I loved it. Man of Steel didn’t end up being a great movie, but it did succeed, at least early on, in doing what too few movies are brave enough to do: trying whole-heartedly to just do something.
All too often I have a moment of clarity while watching a movie. Most recently, The Purge came to a tipping point, a time when the narrative could go one way or another, and the movie’s success felt like it would live or die based on what the writer and director (the same person in this case but not always) decided would happen. In The Purge, a doorbell rings and the locked down family is brought into the moment, the beginning of the rest of the movie. The identity of that doorbell ringer will shape what kind of film the rest will play out as. Will it be a deeply cynical, biting social commentary where neighbors that smile in your face during the day turn into ruthless, jealous killers at night? Or will the ringer be revealed as just some guy, a less biting, less interesting choice which punts the potential of the film on third and one? Well, unfortunately, it’s the latter. The Purge goes from potentially great to boringly normal. Subpar, even, though that lies more on the lack of skill behind the camera than it does on the premise of the film. The Purge was never going to be a masterpiece given how poorly it was made, but it could have been a messterpiece, a movie which, as its most admirable quality, can claim that at least they were doing something. Trying something, giving it all they’ve got. I appreciate craziness, I appreciate insanity.
A few of my favorite messterpieces include Thirst, which melds uber-violent vampire things with wacky slapstick stuff and one of the silliest, most beautiful endings of the past decade, Synecdoche, New York, a movie that takes about a billion threads and tries to weave some of them into a truly emotional epic and mostly succeeds, and The Night of the Hunter, a mashup of a whole mess of techniques and styles that nonetheless congeals into a moving fairy-tale about growing up and being pure at heart. All of these movies are on my current top 100 list of all time, alongside other messterpeices like The Shining, Magnolia, and Brazil. None of these films lack ambition, though they might not quite reach what they’re grasping for. I will always give the edge to a movie that’s going for something with all of its heart over a movie that plays it safe with any kind of subject matter. This generally will reward genre movies as they often have a bit more leeway in terms of what they can go for and even more leeway as to what the audience will forgive. But serious dramas can go crazy with the best of them. The Lion in Winter doesn’t do a whole lot in the directorial department but the dialogue and the glee with which the actors say their lines is so delightfully over-the-top that I can’t help but fall under its spell of deceit and family politics. Punch-Drunk Love takes the patented Adam Sandler man-child and throws him into the real world where his immaturity helps him fall in love with a girl and endangers his life when a mattress salesman goes bananas at him. The Truman Show has a lot of logistical problems and plot-holes when you think about the situation for a while, but the power of the film and its crazy premise overpowers those nits and becomes something great. Again, all of these films are in my top 100 list. I just love a movie that aims high, even if it doesn’t reach its lofty target.
There are a few movies in my top 100 that are restrained, content to be the best that they can be. I’d put movies like Days of Heaven and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Raiders of the Lost Ark in that category, all of which might go all out for a scene but generally keep their ambitions close to their vests. It’s perfectly fine to do so. Last year Lincoln was one of my favorite films even though it was pretty much just a straight biography. But movies like The Cabin in the Woods and Cloud Atlas and Holy Motors occupy a greater amount of my thinking about last year’s films, and are the first titles that come to mind over the more staid films of the year. It’s something almost intangible, and I know that there are people out there that just prefer to have their movies be what they are and then be done. But why go to the cinema to see something you can outline in advance? What purpose do movies have if not to surprise us in their stories or their techniques or their ideas about life? Even today’s safest bets, superhero movies, are embracing the absurd. The opening of Man of Steel is just the most recent in a list of superhero films breaking out of the mold and becoming crazy. Thor: The Dark World had a trailer debut today and looks to capitalize on the biggest strength of the previous film, its sense of humor and high drama. Thor was peppered with Shakespearian dialogue and wacky outfits and canted angles and surreal sets. It’s the craziest of Marvel’s movie universe splinters and I can’t wait to see what happens next.