Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Ten Best Films of 2014: #1


Joe Swanberg's "Happy Christmas" packs more truth into less runtime than any movie since "Don Jon."

You watch a film like this (Lynn Shelton's 2012 "Your Sister's Sister" also comes to mind) sitting straight up in your seat, fearful that some irruption of falsity will break its fragile spell. At the end, you feel relief, as when a figure skater lands the last element in a perfect program. Some look upon the mumblecore movement with disdain, but Shelton and especially the prolific Swanberg (who the previous year gave us "Drinking Buddies") do it proud with films of the rarest insight and integrity. Work this good not only entertains expansively – big, rich laughs born of empathy for people in cringingly recognizable situations – but leaves one to wonder how, in a sea of filmmakers with a tin ear for dialogue and no concept of pacing, Swanberg gets it all so right, knows just how people actually talk and just when to hold the beat a second longer.

Our cineplexes are overrun with flicks that fail the Bechdel test (which requires at least two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man). Here's a director who loves women, loves to hear them talk, cherishes their complexities, and strives to do right by them. So while Swanberg himself plays Jeff, a Chicago filmmaker, he devotes “Happy Christmas” to the two women in Jeff’s life: his wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), with whom he has a two-year-old son, Jude (Swanberg's son Jude, the sui generis Big Bossman of toddlers); and his sister, Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who moves into the Tiki-themed basement of their home after breaking up with a serious boyfriend.

Lynskey first came to my attention in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures,” opposite a fellow teenager named Kate Winslet. Two years ago, she was the best thing about a romantic comedy called “Hello I Must Be Going.” She played Amy, a divorcée who moves back in with her parents after her husband leaves her, stops going out or changing clothes, and starts an affair with the much younger son of her father’s important new potential clients. It’s interesting, then, that in “Happy Christmas” Kelly must cope with the incursion of Jenny, a party girl trying to gauge how long she can drag out her own adolescence through hard drinking, soft drugs and rebound sex.

Before Jude, Kelly had been a novelist, but now having time to write seems too extravagant to imagine. (I’m reminded of the romance author Nora Roberts, who, when asked to explain her prodigious output, replied, “Ass in chair.”) At first, she hopes that Jenny, who doesn’t yet have a job or other commitments, will tend to Jude and help out around the house. But when, at a party her first night back in town, Jenny drinks herself into a stupor from which even her best friend Carson (Lena Dunham) cannot rouse her, Kelly feels understandably chary of entrusting her son to her sister-in-law. She considers how to ask Jeff for writing time and space - knowing he'll either have to pitch in more himself or hire on - and though theirs is very much a marriage between equals, Swanberg does justice to the difficulty of the moment. Later, Jeff gives Kelly a Christmas present that further encourages her writing. This is how relationships actually work.

The development of the interaction between Kelly and Jenny forms the heart of "Happy Christmas." It begins with politesse, as Kelly invites Jenny to make herself at home and Jenny vows to earn her keep. Jenny is to baby-sit Jude from 11:00 one morning, and pledges not to party too hard the night before. Then comes one of the funniest scenes of the movie year, in which Carson finds Jenny passed out on her friend's bed. "This is not the place where we sleep," Carson says, to which a stationary Jenny mumbles, "I'm fine." As Carson none too gently pokes and prods Jenny, the hostess's demeanor sours from gracious hospitality to annoyance to more than a trace of hostility.

This cracking of the social façade holds pride of place among Swanberg's seminal themes. We see it again in Kelly's reaction to Carson's wee hours wake-up call summoning Jeff to collect Jenny. She voices first genuine concern for the well-being of her husband's sister, then the disapproval of a mother whose top priority is the protection of her own family. Swanberg knows just how much Kelly will allow herself to say directly to Jenny, what she'll ask Jeff to say, how much she'll backtrack the next day. What a careful line Lynskey walks here, knowing that even when Jenny moves out, she'll still be part of her life. This is comedy of manners worthy of Wilde or Moliѐre, and Lynskey's work is of the first water.

Yet what does it say of Anna Kendrick that she renders Lynskey almost an afterthought? Perhaps that this is one of the funniest and truest performances of the year, by an actress so winning the screen fairly shimmers with her incandescence. I first took a shine to Kendrick when she let her hair down as Jake Gyllenhaal's girlfriend in David Ayer's terrific "End of Watch." Here, you can't help but fall in love with her.

When Jenny sleeps through her 11:00 baby-sitting appointment, Kelly and Jeff call in Kevin (Mark Webber), their pot dealer. Watch as Jenny wakes up and realizes, mortified, what time it is, what first impression she's made. Then observe her halting flirtation with Kevin, and two scenes to which any of us can relate: one in which she asks him to hold her a certain way, giving up after he gets it wrong three times, and another in which she's hot to trot but he begs off, citing work the next day. "You're an idiot," Jenny tells Kevin, Kendrick's face registering doubt about her own attractiveness and the self-preserving construction of an emotional wall. Who hasn't experienced that instant in which the cuteness and fun of a new intimacy give way to "Get me out of here"?

This leads to more drinking, and a scene in which Jenny sticks a frozen pizza in the oven before falling dead asleep. The smoke alarm wakes up Jeff and Kelly, who informs him, "Your sister is totally wasted, by the way." (When the mask falls off, it makes a thud.) Swanberg gives himself only a couple of significant scenes, but this is the best. "Everything that matters to me is in this house," Jeff tells Jenny, "you selfish asshole."

Dunham's Carson is clear of head and sharp of tongue, and she pops in every half-hour to jolt the others out of their tryptophane torpor. There's a lovely extended conversation among Kelly, Jenny and Carson, in which Kelly reiterates her love for Jude but confesses to resentment at the loss of her former life and some bewilderment; she hadn't realized the baby would consume every waking minute. (She's ashamed when Jeff comes home from work and she's still wearing a shirt with pap dribbling down the front.) These are among the most natural and common feelings mothers experience, yet it's amazing how few films address them seriously.

I won't downgrade a movie because it doesn't tackle a social issue worthy of a newsmagazine cover story, or doesn't build to a dramatic climax, or is short. Each of "Your Sister's Sister," "Don Jon," and "Happy Christmas" comes in under 90 minutes. Yet in each, we come to know three people whose lives, to varying extents, change. The revelations they come to are no less profound for our not witnessing the follow-through. We see in them reflections of our own failings, dishonesties with ourselves and our loved ones, opportunities to be better. This is thrilling filmmaking, and Swanberg a true listener amid the cacophony of straining voices.

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