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Let's hear it for Tommy Lee Jones. He's not only one of America's finest portrayers of characters, but one of its most perceptive directors of those characters. If you haven't seen his wonderful modern-day western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, drop what you're doing and do so immediately. Reacquaint yourself with the mood he establishes as an actor in JFK, The Fugitive, Heaven & Earth, Men in Black, Natural Born Killers, and Lincoln — coiled aggression tempered by a wicked sense of humor. Then listen to his voice, narrating the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men. Jones is uniquely equipped to lead the wave of "new westerns." Among them is The Homesman, his Old West tale — adapted from a novel by Glendon Swarthout — of a lonely frontier "spinster" (Hilary Swank in a heartbreaking role) embarking on a perilous trip across the Great Plains with a rough-hewn drifter (Jones). Here's hoping there are more to come.
A lot has already been written about Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, but almost no one has delved into the way Michael Keaton — as burnt-out, disgraced, delusional former action movie star Riggan Thompson — inhabits his space. He and the rest of Iñárritu's cast literally don't get much room to work in (a Broadway stage theater, the theater's roof, an alleyway, a few yards of Times Square sidewalk) but Keaton's Riggan prowls it desperately, looking for a hit. He needs that hit to survive, and his search can't help but make us laugh — not derisively, but with empathy. I've always had to take Keaton's histrionics with a grain of salt, but here, at full stretch, he's better than he's ever been. You might even say he soars. As do Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Lindsay Duncan, and the rest of the cast in this smart, urbane, hyperactive character study, an unexpected revival of one of the movies' defunct standard genres, the backstage comedy. The dialogue, by Iñárritu and his three collaborators, rates a review all its own, but we don't have the space. The director and lead actor stand vindicated. Birdman is the one movie on the list we want to watch again and again, just to savor the lines and drink in the camera movement.
Speaking of time and space, sometimes there's not enough of either to cover all the movies worth talking about in a given year. Two of 2014's best, Boyhood and Violette, managed to make their considerable mark on the release calendar and then slipped away without giving me a chance to write about them, until now.
Filmmaker Richard Linklater isn't the first to follow one or more characters over a course of real time from youth to adulthood — Michael Apted's magnificent Up documentary series comes to mind in that category. But Linklater (the maker of the Before series as well as Dazed and Confused and Slacker) has the luxury of writing his protagonists' lives, and he takes full advantage. All we do is watch young Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) as he and his family grow for twelve years (in the boy's case, from five to eighteen), living out their daily situations and occasionally coming to conclusions along the way. The film takes almost three hours to watch, but we could have lingered for three days. Patricia Arquette in particular, as Mason's mother, goes through almost as many changes as her son. The feelings stirred up by this miraculous movie don't come along every year. Despite the hoopla around recent "philosophical" screen narratives that self-consciously seek to capture the rhythms of the universe, Linklater's is the only enduring masterpiece. It's nothing more or less than life itself in a digestible wrapper.
Portrait of the artist as an impossible human being — that's the thrust of Violette, the French-produced biographical snapshot of author Violette Leduc (1907-1972). "Impossible," because Violette (played in a bravura whirlwind of tantrums and spasms by Emmanuelle Devos) scorches every centimeter of ground she walks on, with her rage to live and write. Filmmaker Martin Provost is no stranger to histrionic "lives of the artists" outbursts. His 2008 Séraphine introduced us to "primitive" painter Séraphine de Senlis, who gathered herbs to mix her colors and painted as if God were riding on her back.
Devos' Violette Leduc is cut from the same cloth. As a lesbian writer manquée who survived World War II and transformed herself into a novelist in the antsy Paris of the 1950s, she makes alliances with such monumental twentieth-century cultural figures as Jean Genet (Jacques Bonaffé), but reserves her fiercest passion for writer Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who encourages Violette's untutored creativity but does not return the affection. Whereupon Violette goes bonkers. Drenched in a Gallic storm of cheap rooms, frustrated sexual energy, and sanctified literature, Violette is not for everyone. Those who will appreciate it will find it, and when they do they will be pleasantly shocked by the glare of its interior realism.