We remember great movie quotes because they are funny or poignant or important, and many of us use our favorites in everyday conversation. There is an art to a great movie line and just a little bit of science. What will tug at the heart strings, tickle the funny bone, or stick in viewers’ minds? There is some calculation to it all. Although, just as often, writers stumble backward into something great.
The quotes that interest me most, however, are not the humorous quips or the bravado-laden boasts. I am intrigued by the individual lines that get at the heart of a film. Sometimes, these lines stick out right away, and other times, it takes a moment’s thought, but when it hits you, it hits you like a ton of bricks. These are the quotes this year that best summed up the soul of the movies in which they appeared, the lines that tell us all we need to know about the characters speaking them and the lives they lead.
10. “It’s just an ordinary pen – looks like a pen, writes like a pen, and listens like a pen.” – from A Most Wanted Man
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s German intelligence officer, Gunther Bachmann, says this to a man he is sending to do his dirty work for him. It speaks directly to the complex worldview of a man whose only job is deception. Bachmann sends many people to do his bidding, but he always believes he is on the side of right, or at least, this is what he has convinced himself. Deception is second nature to him now, including self-deception.
9. “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.” – from Birdman
Though never spoken in the film, this line appears on a scrap of paper taped to Riggan Thompson’s (Michael Keaton) dressing-room mirror. For a film about an actor who wants to be taken seriously as an artist in a world where being taken seriously means less and less, it is a bold statement of purpose. The villain of Birdman is the instant-evaluation culture bred by the Internet, a culture that criticizes and dismisses art with all the consideration of a swarm of flies on a fresh carcass. The line reminds us that the swarm does not matter, even if that swarm is us.
8. “This is not only your film.” – from Life Itself
Leave it to Roger Ebert, in his dying days, to sum up the great paradox of documentary filmmaking. Director Steve James is rightly protective of his craft, and Ebert is more than willing to share the struggles of his cancer and treatment, but at the end of the day, the question remains: For whom is this documentary made? For James? For Ebert’s family? For the audience? Once a work of art is completed and submitted for exhibition and scrutiny, it belongs to everyone. Speaking via email, Ebert tells James succinctly that he may be the director, but one day, the film will not belong only to him.
7. “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.” – from Calvary
When Catholic priest Father James (Brendan Gleeson) says this to his daughter, played by Kelly Reilly, she believes he is asking her for forgiveness, and he is, but it is so much more. The heart of John Michael McDonagh’s slow-burn meditation on faith in a faithless world is forgiveness and who deserves it and who has earned it. Every character in the movie is either seeking forgiveness or committing acts for which they should be forgiven. In one line, Father James summarizes his world view. We all deserve forgiveness, whether or not we have earned it.
6. “I don’t share that interpretation of events.” – from Force Majeure
Force Majeure is about a husband and wife whose marriage has been forever altered by one shared moment, and though they lived that moment together, they did not experience it the same way. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) cannot face up to what he has done. He cannot admit it for fear of the blow to his pride, so he denies what he knows to be true. He falls back on trying to sound logical when his protestations are anything but. The film begins with the event, but it tells the story of Tomas coming to grips with the event as it occurred, not as he wishes it had.
5. “It’s like all of life has unfolded before us just so we could stand here and say, ‘Fuck yeah!’” – from Boyhood
The character who says this is not of particular note, but the sentiment may be the epitome of viewer reactions to the film. Boyhood is about life unveiling itself in the little moments, the details, the minutes that pass rather than the years. While we sit and analyze the past and plan for the future, life simply moves forward. The grandest statement Richard Linklater’s film makes is that we should stop analyzing and planning, and instead, maybe we should take a second just to stand here and say, “Fuck yeah.”
4. “On TV, it looks so real.” – from Nightcrawler
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a man who has not faced reality in some time. He has no goal but to succeed at whatever he may try and by any means necessary. So, he slithers through the Los Angeles night, preying on carnage and selling it to the highest bidder in network news. We know the reality. He does not, and the hyper-sensational news – not too far removed from the world we live in – certainly cannot see the reality. When Bloom tours the news studio, he says this about the fake Los Angeles backdrop behind the desk, but he could just as well be speaking about the news itself.
3. “Nobody is stopping you.” – from Winter Sleep
Said multiple times by multiple characters, the line grows in thematic weight each time someone new utters it, failing to recognize the irony of his statement. Everyone in this movie is stagnating, dreaming of a different, better life, but unmotivated to seek out fulfillment. Instead, they argue and complain and accuse others of being too lazy or too scared to chase after what they want. They are right when they say there is nothing standing in the way, but no one seems to realize this about their own goals. All they would need to do to find out is take a step in the right direction.
2. “So I’m to become a non-entity?” – from Mr. Turner
Art is an ever-evolving medium, bouncing from one inspiration to another and from this stylistic choice to that. The worst fate I can imagine befalling an artist is to live to see his pioneering style fall out of fashion. This is the theme of Mr. Turner and the preoccupation of the protagonist, JMW Turner. We meet him when he is riding high in the European art world, an influence on and the envy of his contemporaries, but no one stays at the top forever. Turner knows this, and as his life slips from him and his work falls into obscurity, he wonders aloud to his doctor if he and all he has accomplished will add up to nothing in the end.
1. “You will never do something as hard as staring someone in the eyes and telling them the truth.” – from A Most Violent Year
Abel, as played by Oscar Isaac, is a man of honor and integrity, but the business he has chosen has fallen into the muck. It is a world of thieves, liars, criminals, and gangsters. Struggling to keep his business afloat with nothing but honesty and hard work, there is no one who knows the difficulty in telling the truth better than Abel. He says this line about midway through the film to a group of salespeople-in-training. From the ground up, he is trying to build a business that is above reproach, but he has no delusions about the world around him. He is preparing his troops for the hardships they will face in following his example, but for his conscience, he must put himself and everyone else to the test.
Check back tomorrow as Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review continues with the Top 10 Performances of the Year.