A great film quote for me is one that contains within it the entire meaning of a film. It is a tremendous feat for a writer, director, actor, or producer to come up with a line that sums up the disparate thematic elements of a complex work of art. In fact, it is nearly impossible. That is what makes the following 10 lines from some of the year’s best films so remarkable. Almost effortlessly, they tell us everything we need to know about the characters, their circumstances, and the meaning of all they are experiencing.
10. “Don’t get emotional about real estate” from 99 Homes, written by Ramin Bahrani
99 Homes is a Faustian story about a good man, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), who makes a deal with the devil, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon). Nash makes this deal – he will help Carver remove people who are delinquent on their mortgages from their homes – to save his own family’s home. His actions are not necessarily noble or heroic, but he does what he thinks he needs to do to keep a roof over his son and his mother’s heads.
Throughout the film, in his more private, unguarded moments, Carver tells Nash not to get emotional about real estate. It sounds like good advice, but the devil of course is a smooth talker. Nash’s downfall certainly is precipitated by his getting emotional about real estate, but he is rightly emotional. Those emotions are what make him human, what make him flawed, and they allow him to hold on to the little part of his soul the devil has not gotten his hands on yet.
9. “That’s not a reason” from Everest, written by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy
Early in the expedition, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who went on to write Into Thin Air about his experiences on Mount Everest, asks the group of climbers he has joined the obvious question: Why do this? The climbers look at each other, smile, and blithely reply in unison, “Because it’s there!” It is an oft-repeated line about the mountain that daredevils use to defend the indefensible, and as I pointed out in my review of the film, the man who originally spoke those words died on Everest.
So, Krakauer pushes further, saying, “That’s not a reason,” and he is absolutely right. “Because it’s there” is meant to project bravado and confidence. Krakauer’s line cuts right through that. No one needs to climb this mountain, and everyone on this journey will learn that along the way, but Krakauer saw it from the beginning.
8. “We make up half the human race. You can’t stop us all” from Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan
Director Sarah Gavron’s tremendous rallying cry for equality Suffragette has been unfairly forgotten as the year has worn on. It created little positive buzz upon its release, died a quick death at the box office, and has been passed over pretty much universally throughout awards season. It deserved a much better fate. The story of the British suffragette movement of the early 20th century is tragic and sadly still relevant. This is the kind of history that should be taught in schools, but it will not be because it is too dark, too messy, and too real.
Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) is new to the movement at the start of the film, but it does not take her long to become convinced of its inherent rightness. There is no justice in a world where women cannot vote, and there is no democracy either. Any government in which women have no say is fraudulent, and the movement recognizes this. Watts says this line to the police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) tasked with destroying the movement, and while he may be able to arrest her and silence her comrades, she is right. He cannot stop half the world from taking what it has earned.
7. “It’s getting harder to walk up that hill. What does that mean?” from Creed, written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington
|Sylvester Stallone in Creed.|
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a childhood hero to generations of movie fans. Think of it this way: Children when the first Rocky movie came out in 1976 are reasonably old enough now to have grandchildren to share the series with, but those kids will likely look up to Adonis Johnson, née Creed (Michael B. Jordan). He represents new blood and new life for the series, which is why this film is named for him and not Rocky.
Rocky remains, though. Each day, he trudges up the hill at the cemetery to visit Adrian and Paulie, and each day, it gets a little harder. This is life. He is getting older. So are we. It can be a shock to see our heroes age this way onscreen because it usually does not happen like this. More often, they come back one time too many, trying to recapture a spirit that never left in the first place and doing more harm than good to the legacy. But in Creed, Coogler, Covington, and Stallone have created a graceful portrait of a legend who is long past his prime but can still make it up that hill.
6. “Life teaches you really how to live it if you can live long enough” from Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia
Kapadia’s powerful Amy Winehouse documentary is a tale of manipulation, media hysteria, and self-destruction. It is not an easy watch, but it is an important film, depicting the downfall of a talented performer and entertainer who was devoured by an industry that took what it could from her and left no more than a shell. While it is not traditionally “written,” Kapadia and editor Chris King create the narrative by assembling the right footage and the right interviews and deploying them at the exact right time.
No moment is better chosen than that of Tony Bennet, one of Winehouse’s heroes, reflecting on the singer’s death. Bennett is obviously an old pro at this game. He has been around a long time and seen many triumphs and tragedies. He has grown both older and wiser in that time. His quote, which comes near the end of the film, is a mournful observation about youth and the irony of a life that often does not make sense until you can look back and make sense of it.
5. “No one explains it. You’re born knowing what you can and cannot do” from The Second Mother, written by Anna Muylaert
We all feel the generation gap. It is that moment when you realize you no longer have much in common with people younger than you – or that general feeling that you have nothing in common with people older. In The Second Mother, Val (Regina Casé) is brought to this realization by the arrival of her estranged teenage daughter, Jéssica (Camila Márdila). Val is a live-in housekeeper and nanny for a wealthy Brazilian family. Her life is governed by rules of conduct and propriety, which she believes are essential for keeping everything in its right place. Jéssica blows all of this up.
Jéssica did not grow up this way. If she is invited to swim in the pool or eat some ice cream, propriety be damned, she is going to do as she pleases. To Val, her daughter is taking liberties to which she is not entitled. Jéssica asks who invented all these rules, who taught them, and Val tells her no one should have to teach her. She should just know. It is a crushing reminder there are people in this life who believe they are lesser than others and believe they deserve less. The truth is these things are taught, and Jéssica was simply lucky enough not to grow up around the mother who would have taught her.
4. “If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to abuse one” from Spotlight, written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Everyone knew, and no one did anything. That is the core of McCarthy and Singer’s exploration of the journalistic investigation that uncovered the decades of abuse perpetrated by pedophile priests in the Catholic Church. Silence was the rule, not the exception, and no one wanted to believe the organization in which so many had invested their faith – and in a very real way, their souls – could be so irreparably corrupt. But, it was, and the evidence was always there. Someone just needed to look.
The beauty of Spotlight is in the way the reporters slowly come around to the idea that this problem is not just one or two bad priests, but it is systemic. The church itself is rotten, and it has defiled everything it has touched. Every single person involved is culpable in some way, either by direct action or inaction. The more details that come out, the more sickening it all becomes, and the more you just want to take a torch and burn this whole village to the ground.
3. “I want to help you. I’m just trying to figure out how” from Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, written by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a tragedy that plays like farce. It is black comedy borne of depression and alienation. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is a stranger in a strange land on a quixotic quest to find a mythical treasure she believes is implied by the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. In her journey, she meets friendly people who simply want what is best for her, but there is a language barrier and a reality barrier that no one can break through.
She is not solely in search of buried treasure but of something she can use to justify her whole existence. Her life in Japan has been one degradation after another, so she comes to America to seek something outside herself to define who she is and who she could be. The policeman (David Zellner) who says this to her genuinely wants to help, but there is nothing he can offer that will change the reality of this woman’s life. His kindness may be the most she has ever known, but in the end, it means nothing.
2. “This is the story you get” from Room, written by Emma Donoghue
Joy (Brie Larson) has invented the entire world for her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). Their captor and abuser has kept them locked in a shed for seven years of Joy’s life and all of Jack’s, but within that shed, Joy has given Jack the universe. It is not the real universe, though, but a fabrication intended to help him cope with their circumstances. When those circumstances finally become unbearable, she must tell him the truth so they can break out together.
Everything up to this point has been a story to help Jack understand his life, and the truth, in all its horror, is a story he rejects. He says he does not want to hear this story, but Joy tells him this is the story he gets. This is true for him, but it may be even truer for her. No one would have chosen the life she has had, but she did not get to choose. Joy gets this one story of her life, and Room is about choosing not to focus on what has already happened but on the chapters still to come.
1. “It’s so beautiful but horribly sad, too” from A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, written by Roy Andersson
|Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch.|
Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) drift through their lives. There is nothing particularly remarkable about these traveling novelty salesmen, except that they are alive, as are all the other characters in this film, as are we. No one fully appreciates this in the moment, and it would be impossible to do so, but for every added second we find value in, life becomes increasingly precious.
Exemplified by Jonathan and Sam, there is even value in drifting. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, their drifting becomes our window into the worlds of countless people whose lives are just as precious to them as ours are to us. It is a reminder that every individual on this planet matters, even if our stories will go on without them and theirs without us. Jonathan comes to this conclusion while listening to a song that reminds him of his childhood, and though he says this line about that song, he could just as well be speaking about the whole of the human experience, so beautiful but horribly sad, too.
Check back tomorrow as Last Cinema Standing takes a look at the Top 10 Performances of 2015, and check back each day this week for continued Year in Review coverage.