Amy doesn’t know this, but her question about the ideal Tom Cruise role couldn’t be more apt, as the perfect Tom Cruise role—or one of them, at least—is how I rang in the new year. Early on Jan. 1, I got home from a great party and automatically, without even thinking about it, put on Stanley Kubrick’s very fine Eyes Wide Shut. It was my first movie of 2018 (which reminds me: Happy New Year!). To Amy’s point about the difference between a role where Tom really gets to act, in the classical sense, versus one where he stages He-Man battles against CGI and his own “I do my own stunts, thankyouverymuch” mortality, I’d argue that a number of his best turns feature him capital-A Acting his way through He-Man battles against his own emotions. Every reaction shot of Tom during his steamy fights with Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut is ample proof of that.
Listen, there’s simply nothing like watching Tom Cruise get cucked—nothing quite like seeing him get knocked down a peg, be it by his then-wife Nicole Kidman and her fantasies of sleeping with other men (Eyes Wide Shut), or by a female interviewer scrutinizing his character’s misogynistic egomania up close (Magnolia), or by genre itself, as in Edge of Tomorrow, where we get to see him die over and over again, something that’s distinctly fun because of the indomitable meta-prowess of its star. Cruise’s lesser movies, like the two that came out in 2017, The Mummy and American Made, are aware of all of this: In one of them, he even sort of dies. But they don’t really know what to do with what they have.
Vulnerable Tom Cruise is very much my bag. I love an actor who’s willing to make an art out of our desires to see him almost fail—which is also what’s so useful in seeing him punch slightly above his weight class in a heavy dramatic role, as in Born on the Fourth of July, or in a role where he has to fly off the rails with manic emotionalism, as in Jerry Maguire. Easy-peasy, triumphant Tom is pretty exciting, too, but even a movie like Mission Impossible wouldn’t be half as fun without a drop of sweat or a jagged helicopter propeller making his life feel imminently expendable. The best moments in the subsequent Mission Impossible movies, such as the skyscraper-hanging stunts in Ghost Protocol, are a tribute to that. Every action star excels at making it seem like his life in danger, but Tom is rare in making me wonder whether it actually is in danger, and if not his life, his ego. (Spoiler-y question, but would the end of Michael Mann’s Collateral be half as good if Cruise’s character had lived?)
The difference between good movies and great ones, for me, is the degree of insight the movie has into its material. Actors, in my book, count as a movie’s material—especially if they’re box office stars. Channing Tatum’s career of late is a perfect example of this, especially in his collaborations with Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL, and 2017’s wonderfully funny Logan Lucky), but, then, Soderbergh is a master of milking movie star personas for more than we knew they were worth. In the case of Tom Cruise, plenty of the movies he’s in simply don’t know what their star is all about, which is too bad. Better are the movies that seem to have laser vision, boring holes into whatever it is they’re about, mining their subject—be it an idea in the script, an idea about who’s starring in it, or literally anything else hovering in the world of the movie—for every uncomfortable or unexpected nuance, every glint of irony or emotion, availed by the premise.
Rather, I love it when a movie gives a great illusion of pulling that off. No movie perfectly covers all its bases. But as Mark already reminded us: “[M]ovies are made, not hatched.” They’re the sum of a million decisions made by a whole family of artist-collaborators, and in the best cases, the sum of all those decisions makes the stale feel fresh, the old feel new, the impersonal feel passionately idiosyncratic. That’s why I agree with Amy that there’s something to whatever is going on in The Greatest Showman, which—though not some cinematic masterpiece—parades its excesses, its silliness, and its own lame sentimentality with a verve that plenty “better” movies conspicuously lack. What’s wonderful about the films you all have mentioned so far—BPM (Beats Per Minute), Columbus, Phantom Thread, and others—is that I close them out with a feeling of, “Well, shit. I guess that’s that!” These are movies that take me much further into their subjects than I expected to go.
In the very, very best cases, a movie makes you feel things you couldn’t have imagined. I’m thinking most immediately of Errol Morris’ six-part Netflix documentary Wormwood, which is probably technically a TV show, but since it exemplifies the best of what Morris achieves in his feature-length documentaries, and got a small theatrical release, I’m inclined to mention it here. (Also, I’m leaving the TV vs. Movie debate in 2017. I don’t make resolutions, but I’m willing to call this one.) Wormwood is about the death of a bacteriologist named Frank Olson in 1953, as investigated over the ensuing 60-plus years by his son, Eric. This is a story that brings us any number of dark places—CIA conspiracy theories, the MK-Ultra LSD trials, the Korean War, biological warfare—but what resonates about it most of all, over 240 minutes of Morris-esque archive fever and extended interviews, is Eric Olson’s lifelong obsession with the circumstances of his father’s death. By the end of the movie, I was pretty heartbroken for Eric, who doesn’t frequently lose his composure, but whose sense of exhaustion at the unanswerability of so many of his questions becomes the subject of Morris’ movie.
All of this is done without easy sentiment (imagine Errol Morris doing easy sentiment, ha) but with Morris’ characteristically persuasive sense, not only of the ins and outs of what he’s investigating, but of the obscured emotional lives, mannerisms, personal philosophies, and thought patterns of the people he sits in front of his cameras. (In the case of Wormwood, that means up to 10 cameras at a time.) Documentary subjects are stars in their own right, and Morris is a director who’s shown time and again—unlike so many of the directors working with Tom Cruise—that he knows how to wield those stars in smart, provocative ways. Plenty of the year’s finest documentaries—from Agnès Varda and J.R.’s Faces Places, to Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time, to Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’ tiny prison documentary The Work—are lessons in the same.
Given the usual ho-hum complaints about Hollywood movies, franchise fever, etc., it seems worth investigating, Morris-style, whether the most promising avenue in movies right now isn’t in its big-budget spectacles or even its runaway-success indies, but rather in movies like these: radical, personal, unbridled, compassionate documentaries. What do you guys think?