It's a word that began popping into my head as I was seeing films at the beginning of the year, and it has returned to my mind repeatedly ever since. Despite dispiriting signs pointing to decline in the industry and drift to other platforms, there has also been an ongoing undercurrent of energy, excitement and rupture that goes against notions of an art form in decline.
This is the New Dangerous.
Films such as "Nightcrawler," "Dear White People," "Obvious Child," "Listen Up Philip," "Men, Women and Children," "Tusk," and "Birdman" share little in regards to story, style or structure, but they are all marked by a sureness and self-awareness. "Dangerous" is the word that comes to my mind because these are movies that refuse to settle down or behave properly. They do their own thing.
The list could go on, with upcoming or recently premiered films such as Olivier Assayas' drama of personas "Clouds of Sils Maria," Shira Piven's discomforting comedy "Welcome to Me," Chris Rock's rollicking "Top Five," Josh and Benny Safdie's street-level drama "Heaven Knows What" and many more of varying style and scale, as filmmakers are pushing not just our cultural buttons but the edges of their own abilities. They are strong counterweights to the depressing industry facts chronicled Sept. 21 in thoughtful pieces by my colleagues Kenneth Turan and Josh Rottenberg.
This isn't simple transgressive shock value, this is something different — an electricity and impulse to exploration both for the filmmakers and in turn, hopefully, for audiences. In a moment when a few words carelessly deployed can launch a thousand think pieces and the mechanisms of cultural pushback are full of swift, righteous (and often necessary) indignation, it seems some interesting filmmakers are nevertheless moving toward risk, not away from it. Knowing they're probably going to put their foot in it somehow, they might as well do it with intent, and so in response they are stepping on the gas rather than pumping the brakes.
Out of Sundance alone came Justin Simien's "Dear White People," a bracing comedy on identity and race that has only become more timely as the year has worn on, Gillian Robespierre's "Obvious Child," a rom-com that deals honestly with abortion in an untortured way, and Alex Ross Perry's "Listen Up Philip" a scalding portrait of ego and ambition among two memorably nasty writers. Along with Jonathan Glazer's abstracted exploration of alien consciousness in "Under the Skin," these films helped set the stage for a year of challenging, original works. ("Dear White People" and "Listen Up Philip" both come to theaters in October, while "Obvious Child" and "Under the Skin" opened earlier in the year.)
The new film "Nightcrawler" is a terrifying look at contemporary media culture and the psychology it both reflects and amplifies. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, a fringe-dweller turned freelance news cameraman who transforms into something akin to a contemporary interpolation of Rupert Pupkin, Robert De Niro's character in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy." Bloom isn't so much a person as an empty vessel, frequently reciting in great detail and with flowing passion arcana he picked up from the Internet.
Lou Bloom is frightening exactly because of the way he functions as a blank mirror, reflecting back our own pushy obsessions and low-simmering rage. He is an obvious villain in waiting even as it is all too easy to see bits and pieces of oneself in him. Gilroy quite shrewdly keeps audiences off-balance all through the film with a mix of gloss and grit, as the story veers between character study, cultural treatise and stylish thriller. There's a high-speed car chase near the end that is as visceral as it is unexpected, as if Lou's internal turmoil has spilled out into the streets of Los Angeles.
In a similar way, the style of the Alejándro G. Iñárritu's "Birdman," shot to give the impression of one long, continuous take, and the story of the film, an actor (Michael Keaton) suffering an artistic and personal crisis, merge into a fluid, seamless and overwhelming whole. Jason Reitman's "Men, Women & Children" is so unrelentingly bleak in its depiction of the ways in which the devices and technologies meant to unite people are actually making them more and more isolated, that one has to admire its conviction even if one does not agree with its position.
And say what you want about Kevin Smith's "Tusk" – the filmmaker himself recently said to me that it's "beyond stupid, but it's the best movie I've ever made" — it is a film that is unapologetically itself. A gothic horror yarn in which a man surgically merges another man with a walrus, it also takes a long, ludicrous digression into comedy with a surprise cameo by an outsized star.
The thing that binds these films is that they all risk failure, the possibility that the sleek, knife-edged dive into the water could also be a sloppy belly-flop. In thinking of these new risk-takers, it seems notable that this year has seen new works by two of the world's longtime leading cinematic provocateurs. Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac," a magnum opus that exists in something around five versions/volumes, is funny, serious, shocking, sexy, thoughtful and kind of dopey all at the same time.
"Goodbye to Language," opening later this year, is the first exploration of 3-D from filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who more or less redefined cinema with his debut feature, "Breathless" and has continued to relentlessly reinvent himself as a filmmaker ever since. Working with equipment ranging from tiny consumer cameras to higher-end professional gear, he apparently created his own system for three-dimensional effects, largely by manipulating two overlaid images in post-production.
His efforts led to one of the most indelible moments I have ever experienced in a movie theater. As two characters are walking along, one suddenly switches direction while also seeming to remain in place, as the two overlapping images are allowed to separate. It creates a physical sensation the likes of which I have never experienced before, a combination of rapturously leaving one's body while being rooted awe-struck in place.
At a time when it seems many want to give up on cinema and/or filmmaking, leave it to an 83-year-old working in semi-seclusion on Switzerland's Lake Geneva, making a film that features his own dog as something of personal stand-in, to show us all how it's done. By still pushing forward, Godard, alongside other filmmakers in the New Dangerous vanguard, is creating work that engages with and responds to our technology, our times, our world.
The results may be troubling, mystifying, a bit annoying or even outright dumb, but they are also exciting and inspiring, pulling us forward into the future unknown. To do otherwise, to sit complacently while the world changes around you, to refuse to engage, that's the real danger.