2014, d. Damien Chazelle
If someone told me that a movie about jazz drumming would be one of the most thoroughly invigorating, engrossing, and intense movies of the year, I wouldn't believe them. In fact, that's exactly what happened, over and over again.Word-of-mouth kept spreading for months (from Sundance and beyond), about this film before I decided to pay attention and ultimately put it on my to-see list. The more I heard people mention it, the more anxious my desire to see it became. Amazingly enough, I never saw a trailer for it, and most of the reaction to the film was "it was amazing, just go see it". I went into it virtually blind, armed only with the knowledge that the always great J.K. Simmons was playing a hardass in it, which in its own way, is enough of a sell. I can't recall seeing Simmons in a single role where I wasn't fully engaged with his presence. He's a fascinating actor, with a likeable droopy face, a smooth but deep baritone voice that just tickles the ears, and presence. He's not "leading man handsome" but he's the type of character actor that will make a film worthwhile. Here he's just one component of an astounding production.
I hesitate to say too much about Whiplash, as it truly is a film best discovered. I'm not afraid that spoilers will ruin the film -- it's far too well made to be ruined by such triviality -- but there's a delicious sense of "where is this going" throughout the entire picture that one would definitely miss out on were they to know all the beats.
To summarize justly, Whiplash finds a dedicated first year music student (Miles Teller) brought into the school's prestige jazz band under the dictatorship of Simmon's brutal and abusive conductor. Teller's sole desire is to be one of the greats, to be remembered as such. He looks to the likes of Buddy Rich as the level he wants to reach, and he has a real ego about what his place in the world should be. Teller's drive and dedication puts him at odds with Simmon's teaching style and the two mentally clash in a completely epic manner. The grand moments of the film put Teller behind the kit and Simmons behind the podium, but the quieter character moments are pretty great too. Slight asides show that outside of the band Simmons is a charming, friendly, likeable guy. Teller, meanwhile, is harsh towards the accomplishments of his family as they settle for mediocrity while he strives for greatness. Likewise his focus is so all consuming he has little time or attention for anything or anyone else, alienating himself, which he accepts as the price for greatness. After a summer of some of the greatest science fiction and action movies seen in a long time, it's a huge surprise that Whiplash matches them all in intensity. It's truly a thrill-ride unlike any other.