Archive for the 'Review' Category


2015 list

Another year, another 12 months of not posting. So, here’s the whole year in one post. I watched 192 films released in the U.S. during 2015 (with 33 of those being in an actual movie theatre). So, like usual, there is a top ten and a secondary top ten of movies (I could probably make a third this year). This list is based on having seen these films only once (with the exception of one that I happened to see twice). This list is always presented in alphabetical order, because most films have no basis in comparison and ranking movies is both difficult and worthless. I would change some of these around (again) given the chance, but the year is over now so I can’t. The “rules” are that the movie had to be released theatrically in the U.S. sometime in 2015 for the first time. I did not include documentaries because I haven’t seen enough to comparatively make a list (unless asked) and I do not include animation because of the same, in addition to my perhaps illogical bias toward preferring to see human actors act (Anomalisa and Inside Out are the only animated features I saw this year and you probably don’t need me to tell you how many other lists they are on).

My Top Ten:

clouds_of_sils_maria_ver6_xlgClouds of Sils Maria [France/Germany/Switzerland]

This is a movie about acting; It is about the process of creating art(ifice). Olivier Assayas takes the less controlled meta-ness of something like his Irma Vep and melds this with his more recent, practiced takes on allowing the actors to build their characters onscreen. The three women featured here all play ‘types’, but they also play what feels like real people (or more specifically real people projecting a persona or performing a role). As Binoche’s character, now an aging movie star, prepares to take on the older role in the restaging of a play she became famous for in the younger role, we see her doubts, her fears, her vanity. As Stewart plays her personal assistant and confidante we see her reverence, her inexperienced uncertainty, her stoic disapproval of certain choices by a woman she knows perhaps too well. As Moretz enters the picture, we see her youthful naiveté, her knowing arrogance, her unique career situation. This film has a lot to say without explaining it to you. It prefers to give you time and space to think about what you want to see. While this was released in parts of Europe in 2014 (for which Stewart was the first American to ever win a Cesar), I include it here for our delayed gratification.


diary_of_a_teenage_girl_xlgDiary of a Teenage Girl [USA]

Forgive the ironic adjective, but this is a ballsy debut film by Marielle Heller. It exists in a cultural world our time has forgotten or maybe never existed for anyone but the people in the story. But I have a feeling that this film brings out a whole lot of feelings in audiences contemporary to San Francisco in the ’70s. To say that it’s “refreshing” to see a film that deals with teenage, female sexuality honestly, and at (many) times intentionally uncomfortable ways, would be a disservice to its uniqueness in the history of American film (yeah, that sounds like hyperbole but it actually isn’t). Based on the quasi-autobiographical graphic novel, the film amazingly melds its sections of fantasy and emerging reality with its actors. Bel Powley commands the titular role with a fierce exploration beyond what one might expect from the material, providing just the right amount of insular distance. Compared to other “teen movies” about teens this year (Me & Earl and the Dying Girl or Ten Thousand Saints come to mind), this is not comparatively too distanced in its reflectiveness (meaning it doesn’t feel like adults are retrospectively crafting control of the emotional arc of the story). This film has an authentic energy to it that speaks to the process of discovery as a teenager; where you may think you know what you feel but come to learn in your actual maturity that it wasn’t entirely the way you thought it was or supposed to be.


ex_machina_ver5_xlgEx Machina [UK]

The sci-fi lover in me rates this movie slightly higher than it may deserve. Which isn’t to say it’s undeserving of heaps of praise. It is a tightly written, intimate chamber drama with a shiny, cool cinematography to match its tone. Oscar Isaac’s character is devilishly Kubrickian in his human machinations. Robots are cool, but consciousness is king (or rather, queen). Alicia Vikander should get an award for her excellent ubiquity this year (with two other performances central to the success of their pictures in Testament of Youth and her sure to be Oscar-nominated portrayal in The Danish Girl; I didn’t see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but I can only assume that wasn’t her fault). Those who may be disappointed with the ending should check the title and rethink their conception of what was supposed to be going on in the first place. “A thinking person’s sci-fi” is such a clichéd phrase, especially in terms of cinema, but let’s have more of this and less of ones based on comic books and classic TV shows, please, yes?


it_follows_ver2_xlgIt Follows [USA]

This is a teen horror movie that forgoes the past twenty years of ironic distance and gore heavy style-over-substance to take you straight into its strong concept and expertly constructed atmosphere. Yes, it’s a genre film, so there must be a strong suspension of disbelief (especially about the choices made by certain characters). Yet, the “reality” displayed here is, like most horror, only emotionally real in its choose-your-own-interpretative metaphor. All the elements of a good horror film are here, including, perhaps above all else, an engagingly memorable score. Aside for maybe the micro-budget, single-camera Creep by Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass, this is by far the best horror film of the year (if you don’t count the brutal ‘gothic western’ Bone Tomahawk or the auteur pastiche dream poem of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night).


Lobster_A4poster-smallThe Lobster [Greece/Ireland/UK/France/Netherlands/USA]

I would watch anything by this Greek writer-director team after Dogtooth (That film is an undeniable masterpiece). While this film, their third but first in English, doesn’t quite maintain its momentum as well, it is a deft piece of absurdity that cannot be mistaken for any other film(maker). It’s best to go in without any notion of the “plot” (click on the title if you think you have to know). I had forgot what I knew of it by the time I sat down to watch this and I’m glad I did. No preconceptions. Suffice to say if you enjoy the sublime surrealism of Bunuel or the seeming lack of rules that come with theatre of the absurd, you might enjoy this. I was initially disappointed by the ending (no spoilers), but then I quickly realized the frame in which it was told. Some will likely scoff at the whole concept or its execution, but the movie finds a rare balance between distanced absurdity and innocent emotion. And I literally, unexpectedly laughed a couple of times harder than any other film this year.


mistress_america_xlgMistress America [USA/Brazil]

Noam Baumbach is not for everyone. In fact, I’m not sure if he’s even for me. I’ve found his other feature from this year, While We’re Young, to be an interesting concept, but ultimately a bit too annoying for my taste (though part of this is the casting, I guess). Actually, most of his movies are annoying (except the excellent Rohmeresque Margot at the Wedding, which is annoying in all the right places). This one, co-written and starring his current muse, Greta Gerwig, is like if Lena Dunham’s Girls was written by Whit Stillman on a more than steady diet of 1930’s screwball comedies(?). It’s a fast talking coming of age film with a heartful of hilarity. Thank you to Mmes. Gerwig and Kirke for molding the usual snobbery into enjoyable comedy.


phoenix_webPhoenix [Germany/Poland]

This has been a favorite since early in the year. In Germany during WWII, a woman (Nina Hoss, director Petzold’s continued muse; recently seen on Homeland) is presumed dead after being sent off to a concentration camp. At the beginning of the film, when she returns home from said presumed death with a surgically reconstructed face, her husband hires her to impersonate his wife because of a seeming resemblance. Yeah, I know that may sound far-fetched, but it’s a movie, ok? And it might ultimately be my favorite of the year. ‘It’s like if Hitchcock and Fassbinder had a baby’. Yeah, I know, that should be on the poster, right?


revenant_ver2_xlgThe Revenant [USA]

This is the most recent one on the list that I’ve seen, but I don’t think it’s too early to say that it is a great film. Period. It is an action-adventure historical fiction spiritual western. It is rife with metaphor while being spectacular enough for popcorn munchers to just marvel at its awe-inspiringly directed shot setups, daring staging, and insane camera work. I think this is the type of film some people expected Terrence Malick to still be making (that may sound comparatively disingenous but I mean it as a compliment). DiCaprio commits to this almost purely physical performance in a way that simply cannot be denied. Iñárritu and Lubeski prove yet again that they are a force to be reckoned with in Cinema. Just remember to breathe.


steve_jobs_xlgSteve Jobs [USA]

I’ll start by saying that I probably couldn’t care less that this movie is about Steve Jobs. This is an amazingly written piece of theatre performed by some great actors (AND Seth Rogen). This is a 122 minute movie with a 190 page script (scripts are, on average, 1 minute per page). So, there’s A LOT of dialogue that just so happens to be great. Michael Fassbender is electrifying as a man who literally has no time for anyone who is unable to understand the vision of what’s going on inside his head. What could be a schmaltzy focus on his relationship with his daughter is used well to balance a parallel emotional growth to his technological growth. The ‘ending’ almost bumps this off my top ten list, but the direction and editing that sustains the pace of this film is simply marvelous. Each of the three acts of this film was rehearsed like a stage play and it shows in every possible positive way. I can’t imagine how David Fincher and Christian Bale would have done this, but, even with their talent, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have been as good.


youth_ver2_xlgYouth [Italy/France/Switzerland/UK]

Paolo Sorrentino makes another film in English with an extraordinary group of lead actors for this meditation on age, desire, and the passing of time. While less formally obtuse than his previous The Great Beauty, it is a film full of sound and image that concentrates on the music of moments over narrative. This movie isn’t really about plot (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel hang around on vacation at a Swiss mountain resort, listen to music, talk to people like Paul Dano, and generally meditate on life past, present, and future); this movie is about feeling stuff. And if that doesn’t sound good to you, then you’ll miss out on what is objectively one of the best movies of the year (clearly in my top 3, if I had to rank these). I normally don’t recommend watching previews, but check out this one if you’re not already sold. It manages to convey the mood and theme without giving too much away (if that even matters). I would watch this again right now. If I have any criticisms, this skews a bit male-centric so Rachel Weisz is noticeably underused. I would say the same for Jane Fonda, despite a probable Oscar nomination, but the brevity of her performance is intentional. Some will discount the film for only providing fragments, suggesting that these fragments make the film somehow less complete or accomplished. While that may be a valid opinion, the film is aware of it. “Emotions are all we’ve got”; “Horror or Desire”. Your choice.


And a secondary ten:


chiraq_ver2_xlgChi-Raq [USA]

Spike Lee adapts Lysistrata (with Kevin Wilmott) to some exaggerated, modern day version of Englewood Chicago (the uproar over his being unfamiliar with the actual Chicago comes from those that don’t realize that most of Lee’s films are set in some sort of heightened reality or outright fantasyland). It’s not a musical, but the rhymed verse in places brings it back to Lee’s own School Daze (where he really developed his consistent style even if his storytelling has varied over the years). This film has its share of problems (too long in places; plot confused in others) and the politics are bound to blind people on either side of the issues, but this is a fairly funny movie about violence without showing much violence. This is a satire that attempts to effectively use both Nick Cannon and Wesley Snipes (that effort alone is worthy of praise). However, it is the actresses here that steal the show, as they should. Suspend your disbelief and let the polemic flow through you, this is an irreverent attempt at stirring up Cinematic trouble and an interesting choice by Amazon to be one of their first major Internet feature properties (though it did have an initial, limited theatrical run). Creative freedom does wonders for the career of artists like Lee. Even if the end result isn’t great, it can’t simply be labeled as ‘okay’. At the very least it proves he hasn’t completely gone off the deep end (as he appeared to do early in the year with his student film-like remake of Ganja & Hess).


duke_of_burgundy_xlgThe Duke of Burgundy [UK/Hungary]

There’s something to be said for making the aberrant monotonous. If you are familiar with filmmakers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Rollin, or even Jess Franco, then I would say keep reading. If you wanted to like Fifty Shades of Grey for non-zeitgeisty, non-normative reasons, there’s a minuscule chance you could possibly be maybe interested in this (note the abundance of qualifiers in this sentence). For most, recommending this to you is likely to either weird you out or bore you to death (or both). This film is slow and repetitious, but it has a point in its tedium. The utterly cinematic construction shows off a filmmaker both still learning and loving his craft. The jarringly oneiric title sequence and the choice of pop-neoclassical score make this a worthy experience by itself. To find a film that is equally, successfully unique in its approach to image and sound these days is few and far between, even if this one is about 20 minutes longer than a masterpiece. “Be Nasty!”


Kreuzweg-DE-PosterKreuzweg (Stations of the Cross) [Germany/France]

Don’t ask me why there are so many German movies on this list (see below). It’s a coincidence that will probably never happen again. However, this one is the most formally rigid of all. It is divided into 14 segments labeled for each Stations of the Cross, many of which are noticeably filmed in a long uninterrupted, mostly static takes. The film centers on a present-day teenage girl, from a strict, pre-Vatican II German Catholic family. She is taught to sacrifice in the every day for God and so she does. It is a story of both transcendent martyrdom and child abuse – which one you lean toward depends on your own station in life. For my non-religious eyes, it is confusing whether this is intended as a filpside or peer to something like Ordet or Breaking the Waves in its magnificence. (Definitely more engaging than the more recent Stellet Licht for me). A literally? divine performance by the young female lead.


mad_max_fury_road_ver7_xlgMad Max: Fury Road [Australia/USA]

This is obviously the best action movie of the year, right? But does it deserve to be “elevated” to a best of the year list? Of course it does. I liked this a lot, but I personally didn’t like it as much as the other ten above probably because it’s an action movie (not enough character or dialogue for me), so that’s why it’s down here. Objectively, it should be up top. It’s my list, though, so whatever. Much has been made of its ‘feminist’ leanings, which is interesting, and perhaps laughable culturally, because all the film does is display a world where everyone has to fend for themselves equally. While it is sad that it takes an Oscar winning actress and a cast of women that pass the Bechdel test in their every scene to spark this interest, gender pertains to the story most crucially in the sense that it is female enslavement (for their baby makin’ abilities) that is the crux of the plot here. Max is just in the way, as he is in all the previous films, where he is seen to make a conscious decision to help above his own interest (therefore obtaining the status of “hero”). Ah, civilization – it’s the building block of most “important” dramas that don’t contain relentlessly paced action set pieces or painstakingly choreographed cinematography in a starkly bright color palette (this was originally intended to shot in Black & White). While George Miller was making movies like Happy Feet, the craft has caught up to allow him to make something infinitely better than any of the other films in this franchise. Boom.


meadowlandMeadowland [USA]

Here’s a drama with what may seem a cloying subject. A mother and father’s young child suddenly goes missing from a gas station restroom. Cut to a year later… We see the (lack of) coping that these parents have gone through and how it defines them separately. We focus more on Olivia Wilde’s mother character and her gradual deterioration from the pain of not knowing. This is a tough movie (and also one that could be seen as, but is apparently too ‘small’ to be, actor award bait), but it is the first feature directed by Reed Moreno; a rising (female) cinematographer/director and it shows (it looks like she’s continued to work with Wilde as the cinematographer for a bunch of the episodes for the new Scorsese/Jagger HBO music drama Vinyl). I hesitate to call this best-of-the-year material, since it a bit loose in places narratively, but it’s one that stuck with me afterward and I will likely watch again.


room_xlgRoom [Ireland/Canada]

If Brie Larson wins the Oscar for this, it is more than deserved (she should have been nominated last year for Short Term 12). She makes this movie work, because along with her own choices she directs the child’s excellent performance as well (no disrespect to the actual director of the film). But something about the style of the film didn’t gel with me (like with most book to movie adaptations there seems to be a lot missing not just narratively but emotionally. The more I think about this film I realize how I was disappointed in lack of screen time given to the years spent in Room, but it becomes obvious how the story of the film is more about the after effects. I liked the construction of the child’s perception of reality and difference we see between the child’s acclimation and the mother’s re-exposure to the outside world. It would be interesting to read the screenplay for this one, because I get the impression that a lot of what is being displayed on screen wasn’t on the page, or rather what was on the page just doesn’t encapsulate the visibly hovering depression or horrificly justifiable anxiety toward what is essentially an inferior, exterior alien world. Maybe this is one I need to see it again…


shes_funny_that_way_ver3_xlgShe’s Funny That Way [USA/Germany]

This throwback screwball comedy from Peter Bogdanovich (co-written by his ex-wife and former lover’s sister) was pretty much ignored as middling fare, but for this approaching octogenarian to attempt the likes of which no one does anymore is worthy of note. Nearly everyone in the ensemble cast is used well, even if the script is a little lackluster in places. It ain’t Ben Hecht or Preston Sturges (it’s probably more like ’90s Woody Allen), but whadda gonna do, eh? I fell hard for Imogen Poots a long time ago, so even if the New Yawk accent is exaggerated beyond belief (as I am sure she was directed to do), I couldn’t care less. Would this be a meta-star-making part if this movie was released in the ’70s (yeah yeah not a realistic thought)? So, basically I loved the zany attempt here, even if it isn’t quite up to What’s Up Doc?, and that’s saying a lot for a movie that ‘stars’ Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston. Oh, and Kathryn Hahn is great, as usual. More where this came from, please.


sicario_ver12_xlgSicario [USA]

I have been a big fan of Denis Villeneuve’s last few movies, so I was eagerly anticipating this one. My first impression is that it’s like a Zero Dark Thirty for the Drug War. That’s a bit reductionist, but I think a good summary of what it’s “about”. However, the technical achievement of this film, outside the choice to make a film about people who aren’t stereotypes of what you see them as in action movies, is the consistent build of tension when nothing appears to really be happening. The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson is terrifyingly effective (those string shards?!). Benecio Del Toro hasn’t been this on-camera good/controlled in who knows how long and that is a big part of why this film works. Emily Blunt has been better, but her character serves as a stand-in for the viewer, so making a judgment about her performance is like asking whether or not I paid close enough attention to what was going on…


victoria_xlgVictoria [Germany]

I went into this film not knowing the most obviously notable thing about it, so I hesitate to reveal it here, but it might make you interested enough to see it: The movie is shot in one 2 hour and 14 minute unedited take (no trick cuts or digital manipulation). While that may seem like a gimmicky thing to do, it is in no way limited in the settings the characters travel freely through around parts of Berlin. It is a noticeably amazing technical achievement of timing, blocking, and camerawork (the cameraman is billed above the writer-director in the end credits). It also builds some amazing moments of tension for the viewer because of this aesthetic choice. While the plot is a bit melodramatic in its second half, it is still one of the most memorable films I saw this year. For those with an aversion to subtitles, it is partly in German but the title character (who is actually from Spain) speaks English throughout. I was about 30 minutes in before realizing the camera wasn’t going to cut and then I was hooked.


white_god-ENG-cannesFehér Isten (White Dog) [Hungary/Germany/Sweden]

This is a Hungarian film about a girl and her dog, but mostly about the dog. This film has animal trainers billed above a lot of other major film crew for a reason. The dog is the main character and it doesn’t talk or play sports. It goes through a journey like any major protagonist and we see it make decisions and react to other actors (sometimes humans, sometimes other dogs) along the way. Since it is normal to attach an allegorical intent to the majority of post-Soviet bloc films, one can easily do that here but I’ll refrain from it. I will warn that there are some fairly brutal parts here, especially for animal lovers. Though, it plays a bit like a revenge genre film in parts for those that take the animal’s viewpoint (as we are intended to do). But the credits clearly state the care and planning that went into this for the animals that makes this a unique piece of cinema worth seeking out for a few particularly memorable sequences.


But wait, Brandon. Where’s Carol? What about Beasts of No Nation, Brooklyn, The Danish Girl, The Hateful Eight, Joy, or Spotlight? These were all very good films (and on another day some of these would have been on either list above). But, alas, there are only 10 films to each Top Ten list, so it comes down to their impact on me personally and my thoughts about them comparatively that I said in the beginning I didn’t want to have (and in the case of the Tarantino film, the people in the theatre that ruined my enjoyment of the screening). There were also a slew of movies I could have easily put in my secondary ten, if not higher on any other particular day. If I hadn’t seen SO many movies this year, any of these might have made even more of an impression: the Picnic at Hanging Rock-esque The Falling, the cult deprogramming chamber drama Faults, the soul-crushingly misogynistic legal procedure of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the Tarkovsky challenging Hard to be a God, the autobiographical drug drama Heaven Knows What, the parental horror of Hungry Hearts, the square-framed emotional outbursts of Mommy, the Repulsion-like glacial meltdown of Queen of Earth, the more-relatable-than The Big Short 99 Homes, the Linklater meets Lovecraft vibe of Spring, the iPhone shot Tangerine, or even that one set in a galaxy far, far, away (if it was 1999 again). So, there’s more than another ten, if you want. That still leaves SO many others seen and unseen.

Special Mention:
Television used to be separate from movies (I still obviously separate it here). A lot of us remember that divisional stigma between film and television (the latter was looked down upon by the so-called ‘serious’ artist). This is thankfully becoming a thing of the past so quickly these days. This saturation (actually the most scripted series ever in 2015) leaves a lot of not-so quality programming (the major networks are still stuck, for the most part, with trying to please/placate to an audience/advertiser dollar above all else), but there is a wealth of comparative quality within the largess. My favorites of the past year:


Show_Me_a_HeroShow Me A Hero

David Simon, the creator of The Wire, returned to HBO with a six episode story he co-adapted with a fellow Baltimore journalist about the minutiae of the politics involved in constructing low-income housing in an middle-class, white Yonkers neighborhood from 1987 to 1994. The detail put into the scope of this story is crazy. In any other hands this might be considered boring. Maybe some people think it is (or expect it to be because Paul Haggis directed it). I would beg to differ. Please, let me differ.


leftovers-s02The Leftovers” Season 2

Words don’t do this show justice. You could say that about anything, but the emotion put into this show; the sheer audacity of its attempt to encompass the feelings brought on by a range of characters within this conceit is impossible to convey concretely (what happens to us when 2% of the world’s population suddenly ‘departs’ the Earth in what some could term a “Rapture”?). The, um, departure, from Season 1 was noticeable immediately in the opening credits, but the creative ambiguity stayed consistently engaging (and at times overwhelming). No spoilers, but the end of this season left me pleasantly dumbfounded. I anxiously await the now confirmed final iteration and expect no definite answers or resolution. Reveling in the journey is enough.

Thanks for reading!


2014 list

The Oscar nominations have been announced, so the 2014 movie year is officially over. My following list of notable movies is distilled from seeing 179 films that were released in 2014 (45 in an actual theater!). As always, the list is based on having only seen each film once and it is presented in alphabetical order because I refuse to try to logically or emotionally justify how each of these can be better or worse than the other.
I had a difficult time cutting my secondary list down to ten this year, so I left out some that I would probably put on the list if I was making it on another day. For example, I really liked The Grand Budapest Hotel (and I actually think Wes Anderson continues to display a growing maturity that was evident in Moonrise Kingdom), but you will most likely find that one on a lot of other lists. There are very specific things I loved about films like The Homesman, Ida, Laggies, The Rover, or White Bird in a Blizzard, but I couldn’t bring myself to replace one of the others with them at this particular moment (so I not-so-sneakily mention them here too).

Here’s the meticulously arbitrary Top Ten:

babadook_xlgTHE BABADOOK [Australia]
“If it’s in a word or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. Possibly the best horror movie to break out of the horror movie ghetto in years. Unlike some of the other excellent horror movies I’ve enjoyed this year (The Sacrament, Starry Eyes, The Taking of Deborah Logan), this Australian debut transcends the trappings of the genre to be both a substantial scarefest and a literate story on the trials of single motherhood (I was debating about putting Cheap Thrills here on the list for a similar reason, but I’ll just mention it here instead). You might want the physical book after seeing it, but, then again, maybe you won’t. I’m not sure how it holds up to repeat viewings, but I look forward to whatever Jennifer Kent does next.

This movie is on a lot of lists. Why? Because it’s a great piece of theatre, with a wonderful ensemble of actors, and an immensely talented director who has finally chosen to embrace not being so overly serious. The big themes are still there, the (self) satire is available for those who want to dig for it, but it remains grounded/levitates in a kind of truth that only the artifice of performance can provide. A wonderful mix of staged-blocked acting and free form cinematics. I wasn’t expecting any particular narrative resolution, because I was just enjoying being along for the ride. And that drum score is great (despite being weirdly disqualified from the Oscars).

blue_ruinBLUE RUIN [USA/France]
A revenge thriller that takes an ordinary, not-so-prepared man as its subject. I didn’t know where this movie was going in the beginning, but I knew it was going somewhere good. I liked the cinematography’s lingering sense of place in rural Virginia and the lead actor’s literally transformative character arc. The change in physical presence alone is intriguing enough as we fill in the details to catch up with the backstory, as the narrative progresses forwards, but the way it subverts expectations of the motivations for revenge makes this more than just another plot-driven indie thriller.

boyhood_xlgBOYHOOD [USA]
This film will always be known as the one that had taken 12 years to shoot, following its actors and characters over a real progression of time. An ambitious undertaking for all those involved, of course, but the finished film still has to stand on its own. And it does. Some people didn’t care for it, because it does care to follow the typical trajectory of the Bildungsroman. Richard Linklater is a literate guy, a self-professed autodidact sure, but someone with a recognizably well-honed craft that easily weaves in-and-out of mainstream and formally experimental filmmaking. He has chosen a story of discovery; an open-ended narrative that shows us characters that do not typically get such exhaustive treatment. For me, the film is less about the boy and more about the parents’ journey. For not being much of a fan of Patricia Arquette in the past, I will say that she is excellent here. Ethan Hawke also brings a kind of, shall we say, burgeoning maturity to his acting that we get to see in a sort of meta-progression here. Certainly not a masterpiece in narrative terms, it is still a singular, formal achievement that should be celebrated as a notable piece of Cinema of any year.

i_origins_xlgI ORIGINS [USA]
From the writer-director of ANOTHER EARTH comes another science-fiction-in-concept-only film. In this case, the film has to do with the genetics of eyesight and the possibly fingerprint-like uniqueness of the iris. What I liked about this film so much was how it purposefully shifts its genre (and expectations) at particular points in ways that make it quite like several different stories combined into one. This might be jarring to some, but I felt it crucial to exploring its themes of science and faith. This is not really a religious movie, but it explores ideas that naturally come up in the evidence vs. belief argument in a way that is refreshingly not confrontational or political (in my view). It’s an interesting, unpredictable story that is made much better by the chemistry of its three leads.

the-immigrant-2013-posterTHE IMMIGRANT [USA]
James Gray seems to continually display a detached sense of narrative in his pictures. I’m not sure what that means exactly, but his films have been oddly missing something that keeps me from loving them (when I feel like I should be). That being said, he also has a way of bringing some sort of lost classical mentality to his pictures that few filmmakers (still) possess. The Weinsteins apparently dumped this film without any support behind it. It’s not exactly a marketably uplifting story, but the acting is amazing. Marion Cotillard is truly glorious in this movie. 20 pages of Polish dialogue in her first English language lead role (neither of which are her native language)? No problem. Her emotional commitment here transcends any faults in the picture. While Renner seems a bit miscast and/or underused (as usual), Joaquin Phoenix tackles his complicated character with a display of moral depth that holds the movie together (as usual). This is one I need to see again, but I know I won’t see anything else like it anytime soon. P.S. Cotillard is also thoroughly amazing in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (see below).

inherent_vice_xlgINHERENT VICE [USA]
It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson picture, so, of course, I’m biased (probably my favorite, active American filmmaker). And it’s a PTA picture of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Whaaat? I read it awhile back and I honestly don’t know if the story is intelligible enough to follow without having it as a background. That being said, it is a stoner-detective story, so the narrative “fog” isn’t really supposed to be totally coherent. The ensemble put together here is really the draw (SNL relations aside, using Joanna Newsom as narrator was a pretty inspired choice, right?) and the time period detail that is shot (on film), so reliably amazing by Robert Elswit, makes it a more accomplished picture than it might appear at first glance. Resisting the urge to make this film just be some sort of collage of cinematics taken from the likes of CHINATOWN, THE LONG GOODBYE, and THE BIG LEBOWSKI had to have been harder than it seems. I’m starting to see PTA’s choices as charting cultural-historical timeframes of America. One could think of this as some sort of historical flipside to the birth of American industry in THERE WILL BE BLOOD (one of the most current masterpieces of cinema, if you didn’t know) or the post-WWII ennui of THE MASTER (still chewing on that one) or maybe a kind of multiverse prequel to the end of innocence late ’70s BOOGIE NIGHTS. Pynchon’s a tricky beast who covers all of this; the will to Power and Industry has been challenged by the hippie relativism born of the loss of its free revolutionary ideals soon to be overtaken by whitewashed, suburban, conspiratorial-corporatized New America. Beware the Golden Fang. It’s a snapshot of time in a bottle that existed before I was born and will never exist again for anyone. Pynchon wills it to re-being in Word and PTA traces it to Image for your brain. You’re welcome.

NIGHTCRAWLER [USA]nightcrawler_xlg
Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of the most eerily great performances of the year and his own career. It is amazing to see such a commitment to character and a story that chooses to defy narrative convention to such success. I went in to this having only seen the poster (and knowing it, thankfully, had nothing to do with the X-Men comic books). I left enthralled having seen something like no other movie this year. This is a great character study, but it is also, on some level, about the (desperation of the) American Dream and our culture’s latent obsession with the detachment of reality/civilization through media. This has been near the top of my list since I walked out of the theatre.

starred_up_ver2_xlgSTARRED UP [UK]
Jack O’Connell may have a star making performance in this year’s UNBROKEN, but this is the film I first saw him in and it is nothing if not a performance that requires you to take notice. Playing a feral street kid given an adult prison sentence (eventually in the same block as his lifelong absent father), O’Connell delivers an awe-inspiringly unstoppable ball of rage molded by ill-reenforced behavior and environment. Much of the narrative concerns his interactions among a progressive-thinking counselor (Homeland‘s Rupert Friend) and his loyal group of inmates. Almost Shakespearian in its overtones (and its at times indecipherable accents), this packs a powerful punch that doesn’t placate to one’s sense of heroism or insulated history like certain aforementioned Hollywood fare.

whiplashWHIPLASH [USA]
Some people discount this film because it doesn’t treat Jazz ‘correctly’. I say, this movie is about something other than Jazz music (though the musical sequences are still pretty amazing in my opinion). This is a film about an individual driven beyond the normal ideals of competition and an instructor who fuels that drive. It is about a co-dependent relationship that breeds destruction AND talent. It is a film that showcases acting between two (male) individuals that is simply amazing to watch. While I agree that authenticity is important, I defer to the musicians actually involved in the film (the writer/director‘s experience among them) than any particular film critic. I am much more interested in the film’s finely crafted construction of how (music) competition is used as a means of Power and Conquest (ok, so maybe those shouldn’t be capitalized, but hopefully you get the point). Focusing on details, like whether Buddy Rich is an appropriate idol for a serious music student, discounts the depth that is build into these specific characters.

And a secondary ten:

coherence_xlgCOHERENCE [USA]
This indie sci-fi microbudget drama has a great concept (best to just go into it without any preparation – though, generally speaking, it has to do with multiverse paradoxes) with largely improvised dialogue by its ensemble of actors. Like this year’s Frequencies (which I almost included, but is a little too cute for its own good, in my opinion), the conceptual framework alone makes this movie pointing out. I enjoyed the enclosed-space, stage-play like interaction of the actors (because that’s usually my favorite type of drama). It’s a small story told over a large concept that some may feel short-shrifted by its refusal to expand, but it kept me interested throughout [link is an aid for after seeing the film].

comet_xlgCOMET [USA]
This was a late addition, so I’m still might be overly swayed by the momentum of the picture. It has its flaws and if you don’t like/connect with the obviously heightened characters (though played with a range I’ve had yet to see from Justin Long and Emmy Rossum), then you probably won’t enjoy this. The cinematography is catchy, intentionally using different looks for each sequence, but the fact that it is a dialogue-driven picture is what made it so engaging for me. Some of the male character is over/underwritten, but for a debut feature I think it’s a notably innovative take on the ubiquitous “young people in love” picture. It takes several moments in a relationship and gives them to us out-of-order, allowing us to see the progression unfold from a unique perspective that comments on each before it as you sequence it together as a viewer. While I have yet to see the HIM and HER films of THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY (probably my most regretted to have not had the chance to see yet), and I expect they are completely different in execution, the idea seems similar and entirely suited to Cinema in a way that has surprisingly not been overused already.

two_days_one_nightDEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT [Belgium/France]
Despite having seen and admired nearly every Dardenne Brothers film, I don’t think I’ve ever had one on a year-end list. I suppose it’s time to rectify that. As always, a simple story unfolds with deceptively simply looking direction; A woman will lose her factory job unless her fellow employees vote to forgo their yearly bonus. Over the time frame of the title, she visits them all individually to ask them to consider sacrificing that money so she can continue to support her family. Marion Cotillard, how do you do it? You are marvel to behold yet again.

the-dropTHE DROP [USA]
This film may not necessarily be “best of the year” material, but I can’t help myself. Tom Hardy and Matthias Schoenaerts are literally two of my favorite living (relatively young) actors. This is, sadly, the last living performance of James Gandolfini. We also have a Swedish Noomi Rapace playing a more than convincing native Jersey girl. The quality of acting here transcends the drably colored, noir-ish caper feel painted here (adapated by Dennis Lehane, from his own story, no less). I hesitate to write such hyperbole, but Tom Hardy is channeling an ON THE WATERFRONT kind of performance here. The man subsumes himself into character (LOCKE is another performance worth taking note of this year, especially). And Schoenaerts (reteaming with his BULLHEAD director), continues to expertly make manifesting inner emotion in physicality look effortless.

enemy-poster1ENEMY [Canada/Spain]
It’s the OTHER amazing Jake Gyllenhaal performance this year in a film that might be a bit too abstract to recommend to some, but starts with a great premise regardless. The surface story of a man who finds another man who looks exactly like him acting in a film he randomly stumbles upon, only to investigate him to the point of an ever growing confusion, is a great idea. What sets this movie apart is the direction and (attempt toward) social commentary. I tried reading the book and couldn’t make it through (it’s stylistic choice to keep paragraph breaks and spoken dialogue to more-than-noticeable minimum was killing me). The translation to film could be seen as a cinematic counterpoint to that, but somehow made the story that much more intriguing to me. Lots of people surely feel cheated by the end, but I just gasped and smiled at its ingeniously embedded Bergman reference which influenced my interpretation of the whole film retrospectively in a way that may not even be diagetically correct. I love it when that happens.

A-Most-Violent-Year-Teaser-PosterA MOST VIOLENT YEAR [USA]
I’m on the fence about this one, because I JUST watched it. Oscar Isaac is amazing here in the arc that he is given, while Jessica Chastain does so much with so little (really very little). It is very well framed, tightly controlled story (with obvious echoes of a Sidney Lumet kind of New York picture), but it may seem a bit too epic in scope while insular in delivery. There are several scenes that beg for more time and others that never call back to another (I’m not sure what the point of a particular character really is, when he’s given so little context among how things play out, for example). It’s like we are only seeing one episode of a much larger story. I can fill in the blanks, and I like doing that, but does that make me like the picture better for it? It’s not really a narrative that calls for interpretative leaps. Still, it is an intriguing play on the rise-to-power story that is so period fetishistic that it makes you take notice. Maybe, like some other viewers, I just want another Lumet picture that we’ll never get and this will have to be a more than competent consolation…

tracks_ver4_xlgTRACKS [Australia]
A lot of people will see WILD this year. It’s a decent movie about one woman’s 1,110 mile life-affirming trek through the Pacific Coast Trail in California. I wouldn’t want to diminish that person’s (true) story (despite it feeling at times like some sort of spiritual mashup of 127 Hours and Eat Pray Love). This film recounts another woman’s journey: Robyn Davidson‘s 1,700 mile camel trek across half of Australia (well, Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean). Maybe I just like Mia Wasikowska better than Reese Witherspoon. Or maybe I just think Australia is more visually interesting than California. Regardless, this is a journey worth taking (check out some of the National Geographic photos, if you like).

under_the_skin_xlgUNDER THE SKIN [UK/USA]
First of all: If you don’t know what this film is about and you have any inkling to see it, just watch the thing. DO NOT read what it is about. I think the realization of what’s going on would be much richer coming from a place of ignorance. Because I was unfortunate enough to read a basic description beforehand, while watching this film I had a problem with the abstractness. I wanted more narrative (for that I suggest reading the book, because it’s all there). Though when the film was over, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The images stayed with me for days. Jonathan Glazer has made something I don’t understand. It’s like a cross between Kubrick and Kiarostami (2001 and Taste of Cherry to be more exact). Some have named this one of the best pictures of the year. I hesitate to do that. Maybe I’m just slow. Regardless, it’s an obvious visual achievement to be celebrated.

we_are_the_best-posterVI ÄR BÄST! / WE ARE THE BEST! [Sweden]
Three tween girls form their own punk band in 1982 Stockholm, despite never having played together and everyone telling them punk is dead. We see its influence on their attitude toward their parents, society, other music, boys, etc. The movie is funny, mean, heartfelt, and imperfectly shot. However, Lukas Moodyson has a way with actors (especially of the younger variety) and this is a film that really gets to what it’s like to be full of confused pubescent angst. It’s based on his wife’s graphic novel, which probably has something to do with why it’s his best reviewed film in a decade.

jigoku_de_naze_warui_xlgJIGOKU DE NAZE WARUI / WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? [Japan]
From the director of the confoundingly genius Love Exposure, comes an expectedly zany, energetic bloody meditation on the love of cinema. A band of misfits cinephiles, who daydream about making their great masterpiece, stumble into making a film financed and featuring local yakuza. Inventive in its level of meta-ness (which is hard to do these days), Sono’s fast-paced, irreverent hilarity is on display here again culminating in a showdown for the ages. Has the film camera been used with such insanity since, what, Peeping Tom? Those familiar with post-pinku eiga sluge will understand the above average construction here and the uninitiated might just stare with their tongues out.

Special Mention:
With the ever-changing number of formats and delivery avenues for content these days, I feel like pointing out that most people’s rules (mine included) for “Best of the Year Movie Lists” tend to isolate themselves to feature film releases (formerly distinguished by the easily identifiable adjective of theatrical releases), but as we know, there are great things out there that go straight-to-video and, yes, the so-called “boob tube“. Television has some great stuff and here’s one of the best “movies” I saw this year as a two part television episode:

louieLOUIE “In the Woods” Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 [USA]
This show consistently surprises me with its quality. Yes, it is funny because it is written, directed, edited, and stars one of the most successful stand-up comics of the 21st century. But that’s not why it’s great. It’s because Louis Szekely is a storyteller who happens to also be a filmmaker. Rather than rely on the usual sketch-based, joke-baiting pieces found in contemporary television or blockbuster comedies, he chooses to tell a human story, albeit usually with an element of absurdity, focused on telling a particular truth(s). “In the Woods” aired as two consecutive episodes on FX (as with most of his multi-episode arcs, there’s no need to have necessarily seen any previous seasons). It tells a story in flashback of a character billed as “Young Louie” and his teenage marijuana use that is spawned by the main character Louie’s realization that his young daughter has started her own experimentation. What makes this one of the best pieces of television (or motion pictures in general) that I saw in the past year is the way the story is told. Its tone is never false. Its point is never too broad or even deliberate in intent, but obviously meticulously crafted in its execution. It presents an story idea and allows you to choose what it is. It’s simply brilliant and I couldn’t keep from mentioning it here.

If you want to comment on the choices here (or not here), I will try to respond. While I enjoy trying to keep up with all the current stuff out there, I will now enjoy going back to watching whatever I want whenever I want. Thanks for reading!


2013 list

This is my list of what I consider to be the best movies of 2013. They are, as always, in alphabetical order, because ranking disparate films without any comparative context is ridiculous. I have only seen these movies once, so everything is based on my first impression. I saw a pathetically probable record number of films this year (175 total; 33 in a theater). Seeing so many makes it impossible not to like more than ten movies, so I have provided the usual secondary ten below them. Some of these others could have easily been in the top 10, but there are only so many places…I am sure I will change my mind as time passes and I see some again.  One of my criteria for choosing films is to get readers like yourself to consider watching them. I do not necessarily think that other so-called ‘high-profile films’ are unworthy of a place on a Top 10 list, but I may not have been as particularly moved by them enough to warrant a place on my personal list.  Feel free to comment on my choices and I will try to respond to whatever criticisms you may have. As always, thanks for reading.

antiviral_ver3_xlgANTIVIRAL (Canada)
This is the debut feature of Brandon Cronenberg (son of David). The very Cronenbergian concept alone makes this movie worth listing: in a celebrity-obsessed future, businesses trade in injectable sicknesses and ingestible enzymes made from the cell matter of particular celebrity’s bodies. The general public can buy these to put in their own bodies, so that we may feel closer to the objects of our desire. A technician from one of these virus companies smuggles a particularly new and certainly to-be-sought-out virus in his own body to profit on the black market. Trouble ensues. Shot in a detached, cerebral sheen, this film is both a great satire and a quirky sci-fi tale that just isn’t seen often enough these days (even if it has to be an in-the-family mutation).

byzantium_ver3_xlgBYZANTIUM (UK/USA/Ireland)
Well before it was even over, this film made me fall in love with it (along with Gemma Arterton and Saorise Ronan, of course). It is beautiful in its mixture of Gothic-horror and pulpy-thriller. Some may take issue with the small focus of the story (where there is far more backstory unseen), but among the slew of recent cinematic depictions of vampires, this is greatness. The so-called Old World and New World exist side-by-side in this thoroughly non-American story. I feel as if there are literary influences here I do not know, but that makes the film all the more unique for me. Neil Jordan has been working (back) up to this level of enchantment for awhile.

dans_la_maison_ver4_xlgDANS LA MAISON/IN THE HOUSE (France)
François Ozon has made some good movies, but this one is like a fantastic literary exercise on-screen. A disillusioned, French high-school literature teacher finds a student who begins writing a story with characters in his own life outside the school. As he tutors the student, and continues to receive installments of the story, the teacher becomes more involved in the story, and the line between the fiction and reality begins to blur into his own life. These stories are depicted in clever vignettes where teacher and student both comment and rewrite the narrative in front of our eyes. In a way this is a more classical, toned-down revisit of his anarchic Sitcom. Yet, Ozon brings to it better craft from the years in between making many a good film.

eventyrland_poster_1_640x914EVENTYRLAND/IT’S ONLY MAKE BELIEVE (Norway)
This was one of the surprises of my year. I watched this on a whim, not knowing a single thing about it. If you must know the general idea: it concerns a young, Norwegian woman working toward reuniting with her daughter born while she was in prison. It shows us the obstacles put in the way of the mother accomplishing this goal safely. We get to see what she did, we get to question what we think she deserves and does not, and decide whether we empathize with her unexpected outcome. It’s a great story filmed in a beautifully colored clarity that lifts it out of its otherwise dreary atmosphere.

herHER (USA)
Spike Jonze delivers both the best sci-fi film of the year and quite possibly the best romance. This is a film that imagines a future not quite so far away in which our world is that much more connected through technology and disconnected from each other. Other films have broached the subject (this year’s Disconnect, while an improvement upon Crash, attempts similar themes albeit much more melodramatically), but this film contemplates the reality of artificial intelligence in a way that makes it less a fantasy spectacle (like say, that singular Kubrick/Spielberg amalgam) and more an extension of our own flawed humanity. Jonze finds a tone here that is magical. I can accept that many people will not see the greatness in it. Perhaps it does not work for them.  So be it. It is not meant to be all-encompassing or universally applicable (to delve out of the particular class of people focused on in its Los Angeles/Shanghai hybrid would be too broad), yet I fail to see a more relevant discourse on the nature of desire in our coming century.

mud_xlrgMUD (USA)
There were a lot of very good movies featuring children this year (see the end of this list), but this one stands out for me. It is a drama, with its share of comedy, about the misperceptions of love and friendship. It is about coming to terms with one’s own place in a relationship with another (husband and wife, parent and child, girl and boy, criminal and innocent, etc.). It is the third film by Jeff Nichols that I think is excellent. I’ve never been to Arkansas, but this feels authentic to me. Sam Shepard is amazing with how little he needs to do to get across his character (Nichols could fill his universe with a slew of Shepard’s own theatre characters). Matthew McConaughey deserves some sort of quantity of quality award for this past year or so. However, Tye Sheridan is the lead actor here and he carries us through this film quite well. I was jokingly expecting something like Russkies, and got something akin to Mark Twain.

past_ver2_xlgLE PASSÉ/THE PAST (France/Italy/Iran)
I saw Asghar Fahradi’s previous film, A Separation, late last year. Perhaps this is why I did not definitively see it as one the best films of the year. A year later, it still stands as the masterful family drama that it is. Here he has moved from Iran to France and given us another story of divorce, but one that is entirely different in its dynamic. It is more recognizably Western (as in occidental, not cowboy), involving children from different families and marriages. Rather than an act of misplaced aggression, we have one that revolves around the consequences of depression. Rather than see conflict that stems from the roots of Iranian patriarchy, we have a story that deals with more general infidelities and untruths. This is a story about how the past continues to reveal itself to us in our remembrance of it in the present; how we may want to forget the past, and move on, but it is always intimately tied to our entire continuum of time. There are many places in the film where, near the end of a scene, a character just stops, turns around, and returns to where he or she was before. This is us remembering the past of what just happened, or what should have happened, and continuing accordingly. To see this in a motion picture is a close as we can get to seeing real life. This film certainly belongs among the best of this or any other year.

tian_zhu_ding_xlgTIAN ZHU DING/A TOUCH OF SIN (China)
I’ll be honest and say this is the first Jia Zhang-ke film I’ve actually enjoyed watching. I’ve always had issues with his extremely slow pace and perhaps not understanding the cultural context well enough (which, of course, would be my fault and not his). Yet, here he essentially takes a few separate stories (which are connected in some ways, in others not so much) and gives us a tableaux of modern China through a questioning gaze. The questions he poses are not all entirely clear, but they are interesting to me as one who does not get to see them anywhere from my American worldview. One could say this is a crime picture (as the trailer persuades), which helps draw viewers, but that is a bit reductive. One could also say that this is a religious picture, but religion does not really play much of a role inside the story. Rather, it seems to be a kind of meditation on the soul of a country’s people. Much of this I do not have the cultural context to fully understand (see above). Yet, the filmmaker draws characters that I am interested in because they are both different from me and relatable in their (suffering) humanity. Not so much a cohesive picture as an incomparable achievement of a time and place in history.

upstream_color_xlrgUPSTREAM COLOR (USA)
Shane Carruth has made an indescribable film. For all the time-travelling complexity of his amazing first film Primer, this exists on a whole other plane. Even though I have my own plot for this film, I don’t think you can ever really know what is actually happening, because it is constructed in a way where you have to make the interpretative leaps to create your own logical sense of the outline. Yet, it gives you enough to see the deliberate way in which it does this. It is an experience like no other I have had in the Cinema (it is a bit too cerebrally science-y to have the emotional confundity of a Mullholland Drive and a bit less formally rigid than a Last Year at Marienbad, but surely there’s some precedent I’m not aware of?). After reading his abandoned screenplay for A Topiary (what he had been working on for the past several years), I have an even greater respect for this kind of unknowable, visually spatial storytelling. You could say that it occupies a sci-fi/fantasy space, in that it contains things and concepts that do not exist in reality, but it is merely a story of characters that unfolds. I am not doing this film justice in my words, so I will stop writing. Because I do this, you will stop reading for a moment. Now.

vie_dadele_la_ver2_xlgLA VIE D’ADÈLE/BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (France/Belgium/Spain)
Adèle Exarchopoulos is simply a marvel to behold here. If you are somehow unaware of this past year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner (that Steven Spielberg controversially awarded not just to the director, but to both actresses as well), it is a story of a young woman’s first, unexpected, all-consuming love. Yes, it’s three hours. Yes, there is very graphic (girl) sex. Yes, there are many uncounted for time lapses in continuity. Yes, there are valid criticisms of the characterization in places. But the feeling of this actress; this character, is a glory. The framing is so close sometimes its like you can touch her emotion. A modern love story that I loved at the cinema.

And another ten:

at_any_price_xlrgAT ANY PRICE (USA)
I saw this film early this year, but I remember my initial impression being mixed. Roger Ebert very noticeably proclaimed the director, Ramin Bahrani, “the new great American film director”. This is his first film after that pronouncement and his first film with so-called “professional” actors. It is also a bit (too much?) of a melodrama, in the way it focuses on the changing relationship between a particular family of Iowa farmers from grandfather to father to son. Like Bahrani’s excellent Man Push Cart, this is a socially conscious film about struggling and scheming to achieve the seemingly now impossible American Dream. I had some problems with the way the plot turned out here and I was also put off a bit by the deliberate acting of both Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid in certain parts of the film. Having said that, the film feels like it could have been one of the best of the year with some slight alterations. I can’t figure out if I’m being too critical or if I just need to see it again. I put it here for you to decide.

breathe_in_xlrgBREATHE IN (USA)
I enjoyed Doremus’ previous film, Like Crazy, about the problems of a British-American long distance relationship when one person’s visa expires and is sent back across the sea. This film concerns the problems that arise in an upstate New York family when a British foreign-exchange student comes to stay with them. Felicity Jones makes both of these films particularly better than average. Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan bring something that would probably make this more of a forgettable film otherwise. Music is used here as an enchanting force. I would have higher praises for this film if it omitted one particular scene that I felt made everything a bit too obvious. It would have been nice to see a bit more restraint on the part of the storytelling to make the conflict that much more engrossing. I’ll refrain from specifics.

future_weatherFUTURE WEATHER (USA)
This is my idea of a Young Adult movie. The girl in this (Perla Haney-Jardine) is amazing. Her character is 13 years old and she loves science (perhaps because of, or in spite of, having so little real love around her). Her mother moves away, abandoning her in a flight of what appears to be regular fancy, at the moment her grandmother (and only other relative) is planning to finally retire to Florida. The girl tries to be self-sufficient, all the while pointing out the disastrous effects of global warming to her encouraging science teacher and others. These are some of the parts of the whole that make up this slice-of-life in the mind of an atypical teenage girl. While clearly the work of a filmmaker early in their career, Jenny Deller is one to watch.

The-Girl-2012-1THE GIRL (USA/MEXICO)
Abbie Cornish is what makes this movie so good. Her character is at times both unlikable and pitiable. The moral complications that she embarks upon are both deliberate and completely unguided. David Riker continues his focus here on immigration, though from a different locale and perspective than his previous La Ciduad. The atmosphere of the bordertown is filmed in an almost unnoticeably dreamlike way. The film also has a bit to say about America in its depiction of the search for luck and the certainty of desperation. Something about it continues to stick with me. This is a film that I need to see again to really know what I think about it. It is a tragedy that makes one think about the levels of adversity that exist between our different social strata. One person’s dire straits is another person’s ordinary day.

la_grande_bellezza_ver2_xlgLE GRANDE BELLEZZA (Italy)
I have yet to see any of Paolo Sorrentino’s other films, but his cinematic lavishness obviously stands out as a talent regardless of the film’s content. The comparison I thought of, and it seems many others are making, is to fellow Italian Federico Fellini. Specifically, this film plays out like a contemporary La Dolce Vita. The main character, a writer of some regard, navigates through a nightlife of parties in Rome with a dry, absurdist viewpoint. We follow him through this plotless, decadent, and seemingly empty lifestyle of which he no longer feels satisfied. This is a film made by a man in his mid 40s, with a handful of feature films. Yet to me, it feels like the end cap to a long career of filmmaking. An achievement to be sure.

lore_ver2_xlgLORE (Germany/Australia/UK)
A girl’s Nazi-supporting parents are taken away near the end of WWII and she is left to flee with her younger siblings across the countryside of Germany. Suffice to say, they don’t have a good time of it. At a particularly life-threatening moment, a young Jewish man helps them pass a soldier checkpoint and they work together to continue to survive. This Australian film, in German, is filmed with a kind of empathy for the uncertainty of youth that transcends its political circumstances. We see characters that hold deeply ingrained beliefs challenged by circumstances that expose the flaws in their ideology. This complexity is what makes the characterizations so compelling.

middle_of_nowhere_xlgMIDDLE OF NOWHERE (USA)
This is a film about a woman’s life while her husband serves time in jail. Many issues arise during this time and she struggles with her relationship with him, her career, her mother, and overall well-being. The time served, by her, is a kind of imprisonment that she has to come to terms with. This is a slow, small character drama featuring an African-American female protagonist. This fact alone is unfortunately worth pointing out, since it is such a rare perspective in (American) Cinema. Ava DuVernay’s first feature, I Will Follow, is another micro-budget feature that is worth checking out. I will be happy to watch anything by her in the future.

short_term_twelve_xlrgSHORT TERM 12 (USA)
There’s always been something about Brie Larson. She’s never had a lead role before this picture, but she gives what is clearly one of the best of the year here (in the English language at least). If I was allowed to give out Oscars, she would get it for this. Maybe the idea of watching a movie about line staff at a juvenile temporary psych facility isn’t how you want to spend 100 minutes. If so, it’s your loss. The movie itself has some structural problems, but the performances, hers especially, are very affecting. There are several moments in the film where I can recognize some of the facial expressions Larson is making from personal, real-life observation. I’ll just leave it at that. This is one of the most recent on the list that I’ve seen, so I’m still in the thrall of it.

what_maisie_knew_ver2_xlrgWHAT MAISIE KNEW (USA)
This is a story of a young child who is shuttled between caregivers as her parents go through a divorce. Updated from the 1897 Henry James novel to modern-day New York City, this is a sensitive portrait of a child made to love in fractions. Each of the parents’ caregivers play an important role in the child’s life while the mother focuses on her music career and the father some overseas business. This seems to be a story of how non-traditional family can fill a void. Yet, because most of what we observe is through the child’s perspective, we never get a judgment made on the adults involved. That’s left for us to choose whether or not to make as viewers.

wolf_of_wall_street_ver3_xlrgTHE WOLF OF WALL STREET (USA)
Martin Scorsese revisits the themes of several of his movies here, swapping gangsters and organized crime for stockbrokers and, well, organized crime. It is a flurry of a three-hour movie, that has many superb scenes that add up to a worthwhile, if not completely unique, whole. Been there, done that? Not in this way and not with this cast. DiCaprio is fearless (peerless?) in his portrayal of a man who cheated the innocent AND the system (It was DiCaprio who originally optioned Jordan Belfort‘s book). Jonah Hill is surprisingly adept at the tragi-comic foil (those teeth do wonders for his character). It’s slick and one-dimensional in its surface appearance, but the film brings a hedonism that crosses a line into commentary, if one chooses to simply see the forest of green (money) through the trees.

Special Mention:

To_the_Wonder_posterTO THE WONDER (USA)
I asked myself, “Does this film really belong on my list when there are other films I could persuade someone to see?”. So I put it here, outside the list but still attached (where it metaphorically resides in its place in the world anyway). If you haven’t seen a Terence Malick film, by God, do not start with this one (I suggest starting with the first two, or the previous three, in order). This is the first of his set in the present-day, believe it or not. Yet, it still exists in his liminal universe of what could be called “philosophical spiritualism” (ok, I just made that up). There are many beautifully composed shots of people looking, thinking, or moving without saying anything. There is much ethereal voice-over to let you know what is being thought by the minds and bodies that stand in for their representation of larger humanity (Malick hasn’t really had what you can call “characters” in a while). Fall in love with Olga Kurylenko, then think about what that means for you as a viewer. Watch the ending minutes again to see if you can figure out just what exactly is supposed to be happening (or is being imagined to, or may have, or didn’t happen). These aren’t people, they are forms of life with human actors for bodies (aliens or spirits, or maybe both). I put this here because Malick makes films like no one else. They may not be for you, but like all observable things in the universe they (seem to) exist. You are free to choose.

I’d also like to add a few documentaries that could have gone on the list, but I isolated them out to the end here just to recommend them:

institute_xlrgTHE INSTITUTE (USA)
My favorite documentary of the year follows (and continues to build upon) the strange ‘alternate reality game’ (ARG) that manifest in San Francisco circa 2011 known as The Jejune Institute. Feel free to get sucked down the rabbit hole, even though it’s too late. Nonchalance and Elsewhere live on, because the Internet archives the fantasy. The gamemakers may be starting something new sometime soon. A fun cultish journey, regardless.


source-familyTHE SOURCE FAMILY (USA)
Documents a particular hippie commune culture in 1970s Hollywood supported by a burgeoning health food empire. Father Yod, a polyamorous patriarch, leads his followers into an utopian journey of self-obssessed sharing and idolatry. Interviews with some of these people in the present tense range from retrospectively damning to continued spiritual reverence. An interesting look into an, if not forgotten, lesser known slice of life from our recent, very American past. Some pretty groovy music included.


stories_we_tell_ver2_xlgSTORIES WE TELL (Canada)
Sarah Polley, Canadian actress and filmmaker, looks into her family history and decides to make a documentary about it. Yet, the document is not just of her family, but of the discovery process in and of itself. She interviews family members about stories known and unknown and even those she thought she knew but perhaps did not. She gives life to old stories, reshaping the truth of some in the process, uncovering what some thought and others knew (and vice versa). She interrogates her own family to get at whose version might be correct, finding the difference between a memory and the truth, all the while playing with our idea of it as an audience. A truly personal, yet imminently relatable story about storytelling.


In trying to find some sort of cohesion to the year in cinema, one particular tendency that stands out for me is the amount of very good films featuring children and teens (granted some of the actors are playing younger than they actually are). Aside from the aforementioned FUTURE WEATHER, LORE, MUD, and SHORT TERM 12, I would point out the following: ARCADIA, BLUE CAPRICEELECTRICK CHILDREN, GIMME THE LOOT, I DECLARE WAR, THE KINGS OF SUMMER, THE SELFISH GIANT, THE SPECTACULAR NOW, THE WAY, WAY BACK, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, and even SPRING BREAKERS. Many of these films could be on the list above. In fact, some of them probably should be. These films all rely on performances by young actors that bring something to the screen that sets them apart. In many of these stories, adults take a secondary role, if at all, to the emotional core provided by the younger performances. I’m not sure what this means in terms of identifying trends, but with the clear financial upswing of Young Adult literature being optioned for the screen, it’s nice to know that well-constructed stories with sufficiently complex characters are still being offered in this age range (in comparison to the likes of the YA blockbuster spectacles). Yea for Cinema.

Thanks again for reading.


The Canyons (2013)

canyons_ver2_xlgI’ve chosen to return from the blog grave to write about THE CANYONS. Why, oh, why? This should not be taken as a ringing endorsement of the picture. In fact I’m not sure I even “liked it”. However, it does attempt to say a few interesting things, ranging from heavy-handed to slightly oblique, yet in a not-quite-entirely-successful way. I have written a little about Paul Schrader here before. I’ve even talked to the man in person (ooh I’m special), but that, of course, doesn’t qualify me to judge this picture with any kind of authority or intelligence. I’ve only read a bit by Bret Easton Ellis (confession: I never finished reading American Psycho because “I was, all, like, I think I GET IT, DUDE” after a short way into the book. Registered trademark phrase brought to you by XYZ industries Etc.), but this is a VERY interesting mesh of two (male) sensibilities. Let’s call it Calvinist Nihilism, shall we?

SO, onto the picture at hand. What everybody wants to know: What’s up with Lindsay Lohan? How “bad” is she in the picture? Well, surprisingly, Lohan is not bad in this picture. She’s not great, but many of her flaws (figurative and, well, figurative) work for the role. How naked does she get? (topless with a moderate ubiquity). What about James Deen? (better acting, less shots below the waist, than usual I assume). Some hyper-aware critics have referred to this picture as camp (whether it was intentional or not). There is that layer to it, but it is not played for camp in ways that make it any more entertaining (which would be the point of the affectation, no?). The better descriptor would be “meta“. While I agree this is a highly overused descriptor in our post-post-modern media landscape (e.g. NBC’s Community), it is the appropriate oeuvre, if you will, of a so-called Ellis-Schrader combo. This film not only namechecks its “real world” tabloid-life/drama surrounding its two separate leads, but it strives to be a commentary on the current state of cinema economics as it relates to the lack of oil in the dream factory cogs, so-to-speak.





In interpretative terms Lohan(‘s character) is effectively a stand-in for the current state of Schrader’s career. (S)He is trapped in a relationship where s/he has to do what the Money says and if she wants something from him/it, she must receive approval before doing it, or simply assume she should do it to maintain the situation of having “somebody to take care of me”. She has a former lover named Ryan (Nolan Funk), or in Schrader’s case named New American Cinema, that doesn’t make money anymore, so he isn’t more than a nostalgia trip, realistically. So, even though (s)he loves it/him, she confines herself to a performance of a relationship that involves sharing herself with other sexual partners (Schrader’s foreign & Kickstarter financial backers?) at her producer boyfriend’s will. Got it?

The Money, lovingly named after the preeminent socio-financial movement of the previous Millennium, Christian, (Deen’s character/Ellis’ attitude/the producers of every failed Schrader film) is so self-obsessed and lacking actual humanity/creativity that it/he merely does what it wants when it wants, lies when it needs to, and generally expects everyone and everything to go along with this because it is so obviously aware of its viably essential part in the hearts and minds of the heartless and mindless eco(nomic)system. If I cared enough to elaborate further (or make it a bit more coherent), this religious/cinematic metaphor probably plays much better than I am describing (this is Paul Schrader were talking about here), especially with the head-crushing obviousness of the beginning and ending stills of hollowed out movie theaters, like glimpses into some kind of empirically existent artistic apocalypse.


Lohan’s line, as featured prominently in the trailer, is aptly meta, where she asks in a rhetorically Schraderesque way: “Do you really like movies? When’s the last time you went to see a movie in a theatre? You know, a movie that you really thought meant something to you?” For the indoctrinated so-called cinephile like myself, who are fortunate to (at least currently) have a great University Cinema (surely existent only because of tax dollars and philanthropy), this very relevant cultural question may not personally apply quite much as of yet. Yet, for the rest of America and much of the so-called late-capitalist Globe, this is an important thing to ponder. Schrader, Ellis, and yes, even possibly Lohan (on an unconscious level, I suppose) are clearly positing a question: Why create art for the masses if they are going to download it from iTunes steal it and watch it on a tiny handheld screen while consuming it like so much detritus amongst the multitasking multitudes? Why bother producing/writing/acting in/directing a film at all, if everyone expects you to be awful in it or views it as a joke before it even starts? According to me these are questions you should be asking when watching this otherwise relatively conventional, digital motion-picture product. If you don’t, it might just be too boring (though I admit Deen holds what attention he can working within the strictures of his Ellis penned aw-shucks-sociopath).





IF this was Schrader or Lohan’s last film, I would say it is an apt closing “fuck you” to everyone. Travis Bickle or Patrick Bateman responded to their environments with violence. In this later, aged, though debatably more mature time, our younger (though arguably just as emotionally weathered) protagonist(s) has no outlet for escape. The institutional hegemony (here the Money/Hollywood/Deen’s character) has all the power. He/It must always be “in control”. And so we are, at least within the confines of this depiction of Hollywood, without hope. Yet, unlike a depiction of post-Vietnam or Reagan-era type despair, the options for rebellion now seem controlled by forces beyond individualist action. Schrader is clearly screaming under all the muted melodrama here that FILM IS DEAD. Not just the celluloid factories that physically produce the film stock, but the culture of inquisitiveness and cultural dialogue that projected it. And, of course, more essential to its creation, dead is the model for its self-sufficiency as an economic product (go see how easy it is to consume it without compensating the makers). Ellis has seemingly milked this type of post-defeatist attitude in his literary pursuits for decades. Schrader has always had a so-called outsider’s point-of-view of Cinema. Does this mean that we have to accept all this doom-and-gloom? Well, there is still Art being made. Some of it quite affecting and good. But if you think there’s a New-New American Cinema coming anytime soon, keep dreamin’ among the factory ruins. If anything, you may only be reading about it on the Internet and eventually succumb to stealing rather than hope Netflix will potentially license it for temporary streaming or that you can afford to pay for the luxury of cable channels that will make it available to temporarily rent in addition to your already exorbitant monthly bill. These are the thoughts that Schrader brings to the table: Put Lindsay Lohan in your picture, cut a trailer that (mis)appropriates your art as a properly objectified product and intentionally direct information to the media that plays up the kind of on-set antics an audience would need to expect to peak their interest. In other words, act like you’re making garbage and maybe people will flock to the smell. But, there can be interesting bits in every garbage can, if you are hungry enough to look.

canyons-marioncrane canyons-rearview



2012 list

Here’s my best-of-2012 list that I have finally made myself post. I saw a record low number of films from this year (barely over 100). So, if you think I’m reaching a bit with some choices, I might be. Also a note upfront that English, French, and a bit of Korean are, sadly, the only languages represented here. Don’t ask me why they continue to dominate (I did see others). As always, each ten is listed in alphabetical order because numerically ranking movies is impossible. I reserve the right to change this list until the Academy Awards (if it’s past then, I obviously haven’t changed it because this sentence is still here). Don’t ask why you should care about such an arbitrary extension of time to see other movies. As always, there’s still plenty I haven’t seen….

amourAmour (Austria)
Michael Haneke gives us a story about the strength of Love wrapped in the slow, helpless, eventualness of Death. His usual lack of sentimentality adds weight to a film that, by nearly any other fillmmaker, would be wrought with melodrama. Comparisons to Bergman here are apt, though I hesitate to wonder what that means for Haneke in the future. It’s worth pointing out that the two lead actors stand in for a life of Cinema, as they have been on screen for over 50 years each. Also, if you feel like killing yourself after this (or any Haneke) movie, try checking out the fake Twitter in his name…

Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA)
An enchanting film set in a world that is both our own and nowhere close; it’s a kind of ethnographic mythology of the Southern bayou. I am grateful for having seen this the theatre, since it is such an immersive experience. I am better off for being one of the people who knows that there once was a Hushpuppy who lived with her daddy in the bathtub. The lead actress (Quvenzhané Wallis) was 8 years old in this movie. Just making sure you knew that.

cloud_atlas_ver2Cloud Atlas (USA/Germany/Hong Kong)
I have a hard time understanding why this film is so disappointing to some. It is overly ambitious, but that’s the point. A truly epic undertaking that is both experimental and utterly conventional. You may not care for a particular story, or actor, or choice of makeup prosthetic, but taken as a whole experience, what’s not to like? It is your fault if you didn’t know that the running time is close to three hours long. The ensemble is put to a uniquely great use, but, for me, Doona Bae is simply amazing.

holy_motors_ver2Holy Motors (France/Germany)
Leos Carax awakens from a literal and figurative Cinema slumber to bring a tale without any context outside its own creation. Denis Lavant gets to play the fool (and the monster, assassin, father, lover, etc.) and Edith Scob gets to revisit her Franju mask. Leave any expectation of a conventional narrative behind; each performance segment is its own internal movie. The Intermission is perhaps the most joyous scene I saw all year.

innkeepersThe Innkeepers (USA)
A throwback to the slow-boil of the 1980s supernatural horror film that doesn’t need blood or guts to draw you in. This is Ti West‘s strongest film yet. I hope to see more. Some thought this movie was too slow. Those of us that have sat through the first hour of many a 90 minute horror movie to just see it all get started know better.

looperLooper (USA/China)
Time travel is a favorite conceit of mine. There’s not much screen time given to its construction here (the science part of the fiction is jokingly swept aside). Rian Johnson continues his skewing of the genre picture and gives us a nice story about weighing one’s own individuality with that of another (which, in this case, could be one’s other self). And, of course, it’s fun to watch JGL ‘s intentionally weird looking face.

master_ver2The Master (USA)
I was among the initial impressions that this is not a Paul Thomas Anderson “masterwork” (that being said I also feel like I was holding it to such high comparative scrutiny), yet it was intriguing enough throughout to still be one of the most interesting movie-going experiences of the year. Joaquin Phoenix gives a performance of such physicality that really hasn’t been seen since the time period the film covers (from the likes of Dean or Brando. Seriously). Whatever you might think of the actual character (and his interplay with Hoffman and Adams‘s also less-than-likeable characters), it really is that good.

Moonrise Kingdom (USA)
Wes Anderson finally figures out that his sensibility works best with child actors as the leads. While not as nearly well directed as Rushmore, I do think it might be the best of his films after this. While I have my issues with parts of it, it does try for a less jarringly obvious musical palette this time. While it may, in ways, seem like a yellow and green version of The Royal Tenenbaums, I think it is a worthy revision of his past attempts at whatever you think he has been doing so far. I think he is a meticulously good director, but I wish he would try an adaptation of something outside his own mind for once. If you couldn’t tell, I am ambivalent about Wes Anderson. The rhetorical question that follows this statement is: Why is this film on this list, then? See above, I guess.

rust_and_boneDe rouille et d’os/Rust and Bone (France/Belgium)
This was at the top of my to-see list as soon as I heard of its existence. Maybe I had high expectations. Maybe I loved this movie anyway. Matthias Schoenaerts is, to me, simply one of the most interesting actors out there right now. Marion Cotillard is stunningly unique here. It’s a bit more pulpy than some might expect, but it doesn’t pull punches. It just throws them at you. It’s best to not try to figure out where they’re coming from ahead of time and just let the film knock you out.

Your Sister’s Sister (USA)
Lynn Shelton reconfigures the chamber drama, with a low budget, by just letting us see three great performances. Mark Duplass is everywhere now, but I am on the bandwagon. Emily Blunt (who I could normally take or leave, has never been better) and Rosemarie DeWitt give us sisters I feel like we can believe. I want to say that it’s like a ‘fractional Big Chill‘, but I’m not sure if I really know what that means exactly.

And here are another ten that stand out from the rest:

Berberian_Sound_StudioBerberian Sound System (UK)
Toby Jones plays an English sound ‘genius’ flown in to work in an Italian film studio on some sort of giallo-like “horror” movie. He doesn’t speak the language, so we don’t get subtitles. He is isolated, so we are isolated. He goes a little crazy, so…. This is one of those movies where people complain that “nothing happens in the entire film”, but its all about sound, see, so you have to listen and feel and, well, it’s slow and not very conventional. I thought it was interesting, because its not like anything I’ve seen before while also having seen little bits of all of it in other places. If anything, it has the year’s best opening title sequence for a movie that is not the movie you are watching.

chained_ver3Chained (USA/Canada)
Jennifer Chambers Lynch does the serial killer thing again. I was not expecting much from this film with the (intentional?) tonal mess that her previous two features were. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a performance perhaps above (perhaps even slightly outside) the construction of this film, but I found some of the scenes between him and the younger (and especially the even younger) male riveting to watch. While the suggested explanations for their motivations is a bit psychologically lacking, check this out if you like this type of depraved genre pic.

complianceCompliance (USA)
Craig Zobel takes the ‘based on a true story’ and makes it about more than the sum of its parts. It’s about ‘merica, people; a metaphor for our an ageless time. Uncomfortable without fault. Maybe that’s why it’s the only picture on the list here that I bothered posting about previously (I tried for some others, but didn’t bother posting).

killer_joeKiller Joe (USA)
Trash theatre to the extreme. Exploitation at its core. Freidkin takes on Tracy Letts again and builds an NC-17 worthy (though recut for an R-rating) farce. Lots of stupidity. Lots of uncomfortable situations. Matthew McConaughey had year full of crazy good roles and this one might be the best of them. Don’t plan on eating fried chicken afterwards…

les_miserablesLes Miserables (UK)
Some parts fall flat (literally), but it has enough accomplished grandiosity to be worth listing here. Hugh Jackman takes on the role like very few could do as well and Anne Hathaway‘s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a glory to behold in its single take of on-set singing. Yes, there are better singers, and for some roles, even better actors, but I was pleasantly suprised at how well it turned out for such an ‘intentionally big’ movie.

not_fade_awayNot Fade Away (USA)
David Chase (the creator of The Sopranos) captures the essence of early rock n’ roll in this anti-bio-pic of the 1960s. A story about the band that never made it. Recollections of time not so perfect. Nostalgia done right. And the soundtrack ain’t bad either.

ruby_sparksRuby Sparks (USA)
Zoe Kazdan (yes, grand-daughter of Elia) co-stars as the title character of her debut screenplay about a young male writer who writes himself a girlfriend out of thin air. Of course, it ain’t that easy. The film has its problems, but the conceit is such a good one, and played well enough by Paul Dano and Kazan, that it deserves a mention here.

seven_psychopathsSeven Psychopaths (UK)
I’d like to think Martin McDonagh had some problems writing a script and this was the result. Or maybe he just took a page from Charlie Kaufman and was going to end up getting this meta-crime farce out of the process anyway. Either way he manages to send up every cliche proposed while making it both funny and functional at the same time. I would guess the great ensemble of actors agreed. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken in the same movie. How could you pass this up?

sleepwalk_with_meSleepwalk with Me (USA)
Mike Birbiglia plays Matt Pandamiglio, who, surprise, happens to be based on himself (and based on the book he wrote before the movie); a stand-up comic with a sleeping disorder who is also dealing with life/relationship problems. It’s one of the best movies about road comics out there. Well, there aren’t that many. But it’s still one of the best so far. Helped along this year by the ingenious idea of having Joss Whedon challenge it in box office gross, and then appear to actually take that challenge on.

sound_of_my_voiceSound of My Voice (USA)
Brit Marling gives us an intriguing little mental sci-fi drama akin to last year’s Another Earth that deals with the cult of personality and what an individual can bring to it. Though one may see where it’s going, it still seems like a great riff on the genre. Looking forward to more from her and her collaborators.

Special Mention:
zero_dark_thirty_ver3Zero Dark Thirty (USA)
There’s a lot of controversy about this movie, apparently (find your own links for that). More importantly, there’s also a lot of very good film criticism about it. I have refrained from putting it in my list proper, because I’m not really sure what to think about it yet. I think this is one of those films that you can gain more from the discussion than the actual film. It is constructed in such a way as to be a springboard for whatever one wants to perceive it as. The film shows torture. The film shows negotiation. Are we to infer that the torture brings about a state amenable to negotiation, or that negotiation succeeds where torture fails? Like the film, reality does not always present a logical answer. As the links above point out, this film is about the puzzle of knowledge-building in the face of (mis)perception. I agree that the refrain: “Partial information is treated like a lie” is key. The film is nothing but partial information. Cinema is nothing but partial information (where Reality is the under-perception of all information?). Whatever one believes, (the) film, masterpiece or not, can therefore be nothing but a lie.


Cracks (2009)

cracksI’ll have to admit upfront, I like boarding school movies. There is something about the isolation; the enclosed space of solitude among rigorous collective order that makes me interested from the get-go. And, of course, the plaid uniforms aren’t bad either. Having said that, this movie has so much else going on. For one, it stars the incomparable Eva Green. Having managed to move from Bertolucci seductress to historical queen to Bond girl to a most recently movie-stealing turn as a vamping vampiress, she is pretty impressive (some may emphasize the pretty more than the impressive, but I believe the full clause stands rather well as a descriptor). However, this is also Juno Temple‘s film. She astounds here in ways that I will not be able to articulate. So, I’ll not try to get to that yet.

Let’s point out that this is also impressively Jordan Scott‘s first feature film. She is the elder daughter of Sir Ridley. She directs this Picnic at Hanging Rock meets Lord of the Flies type setup here, with some Sapphic Jean Brodie/Lillian Hellman Children’s Hour thrown in to boot (if none of that means anything to you, then this movie will probably seem that much more unique to you). It’s a cruelly beautiful picture about lost innocence, though perhaps more specifically about the sublimation of that innocence in place of ‘growing up’.





I won’t bore myself with relating the plot, suffice to say it’s about a group of adolescent girls who must contend with a new girl being thrust into their clique at a private Protestant boarding school in 1930s Britain, and how it effects their being led/enchanted by their teacher and swim team coach whom they affectionately refer to as Miss G. As the story progresses we learn more about this Miss G and the dangers of said enchanting qualities. I’ll just leave it at that. It is a visually lyrical (ok, I don’t really know what that phrase means) piece that unfolds with rolling landscapes and an attention to recreating a time and place that I would obviously know nothing about personally.

Unlike, say, The Moth Diaries, another erotically charged girls boarding school film from earlier this year, it is entirely grounded in reality. Yet, this reality is an enclosed one in which its characters live in a kind of fantasy world of stories that fill their developing minds. While it borrows from some of the aforementioned films in its depiction (the look of Weir’s Picnic comes easily to mind), it feels like it is its own creation.

The film noticeably contains absolutely no male characters, aside from the few brief scenes outside the school. I mention this because I do not want to force a Queer view onto the film, but it calls for one quite clearly. The tension is there from the opening moments of the film. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the film to me. The genre obviously carries numerous examples of this, but I cannot think of another film off the top of my head that treats its subject in such a way as to balance its flights of fancy with an equal sense of dark paralysis.
Some have/will criticize the film for its lack of development near the end. We naturally have questions. I have questions about the Juno Temple character, Di, and how her experience here informs her own sexuality. The film chooses to leave this aside, despite my feeling that this is in large part what her character development is about (and by extension what a significant portion of the film is partially about). Scott seems to intentionally ride-the-line between innocent girlishness and full-on homo-infatuation (if you will excuse the uncouth phrase) in a way that is entirely non-verbal. This is frustrating, but not altogether unaccomplished. Miss G equally acts alongside the girls (or perhaps more so) as if she lives within a fanciful story, yet because she is an “adult” the film occasionally reveals her true emptiness of character as a person. The ‘midnight feast’ scene comes to mind with Temple in her quasi-drag paste-on mostauche, crouching in candlelight, applying makeup to the Spanish princess. The scene screams for an intimacy that is beyond the years (in age) of the girls. Contrasting this with the subsequent scene of said princess with Miss G underlines that innocence. As I write these veiled not-so spoilery thoughts, I want to make the comparison to Sofia Coppola‘s The Virgin Suicides. Cracks is, in my mind, a much more accomplished take on this time of adolescence. Perhaps this is merely because it avoids the music-video-like aesthetic for a more conventionally ‘painterly’ cinematography (perhaps it is too simplistic to attribute this to a stereotypical difference between American and British visual tastes?). Though perhaps its superiority comes from its being made by a woman more mature (in age and obvious influence) in her debut film.




A more tangential thought follows here about how children learn from their filmmaker parents. It wouldn’t be fair to compare these individuals on the basis of one film (or retrospectively across an unbalanced output), but I find it interesting, personally, that I am more impressed with this debut than Sofia Coppola’s, because I have recently come to realize how much of the output of Ridley Scott that I consider as ‘auteuristly groundbreaking’ (or whatever you want to call it) as that of Francis Ford Coppola. Trailing back off into the land of incomprehension now….



Compliance (2012)

Compliance is a disturbing film. Some critics are laughing at its ‘unbelievable’ plot, despite it being based on true, verifiable stories(obviously, don’t click if you do not want to know what happens in the film). I think these critics are missing the point (I would link to some, but I don’t want to single any one out in particular). It is not a story to be entertained by. The writer-director, Craig Zobel, is not wanting us to get lost in the story. We are supposed to be questioning the believability here. In our questions of “How could this ever happen?” or our flabbergasted exclamations of “There’s no way this would ever happen!”, we should be reminding ourselves: But it did happen. And go back to our original question.
It’s all there in the title: Compliance. Just as some people are programmed to never respond well to authority, others are the opposite. There are many people that would do whatever someone in authority tells them to do, because that is what they have been told is the right thing to do. And everyone wants to do the right thing (even if they don’t know what that actually is). This is backed up by countless examples like the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment. Society conditions subservience. After all, that is what civilization is: a collective reigning in of our individual base instincts and desires.

What makes this film so interesting is the way in which it leaves us to work all of this out for ourselves. Perhaps I am putting way too much onto the film myself that is not actually there in its construction. I would argue this is not the case, though. It is specifically framed in ways to prompt us to bring up these questions. However, it is only a questioning film for those in the audience that are prompted to question it. It is making its point by showing us our own predilections. If you say, “that could never happen”, then are you predisposed toward not being one of the characters in the story? Do I find this disturbing because I am one of those people who is more likely to blindly follow authority? I don’t think I am, but I wonder if there are less extreme situations where I have/have not done just that. For those that are so cynical as to laugh at the unbelievability of the situations, I wonder if some of these viewers are merely laughing at their own blindness; not being able to see the nuances of psychological control that are at work here. That may seem pretentious on my part to suggest this, but since these things actually did happen, one has to wonder why some people have such a strong negative reaction toward the film’s believability. There is a lot to not ‘enjoy’ about the picture, but I don’t expect to be entertained by everything I see. Sometimes a film makes me think. That is usually an indication that I will want to let people know about it. Because I allowed it to manipulate me into a state of contemplation. The difference here between this film and, say, primetime news or a non-fiction documentary, is that it is dramatized. We are predisposed toward empathy (and therefore emotional illogicalness) here. Like with his debut feature (Great World of Sound), Zobel gives us an underlying layer of emotional argument filtered through a documentary-like aesthetic. Though, most of the news is just like that nowadays too. Maybe a little more critical thinking in that arena might do us viewers some good too…


Jeff Who Lives at Home (2011)

I don’t write on this thing as much as I’d like. Truthfully, I really only pick movies I feel like writing about at the time, or, on the rare occasion, feel like I can articulate something worth reading. This is one of the former, I guess. The Duplass Brothers have something and I can’t quite articulate what that is (see above). Here I go failing to do that: They made The Puffy Chair for $15,000+ and showed a bit of it. They made this very similar film for around $10 million, but wrote a better script. I have seen all of their collaborations together and think that they are gradually becoming better filmmakers with each film. While their previous feature, Cyrus, may share the same fate as this one (meaning that it was hated by a lot of people who were either mislead by the trailer or thought it was going to be something it is not), these brothers are carving quite a quirky niche for themselves in developing awkward dramedies about people who see very little comedy in their own lives. Like the above-mentioned first feature, this film follows characters who may not learn much about their own lives (or the film just doesn’t go beyond that point to let us see it), but it serves to allow us as viewers to process our own relatability through the emotions they display throughout the story. Despite that ridiculously convoluted sentence (see what I mean about articulation?), these are simple stories with simple problems. Whether or not you like the films depends on whether that’s enough for you, I guess.

This is the story of two possibly-perceived-as-loser brothers who seemingly have no direction to their life. Jeff is a 30 year old man who looks for signs in everything (even in the movie Signs) to guide his stoner Buddha-like existence while living with his mother and apparently not doing much else (He is obviously the character Mark Duplass would play, if Jason Segel wasn’t available). His brother Pat is played by Ed Helms with a kind of seriocomic naiveté that removes nearly any ability to laugh at or with him (I’m not sure if this makes me like the performance more or less). He is a man in stereotypical 1/3-life crisis who can’t see the forest through the trees, or whatever metaphor you want to use for his lack of attention to his relationship with his wife (played well by a noticeably more raw than usual Judy Greer).

I feel like I’m getting into plot summary here and that is not my intent. The whole point of this movie is following the emotions of the characters and seeing where it unpredictably takes you. The Duplass Brothers say they are influenced most by documentary filmmaking. While this movie does not try to be like a documentary in form (like, say, The Office), it makes use of a DV aesthetic that allows them to focus on the actors rather than the visuals. This is not a movie with great shots or camera movement. In trying to find some stills to add to this post, I had some frustration with getting a decent static image from the lack of attention to character framing or the numerous readjustments of shot length in the middle of a scene. The Duplass Brothers do not seem to be interested in a conventional cinematic display (though they do show occasionally that they are capable of beautiful images of their actors). They simply choose to film the actors in the loosest way possible to capture the emotion they are going for. Mark Duplass has said that, while there is always a traditional script to work from, he prefers that actors improvise, make up their own dialogue, and do whatever works best for the story. This is one reason why they are getting more exposure, because there seem to be a lot of people that want to work with them






I was suprised by how much I enjoyed The Puffy Chair, a film that became one of the first to be labeled with that post-millennial moniker of “mumblecore“. I’ve written about this term before, so I’ll spare you my tirades on the breadth of difference between all these filmmakers that are lumped together under this ‘movement’. This film is especially different than those that I have seen in that it chooses to focus on the mother (Susan Sarandon), an older woman, as its main subplot and it has a final act that is markedly not like any of the others (spoilers withheld here and ahead).
I liked the ending of this movie. It worked for me. Other people will be disappointed, or perhaps even infuriated, based on their expectations coming into it. This is not a traditional comedy. Despite it starring two actors who are mostly known for comedic roles, this film is on the other side of the dramedy coin, so to speak. I like that. I do not need to laugh out loud, if the film is trying to do something else. I won’t try to presume that I can tell you what to feel that this movie is doing, but I have my own version of what that is. While I have some distance from the film now, when it was over I did think it was one the best films I have seen this year. It still is, but I know that’s a personal choice and nowhere near an objective one.


Caged (1950)

Despite being an multi-Academy Award nominated film (Screenplay Virginia Kellogg, Supporting Actress Hope Emerson, and Best Actress Eleanor Parker), this film has been relegated to the Cult Camp Classics label by Warner Brothers on DVD. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve had problems in the past with the “camp” signifier, especially for films not necessarily intended as such. Though this apparently was originally envisioned as a Bette Davis/Joan Crawford vehicle to be titled The Big Cage (according to IMDB), I don’t see much of that carrying over in its finished incarnation (though imagining Davis as the inmate and Crawford as the warden, or vice-versa, makes me want to see that movie!). There are plenty of moments of heightened acting in this film, and the most blatant Sapphic references of probably any Hollywood picture of its time, but it seems to play it quite straight most of the time. Maybe some of the more sober moments come out of give-and-take rewrites with the studio over its wavering morality messages? This is a picture that aims to depict the seediness in the Women’s Prison, while introducing the idea of needed reform. Though, I noticed with interest how blatantly the film suggests that a lack of progress in this area comes specifically from a divide in gender. Men hold the power and they are ignorant of its uses and abuses. While its Prison Matron Harper is portrayed as a corrupt power hog, indoctrinated into the male idea of abusive punishment as a kind of reinforced subservience, Agnes Moorehead‘s Warden Benton fights for a more humane approach to reform and rehabilitation (that I suppose can be coded ‘feminine’, since it is the marginalized one?). It is a clichéd dichotomy at this point, though I don’t know how novel it was for the genre at the time. The interesting part is the defeatist attitude the picture allows of itself. The coda to the film, while functioning as a bit of a Code-inspired justice tag, paints a rather bleak picture of the Warden’s progressive mindset. Bottom line: It is a borderline B-picture, but a B-picture elevated by the talent involved.




IMDB points out that Eleanor Parker’s role here is the tenth that John Cromwell directed to a Best Actress nomination. Though I haven’t seen much of her work (and when I have, like in The Sound of Music, I didn’t know who she was), she is clearly an interesting ingenue. I think I first admired her in The Man With the Golden Arm (in which she is crazily magnificent) and later in The Naked Jungle (a decent Charlton Heston action-adventurer that the last Indiana Jones film stole its ‘ant scene’ from). She is clearly over-the-top in some scenes, but even here her performance is spectacularly accomplished. It all serves the material and the film is better for the presence she brings to it. And not just because of the ‘haircut scene’. I wonder whether her or Cromwell might have seen Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (I’m not sure how available it was before being discovered in that Norwegian Mental Ward closet in 1981). It’s been a few days now since I’ve seen this film, and I am still impressed (which is why I felt compelled to write something about it).

People frequently use the phrase that some films are ‘tame for today’s standards’ as some sort of pejorative qualifier, but you really cannot compare these pre-Method/pre-New Hollywood films with more contemporary ‘realistic’ acting. It is a continuum that has to be looked at in context (which is why it peeves me to no end when certain people complain about early Method actors looking ‘fake’). I guess my point is not that Parker is rivaling Method-like-ness innovation, but that her approach here is so above the need of the film. She (and her quasi-noirish direction) carry this film into an eminent watchability, that I would hope is more appealing to those less inclined to watch these so-called period pictures. I liked the fact that this really seems to have been intended as a “woman’s picture” more than an exploitation film. Films like Caged Heat or Chained Heat obviously came later. I found myself wanting to compare this to something like the Cagney picture Each Dawn I Die (an earlier, higher-budgeted WB male prison drama, granted with a more narratively complex story). I haven’t seen Ida Lupino in Women’s Prison, but that might be where to go from here…though I can’t expect there will be better lines than “Thanks for the haircut” or “Pile out you tramps, it’s the end of the line”….

The War Game (1965)

Peter Watkins made The War Game in 1965. This was only four years after the Bay of Pigs, yet marked 20 years since the attack on Hiroshima. And, as we know, retrospectively, we had decades more of the “Cold War” threatening Thermonuclear War. This film is a staged documentary (before such a thing was its own genre) made for the BBC to staunchly dramatize the realism of what would happen in the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Great Britain (specifically 40 miles away from its location around Kent). The cameramen, Peter Bartlett, was an actual news cameraman (occasionally being literally pushed around by the director with his telephoto lens to capture an air of shaky realism within crowds). The narrator, Michael Aspel, was an actual voice of the BBC. The film was self-banned from broadcast by the BBC, some say for its gruesome depiction of the situation; some say for political reasons (probably for both). It won the BAFTA for Best Short Film and, more noticeably, the Oscar for Best Documentary Film in 1967, despite being a document of events that did not actually happen. Even out of its historical context, it is probably one of the most intentionally damning documents I have ever seen.

Arguing not necessarily against nuclear armament (it seems to realize we are beyond any point of return), it highlights the utter ridiculousness of our assumption that it somehow comes out of a ‘civilized’ world. As the best of art, its purpose is to inform and compel thought. It questions the cultural “silence” on this issue that effects every single person in a war-fearing country. It attempts to persuade its audience of the wrongfulness of nuclear weapons by providing much needed factual information in the context of an emotional depiction. I think it still works.

At a point, one commentator mentions that while we were within the Atomic Age technically, we were (and still are) in the Stone Age, emotionally. The film uses a cross-cutting effect of having dramatization juxtaposed with talking head “interrupters” (as DVD commentator Patrick Murphy terms). This serves to further reinforce its documentary style. This tactic also aides in its realism by cutting away from showing certain actions that would never be shown on television. Though it still shows much more than anyone would ever expect to see on television in 1965; Burnt bodies, mangled limbs, shock and horror on the ashen faces of its people in the background, the film does not shy away from attempting a realistic portrait.








It uses simple effects like overexposure or shaking the camera to dramatize the blast, but they are no less effective than any more complicated contemporary special effect. The “firestorm” scene is created through a combination of effective editing and well-researched and directed movement of actor’s bodies. The makeup used to show burns and blood is that much more effective in the fact that the black-and-white does not need to be fully real, but rather more familiar as television and photojournalist ‘real’.

Before and during the still effective dramatizations, Watkins shows interviews with people to ask their knowledge of what the bombs are made of, if they would want retaliation, etc. It depicts a general ignorance and lack of forethought (and emphasizes this with the fact that readiness literature was not made easily available to the public). Watkins used unprofessional actors throughout. The interviewed people were acting too, but he began asking these questions without a script to prompt a more genuine response. Another stroke of genius in this masterpiece of its time. And I think this is still much more effective than a more blatantly satirical (and overtly political) work like The Gladiators (which is, in a way, like a proto-Hunger Games for adults). I haven’t seen much of Watkins’ work yet, but that will be changing shortly…

featured Short film (9 min)

Blue Shining (Richard Vezina, 2015)

great scene from a great film

Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)

June 2023