Category Archives: Movies

New Year’s Tradition (At a New/Old Location): The Movies That Made 2018 For Me

2018 was a weird, transitional year for me. I stopped writing about movies for a huge chunk of it to focus on editing and on the job that actually pays the bills. But that’s dumb because, you know, I still have some free time I can put toward this. So I am. I’m shaking off the rust in 2019 by commemorating some of the great movies I saw the year previous, as has been my New Year’s Day tradition these last several years. My moviegoing took as much of a hit as my movie writing, so bear with me as I still haven’t seen stuff like Hereditary, Roma, Suspiria, and tons more.

Top 10 (In No Particular Order)

Sorry To Bother You

Dir. Boots Riley


As a former call center employee who was considered “talented,” I knew this would have a special place in my heart before I went in. I came out thinking this is a contender for the satire of our era. The Coup’s Boots Riley creates a candy colored fantasia out of class, gender, and race struggles to show how our corporate overlords will never, ever stop trying to wring more out of us, to use and abuse the bodies of people they deem no better than animals—so they may as well literally turn the poor into livestock. Oh, and it’s funny. Like, really funny. Who says socialism and class war has to be humorless?

Eighth Grade

Dir. Bo Burnham


Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is in her last week of eighth grade and she’s out to sea. Her friends are mostly nonexistent, her single dad (Josh Hamilton) is a loving but often unhelpful sad sack who looks like if Stephen Malkmus got a job in some company’s accounting department instead of writing “Cut Your Hair,” and her YouTube advice channel isn’t getting the traction she hoped—probably because the ums and uhs that dominate her anxious speech don’t make for good TV. Over the course of comedian Bo Burnham’s first movie, she learns to say “no” to the shitty peers she has long wanted to impress, and we learn how to be proud of a fictional character.

Minding the Gap

Dir. Bing Liu


While I’ve never met documentarian Bing Liu or his group of skateboarding friends personally, I know them—deeply. The skaters and drunks and addicts and dropouts in the Chicago suburbs were my pals pretty much every other weekend from the age of 14 on. This doc’s setting of Rockford isn’t far from where my best friend relocated at the start of high school, and where I spent a lot of weekends maintaining that friendship. The DNA of these areas is practically identical, from the generational abuse cycles (physical, emotional, chemical, you name it) to the Rust Belt blight to the complicated racial politics of an area where to be a minority means that you’re verrry much in the minority—sure, you’ve got white friends who love you and think they have your back, but will feel empowered to embrace casual racism in your presence because they’re “enlightened” or some other bullshit excuse. These kids are lost, repeating the mistakes of their parents, and in one depressing case, showing how the next generation’s attitudes toward women might not be any better than the ones that preceded it if we don’t call it out clearly and bluntly the way Liu does to his friends and subjects. It’s brave to be this honest about your loved ones’ serious faults in public, and I’m grateful for him.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen


It would not be a lie for me to say I greatly admire how the Coens’ anthology of western stories features every conceivable tone with masterful pivots between each section (save for the only bum note: the James Franco story). But let’s face it: This movie is on the list because no casting has ever been as perfect as Tom Waits as a gold panner.


Dir. Alex Garland


I self-destructed in many ways in 2018, so I am grateful this low-down, rotten year at least gave me Annihilation as a roadmap to reframe my failures and evolve the way Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, does throughout this horrific science fiction film. Her marriage is in shambles by the time her husband goes missing into the Shimmer, a blob of extraterrestrial goo that doubles as a metaphor for the constantly shifting elements in a troubled mind. Lena winding her way through mutating landscapes and nightmarish amalgamations of once-recognizable creatures (the bear screaming with a mauled woman’s voice is the scariest thing I’ve seen in years in any context, cinematic or not) is therapy on a big screen. It grows more extraordinary every time I think about it.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Dir. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman


When it comes to the year’s big superhero movies, Black Panther is probably a more important cultural moment. It’s amazing, and it can be seen in my honorable mentions below mostly because other, more qualified writers can express its importance to representation, power, and Hollywood’s potential for a sea change of multicultural storytelling better than I can. Instead, I want to say that a movie with a cartoon pig named Peter Porker: Spider-Ham whacking bad guys in the head with an oversized wooden mallet is the greatest representation of comic books I’ve ever seen. That last sentence may sound like a joke, but it filled me with the kind of joy that’s usually reserved for making a baby giggle. On a more serious note, the movie’s recontextualization of the Spider-Man mythos to include biracial teens, girls, and extradimensional noir detectives is such a great way to say that sharing the cultural wealth makes things great for everyone.


Dir. Carlos López Estrada


This film is full of good humor, affecting drama, terror, and some of the best closeups of 2018. But mostly I’m grateful that, in the year of criminal justice reform at the federal level, we got a character like Collin (Daveed Diggs), an ex-con who makes no bones about the fact he did the crime and is still a great and improving person worthy of love, respect, and peace of mind. That’s truly radical storytelling.

You Were Never Really Here

Dir. Lynne Ramsay


This movie feels like it resides in a monsoon. Water pummels everyone, chokes them, envelopes them. No strand of hair appears the screen un-dampened, there is no such thing as a single drop of blood, only buckets. It is only when protagonist Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) enters a dry area—a diner—that he can feel a tiny amount of peace—that is, if he can keep himself from raining his own viscera all over the place. Lynne Ramsay’s 90-minute peek into the worlds of sex trafficking, corrupt machine politics, and clinical depression hurts you in a way you need to be hurt, so you can recognize the seedy world that lives beside us. It reminds you that to be a hero in a world like this doesn’t mean smiling, wisecracking, and parades for accomplishment. It means you lose your humanity. And you do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do.

First Reformed

Dir. Paul Schrader


If I learned anything from my own serious mental health issues in 2018, I learned it from First Reformed: Never retreat from everyone and everything. You’ll only find despair. If you run toward others, you’ll still find despair—but a smidge of hope too. And that smidge feels like salvation.

20 Weeks

Dir. Leena Pendharkar


It’s the most human thing in the world to dwell when things seem like they’re about to go horribly wrong. We cycle through our thoughts, pore over every action we took, and fret over every minute detail of our lives to find some meaning and a person or event to blame—and we perversely call it self-reflection. It’s the most socially acceptable form of torture. But here’s the thing: Sometimes things just don’t break your way. You can’t control it, and if you think you can, you’ll drive yourself to madness. Leena Pendharkar’s 20 Weeks, about a couple unraveling over the potential for their unborn baby to have a host of developmental disorders, reveals the weaknesses in men when we grow fearful, and the resilience of women who have to deal with weak men. It’s a show of female strength and a plea for male maturity, and a kick in the ass I need more often.

Honorable Mentions

Black Panther, Springsteen On Broadway, Nanette, Saturday Church, First Match, A Quite Place, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Cam, First Man, A Star Is Born, and probably more that I’m forgetting. Every year is a good year for movies. Remember that. Happy 2019.


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Gordon Willis Is Gone

Much will be written about the passing of cinematographer Gordon Willis in the coming days, about his contributions to cinema, his impeccable sense of lighting and composition, and the legends he helped create.  But none of it will do his work justice.  It won’t properly contextualize what he meant to the visual medium.  His greatness can only be experienced viscerally.

Perhaps his best known work was on The Godfather.

He caused a sensation throughout Hollywood with his lighting techniques in Klute.

He shot Woody Allen’s most beautiful film, Manhattan.

He changed film forever.  He darkened it, yes, but also made it a place where the austere could be more beautiful than the busy.  Understatement became overwhelmingly gorgeous in his eye.  The way a low-watt lightbulb’s glare filtered through his lens lent more to a scene’s power than any performance.  His figures were relatable but unknowable, lit just so to give them the power of myth.

And now that talent is gone.  It will be missed, but the transformative body of work that is left will forever be dissected, studied, beloved by cinema lovers.

Thank you, Prince of Darkness.

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Streaming Choices: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)

Our families sometimes make us become people we aren’t proud of.  Lifelong disagreements, misunderstandings, and ideological clashing can have that effect.  When estranged brothers Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly) meet each other for the first time in years for Mark’s birthday party at their mother’s house, they succumb to their worst urges.  Mark gets tunnel vision, obsessed over his white whale, defeating his brother at their made-up athletic competition of the film’s title.

Mark is overweight, balding, and dealing with the “burden” of a calm, helpful wife who just wants the best for him at all times and a son who’s less ungrateful than he is desirous of meaningful conversation with his dull father.  Mark’s in therapy for his stress and general malaise of life.  Jeremy is a professional poker player — you can tell this was shot in 2008, as the online and ESPN-hyped poker boom was receding — who doesn’t care about what he does and doesn’t know what else he can do with his life.

So they meet and beat up on each other in feats of strength, athleticism, and underwater breath holding.  The 25 “events” in their Olympic-style tournament are each hilarious, and perfectly designed to bring out the pettiness in grown men who have been at this since the dawn of their existence.  They finish marathon ping pong sessions drenched in sweat, neither willing to give in.  They obsess over keeping a level playing field.  Mark says, “Are you wearing shoes?  I’m not.  Take them off,” during the arm wrestling bit, after they have wrapped their hands together in a bandanna and agreed to not grab the table for leverage.

The movie grows more poignant as it continues, with Mark grappling with his compulsive nature and Jeremy admitting his hip life doesn’t make him happy.  It finishes in a satisfying manner, like a 76-minute stage play.

And therein lies the problem.  Mark and Jay Duplass, the film’s directors, are among the most successful members of the mumblecore filmmaking movement, known for its documentary-style, immediate camerawork and attention to small stakes in the grand scheme of things; no world destroying monsters rampage through their movies.  But for as great as docu-realism and intimate stories are, movies are a visceral, visual medium.  There is no pure cinema on display in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.

Let’s start with the camerawork.  It’s jittery to a fault.  The movie was shot digitally, with seemingly outdated equipment for even six years ago, which makes a later viewing like mine appear even more dated.  When the camera moves, there’s a faint ghost trail of colors and characters’ faces.  And the camera moves far too much.  There is nary a tripod in use.  Owing to mumblecore’s improvisatory nature, the camera operators are not able to plan specifically what to do.  Actors don’t have exact marks to hit, and the camera operators struggle to keep them in frame, jutting back and forth, sometimes seemingly on the verge of falling over during the quickest pans.

The editing is a little on the eccentric side, too.  This is likely a product of the improv, too.  The Duplasses probably did not get a lot of coverage during shooting because of the different lines for every take.  This leads the editors to piece things together in a hodgepodge of quickly cut moments.  This makes small conversations take on the visual language of modern action scenes, and it does not cohere properly.  These scenes should be more intimate.  The actors and directors do an admirable job of trying to overcome the obstacle, but they don’t quite get there.  The filmmaking does not properly function for the story being told, and this is a problem for the movie’s overall quality.

But that does not mean the movie is not worth discussion.  The acting, particularly the brothers and Mark’s wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), do phenomenal work.  Their relationships are lived-in.  Love exists but it’s strained, just like a real family.  The Duplasses overcome a lot of limitations in what is available to them in order to tell a compelling, affecting story, aided by their troupe.  But again, it’s probably best suited to be performed on stage than, as currently constructed, a film.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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The Elasticity of Early Disney

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is running an exhibit called Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives until May 4.  I recently visited it and enjoyed the experience a great deal.  It featured hundreds of trinkets, pictures, costumes, handwritten notes from children and presidents alike, but what interested me most were the early short animations Disney made in the 1920s with and his friend and collaborator, Ub Iwerks.

The exhibit spurred me to seek more early Disney work, much of which is available on YouTube.  A handful of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — done for Universal before Disney and Iwerks struck out on their own — and Mickey Mouse adventures have struck me with their irreverence, hints of lasciviousness, and general prankishness.  Disney, the consummate wholesome family entertainer, had an anarchic spirit before he had to navigate the Hays Code and the expectations of upholding a family friendly brand.

For instance, see this Oswald short, Sky Scrappers.

Oswald’s world is wholly different from, say, Snow White’s.  This is partially owed to the limitations of animation techniques available to Disney and Iwerks in 1928 — the timing is a bit off, characters move stiffly and unnaturally, etc. — but the goals they sought were also different.  Whereas Disney’s later features tended to endorse a set of chivalric values, Sky Scrappers gets comparatively filthy.  Ortensia, Oswald’s girlfriend, arrives to his construction worksite to share lunch with him.  Oswald’s coworker sees her, operates a crane to lift her skirt, and pulls her up the iron frame of the building to steal her from Oswald.  She falls out of her underwear and scrambles to get back into them.  The rival, who resembles Disney’s later Mickey Mouse antagonist/Goofy Movie lovable crank, Pete the Cat, laughs his head off at the notion that Ortensia would even try to resist him.  There’s a real sense of sexual malice in this exchange, and Oswald’s rival is a threat unlike anything in later works; he is effectively a rapist.

Beyond the sexual elements, the early Disney-Iwerks shorts depict a world that is, for lack of a better word, mushy.  Instead of the features’ aching beauty of the painted backdrops, Oswald’s and early Mickey’s landscapes are malleable.  The Oswald cartoon, Trolley Troubles, from 1927 shows this well.

Animate and inanimate objects alike — trains and railroads here, but also hot dogs, cows, and a number of other things — bend and twist to what Oswald — and by extension, Disney and Iwerks — want them to be.  Unobstructed creativity runs throughout all these shorts, and they are free of the stricter visual rules of many of the features.

Disney and Iwerks shape the world to fit their vision, and play with what it means to tell a visual story, often with darker connotations than perhaps they intended when trying to make people laugh.  By forcing a hot dog to lather itself in mustard as a death ritual, they hint at our world being a place of “compromise” with more powerful entities, much like their dealings with Universal that eventually led to losing the rights to Oswald.  In their animated world, though, they are in charge.  They manipulate objects and creatures to an almost surreal extent, warping their meaning from utilitarian things and beasts of burden to extensions of our drive, creativity, but more often, futility.  Ropes attach to nothing but air and characters realize much too late before falling to injury, annoyed.

Disney and Iwerks’s early shorts are snapshots of artists struggling with freedom, succeeding on a technical level but restricted and frustrated by what their bosses wanted.  Their characters constantly fall into traps set by the world, but through creativity they pull through.  They always pull one over on the world, usually through manipulating it beyond what reality would allow, much like hired artists at the helm often must sneak their true intentions into their work subversively.

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Streaming Choices: Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Two and a half stars (out of five)

Leftwing writer, professor, and activist Howard Zinn led an eventful, opinionated life.  He grew up in poverty and never had a book in his house until he found a frayed paperback on the street.  He ran bomber missions in World War II.  He led a group of his students at black college at numerous civil rights protests.  He and a few other activists negotiated with the North Vietnamese to release American pilots when the U.S. government wouldn’t.  And that’s the problem with Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.  It’s all recounting the man’s activities, one after the other, without truly getting to the heart of what they mean, or where they come from.

A few times, Zinn gets a bit introspective about his writings and activism, but these moments are too rare.  Directors Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller don’t prod him to continue in these times, rather content to fall into hero worship and a pattern of “This happened, then this happened, then this.”  Sometimes Zinn will remark that seeing something (poverty where he grew up, his first activism rally where he was hit by a nightstick, his misgivings about bombing a French town to punish German soldiers after WWII was effectively won) that “affected [him] greatly,” but the film stops there.  How did it affect him?  What specific things pushed him to write about them?  What about the looks on peoples’ faces when police brutality occurs?  But no, it’s just a vague recollection and onto the next bullet point.

Ellis and Mueller fail to negotiate the downsides of activism, too.  They get Zinn to mention how every war is supposed to be the last one, and how it’s like a drug for countries.  But if activism is this enlightened, higher calling to upset people into rethinking their place in the world and changing their behaviors, hasn’t Zinn’s anti-war rhetoric failed on some level?  War still exists, and the latest failed war, Iraq, was in its early days as this documentary was shot.  They don’t ask him about how he’s shifted tactics to convince more people on the need for peace.  It’s all about the so-called world changing, in-your-face attitudes of ’60s-style activism, with no mention of how that movement got jaded and petered out.  Zinn doesn’t say anything about disillusionment with his cause, or the possible boomerang effect of being in everyone’s face can have, but I suspect that’s because he wasn’t asked about it.

Luckily, it’s not entirely dreary.  Zinn himself was a magnetic man (he died in 2010), and one I would like to learn more about from a less hero-worshipping angle (full disclosure: I’ve never read anything by him).  But he was an engaging speaker, charming, and you can tell he genuinely cared about people, the world, and the United States.  He thought they can be better, and that’s an admirable, hopeful quality people respond to.

Unfortunately, this activity checklist of a film fails his messages.  Documentaries do not necessarily need a dramatic structure (“This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens,” and so on), but they shouldn’t be blander than history books, either.  Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train lacks emotional details about why these issues matter to society, and historical details about each event in Zinn’s life.  At an hour and 17 minutes, the film has plenty of room to explore more.  But it always chooses the easy route of, “Look at this Great Man,” when the Great Man probably would have been plenty willing to discuss the less-than-great parts of his life.

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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2013: The Ever-Evolving Top 10

The media landscape is awash in top 10 lists every December.  Movies, TV episodes, news stories, et al get their due in publications and websites alike.  It’s exhausting, and more than a little too “final” for my taste, and a big part of the reason I don’t usually write them.  This could be wholly due to my bias as a non-professional who is unable to see, hear, read, or generally experience these media in the time they are released.  If I make it to the top of the film criticism mountain, perhaps I’ll one day feel better about choosing what represents the best films of a given year.  But as things stand, I am left every year with a pile of potentially great movies I was unable to see for financial, time, or availability reasons.  It usually takes me until the following summer or later to get a solid understanding of a year’s cinematic slate.  Even then I have plenty of blind spots I wouldn’t if I were, say, Michael Phillips, who sees 400 or more new releases every year.

This is a long way of saying my annual top 10 list is a constant work in progress, even if it ultimately, mostly reflects the general consensus of other lists of its kind released months earlier.  Maybe I’m violating the media rule of timeliness, but I have also had more time to reflect on 2013’s best films than the deadline-focused people I look up to.  I think that reflection has value and gives perspective.

Now, before I get to my constantly shifting, amorphous blob of a top 10 films list, I feel it’s important in the name of full disclosure — as much as I’d like to be, I’m still far from an expert — to list every movie I saw that had some sort of release (theatrical, video on demand, Netflix Instant, film festival, etc.) in 2013, in chronological viewing order.  You’ll note that I am still missing plenty of notable movies, including Short Term 12, Fruitvale StationThe Act of Killing, and many others.

1.  Sun Don’t Shine (dir. Amy Seimetz)

2.  The Playroom (dir. Julia Dyer)

3.  42 (dir. Brian Helgeland)

4.  Oblivion (dir. Joseph Kosinski)

5.  Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black)

6.  Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

7.  Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder)

8.  The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola)

9.  Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

10.  Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

11.  Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher)

12.  Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

13.  John Dies at the End (dir. Don Coscarelli)

14.  Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

15.  Pain and Gain (dir. Michael Bay)

16.  Drinking Buddies (dir. Joe Swanberg)

17.  Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

18.  Star Trek Into Darkness (dir. J.J. Abrams)

19.  12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

20.  This is the End (dir. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)

21.  Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive (dir. Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern)

22.  John Hodgman: Ragnarok (dir. Lance Bangs)

23.  Salinger (dir. Shane Salerno)

24.  Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (dir. Seth Barrish)

25.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)

26.  Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)

27.  American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)

28.  The Heat (dir. Paul Feig)

29.  Red 2 (dir. Dean Parisot)

30.  White House Down (dir. Roland Emmerich)

31.  The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

32.  Stoker (dir. Park Chan-Wook)

33.  The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

34.  Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)

35.  Prince Avalanche (dir. David Gordon Green)

36.  Passion (dir. Brian De Palma)

37.  Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

38.  Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor)

39.  Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Valée)

40.  Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles (dir. Liam Lynch)

41.  Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

42.  Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

43.  All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)

 I’m unsure 43 is even a statistically significant number of 2013 releases to have seen to determine the year’s best, but based on this sample, I can say 2013 was one of the finest cinematic years of my life.  Very few of these were even mediocre, and I’d say none of them were true disasters.  Even the worst ones, like Oblivion and Passion, had a lot to offer from visual and thematic standpoints.  That’s a tremendous achievement for an industry perpetually on the media chopping block for “always” catering to the lowest common denominator.  It’s difficult to choose just 10 from this list, and I can only imagine the choice will become more difficult as I continue filling in the gaps throughout the year as more DVDs become available.  That said, here is my for now top 10 list of 2013 films.

10.  Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

As will become a theme in this list, Nichols is among a group of wildly exciting young filmmakers — with the semi-arbitrary age cutoff of 45 — who have had just as much impact on my psyche as the industry’s elder statesmen and long deceased masters.  His three films, Shotgun StoriesTake Shelter, and now Mud are among their years’ best, with Take Shelter being an all-time classic of paranoia and religious devotion to one’s beliefs.  Mud might not quite reach those heights, but it is a sizable achievement itself.  Nichols internalizes Mark Twain’s greatest works about boys longing for adventure and juxtaposes that desire with Matthew McConaughey’s title character, hiding from both the law and organized crime on a small island near his and the boys’ hometown; he’s the grown-up boy adventurer who never took responsibility.  Regret, disillusion with modern romantic relationships, divorce, and devotion play major parts.  The seemingly anachronistic explosive climax worked for me better than it did most, largely because it is symbolic of Mud’s realization of the reality he lives in.  He takes responsibility and sees his world blow apart in a visceral way.

9.  The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

Wright, another in the under-45 group, has long shown a knack for depicting different stages of friendship onscreen while displaying a kinetic visual style and love of genre conventions.  Shawn of the Dead was about man children finally becoming adults and Hot Fuzz was about men with extremely different (and difficult) personalities coming to appreciate and work well with each other.  His latest with his frequent collaborators, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, grows up without losing the energetic camerawork or genre trappings.  The “robots” these friends fight on their (mostly reluctant) 20-years-in-the-making pub crawl are among the best of the Body Snatcher mold, but the film has more on its mind than simple entertainment.  Pegg’s Gary is a variation on the arrested development character he played in Shawn, but he and Wright take a far darker tack with him.  His alcoholism is a problem for all his lapsed friends, and none want anything to do with him, although he promises a night of fun to escape their equally (though more socially acceptable) dreary adult lives.  The film’s primary choice — forced enlightenment and security versus intellectual, however limited, liberty — is a deep one, and it does not shy away from the downsides of both choices.

8.  All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)

Director Chandor, on only his second feature, creates something unlike the rest of the current filmic landscape.  All Is Lost is close to being a silent film, but with a modern twist: sound design plays a huge role.  Robert Redford’s sailor may not say more than a couple lines, but the creaking of the boat, the rushing waves, the rubbery stretching of the life raft craft an aural experience which, when paired with the harrowing images, envelopes the audience in the moment.  Small nods to Buster Keaton abound, but Chandor deftly makes these moments horrifying rather than comedic.  He understands how film techniques are elastic and shows a magnificent grasp of how to manipulate them to make them his own.

7.  Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Refn might be my favorite director in his prime.  Much like Chandor’s entry on this list, Refn’s film does not place a premium on speaking.  Only God Forgives rather takes stark, archetypal images and pits them against each other in a hyper stylized world that looks rather unlike our own.  Ryan Gosling’s Julian goes on a Freudian quest, at his domineering mother’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) demand, throughout Bangkok’s underground boxing scene to avenge his brother’s (deserved) death.  Psychological horror imagery pervades, hands are lost, karaoke is sung.  It’s a semiotic smorgasbord, one I cannot wait to see again and again.

6.  12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

Although it is perhaps the most important — for America’s grasping its brutal history, for the director’s race — film released in 2013, 12 Years a Slave does not prop itself up on its own importance.  It’s a vibrant work that captures the beauty of the American south — the wind going through the weeping willow trees is pure art — and the brutality inflicted on slaves.  It is not a film concerned with entertainment, so much as discussing, in blunt terms, what it means to keep other human beings as property.  Devin Faraci at Badass Digest wrote that 12 Years a Slave is a horror film, and I’m inclined to agree.  Everything that happens to Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is akin to the terror inflicted in slasher movies, but McQueen takes the judgmental distance out of the equation, which is itself remarkable.  McQueen’s images speak for themselves, and he presents them matter-of-factly so as not to editorialize something that is inherently evil about the world.

5.  Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke continue their saga of Jesse and Celine, nine years after we last saw them in Before Sunset and 18 years after they met in Before Sunrise.  They’re now in their 40s, married by common law but not ceremonially, and they have twin daughters.  They’re bored and struggling with what it means to stay monogamous over a lifetime.  The emerging fight throughout the runtime is shattering, with both sides making great points about sacrifices made for each other, and neither being happy about the tradeoffs they’ve made in life.  Gone is the soaring butterflies of the first two films, replaced with hard reality; it’s the difference between an uplifting campaign and the difficulties of actually governing.  Despite the world-ending rhetoric of their fight, the film’s ending suggests this is another in a series of arguments they’ve had, and they remain a couple, maybe not forever, but for now.  That’s more realistically hopeful than the endings of either previous entry in the series, and I look forward to seeing where Jesse and Celine are as they cross 50.

4.  Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Remarkably similar to All Is Lost, Cuarón’s film is even simpler, possibly the simplest story of everything on this list.  It’s a parable of dealing with and moving on from life’s challenges.  He does not need to imbue it with more to chew on, because that’s as powerful a message as any in human existence.  From the opening calamity to the joyous final shot, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone only has survival and rebirth on her mind.  If she succumbs to self-doubt, she won’t make it.  If she doesn’t succumb to self-doubt, she still might not make it, but she’ll have her pride intact.  So she tries and she overcomes every mounting problem.  It’s beautiful without considering the technological marvel the film is.  The spectacle of sitting by myself, fully enraptured by the screen, is one of my favorite moviegoing experiences, one I hope to replicate in the years ahead when Gravity becomes a staple of repertory houses.

3.  The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Untrammeled, gleeful greed is not something the movies often show onscreen, even if that is the reason behind making most of them.  Usually filmmakers are burdened by trying to give the audience characters to like and root for.  Here, Scorsese is unconcerned, and he weaves a story about the most money-obsessed culture — indeed, that’s their only focus, as they are unconcerned with providing services or products to others — in our society: Wall Street.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort builds an empire based on tricking people into thinking they will become rich, and he teaches even the dimmest bulbs in his circle to defraud other human beings.  His system is something anyone who has spent time in sales has experienced, and that bell rings clearly and frighteningly with every immoral transaction Belfort makes.  Scorsese shows how exceedingly fun this lifestyle is, because greed is fundamentally fun, but he never fails to show the emptiness at its heart.  The fact that Belfort and people like him led to the 2008 financial crisis and haven’t received more than a slap on the wrist is unsettling at best, and Scorsese wants us to know that this is not all right.

2.  Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

This has to be the most serene movie the Coens have made. It’s funny, but not uproarious. It’s unordinary, but not truly absurd. Its protagonist is a misanthrope but not one totally undeserving of sympathy. But despite it not reaching for the extreme, it never fails to be sublime.  Llewyn is a pathologically difficult person, but he comes from a place of uncompromised art, which we of course admire when it’s successful. Orson Welles may have been an unqualified genius, but his dealings with people before the Mercury Theatre must have been insufferable, what with all the eating, drinking, and womanizing. What if he’d stumbled out of the gate instead of lucking into the complete artistic freedom afforded him to make Citizen Kane? I bet he’d have ended up something like Llewyn.  And it’s not like the movie takes place in an ironic universe devoid of hope that one might expect from the Coen brothers. Ulysses the cat finds his way home. Llewyn’s dementia riddled father flashes a moment of recognition that resembles pleasure at hearing his son’s music. The cat he hits on the road might be cut, but it limps away seemingly dazed but otherwise okay. And most of all, the ending should give Llewyn, a man with a morose, but talented, singing voice all the hope in the world: If Bob Dylan’s nasal, wiry voice could make him a superstar, surely the smoother, melancholy Llewyn Davis can scratch out a (somewhat) steady living in the folk environment.

1.  Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

Technology will continue to seamlessly integrate itself into every aspect of human experience.  That’s an important idea to consider, and could be the subject to any number of films going forward.  But it is merely background in Her.  What concerns Spike Jonze, like all great storytellers, is human interaction and possible ways forward when complications arise.  Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is crushed by the baggage of his recent past, and his rut is threatening to derail his life permanently.  Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his artificially intelligent operating system, is a thinking, learning, growing entity capable of loving him the way he needs.  At least for a time.  What about what she needs?  Is Theodore able, or more importantly, willing, to sacrifice his desires for her?  The give and take between Her‘s principle characters is something every person in a relationship deals with, and the heightened sense of distance between them — they can never truly touch — makes matters worse.  Is physical distance a true killer for a relationship, or can people work through it?  More profound is the way Jonze builds an emotional and psychological distance between the characters, as Samantha’s unique ability to learn creates a zen-like worldview, frustrating to the necessarily more grounded Theodore.  And if things end in a life changing relationship, is that truly a bad thing?  If a lesson is learned and love occurred, Her suggests it’s a rich time in one’s life.

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Streaming Choices: Barbarella (1968)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: One and a half stars (out of five)

Camp is a tool filmmakers have at their disposal when they want to show something craven about society.  It’s a purposeful way of going over the top, to get in the audience’s face in an accusatory fashion, to confront them about the behavior they’re complicit in by being part of civilization.  Drag queens make us question beauty standards for women.  John Waters — sometimes with the help of the purest drag queen of them all, Divine — makes us think about the way we treat the “other.”

Camp is also my least favorite kind of comedy.  Even when done well, its in-your-face aspects are grating, loud, and it’s hardly ever as revelatory as it purports itself to be.  It’s a prank that screams its way to a feature length it can’t sustain.  When camp is done poorly, it makes something already tough to sit through into a slog that requires a full week of stopping and starting to watch an hour and 40 minute movie.

Which is what I did with Barbarella (although allergies and Benadryl played a part), a movie that tries to be big and outrageous about the women’s liberation movement gaining steam at the time, but which invariably takes every opportunity to go cutesy instead of confrontational.

Everything about Barbarella is small, a sense that is only heightened by its poor decision to go with the 2.33:1 aspect ratio.  The anamorphic lens is a stylistic choice to expand the scope of a film, used to brilliant effect in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, with their European cliffs and vistas.  It needs a big canvas to be properly implemented.  Barbarella does not provide that canvas.  Its sets and props are all so plasticky, with nary an outdoor shot in sight.  In this way, the anamorphic lens only showcases the lack of scale director Roger Vadim was working with.  A return to the Academy Ratio (1.33:1) would have added a retro charm to accompany the film’s Ed Wood-esque special effects, and it would have masked some of the set design’s insufficiencies.

That smallness extends to the story, or at least its telling.  Barbarella, played by a seemingly (and rightfully) confused Jane Fonda, is sent by the president of Earth into the cosmos to find Durand Durand, an Earth astronaut who has created a weapon of mass destruction.  She is supposed to use any means necessary to find him and bring him back, which means her body. It’s a mess.  What should have been an A to B, cause-effect narrative becomes a jumble of vignettes about a sexy lady in space encountering wacky creatures to do it with, including a blind angel.  Each scene break features an excuse to put Fonda in a different lascivious costume, too.

Barbarella could have been the basis for a seriocomic exploration of the way society treated women at the time (and in many ways, still treats them) and in how women could give themselves more agency.  In some ways, Barbarella uses her body to get what she needs, which could be considered a sly way of empowering her and women at large, but it’s a limited and sad notion.  Vadim may have thought he was showing an enlightened, independent woman because she was openly sexual, but every cinematic choice belies this.  She is a tool of the future Earth’s government, operating on an assignment to please a man (the president), and her only way to accomplish her goal is to give physical pleasure to everyone she meets.  She doesn’t get to display her brain, she has nothing in the way of wit or charm, and she’s an empty vacuous creature who doesn’t make a choice of her own throughout the picture.  It all seems like a too personal attempt by Vadim to show off what was “his” to the world.  In turn, the movie is all crummy style with a substance completely opposite of what it’s selling.

Barbarella is available on Netflix Instant, if you want to watch an example of how to totally undermine the message you want to send.

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Streaming Choices: The Frozen North (1922)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)

Buster Keaton was a master of understatement.  Everything he did, he kept his face as close to straight as possible.  His facial acting was measured as a matter of degrees, unlike his chief contemporaries, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin.  Their goofball plasticity added to their charm, whereas Keaton gained his by being the king of deadpan without having to actually speak.

Keaton both plays up and subverts that deadpan quality in his short The Frozen North, which he co-directed with Eddie Cline in 1922, right before his run of classic feature comedies throughout the rest of the ’20s.

At the “last stop on the subway,” a snowed in backwater town in the middle of nowhere, Keaton proves himself to be a rather malicious fellow unlike any other in his oeuvre.  His bumbling remains, however, as he attempts to rob a casino using a cardboard cutout of the town’s public enemy number one as his wingman.

He barely escapes from his bungled robbery and heads home to see a man and woman canoodling on the couch.  In the most darkly comedic turn of any Keaton film, he impulsively shoots them both before a dialogue card appears.  “I’ve made a mistake.  This isn’t my house, or my wife,” as he jolts out the door.

Let’s examine that for a second.  Buster Keaton, whose cinematic career revolved around stunts and derring do in service of finding safety — think the hurricane sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr. or his attempts to save his beloved in The General — shoots two people in cold blood.  And he brushes it off with a wickedly funny line about mistaken identity, heightened further by his utter dismissal of moral culpability.  The minimalist facial acting remains the same, but this time, he shades it with just enough of a hint of mischievous evil to unsettle the audience.

Another tool in his repertoire here is the setting.  Until his later big budget epics, Keaton was content to use the greater Los Angeles area for all it was worth in his shorts and early features.  They were often dusty, rocky pictures, but here the snow is stark.  It pops at the audience.  It makes them think, “Buster Keaton doesn’t belong here.”  But there he is all the same, using a cane that keeps sinking in the snow, being flummoxed at how to cut into the lake for ice fishing, being the victim of a rooftop avalanche.

Keaton’s patented befuddlement remains throughout the short as his and Cline’s camera stays static and nonjudgemental despite the horrific things his character does to others.  This is all for a reason.  We’re supposed to be concerned about what’s happened to the nice guy with the stone face who makes those wonderful falls.

The short’s punchline ending both reassures the audience of Keaton’s general “good guy”-ness while hinting at the darkness inside all people.  It’s a great conceit only diminished by the film’s incomplete nature, which makes some of the middle parts a bit confusing.  We don’t get the full story of his numerous relationships with the town’s women, the chases feel a little disjointed, and the stunts lack much of the kooky inventiveness of his later work; save for a great sequence of tug-of-war with an Inuit ice fisherman.  Overall, though, the greatness outweighs the bad (which isn’t Keaton’s fault, anyway), and The Frozen North is a speedy 17-minute romp that offers more than just completism for his greatest era.

The Frozen North is available on YouTube, embedded below.


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Guardians of the Galaxy on a Big Screen: Why the Shrugs?

Last weekend, Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit theaters and proved to be the best Marvel movie yet.  It takes the exceptional character work of other series standouts like Iron Man 3 and The Avengers (read about my recent rewatch here) and incorporates a visual style and impeccable sense of action, courtesy of regular Community helmers Anthony and Joe Russo, that has been missing from the Marvel house style; they don’t overlight every scene and let the moral ambiguities of the governmental overreach themes trickle down into the visual aspects of the film.  The violence is appropriate given the stakes, too, which is, perhaps not pleasant, but important to show the human costs of such endeavors.  But these things are all more or less what I expected from a series that hasn’t made a less than good movie in years.

What surprised me was the tepid reaction Guardians of the Galaxy‘s trailer got before the feature.  It’s the big Marvel release for this summer, and while it features characters most of the general public does not know — even as a kid who grew up reading Marvel comics voraciously, I never encountered the Guardians in print, which should tell you a little something about their obscurity — but at this point the goodwill built up by the perpetually expanding appreciation (and quality) of Marvel’s movies would make one think audiences would be primed and giddy for anything they throw at us.

And yet, after this trailer played, I heard what amounted to a mass shrug.  There was a bit of nervous laughter and pockets of genuine buzz, but I felt like the only person who couldn’t contain my excitement.  It didn’t matter that I’d already seen the trailer numerous times online; the big screen immersed me more fully.  I couldn’t grasp why everyone wasn’t gaga for it.  After all, it seemingly checks every box on what I think people want in summer movies, especially space operas.  It introduces weird new multicolored characters to get to know, played by some tremendously entertaining actors (Chris Pratt looks to make a seamless transition from hilarious ensemble player on Parks and Recreation to the modern iteration of Kurt Russell here, plus two-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper plays a talking, homicidal raccoon), in a fantastical setting nobody’s seen onscreen, directed by a filmmaker, James Gunn, with a whacky, often humorously twisted sensibility.  It’s a movie that looks to revel in its silliness while providing the action-adventure people expect from comic book movies.

Even from the trailer, you can see a film dripping with personality.  Gunn’s previous movie, Super, deconstructed the superhero genre — particularly the Batman myth — and took it to some dark places.  Marvel hired him to play in the sandbox, but from a different angle.  Space operas — Star WarsJohn CarterFirefly — rely on a brand of romanticism that does more than border on goofy.  It’s funny to see humans jumping 50 feet in the air or giant anthropomorphic dogs shooting lasers.  Gunn recognizes this and imbues this trailer with nods to the satire he’ll use to lovingly roll around in the world of sci-fi shoot ’em ups he grew up watching.

So why is this not something everyone is jumping out of their seats to reserve tickets for?  On the latest Badass Digest Podcast, Devin Faraci mentioned (I’m paraphrasing because as of this writing, the website is down) how audiences tend to not connect to movies that are knowingly eccentric.  I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s not cut and dried.  People paradoxically long for both familiarity (think classic rock radio) and surprise.  Sometimes undeservedly, we love things from the past that made us happy in the moment, but they don’t necessarily stand up to sober, aged scrutiny.  I think that’s what Faraci is getting at, because people don’t like to have the shortfalls of things they love pointed out to them, and that’s what happens in movies that are knowingly goofy.  These new films, so the thought process (created by me) goes, take tropes from the earnest classics people love and nod to how these tropes are a bit fluffy and unimportant to humanity.

But that’s not always the case in this brand of film.  Everything I’ve seen and read about Guardians of the Galaxy reminds me of another silly sci-fi flick, Galaxy Quest.  That was a picture loved everything about Star Trek: The Original Series, especially the silly fight scenes and hammy performances.  The filmmakers behind that movie didn’t want to make fun of that stuff, they wanted more of it.  They had no derision for the less than stellar moments of the show; everything was celebrated.  The same seems to be happening for Guardians.  Gunn and company appear to love the weirdness of comic book stories and characters.  Everything they’ve released to this point makes me think they want this oddball charm to really shine, and they’re savvy enough to understand that it’s okay to be funny.


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Streaming Choices: Tales of the Night (2011)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Four and a half stars (out of five)

Storytelling is inherent in humanity.  We all need to make sense of the world, to order things, to imbue meaning into our actions and those of others.  That comes across in tales large, small, and in between.  For some reason, though, it seems the biggest, broadest stories — myths and fairy tales — last longest.  It is likely there were ancient mumblecore adherents, telling the tiniest narratives possible about small victories and inane insults of their Greek villages or Roman kitchens, but history has swallowed them for any number of reasons.

We’re left with the grand chronicles featuring familiar names like Hercules, Achilles, or Moses.  This results from the fundamental, overwhelming universality of their stories.  They intentionally lack details specific to the characters and situations that would make them more “real.”  They have few idiosyncrasies to tie them to the time in which they were written.  They feature lessons about people — struggling with the pull of diametrically opposed poles, doing everything in one’s power to find love, standing up for the oppressed.  They also have strict rules in place to limit the characters’ options; gods, nature, the rules of warfare, and more keep the protagonists from doing all they, and we, would like to do.  These are stories about everyone and everything, and anyone can project themselves and those they know into the archetypes they follow as they read or listen along.

French animation director Michel Ocelot has internalized these notions.  Unlike the universal myth makers of the past, though, he has modern technology and the visual components it affords him.  He makes beautiful use of it, particularly in 2011’s Tales of the Night.  

The film uses a simple framing device — three friends hang out in an old theater to write and act out adventures of mythic characters, like princesses, wolves, dragons, and magical drummers from cultures around the world.  It’s a cute, agreeable setup that would be a delightful lark in itself if that’s all it had going for it.  But Ocelot has bigger things on his mind.

Take the character designs, for instance.  Their distinct personalities come through in the wonderful voice work of Julien Beramis, Marine Griset, and Yves Bersacq [Writer’s note: Forgive me if the English accents of the version I watched were not played by those very French-sounding actors, for they are the only ones listed on the film’s IMDb page.].  But they are animated in a silhouette style that never falters, except for the occasional incorporation of their eyes.  Ocelot is telling his audience, “Go ahead.  They are you.  Join in!”

And so we do.  We collaborate with Ocelot and his actors by fully realizing who these characters are with our minds; we provide the visual connection ourselves.  They build the bridge but they don’t push us to the other side.  We must do it ourselves.  That is a form of ultimate trust and lack of condescension towards an audience.

Ocelot situates his shadow archetypes in a vibrant world not unlike the stained glass windows of the world’s most gorgeous cathedrals.  The ornate detail of every “set” is immense, while tipping occasionally into surrealism.  The bright pinks, purples, and oranges of the king’s chambers in the story of the Boy’s adventure to the Caribbean afterlife (without having died first) bring to mind the dream sequences of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha.  The golden temples of the dragon tale put you directly into a vast South American empire.

His use of the transportive power of cinema and the literal visual depictions of character archetypes would suggest Ocelot believes in a world of unlimited possibilities.  But his stories each have the restrictive rules mentioned earlier.  The Boy in the Caribbean story is forced to search for seemingly unattainable objects and make impossible guesses by the king, lest he be executed.  The Boy’s fight with the South American dragon causes an ancient prophecy to inflict bedlam on the empire.  Ocelot subverts all these rules in clever ways, which again suggests an unlimited positivity to his outlook, but these characters still must follow these rules before they can overcome them.  The rules themselves never break, they just get worked around after being installed.  It’s a magical ode to working within society’s systems and finding ways around the periphery to make life work to your advantage.  Because that’s all we can do.

Tales of the Night is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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