Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #21-25


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#21. Great Directors (2009, Ismailos)
The picture above illustrates perfectly why, despite being engaged with what the filmmaker interviewees have to say, I did not like Great Directors. Director Angela Ismailos is incapable of letting herself be off-screen for more than a minute. The film has zero form or purpose for being, other than the bright idea that ‘hey I like these filmmakers; let me talk to them about everything’. So it bites off far more than it can chew in that sense. It didn’t feel like I watched a film by the time it ended. Ismailos distracts from everything by constantly cutting to herself, whether she’s listening, nodding, or asking questions. Whatever she can do to get herself onscreen, she does it. This isn’t a showy investigative documentary.There’s no reason for it. Worst offender of all are the grainy black-and-white shots of her walking the streets (of Rome I think?) simply because she can. No thanks.

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22. Laurence Anyways (2013, Dolan) 
Equal parts period glamour and turbulent romance, Laurence Anyways has the specific brand of assured self-conscious filmmaking that I fall head over heels for (can we dub it the A Single Man brand of filmmaking?). The first Xavier Dolan film I’ve had the pleasure to see has sophisticated sweep to spare, using new-wave chic inspired surface pleasures of sight and sound to paint the characters’ inner experience and self-ownership. Both Laurence and Fred grapple with themselves and each other, coming together and apart in waves of time and baggage, never able to make it fully work.

Dolan’s compositions are direct and pronounced, with virtually every element of mise-en-scene unifying a vision that promotes active engagement through costume, art direction, and framing. The prints and patterns, the fashion and color, it all informs to make up the fabric that is the film. It doesn’t detract or distract. It simply is the thing.  I haven’t stopped thinking of Fred’s ballroom entrance or Laurence’s leaf-stitched sweater, or the way she only wears one dangly earring. It’s stylistically satisfying yes, but equally so from a storytelling perspective. It also has the best compilation soundtrack I heard last year. With his multi-faceted time lapsing story of a transgender woman and her on-and-off girlfriend, Dolan reaches unimaginable peaks at age 23 with his third film, even if he periodically lets it get away from him. Suzanne Clément is especially excellent for making Fred’s resistance human as opposed to just cold-hearted.

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#23. Yoyo (1965, Etaix)
After decades of long-going legal issues, the films of Pierre Etaix were finally restored and released to the general public a few years ago through the Criterion Collection for all to discover and absorb. After seeing Yoyo, I can’t wait to explore the rest of Etaix’s output. I wonder where this would stand in the annals of film history had distribution and availability been available for that half a century.

Its routine-based jokes, largely of an offbeat slapstick variety, have payoffs both short and long. They fly off the handle without letting up. It’s an ambitious work too, tracking the history of Europe, the passage of time, and the forms of entertainment to rise and fall within that framework. The first third plays as a silent film, with the kind of external and pronounced emphasis on sound effects that I love. Reminiscent of the way sound is used in Svankmajer’s Alice. The humor is based in comedic traditions (Etaix’s mentor was Jacques Tati, to give you an idea) with an off-kilter edge. There is even a striptease involving the removal of a shoe!

There is a light of touch to Yoyo that rarely accompanies such ambition. The 3 acts are distinctly separated, with one melody ubiquitously stringing it all together. Yoyo visits his father’s mansion as a child, and this visit prompts a lifelong goal of reattaining his father’s fortune. In the meantime, we’ve seen how empty and routine his father’s life had been in his wealth. We see his son pour all of the success he has a clown back into something we already know isn’t worth it. We don’t even see the parents in the second half, and Yoyo pretty much walls himself up in the restoration. The third act features a huge party with many bourgeois gatherers, but it’s still empty. Just a hell of a lot busier. Simplicity disappears. Technology, product, and status reign. It correlates with the way his job is shown, in an office, with multitasking everywhere. That we know and see Yoyo’s efforts as a waste gives the film a somber air. It all connects to a reaching back for childhood in a way. And the end is very Fellini. Very much so.

In a way, Yoyo does the opposite of what was taking place in the French New Wave at the time. It could be seen as very un-hip in the way it recalls and allies itself with traditional forms of entertainment (not the Hollywood model that New Wave directors disassembled and appropriated), and its obsession with the past, even in its ambition and considerable reach. But it’s so fresh, even today. It’s fuse threatens to fizzle out at periodic intervals, at least on a first viewing, but there’s so much to love here. So much to love.

Help!

#24. Help! (1965, Lester)
Runs on empty using Goon Show ‘how did we get here’ logic. Can largely be chalked up to a waste of inventive madcap energy. The Beatles, Ringo excluded, are never truly present. Their ambivalence hints towards image shifting soon to come. British character actors end up taking over for intervals, and the film as a whole has a preposterous and unappealing disarray about it. But the isolated song sequences are reliably wonderful as are the kaleidoscopic end credits.

The Spy Who Came in fro the Cold

#25. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965, Ritt)
From what I can discern, John Le Carre’s landmark spy novel is considered such in part for putting forth that maybe, just maybe, everyone involved in the spy racket is morally bankrupt and rotten from the inside out. This a stark, nicely mounted production that holds interest throughout, even if it doesn’t do more than that. Richard Burton’s relationship with Claire Bloom doesn’t come through enough to make her later importance hit as hard. Similarly, Burton’s scenes with Oskar Werner may be a highlight, but aren’t as crackling as I’d hoped. The courtroom centerpiece, with its chilly antler-filled decor, is where the goods are. The spy game is a world where innocent people are pawns, spies themselves are pawns, and love, emotion and/or hesitation get you killed instantaneously no matter how much time you’ve put in. This pattern of inhuman shove-offs is also subtly conveyed in the first half.  As Burton (who is so good here) climbs up the hierarchy, the seemingly central figure of power is ignored and useless to the higher-ups, which he and us witness as he gets closer and closer to Mundt.

 

List: Top 30 Favorite Films of 2013 (#15-1)


My other 2013 film lists:
Top 25 Performances https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/list-top-25-performances-from-2013/Top Fives of 2013 (in which I dole out a boatload of superlatives):https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/list-top-fives-of-2013-in-which-i-dole-out-a-boatload-of-superlatives/
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 2013: A Personal Sampling:https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/what-ill-remember-about-the-films-of-2013-a-personal-sampling/
Top 30 Favorite Films of 2013 (#30-16): https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/25/list-top-30-favorite-films-of-2013-30-16/

Some Major Blind Spots: The Act of Killing, The Great Beauty, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, A Touch of Sin, We Are What We Are, The Square, In a World…, Post Tenebras Lux, All is Lost, Gimme the Loot, Wadjda, To the Wonder, After Tiller, Twenty Feet from Stardom

The order in these last 15, and the previous 15 for that matter, has been flip-flopping all over the place within their mini-groups of 3-4.

The Grandmaster

15. The Grandmaster (Hong Kong/China) (Chinese cut)
Full of the simmering wooziness we expect from Wong Kar Wai’s imagery. The fight scenes glimmer and flow. Elements and body movement are highlighted. Kung-fu is shown as a delicate and elegant art form, akin to dance. And that’s what this film is about; the art form that is kung-fu, its ancestry and many subsets and schools of thought. How does art fade, die, rebirth, adapt and reconfigure itself as a reaction to history? This lends an incredibly mournful quality to The Grandmaster, so powerful in its cumulative effect that I became very emotional by its final minutes.

I understand that Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er is cut down quite a bit in the American cut, which is a shame because not only is she a co-lead but I actually felt like it was her story more than Ip Man’s. She is the driving force of the film as far as I’m concerned. The character and performance, and the way her character is tethered to its themes, are what I connected to most on a content level.

laurenceanyways_04
14. Laurence Anyways (Dolan) (Canada/France)
Equal parts period glamour and turbulent romance, Laurence Anyways has the specific brand of assured self-conscious filmmaking that I fall head over heels for (can we dub it the A Single Man brand of filmmaking?). The first Xavier Dolan film I’ve had the pleasure to see has sophisticated sweep to spare, using new-wave chic inspired surface pleasures of sight and sound to paint the characters’ inner experience and self-ownership. Both Laurence and Fred grapple with themselves and each other, coming together and apart in waves of time and baggage, never able to make it fully work.

Dolan’s compositions are direct and pronounced, with virtually every element of mise-en-scene unifying a vision that promotes active engagement through costume, art direction, and framing. The prints and patterns, the fashion and color, it informs to make up the fabric that is the film. It doesn’t detract or distract. It simply is the thing.  I haven’t stopped thinking of Fred’s ballroom entrance or Laurence’s leaf-stitched sweater, or the way she only wears one dangly earring. It’s stylistically satisfying yes, but equally so from a storytelling perspective. It also has the best compilation soundtrack I’ve heard all year, possibly in years. Dolan reaches unimaginable peaks at age 23 with his third film, even if he periodically lets it get away from him. Suzanne Clément is especially excellent for making Fred’s resistance human as opposed to just cold-hearted.

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#13. Museum Hours (Cohen) (Austria)
Forcing us to consider snapshots of life the way we would a painting, Museum Hours is about the neglected details of the everyday and the variety of ways we look at and consider art. The scarcity/non-existence of narrative allows Jem Cohen to mold a free-form structure that becomes invigorating to watch. It also depicts a lived-in and cloudy portrait of Vienna with the kind of familiarity that dispels any touristy perspective. It gets far too pointed in its final scene but this was an absolute delight from start to finish. The Bruegel lecture in particular took me in more than anything else this year.

The Wolf of Wall Street

#12. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese) (USA) 
Brazen, bloated, maniacally funny, exhausting, redundant, and revolting.  An uncomfortable film for many reasons, mainly because Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter constantly toe the line between unapologetic immersion into Jordan Belfort’s scummy lifestyle, in a way that is deliberately meant to feel infectious, and pulling back for that nasty transparency. Scorsese has always had a fascination with hyper-masculine types who turn their backs on the law in various ways. And that comes through, complicating things a bit, mostly for the better.

The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t just meant to condemn, but to mirror the worst of man’s base instincts, and the mentality of American Dream as horror show. Leonardo DiCaprio is blistering on a wavelength we’ve never seen from him (hell, never even come close to), and never thought him capable of. He is all-in, unhinged in a way few performances are, keyed up for physical comedy and improvised distastefulness. It is both exhilarating and exhausting to watch him work; in many ways, it’s the performance I’ve been waiting his entire career for.

It has an amplified potency which, though I wish it had more of the kinds of stinging moments depicted in the brilliant head-shaving scene, makes for a film that pitches us right into the heartlessness of a rotted mentality that supports the notion that having money gives you carte blanche to stop being human.

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#11. Her (Jonze) (USA)
Her comes at you with open arms and an open heart. It is ready and eager to engage your mind and soul. That openness, an inclusive openness, is a lot of what I loved Her. We see our own relationship with technology up onscreen, amplified by an idealistic near future with its colorful and endlessly soothing aesthetic and its recognizable tweaks to everyday life. But we, even more importantly, see our relationships with people up on the screen, and the familiar but always earth-shattering patterns in which people grow in and out of each other.

As remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix is here (which it should go without saying at this point) with Theodore’s permanent halfway-out-of-his-shell demeanor, it’s Scarlett Johansson I was most struck by. Her breakneck growth, enthusiasm, inquisitive nature; trying to grasp at human emotion and where she fits within and outside of that spectrum.

Her reminds me a lot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but far more optimistic), not just because of the lo-fi sci-fi element but for the encompassing way it tackles the experience of loving and living and losing that at times approaches profundity. The acknowledgment that bad comes with good and it’s often all worth it even if it can seem like it’s not. There is something of the hopeless romantic in Her; that love-on-a-pedestal way of looking at life, where emotional vulnerability is both risky and worthy.

BlueJasmine

#10. Blue Jasmine (Allen) (USA) 
My favorite Woody Allen film since Husbands and Wives released just over 20 years ago. I’ll say outright that the film is somewhat riddled with potential drawbacks; the men mostly represent things, Allen’s continually simplistic look at class which can veer into caricature, and there’s some clunky expository dialogue. But this is a genuine gut-punch from Allen, one of his bleakest films but also his most refreshing turn in some time. It has a flashback-heavy structure that bleeds past and present as we sit in Jasmine’s mindset. Watching it recalls the back-and-forth information letting of a stage production. The sense that this could be a play, along with Jasmine’s heavy Blanche DuBois vibe, is part of what makes the film so memorable. Allen and Cate Blanchett, who is astonishing even for her, do such a mesmerizing job of getting into her state of mind that Blue Jasmine is a rewarding experience and a tough one to shake off.

The-Worlds-End-2

#9. The World’s End (Wright) (UK) 
If this kind of film were made by anyone other than Edgar Wright, the four men with grown-up lives would be seen as a problem to be fixed, as ‘stuffed shirts’ in need of letting loose. Gary King would be seen as a bringer of fun, a harbinger of good times. But The World’s End takes a much different, much more rewarding road by depicting Gary King as an alcoholic whose life peaked at 17. He is the odd one out. He is the one with problems. He is the one that needs to grow up.

I found myself so invested in the broken dynamic between the four men and Gary that part of me didn’t even want the genre play to kick in. The entire cast is perfect but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both completely take me aback. Both play against type and their interactions are the most affecting of their other onscreen pairings. Pegg in particular is something to behold with his alcoholic desperation, his put-upon obliviousness and his impossibly high energy level. Frost, Marsan, Considine and Freeman all have each other to bounce off of, but Pegg has to be on his own wavelength throughout and convey that his life is on the line in more ways than one.

Wright’s reliable ability to photograph action scenes with clarity and style results some really exciting physicality on display. Anyone who knows my tastes understands this means major points. The World’s End doesn’t stay nearly as strong in its final minutes, but this was still one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s hilarious, heartfelt and built around its characters. Stasis is damaging; stasis is death. Nostalgia cannot mix with the present because bad things will happen. Plus, I’ve been waiting my whole life to see “Alabama Song” used to great effect in the film. My wish has finally been granted.

In the House

#8. In the House (Ozon) (France)
Right up there with Francois Ozon’s best work. His films lean toward an acerbic wit, adaptations of plays (In the House is an adaptation of Juan Moyarga’s “The Boy in the Last Row”) and playing with story deconstruction and manipulation whether carried out through his form or his characters. I went on an Ozon binge as a teenager and he remains one of my favorites. With In the House he reaches new heights, in a film that meta-intellectualizes the writing process, exploring our attachment to characters, the critical nature of tone and what happens when you get caught up in real life through fiction. This all sounds stodgy and overtly pleased with itself, and at times it is, but it’s an unabashedly entertaining class-conscious ride of melodrama and irony. I went into this not knowing anything, only knowing that it was the new Ozon film. And I was gripped from minute one all the way through to the perfect unpredictable, but ‘of course it needed to end this way’ final scene. In the midst of it all, there’s Ernst Umhauer, an alarmingly impactful new find. And he’s absolutely dreamy to boot.

beyond_the_hills

#7. Beyond the Hills (Mungiu) (Romania)
Can we all just agree that Cristian Mungiu has the best shot compositions by any director working today? This is a harrowing work of good intentions gone horribly wrong under the perverted superstitious-driven perspective that can come through religion. It looks at a system misused in the daily life of this monastery where judgment becomes clouded and oppression against women comes through in ways that fundamentally misunderstand people’s motivations, emotions, feelings, reactions and inner selves. There is so much going on in this scathing but admirably level-headed critique.

There are no villains; everyone involved is all-too human but unable to see what is in front of them. Meaningful values have been dwindled down into limited perspectives and a medieval way of living. It’s all backwards. It becomes difficult to pinpoint when everything starts to take an uncontrollable turn in this story which is unfortunately based on an actual event.

Like the masterpiece that is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this is rooted in a complex and loyal female friendship, this time with unspoken intimacy and hinted history. Both women have been and are continuously let down by various institutions they come in contact with. One has committed herself to God and the other, who has some unchecked mental sickness, clings to her friend, the only person she has left. That stalemate allows the eventual tragedy to unfold in the way it does. Mungiu continues to use tension, a lack of music, long unbroken takes with precise composition and a disturbing overlay told through bleak humanism.

Stoker 2

#6. Stoker (Park) (UK/USA) 
Stoker
 is a stylish sensory-riddled piece of sustained atmosphere, the kind of film I gravitate towards like a moth to a flame. Was there ever any doubt I would love this? Park Chan-wook puts his spin on this demented tale, a vigorous aphrodisiac, deeply rapturous and steeped in luxuriant emotion.

From a directorial perspective, about the art of silent observation, testing how to best capture that subjectivity on film. It ever-so-slightly recalls Kieslowski and what he does in The Double Life of Veronique, only in the single-minded prioritized task of capturing feeling and transferring a character’s experience to the audience. Using overt symbolism, stretching out moments right up to their expiration date and having an intuition for the beauty of the detail, Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller make the art of silent observation the central focus from which all other aspects of execution stem. Park has operated with this trademarked operatic formalism for many a year; no compromises and no apologies. And who are we kidding; the man has nothing to apologize for.

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#5. Like Someone in Love (Japan/France) (Kiarostami)
A rigorously contemplative character piece that exists in the spaces of loneliness and human connection. The film functions around what would normally be central events but not on them. What brings these people together, the lies they have told themselves and each other, and the untold history of the choices they’ve made? Abbas Kiarostami is a master filmmaker, using each camera choice to maximum effect, dangling the possibilities of character perspective in front of us like catnip. That first scene, for example, and the way he gains attention through his attentiveness, all because of where he places his camera and the way he uses sound. The return value on this film, just like Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran, is enormous. Leaves a lot to think about, particularly that slam-bang fade-in to the closing credits.

Top of the Lake

#4. Top of the Lake (Campion/Lee) (Australia/New Zealand)
Yes, I count miniseries for year-end lists. No, I don’t care if you wouldn’t.

Prolific Jane Campion’s feminist noir deals with the festering effects of resurfaced trauma set ablaze in a haunting New Zealand landscape of scumbag misogyny. Its blunt weapons come alive through its exploration of the unquestioned normalcy of such imbalances, and it’s all disguised as a whodunnit procedural. The passed down rituals of the alpha male surround a patriarchal world where staking territorial claim and asserting control gives way to power and status no matter the barbaric context.

But it’s not even just about the overt horrific ways in which men post a threat to women. It also looks at the other end of the threat spectrum. Top of the Lake captures, in ways I haven’t seen, the inherent daily threats women can feel amongst men; the instinctual act of tensing up, keeping your guard up whether intentionally provoked or not. It’s rare to see that evoked and examined in any storytelling so bravo to Campion and co-creator Gareth Lee for that.

Special mentions to Elisabeth Moss and one of my favorite actors, Peter Mullan for some of the most rigorous and spectacular acting you’ll see. Matt Mitcham will stay with me for some time.

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#3. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers) (USA)
Using the Greenwich Village scene to evoke the warmth of community, and creative outlets amidst the chilly haze of winter (courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel), Inside Llewyn Davis zeroes in on one man’s anonymous search outside that epicenter for success, purpose, and place. When trying to describe how I felt after this film ended, I mistakenly landed upon the film having the kind of heart I don’t often find with the Coen Brothers. But this wasn’t the sentiment I was looking for. They often have heart of some kind, but there’s a softness, an emotional center here that I haven’t quite experienced from them, at least based on my emotional response by the time the credits rolled.

There’s so much of come to expect from the Coens’, not least that trademark precision and a can’t-win credo. It has either a spiritual, character-driven or structural connection to both Barton FinkO Brother Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man. There are cyclical journeys within journeys, streaked with surreal touches and a cat (well, more than one cat) that overtly represents the idea of journey (the cat’s name is Ulysses!) It’s about how we are and who we are within the universe, but also about the search for something that might not be there; in this way it reminded me of an acute kind of depression. We drift along with Llewyn, as he comes to life through song and only through song, a dreary wanderer (who is also his own worst enemy) whose supposed lack of routine reveals itself to be just that. Attempts to break the cycle lead him to the start. It’s clear Llewyn has lots of talent but he seems destined for the eternal winds. Oscar Isaac suggests a fullness of character that doesn’t come around too often.

At Berkeley

#2. At Berkeley (Wiseman) (USA) 
The only time in the 4 years I’ve been doing these top 30 lists where only one documentary found its way on. A sad sad thing. Legendary Frederick Wiseman makes my ideal form of doc, continuing to stay true to his verite, no talking heads, no narration, fly-on-the-wall approach even in his 80’s. He comes back to looking at institutions, this time higher education, after a recent focus on the body in motion, with the 4-hour At Berkeley.

As always, Wiseman acts as a guide, without overt agenda, employing purposeful control over the material in what footage is chosen, its order, and where cuts occur. It’s a heavy task, and Wiseman spent 14 months editing the film. He never forces his point-of-view on the viewer, though of course he has one. We are left to make our own judgments; he just gives us the tools and the means. A fully comprehensive portrait of the higher education system, we are given unprecedented access to administrative meetings which tackle budget cuts, class lectures, lively and complex discussions, and a woefully misguided student protest which is kind of embarrassing to be honest.

It’s a thorny film with no easy answers, indeed, no answers at all. For every sliver of hope, there’s something undercutting. For every moment that feels like the system is densely irrevocable, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Hope and hopelessness walk hand-in-hand. Administration is well-meaning and they do an inordinate amount to keep the wheels turning, but them’s tough odds, and the trickle down effect of that effort doesn’t look felt by the students.  A lot about this film struck close to home for me. But you don’t come out of it feeling sad, but the reality, which includes the good, the bad and the ugly.

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#1. Before Midnight (Linklater) (USA) 
There’s simply no way I could favor anything over Jesse and Celine. Would the ‘Before’ series be as vital if we didn’t feel at every single second that there was an invisible force of creative kismet between Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Because as I think about why it is we love these films so much, I come back to the collaborative connection between this trio and that revisiting Jesse and Celine has always felt like something that was meant to be. These characters are in their very bones and as we watch Hawke and Delpy perform what they have collectively written with Linklater, it’s clear that something special is happening onscreen. Something embedded between these two actors; it feels that they legitimately live Jesse and Celine as they act before the cameras.

The romanticism of the first two films is almost entirely cut down to reveal a long-developed dynamic at first simmering and then bracing. We catch them at a make-it-or-break-it moment. This is about the moment in a relationship when you fully understand that this idea of ‘sharing a life’ together actually doesn’t exist. Why? Because you may be sharing a life but experiences are always going to be disparate in some fashion. As Jesse and Celine unabashedly and often cruelly unload their burdens onto each other, looking however they can to get a leg up, we see these characters in a light we never hoped we would. Their connection is still unchallenged and genuine. On the surface, life is going well for them. But there’s a lot boiling underneath and they’ve let it stew for a mite too long.

We see the negatives to Jesse and Celine’s positives; the passive-aggressiveness, the blame game, all of it. We understand where each is coming from, why one is fed up with the other, but also, and crucially I might add, why they should ultimately be able to get through this.

List: Top 30 Favorite Films of 2013 (#30-16)


I have to admit, 2013 hasn’t quite impressed me the way it’s impressed others. But you have to take that with a grain of salt. I think every year in film is special. I don’t think any one year in film is weak, and when people have stated it in year’s past I just want to pish-posh them away. If you’ve said this, you just haven’t seen enough! But 2013 did, quite simply, herald more disappointments than most years. But I still found plenty to love. I’ve got some major blind spots, the biggest of which I’ll list below. At a certain point, it’s just time to make the damn lists. I tried to see the majority of the films that held the most interest for me. Eventually I’ll catch up with the ones I missed. My top 15 goes up tomorrow.

My other 2013 film lists:
Top 25 Performances https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/list-top-25-performances-from-2013/Top Fives of 2013 (in which I dole out a boatload of superlatives): https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/list-top-fives-of-2013-in-which-i-dole-out-a-boatload-of-superlatives/
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 2013: A Personal Sampling: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/what-ill-remember-about-the-films-of-2013-a-personal-sampling/

Some Major Blind Spots: The Act of Killing, The Great Beauty, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, A Touch of Sin, We Are What We Are, The Square, In a World…, Post Tenebras Lux, All is Lost, Gimme the Loot, Wadjda, To the Wonder, After Tiller, Twenty Feet from Stardom

Bastards Creton
Honorable Mention:
Bastards (Denis) (France)
For my honorable mention I’ve chosen a film that has unexpectedly haunted me since viewing it. I like Claire Denis’ latest a lot, but felt it became trapped between her opaque poeticisms and having to fulfill noir tropes left lingering after the dust settles. That being said, I haven’t been able to shake the thing since seeing it, in such a way that the film bares an honorary mention just on that that, let alone its other considerable achievements.

The Selfish Giant
#30. The Selfish Giant (Barnard) (UK)
Clio Barnard’s second film, an outgrowth of and companion piece to her first (the experimental documentary The Arbor), continues to explore life in Bradford where post-industrial environments harbors dire below-the-line living conditions. It also confirms her as a new voice in British cinema. The social consciousness is rooted in drudgery specific to the area where the hum of electricity, and fate, loom over the characters. We see how and why kids would take part in the illegal and lucrative scrap-dealing world as an immediate answer and sole misguided carrier of hope. This is a hankie movie everyone. Big. Time. Hankie Movie.

The catharsis and release that comes at the end, after a period of unerring focus and shock, is sort of soul-shattering. And it illustrates why the film works so well. It often seems hopeless, and there is little good depicted in this world, but The Selfish Giant is punctuated with moments where compassion is a form of exchange between two people. Barnard is also thankfully far more interested in the daily existence, of seeing Arbor and Swifty in their natural habitats than in point-to-point storytelling. I’m absolutely struck by the work of the two lead children, both non-actors who came from the area. Falls in line with British social realism films of yesteryear. Hopeless yet humanistic. Powerful but not plodding.

Byzantium
#29. Byzantium
 (2013, Jordan) (Ireland/UK/USA)
There were a number of films I became very fond of this year that almost made the cut. But time and time again I kept coming back to Neil Jordan’s succulent and underappreciated return to territory the likes of The Company of Wolves and Interview with the Vampire. Byzantium is a tell-tale yarn fraught with dicey dynamics and the eternal past. Saoirse Ronan stands at the center but it’s Gemma Arterton who most captivates. You feel the weight of time and the world on Clara’s shoulders even though she likes to pretend it isn’t there. Moira Buffini, who I’ve come to expect wonderful things from, concocts a vampiric story about women staking a claim for themselves in a male-dominated construct. The lush imagery is supported by the notion that female characters can take control of their own narratives. It has the feel of a successful adaptation, a film about where people land within their own story when their fantastical tale is all said and done.

No Barnal
#28. No (Larrain) (Chile) Fuses form with the period visual language at hand. No’s greatest success is the way it embraces the outlandish humor inherent in selling democracy to the public using advertising language and branding without ever feeling like it side-sweeps what is at stake. It is heavily populated with riotous and invaluable archival footage. The story is told through the assumedly fictional central figure played by Gael García Bernal who strides through the film freely aware that philosophy and political discussion sadly don’t have the market appeal of say, a jingle. It’s very focus further supports this idea as does the low-def 80’s format. Bernal makes his enigma of a cocky wunderkind full stop captivating. It also brings back pleasant yet vague memories of learning about Chile in my Latin American history class.

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#27. The Heat (Feig) (USA)
Melissa McCarthy dusts off one-liners like she’s dealing cards as well as creating a well-rounded character within a comedic framework. McCarthy and Bullock create the best onscreen duo to hit the multiplexes since Hill/Tatum in 21 Jump Street. Not coincidentally, both are buddy-cop films. And unlike 21 Jump Street, which falters in its last third, The Heat manages to stay consistent, its weaknesses trickle in throughout (including a mean-spirited streak) without hindering it too much at any given time. I had such a blast with this, and Feig’s direction really comes through in how he extracts the most laughs out of chaotic situations. Two examples include the scene at the club and the drinking montage.

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#26. It’s a Disaster (Berger) (USA)
Todd Berger’s low-key apocalyptic comedy nails the awkwardness of being thrust into new social entanglements and the weird and thoroughly under-explored dynamic embedded in the dreaded third date. The ensemble have great rapport, and the chamber piece is kept up in the ways characters take off in various amusing reactionary directions. If some of the characters never become interesting or move past their introductory vibe, it’s a relatively minor detractor in what is one of the most consistent and enjoyable comedies I’ve seen in some time. More people need to see this. The final scene is spot-on.

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#25. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen) (USA)
Steve McQueen somewhat inverts his psychological studies from outside-in/how the body inherently relates as vessel between what we see of people and what goes on within. It’s all recognizably McQueen, with suffering as the nucleus. One man’s story, which remains prioritized, is used as a catalyst for taking in, if not directly on, the larger whole, all stemming from the centrality of Solomon. There is an indirect blanket focus on the broader sets of societal and ideological circumstances through character behavior required for atrocities to be normalized. It’s a story of perverse realities, realities that reinforce the importance of always continuing to confront history, to reexamine, to not forget.

McQueen presents the material, with a no safety setting intact. Long takes, shallow focus, the pain showing on the face and being inflicted on the body. I do wonder about the unerring focus on brutality, and if maybe it’s sort of an easily blunt method of addressing the institution of slavery that slides the aforementioned blanket focus I mentioned earlier into the shadows. It’s a complicated topic to be sure, but I have largely appreciated the folks willing to question the film’s merits as opposed to blindly accepting them, even if I feel there’s a lot more going on in the film than the more narrow ways detractors have read it.

And that ending. Solomon is lifted out of hell, and the film comes to a close with a quiet reunion. As Solomon looks on at his family, both familiar and unrecognizable, apologizing for the state of his appearance, the impact of the film hits you all at once. It’s like an unspeakable tidal wave.

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#24. New World (Park) (South Korea)
Mob movies have to work a little extra to earn my commitment. I’m not adverse to them, and there’s actually quite a few I like or love. But it’s not a genre I automatically care about. New World, written and directed by I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hoon-Jung more than earns my commitment. It pulls you in from the word go. It’s more about the characters and how their long-standing relationships go hand-in-hand with the choices that are made than strictly adhering to mob tropes. There is an unforeseen ripple effect that the characters can’t quite define, but they all know it’s there. The parking garage fight scene is a kinetic stunner that I’m still wrapping my mind around. I seriously cannot stress that enough. All of the performances are incredibly strong, none more so than Hwang Jung-min, his doofy swagger acting as a posturing veneer. This is swift, smart, and impressive all-around. It felt like a kind of unspoken love story between two ‘brothers’; the curious coda falls in line with this reading.

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#23. Frances Ha (Baumbach) (USA)
Here’s the thing with Frances Ha. Saw it, loved it, continued to love it, and then a few weeks after seeing it, it left a slightly dissatisfied taste. I’m confident that a re-watch will rectify this strange faded feeling, but for now it gets a lower spot than it otherwise would have. But I’m still in the minority for preferring caustic Jennifer Jason Leigh-collaborative Baumbach over bubbly Greta Gerwig-collaborative Baumbach.

Noah Baumbach revisits the comical sharpness of his roots and the result is a youthful and delectable collaboration with new squeeze Gerwig. It is about the intricacies and intimacies of female friendship and the slow emergence of self-aware maturity. And it ties the two together beautifully. I love its flighty makeshift structure, completely coated in French New Wave sensibilities. It’s equal-parts comprised of full scenes and montage where exchanges and moments are pared down to their minimum for maximum essence. It paints a fairy tale-like picture where the underlying sadness can be overcome because let’s face it, the only thing holding Frances back from putting her best foot forward is herself. She makes some poor decisions along the way in order to live in the past and retain a sense of control but they are ill-advised. Has there been a more pitiful Paris excursion in film?

This would make an excellent double feature with Walking and Talking. Dean and Britta show up again here and this time they have lines! Major bonus points there. I know we all justifiably fawned over the usage of “Modern Love” (though knowing there’s another usage featuring Denis Lavant out there makes me salivating for the latter), but can we stop for a second and appreciate the more memorable multiple usage of Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner”?

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#22. Enough Said (Holofcener) (USA)
Nicole Holofcener tends to deal with wayward women in some sort of semi-self-inflicted crisis. Here, she skillfully observes a woman whose inability to trust her own judgment and have her own experiences gets her into some uncomfortably sticky situations. Enough Said works so well in part because the script openly acknowledges that these characters have a lot of life both behind and ahead of them. It deals very honestly with the fact that budding relationships which come in middle age carry baggage and a past that both must reconcile. Each have daughters, ex-spouses, their own experiences and acquired defense mechanisms. In Hollywood, middle-aged romance is a sort of hazy hiccup in life that must be overlooked or ignored completely, despite being far more interesting for its mature perspective. That attention to relationship history is both the possible savior and destroyer for Eva and Albert’s relationship.

It has its stumbles (rom-com polish, unsubtle reminders, and a corny score) but Holofcener gets at the loss parents experience when their children leave the nest, and the parallel terror of new relationships in middle age when the past lingers and the future is mined with vulnerable uncertainties.

Full Review: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/review-enough-said-2013-holofcener/

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#21. The Hunt (Vinterberg) (Denmark)
That a film like this is an easy potshot of ‘look how useless people can be’ in a herd mentality scenario doesn’t lessen its impact as heralded by Thomas Vinterberg and powerhouse star Mads Mikkelsen. Links back to the director’s seminal Festen by looking at another accusation of sex abuse, this time a decidedly false one. Vinterberg never lets go of his grip on seeing the constant gears of the snowball effect setting up and going into motion. Standard narrative manipulation aside, everything about this feels like an eerily plausible train wreck you can’t stop from happening. Everybody is depicted as well-meaning individuals whose reactions are understandable (Fanny assailants aside) given the circumstances yet still avoidable. It’s one of the more successfully frustrating ‘audience-can’t-reach-out-and-set-things-straight’ experiences. Its study in mob mentality, importantly a mob mentality rooted in genuine search for justice borne out of rightly placed protection, offers no easy answers as it mourns the loss of innocent and pure interactions between adults and children. Those early scenes can’t even exist in their purity because we know what’s coming. Reliable great Mads Mikkelsen brings all of this home with his kind and giving character, respectable stiff upper-lip slowly giving way.

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#20. Drug War (To) (China/Hong Kong)
2013 seems to be the year where the film community has collectively taken on To’s intimidating filmography with rigor. It’s an exciting development largely triggered by Drug War’s Western success. Not including Drug War, I’d only seen a couple of To’s films (everyone needs to see The Heroic Trio because it has amazing Hong Kong lady stars becoming superheroes and kicking ass!) and Drug War definitely left me pining for more of his work.

This is rigid, disciplined, alive. Entirely driven, on a content level, by its economic plot mechanics, making up a serious and twisty crime/action film laced with politics of Mainland China where rigidity is a false pretense because everything feels like it can go bust at any second. And oh boy does it ever. On its surface it may on first glance look like a really solid action flick, but when you watch it, it doesn’t quite feel like others of its kind. It’s hermetically sealed and about the illusion of order. Everything is slick (what glorious sound!); not supported by the notion of ‘cool’ so much as the notion of pure craftsmanship. There is an immaculate tracking of space and place. You can tell this is special just in the way it goes about introducing all the key players at the beginning. It doesn’t dumb down character intros but it’s a casually intricate map rooted in clarity. Drug War gets more compelling by the minute and is contains a pretty fantastic female detective played by Huang Yi.

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#19. Behind the Candelabra (Soderbergh) (USA) (aired on HBO)
My favorite Soderbergh film since Traffic, Behind the Candelabra is biographical, campy, comedic, showbizzy, heartwrenching, bizarre and poignant all at once. You could watch it once and latch onto any one of its parallel modes of design. Watch it another time and give yourself over to a different thread. It takes the conventional rise-and-fall relationship trajectory and uses it to explore how toxicity and devotion intermingle. Douglas lets us see a little slime underneath the bedazzle, just enough to really grey things up. This is in the running for Matt Damon’s best work. His Scott is also genuine on one level, but subtly duplicitous in the perks of living the life and the downward spiral he allows himself to go on.

The glitz, cosmetic surgery, PR work and pills make up this fragile veneer where everyone is going big or going home in a constant effort to keep up a transparent lie in more ways than one. Oh, and kudos for Cheyenne Jackson who kills every second of his tiny role. On a final but crucial note, the Matt Damon eye candy is at ridiculously high levels.

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#18. Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche) (France)
A seminal relationship, the search for identity, heartbreak and hope all in extreme close-up, all mapped out on faces. Largely free of narrative commitment, Blue is more tethered to an almost verite-like observation which captures intense personal experience. There is a ruthless commitment to the vigorous lifeblood of a young woman which is embedded in everything from the extratextual unpleasant filming experiences to the naturalistic self-discovery and epic fumbles that belong to Adele. She has a lust for life in eating, dancing, masturbating; the basics of living are depicted through that stumble towards an uncertain identity and sense of self.  Problematic claims aside, there’s an audacity and animalism to the much-talked about sex scenes (our culture’s general prudishness is as much to blame for this as is textual and extratextual context) that is so pulsing, vital, sweaty and real to the relationship that the idea of them, nature of the male gaze and actors experience aside, is important. It’s the kind of stark eroticism and explicitly frank depiction of sex I think we need more of. We stay with them to the point where, for better or worse, it feels like we enter another realm and it fits with the film he is making, exploitative or not (to which I say both yes and no).

I was especially taken with how meaninglessly Adele fucks up. It’s so spot-on to actual experience. We never see her trying to communicate to Emma how she feels, and her all-too human fuck-up is driven by inexperience with relationships and how to handle their downs, and a general restlessness. Unbearably palpable is the diner scene towards the end, a wrenching depiction of can’t-go-back heartbreak, regret and pain on both sides. The journey we go on just in that scene is mind-boggling. Blue is also responsible for turning my adoration of Lea Seydoux into full-blown crush territory.

More thoughts here: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/films-seen-in-2013-round-up-235-239/

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#17. Monsters University (Scanlon) (USA)
I have no idea what this film did to catch the amount of undeserved slack it received within the film community upon its release. Aren’t most movies been-there-done-that? Doesn’t execution count for anything? Has Pixar pitted itself into a hole of unreachable expectation? A riff on the college buddy comedy, Monsters University might not pack the kind of next-level emotional wallop of some of Pixar’s output or have the kind of ambition we crave from them, but this was flat-out one of the most entertaining films I saw this year. That anyone could have walked out of this unsatisfied boggles my mind. It’s heartfelt, hilarious and carries a wonderful message on its back that I wish had provoked more discussion.

I find it fairly unconventional for an all-ages film to be this realistic in its message. This isn’t “Reach for the Sky”. This is “Reach for the Sky” but realize it’s okay that you might have to start at the bottom. There’s something bold in stating (in a kids film no less!) that desire and natural talent don’t always have matching levels. Mike wants to scare more than anything in the world. But he’s just average. And that’s okay.  It hits every note it intends to, every joke lands on-target (anyone who lived on a college campus will appreciate a lot of the humor) and Crystal and Goodman lend top-notch voice work in reviving Mike and Sully.

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#16. The Spectacular Now (Ponsoldt) (USA)
Indie darling coming-of-age romance based on a YA novel? Doesn’t sound like my cuppa. Oh, but in this case it was. We are brought into the characters lives on their own level of experience; first loves, mistakes, conflicting flutters, people letting them down. In the process, we come to care so deeply for Sutter and Aimee, separately and, for better or worse, together. Ponsoldt makes us feel like part of the story; we feel as they feel. The uncertainty, the butterflies, the ways people change and don’t change and the self-doubt.

I’m über-picky with romance. But I was struck by the maturity with which this story and these characters, even the secondary ones, are crafted. People are neither wholly good or bad, everyone is flawed and capable of weakness, ill-advised coping and the hardships of living with oneself. It’s an obvious truth, and one that films tend to forget in service of tropes. I guess what I’m saying is that The Spectacular Now doesn’t view its characters as characters, it views them as people. And I responded very positively to that. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are revelatory.

More thoughts: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/capsule-reviews-films-seen-in-2014-round-up-1-5/

Review: Her (2013, Jonze)


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(Some spoilers ahead)
Her comes at you with open arms and an open heart. It is ready and eager to engage your mind and soul. That openness, an inclusive openness, is a lot of what I loved Her. It allows the story to interact with the audience on an uncommon level. We see our own relationship with technology up onscreen, amplified by an idealistic near future with its colorful and endlessly soothing aesthetic and its recognizable tweaks to everyday life. But we, even more importantly, see our relationships with people up on the screen, and the familiar but always earth-shattering patterns in which people grow in and out of each other.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) embarks on uncharted territory by getting involved with his operating system. That newness of the unknown is used on a broader level to get at what a seminal new relationship can feel like. That so-we’re-really-going-to-do-this kind of excitement. On the other side of the hill, when Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) drops a bomb on Theodore, it’s of a bewildering extreme, also representing that is-this-really-happening disbelief when everything crumbles.

It’s so important, perhaps more important than anything to me regarding Her, that Samantha is her own being. At times it comes close to getting into tired man-jilted-by-woman territory, but the film and Samantha catch certain moments when Theodore is too entrenched in his own feelings to see hers. We see it, she sees it. That he gets called out on it is critical. In one way, even if this wasn’t intentional, it’s sort of about a man realizing that women exist outside of their own orbit (shocking I know!). As sad as the film can be and as attached we get to the central relationship, I was also so pleased to see Samantha venture into the unknown, to test her own limits and find her own purpose.

As remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix is here (which it should go without saying at this point) with Theodore’s permanent halfway-out-of-his-shell demeanor, it’s Scarlett Johansson I was most struck by. Her breakneck growth, enthusiasm, inquisitive nature; trying to grasp at human emotion and where she fits within and outside of that spectrum. Her feisty shrug-like manner and cautious tip-toeing inquiries. She even makes us feel a sense of the intangible space she occupies. It’s kind of insane.

I also fell in love with the friendship between Theodore and Amy (Amy Adams). They have the comfort, ease and support that long-term friendships carry. They console, they advise, they don’t judge. Amy isn’t just put in the film so Theodore can have someone to talk about his struggles. He’s there so she can talk about hers. So at the end when it all seems pretty hopeless what with the realities of change and failed sustainable connections, Theodore goes to Amy for comfort. And it’s beautiful because there’s a faith in peoples ability to be there for each other. To have that shoulder to lean on. Again, critically, it’s mutual. She has lost someone too. They comfort each other. Human connection remains intact without dismissing the positive sides of unseeable kinds of connection. Regardless of the fallout, nothing about Theodore and Samantha is depicted with anything approaching skepticism.

Her reminds me a lot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but far more optimistic), not just because of the lo-fi sci-fi element but for the encompassing way it tackles the experience of loving and living and losing that at times approaches profundity. The acknowledgment that bad comes with good and it’s often all worth it even if it can seem like it’s not. There is something of the hopeless romantic in Her; that love-on-a-pedestal way of looking at life, where emotional vulnerability is both risky and worthy.

I always pick up on a melancholy air in Spike Jonze’s work. Yes there’s that optimism, but it’s more of a tone I speak of. I cannot for the life of me intellectualize it but it’s there, to the point where I haven’t worked up the nerve to revisit Where the Wild Things Are since theaters. And I’m someone who tends to run towards melancholic things, not away from them!

Jonze’s first screenplay is a wonderful achievement, exploring the intricacies of love but also taking slightly surreal side trips into the kinds of bizarre scenarios the future may hold, which often involve middlemen and ways we become further isolated from each other. If I have one complaint, it’s that it periodically feels like the film indulges Theodore too much, in a way that can make him seem kind of childlike.

Nevertheless, Her is a lovingly crafted, deeply intimate piece of work that has struck a nerve with many, myself included, and rightly so.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #16-20


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#16. For a Few Dollars More (1965, Leone)
Trumps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for me (!). Found it more consistently engaging on a storytelling level, specifically the set-up of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty killers who tenuously team up to take down El Indio. They tiptoe around each other for a bit; we are introduced to each via their disparate work strategies. Their first meeting is a special kind of dick measuring contest. Communication comes in boot-crunching, silent assessments and, in a patient bit of comedy with a matched pay-off, hat shooting. In fact the entire film is littered with pay-offs, most notably the finale (big shocker) which had me cheering out loud during a solo viewing for the first time in forever. Those kinds of moments don’t come around often; it’s always affirming to be swept off one’s feet, roused to such a degree and so firmly in a character’s corner as I was the moment Manco shows up with that timepiece.

The incorporation of the timepiece illustrates what I love so much about Ennio Morricone (besides the general fact that he cannot be beat) and his collaborations with Sergio Leone. Music becomes a tent under which the entire production gathers. In both For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West, non-diegetic and diegetic sound merge and inform each other with one common element. In For a Few Dollars More, it’s the timepiece. In Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s the harmonica. The music is a direct outgrowth of the story. Part of the fabric, its essence you could say, gallantly taking off in grander operatic directions.

This is also the most potent I’ve found Clint Eastwood’s presence as iconic figure. All fluidity in his essential movements; ever-watchful and unwavering. Waiting for opportunities to present themselves. Gian Maria Volonté has that Oliver Reed brand of magnetism (something I’d have picked up on immediately even if The Party’s Over hadn’t been the film I watched 2 days before this) with a beguiling touch of Hugh Bonneville. Co-lead Lee Van Cleef is best in show as Colonel Mortimer. Persistent weariness and endearing conviction. All three lead players compliment and elevate each other.

There is a moment that elicits a special level of ‘oh no he didn’t’ when Van Cleef dares to strike a match off Klaus Kinski’s back. I found myself instinctively shouting “WHAT ARE YOU DOING”  and proceeded to have Kevin McAllister face for the remainder of the scene. Sure enough, Kinski starts FACE-TWITCHING. Moments like this are priceless, folks. Priceless.

All in all, Leone continues to perfect frame-filling studies of the masculine face and the vastness around them. Sure enough, the soundtrack has already joined the rest my Morricone on the iPod to be listened to on endless repeat.

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#17. American Hustle (2013, Russell)
Hodgepodge dress-up. I cannot for the life of me find a point to this, and I don’t mean a discernible ‘message’. That’s not a necessity for me and doesn’t automatically equate any failure. What I mean by ‘point’ is that it ostensibly brings nothing to the table; it stakes out zero territory for itself. On the one hand, it’s light as a feather but without effortlessness or charm. On the other hand, it’s also bogged down in self-imposed ‘seriousness’ but without carrying any weight or impact. It wants to be both comedy and drama. David O. Russell’s strength (right below his work with ensembles) has been toeing the line between the two in ways that service both. That strategy does nothing to lift this project.

Every time it feels like American Hustle might take off, it stays put. Hell, I didn’t even get all that much out of the interplay between actors, which is always what I look forward to from Russell. Basically, the man wants an Oscar so badly, going back to The Fighter, to the point where it wafts off his work, only to be masked by the newly acquired inordinate stink of hair product. On a basic level I enjoyed a lot of the film a little, which is a mite lacking in mileage.

Filled to the brim with endless story detail, the word ‘fun’ keeps popping up in reference to the film, but that didn’t reflect my experience. It pains me to reference performances, or anything for that matter, only in an awards context, but 3/4 of those acting Oscar nods are preposterous if not at all surprising (why hello there Mr. Weinstein). Jennifer Lawrence in particular, who is undeniably very talented (oh how the recent stirrings of backlash are so hilariously predictable and dull), nails the emotions of Rosalyn but is miscast and as a result unable to sell her character. David O. Russell is now 2 for 2 with casting Lawrence in roles too old for her. The only standout is Amy Adams who shatters into place the desperate self-denial of her character and the need to con herself from the inside-out.

The pageantry of the piece is self-conscious, or at least it feels that way. I still can’t tell if this is a good or bad thing. It’s a give-and-take. Was fond of the film pulling for the Bale and Adams relationship.

There are two bona-fide brilliant moments. First is Adams’ left-field bathroom stall howl, a moment of agony and ecstasy. Second is Lawrence, head-chopping and scrubbing away, belting “Live and Let Die” directly to the camera. These types of spontaneous alleyways, these peeks into character, are what I wanted more of.

The three times I laughed:
a. Cooper messing up Bale’s toupee
b. Cooper impersonating Louis C.K (I don’t know if I’ve seen a funnier moment this year)
c. Lack of resolution to C.K’s ice-fishing parable

I so dearly miss the David O. Russell of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. The issues I had with Silver Linings Playbook are irredeemable and more infuriating, but this one is yet even less of an achievement.

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#18. The Train (1965, Frankenheimer)
The bookends of moral dilemma serve as John Frankenheimer’s statement, with a steely action flick sandwiched in-between. Solid diversion in which it is easy to see the acclaim even if I can’t whole-heartedly hop aboard. Frankenheimer dollies around the premises with an excellent sense of establishing situation and place in one fell swoop. Burt Lancaster is game to play his own reckless stunt man, yet amusingly and unsurprisingly (and isn’t this part of the fun?), puts zero effort into convincing us he’s French. In this instance, Lancaster has a tough time connecting to the audience with his character and general presence, but this could also have something to do with his character being disconnected from the specific stakes in play.

Are inanimate objects, even masterpieces of art, worth the risk of human life? Frankenheimer and Lancaster’s Labiche answer with a resounding no. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is an obsessive connoisseur and appreciator of the arts to the point where he feels ownership to the masterworks at risk. In the meantime, Lancaster’s motives are purely revenge-based. So there’s a topsy-turvy quality to the motives in motion. The end is a statement coda and resonates in a confrontational way. Even if I don’t agree with Frankenheimer’s perspective, he throws a pile of dead bodies at the audience, right next to the pile of paintings that get to persevere as a result. Throw in a spiteful revenge killing and you’ve got an ending that leaves us on a dire note, a note that forces you to think and sit with the consequences. For that I admire The Train.

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#19. Le Bonheur (1965, Varda)
It’s as if Agnes Varda’s point of view should be clear as day to me. Clear as the found and placed pop colors that populate the Le Bonheur, giving it a cognizant and joyful brightness. But the film is elusive, or at least I find it to be, and that’s what draws me to it so much. The more I think about it, and read about it, I keep coming back to the name (as ya do). Happiness. For quite a while the film soaks in a picaresque and tranquil happiness. Nature seemingly pervades but really conceals just-over-there civilization. The married couple (who are married in real life) have perfectly behaved little cherubs (yes those are also their actual children). They make love in the grass. There are no complaints, no problems.

When Francois finds a look-alike of his wife to also love, we get a portrait of a different kind of cad. A cad who honest-to-goodness has no idea he is one. He is happy. He is the happiness of the title. It’s not an affair borne out of the usual domestic tiredness. He simply has a compartmentalized way of looking at things. Self-excusing and wrought with florid nonsense as his explanations are, I agree with a lot of the basics of his thought process. But the fact of the matter is that he has embarked, solo, on a polyamorous relationship without the other’s consent. Without care or any spark of consideration for his other half, or even for his second other half.

His wife has little personality. She is loving, demure, shines bright. Her life is a domestic one; blissful, but it revolves around him. Everything she has is based on the notion that he is hers. That he thinks what he’s doing is okay simply because it doesn’t change how he feels is most selfish of all because Therese’s feelings are screened out. Not even on the table. She does everything she is ‘supposed’ to, but there’s still someone else. She can’t handle this but Emilie can and takes her dutiful place. The new and easily repaired couple walk off in newfound glory, seen in increasingly mournful distance, surrounded by the beautiful decay of autumn. I don’t know if I’m anywhere near the mark here (but whatever, individual interpretation is subjective so it’s okay), but this is what I took away from it.

Watching the onscreen ‘happiness’ at the start can take a toll on the viewer, and thus it takes a while for Le Bonheur to get going, but once it does it’s engaging. Jean-Claude Drouot looks exactly like Bill Hader. Varda’s camera is potent and sly.

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#20. Her (2013, Jonze)
Separate post coming soon 

What I’ll Remember About the Films of 2013: A Personal Sampling


So I started doing this last year and I’m kind of in love with it. It’s a personal snapshot of my takeaways from the year in film. It’s more of a surface level kind of thing, less about what films are doing or not doing, and more about immediate pleasures or displeasures both broad and specific. Hope you enjoy! What were your takeaways from this year?

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Wishing we could live in a world where all blockbusters could star Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor (The Conjuring)

Discovering the music of Death via A Band Called Death

One step forward for films about female relationships (Frozen, Frances Ha, Byzantium etc.) and one step kind-of-back for having said characters spend most of their screen-time separated. 

It’s a Disaster for making me crave more low-budget chamber piece ensemble comedies

Marisa Tomei overacting like nobody’s business with her interpretation of Marilyn Monroe writings (Love, Marilyn)

For endless American Dream think-pieces and accompanying films (Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain (haven’t seen), The Great Gatsby, Wolf of Wall Street)

In which further proof came to light that Paul Dano continues to get the shit kicked out of him, completely with weasel-squeals (can’t forget the weasel-squeals), in Every. Single. Film. (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners)

Everyone proclaiming 2013 was a great year for film; while I think every year is a great year for film depending on what you see, this year actually brought far more disappointments than normal (Sightseers, The Place Beyond the Pines, Gravity, From Up on Poppy Hill, American Hustle, Antiviral, You’re Next, Stories We Tell, Prisoners, Much Ado About Nothing, Room 237, Blue Caprice, etc.)

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Seeing a better ‘silent film’ (not to mention more attuned to formalistic trends of the time) than The Artist (Blancanieves)

Berberian Sound Studio using sound effects to squishy and crunchy effect

The breakdancing scene in The Way Way Back for winning the title of worst five minutes in 2013 film

Drug War and New World putting other action/crime films in their place for different reasons

Proof that Caleb Landry Jones is my generation’s Crispin Glover (Antiviral)

Juno Temple’s silky and out-of-body hypnotized dance in Magic Magic

Thinking that if Pacific Rim was refreshing to people (clearing the bar for original franchise piece and refreshingly diverse cast aside) then I give up on life

New sides of Michael Cera (Magic Magic, This Is the End)

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So…the bigger the asshole Leonardo DiCaprio plays, the more attracted I am to him? Is this the trajectory I’m working with? OK; just checking (The Wolf of Wall Street)

The year Ryan Gosling’s presence and acting abilities bored me into oblivion (The Place Beyond the Pines, Only God Forgives)

Because it always bears repeating; Olivier Assayas has better taste in music than anyone working in film. I will pay you heaps of cash to make me mixes Good Sir. Abba Zaba Zoom (Something in the Air)

The outrageously entertaining archival footage that populates No

Being okay with having only one foot on the Spring Breakers bandwagon; ever-so-close to love with reservations regarding its pedestal-placement-outweighs-the-text status

Last year was the year Léa Seydoux became one of my favorite actresses with Sister and Farewell, My Queen respectively. This year was the year I became head over heels attracted to her from her general appearance and character in Blue is the Warmest Color.

Brutal post-breakup denouements in Blue is the Warmest Color and Laurence Anyways

Two films, two wonderfully inventive films, shot on period accurate video! (Computer Chess, No)

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Being reminded that nobody does composition like Cristian Mungiu and Abbas Kiarostami (Beyond the Hills, Like Someone in Love)

Suzanne Clément making the entrance to end all entrances, accompanied by new wave, sparkle, wind machines, and revolving floors in Laurence Anyways

Catching up with familiar faces (56 Up)

Existential film lover crisis in the form of my ambivalence towards Leviathan. Does it make me a shitty cinephile? (Answer: no)

Jena Malone as Johanna Mason being the most electric presence onscreen this year and making me want her in everything from now on (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Seeing enough of Lola Creton and Caleb Landry Jones to consider them new favorites of mine (Bastards, Something in the Air, Antiviral)

Being reminded that Katharine Isabelle is severely underrated and deserves to be a full-fledged star (American Mary)

Finding Only God Forgives to be the most visually captivating film of the year, while frustrating in its macho-art-gore-study (and yet my feelings towards it are still more complicated because there’s a lot I liked about it) 

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Can Mary McCarthy come back to life and be my best friend? (Hannah Arendt)

Being unable to figure out why Computer Chess and Upstream Color held me at an unaccountable distance despite liking them both

You know a movie is bad when your favorite character is a monkey voiced by Zach Braff (Oz the Great and Powerful)

Jake Gyllenhaal’s slicked back hair that always manages to somehow be in his face in Prisoners

The woefully misguided and naïvely executed student protest captures by Frederick Wiseman in At Berkeley. Eek. Eek. Eek.

My first visit to Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn (saw Spring Breakers with my sister and her friend)

Matt Damon’s physique in Behind the Candelabra. Oh, and his performance. Yeah, that too

Wishing that Byzantium was an adaptation of a highly acclaimed novel so I could gobble it all up

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More feminist noir please! (Top of the Lake)

Peter Mullan proving once again why he is one of my favorite working actors with his portrayal of Matt Mitcham, perhaps the most compelling performance and work in the whole of 2013. Everyone should still be talking about it, and we’re not (Top of the Lake)

The near-futuristic portrait of insular experiences and soothing pastels in Her

The most indelible image of the year; Lola Créton, naked but for a pair of click-clack heels and streaked blood, haunting the streets of Paris in Claire Denis’ Bastards

Living in a world where the term guerilla filmmaking is reduced to rubble, pitifully tacked onto the existence of Escape from Tomorrow

Having the honor of seeing James Gandolfini as a romantic lead in Enough Said

Review: The Party’s Over (1965, Hamilton)


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The Party’s Over has immediately jumped onto my list of favorite films. I came across it by chance (or fate?) on youtube, saw that Oliver Reed was in it, and immediately knew I had to watch. Then I read the imdb plot synopsis and thought ‘surely this is too good to be true’. Turns out this was not the case.

In the film, beatniks are depicted as strung-out aloof hedonists who forgo compassion for ultra-exclusive kicks. This is a pretty toxic rag-tag group. But it doesn’t have the played-out purposefulness of a cautionary tale. In fact, it’s got anti-authoritarianism coursing through its veins, cynical and bottomless. It’s almost as if it was made by someone (maybe that someone, to take it a step further, is Oliver Reed’s Moise?) looking at their life. Not looking back, but looking on; getting that wake-up call along the way.

The pack of young rakes in question, led by Oliver Reed’s Moise, has attracted an American girl named Melina (Louise Sorel) to join the ranks. By the film’s start, Melina is despondent and removed, suggesting a melancholic inner life the viewer can only guess at. Her fiancé Carson (Clifford David) shows up at the behest of her father to bring her back home. Melina, with the help of the prankish group, does everything she can to avoid him. But at a certain point Melina actually disappears. Carson is left trying to pick up the pieces by confronting the evasive pleasure seekers while a romance with one of them blossoms (Libby played by Ann Lynn).

Silly me, I unforgivably forgot that Oliver Reed was probably the most magnetic actor who ever was. His was a genuinely dangerous presence. His slinky bedroom eyes constantly harbor carnal secrecies. No but really, I’m convinced he could set anything on fire with those things. Should I keep going? Because I can keep going. I’ve had the hots for the guy since seeing him in Oliver! as a little tyke. It had been a while since seeing him in anything (has it really been that long since I watched Women in Love?)

Reed’s character and performance go a long way in establishing this as a personal canon film. His Moise reveals unexpected depths. We assume he is the leader, the villain, the one most capable of damage. But Reed as Moise fools everyone. Turns out he is in fact most capable of change, and a desire to move on. He is increasingly fed up with the senselessness around him, even if his response is often to be the most senseless of the bunch. He is an aggressive presence, very smart, very depressive. His is a finely shaped character that has stayed with me.

As mentioned earlier, Melina is a sort of melancholic mystery. She and Moise are connected in this way. The fact that he can’t have her, and that she is disgusted by him, is emphasized but that unfeeling catatonia is surely a factor. He recognizes part of himself in her.

Carson’s character, and Clifford David’s performance, came as a pleasant surprise. He’s on the up-and-up from moment one. He plays along for lack of better options. His clash with the group is imminently watchable even if it doesn’t evolve much, standard romance aside. And that romance allows the film’s ideology to meet in the middle between by-the-book and fuck-the-book.

The Party’s Over is a pulsating time-capsule piece. It portrays British youth on the cusp of Swinging London (it was shot in 1963) as mostly privileged folk who wish to deaden themselves. There’s nothing really bubbly or freeing about the film. The parties are shown with a messy frankness. But like I said, the film isn’t didactic. It doesn’t condemn. It just looks on with wariness on anyone who gets tunnel vision from fully committing to an extreme whether on one end or the other. The film had major issues with the BBFC in order to get a release. By the time the cuts and changes had been carried out, Guy Hamilton asked for his name to be removed from the film and it was released with the ‘X’ rating.

The film begins with Oliver Reed smoking, drinking, pouring alcohol on a dude’s head and jumping out a window. I kid you not.

Guy Hamilton tracks an environment where tragedy isn’t led by crime, but from a level of bacchanal self-absorption that renders death unnoticed yet unknowingly mocked and play-acted, while the real thing festers underneath their noses.