"gonna sell these kids some drugs"
#10: BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Richard Linklater’s “Before…” trilogy is maybe the most diverse set of 3 movies ever contained in Trilogy form. The first movie is a relatively light, effervescent indie comedy about 2 strangers who enjoy a spontaneous day sightseeing together. The second episode is a more weighty, but also charming look at the same couple meeting up years later and reminiscing about the significance of that one day long ago. And now this third film finds our heroes, Jesse and Celine, no longer strangers, but an aging couple with twin daughters locked in a troubled marriage. On the French New Wave scale, we’ve jumped right from “Jules and Jim” to “Contempt” in the same franchise. (Fortunately, without a detour into “Cleo from 5 to 7.”)
As with the powerful “Blue Valentine” from a few years back, “Midnight” gives us the unique opportunity to examine a relationship from beginning to (possibly) end, in a short enough timespan to comprehend but with a level of understanding and attention to detail to make it seem fully real. The results are emotionally draining - the bitter insults and petulant put-downs take on greater significance because we KNOW these two kids, and feel so deeply that they belong together. And once again, Linklater executes the final scene to perfection, leaving the film on a note that’s bittersweet and hopeful.
#9: FRANCES HA
On paper, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s lo-fi black-and-white 20s coming of age story sounds nigh unwatchable: The navel-gazing, twee story of a failed artist holding an extended pity party, paralyzed by the notion that she might not be a special, beautiful snowflake whose phenomenal creative, social and financial success was a pre-ordained birthright.
But Gerwig makes Frances’s sincerity and disappointment so palpable, her kinship with BFF Sophie so charming and deeply-felt, I was on her side immediately and never wavered. Frances’s story actually mirrors that of the protagonist of another “Top 10” film pretty closely, but while (spoilers!) Llewyn Davis sees distant aloofness as part of his craft and persona, there’s something undeniably touching about seeing a character who only wants to make a human connection, and to discover something greater than herself. This feels destined to be one of the key films people remember when discussing “The Movies of 2013,” a reasonably accurate snapshot of this moment in the culture, precisely because it’s not trying to do anything but tell one woman’s story well.
Matthew McConaughey had a ridiculous year, but he’s getting the most intense praise (and probably an Oscar) for the wrong movie! He was good in “Dallas Buyers Club,” sure, and the physical transformation was impressive, but obviously everyone’s missing his superior work in Jeff Nichols remarkable, disarming “Mud.” Here is one of the best movies I can recall about childhood, or more specifically, that moment when kids get their first troubling, sad glimpse into the world of adults.
Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan play boys from rural Arkansas who discover McConaughey, the titular Mud, living alone on an island, in a boat lodged in a tree. At first, they’re afraid of him, but they slowly get sucked in to his world, and in particular, his ongoing, seemingly-doomed romance with the beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, making a rare appearance in a watchable movie.) Nichols previously made “Take Shelter,” and as in that film, he once again finds ways to get us to relate to, and even sympathize with, mysterious, ultimately unknowable characters living on the fringes of society.
#7: ALL IS LOST
That OTHER movie about an isolated individual stranded in an inhospitable environment, desperate for any shred of hope that they may get to return home to the unseen life they have left behind, sucked up all the attention in 2013. But it was J.C. Chandor’s impeccable, haunting “All Is Lost,” anchored (har!) by a nearly-wordless performance from Robert Redford, that made the more significant impact on me.
The set-up is deceptively simple. Redford, the only actor who appears on screen, plays an unnamed character (known as “Our Man” on IMDb) whose sea voyage through the Indian Ocean is interrupted when his boat collides with a rogue shipping container. What follows is a non-stop battle against the elements, with the resourceful sailor finding it increasingly difficult to hold the sea water at bay. It’s more of an action movie than a horror film, but as the vessel continues sinking, and the circumstances get more dire, and we start to see fear creep in to Redford’s face (the performance is OBVIOUSLY Oscar-worthy)… things get more unsettling than a dozen Conjurings.
#6: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Several modern American films have depicted slavery, or contained memorable scenes and images showing the lives of slaves. But I’m hard-pressed to come up with a movie that seems to present a more complete, complex and thorough examination of what it was to be a black slave in the American South than “12 Years a Slave.” Perhaps this is because the character of Solomon Northrup (played essentially to perfection by Chiwetel Ejoifor) - a sophisticated Northerner to whom the audience can immediately relate - gives us such a distinct, idiosyncratic view of the practice.
But I also think there’s an attention to detail here that’s simply lacking in even the very good films that have previously looked at this period in history. We’ve seen the brutality of slavery before, though a scene where a character is nearly hung here, and another where a slave is repeatedly, gruesomely whipped, are as chilling as any similar sequences I can recall. But writer John Ridley and director Steve McQueen also point to the smaller, but still felt, indignities of slave life. There’s a moment where Northrup’s then-master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), presents him with a violin, and then remarks that they will both get a lot of joy out of Northrup’s playing for years to come. The way what Ford certainly thinks of as an act of kindness stings - as we come to understand that, yes, even this seemingly nice man intends to OWN Northrup for the rest of his life - speaks more about the horror of slavery than, say, the entirety of Spielberg’s “Amistad.” (I still love you Steve but… come on…)
I also have to mention Michael Fassbender’s turn as the vicious Edwin Epps, the year’s most terrifying cinematic adversary. I legitimately felt sick to my stomach sometimes when he would enter the frame.
In any other year, this would have been a strong contender for the #1 spot. I liked it that much. But man… 2013, right?
Spike Jonze’s near-future romance seems at first like it will be a consideration of technology, its intrusion into every aspect of our daily lives and the ways that it both isolates and unites people. And it is all of those things. But what impressed me most was the fact that “Her” still totally works without the core “gimmick” - just as a thoughtful, nuanced, insightful film about relationships. The fact that one of the two lovers is an artificially-intelligent operating system is interesting, but ultimately kind of incidental.
Also of note is Jonze and his team’s tremendous eye for detail in the look and feel of almost-now Los Angeles. (There are several “in-jokes” for people familiar with the present version of the city, like when Joaquin Phoenix futuristically manages to take a subway to the beach.) The buildings, the fashions, the gadgets - it’s an imaginative but still potentially accurate glimpse into where we’ll be in a decade or two.
#4: THE SPECTACULAR NOW
At 35 years old, I sort of thought I was done with “teen movies.” There were still examples I’d see and enjoy - “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” comes immediately to mind. But my enjoyment of them was academic, removed, at a distance; I could theoretically have children as old as the “Wallflower” gang.
But “Spectacular Now” hit me the way a drama, as opposed to a TEEN drama, would. The characters are young, but they’re people first and teens second. Without having to fit their dilemmas and experiences into a pre-determined “coming of age” mold, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber and director James Ponsoldt free themselves to just tell the story of troubled alcoholic Sutter (a brilliant Miles Teller) and his new shy but adventurous girlfriend, Aimee (an equally brilliant Shailene Woodley).
The film just feels viscerally real in a way films about young characters never do. Once you dispense with all the usual Bildungsroman tropes - dated slang, voice-overs about who’s in what clique or the “rules” of navigating high school, hamburger phones - what’s left is a beautifully rendered, painfully honest movie about making choices at the point in your life when they matter most.
#3: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
Seeing “American Hustle” - a well-acted but flat attempt to recreate the Scorsese “inside a criminal enterprise” formula - within a week of “Wolf” really highlights the director’s immense talent (not to mention that of his long-time editor, Thelma Schoomaker.) His movies have an energy and a vitality that few others can even come close to replicating.
All of Martin Scorsese’s organized crime films are, on some level, comedies. Individual criminal acts aren’t necessarily funny, but on a macro level, dedicating your entire life to an ongoing series of grandiose, ultimately ill-conceived crimes is a crazy thing to do, and self-selects for colorful, amusing, unpredictable kinds of characters. But it’s still exciting and surprising in the moments, as a viewer, you first realize “Wolf of Wall Street” will be a 3-hour satirical comedy, and arguably the director’s funniest film to date.
You sense, on some level, Scorsese still relates to the gang from “Mean Streets,” or Henry Hill in “Goodfellas,” or Sam “Ace” Rothstein in “Casino.” He wouldn’t have made the same choices, but there’s an understanding of their humanity - these are people who got caught up in something bigger than them and lost themselves in it. (I mean, “Goodfellas” opens with Henry as a kid, so we almost have no choice but to understand why he ended up living the life he did, with his personal set of values.)
But Jordan Belfort’s story is not a Portrait of the Shyster as a Young Man. It’s hard to find even a glimmer of humanity behind Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes, even in the early “naive” scenes in “Wolf of Wall Street.” Interesting that DiCaprio was once favored to play Patrick Bateman in the “American Psycho” adaptation, and now, 14 years later, he’s been invited to inhabit the same kind of character. Only based on a real guy, this time.
Also, people who complain that the film’s “too long” or “could have been cut by an hour” miss the point. Belfort’s entire life story “could have been cut.” Nothing that he does is essential, or important, or noteworthy for anyone but himself. He could have stopped stealing from unsuspecting marks at any time and retired to a beach somewhere, but the grinding, repetitive, constant need for further meaningless acquisition - as if he were locked in competition against some fictional Lex Luthor-esque evil billionaire - is what drove him in the first place.
#2: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
I’d say, after 2 viewings now, this joins the ranks of the greatest all-time Coen Brothers films, and that is REALLY saying something. It’s a “Fargo” or “Millers Crossing” level achievement.
Joel and Ethan’s somber comedy (a som-com?) beautifully recreates the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene and populates it with strange, fascinating characters. (John Goodman is in like 3 scenes and it’s still among his more memorable recent film appearances.)
But at heart, this is a story about one struggling artist and his daily choice, to give up on his dream or press on in the face of constant rejection and negativity. Call it depressing if you will, but there’s real beauty in this kind of honesty; it’s very easy to tell someone to “follow your heart,” but decisions are rarely so cut and dry. Should you still follow your heart if it means you don’t eat? You can’t take care of your loved ones? You can’t stand to look at yourself?
This is the Coens’ first collaboration with ace cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and it’s filled with memorable imagery - as well as perfectly capturing the oppressiveness and isolation of cold winters in big cities. Oscar Isaac’s performance is so nakedly vulnerable that it’s almost difficult to watch at times - even when you hate him, you still want someone to let him inside and help him find his cat. And the soundtrack is filled to bursting with great songs that wonderfully evoke the era and speak to Llewyn’s personality and outlook as much as his spare, frequently irascible dialogue.
I loved it loved it loved it. How is this not my #1 movie of the year?
#1: THE ACT OF KILLING
Oh, yeah, right, because this came out.
I’ve seen many thousands of movies in my life, and I have never seen anything remotely like “The Act of Killing.” It’s a cliche to say, after seeing a documentary, “It’s too crazy to be real,” but the moments that Joshua Oppenheimer has captured here legitimately don’t seem to have any place outside of fiction. (In a sense, this is the whole point of the movie - the only way to deal with these truths is to fictionalize them in some way.) Human beings aren’t supposed to have revelations like this about themselves. We’re only supposed to have them when reflecting on situations involving other people, after the fact. Seeing it really happen in a documentary sort of breaks the whole system down. I wasn’t even sure how to deal with it.
But let’s back up a bit. In 1965, a new military government took control of the nation of Indonesia, and during this time, they recruited local thugs and gangsters to stop committing petty crimes (like scalping movie tickets) and convert into death squads that would hunt down and kill suspected communists and dissidents. It’s estimated that, in the next year, 500,000 people may have been killed.
This government is still in control of Indonesia, and thus the leaders of these death squads (who are still alive) are well-treated and sort of held up as heroic revolutionaries. Even though most Indonesians still know what they did.
Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer wanted to make a movie about this event from the victim’s perspective but was finding it difficult to get anyone to talk to him, so instead, he started making a movie about the killers. They were happy to talk to him. (At this point, they have come to think of themselves as heroic revolutionaries.) They also agreed to stage and star in cinematic re-enactments of these killings.
I won’t say anything else except that this movie effortlessly and entertainingly deals with the weightiest themes there are - the nature of good and evil, man’s inhumanity to man, how memory influences our sense of self - and may make you reconsider how you understand them. It was easily, without a doubt, the best and most important film I saw in a year of great, essential filmmaking. It’s on Netflix Streaming right now. Watch it!
I saw 5 movies and 1 short at Sundance and liked them all. Here are quick reviews of the films in reverse order of preference (so starting with least favorite). I’ll start with the short, which is showing out of competition.
Funnel (Short): A very funny “pathetic adventure” (in the words of the star/writer/director/editor Andre Hyland) about a guy who has to walk a long way to buy a funnel so he can pour fluid into his engine, and thus fix his car. The kind of fun, silly little project that makes you want to go out and make your own short film.
5. The Trip to Italy: Sequel to the Steve Coogan-Rob Brydon road trip food porn comedy is similar enough to the first to remain entertaining and fun, but doesn’t really build on the premise or change things up as much as I’d have liked. Felt a bit like “more of the same.” Still, beautiful Italian scenery, great impressions and delicious-looking food. Hard to mess this up, really.
4. Wetlands: Most of the attention around this German-language adaptation of a popular, controversial novel focused on its frequently-disgusting bodily fluid fixation, but once you look past the gross-out factor (not an EASY thing to do, necessarily), it’s actually a pretty charming, sympathetic character study with a terrific lead performance from Carla Juri as Helen. A bit like “Trainspotting” but with fewer drugs (though some drugs) and lots more homemade tampons.
3. Happy Christmas: The latest from Joe Swanberg, whose previous effort, “Drinking Buddies,” I very much enjoyed. This is an other low-key, improvised dramedy about largely happy, well-adjusted people navigating difficult, sometimes awkward social interactions. The film is full of immediately likeable, sympathetic characters - played by Swanberg himself, Melanie Lynsky as his wife, Anna Kendrick as his sister, Lena Dunham as his sister’s friend, and his real-life 2-year-old Jude as his movie son. And sometimes, dammit, that’s enough.
2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: This dark, romantic fairy tale is set in the fictional Iranian town of “Bad City” (though it was actually shot in Bakersfield, CA) and concerns a lonely young woman who also happens to be a vampire. The whole film is beautifully shot in black-and-white, and some of the images have really stuck with me in the days since I’ve seen it. Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour perfectly melds a bunch of different styles - Lynchian surrealism, vampire romance, film noir, horror - in a way that feels totally natural.
1. Blue Ruin: This haunting, intense and frequently hilarious revenge thriller will almost certainly appear on my Best of 2014 List. Yeah, it’s early in the year, but I liked it JUST THAT MUCH. Our hero is a drifter who seeks revenge on the recently-released convict who killed both of his parents, but with every step he takes, what seems at first like simple, clean justice becomes more and more murky and complex, and takes on increasingly dire consequences. (Its themes and combination of violent thrills and black comedy reminded me at times of Chan-wook Park’s “Vengeance” Trilogy, which is high praise indeed.) The film’s been picked up by The Weinsteins, and will be on iTunes in late April. Watch it!
I promise to try to do my best to maybe crank out #10-#1 in a more timely fashion. Apologies if you are sitting at home hitting refresh on LonHarris.com every 6 seconds in the hopes of seeing this posted, pausing neither to eat nor sleep nor defecate. I really should have seen that coming and been more prompt.
Anyway… Big year, very difficult choices, I liked “Post Tenebras Lux” a lot but as it was at Cannes 2 years ago already, it felt dated for a list like this, but know that it was great. Oh, also, I haven’t seen “Blue is the Warmest Color,” and I’m sure it’s great and I totally want to see it, so know that it wasn’t in contention. Also: “Short Term 12” and “Fruitvale Station.” Think that’s about it. I haven’t seen “Saving Mr. Banks,” either, but… come on… no way that was going to make it.
#20: THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
I know that you all (and by “you all,” I mean, “the majority of loud opinionated people on the Internet whose opinions I have personally encountered”) have major problems with these “Hobbit” movies, but I just don’t see it. They are absolutely more silly and straight-forward than the “Lord of the Rings” films that preceded them, but it’s a different novel, and the change in tone makes the new movies feel refreshing, less like the continuation of a 6-movie series and more of an alternate take on Middle Earth (though with the same immaculate production values and effects as the original films.)
As for “Smaug” as an individual entry, it boasts the awe-inspiring introduction of the titular dragon, an action sequence (in which our heroes find themselves escaping Lake-Town by barrel) that’s on a par with any set piece Jackson has yet directed, the introduction of Stephen Fry to the series and many many more pleasures great and small. I’m fairly certain, down the road, this new trilogy will be reconsidered favorably. When I’m 75, I will pull up this blog post on whatever screen is most immediately visible from my rocket wheelchair and feel smugly self-satisfied by my predictive ability. Wait for it.
#19: SPRING BREAKERS
There’s a cartoon that pops up in Reddit threads all the time breaking down the online concept of “trolling.”
The argument goes something like this: People act like assholes online purposefully to get a rise out of others, but in a practical sense, there is no difference between “acting like an asshole” and just being an asshole.
I feel like the same could be said of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” and for that matter, self-consciously degrading, sleazy fare like Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls.” If a talented filmmaker utilizes style and techniques intended to ape “bad movies” (even forcing his collection of mediocre actresses to perform complicated scenes in uncomfortable close-ups!), aren’t they just making bad movies?
OK, so the same COULD be said of “Spring Breakers,” but that doesn’t mean it’s what I’M saying. I think it’s ingenious, a film that holds a mirror up to 2013 Americans and says “This is how ugly and stupid you look and sound,” and we just have to sit there and take it because it’s kind of undeniably true.
Or maybe not. Maybe Harmony Korine just thought this would be funny and I’m reading too much into it. But few movies this year were more provocative, hilarious and entertaining, so I’m in either way. The Academy should have more seriously considered this shit.
#18: UPSTREAM COLOR
I very much admired Shane Carruth’s directorial debut, the twisty time travel thriller “Primer,” though I’m pretty sure I still don’t fully understand all of the various plot complications and developments. It does have a relatively straight-forward narrative - about the dissolution of a friendship in the wake of a discovery that tests both parties’ loyalty and ability to trust. But it is, at heart, a puzzle movie, and a challenging one at that.
Carruth’s follow-up, which he stars, wrote, directed, edited, shot, scored, designed and cast (whew!), still demands some concentration and focus, but it feels less like a problem to be solved and more like an experience. I was able to relax, stop feeling so concerned with figuring it all out and just let the lush imagery take over. The story involves a couple brought together after they are both exposed to the same parasitic organism, but this is really a film about abstract ideas - the interconnectedness of living things, the psychic weight of the birth-death cycle, whether love is an emotional connection or a biological impulse. You know, that sort of stuff.
[Sorry, but it’s pretty much not possible to discuss Shane Carruth movies without sounding at least a bit pretentious. Yet the films themselves don’t feel pretentious at all. How does he do that?]
The old-school surrealist films - your “Chien Andalous” and “L’Age D’ors” - weren’t so much about concepts like “right” and “wrong.” The surreal wasn’t that which was untrue, just about alternate ways of seeing what is, a look at reality as it can be remixed and refracted by the human mind.
French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux (working here as “Mr. Oizo”), on the other hand, constantly confronts the viewer with intentional nonsense. I don’t think he uses symbols because they have any kind of subconscious meaning or association for him or anyone else - he just shows you clocks that count hours incorrectly, or cars driving on upside roads, or offices where the sprinklers are continually spraying, because it’s funny, or to point out the absurd randomness and cruelty of modern life. Or just because he feels like it. One of those.
"Wrong" is a ceaselessly inventive, frequently hilarious live action cartoon about a hapless suburbanite (Jack Plotnick) whose dog is kidnapped for insane reasons by a guru named Master Chang (a brilliant turn by William Fichtner). The private detective (Steve Little) he hires to track down the missing pooch isn’t much help and oh god why am I still describing the plot? This is the same guy who made the movie about the murderous sentient tire - you’ll either love it or you’ll turn it off after 12 minutes. Your call.
[Also, I saw a review dissing “Wrong” as “faux-provocative,” and I’m not even 100% sure what that means. Something either provokes a reaction or it does not. Anyway, though the film does have some deeper meaning beyond just absurdity, I think Dupieux is more out for laughs than provocation.]
#16: THE HUNT
Thomas Vinterberg’s chilling psychological drama about a teacher in a small Danish community wrongfully accused of child molestation builds to arguably the year’s most intense, shocking finale. But I can’t give that away, so let’s move on.
Americans will most likely recognize Mads Mikkelsen as the villain from “Casino Royale” or TV’s Hannibal Lector, but he’s equally convincing as the gentle, well-meaning Lucas, a divorcé trying to put his life back together and reconnect with his son. Vinterberg (who directed and co-wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm) masterfully sets the stage and introduces the key players slowly - including the wonderful child actor Annika Wedderkopp as confused toddler Klara - lulling us into a sense of false comfort with Lucas’s world before everything unravels.
Only the film viewer and Lucas can be certain of his innocence, creating an uncommonly strong feeling of sympathy and understanding for him, especially once the abuse of his outraged neighbors begins to take a toll on his sanity. By the end, all Mikkelsen has to do is shoot a sidelong glance at one of his accusers, and the gesture seems to speak volumes.
Which brings us to that devastating finale, reminding us that - no matter how convincingly Lucas and others argue his case - his reputation can never be completely restored.
#15: THE WORLD’S END
Edgar Wright completes his so-called Cornetto Trilogy with the best entry to date, featuring career-highlight work from both Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. All 3 films are genre parodies in name only, smart movies about idiosyncratic but relatable characters using familiar sci-fi and “geek” tropes as set dressing, and to reinforce the more grounded, human themes.
Yes, “World’s End” is about an invasion of Earth by a hyper-intelligent hive-mind robot collective, but it’s also about the meaning of friendship, the futile experience of trying to recapture your youth, alcoholism, the bland conformity corporations have brought to public spaces and the self-serving nature of nostalgia. (Plus a Pierce Brosnan cameo!)
All this PLUS Wright re-affirms himself as one of the best directors of action sequences in modern cinema (as if “Hot Fuzz” hadn’t already made his case.) The chaotic destruction of Newton Haven is more impressive and satisfying than any of the big VFX spectacles in this year’s summer action films.
Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is already light on plot and dialogue, but could actually have used even less. The film’s at its most striking and memorable when it’s also wordless (or, at least, absent words other than “Help!” and “Oh no!” and “AHHHHHHHHH!”) The visuals are so beautiful, terrifying and majestic, the addition of any backstory, exposition or chatter - no matter how thoughtful - can’t help but distract, to take everyone out of the moment.
When people observe this about the film, I don’t think it’s a criticism so much of the script (which has some logical gaps but is overall solid) or the performances from George Clooney and Sandra Bullock (which are both stellar.) It’s a commentary on HOW AMAZING the film is as an intense audial and visual experience. Sometimes, a breath-taking spectacle can just be a spectacle, and that’s alright.
I’ll admit. At first, I was sort of anti-“Nebraska.” There are Alexander Payne movies I love (“Election,” “Sideways” until the last scene), but I sometimes find his movies condescending and over-wrought (particularly “About Schmidt.”) Based on the child-like, frustrated Midwestern caricatures, familiar “road trip” gimmick and black-and-white cinematography, I worried in the first five minutes that “Nebraska” was going to fit snugly within that second category.
But the film takes an interesting turn, and before long, I was considerably absorbed in the story of an adult son (a surprisingly touching Will Forte) who comes to see his father as a real person, probably for the first time. The genius of the Bruce Dern performance as the frequently confused dad, Woody, is how he shows us the flashes of Woody’s old personality, peeking out in between the clouds of dementia. Out of the current crop of nominees, he’d be my pick for Best Actor. Plus, I came to appreciate the luminous black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael, highlighting both the stark, weathered landscapes and the way the characters are all looking back on a half-remembered time, ruminating on a world they no longer occupy that has long-since disappeared.
#12: BLUE JASMINE
Most of the talk about Woody Allen’s latest has centered on the performances, and it does feature terrific work from Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins and particularly Cate Blanchett, who absolutely deserves all of the award buzz she has received. Her Jasmine Francis is so brittle, watching the movie is like those few seconds when you see someone knock over a glass and are sure it’s going to break, sustained for 2 hours.
But I’m also interested in how directly the film apes Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Woody’s made numerous films that reference or play around with older stories or movies. (“Love and Death” parodies Russian literature. “Crimes and Misdemeanors” similarly seems to have roots in Dostoyevsky.) But I can’t recall him ever so blatantly lifting a scenario and characters from another writer.
I don’t mean that in a bad way - he’s certainly building on the ideas in Tennessee Williams’ original and making it his own. The results speak for themselves - it’s Woody’s best film in many years, probably since “Match Point.” But it’s a clear and immediate issue that the movie confronts you with - Cannavale’s even in a wife-beater half the time. I feel like the connection in some ways ties in to the same themes that have run through a lot of later Woody Allen films - these ideas of guilt and learning to live in a world without meaning or justice. I’ll probably need to see it a few more times to unpack everything going on here.
#11: PRINCE AVALANCHE
David Gordon Green started off making serene, quietly observant films about isolated, tight-knit, rural communities and then shifted abruptly into stoner comedies. It was an odd transition, and I can’t say I always loved his later, sillier films (though “Pineapple Express” undeniably has its moments.)
"Prince Avalanche" is the IDEAL marriage of his two careers, and points to a fascinating way forward for his filmography. Here we have the quiet, low-key story of two guys working together in total isolation (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch), repainting stripes down a winding Texas road in the mid-1980s. They have fights and reconciliations, and even some adventures, out on the highway, and some of them are goofy while others are strange or even inexplicable. It’s an art-house buddy comedy, which turns out to be a pretty satisfying combo.
I’m going to do a Top 20 Films of 2013 all in all. It was a great year for movies and it felt limiting to just do a Top 10. First up, here are the films I really valued this year that didn’t quite crack the “Best Of” for whatever reason. They are ranked in no particular order.
When this documentary - in which unseen commentators perform deep readings on Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” - would come up in conversation this year, I often heard it dismissed as implausible. The argument being that the documentary lacks merit because a lot of the theories proposed within it lack merit. Because Stanley Kubrick didn’t REALLY mean for that ski poster to represent a minotaur, it’s not worth watching “Room 237.” But that’s ridiculous - just presenting someone else’s theory in a forthright, unbiased manner shouldn’t be interpreted as advocacy.
Yes, a lot of the ideas in “Room 237” sound silly. Could “The Shining” really have been intended as an apology by Kubrick for faking the moon landing? Was the notoriously fastidious director really painstaking enough to intentionally line up scenes if the movie was played forwards and backwards simultaneously? But taken together, organized and visualized so compellingly by director Rodney Ascher, they provide tremendous insight not just into the continuing fascination with “The Shining” but the obsessive passion of a certain breed of movie fanatic.
If you didn’t grow up in the 1980s, and don’t have a nostalgic connection to the action films of that era, I can see how “Pacific Rim” didn’t make a ton of sense. The interpersonal dynamics and dialogue are as overblown as the robot vs. monster fights. The storytelling is so conventional, even young viewers will no doubt see most of the major plot developments coming. And yes, at one point, the human-controlled robot suddenly pulls out a previously-unseen sword, even though it would have been a considerable help in the 13 previous showdowns.
For me, “Top Gun” + live-action anime are two great tastes that go great together, and Guillermo del Toro’s genre mash-up was the perfect antidote to a summer filled with glum, self-important snoozefests. Also, when my TV was significantly upgraded earlier this year, this was the first Blu-Ray I threw on. That’s basically all that needs be said.
This low-budget indie that I saw back in March at SXSW is a very funny, unflinching portrait of a pathetic loser whose only outlet is his ongoing D+D campaign with his nerdy friends. When his small circle is invaded by a “cool” geek who threatens his social supremacy, his whole life basically crumbles.
At first, it seems like the movie is just another tired “nerds who play D+D are nerds!” joke, but it really knows these characters and this world, and there’s an honesty about who this guy is and what makes him tick that’s pretty undeniable. In particular, it works because of the amazing lead performance of Sam Eidson, who never turns this guy into a cliche or “type.”
This very dark road trip comedy from Britain’s Ben Wheatley isn’t on the same level as his brilliant “Kill List,” but what an unfair comparison! Instead, it’s a thoroughly British, disarmingly nasty piece of work about a pair of oddballs (Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, who also wrote the script) whose innocent RV tour around England turns into an impromptu murder spree.
Giving away too much of the how’s and why’s would ruin the fun, but I admired how much thought Lowe and Oram put into the homicidal Chris and Tina’s motives. They obviously don’t have any GOOD reasons to kill anybody, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have reasons at all, and what makes the film both funny and unsettling is how well we come to understand them over the course of 90 minutes.
Denis Villeneuve’s stylish thriller stumbles in the third act, but there’s still a lot of great performances in here and beautifully dark, grimy cinematography from Roger Deakins, so what the hell… it made the runner up list. In fact, this might even be Hugh Jackman’s single finest performance to date. (You might even say he’s the best there is at what he does, but what he does best isn’t very nice?) Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard also do great work here, as the remainder of the two couples driven to the brink of madness when their daughters mysteriously disappear.
My real issue with the movie was with Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop assigned to the disappearance. He’s clearly there to move the narrative forward and be the audience’s “way in,” but he’s also the only character that isn’t really developed beyond the initial “he’s dogged and lives for this and won’t stop until he catches the guy” introduction. Also, Villeneuve makes a crucial error in third act by showing us something that should happen off-screen, and cheats the audience out of what could have been a perfect closing shot. What a shame.
When I first saw it as a teenager, “Clerks” was a double revelation. Of course, there was its homemade quality, an amateur production made by friends that somehow was playing in actual movie theaters across the country. But also, here was an actual movie - that worked and felt like a movie - and it had no real story. Things happened - a funeral, an unfortunate bathroom sex-related incident, a hockey game, a cigarette protest - but there was no gimmick or hook or log line. It was just about two bored friends.
Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore-y, largely improvised “Drinking Buddies” carries on that tradition in some ways. It’s a lot more polished and better-acted than “Clerks,” but it also feels in tune with the natural rhythms of life, where our experiences have a narrative quality but not, you know, act breaks.
Olivia Wilde (who can act, you guys!) and Jake Johnson play platonic friends who work together at a brewery and who share an unspoken attraction despite dating other people. And… that’s… sort of it. Again, things happen - a big party at the brewery, an inappropriate kiss (though not the one you think), a camping trip - but it’s more about spending time with characters, who it turns out, are just entertaining people to be around. Also, this movie will make you want beer, so just prepare for that ahead of time.
This Is The End
The year’s most pleasant surprise. On paper, this sounded odious - exactly the kind of narcissistic, self-indulgent meta-wankery the “Freaks and Geeks” bunch has been accused of since, well, “Freaks and Geeks.”
And yet… and yet… it’s hilarious, the flat-out funniest mainstream comedy of the year. But that’s not all - I actually came to sympathize with the goofy variations on themselves played by James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Craig Robinson and others. (Jay Baruchel irritated me here, but I sort of feel like I’d probably find him irritating in real life as well, so fair enough.) Also, I would not be sad if Danny McBride were nominated for some major awards for his work as “Danny McBride.” The brief scene introducing his character here has more laughs than most feature-length Hollywood comedies.
YES, the documentary about Snoop Dogg’s transformation into Snoop Lion made the Honorable Mentions list. What started as basically a promo video for the web showcasing Snoop’s trip to Jamaica to record the album “Reincarnated” becomes both a beautiful travelogue about the country and a canny examination of the nature of modern celebrity.
The fact is, Snoop Dogg/Lion is a marketing genius, and though he certainly seems to be well-intentioned, going to Jamaica to record a reggae album is just the latest pivot in a decades-long career full of them. As Snoop’s personal journey in Jamaica becomes increasingly spiritual, and his tone more serious, director Andy Capper invites us to ask some uncomfortable questions: Would Snoop be acting this way if cameras weren’t on? Is Snoop’s “reincarnation” and embrace of Rastafarianism sincere? Can Snoop even BE sincere at this point?
Fast and Furious 6
The “Fast and Furious” franchise has become a textbook example of how to listen to, and satisfy, your audience. If a bunch of the country’s top SVPs or Customer Relations got together to make a movie, this is what it would feel like. For example, the opening credits sequence is, much like a TV show, composed of quick “Previously on Fast and Furious” soundbites to catch you up on everything you need to know to enjoy the film. Just another way we’re here for you!
Justin Lin’s action sequences just keep improving with each entry, but even more impressively, his films have now created an elaborate, colorful cartoon universe where everyone’s a glamorous muscular supermodel capable of executing precision high-speed maneuvers in any available vehicle while simultaneously beating the shit out of other glamorous muscular supermodels. Who wouldn’t want to spend 2 hours in such a wonderful place?
"You’re Next" would be a great cult classic, if such a thing existed any more. We’re very fortunate to live in a time when awesome film festivals and events, movie blogs and even Twitter can spread the word about fun, weird, crazy new films. But it does rob movie nerds of the experience of stumbling on some great, lost curiosity from a bygone era, and I like to think horror-comedy "You’re Next" could have been one of those great Laserdisc discoveries.
Like a lot of other hard-to-describe midnight movies, it sits sort of awkwardly between parody and sincerity, both a take-down and an example of the “home invasion” sub-genre of horror movies. The gimmick is basically “what if a horror movie broke out in the middle of an indie comedy-drama about a crumbling family,” though a second gimmick I won’t spoil here also develops as kind of a second-act surprise. Director Adam Wingard also has an undeniable knack for filming shocking, gory effects in a way that’s more funny than disturbing.
[NOTE: I originally had “You’re Next” listed as “Who’s Next.” Thanks to alert reader Yancy for pointing this out.]
I’ll have the “Honorable Mentions” and then a “Top 20 Movies of 2013” coming in the next few days.
#10: WORLD WAR Z
I have not read the novel that inspired this troubled Marc Forster production (is there any other kind?), but I can only assume that is has some kind of narrative structure. Things happen that cause other things to happen, and thus a story progresses in some kind of logical fashion. Beginnings, middles and ends and all that. Maybe a few characters who seem like they almost resemble actual living people are introduced, they make decisions that impact their eventual fates, maybe we learn a little something about them and even, by extension, ourselves in the process. That sort of stuff.
"World War Z" has no time for any of that, though I’m not sure what else it was doing, either. Brad Pitt sort of rambles around the world getting into scrapes that all end the same way (zombies!), and then things just sort of work themselves out.
Also, the notion of a mass of zombies moving in unison, in the style of a single organism, is a good one, and could have looked pretty spectacular, I should think. But, save for that iconic one-sheet image of zombies piling up a wall like ants, which doesn’t even make a huge impact in the film, “World War Z” does nothing with it.
If it hadn’t made half a billion dollars worldwide, I’d almost hope it might do something to slow the glut of lame zombie movies with which we’ve been stuck for years now.
#9: OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL
My issues with “Oz the Great and Powerful” don’t really center around the story, which is forgettable but not atrocious, and does manage to cleverly tie up everything and set the stage of “Wizard of Oz” neatly.
The problem here is that, at no point did I believe any of the human beings were actually standing in the merry old land of Oz. “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” came out in 1988, and I had an easier time believing Bob Hoskins was really tooling down the main Toontown drag than I did thinking James Franco was actually skipping down the Yellow Brick Road.
So tragic that Sam Raimi - one of the greats of contemporary inventive DIY guerrilla-style filmmaking - retreated behind a bank of monitors, putting together a formulaic, bubble-gum theme park attraction that couldn’t feel further away from the quirky, charmingly hand-made Oz of the classic film.
#8: AFTER EARTH
I know Will Smith was involved, and that automatically got projects fast-tracked in 2013 Hollywood, but it’s hard to imagine anyone thought “After Earth” was conceptually sound. There are SO MANY problems with this just as a pitch!
- There are only two main characters, and no antagonist, and no one is ever on screen together
- The film is structured as an action film but there’s almost no action
- A feature-length film will be entirely dependent on the acting chops and charisma of Jaden Smith
- Despite being called “After Earth” and being set on an abandoned Earth, the far that the characters are on Earth doesn’t matter and never comes up
- The plot requires the main character to eliminate all emotional response, which not only is impossible to do but makes him a totally unsympathetic blank
- At one point, there is a dramatic scene between our hero and a computer-generated hawk
#7: THE LORDS OF SALEM
I love Zombie’s odes to ’70s grindhouse - “House of 1000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects” - but when he aims for more mainstream-style horror, say with his “Halloween” reboot, it typically misses the mark. But “Lords of Salem” is his weakest outing yet, an incoherent, plodding and surprisingly sloppy attempt to re-imagine “Rosemary’s Baby” but without any of the symbolic heft or mounting terror.
Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, plays a totally uninteresting DJ who is possessed by a coven of witches harkening back to the infamous Salem Witch Trial era. That’s not a quick summary of the film’s main action - it’s a complete list of everything that happens. (“Possession” itself in the film largely consists of Ms. Zombie writhing around on the floor, moaning, and having odd, frequently sexual visions of witch rituals.
Zombie struggled to find distribution for the movie, and at the screening I attended at SXSW, said to the audience beforehand “Some of you will like this, and others are going to hate it.” He seemed oddly ambivalent about the whole thing, maybe realizing the idea was not fully baked only after the project was completed?
[I should also note, the film implies that Salem really was overrun with witches a few hundred years ago, thus making the Puritans disgraceful, cruel, inhuman behavior correct and called for. That’s some truly vile revisionist history there… Why not make a movie in which the grown men who tortured and murdered innocent young girls are the bad guys?]
#6: THE SWEENEY
This update of the 1970s British TV cop drama compiles every known cop movie cliche into one blisteringly insipid mess. I never need to see another film in which the brash, impulsive but also always-correct-when-it-counts cop/unit breaking all the rules and getting chewed out by The Chief. The presence of respected actors like Ray Winstone and Damian Lewis, trying their best with hopeless material, only highlights how tired these old routines really are.
Let’s also talk about the woeful action sequences. We have a bank heist turned shootout in London’s Trafalgar Square so obviously inspired by Michael Mann’s “Heat,” it’s practically Sweded. Unlike Mann’s original, the action mechanics of the shootout make no sense here - the good guys are able to block incoming gunfire with absolutely any physical piece of matter. At one point, portly Ray Winstone is able to dodge an onslaught of bullets behind a tiny metal ladder. Surely ONE of those bad boys would have managed to get through! Come on! There’s even a car chase on a very thin, narrow road that’s only the width of a single car. Where’s the drama in that? What are you even going to do if you catch up to that other car? Bump it?
[I’d also add that there’s a sub-plot in which the fetching Hayley Atwell’s character (age 31) is having an extra-martial affair with Ray Winstone’s character (age 56) which is not just unrealistic but downright distasteful.]
#5: GI JOE: RETALIATION
Hard to believe that, out of the two contemporary “GI Joe” movies, the lame Stephen Sommers entry comes out ahead, but here we are. Jon Chu’s follow-up gives us all the bored, phoned-in performances, offensively inane anti-humor and bloated, ugly spectacle we’ve come to expect from toy brand tie-in movies, but with the added benefit of being totally incomprehensible.
It felt at times that I was watching two different “GI Joe” movies that had no intention of ever really coming together - sort of like the “Godfather II” of the series, I suppose. I’m not sure if the ninjas ever got around to influencing the more traditional soldier plot line; I’d pretty much checked out by then.
[Final note: Why does Bruce Willis continue to make movies when he clearly hates them so much? I know they pay him a lot of money to star in action movies, but he could make a lot of money with his own brand of applesauce, too, or by opening a Hollywood weed dispensary. I feel like he’d rather do absolutely anything else than star in an action movie, at this point, based on his performances in films like this one.]
#4: THE CANYONS
OK, so the hilariously awful disaster zone that is “The Canyons” is largely going to be blamed on Lindsey Lohan, and she definitely deserves some of the blame. She’s so wooden and distant here, it’s like she’s getting a Viking funeral. I kept waiting for someone in a horned helmet to shoot a flaming arrow into her. The character’s so zonked out and vacant, it took me like 45 minutes before I realized she’s the protagonist.
The plot - such as it is - concerns Lohan’s Tara, who is dating Christian (porn star James Deen), a trust fund scumbag using his family’s money to make terrible no-budget horror movies. Tara has been secretly having an affair with Ryan, an old flame who also happens to be the star of Christian’s latest bad movie. Christian finds out about the affair and sort of messes with everyone, but not in a way that is compelling.
There’s just no sense of why writer Bret Easton Ellis or director Paul Schrader (who used Kickstarter to raise funds for “The Canyons”) wanted to tell this meandering, dull story about these assholes. The film opens with a montage of condemned, abandoned former movie theaters throughout Los Angeles, so I thought - even if it didn’t work - the movie would be some kind of commentary on the end of the film business, or the end of movies as a communal, social activity. But then the film itself is barely about the film industry.
Also, from just a technical/professionalism standpoint, the movie reminds me of something you’d expect students to submit to a 24-hour film festival. It looks like Schrader shot it on an iPhone, the dialogue is both highly theatrical and bland, and the story has no momentum.
#3: UPSIDE DOWN
The set-up for this remarkably stupid sci-fi romance is that there are two planets orbiting directly side-by-side, facing one another. One is made up of poor, exploited workers and the other their wealthy capitalist masters. (They keep saying “up there” or “down here,” even though “up” and “down" don’t have a lot of meaning when you’re talking about planets. Everyone would feel like the other planet was "up there.")
The “up there/down there” stuff never stops seeming counter-intuitive and silly. (In particular, it has a really irksome tendency to assume that all the characters in this fantasy world would find the whole “double gravity” concept really weird and fascinating, just like we the viewers do, even though they have lived in this reality all their lives. Would people really drink anti-gravity cocktails from upside-down martini glasses? That seems inconvenient.)
But the film’s biggest problem is that it spends so much time establishing the double gravity rules and physics, it forgets to make the actual couple that’s in love compelling or relatable in any way. At heart, the movie’s a romance but I didn’t give two shits about this couple. (Plus Kirsten Dunst’s character also has amnesia, so she’s impossible to invest in because she’s not even 100% sure who she is!)
#2: MOVIE 43
A surprising number of celebrities take part in this atrocious bathroom comedy anthology from Peter Farrelly. The stories are supposedly part of an insane pitch a desperate screenwriter (Dennis Quaid) makes to studio executive Greg Kinnear, but the film even gives up on this bookend conceit about halfway through, largely out of embarrassment. (For real!)
I think part of the reason these sketches seem SO awkward and painful is that they’re over-relying on the shock value of seeing these celebrities doing/saying stupid, “edgy” things (except for the scene where it’s supposed to be funny because they’re celebrities playing superheroes.) In some cases, such as the Halle Berry/Stephen Merchant “Truth or Dare” sketch, there actually AREN’T jokes other than the humiliation they put Halle Berry through.
There’s no real theme or coherent idea aside from “dick and poop jokes.” (The bookend thing is insane and adds nothing.) And nothing is relevant. The superhero parody ignores the last 50 years of actual superhero shows and films. The Apple parody focuses on a stupid product with no real-world relevance that’s based on the iPod, not even the iPhone. Also, inherent in the notion of a film anthology with multiple directors is that the individual segments will have a unique style or sensibility. These all feel like anonymously made Internet sketches.
#1: BAD MILO
Sadly, the final SXSW film I saw was not only “worst of the fest,” but one of the lamest and least funny comedies I have ever seen. It was just called “Milo” then but it’s being released as “Bad Milo.” The basic premise is that a regular guy (played by Ken Marino) starts having horrible digestive problems brought about by stress. (Lots of pooping and farting.)
He later discovers that he has a demon he calls Milo living in his colon andMilo occasionally escapes his bowels and goes to seek vengeance on people who are causing our hero (whose name I forget) stress.
But check out the CAST!
- Ken Marino
- Gillian Jacobs (from “Community”)
- Stephen Root
- Peter Stormare
- Patrick Warburton
- Toby Huss
It’s unfathomable to me that all of these people would sign on to a movie whose sole joke is “a guy has to shit and fart a lot.” Seriously, there are no jokes other than “ha ha that guy is covered in shit” or “now he has to shit again” or “oh my god the monster is now covered in his shit” or “the monster is going up his ass! lolololololol!” Even at 13, I didn’t find shit and farting this funny, and after about 15 minutes, I hit poop joke fatigue.
10. EBT cards no longer accepted for Popov. Thousands switch to Rite-Aid brand vodka.
9. LAPD DUI checkpoints replaced with faster, more efficient firing squads.
8. All electronic freeway signs now feature general “Watch Yo Ass” message.
7. Persistent Hollywood urine stench now persistent stench of urine and FREEDOM.
6. Santa Monica DMV appointment line just a recording of elderly woman angrily shouting obscenities.
5. City of Downey bails, joins Mexico.
4. Due to lack of sanitation services, Runyon Canyon now 30% filled by half-empty Pinkberry cups.
3. Medical marijuana treatment approved for thousands of new ailments, including “anxiety,” “having one weirdly long toe” and “feeling, you know, just blah.”
2. Staycationing Mayor Garcetti won’t shut the fuck up about “Orange is the New Black.”
1. Roving, blood-thirsty, dystopian biker gangs no longer abiding by helmet laws.
Sage the Gemini performed this live on What’s Trending yesterday and it has been in my head, on repeat, ever since. Send help.
(1) HE MIGHT BE GREAT
Though I agree it’s an odd and largely underwhelming casting choice, if the movie’s great and he gives a good performance, it will still be good and everyone’s opinion will turn around. The people pointing out the initial cynicism about Heath Ledger as Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman are correct. It’s too soon to make any concrete pronouncements.
(2) BEN AFFLECK IS NEITHER AN AMAZING NOR A TERRIBLE ACTOR
He’s certainly not awful, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with what I think is a truly GREAT Affleck performance. His best role to date is probably “Argo,” and even there, he’s not a standout. (All of the film’s best and most memorable scenes feature John Goodman, Alan Arkin or both.)
There are more underwhelming items on his filmography than triumphs. It’s honestly not even close.
(3) WHETHER OR NOT HE’S A GOOD ACTOR HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS CONVERSATION
Naysayers are arguing that he’s miscast, not that he’s a bad actor. A great actor can still be miscast. In fact, this happens all the time. Guy Pearce is super-talented and miscast in like 8 movies a year.
(4) STOP SAYING “MATT DAMON FOR ROBIN”
I get why people are making the joke, but Damon’s a way more appropriate choice for dozens of other Gothamites besides Robin, from Harvey Dent to Victor Fries to Roman Sionis. (Holy shit, a Matt Damon-as-Black Mask movie could totally work.)
Seeing this over and over again reminded me that most fans of the Batman movies ONLY know the movies and thus only know a few supporting characters that get featured frequently. Not saying that’s a bad thing. Just that I lose perspective on it a lot of the time.
(5) IF YOU ARE ONE OF THE INSUFFERABLE TWERPS COMPLAINING ONLINE ABOUT PEOPLE DISCUSSING BATMAN CASTING AND NOT CHELSEA MANNING OR ILLEGAL WIRETAPS, SHUT UP.
Sure, the Manning case and NSA surveillance are extremely important issues that merit intense public discussion and scrutiny. But I saw SEVERAL people tweeting this kind of thing, and it’s just self-congratulatory nonsense, designed to make you feel morally superior. If you think Batman news has NO PLACE on Twitter (a ridiculous argument), then don’t respond to it or engage with people discussing it.
Also, shut up. You’re worse than the “I don’t even watch TV” people.