At Tumblr, on Tumblr.
Hello Tumblr, my old friend. I’ve come to list movies again.
I started an amazing and demanding new job on December 2, which reaaaally ate into my awards season moviegoing. I’ve caught up with all but a few titles and I swore to myself I would get this posted before the Oscars, so here we go.
Speaking of the Academy Awards, this year I’ve decided to omit any Best Picture contenders from my list. I’ve seen eight of the nine (sorry Philomena) and liked all I saw, some a little (Nebraska) and some a lot (12 Years a Slave, Gravity). Odds are you don’t need to read 100 words from me about any of them.
Instead, here is my list of 10 films that didn’t make Oscar’s list but should be on yours, presented in alphabetical order.
The first and certainly oddest on the list is Computer Chess, the (fictional) story of an early ’80s gathering of oddball software programmers at the dawn of the computer age, and the strange encounters they have while ostensibly pushing the boundaries of machine intelligence. Director Andrew Bujalski captures the look and feel of the early ’80s with uncanny perfection, aided by the fact that he shot the entire thing in black and white on ’70s-era video cameras. (Undoubtedly, Computer Chess is the only 2013 theatrical release shot on analog video.)
The film observes its striving, seeking nerds and misfits with open eyes but without judgment. Look closely and you’ll recognize the straight line from their eccentric pursuit of chessboard dominance to the far more powerful i-gadgets we carry in our pockets today. The meandering story goes to a few surprising places but is in no hurry to get there. By its final frames, Computer Chess reveals itself as a very sneaky prequel to Her.
More black and white. Broke but privileged white girl in her 20s flails around New York City in search of artistic fulfillment, honest friendship and, you know, meaning. Sounds exactly like HBO’s Girls but is in fact Frances Ha. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s film takes its inspiration from Manhattan-era Woody Allen, capturing the spirit of the earlier era while updating the vision in a way that’s true to Frances’s time and gender. The one thing it does take from Girls is Adam Driver, who is excellent here, there and everywhere.
Adam Driver brings said excellence (and an excellent “OUTER…SPACE!”) to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s in the Coen Brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis. The Academy has a tenth Best Picture slot. They committed a grievous error by not bestowing it here. Oscar Isaacs is a revelation. The use of music is masterful. But I imagine the films melancholy charms run counter to the lavish spectacle and self-importance Oscar favors. The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of sadness, loss and unspoken anger, of trying to make art when you’re good but not quite good enough, or maybe just good in the wrong way. There’s also a cat.
And we return to black and white with Joss Whedon’s William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, a masterclass in effortless charm. It’s evident in every frame that the writer/director of The Avengers and his friends are having a ball playing dress-up with Shakespeare’s original screwball comedy. If I could, I would leap from my seat through the screen to join the party.
Matthew McConaughey, too, has charm to burn, and he puts it to good use in Mud as a larger-than-life fugitive who enlists the help of two boys to avoid bounty hunters are reunite with his one true love. Jeff Nichol’s previous film, Take Shelter, was one of my favorites of 2011. Mud is not quite at that level but it is an engaging coming-of-age story, anchored by McConaughey’s performance and featuring some of the best acting I’ve seen from Reese Witherspoon in years.
Short Term 12 is one of the films I didn’t catch up with until February. I’m glad I did, as it more than earns its spot on my list. Brie Larson stars as a young woman working in a group home for at-risk teens, coming to terms with issues of her own. The story could easily have slipped into “after-school special” territory, but writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton keeps it grounded, with a setting and cast of characters who feel real through and through.
If Much Ado is the party you dream of, Spring Breakers is the one that haunts your nightmares. (And probably vice versa, but if you’re on the other side of that equation let’s agree to never hang out.) There’s much more going on here than James Franco’s over-the-top, over-praised “Alien.” Harmony Korine bait-and-switches filmgoers with a candy-colored critique of youth culture, gangsta culture and twenty years of televised, bikinied youthful excess courtesy of MTV’s Beach House and Girls Gone Wild. This is a deeply subversive film that will sit like a Netflix time bomb waiting to blow the minds of unsuspecting teens for decades to come.
From a metaphoric hell on earth to a literal one: This Is The End, starring (among others) Academy Award nominees James Franco and Jonah Hill as themselves. This quintessential smart-dumb comedy starts off mining humor from the tabloid reputations of famous stars, and ultimately carries its apocalyptic premise to the most extreme places imaginable. Remarkably, it does so with a lighter touch than you might expect from such a bro-heavy ensemble. Still, your enjoyment of This Is The End will be predicated on your tolerance for large doses of Seth Rogen. Mine are just high enough.
Upstream Color is, to quote its wikipedia page, “a film written, directed, produced, edited, composed, designed, cast by and starring Shane Carruth.” I stand in awe of Mr. Carruth, who I imagine probably helped with the catering too. His outstanding feature debut, Primer (2004), is one of the smartest, knottiest time travel films ever made. Nine years on, his second film is even better. Another smart science fiction film without the usual sci-fi trappings (rockets, robots, explosions), Upstream Color can be loosely described as the tale of a couple whose brain chemistries are mysteriously altered unbeknownst to them, resulting in usual side effects including paranoia, telepathy with pigs and a surprising familiarity with Thoreau’s Walden. But more than any of that, Upstream Color is a profound and moving love story. With pig telepathy.
No pigs in You’re Next, but there are violent men wearing stark white tiger, wolf and sheep masks. A smart story and great characters sets this film apart from the run-of-the-mill “home invasion” movie (including the far inferior The Purge). You’re Next delivers well-crafted scares but it isn’t interested in dwelling on suffering and kills. Rather, it presents believable family relationship/sibling rivalry in the midst of a life-or-death struggle. It’s also got real laughs, something you wouldn’t know from the official trailer. Best of all, it showcases one of 2013’s most empowered heroines outside of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Honorable mentions: horror movies Here Comes the Devil and The Conjuring, Eraser Head-worthy weirdness in the Disneyworld-esque Escape from Tomorrow, and supremely dark but funny depravity in the soon-to-be-released Cheap Thrills.
- Beasts Of The Southern Wild
- Holy Motors
- Zero Dark Thirty
- Moonrise Kingdom
- The Master
- The Cabin In The Woods
- This Is Not A Film
- Cloud Atlas
Why do we go to the movies? One oft-cited reason is “to escape.” For me, 2012 offered little need for escape. The year graced me with a new job, a new apartment, a new (old) city, and with the cherished company of a special person with whom to share it all. 2013, you’ve got a lot to live up to.
Me, I went to the movies to see something new, to feel something real, and to think, period. But not to laugh, it seems, since the only comedies to make my list this year are dark (Cabin) and minor-key (Kingdom). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s take it from the top.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild comes at audiences like a stampede of aurochs, heart pounding, anthem blaring. Some resisted, I succumbed, and loved it all the more for sweeping me up and carrying me away. Director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin invited us into a world I never knew existed and let me experience its full measure of majesty and terror as seen through the eyes of its six year-old protagonist. Beasts is not only my favorite film of the year, it’s the rare film that gets both childhood and fantasy exactly right (along with Coraline, Pan’s Labyrinth and Let the Right One In).
In key ways, Holy Motors reminds me of an automotive-themed entry on my 2011 list, Rubber. Both films openly question what movies are for, showcasing scenes of audiences passively observing and of performers sliding into and out of roles like drivers changing lanes. But where Rubber uses the tropes of genre and a permeable fourth wall largely to celebrate its own cleverness, Holy Motors plays with form and style because director Leos Carax’s love of cinema is too overwhelming to be contained by things like plot or logic. What does it all add up to? Damned if I know, but each scene offers its own rewards, like the prizes inside a case full of Cracker Jack. One resolution for 2013: see more of the work of star Dennis Lavant.
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker topped my 2009 picks so it’s no surprise her even more impressive 2012 offering sits high on this list. Both films feature protagonists who are exceptionally good at one thing but not much else. Society, or at least our political system, has made these professionals what they are — but at what cost? The more you contemplate Zero Dark Thirty, the more questions it raises about its own agenda as well as the whole of American foreign policy since 9/11. Director Bigelow and her collaborator, writer Mark Boal, pull off a nifty trick: by keeping politics out of their text, they pack it like dynamite into their subtext. Zero Dark Thirty's final shot lights the fuse.
I just adored Moonrise Kingdom. Child actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward hold their own (and then some) in a film with no shortage of acting heavy hitters. Along with Beasts' Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, it was a hell of a year for first-time talent. Director Wes Anderson somehow managed to blend the excitement of youthful adventure with the wistfulness of adult disappointment — and it doesn't hurt that his meticulously crafted visuals are so well matched by a score that makes inspired use of the music of Benjamin Britten.
Speaking of visuals, The Master offered some of the most beautiful images ever captured on 70mm. Initially the plot (or lack thereof) left me as flat as the optics and the acting left me elated. With time, I’ve come to appreciate the kind of interior character story director Paul Thomas Anderson is after. I look forward to seeing this one again and may in hindsight wish I’d placed it higher on my list.
Looper and The Cabin In The Woods are the kind of smart genre films (sci-fi and horror, respectively) that come along all too rarely. Both respect their audiences enough to stay one step ahead of them, and respect their genres enough to embrace the tropes while transcending them. More like this, please. It’s hardly news, but Rian Johnson and Drew Goddard are writer/directors to watch.
Skyfall, too, respected and transcended its genre, all too aware of the weight that comes from dragging 50 years of Bond movies behind you. I admired the way that it functioned both as an end and a new beginning, delivering the familiar pleasures of the Bond movies in a defamiliarized way. Sure, it isn’t terribly kind to its leading ladies, but that too is part of Bond lore. Special mention must be made of Javier Bardem’s evil genius villain; the man is simply never not interesting.
This Is Not A Film is, in fact, a film, but don’t tell the Iranian censors. Let’s call it a documentary, though that word doesn’t do justice to the impossible slight of hand filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb pull off. Panahi, a leading voice in the Iranian New Wave and the director of films like The White Balloon and Offside, has been censored by the Iranian government with a 20-year ban on writing screenplays, directing films, talking to the media or leaving the country. Given that kind of artistic death sentence, what does a creative person do? Pick up an iPhone and turn life into art. Then smuggle that art out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake. This Is Not A Film is the ultimate found-footage film and a triumph of art over oppression.
Finally Cloud Atlas, which edged out Argo and Paranorman for the final spot thanks to its virtuoso editing, on the page and on the screen. Amazingly, the trio of Tom Tykwer and Andy and Lana Wachowski found a way to adapt the notoriously unadaptable novel. I usually find myself allergic to easy sentimentality, but damned if it didn’t get me - big noses, bad wigs and all. Now how can we get Halle Berry to star in a bunch more Luisa Rey Mysteries™?
It’s George Romero’s birthday! Please enjoy this photo of my boyfriend hanging out him. And yes Sean has a zombie on his t-shirt.
Also, a zombie-themed haiku, written by my bestie, @Rebekahruby:
door is breaking down
guess this is my last goodbye
please update my blog.
- Rebekah B.
The trailer that got the most attention in 2011 was for Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with its powerful Trent Reznor/Karen O cover of classic Zeppelin. Smart, effective…and completely obvious. “I come from the land of the ice and snow,” yeah, we get.
For me, true artistry was found in the first trailer for Battle: Los Angeles. A serviceable if unremarkable sci-fi action movie, B:LA will be memorable for years to come mainly for this brilliant teaser featuring music from modern composer Johann Johannsson’s IBM 1401, A User’s Manual.
Filmmakers, take note: this is how it’s done. Johannsson’s haunting, coldly alien sound elevates routine Michael Bey-esque clips into something both terrible and beautiful.
Hollywood is bashed - and rightly so - for an over-reliance on sequels, remakes and rebooted franchises. This year’s 7 highest grossing movies (worldwide, according to THR) were all sequels: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: on Stranger Tides, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part One), Fast Five, and The Hangover 2. Potter aside, that list makes me sad.
So let’s give credit where credit is due. Last year, two very different bands of misfits got franchise reboots well worth seeing: The Muppets and X-Men: First Class.
Jason Segal is clearly a lifelong Muppets fan. For my money, his clever update did Jim Henson proud, reminding us what makes these characters indelible for those of us who grew up with them.
Meanwhile, who would have dreamed Mad Men-plus-mutants would work so spectacularly? Sending the franchise back to it’s swinging ’60s Cold War origins was a stroke of genius. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender pull off the neat trick of evoking and surpassing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan’s performances as Professor X and Magneto.
Added bonus: putting the ubiquitous (and enormously talented) Fassbender on screen with Kevin Bacon as the villainous Sebastian Shaw automatically changes the game to “Five Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
"The Diary of Anne Frankenstein" is writer/director Adam Green’s contribution to the entertaining but uneven Chillerama. Set on the last night at bankrupt drive-in movie, the film offers three and a half movies-within-a-movie, of which “Diary” is by far the funniest.
Green is clearly a graduate of the Mel Brooks School of Hitler Humor (with a minor in Young Frankensteining). Joel David Moore (Avatar) sends it over the top, playing der Fuhrer with a gibberish German that would do Sid Caeser proud.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is impressive from the get go, from its bold, expressionistic use of color to its temporal fluidity. (Has any film ever relied so much on an actor’s hair style for narrative comprehensibility?) Tilda Swinton, in nearly every scene, is captivating as a strong-willed woman whose life is upended by her dark offspring.
Unfortunately, director Lynne Ramsay’s spell over me was broken when it came time to talk to Kevin. Played at different ages by Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, Kevin is such an obvious, cliched “bad seed” that the movie threatens to tip from serious drama to total kitsch.
The camera clearly loves Swinton, though I am hard pressed to think of a performance in which she elects to reflect it back. Crucially, I wish they had cast as her clueless husband someone who could match her intensity. Pairing John C. Reilly with Tilda Swinton is a bit like putting a beer jingle up against a Mahler symphony. I like to imagine John C. Reilly and George Clooney swapping roles in Kevin and The Descendants. In my mind (and perhaps in only in my mind), the switch betters both.
The best (in alphabetical order):
- Take Shelter
The next best (ditto):
- Attack the Block
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- Stake Land
- Midnight in Paris
Note: only 2011 theatrical & direct to DVD/VOD releases were considered.
As in the past (see 2008, 2009 and 2010), the last spot was a virtual coin flip. I liked but didn’t love Paris, just as I liked but didn’t love two other comedies, Bridesmaids and Young Adult. Paris gets the nod for doing for the City of Lights what Manhattan did for Manhattan. For that, and for the way Corey Stoll’s Hemmingway utterly steals the movie. (Corey who? Exactly.)
So much for the bottom. Up at the top, I think of Melancholia and Take Shelter as a matched set. Both use apocalyptic imagery as metaphors for mental illness, bipolar disorder in the former and schizophrenia in the latter. Von Trier’s film explores (predominantly but not uniquely) female anxieties around marriage, family, career and identity, while Nichols unpacks the stereotypically male fears of providing and protecting the family in this age of recession and foreclosure. For my money, no two films better capture life in 2011.
I’m tempted to pair up Senna and Rubber as well - the first a documentary about a Formula 1 driver and the other a postmodern tale about a killer car tire. But really, the two films could hardly be less alike. Senna tells the story of a pretty remarkable life in a truly remarkable way: without talking heads or voiceover. The filmmakers deliver an uplifting tale of a full if tragically short life relying on nothing more than TV coverage, home movies and breathtaking in-car race footage. No knowledge of or even interest in car racing is required to enjoy this great documentary.
As for Rubber, the less said the better - but be aware that there is another level to the film beyond what you see in the trailer. Madman director Quentin Dupieux is the antidote to tired, formulaic filmmaking.
Attack the Block was the best sci-fi film of the year and Stake Land my favorite horror film (think Zombieland meets The Road, but with feral vampires and crazy cultists).
Martha Marcy May Marlene could almost be considered a horror movie. It delivers a sense of inescapable dread as we peel back the layers of a young woman’s past in a rural cult and her present with her materialistic sister and brother-in-law. First time writer-director Sean Durkin is clearly one to watch, as is his star (and Olsen Twin sibling) Elizabeth Olsen.
I adore Scorsese for sneaking a primer on the history of film into a big budget, 3D holiday release, though I have some problems with the source material. (As with Super 8, I kept asking myself “why is the boy the star and the girl the sidekick?” Here are rare instance where Scorsese and J.J. Abrams could take a page from Robert Rodriguez.)
Drive could have made it into the first group, except it went off the rails for me after the over-the-top elevator fight. Sure Gosling’s “Driver” is a badass, but he’s not the goddamn Batman.
Overall, a pretty solid list, if not as strong as last year’s. That’s my top 10. What’s yours?
(Check back later this week for a few “honorable mentions,” including my favorite movie trailer of 2011.)