Crying Out Loud

When I wrote my recent article on Tangerine for The Dissolve, I spent some time researching the history of how movies about trans characters have been received. I’m not talking about reviews by cis critics, mind you. I already knew that those involved a lot of misgendering and lexical stumbling, even from the best-intentioned of writers. (Or fucking wordplay. The late Richard Corliss was a wonderful writer, but I’ve long loathed the coy “SHE IS A HE” bullshit acrostic in his much-loved Crying Game review.) Instead, I was curious to see what trans writers and activists have had to say over the years about seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Those writers, however, have rarely been able to write on anything but tiniest of platforms. The farther back through the decades you go, the harder this (oft-buried) writing becomes to excavate. Maybe two trans women saw Chris Sarandon playing one of their own in Dog Day Afternoon on an autumn evening in 1975; maybe they had a rich post-screening discussion about it. Well, if they did, it sure wasn’t printed in Time.

Here’s what I did find, though. In early 2003, the trans activist and filmmaker Andrea James—whose status in trans circles I’ll charitably describe as “complicated”—reviewed the movie Normal on her website and vocalized a discontent that was also central to my Tangerine-spurred op-ed:

Yet another male actor playing a male-to-female transsexual left me feeling pretty apprehensive, too. Out transsexual actors are rarely allowed to play others in our community, let alone non-transsexual roles. I doubt I’ll live to see the day an out transsexual actor plays a lead role in a movie put out by a major Hollywood studio. We’ll see what we can do, though!

Going back another decade to 1993, I found a pair of writers whose work excites me far more than James': the Toronto-based Xanthra Phillipa and Jeanne B. (the latter a nom de plume for Mirha-Soleil Ross), who together created the zine Gendertrash. The zine’s first issue, hosted online at the invaluable Queer Zine Archive Project, is the only one I’ve been able to find so far, and it’s a 40-page grenade hurled at LGBT complacency. It’s a snapshot of a particular time and place, boiling over with the anger that comes from real suffering. The whole issue is essential reading, but since the subject at hand is film criticism, here’s an excerpt from page 14.

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Since its release, The Crying Game has born something of a checkered reputation; two decades later, I suspect that what’s most remembered about it are (1) the indie phenomenon it became thanks to a Miramax release and (2) Fergus throwing up when he sees Dil’s penis. When untethered from the film itself and spread via years of pop-cultural osmosis, that scene becomes terrifying shorthand for the way trans women are seen by a hateful world. But here in this clipping, with the film fresh in the air, are two trans women explicitly claiming The Crying Game as their own, saying that Neil Jordan probably has “first hand” experience with its subject matter, all while using language that looks totally alien only a generation later.

This polemic/review provides so much to unpack, but right now I’m primarily fascinated by it as an example of how cultural history works. Nothing, it says to me, is static. How you look at or talk about something right now may not be consistent with how it’s approached only a few years into the past or future. All you can do is try your damnedest to situate yourself in space and time. For me, that means tracking down the words of trans and queer artists who have come before me. Now to pick up my shovel and keep digging.

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Alice Guy-Blaché and Beyond

From Photoplay: Grace Cunard (April 1916) and Elsie Jane Wilson (February 1918)

Earlier this year, I conducted a series of Google searches where I typed in “Germaine Dulac” followed by “Leontine Sagan.” Since those are the names of two major female filmmakers—best known for The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), respectively—my plan was to uncover other women who were their contemporaries behind the camera. I found far more than I’d expected. I turned my findings into a series of tweets, and now I want to turn those tweets into something a little more solid and in-depth.

Dozens of women flourished as directors of silent films, and the vast majority of them are forgotten today. Much of their work is undistributed or lost, and the preservation of their legacies is further hindered by the “great man” bent of critics and historians. The two women whose names are most commonly cited in film history classes, Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber, are relegated to footnote status: “Oh, and women were working then, too.” Thankfully, some scholars have fought to counter this forgetfulness. The Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP), for example, is a database initiated at Columbia University that organizes a mountain of research on the women of silent cinema. (“They were not just actresses,” explains its mission statement.) Much of the information here was found in their annals.

Below I’ve written about 15 women, spread across seven countries, who directed movies between the 1910s and ’30s. Many of them started out as actresses, and the majority were also married to filmmakers. Most of them are profiled at the WFPP as well. Admittedly, these are only the scantest of biographical outlines, but then this is intended to act primarily as a naming of names. If I write down the name of a woman who lived and died before we were born, and you read it, then you’ve thought of her. You’ve remembered. It’s a start. To borrow a phrase from Andrew Sarris’s (very male) The American Cinema, these are “subjects for further research.”

From the May 1917 Photoplay

  • Ruth Ann Baldwin (1886-19??) started out as a screenwriter and directed two features, A Wife on Trial and the western ’49-’17, both of which starred her husband Leo Pierson and were released in 1917.
  • Grace Cunard (1893-1967) worked as an actress for decades, beginning in serials at Universal. Her directorial career spanned from 1913 to 1921; her two features bear the pulpy titles The Purple Mask (1916) and The Woman of Mystery (1920).
  • Marie Epstein (1899-1995) had an expansive career, much of it in collaboration with either Jean Benoit-Lévy or her famous brother Jean. Her (often co-)directed features were released between 1927 and 1938. Later in life, she worked alongside Langlois at the Cinémathèque.
  • Mary Field (1896-1968) worked for years making documentary shorts on social or scientific subjects. After World War II, she went over to the BBC. She directed a single fiction film, the “quota quickie” Strictly Business (1931).
  • Eloyce Gist (1892-1974) worked with her husband James to make a pair of features, Hellbound Train (1930) and Verdict Not Guilty (1933), intended primarily for exhibition in Black churches. She’s the subject of a restoration effort by academic and filmmaker S. Torriano Berry.
  • Anna Hoffman-Uddgren (1868-1947) “made five films 1911-1912,” says Swedish film scholar Fredrik Gustafsson, “but four are lost. The one that remains is a filmed play, Strindberg’s The Father. Between Hoffman-Uddgren and Mai Zetterling in the 60s only five women got to direct feature films in Sweden and only one film each.”
  • Lottie Lyell (1890-1925) was the long-time collaborator and romantic partner of fellow Australian film giant Raymond Longford. She wrote and co-directed one (presumed lost) film with him, The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921).
  • Cleo Madison (1883-1964) directed and often starred in a couple dozen films between 1915 and 1916, out of which only two shorts (Eleanor’s Catch, which is included on the Kino DVD of Weber’s Hypocrites, and The Power of Fascination) survive today.
  • Paulette McDonagh (1901-1978) was an Australian filmmaker who collaborated with her sisters Isabella (an actress) and Phyllis (a producer and production designer) to start McDonagh Productions. They made four features and a handful of documentary shorts between 1926 and 1933.
  • Elvira Notari (1875-1946) was a major figure in the early Italian film industry. She co-founded Dora Films with her husband Nicola and directed dozens of films between 1911 and 1929, including the then-controversial melodrama ‘A Santanotte (1922).
  • Ida May Park (1879-1954) was married to director-producer Joe De Grasse, who filmed many of her screenplays. She directed a number of films between 1917 and 1920; the two that survive are Broadway Love, starring Lon Chaney, and Bread (both 1918). While she was on set in February of that same year, she spoke to Photoplay’s Frances Denton about her career:

  • Olga Preobrazhenskaya (1881-1971) worked as both an actress and a director, the latter often in collaboration with Ivan Pravov. Her most acclaimed film remains Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927). (Another female filmmaker from Russia was Elizaveta Svilova [1900-1975] who was the wife of Dziga Vertov and helped edit Man with a Movie Camera. She directed several documentaries between 1944 and 1953.)
  • Esfir Shub (1894-1959) pioneered the use of preexisting footage in documentary filmmaking, beginning with her Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927). She helped her colleague Eisenstein shape his own theories of editing. (This past April, she was ballyhooed in Sight & Sound’s “The World of Silent Cinema” column, so perhaps she’s starting to receive the attention she’s due.)
  • Tressie Souders (1897-1995) wrote and directed one film, subsequently lost, entitled A Woman’s Error (1922). She was, like Flames of Wrath (1923) director Maria P. Williams (1866-1932), based in Kansas City, Missouri, and both were among the first women of color in the country to work as filmmakers.
  • Elsie Jane Wilson (1885-1965) was an Australian actress and the wife of actor-turned-director Rupert Julian before she became a director herself, making several features between 1917 and 1919. Three of them survive. She was, per the WFPP’S Michelle Koerner, one of the “Universal Women,” like Ruth Stonehouse (1892-1941), another actress who directed one-reelers during the same time frame.

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Six Years of Pussy Goes Grrr!

pandorasbox2

Way back in 2009, Ashley and I decided to start this blog. It gave us a shared outlet through which we could say whatever we wanted on the Internet. Initially, we just rambled for paragraphs about any subject at all; gradually, our output became more refined and organized. Sometimes the blog would go on hiatus for months, then become active, then go on hiatus again. We hosted blogathons and guest writers. Occasionally a post would garner some attention and kind words. Every so often the blog’s whole layout would be revamped.

Through it all, though, three constants have defined Pussy Goes Grrr: the two of us, the fact that we like to write, and the gratifying generosity of anyone willing to read what we have to say. So if you’ve ever read anything we’ve posted here, then we thank you from the bottom of hearts. Happy birthday to this website. Now let’s try to publish on it more regularly!

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Four Old Articles

In 2010-11, I wrote a series of articles for the magazine Paracinema. They only ever appeared in the publication’s print edition, so now that several years have passed I’ve finally opted to publish them online. I’ve only made minor tweaks for the sake of formatting, which means that the versions below preserve my often questionable prose and ideas, but I wanted to have a digital record of these pieces available.

Tell Your Children:

Dwain Esper’s Sex Madness and the Aesthetics of Exploitation

sexmadness1

[Originally published in Paracinema #10, Oct. 2010]

Between the end of World War I and the late 1950s, Hollywood had a dark secret. A sordid industry thrived in its shadow, unaffiliated with any major studio, less respectable even than the hacks of Poverty Row. Working on the cheap, auteurs of sleaze would churn out ostensibly educational films and crisscross the nation giving roadshow presentations, often restricting their audiences to men over 18. They were the purveyors of exploitation films.

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See Wayne and Swoon

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In 1932, John Wayne was washed up. “Since [The Big Trail] Wayne has done nothing of consequence, and his future looks none too promising,” declared Picture Play Magazine columnist Madeline Glass that April, in a piece on disposable “One-day Stars.” It had been six years since the beginning of his film career. Stagecoach was still seven years away. “Hollywood prophesied that John Wayne’s future would be brighter than Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s diamonds. So then what happened?… You’ll see [him] in an occasional ‘quickie,’ ” scoffed Photoplay’s Katherine Albert in August. He was still working consistently; that summer alone he appeared in Columbia’s Two-Fisted Law, Paramount’s Lady and Gent, and Warners’ Ride Him, Cowboy. But for the duration of the Depression, his career trajectory would remain a horizontal line.

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In November, Gladys Zimmerman’s letter ran in Picture Play. She was writing from Lisbon, North Dakota, a town about an hour southwest of Fargo which even now holds scarcely over 2,000 people. Its Main Street runs south from the Sheyenne River, a path first charted by homesteader Joseph Colton in 1880. If you follow it for five blocks, you’ll end up at the Scenic Theater, which first opened in 1911 and today bills itself as the “oldest continuously run theater in America.” Perhaps Gladys’s passion first flowered there, in the glow of a 10¢ matinee.

Perhaps she saw an outlet for that passion in Picture Play. Within the magazine’s pages, her missive and its fervor would hardly have been outliers, since every issue abounded with similar declamations: fans trashing Norma Shearer, lusting after George Brent, gossiping about Garbo. What makes Gladys stand out, however, is the object of her desire—a future legend then experiencing his professional nadir—as well as the earnest giddiness of her prose. She opens with demands directed at her fellow moviegoers: “Wake up!” and “What are you going to do about it?” That’s the voice of a woman who’s standing on her soapbox and will yield to no one.

Throughout her letter, Gladys asserts the power of the female gaze. She’s undressing Wayne (who was then 25) with her words: “a real man’s physique… those broad shoulders, that magnificent body… half the female portion of the audience swoons in ecstasy.” It’s a mere degree removed from erotic poetry, and it outlines a fundamental truth about cinema: since the art form’s inception, actors have been put onscreen in part because they turn the audience on. Gladys, though, isn’t content just to watch her idol in cheap westerns. She may not go as far as her friend, who plans a trip west presumably for the sole purpose of bedding John Wayne, but she does end her letter with an entreaty: “please write me about him.”

Like much of the letter, that last line may initially provoke gentle laughter. It’s symptomatic of a young woman’s crush. But (like many crushes) it’s poignant, too; suggestive of loneliness. She wants to get closer to this tall, handsome man she’s seen in shoot-outs and stampedes. He’s smiled at her from the screen, stirred her feelings, entered her dreams. Maybe he’s made her more aware of the shortcomings that tarnish Lisbon’s eligible young men—for what real-life beau could ever measure up to a movie star?

A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937)

About five years later, A Star Is Born was released. It’s a show biz melodrama about a farm girl named Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, who lives out Gladys’s friend’s fantasy by actually moving to Hollywood and marrying a star. The film opens with Esther coming home from the movie theater, kid brother in tow, gushing about actor Norman Maine. Her father, fiddling with his outdated stereoscope, is indifferent, but her aunt embarks on a full-blown tirade: “Gadding around picture shows, house all cluttered up with movie magazines… and the other day, I caught her talking to a horse with a Swedish accent!” This girl is spending too much time in her dreams. “You’d better be getting yourself a good husband,” advises the aunt, “and stop mooning about Hollywood.”

Esther’s family lives in Fillmore, North Dakota, which is a real place roughly four hours northwest of Lisbon. (Recent reports make it out to be a “ghost town,” devastated by the loss of a nearby railroad line.) If Gladys ever saw A Star Is Born, she may have identified with its heroine and her yen to migrate west. The movie is very deliberately structured as a small town girl’s wish fulfillment fantasy, allowing lucky Esther to metamorphose from a moviegoer into Vicki Lester, movie star: from the looker into the one who’s looked at. She may suffer, but it’s cathartic suffering that ends with her as the brightest star in filmdom’s firmament. Vicki and Esther and Janet Gaynor herself become avatars into whose stories young women can project themselves.

Hollywood becomes a paradise (“Metropolis of Make-Believe,” as A Star Is Born puts it) about which they can fantasize. It has all the romance and adventure that their Depression-blighted hometowns in the Midwest lack. Two years later, that same longing would find its apotheosis in the plaintive voice of another young woman who’d go on to star in her own A Star Is Born: Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy may not be pining for a John Wayne or a Norman Maine, but her Emerald City isn’t too far from Gladys and Esther’s Hollywood. It’s somewhere other than a dusty farm. Somewhere she can do what what she wants and fashion herself as the person she wants to be. It’s like something she’s seen in a movie—it’s her dream.

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Cartoon from Photoplay in November 1932. Artist uncredited.

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2014: Darkness and Light

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, The Double, It Felt Like Love

The act of making an end-of-year top 10 list is an exercise in futile vanity. It’s reductive, repetitive, more in keeping with the behavior of a butterfly collector than that of an aesthete. (I wonder: do butterfly collectors ever get sick of being used in stale metaphors?) But, as with so many critical bad habits, the fact is that it’s also perversely fun. So here’s my end-of-year top 10 list.

I’ll preface it with a trio of “honorable mentions” which I couldn’t include on my list proper due to byzantine, self-imposed eligibility guidelines: (1) the first season of Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, which straddles the increasingly permeable TV/movie border and contains some incredible “filmmaking” (or whatever you want to call it); (2) YouTube user Mia Munselle’s minute-long found footage opus “Camera falls from airplane and lands in pig pen–MUST WATCH END!!” which to my knowledge has never screened theatrically yet which is still an accidental gonzo work of substantial artistic import; and (3) Hong Sang-soo’s heartbreaking comedies Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and Our Sunhi, both of which have been consigned to an inter-year limbo (as far as American critics are concerned) by the vagaries of distribution. Whether any of these items falls into the category of “2014 movie” is up for debate, but all are nonetheless relevant to any discussion of film form as this particular year winds to its close.

And now, about that “list proper”… well, first I have more honorable mentions; 15 of them, in fact, in alphabetical order. I just can’t help myself. They are ActressBlue Ruin, CitizenfourThe DoubleDouble Play: James Benning and Richard LinklaterErnest & CelestineGone GirlThe Grand Budapest HotelIt Felt Like LoveJealousyA Most Wanted ManObvious ChildOnly Lovers Left AliveSnowpiercer, and Stranger by the Lake. If you were to gently nudge my top 10, it’s possible that one of those could fall into a slot of its own, because listmaking is (enjoyable) bullshit.

I have 10 “runner-up” performances to cite, too! Patricia Arquette, for her maternal weariness in Boyhood; Emily Browning, dancing and lip-synching her way through God Help the Girl; Macon Blair, a hangdog sad sack out for blood in Blue Ruin; Zac Efron’s comic Adonis in Neighbors, especially impressive given the incoherent writing of his part; Charlotte Gainsbourg, agonizing to watch as the title character of Nymphomaniac; Liam Neeson as a brick-hewn embodiment of human duality in The Lego Movie; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl as the year’s definitive femme fatale; Tilda Swinton as a Yorkshire-accented burlesque of bureaucracy in Snowpiercer; Paul Rudd as They Came Together’s archetypal romcom leading man (“handsome, but in a nonthreatening way”); Christoph Waltz further proving his versatility while (like Efron) making bad writing sound better in The Zero Theorem; and lastly Robin Wright, acting with body and voice as a sci-fi-skewed iteration of herself in The Congress. Whew! (Oh, and if for some sick reason you want a fuller picture of my year-end activities, I voted in both the Indiewire and 12 Films a Flickering polls.)

These past few years, I’ve handed out awards for Best Performance in a Documentary. Recipients have included Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop, Joyce McKinney in Tabloid, Frédéric Bourdin in The Imposter, and Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing. This year’s addition to that informal hall of fame is Brandy Burre in Robert Greene’s Actress.

And now, the list proper.

Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

10) Night Moves, directed by Kelly Reichardt

Although its frames are heavy with the ethical weight of 21st century living, this is still a crackerjack thriller: formally exact, noose-tight, never the slightest bit didactic. Bank heists have been pulled off with less precision than Reichardt brings to her camera angles and shot durations, which over time make even the Oregon wilderness feel as restrictive as a jail cell. Though its point (you can run, you can hide, but somebody’s always watching) has been reiterated by generations of paranoid thrillers, seldom has it been expressed with such rigor.

Kim Dickens plays Gone Girl’s hard-ass policewoman with screwball agility, her performance divvying up sympathy between the misled law and Ben Affleck’s patsy.

Though loosely inspired by Philip Roth, the aging literary giant played by Jonathan Pryce in Listen Up Philip functions broadly as a stand-in for a whole generation of successful assholes, their book sales counterbalanced by impotent rage.

9) We Are the Best!, directed by Lukas Moodysson

The mere fact that this is a positive, realistic movie about teenage girls’ friendships is refreshing enough, even if that alone may not a great movie make. (“You know,” I tweeted recently, “between Whiplash, Birdman, & Listen Up Philip, I really appreciate Vi ar bäst! depicting art as not strictly a macho pursuit.”) What does a great movie make, however, is ensemble energy yoked to episodic coming-of-age plotting and sharp-eared dialogue. We Are the Best! nails both the pains of growing up and the giddy pleasures of artistic collaboration.

Amy Seimetz’s role in The Sacrament could’ve been a throwaway “horror tour guide” part. Instead, she invests it with sisterly affection and evangelical zeal, drawing a straight line from friendly “hello”s to mass carnage.

Unlike many of my cinephile friends, I don’t follow wrestling, but I am consistently impressed by wrestlers onscreen: The Rock was my #1 supporting actor last year, and Dave Bautista is the best part of Guardians of Galaxy, as endearing with his deadpan line readings as he is lethal with a blade.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

8) A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

This tripartite avant-garde/doc whatzit is like an invitation to a trance state. Its audio plumbs the extremes of black metal and forest-shrouded silence, mostly forsaking dialogue; its ambulatory camera pushes on through open-air baths, firelit nights, and lakes whose waves lap against a lonely rowboat. It’s maybe baffling, definitely abrasive, yet still tantalizing as it weaves that wondrous spell.

I don’t expect Emily Blunt’s work in The Edge of Tomorrow to receive any awards attention; as far as Academy voting is concerned, acting rarely happens within action movies. But she’s the real deal (here, in Looper, in Your Sister’s Sister, in The Five-Year Engagement), providing the battlefield bravado that makes Tom Cruise’s death-by-death redemption possible.

I keep imagining Birdman as a mediocre remake of His Girl Friday, and maybe that’s in part because Edward Norton has such an old-fashioned charm to him. (See also: his “Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith” riff in Death to Smoochy.) I could see his strut, ego, dick, and all transplanted into the 1930s with minimal fuss.

Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

7) Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater

By now, I’ve seen innumerable 2014 “best of” lists that foreground Boyhood, whether by naming it an ecstatic #1 or by crowing about its conspicuous absence. But I want to get away from all that, away from the “for or against” atmosphere fostered by a movie’s status as consensus favorite, and back to my feelings when I walked out of the theater this past August. I was gobsmacked, not merely by the unorthodox longevity of the film’s production, but by its dialogue and its complex ideas about family and the self, as well as its frequent grasps at the sublime from within the quotidian. It speaks to cinema’s possibilities, but also to its limitations, like the tragedy that a movie can only run from its beginning to its end.

With her bloodlust and blond mane, Mia Wasikowska injects a necessary dose of goofy id right into the middle of Only Lovers Left Alive. (She’s not half bad as the flawlessly coiffed object of “nice guy” desire in The Double, either.)

J.K. Simmons’ performance in Whiplash is admittedly blunt and showy, alternating between a couple of vicious notes for the whole of his screentime. But sometimes a movie needs an actor to be like a wrench to the rear of the skull, and Simmons is exactly, fatally that.

Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

6) Listen Up Philip, directed by Alex Ross Perry

Watching this acrid comedy is like having a vial of misanthropy splashed in my face, yet counterintuitively it remains a pleasurable experience. The film zigzags through novel-emulating arcs of asshole behavior with no real comeuppance to be found at the end, yet still I relish its sour aftertaste. That’s because Listen Up Philip is satire that doesn’t resort to caricature, instead frankly replicating the headspace of a very intelligent young man (i.e. the worst type of human being) then dismantles its subject from the inside out.

Typically with a movie like Listen Up Philip I’d expect the antihero to have a “woman who holds him back”; instead, Elisabeth Moss plays “the woman he held back,” and her face (caught in close-up over the span of their break-up) says as much as Philip’s reams of smartass dialogue.

Although Boyhood’s most ballyhooed spectacle is that of a child aging from 6-18, it also depicts Ethan Hawke’s progress through his thirties into early middle age, accompanied by his character’s steady evolution: from songwriting “cool dad” to the uncool dad who drives a minivan and accepts his responsibilities.

The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

5) The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent

I think of myself as pretty inured to horror movies’ scares at this point. I still watch them and love them, but—well, it’s like that bit in Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Uma Thurman punches a plank of wood until her fist is numb. And watching The Babadook is like someone chopping that fist off at the wrist. Not only does the film boast immaculate craftsmanship (metronomic editing, monochrome production design) but it also makes motherhood—this fundamental fact of human existence—scarier than any bogeyman you could conjure up. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” indeed.

In Night Moves, all of Jesse Eisenberg’s usual mannerisms are tamped down, everything shoved below a stolid surface, with his interiorized fear and despair only bubbling up through his quavering voice and forced half-smiles.

As the author surrogate in Catherine Breillat’s autobio-drama Abuse of Weakness, Isabelle Huppert provokes sympathy and terror, her body put graphically through simulacra of strokes, PT, and a halting recovery.

Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

4) Manakamana, directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez

You can break this experimental doc’s conceptual simplicity down into numbers: 11 shots, 2-3 people (plus occasional animals) per shot, 1 angle from which a static camera captures it all. Yet even forgoing most conventionally “cinematic” embellishments, the film still supplies a myriad of sights to see and miniature dramas to experience. It’s simultaneously a retreat back toward the basics of filmmaking and a leap forward via the primal power of the frame.

Even saddled with a phony German accent, Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a fitting farewell performance in A Most Wanted Man. The nexus of the film’s anti-terrorist web, he visibly bears the weight of its moral compromises on his wide, world-weary shoulders.

What impresses me most about Jenny Slate in Obvious Child isn’t her motor-mouthed joke delivery, nor the way she subtly shades her sardonic reactions with pathos, but instead her fully demonstrated capacity for joy—a trait too often undervalued among performers.

3) Goodbye to Language, directed by Jean-Luc Godard

If Manakamana can be both a retreat and a leap forward, then the same is true of Godard’s foray into 3D, albeit in a more berserk fashion. It’s as if this old film-historical trickster god had invented a time machine that could carry him simultaneously into the future and back toward a pre-Lumière past. Breaking old rules, inventing new ones, taunting the viewer with unsolvable visual riddles: this is Godard all right, crafting (with the aid of stereoscopy and a curious pup named Roxy) a movie as fun, beautiful, and mind-bending as it is inscrutable.

Joaquin Phoenix may play a villainous pimp in The Immigrant, but his performance also disrupts such easy labels; though he may radiate wickedness and abjure audience sympathy, he’s still playing a human being first.

Scarlett Johansson’s anti-star turn in Under the Skin is a testament to her wealth of thespian imagination. It awes me that she even attempted to play an incomprehensible alien being, let alone that she succeeds to a terrifying degree.

The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

2) The Immigrant, directed by James Gray

Even though this rich melodrama only squeaked into theaters in 2014, it already feels as if it’s been around for decades. As if it’s an artifact from a bygone era, perhaps carved by Gray from a chunk of solid history, as one might make an amulet out of an elephant’s tusk. Walking into a new release this year, I never expected to see anything so pure, full, emotionally direct, and morally thorny. But then, The Immigrant has zero interest in playing to expectations.

The same applies to Marion Cotillard, who takes on a timeworn character type (“Gish-esque waif”) as the star of The Immigrant and makes the part hers. You can add her close-ups (like Elisabeth Moss’s) to the annals of great screen acting, right alongside Bergman and Garbo.

The aspect of Jason Schwartzman’s performance in Listen Up Philip that cuts me the deepest is the obvious sadness that will never be met by another human being’s compassion, because he lacks even a shred of the requisite humility.

Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

1) Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer

I hate to hyperbolize, but this is probably a new landmark in science fiction history.  Here, let me put that in hacky pull-quote form: “First came Metropolis, then 2001Star Wars, and now… Under the Skin.” To be terse: it’s just not like other movies.

No actor this year got to me quite like Essie Davis in The Babadook, whose performance incorporates notes of depression, abject terror, and homicidal resentment. She melds uncomfortable realism with outsize metaphor in the way she moves and screams.

And finally, Davis’s total inverse: Ralph Fiennes as the cosmopolitan Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel. He handles the role’s ornate dialogue, physical comedy, and latent melancholy with the same foppish grace.

[Movies I have yet to see include Beyond the Lights, Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, Love Is Strange, National Gallery, Selma, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and Two Days, One Night.]

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On Madness and Art: An Art Dump

There’s a strange social narrative surrounding bipolar depression, formerly known as “manic depression.” The sickness is often associated with artistic types, as many famous artists had (or are thought to have had) bipolar depression: Sylvia Plath, van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, etc. Sometimes artists themselves perpetuate the idea that the illness helps fuel their art. There’s even a very interesting book, Touched with Fireon this subject that I really want to finish reading someday.

As a person who sometimes makes art and is also bipolar depressive, this narrative annoys the shit out of me. When I was in the hospital I journaled a lot about how frustrating and dangerous this romanticizing is. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone, and sure, it’s totally possible that the boundless energy that comes with a manic phase could result in a lot of work getting done. For me though, mania also gave me panic, paranoia, and a complete inability to focus that energy on any one thing. And the thing about mania is that you can’t have it without the depression. So, I get to go from being unable to get anything done because I’m hopped up on mania to not being able to do anything because I’m so depressed I can’t even function.

Despite the fact that sometimes mania feels good because at least it’s not depression, bipolar depression is still not a good or functional disease, and it doesn’t lend itself well to getting shit done. Any and all art I am able to create is in spite of my illness, not because of it.

During my hospital stay, I was worried that the amount of art I was churning out would somehow reinforce the idea that bipolar depression and creativity are linked. I made more art in the week and a half I was there than I have in the rest of the year combined. But being in a mental hospital is not quirky or cute or fun. The only real reason it was more conducive to creativity for me is because there was literally nothing else to do. I didn’t have my phone, there were no computers, and we had limited access to phones or televisions or even radios. From the time we woke up to an hour or two before lights out we were either in group/individual therapy or eating as a group. We spent our entire days in the group room which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the only room where we were allowed pens, pencils, and crayons. I had the time, safe space, and tools to spend entire days making art. It was a crucial aspect of my recovery and in no way motivated by my illness itself.

I’m very proud of the art I made there and am happy to share it now, knowing that it’s a sign of my recovery rather than my illness.

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“Zipper Girl,” the last piece I made in the hospital

Lyrics from Tom Waits' "9th and Hennepin"

Lyrics from Tom Waits’ “9th and Hennepin”

I learned that colored pencils are fun

I learned that colored pencils are fun

This isn't as done as I want; maybe I'll come back to it someday. Skirts are made from wallpaper.

This isn’t as done as I want; maybe I’ll come back to it someday. Skirts are made from wallpaper.

Another Zipper Girl; she was really popular among other patients and they all wanted their own. I got really good at drawing her.

Another Zipper Girl; she was really popular among other patients and they all wanted their own. I got really good at drawing her.

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