It’s Alive!

If not obvious by the new post, Pussy Goes Grrr is back! This space has been more or less dormant for a few years. But things are different now: I’m not in college, I moved states and I’ve got a lot more free time on my hands than I used to. So keep an eye out for new content here over the coming weeks!

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That Girl is a Goddamn Problem: Girl Hate and Beyond in Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling has said that Pansy did not end up marrying Draco because Rowling always hated her: “I loathe Pansy Parkinson. I don’t love Draco but I really dislike her. She’s every girl who ever teased me at school. She’s the Anti-Hermione. I loathe her.”

The more I think about this the more furious I get. If I had to sum up most of my problems with the J.K. Rowling’s approach to writing, I would start with this quote.  This is at the bottom of the Harry Potter wiki page about Pansy Parkinson, a page that is literally nothing more than a list of all the mean things Pansy ever did. Because that’s all she did. That’s all she existed to do.

There’s a very overt thread of girl hate woven throughout the Harry Potter series. It becomes most noticeable in Half-Blood Prince, where teen girls in love become crazy, jealous and dangerous. But from Sorcerer’s Stone it’s there: we know right off the bat who are the nice girls and the mean girls, and we know who we’re supposed to root for. J.K. Rowling is often praised for her “strong female characters” and I would be lying if I said that Hermione Granger isn’t one of the most pansyparkinsonimportant characters that ever happened to me.

But as I reread and reevaluated the books over the years with a more critical, feminist lens I began to recognize clear patterns of sexism, gender essentialism and, yes, girl hate. I was shocked when I realized that, in these books that I’ve read countless times, there are no strong relationships between any of the women characters. (The fact that it took so long for me to realize it speaks to how normal the absence of women-centered relationships is in media but that’s for another time.)

It’s not even just that there are no strong woman-to-woman relationships: most of the women, especially the secondary characters, exist to act as a  foils for one another. Hermione in particular has two distinct foils. Pansy Parkinson, her enemy from the start and then, come Half-Blood Prince, Lavender Brown, who commits the crime of being a teen in puppy love. Cho Chang is a foil of Ginny Weasley (who is praised as “rarely weepy”); Fleur Delacour and Tonks (who are explicitly compared in-text by Molly and Ginny); even Molly Weasley and Bellatrix Lestrange. What a disservice these books do to these women. They could be characters who live and breathe instead of existing to be compared to one another.

But I find myself particularly offended at her use of Pansy Parkinson, which is a place I never thought I would be. It may be petty or silly but I find myself wondering: why Draco and not Pansy? Why couldn’t Harry’s schoolyard nemesis be a girl, why not Pansy? Why does Draco get the redemption arc?  The back story? The capacity for sympathy from the audience? Why, in a magical world, must J.K. Rowling cling to the “realism” of teenage girl cattiness? Simple: revenge.  J. K. Rowling writes teenage girls based on real teenagers who hurt her solely to exact some sort of literary revenge. She creates a caricature of teenage girl meanness that is then read by real, live teenage girls. And it’s not just that mean teen girls exist in these books: they deserve lifelong punishment for their meanness or badness.

The fate of Marietta Edgecombe is an especially sadistic example of this. Marietta Edgecombe, who at 16 or 17 made a poor decision in a school that was under tyrannical rule from a powerful political interloper. We’re meant to interpret the embarrassing pustules as something she deserves and Hermione as clever for having the foresight to put that vicious curse in place. What happened in the long term? According to J.K. Rowling, while the pustules faded Marietta had lifelong scars because she “loathes a traitor.” What a horrifying implication: girls who make mistakes as teenagers deserve punishments that expand into their adult lives. The same with Pansy: she is deprived of a hypothetical relationship with Draco simply because J.K. Rowling hates her, because she is the “anti-Hermione.” There is no room for sympathy. There is no chance at redemption. These girls are not significant enough for that.

And maybe I could be more forgiving if it weren’t for the fact that the seeds of girl and woman hating bullshit J.K. Rowling plants come to full, forceful bloom when fandom steps in. Fandoms are notorious for their hatred of women characters, even ones that aren’t set up in-text for hatred. Pansy is a literary punching bag in many fanfictions: she’s typically a slut, a home wrecker, a bitch that no one likes. Including Draco. He’ll fuck her, cheat on someone (better and nicer) with her, date her, maybe even marry and have children with her but rarely like or love her. Draco, who committed actual war crimes beyond “being mean” and “being so afraid of Voldemort that she suggested they should give Harry over to him in an attempt to protect herself and her housemates.”

But Pansy doesn’t get that kind of nuanced motivation. Her yelling “There he is, get him!” is just another way to show the reader how awful she is. Complicated back stories and motivations are typically reserved for evil and morally ambiguous male characters (I say typically because Narcissa Malfoy exists). Draco, Snape, Voldemort–we spend a lot of time with their histories and emotions. But hey, these are mostly secondary characters. No author should be expected to flesh out all of their secondary characters. Archetypes and foils serve a very real literary purpose.

But I take issue with so many of the secondary characters in the Harry Potter series being women who fall into insidious, damaging stereotypes. Obviously J. K. Rowling is not the first or the last writer to do this. And it’s unfair to expect her to fix it or be perfect in this regard. But my resentment is not just because J. K. Rowling never intend for these characters to be more than vicious bullies, weepy depressives or annoying girlfriends. It comes from a deeper, more internal place. An ugly place that understands her desire to hate and punish literary proxies of real life girls. I remember being that kind of woman, full of hate and resentment for other women even as I claimed to be a advocate for them. And it scares me to think of young minds (like my own young self’s) being further shaped by that kind of mentality.

Ultimately, I’m tired of the long, harmful tradition of normalizing girl hate. Of making it common place. Of reminding us that it’s typical and expected. I want YA writers to shake up these shitty, false ideas of girlhood and girl friendships. I want a world, literary and otherwise, that teaches women how to be friends, how to support each other, how to critically engage one another. Where mean girls don’t begin and end at their meanness. I want stories about how wonderful we can be to and for each other. We shouldn’t have to unlearn how we’ve been taught to hate each other. Imagine if girl hate tropes disappeared from young adult novels. That would be real fucking magic.

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Stating the Obvious

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

Jenny Slate in Obvious Child

In the wake of Bridesmaids’ box office success three years ago, I remember a host of think pieces whose titles all asked variations on the same question: “Does this mean women will get to headline comedies now?” Well, the cinema landscape may still be overwhelmingly patriarchal, but I’ve been noticing more and more vehicles for comediennes cropping up recently. Some (Pitch PerfectThe Heat) may feature break-out Bridesmaids cast members. Others may just bear strands of its narrative DNA. Most of them, I grant you, are pretty lousy. But my observations suggest that a new-ish type of movie is emerging—or more likely, an old-ish subgenre’s becoming more commonplace—that I’ll describe with the unwieldy label of “millennial [or ‘post-Recession’?] feminist comedy.”

It’s true that values have been shifting since forever; that countless comedies from earlier decades have moved the goalposts from “Can she find a man?” to “Can she have it all?” or “Can she make it on her own?” But at least from this moviegoer’s perspective, pushback against the (once?) dominant romcom model is evolving into a loose formula of its own, with the question becoming “Can she make it as an adult?” I’m reminded here of my favorite movie from last year, Frances Ha, as well as Lake Bell’s In a World… and, of course, the movie at hand, Obvious Child.

Each of these films is, like Bridesmaids, shaped by real-world social and economic climates, wherein young women may have one-night stands and zero job security. Their lives may tarry around romantic subplots, but vocations (dancing, voice acting, comedy) or close friendships will always take precedence. Comedy of the cringe and gross-out varieties are prominent in these films, uninhibited by stereotypes about “ladylike” behavior. And in addition to starring them, the projects I’ve listed also involve women in other creative capacities: writers, directors, producers. (Not shockingly, these films are also overwhelmingly about white women who live in major metropolitan areas.) Again, none of these traits are really brand new, but they are coalescing in consistent and intriguing ways.

I’m impressed, for example, by what Obvious Child takes for granted—i.e., that women are entitled to control their own bodies and lives—as well as what it doesn’t do when Jenny Slate’s Donna discovers she’s pregnant. It doesn’t dwell on whether she’ll have the abortion or the feelings of the guy who impregnated her, nor does it devolve into a morass of twists and contrivances. Instead it stays with her, in her head, in Slate’s crumpled smile-that-wants-to-be-a-frown. All the supporting characters in Donna’s life (friends, parents, beau) are rather thinly written, serving mostly as foils and sounding boards. But that’s not disastrous, because the film’s framed by her solipsism, and its best scenes play like excerpts from a one-woman show.

These include her stand-up sets (very funny, if a little rough); a montage of a drunken night spent leaving voice mails for a hated ex; and an interview with her own brain, conducted in the three minutes before a pregnancy test yields its results. Here as elsewhere, Slate and writer-director Gillian Robespierre demonstrate a knack for words tripping over dirty words and an awareness of what an extraordinary comic tool an actress’s body and voice can be. They revel in this grotesque femininity and in visual tokens of Donna’s immaturity: a muppet designed by her dad, a cardboard box where she can hide, a pair of Crocs. The question “Can she make it as an adult?” is never answered, but it is nimbly navigated with joke after crude coping mechanism joke, until this particular set of crises has been weathered.

[Originally published on Letterboxd.]

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Pussy Goes “Five Years!”

Louise Brooks, our beloved mascot

For the past few months, this blog has been dormant. The facts are that Ashley’s wrapping up four years of college and I’m working two jobs while sometimes writing short reviews on Letterboxd; neither of us really has the time or energy necessary to sustain Pussy Goes Grrr at the moment. But I do still want to post this to acknowledge that the blog’s still alive, has been around for a full half-decade, and that more will be written here… eventually.

We both have reams of ideas for pieces we’d like to write, which might someday become realities on this very blog. So thanks to anyone who’s still perusing our archives—there’s a lot of work we’re very proud of back there (as well as a lot where that’s not the case)—and here’s hoping that this blog will be alive and more frequently updated in another five years.

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2013: A Lucky Year

Upstream Color, Drug War, This Is Martin Bonner, The Act of Killing

I always like to say that cinema is a menagerie, not a horse race. In support of that sentiment—and because my list employs no faultless critical methodology; my love for #25 is just a hair’s breadth away from my love for #1—here are 15 additional titles, listed in alphabetical order, before I even begin: The Act of KillingAprès maiBefore MidnightComputer ChessDrug WarThe GrandmasterLeviathanNoStories We TellThis Is Martin Bonner12 Years a SlaveUpstream ColorViolaThe Wind Rises, and The Wolf of Wall Street. (For yet more, you can see this year’s Indiewire poll and #12FilmsaFlickering, in both of which I participated.)

Furthermore, here are 10 performances that just barely missed my list (but I guess actually did make my list, since I’m listing them here): Gael García Bernal, blending ad industry satire with political revolution in No; Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, two magnificent actors bound together by love and venom in Before Midnight; Anna Margaret Hollyman, catatonically depressed among holiday cheer in White Reindeer; Sun Honglei and Louis Koo, giving a pair of symbiotic performances as the narcotics officer and his snitch in Drug War; To the Wonders ethereally feminine Olga KurylenkoSaskia Rosendahl, the ideal Grimm fairy tale heroine for Lore; Amy Seimetz in Upstream Color as a woman whose identity is upended by loss; and Miles Teller, who exudes such friendliness in The Spectacular Now.

Each year I give an award for the Best Performance in a Documentary, past recipients of which have included Thierry Guetta (Exit Through the Gift Shop), Joyce McKinney (Tabloid), and Frédéric Bourdin (The Imposter). This year’s winner is the “star” of The Act of Killing, Anwar Congo.

10) Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen

Rippling out from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to the cold city beyond its walls, this uncommonly humane film blurs the border between great art and the real world. Structured by the happenstance friendship of two lonely strangers, Museum Hours dabbles in streetside documentary while capturing a plethora of artistic practices: the paintings of the Old Masters, the music of actress Mary Margaret O’Hara, the architecture of this old European city. It’s a gentle movie, and comforting like a thick winter coat.

Lola Crèton was good in Après mai, but cuts even deeper as a nonverbal abuse victim in Bastards, registering trauma in her bruised body and blank face.

I love the oblivious grin that stays on David Cross’s face while he endures history’s most awkward brunch in It’s a Disaster.

9) To the Wonder, directed by Terrence Malick

Elements of Malick’s style—the impressionistic montage, the pensive voiceover, the magic hour lighting—are becoming commonplace in ambitious new indies, but nobody can pull them off quite like Malick himself. His camera snakes its way through present-day Oklahoma, discovering beauty, passion, and embattled faith at every turn. It’s brash filmmaking, earnest filmmaking, sculpting less a story than a whole emotional environment out of Middle America.

I hated The Great Gatsby, but I loved Elizabeth Debicki, the Australian actress who plays Jordan Baker with sinuous movement and suggestive eyes.

Nick Frost takes a turn as straight man in The World’s End, counterbalancing Simon Pegg’s comic wildness before drunkenly brawling all through the film’s second half.

8) Bastards, directed by Claire Denis

Your unconscious is the soil, Denis is the gardener, Bastards is the seed. The flowers, presumably, will smell rotten and be nothing but thorns. Laced with Tindersticks’ throbbing score, this noir-horror nightmare leaves dark impressions of erotic and financial transgression, of a world where everyone and everything is a bastard at heart. Denis builds this bleak story from the top down, letting images and actions accumulate; by the time you realize what’s going on, you’re already right at the bottom.

Zhang Ziyi is impressive in The Grandmaster not merely due to her elegance, steeliness, and graceful kung fu but because of the palpably broken heart she carries beneath it all.

In Computer Chess, Patrick Riester represents nerdy introversion sympathetically, yet with an undercurrent of extremely deadpan comedy.

7) The World’s End, directed by Edgar Wright

Mixing boozy verbal comedy with John Wyndham-style sci-fi and virtuosic action set pieces, The World’s End is pop filmmaking at its finest (and most affecting). Even as its story expands, putting the fate of humanity in the hands of a few beer-soaked Brits, the film stays intimate, letting its characters mull over their regrets and tangled relationships. Riotous comic motifs like “Let’s Boo-Boo,” The Three Musketeers, and “selective memory” froth with both linguistic wit and increasing poignancy, and it all unfolds at a pace so frantic that it’s easy to lose track of how inventive the whole thing is.

Like Lola Crèton, Lupita Nyong’o plays a victim in 12 Years a Slave, a woman who experiences constant abuse and humiliation, but does so with jarring resilience and a gleam of strength mingling with terror in her eyes.

Rob Lowe’s hair and demeanor in Behind the Candelabra are bone-chilling, yet impossible to look away from. He’s like the Dr. Pretorius of plastic surgery.

6) Like Someone in Love, directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Playfully, meticulously, like someone designing a puzzle, Kiarostami has built his follow-up to Certified Copy out of audiovisual information. He couples 360° of sound with very selective individual frames, telling us exactly what we need to know about young escort Akiko and the men in her life as she drifts through the neon-dotted Tokyo night. It’s an ambling, elliptical film of false surfaces and well-played roles; a puzzle that lacks a solution, but still contains several of the cinematic year’s most unforgettable car rides.

Emma Watson in The Bling Ring puts every “Millennials” thinkpiece to shame with her satirical tweaking of 21st century vanity and greed.

Dwayne Johnson’s born-again doofus in Pain & Gain is like the Second Coming of Curly Howard, growing funnier every time he says the word “Eldad.”

5) The Unspeakable Act, directed by Dan Sallitt

I won’t bullshit you: this is a movie about incest. But it’s not even remotely the kind of the movie that the words “about incest” conjure up. It’s not sensational, miserabilist, or provocative. Instead it’s a coming-of-age story told patiently, modestly, with many quiet scenes playing out in long takes. Jackie does want to have sex with her brother, but she’s also a teenage girl with a razor-sharp intellect who’s growing up in Brooklyn and trying to figure herself out. I want to see more indie dramas as self-defined as The Unspeakable Act, a film whose emotions and sense of humor may be subdued, but are no less powerful for it.

Sun Don’t Shines Kate Lyn Sheil made for a genuinely scary femme fatale, at once sweaty, unpredictable, and childlike.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street is the latest avatar of white-collar crime, with a black hole ego and a knack for druggy physical comedy.

4) Behind the Candelabra, directed by Steven Soderbergh

Supposedly Soderbergh’s final feature, this is a showbiz biopic that’s been filtered through Fassbinder and mummified in camp. Set deep within the glitzy, gay heaven/hell of Liberace’s estate, the film’s rife with betrayal and body horror—but it also aches with an authentic desire for love. Power and sex are exchanged as Lee tries to become Scott’s “father, lover, brother, best friend,” a gesture that’s both sweet and frightening. Behind the Candelabra intertwines the bodies of Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as they give life to a reality smothered beneath the artifice of the entertainment industry.

Stoker makes a lot of sudden swerves and feints, but Mia Wasikowska is consistently extraordinary, her face flickering between agony and arousal.

Paul Eenhoorn’s very mild-mannered in This Is Martin Bonner, yet his work’s still so powerful, with notes of regret and spiritual confusion submerged within.

3) Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu

Step by harrowing step, this religious drama moves toward its predestined end. No one wants it that way—certainly not the well-intentioned nuns at this drab rural convent, nor their young victim Alina—but the options grow fewer in number over the film’s sprawling run time until finally the story comes to a dead end. Neither Alina’s erratic behavior nor her love for a childhood friend (now wholly committed to God) fall within the order’s narrow moral parameters. So in agonizing static shots, she’s pushed and pulled by medical and economic forces beyond her control. Mungiu’s austerity contains empathy, but the most prominent feeling here is despair at the cost of faith.

As the star of Concussion, Robin Weigert breathes new life into the “bored suburban housewife” type. Her obliging smiles, weariness, sexual willingness, and yes, marriage to a woman all make this performance something different.

Who better to lead the audience through Chinese history than Tony Leung, playing the debonair and ass-kicking yet wistful Ip Man in The Grandmaster?

2) Inside Llewyn Davis, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens have made a musical comedy where the comedy’s gone sour, and the music stings of the pain that went into making it. It’s a period piece that doesn’t gloss over a single ugly detail of early ’60s Manhattan. And it’s a character study about an artist who keeps losing people and missing out on opportunities, usually through his own short-sighted decisions. Wrenching in its absurdism and cold as the winter air, Inside Llewyn Davis is structured like an odyssey that winds up back at Troy. Good thing, then, that Llewyn’s music (unprofitable though it may be) is still cathartic as all hell.

Acerbic and idiosyncratic, Tallie Medel’s work in The Unspeakable Act resists cliché while pushing deep inside her thorny character.

I still find it hard to believe how dynamic, pathetic, pained, and hilarious Simon Pegg is as he talks a mile a minute through The World’s End

1) Frances Ha, directed by Noah Baumbach

I’ll admit to a certain demographic vulnerability where this movie is concerned. Like Frances, I’m a liberal arts grad and aspiring artist in my mid-twenties who has trouble socializing and earning money. But this movie’s pleasures go so much farther than merely seeing oneself onscreen. It’s musical, whether that refers to the soundtrack’s snatches of Bowie and Georges Delerue or the rhythms that accumulate among its shots, scenes, and bits of plotting. It also has the most biting dialogue in recent memory, flowing in every direction throughout the movie. (I could spend days just unpacking and reveling in Mickey Sumner’s “This douche is my affianced.”) Speckled with joys and tinged with sorrow, Frances Ha is definitely a movie for “now,” but I suspect it’ll be a movie for the decades to come, too.

(If you want more, by the way, a clip of me discussing Frances Ha was included in The Cinephiliacs’ “2013 Favorites (Part 1)” episode, starting around 33:00.)

Of course, Frances Ha couldn’t be what it is without co-writer/star Greta Gerwig, who physically manifests her character’s awkwardness and self-deceit, wrings self-deprecating punchlines out of every encounter, and makes even her feeblest victories feel hard-won.

Nearly matching Gerwig is Oscar Isaac, who plays Inside Llewyn Davis’s sullen title character. He utters resigned “Okay”s like white flags raised toward Fate. He sings as if his world-weariness left him no other choice. Llewyn’s is not the voice of a generation, and Isaac lets us know that it couldn’t be any other way.

[Movies I have yet to see include At Berkeley, Captain Phillips, The Counselor, Enough Said, The Last Time I Saw MacaoLaurence Anyways, Post Tenebras Lux, and A Touch of Sin.]

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Superlatives of 2013

Last December I wrote about “the year in movie music,” so this year I’ve chosen to reprise that tradition and add a little extra. Below are my favorite song uses and much more:

Songs

Bastards

Bastards

The ending of Claire Denis’s Bastards is as haunting as anything I saw all year, and a huge part of that is “Put Your Love in Me” (originally by Hot Chocolate, here covered by Tindersticks) which plays over that ghastly video and the film’s credits. Throbbing and downbeat as the rest of Bastards’ score, the song makes it clear: We have passed through limbo. We are decidedly in hell.

Cate Blanchett’s beleaguered heroine spends much of Blue Jasmine wishing she could return to the past, a time of cocktail parties and plush interior design. Woody Allen symbolizes that wish with, what else, a jazz standard—namely Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” a ballad both wistful and romantic, which (as Jasmine repeatedly babbles) was playing when she met her late husband.

The year’s best musical, Inside Llewyn Davis has a half-dozen numbers I could cite. The performance that bookends the movie? Llewyn’s audition for Bud Grossman? The unforgettable “Please Mr. Kennedy”? Instead let’s say Bob Dylan’s “Farewell,” which plays in the aural periphery of the film’s conclusion, an echo of Llewyn’s own “Fare Thee Well” and a mordant punchline to his shaggy dog misadventures.

Sometimes truth is catchier than fiction. Once you’ve heard “La alegría ya viene,” the real-life jingle employed in Pablo Larraín’s political comedy No, it’s near-impossible to scrub it from your head, or to stop hearing the rhythmic hand claps that accompany it. “¡Vamos a decir que NO!”

I was very pleased when Spring Breakers opened with Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” and I did enjoy its cast’s rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” but best of all? Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” the concentrated dose of pop that plays over its Lisa Frank-esque credits. The ideal way to send me out of the theater in a good mood.

The Worst Movies I Saw

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

I found the following movies not just aesthetically displeasing, but odious. They may not strictly be the “worst” released this year (I didn’t see e.g. any number of widely panned sequels) but they did piss me off.

Matthew McConaughey’s typically great in Dallas Buyers Club: charismatic, physically invested, a seemingly bottomless fount of energy. But the movie around him! It’s as clichéd a “loner vs. the system” story as ever I’ve seen, hemming each of its stars into these one-dimensional character types. The Mean FDA Guy, The Initially Skeptical Doctor Who’s Won Over, The Junkie Trans Woman Who’s Called “He” and Then Dies. It’s a less inventive Catch Me If You Can with an addiction drama stuffed into the margins. It’s an AIDS history with straightness at its center. We shouldn’t penalize movies for the stories they don’t tell, it’s true, but when you talk about the recent past in terms this blinkered, this selective, that’s dangerously irresponsible.

(And though I’m loath to conflate a movie’s “buzz” with what’s actually up on the screen, oh Christ am I nauseated by the tone-deaf interviews Jared Leto’s given, the praise his “brave” performance has received, and the awards he’s en route to collecting. Thanks for reinforcing the idea that trans women can only be onscreen as part of a daring thespian’s prestige movie stunt, folks.)

Yes, I’m impressed that Escape from Tomorrow exists. But goddammit, I’m impressed that any movie exists. Every production has to clear countless logistical hurdles before garnering even a chance of distribution. So writer-director Randy Moore shot this on location at Disney World. So what, especially when the finished product is so tawdry and bereft of imagination? Escape from Tomorrow depicts prostitutes, demons, and a flu epidemic at the Magic Kingdom, which is honestly about as subversive as a 12-year-old drawing a dick in Mickey’s mouth. The movie’s circuitous plot, about a schlubby patriarch’s desire to leave his family and bed some foreign exchange students, makes it obvious that this would be an off-putting slog no matter where it was shot.

I feel like Baz Luhrmann has some idea of what beauty is, and I know for a fact that he’s acquainted with passion. But once these things reach the screen in The Great Gatsby, they’re so embalmed by excess as to be unrecognizable. Every emotion has to be underlined a thousand times; every shot has to scream style. There’s so little modulation to the movie that its grandeur becomes meaningless. On occasion this compulsion toward hugeness is relaxed, but then the film leans back on its status as a literary adaptation, brandishing Fitzgerald’s prose as if to ward off stagnation. (The film’s visual accompaniment to the book’s last page will, I have no doubt, insult the intelligence of high school English classes for years to come.)

I loved Drive back in 2011. It was a sleek, precise crime movie that wasn’t shy about its influences but also brought something new and eerie to the screen. Now it’s 2013, and I hate Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up Only God Forgives. Like Drive, it stars Ryan Gosling as a taciturn killer; again, he’s mixed up in a tit-for-tat revenge narrative that alternates extreme violence with arty, Cliff Martinez-scored repose. But here the nihilism is amplified, the violence more pointedly pointless and aestheticized, and Gosling’s performance somehow even less inflected. It’s as if that noxious scene in Drive where Christina Hendricks’ head explodes had been expanded into its own feature film. Worse yet, Refn sets his saga in a brutal, hyper-exoticized Bangkok, one visualized through these symmetrical, red-lit, vacuously pretty frames. I’m comfortable with amorality in my movies; sometimes I get off on it. But when it’s this hate-filled, yet devoid of any ideas or purpose, I just get bored.

At least The Great Gatsby and Only God Forgives, much as I may revile them, had strong auteur intent visible in every shot. Since, as I said, I missed out on most of the year’s worst consensus losers, Warm Bodies may be the emptiest thing from 2013 I’ve seen. Not to say that it’s exceptional or an outlier in any way. Just that it’s an absolute nothing of a movie, mashing up one formula (Romeo and Juliet) with another (zombie apocalypse) and churning out cinematic sausage on the other end. It has dozens of flat “jokes,” John Malkovich as a patriarch who sways with the whims of the plot, the millionth “romantic” case of Stockholm syndrome I’ve seen onscreen, and a half-assed message of tolerance (“zombies aren’t so bad”) that’s undercut by the need for epic action (“…except for those bad zombies”). Warm Bodies is by no means unusual, but its utter mediocrity made for one arduous viewing experience.

Lines

Computer Chess

These are the lines of dialogue that stuck with me.

“This is the team wi—that’s got a lady on it,” says Gerald Peary in Computer Chess. “There she is.” Andrew Bujalski’s retro-weirdo comedy plays as a genealogy of the digital age, and here we see nerd sexism in primordial form. It’s a deadpan joke made especially potent by Peary’s halting, baffled delivery.

“I apologize for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years.” These words, rasped by Chiwetel Ejiofor at the end of 12 Years a Slave, are among the year’s most devastating. In them, you can hear how much Solomon Northup’s experiences have taken out of him, as well as how deft John Ridley’s screenplay is in its use of period language.

People sometimes claim that profanity impinges on a writer’s eloquence, but several 2013 movies countered that idea with their poetic deployments the word “fuck” and its many variations. Like Nick Frost’s “I fucking hate this town!” in The World’s End; Ethan Hawke’s “I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing,” in Before Midnight; Matt Damon’s “There you are, you cocksucking tenor fuck,” in Behind the Candelabra; and most tersely of all, Robert Redford’s howled “Fuuuuck!” in All Is Lost.

I already gave a couple accolades to Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis above, but I still want to recognize my favorite lines from each movie: Cate Blanchett’s “Who do I have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?” and F. Murray Abraham’s “I don’t see a lot of money here,” respectively.

Finally, the joys of Frances Ha are manifold, but that screenplay is just overflowing with quotable bits and pieces, “Ahoy sexy!” not least among them. I love movie quotes like these in part because they’re a way for cinema to slither inside my head. I can remember images, even build up a mental archive of them, but dialogue I can pull out in conversation, share with friends, add to our common vocabulary. I suppose the use of pop songs in movies is similar: these disparate works and attitudes get yoked together in my brain, expanding one another’s meanings. I can hum “Modern Love” as I run down the street and suddenly Frances Ha’s entire spirit is with me. These songs and quotes are such fundamentally “cinematic” pleasures, fragments of wit and art I can take away from movies. They’re not all movies have to give. But they’re basic and fun and I love them.

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50 Best New-to-Me Viewings of 2013

Modern Romance

I did this last year and had a lot of fun with it, so let’s try it again: these are 50 of the best movies I saw for the first time in 2013, listed in alphabetical order. Every one of them will probably, with time, join the ranks of my all-time favorites. They include some classic noir, family dramas, queer indies, and experimental documentaries. They feature an array of indelible performances by actors like Walter Matthau and Sandrine Bonnaire, Jeff Daniels and Jeon Do-yeon, Colm Feore and Nina Foch. (I could go on: Alicia Silverstone, Pete Postlethwaite, Marie Rivière, William Powell, Madonna, and Donald Pleasence.) Their work snaked into my brain this year, took up residence, and altered (subtly but irrevocably) the way I think. I won’t be forgetting these movies.

Angel (1937) · Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) · At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964) · Before Sunset (2004) · Blow Out (1981) · A Canterbury Tale (1944) · Chimes at Midnight (1965) · The Clock (1945) · Clueless (1995) · The Cobweb (1955) · The Court Jester (1956) · Crash (1996) · Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) · Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) · Down by Law (1986) · Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975) · From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995) · The Gleaners and I (2000) · The Green Ray (1986) · The Hidden (1987) · History Is Made at Night (1937) · Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) · The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) · It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) · Jour de fête (1949) · Ladybug Ladybug (1963) · Let There Be Light (1946) · Lianna (1983) · Modern Romance (1981) · My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) · A New Leaf (1971) · ‘night, Mother (1986) · Nitrate Kisses (1992) · À nos amours (1983) · One Way Passage (1932) · The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) · Phantom Lady (1944) · Secrets & Lies (1996) · Secret Sunshine (2007) · Shoeshine (1946) · Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) · The Squid and the Whale (2005) · The Tarnished Angels (1957) · Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) · Totally Fucked Up (1993) · Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) · Wake in Fright (1971) · Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987) · The World of Apu (1959) · Working Girls (1986)

[NB: This list consists exclusively of pre-2013 films; I’ll have a list of my favorites from this year up in two weeks.]

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