Monthly Archives: December 2013

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:




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.


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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I Will Survive

Sandra Bullock tumbles through space, gasps for air, fumbles with knobs and dials in one capsule after another. She’s a stranded astronaut and all she wants is to get back down to earth, because this is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and it has a very “A→B” narrative. Not that I’m complaining! No, I found the film’s directness refreshing, especially coming in the wake of so many overloaded, smart-ass blockbusters. Gravity staunchly refuses to cut away from its astronauts’ ordeal: no subplots, no flashbacks, no extraneous reminders of life on earth (despite Cuarón having been pressured to include all of the above). The film adheres strictly to the Aristotelian unities. It’s economical, runs a fleet 91 minutes, and never strays from the point. This can, however, make Gravity feel a bit sterile, a bit lacking in personality or idiosyncrasy. Certainly it doesn’t help that the film’s one real attempt at shading in its heroine’s background—the story of her dead daughter—reads as a screenwriting expedient, necessary for the sake of thematic coherence and audience identification. (Nor does it help that by contrast, Cuarón’s previous film Children of Men was bursting with personality and had some of the most lived-in production design I’ve ever seen.)

But then again, frustrated as I am by the banality of its human element, perhaps it’s best that Gravity keeps us focused instead on its urgent, squirm-inducing spectacle. The two astronauts float with palpable momentum through a digital recreation of outer space, frighteningly plausible in its silence and vacuity. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera follows them, unhinged from physical realities, often in these long-take loop-the-loops that leave behind our earthly definitions of up and down. The cumulative effect, at least where I’m concerned, is disorienting, mildly transporting, and more than a little terrifying. This, the film seems to say, is life in a human body: fragile, tiny against the vastness of space, possible here only with technological aid. (Indeed, the many womblike capsules put in me mind of the complex production process that created Gravity itself in the first place.) The film’s at its strongest when the two stars—tossed this way and that by the laws of physics—act as vehicles for this blend of awe and horror, this incidental profundity. It’s no “game changer,” but it does a graceful job, even within a preexisting genre framework, of situating us in the universe.

A mere two weeks after Gravity was released into American theaters, All Is Lost followed. Like Gravity, it’s a survival thriller plotted around its protagonist’s methodical execution of one minor task after another. Like Gravity, it takes place entirely in a void (this time, the Indian Ocean) with no one else around. The biggest differences between the two are that All Is Lost has only a single character who only speaks three or four lines in the whole film and is surrounded by very real water rather than a digital substitute. Consequently, the story’s told through star Robert Redford’s weathered face and septuagenarian body. His past life, his present trials, his unclear future: writer-director J.C. Chandor lets us glean them all from the physical evidence onscreen. I can guess, for example, that Redford’s unnamed protagonist must have had money and some measure of power back when he lived on terra firma, as well as a desire for Walden-esque solitude. I mean, here he is in the most desolate corner of the globe, alone on a yacht and with the expertise to sail it. (Redford’s own past—as a one-time matinee idol, Oscar winner, and Sundance kid—reverberates through the film, giving an impression that this weary old man was once a ruggedly handsome golden boy.)

“Our Man,” as he’s called in the credits, begins the film with a fantasy of self-sufficiency. But it’s a fantasy All Is Lost will spent the rest of its running time incrementally deflating. It’s like a Boy’s Own maritime adventure turned bitterly to farce. Beginning with an assault by a giant container full of tennis shoes, every cosmic irony that could present itself does, and while it’s grueling to see him threatened by storms, sharks, saltwater, starvation, etc., I nonetheless found plenty of gallows humor in Redford’s stony reactions. On the one side is this nonplussed old man; on the other, the entire ocean. The imbalance is too severe not to laugh. He fusses over the practicalities of survival, and these give the movie its narrative spine, but each one’s as pointless as the last. Whereas Gravity has a very “where there’s life there’s hope” outlook, All Is Lost is as cynical as water is wet, and I appreciate that. Its grim philosophy is what keeps the movie from being just a stunt, an Oulipo-style challenge self-assigned and completed. Many of All Is Lost’s thrills are of-the-moment, superficial and sensory, but its downward thrust lingered with me for days after viewing.

So I wonder, with two such similar movies released within the same month of 2013, is narrative minimalism becoming a new mainstream trend? My mind goes back to other survival movies of the past 2-3 years: BuriedFrozen127 HoursThe Grey, and Life of Pi. Wildly disparate in quality, they (like Gravity and All Is Lost) all follow similar patterns: a routine is disrupted by disaster, leaving protagonists in isolated locations and extreme circumstances. Obviously these films exploit the same collective anxieties, whether it’s being cut off in an increasingly connected world or suffering the wrath of an environment we’ve supposedly dominated. But going beyond pop psychology, I’m interested in how these films choose to represent their respective crises. Life of Pi, for example, is a prestigious literary adaptation, suffused with magical realism and broken up by a (needless) framing story. The Grey is interspersed with revealing flashbacks and, as its frostbitten roughnecks get devoured one by one, becomes a kind of lupine slasher movie. 127 Hours not only lets its hero monologue to a camcorder, but also flies off into flashbacks, fantasies, and hyperkinetic montages.

What then of Gravity and All Is Lost with their self-imposed narrative limitations—their refusal to show anything more than a few minutes either before disaster strikes or after survival’s assured? First, I should explain that I think of this as not an automatic virtue but a neutral storytelling choice. I don’t think Gravity’s refusal to include a shot of mission control or Bullock’s daughter makes it superior to the above movies, nor that All Is Lost’s even greater abstinence makes it inherently better or braver than Gravity. I do, however, think that this bent toward minimalism carries with it connotations of “artiness.” By forcing the audience to fill in certain blanks, Cuarón and Chandor avoid resorting to “Hollywood” shortcuts and instead pare away redundant information. All of which has a few consequences: 1) It forces us to stay engaged with the life-or-death situation at hand, leaving us (like the characters) no in-movie recourse away from the stress or the spectacle. 2) It helps prevent the movie from getting cluttered with any more ideas, images, or tones than it needs. 3) Going along with #2, this strategy coupled with that “A→B” plotting keeps the films single-minded and tends to prevent much variety from seeping into the experience. Whether these tendencies are damaging is up for debate; I believe it varies, often within each individual film. But I’ll be very curious to see how many future large-scale projects follow in these two movies’ minimalist stead.

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