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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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The Past Decade in Horror, Part 2

By Ashley

About a week ago, Andreas posted his top 10 horror films of the past decade for The Montana Mancave Massacre and now it’s my turn up to bat. We spent quite a while discussing what we thought were the best horror films of the past ten years and then to narrow that list down even more while trying to avoid a lot of overlap between our lists. It wasn’t too hard: we’re both die-hard horror fans and love a lot of the same films but still have very specific tastes and things that appeal to us especially. So, without further babbling, here’s my list of the top 10 films from the past decade!

10. Grace (Paul Solet, 2009)

As I’ve shown time and time again, I am a sucker for pregnancy/infant/child related horror. Due to my own internalized fears about pregnancy and children, even the worst of this type of film could still chill me. Grace was an unexpected gem for me. After Madeline’s obsessive attempts to have a baby in a completely controlled environment fail, she gives birth to an undead baby who lives on Madeline’s blood. I thought it did well with the typical “evil baby, scary pregnancy” cliches. It could have gone in the direction of the It’s Alive remake and made the baby like a wild animal eating people’s throats out, but Grace offered up a much more subtle horror. We watch as this young, widowed mother literally lets herself be drained, physically and mentally, for the sake of her child.

9. The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

I was about 12 the first time I saw this movie and it seriously scared me; I slept with my light on for a few days afterward. As an adult, the film still chills me. Nicole Kidman gives a powerful, sometimes icy performance (which is kind of her thing but it really works here) as the long-suffering mother of two photosensitive children. I love The Others because it really is an old-fashioned haunted house story: large, dark shadowy manor, foggy woods, ghosts hiding behind curtains. Something else I love about it is how emotional the story and the characters are. I sometimes feel that horror films tend to shy away from tapping into the emotional potentials of the genre, as if being sad and being afraid are two mutually exclusive emotions. The twist ending may not pack that much of a surprising punch but what the climax lacks in creativity it makes up for in raw emotion.

8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie parodies ever. It manages to quite flawlessly mesh comedy, horror and romance. Shaun is so perfectly balanced: it never gets so cheeky in its self-awareness like some movies (cough *Zombieland* cough) that it renders the horror aspects of the film ineffective, and the romance doesn’t overwhelm the plot or feel shoehorned in. In any other slacker comedy, our loveable but lazy and ambitionless protagonist would learn to be more responsible and hardworking through a series of wacky events; in Shaun, he learns it through a series of wacky and terrifying events that involve beating zombies with a cricket bat, pretending to be the undead, and defending their very penetrable fortress of a pub.

7. Ils (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

I love French horror and I love home invasion movies. Pretty simple. I live in mortal fear of someone not just breaking into my home, but fucking with me while they do it. Coming in and messing with a person’s home is such a violation; our homes are where we go to be safe and the idea of people entering it and making it dangerous is terrifying. This movie is often compared to The Strangers, which came out 2 years later, and in my opinion Ils is the superior film. Mostly because Ils is not fueled by an Idiot Plot; our two main characters don’t leave each other alone or get caught by the people invading their home because they make foolish mistakes. The only reason they (spoiler) get caught by their assailants is because they’re simply outnumbered. It’s so simple and so chilling.

6. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

I want more movies like this movie. I am the audience for this movie. Slow and atmospheric, it builds quietly, bides its time, gives the audience little jolts of fear but for most of the film deprives us of any release in adrenaline. It just builds and builds and builds, winding the viewer up tight with expectation. It’s a pitch-perfect throwback to the horror of the late ’70s and ’80s; it emulates all we love about that era’s horror flicks while managing to be a superior film than most of them. It takes some of the best horror cliches—Satanists, babysitter, scary house in the middle of nowhere, satanic pregnancy—and turns them into something new. It’s a weird, satisfying blend of familiarity and modernity. And I still maintain that “Are you not the babysitter?” is one of the most chilling lines in recent horror cinema.

5. The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The Descent scared the ever-loving shit out of me even before we got to the scary, wall-climbing cave people: tight caves and crumbling rocks, claustrophobic sets, total darkness and total vulnerability and helplessness on the part of our characters. Scary shit, for sure. And then they get attacked by the creepy cave creatures. One of the things that sets it apart from other horror films is that not only is the cast entirely female, but most of them actually act like they like each other. You get the sense that these women are actually friends, not backbiting teenagers whose only defining characteristics are either “have boobs and die sexy” or “have boobs and be final girl” like we’re usually served up in typical horror. Even with Sarah and Juno, between whom there is a very palpable rift, you can sense that they’re at least trying to work things out. I have kind of a thing for bleak endings (some of my favorite movies include The Stepford Wives and Martyrs), so this movie, from start to finish, is right up my alley.

4. Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)

Some people don’t consider this a horror movie and I’ll admit that it’s definitely got a revenge plot going on rather than a straight-up horror narrative. But I feel like often times revenge films (and especially South Korean revenge films) have lots of horror aspects. And in any case, this movie scared me pretty intensely. The very premise is scary enough; kidnapped and trapped for 15 years, no idea why, your captors never talk to you or tell you anything. And then you’re let go, again no explanation. Beyond that, all-consuming revenge is a concept that deeply frightens me: all you exist for, all you want, your entire identity is wrapped up in revenge. And then, in the case of our protagonist Dae-su, to reach the end of your endeavors only to find it was all for naught, that this was the plan all along and, worst of all, that you’ve been fucking your daughter. I’d cut my tongue off too. And that ending. Does Mi-do have any idea who Dae-su is? Has Dae-su really forgotten the truth about who this woman is? Or is he so desperate for love and comfort that he’s willing to pretend he doesn’t know, just to keep the love of his lover-daughter? Creepy, disturbing, intensely unsettling stuff.

3. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008)

This is the only overlap between my and Andreas’s lists and it really can’t be avoided. Let The Right One In is undeniably one of the best, most powerful, beautiful films of this past decade, horror or otherwise. Since Andreas already discussed this film in his list I’ll keep this brief. Oskar and Eli are one of recent horror’s most deeply sweet and troubled couples. The quiet of this film is what gets me; it’s not full of screams and a pounding soundtrack. It’s so quiet that you can literally hear the snow falling in the opening scene. It’s such a full and complete quiet that when something terrifying does happen and someone gets their throat eaten or someone screams it’s like shattering glass. I could literally go on about this movie for days, so suffice it to say that I love Let the Right One In.

2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)

Something else I love is the New French Extremity. I can’t explain why I love Martyrs so much. I saw it and didn’t sleep for about two days. Not because I was afraid but because the movie had affected me so deeply that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was this movie trying to say? What was it saying about women and violence and religion and mental illness? Why am I so drawn to a film that doesn’t have a single ounce of joy or hope? Because Martyrs is not an enjoyable film; it’s an endurance test from start to finish. I guess one of the reasons why I love it, why I’m drawn to it, why I consider it one of my all time favorite horror movies is because, other than being a deeply terrifying film, every time I watch it I spend days thinking. I like movies that make me think and this one does that in spades. Ultra-violence and incredibly unsatisfying ending aside, it’s an intensely intellectual film in that it encourages (and sometimes forces) people to think about what is happening.

1. Inside (Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007)

Long time readers of this blog should already know that I am a big fan of this movie. I’ve written at length about it a few times. I’ve mentioned my deeply internalized fears of pregnancy and children and how that manifests itself as a deep fear and love of all horror movies involving pregnancy/infants/children.  Inside is everything I love about pregnancy horror: I love the way these horror films take the clichés about pregnant women and twist them through the codes of the genre, turning maternity into a horrifying perversion of itself. We all know the stereotypes about Mama Bears and snooty moms who bicker with each other and all that jazz. But once horror gets its hands on these ideas, bickering turns to terrifying stalking and bloody show downs and pregnancy turns into an all-out, no-holds-barred war. And frail little Sara’s hugely swollen, vulnerable body is the battleground.

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Link Dump: #14

Since Ashley insisted that I couldn’t choose kitty pictures anymore, the above image of Scar and the obnoxiously playful Simba is her pick. And a great pick it is! Scar is a deliciously, mincingly evil villain, probably more charismatic than Claudius, the Shakespearean usurper on whom he’s based. And of course that’s all because of Jeremy Irons, whose voice trumps any hackneyed dialogue or fickle hyenas. When cartoon Jeremy Irons says “Jump!”, you ask, “How high?” With that, I give you this week’s links.

  • Courtesy of Mary Ray of The Bewitched, I found out about this awesome 4th Amendment apparel – for when you want to stick it to the (TSA) man in writing.
  • Amanda Palmer’s vulva is NSFW art!
  • Here’s another awesome Tumblr blog called Screen Goddesses.
  • Apparently all (or at least most) of the planets have been featured in sci-fi literature. The more you know!
  • Robert C. Cumbow wrote an essay about one of Hitchcock’s greatest, Vertigo (1958). Give it a read; it’s very sharp.
  • From The Sheila Variations, here’s a piece about Ann Savage in Detour, easily one of the greatest femmes fatales ever.
  • Imogen Smith wrote a long, fantastic essay about Pre-Code movies, complete with Joan Blondell in a bathtub.
  • Dan Callahan attacked the “Rich Girl Cinema” of Sofia Coppola and Lena Dunham in Slant; then Cinetrix fired back by saying, “I enjoy being a girl.”
  • An inventive YouTube user mashed up Edgar Wright’s first three films into one awesome trailer. How can one director pack in that much pure awesome?
  • As part of the drive to raise Vincent Price awareness, a really cool blogger & graphic designer named Eric Slager made this snazzy poster of Price’s face adorned with the titles of his many films. (Via Classic-Horror.com.)
  • Sight & Sound announces its critical favorites for 2010! Unsurprisingly, The Social Network and Uncle Boonmee top the list. (Pssst: I’ll have some 2010 film lists of my own in the near future.)

Alas, we’ve had no astoundingly bizarre search terms as of late (unless you count more requests for Simpsons porn). Someone searched for “tom waits poster,” for which Ashley recommends this. (Tom Waits is lovably grizzled and makes excellent poster fodder.) Another searched for “witch burning in movies,” for which I offer the spellbinding, terrifying witch-burning sequence in the middle of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1958). And finally, “hanged cat film.” That’s no good. In keeping with our feline blog name, we’re launching a campaign against cat violence here. Seriously, people: end the kitty bloodshed. Meow.

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