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2010: The Year We Make Lists

It’s that time of year again. Just when everybody else is busy decorating and throwing away 2010 calendars, film critics everywhere are releasing their best-of lists. A.O. Scott picked his; so did Roger Ebert. David Denby talked about Boston and gave a cutting description of Inception: “like a giant clock that displays its gears and wheels but forgets to tell the time.” I still don’t think Inception deserves the critical thrashing it’s received. I may have been more than a tad overzealous in my initial review – “it lived up to all the expectations,” I claimed hours after seeing it – but in a brain-draining summer crammed with sequels, prequels, and lowbrow shit, Christopher Nolan’s ambitious, original heist movie was a welcome reprieve – even if it is an overexplained, ultimately pointless white elephant.

The summer’s other, more lasting treat was Toy Story 3. It was the second sequel to a computer-animated kid’s movie about toys, yet it ended up being one of the most thoughtful, powerful, and humane movies of the year. Not since the song “Worthless” in The Brave Little Toaster (1987) has a film tapped so effectively into the transience of inanimate objects, and our relationships to them; although it’s not perfect (some of the jokes fell flat), it harnesses all of the franchise’s built-up good will of the past 15 years during its gracefully cathartic ending. My favorite part remains the subplot wherein the teddy bear Lotso (Ned Beatty) takes on the role of a southern political boss. Animation’s not just for kids anymore. And you know what else? It never was!

Later in the summer, I was moved to tears by the realistic depiction of relationship being torn apart and pieced back together in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right. Topical in its nuanced representation of same-sex marriage, questionable in the way that the lesbian Jules (Julianne Moore) falls into bed with sexy sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the film abounds with strong performances, headed by Moore, Ruffalo, and most of all Annette Bening as Nic, the stern breadwinner of the family. On the wackier, more in-your-face side of the gay comedy spectrum is the recently released I Love You, Phillip Morris, which gives Jim Carrey both a juicy, dense role as a con man/pathological liar, and a cute boyfriend in the form of Ewan McGregor.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk about the Movie Of The Year, at least according to critical consensus and award reception: David Fincher’s The Social Network, which is cruising on its way to a likely Best Picture Oscar come February. It’s been seized on by critics as emblematic of 2010’s zeitgeist – which involves digitally connecting with other human beings, it seems – even though it’s not so much about Facebook as it is about betrayals and shady business deals, with the irony that founder Mark Zuckerberg “doesn’t have three friends to rub together” acting as a nice analytical bonus. Part of The Social Network‘s genius is that it touches tangentially on so many themes, Big and little, that you can approach it from any direction – digital revolutions, friendship, ambition, Ivy League privilege – and come out the other side with a brand new set of questions.

Set at a Harvard that’s ominously drenched in muted green, the film makes the school out to be a hotbed of amoral genius, romantic in its intensity and dangerous to those around it, with Mark as its epicenter. Through Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed script, the characters speak either in high-speed banter (a game at which Mark invariably wins) or snappy, declarative soundbites. Fincher directs with Kubrickian iciness, and in Mark he finds his HAL. Eisenberg plays him as a borderline autistic “asshole,” a programming juggernaut who reveals the occasional human emotion as he systematically edges out any potential competition: the Winklevii (Armie Hammer as twin brothers) and their partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella); his best friend Eduardo (Andrew Garfield); and eventually his accidental mentor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), culminating in a sit-and-think scene right out of The Godfather Part II.

Besides Eisenberg and Garfield, my other favorite part of The Social Network was Rooney Mara as Mark’s ex-girlfriend Erica; her lisping outrage at his presumptions introduced some humanity to a movie that sorely needed it. My least favorite part was the curt dismissal of Eduardo’s clingy Asian girlfriend Christy (Brenda Song), who was written to accommodate every conceivable stereotype and then dropped when it suited the screenplay. Now, on to a few other little accolades: I quite enjoyed The Town, especially Jeremy Renner’s performance  as the latter-day Irish equivalent of Tommy DeVito from GoodFellas; Edgar Wright’s totally one-of-a-kind direction of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World outshines any other part of that movie; Emma Stone in Easy A, a relatively disappointing, poorly written movie, quipped and sashayed her way into my heart; Katie Jarvis is unforgettable and trashily human in Fish Tank; and the Australian gangster movie Animal Kingdom is engaging, suspenseful, and has a mustachioed Guy Pearce. With that, I move on to my top 5 of the year…

(For what it’s worth, I went with a top 5 instead of 10 because 1) these 5 were, to me, head-and-shoulders above the rest and 2) I haven’t seen enough of the year’s films to really put together a complete, meaningful list. By sheer coincidence, I watched #3 and #1 theatrically back-to-back in July.)

#5: The Ghost Writer, directed by Roman Polanski

For me, the defining moment of Polanski’s latest film is when the unnamed title character (Ewan McGregor) tries to smuggle the all-important memoirs of former British PM Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) out of the office by attaching a flash drive to his laptop. As soon as he downloads the file, an alarm goes off and the ghost writer, terrified, runs from the room, assuming that it was triggered by his actions. But it turns out it was just a routine security drill, and the breach goes unnoticed. This scene is the perfect example of how Polanski’s precise direction – often assisted by Alexandre Desplat’s oddly playful score – establishes the darkly comic, paranoid atmosphere that makes The Ghost Writer one of the best films of the year.

A throwback to the classic Polanski of Chinatown (1974) and The Tenant (1976), the film casts a sharp eye on political corruption and the media as its protagonist unravels an international conspiracy involving his employer, the War on Terror, plenty of red herrings, and the CIA – as well as his mysteriously drowned predecessor. Brosnan applies all his post-James Bond charisma and sex appeal to the affable Lang, a historical stand-in for Tony Blair, while Olivia Williams steals the movie as his sharp-tongued, world-weary wife. (Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson also stand out in single-scene roles.) Although it may falter in its third act as its roman à clef storyline clashes with its secret agent theatrics, The Ghost Writer picks up just in time for a sucker punch ending, all told in Polanski’s inimitable, cosmopolitan style. Instead of being just another generic conspiracy thriller, it’s incisive, personal, and unexpectedly funny.

#4: Please Give, directed by Nicole Holofcener

Right from its opening credits montage of breasts being examined in a radiology clinic, Please Give distinguishes itself with its comic timing and courageous wit. A well-written, character-driven examination of body image, aging, privilege, and guilt, the film parallels the stories of two Manhattan families linked by the fact that Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) will own the apartment of the other family’s cranky matriarch, Andra (Ann Guilbert), once she dies. Out of the characters’ interactions and individual crises (whether it’s over needing $200 jeans or being disgusted by the large back of an ex-boyfriend’s new love), the story evolves organically, forcing each character to question their preconceptions and lifestyles.

Please Give doesn’t have much of a climax; people’s lives undergo minor changes, but there are no shocking revelations or character arcs. Yet in its own quiet, gradual way, it’s a very probing film filled with very complex characters, from the miserable, compulsively charitable Kate to Andra’s granddaughters, the bitchy, image-obsessed Mary (Amanda Peet) and the awkward, selfless Rebecca (Rebecca Hall). Bound by no conventions but her own, Holofcener laces the film with moments of uncomfortable but perceptive comedy, acknowledging one harsh truth after another in subtle, intelligent ways: disadvantaged people can be mean, mean people can be right, and good intentions are meaningless. Largely ignored by critics and audiences, Please Give is one of 2010’s hidden delights.

#3: I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), directed by Luca Guadagnino

This long-gestating Italian import is both a showcase for Tilda Swinton’s considerable acting talents, and a movable feast for the eyes and ears. Its sweeping storyline is anything but original: Swinton is Emma Recchi, a Russian émigré married to a Milanese industrialist, who falls in love with her son’s best friend, a swarthy chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini). They discreetly indulge their carnal passions in their spare hours, but when Emma’s devoted son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) begins to suspect the truth, harrowing emotional ramifications lurk around the corner. Interspersed throughout the film are other melodramatic subplots, detailing Emma’s daughter’s sexual self-discovery and the future of the Recchi company.

Dialogue and characterization are relatively insignificant in I Am Love, a film that foregrounds textures and sensory experiences. It’s all about the all-important taste of gourmet food, the thrill of an orgasm, and the visual juxtaposition of Swinton and Gabbriellini’s sweaty bodies with the gorgeous, fertile Italian countryside. Accompanying this sensual mélange, and complemented by the stirring strains of John Adams’ score, are explosions of emotional grandeur, culminating in a frantic, overwhelming crescendo. I Am Love may be all surface, but it’s a lavish, wonderful surface, and the sensitive, daring Swinton gives one of the best performances of the year.

#2: Dogtooth (Kynodontas), directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A brazen cinematic experiment executed with disturbing effectiveness, Dogtooth is both one-of-a-kind and insidiously compelling. Set at a sunny, idyllic estate in rural Greece, its premise sounds potentially gimmicky: a psychotic father and complicit mother have raised their three teenage children with false knowledge of the outside world, teaching them that “cunt” refers to a large lamp and that children can only leave the house when one of their dogteeth falls out, among other absurd lies. Lanthimos plays the story as both dryly funny and casually violent, brimming with open-ended satirical metaphors and provocative suggestions about family, free will, and private languages.

Deliberately paced but never pretentious, Dogtooth virtually dares viewers to keep up and follow it to its shocking conclusion. The characters regard their horrifying lifestyle with calm sobriety, treating their daily rituals – which range from merely useless to dangerous and even incestuous – with the same attitude we give toward brushing our teeth or washing our hands. With their sick games and perverse logic, the children prove that innocence and good behavior do not always go hand in hand. Dogtooth has its share of graphic, painful, and even unbearable moments (viewer be warned), but it’s also a film of rare insight and audacity, pulling off its transgressive stunts with understated flair. I feel like we’ll be discussing the cryptic, brilliant Dogtooth a long time from now.

#1: Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik

This year contained so many powerful cinematic experiences: the lunatic bravado of Thierry Guetta in Exit Through the Gift Shop; Greta Gerwig’s lonely compliance in Greenberg; and Michael Fassbender’s seething sleaziness in Fish Tank, just to name three more. But above and beyond everything, I was enthralled by the bitter duo of Jennifer Lawrence as self-reliant teenager Ree Dolly and John Hawkes as her hair-trigger uncle Teardrop in Winter’s Bone. It’s a tense, sometimes terrifying film that still has room to breathe; it’s a drama of shared blood and backwoods codes of honor. Ree, who cares for her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother, has to track down her absentee father, an inveterate meth dealer, or lose her house – but in order to do so, she has to ask questions of people who just don’t want to be asked.

Even though Winter’s Bone takes place in Missouri mountain country as brutal and unforgiving as its title, even though its protagonist dwells amidst destitution and drug addiction, the film has an underlying humanity and a sense of Ozark heritage. It’s strange to say that I love a movie this superficially cold and forbidding, but I’m so drawn to Ree, the unbreakable survivor, to the disturbing, lived-in realism of her junk-filled surroundings, and to the inscrutable, intimidating secrets of her kinfolk. Winter’s Bone has scenes that are now blazed into my brain: the teeth-clenching “Is this gonna be our time?” showdown, and the grotesque, late-night climax that puts Ree’s mettle to the test. But it also has moments of laconic warmth, as when the injured Ree cuddles with her little sister. All year long, no movie touched me quite like Winter’s Bone. For that, I thank Debra Granik.

[By way of disclaimer, here’s some important 2010 movies I have yet to see: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Carlos, Another Year, Black Swan, 127 Hours, True Grit, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech, and Rabbit Hole.]

So, dear reader, what were your favorites this year? What gave you the kind of revelatory thrills that Winter’s Bone gave me? Comment below!

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Seduction of the Innocent: cartoons and sex

I’ve often discussed on this blog the things that affected my sexuality as I grew up and a lot of those things are cartoons. Almost all kids watch cartoons. And lots and lots of cartoons have some kind of subtle sexual things going on, or some sexual or oversexualized character. I’m not here to discuss the worrying sexualization of things like Dora and Strawberry Shortcake. I’m not really talking about that kind of thing; it’s more of an inherent sexuality that, in its own gentle way, reflects that life is sexual, humans are sexual beings. It’s not pornographic or vulgar (most of the time). BUT there were many, many images of female characters, female characters with some kind of power, that impacted my sexuality greatly as a child. So this post is going to be dedicated to all those wonderful characters.

Jessica Rabbit

Ohhh, Jessica. Many a young person, of any gender, has swooned over your luscious, heavy-lidded, Veronica Lake-inspired visage, your impossibly, surreally curvy body and your mysterious, aloof disposition. Possibly the animated femme fatale to end all animated femme fatales, I had the HUGEST crush on Jessica Rabbit from about age 6 to…now. I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit all the time as a child and was completely smitten with her. But she wasn’t just a sizzling sexpot or homage to noir femme fatales; she was pawn in a plot against her husband, one of the many people caught up in something they couldn’t control. Her motives become clearer as the story goes on and she transcends what she originally seems to be. I <3 Jessica Rabbit.

The Sailor Scouts

I’ve discussed at length the impact Sailor Moon had on my sexuality. I was attracted to practically every single scout; they were part of some of my earliest sexual fantasies. At 13, I had a very large clothe scroll image of the Inner Senshi…in swimsuits. There’s no denying the incredible affect this show had on me. Hot girls in short skirts kicking ass? Yes, please. Young me was totally excited about it. And young me also wasn’t stupid enough to buy that Haruka and Michiru were cousins. And thinking back on it, it’s very possible that Michiru and Haruka’s relationship, thinly veiled as it was by the censors, made me feel more comfortable with my own lesbian fantasies. All in all, this show was a fucking godsend for my sexuality, regardless of all the fucked up messages it sent out.

BulmaAfter Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z was the most important anime of my childhood. It was the “masculine” to Sailor Moon’s “feminine” and I liked the balance. And Bulma was the complete opposite of our ditzy lead Senshi, Usagi: she was an all around well-rounded character almost from the start. She felt very real to me: she had issues, she had a flawed love life, she was very, very intelligent (a scientific genius actually; it runs in the family) and kind-hearted but she was also temperamental and immature at times. She had believable progression as a character, as did all of the Dragon Ball characters (the series starts when Goku and Bulma are quite young). She goes from fifteen year old kid genius adventurer to believable young woman to mother of two children. Pretty intense character development for what was deemed ‘a kid’s show’. I was drawn to Bulma as a character, not just because she was attractive (very attractive) but because she seemed like someone I could know in real life.

Catwoman

Specifically the Batman: The Animated Series incarnation but really, any Catwoman will do. I loved Catwoman so much when I was younger that I would pretend to be her all the time. I had this hideous pair of leather boots that looked like elephant skin and went up to my shins that I called my Catwoman boots and I wore them EVERY WHERE. I would take black driving  gloves (that were my mom’s) and put needles, point out, carefully in the finger tips to give myself claws. Catwoman is another femme fatale archetype; a sleek, sensual pussy cat who sexually teases Batman while committing all kinds of crimes. And she has a whip; she’s into bondage and that’s awesome. While Catwoman may not be a supervillain and rather more of an anti-hero than anything else, she was still a very compelling character, especially once you delve into her history and all her different incarnations.

Esmeralda

This is another character that I’ve talked in depth about in the past so I won’t dwell on it here too long. Other than being in the film that first exposed me to the idea of repressed desires and tormented sexual psyches, Esmeralda the character was defiant, rebellious and concerned for the rights of her people. She represented a marginalized group and wouldn’t tolerate injustice. But during all this she maintains an air of good nature and flirtatious mischief. And something that I’ve only started to think about recently: Esmeralda expresses sexuality (through the power of pole dancing) and yet, she is not set up as an immoral character; rather it is the puritanical Frollo who is represented as the monster.

Ms. Sara Bellum and Sedusa

It’s no great surprise that Ms. Bellum from The Powerpuff Girls, what with her uncanny resemblance to Jessica Rabbit, should draw my attention (as I’m sure she did with many other viewers). The ironic humor of the character lies solely in the absence of her head: despite the fact that visually she is nothing more than a very sexy body she is the brains behind the mayoral office that runs Towsnville. The Mayor is nothing more than an incompetent manchild. The mix of quiet confident intelligence with that surreally curved body creates an overall delightful and incredibly attractive character.

Sedusa, on the other hand, is completely insane. She is all the negative feminine stereotypes people believe wrapped into one ball of wicked energy: maniacal, dangerous vanity (in the form of her killer locks); sexual teasing and coercion to turn men into idiots that will bend easily to her will (as demonstrated quite well in “Mommy Fearest” and “Something’s a Ms“; the latter of course is an awesome clash between Sedusa and Ms. Bellum); huge temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. She’s not quite the femme fatale that, say, Jessica Rabbit or Catwoman are. But she’s a great villain and honestly, sometimes there’s nothing more attractive than a great female villain in a tight suit.

Red Hot Riding Hood and the burlesque mouse from The Great Mouse Detective

Red Hot Riding Hood is a kind of unfortunate character: she exists solely to be looked at and drooled over (quite literally). There are a few different incarnations of her: Swing Shift Cinderella, Little Rural Riding Hood, Wild and Woolfy, and a few others but they are all basically the same character and all serve the same purpose.  This is one of the few characters that I was drawn to almost entirely because of the way she looked; she was very sexualized and the cartoons were so energetically sexual and suggestive that censors actually demanded that some of the scenes be cut! And I think that with the mix of oversexualization and fractured fairy tale, it was easy to get drawn into.

The burlesque mouse, as I call her, from The Great Mouse Detective serves a similar purpose. She’s a sexy little mouse who sings a suggestive song in a seedy bar. This was one of my favorite parts of the movie. But why do I consider these two characters, who aren’t really much of characters in terms of development, as something that impacted me? Because I found them really, really sexy and was attracted to the way they looked; THAT impacted me. And they were the first exposure I had to burlesque; both characters are something that you’d be hard pressed to get away with in children’s entertainment now. They’re overtly sexual and I responded to that in a big way when I was younger.

So there’s a short list of some of the cartoons that had an affect, big or small, on my sexuality. I can look at all of these characters and figure out how they fit into my progression as a sexual person. And you may be wondering, well, why are they all girls? Did these cartoons make you queer? Of course not; there are hundreds of girls out there who watched these same characters just as much as I did and are straight. I gravitated towards them because I was attracted to the female form before the male. These cartoons sparked some of the earliest sexual attractions I had; I was naturally drawn to these female characters and they helped me further understand myself sexually. I appreciate the willingness of some animators to NOT shy away from the fact that humans, and yes, children, are sexual. Including sexuality of some kind in a cartoon or cartoon character does not pervert it or make it pornographic. These are all subtle forms of sex and sexuality. But they speak volumes. I appreciate every one of these characters for helping me understand myself, for helping me recognize the beauty of the female body without demonizing it, and for making me feel like it was okay to touch myself while thinking of women. These cartoons are fucking amazing.

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