PREFACE: As always, I like to preface my reviews by saying that I believe the viewing of a film is a wholly personal experience and notions of “good” films or “bad” films are largely irrelevant and a matter of personal preference. However, I do like to consider a number of things when reviewing a film: my own affective experience watching it, how the film philosophically informs our culture, and the technical prowess of the all the artists involved. These things, I think, are more important than making a qualitative judgment on whether or not it was a “good” movie. So, without further ado, a few films that I liked this year. And a great deal of rambling about them.
13. Man of Steel
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan
Stars: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner
Cinematographer: Amir Mokri
Editor: David Brenner
There is a difficulty in making a Superman movie is that is: he’s f*cking Superman! Other superheroes are interesting to watch, because even if they have powers, they also have weaknesses, they’re flawed, they can be killed. They’re not, to put it literally, Superman. Superman isn’t interesting. So of course we’ve gotta bring in the kryptonite, because the only way you can have any kind of stakes is if Superman for some reason can’t be Super. God, so boring.
Man of Steel had a lot of detractors, but I think it’s the first time in a while that someone has done Superman right. Zack Snyder embraced the inherent silliness of Superman and told the story with just the right amount of camp. He walked a fine line, never getting absurd and never taking himself too seriously. He stayed away from the kryptonite, he let a wonderful “discovery-of-powers” storyline play out. And he made it a story of fathers and sons, and mothers and sons. And I think the distinction is important. It’s not a film about parents and sons; it’s a film about the individual relationships that children form with both their mother an their father and how very different they can be.
And of course there is much flying and exploding and shooting and Superman descending, Christ-like, in the sun with his cape billowing and the huddled masses gazing up in awe. I guess what I’m saying is that, mood-wise, it feels like it’s come straight out of the 80s. Everyone behaves so seriously in such a silly story that we begin to take said silly story seriously. And I enjoy that.
12. American Hustle
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Eric Singer, David O. Russell
Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence
Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren
Editors: Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers
I missed out on Silver Linings Playbook last year. I’m gonna have to rectify that. I’m such a fan of David O. Russell’s past work, including the oft-derided I Heart Huckabees. There’s something manic and ethereal about his work. His characters are never quite sure exactly what they’re doing — they’re frightened and sad and unbalanced and alive. You’d be hard-pressed to find characters more alive than the ones in Russell’s films.
American Hustle is a con-story, and a good one. But it’s a con-story filled with vibrant, flawed, inevitably-tragic characters. Though he’s notoriously difficult to work with (he called Lily Tomlin a “cunt” and head-butted George Clooney) there’s something about his method that inspires crackerjack performances. And everybody’s in top-form here.
11. Frances Ha
Director: Noah Baumbach
Writers: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen, Michael Esper
Cinematographer: Sam Levy
Editor: Jennifer Lame
I’m so happy that this movie exists. It’s a simple, sad, and sweet story about a 20-something dancer (writer/star Greta Gerwig) living in New York. It’s about art, expression, ability, and, most saliently, about a vital friendship between two women. In a world of Bechdel-test failures, Francis Ha stands as a shining example of complex, flawed, interesting female characters.
[Yes, the Bechdel test -- the feminist “test” for gender-equality in film that tries to locate two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man -- is dubious and often limiting (Gravity fails, for example, despite Sandra Bullock’s total badassery), but it’s still important to promoting the role of women in the cinema to note that such a high percentage of films “fail.”]
Mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig has isolated something important about the partially-privileged middle-class artist’s existence. There is a quiet desperation encountered by the generation that was told that they are special and can do anything if they set their mind to it, when they find out that they aren’t and they can’t.
10. Escape From Tomorrow
Director: Randy Moore
Writer: Randy Moore
Stars: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safady, Annet Mahendru
Cinematographer: Lucas Lee Graham
Editor: Soojin Chung
This is not exactly a Disney movie. Randy Moore’s debut film is a staggeringly ambitious tour through the dark corners of Disney World and mid-life despair. The first thing anyone mentions whenever talking about Escape From Tomorrow is the fact that it was filmed without permits or permission, guerilla-style in Disney World. The fact that the film hasn’t been litigated out of existence by Disney is remarkable in itself (the film’s website even has a clock counting the number of hours since the film’s release that they haven’t been sued). But the threat of lawsuits and the unbridled audacity of the film’s production are just hooks — Escape is also a very effective art-house horror film. Roy Abramsohn plays a middle-aged father taking in the Disney sights with his wife, son, and daughter. Jim’s children are demanding, his wife emotionally-distant and he is burning with sexual frustration and a mid-life fear of aging. While wandering the park with his family, he becomes enraptured by a pair of underage French girls, brimming with youth and sexuality. This is the point at which the film likely lost a good portion of its audience’s favour — obliging us to follow a protagonist as creepy and unlikable as Jim and asking us to feel anxious when terrifying things begin happening to him. If Disney World is a place of magic, happiness, and eternal youth, then the horror of the film is that when the existential pain and fear of the real world seeps in, it becomes as macabre and twisted as Disney is innocent and joyous.
The film is a little rough around the edges, with some less-than-perfect exposures, some dodgy greenscreen shots, and some performances that could’ve done with a few more takes. But the end result is an effective, frightening story with real characters, told in a vibrant monochrome cinematography that de-saturates the ostentatious colours of Disney World into shades of grey.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editors: Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger
It’s hard to describe why Gravity is so intense. Certainly the sound and the visuals are masterful. And Sandra Bullock is very good. But there’s something about the way she flails around in space, trying to grab onto things before she floats away into nothingness that is damned nerve-wracking. Film logic tells us that even though she’s in imminent danger, she’s not going to die — at least not yet when we’re only 35 minutes into the film. But still our stomachs turn somersaults every time her fingers slip. Perhaps it’s something to do with how effectively Cuarón has rendered outer space. It’s as cold and dark and suffocating a void as any that’s been put on film. Thank Emmanuel Lubezki and the pioneering visual effects team for that. Gravity is big, simple, and effective.
8. Blue is the Warmest Color
Director: Abtellatif Kechiche
Writers: Abdellatif Kechiche, Ghalia Lacroix, Julie Maroh (comic)
Stars: Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos
Cinematographer: Sofian El Fani
Editors: Sophie Brunet, Ghalia Lacroix, Albertine Lastera, Jean-Marie Lengelle, Camille Toubkis
“Warning: This film may contain explicit feelings.” That was the brilliant tagline for the North American release of Blue is the Warmest Color, an erotic French drama by French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche. The film gained a bit of notoriety after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for its explicit sexuality and the director’s tyrannical methods (a grueling 5 1/2 month shoot and a hair-trigger temper that’d make David O. Russell say “calm the fuck down, it’s a movie, don’t make me throw a lamp at your head”).
The film’s story follows Adèle, a high school student who discovers the fluidity of her sexuality when she falls in love with Emma, a fine arts student four years her senior. It’s a film about growing up, becoming a woman, and the visceral explosion of sexuality that comes along with it. Sex is a powerful act, and with it come powerful emotions. The explicit nature of the sex in the film is important because it’s a vivid, sensory extreme, and of the same origin as the desolate heartache that inevitably follows.
7. A Field In England
Director: Ben Wheatley
Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
Stars: Reece Shearsmith, Michael Smiley, Peter Ferdinando, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover, Julian Barratt
Cinematographer: Laurie Rose
Editors: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley
The English Civil War. A hunt for buried treasure. Hallucinations and violence. These are the things Ben Wheatley brings to his third feature, A Field In England. A small group of of less-than-brave folk from either side of the often-politically-confusing English Civil War decide, after fleeing from battle: fuck it, let’s go get drunk. Among them is an alchemist’s servant, charged with tracking down powerful magics stolen by a rival alchemist. This thief soon joins and takes control of the group and compels them to aid him in his search for buried treasure.
Filmed in black-and-white and set, as the title suggests, entirely in a field in England, the film is frightening, violent, and philosophical. And it becomes a savage delirium when one of the party is fed hallucinogenic mushrooms in an attempt to divine the location of the treasure. Jump and Wheatley play havoc in the editing room, delivering a memorable and unorthodox hallucination sequence.
The film takes at face value the ostensible reality of alchemy and the philosophical capacity of the 18th Century English soldier. Their challenges are not our own, but we recognize the basic struggles contained within them. We see cruelty, greed, and violence exerting their power on those weaker. And we see the desperate, ineffective rage of the weak, by nature subservient to those born stronger.
All this from a load of English comedians.
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker
Lordy, lardy, look at Marty. Mr. Scorcese is serving up one great big bowl of controversy with this new film of his. Seventy-one years old and still relevant. The Wolf of Wall Street is a deconstruction of the outrageous boys’ club that is Wall Street. It’s so outlandish, so obscene, so pornographic that people didn’t know what to do with it. For some inexplicable reason, it was in the “Musical/Comedy” category at the Golden Globes. And while it is funny, it’s actually a desperately sad film that you can’t seem to do anything but laugh at.
Leo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a real life Wall Street tycoon with an insatiable appetite for sex, drugs, and moneymoneymoney. Forget the mafia — Wall Street is where the real gangsters are. Belfort starts out small, poor. And, like every American dreams, he makes it big. And I mean big big. I-have-a-helicopter-on-my-yacht big. Leo plays Beflort with a delicious mixture of brash confidence and frantic childishness. He’s like the leader of a teen gang — powerful, vicious, spoiled.
It’s not so much the deconstruction of Wall Street culture that’s caused a bit of a stir — it’s how the film seems to glory in its decadence while at the same time decrying its degenerate ethics. We all know that it was people like Jordan Belfort who sent the American economy into a crash-and-burn tailspin that it has yet to recover from. But watching The Wolf of Wall Street, we all — kinda, sorta — want to be Leo, whether we admit it or not. Yes, he’s a self-centered, egomaniacal, devious, lying, asshole, prick of a thief. But goddamn if he isn’t a charming little bastard who gets whatever he wants.
As much as we might advocate for social justice, equality, humanism in our own lives… we still wonder sometimes… Wouldn’t it be nice? Just a day in his shoes? The Wolf of Wall Street’s crime is not so much its representation of the obscenity of Wall Street; it’s that the film is a grotesque mirror, a portrait in the attic, our own pornographic dream. It’s the realization that, if given the chance, it might be harder than we think to behave any better than Belfort. And that shit’s scary.
5. Spring Breakers
Director: Harmony Korine
Writer: Harmony Korine
Stars: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco
Cinematographer: Benoît Debie
Editor: Douglas Crise
I wrote a fair amount on Spring Breakers earlier this year when it first came out and, having recently watched it a second time, have very little to add. It’s still intelligent and exploitative and violent and sad and funny and pretty and probably my favourite film of this year.
This is what I wrote:
When he penned the uncompromising script for Larry Clark’s Kids at age 19, Harmony Korine showed an uncanny ability to distill the sexual energies and metaphysical confusion of 90s youth into filmic language. Now, at age 40, with what is arguably his first “mainstream” film Spring Breakers, he shows that his connection to the frenetic pulse of media-saturated, over-sexed, coming-of-age teenagers is as relevant as when he was one of them. Though his approach is now more voyeuristic than immersive with its warm lights, dripping soundscapes, and pretty, pretty girls.
Disney princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens meld sensuously together with Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars)and Rachel Korine (partner to Harmony) to take on the bacchanalian of Spring Break with as much violence and sex as they can muster. They rarely wear more than bikinis (and often wear less). Hudgens and Benson are the uncontested leaders, and Korine holds her own as proverbial party monster; but the religious Gomez is ultimately overwhelmed and unsettled by their debauchery. For Gomez, Spring Break is a coming-of-age journey, but her child-like philosophizing about “finding herself” and “finally being who she really is” prompts kindhearted but condescending snickers from Hudgens and Benson, who are after something much bigger than sex, drugs, and self-awakening.
Enter Alien, played with astounding fearlessness by James Franco. Always an actor to make bold choices, Franco buries himself in the role of the dreadlocked, silver-grilled hustler and hip hop artist Alien, who is very much, as he says, “not from this planet”. All the intelligence, good-looks, and charm that we know Franco possesses are disappeared into the preening, simple-minded, powerfully-creepy presence of Alien. He provides an outlet for the girls’ insatiable hunger for more and finds his own fears and desires actualized in his relationship with them.
What starts off as a wild road-trip movie quickly turns into something less defined. The editing keeps folding back in on itself, both anticipating what is to come and replaying what has already happened. We are rarely in one place for too long, experiencing most of the film either in retrospect or as premonition. It’s part sexploitation, part ethereal art-film. It’s like seeing the Hunter S. Thompson-like depravity of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meet the playful and pretty existentialism of Vera Chitlová’s Daisies (a sublime 1966 Czech New Wave film), subtracting all of Chitlová’s feminism, then adding Skrillex and sub-machine guns to the mix; the film is chaotic, titillating, and beautiful.
Spring Breakers is an experience unto itself (and is nothing like its trailer suggests it will be). It’s a dream. A terrifying, beautiful dream. And like a little-known pop singer called Britney Spears once said, “It’s haunting me.”
4. The Place Beyond the Pines
Director: Derek Cianfrance
Writers: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Editors: Jim Helton, Ron Patane
It’s movies like this that instill hope in me that Hollywood might be able to slowly cure itself of its big, empty sickness. And by this I mean the idea that in order to get people to watch a movie, studios have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars and deliver lowest common denominator plots. But regardless of how much money seems to be floating ubiquitously throughout Hollywood, it’s by no means infinite. Big movies aren’t the sure wins they used to be. Take R.I.P.D., for example. The film cost $130 million to make and only brought in $77 million. That’s a huge loss. And while Universal can swallow that loss, it can’t swallow several in succession. Four or five R.I.P.D.s in a row could seriously cripple one of the most powerful studios in America.
Our daring solution? Films like The Place Beyond the Pines. A “meager” $15 million budget, but with its masterful storytelling and engaging characters (spurred on by a touch of star-power from Ryan Gosling et al.) the film brought in $35 million. Huge win.
But enough ranting about Hollywood’s woes. What makes this film special? To me it’s the structure and Cianfrance’s use of ellipses. The film is divided into three acts, each taking place in a very different time period and with different characters as focal points. Huge chunks of time are missing. It’s story by omission — a multi-generational saga of actions and consequences, masculinity and morality. And while it’s not as concise as Hemingway, not as subtle as Ozu, not as grandiose as García Márquez (and those are some damn big names to aspire to), Pines is a modern American epic that is enthralling from start to finish.
3. 12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (memoir)
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Editor: Joe Walker
It’s difficult to critique 12 Years a Slave because it’s such an important film. Steve McQueen’s third feature film does for American slavery what Spielberg’s Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust: puts it on film in all its ugliness. It’s incredible that it took until 2013 for a film like this to be produced. The “Great American Slave Drama” simply did not exist before this. Certainly Spielberg contributed valuably, with both Amistad and Lincoln, but they are films that explore slavery from the outside. McQueen’s film is personal, intimate and harrowing — an experience of slavery from within. It’s a cultural salve for the glorious debacle that was Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the film Spike Lee should’ve made a decade ago. (Though who am I kidding, Spike Lee would’ve fucked this up as badly as he did Miracle at St. Anna.)
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free-born black man living in New York state who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Based on Northup’s memoir, the film recollects the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave, working Louisiana plantations, until his rescue.
12 Years a Slave forces us to confront slavery for what it was: an unimaginable evil perpetrated, not by monsters (though certainly there were monsters among them), but by people – men and women that would otherwise be considered “good”. It is a film about pride, cruelty, survival, and the psychological consequences of both being and owning slaves.
If I am to attempt any sort of critique, it would simply be the following banal observations: 1) the focus-puller must’ve had Parkinson’s or something, and 2) it seemed like nobody but Michael Fassbender could keep their goddamn accent straight. (I’m looking at you, Brad Pitt, with your “Canadian” drawl.)
12 Years a Slave is required viewing. I’m not being hyperbolic or overly-imperative. Watch this film. And eat your heart out, Spike Lee.
2. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Stars: Don Hertzfeldt
Cinematographer: Don Hertzfeldt
Editor: Brian Hamblin
For anyone familiar with Hertzfeldt’s work as animator of the famous “Rejected” and “Genre” cartoons, you may have picked up on the nihilistic absurdism on display in Hertzfeldt’s comedy shorts. Even in his short films, there is a certain sense of magnitude to his stories, which all seem to end in death and chaos. It’s Such a Beautiful Day is long-form Hertzfeldt. An amalgamation of three short films, “Everything will be OK”, “I Am So Proud of You”, and a third installment bearing the same name as the long-form film, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a philosophical odyssey through the strange life and history of its protagonist, Bill. Bill, a big-eyed, rotund figure whose only distinguishing feature is a dapper hat, is composed of roughly 20 single strokes of a pencil. Bill resignedly makes his way through a lonely and absurd existence, accepting as unavoidable the bizarre effects his mental illness has on his already unstable reality.
Hertzfeldt combines his signature black-and-white pencil drawings and paper-crumpling animation with splashes of colour and live footage. Though his drawings often resemble the violent doodles of a 4th-grader, Hertzfeldt’s touch of humanity elevates them to high art. And with a score procured from greats such as Bizet, Strauss, Wagner, Smetana, Bremner, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin, Hertzfeldt is able to transport us to a rare place, full of metaphysical intrigue and questions of mortality.
Hertzfeldt’s film is a requiem for memory, family, and the passage of time. As years pass, we find that faces once important and vital to us melt away into absurd, unrecognizable impressions. Names that passed our lips with such frequency are forgotten. And It’s Such a Beautiful Day captures this with aching simplicity.
1. The Act of Killing
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Subjects: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Suryono
Cinematographers: Carlos Arango De Montis, Lars Skree, Anonymous
Editors: Nils Pagh Andersen, Erik Andersson, Charlotte Munch Berngsten, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Adriana Fatjó-Vilas, Mariko Montpetit
It is impossible to overstate the emotional and psychological impact of this film. Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary shakes the very foundations of filmmaking as an art form and calls into question the essence of what it means to be human. If that sounds suspiciously like hyperbole, then read on, friend, read on. In 1965, an armed resistance mounted a failed coup d’état of the government of Indonesia. The military response was to immediately assign blame to the Indonesian Communist Party, catalyzing a nationwide purge of all those affiliated with the Communists. In the following months, the Indonesian Army, along with thousands of local vigilantes, executed approximately 500,000 alleged Communists.
In The Act of Killing, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer interviews a number of the most notorious local executioners from the 1965 purge, in particular a local gangster by the name of Anwar Congo, said to have personally executed upwards of 1000 people. Now in his 70s, Congo takes the filmmakers on a tour of his killing sites, describing his preferred killing techniques, and how he found inspiration from the sadism he saw in Hollywood gangster films. Oppenheimer then invites the executioners to re-enact the killings by whatever artistic means they like. He invites them to become the movie villains they so often imitated.
The result is an utterly devastating portrait of cruelty and equivocatory philosophy. The grotesquerie of Congo’s crimes is so great that, translated to film, it appears absurd, even comical. They dress themselves as American gangsters, graceful women laud them with song and dance, Congo does the cha-cha on the killing floor. Congo is a slight, aging, grandfatherly-type with a penchant for colourful suits. He is charming, polite, and proud, excited by the chance to tell his story to the camera. But he is also troubled by nightmares and profound ethical uncertainty. In spite of everything, we almost like him. We empathize. He is a little boy with a magnifying glass showing us how he tortures ants, but who is frightened to death of his dreams of the ants returning for revenge.
A filmmaker is a manipulator of emotions. Films are, by design, evocative. Simply put, we cry when characters die; we cheer when they achieve their goal. But when Oppenheimer places us in the headspace of this extraordinary, monstrous man, we unavoidably find ourselves “on his side”. Not in the sense that we condone his actions, but in the sense that we get to see them from his perspective. Alongside Anwar Congo, we are confronted by the immeasurable evil of his crimes; and we are with Congo when he tentatively re-discovers his humanity. And, just maybe, we discover how far our own humanity extends when, coaxed on by the ineffable power of 24 still photographs per second, we proffer our own grace and empathy to this mass-murderer.
Well, that’s it from me. There are a few films that are conspicuously absent from this list, as I haven’t gotten around to seeing them yet. They are, notably:
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Great Beauty
There are also a few honorable mentions. Films that I enjoyed very much, but lost out to the 13 on the list:
All is Lost
The World’s End
Only God Forgives
Iron Man 3
I hope you’ve enjoyed my annual blog. I tried to make it a regular thing, but with the amount of time it took me to compile this stupid list, that’s probably never gonna happen. See y’all next year!