Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Honorable Mention: The Best Outside of the Best of 2013

In leading up to my Ten Best Films list of the year, I wanted to first look back at all of the other films that I have enjoyed throughout the year, since we all know that there are a whole lot more than ten great movies within any given year. And sometimes, the specific years - the flimsy pedestals with which we choose to compartmentalize our favorites - can be a bit blurred. There were two films given Oscar-qualifying, one-weekend openings in Los Angeles in 2012, but were never actually seen by general audiences till 2013. The first was Promised Land, the Gus Van Sant directed, Matt Damon produced and written, anti-fracking propaganda piece that ended up being far less hand-wringing then anyone anticipated. Van Sant's film sucked the power of an unbelievable lead performance from Damon, who I think may be the most talented movie star working today. Promised Land didn't need to have as good of a screenplay as it did, and it proved that artists could still make protests without sacrificing the artistry. The other film was Ginger & Rosa, which didn't greet audiences until March. Ginger & Rosa is a brilliant representation of Cold War England, about a teenaged girl (played with astonishing clarity by Elle Fanning) who avoids the details of her parents' crumbling marriage and her father's subsequent affair with her best friend. She throws all her emotions into the anti-bomb movement. The film is by Sally Potter (Orlando) and contains autobiographical elements that give the film its powerful emotional edge.

Still in the early year, there was No, the Chilean submission for the 2012 Foreign Language Oscar which was shot on low-grade video tape and starred Gael Garcia Bernal as an ad agent chosen to head the campaign against the Pinochet government. It's visual gimmick aside, No represents the best of historical cinema: locating it's tale through a central character and led by a brilliant lead performance from Garcia Bernal. This was released side-by-side with the Stephen Soderberg's final theatrical release, Side Effects, a deliciously scribed, brilliantly acted noir in which Soderberg uses the movie star personas of Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Channing Tatum against its audience expectations. Side Effects seemed to be swept under the rug for the actual Soderberg finale, HBO's prestige Liberace biopic, Behind The Candelabra, but let there be no doubt: Side Effects was the best film Soderberg released this year.

In early April, we had the passing of Roger Ebert, arguably the very best film reviewer of his generation and a man unafraid to call out the silly behavior of writing about movies, while still giving nobility to his profession, which is usually filled with self-righteous cranks. And in the month of his death, we were given two very good films that seemed to embrace the very spirit of what Ebert loved about the movies. The first was Terrence Mallick's To The Wonder, a somewhat partner piece to his 2010 film, The Tree of Life, which was much less sprawling but just as meandering. It's sweet, tortured performance from Olga Kurylenko was much better than any of the acting in his previous film and its romantic nature made it simply a much more palatable film than Tree of Life. Then there was Mud, Jeff Nichols' Southern gothic that was probably the best narrative of the first of the year. It was a grumbling thriller starring a movie star (Matthew McConaughey) in a tattered role, but its heart was with the young actor Tye Sheridan who is the film's protagonist. The film possesses a connection with its children characters that is on par with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and it contains a romanticism for a child's wisdom over the melodrama of adulthood.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street (***1/2)

Directed by Martin Scorsese


Many important filmmakers are copied, homaged, even straight ripped off. These influences usually guide filmmakers to find their own voices as they weed through the fields of their heroes, and in a lot of cases those filmmakers go on to improve on those styles. Consider Martin Scorsese himself, who borrowed greatly from Fellini and Cassavettes to form his own singular and brilliant vision. He improved upon those visionaries. With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese shows that in 2013 nobody can do Scorsese as well as the man himself. With all the posturing of American Hustle, beating around the bush of Goodfellas and Casino, Scorsese puts that film to shame with Wolf, which dares to go there; show American excess as what it is: a giant party that never ends, an avalanche of drugs, sex and money money money. In his fifth collaboration with the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the director pushes his favorite movie star to the brink of sanity, to a place where becoming satiated is not an option. Sure, Wolf is a lot like Goodfellas but this is a Scorsese rip-off on Scorsese's terms, and that produces some of the most entertaining cinema you're going to find this holiday season.

Panetti Corrects Me on 'Frozen'

My frequent movie companion and girlfriend - who's seen close to two thirds of the movies that I've gone to see this year - had one major bone to pick with me: I did not like Frozen enough. After many a bristled debate over whether or not the latest Disney animated film is the best movie of 2013 (she thinks it is, I very much do not), I have given her her very own platform. Probably should be noted that Panetti is a graphic designer with a habit for animated movies. It was her childhood dream to animate for Disney. Keep this in mind as she delves into long passages about the inner workings of animation procedure. Without further ado, here is Taylor Panetti's case for Frozen as her favorite movie of the year.

TAP: Simply put, the greatest thing about Frozen is how much it deviates from the typical Disney Princess story. Actually, these deviations started in 2010 with the underrated Tangled and continued through with 2012's Brave (although technically a Pixar movie, but for the sake of argument, I'm lumping it in with Disney for obvious reasons). The studio began to explore new relationship dynamics, stepping away from Prince Charming and to some extent, even making fun of themselves and their Princess formula.

Frozen is the first sibling relationship to be explored so thoroughly by Disney. Yes, plenty of Disney movies have had siblings, but they have never been the focus. And they're sisters! Win for the feminists! Well, sort of... Neither Anna nor Elsa are incredibly dynamic characters on their own; Anna is the quirky, naive do-gooder younger sister while Elsa is the moody, conflicted older sister. However, combined I think they do cover the duality missing from almost all female characters in mainstream media - especially Disney. But their relationship is what defines the entire movie.

It's also important to point out that this is one of really only two Disney movies (Brave being the first) that has a story revolving around two female figures -neither of whom are wholly good or evil, but simply human- in which one female is essentially rescuing the other. But don't be mistaken, neither woman fits into the stereotypical 'damsel in distress' Disney is so fond of turning its princesses into and neither need a man to save them. In fact, all the male characters in this movie are in place to assist the sisterly bond.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

August: Osage County (****)

Directed by John Wells


Meryl Streep is a goddess amongst us mere humans; it's essentially been a known fact that she is our greatest living actress since the beginning of this century, possibly beforehand. I've been known to get fatigue amongst the wave of Streep Worship, convinced that most of the power behind the Streep myth is that she snatches up all of the few great leading roles for women and hogs them all for herself - I still haven't even seen The Iron Lady though I still haven't stopped rolling my eyes over the thought of  her winning her third Oscar for it. But August: Osage County represents the best of what Streep has to offer, a five-course meal of emotions both hilarious and tragic, headlining a phenomenal ensemble cast and playing an instrumental role in their performances. This is what makes Streep the legend that she is. It's not purely the acting (for my money, Julianne Moore and Laura Linney both have higher ceilings and more range), but the fact that her power, her persona and above all, her famed and strict professionalism keeps all of her co-stars in top form as well. She is the LeBron James or Magic Johnson of film acting. She always makes her teammates better.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks (*1/2)

Directed by John Lee Hancock


When I learned of the overall premise of Saving Mr. Banks, I immediately began suffering PTSD of my horrid viewing of the 2004 film, Finding Neverland. In that film, we learn that author J.M. Barry (played with aching stiffness by Johnny Depp) was inspired to write his Peter Pan books by spending his time with a lovely but unlucky English family. It was an overwhelmingly sentimental film that played down several important issues in Barry's tale and focused on the power of family. In Saving Mr. Banks, we're introduced to P.L. Travers (played here by Emma Thompson), the Austrailian author of the Mary Poppins books. By the time of this film, she has already written her books, and the film's story is about her fight against those planning to adapt her books into a movie. Doesn't necessarily sound too exciting until you consider that it's Walt Disney himself who's trying to make the film. Going into Saving Mr. Banks by comparing it to Finding Neverland was setting the bar rather low, if I'm being honest. And some how Banks managed to be even worse.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (**)

Directed by Peter Jackson


I remember watching the Oscar broadcast in 2004, where great films like Mystic River and Lost in Translation were forced to bow down to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which won a record-tying eleven statues including Best Picture. It was an honorary moment, honoring the trilogy more than the single film itself. And it seemed like horrible over-compensation. But then, I've never cared for Jackson's obsessive work with the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. When I was in elementary school, I read The Hobbit for the first time, and while I enjoyed it, I was never much interested in further exploring Middle Earth. I had no idea that Lord of the Rings was a thing until the first film showed up in theaters in 2001. Yet, I've seen all of those Lord of the Rings movies (in the theater), and now I've watched his first two films based on The Hobbit. With a third film still waiting in the wings, I find the excitement has died down quite a bit for Jackson's epics, even if his dedicated fans will still show up at the theater. I still remain as unenthused as before.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Her (****)

Written and Directed by Spike Jonze


For all of the fantastical visual elements within the features, short films and music videos of Spike Jonze, his storytelling persona has always been dedicated to a very tender, particularly humane tale of life. They're usually just cynical enough to avoid schmaltzy sentimentality, but just look at the recent music video he made for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife" starring Greta Gerwig. Deep at the center of all his work are the minor exuberances that make you cherish being alive. His latest film, Her, is his first without the help of a big name screenwriter. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were famously written by the genius scribe Charlie Kaufman, while he co-wrote his script for Where The Wild Things Are with famed writer Dave Eggers. For Her, he is the sole writer at the helm, and what develops is not unlike some of Kaufman's best work: a sweet, funny tale wrapped in melancholy, a story that feels so personal that it resonates with universal appeal. It is, along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a snapshot of the millennial romantic crisis.

Monday, December 16, 2013

American Hustle (***1/2)

Directed by David O. Russell


David O. Russell's latest film opens with some text that reads: "Some of This Actually Happened". It's a funny little blurb to throw up on the screen which seems like a much more honest representation then seeing the hackneyed "Based on True Events" that usually shows up in front of these kinds of films (Like Saving Mr. Banks or Rush, to use 2013 examples). In reality, it's just as dishonest as those other tactics, if only for it's comedic attempt to pull back the curtains of how Hollywood attempts to portray portions of history. But this subversive joke at the film's open really works here, because the film itself is almost entirely about misinterpretation, presenting the facade of self-deprecation and humility, but what's really happening? American Hustle's thesis is hard to pin down because the straight story never stays very straight for too long, but it's probably Russell's first film since I Heart Huckabees to be possessed by that manic, crazed energy that was such a stamp of his early films. And that, along with the brilliant performance by its ensemble cast, make this worth watching.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen


For as brilliant and celebrated as the Coen Brothers are, I'm not sure you can go through their filmography and find a performance like Oscar Isaac has in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. They assisted the performances of Frances McDormand in Fargo, Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, which are all better performances than Isaac's here, but those are all still orchestrated by that oh so familiar Coen Brothers scheme. Their films are so specifically controlled and manipulated that the performances - even the great ones - feel like pieces of filmmaking, instead of the work of professional performers. Isaac bursts through that veneer with a character that feels so much like a Coen creation, but with a completely different representation. In their first film since 2010's underwhelming True Grit, the Coens turn their eye toward the pre-Bob Dylan folk music scene of 1961 New York. Our focus is on a single performer, Llewyn Davis, who's cycle of failure and poor luck makes up the whole of their latest, polarizing film.

Frozen (***)

Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee


The last decade and a half of film animation has been so thoroughly dominated by Pixar studios that at times it has seemed like no one else has even put up a fight, least of all it's parent company, Disney, which has its own legendary studio Walt Disney Animation. I feel like that has shifted ever so slightly in the last few years. Sony Pictures Animation has the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs franchise, which is very slight, but unbelievably adorable. Dreamworks has had a rough patch lately, but they're still the studio responsible for 2010's terrific How to Train Your Dragon and at least the first Shrek film was terrific. And last year, Walt Disney Animation produced Wreck-It Ralph, which may have possibly been the best animated film of the year (even though it lost the Animated Feature Oscar to Brave which was produced by - you guessed it - Pixar). None of those movies are as splendid as Frozen, though, which is Disney's best non-Pixar film since 1998's Mulan. And it's that good because Disney got back to its bread and butter.