Monday, January 13, 2014

A Conversation with Vincent B. (Part I)

In true coast-to-coast fashion, I'm joined by my good friend from Los Angeles, Vincent Befi, for this blog post. We swapped our Top Ten's of the year and a sprawling email conversation grew and grew. In this first installment, we talk too much about Spring Breakers, the pole-position of 12 Years a Slave as Top Dog in 2013, and about me not watching Gravity in 3D. Enjoy!

JC: So... Spring Breakers, huh?

VB: I am not at all surprised that this is your immediate response. (Do I sense a hint of patronizing Getting started off hot? Wanna fight!?) To your dismay, Spring Breakers was the straw that knocked Nebraska off my Top Ten. Maybe if Nebraska had more boobs... But I'm not insane, it's on other top ten lists too! And for good reason, in this humble narrator's opinion. I should say that my list is a "Vincent's Top Ten Favorite Films of 2013" and not "What Vincent thinks are the top ten Best". I would say that Spring Breakers catered more to what I love about cinema than Nebraska did.

JC: I mean, I get it. It's what Harmony Korine does with nearly all his films. They all seem to have the same central thesis thread between them all: that the line between trash and art is rather thin. And I think he accomplishes putting that point across with Spring Breakers, but it's so obvious at times. "Okay, here's that girl from 'High School Musical. She's gonna draw a penis on a white board and then lick it's tip." It's a lot of easy targets and cheap thrills, and I found the redundancies within the film's circular plot to be a bit boring. I can only watch so many extras take bong hits before I want the story to keep moving.

VB: Until now, I was not a fan of Harmony Korine. The two movies I'd seen (Gummo, Julien Donkey Boy) were so gross/offensive that whatever point that was trying to be made - if there even was one - was lost. In Spring Breakers, while some of his stylistic flourishes are still present, I think he has successfully made a coherent paradox of a movie that really stuck with me. I say paradox because it feels like a hallucination but acts as a reality check about young society. It's a piece of pop art that simultaneously exploits and explores  how completely shallow it is, while still remaining completely shallow. I say hallucination because how the cinematography, editing and dialogue come together in an unusual fashion. A handful of lines are repeated throughout the movie (mostly in voiceover) intertwined with teenage girl dialogue and self-important, pseudo-existentialist monologues. The way the camera moves and films the environments gives it a lucid beauty. This, combined with a plot that is so implausible that it cannot truly be a representation of any reality I know and this dream-like tone that is pretty gosh darn hypnotic.

It also contains what may be my favorite sequence in any movie from 2013, that being the montage of debauchery intercut with James Franco singing "Every Time" by Brittany Spears and the girls all dancing with their shotguns and eerie matching pink ski masks under a beautiful sunset. It acts as a reprise of the entire movie: beautiful, hypnotic images depicting degeneracy set to the score of one of the biggest pop stars to ever live. It's hilarious, depraved, beautiful and ugly all at once. I don't want to go on too long, but I thought Spring Breakers was phenomenal and it achieved exactly what it set out to do: condemn the shallow existence represented by the young characters in the film, while hypnotically exploiting their bodies and the lifestyle. And in this hypocrisy, a grander point in made of youthful self-centeredness and neglect for cause and effect.

And James Franco gave a pretty damn good performance.

JC: I'm having a total blind spot on Franco in this film. I realize it's kind of the point of the performance, but I found him to be pretty terrible in Breakers and he seems to be going out of his way to destroy the film the way he destroyed the Oscars when he hosted three years back. But I will say this: The 'Every Time' sequence was absolutely hilarious and the film's cinematography is among some of the best that I saw in 2013. In the end, Spring Breakers is a movie I found a lot more interesting to talk about then to actually, you know, watch. And then you tell me that it bumped off Nebraska? For shame, Signor Befi.

VB: Breakers was definitely obvious, unsubtle, on the nose, etc. To a fault, I don't believe so. While I was watching it, I rolled my eyes when Selena Gomez was a devout Christian named Faith. WOW HOW CLEVER DID JAMES CAMERON WRITE THIS? But after enough time and instances of this (casting choices, Skrillex score) it became part of the film's hypnotic charm. And I totally disagree with you concerning James Franco. At the Oscars, he fell asleep at the wheel. Here, I think he damn near commanded every scene he was in. Spring Breakers is fun to talk about. It's polarizing in a similar way that Burn After Reading was. Most people seem to understand the point of both those movies, but whether you like how this point was achieved in cinematic form determines whether you love or hate it. And those types of movies are the most interesting to discuss.

I guess I should mention that, in your Top Ten, I still haven't seen The Act of Killing, All is Lost, Before Midnight, Stories We Tell and Enough Said. I feel like you can't really compare documentaries and narratives. And you put TWO documentaries on your list?

JC: Comparing docs to narratives isn't really a sticking point for me. It's not about comparing the two mediums; when one is better than the other, you just know it. And this was just a great year for docs. Maybe the best in my lifetime. Besides those two, we had The Square and We Steal Secrets and 20 Feet From Stardom. There was even that doc Salinger that everybody soaked their panties over, but I didn't care for much for it. I fear that if this isn't the year that a documentary cracks your Top Ten, it may never happen. (I still haven't seen Blackfish; I still have PTSD from The Cove) Stories We Tell and Act of Killing are so good, to me, that they transcend the genre. Stories We Tell literally does this by tinkering with documentary format and actually commenting on how it chooses to tell its story. Act of Killing is such a stark look at unabashed evil that half the time you find yourself wondering whether or not it's even real. In both cases, you're incredibly aware that you're watching a documentary whil constantly questioning if you're doing so at the same time. In very different ways, both films are like surreal experiences.

VB: At the risk of sounding hypocritical, many moons ago the documentary Man On Wire made my Top Ten. I think The Cove did as well. My God, The Cove messed me up. I saw Blackfish and really liked it, but it didn't shed new light on anything I didn't already know (but I've been anti-Sea World for a while now, and the documentary explores things I looked into myself). But I will say, it was highly effective putting a face to circumstances I only experienced through reading text. It's on Netflix!

JC: I guess I should just go ahead and ask this: Did you feel any hesitance in picking 12 Years a Slave as your number one considering it's pole-position status? Or as the choice simple? I remember there was a time when I was the only person I knew who'd seen The Hurt Locker in 2009 and then by the end of the year, when it was my #1, everyone else was falling in love with it for the first time and I felt like a follower. I must admit that I agonized over my #1. I had the same issue last year (which was essentially a three-way tie between Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Master) and this year I just picked the the one in my top three (Nebraska) that made me feel the warmest and fuzziest.

VB: When I made this list, I tried my hardest not to allow any outside factors influence me besides my own thoughts. But 12 Years a Slave being an "obvious" choice DEFINITELY crossed my mind many times. I had the exact same issue as you with The Hurt Locker. Corporations, man. Corporations. So with that being said, I tried to leave all societal constructs out of my decision-making. Though I will admit, having a movie like The Selfish Giant on my list does stroke my hipster-film-kid-I-bet-you-haven't-seen-or-heard-of-this-look-how-cultured-I-am ego that I think most people who are willing to put so much time into making these lists have.

JC: I was REALLY bummed that I didn't get to have an unknown hipster pick this year. Ruby Sparks was mine from last year, but this year there wasn't really one renegade film that stood out to me so much that I had to shove it on my list to get it attention. I guess Enough Said is the closest thing. But yeah, every Ten Best list should include one esoteric choice to prove to everyone that you're so much smarter than them.

VB: I had much more difficulty on the hierarchy of the 2-4 segment of my list. I had a few issues with Gravity but what it did right, it did SOOO right and I was literally in awe after first seeing it. Plus, it was one of the few movies I had been hyping up for almost a year, and it STILL exceeded my expectations. Her surprised me because I thought, after learning what it was about, that it was going to be a highly critical story condemning our relationship with technology. While it had a few elements of that, it was actually a highly personal film for Jonze, suggesting that that a human relationship is a human relationship, regardless of whether you are sharing that experience with a non-human. It's still something to learn and grow from. You know I love me a feel-bad Danish movie, and while The Hunt was that, it also approached its subject matter in the most confrontational way I have ever seen.

JC: Back to 12 Years a Slave. I feel like it's definitely THE important movie to see of 2013, and making a Ten Best list without it is almost taboo. The obligation to like it when you see it is so heavy. I'm glad I saw it early. Had I waited until now, my mutated expectations would have collapsed underneath the pressure.

VB: All that aside, 12 Years a Slave moved me more than any other film did. So it was actually a relatively easy #1 for me. It was told purely from the salve perspective and besides the whole, there are so many really effective stand alone scenes. The one that sticks out in my mind most is when Patsy asks Solomon to kill her. The acting there is stupid good.

JC: That it is. But I'm still not sure it's the masterpiece/instant classic that everyone is claiming it to be. It's phenomenally made, expertly acted and beautifully told, but I think I listened to a podcast where someone was talking about how it should be the film that's taught in high schools to help explain American slavery and my first, totally uninhibited reaction was just REALLY!?!? If somebody said that about Schindler's List, it'd make a million eyes roll. I actually think Shame, Steve McQueen's previous movie, was a much more fascinating dissection of American behavior (and my #1 from 2011). That being said, it obviously blew me away. It's such an achievement on every level of filmmaking, and if it ends up stampeding it's way toward a Best Picture/Actor/Director Oscar cocktail, I won't mid a single bit.

I'm glad you mentioned Gravity, which was probably a solid #11, making me wake up in the middle of the night in the cold sweats for not including it. Maybe it's cause I only saw it once. Maybe it's because I didn't see it in 3D. I did absolutely love it. Even more than most did, I think. I've been really surprised by how many people have stopped to point out all the things that Gravity does NOT do well, when it's so obvious that what it does do well, it does INCREDIBLY WELL. But this was a great movie year, and it was just hard to make room. Gravity definitely does have the biggest potential for me to watch it some time in the spring and then realize that I made a terrible mistake and then retroactively change my list except nobody will care anymore because it's five months into 2014. As with Her, I went back and forth on its placement a bit. For it's subject matter, it felt like it should've been 95 minutes long instead of 125. But it's so subtle and beautiful. I really feel it's a companion piece to Lost in Translation in how they both comment on the Jonze-Coppola marriage. But it's also about the difference between love and a rebound. About growing up emotionally. It tackles so much with so much ambition thematically and visually. I really think it's brilliant, and like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it's the kind of mind-altering  love story that will get better with each viewing.

VB: I think you not seeing Gravity in 3D is a bigger crime than me not seeing All is Lost.

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