Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Parallel tokenism















If you look up the term "tokenism" in the dictionary, there's a picture of Ernie Hudson next to it.

This is to take nothing away from the greatness of the comedy classic Ghostbusters, in which Hudson's Winston Zeddmore actually comes off rather well. But isn't he kind of the first character you think of when you think of adding a token representative of another race to a cast? And isn't tokenism disproportionately, inevitably, a term applied to the addition of a black person in an otherwise white cast?

If so, Paul Feig is taking more lessons from the original Ghostbusters than we were anticipating.

The internet buzzed on Tuesday with the finally sort-of official announcement of the cast for Feig's Ghostbusters reboot, whose pictures were tweeted out by Feig. There should be a certain familiarity to these faces to anyone who saw the original: three are white, and one is black.

Tokenism is alive and well in 2015, ladies and gentlemen.

Casting is supposed to be race blind in this day and age, isn't it? Even some of the cinema's most iconic characters are being considered for actors whose race is not the same as the iconic character's original race. Most people thought Marvel blew it when they failed to cast Captain America as someone who better represented what America looks like today, though that has ultimately turned out alright. And I think people will shit if the next James Bond is not black.

So did the new Ghostbusters -- allegedly so progressive by starring four women -- really have to be three white chicks and a black chick? Couldn't one of the chicks at least have been Latino?

It's not my only complaint about the casting of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. (Note that I myself further the perniciousness of tokenism in the semantics of the previous sentence, listing Jones last, though I would argue I am listing them in order from most to least famous. I actually had to look up Jones, but not McKinnon, since I stopped watching Saturday Night Live a half season after McKinnon started, and a whole season before Jones did. Though that picture above is careful not to picture Jones last, and you can bet that was intentional.)

Where was I? I also complain about the fact that Melissa McCarthy is on a major losing streak (and I'm not sure if she's ever been as funny as the popular perception of how funny she is), and that McKinnon is basically a poor man's Wiig (she was clearly meant to fill the spot vacated by Wiig on SNL, as the pretty girl willing to humiliate herself by setting aside her vanity). So I'm already worried about one cast member being overrated and two others being too similar to each other. Jones is the one I don't know at all, as I have not seen even a second of her work. (Not true: IMDB tells me I have seen her in both Lottery Ticket and Wrongfully Accused.)

I just think in this day and age, there are only two possible explanations for a choice that clearly has such a potential to invite derision:

1) They are serious about it being a reboot, mirroring even such details as it being the "black Ghostbuster" who joins the team late, or

2) These really are supposed to be the daughters of the original Ghostbusters.

That was a theory that was tossed around but supposedly proven incorrect in the end, maybe only because someone at Sony clarified that it was a reboot, not a sequel. If these are indeed the daughters of the original Ghostbusters, that's a sequel under the traditional definition of the word, right? Though that traditional definition does tend to get blurred in our current climate, where the line between a reboot and a sequel is a fine one indeed.

But think about it. You've got four characters who are the same races as the original foursome, with ages that are not only similar to each other, but around the right age to have been born just after the events of the original movie (or movies, if you count Ghostbusters 2).

If this is true, of course, you'd have to ask yourself which of the three white guys had which daughters.

McCarthy would be the easy one, I guess. She's got a few extra pounds on her, and so does Dan Aykroyd these days. He's the most likely of the original cast to show up in a cameo, so him being her dad seems to make sense.

But then you've got to decide between Pete Venkman and Egon Spengler for the parentage of the other two. One would need to play a wiseass to show her kinship to Venkman, while the other would have to play a nerdy eccentric to come across as Spengler's girl. My money would be on Wiig playing the young Venkman, just because I can see her pulling off wiseass a bit easier than I can see McKinnon pulling it off. Which leaves McKinnon as the nerd, which I can see her doing better than Wiig -- if she's the poor man's Wiig, I understand she may go even further in setting aside her own vanity than Wiig did, so this would be another case of that.

Alas, I worry that this is actually giving them too much credit, and indeed it is just knee-jerk tokenism. Cast one non-white actor to reach out to additional demographics, but don't shift the racial balance so much that white audiences won't consider it a movie aimed at them.

I mean, they say there's nothing new under the sun, and there's a lot of sun over Hollywood.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Image quality vs. movie quality


Hey, there's something I haven't told you!

I am now the proud owner of a projector!

It was a gift from my wife for Christmas. It didn't arrive in time for Christmas, because it was purchased from one of those discount websites of questionable legitimacy, but it was here by early January. (The place she purchased it is not meant to be a slight against my wife. Simply put, paying only $80 for a projector is the only way we could really justify the purchase.)

It's cute as hell. Wanna see?


It weighs about as much as a quarter and will be easily transportable. And unlike the projector I used to borrow from work, it's actually compatible with my computer (I had to use my work laptop with that one). It runs via an HDMI cable.

Win-win-win-win-win, right?

Well, there's a small catch: The display is not perfect. The images are pixelated, you see. Not heavily pixelated, but enough so that even the least discerning eyes can clearly see it. Especially if there's written text on the screen.

As soon as I noted this, I felt myself deflate a little bit, and wondered how much utility it would really have for me. I mean, film is a visual medium. If you're not seeing the full beauty of the images on screen, why even watch the movie?

Well, a week and three projector viewings later, I can tell you how much utility it will have for me: lots.

I just have to choose the right movies, is all.

The three movies I've watched so far have each conformed to a different notion of what will make sense to watch on my projector:

1. Movies Whose Visuals Look Like Crap Anyway. I debuted the projector with a pretty dubious choice, the 1987 Troma feature that's famous for how terrible it is: Surf Nazis Must Die. I got a late start last Saturday night, so I wanted something under 90 minutes and Surf Nazis fit the bill. Not only was it the first movie I watched with the new projector, it was the first movie I watched after finishing up my 2014 ranking season. Doubly dubious.

Conclusion: It looked as good as it needed to. And watching it on a screen like this, I kind of felt like I was seeing it as it was meant to be seen, projected on the wall of someone's backyard at some party in the late 1970s. Even though it didn't get released until ten years after the late 1970s.

2. Movies I Am Expecting to Be Bad. Surf Nazis fits the bill here as well, but the distinction I'm drawing in this category is that the movie might be good visually, just not up to snuff storywise. So to test this viewing circumstance I watched Jason Reitman's Labor Day on Wednesday night. The movie had been panned, and rightly so, as it turns out -- though I would generously call it a noble failure.

Conclusion: I don't see how my appreciation of this movie would have been drastically altered by viewing it on a TV or even on the big screen. Its flaws are clear. It does have moments when it transcends those flaws, and I felt I could appreciate those moments just fine on the projector.

3. Movies I Have Already Seen. And in most cases this also means "movies I love," since I don't re-watch movies all that regularly unless I love them (and on the rare occasion when I'm trying to give them a second chance, though in that case I might want to avoid the projector). This is where the movie I saw last night, Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, comes into play. I'd say this was my fourth time seeing the movie, but the first in over a decade.

Conclusion: I had my skeptical moments about A Simple Plan at first, worrying in the first 15 minutes that it had not aged well (and was clumsier in some of the direction than I originally thought). But once the story gets going, I'd say I was as involved with it as I was on any of my prior viewings, and if I liked the movie less overall than I had previously, it was just a shade less. This may just mean that if it's a really good movie, it doesn't matter exactly how good the visuals look -- it's the acting and the story that really count.

Scenarios still to test:

1. Foreign Language Movies. These figure to suffer the most, as reading the text on the screen will be the only way to understand what's going on. Maybe I will test this with a foreign movie I've already seen ... or just with the first few minutes of a movie I haven't seen, after which I will quit if it's just not working out.

2. Movies With Conspicuously Beautiful Visuals. Here again I can test with a movie I know and love, maybe Richard Linklater's Waking Life. Waking Life is the movie that looked most impressive to me on the projector I used back in the U.S., and I own it so I can do this test any old time.

Overall conclusion: None of these viewings was radically impacted by watching it on a screen with tiny pixelations. Maybe the size of the screen and the pixelations cancel each out, but I have a feeling that the size of the screen actually trumps the pixelations, because each of these viewings felt special and memorable to me.

I am eagerly awaiting my next one .,. and just a bit giddy about this new era I've found myself in.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Star Wars year


It's been since 2007 that I've seen any of the Star Wars movies. That's a long time for a series whose first two movies are in my top ten of all time. My last viewing was Return of the Jedi on December 29, 2007. My wife and I had watched The Empire Strikes Back just four days earlier.

Time to dust off that lightsaber, methinks.

Especially with Episode VII coming out in December, I decided 2015 was a good year to reacquaint myself with a galaxy far, far away. It's not that I need to brush up on plot points before the new movie, though some of the details of the prequels are pretty hazy at this point (but figure not to be too relevant for The Force Awakens). It's more that it's just been too long.

I've gotten an additional inspiration from the recent attention drawn to Star Wars Ring Theory (www.starwarsringtheory.com), a lengthy scholarly essay (a thesis, really) by a guy named Mike Klimo, which posits that the structure of the six movies is a lot more elegant and more premeditated than anyone had previously thought. I'm still only about halfway through it, but so far, Mr. Klimo is convincing me that George Lucas is not only a purveyor of Ewoks and Gungans, he might also be a bit of a savant. In any case, his approach does not appear to be slapdash in the slightest.

So I'm going to divide the year into six two-month sections, and watch one Star Wars movie in each. I'll go in order of the episodes. So The Phantom Menace will be due before the end of February. Following that will be Attack of the Clones by the end of April and Revenge of the Sith by the end of June. Then the original trilogy will get their turn by August 31st, October 31st, and, well, before The Force Awakens opens on the 17th of December (yes, we in Australia get it one day early). 

Revenge of the Sith is the only of these movies I haven't already seen twice, which is kind of funny, since I tend to think of it as my favorite of the prequels. I saw the other two prequels twice in the theater, and I think I saw The Phantom Menace one additional time on video. For the original trilogy, I've lost count of total number of viewings, but probably approaching ten for each, with Return of the Jedi lagging a viewing or two behind the others. 

The timing of these viewings is a bit odd, though, in that it's just a smidge too early to be taking my son on the journey along with me.

Before Christmas I proposed to my wife the idea of watching the six Star Wars movies with my four-year-old prior to seeing The Force Awakens in the theater in December. By then he'll be five years and four months, which is a year-and-a-half older than I was when I saw Star Wars in the theater. And Lord knows, he's being subjected to other material that is more mature than I was watching when I was his age.

But we've both decided that perhaps these movies are just a tad too intense for him right now. He hasn't done all that well with live action -- you'll remember, we had to leave the theater before Paddington ended -- and some of the cartoons we've recently borrowed from the library have seemed a couple years too mature for him. (There's a Wolverine origin story that involves characters screaming in agony much of the running time.) 

So the historical precedent of my own life does not seem particularly relevant in this case. As I think I've discussed before, my parents pretty much had to take me to Star Wars if they wanted to take me to any movies at all, since there wasn't a good kid-themed movie coming out every other week back in 1977. Besides, they probably didn't realize that things like Walrus Man losing an arm, Greedo getting a cap popped in his ass, all sorts of mid-level imperial officers getting strangled to death, and Obi-Wan Kenobi being lightsabered into oblivion would be things that happened in this movie. If they had, maybe they wouldn't have taken me either.

Besides, doing it this year allows me to do something I haven't done before: watch the movies chronologically in terms of the story. That's not something I intend to do with my son. When we do get around to watching them -- to prepare him for the 2017 release of Episode VIII, probably -- we will watch them in the order of their cinematic release. And that'll be two years after I rewatch them this year, so I'll be ready for another dose.

Well, maybe not of the prequels ... but you make sacrifices for your kids. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

If festival googles, then also rooftop goggles


For the third time now on this blog, I am publicly questioning whether my initial viewing of The Skeleton Twins -- which I ranked fourth for the year last week -- was positively influenced by seeing it at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Especially after the movie was criminally absent from top ten lists, I have been wondering if I saw it through "festival goggles" -- the cinematic equivalent of "beer goggles," where a person finds a potential mate more attractive because of being drunk.

I got an earlier than expected opportunity to test out this hypothesis on Tuesday night. The Skeleton Twins was playing at the Rooftop Cinema in Melbourne, a venue first discussed here, and my wife was all over it. She didn't attend the festival screening with me and was desperate to see it -- so desperate that we even paid a babysitter to go together. (An upscale Mexican dinner beforehand, at the restaurant one floor below the theater, was also a motivating factor.)

I can now say for certain: I love The Skeleton Twins. If I did see it through festival goggles, I exchanged those for rooftop goggles.

So ... have I really proven anything? Haven't I just exchanged one atypical viewing experience for another? I probably need to watch it on a slow internet connection on a really small screen to know for sure, right?

I may eventually watch The Skeleton Twins in that manner, but it will be purely for pleasure, not for scientific inquiry.

The scary thing was that it was such a pleasure on second viewing, I almost wished I had ranked it higher for the year ... and wondered if it was only my doubts about the circumstances of watching it that prevented me from doing so.

If you're skeptical about the validity of my results, the other possibility is that watching something through festival goggles imprints a permanent affection on the thing you're watching. Unlike beer goggles, where you are abundantly conscious of the mistake you made in the cold light of day, festival goggles do that all-important thing when it comes to watching movies: They create a first-impression experience. Even if you do watch a movie a second time and don't like it as much, you will still retain the glow of that experience, and it contributes to your overall feelings about the movie. I feel pretty certain that's why I have a lingering affection for Scooby Doo, which I watched when I went to the drive-in for the first time as an adult in 2002 (but have not watched again).

But there's ample evidence to suggest that goggles are not alone responsible for how you feel about a movie. The first movie I saw at last year's Melbourne Film Festival was the Hungarian movie White God. That should have been the one where the giddiness of the festival really affected my impression. Yet I ranked White God 84th on my year-end list. The next movie I saw at the festival -- China's Black Coal, Thin Ice -- was even lower, all the way down at #96. It wasn't until the festival's third movie (Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves, #21) and fourth movie (Japan's Why Don't You Play in Hell?, #28) that I started seeing movies that really connected with me. Even in the drive-in experience mentioned above, the second movie on the bill with Scooby Doo was Joel Schumacher's Bad Company ... which I ended up ranking last of all the movie I saw that year.

Then there's the evidence of my wife's reaction to the movie.

She was wearing rooftop goggles and beer goggles last night -- we'd each had at least three drinks, including two margaritas at dinner -- but her assessment was only that she liked it, not that she loved it.

So instead of looking for some kind of external explanation/ validation for my feelings about The Skeleton Twins, I must acknowledge that it's simply a movie that hits me in all the right ways. Its unique blend of ingredients -- in the way that every film has a unique blend of ingredients, I mean -- was just right in my wheelhouse. And even this is not something I can explain logically, because I have typically not been that excited about movies in which suicide is a main plot point, Exhibit A being Dead Poets Society. (This year being the exception, I guess, as you can find broadly defined instances of suicide in four of my top five films, if you include Tom Cruise resetting his day in Edge of Tomorrow.)

I guess The Skeleton Twins is just one of "my movies," and maybe I will always be one of the only ones who appreciates it the way I do.

Which kind of makes me love it all the more.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Back in the Ring


Given how much I've been talking about the end of 2014, and implicitly, the transition to a new movie season, you'd suspect the title of this post would relate to seeing my first movie of the new release year. But you'd only be half right.

Actually, my return to the ring -- so to speak -- is a much bigger deal than that.

On Monday night, I actually attended my first media screening in nearly four years. And it felt goooood.

Much better than my last screening, I can tell you that.

See, when I drove to the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park to see The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman on March 10 of 2011, it was under a cloud of uncertainty about my reviewing future. I had just learned earlier that day that AllMovie, which had employed me as a freelancer for more than a decade, was discontinuing its use of paid freelancers. It was a moment I was sort of surprised hadn't come sooner, but that didn't make it sting any less.

Nearly four years later, paid film criticism has virtually evaporated from the landscape. This is the end of a year that saw the departures of such stalwarts as Owen Gleiberman (from Entertainment Weekly, which had employed him as lead critic since the magazine's inception) and David Denby (from the New Yorker, where he had written reviews for 16 years), as well as Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, who were fixtures in Australian televised film criticism with their show At the Movies. Some of these departures were semi-voluntary, others were not, but the point is that even the big names struggle to get paid these days. What hope is there for a small name like me?

Except there is a currency that can still be offered to some critics, and I am currently being paid in that currency. The currency is free movie tickets, and I cashed in my first of those on Monday night -- even if it was to see a movie I might not have even sought out on video.

Yeah, The Wedding Ringer was terrible -- my one-star review will be hyperlinked on the right as soon as it goes up -- but that doesn't mean I'm only going to see garbage through my new gig writing for ReelGood. In the next two weeks I've got screenings lined up of The Theory of Everything (next Wednesday, the night before it opens here) and The Gambler (the following Monday night, a full month before it opens, and the same night I'll be trying to watch the Super Bowl after avoiding the score all day at work). And that's with having to turn down screenings of Selma and a movie I'd never heard of called Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, because the screenings fell during the day on a Friday, when I'm working.

While it may seem like I am now drowning in free screening riches, this will not be a typical month on my schedule. My editor, who also writes the majority of the site's reviews, is on leave right now, and will certainly choose to attend the movies he's most interested in. However, that will still leave me with plenty of Wedding Ringers to choose from, with perhaps the occasional best picture nominee still sprinkled in for good measure.

The point is, I'm back, baby. As back as I can be for the moment.

I'd like to say that the screening itself was a more exhilarating confirmation of my return, but in truth, it was an advanced screening more than a media screening proper. Some of the media screenings I attended in LA for AllMovie were in proper media screening rooms, the kind that only have 20 seats and are not located in multiplexes. The three screenings I have lined up in the coming weeks, on the other hand, all take place in Hoyts theater complexes with upwards of a dozen screens. They will probably be attended only by a small number of critics, with the rest of the seats filled by members of the public who were awarded sneak peaks at upcoming movies.

I will say, however, that the difference from a normal Hoyts screening was night and day. Whereas a typical Hoyts pre-show ritual involves as many as a eight to ten short ads and five to six trailers, my Wedding Ringer audience got only two trailers before starting in on the movie so suddenly that it surprised us. If you're going to see something as shitty as this, at least it's good to get in and get out quickly.

Though I did wonder if the passage of nearly four years since my last screening -- and just over three years since I submitted my last paid review -- has brought me out of touch with what an audience wants. While I sat through The Wedding Ringer with a look of nauseated disdain on my face, which occasionally relaxed into mere head-shaking disappointment, my audience was erupting in gales of laughter. If I were ready to declare that the movie contained no laughs, could I now say that with confidence, given what I'd witnessed?

Sometimes I think the privacy of that 20-seat screening room is more important than a person might think. You can review a movie free from the guffawing of a less-discerning audience, one that might either unconsciously influence you into liking the movie more, or consciously make you aware of your own elitist remove from the needs of the common man. If I were writing my Wedding Ringer review for the same people who saw that screening with me, I'd certainly be steering them wrong by telling them not to waste their time. They didn't consider it a waste at all, and the fact that they didn't pay for their tickets explains only a small part of that.

The screening with the rabble had an interesting symbolism in terms of where I currently stand in the critical hierarchy. Essentially, I too am one of the rabble, but I'm a comparatively trusted member of the rabble. The 20-seat screening room may be a thing of my past, but I'm still out there, still writing reviews that someone thinks are valuable enough so that I don't have to pay to watch the movie in question. We members of the blogger world, we are the rabble now. We're more public than critics, or at least that's what the media organizations that might have once paid us are telling us.

But we still don't have to pay for the movies. It's something, anyway.

And I can't help but marvel at a funny coincidence related to this payment I once received, in my former life. If I had gone and paid for The Wedding Ringer on Monday night, it would have cost me $20. That's exactly the price I was paid for my last paid review -- and the thousand or so before that. (I started at $15 per review at the very beginning, but settled in at $20 soon after that -- and never got another raise.) So in a weird sense it's like I'm still being paid $20 to review movies ... if you add the little asterisk that I'm required to spend that $20 on seeing the movie.

It's something, anyway.

I may be older, I may be wiser, I may have cauliflower ears that at this point will never heal. My boxing trunks may not fit me like they once did, and I may no longer be floating like butterflies or stinging like bees.

But I'm back in the ring, and at the moment, that feels like a lot more than just something.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Chart toppers


For the 19 years I've been ranking all the movies I see each year, I have always been curious when a director would top the mountain a second time. It's almost happened twice. Cristian Mungiu and Spike Jonze have each scored movies that landed at #1 and #2 on my year-end list in different years -- Jonze with Adaptation (#1 of 2002) and Where the Wild Things Are (#2 of 2009), and Mungiu with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (#2 of 2008) and Beyond the Hills (#1 of 2013). If I were ranking today, I'd rank 4 Months as #1 of 2008 as well, but I'm not ranking today, am I?

So a couple days ago, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu became the 19th different director to achieve top honors for the year. In case you're keeping track at home, the other 16 beyond Jonze and Mungiu are Al Pacino, James Cameron, Todd Solondz, Tom Tywker, Michael Almereyda, Robert Altman, Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry, Craig Brewer, Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Duncan Jones, Danny Boyle, Asghar Farhadi, and Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.

However, I noted that a creative talent other than director did top the chart for his second time in 2014. That's cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, pictured above, who shot my #1 movie of 2006 (Children of Men) and now again my #1 movie of 2014 (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)). With the work this guy is doing (he also shot The Tree of Life and one of last year's top ten, Gravity, which won him an Oscar), I wouldn't be surprised if he has his sights set on another of my future #1s.

That got me thinking about others who have been involved with more than one of my top-ranked films. There had to be some during nearly two decades, right?

I knew I could figure it out with some quick research ... knowing also that even with something as thorough as IMDB, it would be difficult to determine multiple appearances by technical crew and the like. I'd have to know what I was looking for already.

So I scanned the top-listed cast and some key crew on each movie, and came up with the following, in alphabetical order:

Jane Adams
Contribution: Actress, Happiness (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Significance of contribution: Minimal. Although you could argue that she was one of the key members of the Happiness ensemble, she's a side character in Eternal Sunshine, possibly only appearing in that one scene.

Paul Dano
Contribution: Actor, There Will Be Blood (2007) and Ruby Sparks (2012)
Significance of contribution: Performances kind of cancel each other out. Dano's work can be described (and has been described by many) as one of Blood's few true weaknesses, and even though I don't necessarily agree with that, there's no doubt this opinion colors my perception of the performance. However, I think he's perfectly cast in Ruby Sparks and plays a big role in why it works so well.

Charlie Kaufman
Contribution: Screenwriter, Adaptation (2002) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Significance of contribution: Major. Talk about a streak of good work. Kaufman's sensibilities are entirely key to making these movies sing. I dare not think how the end-of-year-rankings in 2008 might have turned out if I'd seen Synecdoche, New York in time to rank it that year.

Bill Murray
Contribution: Actor, Hamlet (2000) and Lost in Translation (2003)
Significance of contribution: Sizeable. Perhaps this will make up for me naming him as one of three who had a bad year in Saturday's post. Murray is "only" Polonius in Michael Almereyda's adaptation of Shakespeare's most famous play, though he's quite funny. But Lost in Translation is all about his performance.

Clive Owen
Contribution: Actor, Gosford Park (2001) and Children of Men (2006)
Significance of contribution: Kind of like Murray's. The ensemble is massive in Gosford Park (I seem to have a fondness for ensemble films), so one couldn't chalk up Owen's role to anything truly significant in my overall affection for the film. But I think of his work as indispensable to Children of Men.

Kevin Spacey
Contribution: Actor, Looking for Richard (1996) and Moon (2009)
Significance of contribution: Sneakily important. I saw Looking for Richard, my first-ever #1, only that one time, so I have no memory of the size of Spacey's role. But as the voice of the moonbase robot in Moon, he's basically the closest thing Sam Rockwell has to a co-star, and helps enable Rockwell's dynamite performance.

Kate Winslet
Contribution: Actress, Titanic (1997) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Significance of contribution: Major. Both of these movies are tragic love stories, in very different ways, and Winslet's performances are undoubtedly key to the extent to which we invest ourselves in them.

Incidentally, that means Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind boasts three different contributors who appeared in previous #1s. No wonder I loved it so much.

Thank you for tuning in to Another Post Written Entirely for My Own Amusement.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The year in portmanteaus


After a number of "serious" year-end pieces, here's one that's just intended as a bit of humor. 

Portmanteau (n.) - 1. a large suitcase. 2. a word or morpheme whose form and meaning are derived from a blending of two or more distinct forms (as smog from smoke and fog)

It's the second definition that interests us today.

A Most Wanted Manakamana - Philip Seymour Hoffman stakes out a cable car in Nepal for signs of terrorist activity.

The Lunchboxtrolls - A peaceful troll strikes up a beautiful friendship with a human after sending him the wrong lunch.

3 Days to Kill the Messenger - A cancer-stricken Kevin Costner is sent in to assassinate everyone involved in the Iran Contra affair.

Love is Stranger by the Lake - The story of an aging gay couple who have to sell their apartment and move to a gay resort, where they get murdered.

Mistaken for Strangers by the Lake - The story of the lead singer of a successful rock band, whose screw-up brother books the band into a gay resort ... where they get murdered.

The One I Love is Strange - The story of an aging gay couple who goes away for some weekend therapy and then runs into [SPOILER ALERT].

Mood Indigodzilla - A giant lizard invades Paris and moves into an apartment filled with fantastical musical instruments and kitchen appliances.

20,000 Days on Earth to Echo - Nick Cave writes incredibly deep songs after spending a very, very, very long time with a cute space robot.

The Monuments Men, Women & Children - George Clooney and buddies lose sight of their mission to save great art after getting addicted to internet porn.

White God's Pocket - An insular town full of low-level criminals gets turned upside down when a pack of wild dogs starts exacting vengeance on it.

Grand Pianoah - God sends a message to a human being, threatening to kill everyone on Earth if the man gets a single note wrong while playing a complicated song on his zither.

The Book of Life Itself - Roger Ebert attends a Day of the Dead festival.

Two Days, One Night Moves - After losing her job following a vote by her co-workers, Marion Cotillard turns to eco-terrorism.

Two Days, One Nightcrawler - After losing her job following a vote by her co-workers, Marion Cotillard turns to sleazy videography.

Lockulus - The story of a man trapped in a car for 90 minutes, driven steadily insane by its rear-view mirror.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 cast party


Every play or musical I appeared in ended with a cast party. It was a time to celebrate, hopefully to reflect on a job well done, and to appreciate the unique combination of personalities that this show brought together, one last time. That's kind of how I feel in wrapping up 2014, especially with my #1 movie being a great backstage dramedy.

So it's time for my third annual "day after posting my rankings" wrap-up piece, in which I go beyond my rankings (but still use them as reference points) in taking a deeper dive back into the year just completed.

Three who had a good year

Scarlett Johansson - Is there any actress in Hollywood making better choices right now? This year found Johansson appearing in a Hollywood blockbuster (Captain America: The Winter Soldier - #27), an inscrutable arthouse film (Under the Skin - #10), and a third movie that seemed to straddle those worlds perfectly (Lucy - #62). (For the purposes of staying positive, I'm going to overlook the fact that Johansson did Jon Favreau a favor by appearing in the execrable Chef - #129). Where Johansson is in her career right now, she seems more interested in the latter two -- but she is more than honoring her contractual commitment to Marvel, bringing never-before-seen dimension to Black Widow in her third time playing that role. Under the Skin is the real indication of the risk taker we have on our hands here, someone who eschewed the thinking behind any of her prior nudity clauses when her director asked for it -- and was rewarded with strong notices and intense praise for the movie. And even though I ranked Lucy at only #62, don't forget that I consider this an incredibly strong year for movies. Lucy would have been a lot higher if the promise of its first half carried through to its second, and it also contains Johansson's single best acting of the year, in a scene in which she movingly talks to her mother about the way the drug coursing through her veins is flooding her emotional circuits. These days, Johansson is keeping us flooded with good work.

Tilda Swinton - Always a phenomenal character actress, Swinton really dedicated herself to her talent for comedy in 2014 -- though as with any stand-out performer, her skills are not so easily reducible to any one thing. Three Swinton movies landed in the teens for me this year -- Snowpiercer (#15), The Grand Budapest Hotel (#17) and Only Lovers Left Alive (#20) -- and I don't even remember her role in The Zero Theorem (#109), so let's not worry too much about that one. In Snowpiercer, she harnessed the precise character concept of a curt British middle manager, dabbling in both tremendous cowardice ("It wasn't me!") and arrogant speechifying ("Be a shoe."). The false teeth also added some of the comedy of this weirdly toned film. In just a minute or two of screen time in Budapest, she was aged forward a good four decades in a performance that owes much to the makeup department -- but probably could not have been pulled off by any other actress. Her least funny (and only lead) turn of the year still has a devilish streak to it, as she plays the vampire Eve with a sardonic twinkle that's absent from her partner Adam. As frumpy as she was in the other two roles, she is genuinely sexy here, proving herself not only to be one cinema's great chameleons, but someone who seems -- much like a vampire -- to be ageless. For a 54-year-old woman in Hollywood, that's a trick worth celebrating.

Joe Swanberg - I don't want to honor only actors, though the format does lend itself to that, seeing as how they're more likely to have multiple projects in a given year than directors/writers/etc. In Joe Swanberg, I get a guy who is all of those things -- though it wasn't until 2014 that I even realized he was also an actor. My awareness of Swanberg the performer actually began in August when I saw last year's You're Next, where Swanberg plays one of the preening prigs who gets knocked off during a home invasion. I didn't realize until the credits rolled that this was Swanberg, which recontextualized the performance I had just seen, giving me a better sense of it as an inside joke. A month later I saw him in The Sacrament (#25) alongside his You're Next costar A.J. Bowen, where he brought credibility to a more realistic horror, and an important one for me -- The Sacrament helped ease my resistance to found footage. But the movie that brought the biggest smile to my face, even if I like it a little less than The Sacrament, was Happy Christmas (#30), the warm, incidentally holiday movie that redeemed him as a writer-director after 2013's Drinking Buddies left me cold. I know Swanberg is one of the founders of, and most prolific directors in, the mumblecore movement, which I always enjoy. It gives me great pleasure to know I have many of his films still to discover.

Honorable mentions: Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Snowpiercer), Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again, Foxcatcher)

Three who had a bad year

Bill Murray - If The Monuments Men (#130) had kept its original 2013 release date, Murray's slump would have been spread out over two years and would probably not have caught my attention for a dishonor like this. But because it was a turkey, it weighed down Murray's 2014. You can't blame Murray for trying to help out a presumed friend (George Clooney) by appearing in Monuments, or by trying to help out a young filmmaker (Theodore Melfi) by agreeing to star in St. Vincent (#112). But did he read those scripts? I love the guy, so it pains me to include him here, just as it pained me to include favorite Jim Carrey here last year. But I gotta call a spade a spade, and in 2014, Murray was a spade. He's hardly to blame for the failure of Monuments, but his scenes with Bob Balaban have an odd tonal quality that best resembles an unfunny sitcom. Some bad instincts really took over there. Then in St. Vincent, he gets the Brooklyn accent right, but he gets everything else about this shabby character wrong. I just don't believe him as a version of the person the movie tells us he was once supposed to be. Okay, that's enough Bill Murray bashing -- I'm going to go cry in the corner now. (At least he had a cameo in The Grand Budapest Hotel, though I missed his supposed cameo in Dumb and Dumber To - #60).

Kelly Reilly - Reilly bothered me in a way I couldn't pinpoint in Robert Zemeckis' Flight, and 2014 certainly didn't help warm me up to her. This mascara-laden British actress appeared in two films that really bothered me this year, and both had to do with Christianity. The better of the two, the one that was supposed to be a lot better but disappointed me big time, was Calvary (#113), where she plays the daughter of the priest played by Brendan Gleeson (he was widowed before he entered the priesthood). I found this to be a plodding bore that's remarkably unsubtle in its dialogue and themes, and Reilly's supposed emotional core of the movie was anything but for me. Then Reilly fell victim to me watching Heaven is for Real (#127) on the second-to-last night of my viewing calendar. Here she's a Nebraska housewife and church choir leader whose son has a near-death experience and thinks he's visited Heaven. Reilly and Greg Kinnear both give decent performances, but what are they doing in a bland Christian movie which was intended for consumption in the Bible Belt?

Shia LaBeouf - LaBeouf appeared in either two, one or zero movies that I saw in 2014, depending on whether you consider the Nymphomaniacs (#102 and #119) to be one or two movies, and whether you consider the actual year of their release to be 2013 or 2014 (but I'm just making a semantic argument here, because they are eligible by having been released in the U.S. in 2014). And in truth, he's barely in Nymphomaniac Vol. II. But he's deserving of a spot on this list because of a) how his terrible British accent was not even the worst part of his one-note performance in Nymphomaniac, and b) what a douchebag this guy seems to be. LaBeouf spent most of 2014 mired in not one but two separate plagiarism controversies, both related to comic book artist Daniel Clowes, as well as getting thrown out of places for disorderly conduct and tweeting that a woman had raped him at an art installation. Look, maybe he was "raped," but it's all part of a descent into a toxic persona that also seems to have appeared on the set of Fury (which I did not see), where he reportedly alienated people with such behavior as removing his own tooth to show his dedication. No thanks, Shia.

Dishonorable mentions: Nat Faxon (Sex Tape, Tammy), Jon Favreau (Chef)

The year I stopped watching trailers

Or tried, anyway.

I had a moment recently when I realized that the movies I had in my top ten had one important thing in common: I had not seen their trailers prior to watching them.

This was true of a lot more of them than I could have ever guessed. Of the movies in my top ten, only one -- one -- was a movie whose trailer I was sure I had seen beforehand. That movie is Whiplash, and it won me over anyway. The other nine were all movies whose footage was entirely new to me, with the possible exception of Under the Skin (I may have seen a trailer, but the footage was so abstract that it spoiled nothing for me) and Birdman (I saw a little footage in a TV review). That would have been true even before Love is Strange knocked The Interview out of my top ten.

Conclusion: When going into a movie, as much as possible should still be a surprise to you.

Simple, yet revolutionary.

I think I started to come around to this realization at the end of 2013, when I felt particularly inundated by the trailer for Short Term 12. At least two people I know considered this their favorite movie of the year, but by the time I saw it, I had seen its trailer possibly as many as five times. They just kept playing it before movies I went to see at Cinema Nova, and after I'd seen it once, I felt there was little purpose to look away. So I just kept on watching it.

Familiarity bred contempt, and when I eventually watched Short Term 12, I ranked it 91st out of 126.

Would I have liked Short Term 12 better having seen zero trailers? I'd like to think it was a bogus movie anyway and I would not have liked it ... but I'm sure I would have liked it at least a little bit better.

But the realization really crystallized this year when I eventually did see the trailers for two of my top five movies of the year: Birdman and The Skeleton Twins. Both trailers seemed very clumsy, and both revealed things to me that I would not have otherwise wanted revealed. In Birdman, it was Riggan Thompson's "special abilities"; in The Skeleton Twins, it was the great lip synch duet performed by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. I would qualify each of these as key surprises that operated on me exactly as a good surprise should. If I'd seen them already in the trailers, I don't know how it would have ultimately affected these films' rankings.

So it looks like I am going to be even more mercenary about reducing my trailer consumption in 2015. Now the question is ... how to do it without being that guy who covers his eyes and ears and drowns out the sound with nonsense noises, all while reassuring my fellow theater patrons I'm sane?

The problem is, of course, that watching a trailer is sometimes the only thing that makes you excited about a movie in the first place, or possibly even aware of its existence. So I'll have to take it on a case-by-case basis. But you can bet one thing: I'll definitely stop seeking them out online. And the days of just passively watching them in the theater may be gone as well.

2014 by the numbers

Here are some stats. Enjoy.

Breakdown of 2014 movies by star ratings on Letterboxd: 5 stars (6), 4.5 stars (10), 4 stars (30), 3.5 stars (36), 3 stars (16), 2.5 stars (16), 2 stars (13), 1.5 stars (4), 1 star (4), .5 stars (1)
Total new movies watched in the calendar year: 211
Total movies rewatched: 33
2014 movies seen in the theater: 41
2014 movies seen on video: 95
2014 movies I saw twice: 2 (Snowpiercer, Under the Skin)

Ten movies I loved from other years

Want to know my favorite movies I saw in 2014 that didn't come out that year? Here, in alphabetical order:

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse) - Now I know what Adam Kempenaar of Filmspotting is always going on about. Scintillating musical biopic with first-rate editing.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche) - I may have seen it for the curiosity about the controversial depictions of sex, but I loved it for the lead performance by Adele Exarchopoulos.

Breaker Morant (1980, Bruce Beresford) - I've already highlighted my favorite movies I watched in my Australian Audient series, but I thought I should make a second mention of the best one.

The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg) - Saw it only days after I finished last year's list, and it would have made the top ten if I'd seen it in time.

In a World ... (2013, Lake Bell). One of the only times I can remember giving a newly viewed comedy five stars on Letterboxd. Simply delightful. More please, Lake.

Mr. Nobody (2009, Jaco Van Dormeal) - Your typical time-twister, mindbender masterpiece, one that for some reason didn't see the light of day until 2013.

Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird) - I had heard that this might have become something of a cult movie, but I had no idea what a hoot it was. And that's not "so bad it's good" -- it's just good.

The Silence (1963, Ingmar Bergman) - I was also a big fan of Persona, but I'll list only my favorite of the five Bergman films I watched this year.

Sita Sings the Blues (2009, Nina Paley) - Too bad Paley couldn't profit from this because of copyright issues, as this animated/musical look into Indian cultural history is a real joy.

TiMER (2009, Jac Schaeffer) - Romantic comedies about people with timers on their wrists, counting down to when they will meet their soulmates, don't get any better than this.

Moments/details from the year

Self-explanatory, really. I'll try to keep it short.

Most believable behavior toward children: In Like Father, Like Son, a group of serious and well-dressed Japanese men and women are seated around a boardroom table, discussing what should happen in the case of two children switched at birth. When one of these children runs into the room and pretends to shoot them with a toy machine gun, they all drop character long enough to pretend to get riddled by the child's imaginary bullets. YES. This is just what you do when a child pretends to shoot you, no matter how serious you are.

Most emotional song: The reunion of Soronprfbs at the end of Frank, and the impassioned version of "I Love You All."

Craziest and most hilarious fight scene: The control room brawl in The Interview, followed closely by the fish coming out in Snowpiercer.

Most surreal scene in a conventional movie: The "ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist" scene in Foxcatcher.

Most surreal scene in an unconventional movie: The first time ScarJo lures a victim into the black tar in Under the Skin.

Most melancholy sound: The swooning cry made by the scanning machine each time it steals a little more of Robin Wright's soul in The Congress.

Most successful inversion of a genre convention: The frightening daytime murders in The Sacrament.

Single most disturbing image: The grand reveal of "the monster" in Tusk.

Most evil gesture: The writhing of Rosamund Pike's body when "the thing" happens near the end of Gone Girl, accompanied by the mouldering distortion of Trent Reznor's heretofore unobtrusive score.

Most disdainful moment: Koba "monkeying around" for the humans and then popping some caps in their asses, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Coolest set: The "Hobbit hotel" in Winter Sleep.

Coolest pre-credits sequence: Smaug destroying Laketown in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Funniest surprise: The non-human characters who appear on the cable car in Manakamana.

And now some dialogue ...

Most overrated line: The one about the paper with staples in it from Listen Up Philip. Look, it's not as funny as about five different people insisted to me it was.

Funniest line readings: Morgan Freeman in The Lego Movie.

Funniest line: "Wait, she's on our team now?" - Jim Carrey, Dumb and Dumber To

Cutest line reading: "It's abstract!" - Lorelai Linklater, Boyhood

Lightning round

And to end things ...

Highest ranked best picture nominee: Birdman (#1)
Lowest ranked best picture nominee: The Imitation Game (#90)
Best picture nominees I haven't seen: American Sniper, Selma, The Theory of Everything
Most boring title: The Wait
Least boring title: The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
Unjustified bragging: We Are the Best!
Most literal title: Two Days, One Night
Least literal title: Why Don't You Play in Hell?
Worst title for a good movie: Magic in the Moonlight
Best title for a bad movie: Black Coal, Thin Ice
Most unnecessary revival: Veronica Mars
Most necessary revival: Michael Keaton's career
Least necessary movie: Wish I Was Here
Cool director turned lame: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Lame director turned cool: Joe & Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Director who lost me: George Clooney (The Monuments Men)
Director who found me again: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman)
Best movie I really didn't want to see: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
Worst movie I really wanted to see: Calvary
Funniest move I thought would be bad: The Interview
Least funny movie I thought would be good: Sex Tape
Funniest movie that had no business being funny: Edge of Tomorrow
Scariest horror: The Babadook
Least scary horror: Wolf Creek 2
Best ending: Whiplash
Worst ending: Nymphomaniac Vol. II
WTF ending (good): Enemy
WTF ending (bad): The Rover
Ending I didn't see: Paddington
Best final shot (bad movie): The Immigrant
Lamest final shot (bad movie): Nightcrawler
Best final shot (good movie): Under the Skin
Lamest final shot (good movie): Gone Girl
Biggest disappointment relative to hype: Guardians of the Galaxy
Biggest surprise relative to negative hype: The Interview

Lights out, curtain down, show's over.

See you for the next one.

Friday, January 16, 2015

2014 has flown the coop


Well here we finally are, at the end of the 2014 ranking season. And what a ranking season it was.

If you told me that my first full year in Australia would result in the most movies I've ever ranked, I'd say "What? You're crazy. Movies are more expensive here than in the U.S., and a lot of the big awards contenders don't even get released until after my ranking deadline."

If you told me that the first full year of having two children would result in the most movies I've ever ranked, I'd say "What? You're crazy. Parenting one child is hard enough -- if you add a second into the equation, something has to give."

Well maybe something did give, but if so, it wasn't the amount of movies I watched. My 2014 total beats my previous record (set last year) by a whole eight movies. I somehow cranked out 136 viewings that I deemed to qualify for 2014 -- and yet am more aware than ever of the films I didn't get to see. (Thanks, 67 movies on my Letterboxd watchlist, for giving me such crippling cinephile guilt.)

So in the spirit of one of those movies, here are the top five movies I wish I'd had access to see before my ranking deadline:

5. Wild
4. Dear White People
3. Selma
2. Top Five
1. Inherent Vice

Honorable mentions: American Sniper, Mommy, A Most Violent Year, Still Alice, The Theory of Everything

So yeah, movies not having released yet in Australia is still a problem. But at least that problem was somewhat mitigated by seeing Birdman, Foxcatcher and The Interview, all before their Australian theatrical releases. Which ended up being pretty significant for this year's list, as we shall see.

To what do I owe this uptick in movies? My trip to the U.S. was a pretty big factor. I watched 11 movies on four plane flights on that trip, which was a big boost to my total. I also pushed harder than usual in January, with a lot of factors falling my way to either get me to the theater more regularly, or to give me the stamina to stay up for viewings that finished after midnight -- sometimes well after midnight.

It was a pretty good year to set a record, as 2014 is top-heavy with quality. There may have been a comparatively small group of movies I truly loved, but the movies I gave four stars stretch on down into the 50s on this list. (Which isn't to say there aren't some 3.5-star movies that may have crept in ahead of them -- that's the nature of a list like this.)

But before we get to my actual rankings, it's time for the resumption of a tradition I started last year -- counting down my top ten in reverse order, with a blurb on why I chose each. It restores some of the drama that certain pictographic choices I've made on the layout of this post have already dissipated.

10. Under the Skin - This is the movie on this list I most admire without being able to say I truly love it. I wasn't sure exactly what I felt about it when I first saw it, then lived with it awhile and felt it grow, then saw it again and began to question whether it is indeed a masterpiece. It is, almost without argument, the most arresting series of pure images caught on film in 2014, and the most vital reminder of film's unique ability to move us via the image rather than dialogue or plotting. It is clearly a major achievement for director Jonathan Glazer, whose only misstep (Sexy Beast) has been amply answered for first with Birth, and now this. Though it's the type of movie where analyzing the themes seems an almost pedestrian activity, one certainty is that it was a masterstroke to cast one of our most beautiful women -- Scarlett Johansson -- as an observer of the behavior of human beings when confronted with the physical ideal. The growth of empathy in her character is tender in a manner that's at odds with how Glazer's images and soundtrack are often dischordant. Great movies can have it both ways, and Under the Skin is such a movie.

9. Enemy - Never before have I been so happy to watch one of those video film essays on the interwebs. After my viewing of Denis Villeneuve's film, I thought it was an odd little mystery about identity and gender politics that favored surreal imagery and metaphors, one that I suspected was quite good. However, one of the members of the Flickchart Facebook group had posted a link to a Youtube video by Chris Stuckmann that had a much more unified theory of its layers of meaning and interpretation ... and this video made me fall in love with the movie. In fact, I loved it enough that I purchased it again on iTunes, although that second viewing ultimately didn't transpire before the 30-day rental window closed. It'd be higher in my top 10 if there weren't that nagging part of me that questioned whether I arrived at my love of the movie purely. But I do love it, and that's enough.

8. Boyhood - I did not experience quite the same transcendent pleasure others experienced while watching this movie. My consistent question to others has been "Did you love Boyhood, or just really like it?" I have felt, and I guess still feel, stunted in a state of "really like" when it comes to Richard Linklater's grand cinematic experiment. But when I think about any individual moment from the life of Mason, our young boy who grows into a young man over the course of two-and-a-half hours, I think about how lovely it is, and how it fills me with a sense of melancholy about the passage of time in my own life. Of course, even just writing these words now, I'm getting chills, because I realize that the melancholy that runs through this film is always rubbing elbows with the joy. I think that's the kind of life any of us would like to live, and they make for the ingredients of an unforgettable movie ... one I may eventually say I truly love.

7. Love is Strange - Guess my top ten wasn't so finalized after all. If you recall yesterday's post, you'll remember that I chose this story of an aging gay couple (Alfred Molina and John Lithgow) who finally marry after decades together as my final viewing of the year, hoping not to create a disruption to too much I had in place. Well, it was a welcome and wonderful disruption. Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful and elegiac films I have seen in some time. Ira Sachs skirts the hot-button issues you'd expect a film like this would court through his enviable low-key approach to the material. There's no need for Ben and George to stand in for every gay couple contemplating marriage, and perhaps failing to contemplate the unintended consequences of their actions. They are simply two human beings who care for each other, surrounded by caring friends and family, and how all that is put under stress by a society that is as it is, and erects regular roadblocks to their happiness. If there's outrage in this film, it's in the margins; it's incidental to this intimate look inside a relationship that is more real than any I have seen on screen in some time.

6. Whiplash - Whiplash stands as the exception to the rule that states "the more you see a trailer for a movie, the less chance you have of liking it." I saw the Whiplash trailer at least three times before buying my tickets ... and was enthralled by it anyway. Whiplash is not only a major technical step forward for Damien Chazelle from the grainy indie Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench, but it actually has the kind of maturity of form that the driven musicians in the story aspire to. I'm not a jazz fan, but I'm a fan of how it is used here, as a way to symbolize (cymbalize?) the rhythms of great storytelling. And Whiplash is storytelling at its finest, detailing the physical and emotional sacrifices necessary to attain greatness ... and being shrewd enough not to endorse a particular viewpoint on whether such sacrifices are ultimately worth making. Two of the year's best performances, by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, leave this thing pretty damn close to perfection.

5. Edge of Tomorrow - The biggest surprise about Edge of Tomorrow was not Doug Liman's handling of the sci-fi and action elements, or the delirious joy of the repeating structure. It's that the thing is so damn funny. Yes, it wasn't only this year's most exhilarating and deliciously plotted summer movie, it was also the funniest. A hybrid of Groundhog Day and Starship Troopers that earned it the nickname Groundhog Troopers, the movie had plenty of title changes and identity problems that culminated in one of the poorest marketing jobs since The Iron Giant. Let's hope the ultimately positive response by critics and audiences will encourage studios to continue taking risks on this type of original material, the kind that feels familiar yet fresh, without relying on superheroes or other reliable brands. As hard as Tom Cruise works and as awesome as Emily Blunt is -- both in general and in this movie -- Edge of Tomorrow gave me my purest adrenaline high of the year, and the year's first perfect rating on Letterboxd.

4. The Skeleton Twins - Ever since seeing this movie at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I have been wondering if I might have watched it through "festival goggles." It has not turned up on any prominent top ten lists and it has actually been derided in some circles as little more than "typical indie movie fare" which may in fact fumble its handling of suicide as a social issue. However, I can't forget that I sat in such a contented stupor on the tram ride home that I forgot to even listen to my iPod. SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig blew me away with their flawless dramatic turns, yet also made me laugh harder than almost any other movie this year. (And let's not forget one of the most deceptively lovable performances you'll ever see from Luke Wilson.) More than anything though I was moved by the strength and realism of their brother-sister bond, the kind of bond that made me eager to see my own sister as soon as possible.

3. Ida - Let's get this out of the way at the start: I'm into nuns. Okay, that's not really true, but you'd suspect that were the case after I ranked Beyond the Hills #1 last year, and then gave my #3 spot this year to Pawel Pawelkowski's masterpiece. One of the things I loved about both films was their exquisite composition, and in the case of Ida, that isn't only the unusual framing (characters are often sunken low into the frame, giving the screen a cathedral effect and leaving space for a Bergmanian deity), but the astonishing use of black and white. Bergman is indeed an obvious point of comparison, but here's one that's not so obvious: The lead character's quest for a sordid truth through a dangerous Polish countryside reminded me of Winter's Bone, one of my favorite films of 2010. Pawelkowski so densely packs his film's 80 minutes with such rich material that you kind of want to start watching it again as soon as you finish -- even though it's also damned depressing. But in reality, moviemaking this superlative can never truly depress us.

2. Like Father, Like Son - Another film suspiciously absent from top ten lists, possibly because many critics saw it in 2013. But Hirokazu Koreeda's remarkably moving and perfectly scripted family drama opened in the United States on January 17th, so some critics are just snoozing on this. In an unimaginable scenario that raises questions parents dare not answer, two Japanese families realize that their sons were switched shortly after birth as part of a hospital clerical error. The problem is, their sons are now six years old, and the families must decide whether to "switch back" -- a choice made all the more problematic by a society in which patriarchy and blood are prized above all else. The film struggles with the clash of modern Japanese society with its ancient traditions, and it has a field day with the nature/nurture questions at its core, exploring why the children have become what they are, what we can expect from them in the future -- and whether their parents are satisfied with that. Basic parental love is caught somewhere in the middle. It's the most moved I was by any film this year.

1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) - No 2014 film exhilarated me more. If it wasn't the ostentatious "single take" technique of DP Emmanuel Lubezki leaving me absolutely floored, it was the performances of the best ensemble cast of 2014, led by Oscar frontrunner Michael Keaton. Rarely have a camera and a cast been able to so intimately bring me inside the lives of such a fragile cross-section of individuals, each with their own relatable foibles and moments of surprising transcendence. Instead of feeling like a fly on the wall, though, I felt like a fly in flight, especially as the camera zooms in with discomfiting intensity on the face of Emma Stone as she lays all her father's delusions bare. What's even more exciting about Birdman is that there's a whole interpretation of the events of this movie, relating to an incident on a beach involving jellyfish that may not be as far in the past as we think, that I haven't even heard put forward. The richness of this movie continues to unfold for me, and it represents a major comeback for its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

And to think ... if I hadn't seen Birdman in the U.S. in November, I would have been faced with that dilemma I am always trying to avoid: seeing your potential #1 on the last day of the ranking period. Birdman didn't open in Australia until yesterday, which is today for people in the U.S. I would have had to see it after the kids went to bed on Thursday night, and then had only 90 minutes until my self-imposed ranking deadline to consider whether it was truly my favorite movie of the year. If Inside Llewyn Davis had had longer to sit with me after a final-day screening last year, it might have been my #1 of 2013 rather than just #3. (I didn't expect Unbroken to give me the same type of headache, but skipped it this year for similar reasons of getting its Australian theatrical release just hours before my deadline -- and because I don't like Angelina Jolie.)

Now, my five worst:

5. I, Frankenstein - Movies involving demons and winged creatures and, oh yeah, Frankenstein's monster don't get much dumber than this. Why, Aaron Eckhart? Why?

4. The Nut Job - One of the five worst animated movies I've ever seen, and one of only two I'm sure I gave a one-star rating. All Dogs Go to Heaven, you've got company. A simply abysmal collection of unlikable characters and animated pratfalls.

3. I Origins - The best thing about this pretentious piece of B.S. existential philosophizing is the nickname my wife came up with for it: I Snorigins.

2. Dom Hemingway - Jude Law begins this movie with a three-minute ode to his own member while it's being serviced by a fellow prison inmate, and things never get any better.

1. Wolf Creek 2 - A mercilessly brutal horror sequel that is entirely devoid of cleverness, and anything else of redeeming value. Its worst sin, though, is to rob the killer of all his mystique by showing him in every damn frame of the whole movie.

Now on to the good stuff, the movies ranked from #1 to ... shit, I've lost count.

1. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2. Like Father, Like Son
3. Ida
4. The Skeleton Twins
5. Edge of Tomorrow
6. Whiplash
7. Love is Strange
8. Boyhood
9. Enemy
10. Under the Skin
11. The Interview
12. Life Itself
13. The Lunchbox
14. The Babadook
15. Snowpiercer
16. Foxcatcher
17. The Grand Budapest Hotel
18. The Congress
19. Begin Again
20. Only Lovers Left Alive
21. Night Moves
22. Cheap Thrills
23. Locke
24. Two Days, One Night
25. The Sacrament
26. Mistaken for Strangers
27. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
28. Why Don't You Play in Hell?
29. Mood Indigo
30. Happy Christmas
31. Blue Ruin
32. Frank
33. Oculus
34. Tusk
35. Joe
36. Magic in the Moonlight
37. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
38. The Final Member
39. The Taking of Deborah Logan
40. Gone Girl
41. What We Do in the Shadows
42. Starred Up
43. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
44. Mr. Peabody & Sherman
45. Belle
46. Venus in Fur
47. Winter Sleep
48. 20,000 Days on Earth
49. The Unknown Known
50. Draft Day
51. The Lego Movie
52. Young & Beautiful
53. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
54. They Came Together
55. Felony
56. Space Station 76
57. Listen Up Philip
58. Force Majeure
59. Advanced Style
60. Dumb and Dumber To
61. The Fault in Our Stars
62. Lucy
63. Predestination
64. Big Hero 6
65. Walk of Shame
66. Interstellar
67. The Trip to Italy
68. How to Train Your Dragon 2
69. Sabotage
70. The One I Love
71. Manakamana
72. These Final Hours
73. Life of Crime
74. Non-Stop
75. The Wait
76. X-Men: Days of Future Past
77. Cuban Fury
78. Neighbors
79. Obvious Child
80. Men, Women & Children
81. Tracks
82. God's Pocket
83. Maleficent
84. White God
85. Paddington
86. We Are the Best!
87. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
88. Memphis
89. Noah
90. The Imitation Game
91. The Rover
92. 22 Jump Street
93. A Most Wanted Man
94. Guardians of the Galaxy
95. Pompeii
96. Black Coal, Thin Ice
97. Alan Partridge
98. Nightcrawler
99. Bad Words
100. Rage
101. Wish I Was Here
102. Nymphomaniac Vol. II
103. Earth to Echo
104. Into the Storm
105. Veronica Mars
106. Grand Piano
107. Tammy
108. Willow Creek
109. The Zero Theorem
110. Life After Beth
111. The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
112. St. Vincent
113. Calvary
114. Ride Along
115. Particle Fever
116. The Immigrant
117. The Pretty One
118. 3 Days to Kill
119. Nymphomaniac Vol. I
120. Odd Thomas
121. Godzilla
122. Into the Woods
123. Sex Tape
124. Le Week-End
125. The Double
126. That Awkward Moment
127. Heaven is for Real
128. Vampire Academy
129. Chef
130. The Monuments Men
131. Fading Gigolo
132. I, Frankenstein
133. The Nut Job
134. I Origins
135. Dom Hemingway
136. Wolf Creek 2

That's it. That's all. Except for your comments. Please be generous with them!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

One final test for my top 10


Tonight I will be watching Ira Sachs' Love is Strange, the 136th and final film I will rank before finalizing (and publishing) my 2014 rankings sometime after midnight.

See, 12:30 a.m. Melbourne time (Friday) corresponds to 5:30 a.m. Los Angeles time (Thursday), which is when some sleepy actress will be coming on stage with some bushy-tailed Academy bigwig to announce the nominations for the 87th Academy Awards.

That's also my ranking deadline, and when all the madness I've been subjecting myself to will finally come to an end. What madness, you ask? How about 26 new movies so far in 2015? Plus one movie I've rewatched, Rian Johnson's Looper, which makes for 27 total viewings this year.

Naturally, at this point I feel pretty solid about my top 10, to the extent that I don't really want anything to come along and upset the apple cart. However, I also don't like the idea of just watching junk during my last few viewing days, to fill out the numbers. I already did that last night, by cramming in a late-night viewing of the Goddy claptrap Heaven is for Real. It was a total layup in the sense that it very unsurprisingly landed in my bottom 10, rather than top.

So I bypassed a great opportunity to download a movie I really wanted to see this year -- Left Behind -- for a movie I really wanted to see for the right reasons.

And if Love is Strange gives me something to think about in terms of my favorite films of the year, well, that's as it should be. The goal is to see all the year's most beloved films that you can get to ... and a guy on a podcast I just listened to named it his #1 of the year.

In the interest of getting some of the other end-of-the-year stuff started a day early, here are some other movies that just missed out on a conceivable year-end viewing:

The Calling - Borrowed it from the library on Monday but just couldn't fit it in
Get On Up - Just became available for rent on iTunes, and would have rented it if I weren't daunted by the 138-minute running time
Brick Mansions - Available on Netflix streaming, but I just didn't get to it
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - Available on Netflix streaming, but I just didn't get to it
Stranger by the Lake - Available on Netflix streaming, and I really meant to get it to it, but I didn't
Mr. Tuner - Wanted to see it in the theater on Monday night, but after five theater movies in the previous six days, I couldn't justify it
Unbroken - Opens today, and considered trying to see it tonight, but I just can't justify the $19 for a viewing so close to my deadline -- and I don't like Angelina Jolie

Al ... most ... there. Don't burn out yet, Vance.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A farewell double feature for an acting treasure


On the second-to-last night of my 2014 viewing season, I watched two movies starring a man we lost in 2014.

The fact that I didn't watch them sooner may be some indication of my general interest in them, but I did ultimately come around to renting Philip Seymour Hoffman's last two features that weren't Hunger Games movies. It felt like a fitting way to (almost) close out the year.

My resistance to A Most Wanted Man was based largely on its genre. I like the cast (Rachel McAdams and Willem Defoe beyond Hoffman) and I really like the director (Anton Corbijn of Control). But I generally don't like spy thrillers, if only because I tend to find characters more interesting than labyrinthine plots of who's double-crossing whom and the stakes of each double-cross. Turns out, A Most Wanted Man is more about post-9/11 anti-terrorism intelligence than the governments spying on other governments seen in most spy movies, but since John Le Carre wrote the novel it's based on, it's a spy movie.

I didn't really care for it one way or the other, giving it three stars largely for the competence of its execution than as any indication of how it truly held my interest the whole time. It did pick up after a very slow start, which also helped keep my review in positive territory.

Hoffman? I don't love that one of his final showcases was in German-accented English. It reminded me of the essential artifice of this type of movie, since we know the characters would really just be speaking German. However, that's an unavoidable bit of suspension of disbelief, and I don't want to punish Hoffman or the movie for that. I suppose if the movie had worked for me better overall, the performance would have also connected with me more. There's no doubt it's a good performance, but those who are looking to find a summation of Hoffman's career in this performance should remember that he didn't know it was going to be one of his last roles when he shot the film. Sometimes, a movie is just a movie.

God's Pocket I knew a lot less about. Only once I started watching did I remember that it was the directing debut of Mad Men actor John Slattery. I suppose it was the title itself that sort of interested me, but in equal measure I was turned off by John Turturro, who has had a bad 2014. It's the story of lowlifes and, I guess, midlifes in a small insular town called God's Pocket, where outsiders are never fully trusted and everyone seems to be involved in the dual pursuits of low-level criminal enterprise and pickling their liquors. An extremely disagreeable twentysomething played by Caleb Landry Jones really put me off this movie from the start.

But then -- there's no spoiler alert necessary because it happens so early -- this character dies, and the movie started to click better for me after that. I started to do something I couldn't really do in A Most Wanted Man: feel for/relate to/understand the characters. I thought this town might be full of contrived shlubs, but instead they started to feel real to me. The always-great Richard Jenkins is around to contribute to that, and Christina Hendricks seemed like something other than a fantasy doll for the first time to me.

Hoffman? This is more the performance that would seem to serve as a career summation, because though Hoffman has played intelligence operatives before (see Charlie Wilson's War), he's played a lot more shlubs (see, well, almost everything else he's been in). His character is clearly a screw-up, but he makes choices in the movie that are rather heroic, despite ample evidence that he should not make such a choice under those circumstances. He's an imperfect man trying to get by, and that connected to me more.

I gave this one three stars as well, but a slightly more enthusiastic three stars than Most Wanted.

I don't need to finish with some grand overarching comment about the man, in part because I'm writing this post under rather rushed/distracted circumstances, and in part I've already written a eulogy of sorts for him (see here for that).

I do want to say, though, that I'll miss him. He was one of the greats, and I'm glad I dedicated an evening to appreciating his talents one last time.

Was it really one last time, though? No, it wasn't. I now consider myself fortunate not yet to have seen such films as Flawless, Love Liza, Owning Mahoney, Jack Goes Boating, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Pirate Radio and of course The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. 

So I still have the pleasure of more Philip Seymour Hoffman yet to come.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Force to be reckoned with


Warning: Do not see Force Majeure with a significant other, unless you want to have a really uncomfortable conversation afterward.

Knowing this, I didn't even give that a chance of happening. I watched it by myself, and in fact, didn't even tell my wife I was watching it.

Similar to Julia Lektov's The Loneliest Planet, Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure deals with an unexpected moment of danger that triggers an act of impulsive cowardice. In both cases, it's a man guilty of the cowardice. The act is more shameful in The Loneliest Planet, and perhaps a tad less believable. Here, it's more passive and more instinctive, but the aftermath is just as toxic.

Some of that aftermath is two other characters discussing what they would do in the same situation, and one of them making an unfortunate prediction about the other's behavior. The resulting conversation keeps them up all night ... and they weren't even involved in the actual incident.

And this is the kind of conversation you could have with your significant other ... if you're not careful.

And it's easily the type of conversation I could have had ... if I hadn't taken the above precautions before watching it.

See, my crisis behavior is already under the microscope, as far as my wife is concerned. Fortunately for me, it's not cowardice she silently accuses me of. Rather, she accuses me of being a deer in the headlights. I worry that cowardice is not much of a leap from there.

There are two incidents in particular I'm thinking of ... or actually three, but two of those three fall under the same umbrella, making them one incident stretched out over two days.

The first occurred right after we got married. We were given a set of cutting knives as a wedding present, and my wife was washing one of the larger ones -- before we even used them for the first time, I think. We learned after the fact that you're supposed to attach a lucky penny when you give someone knives as a present, to ward off bad luck. But that was no help here, as my wife sliced her finger open, rather seriously.

Not expecting the situation in the slightest, I had to just stand there for a long three seconds, not really knowing what I should do. I didn't run for the medical kit. I didn't dive for the phone to call 911 -- which would have been the wrong response, but would have at least represented some kind of definitive action on my part. I just stood there in shock, not knowing what I should do next.

My wife got me going with a suggestion -- going for the medical kit, I believe it was -- but we both remembered that my instinctual response to the crisis was no response.

There was less danger involved in the next incident, or pair of incidents -- but they are also much more recent, so they have a certain freshness to their sting. Just a few minutes after landing on our recent flight to the U.S., my older son threw up. Again, it was totally unexpected. We were gathering our stuff to get off the plane, and he just started upchucking. Not only did I have an initial moment of paralysis like I did with the cut finger, but I compounded matters by starting to become sick myself once I ventured in to help. I didn't actually throw up, but I had to retract from the situation so that the smell didn't overwhelm me.

My wife, of course, had no such problem. Her stomach did not threaten rebellion, and she did the lion's share of first response. I did as much as possible; I had not limited my involvement by choice. I just didn't want to start a chain reaction of vomiting, which can certainly happen if you don't nip it in the bud.

She was not pleased, but it got even worse the next day when he threw up again in the hotel room. I again had a longer than necessary moment of assessment before running to get a trash can or something to clean my son up, as my wife thought should have been my first instinct.

Now, I don't want to spend a lot of space explaining the logic, such as I could argue there was, to my reaction (once you've started vomiting on the hotel rug, it doesn't matter whether you continue vomiting there or do the rest of your vomiting in a trash can -- in terms of the taint to the rug, a little isn't significantly different from a lot). What I do want to discuss is the idea of how responsible we should be about how we act in a crisis, and whether the above evidence is indeed a predictor of whether I would rise to the occasion or fold in a genuine threat to my family's safety.

On the one hand, it seems like the cowardly father in Force Majeure just caved in to a shameful survival instinct, something deep and primitive over which he had no control. Does this mean he's not a good person and cannot be relied upon to behave with chivalry and kindness in most situations? It does not, methinks.

On the other, his instinctive reaction was tainted by a moment of clear thinking -- he grabbed his phone and his gloves before running from the danger -- that casts a shadow of doubt over the idea that he should not be responsible for how he behaved. He tried to save his gloves, but he did not try to save his children. (This all happens in the first ten minutes of the movie, so I'm not spoiling anything you don't already know from every synopsis of the film.)

How would I respond in that situation? Well, that's the question we all ask ourselves, isn't it?

The closest corollary in my own life -- a life or death situation involving my family -- had an incredibly positive outcome, thanks to me keeping my head. A couple years ago I was rounding a corner in our car when a tree started to fall into the path of the car. Really. A tree. My first thought was that someone had really blown it by not stopping traffic before they felled this tree, but it was a Sunday so it was clearly just an act of God -- force majeure, as it were. I calmly applied the brakes and stopped 20 feet short of the tree.

In truth, my quick thinking did not save us. The timing of when the tree fell -- two seconds earlier than it could have fallen -- was what saved us. All I really did was save us from driving into a fallen tree. I suppose not everyone would have done that, but I think most trained drivers would have.

Still, my wife gave me big-time credit for handling the situation with aplomb. She said she didn't know if she could have kept such a cool head. There was a look in her eyes that suggested I had saved us -- her, me, and our only son, who was facing backwards in the backseat and was none the wiser about any of this.

I hope that if she watched Force Majeure with me, she would remember the falling tree incident, and not the cut finger or the vomiting incidents.

But I didn't trust it enough to chance it.