Author Archives: Dylan Visvikis

About Dylan Visvikis

Dylan Visvikis is a working screenwriter and director in Los Angeles.

My Personal Choices for the Best in Film 2013

This is the absolutely accurate, not subjective or opinionated in the slightest, 100% inarguable ranking of the best films of 2013.

(Kidding, you guys. I’m not that much of an asshole.)

I saw about 59 new movies this year, which averages out to a little more than one per week. That’s a flawed stat, however—Oscar season definitely skewed my viewing. In a period of 24 hours (Noon 12/18-Noon 12/19), I saw five films—in order: Lone Survivor, August: Osage County, Her, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, and Nebraska—which broke my previous record of four (Christmas Day 2010, in order: The King’s Speech, True Grit, The Fighter, Black Swan). Do you care about any of this? Absolutely not, but now you know it anyway. Good luck forgetting!

I saw 164 movies on the whole. No, I’m not insane. It just means I go to film school. I’m required to watch things. Often I watch things for fun. My friends also enjoy movies and often we enjoy watching them together. And don’t even get me started on TV. (That comes later.)

I’ve seen 878 movies now over the course of my lifetime, which you’d think would make me qualified, but I’m no FILM CRIT HULK, who is easily the reigning authority in/on/of cinematic criticism (and intellectual twitter discourse) since the passing of the brilliant Roger Ebert. (Hulk’s writing recalls David Foster Wallace, in this guy’s humble opinion.)

So without further ado, let’s get to it. This was a great year for movies, with five films earning a rare 5-star rating, and over 30 films at least a 4-star in my book/Letterboxd. I only truly disliked 2 films this year, with others being mild nuisances at best—as Hulk and Tarantino say, never hate a movie—and only one of those films was critically and commercially acclaimed.

My criteria for best films of past years is unfortunately outdated and poorly articulated, as I’m sure this year’s will be in the future, but nonetheless, we shall proceed forward, with the enthusiasm of a naïve schoolgirl and the bravery of white knights (you can stop reading whenever).

Criteria

Entertainment Value – Simply enough, how entertaining was it?

Romanticization – Filmmakers—and artists in general—have the power to romanticize anything. This has very little to do with the ‘message’ of the film, or what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish—it’s more of a Pavlovian thing. If moment X makes you happy, and X is memorable, you associate thing X with being good. Conversely, if X makes you unhappy, and X is memorable, you associate thing X with being bad. If a film is unmemorable, this is irrelevant—unless it is commercially successful and enters the national conversation, in which case it becomes exceedingly relevant. As my screenwriting professor—a talented, successful woman who has written huge tentpole films, including an upcoming film—says: “people don’t remember movies, they remember moments”. The key is to, through cinematic affectation, romanticize the right things, which to me are selflessness, endless love, and the understanding that everyone else has a life just as important as your own, among many other things. The best filmmakers are masters of this skill–Spielberg, Scorsese, etc.

Mainstream Appeal – None of the above truly matters if no one outside of an elite intellectual sect sees the film. Unfortunately, most of the best movies of the year go unseen, thanks to an unfair and sure-bet-oriented corporate culture at the major studios. (I worked for the fabulous development/production team at Focus Features this semester, and it was a bittersweet last hurrah for one of the last great studio-backed quality-friendly picture-makers in town, who brought us, among other great films, Lost In Translation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brokeback Mountain, Hot Fuzz, Pride & Prejudice, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Constant Gardener, Moonrise Kingdom, Shaun of the Dead and this year’s The World’s End, The Place Beyond the Pines and Dallas Buyers Club—here’s to hoping the new regime doesn’t stop great movies from being made in the name of commercial viability.)

Unfortunately, in such a crowded year, some things get left out. (Why the fuck I saw Fast & Furious 6 and not Before Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight or three hours of lesbian love w/ artful sex scenes apparently titled Blue Is the Warmest Color this year will remain a mystery even to me.)

Notable Films Unseen

Before Midnight (I’ve seen none of the trilogy, which are apparently my favorite movies ever according to everyone I know who’s seen them.)
The Place Beyond the Pines
Frances Ha (definitely seeing this one)
Mud
The Hunt
Labor Day
The Act of Killing
Blackfish
Blue is the Warmest Color
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
The Kings of Summer
The Bling Ring
Gimme The Loot
20 Feet From Stardom

Each of the films mentioned below merit a viewing—they’re casualties of an overstuffed, far too excellent year in cinema.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)

Enough Said
Nebraska
Rush
Behind the Candelabra
The English Teacher
Star Trek Into Darkness
All Is Lost
Lee Daniels’ The Butler
The World’s End

What You’ve All Been Waiting For (Or Not): The TOP 25 (Or 26)

25. The Way, Way Back and Much Ado About Nothing

(tie) Joss Whedon, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash bring the comedic heat in these two low-budget, high-hilarity pictures. While each has its flaws, both have an endearing charm and ace performances (Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Nathan Fillion and Amy Acker, just to name a few) that bring some deeper emotional heft to otherwise flighty, we’ve-seen-this-before stories.

24. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games makes a triumphant return to the back end of my top films of the year list. The screenwriting is top-notch—the film is exactly what you want in a franchise sequel. Fun, well-acted and surprisingly politically relevant, Catching Fire sparks your did you really think I was gonna go there?

23. Philomena

A cute, funny tale that manages to get the mind thinking about the pitfalls, and surprising benefits, of believing in God. A character study with some intriguing thematics, the script—by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope—is a delight. It also happens to feature one of my favorite scenes of 2013.

22. Dallas Buyers Club

I’ll admit I have a bias, having worked for the company that distributed the film, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better performance than Matthew McConaughey’s here, as a redneck, homophobic man who contracts AIDS and, given thirty days to live, starts up a club with a trans person (played beautifully by Jared Leto) for AIDS patients in need of drugs that the FDA won’t approve ‘cause they’re in bed with big pharma. It’d be higher on the list if it played in a part of the country that would both a) enjoy it and b) have something to learn from it. The script, by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, plays like gangbusters on the big screen. Jean-Marc Vallee’s direction, which often uses subjective techniques such as sound design and handheld cinematography to place you in the mind of the film’s ailing protagonist, is absolutely fantastic, and in a weaker year (like, say, 2011), he’d be assured an Oscar nom.

21. Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut didn’t land as fiercely as everyone thought it would coming out of Sundance, but its insights into sex and modern love were fascinating, and the story moved in an unconventional, unexpected manner, which is so rare to see as a screenwriter who has seen most every pattern. Imperfect, sure, but top-notch performances and an assured directorial style make Don Jon a worthy lay.

20. This Is The End

Hands-down the funniest film of the year, the directorial debut of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg knows exactly how to use the many fine comic talents at their disposal in exactly the right way to create an effective apocalypse comedy with a great moral to boot. Amazing cameos and hilarious improv will make this one a definite rewatch staple.

19. Side Effects

Soderbergh’s supposed last theatrical feature reminds us (along with the similarly technically masterful Behind the Candelabra) why we’re losing such a treasure. Side Effects is a Hitchcock picture updated for the modern era, with more twists and turns than an early episode of Scandal (which is the fucking greatest, by the way—many more reputable publications, including the AV Club, agree). It also lays claim to one of the two great ‘holy shit’ moments of the year and an unbelievably overlooked and underrated performance by Rooney Mara (she turned down Zero Dark Thirty for this, which is a bummer for her, if only because her performance would have gotten much wider recognition in Bigelow’s film).

18. White House Down

Yeah. You read that right. Go ahead. Read it again. It’s not gonna change. Might move a few numbers down, perhaps, but it’s there. It’s on the list. White House Down is one of the best films of 2013. Combining a Capra-esque earnestness with a hilarious, self-aware sense of camp, Roland Emmerich’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House manages to be a masterclass in plant-and-payoff as well as a triumph of fun, yet oddly emotionally affecting, filmmaking. James Vanderbilt, kudos to you for writing such an awesome script. The ending is priceless.

17. Monsters University

While not on the level of Pixar’s best, MU is definitely a movie I’d want my kids to see, and be influenced by. It’s both funny and emotionally moving, just like all good Pixar, and also plays as a better college movie than most actual college movies have in recent years. Fun for any age, if I were you, I wouldn’t waitlist Monsters University (goddamnit, I went there, I told myself I wasn’t gonna do that…).

16. Prisoners

Two words: Roger Deakins. The world’s premier cinematographer again creates a gorgeous visual canvas. In a weaker year, this super well-executed whodunit B-movie would merit more Oscar consideration. While the plot never really ties up every interesting question Aaron Guzikowski’s sometimes-audacious script dares to ask, Villenueve’s direction and subtle, affecting work from actors Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and an almost unrecognizable Melissa Leo make up for it.

15. Lone Survivor

Peter Berg isn’t the world’s best director, but his reverence for the source material and penchant for accuracy/attention to detail alleviate some of the not-so-great choices he makes (30 FPS doesn’t make things look more real—it just takes us out of the movie). It’s thankfully not a recruitment video, though it certainly loves and respects the soldiers and does them the honor of depicting the war in Afghanistan realistically—the good, the bad and the ugly—without demonizing all Afghans (as a semi-jingoistic movie like this could easily slip into that racist trap). A 45-minute battle sequence consumes most of the movie, and we feel as if we’re in the thick of it. The best war film since Private Ryan, though that’s not saying much—Private Ryan’s in a class by itself—Lone Survivor is a gruesome look (Greg Nicotero of The Evil and Walking Deads did the makeup) at the horrors of war.

14. Saving Mr. Banks

The pleasant surprise of the Oscar season, what at first seemed like saccharine, Disneyfied drivel turned out to be a heartwarming character study that examines the pitfalls of the Disney style of romanticization (finally) while also exploring its merits. Emma Thompson is magnificent, doing sublime work with Kelly Marcel’s taut script. (Sue Smith is also credited, but literally none of her work made it to the screen, so if this screenplay gets nominated, which it might, Sue Smith is riding serious coattails here, similar to Stan Chervin’s early work on the eventual Sorkin/Zaillian script for Moneyball.) Tom Hanks is getting all the attention for his supporting performance as Walt Disney himself, but it’s Colin Farrell who really shines among a cast of standouts (Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Giamatti and BJ Novak all come to play).

13. Inside Llewyn Davis

Not the Coens’ best, but like their 2009 film A Serious Man, Llewyn Davis explores the futility and hopelessness of a cyclical life with a sense of humor as black as Shaft and a soundtrack as awesome as your favorite album. Oscar Isaac gives a tremendous lead performance as an asshole that defies conventional wisdom by being eminently watchable despite also being fairly unlikable. Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, a cat and the venerable F. Murray Abraham deliver strong performances in small doses. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is excellent as well, though I, like everyone else, miss Roger Deakins (the tradeoff, if you were wondering, was Skyfall, which was insanely gorgeous, so he gets a pass). The script is, as always, equal parts hilarious and insightful, especially into the mindset of a true artist, not content to simply exist.

12. Twelve Years A Slave

A thoroughly uncomfortable viewing experience that you all need to witness right damn now. While not the Schindler’s List of slavery as it was hyped, Steve McQueen’s opus is as brutal and upsetting as can be. His direction is most likely the best of the year, and if this film won best picture, I’d be damn happy. The performances are outstanding. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s eyes match intensity with Michael Fassbender’s wildly physical presence, and let’s not forget Sarah Paulson or Lupita N’yongo, the latter of whom brings new meaning to the word pain. John Ridley’s script is intense and subtle, Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is crisp, precise and unique, and one scene in particular will have you gasping for air—one of, if not the best, scenes of the year.

T10. American Hustle

As a script, once known as “American Bullshit”, it oozed potential. David O. Russell got his Midas hands on it and made it a screwball comedy. Featuring great performances from an all-star cast (with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and even Louis C.K. bringing their comic A-games, that’s how loaded this cast is), Russell (who’s arguably the top ‘actor’s director’ working now) spins a tale that gets us to think about lies and the facades we put up for ourselves—the film is fluff, but it’s high-end fluff. J-Law’s the next Meryl Streep. The cameos are killer. And though technically, it’s not the best, it’s a rollicking good time.

T10. August: Osage County

Let it be known that the film is not the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play upon which it is based. It is, however, sharp as a tack and brutal as can be. John Wells’ direction admirably lets the talented cast—led by the still-the-goddamn-best Meryl Streep and featuring the exceptional talents of Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Roberts, and a surprising, subtle standout Julianne Nicholson—play Tracy Letts’ vitriolic and stunning material out. Is it perfect? Hell no. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for this era. I’m a dialogue guy, and it’s hard to top Letts’ work here…

9. The Wolf of Wall Street

…but Terence Winter makes a strong effort. His mastery of the ‘f’ word (aided by consistently fantastic improvisation by a superb cast) should be noted. Of course, however, this is Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. Three hours of consistent laughs and classless debauchery, a friend described the picture as “the Schindler’s List of Hedonism” and I’m inclined to think he’s right. The excess presented in the (very intentionally too-long-three-hour) film is portrayed honestly—it’s not glamorized or vilified by the filmmaker. It’s up to the viewer to determine, based on the events portrayed onscreen, what the fuck to think. As a result, the film has inspired a national dialogue, both about the film and the excess in our culture, which can only be a good thing. Also Quaaludes.

8. The Spectacular Now

I’ve seen this film four times now, thrice in the theatre. Would I have done so on my own? Likely not. But it was always something my friends wanted to see, and as a result, I’ve gained a lot of appreciation for, and insight into, this film. I was lucky enough to sit in on a fantastic Q&A session with the director of the film, James Ponsoldt (of the also-awesome Smashed), and became thoroughly impressed both by his intelligence and attention to detail. Despite a limited budget, he pulled off one of the two ‘holy shit’ moments of the year and worked closely with the fantastic screenwriters, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber of (500) Days of Summer fame, to create a very honest, realistic portrait of teenage life. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley imbue their characters with genuine youth, and Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Jason Leigh add gravitas and upsetting realism to the adult characters. Jess Hall’s cinematography likes to let shots linger, and all the better for it. Naturalism reigns in a film that has a lot to say without ever outright saying it—about maturity, alcoholism, young love and redemption. The Spectacular Now will likely be looked back upon as one of the best teen movies of the decade.

7. Spring Breakers

I wrote this review of the film on November 13, 2013, after I’d seen the film for the first time. I’ll repost it here, because it’s the only way I could possibly explain to you my rationale. (Apologies for the lack of brevity. Brevity’s overrated anyway [see #9].)

What follows are immediate, probably very disorganized and repetitive thoughts on/reactions to the film which I have just (finally) seen:

It would be at least partially incorrect to call Spring Breakers a film. Harmony Korine hasn’t created a film, really, or even a dream. He’s created a memory.

Master lyricist Ben Gibbard puts it like this: “our memories depend / on a faulty camera in our minds”. Korine’s circular editing style treats the film as a continuous memory, with the perspectives of each of the five characters (really four, more on that later) used to form the cohesive whole–the narrative winds along, and as it does, the characters remember more, each pass giving more depth. The voiceover repeated at the end of the film is a prime example of plant-and-payoff.

By composing the film as a memory, Korine invites the audience in, allowing whoever sees the film to experience it, rather than simply watch it. There’s a reason Spring Breakers doesn’t leave anyone’s consciousness after they’ve seen it. Why they feel compelled to think about it. Discuss it. Analyze it. Even those who didn’t “get it” or “enjoy it” found themselves reciting Alien’s hilarious and poignant look-at-my-shit manifesto. (I did both, but the reason the film loses the half-star at the top is that most people fall into the less-than-enjoyable category, and while it performed decently at the box office, it still played pretty squarely to the crowd that DIDN’T need to see it–I would have loved for A24 to have screened this film at every frat and sorority in America for free to build buzz but what do I know.)

I don’t understand how anyone could say that this was not a cohesive narrative, or that it was exploitative for no purpose (if that’s you, and you have an ambition to write films, stop, now, before you create mediocre entertainment that continues to romanticize and glorify narcissism, if unintentionally). If it didn’t entertain you, okay, that’s fine. But the movie actually adheres pretty closely to the Syd Field/Eight-Sequence/Save-The-Cat structure, albeit with a few tweaks. For the majority of the film, the protagonist is not one person, but three (certainly a deliberate choice by Korine to accentuate the hive-mindedness of this current cliquish generation of girls–and guys, to some extent). When the antagonist (painted as a protagonist, because see the damn movie) is dispatched with (unconventionally, but smartly) at the film’s midpoint, we meet a new antagonist. A lot of filmmakers could learn something from Spring Breakers’ unique structural template–it’s really a great new twist on an old formula. Korine, intentionally or not, didn’t reinvent the wheel. He just built a different but equally effective one.

The performances here are stellar. Everyone talks about James Franco–he’s magnificent, don’t get me wrong–but to me, the unsung hero of the film is Selena Gomez, who communicates profound contradictions through her expressive eyes. She is given precious little to work with, but the way she handles herself in the situations Korine inserts her in allows us to sympathize with her, locking the audience into the world while also creating a vivid, three-dimensional character clearly torn between two worlds. Laray Mayfield’s casting here should be praised–the idea of presenting Disney/YA stars in this environment, whether it came from her or Korine, was absolutely genius, and pointed out the impossible dichotomy between the innocence of youth and the life-altering experience of, well, Spring Break.

Korine lures us in with the promise of romanticizing what our culture loves to romanticize–sex, drugs, faux-intellectualism present in the college-partier mentality, and guns–and then RIPS THE FUCKING RUG OUT FROM UNDER US. This is exemplified by the music. At the top, it’s Skrillex’s dubstep gift to the god of Hedonism and by the end that song is a bittersweet, string-laden backdrop to the same tragedy depicted at the film’s open in a very different light. That’s what’s amazing. It titillates, it fetishizes, and yet, it makes us feel dirty. It’s a morality play that manipulates the audience into hating the narcissistic, violent, thoroughly unnecessary and upsettingly hedonistic culture that Britney Spears and Riff Raff and Alien and Michael Bay and Katy Perry have shoved like the world’s tastiest cake down our throats. And I’m not just talking about the guns or the video games or the meaningless, mindless sex (the latter two I’ll admit to enjoying)–I’m talking about the motivation for loving all of that. It’s why our hydra protagonist is never fleshed out. THE ONLY MOTIVATION IS PLEASURE, raw pleasure, pure as the mud after a rainstorm or a shit straight from the ass. At the top, it’s beautiful. By the end, it’s dirty and bloody and scary and icky and uncomfortable.

This is where Benoit Debie’s cinematography, which deserves an Oscar nomination that it will likely never even be considered for, comes in. Debie is famous for shooting Gaspar Noe’s films, which are renowned for their sick sense of beauty (look no further than his amazing album cover shot for Sky Ferreira’s recent album, which plays a lot like Spring Breakers in its misleading catchiness over satirical elements). Korine wanted that look here, and it works perfectly. The deeper the girls get enmeshed in Alien’s otherworldly universe, the blacker, the uglier things get. What at first feels sunny, bright and gorgeous to look at morphs into a neon fantasy, which gradually becomes bleak, with vomit-inducing oversaturation and garish coloring. The use of color in this film could merit a book of essays all on its own. The angles also become gradually more and more off-center, off-kilter, until the end, when we finally see that the world has turned upside down.

Spring Breakers is a memory, created by the faulty camera in our minds designed by Harmony Korine specifically for the purpose of making us feel as if we have experienced the journey of these five individuals, thereby causing us to subconsciously react as if we would to a memory of our own—by forming an opinion on what happened and making a choice about where we stand as a result. He leaves it up to the viewer to determine his or her own resolution, obviously, but it’s clear that hedonism will never be viewed as fondly by anyone who’s seen this film again.

Most films do this by placing you in the position of a character and asking you to ask—what would I do in this situation? This film makes you feel that you’ve already done said actions and asks you to ask—what will I do now? That is the genius of the constructed memory that is Spring Breakers.

“We saw some beautiful things here. Things we’ll never forget. We got to let loose. … I know we’ve made friends that will last us a lifetime. We met people who are just like us. Everyone was just trying to find themselves. It was way more than just having a good time. … Something so… magical. So beautiful. Feels as if the world is perfect, like it’s never gonna end. … Spring break forever, bitches.”

6. Captain Phillips

That last scene. That last fucking scene. Paul Greengrass is an underrated filmmaker, and pairing him with this material (and actors Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi) was a genius decision (I’m looking at you, Sony execs). **SPOILERS** On one hand, it’s surprising that no one has ever depicted the trauma of the ‘return’ at the end of a film before, and yet it’s totally not. **END SPOILERS** Greengrass’s choice to show the reality of the situation, to stay true to, well, the emotional truth, elevates an already amazing action-thriller to near-classic status. I never felt like I was watching a movie at any point during Captain Phillips, and no obvious structure seemed to seep in (yay!). Though the audience thought they knew the story, the twists and turns felt exciting and unexpected, and the characters were not black-and-white heroes-and-villains in the slightest, which made for both compelling and thought-provoking cinema. In most other years, this is a surefire best picture nominee.

5. Blue Jasmine

If you know me, then there’s absolutely no doubt in your mind—a good Woody Allen movie will end up in my top five. And you’d be right, ‘cause Blue Jasmine is a brilliant late-period work from the master of neuroses. Is it basically a modern Streetcar Named Desire, opened up to a wider cinematic setting in San Francisco and New York? Sure. Is that also the reason why it’s great? You bet your ass it is. Cate Blanchett’s performance is the Oscar frontrunner in a heavily crowded year for good reason. The comic tragedy Allen is so adept at creating comes through in a taut, uncomfortable and intelligent screenplay that takes a distinctly current issue and extracts its timeless challenges. His direction plays realistically and never loses its grasp on the intimacy of its setting until it necessarily needs to breathe. The film’s unusual structure allows for a twisty narrative that never feels forced, and Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin and Bobby Cannavale each bring a unique and dynamic character for Blanchett to play off of.

4. Gravity

You remember the first time you saw The Matrix and you were like—holy shit, that’s so cool, how did they do that? And then you saw it again and you were like—hey, there’s a lot of really cool philosophical and thematic stuff going on here in the imagery and narrative design? That’s basically Gravity. It’s a bare bones survival story, with a lot of awesome imagery (the film is about rebirth, and the shots of the severing of the umbilical cord, Sandra Bullock in the womb and the final shot of her emerging from the goo tell that story beautifully). While the script isn’t the best, the tension had me on the edge of my seat throughout, the long takes were stunning, and both Bullock and Clooney give bravura performances. Some of my friends cried. Also, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki LITERALLY INVENTED A NEW WAY TO LIGHT AND SHOOT A MOTION PICTURE ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME.

T2. Short Term 12

A couple of years ago, I made my first legitimate short film—by made, I mean co-produced and wrote, the direction was handled by the talented Rikke Heinecke—with the help of loads of family and friends. It went on to play a couple festivals, but not under its original title. The film was a comedy about hipsterdom in Seattle, initially called i am not a hipster (all lowercase because duh). While it was not our best film, it was a good learning experience, and a few people liked it enough to put it in their festival lineup, so I can’t complain. But it played at festivals under a different name. Turns out, simultaneously, a different film was in the making by an unknown director by the name of Destin Daniel Cretton—with the same title as our film (though without the lowercase styling because I dunno). Our film became titles are too mainstream and their feature film went on to play Sundance. I think things worked out pretty well.

Fast forward two years.

Film Crit Hulk recommends a movie, calls it a masterpiece. Says there wasn’t a dry eye in the house at SXSW, where he saw the film. It’s called Short Term 12, and it goes on to win the Audience Award, as well as a 99% rating on RottenTomatoes. And who is this film by? Why, of course, it’s Destin Daniel Cretton. So I saw the movie. Fucking A. It’s exactly as good as everyone said it was. Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. gave performances worthy of Oscar wins, much less considerations—the latter I found to be one of the most relatable screen personas in, well, my filmgoing era. And yeah, I cried. You will too, once you see it. The drama was so real, so tangible; it was as if I was always right there with the people in the film—people, not characters—in the situations they were in, which is kind of insane seeing as this kind of setting has never really been effectively put to screen before (at least not in recent memory). That in and of itself is insane, as the issues plaguing the characters of this film are far more universal and relevant and real than any blockbuster. This would be my #1 film in any other year, but this year there are not one, but two masterpieces with which Short Term 12 has to compete.

T2. Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s only 26. He graduated USC’s grad film program what, a week and a half ago? And yet here he is, delivering one of the most profound and profoundly human stories of the year. Michael B. Jordan and writer/director Coogler paint a daringly human portrait of the true-life Oscar Grant—a flawed man, destined for an unpleasant end, just on the path to recovery. Both a comment on racism in modern society and a testament to humanity’s unique ability to overcome the heavy burdens of circumstance, the film is unflinchingly honest and heart-wrenchingly sad. A small film, that unfortunately very few people will see, which if its audience was larger, could change lives. Even Insensitive Cell Phone Fuck, who was on his phone, lighting up the theatre for everyone else, bawled like a crying baby at the end because of how much he felt in his cold cold heart. Everyone did. Myself included. And it was a beautiful communal experience, one that will affect me for the foreseeable future. (Which has always struck me as a lousy aphorism, ‘foreseeable future’—more like an oxymoron really—but hey, you get what I’m saying, right? … right? Eh, fuck it.)

1. Her

When Spike Jonze shopped this film around to Hollywood, he had one thing on his mind—a wide release—and thankfully, he got what he wanted. On January 10, 2014, Her will hit screens nationwide. And hopefully, sometime after that, we can gather on the internet to discuss it, as a people, and hopefully, sometime after that, we’ll know something about ourselves that we didn’t before. And we’ll feel new feelings we never knew we were capable of feeling, and think thoughts we never thought we could think of. This is the potential blessing of Spike Jonze’s meditation on love, romance, technology, the future, intelligence, divorce, relationships and feelings. You’re probably thinking, okay, we get it—you can go kill yourself now. Well, go see the movie. Then maybe I’ll contemplate suicide. If you still want me to. But here’s the thing.

Her is a singular cinematic achievement that manages to nearly perfectly articulate what it’s like to be human.

In a year with films by The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Jason Reitman, David O. Russell and Woody Allen, Spike Jonze beat them all. I’m not saying you have to see it–I’m just saying you’ll be living in the dark until you do.

The performances are brilliant, with standouts being an unrecognizable Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson’s Voice, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Portia Doubleday and Olivia Wilde (so basically everyone).

The script manages to articulate emotions and feelings (as my friend so wonderfully put it, ‘nebulous concepts’) that have never been fully articulated before, at least not in a way that’s so universally interpretable. Spike Jonze said no to any studio that wouldn’t guarantee him a wide release, and boy am I grateful for that. If this movie becomes a hit, the world will be a much smarter, more intuitive and far kinder place.

Jonze knows just how to position Hoyte Van Hoytema’s eye to place you directly inside Theodore’s head (a perspective that even invites the audience to feel shame, which is a unique experience in a theatre as far as I’m concerned), Arcade Fire knows just how to enhance the mood, and editors Eric Zumbrunnen and Jeff Buchanan know just when to cut. You can feel Theodore’s inner monologue, ’cause you’re thinking it too. The jokes are funny. The characters aren’t characters. They’re people, plain and complex and brilliant and stupid and contradictory and sweet and acidic and guilty and innocent and experienced and naïve and simple–even, and especially, the OS Samantha, voiced perfectly by Scarlett Johansson, who makes a strong case for the first ever voice-only Oscar-winning performance (a friend of mine, the same friend, a wonderful writer named Cameron Evans, so aptly stated: “Johansson imbues Samantha with so much charisma, childlike curiosity and existential terror that I can confidently say she is one of the most real, developed characters of the year”). Theodore’s ex Catherine, played to perfection in a small dose by Rooney Mara, could even be a stand in for Sofia Coppola, Jonze’s ex-wife, as Giovanni Ribisi was for Jonze in Coppola’s similarly brilliant Lost In Translation.

It’s a sci-fi, too. The production design is understated and smart–Jonze’s future LA never feels unreal. Landmarks are recognizable. This ain’t no Blade Runner, and it doesn’t try to be. No VFX feels like VFX and there’s a surprising amount of practical effects that really enhance the world, and I want to live in it, despite its clear faults, unlike most sci-fi futures.

Philosophically interesting, intelligent, hilarious and thoroughly entertaining–Her is a masterpiece, and an instant addition to the canon of best films of the 2010s.

It’s Best Picture, if I had to choose.

AWARDS

Best Director

  • Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
  • Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12
  • Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
  • Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
  • Spike Jonze, Her
  • Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
  • James Ponsoldt, The Spectacular Now
  • Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Actor

  • Christian Bale, American Hustle
  • Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
  • Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
  • Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
  • Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
  • Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Best Actress

  • Amy Adams, American Hustle
  • Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
  • Sandra Bullock, Gravity
  • Brie Larson, Short Term 12
  • Rooney Mara, Side Effects
  • Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
  • Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actress (yeah, there are a lot)

  • Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12
  • Selena Gomez, Spring Breakers
  • Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
  • Allison Janney, The Way Way Back
  • Scarlett Johansson, Her
  • Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
  • Melissa Leo, Prisoners
  • Lupita N’yongo, 12 Years A Slave
  • Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Sarah Paulson, 12 Years A Slave
  • Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Olivia Wilde, Her

Best Supporting Actor

  • Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
  • Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now
  • Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks
  • Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
  • James Franco, Spring Breakers
  • John Gallagher, Jr., Short Term 12
  • Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
  • Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back

Best Original Screenplay

  • Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
  • Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
  • Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
  • Spike Jonze, Her
  • Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell, American Hustle

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope, Philomena
  • Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12
  • Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
  • Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, The Spectacular Now
  • Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, This Is The End
  • Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

Best Cinematography

  • Sean Bobbit, 12 Years A Slave
  • Don Burgess, 42
  • Roger Deakins, Prisoners
  • Benoit Debie, Spring Breakers
  • Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Stuart Dryburgh, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  • Hoyte Van Hoytema, Her
  • Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity

Best Editing (again, a lot to love)

  • Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers, American Hustle
  • Pete Beaudreau, All Is Lost
  • Alan Edward Bell, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Jeff Buchanan and Eric Zumbrunnen, Her
  • Joel Cox, Prisoners
  • Roderick Jaynes, Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Darrin Navarro, The Spectacular Now
  • Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips
  • Nat Sanders, Short Term 12
  • Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects
  • Joe Walker, 12 Years A Slave
  • Lauren Zuckerman, Don Jon

Best Production Design

  • 42
  • American Hustle
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Elysium
  • Her
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Prisoners
  • Short Term 12
  • Spring Breakers

Best Original Score

  • Arcade Fire, Her
  • Ramin Djawadi, Pacific Rim
  • Henry Jackman, Captain Phillips
  • Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks
  • Rob Simonsen, The Spectacular Now
  • Joel P. West, Short Term 12
  • Hans Zimmer, Man of Steel

Best VFX

  • Elysium
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Man of Steel
  • Pacific Rim
  • World War Z

Why You Should See White House Down (Seriously)

It’s the pinnacle of dumb fun summer blockbuster entertainment.

James Vanderbilt, writer of the infinitely more intelligent Zodiac, has crafted a masterclass in plant and payoff, and, to put it nicely, “pays homage to” Die Hard beat-for-beautiful-beat. There have been loads of Die Hard ripoffs over the years, but it’s been quite a while since they’ve been in vogue (and the relative failure of this film will probably ensure that we don’t see any more in the near future).

The thing is, White House Down is to Die Hard what 10 Things I Hate About You was to Taming of the Shrew. It’s a popular tale, retold and recontextualized for the post-9/11 generation, which makes it sound far smarter than it is. It’s not. But that’s also the point.

This generation, more than any other, has a refined appreciation for camp humor, a love of all things hilariously bad. From hipsters who thrive on ironic enjoyment to fans of cult hit The Room, the so-called “ironic lifestyle” has become the new “ethos of our age”, to mixed results (to further understand what I’m citing, read here: link). While a new style of brilliant humor blooms and a healthy cynicism permeates the electorate, it seems that sincerity has fallen by the wayside, a relic of times when we only assumed the government was spying on us. Modern media and pop culture reflect this sensibility, where antiheroes are the new bee’s knees, from Breaking Bad and Mad Men to Iron Man and Batman.

White House Down both celebrates and mocks that optimistic sensibility, appealing simultaneously to fans of Frank Capra and Fast Five successfully. There’s an earnest quality to the storytelling here, a genuine desire to bring out the inner good guy in all of us, but its some-would-call-it-corniness is well-tempered by its tongue-firmly-in-cheek approach. Each plot cliché, character trope, and tired setpiece is reinvigorated by the filmmakers’ choice to accentuate the normally negative qualities inherent in each one to humorous effect. For example, at one point, a stereotypical hacker (quite a fun character), literally types in “Access NORAD” and the Norad screen immediately pops up. (SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ THIS PARENTHETICAL IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSPOILED: Towards the end of the film, the little flag-twirling girl waves the flag on the White House Lawn for obvious metaphorical reasons and to call off an airstrike.) This film knows exactly what it is.

The audience of the screening I attended was cheering and applauding and laughing at all the right times, despite it being a Sunday and the theater only 80% full.

From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s a solidly made action film. On the screenwriting end, every plant is paid off, the one-liners are glorious and the structure is flawless (adhering to the Die Hard outline is never a bad decision in a movie like this). The trailers didn’t reveal the villain or its plot, which, while a bit predictable to well-informed viewers, remains enjoyable to watch and appreciate. While the CGI is occasionally not good enough to maintain believability, and the cinematography is one notch short of atrocious, Roland Emmerich does a fine job of telling the story and maintaining the tone so crucial to the film’s success (and often misinterpreted by critics as unintentional). It’s clear why he was selected to direct this film despite a series of recent misfires from his work in the postmodern fourth of July classic Independence Day, as that film similarly had many issues in the logic department and wondrously ridiculous action.

However, and this is where you can argue my theory goes totally off the rails, this film is almost a postmodernization of Independence Day, thematically, which is odd to say because that film is postmodern in and of itself, which is to say that this film might be a product of the next era of filmmaking (post-postmodernism?). It combines the earnestness of a work of a bygone era, like the original Superman, with the postmodern self-awareness of films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Overthinking it? Probably, but if you make the trek see this film, at the very least you’ll have a great time at the theater.

Holy fuck I just wrote an essay on White House Down. Definitely didn’t start the day thinking that would happen.


World War Z – Film Review

Brad Pitt showed up at the pre-screening I caught (thanks, Slashfilm). NBD.

The definition of a fun, harmless summer blockbuster.

The pre-, mid-, and post-production struggles on “World War Z” were well-documented on every film website known to man. After a draft by J. Michael Straczynski (the underrated “Changeling”) achieved a studio greenlight and received tremendously positive feedback on the internet, Matthew Michael Carnahan (the similarly underrated “Lions for Lambs”) was hired to rewrite. This draft, which was unfinished at the time shooting began, thus causing much footage to be missing, was the basis of the first version of the film. That film had many problems, according to everyone involved. Depending on which outlet of news you read, star/producer Brad Pitt and director Marc Forster may or may not have had major on-set disagreements. But once completed, everyone involved agreed that the third act of the film wasn’t working. So the studio brought in much-maligned Damon Lindelof (“Star Trek Into Darkness”, “Prometheus”, “Lost”), he of the “JJ mafia”, to pitch them a solution. He proposed two. One was a complete reworking of the entire third act, and the studio bought that one (at the considerable cost of very expensive reshoots, almost unheard of for a film of this size) and brought on Drew Goddard (the really underrated “Cabin in the Woods”) to help Lindelof as he got busy with other projects. But none of that I had an issue with. Unfortunately, it was also revealed that several of the scenes shot in Budapest were dropped from the final cut in order to water down the film’s political undertones, and steer it towards a more generally friendly summer blockbuster. Yuck. Just because something’s fun, doesn’t mean it can’t be smart or challenge an audience. Intelligence is not anathema to entertainment, studios. Okay, rant over.

The result is imperfect and doesn’t fulfill its potential, but it’s still quite a bit of fun. We’ll likely never know what the Straczynski draft would have become (some even went so far as to call it “Best Picture material” and compare it to “Children of Men”, with its reportedly political emphasis), but the screenwriting here isn’t bad. There are bold, inventive action and horror setpieces throughout, and while the character development doesn’t really exist, this isn’t a movie about Gerry Lane (Pitt)–though we do get just enough “family time” to care about his outcome–this is a movie about action, zombies and figuring out the root of the big zombie problem.

The film is designed to launch a franchise. I’m not sure if it will. It’ll have to do huge business to do so. But it works fine as a standalone. It’s not must-see, but if you’re into big blockbusters, this is a zombie movie that certainly deserves being seen in a theater.

The highlight of the film is actually Forster’s direction. He keeps the tension consistently high, throwing jump scares in at select times to keep you off-balance. The camera movements and action choreography are designed very effectively to place you in the unique world, maintaining a sense of realism and palpable fear despite the obviously false nature of such a scenario. He has a gift for creating atmosphere, and he gets great performances from his actors, including the kids, despite a script that’s thanklessly procedural in its nature. Pitt’s performance suitably carries the film.

Tech credits are solid all-around, with an added bonus of Matthew Bellamy‘s additional compositions performed by his band Muse. They blend in nicely with Marco Beltrami‘s suitable, subtle and strong score.

If you like good, fun blockbusters, you’ll like this. It’s not gonna win Best Picture, but Best Visual Effects is definitely on the table, and I’d give it at least a nomination for Best Badass Female Character.


Call and Response – Bubba Fish, writer/director of YouTube smash “Workout Buddies”

It’s been a wild ride for Bubba Fish these past few weeks. Since the online premiere of his short film “Workout Buddies”, a sort-of sequel to an earlier film–“Day and Night“, which accumulated over 150,000 views on YouTube–with the same cast, crew and themes, the ‘bro love story’ has accumulated over 50,000 views on YouTube, been posted on TotalFratMove.com and even featured on Wesleying. So the reveal of the film’s humble beginnings came as a surprise to me.

“We shot this a while ago. In twenty-four hours,” said Fish, the co-star, editor, producer, co-writer and director of “Workout Buddies”, “right before break.” About to return home for a break from classes, Fish and his buddy Michael Steves, who co-wrote and co-stars in the short, decided to embark on a ridiculous 24-hour shooting spree. The entirety of the film was shot in that time period. Fish remarked, “I was thinking I should probably pack”. With a little help from their friends—Joe Snell, Melanie Avalon and Drew Sampson—they were able to finish and Bubba made his flight home.

Following the sprint, however, the footage languished on Fish’s digital shelves as he focused on classwork and other projects. After a few months, Fish contacted his friend Eric Radloff, lead singer of the USC band Bear Attack (recently featured multiple times on the ABC Family hit “Pretty Little Liars”, and right here on LifeAfterNirvana), who had composed the song for the short’s sort-of prequel. Fish gave Radloff instructions to “make something poppy”. Radloff willfully disobeyed, and Fish now credits the acoustic, falsetto-filled song for creating the wonderfully bromantic atmosphere of the film. (You can download it here.)

The creative process on “Workout Buddies” was unique, in that Fish and Radloff collaborated throughout the editing process. “We sent it back and forth. I’d do an edit of the film, then he’d edit the song, I’d do another edit, he’d do another edit…” Fish recalls.

Fish is quick to credit the bromantic nature of the film for its success. “A lot of the recommended videos on the side [of the YouTube page] are gay videos,” Fish says. The top comment on the six-minute video at the moment is: “Hot makeout scene starts at 6:01”. It has 32 likes.

According to Fish, the film was inspired by “traditional romantic comedy structure”, subverting the tropes by focusing on bros who work out together. The over-dramatic nature of the execution of these emotional beats creates a comedy worth watching, and, according to Fish, “universally relatable”.

From personal experience, I’d say he ain’t lyin’. Check out Workout Buddies here, and revel in all its bromantic glory.


My Personal Choices for the Best of 2012 in Film

Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 1.40.31 AM

I watched 52 films that came out this year, which is a lot more than I’ve ever watched in a single year before (my TV watching did suffer, in case you were wondering [you totally weren’t, it’s okay, you didn’t hurt my feelings…much]). Hope you enjoy!

NOTABLE FILMS UNSEEN: The Master, Cloud Atlas, Promised Land, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sessions, Amour, Killer Joe, The Intouchables, Wreck-It Ralph, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone.

CRITERIA FOR SELECTION:

  • Good Message : Mainstream Appeal Ratio (i.e. how much positive change did this film have on the world at large?)
  • Entertainment Value (i.e. how much did I personally enjoy the film?)
  • Emotional Resonance (i.e. how much did this film move me emotionally?)

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

  • God Bless America
  • Skyfall
  • Ted
  • Celeste & Jesse Forever
  • Liberal Arts
  • Game Change
  • Lawless
  • The Cabin in the Woods

TOP TWENTY FILMS OF THE YEAR:

20. LINCOLN (dir. Steven Spielberg, scr. Tony Kushner) — My review here does a good job explaining how I feel about this film. Lincoln barely cracked the Top 20, but Kushner’s unflinchingly literate screenplay illustrating the art of compromise has proved more popular than I expected among mainstream America.

19. THE HUNGER GAMES (dir. Gary Ross, scr. Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray) — This is where the “mainstream : message ratio” comes into play. The Hunger Games proves that there is a literate, smart alternative to the moronic, mysogynistic, unbelievably-bad-for-you Twilight Saga in the YA market for girls. The message is solid, the performances are solid and the cinematography, while controversial, immersed me emotionally in a fictional world–a difficult task for any film.

18. LIFE OF PI (dir. Ang Lee, scr. David Magee) — I went into this film with extremely low expectations and emerged a very happy camper. Ang Lee once again proves that he can master any type of story in any type of visual language. While the message was a bit muddled, this Cast Away-on-a-boat-with-a-tiger movie won my heart with dazzling visuals and a deft sense of tone.

17. FLIGHT (dir. Robert Zemeckis, wri. John Gatins) — My review here covers the basics. While the film is flawed, Zemeckis’ experienced directorial hand and an absolutely engrossing performance from Denzel Washington create a compelling addiction narrative with one of the strongest central characters put to screen in recent memory.

16. ZERO DARK THIRTY (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, wri. Mark Boal) — Jessica Chastain delivers one of the best performances of the year as an analyst dead set on finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. A realistic, slow-burn thriller from the team behind the better film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is nonetheless an interesting character study and an incisive look into the absolute, unflinching lack of reward for efforts made in the name of the dogs of war.

15. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (dir. Colin Trevorrow, wri. Derek Connolly) — It shocks me that this film is so high up on the list, even now. This film caught me off-guard when I first saw it, with its mix of absurd scenario, human characters, and riotous sense of humor. Mark Duplass, Aubrey Plaza, Kristen Bell and Jake Johnson all bring something interesting to the table in this little feel-good movie that could.

14. ARGO (dir. Ben Affleck, scr. Chris Terrio) — This film pushes all the right buttons, and does all the right things. Its message is solid as well. The acting is all-around excellent, and the screenplay is razor sharp. I’m surprised this film isn’t higher, but to me it was just missing something, and I’m not sure what it was, but I suppose it just felt a little too neat for my taste. Here’s the podcast I guested on, talking about it.

13. ANNA KARENINA (dir. Joe Wright, scr. Tom Stoppard) — My review here does a good job summarizing my thoughts. While it doesn’t seem to have much of a mainstream impact, I couldn’t stop thinking about this movie after I saw it, and I can still have conversations debating the film with my friends who have also seen it. An unusual, groundbreaking adaptation of one of the most profound musings on love in the history of literature.

12. CHRONICLE (dir. Josh Trank, wri. Max Landis) — No, that’s not a typo. Yes, you read that right. CHRON-I-CLE. The found-footage superhero movie. A box-office sleeper hit, Chronicle delved into the psychology of the creation of a monster (played superbly by the soon-to-be star Dane DeHaan). Incidents like those at Columbine and Virginia Tech have made this movie relevant for a whole new generation of kids… and parents.

11. HITCHCOCK (dir. Sacha Gervasi, scr. John McLaughlin) — My review here. A sweet, but never saccharine, fictionalized biopic of the master of suspense. Excellent performances all-around, an unexpected sense of humor and a classic Hollywood love story make this one of the most enjoyable, satisfying pictures of the year.

BEST PICTURE NOMINEES:

10. SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (wri/dir. Martin McDonagh) — My review here. This little-seen gangster-epic-sendup blends an underrated performance from Sam Rockwell with several other excellent actors and a witty, legitimately smart screenplay from In Bruges mastermind McDonagh. It sneaks into the last best picture slot.

9. MOONRISE KINGDOM (wri. Roman Coppola & Wes Anderson, dir. Wes Anderson) — My review here. Wes Anderson does Wes Anderson, and while that might mean a more distinct, select audience than other films, this childhood love story for adults wins my heart and has a decent message to boot.

8. LOOPER (wri/dir. Rian Johnson) — My review here. A mainstream AND critical success, Johnson’s sci-fi opus overcame somewhat questionable time-travel logic with an amazing emotional center and a surprisingly intimate second half that brought home a powerful, necessary message regarding the cycle of violence.

7. SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (wri/dir. Lorene Scafaria) — Yes, I know what its score is on RottenTomatoes. Yes, I also know the Metacritic score. Yes, I realize it shifts tones as much as a poor ripoff of a Tarantino film. However, this movie moved me in a way I can’t describe. The ending brings me to tears every time I see it. Steve Carell and Keira Knightley lead a cast of talented character actors put to work in surprising, if small ways. A poignant, entrancing love story, this movie is one we all need to see.

6. LES MISÉRABLES (dir. Tom Hooper, scr. William Nicholson, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer) — A flawed, if powerful adaptation of the classic musical (itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel) that, courtesy of actors singing live and one four-minute long take of Anne Hathaway moving everyone in America to tears with her haunting rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream”, is able to convey its amazing message(s) through an alternately grandiose and intimate look at the Revolution of 1830 in France.

5. THE IMPOSSIBLE (dir. J.A. Bayona, wri. Sergío G. Sanchez) — A devastating, brutal tsunami sequence rivals the best of disaster sequences in cinematic history. Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and young Tom Holland deliver raw, realistic performances in a movie that suffers only from the implausibility of the truth it portrays. A riveting family drama, and a wonderfully human story of survival.

4. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (dir. Christopher Nolan, scr. Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan, David S. Goyer) — The best superhero trilogy ever made concludes with a less intelligent, but still astounding finale. Not as good as The Dark Knight, but it never tried to be. It laid down its many messages for a whole new generation of superheroes–the kids that will grow up to change the world. So what if Hollywood time was used a bit too much? Nolan knew he had a billion-dollar box-office at the ready just for making the movie, so he decided to use it to do as much good as he possibly could (ahem, Joss Whedon).

3. DJANGO UNCHAINED (wri/dir. Quentin Tarantino) — Tarantino’s at the top of his game with this south-set Western that invites interesting discussion on the politics of race and violence, as per usual with the master. The most fun you’ll have in a theater all year, Django has two of Tarantino’s best villains…and best protagonists. The only flaw with Django is its underutilization of the masterful Kerry Washington. But Scandal’s still on TV so I’ll forgive it.

2. THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (scr/dir. Stephen Chbosky) — Some audience members were put off by the main character’s perpetual state of incomprehensible loneliness. But that inquiry into the mind of a 15-year-old boy, a lonely boy named Charlie played so superbly by Logan Lerman, is what makes the film necessary. We all must relate to Charlie. We must understand him. For to understand him and to empathize with him is to understand and empathize with all of those who have ever been lonely. All of us. Empathy is the key to the perfect civilization and this film masterfully brings that message home. An ‘A’ CinemaScore showed that most of us commonfolk in the audience do have the capacity to learn that empathy, and thusly have the capacity to include the excluded and give the world a chance at acceptance and love for each other. Oh, and also, did I mention Emma Watson?

1. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (scr/dir. David O. Russell) — It’s a romcom family drama about mental illness. It’s confusing, I know. But the realistic elements blend beautifully with the stylized dialogue present in the romance of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, both giving their best performances to date (the ensemble is fantastic all-around). It makes me swoon just thinking about how quirky and awesome it is. This year’s best story, I left the film feeling amazing and jazzed and ready to try to write something hopefully just as good. I’ve talked to no one who’s disliked it in the slightest. It’s a universal indie film with a heart the size of China and I can’t stress enough how great the messages are. Go see it. You’ll only be glad you did.

And now, the individual awards:

BEST DIRECTOR:

  • J.A. Bayona – The Impossible
  • Rian Johnson – Looper
  • Ang Lee – Life of Pi
  • David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
  • Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Robert Zemeckis – Flight, Stephen Chbosky – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Tom Hooper – Les Misérables, Christopher Nolan – The Dark Knight Rises, Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:

  • Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola – Moonrise Kingdom
  • Rian Johnson – Looper
  • Martin McDonagh – Seven Psychopaths
  • Lorene Scafaria – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
  • Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained

Honorable Mentions: Drew Goddard & Joss Whedon – The Cabin in the Woods, Sergío G. Sanchez – The Impossible, John Gatins – Flight

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:

  • Mark Boal – Zero Dark Thirty
  • Stephen Chbosky – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Tony Kushner – Lincoln
  • David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
  • Chris Terrio – Argo

Honorable Mention: Nicholson/Boublil/Schönberg/Kretzmer – Les Misérables

BEST ACTOR:

  • Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
  • Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (tie)
  • Anthony Hopkins – Hitchcock
  • Hugh Jackman – Les Misérables
  • Denzel Washington – Flight (tie)

Honorable Mentions: Jamie Foxx – Django Unchained, Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained, Tom Holland – The Impossible, Joaquin Phoenix – The Master

BEST ACTRESS:

  • Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
  • Keira Knightley – Anna Karenina, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games
  • Helen Mirren – Hitchcock
  • Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Honorable Mentions: Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Kara Hayward – Moonrise Kingdom

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

  • Samantha Barks – Les Misérables
  • Kristen Bell – Safety Not Guaranteed
  • Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables, The Dark Knight Rises
  • Frances McDormand – Moonrise Kingdom
  • Kelly Reilly – Flight

Honorable Mentions: Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook, Kerry Washington – Django Unchained, Amy Adams – The Master, Mae Whitman – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

  • James D’Arcy – Hitchcock
  • Robert DeNiro – Silver Linings Playbook
  • Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained
  • Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
  • Ewan McGregor – The Impossible

Honorable Mentions: John Goodman – Argo and Flight, Alan Arkin – Argo, Bryan Cranston – Argo, Bill Murray – Moonrise Kingdom, Bruce Willis – Moonrise Kingdom and Looper, Bradley Whitford – The Cabin in the Woods, Tom Hardy – The Dark Knight Rises and Lawless, Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master, Sam Rockwell – Seven Psychopaths, Samuel L. Jackson – Django Unchained, James Spader – Lincoln, Russell Crowe – Les Misérables, Jude Law – Anna Karenina

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:

  • Roger Deakins – Skyfall
  • Mihai Malaimare, Jr. – The Master
  • Ben Richardson – Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Robert “The Wizard” Richardson – Django Unchained
  • Robert Yeoman – Moonrise Kingdom

Honorable Mentions: Caleb Deschanel – Jack Reacher, Masanobu Takayanagi – Silver Linings Playbook, Don Burgess – Flight, Claudio Miranda – Life of Pi, Greig Fraser – Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly, Dariusz Wolski – Prometheus, Wally Pfister – The Dark Knight Rises, Seamus McGarvey – Anna Karenina, Steve Yedlin – Looper

BEST EDITING:

  • David Blackburn – Detention
  • William Goldenberg – Argo, Zero Dark Thirty
  • Fred Raskin – Django Unchained
  • Jeremiah O’Driscoll – Flight
  • Melanie Ann Oliver – Les Misérables, Anna Karenina

Honorable Mentions: Jay Cassidy – Silver Linings Playbook, Andrew Weisblum – Moonrise Kingdom

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE:

  • Michael Brook – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
  • Alexandre Desplat – Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Moonrise Kingdom, Rise of the Guardians, Rust and Bone
  • Danny Elfman – Silver Linings Playbook, Hitchcock, Promised Land, Frankenweenie
  • Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Hans Zimmer – The Dark Knight Rises

Honorable Mentions: Alan Silvestri – The Avengers and Flight, James Newton Howard – The Hunger Games and Snow White & the Huntsman, Jonny Greenwood – The Master


Django Unchained – Film Review

Literally the only qualm I have with this movie is that Kerry Washington (center) isn’t in it more.

Two words: Fuck. Yes.

(Also a really excellent film on racism and its causes. One of Tarantino’s best. Okay, done now. Yay brevity!)


Anna Karenina – Film Review

I never thought I’d see the day when I saw a film too smart for mainstream critics. This is that day. A visually stunning, intellectually challenging, and altogether beautiful adaptation of Tolstoy’s epic novel.

We all know the story. Or at least we should, because we’re all literate and intelligent, right? So I’ll skip over the plot introduction. Wikipedia it if you need to, then come back. But avoid spoilers.

Alright. You good? Great.

Joe Wright is known for directing visual masterpieces starring Keira Knightley, releasing them to high critical and decent commercial acclaim (see Atonement, Pride & Prejudice). So he’s trying to replicate the formula here–or so it seems. In reality, the director known for sweeping long takes and moving emotional drama has both reinforced and subverted the conventions of his own style with this Tolstoy adaptation.

The visual style deserves some serious discussion. Nearly the entirety of the film takes place on a single stage. That’s not hyperbole–even the outdoor sets are meant to exist on the indoor stage. It’s difficult to explain, so I’ll say you should see it to fully understand it. It’s beautiful to watch, if difficult to comprehend at first. The only scenes that take place outside the stage and are shot on location as such are the scenes that take place in the country. The scenes that take place in the stage are the scenes in upper-crust areas, and the setting is beautifully symbolic. The stage is meant to represent the theatricality of an imperial existence, that each of the members of Russian high society are each players in a complex play that must put on a false persona, whether or not that persona suits them. The cutting and the locations in the scenes in the country are simple and beautiful, but most of all, depicting a wide open and free environment. The freedom, the emphasis on the beauty of the lack of roles despite the lack of supposed high-class culture, allows a sharp contrast to the constraints of high society.

But of course, the film is really about love. That’s what Anna Karenina is in a nutshell, a treatise on love. This is where the film both succeeds immensely and falters slightly. As a treatise on the ideals of love, it absolutely succeeds. In depicting the actual romance, Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard (a legend in his own right) choose to skip over some crucial emotional (and plot-related) beats in characters’ relationships and allow the audience to fill in the blanks, which has upset some critics as they perceive the romance that follows to be shallower than necessary. While this might be a valid artistic choice and an efficient time-saver (considering the 2-hour-plus runtime, probably a good thing), it alienates viewers who don’t know the plot and forces them to work harder to achieve emotional impact. While I’m all for placing trust in the audience to put 2+2 together, it would have been nicer to see Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a long way from Kick-Ass) and titular Anna (Knightley) truly fall for each other. It would invest us in them and their conflicts more.

Although it is entirely possible that that was a deliberate choice. Anna is a character who makes despicable choices for relatable reasons, and the point of a film like this is for the audience to walk out debating Anna’s actions and to determine their own concepts of love, and giving too much weight to her relationship with Vronsky could bias us against Alexei Karenin (a phenomenally subtle Jude Law), her lovely, selfless husband who gets pretty well shafted by Anna’s love for another man. There is another major subplot revolving around an awkward country man named Levin (a delightful Domnhall Gleeson, last seen as Bill Weasley in the Harry Potter films) and an upper-class girl named Kitty (Alicia Vikander) that epitomizes the good side of love in contrast to Anna’s bad side, and the idealistic vs. the realistic, one of the more interesting debates in the film.

“Sensual desire indulged for its own sake is the misuse of something sacred.” – Levin

The technical work is genius. Oscar nominations are likely headed to Seamus McGarvey for cinematography and the costume and production designers. Dario Marianelli delivers an opulent score that might slip under the radar, and Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing certainly deserves praise for thematically building metaphors, not overcutting and building dramatic tension smartly.

It’s nice to see a film like this existing in the modern landscape–a film of such ambition, visual beauty, sensuality and intelligence. Whether it will connect with mainstream audiences or even mainstream critics is yet to be seen. But it’s definitely something that should. Go see it.

4.5/5 stars.