Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Some years, you feel part of the critical consensus. Other years, you see eye-to-eye on some picks while at the same time championing a few unloved and overlooked choices. 2013 was a year in which, for the most part, I felt outside the consensus. Her, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave didn't make my Top 10; none of them moved or impressed me as much as some of my under-the-radar selections. (My thoughts on Her here. My thoughts on Gravity here. My thoughts on 12 Years a Slave here.)
Before I reveal my list, I should acknowledge the few movies I'm mad I missed. Those include The Invisible Woman, Viola, Night Across the Street, The Last Time I Saw Macao, Passion, Cousin Jules and Ulrich Seidl's Paradise trilogy. (And I would have loved to have caught The Grandmaster one more time.) So, with those caveats aside, here is my Top 10 of 2013...
1. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. Blue Is the Warmest Color
3. Let the Fire Burn
4. Before Midnight
6. Upstream Color
7. Stories We Tell
8. At Berkeley
9. This Is Martin Bonner
10. The Unspeakable Act
I go into more detail about my Nos. 10-6 here. And I wrote about movies Nos. 5-1 here. (For more list fun, check out my full Village Voice film ballot.)
For what it's worth, seven of my 10 choices -- the top seven, actually -- were all seen at film festivals. The other three were watched as online screeners. (I caught part of At Berkeley initially at Toronto but couldn't stay for the whole film, unfortunately.) It seems that this split will continue in the near future: between the shared community (with its exhaustion and anticipation) of a film festival; and the intimacy of one's own home watching an online screener that sometimes can be maddening if the damn thing loads slowly. That latter category of film consumption is reflected in the above photo, which is a shot of me on my MacBook as I'm watching The Unspeakable Act, which includes a scene where the main character is watching a video on her MacBook. I've rarely felt so weirdly connected to someone onscreen.
Also, a few more words about my top two films. Leaving Cannes, I had ranked Blue Is the Warmest Color and Inside Llewyn Davis as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. It was the thinnest of margins. But after rewatching them both back in Los Angeles, I decided that Llewyn Davis cut deeper and said more than Blue, which was nonetheless dazzling and poignant in its own right. The fascinating thing about film festivals is how they provide you with a first-draft opinion about movies. But those opinions aren't definitive: They're best-guesses, and checking back on some of my favorites months later helped crystallize my initial feelings about them. That process doesn't end, of course: Five years from now, my Top 10 of 2013 might look slightly different.
I hope you had a good 2013, whether at the movies or in your real life. Personally, I was excited to begin a regular column at Playboy and be named Chief Film Critic for Paste. Additionally, 2013 was my first time at Cannes, an experience that lived up to my significant expectations. (Going to True/False for the first time was also a real treat.) And I was flattered and honored to be asked to write for The Dissolve; I very much admire what those guys and gals are doing over there. And, of course, continuing to write for Screen International and Deadspin -- two very different audiences -- remains a thrill. Here's to an even better 2014 for all of us.
Friday, December 27, 2013
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
There is a very good chance you've never heard of C.O.G. Premiering in Sundance's U.S. dramatic competition, it was mostly overlooked both at the festival and then later during its theatrical run. I loved it, especially Denis O'Hare's supporting turn. At Deadspin, Will Leitch and I each pick our favorite forgotten movie performance of 2013. Seemed like a good opportunity to sing O'Hare's praises, which I do here.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Monday, December 23, 2013
This week's Criticwire Survey asks the question, "What's the best piece of non-2013 culture you discovered in 2013?" This seemed like a perfect opportunity to write about seeing the revival of Einstein on the Beach in Los Angeles this year. Hope you enjoy.
Friday, December 20, 2013
With the Pazz & Jop ballot deadline on Christmas Eve, I'm currently spending a lot of my time going back through the year's best albums to decide which ones are going to make the cut. I feel pretty confident one of them will be Settle, the debut album from Disclosure, a duo made up of brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence. Just about everything on Settle grabs the ear, but today I'm really feeling "F for You."
Thursday, December 19, 2013
I'm curious how audiences will respond to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It's a big would-be crowd-pleaser starring a guy who's had hits by hanging out with Robert De Niro and museum exhibits that come to life. But Walter Mitty is a different animal: an effects-heavy, seriocomic tale about seizing the day. I wasn't bitterly opposed to the film, but I found myself rather underwhelmed by the whole thing. My Walter Mitty review is up at Paste.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Her is the latest of a kind of romantic comedy that also includes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and (500) Days of Summer. In these movies, an ineffectual, sensitive man-child struggles to win the girl of his dreams. I like Her fine, but what I think is interesting is that most of its rave reviews haven't discussed the movie's most interesting element, which is its examination of this sort of guy and his major limitations. For Playboy, I discuss the sad fate of so-called Sad-Sack Sensitive Guys. Hope you enjoy.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
This is probably not a popular choice, but my favorite Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration is Shutter Island. Nervy, distinct, a bit mad, it haunts me, which I wrote about here. Their latest team-up is for The Wolf of Wall Street, which isn't as strong but definitely has its stellar attributes. And I should remind myself that with Shutter Island I was initially impressed but not bowled over: It took a second viewing to be properly wowed. Maybe that will happen here, too. Regardless, for Screen International here's my Wolf of Wall Street review.
Monday, December 16, 2013
A lot of films could fit this description, but in the latest Criticwire survey, I went with one I've already seen -- but had real reservations about. (By the way, last year for this question, I selected 12 Years a Slave. Pretty decent pick, yes?)
Friday, December 13, 2013
One of the pleasures of American Hustle is its '70s soundtrack, which includes superb use of Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" early on. Because I'm me, when I recently interviewed director David O. Russell at a Q&A after a screening, I asked him specifically about the choice to include "Dirty Work." He said that they actually filmed that sequence while playing the song. Which is awesome.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
I have never understood people's ironic fascination with Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly's dopey "hip-hopera." As for his music, well, that's complicated, too. For Playboy, I dive into his new album, Black Panties, and discuss why it's hard to separate his personal failings from his artistry. Hope you enjoy.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
I liked The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, so I'm not surprised to report that the follow-up film, The Desolation of Smaug, is pretty good, too. But for my Deadspin review, I went beyond just talking about the movie to also discuss this whole notion of expectations. Hopefully it won't seem too far afield for readers.
I like Tom Hanks. I like Emma Thompson. I like the idea of Saving Mr. Banks, which offers a behind-the-scenes look into the making of Mary Poppins. But I had many, many issues with the final product. I reviewed Saving Mr. Banks for Paste.
Friday, December 06, 2013
I first saw Inside Llewyn Davis at Cannes more than six months ago. I loved it then, but it's grown in my estimation ever since. Today, it hits select cities. For Deadspin, I talk about the film and the fact that it's part of my favorite subsection of Coen brothers films, which includes Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There and A Serious Man. Here's my essay, which I hope you enjoy.
Southeastern will definitely be making my Pazz & Jop ballot. It's Jason Isbell's most consistent post-Drive-By Truckers album, but it took me a while to get into it. These songs initially felt a little too blandly "confessional" for my taste, but a few spins in the car and a little concentration made me realize how touching and pointed so many of these stripped-down tracks were. Take "Elephant," which is purely fictional, as far as I know, but has such rich, precise detail that it seems based on fact. Regardless, it rips your guts out.
Thursday, December 05, 2013
How do you solve a problem like Robert De Niro? For two decades, he was easily one of our finest actors. But since then? Much harder to be so effusive in one's praise. I tackle both halves of his career in my latest installment of "The Greats" for Paste.
Wednesday, December 04, 2013
Britney Jean is the first studio album Britney Spears has released in her 30s. (She turned 32 on Monday.) For Playboy, I dissected the record and tried to understand why her sexy music feels so incredibly unsexy. My review is here.
As you may have seen, American Hustle was awarded Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle. (My group, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, votes on Sunday.) I was a bit surprised at the announcement. It's not that I don't like American Hustle -- I think it's quite entertaining -- but it's also a bit flawed. Still, I cannot deny how much I enjoyed watching this comedy-drama hum along. My review is up at Screen International.
Sometimes you learn something about yourself from the movies you see. For instance, I discovered from Out of the Furnace that I always want to spell "furnace" as "furnance." It's actually quite maddening: I instinctively type that second "n" and later realize it doesn't belong.
As for the movie itself, it's a solid, unremarkable follow-up from Scott Cooper, the director of Crazy Heart. Christian Bale leads a fine cast, and yet I confess that I'm not sure why Relativity decided to release Out of the Furnace in the heat of awards season. This movie is simply too modest and minor to stand out. I can't help but wonder if it might have enjoyed higher visibility elsewhere on the film calendar.
My Out of the Furnace review, which isn't concerned with release schedules or my spelling problems, is up at Deadspin.
Monday, December 02, 2013
For Backstage, new Executive Editor Mark Peikert and I wrote about the strongest ensemble films of the year. How is that different than the year's best films? Well, I suppose you could say that this list focuses more on movies that boast a collection of quality performances. (These aren't star vehicles by any stretch of the imagination.) Mark handled Part 1 of our rundown; I took the reins on Part 2.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
That's the question I tried to answer in a podcast interview I did with Mousterpiece Cinema, which is hosted by the quite fun Josh Spiegel and Gabe Bucsko. I was on to discuss Vince Vaughn's latest, Delivery Man, but we soon moved on from the movie to grapple with Vaughn's career crossroads. I had a fine time chatting with them. You can hear it here.
Friday, November 29, 2013
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
In case you hadn't heard, I wrote a book about Wilco. Published through Omnibus Press, Wilco: Sunken Treasure is a critical biography that traces the band's history and examines their complete catalog. (It's available through Amazon.) Paste is running an excerpt from the book that focuses on the final days of former Wilco member Jay Bennett. For most Wilco fans, Bennett's story ends when he was booted from the group. I dug a little deeper for my biography. Hope you enjoy this excerpt.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
I love Spike Lee, so I was intrigued to hear that he was remaking Oldboy, a South Korean movie I don't particularly love. Unfortunately, Lee hasn't brought much to his version. (I also blame Josh Brolin.) My review is up at Screen International.
Friday, November 22, 2013
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the year's best movies, and one I've thought a lot about since seeing it at Cannes. So I was thrilled to get to interview the film's star, Oscar Isaac, for Backstage. He couldn't have been more charming and affable. (Plus, he and I had a fun chat about some of the plot mechanics and whatnot in Inside Llewyn Davis that I sadly couldn't include in my article since it involved major spoilers.) Anyway, my cover story is out now: Here's a sample from the piece, as well as the cover photo.
Update: The whole piece is now live for your enjoyment.
I very much enjoyed writing about cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond for my column "The Greats" over at Paste. His legacy speaks for itself -- McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blow Out, The Deer Hunter -- but I tried my best also to suggest why cinematographers are one of the most overlooked artists on a film set. (You might say this is a topic close to my heart.) You can read my appreciation of Zsigmond here.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Vince Vaughn used to be so funny. Swingers. Wedding Crashers. Really great stuff. But lately? Not so much. Delivery Man finds him trying to reinvent himself as a softie. It doesn't go so well. My review is up at Deadspin.
President John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. To mark that grim occasion, I decided to write about the lingering greatness of Oliver Stone's JFK. A recent viewing reinforced the fact that, while the movie's logic doesn't hold up, it's still a rather amazing film. I explain why over at Playboy.
Friday, November 15, 2013
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Blue Ruin was one of the surprise sensations of Cannes. It hadn't been an easy path to the festival, however, having been previously rejected by Sundance. I caught up with the low-budget thriller at AFI Fest and found it to be a welcome mixture of the Coen brothers and Jeff Nichols. I reviewed the film for Paste.
Gloria is Chile's official submission to this year's Academy Awards. It's a good little drama about a middle-aged woman who's divorced and looking for love. I ended up loving Paulina García in the title role, but I found things to quibble about with the movie as a whole. I explain in my Paste review.
2012 was a banner year for writer-director Hong Sang-soo with the release of In Another Country and The Day He Arrives. (And I realize that years are always a little iffy when it comes to Hong since his movies can take a while to get released in the States.) In 2013, we've had Nobody's Daughter Haewon (which played the Los Angeles Film Festival) and now Our Sunhi. Of Hong's last four, Our Sunhi is the weakest, although it certainly has its considerable charms. My review is live at Paste.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Harrison Ford's career has been adrift for at least a decade, but he rebounds somewhat with his strong supporting work in Ender's Game. In my latest installment of my column The Greats for Paste, I salute a career that's a rarity: He's been (on the whole) more interesting in the big roles than in the small ones. (Although, if you haven't seen The Mosquito Coast, he's exceptional in it.) Here's my appreciation of Mr. Ford.
With Nebraska opening on Friday, I decided to take a look back at director Alexander Payne's career. What I was struck by is how much his tone has shifted over time, moving from the cutting satire of Election to the warm sentimentality of The Descendants. It's an unusual, rewarding career, even if he never will top Election. You can read my piece here.
For this week's Culture Club column for Playboy, I decided to write about nostalgia. It's a sneaky, nasty little varmint that worms its way into your heart. But you've got to resist it, people. That's hard, of course, since pop culture and the media are obsessed with cataloging all the things we loved in our childhood. But as a critic, I consider nostalgia to be my sworn enemy: I can't keep an open mind if I'm too busy revisiting (and romanticizing) the past. So, yes, this essay comes from the heart. Hope you enjoy.
"I'm going to be seeing Charlie Countryman," I told a colleague the other day.
"Wow," he said, "that was the worst movie I saw at Sundance this year."
I had heard similar things from other folks who had sat through The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman at the festival in January and just plain hated it. Apparently, a few things have changed since then -- the title's been shortened, and there used to be a narration from John Hurt -- but I found the new version to be ... not good, but at least kinda curious. But, again, not good. My review is up at Paste.
I love Calvin and Hobbes. A lot of people love Calvin and Hobbes, but only one of them decided to make a movie about its creator, Bill Watterson. The resulting documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson, is as fawning and enthusiastic as you might imagine. Director Joel Allen Schroeder (pictured above) inserts himself into the material far, far more than I would have liked, so it's a good thing he was able to get a lot of contemporary cartoonists to talk to him to help flesh out his passion project. I reviewed Dear Mr. Watterson for Paste.
Stranger by the Lake was one of the sensations of Cannes. (Its maker, Alain Guiraudie, won Best Director in Un Certain Regard.) I missed the film there but was able to catch up with it at AFI Fest, thank goodness. It's a slow-burn French thriller that will be opening in the U.S. early next year, although it's going to be a very limited release considering the film's explicit gay sexual content. My review is live at Paste.
I was quite taken by director Denis Côté's documentary Bestiaire, but his latest is one of his fiction films. It's Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, and it's about a lesbian couple trying to start over on the outside after spending years in prison. It's a dark drama that keeps flirting with being a thriller, strikingly so. My review is up at Paste.
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
It's not a huge exaggeration to say that Sunlight Jr. was as difficult for me to watch in some ways as 12 Years a Slave. A frank depiction of poverty, this drama is very unromantic about life amidst the lower class. While watching Sunlight Jr., which stars Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon as a couple scraping to get by, you're constantly reminded how everything in life costs money, and how every decision the characters make is shaped by that cruel fact. I reviewed the film for Paste.
The best film I saw at AFI Fest this year was The Unknown Known. The latest from ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, the movie consists of a feature-length discussion between the director and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Of course, Rumsfeld does most of the talking, and it's fascinating talk. My review is up at Paste.
I'm starting to think that the Hunger Games franchise is just not my thing. I liked the first movie fine, but while watching the sequel, Catching Fire, I couldn't shake a sense that I'd seen most of this before. Jennifer Lawrence might be even better this time around, but even then, I don't think that's enough. Let's hope the future films are better. My Catching Fire review is live at Screen International.
Friday, November 08, 2013
Thursday, November 07, 2013
For my book FilmCraft: Screenwriting, I wanted desperately to feature writer-director John Sayles. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to participate. He remains a hero of mine, but his latest offering, Go for Sisters, isn't particularly good, which is a bummer. My review is up at Paste.
Wednesday, November 06, 2013
For Paste, I reviewed The Armstrong Lie, documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney's chronicle of Lance Armstrong's fall from grace. But for Playboy, I went a bit deeper, looking back at Gibney's career and trying to find the thematic threads that connected Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9 and his other films. No surprise, it's corruption and duplicity, but Gibney's films are more complicated than that. I explain why here.
Friday, November 01, 2013
"My mom really wants to see Last Vegas," a friend told me.
"I think a lot of people's moms will want to see it," I responded.
I like all four actors, and I like the idea of Last Vegas. I just didn't like Last Vegas too much, which I get into in my Deadspin review.
The initial reviews for Diana, a portrait of the final years in Princess Di's life, were so toxic that I was dreading seeing the movie. It's not that bad but, well, it's not so good, either. Naomi Watts does what she can playing the princess, but this romantic drama is low on insights. My review is up at Paste.
I'm in catch-up mode, listening to acclaimed albums from earlier in the year that slipped through the cracks in preparation for my Pazz & Jop ballot in December. Two albums I'm especially concentrating on at the moment are Ashley Monroe's Like a Rose and Kacey Musgraves' Same Trailer Different Park. Two young, promising country artists, and I'm quite enjoying both records. Maybe I'll pick something from Musgraves next week, but for now I'm going with Monroe's sad, sweet "Used." (I was tempted to go with the very good "You Ain't Dolly [And You Ain't Porter]" but changed my mind at the last minute. If John Prine decides to do another In Spite of Ourselves-style duet album, he needs to cover that sucker.)
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Matthew McConaughey has been on a hot streak for the last several years, and Dallas Buyers Club may snag him his first Oscar nomination. It's not the best thing he's done recently -- Mud, Magic Mike and Killer Joe are all great, too -- but it's a strong, unsentimental performance in a true story about a straight Dallas man in the 1980s who was diagnosed with HIV and went underground to find the drugs that could keep him alive. And, yes, Jared Leto is quite good, too. My review of Dallas Buyers Club is up at Paste.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
As someone who wasn't enthralled with Arcade Fire's Funeral, I wasn't initially on board with this Very Important Rock Band. But Neon Bible and The Suburbs turned me around on these guys and gals from Canada. Now comes Reflektor, which is, yes, pretentious. But what does "pretentious" even mean, really? It's a pejorative thrown around so much -- and says so little. I get into that (and the album, of course) in my review for Playboy.
Mr. Nobody has had a difficult journey to distribution in the U.S. After premiering in Venice in 2009, the movie (from Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael) got released in other countries but not America. In fact, it wasn't until 2011 that Mr. Nobody screened in the U.S. -- and that was due to the efforts of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's Films That Got Away committee, of which I'm a proud member. We programmed the film for that summer's Los Angeles Film Festival, and it was a huge hit with a predominantly younger crowd. That was understandable: Mr. Nobody's themes of chance and fate (mixed with some pretty great sci-fi effects) resonate with twentysomethings on the cusp of their own adulthood. Jared Leto is the star of the film, and he's quite good in it. As for the movie itself, my review is up at Paste.
Friday, October 25, 2013
My review of Ender's Game doesn't spend a single second considering whether or not author Orson Scott Card is homophobic. (You can read all about that here.) I simply focused on the merits of the movie that was adapted from his acclaimed sci-fi novel. I ended up liking the aforementioned movie, although while watching it I did have the strange feeling I was sitting through a sincere version of Starship Troopers. But it turns out that the movie is more morally complex than it first appears. My review is up at Screen International.
In the middle of The Counselor, a song started playing in the background of a scene. It was driving my crazy -- I knew I recognized the song, but I couldn't place it. Then it hit me: Beirut's "Santa Fe." So, thanks, Ridley Scott, for bringing it back into my life.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
I could almost make a Top 10 of the year's best movies consisting entirely of documentaries. Add to that list The Square, a very affecting look inside the Egyptian Revolution. It opens Friday and is definitely worth seeking out. Here's my review for Paste.
Before fall movie season began, I'm sure a lot of folks circled The Counselor as one of the season's big films. Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy, a cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Javier Bardem: That seems like a pretty major movie, right? But despite plentiful TV commercials, there just didn't end up being that much buzz around it. Well, I saw The Counselor this week, and I quite liked it, although it's admittedly very, very loopy. My review is up at Screen International.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
I haven't seen Bad Grandpa, unfortunately, but I've come to really appreciate the strange genius of the Jackass franchise. For Playboy, I make the case for Jackass co-creator and star Johnny Knoxville as a modern-day performance artist: an assertion I don't think is that farfetched, frankly. Here's my article.