Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sundance 2016: Ranking the Best and the Worst of the Festival

Another Sundance done. And while there's always a lament that I can't get to everything I would have loved to have seen, I feel better than usual about what I did catch. Still, I look forward to Dark Night, Goat, Love & Friendship, Lovesong, Operation Avalanche, Sand Storm, Weiner, White Girl, Wiener-Dog and others.

For the second straight year, Sundance's best film didn't premiere at the festival: The Lobster (from Cannes) narrowly beat out Antonio Campos' U.S. Dramatic entry Christine in my rankings, followed by Kelly Reichardt's lovely Certain Women and then another Cannes entry, the marvelous Cemetery of Splendor. Twenty-two of the 28 movies on this list would have gotten a thumbs-up from me, and even a few of the misfires down below had enough intriguing moments to keep me relatively engaged for at least a portion of their running time. That's a pretty good festival in my book.

Links lead to individual reviews.

28. Ali & Nino
27. Frank & Lola
26. Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper
25. Captain Fantastic
24. Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
23. Swiss Army Man
22. Other People
21. Green Room
20. Southside With You
19. Indignation
18. Morris From America
17. Maggie's Plan
16. Equity
15. Tallulah
14. Agnus Dei
13. The Birth of a Nation
12. Embrace of the Serpent
11. Kate Plays Christine
10. Little Men
9. Complete Unknown
8. Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall 
7. Hunt for the Wilderpeople 
6. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
5. Manchester by the Sea
4. Cemetery of Splendor
3. Certain Women
2. Christine
1. The Lobster

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'Complete Unknown' Review

Complete Unknown is definitively my kind of movie, which probably explains why I like it more than most of my colleagues seem to. It stars Rachel Weisz as a mysterious woman who walks back into the life of Michael Shannon, her old boyfriend. No one has heard from her in 15 years, and now she has a new identity. What exactly happened to her? My review is up at Paste.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'Little Men' Review

When I interviewed filmmaker Ira Sachs in 2014 to talk about Love Is Strange, he told me about the movie he was going to make next. It got cut from the final piece, but here's what he said...

Now, that movie has premiered at Sundance. It's Little Men, which is a quiet little gem. My review is up at Paste.

'Eddie the Eagle' Review

Before I get into Eddie the Eagle, I have to wonder how many people even remember Eddie Edwards, the Brit who became a sensation at the 1988 Winter Olympics, not for his athletic brilliance but because he was an underdog who just wanted a chance to compete. The biopic about him, which premiered at a screen screening at Sundance, is incredibly so-so. You can read all about it over at Screen International.

A$AP Rocky - "L$D"

That stands for "love, sex, dreams," of course. A great song that sounds even better through headphones, by the way.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'Equity' Review

Anna Gunn is a highlight of the Wall Street thriller Equity, which looks at that big-money milieu from the perspective of a few women. Subtly, the film shows all the ways that women have to battle gender-specific obstacles in such a cutthroat environment, which adds an extra layer of drama to everything we're watching. My Screen International review is right here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'Ali and Nino' Review

Director Asif Kapadia may very well win a Best Documentary Oscar for Amy. But his next movie is already done ... and it's not very good. It's a feature, Ali and Nino, about a love story between a Muslim and a Christian during World War I. It looks great but doesn't inspire much passion. You can read my review over at Screen International.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My Interview With Joe and Kris Swanberg

Last summer, I spoke with Joe and Kris Swanberg to discuss their respective films, Digging for Fire and Unexpected, and also life as a married couple with kids. (Their second child was on the way when we talked.) This piece was done for MEL before the site launched, so now here it is in all its glory. Hope you enjoy.

Sundance 2016: 'Manchester by the Sea' Review

I loved You Can Count on Me. I remain baffled by the acclaim around Margaret. So what did I think of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's latest? My review of Manchester by the Sea is up at Paste.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'The Birth of a Nation' Review

I've only spoken to one person who's seen The Birth of a Nation, so I am genuinely curious how the film played with people at its premiere here in Sundance. For me, this biopic of Nat Turner is pedestrian in many ways but also powerfully emotional in others. And as an indictment of our shameful slavery past, well, it's damning. My review is up at Screen International.

Sundance 2016: 'Indignation' Review

Indignation is a strange, off-kilter movie, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Based on the Philip Roth novel, the film stars Logan Lerman as a brilliant Jew from New Jersey who goes off to college in Ohio. It's a culture shock, for sure, but other things seems to be going on internally, including a weird love affair with a pretty, enigmatic classmate (Sarah Gadon). You can read my review over at Screen International.

Sundance 2016: 'Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper' Review

Nothing Left Unsaid will play on HBO in April. TV is the right fit for this oddly underwhelming documentary. Which is strange to say: The life of Gloria Vanderbilt is marked by endless twists, turns, heartbreaks and reinventions, so why is a movie about her so colorless? I provide some answers over at Screen International.

Sundance 2016: 'Certain Women' Review

One of the best things I've seen at Sundance this year, Certain Women further confirms, if such a thing was necessary, that writer-director Kelly Reichardt is one of our very best filmmakers. Taking three short stories from Maile Meloy, she constructs lovingly adorned vignettes about different women with a quietude that's absorbing. My review is up at Paste.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'Morris From America' Review

A massive fan of writer-director Chad Hartigan's This Is Martin Bonner, I was very excited to see his latest, Morris From America. And because I'm such a massive fan of Martin Bonner, I wonder if I was a little too disappointed by his new movie as a result. To be clear: This coming-of-age drama is quite effective, but it lacks the specificity and nuance that made Martin Bonner so great. My review is up at Paste.

Sundance 2016: 'Tallulah' Review

When I interviewed Ellen Page last year, she was particularly excited about Tallulah, a film she executive produced that would premiere at Sundance. I can see why: It's a great platform for her and Allison Janney as the unlikely caregivers of a baby in New York. No, this isn't Two Gals and a Baby: It's smarter and more melancholy than that. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Sundance 2016: 'Southside With You' Review

What was Barack and Michelle Obama's first date like? That's what Southside With You tries to answer: This feature film is a fictionalized imagining of that encounter in the summer of 1989. As you might guess, the movie plays a bit like a puff piece, but it does have its warm, charming moments. You can read my Screen International review here.

Sundance 2016: 'Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall' Review

When a documentary is meant to promote a re-release of a classic album, the documentary tends to be pretty watered-down. Then there's Michael Jackson's Journey..., which traces MJ's exit from the Jackson 5 all the way to the making of his first solo album, Off the Wall. It's really, really entertaining, but also pretty darn insightful. My only regret was not getting a chance to see it in a full theater. My review is up at Screen International.

Sundance 2016: 'Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World' Review

Werner Herzog is up to his old tricks in Lo and Behold, a playfully profound documentary about the internet -- and by that, I mean the whole internet. Touching on privacy, artificial intelligence, addiction and a myriad other topics, the documentary is hardly authoritative, but that's by design: Herzog is after something a little more ephemeral about the ways that our online existence is encroaching into our "real" lives. My review is live at Screen International.

Sundance 2016: 'Christine' Review

What a movie: Christine is the third film from director Antonio Campos (Simon Killer), and it's a devastating look at the final months in the life of journalist Christine Chubbuck, who took her in life on air in 1974. Rebecca Hall is extraordinary in the role, and the film is one of the best I've seen in recent memory in articulating depression, anxiety and pure helplessness. My review is up at Screen International.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'Frank & Lola' Review

Michael Shannon is the highlight of Frank & Lola, a romantic drama that dips its toe awkwardly into the waters of the sexual thriller. The movie is moody but not all that good. My review is now live over at Screen International.

Sundance 2016: 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople' Review

Well, here's a total treat. Hunt for the Wilderpeople from writer-director Taika Waititi is an adventure story starring a rap-loving teen boy (Julian Dennison) and the surly middle-aged man who's reluctantly adopted him (Sam Neill). It's a modest, consistent charmer. I reviewed those Wilderpeople for Screen International. (That's Waititi in the photo. He'll be directing the next Thor movie.)

Sundance 2016: 'Swiss Army Man' Review

In my Sundance preview for The New Republic, I said of films like Swiss Army Man, "Going to a festival means sometimes taking a flyer on a movie with an intriguing premise that could end up being really great or absolutely terrible." Well, I was sorta right on both fronts: This is an audacious, ambitious movie that doesn't quite work. I reviewed it for Screen International.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Sundance 2016: 'Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You' Review

You don't need a documentary to tell you that Norman Lear is a major television figure. So why does Norman Lean: Just Another Version of You not really dig into the man who gave us All in the Family and The Jeffersons? This is an entertaining but disappointing movie, and I reviewed it for Paste.

Sundance 2016: 'Other People' Review

To those who say that Other People isn't as good as James White: You are absolutely right. And yet, this mom-dying-of-cancer/twentysomething-is-spiritually-adrift comedy-drama has enough small, good moments that I found it affecting. I especially like Molly Shannon as the mom with only months to live. Between Other People and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, she's made a little niche for herself playing sympathetic moms in forgettable Sundance films. My review is up at Screen International.

Shamir - "On the Regular"

There is a very good chance I'll have this song ping-ponging around in my head when I'm at Sundance.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sundance 2016 Preview: 10 Must-Sees

Sundance kicks off tomorrow. How many years have I been going now? I can't even remember. (Actually, I just looked it up: This will be my seventh Park City.) For The New Republic, I took a look at 10 (OK, fine, 11) movies I'm very curious to check out. Here ya go.

The Grierson & Leitch Podcast: Talking Michael Bay and the Oscars

As part of our move to The New Republic, Will and I will be doing a podcast. The first episode is up live now: We dig into 13 Hours and take another look at those Oscar nominations. Hope you enjoy what you hear.

Monday, January 18, 2016

'Aferim!' Review

For Paste, I reviewed the fine new Romanian film Aferim!, which is the latest from director Radu Jude. Warning: The exclamation mark in the title doesn't mean it's a wacky comedy. Instead, this is a tale of slavery and bigotry in the 19th century. Read all about it.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

'Angie Tribeca' Review

Tonight, TBS premieres its Rashida Jones-starring cop parody Angie Tribeca. For fans of Airplane! and Police Squad!, this is the kind of smart-stupid (or is that stupid-smart?) show you've been waiting for. I reviewed the series for The Wrap.

'Kung Fu Panda 3' Review

I dunno, folks. I thought the original Kung Fu Panda was very fun and really sweet. But since then? It seems like a franchise in which diminishing returns kicked in pretty quickly. Kung Fu Panda 3 is the most visually sumptuous yet, but I found its story simplistic. I reviewed the film for Screen International.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

SAG-AFTRA Foundation: My Conversation With the 'Band of Robbers' Team

Please enjoy my chat with co-director/co-writer Aaron Nee and stars Beth Grant, Daniel Edward Mora and Lee Garlington. We talked about their film, Band of Robbers, and how you make a movie in 24 days without going crazy. (Also, please enjoy my socks, which were a Christmas gift from my nephew.)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Ty Dolla $ign (featuring Future & Rae Sremmurd) - "Blasé"

"I'm young and I'm rich," brags Ty Dolla $ign like the reality is still so new to him that he has to keep saying it aloud so it'll sink in. The beat matches the title with "Blasé," which also matches the mindset: This is a seductive, lazily arrogant song about having more money and women than you do. I've succumbed to its snarling power.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

'13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi' Review

I'll say this about 13 Hours: I think it contains some of the most visceral filmmaking Michael Bay has ever achieved. But, you know how it is -- eventually, people in his movie start to talk, and then he starts doing the nonsense in his films that always drives you nuts. I think this could be a pretty big hit, though. My review is up at Popular Mechanics.

Oscars 2016: Predicting the Nominees

Tomorrow morning, the Oscar nominations are unveiled. Over at The New Republic, Will and I make our guesses about the eight major categories. I feel relatively good about them at the moment. We'll see how I feel in less than 24 hours.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

'Shadowhunters' Review

Hoo boy, is Shadowhunters dumb. The new TV series from ABC Family, which is now called Freeform, has a pilot directed by McG. That's how dire things are, folks. My review is up at The Wrap.

2015 in Review: My Top 10 Albums of the Year

Now that The Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll is out -- hey, I did pretty well in my predictions -- I guess I might as well reveal my Top 10 albums of 2015. This was my 16th year of voting in the poll, which absolutely blows my mind. 

1. Jamie xx, In Colour 
Not since Moby's Play has an electronic dance album felt so spiritual, alive, cohesive, resonant, human. 

2. James McMurtry, Complicated Game 
Portraits of long marriages and old souls trying to find whatever contentment they can in ho-hum lives. Just think how down in the mouth James McMurtry is going to get if a Republican wins the White House.

3. Tame Impala, Currents 
Kevin Parker decides to put away the guitars (mostly), ends up making his most rocking and lovely album anyway.

4. Kurt Vile, B'lieve I'm Goin Down  
The critical consensus seems to be that Vile's new one is kinda like his last one. I have no problem with this.

5. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
The Album of the Year from the Artist of the Moment is also a great fame's-a-bitch record, Lamar's complaints about celebrity folding nicely into his anxious, thoughtful looks on race and poverty. Still, I hope he extricates himself from Dre.

6. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free 
Like Vile, Isbell is being discounted a bit because his new album isn't the breakthrough of his last one. But the sturdy, melancholy tales of Something More Than Free suggests that, sobriety now well in hand, he still has tunes flowing out of him.

7. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment, Surf 
As a messy, poetic exploration of urban life, Surf beats Chi-Raq. Funnier and more humane, too.

8. Laurie Anderson, Heart of a Dog  
My review after I saw the movie:

The accompanying album only heightens the poignancy, provoking you to make pictures in your mind and imagine Anderson is speaking directly to you.

9. Grimes, Art Angels
Not since -- what, Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine? -- has an artist so successfully junked her first stab at a new record and come up with something so challenging and yet so fun, as if this was how it was always supposed to sound.

10. Pusha T, King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude
Released terribly late in December, King Push hasn't fully revealed itself to me. But I couldn't stop digging Pusha T's reliably steely, brutal songs. Added bonus: No Chris Brown on this album.

To see my full ballot, which includes my list of the year's best singles, go here. (Hint: Drake and the Weeknd dominated the radio, as well as my list.)

Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Pazz & Jop Poll Predictions

I'm still mortified by how poorly I did predicting last year's Pazz & Jop Top 10. (I really didn't think Black Messiah's complicated musical landscapes would have had sufficient time to sink in with enough voters to carry the day.) Nonetheless, I feel more confident in this year's guesses, mostly because I don't think No. 1 is in doubt at all....

1. Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
2. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
3. Grimes, Art Angels
4. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell 
5. Father John Misty, I Love You, Honeybear
6. Jamie xx, In Colour
7. Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
8. Tame Impala, Currents 
9. Adele, 25
10. Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion 

Other albums I considered for the Top 10: Vulnicura, Summertime '06 and The Epic. We'll know how well I did when The Village Voice releases the poll results on Wednesday. I'm expecting To Pimp a Butterfly to win by a large margin. As for the singles poll, I'm torn between Drake's "Hotline Bling" or Adele's "Hello," but my gut says "Hotline Bling."

(Update: The results are out now and, yes, I nailed the top album and top single. I got eight of the Top 10 albums correct, overestimating Tame Impala's and Adele's chances and not giving enough credence to Vince Staples and Kamasi Washington. Overall, I'm surprised by the relatively soft showing of Ms. Adkins: 25 was a paltry No. 35, while "Hello" tied for No. 9. My ballot is here.)

Friday, January 08, 2016

Pusha T - "Untouchable"

Dissing Donald Trump, giving shout-outs to Narcos, riding that Biggie sample, Pusha T's "Untouchable" is a fine introduction to his very fine new album, King Push - Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. I wish he'd stop naming his records like they were Mission: Impossible sequels, though.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

2016's Must-See Movies

Who's excited for new movies? With most of the country still catching up with last year's award-season offerings, putting together a list of 2016's highly anticipated movies might seem premature. Well, tough: For The New Republic, Will and I listed 20 films that have piqued our interest. Check 'em out.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Happy Birthday, Diane Keaton

On Thanksgiving morning, my wife and I have a tradition of going to an animated or kids' movie to kick off the day. The funny thing is that this is actually an excellent opportunity to run into celebrities. Like the morning we went to the AMC in Century City and stumbled upon the wondrous Diane Keaton with some kids. (My wife and I were seeing Fantastic Mr. Fox. Not sure what they were seeing.)

Anyway, Ms. Keaton turns 70 today. For Biography, I look back at her career.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

2015 in Review: My Top 10 Movies of the Year

Six foreign-language films, one stop-motion animation, two Sundance premieres, one short film (animated): Those are the movies that comprised my Top 10 films of 2015. And here they are...
1. The Tribe     
2. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem   
3. Anomalisa    
4. Experimenter     
5. World of Tomorrow  
6. The End of the Tour  
7. Phoenix  
8. Eden    
9. Son of Saul  
10. Hard to Be a God

I went into detail over at The New Republic, although I should point out that, because Will and I have a hard-and-fast rule about not including short films in our Top 10s, I left off Don Hertzfeldt's terrific World of Tomorrow, slotting another Sundance premiere, James White, in at No. 10 instead. (And if you'd like to see my more extensive Village Voice ballot, which includes votes for different acting categories, you can check that out here.)

Rather than talking about the 2015 film world in general, I'd rather focus on the fond personal memories I have about the year gone by. Tops on the list would have to be my SAG Foundation conversation with Yana Novikova, the deaf star of The Tribe. Our Q&A required two interpreters but could not have been more engaging and insightful. Watching this young woman interact with deaf audience members after the screening was an absolute treat.

I also remember leading another SAG Foundation talk this past year, this one the night before I left for Sundance, with Boyhood director Richard Linklater and star Ellar Coltrane. It had been almost exactly a year since they had debuted the film at Sundance 2014, and now they were in the midst of a major Oscar campaign. Some of us actually believed it was going to win Best Picture, and when I said goodbye to Linklater that night I wished him good luck. (After all, Boyhood was my favorite film of that year.) He gave me a warm smile, but he was too modest for more than that. Maybe he could already sense that Birdman's momentum was going to overwhelm his little film. Or maybe he simply didn't care about awards, which is the better attitude anyway.

After a year off to write a book about Public Enemy, I returned to Cannes this past summer. I consider myself lucky to have seen two movies with the exact perfect person for each. Jordan Hoffman loves Woody Allen as much as I do, and so to see one of his films at Cannes was a dream come true. Hey, Irrational Man isn't great, but to share it with him was a blast. And Justin Chang was an ideal seatmate for Inside Out. He thought he was the only one crying; I just happened to be a little more composed than he was. Even if the overall festival wasn't exemplary, hey, there were plenty of gems. (And I look forward to seeing The Lobster and Cemetery of Splendour again.)

My PE book was probably the piece of writing I'm most proud of from 2015, but I'm also quite pleased with another book of mine that came out this past year: Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes. My thanks to Mark Graham for inviting me to promote the book by writing a defense of Shutter Island for Decider. I feel like I finally got out of my system the myriad reasons why I feel that movie is a masterpiece.

I wrote many, many pieces this year, and because I did the writing, I am simply too close to them to know which ones were the best. But I really enjoyed collaborating with Alissa Wilkinson on a piece for Movie Mezzanine about World of Tomorrow and Hertzfeldt's work in general. (It's currently unavailable as the site prepares for its relaunch, but I hope you'll get to read our back-and-forth correspondence soon.)

Likewise, getting to do a Dissolve Forum with Noel Murray on White Men Can't Jump was plain ol' fun. The loss of The Dissolve was one of 2015's most painful developments: I am gladdened to see its writers and editors kicking ass across the web since their labor of love was shuttered.

Other highlights: Getting to spend some time with Charlie Day. Talking hip-hop with Randall Park. Hanging out with Caitriona Balfe on the rooftop terrace of an L.A. hotel. Asking Queen Latifah about what she learned from the failure of her talk shows. Talking to Ellen Page about life as an out actress. But the tops of the tops was my sitdown with Will Smith, who was as energizing and inspiring as I could have hoped. I really love doing these Backstage cover stories, which have given me an even greater appreciation for actors and acting.

What else? I'm sure I'm forgetting dozens of great moments. But I did really love getting to cover the Academy's annual Sci-Tech Awards. Margot Robbie and Miles Teller should host more things together. Also, apparently I look good in a tux.

One of the year's more surreal and gratifying moments was the great Neko Case writing this piece about that whole Playboy kerfuffle from 2014. I am grateful to her for her apology, and hope she knows that it was completely unnecessary. To this day, I'm sick about how someone on Playboy's social media team handled that original tweet and angry at all the people online who gave Case grief because of her very funny response. I already considered Case to be one of our greatest musicians; her handling of this whole silly internet exchange only made me admire her thoughtfulness and artistry more.

Over at Rolling Stone, I covered Stephen Colbert's first night on the new show. (Fingers crossed his Late Show finds it way in 2016.) I also really enjoyed writing about Obama's last appearance on David Letterman's show. And I got to see my byline in the print edition, which would have completely freaked out the 15-year-old version of me: It was a profile of W/ Bob & David.

After four years, Will and I pulled up stakes from Deadspin to start writing for The New Republic. We love our new digs, but we do miss working with Rob Harvilla and the rest of the great team over at Deadspin. (And Will and I continue to love doing our ranked lists for Vulture.)

In May of 2015, I was appointed Senior U.S. Critic over at Screen International, where I've been writing since 2005. I'm honored by the new title and thrilled to be working with a great team, which includes my reviews editor and friend Fionnuala Halligan.

But the most profound moment of the year gone by, oddly, was my wife and I purchasing our first home. Deciding not to have kids, she and I won't ever experience what childbirth and parenthood are like, but the simple process of putting down a large chunk of money and becoming homeowners taught me things about myself that I could never have imagined. If you know me in real life, feel free to ask: I'm very happy to bore you about it at length.

Here's to a fruitful 2016. I still have no idea who I'm going to vote for. But I'm fairly certain which candidates I'm never, ever going to vote for.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Death Cab for Cutie - "The New Year"

Not a single New Year's goes by that I don't think of this Death Cab for Cutie song, the opening cut from their best album, Transatlanticism. "Let's make believe that we are wealthy for just this once" is a killer way to describe being in your early 20s and going out on 12/31.