Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Every Movie I Watched in 2013

* = Rewatch # = Short

The Invisible War (2012)
Stalker (1979)
Killer Joe (2012)
Cosmopolis (2012)
The Brood (1979)
The Grand Duel (1972)
The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)
Promised Land (2012)
The Panic In Needle Park (1971)
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Sweetgrass (2009)
Three Colors: Blue (1993)
Three Colors: White (1994)
Three Colors: Red (1994)
Miller's Crossing (1990)
Joe (1970)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
ParaNorman (2012)
The Legend of Bigfoot (1976)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Top 10 of 2012

I know what you’re thinking and no, that’s not a typo. I find that end-of-the-year lists are often sprung on us and due to a number of circumstances they’re not always as accurate as they could be. Sometimes you miss a movie in theaters and don’t have a chance to catch it before it comes time to post your Top 10 in late December. Other times a film that initially wowed you doesn’t seem as amazing with time. And occasionally you’ll just happen to catch a movie midway through the summer that you hadn’t even considered and be floored by it.
So this is why I’ve decided to post my Top 10 of 2012. Hindsight's 20/20 after all. And with much revision, I’ve come up with a radically different list from the one I crafted back in December of last year. Some films have stayed; some new films have been added. I still think that all the movies from my original Top 10 are excellent, but for various reasons they don’t stand out as much anymore, and space was needed for the films I felt were more deserving. So, before I go on too long, here are the best movies of last year.

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild
I’ve gone back and forth on Beasts since I saw it last summer, but in the end I can’t deny that it is a beautiful and moving fable, combining Greek myth with Louisiana folklore and creating a story told through the eyes of a five-year old that feels neither contrived nor corny. It’s visually magnificent, brilliantly acted, and probably the best debut feature since Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

9. Bernie
This is probably the first time I’ve ever seen Jack Black disappear into a role and make me forget I’m watching Jack Black. Everybody has been fawning over Before Midnight lately, and while that film is excellent, this is the Linklater I love. The corny, experimental, slice-of-Texas stories he excels at. Shirley MacLaine delivers an outstanding late-career performance and Matthew McConaughey proves that he’s at his best when he’s at his sleaziest.

8. Sightseers
Writing this list I’m starting to realize I have a thing for quirky comedies about murder. Sightseers is the story of a couple vacationing across the English countryside, whose passive-aggressive nature leads them on a cross-country killing spree. Cut from the same cloth as The Honeymoon Killers, Sightseers manages to turn cold-blooded murder into a brilliant black comedy. Worth it alone for the scene where Alice Lowe writes a Dear John letter with an oversized novelty pencil.

7. Moonrise Kingdom
My original number one when I made my first list last December, but I’ve cooled a bit on the film since. Still, Moonrise Kingdom is another excellent film in a career full of them. It’s Anderson’s most emotionally honest film since The Royal Tenenbaums, and it’s certainly one of his best looking. Not right now, but in another year or two I’d like to revisit this movie and see if my opinion’s changed at all.

6. Django Unchained
If Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino making a Sergio Leone film, then Django Unchained is him making a Sergio Corbucci film. It’s raw, energetic, and able to switch between hilarious and gut-wrenching at a moment’s notice. One of the more daring films of the year and I have to give credit to Tarantino for not pulling a single punch.

5. Zero Dark Thirty
Of all the films I saw last year, this was the last one I expected to stay with me as much as it has. A haunting flick about the futility of revenge that doubles as historical drama. The final shot of the movie is maybe the best single film moment of 2012, encapsulating the empty-catharsis of a decade long search for justice. Bin Laden is dead, justice has been served, now what?

4. Berberian Sound Studio
The scariest part about going insane is that nobody is actually out to get you. A horror movie without monsters, only the paranoia and the dread. Toby Jones plays Gildeory, a Foley artist hired to work on an Italian giallo movie. Through the constant splatter of watermelons and the screams of actresses in sound booths, the aesthetics of horror are broken down to their most base elements. It’s spellbinding and ambiguous, and I’m still not sure I quite understand what it’s saying.

3. Lincoln
Every few years Steven Spielberg comes along and makes a masterpiece just to remind us that he’s Steven Spielberg. As much of a cliché as it is to claim Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest living actor, his performance as Abraham Lincoln truly is worthy of being considered amongst the best in all of cinema. Instantly engaging, beautiful, and perfectly directed.

2. The Grey
Unfairly dismissed by those who saw the trailer and claimed it was “Taken with wolves,” The Grey is instead a painful and honest meditation on death. I wrote about it after my initial viewing and it’s only dug itself deeper into my mind since.

1. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
I included It’s Such a Beautiful Day on my list of my 50 Favorite Films this summer, and I don’t regret it. Never in my life did I think the man who made Rejected could make such an innovative, powerful piece of art. It’s gone largely unnoticed outside of Don Hertzfeldt’s cult following, and that’s just criminal. In a mere hour, Hertzfeldt captures the fleeting nature of life and the indescribable pain of desire, all with cartoon doodles. Without a doubt in my mind, it is the greatest film of the year.

BONUS: Sex House
Last year, The Onion began running several short miniseries on Youtube. Amongst the first of them was a mock reality show called Sex House, where “six sexy Americans” are put together in a house to have sex on national television. What starts as a cheesy reality show parody quickly turns into existential horror, blending The Real World with Sartre. As the housemates realize they’re trapped and being manipulated into having sex, they turn against their oppressors (the network executives) and realize their worth as human beings. And there’s frogs. Oh boy, are there frogs.


1. Moonrise Kingdom
2. The Invisible War
3. Django Unchained
4. The Grey
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
6. Lincoln
7. Amour
8. Bernie
9. Holy Motors
10. The Master

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Rebel Without a Cause

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) | dir. Nicholas Ray | 111 min.

Rebel Without a Cause was one of the biggest canonical films I kept putting off. I made the mistake of assuming that it would be a whole lot of “buzz off, Daddy-O” and other West Side Storyisms. And while I wasn’t entirely wrong it manages to go beyond that to make a great statement about the lack of communication and understanding between generations.

This is my first James Dean film and it’s completely understandable why he became such a star in such a short amount of time – he’s immensely watchable. Despite actually being twenty-five during filming, he perfectly captures the conflicted mind of a teenager. He understands the world better than his parents do, but also comes to find that he really doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. He can’t find a solution to his problems any better than his parents; none of the kids can.

Parts of the film do seem dated. I’m sure the obvious homosexual tension between Plato and Jim was a lot more shocking in 1955, whereas today it’s more normalized. Plato’s unreciprocated crush is still sad, especially seeing him hanging around while Jim and Judy are crawling all over each other, but it’s not quite scandalous in this day and age.

In general the whole white suburban leather-jacket gang trope has gotten stale. It’s been reduced to more of a joke by Grease and Fonzie. But while the shock is gone it’s still a great piece of entertainment, and the themes of disaffected youth are universal. Not to mention the beautiful Cinemascope cinematography that gives a curve to the edges of the screen, adding a layer of distortion to the atmosphere.

It’s also fun for some of the little details. Seeing a 19-year old Dennis Hopper is a surreal experience. And Dean’s famous “you’re tearing me apart” line becomes unintentionally funnier in a world where The Room exists. To be fair, Tommy Wiseau’s impersonation is spot on; he just doesn’t have the suaveness or inner-turmoil to pull it off like Dean.

Score: 81 (Good)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Stella Maris

Stella Maris (1918) | dir. Marshall Neilan | 80 min.

Stella Maris (Mary Pickford, in one of her famous dual roles) is a young girl who, unable to walk, is kept bedridden by her aunt and uncle who lovingly shelter her from the evils of the world. A sign hangs above her door that reads “All unhappiness and world wisdom leave outside. Those without smiles need not enter. Stella is kept completely ignorant of the crime and poverty that surrounds her, and her visitors are tightly controlled so that they won’t spoil the façade.

Another young girl, Unity (also Pickford), has grown up in an orphanage in the town outside Stella’s mansion. She is hired by Louise Risca (Marcia Manon), the alcoholic wife of journalist John Risca (Conway Tearle), to help out around the house. Louise is bitter and abusive, ultimately hospitalizing Unity after beating her. She is sent to prison for three years and in his guilt John adopts Unity.

At the same time, Stella undergoes surgery to allow her to walk again. It’s a success, although it takes three years for her to fully recover. John, a friend of her aunt and uncle, meets Stella and falls in love with her, but they’re unable to marry because of his marriage to Louise. Divorce is never mentioned as an option. 

I was a bit taken aback by what dire lives these characters live. Even though Stella comes from wealth, having been shrouded from the truth about the world sends her into a depression when she is finally able to walk and experience society for herself. It’s a horrifying prospect, not unlike the allegory of the cave, to be lied to for your entire life. She finds sanctuary in her love for John, but becomes suicidal when she learns he has a wife. She tells him “I no long pity the blind! All the ugliness of life is shut away from them.” 

Unity, coming from nothing, is ecstatic to be living with John, but can’t help falling in love with him. Unable to have him for herself she resolves to murder Louise so that he may at least be free to marry Stella.

It’s a dark, grimy world with an insidious tone and ramshackle scenery. Stella Maris a film that wrestles with whether ignorance truly is bliss, but ultimately it’s the evil in the world that reminds us of why love must be treasured.

Score: 76 (Good)

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Have Some Mean Things to Say about Sharknado

Rubbish. Garbage. Trash.
I would say “Manufactured Dreck” if the term “manufactured” didn’t imply some degree of effort.

Sharknado is the product of making a film based on a title. Its tagline is “Enough Said,” as if the absurdity of its concept is all it needs. It is born of the millennial wink-wink nudge-nudge irony where filmmakers feel obliged to let the audience know they’re in on the joke.

The acting is trash. The script is trash. The effects are trash. The directing is trash. The editing is trash. The lighting is trash. The sound design is trash. Trash. Trash Trash Trash.

The only compliment I can pay to it is that it is exactly what it sets out to be – inept in every conceivable manner.

There is no joy in Sharknado.

Burn it to the ground and spread the ashes in the sewers.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Contextualizing Godzilla

When we examine Godzilla critically the general approach is to discuss how the giant monster, brought to life by radiation from atomic bombs, represents Japan’s post-World War II anxieties about nuclear war. Japan is the only country in the world to be subjected to an atomic bomb attack, and the result of that bombing was catastrophic. As the world trudged forward into the nuclear age Japan was still coping with the fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla a giant lizard beast is awakened by nuclear testing. It begins to wreak havoc on Tokyo, spewing atomic fire from its mouth and crushing buildings. It’s a painfully clear metaphor for the nuclear attacks experienced nine years earlier. To a Japanese audience in 1954 it was horrifying and struck close to home.

But there is an angle to Godzilla’s commentary that is often missed by Western audiences. In the United States we are well aware of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but woefully ignorant that it was only the ending to a two-year long firebombing campaign launched by the allied forces.

Tokyo during the 1943 firebombing
In 1943 the United States began this campaign by bombing Tokyo. 1,665 tons of bombs were dropped on the city, igniting a massive firestorm. It is estimated that 83,793 people were killed, with over 40,000 more injured. This was only the beginning as the U.S. began firebombing every major Japanese city in the same manner, and after that moved onto the smaller cities.

Unlike the United States, Japan’s cities were mostly based on wooden architecture. They burned ferociously. Future U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara helped to oversee these bombings. In the 2003 documentary The Fog of War McNamara discusses this campaign and ultimately admits “we were war criminals.” Hundreds of thousands of civilians are estimated to have died.

Now, flash forward to 1954. Imagine being a Japanese citizen and seeing this on a cinema screen:

Yes, Godzilla was about the nuclear bomb, but it was also about so much more. It was about a country still in shock.

The Coen Brothers and Desks

Have you ever noticed the Coen brothers use desks in their films extraordinarily often?

A desk is a great device for a scene. It not only puts a physical divider between two people, it puts the person behind the desk in a position of power. Sitting behind a desk one feels safer, stronger.

In The Big Lebowski, The Dude is constantly disenfranchised when sitting before a desk. The chief of Malibu police throws a mug at him from behind a desk. The man at the funeral home attempts to charge him hundreds of dollars for an urn while sitting behind a desk. The big Lebowski himself insults The Dude and refuses to compensate him for the soiled rug. The nature of The Dude’s character allows him to shrug these incidents off, but he is never dominant when in front of a man behind a desk.

In Barton Fink, not only is Barton in opposition to the studio executive he is forced to work for, but he is even in opposition to his typewriter. Barton sits at his own desk, ready to work, but his writer’s block stops him. The desk becomes a block between himself and his creativity.

In Fargo, Jerry Lundegaard feels safe and self-assured as he boldly lies behind his desk. Lying is his business, seeing as how he’s a used car salesman. The desk gives him power over his clients, his office is his element. His cockiness will be his downfall. Later when he is on the phone with Carl Showalter he finds himself dominated. He is in his office but his desk has no power over the phone. Finally, when Marge Gunderson exposes Jerry’s lies he flees from his office, abandoning his desk and showing his true vulnerability.

In Raising Arizona, Leonard Smalls approaches Nathan Arizona in his office with an offer to find his kidnapped son. It is Nathan’s desk, but Leonard places his feet on it. He defies the desk, and will not allow Nathan to control him. Nathan refuses to accept Leonard’s offer. Leonard pays Nathan as much respect as he paid his desk and sets out in search of the child anyway, so that he may sell it on the black market.

In No Country for Old Men, the man who hires Anton Chigurh to recover the briefcase is murdered at his desk by Chigurh. The power is reversed. The desk did nothing to protect the man. This action shows just how powerfully evil Chigurh truly is.

In A Serious Man, the supposed power of the desk is subverted. The desk is shown to be but the illusion of power. Larry Gopnik searches for meaning, but the rabbis who sit behind desks offer no good answers. When Larry is at his own desk his hand is forced by his student to alter grades. The teachers and figureheads who sit behind these desks may have knowledge, but lack true wisdom.

A desk is a power struggle. The one sitting before the desk must fight to take control, and the one behind it must retain theirs. It is a symbol that immediately registers with the audience. We all know the feeling of powerlessness when sitting before a desk. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

My Top 50 Films

Sometimes when I'm bored I make lists. But always, without fail, the hardest of all is to make a list of my favorite movies. There's so many and I can barely limit myself. At the same time I feel like I haven't seen enough films to say any X amount stand above the rest. And then there's the issue that depending on how I'm feeling one film might stand out more than another. Sometimes I may leave off something that I love but just haven't seen in awhile to refresh my memory. It's pure subjectivity. I mean, what's the difference between slot 35 and 36 anyway?

But, I decided to have another go at it. So here, ranked, is my list of my Top 50 favorite films. There's stuff I had to cut (Pulp Fiction, Frenzy) but overall I'm happy with it. It's not an exhaustive sampling of my movie taste, there's plenty of genres and filmmakers I've left off. And very well if I do this list again in a year, I wouldn't be surprised to find that it's drastically different. But at this very moment, these are the movies that feel right to me.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The 25 Best Films of the Eighties

Ultimately any "Best of" list is opinion, and mine is no different. I've seen a lot of different lists online of the "best" eighties films, but they seem to all revolve around the same set of movies. Labyrinth, Die Hard, Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc. Sure, those are all great films (except Labyrinth, fight me), but those lists get boring after awhile. So this is a list of my favorite movies from the 80's, and therefore to me they're the best.

The Top 25 Films of the Eighties

25. Vampire's Kiss
(1989, dir. Robert Bierman)

Thursday, April 11, 2013


There’s something admirably primal about boxing. It’s a pure and honest sport. Two men agree to step into a ring and pummel each other to their last breath. It’s that simple. What boxing does is that it seems to speak to our innermost desires. It’s the unleashed Id, running wild and delighting in the blood and ruin the sport entails.

In order to box, one must be able to withstand as much pain as he can deliver. The boxer must be ruthless, but calculating and strategic. It’s a sport that simultaneously combines our most primitive tendencies towards senseless violence and the most advanced, tactical parts of our minds. But most importantly, the boxer must be willing to self-destruct.
Ian Palmer’s Knuckle is a film that gets to the heart of the sport. This documentary, filmed over the course of twelve years from 1997 to 2009, chronicles the decades-long feud between three Irish traveler families – The Quinn McDonaghs, The Joyces, and The Nevins’. Despite all being cousins, the longstanding feud regularly leads to challenges for bare-knuckle boxing matches.

Unlike professional boxing these bare-knuckle fights are fought outdoors and without rounds. They merely go until one man knocks out the other or one man gives up. There are referees to enforce a clean fight but otherwise it’s purely a raw and personal brawl between two men who fiercely hate each other.

Palmer mainly follows the Quinn McDonaghs, who repeatedly claim that they don’t instigate the fights, they only accept the challenges. To them boxing seems more like a chore that must be done once every couple of years. 

In contrast, the Joyce family, lead by the aging “Big Joe” Joyce, seems to breathe boxing. Big Joe is a loud and rough figure akin to a WWE wrestler with his constant threats and tirades. When it’s his turn to fight, Big Joe unleashes a flurry of punches, protecting his title as “King of the Travelers.” 

Unlike many boxing movies, Palmer doesn’t shy away from the fights. In fact, he shows them in their entirety. Many films tend to only use the fighting as a backdrop for character studies (Raging Bull, Rocky), but Knuckle is as much about boxing as it is about the families involved. There is a gaze during the matches that makes them exciting. They could be horrifying, but they’re just the opposite. 

That’s not to say Palmer doesn’t also focus on the personal stories of the people involved. There is as much of the film about the fights as there is about how this feud has destroyed the relationships between these people. When he interviews the wives of the boxers they all express a desire for the fighting to end and for the families to finally get along again. Palmer also focuses on the children, especially the young boys who have grown up watching their fathers fight and are learning to continue the cycle of violence.

But even Palmer is not immune. Through narration he finally realizes that at some point he had stopped caring about the documentary and had let himself become a part of this bare-knuckle boxing culture. He was no longer going to the fights for the film; he was going because he enjoyed them. And I think that speaks to boxing’s primal appeal. Even those who recognize it’s horror and devastation are still drawn in. He can acknowledge that this feud has caused endless damage, but even he can’t deny the seduction.

And at its core that is what Knuckle, and really boxing itself, is about. It’s watching destruction in action. But Knuckle goes far enough to show what happens when it bleeds outside the ring and it’s no longer fun.