Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five (Because) NYC Films

About a month before I moved to New York, I did a series of LiveJournal posts about NYC films and the lessons I believed they offered to me as a prospective New Yorker. I'm still pretty proud of those posts and I feel like they hold up.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Taxi Driver
King Kong (1933)
Sweet Smell of Success
Rosemary's Baby
Manhattan
Big
Sex and the City
The Fisher King
Can't Stop the Music
The Goodbye Girl
The Muppets Take Manhattan
(I also did a post referencing Funny Girl, but it was the day I moved and more a "here I go" squee than a proper post.)

Having lived here nine years has, unsurprisingly, given me a new perspective. So here are my "five because" New York movies.

#5. A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

This may seem like a weird one, but I first saw this on a Christmas Eve when, for financial reasons, I was in the city rather than in Tennessee with family (don't get too sad for me -- it was just a lot cheaper to fly after the holiday, which is what I ended up doing). It perfectly encapsulated the lonely-yet-exciting vibe of being in Manhattan away from family at Christmas -- at least as I was experiencing it -- and there was nothing more emotional to me than the group rendition of "Fairytale of New York." On the other end of the emotional spectrum, of course, is "Santa Wants Some Loving" (LMAO George Clooney creeping out from behind the trees!). This is not actually a movie, I guess, but it's a new holiday favorite of mine and makes me want to spend Christmas Eve at a piano bar in Midtown.


#4. Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

You can keep your Sex and the City, *this* is my Fabulous and Fashionable New York Movie. Faye Dunaway is a fashion photographer whose work has taken a turn for the macabre, and her photos somehow closely resemble crime photographs that she can't possibly have seen. She experiences episodes where she literally sees through someone else's eyes, instead of what's actually in front of her, and people keep dying around her. Tommy Lee Jones is her love interest, Raul Julia is her ex-husband, and Rene Auberjonois is her fabulously bitchy manager. The movie is a particularly brutal example of "Bury Your Gays," but in 1978 that wasn't as much of a trope yet (though with Someone's Watching Me coming out the same year and Cruising a couple years later, it was well on its way). And coming as it did in the late 1970s, it arrived with its own "love theme" -- by no less than Barbra Streisand! (Check it out, it's so dramatic!) I love this movie as a straight-up thriller, but I also love it as a New York movie. Iconic Manhattan locations, stark studios, creepy warehouses and credibly cramped apartment sets (except for Laura's lavish apartment, of course) make this a much more genuine look at New York than most movies set here now, even if that look is somewhat outdated.


#3. The Secret of My Success (1987)

Hang on, hear me out. Most of my own personal mythology about New York came from the 1980s, and The Secret of My Success was certainly part of that. Sure, it's a complete fantasy (not to mention basically an 80s remake of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), but it's also a snapshot of a particular slice of New York -- one that's part of the image of "making it big" out here. I'm not a successful CEO or hedge fund manager, but I do get to work in some of the shiny buildings like the one pictured above. I work at a desk, I have a job that actually makes use of my college degree, and I get a nice car to drive me home every evening. And there is occasionally free food and swag. It's not overwhelming success, and I don't have a ton of time to write (which is what I came here to do), but if you'd told 17-year-old me what I do every day, she would have thought it was amazing. But what does she know? ;-)


#2. The Out-of-Towners (1970)

When I'm having a bad day here, where it feels like the city is against me at every turn, I'm irresistibly reminded of this movie. It's a perfect encapsulation of a phenomenon that any real New Yorker has experienced many times. You start the day with a plan and either one little thing goes wrong or there's some piece of information you were missing, and it sends your entire day down the toilet. Like, you might as well have never left your apartment. Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis have one hellacious night, with misfortune piled onto misfortune, and you can trace a whole lot of it back to one or two little things they should have done differently right at the beginning. I don't really like where this movie ends up, with the couple deciding no big city job is worth this big city headache (everyone has a bad day, give it a little more of a chance than that, guys), but I've had days that feel at least a little like what they go through in the movie -- having to be late to work because the subway trains are borked, falling on the sidewalk, having to trample over trash bags because no one left a path, being pooped on by a pigeon, finding out that place you need to go to is closed on the one day you're trying to go, etc. You have not truly lived here if hasn't happened to you.


#1. The Warriors (1979)

The longest subway ride EVER. In fact, I'm fairly sure that *if* you were to take the subway from Van Cortlandt Park to Coney Island, as the characters of this film have to do, it would take longer than the running time of this film (for one thing, you'd have to change trains at least once). And that's even without the police and the other gangs dogging your every step. This movie is so, so good, and I love that -- even though it's set in Future New York, it's still unmistakably New York (side-eyes the fake NY of Escape from New York). I could cry at the diversity -- not just ethnic diversity, but all the different gangs that feel fully realized with their own backstories. It's kind of a perfect metaphor for the city itself; every gang has their own turf, their own rules. And New York isn't one big city, it's a bunch of different neighborhoods all crammed together. (just like the real NY) The movie's plot is simple, but incredibly effective and has the same basic structure of another film by the same director (Walter Hill), Southern Comfort -- our characters have to get from Point A to Point B, but it's super hard because 1) they have a serious disadvantage of some kind, and 2) there's been a major misunderstanding that puts them at odds with people they have to get through/past to get to their destination. I've always wanted to make a day of taking that subway trip. Just probably not in the middle of the night.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ten (Because) 1990s Cult Films

There are a lot of different ways to define "cult movie," I guess, but I'm going with Pure Cinema's more loose definition that includes movies that either weren't hits at the time of their release or have been forgotten or overshadowed in the years since their release, and have acquired a devoted (though perhaps small) following. So not necessarily "weird" movies. Though some of these certainly fall into that category too.

#10. What Dreams May Come (1998)

This won an Oscar for visual effects, and while it's not the *best* movie in terms of storytelling, it's a really remarkable visual feast. The ideas about the afterlife (greatly simplified from the book on which it is based) are very thought-provoking, especially the notion that it's radically different for everyone. I think everyone who at least has heard of this movie has seen the picture of Robin Williams walking through the painting (see above), but the image that most stuck with me was the vision of hell as an upside down cathedral. The plot here is pretty forgettable, but that's not what you watch this movie for. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#9. The Swan Princess (1994)

I'd only vaguely heard of this movie before its love song "Far Longer Than Forever" was nominated for a Golden Globe, but just a few seconds of that song made me want to see the movie immediately. (Seriously, it's gorgeous.) A loose adaptation of the ballet Swan Lake, the movie itself is nothing groundbreaking, and the animation is barely above television-grade for the time, but it has some great voice acting (including Jack Palance as the villain Rothbart), and the love story is actually rather nice -- a kick in the teeth to the "love at first sight" and "who's the fairest" tropes. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#8. Beautiful Girls (1996)

This movie is responsible for an obsession I had for quite a while in the 90s with Timothy Hutton. He is at the height of scruffy, sideburned, piano-playing sexiness here. The rest of the cast is a who's who of 90s actors -- Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly, Mira Sorvino, Rosie O'Donnell, Noah Emmerich, Michael Rappaport, a young(ish) David Arquette, and a quite young Natalie Portman. Yeah, it's another movie about men who don't want to grow up (most clearly exemplified by the not-as-creepy-as-it-sounds mutual crush between Hutton and Portman), but the cast has great chemistry and the movie has a lot of charm. Plus a GREAT soundtrack which is basically the Big Chill soundtrack of the 90s. It also has this beautiful profanity-laden rant from O'Donnell about beauty standards, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. (Available on Amazon and iTunes; soundtrack available on iTunes)

#7. Innocent Blood (1992)

There was a pretty huge vampire movie that came out in the 90s, but despite its supernatural cred, I'd hardly call Interview with the Vampire a "cult" movie. Innocent Blood -- John Landis's semi-comic take on vampires -- is another matter altogether. Not quite as brilliant as his werewolf movie the decade before, Innocent Blood nonetheless has a lot going for it. It was a cool idea to cross vampirism with mafia culture and equate being made a vampire with being "made" in the mafia sense. Loads of great actors in this -- Anthony LaPaglia, Robert Loggia, Don Rickles, Chazz Palminteri, Luis Guzman, Angela Bassett, plus some cameos from horror icons Tom Savini, Sam Raimi, Dario Argento and, err, Linnea Quigley (hey, if you're a horror fan, you know why she's a legend). (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#6. The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Come for the DiCaprio, stay for the subversion of the western genre. This movie stars Sharon Stone, still riding the post-Basic Instinct wave, but here, refreshingly, she isn't (that) sexualized and instead plays an atypical female for a western -- a vigilante who has arrived in town to seek revenge for her father's murder many years before. LOADS of great actors in this -- Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe before he was a big movie star, the aforementioned DiCaprio, Pat Hingle, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Tobin Bell, Raynor Scheine, Gary Sinise, and Woody Strode, fer cryin' out loud! I love that this movie never takes itself too seriously, and that it kind of knows how ridiculous it frequently is, but everyone in the movie is playing it totally straight. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#5. Cronos (1993)

The feature film debut of Guillermo del Toro and a brilliant addition to the vampire lore. An old antique dealer finds a device that makes him younger but has the unfortunate side effect of causing him to crave blood. Like so many of del Toro's horror movies, this has a lot of emotion and the real power in the horror elements is that you care so much about these characters and are genuinely horrified to see bad things happen to them. Don't get me wrong, there's also a good deal of artfully rendered blood and gore, but there's a tragic quality to the horror that pushes it past mere gladiator-style entertainment. There's an especially poignant relationship with the man and his granddaughter that I find really compelling to watch. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#4. Tales from the Hood (1995)

I saw this for the first time recently and really loved it. I remember thinking at the time it came out and I was seeing ads for it that it seemed like a dumb horror parody like so many that had come before, but it is definitely not that. Sure, there's a bit of the absurd here, but that's true of most horror in general. No, what this is is some brilliant commentary, specifically from the perspective of black America. There are bits in this that are still pretty danged relevant, starting with the opening tale where a black activist is killed by the police. The pièce de résistance, however, is "KKK Comeuppance," in which a racist southern senator is terrorized by a bunch of creepy dolls that hold the souls of previously tortured slaves. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#3. Cookie's Fortune (1999)

It is a CRIME that this isn't available to buy or rent. Even the Wikipedia page is half-ass. This is an Altman film, with his characteristically massive all-star cast. Let me just lay some of these names on you -- Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Ned Beatty, Courtney B. Vance, Charles S. Dutton, Patricia Neal, Donald Moffat, Lyle Lovett, Chris O'Donnell, Liv Tyler, and musicians Rufus Thomas and Ruby Wilson. It's set (and was filmed) in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and is legit one of my favorite crime films. The story begins with the titular Cookie (Patricia Neal in her last film, save one), who kills herself because she's bored of being a widow. She's found by her niece (Glenn Close), who sets about trying to make Cookie's death look like a murder -- mainly to spare the family the embarrassment of a suicide but also to set herself up in the family mansion. This is wickedly funny, and is one of those rare films about the south that doesn't feel exploitative or mocking. (Tragically not available, even for sale, except used copies; trailer on YouTube.)

#2. Dead Again (1991)

The closest to "shipping" real people I've ever been was with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. They made several films together and were one of the few real-life couples who actually had insane onscreen chemistry. Nothing tops the spark in Much Ado About Nothing, but Dead Again comes close. This is essentially a crime thriller, but it also has definite noir elements and is a sort of romantic fantasy? Emma Thompson plays a woman with amnesia, and Branagh is a detective who's trying to help her uncover who she is. This movie is a pretty cool example of a "past lives" plot, and through past life regression hypnotherapy, Thompson's and Branagh's characters become embroiled in a decades old love story and murder mystery which we see in black and white flashbacks. Noteworthy supporting players include Derek Jacobi, Robin Williams, Andy Garcia, and Wayne Knight. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#1. The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Boy oh boy do I love this movie. If you liked Love and Friendship, here's Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny directed by Whit Stillman nearly 20 years earlier. Though the story largely revolves around Beckinsale and Sevigny, there is a host of memorable and well-defined characters. Like most of Stillman's films, this is a movie where smart people sit around and talk a lot. There is perhaps no greater film conversation than the characters' discussion of troublesome archetypes in Lady and the Tramp. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but I love everything about this movie -- the early 80s fashion, the music, the use of Scrooge McDuck as a come-on, and the final shot of two people unironically shimmying to non-existent disco music on an elevated train. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Five (Because) High School Movies

One of my favorite podcasts right now is Pure Cinema, where most weeks the two hosts pick a theme or genre and give their respective "five because" list -- not five favorites, not the five best, just five because. Almost every episode inspires me to make my own "five because" list, but this week I actually did it.

There are a BUNCH of super obvious choices for this that I tried to avoid -- much of the John Hughes oeuvre, all those "take a literature classic and set it in high school" movies (sorry, Clueless), and Carrie. I tried instead for some deep cuts, or at least semi-deep or underappreciated.

So here goes. My "five because" high school movies:

#5: Grease 2 (1982)

Deal with it. While you'll get no argument from me that the music in the original Grease is definitely superior, as a whole, Grease 2 is where it's at for me. I think the story is genuinely better, and oh hey, it's actually FEMINIST. It  probably made up more of the image of what I thought high school would be like than any other teen movie I saw before I was actually in high school. And while the songs aren't that great -- some terrible, others terrible-tastic -- they're still catchy and I enjoy singing along to them. The weakest parts of the movie are when it tries to connect to the original, and I sort of wish this had been its own movie and not part of the Grease-verse at all, but the Pink Ladies and T-Birds dynamics are pretty essential to the plot. Whatever else I could say about the movie, though, Stephanie Zinoni is one of my life heroes. "Yeah, I'm free every day. It's in the constitution." (Streaming on Netflix US)

#4: Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Saddest reading of a Wordsworth poem EVER. One of Natalie Wood's best performances ("I'M NOT SPOILED, MOM!"), one of Warren Beatty's best performances, and among the pantheon of great bittersweet love stories. A lot of it takes place outside of the high school -- this could just as easily be part of a mental illness/institution movie list -- but it's still firmly in the high school milieu. Weirdly, this has a connection in my brain to another high school flick of the 60s, Teenage Mother. No, wait--really! They're both movies where a whole lot of the heartache and drama could have been avoided if people weren't so hung up about sex. This is a movie about the tug between what you want and what's expected of you, and dang if I don't get choked up when Warren Beatty is trying to explain to his dad that he wants to be a rancher and not a businessman. We're told in The Breakfast Club that when we grow up, our hearts die, but I don't think that's true and this movie is a great rebuttal to that. It's not that your heart dies; it's that the pull of responsibility and traditional adult roles are almost always too strong to keep fighting against. (Available to rent on iTunes/Amazon)

#3: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

And now for something completely different. A lot of high school movies are also horror movies. There's lots of great low-hanging fruit in the High School Hell subgenre -- Carrie, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the movie you might think this is a ripoff of but it isn't, Jennifer's Body. All Cheerleaders Die is actually a fairly original and entertaining movie, and the horror comes as much from what these characters are willing to do to each other (in terms of high school backstabbery and revenge) as from any of the supernatural or gory stuff. It's co-directed and co-written by Lucky McKee, so if you liked May and The Woods and his episodes of Masters of Horror (particularly Sick Girl), this might be right up your alley. (Streaming on Netflix US)

#2: Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)

An unusual mashup of teen sex comedy and murder mystery -- think American Pie meets Scream -- with Rock Hudson as a horny (and decidedly straight) football coach, Telly Savalas as an intrepid detective, James "Scotty" Doohan as his partner, Roddy McDowall as a beleaguered principal, Angie Dickinson as a sexy substitute teacher, Keenan Wynn as an inept police chief, John David Carson as a cute but awkward teenager with chronic priapism, and more absurdly beautiful women than should statistically be possible in a single high school. This movie is objectifying as all get-out, but it doesn't bother me that much considering the time it was made and the movie's other elements.  I love how audacious this movie is; the juxtaposition of genres alone is something that shouldn't work but absolutely does.

#1: Sing (1989)

High school was tough for me, as it was for nearly everyone, but it was made more tolerable by my taking part in artistic pursuits (in my case, marching band, winterguard, and madrigals). This movie is based on a real thing that is still going on in high schools in New York City -- student-run musical productions called "SING!" that typically pit classes against each other in competition -- and since seeing it in my own high school years, it's low-key one of my favorite musicals. The movie takes place at a school in Brooklyn that's facing closure in a community that's crumbling, but they want to put on one more SING! show because it's an important event not just for the school but for the community at large. There's a sweet opposite-sides-of-the-tracks romance, and several genuinely good songs (okay, "Birthday Suit" is hella cheesy, but "Romance" is lovely and all the SING! numbers are great, especially the heart-stirring "One More Time," which feels like a classic David Foster tune, and "We'll Never Say Goodbye," the greatest school song that never was). A lot of the movie is dour because these people's lives are tough, but that only reinforces the joy of the movie's last act, when the community gets together to cheer on the next generation, even against the admonition of the school board. The movie features Lorraine Bracco *just before* she was in Goodfellas, and even Patti Labelle in a minor role, but most of the rest of the cast is made up of lesser-knowns. It's hard to acquire, unfortunately, but the whole thing is on YouTube.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Favorites of 2016

So here it is, the top 10 plus honorable mentions. My "everything else" list is here, if you want the pants bored off you. :P

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I’ve done top 25s and 20s in the past. These are the films that would be on a longer list. I’m not ranking them, though, so they’re just in alphabetical order.


10 Cloverfield Lane — Brilliant suspense thriller that turns into genuine sci-fi by the end. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher, Jr. are great, but John Goodman is the star of this show.

Arrival — Beautiful film about the importance of communication and the challenges of understanding people and beings who are not like yourself. I saw the reveal coming pretty early, so it didn’t have quite the impact I think the movie wanted it to, but it’s a powerful movie nonetheless.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe — Man, I loved this! As soon as I realized the whole thing was going to take place in that basement and be the Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch Show, I got really excited and this movie delivered big time. And I *LOVED* the reveal and what it says about evil begetting evil.

The Edge of Seventeen — Movies about teenagers rarely do this good a job at combining humor with truth bombs. The writing does a great job of giving us a female protagonist who doesn’t have to be likable (and Nadine is downright unpleasant) to make us care about her. More movies like this, please!

Fences — Denzel Washington and Viola Davis give the best performances of the year. Period. Washington’s directing is proof that you don’t need majestic vistas to show your goods as a filmmaker. Good cinema can come from two people sitting at a table having a conversation. This movie shows off its actors and shows off August Wilson’s writing, and that makes all the difference.


Hail, Caesar! — Such an enjoyable confection, from beginning to end. Every piece of this is magic, but you can still see Joel and Ethan Coen’s distinctive and delightfully cynical fingerprints all over it. The discussion of the depiction of Christ is one of my favorite scenes of the year, as is Clooney/Whitlock pulling out a star performance (finally) in his big scene.

Hell or High Water — Darn good suspense with great performances (Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, especially). This movie and Nocturnal Animals have convinced me to never, ever go to West Texas. I loved that these guys were specifically targeting the bank that screwed their family over. This movie also has a shoot-out scene that effectively shuts down the “good guy with a gun” argument.

Hidden Figures — We need to unearth more stories like this to erase the notion that white people (white men, in particular) have been the only contributors to the advancements of our world. I’m sure there are plenty of them if we’d only look a little harder. One of the things I like best about this movie is that I kept waiting for some devastating end-of-act-2 thing to happen but it never did. There was plenty of conflict already in the story without setting these women back even more.

Jackie — It may be revisionist, but I don’t care. This was compelling as heck, and Natalie Portman is on FIRE. I love that this movie was shot almost like a horror movie (particularly the White House scenes) and that there was this palpable sense of a woman who was incredibly smart and capable who was being forced into this box because she was “just” a woman, AND that without her, her husband would not have had nearly as rosy a legacy as he does. Someone should write a time-travel story where she meets Eliza Hamilton and the two of them knock back a few drinks.

Kubo and the Two Strings — Best animated movie of the year (though the next one is a distant second), and it’s a shame it wasn’t seen more. Breathtaking animation and a very moving story. I especially loved the ending, which I won’t spoil, obviously, but which is a brilliant subversion of the traditional comeuppance for the villain.


Moana — Gorgeous animation, great songs (I’ve been singing “Shiny” for weeks), and a lovely example of ladies helping ladies. Sure, Maui’s a demigod, but Moana is the hero of this tale, and her strength and perseverance is what drives everything. She’s aided by a badass granny and in turn aids a goddess, and there’s not a single mention of romance. She’s also a “princess” (actually chief’s daughter, but it’s basically the same trope) who has real responsibilities — which, newsflash, real princesses do as well. This is another Disney film you can show your daughters without worrying about what messages they’re going to pick up. (Hopefully the “pee in the water” joke goes over their head, though. :P)

The Nice Guys — A worthy follow-up to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it feels like a nice companion piece to that film, with Ryan Gosling in the RDJ role and Russell Crowe in the Val Kilmer role. Child sidekicks tend to be hit and miss in any movie, but Angourie Rice’s Holly is definitely a hit — believably precocious and plays a plausible role in the action. This movie is a ton of fun and has heart. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Silence — There’s a moment in this movie, when Andrew Garfield finally hears God’s voice, that knocked me out. I cried all the tears.  It might play as unintentionally funny for someone else, but it was the lynchpin of the movie for me. The amount of emotional loading we put into the tangible symbols of faith can be a very dangerous thing and is exactly what turns religion into cultism. I love this movie for understanding that genuine faith is much more complicated than we’re comfortable admitting most of the time.

Toni Erdmann — A nearly three-hour movie that earns its runtime with scenes of painful and seemingly interminable awkwardness. There’s also a good deal of “business talk” that is absolutely necessary in understanding the main character’s struggles as a woman in a male-dominated world. This is likely the frontrunner among foreign films at the Oscars, and it’s brilliant. Hit my daddy-daughter buttons pretty hard.

Weiner — This is a movie where you wonder how on earth it was allowed to be made. A documentary following Anthony Weiner’s failed bid to run for NYC mayor, but the true hero of this movie is Weiner’s long suffering wife, Huma Abedin. I saw this movie well before the latest kerfuffle (without which I’m certain Hillary Clinton would have been elected President), and I’m glad I did, because it allowed me to feel at least a *little* empathy (though not much) for this guy. At the moment, though, the most I can say about him is that his continued existence is proof positive that the Clintons don’t actually murder the people who pose a threat to their pursuits.


THE TOP TEN

Trees. Birds. River. Sky.
Running with my Uncle Hec.
Living forever.

This movie snuck in at the last minute and stole my heart. A hilarious and touching story about a boy and his foster father on the run in the bush, pursued by forces that can't understand their situation, it gives us an unlikely hero in Ricky Baker (ah-ah!). Ricky's relationship with Bella is sweet, but his uneasy bond with "Uncle" Hec is the real magic of the movie. It might be easy to laugh at Ricky for thinking he's tougher than he actually is, but he actually does turn out to be pretty hardcore when it matters. The real joke of the movie is the child services duo, particularly Paula, who seems to think she's a character in a cop movie. This was a delightful surprise, but I suppose it shouldn't have been that surprising, considering how great Taika Waititi's previous film (What We Do in the Shadows) is. I can't wait to see what he brings to the upcoming Thor movie.


A lot of people think we’re crazy. But I doubt they’re as happy as we are.

A stealth cult movie (though not that stealth, if you're paying attention), this movie centers on a guy who's been invited to a dinner party being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband for several of their friends. We sense pretty early on that something isn't right, and the movie slowly reveals the backstory of what happened to estrange our protagonist and his ex-wife -- the fallout of their son's accidental death. One of the key things that makes this movie work is a possibly unreliable POV. Is Will right to be suspicious, or is his grief causing him to lash out unnecessarily? Once stuff hits the fan, the movie kicks into a whole new gear, and the conclusion of the film is jaw-dropping without being loud and showy. And you're left wondering in how many places, behind how many closed doors, did this same scenario play out.


I can't beat it.

If you were a masochist, this would make a hell of a double feature with The Invitation. And throw in a listen to "It's Quiet Uptown," too -- "there are moments that the words don't reach ... there is suffering too terrible to name." That describes this movie to a tee, because it is BRUTAL, in ways the trailers and advertisements don't warn you about. The reveal that comes about halfway through the movie refocuses the entire thing. Another movie would have saved it to the end, but that would have removed its power. You *need* to see how that backstory affects the decisions the main character makes. Stunning performances throughout -- Casey Affleck is getting most of the attention, but Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges are amazing as well. There are some more lighthearted moments, but make no mistake, this movie hurts. And frankly it should.


Wouldst thou like the taste of butter? A pretty dress? Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

I have never been more keenly aware than during this movie of the fact that witch hunts got started because people were afraid of women who were unusual and outside the norms -- women who had agency and power and weren't afraid to use it. They didn't have to have given their soul to the devil, but to the rest of their community they might as well have. This is an impeccably executed film (particularly for a director's first feature), from the costumes to the authentic period dialogue. And while it may be light on what most people consider horror, I can't think of a movie in recent memory that unsettled me the way this one did. If there's anything more scary than creepy kids (which this movie also has in abundance), it's creepy animals, and Black Phillip is still haunting me months later (THAT VOICE, GAH!). Perhaps most unsettling is that I get so annoyed on Thomasin's behalf that in the end I'm like "Good for her."


At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be.
Can't let nobody make that decision for you.

Three chapters in a young man's life -- childhood, adolescence, adulthood -- growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood. He finds a mentor and friend in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local crack dealer who, along with his girlfriend, are the most nurturing force in his life. He also grows close with a schoolmate, Kevin, and deals with his controlling, crack-addicted mother. It might seem, from my feeble summary, that this is a depressing story, but it is surprisingly uplifting. There are characters that you want to just pull out of the stories they're in and feed them and protect them and have nice things happen to them. I felt that so strongly for Little/Chiron/Black -- all that mattered to me in this movie was that he should be happy and have good things happen to him. I loved watching his journey and, even though it doesn't exactly end in a happy place, it all feels very true and real. And in the end, he does have people who care about him, and that's not nothing.



Sometimes it’s almost scary how strong the love gets.

I've seen some staggering misinterpretations of this movie. Some critics seem to think it's a joke, some think it's an exercise in homage -- it is neither. It's wickedly funny, but it's not a joke. There are obvious influences, but it's not a self-aware knock-off. No, director Anna Biller is definitely doing something new here. That's not to say that this movie can't also be enjoyed as cheesy pastiche, because it certainly can, but there's so much more going on beyond that. This movie is fiercely and subversively feminist, and drenched in a kind of female gaze that we're not used to seeing -- a female gaze that's directed at a woman. And it revels in the unease our culture has with feminine sexuality and power -- look no further than Elaine's commentary on tampons and menstruation, a moment seemingly designed to make the viewer question why they're squirming at such things.


I had a feeling that the great word 'respectable' would some day divide us.

This was apparently the year for ladies who don't need your approval, thanks, and there is no better example of a woman who has no interest in scoring respectability points than Lady Susan. She abides by the social graces she has to to survive, but she finds ways around the ones she can do without. She's a terrible mother and a disinterested wife/widow and seems quite annoyed that those are roles she is expected to fill because she is a woman. Director and writer Whit Stillman seems to have been born for a Jane Austen adaptation -- his previous work is a modern equivalent of her social commentary, and I can't believe that never dawned on me before this movie. It's good to see Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny together again (they previously co-starred in Stillman's The Last Days of Disco), but the scene-stealer is Tom Bennett, whose innocent joy is infectious. I'll never look at green peas the same way again.


Ladies are the dolls of maids.

What a delight. Park Chan-wook's films are all exquisite, but this was a joy from start to finish. I'd never read Fingersmith (though I'd read one of the author's other novels), so I had no idea what to expect from the story except that there would be lesbians. I certainly didn't expect "lesbians in cahoots," which is fast becoming one of my favorite tropes, let alone "lesbians in cahoots in a society that oppresses women." HOLLA! Park Chan-wook takes the story out of Victorian England and plops it into colonial Korea in the 1930s, an equally rich environment for the story and characters. The film *is* fairly sexually explicit, but I would argue -- as someone who hates "expository" sex in movies -- that the sex in the film is essential to our understanding of the characters. It's also super hot. ;-)


I’ll see you in the movies.

I'd heard about this movie for months, from back when all I knew about it was that it was Damien Chazelle's follow-up to Whiplash (my favorite movie of 2014). This was easily my most anticipated movie of the year, and I grew increasingly anxious that it would disappoint, or that I would have already learned about all the significant beats of the story. Well, that didn't happen. It still managed to surprise me, pleasantly. I love that the romance in this movie isn't an instant thing -- they don't really like each other at first, but they seem drawn together by forces stronger than either of them. They speak a common language and have similar goals, which should be the perfect recipe for happily ever after, but it's not that simple. Because as fantastical as this movie is, it's still at least *somewhat* rooted in reality. And when the movie inevitably breaks your heart, it feels earned, not like some cheap slap in the face because a storyteller wants to perversely deny you the pleasure of a happy romantic ending. That said, I do think the movie *has* a happy ending, just maybe not the one you're expecting.


Did the Sex Pistols know how to play? You don't need to know
how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan?

I didn't expect this to be at the top of my list. It was pretty far up there -- I loved it when I first saw it and downloaded the soundtrack immediately -- but it wasn't until (of course) after the presidential election that it gained a new resonance. Because the bullies had won, and the rest of us were going to have to live in their world for a little while. So the story of Cosmo, a kid who deals with a disappointing home life and bullying at school by starting a band and creating something that makes him happy, was important to me. I love how much the movie revels in the band's frequently inexpert attempts to imitate their musical idols -- some of my favorite moments in the film are the shots of the band walking together after Cosmo has adopted a new style from another band he's discovered. I love that the big musical moment is imaginary, and that as big a moment as the ending is it's much more real and uncertain. And how awesome is the music in this movie?! Everyone loves "Drive It Like You Stole It," but even the smaller, learning-curve songs are pretty great (I get "Riddle of the Model" stuck in my head all the time!). Everyone in this movie is great, many of the teenagers being played by non-actors, but I need to give a special shout-out to Jack Reynor, who plays Cosmo's big brother Brendan, the true hero of the film. We should all have a Brendan in our lives.

2016 Movies -- Everything Else

Now that we're in the new year, it's time for me to officially put 2016 to bed by cataloguing what I saw and doing my top 10 list.  My actual top 10, however, is not in this post. That, and my "Film Discoveries" list (vintage and more recent pre-2015 stuff), will be in separate posts. This is everything else *new* that I saw that didn't make a rank, because I feel like everything deserves a mention, even if it's just to say "AVOID THIS MOVIE AT ALL COSTS." I don't think there's really any of those. But I did put everything into categories, because that's how I do.

2015 MOVIES I DIDN’T CATCH UNTIL 2016

There are SO MANY MOVIES that come out at the end of the year that it's impossible to get to them all, especially with holiday travel. So these slipped through the cracks and didn't make consideration for last year's list. All of these are excellent. Mustang and Where to Invade Next might have made my top 10 or 20 last year if I’d seen them earlier.

45 Years
Beasts of No Nation
Clouds of Sils Maria
Mustang
Where to Invade Next


HORROR

There was a good bit of exceptional horror this year. One or two of these came close to making my list.

Blair Witch - There was an attempt.
The Boy - Points for trope subversion, but it ultimately didn’t work for me.
The Conjuring 2 - Effectively scary, but the fact that these are period fetish pieces is weird to me.
Hush - REALLY good, and I’m mad that they found a way to make John Gallagher, Jr. terrifying.
Under the Shadow - THIS is how you do period horror. And tension.


EVERYONE ELSE LOVED IT, BUT I WAS LIKE NAHHH

Every year there are movies that critics and festival audiences go gaga for, and when I see them I just think "Really?!".

American Honey — An interesting look at an interesting world (with a knockout performance by Sasha Lane), but there is NO reason for it to be almost three hours long. If this wasn't a critics' darling, it would be considered "flabby."
Everybody Wants Some!! — Points for the female gaze at the hot guys, but I wish there had been more actual FEMALES. The one female who is actually a character would, in any other movie, be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.


WAS EXPECTING TO LOVE IT MORE

There's a thin line between this category and the previous one, I guess. The difference is that I did like these movies, but for most of them I was expecting way more awesomesauce.

Captain America: Civil War — I don’t really care as much about Bucky as fandom does, and I think a lot of more casual viewers feel the same way, so this movie is hobbled right out of the gate, tension wise. What this movie did best, actually, was make me want to see the Black Panther movie.
Green Room — There’s great stuff here, but everyone seems to be really hardcore for this film, and I just thought it was okay. Nice to see Patrick Stewart playing decidedly against type, though, as a redneck neo-Nazi.
Hardcore Henry — Man, this looked SO AMAZEBALLS, but alas. It's also just physically hard to watch.
Keanu — Love the comedy, but it needs more kitty. The "I'll do the flip tomorrow" payoff is genius, though.
Loving — This is such a great and important story, and there’s nothing really wrong with the movie whatsoever. I just expected more oomph, and it’s just kind of nice.
A Monster Calls — I still liked this quite a bit, but it fell short of the greatness I was expecting. The movie seemed to assume I would get things it didn't bother laying out for me. Loved the stories, though, and how they were visualized.
Midnight Special — Another one I genuinely liked, but it was a little underwhelming. I suspect another viewing in a different frame of mind might improve my opinion.
Nocturnal Animals — The whole framing with Amy Adams’ character is strange, and I’m way more interested in the story-within-the-story. Incredible, mesmerizing opening credits sequence.


ODDITIES

I'd love to hear the pitches every one of these filmmakers made to raise money for these films.

The Lobster - The commitment to the world-building is stunning. The best Colin Farrell has been in a while. Beware if you like dogs.
The Neon Demon - Like its fashion model characters, gorgeous and terrifying.  Akin to 70s/80s Argento.
Swiss Army Man - Crude premise (farting corpse) gives way to beautiful world view.  The bus scene, man.
Sausage Party - Perversely profound.  I could have done without the final sequence, but the MeatLoaf gag alone is worth the price of admission.
Too Late — Can’t in good conscience put this in a “best of” list, but I loved this. It gets style points, if nothing else. I also love anything with John Hawkes.


NERD PROPERTIES GETTING IT RIGHT

Some of these are more successful than others, but it was a good year for geek properties. Or maybe I just avoided all the right stuff. :P

Deadpool - Gosh, this was nifty! Part of me wishes there weren’t going to be a sequel, because the interconnectedness of all these superhero movies is making me yawn, but I want to see more of this guy.
Doctor Strange - I know some people wanted this to fail, but it’s darn good. I also want to see more of this world and these characters. And I still can’t believe there’s a BNAT joke in there.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Very much a “first part” of several, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I want to spend more time in this world and see what happens next; that makes the movie a success in my book.
Ghostbusters - Suck it up, MRAs, this was the real deal, and in some important ways an improvement on the original.  The homages were actually the weak link here.
Rogue One - It’s a rare prequel that feels essential, makes you forget you know how it will end, and gives new richness to what it’s preceding.  Well done.  (I’m also very happy that tons of new people have become Diego Luna and Donnie Yen fans overnight.)
Star Trek Beyond - I didn’t hate Into Darkness as much as others, but this is still a step up.  Great villain, great new badass female character, and best use of The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” EVER.


TRUE STORIES

Lots of great true stories and biopics this year.

All the Way — Bryan Cranston is crotchety perfection as LBJ. 
Confirmation — Kerry Washington is outstanding as 90s Anita Hill. 
Eddie the Eagle — A classic underdog story with the equally classic salty-mentor character.
I Saw the Light — Ack, this was bad.  Just bad.
Ip Man 3 — If you loved Donnie Yen in Rogue One, I highly (HIGHLY) recommend all three Ip Man films. This one has him facing off against Mike Tyson.
Florence Foster Jenkins — This is so lovely, and not quite what I was expecting.  Meryl Streep is phenomenal as always, but the real gem of this movie is Hugh Grant.
Hacksaw Ridge — Incredible story about a guy who wanted to serve his country in WW2 without touching a gun. Brilliant, bloody battle scenes.
Miles Ahead — Don Cheadle stars, directs, and just OWNS.
O.J.: Made in America — I enjoyed the FX miniseries a lot, but this was on another level. I loved how much time they spent on context and how full and detailed this was, from O.J.'s college football days to the strange Vegas episode in '07.
Sully — Decent story, more about aftermath of “Miracle on the Hudson” than the flight itself.  Tom Hanks continues to be America’s hero.


REMEMBER WHEN THESE GUYS WERE A THING?

Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson haven't been household names since the 1990s, but they're not done.

Blood Father — I completely respect if Mel’s name is a deal breaker for someone when it comes to a movie. But this is a darn good movie and a reminder of why he became a star in the first place.
Rules Don’t Apply — Seeing Warren Beatty on screen again as Howard Hughes is the best thing this movie has going for it. It’s a vanity project, and it feels even longer than it is, but it does have its moments.


COMPLICATED LADIES

There were some INCREDIBLE roles for women this year, though we could do with even more.

Elle — No doubt this is a well-made movie. No doubt Isabelle Huppert gives the performance of her already remarkable career. But I don’t want the conversation this movie will inevitably incite.
Equity — Darn good movie about powerful women and the importance of due diligence. Anna Gunn slays.
Julieta — Subdued for an Almodovar movie, but that’s a low bar. A beautiful, moving story about mothers and daughters and heartbreak.


YOU KNOW, FOR KIDS

The Jungle Book - Ridiculously beautiful and actually worth spending the extra money on 3D and IMAX. Manages to avoid the icky racism of the original animated version. Nice use of the songs from the original.
The Secret Life of Pets - Not exactly revolutionary, but cute and occasionally hilarious.  Jenny Slate’s love-struck Pomeranian is the MVP for me and a great subversion of the “damsel in distress.”
Finding Dory - Lots to love here, especially what it has to say about people with special needs, but there are also pretty much all the things that make most sequels lesser than. Great new voices (Ty Burrell OMG) and lovely animation, as always.
Trolls - Much, much better than a movie based on troll dolls has any right to be.  The moment that sets up “True Colors” is one of the most emotionally devastating things I saw in a movie this year (and it's basically how I felt on election night).
Zootopia - Some of the most gorgeous animation I’ve ever seen.  The metaphor is clumsy, almost offensively so in a couple of spots, but MAJOR points for the constructive things it does manage to say about a very prickly subject.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Awesome Women of Cinema 2015

This was a pretty stellar year for women in film. Yes, there's still a long way to go, but some of the most successful movies this year (11 out of the top 25, in fact) had female protagonists or centered around women. So I want to celebrate some of the awesome women I saw at the movies this year.


1. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the Wives and the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road
Well, this one goes without saying. Women who are heroes with agency and who are not sexualized are usually hard to come by in movies, but MMFR is teeming with them. Young women, older women (old lady sharp shooters, no less!), and a badass truck-driving leader with a shaved head and mechanical arm, who you mostly see from the shoulders up. What a time to be alive!


2. Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) in Inside Out
Okay, Sadness and Joy aren't "women" per se, but they are definitely anthropomorphic and feminine coded. And despite their simple labels, they are each fairly complicated -- Joy can be sad and shed tears, Sadness can smile. And of course Riley's wonderful emotional complexities are what the movie is about. She also has a nice mix of traditionally feminine traits and not-so-feminine traits; she plays hockey and reads sappy vampire romance novels.


3. Joy (Brie Larson) and Nancy (Joan Allen) in Room
Joy (or "Ma," as she's referred to most often) survives and ultimately escapes a horrible situation, with the help of her son, but she's not impenetrable. Every once in a while you can see her let a bit of despair in, and that comes back in a big way when an interviewer suggests that she might have made a poor choice regarding her son's well-being. Nancy, for her part, is a solid rock of support (in sharp contrast to her ex-husband), never once, not even subtly, blaming her daughter for what happened.


4. Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina
A robot, not technically a woman, but ... well, yes she is a woman. The story, from Ava's perspective, is much like Joy's in Room, actually. She's a captive, and she gets herself out by any means she can. She makes her own agency.


5. Carol (Cate Blanchett), Therese (Rooney Mara) and Abby (Sarah Paulson) in Carol
It annoyed me recently to see Carol referred to as a "predator" when all she does in this movie is pursue a woman she is interested in the same way a man would. I love that she's determined to live her life on her own terms, even if it means seeing less of her own child. I love that Therese, who preferred toy trains to dolls as a little girl, is reticent about vacationing with her boyfriend, even though he assumes she'll be up for it. But I especially love Abby's devoted friendship to Carol after their romantic relationship has dissolved, as well as her kindness to Carol's new love Therese. Women are almost *never* portrayed that way after a break-up; they're always jealous harpies (men are too, for that matter).


6. Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) in Joy
(This was the year of women named Joy, apparently.) Invented the Miracle Mop. Figured out when manufacturer was trying to screw her and turned the situation to her advantage. Convinced QVC to sell her product and film the spots herself. Managed not to kill excessively demanding and horrible family members. Stayed friends with her ex-husband who ended up being her close advisor. She's a textbook role model, but a role model nonetheless.


7. Amy (Amy Schumer), Kim (Brie Larson) and Dianna (Tilda Swinton) in Trainwreck
No, Hollywood, not all women are dying to get married, nor is there anything wrong with the ones who are. Amy Schumer basically won 2015 and changed the way a lot of people were willing to look at women, especially in comedy. Her character in this movie is a human disaster, as many women are, and even though Amy is the protagonist, the movie ultimately doesn't consider the more traditional Kim the bad guy. Dianna is also an interesting case; she's pretty one-note, but it's a note women don't often get to play.


8. Susan (Melissa McCarthy), Rayna (Rose Byrne), Nancy (Miranda Hart) and Elaine (Allison Janney) in Spy
This movie is almost (ALMOST) as awesome, lady wise, as Fury Road. Susan might seem like a familiar role early on -- the competent schlubby assistant who pines for a man she works with/for from afar. But the movie subverts the hell out of it. She's never the butt of the joke (nor is her delightfully awkward co-worker Nancy), and she is actually quite capable in the field. Rose Byrne's Rayna is an incredible comedic villain, and if it weren't for Melissa McCarthy's apparently limitless charisma, she might threaten to steal the show. And now that Judi Dench is no longer 007's boss in the Bond films, it's nice to have Elaine as an alternative lady-calling-the-shots in a traditionally male-centric world.


9. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) and Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain) in Crimson Peak
Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Hunnam are pretty faces, but Edith and Lucille drive all the action here. Edith is as independent as a woman could possibly be in this time period, at the beginning *and* the end of this movie. Lucille is just an all-around delightful villainess, and I had no idea Jessica Chastain could be so scary and intimidating. She's like Ms. Danvers, only more powerful. The final showdown on the titular "crimson peak" between these two women is pretty amazing.


10. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Can I get a hell yeah for more than one woman in a Star Wars movie?! Rey is not just "the girl"; she is the main hero of the movie (and presumably the entire new trilogy). Leia isn't a princess who has to be rescued; she's a frickin' General, leading the Resistance. Maz Kanata is a wonderful mentor figure who reminds me of Yoda. And we may not see a lot of Phasma, but she seems to be the new Boba Fett -- just a cool character that people love (without needing an elaborate prequel backstory *ahem*).


11. Alexandra (Mya Taylor) and Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) in Tangerine
This movie is a snapshot of a very specific place and circle of people. At the center are Alexandra and Sin-Dee, trans sex workers whose beat is Santa Monica Blvd. They're close friends and they look out for each other, never more movingly than in the film's final scene. Feminism in our world is all too often white straight cisgender feminism (and almost always sex worker exclusionary, unless it can be Disney-fied, a la Pretty Woman), leaving stories about people who don't fit that specific mold ignored. This movie is not only a compelling story, shot in a way that makes it feel like nothing you've ever seen before, it also specifically tells the stories of two non-white trans women in the sex worker industry. It doesn't gawk at them, it doesn't treat them like interesting oddities; they are simply two women in a very specific world, and there's no way not to sympathize with them when they experience the brutal transmisogyny that they undoubtedly experience every day.