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


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.


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.


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
Where to Invade Next


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Film Discoveries of 2015

As much as I love the end-of-year "Top 10" lists, at a certain point, they start to look the same. As such, one of my favorite series of lists comes from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, where people submit their favorite "film discoveries" -- movies that aren't new, but that they saw for the first time that year. In that spirit, I submit:


10. Popcorn (1991)
My favorite from this year's "Dismember the Alamo" event.  I've already written about it here, but this is just a lovely bowl of candy goodness for any horror fan. Sure, there are some holes (in part because of development drama behind the scenes), but this is an incredibly entertaining movie. The B-movie spoofs alone make this worth watching. Add in Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather) as the final girl and a brilliant performance by Tom Villard and this is a must-see. It also contains this gem of a line - "There's more social relevance in Police Academy 5 than in all of Ingmar Bergman's cinematic smorgasbord." - which I have no trouble believing came out of a hipster film geek's mouth.

9. The Big Knife (1955)
Earlier this year, at the prompting of my favorite movie podcast, I started to delve more deeply into the work of Robert Aldrich, starting with this film (mostly because it was streaming on Netflix and was the easiest to find). Jack Palance plays a movie star who wants out of the business because he's slowly starting to lose his soul (and his wife, played by Ida Lupino). A bleach-blonde Rod Steiger (playing a slimy studio boss) then proceeds to manipulate him to unheard-of lows, to the point that the movie's depressing ending is almost a relief. Shelley Winters also appears as a not-quite-starlet whose biggest roles have been schmoozing executives in dresses borrowed from the costume department. Aldrich had an interesting take on human frailty -- that people are always going to screw up, but they'll at least try to do the right thing, but it probably won't ultimately work out -- and this movie is a great example of that.

8. Lionheart (1990)
My favorite entry in "Van Dammage" (another stellar Drafthouse event), this is everything you expect in a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a few things you might not be expecting. In a lot of ways, this closely resembles another Van Damme film, Bloodsport, but here Van Damme isn't so much fighting for glory as he is fighting to help preserve the family of his recently deceased brother. Harrison Page gives a great supporting performance as Joshua, a man who runs fights for money and who hooks him up Cynthia (The Most 80s Woman Ever), who does the same thing but on a bigger scale. There are actually some interesting class issues at work in this movie, and the family drama, though hugely melodramatic, is pretty darn engaging.  I feel the need to point out that this is also the movie that gave us Jean-Claude in a singlet, fighting in an empty swimming pool.

7. Someone's Watching Me! (1978)
This is actually a TV movie, but it's written and directed by John Carpenter, right around the time he made Halloween and was at the height of his powers. This is a stalking movie starring Lauren Hutton, in which an unseen killer torments women until they commit suicide. It is also unmistakably a movie about casual sexism. Hutton's character has to deal with unwanted advances and turns the tables by doing some advancing of her own. She also strikes up a friendship with a woman played by Adrienne Barbeau (in a then rare sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian). This movie is kind of a product of its time (it was made at a fairly specific time in our culture, when people were starting to get interested in surveillance but there wasn't a lot of regulation yet), but it's still genuinely creepy and suspenseful with some great female characters. Probably one of my favorite things in Carpenter's oeuvre.

6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
You might see this film as a knock-off of Ben-Hur, but you'd be wrong. One of the more intelligent and thoughtful entries in the "sword and sandal" genre, this is also a movie that boasts a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes (suck it, Ben-Hur, you only have an 88%!). More about the events that began the onset of the empire's demise, rather than the actual end of it, this movie has a stellar cast (Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, a pre-Sound of Music Christopher Plummer, Mel Ferrer, James Mason, Omar Sharif) and some really well-done action scenes, including a breathtaking chariot race that gives Ben-Hur's chariot race a run for its money (yes really). The set design also deserves a mention, especially the replica of the Roman Forum, which is still the largest outdoor film set ever built.

5. Roar (1981)
Holy frickin' balls, this movie. I won't recount it all here, because it would take up too much space, but I HIGHLY recommend reading Tim League's article on the background of this movie. Director Noel Marshall stars in the film, along with his then wife Tippi Hedren and their children (including a teenage Melanie Griffith). Oh, and about 100 "big cats" (a cornucopia of untamed lions, tigers, jaguars, etc.), which lived with Marshall and his family on their California estate. I spent the entirety of this movie with my jaw on the floor, thinking "what on earth made someone think this was a good idea?!?!".  By the time the film was complete (an effort which took several years), 70 members of the cast and crew had been injured, including Melanie Griffith, who had to have facial reconstructive surgery, and DP Jan de Bont, who is quite explicitly scalped on camera in the film. This movie is insane, and there's no way anything like it would ever be made now.

4. Passione d'amore (1981)
This is the film that inspired Stephen Sondheim's musical Passion. I saw a French version with no subtitles, but the filmmaking was so strong that it made little difference. The story revolves around a young soldier who becomes the object of obsession of a homely, perpetually ill woman. Valeria D'Obici (who won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for her role) is a revelation, and the weight of selling the love story is largely on her shoulders. Her character, Fosca, is so clingy and manipulative that it's difficult to root for her, but she makes you completely buy that the handsome soldier she's in love with will return that love in time. This is melodrama of the highest order (Douglas Sirk could never), but it's so beautiful and compelling that I couldn't take my eyes off it. (Side note: If you like this movie, I recommend checking out Sondheim's musical as well.) 

3. ...All the Marbles (1981)

Another Aldrich film, and his last. A post-Columbo Peter Falk plays a guy who manages a female tag-team wrestling duo. Their lives are decidedly unglamorous, and they hate it a lot of the time, but they know how good they are and they keep plugging away, trying to get someone to give them a shot at a championship title. The wrestling scenes are brutal, and you can practically smell the sweat in and around the ring. Falk is obviously the star here, but Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon are wonderful and have great, complicated characters to play with. Burt Young also appears, as the slimiest promoter you've ever seen, and Richard Jaeckel also shows up as a referee. This might look like a sleazy T&A comedy from the 1980s, but this movie is the real deal and a great capper to Aldrich's career.

2. Red Rock West (1993)
Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper and J.T. Walsh. That's all you really need to know, but here's a bit more. The film's director, John Dahl, does more television work than anything nowadays (including a couple of episodes of Hannibal), but his early film work was really solid, this film included. Cage plays Michael, a drifter who is mistaken for someone named Lyle, who J.T. Walsh's character is hiring to kill his wife. This reminded me a lot of Blood Simple, in that it's a rural noir with a lot of twists and double-crosses. Nicolas Cage's career is an interesting study in an actor who always brings their A-game, no matter how crappy the material, but when he does get good stuff, you can absolutely see why he became a star.

1. The House at the End of Time (2014)
This Venezuelan horror-suspense flick really took me by surprise, in a lot of ways, and I hesitate to say too much about it for fear of spoiling it -- I'm grateful that I knew very little going into it, and I think that's the best way to experience it. The plot, roughly, involves a woman named Dulce who is imprisoned for a murder that we know from the beginning she didn't commit. It's not clear what happened at first, but Dulce seems to be experiencing some paranormal phenomena. After a thirty year imprisonment, Dulce is released but remains under house arrest in the same house where the murder took place (elegantly solving the "why doesn't she just leave the house?" problem that plagues most "scary house" movies). And with the help of a priest, she tries to figure out exactly what happened all those years ago. This is seriously one of the better movies of this subgenre I've seen. The last twenty or thirty minutes were so satisfying to me, and there really aren't many movies that have made me as happy a viewer as I was during this movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Grapes of Death (1978)

It's October, and I'm steeped in my tradition of All Horror Movies All the Time. Starting this year's horror glut with a little Jean Rollin.

French zombies! Well, sort of. The creatures in this film are not, strictly speaking, zombies. They’re infected (much like the people in The Crazies, I guess), but many of them seem to still have their minds, though they become homicidal after a while. The disease is from a poisoned wine supply, so it doesn’t spread person to person, as in typical zombie films. These “zombies” don’t eat people (or brains, or whatever); they just kill. And they can apparently be killed just like a normal person (bullet to the head effective, but not required).

Zombie films also tend to have some sort of political or social message, but while this movie tries very briefly to dip into political matters, it feels very out of place.

The story is pretty simple. A vineyard starts using a new pesticide that infects the workers and poisons the wine (which infects everyone who drinks it). A woman, Elizabeth, is traveling by train to visit her fiancé, who runs the vineyard, and one of the infected gets on the train and kills her friend, forcing Elizabeth to flee into the countryside. Everywhere she tries to take refuge is ZombieTown. 

The movie is very slow and atmospheric (very French, in other words), but that shouldn’t suggest that it’s dull. It’s really quite beautifully shot, and the rustic locations make it seem like a story from another time (well, I guess the 1970s are “another time” at this point, but I mean from centuries ago). I love seeing how different filmmakers play with the tropes, and there are some really effective frights in this. One of the most genuinely scary sequences involves Elizabeth encountering a young blind woman. She returns the girl to her village, but everyone seems to be dead or infected and Elizabeth is trying not to alarm her, but the girl doesn’t understand what’s going on and is panicking. There’s also an extended bit with a severed head that’s particularly gruesome. (Special effects in this film are really well done for being made on the cheap.)

The director, Jean Rollin, is known for his erotic horror movies (notably his lesbian vampire movies, such as Requiem for a Vampire, Fascination, Shiver of the Vampires, etc.), and all of his films dwell lovingly on the (usually nude or partially nude) female form. This movie is the least leering (though it does still have *some* leering) and probably the most truly scary of his films.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chef (2014)

It’s been very exciting to watch Jon Favreau go from the up-and-coming indie director behind Swingers to a director that studios were willing to take a chance on and who would put out (mostly) quality mainstream stuff, like Elf and Iron Man. But with Chef, Favreau goes back to his indie roots, and this movie is a gosh-darn delight.

Favreau plays Carl Casper, a famous professional chef, who’s in a creative rut. This is largely because his boss, the owner of the restaurant where he works, only wants him to cook “safe” menus full of food that everyone knows and likes. But then again, Carl also chooses to stay there, so it’s at least partially his own fault. A well-known food blogger, played by Oliver Babish Platt, visits the restaurant and writes a scathing review, lamenting that this once visionary chef has lowered himself to cooking forgettable, uninspiring dishes that are not worth the exorbitant price the restaurant charges. Only he says it with a lot more meanness. And makes fun of Carl’s weight. Carl is outraged, and after his ten-year-old son teaches him how to use Twitter, gets into a flame war with the guy and basically becomes a meme. His ex-wife, who he is still close with, has been urging him to get a food truck, but he feels that’s beneath him. Until his internet infamy, that is. After getting a truck and fixing it up, he spends the summer driving across the country in it with his son and a guy who used to work for him, testing out the menu and trying new things in each new city — South Beach, New Orleans, Austin (I nearly screamed when Franklin BBQ got a huge cameo).

This is a lovely little movie about friendship, family, and creativity. I kept bracing myself for the obligatory end-of-act-2 Horrible Thing to happen, but it’s just ... nice. And positive. Which I guess makes some critics think it’s hollow, but I disagree. I love how it celebrates social media and what a huge impact that lets Carl’s son have on the business. I also just love the kid who plays his son, because he’s believable without being one of those creepy too-old-for-their-years child actors. The movie has tons of food porn, and you will probably immediately be looking for a place that sells Cubanos (Cuban sandwiches). It also has a lovely soundtrack, which is going on heavy rotation on my iPod for the summer.

It’s been out for a while, but if it’s still playing wherever you are, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gravity (2012)

One of the classic field trips when I was a kid was to the planetarium at the Cumberland Museum. Whatever group I was with would pile in to the domed room and watch in awe as the lights went down and the museum people put on a show. But at least once in one of those trips I found out one of my big fears. There was some part of the presentation where they were showing us the view of earth from space and the view pulled back and back and back, and I got the distinct (and surprisingly unpleasant) feeling of drifting further into space. Now, I love astronomy, and I love learning about space. But I realized right then and there that I probably would not ever want to go there. Because that sensation of drifting further and further away from earth was the most scared I think I'd ever been.

So when I say I was a little afraid to see Gravity, and that even the trailers made me very anxious, to the point of shortness of breath and (with the last trailer I saw) fearful tears, I am not exaggerating. And, being the huge cinema snob that I am, I of course had to see it in the most potentially traumatizing format possible - 3D and IMAX. Of course.

If you've seen the trailers, you know most of the set-up here, but I'll expand on it a little. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer who is on her first space mission. George Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut who is on his *last* space mission. While the two of them and another crew member are on a spacewalk, debris from a satellite crashes into a space shuttle, causing a chain reaction that results in loss of communication with Mission Control in Houston, as well the deaths of the entire crew except Ryan and Kowalski. Probably the most terrifying sequence to me - the girl who got so scared at the planetarium when she was little - is Ryan tumbling out into space. Kowalski is able to reach her, and they have a plan to get out of this alive. Well, since that's the first half hour of the film, you know things aren't going to go according to plan. And that's where I'd better stop. :-)

What makes this movie so astounding is the cinematic language and the very real sense of danger. This is not a film that could have been made ten years ago - the technology simply didn't exist yet to pull off the visuals at work here. And director Alfonso Cuarón, who we haven't heard from since his wonderful 2006 film Children of Men, uses these visuals in a way that few filmmakers can. The first 13 minutes of the movie are one uninterrupted shot, and that's not something you'd necessarily notice without being told because it's not flashy or showy, except that the cinematography gives you the distinct feeling of floating in space. What it does is put you right where the characters are, and when shit starts going down, you absolutely feel the terror.

Most of this movie is Sandra Bullock in a one-woman show that has to be the pinnacle of her career so far. I've never been that big a fan of hers, though I know she's better than most critics give her credit for, but she's on a whole other level here. She doesn't have anyone to bounce off of (except briefly with Clooney). The movie reminded me a bit of Apollo 13, which I guess seems like an obvious comparison. Both movies are about things going terribly wrong on space missions, but in Apollo 13, we're just as much in Mission Control as we are on that shuttle. We're invested in the astronauts' survival as much because Ed Harris and his crew are invested in it as we are for our own investment in those characters. Here, there's no Mission Control, at least none that can be of any use to Ryan. It's just Ryan and her own resources and, really, her own will to get out of this alive. She gets a little help, but what ultimately happens to her is - as much as it can be, considering her circumstances - all up to her.

This movie hit me emotionally in a lot of unexpected ways, particularly as I've just passed the one-year anniversary of my father's death. I suppose that, like all artistic endeavors, you'll get from it largely what you bring to it. For my part, it's the most emotionally draining and rewarding movie I've seen in a long time.

One final note, and I probably wouldn't even have thought of this if I hadn't been revisiting The West Wing recently and renewed my obsession with it. My favorite moment, and I suspect it's a favorite for a lot of people, reminded me pretty forcibly of Delores Landingham. If you see the film and you know that name, you'll see what I mean.