Faded Paper Figures - Relics: *** (Top track: Lost Stars)
Four albums now and they get better and better with each one, further refining and expanding their preternatural ability to craft ridiculous hooks with their electro pop sound. And their crafting of soundscapes is getting better too. This songs are more likely to envelop you as they build and build. And Real Lies should be torching the dance floors but alas, it is not.
Hooray For Earth - Racy: *
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager: **
La Dispute - Rooms of the House: *
Spoon - They Want My Soul: ***
They can take all the time they want if they put out something this solid, back to front, every so often. I think what I dig most about this one is the drums. They are forward in the mix and fantastic, providing all the drive to his record. It’s good to hear a veteran band still push their sound forward while staying unmistakably themselves.
All the more frighteningly relevant as we actually have disturbed men going around killing people because they think women owe them a date. This film actually cares enough to go deep inside the psyche of an extremely damaged person… and then notes how that person exists inside of every man. Which, of course, makes it a bleak, disturbing film, but also, an essential one. Also, I’m pretty sure Tommy Wiseau based his entire life on Harvey Keitel’s character.
BLUE RUIN (Jeremy Saulnier, 2014): 7.5
Ordinary guy with no core level of competency gets in a violent situation way over his head and who knows when he might fuck up next. Turns out this is a nailbiter. Give a good idea 90 minutes to play around with and that’s all you need, you know.
First Aid Kit - Stay Gold: ** (Top Track: Shattered & Hollow)
Swans - To Be Kind: **
A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Sea When Absent: **
Lewis - L’Amour: ***
Don’t know if this is a hoax or not, it is beautiful, strange, and wonderful. As if someone got inside Blue Velvet-era David Lynch’s head and perfectly combined his love of crooners and synths. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lynch was somehow behind this. No matter where it’s from, I’m glad it’s here.
White Lung - Deep Fantasy: **
The Hotelier - Home, Like Noplace Is There: ***
Emo is back, baby! From the barnburner opener to the technically sound though threatening fall apart at any moment instrumentation, this is the music definition of a band needing to get their words out before they explode. This is emo at its best.
Starts out like gangbusters, gets delightfully batty, and then gets the less good form of batty. It’s a skewed, outsider’s vision of a Hollywood action blockbuster in a superb setting. It never lets itself get too weird, but the weirdness that is there butts heads against the narrative conventions in such a entertainingly bizarre way. But eventually, the strains of the plot get to be a bit too much, even though I really enjoyed how details were slowly teased out with a little bit of misdirection until the final reveal. It has faults, but the inventiveness is worth the watch.
DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (Matt Reeves, 2014): 7.7
What do you know, I was quite impressed with this film as much everyone else was. So refreshing to see violence handled with horror, to see a movie argue for peace, to notice how fear is inevitable and leads to terrible decisions, to call for understanding, and to know that understanding is nearly impossible between two groups whose only goal is self-preservation. Enough has been said about the effects, but the greatest thing about this movie is that it has brains and a heart and it’s not afraid to use both.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (James Gunn, 2014): 6.9
You will believe a raccoon can talk! Can’t really oversell the giddy joy of seeing James Gunn’s name pop up in the opening credits as the director of a huge summer tentpole. He gives this thing just enough irreverent personality to differentiate it from other MCU movies, and that goes a long, long way. But what I’m liking most about the different properties is how they are using each individual series of movies to pursue its on genre. We got fantasy, action, political thriller, and now space opera! Maybe ANT-MAN will be horror?
BOYHOOD (Richard Linklater, 2014): 9.3
Astounding from beginning to end. I can’t do this justice with words. The scope of the project is mind boggling, the characters are all wonderful and indelible, the shaggy nature, the refusal to have any big moments… I don’t know… this is an amazing piece of art and I loved it. I was pretty much stunned the entire time.
Devastating. And that’s all there is really to say about it. There’s so, so much emotion here, much of it brutal, much of it raw. “Your Love Is Killing Me” is the best song of 2014 so far, and it’s such a towering epic of pain and love and heartbreak. It’s almost too much. Almost. But as she makes certain to tell us in the song directly after, the pain, the joy, the unfathomable hurt and the incredible happiness… it’s all love.
Hundred Waters - The Moon Rang Like a Bell: ** (top track: Seven White Horses)
Another movie that shows the perils of fidelity, as this just takes sections out of the book, verbatim. Which I mean, fine, it’s a decent book, but it’s not a script, and some of the language just sounds off coming from actual human beings’ mouths. The characters are good, and the story is, of course, a tearjerker, but this does nothing more than illustrate, and loses some power in the process.
COHERENCE (James Ward Byrkit, 2014): 8.8
Truly outstanding, somehow shaping improvised acting and dialogue around a very precise concept all the while avoiding the pitfalls that most of these puzzle box movies here. This movie actually uses the puzzle to deepen the themes and develop the characters. The mystery isn’t the key here, although it is heady and brilliant. The fun is how it is slowly revealed, and then lets it reflect off of and motivate the characters. Good stuff.
Reichardt’s weakest film but that still puts it in a pretty good spot. Everything leading up to the act is spare and tense and wonderful. Everything after is maybe a bit too spare, as the paranoia and the outbursts grow into a puzzlingly bad turn of events, we don’t really know who these people are or why they may be doing what they are doing. Reichardt is usually very good at giving just enough information and letting us fill in the blanks. This time, I feel like a little more could have been given.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (Doug Liman, 2014): 7.8
I feel like my college friend who insisted that Doug Liman was the most under appreciated Hollywood auteur is vindicated. Liman has always excelled at shooting clean, economical action pictures (seriously, the gunfights in MR. AND MRS. SMITH are startlingly good), but I feel like this story made perfect use of his talents. Economy, intelligence, clarity, humor, and certainly no air of self-importance to get in the way. There’s a lot to like here, from an impressively badass Emily Blunt (who with this, LOOPER, and THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, has become very good at picking smart, semi-ambitious sci-fi flicks) to a trusting direction and pacing that allows the audience to pick up clues on their own. Best tentpole of the summer, so far.
22 JUMP STREET (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2014): 7.2
The self-referential sequelitis jokes start funny, get tiresome, but fortunately, there’s a lot more here sneaking around in the background (which we should become accustomed of from Lord & Miller comedies). So many jokes and references that if one didn’t land, the next one was coming right after it to make you forget about it. I laughed a lot.
I can’t really put a finger on why I dig this record so much. The harmonies? The handclaps? The (non-cloying) positivity? Sure, this all helps. This is pretty unabashed indie pop, with plenty of twee. I’m a sucker for this stuff, what can I say.
Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal: **
The Orwells - Disgraceland: *
Lykke Li - I Never Learn: ***
"To love and win is the best thing. To love and lose, the next best." A sad, yet somehow affirming record about not just the difficulty in losing love, but the difficulty in accepting how important it is. In letting it heal you. In allowing yourself to need it. No matter how much she tells herself that she caused too much pain, that she will never love again, that she’s a stone, she knows. She hopes. After all, the last lines of the record are: "If you save your heart for mine, we’ll meet again, we’ll meet again.”
This goes for big, dumb, and broad where it should be subtle, clever, and witty. Even the most compelling part of the movie (the relationship between the sisters) is buried under interminable musical numbers, broad jokes, and perhaps the worst “comic” side character in recent animated movie history. It’s also pretty leadenly paced. There’s a scene where the snowman gets impaled by an icicle, looks down, says “I’ve been impaled,” followed by a slow fade out. What? I liked the opening titles though.
GODZILLA (Gareth Edwards, 2014): 4.4
"Ah, now eventually you do plan to have Godzilla on your, on your Godzilla movie, right? Hello? Hello? Yes?"
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Bryan Singer, 2014): 6.0
Smaller scale (in a good way) than I thought it would be. Complicated story told with impressive clarity. Cool set pieces, solid characterization, fun use of characters. This is as solid as this story could have hoped for in movie form.
Refreshingly free of any and all irony. Probably the most unfortunate part of this film is that I could watch Tom Hiddleston and TIlda Swinton (and Jim Jarmusch by proxy) idly catalog everything that makes life worth living all day and its so rudely interrupted by a plot point that just botches everything up. It’s only made bearable by the fact that the characters themselves are pissed off that she (the plot point) is there, but it kickstarts a plot for a movie that didn’t really need it. Everything else is wonderful though, even the name dropping seems reflexive and natural, instead of pandering like in, say, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. And what a lovely sentiment, too: for the immortals, life is worth sticking around for, for the rest of us, it’s something we should take care to appreciate.
BIRTH (Jonathan Glazer, 2004): 6.9
What happens when you take an absolutely ludicrous premise, play it straight, and have pretty much every single contributor to the filmmaking process give it their absolute all from the pool of their established, considerable talents. This is a striking movie, through and through, from the fantastic score, beautiful camerawork, and Nicole Kidman’s deep, nuanced performance to the befuddling fact that this film refuses to acknowledge the absurdity that Nicole Kidman is falling in love with a ten year old. I’m being slightly cheeky here, what’s they have here is far more interesting because it allows the characters to explore the possibility rather than outright reject it, but it’s also so deadly serious. You would think one would crack a smile or a joke when attempting to convince one’s lover that one is back from the dead in the form of a child.
Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks - Enter the Slasher House: *
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days: **
Saintseneca - Dark Arc: *
Thumpers - Galore: *
Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else: ***
Dylan Baldi’s songcraft remains strong as ever and maybe one day I’ll get tired of him putting out these solid records of loud poppy-punk garage rock songs filled with hook after hook, but today is not that day. Tomorrow doesn’t seem likely either.
Tobacco - Ultima II Massage: **
Wax Fang - The Astronaut: ***
An impressive slab of proggy epic goodness. It’s all here, synths, guitar solos, sax solos, mood setting ambient pieces, and, of course, an album spanning concept. But when this record wants to rock, it rocks hard. Most of all, it’s a fun listen, skipping over prog’s annoying tendency to disappear up its own ass.
Eagulls - Eagulls: **
Nothing - Guilty of Everything: **
The Antlers - Familiars: *
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Days of Abandon: Trash (what a shame, too)
Now that I’ve seen the whole thing I can say how wonderful this film started, with a sort of wit and zest that proves von Trier was working at his most earnest… and best. He also lets himself interject, seriously question his purpose, his tendencies, his obsessions. And while it suffers a bit of a comedown in the second half as Joe starts to unravel, the film still has a certain amount of verve to it, never degrading itself to misery porn. No, Joe is a real character he has on his hands, and fortunately, he never really abandons the character just so he can show us some REAL fucked up shit. That is, von Trier seems to be working out some real tough stuff with a sense of humor and cleverness that a man of his obvious intellect and talent worked hard to put into an accomplished film. And then he blows it with a stinker of an ending that feels like a joke. I’m sure he loves his ending and I’m sure it tickles him to death that he told a 4 hour joke with such a punchline, but man, it really feels like he just didn’t trust himself to land this movie so he backed out with a half assed, juvenile raspberry to the audience. Oh well.
JOE (David Gordon Green, 2014): 8.2
There was a movie a couple years ago about a kid trying to make it on their own amid deplorable conditions, an abusive father, and rampant alcohol abuse. That movie was called BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and it tried to depict such circumstances and the community therein as purer, more earnest, and more soulful than we bougie do-gooders could ever be in our comfortable suburban dwellings. JOE says fuck that bullshit. People are people and whether they are a product of their apocalyptically run-down environment or are struggling to rise ever so slightly above it, they will be weak, they will be strong, they will be good, they will be evil, they will do the best they can, they will fail. David Gordon Green and his outstanding cast does so well in depicting this backwater southern town as a sort of purgatory, a place that is warped by everyone’s punishment they think they deserve. Yet, there are those that don’t deserve to be down there. JOE might be about the opposing forces in this place, between those who wish to drag others down with them into the muck and those who can muster the strength to let the innocent stand on their shoulders while they drown.
A very, very troubling film, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is distancing, perplexing, disorienting. That is to say, it puts the audience exactly in the mindset of an alien first encountering the human race. The score shreds nerves and Scarlett Johansson, certainly one of the most beautiful people alive, is so believably non-human in a way that I didn’t think possible from someone of her star wattage. While it takes a somewhat predictable “what does it mean to be human?” turn, it does it in a very non-standard way that remains as disturbing and provocative as the rest of the film. It’s been a long time since a movie so purposefully took me out of my comfort zone. It turns an entire culture of male gaze and masculine safety right around on me. The abyss stares back, indeed.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (Joe & Anthony Russo, 2014): 6.6
Note to Zack Snyder and everyone else responsible for MAN OF STEEL, which continues to slide down the rungs into worst movie ever made territory: you can make a movie about an unwavering goody two-shoes and have it be relevant, interesting, entertaining, and (mildly, I admit) provocative. Captain America is cool and all, but Superman is Superman, and Marvel just beat him at his own game. Which just makes me despise MAN OF STEEL all the more. This movie was fun, though. Poor Hawkeye. Can’t believe there’s only one movie left before AGE OF ULTRON. Also, fuck MAN OF STEEL.
It is nuts but you know what else is nuts? The Book of Genesis. I was continually impressed by Aronofsky’s commitment to it, his vision, his unwillingness to pander or dumb down, and his successful attempt to not turn it into some sword and sandals epic but keep it relevant via an anachronistic jumbling of technology and scenery. He didn’t stick a timeless story in the the far reaches of the past, but made sure to keep it timeless. Kudos to him not backing down and kudos to the studio for giving up on cutting it into some generic mess. This may be one of the boldest, strangest major studio backed films ever, and it’s all the better for it.
THE RAID 2 (Gareth Evans, 2014): 7.4
There’s a bit more of a focus on story here, which okay sure, we’re making a narrative film here, but it’s all just a vehicle by which some ridiculously brutal, tense, and awesome action scenes are delivered. There’s a kernel of an interesting theme in the story that’s here, though, that would have been fascinating in a different film. But this is not a different film. This is a movie in which a girl fights with two claw hammers and a guy wields a baseball bat with outstanding aplomb. There is face punching and smacking heads into surfaces and limb snapping. This is wince inducing stuff that provides real stakes and real impact to the fights. Also, the entire theater loudly cheered at the end of the climactic 1v1 in a sort of cathartic “holy shit” moment that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in a theater before. Not at that volume or uniformity, at least. People who go see this movie know exactly what they want out of it. They will not be disappointed.
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (Martin Scorsese, 1974): 6.8
My expectations of a solid, if staid, melodrama were immediately thrown out the window when the odd WIZARD OF OZ/GONE WITH THE WIND in Academy ratio (eat your heart out, Sam Raimi) opening had young Alice say, “blow it out their ass.” What follows is a warm, funny movie full of smartassery and honesty, independence and the need for love. What I’m saying is this movie has a well rounded female character with a son that can’t be simply summarized down to “brat”. In fact, it’s the adult male characters that seem simple here and maybe Alice’s conflict comes from wondering why the world can’t accept that she wants to sing and raise a family and have the love of a man and be a smartass with her son while wondering where he got his foul mouth.
Reserving judgment as this doesn’t even pretend to be a complete film. I’m basically experiencing a week or so long intermission. Uma Thurman, though.
IN THE LOOP (Armando Iannucci, 2009): 8.6
Certainly one of my favorite comedies of the past ten years. A foul-mouthed, insult laden depiction of that old saying: “Politics is a lot like coaching football. You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it matters.” And it never fails to make me laugh from start to finish.
MOVIE 43 (Lots of people, 2013): 2.4
Not nearly as disastrous as I thought it would be (I anticipated not being able to last), but this isn’t a success by any means. Most of my disbelieving laughs came from watching these people say and do these things in the pursuit of a joke that outstayed its welcome at best or was never actually that funny to begin with. People had these ideas and then wrote them down and then had people actualize them in a film. How did this movie get made? But.. there were a few genuine laughs. The Homeschooling one was actually good, and the only one I would describe as such. The rest range from tolerable to atrocious and I guess what’s the price of few shitty skits in the pursuit of artistic freedom?
It’s a fitting farewell, but a disappointing one, too. He doesn’t leave us with one last glimpse of the fantastical tales, environments, and creatures that he’s been known for, but instead a meditation on creativity and art, and their purposes, uses, and tolls. Not really surprising material for Miyazaki to sign off on, but his reflection denies us one final trip through his imagination, stunning dream sequences aside. But the animation is gorgeous and his warm-hearted refusal to designate antagonists is always welcome, and well, this goes without saying, but he will be missed.
VERONICA MARS (Rob Thomas, 2014): 6.1
The fans paid for it and they got what they paid for. And you know what? I don’t really care about if this was a “true movie” or not. I think everyone got what they wanted out of this and if newcomers were baffled, who the hell cares? More Veronica, more snappy dialogue, more wonderful sun dappled neo-noir, more Neptune centered intrigue and corruption. Sure, there was tons of fan service, callbacks, references, appearances of people for no other reason than fans wanting to see them again. and a few (very fun) cameos. But you know what, no one ever thought this was going to happen, and this is probably the last time we get to see these actors play these characters in this world. So what if it feels like a farewell tour and a reunion show wrapped into one bigger package. It feels like the movie the creators wanted to make. It feels like the movie the fans paid to get made. Everybody wins.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (Wes Anderson, 2014): 8.4
I, too, have seen THE GRAND ILLUSION. I will never get tired of Wes Anderson’s carefully crafted, intricate arrangements and his willingness to blow them up with someone yelling “that fucking faggot!” over it all. Anderson knows who he is and what he likes and he can tell his stories just fine with his tools, thank you very much. He takes his filmmaking seriously but knows not to be too serious about it. This was his epic. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Please refer to this page for information on my ratings: http://zoetropia.tumblr.com/musicratings
Also, I’m sure there’s tons of good shit I missed, so please please please recommend records I should listen to. Cool.
Yellow Ostrich - Cosmos: *
Real Estate - Atlas: **
Beck - Morning Phase: **
Dum Dum Girls - Too True: **
St. Vincent - St. Vincent: ***
Annie Clark has had solid albums with some great songs, but no album has been straight through solid. This album is more than straight through solid, it’s wall to wall great and it’s got teeth. It sounds like she had a real vision for this album as it whole, and it really shows.
Welp, I’ve wrote blurbs about all of these films on my blog so you can just look back through my archives to see what I wrote. For this list, I’m going to tell you my favorite moment of each movie. Of course, there are some 2013 releases I’ve missed, so this list is constantly in flux. Here is the list that will be updated if I ever see anything that jumps up to the top 10: http://letterboxd.com/urthstripe/list/top-10-of-2013/
10. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Martin Scorsese): quaaludes at the country club
9. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen): Solomon sings
8. ALL IS LOST (J.C. Chandor): letting loose the F-bombs
7. DRUG WAR (Johnnie To): Captain Zhang plays Ha Ha
For every harrowing, well-crafted sequence, there’s a hackneyed, tone deaf slow motion leaping away from an explosion or protracted death scene. Like Emile Hirsch says at one point “this sucks”, and you actually understand that, because the film does, at points, make war look like it really fucking sucks, but then a character spouts one liners or dies in glorious slow motion for the glory of God and country, and, well, heavy handed doesn’t quite capture it. No one with a brain can be told this story and not think that these guys were tough, brave, excellent soldiers, but this movie doesn’t think that we quite get it. “No, no, no, you don’t understand. These guys were REALLY, REALLY tough. They were….HEROES (just for one day).”
THE DICTATOR (Larry Charles, 2012): 3.4
It at least tries for something more than the typical comedy, what with its political skewering and pointed satire. But it makes one terrible mistake for a comedy, it’s never very funny. Oops.
THE GRANDMASTER [Festival Cut] (Wong Kar Wai, 2013): 6.0
Suddenly not so angry that there are multiple cuts to this film as it is clearly a case of a really good movie struggling to be told. The shots are there, I think, but there is something off about how it is put together, rhythmically and otherwise. It wants to be about Ip Man, it wants to be about Gong Er, and revolutionary/civil war China, and the golden age of Chinese martial arts, but by doing all of this, it gives them short shrift. Gong Er’s story is the best, and it really seems like it is the storyline that Wong has his heart in, but probably felt like he couldn’t have made/funded a Gong Er movie. It is absolutely gorgeous, of course, and the fight scenes are wonderful. Not a failure, really, but a missed opportunity.
RIDDICK (David Twohy, 2013): 4.3
It’s like a budget sci-fi 3-pack. Stranded/survival adventure feature, Vin Diesel picking off bad guys action feature, and monster “horror’ feature. All in one! Oh don’t forget that a major plot point will make no sense unless you’ve seen (and remember!) PITCH BLACK. I can’t say this is a good movie, but I have to respect that Twohy is allowed to play in his little corner of the sandbox without any adult supervision. And I have to believe he’s telling the story he wants to tell.
THE MUPPETS (James Bobin, 2011): 5.9
Nostalgia! Jokes! Breaking the fourth wall! Songs! Amy Adams is a goddamned national treasure! A NATIONAL TREASURE, PEOPLE!!!!!!
I’m going to start trying to keep track of the records I listen to, similar to the way I do movies. I will probably write less about them, if anything, but I will have a strange rating system kind of cribbed from Robert Christgau, but dumbed down because I’m dumber.
Records that I like will have anywhere between * to *** stars.
A *** star record will be a back to front excellent record. One that I can’t stop listening to at the moment. If you are a fan of the genre or band, you can’t miss it. If you’re not a fan of the genre or band, you might just want to listen to it to keep up with what’s good these days.
A ** star record is a record I like, but has a few bum tracks. A fan of the band or genre will find much to like in it and finds it slots nicely in its respective library.
A * star record is a decent record I go back to mostly out of my affinity for the talent of the band and/or the genre. Non-fans will not see much that will bring them aboard.
Then there will be a Top Tracks section. Top Tracks will be great songs from albums that don’t warrant any stars. But these songs will be so good, you might even get the record just for them.
Then there’s the Trash records. Self explanatory. I just did not like these records. The first listen was a chore and I’ll probably never go back to it.
I’ll put this up in my Ratings Explanation page. I’ll have my first batch of records up soon, I hope.
Second viewing, wrote this blurb last time: “What happens when a typical college comedy is hyper-intellectualized, and the inanity is cranked up to absurd levels. Whit Stillman’s slanted views make his skewering (and affection) of high-minded collegiate psuedo-intellectuals (and doufi) funny and charming.” Again impressed by the tightrope this film walks. It’s absurd, yes, but these aren’t really caricatures we’re watching. At least, they’re not one-dimensional, and that makes them even funnier. Stillman’s voice is so idiosyncratic and while i can see how it can aggravate some people, I’m too charmed to care.
PRISONERS (Denis Villeneuve, 2013): 4.8
I tried to lean in to this one, but it just became too aggressively dour and way, way too long. The length is really unforgivable as this isn’t the most thematically subtle movie (you mean the prisoners AREN’T the kids?!?!?!?) and the twists and turns it eventually takes are unsatisfying at best, laughable at worst. Decidedly not the best movie about the damaging effects of being obsessed with solving a crime starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2009): 5.6
Manic and goofy, like most kids movies, but it also never panders. A fun piece of entertainment with some good laughs. Probably most pleasantly surprised by how creepy some of the design gets. It gets pretty darn squicky, which I did not expect.
THE LEGO MOVIE (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2014): 6.3
Again with the unexpected out of these guys. I anticipated the manic energy, the constant barrage of jokes and pop culture references, but I did not expect it to be ultimately as touching as it was. There’s heart in this that embraces the material and goes beyond the general “be yourself, you’re the best” message that most movies for kids go for these days. It also helps that the animation is amazingly impressive.
I get what it’s going for and there are moments that arrestingly capture the emotional inhibition that non-stop irony causes. But some attempts at showing the overwhelming ennui of relentless detachment just lie there flat, almost daring you to be shocked. Again, I get it… and the film refuses to go anywhere with it.
THE PAST (Asghar Farhadi, 2013): 8.6
Thematically blunt, but goodness, what magnificent storytelling and characterization. Farhadi proved with A SEPARATION that he is a dramatist of the highest order and this film only confirms this. I just adore how Farhadi never demeans or villifies any of his characters. Human nature is messy by itself and provides enough tension as it is without any sort of malicious wrongdoing. I’m so, so glad Farhadi is keeping melodrama alive as a viable force of cinematic storytelling. And my God, that final scene/shot is a beaut.
DRUG WAR (Johnnie To, 2013): 8.3
My first Johnnie To and I’m very, very impressed. A supremely tightly constructed thriller (possibly one of the tightest I’ve ever seen) which wastes not a single breath in setting up the pieces and putting them at odds with each other. It’s so ruthlessly efficient that it’s easy to look over the intelligence that’s going on underneath, too, all culminating in a brutal, visceral final shootout that not only is an exercise in cleanly shot, thrilling action but a true climax in all thematic and narrative ingredients come to boil. This is bound to be remade into an American version that either is disappointingly generic or blindsides Joe Multiplex with its unexpected brilliance.
THE GREAT BEAUTY (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013): 7.1
Its vignette style structure can get exhausting as the scenes rarely build on each other and the film at 2.5 hours is way too long, but there are scenes here that are just fantastic. I actually loved the first 15 minutes and some sequences come awful close to matching the promise of the title. It’s bursting at the seams, which is both to its detriment and benefit, but it is one hell of a love/hate letter to the city of Rome.
It may be blasphemous, but I don’t really feel like I connected with this one. It starts with a bang though, and Scorsese had such an incredible control of his voice at so early in his career. Perhaps it just takes too long to get where it’s going, turning from a slice of (hood)life cinema into a crime drama about sin, guilt, and responsibility. Scorsese doesn’t know quite what to do with his women but to this credit, he struggles with this through his characters. There’s a lot of WHO’S THAT KNOCKING in this, too. Enough to maybe feel like he was recycling a bit (but of course, the craft here is much better).
IT’S A DISASTER (Todd Berger, 2012): 7.0
There was a movie from a while back which I’m sure not many people saw called RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR which took an intriguing premise exactly no where while playing it entirely straight. Well, Todd Berger must have seen that movie and thought he could play it for laughs. He was very correct and this movie at once explores the concept better than that other film and is very, very funny. It’s the kind of movie that can make you wince at the prospect of impending death and the strain it puts on people and turn two dead bodies into a wonderful sight gag. That’s the kind of line this movie delicately walks and while the last 15 minutes or so goes straight for the absurd, the payoffs are entirely worth it.
SHORT TERM 12 (Destin Cretton, 2013): 6.7
Sweet and delicately naturalistic until some Screenwriting 101 gets in the way. Not everything needs to have a “Why?” moment, and maybe Cretton will get that in his later work. But everything else here is evidence of a very strong talent, acted very ably. The way the film creates its environment and community is superb, and it earns pretty much every one of its heartfelt moments (except for the aforementioned “this is why” moment). This would make a hell of a TV show.
I listened to 107 records this year. These are my ten favorite.
10. Rhye - Woman
Certainly the sexiest album of the year, right? JT might have tried his hand at becoming our next blue-eyed soul singer, but this is R&B done right. Smooth, soulful, with just the right amount of nighttime and both the positive and negative aspects thereof. None of the overproduction (and overripeness) that leaves such a sour taste in JT’s work from this year. The work here gets the job done and gets out of the way of those oh-so-silky falsetto vocals. This record will make noon feel like midnight.
9. Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus
On the more bludgeoning side of the electronic music spectrum is Fuck Buttons. Fuck Buttons has always had a huge sound, but these tinkerers seem to fine tune every song to be all-encompassing. This isn’t music to dance to, it’s music to be enveloped by and lost in. These songs are so propulsive and inevitable that they are a force in themselves. This record is not content with sinking in to the background, like so many other electronic records are wont to do.
8. Cut Copy - Free Your Mind
That Disclosure record was okay, if a bit repetitive (and overlong), but this was the best dance album of the year. i have no idea why this was overlooked. Is it because Cut Copy has been so rock solid for so long? A bit overshadowed by Arcade Fire’s misbegotten and misshaped foray into the dance genre? Whatever the reason, it’s not fair. This is a back to front great piece of dance pop from a band at the peak of its game.
7. Jon Hopkins - Immunity
As an electronic artist, Jon Hopkins stands out for his use of organic sounds to create unique, entrancing atmospheres. The effect is nothing short of transportative. It’s easy to be caught in the fantastic grooves of his work here, but there’s so much going on around the edges. He never locks into the same loop, he throws a glitch here, a sample there to build and build and build on each song. And yet, he’s still completely unafraid to strip everything down to a simple piano line. He’s comfortable with all of his tools, and that makes this record such an accomplishment.
6. Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
The music is as gorgeous and ethereal as ever, but there are better actual songs here. Better use of instrumentation. Fuller arrangements. The emotions seem richer, too. Everything that was initially striking about her music is given more complete life and it is truly something beautiful. Breathtaking stuff that holds the powerful ability to move the mind and soul.
5. Frightened Rabbit - Pedestrian Verse
The best album from an act out of Scotland this year. Which wasn’t an easyfeat. A wordy, introspective songwriter doesn’t always require just a guitar and a microphone. Maybe they need a huge fuckin’ backing band. And while some of these songs certainly build these specific emotions of failure, fault, and loss into anthemic tear-your-heart-out moments, they mostly are just very good at building brilliant layer upon brilliant layer of texture that bolsters the excellent songwriting. Not every sad guy need be so lonesome.
4. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend always sounded like a band that worshipped at the altar of other, better acts (hello Paul Simon!), but this is the record where they proved they could write like them too. I was quite a fan of their first record, a perfectly fine piece of guitar pop, but after the stagnant Contra, I thought they had pretty much said everything they had to say. I was very happy to be proven wrong. The band has grown up, their sound has gotten richer, and their lyrics are far more refined. So what if these are privileged Ivy Leaguers, they’re allowed to have emotions, and their reflections on aging, faith, and religion are universal. Those things don’t care how well appointed your Upper East Side apartment is. Maybe this record is the band realizing that as well.
3. Bill Callahan - Dream River
Here we have a veteran songwriter showing all the little guys how it’s done. Dream River is a record that finds Bill Callahan seeming a bit more relaxed. The songs are structured a bit more loosely, even seeming to ramble a bit. But these are still tightly composed songs. He’s always been great at using instrumentation to aid him and his guitar, and this record is no exception. But, again, this record excels at finding Bill a little more relaxed and pensive. He’s taking his time with this record and it suits him very well.
2. Phosphorescent - Muchacho
"Song for Zula" is my favorite song of the year, and the rest of the album is not much of a step down. Phosphorescent’s last album was all about taking it easy. This one is more about the harsh comedown that follows taking it a little bit too easy. After a long night of partying comes a harsh, new day where the love wasn’t as earnest (or honest), where the people weren’t as friendly, where life just wasn’t as meaningful as you thought it was the night before. This record is a combination of the mournful feeling that comes with realizing you don’t have what you thought you did, and the celebration that comes with finally being able to see the world as it is. All played perfectly by Matthew Houck’s weary voice and his tight country/honky tonk inflected band.
1. Deafheaven - Sunbather
A forceful piece of sonic overwhelming. There’s signs of more violent Explosions in the Sky, a more metal My Bloody Valentine, a wilder Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The guitars are intricate and powerful. The drumming is magnificent and muscular. And the screaming. I’m not a fan of screaming in music, but at first, the sheer power of the instrumentals was enough to overcome the screaming, and then eventually I found the screaming to perfectly match the cinematic emotions that attempt to cover pretty much the entire spectrum of feeling. Sound unreasonable? It almost is, but it also just works.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (Martin Scorsese, 2013): 8.1
The lifestyles of the rich and absurd. Scorsese turns the runaway capitalists into the clowns of the era, which at first seems like he’s turning them into harmless buffoons. Besides some very quick moments where Marty throws in a biting aside that reminds that these guys were ruining people’s lives, we are mostly meant to laugh at these assholes and their empty, terrible existences. Which is fine but troubling, and ultimately makes for a pretty shallow film. But I think Scorsese has bigger fish to fry. He’s reacting to a world that not just laughs at these guys’ antics, but encourages them, glorifies them, aids them. Indeed, they are taught to be exactly what they become, yet are “punished” when they get there. Hypocrisy, people. Hypocrisy is a room full of everyday sales people learning in rapt attention (admittedly valuable and well-worn) techniques from a sociopathic man who used those very same methods to commit crime and lead a horrible life. Where lies the difference between the ends and the means?
HER (Spike Jonze, 2013): 8
It’s got a lot on its mind (which is more than you can say for a lot of movies these days), but I’m not sure it’s entirely successful in marrying the romance with the speculation. There’s not enough in the romance part that necessitates Samantha being an AI so it seems the two halves butt heads instead of coming together into a conceptual whole (which, if it had managed this tough feat, would put this film in masterpiece territory). But what it does, it does well. The romance is handled delicately, the speculative science fiction is believable and thoughtful. Keep the tricky tone and exploration of the surrogate scene going throughout the movie and you got an all-timer here.
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (Peter Jackson, 2013): 5.8
Much better than the first and it seems like PJ has learned way too much from the action sequences of TINTIN because this is what’s going on here. Kinetic, moving action which is thrilling in the moment but ultimately becomes just a lot of running to and running away. Still, this is lightweight stuff, and as much as they try to add stuff to tie it in with LOTR, it kind of just makes it thicker instead of richer. Oh well, the dragon was pretty cool.
ENDER’S GAME (Gavin Hood, 2013): 4.8
About as inert as a wikipedia synopsis. There is so very little life to this. As if they just decided to illustrate a novel, which hurts because the novel is very thematically rich. There is very little to recommend this movie if you’ve already read the book. And you really should just read the book.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2013): 8.5
The Coens have mellowed out in their old age. They’re a little less bitter and a little less angry. What remains is a beautiful melancholy, a kind sadness for the lost souls among us. In BARTON FINK, it was a man railing against the system futilely in a horrific, uncaring environment. Here, Greenwich Village seems warm, even in winter. No one outright hates Llewyn, even though he has done bad things to them. But he’s also a good person, and he misses his friend dearly, and he doesn’t quite know how to express that. And he doesn’t quite know why everything is shitting on him, but he’s also pretty sure he deserves it. But he’ll have a place to sleep at night, and he has a guitar and a song, and he’ll never be rich and famous, and he’ll probably be forgotten, but so what. So will the rest of us.
THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE (Francis Lawrence, 2013): 6.0
An improvement in every possible way. Better camerawork, better story, better acting, better world building and exploration of themes. What is here simply works, in an intriguing and exciting way. Gives me a lot of hope for the next two films, which adapt the (by far) strongest book of the trilogy, and a book that could work extremely well on film.
AMERICAN HUSTLE (David O. Russell, 2013): 6.0
A fine film that never bothers to dig deeper. We got kind of a screwball, con-man caper flick that doesn’t really seem to care about anything other than having a good time. Which is fine and all, but you can still have a good time and dig the hooks in. The rhythm here is also a bit weird. It’s just plot and plot and plot and then ACTING and then plot and plot and plot. Amy Adams is so great though.
So the THOR franchise is going to be Marvel’s wackadoodle fantasy platform? That’s fine with me. It does a good enough job of setting up the backstory and I can excuse all the exposition because that’s just what the fantasy genre has to do, right. A lot of world building in a little time. I mean, this was more memorable the first one. The only thing I remember from the first one is the giant robot. This one had naked Stellan Skarsgard. I fear that the next time I see naked Stellan Skarsgard, it will not be blurred.
BOXCAR BERTHA (Martin Scorsese, 1972): 4.8
Ol’ Marty put his heart and soul into a bad film. There are composition and sequences in here that are rough gems (emphasis on gems) that led me to believe this could have been a proto-BADLANDS (I ain’t kiddin’) and Marty clearly has more to say than the script is willing to give him. But he just can’t overcome the demands of Corman and the exploitation biz. I’m sure he learned a lot on this film, though, which helped him exercise his talents to their full potential in later films.
NEBRASKA (Alexander Payne, 2013): 7.5
Alexander Payne usually aims for a trickily precise tone in his films, one that balances a biting observational humor with a warm sentimentality. Sometimes this leads to his films being too harsh in their criticisms, and sometimes this leads to emotional manipulation. Very rarely does he hit the wished for center, where I can really tell that he snipes because he cares. I think he’s mostly in the sweet spot with this film, a little gem of slow melancholy where little victories of affection and kindness do their best to bring a little light and small relief to a very grey, decaying world.
AMER (Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani, 2009): 5.3
Leather, rape fantasy, razor blades, violent eroticism, the male gaze, sexual awakening, more leather, red and green and blue and red. I liked the soundtrack. Some sequences were eminently watchable in the “what the hell is going on I kind of don’t mind this but it should probably settle down in a few minutes” way. The foley work was great though. Man, you will be all kinds of aware of the noises you make just walking around and stuff after you watch this one. Ultimately, too elliptical for me although I do appreciate it not once backing down from its conceit. Would make a heck of a movie to project in the background of a too hip for me party, though.
ABOUT TIME (Richard Curtis, 2013): 5.5
Dumb, schmaltzy, sappy, and overly earnest, but one would have to be purposefully contrarian and grouchy to deny some of the small charms contained within, especially whenever Bill Nighy is on screen. Yeah, any deeper thinking about charmed, rich, white people doing whatever they please (this time with time travel!) and all female characters basically existing solely to love and please their man (despite being witty and sharp in words) can get pretty icky, but the sentiment that is thickly overlaid it all is kind and gentle enough. And there were some big laughs. So pretty much exactly what you would expect from Richard Curtis.
Stunning. This might be a 10 on another viewing just because it is so knotty and there’s no way I caught everything that is wonderful about this film. But I caught a lot. Best blocking of any film ever? Probably. Best sunglasses? Definitely. This is a goddam motion picture, folks. And please, my God, anyone who is planning to make a movie that makes use of space (every movie ever), please study how this film makes sure that we know exactly where everyone is in relation to everyone else at all times. Study that tailing scene in the streets! Study it!
AMARCORD (Federico Fellini, 1973): 7.4
Messy, broad, bawdy, and unfocused, and all those are absolutely part of its charms. The fact that this film stays so entertaining and watchable (and doesn’t completely fall apart) is a testament to Fellini’s skill as a filmmaker. Tonally, it strikes a wonderful balance, and he embellishes his childhood memories just enough to make them entertaining to everyone and not just himself. Ultimately, it’s like a very charming guy telling stories about his childhood. It’s entertaining and touching, and can certainly remind you of your own, but really, you just had to be there.
ALL IS LOST (J. C. Chandor, 2013): 8.4
A very, very impressive film that does what I think a good many movies would benefit from: eschew all backstory and exposition and just tell a rip-roaring adventure yarn. Really, this is pure cinema, something that only works as a film, and one that takes great pleasure in showing, in great detail, how things get done and how a man figures things out. Redford is perfect for the role, as he comes pre-loaded with a persona, and he is excellent at portraying a dude who has the gears always a-turning.
I think the biggest part of what makes this one of my favorite movies ever is how effortless it feels. It swings between characters, conversations, and events with such a free flowing style that feels absolutely natural, even when knowing how choreographed everything must have been. It also swings so easily between funny and sad, sympathetic and critical, absurdity and realism. It is, simply, a masterpiece. And it hasn’t lost a step.
BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013): 7.7
Differentiates itself from other May-December romance stories by A) being about lesbians, B) not shying away from extremely graphic sex scenes, and C) having an extreme, microscopic attention to detail (the movie is almost entirely close-ups). B and C are the most interesting as I really feel like this movie could have been about a heterosexual couple, and that may be the fault of this film being directed by a heterosexual male. And the male viewpoint is very apparent in this film (I’m not saying this is inherently a bad thing, there’s nothing wrong with a straight male telling the story of characters that are not straight males, but people will always and forever have biases no matter how objective they try to be, and this film is in no way trying to be objective). Could this have been a better film if directed by a lesbian woman? No one can tell. It would have been a different film and maybe one that is more true to the lesbian experience. I would simply argue that Kechiche is not interested in a making a film about the lesbian experience but about first, passionate love. So why make it about lesbians at all? Sticking to the story it is telling in the way it is told, the film is committed in NOT being universal, but rather a very specific story about a very specific woman. That it is so minutely detailed is a revelation. It’s committed to unpacking scenes that other movies skip over with cliched film language and rapid editing. Where other movies have the typical dark room undressing and maybe 15-30 seconds of tastefully shadowed body gyrations, this film commits to an almost clinical dissection of sex. And it extends this near-extreme attention to detail to all other interactions and events. In fact, any sort of attempt to gloss over the sex would have failed the film. My biggest concern, overall, is that, for a film so subjective, I never really feel Kechiche inhabiting his characters. He inhabits the camera, his true stand-in. So the camera studies but it never really perceives.
McQueen’s unflinching, unsympathetic camera serves this film far better than both HUNGER or SHAME, which were films about characters and crises that were filled with emotion. These films needed intimacy, not distance. But 12 YEARS A SLAVE is about a man who is doing his very best to remove himself from his circumstances. He very much does not want to be there. But the camera will not let us not be there, much as he can’t escape. We are made to watch helplessly, at a distance. Form finally met function in this film, and McQueen, who is clearly talented, found a subject that fit his talents near perfectly. The script is structured a bit too cutely and my God, that score is overpowering and unnecessary. Ejiofor is a lock for Best Actor if there ever was one. It is a great performance and exactly the kind the Academy swoons over. Can’t really blame them on this one, either.
CITY LIGHTS (Charlie Chaplin, 1931): 8.8
I still like THE KID better. I still like Buster Keaton more. But the boxing match just does not get old. Other gags are just Chaplin doing his Tramp thing, which is always a pleasure, but seem a bit interchangeable with other films and shorts. What differentiates this one, of course, is the central romance… which can’t help but feel shoehorned in as an attempt to tie a feature length film together. And yet…and yet… that last scene is played so perfectly, and that shy smile will be remembered as long as the cinema is alive.
THE COUNSELOR (Ridley Scott, 2013): 7.6
It’s a little too cute and Cormac McCarthy is all too aware of it, but the boleto is the perfect metaphor for this grim, nihilistic anti-thriller in which everything goes wrong for no real reason and we’re just waiting to see which arteries will burst and when. Ridley Scott directs smartly and knows when to trust to material and when to burnish it. McCarthy philosophizes his dark inevitabilities with characters who catalog, define, and wax poetic about the shit the counselor is in while they themselves are waist deep in it too. A rejection of the countless films in which Our Man scrapes by in unforgiving circumstances and somehow beats the odds. McCarthy is all too aware that the house always wins.
Greengrass has fairly well established his proficiency with white knuckle docudramas, using his handheld camera to establish immediacy, and trying not to bludgeon with any sort of message. But do not mistake his films as not having a message, and this film is on way less touchy ground than in UNITED 93 and BLOODY SUNDAY. The eye on the mundane (and therefore, the perversion of the mundane) is fascinating as ever, and Greengrass turning in ever escalating suspense via detailed focus on nitty gritty procedure of how Bad Things happen has become second nature to him. But, as powerful as this is, Greengrass probably will be stuck at this level until he’s no longer tied down by “true events” (or an established action franchise).
ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (Randy Moore, 2013): 5.3
As a thing that exists, yeah, sure, it’s pretty neat. And Randy Moore does a solid job mining all the easy associations that come from shooting at a Disney park. But as a film, it’s hopelessly muddled, choosing to extend abstract, mostly pointless weirdness over developing any of its possibly interesting threads to any sort of complete story. So it bounces around from weird moment to weird moment and instead of these weird moments feeling new or building on each other, it feels repetitive. So while individual moments may seem suitably strange, funny, or poignant, the film as a whole seems to spin its wheels and go nowhere.
Probably the most technically impressive movie I’ve seen, with brilliantly choreographed long takes and a smooth, dancing camera that toys with 3D space in a way that perfectly fits the environment. It also boasts some of the best 3D and F/X work I’ve ever seen. But every time someone talks in this movie that is not radio chatter or mission speak, it knocks a bit off the score. This is a film leanly built on a life or death struggle on which the thrill is watching how a person might survive. We don’t need an explicit reason for the protagonist to fight for survival, the drive is in the fight for survival itself. And though it gets to be a bit of Murphy’s Law: The Movie, that happens with disaster flicks, and the draw is the navigation around these obstacles, not some sort of emotional journey towards appreciating life anew. I would like to think a person would be too busy trying not to die.
RUSH (Ron Howard, 2013): 5.2
A just-fine biopic that does a fine job of making both players sympathetic, but does little to contextualize why we should care beyond that these are two dudes who like to race cars. Could have used way more fleshing out of the environment of F1 racing in the 70s and why these guys had such a big impact. Or did they? I don’t know. This movie didn’t tell me nothing about that. I like the way Daniel Bruhl/Niki Lauda says “asshole”.
DON JON (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2013): 5.7
There’s a quite good movie in here but it’s buried under a few more drafts of polish to the script and maybe a bit less polish in the direction. The film hedges its bets by telling Don Jon’s story like a music video, making his problem a bit more palatable, and equating his problem with a delusion that his girlfriend has re: relationship of the sexes. It’s definitely the easy way out. And Julianne Moore brings much needed humanity and gravitas to the proceedings, but it feels like she dropped in from another movie. And did this film really need the porn addiction? Maybe that’s where the idea started, but I really feel like it could have been dropped. Again, there’s a good movie in here, but I feel like when you are a Hollywood star making your first movie, no one’s giving you much harsh criticism in how to make your movie go from an okay one to a great one. A strange movie that feels a bit too slick and a bit too rough, but still, there’s enough here to like and hope for more.
This is a pretty good picture. Who knew, right? I like how Spielberg populates this film. Overlapping dialogue, conversations taking place in the background. Other films would have Brody go buy some paint supplies at a store in silence, but Spielberg throws in some nice world-building convo about beach balls or whatever. Like he knew what he was doing. Other things that are good: everything that everyone else recognizes as good. Also the way Roy Scheider lifts up his shirt to show his scar but thinks better of it. Just a tiny, tiny moment that says so much. If we could only get the blockbusters to trust us like this again.
BLUE JASMINE (Woody Allen, 2013): 5.5
Really good performances and the picture ultimately overcomes the script shortfalls that find Woody Allen relying on pretty much all of his late period narrative crutches. It evens out, but even then, the point of the movie is just lost on me and the sum of its (admittedly very good) scenes just do not add up to anything.
INSIDIOUS (James Wan, 2010): 5.9
A very capable jumpfest that we have come to be used to from James Wan nowadays, I guess. I like the way he fills the screen with all sorts of nooks and crannies where things could (and do) happen. I enjoyed the more playful touches, including the swings into the surreal and macabre. Also enjoyed how the film took its time to get where it was going without being a bore, and then, once getting there, not holding anything back. Though movies like this and THE CONJURING lack the grim subversiveness of the cream of the horror movie crop, these are good, fun scare rides that I’ll take any day over the teen slasher rehashes or whatever Eli Roth is turning out.
There’s a very good film struggling to break out of this pretty okay movie in which everyone gives it their all, but the movie itself doesn’t really have a clear idea what it is going for. Hints of the dichotomy between how Sutter sees himself and how everyone else sees him (yes, everyone notices he’s always loaded) are fascinating, but they remain only hints. It’s even misused once as a moment intended to shock. It’s another story of an addict that would have been better served by focusing on everyone’s perspective but the addict. I did like how he was a genuinely caring person, his addiction unknowingly damaging and endangering himself and the people he loves. It was just so much more affecting to see all his friends and family notice that this big-hearted, fun loving lug was slowly destroying himself and being pretty much helpless in the face of it. Could have been the story about how loser kids become washed up adults, but he has to have his redemptive arc. I can’t help but think that this film would have been better served through the eyes of Aimee.
YOU’RE NEXT (Adam Wingard, 2013): 6.7
The movie FUNNY GAMES warned us about! I’m only being facetious here, as I obviously enjoyed YOU’RE NEXT quite a bit, but there’s a reason why FUNNY GAMES is so powerful. It continuously denies us the thirst for blood and wish fulfillment that YOU’RE NEXT is all too willing to supply. But hell, there is pleasure in getting what you want, and that’s where Mr. Wingard is happy to step in. The comedy is dark, the scares functional, the kills are brutal, and who doesn’t like it when a resourceful heroine starts fighting back? And while the strobe light effect was used pretty successfully here, that’s a horror movie trope I will always be futilely demanding be retired (though it should have been retired after ALIEN because guys, we’re never going to beat that).
DRINKING BUDDIES (Joe Swanberg, 2013): 5.8
Two movies in a row with roles for Ti West and Joe Swanberg? These guys are invading Hollywood! Well, this one is sort of a Cassavetes lite, featuring improvisation, well lived in characters, grounded, adult situations, but without the talent both behind and in front of the camera that Cassavetes had. Am I being unfair? Possibly. Cassavetes is one of the greatest directors of all time, and the world would be a better place if we had more people aiming for his style than say Spielberg’s or what have you. But as low key and honest this is, it still feels like it’s missing something that would make it more than just okay. Bujalski found his ineffable in COMPUTER CHESS, here’s to Swanberg finding his.
AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS (David Lowery, 2013): 6.1
Ti West isn’t in this one, but he’s in the Special Thanks so I’ll allow it. It’s Ti West week! So beholden to 1970s New Hollywood cinema that it only avoids feeling entirely lifeless by the great performances and Lowery’s obvious love for this story. This is more interesting as a statement of talent. Lowery & co. definitely have it. It’s shot well, the direction is solid, and the editing is superb. Excited to see his next work hopefully be less of an obvious cribbing of style and to see him bring some individuality or personality to the proceedings.
Thematically dense, reference and homage heavy, with a thoroughly emotional and touching core, and very, very funny. Yup, it’s more of the same from these guys and it just does not get old. I immediately wanted to watch it again to catch all the call backs and the references, and be able to concentrate on the very rich character building now that I have a grasp on the plot. Edgar Wright’s economy of filmmaking is just so refreshing; no lines are thrown away, no scenes wasted, no time spent on explaining something that can be shown, and definitely no dumbing down. If you are an intelligent, movie-going, and somewhat pop-culture obsessive individual, how could you not love what these guys do?
WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR (Martin Scorsese, 1967): 5.3
There are moments of power and definite evidence of raw talent in this film but it’s rough. Very rough, at times. Individual scenes explode but the rhythm is off and it just feels so muddled. Reading about the origin of this movie (basically two movies spliced together) makes sense having now seen the finished product. One thing’s for sure though, ol’ Marty knew exactly what he wanted his films to be about from day one.
PRINCE AVALANCHE (David Gordon Green, 2013): 6.0
There’s not much to it but there’s a lot to like in this. Just two guys on a road crew for two weeks, talking things out and stuff. There’s a hint of the absurd, but this mostly stays firmly grounded (and it’s better for it). This isn’t a world changer, just a pleasant little distraction. Nothing wrong with that.
THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2013): 6.1
At once endlessly fascinating and strangely dull. Individual scenes and moments are appalling, shocking, entertaining, funny, horrifying, strange, intriguing, and unbelievable. Then the scenes are just strung together in a way that seems to say, “Oh, you liked that? Well, you’re not gonna believe this…” As a movie, it struggles to maintain momentum or tell a story. Definitely a documentary of the school of “find a subject that endlessly riveting and just let him talk”. What resulted is a series of scenes that are never less than engrossing, but put together in such a haphazardly lifeless way.
EUROPA REPORT (Sebastian Cordero, 2013): 6.3
Quite pleasantly surprised by this lean sci-fi thriller, what with its hard SF trappings and the crew that actually support, believe, and cooperate with each other. Any psychological problems are minor and believable (because these are professionals who went through years and years of training here), and the lack of an antagonist is refreshing. The mission itself is tense enough with what could go wrong without someone else having to gunk up the works (an idea that would have made SUNSHINE a lot better). The film makes modestly clever use of the found footage style, and there are at least 2-3 very, very good sequences. All this in a breezy 90 minutes. What more could you want?
DAYS OF HEAVEN (Terrence Malick, 1978): 9.3
Like, no one has to point out this is one of the most beautifully shot movies of all time ever, right? Malick’s extensive editing (and the narration he added) cuts down the expansive to the fabulistic. So does the camerawork, bringing 70s new Hollywood style to the fields and the past. Lacks the unreal ease of BADLANDS (but so does everything else), and some might criticize the lack of thematic heft, but this is the loss of paradise we’re talking about. It is a story ingrained.
I’ve been in a mood where all I want to listen to is The Mountain Goats, so I figured I’d listen to them all in chronological order and rank them. Why not. I’m skipping the cassette-only releases because while they contain some great albums, this project would just get unruly if I included those. Also, not a one of these records are bad. Not a single dud in the whole bunch. That’s quite the winning streak, JD.
Note: A full appreciation of The Mountain Goats requires seeing them in concert. The records are great, but I was never a huge fan until I saw them live. They put on an incredible show that really brings a whole new and different life to these songs.
1. Get Lonely - Anyone who knows me should know why I adore this album. An album about loneliness and reflection… anyone who’s stared out a window and longed to have someone back, or someone at all, should know exactly where this record is coming from (and should know why those feelings are beautiful). Exquisite melancholy is the most poetic of feelings and John Darnielle distills this to a perfect record of pain and rebirth. Tracks to try: “Half Dead”, “Get Lonely”, “Moon Over Goldsboro”, “Woke Up New”, “Cobra Tattoo”, “In Corolla”.
2. Tallahassee - Released the same year as All Hail West Texas, it marked the transition of The Mountain Goats as a studio band. And so it also marks the end of another Mountain Goats tradition, the Alpha Couple. The entire album is focused on this couple as they drink themselves to oblivion down in Florida. It’s the most cohesive concept album that the Mountain Goats have and he devotes plenty of new tricks to tell the story. And what a story it is. An album length warning that love can be as destructive as it is restorative. Tracks to try: “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”, “No Children”, “See America Right”, “International Small Arms Traffic Blues”.
3. The Life of the World to Come - The Mountain Goats’ career long obsession with faith, death, God, and the Bible gets its very own record and John Darnielle writes songs from all along the spectrum of people tackling their relationship with God. In his own way, it’s his way to tackle his relationship with God, as varied and complicated as it is. It helps that this is a excellent set of tracks, sound-wise. Probably the most fully realized instrumentation and production until Transcendental Youth. Tracks to try: “Psalms 40:2”, “Hebrews 11:40”, “Matthew 25:21”, “Isaiah 45:23”.
4. The Sunset Tree - Probably the widest loved Mountain Goats’ album, this is another autobiographical record, this time about John Darnielle growing up with his abusive stepfather. It’s a painful record but one tinged with the hope that the perspective of being older brings. One could argue that he goes a bit far with his descriptive lyrics, but what it does here is construct the mundane environment for which all this takes places. It’s both highly specific and highly generic. It happened to him in California. It happens to so many more people everywhere. Tracks to try: “Broom People”, “This Year”, “Up the Wolves”, “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod”, “Love Love Love”.
5. Transcendental Youth: Definitely the best sounding Mountain Goats record. The horn arrangements are wonderful, the band has never been tighter, and there are some pantheon level songs on here. Many tracks on this album feel like cast offs from earlier Mountain Goats records: “Lakeside View Apartment Suite” from We Shall All Be Healed, “Until I Am Whole” from Get Lonely, “White Cedar” from The Life of the World to Come. This isn’t a bad thing, but it lends the record a feeling of being a summary rather than a thesis. Tracks to try: “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Cry for Judas”, “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”.
6. We Shall All Be Healed - The Mountain Goats’ first autobiographical record, documenting John Darnielle’s teenage days hanging out with some drug addicts. Again, the focus provides a forceful impact, building a very distinctive and fully fleshed atmosphere, telling stories and creating characters in the space of a song. We weren’t there but he does a damn good job of making us feel like we were. Tracks to try: “Palmcorder Yajna”, “Home Again Garden Grove”, “Against Pollution”.
7. All Hail West Texas - And here it is, The Mountain Goats’ first great album, and would kick off a run of five great albums. There are so many classic songs on this record, yet another loosely defined concept album that I think let JD concentrate his focus a bit, making his songs and songwriting more direct and more powerful. Hail Satan, indeed. Tracks to try: “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”, “Color in Your Cheeks”, “Fault Lines”, “Riches and Wonders”, “Mess Inside”.
8. Heretic Pride - Welcome Jon Wurster to the band. And while this record includes some of the best instrumentation The Mountain Goats has put together, the songs are all over the place. Heretic Pride may be a lesson that there’s only so far John Darnielle can go before he’s writing stuff that only he understands. He’s great at making the personal feel universal, but there are parts here that feel like moments that belong to just one person. Not that this is a bad thing, but it makes for a messy experience at times. Tracks to try: “Sax Rohmer #1”, “So Desperate”.
9. All Eternals Deck - This record seems less an album than a compilation of songs compiled from different sessions and periods of creativity. But the songs are really strong, even if the album as whole lacks a certain thematic heft. But, unlike his best records, the songs here can fade into the background behind the pleasant work of the band instead of calling focus to the lyrics. This leads to an album with only a few memorable moments, but an overall pleasurable experience when listening from front to back. Tracks to try: “Estate Sale Sign”, “Never Quite Free”.
10. The Coroner’s Gambit - The band comes back after a 3 year hiatus with a reinvigorated sense of a purpose. These are deeper songs that seem to have even more urgency, as if it John Darnielle tried to keep them buried for 3 years but they just burst out, threatening to blow out the mic on his boombox. Tracks to try: “Jaipur”, “Family Happiness”.
11. Sweden - A bunch of songs, none of which are about Sweden, but are full of longing and heartache. And covers! Sweden is the first conceptually cohesive album of the catalog. I hesitate to use the term “concept album” because these albums don’t really tell a story, but are just songs tied together by mood, place, or character. While I don’t think Sweden has a song that is as good as Zopilote Machine’s best song, it’s a better overall album, carefully sustaining a mood that builds with each successive song. Tracks to try: “Going to Queens”, “Neon Orange Glimmer Song”, “Cold Milk Bottle”
12. Zopilote Machine - And so begins a great career of making records with the rollicking “Alpha Incipiens”, the first in the Alpha Couple saga which would continue on to Tallahassee, a story of married alcoholic couple who’s love is only matched by their loathing of one another. It’s quite a rallying cry for the band and announces many of the trademark characteristics of Mountain Goats songs: fascinating imagery, detailed settings, rich characters, and conflicting passions. Again, this is all summed up in “Going To Georgia”, a song that anyone who dreamed of doing something drastic for love could get behind. This is not a great record, but it definitely shows that John knew fully what he wanted to do with his music making career. He would only get better. Tracks to try: “Alpha Incipiens”, “Going to Georgia”.
13. Full Force Galesburg - Exit Rachel Ware, enter Peter Hughes. I will never discount The Mountain Goats for being so prolific, but this record is where I think it gets to them. With a few exceptions, there’s very little to set this record apart from what came before… and well, I think that’s how it is supposed to be. Even the text on the cover seems to be a self-conscious shrug. But this record still feels like the work of a young man putting his raw poetry to music. His talent makes this worthwhile, but he will soon reach deeper. Tracks to try: “Twin Human Highway Flares”, “Weekend in Western Illinois”, “It’s All Here In Brownsville”.
14. Nothing For Juice - The actual songcraft makes a marked improvement on this record, with a lot more bass from Rachel Ware, but the songwriting stagnates a bit. Most of the songs are first person, and while they stay evocative and emotional, it really feels like these songs are a bit too vague and allusory to make a real impact. This is an album of a songwriter who can transport with his music but deciding instead to stay home. Tracks to try: “Full Flower”, “Going to Kansas”, “Going to Reykjavik”.
I expected the blatant political allegory, so that aspect didn’t bother me that much (as blatant at it is). What did bother me was that I simply did not care about anything happening on screen. I didn’t care about Max nor his struggle to go on living (as far as I could tell, he had nothing to live for). Was I to identify with his plight just because he’s a 99%er like me? No, thanks. Also, identification with a hero isn’t built by making the villains cartoonishly unlikable. It just leaves me adrift. The action scenes are poorly shot, the story is half-baked, the characters are shells, and the world is hollow. They don’t even establish Elysium as any sort of entity that makes sense, as a place, as an idea, as a solution, or as a concept. It’s so unformed that it functions solely as metaphor. And the metaphor is stupid.
LOVELACE (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2013): 5.9
Standard biopic fare elevated by a couple of great performances and a clever structure. First half was a little too much BOOGIE NIGHTS swangin’ 70s and soundtrack pastiches, but the second half cleverly accounts for all that. I was pleasantly surprised, at least. Nothing quite so revolutionary as the actual film she was in, nor do I think it attempts to explore her in depth (when there is plenty to explore), but it is a fine movie.
Mines as many jokes from “gee the early 90s were weird” and “i’m oblivious to these sex acts” as possible, some hit, a lot miss. But for the most part, it’s so good natured, it’s hard to really hate. I like the sex positivity, I like the refusal to put any of its characters into a box, but it tries so, so hard to not have a lesson or be interpreted as prude in any way that it gets a bit tiresome. Spitting out cum at the camera can only be so shocking after your protagonist just (literally) ate a piece of shit.
As fluffy and empty as anything like this could be. I guffawed at one show of over-the-top violence, but the rest was so by-the-books that its competence tilted well over into dullness.
THE WOLVERINE (James Mangold, 2013): 5.5
There’s a lot to like in this smaller scale superhero one-shot but it throws it away in a nonsensical, actually quite embarrassing finale that kind of just abandons the character arc it was carefully building and upsets a lot of what poor Logan had to gain by going to Japan. The train action scene was stupendous, but all others lacked anything close to that sort of excitement or ingenuity. I wanted so much more out of the duel with Shingen, especially some sort of realization that Wolvie relied too much on his healing factor instead of any sort of fighting skill or prowess. Nope, the movie version of Wolverine is still going to a brute forcer. Disappointing. Oh, and what a waste of the Silver Samurai.
Fun, old-school horror which balances its classic horror movie rhythms with throwing pretty much everything that has ever scared anyone ever into it (birds, spiders, clowns, dolls, ghosts, demons, the dark, a freaking bedsheet, it’s all here). It’s basically a thrill ride that solely exists to make your heart race and have you jump every now and then, but it does this very, very effectively, it never panders or sinks to stupidity, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
FULL METAL JACKET (Stanley Kubrick, 1987): 9.5
That Stanley Kubrick was on to something. Of course he would make a Vietnam War film that refuses to simplify or judge, back when everyone was scrambling to make some Statement about the whole mess. Everyone knows about the outstanding Parris Island segment (and it is truly outstanding, and never less than riveting), but the in-country deserves way more attention, basically paying off on everything that is set up in the first part.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013): 1.8
This one’s going to give all the DRIVE haters a lot of ammo, and I will be hard pressed to blame them. (They’re still wrong, though). This one’s a wretched piece of crap. Violence without meaning, mood without emotion, style without substance. Maybe the beatings and the stabbings and so on ARE the purpose. Fine. Doesn’t meant I have to like it.
COMPUTER CHESS (Andrew Bujalski, 2013): 8.8
Starts off as a quite funny, low key riff on nerds bein’ nerds, but then gets weirder and weirder, and funnier and funnier. The way this film spins off into the strange and ridiculous (and makes them both sublimely amusing and fascinating) is refreshing and exciting. There was a point in this film in which I had no idea what would happen next, but I was so thrilled to find out. And it’s not to say this movie completely goes off the deep end and turns into a psychedelic animated freak out (this isn’t HOUSE we’re talking about), but it lets the characters, environs, and situations breathe in a way that the film feels like it’s following them rather than directing them.
Not going to act like I have any profound to say about this one. It’s greatness is pretty self evident. Man, Max Von Sydow is still alive. Let’s appreciate that treasure while we still have it. May his last movie not be BRANDED. This movie is also nowhere near as dour as I remember it. Bergman seemed to lose his sense of humor as his “middle period” progressed. And boy, could Bergman make a movie about extreme introspection still look visually ravishing.
BARTON FINK (Joel Coen, 1991): 8.9
Probably the most personal film the Coens will make, and it’s fitting that it still remains elliptical. The symbols work though, as does the crackling dialogue and intriguing idiosyncracies. The film definitely becomes clearer and clearer as their career progresses. My only problem with it is that the film starts to fray as Barton’s mental state unravels, which may be purposeful, but the seams really start to show which I don’t think is entirely necessary.
While watching this movie, two questions kept running through my head: why does this movie exist and why should I care? As for the former, all I could muster was to give these kids the Hollywood movie they’ve always wanted. As for the latter, the film had no compelling answer. It’s as shallow as the subject it covers. It’s neither effectively empathetic or satirical. It just sits there limply, illustrating a not that interesting story without having anything to say about it.
THE LONE RANGER (Gore Verbinski, 2013): 3.3
If only this movie were only its last 30 minutes of so, with rousing score of William Tell Overture and zanily choreographed action involving two tracks, two protagonists and three antagonists all winding their way over, in, and under the trains. Too bad one has to wade through over 2 hours of insufferable development for a character whose depth was never a selling point to get there. Let’s not get into the awkward tonal shifts and the puzzling race politics. The credits literally run over old man Tonto wandering alone in the desert. I just don’t get it.
PACIFIC RIM (Guillermo Del Toro, 2013): 7.4
Yeah, you’re reading that score right. I acknowledge this isn’t high art. Nowhere close. But I haven’t felt such unabashed exhilaration from movie spectacle in a long, long time. Del Toro brings such pre-adolescent enthusiasm for giant robots punching the shit out of things but is able to frame it in a context that makes sense visually and is a joy to look at. It’s such a fun, non-cynical exercise. It’s derivative, it’s corny, it’s campy, and it embraces all of this with such a joyous verve that it takes way too much buzzkilling effort to dismantle. I’d rather sit back and enjoy it.
It has glimmers of fun, mostly when it allows Foxx and Tatum to develop any sort of chemistry, but Emmerich movies have beats to hit, dammit, and there’s no time for any chumming around. We’ve gotta pack all the car chases and explosions on to White House grounds and have a precocious kid and oh I dunno… it’s too goofy while not letting itself be goofy enough.
MAN OF STEEL (Zack Snyder, 2013): 3.7
So instead of completely checking out when Pa Kent tells lil’ Clark that maybe he should have let a bus load of kids die, I was willing to let this movie have their own weird version of Superman, but they couldn’t even stay true to this new character, making him bizarre and inconsistent. And worse yet, while this new conflicted and “dark” Superman was obviously conceived in a attempt to move away from what dumb people call the Big Blue Boy Scout and the perceived dullness of moral unambiguity, this new creation is even more boring than the most uninspired portrayals of Superman. He deserves a better movie than this.
A very, very confused movie that ultimately winds up with the structure of a video game (including a “move while they’re not looking” stealth mission). It has no idea whether it wants to be a world spanning adventure, a mystery thriller, or a horror movie. Instead of cleverly combining the three, it does each of them in succession in mediocre fashion. The incredibly limp non-ending also does it no favors. A huge missed opportunity.
Although, I’ve never seen New Jersey depicted so realistically as it is in this film. Hey-o!
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (Dan Scanlon, 2013): 5.8
Charming and impressively animated but I can’t help but be disappointed knowing what Pixar has accomplished. Maybe they will never reach those heights again. That’s okay, those movies will still be there, and there’s nothing wrong with good natured, tech boundary-pushing kid’s fare. The monster version of Russell definitely drew the most laughs out of me.
THE EAST (Zal Batmanglij, 2013): 7.3
Nowhere near as a complex as it wishes to be, but that doesn’t keep it from being quite smart in its machinations and direction. This is solid thriller that keeps its pieces moving fast enough to hide the fact that there is no real compelling character. That’s fine, though, we receive all we need to know to stay interested and the film trusts the audience enough to not have all the blanks filled in. A better film than SOUND OF MY VOICE, but less conceptually interesting, I’d say.