Thursday, July 31, 2014

Personal Canon Update: Top 50 Films

Devotees may remember that I have a history of releasing a "Personal Canon," where I rank my favorite films from 1-250. It's a project I started in 2008 and did annually through 2012. I took a break because I wasn't watching as many new movies as I did through undergrad, and I was really busy working on a Masters degree. I'm still really busy (busier, even), but it felt important to return to this idea, to mark in some way the films that are most important to me right now, in the Summer of 2014. I just turned 25, and for some reason that's made me particularly contemplative and had me rethinking a lot of experiences over the last ten years of my life.

So I've done something different this time. To paraphrase from High Fidelity, I've arranged these somewhat autobiographically. You could still say these are my favorite movies, but I've tried to take time and think about what they mean to me and why I love them. I've tried to begin to express that in the small caption accompanying each film. If it seems rambling or lacks the finesse of my other writing, again, I'm really busy. This seemed, however, as good a way as any to try and convey what these fragments of cinema have meant to me over the years. I could write lengthy essays on each, but I've tried to limit it to a handful of sentences. If the choices seem obvious, I've tried to explain how they're not really obvious. This isn't a list that's trying to conform to a standard, but if the standard has meant something important to me, then so be it. These are, to borrow from Truffaut, a stab at identifying the Films of My Life

Thanks for taking the time to skim it and read it. I hope it inspires you to reflect on what cinema means to you.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sci Fi's Moment: Oscar Predix 2014



Best Picture

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Her
Watch Out For: 12 Years a Slave
Logic: I know 12 Years is seen as the favorite, but let's be real about a few things here: The Globes and the Oscars match up increasingly less, it shared the PGA with Gravity, and Gravity won the DGA outright. You can't predict a split. Splits never happen predictably (except last year, because Affleck wasn't nommed for Director). If you're picking Cuaron for Director, you should be picking Gravity for Picture. It's time for a sci fi film to win this prize.

Best Director

American Hustle, David O. Russell
Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron
Nebraska, Alexander Payne
12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen
The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Should Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Watch Out For: Steve McQueen
Logic: DGA is the best predictor of this award. Remarkably so.

Best Actor

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey
Should Win: Bruce Dern
Watch Out For: Leonardo DiCaprio
Logic: I do believe DiCaprio's in a stealth position here, but DBC's Best Pic nomination shows it has the support to win both Acting categories it's up in. And McConnaisance.

Best Actress

Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Will Win: Cate Blanchett
Should Win: Amy Adams
Watch Out For: Amy Adams
Logic: A director's bad press doesn't matter.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhard Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Jared Leto
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Watch Out For: Michael Fassbender?
Logic: Hasn't lost.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Will Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Watch Out For: Jennifer Lawrence
Logic: I don't understand how this is a race between Lawrence (the worst part of her film) and Nyong'o. It should be between Nyong'o and Squibb, but I digress.

Best Animated Feature

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest and Celestine
Frozen
The Wind Rises

Will Win: Frozen
Should Win: Didn't see all of them
Watch Out For: The Wind Rises

Best Adapted Screenplay

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke
Captain Phillips, Billy Ray
Philomena, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
12 Years a Slave, John Ridley
The Wolf of Wall Street, Terence Winter

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Watch Out For: The Wolf of Wall Street
Logic: Despite everyone picking 12 Years, this is a legitimately tough category: Philomena won the BAFTA (and is Best Pic nommed here), Captain Phillips won the WGA (but 12 Years wasn't nommed), and Wolf is this weird stealth film that's ridiculously overwritten (and that oft helps in this category). Cast the die as you will.

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle, Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell
Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen
Dallas Buyers Club, Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
Her, Spike Jonze
Nebraska, Bob Nelson

Will Win: Her
Should Win: Her
Watch Out For: American Hustle
Logic: Her has won virtually every major prize for this category, but Hustle has the broader appeal.

Best Documentary Feature

The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom

Will Win: The Act of Killing
Should Win: The Act of Killing
Watch Out For: Cutie and the Boxer
Logic: One of the few categories I actually care about.

Best Foreign Language Film

The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Missing Picture
Omar

Will Win: The Great Beauty
Should Win: Haven't seen them all
Watch Out For: Omar

Best Cinematography

The Grandmaster
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
Prisoners

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Watch Out For: The Grandmaster
Logic: I still believe Lubezki and Deakins are cursed to never win this award, so you can prove half of me wrong tonight, Academy.

Best Costume Design

American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Should Win: The Great Gatsby
Watch Out For: American Hustle
Logic: Older period flamboyance trumps recent-past flamboyance.

Best Film Editing

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: Captain Phillips
Should Win: American Hustle (I'm not kidding)
Watch Out For: Gravity
Logic: Lots of people are saying Gravity, understandably, and I won't be shocked if it wins. But Greengrass's films have won here before, and I feel like the "obviousness" of his editing is more attractive than the minimalist stuff Gravity does. But if you want obviousness, you can't beat the jazzy shtick in American Hustle.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Will Win: Dallas Buyers Club
Should Win: Let's not talk about this
Watch Out For: Whiteface.

Best Original Score

The Book Thief
Gravity
Her
Philomena
Saving Mr. Banks

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Watch Out For: Her

Best Original Song

"Happy," Despicable Me 2
"Let it Go," Frozen
"The Moon Song," Her
"Ordinary Love," Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Will Win: "Let it Go"
Should Win: "The Moon Song"
Watch Out For: "Ordinary Love"
Logic: The last time U2 was up for this award was in 2002 when Eminem won, and Let it Go is similarly as big a song as Lose Yourself (yeah, I made that comparison). As much as I'd love to see Bono et al or Karen O. win this, it's Disney's to lose.

Best Production Design

American Hustle
Gravity
Great Gatsby
Her
12 Years a Slave

Will Win: The Great Gatsby
Should Win: The Great Gatsby
Watch Out For: 12 Years a Slave

Best Sound Editing

All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Watch Out For: Captain Phillips 

Best Sound Mixing

Captain Phillips
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Watch Out For: Inside Llewyn Davis
Logic: Not really logic, but in rewatching Gravity this week I was amazed at how good the mixing is; something I didn't take account for in my cinema view. As great as the visuals are, the sound is truly something special.

Best Visual Effects

Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Long Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Watch Out For: Whiteface.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2014 Golden Globe Predictions

Best Picture, Drama

12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Philomena
Rush

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave
Should Win: 12 Years a Slave
Look Out For: Gravity
Reasoning: Most-nominated of the bunch, 12 Years also comes into this with the most heat and should make that next step towards being the Oscar frontrunner.

Best Actress, Drama

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Kate Winslet, Labor Day

Will Win: Sandra Bullock
Should Win: Sandra Bullock
Look Out For: Cate Blanchett
Reasoning: Blanchett is still in good shape to make a run at the Oscar if she loses this, as many see her as a frontrunner for the big prize. Bullock is also more of an HFPA fave, and stars in a very popular movie.

Best Actor, Drama

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Idris Elba, Mandela
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

Will Win: Tom Hanks
Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Look Out For: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Reasoning: This one is legitimately tough to call. The Globes could easily mount a sweep for 12 Years, but the Best Pic nom for Captain Phillips gives me pause, and makes me think they'll really go for Hanks -- especially that last scene. Part of me hopes Redford wins this, but that performance seems more nomination than win -- it doesn't have that one "actory" scene, which is nothing against it.

Best Picture, Musical/Comedy

American Hustle
Her
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will Win: American Hustle
Should Win: Her
Look Out For: The Wolf of Wall Street
Reasoning: Hustle is the other nominations leader, and most of these movies are committing category fraud; they're all more dramedy than comedy (though I guess Llewyn Davis is getting counted as a Musical? Which might actually help it). Wolf of Wall Street is still waiting for its breakout moment, and the Globes have been pretty friendly to Scorsese, but Hustle just feels like the movie they're going to go for, putting it into the drivers' seat alongside 12 Years as we move into the Oscar noms.

Best Actress, Musical/Comedy

Amy Adams, American Hustle
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Will Win: Amy Adams
Should Win: Julie Delpy
Look Out For: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Reasoning: If this was the Globes of five years ago, I'd be picking Julia Louis-Dreyfus to win here and in TV (for Veep). But Amy Adams has been getting nominated almost every year without an award to show for it yet. And she's the center of Hustle.

Best Actor, Musical/Comedy

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Will Win: Bruce Dern
Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Look Out For: Oscar Isaac
Reasoning: Another very tough category to call. Dern has the career-defining work. DiCaprio has the career-best work. Isaac has the career-making work. And Bale is in the Best Picture frontrunner, while Phoenix is kind of a stealth player. I could legitimately see any of these performances winning, and would be okay with any of them winning. I'm going with Dern for a "career win," but Isaac gets bonus points from doing his own singing. That's always a draw.

Best Animated Feature

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Frozen

Will Win: Frozen
Should Win: Despicable Me 2
Look Out For: Despicable Me 2
Reasoning: Frozen has become something of a phenomenon recently, and that buzz should carry it here.

Best Foreign Language Film

Blue is the Warmest Color
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Past
The Wind Rises

Will Win: Blue is the Warmest Color
Should Win: The Great Beauty
Look Out For: The Wind Rises
Reasoning: Wind Rises is Miyazaki's swan song, and that's a mighty big reason to vote for it, but Blue has been talk of the globe since May and I can't see it losing this.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Will Win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should Win: Lupita Nyong'o
Look Out For: Lupita Nyong'o
Reasoning: Jennifer Lawrence is still the Girl on Fire, as much as I'd really rather her not win. Nyong'o, Squibb, and Hawkins are all much worthier of this one.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Jared Leto
Should Win: Michael Fassbender
Look Out For: Bradley Cooper
Reasoning: Time to put the money where the buzz is: Leto's been the presumed Oscar frontrunner since DBC opened, so logic says he'll win here. I still think Fassbender or Cooper could win though, and I'd be particularly happy with the former.

Best Director, Motion Picture

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Should Win: Alfonso Cuaron
Watch Out For: David O. Russell
Reasoning: I can see Cuaron, McQueen, or Russell winning this one for various reasons, but I think Cuaron's work on Gravity and the praise surrounding it is enough to predict a split from one of the Best Picture winners. Because Russell's been in the mix several times recently, I would pick him above McQueen here.

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture

Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan, Nebraska
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Eric Warrern Singer & David O. Russell, American Hustle

Will Win: American Hustle
Should Win: Her
Look Out For: Her
Reasoning: A screenplay win would be a nice consolation for Her, and I really can't figure out how much HFPA is going to go for American Hustle, but my gut says to pick it here.

Best Original Score

Alex Ebert, All is Lost
Alex Heffes, Mandela
Steven Price, Gravity
John Williams, The Book Thief
Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave

Will Win: Gravity
Should Win: Gravity
Look Out For: 12 Years a Slave
Reasoning: The music is so much of Gravity, and a lot of these feel like weak nominees.

Best Original Song

"Atlas," Hunger Games: Catching Fire
"Let it Go," Frozen
"Ordinary Love," Mandela
"Please Mr. Kennedy," Inside Llewyn Davis
"Sweeter Than Fiction," One Chance

Will Win: "Let it Go"
Should Win: "Please Mr. Kennedy"
Look Out For: "Please Mr. Kennedy"
Reasoning: Frozen is on top of the world right now, but it would be pretty damn cool if "Mr. Kennedy" won this.

Best TV Series, Drama

Breaking Bad
Downton Abbey
The Good Wife
House of Cards
Masters of Sex

Will Win: Breaking Bad
Should Win: Breaking Bad
Look Out For: House of Cards?
Reasoning: It's Bad's year. Can anything really beat it?

Best Actress, TV Drama

Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife
Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black
Taylor Schilling, Orange is the New Black
Kerry Washington, Scandal
Robin Wright, House of Cards

Will Win: Julianna Margulies
Should Win: Taylor Schilling
Look Out For: Taylor Schilling
Reasoning: The Good Wife has had a pretty great year and feels much more high-profile than Schilling or Wright, the only two I could see winning instead.

Best Actor, TV Drama

Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Live Schreiber, Ray Donovan
Michael Sheen, Masters of Sex
Kevin Spacey, House of Cards
James Spader, The Blacklist

Will Win: Bryan Cranston
Should Win: Bryan Cranston
Look Out For: Kevin Spacey?
Reasoning: Please. This isn't even close.

Best TV Series, Comedy/Musical

The Big Bang Theory
Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Girls
Modern Family
Parks and Rec

Will Win: Girls
Should Win: Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Look Out For: Modern Family
Reasoning: Ugh, I really don't like this lineup. Girls wins I guess? People like it. I don't know.

Best Actress, TV Comedy

Zooey Deschanel, New Girl
Lena Dunham, Girls
Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep
Amy Poehler, Parks and Rec

Will Win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Should Win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Look Out For: Edie Falco
Reasoning: I just love Veep and think Louis-Dreyfus is perfection on it.

Best Actor, TV Comedy

Jason Bateman, Arrested Development
Don Cheadle, House of Lies
Michael J. Fox, The Michael J. Fox Show
Jim Parsons, The Big Bang Theory
Andy Samberg, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Will Win: Michael J. Fox
Should Win: Jason Bateman
Look Out For: Jim Parsons
Reasoning: Although The Michael J. Fox Show is about the most vanilla sitcom imaginable, it feels like a performance--or rather, a star--the Globes would want to recognize. Jim Parsons is, for some reason, always a threat in this category. For my money though, Jason Bateman gave the most interesting performance, turning what was once the straight man of Arrested Development into a desperate schmuck.

Best TV Movie/Miniseries

American Horror Story: Coven
Behind the Candelabra
Dancing on the Edge
Top of the Lake
The White Queen

Will Win: Behind the Candelabra
Look Out For: Top of the Lake

Best Actress in a Miniseries/TV Movie

Helena Bonham Carter, Burton and Taylor
Rebecca Ferguson, The White Queen
Jessica Lange, American Horror Story: Coven
Helen Mirren, Phil Spector
Elisabeth Moss, Top of the Lake

Will Win: Jessica Lange
Look Out For: Elisabeth Moss

Best Actor in a Minseries/TV Movie

Matt Damon, Behind the Candelabra
Michael Douglas, Behind the Candelabra
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dancing on the Edge
Idris Elba, Luther
Al Pacino, Phil Spector

Will Win: Michael Douglas
Look Out For: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Best Supporting Actress, Television Series

Jacqueline Bisset, Dancing on the Edge
Janet McTeer, The White Queen
Hayden Panettiere, Nashville
Monica Potter, Parenthood
Sofia Vergara, Modern Family

Will Win: Hayden Panettiere
Look Out For: Sofia Vergara
Reasoning: Blind pick.

Best Supporting Actor, Television Series

Josh Charles, The Good Wife
Rob Lowe, Behind the Candelabra
Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad
Corey Stoll, House of Cards
Jon Voight, Ray Donovan

Will Win: Aaron Paul
Should Win: Corey Stoll
Look Out For: Rob Lowe
Reasoning: Look, I love Aaron Paul, but the last 8 episodes of Breaking Bad gave him very little to do besides look really sad. I'd rather see Corey Stoll take this for his weighty, tragic role in House of Cards--the real soul of season one. Also, Rob Lowe's freaky-deaky role in Candelabra is just ripe for an award.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Top 20 Films of 2013

What a wonderful year for movies this has been. There are so many creative, original, thoroughly enjoyable works that didn't make this list it was almost painful. Works as diverse as Frances Ha, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Museum Hours, All is Lost, Pacific Rim, and Computer Chess are among the 20 or so other movies I wish I could have given some kind of slot on this list. Indeed, cutting the choices down was an act of attrition at times.

Every year, the idea of what I'm doing with a Top 10 or Top 20 changes pretty substantially. At this point, as I'm engaged in Ph.D. course work and building towards a dissertation prospectus, I'm thinking about movies in terms of -- what excites me? What do I want to write about? What do I see as engaging some kind of important cultural theme? Perhaps, more importantly, it's about what I would want to watch over and over again both for my own pleasure and, maybe, to teach in a classroom.

Many of these movies are conversation pieces; some are a bit more imperfect than others and certainly have their own problems (doesn't every fascinating work of art?), but I picked these films less because they fit into whatever critical judgment of "best" is currently en vogue and more because I loved talking about them and thinking about them. For some, I simply loved watching them, and when you watch hundreds of movies a year, it's hard to explain how great it feels to just love watching something.

If there are "themes" that unite the movies on this list, I'd say you see a lot of movies about material excess and how that ties into a corrupt version of the American Dream, mostly spearheaded by some twisted masculine figure. In other works, we explore the violence of history, both the very recent and the far away past. And in still more, we saw portraits of an America struggling to cope with its own disappearance, the radical shifts occurring with the passing of own generation and the confused emergence of another. As always, I'm particularly drawn to movies that try to show us something about our own identities and the cultures and histories that shape those identities.

20. The Wolverine (dir. James Mangold)



Perhaps the first superhero movie to really think about the hero’s imperialist implications, this handsomely made collision of Western and yakuza drama takes the genre in an important direction. Also, bullet train fight.

19. Pain & Gain (dir. Michael Bay)


It took decades, but Michael Bay finally fashioned his aggressively hyper-masculine worldview into a sickeningly satirical look at the American dream, turning his violent aesthetic into a disturbing look at a sub-culture gone haywire.

18. The Great Beauty (dir. Paolo Sorrentino)


Fellini lives on in Sorrentino’s spiritual quasi-sequel to La Dolce Vita; a stunning look at the beauty and emptiness of modern-day Rome and its decadent souls.

17. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)




“Look at my shiiiiiiit” could stand as theme of the year, and few captured it better than Korine’s fever dream portrait of excess partiers, consciously objectified teenagers, posturing gangsters, and surreal Britney Spears covers.

16. American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)





People believe what they want to believe in Russell’s madcap 1970s crime dramedy. Chock full of great performances and camera movements, its loud meditations on the constructedness of identity make this perhaps Russell's best movie yet.

15. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)



If Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke can keep getting together every nine years to continue this series, we’ll always have something to look forward to. Dense conversations, complex characters, effortless filmmaking.

14. Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)


The best parts of this Southern fable of two boys tangling with the blurred lines between good and evil are its loving sense of place and its mythological weight. Nichols’s third feature captures the wonder, mystery, and fear of childhood, while also getting top-notch work from Man of the Moment Matthew McConaughey.

13. The Great Gatsby (dir. Baz Luhrmann)



Enlisting massive amounts of CGI, 3D, and every whiz-bang tool of digital cinema at his disposal, Luhrmann meshes the party cultures of millennials and flappers into an endless loop, a within-and-without literary adaptation that pushes at the continued relevancy of its source material.

12. Leviathan (dir. Lucian Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)



Who says movies can’t show us anything new? This sensory ethnography helps us reshape how our bodies might consider the sense of being in, even transcending, a particular place. The shots of birds carrying GoPro cameras high into the sky alone are among the most poetic and beautiful things you’ll see all year.

11. Prisoners (dir. Dennis Villeneuve)


My favorite procedurals are the ones that aren’t really about the procedure. Yes, there’s an urgent, devastating mystery of two lost girls at the heart of Prisoners, but it’s much better seen as a movie about American exceptionalism and posturing. It’s about the icy heart of patriarchy as a form of power. It’s about religious hypocrisy. It’s about the foolishness of torture. It’s about the loss of innocence, the fallacies of community. Don’t get caught mistaking the forest for the trees.

10. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)




“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” says the Coens’ latest schmuck protagonist, and it’s a good description for the film: it condenses lots of the brothers’ themes—repetitions, music, journeys (Ulysses in particular), the implications of mundane choices, condescending and struggling artists, John Goodman—and their song doesn’t get old because they reinvent their work into the very form of a folk song or an album, filled with verses and choruses and sustained by top-tier technical work and a perfect, desperate mood.

9. The Counselor (dir. Ridley Scott)


Everyone hated—and I mean hated—this movie, while I loved the heck out of every hyperbolic moment. Its heart is dark, and it’s less of a plot than it is a series of stories and incidents strung together by barely comprehensible forces rapidly tightening the noose around its characters. But my oh my, what a work of apocalyptic tone, what an incisive indictment of greed, what a rich portrait of violent people. It’s a weird, almost constantly off-putting film, but one whose punch is mighty impactful.

8. The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola)


This is one of those right-place-right-time movies. It stuck with me long after watching, and indeed became the impetus for a writing project through its emphasis on materialism, representations of economics, and domestic-cum-shopping centers. Its heady simulacra of interplay between "real" and signifier is, to borrow from another writer, Moebius-like. Coppola’s work here is more pointed and insightfully constructed than many gave her credit for. Its alienation is haunting.

7. The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)


It’s supposed to be a comedy, but no movie depressed me more in 2013 than Scorsese’s sporadic, nightmarish, and colossal portrait of bad behavior. At times, this satirization of Wall Street culture and 1% excessiveness borders on Strangelove-ian darkness—you can’t believe the things coming out of these characters’ mouths and the ways they justify their behavior. Its excessiveness in form, content, and runtime wore me down, to the point where I just wanted to run from this movie, until I realized that might be both its flaw and its greatness. It’s an outrageous film that should make you feel outraged. In The Wolf of Wall Street, we’re all victims.

6. Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)


There’s been a lot of talk about Bruce Dern—who is fantastic—and too much talk of this movie as a character study. What makes Nebraska a great movie is how it uses its widescreen, black and white photography to paint a picture of the erosion of the Midwest—the land it explores has been marked by recession and immense economic uncertainty. The people and places in this movie feel so true to me: I’ve had these conversations, sat in these rooms, walked through these towns. It’s an at times painful portrait of both the recession and the end of a generation, but one that I find surprisingly humanistic and hopeful.

5. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)




For most of its runtime, Upstream Color is a labyrinthine, almost impossible to deduce mystery that, in its final sequence, becomes all too clear: this is a movie about cycles and repetitions, about our own confusion at how the world works and how we are unknowing victims of other’s schemes. One might say it’s about the strange relationship between man and nature. Or maybe it’s about our own struggles with memory and forgetting. It’s a film that, once you figure out, holds a potentially infinite number of meanings. One thing is clear all the way through though: Carruth’s filmmaking is virtuoso, and this is a totally different kind of “mind game” narrative.

4. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)




12 Years a Slave is that pretty rare moment when serious historiographic concerns meet rigorous filmmaking without pandering down the middle. Through his intense formalism, Steve McQueen’s focus on bodies and spaces thinks about the personal and systemic ramifications of slavery in a way I’ve never seen before. The approach is almost pure horror-show at times, an aesthetic both beautiful and brutal, but it asks us to think about the weight of slavery as an industry and how racism—hell, discrimination of any kind—is continually justified by the society performing it. It's been said that foreign filmmakers deliver the best portraits of America, and maybe it took a British director to finally make a grueling and intelligent portrait of slavery.

3. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)




What else can I say about Gravity that everyone hasn’t already said? It’s such a pure work of imagination and skill, something that pushes technology to the next level while also giving us new ways to think about how we interact with and embody ourselves in films. While it lacks the rigorous political/social underpinnings of Cuaron’s other work—and for this reason it may not age particularly well—it’s certainly a film that’s looking forward in what sci-fi can do. It explores space (pun intended) in fantastic ways, and it's about as phenomenological as an effects-driven film can ever hope to be. I only saw Gravity once despite wanting to watch it over and over in the theaters, in part because movies are really expensive but also because I didn’t want to sully the amazing high that can only come from pure cinema.

2. Her (dir. Spike Jonze)



Lyrical and melancholic, Spike Jonze’s visionary portrait of the relationship between man and technology expands into being about so much more; it’s about the very foundations of who we are and how we experience the world amidst a world that is rapidly changing. Its emotions are incredibly complex, alternately slyly funny and painfully sad, and most shockingly its core relationship is wholly empathetic (at least, to me). it’s a work that is so relentlessly of this moment (not to mention so completely of its futuristic space, from the clothes to the videogames) yet also seems to transcend time. Jonze nearly bottles the whole of our contemporary life into a movie and give us a new way to look at ourselves. It's a beautiful love letter.

1. The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)



 I saw The Act of Killing twice this year: once on my own, and once in the context of a documentary studies seminar. On first viewing, I was devastated beyond belief and amazed that Oppenheimer had managed to pull this off. It gave me new ways to think about how documentaries write and represent history, about ethnography, about film itself and how people use film. That, and it’s a jaw-dropping portrait of the mundanity of evil. On second viewing, my seminar engaged in a very important discussion of ethnographic Othering, of filmmaker accountability, of the political goals of this kind of representation, and other ramifications of this work I had been too overwhelmed to consider the first time around. We reached what I thought were some pretty astute criticisms of the film, but those criticisms didn't dampen its impact on me. The conversation this film provokes about the interplay between documentary, history, representation, and responsibility is an important one to have, and even if Oppenheimer is ultimately at fault for “exposing” without “interrogating,” I still think The Act of Killing is the most important work of 2013—both in terms of my own politics as a scholar and human being, but also for its serious contribution to cinema. Hell, for its contribution to historical record.