The Best Movies of 2013

Stories-We-Tell-2013

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, people. No, not the holidays, but list-making time! Who doesn’t love lists? They’re silly (who ever decided that a 12 month period was the ideal way to measure art?), but I love them. Here are my favorite films of the year and a couple other superlatives. And please note the word “favorite”. It’s really hard to judge, compare, and rank the movies that you think are great and the ones that are not so great but you just love, but that’s a burden I’m more than willing to put on myself. At the end of the day, art is, of course, subjective, so take this list as a way of me saying the movies I enjoyed and thought about the most this year, or if you haven’t seen them, a list of recommendations for your next movie night. Anyway, here we go…

The Ten Best Movies of 2013:

Before Midnight 2013

1. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)
Director Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have done something awesome. Like a descendant of Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, the movies that are now called the “Before Trilogy” have become one of the most fascinating cinematic achievements of the last few decades. The lovely first encounter of Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise and the brief but significant conversation they have in Before Sunset already made for an incredible diptych, but Before Midnight goes beyond and elevates the whole series into something much more interesting and significant than two amazing movies about love. We have now one of the most intimate epic stories put on film, one of the best trilogies in film history, and one that I see myself revisiting many times in the future. There is a lot to say about Before Midnight, much more than I can fit in this post, but don’t worry, people will be talking about it for years to come.

The-Act-of-Killing-2013

2.The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)
2013 was a banner year for documentary filmmaking, especially for the evolution of the genre, with directors making use of unusual form and structure to tell their stories. I couldn’t see all of these praised movies (like The Missing Picture and Manakamana), but I did see Joshua Oppenheimer’s brilliant The Act of Killing. The movie focuses on an older man named Anwar Congo, who was part of an Indonesian death squad, which in the 1960s was sent out by the government to exterminate “the communists”. You don’t need me to tell you this whole enterprise resulted in innumerable atrocities, but the thing about Indonesia is that the same government that ordered this crimes, is the government that is still in power, and the people who carried out the executions, like Congo, are heroes. The genius of Oppenheimer’s movie is that in order to paint the incredibly complex and horrifying portrait of this man, he lets Congo put on and film recreations of his experiences as part of the death squad. The Act of Killing is not only one of the best movies of the year, but also one of the most important in what it has to say about evil, destruction, guilt, memory and the role of movies in our society.

Inside-Llewyn Davis 2013

3. Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
If I were in some sort of genie-in-a-bottle scenario in which I could pick one movie that came out this year to have made myself, I would pick Inside Llewyn Davis. But there is a futility to this hypothetical wish that is rather appropriate to the movie in question: there is absolutely no way that any other team of people at any other point in time could have made this movie. It lives and dies both in Joel and Ethan Coen’s directorial sensitivities and in the outstanding lead performance by Oscar Isaac. Music producer T-Bone Burnett (who collaborates with the Coens once again in this movie’s soundtrack) said in an interview the Coens must be the luckiest people alive if they managed to find someone as talented as an actor and musician as Isaac. And he is completely right. I’ve seen Inside Llewyn Davis twice, and the more I think about it the more I love it. It’s a perfect and meticulous portrait of lonesomeness, grief, struggle, and blindness that takes the themes the Coen’s have explored all throughout their careers and put them in the most delicate and beautiful package

stories we tell young

4. Stories We Tell (dir. Sarah Polley)
“Who cares about our stupid family?”
Talking about a great year for documentaries… Stories We Tell feels like some sort of therapy session for director Sarah Polley to reevaluate her history and work through her relationship with her father Michael. By making the movie so specifically about her mother, Polley opens a splendid can of worms that immediately made me ask questions about family, history, narrative, and the way we try and succeed to understand ourselves and the ones around us. What makes it even more of a pleasure to watch, beyond the fact that Polley is an incredibly gifted filmmaker, is that it is a movie so full of love. It is in love with Polley’s mom, and Polley’s dad, and with cinema, and with storytelling itself. What can I say, it’s just a beautiful film.

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

5. Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton)
Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is an independent movie about a Californian childcare facility and it features a lot of the plot points and problems that you would think a movie about a childcare facility would have, but the talented people that worked on it have made it so that it is perhaps the most sincere movie of the year. Truth has been captured in this movie, genuine emotion, real feelings, from the careful direction to the fantastic cast that includes great performances by John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever and Keith Stanfield. Nobody, however, is as brilliantly raw and effective as Brie Larson, who turns main caretaker Grace into one of the most memorable characters of the year. I’ve always liked Larson, but this performance is a true revelation, she might very well be the best actress of her generation.

kinopoisk.ru

6. The Grandmaster (dir. Wong Kar-Wai)*
I’m not an expert on martial arts movies, I’ve only ever seen the modern ones that came after the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonbut out of what I’m familiar with, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster does the best job of turning the fight sequences into essential character moments for the narrative since the Ang Lee’s great movie. What was reportedly going to be a biography of Ip Man (the martial artist most known in the west for training Bruce Lee, here played by Tony Leung) is really a loose biography and much more a tragic story about tradition, honor, and the clash of these institution with love and passion. The best fictional addition to the movie is Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), a young woman who fights for her father’s legacy and her family’s honor. If you are familiar with Wong Kar-wai’s work, then you must already have deduced that the movie is visually dazzling, and tragic and delicate in its treatment of romance. You’d be right on both counts.

*There is a whole thing about ‘The Grandmaster’ and its different versions that has made the movie rather hard to watch in a practical sense. There is an American cut that runs for about 108 minutes, but is also very inferior to the original 130 minute original Chinese cut. If you are planning to watch the movie, or only have seen the American cut, I urge you to look for the original version. It can be purchased as an international Bluray on the internet. 

Enough Said 20137. Enough Said (dir. Nicole Holofcener)
I will only agree with Enough Said’s detractors in one count, and that is that the Catherine Keener character is bland and unexciting. The rest of the movie, even a plot development that some critics have dismissively described as “sitcomy”, works beautifully for me. I haven’t been a huge fan of director Nicole Holofcener in the past, but if this movie is any indication, she has finally come into her own. This comedy about two middle-aged people trying to give love a second chance is never better than when it lets its two stars, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini, just go ahead and do their thing. Witnessing the connection between these two and watching the relationship that develops is like watching a dancer or singer perform at the top of their game. I could have watch five hours of these two talking and still be over-the-moon about it.

Frozen 20138. Frozen (dir. Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)
Even though it’s flawed, and if you talk about recent Disney movies, I would have to say Tangled is still the superior movie, I really loved Frozen. Not only do I think it’s a pretty great movie for kids, but also an important one for them to watch. Disney has been trying to make its Princess characters more accessible and complex through the years, and they have always stumbled a little bit when trying to take a more feminist point of view, but I think they have really nailed it in the relationship between Anna and Elsa. Their story of sisterly love and search for identity is incredibly powerful and will give little girls a lot to think about. It’s not only very moving, but also really funny. Kristen Bell’s work as Anna is delightfully silly, and Josh Gad, as snowman Olaf, gives a masterclass in being a funny and cute animated sidekick without being annoying.

wind rises

9The Wind Rises (dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
What is probably going to be Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s last movie is not only a lovely farewell, but also a very interesting companion piece to the sixth ranked movie on this list, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster. Like the Chinese film, this is a very lose biography of a historical figure. In this case, it’s Jiro Horikoshi a man who dreamed of aviation and grew up to design the war planes that would be used by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. The movie is a big fight between dreams and death. Between the drive to create beauty and the knowledge of what those creations will be used for. And in its second half, it highlights this with a romance as fantastic and melodramatic as Jiro’s own dreams.

12 Years 2013

10. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)
Because it has become the kind of movie that you almost feel obligated to see (and love), having 12 Years a Slave in the 10th spot might feel like a negotiated commitment. The truth is after thinking a lot about it since I saw it, I still don’t quite know what to make of it, except that I have to recognize it’s probably the movie that generated the most visceral reaction from me this year. And it is, without question, a superbly masterful film. Director Steve McQueen’s lingering and muted style gives the movie even more power than the already charged material provides, and it ends up being a notably effective way to showcase some of the best performances of the year. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and especially newcomer Lupita Nyong’o are a fantastic quartet and build one of the most intriguing character dynamics of the year.

Ten More Wonderful Movies:
11. No (dir. Pablo Larrain)
12. Drinking Buddies (dir. Joe Swanberg)
13. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine)
14. Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)
15. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)
16. Like Someone In Love (dir. Abbas Kiarostami)
17. Something in the Air (dir. Olivier Assayas)
18. Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black)
19. Stoker (dir. Chan-wook Park)
20. World War Z (dir. Marc Forster)

Worst Movie of the Year:
I try not to watch bad movies. Because I am not a professional/paid critic, I only watch movies I want to watch, and so, I end up not watching a lot of the creap that gets released. I didn’t, for example, see Grown Ups 2which I hear is horrible. However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that most “worst of the year” are rightfully including what is, without question, the worst movie I saw in theaters: Man of Steel, which back when it came out, didn’t really get as many negative notices as it deserved. If you want to know more about my negative feelings on the movie, then I recommend you read the review I wrote upon its release on the old blog.

Most Underrated Movie
I have to share this title between two summer movies. I wasn’t planning on watching World War Z, which got very meddling reviews when it came out, but I am really glad I saw it, and on the big screen. In what ended up being a very lackluster summer for studio movies, World War Z stands out to me as one of the most careful and well crafted of the movies. Sure, it’s a pretty dumb movie, but the more suspenseful sequences are so great, and the sound work out of all things is simply fantastic! The other movie I want to give this title to is The Heat, which is the funniest movie of the year, right? Why isn’t it being talked about as such?

Most Overrated Movie
There are a lot of movies that have been largely praised that I don’t think are that good (GravityThe Wolf of Wall Street), but their detractors have been pretty loud. I decided to use this spot to point at a movie that almost nobody has said anything bad about even if I don’t think it’s very good. See, I like Edgar Wright. I think he’s a hugely talented man, and somewhat of a visionary, but I just don’t get the love for The World’s End, which, granted, was very funny at times and had some pretty cool action sequences, but also went to places that felt really forced and had a disappointingly anticlimactic ending. It’s not a bad movie, I guess I just didn’t get it.

Biggest Surprise
I still can’t believe how much I liked Joe Swamberg’s Drinking BuddiesI have sat through Hannah Takes the Stairsso no, I wasn’t a big fan of Swamberg. But then I started hearing some pretty good things about his latest movie, and since it starred Jake Johnson (whom I love in New Girl), I decided to give it a try. It was pretty awesome! It’s about Johnson and Olivia Wilde as two friends who are clearly attracted to each other, but don’t know if they should act on it. It does have that “mumblecore” Joe Swamberg feel (I don’t like that word, but you’ll know what I’m talking about if I use it), but also shows a much richer and, frankly, interesting relationship than what he had done before. Also, I’ve been complaining about how Olivia Wilde suddenly became a big celebrity since I had never seen her on anything (except on House), but after watching her chemistry with Johnson in this movie, sign me up for the Olivia Wilde fan club.

Biggest Disappointment
I was really excited for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, and for the first fifteen minutes or so, I was at the edge of my seat. The movie does an amazing job of setting up its world, but even if I somewhat appreciated the movie’s ridiculous, but appropriately childish logic (it is, after, a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters), I was hugely, hugely disappointed by the film. It was so poorly executed. The fight scenes were terrible! Everyone one of them took place in the water and/or in the dark, where we couldn’t really see anything; the design of the monster was really lazy, and with a set of cardboard characters and wooden performances at its center, it felt like a higher budget episode of Power Rangers. 

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‘August: Osage County’ Can’t You See We’re Acting Here?

August Osage County

I don’t read that many novels. It’s a whole thing with me that has sparked heated discussions with many people I know. Especially when it comes to discussions about book-to-screen adaptations. My recurring argument is that fidelity almost never means quality when it comes to movie adaptations. My favorite novel of all time is Anna Karenina, and Joe Wright’s adaptation was one of my favorite movies of last year despite the fact that it wasn’t a completely effective adaptation, because it was such an exciting and idiosyncratic point of view on the material. I feel like I’m already going off on a tangent. All I really wanted to say was that I don’t read many novels, but I do try to watch a lot of theater, and thus, I was kind of excited that I was going to be able to compare the experience of seeing Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County on stage and on the big screen.

My reaction coming out of both experiences was, well, underwhelming. The first time I saw the play was back in my hometown of Lima, Peru. I thought the mixed feeling I had about the play had to do with the fact that such an American, Oklahoma-set play was being performed by a foreign cast, but I had seen other American plays that had worked nonetheless. My reaction to the Peruvian production ended up being quite similar to what I felt after watching director John Wells’ movie adaptation. Both were cases in which a solid play (with some inherent problems that I’ll get to later) suffered form being on the hands of an inadequate director, but still managed to be good enough ground for some great performances to flourish out of it.

The movie starts with alcoholic college professor Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), whose disappearance brings his three daughters to their Oklahoma childhood home, where they have to deal with their pill-popping mother Violet (Meryl Streep). The popular way to describe the movie is as a dark comedy about a monstrously dysfunctional family, although I personally think of it as an (intentionally) over the top melodrama and battle of egos between Violet and her oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts). While the Weinstein Company has tried to advertise it as a warm-ish “dramedy”, the movie would seem to agree with me. Meryl Streep goes all out chewing the scenery, the character is already grand, and she makes her even grander. Julia Roberts does mostly a good job of holding her own, but she can’t help being swallowed up by Streep at times. Not because she isn’t good, but because Meryl’s performance is so big, and I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing.

I always found the Violet Weston character, which is undoubtedly the part of the play (and the movie) people most talk about, has always been something I’m not completely comfortable with. She is a very mean-spirited woman. She takes the “old woman says inappropriate things” stereotype to the darkest possible places, and this is where the story draws a lot of its comedy from. At the same time, though I find her to be a troublesome character. Or it could be that I haven’t seen an interpretation of the play in which she comes off as a realistic human being. She’s similar to Livia Soprano, but even at more than three hours (in the stage version), there doesn’t seem to be enough time to fully explore and make sense of what exactly makes her tick. There are a couple monologues about her having a rough childhood, but they always felt a little reductive to me. Add to that Meryl Streep, who is a very showy and histrionic actress, especially in recent years, and you have the character relentlessly dominating the picture.

Most of the supporting actors get their moment to shine, but it remains a little irritating when you can’t get more of Chris Cooper or Julianne Nicholson’s struggles. Those two are the stand-outs amongst a very good cast, and after Masters of Sex, and now this, it’s time casting directors take note of Nicholson. I want to see her everywhere in 2014, you hear me? I know it is a reflection of the character and household dynamic that Violet dominates the piece over the other actors, but the way this movie surrenders to her is disappointing. The best moments of August: Osage County come when the actors feed off of each other and the audience can relish in the interactions. Wells’ composition not only gives in to Violet, but also relies too much on shot reverse shot structure. The pivotal dinner scene that has the whole cast in the same room would be so much more interesting and open to discoveries if we could see an open shot and look for reactions instead of having the necessary ones delivered to us in edited close-ups.

There is no question that August: Osage County is Tracy Letts’ piece. His is the auteurist voice behind the Westons, and even if he has chopped down his play significantly in the transition to the screen, his voice can still be heard. Being a talented writer as he is, even if I have problems with the play, there are a lot of interesting aspects to take out of it. I remain somewhat cool about this material, but I do wish that at some point, I’ll see a version of it directed by someone who can hopefully capture Letts’ vision and whatever made so many people fall in love with the original Steppenwolf production.

Grade: 6 out of 10

Academy Rules: Best Picture 1964

My Fair Lady 64

If you were me, then you would know that there is nothing more fun to do when you’re on a holiday break and all your friends have left the city to go spend Christmas with their families than think about what you would have voted for in past Oscar categories. That’s what Academy Rules is all about, only instead of limiting my thoughts to my head, I share them with you, dear reader. You know, in case you might be interested in a weird hypothetical world in which I rule what should win meaningless award statues. It’s fun, I swear! Anyway, this month, and in honor of the release of Walt Disney’s Saving Mr. BanksI decided to look at the year Mary Poppins was nominated for Best Picture. Here are the nominees…

My Fair Lady
The big Oscar story of 1964, one that you might be familiar with, was the controversy surrounding the casting of the role of Eliza Doolittle. Opening in 1956 as a stage production, My Fair Lady set Broadway on fire. It was the biggest hit of its time, so its adaptation into a major motion picture was not a question. Jack L. Warner was the man with the rights, and  he seemed like a big fan of the original show, since he hired Rex Harrison to reprise his Tony-winning role as Professor Henry Higgins. For the role of cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, though, he decided to replace a then unknown Julie Andrews (who had originated the role on stage) with international movie star Audrey Hepburn.

It makes sense that he would like to have big name to get people to the theaters (it worked mighty well when they recast the role of Blanche with Vivien Leigh for the adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire), but the Hepburn controversy gathered steam not only when fans started to complain in behalf of Andrews, but when it was revealed that Hepburn wasn’t allowed to do her own singing, but was dubbed by an uncredited Marni Nixon. As you would expect, the media tried to report on a feud between the two actresses, which consisted really of polite comments in which they complimented each other. Still, the narrative caught fire, and became a favorite Oscar story when not only was Hepburn not nominated for Lead Actress, but the award ended up going to Julie Andrews, who nabbed the lead role in another big screen musical: Mary Poppins. 

Even if the Academy apparently wasn’t a big fan of Hepburn (who had already won an Oscar, by the way), they did love My Fair Lady as a whole, giving it eight awards including Best Picture and Lead Actor for Rex Harrison. The reason why I bring up the whole Hepburn vs. Andrews story, besides the fact that it is what people think about when they think about the Oscar class of ’64, is that Hepburn is perhaps the most important thing that colors my opinion on My Fair Lady. That is to say I am not a big fan of the film, and definitely not a fan of her performance.

Now, the whole dubbed-singing deal is not really a huge factor in my distaste for Hepburn’s Eliza. Almost every film musical has the actors pre-recording their tracks and lip-synching to them on set, which means there shouldn’t be a big difference whether or not Hepburn recorded her own tracks. On the other hand, if having the actress sing her own songs meant that she wouldn’t have given such a histrionic and over-the-top performance, well, then maybe they should have let the woman go to the recording studio. Lots of people whose opinion I value on matters of musicals (both on and off the stage) love My Fair Lady. If I’m being honest, I want to love it too, but I just can’t deal with this movie. Mostly because of Hepburn, whose performance in the first half consists mainly of screaming loudly in reaction to almost everything that is said to her. I know the movie needs to find Eliza’s initial accent and behavior very inelegant for the story to work, but this is taking it to the extreme. She just doesn’t feel like a human being to me.A number like “Just You Wait” lands flat thanks to consisting of nothing but Audrey Hepburn emoting like a silent movie star around Higgins’ house. It’s hard to believe the woman who starred in Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s could be so charmless.

Hepburn is a big problem, but the movie is not without merit. For starters, Rex Harrison is hugely enjoyable as Henry Higgins. Also, I really like some of the songs in the score, like “Wouldn’t It Be Lovely”, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”. What really keeps me from enjoying My Fair Lady is its pacing. Everything, no matter how unimportant to the main plot, moves at a snail’s pace. The songs are separated by scenes of dialogue that go on for way too long. The whole thing just feels boring and airless.

Becket 64

Becket
Such are the coincidences in life that just a couple days after I managed to get my hands on a copy of Becket, legendary actor Peter O’Toole passed away at 81. Watching the movie, which I had never seen before, ended up being a lovely way to honor his death. In case you don’t know, Becket tells the story of the relationship between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his trusted friend Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton), whom the King gives the title of Archbishop of Canterbury in order to have stronger influence over the church only to find out Becket putting up much harder resistance than he had anticipated. I tend to think of the 1960s as a revolutionary and transitional era for cinema, one that starts with the innovations of the french new wave and ends with the arrival of new hollywood, but it is also the last glory decade for big-studio productions in the style of classic Hollywood. Becket is such a film. The kind of historical epic that young people tend to look at as stuffy old movies, and while it isn’t quite as good as the very best of that genre (A Man for All Seasons comes to mind), it is one solid movie. 

Like most epics of the the time, it is shot on a glorious widescreen that shows off the sets and costumes (the film’s Bluray is absolutely beautiful). I call it an epic, but the movie is mostly made up of scenes of characters just talking to each other. That might sound as a diss, but even if the movie is directed in a very classical manner, it ends up being surprisingly dynamic and exciting in its formality. With contemporary directors’ overreliance on close-ups and shot/counter shot composition, we’ve come to the point where being able to see more than one character on the screen at the same time is a privilege. A privilege that Becket uses wonderfully, since most of the time, it is content (and rightfully so) to let its main actors do their thing. O’Toole gives one of his theatrical and charismatic performances as Henry, and Richard Burton is a cold-stone counterpart as Becket. Also, talk about homoerotic subtext in a movie about a King feeling betrayed by his best friend that includes a scene in which they ride their horses towards each other on a Norman beach, but that is a subject for a whole other conversation. If Becket isn’t extraordinary, it is certainly worth watching thanks to the talented actors that built such a strong relationship between these powerful men.

Dr Strangelove 64

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Moving on to the next nominee, it’s come time to make a confession. I don’t love Stanley Kubrick. It’s not that I don’t admire his work, but that I just don’t seem to love his movies. And so it goes that when it comes to Dr. Strangelove, I admire and respect it much more than I outright love it. The idea that Kubrick looked at the threat of nuclear annihilation and thought the only way to address it in a movie was to make a ridiculous comedy is delightful to me. It’s simply a genius idea. However, there are long passages of the movie that I just don’t find very funny. Some of it is more weird than amusing, and it’s precisely this inherent weirdness that makes me like it no matter what problems I may have with the film (which I have to say are not big problems). Just the fact that the movie exists is worthy of praise, that it managed to be nominated for Best Picture, is almost a miracle.

Mary-Poppins-64

Mary Poppins
This is the moment in which I say how Mary Poppins is an amazing movie. This is not only nostalgia or childhood affinity speaking (although there might be some of that). Disney’s Mary Poppins is a masterpiece of family entertainment, an incredibly innovative movie and a fantastic musical. Julie Andrews has never been better. I love almost everything about it. I even find Dick Van Dyke’s ridiculous accent endearing. Looking back on 1964, I guess Mary Poppins might have been the most likely competitor to take the top Oscar from My Fair Lady. It received thirteen nominations, a distinction that it shared with only three other movies at the time, and I think it was the fact that it was a kids movie that kept it from winning, even if it was the superior nominee.

However, I can’t say Mary Poppins has gone unrewarded. It did win a number of Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Original Score, Original Song (for the Sherman brothers’ “Chim Chim Cher-ee”) and Visual Effects. Also, it has lived on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time and a true classic. One aspect that I wish had been rewarded in its time, though, is David Tomlinson’s performance as Mr. Banks. I think he shouldn’t only have nominated, but won the award for Supporting Actor. Everyone who’s seen the movie knows that the true heart and soul of Mary Poppins is Mr. Banks. Hell, Disney has even made a whole movie about that character’s importance!

Zorba 64

Zorba the Greek
Finally, we get to the last of the nominees, Zorba the Greek, and let me tell you this one of those cases where last does equal least. In case you are not familiar with the movie, it’s the story of a stuffy englishman (Alan Bates) who travels to Crete and finds a magical man named Zorba (Anthony Quinn), who in his peculiar way of living teaches him to live life to the fullest. It’s a narrative type that I just can’t get behind. Like an earlier version of Life is Beautiful or Dead Poets Society, I find Quinn’s performance irritating and the script even more so. Every single one of his lines feel so precious and forcefully cute. But hey, there’s that wonderful score, so something good came out of this movie.

Overlooked movies?
The conversation about all these movies aside, there’s something I have to say: if someone asks you what the best movie released in 1964 is, there is only one right answer, and it is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of CherbourgThere’s a caveat, though, and it’s that the movie wasn’t really eligible for the Academy Awards until 1965, so it technically couldn’t have been nominated. Still, now you know what to answer if someone makes you such a question, and if you haven’t seen it, then what are you waiting for to relish in this musical masterpiece?

Did the Academy make the right choice?
Maybe I’m being a little too hard on My Fair Lady? Well, even then, there’s no question they didn’t make the right choice. George Cukor, who directed the film, had made some amazing work throughout his career (The Philadelphia Storyfor example), so it’s nice that he got some Oscar recognition for his talent. At the same time, though, I could easily call My Fair Lady the least of the nominees (if it weren’t for Zorba putting up such a great fight for that title). Most cinephiles would instantly say Dr. Strangelove should have won this, and it would be nice for such a bizarre movie to be a Best Picture winner, but I have to admit my heart belongs to Mary Poppins in this battle. Call me out as a shameless Disney fan, but I think something really fantastic is going on in that movie. It belongs alongside The Wizard of Oz not only as one of the best family movies, but one of the best movies ever made period.

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’: Because Nothing Says Christmas Like Snorting Coke Off a Woman’s Ass

Wolf of Wall Street

There is no question Martin Scorsese is one of the best filmmakers that ever lived, and because we know this, we go into his movies assuming he’s got something special to say. Granted, he does have something to say in all his films, but I we might be cutting him too much slack. I remember the passionate reaction to Hugo, a movie that does have a sweet and heartfelt message, but whose first half is dull and dispassionate. It seems to me like the same thing is going on with The Wolf of Wall Street. People are raving like crazy about it, calling it a masterpiece and one of Scorsese’s best. Now, there’s some good stuff to be found in The Wolf of Wall Street, but I wouldn’t call it a great film.

The plot of the movie isn’t really important. It’s basically Goodfellas set in the world of Wall Street. Leonardo DiCpario stars, in his fifth collaboration with Scorsese, as real-life broker Jordan Bellfort, a young man who dreams of making it big in the financial world, gets corrupted reasonably early and becomes a rich son of a bitch. After Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby and now this movie, Leonardo DiCaprio seems to have moved on from his “guy who has a death wife” phase and gotten really into playing petty characters that are obsessed with money and power. I certainly don’t mind, since he is much, much better at playing these kinds of characters. His performance in Wolf of Wall Street is probably the best work he’s done since Catch Me If You Can (which I still think is his best work). Apparently DiCaprio is the one who approached Scorsese with Bellfort’s story, and judging from the level of commitment in his performance, I believe him. Perhaps the single best moment of acting DiCaprio has ever done comes midway through the film, in a scene that takes place late at night at a country club which I’ll only refer to as the “lemmons” scene for those who don’t want to be spoiled. It is one of the best comedic scenes of the year and it all hinges on Leo’s talent.

The movie is a comedy, and it is never better than when it goes all in on being as absurd and over-the-top as it can. A lot of the comedy lies on Jonah Hill, who plays Bellfort’s main business partner, but Scorsese has wisely assembled a talented cast full of funny people. A great example of this is an early scene in which Matthew McConaughey gives a speech that rivals James Franco’s Spring Breakers monologue in insane hilarity. The movie uses its comedy to be a sort of expose on the depraved and morally sickening world of Wall Street. There are more bare breasts and cocaine than you’ll want to see, and in its immature frat-boy style of humor, it ends up having a much more realistic and mature look at the world of New York’s financial district than something like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and especially more than its atrocious sequel.

Some people, as it always happens with a movie like this, have complained that the movie glorifies the debauchery of this outrageous lifestyle. After watching it, though, it seems obvious to me that the film’s main purpose is to condemn this behavior, but I do think it’s interesting to question its ways. This is not really a satire, since the things that go on in the movie are lifted from the memoir of the real life protagonist. This shit really went down, and the fact that it is so absurd and stupid makes me all the more enraged about the whole stoke exchange system and the crooks that get rich off of it. Is this reaction what DiCaprio and Scorsese were going for? What about the author? Like i said, the movie is based on Bellfort’s memoir, and the man even makes a short cameo appearance in the movie. What does this tell us about the movie’s views? On the same note, I want to point out to the movie’s last scene involving an FBI agent played by Kyle Chandler. What is that scene trying to tell me?

Those are a couple of elements that I can’t fully figure out yet. This is not a problem, though. If anything, this kind of moral ambiguity makes the film richer and more fun to think about. What’s also interesting is that this makes it three movies that have come out this year and are basically period pieces about people trying to make it big in America through criminal activity. The others being David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Michael Bay’s Pain & GainNow, of the three, I think the most interesting is Pain & Gain, thanks to its idiosyncratic and sickening point of view. For all its commitment, I think the people that made The Wolf of Wall Street are still a little too detached from the material. It works, but there is something missing. With movies like Pain & Gain or Spring Breakes dering to go deep into a nightmarish perspective, something like The Wolf of Wall Street feels cold and detached in comparison. It’s funny and gets the job done, but it’s just not as exciting.

Grade: 6 out of 10

Disney Canon: Tarzan (1999)

Tarzan

Tarzan is widely and popularly considered the last movie of the Disney Renaissance. I actually don’t fully agree with this belief, but I will get more deeply into that argument next week. Right now, let me tell you that it is very easy to see why Tarzan has earned this reputation. For starters, it was a creative and financial success (the biggest hit for the studio since The Lion King) that came right before the decline of the Walt Disney Animation Studio became much more apparent and alarming. Tarzan is also a transitional and revolutionary movie, even if it doesn’t really feel like one. I first saw it when I was about seven years old, and I had absolutely no idea that I would look at it years later and see somewhat of a missing link in animation that is as influenced by what came before it, as it would influence what was to come after. Tarzan is the last movie that has the spirit of the Disney Renaissance while being a beast all its own.

Tarzan featured revolutionary elements to the history of animation in two fronts. On the technological side, it was the first movie to feature a new development called “Deep Canvas Technology”. This was probably the most significant development for the evolution of 2D animated movies since the introduction of CAPS (which I wrote about in the post on The Rescuers Down Under). Deep Canvas not only creates 3D environments that allow for what I will refer as “camera movement” for the lack of a better word, but it also allows the animators to design and color these images as if they were hand-painted. The results are 3D environments that actually look like the hand-painted backgrounds of a 2D animated movie unlike the flat and clashing creations of CAPS. The technology is a little hard to describe, so here’s a video that will give you an idea of what I’m talking about…

Now, if you’ve seen Tarzan, you will know that the Deep Canvas looks great. A fact all the more impressive when you consider that this was the first time that this technology was ever used. That the animators managed to do shots as beautiful and precise as those in which Tarzan slides around the tree branches as the one above using what was at that point completely unfamiliar technology is one of the biggest feats of animation I can think about. There is no denying Tarzans beauty, and this was only the beginning of Deep Canvas. Or so it seemed. As I’m sure you’re aware, 2D animation would only grow smaller in popularity, to the point where Disney stopped producing hand-drawn animation all together. This is one of the most shameful and tragic developments animation (and cinema as a whole) experienced in the last decade, although it seems like things might start to look up after the success of the 2D-3D hybrid short Paperman and the rumors that their upcoming movie Moana will use a similar style of animation.

However, this is not the moment or place to talk about the future of traditional animation, although it is a good way to segue into the other “revolutionary” aspect about Tarzan. I put quotation marks around the word because this is not as revolutionary an aspect as it is a reactionary one. Perhaps the most important development to the animation landscape in the 1990s, even more than Disney’s newfound glory, was the unprecedented success experienced by a company named Pixar. In 1995, Toy Story, the first 100% 3D animated movie, not only outgrossed Disney’s Pocahontasbut became the highest grossing movie of the year period. Because of the slow pace of production for animated films, Tarzan started production right after the gigantic success of The Lion King and Toy Story, and it feels very much like a hunt to capture what made those two movies so huge.

It seem like the lesson Disney took from that pair of movies is that what made them successful was that they were both “boy” movies. This signals a very significant, and quite frankly deadly, shift in Disney’s focus. This is when the movie started to try and go after the “teen boy” demographic that movie studios have come to believe is the only one that can turn a movie into a success. That’s why we have a male protagonist, a lot of action sequences, and those moments I mentioned in which Tarzan slides on tree branches that, not for nothing, look rather similar to skateboarding. Even more significantly, though, Tarzan is the first movie in almost a decade to break with the musical structure that had brought Disney back to the top. If characters sing in Tarzan, and they do very few times, it comes in natural moments in which it would be logical for them to do so. They never suddenly break into song to belt out their feelings.

Most of the songs, and this another lesson lifted from The Lion King, are sung off-screen by Phil Collins (who was also responsible of writing them). Now, I know that it is highly uncool to like Phil Collins, and it’s true that the lyrics to the songs in this movie are mostly very sappy, but the man knows how to create a good melody. Maybe it’s the fact that I kind of grew up watching the movie, but even if I prefer the more traditional musical approach in Disney movies, I think Collins’ songs are, for the most part, very effective. If you think I’m crazy for saying this, then you must re-watch the opening moments of Tarzan, set to the song “Two Worlds”, which yes, has corny lyrics, but scores what ends up being a highly effective silent prologue.

That musical sequence leads to gorilla Kala (Glenn Close) to meet baby Tarzan and become his adoptive mother after an attack by evil leopard Sabor, which is rather fantastic and probably the best and most inventive amongst the film’s numerous action sequences.

Even if there are formal differences, this sets up a very Disney-like story. Tarzan grows up amongst apes feeling like an outcast to later find out that there are other creatures like him and fall in love with one of them. Tarzan deals mainly with themes of family and belonging, which are peculiarly scarce in Disney movies. The Jungle Book is the one movie that I can think has similar themes, and its message seems to be a very traditional one of “to each his own”. Tarzan goes beyond, and becomes the first Disney movie to deal seriously and complexly with the concept of adoption. Rather surprising for a company so fond of orphan protagonists, isn’t it?

I’ll go back to the movie’s treatment of these themes in a second. First, I want to talk a little bit about the aspects that don’t work so well. The big one, at least for me, is the humor. Although I have to say humor with an asterisk, because some of the humor in the movie works really well (more about it later). Here I’m referring to the supporting comic-relief characters, more specifically gorilla Terk (Rosie O’Donell) and elephant Tantor (Wayne Knight), which work much better in their poignant emotional moments towards the end of the movie than in what are supposed to be their funny scenes. Another weak spot is in the villain front. Gorilla Kerchak is the most menacing personality, although he is a distant father figure and not much of a villain. The real baddies are Sabor, who doesn’t have a personality and is dispatched midway through the movie, and Clayton, the evil english hunter, who ends up being the big antagonist, but is not that memorable or menacing for most of the movie. He is more despicable and unlikable than he is evil and fearful.

With those quibbles out of the way, I have to say that the rest of Tarzan works very well. Tarzan himself, like most of Disney’s male heroes, doesn’t feature much personality, but the fact that he is an ape-man lets him move in a way that goes a long way to make him more relatable and interesting. It also helps that he falls in love with one of the best Disney characters of the era. Jane, as voiced by Minnie Driver, is a wonder of characterization and comedic timing. She is a victorian delight that sells the whole romantic angle. Also like The Lion King, some of Tarzan’s most powerful moments come from its visuals, particularly Tarzan putting his hand against his mother’s and later Jane’s, which pays off big time in the movie’s emotional climax. 

It is rather beautiful and satisfying that the romantic relationship in Tarzan ends up feeding its central theme so perfectly. The story of Tarzan and Jane is as much about creating and working towards building a family than the story about Tarzan being part of the Gorilla community. It also echoes charmingly with the opening moments in which Tarzan’s biological parents come out of a shipwreck to build their new home in the African shore. Tarzan is a lovely movie, and by all counts the last exhibit of the kind of storytelling that made Disney’s work so successful and powerful throughout the nineties.

Next Week: Fantasia 2000

Her (Review)

Her

High concept movies don’t often work, but if there was a director that I would have trusted to make a movie about a solitary man who falls in love with his cellphone into something more than just gimmick, Spike Jonze might as well have been him. Jonze’s first movie Being John Malkovich, in which a mystical portal that leads to actor John Malkovich’s mind is discovered used a similarly novel device to delve into deeply human drama. That time, Jonze was collaborating with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. I always thought of Jonze as a much more emotional and raw force that balanced Kaufman’s more cerebral stories, and Her, which has Jonze writing a screenplay on his own for the first time seems to validate that thought.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a man whose marriage has recently dissolved and is about to get officially divorced. He is lonely and deeply saddened by his situation, so he tries out this new Operating System that uses advance artificial intelligence that manifests itself in the form of a female voice, which gives herself the name of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Theodore falls in love with Samantha. That is the very premise of the movie, and also the aspect one feels couldn’t work going into it. Luckily, the movie does a fantastic job of convincing us of how love could blossom in this relationship. Not only how a man could fall in love with a voice, but how that voice could fall in love with the man. I will go right ahead and say the movie’s biggest asset is making the story as much about Theodore as it is about Samantha and her growth as a “being” that longs for knowledge and experience.

Another strength of the movie is that it takes its time to develop the relationship. Phoenix and Johansson both do fantastic jobs of portraying the different moments each character stands in throughout the two’s multiple interactions. Their love for each other develops slowly and rather beautifully, the movie is never better than in the first meeting between the two. This is a key moment on which the whole movie hinges upon. It’s the moment in which we get to believe these two could possibly fall in love. And it works. It works because of the actors, but also because of the meticulous work that has been put into creating a believable world. The film is set sometime in the future, with art direction that could very well belong in our times, but is just a little off. The atmospheric score by Arcade Fire and photography by the great Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) make the movie an absolute beauty to look at.

The movie works. I couldn’t possibly say that it doesn’t, but at the same time there is something that keeps it from being outright great, even if it comes really close at times. One would expect such a movie to be about how we don’t connect with each other anymore, but it isn’t about that. In the end, the movie is about a relationship that doesn’t quite work. About a man who is trying to get over his failed marriage and a woman who has been designed in a way that she just can’t settle for his love. If this movie says something about our lives today, the state of modern technology, or modern romance, then I don’t know what that is. Samantha is unlike any kind of technology we are familiar with, so there is not much social commentary. Not that it needs to have some, the movie can be a love story and be left at that, but as such, it lives and dies by its clever conceit, and so, even when Her works, it feels more like dessert and not so much like something nutritious.

Grade: 7 out of 10

Disney Canon: Mulan (1998)

Mulan1

This is what I was hoping for when I started this Disney Canon project. It happened when I reviewed One Hundred and One Dalmatiansand it has happened again with Mulan; a movie that I remembered being just fine gained a whole new level of appreciation. Mulan is awesome, and I am kind of pissed off there aren’t enough people singing its praises. I know they aren’t, because how else did it take me so long to re-watch and be able to admire this movie’s greatness. Mulan now stands out as the by-far superior movie in the latter half of the Disney Renaissance, which is to say the best movie to come out after the ridiculous success of The Lion King, but before the studio started to really have difficulties selling their movies in the early part of the new millennium.

Although people don’t talk much about this, the movie is one of Disney’s most ambitious, when you consider it was based on a Chinese folk tale that was virtually unknown in the west. Knowing as much as I do (which is rather little) about the source material, this seems to me as a far more appropriate story for the Disney model than, say, The Hunchback of Notre DameThe premise of a woman dressing up as a man in order to find a way to honor her family while saving China from a Hun invasion in the process lends it self surprisingly well to the kind of “I Want” narrative that worked so well for the The Little MermaidMulan’s internal struggle, like Ariel’s, is one of identity, and one that can be pretty perfectly expressed in a song, as she does in “Reflection”.

Film critic Tasha Robinson pointed out in her review of Frozen, that starting in the late eighties, every Disney movie seems to be a response to a criticism received by the studio. That is one fantastic thesis as far as theses about the Walt Disney Company goes, and one that is never more apparent than in the studio’s princesses movies, and Mulan in particular. Following on the footsteps of Belle, Mulan is the ultimate Disney response to the claim that their princesses are anti-feminist role models. Mulan’s whole quest comes out of the fact that she can’t behave in the expected feminine patterns that would allow her to gain a husband and bring honor to her family. There is no question the guys at Disney wanted to make a feminist movie. Not only does Mulan kick ass and becomes the very best soldier once she joins the army, but the movie wisely focuses above all in her personal journey and not so much in a romantic subplot.

The fact that it doesn’t focus on romance, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a love interest for our heroine. One of the criticisms against Mulan is that once she has saved the whole empire, her final success is that Captain Li Shang has fallen in love with her. I actually find this romance to be handled in a gloriously delicate way. There is no love song, and the characters never kiss, the relationship is as much about respect for one another than about physical beauty or any kind of superfluous charm, which I find to be very appropriate for a movie that tries to speak to nineties girrrl power. And, let me tell you, in that front, the movie delivers.

There are obviously things that aren’t great about Mulan. I can personally think of two of them really quickly. The first one is a legitimate concern and is that the villain is kind of dull. Shan Yu is menacing and creepily designed, but we spend very little time with him and we don’t know much about his personality and his motivations beyond he is ruthless and wants to conquer China. It’s not like the movie has time to spare, and while it does a very good job with Mulan’s storyline, I could have appreciated a little more time and effort devoted to fleshing out Shan Yu as a character. The second weakness is only one depending on how you see it, and its name is Eddie Murphy.

Murphy voices Mushu, a small dragon sent by Mulan’s ancestors to help her, and he sounds very much like Eddie Murphy. The producers were clearly going for their most Robin-Williams-in-Aladdin-like gambit, and it does feel like it’s striving to recapture the Williams’ lightning and putting it in Mulan’s bottle. The thing about Mushu is that beyond the whole repetition thing, is that even if you instantly recognize Murphy’s voice as not belonging to the world of the movie, he is pretty funny and does his best to the point where he kinda molds into the movie. The reasons for looking down on Mushu have much more to do with Murphy’s much more talked about job in voicing Donkey in the Shrek movies. Why the Shrek movies caught on as hard as they did, and why Murphy’s work there was praised beyond believe when he did a much more appropriate, and actually better, job in this movie I think I’ll never know.

Even with those flaws, there is a power to Mulan that you only find in the best Disney features. At this point it’s not necessary to say so, but the movie looks beautiful. It’s hard to remember at times that the quality of Disney movies is far superior to anything being done at this time. I just watched a little bit of Quest for Camelot (which came out the same year as Mulan, but was produced by Warner Bros. Animation) and it looked completely hideous in comparison. But not only is Mulan pretty, it also uses its visuals to create character payoffs and advance the plot. I think in particular of a character named Ling, whom we see practicing a martial arts move involving his head, which he ends up using to defend himself in the final battle. There is an attention to detail that simply elevates the quality of the product, and that is something that Disney always understands when it operates at its best.

Similarly to the visual payoffs, the story is also crafted with high detail. I can’t find a better work to describe it than “satisfying”. The character arc of Mulan is echoed by that of Shang in a way that enhances both their stories and makes the development of their relationship very easy to buy. They are both looking for a way to follow in their families footsteps and honor their ancestors, which I find a very nice way to handle an aspect of Chinese culture and making it relatable to western audiences while still respecting it. This is a very finely crafted film, from the story to the visuals and the music (which I haven’t talked about, but the score by Jerry Goldsmith and the songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel are all great), and the result is a movie that works its way to earning its emotional climaxes. The final encounter between Mulan and her dad, for example, is beautiful. An even better example comes during the musical number “A Girl Worth Fighting For”, which is very much a show-stopping happy fantasy that is suddenly cut by the destruction left behind by the Hun army in the movie’s best gut-punching moment.

The big theme for Disney in the Renaissance period seems to be identity. Most of the protagonists in these movies have a yearning to look for the ways in which they can freely be what they are inside. Ariel’s longing for a live outside the ocean, the Beast’s romantic return to a kind hearted self, and Simba’s identity as the true king all echo the same idea. Mulan follows in those footsteps and connects with its audience, but also does something quite important in diminishing traditional and limiting gender roles. If you want to see Mulan as a desperate attempt on Disney’s part to finally create a feminist heroine, then you have to admit they did their job quite well. Mulan is a great movie that deserves to be seen by all children and rediscovered by adults.

Next Time: The Lion King was originally titled King of the Jungle, but Lions live in the Savannah, so you might as well apply that title to Disney’s next feature: Tarzan.