Coen Brothers, Where Art Thou?

sullivans travels
Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in ‘Sullivan’s Travels’

Watching Sullivan’s Travels for the first time last night turned my brain into a pretzel. I spent the night trying to reconcile what seemed like an overly simplistic ending to what was an otherwise razor-sharp satire. Eventually, by thinking of the movie through the lens of the Coen brothers – who were famously and notably influenced by the movie, and whose work I am more familiar with – I started to figure things out.

Written and directed by Preston SturgesSullivan’s Travels tells the story of John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), a successful Hollywood director (who like his creator) is known for comedies but dreams of making a socially relevant drama. The studio, horrified at the idea, suggests Sullivan has never known true hardship and is thus unfit for the job. Instead of recognizing his privilege, Sullivan comes up with a plan: he will dress up as a hobo, travel the country pretending to live in poverty, and then he’ll be able to deliver a movie that speaks to what is truly important in the world (“with a little sex in it,” of course). Sullivan’s Travels is as efficient a Hollywood satire as they come, full of sly dialogue delivered in the fast-paced, “rat-a-tat” style of the best screwball comedies of the thirties and forties… At least until the movie reaches its second half.

In an impressive attempt at “having its cake and eating it, too” the movie transforms into its own version of the social relevant dramas its protagonist dreams of making. Through a series of misfortunes, Sullivan ends up a prisoner in a chain gang sentenced to six years of forced labor. In the movie’s most significant scene, we cut to a small rural church where a black congregation welcomes the prisoners for their post-service entertainment: a screening of a Mickey Mouse short. The moment in which the chain gang walks into the church and the congregation sings “let my people go” skirts tastelessness in its appropriation of black gospel in a movie about a white protagonist, while also making a clear-eyed connection between forced prison labor and black struggle. In any case, as the weary Sullivan sits in the dark watching Pluto and Mickey, the whole room laughs hysterically around him, and eventually, he does too. By the time he comes back to Hollywood, he has abandoned the idea of making lofty pictures. He’s going back to comedy, explaining to the studio heads: “Don’t you see that’s all some people have?”

It’s a dissatisfying ending if taken at face value. The idea that the best thing an aggressively rich man (and the movie takes pain to show how rich Sullivan is) can do for poor people is to make them laugh is rather obscene. It glamorizes poverty by turning the struggle of the working class into noble melodrama. And yet, I think about the last moments in the movie – when the screen is filled up by disembodied heads who hover like haunting ghosts and laugh hysterically – and find them to tell a somewhat different story. This montage ends in the incongruous image of the movie’s main romantic pairing: played by McCrea and the impossibly glamorous Veronica Lake.  These heads are not like the others. These two aren’t regular people, they’re movie stars, and they open the movie up to the idea that Sullivan’s epiphany is as misguided as his initial quest. But since Preston Sturges was rich, conservative and as far as I can tell had no interest in social causes, maybe we should take him at face value?

Sullivan’s Travels is often talked about as an influence on the Coen brothers’ musical comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which is the title of the “important” movie Sullivan wants to make). Despite the obvious reference, I see a much closer resemblance to Sullivan’s in two other Coen movies. The first is Barton Finkabout a socially conscious playwright who comes to Hollywood to try (and fail) to write for a big studio. The big irony is that the playwright, who keeps insisting his work tells the unheard stories of the common man, refuses to listen to the common man who lives next door. The movie presents Hollywood as a living hell, incapable of producing anything truly good or worthy. It feels like a recapitulation of Sullivan’s ending, and the myopia of its protagonist’s conclusion. The message is deeply cynical: “good” movies do not exist, you cannot change the world through art, and especially not within the Hollywood system. Movies are coping mechanisms, distractions, and whatever political action people need is sure as hell not going to come in the form of a film.

Whether this realization justifies a nihilistic career of making unimportant Hollywood product is a question that the Coens grapple with in Hail, Caesar!, where a Catholic studio fixer feels extreme guilt for making a living not only out of covering celebrity scandals, but out of making amoral movies. Just like Sullivan, he dreams of making an important picture – a Biblical epic about the life of Jesus Christ. Through comedic contrivance, the movie attempts to reconcile the morality of making a living out of something you’re good at, if said something isn’t particularly good for humanity. This brings further questions, like “Does there have to be a point to art?” or “Is some art more deserving of existence than other art?” Neither are questions that can be fully answered, just like it is impossible to truly know what Sturges was trying to communicate in his movie. For me, the fact that Sullivan’s Travels can both satirize the intentions of well meaning Hollywood elites and present earnest, socially aware scenes like the one in the black church creates its own kind of value.

The Greatest Puzzle Never Solved: A Review of the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!

hail caesar review

The most common criticism leveled against Hail, Caesar! is that this existential Hollywood comedy by Joel and Ethan Coen is a movie that doesn’t quite come together. The Coens get this kind of criticism all the time, including the first time they decided to set one of their movies in Hollywood. Winner of the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Barton Finkstill one of their best movies- turned what started as a fairly realistic story of a playwright-turned-screenwriter into a darkly surreal comedy, and later, into an outright nightmare. Perhaps the people who were put off by Fink’s dreamlike descent into hell are the same people who can’t find thematic cohesion beyond Caesar’s seemingly incoherent detours.

The more movies the Coens make, the clearer it becomes that they are deeply interested in cosmology. Over and over again, they ask the same question: is there any rhyme or reason to this world? The characters at the center of these movies rarely find a satisfying answer to this question, but the brothers -and their fans- always come back for more. Perhaps because, much like a Coen protagonist, we are all trying to find the right way to live.

These repeatedly unanswered quests can seem like a sick joke. The Coens are so precise and exacting in the details of their filmmaking, that their movies often feel like perfectly crafted puzzles that for some bizarre reason, cannot be solved. In fact, Hail, Caesar! features this very same metaphor in a scene where two writers are about to finish a puzzle only to discover that the last piece, inexplicably, doesn’t fit. How could it not fit, if it’s the only piece left? Just when you think you’ve understood everything there is to understand, an even bigger question appears.

The man searching answers this time around is played by Josh Brolin, and his name is Eddie Mannix, the chief of “physical production” at the fictional Capitol Pictures. The character is based on a real man of the same name, who by most accounts was a ruthless fixer who worked for MGM and would do anything in his power to keep the studio and its stars’ images clean. Unlike the real-life Mannix, Brolin’s character is a deeply religious man with a moral dilemma. Eddie loves his job, and he loves the movies, but how do frivolous entertainments fit into the world’s cosmology?

Perhaps Eddie can find some moral appeasement in Capitol Pictures’s biggest production: “Hail, Caesar!”, a Biblical epic about a Roman soldier who turns his life around after encountering Jesus Christ. This movie seems to be Eddie’s way of making it right by the Almighty. He is so concerned with the respectability of his movie that he assembles a panel of religious leaders and asks them to find any moral objections to the movie’s depiction of God and Jesus. A priest, a pastor, and a rabbi all walk into the room, but no one is as concerned with doing God justice as Eddie.

That Eddie finds time to go to confession and consider the moral implications of his own life is impressive considering the amount of actors, directors, and gossip columnists he has to deal with on a daily basis. If that weren’t enough, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), Capitol’s biggest star and the protagonist of “Hail, Caesar”, is nowhere to be found. Turns out he’s been kidnapped by a group of communist writers that call themselves The Future. The clueless Whitlock bumbles into a room full of communists and is quickly mesmerized by their rhetoric. He too is “for the common man”. What are these communist after? Money, of course.

One would surely describe this as a particularly challenging day in Eddie’s career, but as far as dealing with kidnapped celebrities is concerned, Mannix is on top of his game. Everything that has to do with keeping the studio afloat, he can handle in his sleep. It’s the moral implications of being part of such a frivolous and seemingly decadent industry that haunt him. The stakes of Hail, Caesar! do not revolve around rescuing Whitlock and keeping the Studio afloat, but around Eddie’s salvation. Midway through the film he is offered a job at Lockheed Martin, a “real” job, he is assured. A job that matters.

Behind the bells and whistles of a comedy that finds ample time to let the audience glimpse Capitol Pictures’s many productions -including westerns, melodramas, and musicals- lies a very personal movie. Eddie Mannix’s search to find value in his life can be interpreted as a representation of the Coens’ own struggles with their art. After mocking all ideologies, particularly communism and religion, the Coens find salvation in the frivolous pleasures of the movies. Film critic David Ehrlich is right on the money when he compares Hail, Caesar! to The Grand Budapest HotelBoth movies argue for art’s value, but where Budapest is madcap and propulsive, Caesar is eerie and disconcerting.

The most effective way in which Hail, Caesar! argues for the movies are its own superficial pleasures. What we see of the movies being produced at Capitol Pictures isn’t very profound -and often dumb and ridiculous- but it’s also incredibly enjoyable. The most impressive of these moments is a song-and-dance sequence featuring Channing Tatum in a sailor uniform that could be described as overlong and self-indulgent if it weren’t so delightful. Tatum, once again, proves that he is this generation’s closest equivalent to Gene Kelly; and the Coens, that they understand that movies are, above all, entertainment.

The magic of the movies is on full display in Hail, Caesar! I was particularly impressed by how the amount of showmanship to the performances, and the role of physicality in impressing the audience. One forgets about the possibility that some of the feats in the movie could’ve been achieved with the help of computers because watching Tatum tap-dance is as transfixing as a live circus act. It’s also impressive when simpleton cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich in the movie’s standout performance) does lasso tricks with spaghetti, and when sexy Carlotta Valdez (Veronica Osorio) demonstrates the trick to dancing with “so much fruit on her head”.

If there are any weaknesses to Hail, Caesar!, they probably have to do with its rather abrupt ending and the often bizarre rhythms of its pacing. At the same time, the bizarre nature of the movie could mean that those qualities are perfectly intentional. The movie is packed with characters, stories, detours, and plot developments that, at first glance, have little to do with each other. Upon further inspection, they might still not make sense. Like most of the Coens’ movies, not all the pieces might fit in this puzzle. But by the time Eddie Mannix finds value in the trivial product he helps produce, the audience has found value in the movie’s own superficial pleasures.

Grade: 9 out of 10

2016 Movie Preview

hail caesar preview

January is hard for moviegoers who’ve already caught up with most of the late-year Oscar nominees. But while the world sees The Force Awakens again, and I watch World of Tomorrow on a loop (now available on Netflix!), let us take a look at the movies we’ll be seeing later in this great and promising year of 2016.

The Five Movies I Can’t Wait to See: 

Hail, Caesar! – I put this movie on my “Most Excited”list last year, saying I wasn’t sure it would actually come out in 2015, and here we are. The Coen Brothers’ latest will have its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. I don’t know what to say about this one. I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, the trailer makes it look awesome, and the cast (including Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum) is full of great actors. (February 5)

Kubo and the Two Strings – Just the fact that Laika made ParaNoman, a strong contender for the best animated movie of the past ten years, is enough to get me excited for whatever they do next. The gorgeous-looking trailer I saw before The Force Awakens is only icing on the anticipation cake. (August 19)

Moana – You know I’m a Disney buff. Frozen was a mega-hit, but this is the moment of truth. The first female-led/princess animated Disney movie in a post-Frozen world. The Polynesian setting and the involvement of Ron Clements and John Musker (two of Disney’s finest) has me very excited. (November 26)

How to Talk to Girls at PartiesThis is a movie about boys trying to pick up alien girls. This is a movie that stars Nicole Kidman. This is a movie based on a Neil Gaiman short story. This will be the first movie directed by John Cameron Mitchell in six years. His debut feature, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is one of the movies that turned me into a cinephile. I can’t wait. (Release Date TBD)

ZamaLucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga is one of the most significant and groundbreaking South American movies of the last twenty years. Eight years after her last movie, she returns with this epic literary adaptation, based on the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto and produced by Pedro Almodovar, Zama is one of the largest Latin American productions ever made. Here’s hoping it’s also a great film. (Release Date TBD)

Last Year’s Movies That Will Be Released in 2016 (And I’m Most Excited For):

The WitchGood horror movies are hard to come by, and the reaction from last year’s Sundance spell out good things for this “New Englang Folk-Tale”. Plus, the trailer already looks creepy as hell. (February 26)

The Lobster – I already saw Yorgos Lanthimos’s English-language debut at the New York Film Festival, but if I’m being honest, I’m looking forward to watching it again more than I am looking forward to most films coming out this year. (March 11)

Green Room – A punk band is held hostage by a group of violent skinheads in this independent thriller. The big selling point for me here is director Jeremy Saulnier, who made my Best of 2014 list with Blue Ruin. (April 1)

A Bigger Splash – Tilda Switon. Ralph Fiennes. Dakota Johnson. I love all of them. Throw in Matthias Shoenaerts, who whatever is a fine actor, and director Luca Guadagnino, who has already proven to have a stylish and sumptuous eye in I Am LoveI’m in. (May 13)

Maggie’s Plan – One of the movies I regret not being able to catch at the New York Film Festival, Rebecca Miller’s romantic comedy stars Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore, all great actors currently doing some of the best work of their careers. (May 20)

Movies I’m Cautiously Optimistic About:

Everybody Wants Some Richard Linklater often makes great movies. Before Midnight and Boyhood were both among my favorites of their respective years, but he also sometimes make merely ok movies. The trailer for this spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused makes me think it could go either way. (April 15) 

The BFG – If Lincoln and Bridge of Spies are any indication, Steven Spielberg is still going strong. This year will see Spielberg go back to family entertainment with an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel about a big friendly giant. Here’s hoping this is an E.T. and not a Hook. (July 1)

La La LandThe first (and only) image released so far makes this look like a classic Hollywood musical. I love classic Hollywood musicals. I also loved when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone played lovers in Crazy, Stupid, Love. I’m hoping this will be great, even if I wasn’t crazy about director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. (July 15)

Julieta It’s always worth it to get excited about a new Pedro Almodovar movie. He’s been hit and miss recently. I’m nervous because his last movie, I’m So Excited!was one of his weakest, but even that was still pretty fun. (Release Date TBD)

The Lost City of ZJames Gray is a director best known for making social realistic dramas like Two Loversand melodramatic period pieces like The Immigrant. His next movie is an adventure about a 1925 expedition to find a lost city in the Amazon. Sounds unusual, and ambitious, and it has my attention. (Release Date TBD)

2015 Movie Preview

Carol2015Preview

I’m not done looking back at the movies of 2014 just yet, but today, I can’t help but wanting to sneak a peek into the movies that are coming down the road. What cinematic adventures will 2015 hold for us? Well, let’s se…

The 5 Movies I’m Most Excited About:

Carol – For his first theatrical feature since I’m Not There, director Todd Haynes adapts Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, a lesbian love story set in the 1950s. The amazing cast includes Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, and Carrie Brownstein. The only way I could be more excited for the next movie by the director of Safe and Far From Heaven would be if Julianne Moore were starring in it (here’s hoping she makes a cameo appearance!) 

Hail, Caesar! – I’m skeptical on whether or not the Coen Brothers’ next movie will actually be released in 2015. IMDb has February 5, 2016 as its release date, which makes me think it will probably premiere at Cannes or Venice, and will get an Oscar-qualifying run at the end of the year. It really doesn’t matter when it’s released, there is no way I’m not seeing a Coen Brothers movie. This one is supposed to be a comedy about a “fixer” in 1950s Hollywood. The cast includes Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Ralph Fiennes, and Josh Brolin, so…

TomorrowlandSo far, director Brad Bird has directed three animated classics (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille), and his live action debut resulted in one of the best action movies of the decade (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). His new movie is a science fiction adventure inspired by the futuristic section of Disneyland. Seems like Hollywood might be giving me a present, because the movie opens May 22, a day after my birthday.

That’s What I’m Talking About – There is little known about this movie besides the fact that it is a spiritual sequel to Dazed and ConfusedIt doesn’t matter, after Before Midnight and BoyhoodI will follow Richard Linklater wherever he’s going.

Queen of the Desert – After years of hearing about Werner Herzog’s next project, this is supposed to be playing at the Berlin Film Festival! It’s a movie about the life of Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman. It also features Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence, but the thing I’m really excited about is Herzog returning to narrative features.

Last Year’s Movies That Will Be Released in 2015 (and I’m Most Excited About):

The Look of Silence – Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the magnificent The Act of Killing has been described as sort of a response to that movie, taking a look at the Indonesian genocide from the side of the victims instead of the culprits. It will open in America sometime in July.

Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter – I’ve been waiting for this movie since it premiered almost a year ago at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It stars Rinko Kikuchi as Kumiko, a woman who VHS tape of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and decides to go to Minnesota looking for the movie’s buried treasure. If that doesn’t sound awesome to you, then I don’t think you’re reading the right blog. The wait is over on March 15.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, all that I’m basing this decision is Swedish director Roy Andersson’s particularly off-beat sense of humor. That should be more than enough. No American release date has been announced yet, though.

Clouds of Sils Maria – The one thing that keeps me from being too excited about Sils Maria is that Chloë Moretz is in it… On the other hand, it’s the new movie by French auteur Olivier Assayas, and it stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress, so I’m still very excited. It opens on limited release April 10.

Maps to the Stars – I kind of hated David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolisbut according to the Golden Globes this is supposed to be a comedy -or a satire at the least. There’s no way I won’t see it really, since it stars two of my favorite actresses (Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska).

Movies I’m Cautiously Optimistic About (But Will Definitely See)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – I have grown too cynical to be too excited about the first Star Wars movie in ten years (even if George Lucas is not involved). Still, I must admit the trailer did bring up some awesome childhood memories. I mean, what am I going to do? Not see it?

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Kind of opposite to the Star Wars situation, if I were basing my enthusiasm in the last Avengers movie (and writer-director Joss Whedon’s talent), I should be really excited. The truth is that that last trailer, and the recent streak of underwhelming Marvel movies have me very cautious about what I’m going to see.

Trainwreck – Every single one of Judd Apatow’s movies has been worse than the last, culminating with the atrocious This is 40. Why am I excited about his latest project, then? Well, because it was written by and stars comedian Amy Schumer, who might bring a smarter and fresher take to Apatow’s wandering and self-indulgent style.

Inside Out – After a couple of disappointments, the trailer for Pixar’s newest movie doesn’t look all that promising, but considering the man in charge is Pete Docter (Monster’s Inc, Up), I’m willing to give it a try.

The Hateful Eight – I wasn’t a fan of Django Unchainedso having Tarantino go back and make another western isn’t very exciting to me. Then again, Tarantino is a smart and fun director, so I’m hoping he comes up with something great, and weirdly enough, the fact that Christoph Waltz isn’t in the movie gets a big sigh of relief from me.

Movie I’m Not Excited About

Knight of Cups – Terrence Malick directs a movie that is supposed to put you in the mind of Christian Bale? No thank you…

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. 

Inside Llewyn Davis (Review)

Inside Llewyn Davis

After releasing four films in a row, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen took a three year absence before delivering Inside Llewyn Davis, which is very different from everything they’ve made before, but also, a quintessentially Coen brothers film. One of the signs of cinematic auteurs, I guess. The movie tells the story of the titular character (Oscar Isaac), a musician that is part of the early 1960s Greenwhich Village folk scene, and that seems to be based on Dave Van Ronk. Like Van Ronk, who was essential to the scene, but never really quite became famous, he is a talented man; like many Coens’ protagonists, he doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break. I’ll go right ahead and say I loved Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens might very well be my favorite directors, but I don’t love everything they do. This movie, though, I think it’s one of their best.

As directors, these guys are famous for being meticulous and detail-oriented, and so what I found here was a delicately and flawlessly crafted movie, an incredibly portrait of failure and loneliness. Like I said, Llewyn Davis is a really talented man, with an insanely beautiful voice, but he is also knows how talented he is. He has some pretty bad luck throughout the film, but the image he has of himself ends up making him his own worst enemy. It also makes him a very lonely person. This is going to get a little personal, but I moved to New York not too long ago, and didn’t really know anybody, so I’ve spent some pretty lonely months. There is something about this movie that captures that feeling of being surrounded by people, but still being alone that really resonated with me.

In his  journey, Llewyn is surrounded by colorful characters played by an amazing cast. Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver and F. Murray Abraham, to name a few, are all fantastic. There is also a cart that Llewyn finds himself taking care of early in the movie, and it’s weird to say this, but I think it might be one of the best animal performances. But this is really Oscar Isaac’s movie. He is not only a great singer, but also does an amazing job at playing Llewyn. For being a character that spends so much time silent, or looking out of windows, it’s a very lively performance. People have said he is an unlikable character, and kind of an asshole. He is both, but that is also what I found so endearing about him. He is by no means a boring person to watch, he feels real, and what’s more, he feels appropriate to the movie. I couldn’t picture it with anyone else playing the role in any other way.

Besides being a great portrait of loneliness and failure, Inside Llewyn Davis, is also an incredibly effective portrait of winter in New York. The cinematograhy by Bruno Delbonnel is fantastic. It is incredibly chilly and yet maintains a warm glow. If you watch the trailer for the movie online, the photography might seem a little too processed, but it works beautifully on the big screen. In my opinion, it just looks the way winter feels. And then, there is the music. Frequent Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett is in charge of producing a fantastic score full of beautiful songs sung by very talented people. There is also the “Please Mr. Kennedy” number, which I think you can find online, that is one of the funniest parts of the movie. Oh, that’s right, the movie is hilarious. I feel like this has been a meandering and not very good review, but listen, the movie is great. You should go see it. One of the year’s best. Ok, I’ll stop writing now.

Grade: 10 out of 10