Grant’s Movies of 2013: The Favorites (Pt. 3)

Let’s finish this motherfucker!

All Is Lost

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor

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I wrote a review about this a while back where I detailed writer-director J.C. Chandor’s debut, Margin Call, and the utter 180 in plot and tone his follow-up effort pulled: Robert Redford, in a boat, which is sinking, no dialogue (virtually.) I also mentioned how Redford gave a career-best performance and that Chandor displayed a masterful grasp of his chosen medium. These things still hold true. All Is Lost is a damn fine movie.

Haunting, though. That’s the word that keeps coming to mind. It describes many things in All Is Lost, from Frank G. DeMarco’s photography to Alex Ebert’s Golden Globe-winning score to, yes, Redford’s performance and Chandor’s directing (helped in no small part by Pete Beaudreau’s editing.) But there’s one scene I keep turning over and over in my mind. The opening. Nothing but a shot of the tranquil sea early dawn. And Robert Redford’s narration. Narration. It’s a bold move within an already boldly conceived film. With a premise that puts so much emphasis on visuals and performance, voice-over runs the very real risk of undermining every artistic intention the film sets out with. Telling before any showing has been done. It could, quite frankly, have ruined the movie.

Not like that’s ever happened before…

Not like that’s ever happened before…

But it doesn’t. Instead, the narration elucidates very little. Redford reads aloud a letter that you later see him write, an apology to unknown parties. “I tried,” he says. “I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true. To be strong. To be kind. To love. To be right. But I wasn’t.” Meanwhile, the camera slowly pans to reveal the source of Our Man’s undoing. Or, at least, what has set him adrift. If memory serves, I believe Redford explains in this interview that he interpreted the opening monologue as a poem. Indeed, ‘Poetry’ is the word that comes closest to describing it.

Among film enthusiasts, there has been something of a pissing contest between fans of Gravity and of All Is Lost. It’s hard to ignore Gravity’s technical achievements, which – let’s be honest, greatly outstrip All Is Lost’s, well made as it is – and it certainly offers a more clearly drawn protagonist in Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone than Redford’s anonymous boating enthusiast. Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com has even suggested that there might be some elements of sexism in the mix, Redford still icy cool under relentless pressure while Bullock screams and sobs across the stars. And hey, he may have a point there. Still, I think I enjoyed All Is Lost more for its ambiguities. While Ryan Stone’s tragic backstory certainly provided an easy, effective emotional entryway to her character, and did lead to a couple of touching scenes, I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a necessary addition to the already insane tension of Gravity’s narrative framework, and her tendency of saying everything she was doing out loud as she was doing it smacked to me of a compromise with Hollywood executives, to ensure that the plot and character stayed ‘relatable’ and ‘understandable.’ All Is Lost leaves more to your imagination. And it is better for it.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Screenplay by Terence Winter

Based on the Book by Jordan Belfort

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This movie is three hours long. Within its first five minutes, Leonardo DiCaprio sucks cocaine out of a hooker’s asshole with a straw. Know yourself.

The above paragraph was originally going to be my entire review for The Wolf of Wall Street, and though it’s pithy enough, it actually sort of does the film an injustice since it doesn’t go any way towards explaining why it’s so damn good. First and foremost, there’s the fact that despite being Scorsese’s longest film (by an asshair – Casino clocks in at 179 minutes,) Scorsese has managed the unthinkable – a three-hour black comedy that’s never boring and never stops being funny. (FUN FACT: The original cut of the film was four hours! Scorsese delayed the release of the film to cut it down to its current length.)

And then there’s the revelation of Leo DiCaprio. ‘Revelation’ may sound counterintuitive, since he’s been turning out astounding, captivating work for well over a decade now and was – along with Samuel L. Jackson – unjustly snubbed at last year’s Academy Awards for his turn in Django Unchained. But in this film, shorn of Oscar pretentions (I’m look at you, J. Edgar) and any sort of vanity, he is a force to be reckoned with, tearing through scenes like a whirling dervish of barbed wire; you simply cannot take your eyes off of him. As Jordan Belfort, the former Wall Street stockbroker who defrauded millions of Americans with boiler room penny stocks – he charms, squirms, howls (heh), sweats, screams, snorts, and fucks his way through this film with abandon and – most surprisingly of all – proves himself an adept physical comedian. (Of the films’ many comic highs, a bit where he tries to enter his car while whacked out on Quaaludes is perhaps the most impressive.) He is, of course, aided and abetted by an impressive supporting cast including, but not limited to: Jonah Hill (who truly earns his second Oscar nod), Matthew McConaughey (in essentially a small but wondrous cameo), The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, the always underrated Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne (Bolin from The Legend of Korra!), and, in her breakout role, Margot Robbie as DiCaprio’s supermodel second wife.

(An aside: some have noted the absence of roles of for women in this film beyond being objects for the men to ogle and fuck. I think that though we can all agree that more and quality roles for women performers are very much a good thing, I would argue in this particular case the absence of them is very much the point.)

If you’ve heard of this film, you’ve no doubt heard of the deluge of drugs and sex and, yes, foul language that pervades it, sometimes all at once. If, like me, you are drawn towards ‘challenging’ content, then this shouldn’t really be a barrier to entry for you. Others have expressed their discomfort – in some cases, even outright anger – with Scorsese and DiCaprio making a film about Belfort and his outrageous lifestyle, fearing it to be a celebration rather than a condemnation. I personally don’t see it, since at no point do I believe the film’s portrayal of Belfort and his associates even approaches sympathetic. Sure, there are aspects of their lifestyle that are glamorous; they wouldn’t have done what they did if it wasn’t.  But Scorsese is content to let their actions speak for themselves, and their actions are clearly repugnant. I keep returning to the final shot, which for all the loudness and grandstanding that has preceded it, actually makes it point quite subtly. It’s a quiet yet effective damnation of Belfort, but also of the reason he’s still making money.

Pogo said it best…

Pogo said it best…

It’s maybe the most magnetic film about repellant people since… well, GoodFellas. Scorsese’s got kind of a knack for this thing. You should go see it.

Of course, there’s the sight of a dominatrix pulling a candle out of Leo DiCaprio’s ass and poring the hot wax on his back. Again, know yourself.

Her

Written and Directed by Spike Jonze

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Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a near-future Los Angeles. He has a job that he is quite good at, one which I won’t give away here because its reveal is so, so wonderful. He is also reeling from the divorce of his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), an ongoing process in which he’s been dragging his feet for over a year. Despite support from his married friend, Amy (Amy Adams), and blind dates with improbably gorgeous women (Olivia Wilde,) Theodore still finds himself alone and aches to make a true connection with someone. Anyone. On a whim, he decides to purchase a brand new operating system, one that is artificially intelligent, speaks in a human manner, and can adapt and evolve to new information and interactions. After the setup process asks him a series of personal questions (“How would you describe your relationship with your mother?”), Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is born. And slowly, steadily, surely, they begin to fall in love. Let me be clear, not he begins to fall in love. They.

Spike Jonze, the indie darling behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are (as well as some much-loved music videos and commericals), steps up for his first wholly self-originated project. Unsurprisingly, he knocks the technical aspects out of the park. There is K.K. Barrett’s gorgeous production design, and the hybridization of Los Angeles and Shanghai locations, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s luminous cinematography, that somehow manages to give smog a dreamlike hue. But then there’s the central performances. Joaquin Phoenix astounds again, somehow pulling a 180 from The Master’s terrifyingly unbalanced Freddie Quell – a career best performance – and showing us the shy, soulful, very, very likable Theodore. And then there’s Scarlett Johansson, who despite being present only in voice-over absolutely fills up the room anytime she’s on screen. See what I did there? You don’t see her and yet you do. (To quote another critic, you gotta hand it to a girl who’s so hot she doesn’t need a body.) There is a chemistry between these two actors that simply lights up the screen, a chemistry made all the more amazing when you consider that Johansson was a replacement (Samantha was originally played by Samantha Morton.)

What may most fascinating about Her is how often it doesn’t play by the rules you expect it will. Though the question of how long how a romantic relationship with a piece of software – especially one that’s designed to meet your whims – never really leaves, Her surprised me by making me believe that Samantha was coming into her own person. And that Theodore respected that. And though Samantha clearly possesses many of the hallmarks of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – the stock character free spirit that loves life and shakes up the hero’s dull routine – they’re made more plausible (and bearable) by the fact that Samantha is by her very nature enraptured with the world. And though problems relating to Samantha’s being arise, they’re not the ones you’d expect, but ones that make sense in the world that Jonze has created.

Her certainly had the potential to be a much darker film, especially taking into account the elements of Jonze’s personal life that must have affected the script (he is divorced from Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola.) But instead of bitterness, there is a soft, enveloping warmth and undeniable respect – for all his characters – that courses through this picture. Whether you feel that Theodore and Sam’s relationship is legitimate or not, Her made me believe that they were two people. I suppose the premise of the film might suggest that. And yet they did it, and that’s maybe the most surprising thing of all.

I was enthralled. I was moved. I certainly had a lot to think about afterwards. And if features this pretty fly-ass song.

And I think that’s why it’s my movie of the year.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014)

It’s been over a week, but that hasn’t dulled the loss. They say they go in threes, and, of the more famous ones, he was preceded by Pete Seeger and followed by Shirley Temple. Still this one stood out a little more. His was maybe the most impactful death to me since Roger Ebert’s. Still, in all of these scenarios, he did not have the understandable circumstance of old age.

I remember stepping out of the shower on Superbowl Sunday and getting a text. “Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead,” it said. And for a second I genuinely thought I would cry. And then I didn’t. And then I chastised myself. Why would you cry for this man you didn’t know, I aked? Sure, it’s sad. But talented people die all the time. We get on with our lives. And get on I did. I met my friend for lunch. I watched my first Superbowl. I strained my vocal chords with excitement. I had some badass guacamole. Overall, it was a pretty good day. And yet throughout it, I kept looking up obituaries, tweets, Facebook statuses; outpourings of grief for this unique and prodigious talent and, what seems to be unanimously agreed upon, a gentle soul. I find it funny that the two Facebook statuses I put up that day were an all-lowercase statement of mourning and an all-caps exclamation of hometown pride. It’s weird when those days happen.

He clearly meant something to me. Means. He clearly means something to a lot of us. Many have already expressed their grief with more eloquence than I will do here, but I thought I’d say my small piece, to try and figure out what that meaning, that connection to this man I’ve never met, was.

I think the first time I ever saw Phil Hoffman was in Patch Adams. I was probably eight years old, and I certainly did not know his name. Patch Adams, for those of you who don’t remember, was the Robin Williams comedy-drama ‘Based on a True Story’ about a doctor who shakes up the uptight medical system with his excessive happiness and doing clown routines for cancer-stricken kids. I remember Patch Adams was one of the first movies that moved me to tears, along with the likes of Erin Brockovich and Dead Poets Society, and that taught me what an unbelievable catharsis that could be. That Patch Adams is on that list is something of an embarrassment to me, as the film was maligned, then and now, for being unrelentingly, brazenly emotionally manipulative. But I always remembered Hoffman. He played Mitch, Adams’ stuffy, studious roommate. Y’know, the one who goes by the book until the free spirit’s alternative methods bring him around. It’s the definition of a thankless role. But Hoffman played it earnestly. Not obviously, but earnestly. And when the inevitable confrontation between Mitch and Patch comes, Hoffman screams, “You make my work a joke,” you believe him. Believed. Believe.

I don’t remember the ‘Ah ha!’ moment of learning who Philip Seymour Hoffman was, though it wasn’t until much later. I think it might have been around the time he starred as the villain of Mission: Impossible III (easily the best thing in it) and pulled off his first (and only) Oscar win for the eponymous role in Capote (he would be nominated three more times for Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt, and The Master, respectively.) I can – and have – gone on at length about his excellence in any of these roles. Perhaps the filmmaker who most understood his talents was Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur who paired Hoffman to entirely distinct roles in almost all of his films (the exceptions being There Will Be Blood and the forthcoming Inherent Vice,) shuttling him from his debut cameo as an obnoxious Vegas gambler in Hard Eight to his breakout role as the achingly awkward, repressed Scotty in Boogie Nights. There’s his beautifully understated compassion in Magnolia’s Phil Parma, and his angry, belligerent Dean ‘Mattress Man’ Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love (watching him scream over the phone at Adam Sandler to shut up is one of cinemas’ most underrated comedic gems.) Then there’s The Master’s loquacious, pompous cult leader Lancaster Dodd, whose verbal square-off with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell as he attempts to initiate him through ‘Processing’ was among the most well-written, well-acted scenes of the year, and arguably of movie history.

Hoffman was also, unsurprisingly, prolific in the theater, plying his trade at both performing and directing. He joined the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York, which he later became co-artisitic director of with fellow actor John Ortiz. It was there that he met his longtime romantic partner, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, while directing a production of In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. Hoffman’s Broadway performances garnered him several Tony nominations (for True West, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Death of a Salesman, respectively,) though he directed many, many more.

I know I’ll get the details of this wrong, but one of Hoffman’s early theatrical roles was a collaboration with my parents. Well, one of them at least. In the late 80’s, CARE New York produced “One World Rap,” a school play of sorts designed to educate inner-city youth on the importance of education and the privilege we in the West have over much the developing world. Hoffman – honest to Christ – starred as Robbie, a student with a boombox and a passion for rap who, if my mother is to be believed, repeatedly chants the refrain of “WE!/ALL!/LIVE IN ONE WORLD!!!” I hope someone somewhere has a video of this. If not, I hope somebody somewhere was fired for something.

One of Hoffman’s Off-Broadway productions, Robert Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating, eventually became his only foray into film directing. As Jack, Hoffman also starred as a shy, lonely blue-collar limo driver who enjoys getting high with his only two discernable friends, married couple Cylde (Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and keeps his hair in short, matted dreadlocks. Clyde and Lucy set him up on a blind date with the equally shy, lonely Connie (Amy Ryan), and the film follows their slow, gentle courtship while their friends’ marriage concurrently disintegrates. Hoffman approached the material and his actors – himself included – with an utter lack of vanity. Jack is tired and worn-down and schlubby, and so is Connie. But there is a spark of life within and between them. Though their awkwardness is certainly used for laughs, they are not laughable. Hoffman reveals their layers with an objective realism that belies true warmth and tenderness, as these two come to realize that they are loved and loveable. It is maybe my favorite performance of his.

It may not mean much coming from someone who’s not a professional actor, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was and is an inspiration to me. I remember Jim Carrey was the first celebrity whose name I ever knew, and is still the only whose movies I will see based on his name alone. I remember being in awe of his elasticity, his faces, his voices, the way he contorted his body, how all these reduced me to stitches. I remember how bold and admirable I thought it was that he had this willingness (some might say need) to do anything for a laugh and to throw himself headlong into it, and much to the chagrin of my friends and family, I emulated him religiously. I also remember being inspired by Jack Black in middle school, a man who had the same comedic confidence as Carrey but who was closer to my body type, being moved by a man who shared attributes with me that I was all too painfully aware of and seemed to embrace them, and I, too, emulated him. But as I grew older and more interested in acting beyond being ‘The Funny Guy,’ I looked to Hoffman more and more. Here was a chubby, average-looking man who would not stand out in a crowd. A total dude, if you will. And yet he possessed incredible gifts, presence and range and integrity and who commanded your respect and attention. His filmography is host to a variety of characters performed with incredible honesty. It may sound cheesy, but I honestly find myself, when I am having trouble with a role, wondering, “How would Phil Hoffman do it? How would he look? How would he sound?” Of his performances I have seen, there are a great many that I wish were mine. I know that sounds shallow and vain, but it’s true. He was that fucking good.

Hoffman had a prolific career, and he certainly wasn’t slowing down before he passed. He recently been announced as the star of upcoming Showtime series Happyish, and had just been at the Sundance Film Festival promoting God’s Pocket, the directorial debut of fellow actor John Slattery, as well as music video director Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. He was also finishing up  work on his role as Plutarch Heavensbee in the two-part Hunger Games finale, Mockingjay. Literally the day before he died, I read that Hoffman had just announced plans for his sophomore film as director, Ezekiel Moss, a period piece with supernatural elements, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams attached to star. I was excited.

I remembered reading, almost a year ago, an article – most likely on the front page of the IMDB – describing how Hoffman had checked himself into rehab for snorting heroin. Not injecting, not ingesting, snorting. He had relapsed only a week prior and was released only a week later. I wondered, first and foremost, how much a week of rehabilitation would actually help someone who had fallen off the wagon so quickly. But then I also wondered how big the media shitstorm surrounding Hoffman would be, the public outcry. How could he?! The SHAME of an Academy Award-winning actor – with three children! – who stooped so low as to do heroin. I braced myself for the torrent …Only it didn’t come. I think I might’ve been the only person I knew who knew of what had happened. And I didn’t bring it up because, I dunno, it didn’t feel right? Something like that? I’ve often wondered why that was.

I have, without even trying, been kept up to date on several stages of Justin Beiber’s DUI arrest. I also learned that he was accused of egging someone’s house. I don’t feel particularly strongly about Beiber one way or the other, as an artist or a person, but I do believe that he is another in a long line of celebrities that will be chewed up and spat out and shit upon, because we as a society do that.  To what end I’m not certain; to feel vindicated in our intelligence? Our comparative lack of wealth?  Either way, we have mocked the downfall of many a celebrity before and will certainly mock many more to come.

…But not Phil Hoffman. Why? Because he was clearly smart? Talented? Did he seem like a nice guy? Did we think his accomplishments made him a nice guy? Did we just like him more? Either way, seeing Hoffman’s face on the cover of People and the words ‘His Tragic Final Days’ emblazoned next to him… It feels more personal. Not in the ‘it happened to me’ sense, but in as much it’s somehow easier to imagine what his family is going through. I don’t know.

I read many a Facebook status expressing bewilderment with the concept of addiction and why Hoffman would have used such a dangerous substance in the first place? Surely he knew the dangers associated, so why would he take such leave of his senses. I’m not an addict (not a chemical one, at least,) but the way I see it is this. I used to look down pretty on substance use in general, but especially on addicts. I believed that they were selfish and impulsive and deserved every misfortune that came their way, death included. I also felt similarly about depressed people. There were people in my high school who were depressed, so much so many of them cut their wrists. I made fun of these people to their faces, and I insisted that their problems were not real, and to these people I am sorry every day.

That’s because I eventually became a victim of depression. I didn’t go looking for it, I wasn’t trying to get attention. It found me. It came completely out of the blue and knocked the wind out of me, and for six months I was terrified of living, and then spent another six months trying to ignore that terror as much as possible before I finally committed to therapy. There were times when I genuinely wanted to die, or if not die, stay asleep forever, because waking up meant confronting my life, which had suddenly become so hard and cold and helpless. I am lucky that I had the support group that I had, and that I was able to not turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, and that I’ve been able to work to a place where I worry about how I’ll be able to give my life meaning instead of if I want to live it at all. I’m lucky. Many others are not.

I know why I felt way I did about addiction and depression. We as a society are trained to see mental problems not as diseases but as faults of character. These two articles sum it up pretty well. And besides, I don’t imagine most addicts realize their addicts until they’re addicted. I mean, isn’t that what a disease is? You’re not sick until you’re infected. There’s a reason people don’t start off doing heroin.

I’m sure that even though it didn’t become an enormous story, having his personal troubles in the public arena was more than Hoffman could bear. Still, I wonder if his relapse becoming a more public story might have helped keep him on the straight and narrow. Maybe it would’ve just made it worse. Maybe he shouldn’t have been in New York at that place and that time. Maybe he shouldn’t been working so hard; maybe he should’ve been working more. Maybe he’d never have become an addict if it weren’t for something from his past, so far away and so personal that nobody but him could know what it was. Or maybe, in the end, there was nothing that anybody – not even Philip Seymour Hoffman – could do. And maybe that’s the saddest thing of all.

He is survived by Mimi O’Donnell and their three children.

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Grant’s Movies of 2013: The Favorites (Pt. 2)

The Rabbi’s Cat

Directed by Joann Sfar & Antoine Delesvaux

Screenplay by Joann Sfar & Sandrina Sardel

Based on the Comic Book Series by Joann Sfar

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Once more I fudge my rules, but this exceptionally weird, very, very French film got the most limited of limited releases in 2012 when it was listed as a potential wild card nominee for Best Animated Feature at last year’s Oscars (it ultimately wasn’t). Set in 1920s Algeria, this adaptation of Joann Sfar’s series of graphic novels begins when a rabbi’s hairless cat eats a talking parrot and gains the ability of speech. The cat is in love with the rabbi’s daughter, the beautiful (and realistically designed – for once) Zlabya, but the rabbi fears the cat’s deceitful and self-serving tongue to be an ill influence on his daughter and forbids him to come near her. Determined to prove his newfound commitment to Judaism, the cat badgers the rabbi for a bar mitzvah, and from there the story spirals outward to feature visitations from a cousin who live with lions, a Russian painter stowed away in a shipment of smuggled books, an epic quest for a fabled African Jerusalem, and none-too-kind parodies of Belgian reporter-detectives and their dogs. Along the way, the cat learns a thing or two about humility. But not much.

If I lost you at ‘The Cat Talks After It Eats a Parrot,’ chances are this is not your film. But like The Croods before it, The Rabbi’s Cat makes it onto the list for the litany of sights and sounds that are wholly original to itself, albeit with a much more laidback, contemplative tone than The Croods’ manic energy. Seemingly emulating the Marjane Satrapi model of self-adaptation (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums), Sfar guides us through his worldview of religion and its potential for grace and for harm, all filtered through his wry comic sensibilities. It doesn’t hang together particularly well, as it lurches from one scenario to the next and crowbars its philosophical points into the dialogue with little care. But you’re unlikely to see a film that both entertains with such imagination and asks difficult questions about life and religion and existence with the gentle, funny touch that this does.

It deserves praise, if nothing else, for this rarest of moments depicted on-screen: two people of different faiths calmly debating the pros and cons of their and the other’s religion and enjoying each other’s company immensely.

The Act of Killing

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Co-Directed by Christine Cynn & Anonymous

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I wrote a pretty extensive piece of this film in this blog post. Steven Boone’s review, which inspired me to see the film, is maybe one of the finest pieces of film criticism I’ve ever read. Come to think of it, Matt Zoller Seitz’s thoughts on it aren’t half bad, either. I’m not what else there is to say, other than this: ‘Fascism’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, so much so that it’s almost as ubiquitous as  ‘Hipster’: a word to describe a certain mindset that’s become so malleable that it’s lost all meaning. But it’s important to understand how we as human beings construct our image of ourselves. How we bend and filter the information around us to suit our needs. And how we process our memories to make them our struggles and our triumphs. And how that allows things like genocide to happen. The Act of Killing does that with a power that few films have ever had. (Maybe second only to Waltz with Bashir.)

Any documentary with a message and a halfway decent editing crew can make you angry and sad and sick to your stomach. It’s easy to choose not to watch them. I often don’t. And that’s perfectly understandable.

See it.

Byzantium

Directed by Neil Jordan

Screenplay by Moira Buffini and Based on Her Play “A Vampire Story”

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It’s fair to say that vampires, as far as cinema is concerned, have become blasé. They’re an aloof, chiseled, veeerrry horny species affixed with permanent scowls who for some reason can’t stop fighting werewolves. And sometimes, they sparkle!

Y’know, the bloodlust is a metaphor for sex and it’s really all about the hunger within ourselves blah blahbidy blah.

Y’know, the bloodlust is a metaphor for sex and it’s really all about the hunger within ourselves blah blahbidy blah.

That said, when Neil Jordan, who’s Interview with the Vampire arguably created the template for the modern-day movie vampire, returns to the genre two decades later, you sit up and pay attention. And when that film decides to use vampirism as a metaphor for institutionalized misogyny …well, you pay attention to that as well.

Luminously shot by Sean Bobbitt (whose work here is second only to his work on 12 Years a Slave), Byzantium follows the story of teenage vampire Eleanor (Soairse Ronan) and her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), in modern day England. Eleanor, who repeatedly writes the story of her birth and transformation only to tear it up and throw it to the wind, only drinks the blood of those she knows are ready for death. Clara, who supports them by stripping and hooking, is not quite so discerning. When a close call with the Brethren, a patriarchal organization that has been chasing Clara and Eleanor for centuries, ends (spectacularly) violently, the girls flee to an English coastal town. There they meet the lonely, pitiable Noel (Daniel Mays), who mentions that his recently deceased mother has bequeathed him the dilapidated Byzantium Hotel. Convincing Noel that the two of them are sisters, Clara moves them into the Byzantium, promptly begins renovations, and enrolls Eleanor in the local school. Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a hemophilic dying of Leukemia, who is immediately attracted to her and knows that something is up. Of course, for all her better instincts, Eleanor can’t help but be drawn to FranK, too. And do you think that this newfound idyll is too good to be true, and the Brethren are still hot on their tail?

There’s certainly a lot of familiarity to Byzantium’s framework, and perhaps that just comes with the territory. But what makes it such a joy to watch is the strength with which it is written and performed. To call Ronan’s performance excellent is redundant, but it is. Arterton, who’s essentially been misused almost her entire career, finally gets a chance to shine as Clara, whose abusive backstory and callous disregard for life makes her a potent mix of sympathy and terror. Similarly, May’s Noel (a performance that is almost certainly underrated even by those who saw it) easily checks a lot of the schlubby loser boxes, but he also brings an awareness and sensitivity to Noel that makes his sadness even more pathetic. (“Y’see, I know what your sister’s doing,” he tells Eleanor. “The thing is: I just don’t care.”) Jones, whose creepy, sweaty ginger face bothers me, actually overcomes those handicaps in the Frank, revealing his inner strength and letting you get why he and Eleanor fall for each other as deeply and as quickly as they do. And if you need a villain, it’s hard for them to come more despicable than Johnny Lee Miller’s Ruthven, who despite being relegated to flashbacks, practically coats the screen in a film of slime every time he appears. (“I have given you your profession. Whore,” he chillingly spits at Clara.)

Some might argue about the effectiveness of Buffini’s misogyny metaphors (I personally found them compelling enough.) And you certainly can’t call much of what happens in Byzantium original. And what does a girl who’s been alive for two centuries need to go to school for in the first place? But the truth is that when everything started coming to a head, I found myself both very, very fearful for and of our protagonists. I don’t know many movies that have made me feel that in the same breath. And that’s why Byzantium is on this list.

It is also home to what is perhaps 2013’s most effective, disturbing, beautifully shot gore (again, second only to 12 Years a Slave.)

Grant’s Movies of 2013: The Favorites (Pt. 1)

Another year of cinema had passed us by. And that means Top 10 lists! …In late January. Because that’s when it’s timely for a Top 10 list to come out, right?

A ‘cinematic year’ could be argued to begin in early February and end in late January, ending around the time the Oscar nominations are announced but before the ceremony itself. And when I think of a ‘year in cinema,’ that’s generally the guide I use. But for the purposes of this list, I’m gonna fudge it a little, since that January/February beginning/end time bleeds into each other, and certain movies may also be four or five months old before they make it to my neck of the woods. And while I would normally restrict the list to movies I saw in theaters, I’m gonna include a couple I saw on video as well. These ‘fudgings’ are all in the service of smaller movies that you not have seen or heard about otherwise.

I’d like to do a series of lists, starting with my out-and-out favorites: the ones that I felt excelled in their construction, from the acting to the directing to the cinematography to the animation, whether they moved me or shocked me or just made me laugh. These are the movies that impressed me the most, that did the job of being movies the best. Then, I’d like to do the ‘Honorable Mentions’: films that usually have one or two major problems or a little on the ‘light’ side, but that do enough right to be worth seeing and are usually a lot of fun. Then I’d like to finish with my… ‘Dishonorable Mentions’: films that usually have one or two good elements but usually have something in their execution that drives me up a goddamn wall. These are all loose descriptions of what the lists are supposed to do, but hey, you get the idea.

So, in no particular order, my favorites are…

The Sessions

Written for the Screen and Directed by Ben Lewin

Based on the Article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” by Mark O’Brien

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First entry and I’m already fudging my own rules, since Helen Hunt earned a Best Supporting Actress nod at last year’s Academy Awards for her ‘brave’ (read: ‘largely nude’) portrayal as a sex surrogate who works with the disabled. Based the life of quadriplegic poet Mark O’Brien, who contracted polio at the age of six and wrote most of his poetry from an iron lung, using a stick in his mouth with which to prod his typewriter, The Sessions chronicles O’Brien’s attempts to lose his virginity before he sheds his mortal coil, and the relationship he develops with Hunt’s surrogate, Cheryl.

Hunt’s Oscar nod suggests a certain quality of performance, and there is nothing but top shelf acting throughout. John Hawkes, the exceptionally veiny character actor (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lincoln, HBO’s Eastbound & Down), handles his rare leading role with delicacy, performing the demanding task of affecting O’Brien’s body and voice without the disability a crutch. He makes us care for O’Brien not through his broken body but for the gentle, perceptive, affectionate soul that it housed, despite his many (understandable) personal hang-ups. Equal praise must be given to William H. Macy’s Father Brendan, the pastor who listens to O’Brien’s stories and supports him with faith and good humor. (When O’Brien consults him about any loopholes regarding sex out of wedlock, Brendan gently replies, “I have a feeling God is going to give you a free pass on this one.”) Even Moon Bloodgood, an actress with an awesome name, not-so-awesome track record (Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Terminator: Salvation, TNT’s Falling Skies) provides worthy support by toning down her supermodel looks and assuming the role of O’Brien’s supportive but assertive caretaker.

But what really makes The Sessions stand out is its portrayal of sex and the genuine emotions it elicits. This is a film made by adults, for adults, a sex comedy that addresses sex humorously but without immaturity, and that understands the power for trust, understanding, and yes, love, that exists in the act. While the fact that the lines between personal and professional blur in Mark and Cheryl’s relationship will probably come as no surprise to you, the power with which they are acted, and the way that they help O’Brien confront his childhood traumas, will. And though I am usually loathe to resort to such hyperbole, if you don’t at least sniffle a bit during Hawke’s recitation of O’Brien’s “Love Poem to No One in Particular,” chances are you really don’t have a soul.

The Croods

Written and Directed by Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco

Story by John Cleese & Chris Sanders & Kirk DeMicco

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Every year, there is at least one movie – usually animated – that makes me feel like a little kid again. They typically share a unique aesthetic, are technological marvels of their medium, and have an off-kilter sense of humor and quirky characters. But more than anything, they have an unstoppable sense of energy and invention, a wild succession of sights and sound I’ve never seen before. In 2012 that film was ParaNorman, easily one of the bravest family entertainments of recent memory. The year before that, it was Rango, which was maybe the most fun I’d had in a movie theater in a decade. And before that, Pixar pulled off the one-two punch of Up and Toy Story 3 two years in a row. There wasn’t a movie in 2013 that executed the nearly-flawless sense of constant surprise that those movies had. But the one that came closest was The Croods.

I chalk that up to the imagination of director Chris Sanders. Sanders, along with Dean DeBlois, also originated Lilo & Stitch, easily one of my favorite films of all time, and seemed to be on track to repeat the trick with American Dog until a falling out with John Lasseter, then newly-appointed chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation, led to Sanders leaving Disney for DreamWorks, where he and DeBlois directed How to Train Your Dragon (American Dog would later be reformatted as Bolt.) Meanwhile, The Croods began life as Crood Awakening, a collaboration between stop-motion powerhouse Aardman Animation (Wallace & Gromit) and scriptwriter John Cleese. After many false starts and delays (including a terminated distribution deal between Aardman and DreamWorks), The Croods eventually found its way into Sanders’ hands.

This is Sanders’ first film as director without DeBlois’ influence (DeBlois is directing How to Train Your Dragon’s sequel, out this summer), and it shows. Shorn of any narrative restraint, Sanders has free reign to let any nutty, screwball, flat-out weird ideas of his bounce around the screen with all the pretty that a $135 million budget brings. From the hybrid animal designs that are fusions of felines and birds and fish to the saturated hues of the landscape, the film is awash in visual invention and cartoon insanity. Tt’s a feat of design and worldbuilding that rivals anything seen in James Cameron’s Avatar, as if a kaleidoscope ejaculated watercolors onto the screen.

Some have called my writing ‘descriptive.’

Some have called my writing ‘descriptive.’

Of course, Sanders’ unmitigated imagination is also plays into the film’s one great flaw: a pretty rote story. You’ve heard it before: overbearing father and rebellious teenage daughter must overcome their differences in order to face a great obstacle and in the process come to understand What It Means to Be Family™. That’s not to say that this story can’t work; it often does, that’s why we see it so regularly. Plus, I’m a sucker for father-daughter relationships. And there are moments in the story that genuinely moved me. But there are also moments that feel completely perfunctory, funneling the characters through well-worn arguments and reunions while we wait anxiously for the next thrill because apparently a ‘family movie’ needs such moments. Still, nothing quite compares to this film’s first 30 minutes, especially a sequence in which the father, Grug (Nicolas Cage), takes his family hunting for food, a scene that plays out as a joyous, hyperkinetic ballet of slapstick comedy (how’s THAT for film criticism!) Not to mention this is easily the best project that Nic Cage has been involved with for several years, and goddammit, this movie made me laugh! And that’s got be worth something. For that, if nothing else, The Croods easily makes it onto my Top 10 of the year.

You may also have noticed that I haven’t mentioned The Croods’ co-director, Kirk DeMicco, at all. That’s because he directed Space Chimps. So there.

To be fair, no, I haven’t seen it. But would you really ask that of me?

To be fair, no, I haven’t seen it. But would you really ask that of me?

This Guy

It kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it?

It kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it?

The Comedy

Directed Rick Alverson

Written by Rick Alverson & Robert Donne & Colm O’Leary

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Here’s a weird one. The Comedy saw a very minor theatrical release in late 2012 but was primarily distributed through a variety of streaming services in 2013. I saw it on Netflix. It stars Tim Heidecker, best known for his work with Eric Wareheim as the comedy duo Tim & Eric, namely [adult swim]’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, a sketch show that peddles in a veeerrryyy particular kind of comedy (a kind that’s wonderful when it works and infuriating when it doesn’t.) Wareheim also appears in the film, but this is Heidecker’s show. And this is not a comedy. This is a character study of the bleakest kind.

Heidecker plays Swanson, a mid-thirties resident of the Williamsburg hipster community who has been living off of his father’s money his entire life. His father now in a coma, Swanson seems none too broken up about it, since it hasn’t interrupted his daily routine of drinking, partying, and taking girls to his houseboat. Most of Swanson’s conversations with his friends consist of ironic diatribes of how the neighbors should get AIDS or how Hitler was misunderstood or, indeed, how stupid his friends are. Despite – or perhaps in spite of – his wealth, Swanson repeatedly tries to assume the roles of ‘common folk’: joining a gardening crew and asking the homeowners if they can use their pool, bribing a taxi driver to let him drive his cab, going to a Black bar and insisting he understands their struggles, like a social provocateur with a mean streak. Several times, Swanson finds people in various states of unconsciousness, and he pokes and prods at them as an alien might probe abducted cattle. With Swanson’s utter lack of empathy or understanding of human relationships, The Comedy plays essentially like a modern day American Psycho, minus all the gory bits.

But those are the best parts!

But those are the best parts!

There are many who will understandably – even appropriately – find this film intolerable. There is no denying that Swanson and the film’s utter lack of condemnation for him is arduous to sit through. But those who can stomach it will find a mesmerizing performance from Heidecker, who displays a depth, presences, and most importantly restraint as an actor that was heretofore unseen. And they’ll also find a quietly furious critique of a society that allows – nay, encourages – apathy and condescension as a way of life, summed up in a final shot that perfectly describes exactly what Swanson is.