Saturday, December 28, 2013

Favorites of 2013

Trying to tell you of this year's favorites, mine, you understand, has nearly destroyed me but here it is, subject to never change. It's not some other guy's list, one that dutifully lauds INSIDE LLEWYN as a masterpiece andI'm glad the brothers Coen have found a muse in T-Bone Burnett and made themselves a Nashville Skyline of a MacDougal street freak-out but I liked it better when it was called O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU and everyone hated it, and I didn't like it too much at first. Repetition is kind to Coens. And 12 YEARS A SLAVE is I'm sure really great, but I'm still recovering from DJANGO and that at least had catharsis and finally let me move on emotionally from MANDINGO. Films in this list fit what I like, horror, comedy, subversion that's no unpleasant or negative. Films in this list resolve lingering burdens on my cinematic soul, they do it right and let me forgive the wrongs, so many wrongs.

So bear this in mind and look to more mainstream critics who have had to see almost everything as part of their jobs, and come to me only when exhausted by their endless stream of Art. Oh and FRANCES HA... I love the director and the star, so why is this movie so unbearable? Is it that the writer doesn't know his subject or that the subject doesn't know itself? There's no reason to believe girls in the city are this air headed and vapid. I've met them and some are, were, but most of them are total sharpies, not these crumpled bags blowing in the leafless tree type girls. And the black and white photography looks for the most part godawful. But maybe younger and older film critics think it's how life is.I hope that they are wrong, and that I will one day feel I'm wrong about FRANCES HA, but as of now it's this year's JUNO.

No, my list isn't about that stuff. I focused as much as I could on films that aren't on anyone else's list, rescuing my personal favorites without regard to 'importance.' With this list I'm taking a cue from Danny McBride's burn-the-money performance of the year as himself in THIS IS THE END, and just tell the truth about what I enjoyed the most, and what is important to me, that a film wake up to its maze of clichand deliver something that makes me feel about movies like I used to, wild-eyed and inspired and with faith restored as if wading in the sludge of a holy fountain.


Two "end" comedies came out the same year, one in the UK, one here. Ours is better, though both are great and sorely needed in our overly zombie and torture-reliant horror genre. END delivers on all the sodomy-phobic joking these clowns have been doing since the dawns of their careers. But Danny McBride, in his turn from genial dirtbag to gonzo post-apocalyptic cannibal chieftain is amazing, he's one ferocious guy and THIS IS THE END is his , his , his his, his , his his , his Johnny Boy AND his Travis Bickle rolled up in one. If Seth Rogen wasn't in it I'd say it's his May we all be so lucky one day to have our own grim chance to break through into dance-in-the-flames insanity before it's all gone, done, stacked, and canned.

2. ROOM 237

ROOM 237 is a lightning crack to the head; all is illuminated, and terrifying: first because paranoid psychosis is very contagious; two because the film is terrifying in and of itself; three because it mirrors all our film deconstruction / analysis, from the ur-dry Bordwellian breakdowns (as in "before getting started, we all have to agree what we mean by a film") to the ultimately meaningless doctoral theses of nonwriters in a publish-or-perish deadlock, to the gonzo freaks like me who see what we want to see through magic glasses; four because we tend to forget that since we're a nation conditioned to 'recall' movies with an ever-dwindling series of studio-sanctioned iconic images--which in THE SHINING's case means the "Heee-rree's Johnny!" grinning Jack Torrance peering through his bathroom axe crack-- the SHINING's power is that it's just crazy enough to survive and resist any chance to dumb it down, to reduce it to a few fun quotes ("and a nice chianti"). The more we try to reduce it to grinning Jack T-shirts the less we remember the actual details of a film that seems to lose all contact with the outside world. Forget about being reduced to a simple icon, the SHINING is all about losing all connection to icons, all signifiers, until objective consensual 'meaning' vanishes into the fog of the purely subjective.


I might be prejudiced because Delpy's strident and-a-little fed-up mother of gorgeous-haired twins reminds me a bit of my Argentine filmmaker ex-wife and her twins, same age, not mine but visible in occasional Facebook updates and I certainly had more than a few of Hawke's satyric problems, some of which I've only recently cured myself of in a great gob of alchemical pre-apocalyptic awakening. But what I loved most was that this was a film that was alive, fluid, in ways the other eurotrip sensual awakening family dysfunction wine-appreciating movies are not. There's no up-the-dress-of-the-virgin-camera-peering of a Bertolucci, nor the food porn of so many Sony Classics films, no Brit actors getting grooves back and hunky waiters bringing them little coffees before jetting off on their red scooters, a gloriously braless and tan Ludivine Sagnier in tow. Instead Delpy does a spot-on impression of a "bimbo," floored that she's talking to a man who writes books. That's perhaps the one fatal flaw of these films is that Hawke is not a believable writer. He's a believable actor though, and he seems genuinely turned on by Delpy in all the right places. Her problems with him are ours, and his hers and hers and his

Linklater is still working in his masterpiece, maybe it was DAZED AND CONFUSED, maybe it is this film or the trilogy. The comfort it brings me to know that we have here a man who can deliver the kind of thing we all thought only Rohmer or sometimes Antonioni could do, where huge gobs of unpretentious art and stuff almost happening sail by and you can't grab any one moment, but you feel the actors grabbing them all, and creating magic, and here this once, and maybe the next, a moment has landed. "I've been sleeping with a 41 year-old man, it's so gross, so obscene,"Delpy says during an obscenely long Steadicam take around the village. Maybe it's the most stunningly detailed and fluid depiction of a romance in its ebbs and flows, as it sets out to sea, tide receding, that I, at least, have ever seen.

Certainly also - the sight of Delpy's middle aged body gone slightly to frumpy but still comfortable and flowing and sexy packs such a punch when they finally start making love it's a tonic to the other big sexy actress flesh display of the artsy year, Lohan's in THE CANYONS (here). While there we saw the dawn of age in a prison of joyless sex and compulsive obsession, vanity, aloneness even in the midst of an orgy, here at least is something like genuine connection, hope that sex in the cinema can still mean something, can be as intimate as the relative lack of it in a similar Rohmer film. I dread how much their bickering reminds me of my own relationship argument strategies, and the way any line of interaction can lead a dozen different ways, and negativity is way stronger than positive when the other finds a chance to project something they want to disavow in themselves onto the other person. It's painful. It's true. It's a gift, from Linklater and his actors to us. They don't seem to be doing this for awards, it seems impossible to figure out where one of them ends and the other begins to single out individual acclaim. Instead it takes its reward in reaching for a kind of deeper truth, an art of talking and refusing to follow one's inclination to run away from a burning car.


It hopes nakedly and unafraid that America's doomsday prepper mentality might one day be exchanged for a more inclusive optimism, ala the end of THE ROAD, and that a budding teen romance can infect the whole world as quickly as AIDs. Maybe love is more than anything else a kind of anti-virus, a collective warm fusion, deliberately reaching across lines not only of gender, but class, race, dimensions, and now living/dead status. Like me you may have scratched the entry wound on your forehead at the glowing reviews. I grudgingly rented it. Lo! I was a crying mess by the end. Is it the most beautiful film I've seen all year? I'm afraid...


It's got mad flava, rich focus on clothes and style of the 70s but there's something missing from this tale of hucksterism and everybody playing everyone else and so forth, but what it really is is a good bookend with the latest HUNGER GAMES in showing Jennifer Lawrence as the new official new queen of Actorly young starlets. Far crazier than everyone else in the film she does effortlessly does what Sharon Stone in CASINO expended great effort at doing, outcrazying the crazy world of the mob, and out-acting the coasting titans around her. I think it's hilariously annoying that people all praise Amy Adams here, which is reason #2 to bring up Stone. Lawrence reminds us that all the great actresses made their roles spontaneous, dangerous, as if they've forgotten the script and are about to expose the deep secrets of the men around them with a noncommittal shrug. Adams always feels like she's acting. And the last thing we need are more CASINO-era Sharon Stones. We need more BASIC INSTINCT Sharon Stones, and Lawrence is that...

The scene wherein Christian Bale, pudging it up but hiding for the most part behind agut, oversize shades and beard, and a terrifically complex comb-over / toupee combo, gives up trying to fight with her for getting him in deep with shady mobsters and instead just surrenders and lets her view of the crazy reign supreme, this is her great moment here like her cracking open the beer without looking down at it after putting Robert De Niro in his place was in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. In Scorsese's hands Lawrence would be shown going down on Joe Pesci or some such degradation, but here she's the queen of the island, coming in from left field and stealing the movie far away from Amy Adams, playing more or less the same exact character she did in THE MASTER and everywhere else, smarter than she needs to be, occasionally ur-moral arm candy character she's been playing since forever, and as the terrified coked up CIA wheeler dealer, Bradley Cooper torpedoes the cool confidence he worked so well to create in the various HANGOVER films. But for what?

HUSTLE isn't quite at the SILVER LININGS level; it wastes too much time in idle chatter and mundane THE STING / OCEAN'S ELEVEN style double fake-out which by now we're totally used to so we know to expect it. But hey, the hair and clothes are all deliriously trashy, the period music expertly used, but the whole coke problem aspect is so underdeveloped why is it even there? One thing Scorsese knows well is the cocaine and that drug was front and center in the style and momentum of CASINO and GOODFELLAS. Here it's like Cooper tries to make it about that, to gain that Scorsese momentum, but O'Russell only shows him tooting up on the side, in ways you might not notice if you weren't looking for it. Bale and Adams are too busy slowing it way down, and they never have much chemistry and you never forget they are acting. Oh well, O'Russell is still the key filmmaker of his day, as urgent and street eye view as Scorsese once was (and tries too hard to be again in WOLF OF WALL STREET starring Leo "Scorsese's Albatross" DiCaprio), and is just trying to make a film that gets at something like the truth about personas, hard work, and who we are when and if the make-up comes off, if any. He doesn't find out. But at least he doesn't look, and doesn't drag his heels about it.


Looking to get some of that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY opening weekend box office (the scary film thanks to that series is now understood as best seen with a late night opening weekend audience, ideally filled with keyed-up nervous young couples on dates), this film really didn't get perceived as it should. It's a first class true story ghost picture starring one of my favorite actresses playing one of my favorite paranormal researchers. I'm fascinated by the real life Lorraine Warren, who appears here in a cameo. She's psychic, alive and going boldly where no one else can go and has since the 70s, which is wherein this place is set, with enough attention to lived-in detail I feel like it psychically read all my complaints with 99% of this sort of film (i.e. any of the AMITYVILLEs) and made a film without any of them. This house is a doozy, and I love the demon doll framing device, a nod perhaps to the original multi-story horror film, DEAD OF NIGHT, and the Karen Black TV movie section DEVIL DOLL.

A lot of care went into this film, from the homey, live-in set design, the believable rapport within the family, Lili Taylor's marvelously over-the-top possession and homey vibe, and Vera Farmiga's very real embodiment of . Sure it's not the best movie ever, or the scariest, but I admire its chutzpah even if it denigrates one of my relatives, the real-life Mary Easty, who here is reimagined as a real witch who hung herself on the land she owned, cursing it forever more, after killing her young daughter to the dark lord. The real Easty was hung all right, in the Salem witch trials, an innocent victim in a land dispute with her false witness neighbors. Whatever, you can spot the real Larraine in the audience at one of the Warren's slideshow lectures. Some critics are including STOKER as one of the best of the year, but I'll take this. For life!


Hard to believe that the most disturbing image of 2013 is a 70s sound engineer breaking up lettuce heads while staring in shattered dismay at an off-camera screen. Sure it can be hard to stick with in one sitting but this enigmatic fusion of Antonioni-esque ambiguity, Argento stylistic abstraction, and Brian De Palma metatextuality all merge in a deeply unsettling visually (and most importantly aurally) seductive fantasy wherein a reserved Brit sound mixer is hired for some reason to work on a horror film in Rome. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO!

We never actually see the film they're working on, which just adds to the mystery, and no amount of visual gore could compare with the slowly sickening dead-inside feeling overtaking Toby Jones (the 'other' Capote) as he crunches up whole produce sections worth of vegetables for the torture of an accused witch by a demented marquis in the film within a film's flashback structure (from the descriptions and sounds it's one part Argento's SUSPIRIA, one part Soavi's THE CHURCH, and one part Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD). Interestingly enough, the photography and blocking are what I most remember. Director Peter Strickland trusts his expert blocking and cagey actors and actresses in and around the studio's tight places, and though the rudeness and misogyny of some of the male filmmakers got on my nerves this is a masterpiece of contemplative self-reflexive horror, with all the ingredients of an average Italian trash classic reassembled like a collage into a making-of fantasia that puts broader stuff like SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE or A BLADE IN THE DARK to shame.

More than anything it made me realize what a terrible hack Lamberto Bava is, who gave us a similar tale--this time about the composer--in A BLADE IN THE DARK, the English dubbing of which sounds so bad its unwatchable (it doesn't matter where the actors are in relation to one another or how far they are away from the camera, they all sound as if they're simply rattling the dialogue off up against a cheap microphone from 2 feet away.) You never realize how much effort goes into sound mixing until you notice a really bad job of it (the English dub of STAGEFRIGHT: AQUARIUS for example is top flight).


Director Neil Jordan loves filmmaking, beautiful girls, and the coastlines of the Ireland and Britain, in that order, and here delivers the existential women's picture (ala Suzuki not Cukor) yoked sublimely to the Anne Rice-readymade tale of a 200 year old vampire and her equally ageless daughter, who is far more introspective and elegiac for her corpse-strewn history than the super sexual Gemma Arterton, who continually astounds as the woman tossed by an uncaring captain into prostitution, and using sex and wiles to provide for her and her less amoral daughter (Saoirse Ronan plays angel of mercy by drinking up old dying folks).

Demerits for once again bringing in that tedious vampire morality, with Saoirse Ronana the Joan Crawford of vampires (i.e. prudish as hell but belying an insatiable hunger) and William Butler Yeats rolled into one. Jordan's style is all about dark beauty and how beautiful deep red scarfs and hoods look wreathing these ghostly beauties with the foggy English seaside dissolving around them. They represent everything good and bad about not just England but the patriarchal-class-based British civilization as a whole. If you can imagine the scenes with Methuselah-syndrome afflicted J.F. Sebastian shacking up with Pris but with Sean Young in the Roy Batty role in BLADERUNNER stretched out over a postcard shop full of gorgeous shots, Rollin-ish mise-en-scene and Assayas-style postmodern go-for-brokerage, well, it's better. And it's written by a woman, based on her play, and you can tell. She's not Ann Rice. I'm cool with it. Jordan is cool period. He's become the 200 year old vampire Irish filmmaker, now and form ever.


Redresses a gaping hole in my heart's that been there since I shined the rooftop Bushwick loft barbecue of the season to drag my sneering prominent grunge band bassist girlfriend to the Emmerich Godzilla on a sunny summer Saturday in 1998, and having it suck and hearing her hiss and sneer under her breath the whole way through, and reproach me forever after. So that's 15 years it's been there, that hole. Everytime Godzilla comes on cable I watch it and feel her hiding resentment and my own shamefaced disappointment, in Broderick, Emmerich, and myself, and especially Hank Azaria. Now that the hole is closed, the resentment is canceled, because for the first time someone's bothered to capture the draggy feel of the actual gigantic size in question, the heavy sluggish brawl that is moving under so much goddamned gravity, like the Empire State Building pulled itself up by the roots and started marching around midtown. The Japanese with their Kaiju monster suit fights in old shows like ULTRAMAN, JOHNNY SOCKO, SPACE GIANTS and the later POWER RANGERS all had a gonzo greatness but could only use slow motion and landscape miniatures to create the feeling of behemoth size. And that sense of size is totally lost with the live action pro-wrestling meets-cardboard sets grandeur of . So I love that this film kept the name Kaiju for the monsters and for the robots came out with the "Jaegers" - hand-crafted in a green bottle the size of 20 story office buildings, their every rippling metallic joint step creating huge gravitic pulls in the soundtrack, their massive chest and arm cannons take 5-10 seconds to rev up making them almost a liability compared to plain old punches and the titanic Kaiju creating huge thudding steps and extraordinarily detailed gushes of ocean and urban destruction. You really, literally, feel some sense of how big these fuckers are, and if, like me, you had some doubts about Guillermo del Toro as being little more than a Tim Burton with a better sense of narrative, wit, and darkness, then those doubts are as squashed as Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay trapped in a city bus underneath a Jaeger-Kaiju slapdown (just thinking about how ineptly both those guys would have handled this material is enough to want kiss both del Toro's cheeks in a traditional Americano greeting).


The tale of an Oedipus complex writ large by white people across the dirty expanses of Bangkok, it's almost more of a Jim Jarmusch-meets-David Lynch on an Argento film set horror film than a revenge thriller. Then again, everything is a horror film for Sweden's dark lord of the Seijun Suzuki-esque macho melt-down post-modernist gangster genre, Nicolas Winding Refn, and GOD is his special love letter to those Angelica film snobs who saw his earlier films DRIVE and VALHALLA RISING and said very good, Sven, but maybe slow it down a bit. Maybe don't have a protagonist who's such a chatterbox. There has to be one such film snob... somewhere. Maybe it's even me, for I'm keenly aware (since I'm Swedish) that to stand out from the legions of 'corrupt but honorable cop vs. redeemable but doomed gangster' Asian vengeance pics currently idling along the blighted "Dark Foreign Revenge Thriller" avenues of Netflix, Refn has to import his own brand of ice and snow onto the eternally wet floors of the Bangkok Dangereuse. We Swedes know that Thai swordsman cops can out swing us, so we have to out-stare them and more importantly be willing to die without a sigh, to stand firm against the dying flesh without a flinch, without a care, with no betrayal of despiar. That's from NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. Like that film, GOD lives in the moment, you feel almost like the actors are making it up, moment to moment, and trusting somehow it will mean something. We have a hero who might not even survive one fight, the way real fights end far faster than one of them thinks - one good shot to the head and you punch like a girl...


It's not for dopey films no more, in fact because of the incredible cost of distribution in wide releases more and more the stream has become to the 21st century what the drive-in and grindhouse was to the 20th. While Marvel continues to release its entertaining repeat-viewing ready franchises, and Mexicans like del Toro deliver where once Spielberg alone did trod, now we have up-and-coming talents, often working from Kickstarter campaigns, real grassroots stuff, like BOUNTY KILLER, IRON SKY, and JOHN DIES AT THE END. If they were released in the 80s they would be considered classics today. But there's so many options on streaming, its harder and harder to 'discover' something just because it's say, on one afternoon on HBO or UHF and you're not really playing attention or expecting it to be any good and then WHAM - awesomeness, the way so many of us first discovered BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. Well, here're my BIG TROUBLES of 2013. Some of them are officially from 2012 but that date often just means festival debut, or Helsinki or something, so fuckin' whatever!

10.a. BOUNTY KILLERIf you think it's easy to put a good Corman-esque babes-n-guns action film together you've never seen SUCKER PUNCH or TANK GIRL or AEON FLUX or ULTRA-VIOLET or BITCH SLAP or CAT RUN or Luc Besson's less noted pictures, or the hundred other so bad they're not even good bad just inert movies that figure a girl with a gun relies on rote mcguffin money packs and bald mobsters wearing suits that look like they have to be back at Men's Warehouse by five PM. That's why I'm giving a special place here to IRON SKY, JOHN DIES AT THE END and this, because they all use their under-the-radar leeway to do more than just make dick jokes and edit together video game carnage with sex scenes and hope no one's paying focused attention. Instead they hope someone is. They hope someone is looking for them, the right reader for their own message in a bottle. In this one, I got the message. Christian Pitre stars Mary Death; Kristiana Loken shows up as the corporate ex-wife of the handsome but not annoying Drifter. It's apparently based on a Kickstartedgraphic novel, stick around on the credits if you want for bloopers like it's frickin' Jackie Chan.

10.B. JOHN DIES AT THE ENDAs John Carpenter ages into his RED LINE 700 phase, a horror genius named Don Coscarelli has quietly stolen the title of the neo-Hawksian maestro de drive-in. A little bit early Sam Raimi, some Cronenberg, John Carpenter til he started doing cable TV, Quentin Tarantino if he ever made a horror movie, all rolled into one half-kidding half legit creepy all weird voyage deeper than most gone afore. It's a loosey goosey termite art digging and goofing around - simultaneously mind-expanding and brain-addling. It never has to rely on vicious sexual violence, it understands normal healthy adult sex is the creepiest most uncanny thing ever, once you can finally see it clearly for what it is, stripped of all its alluring-in-the-heat-of-the-moment bark.


So if at first this seems way too-dependent on CGI to create elaborate but cold, almost-SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW-style steampunk moonbase panoramae with Metal Hurlant style weaponry, stick it out. IRON SKY will take you some really bizarre places and in doing so eclipse nominal fuzzy sci fi cult-intended efforts like BUCKAROO BANZAI. Clearly a major labor of love for all involved, six years in the making, it's directed by Finnish industrial singer Tomo Vuorensola in a way that reminds me in a way of the Norwegian-directed prequel to THE THING (ere).
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