Ok! So there are a whole lot of films I wanted to see this year and haven’t yet (20 Feet From Stardom and Stories We Tell come to mind). These were my favorites of the one I did see. I’m not really going to give you synopses, so you may need to use the google if you’re unfamiliar with what these films are about. I’m just gonna say the things I feel like saying because thank god I am not a film critic and I can just do that. Kind of in order:
10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire IDGAF, I really, really liked this movie. I cried multiple times. Jennifer Lawrence deserves more accolades for this layered, subtle portrayal of PTSD than her Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook. Newcomers to the franchise Jenna Malone, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Jeffery Wright and Sam Claflin are all great (even though I still wish Jesse Williams had been cast an Fennick. I do. This dude Claflin is pretty great, though). I was a big fan of the first movie (and defender of its much-maligned shaky-cam) but I concur that this one is better. There’s more interesting stuff going on psychologically, and I’m impressed with how much of that is indicated despite having to cram in so much action and plot. So many characters conveying so much in so little screen time! Casting, man. They nailed it. I mean, Peeta and Gale are a little out of their league–not bad, just not fucking awesome on the level of everyone else. Fabulously staged action sequences. Real characters. We can argue about how well The Hunger Games‘ media and war metaphors hold up under scrutiny, but I’m firmly in the camp that believes there’s a lot of good stuff to chew on here, and I’m glad these are huge mainstream hits.
9. Dirty Wars The documentary film version of Jeremy Scahill’s investigation into the covert operations of the Joint Special Operations Command, in Afghanistan and beyond. Frightening, tragic and enraging, Dirty Wars is an important, impressive and admirable piece of journalistic and cinematic work.
8. Blue Jasmine I made this list and wrote most of this post before the woman formerly known as Dylan Farrow recently came forward and confirmed that yes, Woody Allen did molest her at age 7. I can’t even. I remember that allegation being made back in the early ’90s, and my recollection was that it had either been recanted or disproven or…something. My adolescent brain had decided, perhaps all too conveniently, that that hadn’t happened. The stuff with Soon-Yi was inappropriate and creepy enough, but for me wasn’t “I’m never giving this man a dime again” territory. But now. Well. I’m not going to tell you to pay money to see this movie, however much I did like it when I saw it. I thought about replacing it with another film. I don’t think I would have paid to see it if the Farrow interview had occurred earlier. Is it still one of my favorite films of the year? I don’t fucking know. I do know that I will not be an apologist for a likely child molester, however much his films have meant to me over the course of my entire life (the answer is: a lot. A LOT).
Anyway. Here’s what I had written about the film. I still agree with all of it. I just don’t agree that this is a person who should be supported, or that art can neatly be separated from personal horribleness, at least so far as financial support goes. So I decided to just share my thoughts and feelings in retrospect rather than sub in another movie (it was going to be Inside Llewyn Davis, fwiw). Having many feelings, all bad. So I had written:
This reminded me of people I know. Not gonna get into it beyond that, but a big part of why I liked this so much is that I bought Cate Blanchett’s frozen, stunted character 100%, and was grateful for the depiction. She is excellent, as is the rest of the cast, with Bobby Canavale and Andrew Dice Clay(!) in standout performances. Louis CK is perfectly cast and lovely in a small role as well. File this under solid late-era Woody Allen.
Idk if “solid late-era Woody Allen” is a category that makes much sense to me anymore.
7. Newlyweeds Director Shaka King is one to watch, a new voice I’m excited to hear. Newlyweeds is refreshing and unique, a spot-on comedic nightmare about losing control over your weed habit and the fine line between charmed stoner romance and pathetic pot head crisis. It’s sure to leave viewers who like their weed laughing with uneasy recognition. Amari Cheatom as Lyle and Trae Harris as Nina are great as the leads in love. Harris’ scenes at her job as a tour guide at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum are a delightfully terrifying highlight. Oh yeah, this is also a great Brooklyn film if you’re into that sort of thing.
6. Blackfish This is an excellent, excellent advocacy documentary, one of the finest examples I’ve seen in recent years. Making great use of amazing, horrifying footage of messed up, covered up going on at Sea World and affiliated facilities, it’s hard to imagine a viewer walking away with the idea that the way we relate to orcas through such venues is remotely okay. It is moving to see trainers describe their disillusionment, sad and enraging to hear about and see the abuse of these animals, and fascinating to learn about their language, societal structures, culture. The film is hugely empathetic to the whales, including those who, in captivity, have killed people who in a way loved them, as well as said victims and their colleagues. Excellent journalism and filmmaking.
5. Carrie This was really good, and someone needs to write their thesis, or at least a weighty think piece about the odd, defensive middling reviews it received from mostly-male critics with bees in their bonnets about how, unlike De Palma’s “classic”, “definitive” version, the traumatic gym class shower scene is no longer early 80s Playboy Channel material. Sorry, dude critics. I know this is hard for you. Or not hard! LOL!
Anyway, much as I am actually a big fan of De Palma’s Carrie, overall I’d call Kimberly Pierce’s version superior. We get things like subtle character development (Julianne Moore’s excellent scenery chewing aside), motivations that make sense, storytelling rooted in empathy more than spectacle. De Palma’s split screens looked cool and all, but the clarity of this prom massacre was much needed and appreciated. Chloe Moretz is fabulous. There’s no imitating Sissy Spacek, she does her own thing.
Overall, anyone complaining about a “remake” can suck it, this is a necessary corrective to De Palma’s compelling but limited super De Palma-y personal vision that is much truer to the emotional world of Stephen King’s book. It is a Carrie that is actually for teenage girls, not middle aged critics who like to jerk off to images of them. Sorry dudes. Again, I know how hard that is to accept. Because I read a bunch of your weird reviews that were more about your own unarticulated feelings than the film. Too bad, this film deserved better.
4. Fruitvale Station An impeccably acted, tightly controlled depiction of the everyday leads up to horrific, sudden violence. The balance of dread that builds through the film interwoven with hope and levity is a potent, devastating mixture. Should be up for Oscars, isn’t. Even with goddamn Octavia Spencer in there. Guess the Academy liked her better in The Help?
3. 12 Years a Slave Very, very good. I am much more behind this than Shame, McQueen’s last film which, despite an interesting central relationship between Fassbender and Mulligan’s brother-sister characters, left me like “yeah, I get it, can we go a little deeper? No? It’s just gonna be this then? Over and over? Sigh.” over the depiction of Fassbender’s sex addiction. Maybe it’s just because I spent so many years as a phone sex worker, so I talked to a lot of guys like that, who had a compulsion, a need to get off but took no joy in it. It was really depressing to talk to those dudes. So I wanted some insight from McQueen beyond that I already had and came away with no such thing. But I digress. But you’ve doubtlessly already read a ton about this movie and I don’t know what I have to add that won’t be super redundant. I will say that if McQueen, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor don’t get their Oscars I will be very sad and angry.
Oh, also MoMA has this old silent short McQueen did called Deadpan that I really, really like.
2. Big Words Now that I don’t know how much I can get behind Woody Allen films, I’m extra glad to have a new, extremely talented voice on finely observed male neuroses to enjoy. Neil Drumming’s feature debut is a gem, filled with beautifully nuanced three dimensional characters, witty dialogue and truthfully dysfunctional relationships. Not just among the men who form the center of the ensemble–Yaya Alafia (also great last year in The Butler, a film I liked less well) and Jean Grae (in her film debut!) make strong impressions in supporting–but superbly drawn–roles. I was nervous given that Alafia plays a stripper, and stripper characters tend to be really crappy and offensive, especially if they’re women in a movie primarily about dudes, but Big Words manages to largely avoid stereotype and cliché in favor of depicting believable people. I maybe laughed more while watching this than at any other film this year, and those laughs meant more as this is a bittersweet relationship drama as much as a comedy. It’s not a cranking-them-out jokefest. It is a fine, fine film that I look forward to watching again.
1.The Act of Killing This movie is just…now that my more visceral memories of the experience of seeing it have faded, I’m getting worked up to watch it again on Netflix (it’s on there. Watch it.) I went with three friends. One of them, who is Chinese, literally, loudly said “Holy shit” as the credits started to roll. Afterwards we talked a little about the film (mostly “Wow. Fuck.” etc), but there was no after-film drink and social. We were kinda like. “Ok. I guess I’ll go home. Bye.” We all really, really liked it, but also were completely spent and felt, well, fucked up. This film fucks you up. It fucked me the fuck up, and I don’t have nearly as direct a connection to the atrocities examined in it as some of my friends. About halfway through the film (I still remember the part, but I won’t spoil anything for you) I became physically nauseous, and the nausea did not go away until I went to sleep. The ability to make you sick is not, in and of itself, the mark of a good film, of course. This film was by far my favorite this year, despite how enormously unpleasant most of it was to watch, because it was the one that made me go “holy shit, this is what film can do”. Curious and generous in the face of real world horror, this film not only cuts past platitudes and deep into the genuinely thorny question of how individual real, three dimensional people become willing participants in systemic violence, torture and murder, but takes its subjects through a narrative and consciousness altering experience as well. Fiction and documentary, film and reality may never have blurred to such a profound effect. This is not hyperbole. Everyone involved in making this (especially the countless crew members credited, for their own safety, as “anonymous”) are my heroes.
The Act of Killing, Big Words, Newlyweeds, Blackfish and Dirty Wars are all on Netflix. Please watch them.