Category: 2014


Whiplash1

I started dating my first real girlfriend in the final weeks of my senior year of high school. Before that, I’d “dated” girls that I called “girlfriend” and they called me “boyfriend,” but that was middle school and considering the fact that we never kissed or went on dates or called each other on the phone or really did much of anything besides hold hands as we walked around the school, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t really count. I digress. This girl and I dated for a couple months. To this day, I’m not sure I ever had a more natural romantic relationship with somebody. We were both too young for the guarded cynicism of adult relationships. We were simply ourselves, and we were happy. Emphasis on “were.”

It was all well and good until this girl came back from a Christian bible summer camp. I’m a “teapot agnostic” now, but I was a devout Christian at the time. I read the Bible. I went to a weekly Bible study. My faith was integral to who I was. But this girl made me look like a militant atheist. She was a hardcore Southern Baptist. She exclusively wore ankle-length denim skirts to school. Her parents wouldn’t let her listen to the Beatles. My spirituality at the time was imbued with a degree of (and I hate to use this word now cause it’s so condescending but that’s how I was at the time) tolerance. I didn’t think gay people were sinners. I respected the rights of other folks to have different religious beliefs than me. This girl did not.

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Leviathan1

Nature is cruel and horrific.Yes, it can be beautiful. It only takes a trip to a major natural landmark to establish that, but the entire premise of “life” is predicated on barbarism: murder to survive, starvation for those that don’t, ultimate extermination of anything that can’t assert its dominance at the top of the food chain. And a fair existential question is: If your chances in life of experiencing consistent suffering are so high — much higher than living a life of ease and pleasure — then why should we keep trying at this experiment in life at all? Most people — myself include — would respond with: family, friendship, romance. Those heights transcend the inherent tragedy of life, but in the bleak Russian drama Leviathan, it’s not easy to keep those escapes in mind when an avalanche of tragedy takes hold.

The story of Job as I imagine Michael Haneke might conceive it, Leviathan equates the oppressive cruelty of nature and life with existence under the post-Soviet Russian state and unlike Job, a benevolent God doesn’t exist at the end of the tunnel of your trials. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a hot-headed mechanic in a small, coastal town in northern Russia, faces the seizure of his home and garage by his town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Although Kolya’s former army buddy and closest friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a handsome lawyer from Moscow, has dirt implicating the mayor in gruesome crimes, Kolya’s temper, the deep unhappiness of his long-suffering wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and the oppressive power of the Russian state threaten to grind Kolya away until there’s nothing left but his bones… not unlike the titular skeleton of the “leviathan” whale on the town’s coast.

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Nightcrawler1

(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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Best of Movies: 451-500

This is going to be different than many of my Best Of lists simply because I won’t have an actual review to link to. So, instead, I’ll write very short 2-3 sentence blurbs about any film/performance/director that I don’t have any actual review of so you can understand my logic for picking them. If you want to see the scores for the various films that I watched during this 50 block (and want an explanation for why so many movies I don’t have reviews), check out this link which is about my hiatus and all the films I’ve watched in the meantime. Anyways, let’s talk about movies!

Best Picture – Drama:

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1. 12 Years a Slave

2. La Dolce Vita (A masterful and melancholic look into the hedonistic and empty lifestyles of the Roman jet-setters in the 1960s. Another all-time classic from one of cinema’s greatest, Federico Fellini.)

3. Memento

4. Boys Don’t Cry (A heartwrenching treatise on that most basic human yearning for more than the small, trapped world you know and the cruelty of those who refuse to accept that which they don’t understand)

5. Serpico

 

Best Picture – Comedy:

AfterHours2

1. After Hours (One of the all time great dark comedies and a perfect encapsulation of the ennui and angst of the 80s and Reagan’s America told through a series of Kafka-esque misadventures.

2. Chasing Amy (One of my three favorite films of all time. One of the most honest and clever depictions of modern sexuality and the 90s answer to Annie Hall, if not quite as great as the greatest American comedy of all time)

3. The Wolf of Wall Street

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox

5. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the best feature from Britain’s premiere pranksters. A master class in absurdism and high-brow humor. There’s more classic sketches in that film than can honestly be believed)

 

Best Director:

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1. Steve McQueen: 12 Years a Slave

2. Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita

3. Sidney Lumet: Serpico

4. Paolo Sorrentino: The Great Beauty (One of the most visually stunning films since The Tree of Life and easily a modern response to La Dolce Vita. Sorrentino’s instant classic is an entrancing portrait of modern existential angst and a love letter to Rome)

5. Martin Scorsese: The Wolf of Wall Street

 

Best Actor in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Harvey Keitel: Bad Lieutenant (Simply put, this was one of the most fearless, balls-to-the-wall gonzo performances in movie history. If you want to see a man on the edge of oblivion, Harvey Keitel is phenomenal in this cult classic.)

2. Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler (Sean Penn was also spectacular in Milk in 2008, but the Oscar should have been Mickey Rourke for his bone-weary and tragic performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. His performance is so real, it hurts to watch.)

3. Al Pacino: Serpico

4. Chiwetel Ejiofor: 12 Years a Slave

5. Marcello Mastroianni: La Dolce Vita (If you want to know what it’s like to be an intellectual and realize that life itself is meaningless or at the very least, you’ve been living a meaningless life, watch Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. Existential breakdowns have never looked so good.)

 

Best Actress in a Dramatic Role:

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1. Hillary Swank: Boys Don’t Cry (This isn’t just the greatest performance by a female actress in the history of cinema. It is easily one of the greatest and most transformative performances of all time. This is one of cinema’s most legendary roles and performances.)

2. Cate Blanchett: Blue Jasmine (She’s basically playing a 21st century Blanche DuBois, but Cate Blanchett’s Best Actress Oscar this year was well-deserved in a Woody Allen film that is tough to watch because the emotions are so uncomfortable and intense.)

3. Adele Exarchopolous: Blue Is the Warmest Color (An electric and career-making performance from an extraordinarily talented young actress. Never has first love been so devastating to watch thanks to her soulful and wise turn.)

4. Judi Dench: Philomena

5. Patricia Clarkson: The Station Agent (She’s one of indie cinema’s darlings for a reason, and as the lonely divorcee that befriends Peter Dinklage, she brings gravitas to a role that could have too easily become cliche.)

 

Best Actor in a Comedic Role:

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1. Leonardo DiCaprio: The Wolf of Wall Street

2. Bill Murray: Broken Flowers (Alongside Lost in Translation, this one of the best roles of Bill Murray’s illustrious career, and few actors can channel the world wear misery of a washed-up Casanova while still bringing the laughs when called for.)

3. Christian Bale: American Hustle (Great things happen when  Christian Bale works with David O. Russell and while American Hustle might have been slight compared to last year’s masterful Silver Linings Playbook, Christian Bale was dazzling as the fast-talking con man.)

4. Ben Affleck: Chasing Amy (Gone Girl gives me hope that Ben’s career as a legitimate actor might be revived, but Ben Affleck hasn’t had a role as rewarding or challenging as Holden in over a decade, and it’s nice to remind yourself that the man can really act. His credentials as a director on the other hand aren’t in question. He’s very talented.)

5. Paul Rudd: This Is 40 (This Is 40 was too long and had way too many moments that didn’t work the way they should have, but Paul Rudd brought unexpected emotional depth that made a film that shouldn’t have worked actually work because his performance rang so true.)

 

Best Actress in a Comedic Role:

ChasingAmy2

1. Joey Lauren Adams: Chasing Amy (A role that could have been too close to being one-note, or even worse, unrealistic because of the subtlety of Alyssa’s sexual identity/orientation. But Joey Lauren Adams brought a maturity and insight to the role that was often better than the role deserved.)

2. Leslie Mann: This Is 40 (Like Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann’s performance helped to salvage a film that might not have worked if the performances weren’t totally on spot. And even more than Rudd, Leslie Mann brought a desperation and sense of being trapped to a woman beginning to exit middle age.)

3. Shannyn Sossamon: The Rules of Attraction (Few films, although the book is infinitely better, capture the confusion of sexuality and lust and bad decision making in college as well as The Rules of Attraction, and Shannyn Sossamon totally inhabits her character’s lack of direction.)

4. Amy Adams: American Hustle (Let no one say that Amy Adams can’t act because once again, David O. Russell brings out the best in her although I wished that the role she played offered her even more to do.)

5. Idina Menzel: Frozen (Idina Menzel has the voice of an angel. What else do I need to say here?)

 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

LessThanZero1

1. Robert Downey Jr.: Less Than Zero (The movie is a train wreck but Robert Downey Jr. gives one of the best performances of his career and one of the best performances of the 80s as a completely coked out college drop out with no idea how to live his life. It’s real-life subtext makes it almost too much to watch as Downey spirals further and further out of control.)

2. Michael Fassbender: 12 Years a Slave

3. Leonardo DiCaprio: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (At the age of 19, Leonardo DiCaprio gave a nuanced and authentic performance of a young man with a mental disability, and a star was immediately born.)

4. Peter Sarsgaard: Boys Don’t Cry (Peter Sarsgaard plays a man who commits monstrous acts in Boys Don’t Cry, but he never turns him into a monster. And Sarsgaard reminds us that you never know who is capable of terrible brutality.)

5. Bradley Cooper: American Hustle (This was the real star performance from American Hustle, and Bradley Cooper’s transformation from Hollywood pretty boy to A List acting talent is a wonderful breath of fresh air. He steals the whole film.)

 

Best Supporting Actress:

AugustOsageCounty2

1. Meryl Streep: August: Osage County (Another walking disaster of a film, but Meryl Streep gives her best performance in recent memory [far better than The Iron Lady] and should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars instead of Lead Actress because Julia Roberts had the film’s lead role. A stunning turn in an otherwise awful film.)

2. Lupita N’yongo: 12 Years a Slave

3. Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle (J-Law continues her run as the most talented young actress in America. Lupita might have edged her out at the Oscars this year, but Jennifer Lawrence will have many more Academy Award noms and wins to come.

4. Marcia Gay Harden: The Mist (This movie doesn’t work if you don’t think Mrs. Carmody can convert the weak to her cause, and Marcia Gay Harden is such a terrifying vision of Christian rage and self-righteousness that you understand immediately why our tragic band of survivors want out of that grocery store and outside with the Lovecraftian monsters instead.)

5. Sally Hawkins: Blue Jasmine (It may not have been as substantive and challenging a role as she had in Happy-Go-Lucky, but as Cate Blanchett’s put-upon sister, she’s easily the most sympathetic and human figure in the film).

 

Alrighty! Come back in 50 films (which should take another three to four months), and we’ll have another one of these lists. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to review “A+” and “A” films again. Maybe we’ll even throw “A-” films in there for good measure.

Best of Movies: 401-450

As any of you who read the blog regularly know, I have decided to stop reviewing movies for the foreseeable future. I am working on a screenplay, and at the moment, the screenplay has the highest priority for my free time. That said, I haven’t stopped watching movies, and one of the reasons that I started in this blog in the first place was that I wanted to be able to sort in my mind what were actually the best films of any given year because I rarely agreed with the Oscars. I.e., Argo was only the seventh best of just the Best Picture nominees for me in 2012 (and there were plenty of non-nominees that I preferred to it as well). With that being the case, I figured I could still keep making these lists of what were the best movies and performances of the last 50 films I’ve seen. The unfortunate side of this is that there won’t be links to the reviews for many of these for at least the next good while. Although thankfully, the only film on this list without a review to link back to will be the drama A Love Song For Bobby Long. That will be more of a problem for future lists like this. Anyways, I hope you find something worth watching here.

 

Best Picture: Drama

TheBicycleThief2

1. The Bicycle Thief (1948)

2. Bergman’s “Trilogy of Faith:” Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), The Silence (1963)

3. To the Wonder (2012)

4. Into the Wild (2007)

5. Raging Bull (1980)

 

Best Picture: Comedy

BringingUpBaby2

1. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

2. Duck Soup (1933)

3. The Incredibles (2004)

4. Paranorman (2012)

5. Heathers (1989)

 

Best Director:

IngmarBergman1

1. Ingmar Bergman: His “Trilogy of Faith”

2. Terrence Malick: To the Wonder

3. Werner Herzog: Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

4. Vittorio De Sica: The Bicycle Thief

5. Martin Scorsese: Raging Bull

 

Best Actor in a Dramatic Role:

RagingBull2

1. Robert Deniro: Raging Bull

2. James Stewart: Vertigo (1958)

3. Gunnar Bjornstrand: Winter Light

4. Jean-Louis Trintingant: Amour (2012)

5. Lamberto Maggioriani: The Bicycle Thief

 

Best Actress in a Dramatic Role:

Amour3

1. Emmanuelle Riva: Amour

2. Harriett Andersson: Through a Glass Darkly

3. Ingrid Thulin: The Silence

4. Scarlett Johansson: A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004,  no review)

5. Charlotte Gainsbourg: Melancholia (2011)

 

Best Actor in a Comedic Role:

CaryGrant1

1. Cary Grant: Bringing Up Baby

2. Christian Slater: Heathers

3. Groucho Marx: Duck Soup

4. Craig T. Nelson: The Incredibles

5. Donald O’Connor: There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)

 

Best Actress in a Comedic Role:

BringingUpBaby3

1. Katharine Hepburn: Bringing Up Baby

2. Winona Ryder: Heathers

3. Holly Hunter: The Incredibles

4. Molly Ringwald: Sixteen Candles (1984)

5. Ethel Merman: There’s No Business Like Show Business

 

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:

IntoTheWild7

1. Hal Holbrook: Into the Wild

2. Albert Brooks: Drive (2011)

3. Max Von Sydow: Through a Glass Darkly

4. Joe Pesci: Raging Bull

5. Anthony Hopkins: The Elephant Man (198)

 

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:

TheSilence3

1. Gunnel Lindblom: The Silence

2. Catherine Keener: Into the Wild

3. Taraji P. Henson: Hustle & Flow (2005)

4. Cathy Moriarty: Raging Bull

5. Isabella Huppert: Amour

 

Alright, folks. That’s it for this time around. The next time I have one of these, I will have watched 500 movies for this blog (although, as I said, I’m guessing I won’t have actual reviews for them). I don’t like the idea of totally giving up on reviewing films so what I think will actually happen (cause I love writing too much to just stop) is that I will save my reviews for films that I consider to be an “A” or “A+” because generally speaking, those will be the reviews that I’ll have something particularly meaning to say about. Anyways, enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Blog Hiatus

Hello everyone. It is with some sadness in my heart that I have officially decided to take a miniature hiatus from this website in order to fully focus my attention on my screenwriting. I don’t know what it is, but I have difficult balancing “working on my screenplay” time with “writing for this blog” time, and at this point in my life, working on my screenplays is the bigger priority. I’ve managed to have some professional success as a writer thanks to this blog; I was able to gain an internship writing about music in NYC for the entire spring of 2012 and I also covered Bonnaroo for them as a photographer in 2013 and I still writer articles for them on occasion. But, I need to focus on my screenwriting again. I don’t know when I’m going to return to this site. I’ll still write a post at least once a week or every other week or so for the podcast that I do with my cousin (and I’ll share those posts on this blog). But, my New Year’s Resolution was to finally get an agent to say they wanted to read one of my scripts but then I distracted myself with this blog (mostly, I think, to avoid having to actually write), and it’s hard to get anyone to read your work if you aren’t doing any writing. I’ll be back someday and hopefully when I return, it will be with good news.

BrunoBettelheim1

Ignoring his discredited Freudian psychobabble, Bruno Bettelheim did more to contribute to our understanding of how the Nazi government attained and retained its power than any other public intellectual of the 20th century minus perhaps Hannah Arendt. By framing fascism as a system of self-affirmation in its subjects through collective rituals that provided positive re-inforcement of the self within a powerful and attractive group, Bettelheim placed fascism in the context of a collective decision to surrender ourselves to the machinations of a state because of imagined utility rather than the solitary evil of a dictatorship. That explanation may lack the simplicity of black & white moralism, but it’s far more representative of the actuality of human nature.

Having entered the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, the true threats to human liberty will not come from power-mad governments; Vladimir Putin’s last grasp for Russian hegemony reeks of the end of realpolitik as a driving social order. No, humanity may have learned the harsh lessons of collective sacrificing our will to the vagaries of nation-states. Instead, we’ve made the conscious decision to lose ourselves in the brands and corporations that have come to define our lives. The average American may be far removed from the Crimean maidan or the Arab Spring, but  ask them about the newest iPhone or the changes to their Twitter feed, and they’ll surely have a response.

ChicFilA1

Barring an emergent class consciousness in America (it’s not happening; I promise) and a severe backlash to austerity in Europe (possible but unlikely), the path of the 21st century will be defined by a continual shift from traditional nation state sovereignty to something more akin to corporate autocracy. If you doubt that claim, check campaign spending in the wake of Citizens United and then silently weep into your pillow for the fate of government separation from corporate interests. It’s not hard to imagine a world where the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world hold more sway than heads of state. It’s not hard to imagine because, let’s face it, we’re almost there, and we are responsible for it.

These are topics for academic papers or think pieces in the latest issue of Salon or Mother Jones not video games. Or at least, that was the case before I had the pleasure of playing A(s)century, a cyberpunk text adventure from Austin Walker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Ontario as well as a research associate for the Digital Labour Group. Full disclosure: I’ve known Austin for about a year now thanks to the video game streams of Phil Kollar on Twitch (where he’s a frequent contributor), and it was always clear that Austin was a highly intelligent and socially committed thinker; now, it’s also clear that he’s a hell of a writer.

Austerity1

A(s)century (more on its clever title in a bit) was a project of the Cyberpunk Game Jam, and it was made over the course of nine days. As I said, it’s a text adventure, so if you’re expecting graphics or modern game mechanics, look elsewhere; A(s)century places all of its chips on the strength of its interactive narrative, and like last year’s Gone Home, the gamble pays off. When the worst thing that you can say about a game is that it might have needed a better copy editor, you know you’re in for a unique and powerful experience.

A(s)century places the player in the shoes of a “runner,” cyberpunk parlance for a freelance agent taking jobs to put a little scratch on his credstick, in the year 2077. After an easy run, you find a prototype program called MindWriter; I’m still not entirely sure what the program does even after playing the game twice but that’s beside the point. The program gets you a gig as a copy writer for a powerful beverage corp, ReKafffe Services. And, thanks to the program, you slowly bend not only the corporations advertising but eventually lead it towards corporate state sovereignty as you acquire smaller companies into your fold.

BladeRunner1

I don’t want to spoil the path that A(s)century charts too much (though I recommend at least two playthroughs for cyberpunk neophytes like myself so you can accustom yourself to the jargon), but the game becomes a scathing commentary on the way that modern society subsumes our identity into that of the products we consume. You lead a corporation into global dominance only to see the human costs of your actions: labour strikes broken with lethal precision, puppet-head leaders thrown into office because you paid for it, environmental destruction. And all the while, the people define themselves by your company and your product.

The idea of making the player do horrendous things (in the name of gaining more resources to upgrade your MindWriter program [which, once again, still not sure what it does; don’t think that’s too important though]) is what makes A(s)century so powerful. By placing the responsibility for acquiring a company that can manipulate and enslave artificial lifeforms or one that sells patriotic memorabilia to maintain emotional control of the populace, it forces the player to confront their role in our modern consumer culture. When people lined up around the block to buy Chick-Fil-A after backlash against the company’s anti-gay donations, those Christians may have been re-affirming their religious beliefs but they were simultaneously lining that company’s pocket. And Chick-Fil-A knew it, and on some level, we as consumers knew it as well.

AppleStore1

As an avowed socialist, I am aware of humanity’s need to place responsibility into the collective and for our need to have identities beyond ourselves as a singular entity. But, throughout our history, we’ve managed time and time again to surrender our responsibilities to organizations/institutions that exist to take advantage of us. If there was a point to HBO’s The Wire, it’s that modern American governmental institutions have become (unintentionally) mechanisms for the manufacturing of suffering, and it is our own apathy and the entrenched nature of these institutions that mean we can not find a path to collectively beneficial change.

A(s)century understands this as well. When you make the often cataclysmic decisions you do in the game, they are never with the intent of ruining the world. But, when we entrust our very identities to corporate institutions, we sacrifice humanity to the profit margin. The moment I knew I had fallen in love with the game was one of the inter-act screens with quotes (which are scattered throughout) where Canadian capitalist Kevin O’Leary deifies the 1% as the realization of the American dream. The aspirational fallacy of American economics is one of the most dangerous pitfalls of our life: where people don’t act in their own rational self-interest because we’ve allowed ourselves to believe that the trickle-down will really come and that economic achievement is the most noble pursuit. And A(s)century has as low an opinion of that ambition as I do.

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Before I give the false impression that A(s)century is all doom and gloom, the game has a dry, subtle sense of humor, and it finds plenty of time for jokes in its Infinite Jest-esque hyper-text structure. The title itself is a clever joke about both climbing the corporate ladder as well as the century of history that you shape over the course of the game. Throw in the game’s stellar soundtrack (seriously, buy it here), and any one with a love of cyberpunk and politically motivated gaming has to check it out.

If you’re still on the fence about whether or not you should play the game, here’s the last test. If you appreciate this quote and understand how it relates to all I’ve said before, A(s)century is for you. Karl Marx: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” You can find A(s)century here: https://googledrive.com/host/0B8Vp_6RrfYFmd0FCS3ExbU5jNms/A%28s%29century.html . Take it for a spin; you won’t regret it.