Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top Films of 2013

Happy new year! And thanks for stopping by. While I certainly don't get to post my thoughts on film and filmmaking in this little corner of the internet very regularly anymore, one thing I do continue to do is watch a ton of movies. And this past year was no exception. 2013 was loaded with a veritable banquet of cinematic delights for the eyes, ears, heart and mind; and I tried my damnedest to take advantage of all the wealth. So, before I launch into it, let me just say that while this list is pretty exhaustive, it still by no means fully encompasses all of the movies I wish I had seen. Nor does this list fully represent all of the films I had seen in 2013 (there were a few real stinkers that do not merit any mention here). Nevertheless, out of all the films that were released in 2013, either in theaters or at festivals in the U.S., these are my Top 50. Hope you enjoy. And more importantly, if you haven't seen any of these films yet, I sincerely hope you get the chance to do so!


TOP 10

1. 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen

2. The Hunt, dir. Thomas Vinterberg

3. A Touch of Sin, dir. Zhangke Jia

4. The Selfish Giant, dir. Clio Barnard

5. All Is Lost, dir. J.C. Chandor

6. The Great Beauty, dir. Paolo Sorrentino

7. Her, dir. Spike Jonze

8. Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón

9. Stories We Tell, dir. Sarah Polley

10. The Grandmaster, dir. Wong Kar Wai

TOP 20-50

11. Before Midnight, dir. Richard Linklater
12. Blancanieves, dir. Pablo Berger
13. American Hustle, David O. Russell
14. Blue Is the Warmest Color, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche
15. The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese
16. Side Effects, dir. Steven Soderbergh
17. Byzantium, dir. Neil Jordan
18. To the Wonder, dir. Terrence Malick
19. Inside Llewyn Davis, dir. Ethan and Joel Coen
20. Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée
21. Short Term 12, dir. Destin Cretton
22. Cutie and the Boxer, dir. Zachary Heinzerling
23. This Is the End, dir. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen
24. The World's End, dir. Edgar Wright
25. Wadjda, dir. Haifaa Al-Monsour
26. The Rocket, dir. Kim Mordaunt
27. Ain't Them Bodies Saints, dir. David Lowery
28. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, dir. Sam Fleischner
29. The Kill Team, dir. Dan Krauss
30. Frances Ha, dir. Noah Baumbach
31. A Birder's Guide to Everything, dir. Rob Meyer
32. No, dir. Pablo Larraín
33. Beyond the Hills, dir. Cristian Mungiu
34. S#x Acts, dir. Jonathan Gurfinkel
35. The Bling Ring, dir. Sofia Coppola
36. Kon-Tiki, dir. Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
37. Upstream Color, dir. Shane Carruth
38. Leviathan, dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel
39. Blackfish, dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite
40. Sightseers, dir. Ben Wheatley
41. Haute Cuisine, dir. Christian Vincent
42. The Broken Circle Breakdown, dir. Felix Van Groeningen
43. Just a Sigh, dir. Jérôme Bonnell
44. Don Jon's Addiction, dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
45. What Maisie Knew, dir. Scott McGehee and David Siegel
46. At Any Price, dir. Ramin Bahrani
47. Hide Your Smiling Faces, dir. Daniel Patrick Carbone
48. Lily, dir. Matt Creed
49. The Girl, dir. David Riker
50. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, dir. Mira Nair

As in previous years, my top 10 films have also been tallied as part of an annual mini-poll conducted amongst a casual group of film critics and writers, organized and compiled by the indefatigable Michael Anderson. You can find the collective results of the poll at Ten Best Films.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Top Ten Films of 2012

Why, hello. Nice to see you (hypothetical reader) after nearly a year of my absence from this blog!

Though I have heard fellow friends and acquaintances bemoan the "slim pickings" from amongst film choices released in 2012, personally I found no such dearth of absolutely terrific cinema to be found. Below, I am happy to present my list of the top ten films that played at festivals, or in limited and wide release in the year of the supposed Mayan Apocalypse. Please to enjoy. I hope to soon publish several other "Best Of" lists in various film categories in the coming days. In the meantime, if you do plan on screening any of these films in the near future (which I highly encourage), happy watching!


1. 
Amour, dir. Michael Haneke




2. 
Holy Motors, dir. Leos Carax




3. 
Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson




4. 
Life of Pi, dir. Ang Lee




5. 
Once Upon a Time In Anatolia, dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan




6. 
Beasts of the Southern Wild, dir. Benh Zeitlin




7. 
Wuthering Heights, dir. Andrea Arnold




8. 
Killer Joe, dir. William Friedkin




9. 
Breathing, dir. Karl Markovics




10. 
Oslo, August 31st, dir. Joachim Trier



Honorable Mentions In No Particular Order: Keep the Lights On, dir. Ira Sachs; Monsieur Lazhar, dir. Philippe Falardeau; Looper, dir. Rian Johnson; Argo, dir. Ben Affleck; The Loneliest Planet, dir. Julia Loktev; Seven Psychopaths, dir. Martin McDonagh; Red Hook Summer, Spike Lee; Miss Bala, Gerardo Naranjo; The Deep Blue Sea, dir. Terence Davies; Jiro Dreams of Sushi, dir. David Gelb; Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Love; Postcards from the Zoo, dir. Edwin; Una Noche, dir. Lucy Mulloy; Habibi Karbak Rahsan, dir. Susan Youssef; Magic Mike, dir. Steven Soderbergh; Rust and Bone, dir. Jacques Audiard; Beyond the Hills, dir. Cristian Mungiu; Your Sister's Sister, dir. Lynn Shelton; Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, dir. Alison Klayman; The Imposter, dir. Bart Layton; The Queen of Versailles, dir. Lauren Greenfield; Jackpot, dir. Magnus Martens; Lincoln, dir. Steven Spielberg; Zero Dark Thirty, dir. Kathryn Bigelow; Django Unchained, dir. Quentin Tarantino; The Master, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson; Anna Karenina, dir. Joe Wright; Les Miserables, dir. Tom Hooper; Silver Linings Playbook, dir. David O. Russell; Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, dir. Donald Rice

Monday, January 23, 2012

Last Train Home

A scene from Lixin Fan's Last Train Home.

Happy Chinese New Year, readers!

Every year, when Chinese New Year comes around, my family and I gather around a big celebratory meal together, replete with all the delicious foods that symbolize prosperity, longevity, and success within the Chinese culture.

Like us, millions of families of Asian descent around the globe also gather to celebrate the beginning of the new Lunar calendar year. For many people in China, however, Chinese New Year in fact marks the only time millions of migrant workers will have the opportunity to see their families at all in any given year. For most Western cultures, the geographic splintering of families as adult children leave the nest in order to forge their own paths is by now a phenomenon considered rote. However, by contrast, the extraordinarily rapid industrialization of China's economy has resulted in a particularly striking, sudden, and by some turns tragic iteration of this concept.

Within the last decade, as the Chinese government has allowed more privatized business models to take hold within the country, opportunities for the lower classes to earn more money have exploded. Most of these opportunities lie in factory work within the country's largest cities, while the majority of the country's most economically depressed citizens live in the nation's rural and outlying areas. Meanwhile, the Chinese ethos of placing emphasis upon a child's education as the primary means for a family's upward mobility still remains as strong as ever. Thus, a paradigm that is essentially the inverse to many Western cultures has manifested in which not only have grown children left their homes to seek their fortunes far away, but millions of parents from rural farming communities have also left young children behind in the care of elderly grandparents in order to seek employment, eking out livings in large urban centers so as not to interrupt their children's study. For a culture that has long prioritized filial piety above all else, this massive exodus of both parents and children from the home alike appears to be causing major ruptures in China's societal fabric, in effect rendering the family unit obsolete and many of its traditional values along with it.

Thus, the annual celebration of Chinese New Year has come to take on even more significance for these families who have become estranged-- parents who have not seen their children in years, brothers and sisters who can barely remember a time when they lived together. Few people outside of China can empathize or even really imagine just how highly emotional, hazardous, and sometimes impossible a feat it can be for these families to make the trip home for this sometimes jubilant, but often bittersweet reunion-- which is perhaps what makes Lixin Fan's 2009 documentary, Last Train Home, so extraordinary.

Produced by the same folks who made Up the Yangtze, Last Train Home chronicles the ups and downs and gradual disintegration of a family as it succumbs to the enormous pressures, expectations, and distances they are forced to endure within this quickly transforming society. Within its first few minutes, the film informs the viewers via subtitles that every Chinese New Year, 130 million workers go home, making it "the world's largest single migration." We then watch as the spectacle of these millions move together in one mass of humanity through the nation's overwhelmed and antiquated rail system. A sea of anxious faces. The pounding of millions of frantic footsteps, mixed with calls of distress, confusion, desperation, and in some cases complete emotional meltdowns. It is one of the most astonishing displays of the lengths to which humans will go in order to reconnect with what we abstractly term as our "roots." The real tragedy of the film, then, is perhaps the slow realization that begins to set in as we follow the journey of one family, The Zhangs, that this ideal of the family hearth to which millions of Chinese citizens cling and hearken back each year is gradually slipping away. Fan never drives this point home with heavy-handed voiceovers or leading editorializing; rather, his unobtrusive lens simply follows the Zhangs and watches-- sometimes with startling intimacy, but always at a respectful distance-- as they grow frustrated, grow tired, and eventually grow apart. At a time when so many families are celebrating the new year with food for feasting, Last Train Home provides much food for thought.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011

I love movies. So do a lot of my friends. Which is why many of us collectively agonize over deciding which ones rank among our favorites each year. But, after much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, one finally just has to pull the trigger and make a damned list. So here is my round-up of the Top 10 Films of 2011. And, because the field was so incredibly packed last year, I've also ranked an additional 15 films to round out my Top 25. 2011 was as densely rich a year for movie-going as any in recent memory. Therefore, please keep in mind that there isn't really a wide margin between any of these choices in my estimation. I truly either loved or really liked them all. So, please to enjoy! And if you haven't seen any of these movies, then I sincerely hope you get the chance to screen them soon. Many of them are now available either on DVD, via online streaming, or are still playing in theaters in most major cities.

Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist.

  1. Hugo, dir. Martin Scorsese
  2. The Artist, dir. Michel Hazanavicius
  3. A Separation, dir. Asghar Farhadi
  4. The Descendants, dir. Alexander Payne
  5. Pina 3D, dir. Wim Wenders
  6. The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick
  7. House of Pleasures, dir. Bertrand Bonello
  8. Margin Call, dir. J.C. Chandor
  9. Martha Marcy May Marlene, dir. Sean Durkin
  10. Shame, dir. Steve McQueen
  11. Pariah, dir. Dee Rees
  12. Take Shelter, dir. Jeff Nichols
  13. Drive, dir. Nicolas Winding Refn
  14. Jane Eyre, dir. Cary Fukunaga
  15. The Skin I Live In, dir. Pedro Almodóvar
  16. Margaret, dir. Kenneth Lonergan
  17. Beginners, dir. Mike Mills
  18. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, dir. David Fincher
  19. Attack the Block, dir. Joe Cornish
  20. The Trip, dir. Michael Winterbottom
  21. The Loving Story, dir. Nancy Buirski
  22. Weekend, dir. Andrew Haigh
  23. For Lovers Only, dir. Michael Polish
  24. Midnight In Paris, dir. Woody Allen
  25. Melancholia, dir. Lars von Trier
  26. The Swell Season, dirs. Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis

*Two updates: I am aghast at having realized after posting this list that I mistakenly omitted three very worthy titles: the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York (dir. Richard Press); the modern adaptation of William Shakespeare's Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes); and the raunch comedy, Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig). Though none of these three would have made my Top 10, they all certainly merit inclusion in this list overall.

Secondly, you can see how my Top 10 have figured into the yearly Mini-Poll over at Ten Best Films, which represents the consensus of a small sample of current graduate students and alumni of New York University and Yale University.


*Another belated update (Feb. 9, 2012): I finally saw Martin Scorsese's absolutely beautiful and moving HUGO. Sorry, everyone. This one takes the top prize, knocking The Artist (which, for the record, I still adore) down to number 2. A new film has been crowned.


Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in Hugo.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

J. Hoberman Laid Off From The Village Voice


Though I love to write about films, I don't pretend to be a "real" film critic. I leave the serious business to many of my peers, such as Matt Singer and R. Emmet Sweeney, both of whom have been adding their fine voices to the cinephilic dialogue in print and online for years. One of the most auspicious publications in which Mr. Singer and Mr. Sweeney's film reviews have often appeared is The Village Voice, which has also been the home of the rightfully revered film critic J. Hoberman for several decades.

Well, last night, the shocking news came out-- to the outrage of many-- that the Voice has lain Mr. Hoberman off. I won't go into all the details; you can read about it here. However, one thing is for sure: not only has the world of film criticism been rocked by the news, but the Voice has surely just made one of the biggest mistakes in its long, embattled history. As far as most of the weekly's readers are concerned, J. Hoberman was the voice of the Voice. A titan in the industry may have been temporarily displaced, but the Voice has just lost a significant portion of its readership for good. Guess it's all sex ads (no, literally-- it's all just sex ads) from here on out.

*Update: J. Hoberman's farewell message to the staff of The Village Voice appeared this morning on his blog.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011


Taking just a moment today to mourn the death of cinema icon Elizabeth Taylor, who died this morning of congestive heart failure. She was 79.

In a career that spanned more the 70 years and with over 50 film credits to her name, Ms. Taylor was the epitome of Hollywood beauty and glamour. She won two Academy Awards for her performance as the call-girl Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1960), and as the scornful wife Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hollywood Remakes Jerry Lewis. Again.

  

Though I have wanted to write about a number of different topics for a while now, I recently read a bit of news that reaffirmed both my ongoing disdain for Hollywood's pandering to mainstream commercial tastes as well as my dismay at the memory of yet another classic film being sullied by the specter of a potentially bad remake. The source of my consternation? Jerry Lewis' announcement in January that he was selling the rights to three of his most beloved films: The Bellboy, Cinderfella, and The Family Jewels. Variety reports that Artificial Intelligence Entertainment and Social Capital Films have signed an exclusive development deal with the screen comedy legend to "reboot each picture as a stand-alone comedy franchise, drawing heavily from Lewis’ comedic genius, as well as his heart-warming storytelling.”

Anyone who read my piece on Jerry Lewis in Scarlett Cinema last year knows how much I adored his films as a child (I still do). So when I heard that he was allowing the studios to remake these wonderfully absurd films-- particularly The Bellboy-- I was more than a little anxious that film executives, hard-pressed to produce sure-fire hits, would not be able to do the films justice. In fact, as of this writing, I am almost certain that they won't. Lewis' films are indelibly marked and characterized by the comedian's own specific brand of physical comedy, which is completely original and wholly embodied by the star's unique on-screen presence. So it comes as no surprise that studios like Paramount and Universal, who have yet to win the bid for these films, are hoping to capitalize upon Lewis' legacy and cash in, just as Universal did with its remake of The Nutty Professor (and sequels) in the late 1990s.

Lewis' candidness in interviews about being aware of the studios' reliance upon tried and true material speaks to one of the greater issues plaguing Hollywood right now; and that is an overarching terror of  anything considered to be risky or original. Though Inception proved last year that audiences were willing to pay the full price of a movie ticket to see a big Hollywood film based on a totally original concept, executives at major studios still seem to view this as the exception rather than the rule. Case in point: seven out of the top ten highest grossing films at the box office last year (Toy Story 3; Alice In Wonderland; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1; Shrek Forever After; The Twighlight Saga: Eclipse; Iron Man 2; Clash of the Titans) were either a remake or a sequel, demonstrating that most studio heads simply aren't willing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in vehicles that don't already have a built-in franchise or name brand recognition. At least, not while the economy is still weak, ticket sales are barely holding steady, and revenue from DVD sales are in sharp decline. And so the machine chugs onward, cannibalizing great films of the past while the majority of unique voices in the industry are relegated to the margins of indie-film purgatory.

To my mind, perhaps the most galling thing of all is the sheer irony of the Lewis remake deal: when Lewis was allowed to make his directorial debut with The Bellboy in 1960, he essentially staked his claim as a maverick among filmmakers at the time. He initially began producing his own films so as not to be hindered by studio mandates. Restricted by budget and scheduling constraints, Lewis shot The Bellboy entirely in one location and without a script. He was also the first director in Hollywood to make use of video assist, which has since become an industry standard. In short, Jerry Lewis established himself as a filmmaker who was not only afraid to try new things, he could not tolerate making films in any other way but his own. The result was a legacy towards which Hollywood is now scampering because most studio executives are currently too risk averse to make the kind of bold choices that once guided Jerry Lewis' own career.

*Note: Despite my cynicism towards the remakes of The Bellboy, Cinderfella, and The Family Jewels, fans of Lewis' work can at least be consoled by the fact that Lewis himself will be critically involved in every step of these films' development. So, there's that. Here's hoping.