There are some who would take an interview with Noam Chomsky – philosopher, cognitive scientist, linguist, all around smartypants – and try to simplify it, make it easier for the audience to understand.
In his documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Gondry invites the audience to puzzle through the words of the genius who believes the world is a mystery and that we are all the better for it. The director, therefore, goes out of his way to ensure that we are befuddled, because, according to Chomsky, that’s the only way to go through life. If we believe we understand, then we don’t probe, question, challenge.
So, Gondry creates a challenge. Indeed, the obstacles to comprehensibility are either alarming or hilarious. Abstract animation can be tough to understand. So can Gondry’s thick French accent. So can Chomsky. Gondry piles on with intentionally distracting camera noise and, on occasion, the obscuring volume of background music.
If all this seems frustrating, strangely enough, that’s not the effect Gondry achieves. Eventually, the filmmaker’s wonder and the subject’s challenges to puzzle out what’s happening wash over you, and you let go of your own instinct to predict what comes next in order to comprehend what is happening. You achieve your own sense of wonder at the befuddlement of it all.
The secret is Gondry himself, who is trying and failing to keep up. It’s endearing, but it’s also a relief. You’re not the only one.
People looking for an informative document of Chomsky’s life will be wildly disappointed. This film is not about what you want to see. It’s about what Gondry always wanted to ask Noam Chomsky if he ever got the chance. Plus cartoons!
Is Spike Jonze the most imaginative American filmmaker working today?
Yes. Need proof?
This is the guy who turned the beloved, 10-sentence children’s book Where the Wild Things Are into the most heartbreaking and wondrous film of 2009. The guy who could make the act of adapting existing work into the most original film of 2002 (Adaptation).
Hell, it’s the man who made his directorial debut telling the tale of a filing clerk who sells tickets into John Malkovich’s head. And the quality of his output has only improved, taking on a depth and beauty since he began writing his projects as well.
With Her, the first film Jonze has written entirely on his own, he’s crafted the year’s most poignant love story.
It sounds like the lead-in to a joke: A man falls in love with his computer operating system. Who, besides Jonze, could take a premise like and turn it into a masterful image of our times?
Joaquin Phoenix plays the lonely and emotionally bruised Theodore, in the not-too-distant-future Los Angeles. Still reeling from a break up, Theodore shies away from traditional intimacy, but finds himself attracted to the newest update in operating systems: the OS that evolves to meet every need.
Credit Jonze for sidestepping every imaginable cliché – and there are plenty – and instead exploring society’s current trajectory with surprising tenderness, perhaps even optimism. Yes, he notes the superficiality of relationships in the technological age, and the tendency toward isolation. But it’s not like he believes the machines are going to rise up and enslave us.
Not that he exactly rules that out.
What he does instead is almost magical. He introduces us to the very picture of humanity in Samantha, the operating system. Scarlett Johansson voices the character, and enough cannot be said of her performance. It’s easy to undervalue voice talent, but Johansson shows what can be done with nothing else to rely on – no facial expressions, no setting, no gestures. Her performance is an absolute wonder.
Likewise, Phoenix is magnificent, falling in love on screen with no physical being to perform against. His work is vulnerable and touching enough to take your breath.
A sparkling supporting group, including Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, a very funny Chris Pratt, fills out the cast, each making the utmost of the environment Jonze has created.
The film looks and feels amazing, with every detail of set design and script enhancing and deepening the impact of the love story. It’s a beautiful, imaginative, relevant image of love in the modern world.
Available today on DVD and Blu-ray is the most breathtaking, mind boggling documentary of this or perhaps any year, The Act of Killing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer, along with dozens of filmmakers who remain anonymous for their own safety, work with the people who slaughtered more than a million Indonesians in 1965 to reenact their own crimes – or heroics, as they see it. The result is absolutely unlike anything you have ever seen. A jaw dropping act of discovery, the film is a masterpiece, a brave and confrontational effort, and essential viewing.
We usually pair new releases with backlist titles that match up well, but honestly, there is nothing on earth quite like The Act of Killing. The best we can do is to recommend Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). The documentary looks at the making of Coppola’s extraordinary film, detailing the unsavory chaos on set and the madness of the shoot – another peek inside insanity.
Some people eat sauerkraut to begin the New Year, but if weather predictions hold true, we may be looking at snowbound isolation, even power outages. How long will your provisions hold out?! After enough time homebound and desperate, you might find yourself contemplating roasting a leg of neighbor over an open fire.
Should you find yourself in such a state, here are a few films you can think of as how-to’s.
7. Motel Hell (1980)
Super cheese director Kevin Connor teamed up with low rent 80s staple Nancy Parsons and 50s heartthrob Rory Calhoun – not to mention Elaine Joyce and John Ratzenberger – to create one of the best bad horror films ever made. So gloriously bad! Farmer Vincent (Calhoun) makes the county’s tastiest sausage, and runs the Motel Hello as well. Now if swingers (note: cannibals are always eating swingers) keep disappearing from the motel, and mysterious, bubbly moans are coming from those sacks out back, that does not necessarily mean anything is amiss. Motel Hell is a deeply disturbed, inspired little low budget jewel.
It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.
6. Eating Raoul (1982)
This bone-dry black comedy plays like an early John Waters film made with less money and more irony. The sexually repressed Mary and Paul Bland need to generate capital to open a restaurant and get away from the customers, patients, and neighbors constantly trying to have sex with them. They team up with a scam artist and thief named Raoul, played with almost shocking aptitude, considering the film itself, by Robert Beltran. Together the threesome knock off perverts and swingers, rob them, and sell their bodies for dog food. But when Raoul gets a little too ambitious, not to mention lucky with Mary, well, the couple is forced to eat him. And live happily ever after.
It’s amazing what you can do with a cheap piece of meat if you know how to treat it.
5. Soylent Green (1973)
Soylent Green may not be the most famous of Charlton Heston’s sci-fi cult classics, but his granite-jawed overacting is so perfect for this melodramatic examination of human nature, greed and desperation that it is still an amusing genre study. Heston is a cop in this urban nightmare of an overpopulated future where the elderly are wooed into euthanasia by the same company that produces the only food available. You do the math. You’ll undoubtedly do it faster than Heston does, but that doesn’t undermine the fun.
You’ve got to tell them! Soylent Green is people!
4. Titus (1999)
Director Julie Taymor glories in the spectacle of Shakespeare’s bloodiest play. Considered a pot boiler when it was written, it compares favorably in this century’s ultra-violent landscape. Titus, (Anthony Hopkins, perennial man eater), returns victorious from war, but the violence he wrought revisits him when he becomes entangled with a diabolical widow/war spoil (the ever-luminous Jessica Lange). Cannibalism, incest, rape, mutilation, infanticide, and an enormity of assorted carnage take on a surreal beauty under Taymor’s artistic direction.
Hark, villains, I shall grind your bones to dust, and of your blood I shall make a paste.
3. Delicatessen (1991)
Equal parts Eraserhead, Motel Hell and Amelie, Delicatessen is a weird, wild film. Set in the apartment building around a macabre butcher shop in a surreal, post-apocalyptic France, the film addresses the same cannibalism catalyst explored in many films: a human race that destroys everything required to sustain life and must turn to the only nourishment left. The carnival funhouse approach to cinematography predicts the absurdly funny take this black comedy has on humanity and its future.
Answer me meathead.
2. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The action in this granddaddy of all cult films turns on one dinner scene. (Now you yell “Meatloaf again?!”) Creator Richard O’Brien’s raucous, once-controversial film about a sweet transvestite, a slut, an asshole and a couple of domestics who sing, time warp, throw rice, animate monsters, swap partners, and finally put on a show is still as much fun as it ever was. Once a subversive take on the classic musicals and sci-fi films of the 30s and 40s, Rocky Horror is now a high-camp icon of its own.
I’m afraid you’ve touched on a rather tender subject there, Dr. Scott. Another slice, anyone?
1. Silence of The Lambs (1991)
Why miss any opportunity to watch one of the most perfect horror films ever made? The fact that a movie about a man who eats human flesh tracking down a man who wears human flesh could win all five major Academy awards is itself a testament to how impeccably this film is put together. From the muted colors, haunting score, and meticulous cinematography to the shockingly authentic performances from Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and Ted Levine, Silence of the Lambs is a stunning achievement in any film genre.
I do wish we could chat longer but I’m having an old friend for dinner.
The film Open Grave immediately brings to mind Adrien Brody’s underseen 2010 flick Wrecked. In it, Brody wakes from a car crash in a daunting patch of geography with no memory of who he is or how he got there, but evidence suggests that maybe he’s not the film’s good guy. We spend the next 90 minutes with him as he pieces together clues to his identity and situation and tries to survive pretty inhospitable circumstances.
Likewise, in Open Grave, Sharlto Copley awakens with no memory. He’s not in a car, though. He finds himself deep in a pit atop a heap of dead bodies.
The trajectory is similar, but director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego does not have a tense man-against-nature thriller in mind. He throws a lot of clues at Sharlto’s confused Jonah, all of them tinged with enough blood and barbed wire that our protagonist doesn’t just believe he may not be a good guy. He knows he may be a very, very bad man.
Jonah is not alone, though. In the house not far from the body pit is a rattled group of amnesiac survivors, all of whom are trying to puzzle their way through the gory evidence to figure out what the hell is happening to them.
There is one other film that clearly inspired Open Grave, but to mention it by name would be to give away too much because the grim clues, anxious sleuthing and varying possibilities keep this film suspenseful and queasyingly entertaining.
Copley, whose career has been an act of diminishing returns since his magnificent feature film debut in District 9, offers a solid, grounded turn here. His characterization evolves as his character’s experiences demand, and Copley conveys the proper instincts at each point in Jonah’s quest for survival.
Screenwriters Chris and Eddie Borey take the cabin in the woods premise and layer it with numerous additional horror tropes to pull together a surprisingly engaging picture. It’s full of grim twists and imaginative surprises….until it isn’t.
Lopez-Gallego keeps his storytelling one step ahead of the audience for most of the journey, but when we catch up and are given the big reveal, the film has too little left to offer. It then falls back on nothing more than standard horror fare, providing an unfittingly clichéd ending to what had been a clever braiding of familiar threads.
At one point, it looked like 2013 was going to be a bloody banner year for horror. Remember that time? We’d already seen the magnificence of the Evil Dead remake as well as the spooktacular glory of the original The Conjuring, and we still had You’re Next, The Purge, Insidious: Chapter 2 and Carrie to go? Too bad those last few couldn’t live up to expectations.
The year did produce a handful of really excellent horror flicks, though. Here is our Top 5.
Director Neil Jordan returned to the modern day/period drama vampire yarn this year. Thanks to two strong leads, he pulls it off. Saoirse Ronan is the perfectly prim and ethereal counterbalance to Gemma Arterton’s street-savvy survivor, and we follow their journey as they avoid The Brotherhood who would destroy them for making ends meet and making meat of throats. Jordan’s new vampire drama attempts a bit of feminism but works better as a tortured love story.
4. Simon Killer
The effortlessly creepy Brady Corbet plays the title role in Simon Killer, a college kid alone in Paris after a messy break up. He’s loathsome and cowardly and impossible to ignore as he hatches a plan with his new prostitute girlfriend – a wonderfully tender Constance Rousseau – to make some quick cash. The film draws you in like a thriller before morphing into a sinister character study that will leave you shaken.
3. We Are What We Are
Not enough people saw this gem, and even fewer saw the brilliant Mexican original, but both are essential horror viewing. The reboot takes a very urban, very Mexican tale and spins it as American gothic, with wildly successful results. From the same writing/directing team that brought forth Stake Land (if you haven’t seen it, you really should), this is one of the few Americanized versions of foreign horror to satisfy – although you may not be hungry again for a while.
2. Evil Dead
Naming #1 was a tough call because of this one, among the all time best reboots in horror history. Fede Alvarez (with some help from the Oscar winning pen of Diablo Cody) respects the source material while still carving out his own vision. Goretastic, scary, and unexpectedly surprising given how closely it aligns itself to its predecessors, the movie has it all – including more gallons of blood than any film in history. Seriously.
1. The Conjuring
James Wan mixes the percussive scares of modern horror with the escalating dread of old fashioned genre pieces, conjuring a giddy-fun spookhouse ride guaranteed to make you jump. And he did it all without FX. A game cast helped, but credit Wan for the meandering camera, capturing just what we needed to see at the exact second that it would do the most damage.
It’s a tough battle. The late-life Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro battle hard. They sweat! They flail! They struggle against the stiff competition – I mean, do you remember RIPD? What aboutAfter Earth or Grown Ups 2? But, at long last, De Niro and Stallone walk out of that ring triumphant, in that they succeeded in crafting the worst film of 2013. Good on ya, guys!
De Niro has been whoring out – I mean, lampooning – his own image for decades, but it’s a row Stallone only accidentally began hoeing recently with his inadvertently comical The Expendables. Here, the two articulate the real tragedy of their waning professional years by reminding us all just how fine Raging Bull andRocky really are.
In case you missed its countless ads, Grudge Match casts De Niro and Stallone as aging boxers lured into a rematch by Kevin Hart, who is actually funny. He’s not funny here, but there’s only so much a person can do.
Alan Arkin also tries really hard to salvage his scenes with his talent and solid comic timing. Unfortunately, he shares these scenes with Stallone, who is to comedy what Fox News is to journalism. The nine of us who saw Stop or My Mom will Shoot can attest to this – those of us unscarred enough by the experience to speak of it.
De Niro makes you weep for the glory of Raging Bull and the tragedy of lost artistic integrity. Meanwhile Stallone – whose artistic integrity was always pretty suspect – punch-jogs around urban Pennsylvania, trains with a curmudgeonly old man, drinks raw eggs. You see where this is going. It ain’t good.
But how can he go wrong with this script? Two old guys fighting! They don’t know what YouTube is – isn’t that hilarious? They probably have rotary phones and listen to 8 tracks, too. Comedy gold.
If 90 minutes of ridiculing our elderly isn’t entertainment enough for you, you will need to look elsewhere. In fact, the only reason you should be looking here is if you really hate Robert De Niro and/or Sylvester Stallone and ache to see them embarrass themselves for a paycheck, playing two men willing to embarrass themselves for a paycheck.
So, I suppose you really could call Grudge Match the case of life imitating art, which is absolutely the only way the word “art” makes it into a description of this movie.
In offering the world a glimpse of the phenomenal life of Nelson Mandela, director Justin Chadwick wisely relied on the words of the man himself, adapting Mandela’s autobiography for his film. Chadwick’s vision is grand, the performances strong, and the story not only compelling, but tragically timely. So why does Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom feel unsatisfying?
The fault is certainly not with the film’s leads. Idris Elba’s performance is alive with exploration. You can see his temperament adapt and change along with Mandela’s experiences. Elba finds a depth of character not provided on the page of William Nicholson’s screenplay, and his maturing characterization allows the film, which suffers from Cliffs Note-idis, a bit of depth it would otherwise lack.
Likewise, Naomie Harris deftly handles the far more radical change in character demanded from a depiction of Winnie Mandela. From idealist to radical, Harris nails the metamorphosis, but because of the way we simply check in with Winnie every few years, the role lacks much opportunity for nuance.
The film simply covers too much ground. It does so with sumptuous set design, a convincing ensemble, and a directorial hand that respects the source material enough to uncover flaws as well as triumph. But what Chadwick needed to do was narrow his vision.
Long Walk to Freedom offers perhaps the most compelling depiction of the relationship between Nelson and Winnie Mandela yet brought to the screen, aided by performances that ache with tenderness. Elba commands the screen with a smoldering charisma worthy of a portrait of Mandela, while Harris treats Winnie Mandela with respect and compassion without sugar coating her behavior.
Had Chadwick and Nicholson plumbed this rich relationship a bit more, or simply chosen any smaller slice of Mandela’s life to examine more fully, their film – with the gifts it has to offer – could have become a magnificent memorial for mourners and a fascinating introduction for those only drawn to the story of the leader because of his recent passing.
Instead, the filmmakers settled for a superficial treatment, hitting all the high points without examining the depth or complexity of anything. It’s an unfortunate compromise, both because all the needed ingredients were in place for a truly grand biopic, and because Mandela deserved a more memorable send off.
David O. Russell can direct the shit out of a movie, can’t he? He startled his way into our consciousness in ’94 with the unbelievable Spanking the Monkey, followed by a smattering of well-crafted, unmarketable, endlessly watchable films. Then he took a few years off and came back wearing his shootin’ boots.
The Fighter in 2010, followed by Silver Linings Playbookin 2012 racked up a grand total of 3 Oscars and another 13 nominations. That’s the way to shake off the artistic rust.
For his latest, American Hustle, Russell wisely cherry-picks castmates (a couple of Oscar winners among them) from his last two efforts to populate the world of 1978 and Abscam – the FBI sting that took down some corrupt public officials. And, as the screen announces just before the first disco-tastic image, “Some of this actually happened.”
One desperately ambitious FBI agent (an unhinged and glorious Bradley Cooper) pinches two con artists (Christian Bale, Amy Adams – both outstanding) and insists they help him finger other white collar criminals. But his dizzying hunger for significance pushes their con to untenable extremes, and soon these low-flying hustlers are eyeball deep in politicians, Feds and the mafia.
Russell orchestrates con upon con, braiding loyalty with opportunism with showmanship, and providing his dream cast with everything they need to erupt onscreen.
Joining the stellar performers mentioned are the always reliable Jeremy Renner and the reliably brilliant Jennifer Lawrence. As an unpredictable spitfire, Lawrence is right at home. She excels, and Russell teases the absolute most out of her every moment of screen time (it makes no sense now but trust me, you’ll never call a microwave oven by its correct name again).
Louis CK – in his second strong cinematic turn this year (alongside Blue Jasmine) – is a great onscreen curmudgeon, and he offers such a perfect foil for Cooper’s combustible lead that their scenes together are a scream.
Honestly, with the electricity on screen whenever Lawrence or Cooper appear, it’s almost possible to overlook Bale and Adams, but what a mistake that would be! Bale crawls into this character, as he does every character, and convinces us of the sleazy but good-hearted schlub inside this grifter.
Likewise, Adams – a performer so expressive with just a look – keeps you on your toes. It’s her flawless work as Edith (or is that Sydney?) that keeps all the cons spinning at once, and you never know exactly where her loyalties lie. In fact, you’re pretty sure she isn’t certain. Unless she’s just playing you.
While Russell’s fondness for Goodfellas colors the entire running time, there’s no question that his creation finds its own way and becomes something unique and fantastic. The writing is exceptional, the performances volcanic, and the result is the sharpest and most explosively funny movie in Oscar contention.
In some circles, a new Coen brothers‘ film is more hotly anticipated than the next Batman. Those are my people. Joel and Ethan Coen have crafted among the most impressive set of movies of any American filmmakers. Though there are certain thumbprints that mark a film as theirs, they never cease to surprise in the art they produce – which, as often as not, is art for art’s sake. And this is the very theme of their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis.
An immersive experience that takes you directly to the heart of the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, the film shadows the titular, beleaguered artist for just a few days as he tries to survive both winter and his chosen field.
The film opens onstage, as Llewyn (a fantastic Oscar Isaac) sings in the smoky Gaslight Club. It’s an intensely intimate segment, and Isaac performs not a snippet, but an entire number. His performance is exceptional, and it tells you more about Llewyn than the next 90 minutes are bound to share.
Isaac and the brothers offer a superbly nuanced character study, so understated as to be almost hypnotic. Isaac’s world-wearied stare and infrequent songs do the majority of the work, but his adventure – as brilliantly written as anything you’d expect from the Coens – captures your attention.
Enough can’t be said about Isaac’s performance, both as an actor and as a musician, because the role requires much from both. He shoulders nearly every second of screen time, offering enough self-destructiveness, tenderness and ego to keep you believing in his trials and almost reluctantly rooting for him.
He’s aided by enigmatic performances in wonderfully odd roles. Coen regular John Goodman adds color as an aging jazz man, while Carey Mulligan spits inspired insults, and Justin Timberlake plays convincingly against type as the group’s square.
It’s not just the performances or the writing that make this film so languidly watchable, but the magically depicted setting – so unerringly authentic that you feel you’re inside a Bob Dylan album cover. Between that and the music – so, so many points made simply with the music – the film shines.
But what sets Llewyn Davis apart from the rest of the Coen stash is its lack of cynicism. Sure, with some battered years under his belt as a musician, not to mention his deeper scars and struggles, Llewyn holds a defensively cynical outlook. But he’s hopelessly true to his art. Can’t imagine where he got that.