Sunday, February 14, 2016

Withdrawing SEPULVEDA: an apology, a reflection and a Valentine's note.

This morning I emailed Jim Mendiola, the accomplished filmmaker who also runs CineFestival in San Antonio, to inform him that though we'd accepted his invitation to world premiere our new feature Sepulveda there we'd in fact have to withdraw the film. This was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make as a filmmaker. And like all difficult decisions it has offered me a valuable chance to self-evaluate.

It pained us to pull out of CineFestival so close to our premiere, but after a very, very important consultation with someone who loves the film, we came to the conclusion that while we have a good film, we need more time to develop it into an even better film. At present, Sepulveda is 105 minutes long. That's a brisk running time by most standards. But given the unconventional storyline and structure, we came to the conclusion that the film would play even better if it were pared down even further.

I am not a young filmmaker. I'm middle-aged and it's been almost 22 years since I started film school. I don't have unlimited arrows in my quiver. In fact, every time I draw back my bow string at this point, I have to make it count. I would not have made this decision 10 years ago. Then I'd have plowed ahead figuring that the film's imperfections were part of what made it unique. I'd have figured that the people who get the film would be untroubled by its technical flaws or running time.

But as Tony Bennett memorably says in the documentary Amy, "Life will teach you things, if you let it." We've already worked hard on Sepulveda. Thanks to crowdfunding, we are the beneficiaries of the generosity of many friends and family. To honor that generosity, it's incumbent on us to make the best film we can make. And while Sepulveda has gotten positive notes, we think there's more work to do.

Jim Mendiola was gracious and understanding in his reply and I thank him for that. We hope to have Sepulveda play CineFestival in the future. Thanks also to all the words of encouragement that came after we announced the film's invitation.

To be clear, this was my mistake. Jena, my wife and co-director, always felt that the film could've stood more editing but I assured her we had something solid and that the film was done. I was wrong. This has been a chronic issue with me, rushing through work not to be done with it but in the belief that the act of rushing forces one to work at a heightened level and brings out the creativity in a furious tsunami. It's a punk rock notion. And it's past time I let it go.

We wrapped production on Sepulveda just 6 months ago. That's a very short postproduction that frankly isn't long enough even with as able a collaborator as my wife. Digital technology and computers allow for an accelerated pace in post, but that's not always a good thing. Editing, it has been widely stated, requires intervals of rest and reflection. I didn't allow much time for that. Shooting in the summer puts us right up against festival deadlines. And while it may go against my impatient nature it is better to spend a year in post than take a film out before its time.

Have I always been this way? I suppose I have. Am I more impatient with the knowledge that there is very likely now more life behind me than ahead of me? Possibly. A lot is riding on this simple little film for me personally. You don't get a second chance to debut a film (okay, not actually true but premiering a new cut is not a luxury afforded to all filmmakers).

I don't know today whether Sepulveda will hit the big screen in 2016 or 2017. But I do know that whenever it does it will be the absolute best film we can make. I figure if that's the case, everything else will take care of itself.

Finally I want to praise my collaborator in cinema and in life. Without my wife, the film wouldn't be as good as it is. I've wisely taken her counsel and already reaped the benefits. I hope she'll pardon me if occasionally I forget how valuable her insight is. She's made me a better man, and she's made me a better filmmaker. I will continue to strive to be worthy of her faith in me.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

How Fanboys Have Gained The World But (Begun) To Lose Their Souls

[Five years ago I wrote this review of Tron: Legacy (2010) for Shadow & Act. I noticed that it no longer appears to be available and I thought I'd post it here. It's a little bit prescient about the direction of fanboy/geek culture.] 

Ever since the 2008 Comic-Con, the Fanboy Universe has been waiting with bated breath for the follow-up to Steve Lisberger’s Tron, a groundbreaking science-fiction adventure released by Disney 28 years ago. Considered the first shot fired in the digital cinema revolution, Tron has carved out a singular space in the genre. Now that the revolution Tron began has changed cinema, the time seems perfect to revisit the world of the film with an eye towards birthing a new franchise.

And that’s what Disney has done. The new film, entitled Tron: Legacy will doubtlessly reap a fortune from both the aging nerds who saw the first one and the new generation brought up on gaming. It is also poised to launch more films and become another blockbuster franchise.

Already, some have complained that the original Tron  has now gone into that Black Hole Disney is fond of hurling its properties into so as to create a demand for the next DVD edition. But I think there’s more than that at work. The new Tron  is no mere sequel to the earlier film. It is a complete re-imagining, and one gets the impression Disney would prefer that you NOT know about the original.  This reason, among many others, makes Tron: Legacy an intriguing film to consider as the shape of things to come even as it delivers yet another variation of Joseph Campbell’s generic mythology to the public.

Joseph Kosinski is the director. This is his first feature. That might strike you as odd considering how much is riding on this film’s success for Disney. But Kosinski has had a storied career in advertising, directing slick and memorable ads like the “Mad World” commercial for the game Gears of War.  He also holds a degree in architecture from Columbia University. I think Kosinski is to this age what film school brats were to the 70’s. If a (feature) first-timer directing a blockbuster is strange now it won’t be in the years to come.

So how did he do? Tron: Legacy is a triumph of design and can be downright jaw-dropping at times. The action is constant, the slow-motion-punctuated “Ain’t It Cool?” moments largely deliver. After the halfway point, the film begins to lose energy, and in the end, it feels much longer than its 127 minute running time would suggest. Lisberger’s film also had pacing problems. The more things change…

The story centers on the 27 year-old son of visionary computer guru Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, then and now), who went missing seven years after the events of Tron. Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the son, apparently spends his time practicing capoeira, base-jumping and parkour rather than run his father’s empire. His surrogate father Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, then and now) gives Sam a nudge to visit the old man’s now-abandoned arcade, which results in Sam being whisked away to The Grid, that world within the computers established in the first film long before cyberspace was a household term.

Where the original took its cues from Star Wars, the new film adds The Matrix into the mix. Sam becomes a Neo, reeling from the discovery of a world he is destined to change. He meets that world’s overlord, Clu, a program that physically resembles his long-lost younger father. When Clu removes his menacing black helmet, revealing the digitally younged-up countenance of Jeff Bridges, Sam is shocked. But Clu tells him “I’m not your father, Sam”, a sly reference to and tweaking of the climactic moment in Empire Strikes Back.

Sam engages in amped up new versions of the gladiatorial games seen in the first (that Jai Alai game doesn’t make the cut) only to be rescued by this tale’s Trinity (Olivia Wilde playing Quorra) and delivered to his old man, now in Morpheus/Alec Guiness-Obi-Wan mode in a remote home reminiscent of aging Dave Bowman’s flat from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The rest is pretty standard a-chosen-one-will-defeat-a-dark-lord territory. It’s the production design that’s the star of Tron: Legacy, not the plot. Darren Gilford (production designer) creates a radically different Grid. Now it looks like a futuristic but recognizably urban megalopolis, not the wholly alien landscape from the earlier film.  It feels like the first time a sci-fi film has tried to create a world on this scale (a la Blade Runner)  for some time (lately sci-fi prefers to present a normal looking environment where the gadgets are the only indication you’re not in the real world).

The costumes and art direction are all state-of-the-art future cool. I kept thinking how much they’ll love this film in Japan as I watched it. And this is where the contrast between Tron and Tron: Legacy is so striking. The digital filmmaking revolution isn’t the only revolution that’s happened since 1982. There’s also been a Fanboy Revolution, wherein the genre fare that was once marginalized (even in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars) has now conquered the culture. And with that dominion comes the need to be cool.

Tron was NOT cool. Tron, with its actors wearing helmets like special ed students and spandex was so uncool it was endearing.  And all that uncool has been erased from the sequel. Even the flashbacks have been stylistically retconned so that when we see the younger Flynn in the grid he looks nothing like he did in the old film. Like a self-important, successful adult who hides his dorky high school picture out of shame, Tron has adopted an aesthetic at odds with the original but reflective of the way Fanboy Culture has re-branded itself.

That is, I believe part of the reason why Disney has de-rezzed the DVD of the Lisberger film. That is why Sean Bailey, producer of Tron: Legacy says it is “technically a stand-alone film.”

But if nerd/geek culture is to become cool, isn’t it bound to lose something essential in the process? Compare Kevin Flynn to Sam Flynn. Kevin (in ’82) was an unabashed geek who lived in his own arcade and hung out with pimply, uncool teenagers. He was a goof and an oddball. Not Sam Flynn. Sam is from the Young Bruce Wayne School of Loner Richboys Who Like Extreme Sports. He’s a daredevil. He can fight. This is the new nerd-hero? Sam Flynn was the guy in ’82 who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Tron. Now he is at the center of that world.

Clu is also a great metaphor for the shift that’s occurred. Just as geek culture has conquered the culture at large, Clu himself (once a benign avatar for Flynn) has now become drunk with power and swagger. He’s got something to prove, and dominating two worlds is how he aims to prove it. This isn’t new, Clu is another villain in the tradition of Lucifer himself, but this villain addressing his army made me think of a would-be geek tyrant addressing the costumed hoards at Comic-Con, telling them that their geekitude entitled them to rule the world.

Another sign of this shift: Tron  was made by actual computer experts and is far more meticulously nerdy and based on computer technology than Tron: Legacy. The new film bastardizes nerdiness and cuts out the techspeak for a 21st century audience that should be more receptive to it.

The saddest casualty of this revolution is femininity. Cindy Morgan played Dr. Lora Baines in the original, a bespectacled female scientist that once dated Kevin but has moved on to the more adult Alan. The three of them formed the core of Tron  as Leia, Luke, & Han did for that other franchise. Just as the eponymous warrior was Alan’s program in The Grid, Lora was represented by Yori there. The triangle in our world also occurred in The Grid.

Lora, present in the final scene of Tron, along with a triumphant Flynn and Alan on the roof of a skyscraper is totally erased from Tron: Legacy. She isn’t in it, and she isn’t even mentioned. Yori is similarly absent from The Grid.

Fans did protest. I’m told there’s a Facebook group advocating for her. The filmmakers’ choice to leave Lora/Yori out is yet another stunning example of the rampant gynophobia this emboldened fanboy culture has manifested. Even Sam’s mother is neither explained or identified. As with this year’s loathsome Kick-Ass, women have no place in a film unless they’re young, and/or hot, and can fight.

Yes, we do have Quorra, and she is an important character. But compare her to Lora in the first film. Lora was attractive, but modestly so. She was the kind of woman that actually dated guys who like Tron. And she was a scientist, an equal to the men in the film. Now she’s been supplanted by a total fantasy woman. Not much is “real” about Quorra. And she’s not the equal of Sam as Lora was (except in the fighting department). She’s child-like. She wants to be taught about the world by someone smart (every fanboy’s fantasy). Lora is the girl our successful, self-important hypothetical guy took the to the prom, but Quorra is his trophy wife. What this says about the fanboy audience is not encouraging if feminism is something you care about. In that respect, Tron: Legacy is a major step backwards.

As the action goes on and on and the world of The Grid begins to become less captivating it is Jeff Bridges that keeps it interesting. Bridges is an Oscar-winner now, and he’s at that point in his career where his persona is an inextricable part of whatever role he’s playing. This Kevin Flynn is different from the earlier incarnation. The difference can be summed up in two words: The Dude. Bridges peppers Flynn with a zen master ease and the occasional “man” in his dialogue. An audience member even muttered “The Dude abides” behind me. This didn’t distract or detract from the film, it gave the film a humor and humanity that is otherwise sorely lacking from Kosinski’s beautiful but sterile landscape.

Ultimately, that demo trailer from 2 years ago may have been better suited to Kosinski’s skill set than a feature film. But Tron: Legacy will prosper and the Fanboy Revolution will continue and like Clu, look for more worlds to conquer.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Top 25 Films of 2015

We always knew 2015 was going to be a big year for movies. Hollywood put an unusual number of blockbuster reboots on the slate for this year promising new installments of some of the movies’ most beloved series. But 2015 had some surprises for us nevertheless. As the ashes from the Sony Hack continued to drift in the beginning of the year, we found ourselves having some very uncomfortable but very necessary public discussions about equity and diversity in the movies and the movie business. 2014 was something of a watershed year for race in American cinema, but in 2015 gender seemed to be the battlefield. 

“Gamergate” and the Geek Girl Wars seemed to finally register on screen this year. My favorite film of the year subversively usurped the laconic male hero and introduced a formidable heroine not only his equal but in many respects his superior. By the time Rey arrived in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (so much a rip off of itself that they should've just called it Star Wars: Another New Hope) we had already been having a months long discussion of gender representation and what a female hero looks like. 

This was also a year of intense nostalgia. Looking backward excessively has been an unfortunate part of new American cinema for some time, but in 2015 it hit new heights. So many films this year involved the passing of the torch from one hero to a younger one. 1985 haunted 2015 like a friendly ghost: the last time Mad Max graced our screens was 1985 and “the future” portrayed in Back to the Future Part II (which came out in 1989 but narratively is linked to 1985) came and went. Sylvester Stallone never had a bigger year than 1985 and here he is again 30 years later, poised to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Can this nostalgia take us anywhere farther in the next 12 months or will it cycle down before inevitably cycling up again? We can’t know. But it is fascinating to ponder how much movies crystallize both our yearning for the past and our insatiable lust for the new. I don’t think any other medium is so shaped by this tug of war. 

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road - USA/Australia - d: George Miller
  2. Timbuktu - France/Mauritania - d: Abderrahmane Sissako
  3. Love & Mercy - USA - d: Bill Pohlad
  4. Tales of the Grim Sleeper - USA - d: Nick Broomfield
  5. Adieu Au Langage - France/Switzerland - d: Jean-Luc Godard
  6. Chiraq - USA - d: Spike Lee
  7. Sicario - USA - d: Denis Villeneuve
  8. Mustang - France/Turkey - d: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
  9. Tangerine - USA - d: Sean Baker
  10. The Look of Silence - Denmark/Indonesia - d: Joshua Oppenheimer

11. The Big Short - USA - d: Adam McKay
12. Clouds of Sils Maria - France/Germany/Switzerland - d: Olivier Assayas
13. The Hunting Ground - USA - d: Kirby Dick
14. Son of Saul - Hungary - d: Laszlo Nemes
15. Amy - USA/UK - d: Asif Kapadia
16. Room - Ireland/Canada - d: Lenny Abrahamson
17. Welcome to New York - USA/France - d: Abel Ferrara
18. The Diary of a Teenage Girl - USA - d: Marielle Heller
19. Carol - USA/UK - d: Todd Haynes
20. Spotlight - USA - d: Tom McCarthy

21. Steve Jobs - USA - d: Danny Boyle
22. Show Me A Hero - USA - d: Paul Haggis
23. Inside Out - USA - d: Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen
24. Best of Enemies - USA - d: Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville
25. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Faith - USA - d: Alex Gibney

Honorable Mentions: Magic Mike XXL, While We’re Young, Beasts of No Nation, Results, What Happened Miss Simone?, Mistress America, Ned Rifle, Anomalisa, Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans Justice Mapping a Detroit Story, Meadowland

The Acting Purple Heart goes to Gerard Depardieu for fearlessly offering up his body as a metaphor the corruption of privilege in Welcome to New York.

Best Performances, in order:
  1. Brie Larson - Room
  2. Juliette Binoche - Clouds of Sils Maria
  3. Elizabeth Banks - Love & Mercy
  4. Teyonah Parris - Chiraq
  5. Charlize Theron - Mad Max: Fury Road
  6. Günes Sensoy - Mustang
  7. Katana Kiki Rodriguez & Mya Taylor - Tangerine
  8. Winona Ryder - Show Me A Hero
  9. Bel Powley - The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  10. Cobie Smulders - Results
  11. Olivia Wilde - Meadowlands
  12. Catherine Keener - Show Me A Hero
  13. Cate Blanchett - Carol
  14. Marion Cotillard - Macbeth
  15. Jada Pinkett-Smith - Magic Mike XXL

  1. John Cusack & Paul Dano - Love & Mercy
  2. Benicio Del Toro - Sicario
  3. Jacob Tremblay - Room
  4. Abraham Attah & Idris Elba - Beasts of No Nation
  5. Stanley Tucci - Spotlight
  6. Nick Cannon - Chiraq
  7. Bishop Blay - Out of My Hand
  8. Liev Schreiber - Spotlight
  9. Michael Peña - Ant-Man
  10. Paul Giamatti - Love & Mercy
  11. Oscar Isaac - Show Me A Hero
  12. Michael Fassbender - Macbeth & Steve Jobs
  13. John Cena - Trainwreck
  14. Sylvester Stallone - Creed

The Vilmos Zsigmond Color Cinematography Award: No film was more visually striking than Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, shot by Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. He translated the internal hellscape of Shakespeare’s doomed power couple and externalized it in striking ways. 
-First runner-up: to Roger Deakins, A.S.C./B.S.C. for his work on Denis Villeneuve's Sicario.
-Second runner-up: to the late Ryo Murakami for his work on Out of My Hand.
-Third runner-up: Ed Lachman, A.S.C. for his luminous work on Carol, shot on Super 16mm.
-Fourth runner-up: Cary Fukunaga who pulled a Soderbergh in directing and shooting Beasts of No Nation.
-Fifth runner-up: Likely Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, A.S.C./A.M.C. for his work on The Revenant.

The Gianni Di Venanzo Black & White Cinematography Award: no award this year.

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: Steven Soderbergh for his triumphant second (and final) season on The Knick.

The William Cameron Menzies Production Design Award: to Thomas E. Sanders for his work on Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak. 
-First runner-up: Colin Gibson for Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Theodora van Runkle Costume Design Award: Jenny Beavan for Mad Max: Fury Road.
-First runner-up: Wendy Chuck for Spotlight, because good costumes aren't always beautiful. Sometimes costumes are great because they're real and true.

The Margaret Booth Editing Award: to Ronald Bronstein & Ben Safdie for Heaven Knows What.
-First runner-up: Margaret Sixel for Mad Max: Fury Road.

The Alan Splet Sound Design Award: to Eugene Gearty & the sound department of Love & Mercy. Stunning work. 

The David O. Selznick Producing: Jeph Loeb, because TV Marvel (specifically Netflix-Marvel) shamed movie Marvel this year. In a year where the best picture Oscar winner was in part a screed against super-hero films, Loeb’s work on Daredevil and Jessica Jones shows great, meaningful work can be done with super-heroes that outstrips the middlebrow drivel that frequently wins our awards.

The Grant Tinker Television Award: No TV show pushed the boundaries of the medium like Transparent.
Runners-up: Better Call Saul, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Knick, Master of None, Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, Adventure Time.

Great Disappointments: the final season of Mad Men, The Hateful Eight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Top 25 Films of 2014

I'm almost getting used to the relentless vicissitudes of the 21st century. The degree to which the world is constantly upending itself between the years 2000 & 2014 is exponential compared to the comparatively glacial pace of say 1980 to 2000. This is subjective, of course. But I've by now become accustomed in this century to the unthinkable coming to pass. Like for instance, the mind of a movie studio (specifically its id and ego) made public through a massive hack. 

The cyber attack on Sony is without a doubt the defining event of the year for the movies. Please don't bore me with your studied sang-froid about Hollywood's shadow self. Yes, we all knew they were fueled by petty & casual racism, sexism & unburdened by anything like imagination about their industry. But seeing it in writing, their own writing, was still breathtaking. Striking all the more for the way it gave credence to Chris Rock's essay on how the town functions just days before the most damning emails came to light. 

But let's not be all gloom & doom. This year also had some incredibly positive developments. The year 2014 will most certainly go down as an annus mirabilis for African-Americans in film & culture. Starting with the Oscar wins for 12 Years A Slave and ending with the release of Selma, one has to go back to the early 1990s to find a year in which Black cinema delivered so many gems. And here's the part where even get I uncharacteristically giddy with positivity: the range of films and the strength of the overall quality suggests that true progress has been made. 

One also has to...well, marvel at the success of Marvel Studios. This year they had two massive hits, one of them so improbable that it has silenced all critics of the studio and their ambitious confederacy of franchises. It's easy to get on one's middlebrow high horse about what comic book adaptations are doing to American cinema, but the Marvel films of 2014 both represent the possibility that big budget entertainment needn't be dumb or disconnected from reality, and can even bring us back to the kind of pop mythology that made most of us fall in love with the movies in the first place. 

Much of the analysis of the year revolves on the dearth of good roles for women. Yet when I look back at the films of the year, the great performances were by women almost two to one. 

Couple this with a vigorous independent cinema and the continued Third Golden Age of Television and you find yourself in a pretty exciting time. 

1. Selma - USA - d: Ava DuVernay
2. Boyhood - USA - d: Richard Linklater
3. Under the Skin - UK - d: Jonathan Glazer
4. Only Lovers Left Alive - UK/Germany - d: Jim Jarmusch
5. Citizenfour - USA/Germany - d: Laura Poitras
6. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger - USA - d: Joe Berlinger
7. Abuse of Weakness - France - d: Catherine Breillat
8. Gloria - Chile - d: Sebastian Lelio
9. Olive Kitteridge - USA - d: Lisa Cholodenko
10. A Most Violent Year - USA - d: J.C. Chandor

11. Rich Hill - USA - d: Andrew Droz Palermo & Tracy Droz Tragos
12. In Bloom - Georgia - d: Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross
13. Ida - Poland - d: Pawel Pawlikowski
14. We Are The Best! - Sweden - d: Lukas Moodysson
15. A Most Wanted Man - UK - d: Anton Corbijn
16. Top Five - USA - d: Chris Rock
17. Frank - Ireland/UK - d: Lenny Abrahamson
18. Obvious Child - USA - d: Gillian Robespierre
19. The Grand Budapest Hotel - UK/Germany - d: Wes Anderson
20. Nightcrawler - USA - d: Dan Gilroy

21. Nymphomaniac - Denmark - d: Lars von Trier
22. Dear White People - USA - d: Justin Simien
23. Evolution of a Criminal - USA - d: Darius Clark Monroe
24. Guardians of the Galaxy - USA - d: James Gunn
25. Beyond The Lights - USA - d: Gina Prince Bythewood

Plus 10 Honorable Mentions: Locke, Life Itself, Blue Ruin, The Immigrant, Anita, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jodorowsky's Dune, Snowpiercer, Belle

The Acting Purple Heart goes to Charlotte Gainsbourg for her bravery, as seen in Nymphomaniac.

Best Performances, In Order
1. Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
2. Jessica Chastain - A Most Violent Year
3. Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
4. Gugu Mbatha-Raw - Beyond the Lights and Belle
5. Isabelle Huppert - Abuse of Weakness
6. Jenny Slate - Obvious Child
7. Paulina Garcia - Gloria
8. Frances McDormand - Olive Kitteridge
9. Marion Cotillard - The Immigrant
10. Agata Kulesza - Ida
11. Teyonah Parris - Dear White People
12. Julianne Moore - Map to the Stars
13. Minnie Driver - Beyond the Lights
14. Maggie Gyllenhaal - Frank
15. Rosario Dawson - Top Five
16. Rene Russo - Nightcrawler

1. David Oyelowo - Selma
2. Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman - A Most Wanted Man
4. Tom Hardy - Locke
5. Oscar Issac - A Most Violent Year
6. Jake Gyllenhaal - Nightcrawler
7. Richard Jenkins - Olive Kitteridge
8. Michael Fassbender - Frank
9. Joaquin Phoenix - Inherent Vice
10. J.K. Simmons - Whiplash
11. Andy Serkis - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The Nestor Almendros Color Cinematography Award: for the second year in a row, Bradford Young. I'm hard pressed to think of another cinematographer that's swept in and changed the game as fast as Bradford Young. The Howard alumnus' work on Selma and A Most Violent Year form an impressive yin-yang (summer-winter, northern-southern, urban-rural). Once again Young has done amazing work  on digital and his work on the Chandor film served as a fitting tribute to the late great Gordon Willis, the "Prince of Darkness" who passed away this year. 
Runner-up: Blue Ruin, photographed by writer/director Jeremy Saulnier. 

The Gianni Di Venanzo Black & White Cinematography Award: Łukasz Żal & Ryszard Lenczewski for their beautiful work on Ida. Their cinematography is as much the star of Ida as the director or the actors and directly responsible for the film being an Oscar contender. 
Runner-up: Lyle Vincent, for A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: James Gunn will win no awards for his deft handling of Marvel's most unlikely hit, but he brought a Hawksian sensibility to the space opera that was ultimately just as much of an homage to westerns as science fiction. Generation X has been waging a war to win back summer from American cinema's Ronan the Accuser (Michael Bay) and this film dealt Bay's hold over summer a fatal blow. 

The William Cameron Menzies Production Design Award: Adam Stockhausen for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel (he was nominated for an Oscar last year for 12 Years A Slave).
-Sebastian T. Krawinkel for his work on A Most Wanted Man. Best use of yellow outside of a Wes Anderson film. 
-Tomy Dwi Setyanto for The Raid 2.

The Theadora van Runkle Costume Design Award: Kasia Walicka-Maimone for her spot-on period work on A Most Violent Year. 

The Margaret Booth Editing Award: it's easy to dismiss Sandra Adair's kudos for editing Boyhood as an obvious reward for assembling years of footage, but she did delicate work in representing the passage of time.  

The David O. Selznick Producing Award: Kevin Feige for his helming of the Marvel Studios juggernaut. Selznick would've been appalled by the popularity of comic book films but Feige's demonstrated a similar sense of showmanship and a keen understanding of what the audience wants. 

The Grant Tinker Television Award: The Knick 

I am officially retiring the Steel Drum Award and the Big Damn Genius Award. They have served us well but their time has passed. 

I wish you a prosperous 2015!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Top 25 Films of 2013

Perhaps I've been wrong. Optimists tell you that viewing history as a series of ascents followed inexorably by irreversible decline is the wrong way to look at things. The optimists prefer the pendulum. They prefer thinking of history as something that swings one way only to reverse itself. In perpetuity. I have never been an optimist, but this year supports the pendulum idea.

After many years of drought, rain is falling. As I survey my favorite films of the year, I am struck by how many of them just 6 or 8 years ago would've usurped the top spot from whatever worthy film I cited. Is it the boom in quality TV? Has it shamed movie makers into getting their shit together to make films not justified solely by their profit margins? Maybe. Whatever the case, I am happy to report that 2013 was nearly a banner year for movies. 

As ever, I am doubtful this portends much for 2014, a year already overshadowed by the planned Tet Offensive Hollywood is gearing up for in 2015 (when almost every major movie franchise you've ever heard of is planning to release a deluxe episode). Then again, maybe resourceful producers and directors will make use of this moment when the bosses on high are focused on next year's blockbuster to get something good through the abattoir. 

No recap of the year is complete without citing Steven Spielberg & George Lucas' dire predictions about the future of the American film industry. Lucas imagined film becoming more like Broadway, pricing itself out of existence for many Americans with premiums and the lure of spectacle. Spielberg felt more on the mark for me when he imagined a studio being brought down by one or two unwieldy flops. 

It is impossible to say yet how much Spielberg & Lucas, the two men who have changed the American film industry more than any others and infected it with its unquenchable thirst for blockbusters, have changed the way the gatekeepers think with this gotterdammerung they see coming. Maybe it changed nothing. But as we enter 2014 and head to 2015 (a year that seems poised to deliver some hapless studio the deathblow Spielberg prophesied) I can't help but think those words echo. 

But rather than talk about the year to come, let's focus on the year that was. Third years are when decades really start walking on their own two feet having sloughed off the previous decade. Third years are the foundation. They set up the fourth year which typically is the first year the decade stands on its own. And what we saw this year was overwhelmingly preoccupied with a specific free-floating anxiety: institutions have failed us, and we are on our own. 

1. 12 Years A Slave - USA/UK - Steve McQueen
2. The Act of Killing - Denmark - Joshua Oppenheimer
3. The Wolf of Wall Street - USA - Martin Scorsese
4. Frances Ha - USA - Noah Baumbach
5. Top of the Lake - Australia - Jane Campion & Garth Davis
6. La Grande Bellezza - Italy - Paolo Sorrentino
7. Fruitvale Station - USA - Ryan Coogler
8. 56 Up - UK - Michael Apted & Paul Almond 
9. Enough Said - USA - Nicole Holofcener
10. Blue is the Warmest Color - France - Abdellatif Kechiche

11. War Witch - Canada - Kim Nguyen
12. The Attack - Lebanon/France - Ziad Doueiri
13. Before Midnight - USA - Richard Linklater
14. Inside Llewyn Davis - USA - Joel & Ethan Coen
15. American Hustle - USA - David O. Russell
16. Stories We Tell - Canada - Sarah Polley
17. Mother of George - USA - Andrew Dosunmu
18. The Punk Singer - USA - Sini Anderson
19. Spring Breakers - USA - Harmony Korine
20. Cutie & the Boxer - USA - Zachary Heinzerling

21. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet - France - Alain Resnais
22. A Band Called Death - USA - Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett
23. Like Someone in Love - France/Japan - Abbas Kiarostami
24. Room 237 - USA - Rodney Ascher
25. Blackfish - USA - Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Honorable Mentions: I'm So Excited, The Angels' Share, Apres Mai, No, Blue Jasmine, Dirty Wars, Free Angela & All Political Prisoners, Behind the Candelabra, We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, Mud

The Howard Hawks Directing Award: Guillermo Del Toro
No one is throwing awards at Pacific Rim, but its particular brand of heart-on-its-sleeve movie love stood out in an otherwise dreary summer season. Not everyone responded to this film, but no one can criticize the way Del Toro staged the outsized kaiju fisticuffs. Action directing is in many ways the ultimate test of a film director. And Del Toro rises to the occasion. 

The Nestor Almendros Color Cinematography Award: Bradford Young
This young cinematographer snatches the spotlight from the actors and the director of Mother of George, and delivered the most accomplished cinematography I saw this year. I didn't see Ain't Them Bodies Saints but the trailer makes it clear he's the MVP on that team also. 

The Alain Robbe-Grillet Screenwriting Award: Shane Carruth
I did not love Upstream Color but I admired it. It's a vast improvement over the incoherence of Primer, and you have to applaud Carruth for doing what people claim they want: he's committed to telling unconventional stories in an unconventional way.

The Chris Marker Documentary Award: Leviathan directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel
This film achieves something truly unique without the usual documentary conventions of voiceover, interview or graphics. There are moments of beauty achieved through cinematography, sound design and editing. And you will never look at seafood quite the same way again. 

Great Moments
The ending of The Act of Killing.
The final shot of The Wolf of Wall Street.
The musical number from I'm So Excited.
The crime spree set to a Britney Spears ballad in Spring Breakers.
Solomon Northrup on his tiptoes in the mud.
Greta Gerwig running down the street to "Modern Love" in Frances Ha.
The combover in American Hustle.
The interminable party in which middle-aged European women on holiday thoroughly objectify a young Kenyan man in Paradise: Love.

Great Performances (in no particular order) 
1. Matthew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street)
2. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
3. Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave)
4. Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave)
5. Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine)
6. Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station)
7. James Franco (Spring Breakers)
8. Christian Bale (American Hustle)
9. James Gandolfini (Enough Said)
10. Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra)
11. Rob Lowe (Behind the Candelabra)

1. Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
2. Julia Louis Dreyfus (Enough Said)
3. Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
4. Scarlett Johansson (Her)
5. Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake)
6. Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
7. Amy Adams (American Hustle)
8. Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
9. Sarah Paulson (12 Years A Slave)
10. Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color)
11. Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color)

Acting Purple Heart (for performances that are better than the films they're featured in):
Lindsay Lohan (The Canyons

Best Trailer: Spring Breakers with Only God Forgives a close second

Disappointments: The Canyons, Computer Chess, Only God Forgives, Elysium, Mad Men Season 6, Thor: The Dark World, To The Wonder

The Big Damn Genius Award: Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix
The company had a banner year with two original series that grabbed viewers forcefully, original stand up comedy specials and soon, documentaries. Netflix isn't just providing good content, it's changing the way we consume it. They're coming for you, HBO. 
Runner up: Vince Gilligan
Few pop culture phenomena were as huge and satisfying as the final episodes of Breaking Bad. Gilligan and his team set a new standard in serialized storytelling. 

Steel Drum Award: J.J. Abrams for his crass make-over of Star Trek which injected a dudebro 1980s ethos that reduced Kirk to a smug fratboy, belittled Spock until he started throwing punches and fairly betrayed Roddenberry's vision.
Runners Up: Ben Affleck- his bland mediocrity besmirched the DGA award.
Quentin Tarantino- 12 Years A Slave should make Tarantino issue a tearful apology for his childish crowd pleaser of 2012. He clearly has no idea what true horror is.