Year in Film

Pop psychology


By Sara Maria Vizcarrondo

YEAR IN FILM When Labor Day‘s sexpot convict Josh Brolin holds Kate Winslet and her son hostage in their home, you know he’s dangerous even though he’s not exactly threatening. He starts cooking and fixing stuff around the house, and quickly slips into the role of surrogate father-husband. He’s not just doing it because Winslet’s hot divorcee could use company or her son could use a manly example, he’s filling a void left by an inferior dad whose apology for leaving began, “If I were a better man…” (Labor Day opens in SF next month.)

From fallen fathers to dishonest daddies, 2013’s movies featured a lot of bad providers. Some were crooks, others were benign fuckups, and their stories didn’t necessarily end with redemption or comeuppance. What’s more, most of the men stumbled into fatherhood — and none more clumsily than Delivery Man‘s David, played with surprising pathos by Vince Vaughn.

David’s just gotten excited about his girlfriend’s pregnancy when he learns that his years-ago decision to bank enough sperm to finance a European vacation has resulted in 533 “surprises.” (Director Ken Scott helmed both Delivery Man and its Canadian inspiration, Starbuck.) Oh, and a group of his offspring have filed a class-action lawsuit, intent on discovering who their father is. Granted, it seems unfair to judge him as a parent. He’s blindsided by the existence of his adult kids — and his reaction is to do the embarrassing, heartwarming shit dads do to get to know their teenagers. He may be dumb enough to pile up mob debt, but he’s sticking his neck out as far as it’ll go for relative strangers. (Now that’s the kind of setup — speaking of Brolin flicks — that could almost make Oldboy plausible.)

And then there’s Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale’s upwardly mobile con artist in American Hustle. Irv cheats on his wife, but he’s loyal as hell to his stepson, and he stays on the take to provide for the little guy. The Wolf of Wall Street‘s manic maniac Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) swindles the one percent purely to satisfy his own ego. The obscenely rich Quaalude addict could easily buy an island for the world’s orphans. He hires hookers instead.

Wolf is full of drug-fueled sequences that are played for laughs, until the ugliest, most over-the-top scene, which transpires in front of Jordan’s toddler daughter. Finally, the line is crossed. Long having left that line in the dust, along with his dignity, is Kyle Chandler’s weary dad in The Spectacular Now — an alcoholic whose wasted life serves as a warning to his teenage son, whose own boozy habits suggest history is about to repeat itself.

If all you had to go on was 2013’s movies, you could believe someone had to grift, jerk off, and/or do time to be a man. Even foreign releases featured patriarchs with bad judgment. Asghar Farhadi’s The Past begins as Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mossafa) travels to France to finalize his divorce to anxious Marie (Bérénice Bejo); before long, he’s playing traffic cop and detective in a morass that involves Marie’s new boyfriend (Tahar Rahim) and an array of children (none of whom are Ahmad’s). What some people call help, others call “codependence.”

At least Ahmad’s no Charles Dickens. Betcha didn’t know the man behind Tiny Tim talked a lady into making her daughter his concubine, as depicted in The Invisible Woman (also out next month). Worse, Mom (Kristin Scott Thomas) approves because she knows the pretty lass (Felicity Jones) will never receive a better offer. Ralph Fiennes, who also directs, plays Dickens like a daddy with deep pockets and deeper emotional issues. We know he can always pay the girl’s expenses and return to his baby-wrecked wife — but by all means, let’s celebrate the great writer! While I’m on the tangent of fleeing fathers: someone needs to tell Inside Llewyn Davis‘ title character about condoms. (Preferably not Anchorman 2‘s Brian Fantana, however.)

But the honorary Oscar for Best Portrayal of a Wayward Provider goes to Colin Farrell. It’s mesmerizing how the man can be so lovable and yet so simultaneously disappointing. In Saving Mr. Banks, he’s Travers Goff, a banker who nips bourbon in the office and tells the most drunk-mazing stories. The world he gives his children, including Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers, is filled with wonders; the one he forces his wife to occupy is oppressive and darkly real. When he develops consumption (less insulting than the clap but still bad), an imposing agony aunt (Rachel Griffiths) comes to rescue the family, and a legend is born.

When she’s wooed by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), who’s intent on bringing the Banks family to the big screen, prim Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) resists. She’s protective of Mr. Banks, the father in Mary Poppins — a character she created as an act of catharsis. Meanwhile, Disney assumes the role of patriarch to America’s children for his own bleak-childhood reasons. Banks may be one of the few films about daddy issues that doesn’t look like Girls Gone Wild.

Making a living can be hard and taking care of loved ones can be messy. Enter Spike Jonze’s Her, a movie about the ultimate no-fuss girlfriend: a witty, adoring computer operating system blessed with the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Her is the biggest campaign against childbearing since 1997’s Gattaca. We all have issues with our parents — but between 533 happy endings and the positioning of an escaped convict as the ideal man, we should caution against looking for answers in the movies. If you get confused, ask your father. *

Year in Film: Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Eclectic 2013 Countdown


16. Oldboy (Spike Lee, US) and Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong) Two films from two of the hardest-working filmmakers in the biz. Though close to an hour and 20 minutes were butchered from Lee’s reimagining of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film, it still offered an audacious look at entitlement in America. And To delivered yet another taut gangsters vs. cops drama that ranks up there with The Mission (1999) and PTU (2003).

15. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US) and Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK) The best psychedelic mindfucks of 2013.

14. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland/Denmark) and Walker and Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, France/Taiwan) Both filmmakers embody the importance of taking one’s time to do it right. And whoever said transcendental cinema is just for the Dardenne brothers?

13. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) and Mud (Jeff Nichols, US) Masterful, and medicine for my daddy issues.

12. Bastards (Claire Denis, France/Germany) and Moebius (Kim Ki-duk, South Korea) Jonas Mekas should be proud … Baudelairean cinema is alive and well. And I can’t get the faces of actors Vincent Lindon and Lee Eun-woo out of my head.

11. The Dirties (Matt Johnson, Canada) and Magic Magic (Sebastián Silva, Chile/US) I’m not sure which was nastier: Johnson’s bravado, Dawson’s Creek-meets-Man Bites Dog debut, or Michael Cera’s treatment of a losing-her-marbles Juno Temple in Silva’s Chilean tale.

10. Beijing Flickers (Zhang Yuan, China) and A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China/Japan) “Sixth Generation” Chinese cinema is vibrantly alive and well. Do yourself a favor and get wrapped up in these explosive films.

9. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US) and Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, US) As John Waters says, “Woody Allen makes straight relationships seem interesting.” Not only should both Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins get Oscar nods for Blue Jasmine, but Andrew Dice Clay should actually win. Add to that Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater’s most profound film of their trilogy — I can’t wait for the next three.

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK) and Sion Sono’s The Land of Hope (Sion Sono, Japan/Taiwan/UK/Germany) Both of these cult directors recognize that the loss of personal relationships are as serious as the end of the world. Multiple viewings are recommended.

7. Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, India) and The Canyons (Paul Schrader, US) Exploitation cinema that practices what it preaches seems to always be misunderstood or disrespected upon its initial release. The fact that India even allowed Miss Lovely to be made is as exciting as Paul Schrader’s decision to cast troubled starlet Lindsay Lohan.

6. Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, Nepal/US) and Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, France/UK/US) Be patient and rewards will come in these minimalist, deeply moving journeys.

5. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) and Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, US) Don’t stop with Korine’s ode to the ultimate American neon fever dream. I dare you to experience Bay’s pumped-up screwball satire. Added bonus: Dwayne Johnson turns in one of the funniest performances of the year.

4. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US), plus Aningaaq (Jonás Cuarón, US) Mainstream cinema got it right this year and these Oscar-baiting films deserve more credit than just some awards. They might be changing a whole generation. If you haven’t watched the younger Cuarón’s Greenland-set Gravity companion short, go online ASAP. It’s as good as any feature this year.

3. Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy: Love, Faith, and Hope (Austria/France/Germany) Hands down, the best political-art-porn trilogy of the decade. I can’t choose which one is my favorite.

2. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines) Diaz’s four-hour masterpiece about a group of existentialist 20-somethings encapsulates why I fell in love with cinema in the first place.

1. The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, US) I will say it, and I will say it loudly: The Lone Ranger is the most subversive Hollywood film since Starship Troopers (1997). This uncompromising, revisionist Western is surprisingly ruthless with its all-American violence, and is highlighted by offbeat slapstick performances (by both Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer) and action scenes that audiences will get to uncover for decades to come. I’ve watched it four times, and it’s only gotten better with each viewing.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks writes film festival reviews for the SF Bay Guardian, curates Midnites for Maniacs at the Castro and Roxie, and is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.



1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, US/France)

2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US)

3. John Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, US)

4. Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, US)

5. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

6. Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US)

7. The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson, US)

8. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, UK)

9. [tie] Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, US) and You’re Next (Adam Wingard, US)

10. [tie] The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, US/UK/France/Germany/Japan) and Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US)

11. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Watch out!


YEAR IN FILM What the hell am I watching? I muttered that phrase many times in 2013, with interpretations ranging all over the cinematic map. There was a sense of amazed “How did they do that?” during Gravity; feelings of intrigued unease during Upstream Color and The Act of Killing; and a genuine feeling of befuddlement as a book I thoroughly enjoyed, World War Z, was transformed into a puddle of CG mud with Brad Pitt bobbing at its center.

It was a year full of memorable images, for better and worse. I won’t soon forget The Counselor‘s car-fucking sequence; The Conjuring‘s creepy Annabelle doll; or the sight of Jonah Hill becoming possessed by a demon in This is the End (or by a handful of well-aged Quaaludes in The Wolf of Wall Street). On the other hand, I’ve been struggling to remember anything that happened in the number one movie of the year, Iron Man 3.

That’s not Tony Stark’s fault. Mega-budget films like Iron Man 3 make high box-office numbers their top priority. To sell a lot of tickets, you have to appeal to as many different kinds of filmgoers as possible; the avoidance of sharp edges and left-field insanity is to be expected. But there’s hope to be found in films like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the sixth-biggest moneymaker of the year, which married crowd-pleasing suspense and technical beauty (that 3D!) to a surprisingly stark, profound story about loneliness and loss.

Gravity was among many films this year that lingered on themes of fear, abandonment, and forced self-reliance. The other big example: J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, which sets a solo sailor — Robert Redford, one of few movie stars with as much built-in audience goodwill as Gravity‘s Sandra Bullock — adrift on a perilously leaky vessel. Unlike Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, Redford’s unnamed salty dog isn’t gasping for oxygen (yet …), and he’s scrambling to survive sudden storms instead of onslaughts of space junk. But Redford’s plight might actually be the tougher one. All is Lost offers neither exposition nor any room for existential reflection. (Hell, it barely offers any dialogue; no wacky Mardi Gras stories from George Clooney here.) We have no idea who Redford’s character is, or why he’s puttering around alone on the Indian Ocean. Compared to Ryan, he remains calm as each new calamity presents itself. But both characters — she, a rookie in space; he, a seemingly experienced seaman — scramble to read instruction manuals when they find gizmos that might help them survive, even for just a few more moments.

The stakes are less dire for the lonely protagonists of Spike Jonze’s Her and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. And you kinda get the sense that both Her‘s Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Inside‘s Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) have only themselves to blame for their ennui. But unlike Llewyn, who bumbles his way through a 1960s New York folk scene riddled with mistakes he’s only recently begun to regret, mid-21st century Los Angeleno Theodore finds a coping strategy that brings him joy. Even when the “relationship” he’s cultivated with his computer operating system hits the expected snags, Jonze sneaks a little bit of optimism in there. By the film’s end, Theodore’s intimate brush with technology has guided him toward some very human soul-searching — again, unlike Llewyn, whose story finishes exactly where it began.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish — a documentary investigating the 2010 death of a SeaWorld trainer at the jaws of a male orca named Tilikum — also brought a tale of isolation to the forefront. It’s capped with a lingering shot of the giant animal hovering, motionless, in a solitary-confinement tank. Home sweet home. Thoughtful and provocative, Blackfish avoids sensationalism, adding interviews with killer-whale experts to its slate of ex-SeaWorld employee talking heads. It’s not simply an exposé of a specific attack, though it does contain footage shot just before the Tilikum incident. It’s an indictment of an amusement-park industry that puts profits above the safety of its employees, and tries mightily to turn intelligent, unpredictable animals into goofy attractions.

And greed, as it happens, was another big theme for 2013. It’s a topic that lends itself to high-energy tales of ill-gotten gains and dramatic tumbles, with stakes as meaningless as the designer handbags snatched from Paris Hilton’s closet by Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring bandits — or as huge as the political careers toppled by the antics of American Hustle‘s con artists and slippery FBI agents. Nowhere was this familiar story arc so gleefully explored than in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which — like Bling and Hustle — was based on a true story. Even better, its tale of 1990s stock-market swindling is based on the book written by the fiend who lived it (Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio), and shot by Martin Scorsese with top-of-his-game panache.

In a parallel universe, someone might make a film casting Belfort as the villain. Here, he’s the obnoxious, thieving, narcissistic, witty, scheming, drug-gobbling douchebag you hate to love. What the hell am I watching? The birth of an antihero, 2013-style. *



1. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark/Norway/UK)

2. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK)

3. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US)

4. American Hustle (David O. Russell, US)

5. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, US)

6. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, Austria/US)

7. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US)

8. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US)

9. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US)

10. Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, US)




Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, US); Blue Is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, France/Belgium/Spain); Drug War (Johnnie To, China/Hong Kong); Nebraska (Alexander Payne, US); The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, US)




Leonardo DiCaprio vs. the stairs, The Wolf of Wall Street

“Let’s boo-boo.” — The World’s End

Mastodon’s “cameo” in Monsters University

Louis C.K.’s ice-fishing story, American Hustle

Judi Dench explains the plot of Big Momma’s House to Steve Coogan, Philomena

“I wanna rob!” — Emma Watson, The Bling Ring

Sun Honglei’s transformation into “Haha,” Drug War

Jem Cohen’s musings on Bruegel, Museum Hours

“Everytime” musical number, Spring Breakers

John Goodman’s “Santería” speech, Inside Llewyn Davis John C. Reilly’s cameo, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Bully pulpit


YEAR IN FILM While teen bullying might be quite topical, it’s far from being a new issue, as evidenced by Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie. Set in the hormone-jittery corridors of a suburban high school, the 1974 tome details an outsider’s humiliating entrance into womanhood, as well as the ruthless revenge she enacts on her cruel classmates after she discovers she has the power to move objects with her mind.

Dubbed “The Black Prom” by the book, the disastrous dance at which Carrie White is humiliated for the last time takes on the ominous tenor of a terrorist attack or a wholesale massacre — a fictional foreshadowing of Columbine-scale carnage. While the fact that Carrie has been bullied is positioned as the motive for her rampage, her actions suggest far more than just a wounded lashing-out or a classic revenge fantasy. Although the phrase wasn’t yet common, what Carrie most resembles is a weapon of mass destruction, not a misunderstood misfit. What makes Carrie a horror story is the inhuman scale of her murderous frenzy.

The year 2013 marked a revival for the enigma that is Carrie White, with a remake of the 1976 Brian De Palma movie (as well as, incidentally, the 1988 musical). Director Kimberly Peirce had the harder struggle for relevance, as the original film is considered one of the best horror films ever made, garnering Oscar nominations, American Film Institute nods, and a generation of moviegoers who will never forget jumping in their seats at its oft-imitated, last-act “gotcha” scare.

In Peirce’s fitful homage, the dreamy haze of De Palma’s slo-mo sequences is replaced by a glut of clunky CGI shots that shred the screen. Stepping into the role made iconic by Sissy Spacek, the decidedly non-frumpy Chloë Grace Moretz unleashes her telekinetic talent as a sort of wizardry — striking Merlin the Magician poses with outstretched hands. It borders on irritating. And the mean-girl posse’s reliance on their camera phones and YouTube channels stands to date Peirce’s movie for future generations, just as surely as the hairstyles in De Palma’s date his.

Speaking of which, the De Palma movie admittedly has a few eye-rolling moments of its own. It’s so comfortably bound to the conventions of the seventies that trigger-tempered gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) both chain smokes and wears raccoon-thick eyeliner to class, and teen heartthrob Tommy Ross (William Katt) sports a mane of ringlets so angelic you’d swear they were spun from pure disco gold. Whenever Carrie uses her burgeoning powers, a Psycho-esque violin riff screeches in the background, and John Travolta’s doltish bad boy barely appears capable of tying his own shoelaces, let alone engineering his patented blood-bucket humiliation device.

But what makes the story of Carrie so horrifying is precisely that which places her beyond reconstruction. What neither De Palma nor Peirce can quite manage is turning Carrie into a righteous anti-hero. The more they try to create empathy for their tortured protagonist, the more cartoonish and exaggerated her destructive frenzy appears — a gratuitous tsunami of blood, blaze, and blade. Ultimately what works against turning Carrie into a victim is simply that the force of her firepower is too great. She might not have plotted her vengeance, but she’s fully aware that she’s packing her own kind of heat. From the first moment she deliberately uses it to kill, she is damned.

Carrie‘s overkill also stunts its potential as a darkly comedic revenge fantasy à la Heathers (1988), since Carrie, like so many real-life teen shooters, winds up dead herself. Only one of her repentant classmates tries to reach out before the inevitable happens. It’s this scene that most stymies both De Palma and Peirce, since King’s quiet dénouement is decidedly uncinematic — yet it’s a powerful one, an exchange of final words and psychic impressions as Carrie’s life ebbs out of her beside the wrecked remains of the roadhouse she was presumably conceived in. Here, at last, is the moment of self-awareness — and yes, regret — that we need in order to recognize Carrie White as another casualty of her own paranormal capabilities. And until someone figures out a way to film it, we’ll never quite be able to believe it on the big screen. *




Art world confidential Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2010) and Pina (2011)

Feeling a little peckish Grizzly Man (2005) and Ravenous (1999)

Finding love in all the wrong places Lolita (1962) and The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (2003)

Traveling blues Schultze Gets the Blues (2003) and Genghis Blues (1999)

Streets of San Francisco The Laughing Policeman (1973) and The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Outsider music The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) and American Hardcore (2006)

Entering the zone Stalker (1979) and Sans Soleil (1983)

Morbid fascinations Colma: The Musical (2006) and The Bridge (2006)

Never mind the remakes Let the Right One In (2008) and Oldboy (2003)

My favorite movie mash-up ever Freaks (1932) and Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

Spiking the box office


YEAR IN FILM It’s tough to remember much of the ’90s — what with the air horns and kindercore, flannel and Flavor Flav — but I seem to recall Spike Lee giving the orders that seemed to finally, fully come to pass in 2013: “Make black film.”

Irony of ironies, when it seemed like so many black filmmakers were following through and doing just that — telling their communities’ stories, visualizing their own histories, and fearlessly unlocking troubling and painful key themes — Lee sidled away from Red Hook Summer, last year’s murky return to the fabled Brooklyn stomping grounds of 1989’s Do the Right Thing, and seemed to move toward a fallback position as actioner-for-hire with his redo of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, as if to prove that, testify, he can crush skulls just like his old Amerindie-boys-club rival Quentin Tarantino.

Yet isn’t Lee’s Oldboy a “black film” concerning unjust incarceration or bondage, as much as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Hunger are? Perhaps. The connections were in place, if you cared to look: the stasis of 12 Year‘s near-still opening shot, as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and other slaves facing the audience, waiting and listening to a white foreman’s directions, has its corollary in the multiple shots in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, of Forest Whitaker’s butler Cecil Gaines, face frozen. He’s the veritable “invisible man,” instructed to disappear into the background at White House dinners and forever listening for direction. And waiting — as if wondering when the moviemaking establishment will move on from its habit of bestowing statuettes for African American portraits in servitude, à la The Help (2011) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

It’s been a long time coming — much like a certain African American president that butler Gaines had waited a lifetime to meet. Five years into that presidency, the man who tried to “do the right thing” has, intentionally or not, changed the conversation on black representation on screens both big and small. The country’s ready to look at its past and break down the codes, whether they concern slavery, birthers’ loaded allegations about Obama’s “un-American-ness,” Paula Deen’s alleged workplace racism, or Julianne Hough’s wrongheaded Halloween costume — a blackface tribute to “Orange is the New Black” character Crazy Eyes.

This year’s contenders looked to not only historical role models like Jackie Robinson in 42 and Nelson Mandela in Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom) — in movies made by white filmmakers — but also lighter, aspirational figures such as Tyler Perry (who laid siege on the box office with two efforts, A Madea Christmas and Peeples), as well as the glossy buppies populating popular comedy sequel The Best Man Holiday. Fans blew up the Interwebs with indignation when some misbegotten USA Today editor came up with the headline “Holiday Nearly Beats Thor as Race-Themed Films Soar.”

The Best Man Holiday is bourgie worlds away from Spike Lee favorite Fruitvale Station. (One wonders if the acclaimed indie will serve as a model for Lee’s own Kickstarter-fueled Trayvon Martin project.) Filling out the many shades of his protagonist’s story, and leading with cell phone footage of the fatal shooting, director Ryan Coogler never overplays the naturalistic narrative centered on Oscar Grant, so often writ larger than life all over Oakland in posters and street art. Though it was released at height of Martin-related outrage, the film keeps sensation and sentimentality at bay, apart from a foreboding scene of a stray dog’s sudden death. Like that hound on the run, Michael B. Jordan’s Grant is a driving, hustling, partying study in movement. Fully immersed in a multicultural Bay Area where racism operates in subtler and more complex ways than ever before, he, like any other restless rider, is just trying to get home.

Whitaker threw his weight behind Fruitvale Station as a producer — but his Gaines and The Butler seem wildly different on their stiff, sad surfaces. So much is simmering within Whitaker’s stocky form, his steadfast servant with access to power that he’s forbidden to use, and those blank looks. “We got two faces: ours and the ones that we got to show the white folks. Now to get up in the world, we have to make them feel non-threatened,” mentor Maynard (Clarence Williams III of The Mod Squad) offers. Surrounded by Daniels players like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, Gaines has one leg in a horrifying sharecropper past and another in upwardly mobile mid-century America, which filmmaker Daniels emphasizes by juxtaposing lynched black men with the stars and stripes at The Butler’s start.

The director goes on to unfurl his showiest stylistic flourishes in a series of jump cuts aimed at the spectacle of hypocrisy perpetually unfolding in the White House, as a table is carefully laid for a excruciating formal state dinner, and the Freedom Riders — Gaines’ son among them — are humiliated while staging a stoic sit-in at a Southern lunch counter. Passive resistance, in all its many forms, is the locus of both tragedy and heroism in The Butler.

Nature, with its dripping moss, strange sunsets, and even Biblical pestilence, provides brief snatches of beauty in 12 Years a Slave, as McQueen foregrounds the mechanistic business of slavery in the tools used for cutting cane, the wheels of a river boat. Free-born violinist Northup is beaten into a kind of tool after he’s kidnapped and sold into slavery. His body, nude and exposed to traffickers and buyers, is transformed into a commodity that doesn’t belong to him. His talents are also forced into new uses, as when he fiddles frantically while a mother is torn from her children in a horror-show of a salesroom floor — and later, during a torturous, late-night dance staged by Michael Fassbender’s damaged, sadistic slave owner. The effect of seeing familiar white actors (like Fassbender, and the stars who play The Butler’s various commanders in chief) reel by in a parade of status quo perpetrators, not saviors. In both 12 Years and The Butler, it’s disorienting — as if everyone in Hollywood is also aching to “make black film.”

12 years a slave

Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave

Bridging McQueen’s explorations of physical and psychological abjection, Hans Zimmer’s slow-burning, string-laden score picks up where it left off in McQueen’s 2011 Shame, about Fassbender’s sex addict enchained to his confused desires. In terms of desire, it’s all too clear where Ejiofor’s Northup stands (“I don’t want to survive — I want to live!” he declares), and to his credit, McQueen makes his nightmarish 172-year-old descent all too relevant, especially at a time when the Obama administration addresses the persistent crime of human trafficking. It’s just a small leap of imagination to think of one’s story, name, and legal status blotted out and turned around by force and a gnawing “you’re nothing but a Georgia runaway” counter-narrative, reminding the viewer that no one is truly free when others are enslaved. *




 (in alphabetical order)

Best second time around: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK)

Luxe clucks: The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, US/UK/France/Germany/Japan)

Best off-base SF-by-way-of-Jersey: Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, US)

Finest funny-sad threesome: Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, US)

Bay pride: Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, US)

Best flouting of the laws of physics: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, US)

Best use of entire songs: Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan and Joel Coen, US/France)

Best tortured threesome: The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France/Italy)

Inspired grills and thrills: Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, US) Rapturous apocalypse: This Is the End (Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, US)

Respect your elders


By Sara Maria Vizcarrondo

YEAR IN FILM Before Bruce Willis saved Bonnie Bedelia at Nakatomi Plaza, he was David Addison, detective-agency foil to Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting. Then, after some multi-genre foreplay (1987’s high pedigree rom-com Blind Date, an iffy pop album), Willis charmed the pants off America in 1988’s Die Hard, sliding — gritty and glistening — down an air duct to escape the film’s fiery climax.

It’s been a hero’s journey ever since, so appropriately enough, the 57-year-old co-stars in next year’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation. According to the trailer, he’ll mow down villains triumphantly, then annoy some hottie with TMI about the pains of aging. Maybe Willis’ action-hero persona has come full circle, but the movies haven’t exactly evolved with him. With the exception of the mercifully MIA Steven Seagal, the 1980s’ biggest action stars spent 2012 doing the shtick they perfected long before latter-day idols like The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield and The Avengers star Chris Hemsworth (both born in 1983, which makes them one year older than The Terminator and one year younger than First Blood) entered the third grade.

>>Read more from our Year in Film 2012 issue here.

But unlike more spandex-y saviors, the leathery hunks who’ve been making films for a generation aren’t asking us to grow with them; instead, they’re growing old in front of us. (In The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale’s Batman is just pushing 40, but he spents half the movie in post-injury, old-man wobble mode.) If we wanna watch these guys be badasses, we’d better mind our touchy-feely instincts, because aging is rougher than a hailstorm of bullets and nowhere near as pretty. At least the flashy shit happens quickly.

Usually, an actor demonstrating frailty provokes viewers to confront their own weaknesses — the goal there is identification, poignancy. So what are we to make of the unstoppable Expendables series? The movies are as one-note as the best glossy shoot-’em-ups, which is relevant because Sylvester Stallone couldn’t have cast Willis, Dolph Lundgren, or Arnold Schwarzenegger as the cockroaches of the mercenary world without their stone-cold legacies. This epic Viagra ad of a franchise is built on the same single-mission structure of the classics that made its stars famous in the first place. The Expendables 2 pads its cast with Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme (as a villain named “Vilain”) — but adds a “kid” (Liam Hemsworth) and a woman (Yu Nan) to the mix. Of course, the film atones for these updates making a plutonium mine the center of the film. (Also, it’s set in an old Russian military base — ah, sweet memories!)

But Stallone, Willis, and co. aren’t the only geezers attached to the aging-heroes trend. Think of Liam Neeson, sizzling anew at age 60 thanks to the Taken films. His career has only gotten hotter as he’s aged and started embracing lower-brow roles — does anyone look more fierce fighting wolves than Neeson? Tom Cruise, who turned 50 this year, doesn’t need a career reboot, even after Rock of Ages; his action-man streak continues apace with the upcoming Jack Reacher, plus 2013’s Oblivion and an inevitable fifth Mission: Impossible film.

James Bond may have shagged half of Europe, but he’s a lone wolf (no cubs) by design, and when the character turned 50 (current Bond Daniel Craig is 44), the plight of post-middle age was all his 23rd movie could talk about. Skyfall, a.k.a. The Best Explosive Marigold Hotel, features a Bond that fights for Britain and his own relevance at the same time — while the series does the same, making the bad guy a hacker and aiming for poignancy with a back story the 1960s Bond would have been too busy sexing around the globe to indulge.

According to the rules of the cowboy — speaking of, is Clint Eastwood still out there somewhere, talking to that empty chair? — the silver star goes to the next in line. But these cowboys ain’t going nowhere, no matter how many Channing Tatum clones start lurking around the box office. The Expendables 3 has already been announced (two words, casting directors: Nic Cage). No word if Willis is in that cast, but he does have G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Red 2 (another series about “retired, extremely dangerous” operatives), and A Good Day to Die Hard on the docket. Terrorists, Cobra Commanders, JCVD, wolves: 2012’s mature action heroes fear not these things. Their only true adversary is time. And possibly gravity.

They see me rollin’


YEAR IN FILM Two of 2012’s finest, most philosophical, and most frustrating movies share a setting of sorts. Although one film takes place in New York, the other in Paris, both films’ protagonists spend a lot of time in their white stretch limousines. The limo: an ostentatious symbol of status and wealth, a home away from home.

In David Cronenberg’s unsettling Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis, it’s superwealthy magnate Eric Packer (a defanged Robert Pattinson) who eats, fucks, and talks business in a limo, trapped in ever-worsening NYC traffic. For Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant) in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, the limousine is also place of business. When I first saw Holy Motors, I noted the “limo-as-liminal-space” — Oscar’s limousine is his dressing room, a place of transformation for the chameleonic arch-performer.

>>Read more from our Year in Film 2012 issue here.

This common factor, though coincidental, is not accidental. The limousine as symbol and space is crucial to the structure of both films, which I’ve taken half-facetiously to calling “limo operas.” In both, white stretch limos are distinctive cells in the secret circulatory system of late capitalist society. Their passengers have a privileged viewpoint — they can see out, but others can’t see in. When the camera joins the passengers inside the limo, the city becomes an almost unreal backdrop for the private activities within.

In Cosmopolis, there’s an ongoing, ambivalent dialogue about the dispersal of all things into data; everything is getting smaller, faster, swept away by the flow of “cyber-capital.” But Eric Packer, whose vast wealth is about to collapse due to minute changes in the value of the yuan, is obsessed with large, worldly purchases. He has two private elevators with specialized soundtracks, and a Soviet bomber plane that he keeps in a hangar. He’s insistent that he wants to buy the Rothko Chapel, despite its nature as a public artwork. And he describes his limo as a car sawed in half and expanded. He’s had his limo “Prousted” — lined with soundproof cork like Marcel Proust’s bedroom — which he describes as “a gesture … a thing a man does.” The soundproofing doesn’t work, though. His limousine is a performance of his ego, and of its futility.

It’s also an object in the movie’s central dialogue about systems that operate beyond perception. Much like units of encrypted economic information, limos push through the city announcing the self-importance of their passengers. They might be carrying a president or a celebrity, but one of Packer’s employees reminds him that limos also connote “kids on prom night, or some dumb wedding.” And then they go away. Packer asks, “Where do all these limos go at night?” and he finally gets an answer from his limo driver — there are underground garages — they slumber beneath the city. Even his driver’s description of the garages reinforces the weird information-value of the vehicle — “a marketplace of limos.”

Oscar’s limo in Holy Motors is perhaps less of a grand statement to the public, but it’s still a sort of grandiose contradiction on wheels. Oscar is an actor who fulfills “appointments” — enigmatic, prearranged convergences with other lives, where he transmutes into elaborately conceived new beings, for an audience of no one and everyone. When another strange figure, the critic to Oscar’s artist, appears in the limo, Oscar explains his less convincing performances as a result of technological progress: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads. Now you can’t see them at all.” And so he prepares for his appointments in an eminently visible, garishly substantial machine. In the world of Holy Motors, white stretch limos are apparently markers of Oscar’s trade — when his limo collides with another, it is coincidentally also carrying a performer, his old flame, en route to her own appointment.

In contrast to Cosmopolis, Carax’s film gives a glimpse inside the occluded space of the garage where limos sleep — literally. In its amusing and crucial final scene, Holy Motors returns to the titular motor pool, and eavesdrops on the after-hours gossiping of an entire fleet of sentient limousines. One laments that they’ll soon all be junked, and another agrees: “Men don’t want visible machines anymore.” But visible machines are precisely what Oscar wants, so he makes his office in a limo.

Both Packer and Oscar are aging, battling obsolescence while stubbornly clinging to old operating procedures. In these two films, deeply entrenched in commenting on the withering progress of postmodern life, the stretch limo is a loud, defiant holdout. You might even call it a relic — it is, after all, a holy motor. *


Read more from Sam Stander at





1. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, US, 2011)

2. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/US, 2011)

3. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy)

4. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US)

5-6. [tie] Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, US, 2011)/The Avengers (Joss Whedon, US)

7-8. [tie] Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, US/Ireland, 2011)/Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US)

9. Whores’ Glory (Michael Glawogger, Germany/Austria, 2011)

10. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France/Germany)

11. Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany/France/UK, 2011)

12. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

13. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, US, 2011) 14. This Is Not A Film (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2011) 15. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2011)

Chick it out


YEAR IN FILM Cluck as you may, it was only a matter of time before the chicks started rewriting those chick flicks. Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, and their peers represent the girls — how politically incorrect — in all their messy, sexy, oozy, frizzy-haired, fallible, flabby, and unflappable glory. And this year saw a major meeting in the ladies room, films out real soon, that poked fun at women’s work, relationships, identities, and insecurities.

The pedestal that history’s most notorious auteur-patriarch was so quick to place his icy blondes upon, rhapsodized in the nostalgia-laced Hitchcock, was toppled in feminist Pygmalion revamp Ruby Sparks, penned by lead actress Zoe Kazan. Meanwhile, Rashida Jones took a revisionist tact and rethought the second-wave myth of the woman who can have it all by writing and playing the lovable power bitch who nevertheless kicks her slacker soul mate to the curb in Celeste and Jesse Forever.

>>Read more from our Year in Film issue here.

In a more clearly chick-flicky vein, writer-star Lauren Miller amped up the sexual side of the rom-com with For a Good Time, Call…, whereas Julie Delpy reveled in an old-world/new-urban interracial culture clash while writing, directing, and starring in 2 Days in New York. Zoe Lister Jones got the second-banana gal-pal’s revenge by writing herself all the best lines in the unsettlingly girlie Lola Versus, a movie that seemed designed to test the patience of men, critics (especially male ones) by wallowing in one girl’s mournful sexual shenanigans.

Why take on the notoriously powerless role of screenwriter? “A pretty dreary lot of hacks,” Raymond Chandler once put it. “On billboards, in newspaper advertisements, [the writer’s] name will be smaller than that of the most insignificant bit-player who achieves what is known as billing.” It’s a critical step in deconstructing the tropes, disassembling the lines, and unpacking the baggage so many so-called women’s films have been supplying for years. No wonder female actor-writers so often seem to be in a race for the bottom with the guys, writing themselves roles that make themselves look more morally ambiguous, sexually conflicted, taste-testingly lurid, and simply screwed-up. Born in Flames (1983), these movies aren’t.

Instead, dub them the natural byproduct of a DIY video-making movement or simply a pendulum swing away from 2011, when it seemed like all the blockbuster roles for women lay in servant’s quarters of The Help and females were protagonists of only 11 percent of all films, in contrast to 2002’s 16 percent (according to a report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University).

Chalk it up to the afterglow of Wiig’s Bridesmaids (2011), spinning off the comedy that won over audiences with its flurry of frenemy backstabbing, scatological humor, and extremely close attention to women’s bizarro rites of passage. Or attribute it to the seismic activity set off by Lena Dunham, who satirized the YouTube generation in 2010’s Tiny Furniture, a comedy she herself shot on a Canon 5D digital camera. Dunham’s HBO hit, Girls, only added fuel to a blogosphere backlash that seemed less about Dunham (her looks, her privileged background) and more about hipster-culture smugness, an entire generation’s perceived sense of entitlement, and good ol’ jealousy.

That kind of outcry is a risk that women are increasingly willing to take, as they wrote themselves onto the big screen and told their own stories. They spun tales about their perhaps petty, perhaps big-deal concerns, and went there — to the not so deep, but sort of dirty little secrets in the Hidden World of Girls, to crib the title of that Fey-hosted NPR series.

And however you felt about her genre-defining rom-coms, there was a certain sad poetry to the fact that writer-director Nora Ephron quietly passed away amid this year’s girlquake. She spent less time in front of the camera than many of these actress-writers do, but you know the woman who directed and co-wrote 1992’s This Is My Life — the film that inspired Dunham to make movies — would have been eager to pass the baton.





Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece, 2010)

Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman, USA/France, 2011)

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK, 2011)

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, US)

Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia)

Gerhard Richter Painting (Corinna Belz, Germany, 2011)

Gimme the Loot (Adam Leon, US)

I Wish (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2011) Marina Abramovich: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre, US) Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/UK)

This ain’t a wrap


YEAR IN FILM Perhaps the backlash was inevitable. Any film that so flawlessly wows its initial audience in turn begins to receive a lot more scrutiny down the line, and there are definitely things about This Ain’t California to scrutinize. Billed as a documentary, yet centered around a character who may not actually exist, This Ain’t California details the unlikely rise of a rebellious East German skateboarding scene hidden from view behind the Iron Curtain.

An exuberant mischung of archival and new video footage, a brash and punkish soundtrack, animated sequences, and compelling, little-explored subject matter, the film made irreverence its watchword, from storyline to storyboard. And although the sheer scale of this irreverent approach, including the filmmakers’ unorthodox methods of framing their story, raised serious questions about This Ain’t California‘s self-definition as documentary, what was undeniable was the movie’s greatest success — its flawless capture of a zeitgeist, not just of a specific place and time, but of the irrepressible vitality of youth cultures everywhere.

>>Read more from our Year in Film 2012 issue here.

Screened first at the 2012 Berlinale in February (and in San Francisco at the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in October), This Ain’t California won the coveted “Dialogue en Perspective” prize for young filmmakers, an award given with this statement that foreshadowed the controversy to come: “We’ve rarely been so splendidly manipulated.” While the jury in Berlin was referring to the dynamic editing job spearheaded by 23-year-old Maxine Gödecke, as the film won more awards around the festival circuit — including “Best Documentary” at the Cannes Independent Film Festival — details about its unconventional creation began to emerge in the press. That much of the so-called “archival” video footage was recreated by a slew of modern-day skaters disguised in touchingly hilarious GDR-era hairdos and aggressively mismatched stripes. That all of the footage of the central character Denis “Panik” Paraceck was actually that of Berlin-based skater-model, Kai Hillebrandt. That Denis Paraceck (who, according to the film, died in Afghanistan in 2011) might actually never have existed, let alone been the impetus behind the film’s modern-day reunion of the now-adult skaters (and at least a couple of hired actors, including David Nathan and Tina Bartel).

German news weekly Der Spiegel condemned it as a glorified advertisement for skate culture, bloggers such as Berlin-based Joseph Pearson of The Needle decried the dangerous folly of Germans rewriting their own history, and the filmmakers themselves have been cagey about admitting to the extent of their subterfuge.

“[It’s] so much more fun to keep that secret,” director Martin Persiel explains to me via email when asked to comment.

But lest the naysayers condemn the film as pure hoax, it should be noted that there most definitely was an underground skate scene in East Germany, in addition to other outlaw scenes, including break dancers, punk rockers, and heavy metal bands. Plenty of the film’s old-school skate rats are verifiable as such, and some of the most frankly unbelievable details of the film, such as a compatriot with a Finnish passport being tapped to smuggle boards in from the West, appear to be corroborated independently by academic Kai Reinhart, who has been researching sports history and GDR funsportart since 2005.

“As a filmmaker there is a huge responsibility to truthful depiction of your subject,” Persiel insists. “[And] as far as feedback from the skaters from the East goes, we did do justice to their story.”

On the controversy over allowing a partially fictitious film win awards in the documentary category (against presumably less colorful and more rigorously fact-based films), Persiel remains silent, though he does theorize that the definition of “documentary” is expanding and evolving all the time.

“I call This Ain’t California a ‘documentary tale’,” he explicates, adding his own micro-category. It’s an explanation that probably won’t placate his detractors, but whatever side of the definition of “documentary” the film winds up being relegated to, the definition of “best” will still apply. No matter what, it’s a movie well worth seeing, and controversies aside, a movie well worth having been made — for truly we have been splendidly manipulated. *





More in common than you’d expect Delicatessen (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 1991) and Deliverance (John Boorman, US, 1972)

William H. Macy is underrated Edmond (Stuart Gordon, US, 2005) and The Cooler (Wayne Kramer, US, 2003)

All about men A Single Man (Tom Ford, US, 2009) and A Serious Man (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US/UK/France, 2009)

Post-Prometheus Ridley Scott-a-thon Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, US/Hong Kong/UK, 1982) and Alien (Ridley Scott, US/UK, 1979)

Noomi vs. Rooney The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, US/Sweden/Norway, 2011) and The Girl with the

Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, Sweden/Denmark/Germany/Norway, 2009)

Please kill me Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, various, 2000) and Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, US, 2010)

Gay follies Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, US, 1990) and The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, US, 1996)

Dark days Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, US, 2003) and Deliver Us from Evil (Amy Berg, US, 2006)

The masochism tango The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, Austria/France/Germany, 2001) and Secretary (Steven Shainberg, US, 2002) Let’s get physical Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 1997) and Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2012)

Harvey’s list



Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, US)

Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2011)

The Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi, Australia)

Fat Kid Rules the World (Matthew Lillard, US)

Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel, 2011)

Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick, US)

Hermano (Marcel Rasquin, Venezuela, 2010)

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France/Germany)

The Hunter (David Nettheim, Australia, 2011)

In Darkness (Agnieszka Holland, Poland/Germany/Canada, 2011)

Keep the Lights On (Ira Sachs, US)

Klown (Mikkel Norgaard, Denmark, 2010)

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, US/China)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, US/India)

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, Austria, 2011)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US)

Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, US, 2011)

Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway, 2011)

Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, US)

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, US)

Sister (Ursula Meier, France/Switzerland)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK/US)

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, US)

Wreck-It Ralph (Rich Moore, US)


Gypsy Davy (Rachel Leah Jones, Israel/US/Spain, 2011)

The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki, various)

How to Survive a Plague (David France, US)

Informant (Jamie Meltzer, US)
The Invisible War (Kirby Dick, US)
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, US/Netherlands/UK/Denmark)
Pink Ribbons, Inc. (Léa Pool, Canada, 2011)
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, US)
Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, Sweden/U.K.)
Surviving Progress (Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, Canada, 2011)
The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks, US)

Ficks’ picks


1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada/France/Portugal/Italy) During the five times I watched this brilliantly slow-burning, transcendental flick, I saw dozens of audience members fall asleep, walk out early, and complain all the way down the corridor of the Embarcadero Center Cinema hallways. I had to watch it that many times (plus read the book and have countless late-night discussions) just to try and wrap my brain around this era-defining exploration of what it means to be a (hu)man in the Y2Ks. Robert Pattinson proved he’s a truly spectacular actor, Paul Giamatti has never been better, and David Cronenberg is only getting better as he gets older.

2. In the Family  (Patrick Wang, US, 2011) Self-distributed due to its length (169 minutes), this is a stunningly haunting and devastating work. Viewers with the patience to stick with it are rewarded with a genuinely achieved emotional volcano that I can only relate to John Cassavetes’ greatest films. A truly landmark film, in both style and content.

3. The Master  (Paul Thomas Anderson, US) Of all the films that Anderson has boldly attempted, audaciously experimented with, and (perhaps most importantly) been critically embraced for, The Master is a balanced period piece that combines both poetic and historical elements with a couple of truly profound performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This is not a film only about Scientology, or about just one master. This is a film that asks many questions, but supplies few answers.

4. The Comedy (Rick Alverson, US) Perhaps containing the most mean-spirited characters of the decade, this harrowingly insightful satire of the hipster generation’s compulsion to heap irony upon irony inspired many an audience member to exit mid-film. But the many who dared to remain (including fans of the film’s lead actor, Tim Heidecker, from Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) may have found themselves forced to question their own heartless (and even sociopath) tendencies.

Director Rick Alverson’s perceptive use of a contemporary antihero is quite comparable to the counterculture characters of the 1970s: Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), Peter Falk in Husbands (1970), and Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970). And since The Comedy was not necessarily made to be enjoyed, it will probably, sadly, take 20 years for people to recognize that there is no finer film to define this generation.

5. Florentina Hubaldo CTE (Lav Diaz, Philippines) With this six-hour film, Lav Diaz has created yet another minimalist masterpiece that few will even attempt to watch — 20 people started out in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ screening, and only 10 finished it. Diaz has a monumental goal in mind for his character, and his film’s length is a major part of achieving it. I am not sure if there will ever be a time when six-hour character studies will be all the rage, but until then, Diaz is paving an uncharted road for others to follow.

6. Shanghai (Dibakar Banerjee, India) This Hindi remake of Costa-Gavras’ monumental political thriller Z (1969) may not have French New Wave cinematographer Raoul Coutard behind the camera, but Shanghai‘s director of photography Nikos Andritsakis adds his own brand of raw intensity. For his part, writer-director Banerjee creates an even more complicated look at the state of politics in the age of the modern terrorist. Seemingly inspired by fellow director Ram Gopal Varma’s career of gritty political dramas, Banerjee is an international director to watch.

7. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France) The perfect companion to David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, this film contains a tour de force performance by the almighty Denis Lavant (of Claire Denis’ 1999 Beau Travail), with Michel Piccoli, Eva Mendes, Édith Scob, and Kylie Minogue in supporting roles. Unique, surreal, and completely inspired, this day-in-the-life journey will make you want to watch it again as soon as it ends.

8. The Grey  (Joe Carnahan, US) The best existential “animal attacking human” flick since David Mamet’s 1997 cult classic The Edge. It’s a film that showcases Liam Neeson as he tapes glass to his fists to battle a pack of giant wolves — and manages to be emotionally stirring at the same time. Make sure to keep watching all the way through the credits.

9a. Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton, US, 2011) Lynn Shelton’s follow-up to her genre-defining bromance Humpday (2009) is a pitch-perfect indie that attempts to dig deep within its dark and confused characters. Depressed and confused thirtysomething Jack (played by Mark Duplass, master of casual awkwardness) heads off to a remote island to figure out his life. The only trouble: his best friend (a mesmerizing Emily Blunt) also has a lesbian sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is already there doing her own soul searching. With this contemplative, honest, and hilarious film, Shelton is turning out to be quite a splendid voice for our current generation of progressive pitfallers.

9b. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Jay Duplass and Mark Dupass, US) They’ve done it again! With Jeff, the mumblecore masters (2005’s The Puffy Chair; 2010’s Cyrus) construct a stoner comedy-existential trip for the man-child generation. While inspiring outstanding performances from Jason Segal and Ed Helms (both the best they’ve ever been), playing brothers, a poignantly performance by Susan Sarandon as their mother raises this wonderfully earned sentimental indie flick to the ranks of family dramas like Jodie Foster’s Home for the Holidays (1995) and her most recent overlooked gem, The Beaver (2011).

10. Lotus Community Workshop (Harmony Korine, US) His next film, Spring Breakers (due out next year), is poised to become Harmony Korine’s most accessible film to date; it’s a T&A-filled exploitation film, led by James Franco as a grimy, gold-grilled-grinning, dreadlocked drug dealer who lives to prey on bikini-clad young girls. But 30-minute meta-masterpiece Lotus Community Workshop, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival earlier this year (as part of omnibus film The Fourth Dimension), is maybe Korine’s greatest film to date. The almighty Val Kilmer plays a dirt bike-riding, fanny-pack wearing, roller-rink guru named Val Kilmer — and yep, it’s as mind-blowing as it sounds.

11. ParaNorman  (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, US) This stop-motion animated film surprised parents who felt its PG rating should have been PG-13 — and it inspired gasps and even yells (from adults!) in every screening I attended. Daringly shot on a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR Camera and released in a fully utilized 3D, this ode to midnight movies is a kids’ film that will stand the test of time and should rank right alongside Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Army of Darkness (1992): horror parodies that transcended their own self-awareness and become classics themselves.

12-14 [tie]. A Simple Life (Ann Hui, Hong Kong, 2011), Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria/France/Germany), The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/France/Germany/Switzerland/US, 2011) Ann Hui’s simple, straightforward tale of a woman’s choice to check herself into a retirement home after suffering a stroke will probably get overshadowed by Michael Haneke’s wonderfully minimalist approach to an elderly couple’s decline after one of them experiences the same ailment. Meanwhile, Béla Tarr’s final film is for acquired tastes only; it’s a cyclical journey with a rural couple, who eat potatoes, are isolated in a stormy darkness, and care for their horse. All three films lay out a terrifyingly realistic blueprint of old age.

15. Compliance  (Craig Zobel, US) No film at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival encountered as much controversy as Compliance. At the first public screening, an all-out shouting match erupted, with one audience member yelling “Sundance can do better!” You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Every screening that followed was jam-packed with people hoping to experience the most shocking film at the fest. And it doesn’t disappoint: Zobel unleashes an uncomfortable psychological mindfuck on the viewer all the way through to the stunning final 15 minutes, which are even more shocking than all the twists and turns that came before.

16. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy, 2011) Can these Belgian brothers make a bad film? Seriously? Like their Palme D’Or winners Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L’enfant (2005), Kid is yet another hypnotic, neo-realist portrait of modern-day youth. Every character makes unexpected yet inevitable decisions. No moment is false. The Dardennes create movies that make life feel more real.

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild ( Benh Zeitlin, US) Fantastical special effects created by 31 students at San Francisco’s own Academy of Art University (yes, I am biased), plus star Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, a precocious six-year-old searching to understand a world post-Katrina, post-race, and more importantly post-childhood. Combining David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2001), Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2008) and perhaps even Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), Zeitlin has created a haunting enigma for modern audiences that deserves multiple viewings. But even though it won multiple prizes at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, will it get the Oscar attention it deserves?

18. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams, US) When Jean-Claude Van Damme started this franchise back in 1992, it was a nice little combo of First Blood (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Robocop (1987). Twenty years later, the series’ fourth entry is co-written, co-edited, and directed by John Hyams, the son of Peter Hyams, who directed JCVD classics Timecop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995) — and man oh man does he deliver a tough and gritty little action sci-fi film. Van Damme takes on an even darker role than his scene-stealing turn in Expendables 2; with a cleverly subversive script, eloquently choreographed fight scenes (one of which gives Dolph Lundgren some pretty priceless moments), and a denouement that has to be seen to be believed, you may be rooting for this VOD released genre film as much as I am — not to mention Indiewire, which called it “One of the Best Action Movies of the Year!”

19. John Carter (Andrew Stanton, US) With a budget of $250 million, this epic based on Edgar Rice Burroughs stories brought the Walt Disney company to its knees by only making $73 million back. If you saw the film in 3D, you might be confused as to why no one bothered to see it. In my opinion (having watched it twice), John Carter achieves everything James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) did, as far as sci-fi extravaganzas go, but it also has an inspired story and a charming cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, and Willem Dafoe. This is possibly this generation’s Ishtar (1987), and like Elaine May’s infamous still-unavailable bomb, John Carter is actually enjoyable; it’ll need a decade or two for audiences to find it as one of the most enjoyable CGI spectacles in recent years.

20. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, US) [SPOILER ALERT!] I found The Dark Knight Rises hard to dismiss as just another money-making super-hero adaptation. After multiple viewings, I’ve come to think of the conclusion to the trilogy as the finest of the three. I’ve also had time to puzzle over the film’s intricate plot.

While many fellow critics seemed to find the film’s political handlings of Bane’s Occupy/French Revolution movement to be flimsy and even irresponsible, I would argue that the film works in a more complicated way toward politics. If Bane’s misguided revolution fell flat, then it would be important to look at Catwoman’s anarchist ways. And about that — did she put her selfishness aside to start over with a broke Bruce Wayne, or is the closing sequence just Alfred’s fantasy? (And if the latter is true, did Batman actually blow himself up in the end?)

And then there’s Blake, who bests the pathetic Deputy Commissioner, then turns his back on the well-meaning yet lying-to-the-people Commissioner Gordon. Though Blake knows he has to quit the police force amid such corruption, he can’t dismiss his urge to help the helpless and downtrodden — after all, he’s an orphan from the streets — and Robin is born. He’s alone (no butlers down in that cave anymore …), and will need to figure out what to do in Gotham City — a town that’s always wild at heart and weird on top.

(Note: list compiled prior to viewing Zero Dark Thirty or Les Misérables.)

Best Actor of 2012
Matthew McConaughey for Bernie (Richard Linklater, US, 2011), Killer Joe (William Friedkin, US, 2011), Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2011), and The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, US)

Best Unreleased Films of 2012

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Black Rock (Katie Aselton, USA)

Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, UK)

Pilgrim Song (Martha Stephens, US)

The Lords of Salem (Rob Zombie, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks programs the Midnites for Maniacs series, which emphasizes dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films. He is the Film History Coordinator at Academy of Art University.

Crazy, sexy (?), movies


YEAR IN FILM We ask depressingly little of our romantic comedies, particularly considering that they’re meant, one guesses, to cheer us up. While genres like the action thriller and the disaster film engage in an arms race of catastrophe that, while riddled with clichés, requires some amount of ingenuity to orchestrate, when it comes to the rom-com, the studios display fierce loyalty to a formula of marquee names, charming emotional baggage, foolish misunderstandings, and final-boarding-call epiphanies.

You could say that our relationship with the genre is going nowhere, like the one the perky, anal-retentive heroine is perpetually on the brink of settling for with some handsome, amiable cardboard cutout, too afraid to take a chance on surly, diamond-in-the-rough Mr. Right. You could say that watching these films is an empty transaction, like those the gleaming-toothed protagonist enters into with a parade of leggy, blank-faced bar pickups before recognizing eureka!-style that the best friend who tolerates his slutty superficiality is clearly a soul mate.

We don’t quite buy it, any of it, but back and back and back we go — if often lining up in numbers sustaining the briefest of theater runs, or going no further than the Netflix queue. Which perhaps explains, though just barely, how we (by which, of course, I mean I) happened to be in the theater this year for Just Go with It, staring wearily screenward at the companionable but chemistry-free pairing of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston; for the tortured, slightly icky mismatch of Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in No Strings Attached; and even for New Year’s Eve, wherein an ungodly hodgepodge of Hollywood brands are desperately flung at the screen in the hopes that something will stick.

Generally compiled from interchangeable parts, the romantic comedy has been manufactured so many times that the players seem exhausted by the effort to find a fresh configuration, something unattempted and captivating. The ghosts of long-ago lighthearted pictures from the golden era of madcap romance, like It Happened One Night (1934) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), hang over the proceedings, sparking wistful visions of some magical cinematic equation that, when X is solved, will result in old-fashioned sensations like a warmed heart and toasty goodwill toward the lip-locked pair over whom the credits are rolling.

On the flip side, suffering near-continuous abuse at the hands of the studios leaves a person highly susceptible to trace amounts of handcraft and invention. Perhaps only in this spirit could I embrace Friends with Benefits, which brashly arms its hero and heroine (Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis) to take potshots at the formula while largely hewing to it. Still, as the two swear on an iPhone Bible app to uphold a vow of friendship previous to taking all their clothes off, and as they skate along on the fine, funny writing and frank talk and roll around in bed, it does seem like something better than usual has been accomplished.

Better by far is Crazy, Stupid, Love., which makes the case that a carefully woven ensemble piece need not jerk you from subplot to subplot, seeking famous-people sightings like an L.A. tourist with a star map. Steve Carell and Julianne Moore’s marriage in quiet paralysis is jarred by infidelity, triggering a badly needed upheaval and bringing one unhappy man (Carell) into the bracing orbit of another (Ryan Gosling). The creepy third-generation subplot involving a kid and his babysitter is hard to forgive, but Gosling and love interest Emma Stone, plus an intelligent script, gamely play with the conventions of the heartless womanizer and the girl who’s too much in her head.

And lastly, Bridesmaids, starring and cowritten by Kristen Wiig, arguably sidesteps both the formula and the genre itself, shifting the focus from “boy meets girl” to “woman’s life spirals wildly downward as she attempts to be happy about her best friend’s engagement.” It’s the kind of funny that makes you sink into your seat in horrified anticipation — and the kind of romance where you find yourself rooting for the inevitable rather than just resigned to it.

On nostalgia


YEAR IN FILM I haven’t laughed so hard or so deeply in a movie theater as I did watching The Muppets after a languorous Thanksgiving dinner. Perhaps it was as much due to the tryptophan, sugar, and booze coursing through my system as to the welcomely familiar zaniness transpiring onscreen, but more and more my chuckling was subtended by the throaty chokes that presage a good, deep cry. And when I caught the pointedly placed photo of Jim Henson in the background of an interior shot, it finally hit me: that warm lump in my chest was nostalgia.

For a movie as universally praised as The Muppets has been (and let it be said, its 97 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes is totally deserved), most of the nitpicking I’ve noticed has centered around whether the film pours on the sentiment too thickly, spoiling the fun with too much maudlin self-awareness about the Muppets’ past. “Nostalgia and reverence are anti-Muppet,” wrote one reviewer. But I don’t know if Jason Segal — who, aside from co-writing and starring in the film, was also the project’s greatest proselytizer — could have made The Muppets any other way.

For starters, the Muppets, for all their “let’s put on a show” tenacity and plain old absurdity, are like many professional entertainers, a vulnerable bunch. Think of Gonzo or Fozzie’s frequent moments of self-doubt, or Kermit’s periodic disillusionment with his role as ringmaster. The crestfallen wistfulness he displays at the start of The Muppets isn’t too far removed from the mid-career crisis he underwent in The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). After all, it’s not easy being green.

The Muppets is also startlingly self-reflexive about the disjuncture between the Muppets’ status as Disney-owned intellectual property (acquired from Henson’s family in 2004) and their legacy as beloved cultural icons. The movie’s climax dramatizes this situation, effectively condensing the entire operation of emotional rescue that the film is premised on: having failed to raise enough money through their spirited telethon to buy back the rights to their name, Kermit and company nevertheless exit the old Muppet theater to an adoring public who, like much of the audience watching the film, never forgot them in the first place.

The drama at heart of the Muppets, what gives their wacky antics such emotional heft, and what necessarily makes The Muppets a reconnaissance mission and not just another franchise reboot, is this: becoming aware of one’s vulnerability is a huge and unavoidable part of growing up. Life can’t always be fun or fair. Eventually, we put away our stuffed animals and frayed blankets and take bigger risks, only to return to those objects as adults when we want to retreat from putting ourselves on the line again and again. But we can’t go back; not really. We can only move forward. The show must go on.

The brawn identity


YEAR IN FILM How did the tiger get its stripes? Or, more pertinently, how did the superman get his tights? This has been the thrust of most big-budget superhero movies since the genre’s big boom a decade ago — a strict adherence to monomythic convention, with modern action movie trappings to make the material accessible to newcomers.

But these titans from Marvel and DC’s pages weren’t born yesterday. Indeed, many are inextricable from the historical contexts that birthed them. Recent adaptations often seek contemporary relevance or fresh spins on old characters. Sure, some of these superfolks need an upgrade, but when new interpretations have the integrity to treat the source comics as stories worth telling on their own terms, the results can far surpass convoluted attempts to “improve” upon the originals.

The heroes finally returned to their roots in 2011, with two major productions taking up specific historical periods. Matthew Vaughn’s sleek if slightly smarmy X-Men: First Class flashes back to the merry mutants’ rise during the swingin’ sixties, while Joe Johnston forges a thrilling wartime adventure in Captain America: The First Avenger. But not all period superhero movies are created equal.

First Class is, for all its potential, a mishmash of sub-Mad Men costuming and mortifyingly ham-fisted social messages. Inspired casting doesn’t salvage the film from its central flaw: it’s a standard-issue superhero blockbuster masquerading as something savvier. It plays fast and loose with genre but never to its advantage, and mishandles the source material’s anti-prejudice themes. It also warps real history, revising the Cuban Missile Crisis in order to force a historical context. But its mawkish civil rights rhetoric and Cold War paranoia can’t conceal the fact that the film feels essentially contemporary.

Captain America, conversely, hits all the right beats. Others have noted that Johnston previously helmed 1991’s The Rocketeer, so it’s no surprise he knows how to put on a good pulpy show. But the movie blends Nazi occult weirdness with a grounded, convincing patriotism that reinforces the World War II setting. It has its problems as a historical film — for one thing, it never directly treats the Holocaust. But it doesn’t feel like the same origin story we’ve repeatedly seen; instead it feels like a superhero movie successfully taking on a different genre. It’s just this sort of adventurousness we can hope for as the studios continue to mine the funnybooks for ideas — comics have a rich history, so why not explore it instead of update it?

Zero for conduct


YEAR IN FILM American cinema lost several of its troubadours this past year: genuine independents like Robert Breer, Owen Land, Adolfas Mekas, Richard Leacock, Jordan Belson, and George Kuchar. Critical appraisal of these sui generis filmmakers tends to rest upon masterpieces and technique, but several were also influential as teachers.

Mekas founded the film department at Bard College, which today boasts a remarkable faculty including Peter Hutton and Kelly Reichardt. German filmmaker Helga Fanderl dedicated her San Francisco Cinematheque show earlier this fall to Breer, her mentor at Cooper Union. Leacock used his post at MIT in the 1970s to develop relatively affordable video systems for student filmmaking. Kuchar brought several generations of San Francisco Art Institute kids into moviemaking laboratories flying under banners like “AC/DC Psychotronic Teleplays” and “Electro-graphic Sinema.” After Kuchar’s passing SFAI professor and administrator Jeannene Przyblyski wrote, “I will very much miss waking up at night worrying about what might be going on in Studio 8.”

Teaching remains an underappreciated aspect of the whole adventure of avant-garde filmmaking. The late 2010 release Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000 (University of California Press) lovingly detailed the instructional incubators that have contributed to a long-flourishing Bay Area avant-garde, but one still hungers for more particular chronicles along the lines of “Professor Ken,” Michael Zryd’s contribution to Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs (Oxford University Press). Zryd persuasively links Jacobs’ intensive teaching style at SUNY Binghamton to his thrilling feature-length frame analysis, Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (1969). The story of the American avant-garde’s alliance with the academy has everything to do with the mid-century college boom and the rise of theory, but this general view doesn’t take into account those outlying autodidact instructors who reoriented the teacher-student exchange in much the same way that they called upon a different kind of spectatorship.

Among the many treasures in the SFAI archive’s George Kuchar file are a couple of his syllabuses: “In this workshop atmosphere we all embark on making a moving picture using the equipment at school and … whatever else falls into our hands.” Class participation is what the class was. It’s also discretionary: “Come as frequently as you wish so that we can showcase your unique talents or specialty acts and help us try to solve the many technical and creative problems involved in making moving pictures.” Asked about his unorthodox teaching materials, Kuchar responded, “Am I going to show the students Potemkin and then talk about our class movies? With the kind of words I use and my accent? It’ll be like sacrilege or something … It’s stupid anyway. Renting movies is expensive as hell, and you can put that money into making a movie.”

Kuchar’s creativity took a liberating form in the classroom. Elsewhere in the SFAI file, the filmmaker reflects upon having to rescue terrible class productions in the editing room. One laughs at first and then is touched that he considered these real movies, imperfect but necessary to see through.





One of the year’s most significant film restorations originated in a comparable workshop environment. Nicholas Ray arrived at SUNY Binghamton in 1971 not having directed since 55 Days at Peking (1963). As in Kuchar’s workshops, he took his students as collaborators: everyone rotated production jobs and worked toward the common ends of We Can’t Go Home Again, an unspooled picture of dissolution spanning the election years of 1968 and 1972. The workshop process became central to the psychodrama itself. As in other films of the era by John Cassavetes, Robert Kramer, and Shirley Clarke, the filmmaking style dives deep into breakdown narratives: he and four students charting out self-destructing versions of themselves.

In Leo Tolstoy’s prescriptive essay “Are the Peasant Children to Learn to Write from Us, or Are We to Learn from the Peasant Children?”, the great Russian author dramatizes his teaching experience to show how an attuned instructor can enrich a student’s intrinsic sense of harmony. Ray evinces a similar degree of trust in his pupils, but towards the ends of drawing out their intrinsic disharmony (this was Nixon time, after all). The composition of the drama and the drama itself bleed into one another; performance is inescapable, the film grasping how the phrase “the personal is political” was reversing itself.

We Can’t Go Home Again — which plays in a restored and reconstructed version along with Susan Ray’s contextualizing documentary Don’t Expect Too Much at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in January 2012 — was long thought unsalvageable for both technical and artistic reasons. Ray conceived the film as a multi-projector performance, with several streams of narration playing simultaneously and various 16 mm/Super 8 mm frames affecting a kind of cinematic Guernica. The limitations of the novice crew are readily apparent, though the amateur acting likely plays differently in our present media environment. Ray continued to tinker long after presenting a version at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, and the present reconstruction doesn’t claim to be definitive. It does, however, make Ray’s vision a feasible if still challenging theatrical proposition.

As always in the director’s work, the characters’ emotions are primary and sharply defined in space. Vulnerable figures reach across their loneliness; improvised family units emerge from the ashes of corruption and betrayal. The thin veneer of middle-class reality that gives 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and 1956’s Bigger Than Life their magnificent tension is gone, leaving only the characters’ own psychological mirrors and Ray himself clad in James Dean’s red jacket. Student Tom Farrell is the last of Ray’s boy angels, a bewildered innocent suffering moral estrangement from his policeman father (whom he loves). The agonizing close-up in which he shears his beard in front of both a mirror and Ray’s camera is both visceral and symbolically telling, the beating heart of the film.

Though deeply marked by shame and pain, We Can’t Go Home Again also has a comic streak. The counterculture dream is pictured as eating raw cauliflower without any pants on. As he prepares to act out his suicide Ray mutters to himself, “I made ten goddamned westerns, and I can’t even tie a noose.” Of course this kind of flaunted martyrdom requires its own vanity, which might lead one to wonder about the lasting impact of Ray’s teaching — that is, whether his ferocious movie might have superseded the students’ learning.

His colleague Ken Jacobs certainly thought so: “I had the dumb idea that he would balance the little department, teaching from his narrative/Hollywood experience but he was self-aggrandizing BS throughout, with tantalizing glimpses of a former self.” Don’t Expect Too Much justifiably avoids department politics to focus on the film itself, but knowing this acrimonious background colors Ray’s former students’ awed remembrances of the Great Artist. There’s a lot of talk about the director working by instinct, exactly the kind of mystification Jacobs targets when he draws a distinction between “living through the cinema” and “using film to enrich your engagement with life and the real world”: “One is an experience that dominates while the other condemns you to be free.” The irony is that it’s hard to imagine a public university giving either man so much freedom today — if they even hired them at all.

Hey girl


YEAR IN FILM Picture this dreamy, steamy “Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling” Tumblr thought bubble: “Hey girl, sorry my shirt fell off, but at least I’m one of those new EGOTs (i.e., Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony quadruple threats).” You know, the type that’s got actorly chops, talent, personality, and/or good works to boot — plus a chiseled chest that looks “totally Photoshopped.” Yes, we’re talking award-fielding hotties à la Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, the kinds of golden boys who can easily pass for Oscar, only with full heads of hair and more soulful glances.

This year’s awards-show heartthrob mob comes to you seemingly straight outta the heated imaginations of Sex and the City-fiending hetero ladies and gay connoisseurs of acute cinematic cutie-pie-ness (witness the many, many YouTube re-edits of X-Men: First Class that pump up the erotic undercurrent between Fassbender’s Magneto and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier). The crowded field of studly talents is sure to be diverting during the inevitable lagging segments of Oscars, Golden Globes, and so forth. (“Reader, I drooled over reaction shots of Mr. Rochester during the technical awards.”)

But hasn’t Hollywood always served up heapin’ platters of hunky man meat? Sure, but you’ll probably have to go back as far as Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s ’70s heyday to find the current crop’s particular combo of art and pulchritude. Ushering in this dear ab-by generation was Brad Pitt, the pretty boy unafraid to spoof vain self-absorption, as a brainless gym-bunny in 2008’s Burn After Reading. Around the same time he bounced on a treadmill for the Coens, Pitt began to consistently hook his star to more ambitious projects than your average loutish, laddish Lautner-esque chisel-head, stretching the skill set while doing his part to further the art and working with Alejandro González Iñárritu, David Fincher, and Quentin Tarantino. None of their Pitt-centric projects were the directors’ best, and that goes double for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (Happy Feet Two, you’re two too much).

Nevertheless, Tree of Life, despite its lack of shirtlessness, proved the least commercial and most ambitious widely released feature film of 2011 (in part thanks to co-producer Pitt), and his punishing pater familias was one of the best things about it, grounding Malick’s inner-outer space opera, earth mama twirls, and dinosaur tricks down to earth with his against-type alpha-male hard glances — likely the most demanding performance Pitt has grappled with to date.

Shades darker, with a side of honest abs, Ryan Gosling added oft-wordless fashion-plate soul to ’11: take a page from his Notebook, up-and-coming chestys, because whether you’re crate-digging old footage of the young Mickey Mouse Club kid warbling in floppy PJs alongside Justin Timberlake on YouTube or marveling over his viral snippet of street-fighting men intervention, you know Gosling’s loved. It’s tough to choose between Gosling’s George Clooney impression and cheese-eating Dirty Dancing (1987) tribute in Crazy, Stupid, Love.; his vintage Steve McQueen-James Dean style in Drive (that scorpion jacket launched a jillion Halloween costumes); and his quickly-devolving presidential campaign manager in The Ides of March.

In Ides, Gosling’s silky, feline, almost femme-y smoothness hardens into a chilly “Blue Steel,” threatening to plunge into nuttiness, as the film progresses. As with these other award-snagging hunks, he’s an adult caught in the cogs of a terrible, soul-shattering machine, and as Drive‘s romantic wheelman, Gosling’s ready to run off the median into an off-roading wilderness of ultraviolence. Of course, the deadliest mechanism lies within, for the driver driven to kill, the ladykiller breaking down the angles, and the political player who grabs his revenge after having his ideals destroyed (and bromantic boss-crush on Clooney’s candidate quashed).

The abs — and twinkling, then blistering, peepers — that truly seemed to be everywhere this year belonged to Michael Fassbender, who soft-opened the year in an archetypal romantic part, Mr. Rochester, in Jane Eyre. Fassbender went on to add a dose of real class to X-Men: First Class with his vengeance-seeking metalhead Magneto — oh, Jane, his emotional investment in the comic-book creation was the best thing about the reboot.

The latter part of 2011 ended with a seismic splash of wish fulfillment for Fassbender fans as his Carl Jung deconstructed — and entangled himself in — sex and the psyche in A Dangerous Method, and as Shame‘s corporate hot-shot by day, sex addict by night. His character, Brandon, attempts to lose himself in naked abandon, unable to sustain intimacy with anyone, including his boundary-less sister (see recurring support gal/fan stand-in Carey Mulligan). Shame director Steve McQueen, not be confused with Drive‘s inspiration, wisely lets his camera rest, unsettled and ambivalent, on Fassbender’s face at the end of one night of hopeless coitus, after a close brush with a real relationship gets clipped short by flaccidity.

Caught in mid-rut, Brandon’s orgasm face is an anguished rictus of painful pleasure, half horrifying tragedy mask, half laughable comedy mask. It’s all there, the sexual fantasy-turned-nightmare, the tears behind the dazzling smiles, pecs, and full-frontal shots, conveying in one look the perils of manhood and the forces these foxes can — and can’t — control.

Reel, reel good



American Teacher (Vanessa Roth and Brian McGinn, U.S.)

The Arbor (Clio Barnard, U.K.)

Buck (Cindy Meehl, U.S.)

The Last Lions (Dereck Joubert, U.S./Botswana)

My Perestroika (Robin Hessman, U.S./U.K./Russia)

Nostalgia for the Light (Patricio Guzmán, France/Germany/Chile)

Pianomania (Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Austria/Germany)

Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany/France/U.K.)

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Matthew Bate, Australia)

Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression (Max Good, U.S.)

We Were Here (David Weissman and Bill Weber, U.S.)



The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

Ceremony (Max Winkler, U.S.)

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, U.S.)

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

Happy, Happy (Anne Sewitsky, Norway)

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive (Claude Miller and Nathan Miller, France)

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/France)

Machotaildrop (Corey Adams and Alex Craig, U.S./Canada)

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Sweden/Poland)

The Names of Love (Michel Leclerc, France)

Oka! (Lavinia Currier, U.S.)

Rango (Gore Verbinski, U.S.)

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal/Spain/France/Brazil)

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Eli Craig, U.S./Canada)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/U.K./France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, U.K.)

Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)



1. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

2. Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, France/U.K./Germany)

4. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

5. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)

6. The Descendants (Alexander Payne, U.S.)

7. Shame (Steve McQueen, U.K.)

8. The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, U.K.)

9. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, Canada/U.S./France/Germany/U.K.)

10. TrollHunter (André Øvredal, Norway)

11. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)




Please don’t speak: The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

Scrappy apocalypse: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, U.K./France)

Scraps of footage refashioned: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Goran Olsson, Sweden)

Best long-form music video: Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

Personal apocalypse: The Future (Miranda July, Germany/U.S.)

The lives of others: Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, U.S.)

Feel-good apocalypse: Melancholia (Lars von Trier,


Body Con: Shame (Steve McQueen, U.K.)

Body Con 2: The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

Two-state evolution: The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman, U.K./Italy/Belgium/France)



1. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)

2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/U.K./France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, U.K./U.S.)

4. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

5. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

6. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)

7. Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (Werner Herzog, Germany/Canada)

8. Weekend (Andrew Haigh, U.K.)

9. Shame (Steve McQueen, U.K.)

10. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)

11. The Future (Miranda July, Germany/U.S.)





(Updated from the print version)

1. (tie) Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)

Even though this was on my list last year, it was released officially this year. Minimalist, transcendental, and more dramatic than any other action film this year. (4)

1. (tie) Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, U.K./France)

Subversive, prophetic, and totally addictive! This is one best films of the decade! Believe, bruv! (6)

2. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/U.S.)

Just because this is a crowd pleaser should not detract from Allen’s complicated script, shining as bright as ever. Re-watch and be stunned that the ending is much more profound than you may have first noticed. (7)

3. Season two of Louie (FX Network)

Louis C.K. transcended his own brilliant comedy and created 13 genuine existential classics.

4. The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, U.K.)

Steve Coogan finally achieved his art house goal with this pitch-perfect exploration of a man and his own worst enemy. Winterbottom’s six-part mini-series for British television was great, but the edited-down feature film is downright life affirming. (5)

5. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, U.K./U.S.)

Director Ramsay (our modern-day Orson Welles, anyone?) and editor Joe Bini have created an hypnotic ride of poetic cinema. Do we really have to wait 10 more years before her Ramsay’s next show stopper, like we did after 2002’s Morvern Callar?

6. (tie) Hanna (Joe Wright, U.S./U.K./Germany)

A flawless reworking of La Femme Nikita (1991) with crisp dialogue that was light years ahead of anything else this year.

6. (tie) The Woman (Lucky McKee, U.S.)

Audiences were running for the doors at Sundance. This high-concept allegory is one of the most disturbing explorations of misogyny ever put on film. (3)

6. (tie) Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, U.S./Canada)

This fast and furious pseudo-“feminist” flick seemed to be unfairly treated and totally misunderstood by audiences and critics alike. Get the 127-minute director’s cut on Blu-ray, stop letting fanboy nonsense bully you, and revel in Emily Browning’s tour de force performance. (2)

7. Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)

Diablo Cody’s script is near-perfect in this look at a 37-year-old who has to reassess where her “determination” has led her. (2)

8. Beginners (Mike Mills, U.S.)

Who wants their heart broken? A man confronts the death of his father and realizes his romantic choices might be leading him to no man’s land. Gulp. (3)

9. Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

This 22-year-old writer-director-star’s mash-up of My Own Private Idaho (1991) and In the Mood for Love (1999) captures our era’s hipster insecurities so flawlessly that it’ll take a decade for people to recognize how important this film actually is. (3)

10. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)
This accessible masterpiece proves silent movies are futuristic! Perfect for the whole family and part of the second Golden Age for cinema from the 1920s.

11. The Beaver (Jodie Foster, U.S./United Arab Emirates)
I don’t care what he does offscreen, Mel Gibson is a damn fine actor! And Jodie Foster’s dark and deeply personal directing deserves the mensch of the year award!

12. (tie) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)

Michael Shannon’s performance (as a father who will stop at nothing to “protect” his family) is creepy. Nichols’ ending is even creepier.

12. (tie) Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany)

Von Trier’s “nicest” film is genuine therapy for a neurotic soul.

13. One Day (Lone Scherfig, U.S./U.K.)

Stop telling me the book was so much better! With a Same Time, Next Year (1978) structure, this film’s deep emotions (courtesy of Anne Hathaway) shook me to the core.

14. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

This unofficial remake of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) still kept me guessing; it also features another jaw-dropping performance by Juliette Binoche.

15. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

This audacious exploration of a 1950s family is absolutely universal and profound. (2)

16. Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, U.K.)

Who wants their stomach punched, ripped open, torn out, and then presented to you? Then check out this love story.

17. (tie) Hugo (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

Who says 3D isn’t art? Did studios really allow Scorsese to show multiple Georges Méliès’ films in 3D? Plus, Sacha Baron Cohen gives a truly Oscar-worthy supporting performance.

17. (tie) Drive Angry (Patrick Lussier, U.S.)

Lussier, director of 2009’s absolutely brilliant My Bloody Valentine remake, facilitated a priceless Nicolas Cage performance — he drinks from a freakin’ human skull, in 3D — but keeps things so frenetic, I had to sit in the theater for a second viewing as soon as it was over! (2)

17. (tie) Final Destination 5 (Steven Quale, U.S.)

In which the entire franchise of entitled 20-somethings dying gruesome deaths comes full circle by concluding with every single grisly death from all five films in glorious 3D.

18. The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Sweden/Poland)

Rutger Hauer + 143 Digital layers = monumental experimental art for the ages!

19. Rakhta Charitra and Rakhta Charitra 2 (Ram Gopal Varma, India)

Ram Gopal Varma’s films should compete at Cannes. (2)

20. Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, U.S./France)

This doc’s inspiring message: do what you love every day of your life, and don’t ever slow down.


Actor of the Year: Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Adventures of Tintin)

Actress of the Year: Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)

Best Future Midnite Movie: The Catechism Cataclysm (Todd Rohal, U.S.)

Shot in less than a week, this abstract, train of thought buddy road trip has the immediacy of sheer brilliance!

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches film history at the Academy of Art University and curates and hosts Midnites for Maniacs, a film series emphasizing dismissed, underrated, and overlooked films.



1. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, France/Belgium)

2. Beginners (Mike Mills, U.S.)

3. Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, France)

4. Dirty Girl (Abe Sylvia, U.S.)

5. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, U.S.)

6. Pariah (Dee Rees, U.S.)

7. Young Adult (Jason Reitman, U.S.)

8. Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, U.S.)



1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/U.K./France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)

2. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, U.S.)

3. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, U.S.)

4. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/U.S.)

5. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)

6. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, U.S.)

7. Essential Killing (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland/Norway/Iceland/Hungary)

8. The Future (Miranda July, U.S.)

9. Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, U.S.)

10. Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, U.S.)



The Arbor (Clio Barnard, U.K.)

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari, Greece)

Get Out of the Car (Thom Andersen, U.S.)

The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Italy)

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal)

Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)

Oki’s Movie (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman, U.S.)

Terri (Azazel Jacobs, U.S.)

Señora con Flores/ Woman with Flowers (Chick Strand, U.S./Mexico)


Doom lens


YEAR IN FILM As everyone and John Cusack knows, 2012 is it. And not in a “billboard-buying Alameda radio preacher Harold Camping’s bungled Rapture predictions” kind of way. This is an all-in situation. The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, a complicated and ancient system most enthusiastically explained by conspiracy theorists, winds up its 13th 144,000 day cycle on December 21, 2012. TL; DR: we’re toast.

Though pesky, facts-knowing Latin American archaeology scholars have suggested that this doesn’t actually mean the end of the world is nigh, good luck dissuading zillions of bloggers, survivalists, religious fanatics, super-volcano watchers, and people who lie awake at night, biting their fingernails over the Large Hadron Collider. Imminent catastrophe awaits! Are you ready?

Enter Hollywood, which in its 100-plus year history has never had any qualms about exploiting society’s extant feelings of fear and dread. In 2009, 2012 prophesized global destruction (“Mankind’s earliest civilization warned us this day would come!”) as only a film with a lavish special effects budget could. Yet it offered last-act hope, a preferred tactic of master of disaster Roland Emmerich — who, having ice-aged, Godzilla’d, and alien-invaded the planet in a succession of go-boom films over the past 15 years, switched gears in 2011 with Shakespeare mystery Anonymous. (Last-ditch artistic atonement, perhaps?)

The apocalyptic films of 2011 took a different approach, opting to emphasize existential terror instead of fireballs, with no happy endings in sight. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia inspects the one percent by peering into the lives of two privileged sisters: depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and anxious Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film’s first half unfolds at Justine’s lavish wedding reception — held at Claire’s horsy estate — which devolves into a mini-disaster movie of its own. The stretch limo carrying the newlyweds is too bulky to navigate the property’s narrow, curving driveway, until the bride slides behind the wheel and gets the tires pointed in the right direction. It’s Justine’s last moment of glee, as her marriage-jinxing erratic behavior soon gives way to crippling malaise.

As it turns out, a newly-discovered planet, conveniently named Melancholia, is heading toward earth. A collision course is not guaranteed, but it’s pretty obvious where things are heading, and this is not the kind of movie that sends Bruce Willis into space with drilling equipment to save the day. As Claire whips herself into a panic, clicking through fear mongering websites (Melancholia‘s only evidence of a world beyond the mansion’s well-manicured grounds), Justine accepts the impending apocalypse with cool detachment. “The earth is evil,” she tells her sister. “We don’t need to grieve for it.”

Though there’s no looming threat from outer space, the sky looks plenty ominous to Curtis (Michael Shannon), troubled protagonist of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter. Nightmares of the I-wake-up-screaming variety have become a regular thing, and though Curtis desperately needs the health insurance provided by his construction job — his daughter (Tova Stewart) is about to get an operation to restore her hearing — he’s become obsessed with upgrading the storm shelter in his backyard. Friends and neighbors, initially supportive, become angry and confused. A public meltdown is inevitable: “There is a STORM coming like nothing you have ever seen, and not A ONE OF YOU is prepared for it!” he bellows at a community dinner, spewing fire like a small-town Cassandra.

There’s more: Curtis’ mother is schizophrenic. Is history repeating, or are his visions actually prophetic? Is Nichols hinting at Biblical themes, or is he making a statement about mental illness, or the destruction of the American dream? The film’s provocative finale could be interpreted a variety of ways; though there’s no Melancholia-style conclusion, Take Shelter‘s message remains memorably unsettling.

But even if the world doesn’t actually take a buy-out in 2012, it’ll get there someday — as Terrence Malick’s dreamy Tree of Life, which is more or less the story of everything that has ever and will ever happen, points out. For film fans, the signs of a dying planet are all too clear. Just take a look at the top-grossing movies of 2011: all of them are either sequels or part of a series. Transformers: Dark of the Moon relieved ticket buyers of over $352 million, even though previous installment Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) was scientifically proven to have sucked the soul out of anyone who watched it. (True story.)

With the crap economy making even gigant-o-stars nostalgic for their $20 million paydays, the Hollywood-industrial complex concentrated on proven moneymakers, with a few notable exceptions (bless you, Bridesmaids). In 2011, all bets were off. No cult property was too sacred to remake, no “reboot” deemed unnecessary, no superhero with the word “green” in his name unworthy of an entire feature film, no use of 3D too gratuitous. Original ideas were placed on the endangered species list, unless you counted the very small handful of smarter films that somehow managed to break through (look hard; most of them came out in December). Though there’s always a chance that entertainment aimed at the masses will have a brain (2012’s The Dark Knight Rises looks promising), that’s all there is. A chance.

Worse yet: recent news that major film studios plan to stop releasing 35mm prints from their archives. Rep houses will be forced to show films either digitally or not at all. It’s a cost-cutting measure that will deny future generations the irreplaceable delight of watching a movie projected from film, as was intended by the artist who made it. (Somewhere, Stanley Kubrick is seething.) Why bother going to see an old movie at all, if you’re just gonna be watching the equivalent of blown-up DVD? Might as well stay home and watch the Kardashians shop for shoes that cost more than your rent.

Man, maybe I am ready for 2012 after all. At least there’s an alternative end-times scenario to look forward to: the adaptation of Max Brooks’ excellent novel World War Z, about a world rebuilding itself after a zombie holocaust. Its not-so-coincidental release date? December 21, 2012. You’ve been warned.


Rate irate


YEAR IN FILM “Bloody bugger to you, you … beastly bastard. Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. F-fornication. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck and fuck. Fuck, fuck, and bugger. Bugger, bugger, buggety buggety buggety fuck. Fuck ass. Balls! Balls! Fuckety shit. Shit, fuck and willy. Willy, shit and fuck, and … tits.”

The above is, in toto, the reason why The King’s Speech — a movie that might very well turn out Oscar’s idea of this year’s Best Picture next February — is rated R. This childish explosion of potty-mouth is coaxed from England’s future king (Colin Firth) by his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to demonstrate that the former’s crippling stammer flies away whenever he’s unself-consciousness enough to cuss a bit. It’s a comic moment (one of few, and perhaps the film’s highlight in general) that, by reducing the words to sniggering playground naughtiness — this king is, after all, in a state of arrested development — robs them of any genuine scatology or shock value. They’re just words.

But those words (give or take a few fucks and shits — only the MPAA can or would bother to count every rapid-fire cuss) were still enough to get this otherwise very chaste, polite Masterpiece Theatre exercise classified with Saw 3D and The Human Centipede as viewable by minors only with parental accompaniment. Not that many teens are likely to be lining up for The King’s Speech — certainly far fewer than saw Saw 3D with or without adult chaperoning. But really, this is what they need protecting from?

This was a year in which the usual grousing undercurrent about arbitrary ratings-board standards started to seep overground. There were small hubbubs about two excellent documentaries, The Tillman Story and A Film Unfinished, getting R’s due to cursing on one hand and nudity (among Nazi concentration camp inmates) on the other. In both cases prudishness means these searing indictments of historical wrongs probably can’t be used for classroom educational purposes.

A larger controversy surrounded Blue Valentine, the acclaimed indie feature slapped with an NC-17 for a sex scene so subversive that no one who saw the film at Sundance could recall it; the MPAA rating mystified many. Turns out the scene in question is a happy flashback in this slow-agonizing-death-of-a marriage portrait, with Michelle Williams’ thrusty body language expressing clear enjoyment of Ryan Gosling’s mouthy activities downtown. Nonetheless, there’s nothing more explicit displayed than the outside of her thighs — as one colleague put it, “I’ve seen more of Britney Spears on the Internet.” The drama’s sobriety and its awards momentum finally won a rare MPAA reversal on appeal, reducing its rating to R.

But the case still underlines the injustice of our current system. As Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated pointed out in 2006, as a tool of the Hollywood mainstream the MPAA routinely judges independent films more harshly than major studio releases. It also exercises double standards when it comes to gender nudity and gender-preference sexuality, and most crucially continues to heighten the American morality gap between depictions of sex and violence.

These complaints have prompted some vague hints of change afoot, albeit more toward hitting torture-porn horror harder than lightening up on the birds ‘n’ bees. In any case, it’s difficult to be very hopeful: for every progressive cultural step forward these days, there seem to be two Tea Party dance-steps back. It was announced earlier this month that Christian pastor and cable honcho Robert H. Schuller had contracted to broadcast G-rated versions of movies like the original Alien (1979) and Predator (1987). OK, so they’ll have bad language and explicit violence removed; but even these eviscerated edits will still offer entertainment predicated on the horrific (if now nongraphically suggested) murders of humans by icky monsters. Giving kids nightmares is more godly (and provides a more “positive message,” per the Rev. Schuller) than showing them (God forbid) a nipple.

Such hypocrisies run rampant in U.S. entertainment and society in general. Media outlets generally refuse to advertise NC-17 films, giving them and their modicum of sexual explicitness the commercial kiss of death while most kids freely access porn online. Screen violence grows ever more desensitizing; explosions of cars, buildings, entire cities, or planets are viewed as harmless while anything truly unpleasant enough to act as a deterrent sparks outrage. (By now the escapist Saw and Hostel movies get shrugged at, whereas the recent Killer Inside Me remake offended many because its protracted scenes of domestic violence were realistically painful to watch.)

Penises are now OK in small doses, albeit only in the clownish contexts of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), Observe and Report (2009), etc. Ironically, any time sex is taken seriously, sans juvenile humor or lurid “erotic-thriller” type judgment, it becomes unfit for allegedly innocent eyes. Blue Valentine‘s good sex, and subsequent bad breakup sex, disturbs the MPAA because it is all too real-world relatable in both its pleasure and fallibility, something you won’t often find in porn, either.

The logic gap grows ever more ridiculous even as our culture wars’ battle lines harden. Imagine a Palin White House two years hence, presiding over a land in which sex education is nonexistent, abstinence clubs are the new Honor Society, and teenage pregnancy rates skyrocket. When in doubt as to the nation’s course, say grace, then settle down to dinner with the kids as you watch a “clean” tube edit of something like 1995’s Braveheart, its medieval spears through the chest trimmed but that humorous throwing of a prince’s homosexual BFF from the castle tower left intact. Then drift off to slumberland, family values affirmed.

Past imperfect


YEAR IN FILM We’re all media scavengers now, but archival sounds and images remain a tantalizing lure for both the documentary profile and its surrealistic double, the found footage film. The first repackages capsules of the past while the second hijacks them — different economies of exchange, to be sure, though perhaps less starkly contrasted to those accustomed to hyperlinking their way through the dustbin.

The use of obscure footage as leverage is exceedingly clear in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a film structured around director Tamra Davis’ intimate camcorder interview with the artist in 1985. The close-up portrait gives us Basquiat’s sly intelligence, spacey charisma, and tragic oversensitivity to judgment — all to the good, but Davis’ inability to reckon with the exchange value of her insider access is disappointing. Selling and chronicling are inextricably linked with the celebrity artist, but Basquiat’s early graffiti partner Al Diaz is the only interviewee who addresses the issue of the golden goose frankly.

The Rolling Stones have always excelled at selling themselves, so it’s no surprise to see Mick and Keith’s executive producer credits on Stones in Exile. Fortunately for us, director Stephen Kijack (2006’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) recognizes 1972’s Exile on Main Street as a masterpiece of vibe and accordingly focuses great attention on the zonked record’s mise-en-scène. But the strictly MOR slate of interviewees — alas, no Pussy Galore here — makes the scraps of Robert Frank’s long suppressed Cocksucker Blues (1972) feel all the more bowdlerized.

The bankable aura of the rarely seen supplants Frank’s prickly immediacy, and the dream of a rock ‘n’ roll cinema is the poorer for it. If it’s easier to accept the brief stream of Jonas Mekas’ New York City film-diaries borrowed in LennonNYC, that’s because the footage serves a narrow expositional purpose in establishing the bohemian milieu that John Lennon and Yoko Ono embraced — and also because Mekas is himself interviewed. The PBS-produced doc’s failings are the conventional ones, but its archival trove does illuminate Lennon and Ono’s creative collaborations, especially insofar as their art hinged upon probing self-consciousness and the redemptive potential of intimacy.

On the other side of the archival aisle, the mad detectives and film theorists who whisper hidden truths in our ears have become increasingly ambitious storytellers. Johan Grimonprez’s inventive Double Take slips into the realms of the unreal by characterizing the Cold War as a literally Hitchcockian play of ciphers, while Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished submits an oft-cited, little-understood Nazi propaganda film to ontological deliberation. Adam Curtis introduces his most recent raid of the archive, It Felt Like a Kiss, with print titles that speak for all these projects: “When a nation is powerful it tells the world confident stories about the future/ The stories can be enchanting or frightening/ But they make sense of the world/ But when that power begins to ebb the stories fall apart/ And all that is left are fragments which haunt you like half-forgotten dreams.”

As with Curtis’ earlier multipart films, It Felt Like a Kiss registers history as a shifting series of simultaneities and unforeseen consequences. The only slightly tongue-in-cheek cast includes Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Enos the cosmonaut chimp, and everyone above level seven in the CIA. Initially conceived as a multichannel promenade, the film is named for the singularly disturbing pop song Carole King penned for Phil Spector and his Crystals. It’s one of four ’60s sides Curtis builds out as deeply personal, but emblematic chronicles of anguish and dread (the others are “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”). In each case, Curtis surveys the decade’s interlocking horror shows with something like poignancy — a new feature of his work.

Atop all the uncanny déjà vus and dream-life convergences, It Felt Like a Kiss also serves up one of the greatest WTF endings in recent memory. After revealing a bunker’s worth of government computers (repurposed from Cold War fighting to credit card debt), Curtis cuts to Pillow Talk (1959). Doris Day is a vision of contentment going to bed, but then something disturbs her — on the soundtrack, a soaring engine noise is followed by a hard cut to black silence. Amazed at how economically Curtis suggests the coming impact, we cue the sequence up again and let our jaws drop when we see Day’s room number: 2001.

To be sure, there’s no rule that found footage films must generate conspiratorial heat. Jay Rosenblatt’s The Darkness of Day materializes a reserved contemplation of suicide using industrial discards — the forgotten nature of these older films itself becoming a token of loss in an elegiac context. Oblique images float upon fragmented suicide stories narrated from many different vantages: near and far, first-person and third, male and female, young and old, anonymous and notable. We hear excerpts drawn from 10 years of a diary of depression, read of an ancient Egyptian’s dispute with his own soul, and learn about the first man to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

This last story surfaces with a montage of the bridge’s construction — a monument, but to what? — and might be read as a critique of The Bridge (2006), which unaccountably turned us into voyeurs of suicide. The Darkness of Day travels the path of Night and Fog (1955), regarding trauma indirectly, as traces and shadows. Industrial footage is not the most obvious resource to make darkness visible, but Rosenblatt’s use of mass-produced materials subtly underscore the film’s suggestion that while suicide is always discrete and thus unknowable, it is also a social phenomenon.

For a more concrete cultural history glazed with Debordian wit, Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is matchless. After opening with a thoroughly demystified, inquisitorial video of Ceausescu and his wife Elena in 1989 — previously seen in Ujica’s 1992 collaboration with Harun Farocki, Videograms of a Revolution — we double back to the spectacular public funeral for the Romanian leader’s predecessor, Gheorghiu-Dej, in 1965. From here, Ujica proceeds more or less chronologically (and without voice-over) through Ceausescu’s decades in power, collecting speeches, press conferences, soft debates, home movies, inspections of factories and construction sites, and trips abroad to Communist countries and Hollywood (a letdown after the stupefying parades in China and North Korea).

One of the director’s most cunning insights is that since the totalitarian state stages reality to furnish proof of its own dominion — the problem with measuring Triumph of the Will (1933) as documentary — the resulting footage might be considered as if dictated by the leader. But by letting these “autobiographical” materials run at length, Ujica also opens a space for the accidents and lacunae that surely would have been excised from the official record. The fact that it’s so easy to imagine the propaganda version of this footage is part of the point: we calculate where the cuts would have been to “correct” Ceausescu’s diminutive posture and speechmaking, and in that gap lies much of 20th century history. The closest Ujica comes to giving the game away is when he cuts from one of Ceausescu’s baroque rhetorical performance (filmed in black-and-white, as with everything else we’ve seen up to this point) to his cheating at volleyball in a color home movie. It’s a wonderfully rude swipe at rulers everywhere and likely the single most smashing edit of the year.

Goal difference


YEAR IN FILM Making a mistake on the playing field can haunt an athlete for the rest of his or her career. For Colombian soccer star Andrés Escobar, a particularly heartbreaking blunder — an own goal during the 1994 World Cup — proved fatal. Just two weeks after Colombia’s first-round defeat in the tournament they’d been favored to win, team captain Escobar was shot after leaving a nightclub in his hometown of Medellín. There were rumors the killer yelled “Goal!” as he unloaded.

Presented merely as a sports-history anecdote, Escobar’s demise is sad and senseless. But his murder wasn’t an isolated incident, just a particularly high-profile one; it was part of an unimaginable tide of violence that swept Colombia in the 1980s and ’90s. If you watched the 2010 World Cup on ESPN, you probably saw commercials for The Two Escobars, presented as part of the channel’s “30 for 30” documentary series. Participants included genre pioneer Albert Maysles, whose film was about Muhammed Ali; Ice Cube, who used his own South Central childhood to reflect on the Raiders’ 1982 move from Oakland to Los Angeles; and brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, whose longer entry The Two Escobars sifted through years of Colombian history to trace the corresponding lives of Andrés “The Gentleman of Football” Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

At 32, Jeff, who lives in San Francisco, is the older brother by 17 months. In 2005, he codirected the award-winning Brazilian music doc Favela Rising. Michael, an actor and writer who ran a theater company in Mexico for several years, lives in New York City. Though they’re Americans, the Zimbalists feel a strong connection to Colombian culture. They were researching another film in the country (previous endeavors included a project with Colombian superstar Shakira) when ESPN asked them to pitch an idea for “30 for 30.” Though the shared last name of the unrelated Andrés and Pablo makes for a memorable title, the brothers didn’t use the coincidence as a starting point.

“We didn’t choose the title until really late, actually, because it felt like it was more of a portrait of a time period. It was about the hopes and dreams of the Colombian people as told through the vehicle of these two characters,” Jeff says. “The choice to use the two characters came about more organically than that, too. Initially we had the assignment to go find story ideas for the ESPN series that were about the impact of sports on society, and vice versa.”

After learning more about Andrés, they knew they’d found a captivating subject. They also realized that they would need to contextualize his story in order to tell it properly.

“We didn’t want to make a whodunnit about who pulled the trigger,” Jeff says. “It was a lot more interesting to ask the question of how an athlete gets killed for making a mistake. But in order to understand that, you need to understand what narco-soccer is. We quickly realized that hadn’t been covered before. And that meant that people were very reluctant to talk about it for a number of reasons: out of fear, shame, or they didn’t want to revisit a traumatic time period.”

The idea of “narco-soccer” led the filmmakers directly to their other subject. “You can’t really explain the whole context of narco without understanding Pablo Escobar. And it also felt unwieldy to not tie the societal story to a subject, or to a personal narrative,” Jeff explains. “So using Pablo as the tool through which we could explain society, and Andres as the tool through which we could understand sports, the next challenge was finding their overlaps. They only literally overlap a number of times in their lives. So how does the story justifies the use of these two characters? It has to be thematic — and there was tons of great, thematic overlap, and parallel and contrast, between the two Escobars.”

If you weren’t among the millions who watched The Two Escobars‘ repeat showings on ESPN (or caught it at the Sundance Kabuki as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s “SFFS Screen” programming), here’s a crash course in narco-soccer, as explained by the movie: during the ’80s and ’90s, Colombian drug lords invested in soccer teams as a way to launder their ill-gotten gains. As teams’ coffers grew, so did their ability to hire top-notch players. Sides flush with dirty cash racked up victories and corruption behind the scenes grew to outlandish proportions. Referees could easily be bought — or eliminated. A huge soccer fan who’d risen from poverty, then used his wealth to build fields in the slums, Pablo was one of these investors. Andrés, of course, was one of the league’s stars.

Using no narrator, The Two Escobars instead weaves its account with contemporary interviews (the exhaustive list of talking heads includes soccer legends, jailed gangsters, coaches, cops, and the sisters of both Escobars) and expertly edited archival footage that enables the viewer to witness just about everything discussed: the might of Colombia’s national team in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup; the sight of Pablo enjoying soccer on both his palatial estate and, incredibly, while incarcerated; the horrific violence that became an everyday occurrence during Pablo’s war on Colombia’s government.

Obtaining these hours of interviews and footage — only a fraction of which made it into the final cut — posed various challenges. “[Subjects] were reluctant to talk for many reasons: it’s taboo; it’s often felt to be dangerous still,” Jeff says. “So there is fear. And also, it is traumatic to go back and visit those emotions. A lot of people would rather bottle that up. I’m not one to judge because I didn’t live during the reign of Pablo Escobar and [anti-Escobar vigilante group] Los Pepes in Colombia. But I do believe that expressing that stuff and getting it out can be cathartic.”

Culling the archival footage used in The Two Escobars took months of plowing through broadcast vaults, the private archives of both Escobars, and films shot by military police and amateur videographers. “We knew it wasn’t gonna be as powerful a film, as accessible a film, if we just rooted it in present-day talking head interviews,” Jeff says. “We needed to transport the viewer back into that time period. A lot of our decision to tell both the narratives of Pablo and Andrés, and make it bigger than just the ESPN assignment, to make it a theatrical movie, was hanging on whether or not we were able to find enough compelling visuals to create real scenes. We had myself, my brother, and a team of people just going through tapes.”

Editing was a monumental task, proving both labor-intensive and emotionally trying. “It was very difficult to whittle down the story,” Michael says. “At one point, we had a film that was sort of focused on being the first exposé of this secret world of narco-soccer. We had hours of anecdotes that really blew our minds. We ended up reducing that whole part of the story to what you could call act one of the movie, and that was certainly difficult. You’re just sorry to see things go.”

Though The Two Escobars screened worldwide, not just on ESPN but at the Tribeca and Cannes film festivals, one place it hasn’t been seen is, ironically, Colombia. Due to the sensitive subject matter, and objections to the final product by Andrés Escobar’s family — who didn’t appreciate being associated with Pablo Escobar — “it’s been completely censored,” Jeff says, noting that he and his brother did not intend to mislead anyone during the filming.

“We always knew it was going to be extremely controversial,” Michael says. “I was nervous in terms of what the reactions from Colombians would be, because obviously it’s very delicate, very loaded subject matter. There’s so much visceral emotion for any Colombian who went through that period of time. Virtually everyone who lived there in the ’80s and ’90s was touched by that violence.”

Though the brothers are disappointed the film hasn’t been shown in Colombia, that doesn’t mean no Colombians have seen it.

“Everywhere we’ve shown the film and done a Q&A, there have been Colombians present,” Michael says. “That’s been a really rewarding experience.”

“For Colombians, it’s not an easy 100 minutes to sit through,” adds Jeff. “But by the end, [the Colombians we’ve met] do feel that it’s an accurate portrayal, that it’s balanced journalism, and that the message is an important one about Colombia moving forward. It presents a lot of hope through Andrés’ family. That was our goal, to create a portrayal of Andrés that was heroic. We made sure the voice of his family is the takeaway from the movie. I think it couldn’t be more clear once you see the film how opposite Pablo and Andrés are in terms of who they are and what they stand for. I hope that Colombians get a chance to see the film because they’ll realize that.”

Babes in bondage


YEAR IN FILM ‘Tis the season to dismantle. For us film critic types, that means picking over the past year’s movie offerings with the ill-advised intensity of Natalie Portman working a hangnail in Black Swan. (That scene was so gross, yes?)

Speaking of sadomasochistic tendency (and La Portman), 2010 saw an intriguing mini-trend in psychological horror, most exemplified by a trio of films: Vincenzo Natali’s riotous sci-fi cheesefest Splice, Mark Romanek’s austerely devastating Never Let Me Go, and Darren Aronofsky’s aforementioned phenom Black Swan. Superficially, these movies couldn’t be more different. Splice is an homage to B exploitation and Cronenbergian body horror; Never Let Me Go is a pedigreed adaptation of a dead-serious study of emotional subtlety and Black Swan is a grandiose, visually exhilarating spectacle, not to mention one of the weirdest films ever to likely get an Oscar nod.

Dig a little deeper (perhaps with Winona Ryder’s Black Swan nail file?) and some surprisingly similar themes, motifs, and motivations become clear. This new breed of female-centered “body horror” challenges certain well-worn horror tropes, whether intentionally or not, along with the subject-object relationship of women in movies in general. And while female body horror is certainly nothing new (vaginas with teeth, anyone?) these movies do offer a refreshing new spin.

Genetic clones, genetic hybrids, and guano-crazy ballerinas, the female characters in these films exemplify the idea of the “other” superficially, but also collapse the traditional idea the “monstrous feminine.” Even if we aren’t meant to identify with them in totality, their terror is still our terror, not some janky Freudian nightmare of their otherness and our supposed repulsion to it. This kind of female subject-object horror revisionism has been seen before — Georges Franju’s 1960 French quasi-surrealist masterpiece Eyes Without a Face and the raucous little Canadian cult indie Ginger Snaps (2000) come to mind — but it hasn’t punctured mainstream Hollywood film in quite this way before.

All three movies work off the principle relationship of the matriarch and her offspring: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Dren (Delphine Chaneac) in Splice; Nina (Natalie Portman) and her mother (Barbara Hershey, her plastic surgery–pummeled visage unintentionally representing the concept of “face horror”) in Black Swan; and Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) and later Madame (Nathalie Richard) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan) in Never Let Me Go.

Black Swan goes so far as to encourage a curiously gender-flipped Oedipal reading of Nina’s relationship with her (s)mother, who feverishly paints portraits of her daughter while Nina slaves away at ballet practice. Indeed, the movie’s true WTF moment comes when, at the behest of her tyrannical director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), Nina masturbates, almost violently so, until she realizes that her mother is watching her from the bedroom corner.

From her raw, toe-shoe ravaged feet to her undernourished frame to the intermittent appearances of blood oozing from imaginary sores, Nina experiences physical and psychological disturbances that lead to an eventual complete breakdown and physical metamorphosis in the classic body horror tradition. “I wanna be perfect,” she laments. That desire for perfection ultimately manifests itself in the masochistic self-infliction of physical pain to achieve transcendence. It’s a subject Aronofsky mined to great effect in his last film, 2008’s The Wrestler.

Psychological and physical metamorphoses are rampant in the movie, characterized by Nina’s overly precious pink butterfly wallpaper and Thomas’ uber-masculine Rorschach blotter–inspired living room. In a motif most reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), Nina begins to see nonhuman physical transformations in the form of scratches that elicit bristle-like feathers on her back, much in the same way The Fly‘s Seth Brundle grew coarse insect hairs as he slowly morphs into “Brundlefly.” Nina finally asserts her sexual independence by absorbing her “black swan” by way of sexually demonstrative doppelganger, Lily (Mila Kunis). In the process, she becomes something all-powerful and completely unknowable, achieving total perfection. She also ceases to be human.

Transcending the entrapment of biology plays a major role in Splice and Never Let Me Go as well. In Splice, Dren’s jacked-up DNA is a source of fear and revulsion to Elsa’s husband and coresearcher, Clive (Adrien Brody), and she is held captive while they study her in their pursuit of greater scientific truth. But her creator-mother can’t help but delight in her otherness, which mirrors her own in some perverse way. She even insists that Dren, who resembles something akin to a beautiful chicken-alien-minotaur, is “perfectly formed.” The moment Dren reveals her magnificent wings for the first time (wings she didn’t even know she possessed) recalls Nina’s crazed transformation in Black Swan. Both characters eventually embrace their outsider status, although it’s hard to say if it really works out for either of them. (Baby steps.)

Officially, Never Let Me Go isn’t really a horror film, but more of a Merchant Ivory–style sci-fi. In addition to being an exercise in stylistic restraint and melancholy, Romanek’s film is an affecting, straight-faced mediation on life and loss. But its core conceit can easily be read as a story of body horror as well. Kathy, the pretty, waifish clone-girl at the center of the narrative, grows up at a genteel English boarding school called Hailsham, a place she finds as warm and nurturing as the womb. But it’s also a place from which there is no escape. By virtue of her very birth, Kathy is bound by a grisly obligation, metaphorically and literally: eventually her body will be dismantled bit by bit, her organs redistributed, so that in her death (or “completion,” as its dubbed in a kind of gentle Newspeak) “real” people may live. But her body’s eventual betrayal is not Kathy’s ultimate source of horror. Her true other-ness isn’t represented by physicality, but by spirituality: like all her fellow clones, she must question the very idea that she is human, what it means to be human, and whether or not she even possesses that supposed essential blueprint, a soul. The audience shares Kathy’s existential horror at that most inner fear. Eventually, though, it’s virtually impossible to not acknowledge what makes Kathy, like Nina and even Dren, so potently human. Their humanity, of course, is in their very imperfection. Nobody’s perfect, except for maybe that little spitfire Natalie Portman. At this point, I think it’s safe to say she’s at least better than the rest of us.