Friday, January 31, 2014

Let's get it right, people


You might have noticed a change in the right column of this blog.

Actually, of course you didn't, because the thing that changed is so ridiculous that no one but me would notice it. Because, for one thing, it's in a part of the blog I abandoned long ago.

What it is is: A change has occurred in my top 20 films on Flickchart.

Only because I forced it to, though, really.

I wouldn't blame you if you stopped looking at that top 20 list long ago. Not only has it not changed in something like two years, maybe longer, but the bigger problem is this:

It's not really reflective of what I think my top 20 should look like. Not entirely, anyway.

It may be fitting that the film that dropped a notch on the list is the one that would probably earn me the most flak: Ghost. Clearly, I love Ghost and think it's a movie worth defending, but my 13th favorite movie of all time? That may be a stretch.

Well, now it's #14, thanks to Donnie Darko beating it.

I'll tell you what happened, but first I've got to tell you a little bit about Flickchart, if you don't know.

Flickchart (www.flickchart.com) is a social media movie website that allows you to rank films against each other with the aim of comprising a list of your favorite films of all time. Actually, you don't just get your favorite films -- you get your favorite all the way down to your least favorite. That's what I've been doing in my year-end movie ranking lists since the mid-1990s, so it was no surprise I was drawn to the format. How do you do it? You engage in a limitless set of duels between a pair of movies, simply deciding which one you like better. Flickchart tabulates it and gives you a list of your movies from your favorite to your least favorite, which gets more accurate the more duels you complete. Every time one lower movie beats a higher movie, it jumps up to that spot and pushes the loser of the duel down one spot. In about six months I'll have been using the site for five years.

The problem is, when I reloaded my rankings from scratch a couple years ago, to get a more accurate list than the one I had at that time, the results of that reload seemed sacrosanct to me. After that I wanted only to duel films in the Your Movies -> Your Whole Chart filter, so my #2 movie of all time might just as likely come up against my #3 movie as my #2875 movie.

This, however, is not a productive way to get any movement. If I wanted to shake up the top 20 that came out of that reload project -- a top 20 that was a product of how I was feeling about those movies at that moment -- I'd have to wait not only until two movies in my top 20 came up against each other, but until they were the right two movies to have a lower one defeat a higher one, and therefore take its place. It might take forever.

But my rigid, pure sense that I needed to rank only in the Your Movies -> Your Whole Chart filter, so that any moving of films on my list would be completely organic and not engineered by me, was holding me back. It was permitting me to continue assigning artificial holiness to a group of 20 films that may not really represent me, the movie fan I am right now, in 2014.

So I'm changing the filter.

Now as I rank, I'm ranking in gradually more specific filters until I get all the way to that hallowed top 20. First I rank in the Top 3000 filter. When I get a change there, then I rank the Top 2000 filter. Change there, then it's Top 1000. Change there, then it's Top 500. And so on through 250, 100, 50 and finally top 20.

Now, movies like Ghost will have to prove they truly belong by beating some hungry competition.

Having a list of wrong movies up there only because I'm structured and uptight about the purity of my lists is really not serving anyone. Plus it's telling people that only one of my top 20 films of all time was made before 1975, and that's just not the case. (At least I hope it isn't. It's what I aim to find out as I continue forward.)

So ingrained am I in my ways, though, that I was sure ranking in the Top 20 filter would yield no changes. When you're so familiar with what goes where, it can be hard to conduct a duel based solely on the quality of the films. You know what's currently ranked higher, and you know you can maintain the status quo just by clicking that movie to win.

What's different now, though, is that I'm sick of the status quo.

And lo and behold, after about ten duels without a change, Donnie Darko came up against Ghost. And I said "By golly, Ghost does not deserve to be one spot higher than Donnie Darko." (The duel screen doesn't show you current rankings, but I knew them by heart.) Now, it no longer is.

Is my goal to keep pushing Ghost downward until its out of my top 20? It's hard to say. It's hard to say what my intentions are, in fact, except to force myself to revisit these decisions I made a couple years ago, and decide if I'd make them the same way again today.

And there will be the opportunity for other movies to jump into that top 20, as well, which is probably the most exciting part. Not while I'm dueling in the Top 20 filter, mind you, because all those duels are between films that are already in my top 20. But when I'm dueling my top 50 or my top 100, a film in the top 20 could easily come up against a lower film that's gunning for it mightily. It'll be up to that top 20 movie to prove it really deserves to occupy such rarified territory on my list.

All I can do is try to get it right, people. So I say, let's do just that.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Review: The Hunt

 
As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all movies I see between now and April 27th.

When I was in college I worked on an island off the coast of New Hampshire during the summers, and to make a couple extra bucks, I babysat a four-year-old towhead named Nicky. He was the son of the island's Russian-born music director. I got along with the kid and he was awful cute when he wasn't being a brat. One of those times he was being a brat, however, I thought I would teach him a lesson about taking care of his toys by throwing one of them in the trash. He really lost it and made a big scene, and I immediately had this dreadful thought:

What does anyone walking by think just happened?

I had this terrible flash about what Nicky could say to someone, if he were feeling vindictive towards me -- lies he could make up that would tarnish the parts of my reputation I could never untarnish. After that I was careful not to intentionally upset him again.

Watching Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt brought the remembrance of those irrational fears back to me ... and made me realize perhaps they weren't so irrational.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) works at a kindergarten in a small Danish town, a last-ditch option after the school that employed him as a teacher had to close its doors. He never does anything so inflammatory as pretend to throw away a child's toy. All he does is rebuff the innocent advances of a young girl named Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), who kisses him on the lips as an expression of her confused fondness for her father's best friend. Embarrassed at having to take back the toy heart she shoved into Lucas' pocket, which he suggests she give to her parents or a boy at school, she tells the school principal that she "hates" Lucas and that he's "ugly." Her confusion is exacerbated by the fact that her brother's friend recently showed her a picture of an erect penis on his iPad, so she compulsively utters that Lucas has a penis and that it "points upward."

Uh oh.

In the escalating storm of suspicion and accusation that follows, Klara tries to recant her story, but by this point the adults believe she's just withering under the attention and trying to protect a person who has gotten into her head. Things go from bad to worse for our poor accused pedophile, who can't ever find the exact right way to protest his innocence -- because frankly, there isn't one.

Some of the best films of recent years -- and two of my last three year-end favorites, A Separation and Beyond the Hills -- present impossible situations where no one person is truly in the wrong. The Hunt may now be added to that list. None of the characters, when confronted with the evidence before them, reacts to the apparent act of sexual abuse in a way that is not, on some level, morally defensible. If there is any "villain" to this piece, it would have to be Klara, for missing a good opportunity to unambiguously proclaim Lucas' innocence. But just as you couldn't indict a five-year-old girl for even the most openly ruinous of intentions, neither can she be trusted to have credible second thoughts. You must believe her if she suggests, even in the half nods and incomplete thoughts of a child, that there was misconduct, and you must also not believe her if she then decides she made it all up. The motivations to tell the latter lie are much clearer, one would think, than to tell the former. Therefore, the moment the damning statement escapes her lips, the damage is done.

Mikkelsen is a revelation as the hopeless accused, but that doesn't mean there isn't something frustrating about him. As his situation deteriorates, you want to shake him, throttle him until he comes up with a way to defend himself that doesn't suggest the possibility of guilt. Is he feeling guilt for not having disclosed that the child kissed him? Could he have disclosed it in a way that didn't invite suspicion on him right then and there? And so The Hunt also explores something universal and tragic: Sometimes just being accused makes us feel the guilt of the sin we were supposed to have committed. 

Vinterberg presents his story with a bracing straightforwardness and a wonderful knack for foreshadowing. As it would be difficult to go in to The Hunt without knowing what it's about, the opening scenes shrewdly play on the audience's worst fears. As Lucas arrives at school on a typical November day, the children crouch in various hiding spots around the playground, appearing to genuinely fear his arrival. Instead of this being a story told in flashback, however, Vinterberg reveals that the children are planning a sneak attack against their teacher, with whom they engage in regular horseplay.

Moments later, when Lucas is reluctantly compelled to help a young boy wipe his bottom after using the toilet, we recognize that a misunderstanding surrounding sexual abuse need not a girl with an active imagination to take its pernicious toll. Those who work with children are always barely clinging to their good names, placing them every day in hands that don't understand them, and are too small to hold them.   

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Warning: words


Australians have instituted a simple little innovation that it would seem very easy for Americans to adopt -- Americans, who may actually need it more.

It's a product warning on foreign language films:

THIS MOVIE HAS SUBTITLES

I wish we didn't live in a world where viewers shy away from movies just because they were filmed in other countries, but alas, we do. Considering the reality that some people don't consider it a good form of decompression to have to read their movies, it seems a sticker like the one you see on the DVD case of Therese Desqueyroux is a good solution to the problem.

Of course, I'd argue that it shouldn't be necessary for a different reason: You should be able to tell whether a movie has subtitles or not just by looking at it.

If you don't recognize "Desqueyroux" as a French name, shouldn't you at least detect that it's foreign? And if you aren't getting any help from the last name, how about the accents on the E's in "Therese"? You know, those funny accents that they never use in English?

Furthermore, if you can't turn over a movie and review some simple information (a plot description, the Englishness or lack thereof in the names of the people who made the movie), then you don't deserve to be protected from yourself in the first place.

Again, though, a sticker about subtitles isn't designed for someone who has good skills of deduction. It's designed to give a customer, any customer, the information he or she needs not to be indirectly disappointed in the video store that rented them that movie where you have to read words.

And therefore, I reluctantly admit that it makes plenty of sense.

Your thoughts?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Australian Audient: Phar Lap

 
This is the first in a series in which I target one viewing per month of a movie from Australian cinema.

Happy Australia Day!

What better day to start my new 2014 series, Australian Audient?

To start out, I was planning on watching one movie my mom taped off cable back in the early 1980s, and ended up watching another.

Between the years 1983 to, I want to say, 1986, the technological planets aligned for my mom. She both knew how to record things on our VCR and had a subscription to The Movie Channel. I seem to remember my dad -- far less of a movie fan -- eventually overruling the Movie Channel subscription, and I can understand why: My mom had boxes and boxes of movies she had taped off The Movie Channel, and never watched any of them. Now that I'm a parent, I get it -- you're busy during the day, and when the kids finally go to sleep, you want to spend time with your spouse. If he/she doesn't want to watch Paris, Texas or Fitzcarraldo (two titles I remember from her collection), then you're out of luck.

Two other titles I remember from her collection were Breaker Morant and Phar Lap. I wanted to watch Breaker Morant as my first movie in this series, but instead I watched Phar Lap. The Australia section of the local video store had the latter but not the former. 

I could just go on chatting about Phar Lap, as I am wont to do in blog posts like this, but I'm going to hold myself to something I promised about a week ago: I am going to write a review of all movies I watch between now and the end of my so-called Movie Diet on April 27th (read more about that here).

So, here goes - the first review proper I have written in quite some time. Let's see if I can still do it.

                                * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

There's a reason films about great racehorses tend to be limited to biopics, and not stories about fictitious thoroughbreds. Inspirational sports stories about underdogs becoming champions are hard enough to believe even if they're true. If they're made up, they just seem like some screenwriter's flight of fancy. It's an advantage real sports have over fictional sports. You have to believe the real sports because they actually happened.

Phar Lap, the racehorse born in New Zealand and trained to run in Australia, is a particular example of one of those underdogs whose exploits really had to happen to be believed. He wasn't just bad to start out -- "lazy," according to trainer Harold Telford (Martin Vaughan) -- he went beyond bad and finished last in most, if not all, of his races. Miraculously, Telford kept working him, and today his body is preserved and on display in the Melbourne Museum. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

When first arriving on Australian shores in 1927, the wart-ridden young colt is described by his American owner (Ron Leibman) as somewhere between a sheep dog and a kangaroo. Nonetheless, Telford believes in his pedigree, and a good cop-bad cop relationship begins to get the horse into shape: Telford working the "laziness" out of him through sheer force, and Telford's strapper Tommy (Tom Burlinson) relating to him more gently in a way we would now consider "horse whispering." Telford initially fires Tommy when Tommy questions the vigor of Telford's training methods, but reluctantly has to ask him back when the horse quits eating as a protest to Tommy's sacking.

Well, the horse starts winning. And winning. And winning.

And here's where the underdog story develops in a way that's more interesting than just "bad horse makes good." Phar Lap's story becomes about business as much as about sport (that's how they say it in Australia, without the S), and it takes a turn for the unethical. How to bet effectively on the dominant athlete is a subject that ensnares not only his already venal owner, but the previously uncorruptible Telford, who has overstretched his commitment on a number of thus-far unproductive yearlings and is facing bankruptcy. A fascinating passage involves the methods used to protect Phar Lap in the run-up to his first Melbourne Cup, Australia's greatest race, when a betting fix could require the horse not to win -- or better yet, not to be alive.

Unfortunately, the structure of the film removes some of the suspense from this particular sequence, while also giving it a bit of extra gravitas. We find out in the opening minutes of the film that Phar Lap does indeed die under unusual circumstances -- in Menlo Park, California. The rest of the film is told in flashback. So we know the horse survives any attempts on his life prior to the Melbourne Cup -- but we also know that he ultimately does succumb to forces intent on destroying him. Being the best at something is, alas, not always the best for your health.

Phar Lap relies a tad too heavily on its inspirational score, and a mode of expression that we would call "cheesy" if the film were made today. In 1983, a little more of that stuff got a pass. Overall it's a pretty sturdy horse picture that gives a good flavor of the country that considered him one of its heroes.

                              * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Okay. Well. It's a start. In my own defense, I wrote this while my son was trying to get me to play pirates. I might have liked to give it more thought and tweak it some, but if I set out to publish on Australia Day, I've really got to publish on Australia Day, don't I?

Next month: A movie that can't help but take itself a bit less seriously, or so I assume. BMX Bandits is Nicole Kidman's infamous feature debut, and it's available for streaming on Netflix for those of you who want to play along at home. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Australian Audient: The Series


I just realized -- I almost forgot to tell you about my new blog series for 2014!

I'm in Australia now, so might as well soak in the Aussie culture, right? More importantly, might as well see the Aussie cinema I haven't seen, so that if I do one day get work writing about films in Australia, I will be that much of a better candidate for the job.

So I'm going to watch one movie made in Australia, by Australians, or about Australians per month, and write about it here. The series will be called Australian Audient.

Unfortunately, there are consequences to having been together with an Australian for nine years. I've actually seen many if not most of the prominent Australian films.

However, most is not all, and this could be a good opportunity to find some deep cuts ... one of which I've already got lined up for next month.

But first, January -- the week of it that remains.

I'll be watching Phar Lap, about some kind of heroic Australian horse. It wasn't my first choice, but the video store didn't have my first choice, so that's that. How's that for selling the first installment of the series??

I hope you'll join along, as much as your interest and the availability of the videos to you dictates. Look for my write-up sometime next week.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On Australian prudishness -- and lack thereof

 
Here's a piece I started a couple weeks ago that got lost in the shuffle. This note prevents me from having to change the time reference in the first paragraph. 

This past week I finally saw Don Jon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's directorial debut, about a guy (Gordon-Levitt) with a porn addiction.

I had been waiting for it to get an Australian theatrical release, but finally gave that up and just rented it from iTunes.

See, I don't think Don Jon is getting an Australian theatrical release at all. That's pretty odd for a movie starring Gordon-Levitt, but it's really odd for a movie starring Scarlett Johansson. (A movie starring Julianne Moore may fall somewhere in between those two on the oddness scale.)

Oversimplifying the probably complicated side of the business known as foreign distribution, and the many pitfalls it has from time to time, I may have to chalk it up to Australian prudishness. But like many other things in this country, it's the most confusing kind of prudishness, one that contains enough exceptions that it hardly seems appropriate to call it prudishness in the first place.

In an earlier post about the Australian rating system, I talked about how movies of an explicit pornographic nature (showing actual sex) are supposedly only available for sale or rental in a couple Australian states, Victoria not being one of them. It seems hard for me to imagine that's really true, but I have no evidence to the contrary. My understanding is that blue laws -- which prevent certain businesses from selling certain products, or even being open, during certain hours, for religious reasons -- were only recently retired here. In fact, in some ways they are still alive and well, such as malls not being open after 5:30 on every day of the week except Thursday and Friday.

The apparent prudishness of Australia may extend to Don Jon not getting a release. It may not, since not every movie that opens in the U.S. opens here. But the ones with A-level casts that don't open are few and far between, and they make you sit up and take notice.

A certain sensitivity to explicit content may also explain this funny little difference in the movie posters for We're the Millers, first the poster that advertised the movie in the U.S., and then the one used here for the DVD release. See if you can spot the difference:



I couldn't find evidence of the second one online, so I had to grab a snap of it at my local video store so you would know I hadn't imagined it.

Assuming it's not just my local video store being prudish and ordering a custom poster for We're the Millers, the ad campaign here changes Jennifer Aniston's assignation from the rather bawdy "stripper" to the considerably more chaste "dancer." (They also excised the word "drug" before "dealer," but that's not what I'm talking about today.)

If this were all just leading to a conclusion that Australians are uptight about sex, that would be something, but consider this:

Prostitution is legal here.

I'll say that again:

Prostitution is legal here.

No, this is not the Netherlands. This is good old prudish Australia.

I'll tell you how I found out that prostitution was legal. On my walk to the aforementioned video store, there's a dodgy looking building of questionable purpose. There's a neon sign outside that I've never seen lit (probably because I've never walked by at night) that reads Club 77. But it shows no other signs of being a dance club, as the parking lot is always empty and no one is ever seen loading kegs of beer into the building.

Curious, I looked it up online, and a site called Melbourne Brothels came up. Immediately I felt like Jon in Don Jon and wanted to clear my browser history, but I ventured on and indeed discovered that it is one of at least a dozen legal brothels in Melbourne. I read a few user comments that left little doubt as to what goes on there. They aren't a chain of sketchy massage parlors where an extra hundred bucks will get you a hand job. No, they are full-service whorehouses.

Yet Don Jon makes them squeamish enough for it never to see the light of day.

Like I said, it's probably not as simple as that. But I was starting to really gather steam on this impression when I saw that Blue is the Warmest Color, with its explicit scenes of lesbian sex, had not been released here either. I had to backtrack on that impression when I saw a February 13th release date announced. (Just in time for Valentine's Day, ha ha.)

Without reading extensively about prostitution in Australia -- evidence of which I really don't want to be on my computer -- it appears that the legalization/decriminalization of it has to do with a) the long history of prostitution dating back to the country's formative years, and b) protecting sex workers by installing government regulations. Still, I'm kind of surprised that the laws even made it up for discussion on the parliament floor with the way this country's prudishness rears its head in other ways. 

If Blue is the Warmest Color, you can color me confused.

I'll have to find out more about this and get back to you.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Movie diet


Today is the first day of my Movie Diet.

Not long ago I looked in the mirror and saw a guy with a few too many movies around the waistline.

The person that looked back at me from the mirror was not overweight -- that's not what I'm getting here. (Okay, I am a little overweight, but that's still not what I'm getting at.) Rather, the person who looked back at me was under-employed. Under-motivated. Under-focused.

And if I keep up this way, I'm never going to have any career to speak of.

Let's back up a bit here.

You know that I quit my job to come to Australia last August. I'd say this was a necessity, but some of my co-workers actually wanted to know why I didn't just see if I could continue to do my job remotely, despite a nearly insurmountable time difference. I thought they were joking, but these days, I guess they weren't. So maybe I could have kept my job ... but I didn't want to. I wanted to start something new, forge a new path in my career to see what was next for me.

So far, what's next for me is ... nothing.

I've only been eligible to work here since the end of November, and that led straight into the holidays, and that led straight into a new baby joining our family. It's not been the ideal circumstances for a job search.

That job search has turned up little in the way of positive leads. I've had one interview, but I really don't know if I'm likely to get that job, and even if I do, I won't know for a couple more weeks. Meanwhile, the need for me to start making money is becoming more and more dire.

But it's not just money I need -- it's a definitive step toward what I'll be doing for the rest of my life. There are many things I could do -- writing, IT, marketing, administration, prostitution -- but little certainty about which I will do.

So I've decided I need to carve out some time to figure this out. And the obvious thing to help me make room is to cut out movies.

Not all movies, but some movies. I need to reduce my movie consumption significantly if I want to make strides toward figuring out what I want to be when I grow up.

So here are the rules of the Movie Diet:

1) No more than two movies per week. This includes new movies as well as movies I'm rewatching.

2) A viewing week runs from Monday to Sunday. Each Monday morning, my allotment of two movies will reset.

3) I can exceed two movies if and only if I have reached my maximum for the week, and my wife wants to watch something. Any movie watching instigated by my wife will count as an exception to the diet. If, however, she instigates two movie-watching experiences at the start of the week, before I've instigated one myself, those will be my two for the week.

4) This diet will run until Sunday, April 27th, 2014.

These may seem like pretty harsh rules, but these are pretty harsh times. I need to figure out what's next for me, and I don't need any distractions.

Of course, I could land a job within the next week, and then the diet could end ... right?

No.

See, another part of the point of this diet is to engage in activities that I might be neglecting while watching movies. Such as reading. Such as keeping up a correspondence with friends who are suddenly halfway around the world. Such as learning about things that I'll need in order to remain current in my field. Such as starting on a long-form writing project.

It scares me a little bit, this diet. But any diet should be a little bit scary. A diet -- usually a food diet -- is designed to force you out of your comfort zone. It shouldn't feel easy, but it should feel good, if you do it right.

I realize that I have been using movies as a bit of a crutch since moving to Australia. Movies have been my way to procrastinate about meeting the next phase of my life head on. It's easy to see a 90-minute block of free time and figure out which movie to watch during that time. What's hard is seeing a 90-minute block of free time and figuring out how I'll use it to advance my life.

And it's not going to last forever. I've timed the end to coincide more or less with the start of the summer movie season, which is also about when movies from the current year start being available on video. I know that there will come a time on the calendar this year when I'll want to watch five to ten movies a week.

But I need to feel like I've earned the ability to cheat on my diet, or rather, to end my diet with peace of mind. I need to feel like I've made good use of the next three months and one week. I need to reach April 27th knowing something more definitive about my life than I do today. Or, I need to reach April 27th, not know anything more definitive, and realize that I am a candidate for a more aggressive kind of intervention before I spiral off into nowhere.

I'm speaking a bit dramatically here, but I do think I need to get serious with my life and my career, or else I'll look up when I'm 50 and not know what happened. I don't want to be that guy who procrastinated his life away.

You may wonder what effect not watching as many movies will have on a guy who writes a movie blog. Where will I find things to write about?

Well, here's another thing I want to do, that will also help with figuring out my career goals:

I want to use this blog to write actual movie reviews.

So that's the other thing I'm committing to on this diet: I'm going to write a review of every movie I see during the diet period. Whether I've seen it before or I've never seen it, whether it's been around for 80 years or eight days, I'm going to review it like it was brand new in the theater.

Because the other thing I want to figure out is if I can still be a film critic, if I can still somehow find work writing movie reviews. I haven't been writing reviews professionally since the end of 2011, and I need to know if I've still got it. I've been steadfastly not writing reviews on this site, but now I wonder, what was the purpose of that? I have answers, but none of them are good ones. All that's done is made me rusty. And I don't want to get any rustier than I already am.

This is an experiment, and it may not work out like I think it will. In fact, I may realize along the way that I can do these things without making movies my sacrificial lamb. But as with any well-intentioned diet, I owe it to myself to dive in and see. I have to believe that I can stick to this diet, and that the rewards will make it all worthwhile.

And if I don't figure out all the answers, well ... it's only my life, right? :-)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Me and Me and 500 Movies I Know


This is a blog that likes to recognize milestones.

Not all milestones, mind you. In fact, I missed a big milestone about three weeks ago, when this blog turned five years old. Just sailed by without me even noticing.

But the milestone I'm writing about today is something I've been anticipating for several months, even though it doesn't mean that much.

On Friday night, I re-watched my 500th movie.

That means there are 500 movies that I've seen more than once.

(It was Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know. Ever since I noticed it was streaming on Netflix, I've been craving a second viewing, and I finally allowed myself to have it after finishing cramming 2013 movies for my year-end ranking project.) 

Is 500 a lot? Is it a little? It's hard to say.

I've just passed 3,900 movies overall, so that means that slightly more than one-eighth of the movies I've seen, I've deemed worthy of seeing at least twice. When you look at it like that, it doesn't seem like a small number. It seems perfectly reasonable to rewatch one in every eight movies you see. In fact, that might even seem a bit generous.

But as a straight number, 500 seems somehow small.

It's certainly no indication of how many movies I think are worth watching more than once. If you gave me a couple hours, I'm sure I could go through and easily find 500 more movies I've seen only once, that I would sit down and watch again right now if I had access to them. I just haven't gotten around to that second viewing yet.

This of course does not mean only 500 instances of watching a movie a second time. Of those 500, I bet at least half are ones I've seen more than twice. In fact, that might be something that would be interesting to figure out, and I could do it pretty quickly. In fact, hold on a minute.

[an unverifiable amount of time later]

Okay, it appears that 151 of these 500 movies are movies I have seen more than twice. Again, not really sure what that means, but it's interesting to note.

I suspect that my own viewing behavior is pretty different from most people's. It seems like your average person likes to re-watch their favorites more than I do. Some people I know will watch the same movie once a month until they can recite it forwards and backwards. It's very unlikely for me to watch the same movie twice in a year, with the exception of a quick second viewing after an addictive first viewing. If the film has become a cherished favorite, it won't come up for a viewing any more than once per calendar year, unless strange circumstances arise (a friend who wants to watch it with me, after I just happened to watch it recently myself).

So your average person probably has fewer movies than I have overall, but maybe more repeat watches. Okay, maybe your average person hasn't rewatched 500 movies, but maybe they've participated in more instances of rewatching a movie than I have. I'm not sure. You'd have to ask them.

Of course, figuring out how many movies I'd seen more than twice acquainted me with one of those disappointing realities of a list like this: It's probably not accurate.

When I first came up with my list of movies I'd seen multiple times, it was culled from my greater list of all the movies I've ever seen. There were no doubt instances where I had to make a judgment call on whether I'd seen the movie more than once -- a judgment call that I might not make the same way today. As one example, my Word document called "seen multiple.doc" lists Gone With the Wind as a movie I've seen twice. (At least twice, I should say.) I'm not sure how I came to that conclusion. I clearly remember the first time I watched it, and would certainly remember deciding to sit there for four hours and watch it again.

Yet when a list reaches a certain age of maturity, you have to kind of consider it to be sacrosanct. If I go and edit it now, removing a few suspect titles (I can't recall my second viewing of The Sound of Music either, and probably just assumed I'd seen it twice), then I'm not at 500 yet and I'll have to re-write this post again in three weeks. Neither you nor I want that. Clearly, I had my reasons for saying I saw Gone With the Wind twice, even if I can't now remember what they were.

Of course, going back through these 500 movies also makes me return my attentions to a project I've wanted to work on before: figuring out which movie I've seen the most.

Yep, that one's a doozy.

Only in 2005 did I start making note of when I rewatched a movie. That means that all the rewatches of my youth -- when I watched the movies we owned on VHS five or six times a year -- can be no better than estimates.

Still, what I've wanted to do in the past -- and what I may yet do -- is assign each movie a total number of viewings based on a reasonable estimate. It might be fair to say, for example, that I saw Time Bandits, Superman II, Star Trek II, The Pirate Movie, Splash and a handful of other titles we copied off cable a total of ten times each. I could then add new viewings to their total as we move forward. The times I watch them from now until the day I die will be accurate, at least, so we'd see which of those childhood favorites distinguished themselves as enduring classics I wanted to revisit.

Are you asleep yet? I almost am. It's 11:30 p.m.

So I'll leave off there ... and start planning what #501 might be.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

2013 Wrap Party


Welcome to my second annual year-end wrap-up post, where I go beyond my rankings (posted on Friday/Thursday) and single out some other noteworthy moments in The Cinema of Vancetastic in 2013. I'll more or less follow the template I established last year in the inaugural run of this piece. I said I'll go beyond my rankings, but I'll also use them as a jumping off point (and often mention them in parentheses after the movie title) in order to contextualize my feelings on the year gone by.

Three who had a good year

Nicholas Hoult - Twenty thirteen was the year that they really tried to make the kid from About a Boy happen ... and I'm one of the only ones who really bought into it. Hoult appeared in two of my surprise loves of the year, both of which occupied spots in my top ten for an unexpectedly long time: Warm Bodies (#12) and Jack the Giant Slayer (#16). Hoult may have been incidental in some ways to the success of those films, but I know in terms of Warm Bodies in particular, his Young Zombie in Love oozed the kind of starry-eyed humanism that made that film such a pleasure for me. Neither critics nor audiences were particularly kind to either film, but don't overlook them -- Bodies is directed by Jonathan Levine, who got a lot of critical love (though not from me) for 50/50, and Slayer director Bryan Singer should have earned your benefit of the doubt by now. Holt's innocent yet determined quality makes him a star on the rise, and I can't wait to see where he goes from here.

James Franco - Even those who didn't like Spring Breakers (#7) admitted that Franco brought something unusual and wonderful to the table, but this was also a year where I was impressed by him in Oz the Great and Powerful (#14) (he did not phone this one in, unlike in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and where he directed As I Lay Dying (#50), an extremely challenging adaptation of a text written by none other than the unfilmmable William Faulkner. In short, this was the year I really began to appreciate Franco's crazy versatility, his desire to do just about anything and his success at just about everything he does. Let's also not forget that he allowed his public image to be skewered in This is the End (#30); unlike what Seth Rogen was doing (writing himself a character that every other character seemed to love) and what Michael Cera was doing (going over the top in giving us something other than what we expect from him), Franco allowed the jokes at his expense to hit close to home about the real James Franco. Then again, we may not know the real James Franco, and that's cause for further fascination.

Carey Mulligan - Inside Llewyn Davis (#3) is wonderful for any number of reasons (some of which I have yet to explore, as it was the second-to-last film I saw before I closed my rankings), but high up among those is Carey Mulligan's Jean, a precise creation composed of frustration, spurned love, delicate beauty and buried impulses toward kindness. To put it another way, she's luminous, looking particularly so under the magical lens of DP Bruno Delbonnel. The accessible yet otherworldly quality Mullligan brings with her also did wonders for her in The Great Gatsby (#15), where we do truly believe that Jay Gatsby would build an empire from the ground up just to win back her tragically fickle attentions. I just noticed that Mulligan is filming an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd -- which I happen to be currently reading -- so now I'm infinitely more excited for that project as well. Quite simply, Mulligan's "got it."

Honorable mentions: Michael Cera (Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012, This is the End), Harrison Ford (42, Ender's Game, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues)

Three who had a bad year

Jim Carrey - Carrey was only asked to play second fiddle in 2013 movies -- that may be the current stage of his career -- but he utterly failed to elevate two movies that really could have used it. In The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (#127), he plays a David Blaine-type rock star magician whose main gimmick is to actually subject himself to horrible agony and perhaps permanent disfigurement. He was my lifeboat in this terrible movie, but he wasn't seaworthy. And in Kick-Ass 2 (#111) he was a commando superhero drowning under at least three layers of shtick, which didn't work either. The reason I'm including this longtime favorite of mine on this list, though, was because he tried to publicly distance himself from the violence of Kick-Ass 2 in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school. While on the surface that's a commendable stance, it reeks of hypocrisy -- why else would Carrey have gotten matched up with this movie if he didn't dig the comic book ultraviolence of the original Kick-Ass?

Steve Carell - I really liked Steve Carell on The Office and he seems like a really nice person, but his persona in the movies flops for me far more often than it succeeds. He had two such flops in 2013: the aforementioned The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and The Way, Way Back (#89). The choices Carell makes as Burt Wonderstone are ill-advised at best; because the movie starts with a flashback showing him bullied as a kid, it's all the more of a dumb decision to play Wonderstone as an egotistical boob who is completely out of touch with the common man. Even with the character's inevitable personality rehabilitation, he never becomes any more likable. Then Carell was more or less the embodiment of why I didn't really buy The Way, Way Back -- his "bad boyfriend" is a false series of exaggerations. Why would the main character's mother ever go for him?

Naomi Watts - It's really saying something that the "best" of three Watts performances in 2013 was the critically reviled biopic Diana (#86). I couldn't full understand why that movie got such a bad rap -- though I can't say the same for Adoration (#96) and Movie 43 (#126). I was momentarily tricked by the beautiful coastal New South Wales setting of Adoration (called Adore in the U.S.) into thinking I might like the movie, before ultimately realizing that the two male leads couldn't act, and the whole "sleeping with your best friend's son" motif was pretty icky. At least Watts had her partner Liev Schrieber along with her for the Movie 43 bit involving parents who replicate a real high school environment when home schooling their child. Call it a weird coincidence that this also involves icky sexual behavior between the 45-year-old Watts and a teenage boy.

Dishonorable mentions: Stephen Merchant (Movie 43, I Give it a Year), Rose Byrne (The Internship, I Give it a Year)

You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here

Last year I used this spot to discuss a phenomenon in the movies from the previous year as a short essay, just any random thing I wanted to stick in here. I think I'll do that again.

Two differently highly ranked movies captured something that I realize is something I'm really interested in: that melancholy moment after the lights go up at a party. Whole sections of Spring Breakers were about that, but there was one two- or three-minute section in The Great Gatsby that also deals with it. The good times, so recently accessible and current, are now just a fond memory.

One of the songs Skrillex wrote for the terrific Spring Breakers soundtrack (my favorite of the year) is like an anthem to leaving the party. It's called "Ride Home," and appropriately, it plays each time one of the four central spring breakers finally concedes that the party is over and endures the gloomy ritual of riding the bus home. It's a perfect "staring out the window and remembering" song, and if you don't know it, see/hear below:



In The Great Gatsby, the scene comes at about the 20-minute mark, when Nick Carraway's first Gatsby party breaks up and people stumble over passed-out bodies and empty champagne bottles toward the exit. Something about the way Baz Luhrmann stages this scene gives it the same kind of melancholy as "Ride Home" in Spring Breakers

If I were blessed with the skills to make one of those supercuts, which edits together movie moments behind a music score for the whole internet to see, I'd probably set mine to "Ride Home" and find all my favorite movie moments involving people leaving a party. "Leaving a party" can be an emotion unto itself, and I appear to be especially interested in seeing it dramatized. 

Filling the various buckets

Everyone has genres they gravitate toward, and I am no exception. But because I like to have my year-end list function as a representative sample of all the movies that were released in the previous year, I like to make sure I've gotten in enough types of movies that are not necessarily in my wheelhouse. Or maybe are in my wheelhouse, but aren't publicized extensively so they take a little seeking out.

Okay, so let's see how I filled these buckets:


Foreign language films (8): Beyond the Hills (Romania), In the House (France), The Silence (Germany), No (Chile), Drug War (China), The Act of Killing (Indonesia), Something in the Air (France), Post Tenebras Lux (Mexico). Last year: 13. How I did: Not great. I'm going to say that my move to Australia further confused my sense of which films were coming out in which years. However, my #1 overall was a foreign film, so there's that.  

Documentaries (7): Stories We Tell, A Band Called Death, Twenty Feet From Stardom, Blackfish, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, The Act of Killing, Salinger. Last year: 6. How I did: Well, better than last year, I guess. The unusual part is that I saw five of these seven in the theater. Most years, it would be reversed, but being able to see a movie every Monday at Cinema Nova for only $6 freed me up to plunk down money for things I might not otherwise have seen in the theater. I should note that two of these were documentaries I snuck into after seeing a fiction film. 

Movies featuring primarily African-Americans (8): Gimme the Loot, Fruitvale Station, A Band Called Death, The Butler, Twenty Feet from Stardom, Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, Newlyweeds, A Haunted House. Last year: 4. How I did: Double last year, which is pretty good, considering that fewer such movies are available in Australia than they are in the U.S. And this without having the opportunity to see 12 Years a Slave yet. 

Chick flicks (4): Safe Haven, About Time, The Big Wedding, I Give it a Year. Last year: 5. How I did: Poorly. Is this even worth having as a category? So many movies appealing to women are a hybrid involving some other genre these days. 

Animation (6): Monsters University, Frozen, The Croods, Epic, Planes, Escape From Planet Earth. Last year: 6. How I did: Same as last year. Among films I wanted to see, only Turbo did I miss. (For some reason, I never formulated any sense of anticipation for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, even though I liked the first one quite a bit.) 

Horror (8): Berberian Sound Studio, Maniac, Mama, The Conjuring, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, The ABCs of Death, Evil Dead, The Purge. Last year: 7. How I did: Pretty good, considering. I don't mean to imply that horror is not in my wheelhouse, because I do love a great horror. There are just so few great horrors that I consider myself wary enough of the genre to avoid most of its entries.

Best non-2013 movies of the year

Naturally, I watched a lot of movies last year that didn't come out in 2013. These were the ten best, in alphabetical order.

Ace in the Hole (1950, Billy Wilder) - This just might be my favorite Billy Wilder movie, which is an absolutely ridiculous thing to say -- and tells you just how good this movie is.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez) - I have no idea why I always turned my nose up at this. It's incredibly fun.

The Interrupters (2011, Steve James) - Inestimably powerful documentary about street violence in Chicago.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra) - Capra, man.

Mystery Train (1989, Jim Jarmusch) - After all these years, I have finally fallen in love with Jim Jarmusch. 

Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati) - What delightful absurdity.

Prince of the City (1981, Sidney Lumet) - Proof that Lumet really brings it even in lesser known movies.

Rocky (1976, John G. Avildsen) - My most embarrassing unseen movie is now finally seen.

Smoke Signals (1998, Chris Eyre) - This story of Native American fathers and sons caught me by surprise and left me a blubbery mess.

Solaris (1972, Andrei Tarkovsky) - So, so, so much better than Steven Soderbergh's remake. 

Lightning round

Best conclusion of a trilogy: Before Midnight
Worst conclusion of a trilogy: The Hangover Part III
Oldest movie: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (made in 2006)
Newest movie: Her (made in the future, I think)
Low ranking I'll get the most guff about: The World's End
Low ranking I'll get the least guff about: Movie 43
High ranking I'll get the most guff about: Oz the Great and Powerful
High ranking I'll get the least guff about: Inside Llewyn Davis
Movie I least expected to see in the theater: 2 Guns
Movie I least expected to see on video: The World's End
Worst movie by a person I really like: Katie Aselton (Black Rock)
Best movie by a person I really don't like: Michael Bay (Pain & Gain)
Director I'm writing off: Seth Gordon (Identity Thief)
Director I'm welcoming back into the fold: Joel & Ethan Coen (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Best first third of a movie: The Place Beyond the Pines
Worst last third of a movie: The Place Beyond the Pines
Least original good movie: The Conjuring
Most original bad movie: Upside Down
Most accurate title: Struck by Lightning
Least accurate title: John Dies at the End
Worst title for a good movie: Prince Avalanche
Best title for a bad movie: Only God Forgives
Highest ranked best picture nominee: Gravity (#9)
Lowest ranked best picture nominee: American Hustle (#53)
Unseen best picture nominees: Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street (ugh)

Okay, enough of this nonsense! On to 2014.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Beyond 2013


This has been, by far, my weirdest ranking year ever.

Since this post is going to contain a ton of list activity, why don't I start with a list of what has made this year so weird:

1. I moved to Australia in August.

2. My second son was born just over two weeks ago.

3. Half the prestige films getting nominations (and already winning awards) have not even been released yet where I live.

4. Yet somehow, I still ranked more movies this year than I ever have before: 128, beating my previous high by a whopping seven films.

It's #3 that has been the most difficult for me to grapple with. The last time Martin Scorsese made a movie that I didn't get to rank in its release year, it was Kundun in 1997. (Still haven't seen it.) The last time Alexander Payne made a movie that I didn't get to rank in its release year, it was Citizen Ruth in 1996. Yet this year I can rank neither The Wolf of Wall Street nor Nebraska, because neither has been released in Australia, and Nebraska still has more than a month to go before hitting theaters.

This seems like a good time to list the other movies I most regret not seeing in time to rank them, a section I usually save until after my list. In alphabetical order:

All is Lost
Blue is the Warmest Color 
Labor Day
The Past
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
12 Years a Slave

Only Walter Mitty can I blame on my son, for limiting my ability to get to the theater since he's been born. The rest are still awaiting their Australian release date. And thank goodness Her and Inside Llewyn Davis both had a January 16th release date, meaning I had a chance to watch them before my deadline, the announcement of the Oscar nominations some 12 hours later. Otherwise, this list would be even longer.

I suppose it's appropriate, then, that my #1 film of 2013 isn't even from 2013, if you count its initial release in its country of origin. That's something I haven't done since I made the 1998 German release Run Lola Run my #1 movie of 1999, and it's something I've said I would try to avoid doing at all costs. (That makes it hard on foreign releases, but A Separation slipped in two years ago because it happened to be released in both Iran and the U.S. in the same year.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

First I'd like to change up the format a little bit on this post, which in the past has included just my rankings from #1 to #whatever. This year, I'm going to count down my top ten and my bottom five, with a short blurb on each. So let's finally get to that:

10. Prince Avalanche - One of the biggest surprises in my top ten, especially considering my less-than-stellar history with David Gordon Green. This story of two guys refurbishing Texas roads after a series of devastating fires in what would appear to be the late 1980s is quirky, oddball, and moving when it wants to be. I loved the atypical performances submitted by Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, finding them eccentric in all the right ways. As often as I was reminded of something like a milder version of Napoleon Dynamite, I was also reminded of cinema's great melancholy stories of post apocalypse. It left me in a dreamy stupor with a smile on my face.

9. Gravity - The only film I saw twice in the theater this year, and I believe the first film I've seen twice in the theater since Cloverfield way back in 2008. If I'd seen it only once, it might have been even higher on my list, but the second viewing awakened me to the story problems I was content to overlook during the wondrous spell cast over me on my initial IMAX 3D viewing. (On the world's third largest IMAX screen, no less.) Alfonso Cuaron's technical marvel is quite possibly one of my ten most awe-striking theater experiences of all time -- a near perfect simulation of life in space, complete with the impossible camera tricks that are his trademark. That certainly makes it one of my ten best films of 2013.

8. Gimme the Loot - Because Cinema Romantico's Nick Prigge had this film among his top ten of 2012, I considered it off limits -- until the end of this year rolled around, and critics began throwing it some 2013 love. I watched Adam Leon's film less than a week ago and fell in love myself. Rarely have I seen the lives of urban youths (two Queens graffiti artists who want to tag a landmark at the New York Mets' ballpark) portrayed with both an acknowledgment of life's miseries and hardships, and an intoxicating joie de vivre that makes the journey downright bouncy in its sense of optimism. And as in the aforementioned Mr. Cuaron's classic Children of Men, the male half of the pair goes around most of the movie without any shoes.

7. Spring Breakers - A lot has been written about why to like or not like Spring Breakers, but I'll just offer this inarguable piece of reasoning: It's the 2013 film I've spent the most time thinking about, and that has to count for something. The reason I chewed over Harmony Korine's film so much has something to do with a personal affinity for seeing the following dramatized: the familiar phenomenon of staying somewhere past the point where it has ceased to provide you that ephemeral emotional peak. No 2013 movie gave a more dreamy (and sometimes critical, maybe, sort of) glimpse of that high, and a more thudding sense of its toxic aftermath. The film's constant duality is expressed perfectly in its signature song by Skrillex, in the title alone but in the music as well: "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites."

6. What Maisie Knew - I don't know how much of the giddy five stars I allotted to What Maisie Knew after seeing it in September was the result of the film really being amazing, or just my jaw dropping so much at the performance of then 6-year-old Onata Aprile. And then I don't know how much credit to give Aprile for the most astonishingly naturalistic performance I've seen from a child actor in years, and how much to give to her directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel. Then there's the impressive fact that this modern-day movie is an adaptation of an 1897 Henry James novel. Rarely has the plight of a girl being passed around between two unfit parents and their unwitting significant others been so terribly poignant.

5. Berberian Sound Studio - This has been the most determined climber in my top ten since I first ranked it a couple weeks ago. If I weren't closing these rankings now, #1 might have to watch its back. I was quite simply spellbound by Peter Strickland's psychological horror -- one of the most effective I've seen in years -- of a mousy British sound engineer (Toby Jones) hired to supervise the sound design of a grisly 1970s Italian horror movie (think Dario Argento). You never see the actual film he's working on (with the wonderful title The Equestrian Vortex), but the things you hear -- vegetables being wantonly chopped and smashed, blood curdling screams of actresses -- give you a clear picture of why this man is losing his sanity.

4. Stories We Tell - In a year where The Act of Killing was endlessly lauded for breaking down the documentary form, the documentarian making truly unorthodox choices was a sometimes actress and fiction filmmaker: Sarah Polley. As the Canadian walks us through interviews with her family members, both known and heretofore unknown, in discovering the true identity of her birth father, she also entirely reimagines ways of telling us the story, including impeccably crafted stagings of imaginary 8 mm home videos from her youth. It's both touching and incredibly creative, and if Polley hadn't become a tad redundant by going on for ten minutes too long, this remarkable film would be even higher on my list.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coens' best film since Fargo. It's been less than 12 hours since I saw it and I'm still processing, but one thing I loved: noting that Llewyn Davis' travels seemed like those of Homer's The Odyssey (even more so than in the Coens' similarly music-themed O Brother Where Art Thou?), and then learning that the Gorfeins' cat -- the symbol of Davis' soul -- is named Ulysses. Resembling a young Al Pacino, Oscar Isaac plays Davis as a lonely traveler indeed, as the unlucky folk singer's episodic interludes go from comic to sardonic to just plain spooky. Everyone is on a lonely, wintry journey, the film seems to say. Some people are going somewhere. Others are going nowhere. It's my third favorite film of the year even though I'm not sure I understand the ending. Googling should help with that.

2. Before Midnight - The two previous films in this series indulged in a fantasy. Before Midnight brings things crashing back to reality for Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) -- even while existing in arguably the most gorgeous setting of the three films. What connected me so much to this film is not just that it finds its characters addressing the challenges that deteriorate even the happiest of marriages, but that it isn't sure things are ultimately going to turn out alright for the hopeless romantics we've loved for 18 years. I'm a husband, and I know I live with that fear every day. I also loved the one formal departure of this movie from its predecessors, the scene where life and love are discussed among three generations around the dinner table, against the Aegean Sea. Richard Linklater is a writer-director who thrives on ideas, and for this 15-minute scene, he just lets them flow.

1. Beyond the Hills - Okay, so I already ruined the surprise. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu can do no wrong in my eyes, having directed the near-perfect 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (my #2 of 2008), and following that up with this, the most beautifully composed film I have seen in several years. Mungiu is a master of what to show, what not to show, and how to arrange shapes and figures in the frame, all of which is in service of trying to help us figure out what could have or should have happened at a Romanian convent during an attempted exorcism. The surface pleasures of Mungiu's craft, the performances of his leads and the unanswerable questions about love and faith at the film's core made me love it. But realizing that it also functions as metaphor for a terrible breakup, where the dumper destroys the dumpee by trying to be nice about it and complete the breakup in "let's be friends" half measures, made me declare it my favorite of the year.

And now my five worst of the year:

5. The Hangover Part III - I don't know why I expected an uptick in the fortunes of the Hangover series after the execrable second entry -- maybe it was the decision to return to Las Vegas. If Todd Phillips' concluding chapter is better than The Hangover Part II, it's by such a small margin that it's not even worth mentioning. This time the big mistake is one of tone, as we get a violent thriller more than a comedy. Good riddance, Wolfpack.

4. Black Rock - This feminist restaging of Deliverance just gets worse the more I think about it. It's a truly clunky and brainless creation, which is all the more shocking given the track record of screenwriter Mark Duplass and director and star Katie Aselton, his wife. The characters in this one may as well be cardboard cutouts, and the final showdown is downright laughable. 

3. Movie 43 - I would have been within my rights to rank this last among all the movies I saw this year; that's just how dumb this omnibus comedy film is. The only reason it's only third worst movie is that I applaud the effort, which attracted more actors who should know better (such as Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts) than you can shake a stick at. I also may have laughed once, which would be one more time than ...

2. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone - Comedies rarely get more inept than this. I've hated Steve Carell plenty of times at the movies before -- Get Smart and Dan in Real Life come quickly to mind -- but rarely has he seemed to phone one as much as he does here. Even Jim Carrey, a personal favorite, couldn't bring a smile to my face.

1. Only God Forgives - Nicolas Winding Refn's follow-up to Drive may not be the worst film of the year, but it's certainly the most pointless. And when a film is this brutal, violent and nihilistic, pointlessness is a grave sin indeed.

And now my complete list:

1. Beyond the Hills
2. Before Midnight
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
4. Stories We Tell
5. Berberian Sound Studio
6. What Maisie Knew
7. Spring Breakers
8. Gimme the Loot
9. Gravity
10. Prince Avalanche
11. Fruitvale Station
12. Warm Bodies
13. Upstream Color
14. Oz the Great and Powerful
15. The Great Gatsby
16. Jack the Giant Slayer
17. Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012
18. A Band Called Death
19. Frances Ha
20. Side Effects
21. Her
22. How I Live Now
23. The Butler
24. 42
25. Maniac
26. Blancanieves
27. Much Ado About Nothing
28. Twenty Feet From Stardom
29. The Bling Ring
30. This is the End
31. Pacific Rim
32. Mud
33. In the House
34. Blackfish
35. Elysium
36. The Silence
37. Monsters University
38. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
39. Ender's Game
40. Mama
41. The Sapphires
42. This is Martin Bonner
43. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
44. Enough Said
45. Computer Chess
46. No
47. It's a Disaster
48. Captain Phillips
49. To the Wonder
50. As I Lay Dying
51. Don Jon
52. The Conjuring
53. American Hustle
54. Sightseers
55. Frozen
56. The History of Future Folk
57. Prisoners
58. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
59. Drug War
60. The Place Beyond the Pines
61. Safe Haven
62. Blue Jasmine
63. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
64. The Act of Killing
65. The Last Stand
66. Europa Report
67. Star Trek Into Darkness
68. Pain & Gain
69. Ain't Them Bodies Saints
70. Salinger
71. The Call
72. World War Z
73. Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor
74. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
75. We're the Millers
76. The Spectacular Now
77. The Croods
78. About Time
79. Admission
80. Drinking Buddies
81. The Lifeguard
82. Epic
83. Antiviral
84. Newlyweeds
85. Planes
86. Diana
87. The World's End
88. Disconnect
89. The Way, Way Back
90. Something in the Air
91. Short Term 12
92. The Internship
93. Post Tenebras Lux
94. Stand Up Guys
95. Broken City
96. Adoration
97. Escape from Planet Earth
98. A Haunted House
99. Upside Down
100. Now You See Me
101. Wrong
102. 2 Guns
103. Trance
104. Oblivion
105. The Wolverine
106. The ABCs of Death
107. Struck by Lightning
108. The Big Wedding
109. Lovelace
110. Man of Steel
111. Kick-Ass 2
112. After Earth
113. The Lone Ranger
114. John Dies at the End
115. Evil Dead
116. Stoker
117. Passion
118. The English Teacher
119. Identity Thief
120. A Good Day to Die Hard
121. I Give it a Year
122. The Purge
123. Parker
124. The Hangover Part III
125. Black Rock
126. Movie 43
127. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
128. Only God Forgives

Thank you for reading, and please -- let me know what you think of my choices.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A perfect way to cool off


Now I know why they waited until Boxing Day to release Disney's Frozen here in Australia. Once the heat of summer overtook us, we were going to need some cooling off.

The hottest day of the summer hit Melbourne on Tuesday, when there was a projected high of 43 in the city. Don't speak Celsius? That's 109 degrees.

And we were feeling every damn degree as my three-year-old son and his 72-year-old grandmother and I walked to the tram stop. Actually, in a rather odd phenomenon, it felt like the heat of an oven, and it was also windy. Go figure. "That's Melbourne weather for you," to repeat a phrase I hear someone speak at least once a week.

At least where the tram was taking us promised to provide some relief: Melbourne Central, an upscale mall in downtown Melbourne, which was built around an old so-called "shot factory," whose brick spire still runs up the center of the building (and whose first and second floors are home to businesses in the mall).

Melbourne Central held the Hoyts Cinema where we were going to watch Frozen, reducing our temperatures a few degrees not only from the theater's AC, but from the movie's subject matter.

Yeah, that was the ticket.

I didn't love Frozen like I love Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, but I'm glad to have seen it, especially on a day like Tuesday, where every snowflake provided an infinitesimal amount of heat relief. And there are a lot of snowflakes in Frozen.

The actual cool and the thematic cool were only one form of "relief" I got while watching this movie. The other was the pleasant surprise of my son's behavior in only his second trip to the theater.

You may remember the first, which I posted about here. He wasn't terrible when we went to see Planes in September, but my wife and I each had to miss five to ten minutes of the movie. Turns out, it wasn't a great movie, so missing a few minutes here and there was no great loss.

The stakes were higher with Frozen, especially since both Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph were in my top five films of their respective years (2010 and 2012). And when the Hoyts pre-show kicked into its 25th minute, I was worried we'd lose him even before the movie started. Frozen is preceded by an imaginative short involving classic Mickey Mouse, which only increased the likelihood that my son would turn into a complete mess before the movie was over.

Complete mess? No. Partial mess? Uh uh. A little bit of a mess? I don't think I could even say that.

Simply put, he floored me. He never got out of his seat to explore any part of the theater, which had been his biggest distraction last time. Only once did he even turn around to look at the people in the rows behind him. At about 30 minutes in, he climbed on my lap from his own seat, but that wasn't the precursor to anything worse. In fact, when I opened up the pack of Pods I'd bought to bribe him, it was a voluntary action on my part -- a reward for good behavior, not a last-ditch attempt to control bad behavior.

He got scared a couple times and commented on the darkness of the theater a couple times, and made a couple exclamations that were a bit too loud. But the rest of the time he talked in whispers, and he was really polite when asking me for more chocolates. He seemed to really respect the sanctity of the theater. Why can't I have this kid living in my house all the time?

What was even cooler was that his grandmother seemed genuinely thrilled by the experience. This was the first modern animated movie she'd seen -- she must have seen some of the Pixar movies, but I don't know which ones -- so she was overwhelmed by the capabilities of modern computer animation. I could only imagine what she must have felt like, sitting there watching it -- I'm guessing it's a bit like seeing your first color movie.

Even when we returned to the waves of suffocating heat outside, our hearts were still frozen, so to speak. (If you've seen the movie, that comment makes sense.)

At home, icy poles (popsicles) were had by all.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The abrupt womanhood of Gaby Hoffmann


Gaby Hoffmann was a mainstay of Hollywood movies as an early teenager, and then poof! She was gone.

In fact, she did nada -- zilch, zero, nothing -- from 2001 to 2007.

During those years, she metamorphosed from a girl into a woman. And I mean like a 40- to 45-year-old woman, even though she's only 32 today.

I first noticed this when I saw her show up on an episode of Louie. She looked vaguely familiar, so I IMDB'd her later on. And I was all "Huh? That was the girl in Field of Dreams, Uncle Buck and Sleepless in Seattle?"

It was. And the reason it was so shocking is that she turned, suddenly, from a little girl to someone who looked ten years older than she actually is.

She showed up again in Crystal Fairy (or Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus or Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012), which I just watched on Netflix, at which point I got to marvel again at the strange phenomenon that is her.

I'm a little afraid of exploring why Hoffmann is so strange to me, because it says not great things about the world we live in.

I think the reason she stands out as an actress is because she's ... how to put this delicately ... ugly. She has thick eyebrows and unflatteringly sharp facial features, and no longer radiates the pluckiness that got her cast way back when. To put it bluntly (although I guess less bluntly than I put it in the first sentence of this paragraph), if she were trying to become famous for the first time today, it just wouldn't happen. Not attractive enough.

Just so you understand what I'm talking about:


Okay, she wouldn't make you run screaming from a haunted house, but the years have not been particularly kind to her.

Yet having been an actress, someone who had evident talent, has given Hoffmann a second life in Hollywood, a Hollywood that would never now give her a first one. (Not that Crystal Fairy is a Hollywood movie, but you get what I mean.)

It's not like Hoffmann is getting cast in roles requiring a quote-unquote "pretty girl." Louis C.K. prizes casting romantic interests for himself on his show who are real, not model beauties, which is likely why he cast Hoffmann at all. However, she is getting a lot of work, and some of it's got genuine name recognition, such as the upcoming crowd-sourced Veronica Mars movie. 

It may seem like I am rooting for an opposite outcome by calling her "ugly," a term I hate to even use in the first place because it implies that physical beauty is the only attribute that should get an actress a shot in Hollywood. It's more that years of receiving what Hollywood is delivering me has made me accustomed to seeing a certain type of actress thrive. So when you see something opposite that, it strikes you as a disconnect.

It was also just really weird to see her and to realize that this was the same person. Actors and actresses don't generally go away and come back ... they wane in and out of popularity, and they may be in hibernation for a while (someone like Jason Bateman). But when Bateman, for example, does come back, you aren't struck by how different he looks. You're struck by how much the same, and reminded how much you once loved him (in his first life, on Silver Spoons etc.)

Hoffmann, of course, could only play a precocious child for so long, so she had to come back in a different form altogether. And she did. It's like she entirely skipped the young adult section of her career and materialized as a 30-year-old who could play ten or even 20 years older.

I should say that part of this feeling that she can play older has to do with the fact that she was a romantic partner for C.K. on his show. His other romantic partners on the show have been people like Parker Posey (45) and Pamela Adlon (47). Then again, I guess he did also have a brief and weird romantic interlude with Chloe Sevigny, though even she at least is 39. Hoffmann, on the other hand, is only 32, and was only 30 when she appeared on Louie.

All this said, we should note that Hoffmann does play a hippie in Crystal Fairy -- and not even an aging hippie. In fact, she's supposed to be about age appropriate for Michael Cera, who is only 25. So I guess we shouldn't push Gaby Hoffmann into middle age just yet.

She also has two different scenes of total nudity, which also tends to accentuate an actress' youth.

I just tried not to remind myself that this was the little girl in Uncle Buck.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Once is a fluke, twice is a pattern


When I saw that Kenneth Branagh was directing 2011's Thor, I thought it was just an odd enough selection to work. I was a bit tickled by the whimsy of it.

Now that I see that he's directing Jack Ryan: Ghost Protocol -- I mean, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit -- it only leaves me depressed.

Once the shining example of a director who could forge his own career and make only the movies he wanted to make, Branagh has had to come back to the pack. There's just no longer enough work for people who want to make Shakespeare adaptations -- a sad commentary on the state of cinema today.

The Shakespeare adaptation is not dead -- not entirely, anyway. Twenty thirteen saw Joss Whedon direct a modern-day adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, and a Julian Fellowes-scripted version of Romeo & Juliet, starring Hailee Steinfeld, had a limited release this fall. (Though I only heard about it in the context of it being bad, so apparently the artistic freedoms taken with Shakespeare's language by the creator of Downton Abbey were not good ones.)

As far as Branagh is concerned, though, Shakespeare is in the rear view mirror. His next film is next year's Cinderella, which seems like another step in the director-for-hire direction of his career.

It may have been Branagh's choice to walk away from Shakespeare -- after a bit of googling I haven't found a definitive comment from him on the matter -- but a four-year directing layoff suggests otherwise. He directed an adaptation of As You Like It in 2006, but after 2007's Sleuth, he didn't direct again until Thor. That suggests a period of reevaluation and perhaps forced adaptation to the prevailing conditions of the marketplace.

The budgets of the films Branagh is being given to direct suggest that studios still have a lot of confidence in him, so that's good. Thor was a success, and though it's not a great sign that Paramount made Jack Ryan a January 2014 release instead of a holiday season 2013 release, it appears as though the move was designed to help the studio's other holiday release, The Wolf of Wall Street. Jack Ryan has the ingredients to be good.

Still, I can't help but see this as a bit of a failure for the 53-year-old actor/director. It's like having final cut on a movie and then losing it, and then never getting it back again.

Or maybe Branagh is going the Francis Ford Coppola route -- piling up a bunch of dumb directing gigs in order to finance one of his pet projects.

Maybe if 2017 has in store an adaption of The Merchant of Venice featuring gay robots in space, Kenneth Branagh will have the last laugh.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A poor use of resources


As my wife lay on the couch, not dying nearly as much as she had been the day before, trying not to laugh because it would hurt her Caesarian stitches, but surprising me by continuing to want to watch just one more 30-minute program, I wondered when I was finally going to get to watch As I Lay Dying.

But I wouldn't have been in this position if I had managed my resources better.

I have been interested for some time in seeing what James Franco would do with William Faulkner's classic (and classically unfilmmable) novel, to the extent that it would have been my next rental if I had decided to continue the daisy chain of rental nights on the Hoyts kiosk. Instead I waited a day and rented it on cheap new rental Tuesdays at the video store -- which meant I needed to have it back by 9 o'clock the next night.

As a result of this, I ended up starting my viewing when my wife finally went to bed -- 10:45, as many as two hours after I thought she'd retire -- and finishing after 1 a.m., the result of pausing for a half-dozen three-minute naps.

Not smart planning when you are the father of an infant, which means not only are things required of you during the night, but you have to get through a whole nother day before you get another chance at proper rest.

It was even worse planning because I didn't need to do it.

The day after I stayed up late to watch Dying, I noticed over my wife's shoulder an email on her computer from Netflix, announcing the streaming availability of Franco's movie. I later discovered that it had been streaming for several days, meaning I could have started it and finished it whenever I wanted, and wouldn't have had to pay $2 for it either.

I may have still stayed up to 1 a.m. that night, but at least it would have been watching The East or Some Girl(s) or The Hunt -- all movies I am trying to squeeze in before my ranking deadline, all movies available for rental for $2 from Video Ezy on Tuesdays only (otherwise they are $4.95), and all movies that are not available for streaming on Netflix.

As I Lay Dying represents a rare failure of my system for checking Netflix new releases. For a while now I have been periodically checking the availability of indie titles that seemed just like the things that should stream on Netflix, knowing that eventually I would snare them in my net. This is how I finally got to see Post Tenebras Lux and Berberian Sound Studio, movies I've been stalking for several months, and have started (but not yet finished) The History of Future Folk. The new arrivals section should be good enough, you would think, but Netflix only advertises certain films/shows there, not everything you might want to see.

But apparently, checking every couple days didn't do it for Dying. I missed it, and therefore may have missed my good opportunities to include The East, Some Girl(s) and The Hunt in this year's rankings.

It's been a delicate balance all fall, you might say. My theatrical screenings and my rentals have only been really feasible on Mondays and Tuesdays. I can see movies in the theater for under $12.50 (sometimes half that) on Mondays and Tuesdays -- all other times it's around $19. The cheap video rentals are on Tuesdays also. So when I've been trying to save money (because, you know, I'm still not working), I've been hitting Mondays and Tuesdays pretty hard, and using the rest of the week to watch things on Netflix.

So a failure like this one really has consequences.

The good news, at least, was that I quite liked As I Lay Dying. It's an ambitious film that makes heavy use of split screen, as well as multiple narrators. (I also am in love with the poster above.) The fact that Franco probably just tossed it off between other projects makes it all the more impressive.

Unfortunately, I could have liked it even more if I weren't getting lost in the drawl (the Southern accents can be pretty heavy) and weren't seriously on the verge of sleep the entire time I watched it.

Well, one more week and then my exhaustion will end. My rankings are finally going to be released next Thursday your time, at which point I can finally rest.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Kiosk crisis


The best thing about movie rental kiosks is that they're automated.

However, the worst thing about movie rental kiosks is that they're automated.

I took this picture last Friday afternoon in the Carlton Woolworth's, just for giggles, because I don't think I'd ever seen a movie rental kiosk (Redbox, Hoyts or otherwise) open with its guts hanging out. It was interesting to get an idea of just how many movies one of these things actually contains. A total which was, I guess, not all that surprising.

Little did I know it would eventually need to become the artwork for the harrowing tale I am about to tell you. (Forgive the exaggeration in advance.)

A few minutes after taking this photo and finishing my shopping, I stopped by this kiosk to pick up Kick-Ass 2, which I had planned as my final evening's viewing before my wife and newborn son came home from the hospital. You see, I had assumed that the technician in the picture was only restocking the kiosk with new releases, and removing a corresponding dozen or so that were no longer earning their keep.

Instead, this is the message I saw:



That pretty much scuttled my plans to watch Kick-Ass 2 before my wife and second son came home -- which did feel like a mild disappointment at the time. 

A bigger disappointment came the next day, when they had to stay in the hospital an additional night because her blood pressure was reading high. But it did mean my viewing of Kick-Ass 2 was back on the table. I just had to go to a different Hoyts kiosk, and as luck would have it, an errand I planned to run anyway would bring me within easy range of one.

"Easy" ended up being a relative term. I had to circle around the neighborhood on my bike a couple times before I located it, mostly because it's only in the neighborhood in question (called Docklands) in a technical sense. But I did locate it, and came away with my copy of Kick-Ass 2.

Watching Kick-Ass 2 brought on another disappointment. It's just not very good.

As disappointment piled upon disappointment, it ended up being yet another extra night in the hospital for the patient(s). This would be the fifth recovery night, sixth total if you count the night she gave birth. Thus far, I had been fulfilling her nightly entertainment needs by taking our iPad home on my first visit of each day, downloading a new movie to watch that night (there's no public wifi at the hospital), and returning the iPad for her to watch that night. Now that the stay was going from long to truly ridiculous, she told me just to bring her computer instead, and rent a DVD.

I had to return Kick-Ass 2 to the Docklands kiosk anyway -- I could have returned it to Carlton if I didn't suspect that kiosk was still in a state of disability -- so I texted her with choices I thought would be good for her state of mind (nothing too heavy). She was sleeping, so I made some choices for her: Epic, which I had the ulterior motive of getting to watch with my older son the next day, and This is the End, which it turned out she had already seen. For myself I finally rented Mud.

Back at the Carlton Woolworth's while picking up my older son from his grandfather's, I noticed that the out of commission message was still up on that kiosk. That was 48 hours without being fixed. Granted, they were 48 weekend hours, but they were also 48 hours at the end of New Year's week, when plenty of people are still on holiday, still wanting to watch movies. I shook my head and starting mentally composing a blog post titled "Profitability shmofitability," which would gently tease Australians about the sanctity of their weekends.

The real drama started on Monday, when my wife and son finally got to come home from the hospital. My older son and I had about the most unsatisfying viewing of Epic you could imagine. I should have taken it as an omen when we first tried to watch it but the movie itself was still in my wife's computer, which was in her bedroom, where she was napping. After she awoke we attempted the viewing, but he was too distractable, not nearly interested enough in the characters (too many humans, not enough snails) to sit still for more than about 15 minutes. I of course had to plod on and finish the movie while trying to wrangle him and prevent him from jumping all over a woman recovering from a Caesarian section. I am incredibly stubborn about finishing what I start, especially at this time of year, with my ranking deadline just around the corner.

So we got a later start for the kiosk than I hoped, heading out a little after 4. (We = me and my older son, who was riding in the child carrier attached to the back.) I took a different route up a bigger hill, and when I tried to shift down into first, my chain came off and got mangled in the gears. At first assessment I was sure it was a total loss, but I kept on tugging and pulling on it, my fingers growing as black as night, for ten minutes. I finally wrenched it out, and it would power the bike -- sort of. The chain would slip and sometimes stick, and it never went around a whole time without making the telltale sounds of a partial shift. But it was going to be a better option than walking my bike to the kiosk, some two miles away. And definitely a better option than paying $10.50 in late fees.

Without being able to shift down into first, I really huffed and puffed up this hill until I could finally take a left and start going slightly downward.

Upon arriving outside the building containing the kiosk (a Coles supermarket), I was entirely unsurprised to find that my son had fallen asleep in the back. This always happens if he hasn't had a nap and has any kind of wheeled conveyance lulling him to sleep. I considered letting him sleep, and just sitting against the wall near where I locked up the bike and reading while he dozed. But the day had already been an exhausting one, so I roused him from his slumber, eliciting many whining complaints, and took him inside to the kiosk.

Where I saw the following message:


Oy.

Actually, this message was still a few minutes off. At the actual time I walked in, the kiosk was rebooting. A guy in front of me was returning The Great Gatsby. "I went to insert it and it just rebooted," he explained.

We sat through two reboots, in sullen silence, until finally the message above did show up.

He wandered off, probably back to his car, which could easily convey him to another Hoyts kiosk. Me, I had to look up the next closest one on my phone and rely on a broken bike to get me there.

Which was too much to handle with my grease-covered hands and a little boy who had to go potty.

After locating a bathroom in the neighboring outlet complex, I drank what was known as a pine lime smoothie, while my son turned his nose up at the cookie I'd bought him, saying he wanted a different one. My stare was a thousand yards and then some.

Eventually, I summoned the energy to return to the Coles, buy something my wife needed, and continue on my way -- not before checking the status of the kiosk both before and after buying the item.

I huffed and puffed my way to a mall called Melbourne Central, another couple miles off, where I searched four floors before finding the kiosk. It would be too easy for the Hoyts kiosk to be right near the Hoyts theater, right? Way too easy. Instead it was in the basement outside of a Coles that I didn't even know was there.

Suffice it to say, I did not add to my complications by renting any additional movies.

It was nearly 6:45 when my son and I finally returned home.

Having written this whole thing out, I think it's probably only interesting to me, and I'm sorry you had to read it. Then again, if creating a sense of exhaustion and frustration to mirror my own was the goal, perhaps I have succeeded.