Hot Freaks

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)
First off: What a title! The phrase “Only Lovers Left Alive” dates back 50 years, to a science fiction novel in which adults have departed and left the world to be run by reckless, sexy teenagers. (This was not an uncommon theme in the 60s.) It’s a combination of words that’s as romantic or dark as you want it to be, and Jim Jarmusch wants it to hit both marks. In his movie, brilliant and beautiful people who have been undead for a long time are struggling with how to stay interested in the world and each other.

It’s slow-moving, like most of Jarmusch’s stuff, but the pace works perfectly. The first time we see Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton — also, get it?), they are lying flat on their large beds, listening to records, and the camera is slowly descending at the pace of a spinning LP.  Adam is a musician who was famous, or at least cult-famous, at some time in the past, but now he’s recording the same droning “funeral music” and asking a fixer (Anton Yelchin) in his abandoned corner of Detroit if he can find a wooden bullet “for an art project.” Eve lives in Tangier, reading piles of books — there’s a very nice touch in which she quickly runs her fingers down the pages, speed-reading, because she’s had centuries to master this — and wants to be reunited with her lover.

Vampirism, in this movie, is like being a grad student for all eternity. After Eve flies to Detroit, the two of them reminiscence about the great people they’ve known (“What was Mary Shelley like?” “Delicious.”) and take long drives as they wonder how human civilization will crumble.

“Everybody left,” says Adam of Detroit.

“But this place will rise again,” says Eve. “There’s water here.  When the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.”

“Do you want to see the Motown museum?” says Adam. “Well, there’s not much to look at from the outside.”

To me, that’s pretty funny. As is the scene when the lovers have to dispose of a corpse, and Adam grumbles that “it’s not like the old days when we could just choke them in the Thames alongside the rest of the tuberculous floaters.” These people (well, monsters) have witnessed centuries of human progress, and become bored and a little scared of the diseases that now contaminate blood. They are not in control at all — they are trapped amid their hobbies and attachments. But don’t they look good that way?

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)
On the way out of the theater, I overheard the lesson that someone else took from it: “Social media ruins music!” He wasn’t wrong. Approached one way, Frank is the story of a young man who wants to be a famous musician and succeeds for two minutes. When we meet Jon (Domnhall Gleeson, who like most red-headed male actors always plays the approachable but goofy character), he’s walking around his anonymous English town, writing bad lyrics for songs with chord sequences that he belatedly realizes are from Madness songs.

By black-comedy-luck, he’s eating a panini (which he tweets about, with the hashtag #livingthedream) by the seaside when the keyboard player for the Soronprfbs, a band whose posters are advertising a show that night, is trying to drown himself. As the keyboardist is gurneyed away, Jon is invited to sit in with the band. With no practice, he is told to walk onstage right before Frank (Michael Fassbender) arrives, wearing a wetsuit (which he doesn’t always wear) and a giant paper mache head (which he does). Frank is magnetic, the song is a noise-rock jumble of words and concepts, and Jon adds some Cs and Gs and Fs to the show before the power blows and the manic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) erupts, ending the show.

Jon wonders if he’s lost his chance at greatness. Then he gets it: The old keyboard player is institutionalized, and Frank wants Jon to join the band. For what? A gig, Jon assumes, though when he jumps into the Soronprfbs van, he discovers that 1) Frank never takes the head off and 2) the band is actually renting a cottage in Ireland to record a perfect album. Jon uses his life savings to pay the rent, documents the madness with his iPhone, and gets the band booked at SXSW.

“Why does it say ‘two-three-seven-five-one” at the bottom?” asks Frank, looking at a YouTube clip Jon has uploaded.

“That’s the number of people who’ve watched the clip,” says Jon.

“Two-three-seven-five-one people are interested in us?” asks Frank.

Against Clara’s advice, and against the warnings of the (mysteriously French) band members, the band heads to SXSW. You can guess what happens. This movie is based loosely on a real encounter Jon Ronson had with a comedian/performance artist whose “Frank Sidebottom” persona played fractured covers of pop songs. It’s based more closely on the lives and critical moments of a few outsider artists like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston. Johnston was a breakout star at a pre-corporate version of SXSW, and was too mentally distraught to capitalize on it, and at times Frank felt like a version of Johnston’s life with some tropes removed (unlike Johnston, Frank does not pine for an unrequited love) and some added. Like Johnston, Frank seems to write songs about whatever is running through his mind or in his field of vision at a given moment, and like Johnston he retreats to be with his understanding, supportive parents when the pressures of success destroy him.

This is the sort of movie that shows big, gaping seams while it’s playing, and feels much more taut and poignant when it’s over. Jon’s quest for fame is handled perfectly, because whether or not you like Frank’s music, you don’t disagree that it’s fascinating and could find an audience. You also can see that Jon is talentless, and jealous that he is not a genius. “Miserable childhood, mental illness… Where do I find that kind of inspiration?” he asks himself. It’s a laugh line when he says it, and a profound line after he meets the real Frank. That’s the other thing — Fassbender is completely spellbinding as Frank, conveying emotions with just his voice and body the way Tom Hardy had to when he slapped on the Bane mask. When Frank is in his element he’s loose and limber. When pressure drops, he seems to shrink in on himself, standing around like a cigar store Indian. It’s very recognizable behavior if you’ve met (or are) a depressive person, and Fassbender plays it just right.

Adventures in America, 1921-2014

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) Earlier this year, New York culture critics came up with one of those trends that’s unprovable outside Brooklyn yet sets the entire Internet on fire. “Normcore,” allegedly, was a “self-aware, stylized blandness” adopted by cool kids, who were eschewing high fashion. (Surely this had nothing to with living in a city so expensive that two-income couples are willing to flee to Jersey City.) They were putting no thought into their clothes, so they could focus on the rest of their lives.

I thought of this trend — again, it may or may not be real — when “Boyhood” opened with the fake-dangeous guitar riffs of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” The song arrived in America during the dark reign of rap-rock and Sisqo, and it seemed meaningful at the time, but no self-respecting snob would admit to liking it in 2014. Yet here was Richard Linklater, who was making Austin’s weirdness famous before anyone was willing to shell out for SXSW wristbands, putting “Yellow” on the soundtrack and starting a movie with a kid gazing at a bright blue sky.

Much smarter critics (critics who are actually paid to analyze movies) have dissected “Boyhood” like a science class frog already, so I’ve got little to add beyond amazement at normal it is. It was filmed in yearly segments over 11 years, and the music cues reflect what was generally popular among average white people at the time. (The official soundtrack excludes schlock by Sheryl Crow and Soulja Boy, but it’s perfectly used in the movie.) There are many scenes of young kids playing video games.

Some of the story cues are familiar: Every time a character is drinking booze in a strange setting, he will turn out to be an alcoholic. But the callbacks to details filmed over 11 years are either nonexistent or purposefully transparent. The only Big Speeches are given by characters who have reasons to give them, which is Ethan Hawke’s Mason, Sr gets the most memorable dialogue as he spends precious weekends with the kids he’s left his estranged wife to raise.

There is no subtext. At one point, Mason, Sr pulls over his 1968 GTO to inform his kids that they simply are not going to be one of those families where the kids have bland conversations with their biological fathers. Yet after you watch the already-famous scene in which Mason, Sr gives his son a two-CD compilation of post-breakup Beatles songs (“There is no favorite Beatle!”), you expect Mason, Jr to meaningfully plunk it into his truck’s sound system at some point. That doesn’t happen. You expect some dark consequence when Mason, Jr drinks and does drugs. That doesn’t happen, either — he’s a white kid living in central Texas, he gets away with that sort of stuff on the way to figuring out what kind of man he is.

See, this movie is a rich and strange experience because there’s nothing particularly strange about it. What would it have been had Linklater just cast a few actors of different ages to play the same characters over 11 years? I don’t think it would have worked at all. The metatextual details are everything. The 2005 bookstore party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince reminds you that Linklater did not invent the idea of tracking a few characters over their difficult years, but realized how much more vicariously you can live through characters if you watch them live and age, instead of living through one crazy night or the aftermath of some crime, or other plot contrivance. Like Slacker, Linklater’s first movie (and one of my favorite movies, period), it’s about how interesting human beings can be when they’re being alive. And, yes. When they are enjoying the music of Coldplay.

The Immigrant (James Gray, 2014) And here’s a movie that’s all about contrivance and setting. Set in 1921, Gray’s melodrama begins when Ewa (Marion Cotillard, whose voice is the quietest in any scene she’s in unless she’s crying) and her sister are prevented from entering New York City via Ellis Island. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the manager of a less-than-racy burlesque show, takes advantage of the situation and brings the beautiful, lost Ewa to his lair. Over the course of a few months, she’s degraded by her surroundings and rejected by her family and — well, I’d spoil it if I mentioned what happens with her love life.

It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I heard one critic describe Ewa as “the opposite of a Lars Von Trier character,” and I’d invert that — this is like a Lars Von Trier movie made by human beings who believe in strong women and happy endings. I ended up seeing this movie soon after Von Trier’s “Nymph( )maniac,” and funny enough I think Von Trier’s heroine asserts herself more fully. In the morality of that movie, sex is a pastime and a tool. In Gray’s movie, sex is like kryptonite to Ewa, depriving her of her destiny as a madonna finding her way in America.

Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)
If you’re the sort of geek or critic who relies on extra-textual information to judge a movie, Guardians of the Galaxy is simply too good. Which narrative do you choose? The likeable blockbuster that saved Hollywood after a dismal summer? The rise of Chris Pratt, comic foil-turned-leading man? The risks and ultimate successes of James Gunn, a proud genre-bender who rose from Troma schlock to ambitious failures like Slither to make a movie that some critics prefer to Star Wars? The redemption of a director who helmed a segment of Movie 43?

All right, nobody needs to go with that last narrative. But your beloved critics are right — this is a very good movie, which made little sense as a Marvel blockbuster until smart people grabbed hold of it. (Remember, this was announced as a future Marvel epic at the 2012 Comic-Con, where any nerd could have named 20 comics more deserving of a film. I wasn’t there but I’d go with “Black Panther.”) Like The Avengers, it takes the scale and structure of a superhero movie and weds it to farce.

Gunn and Pratt et don’t exactly reinvent the wheel, as most big action movies are meant to be funny. Even the wretched Transformer movies are full of jokes and goofball casting — Shia LaBeouf, for chrissake. Guardians is just forward-facing in its kookiness, parodying a genre with full permission from the studio that invented that genre. It’s a movie that realizes the best parts of Star Wars are not the lightsaber fights, but the Cantina scene and Chewbacca’s grunt language.

Which is to say that it’s not exactly original. The five Guardians, based on characters from some of the more cosmic but less culturally relevant Marvel comics, fit neatly into archetypes. Pratt plays Peter Quill as a gym-sculpted ideal version of the space opera hustler. We meet him in 1988, when his mother dies of cancer and he’s immediately abducted by aliens. (Their reasons for abducting him are kept mysterious until the end of the movie, but they’re not obscure.) We skip right ahead to 2014 — there is no how-he-got-there montage — when Quill is a vain intergalactic “ravager” (like Han Solo) who goes on a treasure hunt without realizing he left a hot alien babe in the ship (like Captain Kirk might). Quill loves listening to the 70s pop mixtape that his mom left him, but apart from that he’s not damaged or out for revenge at all. Hell, the guy has a spaceship and has not bothered either returning to earth or trying to find his father. He seems more interested in establishing an identity as “Starlord.”

Hijinks ensue; Quill is hunted down by Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), an agent of the genocidal Ronan (Lee Pace, who’s buried under make-up), at the very same time he’s being hunted down by Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his living-tree companion, Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). The four are thrown into the Kyln, a crowded space jail, but on the way out they’re joined by Drax (someone from the WWE who’s surprisingly great in the role), an alien whose family was killed by Ronan and comes from a planet without idioms. A sample Drax exchange:

ROCKET: If you use a metaphor it’ll go right over his head.

DRAX: Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too quick.

The five of them protect a MacGuffin, which turns out to be one of the Infinity gems that, as comic readers know, grant the users godlike powers. When Ronan finally obtains the gem, the heroes stop him. That’s the movie, but what thrilled me (and every critic) was the genuine delight everyone has in telling this story. The cosmic Marvel stories were full of pomp and drama, from the Silver Surfer’s space poetry to Adam Warlock’s battle against his evil future self. In Guardians, the only people who take this crap seriously are the villains (including Josh Brolin as Thanos and Karen Gillen as his daughter, Nebula), Gamorra, and Drax. And their seriousness is mostly played for jokes. Space is fun, alien worlds are fun, the stars are gorgeous — that’s the point of paying to watch this. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s head spins as characters survive being shot into space, but the audience gets to see a stunning sequence in which Gamorra floats amid debris and Starlord almost kills himself to save her. Ronan’s final assault is a strategic mess, but it allows all manner of characters to trade jokes and heroics.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2014)
Well, I didn’t mean to watch these movies back to back, but they cohere into a perfect double feature. In 1975, coming off the cult success of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky obtained the rights to the greatest sci-fi novel of all time. He set about finding “spiritual warriors” who could bring about his vision, for $15 million or so. These people, including Moebius, HR Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Salvador Dali, went on to create some the sci-fi nightmares we see when we close our eyes. But they didn’t get to make Dune; the movie exists in a storyboard, and in the mind of a director who never fully recovered from the debacle.

This is one of those documentaries that puts a bunch of talking heads onscreen to tell you one version of a story, with no rebuttal. Nicolas Wending Refn, the Drive director, asks us to imagine the world had Dune, and not Star Wars, been the first sci-fi blockbuster. Jodorowsky (who is immensely fun to watch, lapsing between Spanish and broken English) recounts his joy at seeing David Lynch’s Dune and realizing “it was terrible!” A montage shows us the images ripped off from the storyboards, which had been passed around Hollywood like the smart kid’s homework.

What’s funny — and what does not really diminish the movie, at all — is that the lost Dune looks like it might have been terrible as a movie. In Jodorowsky’s own words the script was made by “raping Frank Herbert,” and the plot details he added are baffling, like a sequence in which Paul Atriedes is conceived by a drop of blood making the journey to his mother’s egg, or the robot through which the Emperor (Dali, who was going to be paid $100,000 for each minute he was onscreen) spoke. Jodorowsky’s ambition was a movie that would spark a cultural revolution, a new religion, just like in the novel. It might have been four hours long. It might have been 12 hours long. Whatever the muses dictated.

You don’t listen to that and conclude “yeah, this would have been as big as Star Wars.” But you do appreciate the madness. Why shouldn’t a director try to start a religion with his movie? Why shouldn’t he try to hire Pink Floyd and Magma to write new music for each planet in the movie? Over the closing credits, we learn that the act of making this documentary put Jodorowsky back in contact with his old producer, and that this led to the 85-year old making his first movie in 23 years. It’s the best ending I’ve seen, or can imagine, to a movie this year.

Three Movies, Only One of Which is Canadian

Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)
Somewhat forgotten in the (growing) canon of apocalypse films, this low-budget Canadian project has been ransacked for spare parts and rarely gotten credit.

The plot is simple: The world is ending at precisely midnight (eastern time), and a few colorful residents of Toronto are dealing with it in their own meaningful ways. Patrick (director Don McKellar) is moping around, stopping by then bailing on his family’s faux Christmas party so he can die at home. Sandra (Sandra Oh) is stranded after she makes an impulse champagne run and hooligans overturn her car. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) is running through a bucket list of sexual acts with volunteers he finds on an adorably antique Internet. Duncan (David Cronenberg) and Donna (Tracy Wright) are running the final shift of the gas company, because, shit, somebody’s got to.

That last running gag demonstrates what’s great about the movie. Using a ruler and pen, Duncan slowly notches off the names of customers, leaving each of them a nice voicemail about how the gas will keep running. It’s the little things, like the home movies Patrick’s family watches and the concert recital that his friend has “finally!” booked at Toronto’s classiest space and the never-explained crazy woman who jogs the streets announcing how many hours are left before oblivion and the DJ who spins his horrible countdown of “the all-time top 500.” (The film’s theme song is the schmaltzcore 5th Dimension classic “Last Night (I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All.”) The cause of the apocalypse is never actually explained — it’s always bright, and Patrick “misses the night,” but it’s not sweltering or anything.

Before renting this, not by any grand design, I’d seen some rip-offs. The meandering and pompous 4:44 and the strangely mean Seeking a Friend for the End of the World take some of the themes, but make the error of explaining the cause of the apocalypse. (Global warming in the first movie, an asteroid in the second.) McKellar’s film owes a little to Miracle Mile, which puts two lovers in Los Angeles on a nuclear countdown. But the Canadian film is… well, Canadian. It’s small. It’s funny. It’s poignant, even if some of the heart-tugging comes from unrealistic character run-ins. (By the end, everyone is connected.) The final shot, which I won’t spoil, is instantly unforgettable, and leaves you happier than the death of six billion people really should.

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952)
I’d been meaning to watch more classic movies, and a successful author friend assured me that it made a good break from book writing (“stretches the storytelling muscles” — fabulous), so I polished off one of the legends of movie musicals.

It’s okay. The problem with rediscovering a film like this is that it’s been parodied or homaged for so damn long that you’re not sure if you’re watching the discovery of fire or someone lighting a cigarette butt they found on the ground. Don (Gene Kelly) is a marquee star who’s always paired up with the odious Lena (Jean Hagen). He’s going to star with her in a movie scored by his old vaudeville buddy Cosmo (Donald O’Connor), but he’s a little bored until he meets cute with Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), a talented kid who’s just starting out. Complications arise when the public goes wild for “talkies,” and squeaky-voiced Lena becomes all wrong for a romantic picture. What to do?

Everybody knows the plot, right? It was inspired (sort of unfairly) by the fate of some silent movie stars, and decades later it was inverted for the new-silent film The Artist. It’s schmaltz, stringing together iconic musical numbers (songs actually taken from prior, forgotten films). They hold up. You cannot bleed red blood and not smile when Gene Kelly duck-walks through the puddles (that we now know gave him a cold and ruined his suit).

But the scenes don’t always make sense. What does the “Broadway Melody” scene have to do with anything? The company needs one more musical sequence for its baroque-era romance, so we cut to an enormous day-glo soundstage? Why? The songs are fine, but Nacio Herb Brown is no Rodgers or Sondheim or Cohan.

Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, 2014)
Watching this, I finally understand what normal people must think of all the superhero movies that us nerds conquered the world with. Put me in a theater playing an X-Men film and I can point to all the easter eggs and callbacks. Put me in front of my TV watching the beloved Veronica Mars cast reuniting, and I see… a pretty okay detective comedy with a slightly overwritten narration?

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with this movie. A short sepia montage starts the proceedings, informing us that Veronica (Kristen Bell) left the “seedy beach town” of Neptune, California, and with it her hotheaded boyfriend who we assume she’s destined to be with. Veronica’s about to nail a high-paying law firm job in New York, where she lives with her public radio boyfriend (this results in an Ira Glass cameo) and happens to see (via a TV in an American Public Media office) that the aforementioned boyfriend is wanted for the murder of his pop star girlfriend.

Am I spoiling if I say he didn’t do it? The mystery is well-constructed, the characters who I assume were on the TV show are funny, but I didn’t fall in love with any of it, lacking the context of 66 (right?) episodes. Gaby Hoffman, the much-eyebrowed child actress who’s made a comeback recently, blows most of the TV actors off the damn screen even when her character is making no sense. A big setpiece set at a (sigh) high school reunion feels especially like fan service, and ends exactly how you think it will once you see that the bitchy popular girl showed up. Wonderful that we have a movie that was Kickstarted by fans, but that’s all this will be known for.

The Movies of 2013 (That I saw): The List (with Comments)

UPDATED on February 1, to reflect some more garbage that I shot at my eyeballs.

114. Paradise
113. Sharknado
112. Phil Spector
111. Salinger
110. After Earth
109. The Hangover Part III – Not so much a movie as the dramatic cashing of many paychecks. First there’s Todd Phillips, who scratches out (and directs) a script that wrings 100 minutes of plot out of the element that worked as a strange ethnic joke in the first movie. Then we have that element, Ken Jeong, who in not one but two franchises has become a parody of a “fan-favorite” character. (He’s gotten similarly insufferable in “Community.”) On to the cast, from Justin Bartha’s willingness to be set aside — again! — for the entire drama, to Bradley Cooper’s theory that he can say “what the fuck?” and “are you fucking kidding me?” and call it a performance. Even Mike Tyson figured it was worth skipping this one, and he’s Mike Tyson. One hundred minutes of watching Galifinakis et al actually cash their pay stubs would have been more entertaining.
108. Oz The Great and Powerful – Not long after this steaming pile was plopped into theaters, the wise men at Red Letter Media crafted a compare-and-contrast between Sam Raimi’s latest and one of his best cult films, “Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness.” Long story short — they’re the same damn movie, only one brings some scrappy charm to the proceedings and one is a mawkish slog. The goofball plotting that worked in Raimi’s earlier movie, like the magical corruption of Campbell’s girlfriend, is played for metaphorically ruinous horror here.
107. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
106. Mama
105. The Brass Teapot
104. CBGB – On some dull afternoon, when I was younger and had poorer taste, I turned on VH1 to watch most of a Meat Loaf biopic. Yes: The music channel turned around a 2-hour film about the life of everyone’s favorite obese balladeer, starring the guy who later played Swearingen’s sidekick on “Deadwood.” It was terrible, like it sounds, but it prepared me mentally for deadening adventures like this one, which casts a bored Alan Rickman as club founder Hillel “Hilly” Kristal.
103. Admission
102. Jug Face
101. Girl Most Likely – Kristen Wiig is typecast in a film that apes “Bridesmaids” without ever cracking the code of why that movie worked. Both films start with songs by Blondie, both make Wiig a pathetic has-been whose talent was wasted by her 30s, both introduce a female nemesis — they’re the same movie, though only “Bridesmaids” gives you characters to care about.
100. jOBS
99. The Butler
98. Only God Forgives
97. The Family
96. Dealin’ With Idiots
95. The Canyons
94. Olympus Has Fallen
93. Oblivion
92. How I Live Now
91. The Sapphires – Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam.
90. Man of Steel
89. Our Nixon
88. Stoker
87. To the Wonder – Terrence Malick directs a perfume commercial.
86. Beautiful Creatures
85. Jack the Giant Slayer
84. Somebody Up There Likes Me – Magical realist indie schlock about a young, bored man who gets divorced, gets married, has a kid, and exchanges many sarcastic lines with Nick Offerman. Offerman (who’s brought along his wife, Megan Mullaly, as he did in the similarly okay “Smashed”) makes it worth watching; the rest is lost somewhere between Wes Anderson and an average episode of Arrested Development.
83. White House Down
82. Lovelace
81. Welcome to the Punch
80. Dead Man Down
79. The Iceman
78. 42 – Surprisingly dull drama about how racism, despite what you might think, is terrible. A solid first act gives way to a plod about Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, during which he changed the hearts of many a redneck.
77. Machete Kills
76. Evil Dead
75. About Time
74. Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
73. Elysium
72. Star Trek: Into Darkness
71. Kiss of the Damned – Xan Cassavetes, scion of the great indie director John, slaps together a vampire love story that’s all atmospherics and little momentum. I enjoyed the jokes about how intolerable and snooty the eternal living dead are — they’re Eurotrash, basically — but apart from the raw sex scenes it’s nothing you haven’t seen in another vampire film. (On reflection, maybe the raw sex scenes are enough.)
70. The Look of Love
69. Black Rock
68. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – “The second happening has not happened.”
67. The To-Do List
66. The Lords of Salem
65. Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus
64. The Wolverine
63. Koch
62. Warm Bodies – A nonsensical but cute romantic comedy about a boy-turned-zombie who falls in love with a girl after eating her boyfriend and consuming his memories. It’s best when it’s dark, worse when everything works out for humanity — though Rob Corddry, as the hero’s zombie drinking buddy, is on a three-laughs-per-scene roll.
61. Drinking Buddies
60. Much Ado About Nothing
59. Kon-Tiki
58. The Bling Ring – Sophia Coppola adopts a magazine profile of a wealthy, shallow gang of robbers into an amusingly meta and unadorned culture study.
57. World War Z
56. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
55. Don Jon
54. V/H/S/2
53. Prince Avalanche
52. What Maisie Knew
51. We Are What We Are
50. Sound City – Two-thirds of a great documentary about a lyrically dilapidated studio in Los Angeles where some of the great rock era records (Rumors, Nevermind, Working Class Dog) were recorded. One-third of a yawner VH1 special about Dave Grohl buying the boards from the closed-down Sound City and recording a by-numbers album with a bunch of rock star pals. Around 10 minutes are spent watching Paul McCartney and Grohl “jam” on a song eventually titled “Gimme Some Slack,” and you’d trade these 10 minutes for any 10 at the dentist’s office.
49. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
48. Call Me Kuchu – A simple, affecting, and surprising documentary about gay activists in Uganda. Pushed down the list as I’ve read unsettling things about its selective portrayal of facts, like how the killing of David Kato is portrayed as a hate crime when it might have been a murder over a scam gone bad.
47. The East – A contractor (Brit Marling) who works undercover for the feds infiltrates an eco-terror group run by a startlingly charismatic freegan (Alexander Skarsgard).
46. The Spectacular Now
45. War Witch
44. The Kings of Summer
43. The Great Gatsby
42. It’s a Disaster – A group of thirtysomething couples, greying adolescents, gather for brunch at the longest-lasting couple’s home. At this inopportune time, a dirty bomb explodes in downtown LA. The lovely, un-duct-taped Victorian house will be the couples’ sepulcher.
41. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
40. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – A brisk sequel to the era-defining (really! No Ricky Gervais without Steve Coogan) TV series. Alan is ensconced at Radio Norwich, co-hosting Mid-Morning Matters, and resisting — for purely selfish reasons — the arrival of a conglomerate which intends to downsize the station.
39. We Steal Secrets – Wikileaks declared total war on this Alex Gibney film, a fairly straightforward introduction to the Assange/Manning saga, paced by interviews with the people who sold them out. Gibney clearly comes away critical of Assange’s messianism — he’s harder on him than he was on Eliot Spitzer in his documentary about the fallen politician.
38. Side Effects
37. Wrong
36. Blue Caprice
35. The Way Way Back
34. The Square
33. The Conjuring
32. Behind the Candelabra
31. John Dies at the End
30. Dirty Wars
29. Thor: The Dark World
28. Byzantium
27. Iron Man 3
26. Trance
25. The Place Beyond the Pines
24. Blue Jasmine
23. The Wolf of Wall Street
22. Mud
21. Stories We Tell
20. Dallas Buyers Club
19. A Hijacking
18. Room 237
17. A Band Called Death.
16. This Is The End
15. Gimme the Loot
14. Pacific Rim
13. Fruitvale Station
12. The World’s End
11. American Hustle
10. Frances Ha
9. Spring Breakers
8. No
7. Captain Phillips
6. Upstream Color
5. Gravity
4. Her
3. 12 Years a Slave
2. The Act of Killing
1. Before Midnight

“American Hustle” and “The To-Do List”

“American Hustle” (David O. Russell, 2013)
Let’s count the ways in which this movie could have failed. One: It fictionalizes an insane real-life story, the “AbScam” sting in which FBI agents bribed members of Congress and the mayor of Camden, and removes the fascinating question of whether the intelligence community was striking back after a decade of investigations from Washington. Two: It casts waspish Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Christian Bale as, respectively, loudmouthed Italians and a loudmouthed Jewish con man. Three: Under its old title, “American Bullshit,” it was considered messily un-filmable for years. And as good as this movie ends up being, you can see the seams, and feel yourself drifting during some moments before the plot gets truly gonzo.

But everything else works — even the casting works. Russell has juggled the casts of his last two films (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter”) and set them against each other. It opens on the first phase of AbScam, as Bale’s con man Irving, his accomplice Sydney (Amy Adams, who I hope doesn’t give a boring Oscar speech), and the FBI agent (Cooper) are attempting to bribe the mayor of Camden (Renner) on video. The agent, Richie DiMaso, screws it up by being over-eager; Irving runs out of the room to fix things.

Roll: A voiceover and flashback that completely evokes the start of “Goodfellas.” (It was a good idea to begin the movie with a flash-forward, to avoid just cloning Scorcese’s masterpiece.) Irving and Sydney meet at a pool party, bond over their love of Duke Ellington, and quickly expand his nascent loan-scam business. When DiMaso shows up in the office, we know he’s about to collar them, and he does after handing a check to Sydney. In a perfect scene, a mannered, puffed-up DiMaso confronts Sydney in her prison cell (“Why’s there no bed in here? I asked for one. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I wanted you to be uncomfortable. I’m a wild card like that.”) and tries to convince her that Irving let her take the fall. Separately, he talks Irving into working with the FBI — get them four arrests, and his own case vanishes.

The two con artists go with the plan, seemingly revealing everything they feel about each other in a late-night argument, then agreeing to do the FBI’s con while trying to con the FBI. Irving guides Richie through the AbScam plan. Richie wants to play it on New Jersey politicians who are desperate to bring capital to Atlantic City. (The New Jersey angle is accurate, though all the names are changed.) Everything escalates from there — Richie becoming more arrogant and violent without learning any competence, Sydney manipulating one (or both) of the paramours, Irving becoming a nervous wreck who keeps dramatically collapsing and sucking down heart medicine. The mayor of Camden, whom we’re meant to like from the second he’s introduced, gets exploited by the Venn Diagram desperation of the criminals and the ambitious agent.

It’s thrilling, most of the time. The “hustle” is the sting itself, but also the strangely all-American way that Irving and Sydney have thrived on scamming people. That’s the definition of “hustle” that the historian John McDougall uses, non-pejoratively, to praise the industry of America’s earlier settlers, killers, and businessmen. Russell has taken a story remembered as the downfall of a few greedy congressmen and made it about how the surveillance state and the shadow economy exploit otherwise decent people. I can’t recall a movie in which the mafia comes off better or wiser. I think that’s on purpose. When Richie tells Irving that an America run by people like him, con men, would be a banana republic, Irving barks that it’s really the FBI goons ruining the country. “We get over Watergate and you want to bring down a bunch of politicians!” Bullshit, but like every character in the movie seems to say: You believe what you want to believe.

“The To-Do List” (Maggie Carey, 2013)
Sometimes a book or movie or lover’s poem falls way, way short of the mark, but you can’t bring yourself to criticize it. The intentions were good. We’d rather live in a system where someone tried then one where they couldn’t. This is my pretentious way of saying I’m glad Maggie Carey got funding and a great cast to put together a sex-positive feminist teen comedy, but disappointed at how lame it is.

Aubrey Plaza, a 29-year old actress who has merged sullenness and cuteness in ways no behavioral scientist could have imagined, plays Brandy, who we know is a virgin because someone yells “virgin” at her valedictorian speech. Brandy’s en route to Georgetown (I’m disappointed that they didn’t go with the “Risky Business” reference and send her to Princeton), but she’s hopelessly awkward. The first time she gets drunk (on Apple Pucker), she accidentally starts hooking up with mansculpted hunk Rusty Watters (Scott Porter), but he realizes he’s found the wrong girl in the wrong dark room and leaves her. The lesson Brandy takes from this is that she needs more sexual experience. Why? Because the movie is called “The To-Do List.”

Brandy’s experimentation is a complete success, and the movie ends after she and a group of nerdy boys (Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have learned plenty about hooking up. No one is exploited, least of all Brandy. Teens screw around. That’s okay. Some of them are lousy at sex. That’s okay, too. There’s almost none of the shaming that defined “Easy A,” which was actually a much funnier movie — oh, and that’s where the problems start. Carey’s written a lesson into a pastiche of teen comedy tropes and 90s references.

Other critics (by which I mean actual critics, who don’t just write on their blogs while procrastinating on longer assignments) have puzzled at the amount of 90s references that stud this movie. I get why the movie is set in 1993, because cell phones have completely changed the relationships teens have with each other, the ease of hook-ups, the ease of making or breaking plans. In 2013 (or 2003) a girl confused about sex could spend a night clicking through porn sites: Education complete.

But too often, “hey, it’s the 90s!” is the only joke on screen. One character gets paged, on a pager! Brandy has lots of pictures of Hillary Clinton! Her dad reads Rush Limbaugh’s book! Someone apologizes for not answering an “electronic mail!” And so on, like a Buzzfeed listicle come to celluloid life. The beats of the plot that aren’t about sex are often borrowed from successful 80s comedies, down to a “poop in the pool” joke. Giving Brandy and most of the supporting cast summer jobs at a pool made the trope-ing too easy. It’s a cute story, but simply not funny enough to support its length.

Another Couple of Movies

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013)
There are movies that I watch when settled into a dark theater, ignoring all distractions, feeling my temper rise when someone checks the fucking football scores on his fucking phone. And there are movies I put on distractedly, because they came out in the year 2013 and I’m trying to take advantage of my single life by consuming as much pop culture as possible, even if doing so means just looking up occasionally at the action onscreen.

All of that is to say: I knew this movie would suck wind, and I put it on because Netflix started streaming it. No one ever really needs to see “Olympus Has Fallen,” unless it’s for the lulz that come when a director telling a hack story about a North Korean (why is it always the North Koreans?) assault on the White House shoots everything like an episode of “The West Wing,” all booming string sections and walk-and-talks and pans of the realistic sets. Also funny: The plot device that gives the president a high-level meeting with “the South Korean prime minister,” i.e. the man who does not actually South Korea’s head of state. (Like us, they elect a president. The PM is sort of like a chief of staff.) Funnier: The cargo plane assault on D.C., in which two Korean pilots with blank expressions manage to kill hundreds of civilians, blow up several F-22s, and crash into the Washington Monument.

It’s too bad for Fuqua that “White House Down” was released months later and had some actual fun with this conceit. Oh, I haven’t seen “White House Down” — it’s not streaming yet! — but it teams up Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, whereas “Olympus” gives us a team much less known for its comedic chops, Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart.

Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)
I don’t have young children and am not, personally, a 14-year old girl, so my introduction to and full knowledge of “The Hunger Games” series came from the 2012 movie. I dug it. Haters complained that the conceit was ripped off from the classic bonkers Japanese manga/movie “Battle Royale,” but it really wasn’t — it took ingredients from that story and blended them with “The Lottery” and “Murderball” and [insert dystopian fantasy] to fine effect. It ended with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, of course) manipulating the vile Capital and its celebrity/game show machine into letting her and her childhood friend Peeta both survive the game, then returning home as the oppressed districts start to churn with revolution.

The sequel starts strong, because the whole Hunger Games “industry,” an on-the-nose parody of reality TV country, remains well-realized. Katniss’s win got her and her family out of the District 12 holler and into the district’s underpopulated “Victors Village,” a row of McMansions that looks as dank as your average abandoned Florida development circa 2009. We see the squalor inhabited by Hamish, the only living District 12 victor. I liked this bit, and I liked the surreal Victory Tour embarked upon by Katinas and Peeta. How fucked up must that be, to be brought to the city square every year to celebrate the people who killed two of your district’s innocent (or, you know, semi-innocent, as they had maybe killed people) children?

But the plot unravels quickly. I don’t think this site’s limited pool of readers will care if I spoil anything, so: A mysteriously normal-looking man takes over the Hunger Games, and proposes that the 75th round be culled from the winners of previous rounds. They come and train in scenes that take advantage of the sequel’s higher budget, and they play a less-threatening version of the game, one where threats are spilled out against the gamers every hour. The “board” is shaped like a clock — oh, hey, you can see when the threats are going to come down. But it doesn’t matter, because the whole game was a ruse to liberate a few of Panem’s best fighters and thinkers, after some of them were, you know, murdered during a Hunger Game.

I was wrapped up in this plot as it unfolded, but by the end I was deeply perplexed. There was no other way to liberate Katniss Everdeen from her celebrity role, and lead the revolution? Did Panem need to see another bitchin’ Hunger Game in order to be whipped up for the rebellion?

Another Movie or Two

Lovelace (Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman, 2013) – Leading off a review with extra-textual information is controversial, I know. Fine. In this case, it explains why this movie stretches so far to avoid surprise. Epstein and Friedman got their starts as documentary filmmakers revealing what life and culture were like from before the sexual revolution through the spread of AIDS. Epstein won an Oscar for “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and had to have noticed when a workmanlike adaptation of that film became an acclaimed biopic. So I can see why “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace’s life appealed to him and Friedman — which other before-their-time 70s icons can be rescued from Wikipedia and turned into top drama fodder?

Alas, the directors have smoothed out the kinks in Lovelace’s story. Played by Amanda Seyfried, the fictional Lovelace (nee Linda Boreman) is doomed to be classic, saucer-eyed naif. We first see her in a bathtub, smoking, sad about something or other, as audiences flock to watch “Deep Throat.” We cut back to 1970, when Lovelace was living in Florida under the roof of prudish parents, played by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick, who are given almost nothing surprising to do, but excel at looking horrified at smut. A sluttier friend (Juno Temple) encourages Lovelace to go-go-dance with her at a roller rink, where they are spotted by Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who comes on in the creepiest possible way. After eyeing the girls from across the rink, he offers them weed and immediately tells them “girls like you can make $300, $400 a night dancing in Vegas.” Lovelace falls for this, which we have to attribute to her oppressive home life and the knowledge that she’s only trapped there because she got knocked up and gave the baby away. “I signed circumcision papers,” she says, mournfully.

From here, it progresses like every tale of an innocent girl and a secretly violent father figure/lover. (Sarsgaard, perfectly cast/typecast, is 14 years older than Seyfried; Traynor was 12 years older than Lovelace.) Traynor forces Lovelace to act in a porno, and she gets the part (looking, as a producer says, “like Raggedy Ann with great tits”), because Traynor has home video of her giving an excellent blow job. Off we go to a movie shoot, complete with ridiculous 1970s fashion and the cliched shot of filmmakers gawking at the sort of star-making X-rated action they’ve never seen before. (Think of the scene in “Boogie Nights” where the crew finally sees Dirk Diggler whip out his footlong member.) Off to a world of fame and parties, where Lovelace is even hit on by Hugh Hefner (a piece of stunt casting that makes no sense but I won’t spoil here).

But wait! The film abruptly cuts forward to Lovelace, dowdy and un-rouged, submitting her story of life with Traynor to a polygraph test. This is the filmmakers’ clever move: They go all Rashomon on the story they just told, extending old scenes to reveal just how brutal Traynor was, pimping his wife out to rich businessmen and throwing her against a wall when she makes a joke at his expense at a party. This actually mirrors Lovelace’s own memoirs, which began with some ghostwritten pro-porn books and ended when she wrote a tell-all denounced by some of her old friends.

Parts of this are well done, but they’re duller than Lovelace’s own story. There’s not enough about the supremely weird period of her stardom — it’s limited to one scene in which Traynor’s dictating the “memoir” and explaining to a producer why he’s licensed a Lovelace blow-up doll. But in the film, Lovelace refuses to do any post-“Deep Throat” movies. “My adult film career lasted 17 days,” she says. In reality, it didn’t — she filmed an R-rated sequel to her hit and a mess called “Linda Lovelace for President.” She grew increasingly strung out, then born again, then both born again and strung out. Her second husband, presented here as mute, sane, and supportive, was abusive to her. The makers of “Lovelace” traded this rich, weird, morally murky tale for a simpler one. Too bad.

Byzantium (Neil Jordan, 2013) – One of those art house directors who’s exceptionally good with shlock, Jordan was the guy who molded a schlocky airport novel called “Interview With A Vampire” into a surprisingly strong and memorable horror story. The best part of that movie was Kirsten Dunst as an increasingly malicious creature, angry that she’d become forever young. You can see why Jordan wanted to adapt this story of a mother-daughter vampire family whose centuries-long run of luck seems to run out as they acclimate to life in a dying seaside town.

Vampires are never merely “vampires” anymore — they have to embody metaphors. Here the dominant metaphor is triumph-over-sexism, as the mother, Clara, played by Gemma Atherton, was a prostitute who became a vampire by seducing and betraying some seamen who intended to become immortal. Her life, told in a series of flashbacks (all introduced by turns in the narrative), is sadness all the way through, up to the moment she rescued her daughter Eleanor (Saorsie Ronan) from an orphanage and went on the lam from the chauvinist society of vampires that was never going to accept her.

The secret society comes off as mean and incompetent, as gatherings of men tend to be. “How do you think two women with no formal education have evaded you this long?” hisses Clara, when two of the enforcers finally track her down. The daughter is less concerned with the chase, having known basically no other life, using the centuries to become a good piano player and lovelorn ingenue. Ronan, whose eerie classical beauty keeps landing her in girl-challenged-by-supernatural-angst roles, is good and sad as she falls for a smart boy (Caleb Jones, who played Banshee in the last X-Men movie) who inspires her to spill her secret.

It’s all quite good, with more memorable cinematography than you’d expect out of a $14 million budget. The vampire myth here is vaguely eastern — souls are transformed on an island where rushing waterfalls suddenly turn to blood. Sunlight and mirrors and crosses have no effect on the undead, and instead of fangs, they grow long thumbnails that allows them to puncture necks to siphon the blood out. There’s almost no camp, though — the focus is on the evil done to Clara and Eleanor’s desire to break free without any knowledge of how to make it happen.

Still… More Movies

After Earth (M. Night Shyamalan, 2013) – I watched this on a flight recently, letting the dread wash over me as I thought “well, shit, I guess it moves me closer to the goal of watching every movie released this year.” I hit “play,” and knew the horrible scale of my error — two hours before the credits revealed that this fecal mound was “based on a story by Will Smith.”

Did the man learn nothing from the burnouts of the 80s comic stars, like Eddie Murphy? Will, goddamn it, if you had an innate talent for story you would be famous for that. You do not. Here, you have belched out the tritest of father-son sci-fi tales, one that takes no advantage of the fact that it is sci-fi, apart from some “broken environment” drama that’s ripped from “The Day After Tomorrow.” From a movie by the “2012” guy! Come the fuck on!

Anyway: Will Smith plays Cypher Raige (I know, right?), a future warrior from a time (3013 or so?) when humanity is at war with an alien civilization that doesn’t appreciate the fact that these primates left their busted planet to colonize “Nova Prime,” which looks suspiciously like Utah. (Yes, humanity has named the next Earth “New Prime.” Joylessly, too. There’s not even any wit about the parts of civilization that got ported over. What’s the currency? Did they name the oceans after Led Zeppelin members? ) The aliens have deployed “Ursas,” genetically engineered blind monsters, to kill the humans. Because the Ursas are blind (why?), they hunt by smelling fear, and the best soldiers are the ones that purge themselves of fear.

There is, as you’d expect, plenty of fun psuedo-science about how fear works, and a Smith monologue about how “danger is real” but “fear is a choice” because it’s a just reaction to a possible outcome. Smith’s son, Kitai, is played lifelessly by Smith’s actual son, Jaden. The two of them bond by ignoring the fact that an Ursa once killed Kitai’s sister, and going on a training mission that ends with — hell, you guessed it, a crash landing on Earth. “Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” says Smith — an odd thing for the air and water of a planet to do, a millennium after the species has departed for Space Utah. But Earth now looks like Costa Rica and is populated by giant albums whom Kitai must fight as he searches for the help beacon that was broken off in the crash.

What follows is incredibly boring, given the set-up. Anyone who’s read a story of survival will know every beat of the story, from the unexpected loss of supplies to the rescue of an animal that WILL LATER RESCUE THE HERO to the hero conquering his fear, as every hero has done in everything. ever written.

Machete Kills (Robert Rodriguez, 2013) – In the beginning was the trailer, a faux advert placed at the start of 2007’s Rodriguez/Tarantino dual-movie splatterfest “Grindhouse.” That underrated epic (bias declaration: the first one I bought when I got a blu-ray) was filled out by five fake trailers, all but one of them by directors who weren’t otherwise involved in the product. Rodriguez’s “Planet Terror,” the 80-minute film that you had paid for, looked less fun than the slapped-together nonsense of “Machete.” “They fucked with the WRONG Mexican” was the most memorable line in three+ hours of screen filth. Wow, you said, if you were one of 500 or so people who paid to see this. That fake movie in which Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin team up to kill evil cops looks like a lot of fun.

And it was! “Machete” (2010) took the basic revenge-thriller elements of the trailer and grafted them onto a wonderfully dumb political allegory about a federale-turned-day-laborer who gets in between an underground alliance of illegals and a corrupt politician. “Machete Kills” leaves out the politics and replaces it with crazy bullshit — Machete (Trejo) is now hired by the president (Charlie Sheen, billed as Carlos Estevez) to track down a terrorist (Damien Bechir, who was nominated for an Oscar after a sensitive portrayal of an illegal immigrant father in Los Angeles) and… bring him back before a missile can be flown into Washington, or something. Double-and-triple crosses follow, culminating with a clash with a hitman who changes identities (Walton Goggins/Cuba Gooding Jr/Lady Gaga) and a cult leader/tech guru (Mel Gibson).

It’s all very stupid, which is fine — the first movie was stupid, too! But satire like this doesn’t mesh with Rodriguez’s style of directing or editing. The best recent piss-take on sleaze cinema was “Black Dynamite,” a film that copied all the flawed editing, ruined takes, bad acting and Latin Mass pacing of the genre. Rodriguez has made a Mexploitation film that paces itself like the latest Jason Statham contract-fulfiller, all CGI blood and predictable explosions. It’s got its moment, but manages to feel both quick and boring — quite a feat.

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013) — Damn, I wanted to love this. Matthew McConaughey, who’s been distractingly good in a series of southern gothic films (“Killer Joe,” “Bernie,” “Mud”), gets the role that’s clearly drawn to give him an Oscar. He plays Ron Woodruff, a straight man with AIDS who became a meds-smuggler and started the eponymous club, who was described as “wiry as octotillo.” McConaughey, who has never been wiry, pulls off the transformation by losing tons of weight, tying pale jeans with a belt that’s down to its last hole, and hanging a porn-star mustache off a skeletal face. It’s impressive, almost as much as Jared Leto in make-up and a series of wigs as McConaughey’s transgender business partner.

But, eh, it’s so formulaic, so easy.

Additional Movies

The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2013) – Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam. Chris O’Dowd plays the band manager with as much effort as he’s been asked for; when we first see him, he is sleeping hungover in a station wagon, and shook awake by the cliched sounds of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man.” The girls are cute and funny, becoming more predictable as the plot rolls on, and listening intently when a black soldier tells them what it’s like fighting for The Man.

The Place Beyond the Pines (Derek Cianfrance, 2013) – The director/writer’s follow-up to “Blue Valentine” is a strangely optimistic noir that takes place over 18 years. Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle stuntman who learns he fathered a son and turns to bank robbery to provide for him. Bradley Cooper plays a young cop who happens to be closest to Gosling when he slips; and he, too, has a young son. Both actors work well within their archetypes (Gosling wordless and sad, Cooper rash but pulling back before it’s too late), and Ray Liota brightens up the melodrama as an adeptly crooked cop, but the plot’s pretty predictable — actually, worse than that, because it ends up with fewer consequences and more obvious emotional resonance than you expected going in.