Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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Scattered Thoughts About Movie Musicals

• Musicals are the most fantastic movie genre, in the classical sense of the word “fantastic”: they are imaginative, bright worlds that exist in their own kind of reality. Other genres ask us to accept a certain amount of fiction that’s still reconcilable within a given narrative construct: e.g., Star Wars stages dogfights in space and gives its hero telepathic abilities, but there are still rules governing those things (ships explode, you can’t read just anyone’s mind, etc.). Musicals, though, don’t worry about rules like that. People just start singing and dancing, and no character ever says to another, “Hey, you’re singing and dancing.” Rather, the songs and story are blended together in a pure, performative space.

• Because musicals don’t have to follow rules the way other genres do, they’re able to symbolize and explore emotion with more potency than other films can. Every frame is girded by Huxley’s belief that “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Songs in musicals often forward the plot — a young man on the verge of falling in love might burst into song, thus declaring his intentions and moving the story along — but they’re just as often pure performance pieces. Something like Singin’ in the Rain is a perfect example: the title song and performance allow Gene Kelly’s character to express his newfound feelings, but other bits like “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” are nothing more — or less — than stellar presentations of song, dance, and energy.

• It’s interesting to think of the way movie musicals have fallen out of favor with audiences and filmmakers. Part of it could be nothing more than the inevitability of changing tastes: movie musicals have been around since sound was synced to image in The Jazz Singer, so crowds just might want something different. But I have to believe part of what makes them harder to make and sell now might be their lack of irony, cynicism, and emotional distance from the audience. You cannot burst into song about how much you love someone and still expect to be cool and aloof. There’s an emotional risk for the character and the storyteller. (Who hasn’t felt several stories high just being on the street where their love lives?) One of the most successful recent musicals, 2002’s Chicago, actually staged many of the songs within a cabaret imagined by one of the main characters, making the songs a hybrid of narrative style and character construct. “These things aren’t really happening,” the movie says, “they’re just in someone’s head.” And while doing that does allow for some characterization in the movie — the heroine is delusional, and the fictional nightclub we keep seeing underscores her separation from the real world — it also robs us, the viewer, of the specific and magical blend of reality and fantasy that movie musicals can provide.

• Musicals also give us a chance to examine and revel in the beauty and grace of physical movement. Of course all movies are about bodies in their way. Action movies are rooted in physicality, though they’re increasingly digitized and plastic; romances employ the physical form for sexual allure or dramatic tension. But musicals let us watch people move the way they almost never do in real life, and certainly not in everyday situations. The litheness of their legs and trunks, the strength in their arms as they carry each other, the use of their bodies as expressive vessels: there’s a magnificence to it that’s almost primal. Singing and dancing lets the characters go to a place beyond regular words, and it lets us go with them to experience their joy and pain, and to remember the moments in our own lives when we felt like that. The characters’ bodies intercede for them when words fail.

My Cinematic Year in Review, 2014

I’ve been keeping a monthly tally of my movie watching for four years now (see 2011, 2012, 2013). These lists have always been loose, with no real goals or rules: last year, arbitrarily, I decided to watch 100 new (to me) movies, but this year I didn’t care about reaching or exceeding that number. I still tend to focus this list on films that are new to me, but a few months into the year, I started to note when I rewatched a movie or TV series, something I haven’t done in the past. (As to why I’m also including TV series I rewatched, it just felt right.) I wound up watching fewer movies in 2014 than I did in 2013, and I attribute the dip to a number of things: general burnout, professional existential issues, and the fact that I stopped writing for the website where I’d spent nine years providing reviews and essays. I also started to feel more tired than ever about being an unwitting part of the marketing and award cycle that blows through town every year and makes a ruin of the construction we spent the past 12 months fixing up. Movies mean so much more than that.

You can see the ebb and flow in my annual tallies:

2011: 79 movies (new to me)
2012: 69 movies
2013: 104 movies
2014: 79 movies

If I reviewed a film on the list or wrote about it on this site, I’ll link to that. Additionally, if I had something else to note, I’ll include that below.

As for the current availability of the movies listed below, I’ll quote myself from last year: “Titles come and go online, so Can I Stream It? and Instantwatcher are great resources to let you know how to get your hands on a film. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that streaming is the only way to see movies. Netflix still has a robust disc rental service (for now), and it’s worth the extra couple bucks a month.”

Clean and Sober

Clean and Sober

January

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Clean and Sober (1988): I was inspired to check this out after hearing Michael Keaton interviewed on WTF With Marc Maron. It’s a fantastic, unflinching, often daringly honest portrayal of the cycle of addiction and self-destruction, with some wonderful work by Keaton in his first dramatic role. Up until this he’d been a comic performer, and he’d even done stand-up for a while, but he’s a great fit for the role. His character is one who’s tried for years to get by on charm to hide his disease, and Keaton’s skill with mania and moods are perfect here. Standout moment: when he calls his mother late at night to ask for money so he can score. He’s anxious, eager, hopeful, embarrassed, repulsed at his deeds, determined to continue. And it all happens in a lengthy take that focuses on Keaton.
Casting By (2013): Casting is a fascinating part of the production process in film and television. This is a decent little documentary mostly about Marion Dougherty, whose career spanned decades and covered classic movies and major stars. It dips a little into hagiography, but it’s still a nice look at a part of the business that doesn’t get talked about that often in detail.
Europa Report (2013): A solid found-footage thriller that relies on claustrophobia and nice tension in its tale of inevitably doomed space exploration.

A Hard Day's Night

A Hard Day’s Night

February

The Monuments Men (2014)
A Hard Day’s Night (1964): My wife’s a huge Beatles fan, and though I love their music, too, I’d never seen any of their movies until this. It’s ridiculously fun — goofy, effervescent, iconic — and it boasts some of the best pop music of the century.
Non-Stop (2014)
30 for 30: The Price of Gold (2014): I haven’t spent much time with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, but this documentary about the Tonya Harding incident was riveting.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

March

That Guy Dick Miller (2014): Mediocre talking-head doc about character actor Dick Miller, whose colorful career deserves something a bit more introspective. In a Q&A after the SXSW screening I attended, the director explained that the film started out as a DVD featurette that expanded over time. Sad to say, the featurette version would’ve likely been better.
Premature (2014)
For Those in Peril (2014): Eerie, slow-moving fable come to life. I nodded off.
Boyhood (2014): There’s a lot to like, and even plenty to love, in Richard Linklater’s gimmick-reliant film, which follows one young boy over 12 actual years as he grows from age 6 to 18. It’s got a loose, warm, welcoming air, and Linklater’s skilled enough at this point to know when to hold back and let the vibe take over. Some of the supporting cast (including Linklater’s real-life daughter) is weak, though, adding to the experimental and unpolished feel. Interestingly, the most compelling arc isn’t the main character’s, but his father’s, played by Ethan Hawke. The boy grows from aimless child into a slightly less aimless young man, his whole life in front of him, which is natural for a young person. (Who, at 18, is anything but a blank slate?) But his father goes from deadbeat dad with delusions of local music stardom to remarried conservative with his feet on the ground, and there are moments when he watches his son age that you can watch his own awareness of his forgotten dreams resurface on his face. The father’s the one to watch.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Seven-Year Itch (1955): Worth seeing for its place in film history, though it fell short of enjoyable.
Noah (2014)

Nine to Five

Nine to Five

April

Nine to Five (1980): I always enjoy catching up on pop classics that I just barely missed. This came out two years before I was born, and though I grew up knowing about its place in movie history, I never got around to seeing it until this year. As funny and entertaining as I’d hoped.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014): An engaging documentary about surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt the novel Dune into a trippy lovefest. There’s likely some invention going on in Jodorowsky’s recollections, but it’s a fun ride, and his vision for the movie is something else.
Pacific Rim (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Rewatches:
The Rocketeer: This is one of my favorite childhood movies, and one I turn to when I’m sick or run down or just need a break. It brims with the spirit of adventure, and it’s got style to spare. Kid/family movies like this do not happen much these days.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Still the best of the series thanks to what, in retrospect, seems like a no-brainer: graft the legacy of seafaring exploration onto interstellar voyages, and anchor the whole thing in a fear of mortality.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: A prime example of mid-1980s sci-fi: a lot of ideas, not a lot of money, and a final product that gets the job done in a fine but often forgettable way. Hampered by being part of a trilogy.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Fascinating to rewatch as an adult for its marked departure from everything that came before. This is the moment the series made a blatant play for families, and the film is softer and goofier than everything that came before. (Two movies earlier, Kirk was reckoning with his long-lost son and the death of his best friend; now he’s bopping around the Bay Area spouting one-liners.) Still fun, though.

In a World ...

In a World …

May

Beverly Hills Cop (1984): It was a staggeringly huge hit for a reason.
Milius (2013)
Heathers (1989): One of the great things about watching landmark comedies years later is going in with the memory of the all the movies that came after. The influence of Heathers on teen comedies is impossible to measure — it’s dark, biting, sad, nihilistic; you know, for kids — and it holds up years later. High school is hell, and this movie is Dante.
The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall (2013): Irritatingly weak and ill-formed. The buzz of seeing major comics talk about their early days is dulled by the film’s total lack of insight and direction.
Ender’s Game (2013)
Veronica Mars (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
In a World … (2013): One of the best movies I saw all year. If we got comedies like this every quarter, the world would be a wonderful place.
Rewatches:
Sports Night (series): This is one of the first shows I ever really loved, and I watched it eagerly as it aired during my junior and senior years of high school (September 1998 to May 2000). I’ve turned to it again over the years (including during a wicked bout of depression), and for all its obvious and clumsy flaws, there’s still something sweet and earnest and almost noble about it.
Out of Sight: My favorite Soderbergh film, by a mile.
Ocean’s Twelve: Not nearly as frustrating as I found it initially. It’s growing on me.

Stagecoach

Stagecoach

June

Bringing Up Baby (1938): Grant and Hepburn make this look effortless. They glide.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981): I don’t know how I never saw this as a child. We were more of a Disney family, I guess.
Stagecoach (1939): The moment John Wayne swaggers onto the screen could be one of the most stirring I’ve ever seen, Western or otherwise. A great, exciting film.
The Maltese Falcon (1941): Iconic for about a hundred reasons, all of them correct.
Barton Fink (1991): Haunting, surreal, unnerving, and perfect in its way.
Snowpiercer (2014): A couple of unintentionally hilarious moments aside (it’s very hard to make a tearful speech about post-apocalyptic cannibalism sound believable), it’s a solid thriller and tight little movie. It chugs along like, well, you know. Just remember: left or right?
Rewatches:
Glengarry Glen Ross: I’m a sucker for Mamet’s machine gun, at least when it’s this good.
The Paper Chase
Adaptation: I first saw this when it came out and I was in college, and I hadn’t returned to it in a while. The haunting sorrow of the creative process is heartbreaking.
Memento: It’s still a great movie: rock-solid story, style, and execution. And though it was only Nolan’s second movie, so much of his style was already in place. (It was also the beginning of a gorgeous partnership with d.p. Wally Pfister.) It’s relentlessly paced, but never hectic; adherent to its central gimmick, but structured in a way that doles out information right on the beats you’d expect from a conventional movie. Nolan’s non-hero movies tend to be about the puzzles we design for ourselves and the things we pretend not to know: a magician’s secrets, a husband’s obsessions, a thief’s choices. Memento is a little bit like seeing his m.o. distilled to its essence. Every performer is perfect, too. Absolutely worth revisiting.

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

July

Silverado (1985): There’s an earnestness and lack of irony here that’s sadly uncommon for movies.
Video Games: The Movie (2014)
The Lego Movie (2014): Almost shouldn’t work, but it does.
Sex Tape (2014)
Under the Skin (2014): Unforgettable, though not in a pleasant way.
Foreign Correspondent (1940): Gorgeous shots, fantastic suspense, and inventive effects. Better than almost any other movie I saw this year.
The Immigrant (2014): There’s a classical, straightforward feeling to James Gray’s latest that’s appealingly honest in its execution. Rich, grimy world-building at its best, and one of the best final shots in recent memory.
Rewatches:
The Hunt for Red October: Perennial comfort food.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 1): One of my favorite comedies on the air right now.
The West Wing (selected episodes, Seasons 3-4)

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde

August

Witness (1985): One of the movies for adults that are so hard to find today.
About Alex (2014)
The Big Chill (1983)
Man Hunt (1941): Some of the period loopiness doesn’t hold up — watching two people fall deeply in love after meeting once, all while the man is an abrasive weirdo, is becoming the hardest fantasy to entertain on screen — but it’s got some solid suspense sequences and a predictably entertaining performance by George Sanders.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The Trip to Italy (2014)
The Wolverine (2013): These movies don’t even have rules anymore.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967): Blisteringly subversive, from the action to the sexuality. That it even got made is amazing.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): Nature, greed, and the lengths men will travel to turn a dream into a nightmare. Far darker and more adventurous than I’d expected it to be.
To Have and Have Not (1944): The moment where Lauren Bacall starts dancing almost knocked me out of my chair.
Heaven Can Wait (1943): Endlessly charming.
Rewatches:
Vanilla Sky: I like this a little more now than I did when it came out. It’s prickly and weird, but a lot of that’s because it’s such a straight remake of Abre los ojos that Cameron Crowe doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
Scrubs (selected episodes, Seasons 1-4): There are problems here, looking back: some of the jokes are a little homophobic, and the show’s early fantasy sequences actually became reality at one point, so the execution got a little weird. But it reminds me of being in my 20s and struggling with life and hanging out with my roommate watching this show on cable. It’s a touchstone to a different part of me.
The Dark Knight Rises: This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are even kind of dumb. But it’s still somehow watchable thanks to its bombast and scope.
The Master
Rounders: Sophomore year of college, a friend and I would watch the last act of the movie — pretty much from the Turkish baths to the end — and then amble down to the cafeteria for dinner. We probably did it once a week at one point.

Spellbound

Spellbound

September

Auntie Mame (1958): Mid-century films based on plays didn’t always know how to handle the transition — see The Music Man’s straightforward fade-outs and freezes, as if no one wanted to bother making a specifically film-centric story — but Auntie Mame overcomes those bumps on the strength of Rosalind Russell’s performance. A great example of 1950s Hollywood dazzle.
I Am Road Comic (2014): There’s a great documentary to be made about the working life of a comic, traveling from club to club to cobble together a living. This is not that documentary.
Videodrome (1983): The ravages of age: the fictional show on the Videodrome network is tamer than the run of torture porn that played cineplexes in the 2000s.
What’s Up, Doc? (1972): A breezy ode to screwball, but also interesting for its perspective on nostalgia. Today’s filmmakers are doing odes to the movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Years from now, we’ll get flashbacks to the ’00s.
Bird People (2014)
Spellbound (1945): Seventy years old, and as twisty and tight as the day the print was struck.
They Came Together (2014): Not as strong a spoof as Wet Hot American Summer, but there were still a few moments I had to pause because I was laughing so hard.
Gaslight (1944): Trivia: the American version from 1944 (the one I saw) was the second movie made from the stage play source material, following a 1940 British version. It’s got some decent suspense — and of course is fun to watch purely for the historical perspective of seeing something that was so popular it created a new slang term — but it suffers from the same problem that plagues a lot of middling thrillers, namely, the bad guy acts incredibly suspicious and weird the entire time. There’s never any doubt he’s messing with his wife’s sanity, but rather than focus on the strain at hand or the power play that drives him to do this, director George Cukor sticks closer to the “What on earth could be going on?” style of teasing the viewer, which come on.
The Equalizer (2014)
Gone Girl: Pretty good.
Rewatches:
Forrest Gump
The Wire (Seasons 1-3): I hadn’t watched The Wire since the first time I worked through the series sometime around 2007-2008. It (unsurprisingly) still holds up, and if anything, it feels richer and stronger for having stayed so powerful.
Primer

Bernie

Bernie

October

Rudderless (2014)
Fury (2014)
Bernie (2012): Texas forever.
Before I Go to Sleep (2014)
Rewatches:
The Wire (Seasons 4-5): The corner boys are still heartbreaking. Scott Templeton, less so.
Galaxy Quest: Warm, entertaining, funny, wistful; most impressively, parodic without being mean. I return to it regularly.

The Babadook

The Babadook

November

Shadow of the Vampire (2000): A bonkers but effective mix of behind-the-scenes moviemaking drama and unsettling horror film. Not to be confused with Alyssa Milano’s Embrace of the Vampire, important to young boys for completely different reasons.
Interstellar (2014)
A Most Wanted Man (2014): A little too restrained — there’s slow, and then there’s trapped in amber — but it’s still rewarding in many places for the way it deviates from action-driven spy stories.
Foxcatcher (2014): Basing your movie on true events does not excuse you from crafting a narrative.
22 Jump Street (2014): The perfect blend of self-awareness and silliness.
The Babadook (2014)
Rewatches:
There Will Be Blood: Still the ultimate American horror story.
Saturday Night: How did it take someone 35 years to come up with the idea of making a documentary about assembling an episode of Saturday Night Live? And how weird is it that that someone is James Franco?

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

December

Owning Mahowny (2003): I’ll never not miss Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A Most Violent Year (2014): While it’s usually risky to try and force any kind of theme upon a given year of movies, it’s true that many movies this year dealt with capitalism as the ultimate villain. The story here sounds small at first — a man who owns a heating-oil company has to fend off heated competition — but the drama turns out to be surprisingly compelling as he struggles to keep his life together.
Nightcrawler (2014): See above. Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a sociopathic creep is riveting, but the film’s real villain is the sensationalism of modern media.
Listen Up Philip (2014): A brutal, if brave, portrait of an artist as a self-destructive young man.
Inherent Vice (2014): Paul Thomas Anderson’s gift for balancing humor and melancholy could be his strongest suit.
American Sniper (2014): See Foxcatcher above.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014): Critics operating in bad faith deserve to be pilloried. I liked a lot about this.
Chef (2014): Writer-director Jon Favreau’s narrative about a famous guy who quits the big time to rediscover his passions is, one assumes, pulled directly from his own life (he did a pair of Iron Man movies before this), and the heart shows. It’s small-stakes, easygoing, warm-spirited moviemaking, and I enjoyed every minute.
Rewatches:
Scrubs (Seasons 6-8)
Scrooged
The Grand Budapest Hotel

By the Numbers

Total films seen: 79
Documentaries: 8
Animated films: 1
Foreign (non-U.S.) films: 4
Movies released in 2014: 41
Movies released before 2014: 38
Movies released before 2000: 25
Movies released before 1950: 10
Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3
Number of 2014 releases I reviewed: 16
Favorites (in no particular order): The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Foreign Correspondent, In a World, Clean and Sober, A Hard Day’s Night, Beverly Hills Cop, Stagecoach, The Immigrant, Heaven Can Wait, Bird People, Fury, The Babadook, Chef

Checking in Again at The Grand Budapest Hotel

I rewatched The Grand Budapest Hotel last night, the first of this year’s films I’ve revisited. I enjoyed as much as I did the first time, and maybe more. Anderson’s elaborate constructions — growing more fanciful and fable-like the further we fall into the past — are warm and welcoming, and the story’s got a captivating breeziness that moves through comedy and heartache with equal grace. Below, my original review of the film, from earlier this year.

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Wes Anderson’s films skip eagerly across genres: crime stories, relationship dramas, family tragicomedies, coming-of-age tales. But they all tend to deal (broadly) with the same thing, and that’s the stories we tell ourselves that give us the ability to solve a problem we have created. Time and again in Anderson’s movies, somebody does something out of such extreme self-interest that they cause chaos in their lives and in the lives of everyone around them, after which they attempt reconciliation and atonement by intentionally crafting a new narrative of their life, recasting themselves as the hero. His films are narratives about the power of narrative, nested worlds of fictions and dramatizations that try again and again to make things rights.

For example: Rushmore’s Max Fischer lets his obsession with a teacher get out of hand, but he puts the pieces back together by righting his wrongs and reconnecting with his family and friends. He intentionally, knowingly takes on the role of “heartbroken kid who decides to suck it up and move on.” When, at the end of the film, he brushes off his trials with a knowing “I didn’t get hurt that bad,” he’s telling a huge lie that he’s chosen to believe, if only a little bit, just to keep going. Or there’s the titular Royal Tenenbaum, who spends most of his life being a selfish jackass and even invents a terminal illness just to see his family again, and who, when his deeds are exposed, willfully dismisses his needs in favor of everyone else’s: he plays matchmaker for his ex-wife, he settles his affairs, and he finds small, powerful ways to reconnect with his children. (Anderson’s tender intimacy surfaces in a wonderful moment late in The Royal Tenenbaums when Royal’s widowed son, Chas, says, “I’ve had a tough year, dad.” And Royal touches his son’s shoulder and says, “I know you have, Chassie.”) There’s Bottle Rocket’s Dignan, who realizes too late that he’s drawn his friends into a foolish crime spree and sacrifices himself; or the wily Mr. Fox, who gets carried away by his own ambition and self-regard and who rallies by helping his family survive the encroaching industrialists who’ve ruined nature in the name of commerce. There are the brothers working toward grace in The Darjeeling Limited, the families struggling to change themselves in Moonrise Kingdom, the wounded laments of Steve Zissou. These aren’t identical situations, of course, and characters and motivation change by story and era and style. But it’s hard not to see the larger picture: people not just trying to change themselves but actively rewriting the world around them to be better, happier, if only for a heartbeat.

In many ways, then, The Grand Budapest Hotel — Anderson’s eighth feature, and the first for which he has the sole screenplay credit (though artist Hugo Guinness shares story billing) — is not just a summation of the filmmaker’s career to date but the next logical step for a director who’s dedicated himself to the notion that, if we just pour enough of ourselves onto the page, we can save what needs to be saved. Anderson engineers a series of layers down through which we slip, finally reaching a primal, brightly colored world that’s anti-realistic and comical even as it proves to be the most powerful and engaging way to get at the emotional truth of the story. A young girl reads a book whose narrator recalls his encounter with another man years earlier, and that other man then tells his own story that sends us even farther back into the past. It’s a nested series of fables within fables, and as we move away from the real world, we get closer to the only one that matters.

Anderson underscores the basic dreamlike qualities of the central narrative with every detail. The most obvious is the visual framing: each era is given its own aspect ratio, meaning we literally change perspective every time we change narrator. The film’s opening in the present day and its subsequent quick jaunt back to 1985 are laid out in a 1.85:1 ratio, the same wide-ish composition used in Moonrise Kingdom and Bottle Rocket. It’s in the ’80s that we meet a character billed as the author (Tom Wilkinson), the narrator of a novel titled The Grand Budapest Hotel. He begins to recount the time he first traveled to the hotel in the 1960s, and it’s here that we skip back to that time period to find a version of the young writer played by Jude Law and an entirely different way of looking at things: 2.35:1, the gloriously wide frame from Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and others. The author’s trip to the far-flung European nation of Zabrowka, home to the declining Grand Budapest, is marked by space-age typefaces, wood panels, and orange carpeting, and it’s here that he meets the elderly Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the hotel’s owner. Moustafa offers to tell the young author the story of how he came to possess the hotel, and Moustafa’s tale is the final leg of the initial journey and the beginning of the heart of the story. For it’s here that we switch perspective one more time, to the boxier Academy ratio of 1.37:1 that mimics the early years of Hollywood. That’s fitting, too, because it’s in this format (which takes up the bulk of the film) when Anderson is at his most fanciful and free, as in love with the little quirks and old-school ways of making movies as he’s ever been. It’s like a story pulled from some collective memory. Miniatures, obvious props, sight gags, gorgeous framing, candy-colored sets, ornate costumes, an enormous cast, jokes, heartbreak, action, adventure, suspense — it’s watching a maestro take the stand.

In 1932, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) is in his late teens when he begins work as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest Hotel, an opulent palace overseen by head concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Gustave is the soul of the Grand Budapest, a whirling, womanizing leader who reluctantly takes Zero under his tutelage. Broken out into chapters with ornately decorated title cards (e.g., “Part 4: The Society of the Crossed Keys,” about a Masonic organization of hotel concierges inspired by real life), Zero’s tale follows his early time with Gustave as they find themselves gradually but inextricably embroiled in a plot involving art theft, murder, conspiracy, fortune, and romance. This is the ultimate realization of Andersonian character as inventor of his own life: Zero’s story is several steps down from the more “real” aspects of the film world, and the gilding and little touches of his story are the most fanciful and constructed even as the nuts and bolts of the tale are meant to hold together. Mountain-top cable cars are depicted with obvious miniatures; the costume and color designs become more outsized and rococo. Even the occasional jumps back to the 1960s, providing reminders of the central narrative’s inherently artificial frame, are executed with a grand theatrical style, like the way house lights dim on everyone but Mr. Moustafa as we hang on his words and dive back into his recollections.

This is one of Anderson’s most gorgeous films, too. Shot once again by Robert Yeoman (who’s done every one of Anderson’s movies), there’s not a single wasted or ugly frame here. Whether the camera’s gliding in one of Anderson’s now trademark dolly shots, panning speedily across crowds, or cutting quickly between two people in a conversation, every bit of image is beautifully and carefully rendered. Late in the film, there’s a scene where Zero crashes through the roof of the delivery car for Mendl’s Bakery with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), his true love. We get just a brief instant of them looking at each other before we’re onto the next scene, but even that little moment is staged and decorated like a painting:

GBHmendls1

So many parts of The Grand Budapest Hotel make this feel like Anderson’s most highly stylized film yet, though that’s not to say it’s airless. It doesn’t have any of the formal stiffness of, say, The Life Aquatic. Part of this is because the film is itself about the nature of memory and creation, so the artifice plays into the construct. But it’s also because Anderson’s script and cast are among his best. The film is inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian author who was popular in his heyday (the 1920s and 1930s) but who’s since all but disappeared, with his works only seeing wider republication in the past few years. Zweig’s life and work dealt with the disappearance of a gone-away world in the wake of wars that destroyed his homeland, and those trials are fictionalized in the film with fake countries like “Zabrowka” and “Lutz” and enemy troops who wear a ZZ pattern on their uniforms. Anderson used elements of multiple Zweig stories to form the basis for his film, and that sense of loss, of people only now realizing as it’s ending that they’ve had a great life, is right in line with Anderson’s explorations of people struggling to put themselves back together. Gustave is driven by passion to pursue excellence, even if he winds up running roughshod over his friends and lovers — how much more Wes Anderson can you get?

Fiennes is magnetic at every moment, too. Gustave is a challenging performance: too abrasive and his trials become unsympathetic, but too tender and he loses the drive that draws others to him. Yet watching Fiennes work, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else attempting the part or carrying it with such skill. He’s capable of rattling off almost impossibly long streams of erudite rumination, but he’s just as skilled at hitting those left-turns into profane incredulity that Anderson throws in like nails on a highway. There’s a moment early in the story when he’s wooing and reassuring the elderly Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) that they’ll see each other again, and he glides elegantly from calmly assuaging her fears to sarcastically dismissing everything from her travel plans to her nail polish. Only Fiennes could make Gustave seem funny and sympathetic here, as he does throughout the film.

Anderson also seems to be pulling here from everything he’s ever done or learned. So many moments in The Grand Budapest Hotel feel like spiritual descendants (or antecedents?) to those in his other works. If his earlier films flirted with genres on an individual basis, here he tackles as many as he can: there’s the young love of Rushmore in the tale of Zero and Agatha, and the absurd criminals of Bottle Rocket in a story involving Gustave and a missing painting; there’s the breezy skipping and bombastic score of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the diorama-dressed romance of the recent past from Moonrise Kingdom that’s taken to a further degree in the curios of 1932. The spirit of each film is holed up in a room in the hotel, in this giant crumbling palace that’s the ideal symbol of faded glory and stubborn refusal to die that marks Anderson’s heroes and stories. The film bends back on itself, and on the viewer, at once wholly artificial and perfectly believable.

Which raises the questions: is anything here even real? And if so, to what degree? And does it matter? The answers, approximately, are “yes,” “mostly, in parts,” and “it depends.” Anderson has been typically coy about just what connects with what, referring to Jude Law’s character as the “theoretically fictionalized” version of Wilkinson’s. But everything connects with everything else. These allusions and fictional gymnastics aren’t hidden, but they also don’t come screaming at you, either. Nothing stood out as “fake” or unreal to me when I saw the film. That is, it didn’t explicitly play like the present-day scenes were real, the recent past a little less so, the further past even less, and so on. Rather, the whole elaborate contraption relies on emotional truths within any given context that the fairy tale is always “real” in its way. It’s the way Steve Zissou showing off his boat is real: it’s stagey and artificial, but also one of those magical things you get to do in movies when you breathe life into light on a dark screen. Wilkinson’s older author starts the cycle by saying, “The incidents that follow were described to me exactly as I present them here, and in a wholly unexpected way.” He’s probably making this up, so there’s no reason not to believe him. Anderson is like that. And in fact, he’s a lot like M. Gustave, dashing around and bending the world to his will, even if it’s a world that sometimes seems to have moved on without him. Of Gustave, one character says that, though the debonair concierge was a man out of his own time who didn’t appear to belong, he “sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.” Wrapped up in the world of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I know exactly what he means.

 

Great Arts and Entertainment Writing From 2014

Most of these are (unsurprisingly) film-related, though there are some that dig into books or television. With limited exceptions, these are features, interviews, or essays, not film reviews. (I also cheated and included some videos.) And of course, this is just a list of things I happened to read and enjoy this year, and not a remotely comprehensive account of every great thing that was produced in the past 12 months.

January

“Ebiri on That Awkward Moment: A ‘Romantic Comedy’ in Which Zac Efron Plays a Sociopath,” Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

“Don’t Worry About the End of Film,” Richard Brody, The New Yorker

“Rep Diary: A Time for Burning,” Jared Eisenstat, Film Comment

“Six Things Romantic Comedies Can Learn from Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said,” Alexander Huls, Movies.com

“A Crossroads for Independent Cinema,” Sky Dylan-Robbins, The New Yorker

“Remembering Rain Man: The $350 Million Movie That Hollywood Wouldn’t Touch Today,” Matt Patches, Grantland

“Child’s Play: The Degeneration of Blockbusters,” Alexander Huls, RogerEbert.com

“As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity,” Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

“How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood,” Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic

February

“Film Preservation 2.0,” Matthew Dessem, The Dissolve

“In Conversation: Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels,” Lane Brown, Vulture

Entertainment Weekly wants you to write for it for free. Don’t do it.,” Scott Meslow, The Week

March

“Designing for The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Annie Atkins, Creative Review

“The Joys of Dated Cinema,” Peter Labuza and Abbey Bender, To Be Cont’d

Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner On the One Thing About Internet Criticism He Doesn’t Like,” Katey Rich, Vanity Fair

“Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?,” Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

April

“The Score,” Michael Heilemann, Kitbashed

“Days of Future Present,” David Fear, The Dissolve

The Execution of Private Slovik, 40 Years Later,” Chris Walsh, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Louis C.K. Is America’s Undisputed King of Comedy,” Andrew Corsello, GQ

“How Hollywood Killed Death,” Alexander Huls, The New York Times Magazine

“Coming Detractions,” Joe Hill, Joe Hill’s Thrills

“How (and why) to fight television culture’s amnesia,” Brandon Nowalk, The A.V. Club

“The Death Of Sarah Jones: Safety Concerns Raised Over Midnight Rider Crew’s Previous Film In Georgia,” Jen Yamato

“Christopher Evan Welch Died Four Months Before His Breakout Role in Silicon Valley: A Look at His Career,” Jesse David Fox, Vulture

“Why The Conversation Should Be Required Viewing at the NSA,” Alexander Huls, The Atlantic

“William Faulkner’s Hollywood Odyssey,” John Meroney, Garden & Gun

May

“The Fear of the New,” Richard Brody, The New Yorker

“The Shawshank Residuals,” Russell Adams, The Wall Street Journal

“Are We at Peak Superhero?,” Mark Harris, Grantland

“How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star,” Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

West Wing Uncensored: Aaron Sorkin, Rob Lowe, More Look Back on Early Fears, Long Hours, Contract Battles and the Real Reason for Those Departures,” Lacey Rose, Michael O’Connell, Marc Bernardin, The Hollywood Reporter

“What Is a Cinemascore?,” Eric D. Snider, Film.com

“John Oliver, Charming Scold,” Ian Crouch, The New Yorker

“The Great Flood,” Donald Wilson, Film Comment

June

“Harvey Weinstein and the saga of Snowpiercer,” Ty Burr, The Boston Globe

“Steadicam progress: the career of Paul Thomas Anderson in five shots,” Kevin B. Lee, Sight & Sound

The Leftovers, Our Town, and the Brutal Power of Ordinary Details,” Tom Perotta, The Atlantic

Do the Right Thing Turns 25, and BAM Hosts the Block Party,” Michelle Orange, The Village Voice

“Shaka, When the Walls Fell,” Ian Bogost, The Atlantic

“George Saunders’s Humor,” George Saunders, The New Yorker

“The Freaks and Geeks Series Bible,” Paul Feig, Slate

Gordon Willis Interview, Steven Soderbergh, Extension 765

“The Summer Movie Season is dead,” David Ehrlich, The Dissolve

“Bombast: The Punishment Continues,” Nick Pinkerton, Film Comment

“The 100-Year-Old Who Taught Garbo to Waltz,” Matt Weinstock, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Maleficent Could Be So Good. If Only She Were Allowed To Be Bad.,” Jessica Goldstein, ThinkProgress

July

Village Voice Editor Blasts Guardians of the Galaxy Fans for Calling Critic a ‘Harlot,'” Sam Adams, Criticwire

“Has modern technology killed the spy thriller?,” Charles Cumming, The Guardian

“Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) Talks Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape,” Joe Swanberg, The Talkhouse

“Six million people are still getting Netflix’s red envelopes in the mail,” Dan Frommer, Quartz

Moonrise Kingdom: Wes in Wonderland,” David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art

“Moment to Moment,” Nathan Heller, The New Yorker

“James Garner, 1928-2014,” Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running

“When Eyes Wide Shut Failed To Save The NC-17,” Scott Mendelson, Forbes

“I Killed At the Movies,” Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club

“Writers Can Do Anything,” William T. Vollman, The Atlantic

“Shelving to Save a Book’s Life,” Susan Coll, The Atlantic

“This Is the End,” Wesley Morris, Grantland

August

Love Is Strange MPAA Rating Controversy,” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

“Zip, zero, Zeitgeist,” David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art

“Different Rules Apply,” Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com

“Let’s Be Real,” Wesley Morris, Grantland

“What It Was Like to Do Surprise Improv With Robin Williams,” Chris Gethard, Vulture

“This Is the End: James Gray on Apocalypse Now,” James Gray, Rolling Stone

“Fifteen Years Later: Tom Cruise and Magnolia,” Amy Nicholson, Grantland

“The Scourge of ‘Relatability,'” Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker

“Death of Film/Decay of Cinema at 15: A Conversation With Godfrey Cheshire,” Matt Zoller Seitz and Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com

September

“Why I’m Not Watching the Inherent Vice Trailer,” Sam Adams, Criticwire

Last Week Tonight Does Real Journalism, No Matter What John Oliver Says,” Asawin Suebsaeng, The Daily Beast

“The story behind the things actors pick up and hold on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Alias, and more,” Chris Call, The A.V. Club

“Gilding the Small Screen: or, ‘Is it just me or did TV get good all of a sudden?,'” Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Los Angeles Review of Books

Raiders,” Steven Soderbergh, Extension 765

“The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” A.O. Scott, The New York Times

“Cinematic Cuts Exploit How Your Brain Edits What You See,” Greg Miller, Wired

October

“Film, Digitality, and Cultural Divides,” B. Ruby Rich, Film Quarterly

“‘Am I being catfished?': An author confronts her number one online critic,” Kathleen Hale, The Guardian

“David Lynch: ‘Stories Should Have the Suffering,'” David Lynch, The Talks

“Do We Read Differently at Different Ages?,” Daniel Mendelsohn and Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times

“Some Thoughts on the Planned Return of Twin Peaks,” Ian Crouch, The New Yorker

Star Wars Producer Blasts Star Wars Myths,” Chris Taylor, Mashable

November

“White People Problems,” Briallen Hopper, Killing the Buddha

“After 33 Years and an Airplane Explosion, Their Raiders of the Lost Ark Remake Is Almost Complete. Are They?,” Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

“‘The Novel Is Like a Room’—an Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard,” Kyle Buckley, Hazlitt

“Bread, circuses, and Oscar buzz,” David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art

“E-Book Mingles Love and Product Placement,” Alexandra Alter, The New York Times

December

Selma Star David Oyelowo Gets Frank About Race in Hollywood,” Nigel M. Smith, Indiewire

“Don’t Write for Awards,” Emily St. John Mandel, The Atlantic

“The Year After the Year of Racial Cinema,” Noah Gittell, RogerEbert.com

“In an All-Digital Future, It’s the New Movies That Will Be in Trouble,” Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

“The Birdcage,” Mark Harris, Grantland

“Great Writing Is Humble,” Peter Stamm, The Atlantic

“Chris Rock Talks to Frank Rich About Ferguson, Cosby, and What ‘Racial Progress’ Really Means,” Frank Rich, Vulture

“How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA,” Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

My Literary Year in Review, 2014

This was a frustrating year for me as a reader. I finished far fewer books than I usually do, but I also found myself less patient with many of them in general. Some books swept me up from the start with their style and narrative, while others were awkward struggles. I gave books less time than I have in the past to capture and hold my interest, and I found myself gravitating toward those books that sought to speak honestly, slowly, and deeply about their characters or the real world.

Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer (2013)
A gorgeous, tender, moving story about the love and anguish that accompany relationships, both those between men and women and those between penitents and their God.

Doctor Sleep, Stephen King (2013) (quit)
It’s not like I don’t know what dumb situation I’m getting myself into when I pick up a new Stephen King novel. But I do it anyway. I have only myself to blame.

Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson (2013)
Ron Carlson’s become one of my favorite writers, and this slim, gentle novel about a group of men reuniting in middle age has some wonderful moments. It touches on weighty things like death, family, and the damnable passage of time, but it never feels preachy or cheap.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon (2012) (quit)
Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem (2013) (quit)
Death of an Ordinary Man, Glen Duncan (2004) (quit)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (2014) (quit)
I went on a bad run here. I couldn’t lock into the Chabon, no matter how I tried. It seemed to keep slipping right out of my fingers, all curlicued language and scattered plotting. The Lethem worked for me for a while, but it also suffered the drawback that inevitably comes from shaping a novel as a series of mostly independent vignettes: there’s little motivation to continue when you hit a couple of bad ones. The Duncan I picked up because I enjoyed the mournfulness of The Last Werewolf, but again, I felt myself plodding through mud. The Powers started strong but dropped off, and I found myself thinking of homework when I picked it up.

The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (1915)
Ford’s novel hooked me from the first line, and I was amazed at how the structure and language still play so well a century later.

In the Blink of an Eye (2nd Edition), Walter Murch (2001)
Walter Murch is a gifted editor and sound designer — his C.V. includes Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, The English Patient, so many others — and this book, a collection of lectures he gave about the art of film editing, is wonderfully instructive about the art of the process. His argument is that we edit the visual narrative of our own lives by blinking, and that the best cuts in movies are those that fall where characters and viewers would naturally blink to shift their focus.  

Red Rising, Pierce Brown (2014) (quit)
It’s a YA novel set on Mars. Lots of potential, all squandered.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Daniel Mendelsohn (2012)
Mendelsohn’s one of the best critics writing today, hands down.

Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain (2013)
A deep, sprawling read about disaffected post-grads teaching English in Czechoslovakia in 1990. Leisurely paced, quietly affecting, and bittersweet.

Dead Harvest, Chris Holm (2012)
Sometimes, a discount paperback is a discount for a reason.

Five Came Back, Mark Harris (2014) (unfinished)
Harris’s investigation into Hollywood and World War II filters culture through the life and work of five filmmakers: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. I like it quite a bit, though not as much as his Pictures at a Revolution, about the shift in American film culture in the late 1960s. I set it aside to pursue other titles, but I’ll be coming back.

Red Moon, Benjamin Percy (2014)
Compulsive and addicting to start, then regrettable and questionable at the end, not unlike gorging on a bag of candy. It blends post-apocalyptic ideas and werewolf adventure with a little more style than you might expect — similar to the way Justin Cronin’s skill elevated The Passage and The Twelve — but it becomes clear as the novel unfolds that Percy’s not sure where he wants to go, so he figures he might as well go everywhere. It’s a novel’s worth of story that’s padded out to become a cliffhanger meant to start a franchise, and that kind of manipulation is unpleasant to wade through.

struggle_YIRMy Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009)
As compelling and fresh and insightful as almost everyone else has made it out to be. Knausgaard writes honestly about childhood and regret, and his strained relationship with his father becomes the narrative through which the rest of his life is understood. It’s a fantastic book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (1943)
Friends of mine used the word “inspiring” when describing their affection for this book, and while I understand the emotional connection at the root of that, the term I kept coming back to was “resilience.” Betty Smith’s lightly fictionalized account of her childhood in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn is a grim, committed evocation of sorrow, suffering, and the role that luck plays in life. The main character, Francie, is above all a fighter, and her young life is something to be survived.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl (2013)
Pessl’s skills at crafting a page-turning narrative are tempered by the ham-handed nature of her prose and observations. (Additionally, she seems unable to let go of the quirk that requires her to italicize at least one emotional description per page: at first, it just seems weird, but then, you realize it’s intentional, and you wonder why it’s happening. [You get the idea.]) Still, it’s a little engine that could, and for all its loopiness, I found myself strangely compelled to finish.

Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak (1957) (quit)
I have convinced myself that I am the kind of person who should read and enjoy Russian classics, even though I haven’t finished one since college (and that was spotty).

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2014)
Another propulsive little page-turner, this one taking a fanciful premise (what if you kept living your life over again when you died?) and teasing out the complications (would you become depressed? egomaniacal? bored?). Some of the side characterizations are a little bland, but the elliptical, almost mournful nature of the narrative is what makes it work.

Zone One, Colson Whitehead (2011)
Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic novel is unnerving for many reasons, not least of which is the driving notion that maybe an apocalypse wouldn’t be so bad given the current state of things.

Lost Horizon, James Hilton (1933) (quit)
The book that gave pop culture Shangri-La. Compelling in its early sections, but muddier in the middle, and I found myself returning to it with the attitude of a student resuming an unappealing summer reading assignment.

acres_YIRA Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (1991)
One of the best books I read all year, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. The idea of reimagining King Lear in the American Midwest of the 1970s might sound rickety on paper, but Smiley’s narrative is rich, sad, complicated, and never gimmicky. It’s the kind of family drama that expertly explores the prisms through which we view our lives and loved ones, and how it’s sometimes impossible for two people to agree about something even when they were both right there when it happened. Sweeping, heartbreaking, and glistening with a sense of place and purpose.

Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles, David Thomson (1996) (quit)
Thomson’s a smart writer, but his style is best suited to the bite-sized entries he crafts for The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Stretched to book length, it can become cloying and uncertain.

De Niro: A Life, Shawn Levy (2014)
Author and film critic Shawn Levy’s book about Robert De Niro is the best kind of biography: a heady, insightful blend of production history and film criticism, with a skillful narrative and a genuine drive. Throughout, Levy doesn’t just want to explore what made De Niro one of the best actors in American history, but how someone once so committed to stretching himself would come in later years to play a series of forgettable roles in broad comedies. (The highest grossing films in De Niro’s career are the three films in the Meet the Parents series and the animated Shark Tale.) His approximate answers: the work of being the best is taxing, and after a while, a career can start to exist for its own sake, quality notwithstanding. But even that’s too simple a summation. Levy’s lengthy book is full of wonderful stories, observations, and analysis, and it’s one of the best film-related books I’ve read in a while.

By the numbers:

Total books finished: 14
Nonfiction: 5
Books (finished) released in 2014: 3
Books (finished) released before 2014: 11
Books (finished) released before 2000: 3
Favorites: A Thousand Acres, My Struggle: Book 1, Frances and Bernard, De Niro: A Life, Necessary Errors

My Favorite Opening Sentences of 2014

A collection of opening lines that stood out to me among the books I read this year:

Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson
“The way Craig Ralston found out that his old high school buddy Jimmy Brand was coming back to town was that Jimmy’s mother had called him for help.”

Ron Carlson’s stories use a direct style to deal with small communities, and I like the way this opening sets a decent tone, neither brisk nor leisurely, and also introduces some of the key dynamics (friendship, reunion, helping others) that will define the story.


The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

How could you not want to read what comes next?


Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain
“It was October, and the leaves of the oaks around the language school had turned gold and were batting light into its tall windows.”

Crain’s dense, ambling novel is all about texture and place, much more so than plot or action. Here we get time and place and vibe, all in one.


My Struggle (Book One), Karl Ove Knausgaard
“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can.”

The first of Knausgaard’s six-volume meditation on life and loss begins with a treatise on the physical processes of death before transitioning to the emotional battles of his youth. This is just a beautiful, poetic way to begin.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
“Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York.”

A great opening in part because Smith is going to spend most of the novel proving how untrue it is. Everything looks serene from the outside, but for the lower-class denizens of Brooklyn at the turn of the century, life was endless torment.


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North
“The second cataclysm began in my eleventh life, in 1996.”

Another catchy genre opener that speeds the reader right into the story.


Zone One, Colson Whitehead
“He always wanted to live in New York.”

Whitehead’s novel is fantastic, and the opening lays out the wishful thinking of the protagonist that will come to be questioned and mourned as the novel goes on.


Lost Horizon, James Hilton
“Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had.”

A genteel and cold way to set the scene and introduce ideas of longing and aging that will define the book’s central story, about Shangri-La and man’s endless quest to return to a place he feels is better than the one he’s in.


A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
“At sixty miles per hour, you could pass our farm in a minute, on County Road 686, which ran due north into the T intersection at Cabot Street Road.”

Smiley’s retelling of King Lear in the cornfields of Iowa is stunning and heartrending for many reasons, not least of which is the way it deftly portrays what feels to the participants like an epic story even as it underscores that this kind of thing happens to people everywhere. The emotions and actions feel earth-shattering to those involved, but it’s all taking place on a patch of land you’d miss if you blinked.

When Axel Rose: Beverly Hills Cop at 30

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In honor of its 30th anniversary, I wrote about Beverly Hills Cop for Movie Mezzanine. I am happier with the headline I chose than I am with almost everything else in my life.

When Axel Rose: Beverly Hills Cop at 30

(Also linked over at The Dissolve.)

Scattered Thoughts on The Babadook

babadook1

(Spoilers ahead.)

1

The Babadook is a fantastic movie, full stop — not just a fantastic horror movie, or a fantastic thriller — because it’s about terror based on reason.

Trends come and go with little warning, and there are always outliers that don’t go with the herd, but in general, many modern horror films have rooted themselves in senselessness of cause when it comes to narrative. The person or people being hunted and killed did nothing to warrant their punishment; rather, they suffer for no reason. 2008’s The Strangers, a stomach-churning home invasion film starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, takes this to an extreme as it depicts a group of invaders in baggy masks who trap and murder a husband and wife in their own house. When Tyler’s characters begs to know why they’re being hurt, one of the killers responds glumly with, “Because you were home.” It’s the strain of nihilistic horror film that sees suffering everywhere but no hope for escape. The torture porn vogue of the early 2000s was similarly down on reason and nuance: you meet the wrong person, you die, end of story.

The Babadook, though, is frightening, engaging, and moving precisely because of the degree to which it rejects that kind of nihilism and instead connects its central haunting to character and narrative. The Babadook is a monster, but a monster born of the feelings of the main character, Amelia (Essie Davis). It’s a physical manifestation of the grief she feels at the death of her husband in a car accident almost seven years earlier, as well as the guilt she feels from wishing her husband had survived and her unborn son had died in the accident. Amelia’s haunting is hers alone, and her actions have created the Babadook and lent it power. The horror, in other words, makes sense. By rooting the origin of the horror in the characters’ actions, writer-director Jennifer Kent is able to tell a tale that’s both unnerving and sympathetic.

2

There’s a gorgeous surreality to the visuals that places the film in a fable-like world. Almost every room in the house is gray, which highlights the storybook nature of the film while also serving as a manifestation of Amelia’s stagnation and grief. She’s surrounded by darkness, living in it, without even knowing it.

3

We never see the Babadook, not really. Some shadows and hands, some arms, a blurred face. In part it’s because the idea of something is always scarier than its execution; this is Horror 101. But it’s also because The Babadook is a manifestation of this specific character’s grief, and grief is both hard to see and different for everyone. It’s a universal emotion individually applied. We all grieve alone. Only we know what it looks like.

4

Kent stages most of the film with wide, direct, often formal images. There are only two instances where the viewer can accurately predict where the monster will appear: when Amelia’s looking out her window into her kindly old neighbor’s living room, and when Amelia later runs from the monster and collapses next to an empty fireplace. Both of these use basic negative space to prime the viewer for the creature’s appearance: there’s a nice gap on the left side of the frame behind the back of the neighbor’s chair, and there’s a similar gap, also on the left side of the frame, when Amelia collapses with her back to the hearth.

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Kent knows the suspense inherent in doing this (we even see Amelia look into her neighbor’s living room earlier, with the same expectant shot composition, but not creature), but she’s also smart enough not to overdo it. Many of the film’s most haunting images look straight ahead into darkness and shadow, mimicking Amelia’s attempt to see what’s in front of her. These images are eerie and affecting precisely because they abandon the idea of cheap tricks (music stings, shaky framing, etc.) and force us to stare into the darkness for just a few moments. It’s almost more than we can take.

5

The film’s most unsettling sequence relies on precisely this kind of disquiet. Amelia, driven into a hallucinatory dream state after days of restlessness, walks down into her basement and sees a vision of her deceased husband. When he appears, he’s bathed in a peaceful, almost angelic light, and Kent cuts from a shot of Amelia to one of her husband to show us her perspective:

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Amelia sees him and almost can’t believe what’s happening. Overcome with emotion and a sense of relief, she embraces him:

bhus2

bhus3

In the course of talking to him, though, she realizes the apparition is related to the creature that’s been haunting her. She backs away slowly, her dread growing:

bhus4

Kent then repeats the cut from earlier, snapping back to Amelia’s husband, only now Amelia’s perspective has changed. This is what she sees, and so do we:

bhus5

It’s horrifying, precisely because of what it is and what Kent does with it. We don’t see a gruesome monster, or even an empty space to show that the vision was unreal. Rather, what once was lit is now in shadow, and we’re unable to make out the details of the man’s face. He’s bathed in darkness, speaking in a soulless groan, emanating an evil and control that’s almost palpable. (It’s also worth noting that the imagined version of her husband looked off-camera, while the shadowy horror looks right into it; by looking the thing head on, Amelia’s able to see what it really is.) This is masterfully done, and endlessly more gripping than a cheap shock. Kent’s work recalls David Lynch in many ways, with its willingness to hold long, static takes on unsettling images and a reliance on effective sound design to augment those visuals. There’s a kind of insectile buzzing that accompanies the appearances and intrusions of the Babadook, and it’s often so well done it only becomes noticeable when it stops.

6

The film is ultimately about the toxicity of grief, the way it poisons slowly over time. The Babadook is the thing we don’t want to address, the shame and guilt we live with over something from our past: surviving something we wish we hadn’t, loving someone we wish we didn’t. That’s a powerful thing for any story to be about it, and it’s only a short jump from a drama about unrealized life to a horror story with an externalized villain. The story’s already horrific on an emotional level. That’s also what makes the film’s plot and message so rewarding: grief is almost never a thing that can be beaten, merely managed. We run from it, face it, moderate it, discuss it, and might eventually find ourselves able to hold it in our hands without fear of losing control of it. But it’s always going to be there.

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Scattered Thoughts on Foxcatcher

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(This piece will wind up discussing plot details of Foxcatcher, as well as the true events upon which the film is based, about which you can learn more here. Because the events are a matter of judicial record, it’s tough to consider them spoilers as such, but still, heads up.)

• At what point does a famous actor in a prosthetic stop being a famous actor in a prosthetic? Is it even possible to take such larks seriously after they were lampooned in Ocean’s Thirteen? Steve Carell is much more convincing in certain moments here than I’d expected him to be — call it the unintended benefit of casting a comic in his first serious role; the bar is lowered a rung — but it’s also all but impossible to stop thinking of his performance as “Steve Carell in a fake nose.”

• The simian grace with which Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo inhabit their roles as wrestlers is perfectly done without ever going overboard. They walk with a tensed hunch, often with their elbows bent slightly, so their arms are never quite down at their sides. They’re always ready to spring forward into an attack. It’s a small but nicely done physical detail.

• For a film about wrestling, Foxcatcher is surprisingly ambivalent about the body, and about the power of touch. There’s only one scene where we really feel the bodies at work, and it comes early on, as Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz are sparring in the gym. The way their heads touch as they get set, the way they move their arms weave together and come apart; the way their sibling dynamic is made tactile in their grappling, and the way Mark’s sense of frustration and jealousy comes out in his increased speed and aggression, ultimately bloodying Dave’s nose. The way Dave shakes his head, blows the blood from his nose one nostril at a time, and returns to a crouched stance before reengaging his brother. It’s the best sense we get in the entire film of these men’s bodies as machines that they construct and use to their own purpose. What few wrestling matches we do see are tied to different senses of accomplishment or failure, and that’s understandable, but it also means they could be anything: card matches, foot races, cooking classes, crossword puzzles. It’s the sense of bodies in proportion to each other that makes the film work whenever it does.

• Ruffalo is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Carell here: he’s buried in glasses and a hairpiece, he walks with a hunch and talks with a lilt, but he never once feels like he’s putting on a costume. He’s so perfectly confident in his role: never showboating, never greedy with moments, never trying to stand out as a supporting player. He’s just natural. I submit that this is the hardest thing for any performer to do, and that Ruffalo does it a lot, and that he’s such a good actor we tend to forget how good he can be.

• The movie is based on true events, which is its downfall. This is the problem: even something based on a true story still needs to be a story. There are plenty of ways to actually tell a story on film, but there’s a shoddiness to the structure here — a kind of imperviousness to the nature of the tragedy at the film’s core — that makes it feel weak and random. The film charts Mark’s relationship with sponsor and benefactor John duPont (Carell), and Mark eventually flees duPont’s Foxcatcher Farms compound to get away from the shadow of his brother and the memory of the latest father figure to abandon him. Dave stays on to train the rest of the team. One day after John’s mother has died, leaving John searching for a place to put his neediness, John drives down to Dave’s house on the property and shoots him to death. John is apprehended. Mark, we see, has made his way to ultimate fighting, which was viewed with some disdain by the wrestlers earlier in the film.

Then it ends.

A few brief title cards aside, detailing the later lives of Mark (living in Oregon) and John (died in prison), the film has no more to offer. John’s murder of Dave remains senseless, impenetrable, random, frustrating. It was all those things in real life, and director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) seems to want to keep things that way. His structure definitely underscores the cruelty of the killing, but it also leaves us yearning for something more: some kind of insight, some sense of drama, some sketching out of the way lives can become intertwined in a way that leads to tragedy. But the film withholds those things, and it’s my contention that it does so — that it’s allowed to do so — because it’s based on real events.

A death like Dave’s is heartbreaking in real life, but here, it’s narratively senseless. At best, John’s sense of inadequacy was exacerbated by his mother’s death, and having no one left to validate him and no idea of what to do, he went a little mad and decided to murder one of the few people he’d let into his life. Dave is portrayed as much stronger than Mark — decisive and committed where his brother is uncertain and flighty — and his willingness to stand up to duPont was something John didn’t experience that often. Still, though, I feel like I’m working backward from the film’s actions to justify its methods, when it should be the other way around. There’s not a lot of drive here for John, and certainly not enough to push him to murder. Rather, it’s just out of the blue. He was intimidated by Dave’s presence and resentful of the younger man’s natural athleticism and leadership, and on some level he likely viewed him as an obstacle toward John’s control of the team. But the film is light on this. It feels like we’re supposed to infer a few things and then do some reading and possibly consult the film’s marketing and promotional materials. And in interviews, yes, Miller and cast talk a good game about the characters and their motives. But filmmakers don’t get to stand up in front of the audience after each screening and bolster their argument. Everything has to be up on the screen, and here, it doesn’t feel like that. There’s not enough here to make the movie stand on its own.

For My Consideration

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This is always a weird time of year to write about movies, because it’s when talk of awards begins to heat up, and it’s also when critics (including me) start to receive links and DVD copies of movies that various studios are pushing for award consideration. It’s nice to get these, sure, but it’s also a reminder of how little I care about awards and how dangerous and misleading I think they can be for viewers. I see good movies every year; some are better than others, but assigning a “best” in any category is inherently impossible. Good things can be good for many reasons, and it feels disingenuous to me to say anything other than “I liked these, and I didn’t like these others.” You can make arguments about why one movie might be better or more rewarding than another, but attempting to crown one as a winner feels like a fundamental misunderstanding of what the movies are trying to accomplish in the first place.

It’s also stomach-churning because awards are purely about marketing, perception, and hype. When Miramax goes on a years-long run of nominations and awards, it’s not because they happen to have acquired the best movies in a given period, year after year, but because those movies are shrewdly marketed and tied to winning campaigns. To believe that Best Picture means “the best picture” is to believe your own press. Viewers have no stake in these awards, either, but it can feel good to root for them or get involved for the same base reasons it’s rewarding to pick a winner in an election: you feel validated for your tastes.

So this is a weird season. It always is. I love movies, and I absolutely hate awards. I never feel more phony than when I vote for them, as I’m compelled to by the bylaws of multiple critics societies to which I belong. It’s something I dread every year because I always feel like I’m lying: about the movies, about my beliefs, about what matters. I’m always trying to get back to what moves me, and awards have nothing to do with it.

Related:
Why Award Season Is Bad for Movies
There Are No Oscar Snubs
The Illusion of “Great Movie Years”