Daniel Carlson

About movies, mostly.

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Scattered Thoughts About Bodies on Film

• It’s excessive and inappropriate to spend time in a review or essay gushing over the physical attributes of a movie star. That is, it’s one thing to acknowledge their appearance — or even their beauty — and another to make panting comments that edge against lasciviousness.

• Yet we go to the movies precisely because the people on the screen are so good-looking. Put characters actors aside for a minute and think about mainstream, meat-and-potatoes actors and actresses from Hollywood’s inception to today. These are attractive people, chosen because they’re attractive. We want them to be capable performers, yes, but we also want them to be beautiful because we want to look at them. We want to be able to spend two hours staring at something we find attractive, and movies let us do that free of judgment.

• Honest film criticism would, by necessity, need to reckon with this on a regular basis. And not just in the (rightly) expected ways that examine the methods by which fluctuating, hypocritical standards of beauty enforce rigid rules for young women, either. Rather, criticism would need to talk about bodies as forms, shapes, vessels, machines — as part of the artistic and aesthetic experience of the film. When someone moves across the frame with lithe grace; when two faces touch; when a hand strays to an ankle; when a man or woman is photographed to appear stunning. This is part of why we’re watching the movie, and to ignore it, or to pretend otherwise, would be dishonest.

• Perhaps we avoid such discussions in criticism not out of a sense of propriety (i.e., embarrassment at the topic itself) but out of uncertainty (i.e., we don’t know whether such observations would cheapen the film, or the act of writing about it). Additionally, the rise of television recaps and weekly attempts at reviews1 has popularized a critical emphasis on pure narrative and sociological reflections, sometimes at the expense of examining the filmmaking itself — the technique, the mechanics, and the bodies in motion.

• There must be, as in so many things, a middle path: a way to talk about physical beauty as artistic expression, not the target of juvenile lust. Further, it has to be possible to talk about attraction and desire — things that have powered the world since its creation, things that have started wars and brought life and art into being — with a frankness and candor that respects them for what they are. These forms on the screen are part of the picture.

  1. No weekly TV reviews can ever be fully realized or effective, since the work itself is being broadcast and discussed episodically.

Shuffled and Paused

When did I stop listening to music? And why?

In 2008, I bought or acquired 78 albums 1, a number that stuns me now but at the time didn’t feel excessive in the least. Now months will go by — years, even — when I only get a handful of songs, and rarely an album. When did that change? What did that? I’m still trying to figure it out, and I only have partial solutions:

I stopped physically buying music. I used to regularly visit used CD stores and prowl the racks of my favorite genres, looking for new arrivals of old albums by artists I always kept tabs on. Most Fridays, I’d see a movie to review at the Arclight and pop in at Amoeba Music next door, and on weekends I’d often wander down to a local chain called Second Spin to see if they had anything worthwhile. Most of the albums I bought were between $5 and $9 — minor purchases — but it still added up to plenty of new-to-me music. I occasionally bought new releases 2, but for the most part I was just grabbing a few old discs when I could.

This has almost totally stopped. Going to a music store is no longer part of my routine, and I still don’t buy that many new releases. As a result, my purchases have dropped dramatically. This feels like a legitimate reason for much of my decline in new listening. But also:

I decided to spend money on other things. Buying music means using discretionary income, and I wound up channeling it into other things. Some of it still entertainment-related: games, movies, trips. But some of it on just regular life things, like clothes and bills. My living situation has changed a lot since then, and especially since 2008, my last full year to live in California before moving back to Texas. And I did that because:

I fell in love. A lot of music is about sadness. This isn’t a bad thing, either. We all experience pain and heartache and loss, and artists draw upon those things for the works they create. Most pop music is, in some way, tragic:

When we think of the pop charts, we tend to conceive of hit songs as bouncy and cheery puff. We imagine hits as having a self-defining airiness, a lightness of spirit which critics of pop sometimes project upon the music’s audience and conflate with dimness of mind. Hit songs, as we generally think of them, are resolutely, simplistically upbeat expressions of romantic bliss—and so a great many hits have been. Long before Paul McCartney and Wings, there were deeply silly love songs such as “You Are My Sunshine,” which was published the same year that “I’ll Never Smile Again” became a hit. Yet, the musical and lyrical sunniness of “You Are My Sunshine” has never been a requisite of success for a pop tune, and love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled. As the songs on the first Billboard chart remind us, a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.

But when I fell in love with the woman I would eventually marry, a lot of the music I used to listen to stopped having the kind of meaning for me that it used to. I’d still listen to them for their beauty, or because they reminded me of who I used to be, but I was worlds away from feeling the kind of spiritual connection to songs about loneliness that I used to feel. And I have to think that being that happy made me less interested in a lot of music, or at least a lot of the music I used to listen to. I can still connect to a sad song, sure — the same way I can still connect to a sad movie, or TV series — but there’s something personal and intimate about music, something about the way listening to a song becomes a way to define yourself, if only in your own head, and my evolution into a generally happier person meant that most of the signals I used to send (externally and internally) didn’t make sense any more. I bought less music because I needed music less.

I still love music, of course. 3 And I’m always looking for something new-to-me that will get my gears turning. But I don’t experience music the way I used to, and not in the same quantities. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, either.

  1. I say “acquired” because some of them were ripped from CDs loaned to me.

  2. A favorite from 2008: Blame It On Gravity, by Old 97’s.

  3. This is the broadest and blandest possible thing anyone can say about themselves, but you get the idea.

Small Stakes

I recently rewatched The Hunt for Red October, which turns 25 this year. This is one of those action movies I can revisit again and again without diminishing returns, but only partly because it’s a relic from my childhood. 1 Rather, it remains such a compelling film because it maintains steady, calm focus on the human stakes at hand. International espionage and acts of war are discussed, but those are head-fakes. The real story here is about two men on separate but overlapping missions, and how they go about doing them. No cities are destroyed, no worlds are blown apart. There aren’t even that many deaths. The worry of a nuclear strike isn’t real, either: the U.S. officials consider it a possibility, but Ramius is a defector, not a madman. It is, compared with the blockbusters of today, a small film. And that’s the key to its appeal.

Modern blockbusters are usually about the world being in peril, at which point various superheroes or powers are allied to bring civilization back from annihilation. The Marvel movies are opening this up to the entire universe. But The Hunt for Red October is small-stakes action storytelling, which is to say it’s about the people, not the pyrotechnics. “Small” might be misleading here, since this is still an action movie fueled by memories of the Cold War that had just ended; I just mean “smaller than would come to be the norm.” When the world is constantly in danger on the big screen, then we as audiences grow numb to outsized narratives. But when the action is rooted in personal relationships and allowed to play out on a regional level, then we’re able to get our hands around it. It’s no accident that director John McTiernan helmed Die Hard in 1988 and Red October two years later, and that both action films not only stand the test of time 2, but that they’re also all about relationships. Die Hard means nothing if we don’t see John McClane struggling to reconnect with, and ultimately save, his wife. Similarly, Red October means nothing if we don’t have Ramius mourning his wife and reckoning with his life’s meaning, or Jack Ryan doing his best to keep the peace. By staying small, by sticking with these people and making the story matter to them, the filmmaker creates something that works for everyone.

  1. The film hit theaters a few months before I turned 8; I probably saw it for the first time around age 12.

  2. Die Hard is maybe the best American action film of the modern era. More than 25 years later, no one has topped it.

Closing the Distance

When I was in India researching “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we went to this huge, ice cream picture palace to see a Bollywood movie. Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy, and then (they) break out in songs. And it was three-and-a-half hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything! We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were — how their coolness had been ripped aside, and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story. The thrill of thinking, “Could we ever do that in the West? Could we ever get past that cerebral cool and perceived cool?” — Baz Luhrmann

Musicals have been on my mind lately. I revisited Singin’ in the Rain several weeks ago, and in the past few days I’ve rewatched the 2007 edition of Hairspray and selected moments from Moulin Rouge!. What continues to stand out is the paradoxical tension in the way musicals do increasingly fantastical things as a means of removing emotional artifice from the narrative. Those moments that are the least realistic, that is, least representative of the world we live in — the moments when men and women actually slip into song, or dance, or rearrange reality entirely — are precisely those moments where the characters in question are being most honest with themselves, with each other, and with the viewer. The songs are what allow the characters to say how they really feel, and they almost always do this in exposed, even flowery language.

I wrote about some of this a few years ago, in a piece on Moulin Rouge!:

Against the wall and unable to think, [Christian] begins to recite Elton John’s “Your Song,” and the easy devotion of the lyrics fit his character perfectly. But it’s when he lets loose and begins to sing that the scene takes on new life and dimension. There are better songs out there than this one, but what matters in the moment is the honesty of the relationship that’s blooming. Luhrmann makes giant, candy-colored, often surreal-looking films, but he never fakes emotion. Ever. That genuineness comes shining through as Christian sings to Satine, sailing her out onto a cloud and capturing her heart. He returns to her later that night and unleashes a medley of pop songs covering everyone from The Beatles to Kiss to U2 to David Bowie. It’s an amalgam that would be almost laughable if there weren’t so much heart behind it; it’s like Luhrmann is having Christian assemble the ultimate mix tape. […]

Luhrmann manages to inhabit a space that allows for large-scale filmmaking that still relies on honest emotion, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The film lives for two hours in the tension between losing control and having the courage just to try, just as the narrative itself discovers that every love story is underpinned with loss. By turns comic and tragic, funny and sad, the movie is ultimately concerned with trying to capture as many disparate aspects of love and life as it can, leading to a finale that’s as uplifting and heartbreaking as any Luhrmann could have hoped to create, and he hasn’t topped the film since. “Moulin Rouge!” is a moving tribute to that notion of love constant beyond death, of forgiveness for wrongdoing, and of the belief that the cost of losing love is always worth the risk of searching for it.

In film, as in so many things, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. And Moulin Rouge! says its piece well. Luhrmann stuffs the frame with ideas, and as ostentatious as he is, he’s also willing to not call attention to certain images or details, content instead to let the viewer find them or to just let their existence color the experience on a subliminal level. (A nice touch: when Christian’s rendition of “Your Song” transitions to a fantasy, his jacket changes to one lined with sequins to catch the moonlight. He’s never still long enough for it to be really noticeable — it’s more of an atmospheric touch than anything.) Yet the statement works in a different way for the medium: musicals are often saying big, broad, poetic things, and they’re doing it through theatrical devices specifically designed to make the performer and viewer more vulnerable. There is no hiding here. It’s the opposite of almost every other film form, in which characters often struggle to remain independent or stoic as they experience life and love. This is a genre that practically bleeds through the projector. To watch someone sing and dance with all their heart is to witness something pure, and gentle, and honest in that we don’t often see on screen. Giving yourself over to a work of art that does this means allowing yourself to be as vulnerable as the characters, and that’s increasingly a difficult thing to do.

What mostly keeps us from engaging with works on this level is the fear of being seen as vulnerable, or being marked as soft. It’s not a requirement to like a musical just because it’s a musical, of course, just like there’s no guarantee a musical is automatically going to be good just by the merit of its genre. But honestly reckoning with something that requires such a high degree of vulnerability from the viewer is hard to do when most of us are used to dealing with things through at least several different layers of ironic posturing. As Christy Wampole wrote in the New York Times in 2012:

As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom? […]

What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

If we find ourselves less willing in general to be honest, to risk being sad or happy in a genuine way — to risk being moved by a work of art, or risk being let down by one — how much harder will it be to give ourselves over to those works that are designed to be especially vulnerable and revealing? If there’s nothing more honest than someone singing their heart out, how do we keep ourselves from losing the strength to watch? Romance, musical, family drama: any genre that revolves around (or even touches on) the need for emotional frailty will come to seem foreign, difficult, frightening. Keeping ourselves at a distance from the work is a great way of protecting ourselves, but a lousy way of enjoying something, and of living. Closing that distance is necessary.

That’s the danger of the “cerebral cool” or “perceived cool” that Luhrmann fought when creating Moulin Rouge!, and which continues today. It wasn’t just a musical, but one about love, and one that used existing pop songs in awkward and endearing fashion to get its point across. Contrast it with something like the 2012 film version of the musical Les Miserables, which is somehow cooler and less resonant. The best I can figure is that that version of Les Miserables feels like it’s trying to impress me, whereas other musicals feel like they’re unafraid to tell a sweeping story and be a little corny. They put a little more on the line, and it comes through on some deep level I can’t explain. But I know that I don’t want to give it up, or become immune to it.

Stray Thought on Joss Whedon’s Avengers Films

Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies are destined to be the least like his other works because corporate interests prevent him from killing any of the main characters. Every Whedon creation is high on the body count among the central cast: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (along with its big-screen follow-up, Serenity) never shied away from making the kinds of changes that most other series would consider too drastic. Whedon’s work is, largely, about how people learn to cope with tragedy, and how they come to understand that the only thing they can control in a traumatic situation is their own reaction. However, he’s not able to make such sweeping changes within the Marvel universe, since the direction of the property is ultimately out of his hands. The first Avengers film wound up killing a supporting player only for that actor and character to be revived on the television spinoff Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a year later. Whedon’s Avengers films, then, are bound to be the least connected to his other works simply because they’re forbidden from exploring the emotional territory that Whedon’s come to value most. Financially, they’re his biggest marks on the entertainment world, but narratively, they’re his least personal.

I never feel that movies need people who are sympathetic, but they need characters who are fascinating and charismatic, or you’ll have people feeling shut out of a movie.
David Cronenberg

Jim O’Heir: The Unsung Hero of Parks and Recreation

Ensemble television comedies can never serve every member of the ensemble equally. There’s always going to be a central character, and a few vital supporting characters, and then those members of the group whose presence is important to the narrative but whose purpose is mostly to redirect attention to the stars. They’re there to set up jokes and situations, but they’re almost never the direct focus of any story lines. And even when they do come into play, they’re usually pushed aside fairly soon so the action can once again focus on the core characters. What this means, though, is that those tertiary members of the ensemble have to be completely dependable. They don’t get catch phrases or become breakout hits; they don’t get to save the day, or win in the end, or change the course of the story. They have to fully inhabit their character and role, as committed to one line as the star is to every scene. They have to be engaging enough to warrant your attention and generous enough to cede the floor to bigger stories. And they have to be funny, too. This is incredibly hard to pull off, and the best supporting player in modern sitcom history is Jim O’Heir, the beleaguered Jerry from Parks and Recreation.

Jerry is the butt of a thousand jokes. He’s a hard worker who’s consistently underutilized and overlooked by his colleagues; he’s a nervous public speaker; he’s prone to making mistakes on even menial tasks; he’s simple, shy, well-meaning, and wildly codependent. He’s so deferential that it turns out his name isn’t even Jerry, but Garry — the misnomer came about when his old boss accidentally called him “Jerry” on his first day, and Jerry didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings by correcting him, so he just allowed himself to be called Jerry for decades. Jerry’s an amateur painter, a loving husband and father, and generally pleasant even when he’s being mocked at the office. He’s comic relief on a sitcom, someone just there to add jokes. Only a few stories have involved Jerry directly, and they’re usually about how his colleagues are going to accomplish their own goals while he just putters along. In “Jerry’s Painting,” he paints an image of a centaur to hang in City Hall that’s subconsciously modeled on his boss, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), but the episode’s plot is primarily about Leslie’s desire to use the painting as a way to make herself feel more confident and assertive in her own life. She gets embroiled in a minor scandal over the painting’s nudity and promptly makes the battle all about her; when Jerry protests, “It’s my painting,” she cuts him off. Or there’s “Park Safety,” in which Jerry reports being mugged in the park before copping to the fact that he actually fell and hurt himself while reaching for a burrito he’d dropped in a creek. The episode is mostly about his coworkers attempting to be kinder to him and then, in the end, returning to the habit of ribbing him so they can restore balance to the office.

This is a thankless comic role. It needs someone to show up, be pathetic but likable, and remain engaging no matter what’s going on around him. And actor Jim O’Heir knocks it out of the park every time. The show is built around Poehler’s character, and other performers have enjoyed breakout success as their characters become pop culture heroes: Nick Offerman’s bearded landsman Ron Swanson, Aziz Ansari’s swaggering Tom Haverford, Chris Pratt’s lovable goofball Andy Dwyer, Ben Schwartz’s cartoonish Jean-Ralphio, Aubrey Plaza’s dour but generous April Ludgate. They’re all designed to pop in some way, so it’s no surprise they have. And those performers are all wonderful. But O’Heir is doing fantastic, hilarious, detailed supporting work in a way that’s always funny but never flashy, and that’s often harder, and certainly less acknowledged.

O’Heir has to walk a fine line: he has to act simple but not moronic, kind but not ignorant, self-possessed but not proud, cooperative but not dynamic, dedicated but not robotic. In other words, he has to present himself as the possible subject for mockery but still walk and talk and act like a real person. One of the show’s many strengths has been its ability to create a world that feels populated by real characters, and O’Heir’s work as Jerry is no different. You never doubt that he’s really a lifelong civil servant, unironically excited about notarizing things and willing to do whatever the team needs done. Jerry isn’t even smug or entitled about being married to a beautiful woman (played by Christie Brinkley), even in the series finale, as his life becomes increasingly wonderful. Rather, he’s genuinely loving and happy.

That’s what it really is: the idea of being genuine. Parks is shot as a mockumentary that lets its characters make jokes directly to the viewer in the form of talking-head interviews or sly glances right at the camera. But Jerry never does this. When he does talk to the camera, it’s simply and honestly, like the time he talked about how he’s looking forward to relaxing with “a stack of mystery novels” after retirement, or his discourse about how his annual hunting trip is his one opportunity for guy time, or his poignant defense of his pointillism after his coworkers made fun of it. Jerry is never, ever too cool for the room, and that’s thanks to O’Heir’s total commitment and comic skill. He is the game day player, the long-ball hitter, the constant presence, the consummate pro; the one who has the guts to look foolish. He might not have been the star of the show, but it’s impossible to imagine the show without him.

Why Do We Still Believe Trailers?

A few years back, faux trailers were a fad; specifically, faux trailers that were edited to make the movies in question appear radically different than they actually were. One of the more popular ones was “Scary Mary,” which was a recut ad designed to make Mary Poppins look like a horror movie:

There was also one that made The Shining look like a coming-of-age dramedy:

Around the same time, people were making joke versions of the trailer for Brokeback Mountain, including this one that retooled Back to the Future as a story of forbidden love:

The gag here is, of course, just how easy it is to make a trailer diverge wildly from the movie it’s advertising, with nothing more than the right song selections and some choice edits. These recut trailers pull the curtain down and show us the men and women pulling the switches: look how it easy is to make Doc and Marty fall in love, or Jack Torrance care for his family. Trailers can lie so easily. Why, then do we still believe them?

Trailers are as popular as ever among viewers and marketers. (Blockbuster films are built around campaigns involving nested series of trailers, sneak peeks, and even teases for trailers.) Even when they all start to run together, and even when they’re clearly selling a different product than the actual film, they remain big business. Yet the existence of the jokey recut trailers would seem to suggest that people know trailers are misleading, or at least, that they know trailers have the potential to be misleading. How can we laugh at their disingenuousness in one moment and breathlessly watch them, eyes wide, in the next?

• Maybe we like being targeted by marketing. Marketers know what we like, too. Trailers are designed to be alluring, tasty, and filling in an empty way, like fatty snacks that hit our tastebuds just so. There’s a reason we can’t stop eating junk food, and there’s a reason we can’t stop watching trailers.

• I also think we like suspending disbelief. A movie is long, and complicated, and potentially disappointing. It ebbs and flows, and it takes more effort on our part to get and stay engaged. A trailer, though, is a two-and-a-half-minute ride that’s almost guaranteed to trigger reactions within us, and it allows us to believe that the movie experience will be as exciting and fulfilling as the ad we’re consuming.

• And I think it’s that we’re used to them, and that we’re also used to holding contradictory beliefs that sometimes influence each other in ways we’re not fully aware of at the time. We know trailers are deceptive and misleading, but we also know they’re crafted to be entertaining, and we want to be entertained. We want so much to transform the feeling of “that was a good trailer” into “that movie looks good” that we do it without thinking. We can know, deep down, that trailers are lies, and we’ll still eagerly watch them in hopes of copping a buzz of excitement for something new. We know we’re being sold a bill of goods, but we’re still happy to buy. We’re weird.

Scattered Thoughts on Bad Marketing

• A movie is never its marketing, but it’s often worth looking at how movies are sold and what makes some of them successful while others struggle to find an audience.

• Edge of Tomorrow is a crisp, fun, entertaining action-spectacle that’s essentially Aliens crossed with Groundhog Day: a soldier named Cage (Tom Cruise) is tossed in with the front lines to fend off an alien invasion, and he dies in combat only to wake up at the beginning of the day to do it all over again. Every death “resets” the day, so Cage’s mission is to figure out how to beat the aliens, save the world, and stop the cycle. In addition to all that sci-fi action, there’s a decent amount of humor, or at least comic relief: little jokes and asides allow for breathing room, and they let the audience laugh and release a little of the tension that’s been building during the more action-driven scenes. In other words, it’s got good pacing, and a brain.

• Almost none of that is evident from the film’s first full trailer:

The follow-up trailer isn’t much better:

They deal in their way with the story’s central gimmick, but they’re almost incomprehensible. They don’t do anything to distinguish the movie from other blockbusters, nor do they give the first clue to the film’s verve or voice. Place it next to something like the ad for Guardians of the Galaxy, which used its own pop soundtrack for atmosphere, and you see how forgettable it is.

• Standard caveat here that all trailers are lies designed by marketers.

• Audiences are bought more often than they’re earned, and there’s a clear disconnect here between the movie and the way it’s being presented to potential audiences. Even the title was a point of contention. Star Emily Blunt said that she was a fan of All You Need Is Kill, the title of the comic that inspired the film, but even more curiously, Warner Bros. seemed to attempt to retitle the film for home video. The film’s tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat.” — which is used prominently in the trailers — takes center stage on the Blu-ray/DVD cover, while iTunes and Amazon both list its title as Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow:



• The movie’s name didn’t change, though. When the title finally displays (at the end of the movie), it’s still just Edge of Tomorrow.

• This is an amazingly insecure and weird move on the part of the studio. It assumes that audiences stayed away because the found the title generic (which it is), and not, more accurately, because they didn’t know what kind of movie they’d be getting. There’s nothing in the ads to stylistically or tonally distinguish Edge of Tomorrow from the overwrought, almost hilariously serious promotions for the films that were released just before it, like Godzilla or X-Men: Days of Future Past, or shortly afterward, like Transformers: Age of Extinction or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s pitched and sold as one more in a line of summer shoot-em-ups, when it’s actually much more more fun and interesting than that. The trailer makes it feel like a somber march up Omaha Beach, when the film itself is robust, interesting, funny, exciting, and genuinely engaging. Getting scared and changing the movie’s title isn’t going to suddenly cause people to rediscover it. Rather, it causes confusion and makes the movie feel that much more like an uncertain proposition. How good can it really be, we’ll wonder, if even the studio is trying to hide it from us?

Scattered Thoughts About Bro-Country


• If you want to understand America, you have to understand the South. And if you want to understand the South, you have to understand country music.

• Country — I’m talking here about mainstream country music, not offshoots like alt-country — is so rooted in geography and ideology that it’s impossible to separate the art from its roots. Other genres and performers have had ties to different places, sure: musical sounds vary by region and history, and lyricists have romanticized specific places in ways that make those places feel universal, eternal. (E.g., Springsteen’s mythical Jersey Americana.) But most pop and rock is about feeling, not place. Love, heartache, excitement, partying, story, dance, whatever: the songs aren’t designed with a specific city or home town in mind. Country, though, is descended from Southern communities and tied inextricably to Southern states. By extension, that means it’s tied to ideologies that are traditionally popular in the South, like religion or social dynamics.

• An example of the religious specificity of country and its relation to region: Dotted throughout the South are Churches of Christ — autonomous churches of varying size (some downright tiny) that are typically conservative and trace their roots to the Restoration Movement. These churches don’t answer to any kind of diocese or broad leader, and they tend to be off the radar in ways that, say, the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t. The denomination doesn’t really have much of a pop culture presence, or an awareness among the general public, but it has still been mentioned in hit country songs like this one and this one. That is the closeness of the bond between country and the South. Many of the genre’s songs are acts of in-group identification.

• Country music is often reactive; that is, as much as it relies on certain sounds and styles, it just as often seeks to define itself in opposition to pop, rock, and mainstream genres and ideologies. This goes back to the South’s notion of representing itself as set apart, special, and differently formed than the rest of the country. It is not even remotely accidental that a region of the country that once seceded to form its own nation still champions a musical genre that is stylistically and narratively based in opposition and separation.

• Country’s reactiveness tends to make itself known most sharply when mainstream culture is undergoing progressive shifts. In 1969, with the youth movement and civil rights battles in full swing, Merle Haggard released “Okie From Muskogee,” an anti-protest song that railed against pot, draft-dodging, long hair, and just about every possible hippie stereotype you could name. This is country music: a down-home sound that resists social change.

• Similarly, periods of conservatism tend to bring out more peaceful, nostalgic country music. The Reagan presidency saw a rise in pop-oriented country that yearned for a return to the good old days. Songs like The Judds’ “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days)” literally spelled out these requests, and the mega-success of the band Alabama (who had 21 consecutive No. 1 hits on the country charts from 1980-1986) relied on it, as well, with songs like “Song of the South,” “High Cotton,” “Mountain Music,” and the blue-collar ode “40 Hour Week (For a Livin’).” Ronnie Milsap’s “Lost in the Fifties Tonight (In the Still of the Night)” is another ode to Boomer wish-fulfillment.

• As the 1990s arrived, though, bringing with them Bill Clinton and renewed mainstream discussions of social progression, country music veered into neotraditionalism, which placed an emphasis on classic sounds. This was more of an aesthetic rebellion than a lyrical one, more interested in drawing a line in the musical sand, and many of the artists who emerged here put out some strong music.

• Country’s opposition isn’t solely about who’s in the White House, though, but about the social discussions we’re having as a nation at large. It was the first George W. Bush administration’s launch of the war on terror, after all, that gave us Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” — though interestingly, Keith had started his career with blander tunes in the neotraditional era. It wasn’t until he caricatured himself that he went to a new level of fame (or infamy).

• This is the context of bro-country, a recent subgenre that assembles song lyrics from a list composed of dirt roads, short skirts, and fishing trips. Critic Grady Smith made this in 2013 to examine the phenomenon:

• Bro-country’s reductive, almost hilariously one-dimensional understanding of women and relationships was skewered in 2014’s “Girl in a Country Song,” by Maddie & Tae. The song is its own call for a return to the past, one in which women were at least allowed to do something more than wear cutoffs and ride shotgun in pickups:

• Bro-country is the genre’s latest retaliation against broader cultural trends, this time those dealing with evolving ideas of marriage, relationships, and sexuality, as well as the openness with which such ideas are addressed. Gay marriage is now legal in 37 states; award-winning TV shows revolve around transgender stories; pop culture storytelling now has gay characters whose sexuality is not a joke, nor their defining characteristic. Bro-country is a cliche-ridden attempt to push back at this. Its subtextual call for a return to the good ol’ days is similar to the one country music is always, in some way, sounding out, but this time it’s specifically about the nation’s changing attitudes toward its gay citizens and country music’s reticence to follow along.

• Country can be a tough place for gay artists to find acceptance. Performers like Chely Wright and Ty Herndon have come out, but given the genre’s historical connection to the South — and to Southern religions — country is still years (or decades) behind pop and rock. When Ricky Skaggs was ambushed by TMZ and asked his opinion about country singers coming out, he expressed his approval not that they be themselves, but that they should be accepted because “we’re all sinners.” This is the backdrop of country music. The importance of the connections between the music, the region, and the religion cannot be overstated.

• Bro-country, then, isn’t just the latest disposable fad within the genre, or a way to mark this particular era, but a reflection of the genre’s and the region’s discomfort with progressive attitudes toward and discussions of adult human sexuality outside the traditional “two straight white people in love” model. It’s a defense mechanism, born of a desire to avoid change and conflict and get back to the way things used to be. But things weren’t better in the great Back Then; they were just hidden. The best thing for country to do here is the thing it has the hardest time doing: embracing the future.

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


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


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


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


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)
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 …


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.
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.




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?
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


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.
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


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.
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.




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.
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.




Rudderless (2014)
Fury (2014)
Bernie (2012): Texas forever.
Before I Go to Sleep (2014)
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


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)
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


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.
Scrubs (Seasons 6-8)
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.


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:


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.


“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


“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


“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


“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


“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


“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


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


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


“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


“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


“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


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