Monday, December 30, 2013

The Top 10 Albums of 2013

I'll admit that I didn't hear as many new albums this year as I probably should have before making an authoritative list on it. But those that I did were mostly great. Music may not be this blog's bread-and-butter, but here were my 10 favorite albums from 2013.

10. Nothing Was the Same, Drake

Nothing Was the Same is something of a misnomer. In many ways, it's very similar to Drake's 2011 masterpiece, Take Care, both sonically and thematically. And that's certainly not a bad thing. Drake continues to pour out his heart and mind over Noah "40" Shebib's spacey, hypnotic beats, and songs like "The Language" and "Tuscan Leather" are intimate and grand. That's not to say that Drake isn't interested in some experimentation here: "Wu-Tang Forever" finds him rewriting a bona-fide hip-hop classic, while "Hold On, We're Going Home" is an unexpected blast of '80s pop that only features his singing voice. It may have mostly been more of the same, but when the same is the good, why bother changing?

9. Save Rock & Roll, Fall Out Boy

Fall Out Boy are survivors. They had a fantastic run on the charts in the mid-2000s, but when "emo" fell out of fashion (and fell it most certainly did), it seemed like Fall Out Boy were doomed to be casualties of its fate. Instead, the band took a long hiatus, branched out into (mostly failed) solo projects, then regrouped. The album may be titled Save Rock & Roll, but this is there poppiest effort yet. Yeah, there's plenty of guitar crunch on singles like "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark (Light 'Em Up)" and "The Phoenix," but they're underscored by drum loops and glitzy synths, and "The Mighty Fall" finds singer Patrick Stump showing off his hip-hop swagger. But it's on soulful cuts like "Just One Yesterday" and the title track that find the band at it's best, unleashing pop bombast with Stump's give-'em-hell vocals. They may not have "saved" rock and roll, but they've certainly saved themselves, and with incredible results.

8. Born Sinner, J. Cole

J. Cole's 2011 debut, Cole World: The Sideline Story, was not perfect, and even he will admit that. So on his long-awaited follow-up, Born Sinner, he set out to prove his talents. Cole unleashes some of his strongest lyrics to date, such as on "LAnd of the Snakes" and "She Knows," as well as some of his most accessible production in hit singles "Power Trip" and "Crooked Smile." But where Cole - and Born Sinner - shine brightest are on the tracks where he is most vulnerable, and key track "Let Nas Down" is a perfect example. Over a jazzy groove, Cole raps about letting his mentor down, and the results are electrifying. The same can be said for the entirety of Cole's sophomore effort.

7. The 20/20 Experience - Part 1 of 2, Justin Timberlake

It was going to be the comeback to end all comebacks. After seven long years in the acting wilderness, Justin Timberlake was coming back to music with a follow-up to FutureSex/LoveSounds. Given that album's retroactive status as a new pop classic, the expectations were astronomical. And as it turned out, Timberlake gave us two new albums of music. While The 20/20 Experience - Part 2 of 2 felt more like what fans were expecting, Part 1 is the better album. The songs stretch well past their natural breaking points, shifting into new sounds, as Timberlake explores his various sonic frontiers, from get-low funk ("Pusher Love Girl") to glitzy club sounds ("Suit & Tie") to arena rock ("Mirrors"). The true gems, though, are cuts like the looping samba of "Let the Groove Get In," the Michael Jackson swing of "Don't Hold the Wall" and the Radiohead-like ambience of "Blue Ocean Floor." It was a more experimental album, sure. But it resulted in some of Timberlake's most unexpected - and best - work to date.

6. Random Access Memories, Daft Punk

2013 was the year that EDM finally planted its feet in mainstream pop. So it seems appropriate that this would be the time for Daft Punk, which had been the face of EDM for many during the late '90s and '00s, to come back with their first album of forward-thinking robot rock since 2005, right? Of course, except at a moment when their signature sound was never more popular, the duo unleashed Random Access Memories, an album of retro-future disco grooves. Smash single "Get Lucky" was an infectious earworm and an absolute blast, while the Paul Williams-featuring "Touch" is an epic of space-age disconnect. On the opposite end of the spectrum, "Doin' It Right" is a minimalist jam, a final grace note before explosive finale "Contact." The whole essence of the album, and Daft Punk's entire aesthetic, is perhaps captured by "Girogio by Morodor:" a glimpse into the past as channeled through the future.

5. Reflektor, Arcade Fire

Though nobody quite knew what to expect from Arcade Fire's follow-up to their Grammy-winning 2010 album The Suburbs, surely nobody was expecting them to lay down their grooviest work yet. The band regrouped to Haiti, and using that experience recorded an album that, though lacking arena-shaking catharsis a la "Wake Up," is a singularly unique work in their oeuvre. The title track rides a slinky groove and even features a few lines from David Bowie, while "Here Comes the Night Time" is a Carnival party in six-and-a-half minutes. "Afterlife," meanwhile, is the closest the Reflektor comes to typical Arcade Fire: propulsive drums, big emotions, and an insatiably danceable rocker. As the whole album proves, though, there may not be such as thing as "typical" Arcade Fire anymore.

4. Yeezus, Kanye West

In 2010, Kanye West released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a bona fide classic that's not only one of the most audacious, Olympian, and, yes, best albums in hip-hop history, but also one of the best, period. So how do you follow up an act like that? As West demonstrated on Yeezus, you don't even try. Instead, he unleashed this Molotov cocktail of an album upon an unsuspecting world. A dark voyage into West's untethered wrath, the album features a number of cuts that feature primal screaming ("I Am A God"), lacerating takedowns ("Blood on the Leaves"), and intense, freeform exercises in no-holds-barred ranting ("New Slaves"). The production is just as intense - I wouldn't recommend listening to "Hold My Liquor" on repeat - and even at just 40 minutes, it's a punishing listen. He saves the most jarring for last, though: "Bound 2," a shifting blast of old-school soul samples interrupted with blasts of Charlie Wilson's enormous voice, like a beacon of light cutting through the darkness. It's a difficult album, and it's a hard one to "love." But damn if it's not an admirable, and genuinely incredible, work from an artist who looked long and hard at the expectations set before him and simply blew them up.

3. Pure Heroine, Lorde

If you were looking for the pop breakout of 2013, you probably wouldn't have expected it to be a 17-year-old New Zealander whose mother is a poet laureate. And yet here stands Ella Yelich-O'Connor, aka Lorde, the owner of a nine-week #1 single ("Royals"). Her debut full-length, Pure Heroine, is a testament that she has more talent than her seeming one-hit wonder status would suggest. On the opener, "Tennis Court," she announces "don't you think that it's boring how people talk?" From there, it's teen isolation channelled through a low-key pop filter, as she enjoys quiet moments driving through the suburbs ("400 Lux") and pop ennui ("Team"). It's a remarkable debut from an artist who's clearly only just getting warmed up.

2. Days Are Gone, Haim

It's entirely possible to dig Days Are Gone out of a crate and mistake it for a lost gem of '80s pop. The three sisters of Haim imbued their debut with a genuine love for the decade, as evidenced on monster sing-along "The Wire" and shimmering "Falling." All three of them trade vocals throughout the album, and the harmonies are sweet even when the lyrics turn bitter. "If I Could Change Your Mind" is a delightful slow-burner, and an example of how much more this album opens up on multiple listens. In a year when a lot of artists looked back to the past for inspiration, none where as much fun as this album from a group with a bright future ahead of them.

1. The Bones of What You Believe, CHVRCHES

Electro-pop is the sound of the moment, both on the mainstream side of music and amongst indie artists. There's so much available that it can be hard for an artist to stand out. Enter CHVRCHES, the Scottish outfit that released the year's best album. The Bones of What You Believe is full of enormous synthesizer hooks and thudding beats, from the looping claps of "The Mother We Share" to the chilled-out groove of "Recover" to that massive climax of "Tether." But none of these incredible sounds would matter so much as they do without singer Lauren Mayberry's rapturous vocals, coming in like dispatches from a far-off world doused in hope and pain in equal measure. When she sings "I'll be the thorn in your side 'til you die," as she does on "We Sink," you feel every bit of that sentiment. There were plenty of great pop albums this year, particularly from new artists. But none stood as tall, or as magnificent, or as moving, as The Bones of What You Believe.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Ordet (1955)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #24 (tied with In the Mood for Love)

It just seems appropriate that, right in the middle of the end-of-year holidays, this feature would take a look at Danish directer Carl Theodor Dreyer's religious epic Ordet. The 1955 Gold Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival doesn't have much in the way - the events that connect the various parts are youngest son Anders Borgen's (Cay Kristiansen) desire to marry Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the sectarian daughter of a cobbler (Ejner Federspiel), and oldest son Mikkel Borgen's (Emil Hass Christensen) wife Inger (Birgette Federspiel) having complications with her third child, ultimately losing both the child and her own life. Meanwhile, patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrick Malberg) deals with his middle son Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who went insane studying Kierkergaard - surely anyone who's studied philosophy can relate - and now think's he's Jesus Christ.

It's hard to examine the film's religious themes without examining Dreyer himself. Much like Martin Scorsese would do throughout his career, Dreyer seemed to be drawn to topics of faith. This isn't terribly surprising, as Denmark has embraced the Lutheran church as it's state religion (it should be noted, though, that today's Danish don't consider themselves terribly religious) and it's easy to imagine the illegitimately-born Dreyer finding solace in faith. For most of his career, he worked on the screenplay to an epic retelling of the life of Jesus Christ, but he could never find the funding to make it a reality. His most well-known films, The Passion of Joan of Arc (to be covered in a later edition of this feature) and Vampyr, both dealt with how good and evil are in constant conflict.

It's not surprising, then, that Dreyer would be drawn to "Ordet," a stage play by martyred (by the Nazis) pastor Kaj Munk. There are four different religious perspectives present among the various characters, and the film never really settles on any particular one being "correct." Despite the rather overtly Christian ending - Inger is miraculously raised from the dead, and previously agnostic Mikkel declares his belief in God - Dreyer's film is more interested in exploring the nature of faith itself, using four different characters as windows into the various outcomes that can result from belief.

First, there's Morten. Morten is a solemn man of faith, pious, humble, and unassuming. He is the average person of faith: he knows what he believes, wishes the same for his children, but ultimately doesn't push too hard to convert anyone. Peter, the cobbler, is the extremist. He uses his interpretation of faith as a means to bully Morten when the latter comes to him on behalf of Anders. His faith has been radicalized, used as a means of separating himself from "lesser" society and affirming his holier-than-thou attitude. These two men's faiths are contradictory: one is humble, the other proud.

Similarly, Mikkel and Johannes are presented as spiritual opposites. Mikkel is the agnostic, the non-believer. For him, religion is a fool's errand, and he sees no reason to start believing now. On the other hand, Johannes is driven to the point of delusion: his madness has brought him to believe that he is Jesus Christ himself. Though Dreyer never underlines this point, he presents faith as a kind of madness through Johannes. Johannes wanders into various scenes of the film, giving sermons on morality to anyone who is present. This makes it more interesting in the end, when the two meet in the middle: Mikkel professes his belief (though not necessarily in the Christian God, just a higher power) and Johannes breaks from his madness.

Through Ordet, Dreyer delivers a film that is deeply religious without ever subscribing to a particular point of view. Instead, he uses the film as an opportunity to explore the various meanings of faith, and how religion can be both constructive and destructive. In Ordet, he provides the template for how to cinematically discuss faith with nuance and respect.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" L'Atalante (1934)

Saturday, December 28, 2013

December 2013 Oscar Predictions

Ah, the holidays. If I had been a better planner, I would have had my December predictions posted shortly after the Golden Globe nominations were announced. Instead, it's almost January 2014 and I still haven't done them. Given everything else that I'm working on both here and at my day job, I've scribbled down my new predictions, without commentary, on a piece of paper, which you can see below (an earlier, slightly different version was posted on Facebook/Twitter last week). Let's discuss them in the comments, shall we?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 2013 Foreign Language Oscar Shortlist

The Academy released it's annual list of the semifinalists for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar on Friday. The foreign film category is always one of my favorites; I don't usually include it in my predictions because until the final submissions are tallied it's a tough category to predict (and even then, it usually comes down to the semifinalists). Of these nine films, only five of them will be nominated, but all are worth seeking out, at least as much as possible. Sadly, too often these film's chances at US distribution depend on whether or not they're nominated, but foreign films deserve better chances to be seen, Oscar or not. Audiences aren't necessarily as subtitle-phobic as distributors imagine.

Here are the nine films in contention:

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

This film is already in theaters here in the States, and has received generally great reviews. It's about a pair of musicians who's relationship is strained by their daughter's medical woes. Belgium's last nomination came in 2011 for Bullhead.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Director Danis Tanvoic also directed Bosnia & Herzegovina's only previous nominee and winner, 2001's No Man's Land. This film, which follows the trials of a gypsy family, was a hit on the festival circuit, taking the Jury Grand Prix and Best Actor prizes at this year's Berlin International Film Festival.

The Missing Picture (Cambodia)

After it failed to make the semifinalist list for Best Documentary Feature, Rithy Panh's unique film - in which he uses a mix of archival footage and handmade clay figurines to recreate the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s - has another shot at a nomination this year. If it does make the final nominees, it would be the first documentary to ever make this category, as well as Cambodia's first nomination.

The Hunt (Denmark)

An interesting example of the Academy's odd eligibility rules, this film took home Best Actor at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Mads Mikkelsen stars as a man who's accused of pedophilia, resulting in the entire town turning against him. Director Thomas Vinterberg also directed The Celebration, which in 1996 was considered a masterpiece and an egregious snub by the Academy. Denmark's most recent nomination came last year for A Royal Affair.

Two Lives (Germany)

Over the past decade, Germany has scored a number of nominations in this category, including wins in 2002 and 2006. This film, which stars the great Liv Ullmann, is about a woman in post-Iron Curtain Germany coming to terms with her German and Norwegian heritage. Germany's last nomination was in  2009, for The White Ribbon.

The Grandmaster (Hong Kong)

This film, Wong Kar-Wai's biopic about Ip Man (Bruce Lee's mentor), was an international hit, though reception in the US was a bit cooler. Hong Kong only has two previous nominations, but both of them are masterpieces: 1991's Raise the Red Lantern and 1993's Farewell My Concubine.

The Notebook (Hungary)

In recent years, Hungary has submitted more avant-garde films for this category, rather than traditional Oscar bait. This film, a moving story about a pair of children surviving WWII, falls more in line with the latter category. Hungary's currently holding a long nomination-less streak, with their last nod coming in 1988 for Hanussen.

The Great Beauty (Italy)

Though it didn't take home any awards, Paolo Sorrentino's ode to the Italian New Wave and the city of Rome received an ecstatic reception at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Despite owning the record for most wins in this category (with 10), Italy hasn't had much luck in recent years, with their most recent nominee being 2005's Don't Tell.

Omar (Palestine)

Director Hany-Abu Assad also made Palestine's only previous nominee, 2005's stellar Paradise Now. This film, which competed in the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes this year (that competition, coincidentally, was won by The Missing Picture), concerns a man caught in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

And just for fun, I'd predict that the category will turn out like this:

The Great Beauty (Italy)
The Hunt (Denmark)
Two Lives (Germany)
The Grandmaster (Hong Kong)
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Frozen (2013)

Disney has a long, storied history with animated films. But from 1989 through, I don't know, 1995 or 1997 (if you loved Hercules) or 1999 (if you'll go to the line for Tarzan), Disney's animated films hit a string of quality that earned the distinction of the "Disney renaissance." During this period, they unleashed The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and with the help of Pixar, Toy Story. This was followed by a rough period in which Pixar's films outshone Disney proper, coupled with the unfortunate news that Disney Animation Studios was shutting down its hand-drawn animation department. But then came The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, which were followed with the successes of Wreck-It Ralph and Frankenweenie, and Pixar's fortunes (creative, not financial) took a turn post-Toy Story 3. All of this is to say that if you were mounting a case that a second Disney renaissance is upon us, Frozen would be an integral piece of evidence.

The film, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," tells the story of princesses Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa was born with icy powers, and as a result keeps herself locked away from everyone else. When Elsa becomes queen of the kingdom, her powers slip, causing a permanent winter in which she exiles herself. Anna takes it upon herself to find her sister and break the winter, with the help of ice trader Kristoff (Jonathan Groff).

The first thing you notice about Frozen's greatness is the music: with a score by Christophe Beck and music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (who's known on Broadway for his work with Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), these songs are incredibly catchy and great. The showstopper, of course, is "Let It Go," which is Elsa's big moment of self-confidence. It's the kind of song that's sure to strike a chord with anyone afraid to be themselves. Even the throwaways - like talking snowman Olaf's (Josh Gad) ditty about wanting to know what summer's like - are great fun. But I keep coming back to the first big number, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" This is the song that cuts to the heart of the film: two sisters growing apart, with one desperately eager to hang out with the other but met with silence. It's the saddest opening five minutes of a Disney film since Up.

However, as great as the music is, it wouldn't be nearly as effective without the strong, multi-dimensional characters at the film's center. Directors Jennifer Lee (who wrote the screenplay for this and Wreck-It Ralph) and Chris Buck (who gets a story credit along with Lee and Shane Morris and is perhaps best known for directing Tarzan) take the time to make Anna, Elsa, and Kristoff decidedly flawed human beings, but doesn't judge them for it. Anna may be a little ditzy, and Elsa a little self-centered, but that makes them all the more endearing, especially given the fact that several early Disney princesses come off as nothing short of perfection. Those flaws turn out to counter-balance each other, too, which makes it all the more evident that these two need each other. Kristoff, too, comes off as goofy but sincere, a guy who's doing the best he can with what he's been given in life. Even Olaf, who's mostly there for comic relief (and merchandise sales), is used sparingly enough that he never dominates the film.

To that end, credit must be given to the outstanding voice cast. Bell does a fantastic job with Anna's energy and her singing voice is terrific. Menzel, of course, steals the show, which is to be expected. Groff's work with Kristoff is smartly subdued and genuinely sweet, making him completely swoon-worthy. And as Hans, the man who first woos Anna but may have ulterior motives, Broadway vet Santino Fontana is delightfully cocky and really showcases his voice in "Love is an Open Door" (interestingly enough, he was also the Prince in the recent Broadway production of Roger & Hammerstein's Cinderella).

As much as Pixar has been a focal point of conversation about emotionally complex animated films, Disney has been doing a great job lately at crafting stories that not only feature fantastic music, but also find real heart and pathos in their characters, particularly their princesses. Frozen is just the latest example of this. A

Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 in Review: The Top 30 Songs

Amazingly, 2013 is almost over. I don't know where the time went, but I wish I had more of it to properly roll out the end-of-year festivities here at The Entertainment Junkie. To start things off, here are my completely subjective choices for the 30 best songs of the year. Enjoy!

30. "Bitter Rivals," Sleigh Bells

Sleigh Bells came out of nowhere this year with a follow-up to their divisive sophomore album, Reign of Terror. The titular lead single, which accompanied the announcement, is a punky blast of chainsaw-riffage and singer Alexis Krauss' pissed-off cheerleader lyrics. It signaled that though the band will probably never match the left-field energy of their debut, they've found a way to stay aggressive while leaning more toward the "pop" end of their noise-pop sound.

29. "Chain Smoker," Chance the Rapper

On his breakout mixtape Acid Rap, Chicago MC Chance the Rapper proved himself to be a genuinely gifted up-and-comer with a voice that's unlike anything else in rap. On "Chain Smoker," the closing track, he combines his various skills: his formidable flow, clever wordplay, jazzy singing, spirited production. This is a track that easily worms its way into your head and doesn't let go. Listen to it a few times and try not to sing along.

28. "Pompeii," Bastille

Maybe it's the "hey-ohs" that background the entire song. Or maybe it's lead singer/songwriter Dan Smith's dark, almost apocalyptic lyrics ("Grey clouds roll over the hills / Bringing darkness from above"). Or maybe it's the percussive, almost primal beat that feels like it would inspire many a war dance. Whatever it is, there's no denying that "Pompeii" is one of the catchiest alternative songs of the year, prompting many a sing-along to the grim refrain "how am I gonna be an optimist about this?"

27. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)," David Bowie

After ten years away from Earth, David Bowie came back with The Next Day, an album that looked back upon his own career while pushing it forward. "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)" is a shimmery blast of Berlin-era glam rock about one of Bowie's favorite subjects: celebrity. This time around, his lyrics are filled with vitriol, singing "we will never be rid of these stars / but I hope they live forever." It's a welcome return from a man who's own celebrity and his relationship to it are always evolving.

26. "Brave," Sara Bareilles

Sara Bareilles is not cool. Her brand of piano-based pop has been out of style since at least 2008, and since then she's been branded with the label "secretary rock." "Brave" is not necessarily a cool song, either, though it's by far the closest she's come to making a mainstream pop song. But it's also one of her best, the earnestness in her voice selling the be-yourself message much better than Katy Perry's over-processed "Roar" does. It may not the kind of song that'll top the lists of "hip" critics and music blogs, but this is fine, unabashed pop.

Numbers 25 - 1 after the break.

Monday, December 16, 2013

RIP Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013) and Joan Fontaine (1917 - 2013)

This weekend we lost two legendary actors: on Saturday, Peter O'Toole was pronounced dead at the age of 81 by his publicist, and on Sunday, Joan Fontaine died at the age of 96.

Peter O'Toole was most famous for his star-making turn in David Lean's 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. Though that film was a behemoth at the Oscars and O'Toole had become an instant overnight sensation, O'Toole failed to win an Oscar for his performance. In fact, he would go on to lose on all eight of his nominations, the most ever for an actor without a win. Always a fighter, he quipped he'd "win the bugger outright" one day in refusing an Honorary Oscar in 2002. He appeared in a number of classic roles, but I'll personally remember him most fondly as King Henry II in 1968's The Lion in Winter. It was my first exposure to him as an actor, and watching it in a high school drama class, I was riveted by his roaring energy and incredible rapport with Katharine Hepburn. Though I never did follow up on becoming an actor, I can distinctly remember thinking in that moment that I wanted be as good as O'Toole.

Joan Fontaine is well-known for her two films with Alfred Hitchcock - 1940's Best Picture winner Rebecca, and the following year's Suspicion, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar - but is perhaps best known for her decades-long feud with sister Olivia de Havilland. Though Fontaine's career as a star faded as she got older (her theatrical appearance was in the 1966 Hammer horror film The Witches), she had a string of incredible roles in the 1940s, including the aforementioned Hitchcock films and Max Ophuls' 1948 drama Letter from an Unknown Woman. I'm not as familiar with Fontaine's work, having only seen Rebecca, but in that film she's astonishing as the second wife of a mysterious man who's realizing the horrors she's married into. As an added bit of trivia, she is the only actor to have ever won an acting Oscar for a Hitchcock film.

Both O'Toole and Fontaine will be greatly missed, though their performances will live on.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #5

It seems appropriate that we discuss Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans just as the Library of Congress has announced that 75% of all silent films have been lost to time. Sunrise is the result of producer William Fox bringing F.W. Murnau to Hollywood after being impressed by the German filmmaker's ambitious expressionist films. The film includes plenty of Murnau's staples, such as forced-perspective shots and edits laced with symbolism. With Sunrise, though, he sought to do something much more: create a universal story of love lost and regained.

To this end, the film follows a man (George O'Brien) who's been tempted by a woman visiting from the city (Margaret Livingston) to sell his farm and drown his wife (Janet Gaynor), then run away with her to the city. However, when the man can't bring himself to follow through with the plan, he rediscovers the love he has for his wife while they are in the city together.

What's most interesting about the film is how Murnau explores the city, both the physical location and the ideas it symbolizes, with his camera. The film's relationship to the city is complex, a mix of quixotic optimism and lascivious immorality.

On the one hand, there's the city as a den of temptation and loose morals, best represented by the woman from the city. From the very opening shots, she is preparing to go out and woo the man, and a brief glimpse of her bare back can be seen. She's a temptress, a representation of the sin and decadence that the city holds, briefly invading the pure rural village. And she succeeds, as the man succumbs to her charms to the point where he nearly fulfills her plan to run away with her. The city, then, is viewed as a corrupting force during the first part of the film.

But then, as the man and his wife end up in the city themselves, it becomes a place where their love can be rekindled. Though the wife at first flees to the city in order to escape her husband, he follows her there, and slowly she begins to forgive him as he shows his affection for her. The city provides the opportunity to play, as they go to a fancy party and an amusement park. Murnau's sets (aided by some innovative camerawork) create the feeling of an expansive world of excitement and discovery, as the danger of the city melts away into joy.

Could Murnau's representation of the city within the film be read as his attitude towards coming to America? It's certainly possible: America's reputation as a flourishing, decadent land famous for its sprawling urban landscapes (particularly New York, in the Jazz Age) was a source of both celebration and consternation internationally at the time the film was made. With Sunrise being Murnau's first film made in America, its universality can seem quite tethered to the man behind the camera, exploring the corrupting power and brilliant opulence of a strange new land. And the film's final shot, the titular sunrise, is the beacon of hope that maybe those seemingly opposing forces can co-exist for the better. As the film itself notes, life's the same everywhere: "sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet."

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Ordet (1955)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Short Takes: Recently Viewed 2013 Films

Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013)

Every review for Frances Ha, Baumbach's first film since the bitter (in a good way) Ben Stiller comedy Greenburg, has compared it to HBO's Girls. The comparison is practically inevitable: both concern themselves with white twentysomething women in New York trying to make a living in the arts (Frances is a dancer) and struggling to grow up. In particular, though, the film focuses on Frances' resistance to any kind of change, especially when her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) decides to move in with someone else, leaving Frances without a place to live. Frances isn't a particularly easy character to like: she can be selfish, and more often than not her failures are her own fault, though she doesn't see it that way. In Greta Gerwig's hands, though, we understand what drives her and why she's this way (Gerwig also co-wrote the script). If anything, we're rooting for her to get out of her own way in her efforts to grow up. In classic Baumbach style, it's a deceptively bitter film, but it may also be one of his most positive. A-

The Conjuring (dir. James Wan, 2013)

The best horror films - and this is based completely on my limited experience in the genre - rely on building tension, keeping the unknown just that until the audience can't stand it anymore. Coming from the man who began his career with Saw nine years ago, the neatest trick Wan pulls in The Conjuring is making us care about the characters before hell is unleashed upon them. It helps, of course, that Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson play Lorraine and Ed Warren, paranormal investigators who come to the Perron home, and Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston play the Perron parents. But the film takes its sweet time getting to the terror, building slowly with small character moments and tense occurrences by an unseen perpetrator. When the third act finally does come, it blows the doors off. This is how you tell an effective ghost story. "Clap-and-seek" will never be the same. A-

Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013)

When is a Guillermo del Toro movie not a Guillermo del Toro movie? Pacific Rim comes the closest to answering that question. Del Toro's first film in five years tells the story of an Earth in which giant monsters known as kaiju have risen from the sea and are destroying cities along the Pacific rim (the rest of the world doesn't seem to have this problem). Humanity is fighting back with the help of giant robots known as jaegers. Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket is a jaeger pilot who lost his brother in batter with a kaiju, and has not come back for one last stand against the beasts before they destroy everything. In typical del Toro fashion, the details make this world fascinating: the kaiju classification system, the way the film begins several years into the "kaiju war" rather than spending its entire running time on the first incidents, the unique designs of the creatures themselves. It's too bad the same can't be said for the story, which is predictable at every turn. On the human side of things, Hunnam is kind of dull, but Charlie Day's zany scientist, Rinko Kikuchi's troubled pilot, and especially Idris Elba's booming commander Stacker Pentecost (the names in this movie are probably the best thing about it) liven up the supporting cast. It's not as magically inventive as del Toro's previous efforts, but it delivers the solid giant-robots-fighting-giant-monsters entertainment it was made for. B

Oblivion (dir. Joseph Kosinski, 2013)

Back in 2010, Kosinski showed promise as an inventive sci-fi director with his work in the decent Tron: Legacy. Fast-forward to 2013, and Oblivion is not the film that that promise indicated would result. Left on Earth to clean up after an unseen alien war, Jack (Tom Cruise) is tasked with cleaning up the planet, with the assistance of Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) and a bunch of unmanned drones. In something crashes to Earth, it complicates Jack's mission and leads him to answers about why he's really there. The visuals are occasionally stunning, and Kosinski makes great use of the Icelandic landscape to give his post-apocolyptic Earth a truly otherworldly feel. However, this doesn't make up for a story that doesn't have any original ideas. Oblivion will likely be remembered as the film that ended Cruise's marriage to Katie Holmes - if at all - than as Kosinski's bold follow-up. B-

The To-Do List (dir. Maggie Carey, 2013)

Have you ever noticed how teen sex comedies almost always focus on the male point-of-view, with the guys trying to score the hot girl before they go to college or what-have-you? Filmmaker Maggie Carey did, and flipped the script to follow Brandy Klark (Audrey Plaza), a valedictorian who decides to make a list of sex acts she wants to accomplish before she begins college. Inexplicably set in early 1990s Idaho and cast with actors who are clearly too old to be in high school (both of these for the better), Carey's screenplay does rely a bit too heavily on gross-out gags and obvious jokes/cliches. But Plaza and the rest of the cast - particularly Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele as Brandy's best friends and Clark Gregg and Connie Britton as her parents - are completely game. And you've got to commend a film that not only celebrates female sexuality, but also emphasizes "chicks before dicks." B

Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Luc Valle, 2013)

The peak of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s is a tragic example of the United States turning its back on Americans in desperate need of help for wholly nonsensical reasons. Dallas Buyers Club represents an interesting facet of that history by focusing on Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a Texan bull rider and electrician who contracts HIV. Woodroof is a straight, homophobic womanizer (it would be nice for a major film to take the point-of-view of an LGBTQIA character in this era), but he's also a fighter and an opportunist. After being refused the drugs he wants for his treatment by his doctors (Denis O'Hare and Jennifer Garner, neither of whom add all that much to the film), he's inspired by reports from New York and starts a "buyers club" to move the non-approved medications and treatments into the US, selling legal "memberships" for access to the drugs. McConaughey is riveting in the role, capturing every side of this very complicated man. So is the remarkable Jared Leto, who plays Woodroof's trans* business partner Rayon. The movie sags when the focus moves away from their efforts to keep the operation afloat, but otherwise this is a terrific glimpse at an unheralded phenomenon from a dark period of American history. B+

Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013)

To those who are familiar with his previous work, Steve Coogan is not a name normally associated with dramas. And to his credit, Philomena - which he co-wrote and co-stars in - does have its share of comedic moments. Judi Dench stars as the titular character, an Irish woman who's searching for her son that the Catholic Church put up for adoption 50 years prior. Dench is phenomenal as usual, perfectly balancing this woman's daffiness with her genuine heartbreak and internal conflict of faith, and her journey is equal parts inspiring and devastating. Frears, together with Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope, use this story to explore different views on religion, as Coogan's Martin Sexsmith - a proud atheist - rails against the Church for what they did to this (and many other) women while Philomena remains a steadfast Catholic. It's an interesting route for the film to take, considering that it could have just been another road-trip comedy mixed with dramatic elements. The film doesn't completely make this all work, but the effort is impressive. B

Friday, December 13, 2013

2013 Golden Globe Nominations

The Golden Globes are an odd awards show. I half-jokingly refer to them as the Starfucker Awards, since the nominations often seem to be based more on who the Hollywood Foreign Press Association wants to walk their red carpet rather than the quality of the performances. If you think I'm kidding, remember that in 2010 Johnny Depp was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for Alice in Wonderland AND The Tourist. And the mix of honoring the year in film and television makes it feel like a party thrown for everyone, rather than a specific industry event like the Oscars and the Emmys (that alcohol flows freely here adds to that good-time vibe).

This year's nominees are, for the most part, surprisingly great and coherent. You can find a full list of nominees below the jump; for now, my thoughts on what transpired this morning.
  • Rush being nominated for Best Motion Picture, Drama certainly is a nice reminder that yes, that is technically a movie still in the Oscar race.
  • I know the Globes have a very loose definition of "comedy" and "musical," but does The Wolf of Wall Street really count as such?
  • Absolutely nothing for Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels' The Butler. That's really surprising to me, especially the snub of Oprah Winfrey for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.
  • On the other hand, the love that Daniel Bruhl (Rush) and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) got in Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (as well as at the SAG nominations yesterday) makes me unbelievably happy. Both of them were phenomenal in their films and have been underrated so far this awards season.
  • Also fantastic: Julie Delpy's nod for Best Actress in a Musical/Comedy (again, I would hesitate to call Before Midnight a comedy, but if this is the result, I'm fine with it). The same goes for Greta Gerwig in the same category.
  • Given how much they love Martin Scorsese, I'm surprised to see his name left out of Best Director in favor of Alexander Payne.
  • Best Original Score is an absolute delight. Apart from John Williams and Hans Zimmer, they went with little-known composers who deserve some recognition. It's just too bad that Oscar isn't likely to follow suit.
  • I wasn't expecting to see The Wind Rises in Foreign Language Film and not in Animated Film. The latter category also left out Monsters University - a surprising move for a group that nominated Cars 2 - but included The Croods. It's a crazy world we live in.
  • On the television side of things, the Globes are their usual nutty selves. Masters of Sex is definitely the best new show of the season, but nominating Michael Sheen while snubbing the incomparable Lizzy Caplan is a crime. I also get that the HFPA likes things that are shiny and new, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine's nomination for Best Comedy Series seems a little absurd (and I genuinely like the show) and Andy Samberg - nominated for Best Actor in a Comedy Series - is one of my least favorite things about it. And they remembered how great Corey Stoll was on House of Cards but couldn't find any room anywhere for Mad Men (zero nominations)? These are the Globes we love to hate.
Full list of nominees:

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

A lot of things have changed for Panem, the fictional world in The Hunger Games franchise, since we last visited it a year ago. I don't just mean within the realm of the story, either. The Hunger Games was an enormous box office hit, catapulting Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutchinson, and to a somewhat lesser extent Liam Hemsworth into stardom. It was an all-out cultural sensation, not only for the amount of money it made but also because it was really good (it made my year-end top 10 list). Then, this past February, Lawrence became Best Actress Oscar Winner Jennifer Lawrence for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook, the final cap on a stellar year for her. All of this, coupled with the loss of original director Gary Ross, put a ton of new pressure on the follow-up, Catching Fire.

The film opens with Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutchinson) beginning their "victory tour" through the various districts of Panem. Katniss is not adjusting well to her new life in the spotlight, especially with word of rebellion against the Capital surfacing across the districts. In an effort to fight back, President Snow (a delightfully villainous Donald Sutherland) announces that the 75th Annual Hunger Games - dubbed "the Quarter Quell" - will feature only previous winners. This all-star edition brings Katniss, Peeta, and others back into the Games, where they'll once again have to fight for their lives.

If franchise filmmaking had a DSM, "Second Chapter Syndrome" would surely be in it. Catching Fire has the blessing and burden of being the bridge between the beginning and the end of this saga. The blessing is that the characters and world they inhabit has now been firmly established; there's not a lot of time wasted on introductions here. It also means that the overarching plot can move forward, with the promise of some excitement and maybe some major twists. However, it also has to end ambiguously; things can't get too climactic, or else there's nothing for the final chapter (chapters, in this case, since Mockingjay is being split in two) to do. In other words, these films usually have the benefit of an accelerating plot, but it's usually all build-up to the conclusion.

Catching Fire is inflicted with this (there's no avoiding it), but handles it better than most. Much of the credit is to be given to the actors, who all-around do terrific work. Lawrence continues to find new levels to give Katniss, making her a hero still in touch with her humanity and uneasy with being the symbol for revolution. Woody Harrelson, as Katniss' alcoholic mentor Haymitch, continues to be a blast as well. The newcomers nearly steal the show, though. As Finnick, Sam Clafin ably handles the character's pretty-boy peacocking, but also finds the wounded soul underneath. Phillip Seymour Hoffman - not exactly someone you expect to show up in big-budget franchises - is cunning in his few scenes as new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, while Jeffrey Wright brings his wry intelligence to inventor/former champion Beetee. The MVP, though, is Jena Malone as Johanna. Her feisty performance gets at the heart of the former winner's rage, and every quip and outburst is absolutely stunning.

Bringing in Francis Lawrence, who is of no relation to Jennifer Lawrence, also gave the film a necessary boost. Lawrence utilizes his experience with blockbusters (I Am Legend) and outrageous fashion (Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video) to make a film that's a little looser and more fun than the original. Lawrence also wisely keeps most of the focus on the spectacle that the Capital makes of Katniss, Peeta, and the Games. These films have always worked best as a funhouse-mirror vision of our reality-TV culture and the pageantry we engage in when we're on-camera 24/7, and Catching Fire delivers fully in this regard. That the film's only real weaknesses are those inherent to being the middle edition makes its strengths all the more remarkable.

There have been plenty of blockbuster franchises and adaptations of young-adult novels lately, but The Hunger Games series has stood above them by building its characters and being smart as well as entertaining. Catching Fire only reinforces this fact. A

Thoughts on the 2013 Grammy Nominations

Out of the five "major" awards shows (Emmys, Grammys, Oscars, Tonys, and since I'm being generous, Golden Globes), the Grammys may just be the kookiest. All awards shows follow Award Show Logic, which is different from regular logic and based in decisions that would only make sense in the context of awards shows. The Grammys in particular, though, are pretty nuts. They're desperate for attention, announcing their nominations via concert (as they did last Friday night), with those nominations generally encompassing things that sold well during their eligibility period (October 2012 - September 2013) but also being filled out with a hodgepodge of songs and albums in amorphous categories with vague rules (go look at the history of Best Alternative Music Album and be amazed). The Grammys are just more bonkers than the other major awards shows, like the maladjusted adult version of MTV's Video Music Awards, which does make the awards somewhat less meaningful, especially given the wide variety of music they're (ostensibly) culling from. But this also makes them a whole lot of fun in ways that other shows just aren't.

Rather than go through all 80+ categories, I'm just going to take a look at the general field: Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. Overall, Jay Z leads the field with nine nominations (though he was shut out of the aforementioned four categories), while Kendrick Lamar, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have seven apiece. You can find a full list of nominations here.

See the general field after the break.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"Stories We Tell" (2013) and Truth on Film

Documentaries are difficult for me to write about. More accurately, they're difficult for me to write reviews for. Documentaries always come with a point-of-view, which means that they have to take a side in the discussion of their subject matter. This isn't to say that narrative films don't have a point-of-view; however, audiences are more often than not voyeurs in those films, looking in on the lives of the characters and observing what happens. Documentaries, on the other hand, are persuasive. The objective is to present this subject and possibly change someone's way of thinking through it. For me personally, this makes them hard to review because I tend to gravitate toward documentaries with subject matter that I consider important to me. For example, though last year's Searching for Sugar Man was a rousing glimpse at one hell of a comeback story, I didn't consider it a better doc than The Invisible War (a horrifying expose of rape in the military) or How to Survive a Plague (which charted the history of ACT UP). So how I view a documentary usually depends on how I feel about the subject.

To that end, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to discuss Stories We Tell, director/actress Sarah Polley's examination of her family history, a little bit now that I've seen it and it's made the shortlist for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar nomination. *SPOILER WARNING*

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sight & Sound Sunday: Gertrud (1964)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #42 (tied with Pather Panchali, Some Like It Hot, Pierrot le Fou, Playtime, and Close-Up)

In the first edition of this feature, the French New Wave of the 1960s and Robert Bresson's theory of "pure cinematography" were briefly discussed in relation to Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. The French New Wave, with auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut leading the way, had, by the mid-1960s, found itself the favor of film critics around the world. It became popular to turn a nose up to anything that whiffed of "Hollywood" or "theatrical," instead hailing the praises of the "gritty" "realism" of films where characters often postured as Hollywood stars in films that had little regard for convention. It was a revolutionary period in film history, and the influence of those films echoed throughout the rest of the 20th century.

The French New Wave did have its downsides, though. Chief among them was a cooler-than-thou attitude towards films that dared to be conventional or experimental without the realm of New-Wave approved styles. One of the victims of this was Gertrud, the final film of Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. Upon its release, it was booed at multiple festival screenings, and many critics immediately torn it apart with vicious reviews. The criticisms were all the same: it was too stagey, too lugubrious, too slow. Unlike the New Wave films that were bursting with devil-may-care attitude, Gertrud was measured and mannered. It was doomed to fail.

As is often the case with the misunderstood, history has salvaged the film's reputation, as evidenced by it's inclusion in this series. But the question this piece is asking is: did it ever deserve to be chastised to begin with? In its unique way, is Gertrud actually an exemplar of "pure cinematography," a response to New Wave filmmaking, or both?

Based on the play of the same name by Hjalmar Söderberg, the film concerns itself with Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode), the wife of Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a politician who's being appointed to a cabinet position, and her pursuit of love with him and two other men, pianist Elrand (Baard Owe) and poet Gabriel (Ebbe Rode). Gertrud's major character trait - and possible flaw - is that she regards love as the only reason to live life, and refuses to be with anyone who can't fully commit to that philosophy. It's easy to see Dreyer presenting this as a light critique of New Wave filmmaking. Gertrud stands by her principles, even though it brings her pain, but she defiantly states that she has no regrets(as was normal for the time, it's an mixed feminist message: Gertrud is the hero for daring to be independent and seek her own love, yet she's still defined by her relationships to men). It's likely that Dreyer never meant this as such, but it can't help but feel like a gentle jab at the popular movement of the time.

More interestingly, though, is how Dreyer stages all of the film's "action." The majority of the film is just conversation between two characters, with little in the way of physical actions happening on-screen. More often than not, these characters don't even face each other during conversation, instead looking off-screen. It's the opposite of the New Wave's emphasis on realism. Dreyer's staging is almost hyper-stylized, to the point where it often feels like a film school experiment. And yet, by doing so, it feels even more cinematic. By creating such a stage-bound approach, the focus is placed on the text, rather than the action onscreen. It becomes, in its own way, an expressionist film; Dreyer forces the audience to find themselves within these characters, rather than just watch them. It's a film told in still life; each long take (and there are many) becomes a mini-movie about the relationship between two people.

As for Dreyer, he himself has called the film one "that I made with all my heart." Gertrud remains remarkable not only because it's an unexpected final work from a visionary director, but also because it stands in stark contrast to the films of the time. If anything, it may be more experimental and cinematic than many New Wave films.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

*This review contains minor spoilers*

It's love at first sight for Adele (Adele Exarchopolous), the protagonist of Palme d'Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour - or at least lust. Crossing a busy street, she spots Emma (Lea Seydoux), a blue-haired dream who instantly fascinates her. This is the beginning of a small obsession that blossoms into a passionate relationship between the two women, and the film follows them through their love affair and the changes life brings them.

To call Blue is the Warmest Colour a coming-of-age tale is only partially true. Yes, the film's focus is mostly on Adele - which should come as no surprise, since the original French title translates to "The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2." Yet director Abdellatif Kechiche - working from a script he co-wrote with Ghalia Lacroix and based on the graphic novel "Blue Angel" by Julie Maroh - is interested in more than just a standard bildungsroman. The film is much more an examination of these girls' relationship and how it affects them.

More after the jump…

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Updated November 2013 Oscar Predictions

November is always the hardest month for me to predict. A sizable portion of the contenders have been released, but nearly just as many haven't, and a few are still holding out even the smallest of glimpses. By the time I probably finish writing this post (an exaggeration…maybe?), the various critics groups will begin handing out their various awards, and the race in many categories will finally begin to take shape.

By that token, I didn't make a whole lot of changes between October and now. Most of that is because I don't think there have been any changes in momentum for many contenders. However, there are some things that I just don't know what to do with. A few of those changes are discussed after the jump.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The 2013 Honorary Oscar Winners

Congratulations to this year's Honorary Oscar winners: Steve Martin, Piero Tosi, and Angela Lansbury. Of course, Martin is the legendary comedian/actor/writer/producer who has never been nominated for an Oscar before (not surprising, really, given their aversion to comedy). Lansbury, too, is a legend of screen and stage, best known for playing Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote for twelve years. Despite her five Tony Awards and six Golden Globes, she never won an Oscar on her three nominations (coming in 1944, 1945, and 1962), nor did she win an Emmy from 18 nominations.

Tosi is the least familiar to American audiences: the Italian costume designer was nominated five times for Best Costume Design, including for The Leopard, La Cage aux Follies, and La Traviata. Unfortunately, Tosi was not present at the ceremony.

Angelina Jolie was the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Godfather (1972)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #21 (tied with L'Avventura and Contempt)

Ask any American critic (or film buff, for that matter) to name some of the greatest movies of all time, and more likely than not, The Godfather will be one of the first ones mentioned. It's earned such a reputation as a pinnacle of cinematic achievement that the phrase "It's 'The Godfather' of…" has become synonymous with superior quality. Upon its release in 1972, it not only became the biggest box office hit of the year, but also briefly became the highest-grossing film ever in the United States. It would go on to win three Academy Awards - including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando (who famously refused the award) - and earned an additional eight nominations. Until a recent rule change dictated that films could not be grouped together as a single entity, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II were considered together, and placed #4 in the 2002 poll (Part II will be covered in a later addition of this column).

Being this popular, of course, means that it has been poured over continuously. There's no shortage of analyses and interpretations of the film, many focusing on director Francis Ford Coppola's decision to use the story to comment on the state of American capitalism. That story follows a ten-year period - 1945 to 1955 - for the powerful Corleone family, who are faced with rival families looking into the narcotics business. Don Vito (Brando) is against this, and when an attempt on his life his made, his sons - hotheaded Sonny (James Caan) and college-educated war hero Michael (Al Pacino), along with adoptive son and consigliere Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) - seek vengeance against the powerful Five Families of New York.

When I was doing my undergrad at UNC-Chapel Hill and working on my minor in Cinema Studies, one of the courses I took was called "American Independent Cinema," of which Coppola was a major component (I actually wrote my midterm paper on his cinematic project, linking Apocalypse Now with Youth Without Youth). Instead of doing what many others have done and talk about The Godfather thematically, let's take a look at its place in cinematic history.

The 1970s are largely considered a golden age for American cinema, particularly because of the idea of "new independent cinema." In particular, new directors such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and Brian De Palma - among others - were among the first to consider film theory and attend film school, finding inspiration in European movements such as French New Wave and Italian neorealism. Many of their early films were "independent" in the truest sense of the term - Lucas' early short THX-1138, which would be adapted into a full-length feature, was a student film that was largely self-financed. This is not to imply, of course, that independent films did not exist before the 1970s in the United States - John Cassavetes' work in the 1960s stands out as a great example. Instead, the term comes more from the idea that these directors - "auteurs," if you will - were bringing a new cinematic sensibility to the Hollywood studio system.

The Godfather was a landmark film for this reason. First of all, it was an enormous popular success, which gave studios more incentive to try out new voices, since audiences were willing to see films that had different sensibilities than the routine studio fare (this appears to be a lesson that they have, sadly, forgotten in recent years). But more importantly, The Godfather represented a true changing of the guard within the studio system. Building on the precedent set by 1967's Bonnie & Clyde, the film didn't shy away from showing graphic violence, as well as the consequences that that violence begat. It didn't glorify the "family business" so much as demonstrate it's destructive nature, a major change from the gangster movies that it was inspired by (and subsequently inspired, by the way). The best example of this sea change, though, is in the casting: Brando was one of the biggest stars of "Old Hollywood," a classically trained actor who lived his characters. He's in charge until, suddenly, he's not; now there's a new generation in charge. Here come the Al Pacinos, the James Caans, the Robert Duvalls, the Diane Keatons (she appears here as Michael's girlfriend, Kay); actors of unconventional looks who take a different approach to acting. They are icons of the growing new counterculture, replacing the previous icons.

Though he had had a few studio films in the can already - including 1969's film adaptation of the musical Finian's Rainbow - Coppola had not been a well-known director in the lead-up to The Godfather. Afterwards, though, he was one of the decade's biggest names. He was given incredible creative freedom from the studio, allowing him to make The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now (amazingly, all four films - his entire 1970s output - were nominated for Best Picture at at the Academy Awards). It was the beginning of a trend: Coppola's success was followed by Spielberg's (Jaws), Lucas' (American Graffiti / Star Wars), and De Palma's (Carrie).

As with every golden age, it eventually came to an end, giving way to new trends (namely - and ironically - the rise of the blockbuster, as ushered in by Spielberg and Lucas). Yet The Godfather stands as that crucial turning point, where "independent" creative sensibilities thrived within the Hollywood system.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday:" Gertrud (1964)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013)

"I don't want to survive. I want to live." - Solomon Northrup

Nearly a month after it's initial release, there's already been a lot of ink spilled about 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen's latest film and based on the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a New York freeman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum American South. There's a lot of things that these writers have said so much better than I could, especially Matthew Cheney's brilliant IndieWire essay about what sets this apart from so many other films about slavery in the past. And yet, it's a film that needs to be talked about: not only is it one of the year's best films, but it's also one of the most important.

As detailed above, the plot is based on the first-hand account of Northrup, who was an accomplished violinist in New York and spent 12 years as a slave in the South, most of that time spent as the property of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the sadistic owner of a cotton plantation. What's notable about this film is how brutally it depicts the realities of slavery: this isn't like last year's Django Unchained, Tarantino's western romp that could never be described as "realistic" (there was plenty of controversy about that film's treatment of the institution). These depictions, as presented by McQueen (and working from a script by John Ridley), could never have been made by an American director.

What do I mean by that? I've written before about what a difference it makes for a non-American director to take on American culture (almost always in the context of Chinatown, but I've taken film classes and everything always goes back to Chinatown apparently). McQueen, who is British and of Grenadian descent, brings with him the perspective of an outsider to the institution, not only as a non-American but also as a black director. This is especially important, considered together, because it's hard to imagine any black American director getting the funding to make this kind of movie (even the most likely candidate, Spike Lee, would be endlessly criticized out of fear of making a movie that demonizes white America). As Cheney noted in his piece, being British takes a lot of the weight of expectations and taboo of slavery that weighs down on American perspectives, and McQueen takes advantage of this with his own singular style.

McQueen's previous films, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), were both terrific, beautiful films that had a common flaw preventing them from being masterpieces: McQueen always seemed emotionally detached from his characters, resulting in the effect of looking at an art instillation rather than real people in a real world (McQueen, before becoming a director, was a visual artist). This film represents a correction of that, as he invests us in the plight of Solomon and the other slaves that he encounters. Perhaps a part of this is that the material itself is going to elicit strong emotional responses no matter what, as well as the fact that this is the first feature McQueen has made in which he does not have a writing credit. 

But much of the credit belongs to McQueen's willingness to let the camera linger on specific images. The most famous incidence of this comes when Solomon is about to be lynched by Tibeats (Paul Dano), an overseer he insulted at Ford's (Benedict Cumberbatch) plantation. Tibeats is stopped, but Solomon, barely keeping himself from choking by scraping his toes in the mud, is forced to hang there until Ford returns in the evening. McQueen's camera lingers on this moment for around a full minute, but it feels like forever, as we watch Solomon struggling to keep his feet on the ground while, most powerfully, the other slaves carry on in the background as if he were invisible. This is the film's greatest power: by not cutting away, there is no relief from the torment Solomon and the other slaves endure.

Of course, it helps that the cast provides terrific performances all-around. Ejiofor has been doing great work for years, and this role is finally letting his talents be noticed by a much-larger audience. This is pure acting, as much of his communication is through silence, going from a man hopeful that justice will right the wrong that's being done to him to becoming more and more a shell of his former self. In keeping with the idea of an outsider perspective, Solomon himself is an outsider - a freeman - entering a world that he does not understand. Ejiofor imbues him with that naiveté, allowing him to become broken by the reality that here, he is not considered a human being, but rather property. Astonishing, too, is Lupita Nyong'o, who appears as Patsy, the "favored" slave of Epps. Nyong'o's arc is particularly brutal, as her Patsy is subjected both to being raped by Edwin Epps and physically abused by Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) for being Edwin's favorite. She stuns as a woman so thoroughly broken by this system of abuse that she wishes for death at every turn. Similarly, both Fassbender and Paulson do harrowing work as the Epps, playing their characters as people who embrace slavery because of the wealth it brings them, and neither ever once asks for audience sympathy. Even the roles that only last a scene or two - Dano's Tibeats, Brad Pitt's sympathetic Canadian Bass, Alfre Woodard's married-out-of-slavery Mistress Shaw - are fine work that only add to texture of life in the antebellum South.

12 Years a Slave is a game-changer in cinema about American slavery: it's a major film that doesn't take the focus away from the slave themselves, the victims of the institution. As a result, it's an emotionally taxing account of slavery as a system that utilized the dehumanization and degradation of people for labor. It is, ultimately, a film that is not to be missed. A+

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All is Lost (2013)

Take any course on film analysis (or, hell, even an "Intro to Film"-style class) and you'll learn that there are certain tenants to narrative filmmaking that need to be observed. For a narrative to move through a three-act, linear structure, there must be a conflict. Conflict also necessitates character development, in which the character undergoes a change from the beginning to the end. Characters can be better understood by audiences - and therefore are more relatable - by providing backstory. And the most important rule, especially in film: show, don't tell.

All is Lost is, like the films of the French New Wave in the 1960s, a complete subversion of these rules.  Or, rather, it's the ultimate distillation of "show, don't tell." The film begins aboard a sailboat in the Indian Ocean, 1700 miles from the nearest shore, as an unnamed man (Robert Redford) - listed as "Our Man" in the closing credits - discovers that his vessel has collided with an adrift shipping container, puncturing the hull. From there, we see him struggle to stay afloat, both literally and metaphorically.

What's striking about Our Man is what we don't know: he doesn't have a name, isn't given a backstory, or given any kind of context for why he's here. The "character development" he undergoes is really just a broadening of what we understand about him, and that's mostly that he's doing his best in a very difficult situation. Redford is absolutely riveting in this role, and not just because he is literally the only person ever seen onscreen. Mark Harris (by way of the late Roger Ebert) recently posited that Redford's best performances tend to be as characters who are, essentially, Redford himself. The film makes good use of this, allowing us only to identify this man as Redford, which gives the audience more of a stake in the proceedings; I imagine that using an unknown actor wouldn't have been nearly as effective. Even more remarkable is how Redford plays Our Man's growing desperation: at most, there are maybe 15 lines of dialogue in the entire film, most of which are in the film's opening narration. With the exception of one notable expletive, Redford's mounting frustrations come from his increasingly ill-considered actions. We can tell that Our Man has some experience as a sailor, but he's not experienced enough to handle the situations he's been thrown in; as a result, the film builds with him acting more and more out of desperation than out of strategic planning. It's a fascinating character study of a character that we barely get to know.

Instead of giving the audience any bearings on what's happened up to this point, writer/director J.C. Chandor maroons us in the middle of the story, with nothing else to do but see what happens. Chandor's accomplishment here is especially consider that the filmmaker's only previous feature was 2011's Margin Call, a starry, talky ensemble piece about a fictional bank at the beginning of the Great Recession. Chandor wisely avoids overdramatizing any moment, allowing for sweeping shots of Redford alone against a sea that seems to be endless. This film marks the moment when everyone should take note: he is a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on, given the risks he's willing to take.

If there is any fault in this film, it's that the score is at times too overbearing, forcing emotions that would have been better served with subtlety (Gravity, this year's other survival tale focused on a single person, had a similar problem). Yet apart from that minor quibble, All is Lost is bold, adventurous, and experimental, the work of an ambitious young filmmaker and an independent Hollywood legend working together to push the boundaries of cinema. A+