CJ’s UPDATED Top Ten Movies of 2013

blue-is-the-warmest-color-lea-seydoux

After I’ve seen a few more, here’s my new list, in alphabetical order rather than ranked, and now categorized into fiction and documentary!

TOP TEN FICTION

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Before Midnight

Blue is the Warmest Color

Computer Chess

Gravity

The Great Gatsby

Her

The Hunger Games

Inside Llewyn Davis

TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARY

The Act of Killing

Call me Kuchu

Cutie and the Boxer

The Square

Stories We Tell

My additions into my top ten list were “Before Midnight,” “Her,” and “Blue is the Warmest Color.” All of them were great; “Her” might ultimately be my favorite movie from the last year.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a weird one to think and talk about. So I flat-out loved the movie. But when you read about it, you find out the process of making the film was awful for almost everyone involved. The crew was abused and didn’t get paid enough, and the two actresses were also bullied to the point of tears and terror by the director –especially during the sex scenes. Lea Seydoux said she was humiliated and made to feel like a prostitute. So that’s unsettling: how do you think about it when you watch these incredibly moving and affecting scenes and you know that, while they were being made, the actresses were being tyrannized. It’s difficult to take onboard, and made me wish I liked the movie less. You know, I never really feel any conflict about Woody Allen anymore. He’s an awful person, whose movies also are terrible. Where’s the conflict? But with this, this was a moving, almost brilliant movie. What does one think if the person who made it seems to be at best really nasty, at worst something of a monster? I have no solution to this.

As for the Oscars, I actually was much less horrified that usual about the movies that got awards. “12 Years a Slave” is a fine choice for Best Picture, and the whole slate of nominees was pretty good as a set. Since I’m not the dictator of the Academy Awards, some things will never be how I’d wish — much as I’d like, Sarah Polley is not going to win best director for a Canadian documentary about her family — but all told things basically made sense.

As a postscript, I also saw “Nebraska” and really enjoyed it. Not one of my tops, but notable for being the first thing I’ve seen by Alexander Payne that didn’t make me want to die inside.

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CJ’s Top Movies of 2013

Aaaah I’m writing a thing.

So here are my top movies of 2013. My usual rules: I’ve had to have seen them, and they’ve had to have come out this year. I’m also mixing in documentaries this time around just because there are some I really liked and wanted to include.

Also as usual, I have high hopes for many movies that came out this year that I haven’t seen yet, so I will release an amended version of the list later on.

GRAVITY
#10 — Gravity

Gravity was a lot of fun, though it was almost more of a very good theme-park ride than a movie. I wonder if it would be worth seeing not in 3D or on a big screen – I doubt it; but it was a pretty great experience as it was. Sandra Bullock is also very good, and her talent and charisma saves the movie from being completely trivial. The one scene where she hallucinates George Clooney giving her a pep talk is so stupid that it almost sinks the whole thing, but it doesn’t last very long.

europa-report#9 — Europa Report

Another space movie. This one made for a lot less money! (Under ten million dollars versus a hundred million for Gravity.) I admit to a clear bias in my attitude toward this movie. I think the series of discoveries about Jupiter’s moon Europa showing it has a warm subsurface ocean are possibly the most amazing things that have happened during my lifetime. The idea of a manned mission to Europa to sniff out life is so appealing that I would watch almost any movie with that premise. All this said, I think this movie was a good movie about a Europa mission rather than a bad one! There’s an emphasis on accurately depicting what a near-future space mission of this magnitude would really take and be like. The astronauts always come across as professionals doing their job. And when the film does take a dive into some more speculative stuff, it’s fun and inspiring rather than ridiculous.

#8 — The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I just continue to really like the Hunger Games movies. Both this and the first are smart, well-put-together blockbusters that do what they’re meant to without disrespecting the audience. Everything comes together, writing, acting, even the special effects don’t detract attention from what’s going on. Jennifer Lawrence is still great, and Donald Sutherland is just awesome — his villainous President Snow gets more screen time this time and is hypnotically scary. Basically, whoever is casting director of the Hunger Games is brilliant (and well-funded, obviously). Every secondary character is just perfectly cast: Stanley Tucci is brilliant and bonkers; Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as the weird techie couple are slightly unexpected but also great. Only Philip Seymour Hoffman seems not to care very much, weirdly.

GTL-013#7 — Gimme the Loot

“Gimme the Loot” follows two New York teens as they plot to graffiti the big apple that pops up when the Mets hit a home run at Citi Field. This ends up being a pretty classic macguffin, though, since the movie is much more about following around the two leads, Malcolm and Sophia —  incredibly appealing as played by Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington — on their daily life and chronicling their interactions with each other and many other characters.  The most biting part of the movie is Malcolm’s interaction as drug dealer with a clueless and occasionally cruel rich girl 20-something who seems to have stepped out of a different movie. The tone is light throughout, though, and it’s more a comedy than anything else.

#6 — 12 Years a SlaveDF-02238.CR2

Harrowing but really good. There’s something interesting about the idea that to make a really honest movie about slavery, you need a a director and a cast that are either British or otherwise not American. If I had a criticism, it would be that the movie comes across a little bit as a series of episodes and could use more connective tissue. But to a certain extent I think that’s faithful to the source material. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great as a smart everyman forced into these horrific situations. And as a nasty plantation owner, Michael Fassbender comes right up to the edge of camp villainy and just barely avoids falling off.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis#5 — Inside Llewyn Davis

I liked “Inside Llewyn Davis” a lot, all with the caveat that it was extremely depressing. The main character is such a sad-sack, and such terrible things keep happening to him, that it really wears you down after a while. This said, the film goes some interesting places, and all the acting — and singing — is pretty terrific. Like everyone else, I think the best thing about the movies is probably Ulysses, the post-modern cat or cats who is off having his own adventure in a parallel universe somewhere. And is Llewyn caught in a Groundhog day style time loop? Maybe? Folk music!

#4 — American Hustle????????????????????????

Really really really weird movie this. I enjoyed it a lot, but boy is it strange. It has a weird arc, the genre is never totally clear, and you never know exactly what you’re feeling about what you’re watching at any point. In the end though it’s an incredible amount of fun to watch. Christian Bale and Amy Adams pull off what I think are my two favorite lead performances in any movie I saw last year as fictionalized versions of the Abscam conners. Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner are also great, and the whole impression you get from the movie is one of just barely contained chaos. Why is there so much weight given to the idea that crooked politicians aren’t so bad? Why do we see little Family Guy style flashbacks throughout? Why do all the male characters have such spectacularly bad hair? I honestly have no idea, but I was never bored. Also, Louis CK almost completely runs away with this movie in a relatively minor part.

great_gatsby (1)#3 — The Great Gatsby

I really enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby movie. And I can go hot or cold on Luhrmann — I love “Strictly Ballroom” but “Moulin Rouge” is kind of a disaster. And I know critics weren’t wild about this movie! But for one thing, Leonardo DiCaprio really has the charisma to pull off Gatsby. The anachronistic music worked for me too. And yes, the film hits you over the head with its metaphors, but so does the book, for God’s sake, unless I’ve been reading a different Gatsby than everyone else. Certainly, this is miles better than the awful, bloodless Robert Redford movie, though that’s a low bar. Even some things that initially made me nervous, like Tobey Maguire as Nick — and the frame story with Nick in a sanatorium — either worked pretty well or were at least inoffensive. And some things were truly great: I love that Tom comes off as thuggish but cunning instead of just a stupid foil. And the very strange friendship between Jay and Nick is almost more believable on film, because it’s easier to see what each is looking for in each other.

Film-maker Sarah Polley with her father Michael in documentary Stories We Tell#2 — Stories We Tell

A wonderful documentary by Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley exploring her own family history. But due to smart storytelling (hah!) — and some gimmicks I don’t want to spoil — this is one of those rare documentaries that has as much or more suspense as a fictional narrative. This is a tricky movie, but the tricks are earned and make you more attentive to the story rather than distracting you. This all may sound a little nebulous, since I’m dancing around talking about the way this movie is presented, and even the central question being answered. But that’s because it’s better to watch and see how the film unfolds everything. Summary would be kind of a disservice.

Computer-Chess#1 — Computer Chess

This is NOT the movie I had any suspicion would be my favorite of the year before I watched it! I wasn’t even sure going in whether it was fictional or a documentary. It is in fact fiction, loosely in the format of a mockumentary though that format gets smashed to smithereens by the end. Basically, the film — directed by mumblecore king Andrew Bujalski — chronicles a tournament in the early 80s to crown the best chess-playing computer program. At first, it seems almost like a Christopher Guest movie, except for the extremely naturalistic dialogue. Loopy characters who care deeply about an extremely narrow and specialized field. Then, some really odd things start happening. “Computer Chess” at first appears to be a comedy, but that ends up being almost a disguise for something much darker and stranger, occasionally dipping into something like existential dread. Basically, while watching this movie, I had thoughts along the lines of — “Wouldn’t it be amazing if this suddenly went in x direction… but no, that’s too insane.” Then that’s where the movie went! After I watched Computer Chess, I wanted to write fan fiction about it. Far and away the best movie of the year for me. Also, more cats. Here, at least watch the trailer:

So that’s it! Still plenty of movies from 2013 I haven’t seen yet and am excited about though. “Her,” “Frozen,” “Short Term 12,” “The World’s End,” and “The Act of Killing,” just to name a few.

Wellington-Harrington is Still Awesome

So, haven’t written in a while. The last post I wrote was on how my neighborhood — Wellington-Harrington in Cambridge — is awesome, because it has really good restaurants. This is true, and I continue to think that Wellington-Harrington is awesome.

Of course, since I wrote that post, Wellington-Harrington has become perhaps more widely known as the home of the illustrious Tsarnaev brothers. I was away during the week of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt, but I live close enough to their house that my poor cats were frightened by sirens and helicopters, as well as the initial gunfire in Kendall Square.

I don’t really have a takeaway from all this. Basically, I continue to really like my neighborhood. It’s vibrant and diverse and interesting, and I’m a little bummed that this is now at least partially how people know it. Though it has been interesting to see it on TV and read how various news outlets describe it.

It is a multicultural neighborhood where hardware stores and butcher shops are mixed with cafes and Brazilian and Portuguese restaurants,” said the New York Times, which is accurate but necessarily incomplete. I also vaguely remember an article referring to it as an “urban hipster” neighborhood, which to me suggests the reporter may have wandered into Grillo’s Pickles, where bearded men with iPads work on their media saturation strategy, and to my knowledge nobody has ever bought a pickle.

But I’m being mean, because I really like Grillo’s Pickles. I also really like Atwoods Tavern and Tupelo, the amazing Southern restaurant which sold pulled pork sandwiches to cops and FBI agents investigating the house, and the Kendall Square Cinema. Not to mention  Indian street food at Punjabi Dhaba, beautiful Donnelly Field and the Valente Library. Then there’s Christina’s cream, the East Coast Grill, 1369 and Lord Hobo. And soon we’ll have the cricket-themed sports bar, Hit Wicket.

The only thing we no longer have at the moment is Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, which from my point of view makes this the perfect time to check the neighborhood out! Lets all work to put them out of our minds and concentrate on food, beer, Little League baseball, books, cricket, and movies, which are all far more deserving of our attention. The end.

Wellington-Harrington For The Win

Wellington-Harrington, domain of kings.

Wellington-Harrington, domain of kings.

More about the Beak soon, but first…

There are many reasons why Wellington-Harrington, the mysteriously named Cambridge neighborhood in which I live, is awesome. Here is one.

Check out the Boston Globe’s highly scientific “Munch Madness” poll of the best restaurants in the Boston area. BOTH of the two battling it out in the final championship, Hungry Mother and Oleana, call Wellington-Harrington home. And that’s in a neighborhood less than a quarter-mile square.

(If you want to get really technical, Oleana is actually on the wrong side of Hampshire Street to be part of Wellington-Harrington proper, but whatever. I claim it now.)

The Beak: First Impressions (Part One)

So, like nearly everyone else in the area by this point, I’ve been hearing a lot about the Beak lately. Here’s the thing, though, I actually went for the first time yesterday night. And I want to write about it, which I’m not sure is totally and strictly something that I’m supposed to do. I’m going to anyway, though. The reason is this: I think the crazy air of secrecy surrounding this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion, and is giving people the wrong idea. I think it was intended to reinforce the organic process of how people learn about and end up at the Beak, rather than 30,000 people reading about it on Yelp or something and showing up one night. But now I think people are under the impression that it’s more like a secret society than anything else. And that’s really far from the truth.

So anyway, I’m not going to go as far as saying where the place is, and I won’t post any pictures (except for stuff I find online that gives you an idea of what some things look like). I’m just going to try to give an honest, non-blown-out-of-proportion account of what it’s like to go there. And honestly I don’t think anyone’s going to give me a hard time about it. Or it could really piss everyone off and I’ll never be allowed back again. One or the other.

Anyway, I went with a friend, who got involved, like a lot of people through his involvement with the visual effects industry. He worked on “Avenger in the Desert” in the 80s. And a whole bunch of that crowd, the folks who worked on movies like “Avenger” and “Swan Child” and the other trashy but enjoyable movies that made up the weird little boomlet of New-England-produced sword-and-sorcery flicks in the 80s, are apparently the people who started the Beak in the first place.

(And of course, my personal connection to that boomlet, as I tell anyone who is interested, is that I knew the actual Swan Child, Clea Tunnell — when the movie was filming and she went to classes at the local elementary school. We were in the same third grade class. Not only did I know her, we decided that we were “dating” and eventually would get married. Spoiler alert: we didn’t. Anyway…)

This pic is the closest thing I could find to what the sculpture looks like. The real one is all wooden, hung tentacles facing down, and more stylized, like a kraken in an old engraving.

This pic is the closest thing I could find to what the sculpture looks like. The real one is all wooden, hung tentacles facing down, and more stylized, like a kraken in an old engraving.

So I and my friend — who I’m not naming specifically at his request — went over to the Beak, at his suggestion, quite early. Like before 5 o’clock. So there were only a few people there at that point, and everything was very bright. It was certainly not the dark cavernous space that I’d pictured. The space is enormous; a converted factory floor. Stage at one end, and there’s a open loft-balcony-thing at the other that takes up about a third of the length of the building. And lots of very large skylights on the ceiling, so during the daytime, like I said, there’s just light pouring in. We drove in and parked in a small garage underground beneath the building, and took this big freight elevator up to the balcony area.

From up there, you can see the whole area. All wood, wood floors and everything, and of course the actual “Beak” itself, the big squid sculpture hanging down from the ceiling in the center of the building. And up on the balcony, where we were, is the sort of workshop area. There were 6 or 7 guys working on carving guitars and mandolins and things, and there were literally dozens of instruments hung up on all the walls.

And both up there, and down on the main floor, there’s art everywhere. Huge canvas paintings hung up, lots of murals painted directly on the walls, big paper mache parade puppet things hanging down or leaning against the walls.

I have to clean my apartment, and shouldn’t spend all day on this blog, so I’ll continue this post tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Our heroes, as interpreted by Mike Mignola

Our heroes, as interpreted by Mike Mignola.

So I’ve been reading, and have now almost finished the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series of books by Fritz Leiber. They’re basically a series of strung-together pulp fantasy stories that were written over an almost unbelievable period of time, the first in 1936, and the final one in 1988.

The series is commonly cited as incredibly influential; and it’s easy to see why. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are a pair of anti-heroes, one a barbarian and one a thief, who lurch from one adventure to another. Maybe the most most obviously imitated part of the stories is the pair’s home city of Lankhmar, a big sprawling fantasy city in the middle of the marshes, with temples to various gods, a thieves’ guild and so on.

Lankhmar is incredibly clearly the model for pretty much any city in a fantasy setting in books, television, movies, video games, or whatever, that has come since. Kings Landing in Game of Thrones is a dressed-up Lankhmar. And Ankh-Morpork from Discworld is an explicit pastiche of Lankhmar. (According to Wikipedia, Terry Pratchett claims this is not true, but obviously it is.)

But Nehwon, the pulp fantasy world that Fafhrd and Gray Mouser inhabit, with its various city-states and monsters is also clearly pretty foundational. It’s kind of Robert Howard-ish too, with a loosely disguised Europe and Asia and lots of vaguely racist groups of people out on the fringes — the wiry slant-eyed Mingols! — but it’s also a lot more creative and interesting- with crazy monster and gods and underground cities and were-rats and snow-snakes and women with pink skeletons and translucent flesh and so on. Basically if you had to pick a single author who most obviously created the whacked-out world that Dungeons and Dragons inhabits, it would probably be Lieber.

Another aside, the world of Newhon in the stories is described as on the inside of a sphere, or bubble floating in a watery universe. This is a cool idea, and also naturally reminds me of the title sequence in the HBO series of Game of Thrones, where we see a map of the story’s world inscribed on the inside of a sphere/orrery thing.

And beyond all this, the stories are very fun to read, with crazy purple prose and a lot of genuine humor, something that completely eludes Robert Howard. It’s all pretty trivial: our heroes save cities and occasionally the world from various nasty sorcerers and gods, all the while collecting treasure, drinking a lot, and bedding lots of freaky fantasy women to prove they’re not totally gay for each other.

Actually, the sex component of the stories — which apparently was occasionally so dirty that they couldn’t be published in the pulps — has a really unfortunate trajectory over the arc of the series.  It’s mostly just very silly, like when our heroes are kidnapped by invisible women who ride invisible arctic manta rays so that their heroic blood can reinvigorate their dying race. You know, standard. And they have extended sex-vacations with mer-women and some crazy half-rat lady who is implied to have eight breasts. Like you do.

But the later stories, written when Fritz Leiber was 180 years old or something, start dwelling more and more on how Fafhrd, the barbarian hero, likes his women really young, with newly-budded breasts and it all gets really creepy really fast. Enough so that it almost ruins the stories, and I might recommend reading just first two-thirds or so of the series.

Leaving that aside for the moment, that stories also feature a lot of the sort of world-and-mythology-hopping that I associate with L. Sprague de Camp. By which I mean – Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sometimes leave their fictional world of Newhon, and show up in our own real world, or mythological figures get lost and show up in their world. Odin and Loki show up at one point, having somehow migrated from Norse Mythology, for instance, and it’s implied that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are their world’s versions of those gods, or at least the archetype that they represent. And there’s one very odd sequence where a dimension-hopping adventurer from Germany appears to save the day while riding a two-headed sea dragon thing and shouting out “Ach du Lieber!” and things like that.

Basically, when I started reading these, I was expecting something kind of like the Conan stories but hopefully marginally less stupid. Where in fact they’re much MUCH more entertaining, and really trippy in a way that makes me actually wonder whether drugs were involved in their conception. They provide a great mind-vacation and are easy to read when I’m exhausted, which is pretty key for me right now. (Though again, with the caution that I now kind of wish I’d halted about 2/3 of the way through just to avoid Fritz Leiber being creepy.)

“Holy Motors” Review

Eva Mendes and crazed sewer-dweller.

Eva Mendes and crazed sewer-dweller.

Someday I’ll start writing about something other than movies. And maybe someday CJ will start writing posts again, but for now you get what you get.

Anyway, I saw a great movie yesterday, “Holy Motors,” by the French director Leos Carax, who is apparently a lunatic. It’s difficult to describe, but here goes.

Basically, the film follows a character named Mr. Oscar as he is chaffeured around Paris in a massive limo filled with costumes and make-up equipment. Mr. Oscar has a series of what are called “appointments.” For each appointment, he changes his appearance in the back of the limo, and emerges as a different person to go through some kind of scenario or encounter.

In one he’s an old woman who begs on a bridge. In another he’s an assassin who kills another man who looks like him. In another he’s a crazy sewer-dweller who bites off a woman’s fingers, kidnaps Eva Mendes from a photo-shoot, and makes her a burka by using his elongated fingernails as sewing scissors. In another, he’s dressed in a motion-capture suit, does acrobatics, and eventually makes love to a woman in a similar motion-capture suit as their movements are animated onto two snake-monsters.This sounds completely insane, and it is, but it’s also very compelling.

The film-maker also clearly enjoys throwing in a new twist whenever he thinks you might be getting complacent. Mr. Oscar starts to encounter other people in limos who are doing the same thing that he is — with their own various “appointments” — including Kylie Minogue as someone he once was in love with. People die and come back to life. There are two musical interludes. He meets people who appear to be different versions of characters that he has played earlier in the day. At one point, his boss randomly materializes in his limo and upbraids him for his performance. There are chimpanzees involved as well.

It isn’t just a series of insane occurrences, though. Or I guess it is, but there are a lot of interesting questions and themes being explored. The two biggest ones are the nature of performance (for obvious reasons), and the ubiquity of technology, from automobiles to cameras. And Denis Lavant as Mr. Oscar is completely riveting. He’s not solely a chameleon, there is a base character there under all the various personae he takes on.

It all adds up to an ungodly hybrid of Cloud Atlas, Dark City, and Delicatessen that I would highly recommend. Though prepare to have some difficulty making any sense when you’re trying to explain to other people what this movie is about and why it’s so good. It makes me want to watch the other movies this guy has done, many of which also apparently star the same actor. (Check out the trailer I’ve put at the bottom of this post if you still have no idea what I’m talking about. Mind you, it may not help.)

Also, now that I’ve seen a few more films, here is my updated top ten list for 2012. I’ve abandoned my attempt to rank these, so I’ll just list my favorite ten in alphabetical order. (Basically what has happened is that Silver Linings Playbook and, now, Holy Motors, have bumped Batman and Prometheus off the list.)

The Cabin in the Woods

Cloud Atlas

The Hobbit

Holy Motors

The Hunger Games

Lincoln

Moonrise Kingdom

Safety Not Guaranteed

Silver Linings Playbook

Skyfall

Wheeeeeeeee! Movies!