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.

“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!

My Oscar Picks

oscar-the-grouch-300I’m going to stick to the system I used last year when writing about the Oscars: I’ll talk about what I think SHOULD win rather than what will. Also, I’ll choose one film from the actual nominees for each category, and also the movie I would pick in a magical universe where everything I like was nominated. And as always, I’m limiting discussion to movies I’ve actually seen.

BEST PICTURE

From the nominees: LINCOLN

(Will it actually win? Probably not.)

From everything: MOONRISE KINGDOM

I saw all the best picture nominees this year except for three — Les Mis, Life of Pi, and Amour. For me, this choice came down to a very close tie between Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, both of which I really enjoyed. And I do think those two are head and shoulders above the other options here. Both Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook are incredibly competent, well-crafted films, and both are much less conventional than I had expected from their context and their marketing. This is basically a tie, but in the end I chose Lincoln, more or less on the strength of Daniel Day-Lewis’ crazy good performance, and on the very smart script by Tony Kushner.

If I had free reign to pick anything, I think I’d end up choosing Moonrise Kingdom as the best of the year. It was funny, charming, and I think I felt the closest emotional connection with the characters. It pulled off a pretty impressive trick of being incredibly engaging at the same time as coming off as almost self-effacing in its presentation. And everything is presented with straight face; the characters are never being winked at or trivialized, even when what’s happening is ridiculous or funny. My new favorite Wes Anderson movie, and I think Anderson can be either very goo, or awfully annoying. This movie shows off everything that’s good about what he does and never falls into the trap of being trivial or twee. It’s a winner.

BEST ACTOR

From the nominees: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in LINCOLN

(Will he actually win? Obviously, yes.)

From everything: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS in LINCOLN

DDL on both counts; I think he’s just too good in this to give it to anyone else. He’s completely believable as Lincoln, which must be an immensely hard thing to do. He never reads as parody, or even someone acting. You can never take your eyes off him. I know he’s the easy choice for this, but there you go. I did also really like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. It was the first time I’ve seen Cooper actually act — and he’s good! — and Phoenix was blindingly weird but very compelling. I didn’t see Denzel Washington in Flight or Hugh Jackman in Les Mis. (I love Hugh Jackman, but I’m kind of suspicious of Les Mis…) I also think Mark Duplass deserves serious credit for his weirdly naturalistic portrayal of a man who may or may not have a time machine in Safety Not Guaranteed. Obviously no Oscar love there, but that was one of the best performances I saw this year.

BEST ACTRESS

From the nominees: JENNIFER LAWRENCE in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

(Will she actually win? I think so, yes.)

From everything: JENNIFER LAWRENCE in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

It’s usually easier for me to think of supporting roles I really liked than leading roles. I think part of that is a lot of good movies don’t even really HAVE leading roles. Moonrise Kingdom is pretty much an ensemble piece; Silver Linings Playbook is close to it. Even in The Master, how exactly do you make the determination that Joaquin Phoenix is the lead, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is supporting? Anyway, this is by the way of saying that there were a lot of actresses whose performances I liked a lot in 2012, but just a few who were clearly the leads in their respective films. I think my favorite two performances were actually both from Jennifer Lawrence, in Silver Linings Playbook and in The Hunger Games. She has a way of making her characters completely believable that is rare, I think, even among really good actors. It’s like with Daniel Day Lewis, you just don’t see her acting.

I love Jessica Chastain, but not her strange role in Zero Dark Thirty. And Quvenzhane Wallis is adorable, but I just don’t think six-year-olds act, exactly. The other two roles nominated here I didn’t see. Also to get back to Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza was great in that too, and her role had some dramatic meat on it in addition to comedy.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

From the nominees: PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN in THE MASTER

(Will he actually win? I don’t think so, no.)

From everything: PHILIP SEYOUR HOFFMAN in THE MASTER

I was never sure exactly what was happening in The Master, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was really good in it. His portrayal never became caricature; one interesting thing about the movie was that his character of Lancaster Dodd is probably a much more compelling and charismatic person than the real L. Ron Hubbard ever was. There’s some aspect of the con artist to him, but he clearly has incredibly powerful motives beyond that, even though the film never completely illuminates what they are. Hoffman can dip in and out from naturalistic to weird in a way that’s really compelling. He makes the truly bizarre scene where he serenades Joaquin Phoenix with “Slow Boat to China” seem real and believable. If you asked me what was happening in that scene, exactly, I could not tell you, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is awesome.

I saw all the performances nominated for this award, and have mixed feelings. Tommy Lee Jones was great, though to a certain extent he was just being Tommy Lee Jones. Robert De Niro was terrific; he would be my second choice. I don’t ultimately think Christoph Waltz deserved a nomination. He was charming in Django Unchained, but that’s where his performance stopped. Samuel L. Jackson as the slimy house slave Stephen was much more impressive. Similarly, Alan Arkin was great, but John Goodman deserved to be nominated for his performance in Argo more than he did.

Outside the nominees, how about Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom? Jake Johnson in Safety Not Guaranteed? I’ve come down a little off my intense love for Cabin In The Woods, but Richard Jenkins was terrific in it. Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving were all fantastic in their multiple roles in Cloud Atlas, too.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

From the nominees: SALLY FIELD in LINCOLN

(Will she actually win? No chance.)

From everything: SALLY FIELD in LINCOLN

Interesting I’m ending up sticking mostly within the fields of the actual nominees for most of these. As previously indicated, I didn’t see Les Miserables (not sure I want to), nor did I see The Sessions (which I definitely DO want to see). I thought Amy Adams was fantastic in The Master, but Sally Field gets this one partly just because her role was so interesting. Mary Todd Lincoln was almost as important in Lincoln as Abe was, and nearly as juicy a part. It’s also a role that would be very easy to play badly — I’m crazy and I ruin everything! — but she never gets anywhere near that broad in the film. Mary Todd has gone through a lot and you feel surprising sympathy for her. One of the rawest, most surprising moments in Lincoln is when you’re reminded that Abe threatened to commit her to an asylum.

"I like you."

A couple other great performances from outside the nominees: Judi Dench as M has been consistently one of the best things about the newer James Bond movies since 1995. And in Skyfall she finally got a movie that was as good as she was.

One more, FAR off the beaten path: V/H/S — a found-footage horror anthology movie —  was mostly stupid and awful, and I can’t in good conscience recommend it to anyone. But it does feature one of the most memorable performances of the year for me: Hannah Fierman as a girl that a bunch of guys meet at a bar.  She seems a little bit off… and it all goes downhill from there. I can’t be too detailed for fear of spoilers, but this actress is is genuinely brilliant, and pulls off the weirdest, most inhuman horror performance I’ve ever seen. (If for some reason you do watch V/H/S, seriously do not watch more than the first and maybe the last segments in the anthology. I promise you they are not worth it; there are some real stinkers here.)

BEST DIRECTOR

From the nominees: DAVID O. RUSSELL for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

(Will he actually win? Pretty unlikely but it’s possible.)

From everything: DAVID O. RUSSELL for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

I think David O. Russell should win here because it’s Silver Linings Playbook where  the choices that the director makes are most impressive. He pulls astonishing performances out of all these actors, and the pacing and tone of the movie constantly keep you off-balance and off-your-guard. He NEVER makes the easy choice. Almost any movie would be more interesting and daring directed by Russell, and I think that should be rewarded. To dip very briefly into the real world, this is one of the very few categories where I’m genuinely interested who wins. Would love to see it be Russell, though obviously no crime to give it to Spielberg.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

From the nominees: MOONRISE KINGDOM

(Will it actually win? I have no idea.)

From everything: MOONRISE KINGDOM

Please give this to poor Moonrise Kingdom. It got shut out otherwise and it deserves more. Please do not give this to Zero Dark Thirty, or worse, Django Unchained.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

From the nominees:  LINCOLN

(Will it actually win? Still no idea.)

From everything: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Lincoln’s screenplay was terrific: smart, lean, funny and unpretentious — from the occasionally very pretentious Tony Kushner. But how about some love for weird, neglected, semi-brilliant Safety Not Guaranteed? (I’m classifying it as adapted since it’s technically based on a real Craigslist listing.) Cloud Atlas and The Hunger Games were also two very good adaptations of tricky source material. I wish the Hunger Games in general got more recognition here, it was a really good movie and was completely shut out, even for technical stuff. (Of course, it did make 600 million dollars, so maybe they’re not too broken up about it…)

BEST ANIMATED MOVIE

From the nominees: FRANKENWEENIE

(Will it actually win? Gosh I have no idea.)

From everything: FRANKENWEENIE

I saw four out of five of the animated films nominated this year (no Wreck-It Ralph) and enjoyed all of them. Great to see this category working out. I think I most enjoyed Frankenweenie, which had a LOT of similarities to ParaNorman, both about weird misunderstood kids dealing with a somewhat softened horror situation. Frankenweenie I think talked down to its audience a bit less, though, and deserved credit for its whacked-out visual style and for daring to be in black-and-white. (Is it the first black-and-white kids movie in the color era?)

Here endeth my opinions. This pretty much wraps it up for the categories I care about, though I’d love to see The Hobbit win for FX, and I thought Skyfall had terrific music, both the score and Adele’s song. Comments?

“Argo” Review

Time for another movie review!

We saw “Argo” yesterday, and basically it was a lot of fun. It wasn’t a work of art, and it didn’t make any great points about the human condition, but it was very enjoyable to watch.

(To get it over with, one of the minor reasons it was fun is that it’s probably the best movie I’ve ever seen for the “where have I seen that actor” game. In addition to fairly big names like Bryan Cranston and John Goodman and Alan Arkin, “Argo” features — the Magister from “True Blood”! Andrew from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! Clea DuVall from everything! That guy from “Monsters”! The “Friday Night Lights” guy playing a character identical to the character he plays in “Zero Dark Thirty”! Adrienne Barbeau as a space witch! And so on.)

But in addition to all that: it’s a thriller, more or less, and based on a true story, more or less. (Maybe more less than more, from what I’ve read.) The meat of the story — getting six of the Iran hostages out of Tehran by constructing fake identities for them as a Canadian sci-fi film crew — is certainly true, and is great to watch.  It’s also agonizingly stressful at times. Being trapped in a building by a mob who hates you is not something I’ve thought much about, but I guess it must be truly horrific.

And obviously “Argo” has a great cast, but the acting is weirdly spotty. The good ones first: John Goodman is terrific as the make-up artist who helps the CIA make their fake film. Bryan Cranston is funny and great as a CIA higher-up. The six actors who play the hostages are very good, and always read like real people despite the men’s astonishing 1980-style facial hair.

The not-so-good: I didn’t love Alan Arkin in this, despite loving him more generally. He’s a Hollywood producer, and ends up being played mostly for comic relief. He’s nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for this, but I actually thought Goodman was significantly better, partially because he has a somewhat better part. It’s much clearer why Goodman’s character — who is a real person — is important to the plot than Arkin’s fictional producer character.

And Ben Affleck himself is honestly not so great in this. I think he can be a very good actor, but here he’s sort of playing the stock morose hero. What his character is accomplishing is interesting, but he feels the need to hit all the traditional notes we’ve seen a million times before. He’s separated from his wife and has a kid he wants to see more often. When he’s discouraged in Tehran, he goes to his hotel and looks out at the window while drinking whisky straight from the bottle. I never want to see that scene again in movies; I’ve seen that scene. And hotel rooms have glasses, presumably even in Iran. Pour the damn whisky into a glass. But this is both an acting problem and a directing problem, and they both probably come down to Affleck.

Technically though, the movie is great. Well paced, and it does some neat stuff with mixing in real contemporary footage from the time. Nothing crazy innovative, but it’s very well done.

In sum, I would definitely recommend “Argo.” And I see it compared to “Zero Dark Thirty” a lot, despite being a very different kind of movie. But if you ARE somehow put in a position where you have to choose which CIA-focused movie to see, I would voice strong support for “Argo” over “Zero Dark Thirty.” Neither is a masterpiece, but “Argo” is a lot more fun. Less torture, more John Goodman and trying to figure out where you’ve seen particular character actors.

“Silver Linings Playbook” Review

Another weekend, another movie review. But hooray, because this was MUCH better (than “Zero Dark Thirty.”)

I think seeing “Silver Linings Playbook” cemented that if I had to pick a favorite director working right now, it would be David O. Russell. I always enjoy his movies, and they’re never exactly what you expect. He’s also one of the very few people who consistently makes movies about people who are middle or lower class without being patronizing or ridiculous. Characters in his movies live in houses like I and my friends lived in growing up. And that’s weirdly rare in Hollywood movies, where everyone is always some nebulous kind of architect or event planner who lives in an apartment the size of the batcave.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this movie, though I didn’t know exactly what to expect coming into it. It’s not really a romantic comedy, but I think it’s closer to that category than anything else. It’s basically about two very messed up people — one coming out of a mental hospital and one getting over the death of her husband — coming together. It’s not even quite a comedy exactly, even though it’s often very funny. It’s also frequently very upsetting, at least in the first half or so. There were a lot of moments where it was very hard to watch, simply because the people onscreen are so upset or or desperate or self-destructive.

It then sort of shifts gears and becomes a little more formulaic and a little less raw about two thirds through, but I had no complaints. It even has an ending involving a dance competition, which in any other movie would be completely eye-roll-worthy, but in this somehow seems real and inspiring.

Jennifer Lawrence is great, which is only what I expected, and Bradley Cooper is really terrific. I’ve always kind of liked Bradley Cooper, I think because I associate him with “Wet Hot American Summer,” but I’ve never see him in much except that and “The Hangover,” neither of which he really does much in. But he’s genuinely very good in this, capable of being both charming and actively repulsive.

Also, Robert De Niro is fantastic — and I’d honestly  forgotten that he’s even capable of being a good actor after seeing him sleepwalk through so many terrible movies without giving a crap. He’s not playing Robert De Niro or a parody thereof, he’s playing an actual character, which I think is the key. (He’s the Bradley Cooper character’s father, who is not completely sane in the standard sense himself.) He even looks different, sort of rundown and haggard. This is literally the best role I’ve seen him in, counting “Taxi Driver” and all that. Whatever David Russell does — which seems to include making everyone in his movies miserable — he gets astonishing performances out of actors. Chris Tucker is somehow in this movie and he’s awesome.

And even the minor characters are great. Bradley Cooper has a best friend who appears to be normal and successful but is actually on the edge of complete breakdown and talks about listening to Metallica and punching the walls until he hurts himself in his garage.  He also has a therapist, who is clearly a really terrible therapist, based on the advice he gives him, but also turns out to have more in common with the Cooper character than you realize.

Anyway, in addition to being a hundred times better than “Zero Dark Thirty,” this is for me one of the top two or three movies of 2012. Highly recommend, CJ seal of approval and all that. See it!

“Zero Dark Thirty” Review

We saw “Zero Dark Thirty” yesterday; here are my thoughts on it in a contrived question-and-answer format.

First things first, does it constitute an apologia for torture?

Yeah, I think it kind of does. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, because it’s just one of a bunch of issues, but there it is. The movie definitely shows torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” as integral to picking up the little leads that eventually lead to the killing of Bin Laden. And you could make the argument that the film is just showing what happened without making a moral judgment, but it seems like most people say that’s a very skewed version of what happened. Specifically, that torture did NOT lead to the identification of the courier that led to Bin Laden. Also, the movie doesn’t show any of the false positives and red herrings that came from torture, just the ones that led to something real, and that constitutes an argument being made by the filmmakers, whether they realize it or not. Exclusion of facts can make an argument just as much as inclusion.

Well okay, if you can put that aside, is it a good movie?

Ultimately, no, not really. I was certainly never bored while watching it. But it’s one of the most television-like movies I’ve ever seen. There’s no character development of any kind, it’s a straight-up procedural. Track down the bad guy and get him. The last 40 minutes or so which show the actual raid on the compound is  riveting. But that’s because we’ve all wanted to see some version of what went down ever since the announcement. And this is a competent, big budget dramatization of the seals going in and being bad-ass. (Though Andy from Parks and Recreation being there was a genuine problem for my suspension of belief.) But it’s more like a very good History Channel reenactment than anything really cinematic. And the two hours or so that come before are interesting, but like I said, kind of torture-y and with no actual characters who you identify with or care about — it’s about tracking down clue after clue, but the people doing the tracking are ciphers. For what it’s worth, I think “The Hurt Locker” was a MUCH better movie, and I’m a little mystified by how much acclaim this one is getting.

Well what about Jessica Chastain? Isn’t she amazing and Oscar-worthy?

Oh yeah! But not in this particular movie. Not her fault, I don’t think, her character is very strange. The filmmakers make a very conscious decision to limit what you know about the protagonist. Maybe because she’s not a real person? Maybe because she’s supposed to represent an amalgam of a lot of different people? I’m not sure. But you never find out anything about our hero, “Maya.” She’s dogged and determined and follows leads that nobody else will. But you don’t know anything about her background, her motivations, her last name, whatever. And it’s implied in the movie that those things don’t really exist. She’s so devoted to her work that she has no friends and she’s at a loss for what to do with herself when OBL is finally killed. But since we know so little about her, it’s hard to care. She’s like the ultimate G-man in some Hoover-produced propaganda flick, not a real character. So many of these choices are mysterious to me. Why make the movie so centered around some very boring imaginary character if she doesn’t have any arc or development?

This all sounds terrible, was seeing this movie a miserable experience?

No! It was interesting and thought-provoking. I just certainly don’t think this was the best movie of the year, as many other people seem to. And I don’t think I’d recommend that anyone see this on the big screen. You won’t be missing anything on Netflix.

How many stars do you give it, out of five?

Two and a half?