Thursday, January 22, 2015

2014 in Films: Part 3, The Reaction - Hells Yes

Well, I am clapping myself on the back for even finishing this monster. If you managed to read Parts 1-2 please consider this your reward - films that I actually liked and even loved watching in 2014.

Actively Recommend*:
*These films are good, you should watch them and report back.
  • Searching for Sugar Man - Everyone has already recommended this. I'm a sucker for the BBC4 music doc and this satisfies those impulses. The music is beautiful.
  • Veep S1-2 - I liked Series 1, I liked Series 2 a lot. Armando Iannucci is the greatest. Not as funny as The Thick of It, I would argue, but softer and v enjoyable once you stop making comparisons.
  • Dreamgirls - I had never seen this! I don't know how I missed it. I think maybe at the time I ignored it as silly or boring or I was frustrated at Bey trying to be an actress? I don't know because it is clearly great and Bey is a fun pseudo-Diana Ross and Jennifer Hudson is amazing and the songs are great and the styling is great and what is not to like?
  • Emma (2009) - I love Romola Garai. I know there are people who hate her and I don't get it, she's lovely and she's plays interesting roles. I love Emma, it is my favourite Austen and one of my most favourite books, and I think this is a solid four hour BBC adaptation. Also, Jonny Lee Miller is a babe as Knightley.
  • Girls S1-3 - I'm not going to list all the problems with Girls. They exist and they have been discussed to the point of exhaustion. I will admit that I found Season 3 disappointing. Acknowledging that though, I really enjoyed Seasons 1-2. I gorged on Girls - I watched all three seasons in maybe two weeks. I stand by the show and Lena Dunham's talent.
  • In a World - Lake Bell writes/directs/stars/everythings in this film about a woman trying to make it in the movie voice over micro-industry. It's smart, it's fun, it's reasonable. It won't change your life but easy-watching, not-stupid, not-depressing, lady-centric films are hard to find and deserve a shout out. 
  • Safety Not Guaranteed - It is physically difficult for me to resist a film starring Jake Johnson and Aubrey Plaza. Their glorious respective network comedy performances have wormed their way into my heart and I am defenseless. I could not resist this film despite being both low key and pretty weird. I mean, those can be great qualities in a film but they can also be risky. I'm not sure everyone/anyone would agree with me but I enjoyed this odd nugget.

The British film cover for SNG is rubbish so here is the American cover
  • The Decoy Bride - This is not an exceptional film but, GOD LORD, there is a scandalous dearth of chick flicks available in this day and age. Come back chick flick, I miss you! And don't give me any of that Cecelia Ahern drivel, I want the full Meg Ryan. WHERE ARE THE MEG RYANS of the aughts and teens?? All I want is some snappy dialogue, a heroine I don't want to murder and a happy ending - is that too much to ask? Yes, there are some cute indie films with a splash of rom and a hint of com and they can be sweet and lovely but that is not what I want from a chick flick. I want silliness and some glossy unreality - I want (plausible) escapism and unlikely events. But there are only so many times you can re-watch Sleepless in Seattle and somehow The Decoy Bride passed me by at the time of release (2011). Perhaps I ignored it because I thought more and better chick flicks were around the corner. How wrong I was. The Decoy Bride might not have passed muster in the Golden Age of chick flicks but it does satisfy in a drought where even such minor treats are few and far between. The plot is besides the point but I like both David Tennant and Kelly McDonald and it is set on a Scottish island and whatever.
  • Rushmore - I am a Wes Anderson fan, whatever that might imply, but before seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel at the cinema I had to correct the gaps in my  knowledge of his early work. In 2014 I completed his directorial filmography and it was actually a really interesting experience. If your only experience of Anderson is Zissou (which I will happily admit that I loathed) or the fetishization of The Royal Tenenbaums on Tumblr then you may sneer but I enjoy a distinctive voice and I love his eye for detail. He is an aesthete and he got a bit carried away with The GBH (okay, a lot carried away) but it is great to see his style develop across films. Bottle Rocket and The GBH are very different but once you've watched everything in between you can see the connections and the progress very clearly. I don't think I have 'completed' any other directors - maybe I should? Rushmore is really and it is odd and stylized without being insane. I imagine it is the #1 for 'true Anderson-ites'. I enjoyed it a lot but it wouldn't be my top choice. For your delectation: #8 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, #7 The Darjeeling Limited, #6 The Grand Budapest Hotel, #5 Bottle Rocket #4 Moonrise Kingdom, #3 The Royal Tenenbaums, #2 Rushmore, #1 Fantastic Mr Fox. Duh.
  • Mulan - I LOVE MULAN. Obviously this was a re-watch, obviously I can do all the songs. Beef, pork, chicken! Girls win wars, cross dressing and confused sexuality! All of my favourite things. Do I think, like Twelfth Night, that the ending is a bit of a let down? Yes. But, like Twelfth Night, I can ignore that in favour of all the fun you have in the middle.
  • Her - Everyone has already recommended this. But my personal stamp of approval makes all of the difference! Beautiful acting, beautiful soundtrack, beautiful colour palette, set design and costuming. The story, of a man falling in love with his iOS, is to close to reality to be called a dystopia but it also isn't really offered for judgement. It just happens and we understand it. I remember not loving the final third of the film but that doesn't stop it being great.

This is a beautiful cover. Spike Jonze's eye is inarguable.
  • Dallas Buyers Club - Everyone has already recommended this. I think lots of people are already over the McConaughaissance? I might be. But if you missed this first time round then it is more than worth watching. There are some representational issues but, generally speaking, I think we should make and watch all of the AIDS films. Warning: crying.
  • The Way Way Back - This was a rewatch and well deserved. I am very fond of this film. An impressively awkward teenage boy is forced to spend a summer in the Hamptons at his mother's awful new boyfriend's holiday home. He finds escape working at a poorly regulated waterpark. That's about it but it is kind and funny and everyone in it is charming. Except Steve Carrell, he's a grade A a-hole here and creepily good at it. Screw Foxcatcher - n.b. haven't seen it but whatever - you saw Carrell as a villain here first. Other great people in this film: Sam Rockwell, Maya Rudolph, Toni Collette. Alison Janney is AMAZING. It is just a lovely summery film that you can watch with anyone.
  • Bored to Death S1-2 - Buzzwords I do not generally enjoy: hipster; Brooklyn; writerly angst; man-child; whiny white boy. Still, perhaps BTD is the exception that proves the rule. It is very aware of its clichés and has fun poking at them. It's ridiculous and comic and often surreal and I enjoyed watching it. I am not very good at 'prestige TV' because I lack both stamina and the willingness to absorb 'serious drama' through the medium of television. I will read serious books, essays and the news - I reserve TV for mindless pleasure. BTD was fairly satisfying. I also retain a lot of residual fondness for Jonathan Ames, the writer, in the wake of his excellent dog observation.
  • Hercules - I LOVE HERCULES. Obviously this was a re-watch, obviously I can do all the songs. Who puts the glad in gladiator? Also, I love me some classical mythology. True talk, I took Latin at school and my favourite teacher let us watch Hercules twice a term, every term, for three years. Those were lessons well spent... Also, drowsing off to the sound of Winnie the Pooh and Harry Potter read in Latin. Strange times.

Yesssss
  • Inside Llewyn Davis - Everyone has already recommended this. But my personal stamp of approval makes all of the difference! I think what is worth noting here is that I saw and admired ILD at the cinema but when we got the DVD it sat unwatched for a while because I wasn't sure if I felt up to it. In my head I had transmuted it into a dour, sad film and, yes, it is dour and sad in places but it's also funny and well paced and the music is amazing. Oscar Isaac is a dream and the film industry don't deserve him.
  • 20 Feet from Stardom - Everyone has already recommended this. A great documentary about backing singers. The music is, unsurprisingly, amazing and gave me goosebumps. They're babes, the lot of them.
  • We Are the Best! - Buzzwords I do generally enjoy: girls; adolescence; rage; Scandinavia; punk. WATB! totally delivers. Two angry 13 yr old Swedish school girls start a punk band, befriend a well behaved Christian girl and make a horrible, horrible noise. That's it. But what could be better?? This made me smile a lot.
  • The Lego Movie - You've probably seen it, you know it is great. Would I say that it is up there with the best of Pixar? I don't know, that's a big claim, but it is certainly an excellent piece of child/adult cinema. It is funny and imaginative and the attention to detail is insane. It definitely stood up to a re-watch. Also, if you did not enjoy The Dark Knight et al you will v much enjoy Lego Batman. Long may the Year(s) of Chris Pratt continue.
  • Chef - What an end of year delight. I put Chef on our list because it had a surprising cast for a little film and the posters were of a food truck. There was always going to be something for me to enjoy in a film with a food truck. But it was also sweet and funny and generally charming. There was tons of food porn but also American road trip porn. Father, son and sous chef drive around America making Cuban sandwiches and bonding. I have no particular fondness for Jon Favreau as an actor but he was fine and I enjoyed the supporting parts, of various sizes, for Sofia Vegara, Scarlett Johannson, Oliver Pratt and Robert Downey Jr. Also, the best/least grating integration of social media that I can remember. Just a v nice film that I should probably buy for myself because it will cheer me up when I'm sad.

Doesn't that look fun??

It is over. Now I can have a nap.

Friday, January 16, 2015

2014 in Films: Part 2, The Reaction - Noooo to Yeah?

Ok, so this got way out of hand... I mean, it was out of hand when I split what I thought was going to be one medium sized post into two long-ish posts but now that I'm splitting it into three giant posts... Well, this was not intentional. But apparently I can't shut up.

Here are the films I watched in 2014 that I loathed, the films that I thought I would/should like but didn't especially and the films that I thought were worth watching despite not wholeheartedly loving them.

Actual Garbage*:
*I am actively suggesting that you avoid these films. I watched plenty of bland films last year that I have no feelings about. These I aggressively dislike. I am taking a stand.
  • The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - I actively love and defend both YA and fanfiction but this is the worst of both. Horrible clichés, predictable plotting and very clunky acting/dialogue. I haven't read the books and they've sold a packet so maybe they're great but, based on the film, I very much doubt they would be my cup of tea.
  • Now You See Me - Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson are two of my favourite actors. Zombieland is the greatest film. This, however, is straight trash. It is SUCH rubbish. I have nothing nice to say about it. I will not get those 116 minutes back.
  • About Time - Oh, Richard Curtis. I am disappointed. I have a high tolerance for romantic slush and I loved reading The Time Traveler's Wife as a thirteen year old but this film is too stupid.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Similarly, due in part to R and in part to fandom, I also have a relatively high tolerance for Marvel films these days. I am very fond of X-Men: First Class (the gayest mainstream superhero film?), there are some fun Ironman films, I am full subtext on Avengers. But Captain America is a franchise I can't get behind. The first film was awful, the second is also awful. And ridiculous. I don't care what you say, fandom! Garbage. Cap is boring and Seb Stan is a charisma vacuum. I like Anthony Mackie and I enjoyed the all too brief Cap/Tasha buddy cop moments but the film itself is just too dumb and predictable and ridiculous. Nope.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - See above. I don't mind the Spider-Man franchise but this film is so incoherent. I think Sony owns Spider-Man and they need to CHILL THEIR BOOTS. They have nothing to say. I love Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield and I love them together and I sat through this trash pile for their adorable chemistry but it was not enough. Yelling at the TV bad.
Crimes against ScarJo

CA:TWS - What have you done to ScarJo's body?? What is this insanity?

I Did Not Enjoy*:
*I don't have the confidence to say that these films are bad. I did not enjoy them at all but some of them have achieved critical and commercial success. I can see their charms if I squint but I can't like them. You might?
  • Half Nelson - I know this is very highly praised and Ryan Gosling is Ryan Gosling but, holy shit, this is depressing. The blurb or whatever review I read sold it as 'darkly comic' and it is NOT. It may be super real but it was too dark for me.
  • The Bling Ring - Sofia, I only want to love you. Why must you keep trying to drive me away? This film is so vapid and, yeah, maybe that's intentional but why would you want to inflict that on yourself for 90 minutes? Great great soundtrack and Emma Watson's moronic L.A. girl is kind of fun but the whole thing is a big waste of time.
  • Kick-Ass 2 - This is mostly disappointment. I loved the first film and was really looking forward to the sequel. Unfortunately it has none of the charms of the original. Sad times.
  • All the Real Girls - I can't remember who recommended this to me but I remember the earnestness of the recommendation. This is exactly why recommendations are dangerous things. Like Half Nelson, this is probably a great film if you enjoy being miserable but I don't. I mean, I enjoy a nice cathartic cry but unmediated grimness is no fun. This is probably a great picture of small town, rural America but it was a slog.
  • Drinking Buddies - Oh, mumblecore. I want to like you, I know I'm basically your target audience but... I just like plot. Jake Johnson and Anna Kendrick are delightful human beings but nothing happens and everyone is miserable. Away with you, realness. I am surrounded by realness and it is no more interesting on film than it is IRL.
  • Frozen - Why does everyone love Frozen?? I genuinely do not understand. This is not a good film. And I say that as a lover of children's films, musicals and Pixar. Stoopid.
  • What a Way to Go! - Tumblr gave me unrealistic expectations of this film. I thought it would be all pink Shirley Maclaine goodness. I thought it would be fun and fluffy. It was long and rather wearing and not the good kind (?) of maniacal.
  • They Came Together - Amy, why?? Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Max Greenfield, Ed Helms... The list of great people in this film is impressive, I don't understand how it is so embarrassing and un-funny. It parodies outdated romcom tropes but it doesn't even do that well. I feel betrayed.
Worthwhile*:
*There were things I liked about these films and I think they should be watched. That is not a ringing endorsement but I'm glad they are out there.
  • Frances Ha - I feel like I reference Greta Gerwig often. I really like her, I think she's a great actor/writer/director and I think it is awesome that she is able to produce authentic, truthful seeming work. I am 100% on board with smart women making art about their experiences. That said, I found 80 minutes of black & white urbanite moping a little wearing. I'm glad it exists though!
  • Liberal Arts - Josh Radnor's character is kind of sleazy and Elizabeth Olsen's character is a little MPDG but she is so beautiful and warm. Alison Janney is always excellent and Zac Efron has a great cameo (surprising, I know). This film is a bit white dude emotional crisis but it is quite sweet in a quiet way.
  • Only Lovers Left Alive - OLLA is so silly and pointless! It is trying so hard to be cool! So hard. Vampires, Morocco, rock'n'roll, man. But also Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton hanging out and looking beautiful. They are inherently cool, even when Jim Jarmusch is being ridiculous, and they're fun to watch.
  • Enough Said - Tavi! You can do anything. What a hero. This is mumblecore I can get on board with, more or less. Ditto Liberal Arts actually. I only need a little plot, just a little, and if you're going to let actors improvise make sure that they have interesting things to say. Mumblecore is a bit of a meaningless category really and I'm not convinced I'm using the term right but these films have clear things in common whether you want to put a name on that or not. This is quite middle aged but the performances are lovely.
You can bite my neck. Both of you.

OLLA - Look at us brood, we are so broody, you could cut yourself on our cheekbones

Next up, the films I actually legit loved!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

2014 in Films: Part 1, The Overview

I don't understand why all the 'Best of 2014' lists are written and posted in early December. Why write off December like that? I mean, sure, it is cold and grey and most of us are on the long holiday-free slog to Christmas and need cheering up... But then you get gifts and time off to consume and enjoy 2014's cultural produce. I suppose that all the lists give you a grand selection of books and films and music to enjoy over your holidays but they're missing a trick in terms of a full and conclusive retrospective. A fair amount was read/watched/eaten in the last three weeks of December that should be remembered as part of 2014 rather than being swept under the seasonal carpet.

That said, I'm going to consider 'Films of 2014' through the lens of our Lovefilm rental list which is itself pretty narrow. We're one of the seven households in the UK that probably still has a hard copy Lovefilm subscription and I highly enjoy it. In this day and age it somehow already seems old-fashioned to have DVDs delivered but I think they're an excellent and necessary supplement to streaming. We have Lovefilm Instant/Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix subscriptions and I love streaming - we have watched eight series of the American Office this year on streaming and they have been glorious. Streaming is vast and convenient but, to be truthful, I watch almost exclusively drivel online. There are exceptions, I can think of The Office and, of course, Transparent, but mostly I watch trash like Step Up 4: The Uppiest on Netflix while I do the washing up. I find it difficult to psych myself up to watch anything challenging or complicated on streaming. My applause and disbelief to those of you watching subtitles or documentaries on streaming, you are a better person than me.

Luckily (for my self-esteem and non-existent reputation) I can't find the place on Instant or Netflix that records the films and TV that I have streamed in 2014. It would, no doubt, be undignified. I mean, it is undignified to be unable to find a website page that I'm sure must exist but I'm writing this on Blogspot - clearly I make no claim to technical expertise. Of course, there is plenty of rubbish on our postal list (which I could find and you have below) but there are some great films mixed in too. I haven't edited this list because I think recommendations are most relevant within context. For the most part, you are best off avoiding recommendations from people with directly opposing taste to you. Yes, it is good to be pushed and stretched and whathaveyou but if you hate most of the films I've loved and love most of the films I've hated then you're unlikely to get much out of my other favourites. That's fine, the internet is a big place and there are many films. Also, I don't wish to sugar coat my life - I make no pretensions to highbrow cinematic taste. I watch great films, crap films, stunningly mundane films. I watch big shiny franchises and as well as indie films. I cohabit with a boy so I watch a lot of superhero films. Such is life. I don't really trust people who only watch clever, brilliant films. Perhaps they exist, perhaps the bloggers whose lives are really just all peonies and Parisian balconies exist, the world contains multitudes. But, if they do exist, surely they are rather two dimensional if smart and sophisticated?

All of the films/DVDs I watched in 2014*:
*Excluding streaming, TV, the cinema and anything else you can think of.
**At a very rough guess I might estimate that these account for 2/3 of my total viewing.
***Also, as will soon become apparent, these are not 2014 releases because no one lives like that.

Searching for Sugar Man
Half Nelson
Veep S1-2
The Bling Ring
Monsters University
The Internship
Dreamgirls
Pacific Rim
Admission
Anastasia
Kiki's Delivery Service
Frances Ha
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Emma (2009)
Girls S1-3
Liberal Arts
The Mortal Instruments
Kick-Ass 2
In a World
Safety Not Guaranteed
Girl Most Likely...
Parks and Recreation S4
All the Real Girls
Drinking Buddies
How I Live Now
The To Do List
Now You See Me
Wolf Children
Bottle Rocket
The Decoy Bride
Rushmore
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
About Time
Before Sunrise
That Awkward Moment
Mulan
Her
Dallas Buyers Club
The World's End
Catching Fire
The Way Way Back
Kill Your Darlings
Bored to Death S1-2
Hercules
Cuban Fury
Delivery Man
Frozen
What a Way to Go!
Inside Llewyn Davis
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
The Two Faces of January
20 Feet from Stardom
We Are the Best!
Tracks
Maleficent
Only Lovers Left Alive
Enough Said
What Maisie Knew
Divergent
The Lego Movie
Chef
They Came Together
Begin Again
10 Years: The Reunion
Carrie (2014)
22 Jump Street
Bad Neighbours

Thoughts, recommendations and anti-recommendations to follow...

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Sunday Book: The Vanishers - Heidi Julavits

Happy new year, one and all. I have some seasonally appropriate posts in the pipes (2014 in Books and Films at the least) but they are taking forever to write because there were a lot of both and I didn't keep on top of them. I let them pile up into a giant heap of stress and blurred memories. I completely forgot to even try and make any resolutions this year and I'm fine with that but a blog resolution right here, right now (already basically formulated in my previous post): regularity. Little and often. It may not be as thorough as I would like but better a slight record than no record? I will try at least.

In the spirit of that resolution… The first book I finished in 2015 was The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits. I don’t have an elegant essay to write about this odd novel (as if I ever do!) but it was deeply weird and interesting and I want to acknowledge both the book itself and my dalliance with it. I didn't love nor, I think, did I fully understand it but a lot of its ideas will be bouncing around my head for a while. There were mother/daughter relationships, psychic attacks and fossilized geodes of meat. There was illness, mental and physical, suicide and grief. The alternate vicious competitiveness and otherworldly woolliness of academics made me smile. People vanish and manipulate each other and undergo drastic facial surgery to embody the dead. Dark, surreal pornography may or may not be art. There are multiple mysteries and detectives with their own agenda. Really, it's very strange.

I wouldn't say that it is the main psychological/philosophical drive of the novel but, perhaps because it is something I have been thinking about lately, I found it's consideration of vampirism and memory, or the vampirism of memory, particularly interesting. How we mine our memories for material, experience, emotional heft and at what cost. Julavits discusses 'overrides' in terms of computer programming and method acting - how we overlay and destroy memories, how we risk sucking them dry of meaning or even existence. I suspect it is something that most writers think about a lot. I certainly do. Where do you draw the line, what do you write about, what is left? It felt good to encounter those concerns explicitly.


(Gorgeous cover by Emily Mahon)

"Julavits is at her acrobatically linguistic best here. Nearly every page contains a showstopping description or insight. [...] Julia’s narrative voice is superb. Funny, self-deprecating, exquisitely attuned, she speaks as if the entire acreage of her skin were a listening device. Nothing is lost on her, and she’s as unsparing about herself as she is of those around her. This pointed, fragile honesty makes her a winsome heroine, even in the most far-fetched of circumstances. [...] While the language remains vivid, its satisfactions are overwhelmed by the confusion of the overdetermined plot. Regrettably, “The Vanishers” becomes a victim of its own dizzying coincidences." Cristina Garcia - NYT

"Ms Julavits is a keen observer of the high drama of very smart and very anxious people. An evocative writer, she conjures up the supernatural in a way that feels plausible, and she knows just how to convey the shifting darkness of a forest at night. Occasionally a metaphor is so lavish that it slides away from the story, such as “a filament of drool catching the gray New Hampshire light…making her look as though she were seeping mercury from the mouth.” But this lends the novel a heightened awareness, a haunting Sylvia Plath-like resonance." The Economist

To Read List: Women in Clothes. This 2014 kind-of-anthology about women and clothes (no way) and dressing and fashion and possessions and emotions, the whole messy bundle, was already on my To Read List. I love women, I love clothes, I love when real consideration is given to the small choices that make up our days. I am very interested in Sheila Heti, particularly having read HSAPB?, and I've enjoyed my fleeting interactions with Leanne Shapton's art online. Heidi Julavits makes up their trio and is a founding editor at The Believer. The Vanishers certainly demonstrates that she has weird, deep, dark thoughts and an eye for detail - I can't wait to read her take on 'fashion'.