Kyle’s Superlative Year in Film: 2013 Edition at The Moviola
I realized it was almost the end of the year about a week and a half ago. And I began to panic. Little beads of sweat began to form on my forehead as I looked at the list of films I still had to watch. My original plan was to cram as many as I could before making my year end list. But, after some advice from a Twitter friend, I decided, “Eh, I’ve more than made my quota, I can take it easy and watch what I want to watch now.” By quota, I mean by my Masochist Quota. Because I feel like I’m always playing catch up with every other cinephile out there, I feel the incredibly masochistic need to watch at least 365 films a year. And watching that many (usually more) drains a person. (I’ve hit 516 films so far, not including rewatches.) I don’t have my license, so I don’t see that many 2013 films. I mostly see rep and archival stuff via Netflix, my library, etc. But this year, I did see a bit more. While I believe I have enough to make a reasonable top ten list, I decided to do something else. Silly superlatives! It’s more fun, a little more unorthodox, and does not require sleepless nights and valium pills to get me through eighteen other films I still had to watch.
Read on at The Moviola for my List of Film Superlatives for 2013!
Jasmine and Her Sister: Blue Jasmine
There’s something eerie about Woody Allen’s versatility. While some would be quick to accuse Allen of making the same film over and over again with the same archetypes repeatedly, his ability to oscillate between genres, tones, and moods is astonishing. He can do straight romantic comedy (Scoop), humane dramedy (Annie Hall/Manhattan), laugh out loud absurdity (Love and Death/Bananas), Keaton and Chaplin inspired slapstick (Sleeper), Bergman-esque ruminations on human contact (Another Woman, Interiors, Hannah and Her Sisters, and September), German Expressionist comedies (Shadows and Fog), and even put comedy and tragedy up against one another to juxtapose and complement (Crimes and Misdemeanors/Melinda and Melinda). With his newest film, Blue Jasmine, Allen comes the closest he’s been in years to perfection and the closest he’s come in his career to making a horror film.
My Criterion Wish List
It’s not exactly a mystery that I’m a huge fan (dare I say “fanboy”?) of the Criterion Collection, that distribution company which releases some of the greatest, strangest, and most important films on DVD and Blu-ray. Someone recently asked me what my wish list of Criterion releases would be, and I thought to myself, “Oh gosh, how can I even think?” So, I narrowed it down to a few and instead oof writing a long essay on my choices, I thought I might write what I would want or hope to imagine would be on the back of the cover. You know, those long winded paragraphs explaining why the film is in the collection, that, despite the number of syllables in each sentence, manage to be surprisingly succinct. (These are not necessarily films that “deserve” to be there, but ones I would like to be there nonetheless, because I think they deserve it.) Well, here it goes, my Criterion Wish List.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) | Directed by Howard Hawks
Though it was scorned upon its initial release, continuing Hepburn’s reputation as “box office poison”, Howard Hawks’ brilliant film set the standard for the screwball comedy. Hepburn and Grant jump through wacky scenarios with great aplomb, and while its humor never ceases in any sense of the word, it is also the clever innuendos and sly commentary on the battle of the sexes that make this 1938 film a classic and on numerous lists as one of the best comedies ever made.
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) | Directed by Marc Forster
Harold Crick hears voices in his head, but it isn’t schizophrenia. It’s someone narrating his life. Yes, Will Ferrell’s nuanced performance as Crick is the protagonist of a novel, and this, shall we say, “novel” approach to the existential drama makes for a memorable, yet underrated film. Filled with raw emotion, contemplations on the nature of tragedy and comedy, and clever visual effects, Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction is a unique, funny, and breathless film. (Art by grannyhall)
Manhattan (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
While Annie Hall may have marked a change in Woody Allen’s style, his masterpiece Manhattan marked the true transition from the laugh a minute bonkers style of Bananas to the more mature and heartfelt comedy of his later career. Photographed in gorgeous black and white by Gordon Willis, scored to the swelling and bustling music of George Gershwin, and set against the intellectual circles of Upper East Side Manhattan, Allen’s triumph is an exploration of relationships, maturity, intellect vs. morality, ethics, and love. (Art by trespasserswillbebeaten)
Clue (1985) | Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Is Clue the best film adaptation of a board game of all time? Taking place at the height of the Red Scare, while McCarthyism is rampant and J. Edgar Hoover has everyone on his list, Clue takes a group of people who are all connected by Washington DC and… a murder. But who did it, where, and with what? An all star cast presents a number of hilarious suspects. As the bodies stack, so the laughs, and beneath the veneer of hilariousness is a look at the effects of paranoia and Communism in the upper class. (Art by vargtimmen)
Mulholand Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
He made his mark in the 1970s with the cult classic Eraserhead and later in television with the iconic Twin Peaks. But David Lynch’s most poisonous love letter to Hollywood and cinema would start off as a pilot and transform into one of the most intriguing and enigmatic puzzle box films ever made. Mulholland Dr. puzzled audiences upon its release and continues to do so to this day. Featuring stellar performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, travel down the road into a dream world and a nightmare. (Art by Midnight Marauder.)
Oslo, August 31st (2012) | Directed by Joachim Trier
He started out as a skateboarder, but Joachim Trier triggers more than mere adrenaline in his humane drama and loose remake of Louis Malles’s The Fire Within. In Oslo, August 31st, a young man just out of rehab (played beautifully by Anders Danielsen Lie) comes back to his home town once more to say goodbye. Few films are as raw and meticulously imbued with feeling as this outstanding Norwegian drama from one of the up and coming directors of this generation. (Art by grannyhall)
Rhapsody in Beautiful Black and White: George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and Woody Allen’s Manhattan
The swell of strings, the melancholic brass, the two people sitting on the bench, and the gorgeous night cinematography of said two people looking towards the Queensboro Bridge as the sun rises. There is pretty much no more iconic cinematic still than the scene from Woody Allen’s masterpiece Manhattan, as Isaac and Mary sit on a bench, well into the morning talking about life. One of the film’s greatest attributes, besides the splendid photography from Gordon Willis, its sense of humor, its pathos, etc., is its brilliant use of music by George Gershwin to illustrate New York. And, as we know from the beginning of the film, as “Rhapsody in Blue” paints the City That Never Sleeps vividly, Isaac, and Allen to boot, loves New York. He “romanticizes it all out of proportion”. So, thus, it would be fitting not only to use some of the composer’s greatest selections for the film to heighten the stylized romanticism, contrasted against the urbanite intellectualism of the setting, but to use one of Gershwin’s most well known standards, “Someone to Watch Over Me”, over the most memorable scene from the film. Granted, when you think about the song from a lyrical standpoint, you kind of wonder, why this song? Who’s watching over whom? It doesn’t make sense for Isaac to look over Mary, but what if it’s the other way around? Aside from the sheer romanticism of the song, Allen may have slyly used the song to further characterize the slightly insecure, undeniably pretentious, and oddly alluring Mary Wilkie, as portrayed by Diane Keaton, as well as a love letter to the city the film takes place in.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” was originally written by George and Ira Gershwin for the musical Oh, Kay! in 1926, and soon after it became a jazz standard and a staple of the Great American Songbook. The song details what could be unrequited desires for a romantic guardian and, what sounds like, a co-dependent romantic entanglement. The persona is vulnerable, sensitive, and even, perhaps, insecure. My two favorite renditions include a classic recording by the great Ella Fitzgerald and a nicely traditional performance by Cheyenne Jackson (who briefly was on 30 Rock). You would be hard put to find a more romantic song that was able to articulate those kinds of yearnings without sounding overly sappy or, even, needy and desperate. Instead, it sounds more like a contemplation of one’s own weaknesses and the need for some kind of protector. The song is normally performed by a female vocalist, which, maybe unfairly, accentuates the submissive nature of the song. This aspect is important, which I will get to in a bit.
If 1977’s Best Picture winner Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s transition from from absurd laugh a minute jokey comedies to more mature, thoughtful, even philosophical comedy films, Manhattan was the filim that firmly planted Allen’s feet in the ground as a master writer, director, star of comedies with nuance and depth. Though he had backfired with his venture into the Bergman-esque realm with the previous year’s Interiors, Manhattan was another bunce back. Although Allen himself hates the film (he even offered United Artists to completely reshoot the film for no pay), it represents one of the most mature and beautiful comedies ever projected on the silver screen. And, oh, that silver screen! Shot in glorious black and white by the Prince of Darkness himself, cinematographer Gordon Willis (known for his work on The Godfather), the classical look imbues the film with sophistication and romanticism.
As seen in the film Manhattan, the song drops its lyrics, as with the rest of the Gershwin score, giving its orchestral arrangement a certain power and sensitivity that, while native to the track itself, greatly imbues the scene with those same elements. As the song is about to play, Isaac Davis (Woody Allen), an insecure nebbish who recently quit his job as a TV writer and is dating a 17 year old, is discussing his book about his mother with Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton), a pompous intellectual type whose favorite phrase is “I live in Philadelphia, where we…” But they pause for a moment as the song begins playing, filling the scene with as much wonder as Gordon Willis’ and Allen’s joint mise-en-scene. They pause their discussion of his book and just look at the city, in all of its beauty. A knockout, Isaac calls it. And this scene truly is.
So, with this in mind, the song’s meaning is twofold (maybe three fold, if you consider the song contextually). Manhattan tells a story of a very specific group of people and their very specific environment. Amidst this environment, Isaac is tries to break out of this environment by dating a nubile, but very intelligent, 17 year old named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). This somewhat awkward relationship involves Isaac somewhat frequently undermining her intelligence because she’s young, but he can, nevertheless, be intimate and fairly honest with her. However, his encounter with Mary Wilkie, a woman who represents the kind of people he supposedly detests, suggests an odd polar reaction in terms of attraction. He claims to dislike the intellectual, high society he belongs to, but, as his attraction to Mary reveals, he does belong to that environment. But, in this relationship, the intimacy, like the academically driven society the film sets itself in, is kind of superficial with claims of being “deep”.
Throughout the discourse that Mary discusses, from the photographs that were “straight out of Diane Arbus, but with none of the wit” to the bashing of Norman Mailer, Mary is, at heart, insecure, unsure about her competency, worried about her failed marriage. But she masks it by saying she realizes that she’s a beautiful woman, by taking a job that is technically beneath her (writing novelizations of screenplays/movies), and being so sure of her relationship with Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). So, the relationship between Isaac and Mary is thus based on the surface of things, people so sure of their competency to make them look good to other people, that they never get deeper than that surface. Isaac, though, doesn’t need to make himself vulnerable to Mary. For that, he has Tracy.
Tracy, young, intelligent, but outside of that pseudo-intellectual stratosphere that he so uncomfortably lives in, is the antithesis to Mary. She’s modest, and that modesty and genuine sincerity should offer Isaac the perfect opportunity to connect with someone not only intellectually, but emotionally as well. And, at times, when he isn’t trying to discredit her intelligence, they do. She often initiates these conversations, but it’s there, much more evident than anything he has with Mary. After his relationship with Mary is done and over with, he realizes that, although he isn’t willing to initially admit it, he needs Tracy. Tracy is his ticket out of the sort of social environment he doesn’t even like. If anything, you could say that Mary was his transition out.
Anyways, let’s backtrack to the bridge scene. Because Mary is the much more sensitive of the two, masking that sensitivity with her proclivity towards pretension, “Someone to Watch Over Me” works more from her perspective than it does for Isaac’s. Isaac, as aforementioned, doesn’t need to make the kind of confession that the song makes; Mary does. Considering her track record with marriage and relationships with married men, emotional connectivity is what she wants but what she is afraid of.
There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that she turns out to be
Someone to watch over me.
I’m a little lamb who’s lose in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me.
The confessional begins with the concept of continually searching and never finding love, and that lost feeling when you can’t actually find love. But the connection that Mary seems to make with Isaac seems to be the one that she thinks she’s been looking for. Isaac, hardly the virile type, is, for Mary, someone to watch over her.
Outside of that, during this scene the music plays as the two of them, on the bench (a prop which was brought to the set), they gaze at New York, bedazzled. For these two people, sometimes confused and sometimes sure of themselves, New York watches over them as their home. Ironic though it may be that New York would watch over anyone to protect them, the place and the setting is so familiar to them, so homey for them, that the conclusion is perfectly reasonable. It is a love letter to New York, as much as the use of “Rhapsody in Blue” at the beginning of the film, as much as the film itself, and as much as nearly any film Woody Allen has ever made. The lights come up and he loves New York.
The overt romanticization works with the story, the characters, and the setting well, for, as much depth and nuance as they may have, a lot of it seems like a caricature. The intellectuals in the film are stereotypes, the same kind of stereotype that Allen has used numerous times; Allen’s Isaac is his alternate persona with heightened neuroses; and the film’s black and white sheen seems to fit an era more home to the likes of Casablanca and The Lady Eve than Annie Hall or Interiors. The song itself isn’t only romantic in its notion about finding love, but also in its deep felt desire. Its musical structure, major in its key and absolutely designed to make you swoon, again, accentuates this element. SO, the inclusion of the song as a love letter to this city makes sense, and can be, itself, a romantic notion.
The Gershwin filled score of Allen’s Manhattan is one of my favorite aspects of the film. I’ve listened to the album literally hundreds of times. But it serves a greater purpose as Allen uses it for illustrating one of its main characters, thereby fleshing out dynamics, and also by working as a song pining for a place, with people, stories, and quirks from a city he loves.
Middle-Earth of the Road: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Sitting in the dark in the theater, at midnight no less, I checked my watch before the film began. My expectations were low. So low, you’d have to fall down that well in the Mines of Moria to find them. It isn’t that I don’t like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. On the contrary, my love for the films and the books is exactly why I was worried about Peter Jackson’s latest Middle-Earth effort The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The split into three films worried me. The underwhelming look of the trailers worried me. The mere fact that I was returning to a universe I so loved in and of itself was a worry for me. I was more excited for the lobster ravioli I was to have for dinner before the film. But, as they say, lower your expectations and you shall be amazed! Or, at least, pleasantly surprised. I looked back at my watch, the lights went down, and I braced myself for the worst.
The Hobbit was the children’s tale that would then become sort of a blueprint for JRR Tolkien’s epic, massive, magisterial The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the One Ring that would become the focal point for it all. But, as aforementioned, The Hobbitwas an adventure, something that, at its essence, did not give way to great complication or all that much complexity (well, unless you’re one of two things: an English Lit major or a Film Critic). Bilbo Baggins is a bit of a nebbish, a hobbit who likes his calm. He is called upon by Gandalf the Grey Wizard to go on an adventure with a set of dwarves. Their goal is to defeat Smaug, the dragon bathing in the dwarves’ gold in the Misty Mountains. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first part of the trilogy, doesn’t get us that far.
Structurally, it is nearly identical to The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson’s first LOTR film. Almost beat for beat, from the mythological exposition of the prologue, to the unwillingness of Bilbo to go on an adventure, to the travel itself and even some of the locations. This familiarity works, in some ways, in the film’s favor. Journeying back to a world one is so familiar with but with new characters and a new story is, admittedly, a rather jarring experience. It will be, assuredly, the same thing viewers will feel whenever those new Star Wars movies come out. The structure, though, seems to inherently ease the transition and reconciliation between “old world, new story” (even though The Hobbit is technically a “prequel”).
The familiarity of its structure, however, does not save everything. Much like The Fellowship of the Ring, and in some ways even worse, The Hobbit takes its time getting to certain things. It drags, man. It really drags in certain parts. Despite the film being fifteen or seventeen minutes shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings, many scenes of exposition actually make the film feel much longer than any of the original trilogy. It is here where The Hobbit fails most for me. I have seen the Extended Editions of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy enough times that I have no idea what the theatrical cuts look like. They offer a complete, full, and whole experience, and, while The Two Towers is guilty of having some awful pacing problems, I enjoy watching the extended edits immensely. However, the pacing issues with The Hobbit get so bad that I remain uninterested in seeing an extended edition of the film. It already feels extended. Part of it is the padding from the other stories that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens have taken from the appendices of the books. A fun drinking game would be taking a shot every time you noticed something added in.
One of the major differences in terms of the look and production of the film is the balls to the wall utilization of CGI. Gone are the practical makeup effects and the somewhat silly transitions. Au revior, real orcs! Ta-ta, Uruk-Hai! It’s 2012, dontcha know! It’s the digital age! While many of the locations are actually locations (yay New Zealand!), some of it has been transformed more drastically than one expected. One of the beauties of The Lord of the Rings was how real it felt. That sounds kind of ridiculous, but it’s true. The Shire is intact, but a part of me felt disappointed in this respect. Middle-Earth, at one point, felt like somewhere tangible and real. With some overuse of CGI, you, of course, have your cinematography. The Lord of the Rings had some wonderful sweeping camera movements. The Hobbit has them in spades. I suppose the best way to describe the technology and production of the Hobbit is this: The Hobbit takes some of the techniques that The Lord of the Rings used, and then uses them while on crack and LSD. Some of it is too much.
You’ve gotten this far into my review and all I’ve sounded is really negative. I’m sorry.
Despite its sometimes horrendous pacing issues and its obnoxious, unrestrained camera work, The Hobbit can be a gorgeous spectacle to behold. Its action and set pieces are thrilling. When the action gets going, it really gets going. Many of the battle sequences take your breath away, and the intense sound and cinematography work in these scenes’ favors. It is in these moments you remember the joy of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I did not see the film in HFR (48fps), but I did see it in IMAX 3D. While the 3D is not inherent to enjoying the film, it is actually quite nice in some parts. There is a lot of depth to be had with a film on such a grand scale.
Martin Freeman (BBC’s The Office, Sherlock) slips into the role of Bilbo Baggins effortlessly, which, honestly, surprised me. And, true to the character in the book, he plays Bilbo kind of like a nervous wreck. He plays Bilbo like Woody Allen. (Which leads me to say that Woody Allen should totally cast Martin Freeman in one of his films.) It allows the character to be amiable, cute, kind of endearing. What may be good, however, is that this nebbish quality of Bilbo’s doesn’t seem forced. It seems completely natural.
The single best part of the film, though, is the return of that cannibalistic, obsessive monster: Gollum, Andy Serkis one again making an iconic performance. Gollum has always been one of the best aspects of the Tolkien films, Serkis embodying hate, greed, and self-loathing unlike any other actor, and his performance here is just as good. (In a perfect world, the man would have gotten an Oscar nod. But noooo.) The Riddles in the Dark scene, imbued with wit and solemnness, is bar none the greatest scene in the film.
Returning to Middle-Earth was weird, sure, but getting back into the swing of things, especially with its near identical narrative structure to The Fellowship of the Ring, seems fairly easy. There are major lulls and the pacing can be awful, but with Martin Freeman, some flourishes from Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, some thrilling action, and Andy Serkis returning as Gollum, I’m ready to return to Middle-Earth!
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