Although we often skirt traditional media coverage here at Optimism Vaccine, we'd be remiss in failing to acknowledge the filmic goodness that was 2013. New offerings from the Coen brothers, Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuaron, Woody Allen, Thomas Vinterberg, Jonathan Glazer, David O. Russell, Spike Jonze, Steve McQueen, and others made last year one of the strongest of the new millennium for us cinephiles. The sheer depth of quality releases can be a bit daunting, so we figured we'd help our readers out by offering up a few of our favorites from the year that was.
If I need to convince you about how good Drug War is, then two things are likely true. One: you have not seen Drug War. That’s understandable. At its peak, Drug War was playing in a total of FOURTEEN theaters and its domestic box office earnings couldn’t buy you an Audi R8. Two: the name Johnnie To doesn’t make your blood pump at a dangerously high rate. That is less cool, and I feel so jealous of you that you’re about to find out for the first time. So before I salivate over how good Drug War is, let me do a little primer on Johnnie To. He is the bastard younger brother of John Woo. The brother who spent his youth running a dice game and selling bootleg DVDs (probably). The kid who grew up to make this:
No matter who you are, that’s good. Cuaron & Lubezki Children of Men good. Better, in fact. AND HE’S ONLY GOTTEN BETTER SINCE THEN. Johnnie To has made a total of 26(!) movies since 2001 in almost all genres. And when he decides to let the bullets fly, you’re not stopping him.
But maybe that doesn’t convince you. Maybe you think nobody deserves a free pass for people to see their movie based on their reputation alone. Fine. I get that. But make no mistake. Drug War is the most Johnnie To movie ever. And it is a masterpiece.
The movie centers around Timmy Choi, played by the excellent Louis Koo (the excellent Jimmy from To’s Election movies), who is a meth manufacturers who turns on his previous employers after a horrific accident. Timmy’s the best version of a self-driven madman on film (apologies to The Donald). Like many of the great Chinese action films, Timmy Choi’s partner/apprehender is a brilliant cop, Zhang Lei, played by Honglei Sun. It’s the sort of performance you’ll rarely see in Western films, and comparable to Washington and Hawke in Training Day. Timmy and Inspector Lei join forces to bring down the entire crime syndicate that Timmy has worked for, in exchange for not getting the death penalty.
What follows is the best and most thrilling series of action sequences I’ve seen since Mission: Impossible. There are no world-ending scenarios, no doomsday devices or massive destruction. All that exists is two men trying desperately to stay alive.
You guys, there’s a scene in it where Zhang has to arrange a meeting between two gangsters who have never met each other and has to pretend to be the other one when meeting one of them. And it is fantastic.
Also, there’s a deaf henchman who is simultaneously terrifying and adorable. He’s the synthesis of every great John Turturro character.
Plus, it’s on Netflix Instant now. Just watch it. It’ll be the best hour and 45 you spend. What else are you going to watch? Cake Boss?
In 2004, Shane Carruth blew the doors off low-budget, independent cinema, with Primer. Pared down to a razor’s edge, this tale of errant time-travel comfortably vaulted every tired cliché of its central trope whilst almost imperceptibly lowering the audience into the full and dire consequences of unchecked human inclination when unstuck from the time-line. The result was quite astonishing (an actual science-fiction film!) and suggested a major new talent. Also, it was reputedly made for about $7,000. That’s about 15,000 times less than it costs Hollywood to have me leave the cinema thinking, “Well, it could have been worse.”
With such a debut comes the inevitable question, “how do you move past such a gigantic first leap?” Apparently, when you’re Carruth, you take your time, re-gather your thoughts, and then you make something even better. In retrospect, the title, Primer, could be taken literally. It lay down the ground rules for Carruth’s cinema- a vision of finely honed formalism, the likes of which suggests an old master is at work. Yet Upstream Color is no old-man’s movie. An unusual concoction of drug-addled haze and existential crisis, if the film’s ingredients seem unusual and depressing, its core theme is universal and resolutely uplifting.
As a starting point, the film follows the exploits of two people seeking to rebuild their lives after major thefts undo them. The thefts are made possible through use of a fictitious drug, one that moves via parasitic worm from flower, to human, to pig, and finally back to flowers. When administered, it induces a highly suggestible state through which victims can be easily coerced to sign over all their assets. As sinister as that sounds, Upstream Color is something much airier and diffuse. There is no procedural investigation of crime or any focus on bringing a culprit to justice. Indeed the protagonists hardly realise they were victims, believing some manner of mental break was the culprit.
Despite the developed central conceit of a wonder-drug that aids felons in committing evil deeds, Upstream Color has no interest in expository diatribes. A lot of the dialogue here is muffled or indistinct, half-captured and fleeting. A few important pieces ring out, but with protagonists that wander the earth as confused, re-assemblages of their past selves, it’s little surprise that their words cannot elucidate their world. Meanwhile a mysterious third party, a pig-farmer and recorder of sound (in this world these things can co-exist and intertwine quite amicably), wordlessly records and manipulates sound. He also aids the parasite’s transfer from human to swine. Among the film’s small cast, it is the thief who speaks clearly, and this is only to offer untruths.
The meat of the film is its formal construction. Its visuals span Terrence Malick’s awe-struck nature-gazing to Cronenbergian details of parasitism and decay. Carruth’s edits work rhythmically to an undulating, abstract musical score of his own composition. Cuts are determined not by narrative imperative, but rather by tonal distinctions – levels of light, textures, mise-en-scene, etc. – matching, linking, and re-framing details that otherwise might well span decades or millions of miles. Narrative is relegated here, underpinning a dream-work tapestry of sound and image, which explains why the incredibly detailed explication of the plot on the film’s Wikipedia page feels alien in relation to the actual product. And so emerges a broadly allegorical journey of existential reclamation in the face of compromised lives (allegorical, you say, with sound-engineering pig-farmers!?).
Our two protagonists later find kindred spirits, and they unify wordlessly, finding kinship in their shared fragility. Upstream Color is not an upbeat tale of everything working out swell because we all deserve that. Rather it explores how we might uncover satisfaction, despite inevitable burdens and misfires. Happiness is not something pure that requires perfect conditions to arise. It is not something given to us based on prerequisite circumstances. This is good news. If it is given, then we have no control, and setbacks are irrevocable. Happiness is ours to create, and it manifests through experience, positive or negative, not despite it. The key is to keep moving. Carruth’s film presents many elements we might deem cyclical- most obviously the life-cycle of the parasite, but also various images of birth and decay, of life recycling and continuing, and his own droning musical score. The affirmation is that while life trundles onward as it must, individuals can forge distinct paths through conscious action.
Of course, if none of this is news to the emotionally stable out there, then you’ll appreciate that Carruth is not teaching but rather sharing. So if there’s one film from 2013 you should watch, why not make it this one? After all, Carruth’s sensitive portrait about grappling for direction and meaning amidst the vast chaos of the universe is just as relevant now, in 2014. It’s also currently available to stream via Netflix. The movie, that is, not the vast chaos of the universe. That remains subscription-free.
[transcribed from the Optimism Vaccine answering machine]
Transcript of answering machine message begins:
*phone line is silent for around 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of dull repetitive thuds*
Devlin muffled screams are heard, “Hello? I hear nothing! Is this telephone receiver handle upside down?? Yes, yes, it is upside down from the correct position.”
*sounds of rustling*
A loud, clear screaming voice of Devlin is heard, “Hello? Adam, are you there? Steven! Steven or Shawn or Amos, stop playing childish humor games and pick up the cursed telephone receiver! For the lust of all that is holy, please respond answer to me now!”
*a long sigh is held out for approximately 30 seconds*
“I see. I see now. I believe I am speaking to the wretched telephone tape recording machine and not my beloved colleagues. I now understand that my co-worker peers are not to blame for the current lack of an audible response.”
“Listen, let me cut to the chase; I’ve received word of the recent decision to collaborate write author another review feature with the staff peers. I’m telephoning in to inform the editors of my intense interest in participating; however, there has been a moderate setback incident in my plans.”
Devlin’s voice begins to quiver, overcome with emotion, “As you all may well likely probably already know, my beloved typewriting machine was constructed of a nauseating amount of flammable plastic materials. During a recent semi-truck hitchhiking escapade, my typewriting machine was tragically struck by lightning whilst I slumbered next to an open passenger window during an electrical snow blizzard storm. Sadly, the entire cabin was engulfed in fire flames in mere seconds. I was lucky to escape. The same could not be said for the friendly and personable semi-truck driver operator, her loyal pet turtle, and of course, my beloved typewriting machine.”
Devlin clears his throat and continues, “So that brings us all up to date on my current state of affairs. Here I am stranded in some godforsaken Middle Western town in a telephone calling station booth without my beloved typewriting machine, and an article review writing assignment that I have a burning passion to complete. We’ve got to try to be adult grownups in times of adversity, so I felt it would be best to telephone dictate my newest article review piece to any dirt intern who happened to answer this fateful call. As it turns out, one of you scums will need to transcribe write this onto paper at a later date.”
*sounds of chewing*
“Now then, where was I?”
“Ah, yes! The review article! Let me retrieve the writing article assignment from my pocket.”
*sound of shuffling*
“My singed sticky note reads, ‘If you only see one film from 2013.’ Very good, truly a straightforward convoluted title from the internet web’s preferred straightforward convoluted blogging website. The article review answer to the title assignment seems obvious: the film that built up on me most in 2013 was the soft and sticky one. I observed the film daily, until I became distraught that my body’s longevity may be in question. I scurried through road streets for an emergency room following months of my film obsession. I needed an answer explanation. Finally, upon cornering a hospital emergency department room physician doctor, he informed me that the sticky, soft film which had captured my imagination through the year of our Lord-sack, 2013, was in fact a medical health condition referred to by the name of plaque.”
“The physician doctor went on to explain that plaque (the soft, sticky film of 2013) builds up on mouth teeth, and contains millions upon millions of bacteria. The bacteria in plaque cause mouth tooth decay and mouth gums disease if not removed regularly through mouth tooth brushing and wire string flossing.”
“Relieved to hear I was no longer stricken by a life-threatening looming death sentence, I fled the medical hospital emergency department (as well as my monetary obligations for the physician doctor’s time and patience) and sought refuge in the unforgiving streets.”
“Well, that’s it. That’s the article review writing story, you fiends. And speaking of monetary obligations, I haven’t received a single currency payment for any of these article writing submiss…” Devlin pauses mid-sentence, he continues in a low voice, “Oh my Lard...I don’t know how they found me...but they did…”
*intense sound of rumbling and glass shattering*
Devlin’s voice is faint, as though he dropped the receiver and left the phone booth. Faint shouting is heard, “Here I am, you pod bastards! Hey, pods! Come and get me you scum!”
*rumbling sound continues*
Edgar Wright’s third and final entry into the (loosely linked) Cornetto Trilogy doesn’t do anything wrong. The World’s End provided the most fun theater-going experience I had last year, and after rewatching it for this piece, I am hard pressed to disagree with any of Wright’s decisions. The ending may be a bit wonky, but considering all the action revolves around an alien invasion, I think where the characters end up makes for a logical conclusion.
The editing is done as smartly as the humor, and the film elicits so much meaning from the way Wright decided to cut both between and within scenes. The first ten minutes function in three ways simultaneously: simple exposition, foreshadowing, and, through the hectic color-distorted editing, a window into the psyche of main character Gary King (Simon Pegg). The voice over narration by King imposed on the memory of a pub crawl sets up everything that takes place in the rest of the film, including the premise of recreating the crawl itself twenty years later. King and pals never finished the so called Golden Mile the first time, so Gary decides to “get the band back together” (a phrase used both literally and figuratively) for another shot at glory. However, as we see Gary getting dressed in the same outfit he wore during the first pub crawl at age 18, the other members of the gang are cross-cut in as normal adults with real life responsibilities. This sets up a growing up vs. maturation dynamic that begins with Gary in contrast to the other four men, but which blurs as the movie progresses. All of the main characters have to confront issues from their past which only become prescient when returning to their home town to attempt the Golden Mile, allowing for growth and confrontation between the friends who hadn’t interacted in a long time. The script is tight and seemingly every line serves a specific purpose, even if that purpose is to make us laugh, which happens a lot.
Oh yeah, and robots (kind of)! The heart of the movie rests with the characters, but those characters visit a small town overrun by aliens substituting the residents with lookalike hollow shells. Fight scenes abound, Pierce Brosnan shows up, and harrowing chases move the characters along the Golden Mile until the last pub, The World’s End, is reached. The action is exciting and speckled with humor for well-rounded satisfaction. Pegg is wonderful as a self-centered idiot, and plays off Nick Frost’s Andy with their usual camaraderie. Whereas Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz used Pegg as the straight man and Frost as the stupid sidekick, The World’s End has Andy as the normal one trying to handle Gary’s hyperactively moronic personality to great effect.
2013 produced a lot of movies I could have written about. Some are talked about right here on this page by my fellow contributors, and others may very well have been my choice in a less excellent year. But The World’s End stood out to me because of its flawless execution regarding character development, sharp writing, and the perfect blend of sci-fi and humor. The movie is also one you can watch at any time of day and with any kind of mood. There are movies you need to prepare for, or be in the right kind of mindset to watch, or think you’ll just hate. The World’s End is none of those things. You cannot pick a bad time to watch it. Which means right now is the perfect opportunity to hit up the Redbox outside Walgreen’s down the street. Let’s Booboo!
Every year during the post Oscars/pre-summer blockbuster lull bored journalists treat the movie going public (I.E. fucking everyone) to a string of articles reminding us all that movie theaters are dying. That's right. Soon we'll all be huddled around iPhone's streaming content non-stop because of reasons and things and teens. Mostly teens. You see movie attendance is down and besides, they don't make 'em like they used to, right? Sure.
Eventually these articles will become talking points for other people-- your friends even, and you'll trapped in an inescapable joyless void of assholes trying to compare modern theaters to the drive-ins of yesteryear.
Maybe you'll start to believe what they're saying. We all get worn down. Besides, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if Deuce Bigelow Intergalactic Space Gigolo was restricted to Netflix exclusivity. It certainly would be more convenient. No more people kicking your seat, no more crying children, no more stale overpriced concessions...
Just as you're finishing that thought you hear a distant shout and the sound of breaking glass. Alfonso Cuarón (who I can only assume looks and sounds exactly like Zorro) swings in and slaps you across the face with a really cool black leather glove and snarls
“MOTHERFUCKER, HAVE YOU SEEN GRAVITY?”
Gravity is a rare film that has managed to find both universal critical acclaim and massive financial success. The simple story follows a small group of astronauts stranded in space after being bombarded by debris from a recently destroyed Russian satellite. After 5 minutes of exposition, Gravity kicks into thrill ride mode and never lets up for more than few seconds until the credits roll an hour and a half later. If you really want to be a wet blanket you could bemoan the threadbare plot, simple themes, and George Clooney's inability to not act like George Clooney the entire time but you'd be missing the point. Gravity is the perfect balance of cinematic visual mastery and pure unadulterated entertainment. See how far you can get into the film without saying “God, how did they do that?” I'll give you 30 seconds, tops. Part of what makes Gravity so special is it leverages all of the inflated ticket price technology consumers often complain about (most notably IMAX and 3D) into something awe inspiring. Gravity is a film that oozes with movie magic and begs to be seen in a crowded theater where the vast oppressive forces of the universe can knock you and 100 strangers around a little.
And you know what? You're going to be spending a lot of one on one time with Sandra Bullock during the latter half of this movie, and that's ok. Sandra Bullock is ok. Four words I never dreamed I would utter in succession.
Is Gravity the best movie of 2013? No, far from it. But, Gravity is without question the definitive theater going experience of 2013.
So the next time some pretentious dick pig starts chatting you up about the death of cinema, remember your new mantra:
MOTHERFUCKER, HAVE YOU SEEN GRAVITY?
Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell documents the filmmaker’s attempt to find out who her biological father is; an uncertainty that has shaded her entire life. She employs interviews from friends and family, while her charming de facto father reads from his memoir to recount the family’s past. At its center, Polley’s film is about self discovery, and fittingly, the documentary takes on the form of its own making, aligning form with content.
Though the film is very interested in finding the biological truth, Stories We Tell is always clearly using its objective to tease out broader themes. Polley explores multiple point-of-views of a “woman of secrets” to reveal a Rashomon-like amalgam of incongruous, personal truths; an extrapolation of the power of our perceptions and narratives. The film often teeters on the line between fiction and non-fiction as particular meetings are fabricated, shot to be stylistically seamless with the home videos—appearing in 8mm. These fabrications, again, align form and content, presenting the inherent fiction of our memories.
Sarah Polley has made a definitive text on insular discovery and meaning through memory and experience; ours and others. If you see one film from 2013, make it Stories We Tell.
Alexander Payne knows his subjects well. While it would be easy to misconstrue Nebraska’s portrait of Midwestern life as a broad, deprecating presentation of lowlifes and simpletons, it is actually handled with a sharp understanding of who all of these characters are, from the main protagonist in Woody (Bruce Dern), to the server at the steakhouse that features karaoke. There’s a depth to every single character that shows up on the screen, no matter how inconsequential they are to the overall story being told in Nebraska. Speaking as somebody who grew-up in the Midwest (albeit, not the rural Midwest, but Milwaukee’s close enough), the film feels all too real. There’s an incredibly timeless quality to Nebraska and beyond 2013-14, it should be celebrated as being to rural, Midwestern life what Woody Allen’s Manhattan is to New York and New Yorkers.
Shortly after leaving a screening of Nebraska, I found myself comparing the film to another media text, specifically the 2009 picture book, The Oxford Project. The book is the result of a photography exhibition, which was conceived of by University of Iowa professor Peter Feldstein. The project began in 1984, when Feldstein photographed nearly all of the residents of Oxford, IA, a rural town with a population of just under 700. 20 years later, Feldstein returned to Oxford, along with writer Stephen G. Bloom, to both re-photograph all of residents he could and subsequently interview them. The photographs are rather stunning in their simplicity, but they are also quite revealing. The fact that they are in black-and-white connects it quite easily, from a stylistic point of view, to Nebraska. There is an unavoidable dreariness to the Midwest, particularly in the autumn and winter. The black-and-white images accentuate that dreariness, but the choice to not use color also highlights the true beauty that can be found in decay, whether it’s in an old, decrepit house or a cold wind-torn, aged face.
When I read through the pages of The Oxford Project, which I often do on especially quiet days, I feel instantly connected to the residents of Oxford. They are people I will never meet, but the delicacy with which Feldstein’s black-and-white photographs are presented, coupled with Bloom’s ability to transcribe the Oxford residents’ stories so matter-of-factly, I can’t help but feel like I know them. It doesn’t require a lot of work on my part. That in itself a refreshingly simple hallmark of Midwestern-American culture, one that I often take for granted and sometimes find myself far away from. People aren’t too complicated and that’s perfectly ok, which is a major connection between The Oxford Project and Nebraska.
But at the same time, Midwesterners are often known for being passive-aggressive or too quick to ignore the troubles and flaws within each other. At the risk of sounding too much like Garrison Keillor, we’re sometimes too comfortable with everything being just as it is. There’s an underlying frustration in not being able to change us or the attitudes of others, but to do so would be a major breach in the cultural code of the Midwest. Where The Oxford Project stays true to that code, Nebraska comes crashing through the proverbial wall of “Midwest Nice,” but it occurs at a slow, meditative pace.
This gradual rejection of the Midwestern cultural code is experienced most notably through Woody’s son David (Will Forte), whose character is, essentially, the audience’s surrogate in the film. He plays true to the roots of a milquetoast, Midwestern man, but eventually, he stands up for himself and his family and retaliates in ways that are subtly extreme, but never unwarranted. For example, there’s a scene towards the end of Nebraska where David slugs his dad’s old business partner, Ed (Stacy Keach). Without revealing any major plot points, the scene features one of the most touching and well-earned acts of vengeance in recent cinema history.
Out of the entire cast, Bruce Dern and June Squibb will no doubt receive the most accolades for their performances. And rightfully so, they deserve(d) any nominations and awards they receive. But perhaps the unsung hero of Nebraska will be Will Forte, whose performance is astonishing and it is impossible to imagine anybody else handling the role with proper amount of restrained intensity. Plus, it’s just really nice to see the underrated talents of Forte show up in a role so well suited for him, as opposed to being a minor character getting “comically” fellated by a stripper in a cervical collar in a Happy Madison production.
Beyond that, Nebraska is a modern-day love letter to the Midwest. It carefully captures a culture that, perhaps to many people on either coast, seems to lack any real cultural value. Inevitably, some may find Nebraska comparable to another Midwestern film, the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. But while Fargo is indeed a genuine modern cinema classic, worthy of all of its praise, the Coen Brothers have a tendency to feature caricatures of Midwestern archetypes and they are often presented in a slightly mocking tone. Meanwhile, with Nebraska, Payne has successfully revealed that Midwestern folk are excruciatingly human like everybody else on either coast and he did so without hiding any of the characters’ flaws. We may not see anything like this for quite some time.
I’m woefully behind on most of this year’s award season fare, but who am I kidding? Nothing’s going to top the most inexplicable wide release of the last decade: Harmony Korine’s garish neon middle finger to youth culture, consumerism, and the general moviegoing public. Spring Breakers somehow manages to combine such unsavory elements as Skrillex, Disney farmed actors, and Korine himself into a throbbing organic piece of art.
I can’t say as I’d consider myself a fan of Harmony Korine. He’s seemingly made a career of playing the queasy misanthrope. From a series of ill-advised interviews with David Letterman, to a series of ill-advised films hoisting grimy niche subcultures into the public eye, he’s always struck me as rather one note. In retrospect it should come as little surprise that his foray into the mainstream yielded his most profound work to date. By training his bulging, depraved eye on youth culture, he’s managed to shock us in a way that something like Gummo couldn’t hope to achieve. There’s a certain disconnect with the audience when viewing the fringes of society represented in the bulk of Korine’s oeuvre. It’s difficult to see one’s reflection in those titular Trash Humpers or on an island of misfit celebrity impersonators. As feral as Spring Breakers is, it stems from a conceit that is inherently relatable to most of us: Spring Break.
The film begins as a heat-warped version of a coming of age film. Four young women seek to escape the mundane confines of college life by embarking on a journey of self-discovery. Korine turns this well-worn trope on its ear by forcing the audience to question the merits of that self-discovery. Korine then dumps our burgeoning sociopaths in St. Petersburg, Florida, portrayed here as a beer soaked, pulsating hellscape. The relentlessly pounding, looping audio and disorienting cinematography lend an unsettling industrial tone to the seemingly endless stream of teen debauchery. The city takes on an almost Lynchian sense of primal unease. What better place for a group of hyper-violent narcissists to find themselves?
Enter James Franco, as the aptly (if not subtly) named Alien. He represents a culture foreign (Get it? Alien?) to the white middle class audience surrogates. And he’ll serve as their guide to the deepest reaches of hell. Franco gives a powerhouse performance, proudly wielding his broken moral compass and waxing philosophically about his many mundane possessions. Alien’s peculiar magnetism draws two of the girls into an impossibly violent quest to acquire more shit. This isn’t a restrained film.
Spring Breakers wears its innocence lost motif proudly. Korine’s script prominently features Britney Spears, and he seemingly crammed as many former child stars as he could into the film. Nor is the film shy in its criticism of American consumer culture. Alien often alludes to his perversely self-serving existence as the American Dream. It’s blunt, repetitive, abrasive, and kind of wonderful. See it.