Thursday, July 18, 2013

Assorted Emmy Related Thoughts . . .

 . . . offered up, more or less, without rhyme or reason (you know, like a voting academy):

Mad Men: As the series continues its slide into mediocre, high-brow soap opera, Emmy voters' enthusiasm decreases as well. The surest sign members do not cast their ballots purely out of habit was that there were no nods for writing, which is good, as it deserved none. Unless, something amazing happens in those final two episodes of the season I haven't watched yet, it's fair to say that this was a good call.

Mad Men II: That said, it was nice to see Harry Hamlin get a guest appearence nod, as he has been one of the brighter spots of the season.

Mad Men III: I'm just going to say it (and feel free to send the villagers with pitchforks after me later): Mad Men did not deserve it's best drama nomination. Fringe was much stronger. Of course, I never expected it to get nominated, but, that's a whole other story . . .

Fringe: The final season should have been recognized, John Noble should definitely have been recognized. Recognition for Michael Cerveris' guest work would have been nice too. It's a shame. (And don't give me that "genre bias" excuse, not after the most nominations go to a horror franchise, plus multiple nods for Game of Thrones).

Fringe II: Every year, I suggest that the Oscars create a category for Best Use of Non-Original Music. Today, I would like the Emmys to consider this possibility as well, so that I might nominate Fringe for their use of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World."  

Arrested Development: The original three seasons of this series are among funniest of any show ever, yet, I'm still bogged down somewhere around episode 8 of the new season. There have been some highlights, yes, but, mostly it's been rather disappointing. (Don't even get me started on the continuity errors, that's a whole post in and of itself). This mostly shut out series, deserved to be.

Archer: How is one of the funniest shows currently on television unable to even score a nomination for best animated series? Can someone explain that? Anyone? Anyone? Maybe, if there's more ocelot next time around?  

Veep: Very nice to see increased acting nominations, and naturally, Louis-Dreyfus up again, however, no writing? Yet, The Office finale made the list? Emmys, you just lost all the points you gained for snubbing Mad Men's scripts . . .

Behind the Candelabra: Safe to say that this has costumes wrapped up? Seriously, I would not want to be against this in most of its categories. That said, I suspect that American Horror Story (and perhaps Top of the Lake) will walk away with something of value.

Homeland: No complaints, really, none at all. Deserves pretty much everything. Kudos especially for citing Mandy Patinkin and Rupert Friend. Maybe add Morgan Saylor to the list next year?
Scandal: As a longtime Kerry Washington fan, I have no excuse for not watching this show. None at all. Time to update my queue (and while I'm doing that, I highly recommend adding her early film Our Song to yours).

That's it for now. Cheers

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Filming the Human Comedy

Long time readers of this blog may recall my fondness for the 2011 film The Mill and the Cross by Lech Majewski. The movie examines a moment in the life of the painter Pieter Bruegel and the creation of one of his masterworks, The Way to Calvary. The painting is one of the sprawling canvases, teeming with activity, for which Bruegel is well known. The figure of Christ weighed down by His Cross may be centered in the composition, yet He is not given any special emphasis by the artist. Indeed, He receives no more prominence than any of the other characters populating the scene. (The only figures given such special designation are the Virgin with her companions). As with many of Bruegel's works, this is an illustration of history in progress, even if few of the passersby have any inkling what they are witnessing. Many do not pay any heed to the procession of condemned, preoccupied as they are with their own cares. Bruegel was interested in more than simply recording the Important Events of History, but also the more typical everyday actions that co-exist alongside. Majewski takes this approach in his film as well, giving us less a portrait of the famous artist than of the society in which he lived and the range of behavior he witnessed in his daily life. Like the painter with his brushes, Majewski wishes to capture with his camera, as much as possible, the sum of human experience.

This summer, another approach to Bruegel through cinema can be experienced. Jem Cohen's outstanding Museum Hours is the story of two individuals who meet in a Vienna museum. Johann is a guard at the institution, while Anne is from North America, visiting a once-close cousin, who has lapsed into a coma. Large sections of the story occur inside Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, which happens to contain an entire room of Bruegels, including some of his most famous works (The Way to Calvary being among them). A scene in which a "visiting guide" shares some remarks on Bruegel highlights Cohen's own desire to reproduce the aesthetic of the artist. The guide speaks a little on The Way to Calvary and other paintings, but Cohen seems most in sync with Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding. Here there is no lofty subject of the past being ignored, only everyday life being experienced. There is no hidden subtext within this picture, or some old-wives' proverb being illustrated for our edification. Instead, the artist simply shows how people live. We witness the good, bad and ugly just as we might at any contemporary wedding celebration we might attend ourselves this season.

Throughout the movie, Cohen inserts seemingly random sequences of bystanders, both in and outside the museum, going about their business. Then, late in the film, Johann takes Anne to his regular tavern for its weekly "immigrant night." There is no narrative purpose to this scene, yet it is one of the highlights of the story. Music foreign to both the local and the tourist plays while patrons drink, sing and dance, welcoming Anne into their celebration. During the time in the tavern, Cohen focuses on a huge collage of photographs, reminders of the people who have been there and the various events they have observed. A faded banner hangs prominently on a nearby wall. Bruegel used paint; the tavern uses photography, Cohen uses a movie camera, yet they all follow through on the same human instinct: to document, to express through art, "we were here and this is how we lived." In such a way, Cohen, like Majewski, successfully translates the aesthetic of Bruegel's paintings to that of cinema, and in the process attempts to capture as wide a spectrum of the human experience as possible.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Some Recent Verses

Last night, after too long of an absence, I returned to an Inspired Word open mic. My contribution to a great evening of talent was a pair of poems, the second of which was "Anticipation." This piece, making its performance debut that evening, is one of my most recent compositions. 



A glass filling gradually
Is how I demonstrate discretion
Before gulping,
Giddy for some tickling sensation.
But, no need to worry,
I’m alright,
Let’s have another. Slower. More preamble.
Swing that shaker one more time.
I’m patient,
I have nowhere else to be tonight,
Just here, with you, so pour another.
And another.
Steady hand, careful now,
I glimpse stray drops,
Overflowing, trickling down your bare arm–
Tempt not, waste not,
My fingers gently brush your skin,
A tease for
That perfect moment (perfect excuses).
Another round,
My lips denied their true desire:
Are we on to the good stuff yet? 

Photo by Creighton Blinn


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Enclose Me in Your Gentle Rain

This Monday, Ray Manzarek died. Those who have known me awhile will not be surprised that I was affected by this news, as the music of The Doors was hardwired into me sometime during junior high. I do not remember anymore how I first heard The Doors; it was probably something as simple as songs played on the radio. I know that it was not through the Oliver Stone movie, which I did not see until after my obsession formed. (Not even all the gratuitous naked women in the world could convince my adolescent mind that Stone's film was anything other than an overindulgent mess). I was already listening to some "classic" rock, mostly Led Zeppelin with a smattering of Hendrix tossed in the mix. Icons like The Beatles or Dylan would only strike me later as an adult. No, it was The Doors that truly captured my attention and never let it go.

Yet, why The Doors? What set them apart? The obvious answer would be Jim Morrison with his haunting voice and dark, evocative lyrics. He appealed to both sides of my young self with declarations of idealistic triumph, vision of youth cleansing the world, followed by dire confessions that "no one here gets out alive." And, of course, rather famously, he did not. Even at my most distressed, I had no desire to die young but that did not make myth any less powerful.

There was more to the band than simply Morrison, and, in retrospect I think that is what made the vital difference: they sounded like nothing else I had heard. Musically, they were distinct from the other rock groups of their day, indeed, nearly five decades later, I can think of few artists who directly mimic their style. This distinction is in no small part due to Manzarek. The Kinks might have sprinkled a bit of harpsichord into their songs, but retained a jingle that fit smoothly into the traditional chords of a rock band. Manzarek's organ was something else, something more complex. His playing was more brooding as well as spirited. In such a manner, it matched not only Morrison's voice, but those of Robby Krieger and John Densmore, creating a very strong sense of interplay among all the participants. In fact, the group often interacts more like a jazz combo than a rock band. The most famous example of this is their brilliant extended instrumental bridge in "Light My Fire," but it is also present rhroughout their recordings, such as:

Morrison is quoted as saying that without Manzarek there would have been no Doors, and he was right. After all, it was a chance encounter with Manzarek that resulted in the birth of the group. However, more than that, without Manzarek at his organ, The Doors would not have sounded as they did, they would have been a different band. This is not meant to slight any of his band mates; they all made their own unique contribution. Together they created something firmly rooted in time and place (channeling both the bright euphoria and the bloody tragedy of their day), but also surpassed it.  

Incidentally, as I have been thinking about Manzarek these past days, I have noticed how, over the years, I have developed quite a taste for the electric organ. For example, I have long had a fondness for the jazz organ of Jimmy Smiths. In addition, I wonder if it is any coincidence that, once I did discover Dylan, my favorite album of his would be Blonde on Blonde, and one of my favorite songs, the wonderfully organ-suffused "Stuck in Mobile . . ."? Further legacy of Mr. Manzarek, it would seem.

Rest in Peace, Ray Manzarek.  

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fables of Monsters, Nightmars of Ourselves

art by Dave McKean
"Evil comes I know not from where. But if you take a look inside yourself--maybe you'll find some in there." -Jarvis Cocker

There is always pleasure in remembering our favorite stories, those tales which once read never leave us. There is arguably even greater pleasure in revisiting those same narratives and discovering that you still find them as well-told, if not more so, many years later. When I was in high school, I discovered and quickly grew obsessed with Neil Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman. Gaiman's tales of Morpheus, The Lord of Dreams, captivated me so much, both in terms of their mythology as well as their human drama, that years later specific scenes remain clear, poignant memories. (Credit must also be given to the wide range of highly talented artists who worked on the title over the course of its run). Recently, I began, for the first time in nearly twenty years, rereading the series from its beginning. Now, I will admit that some of the arcs I read only once and cannot recall much what happened within them. Others, however, I remember as well any piece of literature I have ever read. And, I shall call Sandman literature, as it was, and still is, a work that I rank equally with any of my favorite prose novels. Is this verdict flavored with tinges of nostalgia? Why, yes, of course (more than once I have caught myself grinning upon seeing a favorite supporting character once again -- oh, Lucien and Matthew, I never realized how much I have missed you). Yet, there is also a deeper grasping of the full extent of what Gaiman accomplished in these tales, how complex they truly were. This is especially true of the second volume, The Doll's House, which I just completed.

When I was younger, the earlier more horror-flavored stories were never among my favorites. Now that I am older, though, I see beyond the gore to the themes that Gaiman was exploring. A good example of this is found within the fourteenth issue of the series, "Collectors." This issue takes place at a large gathering of serial killers, modeled after any mundane trade (or fan?) convention. (The sign outside the hotel discreetly welcomes attendees to the "Cereal" Convention). When I first read this chapter in the early 90s the idea of such a gathering seemed an exercise in slightly outrageous, morbid black humor. When I picked it up to revisit last week, I wondered if, in this pop cultural moment of Dexter and Hannibal Lecter, it might seem prophetic.

The truth is certainly less glib. Holed up in one room are the only two non-collectors in the hotel at the time: the arc's heorine, Rose Walker and her mysterious companion Gilbert. Rose is on, if you will, a quest to find her long-lost brother and is stuck inside while awaiting an update from the police. Restless, Gilbert tells her stories, including a rather un-sanitized verision of Little Red Riding Hood. Here not only does the Wolf murder the grandmother, but also "poured her blood into a bottle and sliced her flesh onto a plate." (Artist Mike Dringenberg illustrates the Wolf up on his hind legs, employing a carving knife on what looks like any ordinary piece of meat). Riding Hood arrives and is told by the Wolf, now dressed as the Grandmother, to enjoy the food and drink he has prepared for her. She does, and the Wolf calls her "slut" for consuming her own kin. Then, she is instructed to undress and get into bed with the Wolf. When she asks what she should do with her skirt, she is told to toss it onto the fire as "you won't need it any more." This is repeated with each article of clothing elicting the same repsonse from the Wolf. (The language chillingly echoes what we have come to expect from a contemporary child predator). Eventually the naked girl gets into bed with the animal who devours her. When Rose expresses disgust at the tale, Gilbert replies "There are earlier versions that are even worse."

So, why do we keep telling these stories then? Why the constant, universal need for fables soaked in blood, mythologies of gore? How many times need Apollo flay Marsyas? Why does Little Red Riding Hood's Wolf need to be reborn with the mischievous grin of a Hannibal Lecter?

Dream himself provides the answer when he arrives at the hotel to confront their guest of honor, The Corinthian. Dream created The Corinthian, but the nightmare slipped loose during his master's recent absence. Dream expresses disappointment at the battered trail of bodies his creature has left in his wake. Dream wished for this nightmare to be his masterpiece, "A black mirror made to reflect everything about itself that humanity will not confront." Evil is within us all; we all contain the potential for terror and cruelty. This is part of who we are, a piece of our nature that we should be aware of, because it is only by acknowledging our darker urges that we can overcome them. None of us are pure, and thus we should not pass easy judgement on the failings of others. This is the lesson that Dream hoped The Corinthian could haunt into humanity, only to be let down. "In the end," Dream decrees, "You've [simply] told them that there are bad people out there. And they've known that all along."

We don't need stories that tell us that there are monsters, we need narratives that help us understand why there are, where they come from. If we stared into the eyes of a cornered child molester would we act any differently than Dexter? Should we?

Having dealt with The Corinthian, Dream offers his own fitting punishment to the hall of mass murderers. He explains that over the years they have been able to justify their crimes through elaborate illusions in which each of them was the misunderstood hero of some grand drama, "Comforting daydreams in which, ultimately, you are shown to be in the right." Dream evaporates this deception of self-righteouness, leaving behind something much harsher: "you shall know, at all times, and forever, exactly what you are. And you shall know just how LITTLE that means."

A poetic justice more fitting, I suspect, than anything that Showtime shall concoct for Dexter's final fate . . .


ps: Can I also say how good it was to see Hob again? We should all be so lucky, if Death overhears our drunken tavern boasting.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Forms of Fiction

Good fiction does not date, which is good for those of us woefully behind on our New Yorker reading. Last week, I was rummaging through that unruly stack of back issues living under my coffee table when I came across one of their "deluxe" issues (i.e. twice as many ads combined with roughly the same amount of content). These editions are often organized around a theme, which in this case was "Science Fiction." Those of you playing along at home can locate your own copy wherever you stashed your issues from July, 2012. Yep, nearly a year a ago. So, as I said, good thing that quality fiction does not date, right? During the course of the week, I made my way through the majority of the issue's contents, and can say that it was overall a strong collection of pieces. (I still have one fiction piece to finish, but, unless Mr. Diaz bungles his ending, I think that it's safe to include his work among the highlights). On another day, I might ramble on a little on China Mieville's defense of genre, but instead I would like to say a few words about Jennifer Egan's contribution.

Summer is usually a very hectic time of year for me, but, still, I am not sure how I would have missed the news that Egan was releasing a new short story via Twitter. I would think that such an announcement would have been (arts section) headline generating. Perhaps it was and it simply happened the week I was on vacation, not paying much attention to the news. Regardless, it flew under my radar. Thus, I unknowingly consigned the print verision of this spectulative tale to the limbo of my "to-read" pile.

This is not the first time that Egan has attempted to create a new form for fiction. One of the final chapters of her fabulous novel A Visit from the Goon Squad is written from the perspective of a young person in the near future. Here the story is told more through graphs and charts, literally drawing connections between characters, than through the conventional building blocks of sentences and paragraphs. It is an intriguing experiment, as well as commentary on how social media and smartphones are changing language, but one that does feel as though it could be self-containing. As one part of a larger tapestry it works; however, I have doubts that it could be sustained for an entire novel.

Egan's Twitter tale "Black Box," on the other hand, feels much more successful. Each tweet is the equivalent of a paragraph, with these tweets being grouped together in numbered sections which resemble chapters, or more aptly, stanzas. The narrative focuses on a woman (again in the not too distant future) using her beauty to investigate violent men of dubious incomes. Exactly what criminal activities these men are engaged in is never directly stated, though my inference is terrorism. Business transactions are referred to, as well as the goal of following the money trail, but every cell, no matter how remote, does require fundraising. What is clear is that the unnamed protagonist is a government employee, a "citizen agent," who is often reminded of her patriotic duty.

We also know that she is American. One of the more striking passages of the piece explains a new theory of the self, which is not centered around individual accomplishment, but, instead, the common good. "In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona." Many are surprised by what they find through this process, comparing the expansion of awareness to "a dream in which a home acquires new wings and rooms." In the past, individuals sought personal glory, only to make themselves weak in the process, defenseless to those who would do them harm. However, these new citizen agents have learned to use these expectations to their advantage and turn the tables on their adversaries. "Now our notorious narcissism is our camouflage."

This passage is also a good example of how Egan succeeds in her project. Each unit of thought might be compact (it is hard to imagine a writer like Saramago on Twitter), yet still able to convey not only practical information (the tools of an agent), but evocative imagery and social commentary as well. It does what all of the best writing, regardless of form, does: it bewitches you with words, a steady rhythm, leaving you feeling something after you have put down the piece.

Is this a vision of the future, the shape of stories yet to come? Maybe. It is definitely another tool that authors can add to their kit, another form that they can poke around at. Will there be imitators? I'm sure there already have been (remember I am behind the curve on this one). Would I read a whole novel written in this manner? Yes, I would. Reading the story I thought of the older, now mostly abandoned form of the verse novel. As I hinted above, I feel that this is the best comparison to how Egan manipulates the restrictions of Twitter in her piece. Tweets become the equivalent of lines in a poem, her numbered sections the same as a stanza. In both poetry and Twitter there are conventions, rules to which the writer must conform. Both require an economy of words, a stress on the perfectly turned phrase. Something both pithy and evocative is expected by the reader. Would I wish every author to follow this example? No more than I would desire that every novel be written like Eugene Onegin, or every drama to be constrained by the same metric structures of Shakespeare or Moliere. Like I said, what Egan offers the reader is an intriguing glimpse at how future writers might manipulate language in new and thoughtful ways.

Or, for the time being, we could simply enjoy the story according to the more old-fashioned and timeless standard of a captivating tale well told.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Film 2012

So, here we are, another Oscar weekend, another self-imposed deadline for cutting off my Best of Films List. There are plenty of films from 2012 that I have positive expectations for, yet, never got a chance to view. As always though, I take reassurance from the fact that my rental queue grows ever longer--better to have too many choices than too few, right? Last year I posted a list of 11 films, plus two honorable mentions; this year, the list has swelled to include 15 best of's and five runners up. Were all the critics right, and this was a stronger year for cinema, or did I simply get out to the theater more often? Or both? Regardless, here they are, in no order whatsoever. (As before, country designations refer to the origins of the directors). 

1. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, Canada): On paper the plot of this film (the temptations of adultery) may sound awfully familar, but Polley and her actors invest it with a new found emotional force, creating a narrative that I could neither predict, nor decide how I wanted it to end. One of the most honest, moving and sexy films about relationships that I have seen in a long time.

2. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, USA): It is easy to look back now and say that this had a license to print money, but Marvel truly took a gamble on setting up these films the way they did. They have taken the time to construct an actual interconnected film universe. Not all the installments were equally successful, yet it all came together here for one terrifically fun film. Now, let's hope that Phase Two will be just, if not more, rewarding . . .

3. This Is Not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi, Iran): Panahi has long been my favorite of the current generation of Iranian directors, his films being essential viewing for anyone trying to gain a fuller view of Iranian society beyond the stereotypes. Currently under house arrest and banned from filmmaking for political reason, he persisted with this "documentary" made inside his apartment, a moving, whimsical view of his current situation. (Still undeterred by the authorities, another clandestine film by Panahi recently debuted at the Berlin Film Festival). 

4. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, USA): Funny, quirky, creepy, imaginative, in other words, a lovely Burton film. The animation is well crafted and devoted to detail -- Frankenweenie's movements naturally mimic those of a dog perfectly. As does Mr. Whiskers, or at least until his not-so-feline transformation . . .

5. For Ellen (So Yong Kim, Korea/USA): A simple story of a young man who despite all his past mistakes, longs to connect one last time with his young daughter before signing away all his visitation rights. Kim takes a familiar set-up, yet consistently avoids any of the cliche plot-turns you would expect from the material (i.e. no child gets lost in a mall). Anchored by a first-rate performance by Paul Dano, this character piece flew much lower under the radar than it deserved.

6. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonca Filho, Brasil): A decade ago, I was raving about the Brasilian documentary Bus 174, and how it portrayed a society completely at war with itself, from the luxury penthouses to the impoverished slums. The intervening ten years have brought to the country unexpected prosperity and previously unthinkable social mobility. Yet, as this powerful depiction of neighborhood life reminds us, not all ingrained ills can disappear overnight, nor can every crime be swept away under the rug of progress. Resentments still linger . . .

7. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA): Not a film that ever explains itself, but why should it? The acting, especially from Phoenix & Hoffman, is outstanding, while the visuals and atmosphere are captivating. Anderson has crafted a tale of drifting veterans and religious shysters of our past, yet, one wonders, how out of place would they be in our own time of war and searching?

8. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France): An ode to the beauty of cinema, a riff on the absurdity of life, the fluidity of identity and the personas we keep shuffling. Technologies may evolve, CGI creatures replacing Lon Chaney's old box of makeup, but our emotions and the stories we tell about them stay the same. 

9.. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA): Yes, it is a history lesson, but one that never drags or feels stale. Yes, Kushner has done a poor job of explaining some of his factual errors, yet, the strengths of his writing remain: his ability to script anachronistic dialogue naturally. In his hands the film is not only a celebration of what has been accomplished in the past, but, I believe, a reminder of the work for equality which remains for the present generation. Oh, and yes, Day-Lewis was that outstanding . . .

10. Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel): A portrait of bullying, and how the victim, given the opportunity, grows into a bully themselves. Cedar's insightful screenplay examines this phenomenon not only on the level of the individual (and the all too familiar refrain of "I am not my father"), but on the national level as well. A timely reminder of how we can unknowingly become what we originally feared and fled. 

11. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal): Beginning in the present day, before flashing back to the last days of colonial rule in Africa, Gomes' film is a wistful, moving look at not only a doomed love affair, but the departed (though not forgotten) way of life which was its setting. Lovely. 

12. Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria): Despite the ravages of age and illness, one couple continues to care for each other, trying their best, until the end, to provide whatever comfort, no matter how small, is within their power. Haneke and his actors capture perfectly the couple's interactions, allowing that they occasionally say the wrong thing or lose their patience, even under the best of times, only the devotion never ceases, even under the worst. At the end, Haneke leaves us with the hope, if we chose to believe it, that such bonds will never break, even onto death.

13. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, USA): What could have been another cutesy "quirky souls in love" type story, is instead a non-sentimental view of mental illness. Love does not simply solve all problems, but provides another outlet, another support along the way, as does family, once you figure out how to avoid (literally) strangling each other. A well-crafted story, well-played.  

14. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA): Like great art should, Bigelow and screenwriter Boal prod the viewer to ask many questions without providing many of the answers, the primary one being: Was it worth it? If torture was required to find bin Laden, was it worth it? If Maya denied herself any other pleasure from life but her work, finding herself utterly alone at the end, was it worth it? And what exactly was accomplished? Revenge? Attacks prevented? Possibly the most heart-breaking scene is after the raid, as the Seals unload all the intel gathered from bin Laden's home, and you realize that tomorrow another day will dawn and the conflict will continue unabated. Perhaps, it will never have an ending . . .

15. Argo (Ben Affleck, USA): And finally, a story about the Middle East that has a happy ending (how did Spielberg not get to this first?). Seriously, a fine piece of filmmaking, and one that does not let America off hook for events leading up to the Iranian Revolution. Affleck wisely lets the acting and directing be unobtrusive, letting the setting, the atmosphere and ultimately the story take center stage. From the opening raid of the embassy to the final flight, a gripping film.

Honorable Mention:
1. The Pirates! Band of Misfits (Peter Lord, John Newitt, England): Aardman demonstrates that they have not lost their knack for quality stories full of humor, winning characters and impressive set-pieces. Remember, though, "some of you are simply fish I put pirate hats on . . ."

2. Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary): Two people, a man and a woman, living a desolate existence (possibly) at the end of the world. Haunting. (See my earlier post,, for a close examination).

3. The Dark Knight Rises(Christopher Nolan, England): A true rarity: a superhero film with a true, honest-to-goodness finale. Over three films Nolan created an arc with a real beginning, middle and end that was quite rewarding. True, the last installment did not quite reach the greatness of the previous (though that is a pretty high standard to meet), but it was still a satisfying conclusion. I wonder if this type of approach to film adaptations (creating a series of self-contained arcs) might be a way in which DC could differentiate itself from Marvel's world-building approach.

4.  Elena (Andrey Zcyagintsev, Russia): A woman begs her cold-hearted rich husband to help out her son from a previous relationship. He says no, and thus the plot starts to spin. A bleak look at contemporary society, where there are precious few opportunities for any happiness that don't involve possessing the required cash deposit . . .

5. Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, USA): I wanted to love this movie wholeheartedly, but something about it prevented me from being drawn into it 100% emotionally. So it goes. Still, it is a first-rate technical accomplishment with some superb acting.

Repertory Discoveries: This year's list starts with some classic 30's Hollywood comedy, moves on to late 50's drama and ends with a silent Soviet gloss on a Gogol short story. All three brilliant, in their own ways . . .
Ruggles of Red Gap; Bonjour Tristesse; The Overcoat
Performances: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob (Holy Motors); Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master); Michelle Williams, Luke Kirby, Seth Rogen (Take This Waltz); Paul Dano (For Ellen & Ruby Sparks); Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Sally Field (Lincoln); Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Tom Hiddleston, Robert Downey Jr (The Avengers); Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained); Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry (Beasts of the Southern Wild); Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook); Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis (The Hobbit); Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert (Amour

Best Ensemble: Take This Waltz, The Avengers, Lincoln, Neighboring Sounds, Amour

Best Cat: Dino (Cat in Paris)

Best Dog: Franekenweenie (Frankenweenie)

Best First Film: Neighboring Sounds

Best Sound Design: Neighboring Sounds

Best Period Piece Facial Hair: Lincoln (part of me will never grow tired of seeing so many muttonchops in one place . . . seriously, though: credit for making all that antiquated hair appear natural to the contemporary eye).

Best Score: Jonny Greenwood (The Master); Dan Romer, Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild); Danny Elfman (Frankenweenie); Alexander Desplat (Argo & Zero Dark Thirty)

Best Use of Non-Original Music: Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz", The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" (Take This Waltz); The Ronettes' "Be My Baby"(Tabu); "The Star Spangled Banner" (The Dark Knight Rises); Philip Seymour Hoffman singing "Slow Boat to China" to Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Hardest Working Musicians in Film: That German string quartet in The Avengers. I mean, seriously, come Hell, high water, or an attack by the Norse God of Lies and Mischief, those musicians are just going to sit there and play the gig goddammit (literally, I guess). Now, that's dedication to craft. (Or as my love pointed out, they could have just really needed that paycheck before the weekend's house party).

And You Were Doing So Well . . . : Flight & Ruby Sparks. Two strong films that mishandle the ending. In the former's case, it was a jump-the rails Hollywood cop-out (filled with snazzy ready-made Oscar clip moments), which while disappointing was not surprising. In the case of the latter, it was literally the very last scene which I felt undercut what came before it. Sigh.

Memento Mori: Studying the close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, his face creased with lines and wondering if this is what his brother would look like today, if he had lived . . . 

Well, that pretty much covers it for the moment. Cheers