Ten Movies I Loved But Didn't Write About This Year
Sometimes during the course of a year, pop cultural objects end up slipping through Gawker's cracks. Sometimes I see a movie late. Sometimes I don't have a whole review's worth of a response in me. Sometimes I need a minute to digest, and then once that minute passes, it feels like I'm too late. Sometimes it's really fucking hard to write about things you like, especially when they hit you on such a visceral level. "This is great" is not the most compelling argument.
Whatever the case, I missed out writing about quite a few movies that I saw and enjoyed this year, including the two movies I loved most this year, Nebraska and Blue Jasmine. This post is here to right that wrong. My favorite movies that I didn't get to write about are below and in order:
We're the Millers
Broad comedy and I usually do not get along, but something about this worked for me. As a low-rent stripper, Jennifer Aniston got to look hot a lot of the time, but because she was playing an undesirable (by Hollywood standards), there's still a lot of humility in the role. Jason Sudeikis also played a loser: a black-market pot dealer who's pushing 40. And Emma Roberts' spell on my heart intensifies every time I see her on screen (American Horror Story: Coven at last made me a full-blown believer). I thought the jokes in Millers worked more than not, especially this one below, which I think about all the time:
[There was a video here]
Stories We Tell
At some point early in Sarah Polley's documentary about her family (or really, about her discovering the true story of her paternity), her sister voices apprehension: she wonders who will care about their family. That sister underestimates the power of a juicy story (which this is) and the amplification of that power when it is told well (which this certainly is). Sensitive with potentially lurid material, this is a wonderful argument for the power of the personal story at a time when you can find one basically as easy as turning on a faucet (just open your web browser). Stories lost me slightly during the last 20 minutes when it turns meditative and openly struggles over what it all means. What it all means is Polley told a brilliant human story, and that's all it needs to mean.
The Way Way Back
In a year with several nice movies about nice teens coming into themselves nicely, this may have been the nicest. Liam James is exquisitely awkward as the young protagonist Duncan, and Sam Rockwell (as his water-park boss/mentor Owen) redefines what older buddy looks like. Really, this is a platonic rom-com about those two characters, subtly unlike anything I've seen before.
I saw Chris Mason Johnson's Test as part of the gay-focused Newfest festival this year. It's about modern dancers in San Francisco in the mid-'80s, during the height of the plague years. The protagonist is increasingly concerned about contracting AIDS (I wonder what took him so long), and though the way he scours his body for Kaposi's sarcoma is outdated, that sort of self-directed body scrutiny never left gay culture—it's just done for other reasons now (say, vanity). Similarly, the troupe's choreographer's insistence that they "dance like men," is an interesting echo of the anxiety over and preoccupation with masculinity among many gay men. Test is a quiet, subdued movie but I thought it did a great job of making something specific universal.
Franck Khalfoun's remake of William Lustig's 1980 slasher Maniac spun grindhouse into gold. This is the most beautifully composed slasher I've seen since the original Halloween. It's POV (but not found footage), so you're looking through the killer's eyes almost the entire time (sometimes he becomes unhinged and leaves himself, as it were). The tight, brutal stabbings are right in your face, implicitly questioning what you're seeking and finding as entertainment in a more elegant, less contentious way than Michael Haneke's similarly probing Funny Games. Elijah Wood impressively pulls off the titular role (though his voice over work is frenzied to the point of camp at times). And thank god Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes remake) carried over the delightfully insane mannequin-collecting subplot, because it's as hilarious as it is creepy.
I do not understand the hate for this one. I thought the jokes were clever and they didn't pander. I like the college-movie (Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds) parody format. But what I love most about Monsters U is that it's a movie that tells kids, "You're not going to be good at everything, so get the fuck over yourself, stop wasting time, and find what you're actually good at." Real talk.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The first movie looked cheap; this one actually looked like it could be the future. Susan Collins' second book was tedious up until the games, but this movie managed to tease out all that was interesting in that boring slog across Panem. Catching Fire showed and made understandable all that was told in the book and expected for you to just swallow–finally, I actually see the real dilemma of Katniss' inevitable choice between Peeta and Gale (in the book, I just had to accept that it was a dilemma). It's a joy to watch Jennifer Lawrence here, absolutely at the top of her game. The trek through Panem was like her Blonde Ambition Tour. (By the way, I enjoyed watching her in this, hesitating and expressing through flashing her eyes, more than I did watching her sloppy game of dress-up in American Hustle.)
The Act of Killing
We decided not to run a Q&A I'd done with The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer, since Adrian Chen's excellent piece on the film made many of the same points. But I still need to say: This movie, in which Oppenheimer has Anwar Congo recreate killings he performed in Indonesia's anti-communist purge in the mid-60s, was the most harrowing thing I watched all year. Here's is the part of my exchange with Oppenheimer regarding his own contribution to cinema of death (even if it's for a better cause than, say, a slasher flick):
Gawker: Do you have an opinion about this movie being conversant with the way death is depicted on film beyond the movie's references to John Wayne or Marlon Brando? Death is such a commodity in movies that Hollywood makes it breezy, whereas something like Amour and especially something like this, are vehicles to more accurately transmit the emotional weight of death.
Oppenheimer: I think that's a really beautiful point. I think it would be dishonest to say that I, as a filmmaker, or audience members don't come into this film tantalized by the process of seeing death. Human beings enjoy seeing people get hurt, when people get beaten up in the playground, people come around and scream, "Fight, fight, fight." I don't think other species do that. That's an unfortunate thing. I don't know if it's just human, it's also cultural. But I think that, we pay to see people get their heads blown off and as you say it makes horror movies breezy. [The Act of Killing] questions that fascination and implicates me and the viewer and Anwar and the whole Indonesian society in this commidifaction of death, for lack of a better word, the fetishization of death, and then asks us what are the real stakes of death and what does it really mean to kill.
From what I've been reading, this is regarded as lesser Alexander Payne, but there is no better Payne than this to me. It's a movie that fully expresses how awesome and hilarious old people are without ever condescending to them (at one point, some characters watch this movie's spiritual predecessor, Golden Girls). All of the acting is terrific (and I say this as someone who has actively disliked Will Forte for most of his career). I love that it ultimately has a Wizard of Oz structure: What happens at the end technically could have happened in the beginning, but then the characters needed to be given time for their compassion to flourish. A gorgeous movie, inside and out.
When was the last time Woody Allen was so quotable? Bullets Over Broadway? Hannah and Her Sisters? Annie Hall? Maybe never, even. Everyone here, especially Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, are up to the script's challenge. I think this movie is ultimately an indictment of Real Housewives-consuming culture. It openly wonders what we're really laughing at when we're laughing at that stuff. Watching Blanchett slide from hilariously, eye-rollingly snooty to horribly, desperately sad in mere seconds, over the course of what felt like dozens of scenes, was never less than devastating.
And for good measure, here are links to ten movies that I like a lot and did write about: