Marissa D'Elia's 2014 in Music

The following is promoter Marissa D'Elia's list of her favourite albums of the year. Her list doubles as an account of a year spent inside a music scene -Scout

It’s true that I rarely seek new music to listen to. This year it was so pathetic that less than a month ago I went to my Facebook, begging friends to tell me what they thought were the best records released this year. Some ninety comments later I was deep into a music vortex that pulled in me in all directions from hardcore to twinkly shit to pop punk and places I had never been before. Below you’ll find the few records I did find on my own and others that my friends suggested (so s/o if you were helped with that). The list ends with my favorite record of the year. Enjoy!


Soul Glo- “ “
favorite track: "closer to god"

A little while ago I was standing next to Blair Elliott, who owns Siren Records in Doylestown, talking about the current state of hardcore. The conversation turned to the subject controversy. Blair saw the rise of bands coming out of the early 80s, specifically ones that took strong political and social stances, as the heydey of the scene. Those bands had something to say. They were angry. I’ve never personally been big on the music from that era but spent nearly 6 months working on a project that asked how punk/hardcore worked as a revolution. Blair posed the question “Where are all the bands that give a shit about something? Where are the bands that actually say something?” The best answer to that question today is Soul Glo. Their record might make you uncomfortable and it should as it cross-examines race, class, gender and all of the ways violence and oppression flirt with those pillars of society.




Radiator Hospital - Torch Song
favorite track: "Fireworks reprise"
When I sat down to listen to this record it was my first time listening to RH (again, I’m very lazy).  But oh I’m so happy I did. As I was listening I jotted down real time reactions like “I’m literally crying” because there were so many times where the lyrics met the music in the most beautiful way. I felt like with every song I was further on a journey that examined a relationship so honestly and whole from being in love to the moment you realize that it’s over to the moment you have finally started to move on. It is bittersweet, melancholy, and optimistic all at once.




Clique - Clique
favorite track: "Sucker" + "Get By"
Bands in Philly are a dime a dozen... Truly. I believe that many of those bands subconsciously write music that they think will mean something to someone else that has no personal meaning to the musicians. There are a lot of Snowing and American Football covers for that reason. And that’s okay, it’s just boring. Then there’s Clique. Their self-titled EP is lyrically debilitating with no better way to describe than to say it makes me feel “some type of way.” I feel like I’m in a deep reflectively trance from start to finish. They really hit it out of the park on their first try and that’s more of an accomplishment than some band’s entire discography.




The Hotelier - Home Like Noplace Is There
favorite track: "Dendron + The Scope of All This Rebuilding"

I don’t even remember when I first heard this record. That may be because I have nearly played it to death and back hundreds of thousands of times. A phenomenal record for me is determined by its listenability. This means sitting down and listening to a record start to finish without getting bored or confused when it takes an irreverent turn. Home Like Noplace is There listens like a diary left open. Every time it’s picked up it tells a story, whether it be about personal identity, abandonment, or mental illness. It is impossible to put down once you’ve begun as you are bound to find a song that hits you in a place that nothing else has. I got to see the record performed in its entirety at FEST 13 and I can say it nearly changed me. They are not empty feelings or realities and you can see that in the way people respond and how the songs themselves are presented. I have never felt so connected to a record - at least I haven’t for a really long time...




Hightide Hotel - Naturally
favorite track: A Soft, Subtle Sound
It’s not a secret that as all patiently waited for the final HH record to be released after being completely finished last fall/winter there were several of us that got our hands on it a little earlier. I would say nearly all of Philadelphia, in fact. We had housed the best kept secret and I think when people heard it for the first time this September they would agree that it was worth the wait. I had always heard about this band from my Lehigh Valley friends who would probably tell you that listening to this band’s discography is like going to church. It took me a minute but I finally found myself agreeing. Naturally this is best listened to while coming out of a rut as the music itself feels terribly optimistic juxtaposed with lyrics describing the motions of acceptance and moving on which compliments their Nothing Was Missing, Except Me record. That was more acceptance, reflection, and depression more than anything else. I felt like Naturally was the most perfect end to that story but also an incredible record to leave us with as we personally mourn the end of Hightide Hotel.



Drake - Singles
"How Bout Now" is my favorite Drake song we are so blessed




Mitski - Bury Me at Makeout Creek
favorite song: "first love/ late spring, i don’t smoke, i will"

I worship this record. Worship. It feels like waking up from a winter hibernation. It feels like floating while being hypnotized by a choir or meditating to drawn out fuzzy guitar. It is mesmerizing. It can be haunting. It feels like being up at 2 am with a buzz staring at your ceiling and wallowing. Lyrically, this record is worthy of a pulitzer. Musically, this record is intoxicating and goes on a new journey with each track. I don’t think there are enough ways for me to describe how important this record is to me and how it is probably more than the top of my end of the year list but also one of my favorites of all time.

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism - Kiva Reardon

Kiva Reardon
I use verbs to describe what I do, not nouns. I hesitate to say “I am a writer” because in my mind a writer isn’t just someone who gets paid to put words to paper (or a screen) as I do, but someone whose words provoke revolution, tears, laughter, orgasms, and other things that make life worth living.

Contributed to: Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, NOW Magazine, National Post, POV Magazine, Fandor, Masionneuve, Little White Lies, The Black Museum, MUBI Notebook, Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, Torontoist, The AV Club, cléo, The Hairpin and collected writings here at KivaReardon.com

Noted champion of: Denis Côté, Claire Denis, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Haywire/Gina Carano, The Grey/later-career Liam Neeson, Eliza Hittman's It Felt Like Love.

Influences: Manohla Dargis, bell hooks, Michael Koresky, the essays in Interrogating Post-Feminism, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Nina Power, Adam Nayman, Virginie Despentes' King Kong Theory.

Toronto-born Kiva Reardon (March 27, 1987-) can be easily spotted at festivals and screenings thanks to her iconic top-knot, which is fitting because she's got a samurai's dedication to fostering a more informed critical climate. "I started writing by blogging in 2009. I had just graduated from McGill (where I did Cultural Studies) and missed thinking about and discussing film. From there, I started covering film and culture for Torontoist.com, a local site. This city has a rather large and active film community and as I continued to write I met more critics and editors, which led to writing for (in some rough chronological order): Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, NOW Magazine, National Post, POV Magazine, Fandor, Masionneuve, Little White Lies and The Globe and Mail. In January 2013, I was chosen to be a part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam's Young Film Critic Trainee Programme. In 2013, I founded cléo, a journal of film and feminism. Now run by myself, Julia Cooper (Managing Editor) and Mallory Andrews (Submissions Editor), the journal is published three times a year and issues are based around a theme."

There may be no better way to dive headlong into Reardon's essential point of view than to read this line from her capsule review of '71 by Yann Demange: "’71 takes an ethno-nationalist conflict rooted in hundreds of years of colonialist history and makes it beige, apolitical and gutless. As is said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, and apparently also make mediocre films." Like the best political writers, she has an infectious fierceness, a refusal to suffer destructive and self-defeating tendencies in modern cinema and the covert, even unintentional messages they send. This blithe dismissal of '71 is a macro masterstroke, but her greatest strength is in dissection of the micro, gestures and the way they so often define films. When she goes small, there's nothing more satisfying, as in a clever 26-part essay on Trouble Every Day. She takes an often comical, incredibly thorough tour through the ways the film and director Claire Denis makes humans connect, both erotically and grotesquely. At bottom, the article is about the way that a male critical and filmmaking community views what a female director's role is and the way Denis refuses to care about what it means to fit that role. Reardon might helpfully be thought of as  the critic most concerned with celebrating/analysing films that break from expected sociopolitical and generic molds. Look at the way she ends a brief, dissappointed review of Peeples: "Peeples fails to deliver one crucial thing: real people." In that one sentence are galaxies of anger, whether you get from it a Marxist deflation of Hollywood's inability to imagine the other or a cry for films that rely less on cliche is up to the reader. She says a lot by saying a little. Though of course when she goes long her prose is impossible to break away from. She gains and loses speed knowingly throughout, knowing when to slow down and expand, and when to run with an idea as quickly as possible. When she's plugged into a subject, she's unstoppable, and when she's removed from it, she's still terrifically purposeful. She cuts a figure not dissimilar from Toshiro Mifune's character in Yojimbo [topknot and all]. She's capable of playing the long game beautifully, but when push comes to shove, a quick, merciless turn of phrase will get the job done beautifully. Kiva Reardon is a force to be reckoned with. 


On Tracks:
It’s too bad, since Tracks could have offset the gender imbalance that’s so prevalent in the “on the road” genre. Outside of Thelma & Louise, such travel-based excursions of self-realization are normally the realm of those with XY chromosomes (Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop). Or if there is a woman in the picture, she’s usually part of a doomed romantic duo (Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers). This is especially true of sand-swept stories, which truly put the “man” in “no man’s land”: the lone cowboys of 1950s westerns, David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, the wandering bros in Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, any number of modern war films set in parched-earth conflict zones (Three Kings, The Hurt Locker). So when Davidson proclaims, “I just want to be by myself,” the moment is filled with vast potential – here’s a female lead heading off on her own. The issue is that her character isn’t compelling enough to carry this one-woman quest. Wasikowska does her best to convey the strain of the near cross-continent walk (embracing the role by growing out her leg and armpit hair for verisimilitude), but beyond squinting into the harsh sun, the actress isn’t left with much to work with: Any attempts at fleshing out Davidson’s backstory are reduced to softly lit, slow-mo childhood flashbacks. Because of this heavy-handed tone, Davidson comes across as flat as the desert, which hardly makes her tracks worth following.

On Gone Girl:
Of course, none of Amy’s actions represent any kind of sustainable feminism. But who cares? What revenge fantasy is wholly defensible? In the end, Amy’s revenge is getting her rom-com ending of a husband, home and baby. It’s the latter that finally nearly causes Nick to break, as he slams Amy’s precious head against a wall. Pinning her down, Nick hisses in her face she’s a cunt. "I'm the cunt you created," she replies, unfazed by his violence. Nick, and all men like him, have to live with that. Joke’s on them.


On The Immigrant:
The last thing cinema needs is yet another tale of female exploitation that uses prostitution as some allegory for saintly sinning by yet another male director. The Immigrant, however, cannot—or ought not—be so easily dismissed. If Gray’s previous work hadn’t already established him as one of the greatest storytellers of contemporary times (see the mirror opening and closing shots of Wahlberg riding the subway in The Yards, or the perfectly envisioned Russian family homes where couches overflow with mink coats at Christmas parties in We Own the Night), The Immigrant only proves the point. Because while Gray works in archetypes—the bad gangster brother; the good-cop son; the beleaguered but tenacious girlfriend; the innocent woman turned lady of the night—he always captures the person within. No one is so easily reduced.

On What Now, Remind Me?: 
This ambitious aim makes E Agora? Lembra-me far more than a diarist approach to doc filmmaking, though it never feels sensational. In one particularly evocative scene, Pinto relates how the drugs he is taking cause him to feel a pain that makes him constantly aware of his body. Beginning by attempting to express this feeling by speaking straight into the camera, the scene then changes. Pinto captures his body moving in time delay, creating a layering effect, as his frail form becomes something of a bespectacled, multi-limbed specter. The technique itself is not radical, but in the context of the film it speaks to the limits of language — both cinematic and linguistic — when it comes to expressing lived, sensory experience. Here, Pinto attempts to give a form to his pain so we can understand his bodily experience, yet this can never fully be. As such, we're brought intimately in to his life, yet constantly aware of the gulf that remains. This is further echoed when Pinto, a longtime producer and director, at one point confesses: "I don't know how to talk about film." Here cinema feels oddly similar to his illness: central to his life, yet beyond expression; a structuring transcendental force. In these moments, the film transcends mere confessional narration and enters the realm of the philosophical.

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism - Daniel Kasman

Daniel Kasman
I must admit I saw more, much more, in something small due to the titanic vision of something almost too large. Cinema is so full of images it seems like history only remembers that which looms, towering; but perhaps the mysteries of the lesser things are those created by—if not existing on—those towers' shadows.

Contributed to: MUBI, Senses of Cinema, The Chiseler, La Furia Umana, LUMIÈRE, and Cinema Scope

Daniel Kasman (Born 1982) has been the editor at the MUBI Notebook through many changes to the site over many years and, along with Adam Cook, has kept the place a most vital destination for anyone looking for incisive and unique film criticism. He's been breaking down borders and questioning assumptions [look no further than his involvement in posthumously granting Tony Scott the respect he was denied in his lifetime] with grace and deftness since he first started writing criticism. He's a formally adventurous writer and curator, giving time to short form, image-based, long-form, epistolary and conversational criticism. In a given week he could post spare, minimalist entries in the Notebook, or long, winding diary entries about how his experiences of getting to and experiencing a festival can reflect the films on offer. I've mentioned before that his conversations with Fernando F. Croce are some of the most entertaining reads in any given year. Should one ever need a reminder that criticism is as beautiful diverse and nebulous an art form as the one it comments upon, Kasman is always up to the task of providing one. 

Take a look at this entry, a report from a trip to the 2014 Viennale:

It is a joy, of course, to see such grandiose films by Ford as How Green Was My Valley (1940) and The Searchers (1956) on vibrant 35mm prints. (The weak but comparatively experimental shaggy-dog cavalry film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949] positively radiated warmth from its immaculate color quality, restored by the UCLA Film & Televsion Archive.) But better still is that pleasure particular to large retrospectives full of accepted masterpieces to encounter the smaller, more inconsequential films made in-between. Such is certainly the case for 1925's Kentucky Pride, a tale narrated by a once-favorited racing horse (!) and not so much a drama as a quintessentially Fordian combination of sentiment and silliness. Likewise 1933's Will Rogers vehicle, Doctor Bull, one of my favorites and a film, like Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante (to pull another favorite), that's an example of a master filmmaker and an A-list actor collaborating on what feels merely a programmer between more ambitious and/or lucrative projects. Such movies have a humility to them that is utterly freeing.

"Freeing" is the keyword there because on top of being what he searches for from film culture, it's also the perfect way to sum up his approach to writing. Look, for instance at the range of entry points he provides, without slavishly sticking to one. They're not only entry points into the movies, but ways that the experience itself can impact him and the film. He's a gripping extra-textual documentarian. In this paragraph he comments first on the way the 35mm prints of the classics improves them, even a "comparatively" minor film like She Wore A Yellow Ribbon [the juxtaposition of "major" and "minor" is a pet theme], then on the way the way the program he attended presses films together in unconventional ways, allowing them to converse with each other. Then he moves onto the way reputations collide to create hybrid art, taking time to impart personal preference and speak openly about his place in the program as an audience member. Letting himself into the pieces and the films does not sap his razor-sharp focus one iota. He's one of the most refreshingly clear-eyed around. His attitude is never  that a film doesn't meet his standard, but rather that it doesn't meet the standard he knows cinema capable of. And on top of all that, his prose can be delightfully labyrinthine when he finds himself on a roll, a thing to behold. Kasman's understanding of the essence of a filmmaker makes his shorthand intensely satisfying. Look at the asides in this sentence from a review of Steven Soderbergh's Che

If The Argentine recalls Preminger and Exodus, the second part of Che, called Guerilla and detailing the man’s failed attempt to move the revolution to Bolivia, recalls Merrill’s Marauders (1962), though certainly not Samuel Fuller’s brute forcefulness as a filmmaker. A more accomplished film, though to a degree less interesting because less baffling than the indeterminate angle of attack that The Argentine takes, the second half of Soderbergh’s film grasps more firmly the physical sense of guerilla life.

His rhythm here, not to mention the "forcefulness," to use his own phrase, tonally communicate his feeling for the film as well as his individual points. His writing here and elsewhere at times recalls the style of Ghostface Killah, taking gamble after gamble on sentence structure and focus that most writers wouldn't dream of attempting, and getting it right every time. Indeed it's not hard to imagine his last sentence in one of Ghostface's verse's on the Wu-Tang Clan song "Gravel Pit." Kasman's created a safe space for exploration of every facet of film and criticism at the Notebook and his own writing has always led the charge toward ever more freedom of expression and form. 

On The Hole:
One thing I’ve found consistent in the handful of film festival experiences I’ve had is that by a certain point you’ve seen so much sloppiness that when a crafty movie comes along, one made with skilled deliberation and mature filmmaking, there is a danger of overrating its supreme comparative steadiness and experience.  At Toronto this year, Joe Dante’s The Hole is the embodiment of that phenomenon.  Its first act alone is made with such inspired knowhow of how to stage a dramatic scene, how to express and use space, and how to define in human terms genre-based characters—in short, are directed with such expressive expertise—that the relief at being in the hands of someone of obvious experienced talent was palpable, regardless of whether the film would stand as highly on its own.

The Hole suffers from a similar problem as Claire Denis’s White Material in being fundamentally rooted in its screenplay, an heavy-weighted anchor to the imagination.  Still, Dante is one of our foremost spirits of imagination, and let’s count our lucky stars that he’s still getting money to make feature films (his last was 2003’s Loony Tunes: Back in Action); unfortunately with The Hole he is hampered by the overbearing literalness of the Mark L. Smith’s script.  When a single mother (Teri Polo) and her two sons (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) arrive in a new town and the boys, along with their next door neighbor (Haley Bennett), discover a hole under their house that opens to an endless void, the potential for horror is beautifully evoked and modulated.  Dante keeps the scale of the idea in check and focuses on the various ways the kids explore their new found fantastical feature, how at first it treads the line between creating wonder and horror, and the regular, highly suburbanized ways the boys start and stop their investigations, hide their discovery from their mom, and otherwise integrate supreme weirdness into their every-days lives.  But once the titular void starts literalizing each child’s fears so that they may over come them, there’s little Dante’s directorial imagination can do to enliven a plodding series of supposedly fearful confrontations.

On Redbelt:
With a Mamet film, we can be propelled forward on the confident completeness with which the writer/director thinks he has crafted his characters. Whether or not they are whole, or even meaningful, they nevertheless exist and move like defined masses, whose only purpose is to exhibit their own definition, secureness, and resiliency by coming into volatile contact with other such masses. Lean little planets in orbit, they are dying for a galactic collision that will never come in a cinema so pre-determined. But at least in the best of Mamet there is a sense of melancholy recognition, the awareness that since everything has been set up from the beginning—in both senses, Mamet being a dialog writer above all else, and that so many of his films feature elaborate confidence games—a character should accept the sad fate of never exploding gloriously, never being truly tested for this philosophical wholeness Mamet's killer dialog encases everyone in. The over-determination eliminates the spectacular but it does provide a fast ride of confidence, stories and characters skating forward with believable momentum and weight on rails to the end of their films.

On Kinatay:
Dedicate a movie to one thing, respect the singular attention of the camera, and a film should be rich enough to overcome just about anything.  Brillante Mendoza gives almost half of his film Kinatay to the nocturnal drive of a group of policemen out of Manila to its suburbs, and another half hour of night awaits them at their destination, a police black site.  This rich vision of so much gloom, dim suspension, no action, no spectacle, no drama is a beautiful thing, something out of an avant-garde film dedicated to textures, subtle shifts in color, and spatial uncertainty of a sunless world.  There is a story of course, of a young police trainee just married (that very day!) taken along on an off -he-books mission to torture a drug addicted stripper, and for a long time Mendoza plays the story like Haneke’s Funny Games (or a Park film), building up the audience’s desire for his hero to act violently, here to lash out at his sadistic superiors.  And some of Kinatay is that tasteless, with its handholding music (riffing off of Kubrick’s synth scores for A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket) and artless, didactic cutaways That Explain Motivation by showing the cops’ horrific acts, the home that must be thought of.  But, as with Mendoza’s previous film Serbis, the rest of the movie is given as a handheld dedication to space—there, a porno theater, here, a sinister, anonymous police van traveling great distances at night for the purpose of terrible things, and later a torture house.  But it is a space of obscurity, of uncertainty in a morally certain situation, and so the space, covered and run over again and again by the roving camera, takes on an abstraction nearly outside the story itself.   A palette of sleek grays makes a death grip on this film that started—again, didactically—in daylight with a marriage, and Kinatay’s immersion into nightfall stands strong, splendidly, as independent force. 

The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism - Olivia Collette


Olivia Collette
Since becoming agnostic, I’ve often said that I preferred it when I believed in a god, because it meant believing in a magical afterlife…When I die, I probably still won’t believe in god, at least not with any certainty. But I will no doubt wish that I did.

Influences: "Roger Ebert was probably the greatest influence, and he inspired me in a couple of ways. Firstly, and I say this in “My Favorite Roger”, he was a terrific writer, and one I turned to often when I was studying film theory. The second thing he made me appreciate was how to be a better reader. Even if I only knew him for 3 short years, I can’t begin to express what a privilege it was to be one of the people in his entourage in those later years.

Another influence is Matt Zoller Seitz, who I started reading after meeting him at Ebertfest 2011. I doubt he realizes this, but I nearly peed myself when he first complimented my writing, and then asked me to contribute to the Grand Budapest Hotel book, which is sort of an appendix to his book The Wes Anderson Collection. I wrote the chapter on music. I especially enjoy his TV recaps, because while most recappers tell you the order of things that happened in an episode, Matt tells you what was really going on. He talks about the layers rather than the events. And then there’s how he does it, which is just so many levels of good. 


Finally, there’s Odie Henderson and Steven Boone. They have very different styles of writing, and they’re both equally captivating. I especially recommend Odie’s Silicon Valley recaps and everything Boone’s written for Capital New York. Every now and then, Odie and Boone write together in a kind of epistolary blog post, which, for me, is an absolute treat. We haven’t necessarily worked together, but we’ve had the pleasure of talking to each other live, and the exchanges are incredible. They shape my writing because as a writer, I strive to have a voice as distinct as theirs. So I guess what I’m really saying is, I’m lucky to have worked with people I also admire greatly."



Proud champion of: Norman Jewison, Night and Fog, Jesus Christ Superstar, Ari Folman, Moonstruck, Tous les matins du monde, Ron Fricke, Celda 211, El laberinto del fauno, A Serious Man, Michael Slovis, Yin shi nan nu, Wandâfuru raifu, Pedro Almodóvar, Pleasantville, Federico Fellini, Suspiria, Volver, ¡Átame!, Denys Arcand, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón, Brian Froud, Koyaanisqatsi, Persepolis, Wes Anderson, Julie/Julia, Lee Daniels, The NeverEnding Story, The Dark Crystal, Michel Gondry, The Doinel CycleAgnès Varda

Contributed to: The McGill News, Caustic Truths, Journal Place Publique, enRoute, eHow, RogerEbert.com, Montreal Gazette, Mondo*Arc, The Spectator Arts Blog, World Film Locations (San Francisco), Sparksheet, Indiewire/Press Play, Urbania, Huffington Post Québec and her writing is collected at oliviacollette.com



Despite a gift for it, Montreal-based Olivia Collette (October 19, 1976-) doesn't consider herself a film critic: "I feel I’m a journalist first, and an art critic second. And I say “art critic” because I’ve written about music, cinema and TV. And I put the emphasis on “journalist” because I’m much more interested in a variety of topics that shape society, not just art; things like linguistics, architecture, urban planning, transportation, politics; stuff that’s not necessarily artsy."


"What made it possible for me to even dabble in criticism was a combination of things: namely writing, studying film theory in university, and studying music before going into film theory. Even when I was studying music, it became clear that I was far more interested in deconstructing an art medium than being the artist. Although there are parts of me that still need those artistic outlets, writing will always be the most fulfilling thing for me."


"I feel that I got started with film essays before getting the chance to review anything. I really like to analyze the shit out of things, so I suppose the first time I did that, and made a significant mark, was when I wrote an essay in university about the visual theme of chess in Jesus Christ Superstar. It wasn’t the first film essay I wrote, but it was the one that made the most waves. My professor really liked the idea, and my cousin, who’s a religious scholar, used my premise to dig into representations of Christ in pop culture. "


"The first time I published any kind of review, it was in a community newspaper called Journal Place Publique, and it was about Yagayah, a play co-written by d’bi young and Naila Belvett. The first time I started to commit to writing about pop culture was on my blog, and it was with this entry, which I followed up with this piece [on devilry in the movies]. And eventually led to this piece [on video games], which continues to be the most popular on my blog: The first time I wrote for Roger Ebert about film was with a piece on the role of architecture in Inception."


Olivia identifying herself as a journalist is the key to understanding her film writing. Her pieces have an honesty, not only about the fundamental form and image in front of her, but about herself and what she brings to every piece of art she encounters. Kent Jones, among others, has frequently called for, to put it simplistically, people to actually write about the movie they're watching, and Olivia is one of the few writers who rarely strays from what can be known about the film, about its reality, and about how it achieves its effect on the viewer. Her prose, candid, funny and relatable, lowers a bridge for readers, offering an easy, rewarding rapport. She thoroughly researches the movies she watches to fully engross herself in the artist's intentions and palette. Her endlessly fascinating look at religion informs her writing on film, in that both approach something unknowable with two feet firmly planted on the ground. She offers the safety of the rational world while examining gigantic, often terrifying subjects, offering her healthily skeptical POV as a way into discussing sacred cows, from religion to sexism to blockbusters. Every subject is treated equally, with the same scrutiny and openness. More concisely, Olivia Collette is fearless. 



On Laurence Anyways: 

The film's biggest strength is dealing with a taboo as if it wasn't. When Laurence starts dressing in women's clothing, she looks less like Jenna Talackova and more like an awkward man in a skirt, because it takes time to get comfortable with who you are. Eventually she returns to pants because a dress doesn't make the lady. Despite her ability for great tenderness, Laurence can also be selfish and rude. She's not an angelic transgender heroine; she's just exceedingly normal.


On A Hijacking:

The bulk of the stress revolves around 12 phone calls between Peter and Omar. Connor is always present to make sure each conversation never gets frantic. The one time things reach Samuel L. Jackson pitch, there are immediate consequences. The film earns Dogme points with handheld cinematography and uncomfortable, sometimes inefficient lighting. But Lindholm wanted to achieve maximum realism. So the boat scenes were filmed on a real ship in the Indian Ocean. A satellite phone was set up on the boat to make phone calls to the actors in Denmark, so echoes and lagging weren't scripted and the reactions were often improvised. Gary Skjoldmose-Porter, who plays Connor, is an actual hostage negotiator. He convinced Lindholm not to create a plasma screen-filled situation room and instead opt for a small conference set-up and sticking red tape on the phone the CEO would use. Other non-actors include 4 of the crewmembers of the MV Rozen, which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2007. "Violence is expensive," is the simple — and loaded — thing that director Alrick Brown said during Ebertfest 2011, when someone asked him why there was a lack of bloodshed in "Kinyarwanda," a movie about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. That's why all the violence in "A Hijacking" occurs off-screen.


On The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:

Some people hate "Dune" because it's nothing like the novel, but venerate "The Shining" for the same reason. You can't please everyone when you adapt a book to film, so you're better off hoping you'll please anyone. Even if it's just a handful, it's those few who will be your fiercest defenders against the purists. So let's start with what Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" isn't: If you read the book, it's not the book you read. It includes plot elements from "The Hobbit," details that weren't fleshed out in "The Lord of the Rings" movies, bits from the "LOTR" appendices, and stuff that was created for the sake of this new trilogy.

We all know why, too. As a standalone story, "The Hobbit" had enough material for just one movie: a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and 13 dwarves to reclaim the kingdom that was stolen from them by a dragon; along the way, the company fights dangerous trolls and orcs, while Bilbo finds a ring that makes him invisible; it all leads to a final conflict. The End. 


That brevity won't do for such a lucrative franchise. And Hollywood economics dictates this must be a trilogy. Sporadic insertions of the Middle-Earth mythology were the only way to stretch the otherwise succinct saga over three films. Just the same, any film--whether it's adapted from a novel, comic book, TV series or video game--deserves to be reviewed as a separate entity, and on its own merits.

I'm Thinking' I'm Back: John Wick and The Return of Action Cinema

I’m a sucker for a lot of things in film. I’m a sucker for sequences that are beautiful or moving like when Joey runs through no man’s land in War Horse or when Martin Scorsese unleashes his own love affair with filmmaking in the guise of two children discovering the identity of George Méliès in Hugo. I’m a sucker for a great song on a soundtrack or a well-used long take, both of which can be handpicked from just about any of P.T. Anderson’s films. Above any specific example though I’m a sucker for filmmakers doing things well. It doesn’t seem like much but most productions these days aren’t populated by anyone being more than adequate at their jobs. So then it falls to a select few to actually prove that when movies are good there’s absolutely nothing better. Now that’s maybe too much praise to start a review of John Wick but I have to make it clear that despite any silliness or absurdity that occurs within its runtime, directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski know exactly what their jobs are: to choreograph and direct some incredible action sequences. And they’re damn good at their jobs.

Action films are a dime a dozen. I shouldn’t say that. Action sequences are a dime a dozen. And they're too often the most boring parts of the films they break up. The water has been so muddied by blasé action films to think anything else. Action in American cinema has boiled down to a set of steps to follow. If one were to cut together action set pieces from the last decade of big budget American films it’d be difficult to tell one from the other. And that’s the problem. Movies that are marketed as action films seem misunderstand the very reason the genre exists. These moments of “action” are supposed to stop the film. Not because they’re bad but because they’re so engrossing by the intensity of what’s happening onscreen that the viewer forgets the rest of the film momentarily. The Expendables trilogy springs immediately to mind. I actually can’t think of a movie that fits the bill more perfectly. Every second of the trailers for these movies are filled with shooting, explosions, and whatever else the editor can grab to make the film look exciting. The problem is it's not exciting. It’s anything but. The action becomes so average that instead of thrilling the audience, they irritate the senses and make viewers wish for them to get back to the quieter parts of the film because at least the dialogue-driven sequences may still afford a surprise or two.


Fans of action films all have their favorites. The ones they stand by. I don’t think I would be alone in saying that the best shootouts on film belong almost exclusively to Michael Mann. Films like Heat, Collateral, Public Enemies, and Miami Vice all managed to lock themselves in my mind as the best of what realistic gunplay on film is supposed to look and feel like. But there’s another side of what guns are capable of onscreen. The more fantastic side. The side reserved for filmmakers like John Woo, Kurt Wimmer, The Wachowskis, and Robert Rodriguez. Movies like Hardboiled, Equilibrium, The Matrix Trilogy, and Desperado make it difficult to not suspend one’s disbelief for the sake of truly enjoying what these filmmaker’s have created: loud, bloody ballets of bullets.


And on that note, enter John Wick. Directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad create a world of gentleman criminals and killers that operate in their own personal version of New York City. They have their own clubs, bars, hotels and even currency, realized in the form of gold bullion coins. The world of John Wick is not unlike the worlds that Rian Johnson has created in any of his three features, especially Looper, his latest. Characters interact with codes and lingo that border on ridiculous but because the film manages to realize every other aspect of their fantasy lives, their dialogue never feels out of place. The balance of realistic dialogue versus fantastical world building is one of the easiest ways a film like this can fail. Luckily for John Wick, just the right amount of time is spent realizing what needed to be realized to sell the world that these characters inhabit. I’m not saying that we’re looking at lived-in history and production design to rival Lord of the Rings or Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films (yes, they’re that good). I’m trying to say that the success of John Wick is that we don’t have to rely on the world these characters live in to sell the film. Why? Because this film was directed by two former stuntmen. They wanted to make an action film that harked back to the generic ideal. Films with action setpiecess that take you out of the film entire and have their way with you.


The major action sequences in John Wick are half Michael Mann-realism and half John Woo-surrealism. Keanu Reeves moves with precision and skill and it’s almost impossible to not think of Tom Cruise’s vicious hit man character, Vincent, in Collateral.  But as much as Reeves portrays Wick as a cold, calculated killing machine who is an absolute pleasure to watch deal out death, there is another side of him. A side reminiscent of El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez’s pistol wielding legend played by Antonio Banderas in Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Wick makes quick work of wave after wave of gun-toting henchmen in this film and at no point did I ever question any of what I saw in front of me. I was too busy trying to keep myself from standing on my seat and shouting with excitement at the screen.


Action done right is the best. It’s one of the only things in cinema that you can’t react to while it’s happening. At least I can’t. If I’m watching a perfectly done piece of action I have to reserve all physical reactions until the sequence is over. Then I let loose. I laugh. I exhale. I say “…shit.” as quietly as I can but always a little too loud. The only times I’ve had that feeling in recent memory is while watching Gareth Evans The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2: Berendal, films I consider to be the finest showcases of both martial arts choreography and cinematography of all time. John Wick wisely borrows from these films where it can. Whenever Reeves' character finds himself in combat without a firearm, he’s savagely beating his opponents with the same intensity, though maybe not the same mastery, as Iko Uwais’s Rama in the Raid films.


I won’t say John Wick is a film that’s going to change things. It won’t. But it did give me something I rarely get to see at the movies anymore. Truly thrilling action. Action that made me grip my armrest and move without my knowing it to the very edge of my seat. If every film were able to produce this effect through its action mechanics, going to the movies would undoubtedly get boring, but...having just seen the heights that truly good action choreography can bring me to, I can only hope that were I to have a conversation with quality genre filmmaking, it would mirror the one that John Wick has with his former employer near the end of the film’s second act. “People keep asking if I’m back. Yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back.”

Gone, Baby...

Just who is David Fincher? At a press conference for his latest film Gone Girl, his star Ben Affleck said that the directors he works with are typically either great technical minds or they're great writers who can work with actors well. Fincher is both the foremost expert on the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking and he can make actors feel at ease doing the most challenging work of their career. Or to put it simply: for what other director would Ben Affleck get fully naked on camera? Only a man who'd proven his bonafides directing modern cult classics like Zodiac, Seven and Fight Club could possibly make an event out of a book as inauspicious and ordinary as Gone Girl. Only a man who knows cinema like the rest of us know our own bad habits could work miracles like this. And make no mistake, Gone Girl is a miracle. A roaring, rollercoaster of a film with a terrible screenplay and a lot of ugly things to say about people, Gone Girl just might extend cinema's lifespan.

Back in the 1950s, the invention of TV threatened the livelihood of filmmakers everywhere. If viewers could be entertained at home, why would they breach the white picket fence? Movie directors decided to go big, producing one rollicking epic after another to get viewers out of their home for thrills the small screen wouldn't provide. David Fincher has been hitting the small screen hard and low these last few years. He created a TV series strictly for people who don't have cable and he's now adapted two runaway best sellers. The first, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, was a head-spinning exercise in forward momentum that bordered on futurism; airport fiction rebuilt as a Rube Goldberg machine. If you see network TV walking down the street putting pressure on a headwound, muttering "You should see the other guy," that's because David Fincher administered a beatdown that it won't soon forget. Gone Girl is a whole season of TV, complete with guest stars, in two and a half hours.  

At that same press conference, Affleck described Fincher's breakthrough, Seven, as a film that was built like a swiss watch. If that's true, then here he's twisted every gear tighter, perfecting a brusque narrative flow that seems to obfuscate curiousity. He moves faster than the human mind, exploring every possibility while opening the door for six or seven variations you hadn't even considered. Gone Girl is his most precise film, if not his best, and proves that he can best any source through sheer force of will and pure cinematics. A beautifully plastic sheen falls over the memories Nick and Amy share of their courtship, which can only be perverted by the cold, unromantic light of day during the investigation scenes. Meanwhile the music by frequent collaborators and Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross betrays everyone, creating an inch thick layer of uncertainty that grows on every move our hero makes in his own defense. Affleck's Dunne tries to get ahead of his own story, only to realize that his public persona in the wake of Amy's disappearance has a life of its own. Everyone has more than one life in Gone Girl. Fincher delights in watching characters watch themselves on the news, their identity sculpted by pundits and headlines, sewing seeds of doubt. The way we interact with our own image is a new phenomenon for the common man, but the characters in Gone Girl must master it like old pros because everyone's already watching them. The only hope lies in choosing what they see. Paranoia is the dark heart of the film, and the tabloid television cycle keeps its blood flowing.  

Gone Girl may be the most ugly indictment of TV's power to do evil since Spike Lee's Bamboozled, and both are heavily indebted to the ultimate statement on the politics of the small screen Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's Network. But there are older ghosts hanging from its family tree as well. In the mid-50s movies like It Should Happen To You and All That Heaven Allows cast a scathing light on what TV offers the American people. Fame and a false sense of comfort, both of which alienate you from the people you love. Other films went big, hoping to draw Americans out of their homes with thrills the glass teat couldn't offer them. Fincher wants this to be his North By Northwest, a country spanning twist-athon with images indelible and confident enough to make us believe in them. It puts the viewer in the role of judge and jury, playing with our sympathies and watching us squirm; parsing out red herrings through the jaundiced lens of broadcast news. Fincher makes Affleck throw himself on the mercy of the court of public appeal and banks on your liking or disliking him enough to stay rooted to the spot as the narrative turns darker and darker. Fincher has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Scandal, The Good Wife, New Girl, The Leftovers, How I Met Your Mother, True Detective and Mad Men and thrown one of his own. It's a blockbuster whodunnit with more twists than your DNA and flashy, stylized support from icons like Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris. The odds are great that when it's over you'll yell at the screen, begging to know what happens next week. That sound you hear is David Fincher having the last laugh. He always does.

Perfectly tuned as it is Gone Girl has a big problem. The more we learn about the girl of the title, the less we know her, the less certain we are that any outcome could be satisfying. Naturally the one we get leaves a bitter aftertaste. Which is itself a cruel inevitability. If the girl of the title could be anyone, doesn't it make sense that our hero'd get saddled with the worst possible iteration? I don't know if Fincher believes in that depressing outcome but Flynn definitely does. She pits her too-smart hero against one regressive cartoon after another and Fincher's only too happy to play her game, because it lets him change the game at regular intervals. The problem? If the film never has to make up its mind about who the girl is, then it never has to decide what it thinks about her. So ultimately what is Gone Girl? A thriller? A procedural? A horror film? A courtroom drama? It never decides. It's a film without a center. Without a soul. Good as it is, slick and entertaining and provocative, it can never transcend that absence. It will never be better than entertaining. Is that the future we're heading for? If movies don't aspire to much more than beating TV and paperback fiction at its own game, then the battle's already over. Without a beating heart, like the one in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or Zodiac, entertainment is hardly compensation. Not when you can be so much more. 

The Future of Film - movies since 2010

The following is a survey of the films we find most representative of the greatness of the cinematic medium since 2010. The decade is just about half over and this is our attempt to figure out what the landscape looks like right now. So everyone has picked a film they loved and talked about its important. What these movies say about the world we live, what we see in them that we want other movies to aspire to. 


Scout Tafoya

For the last few years Robert Greene has written a column on the continuing progress of cinematic non-fiction over at Hammer-to-Nail. Greene's been on the front lines, trying to talk people down from their anti-documentary bias and America's tendency to laud movies content to give you information with all the tact and grace of an infomercial. Meanwhile he's championed groundbreaking oddities like Leviathan, The Act of Killing and even line-riders like Computer Chess. More than any kind of film, what Greene pursues over everything is the truth, and that is bigger than just facts told you to be a guy in a room. The truth sometimes bypasses your brain and heads right to your guts and it's impossible to ignore. Greene's own films are an extension of his search for a better, more enlightened conversation about nonfiction, and they're like nothing you've ever seen. For the last decade-and-a-half American indie fiction has been searching for the language that Greene finally found in his second film Kati with an I, about his cousin's heartbreaking final days as a high school student. He returned a year later with Fake It So Real about the characters in a non-professional wrestling circuit. And now he's a month away from seeing his latest film, Actress, play theatres across the country. Which is good news for everyone who wants to know how close to perfect the modern non-fiction film has yet come. 

I toyed with writing this about any number of mind-blowing 'documentaries' including Manakamana, Miners' Hymns, Patience (After Sebald), Leviathan, Perhaps Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, Two Years At Sea or Whores Glory or even Computer Chess and Under The Skin, but ten minutes into Actress I knew ita was special even in that rarified company. Actress follows Brandy Burre, who took a few years off from her career to have children, getting back into the world of auditions and performing. Burre is a sparky, vivacious person and a loving mother. Like any of us she has flaws that hurt her relationships, and every one of them complicates what we thought we knew about her. Filmmakers try and fail to write characters like her every day. Greene's there at every crucial juncture in Burre's life over many months including her efforts to deal with several changes to her life and daily routine, most of which she's placed there herself. She talks to Greene and the audience as if we were all sitting in her kitchen, sharing a drink with her after her kids have settled down for the night. There's immediacy and honesty, and then there's a woman pouring herself a glass of wine and telling us when she fell out of love with the father of her children. Greene's always found humanity where others would have found mere objects or figureheads, and Actress hums and shakes with it. Burre's the first of his characters who's middle aged and has a sense of her legacy and her place in the world and watching her contemplate them is impossibly compelling. Greene provides a slow-motion playback of the moments just before everything came off the rails, using little else but what Burre surrounds herself with day after day. It's gripping, but more importantly, it's fucking cinematic. 

Greene places himself where few others would dare to venture, her private rehearsals, curlers still in her hair, in the shower after one of the most taxing days of her life. He's not recording because it has anything to do with her life as a series of facts, but because he's telling her story the only way he knows how, with the language of dramatic filmmaking. A standard doc about the life of a struggling actress would be answering questions left and right, squeezing every inch of drama from her nerves, getting between the audience and the subject. Greene hangs back, no agenda, no judgment, letting Burre tell her own story through gestures on her own time. One of the film's best moments has her driving to meet someone listening to Colin Blunstone's "Let Me Come Closer To You," which has more thematic resonance than she or Greene could ever have known when the moment occurred, as Burre just drives to a train station. She's deep in thought and we only later know what's going on in her troubled mind. Then the song continues as the film jumps through her evening, but it remains the recording from the car stereo. Greene always keeps rough edges and in so doing the making of a modern documentary becomes the subtext, the third party to everyone of his character studies. You would never mistake Actress for conventional (and what greater tragedy is there then a film this heartbreaking looking like a mutation next to most distributed docs?), least of all because in spending time with a woman reliving and restarting the part of her life where she pretends to be someone else, we find the perfect encapsulation of Greene's pursuit. A headlong dive into the space between cinematic reality, life and fiction. Who is Brandy Burre? Is she her job, her family, her flaws, her characters, her hopes or fears? Greene never makes us choose because Burre herself doesn't have to. She's not a character in a movie, she's a person fighting to make sure tomorrow's better. Actress is the non-fiction film of the decade, a gauntlet thrown at anyone looking to tell the truth with a camera. Cinema, like Burre, is staring into its future. "This is what I wanted...but now I have to do it." 


Noah Aust 


Because I’m jaded and desensitized to movies. I can’t suspend my disbelief—and do I even want to? I’ve read Laura Mulvey and Brecht and is mimesis even good? Or is it just escapism/bread and circuses? Is catharsis good, or does it just satiate us so we don’t challenge the status quo? Freshman year I was fascinated by mumblecore. Joe Swanberg stripped away all the excesses of filmmaking—plot, camerawork, production values, acting, dialogue—but his movies were still powerful. By getting rid of everything that I thought made a movie, Swanberg got to the heart of what a movie really was. Or could be, anyway.

Holy Motors does the same thing from the opposite direction. There’s no suspension of disbelief. There’s no character development—no characters, really. There’s no narrative continuity. And it still works. The musical sequence is totally self-aware but it’s still tragic and moving, somehow. But tragic and moving in a way I can connect to. Tonight I saw The Immigrant and I loved it, it was beautiful and heartbreaking and melodramatic and tragic, but how am I supposed to connect to that? There’s nothing ugly or ironic or cynical in the world of that movie. How am I supposed to reconcile that with my life? I’m so cynical and jaded and I think that was keeping me from totally entering the world of the film. Whereas with Holy Motors, it’s understood that you’re jaded. It’s understood that you can’t fully commit to the reality of the story, and no one’s asking you to.

I read something a while back about how Georges Méliès never really went for suspension of disbelief in his movies. People draw a binary between him and the Lumière brothers, with them advocating realism and him advocating escapism, but it’s not that cut and dry. This writer called Méliès’ films “montages of attractions,” and to me Holy Motors went back to that. Holy Motors is so cinematic. It’s Cinema with a capital C. It’s like Léos Carax asked himself what Cinema is, what it feels like, and then compiled scenes that illustrate that. If an alien asked what movies were about, I’d show them Holy Motors. When the beggar is running through the cemetery and the Godzilla theme song comes on, there’s no reason why that should have conjured such a profound feeling in me, but it did.  The movie is beautiful. That scene at the very beginning with the forest wallpaper? Oh my god, that’s beautiful. It’s like they took out everything I don’t care about in a movie and just left the music and the images and the moods. 

There’s also something that I can’t quite put my finger on... something about the end of film and digital cinema. I get so depressed about that stuff. Holy Motors felt like a requiem, a summing up of everything that film meant. Film is more than just a medium, it’s Cinema, it’s Melodrama, it’s Ingrid Bergman, it’s La Strada, it’s something tangible and mechanical that you watch in a theater. It’s bourgeoisie and decadent and so it’s doomed to die, but it’s beautiful. But maybe Holy Motors is also a map for how to go forward. Because it’s self-aware and digital and it still packs a punch. Léos Carax finds poetry in digital tracking markers. Just like Joe Swanberg found power in cold, sterile video,  Carax finds beauty in deconstruction and self-awareness. 

Once at Boston Underground I saw a video mixtape from the Whore Church: an overwhelming ADD onslaught of trash videos and pornos cut together at subliminal speeds. Really terrible stuff. But I was watching it and I was really struck by the vocabulary and style of it. I remember thinking, “This is new. If artists want to keep moving forward, they’re going to have to find the power in this stuff.” Then I saw M Dot Strange’s film We Are The Strange. He draws from trashy digital vocabularies: anime, 8-bit video games, 4chan stuff, but he uses that iconography to tell a really haunting story about trying to live in a world gone mad. It’s legitimate melodrama told in a contemporary style. A movie like that can reach people on a level that traditional melodrama can’t. A movie like The Immigrant can synch up perfectly with a certain kind of person, but for film students that are jaded and desensitized and filled with this buzzing anxiety, they need a movie that recognizes that and takes that into the equation. It’s like a different level of semiotics. I want movies that say "even with real life in its awkwardness and ugliness, it’s still possible for life to be beautiful and important like in the movies." I feel like melodrama is a really important aspect of human nature, and maybe it’s the most important part of cinema. I want movies like Holy Motors that say “Even when you’ve lost all suspension of disbelief, movies can still be beautiful.”



Tucker Johnson


I’m actually fairly surprised I landed on this film as the best but then I realized that out of all my possible choices I come back to this one the most. I own a fair few of my choices and I’ve definitely carved the deepest path in my copy of The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay took a revolutionary true story and turned it into an arguably even more interesting piece of fiction that paints the facts of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to being the youngest billionaire of all time with broad strokes and spends far more of its time in the trenches of exactly what people will do to each other when unbridled success is waiting in the wings. He even manages to squeeze sympathy out of audiences for Jesse Eisenberg’s character by showing that despite the juggernaut that Facebook became, it was still driven by the very human needs to succeed, to impress, and to inspire forgiveness in those we care about most. But even with Sorkin churning out arguably the best screenplay of his career, the material needed a director who could handle the dialogue and work the actors hard enough to deliver it with the verve and emotion it deserved. Enter: David Fincher. 

I’m definitely biased towards David Fincher. I consider the man a master of filmmaking at this point in his career but even I remember being very wary of him taking on “the Facebook movie” early in the film’s production. I saw the film in a theater packed with an audience that was more likely expecting the kind of film that the Ashton Kutcher movie Jobs ended up being. I spent the film’s two-hour runtime in awe of Fincher’s crisp, dark visual style (aided by Jeff Cronenweth’s realistic yet beautiful cinematography) and his total control over some of the best young actors working today. He had a firm handle on Sorkin’s dialogue but still managed to direct performances that sounded like intelligent people talking rather than actors simply reading movie dialogue. All this combined with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ eerie ambient score propels the film into a place that I think films rarely get to go. 



Michelle Siracusa 


From the start, something is not quite right. You are thrown all the makings of a horror story, down to ink drops that spatter like blood behind a title that's haphazardly scrawled across the screen. Stoker sputters like a volcano and stops just in time for the birds to resume their chirping. But every now and then the earth beneath us shudders again. The pressure builds: a hint of violence, of the macabre here and there. And all we have to do is sit back and wait: wait for something to surface, wait for the monster to be revealed.

It's the suspense of not knowing what route a story might take that keeps us excited and engaged, but lately, I find this can be a movie's downfall. There are too many clues, sometimes characters even stating the circumstances outright. Why tell me what you're doing when you can show me? The point of film is to be able to see a story unfold, right? Unfortunately, most movies these days can be deciphered long before the story comes to fruition. And that's the "good movies". The bad ones don't even have plots to hint at. Oftentimes, I end up paying New York City's $14 ticket price to ogle Hollywood's sexiest men and women for two hours. They hop around a green screen saying words to each other that don't mean anything in tight outfits. Don't get me wrong, this is a spectacle all it's own, but I don't consider it art. How can it be when I'm not changed by it? My eyes are just darting back and forth, convincing my mind it's being entertained. For people like me, who are hungry for a good story, who crave something that will shake their souls and rattle their brains, I suggest you watch Stoker.

From the start, something is not quite right. A father has just died. And we are introduced to a mourning family that seems a little too put together for the circumstances.  We never see them cry, but that's not what makes them stand out from the rest of the humdrum denizens that populate their town. The mother (Nicole Kidman) always appears freshly hair-sprayed and doll-like, overdressed and made-up. She makes cheery and careful small talk with fellow family and guests at the funeral reception. Here, we meet an estranged uncle (Matthew Goode). Too charming and too cool, he tells stories of having traveled the world, which is his apology for not being a present member of the family until the death of his brother. He wants to turn that all around, and everyone smiles and accepts him without question. After that all talk of the beloved late father is hushed. The mother invites the uncle to stay with her and her daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). And the family is once again a man, a woman, and a child. From the outside, they would appear perfect, if no one knew the circumstances. This is a lovely theme that Stoker puts in place early on exploring appearances versus reality and the external versus the internal. The house is pristine, but the basement is shadowed, cob-webbed, and damp. Some people are beautiful to look at, but it doesn't mean they're beautiful to be around.

India is ivory skinned and forever curious, as young people are. She's an oddball at school, perhaps because of her sullen and quiet nature or her prim and studious demeanor. But that isn't the only reason why she's "different". She is also the only one who refuses to smile for the sake of appearances, the only one who has never gotten alone with her mother, and the only one questioning her Uncle's presence. She stands out from her family just as much as her family stands out from the rest of the town. Stoker is a coming of age tale, told through India's perspective. At moments, poetic voiceover and brilliantly composed shots show what her eyes would see or what her ears would hear. We are with her, in her head, catching glimpses of private conversations and tense moments between the other characters through cracked doors and open windows. They are all pieces of a puzzle, lava beginning to boil. And the more India learns about who to trust and who to not, the more we do as well.

There's not evidence of foul play. There's no crime. In fact, everything's peachy, but we still don't know why the father died. No one's asking. Everyone's eating ice cream or being picked on by the school bully like normal, until suddenly we catch a glimpse of a body stored in the freezer. The pressure is building. Sometimes characters stare a bit too long, unblinking, and we're reminded, something is not quite right. An explosion is imminent. The film begins with India as a young as can be, climbing trees and running through leagues of grass without a care in the world, other than finding that year's hidden birthday present. But suddenly , everything changes for her. Her father's death and her uncle's appearance become a catalyst for her growing up. We watch her trying to discover who she is and trying to find independence while dealing with her new family and their new rules. We learn that she was only ever close to her father, and, now, without her instructor and protector, she must learn to fend for herself. 

We are all that child, or we have been. We've been derailed and insecure, needing something more to feel whole. We know the wide-eyed discovery of a first sip of wine. And we know what it feels like to find something that makes us feel free. Stoker is about India's discovery of what makes her feel free, what makes her adult. The movie's grandest achievement lies in that it's both artfully constructed and relatable. The characters never state a thing outright about their family's history, but the film's intricate subtleties manage to fill us in on the mysterious Uncle's past and, eventually, expose the family's many skeletons.  Scenes are interwoven to reveal similarities between the 3 surviving family members, showing just how far from the tree the apple falls. India learns that there are some things you can't help but inherit from your genepool. I think my favorite part was never once knowing what exactly was going to happen. The script never reflected upon itself, and instead, I had the pleasure of seeing actors react to events and each other without words. Park Chan-Wook's direction was guttural and captivating, and I applaud it.

Although the volcano takes its time seething, frothing and finally exploding, Stoker had me from the start. I was so wrapped up in all that was not quite right that I forgot I was waiting for a monster to appear. I'm glad I forgot because the ending would eclipse all my expectations. Stoker isn't a typical horror film.  But, I hardly expected the monsters I was looking for to be in plain view. I had been living with them. I watched them grow and change. After 99 minutes, I knew them and sympathized with them; so that, by the time they were fully grown and evil, I was there too. Secretly having turned savage, anxious to spill blood alongside characters I'd grown to love. Stoker is a primal and dark film. It explores evolution and survival of the fittest in a modern world, where lying and confidence are your best friends. It challenges the definition of a villain. It's complex, yet simple; inspiring, yet terrifying, in suggesting that we are not responsible for who we become. We are all born with both light and darkness. It's only until we stop resisting our true wants and needs that we are finally free, finally adult, and finally content. With this realization, India becomes both our hero and our villain. She's unapologetic. I think we all want to be that girl, at least a little.


Lucas Mangum 

I'm going with The Dark Knight Rises. I'm a sucker for a good hero story, especially when the hero has to really descend before he triumphs. I also like how the ending seems upbeat (I, for one, have always wanted a Bat/Cat romance), but also carries some ambiguity. Is he really alive, or is Alfred dreaming? It came out in the same summer as The Avengers, which I loved. They had similar plots, but the Batman film felt like The Avengers' evil twin. So much bleaker.


Tim Earle


Films face a crisis these days. Home entertainment systems are high enough quality, and downloading films is easier and easier. Meanwhile, television has quietly become the preferred medium of talented, forward thinking storytellers. The Avengers is, for better or worse, the solution to this crisis. I like the film - it’s surprisingly well written for a big budget slug fest - but more than anything, I admire what it represents, in terms of historical precedent. The film is a demonstration of film learning from TV. It’s a deeply serialized story that requires an understanding of what’s happening in a previously established world. Like the Lord of the Rings series, it is a film for fans. A film for people who have maps of places that don’t exist. A film for people who like watching impossible universes built and populated with impossible people. Unlike Lord of the Rings though, its storytelling possibilities are limitless. It is the first step in a long, potentially endless story. Of course, there are dangers in making a movie franchise like this. The biggest one is that I worry studios have gotten the impression that to make real money you need bloated franchises with lots of people punching each other. What The Avengers should be teaching us is that the talking is far more important than the punching. And it is a deeply corporate entity; it’s inseparability from other films and TV is just as much a boon to its storytelling as its inseparability from toys and lunchboxes is a hindrance. But what really knocks this film out of the park for me is that the great technicians of film, George Lucas and James Cameron, have finally been dethroned by the writers. Also, “Mewling quim.”


Noah Adrien Lyons


Polydoxical Cinema Poetics for Under the Skin

Under the Skin is the best film of this decade so far, and this is why: We now live – in our birth bodies and our avatars – in a post-secular world that has seen tidal waves of progressive and liberatory movements. Civil rights, waves of feminism, postmodernism, post-structuralism, nihilism, cold and hot wars, multiculturalism, liberational theory, queer theory….Science fiction has shifted from the hard-science and optimistic teleology of the Golden Age, through the New Wave counter-cultural ‘highbrow’ of Samuel Delany, Joanna Russ, Zelazny, Disch….then a return to optimism in the guise of cyberpunk, which glamourizes and aestheticizes the neon city, drugs, Donna Harraway’s feminist-cyborgism and modification of the self. But Rodney King, to name just one instance, demythologized the cyberpunk allure, exposing the grim reality of urban poverty and gentrification; HIV/AIDS and the War on Drugs demonized – and gave subjectivity/agency – to the marginalized and the underground. Suddenly, “The Truth is Out There”, and the government conspiracy is fantasized about to resurrect the Mythical Being (alien, god), and to place blame not on ourselves but the Government for the slow decline of community, trust, and holistic art. Y2K – HAL is back, and it’s our fault. Apocalypse is not heaven-sent or cosmic, but technological avarice and enslavement. Remember Alan Watts and the French profs, they were right. This is illusion. There must be a real body, a real affair of the heart, a real Earth. But proliferation of 2000s cynicism and media saturation obliterates this gnostic hope, and leaves tepid cynicism and submission to the internet’s “virtual” alternative to an already virtual world. This ‘time’ line I choose to end arbitrarily with the “hipster ironic” zeitgeist. A Lacanian mirror phase so perverse that to be ironic, one must not be ironic, which is in fact ironic; any actual claim like “I believe in…” or “I love…” or “This is the best fuckin  film ever” are NEVER said, because we feel we cannot believe in any truth or believe in our own opinions – for shame.

Why Under the Skin? Because it caused me to write this aporia-laden time-line of science fiction and modern solipsisms. Because it invokes past occasions, actualizes itself in the present, and ruptures open exciting and novel potentialities for the future. Because the world we live in is a soft, autumn sadness; CGI and avatars and ironic art are not explosions but dreadful, fading echoes of eschatological joy. Look and listen. See how what we were formed what we are, and what we are is more than skin or name; we are not Cartesian schizo-monads. We are others. Shed skin, ashes in snow, geometric deities yawning wide in space. Re-enchantment. Look it up if you have to. Post-secular, and polydoxy – ditto. When was the last time you touched someone? Stare hegemony straight in its slithering maw, fear it, fear irony, and scream. But do not rape the rapist. Gently hold your tattered body like the holy relics they are, and really look at your own face, tears of mourning and praise. The fire consumes, but ashes drift UNDER THE SKIN OF DAWN and perish, everlasting, atoms for those born tomorrow. 



Dan Khan

These days, I am a sucker for movies that take their time. What people generally call  boring, I call contemplative. That may sound pretentious I am aware, but I think it’s valid. There were a number of films I could’ve picked, so why did I choose Sofia’s Coppola’s Somewhere?  I still don’t quite know, but I know that I love every minute of it. After the experimental period piece misfire, Marie Antoinette, Coppola returns with something far more refined and personal. You can certainly tell there’s something close to her heart here and there’s no doubt that it’s also something quite special.

Stephen Dorff is one those actors that never really quite had the career that most actors dream about and too few people care about him. You probably remember him as the villain from Blade, but thankfully (though I admit I enjoyed that performance) he is nothing like that here. Dorff has never really been given this kind of role before and he nails every nuance, every line, every movement, every expression so naturally.  Here he plays Johnny Marco, an actor experiencing an existential crisis who has to deal with his 11-year old daughter (Elle Fanning) when his ex-wife suffers a breakdown and vanishes, leaving the girl in his care. This is a premise rife for a Lifetime movie, but luckily it’s not and it’s in the hands of someone who rises well above that sort of trite material. Coppola used her childhood experiences, recalling her father, Francis Ford Coppola making movies. The way in which the film unravels reminds one of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  In that film, we see the daily routine of a a Belgian housewife. In Somewhere, we see the daily routine of an actor and how in many ways just how simple, uninspiring and repetitious that can be. 


When I saw this film the first time, way back when, I was immediately very dismissive.  I used that much reviled word “boring” to describe it.  No doubt, it’s a film that requires patience and it’s certainly not paced in a way to elicit excitement. It’s a film that demanded I give it another chance and I am glad I did, because it’s more far rewarding that I initially realized. It’s a character study in a way that unfolds unlike most others, it doesn't have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s just life.  Coppola understands this. Dorff has never better and Fanning is as wonderful as you would hope she’d be, in fact if I have a complaint it's that I wish she was in it more. I realize, this is not a film most would choose, and while I had other classics like The Tree of Life, The Master and Holy Motors (and, I might add, Coppola's followup, The Bling Ring, is also a treasure) to choose from, I think Somewhere is as great as those or any film released in the past four years.