Before the Oscar nominations come out - and after turning in my nominating ballot last week (since you’re not supposed to discuss your vote beforehand) - I thought I’d share the results of my exhaustive movie-watching this awards season. Out of 140 movies sent by screener, iTunes or vimeo, I managed to watch over 100 - including a couple dozen in theaters the way you’re supposed to. Here are my favorite features of the year - with an addendum on a handful of notable disappointments.
TOP TEN – FEATURES
1. BIRDMAN – ***** - by far the most amazing film of the year. Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton brilliant.
2. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR – ***** - Oscar Isaacs is outstanding as an honest man in a violent NY blue collar business. Written & directed by the guy who made a brilliant movie about cut-throat white collar business, Margin Call.
3. INTERSTELLAR – ***** – Gravity x10. Terrific storytelling, visuals. McConaughey, Hathaway always great to watch.
4. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL - ***** - Wes Anderson sets the standard for quirky comedies.
5. BOYHOOD – ***** - brave in its ordinariness. A lyrical look at years passing without great drama or tragedy. Just life as it unfolds.
6. INTO THE WOODS – ***** - I’m a sucker for Sondheim and this is one of his most inventive. Performances and production are stunning.
7. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING - ***** - Eddie Redmayne & Felicity Jones in a surprisingly uplifting movie about love and life’s limitless possibilities.
8. NIGHTCRAWLER – ****1/2 – Riveting but makes you wanna take a bath after. Jake Gyllenhaal is scary good.
9. INHERENT VICE – ****1/2 - P.T. Anderson & Thomas Pynchon combine for a raunchy romp. Lots of hippie hijinks and much weirdness. Lebowski-esque.
10. WHIPLASH - ***** - What an intense movie experience! JK Simmons, MilesTeller just brilliant.
ROUNDING OUT TOP 20 - FEATURES:
SELMA – ****1/2 - A brilliant performance by David Oyelowo almost pulls this civil rights drama into the year’s elite circle. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE - ***** - Not even submitted for AMPAS voting but I loved it. Original, funny, insightful, topical & timely. THE IMITATION GAME - ****1/2 – fascinating story, wanted more about his life and inner struggles as gay man. Brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch.
KILL THE MESSENGER - ****1/2 – detailed, well-told tale of gov’t secrets & the cannibalistic world of journalism. Jeremy Renner. Another AMPAS omission.
ROSEWATER – ****1/2 - Jon Stewart has made an important, well-crafted tale of totalitarianism & what it takes to fight it.
A MOST WANTED MAN - **** - Worthy swan song for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Political thriller w. chilling perf. by Robin Wright.
THE LEGO MOVIE - **** - Original, funny even for adults.
TRASH - ***** - A buried treasure! How brilliant is Stephen Daldry at directing kids? Watch this and see how it’s done. Slumdog Millionaire meets City of God meets The Goonies. No U.S. distribution and doesn’t open in U.K ‘til 30 Jan., 2015. Really belongs in Top 10.
IDA – ****1/2 – classic Euro ‘60s, from lingering two-shots to a two-for-the-road storyline w/ a Holocaust twist. Beautiful b&w cinematography of bleakest Poland.
GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIAN ANSALEM – **** - a little drawn out but shocking expose of religion in civil courts. Brilliant perf. by Ronit Elkabetz
WORST FILMS OF 2015 Rather than a list, permit me a brief rant about 2015 Films that got some decent reviews but left me cold. The coldest - and top of my list for Biggest Head Scratcher of 2015 - was AMERICAN SNIPER. Rambo gets a home life & PTSD. A pointless, racist, soulless exercise. Like a conversation with an empty chair. And by the way, anyone who knows anything about filmmaking should know that all the “action” sequences critics are wetting themselves over were shot by 2nd unit (i.e., “action”) director, Robert Lorenz, Clint’s longtime producing partner. Another one that got some attention but couldn’t keep mine was THE JUDGE. What were the filmmakers trying to make? A character study? A whodunit? Who cares? Not worthy of Downey & Duvall’s talents. FOXCATCHER was well made (Bennett Miller’s a fine director) and acted but can someone tell me why this was a story anyone was supposed to care about? LOVE IS STRANGE made it onto one NY Times critic’s Best list but it’s my candidate for Worst of the Year. Maudlin, boring, with plot holes you could almost fit a director’s ego thru. Lithgow & Molina were wasted. Lastly, ST. VINCENT was burdened with every cliché in the book: crusty old guy, cute friendless kid, hooker with a heart of gold and throw in Bill Murray playing himself. High fructose corn syrup. There were others I’d suggest not wasting your movie viewing time on - that some critics gushed over - but most of you have probably never heard of them, so why bother?
Feedback on any of the above is both welcome & encouraged.
“My hair used to look like that,” he laughed as he shook my hand.
We were in the living room of his sprawling ranch-style house in Maputo, capital of Mozambique where his wife Graca Machel was still an important political figure. He had crossed the room using her for balance.
“I styled it this way just for you, sir.” I was joking around with the greatest man on the planet?!? I’m a truck driver’s son from the San Fernando Valley.
Nelson Mandela had teased me and it felt only proper to tease back. His eyes teased, not just his words. It was impossible not to respond in kind. His ability to put one at ease was legend. I was feeling preternaturally at ease. That floaty kind of comfort where you are so out-of-body you say and do really stupid things with no awareness whatsoever of who’s around to witness. He was tall and grey and straight-backed and though I was probably an inch or two taller than he was at age 86, it felt like I was looking up.
We stood grinning and exchanging quips while the witnesses - his wife, two of his daughters, Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and the African producer of Blood Diamond, Gillian Gorfil - were all waiting for him to sit down. All I knew was Madiba and I were having a good time. There were other people in the room?
After about five minutes of our bonding, he signaled Graca who helped him onto the sofa and propped his head with pillows, less for comfort than to keep him in an upright position. She took a chair near him. Leo and Djimon sat on either side of him. His daughters sat on the opposite side of the room staring at Leo.
DiCaprio was the reason we were all there. No slight on Djimon who was the biggest black African movie star of the decade, but it was because his step-daughters wanted to meet the star of Titanic that Gillian had been able to arrange this meeting with the former president of South Africa.
Gillian had invited me partly because she was a pal and partly – I’m guessing – because she didn’t want to be the only non-celebrity in the room. I pushed to have our photographer Jaap come along, maybe for the same reasons. Then, after she invited our director, my attendance became a prerequisite.
It had come to our attention that Mandela wasn’t happy about our movie. He had been a public booster of DeBeers – the diamond cartel that was one of monsters of our story (albeit with a name change) and that had already begun a multi-million dollar campaign to discredit the film. As keen as we were to meet him, we were all aware the father of the Rainbow Nation might take us to task for dramatizing the horrors of the diamond trade – a key part of South Africa’s export economy. Only our director, Edward Zwick, had the integrity not to put himself in that situation. But Ed gave his blessing to the other four of us provided I was there for damage control. Gillian and I convened the night prior to rehearse arguments in support of our position and graceful ways to neutralize any hot-button moments.
The controversy never came up. In fact, only once did politics come up.
Leo was unusually quiet at the beginning – perhaps out of respect, perhaps measuring his words as celebrities do. It was about a third of the way through the conversation that George Bush’s name was mentioned and DiCaprio launched into a candid assessment of what he thought about the American President. Madiba nodded thoughtfully.
“We got in a big fight the first time we met,” Mandela recalled his first encounter with Bush. “When we were going to meet again, Condoleezza (Rice) was in the Middle East on some important state business but she cut her trip short so could come back and stop Bush and I fighting again.
“It wasn’t necessary,” he laughed. “First you fight and then you have to make peace. You can’t always be fighting the most powerful country in the world. And the Americans think they are God anyway.”
He laughed again but his eyes narrowed, scanning the room. He was still the feisty freedom fighter and perhaps his last fight was to be liberated from the language of diplomacy. His middle name, Rolihlahla, means “trouble maker.”
We all got our chance to exchange words with our host. Djimon and Gillian talked about Africa, their hopes and fears. Mandela talked about the time when he toured the small villages after he was elected. “You have to talk to the people. They know what they want better than you do. You have to listen.”
I greedily leapt at any opportunity to fill conversation gaps.
I’d recently visited Robben Island, I told him, and saw the cell where he’d lived and the garden where he was able to surreptitiously plant notes for other prisoners to find.
“Did you have a good time?” he smiled. “I didn’t.”
That was not a memory lane down which he cared to stroll.
He quickly turned the questioning to me.
“Do you know Oprah?”
Not personally but I certainly know of her.
“What do you think of her?”
I gave what I thought was an admiring but not fawning response.
“Is she good?”
It took me a second: he was asking if I thought she was good politically.
The most famous man in the world was asking my opinion on the political righteousness of the world’s most famous woman. This was the point at which I knew I’d slipped down the rabbit hole. I took a stance in Oprah’s defense.
“I think she’s a solid liberal.” He mulled a moment. Then nodded. Why my opinion merited such consideration will always remain a mystery.
Finally, Graca told him it was time for their family lunch. Jaap took photos of all of us sitting on the sofa next to him, shaking hands. I took one of Jaap.
We were escorted out of the house by the daughters and a son-in-law. Cars and security personnel were waiting for us in the large driveway.
An hour later Jaap and I sat speechless at the local pizza joint.
“I can’t believe what just happened,” he finally said.
I was still in that floaty out-of-body realm where it didn’t seem all that odd.
Only after I returned to my hotel that afternoon and couldn’t quite focus on anything did it really hit me: I’d just spent an hour shooting the breeze with George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi…
Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, Madiba.
Glad you liked my hair.
Too often we make judgments about things without looking at both sides. So, let’s look at the recent security/surveillance controversy from the perspective of those who last week had to go, “Oops, yeah. We’ve been meaning to tell ya…”
President Obama has been entrusted with the security of the nation. There is a pool of piranhas – mostly Republicans but also Diane Feinstein Democrats – ready to chew his flesh through to bone should there be another terrorist attack on U.S. soil. He can’t let down his guard against attacks from Islamic extremists – as George Bush was given a pass to do in 2001 - or Rightwing extremists – like the 1995 Oklahoma bombing that didn’t jeopardize Bill Clinton’s presidency - or stupid troop deployments of the kind Ronald Reagan survived with no major political repercussions in 1983 Lebanon. Surprise attacks happen, the old wisdom used to tell us. That’s why we have the word “surprise.”
But in this new paradigm, no one – left or right – is going to give President Obama a pass if we are surprised again. We are now armed with The Patriot Act – a piece of legislation our current President and his liberal supporters held in great suspicion when it was first voted on over a decade ago. This over-reaching piece of paranoid protectionism was designed to eliminate the word “surprise” from our national defense vocabulary.
So, Senator Obama voted to reauthorize it in 2005 even while stating that some of its provisions “went way overboard.” When The Patriot Act was set to expire in December of 2012, President Obama not only renewed it unchanged, he secretly expanded its use in the recently revealed program code-named PRISM.
His liberal defenders would say the American President has been forced to use all the tools at his disposal, lest he fall into the piranha pool. How many times during this presidency have we heard Mr. Obama’s supporters (of which I was once among the most ardent) defend his actions on the basis of political expediency: he doesn’t really believe it but it’s the only way he can appease conservative America.
Let’s presume Mr. Obama believes that indiscriminate domestic spying is an urgently needed component of national security. The President is asking the country to trust his judgment on this. And that’s what’s in question here.
No one is claiming there’s an imminent peril, so why the big dragnet?
Director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, offers an explanation. He says that this secret program was designed to “protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.” Certainly I’m not alone in finding that statement a little open-ended.
In fairness, Mr. Clapper did add some specifics: he blamed the whistleblower – Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian – for putting at risk “important protections for the security of Americans.” This from the administration that has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other in U.S. history: the imminent threat comes from those attempting to tell you what your government is up to.
Trust us, Mr. Obama and his minions insist. We know how to protect you.
Let’s presume that President Obama’s use of PRISM is an honorable leader’s honest attempt to thwart what he honestly perceives as real and verifiable danger to American lives.
Let’s presume that his War on Whistleblowers is less about covering up misdeeds and criminal acts by previous administrations (thank you, Bradley Manning) than it is about allowing government security agencies to operate at maximum efficiency in secret (spoilsport Glenn Greenwald).
Let’s presume we can trust him when he claims “There are a whole range of safeguards involved” in protecting against abuses.
But what of future Presidents?
What of precedents?
What of antecedents?
Wasn’t it the secret gathering of information that allowed the House Un-American Activities Committee to blackmail and blacklist? What might Richard Nixon have done with expanded surveillance powers? Would Daniel Ellsberg be facing a life sentence if he leaked the Pentagon Papers today?
“It is unacceptable in a democratic society to use these sorts of tactics to create a chilling effect on free speech.”
This statement didn’t come from an American. It came from a professor at an Istanbul University in response to the Turkish government arresting Twitter users who supported the protests in Taksim Square.
“You can’t have 100% security and then also have 100% privacy,” President Obama told the nation this week.
The argument always comes down to that, doesn’t it? How much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for our safety? How much safety are we willing to sacrifice for our freedom?
Let’s presume we trust this President to guard our safety.
Who do we have to protect our privacy and our freedom?
With what, exactly?
I think I’ve lost 2008.
It was a good year, an interesting year. As much as I remember of it.
It was a journal I lost. Part of a collection I’ve acquired since I was 12. I don’t remember taking 2008 anyplace. I don’t remember using it for any specific reference. But it seems to be gone. And I’m going crazy looking for it.
I rarely reread my old journals – maybe once a decade and only for a few pages. So why do I care about losing a book I’ll probably never read?
Bigger question is, why do I still keep a journal – less regularly these days but still?
I have no idea.
I’m writing this from Cologne, Germany where RUSH has been filming for the past week or so. I’ve been to the city’s only two tourist attractions: a magnificent cathedral and the world’s only 12-story brothel. A true journal keeper would’ve been eager to write about these wonders, process them on paper. A true journalist-publicist would’ve wanted to chronicle the process of this production – which has the potential to be something special: a film about the fierce rivalry of two iconic real-life characters set against the backdrop of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s; Ron Howard directing with skill and passion from a script by the great Peter Morgan.
I’ll get around to it.
It’s the Tristam Shandy syndrome: how do you write about a life when your life keeps running ahead of your pen?
Why even bother?
I pour out most of my thoughts online these days – in emails, in Facebook chats, in this blog. If I want to remember what happened two months or two years ago, I just scroll down in my email. If Samuel Pepys were around today, wouldn’t he be taping his life on YouTube?
Who cares whether I find my journal? My sons – who love me – will not be interested in reading them. Maybe my youngest might seek out passages from the ‘60s and ‘70s because those are romantic eras and he’s a romantic. Maybe my eldest will seek out passages about him – though he probably can’t read my handwriting. Maybe my wife will keep them as a legacy – gathering dust in an attic somewhere. Maybe my ex-wife might appreciate them as fuel for a bonfire.
Why does anyone keep a journal in this day of electronic storage?
That’s another thing – storage. I have a few years of journals with me in London but the bulk of them are in a trunk back in our garage in L.A. The garage could leak – thus destroying the last 50 years of my life!
Why do I continue adding to a pile of what could become paper-mache in a heavy rainstorm? Why does the threat of their destruction fill me with dread?
If no one cares, if you don’t use it for reference, if electronic navel-gazing (preferably to 1000 of your closest friends) is the most accessible, easily preserved and efficacious means of journaling available, why would anyone persist in this archaic practice of writing things in a book that will never be read?
I think I do it because it’s one of the few good habits I have.
And because no one but my journal needs to know what went on in Cologne’s 12-story brothel.
And who knows, 2008 may still show up.
I’m not the only one who has seen Mad Max and thought “worst possible scenario for civilization.”
Mad Max is as bad as it could possibly get:
No social contract to rein in excess.
The 99% fighting for survival.
Perpetual war over fuel oil.
Women being tyrannized by men.
The earth scorched, barren and toxic.
Law serving only the powerful.
Mel Gibson being the lone voice of reason.
Alright, I don’t have to hit you over the head with it: welcome to 2012 (except for the Mel part).
The Conservative agenda is upon us.
Which brings us to the Progressive agenda.
… which is what again?
In the last decade we’ve lost Paul Wellstone & Ted Kennedy to death, John Edwards and Anthony Weiner to scandal, Russ Feingold and Alan Grayson to electoral insanity. And we’ve wound up with the most conservative Congress since the era of the Robber Barons of the late 1800s.
For those unfamiliar with the Robber Barons, Wikipedia defines them as “big businessmen (who) amassed huge fortunes immorally, unethically, and unjustly” during the “Gilded Age.” Very few of today’s rich would define themselves like that. They made their money the new-fashioned way – they invested it… then took their profit just in time to leave others holding the bag when the investment turned sour. At least some of the old time Robber Barons built railroads.
Conservatives are right about this: America was founded on the freedom to profit. Adam Smith’s 1776 publication The Wealth of Nations, in which he espoused the inspired guidance of the “Invisible Hand,” was as key to America’s fundamental philosophy as The Constitution.
The Constitution, however, threw Adam Smith one little curve in the clause that assigned the U.S. Congress the right to “regulate” interstate commerce. The Robber Barons solved that problem by bribing politicians; today’s Robber Barons do it by bribing wanna-be politicians.
Still, that Constitutional clause is what today’s Republicans and Tea-Baggers think they’re fighting. That and the bit in the preamble about “promote the general welfare.” Problem is, the “regulating” clause pertains to the government’s right to dole out tax money (or tax favors) and after a couple Centuries of bellowing about how government has no business tampering with business, the Conservative wealthy have only proved their willingness to bite the Invisible Hand that feeds them. Or feed from the Invisible Hand that should be biting them.
The Invisible Hand first started getting mixed up with The Invisible Handout early in U.S. history in the form of tax relief and subsidies. It kicked into high gear with the building of the railroads in the 1860s. It continued through the discovery of oil. It continues to this day.
Government subsidies for businesses are as old as commerce itself. Subsidies for the poor are a relatively recent phenomenon. The rail subsidies resulted in over-expansion that helped cause the Panic of 1873 – the greatest depression in the U.S. until the Great Depression. The implementation of the Social Security Act of 1935 helped get us out of the Great Depression. For 150 years, the wealthy have held their hands out with no shame. Yet shame is how the Conservative wealthy have manipulated the poor into feeling undeserving of support at even the most basic level.
Today’s Barons – Foster Friess, Sheldon Adelson, Philip Anschutz, the Koch brothers – are “amassing huge fortunes immorally, unethically, and unjustly” and perfectly legally because they control the lawmakers. That would be bad but what makes it worse is they are doing it by trying to force a male-dominated social agenda on women, destroying the planet, shaming the poor and putting as much distance as possible between themselves and the 99% of the rest of us. Their vision of a future includes no social contract to rein in excess. Excess is their goal, law that restrains that goal is their enemy and law that subsidizes this goal is their power.
So let’s review: breakdown of the social contract, fuel wars, growing disparity between ultra rich and the rest of us, attempt to subjugate women, law serving only the powerful…
The Mad Max apocalypse may not be around the corner but you don’t have to see the movie to see the road we’re on.
Liberals and progressives had better get their act together pretty damn quick.
Before Mel Gibson becomes the lone voice of reason.
Anything and Everything that has Nothing to Do with the Movies
Sometimes, we go to a movie to get away from the world and sometimes we go to see what’s going on in the world. This blog will offer comments on the world, the movies and their occasional overlap.