(Editor’s Note: Taylor “T” Sardoni is currently in Russia, which complicates recording a podcast that no one will listen to about movies no one saw. To “simplify” matters, we decided instead to collect an endless email discussion of our favorite 2013 movies into a blog post. This is second part of that three-part, 10,000-word blog post. (Part One can be read by clicking these words.) Part Two picks up with more super deep thoughts on Frances Ha, Before Midnight, Her, Prisoners, Inside Llewyn Davis, and even some True Detective, for good measure.)
CARMEN: No sane person would agree with my racist, alternate reading of 12 Years A Slave. That’s how I know it’s correct. And I have a million more equally racist readings where that came from. DISCUSSION TABLED.
I had to excuse myself from the theater to breathe into a brown paper bag when that alt bro said “I’m working on my Gremlins spec script” in Frances Ha. Art imitating life, my god. I couldn’t even bring myself to enjoy the warmth of the fire from when I burned Gremlinz 3D by Carmen Petaccio. But it’d be a disservice to the quality of this movie to harp on its scary post-movie implications without also acknowledging how smart and warm and witty Frances Ha is. I laughed more during this than I did during any other movie in 2013, and it accomplishes its goals in a weirdly experimental way. The rapid fire editing, the non-sequitors, the slipstream transitions between time and place. Technically, there’s a lot to be learned there. Emotionally, too. There’s so much joy in here, for all the identity crisis distress, and joy is a considerably more difficult emotion to capture than it gets credit for. I also wrote other feelings here.
I resent the claim that Before Midnight can’t be critiqued without considering Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I’ve never seen either of those movies, and it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this one in the least. The circumstances of their meeting and reconnection hang over the events of Before Midnight so profoundly that having seen them isn’t essential. Those days are just stories to these characters now, and I liked that they were just stories for me, too. That Midnight holds up outside of the context of its predecessors is a testament to the precision with which it depicts this relationship. But that precision (and you touched on this with your truthfulness point) is ultimately relevant to these two specific characters within the framework of this narrative, and less to lovers, couples, marriages in the “real” world. It positions itself as a grand, general comment on love, and ends up being a discrete, simplistic statement about these two personalities working in concert. Best sequel of the year.
In terms of artificiality, I’d argue that the relationship in Before Midnight is as artificial as the relationship in Her (if not more so). This could be at the root of our differences in opinion, as I never felt that Her was furthering an agenda. (There is the Ultimate Power of Human Connection agenda, but that agenda is the sorta agenda of everything.) One of my favorite things about the movie was the utter lack of anti-technology head-shaking. Its humane view of humanity is no different from its humane view of technology. I never felt that its aim was to make me feel bad about tweeting 40 times a day. There is a seamlessness to the integration of the disparate elements of this world–organic and inorganic alike–and a seamlessness to the emotions experienced by Theodore and, in turn, the audience. The breakup never played as an end-all emotional wallop, but as a collection of lesser, interwoven emotional reactions, which is closer to how I experience things than the grand gestures and topics of Before Midnight.
The script is routed on a predictable path for the second half of the movie, as I feel it has to be, to ground the audience as Samantha’s “identity” becomes increasingly abstract. Her is never deceptive about its fundamental simplicity (its arc is indistinguishable from romcom), and it stayed true to that fact throughout. Still, how many more movies about male arrested development do we need? How about zero? There’s a future I want to live in.
If Her is an seemingly complex simple movie, I’d say that Prisoners was the best seemingly simple complex movie this year. Am I wrong?!?!?
“T”: (TV Sidebar: Did you watch True Detective? So good!)
I was looking forward to having an ongoing back-and-forth email-fight about 12 Years of Slave for the next 12 years. Instead, let’s just listen to this song and agree to disagree.
But yeah, Car-Car, I’m with you; the warmth of Frances Ha was immensely stronger than the warmth coming from your Gremlinz 3D fire that you DID NOT INVITE ME TO HANG OUT IN FRONT OF (and beforehand) DID NOT EVEN ASK ME TO WRITE WITH YOU. Gerwig is a treasure and there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing more of her in years to come. This is Noah Baumbach’s ode to her (the two are currently dating [Editor’s Note: You heard it first on BPoFD]), and it’s nice to see them experiment with the form and have so much success with it. “Quirk” is in again!
Her is another ode from director to actress, or, perhaps more appropriately, a swan song since Spike Jonze’s real life break-up with Michelle Williams was one of the things that inspired him to write the (now Golden Globe winning) script. Again, it’s just not a script that clicked for me. It felt predictable and muddled and as you say, a story made up of just “lesser, interwoven emotional reactions” with no true plot progression.
However, I cannot agree with you more about Before Midnight. Not only does your being able to appreciate without having seen the two beforehand speak to its excellence, but, despite it being even more rooted in an artificial world than a movie like Her, it still works on so many levels. (But for the record, please for the love of all that is Holy Mountain see the two before it, Carmen See those movies as soon as you stop reading this sentence!!!).
Are you back? Okay, let’s talk about Prisoners, the surprise sleeper film of the year. It’s like a bunch of film-scientists were sitting in a room and asked: what happens when you take a mediocre, by-the-numbers, Law & Order script, and attach a director, talent, and crew who all perform at the top of their game? Prisoners is what happens. The script is fun, like any mystery-puzzle it’s a little predictable, has the chance to be unsatisfying, and could be ruined by red herrings. Yet what came out was an incredibly complex contemplation on the lengths a man will go not just to find his child, but just to find some truth.
That’s what I felt Prisoners was about — truth. Every character has a type of “conversation” with themselves: what Jackman’s character heard Dano say or not say, what Maria Bello’s character saw or didn’t see, what Gyllenhaal believes or doesn’t believe… There’s so much to say about the film. I feel like I need to watch it two or three more times before getting a worthy grasp. The craft, the filmmaking, it’s like those scientists took Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (doing his best Fincher impression), Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano (et al.), and DP Roger Deakins, threw them in separate rooms and yelled at them until they each had chips on their shoulders, then threw them out into the cold and demanded the philosophical crime film they delivered.
I had the pleasure of seeing the film with the director in attendance. Afterwards he had a Q&A in which he told the audience various stories from filming. Apparently, if you really watch attentively, Gyllenhaal wears a masonic ring on his pinky finger, and got tattoos so that he could “hide them, not show them off.” The director said that was all Gyllenhaal. (And if you liked this film, get ready for Villeneuve’s next, a doppleganger thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal with this poster). The director also spoke about his own love for Roger Deakins and how he would be mesmerized by watching Deakins work. The two fought to keep one brief moment (if you can remember early on when the kids are kidnapped, the sequence takes a moment to dolly in on a tree in the front yard of the house), they fought to film it, let alone keep it in the final cut. It’s a three second shot or so, in which we push in on a tree. Everyone except Villeneuve thought they were crazy for getting it, but Deakins stuck up for the director. He spoke about how in Jackman’s memorable, sink-murdering scene, they only had three sinks, and Jackman wasn’t happy with their first two takes (even though everyone thought they got it in the can). Before the final take Jackman promised to make Villeneuve proud. Then Jackman murdered the sink. This is the type of passion and collaboration that we hope happens behind the scenes of all of our favorite films. They usually don’t, but they did in this movie. It all leaps off the screen and into the audience’s memory.
CARMEN: (TV Sidebar: I did watch True Detective. Finally, “T,” a show about cops with troubled pasts who pursue a serial killer through the dark underbelly of America. What a “breath” of “fresh air.” The only part of the pilot that appealed to me was McConaughey’s monologue about denying our internal programming by ceasing to reproduce. If only we’d done it earlier, humanity would be extinct by now, and there would be no idle hands to produce these pointless, emptily pretty retreads. Instead of watching this show next week, I plan on smelling my own farts for an hour, the only act that’s as familiar and malodorous as True Detective. Or maybe I’ll just “contemplate Jesus in the garden.” Give me a goddamn break.)
(And Gremlinz 3D Sidebar: How dare you presume involvement in my Gremlins spec. This is the comprehensive list of writers with whom I would willingly collaborate on my script for Gremlinz 3D:
Comprehensive List of Writers With Whom I Would Willingly Collaborate on My Script for Gremlinz 3D
1. No one
2. Lena Dunham
End of list
(Gremlinz 3D Sidebar Continued: I can’t have you transforming Gizmo’s gender identity issues into a search for a serial killer(s). Gremlins 2 means too much to me to allow it; I have to honor the franchise, that immaculate, immaculate franchise. I’ll gladly read your script for Gremlins: Gizmo’s Bloodlust, but that’s where I draw the line.)
Let’s get back to the movies! Prisoners! What a testament to talent’s ability to elevate a source material. What a model for world building, for constructing an atmosphere. And that atmosphere isn’t just visual, it’s sensorial, an overcast drizzle that lands on the viewer’s face damply. Even the actors seem affected by it, infiltrated in the deep psychological way that manifests itself physically. They’re thickened, corpse-pale, familiar forms buried under layers, unrecognizable. It’s no help. The darkness gets in. When critics talk about “world building,” they’ll usually cite movies like Her, an unusual world whose weirdness is normalized over the movie’s runtime. Prisoners demonstrates that realism requires world building, too, a sometimes more meticulous form of world building. It’s a known world slowly becoming an unknown one. It’s scary.
Everything on screen is in overhaul to deepen our immersion, everything: half-covered tattoos and missing jacket buttons and dashboard accoutrements. The attention to detail is unbelievable for what is, on paper, a pulp entertainment, as if it was made by a sociopathic, bizarro-world Wes Anderson. Yet Prisoners wouldn’t work if a single one of these elements was lacking. The incomprehensible medley of its nasty ingredients is what makes it so readily swallowable. You swallow it, then it swallows you (if that makes any sense).
To summarize: I bought a large popcorn before I saw Prisoners, sat down just it was starting. When the movie was over, my bag of popcorn was still full. This says more than anything I said before.
Whereas the world of Prisoners manipulates and transforms many characters, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a single character who refuses to be manipulated or transformed by his world. The world here is pre-Dylan, early-60’s Greenwich Village, and Llewyn Davis is the worst thing you can possibly be in New York City, then or now: a talented artist with principles. Personally, he’s also a self-sabotaging dick, which doesn’t help his cause. Nevertheless, you empathize with him, because he is incapable of being anyone else. Being yourself is a genuine and heroic and mostly impossible undertaking, doubly so when you’re a self-sabotaging dick. Unlike his contemporaries, Llewyn Davis could never perform under a pseudonym. He can’t. Llewyn remains Llewyn, to his own, heartbreaking detriment. In this way, he’s is an anti-martyr. Martyrs refuse to capitulate and are remembered. Llewyn refuses to capitulate, gets the shit kicked out of him, and is forgotten. What’s the greater tragedy?
To quote myself (sorry): “Inside Llewyn Davis may be the Coen Brothers’ bleakest movie; it’s also one of their best. It’s a cosmic joke two hours in the telling that comes at the very earned expense of its protagonist. Llewyn is an irascible grump whose irascibility and grumpiness are borne of loss, repression, artistic frustration, and are thus v. human. It’s easy for a movie to give you feelings when bad things happen to good characters; it’s worlds harder to feelings-give when bad things happen to bad characters. This movie does that. It makes you empathize with those luckless stepping stones, most now sunk, that paved the way for genius: the Nicholson Bakers who got DFW’d, the Jobs’d mp3 developers, the Llewyn Davises who suffered so other artists could help us not to.”
Like, could I have nailed it any harder?
“T”: (TV Sidebar: Huh?)
(And Gremlinz 3D Sidebar: Good luck!)
Please, let’s get back to the movies, and talk about the brilliant Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen Brothers know their stuff, and I think in the long run, when all is said and done, this is going to be one of their most underrated films. Not as if the film isn’t getting recognition, but specifically because of its complete snub in many a category from the Academy. Needless to say this was expected, but let’s talk about how well done the film is technically. The cinematography in the film (one of its two nominations, the other being sound mixing) plays as a narrator to Llewyn’s evolving emotional state over the course of the film. Notice the color palate staying within the blues and grays, the lighting coming in ominous until there are moments of brightness and hope, the framing of the microphone and Llewyn’s cocked head while he sings. The Coens have always filmed their movies with a structured, disciplined approach. Here they show you why they are masters at the craft.
There is something so specific about the way the filmmaking echoes the themes of the film itself. Llewyn Davis is not just stuck inside this ongoing loop, this trap that he himself has set up; he’s stuck inside the visual metaphor of one of his own, beautiful yet melancholy folk songs. This is a film that speaks not just to the generation it portrays but of any young artist trying to express themselves — if only he could just get out of his own way. The only part that made me turn my head was the road trip to Chicago (and John Goodman’s character altogether). This seemed too cheap and easy for me, and I almost yearn for a cut of the film where he just rides alone by himself to play his heart out, get turned down by F. Murray Abraham, subsequently turn down a back-up part in Peter, Paul and Mary (sequel? c’mon!) and then hit that poor cat. But I guess if it’s a visual folk song then this part is the bridge. It’s a part that is necessary to understand the emotional journey from point A to point B.
I don’t mean to harp on the Oscars because in no way is that what is important here or in the case of any film. Unfortunately in this industry, they are but one measure of a film’s success (and they’re fun!). And it’s no wonder why they didn’t take to a film like this. It’s a film that reminds us all that no matter how good or how hard you try, the industry will literally chew you up and spit you out. Thankfully, we got to witness that with the backdrop of a simple, delicately sweet soundtrack to keep us company.
To quote myself (not sorry): “I loved this movie.”
Another movie from our list that deals with life’s successes and failures with an intense connection to music is the Italian film The Great Beauty. And oh what a beauty it is. I cannot count the number of times I found myself swaying in my seat despite there being no music playing from the screen. This film is a choreographer’s “eye-gasm.” Unlike Inside Llewyn Davis, what this film does is chew you up… and then gargle you inside of a warm and sensual mouthful of champagne and chocolate covered strawberry lava. And then it brings hundreds of flamingos to your porch. I wouldn’t be surprised if news came out that we were getting treated, in the year 2013 (or 2014 when hopefully some of you rent this film) to a long lost Fellini gem here. The film plays as modern-day cousin to La Dolce Vita.
This film sure is capturing the “sweet life” in which its main character, Jep, swims in the excess of his high-society living and almost drowns in the process. It’s about one man looking back on his life, good and bad times alike, and being reminded that it’s not just about looking backwards or forwards but about up and down and sideways as well. Interestingly enough, I think we can look at one of this year’s most misunderstood films, Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street as a comparison. Leo gives one of his all time great performances and though the film comes in at looooooooong just under three hours, the directing is solid at every turn. What most critics are seeing is a film that romanticizes the lifestyle and villains it portrays, just as much as it makes misogyny look like a fun old time (anything is fun with that directing and editing and another killer soundtrack from the master of putting killer soundtracks to crime films — see, music again, yet another comparison to be made). But I think Wolf is another example of audience transference — of course we are shocked and embarrassed (just as Jep is at himself in Beauty) as a country of what went on (and is still going on) a block away from our NYU Sophomore year dorm.
Both films delve into the excesses of each society, and though Beauty makes us (along with Jep) reflect, Wolf makes us sick to our stomach with regret. Both films deal with power and hunger, and while Beauty shows a man contemplating what he’s eaten his whole life to get him here, Wolf shows a man still with an empty stomach, who craves more and will stop at nothing until he eats the whole pie. All three movies discussed here meditate on life and love with money, music and greed as their vehicle. And because we have masters behind the driver’s seats, we get the pleasures and displeasure of three completely different (yet ultimately three masterpiece works) on what it is to be a success.