Thanksgiving is a day for eating excessive amounts of food, watching mindless television, and being close to friends and family. It is also a time to offer thanks for all of the things that make life great. Like Woody Allen, we each have our own running lists of things that make life worth living, but each year we at Film Misery like to name five movie-related reasons to give thanks. Enjoy our lists below and please share yours in the comments.
1) Refreshing Variety in the Film Criticism Community
With much talk overspent on the apparent “golden age of television” and 2013 being “the best movie year of all time” – I mean, it’s been a strikingly good year, but it’s no 1967 – we could use more hyperbole about our current renaissance of film criticism. The overall quality and ambition of criticism today makes it such an exciting landscape for young, aspiring critics, but a special handful of sites deserve special mention. The Dissolve has been a distinct new outlet for fresh voices and perspectives, beautifully designed and giving even routine news announcements an alluring dose of personality. The Film Experience may be a less professional outlet by comparison, but its ease of discussion and active flirtation with the cinema makes it such a refreshingly friendly environment in a business that can be overrun by cynicism.
Admittedly Film.com may sink into a sense of glaring criticism at times, but only in its devotion not to take films merely at face value. I’m inspired by how deeply the film sinks into the subtextual and cultural themes swirling within and around every film, regardless of quality or public attention. It’s what keeps me asking tough questions of films that viewers may see as too simply good or bad. If there’s a single critical voice I feel most indebted to in igniting my passion for writing, it’s Guy Lodge. Often simply writing reviews for multiple outlets or predicting and digging into the Oscar race at In Contention, the way he writes is refreshingly free of patronizing judgment of films. Even in his most negative reviews, he avoids hateful language. That openness is what duped me into thinking that film critics were a nice, respectful bunch. The best of them, though, still are, and they’re the reason I don’t just bail on this whole thing.
The World’s End, This Is The End and How I Live Now have flaunted the apocalypse in our faces to an almost obnoxious degree, the signs of a subgenre edging on abuse. It’s unfortunate they feel the need to be so blunt about it, since every film has an apocalyptic subtext built naturally into it. When we leave the theater, the world of that film is set in stone, never to change or expand further. It’s why sequels ruin one of the fundamental joys of the cinematic experience. It’s bittersweet, with the realization that we’ll never see this world, these character, or this vision ever again, but it’s even more profound pondering what if those world did end as the credits rolled.
The scale and scope of Gravity begs to be blown up to worldly stakes, and all human contact being obliterated while you’re drifting hopelessly through space certainly feels like the world’s ending. Even the finale hints at total isolation, but in a different emotional key from the prior one of pure terror. Inside Llewyn Davis also ends in such a way to obliterate any hope of a future, a distinct quality rarely allied to a 1960s period musical. The Wind Rises sets itself even further back into the 40s, but feels even more naturally as an ending, if not just for Hayao Miyazaki’s career then for an era of unfortunate violence and blissful ignorance. That’s not to say the apocalypse is merely about desolation, but also about the hope for rebirth and revolution. You can even tie it into a documentary like At Berkeley, ending with a profound question of where we’ll be (or if we’ll be) several generations from now. If all films are apocalyptic, then all films are about destroying something in place of something else. It makes even the most mind-numbing studio refuse like Man of Steel worth discussion.
Speaking of studio output, it feels like more common practice than ever to disregard every studio film for the statistic likelihood that it’ll be as dreadful as it appears. I’ve entered into many a film this year with my expectations too geared towards disaster, only to be either immediately surprised or become so upon repeat viewings. My favor towards Beautiful Creatures, Side Effects and The Heat has radically improved since I’ve looked closer at what they’re doing different instead of what they’re doing perhaps too familiarly. Obviously nearly every film that makes it through the studio woodwork has to acquiesce to expectations in some way. Not even Gravity, a film staggering in its Avant-Garde attitude and design, can escape making a few sentimental concessions to the audience, not that those moments are any less moving.
Beyond Gravity, though, I’ve been consistently surprised by how above average many of this year’s mainstream films have been. The Conjuring may stick true to the bone of its genre, but scares by way of character attachment and unsettlingly eerie production design. Ender’s Game has its share of author-attached baggage to carry, but evades that with the intelligence of the empathic & ethical queries it poses. The Lone Ranger got its heap of ire for being such a strange, illogical choice for a $200+ million Disney adventure, but its financial failure only embosses its bold oddness. Embracing the absurdity of its history may be the only way to keep that history alive. Even such constricted franchise efforts like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire have proven capable of surprising with an honest dose of emotional investment. I’m surprisingly taken with how forward thinking studios are starting to become in relation to their output. If we have to endure a handful of dully necessary superhero films to get something as carefully, surprisingly subversive as Frozen through the pipeline, it’s a concession I will make to see the light in a medium that’s recently risked growing too negative.
While VOD is on the rise as a viewing platform, I’m discouraged by how difficult theaters are making it for people to go to the movies. Personally, my financial and personal feelings on that discord are summed up, like a lot of things, with a line from Frances Ha. “Movies are so expensive.” “Yeah, but you’re at the movies.” Sure, we’re currently in a climate where it’s a lot easier to rent movies on demand, RedBox, Netflix, etc. than it is to make the trip to the theaters, but I encourage people to think as if they’re paying to use the facilities, not to see the movie itself. That’s particularly helpful when allowed to see an old film like Gone With The Wind, Jurassic Park or 2001: A Space Odyssey (amongst several others) on the big screen again.
There’s simply no other viewing platform as influential or striking as that of the theater. Dwarfed and surrounded by a big screen, sitting in an (occasional) comfy seat, in a dark room where you suddenly feel as comfortable as you possibly can amongst complete strangers. I always strive to see films on as big a screen as possible, and my small screen discoveries this year have often suffered as a consequence. I have to imagine I’m watching Top of the Lake or Behind the Candelabra in a crowded theater in order to truly understand and feel the scope of those films. Television may be ascending as an outlet for creative minds, but it’ll never match the unique sensory experience of the theater. I don’t have a solution that would make it easier for people to access that experience, but it’s something everybody has the right to.
Leave it to a bitter awards snub for me to realize how significant an artist has been to me. Gerwig stole my heart at Greenberg and never let it go. I know she was working well before that, but it was her first major role and her pithy, quirky, but not irritating onscreen attitude had me emulating her every mannerism. Two years later comes Damsels in Distress, a turn which even further astonished with her submission to the peculiarity of Whit Stillman’s language and scathing affectation. That may be her strongest work for some time, but her performance in Frances Ha reveals how continuously fresh her schtick is, rarely feeling like she’s just “doing Greta Gerwig”. She’s also more of an emotionally open sore than in those prior two standouts. That’s possibly because she helped co-write the film, her own post-college frustrations probably mixing into the powder that is Frances’ backwards spinning life. That her work’s managed to take stronger authorship over the film than its director, a still acutely perceptive Noah Baumbach, speaks volumes of where she’s still heading. But seriously? No Lead Actress or Screenplay nod, Indie Spirits? Where are your priorities?
1) Grad School
Precisely two weeks from today, I will have completed my first year of my three-year Creative Writing program. I won’t say it’s been the most pleasant experience of my life; the pressures of working full-time and studying full time have been exhausting, both emotionally and physically, and my inability to see more movies has resulted in my worst filmgoing year since high school (I have seen all of 54 films so far that I qualify as 2013 releases; admittedly not bad, but still well below my personal high of 110 movies in 2012), and my worst movie-writing year since I started blogging in 2009. Still, it’s not as if I’ve been lazy; I have accomplished a decent amount of new writing in my program (some I might even want to share here someday, as their subjects are film-adjacent), and I’ve received great feedback from terrific professors and classmates.
I’m stretching my writing muscles in completely new ways this year, and it’s certainly worth being grateful for that.
Just because I’ve not seen many films in theaters doesn’t mean I haven’t been able to make time for pleasure viewing. With numerous great shows available for streaming now, it is much easier to squeeze in an episode of The Colbert Report or Parks and Recreation right before bedtime than, say, an 8:00pm screening of the most recent Hunger Games. There is also little doubt that the evolving medium outdid itself this year in terms of cultural relevance, proving right off the bat that streaming options like Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black were every bit as essential as the network and premium cable offerings. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the privilege of launching TV Misery around the same time my favorite creative work of recent years, Breaking Bad, bid us a most shattering, most satisfying adieu. It’s truly amazing how much TV recapping can texture your appreciation for a show from episode to episode.
It’s been around for a little while, but I only recently bothered to see what Letterboxd was all about. Is it too premature to call it the most invaluable cinephile’s resource to hit the internet since IMDb? Certainly, the site is easily the superior choice now for anybody hoping to shape an online presence in a community of cinephiles. I’ve admittedly not tinkered much with what Letterboxd’s capabilities have to offer, but what little I have played with has turned the entire site into my new favorite time-squandering apparatus. Perusing the site, I have managed to rate nearly 1400 individual movies, I have connected with a few dozen individuals (some are superb online critics, others are just superb film fans), and I have begun tracking my movie-watching habits in a way that will make things infinitely simpler next month, when I have to start prepping my Top Ten list for 2013. I’ve also wasted more time than I care to admit playing with the site’s list-making function, whipping up inventories like the 21st Century Best Picture Nominees Ranked, my list of the Best Films of Their Respective Year and the Coen Brothers Films Ranked.
Is anybody else as fed up with this seemingly interminable glut of bombastic, overlong and frankly boring blockbusters? I mean, I’m always fed up around this time of year, but I feel even more fed-up than usual. I was able to tolerate Star Trek 2 for a few weeks (but try not to hold my rapturous review against me; it does not survive post-viewing scrutiny for long), yet I was quickly pummeled with bland summer offerings like The Great Gatsby, World War Z and the soul-killing awfulness of Man of Steel. This summer is the closest I’ve ever come to entertaining paranoid fear for the dismaying trajectory of film culture.
But as always, equally strong is the argument that great cinema is alive and well; you just might need to look beyond the local multiplex to find it. I’m not even talking about artsy movies that challenged the audience in disconcerting or potentially alienating ways, like Spring Breakers or The Act of Killing. I am talking about smaller movies that appealed to a very broad, very crowd-pleasing sensibility, like the sleeper hit Mud or Enough Said, the first conventional romantic comedy I’ve genuinely loved in literally years. Even expensive blockbusters like Gravity, or Oscar contenders like 12 Years a Slave, appreciate the appeal of using restrained, disciplined storytelling to convey a sense of true visceral power.
Mud cost roughly a twentieth of what it took to make Man of Steel, yet Man of Steel could have cost $100 million more, and not come close to capturing the humanity of that Jeff Nichols film.
…for The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Because with Pixar suffering what can safely be called a creative slump, and with my interest in what Fox Animation and DreamWorks having dissipated since the third Shrek sequel and second Madagascar sequel, the world needs a pair of true animation auteurs to show the world what’s what.
1) Female-led Action/Survival Films
With the recent release of the second Hunger Games installment, I’m feeling very thankful for films that take the “risk” (Heaven help us!) of putting women and girls at the center of action franchises and spectacle-driven blockbusters. The best of these resist the consumptive sexualization of their main characters and give their female leads agency and emotional depth, despite the genre’s tendency to issue hasty, undercooked or overwrought backstories and move on to the explosions and catsuits. Catching Fire has been justly praised for subverting normative gender representation, and Gravity was likewise a better film for having a woman at the helm. Pacific Rim, though it did not center on its female character, surprised me by refraining from yoking her into a romance with its male lead. Though these films remain exceptions to the rule, it gives me hope that they might – one day – finally make that Wonder Woman movie.
2) MoviePass…Or At Least the Idea of It
I don’t have MoviePass… yet. I just don’t have the funds for another monthly subscription service at the present moment, but I am in love with the idea. For $35 a month, you can see one movie a day at theaters across the country. It doesn’t include 3D or IMAX, and you can only see the same movie once. And the company has recently gotten a lot of heat for adding a 24-hour restriction between uses (and marketing the change as a “new feature”). But the concept is awesome: you use the MoviePass app on your smartphone to check in to the showtime you want to see, then you go to the box office and pick up your ticket. For high-volume movie-goers, MoviePass could be a godsend.
This is like saying The Beatles were a great band, but man – Netflix gets me. I thought the online behemoth was headed for disaster when it tried to segregate its streaming and mail-order-disc services (remember QWIKSTER!?) but the company actually listened to its customers and averted that huge mistake. The jury’s still out on some of the latest changes (not sure I dig the Netflix-generated ordering system for the new instant queue replacement) but I think the service is making better and better use of its user data – I love getting an email alert that the next season of a show I watch is now available, for instance. Not to mention its praise-lavished and award-studded transition into original programming has brought us the likes of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. I quit cable several years ago, and because of Netflix I’ve never missed it.
I get so much pleasure out of the interactions and conversations that happen on this much-maligned platform. Real-time interactions with other Film Misery writers means we’re able to effortlessly convene on important decisions, like which Ninja Turtle would each of us be? Twitter is also a powerful tool for pushback on issues plaguing the cinema and its coverage in the media, such as the hilarious and necessary takedown of USA Today’s mind-boggling description of The Best Man Holiday as “race-themed.” Sometimes I go to Twitter to have fun, and sometimes I go there to get angry. Sometimes I can’t even look at it. But the extended community I’ve found there – writers, activists, comedians, various Hulk parody accounts – has been a comfort and a blessing to me.
Star Trek is greater than the sum of its parts. Star Trek is out there in the final frontier, wielding a radical vision of nonviolence and respect for life as this summer’s superheroes destroy ten city blocks to rescue Earth – again. Star Trek waits for you in the Gamma Quadrant of your Netflix queue. Star Trek can survive Star Trek Into Darkness, as it once survived Nemesis, as it also survived The Voyage Home. This year Star Trek pulled me through the wormhole – for fourteen seasons and counting – and I never want to go back.
G Clark Finfrock
1) Roger Ebert
The aspects of Mr Ebert’s writing that made him so widely popular and beloved are legion. For starters, he was never one of those critics who wanted to astound you with how funky or offbeat his opinion could be-he simply stated, as lucidly as possible, his genuine emotional reaction to the films he saw. Often, his own personal opinion was quite beside the point. By reading any of his reviews, I could tell not simply how he felt about a particular work, but also how I would feel about it. He was a master at leading people to their own conclusions about a movie even as he was condemning or praising one. Whenever I go to watch an older film, I still reflexively check to see what he said about it first. Thankfully, all of Roger’s reviews continue to live on his website, now run by his wife. Though we will have no more Ebert reviews, what we do have will live as long as there are servers to hold it.
2) Observations on Film Art
In school and university, there is a great emphasis placed upon literacy and literary analysis-as there should be, of course. But I’ve always found it interesting that, as prevalent in our society as movies and other audio/visual media are, there is almost no emphasis placed upon how to read and interpret such media properly. There is, quite frankly, an endless sea of film criticism available on the Internet nowadays, but precious little in-depth analysis to an academic degree. Not that everyone wants that of course, but for those who do, David Thompson and wife Kristin Thompson are the geniuses behind the blog ‘Observations on Film Art’ (found at davidbordwell.com/blog), which takes such an academic perspective on the movies. It is not a place to turn to if you want to fight about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ a particular film is; however, if you want to read about the artistry of virtual camera placement in Gravity, or the way P.T. Anderson guides your eye in There Will Be Blood, here is the place.
Okay, so I had the Criterion Collection on my list last year, allow me this indulgence because I am, if possible, even more thankful for it than I was before. Not only is Criterion committed to preserving and restoring the best of classic and contemporary cinema, but they have really upped their game as far as physical offerings go. The care and artfulness they put into their Blu-Ray packaging and menu design ensure not just that the films on display are well-preserved, but also that the Blu-Rays themselves have the best UI and encoding of anything else on the market. They understand the totemic quality of actually owning a film; while streaming is very convenient and a great way to visit certain films, if you’re going to start a physical library of movies, start here. You might as well expect this for my list next year, as well.
4) Hulu Plus
Netflix is getting a lot of (un?)deserved love for bringing movies within a click’s reach of people, so I wanted to highlight the fact that it is not the only streaming service, or necessarily the best one. Hulu Plus not only carries the entire Criterion Collection, but also several Criterion titles that do not have any physical release available. Apart from Criterion, Hulu makes available several recent and classic documentaries and foreign films that one cannot find on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Hulu can especially be a haven if, like me, you are annoyed by all the bizarre and unnecessary changes Netflix has been making to its queue—excuse me, ‘My List’—and UI. It’s only $10 a month, so give it a chance.
For some reason, I have felt compelled in the previous few months to revisit Interiors, Another Woman, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Husbands and Wives, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. Was there another filmmaker who had such an amazing string of films in the 1980s? Is there another, comparably prolific, filmmaker with such a high brilliance-to-meh ratio? Has there ever been a better screenwriter? (Okay, a case can be made for Billy Wilder…) Let’s hope ol’ Woody has another decade or two left in him.
Netflix Watch Instant
I’m thankful for this every year, but I cannot express enough how much better life is now that I don’t have to rely on DVDs. I can start a movie during my son’s nap and finish it before bed on a different television or device. The 21st Century rules.
Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton
I re-watch Chaplin and Keaton every year around this time to get some ideas for the Speech students I coach (they have to do a lot of pantomime). It’s impossible to watch their movies without becoming endlessly happy.
There is a new game on fantasizr.com called Fantasy Awards Season that was created by the fine folks at Awards Circuit. It’s a blast not only because it is fun making predictions, but it also treats movie awards more like a game than a serious gauge of quality art, which is exactly what it should be.
Film Misery Writers
I’ve been busier than ever in my personal life and my day job, so it has been nice to have a wonderful staff of brilliant writers to cover my ass. Duncan has been invaluable with quality content and regular posts and Justin, Hilary, and G Clark continue to impress me with every word they type up. They are the best!.