My Best Pictures

La La Land, a movie about a loveless couple that argues about jazz, garnered 14 Oscar nominations this year, tied for the most ever. Which isn’t all that surprising, because Damien Chazelle’s meta-retro-musical checks many of the boxes of recent overrated Oscar winners: It’s an homage to a classic genre like The Artist. Like Birdman, its lead male character finds solace in a more “legitimate” art form. Like Argo, it celebrates people who turn to Hollywood during a crisis. But La La Land falls even flatter than those flawed examples, not to mention the last movie to rack up 14 nominations, Titanic. Because Chazelle doesn’t spend any creative energy establishing a rapport between his romantic leads. He doesn’t give us one semblance of a reason why they’re falling in love. Instead, we’re just supposed to be swept away by scenes of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone literally floating in space. These aren’t people. They’re just stars.

“But Sweensryche, what if it was up to you? What would you nominate for Best Picture instead of La La Land?” asked nobody. Well, nobody, here’s your answer. I’m truly flattered by your interest!

13th-poster

13th

Ava Duvernay’s documentary about the mass incarceration of African-Americans is remarkable not only for the institutionalized racism and lobbyist corruption it unveils, but the way it untangles it all into a crisp and linear narrative that people of all ages can understand.

ab_fab_poster_2

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

It is downright amazing, sweetie darling, what Jennifer Saunders has pulled off – the ideal film version of her fashion-industry-slapstick BBC series Absolutely Fabulous, which debuted in 1992. Eddie and Patsy are on the lam for potentially drowning Kate Moss, and they’re as selfish and preposterous and there for each other as ever before.

maxresdefault

Christine

This quiet, considerate biopic of Sarasota TV journalist Christine Chubbuck – who committed suicide during a live broadcast in 1974 – succeeds by valuing human interest over violence. Rebecca Hall portrays Chubbuck as a driven professional in a field that prefers sensationalism and men with “fatherly presences.” It’s an incredibly nuanced performance, where determination is as visible as depression.

fits_ver3

The Fits

This stunning debut from director Anna Rose Holmer tells the story of Toni, a girl who joins a dance troupe right before it’s hit with an outbreak of mysterious seizures. What begins as a chilling tale of adolescent dread becomes an uplifting allegory about the experience of growing up female. By the end, Holmer is tapping into the spiritual plane.

lobster

The Lobster

A delightfully dark and absurdist send-up of algorithm-based matchmaking, The Lobster imagines a hotel for singles in which they have 45 days to find a suitable mate or be transformed into an animal of their choice. Eventually the focus shifts from the hotel to a group of rebels in the woods, where true love blossoms – stubbornly, organically, and unforgettably.

oqkubbjp

Moonlight

In Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, we see three different stages in the life of Chiron, a boy trying to retain his sense of self while growing up gay in the Miami projects with an emotionally abusive mother. He finds tenderness in this minefield, and love that burns across decades.

popstarsmall

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

The Lonely Island’s take on the millennial pop star documentary was an underrated addition to the spoof comedy genre. Popstar uses the rise and kitchen-appliance-related-fall of Connor Friel (aka Connor4Real) to extract some grade-A silliness from the bones of the pop industrial complex.

goksung_ver3-1

The Wailing

This South Korean tale of demonic possession is a 156-minute downward spiral. Kwak Do-wan gives an unbelievable performance as the bumbling policeman Jong-goo, who we meet as a B-movie goofball and say goodbye to as a pale husk. Director Na Hong-jin stuffs this story with shamans and reanimated corpses, devil caves and mysterious cabins. But he never loses sight of what it’s all about – a family under siege.

timthumb-php

The Witch

This is a movie about witches set in 17th century New England. But this ain’t Salem, and the only trials  involve what our main character Thomasin has to deal with. Her useless father got the family kicked out of town over a Biblical argument. Her mother blames her for everything. Her siblings keep getting killed by an entity in the woods. By the end, she has a choice to make. And continuing life as a woman during the height of American Puritanism is easily the scarier option.

My Best Pictures

So here we are, a week before we get to watch the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences give a bunch of awards to Alejandro’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Camping Trip. Per the usual, it’s gonna be a long, depressingly whitewashed event, drunk on its own twisted definition of “prestige picture.” Movie about a man beating insurmountable odds so he can exact revenge? Prestige Picture. Movie about a woman beating insurmountable odds so she can exact revenge? Genre Picture. Look, I’ll be thrilled if I’m wrong, and Mad Max: Fury Road wins Best Picture. But ever since February 2006, when I assumed Brokeback Mountain was a lock – especially with insulting dreck like Crash as its competition – I’ve learned to expect the worst.

But enough negativity. It’s the Oscars. I’m going to watch the shit out of them. And I’m going to picture what the Best Picture field would look like if it was up to me, just like every year:

 

3

Best of Enemies

At a time when “watching the news” means a screen full of red-assed pundits yelling themselves hoarse, directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville take us back to the beginning of it all – the televised 1968 debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. Their film is as compulsively watchable as those ideological showdowns were, framing them as the moment when TV editorializing went from “Point/Counterpoint” to “Point/Shut Up I’m Still Talking.”

 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

The Hateful Eight

When the script for his eighth film leaked, I can see why Quentin Tarantino initially freaked out and announced he would never shoot it. Because while it has the look and feel and language of a period Western, at its heart, it’s an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, set in a cabin in a snowstorm. No-spoiler rules most definitely apply. So I’ll only say that The Hateful Eight is classic Tarantino – three hours of some of his best, most crackling dialogue, along with expertly deployed flashbacks and perspective shifts that hearken all the way back to Pulp Fiction.

 

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-final-trailer

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller’s fourth installment of his Mad Max series continues the trajectory of its namesake – a post-apocalyptic loner forever scarred by the murder of his family. But Max (a quiet and weary Tom Hardy) is not the protagonist here. Fury Road is the story of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, never better), a steely-eyed, one-armed soldier running on dual engines of outrage and hope. She rescues the sex slaves of the tyrant Immortan Joe, hiding them in her armored rig. What follows is an exhilarating, non-stop chase sequence and overwhelmingly satisfying revenge tale. By the end, a semi full of traumatized people are driving full speed at their oppressors. And we learn that power is one thing. And strength is another.

 

maxresdefault

Spotlight

After watching Best of Enemies, and ruminating on how cable news became the Limp Bizkit to Gore Vidal’s Rage Against the Machine, Spotlight might just be comfort food you need. This engrossing procedural drama projects a deep love for newspaper journalism, while still keeping one eye on realism. Director Tom McCarthy – who so convincingly played a reporter with spotty ethics on The Wire – depicts the true story of how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team uncovered a conspiracy involving the Catholic Church and the rampant pedophilia in its ranks. McCarthy does for journalists what the best episodes of Law & Order did for cops. They work hard. They expose lies. They achieve some level of justice. Then we shut off the tube, and sleep better.

 

spy2

Spy

Don’t worry, survivors of Austin Powers In Goldmember. Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy’s third movie together isn’t a spy spoof. It’s a legitimately great spy movie – action-packed, intricately plotted, and very, very funny. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent stuck as the personal assistant of special agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). Then disaster strikes, Cooper gets promoted, and the film ingeniously flips the script on your typical McCarthy comedy. We learn quickly that Cooper is more than just a lovable goof. She’s a brilliant agent, a highly trained fighter and marksman – far better than Fine or Rick Ford (Jason Statham, mocking himself with aplomb). Yet the CIA keeps giving her dowdy and sexless secret identities, a sly metaphor for Hollywood’s expectations of McCarthy. Her frustrated reactions to these moments are what make them funny. She’s acknowledging what she’s up against, before proceeding to gleefully kick its ass.

 

la-et-mn-tangerine-review-20150710

Tangerine

Shot on iPhones and starring untrained actors, Tangerine is a refreshingly unpolished snapshot of friendship, following two transgender prostitutes as they navigate the streets, buses and donut shops of Los Angeles. Its plot is thin: When Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is released from prison, she finds out from her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her boyfriend has been cheating. Sin-Dee goes out looking for him. By keeping the story this simple, director Sean S. Baker can let the scenes play out in an Altman-esque way, with conversations starting, stopping, and overlapping in a way that believably mimics real life. It’s spiked with a joyful energy, but the darker moments feel just as organic. Like the final scene in a laundromat, which has the power of 1,000 “Lean On Mes.”

 

maxresdefault

When Marnie Was There

The final film to be produced before Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement and Studio Ghibli’s ensuing hiatus (god it hurts to write that), When Marnie Was There makes masterful use of the “magical summer in the country” trope to tell the story of a child who worries that no one loves her unconditionally. When Anna discovers that her foster parents receive government payments for raising her, she becomes depressed. After a serious asthma attack, she is sent to stay with relatives in a gorgeous country home. Across the water, Anna discovers an abandoned mansion that turns out to be not so abandoned after all. Written and directed with tenderness and wonder by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret Life of Arriety), When Marnie Was There shimmers with natural light, and sparkles with the thrill of discovery. “You are more loved than you realize,” it says to us. What an absolutely perfect way to say goodbye.

My Best Picture Nominees

I can’t claim to understand why the Oscars are taken so seriously. How could a voting body honor the likes of Crash, and still be given control over the conversation of what movies were great in a given year? The Oscars lionize as much tepid, whitewashed pablum as the Grammys, but the former remains an Event, and the latter is a punchline. It makes no sense, but I have to admit, I love that unearned cred. I love that my wife and I are planning an entire weekend around the Oscar broadcast, that I’m going to try and make fancy appetizers, that we actually watched The Imitation Game so we could marvel at its foolproof Oscar formula (British accents + misunderstood genius plastering pieces of paper to a wall + moment where a bunch of people say “if you fire him, then you’ll have to fire me” = nominations galore). I love that Birdman could win Best Picture on Sunday, and that some small, illogical part of me will actually be upset. On a certain level, I will care that a stylized PSA about the plight of famous American actors (who sometimes get bad reviews and aren’t taken seriously, poor dears) will go down in history as declaratively better than SelmaI don’t care about sports, but maybe this is why people love them – to have a pony or two in the race, and to be emotionally invested in how they do, regardless of how little sense that makes.

Anyhoo, I’ve put together a list of what I would nominate for the Best Picture of 2014. And goddammit, it’s because I care.

The Babadook

The Babadook

First-time director Jennifer Kent enters a realm of psychological horror in which Stephen King would feel downright cozy. The titular meanie is a horrifying Edward Gorey character gone mad, and as it jumps off its pop-up pages to infiltrate the lives of Amelia and her son Samuel, the frayed nerve endings of their shared family tragedy are painfully exposed. An allegory for the grieving process, and an exploration of how goddamn hard parenting can be, Kent’s film isn’t afraid to show its soul, and is all the more terrifying for it.

BLUERUIN_Radius_2

Blue Ruin

On top of being a way to describe a feeling of utter desolation, “blue ruin” is also an archaic term for low-end gin. And in Jeremy Saulnier’s elegantly brutal, Kickstarter-funded thriller of the same name, his main character would’ve been better off medicating the former with the latter. Instead, Dwight Evans – played with quiet, schlubby intensity by Macon Blair – spends years planning revenge on the man who killed his parents. When his target is released from prison, this plan immediately goes to hell. From that point forward, the tension heightens in direct relation to the vacancy in Blair’s eyes. There’s no such thing as payback here. There’s just bankruptcy.

dearwhitepeoplestill

Dear White People

Using a college campus as the setting for an exploration of 21st century black identity and white privilege – as well as the ways that social media, reality TV and family dynamics can promote the distortion of self – writer/director Justin Simien illustrates the frustrations of living in a deeply prejudiced society that really wants to believe racism isn’t a thing anymore. Weaving through the sharp Spike Lee callbacks and slobs vs. snobs satire are Sam White and Lionel Higgins (Tessa Thompson and Tyler James Williams, both terrific). Both are hiding elements of themselves, whether it’s underneath some passionate rhetoric or an unruly afro. And both reach new levels of self-confidence at a gruesome, hip-hop-themed frat party (whose basis in reality makes it all the more sickening). These character arcs form the backbone of Simien’s film. Their sweet triumphs are also his.

4

The Grand Budapest Hotel

When I first saw the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, it looked like it was gonna be little more than an airy romp – a clever slapstick period piece set in a hotel that looks like a big pink layer cake. I feel for whoever had to cut that thing. Because this is writer/director Wes Anderson’s most ambitious story. He flexes his writing muscles more than ever, stacking flashbacks like nesting dolls until we’re back in 1932, watching wide-eyed lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori) and kinetic concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, in a hilarious, tender, career-best performance) operate the titular hotel in its prime. What follows is epic and basic, funny and tragic, violent and sweet. But most of all, it’s romantic, in a way that transcends ornate set designs and vengeful Dafoes and vicious Nazi stand-ins. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one big celebration of that moment when you know you’ve found your person. With plenty of cake to go with it.

la_ca_1021_selma

Selma

It’s crazy that until last year, nobody had made a major motion picture where the main character was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But it just takes one look at the ongoing criticism of Selma’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson to understand why. These people prefer their condemnations of racism to come from the mouths of white saviors, and Hollywood’s compliance to those expectations has resulted in big box office (The Help made $169 million domestic). Which just makes Selma feel all the more masterful. Director Ava Duvernay has made a movie that – god forbid – credits King for the civil rights victories of the 1960s, by focusing on one event in his life, in a clear, measured way that avoids typical biopic lionization. It’s what Spielberg couldn’t quite pull off with Lincoln – a film that humanizes an icon by jettisoning easy re-enactments in order to focus on how the historical sausage was made. Instead of the typical loaded flashbacks, or they-feel-this-way-and-so-should-you shots of awe-inspired followers, Duvernay shoots meetings between organizers, arguments between planners. She directly addresses King’s marital infidelities. She gives as much screen time to his moments of doubt as his inspirational speeches. She gets a brilliantly subdued performance out of David Oyelowo that never feels like an impression. She depicts the voting rights marches that give the movie its spine with brutal clarity, and haunting relevance. By tackling one of the most emotionally charged moments in our nation’s history with a cool, even hand, Duvernay has made an MLK movie with a distinctly MLK sensibility.

4a_photo_wild

Wild

This adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir takes the concept of a redemptive journey quite literally. Writer Nick Hornby and director Jean-Marc Valleé let the metaphors fall where they may as we follow Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, in a rich performance that makes her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash feel like a cartoon) through a 1,000-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. The vastness of the landscapes speak for themselves. As do the moments of toenail sloughing pain, and the unspoken, ever-present threats from the men Strayed meets in the wilderness. Through artfully deployed flashbacks, we learn the driving forces behind Strayed’s journey, in bits and pieces. Her mother, and her emotional bedrock, dies, and Strayed spirals into self-destruction. This backstory is treated with the same restraint as the main trekking narrative, giving us just enough of a glimpse to make a connection. Throughout, Wild is content with showing, and moving on. “How wild it was, to let it be,” muses Strayed as she nears her journey’s end. Here’s a film that takes that line to heart.

The Hobbit succumbs to dragon sickness

bg_home_faded

“On The Lord of the Rings we had actors in prosthetics playing the orcs, and I was always a little frustrated by that. If I could have afforded it then, I would have much preferred to have all the orcs CGI. Now, in The Hobbit, I can.”

Peter Jackson

A few months ago, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that as of March 2014, the budget for Peter Jackson’s latest epic – three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s fantasy novel The Hobbit – was $745 million. It’s the most expensive trilogy of all time, costing around $500 million more than Jackson’s last massively successful go-round with Tolkien’s work – those triumphant, absorbing, lived-in adaptations of The Lord of the Rings novels. After seeing the final Hobbit installment, The Battle of the Five Armies, in a packed theater over the holiday weekend, I have no doubt that every penny of that budget was used to make these movies look great. Unfortunately, you can’t finance feeling.

TBOTFA picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with that titular dragon feeling over it after a far-too-long dwarf fight and laying waste to the vaguely Celtic people of Laketown. It’s a gorgeous and harrowing sequence, with Jackson capturing the grand terror of the dragon’s every swoop, both from above the town and in the thick of its clogged and scorched canals. But before you can relax and honestly hope for a stuck landing, the dragon (77-year-old spoiler alert!) is killed by Bard the Guardsman (Luke Evans). Only after the amber light elegantly leaves its body in midair does the film’s title appear.

You’ve gotten your Smaug, now prepare for the slog.

 

Banner22

 

The rest of the film transforms the last five chapters of Tolkien’s book into a battleground strategy manual. It makes good on its title for sure, with the armies of dwarves, elves, men, orcs and deus ex machinas turning each other into CGI slurry for a huge chunk of the running time. There are stunning visuals here; Jackson does not deserve the “video game” taunts. But he’s blinded by pixels. The patience, warmth and good humor of the underrated An Unexpected Journey are nowhere to be found; characters have no time to talk, let alone develop enough to get us invested in them. As a result, those looking for any kind of message from these movies leave with some paper-thin bullshit. Tolkien taught us a simple, poignant lesson – if you don’t lose sight of what’s truly valuable in life, you’ll be stronger than kings. To do so on film would require some quiet, reflective moments, however.

So instead of letting his universally beloved main character Bilbo Baggins (the perfect and wasted Martin Freeman) steal screen time from the worms from Tremors, Jackson invents the character of Alfrid Lickspittle, the toady to the King of Laketown and sentient insult to our intelligence who spends TBOTFA being cartoonishly cowardly and greedy, pushing old ladies and then dressing up like one to avoid battle (which is funny in 2014, apparently). Instead of letting Bilbo actually have a conversation with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the newly crowned King of the Mountain struck with “dragon sickness,” the character can only come to his senses after a (terrible-looking) CGI hallucination sequence involving a floor of molten gold quicksand or whatever. Instead of having Bilbo do anything, we watch Bard save his “Da!”-yelling kids over and over and over again, because FAMILY. We learn about Legolas’s dead mom, because FAMILY. We hear the warrior-elf Tauriel talk about nothing but love and dudes, because WOMEN’S ISSUES=HALF-BAKED TWILIGHT-TYPE SHIT.

 

The-Battle-of-the-Five-Armies-trailer

 

When filming The Lord of the Rings, Jackson had to get creative to avoid blowing his budget. He had to lean on his actors and his script-writing partners. He had to shoot miniatures and build sets and use old camera tricks to make us believe that Ian McKellen was three times taller than Ian Holm. His passion and ingenuity were all over those films as a result; he was Sam carrying Frodo up the mountain. On The Hobbit, with that blank check staring him in the face, he felt like a King. His trilogy that started with such heart has ended in a haze. The dragon lives.

 

 

The Unintentionally Horrifying World of “Munchie”

munchie

There are certain things specifically created to entertain children that I usually find horrifying – clowns, mascots, satanic Chipmunk versions of Adele songs, etc. But then I’ll see how happy kids get when they see a giant anthropomorphic dog hobbling towards them, how they squeal with glee and run to it, delivering rapid-fire high-fives into its bloated, outstretched paws, and I’ll realize how challenging it must be to create entertainment that children truly love. Sometimes, what seems borderline grotesque to a jaded adult can make a kid deliriously happy. How a creator of children’s entertainment can tell the difference between what’s kid-friendly/adult-creepy and what’s just plain creepy across the board, I have no idea.

And neither did the creators of Munchie, a 1992 direct-to-video story of a lonely kid whose life is turned upside down when he stumbles across a motormouthed bat-dog-thing in an abandoned mine. Crafted like a family movie/coming-of-age comedy, Munchie devotes its major plot lines to the relevant, real-life problems of tween protagonist Gage Dobson (Jamie McEnnan). But it’s also a movie destined to horrify viewers of all ages, thanks to the menacing design, bargain-basement special effects and bizarre voice casting of Munchie himself.

We meet Gage during a low point of his adolescence – he’s getting bullied at school, his mom (Loni Anderson) is dating a cartoonishly oily jerk (Andrew Stevens), and his only friend is a demented old scientist who lives across the street (Arte Johnson). Gage is presented to us as an overly imaginative kid, through some fairly un-imaginative fantasy sequences (e.g. he pictures his principal with devil’s horns). It’s a smart move in theory, setting us up to believe that this kid could be fanciful enough to believe that something like Munchie could exist, instead of just puking and shitting himself simultaneously when seeing him for the first time. But this proves to be problematic later, when the movie’s “be careful what you wish for” moral becomes painfully clear.

For now, though, Munchie’s moving along like any competent afterschool special (save the pre-credits sequence, in which we learn that Munchie drives human beings to the brink of insanity). But then Gage gets fed up with life and goes for a walk, finds the conveniently accessible mineshaft, and the nightmare begins – a voice that sounds a whole lot like Dom Deluise beckons to Gage from a box with runes all over it; Gage opens it, and this happens:

mun04

Count yourself lucky that a) I haven’t paid the fee to allow video on this site; and b) Munchie clips on YouTube are scarce. Because as disturbing as the puppet looks, watching it move is what really makes the skin crawl. Director Jim Wynorski didn’t place a priority on the realism of Munchie’s movements, neglecting to sync up his eyes, mouth and hands in a way that resembles a regular living thing. It’s like Gizmo survived a horrible fire and we have to watch as he struggles to regain basic motor skills. And it doesn’t help that he really is voiced by Dom Deluise, whose jovial energy goes over like a hot pitcher of milk when you have the flu.

The movie goes to great lengths to tell us that Munchie is funny – he pulls pranks with banana peels; sings “Hello! Ma Baby;” talks repeatedly about having to “update his act;” throws a Risky Business-style kegger – but every corny gag just adds to the character’s cavernous uncanny valley. Adding to this queasy mix of creature-feature horror and Borscht Belt comedy is a shoehorned “Monkey’s Paw” moral – Munchie has the ability to grant Gage’s every wish, but he causes unintended havoc in the process. For example, when Gage wishes for the bullying to stop, Munchie’s solution is appallingly hypocritical – beat up a kid until he’s bloody and unconscious. The scene gives you a hollow feeling that no pizza skateboard can fill.

220px-600full-munchie-poster

As a result, we have a movie that encourages kids to use their imaginations, but also warns them to be careful what they wish for. It so badly wants us to love Munchie, but also not to trust him. As we’re forced to watch those directionless eyes lolling around on a face forever plastered in a frozen corpse-smile, at least it’s easy to do the latter.

What I Learned From “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal”

SallyHemingsAnAmericanScandal-Still1

Is there a more underrated actor out there than Sam Neill? Not quite a leading man type, yet more substantial than a character actor, Neill tends to avoid Oscar-bait-level emoting, preferring a subtle, intangible kind of humanity that rarely feels out of place in a role – whether it’s an archeologist who can’t believe his eyes, a repressed frontiersman in colonial New Zealand, or a grieving parent framed by some devious-ass dingoes. Notice that I said “rarely” out of place. That’s because I recently watched Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, a 2000 Hallmark Channel mini-series that featured Neill as Thomas Jefferson. SH:AAS is as cheap and flimsy as its title would suggest, possessing all the hallmark touches we’ve come to expect from a Hallmark Channel project, save a subplot where a nice single mom finally finds love with Santa’s hunky-yet-approachable nephew. So here’s what I learned:

1. Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson met cute.

You see, Thomas Jefferson is at this party in Paris, and Sally Hemings shows up with her brother Mario Van Peebles. When Jefferson lays his eyes on her, he wonders aloud about who this girl could be, clearly thinking she’s some Parisian debutante he somehow hadn’t met before. But in reality, she’s his 14-year-old slave! There’s a wacky misunderstanding for ya! Don’t you just love love?

2. Sally & TJ were just like Audrey & Bogie.

I’m clearly not an expert on Jefferson or Hemings, ’cause I used to just assume that their relationship probably wasn’t much like the kind of love affair you’d see in an Audrey Hepburn movie. But Sally Hemings: An American Scandal set me straight on that, depicting their initial time together in Paris as the kind of coy May-December flirtation we saw from Hepburn and Bogart in Sabrina. And instead of running away to Paris like Linus and Sabrina do in that beautifully impulsive way, our star-crossed lovers run away from Paris back to the U.S., where everything turns out great! If only Billy Wilder had stuck with his original ending, where Linus has a surprise waiting for Sabrina in France – a life of endless toil on his Parisian brie plantation.

3. Sally Hemings could’ve left Monticello at any time, but she didn’t, because love.

At the end of Sally Hemings: An American Scandal, something scandalous actually does happen – Hemings (played by Carmen Ejogo, who gives it her best shot I guess) reveals a note in Jefferson’s handwriting that grants her freedom. A note that was written decades earlier in France! Which means that she chose to live as a slave, to have six children by a man who would never acknowledge them, not to mention acknowledge her entire race as being 100% human. Not that I’d question the integrity of this project, but according to a study by the Research Committee On Thomas Jefferson And Sally Hemings (conducted the same year SH:AAS was released), there is no written record that Hemings was ever granted freedom. Even after Jefferson’s death, she “would have been recognized as free in her local community but, without any legal ‘free papers,’ she could not have safely left the neighborhood where she was known.” Well, you know what, Research Committee on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings? You can shut your faces, because this ain’t the History Channel we’re talking about. This is the motherfucking Hallmark Channel, and on the Hallmark Channel, it’s all about the love – the bubbly, inspirational, slave-on-president love.

4. Thomas Jefferson couldn’t have fathered Sally Hemings’ kids, because he lived in the sky.

798678_sallyhemingsanamericanscandalseriessell_poster

5. Thomas Jefferson’s life was boring.

Going by what I’ve learned from TV miniseries, John Adams was a colorful, highly influential, endlessly interesting figure in American history, and Thomas Jefferson was a guy who wore wigs and went to things in them. Neill plays Jefferson – one of the more eccentric and compellingly contradictory Founding Fathers – like a less enraged Alistair Stewart, his quiet, emotionally log-jammed jealous husband from The Piano. He gets a little fired up when other men seek Sally’s affections (remember about all the true love?), but over the course of the THREE HOURS of the miniseries, this Hallmark Jefferson is little more than a wallflower. Even when he’s signing the Louisiana Purchase, or teaching youngins in his old-guy makeup, or bemoaning the loss of Monticello to his debtors, it’s clear that only one thing could interest the great Sam Neill during this shoot – his paycheck.

Movies From 2012 That I Saw And That I Liked

Yeah, I know, it’s totally 2013 now. I should have shared my favorite movies of 2012 with you weeks ago. But then I saw the cover of the John Travolta and Olivia Newton John Christmas album, after which I was briefly hospitalized. Now that I have my basic motor skills back, I can get to blathering! So here goes nothin’. My top 10 movies of 2012 are:

WETTEST COUNTY  Scene  16

10. Lawless

In 2012, Guy Pearce continued his criminally underappreciated run as one of the most versatile actors working, including a great, wiseass turn in the delightfully ridiculous “save the president’s daughter from space jail” tale Lockout. But it was in this Prohibition gangster flick that he truly shone. As the sadistic and vain Special Deputy Charlie Rakes, Pearce pursues the Bondurant bootlegging operation with a twisted sense of justice, his eyebrowless face and a thick central part in his hair making him look as disquieting as can be. Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave aimed for a similar kind of grim morality with 2005’s very good The Proposition, but Lawless takes it to thrilling new heights – instead of cops and robbers, it’s just a whole bunch of guys with blood on their hands.

Queen of Versailles, Jackie Siegel

9. The Queen of Versailles

If you ever need a reminder of the chasm that separates documentary film from reality TV, take in this stark, uncompromising but ultimately sympathetic tale of Jackie and David Siegel, a billionaire couple whose time share-fueled gravy train dried up after the economic collapse of 2008 – right after they started construction on what was to be the largest, most expensive single-family home in the U.S. It’s the kind of story that seems readymade for a reality series, beaming dump trucks full of schadenfreude into our insecure brains every week. But Lauren Greenfield’s movie captures the stress, sadness and stubborn hope that’s the stuff of actual reality. The Walmart shopping binges, lingering dog turds and humiliated nannies could easily be treated like laugh-and-point moments, but when contrasted with images of David nursing his wounded pride and Jackie innocently trying to come to terms with the upper middle class life that lies ahead, it’s impossible to ignore their humanity.

jamie-foxx-600

8. Django Unchained

Given how prevalent themes of revenge are in Quentin Tarantino’s stories, it was only a matter of time before he gave us his own, uniquely pulpy take on a Spaghetti Western. Django Unchained is just that – a revenge fantasy/love story/buddy action movie set in the antebellum South, where snappy dialogue and cartoonish, exploding-blood-capsule-style violence is grounded in unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio are all at the peak of their powers – Foxx in the Eastwood role as the titular freed slave, natural sharpshooter and heroic husband, Waltz as a fatherly dentist-turned-bounty hunter, and DiCaprio as a monstrous Francophile plantation owner. The issue of whether slavery should be an off-limits subject for a genre picture like Django is a thorny one for sure, but to me, Tarantino has given us a reminder of the unforgivable sins our country has committed, and we can’t have too many of those. The fact that he weaves it into a dynamic, darkly funny, exceptionally entertaining midnight movie? What more would you expect from Hollywood’s own “little troublemaker”?

LooperWatch

7. Looper

Time travel will always be a touchstone of science fiction, because more than anything, time makes us its bitch. But in Looper, writer and director Rian Johnson attempts to depict what might actually happen if time travel was invented. Like the war on drugs, it becomes a highly illegal practice appropriated by a criminal underworld, who send people back in time to be killed by “loopers” – men who end their careers by “closing their loop,” a.k.a. killing their older selves. The first half of the movie is spent patiently building this intricate mythology, while introducing us to Joe, the brooding looper junkie played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But once Bruce Willis appears as Joe’s future self, Looper becomes much more than your typical sci-fi shoot-em-up. The third act moves the action from Johnson’s slums-o’-the-future to a farm house, and what happens there is a poetic exploration of the nature of evil, the consequences of our mistakes, and the immeasurable impact of the things we do right.

turnmeon

6. Turn Me On, Dammit!

As heartwarming as it is frank, this Norwegian film explores the awkward lows and joyful highs of teenaged sexual awakening, through the prism of its main character Alma – played with believable angst by Helene Burgsholm. As Alma goes through the confusing process of growing up, she gains and loses friends, has innocent fantasies run aground by weirder, far more interesting realities, runs away from home, and bewilders her single mother until, eventually, their bond deepens. There’s no punishment or reward for Alma, no real danger or grand romance. Turn Me On, Dammit! is just trying to show how it feels to be a 15-year-old girl in a backwoods town, being picked on at school and getting caught calling phone sex lines at home. To see this kind of story told with such positivity is as refreshing as Scandinavian mountain air.

hobbit_a

5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I understand why Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy is called The Hobbit. But it would be more accurate to call it Middle Earth. Because while the basic plot follows that timeless children’s adventure story in all the important ways, Jackson’s first installment makes it clear that he wants to tell a grander tale, one that looks at Tolkien’s singular universe with the eye of a storyteller and historian. Hence, on top of the piles of breathtaking whiz-bang, and the skilled characterizations of Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and Gollum, we get to explore the tragic, pseudo-Biblical backstory of the dwarves of Erebor, see the seeds being planted for the return of Sauron (aka The Necromancer), and meet Radagast the Brown, a birdshit-covered Jane Goodall of the Hedgehogs. Many have accused this detailed approach of being nothing more than a shameless money grab. But in the eyes of this Tolkien nut, The Hobbit is as much, if not more, a labor of love than the Lord of the Rings movies (which I kinda liked a little). The fact that hours upon hours of lovingly adapted Tolkien texts can be seen as something remotely capitalistic is a credit to Jackson’s ability to film the “unfilmable.”

Tim-and-Erics-Billion-Dollar-Movie-2012-comedy-film-Tim-Heidecker-and-Eric-Wareheim-film-version-of-Tim-and-Eric-Awesome-Show-Great-Job

4. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

On their weirdly endearing cut-and-paste cartoon Tom Goes to the Mayor, and the subsequent public access acid trip theater of Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! and Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim proved themselves to be masters of disturbingly hilarious short-form comedy. Which made the potential pitfall of their Billion Dollar Movie an obvious one – would their shenanigans translate to the longer, more plot-driven confines of feature film? Well obviously, I think that they did. Billion Dollar Movie is a delightfully anarchic middle finger to mainstream comedies, taking one of their most common plot lines – protagonist must save struggling school/restaurant/shopping mall, hilarity ensues – and using it as a backdrop on which to project their obsessions with local TV commercials, father-son dynamics and diarrhea. Fantastic supporting turns from John C. Reilly, Will Forte and Zach Galifianakis are just cherries on top.

the_cabin_in_the_woods_2

3. The Cabin In The Woods

When I first saw Scream, Wes Craven’s snappy 1996 satire of slasher movies, I enjoyed how it made fun of me and respected me at the same time. But after seeing The Cabin In The Woods, Joss Whedon’s writing credit from 2012 that wasn’t The Avengers, I felt more than entertained. As a self-aware horror fan, this movie felt like a new stage of enlightenment. Director/co-writer Drew Goddard and Whedon make the same broad point as Scream that slasher scripts tend to be like Mad Libs; just change out the location/monster/method of death and presto, you’ve got a different movie – but they do it with an initially baffling, and eventually mindblowing, top-secret government surveillance subplot. What at first looks like just another bunch of dopey teenagers venturing out to be killed in the woods becomes a psychological study of humanity that connects the popularity of horror movies to that of ancient pagan rituals, while taking the time to make an even more salient point – if you’re ever in a bind, trust the stoner, not the hunk.

moonrise-kingdom-05

2. Moonrise Kingdom

It’s no accident that Moonrise Kingdom is set on an island. Its main characters, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop, are kids who don’t feel connected to their surroundings, be it a foster home that looks like an Army barracks or a family that’s quietly fraying around the edges. Wes Anderson’s seventh film is the story of them finding each other, the bliss they feel at finally being understood, and the hilariously low-stakes havoc that their meticulously planned elopement causes. In case your twee-dar is starting to go off, never fear, because Anderson realizes Sam and Suzy’s puppy love in an achingly sweet, thoroughly realistic way, contrasting it all the while by the loneliness of the goofy adults who form the search party (including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton and Bruce Willis, who are all wonderful). Shot in the gorgeous detail that is Anderson’s stock in trade, Moonrise Kingdom posits that while you might feel like an island from time to time, you never know who might be canoeing your way.

the-master_image_1

1. The Master

People are attracted to things that purport to define their personality, be it the signs of the zodiac or a quiz that tells you what Saved By the Bell character you are. But in the pivotal scene of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s relentless study of the underbelly of belief, this desire for enlightenment about ourselves is abused in the name of ego and profit. In it, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an L.Ron Hubbard-ish leader of a philosophical movement called “The Cause,” convinces Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a volatile WWII vet, to partake in something called “Processing” – a series of quick, probing questions, in which the subject is not allowed to blink. In the performance of the year, Phoenix shows us a deeply disturbed, utterly lonely man who is intoxicated by Dodd’s attentions, through his facial expressions alone. The title of the movie most obviously refers to Dodd, but by the end, it more poignantly applies to Quell – a twisted man who lost everything we see as respectable, except for his free will.

Honorable Mentions: Bernie, The Dark Knight Rises, The Expendables 2, Lincoln, Lockout, Men In Black 3Prometheus