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Cinema 2014: 10 Favorites

Cinema 2014: 10 Favorites

It was a hard year. 365 days packed tight. There is no denying that the world spun around a little faster, but we held on or at least tried. Like years in the past, film took our temperature and delivered stories that found us where we needed them. These are ten that grabbed at me.


10. The One I Love

Film has always had a bad rap for the “more is better” ideals that pervade it. Fill the screen with as much buisness as possible, edit it to the quickest speed you can, and ramp up the drama. Maybe this is why films with minuscule casts and locations and a gingerly progressing pace can really stand out, especially at such a high caliber as The One I Love.

Staring only Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass for 95% of the film (Ted Danson shows up in a scene in the first act) this film falls on their shoulders and they shine as a couple whose marriage is on the rocks after an infidelity. But this isn’t the sort of mumble-core drama Duplass is known for, even if that aesthetic seems to match the genre. Things get weird quickly, turning this little indie into a modern day Twilight Zone thinker. That isn’t to suggest the film grows dark. In fact, the farther down the rabbit hole things go, the more you enjoy the proceedings.


9. Guardians of the Galaxy

Making a “fun” movie is a lost art. These days, far too often the plot or characters are either too serious or cynical to allow pure whimsy to come through, but Guardians of the Galaxy put the “pop” back in popcorn movie.

Headlined by the excellently goofy Chris Pratt, the film is the odd one out amongst comic book fare that’s been filling cinemas at a suffocating rate. Yes, its a Marvel movie. No, it’s not about super heroes. Yes, it has some overarching multi-film franchise lip service to perform. No, it doesn’t really care about it (as it literally says the Infinity Stone “has a Ark of the Covenant/Maltese Falcon vibe.”)

But, even while it’s perfectly okay with being the Marvel family equivalent of your fun uncle, it also greatly understands the need for true human moments, something rather amiss in others of the genre. It’s a bold step to start your film with a mother dying of cancer. It’s a brave moment to have a drunken rodent have a sober realization that he never asked to be who he is. It’s an incredible event when you get this cynic to tear up as a tree-man states “We are Groot” and makes a sacrifice. Like its titular ragtag team, this film has more going for it then what’s at facevalue.


8. Interstellar

Beyond all the other films on this list, Interstellar has scope. Pushing past the confines of space, time, and dimension, it desires to twist your brain like a wet rag and then shake it out a few times. While this can certainly lead to over explanation by the film and over analysis by the viewer, the story remains, for the most part, focused on two things — the need for survival and the desire to explore.

It is these two factors that the film consistently explores, though the scenario is ever changing. Is finding out the unknown worth having everything you love age rapidly in front of you? If you’re the only human being for lightyears, do you wait for help though it most likely won’t arrive?

It’s rare for a big movie to also have big ideas, but Interstellar succeeds on engaging its audience and inspiring awe and fear for the inky blackness that hangs above us.

7. Get On Up

The life of James Brown was as spirited and soulful as any song he ever sung. He was a man who could shoot a pulse of blues right through the funk and that’s because is life was both in equal parts. An abandoned boy brought up in a whore house, Brown sung his way up the mountain, negating those who helped him to the sidelines. Sinatra be damned — it was Brown who “did it his way.”

Director Tate Taylor created a film that went farther than just the typical biopic. This thing bobs and weaves to the music, dishing out moments of Brown’s life out of order and allowing the man himself to host the proceedings, dropping knowledge right on the audience with a wink and a smile. And that smile belongs to Chadwick Boseman, playing an uncanny Brown. He exudes everything about the man, from his goofy swagger to his ferocity and it is a delight.

But this isn’t a polished-up version of the Godfather of Soul’s life. It allows his dark side out, but wisely never lets it overtake the big picture, playing the moments to support the whole. When Brown throws his wife across the room, he flashes a glance to the camera only to look away ashamed and, for the first time, say nothing. He’s hosting this film, but that doesn’t mean he exactly enjoys you seeing everything. It is in these moments that the showman melts away and you see the ferocious tiger of a man, who had no bootstraps to pull himself up with, but did so anyway by downright talent and willpower.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is far too often vilified for never straying far from his house style, but The Grand Budapest Hotel both enhances and expands on what makes him so recognizable and forms a great dichotomy of tone. On one hand you have his most vulgar and violent work to date. On the other, a quirky mix of aspect ratios, stop motion animation, miniature sets, and luscious time periods. It’s a weird yet enticing mix.

Also per Anderson style, the cast is all excellent, ranging from newcomers like Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham to staples, such as Bill Murray and Owen Wilson. But the film belongs to Ralph Fiennes, who brings both a paternal quality and a cheeky set of morals to Gustave H. — the head concierge of the hotel. It is in him that the film’s tonal relationship is embodied and, without a doubt, at its most fun.

But even if the film is Anderson at his quirkiest (though he may continue to surprise) the film’s tale is just as bittersweet as the rest of his filmography, laying out an old man’s reflections of a war torn time he’d never want to return to, but will never let go of. It’s one of the director’s less hopeful films, but it may be his most content.

5. Obvious Child

Obvious Child is a savior to one of film’s most milquetoast genres — the romantic comedy. Far too often the laborious rom-com is a by the books affair, starting with the an overly quirky meet-cute and ending in happily ever after, never once actually putting its protagonists in a situation that is relatable to hard issues. Not only does this film expand the genre into actual human territory , but it’s pro-feminist to boot.

No doubt some of this is because of a sad rarity in the medium — all writing and directing credit goes to very talented women, including Director Gillian Robespierre, who strips away the comfortable genre troupes regularly applied for a story that takes place around a scheduled abortion. This isn’t some will she/ won’t she “October Baby” scenario mind you. The abortion is only the backdrop to a character study that is both introspective and funny.

This is in no small part because of Jenny Slate, who is a break out as Donna Stern. In her role, she embodies a goofy femininity that is more geniune than the air-headed Katherine Heigl vehicles that permeate our theaters. I can’t wait to see where she’s headed and maybe, just maybe, the rom-com has something fresh left in it after all.

4. Nightcrawler

There are moments where actors you’ve seen a thousand times pull something out of the air you never expected from them. I only liked Jake Gyllenhaal and that’s probably why he surprised me so much. I let my guard down, turned my back, and, out of no where, he pounced, delivering a searing performance that feels like nothing on his filmography before.

As Louis Bloom, Gyllenhaal created a Patrick Bateman for the digital generation. A calculated, alluring, and focused individual who has a single super power — he doesn’t give a damn about civility. It’s his play thing and he pokes and prods it to become the best “Nightcrawler” in Los Angeles — a profession based on gathering footage of bloodied car wrecks and corpses. If it bleeds it leads for the news, but Bloom will never be the one found bleeding.

Nightcrawler is a neon noire of the highest caliber, but it never feels exploitive. Director Dan Gilroy lets the gore, for the most part, remain unseen and its far more frightening and alluring because of this. It’s a brash tale of journalism ethics, and voyeurism that finds that most horrible carnage inside its characters.

3. Birdman

I have never, and most likely will never again, see a film like Birdman. A two hour backstage saga that almost completely plays out in a single (though digitally constructed) roaming take, it both feels meticulously put together while also having an almost jazzy improvised air about it. There are moments that feel unhinged and beyond off-script, as if the characters on the screen might just walk off. It’s the closest thing to living theatre I’ve felt in a cinema.

It takes balls to try something like this and, while its Alejandro González Iñárritu who has put the whole concept together, the film’s fate rests on Michael Keaton, both for his delivery of the material and its resonance with his own career. He’s an old dragon ready to roar and does he ever, delivering a performance of both anxiety and madness in equal parts.

In a weird way, Birdman is a commentary on a film genre (superher0) from a different genre (backstage drama) and insight is gained on both. I whirlwind of a ride and the most fun I had at the theater all year.

2. Calvary

John Michael McDonagh’s second directorial effort is a damning portrayal of Ireland’s (and the world’s) relationship with both religion and, more specifically, the Catholic church. A quiet tale, it finds its friction as Father James (the incredible and reserved Brendan Gleeson) interacts with his parisonors — all who have, not only stopped believing in their faith, but nwo outright resent it.

Rare is the film that has something to say about religion without either overtly schilling for a type or outright dismissing all of it. Calvary is a post-mortem. It recognizes that the old ways have died, but has few answers on what the future should hold. There is atoning to be done and plenty of it.

Through it all, Gleeson leads a cast, including the great Chris O’Dowd and Kelly Reilly, as a figure of both humor and eloquent wisdom, searching for answers, while he decides his ominous future. It is a film that seeks out hope even in its own utter blackness. In my favorite dialogue exchange of the year, Gleeson states to his daughter, “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues.” When asked his number one virtue, he replies, “I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.”

1. Whiplash

When I left the theater, my heart beat out of my chest for hours. Whiplashpushes a film about music into almost sports movie territory with the athletic ferocity it runs Andrew (Miles Teller) through the ringer to become the best jazz drummer there is. Blood’s left on the drum set in more ways than one and most of it is spilled by Fletcher, Andrews teacher, played with sheer masochistic evil by J.K Simmons.

It is a film focused on artistic greatness and what must be sacrificed to achieve it, but those answers aren’t easy. While Fletcher does everything in his power to belittle Andrew and his classmates, he suggests it’s the only true way to separate the wheat from the chaff. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” says Fletcher and he believes it.

But how far can you push someone before you push them too far? We find this out the hard way and so does Andrew, but not without first grappling with if there isn’t some method to Fletcher’s madness in a society that gives everyone a blue ribbon. Art, after all, is craft. Whiplash is a gut-punching examination of pushing ones self towards greatness and the sacrifices incurred along the journey.

2014 has ended, but its films stamped it as a year of examination, questioning and reflecting on humanity and our place in this world. As the film industry as a whole continues to feel the ground shift beneath its feet and new digital doors continue to open for great creatives, film has never been a more interesting and expressive medium with plenty of surprises left in store.

Wes Anderson's 2001: A Space Odyssey

Wes Anderson's 2001: A Space Odyssey

Visionary directors don’t come around every day. In fact, true auters rarely do. They redefine the medium for themselves, playing on inspirations that proceeded them, but moving forward into dark artistic corners not previously explored. This is what makes them unique. This is what makes them who they are.

So what happens when you smash a few of them together?

A few months back, I ran across a trailer that mashed-up Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the film aesthetic of Wes Anderson, entitled “2001: A Space Comedy.

After multiple viewings, I realized that my attraction to the trailer pushed past just the outward humor such a combination proposed. The editor, M. Deicke, had hit on a weirdly perfect cocktail of two filmmaking visonaries, whose styles are almost immediately identifiable.

Kubrick and Anderson are known for their visuals. See a screenshot of either and its easy to recognize, but the key is their adamant and meticulous nature towards their camera framing. It is a defining characteristic of both directors and an area where each bleeds into the others preferences.

Beyond just the visual aspect, both Anderson and Kubrick also define themselves with the sound and music choices in their work. Who hears Blue Danube without thinking 2001 or The Kinks without remembering Royal Tenenbaums? This trailer mashed the memorable visuals of Kubrick with the song selections of Anderson and found a brilliant middle ground, where each artist shines bright, but in a hue we’ve never seen before.

So what happens if it’s taken even further?

I was curious to know. Could Anderson and Kubrick be mashed up for an entire film? Could they dance together for that long? For me, it was worth exploring, if only for the sheer fun of it. So I recut 2001: A Space Odyssey into a Wes Anderson picture entitled, Wes Anderson’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Playing with the visuals in Kubrick’s masterwork, 2001 allows for an easy editing template. Long on shots and short on sound, cuts could be put together rather seemlessly. Suddenly, the Dawn of Man sequence is scored to Mark Mothersbaugh tracks from Rushmore, spaceships fly to The Beach Boys, and a two-and-a-half hour film is cut down to an hour-and-twenty-minutes.

Here’s a clip…

To some, I might as well be ransacking the Vatican with such blasphemy, but I found the experience liberating. The process of understanding both directors and attempting to serve both equally is probably an impossible task, but a challenge I enjoyed balancing.

This, for me, is less “filmmaking,” but “filmplaying” — akin to having GI Joe invade a Barbie’s play house. It’s pushing past what’s expected and finding something new, opening opportunities to discover what makes certain artists unique and what they might do together if given the chance. I think creatives can learn a lot from such projects and, beyond, everything else, it’s a ton of fun.

I’ll be premiering my full cut of Wes Anderson’s 2001: A Space Odyssey soon and am excited to see what sort of experience it brings for lovers of Anderson and Kubrick alike.

Star Wars Spoiler Sobriety

Star Wars Spoiler Sobriety


My friend Tyler looked at me as if I had just proclaimed I was climbing the Himalayas or living on a crab boat for the rest of my life.

“You’re staying completely away from spoilers for Star Wars: Episode 7?”

I nodded and confirmed that that was the plan. He leaned back in his chair and ask the question everyone else had stated once they’d heard of my choice.

“How exactly?”

To be frank, I wish I knew. It’s an unsettling life choice. It’s like making an effort to ignore the wind. How can you turn your back on such a monumental force and expect not to still be affected by it? How can you attempt to look away when its presence is all around?

From t-shirts and happy meal toys to video games and bus stop ads, it’s inevitable that Star Wars: Episode 7 will be plastered on every object and medium possible as if it’s a power that needs to still prove itself. Sure the prequels left a bad taste in the mouths of the majority, but it simply shows the absolute magnetism of the franchise that you can make three massive clunkers of cinema and still have every butt that was in a seat for Phantom Menace most likely show up once again.

So, when it comes to SW:E7, everything after that first cast photo (seen in the header) is dead to me. I’ll be ignoring the buzz, missing the hype, and stepping back from the chaos. I’ll be shielding my eyes from the magazine covers at the grocery, disregarding the treading Twitter hashtags, and flat out muting the most spoiler serving Facebook friends. The only exception to the rule is if a trailer projects itself in front of me before another film and then, for only those two minutes, will I get a taste. There will be no rewatching on Youtube. Beyond that, I’m going cold turkey from Star Wars spoilers just as everyone else takes their first hit of many to come.


This is always the follow-up question I get asked and one Tyler had on his lips as well. I try to answer with a question of my own.

When’s the last time you went to a theater and knew nothing about the film?

It’s rare not to have any contact with a piece of cinema before you sit down to view it. In this day and age, it’s almost impossible. Maybe it’s just a promotional photo here or a TV spot there, but we have a connection with the material long before the opening credits. In fact, it’s possible we have more of an understanding of a film’s world and ethos before we see it than past generations did even after their viewing.

We are saturated in tid-bits, gossip, breaking news, and rumors and, by the time we finally have the opportunity to take it all in, we probably already have the action figures at home. Is a film better because we know the villain’s name before we see him on the screen? Is it really okay that the biggest action sequences are the highlights for the trailer? Do we really enjoy a film more after seeing slideshow after slideshow of blurry behind the scenes pictures taken from afar? When did we become a culture that desired so much front-end knowledge?

While some films still desire mystery in the months (or even years) leading up to their release, it seems like an impossible battle both with a fan culture, who can’t seem to get enough, and marketers that believe that “more is more.” But, out of these two camps, I’m still not sure who I blame more. Should I sneer at a studio for showing a trailer at Comic Con or the guy with the iPhone, whose unfocused recording of it forces the studio to pull the curtain back online earlier than intended?

I’ve been one of those fans that shuffle up to the buffet and never leave until the restaurant brings out the final course, but the down side has always been that I’ve never been able to fully enjoy it — I’ve already stuffed my face and am now too full to truly consume what I came here for in the first place.

When I ask people about the last time they knew nothing about a film before going into a theater, I generally told that it’s not happened to them since they were kids and that’s the best reason I can think of for fasting from SW:E7 spoilers. I want to sit down and have no earthly concept of what is about to befall me. I want to take it in with innocent eyes let the experience wash over me. I want to have a nerd like experience that nerd culture doesn’t seem to believe in anymore. How exhilarating that could be. How exhilarating that will be.

Upon hearing me out, a grin formed over Tyler’s face. He had one final question…

Can I join you?

Myers-Briggs at the Movies

Myers-Briggs at the Movies

We’ve all encountered film and television that’s positively holds us in our seats because of the characters. Even when a film’s plot weakens or dramatic action wanes, we stick to our guns and continue taking it in, fascinated not because of what we are watching, but who. We’ll even ingest whole seasons of cookie cutter television simply to follow that singular character, whose overarching issues bring us back for more, or that couple, who quicken our hearts with their “will they/won’t they” relationship. To put this in context — nobody watched House for the medical mystery.

But what creates that chemistry in a character? What are the building blocks of putting flesh and blood into an idea of a human being? What makes them work with or against others in a story? Coming up with such memorable characters is certainly one part luck, but, without sounding too clinical, areas of study such as psychiatry can also play a large part in helping creatives form engaging characters who, not only contain heart, but soul. One of the most well known of these possible aids is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Myers-Briggs: The Basics

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a “psychometric questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.” To put simply, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers used what they learned from Carl Jung’s four principal psychological functions (sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking) and created a test that could classify people based on combining four selections. With this combination, one could classify human behavior. These are as follows…

1. Extrovert or Introvert (E/I) — Extroverts learn best by talking and interacting with others. Introverts prefer quiet reflection and privacy.

2. Sensing or Intuitive (S/N) — Sensing types enjoy a learning environment in which the material is presented in a detailed and sequential manner. Intuitive types prefer a learning atmosphere in which an emphasis is placed on meaning and associations.

3. Thinking or Feeling (I/F) — Thinking types desire objective truth and logical principles and are natural at deductive reasoning. Feeling types place an emphasis on issues and causes that can be personalized while they consider other people’s motives.

4. Judging or Perceiving (J/P) — Judging types will thrive when information is organized and structured. Perceiving types will flourish in a flexible learning environment in which they are stimulated by new and exciting ideas.

When mapped out in all its different ways, we gain insight, not only on ourselves, but some of history’s greatest people.


So how can we use this classification system to make thoroughly dynamic characters? Simply knowing about the classifications and how they interact is half the battle. Need a combative, but sexually charged relationship for an ESTJ structured leader like Princess Leia? Look no further than the wild loner ISTP of Han Solo. Who can make things difficult for an INTJ like Walter White? How about making him work with a ESFP like Jesse Pinkman?

Understanding the dynamic relationships of each Myers-Briggs type allows you to structure characters in a framework and, when a story calls for it, move them out from under those foundations in transformation. You can either do this suddenly to shock your audience or gradually to show shifts in a character’s personality. You may even find that certain genres need special acknowledgment of MB testing. For example, a murder mystery will need you to construct a killer who is a certain type, but may be acting other variations out to fool your detective and audience.

Great tension can also be found between characters who hold the same MB type, but wildly contrasting ideologies. One could argue that a classic example of this is Silence of the Lambs, where both the cannibal Hannibal Lecter and the FBI agent Clarice Starling are INTJ. It is their dichotomy of psychological function versus moral action that draw them closer together and rip them farther apart almost simultaneously.

Letting it Play Out

The Myers-Briggs classification system is, without a doubt, an aid to any writer, not only because it’s a starting skeleton for creating, but because, if fleshed out completely, the characters create the story for you. Stephen King said it best in his book On Writing

“I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way.”

If a writer can internally grasp the complexities of the individual Myers-Briggs types, they can almost act as a rulebook for your character’s actions. This can be extremely frustrating when you want your character to zig, but know full well that, no matter what, he will always zag. While such knowledge can drastically affect your story’s plotting, it also smooths it out and adjusts all those contrived false moments to work together instead of against the universe you’ve created.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator allows creatives to mold dynamic characters and turn them into choice-making entities who ebb and flow naturally. It is with such constructs that we can cut the strings from our puppets and let them create a world that fits their story best and make our audience shift forward in their seats that much farther.

Have Creatives Overstuffed Themselves?

Have Creatives Overstuffed Themselves?

In this day and age, it couldn’t be easier. If you want to watch a film you can almost spit in any direction and hit an appliance that’ll make it happen. In fact, many of us can just reach into the pocket and take hold of a device whose main function of “calling people” has taken a back seat to its video/gaming capabilities. Words like “Netflix,” “Hulu,” “Vimeo,” and “Youtube” have become synonymous with an instant encounter with any motion picture - from the biggest Hollywood blockbuster to your cousin Joey’s reenactment of that scene from “Blade Runner.” It has never been a better time to be a film junkie, which, consequently, makes it the worst time to be a creative in the field.

Now hear me out. While I make such a statement, let it be known that I also praise the world wide web for letting me see that small Swedish film that will never make it to the “Cinema 28 3D IMAX Xtreme theater” downtown. It’s a great time to love foreign and independent film because the iTunes’ and Netflixes of the world have made it possible for me to see them in the middle of “God knows where” and “Hell if know.” But, as the old saying I’ve repurposed goes, “with great movie watching power, comes great moving watching responsibility.”

There was time where I was watching a movie a day…a DAY. And this was not during my one summer extensive film watching experience “The Criterion Summer” (shameless plug). That was this month. Think of it…at 2 hours per film, that’s 14 hours a week. I was watching two work shifts worth of film and television a week. There is no way that is healthy, either physically or creatively.

And therein lies the rub. With so much media at our fingertips, can creative people be as creative as they used to be? It can’t be easy. I know it hasn’t been for me. There used to be just my own little self whirling around in my brain but, after a week of film, now there’s a whole mess of ideas, styles, and characterizations that are rolling around in there with me, making it harder for my own originality to shine through. Maybe its just me but, how many times have filmmakers considered an idea and then, after viewing, say a really great horror movie, find themselves now wanting to make their first idea now with a horror slant or tone?

It’s a bit of a catch 22. Most filmmakers get into the craft because they have been heavily influenced by film and see it as a great medium for expression. So they do two things- try and make their own original films and watch as much of other people’s work as possible. But, by watching others, they are influenced and their work becomes less original to their own creative core. In that case, they either develop a film that reminds them of other’s work (far too often referred to as a homage instead of laziness) or go back to the drawing board and watch more film in hope of inspiration. It’s a viscous cycle that’s hard to break.

So how do we break it? It’s called “The Blockbuster Video Effect.” There was a time where we paid to rent each film we watched and, because of that, we were more selective. Now services like “Netflix” give you a whole video store for the price of two rentals a month so, instead of being choosy with what we watch, we just take in more than ever and consume the bad with the good. To be the best creative people we can be, we should see these internet services not as buffets, but as simply more options on the menu. And, though the world of technology would like to convince you otherwise, absence still makes the heart grow fonder and consuming film in proper portions would not only help exercise our creative juices but also make our more selective film viewing experiences that much more enjoyable.

Now this could easily be taken as a “go outside and play” sermon, but I tell you that’s not the case. For creatives, we should be spending the majority of those reclaimed 14 film-watching hours for working on our own ideas and stories. Good art takes time and, because of that, you’ve got to put in those hours “at the gym.” Imagine what that would look like - a whole generation of filmmakers separated from the umbilical cord of film consumption, but nursing on the mother of inspiration only when necessary.

I’m not sure the world would be ready for it…and that makes it all the more intriguing.