Monday, January 27, 2014

GodzillaMania #1: Godzilla/Gojira


Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Grade: 95/A

In 1954, Japan’s Toho Co., Ltd. released a pair of landmark films: Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla. The former film was received as an instant-classic, while the latter was met with more criticism (if incredible box office success), as Japanese critics knocked the film for following in the footsteps of American monster movies, and for using nuclear terror in a nation still recovering from the use of the atomic bombs. As time has gone on, Godzilla has become a cultural phenomenon not only in Japan, but across the world.

But while Honda’s original film spawned a long-running series (28 films in Japan, an American remake with another on the way, and lord knows how much merchandise), it’s far different than its wildly entertaining successors. Where the later films in the series become known for their monster brawls and view of Godzilla as a human protector, the original film (titled Gojira in Japan, renamed Godzilla by Toho’s international sales division) sees the monster as an unstoppable force, the embodiment of an atomic nightmare, and it takes a much more somber tone than its sequels. Godzilla is a rare masterpiece: a monster movie that’s as enthralling as it is horrifying, as mournful and moving as it is entertaining. 60 years later, it’s still towers above the rest.

Something is happening in the Japanese sea: a number of fishing boats are attacked, and the boats sent to rescue them are destroyed as well. Villagers refer to an ancient sea monster known as “Godzilla”, and any skepticism is thrown out the window when the village is destroyed. Soon, archeologist Kyohei Yamane (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) arrives and finds that the giant lizard is likely a prehistoric creature unleashed and mutated by a nuclear explosion. Officials debate what to do: should the public be informed and risk mass panic? And should Godzilla be destroyed, or, as Yamane suggests, studied for the fantastic scientific discovery he is?

Meanwhile, Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kōchi) has fallen for ship salvage captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), and must break off her engagement with Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), her childhood friend and her father’s colleague. Serizawa has invented a device known as the Oxygen Destroyer, which disintegrates oxygen atoms, killing any organisms near it. Emiko and Ogata come to believe that this is the only thing that can stop Godzilla from destroying all of Japan, but Serizawa worries about whether or not the device could be turned into a weapon of mass destruction.

Right from the beginning, Godzilla establishes a much more carefully measured tone than one might come to expect from decades of imitators. It’s an extraordinary piece of filmmaking as well: Honda begins with sound, with deafening SLAMS and ROARS over the opening credits as Akira Ifukube’s frantic, Bernard Herrmann-esque score begins.  It’s nerve jangling stuff, establishing a mood of terror right from the beginning. It’s complimented by Honda’s decision to not show Godzilla right away, instead giving us hints of what’s to come as we instead see flashes of light, the sound of something gigantic bearing down on all of humanity.

That said, Honda’s gift for composition is even greater. Many might cite the clear influence of King Kong and the Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast of 20,000 Fathoms on Godzilla, but more immediate influence on the actual filmmaker comes from Akira Kurosawa, Honda’s contemporary and best friend. Like Kurosawa, Honda was a painter before he was a filmmaker, and the images he produces are nearly as stunning: a shot of a guitar on a boat falling over as men run in mass panic; a moment of men trapped in destruction as dust rains over them; a shot of Yamane, crestfallen that a one-of-a-kind creature must be destroyed, sitting alone in the dark, his back to the camera; and the gorgeous noir-chiaroscuro on Serizawa as he reveals that he’s working on what’s essentially death in a capsule.

And this is all taking into account the stuff we see before the creature is finally revealed. Many have noted the fakery of the man-in-a-suit method (which special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya created after Kong-like stop motion was deemed too expensive and impractical), but in the original Godzilla, it’s remarkably effective stuff. Tsuburaya created one hell of a design (a cross between a T-Rex, a Stegosaurus, a dragon, and an Iguanodon), while stunt actor Haruo Nakajima brings Godzilla to life with his hulking movements. Almost as impressive: Tsuburaya used wax to build the towers that Godzilla’s radioactive breath melts, but the use of a spotlight on the effect makes it seem all the more real, like steel heating up and melting rather than an effect. 

 Honda, for his part, does a remarkable job shooting Godzilla from low angles to show just how massive he is – it’s pretty clear that he’s using model trains, towers, and tanks for Tokyo, but they’re marvelously detailed models, and the way Godzilla tears through everything is still a practical effects marvel. The way Honda and editor Kazuji Taira put everything together is just as exhilarating: the scenes are cut together with relentless forward momentum, with wipes (reminiscent of Kurosawa) and with the tanks and rescue vehicles moving from left-to-right as Godzilla moves right-to-left, implying just how outmatched these people are.

And outmatched they are, by what’s essentially a living embodiment of nuclear terror. By 1954, Japan was still recovering not only from the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but by the memory of Lucky Dragon 5, a fishing ship that came too close to a hydrogen bomb test site and suffered radiation poisoning. The whole film is suffused by the fear of a new weapon, one that could easily destroy all of mankind. The fear begins with the fishermen who unable to catch even the smallest of fish, hinting at a supply that’s possibly destroyed by an overarching nuclear force. Then there’s the scientists discovery of an ancient beast made more powerful by this newfound power, as if Godzilla is not only nuclear terror, but the perversion of the natural world and order, a punishment for man’s inhumanity to man.

Soon, it’s not just a horrifying force of nature and rage coming towards Japan, but wide-spread panic and fear. Honda assembles a terrific cast of characters: Shimura, bringing his innate gravity and affability to play a man of science who goes from being curious about the beast to being saddened that it must be destroyed. Shimura brings a great touch in one scene where he arrives home, saddened by the knowledge that Godzilla will likely be destroyed. His head hits the blinds – he doesn’t react, as he's too distraught. Equally strong: Kōchi as Emiko, one of the many women who have seen Japan and the Japanese people devastated by the horrors of war, and especially Hirata’s Serizawa, a man who’s damaged both physically and emotionally by the World War II.

Serizawa was engaged to Emiko, but it’s clear that war has had a horrible effect on him. Beyond losing an eye, he’s clearly haunted by what’s happened, and now horrified that his research has led to what might be an even more devastating weapon (why does he work on something potentially destructive? It’s a monster movie, just go with it). While other characters fear how diplomatic relations with the U.S. might crumble if they claim H-bomb tests brought Godzilla upon them, Serizawa fears what his new weapon might do if it falls into the hands of politicians, generals, and anyone else seeking dominance over the rest of the world.

A mood of fatalism hangs over Godzilla, one that’s more in keeping with the American post-WWII noirs than most monster movies of the time. There’s a sense of dread not only of what’s happened in the past, but what could easily happen again. Godzilla articulates the horror at man’s inhumanity to man and its fallout long before most of the rest of the world got to it. Honda and company shoot post-rampage Tokyo like something out of Hiroshima or Nagasaki: barren, to the point where it’s hard to believe a city could have existed there.

What keeps it from being exploitative is how much Honda and company stress the importance of humanity’s survival: there’s a great effort made to save the children, to keep any of the survivors alive. Honda views every death as a tragedy. One scene that puts a lump in the throat: a dolly up to a woman and children trapped in a burning building, the mother assuring her children that they’re going to join their father. There’s a deeply moving moment of a gathering of a choir, singing a prayer for peace, for preservation. When it’s revealed what Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer is really capable of (dissolving creatures down to the bone), the man really tortures himself over whether or not he can bring this thing to the public without risking it falling into the wrong hands.

The finale, then, is especially moving, as Serizawa not only takes the Oxygen Destroyer to Godzilla by diving into the ocean, but sacrifices himself to make sure his research dies with him. Humanity’s salvation comes, along with a blessing from Serizawa for Emiko and Ogata, but it’s still a deeply melancholy moment. A stunning creature has been lost (never mind the sequels for now), as well as a great man. And as Yamane muses, nuclear testing continues, and another Godzilla could come from it. It’s perhaps a preachy moment, but the earnestness in the film’s plea for sanity, for humanity, remains the film’s touching coup de gras, a moment of elegance that makes the film’s release in the era of Kurosawa seem less like counterprogramming and more like an equally thoughtful cousin.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Stranger by the Lake


Grade: 54/C+

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake is singular, audacious, formally rigorous, and incredibly tedious. This seems like a contradiction, but while the film never hedges its bets, it also never feels like it’s getting at anything new or saying it in a new way, aside from a new level of sexual explicitness. Guiraudie has a strange problem in that his vision is simultaneously bold and distressingly familiar.

The film takes place at a beach popular for nude sunbathing and cruising for gay men. Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps) goes there regularly, and pays attention to two particular men: Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a portly man whose wife has just left him and who Franck enjoys talking to, and Michel (Chistophe Paou), to whom Franck is instantly smitten by. Michel soon returns Franck’s interest, but not long after Franck witnesses Michel drown his lover in the lake. He can’t fight off his feelings forever, and the two begin having frequent unprotected sex, but soon an investigator starts to ask questions about the body found in the lake, and Franck begins to fear his newfound friend might learn what he saw.

Many have drawn comparisons between Guiraudie’s film and Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a bizarre comparison, aside from the premise’s fusion of sexual desire and danger. Stranger by the Lake falls much more in line with the current wave of European detached, where the reasons and the rhythms remain deliberately oblique – there’s no pop psychology or sensual, playful style here.

That’s not a criticism, necessarily. For roughly the first forty-five minutes, Stranger by the Lake is a fascinating look at the cruising subculture, told in an austere but not suffocating fashion by Guiraudie. The anonymous, hardcore sex (not an exaggeration – some of this might be simulated, but much of it is not, and it’s pretty close to being gay porn explicit at times) is told with a casual frankness, and the way these no-strings-attached arrangements are juxtaposed with the nature setting is often breathtaking. It all leads up to the murder of Michel’s lover, shot in an extraordinary single long-distance take, in a voyeuristic style that’s less Hitchcock’s horrified helplessness and more a mixture of fear and fascination.

And then the movie gets monotonous. Franck and Michel fuck, an inspector comes by to ask if they’re sure they didn’t know the deceased, and Henri and Franck speak about the dangers of the lake and about their quasi-romantic but not sexual relationship. Rinse, repeat. Guiraudie seems to be shooting for hypnotism, but it’s mostly just repetitive. What’s more, the film’s allegory (cruising with exciting man/unrepentant murderer = AIDS) grows obvious, the thriller material banal, and some of the motives for the characters’ behavior baffling*.

By the end, Guiraudie takes the most groan-inducing elements of both the psychosexual thriller the plot promises and the stiffly aloof aesthetic of the modern art-house. Whether it’s in terms of story or style, Stranger by the Lake stops being surprising, right down to an ambiguous finale that’s frustrated me not because it did the opposite of what I expected, but because it did exactly what I expected.

*NON-SPOILER, really: the film makes the case that sexual desire and actual affection are separate. It’d probably be pretty difficult for me to stay involved after that, given that this idea is totally alien to me, but even if I were willing to roll with it, the film doesn’t really say anything meaningful about it.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.1: Akira Kurosawa's First Films


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

The impact of Akira Kurosawa’s films on the world cannot be stressed enough. He borrowed from western masters, but later western filmmakers took even more from him. His masterworks served as the blueprints for films by John Sturges, Sergio Leone, and George Lucas. Most major action filmmakers worth their salt have cited him as an influences – Steven Spielberg, Walter Hill, John Woo – but also inspired the likes of Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Martin Scorsese, and Roman Polanski to reach for new levels of moral inquisitiveness. Even his greatest contemporaries of the 1950s foreign film art house wave – Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini – held him in the highest regard, with Bergman referring to his great film The Virgin Spring as a “touristic, lousy imitation of Kurosawa.”

In short, the dude’s got clout. Over the next couple of months, I’ll be taking a look at the thirty films Kurosawa directed and exploring one of the truest masters of the medium. I’ve seen more than a fair of Kurosawa’s work, but there are still a number of early and late films I’ve missed, along with a few major titles here and there that I’m excited to finally catch up with. And good news for anyone with Hulu Plus accounts: 25 of Kurosawa’s 30 features are available, making it easy to follow along. So let’s dive in.

Sanshiro Sugata: 74/B+

Most avid filmgoers first encounters Akira Kurosawa through his 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, but the director was working in film a full decade and a half before that. Kurosawa worked as an assistant director under Kajirō Yamamoto from 1936 to around 1941, also working on sets, editing, and scripts, as Yamamoto stressed to his pupil that a good director needed to master screenwriting.

Kurosawa soaked this information in like a sponge while searching for a project to make his directorial debut. He eventually found one in Sanshiro Sugata, a judo novel he found, read in one day, and asked the film studio, Toho, to buy the rights to it. All things went well until post-production: when the censors saw the film, they hated it, calling it “British-American” (keep in mind that in 1943 Japan, that’s a major offense). Fellow master Yasujirō Ozu stood up for Kurosawa, and the censors relented and released the film to major success, but not before lopping off 18 minutes of footage that is now considered lost. The film clearly suffers from it, but it’s nevertheless an impressive debut for the young director.

Sanshiro Sugata (Susumu Fujita) is a student under master Shōgorō Yano (Denjirō Ōkōchi). Brash and given to starting fights, he tests the patience of his master, but gradually grows as a student. When a rivalry gives way to a tournament between Yano’s judo school and a jujitsu school led by the villainous Gennosuke Higaki (Ryūnosuke Tsukigata), it tests Sanshiro, particularly after he falls for Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), the beloved of Higaki and daughter of Hansuke Murai (Takashi Shimura), an older jujitsu master Sanshiro must fight.

Sanshiro Sugata’s story is simple but effective, and although the cuts clearly take out some of the nuances Kurosawa added to the characters, there’s still enough going on to see that he had more on his mind than spinning an entertaining yarn. Kurosawa doesn’t just want to show a rivalry between two schools of martial arts – he wants to show how it affects the people involved, and how they learn more about life through it. It isn’t enough that Sanshiro learn the martial art, but that he learns control and maturity.

When Sanshiro is scolded by Master Yano, it is because he fights for no reason, and that he displays no humanity. In his first fight in the tournament, Sanshiro loses control, accidentally killing an opponent. In his fight opposite Murai, it’s clear that the previous fight has affected him, and he starts out timid before again going overboard on the older man (who nonetheless admires Sanshiro for giving him a good fight). In his final fight with Higaki, he shows not only greater control, but greater humanity, and we learn he was genuinely concerned about an opponent who showed him nothing but bitterness.

It helps that Kurosawa has a very good cast to help further elevate the material – the controlled Ōkōchi, a suitably conflicted Fujita, and soon-to-be Kurosawa regular Shimura as Sanshiro’s affable opponent. Even Tsukigata, ridiculously dressed as a westernized dandy (I genuinely had to pause the movie because I was laughing too hard) in a clear bit of WWII-era propaganda, gives his villain subtle shades of pride to make him more than a one-note villain.

More than anything else, Sanshiro Sugata shows that Kurosawa was a born filmmaker, someone who knew what he was doing right out of the gate. He’s already playing with deep focus, with wipes that bring real energy to his transitions, with perspective shots that emphasize Sanshiro’s shame. Kurosawa also knows from the get-go how to direct an action scene, using axial cuts (or cuts on moments of action to a close or further angle that maintain an illusion of continuity) and slow-motion for moments of drama (example: Sanshiro’s accidental killing of an opponent). The final fight also shows the first example of Kurosawa using weather as a commentary on a character’s state of mind, with the heavy wind accentuating the brewing conflict both between Sanshiro and Higaki and the self-conflict in Sanshiro.

But most notable is a moment of pure poetry from Kurosawa: having been shamed by his master, Sanshiro tries to prove his dedication by jumping into a pond and staying clinging to a pole throughout the night. As the night goes on, Sanshiro sees a lotus blossom, symbolizing his growing understanding and humanity. Many critics at the time noted that this was impossible, as lotuses cannot bloom overnight, but it’s a point where Kurosawa’s expressionism trumps anything as banal as realism.

The Most Beautiful: 55/B-

Sanshiro Sugata had bits of propaganda in it, but Kurosawa was next drafted to make a pure propaganda film. Originally slated to make a film about the Japanese fighter pilots before the government decided it couldn’t spare any planes for film, Kurosawa refocused on making a film about women volunteers in Japanese factories. The resulting film, The Most Beautiful, has a straightforward propagandistic idealism that doesn’t much represent Kurosawa’s worldview, and the lack of real drama in the film (biggest complication: a woman hides her fever so she can stay working) sometimes makes it a slog.

Yet The Most Beautiful isn’t completely without interest. Kurosawa was too committed a filmmaker to go on autopilot, and there are some impressive bits of editing throughout, especially in a volleyball sequence that shows the bits of joy and relief in their lives. More notably, Kurosawa, influenced by Sergei Eisenstein, tried to make the film as honest a portrayal of the hard work the women put in as possible, making the actresses live in the filming locations and showing how exhausting the conditions could be. It’s minor, but it works as a social realism film and as a sweet tribute to Japanese civilians (and as a bonus, Kurosawa met his wife of forty years on set, so he probably wasn’t complaining too much).

Sanshiro Sugata Part II: 65/B

Kurosawa was again commissioned to make a propaganda film, albeit under odd circumstances. Sanshiro Sugata nearly went unreleased following the censors’ objection to it being too western, but Kurosawa was told to make a sequel to his hit film that would further validate the Japanese way. The film sees Sanshiro trying hard to keep the rules of his dojo, with the threat of American sailors, who challenge Japanese martial artists in boxing matches, hovering over them. His situation is further complicated by former rival Higaki’s vengeful brothers, the decidedly nasty Tenshin (Tsukigata again) and the insane Genzaburo (Akitake Kôno).

The actual conflict in Sugata II is pretty familiar, with the Higaki rivalry hitting many of the same beats as it did in the first one (though Kurosawa stages a memorable final battle between Sanshiro and Tenshin in the snow to mirror Tenshin’s much more pronounced hatred). And while the propaganda element is as well handled as can be expected, it’s still pretty broad, portraying all of the Americans as monsters who either A. fight solely for financial gain, or B. take pleasure watching American boxers beat the life out of more noble Japanese warriors.

That being said, Kurosawa does find ways to keep Sanshiro Sugata Part II more than just a propagandistic repeat of the original. First, he gives Tsukigata new notes to play, both as Tenshin, the rage-filled brother, and, more notably, as a sickly Gennosuke, who has mellowed following his defeat in the first film and laments that his brother has lost his way much as he had. There’s also a deep sadness in his decaying health, and in his loss of his beloved to Sanshiro. Kurosawa also takes a more complicated view of duty, with Sanshiro’s mentors holding firm belief that while he has broken the letter of judo’s rules by prizefighting, his heart has not broken the spirit of the rules, as he did not do it for personal gain. The film look at the martial arts not as a dogmatic world, but as a set of rules leading to enlightenment, one that allows for multiple schools, styles, and worldviews leading towards a more humane life.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail: 75/B+

Kurosawa’s last film before Japan’s defeat, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail, was also affected by the war. Made on a limited budget, Kurosawa had to make sure the film was A. shot quickly, and B. on one set. The result is his shortest film, at only 59 minutes, and one that would be delayed release until 1952 after the Allies refused to let Toho release a pro-feudal film. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor, one that gave further hints of the master who was about to emerge.

Yoshitsune Minamoto (Iwai Hanshirō X), a successful general and nobleman, is betrayed by his brother Yoritomo, and must flee with his advisors and loyal protector Benkei (Dejirō Ōkōchi) to Fujiwara for protection. The group disguise themselves as monks, but their porter (Kenichi Enomoto) realizes who they are and warns them that Yoritomo’s men are guarding the borders and on the lookout for men posing as monks. Soon, they come in contact with Togashi (Susumu Fujita), a good-natured commander of the border guards who nevertheless must scrutinize the group, and who’s accompanies by the treacherous Yorimoto’s messenger.

Kurosawa might be working on a budget here, but he finds a way to use that to his advantage. Sure, the set is obviously indoors and limited, but Kurosawa ekes claustrophobic tension out of the enclosed space, making the woods seem like a very small place to hide. It’s also the first introduction of a regular Kurosawa character: the comic relief peasant. Enomoto’s rubber-face antics get to be a bit much in the later going, but in the first half of the film he’s a welcome counterpoint to the solemn, somewhat pompous lords he accompanies. He also serves as the first character to showcase Kurosawa’s interest in conflicts between class, as most of the lords view his earnest attempts to help as the work of a “fool” or a “nobody”.

The film also shows the first overt use of kabuki and Noh theater influence on Kurosawa’s work (after some minor bits in the Genzaburo character of Sanshiro Sugata Part II). There’s theatrical music that serves as a poetic commentary on the action and a slow, deliberate movement to the lords. Best of all is the scene where Benkei (in a shrewd performance by Ōkōchi), posing as the head priest looking for donations for a temple, must adopt a more theatrical way of carrying himself as he reads a fake pronouncement from the temple, while Kurosawa uses fast edits that play almost like a precursor to what Sergio Leone would do in the future.

Kurosawa further explores his complex view of duty, showing first the sad state of a loyal general forced to flee because of treachery, then showing Fujimata’s honorable character, forced to work for dishonorable causes. But the film’s most moving moment comes when Benkei, the most loyal servant to Yoshitsune, must strike his master. Yoshitsune has disguised himself as another porter, and when Yorimoto’s advisor believes he recognizes him, Benkei beats his master for being a lazy, useless porter. It works, but Benkei is heartbroken and anguished over having to violate his duty to protect his master. But again, Kurosawa does not view this dogmatically, as Yoshitsune comments that “It is not this hand that struck me, but heavenly protection”. It’s a sign that the director is growing more thoughtful, something that would flourish in just a few years.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Best of 2013 Blowout: The Best, the Worst, and the Rest

Final wrap-up for 2013 as I go through what really stuck with me.

Best Director: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
Steven Soderbergh described Carruth as the illegitimate child of James Cameron and David Lynch, and the description makes sense. He has the same thorough, tactile sense of how his world works like Cameron, and the same obscurantist tendencies as Lynch. But Carruth’s style is all his own, a gorgeous shallow focus, impressionistic edit visual symphony that was unlike anything else released this year.

Honorable Mentions: Andrew Bujalski could rival Carruth for sheer weird audacity with Computer Chess. Steve McQueen sacrificed none of his artistry for the galvanizing 12 Years a Slave. Spike Jonze made his most personal, most sensitive film with Her. And at 71, Martin Scorsese made his wildest, most formally exciting film in years with The Wolf of Wall Street.

Best Screenplay: Spike Jonze (Her)
It’s not just that Spike made what’s simultaneously the most personal and most universal love story of the year. It’s that he did it with such sensitivity and rich understanding of what brings people together, what drives people apart, and what helps us to move on, all with a wild sci-fi premise that could have easily been more heady than heartfelt.

Honorable Mentions: Then again, Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke would rival Jonze for their extraordinary work in Before Midnight, the most mature love story of the year. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens gave us a half-funny, half-melancholy tale of an artist who didn’t make it, and why he was worth a damn. Terence Winter, meanwhile, wrote the funniest, most beautifully excessive script of the year with The Wolf of Wall Street, showing the crassest side of capitalism. And almost no one understands humanity as well as Asghar Farhadi, whose The Past confirms him as a modern day Anton Chekhov.

Scene of the Year: The Fight (Before Midnight)
It doesn’t quite top the beautiful ellipses that Before Sunset ended on, but Before Midnight’s finale sure came close. It’s a romantic getaway for Jesse and Celine, but after nine years of being together, the two have built up their petty resentments and suspicions about each other, and it all comes bursting forth at the worst time possible. Linklater and co. tear the hearts out of everyone who came to love these two, right before giving them hope again.

Honorable Mentions: Pacific Rim was more fun than scary, but a terrifying scene in which Rinko Kikuchi relives a traumatic event was the most frightening scene of the year. Upstream Color’s bizarre scene between Kris (Amy Seimetz) and a mind-controlling thief established the film’s roll-with-it-or-don’t style to intoxicating effect. Her had the year’s most tender “sex” scene as Theodore and Samantha first express their love for each other. And in The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio proved that physical comedy might be his thing in a scene I’ll refer to only as “Lemmon 714”.

Best Editing: Shane Carruth/David Lowery (Upstream Color)
The year’s most essential use of editing. The abstract rhythms- which play more like a poem or a symphonic movement in the last third than a story- depend on how Carruth connects it all. What’s remarkable here is that while it’s difficult to piece together most of what’s happening, in context, it all makes some sort of bizarre sense. Even if we don’t know what’s going on, it’s clear that Carruth does, and that he trusts the viewer to find what makes it all cohere.

Honorable Mentions: Thelma Schoonmaker proved yet again why she’s one of the world’s greatest editors with The Wolf of Wall Street. Alfonso Cuáron and Mark Sanger, meanwhile, made every transition between long take after long take clear and precise in Gravity, while Allen Leung did the same on a smaller scale with Drug War. Joe Walker gave 12 Years a Slave its classical, almost David Lean-style sweep in the editing.

Best Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema (Her)
Hoyte van Hoytema established himself as a great cinematographer with his work with Tomas Alfredson, but in Spike Jonze’s Her, he proved himself to be one of the best. His shallow focus compositions perfectly isolate Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly from the rest of the world, making it clear, from the very beginning, how disconnected he is from other people. And yet, the world was inviting, because there’s something warm about the way Hoytema photographed the futuristic but not antiseptic surfaces.

Honorable Mentions: It’s almost unthinkable to imagine a Coen Brothers movie without Roger Deakins, but Bruno Delbonnel’s hazy work on Inside Llewyn Davis made us never look back. Shane Carruth proved that sometimes one man can do it himself with his beautiful shallow focus compositions on Upstream Color. Emmanuel Lubezki, meanwhile, proved that he knows how to move a camera better than just about anyone else with Gravity. And some sort of special award should go to Matthias Grunsky for making Computer Chess look like something unearthed from the 1980s.

Visual Effects: Gravity
Duh.

Honorable Mentions: But it should be said, one more time, that Pacific Rim was as clear and as beautifully designed as the Transformers movies were ugly and incoherent. Shane Carruth’s lo-fi work on Upstream Color was nothing short of miraculous, while Star Trek Into Darkness proved that whatever J.J. Abrams’s flaws, he and his effects team really know how to craft an extraordinary sequence. And while Oblivion was awfully familiar, it sure was purdy.

Best Score: Shane Carruth (Upstream Color)
Minimalistic but moving, alien yet inviting, Carruth’s score for Upstream Color was just icing on the cake for his masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: Who knew that Arcade Fire’s best work this year would be their lovely score for Her? Tindersticks’s moody work on Claire Denis’s Bastards, meanwhile, was another electronic triumph. Alex Ebert’s work on All Is Lost played like a funeral requiem, like an old flute that’s playing its last tune. And Clint Mansell’s work on Stoker gave the film the creepy, operatic vibe it needed.  

Best Song: “The Moon Song” by Karen O/Spike Jonze (Her)
So simple, yet so moving, especially within the context of the film. Don’t know how much more I can expound upon it.

Honorable Mentions: “So You Know What It’s Like” by Keith Stanfield was one of the highlights of Short Term 12’s loose, terrific first half. Apparently there’s another version of “Please Mr. Kennedy” out there, but the goofy one from Inside Llewyn Davis provided one of the biggest laughs (and catchiest songs) of the year. Alex Ebert’s low-key “Amen” form All Is Lost was a perfect final note for the film. And the piano duet by Philip Glass gave Stoker was a perfect soundtrack to one of the year’s eeriest scenes.

Best Use of Preexisting Music: “Hang Me, Oh, Hang Me”/”Fare Thee Well” (Inside Llewyn Davis)
It’s hard for me not to just single out the whole soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis, but this melancholy bookend performances best sum up where Llewyn is and what he’ll likely never get out of.

Honorable Mentions: The Wolf of Wall Street continued Martin Scorsese’s run of great movies with great soundtracks, but the use of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” in some of the most bacchanal moments was particularly memorable. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” in 12 Years a Slave showed the power of a simple close-up. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s out-of-left-field homage to the “Modern Love” sequence of Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang was the giddiest moment in a film filled with them. And Xavier Dolan’s messy but fascinating Laurence Anyways gave one of the year’s greatest images as two lovers walk side by side as clothes rain from the sky, Moderat’s electronic song “A New Error” bringing it to a new emotional level.

Makeup: Behind the Candelabra
For making Michael Douglas look old and sickly, Matt Damon look like a plastic surgery nightmare, and Rob Lowe look like a weird, cat-eyed monster.

Honorable Mentions: The paleness of the characters in Stoker was just one of the many unnerving things about the film. American Hustle is a bit of a mess, but look at those hairstyles and tell me you weren’t thrilled by them. Laurence Anyways’s transformation of Melvin Pompaud from man to transgender woman less showy and more impressive than what happened to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. And the makeup in Blue Jasmine helps Cate Blanchett look, in different scenes, like a goddess or a mess.

Production Design: Her
Much of it is Shanghai posing as L.A., I know, but the way Spike Jonze’s production design team made the future look both believably near and like a fully formed world deserves hurrahs.

Honorable Mentions: Everything’s a bit off in Stoker, which is as it should be – the production design made the world look like a gigantic, creepy doll’s house. Behind the Candelabra let us luxuriate in Liberace’s gorgeous home, while Pacific Rim crafted its own beautiful looking future. And the level of detail in the coffee houses and shabby apartments in Inside Llewyn Davis is a marvel.

Costume Design: Her
The pants. THE PANTS.

Honorable Mentions: Inside Llewyn Davis, The Counselor, The World’s End, and Stoker come showed what great costume design really is: design that tells us something about the characters, whether it’s John Goodman’s jazzman in Inside Llewyn Davis or Simon Pegg’s wild card in The World’s End

Sound: Berberian Sound Studio
But seriously, can anyone think of a more essential use of sound this year? It’s not just that it’s about sound design – it shows how the making of those sounds can have a jangling psychological effect on us, even if we know where it’s coming from.

Honorable Mention: We’re hyper-aware of every creak and every weather sound in All Is Lost, while the muffling silence of space was just as nerve-wracking in Gravity. Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t just make the songs sound great, but helped make the 1960s milieu feel alive. And Pacific Rim’s sound design was clear without being deafening, the kind of sound that gives blockbusters a good name.

Most Overrated: The Conjuring
You are all on drugs. A slight improvement on the incompetence of Saw and Insidious doesn’t make up for the endless shock cuts, horror clichés, and inept storytelling that are part of James Wan’s M.O.

Dishonorable Mentions: Fruitvale Station boasted a great performance by Michael B. Jordan and a harrowing climax, but writer-director Ryan Coogler doesn’t trust us to care about its hero without turning him into a cardboard saint. American Hustle sees David O. Russell more invested on a performance level then on a storytelling level, with most of the film getting lost in pastiche. Captain Phillips is rarely less than competent, but with the exception of its heartbreaking final minutes, it never really feels like it’s about much of anything. And as formally exciting as Spring Breakers was, you can’t convince me that Harmony Korine has anything interesting or insightful to say about teenage culture or the American Dream, no matter how much he repeats it.

Most Underrated: The Counselor
Not a perfect movie, but the film this year that was most willing to forego genre payoffs and really alienate people, which I found thrilling.

Honorable Mentions: Sure, it’s silly, but if you go along with Stoker’s grand, operatic horror, it can be plenty fun as well. Brian De Palma’s Passion suffers from a weak script and stilted performances, but when he goes into De Palma Set-piece Mode, there’s no stopping him. Oz, the Great and Powerful does see Sam Raimi going a little heavy on CGI, but it’s also charming and inventive. And the “inventive” label also goes to The Lone Ranger. Come on, guys, it’s not that bad.

Worst of the Year: Movie 43
It is that bad. It is as bad as you expected, if not much, much worse.

Dishonorable Mentions: The Internship was less a movie and more a cynical, feature-length Google ad. Sharknado gives “so bad it’s good” a bad name, the kind of hyper-ironic, actually really boring debacle that thinks it's a lot funnier than it is. Prisoners might have ended up on my “Overrated” if not for the fact that it belonged here more, as stupid as it was hateful. And Off Label was the single most incoherent movie of the year, a documentary so completely lacking in focus that it changed what it wanted to be on a moment-to-moment basis.

Worst Performance: Jodie Foster (Elysium)
With the possible exception of Sharlto Copley’s much derided work in Oldboy (which I did not see), there wasn’t a more disastrously  received performance this year than Foster’s, a stilted Cruella De Vil villainess performance made worse by a bizarre accent of indeterminate origin (South African? French? Elysian?).

Dishonorable Mentions: Maybe Emory Cohen can act, but I haven’t seen him in anything else and he was the worst part of The Place Beyond the Pines, doing an overplayed bro act that nearly made me forget about the strong work done by the rest of the cast. Bruce Willis says he’s bored with action movies, and he looks it in his sleepy A Good Day to Die Hard performance. Charlie Hunnam, meanwhile, was blandly All American (but with a terrible American accent) in the otherwise delightful Pacific Rim. And I was too easy in my original review on Hugh Jackman’s one-note ROAAAAR of a performance in Prisoners.

Special Award for Best Performance in a Pile of Shit Movie: Jake Gyllenahaal (Prisoners)
Speaking of: I hate Prisoners, and I hate the way the script turns Jake Gyllenhaal’s character from a genius detective to an idiot depending on what the scene needs, but he’s the one performer who isn’t overexerting himself or otherwise being underused in the film.



All 2013 Films Seen This Year:

1.     The Act of Killing (87/A-)
2.     Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (54/C+)
3.     All Is Lost (93/A)
4.     All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (41/C)
5.     American Hustle (61/B-)
6.     Around the Block (31/C-) (seen at Toronto, and you will never hear a word about it again)
7.     August: Osage County (36/C-)
8.     Bastards (75/B+)
9.     Before Midnight (97/A)
10. Behind the Candelabra (87/A-)
11. Berberian Sound Studio (75/B+)
12. Beyond the Hills (83/A-)
13. Blackfish (56/B-)
14. The Bling Ring (39/C)
15. Blue Is the Warmest Color (86/A-)
16. Blue Jasmine (60/B-)
17. Captain Phillips (66/B)
18. C.O.G. (76/B+)
19. Computer Chess (89/A-)
20. The Conjuring (44/C)
21. The Counselor (79/B+)
22. Crystal Fairy (74/B+)
23. Dallas Buyers Club (56/B-)
24. Dirty Wars (56/B-)
25. Don Jon (37/C)
26. Drinking Buddies (67/B)
27. Drug War (84/A-)
28. Elysium (40/C)
29. Enough Said (59/B-)
30. Escape Plan (64/B)
31. Evil Dead (47/C+)
32. 42 (46/C+)
33. The F Word (39/C) (slated for release next year)
34. Frances Ha (86/A-)
35. Frozen (64/B)
36. Fruitvale Station (50/C+)
37. A Good Day to Die Hard (28/C-)
38. The Grandmaster (87/A-)
39. Gravity (85/A-)
40. The Great Beauty (71/B)
41. The Great Gatsby (43/C)
42. The Green Inferno (76/B+) (coming out next year)
43. Her (97/A)
44. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (52/C+)
45. I Killed My Mother (70/B)
46. Inside Llewyn Davis (90/A-)
47. Insidious: Chapter 2 (30/C-)
48. The Internship (3/D-)
49. Intersexion (40/C)
50. Iron Man 3 (52/C+)
51. It’s a Disaster (73/B+)
52. Kai Po Che! (20/D+)
53. Kick-Ass 2 (29/C-)
54. Laurence Anyways (62/B-)
55. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (48/C+)
56. Leviathan (82/A-)
57. The Lone Ranger (57/B-)
58. The Lords of Salem (67/B)
59. MANAKAMANA (81/B+)
60. Man of Steel (23/D+)
61. Man of Tai Chi (70/B)
62. Movie 43 (0/F)
63. Mud (78/B+)
64. Nebraska (84/A-)
65. No (80/B+)
66. Oblivion (66/B)
67. Off Label (15/D)
68. Only God Forgives (24/D+)
69. Out of the Furnace (52/C+)
70. Oz the Great and Powerful (59/B-)
71. Pacific Rim (86/A-)
72. Pain & Gain (45/C)
73. Passion (67/B)
74. The Past (85/A-)
75. The Place Beyond the Pines (60/B-)
76. Prince Avalanche (73/B+)
77. Prisoners (14/D)
78. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (64/B)
79. Rafea: Solar Mama (64/B)
80. Room 237 (77/B+)
81. Rush (55/B-)
82. Saving Mr. Banks (21/D+)
83. Sharknado (4/D-) (and that’s not a “so bad it’s good” rating, this thing is fucking boring)
84. Short Term 12 (70/B)
85. Side Effects (53/C+)
86. Something in the Air (53/C+)
87. The Spectacular Now (82/A-)
88. Spring Breakers (49/C+)
89. Star Trek Into Darkness (73/B+)
90. The Station (68/B) (Presumably coming out next year, though I’ve heard mum)
91. Stoker (78/B+)
92. Stories We Tell (72/B)
93. Therese (71/B) (coming next year, given the retarded retitle In Secret)
94. This is the End (66/B)
95. To the Wonder (83/A-)
96. 12 Years a Slave (96/A)
97. Upstream Color (98/A)
98. V/H/S/2 (62/B-)
99. We’re the Millers (40/C)
100.                The Wolf of Wall Street (95/A)
101.                The Wolverine (65/B)
102.                The World’s End (77/B+)
103.                World War Z (57/B-)
104.                You’re Next (70/B)