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tl;dw: Movies I Couldn’t Be Bothered to Finish in 2012

The best thing about streaming movies is that there’s no sunk costs. I don’t have to sit there and suffer through another sequel, another superhero, another indie misanthrope just to justify the $8 I’ve already spent. Ever since I started watching movies on my laptop, I start more than I used to, but my completion rate is down to like 50 percent. Now that I have a smartphone, a second screen to distract me, it’s pushing 25.

Anyway, here’s 12 movies I watched this year that failed to be more interesting than whatever I found an alt+tab away.

  • John Carter: After watching this for 20 minutes I stopped to do an image search for ‘taylor kitsch rippling shirtless’ and never unpaused.
  • We Bought a Zoo: So the title’s not a metaphor? It’s, like, the actual premise for the movie? Oh yeah fuck this.
  • Friends With Kids: We know you’re a playwright, OK, now can every line of dialogue stop telling us that?
  • The Hunger Games: I told everyone I know, like ‘It may not be High Art, but it’s a genuine cultural phenomenon, we have the obligation to see it.’ Like all intellectual pledges I made this year, this required a longer attention span than I possess, and I turned it off to read articles about it 25 minutes in.
  • We Need to Talk about Kevin: After Tilda’s third metaphor-rich juxtaposition with her environment, I figured my time would be better spent experiencing mine.
  • Your Sister’s Sister: I made it like 90 minutes in, and I was all proud of myself for concentrating on nutritious, prestigious Cinema, then the third-act twist was so bonkers and implausible that I shut down my Macbook and set it on fire.
  • Shut Up and Play the Hits: Love this movie and love this band so much that I turned it off to go dancing at Berghain after 25 minutes.
  • Shame: If I wanted to watch hot guys go jogging, I’d go hang out in Tiergarten. Oh wait, that would be more interesting than this, seeya.
  • This Means War: Five minutes went by before my middle school social studies teacher, in my head, went ‘Is this how you want to live your life?’ and I returned to watching cooking videos on YouTube.
  • Brave: This hurts. Pixar’s been good to us, as a society, and we owe it our attention and our allegiance. Still, halfway in, I wasn’t seeing anything I haven’t seen before. Sorry little hopping lamp, I let you down on this one.
  • Twilight: Is this a TV movie? Why does everyone look like they have the flu?
  • The Campaign: I love it when dick-joke comedies spend the last 30 minutes trying to convince me of the wrongness of their villains’ political opinions.    

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Inception is real!

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The least essential movie of the year

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I struggled through Greenberg last night, and the whole time I kept thinking ‘does the world really need this?’ Another unlikeable protagonist. Another stop-start romance. Another unresolved ending.

It’s not that it was bad, really. The dialogue was precise. The acting was realistic. Every scene went on precisely as long as it should have.

But what was the point? Baumbach has shown us all of this before. People who are unpleasant often hate themselves for being unpleasant. Yes, Noah, we have absorbed this now.

As I find myself watching fewer and fewer movies, I’m becoming convinced that filmmakers should approach each  movie like it’s a scientific publication. ‘What am I adding to the literature’, they should ask. I feel like this is one thing that action movie directors, for one, do really well. ‘What if the dinosaur terrorizing the city was bigger?’ they ask. Or, ‘What if the vampires could come out during the day?’

Sure, action movies are always playing the same tune, but at least they’re using different instruments. Movies like Greenberg are just lipsyncing.

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The lie at the center of ‘Avatar’

'Avatar' is James Cameron's James Cameron-est movie, if you know what I mean. The only thing clunkier than his machinery is his dialogue, and he's always been more interested in the non-humans in his stories than the humans.

'Avatar' is the purest distillation not only of the Cameron approach to filmmaking (lots of non-human character development and 'how it works' scenes, not much zoom on the human population), but also his worldview. During most of the movie, when I should have been shock-n-aweing over the visuals, I was thinking about the narrative. A few things struck me:

  • With all the talk about the 'next generation of special effects', it's funny that they ended up being a delivery device for a storyline that was so retro it could have starred Steven Seagal. There hasn't been an 'Anglo dude infiltrates the natives and finds himself entranced by their simple ways' plotline in a Hollywood movie for decades.

  • James Cameron's ideas of indigenous peoples seem to be informed entirely by corporate diversity training videos and 1980s National Geographic photo captions. They speak with mother earth! They thank the animal for its spirit after the hunt! Their g-strings match their spears! I was pre-emptively cringing in anticipation of the scene where we find out that they use every part of the horse-beast after they kill it.
     
  • The movie's not remotely interested in the way that complexity expresses itself in indigenous societies. Some of the best movies of the past decade have explored they way that idealistic concepts like paradise and love let us down. The savages aren't always noble.This was, perhaps not coincidentally, the decade where James Cameron took a break from movies to go scuba diving.
  • Not only is 'Avatar' collectively retro, it's individually retro too. Cameron obviously still thinks in Bad Guys and Good Guys. It's not enough that the jingoist soldier destroys a benevolent civilization. He has to say 'drinks on me, boys!' as he copters away. Cameron's not interested in the evil we do when we're driven by good intentions, or poor priorities, or keeping our jobs. In Cameron's world, indigenous people lose their homes because America, and the corporate interests it proxies, hates them.
  • It's also rare in a movie to see a team of good guys motivated almost exclusively by doing the right thingNo one is motivated to save this planet because they might get famous out of it, or rich, or published in Nature. No, they want to save the Navi because, like, we're all connected, man.
  • I take this aspect of the movie seriously because I deal with real-world examples of this phenomenon all day at work. Some of the most abundant mineral deposits in the world really are underneath indigenous populations, and we as a species haven't come up with a just or acceptable way of dealing with this.
  • Of all 'Avatar's' retro elements, the ending may be the one most at odds with reality. If an indigenous or local population in, say, Bolivia rose up against the oil companies operating there, would the companies just shrug and say 'oh well, we'll get the oil elsewhere'?
  • A company in that situation would throw everything it had at the community. The movie got that right. But a company that fails with helicopters on Monday will be back on Tuesday with tanks. And on Wednesday with planes. And so on. In a fight between two entities, one with profoundly more power than the other, the guy wearing the g-string doesn't win in the long run. 
  • And that's the central lie of 'Avatar': That all it takes is rage, willpower and a white guy for indigenous peoples to rise up and resist the capitalist forces trying to uproot their lifestyles. On the planet we live on, though, the bow and arrow loses to the helicopter every time.

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Decade Roundup: The 13 Movies That Defined the ’00s

It’s been a strange decade for movies.  Looking back, it seems like the events of the last 10 years and the things we were watching and listening to have occurred completely independently of each other. This decade’s paradigmatic movies – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, all the comic book movies – have been specifically designed to be timeless. They don’t comment on the events of the last 10 years, or even attempt to. Movies that have tried to ‘take on’ the things we’ve all lived through and talked about – 25th Hour, Elephant, Stop Loss, United 93, anything by Michael Moore – have been shrill, uneven and generally ignored. There still isn’t a good movie about 9/11, and the only good one about Iraq—the Hurt Locker—is mostly good because it avoids taking a stance or making a point.

The movies’ have not only circumvented what we’ve lived this decade, they’ve also circumvented how we’ve lived. In spite of Hollywood’s increasing focus on tweens as a market (old enough to have money, not old enough to figure out The Pirate Bay), movie-adolescence is still trapped somewhere between ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Gidget’.

Movies depict routine, decidedly non-exotic components of our daily lives—texting, cell phones, the internet—like alien mating rituals. The genuine moral dilemmas of modern life—constant information without the tools or the maturity to process it—are sidelined in favour of fossilized geek-jock star crossings. Movies, even when they take place in the present, somehow don’t resemble the way we live and talk.

Judged on verisimilitude, it’s been a terrible decade for movies. Which doesn’t mean that they’ve all been bad, just that, in 50 years, they won’t tell us very much about where we are now.

I wanted to put together a list of the movies that, in spite of all the upwind incentives, told us something about this decade. I don’t necessarily think these are the best movies of the last 10 year per se, I just think these are the ones we will show our kids when we want to tell them what it felt like to live in the first decade of the new millennium. Not all of them directly take on ‘how we live now’ or whatever. These are just the movies I feel like I’ll look to when I’m sitting in a hovering rocking chair in 50 years, looking for a celluloid bookmark.

 

1. The Bourne Identity series

One of the central innovations of action filmmaking in the ‘00s has been the dedication of writers and directors to taking their premises seriously. The genius of the Bourne movies is that they take a pulp premise—You wake up with amnesia! Gasp, you’re a superspy!—and ask ‘what if this actually happened?’

The Bourne movies doesn’t admit for a second that their premise is far-fetched. There’s no snappy sidekick, no meta-jokes for the audience’s benefit. The reason they work is that they put real people into these premises, and we watch how they live with it. Bourne doesn’t wisecrack, he doesn’t one-line before he kills the bad guy. He feels bad about what he does, and laments rather than celebrates the killings he performs. He is Oughties Man. He’s not only allowed to feel bad, he’s expected to.

Along with the dedication to their premise, the Bournes are a good example of the increasing TV-ization of the movies. Among all the sequels and serieses released in the ‘00s, few bother with the ‘last time on…’-style recaps of the previous films. They simply expect that you have seen them, and can keep up. The Bourne movies perform almost no hand-holding at all. Each movie is darker, more serious and less talky than the last. The Bourne Ultimatum probably has five lines of dialogue that aren’t a variation on ‘he’s on your left!’ or some other spatial declaration. The most devastating scene in the movie consists of two characters looking at each other in a diner.

 

2. Dancer in the Dark

In a decade where everyone from film students to Michael Bay got all shaky-cam on us, only a few movies actually used the technique to elicit any audience reaction beyond ‘get a fucking tripod!’

I’m not going to defend ‘Dancer in the Dark’s’ content. I know a lot of people who absolutely hate this movie, and most of their criticisms are valid. It is pretentious. The musical scenes are amateurish. The premise and ending—my God, that ending!—are mawkish and manipulative.

‘Dancer in the Dark’ succeeds or fails solely on whether you fall in love with the main character. If you do, none of those criticisms matter. The stylistic misfires of the decade (obtrusive handheldery, time shifts, CGI everything) failed because they thought ‘how did they do that?’ was an acceptable substitute for empathy.

‘Dancer in the Dark’ succeeds because, a week or a month after you see it, you don’t remember that it was grainy, or shaky, or that the actors didn’t wear makeup. You just remember the main character. And that fucking ending.

 

3. High Fidelity

Forty years after feminism, we’re still figuring out how to date each other in a world without door-holding and dad-meeting. ‘High Fidelity’ is the only romantic comedy this decade to actually address this. The movie opens with the two protagonists breaking up, and follow them as they date and fuck other people, humiliate themselves, and finally get back together because they don’t know how to be themselves with anyone else. It ends with cautious optimism (the opposite of the ‘oh shit what have we done’ shot at the end of The Graduate), and leaves them right where they started. This movie says more about modern relationships than a Mao army of Sandra Bullocks.

 

4. In the Loop 

Here’s one! A movie takes on one of the major events of the decade. Wait, who’s it by? The Brits?!

This movie’s actually not on this list because it tells us anything new about Iraq. It’s actual content is pretty much coincidental. In the Loop is on this list because it lays bare the way that governments actually work in industrialized, middle-class nations. Not just the backroom handshakes, but the way that everyone’s concerns monolithically boil down to ‘what does this mean for me?’

Beyond the profanity and Brit-casm, the central joke of In the Loop is the bottomless selfishness of all of its characters. Everyone wants credit, everyone wants to hold the lever. And in the end, everyone  ends up in an outcome they didn’t foresee or even particularly want.

 

5. Borat

I think I’m the only person in America who doesn’t like this movie. Most of ‘Borat’ felt to me like a mid-90s Tom Green sketch (‘let’s go ruin someone’s day!’), and the racism and homophobia he found in my home country just made me sick to my stomach.

For the purposes of this list, though, I can’t deny the huge paradigm shift that ‘Borat’ represents. All the 2.0-ish trends of the ‘00s—amateur media creation, YouTube, viral videos, post-modern satire (‘I’m making fun of racism by being racist! See?’)—it’s all here. Not to mention the cringe docu-comedy invented by the UK version of ‘The Office’ and perfected by the US version. I don’t ever want to see ‘Borat’ again, but if I was burying a time capsule, this would be the first DVD in it.

 

6. Donnie Darko

Behind all the mobius-stripping and clear-complexioned angst, ‘Donnie Darko’ succeeded by being the first movie of the ‘00s to really understand its audience. The first cult classic of the DVD era, ‘Donnie Darko’ unabashedly rewarded repeat viewings and channel-surfing attention spans. Most of the movie’s humor comes not from the writing but from the performances, and seems engineered to be pasted into your Facebook status (‘I’m beginning to doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion!’).  

The movie’s poor critical reception and box-office failure almost add to its credibility. There’s always going to be movies that your parents don’t get. This was the first decade where you don’t need their permission.

 

7. Amores Perros

The apex of the ‘we’re all connected!’ trend. Temporal creativity and coincidence-hung plotlines eventually got played out, but ‘Amores Perros’ (and its brethren Memento and The Prestige) demonstrate the difference between technique and gimmick.

 

8. The Royal Tenenbaums

Instead of trying to come up with a name for this decade that plays on the numbers (oughties, naughties), can’t we just call it the Wes Anderson Decade? Anderson has made only four movies, and two of them were mediocre (I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet), but no one else has had bigger influence—or a more precise eye—for where we are aesthetically this decade. Too fastidious to be reality but too painstaking to be camp, the sets, costumes, cinematography, even the dialogue of every Wes Andersen movie has been a milestone. No one remembers much about the narratives, but the visuals have been the most admired—and imitated—of the last 10 years.

 

9. X2: X-Men United

Still the best comic book movie ever made (yeah, Dark Knight, I said it), and one of the only movies of the ‘00s to deal with the new paradigm of difference. The X-Men, in all their iterations, have always been a powerful metaphor for minorities and the way they see and are seen by the mainstream culture.

In the ‘90s, the battles over minorities mostly consisted of representation—are we in your movies and TV shows? How many of us? In the ‘00s, the battle over minorities seemed to consist of  ‘now what?’ The major minority groups in America have gone through their Sydney Poitier phase in entertainment, and are ready for more nuanced portrayals. X2, took this seriously, and somehow found the vulnerable teenager underneath a blue-skinned, horned Canadian.  

I wish there was another movie this decade that addressed this issue. I’d even take one without an airborne F-16 vs. lighting-bolt battle. But with a few small exceptions, X2 is the only movie to even attempt to unflinchingly depict a group of minorities and the way they struggle to fit in.

 

10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep

If the ‘80s were the Me Decade, the ‘00s were the Meta Decade. The defining genre was the mixtape, the defining humor was snark, the defining pose was irony. In spite of our generation’s obsession with authenticity, no one has wanted to take anything particularly seriously for the last 10 years.

The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind weren’t the most realistic movies of the decade, but they were definitely the most earnest. The characters love and fuck and fail without showing any awareness of the cinematic-ness of it all. No one makes self-referential jokes or Dave Eggersly gazes at their navel. The soundtracks aren’t self-conscious or obtrusive. This systematic refusal to try and sum up the young people of this decade is what makes them so good at it.

 

11. Bad Santa

The end of the redemptive arc, finally!

In spite of its flaws, I’m a huge proponent of Bad Santa. After a childhood growing up on raunchy comedies that were only good until the spiky protagonist meets The Girl,  it’s great to finally have a ‘scoundrel goes mainstream’ movie that doesn’t pussy out and turn the protagonist into a saint.

Yeah, yeah, Billy Bob Thornton gets marginally better at the end, and the movie has some misfires (midget jokes, really?), but you couldn’t pick a better mascot for the end of likability and relatability as prerequisites for main characters.

 

12. Gone Baby Gone

The only entertainment (other than ‘The Wire’) to grapple with the surrender of our inner cities. The urban experience in the ‘00s has been depicted as a problem that only social workers and SWAT teams are equipped to solve. ‘Gone Baby Gone’ exposes the slow-motion avalanche of failure in America’s inner cities, and how the ‘solutions’ from inside and outside only make the problem worse. In a decade where cities became stand-ins for coolness, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ reveals the deep dysfunction and cornered-eel sociopathy underneath the ‘urban’ pose that overtook our radios and TVs.

 

13. Half Nelson

As much as the ‘heroic teacher’ genre needed to be blown up in particular, this movie is also a good argument for the end of the role model generally. The idea of looking up to a specific person as a model somehow seems really … ‘80s now. The ‘00s taught us that everyone is fallible. The paparazzi ruined the celebrities, the courts ruined the sports stars and CNN ruined the politicians. ‘Half Nelson’ is about how our inspirations leave us lonely, and how we should never follow our heroes home.

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The ‘Precious’ problem

I just came back from seeing 'Precious':

‘Precious’ trailer

There's been an interesting debate over the film since it was released last month.

Not since ‘The Birth of a Nation’ has a mainstream movie demeaned the idea of black American life as much as ‘Precious [..] Full of brazenly racist clichés (Precious steals and eats an entire bucket of fried chicken), it is a sociological horror show.

Black pathology sells. It’s an over-the-top political fantasy that works only because it demeans blacks, women and poor people.

That's Armond White, a (black) movie reviewer for the New York Press, who seems to think that all movies about black people should have an immaculate protagonist, an unthreatening premise and a triumphant denouement.

I usually roll my eyes at this shit. Armand White is a known cinematic asshole, always the first to jump on a contrarian bandwagon. He spends most of his review attacking Oprah, Tyler Perry and the movie's director, Lee Daniels, as 'media titans' and 'a pathology pimp'. I've been reading his reviews for years, and he always pulls this shit where he judges every movie primarily on its political message. Its actual content and quality– how honest it is, how compelling it is — always come second. 

Then I saw 'Precious'.

Fuck. Did it have to be a bucket of friend chicken that Precious steals and binges on? Did her mother have to have lines like 'I only leave the house when I'm playing my numbers?' There are scenes, especially in the first half and particularly the one where her mother scams a social worker for a welfare check, that feel like they were written by an Appalachian militia.

'Precious and her mother share a Harlem hovel so stereotypical it could be a Klansman’s fantasy,' White writes. 'Fuck!' I thought, watching Precious's mother force-feed her a plate of pig's feet as retribution for forgetting the collard greens, 'he's right!'

Imagine watching a movie with an all-Native American cast, where the first 45 minutes were just characters sitting around an evergreen-wooded trailer saying things like 'I sure do love this firewater!' 'Let's make money selling roman candles!' and 'Let's scam the white man by opening a casino!' As much as I hate to admit it, that's the sort of cringe I got watching 'Precious'.

Look, I'm a left-wing, overthinky homosexual living in Denmark, for pagan-ritual's sake. I don't know any more about the black experience in Harlem in the 1980s than I do about the Welsh experience in Australia in the 1870s. I do know  stereotypes, however, and the way they get used as ammunition. It's genuinely unsettling to see them in life size, at 24 frames per second.

I fully admit that cringeyness, and Armond White's anger, come not from the movie itself, but from its failure to fulfill its obligation as Blackness Ambassador or whatever to the rest of the country. It is essentially us going, 'Egads, what will the white people think?!'

This reaction is incontrovertibly bullshit, I know. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be taken seriously. Majorities do form their opinions of minorities based on culture. Depictions do matter, regardless of who's doing the depicting.

Minority groups spent the better part of last century fighting over the quantity of representation in mainstream culture. Now they're fighting over the quality of that representation. And that's OK.

I would be pissed if a mainstream, critically acclaimed movie depicted gays as meth-fueled promiscu-yuppies (and pissed-er, if I'm honest, if it was written or directed by heterosexuals). But at the same time, I get frustrated when the gay experience isn't depicted in all its complication and ugliness. We deserve to be just as nuanced as any other decadent, unbreeding population group.

In my mind, minority representation on film needs to be judged only on its verisimilitude. I can take welfare queens and teen pregnancy when they're in the service of something that, overall, feels true. As far as I'm concerned, 'Precious' fails not because it makes black people look bad, but because it's two dimensional and Paul Haggis-y.

Armond White sees the mother character — an almost unadulterated cinematic monster — as a blow against black people. I see it as a blow against art. Any character who literally throws a baby on the ground is no more representative of black people than Freddy Krueger is representative of Dutch-Americans.

Neither 'Precious', nor any other minority-themed film, is going to be the inspirational squeegee that finally wipes the last scum of bigotry from American society. It will be a great thing for America, and the movies, if we stop expecting them to be. 

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Hollywood depicts end of world with characteristic subtlety, class

Did anyone else die laughing when they saw this image from '2012' in the New York Times?

It's like Thomas Kinkade started taking commissions from end-timers.

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I saw a movie in 3-D last night

for the first time since 'Captain Eo' at Disneyland when I was 12. I found the 3-D-ness kind of distracting, actually, but I bet people found color and sound distracting, too, when they were first introduced. Luckily the movie was 'Up', which is good no matter how many dimensions its in.

For some reason, this video reminded me of that

Olafur Arnalds


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I saw ‘Trouble the Water’ last night

and thought it was utterly amazing, and probably the best 'show don't tell' argument for why I turn off most movies after 20 minutes these days.

Officially, it's a documentary about Hurricane Katrina. But it's really a home movie by Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, who bought a video camera for $20 off the street the day before the storm and kept it on almost constantly for three days in their attic, camped out on a neighbor's top floor and, eventually, in a Red Cross shelter. The movie's tied together by some post-production and some title cards, but mostly its just the Roberts trying, first, not to drown and, second, to sort through the rubble that the storm makes of their lives.

Trouble the Water trailer

It looks like a liberal guilt-a-thon, right? I know. What the movie's really about, though, beyond the platitudes, is the insufficiency of fiction to address genuine tragedy. It's amazing how the Roberts survive the hurricane and its aftermath, but nothing about the movie could ever be pitched as a 'triumph of the human spirit.'

Trouble the Water – clip

Both Kim and her husband are former (and possibly current) drug dealers. They steal a truck to get out of New Orleans and keep it. Kim's brother is in prison. Kim's using the publicity from the film to launch a rap career. Her husband doesn't have a high school diploma, and you can hear real bitterness when he explains his return to New Orleans from Memphis with, 'they only hire graduates up there.' A fiction film would never give its protagonists so many empathy obstacles.

But that's the whole point. We're all adults, we shouldn't need our heroes and survivors to come complete with college diplomas and sparkling intentions. The Roberts aren't 'good people who took some wrong turns in their lives' or however our binary moral compasses want to preserve their hero-ness. They are simply compelling. That's all they, or the movie, owe us.

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‘I’m gonna fight you, Mrs. Wadsworth’

Lately I've decided the only movies worth watching are the ones that are either painstakingly realistic or aggressively stylized. Somehow I fear that this movie went for one and ended up the other:

1973: ‘The Baby’

The sound you hear at the end is a million gays at their laptops whispering 'fabulous'.

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