All is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013)


When observing Robert Redford’s unnamed, mostly mute character in J.C Chandor’s brilliant All is Lost, I thought a lot about solitude. When one is completely alone, one acts differently than if they were around others (obviously). As dumb as that sounds, in the context of All is Lost - a film consisting of only one actor – the idea poses a unique challenge for Redford and Chandor. Redford presents realism in its purist form - since his character is alone, he isn’t acting for anyone, he doesn’t need to tell anyone how he feels. When he faces his first challenge – a sizable hole in the side of his boat – he doesn’t seem too worried, but how could we know? He doesn’t mutter curse words to himself, he doesn’t nervously pace around or throw things in frustration. Yet we know how he feels. This understanding is a projection, of course, and therein lies the key to the film’s success. We are given zero backstory and very little specific information about “our man” (as the credits call him), so he quickly becomes a vessel for our own experience. This is the important difference between All is Lost and Gravity - the former boldly tells us nothing while the latter awkwardly tells us too much.*

All is Lost is not formally unconventional. The movie follows the familiar trajectory of what I’ll call the “survival film.” Like J.C. Chandor’s previous film Margin Call, All is Lost demonstrates the writer/director’s strength for harnessing familiar forms to produce story-centric films. All is Lost shows this strength in its purist form. The film is bizarrely simple (again: there’s zero backstory)This narrative simplicity makes it allegorical, like a short story; Redford’s enigmatic screen presence makes it cinematic, like a movie.

If this whole one-guy-on-a-boat-for-two-hours thing sounds pretty boring, rest assured that, although this is a film about isolation, it won’t make you feel isolated. Chandor cares deeply for his audience and his film offers an experience that is as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. Like Gravity, the experience of watching All is Lost is, first and foremost, immersive and physical. The sound design is crucial to this effect and acts almost as another character, as does the beautiful score from Alex Ebert. These two elements play off each other brilliantly as the moaning and creaking of the boat’s deterioration meshes with the lush horn textures of Ebert’s music.

It can be guessed from the poster that this is a movie about the struggle to survive, but it is also a movie about the choice to survive. Throughout All is Lost, our man is constantly having to make the fundamental human choice to fight or to submit. The film’s conclusion [don't worry, no spoilers] handles this choice with a subtlety that effectively elevates the film to greatness. Just as “our man” is aptly named, I could call the ending “our ending” as it offers a conclusion whose meaning is largely dependent on our subjective experience. To me, it is a brilliantly rewarding ending to a film that is damn-near perfect.

*I don’t mean to hate on Gravity, which was one of the most thrilling movie-going experiences I’ve had this year. The script has it’s clunky moments, sure, but they are largely forgivable in the context of the movie.  I bring it up only as a means of comparison.

9 out of 10 


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Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)


In the opening minutes of Trouble Every Day, Claire Denis compiles a series of striking and vaguely iconic images: the sexy brunette, the doomed road-side hookup, the gruesome aftermath. These images feel at home in the horror genre but the way in which they’re handled feel far from it. Denis’ trademark  fragmentation refuses to make it easy on us – every close-up and every cut sidesteps exposition while seducing us with its hypnotic rhythm. From our inherent associations with these archetypes, we know nothing good will come from this truck driver’s blind lust for the sexy brunette but Denis only shows us glimpses – specifically the before and after. But of course we want to see the act itself and this carnal desire is at the center of Trouble Every Day. Our “payoff” comes in the form of two scenes that I count collectively as one of two instances (Antichrist was the other one) where a film forced me to look away. 

The femme fatale is Coré, she prowls the earth in search of her next victim like a monster. Before the film tells us exactly how, we abstractly understand that Core and Vincent Gallo’s Shane – an American scientist on his honeymoon in Paris – are connected. On Shane’s flight to France, he retreats to the bathroom in a panic; There, he dreams of blood-soaked flesh suggesting without defining his connection to Coré. Whether this is meant to represent a memory or a fantasy is unclear but, like Coré, he has blood on the brain. Shane spends his days secretly trying to track down a scientist he used to work with, revealing an ulterior motive for the Parisian locale. Because Denis is dead-set on narrative sparseness, we have little idea of Shane’s history or motivations, which makes this section feel cold and stiff. Here, again, Denis is outlining a vaguely familiar trope – the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde science-experiment-gone-wrong story – but not indulging in it. It’s almost as if this section – the first hour or so of the film – is intentionally sluggish. Denis knows that we can’t help but be intrigued by the promise of sex and violence that the film’s opening suggests. She knows that we are familiar enough with this kind of story to fill in the blanks. 

We soon discover that the scientist Shane is searching for, Léo (Alex Descas), is Coré’s lover. Léo has left behind the scientific community for a life dutifully cleaning up after his wife’s gruesome murders. Coré is presented as a victim of her own id – after each encounter she is left helpless and shaking until Léo comes to her aid. This marriage serves as a bleak look into the future for the hopeful young honeymooning couple. You see, Coré and Shane suffer from the same affliction, which has something to do with a failed experiment performed by Léo. The procedure resulted in a brain defect that has left them with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. The difference between them is Shane seems to be in more control of it, at least for now. Whereas Shane knows enough to lock himself in the bathroom when he feels out of control, Coré needs to be constantly confined in the attic with Léo on close watch. 

Neither of the film’s two couples are sleeping together. In the case of Shane and June – even though they both desperately long to consummate their marriage, Shane knows that it would end badly. The offscreen struggle to prevent this is cleverly hinted at with light marks on June’s face and shoulder – apparently they’ve come dangerously close. What Denis is fearlessly exploring with Trouble Every Day is the idea at the core of all vampire fiction – love and lust are two overwhelming forces that are often at odds with each other. For Shane and Coré – lust is an addiction for which they are in constant need of a fix, an addiction that is constantly threatening to sabotage their efforts to love their partners.

Trouble Every Day, like most of Claire Denis’ work, is fiercely provocative and defiantly ambiguous. Aside from what the film says about love and lust, it also tells a larger story about our carnal desire to watch. Similar to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Trouble is designed to confront this desire. We, like the young boy who falls victim to Coré’s hunger, can’t help but wonder what would happen if he broke through the boarded up doorway and satisfied his lust. In this scene and the gruesome penultimate scene, disorienting close-ups of the victim’s skin implicate us into the dizzyingly seduction that the monsters experience. Importantly, though, the perspective of these scenes shifts once the encounter turns horrific. In Shane’s locker room scene, for instance, our eyes are locked on the housekeeper’s screaming face as she is punished for the control she has foolishly offered to Shane. We feel her pain – we too are being punished.

This is a deeply unsettling and unpleasant film. This effect, of course, is the intention and therefore it is successful. As a provocation, Trouble Every Day is brilliantly multi-layered and boldly confident. As a movie, it’s pretty hard to watch. 

7 out of 10 

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51st New York Film Festival

Some highlights from this years New York Film Festival:

Bastards (Claire Denis) 


Claire Denis trades the fable-like grandeur of White Material for the intimacy and darkness of a modern noir. Bastards is a film that, as stylish and fragmented as it seems, never puts style before contentDenis continues to demonstrate her profound sense of rhythm and economy – every cut is dead-on and exposition is non-existant. The subject matter of Bastards is deeply disturbing and, through the repetition of jarring imagery (a blank-faced girl walking down a dark street wearing nothing but heels), and the haunting music of frequent collaborators, Tindersticks, Denis creates a deeply unsettling and unforgettable film.

Jealousy (Phillipe Garrel)

Jealousy 1

A meandering and spare portrait of love, responsibility, and adulthood. The gorgeously grainy black-and-white (by Masculin Féminin DP Willy Kurant) is a breath of fresh air. Louis Garrel (the director’s son) recalls the Antoine Doinel of Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses or Bed and Board. Anna Mouglali, with her smokey voice and expressive face, gives the film its most intimate and vulnerable moments.

Philipe Garrel’s dopey-eyed Louis acts as a surrogate for the director himself. The film is clearly autobiographical and, as a result, borders on navel gazing. Feeling more like a collection of moments than a story, Jealousy wouldn’t be much without the beauty of its photography, setting and actors. At 77 minutes, it doesn’t feel a minute too long and, although there’s not much to it, it’s an altogether warm and enjoyable film.

Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiradie)


This film is gorgeously atmospheric and dreamlike. Guiradie uses repeated shots and erratic sound design to undercut the idyllic locale with a growing sense of dread. The film takes Hitchcock’s fascination with the connection between sex and violence to its logical conclusion. Brilliant.

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang)


This was my first experience with director Tsai Ming-Liang and it’s one I won’t soon forget. The film’s tremendously long takes call to mind other masters of slow cinema like Tarkovsky and Tarr but where those directors present a cinema of movement, Ming-Liang’s film often emphasizes the lack thereof. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman – both films depict characters who are stuck in space.

In spite of its impenetrable narrative (or lack thereof) and defiantly glacial pace, Stray Dogs is remarkably cinematic. Raw emotion – specifically anger and sadness – are front and center.

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The Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013)


The brilliance of Sarah Polley’s hyper-personal documentary, The Stories We Tell, is evident within the first 5 minutes. We are introduced to the cast of characters, Polley’s own family, as they awkwardly prepare for their interviews. With this simple sequence, Polley uses her family’s pre-roll banter to establish a level of intimacy that the following film could not function without – from this point on we are no longer objective observers, we are family. This prelude also firmly establishes a major question in The Stories We Tell: How does our own perspective – with all of its self-consciousness, insecurity, disappointment wrapped up in it – affect how we view the world? Sarah Polley generously uses her own family’s history to explore larger questions about memory, perspective, and the way we construct the stories of our lives.

It quickly becomes clear in The Stories We Tell that this is not a family that’s afraid to talk about things – her brother, for example, recounts a time in which he casually asked their father about oral sex. It doesn’t hurt that they are also very good at talking about things. The aforementioned brother speaks with a candor and vulnerability that gives the film its most memorable moments. Polley’s father, who reads the only pre-written narration throughout, speaks with the gravitas and authority of a seasoned thespian. These people are a joy to watch and their immediate charm convinces us to go along as they venture into potentially self-indulgent territory.

Sarah Polley structures her film by having everyone in her family sit in front of the camera and tell “the story” as they remember it from start to finish. The story in question begins as a tribute to her late mother, whose charismatic charm is lovingly remembered. The family’s recollections are further revealed through a surprisingly plentiful amount of super-8 home movies. Polley is a acutely aware of the emotional and intellectual effect this footage has on us. Not only is this footage nostalgic, it’s also corroborative  - we perceive this footage to be the truth, we believe it to represent what her mother actually looked like, the way she dressed, the way she danced and, as a result, we feel like we know her. As her “storytellers” (as they are titled in the credits) share their own personal perspectives on the woman and her story, we are given the materials to structure our own.

It is revealed that Polley’s mother had become bored with her marriage and that an affair may have taken place. Family lore holds that Sarah, who was conceived during this period, could possibly have been the result of the alleged affair. Sarah’s effort to clear up this long-held family secret is the main narrative thrust of Stories but it is far from the point. Polley is more interested in how the story is told rather than the story itself. To this effect, she gives equal weight to all perspectives because everyone seems to remember the events differently. One of the principle players in the film, a close friend of her late mother’s, strongly disapproves of this approach. His argument is that this jumbling of opinions results in a retelling that is far from the “truth.” But the relativity of truth is precisely where Sarah Polley’s interest lies and, throughout The Stories We Tell, she goes to great lengths to highlight its slipperiness.

As I describe this remarkable film, I am paying close attention to what aspects of the plot should be revealed. Whereas the phrase “spoiler alert” doesn’t often enter into conversations regarding documentaries, this is a film that is best experienced with little knowledge of its surprises. The Stories We Tell is conceptually bold and emotionally rich. With her previous film, Take this Waltz, Sarah Polley demonstrated her ability to portray loneliness and longing with overwhelming precision. With The Stories We Tell, she explores our fundamental need to tell stories, to make sense of our collective longing, and the ways in which we inevitably come up short. Her ability to explore these questions with great humor makes the experience entertaining as well as thought-provoking. Simply put, this is essential viewing – a front runner for film of the year.

10 out of 10 


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The Canyons (Paul Schrader, 2013)


Paul Schrader is most famous for penning the scripts for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. He is obsessed with “monocular” stories that focus on morally questionable men at odds with a godless universe. His films borrow more than a little bit from his idols, especially Robert Bresson – masters of “small” stories that are light on plot but heavy on philosophical depth. Schrader, a former critic, is well-versed in the language of cinema and has made great, sophisticated films. I, like most film fans, have great respect for the man. So what in the hell are we supposed to make of The Canyons?

First off, this is most definitely a collaboration. Schrader has bounced back and forth between writer and director and, for this film, a self-proclaimed “movie for the post-theatrical age (yikes), he enlisted the help of author and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis. The film, in turn, reflects the high-concept satire Ellis is known for rather than Schrader’s subtler “man in a room” approach. Throughout the press blitz for The Canyons, it seems that neither party wants to take full responsibility for the film – Ellis claims the final product is more of a Schrader film, while Schrader claims the true authorship should go to Ellis. This is a bad sign. They’ve created a monster and even they don’t know what to make of it.

This movie is quite bad and I think its creators would say this is precisely the point. “This is where we’re heading,” they would say. The importance of a focused, theatrical experience is in a rapid decline –  the film references this with ominous shots of abandoned theaters throughout. This conceit, coupled with the increasing ability for anyone to make a movie, will result, they would say, in products that look and feel like The Canyons (read: trash). I applaud the ambition but the resulting film gives the impression that something was lost along the way. Perhaps in the midst of the production’s much publicized drama, The Canyons became less of a provocation and more of an attack. The joke is on us for watching it.

If this movie is meant to be bad, then I won’t bother further describing its bad-ness. Perhaps The Canyons will find a home in the world of the midnight movie along with The Room and Showgirls. The problem is that, while those films offer a point-and-laugh experience that unites audiences, The Canyons is too damn sad to laugh at. The film was supposed to be a comeback for Lindsay Lohan but serves as further evidence of her rapid decline. The most likely future for The Canyons is that it will die as one of many casualties of the very “post-theatrical age” it depicts. Maybe this was the intention all along?

2 out of 10

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On the Road (Walter Salles, 2013)


The journey to adapt Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel has been a long one. Francis Ford Coppola acquired the rights in 1979 and since then the project has been victim of one false start after another. This makes sense seeing as how the book is not known for its story as much as its mood. The work of the beat generation relishes in abstraction and experimentation – this is basically its definition. On the Road is as much a celebration of the written word as it is a portrait of post-WWII, non-conformist ideology. This is a book that is inherently tied to its medium, which makes it an unlikely candidate for adaptation.   Another beat-defining work, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” was recently given a film adaptation and the result was awkward and hokey. It’s appropriate, then, that On the Road was largely believed to be unfilmable.

The project never fully died as a result of Coppola’s dedication to it. He finally found its director in Walter Salles, whose 2004 historical road movie - Motorcycle Diaries - makes him an appropriate choice. Salles directs On the Road with playful ease. He translates the bebop rhythm of Kerouac’s prose with quick cutting and handheld camera moves. The magic-hour lighting casts a warm glow over the widescreen panoramas mirroring the book’s unabashed romanticism. Salles creates a mood that feels true to the Kerouac ideal, however, this is only half the battle. In regards to the film’s stunted history Coppola said “…(On the Road is) definitely something of a spirit, but no one quite knew how to put the flesh on it”- herein lies the challenge.

The script by Jose Rivera addresses this issue by playing to the book’s autobiographical nature. The cast is billed with two character names – the names from the book as well as their real-life alter-egos. This allows the film to depict the making of the novel as well as its content. Throughout it we see Sal/Kerouac furiously taking notes and sitting at his typewriter struggling to get started. This all builds to a climactic “Eureka!” moment where we see him type compulsively onto a scroll as it spills onto the floor. This subplot is plagued with cliches but seems to be the best shot the film has at a compelling through-line – it could have been worse.

I think about a speech Nicholas Cage delivers in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. Cage plays a screenwriter struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s sprawling book The Orchid Thief.  Speaking to an executive about the script he says “It’s just, I don’t want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie(…)Or cramming in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y’know? Movie shit.” I imagine similar conversations surrounding On the Road.

On the Road does avoid compromise by staying true to the bohemian narrative of the book. The problem is, by avoiding “movie shit”, it falls short of being a very good movie. It wanders through its running time in the spirit of the protagonists, Sal and Dean. It sacrifices narrative strength for picaresque tourism. In the realm of cinema, this can only go so far. This kind of film depends on the strength of its performances – if we’re going to watch characters wander aimlessly for two hours, they better be damn interesting characters.

Sal is played by Sam Riley whose smokey voice-over (sounding a lot like Christian Bale’s Batman) interprets Kerouac’s road-worn narrative with precision. Riley’s Sal is charming and empathetic – even when picking cotton, he appears to be soaking it all in. Even though his voiceover tells us that his father’s recent death made him fall ill and feel like “everything is dead”, he doesn’t act as if he’s too beat up about it. His muse and hero, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), is free-spirited and reckless – he drives fast and always answers the door naked. The film charts the push-pull relationship of Dean and Sal, who share a weary wanderlust brought on by the absence of their fathers. In Denver, Sal is shown trailing behind Dean as he desperately asks barbers and bartenders if they’ve seen his father. This is a sad and self-contained moment – Sal’s empathy draws him close to Dean but, as the events of On the Road demonstrate, his view from across the street might be the safest distance to show his support.


The supporting characters supply the best performances in On the Road. Kristen Stewart affectionately portrays Marylou, Dean’s abused wife, as a strong independent rather than a sex-crazed submissive. Viggo Mortenson plays Old Bull Lee (the stand-in for William Burroughs) with a depth and nuance that is unequaled. His segment (as well as one involving Steve Buscemi) suggests a movie that could have been great. On the Road has many moments like this but fails to make much of them. Given all of its cool-guy charm, the film ultimately lacks weight, relevance, or even a point. Y’know? Movie shit. 

5 out of 10 

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Top 10 Films of 2012

1. The Master


The most fascinating film of the year was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Its vivid imagery, hypnotic pace, and larger-than-life performances stayed with me long after I left the theater. I went back twice more.

2. The Color Wheel 


Alex Ross Perry’s idiosyncratic film is a prime example of what independent, DIY cinema can (and should) be. The Color Wheel is the work of a true auteur – it is daring and distinctive. The film embraces our ingrained expectations in order to playfully flip the rom-com genre on its head. Its climactic ending, executed in one 10 minute unbroken shot, is one of the most startling moments I saw in a movie this year.

The Color Wheel is available On Demand at Amazon, iTunes and Vudu. 

3. Moonrise Kingdom


Suzy: I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.

Sam: I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about. 

Suzy: I love you too. 


Sam: Those sons of bitches. They got him right through the neck. 

Suzy: Was he a good dog?

Sam: Who’s to say? …but he didn’t deserve to die. 

4. Holy Motors 


Leos Carax’s latest film was by far the most perplexing movie I saw in 2012. I found the experience of watching Holy Motors to be similar to David Lynch’s Inland Empire. Even when seeming incomprehensible, the film seduces with striking imagery and an impossible-to-predict plot.

5. The Loneliest Planet 


Julia Loktev’s film builds its hypnotic two hours around a moment that lasts no more than two seconds. The Loneliest Planet is essentially broken into before and after segments. In the ‘before’ segment, Loktev expertly builds tension as we wait for something to happen. The ‘after’ segment employs an equally glacial pace to allow us to internalize the dark implications of the incident at the same pace as the characters. Some will find the slow pace of this film difficult but it poses a question so big, so universal that, trust me, it’s worth your time.

The Loneliest Planet is currently available on Netflix 

6. Silver Linings Playbook 


Silver Linings Playbook is built on wonderful performance and a razor sharp script. David O. Russell’s manic sensibility results in performances that are nuanced but never muted. Russell frames characters on the brink with care and affection resulting in a film that lovingly paints a poignant portrait of mental illness. It’s also quite funny.

7. Django Unchained 


A fierce provocation in the guise of an action-comedy. I found Django Unchained exciting, intense, tragic, hilarious, exhausting and, ultimately, a whole lot of fun. Tarantino’s cinema is defined by this all-inclusive mash-up of film experience.  Although I think Inglorious Bastards is a better film for its depth and operatic climax, Django Unchained is further proof of Tarantino’s unmatched ability to predict and exploit the audience’s experience.

8. Cosmopolis 


David Cronenberg is a master of adaptation and with Cosmopolis he boldly chooses a book that is largely built on seemingly un-cinematic monologues and discussions. With surreal green-screen work and an unexpectedly great performance from Robert Pattinson, Cronenberg renders a film that is characteristically dense and ultimately fascinating.

9. Argo

Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez

Ben Affleck’s historical crowd-pleaser is undeniably entertaining. Argo had me on the edge of my seat more than any other movie this year.

10. Dark Horse 


I am a fan of writer/director Todd Solondz. His great films, Happiness and Storytelling, display an ability to craft stories that can feel initially off-putting but eventually reveal their emotional and subversive undercurrent. Perhaps none of his films prove this talent more than Dark Horse. I was sure that I didn’t like Dark Horse while watching it. I was disappointed by dull scenes and flat and predictable characters (with the exception of our hero, Abe, brilliantly played by Jordan Gelber). This all changed about halfway through Dark Horse when things start to get weird. The film got inside my head by the end and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after. I’m wouldn’t say this is a great film but it is one I will surely never forget.

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