My Own Personal Oscar: 11 Best Films of 2014

Posted by Charles Reece, February 23, 2015 02:18am | Post a Comment
Hohum, the Academy Awards are over for the mostly lackluster year of 2014. Here are a few gems, very few of which were celebrated or probably even noticed by those deciding on nominees. In no particular order ...

Wild Tales - Damián Szifrón

Six short short stories of vegeance that evince a Coen brothers level of comedic tension (recall the classic bag drop off scene from The Big Lebowski, for example). Pure cinematic bliss.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Matt Reeves

Aside from getting to see apes double-fisting arms on horseback, I loved the atypically depressing political message of this film. No matter how much a few individual apes and humans might strive to get over interpersonal problems, that doesn't mean shit in the overall scheme of things. For once, a Hollywood film portrays the problem of structural difference (the unbridgeable otherness of ape culture to what's left of humanity) instead of pasting some subjectivized problem over the gap that allows for a pat narrative resolution (more often than not in the form of a loving relation or the superhero's coup de grâce to the face).

Goodnight Mommy - Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz

This film has the most agonized scream I've encountered since the beginning of Cries & Whispers. A parable for contemporary times that asks how much plastic surgery can a person have before she becomes someone else. Twin sons spend the duration of the film brutally experimenting on their mother to answer that question. Obviously, this one cuts too deep for the aging Academy. Skip the overhyped Babadook, Goodnight Mommy is the only dyadic familial horror film that matters.

The Duke of Burgundy - Peter Strickland

Whereas something like Fifty Shades of Grey attempts to mystify fetishism through censor-evading occlusion, Duke of Burgundy denudes its mind numbing repetitious detail. The former's trepidation (anyone over 12 can see the film in France) results in boredom, which the latter can only mock ... and without men. BDSM isn't dangerous or challenging, just kind of silly -- something the middle aged bourgeoisie do in their leisure time, because they can't get it up otherwise.

Calvary - John Michael McDonagh

Given a title like that for a story about a priest being threatened due to the sins of his church, the central theme is heavy handed enough to drive the point into the skull of any viewer. But Brendan Gleeson's character is so engaging and humane that he manages to escape all the ideological chains and wounded character cliches trying to tie him down to yet another lame social message picture about the Catholic Church. Gleeson should star in everything.

Force Majeure - Ruben Östlund

With a stringent formalism that's admirable particularly in the age of shaky cam, Östlund investigates the role of masculinity in the family unit. A man runs away from his wife and kids during an avalanche, but is too ashamed to admit it later. Thus, the setup for a tough feminist dilemma: how to distinguish patriarchal presumptions about women and children first from any moral outrage that might be felt at the father's fleeing. 

Gone Girl - David Fincher

Another interesting feminist twist last year, and one which the ideological victim wing can't stand. The smartest, most devious, most evil and all around most interesting character in a story is a woman. Actresses get so few chances to play the malevolent mastermind (even worse is that one of the rare exceptions, Disney's Maleficent, has now been retrofitted as mere victim). Together, Gillian Flynn and Rosamund Pike have created the best onscreen feminist villain since Basic Instinct. I'm sure Camille Paglia will love this film, too.

Oculus - Mike Flanagan

In a better year, this one might've not made my list, but it's definitely a cut above most of what I saw or refused to see in 2014 for it's elegant use of old fashioned in-camera trickery to destabilize the viewer's ability to determine whether the characters are hallucinating or seeing reality. The film never gets to the diegetic facts of the matter until the tragic denouement. Much eerier than the digital monsters that pop up in most horror films these days (including the aforementioned and -dismissed Babadook).

The Rover - David Michod

I imagine this dystopia is something like the horrific vision Susan Brownmiller had in mind when she wrote about 'rape culture.' Goddamn, but it's mean! It's like Mad Max with all the hope and comfort of genre tropes stripped away. Of course, it, too, is Australian. What a country.

Sabotage - David Ayer

I'm not sure it was intentional, but unlike the vast majority of macho-fascistic action fantasies, this one portrays the protagonists as the steal your lunch money assholes they would be in real life. In lieu of having you root for them, the pleasure comes from watching them eat each other alive in what amounts to a Hobbesian microcosm qua heist gone wrong film. Sabotage allows for a more real Arnold, both in terms of his wrinkles and as a summation of what type of character he tended to play back in the 80s. And given the increased diversity in such films these days, it turns out that the women who fall for these australopithecine goons ain't so nice, either.

The Raid 2 - Gareth Evans

Best director of the year award! If Michael Bay (or some other purveyor of chaos cinema) takes an Eisensteinian approach to action, Gareth Evans is the genre's Bazinian rebuttal. For example, consider the prison fight sequence in light of Bazin's much beloved Citizen Kane. The camera movement and editing are there to ground and reveal the reality of the fighting, not to have the audience infer something must've happened after the fact.


Most of the above are available for your home viewing pleasure: The RoverDawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Raid 2, Sabotage, Oculus, Gone Girl and Force Majeure.

Non-studio posters came from: Fro Design Company, Design Dragus and Harry Movie Art

My 11 Favorite Films of 2013 (in no particular order): 2. The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

Posted by Charles Reece, January 21, 2014 08:21am | Post a Comment

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology - Sophie Fiennes (director), Slavoj Zizek (writer)

... and speaking of Zizek, here's more of we got in his and Fiennes' previous collaboration, The Pervert's Guide to Cinema. But what could be more entertaining for people who prefer thinking about film (or people) to the object itself than a film about a guy with the same preference? A major feature of criticism is drawing or creating connections between things -- that is, analogical mapping, by which we acquire some insight into the target domain by comparing it to a more familiar source domain. For example, the focused horror at the shark in Jaws shows the way the genocidal grouping of the Jews functioned for the Nazis: all other problems fall aside when there's the immediate danger of Ja(e)ws. My favorite bit from The Pervert's Guide to Ideology is how he reveals the operation of the titular subject itself in the lyrics of "Offcier Krupke" from West Side Story. The gang is perfectly aware of all the liberal social excuses for their delinquency, but continue to act as if determined by impoverished social constraints. Ideology operates as long as we act as if its in control, regardless of our true belief. Relating the song to the explanations given for the recent London riots, he says we are always responsible for how we subjectivize our objective conditions (which is hardly a typical comment heard from leftists). Criticism is just as much an art as what it critiques. It's also just as creative -- often more so in Zizek's case. He's a master cartographer, who's remapped the psychogeography of our pop cultural terrain. 

My 11 Favorite Films of 2013 (in no particular order): 1. The Unknown Known

Posted by Charles Reece, January 20, 2014 07:24am | Post a Comment

The Unknown Known - Errol Morris (director)

The title of Errol Morris' latest comes from the one conjoining of terms our former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfield, didn't make in his infamous Heideggerian sounding memo: "There are known knowns, the things we know we know. There are known unknowns, the things we know we don’t know. There are also that third category of unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know. And you can only know more about those things by imagining what they might be." If you do a web search on "heidegger, rumsfield, unknown known," it'll bring up -- hardly surprisingly -- essays by Slavoj Zizek, one of which is here. As he suggests, the unknown known is what philosophers investigate, those underlying features of our reality which make our navigation of said reality possible, but aren't so readily apparent while we're moving through our lived world.

I performed that search because The Unknown Known reminded me of what Heidegger called tool-being. Normally, when we're using a hammer, we're not really thinking about the hammer as an object with all it's potential objective qualities, but instead as a function of what it's doing for us -- say, hammering a nail or skull. That's what Heidegger called "ready-to-hand." It's only when the tool breaks and no longer functions in its ready-to-hand capacity that we begin to contemplate it as a "present-at-hand," as an object separated from it's predominant instrumental human use. That's where philosophical reflection comes in, and we begin to understand just how ontologically opaque something as seemingly simple as the hammer is. So much of the object recedes from our grasp when we're merely using it for something. That, in a nutshell, is what Morris is doing with the silver-tongued Rumsfield, who conceals more than he reveals. The man had no need of thinking about his bureaucracy's unknown known until Al Qaeda broke it ... or revealed it be broken. Not being a philosopher, he chose to dismiss 9-11 event as an unknown unknown (contrary to the evidence). That act of repression led to the Iraq War, after which we all had to contemplate the unknown knowns, the present-at-hand, of the Bush administration.

11 Best Films of 2012 as Chosen by Me

Posted by Charles Reece, March 24, 2013 10:16pm | Post a Comment
I'm real late with this list, so I decided to just put it up sans commentary. In no particular order:

Killer Joe - William Friedkin

Something in the Air - Olivier Assayas

Damsels in Distress - Whit Stillman

The Hobbit - Peter Jackson

Sound of My Voice - Zal Batmanglij

Holy Motors - Leos Carax

Killing Them Softly - Andrew Dominik

Project X - Nima Nourizadeh

Lincoln - Steven Spielberg

The Master - Paul Thomas Anderson

The Raid - Gareth Evans


Poster Links:

Lincoln, The Hobbit, Something in the Air, Holy Motors, Killing Them Softly, Damsels in Distress, The Master, The Raid, Sound of My Voice

One of my favorite films from 2012: Lincoln

Posted by Charles Reece, January 20, 2013 10:16pm | Post a Comment

Intellectual critics tend to hate Steven Spielberg's films, and Lincoln is no exception. The nastiest laceration I've come across is from one of my favorite social critics, Thomas Frank

Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed. This is, in short, what Lincoln is about.

It is true that the film dramatizes Lincoln's greatest achievement by showing the less than pure, even immoral, underbelly of the politics involved: the cajoling, lying, shaming, threatening and bribery. In doing so, it also argues that a radical "killjoy" like Thaddeus Stevens has to publicly repress his own views in order to get things done -- in this case, passing the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. (Imagine radical voices not being heard in this country! Hard to believe.) Frank condemns the film for what it doesn't show: those times when such morally compromised methods lead to or support political corruption. But he never really gets around to the fundamental point here: politics is always compromised, even when on the side of angels. And contrary to his take, the film does make distinctions in compromise: Lincoln goes beyond the law with the intention of freeing the slaves (who are legally enslaved), but doesn't compromise with the Confederates in order to end the war when it wouldn't serve his (very moral) goal of changing the law. And, more importantly, the film shows us what's needed when democratic compromise breaks down. Adam Smith argued that slavery could be more easily ended under a "despotic" rather than "free government" when it was the "freedom of the free" that was "the cause of the great oppression of the slaves," that is, when "every law is made by their masters, who will never pass any thing prejudicial to themselves." [quoted in Liberalism: A Counter-History, p. 6, by Domenico Losurdo] Sure enough, it was extra-legal measures that vanquished slavery: a war and Lincoln's temporary dictatorship (e.g., his suspension of habeas corpus). For this, his critics called him a despot. They weren't entirely wrong, but he proved to be the kind of despot we needed. We haven't really had Abe the Dictator presented to us in the movies, for which I found the film -- whatever creative license Tony Kushner took with the script -- refreshingly honest.

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