Glimmers in the darkness

MoonlightI will repeat what everyone else has said over and over again: 2016 was dreadful, and as I write this, it continues to be wretched, with George Michael and Carrie Fisher dying as Donald Trump provokes a new Cold (or World) War. In times like these, with our waking lives enveloped by evil and despair, art can serve to distract, teach and comfort.

As I wrote in my last column, La La Land does that well; its shiny, Technicolor cheer exists in a world outside of any sadness or strife not native to its own story. It’s pretty good escapism, something that very few of the big or the good movies have offered this year. (But not great: It thinks it’s Singing in the Rain, but it’s mostly humming in the shower.)

Usually, when the world sucks, Hollywood gives more than a few great distractions. But not 2016. Zootopia, the blockbuster animated movie, is about racism and eugenics. Captain America: Civil War, the billion-dollar grossing superhero film, is about the vigilantism necessary when government fails. La La Land’s major Oscar competition, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea, are extraordinary films about sadness and doubt. And Rogue One, the latest Star Wars film, is as dark as night in its explication of the perils of heroic redemptions. (If you have kids, don’t take them.) None of these movies were made with full knowledge that 2016 would be the greatest annus horribilis since 1939 (or possibly, 1914). But sometimes the zeitgeist can’t be stopped, and sometimes that zeitgeist tells us a few things we need to know and shows us some things we need to see.

At a time of dramatically increased racism, poverty and misogyny, Moonlight is the most essential film of the year. Barry Jenkins’ triptych about the young life of a gay black man in Florida is about many things: poverty, drugs, filial piety, and, especially, the performance of masculinity. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron as various ages – a boy, a teenager, a young man, respectively – as he struggles to protect, express, and redeem himself. His surrogate father Juan (Mahershala Ali) is a drug dealer, his mother Paula (Naomi Harris) is a crack addict, and his only real friend is Kevin (at various ages Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), whose confidence, both sexual and social, is magnetic. The film is weirdly and frustratingly timid in its depiction of homosexuality, but that doesn’t detract from its depiction of finding grace in a world of pain.

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea is as white as Moonlight is black, as neither have speaking roles for the other race, but it does similar work by teaching us how to make our way through suffering. Casey Affleck is Lee Chandler, who must figure out how to take over parenting his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) after Lee’s brother Joe dies. Lee is already overwhelmed by almost unimaginable grief – it feels very 2016 in that way – and he thinks he is incapable of fulfilling Joe’s wishes and Patrick’s needs. His path is as messy as Chiron’s, fraught with the expectations of duty and manly emotions and parenthood, but Kenneth Lonnergan writes and directs Lee and Affleck to a quiet, bittersweet place of good enough. Both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea taught me how to see glimmers in the darkness.

Several other of the year’s great films do similar work. Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s masterful and gorgeous adaptation of a Ted Chiang short story about Earth’s first contact with alien life, is about connection and communication, about finding meaning in uncertainty and seeming chaos. Amy Adams is a linguist haunted by the death of her daughter as she tries to decipher the language of the squid-like, tree-like visitors. Natalie Portman gives a more mannered but ultimately epic performance as Jack Kennedy’s widow in the hypnotic Jackie, which details the week following the president’s assassination. In trying to define her flawed yet awe-inspiring husband’s legacy through his funeral, she rages, thrashes and grasps for meaning in meaningless tragedy.

Other People, Chris Kelly’s hilarious and devastating autobiographical first film, is about the year David (Jesse Plemmons), a gay comedy writer, spends caring for his mother (a miraculous Molly Shannon) as she dies of cancer. This sort of thing, David says, is only supposed to happen to other people: What do I do when it happens to me? In Swiss Army Man, Hank (Paul Dano) uses a slowly reanimating corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) to create the life he never had but always wanted, literally creating meaning out of death. The film’s power is in Hank’s ridiculous, but profound, creativity.

Several of my other favorite films don’t even bother to seek meaning or lessons beyond their horror. The nihilism of The Lobster, in which those who cannot find life partners are turned into animals of their choice (Colin Ferrel’s David chooses a lobster), is as disturbing as the cynicism of A Bigger Splash, the story of how the idle rich are consumed by petty games and jealousies while the desperate poor languish at the periphery. And Deadpool, the movie at which I probably had the most fun this year, is a comic book film that makes no attempt to be about anything but its own hyper violence and filthy jokes. In that way, it functions in many ways like La La Land, as a distraction that panders to our simplest emotions. La La Land is a hopeless romantic wish fulfillment, and Deadpool is about fulfilling the impossible to fulfill the wish that thorny problems can be solved with perfectly aimed insults, blades and bullets.

2016’s disasters can’t be killed so easily.

Originally published in LGBT Weekly.

2016 Gold Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Music

It’s that time of year again: late mid-February, about six week after most professionals have published their Best of [insert year] lists and I finally get around to doing my annual music awards.

I spent a lot of time alone this year, because I became single and, for the first time in my life, moved into my own apartment, sans roommate. A bunch of stuff I liked, or was drawn to, drew me in because I was feeling lonely — or giddy with independence. Or it just had a good beat and I could dance to it.

This year, I’ve made a playlist on Spotify, so you can listen along to the full list of songs I loved last year, not just the winners of the weird categories I made up.

Most Excellence in Dadaism

It’s a tie!

Drake, “Hotline Bling.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

No one can deny that Drake’s mega hit is the year’s ear worm of doom, and it’s an awesome one, only partly because the video was instantly iconic in mixing high art light sculpture with hip hop tropes and a heavy dose of WTF dancing. But the lyrics and structure sound like e. e. cummings got dissed by a phone sex operator and then smoked a really huge bowl. Hilarious, awesome.

Weezer, “Thank God for Girls.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

I fell in love with Weezer 20 years ago, and have remained an apologist after they became uncool, because of the Blue Album‘s perfect blend of polished grunge and ironic, witty, and delightfully odd lyrics. (The videos were icing.) “Thank God for Girls” is as a batshit crazy as “Pork and Beans” and as catchy as “Beverly Hills.” It’s a underheard song, and delightful in its retro, childlike heterosexuality.

Most Excellence in Spine-Chilling Nostalgic Ennui

It’s a tie!

Jeffrey Foucault, “Des Moines.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Jeffrey Foucault (pronounced incorrectly as Foh-calt) is a hotter, deeper, bluesier Bill Morrissey, and this could be his best song, a remembrance of a gig and a friendship in Iowa. When he sings at the crescendo, “We walked in like a rock and roll band,” I fell in love with the reflexive, probably revisionist, joy.

“Painting” from Fortress of Solitude.[embedyt][/embedyt]

In order to transition several years of the 1970s in Fortress of Solitude, Abraham Ebdus (Ken Barnet) sings about all of the things that happened, major historical and emotional events, and how he ignored them while he painted. There’s subsumed anger and grief, and I wept in the theater the first time I heard it.

Most Excellence in Coincidence

Adam Lambert, “Ghost Town.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Adam Lambert’s version came out first, and it’s gorgeous, weird, innovative, and I found it thrilling. I’m a huge Lambert fan and I feel I’m sometimes an apologist for his super poppy corporate stuff. But this is nothing anyone should apologize for. Unless you’re apologizing for not liking it.

Madonna, “Ghost Town.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Madonna’s isn’t as great, but it’s a good catchy ballad. True, it’s got that kind of guarded metaphor-as-emotion thing that a lot of her slow stuff suffers from, unlike “HeartBreakCity,” which is raw. But I was going through a terrible time when it came out, and it got under my skin. And Rebel Heart is easily her best album since Confessions on the Dance Floor or, less easily but arguably, since Music.

Most Excellence in Emotional Wreckage.

Adele, “Hello.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Yeah. The day it was released, I had an uncontrollable urge to revisit every one of my previous relationships. Now that it’s become so embedded in the culture and parodied relentlessly, it has less power, but that weekend was tough.

Most Excellence in Barnstorming Pop.

Demi Lovato, “Cool for the Summer.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

I love a good call for sexual adventure, even if it’s paint-by-nunbers corporate pop sung by a Disney vet. Because sometimes, it’s this damn thrilling.

Most Excellence in Singles: My Top 5 (or, rather, 6)

Kendrick Lamar, “King Kunta.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

I must admit, I didn’t quite know for some time what this song was about other than swag and ego, and since Kendrick Lamar is lyricist of subtlety and depth I doubt that swag and ego is what it’s actually about. So, I Googled. Oh, it is about swag and ego, but the reference to Kunte Kinte to express empowerment, struggle, and growth makes it a bit subtler, and perhaps ironic, than, say, Kanye West’s “Power.” Also, King Kunta is funky as hell, with a rhythm, both in Lamar’s usual flow and in the bass line, that is irresistible as hell.

Alabama Shakes, “Gimme All Your Love.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

This is an epic love song that actually sounds like being in love, that painful, hungry kind if love. It’s astonishing.

Shamir, “On the Regular” and “Make a Scene.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

Shamir’s was the best live show I saw in 2015, and not just because it was surprising that this 21-year-old super-gay rapper on a promo tour could control a room like he Springsteen. Okay, that was a lot of it. But the songs are thrilling, too, with the double whammy of these two singles. The lyrics are quite insightful for a teenager, but they’re also funny as hell. And gay. Gayyyy.

Courtney Barnett, “Elevator Operator.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

This rollicking song is a short story about a young man named Oliver Paul who decides to play hooky from his job one morning. When he takes an elevator to the roof of a tall building with a rich old lady, she thinks he’s planning to commit suicide. Oh, no:

He said “I think you’re projecting the way that you’re feeling
I’m not suicidal, just idling insignificantly
I come up here for perception and clarity
I like to imagine I’m playing SimCity
All the people look like ants from up here
And the wind’s the only traffic you can hear

Courtney Barnett is some weird Aussie rock version of Raymond Carver.

Jamie xx, “Loud Places.”[embedyt][/embedyt]

This is singer-songwriter electronica at its best. It’s just perfectly beautiful, musically complex, and epic. A true work of art.

Most Excellence in Albums: My Top 5

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.[embedyt][/embedyt]

I already said it: Aussie rocker Raymond Carver. She’s the heir to Liz Phair, Bruce Springsteen, and, hell, Peter Carey. I love the hell out of this revelatory album.

Chris Stapleton, Traveller.[embedyt][/embedyt]

Aside from being sex on a stick, Chris Stapleton itelegraphs authenticity, as if he’s the love child of Johnny Cash and, well, Jeffrey Foucault. Authenticity as marketing tool is sort of the definition of inauthentic (Bernie Sanders, cough) but sometimes it’s compelling. Especially when it sounds like a country-rock god singing about stuff that is not trucks, guns, hometowns, or beer.

Ryan Adams, 1989.[embedyt][/embedyt]

Taylor Swift’s 1989 is a damn fine pop album, but as reinterpreted by Ryan Adams, the songs develop a depth of emotion that her producers — Max Martin, et al. — made sure they couldn’t have, since depth of emotion doesn’t quite work on Top 40 stations, unless it’s Adele. His versions are so smart, gorgeous, and serious, I grew even more impressed by Swift’s lyrics. And then she did acoustic versions of the songs, and, well, she should do that more often.

Liane La Havas, Blood.[embedyt][/embedyt]

I loved Lianne’s first album, which is beautiful, if quiet. But Blood is not quiet at all; it’s sexy and fun and beautiful and it rocks and, hey, the President loves it, too. Every song is great. Period.

Carly Rae Jepson, Emotion.[embedyt][/embedyt]

This is my second favorite Taylor Swift album of the year, after Ryan Adams’s. Weirdly under-appreciated by radio, it’s an album of masterful pop songs that sit firmly in Swift’s genre but seem, somehow, better. Maybe it’s because Swift’s personality is so huge that she overshadows the music. Anyway, Jepson doesn’t have that celebrity profile, and the songs become more universal. It was album was the soundtrack of my summer. Fun as hell.

Music. 2014.

Yes, the Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Music is being posted in a timely fashion. I know, shocking. Anyway, here it is. These are a bunch of my favorite tunes from the last year. If you just want the playlist of videos, you can go here to my YouTube playlist “2014.” And here’s a Spotify playlist of the Golden Teddy Award winners and various runners-up and honorable mentions not mentioned in this post:

Now for the awards!

Most Excellence in 1991: Madonna, “Living for Love.”

I have a teensy bit of sympathy for Madonna, who claimed “artistic rape” when a few dozen demos from her upcoming album were leaked. She released final versions of six of the songs just before Christmas, and I’m one of the folks who thinks these songs (and the demos) signal possibly her best album in a decade. One of the six is “Living for Love,” which could have been on Erotic: it is 1991 retro sing-song house. It’s a rump shaker, as they say. I’m looking forward to the remixes.

Runner up: Clean Bandit ft. Jess Glynne, “Rather Be.”

This could have been thumping at any East Village club in 1991. It’s awesome.

Most Excellence in Having a Voice that Makes You… OMG THAT VOICE: Sam Smith

He’s, like, 14 years old and sounds like George Michael and Boy George’s perfect pitched love child. He can also write a sad song as well as anyone, except maybe Adele. Also: Gay!

Most Excellence in Being Awesome But Being More Awesome with Dancing: Future Islands, “Seasons (Waiting on You).”

This is a great song, but after you see Future Islands rock it on Letterman, the song becomes something epic. Because that dancing. Just. Wow.

Most Excellence in Focus Grouped, Lowest Common Denominator, Cheesy Pop: Taylor Swift, “Blank Space.”

This song is just perfect. I can’t help but succumb to the efforts of the evil geniuses who constructed it from sonic crack and mind control algorithms.

Most Excellence in Smelly Cheesy Pop: Coldplay, “A Sky Full of Stars.”

I refuse to hate Coldplay out of some misplaced hipster snobbery. This is a perfect pop song, mashing up de rigueur dance beats, driving rock, and infectious glee.

Most Excellence in Party Albums: Tie!

La Roux’s second album Trouble in Paradise is not the genius that their first was, but it is a perfect put-it-on-and-be-happy collection of songs. Poppy, dancey, funny, and never dull.

Jungle’s first album sounds like Earth Wind and Fire filtered through Hot Chip and TV on the Radio. Sorta. The album is delight all the way through, with a driving beat perfect for your desk cool-kid cocktail hour.

Most Excellence in Songs that Made Me Cry in the Theater

If there were recordings for “And I’m Painting” from the musical Fortress of Solitude and the last song in the show The Great Immensity, I’d put them here. They’re not recorded yet. Both are written by my friend Michael Friedman, and they’re beautiful and wrenching and made me cry in the Public Theater last year.

Most Excellence in Wrongness: Tove Lo, “Habits.”

I can’t believe this song is on the radio. What Tove Lo describes doing in order to get over her ex is, to say the least, unhealthy. But fun!

Most Excellence in Telling It Like It Is: Adore Delano, “DTF.”

Adore Delano was the runner-up for last season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, and this was her first single, which is filthy, insane, and totally her.

Most Excellence in Singles, Top 5

Hozier, “Take Me to Church.”

No song was more indelible to my ears this year, and not because it’s on heavy rotation on every radio station in the world right now. It’s haunting, gorgeous, and gave us Hozier, who is a really big deal.

Robyn and Röyksopp, “Monument.”

The best song on their EP and arguably as great as anything she’s put out in the last 15 years.

Hercules & Love Affair and John Grant, “I Try to Talk to You.”

Hercules returned to form with The Feast of the Broken Heart and their collaboration with John Grant is the highlight of the album. It’s gorgeous and heartbreaking, like everything Grant does, and impossible not to groove to, like Hercules’s best stuff. That piano.

The War on Drugs, “Under the Pressure.”

It feels like a more robust James song, but a bit more American, rootsy, and Dylany.

Perfume Genius,”Queen.”

There’s no comparison. This song is just singular.

Most Excellence in Albums, Top 5

St. Vincent, St. Vincent.

Hearing this for the first time was like hearing The Lion and the Cobra for the first: What. The Fuck. It doesn’t sound like anything else, except for rock and pop and Liz Phair and Tori Amos and a bunch of other stuff from planets far away.

TV on the Radio, Seeds.

My favorite band dropped their best album in 10 years right before Thanksgiving. It’s distorted and weird and fun and happy and sounds, like all of their stuff does, like no one else.

Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour.

I mentioned him above. This is the best pop album of the year. Beautiful, accessible, sad.

D’Angelo, Black Messiah.

Mostly, this album made me re/discover D’Angelo, who is a genius. It’s beautiful and political and odd and wonderful.

Coldplay, Ghost Stories.

Mentioned above. At first, I thought this album just sucked. And then, after a couple listens, I realized how beautiful and mournful and smart it was. I listened to it a zillion times. So there.

Movies. 2014.

This year’s Golden Teddy Awards for Most Excellence in Movies starts with the list of my ten favorite movies of 2014 from LGBT Weekly and then goes into choices for excellences in various Oscar-ish categories as well as things like “prop chomping” and  “dystopian art direction.” It’s not quite as absurdly long and detailed as previous years, but I don’t have that kind of time anymore. And I’ve been sick. So there.

  1. [expand title=”Grand Budapest Hotel”]The-Grand-Budapest-HotelIn Wes Anderson’s greatest film so far, it is 1932 and the Grand Budapest Hotel is in its heyday. A treasure of the fictional Eastern European nation of Zubrowka, it is packed with suited dignitaries and their bejeweled wives, and the regimented staff is legion; over all of it presides the hotel’s slightly foppish and nearly over-competent concierge M. Gustave, played by a miraculous, David Niven-inspired Ralph Fiennes. Gustave is not only devoted to his hotel, but also to the numerous lonely older women who frequent it, and his favorite is Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Tilda Swinton), an 84-year-old countess who adores Gustave. When the countess dies, Gustave and his favorite bellboy Zero (Tony Revolori) go to the reading of the will. The countess’ dastardly son Dmitri (Adrian Brody) is livid that Gustave is given a priceless painting called Boy With Apple and demands that this never happen, but with Zero’s encouragement and help, Gustave steals the painting and returns to the hotel. The caper that ensues is thrilling and hilarious and full of idiosyncratic supporting figures played by the likes of Willem Defoe, Saoirse Ronan and Harvey Keitel. The actors are directed to such mannered behaviors as to be almost abstracted; they archly speak as if they have hopped out of a Roald Dahl or JD Salinger story, and they move like gorgeously drawn cartoon characters, sharply and exaggerated, influenced by slapstick and mime. The result is the opposite of natural or subtle, but Anderson’s direction, of actors and art and photography, communicates the themes and emotions – the sadness of nostalgia and growing up, the power of loyalty and courage – with something that achieves grace. On DVD.[/expand]
  2. [expand title=”Boyhood”]BoyhoodIn 2002, Richard Linklater cast a boy (Ellar Coltrane), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke), and he filmed them as a growing, living, changing family over 12 years. Linklater deserves a slew of awards simply for overcoming such a film’s logistical difficulties – flighty children, lengthy contracts, the ravages of time and history – but he and his actors also managed to create a film as true to the emotional journey of childhood and modern American family life as any other movie in a generation. Like the life that Linklater is depicting, Boyhood does not have a plot as much as it has a series of vignettes focused around key moments in Mason’s childhood. The film feels like cinéma vérité, but the emotional power of the editing, the acting Linklater elicited from his actors both young and old (particularly Arquette, doing the best work of her career), and in the beauty of his landscapes and light is something we usually only see in finely crafted narrative films. Boyhood is not perfect – it’s long and rough in places and the plotting seems a bit forced at times – but it is nonetheless an extraordinary monument to the power of art, film and family. On DVD.[/expand]
  3. [expand title=”Under the Skin”]Under-the-SkinJonathan Glazer’s hypnotic masterpiece follows a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she drives around Edinburgh, stalking men, seducing them and then enveloping them in a gooey blackness. After an encounter with a disfigured man, she seems to develop introspection. She wanders into the Scottish countryside, pursued by mysterious men on motorcycles and less mysterious men with dirty minds. We assume she’s not human, but we don’t know what she is. The audience needs to do a lot of work to piece things together, and this is often the hallmark of what we call “art films.” This kind of abstraction can become pretentious, but in Under the Skin, the abstraction is what makes the art. Glazer’s sublime use of the foggy Scottish landscapes, Mica Levi’s truly haunting string-heavy score, Scarlett Johansson’s brave and subtle performance and our own expectations of science fiction combine to create one of the most original and indelible films of the year. Streaming and on DVD.
  4. [expand title=”Only Lovers Left Alive”]Only-Lovers-Left-AliveA luminous, sublime, and brilliant Tilda Swinton plays Eve, an achingly-sweet, centuries-old aesthete who happens to be a vampire. Her similarly afflicted husband Adam, played by Tom Hiddleston, is a glum musical genius who hides from the world, composing from afar, talking to no one but a clueless hired hand (Anton Yelchin) and his wife, but to her only over Skype. She lives in Tangiers, along with her friend Kit Marlowe (yes, that one, played by John Hurt), and Adam lives in a particularly dilapidated section of Detroit. She decides to come to him after he expresses more suicidally depressive thoughts about the weight of the world. During her visit, as they discuss history and art and their love, Eve’s crass and silly sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives and creates situations that force this short story in the lives of Adam and Eve to climax in hunger and, of course, blood. Funny, haunting, weird and sad, Jarmusch’s movie is the rare one about the undead that is actually about the living. On DVD.
  5. [expand title=”Nightcrawler”]NightcrawlerLewis Bloom, played by a balls-out brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal, is a nightcrawler, a freelance reporter who spends the nights wandering the city, waiting for a police scanner to announce a car crash or a murder that can be filmed and turned into the bloody local TV news. Lewis is pathologically ambitious, solicitous and aggressive, and he speaks almost entirely in the aphorisms of self-help books and online business classes, always with a broad smile and wide eyes, all the more creepy on his tightly gaunt body. He unnerves Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director of a low-rated Los Angeles morning show, but he also brings in great footage, which she craves. How he does it, and how he plays Nina is what makes Nightcrawler thrilling and more than a little bonkers. This is the first film directed by Dan Gilroy, who pulls out Gyllenhaal’s greatest performance and gives us the best thriller of the year. The two are inextricably connected, because it is Gyllenhaal’s unexpected actions and off-kilter affect that kept me on the edge of my seat and muttering “wow” over and over. Gilroy also handles the car chases and random violence on Los Angeles’s iconic streets with skill, evoking the L.A. noir of Drive and Heat. The film is disquieting and, even at its most fantastical, somewhat believable. Lewis may not exist, but the stories that he records for Nina’s broadcasts do. We’ve all seen them. In theaters.
  6. [expand title=”The Lego Movie”]The-Lego-MovieThe Lego Movie is the greatest advertisement for a toy ever made, but it’s also a great movie in and of itself and easily the best animated film of the year. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker in a city that runs with clockwork precision: Everyone is perfectly regimented, efficient, and properly tasked. Everyone loves the same song “Everything is Awesome!” and the same TV show “Where’s My Pants?” and their leader President Business (Will Ferrell). But the president is actually a dictator with a massive army of evil robots and nasty cops (the leader of which is voiced by Liam Neeson) at his command, and he is planning to destroy the Lego universe using a weapon called the Kragle. Is Emmet their prophesized savior? Some rebels (voiced by Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and others) think he may be, and hilarity and action ensue. Writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, in addition to mixing witty and sly adult-oriented jokes with kid-pleasing slapstick, work on multiple thematic levels, creating a morally and ethically complex film out of what could have been a cynical advertisement. The film sets up a battle between mindless, automated corporate capitalism on one side and creativity, freedom, and, in a way, mysticism on the other. It culminates in a surprising moving third act that left me in tears. And wanting Legos. Streaming and on DVD.
  7. [expand title=”Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”]BirdmanInnovative, hilarious, and moving, Birdman is film about theater, film, and actors, as well as regret, love, family, and, in a way, the meaning of life, and it soars. Michael Keaton is blockbuster star Riggan Thomas, who wants to earn respect by appearing on Broadway, so he writes, directs, and stars in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. His recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and his costar is lauded, but unhinged, method-actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton). The film veers from slapstick comedy to melodrama, but the depiction of Riggan’s interior life makes the film wholly original. He has conversations with and sometimes becomes Birdman, the superhero he once played, and whether or not Riggan is crazy or actually super powered is never really made clear. But his depression and frustration and desire for relevance, to the world, to his daughter, and to his ex-wife, are all real. This is by far Keaton’s greatest performance, a true tour de force of versatility, believability, and emotional honesty. Keaton has never had material like Birdman, and he’s never had a director like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who elicited an epic performance from Keaton and an equally brilliant performance from Norton, whose Mike is a caustic, hilarious, nutty Lothario of surprising depth. In theaters.
  8. [expand title=”Stranger by the Lake”]Stranger-by-the-LakeThe power of lust is at the heart of this quiet, erotic, disturbing and very French film. Lithe and beautiful Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) comes to a lakeside beach every day to swim and cruise men. He is infatuated with Michel (Christophe Paou), a mustachioed man with a particularly skillful freestyle stroke and a clingy boyfriend. One evening, Franck watches Michel drowning his boyfriend before calmly swimming to the shore, dressing and driving away. Franck does nothing, and the next day, Michel starts flirting with Franck. Despite some apprehension, Franck returns the affection and they begin to have trysts every afternoon. Still, Franck clearly worries that Michel will do to him what he did to his previous lover. The strange and almost cynical morality of the characters and the ever increasing tension about Michel’s potential make what at first seems like a bland sex comedy into something much more complex, metaphorical and even epic. It’s hard to know exactly what writer-directed Alain Guiraudie is doing, whether it is an existentialist homage to Camus’s The Outsider or just the story of how far lust and connection can warp a man’s moral compass. The lack of clarity in the Guiraudie’s message makes the film’s sex more disconcerting, but also more powerful. Streaming and on DVD.
  9. [expand title=”Wild”]WildReese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir Wild is based on. Like the book, the film is partly autobiography and partly the story of her six month trek of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. This experience is powerfully cathartic to Cheryl; she has just extracted herself from a failed marriage, an addiction to heroin and some extravagantly self-destructive habits that seem to have been a failed coping mechanism to deal with the grief over losing her mother. While Cheryl walks and hikes and gets blisters and nearly starves and narrowly escapes rape and hypothermia, her earlier life is shown in flashbacks, many of which feature a luminous Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose direction made Dallas Buyer’s Club vastly better than its screenplay, took Nick Hornby’s script and crafted a visual and emotional experience that goes far beyond the words, either Hornby’s or Strayed’s. Vallée dwells on the beauty of the landscapes without sentimentalizing, shows Cheryl’s bad habits without being prurient, and guides Witherspoon and Dern to flawless and naturalistic performances. In theaters.
  10. [expand title=”Snowpiercer”]SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho’s first English-language film is astonishing, breathtaking in its visuals, bleak in its plot and enraging in its refusal to do what most American audiences expect from their science fiction action films. The film is set in 2031, 17 years after an attempt to fix global warming goes horribly wrong, freezing the planet and killing all life. All life except for those who made it onto a long, high-tech train on a constant circumnavigation of the planet. The train was built by a visionary inventor named Wilford, who predicted the environmental calamity and manages the miraculous engine that keeps the train moving and its inhabitants alive. While the train features greenhouses, a fish farm, livestock, a school, restaurants, clubs, these luxuries are available only to the riders in the front of the train. In the back, the riders live in squalor, surviving on blocks of mysterious, rubbery protein and subject to the violent whims of Wilford’s brutal security forces who steal the riders’ children and freeze the limbs off riders brave enough to fight back. These tail riders are plotting a revolution at the beginning of the film, with Curtis (Chris Evans), Edgar (Jamie Bell), Tanya (Octavia Spencer), and the tail riders’ de facto leader Gilliam (John Hurt) trying to find the best moment to push through to the other cars, past the security forces and their absurd, saccharine chief, Mason (Tilda Swinton). When they do, the film takes you on a shocking, weird and wonderful journey unlike anything offered in American films in years. Streaming and on DVD.

locke-poster1-404x600Honorable Mentions: Locke, Foxcatcher, Begin Again, The Homesman, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Love is Strange, Interstellar, Gone Girl, The Way He Looks, Guardians of the Galaxy, Pride, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash.





Moore in MapsMost Excellence in Being Amazing in a Lead Role: Julianne Moore is heartbreaking as she vanishes into Alzheimer’s in Still Alice and hilariously frail as an aging starlet in Maps to the Stars; Tilda Swinton is an incandescent vampire aesthete in Only Lovers Left Alive; Tom Hardy is heroically ethical in the monologic Locke and heroically criminal in The Drop; and Jake Gyllenhaal is the best sociopath since American Psycho in Nightcrawler.

birdman-keaton-nortonMost Excellence in Being Amazing in a Supporting Role: Ed Norton is hilarious as the maniacal narcissist in Birdman; Emma Stone has insight and charm for days as the Birdman’s daughter in Birdman; Ethan Hawke is a haphazardly responsible dad in Boyhood; Laura Dern glows in Wild; Tilda Swinton is a toothy and hilarious postmodern Eichmann in Snowpiercer.

still-of-steve-carell-in-foxcatcher-(2014)-large-pictureMost Excellence in Prop Chomping and Scenery Munching: Steve Carell’s prosthetic makeup and WASPy speech impediment are intermittently hilarious and pedophile-creepy in Foxcatcher; Meryl Streep is witch-tastic as the Witch in Into the Woods; Bryan Cranston is CRAZY! as the MAD! scientistic who is actually SANE! in Godzilla; the crazy ladies of The Homesman screech their psychopathologies, play with dirty dolls, and stare off into space.

Snowpiercer movie2Most Excellence in Dystopian Art Direction: Since not one of the many scifi dystopias this year depicted a particularly original world, no one wins. Snowpiercer wins an Honorable Mention for the gorgeous, Fauvist, idiosyncratic train, which was brilliant but looked more like a Terry Gilliam film from 1980s than a vision of the future. Tied for Dishonorably Cliched: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Interstellar, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.

domMost Excellence in Unbelievable Homosexual Hair: Dominic West in Pride. It’s cute movie but only truly interesting because the queer activists helping the striking miners in Thatcher’s early 1980s plot is true. Otherwise, it’s just Harvey Milk joins the cats of the The Full Monty, and not in a good way. West plays Jonathan Blake, one of the Britain’s longest surviving people with HIV, and he’s not remotely convincing as disco queen, partly because of his affect, mostly because of his hair, which is just ew.

rocket-raccoon-guardians-of-the-galaxy-2Most Excellence in Superheroics: Rocket Raccoon. Because he’s a fucking raccoon space pirate. Chris Pratt is awesome in so many ways except for being a raccoon, which he’s not. And Rocket Raccoon is.

Most Excellence in Making Things Difficult for Movie Reviewing: The Los Angeles publicists who make it so very difficult for me to review movies. You don’t know who you are because you don’t even read my emails.