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Desiderata: Our Favorite Films of 2013
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Joanna Arnow’s documentary I Hate Myself :) is the smartest, riskiest, and most engrossing movie I saw this year, hands down. I Hate Myself :) tracks Arnow’s relationship with her poet and “racial provocateur” boyfriend, James, to ask the central question of whether or not they should be dating. The answer is immediately clear to viewers—NO—and so the question then becomes what’s keeping Arnow in the relationship, what she gets out of it, and what kind of a narrative she’s building out of their story. Arnow’s depiction of herself is brutal but relentlessly smart, especially as it hits on meta-questions about how the making of the film is also shaping her relationship. Can’t recommend this highly enough.
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): I loved Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Allen is in great form with this soft-touch film about a Manhattan socialite, played flawlessly by Cate Blanchett, abandoned and left penniless by her Bernie Madoff-like husband (Alec Baldwin). There are expert performances all around—Louie C.K. is wonderfully slimy, Bobby Cannavale is a perfect Chili, and Sally Hawkins delivers my favorite performance as Jasmine’s sister Ginger, who—no matter how awful Jasmine gets—stands by her.
Nanci McCloskey (Publicity Director, Tin House Books): I was blown away by McConaughey’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club. Skeletal thin and stripped of his good looks, he still manages to charm and seduce. McConaughey’s transformation from a rodeo-riding playboy to a drug dispensing AIDS activist manages somehow to be believable, and I was swept up in his journey of self-discovery.
Holly Laycock (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): Side Effects, directed by Steven Soderbergh. [Warning, spoilers ahead –Editors] Not particularly a fan of Channing Tatum, I thought this movie would be a slog through bad performances. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how angry (in a good way) this film made me despite Tatum’s demise. I was annoyed with Rooney Mara when she couldn’t get over her strange social anxiety that made her act like a wet blanket for the first half of the movie. Then I was legitimately pissed at her when I realized she was getting away with the whole shebang. But oh, the glory when she tasted revenge. Mara in particular was a brilliant pathological nutcase, and the way the story was told was a scintillating brain tease. Except for the whole lesbian angle. . . That I could have done without.
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna, directed by Sini Anderson. The documentary about the Riot Girl pioneer is beautifully put together and surprisingly moving.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): Kathleen Hanna and the rest of the Riot Grrrl movement played a huge role in my life as an alt/indie/hippie teen in the Pacific Northwest of the ’90s. (I still have my Kill Rock Stars T-shirt though it’s kind of dingy and I outgrew it some time after 9th grade.) Hanna was (is) a force of nature. She owns the swagger of a lead singer, but never shies from her own femininity or hides her valley girl lilt. As the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, she provided a much-needed feminist voice in the aggressive grunge/punk scene of the time, insisting on respect for women in the audience with her “girls to the front” policy. You can imagine my excitement when I heard about Sini Anderson’s documentary on Hanna. The Punk Singer is a loving tribute to her influence, from the days of Bikini Kill, to her sudden retirement from Le Tigre in 2005, to her recent return with The Julie Ruin. The film also shows Hanna at her most vulnerable (she was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2010), making for an intimate and well-rounded portrait. Other favorites from this year include: A Band Called Death, The Stories We Tell, Gravity, The East, and You’re Next.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): 20 Feet From Stardom. Morgan Neville’s documentary exploring the life and times of backup singers is spirited, at times melancholy and absolutely fascinating. Focusing on singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, and the Waters, it is Love who explains that, “My life has been all about trying to make a success of the gift I have.” And Neville’s documentary is a study of what success is, what it can be—and at times, what it isn’t.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. Polley’s investigation into the mysteries of her family and her long-dead mother could have been myopic, but instead she made it not only about a parent but about the memories we construct of them and of each other, the myriad ways those fictions play out. What could have been a cheap “gotcha” reveal instead cast ripples across the entire film. Plus, Sarah Polley has the taste to have adapted an Alice Munro story for film—she’s my favorite literary filmmaker at the moment. (And a TV mention for the wonderful, short-lived TV series Enlightened, both seasons of which are out on DVD. Amy Jellicoe, played by Laura Dern, is a corporate employee who went a little crazy, did some spiritual rehab in Hawaii, and returned to the company as a subterranean drone working beside series co-creator Mike White. Somehow Enlightened is never what you expect: Amy’s story really begins with her aiming for a New Age-inflected enlightenment, but she still has to work in the business world and live with her mom to get out of debt. As a character she is both easy to root for and painful to watch: Amy is too flawed and layered to be a mere hippie joke. Every character on this show is too flawed and layered to be reduced to a joke or a villain, and that’s part of what makes it so brilliant. It’s addictive and discursive, dipping into other characters’ lives with aplomb and empathy, making the mundane thrillingly weighted, and it never ever takes the cheap way out. I finished the final episode last night and I miss it already.)
Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): Stories We Tell was far and away the best movie I saw this year. Polley’s Stories We Tell looks at how we build narrative out of events. Polley investigates her dead mother’s life, and also Polley’s own life, her family, and the mysteries of her own childhood. She interviews surviving family members and looks at “archival” footage to try and figure out what her mother was like, and what her mother’s life was like. Written out like that it sounds dangerously close to saccharine, but it’s not. Polley’s too smart a filmmaker, and too good a storyteller. As much as it is an investigation of a life it is an investigation of the writing process, and Polley doesn’t try to make her mother’s life neat, nor her family’s. I’m just going to admit here that I cried a little and leave it at that.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) Directed by Paolo Sorrentino. See this on the big screen and be prepared to learn something about yourself when you do.
Veronica Martin (Columnist, The Open Bar): The Great Beauty. This decadently graceful and almost reverent film seems like the right note on which to end the year cinematically, as one long punctuated aria to Rome, and to a certain life. Within the first few minutes watching Great Beauty in the dark of the theater, I heard someone remark on its strangeness, in frustration instead of in admiration, and there was at least one pair of theater goers who weren’t so taken in as I with the swirling but calculated chaos that is the opening scene—an modern Roman party— and who left without giving the narrative of the film a chance to come through. Be calm with this film! It is, indeed, a thing of great beauty and surrealism. It does not seem subtle, full of bright colors and stylized movement to thumping euro pop, high emotion and the impending slip to the periphery of society for a certain group of aging writers and artists. But it is subtle, in that there is a great quiet underneath all of this brimming life, coming through in the joyful regard of Jep, our aging, wealthy, nostalgic party boy and protagonist of letters, in the gentle slumber of a visiting 104-year-old almost-saint found—after dinner in her honor—on the floor of Jep’s bedroom, in the flock of migratory flamingos at sunrise resting against the backdrop of Rome’s Coliseum, in a disappearing giraffe, in a young girl throwing paint and her body and her tears against a canvas for a brood of outlandishly dressed adults, and in the men and women populating this Rome, for whom the city has either been a great joy or a quiet disappointment, at times both and perhaps undecidedly so. In a scene I keep thinking about again and again, Jep’s editor, a dwarf with jet black hair, dark glasses and an intensely observant wit, her character one of the more deeply enigmatic and alluring in a film made up of characters who are practically all so, sits across from Jep having soup in her office as they discuss his next project. Unexpectedly, she calls him “Little Jep” and he inquires as to why, since nobody has called him that since he was a little boy. She responds, in a deeply knowing and affectionate voice, there are times when we need to make our friends feel like children again.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): While I’ve mentioned it in this space before, I can’t help going to bat again for The Act of Killing. Months later, Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary still nags at me, the cracks in mass-executioner Anwar Congo’s smiling façade still haunt me. The film is no simple expositive historical recounting or political tragedy porn. By handing a camera over to the architects of Indonesia’s genocide, and allowing them to recreate their pasts through Hollywood genres of their choosing, we see how capable humans are of justifying their atrocities, but also how we can never be completely free of our pasts. Oppenheimer’s also interested in exploring the relationship between films and their viewers—the way the medium can probe at us, but also its potential as a sort of salve on wounds that perhaps aren’t ready to heal. When a volunteer from a local humanitarian organization stood up to introduce the movie, I was prepared to take my documentary medicine, to sign some petition, to see something Important. But the film surpassed my every expectation: it’s funny in the most deeply uncomfortable ways, it’s edifying on the most personal levels, and it’s as concerned with universal ideas about cruelty and suffering as it is with Indonesia’s particulars.
Lance Cleland (Two-time City Ball Player-of-the-week): With apologies to No, The Great Beauty, Mud, Lore, Stories We Tell, Before Midnight, Dallas Buyers Club, and Behind the Candelabra, my favorite movie going experience this year was Pain & Gain. Prior to the screening I attended, I encountered a group of middle-aged men smoking pot from an apple in the theater parking lot. I would later see the same group cheering Mark Wahlberg on as he attempted to repeatedly extinguish Tony Shalhoub’s face by means of a tire. Apparently this was a film people decided to get up for, as my mid-film bathroom break included two gentlemen snorting cocaine in their respective stalls (they were standing up, for those of you worried about my proclivity to snoop). Although only one had a slight trickle of blood coming down from his nose, both were really excited about Anthony Mackie’s performance up to that point and wild about the idea that the story was based on a “series of truths.” I’m not sure if they were referring to the personal growth mantras of the bumbling, roided-out protagonists or the real-life events of the source material, but I shared in their enthusiasm for the product on screen. Michael Bay’s “most personal film” might be a tad long, but no one in the audience that night seemed to care. We wanted a ride through our collective glittering obsession with upward mobility and never ending youth and we wanted it served via the pectoral muscles of the leader of the Funky Bunch. And when the Rock quoted scripture while ingesting blow by the mouthful, some of us in the audience knew that the film was speaking to our America more than others.