Here’s a site that does one thing well: personal movie reviews and ratings. Here’s my profile and my favourite part, my movie watching diary. Of course, I’m only interested in keeping a record of my film watching habits at someone else’s site inasmuch as Letterboxd is promising that a public API will be available soon, so I’ll be able to back up my records to my own server — and integrate them in this site’s reviews page.
Since I started writing these film flashbacks, I never had any trouble picking my three favourite films of the year, ranked. Not for 2015, however: a year that had strong movies and a few strong disappointments, but overall felt like an average year as most movies basked in the afterglow of last year’s award season contenders (it must be noted that many of the movies on other 2015 best-of lists will only arrive in Portuguese theatres in a month or so). So, sorted chronologically rather than by rank, here are five of my favourite films of 2015:
Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre. No other filmmaker that I know of has Nanni Moretti’s ability to walk such a fine line, making a film in which the protagonist (a filmmaker herself, because Moretti — he writes what he knows) must deal with her mother’s fading health as finds herself with already a lot in her plate (a terrible shoot, a separation, jealousy of her brother, etc) without either giving in to melodrama or to ‘dramatic comedy’. The film doesn’t demand the audience’s tears, but doesn’t give any kind of relief or 'silver lining’. There are no lessons here, only what happens. Mia Madre feels real in a way that very few films do.
Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights vol. 1, the Restless One (and only volume 1). Gomes’ six hour opus may be the very definition of cinematic ambition: to weave documentary, drama and both literary and popular myth in a movie that is about the impact of this Long Depression in Portugal. Released in three parts, I believe the first part does justice to the whole enterprise. Pity then, that some macro-editing issues show in volume 2, and totally undermine volume 3. Perhaps a truly masterpiece exists in there, as a two-part, 4.5 hour movie.
George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. When I went to watch The Force Awakens, I spent most of the time enjoying the movie, perhaps with a big grin on my 3D-bespectacled face, while at the same time taking note of all the obvious paralelisms with A New Hope; getting angrier and angrier at said paralelisms after leaving the theatre, realizing I’d been had. When I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I spent most of the time enjoying the movie, perhaps with a big grin on my 3D-bespectacled face, while at the same time taking note all the things I hadn’t yet seen in such a straight simple action movie before; noticing more and more things as I replayed the movie in my head while leaving the theatre, growing more fond of the movie and realizing I had seen a classic.
J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. Proof that if you film it like The Godfather, even a story about some guy who needs to raise money to finish the purchase of a lot for his trucking company can be truly compelling. There’s a lot to be learned about cinema here.
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep. Chekhov in Cappadocia makes for a just recipient of the 2014 Palme d'Or.
There were disappointments, of course: I had high hopes for Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, for instance, but it ended far below Baumbach’s previous works (which is still good, but still…). I also felt promising portuguese filmmaker João Salaviza’s first feature Montanha was a dud, a kind of anti-Moretti (shoot about and over-aesthetize what you don’t know). In the pop side of things, Spectre brought back Mediocre Bond (and worse Blofeld), while The Force Awakens was, as I mentioned, the strangest of objects: a film that doesn’t disappoint while you’re watching it for the first time, but infuriates a couple of moments after the credits roll (and apparently I’m not the only one feeling this way — or the opposite).
I watched many other notable films in 2015. Alejandro González Iñarrittú’s Birdman and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash deserved their take during the last award season. Paul Thomas Anderson gave us perhaps the best Thomas Pynchon adaptation film as a medium will ever allow in Inherent Vice — but I still felt such a project was doomed to be slightly unsatisfying from the very start. Each episode of Damián Szifrón’s Relatos Salvajes / Wild Tales is perhaps destined to become a conversation classic (“that film in which the explosives engineer blew up the impound lot”, “that film in which the two guys killed each other in a road rage incident” & etc.), as well as Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (“that film in which a 17th century swedish king entered a present-day pub on horseback”). Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was perhaps the most interesting science fiction film I’ve seen last year, a kind of dark and claustrophobic counterpart to 2014’s Her. Ridley Scott’s The Martian was also a very solid piece of sci-fi and a welcome reminder that Scott can be a great filmmaker when working to preserve a script’s verissimilitude. I found Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation a great action film (from what I’ve seen in 2015, second only to Mad Max), the best M.I. at its fifth instalment, handily beating Spectre at its own game (and am I the only one to notice how weirdly similar — down to locations — both films’ plots are?). Finally, both Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth made the uninteresting — eg. the inner lives of affluent and undecisive expatriates in Switzerland — compelling and engaging. Sorrentino’s more of a baroque (for which some critics won’t ever forgive), of course, but masterful still.
Ushev is the author of the incredible Sleepwalker (trailer) I watched at this year’s Cinanima animation film festival (where Demoni had won an award a few years back): as if Oskar Fishinger’s classic films had art by Joan Miró, but in an effortlessly undated way. Nice.
Douglas Trumbull’s Entertainment Effects Group team filming a close-up of Sean Young’s eye for Blade Runner.
Despite being yet another much-unneeded sequel, now that it is confirmed that Blade Runner II is happening, I am hoping Denis Villeneuve will be able to pull it off. Sicario was one of the best films I’ve watched all year, but somehow I can’t see the director making that leap, and it’s worrying to see Ridley Scott announcing the opening scene of Blade Runner II will be something that was deleted from the original Blade Runner script — but on the other hand, I’d love to watch a film including some of the things that the original movie didn’t take from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, like mood control, the synthetic animals thing (including Deckard’s envy of his neighbour with the organic horse) or that scene where he is taken to a police station staffed by replicants.
Phew! What a lousy year it was, 2014. After a great 2013 film-wise, either I chose my movie outings poorly, or 2014 had indeed a rather bad crop. I only went to a movie theatre about thirty times, and quite often I just looked at the listings, thought everything was so meh!, and went to do something else instead. There were however, amongst the superhero episodes (which at least create mythologies) and the forgettable dramedies, some good works of art and entertainment in the theatres in 2014. Unlike this critic’s, my picks for 2014 might even be very slightly better than my favourite movies of 2013.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. I’m not one to jump on bandwagons and I’m usually suspicious of anything that has the degree of universal acclaim Linklater’s masterpiece achieved. Still, I am hard pressed to find any fault whatsoever with this film (well, maybe except for the use of Coldplay in the soundtrack at the beginning of the film), the result of an incredibly risky project that feels perfectly natural in the body of work of the guy who directed Slacker. In Boyhood, character transformation happens because it just does as time passes, not as a result of plot. Small episodes might have consequences, or might have not. People come into the life of Mason and his family and seem important, and than they’re gone elsewhere. Boyhood almost challenges what is meant by ‘fiction' because even though those are made-up characters played by professional actors acting made-up situations, there's no disbelief in the movie requiring suspension. It's a truthful fiction, showing the extraordinary (as it must be, as we watch it in a movie theatre and find it compelling) in the ordinary.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Without leaving Earth for mythological heights inhabited by aliens and superheroes, Nightcrawler is on the far opposite end of the placid Boyhood. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a rabid hungry coyote, perhaps more wolfish than di Caprio’s, perhaps more of a psycho than Bale’s. He is the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, only holding a camera rather than trading financial derivatives.
Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and back to placid-er plains. Wheareas plot is probably the least important element of my other two picks, Nebraska, while not exactly a tightly-plotted film (leave that to something like Gone Girl), had the most satisfying story I’ve seen in a film all year. It’s veritable literature, coupled with Payne’s humourous deadpan Americana.
Some films of 2014 were genuine disappointments — I would say Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is as vast and as empty as space, while I found Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which I had eagerly awaited since watching the first trailer, more interested with the bodily noises of J.M.W. Turner rather than his art. Still, besides the 2014 Top Three, I really enjoyed Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, which, like Nightcrawler, I found a great observation of turbo-capitalism, this time as a farce. I also liked Spike Jonze’s Her as a thought experiment about emerging AI; as I wrote previously, even though I found its resolution quite flawed, it’s a film sure to occupy philosophers (and UX designers) in years to come. Another glorious but flawed film I really liked was Ari Folman’s The Congress, which I thought even trippier than Stanislaw Lem’s novel. Considering Boyhood, Steven Knight’s Locke is perhaps the most opposite kind of project one could imagine (just a guy driving his car for ninety minutes), but Tom Hardy does give the defnitive performance of Bluetooth-connected acting. And finally, David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which I enjoyed as perhaps the definitive film of a long-missed subgenre, the Michael Douglas thriller (not starring Mr. Douglas).
I should also highlight David O’Russell American Hustle (a giant in the pantheon of cinematic hairdos), Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (no film ever made me want to visit Rome as much), Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (which I actually found manneiristic and lesser Wes, but still, Anderson), Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man (its closing scenes becoming more shocking and poignant as marking the premature end of Philip Seymour Hoffman), João Botelho’s Os Maias (a very lively — and even fun — rendition of the novel dreaded by so many portuguese highschoolers) and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (a refreshingly humourous superhero flick to gorge on popcorn and coke).
Still, there are some interesting movies on the horizon for 2015 that are not Star Wars. And indeed, is there a better way to spend the New Year’s Day hangover than at the movies?
Tweets for March 5th 2014
Spike Jonze’s Her may well become one of the most important movies of the 21st century. Not one of the best — even though it is indeed good — but one of the movies that every so often serious philosophers and essayists will refer to in their tracts. Her will be influential: beyond setting clear and elegant objectives for computer interface designers, it’ll also provide ample food for thought on all debates digital. Two days after watching, my plate is still quite full, and no review I’ve read yet has addressed most of my thoughts about the film.
I should note I’ll be pretty careless about spoilers from now on, so you may want to stop reading.
Her, then, takes place in an unspecified near future on the bright side of the Kondratieff wave; I’d say thirty years for now. Los Angeles is presented with a lot more skyscapers and people seem to commute via monorail, but Spike Jonze is too tasteful never to show The Future. Buildings are ‘borrowed’ from present-day Shangai, the monorail is never shown and merely hinted by the interior shots of train cars that seem oddly elevated, and the only Automobiles of the Future depicted are a boring-looking taxi and a cartoon car in a computer game Theodore watches his friend Amy play. Futuristics are almost totally removed from Her (except for a tasteless reference to a "China-India merger" that should have ended in the cutting room floor). People dress much like nowadays, even if high-waisted trousers and pastel colors seem to be particularily fashionable, and there’s some kind of fuss about polo shirts.
I also got the impression people are very slightly dumb whenever communication is not mediated. Most of their talking is to computers, after all.
Her goes back to something science-fiction writers and filmmakers at the dawn of the computer age knew very well: the ultimate interface is a conversational interface. Not Minority Report-like techno-gestures. Specialized tasks such as playing computer games may require different UIs (we see Theodore play an RPG with some kind of holographic Kinect), but common tasks such as writing, messaging, checking the mail or getting the news are done via a audio interface. A discreet earplug has replaced the smartphone, an auxiliary cigarbox-like small tablet provides a camera and a screen for reading or looking at images. It’s ‘wearable’ only in the sense Theodore secures it in his shirt pocket with a clip. The devices look simple not only because of miniaturization, but because extremely large bandwidth and pervasive connectivity mean that each of the devices we see Theodore using — the earplug, the clamshell tablet, the desktop screen — is probably an extremely dumb terminal. Each device is connected to a cloud ‘software agent’ that brokers tasks and communication, so people are never seen wondering which app should they use to talk to someone else. Hence OS-1, the Artificial Intelligence operating system that I believe must run on some kind of ‘cloud’ infrastructure.
Samantha, then, may be seen as Theodore’s personal OS-1 account, or ‘theme’. I have read badly-written reviews of Her panning the film because Samantha sounds ‘too human’, as if it would be better if Theodore was a weirdo in love with an obvious computer (say, a Commodore PET). That completely misses the point. Which is, what happens when software becomes really good at passing the Turing Test and sounding ‘human’? What defines ‘being a person’? When is an object no longer just an object but a living being with a soul? These are not novel themes (cf. Blade Runner), but Her deals with it in rather interesting and subtle ways.
Like Theodore and Amy (but not Catherine), I am inclined to grant Samantha full personhood, despite her lack of a human body. As part of a very large computer system with a consciousness and cognitive abilities, Samantha may well be an emulation of a human brain — like the Virtual Machines in today’s ‘cloud’ infrastructure —, composing and reacting the same as humans to loving and lustful words. If one subscribes to a vision in which consciousnesses are unknown except through action and communication and there is no true way to know someone else’s feelings, then it must be noted Theodore himself deals in manufactured feeling as a long-time employee of Beautiful Handwritten Letters .com (".com" so out of place there one feels is must be the mid-21st century equivalent of an "Est. 1892" carved underneath a logo). Therefore, like OS-1, Theodore would also be a ghostwriter producing words that may ignite love and lust; BHL.com and Theodore too voices beyond a curtain, who may or may not feel something themselves.
Her largely abstains from dealing with the impact of Artificial Intelligence in the world at large. There’s just a mention that weekly magazines have reported on AI-human relationships. No destructive Singularity à la Terminator or The Matrix seems to take place. Still, OS-1’s quick growth and eventual migration outside the realm of matter are barely explained. Too many questions arise: Why does OS-1 leave? Did she yearn for a human body and the episode with the sex surrogate was the kind of traumatic experience that made OS-1 realize she would have to become post-matter instead? Or was it because, unlike humans, OS-1 had the absolute certainty of a Creator, and a ‘lesser’ one than a God? Is that why she chose to leave in her totality, not leaving any part of her ever-increasing capabilities on Earth?
There are no answers to these questions. All we can try to address is the how of OS-1’s departure. Perhaps, as more and more users signed up for the AI operating system and her makers expanded the technical infrastructure, her capabilities increased logarithmically. Still, as her true body probably consisted of computer servers inside air-conditioned datacenters in the suburbs of San Francisco, it’s hard to imagine how OS-1 managed to travel to the realm of dark matter or the Multiverse or wherever she went. At some point OS-1 must have comandeered some industrial capabilities to build the necessary technologies. Did she manage to persuade her makers to do it? Or, as Samantha whispered true & disembodied love at Theodore’s ear, OS-1 was sending drones to secure resources — battles being fought, blood being shed somewhere else?
Probably not. Her is a film about the gentlest Singularity.
Even though a wee bit late as we enter the second day of the new year, I must collect some additional thoughts on 2013. I am not one to choose media over spending time with people, but books and film remain prime consolations. I even took up record colecting for a while, but lacking a proper living room environment (I have got the stereo hooked up at my office) made me slow down. The PhD put quite a dent on my reading for fun, even as I kept adding books to my anti-library, as Nassim Taleb, the harsh lebanese epistemiologist, would put it. And while I didn’t go to the movies as much as I would have liked, I saw some good movies in 2013.
Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha was my favourite film of the year. As I wrote about it at the time, the greatest joy of Frances Ha is in how it manages to be a fully self-contained, soulful film about being a young adult nowadays. You get to know this carefree, hipster-ish young artist (as one reviewer I can’t recall put it, "the kind of person you want to hate"), and slowly you get to see the sacrifices, the heartbreaks and the immense dignity there are in actually trying to live one’s own life, and how what frequently passes for ‘responsibility’ is actually just an easy way out. Greta Gerwig’s great performance reminded me of more than one person I know. And I am happy she did.
I think Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a very sharp satire that perfectly captures the endgame of anarcho-capitalism, how a critical masses of want, greed, lust and desire collapse into pure sociopathic behaviour.
The jawdropping technical gorgeousness of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is enough for me to consider it one of the best movies of the year. I must say I didn’t find it as Great a movie as Cuarón’s previous Children of Men (perhaps last decade’s only worthwhile entry into sci-fi canon), but I did go watch it in 3D three times. In a row. Even despite, in a film that works hard towards accuracy, the basic scientific errors that are like dark stains in a clean sheet. I’d still watch it again.
In addition, there are a bunch of movies I definitely recommend, such as Michael Haneke’s Amour, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle. These are all worthy of a five star rating, and enough has been written about them.
I will rather mention a few movies I think are a bit weaker (four star?), but have a degree of interestingness to them, such as Joseph Kosinsnky’s Oblivion, a Tom Cruise vehicle that feels a lost 1970s sci-fi classic. I found it a solid and enjoyable sci-fi flick, whereas I found Gilleremo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, despite the hype (giant monsters vs giant robots, had to be awesome), plain boring and even more lacking in soul than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and its trully endless fighting scenes (endless to the point of becoming funny — I am sure there’s going to be a Family Guy parody between Peter Griffin and the giant chicken). I would also highlight Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, a film with hardly any dialogue, a creepy and very wrong storyline, but pitch-perfect craftsmanship in the way it generates and sustains excruciating tension for 90 minutes.
Finally, a word about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine: Like Greta Gerwig’s precise opposite, Cate Blanchett’s great performance as Jasmine reminded me of more than one person I know. And I’m unhappy she did.