Category Archives: Science Fiction

Best Movies I Saw in 2013

First, some movie-related conclusions I reached in 2013:

1. How to avoid “bad” movies. It seems like I’m getting pretty good at avoiding movies I probably wouldn’t have liked (Cloud Atlas, the Carrie remake). How do I know I wouldn’t have liked them if I haven’t seen them? Fair point. Here’s what I do know: There were only 4 (minor) disappointments this year compared to 5 last year that I felt pretty strongly about. And out of the 165 movies I watched this year, there were only 18 I didn’t like (including only 2 that I strongly disliked, and only 1 that I actually saw in a theater). So I think as long as I stay away from the multiplex and continue to do my movie-watching via my local art house theater and Netflix, I’ve got about an 89% chance of seeing a movie I’ll enjoy.

2. Curtis Loves Documentaries. It seems like some of the most emotionally powerful stories being told by contemporary filmmakers are documentaries. Maybe this says something about me personally, maybe it says something about our cultural craving for “real” stories, maybe it says something about the world (may you live in interesting times), or all or none. Whatever the reason, more and more I’m finding myself drawn to documentaries.

Top 12 Movies Released in 2013
(Plus 13 Movies from Previous Years That I Saw for the First Time This Year)

Of the movies I saw in 2013, these are the ones I loved—not to be confused with “best,” whatever that means. I ranked them based on how likely I am to rewatch the movie (and in some cases I’ve rewatched them several times just this year) plus the emotional impact the movie had on me.

  1. Silver Linings Playbook (2012): The movies that get me the most are the ones focused on small, personal stories that illustrate some truth about the human condition. In this case: Everyone is crazy in their own way. Sure, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper were entertaining as hell, but this movie is my favorite of the year because it made me feel like maybe I’m not the f’d up alien that I so often feel like I am.
  2. SpectacularNowThe Spectacular Now (2013): With a flip of a coin this movie could have just as easily taken the #1 slot. In fact, after seeing it at my local art house theater, I made a point to go find the Executive Director and thank her for choosing to screen it. At the risk of hyperbole, The Spectacular Now changed me. The main character’s desperate attempt to live in the present moment and escape it at the same time is a paradox I understand all too well. Plus it tackles alcoholism in a very real-feeling way, not demonizing it and not glorifying it, but ultimately showing it as a symptom of deeper psychological problems. I kept waiting for that inevitable Hollywood-style punishment that would befall the main character…but it never comes. He’s punished himself enough.
  3. The Grey (2012): Probably the saddest, most tragic, yet also most exhilarating and life-affirming story I’ve yet to experience. More than just Liam Neeson vs. the wolves, The Grey is a wake-up call for those of us squandering the gifts we have in our life.
  4. Mud (2013): Mud has been touted as a kind of Stand By Me coming-of-age story, and while it is to a degree, that’s not what I enjoyed most about it. The way the boy’s relationship with the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey) serves as a metaphor for romantic love — starry-eyed infatuation followed by the inevitable heart-break when we realize that the version of the person we fell in love with never existed in the first place — is an insightful exploration into the idealism of love vs. the realism of love.
  5. Gravity (2013): Alfonso Cuaron gets a lot of mileage out of a simple premise — Sandra Bullock in space! I relished the 2D visuals so much I quickly went to see it a second time in 3D (and then a third again in 2D). This is probably the closest someone like me gets to having a religious experience. Earth is now my higher power.
  6. The World’s End (2013): Such a smart and well-crafted comedy from the team that created one of my all-time favorites, Shaun of the Dead. It gets better with each viewing, revealing more and more layers of clever social commentary and humor.
  7. Iron Man 3 (2013): I went to this movie not as the new Iron Man movie but the new Shane Black movie, and it rocked on both counts! He set the bar pretty high with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and managed to move it even higher this time. So happy that Shane Black is back and on a roll!
  8. Pacific Rim (2013): Pacific Rim gets right what many of the other blockbusters got wrong this year. I don’t care if Spock punches the bad guy in the nose. And why does Superman have to punch the same bad guy in the nose for 30+ minutes? But give me a whole movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the nose, and that’s something worth seeing! And though I wished we’d gotten at least one robot vs. monster brawl in the full light of day, nevertheless, I giggled with glee throughout this movie, and that’s pretty rare.
  9. Inocente (2012, short): It’s no wonder Inocente won the Academy Award for best documentary short film. This inspirational story of a young homeless girl who makes art her emotional home should be required viewing in every high school.
  10. Serenity (2005): I became a fan of Joss Whedon via last year’s Avengers and The Cabin in the Woods, so I had some catching up to do. Serenity, a follow-up to the Firefly TV series, is a quality sci-fi movie that puts some of the recent blockbusters to shame. Great characters, great story, great writing.
  11. MarwencolMarwencol (2010): This beautiful and inspiring documentary about a man recovering from a violent attack that left him with brain damage poses the question: When does art become therapy or therapy become art?
  12. 12 Years a Slave (2013): Great dramatization of a tragic true story. The filmmakers do their best to stay invisible and get out of the way of the powerful narrative, only stumbling for one scene towards the end. My only gripe is that the title gives away the ending — spoiler alert, anyone???
  13. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): I had a blast watching this unnecessary but well-executed Wizard of Oz prequel. Great supporting characters, especially the monkey and the china doll. And a solid (minus one gaping plot hole) story from beginning to end. Not art, but excellent entertainment!
  14. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008): Speaking of Joss Whedon, I also caught up with this playful and funny musical web-series he created. But as good as it is (and it is excellent), the ending is sublime. To say more would risk spoiling what is one of the bravest creative choices I saw all year. Um, hope I didn’t build things up too much.
  15. Senna (2011): This thrilling documentary about the career of a Formula One race car driver uses only archival footage of its subject with little (or no) narration. It plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy, made all the more tragic because it actually happened.
  16. Don Jon (2013): Promising directorial debut from Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A funny and fun look at how men (and women) sacrifice authentic intimacy for control and fantasy.
  17. The Parallax View (1974): The 1970s is my favorite decade for American movies, and I love paranoid political thrillers. Combine the two and I’m clapping my hands like a mental patient. It’s so much fun to “discover” great movies from the past.
  18. American Hustle (2013): On the surface it looks like it’s going to be the Abscam version of Goodfellas or Casino. But David O. Russell is more interested in the personal and neurotic ways his characters con each other and themselves in order to “survive” (as they define it). There’s little judgment in this movie, and lots of frenetic energy and good laughs.
  19. Blue Valentine (2010): Not to be confused with 2013’s Blue Jasmine (a movie I did NOT like). What sounds like a gimmick (cross-cutting between scenes of a couple’s relationship beginning and that same relationship ending years later) is handled exceptionally well in this movie. A lot of the credit goes to Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling who drew me so much into their stories that the structure of the movie quickly became invisible.
  20. Before MidnightBefore Midnight (2013): (Pair this movie with Blue Valentine for one big bummer of a double feature.) The likeable couple from Before Sunrise and Before Sunset return a lot less likeable in this third entry in the Before… series. The dreamy love we saw blossoming in those first two movies is showing the strain of reality. Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke have to the courage to challenge the Hollywood notion of a happy ending. “Love stories” don’t end with the lovers riding into the sunset; familiarity breeds contempt no matter how “destined” two people are to be together.
  21. Dark City (1998): Although I’d technically seen this movie back when it first came out, watching it again this year truly felt like seeing it for the first time — seeing it with new eyes, perhaps. There’s a very Buddhist feel to Dark City‘s underlying questions: Who are we without our memories? Does identity have any meaning if there’s no past? And how do we know the past is not just a story we’ve fabricated? The best science fiction plants important philosophical questions like these in a thrilling story, and Dark City fits right in with the best of them.
  22. The Fog of War (2003): I don’t believe in evil and I don’t believe in monsters, but I do believe in misguided humans who create chaos, hell, and destruction with the best of intentions. This documentary takes a fascinating look at one of these humans, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, through his own words and candid reflections.
  23. Enough Said (2013): I’m such a sucker for movies about genuinely good-hearted people struggling through life’s challenges, learning from mistakes, and trying to be kinder and happier people. Both leads were charming as all hell. It was bittersweet to watch James Gandolfini in his final role. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus knocked my socks off. I knew she was funny, but she can really act her way across the whole spectrum of human emotion.
  24. The Hillside Stranglers (1989): Surprisingly effective for a TV movie, The Hillside Stranglers tells the real-life story of two cousins who committed a series of murders in the late 1970s. Helter Skelter made an impression on me at an early age (and may even be responsible for my love of horror movies), and this movie has a very similar feel. Add to that a great performance by Dennis Farina, and it’s no wonder it made this list.
  25. The Pianist (2002): This is one of those movies that makes you ask yourself, “What the hell do I have to complain about really?” Movies about the Holocaust can so easily feel manipulative, but Polanski for the most part gets out of the way of the story and lets the events have their way with us.

Top 7 Movies You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
(a.k.a. My Top Recommendations)

This is my list of movies I loved (or really liked) that didn’t get a lot of exposure as far as I can tell. If you check any out and like them, spread the word.

  1. The Spectacular Now (2013): What more can I say about this spectacular movie? Okay, here’s one more thing: Go see it now.
  2. InocenteInocente (2012, short): As with most short films, you’ll probably have to seek this documentary out, but you’ll be rewarded if you do by this young girl’s contagious spirit of hopefulness.
  3. Marwencol (2012): Whether you’re drawn in by the subject’s life story or by his inventive artwork (or both — can we even separate the two?), this will probably be one of the most unique documentaries you’ve ever seen.
  4. Enough Said (2013): On its face, Enough Said might seem interchangeable with a hundred other romantic comedies, but give it a chance. I found it to be much more honest, and a truly delightful movie-watching experience.
  5. Sightseers (2013): Took a little time to warm me up but I ended up really liking what is probably the darkest romantic comedy ever made. Ben Wheatley is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors (his Kill List was one of my favorites last year). If you like off-kilter indie movies that blend genres, check him out.
  6. The Pact (2012): This independent horror movie surprised me by how skillfully and cleverly it blended the slasher and haunted house sub-genres.
  7. The Battery (2013): Not a perfect movie, but this indie zombie film has a great soundtrack, great chemistry between the two leads, and a fresh take on a well-worn genre. Most definitely worth seeking out.

Top 7 Surprises

The ingredients for me to be happily surprised by a movie typically include some combination of low expectations and ignorance.

  1. GravityGravity (2013): I didn’t think I’d even like this movie let alone fall head over heels the way that I did. And to think I almost didn’t go see it… I shudder at the thought.
  2. The Tall Man (2012): Considering this one was almost universally trashed because of it’s apparently misleading trailer (which I never saw), I thoroughly enjoyed the playful (and frequent) plot twists.
  3. The Hillside Stranglers (1989): After Dennis Farina died, I did a quick search on Netflix and was surprised to discover a Farina movie from the 80s that I’d never even heard of. How I missed it baffles me. But what a thrill it was to see him in a “brand new” movie from my favorite time period of his career.
  4. Frances Ha (2013): What a delightful indie film about friendship, self-acceptance, and the challenges of living your dream! I typically have an aversion to movies with an “Aren’t we weird and cute?” tone to them, but after about 20 to 30 minutes, this movie won me over. Rare to see a platonic love story, and a really good one at that.
  5. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): Another delightful movie-going experience! I usually find these kinds of CGI extravaganzas to be heartless and excessive, but Oz was a happy exception.
  6. The Great Gatsby (2013): Here’s another CGI extravaganza that I was pretty sure I’d hate. The wild card, of course, was Baz Luhrmann. I found it to be an entertaining and pointed criticism of contemporary greed and entitlement.
  7. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): After the disappointing first Hunger Games movie, I was unsure of what to expect. Catching Fire was the weakest book IMO with a very thin plot, but that same quality benefited the movie by giving it some space to breathe.They smartly downplayed the whole teenage girl drama and played up the political/social revolution plot elements. Could end up being the best movie in the series.

Top 4 Disappointments

The ingredients for me to be disappointed typically include a mix of high expectations and a lot of excitement. Sprinkle in nostalgia for an extra kick to the groin.

  1. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): Coming off the heels of the 2009 Star Trek reboot (which I loved), I was almost certain this would be great (especially given the rumors that Khan would be in it). And though I liked some of it, especially the way it played with the events from previous episodes in the series, I found the action sequences mostly uninspired and tedious. But my biggest complaint was that it’s whole raison d’etre seemed to be the scene where Spock beats up the bad guy. Lame. Who are these doppelgangers? Aren’t there enough movie action heroes? Isn’t there room for Spock to just be Spock? Ugh.
  2. Man of Steel (2013): More like Meh of Steel. Christopher Nolan is no fun.
  3. The Purge (2013): Great premise, poor execution. I actually laughed out loud the tenth time a main character was suddenly saved at the very last second before they were about to be killed.
  4. Only God Forgives (2013): This is a borderline disappointment. I really liked it, but it felt like a misstep by director Nicolas Winding Refn, and I’m a bit worried that his style may be edging into self-parody.

Top 13 Movies from 2013 I Missed
(and Am Looking Forward to Seeing)

  • The Act of Killing
  • Stories We Tell
  • The Conjuring
  • Spring Breakers
  • This Is the End
  • Fruitvale Station
  • Computer Chess
  • Let the Fire Burn
  • The Gatekeepers
  • Short Term 12
  • You’re Next
  • Much Ado about Nothing
  • Trance

If you’d like to see the “full” list of movies I saw in 2013… Continue reading

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31 Scary Movies for Halloween on Netflix Streaming

Curtis loves scary movies + Curtis loves October = Favorite month of the year!

Here’s an alphabetical list of 31 horror movies I recommend that are currently streaming on Netflix. So pick a movie, grab a pumpkin beer, and enjoy! [Note: I’ll be completing the descriptions over the next few days.]

The ABCs of Death: Anthology movies can be hit and miss, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said there are some misses in this collection, but overall I found it pretty darn creative and varied. With 26 short films, the key here is to take breaks whenever you start feeling fatigued.

The Bay: Think Jaws but instead of a giant shark, it’s something much smaller… and much grosser (in a good way).

Black Death: While my first viewing of this movie was an experience of “anticipointment,” it’s become one of my favorites that I revisit every year. It’s more about the horrors we visit on each other motivated by fear, dogma, and revenge.

The Cabin in the Woods [Review]: Man. This is one of those movies I want to strongly recommend but can’t really talk about without spoiling the fun of it all. Haven’t you been reading this blog long enough to just trust me? If not, I have two words for you: Joss Whedon.

Carrie (1976) [Review]: It’s hard to watch Carrie today without evoking current societal crises like the escalation of bullying and school shootings. Rewatching it recently for the first time in maybe 10 years, I felt the horror in a way I never have before.

Dream Home: Not to be confused with the awful Daniel Craig movie Dream House, this gory Hong Kong horror movie is the new face of the slasher genre. It’s the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that embraces the “inventive kills” of the early Friday the 13th movies.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010): This near-perfect “monster in the house” movie has that great Poltergeist mix of playful and spooky. And Katie Holmes can act!

The Evil Dead (1981): The classic “cabin in the woods” movie. Low budget in all the right ways. What’s it about? First, shame on you for not knowing. Second, it’s about the dead. And they’re evil. Duh.

The Frighteners: Some people would say The Lord of Rings trilogy. Others might go old school with Dead Alive or Meet the Feebles. But this brilliant horror comedy about a charlatan ghost-hunter (Michael J. Fox) who can actually see ghosts is my favorite Peter Jackson movie (inching out Heavenly Creatures). It pre-dates Scream, and I wish it got the attention that movie did (and I love Scream).

Funny Games (1997): A home invasion movie. I’m know I’m a little late to the party, but this movie was brilliant. So sadistic with a (Andy) Kaufmanian f*** you to the audience.

The Grey

The Host

Human Centipede II (Full Sequence): Two things struck me about this movie. First is how different this movie looks and feels from its predecessor—almost as if it were a totally different genre. Second is how it’s completely exploitative and over-the-top yet doesn’t have that shocking-for-the-sake-of-being-shocking feel of A Serbian Film, for example. The things you see in this movie you can’t unsee, so consider yourself warned.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Kidnapped: Another home invasion movie, this time from Spain. Lots of interesting cinematography, supposedly comprised of just 12 long shots (similar to Children of Men in that regard). Unofficially “remade” in the US with Nic Cage and Nicole Kidman as Trespass.

Kill List [Review]: A former contract killer agrees to come out of retirement for one more job. On its face, it sounds like every other hit-man movie you’ve ever seen—which only belies the bizarre twists and turns that are to come.

Let the Right One In

Melancholia [Review]: Not a horror genre movie per se, but seriously, what’s more horrifying than our own inevitable doom, especially when there’s literally nowhere on earth that’s safe. Lars Von Trier can even make the apocalypse beautiful.

The Pact: I was pleasantly surprised by this indie horror film that mixes the slasher and ghost story sub-genres.

Paranormal Activity 3: There should be no more debate about the Paranormal Activity series. You either like the formula or you don’t. I do, and Paranormal Activity 3 learns all the lessons from the first two and executes the formula almost perfectly.

Piranha (1978): Surprisingly smart and suspenseful for a cheap B-movie that was made to exploit the success of Jaws.

Pontypool: A clever (yet imperfect) twist on the idea of what a “zombie” is. If you’re smart and you like idea movies, check this one out.

Quarantine 2: Terminal: I never bothered to see the first Quarantine because I’m such a big fan of the movie on which it is based, the Spanish [Rec], but this sequel strikes out on it’s own with an original story that moves the rage zombie action to a plane and airport. Totally watchable flick.

[Rec]³: Genesis: Speaking of [Rec], the second sequel ups the chaos to Dead Alive levels. This time rage zombies crash a wedding.

The Road (2009): Like Melancholia, the horror of The Road is more dramatic-based than what is typically called a horror movie. Only here, it’s not your own, but your child’s impending death that provides the context for horror.

Rosemary’s Baby

Scream: Some people like to blame Scream for the glut of awful horror movies that followed in its wake, but this slasher movie is smart, funny, and genuinely scary. That opening scene is sadistic and brutal in the best way. And the whodunnit ending paid off better than any other slasher movie I can think of, including the classics.

Scream 3: I know I may get a lot of shit for this one, but I found it to be a lot of fun. Yes, it jumps the shark, but the franchise needed that. I mean, Scream 2 was just bor-ing. And how can you not love Parker Posey and Courtney Cox scooby-doo-ing their way through the studio basement archives as the two Gale Weathers? Face it, you don’t enjoy this movie, you’re just no fun.

Severance: A company’s backwoods retreat goes backwoods bad. If you like subtle, dark humor give this movie a look.

The Tall Man: I know, I know, people trashed this movie big time. It’s more a thriller than the horror movie it was marketed as, but I enjoyed the many twists and turns, even if they are a bit unbelievable.

TimecrimesTimecrimes [Review]: Like with The Cabin in the Woods, it’s difficult to talk about Timecrimes without spoiling anything. And because I had such a great time watching this movie with no information about it other than the poster image and some positive buzz, I’d like to do my best to recreate that experience for you. “It’s smart, it’s scary, it’s funny! Wow, look at that cool poster!”

Trollhunter [Review]: A horrible idea for a movie. “I got it! Found footage and trolls!” But somehow it works. And boy, does it work!

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil: A brilliant spoof of the hillbilly horror subgenre! Made all the more watchable by the wonderful chemistry between the two leads.

The Woman: This a weird one. Capturing a wild woman and locking her in your basement like some bizarre family pet warrants all the punishment she will inevitably mete out.

Zodiac: This one gets under your skin like the very best true crime documentaries. The terror builds gradually like a setting sun, and before you know it, it’s pitch black and you’re all alone. Makes a great companion piece to Fincher’s Se7en.

[10/3/2013: Netflix just added Dressed to Kill, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Pumpkinhead.]

What did I miss? Any oversights that have you screaming at me through your computer screen? Hit me with comments to share your favorite movies for the Spooky Season!

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2013: The Year So Far

As a rule, I don’t go to the multiplex very often. Curtis don’t love da plex! I prefer my local art house theatre and Netflix. So I tend to see movies months or years after they’re released. That said, I have seen some 2013 movies, and here’s how the year stands up so far:

  1. Iron Man 3 *****
  2. Oz the Great and Powerful *****
  3. The Place Beyond the Pines ****
  4. Upstream Color ****
  5. No ****
  6. The Great Gatsby ****
  7. The Company You Keep ****
  8. Evil Dead ****
  9. The ABCs of Death ****
  10. Star Trek Into Darkness ***
  11. Quartet ***
  12. Room 237 ***
  13. The Purge ***
  14. Man of Steel ***

Click here for the full list of movies I’ve seen this year.

Best Movies I Saw in 2012

First, some movie-related conclusions I reached in 2012:

1. Curtis LOVES movies. I know I watch A LOT of movies, but I was never able to quantify it before. This year, due largely to Netflix’s viewing history, I was able to create a rough list of the movies I saw. Forgetting some I’m sure I overlooked, excluding favorites that I rewatch from time to time, and leaving off the worst ones that aren’t even worth mentioning, the total comes to about 120 new-to-me movies I watched this year.

2. Netflix Streaming is AWESOME. I know it’s in vogue to rag on Netflix, but for less than the price of a multiplex matinee ticket, you get an entire month of movie watching. A good chunk of the good movies I saw this year, I saw on Netflix—6 of which made it onto my “best of” lists below.

3. The Colonial Theater is AWESOME. There are still great movies being made, movies I love, but less and less are showing up at the multiplex. I’m extremely grateful to live in a town with a thriving, independent theater. Five of my Top 10 of 2012 I saw at The Colonial.

Top 10 Movies of 2012
(Plus 5 Movies from Previous Years That I Didn’t See until This Year)

Of the movies I saw in 2012, these are my favorites—not to be confused with “best,” whatever that means. I ranked them based on how likely I am to rewatch the movie (and in some cases I’ve rewatched them several times just this year) plus the emotional impact the movie had on me.

  1. The Loved Ones: This is my propaganda pick. Even though I’ve been raving about The Loved Ones since 2010 (it’s a 2009 Australian movie that came out in the US in 2012, so it gets in on a technicality), I still love it enough to put it ahead of the movies I saw this year. The quality of all aspects of filmmaking in The Loved Ones transcends the label of “horror movie.”
  2. The Intouchables: By all accounts I shouldn’t have liked this movie, and if it had been made by American filmmakers I probably wouldn’t have, but somehow the French filmmakers made it work. The thing that saved it from Hallmark Channel sentimentality was the incredibly irreverent sense of humor. Seek this movie out.
  3. Melancholia (2011): If someone took all of my fears about life and death and projected them onto a movie screen it would probably look something like Melancholia. Somehow Lars Von Trier makes depression and the inevitability of death beautiful.
  4. Kill List (2011): The ultimate down-the-rabbit-hole movie. The main character’s ever-accelerating slide from where this movie begins to where it ends seems both unbelievable and inevitable.
  5. The King’s Speech (2011): An inspirational movie that finds a universally human story of self-acceptance in the life of the King of England during World War II.
  6. The Cabin in the Woods: This is a horror movie that pays off decades of horror movie watching. It succeeds both as a horror movie and as an intelligent commentary on why we are attracted to horror movies. Plot-wise, I have two pretty big gripes with The Cabin in the Woods, but I’m more than happy to overlook them for the near perfect execution of everything else.
  7. Looper: Thank god for Ryan Johnson who showed us with Looper that it’s still possible to make a great genre movie that is not based on any existing franchise or other source material. This is my favorite kind of science fiction—it’s both fun and smart.
  8. Moneyball (2011): Can a movie that makes math the central focus of the plot still be fun and exciting? Moneyball shows us the answer is Yes!
  9. Winter’s Bone (2010): There’s something about this story of a girl struggling to save her family from the forces of nature, the government, and the criminal subculture of the Ozarks that gets under my skin. I watched this movie a half a dozen times already, and I could turn it on again right now and be just as engaged.
  10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: This is my kind of spy movie. No big gunfights or action sequences. It’s smart people solving international crises by being really, really smart. And it’s smart storytelling that doesn’t dumb things down for the audience.
  11. The Artist: What seemed like a cheap gimmick (a black and white silent movie made in 2012?) charmed me more than any other movie I saw this year. Michel Hazanavicius skillfully uses the silence to create some truly beautifully visual poetry in a very entertaining film.
  12. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory: Fascinating how the Paradise Lost movies have become an integral part of the very story they’re documenting. Part 3 is the culmination of a long journey to save the lives of three boys wrongly convicted for murder.
  13. Lincoln: Think The West Wing—Civil War. Awesome. My only criticism is that the seemingly recent trend of white filmmakers making movies about the white heroes of historical periods of racism (The Help, Lincoln, Django Unchained—all movies I enjoyed) makes me a little uncomfortable.
  14. Moonrise Kingdom: Looking back at the review I wrote immediately after seeing Moonrise Kingdom, I see that my reaction was positive but restrained. But in some strange way, this movie has grown on me subconsciously. I remember it now much more fondly than my initial reaction to it would suggest. I look forward to revisiting it.
  15. Ruby Sparks: Another charming movie that won me over. In the wrong hands this fun premise could have devolved into Judd Apatow third-act pandering, but it never did. A fantastical story that felt emotionally true.

Top 7 Movies I Loved But You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
(a.k.a. My Top Recommendations)

This is my list of movies I loved that didn’t get a lot of exposure as far as I can tell. If you check any out and like them, spread the word.

  1. The Loved Ones: Not only is this the best horror movie I’ve seen in years, but it’s one of the best movies of any genre I’ve seen in years. Even if horror isn’t your thing, The Loved Ones is worth a look.
  2. The Intouchables: A French film that did not get very wide distribution and is burdened with a silly title. As I’ve already stated, The Intouchables is hilarious and touching in equal measures.
  3. Kill List (2011): Granted, this movie asks more from the viewer than most, and therefore is not for everyone, but if you like movies that blend genres and defy Hollywood conventions, you should seek out Kill List.
  4. Winter’s Bone (2010): A very simple story with high stakes, plus an engaging performance by Jennifer Lawrence, makes this one of my top recommendations.
  5. Children of Heaven (1997): An even simpler story (two very poor Iranian children must find their shoes before their parents discover they’ve lost them), but the stakes are huge—will they learn the value of selfishness or compassion? Children of Heaven is both touching and fascinating in equal measures.
  6. Brick (2005): A film noir set in a high school. By Ryan Johnson, the director of Looper. Enough said.
  7. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry: Is he an artist who does activism or an activist who does art? Either way, Ai Weiwei is an intriguing and inspiring man who has taken on the Chinese government at a significant cost to himself.

Top 7 Surprises

The ingredients for me to be happily surprised by a movie typically include some combination of low expectations and ignorance.

  1. The Intouchables: What more can I say? If you had told me before I saw it that The Intouchables would be my #2 movie of the year, I would have laughed at you harder than I did at this hilarious and touching movie.
  2. Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2: Alright, let me explain. I knew almost nothing about the Twilight series before sitting down to watch this last one—I’d heard about a love triangle, sparkly vampires, and bad CGI werewolves. I went with a friend who’s a huge fan and needed a ride to the theater (and said she’d pay for my ticket). I expected to hate it. But I was totally entertained from beginning to end. First, the romance had resolved itself in the previous movie—phew. Second, the plot was very simple and fun—assemble an eclectic team of vampires to defend against the other vampires coming to kill us. Third, the last act of the movie was a big monster brawl with a dozen bloody decapitations. (Apparently vampires are extremely tough, except for their necks—irony!) Yes, the effects were even worse than the acting, but I had a campy good time!
  3. The Cabin in the Woods / The Avengers: Before I saw these two amazingly entertaining movies, Joss Whedon was that guy who did that Buffy show that I never saw. Well, consider me a Whedonite! This man sure knows how to make entertaining entertainment.
  4. Dream Home (2011): Not to be confused with the awful American movie, Dream House, this horror movie from Hong Kong is the new face of the slasher movie. An unlikely killer with an even unlikelier motive.
  5. Indie Game: The Movie:I didn’t think I would be moved by a documentary about indie game programmers, but the total commitment of these people to their passion despite the incredible challenges and obstacles they face makes Indie Game: The Movie one of the most inspirational films I saw all year.
  6. Ruby Sparks: A romantic comedy about a writer who magically writes his dream girl into existence sounds like some hydrogenated corn syrupy junk that would make me gag. Hey, I was wrong, I admit it.
  7. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010): Another story about ghosts in a big old house? Starring Katie Holmes? And it’s a remake? This had almost no chance of being any good. But I took a shot because of Guillermo del Toro’s involvement with the script. And what I discovered was a genuinely creepy and fun horror movie in the spirit of Poltergeist (not in story but in tone).

Top 5 Disappointments

The ingredients for me to be disappointed typically include a mix of high expectations and a lot of excitement. Sprinkle in nostalgia for an extra kick to the groin.

  1. Skyfall: I really enjoyed the James-Bond-for-grownups tone of both Casino Royale and the unjustly maligned Quantum of Solace, so I was really looking forward to Daniel Craig’s return in Skyfall. Unfortunately what we got was a franchise reboot (of a reboot) that brought back much of the flair and polish that had been previously discarded in the past two films. In fairness, there was a lot I liked (and Craig still rocks as my favorite Bond), but this movie tries to serve too many masters and just ends being less than the sum of its parts.
  2. Lawless: Mix the writer and director team of The Proposition with Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, and Gary Oldman, and how could you go wrong, right? That’s what I thought until I saw Lawless. The acting is amazing, except Shia LeBouf who in fairness does a decent job but is featured far too prominently amongst other much more interesting characters/actors. Storywise, the movie feels like it’s just going through the motions. If not for my love of Craig’s Bond, Lawless would have been my biggest disappointment by a long shot.
  3. Sleepwalk with Me: I love This American Life, and I love the episode on which this movie is based. And I so wanted to love this movie. But I just liked it. It wasn’t as funny as it aspired to be. But for a first-time writer/director team, it wasn’t bad.
  4. Prometheus: Great atmosphere, some good acting, but the more you think about the story, the dumber this movie gets.
  5. La Casa Muda (2010) / Silent House (2011): The idea of a movie that plays out continuously in “one take” is intriguing but was squandered on this story. Both versions (the Uruguayan original and the American remake) are comparable in quality. The first two-thirds of each is sufficiently spooky (but could have been spookier with skillful editing, in my opinion—the continuous filming plays more as a distracting gimmick than anything else), but what totally kills both movies is a silly twist ending.

Top 13 Movies from 2012 I Missed
(and Am Looking Forward to Seeing)

  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  • The Secret World of Arriety
  • Amour
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • The Loneliest Planet
  • This Is Not a Film
  • Jiro Dreams of Sushi
  • The Imposter
  • Sound of My Voice
  • The House I Live in
  • Compliance
  • The Grey
  • [Rec]³: Genesis

If you’d like to see the “full” list of movies I saw in 2012… Continue reading

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The Avengers (2012)

I’m rapidly becoming a Joss Whedon fan. For the longest time I simply dismissed him as “that Buffy guy,” not going as far as to buy into the whole tear-him-down bandwagon that so many “serious” genre fans have jumped on, but not giving him a fair shot either. But within the past month, three things happened:

1. I saw The Cabin in the Woods.

2. I heard a recent replay of an episode of This American Life that featured Whedon performing a song he wrote for the DVD commentary track for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

3. I saw The Avengers.

I’m not totally convinced of his genius—I’ve yet to see anything deep and meaningful in his work—but the man sure can entertain. He seems to be able to create the perfect mix of energy, humor, and thrills. Plus he’s got a knack for clever plotting and strong character relationships. All of which makes him the perfect writer-director for a movie as ambitious as The Avengers.

I won’t go into a lot of details about the movie because this is the kind of movie that by it’s nature will turn people on or off. With all of the other Marvel superhero movies building to this one, by this point you’ve either drank the Kool-Aid or not.

Ambition really is the right word for The Avengers. There are a lot of characters to serve, a lot of permutations of character interactions the fans want to see, a lot of action set-pieces required, and hopefully all of that is done in a way that doesn’t feel mathematical, as if the filmmakers are just running down a checklist. Whedon succeeds on almost every count.

It’s a lot of fun to see Hulk fight Thor, Thor fight Iron Man, etc. And I enjoyed the personal relationships, like when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner bond over how smart they are. The real surprise here character-wise, though, was Whedon’s handling of Black Widow. Without being heavy-handed about it, he gives her a backstory that both intrigues and engages emotionally.

Going in to this movie, I had a secret little test that I was going to use to determine how good this movie was. My theory was that a good storyteller wouldn’t just use such a provocative name as “The Avengers” without explaining it. What or who exactly are they avenging? This is a challenge because the name “Avengers” was introduced in Iron Man without any explanation. So to explain it literally would mean having to go back and create exposition for why it was used in the first place.

Whedon doesn’t do that. But he doesn’t ignore it either. He sidesteps the issue and references it twice, once fairly explicitly and once quite subtly, but both very satisfyingly.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise… Continue reading

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The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

Just great. Another movie I want to recommend but can’t really talk about without spoiling the fun of it all. Have you been reading this blog long enough to just trust me?

No? Okay, so I’ll progressively reveal more and more in each subsequent paragraph, and you can decide when to stop. I’ll start with the genre: horror, with a sci-fi twist and some clever comedy sprinkled in. It could be called a “high concept” movie, one that takes an old horror movie trope—the cabin in the woods—and creates something new and interesting out of it.

You can think of The Cabin in the Woods as the smarter, more attractive, more ambitious cousin of Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Both share the goal of deconstructing horror movies while trying to be one at the same time. Scream, of course, set the bar for this kind of thing, yet Cabin and Mask both raised it by being much more blatant. But where Mask fell short, Cabin succeeds.

In Mask, the satire is great (credit the writing) but the horror is substandard (blame the directing). Granted, it was an ambitious project for a first-time director, but I always found myself wanting to like it more than I actually did, wishing it could have been the This Is Spinal Tap of horror movies. The Cabin in the Woods actually delivers on the horror. In fact, I wasn’t won over by the movie right from the start. The sci-fi frame story seemed a little too in love with itself, and I worried that the horror was going to be underwhelming or goofy. But when the first attack happened, it was clear that Joss Whedon and company weren’t going to skimp. That’s when I could relax and trust I was in good hands.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise… Continue reading

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Melancholia (2011)

(Streaming on Netflix as of 4/19/2012)

Every good movie tells two stories: The one you are watching onscreen; and another more universal story for which the onscreen events are a metaphor. I think what makes a movie great is when the onscreen story is so believable in its own right and so authentically personal to the characters within it that the hand of the author in crafting the metaphor is invisible. In the same way that any experience I have in my life might be a metaphor for some larger aspect of life experienced by everyone. It’s that beautiful symmetry of microcosm and macrocosm. Or as my yoga teacher likes to say, the deeply personal is also universal.

Melancholia succeeds in this way.

The movie begins with some super slow motion shots that at first seem almost static, all set to classical music. I was worried I’d stumbled into a self-important and pretentious art film, but the first scene with newlyweds Justine and Michael stuck in their stretch limo as the driver tries unsuccessfully to navigate a tight turn on a winding gravel drive established a very down-to-earth (no pun intended—if you know the plot) feel to the movie.

From the onset, these characters seem like real people, as if they actually exist outside of the brief encounters we have with them. Credit the director and the actors for bringing such nuance to the performances that we can know so much about them without being told very much at all. It was nice to see Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland deliver subtle performances for a change. I liked Charlotte Gainsbourg here just as much as I did in The Science of Sleep. And I always enjoy watching John Hurt.

Besides the opening, the only other false note the movie hits is with Melancholia, the titular planet that’s feared to be rushing towards earth on a collision course. I think “Melancholia” works as the name of the movie, but as the name of the planet, it’s too contrived. It calls too much attention to the metaphor that we all have a planet-sized elephant in the room that we ignore most of our lives until it one day suddenly slams into us: the fact of our mortality. And depression (melancholia) can almost be viewed as logical response to that fact. The same self-awareness that allows us to relish in the beauty and wonder of life also teases us with the knowledge that one day we will die. Who wouldn’t get depressed by such a cruel cosmic joke?

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise… Continue reading

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The Hunger Games (2012)

Now I finally know what all of those Harry Potter and Twilight fans feel like. I finally understand how good it feels when a book series you love is brought to the screen and they don’t totally f**k it up.

Yes, I admit it. My name is Curtis and I am a fan of The Hunger Games, a trilogy for young adult readers. (Sounds like I’m at a 12-step meeting.) But with a biting commentary on society’s voyeuristic obsession with reality television, a criticism of government and corporate oppression, and some brutal child on child violence that’s a shadow of our culture’s school shootings and gang killings, this is a story adults should pay attention to.

In this fan’s opinion, The Hunger Games movie is a winner. Everything I remember loving about the book has been included, and what was cut were things I didn’t miss.

So, what didn’t work?

  • By far, my biggest criticism has to do with the director’s excessive use of shaky cam. At times, I thought I was watching Cloverfield 2. I worry that for some viewers it may render the movie unwatchable.
  • The climax/ending. The climax wasn’t bad, but it did feel somewhat rushed. I’ll get more into this point later.
  • Some sub-par CGI. During the opening ceremonies, for example, I thought I was watching a Star Wars prequel movie.
  • That’s it!

What worked really well:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Like she did in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence serves as this story’s emotional center. She grounds the movie with a character that feels true, all the more important here because of the fantastical sci-fi elements of the story. The two roles are surprisingly similar, even down to her family relationships—the absent father, the ineffectual mother, and the younger sibling(s) she’ll risk her life for. She brings some real acting chops to this series, and it’s a good thing given who they surrounded her with…
  • The supporting cast, especially Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, and Donald Sutherland. I had some reservations about Woody Harrelson being cast as Haymitch. In my mind, someone like John Hurt or even Robert Downey, Jr. would have been a better choice, but Woody Harrelson hit it out of the park. And Stanley Tucci was brilliant. It would have been so easy for an actor to go over the top with the Caesar Flickerman character, but Tucci brings a skillful subtlety to the role. There’s one moment where his character makes a joke on live television and then congratulates himself under his breath, “That’s funny,” delivered so subtly that the casual viewer would have missed it. For the acting alone, I would watch this movie a second time.
  • The mise en scene (minus the shaky cam that I’ve already mentioned). Stories set in the future are challenged by the dual need to feel different enough that we believe it’s the future, yet familiar enough that we can relate to the characters and events. The world of The Hunger Games was ugly when it needed to be and beautiful when it needed to be, often a combination of both. Katniss’s District 12 was gray and bleak, the Capitol was colorful and gaudy, and the forest was green and lush with life, an aesthetic irony when the bodies start falling in the arena.
  • The story. In fairness, there really wasn’t much for the filmmakers to do here except not screw up the wonderful story created by Suzanne Collins.
  • The visceral emotion of the story. This is where the movie could have gone horribly wrong. But the filmmakers resisted any temptation for melodrama. I can imagine the director pitching this as Winter’s Bone in the future. The scoring was pretty sparse too, especially by Hollywood standards. The events themselves are emotional enough that they don’t need much adornment, and they were played out very effectively. My eyes were tearing up within the first five minutes during the reaping scene, the scene that sets the whole story in motion. When they nailed that, I knew the story was in good hands.

Having only read the book once and having seen the movie just once, what I’m about to say may be a bit premature, but I think The Hunger Games makes a better movie than a book. By not having the luxury of getting into Katniss’s head and hearing her thoughts, the movie positions her as an “Everyman,” representative of anyone in the audience. We don’t have to hear her teenage whining that filled so much of the book. Yes, that was her character, but it limits how relatable the character is. It’s not a surprise that the theater was filled with teenage girls; they were the book’s target demographic. But I think the movie widens the audience because of the natural show-don’t-tell limitations of film.

What’s impossible for me to comment on (and has yet to be seen) is how well the movie works for people who haven’t read the book. There’s a lot to this story, a lot of information and plot thrown at the viewer at a healthy pace. Even at 142 minutes, the movie felt like it flew by. I wonder how well the movie as a whole can offset any distance the quick pacing may put between itself and the uninitiated viewer.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise… Continue reading

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Curtis Doesn’t Love EW’s Review of The Hunger Games

A reviewer at Entertainment Weekly posted his review of the film, criticizing it for ignoring one of the central themes of the book:

There is one important aspect of the original novel that is almost entirely absent from the movie: The darkly funny way in which Collins directly accuses the audience. As in, us. Weirdly, by turning the book into such a fan-baiting crowdpleaser, the movie version of Hunger Games seems to oddly miss the point of its own source material.

[Read his full review at]

I see what he’s saying, but I think he’s missing the bigger picture. Darren Franich is writing his review in a context less plausible than the world of The Hunger Games. I, too, am a fan of the book, and I appreciate Suzanne Collins biting commentary about our complicity in the darker side of reality television. But movies adapted from books are reductive by nature. I don’t know how fast Mr. Franich reads, but it took ME a lot longer to read The Hunger Games than the movie’s 142-minute running time. Choices had to be made. I thought the filmmakers skillfully chose to focus more on the theme of the morality of survival: How much of yourself will you give away to save your own life? What is worth risking your life for? These are powerful questions for a Hollywood movie.

We were NEVER going to get the movie that Franich complains we didn’t get. Something had to get left out. I agree that the end of this movie was rushed and a little unsatisfying. But so much else of the movie worked (and worked really well), that I can forgive it a few missteps.

The upside is that Catching Fire (the second story in the trilogy) is a much better place to explore the themes that were left out of this movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a part of the decision to choose to leave them out of this movie. The book Catching Fire felt largely irrelevant to me (except for a few necessary plot events to set up the third book) because the first book was as effective as Franich argues. The filmmakers have remedied that and set up the second movie to be very powerful, if they do follow through. The whole first half of Catching Fire is about nothing else but Katniss’s efforts to please her audience, and ultimately her failure to do that through artifice and success by being true to herself.

In conclusion, I think Franich’s criticism is premature. Yes, The Hunger Games is not a perfect movie. But it’s a great start to what could become a very powerful sci-fi movie trilogy.

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Timecrimes (2007)

(Streaming on Netflix as of 2/10/2012)

It’s really difficult to talk about Timecrimes (aka Los Cronocrímenes) without spoiling anything. And because I had such a great time watching this movie with no information about it other than the poster image and some positive buzz, I’d like to do my best to recreate that experience for you. So I’m going to break this review into 3 parts.

These first two paragraphs will simply express my enthusiasm and encourage you to see it before you read anything more about it. In the second section I will talk about it while doing my best not to reveal too much. And then the final section (below the spoiler warning) will be for people who have already seen the movie and want to know what I liked about it. So if you like foreign sci-fi movies and/or tend to share my tastes in film and/or are intrigued by the poster image that you see here, stop reading and go watch Timecrimes on Netflix right now.

Okay, now for the rest of you who aren’t totally convinced, let’s see what I can tell you. Maybe it’s easier to say what this movie is not:

  • It’s not a big budget thriller
  • It doesn’t have any big name actors
  • It doesn’t have an attractive, sexy lead character that we’re supposed to believe is a normal person
  • It doesn’t have elaborate set pieces

Sounds like a real piece of crap, right? If it doesn’t have any of that, then what does it have? It has intelligence, a sense of humor, solid acting and directing, and lots of surprises. And I think what I appreciated the most is that it doesn’t treat you like you’re stupid or not paying attention like lots of more popular Hollywood thrillers.

If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise… Continue reading

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