The Monuments Men (2014)

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It’s often a good thing when a director settles into his own style, when he reaches a degree of comfort with his voice as a storyteller. It means he can spend less time obsessing over style choices and more time considering what lies at the center of the stories he’s chosen to tell. Not so George Clooney. In Leatherheads and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney revealed a proclivity towards the atmosphere of Old Hollywood–Old America even. He also showed a modicum of nuance in the way he presented it. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men finds him exploring this inclination more single-mindedly and fruitlessly than ever before.

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2013’s Top Nine

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So here they are, my best of 2013. I’ll allow my two-month demurral and the list’s incompleteness (who does a top nine?) to speak for the sort of year I had in the theaters. Still, I saw enough to have an opinion and I’m going to share it with you.

Enjoy.

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Salinger (2013)

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Salinger is built like an homage, speaking of the man with a spiritual reverence, maintaining an air of enigmatic romance with “never before seen” imagery and footage. The author’s elusiveness is the throughline, and Salinger wants desperately to play a part in the creation of his mythology, assembling old friends and contemporaries to talk about his work and character with great solemnity. It works, not because the film is effectively made, but because the story of Jerry “J.D.” Salinger is so salient. For those who have read Salinger, and felt a kinship with the man through that writing, Salinger is the rare film that unlocks its subject while somehow telling you what you already knew: He was a true artist, and true artists don’t owe us anything.

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American Hustle (2013)

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I just don’t have much to say about American Hustle. Not for lack of trying, but the film hasn’t given me much to think about since I saw it a week ago. It’s a perfectly okay movie built on a mildly interesting true story that has a few things to say about the follies of greed, and includes a pair of knockout performances. But more than all that, and first, it’s a film that reminds you how utterly flaky Academy voters can be.

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Help! (1965)

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The plot of Help! is absurd and absurdly simple: An eastern cult can’t perform its sacrificial rite without a gaudy ring that, as it turns out, was sent to Ringo and is now stuck on his finger. Led by a screw-eyed Swami named Clang (Leo McKern), the cult hunts the Beatles and the ring around the globe — whenever possible, tomfoolery abounds. It’s a story made for a 20-minute cartoon, yet Director Richard Lester, in his second outing with the boys, somehow found a way to stretch it into a full 92-minute feature.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967 – 2014

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The strangest thing about dealing with an actor’s death is that you have to keep reminding yourself you didn’t know them. I didn’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman because I know Phil Parma or Scotty J. I didn’t know him because of the interviews or the speeches. I did not know him. Over the next few hours and days and weeks the news of his death will slowly leave me, until I only truly grieve when he pops up in a film I’m watching — when PTA releases something and there’s no PSH to be found. It’s hard to pretend that a grief so fleeting could be the truth.

But there is truth in it, as evidenced by the sweeping anguish found in so many film lovers. And whether it’s thanks to a true connection with the artist through his work, or simply the reality that losing a genuine talent like Philip Seymour Hoffman is an objective sadness, today is hard.

It’s a certainty that Philip Seymour Hoffman had many more remarkable performances in him, and that loss is certainly incalculable, but for those of us who have always quietly understood that Phil was one of the greatest of all time, one of the reasons that movies can be called art, it’s hard to know what to think. A talent who moved millions was here yesterday and now he’s dead, and…for a moment I was going to write, and he’ll never move anybody again, but that’s not true is it? He will continue to move us for years to come, in fact — every time we watch one of his films. And I suppose that’s the minor consolation we can take: Hoffman is gone but never forgotten, because film allows those who are gone to keep on living.

Film allows those who are gone to keep on living.

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014

 

12 Years a Slave (2013)

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Steve McQueen probably hated Django Unchained. Where Tarantino’s Django Unchained toyed with history’s facts to make the horrors of slavery a plot point, 12 Years a Slave is a film about a torture perpetrated on millions of black men, women and children. McQueen’s third feature isn’t interested in the audience’s comfort or catharsis, and tells a story full of vicious, hard violence and fractured souls. McQueen brings you as close as he possibly can to the horrors of antebellum slavery, not shying from bloody truths, and ultimately reminds us that far, far too often, history’s mad men and their ugly horrors go unpunished and unredressed.

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