2016 Year in Review

As usual it’s incredibly late but I’ve finally got all my year end stuff up on the blog.  They can both be viewed here:

The Top Ten Movies of 2016

The 2016 Golden Stakes

It’s been a long year and I watched more movies in 2016 than ever before.  When I started this blog in 2007 I watched 63 movies (including movies from that year I saw on DVD but not including documentaries) by year’s end, which was more than usual for a while.  I hit a low in 2010 when I only saw 40 movies by the time Golden Stakes came around and my previous record was set in 2013 when I saw 75 movies by the time I was done.  This year I managed to see 87 movies.  That’s 1.67 movies a week.  Wow.  I don’t know that I’ll do that again this year but we’ll see what comes along.

By the way, I didn’t do a post to announce it but three days ago was the tenth anniversary of The Movie Vampire, a fact that I have mixed feelings about.  I’m proud to have stuck with it this long, but I also wonder where the time went.  Anyway, I may be doing some special anniversary related posts when I have time in 2017.

2015 in Review and Plans for the Future

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We’re about a quarter of the way into 2016 and I’m finally ready to finish up with 2015 (thanks a lot work ethic!).  As I do every year I’ve put together a top ten list and a set of Golden Stake Awards, and I’ve finally gotten around to posting them in the special pages section.  Both can be viewed here:

2015 Golden Stakes

Top Ten films of 2015

Now, on to the next announcement.

For the last nine years (wow, nine years of this)  I’ve reviewed every movie I’ve seen in theaters (and a number I’ve seen on DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming) and there’s been one constant throughout: the four star rating system.  It’s a rating system I more or less stole from Roger Ebert and I’ve long thought that I understood it and it worked, but last year I became rather disillusioned by it.  I’m not a professional critic and I don’t make a habit of seeing every movie that’s out there and because my viewing is so heavily curated most of the movies I opt to see are some shade of “good,” which makes them hard to fit into a four star scale.  Because anything that’s two and a half or less is a “thumbs down” it means that a large majority of movies are going to be either a three, three and a half, or four star review and given that I’m stingy about giving out four star reviews that means that damn near everything has been a three or three and a half star review.  Meanwhile, in the last year or two I’ve been in the habit of posting reviews and ratings on Letterboxd.com, a site that let’s you review and rate movies which works entirely on a five star scale.  Doing my ratings there has given me a pretty good feel for how freeing the five star scale is over the four star scale.  The movies I would have given two and a half or less to will still get those ratings, but for anything higher I have more freedom.

A three out of four can be converted into either a three or a three and a half out of five depending on how passionate I was and a three and a half out of four can either be relegated to three and a half out of five or be bumped up to a four out of five.  And the movies that I normally  would have given a four out of four can be converted into either a four and a half out of five or a full five out of five depending on how passionate I am.  These ratings will be more robust and clear, and I want to be using them going forward starting in 2016.  To make this transition more clear I’m going to be using these graphics to illustrate my star ratings  rather than using the old asterisks.

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2012 Wrap Up

I’ve always been of the opinion that in the world of Cinephillia the years go from Oscar night to Oscar night rather than from January to January.  So now, almost two months after the rest of the world moved on, I’ve finally decided to leave 2012 for the history books.  It’s been a hell of a year and I’m leaving it now with a two retrospective pieces looking back at the year in film.

Firstly, I’ve posted the results for my Sixth Annual Golden Stake Awards.  For those who don’t know, the Golden Stakes are a sort of personalized award show I put together where I single-handedly pick both the nominees and winners in a variety of categories ranging from Best Actor to Best Fight Scene.  I’ve put one together every year, but I’ve never really found a good way to present it on the blog until now.  All of the choices can be found at the link below, and I hope to go back and add results from previous years as well once I recover from all the work of putting together this one.

The 2012 Golden Stakes

And those looking for a more concise snapshot of the year’s best film can go over to the page for Top Tens, where I’ve added my choices for 2012.

Yearly Top Tens

So now it’s time to look forward to 2013.  There are some interesting sounding movies in the pipeline for this year and I look forward to reviewing them.  I also have some plans to make this blog a little more personal in 2013 and hope to be writing more than just a whole bunch of reviews.

2011 Documentary Round-Up: Part 2

Bill Cunningham New York (12/11/2011)
Before seeing this documentary I’d never so much as heard of Bill Cunningham even in passing, but within certain circle’s he’s extremely well known and respected.  Cunningham is a fashion photographer.  If that’s enough to make you disinterested I don’t blame you, but hear me out.  I have no respect for fashion at all, but the way Cunningham views the topic seems surprisingly intelligent rather than vapid.  Since the early 50s he’s been photographing people on the streets of New York trying to pick up on trends as they emerge from the people.  He’s an interesting guy too with a lot of charming quirks like his insistence on traveling the city by bicycle and the fact that he lives in an incredibly small room in Carnegie Hall surrounded by file cabinets filled with negatives.  The film does descend into hagiography at times and I would have liked more discussion about what exactly separates his work from that of a paparazzo, but for the most part this is a shockingly interesting and well made doc.
*** out of Four

Tabloid (12/23/2011)
Two years ago Errol Morris made an excellent documentary called S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure about the deadly serious issue of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and it opened to a resounding shrug from the film community.  This year he made a documentary about an ultimately inconsequential sex scandal and received much more attention because of it.  Apparently even in the world of highbrow documentaries sex and sensationalism sell better than war journalism.  Still this documentary about the strange case of Joyce McKinney manages to be a very interesting account of a story that hasn’t really been told on this side of the Atlantic.

It is interesting to try to discern what the truth is in regards to what happened between McKinney and Kirk Anderson, but Morris is ultimately more interested in dissecting McKinney and seeing what makes her tick.  On top of all that, Morris is at the top of his stylistic game and has given himself the freedom to run wild with it.  Morris incorporates newspaper clippings and title cards seamlessly with the interview footage in a way that is visually appealing while also revealing a sly sense of humor about all of the proceedings.  The film might lack some of the weight of Morris’ best films, but its every bit as well made and still very interesting to watch.
***1/2 out of Four

Senna (1/7/2011)
I once looked up a list of the best paid athletes in the world expecting to see names like Derek Jeter or Kevin Garnet, instead what I saw was someone named Michael Schumacher, which is a name I’d never heard of in a sport I had no idea was that lucrative: Formula 1 racing.  Though the sport is not followed at all in the United States, the worldwide fanbase is apparently quite huge, so huge that the name “Senna” is a household name in many parts of the world.  Ayrton Senna was in fact a three time world champion on the F1 circuit and a dominant driver throughout the late 80s and early 90s before his career was cut short by a fatal crash in 1994.  The documentary Senna covers the driver’s professional life from his entry in the European circuit, through a bitter rivalry with another driver named Alain Prost, up until that fateful crash that ended his life.

Because Senna was such a public figure there was so much footage available that director Asif Kapadia is largely able to let the public record speak for itself.  We do occasionally get voice over commentary by sports journalists, but we never cut to talking heads and the film also doesn’t use a narrator, instead we see the various events played out in the footage as if this were a dramatic film.  It’s similar to the approach used for the documentary Tupac: Resurection, which also knew the power of simply letting archival footage speak for itself.  By the end of the film we really feel like we’ve witnessed one of the great stories in professional sports play out before our eyes.
***1/2 out of Four

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front (1/8/2012)
We’ve all heard the stories about “ecco-terrorists” who have set fire to lumber mills and freed test animals, but rarely have we met them.  In this new documentary we do indeed meet one of these so called terrorists named Daniel McGowan, a seemingly friendly and likable young man living in New York.  We watch McGowan over the course of a few months leading up to his eventual imprisonment and then look back at what led him to this point.  We learn about the history of the E.L.F. and what turned them from mainstream activists into arsonists, and how they managed to last as long as they did.  While the filmmaker is clearly sympathetic to McGowan, he does interview both the U.S. Attorney who convicted him, a cop involved in the investigation, and some of the people who lost their property to these fires and allows all of them to tell their side of the story without judgment.  The film itself is efficient, if not overly artistic, it felt like one of the many true crime documentaries that tend to air on MSNBC on weekend afternoons.  That may be for the best given that there’s a lot of information here that needed to be covered, and the evenhandedness by which it is conveyed is commendable.
*** out of Four

Buck (1/11/2012)
Often documentaries will come out and bring attention to stories that seem so interesting that they inspire Hollywood to make a narrative film out of the material.  Here we have an example of the opposite.  Robert Redford made a film loosely based on the horse trainer Buck Brannaman fifteen years ago called The Horse Whisperer and only now are we getting a documentary account of the real man.  Brannaman is an interesting person in that he seems like a “hard” man but he doesn’t have the violent swagger that is often associated with “cowboys.”  In fact he’s the antithesis of the impulsive “cowboy” that George W. Bush claimed to be.  His backstory, which involved a very tough childhood, is also interesting and watching his horse training techniques is also kind of interesting.  The thing is, I’m not sure that I needed a full 88 minutes in order to be interested by all this.  I feel the film may have been better served if it had been a Documentary short subject rather than a feature length film.
**1/2 out of Four

2011 Documentary Round-up: Part 1

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (9/19/2011)
When the “Late Night Wars” were going on last year my eyes were glued to the TV and the internet, fascinated by the high profile battle that was going on over NBC’s late night schedule.  That said, my interest in the conflict had more to do with my disdain for Jay Leno than it had to do with any true admiration for the comedic talents of Conan O’Brien.  O’Brien is a fun personality but a little bit of him goes a long way, and frankly I’m not that interested in watching a talk show every single night of the week.  As such I wasn’t sure how much I’d get out of this feature length documentary about the guy and given the cult like nature of “Team Coco” I had pretty good reason to fear that this would be a product that was “for fans only.”  In fact it would have been so incredibly easy for the documentarians involved to out a puff piece, a movie filled with footage from O’Brien’s tour mixed with self serving interviews about how “fun” it is to work with Conan.

Instead, what we have here is a very honest film about the “agony and ecstasy” of being an entertainer and a brilliant portrait of Conan O’Brien at a period of great frustration in his life.  The film consists almost entirely of backstage footage from his tour, actual concert footage is sparse, which is good because those shows don’t look like they’d be particularly entertaining unless you’re watching them in person.  O’Brien himself has a report with his assistants and writers that can teeter between jovial hazing and borderline cruelty.  You can tell that he’s someone who wants to make everyone laugh but who’s internally going through a lot of anger.  It reminded me about another famous documentary about a famous person on a frustrating tour: Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, but Conan O’Brien is not Bob Dylan and in this case seeing him persevere through one of his most unpleasant moments only elicits greater respect for the man.
***1/2 out of Four

Pearl Jam: Twenty (10/21/2011)
I love Pearl Jam, in fact I think they’re the living embodiment of everything that a rock and roll band is supposed to be.  This documentary, lovingly crafted by Cameron Crowe, only reaffirmed my respect for the band which is a respect that Crowe clearly also shares.  I’m am not so sure that the same will be true of people who aren’t already enamored with the band, in fact there’s probably nothing of interest here for people who don’t already at least like the band, and that’s what keeps me from fully embracing the film.  That said I really admired just how well the film was put together with tons of archival footage of the band and from related pop culture stitched throughout along with good and relatable interview footage.
*** out of Four

Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (11/3/2011)
The common complaint about Morgan Spurlock is that he makes documentaries that only prove points that should be obvious to begin with like the fact that McDonalds is not very good for you or that not everyone in the Middle East is evil.  That’s true, but it also sort of misses the point.  Spurlock is not trying to break new ground; he’s trying to present interesting information in a fun and highly accessible way.  It’s long been accepted that fiction films can be light entertainment, why not allow documentaries the same license?  This one is particularly fun because it becomes has an almost unintended and highly accessible meta element of being a movie about the making of itself.  Spurlock’s fun Michael Moore inspired stunts are as fun as ever and the fact that he’s dealing with a topic that’s not wildly serious makes them feel appropriate rather than cheap.  We also do get a brief look at the inner workings of the advertising industry, which is interesting in a much more genuine way.
*** out of Four

Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (11/16/2011)
As someone with a more than casual knowledge of Hip-Hop I was fairly familiar with A Tribe Called Quest, even if they weren’t exactly my favorite rappers in the world.  Their albums like Midnight Mauraders and The Low End Theory are indeed classics of sorts, but I don’t think they eclipse the works of other groups around that time like Eric B. and Rakim, Public Enemy, and Gang Starr.  Consequently it seemed a little strange to see the many talking heads in this documentary treat the group like it was the second coming of Mozart or something.  Of course what really matters here is the film’s exploration of the group members and their personal dynamics, and that’s interesting when it finally arrives, but too much of this documentary feels like a behind the music episode and I sort of wish director Michael Rapaport had settled down and decided whether he was going to make a career retrospective (like Pearl Jam: Twenty) or tour documentary (like Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop).  Instead he tries to do both and the results are disappointing.
**1/2 out of Four

Page One: Inside the New York Times (11/29/2011)
This documentary manages to get incredible access to the inner workings of America’s most respected news source at an important juncture in its 160 year history.  All Throughout the documentary there’s doom in the air as the internet seems poised to overtake print media as the preeminent news source and the Times is the white whale that these young turks seem to have pasted a bullseye atop.  Page One: Inside the New York Times is not exactly a paragon of documentary organization, in fact it seems like a number of different documentaries in one: it could have been a vérité work about what the newsroom is like, it could have been a profile of journalist David Carr, or it could have been a straight exploration of new media vs. old media.  It does all of these things and runs the risk of being over-crowded because of this, but it turns out that each of these mini-documentaries is so interesting that it’s hard to hold that against the film and their all woven together so well that you forgive it its overflowing ambitions.
*** out of Four

2010 Documentary Round-up: Part 1

The Art of the Steal8/12/2010

A chronicle of the decades long conflict to keep the legendary art collection at the Barnes institute housed at a remote location in a suburb outside of Philadelphia.  This documentary certainly did a very good job of informing me about a story I had never heard about before.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that the film is clearly rather biased about its subjects, which is fine, but I don’t think I agreed with it at all and I didn’t find it very persuasive either.  The root argument you have to agree with in order for this movie to persuade you is the notion that it’s inherently wrong not to honor a decades old will that isn’t going to directly benefit any particular individual.  It seems the filmmakers insist that the city of Philadelphia should ignore an excellent opportunity for no reason other than to keep a fifty year old grudge of an old and long dead bastard alive.  I don’t really see it that way and the movie makes no attempt to really reach anyone who isn’t already on board with that premise. 

**1/2 out of Four

 South of the Border11/20/2010

Oliver Stone isn’t particularly famous as a documentarian, but his sensibilities do translate fairly well into the medium.  This was a useful look into Hugo Chavez and a variety of other leftwing Latin American leaders that are changing the way politics is done in that region.  This is not at all a fair and balanced look at the issue, but then again neither is the coverage in the mainstream media.  Stone says right from the get go that this is simply meant to show the exact opposite side of the propaganda against these leaders, and that seems fair enough to me.  What is not so acceptable is the sheer lack of information here.  The movie is a scant 80 minutes long, and that is not remotely long enough to do more than scratch the surface, especially given the large number of leaders he decides to interview in the second half.  For a feature length documentary, that’s just not good enough.

**1/2 out of Four

 William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe11/24/2010

This is a documentary about the famed activist/lawyer William Kunstler, made by his daughters.  It has already been added to the fifteen film shortlist for the Best Documentary Oscar.  The film is, for the most part, a straightforward work of biography.  Kunstler himself does prove to be a very interesting person and his life is, in its own way, very inspirational to those interested in making social change.  However, this does not have a particularly new set of insights about the man.  Pretty much the only thing that differentiates it a little is that it’s made by his daughters, but that’s not really a great strength of the film necessarily.  Watching it, I felt like it was a documentary more worthy of PBS than theaters, and was thus unsurprised to learn that the film was actually made to be exactly that. Still, the guy’s a pretty interesting dude.

*** out of Four

 Smash His Camera11/25/2010

This documentary is ostensibly a profile of the famed paparazzo Ron Galella, but it’s also an examination of American paparazzi culture as a whole.  Galella comes off as a rather likable guy, but the film ultimately has a pretty ambiguous take on the subject.  The filmmakers did not hesitate to interview people that view Galella as a ”creep,” but Galella himself is pretty good at defending his trade.  It also examines a court case between Galella and Jackie Onassis which asks some pretty interesting questions about freedom of the press.  Finally, the film also takes the photography itself seriously and asks if these celebrity photos can be viewed as art.  The subject never quite emerges as something of the most incredible importance, but it analyzes it well.

*** out of Four 

The Lottery12/1/2010

The film that is likely to go down as “that other 2010 film about charter schools,” this is being completely overshadowed by the higher profile documentary on the same subject, Waiting for Superman.  I’ll say right up front that I’m a major skeptic when it comes to charter schools.  There’s no denying that they’ve had some success in limited capacities, but I have serious doubts that they can ever work on a system-wide scale, and frankly I don’t take the anti-union sentiment that seems to follow these places very well.  I’m not, however, dogmatic in my views; in essence I’m exactly the kind of person that this kind of project should be trying to persuade and frankly I think it completely failed on that front.  The movie is very good at telling the audience that charter schools are great and that the teachers union is bad, but does almost nothing to back up the claims.  What I needed was the nitty gritty, I wanted to hear exactly what differentiates these schools from normal public schools and why the much vilified teachers union is supposedly to blame.  I didn’t get it.  Instead I got a lot human interest pieces about cute kids that serve little purpose other than to emotionally manipulate the audience during one of the sick public lottery spectacles that these schools have decided to put on.

*1/2 out of Four