Okay, so maybe the title is a liiiiittle hyperbolic, but I’ve been reading a lot about how this summer’s blockbuster season has been a bit of a bummer. (Summer. Bummer. IT RHYMES!) And it’s true–I barely went to the theaters this summer, and when I did, it was for films like Frances Ha, Upstream Color and Blue Jasmine, not any tentpole blockbusters. I’ve had my own thoughts about why movies have become particularly terrible, but I hesitated to write something about it because critics all over the internet have written approximately ten million think-pieces concerning this very subject. However, very few people have addressed what I see as the biggest problem in movies: the lack of any original, non-white-or-male voices in the film industry.
Recently I’ve found myself growing increasingly disinterested in discussion about upcoming directors and upcoming projects because I realize that none of the decisions Hollywood makes are made with me, a half-Asian young woman, in mind. Now, to be fair, I also realize that movies these days largely aren’t made for Americans at all–they’re made to appeal to international audiences who have little interest in “American” stories. In the interest of mass appeal, movies have been growing broader, and less specifically “American,” so as not to alienate international audiences. But let’s be real: movies have never been made with women in mind. (I know this isn’t really a HOLY SHIT MIND BLOWING statement to make.) When I look at blogs like Hollywood Boys Club, I’m again smacked in the face by the knowledge that TV shows and movies aren’t made for women, and they’re definitely not made by women. Even major movie studios who make “four quadrant” movies are largely ignoring two quadrants, younger and older women, because they believe that women will go to male-oriented movies, while men won’t go to female-oriented movies.
Is this an erroneous assumption to make? Eh, probably not, but it’s not because male-oriented movies are inherently better than their female counterparts; it’s because of a larger overriding sexism that exists in our society that says “girl” things are silly and frivolous and bad while male things are serious and dramatic and real. (For example, let’s look at people’s extreme hatred of Zooey Deschanel for being “girly,” nevermind her obvious success and talent, and the hard work it must have taken for her to get to this point. She has bangs and wears dresses, ergo, she can’t be taken seriously!) And people, especially studios looking to make a lot of money, are afraid to challenge the status-quo, because what if they bet on the wrong horse (aka women and/or minorities) and lose?
This kind of safe, backward thinking has resulted in a homogenous slate of movies. Several people have commented on how unoriginal and uninteresting blockbusters this past summer have been, but many people are missing what is, to me, the obvious. When I read this article at AV Club about whether movies are really doomed I was confused and frustrated by what the author was trying to say. Am I supposed to be comforted by the fact that established, successful directors have enough money to do whatever they want? I don’t care about established directors! They’re the problem! We need new voices, and specifically, we need new voices that aren’t white or straight or male. Movies have fallen into the pit they’ve fallen into because we recycle the same directors and writers over and over rather than getting people with new, original ideas and perspectives. But studios will never break that cycle because they don’t want to take a chance. They don’t want quality, they don’t want new voices–all they see is $$$.
That’s why it’s up to people like me, like us (I’m being optimistic and assuming that you, dear reader, agree with me) to make the change that we want to see, to force major studios and the world at large to notice us and realize that we can’t be ignored. It would be easy for us to collectively shrug and say it doesn’t matter–why do we need to infiltrate the studio system? Why does the mainstream matter? It matters because until the world views women and minorities as “mainstream,” we’ll be viewed as the “other,” as people whose opinions don’t matter, whose interests don’t matter, whose perspectives don’t matter. I’m tired of being shunted to the side, of being ignored, because I exist, and no matter how much mainstream media tries to tell me that they don’t want me, I’m going to force them to recognize that I am here.
Whenever I draw, even when it’s just for fun, I often think of who this character is beyond this drawing. This girl’s name is Aiko, and she’s half-Japanese, half-French living in Paris. She’s always really grumpy and pretty nihilistic and basically hates everything, even though she lives a posh life, goes to a fancy school, eats at fancy restaurants, etc. She just doesn’t feel like she belongs in this sort of life, but doesn’t have any idea as to an alternative. I feel like I might possibly make a comic about her at some point. HA, who am I kidding, I’m way too lazy to do something like that.
(This photo is stolen from a similarly themed essay on Vulture. Don’t judge me. It’s a great photo.)
A word I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is “greatness.” Greatness, to me, means achieving something larger than yourself. It’s not about success, necessarily, but the feeling that you’re contributing something of importance to mankind. I don’t have pretensions of my ~changing the world for the better~ or anything like that; I mean it more in the way you approach things, not in how others perceive you. I’ve been thinking about greatness because I want to start approaching my art again like it’s art, rather than a means to an end.
I know that I’m a naturally competitive person, and I know that I care a lot about how others see me. Blame it on a childhood spent as a misfit, and wanting someday to prove to the people who once underestimated me that I can be successful, famous, adored. I’ve often been driven by the idea that one day, I’ll receive my accolades, and that is what will make all of this worth it.
This is such a sad, empty way to approach life. I struggle with remembering why I wanted to make art (be it drawing, making movies, writing, whatever) in the first place. I’ve been trying to slowly reconnect with the passion that I know resides in me, which in many ways is so much more fulfilling than a drive to succeed. Because if you’re going to make truly moving art, you have to make it with a pure heart.
This sounds like flowery drivel, I know, but I want to be romantic again. I hate constantly comparing myself to more successful people and coming up short. I hate feeling like I have a chip on my shoulder, that I have something to prove. Fear of failure is a good motivator, sure, but maybe the love of creation is a better one. Creation is such a strong word–it calls to mind the divine. Creation is about making something bigger than yourself, something with its own power. To use creation to achieve material means is not creation at all; it’s unworthy of the word.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m trying to introduce the divine into my life again. Not divinity in the religious sense, but I suppose in a spiritual one. To make something great, you have to tap into the place inside of yourself that’s purely human, that which is purely human in all of us. It may sound like I have delusions of grandeur, but I think that everyone is able to reach for greatness, and should. We should all want to create the best lives that we can, to look back and see that we gave it our all, not for money or titles or awards, but because our time is short and the essence of humanity is so elusive. Why not try to touch the divine?
After the endless, mediocre string of masturbatory movies about ~the magic of film~ in 2011, I thought 2012 was a rather good year. I feel that movies released in the same year tend to have some kind of over-arching theme to them (like the aforementioned “movie magic” theme of 2011), and I think that 2012 was all about the flawed, idiosyncratic, singular protagonist. You could make the argument that, yes, generally, movies follow a protagonist, but I think that the protagonists of 2012′s movies were about striking out on their own path, everything else be damned. (Or they were spiritual journeys about the connected-ness of the universe, or the meaning of life, or whatever. See: Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi.) This year I had the pleasure of seeing more films than I usually do, so I decided that I felt reasonably enough informed to make a top ten list of my favorite films of the year. Because I know that everyone is TERRIBLY INTERESTED in what I have to say about movies. Anyway, without further ado:
10.) Perks of Being a Wallflower
Okay, so Perks was a pretty slight film, and I can’t remember too much about it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The twist ending is really dumb, and unnecessarily changes the tone of the whole movie. Despite this, it’s a very charming film that captures coming of age and listening to the Smiths and yelling out of the tops of cars and falling in love for the first time and whatever else young, carefree teenagers do to celebrate their youth and challenge mortality.
9.) Seven Psychopaths
First off: Seven Psychopaths is a very flawed movie. This does not stop the movie from being totally awesome. The film follows Colin Farrell’s attempts to write a screenplay called “Seven Psychopaths,” and Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken’s insane attempts to help him. There are some muddled themes about the use of violence in film, but the best parts of the movie are when the meta narrative plays off the viewer’s expectations of action and violence. My favorite scene is Sam Rockwell enacting his ideal ending for Farrell’s movie; both Rockwell and Walken give amazing, off-kilter performances.
8.) Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods is not your average horror flick, which is why I liked it so much. The film is a funny and very clever send up of every horror cliche in the book, from why people make dumbass decisions (why does anyone think it’s a good idea to split up, ever??), to the weird trope of pre-marital sex leading to being horrible evisceration. I think the parts I enjoy most are actually the framing scenes in the mysterious offices orchestrating the terrible events that befall a group of co-eds in the eponymous cabin in the woods; the juxtaposition of what appears to be a pretty standard office party and the horror going on at the cabin is hilarious and, again, very clever. The film also pokes at the audience’s complicity in the events happening onscreen, and intelligently dissects the weird pleasure we get from watching terrible things happen to other people. For me, the film begins to fall apart in a third act that, admittedly, takes the story to its logical end. I think the ending’s inevitability is why it’s disappointing–for a film that often zigged when I thought it would zag, the ending feels trite and weirdly easy. But overall, the film elevates its meta-commentary on horror films to something entertaining and insightful.
7.) The Avengers
It’s no coincidence that there are two Joss Whedon films on my list (though he solely wrote on Cabin); his presence on a film ensures that what could be schlocky, empty entertainment is elevated through his smart writing and direction. The Avengers obviously isn’t a deep film by any means, but it’s fun in a way that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously (like Nolan’s Batman trilogy does). Although all of the characters are fun and sharply drawn, the standout is obviously Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, who does an awesome job as someone who seems laid back, but has more simmering under the surface.
6.) Holy Motors
This is my highbrow cred. I saw this movie on the strong recommendation of the A.V. Club, and while I don’t think it’s necessarily brilliant, I think it’s a very interesting and moving reflection on, well, I’m not totally sure. It’s a difficult film to explain, but it’s basically about a man whose job is to take on several different personas in several different scenarios. The film never reveals who he is, or why he does it, or what the ultimate goal is; the central conceit is merely presented on its own terms. The A.V. Club seems to think it’s about the death of analog film, but to me it’s actually more about the power of film to transform its audience. In some ways, Holy Motors is comparable to Cloud Atlas in that the whole is greater than its parts, and not every persona or scenario is interesting on its own. Despite this, the great parts are really, really great–from an impromptu accordion jam, to a deceptively normal exchange between a father and a daughter, to Kylie Minogue singing about lost love in an abandoned department store, the film is ultimately a life-affirming experience.
This is a film I initially resisted seeing and ended up loving. While I have little-to-no prior experience with Bond movies, and haven’t seen the previous Craig installments, I thought that this film did a good job of mixing the old and the new. Skyfall incorporates elements of the modern, gritty, antihero blockbuster while staying fun and moving quickly. It doesn’t hurt that the film was shot by Roger Deakins, which instantly upgrades the action sequences to something approaching art (the scene set in a Shanghai skyscraper is spectacular). I’m tired of the new school of action films where everything is shot handheld and cut manically, like it’s supposed to be more “urgent” or “realistic” that way. Skyfall has an elegance to it: it’s beautiful, but not too beautiful to blunt the edge of Daniel Craig’s performance and the film’s themes about the inevitability of time. In the action sequences you can see the physical effort in every movement, the protestations of Craig’s aging body. Too often action movies are all glossy and slick and “fuck yeah!” Skyfall’s power lies in showing the human toll that an excess of action eventually takes.
4.) Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is a film I had absolutely no interest in seeing–the trailer looked absurd, and most people I know hated the movie. I went in with very low expectations, and was actually pleasantly surprised. I don’t think it’s a brilliant film, or even a great film, but it’s a film that enveloped me entirely. A friend of mine wondered whether Cloud Atlas is a lesser film because the threads by themselves are trite and cliche and are given more, possibly artificial meaning through their juxtaposition. To me, the holes in the film allow it to be more emotionally affecting, a cipher upon which I can imprint my own thoughts and feelings. While this might be a bad quality in other films, I personally think it works in Cloud Atlas because it’s a film about how our lives are inextricably intertwined, and how we are all ultimately connected. While I don’t think that Cloud Atlas is particularly successful in pulling this off (the theme is often expressed in hokey, obvious ways, and the interracial make-up is terribly done), I think that the emptiness gives us space to fill the film with ourselves. We see ourselves in the stories going on onscreen, no matter how disparate or far removed these stories seem, and that’s what the whole movie is about, really.
3.) Silver Linings Playbook
It’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t treat mental illness as a figurative death sentence. I think critics of the “easy” third act are misinterpreting the film–it’s not a dramatic film about mental illness with comedic elements; it’s a romantic comedy involving two people who deal with mental illness. Both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give real, immensely charming performances as two people who, against all odds, find some kind of solace in entering a dance competition together. Like many, I never thought that Cooper could give a performance like he does in this movie. His character is brash and inappropriate, but also utterly vulnerable and guileless. His struggles with being bipolar feel human and relatable; this isn’t a martyr put onscreen for us to gawk at, or feel sorry for. Whether or not the people in the audience have dealt with mental illness, they will find something to relate to in Cooper’s character (and Lawrence’s as well). I think Silver Linings Playbook is also adept in showing how everyone has issues, even if they seem “normal” on the surface. The film goes down easy, which almost makes me want to hate it, but the uplifting themes of loving one another warts and all, and the unassuming triumph in getting by, makes Silver Linings Playbook completely irresistible.
2.) Moonrise Kingdom
Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Wes Anderson. This may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I don’t think he’s made a truly great movie since Rushmore (although I do enjoy The Fantastic Mr. Fox quite a bit). Because Anderson has such a rigid personal aesthetic, both in the visuals and the writing, it’s easy for him to fall into self-parody. Luckily, Moonrise Kingdom has the perfect combination of stunning visuals, a truly moving story, and great performances. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward give completely natural performances as two troubled, lonely children who find comfort in one another. When they run away together, they are pursued by flawed adults struggling to understand their own relationships and places in the world. Every character is sympathetic, and a pervasive sense of melancholy undercuts a film that could otherwise threaten to be precious. I think my favorite scene is a montage depicting the letters that Gilman and Hayward send to each other; it explains perfectly why they connect in a world where they usually feel so alone. Moonrise Kingdom shows how, when you’re young, everything can be so simple and complicated at the same time–yet getting older is no guarantee of getting wiser.
1.) Zero Dark Thirty
I’ve already given Zero Dark Thirty its very own post, so there’s not much more for me to add. It’s awesome. Everyone should check it out.
And bonus categories:
Movies I haven’t seen this year, but plan to watch in the future: The Loneliest Planet, Safety Not Guaranteed, Prometheus, Lola Versus, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Magic Mike, The Queen of Versailles, Ruby Sparks, Paranorman, Cosmopolis, Premium RUsh, Save the Date, Anna Karenina, The Sessions, Flight, Wreck It Ralph, Lincoln, Promised Land, Rust and Bone, Amour
My least favorite film of the year: This Is 40
Warning: Some mild spoilers ahead (but nothing specific)
I saw the brilliant Zero Dark Thirty two weeks ago, and I still think it about it daily. Sure, this might be a reflection of my own obsessive tendencies, but I think it’s the sheer power of this film that makes it so enduring.
The film follows Maya, an obsessive CIA agent who is eventually successful in tracking down Osama bin Laden. Her success, however, is not absolute or unsullied; as we see in the film, this kind of success almost entirely lives in a moral grey area. There has already been controversy about the depiction of torture in the film, how the film is irresponsible for depicting “enhanced interrogation techniques” as productive. I usually hate when people say this, but I think it applies here: if you watch the film and think it’s endorsing torture, then you’re watching it wrong. Maybe Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal do think that torture is or was effective, but that’s completely irrelevant to the movie’s depiction of it. We see the terrible toll that torture takes both on the interrogator and the interrogated; and it’s ambiguous as to whether it was torture or kindness that eventually led to a detainee, Ammar, revealing the name of a courier to bin Laden who eventually leads Maya to his compound. Regardless of whether or not torture “worked,” the film does not depict it as anything but grueling and cruel, and that’s what’s most important.
Now that the elephant in the room has been addressed: I actually think that this film’s closest analogue is David Fincher’s criminally underrated Zodiac, which was able to mine terrific suspense and terror from a story that largely featured characters in rooms talking a lot. Aside from a couple of memorable scenes of shocking violence, Zodiac was really about the day-to-day groundwork professionals have to slog through to get to their eventual goal. This is where Zero Dark Thirty excels, as well. The film isn’t compelling despite sticking to the tedious daily work inherent in trying to track down a needle in a haystack; it’s compelling because of it. We are able to see professionals truly being professionals. These people are amazing at their jobs, and both admirable and sympathetic in how single-mindedly dedicated they are to their work. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t delve into their personal lives, but that wouldn’t have been necessary. We see the human toll this soul-sucking journey takes in the eyes of the actors. They make some serious missteps and have to deal with the consequences. Jessica Chastain in particular gives a beautifully reserved performance. You never get the sense that she’s “acting,” she seems completely in the moment and natural at all times. She is the film’s grimly determined anchor amidst chaos.
When the film finally makes it to bin Laden’s compound after a decade of groundwork, the sequence is gripping and chilling despite our knowledge of the outcome. It’s here that Bigelow shows her hand as an assured and brilliant director. She strips the entire sequence back to its bare minimum. To me, the most powerful element was the lack of music, the absence of the film holding our hands and leading us through the emotions we should be feeling. It shows true confidence as a director to know that you can bring the audience into the scene without trying to make a grab for it. Instead, we slowly make our way into the situation just as the characters do, following the low hum of military helicopters through dark eerie mountains. Again, without going into characters’ back stories, we feel the human tension of the Navy SEALs in the helicopter, leading themselves into a life-or-death situation, cracking jokes in an attempt to distract themselves. And when they finally make it to the compound, the tension is derived not from artificial, Hollywood-ized stakes, but from the sheer craft that the Navy SEALs display, and from the stark silence of the compound broken only by gunshots. Going into the scene, I expected it to be triumphant and cathartic, but I felt queasy watching SEALs gunning down unarmed people in front of screaming, terrified children.
This ambiguity characterizes Maya’s reaction, as well. At the end of the film, now that she’s achieved the goal she’s been after for a decade, she’s unsure of what to do or how to move forward. This, too, characterizes our nation. Bin Laden is dead — what now? His death didn’t “solve” terrorism forever. This isn’t a movie where the good guys kill the bad guys and save the day. The good guys make many, many moral sacrifices to exact revenge, and now that the revenge done, there’s nothing but a void. Over the past few years I haven’t kept myself abreast of current affairs, so maybe this means nothing coming from me, but I truly feel that Zero Dark Thirty is a defining film of our time. The last ten years in America have been marked by a pervading feeling of uncertainty and doubt. No one feels safe. Happy endings are nowhere in sight. In Zero Dark Thirty, Maya killed Osama bin Laden, and now she’s left with nothing.
I’ve always been really into self-improvement. When I was in elementary/middle school, American Girl published a ton of “how-to” books that I bought and read vociferously. There were books on how to throw the perfect sleepover party, and how to have good manners, and how to make friends; they were like bibles to me. The thirst for self-improvement has only grown stronger the older I get. As a perpetually socially-awkward, self-doubting human being, I always feel like there’s some kind of piece of information that I’m missing, the key to finally understanding the world and people around me. I spend so much time feeling like I’m doing something wrong. Why can’t I dress perfectly everyday? Why can’t my drawings be more creative? Why aren’t I as good at writing comedy as I want to be? Why aren’t I more social and artsy and cool?
However, what I’m realizing more and more is that I’m perfectly fine as I am. I’m not missing any kind of essential piece of life; I have everything I need within me. I waste so much time wishing I could be someone else rather than living in the moment and appreciating what I have. Why expend so much effort to be something that doesn’t come naturally to me? Why not just accept myself as who I am?
For example, last night I went to see the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but is usually the kind of thing that would make me feel really insecure. I’d think, why wasn’t my high school experience like that? Am I weird for not going to any parties when I was a teenager, or not trying drugs and alcohol? Why weren’t my friends free-spirited types who used vintage typewriters and listened to The Smiths? But then I realize–it’s so dumb to think about things that way. Everything that that movie explores, all of those feelings of excitement and completion when you discover something new, something that feels you; these are all things that I felt in high school, just in different packaging. I had amazing friends, and went on amazing adventures, and experienced incredible things. So what if it’s different from what “most” teenagers did? I had a great time. I don’t regret anything.
And I feel like I’ve been putting off blogging, or drawing, or whatever because I feel like I’m not good enough. I wish I could be more like fashion bloggers who post impeccable outfit photos everyday, but the reality is that many days I just wear a t-shirt and jeans because I work full-time and I just want to be comfortable. I wish I could draw things that were more crazy and psychedelic and creative, but what I enjoy most is drawing cute girls wearing cute outfits. I wish I could write better straight-comedy, when I’m best at writing things that combine comedy and drama, and I have difficulty writing things that aren’t driven by story and character.
It’s weird to start finding myself in a place where I don’t feel unsatisfied all the time. I always felt like self-acceptance lived in direct opposition to self-improvement, and it’s strange to realize that they go hand in hand. Instead of focusing on things I can never be, I can focus on the things I do best, and get better and better at them. I’m okay with not being perfect–I’m okay with being okay.
Lately I’ve been feeling more inspired to participate in life again. Whoa, that sounds way more melodramatic than I intended. What I mean is, for a while I was very much stuck in my own head and working very single-mindedly on a couple of particular goals, and I closed myself off for a while. I’m starting to crack open the shell and look at the outside world a little bit more lately. Whenever I get back into a metamorphic phase in my life, where I feel like everything is very lovely and I’m open to inspiration, I tend to rediscover my love of film. There is something so simple and beautiful about movies: at their best, they can be like 2-hour lyrical, visual poems.
That’s how I felt about Submarine. I’d always been interested in seeing the film because it’s written and directed by one of my favorite British comedians, Richard Ayoade, who’s in a bunch of awesome TV shows, and is now starring in The Watch. Anyway, he seems like a super awesome guy, so I figured a film by him was bound to be interesting–and I was right!
The film is about a precocious teenage boy, Oliver Tate, who starts to self-consciously usher himself into adolescence. It’s framed as an autobiographical film made by himself, which makes sense, because all of his notions of teenager-dom seem to be gleaned from books and movies, not from actual real life experience. I think this is an element anyone who was an artistically-inclined teenager can relate to. Hell, I still relate to it now–when I’m trying to make sense of the world around me, what better than books, movies and music to help me? I feel like art is all about codifying things that, by their very nature, cannot be codified.
However, what makes the film interesting is how it systematically shatters Oliver’s romantic illusions about life and adolescence by throwing him into messy, real-life situation. The film is divided into three acts: the first focuses on his courtship of a girl named Jordana. He calculates every move toward her very meticulously, dissecting her likes and dislikes, and using this information to win her affection. It’s not manipulative–they’re the actions of a very clueless boy who has no idea how to approach a girl. The montages where they’re experiencing impulsive, teenaged love are really beautiful and moving; they brought me back to when I was still a teenager, and things still felt new and exciting. This is what exactly what Oliver wanted out of a relationship with Jordana.
Then, Oliver gets some things thrust his way that he doesn’t want: Jordana is dealing with some difficult family issues that Oliver is too immature and afraid to deal with, so he runs away and buries himself further in his own fantasies. He also starts to notice his parents’ marriage is fracturing, the focus of act two. Both of these experiences force Oliver to truly mature and grow up, but in a really fun and funny way.
The kid who plays Oliver is great–he hits that perfect combination of guilelessness and pretentiousness that, to me, recalls Max Fischer. The supporting cast really knocks the ball out of the park, though. The people who play his parents consummately portray a long-married couple who have drifted apart and don’t know why. And the girl who plays Jordana is perfect–she’s not too perfectly pretty, but is still very alluring and mysterious in her own way. What makes her character affecting, though, is that the script gives her an inner life. She’s not just there to usher Oliver through adolescent experiences; she has her own problems to deal with. The movie succeeds because it shows the problem with seeing people as players in the movie of your life, rather than as human beings with their own needs and desires. Luckily, I think Oliver is able to gain a little bit of self-awareness by the end of the film, and that’s all you can reasonably expect from a fanciful 15-year-old boy.