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Mud (and other films by Jeff Nichols)

“Mud” was #7 on my top 10 movies of 2013 list.  I reviewed “Shotgun Stories” several years ago.

Over the last few years, Jeff Nichols has become one of my favorite new directors. He makes movies about blue-collar characters, men who are deeply connected to the land where they live and make their living, men who take care of their business but often see the world unraveling around them in one way or another. Nichols’ favorite actor is Michael Shannon, who’s also one of my favorite actors. If you’ve only ever seen him as General Zod in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” you haven’t seen him at his best (though I thought he did a fine job there; in a film full of problems, he wasn’t one of them.) Shannon is eminently believable as both a man of the earth, a hard worker you’d want on your crew, and a thoughtful, pensive man, who doesn’t say half of what he thinks. That might well be the quintessential Jeff Nichols character, but, just as Shannon has only a minor role in “Mud,” that character is present but in the background in this movie.

Tye Sheridan, who was so good in “Tree of Life,” is just as good here, playing Ellis, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his father and mother on a houseboat on the Mississippi river. But that lifestyle is disappearing; his parents are splitting up, and the houseboat is in his mother’s name, who wants to move in to town. Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover a boat in a tree on a tiny island on the river, and then they discover a fugitive living on that island (Matthew McConaughey.) Neckbone thinks he’s just a bum and wants nothing more to do with him, but Ellis is intrigued, and decides to help him.


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“Best job I ever had.”

This is the toast members of a tank crew all offer to each other at the end of a particularly intense battle sequence in the new World War II drama “Fury.” They’re being sarcastic and/or ironic — all of them would rather be somewhere, anywhere else — but you get the sense that, even in the midst of the joke, they’re also speaking the truth. The adrenaline rush of a kill-or-be-killed situation is addictive, and so is the camaraderie of being in that situation with four other guys.  Add to that a cause worth fighting for, and you’ve got quite a powerful cocktail of violence, sacrifice and courage. And so even though every one of them would whoop and holler at the chance to go home, you get the sense that they’re going to find any other job startlingly anticlimactic.


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The Judge

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph. 

I was surprised when I got to the theater this week to find that the Gaslight had very nearly sold out the Friday afternoon showing of “The Judge.” When I bought my ticket, the cashier told me it was “one of those movies.” I had to check my ticket stub; the Gaslight was also showing “Left Behind,” which, I’d have to agree, is one of those movies. But that’s not what I was there to see, and that’s not which theater had nearly sold out.

“The Judge” opens with pretty standard, generic red state/blue state tension. Robert Downey Jr. is a well-to-do Chicago lawyer who successfully defends guilty clients. He had abandoned his small town Indiana roots. Robert Duvall plays his father, a judge in that small town, who hasn’t spoken to his son for years. Though the film never gets political, it wouldn’t be hard to guess which one voted for Obama, and which one is still waiting for Obama to produce a legitimate birth certificate.


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12 Years A Slave

This movie was #8 on my “Top Ten Movies of 2013″ list. 

I’m starting to think that in order to understand the filmmaking philosophy of director Steve McQueen, it’s necessary to watch (or read) “A Clockwork Orange.”  Remember that movie, where the morally bankrupt hoodlum is offered parole from prison, if he’ll only watch a couple of films? Seems easy and even fun, he thought, and so do we.  But here’s the catch: he’s not allowed to look away from scenes of violence, and they make him physically ill. Before long, any act of violence at all makes him physically ill, and voilà, he’s reformed.

Steve McQueen makes movies that never allow us, the audience to look away from ugly things – injustice, sex addiction, and, in the case of “12 Years A Slave,” slavery — in hope of sickening us, for the sake of reforming us.


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Gone Girl

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph

My favorite movies are ones in which I forget that I’m watching a movie. By that I don’t mean that I forget that I’m in a theater, or that I forget the things happening on the screen aren’t really happening.  That would be terrifying, and bizarre. I mean that I get so engrossed in the story itself – in what just happened, in what’s going to happen next — that I forget to pay attention to the individual elements of filmmaking — like the acting, the script, the pacing, the effects, etc.  I get so caught up in the telling of a good story that I barely notice how it’s being told.

That what happened while I was watching “Gone Girl.”  It is, without a doubt, an expertly directed, well-acted, perfectly shot and scored movie, but all those elements submit themselves to the telling of the story in such a perfect way that you’re unlikely to think about them while watching. Like the ingredients in a truly great soup, or the individual players on the San Antonio Spurs, they all work together to create something bigger and better than its individual elements.


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Originally published in the Durango Telegraph


I guess you either love Richard Linklater or you don’t. I don’t, and from what I can gather, I am the only movie lover in the world that doesn’t love his movies. “Boyhood,” which is currently playing at the Gaslight, has a perfect score at I’ve never seen a movie keep a perfect score on that site for more than a week – some critic is always willing to come along and burst the bubble, to complain about some small element of a truly fantastic movie. But “Boyhood” has been out for a month, and stands unassailed thus far. Everyone loves it. Everyone but me.  (Too bad doesn’t pay attention to this small but excellent newspaper. I could be the bubble-burster.)

“Boyhood” was filmed over a period of eleven years, from 2002 to 2013. Linklater would get the group of actors together every year, shoot a few vignettes, and then send them on their way.  This gives us the chance to watch the main character, a kid named Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grow from first grade to his first day of college.  I guess this is impressive, experimental filmmaking, sort of. But just a few years ago, I got to watch Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson grow up on film, and those films had dragons in them.


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Road to Paloma & The Lesser Blessed

Originally published in Indian Life magazine.



Two pretty decent films about Native Americans (and featuring Native American actors) have been released on DVD recently.

“The Road to Paloma” stars Jason Momoa, who also directed the film. Momoa, who is of Hawaiian, Pawnee, German and Irish descent, is probably best known for playing the fierce Khal Drogo in HBO’s series “Game of Thrones.” He’s also the star of SundanceTV’s series “The Red Road,” which is about Ramapouh Mountain Indians in New Jersey. In fact, according to the internet, he got that role because of this movie.

Momoa is easy to look at, an icon of beefy masculinity, but he also handles himself admirably behind the camera.  “Road to Paloma” can’t boast the most interesting or original plot, but it is chock full of beautiful and striking images, and there’s a sense of moody grace to its proceedings.  And even though the whole thing is pretty much a cliche, Momoa manages to keep it from feeling campy, silly, or ham-handed.


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This movie was #9 on my “Top Ten Movies of 2013” list. 

Some movies are different just for different’s sake, and when I hear that a movie is silent and black and white, that’s what I expect. Any who reads this blog regularly knows I wasn’t very impressed with “The Artist,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2011, despite the fact that nostalgia was almost all it had going for it as a movie. The old-fashioned techniques didn’t serve that movie, they were that movie – take them away, and all you’d have was a mediocre romantic comedy. But sometimes the filmmakers find that the road less traveled is the most effective way to tell a story in an entertaining and engaging way, and that’s what happens in “Blancanieves.”

Snow White adaptations are a dime a dozen lately, but none have the guts to reimagine the story the way that Pablo Berger has – or the storytelling chops to make the audience feel like maybe this is the original story, and all the others are just remakes. Set in 1920s Spain, Carmen (Macarena Garcia, who likes like Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister far more than Maggie does) is the daughter of a famous bullfighter, born into a tragedy: her beautiful mother dies giving birth to her on the same day that her father’s career is ended by a moment of distraction in the bullfighting ring. (“You must never take your eyes off the bull,” he tells her much later.) Maribel Verdu, surely one of Spain’s finest actresses, plays the wicked stepmother, who nurses the father through his convalescence and then shoves him into a corner room and ignores him once they’re married. Poor Carmen wishes her stepmother would ignore her, but instead she is viciously cruel to her, and the only moments of peace she can find are when she sneaks upstairs to spend time with her father.


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La Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty)

Calling “La Grande Belleza” a remake of Federico Fellini’s classic “La Dolce Vita,” may be going too far.  But saying Paolo Sorrentino’s new film quotes the old one, or to simply point out how similar they are, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  They are almost the same film, separated by about 50 years.  Apparently, not much in Rome has changed in half a century.

Rome is one of a few cities, that, when it appears in film, operates more like a character than a setting. Things happen there that wouldn’t happen anywhere else, and the only explanation necessary is, “It’s Rome.”  Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film takes a look a the Eternal City that is at times affectionate, disgusted, bored, fascinated, amazed, and disappointed. To perfectly capture the unique feel of the film, I suggest a drinking game. Every time you see a nun (or a group of nuns,) take a drink.


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Top 10 Films of 2013

Here are my ten favorite films from last year.  To the best of my knowledge, all of these are now available on DVD, so you don’t have to try and remember and/or hunt them down in obscure theaters with sticky floors and smelly seats.

I haven’t reviewed hardly any of these yet, so stay tuned… I’ll get to them soon.

10. Frances Ha

A difficult, funny, frustrating movie about growing up, and letting your dreams and ambitions grow up, too.  ”Frances Ha” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” are very similar movies, but Noah Baumbach wins out over the Coen Brothers because he seems to genuinely like his title character.



9. Blancanieves

I wish all the people who went ape over “The Artist” a few years ago would take the time to watch and seriously consider this overlooked silent film. Charming, strange, and wonderfully engaging, it’s a retelling of “Snow White” (as a bullfighter) that makes all the Hollywood remakes seem tepid and tame.


8. 12 Years A Slave

A powerfully moving film that reminds us, just how brutal and unjust the practice of slavery in America really was.  How can it be that on one side of an imaginary line in the sand, you are a person with rights and dignity, and on the other, you are nothing more than property? The whole cast is great, but powerful performances for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o set the pace.


7. Mud

Everyone’s talking about Matthew McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” but I don’t think drastic weight loss equals great acting (and found the plot of that film overly conventional and thin in places.) He does solid, less glamorous work here, as a fugitive hiding in the woods who must rely on two young boys to bring him food and help him reunite with his girl. But the film really belongs to Tye Sheridan, a kid trying to understand his own parents’ divorce (and the mystery of adult love and relationships) through his friendship with this stranger in the woods.

6. The Spectacular Now

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a great coming-of-age story, and this one is even better than “Mud.” Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have great chemistry together, and Woodley might be the next Jennifer Lawrence.  But more important than that, the characters here feel real, and deep — you can see them acting out of deep issues that don’t all get neatly resolved by the end of the film. This is one you’ll watch, and keep thinking about for days, and then watch again, and see things you missed the first time.

5. Frozen

I have two kids under the age of six, so we’ve watched Disney’s latest about a million times in the last two months. I should be thoroughly sick of it. But the more I watch it, the more I appreciate it. This is Disney Animation’s best film in twenty years, a film that not only defies convention in satisfying ways (the handsome prince is a jerk! true love’s kiss comes from a sibling!) but is also loaded with legitimately great songs, and a surprisingly complex (but never overloaded) plot.


4. Short Term 12

This is nothing more or less than a fantastic indie flick about two semi-adults running a group home and trying to figure out their own lives, and the love between them. Every moment rings true, every character feels like a real person. In a movie season where everyone seems obsessed with their own problems, it’s so refreshing to watch two people so devoted to helping others that they may not have the time and/or energy to invest in their own relationship. Then again, maybe they do.


 3. Her

Speaking of people who are self-obsessed… the miracle of “Her” is that it manages to take a story about a loner falling in love with his computer and make it feel like something other than a farce.  Watching this, I engaged in a serious debate with myself about whether this relationship was “real” or not. This is the most profound, thoughtful movie of the year, as well as one of the most engaging and entertaining.


2. Gravity

Wow… just wow. Nobody has come close to accomplishing as much with CGI (and 3D) as Alfonso Cuaron does in “Gravity.”  This is a knuckle biter from the first moment to the last, as well as a startlingly beautiful (and surprisingly deep) film.  Hey Hollywood hitmakers: more like this, please.



1. American Hustle

I seriously don’t know how David O. Russell does it.  Nobody else is making movies like this. How in the world does he create movies so fun, so full of manic energy and pure insanity, without losing the thread altogether and descending into outright craziness?  That’s the genius of “American Hustle;” it walks the razor edge of chaos in such an invigorating way, watching it is almost like watching a tightrope walker teeter but never fall. Fantastic filmmaking. Easily the best film of the year.


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