Thursday, December 19, 2013

Unique Film Writing in 2013

“95% of film writing is shit.” This is what a fellow critic reminded of me during one of my podcasts this year. The more I thought about it, I knew he was right.

But there was good film writing this year, if from a small selection of people. Most of what passes for serious film criticism is hardly serious, more than it seems what passes for good films. So this is a small selection of writing I liked this year. It’s not everything, but when I opened a Word document and remembered what pieces stayed in my mind for whatever reason, these were the ones that popped immediately into my head. There are a number of writers whom I adore not on the list simply because my mind is flawed, and there are some writers I thought of more than one piece, but I thought one should do—my friend Carson Lund has more. There is no order, but the first two are my favorites.

Kent Jones, "Intolerance," Film Comment, May 3, 2013. (Or: We cannot remain outside the sphere of our art)

It’s curious that American culture and history are still so commonly viewed through a New Left prism, by means of which 1964 or thereabouts has become a Year Zero of political enlightenment; as a consequence, the preferred stance remains that of the outsider looking in, or in this case back, at a supposedly gullible and delusional pre-Sixties America. It’s certainly preferable to right-wing orthodoxy, but that’s hardly a compliment. The New Left is now very old but its rhetoric lives on, many times removed from its original context, and that rhetoric seems to have found a welcome home in film criticism.

David Bordwell, "Mixing business with pleasure: Johnnie To’s DRUG WAR," Observations on Film Art, July 8, 2013 (Or: How a movie tells you everything you need to know)

The Milkyway writing team often treats story points in this peremptory way. If the Hollywood rule is “Tell the audience every major point three times,” To and Wai often assume that one mention is enough, and even that can come before we’re in a position to appreciate it.

Brian Wolowitz, "Trance," Tumblr, April 13, 2013. (Or: When wit becomes a virtue in writing)

Goodbye to all that. Boyle’s new bauble, Trance, sticks to breezy genre nonsense. Perhaps in reproach to Chris Nolan’s saddlebagged, prosaic Inception, Boyle makes his “mind-bending thriller” on more vulgar terms: fast, cheap and out of control. The operating principle seems to be: throw everything at ‘em so quickly they won’t realize how half-cocked it is.

Gina Telaroli and David Phelps, "Allan Dwan: A Dossier," Lumiere, June 4, 2013. (Or: Invaluable Resources)

Many of the pieces are on films that, as far as we can tell, have received very little, if any, individual attention, and together they paint a comprehensive portrait of an artist and how his work changed, or, conversely, stayed mostly the same while always adapting, due to the ever-shifting mechanism that was the Hollywood studio system.

Ignaity Vishenvetsky, “What is the 21st Century?: Revising the Dictionary,” Mubi Notebook. February 1, 2013. (Or: Digital cinema requires digital criticism)

By and large, film culture is built around a discussion of decisions that occur in physical spaces—directorial choices made on the set, editing choices made in the editing room, etc. As filmmaking shifts more and more into a digital space, talking about these decisions becomes more challenging. With a custom digital workflow like the one designed for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it's hard to be certain whether, say, a shot was framed on the set or months later in a post-production suite.

Manohla Dargis: "Seeing You Seeing Me," The New York Times, October 25, 2013. (Or: With passion and thinking)

This isn’t a question of “the male gaze,” an idea from feminist film theory and a phrase that has been thrown around a lot by admirers of the movie and that I purposely didn’t use in May. The movie has run-of-the mill representational problems, which is why I quoted the art critic John Berger’s useful axiom from his 1972 book, “Ways of Seeing.” “Men look at women,” Berger wrote. “Women watch themselves being looked at.” It’s a formulation that may not work for all men and all women, as many feminist film theorists have argued. But Berger’s comment retains its relevance, and it’s apt given the art lesson that a man delivers to some women in “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”

Philip Lopate, "The Long and Winding Road," Film Comment, May 2013. (Or: Demonstrating what looks easy is actually very hard)

No longer able to wow the other with their everyday natures, they try on different personae. This role-playing is indicative of a larger problem: the unstable, provisional self. They are stuck acting the part of grown-ups while trying to remain forever young, true to their adolescent dreams, their limitless desire to get the most out of life.

Fernando Croce, “Movie of the Day: L’Avventura,” Cinepassion, July 22, 2013. (Or: Every word counts)

The modern girl who vanishes and is replaced, the ancient vase that's broken with a shrug, "it figures." Rossellini laid the foundation, Michelangelo Antonioni’s unflinching dilation ponders "Europa ‘60" and its multiplicity of ominous, vacant spaces. "Islands, I don’t get them," says the dowager aboard the yacht, voicing Percy Shelley’s complaint ("stones, stones, stones, nothing but stones!") as the gigolo’s hand idly wanders under her blouse.

Kristin Thompson, “GRAVITY, Part 1: Two characters adrift in an experimental film,” Observations of Film Art, November 7, 2013. (Or: Identifying absences)

Why would a film need to establish psychological depth for characters when most of what they’re going to be doing is struggling frantically for their lives, cast adrift in space and bombarded by hurtling space debris? They must summon what skills and psychological strength they have and get on with it. Thoughtful conversations and subtle complexities are irrelevant for the most part.

Nick Pinkerton, "Bombast #108," Sundance Now, September 6, 2013. (Or: Historical queries are always relevant)

Frenzy is, in its way, a very unpleasant kind of sex comedy, and we must never forget that the thriller and the screwball comedy have the same DNA: desire frustrated, desire mutated, desire exploded.

Keith Uhlich, "Pain & Gain," Time Out New York, April 24, 2013 (Or: "If it looks like a duck...")

Bay can’t ever go deeper than a scornful smirk, and though he occasionally chances on a Van Gogh–worthy visual squiggle, the effect is not unlike an unmonitored child painting with his own feces. By the time a private investigator played by Ed Harris bemoans people’s lack of focus on life’s “little things,” you want to hide your face in embarrassment at Pain & Gain’s blatant disingenuousness. It takes balls to be this haughtily hypocritical. Someone could use a good swift kick.

Miriam Bale, "Catching Up With Claire Denis," Paste Magazine, October 24, 2013 (Or: Finding interest beyond the obvious)

Bale: Is that tacky? The cheap white shoes?
Denis: No. I’m not a tacky person, I think?
Bale: No!
Denis: But the pile. Is obscene.
I look back at her drawing of the mule in my notebook, next to a rough sketch I had made of her bag. Embarrassed, I point to this scribble and describe what it is. She smiles, then frowns at the shape.
Bale: It’s quick I know. But I thought the shape and color said a lot. Then I left during the Q&A, because I saw your shoes and your bag, and that was enough.

Bilge Ebiri: “To the Wonder: ‘I write on water the things I dare not speak,’” They Live By Night, January 28, 2013. (Or: What are we really looking at?)

I don’t mean that metaphorically, either. They are almost literally dancing. The movie is, for all intents and purposes, a ballet.

Jim Gabriel, "Data Points," Half a Balloon, January 16, 2013 (Or: Ambiguity is a brilliant thing)

Despite their preeminence and power to subsume our senses, film artists stand stubbornly outside the quotidian, insinuating their way into our heads for a brief time, then retreating. They make objects, data points in a cultural narrative that are in no way a substitute for the homework an attentive polis shouldn’t have left for another day. But the really strong stuff (and the potent garbage, too) refracts as well as reflects, their effects shooting off into the world every which way.

Michael Koresky, "Tales from the Cryptic," Reverse Shot, April 2013. (Or: Working through ambivalence instead of dismissing it)

The trials that befall Kris and Jeff, as well as others glimpsed throughout, would seem to make Upstream Color partly a film about the possibility of transcending trauma—whether caused by addiction or abuse—through love, yet we’re kept at such a remove from Kris and Jeff’s inner lives that the characters feel like spare parts, as randomly assembled as the film’s many strands. Despite a preponderance of shallow-focus shots—evidence that Carruth has a slightly trendier aesthetic now than when he made Primer—Carruth occasionally happens upon a beguiling image. Or a compelling fragment of a thought. But there’s no totalizing, stabilizing force, as one gets in a film by Malick, to whom Carruth has been simplistically compared.

Genevieve Yu "Our University," Reverse Shot, September 2013, and Michael Sicinski, "NYFF: Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley" (Or: Film Crit Rashomon)

The tenor of Birgeneau’s remarks about the student demonstrators reflects many of the criticisms lodged against the Occupy movement a year later: a lack of coherent demands, a diffuse and overbroad inclusiveness, and an amorphous, undisciplined mass that seemed to exist merely for its own sake…Whether, at this point, Birgeneau could actually sympathize with the student protesters, or whether his institutional role as chancellor forced him to act against his progressive values, is unclear; in 2011 the point became moot, when, during his handling of Occupy Cal, he authorized police officers to use batons against them.

This treatment of the protesters and their “crazy” demands (whatever they are) tells us that Wiseman believes they are naïve. They don’t understand what it takes to run a massive bureaucracy, and when they chant, “Whose university? OUR university!” this is arrogance borne from privilege, rather than a retaking of democracy. By contrast, Wiseman has sympathy for those whose efforts to work within the system fail, through no fault of their own.

Vadim Rizov, "The Canyons," Letterboxd, August 14, 2013 (Or: Working through constructed arguments). (Also See: This gem).

Look: there's a scene where Deen gives a monologue to Nolan Funk (who can't fucking act) and it's all second-person stuff about how "you" came to Los Angeles and you modeled and etc. etc. And then we get to the part about how his career just came to a blind halt, and there's a shot of Deen sitting at a red light. Is that sarcasm? What am I supposed to do with that? I want to be an enlightened, nuanced and sympathetic viewer, but that's just where I have to stop and limit my potential engagement.

Tina Hassannia, "On the alleged decline of Iranian cinema, and why Like Someone in Love is an Iranian film." Tumblr, March 25, 2013. (Or: Strict definitions only close criticism)

Iran is a culture torn between collectivism and individualism, much like the Japanese culture portrayed in Like Someone in Love, and the film is very much about the futility and uselessness of society’s definitions of an intensely private, unstoppable emotion that blooms into many different kinds of love.

Daniel Bowes, “WHEN GIMMICKS GO WRONG: THE CRISIS OF FILM CRIT HULK," Movies By Bowes, November 15, 2013 (Or: Your Gimmick Sucks)

I don't think Film Crit Hulk is irredeemable. I was a fan once upon a time, and I defended him against accusations that he was just a gimmick on more than one occasion. This was not merely not knowing as much about criticism and writing as I do now, though I've grown quite a bit in the last couple years. There was a time when FCH was an incisive, unique voice. That voice has changed, though, and now operates in an unpleasant register that evinces disproportionate self-regard, seething contempt for its audience (whose knowledge of the subjects FCH lectures them on is insufficient to gauge that contempt), and a seemingly frightened need to keep talking regardless of whether it has anything to say for fear that people will stop listening.

Dana Stevens, "Seconds," Slate, August 6, 2013. (Or: "Oh My God" is right)

This fracture between the movie’s first and second half—actually, the Rock Hudson reveal happens a bit before the midpoint—remains unmended. John Randolph disappears from the film entirely, leaving the viewer’s identification mechanism permanently off kilter: What happened to Arthur Hamilton? Can this radically different body really somehow be a container for the “same” man? And if human identity is as easily mutable as that, why should we believe that any of the characters now surrounding Arthur-turned-Tony are who they say they are, or are likely to remain so?


Justin said...

Lots to dig into here, thanks.

The Ebiri piece definitely stuck with me this year, and Wesley Morris's review of 12 Years a Slave edged out that Kent Jones essay as my favorite piece of criticism this year.

Peter Labuza said...

You're welcome Justin.

Although I do like the film, I'm slightly ambivilant on Morris's piece. I think it has a lot of nugget that are great, but I find it somewhat problematic when he tries to place it in the context of other contemporary events. Referring to the Miley Cyrus stuff feels like a weird straw man argument. Also "McQueen doesn't even give you any orchestral elevation. The score is hard and churning and sparingly used." - That couldn't be further from the truth for me, the score was overbearing for me.

Danny King said...

Obviously an indispensable/valuable list of writings here, though a personal favorite this year that isn't mentioned would be Adrian Martin, who's done some great online work in recent months. His confrontations list -- -- is terrific, as is his look Brando's legacy/craft (, but these are just two examples in a very accomplished body of work.

Tina Hassannia said...

This is a great list and I'm so honoured to be part of it Peter!

FYI: this week I wrote about the Iranian element in Asghar Farhadi's THE PAST. Thought you might appreciate it.