It seems exactly enough time has passed to allow for a film that prominently features New York City’s fallen World Trade Center without any explicit reference to September 11. Though Joseph Gordon-Levitt has top billing, The Walk really belongs to two much bigger stars — the Twin Towers themselves, brought back from the dead in all their steel majesty in Robert Zemeckis’ latest technological feat.
Movies these days tend to be events. Even the smaller ones are often given the royal treatment, when it comes from a beloved, established filmmaker. Noam Baumbach is certainly one of those, yet he’s managed to avoid making capital-E Events out of his efforts, even when The Squid And The Whale had him hailed as one of the hottest auteurs of the new century.
In the past few years, Baumbach’s movies have been received as trifles instead. They come across as cinematic shrugs. “Maybe this works, and maybe it doesn’t!” each new film seems to say. In part, it might be because he’s been fairly prolific recently — 2015 saw him release both While We’re Young and Mistress America. Or maybe because it’s easy enough to compare his movies to those of Woody Allen — both in craft, content, and recent frequency of output.
Allen’s movies aren’t often that ambitious, either, and they come out so often, it’s easy to give the less inspired ones a pass — if one doesn’t quite ring our bell, there will soon be another. The same is true of Noah Baumbach. I know this sounds like a back-handed compliment, which is really not how I mean it at all. I don’t mean to say he’s not trying that hard, because making a movie of any kind or quality requires herculean effort, especially ones that are as enjoyable as While We’re Young and Frances Ha. It’s just that the effort doesn’t show. I hate to say that they feel “tossed off,” but they do, in a way. It’s just that they’re tossed off incredibly well that makes them feel so unique.
For anyone going through Looking withdrawals since HBO cancelled their low-rated gay series, the internet now has your methadone. Season Two of EastSiders just made its Vimeo debut.
Seeing as it takes place in Silver Lake (the Brooklyn of Los Angeles, for you outsiders), EastSiders is not quite but almost as hairy as the San Francisco-set Looking, which is quite possibly the single most important factor in depicting any hipster ‘hood. Unlike other hipster habitats like Brooklyn and Portland, Silver Lake has managed to maintain a relatively low profile without being savagely mocked by the media — possibly because Los Angeles is already so viciously ridiculed, what’s the point? Silver Lake is a great neighborhood, one I would visit more often if it wasn’t so terribly far. (It’s 7.6 miles from my apartment in West Hollywood, which in Los Angeles traffic takes about a day and a half.) I would wager that Silver Lake has managed to retain what is good about cool, hipsterish neighborhoods without quite succumbing to what makes them ripe for parody — but don’t take my word for it. Take a look for yourself in EastSiders.
(A Then & Now perspective.)
The further back I go in time, the less secure I am in my Top Ten choices. That’s largely because I haven’t seen all these movies again since, and I have no idea how, say, House Of Sand And Fog measures up to The Last Samurai.
On the other hand, there are a few of these films I know very well, which always makes me feel they belong higher on the list. On some level, isn’t the movie I’ve watched the most times probably my favorite?
Like my 2005 list, this Top Ten comes at you twenty strong, because that’s how I wrote it back in the day on my LiveJournal. And like last time, I’ll be adding my commentary about how the movies have held up 11 years later, because tastes change. Some of these movies have aged well in my mind, and others? Not so much.
I don’t think of 2004 as a particularly strong cinematic year in the abstract, mostly because the movies that dominated the Oscars fell, in my mind, in “good, but not great” territory. (They’re in my Top 20 here, but mostly not in the Top Ten.) A Clint Eastwood movie cleaned up in Best Picture, Best Director, and two of the acting categories, and three biopics of varying quality also made stronger showings than they probably deserved. (Those would be the biopics of Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, and J.M. Barrie.) Even the year’s critical darling, Sideways — which did manage to come away with several nominations, including Best Picture — felt too uneven for me to wholeheartedly embrace, despite some lovely moments. (More on that later.)
However, now that I’m looking at 2004 again, I realize how many incredibly strong films came out that year, several of which I’d count amongst my favorites. They just weren’t incredibly well-represented at the Oscars.
So here it is. Let’s revisit 2004.
Few artists reach the literary legend status David Foster Wallace did — and fewer still do it with, essentially, one work. Many who do die tragically young. Perhaps there are certain eras more likely to breed this kind of tortured artist — Wallace was five years older than Kurt Cobain, and didn’t commit suicide until 2008. He was in his forties when he died.
Yet, captured in the earliest moments of his celebrity in James Ponsoldt’s The End Of The Tour, Wallace might as well be the other poster boy for Gen X angst — the literary Nirvana. The film depicts him on the last stop of his book tour with Infinite Jest, the 1,000-page tome that became an instant, unlikely runaway success — hailed as a masterwork upon release, prompting comparisons of Wallace to once-a-generation luminaries like Hemingway.
Stories about such figures tend to be larger than life, featuring screaming fans and flashing lights and usually at least one lonely shot of said celebrity staring mournfully in the mirror. An anguished artist battling an addiction of some kind — pills or booze or sex or fame itself, or maybe all of these — succumbing to the monstrous pressures of success.
But it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read his work: Wallace refused to adhere to such a conventional narrative, and the first movie to be made about him follows suit. In The End Of The Tour, it’s not being a preternaturally gifted artist that comes at a price — it’s being human.
These days, the state of the film industry can be disheartening. Studios are focused almost exclusively on franchises, reboots, and colossally expensive tentpole releases. Mid-budget movies have gone the way of the dodo, and even the “indies” aren’t as independent as they used to be — three out of the last five winners of the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best Film have also won Best Picture (Birdman, 12 Years A Slave, and The Artist), and the other two starred Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence. Few of the more notable independent films in recent years stand for what independent cinema used to be — narratively original, formally daring, possessing a spirit that is totally unrestrained by the Hollywood hit-making machine.
They were once an alternative to what the studios offered, not just a cheaper version.
If you’d told me before the fact that a movie about male strippers starring Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum would have been amongst my top five films of 2012, I may not have believed you, except for one key fact — the movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, who tends to elevate could-be lowbrow material above and beyond expectations.
The first Magic Mike was, seemingly, an anomaly — a relatively light-hearted summer crowd-pleaser with real substance beneath the surface. Shedding genre conventions like rip-away pants, underneath the fairly straightforward plot beats of your average frustrated dancer movie, you could find both hard bodies in thongs and a pretty astute treatise on American economics — a tragedy about the working class. (Yes, seriously.)
Magic Mike XXL jettisons the All About Eve-esque plot machinations of the first film (as well as “The Kid” character who set them in motion, thankfully). In fact, it essentially jettisons any semblance of a plot at all. It’s as frivolous as you’d expect a summer sequel to a movie about male strippers would be, but it’s hardly disposable. Like the original, it’s a rarity, but in a different way. Magic Mike XXL is less about this gang of hunks, and more about the people who drop singles to ogle them. (Women, mostly.) Watch Magic Mike XXL, and you’re not really watching a movie about male strippers — it’s the rare movie that’s true subject is its own audience. If you’ve seen Magic Mike XXL, chances are, you’re somewhere in this movie.
This Top 10 is actually a 20, because sometimes ten just isn’t enough.
Actually, it’s because that’s how I wrote it back when it was originally published a decade ago, and if I’m bothering to re-post it I may as well re-post the whole thing, right?