The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a fascinating but bleak amalgam of people, places, and events at the dawn of the folk music scene in 1961 Greenwich Village, viewed through a visual pastiche inspired by the album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and a titular character who channels early folk institution Dave Van Ronk (in look and vocation, not temperament). While outrageously funny at times, with superbly chosen music exuberantly performed, this isn’t a farcical romp through the ’60s; it’s a black comedy about the artist versus the entertainment business that’s thematically reminiscent of the Coens’ polarizing Barton Fink.
Writer/Director David Cronenberg translated William S. Burroughs’ “unfilmable” book Naked Lunch in a (ahem) novel way, creating an intensely hallucinogenic, psychosexual trip that’s more about the writer himself than the writer’s cultural lightning rod of a book. Cronenberg incorporates bits of the book, but infuses his film with a profound statement on the artistic process, and especially the inner turmoil that fuels many artists’ best work. Cronenberg’s movie sees Naked Lunch the novel through Burroughs’ shame and torment over being a homosexual and his consuming drug addiction. Other aspects of the author’s life are also interwoven into the film’s narrative with the most notorious being that he was married to a woman, Joan, who Burroughs shot and killed during an intoxicated “William Tell Routine.”
12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man kidnapped into slavery, the inhuman condition in which he languished for 12 years, enduring unimaginable sorrow and torment but ultimately making it out the other side, regaining his freedom. Director Steve McQueen is a fearless and unflinching filmmaker, and this film of Northup’s book is the most personal I’ve ever seen about slavery.
Rebel director Robert Altman was buried and resurrected countless times in his long career, beating the system and making vital films right up to his death in 2006. 1975’s Nashville was his high-water mark, a great film and the zenith of his 1970s glory years. A musical, a political drama, a romantic drama, a country music mockumentary, and a tragedy, Nashville defies description as a story.
Widely credited as the first “slasher” movie, 1978’s Halloween is a horror trailblazer and a modern classic. It was a highly successful independent film prior to people knowing the term; and before Jason and Freddy could turn horror schlock into movie franchises (or vice versa), the genre’s way was paved by writer/director John Carpenter’s boogeyman, Michael Myers. The story is deceptively simple with fictional Haddonfield, Illinois, terrorized on two Halloween nights 15 years apart.
Based on director Joseph Kosinski’s (Tron: Legacy) unpublished graphic novel “treatment,” Oblivion plays like a patchwork quilt of samples from just about every popular science-fiction movie made since 2001: A Space Odyssey. While Kosinski’s graphic novel concept supposedly predates Pixar’s 2008 blockbuster Wall-E, the similarities aren’t at all subtle, especially with flying drones that look and act so much like EVE that I’m surprised Universal isn’t getting dinged for likeness royalties.
Director Steven Soderbergh’s latest firecracker of a movie, Side Effects, is really two distinct movies. As good as it is, it would have been even better if it had stuck with the first one. Side Effects begins as a harrowing look at a woman’s descent into a crushing clinical depression and finally full-blown psychosis.
Oscar again made the safe choice for 2012’s Best Picture, choosing Ben Affleck’s blandly competent Argo, virtually ignoring the most provocative film of the year, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. More egregious is that Anderson’s tour de force only garnered Academy nominations in the acting categories. One can’t help but wonder if the film’s Oscar fate would have been different if the subject was any other cult than Hollywood-chic Scientology. One also suspects Argo will occupy a place in film history closer to How Green Was My Valley, Ordinary People, and Driving Miss Daisy than to Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, or Do the Right Thing.
Few films are worthy of a movie about the movie, but director Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian fantasy Brazil is among the legendary few. A flawed but inspired masterpiece, the film remains a Hollywood cautionary tale for the standoff between Gilliam and Universal’s then-chief Sid Sheinberg, who refused to release the film and even ordered a sappy, discordant re-edit that excised some 40 minutes from Gilliam’s original cut. In retrospect, the heavy-handed efforts of Universal’s “black tower” to wrest artistic control from Gilliam only underscored Brazil’s anti-totalitarian satire and unwittingly aided its underground success.
In spring of 1999, while the masses were jacking into The Matrix, braver souls were leaping into the alternate gaming universe of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. Ostensibly, über game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is on a promotional tour with her newest game and game pod, which is an electrical organism that creates its virtual reality by plugging directly into the gamer’s nervous system via spinal cord bioport. She and her marketing man, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), come under attack and flee from realists who object to extreme gaming’s impact on humanity and its reliance on endangered mutant amphibians for gaming pods (!).