The Supernatural Romantic Tedium of Anomalisa (2015) & Schizopolis (1996)

In our initial discussion of our current Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, I asked Boomer how he felt the film’s tale of adulterous doppelgängers differed from the similar themes in Charlie Kaufman’s recent stop-motion drama Anomalisa. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh & (his real life ex-wife) Betsy Brantley play duel sets of doppelgängers who cheat on each other in existential searches for romantic passion, only to find more of the same in their “new” partners. To me, this “Love the one you’re with” messaging felt wildly different from Anomalisa‘s central conflict, in which a traveling businessman sees the entire world outside himself as one homogeneous personality except for the woman he’s currently cheating on his wife with, until she too is absorbed into the society of milquetoast doppelgängers that populate his life once the initial spark is gone. I asked Boomer for insight on this difference because I knew he’d be better at articulating it than I would. He wrote, “Schizopolis is a film about projection, but in a way that explores the various ways that multiple individuals categorize and compartmentalize their interactions between different people depending upon the intimacy (or lack thereof) of their relationship, the difference in their social classes and the power dynamic thereof, the emotional distance between them, libido, and other factors. Instead of Anomalisa‘s Michael facing the difficulty of seeing every person–strangers, his wife, his ex, his boss–as the same, Fletcher Munson’s interactions vary, demonstrating the dissonance between his words and his thoughts in his conversations with various people.” Those differences in varying social interactions & perspectives truly are essential to what distinguishes Schizopolis from Anomalisa. It still surprises me, though, how significantly the two works overlap in form to achieve their respective goals.

One of the most immediately striking aspects of both Anomalisa and Schizopolis is the crudeness of their visual forms. Shot with no solid script while palling around Baton Rouge, Schizopolis has a strikingly informal look to it, approximating the home movies & sketch comedy hybrid that defined the style of The Kids in the Hall. For its part, Anomalisa adopts the medium of stop-motion animation, which inherently has a kind of imperfect crudeness to its motions. Offsetting the leaps made in the medium by studios like Laika, however, this film intentionally shows the creases in its characters’ faces, calling attention to its own seams & artifice. Both films also dwell on the anonymity of utilitarian spaces & the empty babble of corporate speak. In Anomalisa, Michael’s depression is amplified by the doldrums of occupying a hotel room while away on business, with nothing especially exceptional about his transient spacial surroundings. The Baton Rouge office buildings & suburban homes Fletcher Munson drifts through in Schizopolis are just as unremarkable & devoid of personality. Munson’s job writing nonsensical speeches for the L. Ron Hubbard reminiscent cult leader of Eventualism & author of How to Control Your Own Mind is also reflected in the big speech on optimizing customer service efficiency (or some other empty form of corporate chatter) Michael travels to deliver. For two films about supernatural events in which bored businessmen drift into romantic entanglements with physical copies of their partners, Anomalisa & Schizopolis both make a point to keep their visual pallets anonymously bland & unassuming. They both seek to wring the supernatural out of the mundane, which requires the outlandishness of their premises to be rooted in visual monotony. The differences between their achievements have less to do with their respective visual styles than with how one story takes boredom with the hegemony as a freeing opportunity for irreverence while the other allows that boredom to fester into contempt.

As Boomer wrote in our initial conversation, “The biggest difference between the two films is in the fact that Anomalisa only gives us Michael’s point of view and insight into his particular problems with intimacy, communication, empathy, and humanity. […] Shizopolis gives us the points of view of several people, and highlights how each of them have their own problems with communication, which vary from person to person.” It’s arguable which choice of perspective makes for a more rewarding film, but being stuck in Michael’s head certainly makes Anomalisa the more uncomfortable watch. In Schizopolis, Soderbergh casts himself as a bland everyman. Anomalisa envisions a world where every man is bland. Not only is every character outside Michael’s head boring (and vaguely reminiscent of Michael Ian Black); they’re also an annoying, unremarkable sea of braying idiots with nothing unique to offer the world. I appreciate the bizarre accomplishments of Anomalisa from an emotional distance, but never truly fall in love with the film because it feels as if it should display just as much contempt for its villainous protagonist as he does for the rest of the world. Whether or not his perspective is the symptom of a chemical imbalance, the lack of empathy in Michael’s worldview makes him out to be an elitist monster who’s far more difficult to resonate with than Fletcher Munson’s more recognizably common suburban doldrums. Schizopolis is willing to examine its protagonist’s close-minded selfishness in its third act reversal of perspective that replays scenes through Mrs. Munson’s POV, while Anomalisa just dismisses Michael’s cruel boredom as “psychological problems,” as if they’re something universally experienced. The most perspective we get from Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael’s titular love interest is a sweetly pathetic rendition of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which is played more for pity than it is for empathy.

As much as I prefer the deranged silliness of Schizopolis to Anomalisa‘s bitter people-watching, Michael’s climactic speech about customer service optimization does devolve nicely into a kind of dual mission statement for both films. He asks himself (and his audience) “What does it mean to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” in existential desperation, only to answer those questions with frantic repetitions of “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” These films approach that crisis and the oppressive mundanity of modern life from entirely different perspectives. Schizopolis searches for meaning in interpersonal relationships, finding its frustration with the ineffectiveness of language at truly connecting two human souls in a punishingly tedious world that increasingly doesn’t make sense. Anomalisa, by contrast, despairs at the punishing tedium of other people, who are just as uninteresting & personality-free as hotel room furniture. No matter which perspective you find more honest or worthwhile, it’s eerie how much these visually crude doppelgänger narratives overlap in form. Their supernatural romance dramas are rooted in two incomparable philosophies, yet they’re both staged in a common, tedious modern world setting with intentionally limiting means of expression.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the irreverently cerebral Steven Soderbergh comedy Schizopolis, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Boomer’s Top Films of 2016

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A forewarning: this list is incomplete. As an annual list, it necessarily excises films that I haven’t managed to see this year but I am certain could appear here if I had: Moonlight and Loving are foremost among them, although I also missed Kubo and the Two Strings while it was in theatres and The Edge of Seventeen seems to have flown by with little fanfare, although I thought it looked like a lot of fun. I’m also almost positive that Hail, Caesar! would be on this list, but my friend group has a bit of a procrastination problem, so we missed that when it was in theatres as well.

I’m also completing this list before most of the Christmas releases make their way to theatres (so there’s no Rogue One to be found here, or Passengers, which I am looking forward to seeing) so that I’m not trying to push to finish this list while traveling for the holidays. And, in case the inclusion of the divisive Jupiter Ascending on my list of favorite films from last year didn’t tip you off, this is a highly subjective list of my favorite films of the year, not necessarily those which were objectively the best.

There were also several films I saw this year that will definitely not be making this list, for various reasons. I don’t normally like to make a “worst of” list, but there were some definite stinkers this year. I didn’t care for Batman v. Superman at all, and Independence Day: Resurgence and Deadpool (which I enjoyed more than Brandon did, but it didn’t exactly have me rolling in the aisles), while adequate-if-hollow representations of their individual genres, were nothing to write home about. I also was underwhelmed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is notably not on this list. I got a modicum of enjoyment out of Beasts, finding it to be perfectly serviceable and moderately magical, but overly reliant on CGI and lacking the charm that made the Harry Potter film series work for me, despite a few standout scenes and  an main role for Katherine Waterston, who was in my number one movie last year, Queen of Earth.

Ghostbusters got quite a lot of laughter out of me, but I can’t call it a favorite of the year, and the same can be said of Captain America: Civil War; I may have given it a 4.5 star review, but it hasn’t stuck in my mind the way that other films on this list have. I also found Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon quite unfulfilling; I know that Brandon gave it a 5 star review, but I was largely disappointed. Among my coven of aesthetes, I’m usually the one who makes the argument that, although we usually think of film as a medium with standard narrative conventions, film can really be anything (an idea we’ll revisit below in the number one entry). With that in mind, I was expecting to really enjoy Neon Demon, but even as an art house film, its Mulholland-Drive-by-way-of-Dario-Argento vibe didn’t quite work for me, even though that description should land it firmly in my heart. As much as I liked the “Are you sex, or food?” question that foreshadowed many of the events to come, and as beautiful and sumptuous the film’s color and direction were, it just didn’t work for me.

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10. Pet: There’s very little that can be said about this film without discussing at least one of its intricate and baroque twists. It’s certainly no masterpiece, but it is genuinely inventive and relentless in its growing unease and unpredictable (but mostly well-earned) path. There’s gore and home invasion and stalking, but none of that really matters once the ball gets rolling. I gently mocked the film as an attempt at doing a more radical “eXtreme” version of the similar story (“It’s like Hard Candy, but with a girl in a cage!”), but that’s not really a knock on the film or its ambition.

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9. The Boy: I genuinely adore Lauren Cohan and have ever since her ill-fated recurring role in an early (read: good) season of Supernatural. That show already had one failed spinoff, but if they really want to get my attention, they’d have Cohan’s Bela return in her own program to act as Hell’s bounty hunter à la the 1998 series Brimstone. I’m genuinely pleased she was in two films this year (even if the other was Batman v Superman). With regards to The Boy, it’s worth noting that it’s not really a great film, although it is sufficiently suspenseful and genuinely creepy. Not every scary movie is (or ought to be) the next big thing in horror, and this movie is fairly run of the mill other than one major element. I love horror, but if there is one thing that I hate about the genre, it’s the fact that the skeptic is always wrong. If a group of teenagers head out into the woods, there will be something scary lurking in the darkness, and the skeptical character will usually be the first to go; if a psychologist and a priest are at odds about whether a young girl is possessed or mentally ill, she will be revealed to have a demon  beneath her flesh; if a person who is certain that phantoms are not real spends the night in a haunted house, he will be terrorized by ghosts; etc., etc. If a film juxtaposes an argument between rationalism and fantasy, the film always shows that the irrational is true. There’s only one franchise in the West that prioritizes skepticism over blind acceptance, and it’s for children: Scooby-Doo (which tells the realest truth– that the greatest evil in the world is done by greedy white landgrabbers). This movie is a breath of fresh air if for no other reason that the audience is presented with what is ostensibly a supernatural horror film about a doll that may or may not be alive, then reveals that there is a grounded, rational explanation, slightly goofy though it may be (and no, it’s  not that Greta has lost her mind). For that alone, it deserves a place on this list.

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8. Ten Cloverfield Lane: Far better than it had any right to be, this sequel in-name-only suffers from an overly elongated denouement that is so tonally dissonant from the film that precedes it that I couldn’t justify placing it any higher on this list. I felt much the same way about Super 8 several years back: 90% of both of these film is absolute perfection, but the unsatisfactorily Syfy Channel ending mars what could be otherwise be an unequivocal classic. Still, the bulk of the film that is spent in John Goodman’s bunker is relentlessly and intoxicatingly tense, and the strong performances from the three players give the film an intimacy that many films that would be called “character pieces” lack.

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7. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: Easily dismissed as a profoundly stupid film, the mockumentary Popstar is actually an incisive and withering dissection of the dreamy pop culture star-making machine as the industrial complex that it really is. Although some of my fondness for the film is no doubt informed by the loss of my beloved The Soup (I’m still in mourning) and the resultant general dearth of media that is aimed at mocking and disempowering the grotesque machinery of entertainment industry synergy, this is also a movie that rides high on hilarity, with jokes flying off the screen at a rapid pace. The narrative of a band member whose success and ensuing egotism destroys their relationships before realizing that interpersonal connection is more important than fame is a tired one, but at least Popstar is a parody, which makes it work at least as well as its spiritual predecessor Josie and the Pussycats. From mocking Macklemore and the way that his music is paradoxically homopositive and insecure about masculinity (“Equal Rights“), the meaninglessness of hip-hop that apotheosizes empty materialism (“Things in My Jeep”), and the creepy fetishization of military action and nationalism (“Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)“), the film delivers on a lot of levels.

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6. London Road: Although I already spoke about the film in my review of it, I’d love to reiterate the intrinsic beauty of the way that this film is made and the voices that it uses to speak to us about human nature, in both its beauty and its spitefulness, its heart and its bile, while sidestepping the potential to be overly didactic. Tragedy can birth hope, or more tragedy, or both; communities can do good by creating solidarity and a desire for rebirth or evil by turning its back on those who need help most. The story of the people, in their own words, is at turns revolting and endearing, but never less than mesmerizing.

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5. Arrival: I like Amy Adams, even if her rise to stardom is an utter puzzle to me. To be honest, the first thing I think of when I hear her name is the episode of Charmed where she played a potential Whitelighter who almost kills herself (complete with terrible green screen effect); the second thing I think of is her playing a fat-sucking vampire because of kryptonite in her garden in Smallville (complete with terrible fat suit); the third thing I think of is her appearance as a vaguely self-hating member of Tara’s family in a Very Special Episode of Buffy where magic equals sapphic love (complete with terrible accent). Maybe that says more about myself and my wasted adolescence than it does about Amy (it does), but she’s come a long way since 2000, and I’m glad to see her here in this beautiful film about the nature of existence, how life is transient and ephemeral but also powerful, with ripples and effects that echo into eternity. Some of the plot elements are a little belabored, and I could have done with a little less idealization of romance at the end, but overall this is a touching film that could one day be the Contact of our generation.

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4. Star Trek Beyond: Nearly forgotten among the more high-performing comic book flicks and talking animal movies that made up the bulk of this year’s domestic box office successes, this third film in the reboot series actually feels more relevant now than it did at the time of its release. If the villain of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was Mike Pence (or, more accurately, amorphous forms of violence that are the direct result of suppressing one’s true nature due to political oppression, so… Mike Pence), then the villain of Star Trek Beyond is your average Trump supporter and voter. Krall is a man full of rage, a nationalistic fury forged to white-hot purity because of his viewpoint that the principles of unity and tolerance, the idealistic precepts under which the Federation flies its banner, are weak. In reality, the truth is that he is an anti-intellectual remnant of a bygone era, a time when strength and intimidation, not peace and acceptance, were the greatest of virtues; his madness and anger are the result of a society that has become more utopian in the time that he has been forgotten. Instead of finding a new niche for himself in this strange new world (as embodied in the way that Jaylah, who was born into Krall’s world but escapes it and finds a way to not only survive but thrive in Federation space), he would rather burn it all down than find a way to adapt. Ultimately, society is preserved because unity, peace, and compassion (and art!) are more powerful than the rage of the beast. At the time that the film was released, I could not have foreseen the outcome of the election, and when discussing this philosophical difference in my review stated that it was “not a terribly deep humanistic ideal, and is so faintly traced that the film could be accused of paying lip service to that idea more than actually exploring it.” In the wake of all that has happened in the weeks since the election, it’s an ideal that is worth remembering and even cherishing, and Star Trek Beyond may ultimately be the most prescient Trek since Undiscovered Country.

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3. Don’t Breathe: I wrote pretty extensively about this film in my review, so I’ll just paste over some of my thoughts from that piece: “[Director Fede] Alvarez’s beautiful cinematography and lingering camera work elevate what could otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill horror movie. There’s an attention to detail that bespeaks a greater knowledge of the language of film, and Alvarez is obviously well on his way to being a master linguist. I can’t remember the last time, other than The VVitch, where I felt so much tension in my spine while taking in a fright flick, and I was haunted by the movie for hours after walking out of the theatre.”

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2. Anomalisa: This one is a bit of a technical cheat, since its release date (December 30, 2015; who the hell does that?) meant that there was no way to see the film in time to include it on my list of my favorite films from last year, but also meant that it shouldn’t properly be included in this year’s list since it was technically released in 2015. In case you missed it, Anomalisa is classic Charlie Kaufman madness, filled with quirky characters and sly character development that desperately wants (and often succeeds in having) the viewer sympathize with a main character who is ultimately morally bankrupt and unlikable, but pitiable in his mental dissolution. In my review of the film, I expressed my weariness with the seemingly endless “paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui” films that are littering our cultural motion picture landscape; in the ensuing year, I’ve moved past irritation into hostility, but I still recall this film with a great fondness. It’s atypical Kaufman in that it lacks much of the magical surrealism of Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York (minus the conceit that all characters other than Stone and his love interest have identical faces), but the intricacy of its stop-motion beauty far outweighs the mediocrity of its unappealing protagonist.

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1. The Witch: A New England Folktale: How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways! It’s a cinematic masterpiece from the first frame to the last; I’m still anxiously awaiting a second-by-second breakdown by Every Frame a Painting, because each captured moment is elegant and haunting. The film acts as a kind of newly-discovered Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, what with its ruminations on faithfulness and faithlessness, acting as a kind of companion piece to both “Young Goodman Brown” in the way that both highlight the apparent Calvinistic truth that depravity is the true nature of man, and that the carnal world and its temptations must constantly be guarded against lest the smallest of sins (white lies, sexual curiosity, and even neglecting one’s prayers) snowball immediately into damnation. It’s a true New England American Gothic piece in this way, and that voice is clear and revelatory. The only real problem with the film is that it’s at once both a character driven drama, a horror flick, a mood piece, and an art film, and it’s that last one that I think is the biggest hangup for the film’s detractors. Unlike other movies that might fall under the generous “art film” banner, The Witch is not a hard film to follow or understand. If you recommend, for instance, Mulholland Drive to a friend, they may watch but not enjoy it, saying “I didn’t get it.” The danger with The Witch is that, despite its dense layers of subtext and meaning and its reliance on a basic understanding of Puritan morality, many may come away saying “I get it, I just don’t like it,” even though they fail to actually grasp the width and breadth of its mastery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2016

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Including short films, there are 57 movies nominated for the 2016 Oscars. We here at Swampflix have covered less than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right (last year’s Birdman Best Picture win comes to mind in that regard), but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2015 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 19 Oscar-Nominated films from 2015 that we reviewed for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*) based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

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1) Ex Machina, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Visual Effects

“There’s something about Ex Machina’s straight-forward, no nonsense approach to sci-fi storytelling that struck a real chord in me. It’s not likely to win over folks who are looking to be surprised by every single development in its plot, but for those willing to enjoy the movie on its own stripped-down terms there’s a lot of intense visual rewards & interesting thematic explorations of, among other things, masculine romantic possessiveness that can be deeply satisfying.”

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2) Mad Max: Fury Road, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (George Miller), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“In a time where a lot of movies, such as Zombeavers & WolfCop, intentionally aim for a cult film aesthetic, it’s refreshing when something as authentically bizarre as Fury Road comes along and earns its rabid, isolated fan base naturally. Although the movie is less than a month old, it’s already gathered a cult following so strong that I doubt that there’s any praise I can throw at it that hasn’t already been bested elsewhere. I loved the film. I thought it was fantastic, wonderfully distinct, up there with The Road Warrior, The Witches of Eastwick, and Pig in the City as one of the best things Miller has ever released onto the world. I still feel like that’s merely faint praise when compared to some of the more hyperbolic reactions out there.”

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3) Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.”

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4) Straight Outta Compton, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

Straight Outta Compton is not a particularly great example of a historical document, but damn if it didn’t achieve an incredible Cinematic Aesthetic in every scene, somehow managing to squeeze out a great biopic with exactly zero deviations from the format (unlike more experimental films like Love & Mercy). The cinematography, provided by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, confidently supported the film’s surface pleasures (including an onslaught of still-great songs & pandering nostalgia) to the point where any & all faults were essentially irrelevant.”

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5) Anomalisa, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.”

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6) Creed, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Sylvester Stallone)

“The pugilist protagonist (played by an all-grown-up The Wire vet Michael B. Jordan) of Creed‘s narrative may go through the motions of successes & failures the audience sees coming from miles away, but the movie is visceral enough in its brutal in-the-ring action & tender enough in its out-the-ring romance & familial strife that only the most jaded of audiences are likely to get through its runtime without once pumping a fist or shedding a tear before the end credits.”

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7) Carol, nominated for Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design

Carol is a handsome, but muted drama about homosexual desire in a harsh environment where it can’t be expressed openly. The subtle glances & body language that make the film work as an epic romance are very delicate, sometimes barely perceptible. In fact, if you had no idea what the film’s about going in, it’s possible it’d take you a good 20min or so to piece it together. That kind of quiet grace is in no way detrimental to the film’s quality as a work of art. It’s just that the critical hype surrounding the picture puts an unnecessary amount of pressure of what should be experienced as a collection of small, deeply intimate moments shared between two star-crossed lovers.”

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8) Inside Out, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Animated Feature

“The way Inside Out visualizes abstract thoughts like memories, angst, imagination, acceptance, and abstract thought itself is incredibly intricate & well considered. Its central message of the importance of sadness in well-rounded emotional growth is not only admirable, but downright necessary for kids to experience. Even if I downright hated the film’s visual aesthetic (I didn’t; it was just okay), I’d still have to concede that its intent & its world-building were top notch in the context of children’s media.”

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9) The Hateful Eight, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score

“At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, ‘Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.’ That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale.”

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10) Joy, nominated for Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)

“Expectation might be to blame for what turned a lot of audiences off from Joy. Based on the advertising, I know a lot of folks expected an organized crime flick about a mob wife, not the deranged biopic about the woman who invented the Miracle Mop that was delivered. Even more so, I believe that audiences expected a lighthearted drama from the guy who made Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, Joy finds Russell exploring the same weirdo impulses that lead him to making I ♥ Huckabees, an absurdist comedy that might be the very definition of “not for everyone”.”

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11) Sicario, nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing

“Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).”

12) Steve Jobs, nominated for Best Actor (Michael Fassbender), Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet)

“Between Sorkin & Fassbender’s work here, the myth of Steve Jobs is most certainly an arresting contrast between genius & emotional sadism. He’s a true to form Sorkin protagonist who’s better judged by his work than his persona. I’m not sure I left the film knowing any more about the real Steve Jobs than I did going in, but I’m also not sure that matters in terms of the film’s failure or success.”

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13) Room, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Lenny Abrahamson), Best Actress (Brie Larson), Best Adapted Screenplay

Room is not all broken spirits & grim yearnings. The film can at times be quite imaginative & uplifting, thanks to young Jack’s warped sense of reality & Jacob Tremblay’s wonderful performance. Room‘s strongest asset is how it adopts a child POV the way films like The Adventures of Baron Mucnchausen, The Fall, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. Because Jack has only known life inside Room (which he refers to as a proper noun, like a god or a planet), he has a fascinatingly unique/warped perception of how life works & how the universe is structured.”

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14) Amy, nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

“By giving so much attention to a person who obviously did not want it, Winehouse’s unwitting fans made a market out of her gradual death. Again, it’s very similar to what slowly killed Kurt Cobain as well & I’m sure there are to be more examples in the future. A lot of what makes Amy interesting as a documentary is not necessarily the details of Winehouse’s personal life that it turns into a fairly straight-forward narrative, but rather the way it subtly makes you feel like a murderer for wanting those details in the first place.”

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15) The Revenant, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“At times the film itself feels like DiCaprio’s broken protagonist, crawling & gurgling blood for days on end under the weight of an over-achieving runtime. Shave a good 40 minutes of The Revenant by tightening a few scenes & losing a shot here or there (as precious as Lubezki makes each image) & you might have a masterful man vs. nature (both human & otherwise) revenge pic. As is, there’s an overbearing sense of self-importance that sours the whole ordeal.”

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16) The Martian, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“Despite facing almost certain death in The Martian’s first act, Watney logically explains the details of exactly how/why he’s fucked as well as the practical day-to-day details other films would usually skip over, such as the bathroom situation in a Martian space lab. Speaking of the scatological, there’s a surprising amount of poop in this film. You could even say that poop saves the day, which is certainly more interesting than whatever control room shenanigans solve the conflict in Apollo 13 or other similar fare.”

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17) Shaun the Sheep, nominated for Best Animated Feature

“As always, Aardman delivers fantastic stop-motion work here, but although their films are consistently entertaining, there’s something particularly special about Shaun the Sheep that makes it feel like their best feature at least since 2005’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Because the movie is largely a non-verbal affair, its success relies entirely on visual comedy that feels like a callback to the silent film era & it’s incredible just how much mileage it squeezes out of each individual gag.”

18) Brooklyn, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Adapted Screenplay

“Outside Saoirse Ronan’s effective lead performance, I mostly found Brooklyn entertaining as a visual treat. Its costume & set design are wonderful, particularly in the detail of Eilis’ wardrobe – beach wear, summer dresses, cocktail attire, etc. That’s probably far from the kind of distinction the Brooklyn‘s looking for in terms of accolades, but there’s far worse things a film can be than a traditional, well-dressed romance.”

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19) Fifty Shades of Grey, nominated for Best Original Song (“Earned It,” performed by The Weeknd)

“The best-selling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey recently made its long-awaited debut on the silver screen and, as a fan of the book series, I was very curious to see how this film could possibly be tame enough for movie theaters. What could have been one of the most iconic movies of the year turned out to be a total snoozefest. Literally. People in my theater were sleeping so hard they were snoring.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Anomalisa (2015)

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fourhalfstar

As is the case with virtually every project that has Charlie Kaufman’s fingerprints on it, Anomalisa is an insight into the writer/director’s particularly idiosyncratic worldview and plethora of neuroses. The film tells the story of a lonely, mentally ill man (voiced by David Thewlis) who travels to Cincinatti to present a keystone speech at a customer service convention. Every person that he encounters along the way has the same face and speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan), including cab drivers, his wife and son, and even the former lover with whom he attempts to reconnect on his single night in town. When she revels how emotionally and irrevocably devastated she was by his departure, he finds temporary succor in the arms of a shy woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose face is scarred and who is attending the conference with her more extroverted and attractive BFF Emily. Although he contemplates leaving his family for her, in the light of day, she moves from anomalous to anonymous as she takes on the face and voice of everyone else. His presentation goes awry when he has a mental breakdown on stage, and he returns home as empty and incomplete as he was at the film’s outset.

The film is a technical marvel, a stop-motion animated feature that utilized 3D printing to create the many stages of facial expression across a sea of duplicate people, and the design and detail work on display is simply stunning. Michael Stone’s gradually building psychotic episode is beautifully telegraphed in a mirror-contemplating scene that sees his face revolving through a series of different faces, and an operatically composed dream sequence includes a moment where his countenance falls apart and reveals the framework underneath. Technically, the film is virtually flawless once you become accustomed to the world’s aesthetic (the line that separates the tops and bottoms of faces is distracting at the outset), and the concept of a world of interchangeable people is realized elegantly.

The narrative, however, leaves a little to be desired. As a peak into Kaufman’s mind, this is yet another story about a reprehensibly self-oriented and self-interested man whose outbursts this time around are rationalized as the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. Once again, an unsympathetic man is brought so low that we the audience cannot help but feel some empathy for his plight; we spend so much time with Stone alone and in an “unobserved” state that he becomes familiar enough that we’re willing to go along on his journey. Of course, his journey exists only in the literal sense, as, ironically, there is no self-discovery for a man who spends so much of his mental energy reflecting upon himself.

Stone is a man who: passively suggests hooking up with his ex, moments after she reveals that she spent the first year after he left her unable to get out of bed; has raised an utterly spoiled and ungrateful child whose brattiness is communicated in a scant three minutes onscreen; and considers leaving his wife and family for what he presumes would be a life of less self-loathing with an uncomplicated Midwestern woman (who has much more going on under the surface than he is willing or able to see). Although we’re living in a post-Don Draper world and it feel’s like the west is drowning in stories of this ilk, Anomalisa feels fresh, if only because of its unusual visual rhetorical space. It’s utterly impossible to like Stone despite his fundamentally broken nature, but the nature of the presentation goes a long way towards making him stand out from the Tony Sopranos and Dr. Houses of the world. It’s a third-person depiction of a first-person point of view, and this immersiveness saves the film from feeling too stale.

This should in no way be read as an indictment of Thewlis’s performance, which is fantastic. He’s not alone: Leigh also does great work here, playing Lisa’s vulnerability and tenaciousness in equal parts, giving life to a character that is ultimately much more human and endearingly honest than Stone. There’s an edge to her line-readings that gives Lisa a physical presence that could be felt even if there were no plastic bodies awkwardly humping each other on screen. Noonan embues each of the diverse characters he plays with variations on a theme, and his irascible cab driver and burned lover are standouts. Still, Thewlis brings a great dimension to the role of Stone, which also contributes to the effectiveness of the story despite its static narrative.

The story is really only tired in broad strokes, however, as the particularities of details are generally novel. Lisa is essentially the opposite of a manic pixie dream girl, a customer service team leader from Akron who lives in Emily’s shadow and considers herself stupid; her favorite food is scrambled eggs and her musical interests skew heavily toward Cyndi Lauper, but she is genuinely interested in improving herself and the state of her life. Her encounter with Stone changes him not at all, but she grows as a result of it, which is a narrative anomaly (no pun intended). The film is also quite observational in the way that it captures true-to-life moments in awkward conversations with eager service industry personnel (including phone reps, cab drivers, bellboys, bar attendants, and cashiers) and being forced to witness interactions between unhappy couples.

This all illustrates the film’s interest in drama but fails in its recapitulation of the comic elements. Much like last year’s Queen of Earth, there is a conscious meditation upon the way that living with or adjacent to mental illness is not the perpetually joyless experience that forms the narrative basis of most literary interrogations of the subject. It’s a rarely discussed observation of the human condition, that while some people are comic or tragic figures, most of us have varying percentages of both throughout our lives, and it’s not always easy or indeed necessary to categorize existence in such binary terms. That’s not to mention the other subtle jokes throughout the film; for instance, Cincinatti chili sounds intriguing and horrifying, and I appreciate the pride that the fictional Ohioans take in their bizarre concoction and their zoo. There’s also a lot to unpack about the fact that Stone’s breakdown stream-of-consciousness is interpreted to be critical of soldiers, prompting an attendee to shout about “supporting the troops,” especially combined with the hotelier’s framed George W. Bush portrait in Stone’s dream sequence.

Speaking of which, as the film largely sticks to a realism even if the point of view is warped, the surreality of Stone’s nightmare sequence is worth the ticket price alone, and is what I expect most people will be talking about long after seeing the film. It’s also the most recognizably Kaufman-esque part of the movie; the sea-of-interchangable faces conceit is present throughout and is obviously evocative of the restaurant full of John Malkovitches seen in Being John Malkovitch (and revisited in Adaptation), but Stone’s story doesn’t otherwise lend itself to Kaufman’s more eccentric imagery. In the dream sequence, however, there’s an exploration of space that is reminiscent of the half-floor in the office building from Malkovitch, and Stone’s attempt to escape through a sea of improbably-close desks is pure Kaufman visual flourish. There’s less Synecdoche, New York in the film’s DNA, which may be for the best, as this film feels less like a masturbatory ode about being a misunderstood and self-destructive artist and isn’t also largely impenetrable (individual responses may vary). That having been said, in defense of Synecdoche, none of Anomalisa’s images are as haunting as that film’s perpetually burning house, curling tattooed leaves, or infinitely recursive series of miniaturized metropoli.

Overall, Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond