Tag Archives: Chris Braak

IndieGoGo Highlight — “Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn”

Empress of the Moon

If you’re a fan of swordfights, spycraft, and feminist plays, look no further. Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn has just over a day remaining in its IndieGoGo campaign. The play, written by Chris Braak for a cast of 6 women, is going up at this year’s Capital Fringe Festival.

What’s it about? Aphra Behn was an English spy in the Netherlands. When she returned and the Crown refused to pay her for her service, she became the first woman to make her living as a writer. Aphra Behn might not even have been her real name. And that’s the historical portion. To quote Braak, the play is about “what it means to create your own identity, to build a story for yourself as a person in general but as a woman in particular.”

I have a great deal of confidence in Braak as a writer. Visit the IndieGoGo page for Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn. If you like what you see, consider contributing.

Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn

Empress of the Moon

Aphra Behn. A spy for the British crown, whose job was to turn English expatriates in the Netherlands into double agents. A spy who returned to Britain impoverished because the English King Charles turned around and said, “Hey, guys, do we have to pay her? No? Let’s not pay her then.”

What’s a woman to do when she’s impoverished? Obviously, the only choice is to turn to the most debasing profession of all – become a writer. And that’s exactly what she did, claiming a spot in history as the first woman to make her living as a playwright. She was also one of the first fantasists in modern history,

Wouldn’t you like to see that story play out in front of you, preferably with sword fights and expert commentary about the history of identity…with more sword fights?

Chris Braak has written this very play. It’s called Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn, and it’s going up at the Capital Fringe Festival.

Now, I only highlight the fundraising campaigns here that I think are top-notch and worth your time. I don’t want to highlight anything that I think can’t be pulled off. Here, the play’s already written, its run is already booked, actors already cast, cast already choreographed. This IndieGoGo campaign is to help defray the cast and crew’s travel and accommodation costs to the Capital Fringe Festival.

Braak himself is one of the voices I trust and listen to most when it comes to the culture and politics of identity. This article he wrote at Threat Quality Press remains one of the clearest and most incisive pieces of writing on gender representation in the media that I’ve read in years.

Chris Braak is a special writer, and I want to see him succeed. He is one of those few I hope crafts the storytelling of tomorrow. If you’re someone here who’s familiar with him, consider contributing to his IndieGoGo campaign. If you’re unfamiliar with him, read a bit more about his play here, and then visit IndieGoGo.

Wednesday Collective — Is Historical Accuracy on Film Important?

Braveheart lead

Today’s Wednesday Collective is a special edition. I want to highlight an ongoing conversation that’s been taking place across a few different sites, namely between Sam Adams at IndieWire, A.E. Larsen over at An Historian Goes to the Movies, Chris Braak over at Threat Quality Press, and myself. It regards the need for historical accuracy in movies and whether that accuracy should be a quality that critics evaluate.

“Please Kill The Expert Review

This all started when Sam Adams, editor for IndieWire, posted a rejection of the “expert review,” the kinds of articles that declare “What Noah Gets Wrong About the Bible” and “What House of Cards Gets Wrong About Money in Politics.” Half the time, these “expert reviews” fail at their own game, overlooking some pretty simple facts, or assuming some historical intent on the part of filmmakers that isn’t there. For instance, Noah isn’t based on Noah and the Flood alone, it’s based on Jewish religious stories, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Abraham and Job and Moses, and Asian flood mythologies. And House of Cards is based on Kevin Spacey eating you alive.

“Wednesday Collective – Films of Excess, Black Widow, & All Your Ark Are Belong to Us”

We highlighted Adams’s article in a “Wednesday Collective” that also featured some other great articles and a pretty broad Something Awful reference all of two people picked up on. I didn’t altogether agree with Adams that expert reviews need to be eradicated. I did agree that expert reviews have become so widespread and inaccurate that it’s inevitable many of them are written by non-experts. They might think half an hour of hitting up Wikipedia is the equivalent of doing enough research to post a 1,000-word article (hint: it’s not). After all, “expert reviews” get clicked on. They appeal to our curiosity. They appeal to our desire to have even more to discuss about the film we just saw, and our desire to impress others by doing so. They appeal to some pretty basic schadenfreude we feel when famous people do something wrong. So they persist.

“Why Historical Accuracy on Film Matters”

A.E. Larsen at An Historian Goes to the Movies wrote a rebuttal to Adams’s original article, detailing the importance that evaluating historical accuracy has. If we cut out that evaluation, Larsen argues, we avoid discussing some pretty important artistic decisions and the social, cultural, and political consequences those decisions can cause in the real world. He cites the rise of the powerful independence movement in Scotland as a reaction to Braveheart, and the effect crime procedurals like CSI have had on both the taxpayer expense and burden of evidence necessary to carry out criminal trials in The United States. It’s worth noting that Larsen also considers it important for films to sometimes forgo historical accuracy, such as in the narrative and costuming in The 13th Warrior. Accuracy isn’t always important, Larsen says, but discussing it is.

“On History, Historicity, and the Responsibility of Art”

Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press sought to separate history from historicity, further expanding on Larsen’s argument while also putting the onus of responsibility on artists themselves. The issue as an artist isn’t to always be historically accurate, Braak says, but rather to have a reason when you aren’t. Many artists use history as a backdrop to talk about modern-day issues. If that’s what you’re doing, decisions can’t just be made willy-nilly – they each carry into the messages that viewers take away. Braak uses Shakespeare, Philadelphia theatre, and Larsen’s example of Braveheart to write a fairly brilliant article.

“‘Accuracy is the Poor Man’s Authenticity’: (A Few) More Thoughts on the Expert Review”

Finally, Adams featured Larsen’s rebuttal, as well as two others, in a piece that contained far too much punctuation in its title and met him halfway. He still sticks to his guns, but he admits he just had to get “Please Kill the Expert Review” off his chest. He also says that art doesn’t have a responsibility to stick to fact. I have a tendency to agree with Braak – art does have that responsibility, except when there’s a reason to choose differently. So the conversation has paused by putting the burden of responsibility on the artist, but it did begin by calling out critics. That still needs to be addressed.

My Own Take

Inglourious Basterds movie image Eli Roth and Sam Levine

The value of making movies that are historically accurate should be self-evident – failure to do so can lead to the rewriting of history itself. The single, most offensive episode of TV I’ve seen all year did just this, in an ill-advised attempt to trade historical accuracy for scientific, as if you’re only allowed to allot a certain number of accuracy points between the two.

Art’s ability to turn history on its head does offer unique opportunities, however, the way The Monuments Men seeks to champion art’s value to a society that’s busy cutting arts education left, right, and center. Or the way Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained change history entirely to create power fantasies for the historically maligned. In this way, they empower and engender pride today while challenging typical ethnic portrayals and culturally training us to see hate and racism for the wholly ridiculous things they are. By making villains who literally tent their fingers and twirl their mustaches, and KKK members who whine about the imprecise tailoring of their white sheets, we begin to associate the very same positions in the real world as childish and cartoon-esque.

What’s a critic’s role in this? To evaluate the historical accuracy in Inglorious Basterds is a fool’s errand, yet in evaluating the details and nuances director Quentin Tarantino does include, we might better see the craft behind the image. In art history, you’re taught to examine every nuance – the painters whose work has lasted centuries rarely included useless details. Even brush strokes can communicate something – where the painter seeks to turn your eye, and the relationships between different characters.

And what should the requirements for the critic be? I try to review a movie’s success with some degree of isolation from it’s background. I want to know what the movie’s saying or failing to say. Under the Skin and Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange (I just came up with the most depressing triple-feature ever) say completely different things from the novels on which they’re based. Does that mean they’re failures? Absolutely not, but why they have completely different messages is important.

Likewise, Basterds, Django, Braveheart, and Monuments Men divert completely from history to make their points, and why they choose to do so is the most important component in each of these films. That requires analysis, which requires pointing out the historical details those films overlook or change.

Even so, I agree with Sam Adams on his broader notion that the proliferation of a certain type of “What X gets wrong about Y” review isn’t doing criticism any good. I don’t think he’s talking about the “expert review,” however. The expert review, such as what A.E. Larsen does at An Historian Goes to the Movies, is a crucial component to understanding movies as an art and storytelling form. I believe what Adams criticizes should be called the “inexpert review,” in which critics feel pressure to be all things to all people, and often evaluate the accuracy of topics on which they aren’t really familiar.

Critics should not pretend to know everything. It’s one reason I do “Wednesday Collective.” It’s the reason I seek out other writers to feature here, like Vanessa Tottle and Russ Schwartz. You can’t read a critic in a vacuum; you need other input. One of the most valuable things you can do as a critic is admit what you don’t know. It’s academically honest, and it will let readers know that if you do have a point to make, you’re only making it when you know what you’re talking about.

Go back and look at Roger Ebert’s archive of reviews and essays – it’s easy to select the ones he wrote from a drop-down menu up-top. Ebert was an incredibly smart writer, yet again and again, he prefaced his viewpoints with what he didn’t know, either on an academic subject or another culture’s storytelling techniques. This allows you to be aware of exactly what he does know. Being aware of his perspective and his knowledge gives you more information, gives you a better sense of how to understand his opinions.

The expert review doesn’t need to stop. The inexpert review needs to stop. Critics need to admit when they don’t know something, not pretend they know everything. We need to talk about film from our own perspective, from our own experiences and knowledge. We need to be proud of our specialties, and seek out others to complement them, to refer to when we don’t know something important. Pretending to be an expert in a field you don’t know about is a way of being ashamed at your lack of knowledge. I’d rather be proud about what I do know, and honest about what I don’t. It’s the only way criticism survives as something more than top 10 lists and Metacritic scores. The only way.

Wednesday Collective — Wonder Woman, Liam’s Bond, Soderbergh’s Psycho, & Lupita’s Beauty

Wednesday Collective is a new series, so I’m still allowed to tweak the rules. This’ll be a weekly roundup of any article about movies that caught my eye. There’ll still be a section at the bottom dedicated to collecting reviews for this week’s home releases, but I’d rather devote the bulk of this series to discussion about storytelling on film:

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
On Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, and the Nature of Muscles

Gal Gadot

This is from Chris Braak over at Threat Quality Press. It’s a few weeks old, but a very good read. When Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman in Zack Snyder’s untitled Superman-starring Man of Steel follow-up, there was an internet-wide backlash against the choice. You see, she comes across as a bit petite. Fans had wanted everyone from Gina Torres (who, frankly, lacks the acting chops) to Lena Headey (one of the most underrated actors going).

Unfortunately, it’s the Internet and the tone of the argument quickly turned to replacing Fetishized Woman A with Fetishized Woman B. Instead of discussing casting and symbolism, we got commentary over which unrealistic ideal of a woman fans would like better. Braak re-frames the argument into something more useful, while not discounting the choice of Gadot:

“It is true that Wonder Woman does not actually NEED giant muscles…that it’s not required for whatever passes for realism in comic book movies that she be tall and broad-shouldered, she can have magic strength like Buffy or whatever, that’s fine. But here’s what I would like us to consider: muscles are not just a source of power for average human beings, muscles also represent power.” It’s a superb read.

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12 Years a Slave Producer’s Links to Apartheid

Arnon Milchan is a producer on such important films as 12 Years a Slave, LA Confidential, and the harrowing Alvin and the Chipmunks trilogy. He revealed late last year that he had used his position in the film industry to visit foreign countries and illegally import nuclear-weapon technology to Israel. He’d often use director Sydney Pollack to do it. The most notable trade involved Milchan using his connections to promote apartheid (South Africa’s system for ghettoizing and segregating blacks) in exchange for uranium. The FBI was investigating before the Reagan administration told them to drop it. Under the Radar‘s Bryant Jordan has the most complete article wrapping it all up, but Harriet Sherwood’s Guardian write-up is also worth checking out.

Liam Neeson

Neeson. Liam Neeson.

The Hull Daily Mail has an intriguing interview between Liam Neeson and Keeley Bolger, in which he talks about turning down the James Bond role that eventually went to Pierce Brosnan because his late wife gave him an ultimatum.

Psychos

Steven Soderbergh’s Psychos

The great director of Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, and Magic Mike enjoyed perhaps the most diverse career of any modern director. He retired last year, but he’s very slyly been doing a terrible job of it. Aside from helming Cinemax’s Clive Owen-starring hospital drama The Knick, he just released online his re-edited mash-up combining Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho with Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot, 1998 remake.

Lupita

Lupita Nyong’o on What Makes Beauty

The speech Lupita Nyong’o gave upon accepting the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress was beautiful and inspiring, but the speech she gave to this year’s Black Women in Hollywood gathering was a remarkable commentary on the biases we still enact upon each other and how best to surpass them.

Terminator

The 30-year Mystery of The Terminator‘s Score

This article from Slate gives some insight into how an accident helped create one of the most unique, underrated, and iconic scores in film history – the main theme to the original The Terminator.

ON DVD / BLU-RAY

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12 YEARS A SLAVE

The Loquacionist wrote a stellar piece about confronting his own family’s slave-owning history as he watched 12 Years a Slave.

Film Threat gets angry that so few movies are made confronting the ugliest piece of foundation on which the United States was built.

Alessia Palanti, as always, portrays the emotion of a film while diving into the meaty theory behind it at Camera Obscura.

And my own response considers the ease with which cultures slip into performing atrocities and explains how the film emotionally broke me like very few others.

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THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

Bad*ss Digest raved about the film, stressing both its political and storytelling subersiveness.

Reel Antagonist thought the film strong, but that it lacked in rewatchability.

I thought it was a beautiful political statement, and that The Hunger Games is positioning itself as the science-fiction epic of my pissed off and discontent generation.

I also write about Jennifer Lawrence’s performance here.

Oldboy

OLDBOY

I still haven’t seen it, but Outlaw Vern has a humorous and entertaining write-up on Spike Lee’s remake of Chan Wook Park’s original masterpiece. He says he didn’t hate it or anything, but that they should’ve thrown caution to the wind, dumped Brolin, and gone full-on Nicolas Cage with it. That’s never a good sign.

The Movies We Loved in 2013 – By Friends of the Blog

My goal as a critic is to write pieces that are both functional and artistic, that translate not only a film’s meaning but that have their own as well. A big part of what’s shaped my view on movies are the people I’ve made films with and spoken to about film over the years, so I asked friends whose work and perspectives on movies I admire the most – What was your best film of 2013? I was pleased with how many responded and even more pleased – and moved – by their eloquent and personal responses. Please enjoy:

The World's End replace

The World’s End
by Chris Braak

Above and beyond how much I enjoy Edgar Wright as one of the most energetic and playful stylists working right now – in particular, the way he uses every corner of the screen, every incidental movement, in a way that is somehow intricate without being overloaded or over-composed – The World’s End is a brilliantly subversive reversal of a done-to-death science-fiction trope. One of the advantages of satire is that it doesn’t have to pretend to have answers, so The World’s End can quite comfortably take a completely ambivalent approach, simultaneously exposing the moral poverty of cultural interventionism and the nihilistic self-destruction that’s at the heart of much of our cultural sense of rebellion.

What makes it especially brilliant is how neatly and painfully it dovetails with addiction intervention, in a way that’s simultaneously cruel and critical and deeply passionate.

Chris Braak is a playwright and novelist who writes about storytelling and movies over at Threat Quality Press. He and I often disagree, which is exceptionally frustrating because he’s often right.

Gravity

Gravity
by Vanessa Tottle

Being in the field sucks. It’s supposed to be full of natural romance like I’m John Muir seeing Yosemite for the first time, but camping by the firelight with the same people day in and day out gets passive-aggressive real quick. We imagine making discoveries and naming them after each other, but a month’s dig is more likely to leave me coming away with a broken ankle or hookworm. That and too much time alone to think and miss, and I’m not good at being alone with my own brain.

You see, I had to survive once. It wasn’t in the wilderness or on a dig. It was my family, growing up. Gravity is about a woman being stranded with no outlet. No matter what she does, there’s a force she doesn’t understand out to get her. She has little, but even this is taken away from her regularly. It’s not personal; it’s the way of this big, vast universe she doesn’t understand. That was my childhood. And when this woman is ready to give up, a voice on a radio is what brings her out of her stupor. She hears it by pure chance, in a language she doesn’t understand, and it’s enough to keep her from giving up. When I realized there was another voice out there, nothing was going to stop me from finding more.

Sandra Bullock didn’t play a stranded astronaut. She played me, shoving a dresser against the door when I heard raised voices and wondering why the universe hated me so much. Then she heard a voice that cared and, even if it couldn’t understand, it was enough nourishment for her soul to make her press on. That’s what sci-fi is about, right? A source of hope. Getting better. As a species, as an individual. Now when I break a bone, I’m thankful I’m the cause of it, and it’s because I heard enough voices along the way that I’m doing something I never thought I could, thank you very much.

Vanessa Tottle is completing the approximately 1,000 years of education it takes to become a paleontologist. When she’s not digging up bits of bone in barren landscapes, she’s kind enough to be my primary screenplay editor.

The Act of Killing 1

The Act of Killing
by Kevan Tucker

Though 2013 was one of the best years for film in recent memory, The Act of Killing is in a league of its own. It is an exploration of evil unlike anything that’s been made before and could only have been made in the medium of film. It allows us to watch as people who committed genocide take pride in, compartmentalize and regret their actions. We would like to believe that horrifying acts are done by monsters, but The Act of Killing‘s depiction of evil is more terrifying because it is so human. The subjects of the film are as bizarre, funny and relatable as they are horrifying. It shows how their actions actually rest, however uncomfortably, on the normal scale of human emotion.

The Act of Killing is also a testament to the power of art, particularly film. Not only is it a documentary that has created real political change but it is a study of the psychological process of making movies. In trying to recreate their experiences of committing genocide on camera, we get to see these killers-turned-directors unintentionally reveal themselves through each decision of how to tell their stories. As any filmmaker or artist knows, each detail and choice you make is a reflection of your thoughts, perceptions and prejudices. And examining each of those choices forces you to see them in new lights and through different points of view. Throughout The Act of Killing, we see these men’s perceptions of the past change – or stubbornly remain the same – as they present their stories to us. And their bizarre recreations of reality bring us far closer to truth than we would be able to get any other way. It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever witnessed, one of the best movies ever made and should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in history, psychology or film.

Kevan Tucker is the director of the searing, coming-of-age film The Unidentified and the comedy web series Compulsive Love.

Upstream Color

Upstream Color
by Alessia Palanti

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, and time is the ontological backdrop of Shane Carruth’s masterwork Upstream Color. The film is a haunting, psychotropic experience. It combs through identity and memory, its gaps and fillings and their reciprocal definitions, only to arrive at their quintessential knottiness. Within the narrative, characters are hypnotized by a mysterious worm: the central element of an unidentifiable experiment that jeopardizes and interrogates identity. Simultaneously, the audience in the theatre is hypnotized by the Deleuzian spirals, where distinctions are the “things in themselves” and undermine the notion of anything existing prior to differences. In other words, the film traverses an elemental spectrum, where Carruth so closely zooms in on nuances that the difference between any one object – or idea, for that matter – is forgotten. And, as memory is key to the film (time, that is, in its personal articulations), Upstream tests on the audience a similar experiment undergone by its characters.

While the film may be reminiscent of the styles of Terrence Malick, David Lynch, and Wim Wenders, Carruth really stands alone. With his previous film, Primer (2005), he cemented his scientific cinematic inclinations, where the viewer is merely a fly on the wall of two friends testing the possibilities and dangers of a time machine apparatus. If you are a metaphysical scientist watching the film, you are in luck; if not, the dialogue is an overwhelming but intriguing mass of jargon. Upstream extends the metaphysics inborn in the director’s thematic choices, but braids them with mesmerizing aesthetics, and – although disjointed – a philosophically anchored narrative.

The film’s complex and enigmatic nature demands multiple viewings. It is a 96-minute vortex of synaesthetic enrapture. And if it leaves your blood shaky and your mind dizzy with questions whose answers you both urgently require and urgently reject, it has, indeed, done its work.

Alessia Palanti knows more about film than anyone else I know (don’t tell her I said that), and is no slouch at classical European lit either. She writes about film theory in independent and foreign-language cinema at Camera Obscura.

12 Years a Slave lead image

12 Years a Slave
by Tim O’Neill

My favorite film of 2013 was 12 Years a Slave, the kind of daring, high profile film that only gets made once in a decade. Steve McQueen’s direction is impervious to melodrama, a crowning feat in and of itself considering the subject matter. The resulting matter-of-fact narrative forces the audience to find it’s own meaning, or lack thereof, buried within the layer of broken characters. Single shots tell complete stories as those characters shift within the ambiguous landscape of survival, submission and sacrifice. Solomon Northup wants to escape back to his family, and for a while I thought he might, but ultimately he must accept the painful fact that he cannot succeed by strength or cunning, only by patience. As the credits rolled, I found myself yearning for a catharsis that was not there, filled with the unsettling feeling that perhaps not all stories, even those about universal cruelty, can be reduced to good guys and bad guys. Rarely has a movie this boldly restrained garnered the attention it so richly deserved.

Tim O’Neill is an editor whose credits range from The Unidentified to the TV documentary Tracker and Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers. And he’s just getting started.

The Counselor

The Counselor
by Shay Fevre

Before I saw The Counselor, one of the smartest people I know described it to me as “frustrating, sick, and unbelievable.” Once I saw it, I decided I agreed with the first two. In the movie industry, it’s very easy to be financially and physically taken advantage of. I act in some risque movies, but I know what choices cross a line. It’s a different line for everybody, but the moment I cross it, I stop feeling at home in my own skin. I quit for a few years because I just had enough. A lot of actresses – A LOT – cross that line for promises of later opportunity. It’s easy to say they were stupid, or senseless, or ignorant, and that people who act desperately are poor and insane and beg and commit crime, right? But those aren’t the people who choose or ask someone else to choose something they normally wouldn’t allow.

In my world, the most valuable commodity is a certain lifestyle. The currency you trade to reach it is self-worth. The chronic, impulse buyers are the ones who have tasted success. It doesn’t matter to them if they’re lifestyle is great – they have a chemical reaction in their brain telling them MORE of that lifestyle will fill a hole that’s created because they already traded so much of themselves away. I think The Counselor is one of the few movies I saw in 2013 that makes much sense of both sides of the equation, and portrays what someone psychologically loses when they realize they can’t go back to how they once were.

Shay Fevre is an actress and model who escapes L.A. as often as possible. She once beat an abusive director up with her shoe. She’s launching her own production company in the coming year.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
by Russ Schwartz

I’m pretty sure that my favorite movie of 2013 is 12 Years a Slave; the only problem is, I haven’t seen it yet. I just didn’t see many movies this year. Until I see it, my favorite movie of 2013 is The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Not because it’s any kind of Great Movie – I mean, I saw Gravity and that was better – but because it somehow escaped its boring, smug, annoying predecessor to become a surprising and exciting fantasy picture that made me want more. I hated the first one for letting you know what it was going to do and then finding ways to drag it out, like one of those sports or rags-to-riches movies where you spend hours of your life waiting for some urchin in hardship to get discovered or make the team or some other bullsh*t, but with kids murdering each other.

But Catching Fire – man, somehow they made it a treat to see Katniss and Peeta forced to think, to deal, to plan! Who knew (apart from those who read the books)? The sequel doesn’t telegraph its structure, giving it an immediacy that made me connect with characters I didn’t give a crap about the first time around. In my favorite sequence, the combatants band together in a show of bad sportsmanship and spin to protest the games themselves, one-upping each other to find ways to beg the audience for their lives. This is the movie where cunning, heart, and imagination enter the series; suddenly, the world of Panem and its heroes matter.

Russ Schwartz is an actor, playwright, and producer who co-founded The Penny Seats Theatre Company in Ann Arbor, MI.

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Her
by Keith Ward

Spike Jonze’s fourth feature Her might not be the best movie of 2013, but it was certainly the one that fascinated me the most. Science fiction is at its best when it serves as a critique of the era it was created in. Set at some unspecified date in the future, technology has exacerbated mankind’s introverted tendencies to the point where damn near everybody is constantly plugged into their devices. Our quiet protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) even feels the need to buy a digital companion. Scarlett Johansson plays Samantha, in what is my favorite performance of the year. Sam is an operating system: a sentient computerized life-form designed to not only fulfill the needs of the person who purchases her, but to evolve intellectually and emotionally in her own right.

Johansson, an actor and model admired for her physical appearance as much as her acting ability, brings her character to life entirely through her vocal performance. Samantha has no body, so we only get to really know and care for her through her voice. The romance that she forms with Theodore feels very much like the equivalent of a long-distance relationship. This all-too common modern phenomenon has never been so uniquely portrayed. There’s only so much that you can do through phone conversations, texting, cyber sex and other conceits of social media to keep the passion alive. Affairs of the heart require some physical contact, regardless of how cerebral and self-possessed the participants are.

Keith Ward works as a Patient Care Advocate by day, actor by night. He’s playing the lead in the upcoming feature Beyond Hello.

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Her
by J.P. Hitesman

Without a doubt, the year-end release of Her catapulted its way to the top of my best of 2013 list. I am always the most impacted by stories that explore subjects rooted in humanity, and this film fit that bill in a creative and unpredictable way. It also offered an elegant simplicity with its small cast, taut storyline and emotionally affecting performances. Joaquin Phoenix, starring as the sensitive main character, Theodore, continues to impress with his career revitalization just a year after going to opposite extremes with The Master. Amy Adams (who co-starred with Phoenix in both) exudes a warm versatility that ought to have been more recognized as the film was released practically in tandem with American Hustle. Rooney Mara continues a run of sharp and committed performances. Olivia Wilde appears briefly in a key sequence but seemed better used here than in any larger role I have seen her perform. And Scarlett Johansson ties the film together in a unique way with her voice-only role, which was recorded after principal filming had been completed – with another actress in that part. She maintained a unique and original structure to the story, while playing with the audience’s (possible) expectations of her physical on-screen persona. But I most recall the story of the film, and am considering seeing it again just for that, as it plays with the necessities and wonderment and confusion of our modern age in such a thoughtful way that it’s impossible not to be affected by the humanity, honesty, and emotional realism of Theodore and the women in his life.

J.P. Hitesman is the Renaissance Man of any theatre or stage he steps on. He blogs about theatre and film at TheatricalBuddhaMan.

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The Great Gatsby
by Jessica Greenberg

The Great Gatsby directed by Baz Luhrmann has a beautiful production design that appeals to my theatre design sensibilities. Luhrmann has a theatricality to his aesthetic in both design and performance that I’ve also enjoyed in his other films, like Moulin Rouge or Romeo & Juliet. I love the way The Great Gatsby blends iconic 1920’s scenic, costume and lighting elements with a present day editing style and soundtrack.

Jessica Greenberg is a lighting designer and Assistant Professor of Theatre Design at Weber State University. View the impressive scope of her work here.

The Wolverine

The Wolverine
by Erin Snyder

I think this is the first time my pick for best of the year is the sequel to something I called the worst movie of its year. But The Wolverine managed to bury the bad memories of sitting through 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and even redeemed elements of X-Men 3. If you saw The Wolverine and are baffled as to how anyone could claim it was the best movie of 2013, it’s probably because we’re talking about different films. As much as I enjoyed the theatrical cut, I’d never seriously call it the best of the year. The unrated Extended Edition, on the other hand, is the hard-R Wolverine movie that comic book geeks have always wanted. Even the theatrical version delivered the best version of Logan we’ve seen in live-action to date, then overshadowed him with two female characters more interesting and – in some ways – more badass than him. But if you’re a geek and you’ve only seen the PG-13 version, you owe it to yourself to track down the extended edition. In addition to the violence, you’re missing out on a great deal of character development and far superior pacing. But let’s not understate the significance of that violence: this is a Wolverine movie we’re talking about.

Erin Snyder writes The Middle Room, focusing on sci-fi and fantasy movies, and co-writes with his wife a seasonal favorite of mine, the irreverent and addictive Mainlining Christmas.

A few others didn’t get the chance to write something or are still writing it, but named their best films. Writer Bryan DeGuire chose Inside Llewyn Davis, documentary filmmaker Amy Grumbling chose The Act of Killing, musician Azeem Khan chose Fruitvale Station, and graphic artist Eden O’Nuallain chose Side Effects.

My own choice for the best film of 2013 is The Place Beyond the Pines, which I write about in my previous post.