A belated Happy New Years to you, dear reader. Lots to catch up on, what with this being the first update in nearly two months. Probably for the best though, as it’s been a slow start to 2014 on my end, so at least I’ve got a healthy backlog to bring to your reading attention. First, a quick rundown of a few theatrical releases I reviewed, before the big TV list promised so long ago:
Philomena: A nice little movie about a nice little old lady, featuring a nice little supporting performance from Steve Coogan. That I remember almost nothing else from this probably means I should be the one reading the review, if anyone.
Saving Mr. Banks: Ditto for this one, which I’ve only soured on more after reading about the real relationship between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers. Read Genevieve Koski’s review and analysis of “brand deposits” over on The Dissolve to understand the full ickiness I feel about this movie.
Out of the Furnace: I’d be lying if I said review scores don’t matter to me, simply because being well outside the mean distribution of critical math-ery increases your likelihood of being yelled at by people. Writing a downer review for this a full month before its release left me a little nervous to see whether I’d be an outlier, which turned out not to be the case. Part of the fun of seeing movies way before the hype machine kicks in is getting to watch them in a vacuum of buzz, which this one (rightfully) didn’t end up generating. Still love me some Christian Bale though.
American Hustle: Which is also probably a good reason why I continue to like this one a lot more than other critics. Well, reading Rottentomatoes and Metacritic scores would tell you a whole lot of critics liked this one a bunch, but since we now live in a world of Criticism 2.0, the press lifecycle of this film has accelerated faster than I reasonably would have thought.
With major awards season kicking off tonight with the Golden Globes, the widely agreed upon greatness of films in 2013 will now be boiled down to a couple of DVD box tag lines and historical footnotes, so it’s understandable why a lot of critics are upset that American Hustle is going in as a presumed favorite against the likes of 12 Years a Slave, and Inside Llewyn Davis. And yeah, I’d be disappointed if American Hustle won any of the major awards (save for any acting award they want to throw at Amy Adams, who’s totally deserving, though that's not to say most deserving), but more so because of the historical backlash it would cause that turns an unworthy, but still very enjoyable film into the worst thing to happen to movies since Crash won Best Picture.
The acceleration of the awards season cycle has caused a dogpile onto American Hustle recently, perhaps in an attempt to sway academy votes. That’s a fair enough goal, but misses the larger issue that awards fever causes the film industry. Why is it that a light, empty, but wickedly fun movie like American Hustle can so easily take gold off the table of more important, timeless pictures? My thinking is that it's because voters are human, and like to be entertained. I’ve likened the film elsewhere to being The Fast & Furious of prestige dramas, in that it’s just a bunch of likeable people having a good time for no real end or purpose. And if you do that well enough, as David O. Russell has, of course voters are going to glom onto it, because there simply aren’t enough films like that, which target adult, film-loving audiences that like to have a good time at the movies.
We need there to be more films like American Hustle, not less. Its success speaks to how badly adult audiences are looking for well-acted, well-crafted entertainment that doesn’t involved superheroes or mass destruction. If there were more movies out there balancing American Hustle's same mix of mature filmmaking and immature, "let's just have some fun" attitude, then critics wouldn’t glom onto it like a life raft. Yes, 12 Years A Slave is a more important, powerful film, just as Her is a more emotionally affecting one, but if you starve awards voters of purely enjoyable film experiences, then they’re going to be absolutely over the moon when one like American Hustle comes along, and gives them the easy satisfaction wider audiences get week after week in the summer blockbuster season.
I think American Hustle is a great good movie, while the other nominees it’ll be facing off against range from good great, to simply great great films. In every case, the great film will be the one remembered by history, but there’s still room for just good, enjoyable prestige films to exist, so long as they don’t make it easier for awards voters to screw up the one thing they have to do: pick the film that best represents the year, either on a qualitative, or idealogical level.
Now, the danger of getting more films like American Hustle is that instead of proving their disposability by satiating the baser urges of voters, the nominee lists will instead be overrun by films that spectacularly clear an insanely low bar. This would be a fine result too, in my opinion, because it would offer us the last hair fiber of proof to show that, for fuck's sake guys, awards are almost never right. To quote the immortal words of The Wire's Snoop Pearson (or Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, if you wanna be anal about it): deserve got nothing to do with it. As far as I’m concerned, the year’s best films were decided last month, when critics I love and respect made their cases for what they thought were the best movies. Look no further than Film Crit Hulk’s amazing take on the Top 10 list to see how completely arbitrary picking “bests” is, especially coming off a year as amazing as 2013.
By the way, here’s my Top 10 list of TV shows for 2013! So as to save myself from a very severe case of hypocrite-lash, let me be upfront by saying I would have chosen to not even rank these if I had my druthers. I was wishy-washy about all the numbering from conception to posting, and don’t considered myself held to the ordering in any way. You can check out my big 10 on the link, but I also just want to take a minute to highlight another 10 series from the year that didn't make the cut, roughly in ascending order of my enjoyment of them:
Homeland: Oh, Homeland. I’d say you broke my heart, but you never really had it to begin with. You had my attention all through season one, as Carrie Matheson elbowed her way into the anti-hero pantheon, and Damien Lewis put on an acting clinic every week. And for the first half of season two, you had me by the shorthairs, what with your inspired and insane willingness to barrel the plot forward at an alarming pace.
But then the rest of season 2 happened, and like a lot of other viewers, I got nervous about what would emerge from the rubble of the show’s late 2012 implosion. What we got in 2013 wasn’t an embarrassment, but it does prove the sneaking suspicion early critics had about Homeland’s success being intrinsically tied to momentum. It still looks great, and the performances are strong, but I’m not sure I’m getting much else out of it each week.
Broadchurch: Check my mega-blog from a few months back for the full scoop, but I found a lot to like in this morbid little seaside murder mystery. Here’s to hoping the American remake, and another series of the original don’t completely throw this show’s legacy off a cliff.
New Girl: I was late to the New Girl party on both ends, as I wasn’t in time to praise the strong back end of its second season we got in 2013, and have only now caught up, when the show is seriously struggling to maintain its momentum. Jake Johnson is practically carrying the show on his shoulders at this point, so this might be the only time New Girl makes a best of list for me. But, hey, at least they’ve cut down on a lot of the ironic racism humour that plagued the first couple seasons! That’s something, right?
Archer: The fuel gauge is visibly starting to dip on one of my favorite animated comedies, though word is the quickly approaching fifth season makes for a revitalizing gamechanger. This is a show I usually like watching more the second or third time than the first, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Season 4 is a whole lot better than I give it credit for. If for nothing else though, the show gets points for collapsing the H. Jon Benjamin voiceover universe into a singularity during its Bob's Burgers crossover in the premiere, which was just fantastic.
Parks & Recreation: My love of Parks still runs deep, but it’s deep enough to know that I'm about ready to say goodbye. I still love the characters and world of P&R, but as with all comedies, what made them identifiable and relatable continues to get stretched by the increasingly cartoonish lengths needed to land a joke. I’m a Legacy-ist in a lot of ways: it’s better for a show to live fast and die young than to risk overstaying its welcome. Parks isn’t nearly at that point yet (I laughed my ass off at the touching 100th episode they just had), but the show’s 3 season golden age might be forgotten by history the longer it’s followed by diminishing returns.
Scandal: Jumping off of Parks, the best way I can describe Scandal is to say that if Leslie Knope is TV’s Superman, Olivia Pope is its Batman. Scandal is a cynical soap opera thrill ride that’s only recently shown signs of flagging. It’s a show I love for a number of reasons, chief among them being how aggressively, at times embarrassingly, progressive it is. It’s almost certainly run out of juice at this point, but considering the levels it was operating at through all of 2012 and most of 2013, can you blame it? Not since Spartacus has a surface layer of trash hidden some of the most effective and thought-provoking writing on TV.
Game of Thrones: I think I ruined Game of Thrones for myself right after episode 9 of the first season (yeah, that episode), when I decided I couldn’t wait a whole week for the finale, like some sort of impulse-control-having sucker. I burned through the first book before the first season’s finale, but felt much less excitement and enjoyment when watching HBO recreating something I had already read. The same muted feeling has persisted since reading all the books, and seeing the show adapt them. It's still so incredibly well made, and so well acted that it’s almost impossible to comprehend that something like Game of Thrones not only exists, but is one of the biggest things in TV. Still, I can’t help but feel like I love Game of Thrones more in book form, and simply appreciate and respect the TV version more than feverishly devour it like a lot of other people do.
Hannibal: God bless Bryan Fuller for not only proving that serial killer television doesn’t have to be bad, but for also showing that a remake of a known property doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever. Coupled with the best cliffhanger ending of 2013, Hannibal’s first season will give you ample reason to be unbearably excited for the quickly approaching second.
Orphan Black: I’m running out of word fuel so I’ll keep it brief: watch this show. Maureen Ryan sums up best why little shows like this are some of the most important out there, but even as pure entertainment, Orphan Black is a smashing success. If Tatiana Maslany wins the Best Actress Golden Globe, it will be deserved, and make up for any and all future snubs by the HFPA.
The Returned: The third of Sundance Channel's trio of esoteric shows to premiere in 2013, this late 2012 French series was even more frightening than Hannibal, despite very rarely giving in to horror/thriller cliché and tropes. It’s a disturbing little show in a lot of ways, capable of making very simple images incredibly unnerving, but it’s all in service of a thoughtful, emotionally balanced look at loss and grief. Don’t let subtitles be a barrier to entry, or you’ll be missing out on one of the most haunting and beautiful shows 2013 had to offer.
That’s all for now, I’ll be back with more updates, once I’ve got some stuff to update you with! Play me off into 2014, mysterious and ethereal Mogwai soundtrack!