May 17, 2015

Love & Nylons: The End of Mad Men

By Josh Oakley

“What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”

Mad Men, as with any show, is compromised of more than any one hour, even its last. But the final moments are guaranteed to spark severe reactions. Bookends provide a guide, in art and in life, to the rest of the story. Endings can be disappointing when they don’t finish the thought the viewer believed the artist had started, or when one sees those last words as muddled or incoherent. Of course, as with anything genuine, the ending doesn’t truly define the whole. It simply lingers, like the aftertaste of a drink. All that being said, I believe that Don found peace. But even that happiness can be bottled and sold.

Mar 6, 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fills a Parks & Rec-sized hole

By Josh Oakley

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the new sitcom from Tina Fey & Robert Carlock debuting today on Netflix, resembles some of the best shows of the last decade while managing to carve out its own unique identity. Fey & Carlock also created 30 ROCK, a show that Kimmy Schmidt vividly recalls from its comic sensibility to a similar bouncy score. But even if the exterior most closely resembles that program, its heart, mentality and ethos brings to mind another NBC Thursday night sitcom (hey, remember those?).

Jan 1, 2015

Most Anticipated Films of 2015

By Josh Oakley 

Though a few offerings from 2014 have yet to open wide (Inherent Vice and Selma chief among them), 2015 has officially begun and with it, numerous films to anticipate. From last year’s festival holdouts to mammoth blockbuster releases, the year ahead looks to hold a number of potential treasures, many of which we probably aren’t even aware of yet. Below I’ll talk about the ten films I’m most looking forward to this calendar year. Leave a comment with the ones you can’t wait to see, and join me in getting excited for yet another great year at the movies.

Dec 23, 2014

Best Films of 2014

By Josh Oakley

Note: This list was revised on January 7th after getting a chance to see Selma. Also, see Selma.

10. Force Majeure (dir. Ruben Ostlund)
Force Majeure juggles a multitude of tones as well as any film this year, lurching from terror to comedy to existential drama. It pokes and prods at its characters while still understanding their perspective. The film is both judgmental and not, mocking the characters and their situations without ever being cruel. A shot of a man weeping is both emotionally stirring and hilariously over-the-top. Force Majeure shouldn't work, but under Ostlund's able eye it becomes a poetic deconstruction of masculinity and traditional gender roles. The story begins with a family who nearly go through a tragedy, and though physical disaster is avoided, emotional fallout stirs through the rest of the film. Gorgeously shot by Fredrik Wenzel, the icy mountain backdrops, and cramped hotel interiors perfectly capture the psychological trauma experienced by the central characters. Both darkly funny and genuinely incisive, Force Majeure is a dozen things that work well on their own, but have true power when combined. A bit like a family is. Or, more accurately, like we expect a family to be.

9. Listen Up Philip (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
The role Jason Schwartzman was born to play: a man so far up his own ass that he not only insults his girlfriend when she receives a dream job, he fails to see why she’s upset that he does so. From there, the relationship crumbles and Philip’s literary career soars, but the cost of living in such an isolated fashion is never forgotten. Alex Ross Perry shot Philip on film, giving the shots a warm, glowing touch. Sun pierces through windows, lending an almost impressionistic feel on occasion. Though no matter what the movie was filmed on, the best shot is an unassuming close-up, showing a mad flurry of emotion perfectly captured by Elisabeth Moss. By devoting as much attention to her character, and the others that fill in Philip’s world, Listen Up Philip does something its narcissistic protagonist cannot, extending empathy to everyone in sight.

8. Coherence (dir. James Ward Byrkit)
The next two films on this list show the multiple strengths of sci-fi; how it can be aided by both limitation and grandiose scope. First, the small-scale, in Byrkit’s Coherence. This is a tricky, intricately plotted story that begins with a group of friends having a dinner party and ends somewhere spectacularly different, yet, the same (this film has the best cut-to-credits moment by a fairly wide margin). There’s not much that can be said about the film’s plot without giving away the joy of watching it for the first time (and this coming from someone who generally cares little about “spoilers”), so some trust will need to be involved. See this film. It packs an emotional punch at the end, has some beautiful character moments (that were completely improvised), and knows how to deliver a twist without cheating on internal logic. Coherence is proof that all one needs to make a great film is a camera, some friends, and an incredible, mind-altering conceit.

7. Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Now, in a complete turn from the stripped-down Coherence, the behemoth of Interstellar. A bloated, messy film that uses its faults to gain an immense and overwhelming power, Interstellar may be Nolan’s best film since Memento. The story takes Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) away from his family for both a couple of years, and for a couple of decades, depending on how you experience it. The use of time here is almost too much to bear, especially in a scene that proves McConaughey’s ability, and Nolan’s epic scope. Though the structure gets immense, it never leaves Nolan’s capable hands. He wields a finely-tuned emotional resonance through the expansive back-drop, culminating in a scene that apes 2001, turned many off, but left me weeping. Interstellar is a unique and grand vision, one that should be celebrated not just in the context of blockbusters, but throughout the world of filmmaking.

6. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Inherent Vice is as deceptive as many of the characters at its center. The film leads you through a mystery that ultimately means very little; the tone is seemingly shaggy, but this a fully-developed world; the thematic weight seems shallow, but reveals itself as endlessly deep. This is Anderson's twisted, comically haunted version of early-70's Los Angeles. Charles Manson creeps into conversation, and death lingers throughout the career of our protagonist, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). But Anderson revels in the absurdity of culture clash, tracing some characters as cartoonish outlines (see Martin Short in a brilliant and brief role), and giving others waves of turmoil under a comic exterior (see Josh Brolin in the year's funniest performance). All of these pieces are filtered through Doc's drug-addled mind, giving the cinematography (the best of the year to my mind, by PTA regular Robert Elswit) a warm haziness that shrouds the truth while revealing the characters. Inherent Vice might be the most complete film of 2014, one that fills in all of the details and beautifully captures the milieu of this town at this time in history. PTA's Los Angeles may be littered with ghosts, but the world around them is gloriously funny.

5. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (dir. Isao Takahata)

No film this year was quite as beautiful as The Tale of Princess Kaguya. Isao Takahata’s interpretation of a 10th century Japanese folktale is beautifully drawn in lush watercolors, giving the film a delicate tone. The style of animation is most powerfully rendered in a scene that sees the titular character run from a life she never really wanted in the first place. As she becomes a blur, and magnificent robes fly off her body, the art grows increasingly impressionistic, capturing the chaotic beauty present throughout the story. The tale itself is straightforward yet powerful, culminating in one of the most gutting endings in Studio Ghibli’s history. Before that ending arrives, Kaguya presents a portrait of the sheltered and commandeered lives of women in the time period, though one that resonates through to today. News broke this year that Ghibli may be done making feature films, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya is yet more proof of what a tragedy that would be.

4. Mistaken for Strangers (dir. Tom Berninger)
The rock-doc has few unexplored angles at this point, so it’s welcome when director Tom Berninger largely eschews his focus on the band The National (fronted by his brother, Matt), in order to turn the camera on himself. Though that sounds self-indulgent, it functions as more of a confidence boost, zooming in on the black sheep of the family. Tom has always played second-in-command to Matt, and his screw-ups while functioning as a roadie for the band continue this trend. Then Tom returns home, and the audience gets a full, rich picture of both this brotherly relationship, and the wear-and-tear of Tom’s psyche over the years. In the end, the very fact that this documentary exists is the source of its emotional power. We’re privy to the editing process, and see Tom beginning to believe that his story is also worth telling. These large, weighty themes are couched in hilarious asides and a number of amusing cameos, but the messy heart at the center constantly shines through. This is a love letter to the underdog, made by one who knows the term well.

3. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)
I generally have an allergic reaction to biopics, so you can trust in my word for a movie that could have fallen prey to any number of its genre's cliches: Selma, a film that is tragically relevant today, is a masterpiece. Ava DuVernay's grand achievement centers on Martin Luther King Jr., but as a person rather than a historical figure. The film jostles between his private life and public leadership, fleshing out every corner of someone it is so easy to reduce to a figurehead. This is due in large part to David Oyelowo staggering performance, one that wisely cares more about the soul of King rather than any specific mannerism (though he captures the King we the public know quite beautifully as well). DuVernay and cinematographer Bradford Young give Selma a powerful verve, summoning gorgeous images that most biopics forget to even attempt. A number of scenes are overwhelming on their own (one featuring King comforting an older man after a tragic death is among the most gutting of the year), but Selma, like the movement it captures, is a rolling giant, culminating in a final montage and speech that prove the importance of this man, this cause, and this film.

2. Love is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)
Tender and achingly lived-in, Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange is a portrait of an aging couple in New York City that gives tremendous depth to the seemingly simplistic idea featured in its title. All aspects of love are captured here, from the romantic swooning that somehow lasts decades, to the quiet bonding between two family members from vastly different generations. Every performance is precise and authentic, but John Lithgow gives what might be the best of the year in the way he captures his character’s tics and observed habits without ever once feeling false. The film’s plot is loose; Sachs is mainly interested in the nearly invisible ways we communicate with loved ones, and how love can either burn brighter or fade away with time. A shatteringly powerful ending is but one layer of this near-masterpiece, a film so rich in human experience that it almost hurts to watch.

1. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
“The power of Boyhood is rooted in its main character, but his family provides the scope, showing how the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments of our life wind up changing and defining who we are.”

Read my year-end thoughts at CutPrintFilm (#5 on that list). This isn’t just my favorite of the year, but one of my new all-time loves.

The Next Twenty: 

11. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
12. The Double (dir. Richard Ayoade)
13. Happy Valley (dir. Amir Bar-Lev)
14. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)
15. Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras)
16. The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent)
17. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)
18. Obvious Child (dir. Gillian Robespierre)
19. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (dir. Matt Reeves)
20. Land Ho! (dir. Aaron Katz & Martha Stephens)
21. Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson)
22. Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
23. Life Itself (dir. Steve James)
24. Palo Alto (dir. Gia Coppola)
25. We Are the Best! (dir. Lukas Moodysson)
26. Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman)
27. Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn)
28. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallee)
29. Dear White People (dir. Justin Simien)
30. The Lego Movie (dir. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller)

You can take a look at these films on my Letterboxd list. There, you’ll also find some other picks for my favorite film-related things of the year, including my top twenty performances.

Dec 10, 2014

Best TV of 2014

By Josh Oakley

The following are my favorite television shows from the past year. Lists are in alphabetical order (Mad Men or Orange is the New Black would probably be my number one, but I didn’t feel the urge to rank this year). This has been yet another tremendous year for television, and an especially great one for animation. Without further ado, my picks for the best TV of 2014.

Aug 25, 2014

The Legend of Korra Book 3 Finale

By Nico Danilovich

The two-episode finale of The Legend of Korra’s third season manages to do something that the past two season finales have failed to: satisfy. The entire ordeal is a stressful thrill ride that remains constantly engaging. Focusing on what the show handles best—plot and action—“Enter the Void” and “The Venom of the Red Lotus” are together one extended final showdown between Team Avatar and the Red Lotus. The stakes are high, the environments beautiful, and the battles, soundtrack and plot twists exhilarating. All the important plotlines are wrapped up, including ones pertaining to character development (eg. Bolin unlocks his special earthbending subset skill). Furthermore, the finale is filled with emotional moments that feel completely earned. Suffice to say, the Book 3 finale feels like a finale in all the right ways.

Aug 22, 2014

The Legend of Korra: "The Ultimatum"

By Nico Danilovich

Ever since the Red Lotus attacked the city of Zaofu in “The Terror Within,” The Legend of Korra has fallen into a pattern. The past three episode have all gone as follows: The first act of each episode deals with the immediate, but not always terribly compelling, consequences of the previous episode’s explosive finale. This manages to satisfy the viewer’s natural curiosity about what happens next, a fundamental element of any good serialized plot-based show with frequent cliffhangers. Next, the second act, not yet ready to get to the episode’s point, tries to kill some time with filler. This is what the past three episodes have suffered from the most. Eventually, the third act rolls around, the Red Lotus poses a dire threat, a thrilling battle occurs and the episode finally gets to its main point. For example, the point of “The Stakeout” is to exposit information about the Red Lotus, the point of “Long Live the Queen” is to kill off the Earth Queen, and the point of “The Ultimatum” is to set up the stakes for Book 3’s finale. While the episode does indeed achieve its goal, “The Ultimatum” conforms just a little too much to this formula to feel entirely fresh. Furthermore, it fails to overcome the pitfalls inherent in this particular pattern, resulting in another good but not great installment.

Aug 12, 2014

The Legend of Korra: "Long Live the Queen"

By Nico Danilovich

I can’t help but feel ambivalent about “Long Live the Queen.” Last week’s episode, “The Stakeout,” built up a lot of potential for this episode through the reveal of the Red Lotus and two compelling cliffhangers. In doing so, it also set Team Avatar, the Red Lotus and the Earth Queen all on a crash collision course. Surprisingly, though, most of “Long Live the Queen” works to ensure that Team Avatar sits out on the sidelines. Consequently, much of the installment is comprised of plot contrivance and filler material. Thankfully, however, the Red Lotus and the Earth Queen still come to a head, resulting in a shockingly brutal scene with thrilling consequences.

Aug 4, 2014

The Legend of Korra: "The Stakeout"

By Nico Danilovich

If Book 3 of The Legend of Korra were to have a thesis statement, it would probably be Zaheer’s warning in “The Stakeout” to Korra: “once change begins, it can not be stopped, even by the Avatar.” Not only does this tie together everything seen thus far in Book 3, but it also applies to both Korra and The Last Airbender as a whole. When Aang froze himself in a ball of ice, he left behind an ancient era that had lasted for countless centuries. When he awoke, war had transformed civilization. Industrialization had begun, spiritualism was fading away and new subsets of bending were quickly being discovered. The world simultaneously grew much smaller and much more complex. Though Aang restored balance, change had already begun and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Now, Korra lives in a world where technological innovation flourishes, cultures mix together in the United Republic of Nations and radicals are constantly attempting to revolutionize the status quo. Book 3 is drawing upon multiple seasons from two series to explore its central theme, change. If that’s not smart storytelling, I don’t know what is.

Jul 28, 2014

The Legend of Korra: "The Terror Within"

By Nico Danilovich 

As I’ve discussed at length in my previous reviews, Book 3 of The Legend of Korra has so far been a pronounced improvement over the show’s first two seasons (especially Book 2). “The Terror Within” cements this idea by providing what is the strongest installment of the season thus far. Unfortunately, while Korra seems to be thriving creatively right now, the show is faltering in other regards.