One of the first lines of dialogue featured in Inside Llewyn Davis comes when folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) tells a humble audience, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” Such is the case for Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from Ethan and Joel Coen with a story that’s been told countless times before yet lives as a breath of fresh air in the current climate of cinema. The film centers on Llewyn Davis, an up and coming folk singer in the ‘60s trying to make it in the music industry. He’s grungier than what men were supposed to look like in the early ‘60s and his attitude is more cynical than the average do-gooder prevalent throughout the film. Llewyn is recovering from the loss of his former singing partner, jumping from couch to couch and doing his best to make it as a solo act. He has his fair share of baggage, including a bitter ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan), an unresponsive father and a stubborn cat that isn’t even his. Llewyn is largely unsuccessful in his efforts to make it big, with numerous people telling him he’s making poor decisions. This doesn’t stop him from pressing onward anyway.
We all do what we have to do to get by in life, even if it means pretending we’re someone we’re not to our closest friends and family, and sometimes ourselves. Even if the masquerade is bullshit, people will never stop trying to hide their true selves in order to get by or get ahead. This is the underlying message of American Hustle, a movie that was once more appropriately titled American Bullshit. Set in the 1970s, American Hustle stars Christian Bale as a portly, balding con man named Irving, a man who makes a living from the art of bullshit and hustling. As a child, he drummed up new business for his father’s glass company by running through the neighborhood throwing rocks at windows. Nowadays, he continues in his father’s footsteps with an extra laundromat empire on the side. He meets a kindred spirit named Sydney (Amy Adams) at a party and the two experience mutual attraction in its most intense form. Sydney will do anything to leave behind the life she once led as a stripper, conning her way to a good position at Cosmopolitan magazine while still looking for an excuse to reinvent herself. Irving presents Sydney with a new business endeavor involving the art of promising bank loans to desperate people, taking their down payments and giving them nothing in return. Sydney invents a new persona, Lady Edith of London, and a new business begins to blossom.
2013 in television has been one of the greater years in recent memory, making it particularly hard to narrow the best shows of the year to just 10. From exciting new comedies to consistently amazing dramas, 2013 proved that television is no longer the younger sibling of movies. Some of these shows were better than most movies released this year, and many movie stars have noticed and transferred to television.
Sequels of big-budget franchise films can be tough to get right for a mass audience. People who fell in love with the first film usually want that same exciting feeling again for the second film, which is unfortunately rare for many franchises. The first Pirates of the Caribbean film felt like the start of a exciting new series of movies but the franchise quickly devolved after introducing too many one-dimensional characters and unnecessarily complex plots in the sequels. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire had huge expectations riding on it, with 2012’s The Hunger Games becoming a huge, worldwide box office phenomenon and turning Jennifer Lawrence into America’s Sweetheart. Catching Fire not only had to please fans of The Hunger Games book series by Suzanne Collins, it also had to give non-book readers enough to properly enjoy it without prior knowledge of what was to come. As someone who was a fan of the books, I can say that director Francis Lawrence has created what may be the best possible adaptation of Catching Fire imaginable.
Marvel Studios has really turned into a well-oiled machine in terms of producing successful blockbusters. Their movies are simple enough to be enjoyed by all audiences with varying levels of intelligence but they’re also quick-witted enough to keep the adult audience engaged. Thor: The Dark World is largely another one of Marvel’s brilliantly packaged but ultimately disposable movies. It is like a fast food meal that you enjoy while you’re consuming but does not exactly stimulate you or enrich your life in any way. There are moments in Thor: The Dark World that deal with the complexities that come with relationships, whether they be brotherly or romantic, but those moments are not explored beyond a basic, surface level.
It is notoriously difficult to create films about poetry and writing. Such a cerebral art form is tough to reproduce in a visual format without going fully pretentious and having the characters spout ridiculous, unrealistic lines of dialogue. The visual language of Kill Your Darlings, a film chronicling the early lives of some of the most influential poets of the Beat generation, is almost secondary to the writings themselves. This isn’t a film meant to dazzle with visuals and spectacle. At its best, Kill Your Darlings presents the young poets as they are developing their own rules and limitations for what language can do and discovering who they are in the process. It is a character-driven drama that wants you to feel the motivations of each of its many characters, even if its grander ambitions prove too much for it to handle.
When looking at the subject matter of a film, it is tempting to judge its merits on the importance of the story its telling. Dramas about war are rarely bashed in the critical mainstream and historical epics are generally given good reviews as long as the subject feels important and necessary. I believe that this was the case in 2012 when Lincoln achieved exalted status despite being mostly speechifying men sitting in rooms and nothing else. If a film presents all the right parts: human struggle, evil oppressors, lots of crying, etc., it tends to be praised as one of the best films of the year. Underneath all those necessary parts, however, is sometimes very little of substance, making the film seem like torture porn just for the sake of it. It is for these reasons that I went into 12 Years a Slave with a skeptical eye. The film had been praised as the contender to beat at the Oscars and was being tauted as a life-changing experience by some critics. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have another Lincoln experience, in which people would make grand, overwrought proclamations about slavery set to a sickeningly sweet score.
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