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9 stars

How to Train Your Dragon 2

By now surely they've learned all they're going to learn

By now surely everyone's learned what they're going to learn

dir: Dean DeBlois

It seems perhaps a tad inappropriate to keep calling these sequels How to Train Your Dragon etc, since, presumably, the dragons should be fully trained by now, yeah?

And if they’re not trained by now, they’re never going to be trained, face it. Some animals, and some people, just can’t be domesticated. Perhaps The Continuing Education of Flying Mythical Reptiles didn’t sit as well with the marketing executives at DreamWorks as a potential title.

But it has my vote for best alternative title. Well, maybe that or “Looky here! What’s that thing over there, proof that Creationists are right?” gets my vote.

I’m going to try to avoid hyperbolic language and such when talking about this flick or the original one, because it's tempting, and it's really easy. Thus I shouldn't give in. I will say that the first one was pretty amazing. This sequel is, for me, almost at least as good, if not an advancement in the story that belies its supposed sequel-dependent nature.

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Her

Her

Him. It's all about him, really, more so than Her.
Isn't that always the way?

dir: Spike Jonze

That poster, with Joaquin Phoenix and his moustache, staring out at us, we who are looking at his poster. The ‘us’ I’m guessing is predominately expected to be women, as we gaze into his plaintive, soulful eyes, and we’re expected to ignore the fact that his moustache is terrible and it’s no longer Movember, thus there’s no excuses any more.

But there’s even more going on in that poster. His eyes aren’t just plaintive, suggesting longing and the capacity for deep emotion; he’s imploring us, he’s pleading with us not just to watch the film, but to accept what it is that the pervert’s moustache is hiding.

That he is about to, or get into, a pretty weird relationship. Don’t judge me, just love me, he seems to be pleading. Because it could have happened to you too.

Her is, perversely, one of the most sweetly romantic and beautiful films that I’ve watched all year, or at least from last year. It’s the sweetest film I’ve seen this year, but this year is only a handful of days old, so that’s not saying much. Like all of Spike Jonze's films, all of which I've loved beyond rationality, there's some fundamental oddness at play, but there's enough focus placed on the crafting of the themes and the various scenes, and the performances especially that combine to render the parts a workable "whole".

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Before Midnight

Before Midnight

Run away before midnight, because you'll both turn into nagging pumpkins

dir: Richard Linklater

For many of us, at least those of us who have seen and loved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the prospect of a third instalment is both thrilling and terrifying.

To see what has become of Jesse and Celine is both too intriguing and almost too daunting, because there’s a good reason why romantic stories, romantic movies at least, end where they end. They end after the grand gesture at the end of the movie, the great declarations of love, and just at the beginning of the presumed Happily Ever After begins. Which will last forever, don’t you know.

They don’t show us what happens afterwards, as the two people brought together by lust and amazement start getting bogged down by the mundanity of the every day, as they argue about money, about who caused the scratch on the car and who pissed on the toilet seat.

That would kind of kill the fantasy for us, since all romance is a fantasy. And the two lovebirds would cease, immediately, being these embodiments of love, youth, beauty, and would become earthbound clay and muck just like the rest of us.

Before Midnight gives us Jesse and Celine in their forties, eighteen years after they first met in Prague, nine years after they reunited in Paris, nine years after their lives together began in earnest.

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Mud

Mud

He ain't no Mudhoney, that's for sure

dir: Jeff Nichols

Mud continues a fairly stellar run for an actor people wrote off as a vacant himbo jock a long time ago. 'People' being me. And yet somehow, inexplicably, the Renaissance of Mathew McConaughey continues.

But it's not even his film. Mud firmly belongs to one of the two boys who are the film's leads, not to the character of the title. It's a coming-of-age story for a boy called Ellis, a boy living a hard scrabble life on the banks of the Mississippi River, amongst and amidst a whole bunch of riverbillies or swampbillies, whatever the right term is. And they all earn our sympathies, every one of them. Every single goddamn one of them.

Ellis is the one going through the grinding agony of finding out that life is one crushing, disillusioning disappointment and letdown after another. And there's some joy, beauty and hope along the way.

It has nothing to do with Winter's Bone, another stellar flick about a young kid trying to get by in an impoverished and shitty world, but it reminded me of it a bit. It has another strong performance by a teenager in a complicated role.

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Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra

This is the least gay moment of the whole film

dir: Steven Soderbergh

I never thought a biopic about Liberace would turn out to be one of the best flicks of the year. I can't imagine that anyone thought a flick about Liberace could be one of the best flicks of any year.

I don't think even Liberace would have predicted it, but, based on the character here, he probably would have felt entitled to it all the same.

I mean, how many people even remember him?

People of a certain age, I guess. If you were old enough to see him on the telly, and his twinkly smile, and the countless references / mentions of him in a pop cultural sense that seemed to pop up all over the place in the late 1970 / early 80s, then he would still come as something of a revelation to you, as played by Michael Douglas.

Did you know, for example, that Liberace was gay?

I know, I know, it shocked me too. Apparently, a lot of people, including perhaps some of the guys Liberace was having sex with, didn't realise he was gay.

This virtuoso pianist who wore extravagant mink coats and costumes dripping with jewels, from what this film says, turns out not to be the paragon of heterosexual conformity that he portrayed himself as being.

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The Queen of Versailles

The Queen of Versailles

These people are you superiors in every possible way.
Don't doubt it for a second

dir: Lauren Greenfield

It takes a certain kind of character to handle being wealthy and powerful. Few people have the stones for it. It’s not for common mortals like us to be rich and famous, no. We would buckle under the tremendous weight of such awful responsibility. The rest of us peasants should be grateful that we don’t live under the dread of such burdens.

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a downside for these brave people. They have to develop heroic defence mechanisms to protect themselves from the harshness of reality and the envy of the lower orders. As an example, you might have noticed that whenever a celebrity or wealthy person does something obviously, demonstrably wrong, then any criticism levelled at them is dismissed as hate from the “haters”. Haters, you see, are the envious, poisonous masses who dream up all sorts of untrue perfidy in order to bring down their betters. It’s the only explanation.

It’s the only way to make sense of a reality that previously seemed to bend to your every whim. If things always seemed to go your way because you were powerful and top of your game, and that your self-directed wilful free ride somehow ends, it’s because of the haters. It can’t be because you did something wrong, ever. It can’t be that you were complicit in a corrupt system, never that.

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Amour

Amour

Maybe if I loved you just a little bit more,
then everything would be okay

dir: Michael Haneke

That guy, what do they call him? Oh yeah, the Grim Reaper.

As if life itself isn’t enough of a reminder of it, this movie reminds us why the Reaper is always preceded by the adjective ‘Grim’.

We live our lives knowing that they will end, but, to function every day, to find meaning in the little things, we have to push that thought and its attendant fear out of our minds. I’m not pretending I came up with the Denial of Death concept, or that I’m Ernest Becker. I wish. Things I’d do with all those royalties.

But we know, we know. Everyone one of us, everyone we know, who we love or hate, all of us go into that great oblivion, and thinking about it too much crushes us.

So we watch a film about two seniors, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), people who’ve lived fulfilling and meaningful lives together, who’ve aged the way we all do, who still, somehow, thought the ‘end’, whatever form that would take, would somehow skip over them, at least for a while longer.

But ‘this’ is ‘it’. To be betrayed by one’s body despite not having done anything ‘wrong’. It is to be helpless in the face of mortality, like we all are, but still feel the inherent unfairness of it, because it’s always going to feel unfair.

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Les Misèrables

Les Miserables

Don't suffer the little children: save them
from the Sacha Baron Cohens and Helena
Bonham Carters of this world

dir: Tom Hooper

This might shock you, or anyone else, but I thought Les Misèrables was glorious.

What, I’m not allowed to like a musical? You, of all people, are going to cast aspersions on my sexuality?

Fah, well, obviously I’m not totally comfortable with going out on a limb and praising a hellishly successful film based on a hellishly successful West End/Broadway musical based on a book no-one finishes reading, but I’m a rebel like that. It’s just my way.

I’ve never seen nor heard anything from the musical my entire adult life. If I did (which is probably the case; it’s been impossible to ignore at certain times), then it slid off my brain like lube off a duck’s back, being a topic I never had interest in. 1980s musicals all come down to a horrible agglomeration of Cats / Evita / Starlight Express / Phantom of the Opera, none of which ever sparked any aspect of my curiousity, and I probably know more about rugby than I know about those kinds of icky musicals.

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Perks of Being a Wallflower

If only for one night, at least for
one moment,
we
are
infinite

dir: Steven Chbosky

I’m a romantic, but I’m also fairly cynical. I watch a lot of movies, a hell of a lot, as you can probably see from just scrolling down a bit. Most movies don’t move me. Most movies provoke little more than mild interest while their playing, and I sometimes get that curious sensation of walking out of a cinema or pressing stop on the Blu-Ray player or switching cable channels, and being unable to remember, for the life of me, what I just watched.

Few movies move me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower moved me, a lot.

Why do they keep making films and television shows about high school, about coming of age? Because those of us who survive it remember it our whole lives, and we’re always hoping for some way to go back and get it right.

My heart was breaking for Charlie (Logan Lerman) within minutes of the film starting, and then, for the rest of its duration, it kept rebuilding that heart meticulously before smashing it again and again. I felt so much for this character that I started finding it absurd that I was so moved by it.

I’m not so easily moved to tears, but some elements of the human condition appeal to me endlessly, and always will, I hope. Charlie is about to start high school in Pittsburgh, I think, in the early 90s, and he’s dreading it. He has a number of reasons, the main one being that he’s a wallflower, someone who feels they are perpetually on the outside, looking in.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Where the Southern Wild Things Are

dir: Benh Zeitlin

It’ll come as no surprise to you, dear reader, that I don’t always understand the films I watch. I watch a lot of films, but that doesn’t mean I’m any better at deciphering them than anyone else, including and especially you.

Often that lack of understanding infuriates me, and makes me think less of the flick and the people involved, because I blame them for it. Other times it’s just a reason to be bored, which negates any effort to expend any brain power nutting it out because it doesn’t seem worthy of such labours.

Other times that confusion, if that’s what it is, doesn’t matter, and is of a piece with what I’m watching, and instead of causing me to pull away because of it, it allows me to let go, at least a little bit, of the nagging, querulous critic in my head, and just be embraced by the film. Some of my favourite films defy logical, precise, plodding explanation as to everything that happens in it, what it all means, how it happened or why.

I’m not saying that Beasts of the Southern Wild is now one of my favourite films of all time (it’s a pretty long and potentially embarrassing list), but it manages to capture some of the elements that provoke deep feeling in me, or at least it provoked in me some of the feelings that I mentioned previously.

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