#5 – Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)
The allure of seeing Adam Rodriguez and Channing Tatum in the nude was all it took to convince millions of people to flock to one of this summer’s most talked about box office successes, Magic Mike. The hunky cast’s bulging biceps and bulging…well…bulges (“bulgi” ? Is that the plural form) came flying out of left field from director Steven Soderbergh, whose uniquely varied oeuvre includes everything from the bio-pocalypse (Contagion) to a porn star making her “acting” debut (Sasha Grey in the fantastic Girlfriend Experience). Whatever his subjects are, Soderbergh’s perspective has always been dark and dramatic, but here he goes all softie on us in his latest release, which is surprisingly a saccharine love story disguised as a tanned-and-toned exploitation of the male body. The vibe is part “Miami Vice,” part Showgirls, but with only a fraction of the campy silliness of both; Magic Mike stands erect (I’m sorry, I had to) on its own as a compelling exploration of gender roles and the amount of power & control either sex is willing to sacrifice in order to reach a happy medium in any given relationship.
#4 – Hope Springs (David Frankel)
Meryl Streep masturbation scene. Are you sufficiently intrigued? If your answer is “no,” then Hope Springs is your kind of movie. The subject matter sounds as provocative as that image does. An aging couple (Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) seek to stimulate their dying sex life at a week-long couples therapy retreat, following a step-by-step path to sexual bliss forged by a renowned therapist (Steve Carrell). The meatier bits of the film, directed by David Frankel (who catapulted Streep to an Oscar nomination for 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada), exude a tangible sense of defeat we often associate with getting older and “losing” our sexual appeal; but the juiciest parts don’t necessarily involve any wrinkle-on-wrinkle sexcapades, either. Instead, we’re treated to a delectable questioning of what it means to “age” or, in the case of Hope Springs, merely meander from the trail a much younger version of ourselves traversed and tucked away, but never forgot. Meryl Streep masturbating is just hilarious icing on the cake.
#3 – The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)
The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.
#2 – Celeste & Jesse Forever (Lee Toland Krieger)
I’ve really been digging all of these actress-screenwriter powerhouses taking Hollywood by storm as of late. Kristen Wiig made perhaps the biggest splash of them all last year with her mega-hit Bridesmaids, and Lena Dunham (hot off the heels of writing and directing Tiny Furniture) stormed cable television sets across the country with the best show of the year, “Girls.” Rashida Jones (of “Parks & Recreation” and “The Office” fame) joins their ranks as a fresh-minded, endearing actress-screenwriter with “Celeste & Jesse Forever,” a quirky “female” romantic comedy that’s content with anything but sitting in the corner and simply looking pretty. Jones’ performance and writing shows pure beauty of the movies; as entertainment (some of the most hilarious juvenile humor I’ve ever encountered can be found here) and mirrored life, hand in hand, in a film that refuses to give in to stereotypes of a crumbling relationship. Celeste and Jesse were once a couple, now separated but still very much “together” seeing as they live in the same house, hang out, and spend what seems to be every waking moment in each other’s presence. Jesse seems to find letting Celeste go a bit easier than the other way around, but that doesn’t stop the fairer half of the duo from “accepting” her place as being forever known as “ex-wife” in casual introductions when they show up to the same party. Jones’ writing here blazes through the bullshit of Hollywood romance, exposing us to an unconventional relationship with fresh eyes, allowing us to see anew something we thought we’d long become familiar with, sort of how Celeste traverses through Jones’ breathtakingly beautiful script.
#1 – Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
In these times of political and social turmoil, a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild comes as a much-needed dose of pure inspiration. Telling the story of a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in the fictional land known only as “The Bathtub” (think Katrina-era, low-income New Orleans), Beasts of the Southern Wild pits a tiny soul against a big world, one that’s far too encompassing for her to understand on “adult” terms. Instead, she resorts to talking to animals, indulging in fantasy (even though the world around her just wants her to die because of her social status), and enjoying the simple pleasures of being a kid; anything to escape the oppressive, prejudiced society that exists on the other side of The Bathtub’s walls. But she’s a child who, by all means, shouldn’t find pleasure in anything at all. The Bathtub is a destitute place, with the majority of residents living in run-down huts in the middle of the woods, dining on raw fish and crustaceans, and whose homes give the people on “Hoarders” a serious run for their money; but that’s just the thing, while Bathtub residents have no money, they make the most of life for themselves. Hushpuppy tells us that The Bathtub has more parties than any other place in the world and that its residents are the happiest. Aligned with her innocent perspective and unflinchingly optimistic spirit, we believe it. The film’s conclusion reads depressing and inspirational all at once, and drives the impact of this powerful parable home exquisitely. The film has a heart and soul that drips with sympathy for anyone who can relate to social oppression, but the true driving force behind Beasts’ greatness is the radiant spirit exuding from that of little Quvenzahne Wallis (practice the name—you’re going to be seeing it a lot come Oscar season), who plays Hushpuppy with a quiet ferocity that manifests in moments of haunting authenticity and the earnest, undying will of a child making something great out of what she’s given, which becomes of tangible importance to the finished product of the film she’s playing in as well.
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