Who Beat Lincoln? My Top 10 Movies of 2012 begins now…
(DISCLAIMER: I am not an official film critic. Or an unofficial one. I go to more movies than the average person but I don’t see everything, or almost everything, like critics do. If you read this list and say “Where’s ‘Dark Knight Rises?’ “ I never got around to seeing it. But it wouldn’t have made it, anyway. And if you read this list and say, “Where’s “The Avengers?’ ‘’ In that case, you’ve come to the wrong place but I couldn’t begin to tell you where to look.)
Since this was an excellent year and a few movies I really liked fell out of the top 10, I have expanded this to a top 20. I couldn’t have come close to doing that last year and, in fact, it would be impossible most years for me.
20. HITCHCOCK – If there are three films I know nearly every piece of dialogue from, it would be “It’s a Wonderful Life,’’ “Taxi Driver’’ and “Psycho.’’ The first remain an annual event. The other two relate more to a slightly disturbed childhood or young adult life. But since “Hitchcock’’ was ostensibly about the problems Alfred Hitchcock had making “Psycho’’ and how he was going to get the shower scene past censors, it had a chance to be great. Missed by a mile. I knew more about “Psycho” going into the theatre than I did coming out. Wasted efforts by some good actors.
19. THE GREY – I think I saw this last January so I’m putting it on list. Lots of wolves. Lots of snow. Lots of Liam Neeson showing toughness. And a surprise ending. But not much else.
18. MY WEEKEND WITH MARILYN – It seems like DMN film critic Chris Vognar (who you really should follow on twitter and read) called this a “bauble’’ and that’s exactly right. Michelle Williams does a great job playing Marilyn. Kenneth Branagh portrays Laurence Olivier as about what I expect he might have been like. But there’s not a heck of a lot here.
17. PROMETHEUS – I think I was supposed to like this more than I did. Maybe it was the sofas at the Inwood that nearly put me to sleep. It wasn’t bad or anything but I pretty much left the movie feeling the same emotions that Charlize Theron displayed throughout. Not a big sci-fi guy unless McCoy is saying, “I’m a Doctor, Jim, not a bricklayer.”
16. SEVEN PSYCOPATHS – Had more funny moments than expected but if you saw the preview, you got the basics. A movie being very cool about being a movie. For “Boardwalk Empire” fans, a rare (but brief) chance to see the long lost Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) along with not so rare appearance for Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) who was also in “Lincoln” and “Hitchcock.”
15. THE MASTER – See, I told you I wasn’t a critic. If I wrote for Rolling Stone, I guess I’d have it No. 1. I thought a lot about P.T. Anderson’s film after seeing it. For about half the time I was watching the film, I liked it. Loved Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack (but that’s a given as a Radiohead fan). But by the end, I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one that thought this made no sense at all and there was nothing here. I realize others see it quite differently, even consider it a masterpiece. But when I think about “There Will Be Blood,’ “Magnolia’’ and “Boogie Nights” I wonder how this falls into the same category with Anderson’s previous great works. For me, it doesn’t come close.
14. LOOPER – The rare time travel movie where I walk out saying, “I think I understood that!” Nice work by Bruce Willis.
13. FLIGHT – Really enjoyed Denzel Washington’s portrayal of a high-functioning alcoholic who has a chilling ability to lie to those around him (a subject with which I am not unfamiliar). Really enjoyed Don Cheadle because he is great at everything, even if it’s commercials for the World Series. But then about every 20 minutes I think they felt they were losing the audience so they popped John Goodman onto the screen performing in a completely different movie. Ends up all over the map but certainly worth seeing for Denzel in a different role.
12. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED – Love April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza) on “Parks and Recreation” and she’s more than capable of carrying this indie film from start to finish. Won a screenwriting award at Sundance.
11. LIFE OF PI – I suspect the million readers of this book would rank this much higher. I missed the book. And I liked the film a lot, and I’m not a 3-D moviegoer at all. The only thing I didn’t care for would require a spoiler alert so I’ll just pass and say it was very good and would make top 10 for me almost any other year.
10. KILLER JOE – Not for everyone. But it was a big year for Matthew McConaughey and this role played a huge part. It’s dark. And it’s set in Dallas although if you recognize any of the sets, more power to you. Not sure if any of it was filmed here. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) was still alive. But he’s clearly still determined to scare the crap out of his audience or at least bother them to no end. I wasn’t a regular at KFC before this movie, and this film did not encourage me to give its products another try. The one thing I was thinking afterwards was that, knowing how many takes are required in some films, how much fried chicken Gina Gershon had to ingest.
9. SKYFALL – Never expected to see a James Bond film on this list. I pretty much checked out of this series when Sean Connery did. But Sam Mendes directed the very good “Road to Perdition” and “Revolutionary Road” and my favorite film of the last 15 years (“American Beauty”) so I gave it a chance. The 2-1/2 hours went by quickly. Hard to make a fight scene we haven’t witnessed before but the one in a Shanghai skyscraper at night filled with glass and reflections was just outstanding.
8. DJANGO UNCHAINED – It’s not as good as “Inglorious Basterds’’ but it’s still damn good. And that’s despite the fact that Quentin Tarantino’s depiction of violence always (for me) takes away from any film because it’s so over the top, who can take any of the rest of it seriously? People don’t explode like hamburger when they get shot…except here. I know Spike Lee’s criticism of Tarantino turning the slavery issue into a Sergio Leone western, and I understand that point as much as I can without being able to empathize with it. There is a certain discomfort about watching so many white actors dropping the N-word so cavalierly (it is 1858 in Mississippi, after all) and a mostly white audience laughing along with it. But Tarantino isn’t much for social causes. Spike Lee should understand better than I do that he makes films for people to listen to and think about. Tarantino makes movies for people to look at and say “Hey, I get that obscure reference.” Beyond that, Christoph Waltz is just too good throughout for this movie to fall out of my top 10 despite some reservations about it as a whole.
7. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK – It’s funny that a new movie can feel almost dated because of the main characters’ love for Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson. I’m still amazed that Jennifer Lawrence can possibly be the same young woman who was at the center of “Winter’s Bone’’ two years ago. If you saw it when it came out, you surely noticed how uncertain audiences were to laugh at certain scenes or lines. That’s not a bad thing. That’s real life.
6. SMASHED – This film might have been in Dallas for a week before disappearing, I’m not sure. It’s a shame. I would have hoped Aaron Paul (Jesse in “Breaking Bad”) would have been enough to pull in the audience, but the star is Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She plays his young wife and is someone who realizes they have a drinking problem and decides to stop and finds that stopping might end one very large problem but opens up unexpected new ones with the people around her (another topic with which I have gained some familiarity). Go see Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson) in a completely different role.
5. SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN – This would have been an amazing documentary even if the man from Detroit known to almost no one in this country but almost everyone in South Africa named Rodriguez couldn’t sing. But he can. His sound is a cross between Dylan and Jose Feliciano, and he made two albums in the ‘70s that did nothing here so he vanished back into construction work and occasionally ran for political office in Detroit while he was somehow becoming a superstar in South Africa. Years later he got the applause he deserved there. Played at House of Blues here a couple of months ago and, except for the usual assholes talking throughout the show, it was a solid performance.
4. ARGO – Who had Ben Affleck on their list of “Next Marginal Actor Slated to Become Great Director?” OK, he’s better than a marginal actor even if he fell into some bad habits after making it big. When I think of “Good Will Hunting” although it’s really Matt Damon’s film, the scene I always remember is Affleck’s monologue near the end telling Damon he doesn’t want to see him hanging out and drinking beer and watching Patriot games in 20 years. “Argo” is an amazing tale set during the Iran hostage crisis. Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston (Walter White in “Breaking Bad”) carry it even if Affleck is the central character. Of all the nervous moments I had watching movies this year, No. 1 without a doubt had to be the “get that plane off the ground” feeling in this one.
3. MOONRISE KINGDOM – I was temporarily stripped of my hipster card by local restaurateur and full-time film buff Josh Babb (Kenichi, Shooters) a few years ago when I admitted to not liking “Royal Tenenbaums.’’ I hope to get it restored by placing Wes Anderson’s best film at this lofty spot. It’s about young love and awkwardness and scout camp and other things I can’t begin to explain. It has a host of big-name stars (Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton) but the kids at the heart of the film are the reason you love it.
2. LINCOLN – Ranking somewhere alongside “Miami Heat’s chances to make the playoffs” you will find “Daniel Day Lewis’ chances of winning an Oscar for Best Actor.’’ To say he gets Lincoln just right is to suggest I know what Lincoln was like. I’m old but quite that old. But his is a performance – amidst some great supporting work by David Straithairn and Tommy Lee Jones – that makes you say, “That’s got to be just about right.’’ You watch Lewis getting into one of Lincoln’s storytelling moments and start thinking, “Are the other actors on screen scared to death of screwing this up?” The shouting scene between which Lewis and Sally Field as his troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is as powerful as anything on the screen all year.
1. BERNIE – I have a very test for determining which movie was the best of a given year. It’s the one I went to the Magnolia to see three times. That’s in part because I saw it first by myself, then knew I needed to take my kids to see it. Rachel was in Europe, so I took Ben. Then when she got back, Ben and I took Rachel. Good grief, my parents pretty much dropped out of the movie-going business 20 years ago, and they went and loved it. Obviously, Jack Black and McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine are excellent at the core of a movie based on a Skip Hollandsworth Texas Monthly article about a murder in Carthage, Texas. But the East Texas townspeople shot in Richard Linklater’s documentary style – some real townspeople, a few actors like scene-stealer Sonny Carl Davis – generate even more laughs than the major stars. Yes, it’s a murder-comedy and it’s based on real events. And it’s as good as Jack Black will get I’m afraid. And I wouldn’t mind seeing it a fourth time this afternoon.
Who Beat Lincoln? My Top 10 Movies of 2012 begins now…
For those interested in an update on the book, there is essentially none. A bunch of publishers that had expressed either mild interest in or appreciation for what I was trying to do were contacted and told things like more than 5,000 people read a chapter in a single day after one post on twitter. And they all (apparently) said some variation of ”Hey, that’s great, good luck with the book.”
I don’t know enough about publishing a book — or anything about it really — to say that these people are all idiots. So I’ll never say that. They are apprehensive about the ability of a sportswriter’s memoir to sell in large numbers at a time when people aren’t reading newspapers. I get that. There’s some logic to those concerns. And if that’s all this book amounts to, a collection of chapters about how I became a “big-time” sportswriter and talking dog on TV, then they won’t miss out on much. I’d like to think it’s going to mean a little more than that, not just to those with drinking problems or those who know someone with drinking problems (that’s pretty much everyone, right?) but to others who just want to have some laughs at my expense.
Anyway, the bottom line is it will probably be an e-book early next year, and that’s fine with me. In the meantime, I’m going to post some thoughts on the films “Flight” and “Smashed” which deal with alcoholics in very different ways along with a chapter that won’t make the book that I wrote two years ago. It might sneak in as a few paragraphs but I’ll just run it in full here after I say a few things about the two recent films.
This movie is 2 hours, 18 minutes long, and if I could hack it down to about an hour, 40, it would be excellent. There’s too much crap in it and whenever the director Robert Zemeckis (who has masted the art of very scary plane crashes, see “Castaway” as well) senses the audience might get bored, he puts John Goodman on the screen who’s playing in an entirely different film from what Don Cheadle and others have in mind.
The main point for our purposes here is that Denzel Washington does a great job playing a high-functioning alcoholic. I think I know what these people should look like up there on the screen, I was one down here on the ground for most of a couple of decades. I like the smaller touches in this film that they get right. At one point, Denzel is throwing away all the liquor in a farmhouse before he realizes it’s pointless because he has already been drug-tested. After throwing away all the good stuff in the house, he’s in the garage where he pulls out a small bottle of Gordon’s (it might be gin instead of vodka, I’m not sure). Gordon’s is cheap-ass stuff that you stash for a rainy day. I had a bottle of Gordon’s vodka in the top of the pantry for years. Not the same bottle, mind you. You tell people that you drink Grey Goose or Ciroc, but at home, alone, you’re just as comfortable grabbing the old Gordon’s and working your way towards oblivion.
Denzel is a great liar in this film. We all are when we drink. We become very, very good at it, so good that in time the lies you know you can get away with feel no different from the truth itself. You become just as indignant when a friend or colleague challenges you on a lie that you know they can’t prove as you do on the most obvious facts.
And (spoiler alert) I would also agree with Denzel’s character, Whip, that his drinking prior to the plane crash had nothing to do with the crash. The jet was falling apart much faster than Denzel was. And a person on a limited but familiar number of drinks can continue to function in many situations the same way they would if they were sober. Mind you, I did not just come out in favor of drunk driving or, in this case, drunk piloting. As the film goes along, it becomes harder and harder to feel any sympathy or empahty for Denzel’s character. He destroys those around him in search of alcohol. It’s not a pretty pattern of behavior but it’s a familiar one to some of us.
I like this much smaller film far more. I’m not familiar with the actress who carries the film, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She looks a little like Alison Brie of Community (Annie) or Mad Men (Pete Campbell’s wife), and she plays the wife of Emmy winner Aaron Paul (Jesse in “Breaking Bad”). I also need to tell you Nick Offerman plays a very un-Ron Swanson character (Parks and Rec) in this movie.
But the young couple at the center of the movie are people we’ve all known, people maybe we still know, people we may have been. Kate and Charlie are young, they don’t have kids or a lot of responsibilities and they like to get hammered. One night Kate comes home — or actually she comes home the next morning after smoking crack with a stranger and spending the night in a park – and realizes she may, in fact, have a problem. Charlie tries to impress upon her that the crack smoking was the problem.
“But the drinking leads to everything stupid that I do,” Kate tells him.
That, of course, leads us to the central argument around drinking, around the legalization of marijuana, around addictive behavior in general and that is — what leads to what?
In my case, drinking never led to smoking crack like Kate or doing cocaine like Denzel’s character, Whip. Beer led to vodka and that did enough damage on its own without taking subsequent steps into alternative substances.
Kate reluctantly goes to an AA meeting. She doesn’t really buy into what they’re selling but eventually comes around through the support of another woman in the group. The story Kate tells the group is a familiar one. “It seems like every time I drink something awful happens. All the shit I used to laugh off isn’t really funny anymore. The dumb drunk stuff has gone from embarrassing to scary.”
Some of us are in our 50s by the time we make this connection. Kate does it in her 20s. That, of course, is not the end of the story which is what makes “Smashed” such an effective and honest film. It’s hard enough — really really hard in many cases — for a person with a drinking problem to admit it, confront it and deal with it, whether that means going to rehab, attending AA meetings or just dealing with it on a personal level as I have done. But, as Kate learns, that’s just the beginning. It’s only solving (or attempting to solve) one problem while creating unforeseen new ones.
Charlie wants to be supportive of his wife. But he sure doesn’t want to quit partying with his buddies. Drinking is such an integral part of our lives and our relationships that when it changes drastically for one person, the entire dynamic is altered. I suppose a relationship can work if one person is sober and the other’s a heavy drinker if it starts out that way and is understood in those terms from the beginning. Maybe.
But when one person blows the whistle before the other is ready to call off the party, that relationship is going to have a difficult time surviving. As Kate says, “Suddenly I have all these other problems now that drinking isn’t the problem.”’
Ultimately, although we may see a ray of hope for their relationship at the end — maybe – Kate’s conclusion is not that different from my own.
“My life is really different than it was. I live alone. I’m bored a lot more,” she says. “I’m really grateful for this boring new life of mine.”
And I’m grateful for honest, heartfelt films about alcholism like “Smashed.”
Drunk on Sports: Interlude:
A one-year anniversary, a conclusion, a brief look at the worst Oscar award ever
I remember the awkwardness of my stepmother handing my dad a glass of champagne when my son, Ben, was born at Baylor Hospital on Jan. 9, 1995. Willis was a little more than a year into sobriety and regular AA meetings that he still attends.
So what exactly is the proper celebration for sobriety?
We celebrate everything else with shots, with champagne, with forgettable and (often regrettable) toasts. But how best to celebrate a life newly devoted to…the avoidance of nightly celebrations?
On May 9, 2010 – one year since my last drink — Megan said she wanted to take me out to eat. Anywhere I wanted to go. We were barely going out at that point as she was ready to get on with her life. Our 24-year age difference was never the factor people assume such a gap has to produce. Steely Dan’s lyrics to “Hey Nineteen‘’ (“That’s Aretha Franklin, she don’t remember Queen of Soul’) never applied. As a matter of fact, Steely Dan was her favorite band when we met. How many 27-year-olds can you say that about?
But she was pushing 31 now – ancient by her standards – and ready to get married, start a family and do all the other things I could not accommodate. She was about to move on, and I cannot fault her for that (although I’m pretty sure I tried). Even if we weren’t really going out on a regular basis, the first year of sobriety was made easier by her occasional presence in my life. And I thank her for that.
She took me to Cyclon Anaya’s, a kind of upscale Tex-Mex place on Oak Lawn. A couple of years before, going there for a couple of margaritas at the bar, then some sangria (to slow the pace a bit) during dinner on the patio would have been the perfect start to a great evening.
Or a perfect start to an evening about to go terribly wrong. One never knows about these things.
Instead, I was fine drinking iced tea and, I believe, one non-alcoholic beer. It was a good evening, not great. Hey, in this life “good” is good enough. It’s one of the most difficult things to learn, but once you accept that those great highs can only be accompanied by an equal number of miserable and sometimes disastrous, even deadly lows, a “good” time is more than just ok.
For a more extensive celebration of the one-year anniversary of being free of alcohol’s grip, I decided to watch some drunks on film. I wanted to see what if anything I was missing. No, that’s not quite right.
I wanted to see a portrayal of miserable drunks in movies. That was the intent. What I got was one of the most miserable portrayals of a drunk, one that was unfathomably rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar in 1995. More on that in a moment.
I rented three movies – “Sideways,’’ “Barfly’’ and “Leaving Las Vegas.’’
The only one I hadn’t seen was “Sideways’’ and I was a bit misinformed as to what it was. Yes, Paul Giamatti and his buddy, Thomas Haden Church, drink a lot of wine and occasionally make poor decisions on an inebriated tour of the wine country.
But these aren’t the drunks I know. I spent those two years covering the Giants and enjoyed the three or four visits to the wine country that my young wife, Lori, and I made there, but I have lived in Texas the past 23 years and for most of my life. This is the land of beer drinkers and shot takers.
This is not wine-sipping country.
Anyway, I think Alexander Payne’s films (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) are all more beloved by critics than by film-goers although I thought “The Descendants” was probably the best of the films nominated for best picture in 2011 (though not as good as “Drive,’’ “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’ and “Take Shelter’’). I’ll save all that for my next book, “Why Sportswriters Get Awards Voting Right Compared to the Idiots in Hollywood.”
Next I watched “Barfly’ which I remembered as being good but wasn’t sure how good. Who knows? There’s a pretty good chance I was drinking the first time I watched it at home, don’t you think?
It’s impressive that an actor such as Mickey Rourke, who’s not exactly afraid to overdo it or steal a scene, can get a drunk so accurately at the same time. I think drunks are difficult to play on TV or in film. Most actors get it wrong, slurring words or wobbling across the screen.
(If you want to see two people who get it right time after time, watch Amy Poehler and especially Rashida Jones on one of my favorite shows, “Parks and Recreation.” They do it a lot, and they nail it every time.)
Now you might be cynical and suggest Rourke was just playing himself. How much credit does a man who’s led such a wheels-off life get for playing a wheels-off character? Regardless, there are many great moments, and much of it is a tribute to the screenplay, not just Rourke’s performance.
Henry (Rourke) spends most of the movie getting beat up by Eddie (Frank Stallone of all people) and hanging out with fellow barfly Wanda (Faye Dunaway). I’ve seen people that maintain the perpetual half-drunkenness of Henry, able to function enough to get to the bar, to occasionally pay for their drinks but not quite capable of functioning in society.
“I can’t stand people,’’ Wanda tells him when they first meet at the bar. “I hate them. Do you hate them?”
Henry: “No….but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.’’
Henry delivers all of his little speeches in the film in the same sing-song style.
On why he doesn’t stop drinking: “Anybody can do that. Anybody can be a non-drinker. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes ENDURANCE. Endurance is more important than truth.’’
On not having a job: “You know somebody laid down this rule where everybody’s got to DO something, everybody’s got to BE somebody….a dentist, a glider pilot, a narc, a janitor, a preacher. Sometimes I just get tired of thinking all the things I don’t wanna DO, all the things I don’t wanna BE, all the places I don’t wanna GO, like India. Like getting my teeth cleaned.’’
Near the end, the woman who’s trying to encourage Henry’s work as a writer says that being a drunk “seems like a limited world, is there anything else to it?’’
Henry responds, “No. Just self-sufficient illusion.’’
Although the fights look like Hollywood fights, there’s never a single moment in the bar, The Golden Horn (“A Friendly Place”), that comes across as unreal. There’s never a shot where I think Rourke is anything but a genuine drunk.
Maybe I haven’t known people quite as destitute as Henry and Wanda. But I’ve certainly met a few just this side of desperate, folks whose local bar was their home away from home and for them, sadly, it was a happier place than their home. At least that’s how they envisioned the bar at the start of each day.
On the other hand, there’s not a single minute in “Leaving Las Vegas” where Nicolas Cage is remotely believable. The manner in which he takes huge gulps from liquor bottles, the things he says as he moves inexorably towards drinking himself to death don’t contain an ounce of truth.
I remembered thinking the movie was overrated when I saw it in a theater and wondering how he and this film possibly could have been so honored at the time. You can argue the idiocy of “Dances With Wolves’’ over “GoodFellas’’ for best picture or “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan’’ for the same thing, but I’ll take Cage over the field as the biggest joke of all.
As he slowly drinks himself to death, you feel nothing. As for Elisabeth Shue, you just feel sorry that this was the best role she could get. Given her recent work in “Piranha,’’ maybe it’s just not going to happen for her.
It was painful to watch, not because Cage reminded me of myself or anyone I’d ever known. I just felt bad for all the other actors in 1995 who watched him collect a Golden Globe and an Oscar for this portrayal.
Nobody who’s ever had a drinking problem has willfully chosen to be like Rourke’s character. But there’s an understanding of how a life can descend to that level and how, once having reached the bottom, the escape route doesn’t seem worth searching for. Rourke captures it. Cage swings for the fences and misses by a mile.
That’s a nice little phrase to repeat to yourself and ponder about a lot of things.