2015: Year in Review

Dear Reader,

Hey! Good to see ya. How are you? How was your year?

Don’t actually answer, of course. I’m just waiting for you to ask me about my year so I can write the rest of this post. Sorry, but I thought it was rude to just jump in and start monologuing about myself. (pause) Okay, I can’t wait anymore. Here goes:

2015 was a decent year for me career-wise, but it was an undoubtedly great year for movies. There was a surprising alignment of critical consensus and commercial success: Inside Out, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens were beloved by all. On the other hand, I could have made a Top 10 of just movies that earned less than $1 million at the box office (here goes: Slow West, Tangerine, Heaven Knows What, The Mend, James White, Welcome to Me, Mississippi Grind, The Duke of Burgundy, The Look of Silence, Jimmy’s Hall). Cinema is now fully bifurcated, with little room for mid-range adult dramas. But as long as there are this many great films on both sides of the divide, who cares?

Career-wise, here are the highlights. I have basically become an every-week critic at Washington City Paper (many thanks to new arts editor Matt Cohen for encouraging that). Got published at cool new outlets such as The Guardian, GQ, Talking Points MemoFlavorwire, and Wired. I’ve been a regular on-screen contributor to BBC’s Talking Movies with Tom Brook. Oh, and I gave a two-hour lecture on the Oscars at the Smithsonian. That was pretty all right.

But I don’t expect you to have kept up with all that, so here is a handy catch-up guide to my work. These are the best articles I wrote in 2015, chosen by me. If you feel something was omitted (it’s difficult to recognize one’s own genius), feel free to praise me in the comments.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Actually, writing is hell. I hope you enjoy them more.

Happy New Year.



What Happened Between Focus and Six Degrees of Separation

Reel Change – March 3, 2015

Six Degrees is told from the perspective of the rich, white people, with Paul’s race depicted as a kind of oddity. This is not a failure of the film; any work of art attempting comment on the social issues of its day leaves itself open to future criticism. But it worth noting what has changed. In Focus, his race is no longer part of the con. His character, Nicky, is never referred to as black in the film, nor is it ever an issue that he romances a white woman. A late scene reveals that Nicky’s father is actually white, and the film amazingly never even bothers to explain this. Focus simply shows us a world in which race is irrelevant, and the audience has seemed to accept this reality.”


No Animals Were Harmed: The Unique Perspective of White God

RogerEbert.com – March 25, 2015

“When I asked Mundruczó about the use of CGI to replace animals, he demurred, ‘In my eyes, it is really fake. In the CGI, there is human imagination in it. Not the animal. I’m not brave enough to think I know what is inside of an animal’s soul. Only an animal can show that.’  At present, he may be right; the technology is not yet there to replace the use of all animals in film. It worked in [Rise of the Planet of the] Apes because the characters—at least Caesar—were supposed to be missing links between ape and human, and it was acceptable in Noah because moviegoers surely recognized the practical concerns with putting real tigers and crocodiles on the same set. At the same time, it strains credulity to claim that a film could seamlessly replace, say, a real horse with CGI or motion capture, and that viewers would be none the wiser.”


Mea Culpa: Why I Avoided the Films of Tyler Perry for So Long

Movie Mezzanine – March 25, 2015

“I’d wager that most Academy members have never seen a Tyler Perry film, while Perry himself admitted he had never heard of David Fincher, a critical darling, before being cast in his Gone Girl. It is a self-perpetuating system of cultural segregation, and both critics and filmmakers can play a part in bridging the gap. Perry does not screen his films for critics, and so they rarely get exposed to his sensibility. This should change. Maybe they wouldn’t enjoy his movies anyway, but maybe they would find something, anything, that they liked about them, and a thoughtful review or essay could emerge to challenge the critical consensus.”


Furious 7 Glorifies the Very Thing that Killed Paul Walker

Film School Rejects – April 7, 2015

“We will never know how many others died trying to recreate the amazing stunts depicted in the film. They are not around to tell their stories. But what’s concerning is that the death of the franchise’s star caused no introspection on the part of the studio or the actors who claim to have loved him like family. They will go right on promoting the film and celebrating the mindless, ride-or-die values that got their friend – sorry, ‘family’ member – killed.”


Why the Hell Isn’t Sam Rockwell a Movie Star?

Esquire – May 22, 2015

“His talent is undeniable, and he has a seemingly endless reserve of charisma and confidence. There is that big movie-star grin, and the perfectly American movie-star name. He’s got a girlfriend every guy wishes were his—Leslie Bibb, known to most as Ricky Bobby’s “smoking hot wife” in Talladega Nights. Oh, and he is one of the best dancers among film actors today. His moves are unique—he describes them as a cross of Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson, and James Brown—and he finds a way to incorporate them into nearly every one of his films.But stardom has somehow eluded him, and the arc of his career, like his dance moves, is full of turns, dips, and splits.”


How Obama Blurred the Line Between Hollywood and Washington

The Guardian – June 2, 2015

“Obama does have star power, and his relationship with the celebrity community has been a key asset of his presidency. In fact, in the past seven years, Obama has presided over a grand bargain between Washington and Hollywood that has brought the two cultural forces closer than ever before. No longer is Washington just “Hollywood for ugly people”, as the adage goes. These days, they are nearly indistinguishable.”


Does the N.W.A Biopic Mark the End of the White Savior Movie?

Talking Points Memo – August 14, 2015

“It would have been easy—and in a narrow way, useful—for the film to simply vilify Jerry. After the multiple scenes of white-on-black police violence, no one would have complained if Jerry bore the brunt of his race’s mistakes. But Straight Outta Compton refuses to ignore his humanity and instead reveals a peaceful, thoughtful spirit beneath its radical, belligerent exterior. It expresses a nuanced approach to change and suggests that the best way to bury the white savior is to understand him. Not to kill him or shout him down, but to seek peace and justice with moral consistency.”


Spotlight, Trumbo, and Truth: What Makes a Great Film About Free Speech?

Flavorwire – September 16, 2015

“There was a time when movies about a Communist oppressed by the government, a journalist threatened by a corporatized media, and a religion that preyed upon young boys wouldn’t have been made at all. Under the Hays Code, you couldn’t even show a minister of religion to be a “comic character or villain.” But with freedom comes responsibility, and of these three films, only Spotlight lives up to that responsibility.”


The Walk and the Role of the Critic

Movie Mezzanine – September 30, 2015

“An artist who spends too much time thinking about their themes or subconscious inclinations is unlikely to produce anything of value. But, more importantly, Zemeckis’ non-answer illuminates the difference in the roles of critic and artist. The artist’s job is to create—to inspire wonder or terror, to provoke thought, or to help an audience transcend reality. The critic’s job is to look at that product, and ask not only if it was successful or not, but also to wonder out loud what it means and what its impact might be. In other words, I asked the right question, and Zemeckis gave the right answer.”


Nick Hornby’s Screenplays and the Female Experience

RogerEbert.com – November 11, 2015

“Hornby’s work here should serve as a reminder that—and this should be obvious, but it’s not—male filmmakers aren’t inherently handicapped in creating strong female characters, or vice versa. Maybe great writing or filmmaking, when undertaken with empathy and imagination, can transcend a gender bias. It can even bring a fresh angle to the material. Female directors have brought vital new perspectives to male stories, such as Mary Harron’s “American Psycho” or Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.” Rather than exclude men like Hornby from writing female characters, I’d prefer a democratization of the process in which screenwriters of both sexes get opportunities to write for characters of different genders, sexual identities, and races of their own.”

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