Screening Room: The Nearly-Great Movies of 2015

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Emorey Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in 'Brooklyn' (Sony Pictures Classics)

Emorey Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn (Sony Pictures Classics)

For my annual film guide series Eyes Wide Open — and yes, the 2015 edition is now on sale, thanks for asking — I try to narrow down the list of best films of the year to 25. Some years are easier than others. But pretty much every time there are movies that don’t quite make the cut but still seem worth calling out as worthy of people’s attention.

You can read “Brooklyn to Chi-Raq: The Nearly-Great Movies of 2015” at Medium.

Writer’s Desk: The First Draft

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Jane Smiley on getting out of your own way:

… you cannot be judging yourself as you write the first draft—you want to harness that unexpected energy, and you don’t want to limit the possibilities of exploration. You don’t know what you’re writing until it’s done. So if a draft is 500 pages long, you have to suspend judgment for months. It takes effort to be good at suspending at judgment, to give the images and story priority over your ideas…

I think there are two kinds of sentences in a rough draft: seeds and pebbles. If it’s a pebble, it’s just the next sentence and it sits there. But if it’s a seed it grows into something that becomes an important part of the life of the novel. The problem is, you can’t know ahead of time whether a sentence will be a seed or a pebble, or how important a seed it’s going to be…

This, of course, is easier said than done. We’ve all been stuck at the desk, agonizing over the drivel we’ve been turning out and questioning the entire vocation. But just stick with it and (for a little while at least) ignore the inner critic. If you don’t have any raw material to work with, then there’s nothing to chisel and hone into something beautiful later on.

Reader’s Corner: Bowie’s Books

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Viles_BodiesWhen you look at this list of David Bowie’s 100 favorite books, a few seem obvious, given his predilection (particularly in the Berlin phase) for bleak, chilly dystopias and tales of alienation and schizophrenic dislocation. So, of course he liked:

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • City Of Night by John Rechy
  • The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

But then there are some books, urbane novels of wit and glee, that don’t exactly fit with any of Bowie’s shape-shifting music moods:

  • Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
  • Metropolitan Life by Fran Lebowitz

Maybe they were just fun reads…

Weekend Reading: January 15, 2016

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Screening Room: ’13 Hours’

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Pablo Schreiber, John Krasinski, and David Denman in '13 Hours' (Paramount Pictures)

Pablo Schreiber, John Krasinski, and David Denman in 13 Hours (Paramount Pictures)

When the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked by an Islamist militia in September 2012, they were quickly overwhelmed. Their only fighting chance was a small team of contractors stationed at a nearby CIA station. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is based on those contractors’ tell-all book about the massive firefight and bureaucratic snafus that followed the assault.

13 Hours opens this weekend, in case you’ve already seen all the December awards movies. My review is at Film Journal International:

That sound you hear while exiting the theater as 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi rumbles to a finish is something like relief. Because the last thing that our panic room of an election season needed was a Michael Bay gasoline bomb getting dumped onto the simmering garbage fire that is the Benghazi investigation. That hasn’t happened. The closest that this bruising but respectful film comes to sounding like a cable-news shouting head is when one character, bemused that the news back home is attributing the attacks to protesters, says matter-of-factly, “We didn’t hear any protests.” Then it’s back to the shooting; we are in Bay country, after all…

Here’s the trailer:

In Memorium: David Bowie (1947-2016)

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Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing /
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in /
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying /
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying…

Even the Vatican paid tribute to the Thin White Duke’s passing.

Writer’s Desk: Making a Name

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William_S._Burroughs_at_the_Gotham_Book_MartThis is Patti Smith at a Louisiana literature festival in 2012:

When I was really young William Burroughs told me – I was really struggling we never had any money – and the advice that William gave me was built a good name and keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises. Don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful. Be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name eventually you know that name will be its own currency…

We don’t all get to be like Smith and receive personal advice from El Hombe Invisible at an age when we’re young and struggling and wondering if any of the combat we’re suffering just to create something will ever be worth it. But her distillation of it is useful nonetheless.

Protect your work at all costs. Don’t sign up for anything you don’t believe in. Refuse to sell yourself cheap. And if you have to … use a pseudonym.

Weekend Reading: January 8, 2016

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Screening Room: Human and Machine in ‘Ex Machina’

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exmachina-mv-5Theaters were full of science fiction this year. However, it was mostly of the post-apocalyptic YA (Hunger Games) or space opera (Star Wars) variety. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina was something different. It’s available on DVD now.

“The Year’s Best Science Fiction Movie Wasn’t Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was published at Short Ends & Leader:

In the final reckoning, people are never that creative. That’s true even when they think they’re changing history. The explorer who goes to the ends of the earth is usually after fame, money, or both. The investor will ignore every warning sign about a too-good-to-be-true opportunity until it’s too late and he’s lost everything. The genius inventor announcing that he’s creating an epochal advancement in technology will turn out to have some fairly mundane reasons for doing so.

That last scenario is what Alex Garland digs into for his directorial debut Ex Machina. It’s a chilly investigation of the ethical consequences of artificial intelligence wrapped up in the skin of a sleek and increasingly horrific thriller…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: The Best Graphic Novels of 2015

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'The Sculptor' by Scott McCloud

‘The Sculptor’ by Scott McCloud

Every December, Publishers Weekly surveys its reviewers — including yours truly — for an idea of what they thought were the best graphic novels of the past year. After our votes and comments were tabulated, the results were published here.

The winner was Scott McCloud’s gorgeous and adventurous The Sculptor.

Some of the runners-up were:

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