Saturday, January 7, 2012

2011, In Review

I'm a film nerd, and because I acknowledge myself as such, I like to do nerdy things that pertain to films.

It's no wonder then, and shouldn't come as a shock, that I keep track of every film I watch. I write down every film I watch as well as dates.

I do this for now real reason. It's good for the memory, however, and I can always trace back certain events based on films I've seen on those dates.

So, if you pick a random day from the year, such as June 6, I can go back and see that on that date, I... hm, I didn't see a film on June 6. Okay, let's say February 2. That's when I saw Somewhere!

If you're curious, here's the breakdown, month by month.

January – 9
February – 15
March – 5
April – 7
May – 5
June – 9
July – 11
August – 15
September – 18
October – 22
November – 19
December – 13

I saw 148 films in 2011. That's a pretty low number personally, considering I saw 204 films in 2010. In fact, in mid-September of 2010, I had seen more films than 2011 as a whole. This has been a relatively slow year for me.

I excelled in the number of new released films, however. I saw more new released films last year than any previous year, a personal record-breaking 43. I owe that accomplishment to Leonard Maltin's class, where every Thursday we watched a film that had not been released in theaters. I saw a lot of films that I normally wouldn't watch on my own.

So, what's the point of all of this? Well, there is none. I make lists and keep track of all the films I watch. Now you know.

Bonus points if the number of films I saw on a specific month match your date of birth!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Bikes, Sex Changes, and a Flamethrower

I often catch up on certain films toward the end of the year, and that's often the case with foreign films, in which case I'm lucky to see before the first quarter of the new year ends.

There were three particular films that I loved this year, each completely unlike the others. The Kid with a Bike, from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodóvar, both premiered at the Festival de Cannes, with the former winning the Grand Prix. Bellflower, however, held its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and has since received much less attention than the previous foreign films. I'd like to discuss all three films because they're each wildly imaginative - and in some sense - were all overlooked on their own merits.

The Kid with a Bike

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are Belgium filmmakers, who chose France as the setting of their fairytale film. The Kid with a Bike is a minimal film, focusing on a young child, Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is in search of his bicycle and father. Cyril finds both relatively quickly, despite putting up quite a fight in the process, and the film then shifts its focus to his search for meaning and purpose. The film, in some sense, exemplifies pure cinema; that is, the film uses natural techniques to create an emotional experience, rather than complex stories or characters. The film's protagonist, Cyril, is always on the move, always on the run, always running toward his goals, and rightfully so, the filmmakers incorporate a constantly moving camera, one that follows Cyril on his journey. This technique is particularly useful when Cyril lashes out in anger and runs away from the scene, but equally effective when Cyril blissfully rides his bicycle. In one particular scene toward the end of the film, the filmmakers hold on an image of Cyril riding his bicycle with intensity. The camera, however, is smooth - unlike other moments of movement in the film, where the camera often struggles to keep up. The scene lasts over a minute, providing us with a sense of realism. The most effective of all techniques - camera or otherwise - is the decision to use music in the film. The Dardenne brothers, who don't frequently use music in their films, turn to Ludwig van Beethoven's "Piano Concerto No. 5 (Emperor)," a sample that is used three times in the film. The music, then, becomes a structuring motif; the music allows for a clear transition from one desperate moment in Cyril's life to the next, as well as adding depth to the overall emotional experience in the film.

The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodóvar has branded himself a master of formalism, translating his personal feelings into imaginative fantasies. The Skin I Live In is one of his most personal films thus far, and one of his best films in terms of questioning sex, gender and identity. If nothing else, it's his most clear statement on those ideas. In the film, a surgeon (Antonio Banderas), who fabricates synthetic skin that can withhold any form of damage, tests his creation on a mysterious woman who he keeps locked in a room. The film is split into two parts; everything that leads up to the moment of her escape and everything that lead up to the moment of her entrapment. The film is a horror of minds - it's unfair to call this film a thriller, because of its hybridization of genres - but the film succeeds in its moments where lines of genre become blurred. The film switches from horror, thriller, fantasy, melodrama, and creates a shocking world. The filmmaker injects his personal vision into his characters; it's difficult not to make the distinct connection to Pedro Almodóvar, who is an open homosexual, after the film reveals its secrets in the areas of sex changes. The film presents itself as a question, more so than the film attempts to answer any questions; the filmmaker questions how we identify ourselves and how gender shapes our identity of ourselves. In relation to these themes, the film is constructed like a good thriller, borrowing elements that made Alfred Hitchcock's films so successful, as well as a leading man that reminds us of Cary Grant.


Bellflower, a film from Evan Glodell, has drawn comparisons to Fight Club, because of its depiction of young men crossing over into manhood. Bellflower, in some sense, is full of even more mayhem (if you can believe what we're seeing is reality), even in its moments of romantic drama. The film, like all films that lend themselves to structure, is divided into two parts. The first hour of the film is a romantic drama, concerning itself with the likes of Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Milly (Jessie Wiseman). The second hour of the film is pure chaos; whereas Fight Club opens (literally) inside the protagonist's mind, Bellflower patiently pulls us into its protagonist's mind, and successfully ends with us lounging inside his brain, attempting to question his sanity. The film heavily relies on its Mad Max influence, with two young men who are building a flamethrower in preparation for the inevitable apocalypse. Evan Glodell (the film's writer, director, producer, and star), is confident with every scene; if certain moments in the film are questionable, we never feel like the filmmaker himself is unsure of his direction. The images on the screen are all germane to its themes; the filmmaker designed the camera he used for filming, and his choices of lenses and film stock give the film a washed out, vintage look that feels oddly appropriate, but as the film cranks up its chaos, the visuals become extremely stylized. The film, made for almost nothing, is bold in its assertion that these men are simply adapting to the changing world around them.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


I compiled a list of my favorite films of the year for Yerevan Magazine.

These are films that have made a lasting impression on me, and I hope, will leave an impression on you as well.

I need to make some guidelines clear. These are all films that have been released in theaters in 2011, whether domestically or internationally. If a film was released in theaters in 2010 (in France, for instance), but wasn’t released in the United States until 2011, I will consider such a film ineligible. If a film, however, screened solely in film festivals in 2010, but received its official release in theaters in 2011, then such a film is eligible. This is a personal preference, but one that acknowledges the actual release dates of films.

I have seen more new film releases this year (over 40) than any previous year, which, of course, makes putting together a top ten list of favorite films that much harder. This list of films will eventually change, because my feelings toward all these films are still in flux, also because I still haven’t seen several films (primarily foreign films) because they haven’t been released in the United States.

This, however, is a list of my favorite films as of the end of the actual year itself. So, without further ado, this is a top ten list of my favorite films of 2011.

1. The Tree of Life

The film of the year comes in the form of a lyrical meditation on life, a film that transcends narrative storytelling and instead structures itself as a cinematic poem. The Tree of Life, in some sense, can be defined as post-cinematic in its disregard for a conventional narrative structure. The film isn’t so much concerned with story, as it is concerned with emotion as a guiding force. Terrence Malick represents a fractured state of memory with his use of images, and his constantly moving, always sweeping camera, exemplifies the passing of time. There is no other film that was as ambitious this year, both in content and form, and there was no other filmmaker that was as masterful.

2. Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn’s film is filled with references to Le Samouraï, Bullitt and Miami Vice. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a silent soul, roaming the streets of Los Angeles as he moonlights as a getaway driver. The filmmaker incorporates slow motion, operatic music, beautiful dissolves, as well as exaggerated and over-the-top violence. The film is extremely patient, and despite being an action thriller, the filmmaker works against most of the conventions of the genre. There isn’t much The Driver says, but that’s because his character relies on Ryan Gosling’s performance; he speaks with his eyes, and trust me, he’s saying a lot, whether you’re listening or not. The soundtrack to the film is one of the most popular soundtracks in recent years, and the film itself is stylish and retro, and feels like a product of the 1980s.

3. Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff, from the perspective of feminist film theory, demonstrates the evolution of women in culture. The female filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt, constructs an indicative anti-western, from its decision to film in the outdated 1.33:1 aspect ratio as well its disinterest in landscapes typical of the genre. The film often places us in the shoes of its women characters, as we peer into the whispering conversations of the men. The desperate struggle for hope manifests itself from the beginning of the film and hangs over the heads of its characters. Meek’s Cutoff lacks a central hero, another break from the iconographies of the western, and instead charts the progression of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), from a voiceless secondary character into a gun-shielding badass in charge.

4. A Separation

The dissolution of a marriage in Iran is examined in a novelistic manner with its use of multiple stories (and conflicting accounts), complex and flawed characters, and a societal critique, which extends itself onto a national, then global level. The film finds its strengths in presenting what is essential the same story from multiple sources, asking its audience to continuously shift and assess their identification with its characters. The film unfolds like a piece of great literature, positioning itself as an engrossing melodrama, and it’s remarkable how much is said through character.

5. Beginners

The romantic comedy genre is more than dead as of now, and somehow there’s still hope, as seen in Beginners. Mike Mills’ autobiographical film is a film that could have easily been cutesy, but the film comes from a personal place and therefore feels authentic. The film is concerned with an elderly man, portrayed remarkably by Christopher Plummer, who discovers that he is terminally ill. This is also around the same time that he decides to tell his son that he is a homosexual. Beginners is surprisingly delightful, and you’ll fall in love with Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent, who run into each other during a party dressed up as Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin, respectively. The film also features a talking dog, because, well, it can.

6. Shame

Steve McQueen abandons some of his precise camera techniques that he used so beautifully in Hunger, and takes us into the gritty lifestyle of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a man battling sex addiction. Michael Fassbender’s performance is the best of the year and it’s on brutal display in this film. Shame doesn’t refrain from showing us Brandon’s desperation; he more than hits rock bottom, he’s crashing and burning throughout the entire film. Brandon’s relationship with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is a damaged one, which Steven McQueen doesn’t explain, and it’s all for the better. The best thing about this film is that it’s stylish, using repeated music with a sampling of Hans Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line.” The conclusion of the film leaves us with more questions than answers, because sometimes there are no straightforward answers to life’s problems.

7. Midnight in Paris

If your film revolves around a man who is nostalgic for a time period other than his own, what’s a better setting than Paris? Gil (Owen Wilson) takes on the Woody Allen character, and does a surprisingly good job, as he roams around the streets of Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Gil, however, who longs to be a writer of great literature, is transported back into time and finds himself in Paris in the 1920s. There are a lot of twists and turns in this film, as well as cheerful surprises. In the film, one of the characters says nostalgia is “a denial of a painful present,” and that’s oh, so true, for some of us. The opening sequence of the film is a nod to Woody Allen’s own Manhattan, while the ending is one of his most touching endings since Hannah and Her Sisters.

8. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s police procedural film is given the epic treatment, both because of its 150 minute running time, and also because of its bold, assuming title. The film centers on a search for a dead body in the Anatolian steppes, and much of the film depends on the atmosphere and tone the film so successfully creates. There’s a sense of dread and mystery that drives the film, and the audience is asked to participate in the grueling, and at times, desperate and helpless search. The film is split into two parts; the countryside and the city, and they’re separated by a beautiful intermission that takes place in the village. Nuri Bilge Ceylan channels Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni throughout the film, both in terms of its use of visuals and character.

9. Weekend

I haven’t seen a love story all year that was as convincing as Weekend, and that’s also considering the usual clichés that come with love stories. In the film, Russell (Tom Cullen) meets Glen (Chris New) in a club, and the two men spend an entire weekend together. The film focuses on their time together, as well as some time apart, and is more concerned with everyday life details rather than an overall story. This film is an accurate portrayal of love and all its heartaches, with two of the best performances of the year from two emerging actors. The ending of the film will break your heart, and make you realize that love is a precious thing, regardless of sexuality.

10. Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a family film in 3D, is surprisingly one of his most personal films. The film centers on the title character, a young orphan who lives in the walls of a train station. In some sense, this film epitomizes the magic of cinema; films are like adventures, we hand ourselves over to the filmmaker and ask him to take us on a ride, and that’s precisely what this film does. The film is shot in color, widescreen, and 3D, but somehow captures the essence of the origins of cinema. The young orphan stumbles upon Georges Méliès, and from there, the film presents us with the history of cinema, as well as the importance of preserving that history. Martin Scorsese, who is nearly 70-years-old, has made his boldest film and shows us how adventurous life can be, only if we allow ourselves to participate in the journey!

Sunday, September 4, 2011


"If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I'm yours no matter what. I don't sit in while you're running it down. I don't carry a gun. I drive."

I'm often asked why I'm quick to dismiss certain films, such as otherwise fun action films. The reason for this is because action films have become far too predictable. The storylines are recycled, the action sequences drag on for minutes on end, and I can't wait until the film is over. If all action films were made in the same manner as Drive, however, I'd be seeing more of them.

Drive stars Ryan Gosling as a driver of getaway cars. The film is meticulously directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who won the Best Director prize at the Festival de Cannes. I had been wondering how he won the prize of Terrence Malick, who constructed the beautiful and poetic film, The Tree of Life. The fact of the matter is, Drive is as beautiful and poetic as that film, in its own way and in its own genre of crime, thriller, and action.

The film is delicately crafted and uses elements and conventions of these genres, but also subverts them and makes them an artistic exploration.The film is very slow-paced and patient in its storytelling. The subtleness of its scenes are contrasted with stylized violence; after all, that's what Nicolas Winding Refn is known for. The film builds its suspense quietly, allowing us to build a relationship with its characters. The beauty of this film is what the filmmaker does with the camera. In the same manner that Martin Scorsese moved the camera into the boxing ring for Raging Bull, in an attempt to put us right into the action of the fights, Nicolas Winding Refn puts the camera inside the driver's car. This allows us to feel like we are in the car with him, in the midst of all the action and violence. There are very few shots where we see the action from high above or from other angles. If the driver is in the car, then we're in the car with him.

There are moments of immense surprise in the film, such as unpredictable scenes of violence, as well as some beautifully choreographed scenes between Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. The film is very well-structured, the camera is patient in the hands of the director, and the film takes its time to emphasize what it really wants us to know. There is very minimal dialogue in the film, a quality rarely attributed to this sort of film. In fact, while working together, Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan decided to leave out most of the dialogue in the screenplay. The result is an odd combination of character study meets gripping action, but everything somehow works in the hands of its director.

There's a certain sense of mystery revolving around the driver, who he is and why he does what he does, but that's what makes him so interesting. Ryan Gosling reaffirms why he is one of the best actors working today. The driver's anger, sadness, vulnerability, complexity, and the rest of his emotions are all internal. Ryan Gosling has the amazing gift of restraining his emotions; he is acting with his eyes and telling the audience how he feels inside.

Drive is scheduled for release on September 16, 2011.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Washington, Oregon, and Us - Day Eight

It's all over.

The last day has come to a conclusion and our trip has come to an end.

The day started with a trip to The Old Church, where we finally had a chance to step inside. The church is beautiful and is nearly 130 years old. We also saw the Simon Benson House, which is located right across the Portland State University. Simon Benson installed running drinking fountains all around Portland because the city didn't have available water decades ago. The fountains still remain and provides people with running water every single second of the day. We recreated an old photograph of two people drinking from the fountain. We were leaving the area when we saw a fire truck for the Portland Fire Department, so we took a picture with some of the firefighters.

We went back into Vancouver afterward and had lunch at Dolce Gelato. We also walked to the Esther Short Park after lunch and had some gelato on a beautiful sunny day. We later stopped by Swoon and Not too Shabby to pick up some few things and said goodbye to its owners, who we first met when we first came to the city.

We stopped by Fort Vancouver, where we saw the Ulysses S. Grant house. The whole area was beautiful and historic, and is an entire block known as Officer's Row, where houses stand from the time period. We later went to the Vancouver Public Library because the building looked and was amazing. We decided to open up a library card as a keepsake. We did the same with the Portland Public Library, but they didn't give us a card because we're from out of town. We stopped by the Academy, which is right beside the library, but the historic chapel inside was closed. We glimpsed inside through the cracks of the door, though.

The next stop for us a small park right on the Columbia River Gorge. We sat down by the peaceful water and enjoyed the fresh air. We had dinner reservations for 9pm, so we decided to head back to the hotel to change, rest and charge our camera. We made our way back into Vancouver for one last stop at the Salmon Creek Brewery & Pub. The owner of the place (who carries a bat behind the bar) was very nice to us the first time we went in. So, we went back to have a beer before dinner and to say goodbye. We took a picture with her and her bat, and she asked us to send the picture to her when we get back into Los Angeles.

We had dinner at Salty's on the Columbia River, a beautiful restaurant with gorgeous views. Mary surprised me with a mini pre-birthday celebration. We had an amazing dinner and desert to conclude our final evening in Washington and Oregon. The evening came to an end shortly thereafter. We were both exhausted and drained, but neither one of us wanted the trip to end. We had some memorable moments, some amazing times in both states, and some very interesting adventures. We embarked on journeys neither one of us had ever thought or dreamt of doing, but like all good things, everything comes to an end.

The owner of the Salmon Creek Brewery & Pub was sad to see us go. We were walking out of the place when she said to us, "Keep loving each other." That's exactly what we'll do, whether we're in Washington, Oregon, or any of the other 48 states.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Washington, Oregon, and Us - Day Seven

This was quite the busy day.

The morning began early with a drive down to Salem, Oregon's capitol. We met with William Michaelian, an author I have been in communication with, to discuss a short story of his which I am planning to adapt into a short film. The trip there was quite nice and much different than our previous drives. William Michaelian was kind enough to accept us into his lovely home and we had a pleasant meeting with him. I wish we could have stayed longer, but there was a long list of things to do. We left with a copy of one of his books, which he had signed for us.

The next stop of the day was the State Capitol, which was a wonder to see, considering Salem was the first state capitol we had been to in our lives. We climbed up to the Gold Man on the top of the building, which was a total of 121 steps. The view was lovely from up there. The building itself was quite interesting to see, especially the separate rooms for the House of Representatives and the Senate. We also took a brief stop at the Oregon State Hospital, which was used as a location for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

We drove back into Portland afterward to drop in on the Hat Museum. The tour of the museum was probably the most interesting part of our entire trip. The history, stories, and origins of hats and fashion was such an interesting thing to hear. We saw hats from all periods of times, including the early 1800s. The museum also had hats and memorabilia from films, including hats from Chicago and Gangs of New York and a teapot that was used in Casablanca. The entire place was rich with history and I only wish I owned some of their hats.

We had been planning on kayaking on the Columbia River Gorge today, so we looked up the address for the place we had to meet the instructor. I assumed the place would be near Vancouver and Portland, but it turned out to be in Hood River; all the way near Mount Hood, over an hour way. We were going to be late, so we drove as fast as possible all the way out there. We were less than 20 miles away when our fuel started running low and the gas light came on. We were 12 miles away from the nearest gas station and we feared the car would stop in the middle of nowhere. We fortunately made it to a gas station and the kayak school in time!

The kayak tour was the best part of our trip so far. We were each in a separate kayak and the entire experience was a little scary at first. We paddled into the river for about a mile and a half into the sunset. The views were spectacular, the fresh water river surrounding us, along with fresh air and green trees. We were hit by a rough wave that completely soaked us. We headed back in smooth water where we saw a beaver splashing its tail. I can't begin to describe how peaceful, beautiful and amazing the experience was.

We stopped by for something to eat at the Sixth Street Bistro and Loft and later headed back into Portland, where we checked into our new hotel near the airport. This is our first night sleeping in Oregon, but it's been quite the ride so far.

I hate to say this, but tomorrow is our last full day. I don't want this to end!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Washington, Oregon, and Us - Day Six

The day started early, with a trip away from the usual and a drive up to Mount Hood in Oregon.

We drove up to the Timberline Lodge, which was used for the exterior shots for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The drive there was beautiful; the highway took us through several small towns and farms. We were surrounded by trees throughout the entire drive, and later had incredible views from high in the sky. I have to admit, it was amazing seeing the hotel that stood in for the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. I had also heard about an ax that the front desk keeps, which is modeled after the ax used in the film. The ax has "Here's Johnny!" written over it, so we definitely had to take a picture. We also had lunch at the Blue Ox located in the hotel and later drove back down into Portland.

We passed by the Rose Garden and took several pictures, but need to go back to get some better shots. We also stopped by the Nike Factory Store, which is a popular spot for fans. We drove back to Vancouver afterward and pulled into a park by the Columbia River Gorge, which is also right beside our hotel. We sat on a park bench and enjoyed the sunset and gorgeous view of the river. This is an amazing place to have a run, picnic, or simply enjoy your time.

We're staying an extra two days, so we'll be checking out of our hotel tomorrow morning and moving into a hotel in Portland. There's a big day ahead of us tomorrow, but I won't say exactly what we're planning on doing.