When Joy turns to Sadness: ‘Inside Out’ and cinema’s long fascination with nostalgia

Here I spoil a number of classicsas well as the newly released Inside Out.
nostalgia

Citizen Kane, Inside Out, Stand by Me, Mad Men

In Inside Out, Pixar’s newest, the protagonist-emotions Joy and Sadness spend the film engaging in a strange charade over Riley’s, the 11-year-old girl they inhabit and serve, “core memories”. All of these most important moments from Riley’s early childhood are meant to shape her personality, and to Joy’s pride they are all yellow. They glow in the unmistakable tone of sunshine and daffodils, meaning that they were all Joy’s doing, all moments that have made Riley the “Happy girl” and “Smiley girl” — in her parents’ words — she is when we meet her. The action makes way when her family announces a move from Minnesota to San Fransisco, and Sadness, one of the five emotions controlling Riley, develops a compulsion. She wants to touch the mostly-yellow orbs that represent Riley’s mostly-joyous memories. When she does, to the terror of the others, the memories turn blue, irreversibly. Joy cannot figure out how to turn them back, and relegates Sadness to tasks ranging from trivial (read all of the manuals in “headquarters”) to outright insulting (“keep all the sadness in this circle”).

Even the core memories are not safe, though they seem more resilient until Joy, in a panic, knocks them all loose, leaving Riley without a personality and leaving herself and Sadness lost somewhere in the maze of Riley’s mind. The movie documents their beautifully realized journey back to headquarters, rushing to get the core memories back where they belong while Riley’s life quietly falls apart. Over this time, Joy labors to carry all of the memories, fearing what will happen if she lets Sadness so much as touch one. Riley’s childhood would become blue, tainted by sadness, with no known way to expunge it once it’s there.

Here we see her playing in a play ground, laughing wildly as she goes down a slide. We see her slip on a frozen pond as her first goal slips past her father, happy to pass his love of hockey onto his little girl. There’s her running around in a diaper making goofy faces, or sitting on tree branches with her loving parents. For Riley at the beginning of the movie, these ought to be happy memories; they represent the best of what she has, great friends, great parents, a great attitude, and serious hockey skills. These are — literally, the movie argues — what make Riley, Riley, and she cherishes all of them. Perhaps this is why Sadness started creeping in when she moved away from that playground and from her best friend and her team. Away from the comforts of childhood to a land where you can only get one type of pizza and need to learn a new walk to school, she lost those memories in both the sense that she lost her present connections to them, and that Joy sent them tumbling down into the emptiness of her mind.

They cannot be happy memories anymore, Inside Out seems to say, because they have been relegated to just that: memories. Without a connection and even the faintest promise that she can still be as happy as she was as a little girl, she looks at those cherished moments differently. They are gone. They represent something that is lost and cannot be recovered, and this makes her sad. At the moment when joy becomes sadness, you get nostalgia.

Inside Out is not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, film to explore nostalgia. I’m not talking here of Frederic Jameson’s concept of the nostalgia film, which is essentially a criticism of contemporary movies set in the past for trying to strike an emotional cord with the audience by exposing this helpless vulnerability.  No, I’m talking about movies not that use nostalgia, but that are actively about it.

Nostalgia is defined in Mad Men — which qualifies as both postmodern nostalgia evoking and romanticizing the 1960s, and as about nostalgia and Don’s reluctance to leave his comfort zone as society changed — as “the pain from an old wound… It’s delicate, but potent… It’s a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone.” This speech, of course, could only come from the suave, intelligent delivery of Don Draper, Madison Avenue ad man extraordinaire. In the season 1 finale, “The Wheel”, Don is tasked to pitch a campaign for a Kodak slide projector. He does so by sitting Kodak’s men down in a smokey room, projecting photos from his own idyllic life, and loosing the aforementioned prose on the room. His own colleague leaves the room in tears.

Don, television’s greatest salesman, who is able even to convince himself of his own lies, rushes home to be with his family. But when he gets there to join them for a Thanksgiving trip he planned to skip for work, they’ve already left. For all of his sleeping around and workplace heroism, his life is empty to him because it lacks what it once had, or maybe even didn’t have. Mad Men tells us in the same season that the Greeks also had an interesting take on the life of Don’s dreams. See, “utopia” in contemporary use signifies a perfect, magical ideal. But Don has to learn that it comes from two roots in Greek: “‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

He has convinced himself of his own lie — the lie that he is a New York ad man, that he has the perfect family and perfect house in the ‘burbs, that he belongs in a skyscraper boardroom, even that he is Donald Draper — so deeply that he cannot recognize what is the truth and what is the lie. Showing photos of cherished moments, he pines for the days when he and his wife could celebrate together, but chooses not to spend Thanksgiving with her; he doesn’t want to let go of the days when he and his daughter would fall asleep on the couch, but he flees her birthday party and never returns with the cake.

He can do all of that, he can return to the perfect life he had hoped to build. Perhaps he didn’t realize that it was what he wanted while he had it, but now he feels that it is past and gone. Charles Foster Kane, protagonist of American cinema’s most celebrated treasure Citizen Kane, can also do pretty much whatever he wants. He is the walking embodiment of spoiled rotten, turning his various offices and homes into nothing much more than mazes filled with invaluable artifacts and knick-knacks and women. But like Draper and Riley, he pines for something he once had. When he meets his second wife, Susan, he says he was on his way to see some of his mother’s old things in a storage unit, to literally dig through the past. At the time, we don’t know if he’s looking for anything specific or just browsing down memory lane (which Joy and Sadness literally do, by the way). Inside her house, he becomes enamored with a snowglobe of Susan’s depicting an idyllic winter scene with a small cabin. The snow globe appears in other moments, once leading him to ferocious vulnerability and again at the moment of his death. “Rosebud”, he says as he drops it with his last breath, and the quest of the movie is to understand the meaning of the word, the sole motivation he had behind his moves, the last thing on his mind that he took to the death bed.

Those of you who have seen the film know that Rosebud was his childhood sled that he used to rush through the snow in his Colorado childhood home. Like Riley and the emotions, when he looked at the snowglobe on the night he was already thinking about his past, it was through a new lens, the understanding that happy memories of childhood are tainted in adulthood by the fact that they are lost forever. Kane kept Rosebud for his entire life, but it is unclear that in his massive manor and mixed in with his thousands of possessions he even knew it was there. He could afford anything and everything. He wanted his wife to be an opera star, so he built an opera house. But he could never get what he truly yearned for, which is, the chance to go back, to be a kid again in the snow with a sled.

Citizen Kane is told largely through flashback. But it isn’t Kane’s flashbacks, they belong to his friends and family. So, the exact perspective of his nostalgia, the pain from the old wound of the end of his childhood, is missing. Still, one of the close comrades interviewed about Kane is Mr. Bernstein. Bernstein tells a story that drills home the film’s theme in a brilliantly tangential way. He once saw a girl, a beautiful girl in a white dress. He noticed her from afar, was blown away by her beauty and kept going about his day. All these years later, he has forgotten more than many of us will ever know, but he still holds onto the memory of that girl and the remorse of never having spoken to her. The pain of his memory, the delivery of which is so rehearsed it seems to lack any emotion at all, comes from reaching for the unreachable. He wants to talk to her, to savor and appreciate her beauty, but she isn’t there any more. He isn’t even there any more. He has been replaced with an older, worn version of himself. Kane experiences the same trauma. He wishes young Charlie Kane could go play in the snow. But the snow is not there, and young Charlie has been replaced by newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane.

Perhaps the ultimate study in nostalgia through flashback in screen culture is Stand By Me, the cult classic ’80s coming-of-age flick about a group of boys who go out on their own in search of the body of a missing child, and on the way learn about life and about each other and the plights they share growing up in an impoverished factory town. Actually, that’s not quite the plot, exactly. Based loyally on a Stephen King novella The BodyStand By Me is the story of a grown man sitting at his computer much like I am right now, and typing out the story of one of the adventures he and his friends had when they were 12 years old.

The story, therefore, is told with distance and mature reflection. Time has probably inadvertently revised his memory. His best friend Chris, who was killed in the time between the story and the grown protagonist writing it, is probably inflated and remembered as more heroic than he actually was. Gordie, the writer-protagonist, remembers himself self-consciously with limited embellishment. Still, he has chosen which details to hold on to. He remembers that he would distract his friends and pass the time by telling stories, something the would-be novelist ought to hold dear.

Part of nostalgia, the part that leads me to bring up Stand By Me in the mix of these other much more straight forward examples, is time’s influence on memory. In Inside Out, the emotions seem to forget what they want to forget about Riley’s childhood. That great moment with Mom and Dad on the tree branch before being hoisted by her teammates? It happened because she had just missed the would-be winning goal in a hockey game and was heartbroken and embarrassed. It was a sad memory with a happy ending. They chose to keep it as only happy. Joy probably could not see the problem with that, and it takes her the quest of the film to appreciate the value of holding onto sadness.

Sadness builds in these memories and the added emotion of loss to the original emotion of love render memories larger than life. Gordie, like Kane and his sled or Don and his family, pines for a lost past that he cannot retrieve. Perhaps Chris and the rest of the guys were as great as he says; perhaps they weren’t. What counts is that he remembers them in such a way that his nostalgia has hurt his appreciation of the new; he fights so hard for the joy in those memories that he forgets to have joy in his present. Anyone and everyone can relate to the devastating final line of the film, as adult Gordie has a painful moment of clouded self-reflection about how his life has gone since that memorable summer: “I never had an friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

It hurts to admit that, and it is something we all feel. When I was twelve, I was at my happiest on the school bus. I’m not joking. That was where I would spend the best quality time I could with the best friends I ever had. We goofed off, acted like ourselves, and nothing else mattered. Were we ever as happy as I remember us being? In Mad Men, the projected slides suggest we were. But they are just projections, selected bits preserved from a sea of others forgotten. The same is true, oddly enough, in Inside Out. Unlike the television period piece, Inside Out had near boundless creative freedom. It could have shown images from Riley’s memory in any way modern computer imagery would allow, but director Pete Doctor and his team decided to show it very much like a movie.

Film is shown by holding images in front of light and changing them 24 times per second. In headquarters, Joy summons memories and then lifts them in front of a stream of light so they can be enlarged and shown on a screen. Perhaps cinema is so obsessed with nostalgia because it is itself nostalgic. Photography cannot capture the present, and it isn’t designed to. It captures a moment for preservation into the future, a future when the depicted moment has become the past and comes with the associated feelings of melancholy and loss. Today, even the medium of film is nostalgic to many, as digital projection has all be eliminated lighted film projectors, and video is the preferred method of image capture. Even the hum of a projector stirs memories of cinemas of not too long ago, and some of us imagine a better world in which inperceptible blackness every 24th of a second enlivens the frame.

We let the movies run in front of us and look up at them helplessly — sometimes we enjoy watching things unfold before us, sometimes this helplessness is binding and why won’t you look behind you! — in the same way Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust look at Riley’s memories. They flicker on the same screen through which they watch her life unfold, and are only changed  by a switch from yellow to blue. This switch is natural, something everyone goes through in the growing up process. Most of us don’t have to grow up in one moment like Riley has to with the move, but slowly and steadily it happens. Maybe that’s why so many tears have been shed by the older crowd accompanying children to Inside Out. Nostalgia. The members of the audience went through that change and remember when they had to let childhood go, too.

9 Films That Dive Into the Mind Before Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’

inside-out-still-3On June 19, Pixar’s much anticipated and already critically celebrated new film Inside Out — the once groundbreaking studio’s first original story since 2012’s Brave and 2009’s Up — will bring audiences into the mind of an 11-year old girl, where the characters are as mysterious and familiar to us as their names suggest: Disgust, Anger, Sadness, Fear and of course Joy. Director Pete Doctor and the rest of the Pixar team say the idea came from the simple question of what goes on in the thinking process of an average joe. Inside Out is not the first film to enter the human mind literally, much less metaphorically, as many great films of the past have sought to explore the same depths. Others still later reveal themselves to be complicated dreams (The Wizard of Oz), imaginings (Mulholland Drive), or even mix and confuse these real and created worlds (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Take Shelter, Brazil, A Beautiful Mind, and on and on and on). Doing this on screen obviously comes with challenges, but filmmakers have come up with many clever visual metaphors used to personify the abstract concept of thoughtInside Out brings the audience knowingly into artistic representations of what goes on between the ears maybe more bluntly than others, and I for one am counting down the days until I get to see it.

Here are some of the best prior examples of films that delve head first into the process of thinking, being and creating to let the viewer walk the halls of a characters mind, literally:

 600full-being-john-malkovich-screenshot-1Being John Malkovich

This Charlie Kaufman-penned (ctrl-C) science fiction creation explores not the generic thought process of the Everyman, but exactly what its title suggests. It is about an entertainer played by John Cusack who literally finds a door into the brain of beloved actor John Malkovich. It’s as weird as it sounds, and director Spike Jonze made the excellent observation that the film was a huge risk taken by Malkovich because not only would his name be in the credits, but in the title. The mind of John Malkovich offers the ability to see through his eyes and manipulate his speech, while his subconscious is full of the strangeness of puppets and impossible realities that in all seriousness probably actually exist in John Malkovich’s head.

0292727_31397_MC_Tx304The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The story of Jean-Dominique Bauby adapted from his own memoir is a masterpiece of contemporary cinema and one of the most unique viewing experience you can find. Because it is drawn from the account of a man suffering from Locked-In Syndrome — his mind functions perfectly, but his body is nearly completely paralyzed, allowing him only to communicate by moving his left eye — it takes place almost entirely through his thought process, as the audience is locked in with him. The full first act and much more of the film is shown from his perspective, through an unmoving and blurred lens up at the many doctors and loved ones who come to poke and prod and his limp body. But as his story takes shape, memories replace the bare hospital interiors and narration and imagination brings to life the one-time magazine editor’s thoughts. Bauby is our guide to his own perspective and inner-workings and to the limited world around him.

8 12 camerawork8 1/2

I can contribute nothing about Federico Fellini’s 1694 magnum opus that has not already been written. It was made under no pretense, basically on a whim when Fellini secured funding and a cast but lacked a screenplay. The result is that it is about a famed Italian director trying to make a movie on the fly while keeping it a secret that he has no idea what the movie is about. It has been described as the only film in history that doubles as its very own making-of feature. But when the plan found its stride, 8 1/2 was awarded moments of surrealist extravagance then unheard-of in Italian cinema. It is an incomparable study of the creative process, and we go along with the protagonist (a proxy for Fellini himself) while his mind wanders and enter his dream spaces where his story comes to him and is discovered.

vechnoe-siyanie-chistogo-razumaEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A genre-bender like few others, (ctrl-V) this Charlie Kaufman-penned movie features not only the audience entering a stranger’s mind and memories, but a third party as well. This film imagines technology that allows people to order a service that erases unwanted memories from their minds, all in one peaceful overnight. When protagonist Joel changes his mind and begins fighting against the process, Eternal Sunshine becomes the world’s weirdest chase film, as we go through his memories in every imaginable direction as the hazy metaphysical world threatens to crumble around us. It is an excellent piece of filmmaking, one that let cinema thrive as a technological medium, and with a premise just believable enough to make us wonder.

1972 --- Tony Randall and Burt Reynolds operate the body's control room during the sperm scene in Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. --- Image by © Steve Schapiro/CorbisEverything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

Woody Allen’s strangest movie is his daring adaptation of the famed non-narrative, nonfictional book with which it shares a name. One way Allen managed to answer the trying questions in the book in visual form is to literally set chunks of the action within the human anatomy. This includes the brain — the “Control Station” — among, um, other places. This is the most overt literalization of bringing the audience into the brain listed and the visuals play more or less how you’d expect them to, which is to say, there is a lot of chrome and white.

imaginarium-of-doctor-parnassus-review-4The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Heath Ledger’s final film cast him as an explorer of sorts who helps paying customers reach euphoric states of enlightenment by navigating them through the eponymous doctor’s dreamscape. It extremely cleverly brings to life the fact that things and people are never recreated in the mind exactly how they are in the real world by recasting Ledger’s character to have him played by different actors (Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell) each time he enters the Imaginarium. But when he returns to the physical world he is back to his old self, which is how we remember him, or is it? Sometimes the return to a believable reality and a return to the A-list star is as shocking as it was to leave them in the first place.

inception_limbo_city_660Inception

No need to fret, here it is. Christopher Nolan’s epic released in between the second and third installments of his Dark Knight-trilogy, Inception is probably the most buzzed-about movie in recent memory. It takes its characters and audience deep into the human subconscious, theorizing different ways to navigate the mind the relationship between the dream world, memory and the physical world of the dreamer in ways that were very convincing. The images that haunt viewers the longest are those of the rotting purgatory of “limbo,” unconstructed dream space in which the dreamer can be lost for decades, if not forever entirely. The crumbing and eroded city in the film’s limbo is a heavy-handed reminder not to be a full-time dreamer, but to leave the highly decorated world of the dream and return to reality every once in a while.

the-matrixThe Matrix

The premise of The Matrix is plain and simple: the mind enters a created false world where it lives in blissful ignorance, while the body is wired up in a lab producing energy for a futuristic evil corporation. The Matrix of The Matrix is not unlike Inception‘s limbo. It is a space populated by the mind that becomes the mind’s reality if you aren’t careful. This movie is a cultural landmark, setting in motion a generation of technology minded sci-fis over the next decade and carrying cinema into the 21st-century. Like the victims in the Matrix allowing their projections to walk unknowingly through a false world, the audience of a great and inventive film enters the world of the story and lets go, swimming through the imagination of the creator.

bffd7eec3a934cb07ea63dce840c86c3Synecdoche, New York

Another genuine masterpiece — note, every film here is excellent, or it wouldn’t be here —  Synecdoche, New York is unique among this list. In (ctrl-V) this Charlie Kaufman-penned philosophical exercise, the audience is not brought into a world within the mind. Instead, the protagonist brings his thoughts out into the physical world, where he constructs his view of his life in physical form in the shelter of an impossibly large warehouse. He manipulates his memories by casting actors to replay scenes from his life, he categorizes parts of his personal history by placing them into different blocks of apartments in his created city. He even recasts himself, forcing himself to view and consider a third-party presentation of himself. It is a strange film that not only rewards but demands repeated viewings, and the association between the created world and physical truth is brought to our attention in no filmic moment more than the final shot here, in which the “director” whispers a final instruction before the screen cuts to black: “Now, die.”

The New York Times Doesn’t Want to Review Your Movie

largeAfter years of strain and months of debate, the New York Times has officially changed its film review policy, which previously promised that the paper would cover every film that opens in New York City every week in its Friday Arts section. Now, the selection of films that will be reviewed will be in a case-by-case process likely overseen by arts editors and by co-chief film critics A.O. Scott and recent Pulitzer Prize finalist Manohla Dargis, who has publicly opposed the policy for the past year.

Reportedly 17 films will open in the City this week, and 22 did last week. Scott and Dargis felt that the paper was being stretched and strained too much to cover all of these. The effort to review all of them resulted in taking up valuable page space within the weekly edition and limiting the output to brief, cursory, basically useless reviews of movies that the majority of readers are never bound to see (or outside of New York even able to see).

Obviously, this is to the benefit of the Times and its senior critics, and in some ways to the city’s film culture, which had been burdened by floods of releases of films that only screened because distributors wanted the Times‘s review to help legitimize the project or the filmmaker. These reviews were used to pad advertisements and synopses. Many of these are films that would otherwise go straight to Video-On-Demand, but would have a brief, single-screen run in New York to force the Times to cover it. Now, there will be no motivation for that, and theaters will not be flooded with minor fare and vanity projects.

So look, I get it. I see the benefit for the paper and for cinemas and understand why so many people in arts media are excited by this announcement. But I also see the risks and am pessimistic about the long-term results of the move.

The New York Times is a stabilizing force in the entertainment world, and the universal coverage was the ultimate equalizer, forcing Marvel pulp to share a page with micro-indies. Now, that’s gone. Scott and Dargis and their staff probably know which of those two needs the review more, and knows which one people who actually seek out New York Times film reviews are probably more interested in, but at the end of the day it comes down to selling papers and collecting clicks. As much as we (and they) would like to think otherwise, the decision-makers are going to wind up being business minded people trying to sell ads — or even journalism minded people looking for the key story — and not the film minded people looking to promote great art.

It it only a matter of time, I fear, before there is no market at all for those micro-indies without the help of a major — ehem, sorry — THE major print news source. Putting a transformer or one of the Avengers on the top of page one with where to find the review is endlessly more likely than something promoting the next release even from established distributors like Bleecker Street, IFC or Magnolia. These films will cease to benefit from renting out a theater or fighting through the process of being played in a specialty theater, and for the first time, a majority of movies will only be available in VOD. New York was the testing grounds, and any degree of success in a short New York release is what gets your film played elsewhere and brought to more and more eyes.

On a slightly different but equally pessimistic note, I am curious how many Times critics are about to get laid off. The past decade or so has seen a purge of staff critic positions and the high demand that the Times had to meet every week to keep up with the flood of releases kept those jobs safe. Now, who knows. At best these people will lose staff standing and be held as freelancers as long as the paper still tries to see as many movies as it can, but they will have a huge target on their backs every time the paper has to make a cut. The minor critics at the Times responsible for writing the hundred-or-so word bits about tiny releases are now excess fat, and with every time fat gets trimmed, that means another critic out of a job and another movie never going to be reviewed.

This is the end.

Mad Men (Season 5)

This is a shockingly spoiler-free commentary on the ending of television series.

After countless hours of a show has aired, whom does the end belong to? In all storytelling media there is an emphasis — I’d argue an over-emphasis — on the importance of the ending. It seems that the first 99 percent of a story can be masterfully told, yet the total can be dismissed if the audience doesn’t get exactly what it wants with the last one. And that is wrong.

This, I fear, is the fate of Mad Men, whose incomparable 93-episode run comes to an end on Sunday night. Mad Men is an interesting case when considering the question I posed above. After what amounts to nearly four days worth of viewing, Mad Men‘s audience likely deserves a pay out, something to not only provide closure and neatly tie the bow, but also that actively gives viewers satisfaction and joy, a loving departure to their favorite ad execs. It is a show that has never been a smash hit according to the ratings, where it was by far the least viewed of AMC’s three-pronged attack that also included The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad. But it’s fans are perhaps more passionate about it than the fans of any other drama, leading it to be the most cited program in water-cooler “Best TV Show Ever” debates. But those fans also understand that the show they love is the product of the mind of creator/writer/showrunner/part-time director Matt Weiner, who is notorious for being incredibly possessive with his Emmy-winning brain child. Weiner demands a writing credit on any episode that has at least half of its words rewritten from the original script. He does not allow any prop onto his set unless he is shown photographic proof it was used in the month before the episode is set. It’s his show, and as such he has sent it every which way, with very odd memorable episodes and stand-alone elements that are never bothered to be resolved. Why should we expect the finale to be any different?

The relationship between fans and a show’s series finale was brought into cultural discourse last spring with the end of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. For that show, the end is built into the title, but that proved to be misleadingly nonspecific, as fans and critics were uproariously angry with the events of the finale which covered 15 years, going way beyond meeting the mother and showing events that would better have been left to debate and the eternal halls of fan theories. In this example, the fans thought the finale belonged to them, and the creators felt it belonged to them. Fans wanted closure and a respectful good bye to their friends. I’m a fan, and have been since 2005, knowing Ted and the gang for longer and through a more important chunk of my life than most of my tangible friends. All I wanted was to hear Bob Saget say “And that’s the story of how I met your mother,” and the last scene to introduce us to the eponymous woman. Showrunners Craig Thomas and Carter Bays wanted to send their message and tell their story, which was about how people are fundamentally unchanging and that life goes on even after the story ends. Really, the ending should be the product of the story, not chosen or forced. It should belong to the characters. Fans should realize that the characters theoretically have lives outside of the frame; and the writers should realize that the show had matured and changed dramatically from the first few seasons when they first imagined-up the ending.

Finales, like How I Met Your Mother‘s, tend to be anticipated with a degree of sentimentality. It’s like graduation, where you acknowledge that for better or worse there is a certain sadness to the fact that there are people you’ve spent large amounts of time with that you may never see again. Even other comedies that spent years being devoid of sentiment know that the finale is as much for the fans as the writers. 30 Rock, for example, defied the network comedy mold proudly, until trying for at least two tear-jerking and comforting moments in the celebrated finale. It even did the traditional ending action of corresponding the end of the plot with an ending within the plot. In 30 Rock it is the cancellation of Liz’s show and end of her single life. In Friends it was leaving the apartment. In M*A*S*H* they leave Korea.

Perhaps the comedy most comparable to Mad Men — tonally if not at all narratively — is Seinfeld. Arrogantly calling itself a show about nothing in which there are no hugs and no one learns anything, Seinfeld pretty much did whatever it wanted, at least by NBC sitcom standards. Mad Men, similarly, does no think of itself as bound to anyone or anything and is very willing to reinvent itself and and push forward with a determined vision regardless of what other people think. Seinfeld ended with no one learning anything, but a parade of blasts from the past that die hard fans loved but critics look back at with a disgruntled eye-roll. Because of the nature of the show, however, no one judges Seinfeld or experiences prior episodes of it any differently because of the misdirected finale. Mad Men shares that show’s attitude toward its characters and audience, but while also being the premiere case in long form storytelling with a tight plot that continues with its established richness 7 years later. Finding a middle ground might not be an option.

Neat endings also appear in dramas, though too. Walter’s tale is resolved in the finale of Breaking Bad. The Taylors move out of Texas in Friday Night Lights. Nucky leaves bootlegging in Boardwalk Empire. Claire moves away in Six Feet Under, which has the most masterful final sequence I’ve ever seen and probably the most perfect final handful of episodes to have aired.

But we all know that when you talk about ending a drama, you have to talk about The Sopranos, the most buzzed-about, controversial and mythic ending to any story in our time. You know the scene. Tony alone at a diner playing “Don’t Stop Believing” on the juke box. His family joins him. In walks a number of other uncanny looking strangers, including a man in a member’s only jacket who uses the bathroom. Meadow can’t parallel park. The bell dings every time the door opens. Meadow approaches the door. “Don’t stop…” Ding. Cut to black.

The Sopranos is Matt Weiner’s alma mater, his first experience writing TV drama professionally. It was on the strength of that show and his role as a senior writer and producer that he was hired on AMC and allowed to make Mad Men in the first place. The message of the finale is not whether Tony is alive or not (this is still debated ad nauseum, though, and How I Met Your Mother might have benefited from following that lead). It is that life, as is said by Steve Perry on that soundtrack hit, “we go on and on and on and on”. I don’t expect Mad Men to be any different. Weiner’s epic collection of short stories from the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s is going to end on its own terms, and I for one am going to accept it because I know the brains behind it are more powerful than mine, and they probably got it right, even if I can’t see that right away.

Mad Men Season 7, Part I: How Mad Men Took a Page from Alfred Hitchcock

404cb50b6a7f5706_don-draper-mad-menThe title sequence in Mad Men features a lonely silhouette as his world literally disappears underneath him. It was built on a foundation of conceit and false promises, manifested in the form of advertisements from billboards and magazines, and leaves him falling, falling from his once-safe skyscraper but never landing.

Motivating protagonist Don Draper throughout the show’s soon-concluding seven seasons is the fear of that metaphorical floor falling from underneath him. For the first half of the seventh season, which aired from April 13th to May 25th of last year, Mad Men put Draper at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole and forced him to climb. The fear of falling is front-and-center in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller Vertigo. Draper is Mad Men’s Madeleine Elster, its Scottie Ferguson and its Judy Barton. Played by Kim Novak, James Stewart and Kim Novak in the film, this trio demonstrated 57 years ago what Mad Men has masterfully examined throughout its run: That people become who you perceive them to be, no matter what is under the hood.

A poster for Mad Men's third season, inspired by the title sequence, bears striking resemblance to the artwork for Vertigo.

A poster for Mad Men’s third season, inspired by the title sequence, bears striking resemblance to the artwork for Vertigo.

To summarize that dynamic in Vertigo requires many a spoiler, and Hitchcock’s narrative is so winding and complex that you’ll have to forgive my dramatic oversimplification. Scottie falls in love with a woman named Madeleine, and is devastated when she dies, evidently by her own doing, right in front of him. Then he encounters Judy, whom he notices looks eerily like Madeleine, and begins to forcibly change in many ways, ranging from minute — the particular cut of a suit — to much more significant — her hair color. He turns her into Madeleine, fabricating her new identity out of his memory down to every nit-picky detail. What he takes a while to realize is that a heavily disguised Judy was the original Madeleine all along.

How Draper plays all three of these roles — the false creation, the willful creator, and the puppet — is that he has never been Don Draper at all. Born Dick Whitman and raised in a cat house in rural Pennslyvania, he switch dog tags with Lt. Donald Draper’s charred body in a trench in Korea. Since, he has meticulously blocked Dick Whitman out of his persona in the same way Scottie buried Judy’s identity somewhere under Madeleine’s clothes and hair. Still, no fabrication is perfect, and the most human and powerful moments in this season of Mad Men came when Dick Whitman managed to sneak into the show.

At all times, the show’s protagonist, like Hitchcock’s signature blonde in Vertigo, is two people at once. Even though her hair changes, Madeleine is always Judy. In Mad Men, Don reveals Dick when he is most vulnerable. As much as his finely tailored suits, the fabrication of “Don” is about cold distance, selfishly working his way to the top of his trade, leaving scores of discarded women in his wake. At the end of the sixth season, under the influence of alcohol, Dick Whitman took over in a meeting, spilling his secrets and getting Don forced into vacation. When season seven begins, he must deal with those consequences but also is more willing to be Dick, be natural. It is Dick, not Don, that flies to California to take care of a girl in need (ironically, the nephew of the first Donald Draper). The same goes for a particularly moving scene in the season’s sixth episode, “The Strategy.” Don Draper, drunken king of Madison Avenue, does not have the capacity for friends. When long-time colleague Peggy says she has just turned thirty, his response is, “Shit, when?” Dick Whitman feels bad for forgetting his friend’s birthday, and is proud of his one-time apprentice. The StrategyThis image comes from the above-mentioned scene, as Don then takes Peggy’s hand and they share a dance. The framing demonstrates the duality of the character by picturing him tightly framed in the doorway and with his reflection across the screen. This is one of many scenes in “The Strategy” to employ Hitchcock’s technique of literalizing duality with mirrors, and the series as a whole does this is a lot of ways.

mirrors mmv

Top-Left: Scottie spying on Madeleine before knowing she’s also Judy. Top-Right: Judy looking at Madeleine in the mirror. Bottom: Mad Men’s Meghan makes eye-contact with herself in the middle of a conversation with Don in “The Strategy.”

Over the years, Mad Men has repeatedly employed other ways of establishing duality. Literally, it exists in the Don Draper / Dick Whitman situation (and in the similar puzzle over the identity of recurring character Bob Benson), but is also reflected through symbols and semiotics. For example — in this case of unity of two bodies, rather than the splitting of one — Don’s first wife Betty flies to Reno to end their marriage with a quickie divorce. That season three episode ends with her pictured on the plane, from the left at a slight low angle. Four seasons later, after moving out her belongings but before verbally ending their relationship, second wife Meghan is shot in the same way on a plane to Los Angeles. Hitchcock in Vertigo turns the singular lead woman character into two, Madeleine and Judy, by changing her hair color. Mad Men repeatedly does the same.

In the show’s third season, Don and his team have to come up with an advertising campaign for Playtex pantyhose. The resulting campaign pictures a brunette woman dressed in black undergarments standing next to a blonde woman wearing white, and claims, “Nothing fits both sides of a woman better than Playtex.” The ad, titled “Jackie or Marilyn,” is clever because it uses only one model to play both roles. If changing wigs can turn a woman from a “Jackie” to a “Marilyn,” then the show is investing in the power of hair color, and future references should be taken as a serious message. Betty, in season five, dyes her hair brown. While on an LSD trip, Roger sees himself in the mirror with half of head covered in white hair, the other half black. Meghan, an actress, adds a blonde wig to play her primary character’s evil twin.

What is interesting is that the Jackie or Marilyn ad was created in the show’s 1963, only five years after the release of Vertigo, and it is likely that someone in the company caught the movie. It is possible that Hitchcock’s film inspired the fictional characters of Mad Men as much as its real creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner. In the current hiatus after the first half of season seven and this spring’s final batch of episodes, Weiner curated a series at the Museum of the Moving Image of films that inspired Mad Men. Among them are two of Hitchcock’s: North by Northwest and Vertigo. From 1959, North by Northwest is of particular importance to the aesthetic of Mad Men because it was shot in New York City at the time when the beginning of the show is set (it is also about a man who works in advertising). Vertigo‘s influence goes much deeper. Weiner said: “I was overwhelmed with its beauty, mystery, and obsessive detail. I remember watching the camera dolly-in on Kim Novak’s hair and thinking, ‘this is exactly what we are trying to do.’ Vertigo feels like you are watching someone else’s dream.”

This essay was written for an assignment for a class on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but it had to be turned in electronically, so I figured what the hell and put it on here.

14 Mad Men Episodes to Refresh, Review and Remind Yourself How Great this Show Is

Just in time for the final premiere of Mad Men run, which began in 2007 to very little fanfare and has grown to be the most mentioned program in television’s “Greatest of all Time” conversation, here is a list of the fourteen episodes — one per day between now and the April 5th season premiere — to make sure you are absolutely ready for the End of an Era. This list includes at least one episode per season, and is backloaded to remind you of the most recent developments on Madison Avenue. It is absolutely not a ranking of the best installments of this historic show (though some of the greats are here), but instead a primer to remember where we came from, where we’re heading and who we are going there with.

Babylon

1.6 “Babylon”

Some of the first episodes of Mad Men are brilliant pieces of characterization and visual storytelling, especially the pilot “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” But The first few installments of the show are only that, and the trajectories that have come to define Mad Men in the years since are born in “Babylon.” Here, we first see the out-of-office relationship between Roger and Joan. Not written about nearly enough is Roger’s affection for Joan throughout the series, and the self-destructive ways he hides his heartbreak when she is about to get married later on. It is also an episode that highlights the culture gap that only a few Manhattan blocks could create, bringing ad man Don to the Gaslight Cafe, the legendary McDougal Street joint where icons like Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk got started. It’s almost comical seeing Don through a marijuana fog. Lastly, this is the episode when Fred Rumsen seeks help from the secretaries for a lipstick campaign. Peggy shines, and the rest is history.

The Wheel

1.13 “The Wheel”

This episode will enter eternal television lore for its powerful climax, the defining moment of the first season and the front bookend whose partner we’ll get to later. Don’s Kodak pitch is incomparable even by Mad Men standards. This show has found a way of organically tying together real world companies and productions with fictional characters week-in and week-out for seven years. He talks of nostalgia. Photo projectors allow you to look into the past. One of the most quietly devastating moments in the series follows. Inspired by his own monologue, Don decides to change his mind and join his family for a Thanksgiving weekend away. When he gets home, they’ve already left. With the old photos, he’ll always be too late.

The Jet Set

2.11 “The Jet Set”

“The Jet Set” is the first foray into Mad Men‘s healthy obsession with California, which has by the final season become one of the most important trajectories. Mad Men is about, if I had to pick one thing, the American Dream. One part of that mythos is Manifest Destiny, the American motivation to keep pushing ever westward. Here, Don literally runs away in California, and literally finds himself there, a new man. The Sterling Cooper clan return to Los Angeles a handful of times more (keep reading), and their relationship with the west coast develops. In a later episode (6.13, mentioned in this post) Don makes reference to the fact that he proposed to Meghan at Disneyland by saying “we were happy there, we can be happy again.”

Shut the Door. Have a Seat.

3.13 “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.”

The season three finale was the first episode of Mad Men — famously a slow, deliberate burn — that was genuinely exciting. The ’60s were a decade of transition. Mad Men‘s visualizes this transition with admirable pacing and subtlety throughout its run, but uses this ending of season three and its relationship to the beginning of season four as a cosmic leap. The ideal nuclear family of the Drapers is dead. Little privately owned businesses like Sterling Cooper are under siege from multinationals during this first phase of renewed globalization. The end of one thing leads to the beginning of the next, but Mad Men leaves that reblossoming to the next seasion. Here, season three ends with a few shocks and heavy turnover. It does an incredible job showing that nothing — in the office, or in the real world this represents — will ever be the same again. That it ends on an unmistakable note of optimism is what makes this one of the quintessential Mad Men episodes, soaked in anxiety yet with the promise that tomorrow is another day.

Waldorf Stories

4.6 “Waldorf Stories”

This episode is crucial to include in a series recap because it gives backstories to some of our favorite characters, bringing the audience a glimpse at life before season one. And yes, it’s more Roger and Joan (clearly I believe that their sub-subplot clearly means a lot to the show’s trajectory more than most people do). Here, Don and Roger meet, winning Don the job that is at the center of the series, but a lot more as well. This is the first heavy dose we get of fan-favorite character Stan, who becomes more prominent as the years go on. It is also When Don wins a Clio award, only given in his name, which creates an opening for the earliest signs of Peggy’s anxiety that she is not appreciated and can do better. (The very next episode is “The Suitcase,” one of the best of the series, though not essential enough for this list, so bonus points for watching that). Also, a chance encounter with forgotten son Ken, who would soon return to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is always fun. A science fiction writer in his free time, Ken is perhaps the most genuinely likable of the Mad Men litter.

The Beautiful Girls

4.8 “The Beautiful Girls”

The champion episode of the women of Mad Men, “The Beautiful Girls” might just be the definitive Mad Men episode. On a superficial level, it has Don leading women everywhich way but up, it has Peggy being undermined at work, and it has Sally being the world’s worst daughter to match Betty being the world’s worst mother. But go deeper. It is about the first time Don’s manipulative, smartest-guy-in-the-room nature is used to plan for the future. Is he growing up? He learns to appreciate his secretary Miss Blankenship, which is not like him. Of course, Ida Blankenship is at the core of one of the strangest moments in the series. Mad Men, so often restrained and formal, really enjoys throwing you a curveball (a young man having his foot run over by a lawn mower in season 3, for example), so that both the characters and the audience don’t quite know how to react. This is one of those, but is at the same time very genuine and gives Bert Cooper a venue for his most famous line: “She was an astronaut.”

Signal 30

5.5 “Signal 30”

This season five moment is the ultimate Pete Campbell episode. Pete has been around as a main character since day one, but never seemed to be as closely explored by the writers as his colleagues. “Signal 30” is his chance at that. The episode is named for a famed documentary video from the period that showed auto wrecks to convince young people to drive safely. It is shown in Pete’s driver’s ed class, in which his is the only grown man among teenagers, including a beautiful teenager he takes a liking to. When she prefers a jock her own age, it is a last straw for Pete who had been having a terrible couple of weeks. His fist fight with Lane — yes, it happened and it is as awesome the hundredth time as the first — is the loosing of understandable tension and feelings of inadequacy.

Commissions and Fees

5.12 “Commissions and Fees”

Sometimes Mad Men throws in an unexpected quirk, as mentioned earlier. Sometimes, it hands you a heavy blow. How we didn’t see the climax of this penultimate episode of the fifth season coming, I still don’t understand. Some of us did see it coming, and were still shocked by it. It is a benefit of Mad Men‘s slow burn style that when a rare episode of dense and emotional plot moments comes along, it shakes viewers very much out of our day-to-day and becomes that much more important. Lane’s dramatic actions here not only paint a potent picture of the darkness and loneliness of the world of Mad Men, but also let us see how the rest of the partners react, especially Don. His incredibly human understanding is less Don Draper and more Dick Whitman, and I cannot quote him without major reveals, as much as I’d like to.

For Immediate Release

6.6 “For Immediate Release”

This is another one of those uncharacteristically consequential Mad Men episodes, closely resembling the tone of “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.,” only with more layers. What is landing a car account worth, the partners have asked themselves throughout the season. Is it worth losing half of your autonomy as a business? Don and Roger seem to think so. Their major move in “For Immediate Release” as the double purpose of bringing Peggy back into Don’s fold, much to his comfort and her chagrin. It is as eventful an episode of Mad Men as you will find, and the characterizations of Roger and Meghan and the rest of those around Don emphasize just how little the protagonist is in his big ole’ world. “For Immediate Release” — from its landmark business partnerships to forced friendships to temper tantrums — sets in motion the events of Don’s eminent decline from grace. The world was once run by handsome men in dark suits. In this episode, a 29-year old woman just became the copy chief at a top-30 agency on Madison Avenue. Times, they are a’changin’.

A Tale of Two Cities

6.10 “A Tale of Two Cities”

One of the oddest of within a season of odd-ball episodes is Don and Roger’s most recent forays to the land of hope and dreams, California. Harry Crane comes along and what we get from our three characters is an all-inclusive look at the cast of characters at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Cutler Gleason Chaugh Harris and Campbell (it is also the episode when they finally concoct a new name, “Sterling Cooper & Partners,” but not without a cost). Don Draper is alone, alienated by his younger wife and no longer with his mistress. He is of middle age and has no idea what his life will be like in a year, and that scares him to death. Roger is much older, twice divorced and having to fend off money-request from his inadequate son-in-law and pestering daughter. Is that where Don is heading? We know where he came from. He was a respectable, married man perfectly in tune with his time and always ahead of the curve in business. Now, that’s Harry, though admittedly the times have changed. He’s groovy where Don was suave. He introduces his partners to Hollywood executives rather than quietly nursing his scotch. Don needs an escape. California alone used to do the trip, but with Ana passed away, he needs more, nearly killing himself after a few puffs of whatever the hell those crazy kids were smoking.

In Care Of

6.13 “In Care of”

The end of season six has a similar “what is happening” feel to other crucial episodes listed here, but in a much more somber way. Don has been in aforementioned decline for the entirety of the season (arguably, the series) and here we are forced to sit helplessly by as he unravels into a small fraction of the great man he once was. And all over a chocolate bar. A key subplot of season six has been the rocky (understatement) relationship between Sally and her father. She has gone through a lot, and she has acted up predictably. But at what point does being a kid stop being an excuse, when does she have to try to understand why grown ups are how they are? The final scene of the episode — after the famous metamorphosis when Peggy takes the place of a dejected Don — underscores so much of the series. “This is where I grew up,” he says to his children, pointing up at the run-down whore house in which he was raised. He looks down at Sally. She looks up at him. Neither look seems to ask for or give forgiveness, but instead it is about understanding. Father and daughter have never been closer.

Time Zones

7.1 “Time Zones”

“Time Zones” opens with a character from the past giving a speech about a watch, a “time piece.” It follows characters every conceivable direction. Roger goes from the floor of a crowded hotel room, fully embracing the sexual revolution, to brunch at the Plaza. Don goes from New York to Los Angeles and his wife’s house in the hills. From there to a New York-themed diner downtown and to meet the new Pete Campbell (“This city is flat and ugly, but I do love the vibrations,” he says, to which Don replies “You don’t dress like a hippy but you sure act like one”). It is the episode, in early 1969, that brings the characters of Mad Men to the end of the world they were comfortable in. There is more color and flashier fashion than before. We see Pete out of suit for I believe the first time outside his home. Every wall is patterned or tiled. Joan is shocked to find a man who respects her expertise. Ken is shocked to find he is overwhelmed by the job he always wanted. Peggy is shocked to get less kindness from her new boss than she did from Don. Cutler is shocked that Ted hasn’t gotten a tan in spite of only being in California for the dead of winter. We’re all a little shocked that Don passes on a woman’s advances. The change of the ’60s had always been coming, but now that it is here, the rotten insides of everyone’s gilded dreams are, well, shocking.

The Strategy

7.6 “The Strategy”

This is one of the best written episodes of television I have ever, and probably will ever see. As the penultimate episode of the penultimate half-season of Mad Men it serves as the primary close. The rest is merely falling action and what happened in this magical hour will forever define my understanding of Don, Peggy and the rest of the world of Matt Weiner’s imagination. “What if there was a place you could go where there was no TV, and you could break bread, and whoever you were with was family,” says Peggy, planning a pitch. Like I said, it is miraculous how well this show linked life and advertising for all these years. Peggy is thirty. Don is embarrassed he forgot his friend’s birthday. Pete is upset he had to choose between them. Peggy is still single and, after a friendly neighbor moves away, regrets being “no where near becoming a mother.” Don is now a two-time divorcee, Meghan permanently staying in California. Pete has had one last falling out with his ex-wife and their child, and is told by his girlfriend that he is a lesser man when they’re in New York, where he is returning. They are all painfully alone, except with each other. This show began by destroying the idealized image of the perfect ’50s nuclear family, but until now it hadn’t replaced that image. This episode ends will these three old friends sharing a dinner at some cheesy fast food joint. But they’re all happy when they’re together. As the camera pulls away, Don cracks a joke, Peggy wipes ketchup off Pete’s face. What is that if not a family?

Waterloo

7.7 “Waterloo”

It might go without saying that the most important piece to watch before going onto the next of what Mad Men has to offer is to rewatch the last episode, “Waterloo.” Once again, a season ended with major turnover at the agency. Jim Culter’s assault on Don, Roger’s attempt retake the company with his name on it, Harry’s last efforts to be made partner. They all climax here, and will certainly spill into the final batch of episodes. But that’s hardly why this episode will be remembered. It will be for Bert Cooper’s big exit or for the nostalgic tribute to the moon landing. For me, it will always be for Peggy’s pitch, the absolute bookend to Don’s season one finale (“The Wheel,” mentioned above). While that speech looked into the past, this one anticipates the future. What is the immediate future for this Mad Men crew? I don’t know, but I get a generally optimistic feeling, like the show will end on a high note. I’ll be tuning in Sundays from April 5 to May 17 to find out.

2014: Top 25 Movies of the Year

Here are the best movies of 2014, the ones which I think most deserve commendation. I didn’t see every movie in the world this year, but I think I did a pretty good job getting to as many as I could, and these are the ones that rose to the top 25 of that large sample.

hero_TheTaleOfPrincessKaguya-2014-1Honorable Mention: Best Animated Film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

With its watercolor artwork and unwavering sense of fantasy, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is unlike any animated film I have ever seen, and I mean that in the best way possible. It is also the second consecutive film I’ve dubbed animated picture of the year from the Japanese traditional animators Studio Ghibli, the production company that has brought My Neighbor TotoroPonyo and the masterful Spirited Away. Last year they gave us The Wind Rises, the last feature from master Hayao Miyazaki. To compare Princess Kaguya to Miyazaki’s work would not be fair to this wondrous movie, but to say that it is a worthy installment into the Ghibli catalog is a great honor, well deserved.

life-itself7Honorable Mention: Best Documentary, Life Itself

Steve James got the best review of his career in 1994 when Roger Ebert gave his documentary masterpiece Hoop Dreams four-stars and writing that it transcends documentary. “It is also poetry and prose, muckraking and expose, journalism and polemic,” wrote Ebert. “It is one of the great moviegoing experiences of my lifetime.” Over a decade later, Ebert hand picked James to direct a movie that would impact Ebert more emotionally even than Hoop Dreams did,the story of his own life. Members of the film — particularly independent film — community seem to have taken their turns paying tribute to the man who made film criticism a popular profession and point of discourse. But Life Itself is also not only a documentary and biography, it is a portrait of an era and the industry and art form that defined it.

grand-budapest-hotel-revolori-ronan25. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A comedian described The Grand Budapest Hotel as the ultimate parody of a Wes Anderson movie, and I have’t heard a better description of it yet. I remember the first time I saw the trailer, and seeing the color pallet and hearing quips and upbeat music for the first time and turning to my friend to say that all this was missing is Owen Wilson and Bill Murray, and then there they were. It lacks the intimacy and control of Anderson’s earlier greats like The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, but it is as quick and quirky and fun as he has been, and his characters are as complete as ever. They are headlined by Gustave Age, another impressive demonstration of range by Ralph Fiennes, whose charisma is matched only by his mystery.

mr-turner-skip-crop24. Mr. Turner

One of my most anticpated of 2014, Mr. Turner did not disappoint after opening at the Cannes Film Festival to a shower of awards, especially for its lead Timothy Spall. Spall descends into the role of historic painter J.M.W. Turner as the audience descends into his mind. The world of the movie, shot by Dick Pope, is seen how he saw it, how he painted it. Which is to say, at once an exquisite reminder of how beautiful the world can look and a daring challenge to find it looking that way again.

Endurance-Spaceship-Interstellar-Movie-Background-800x50023. Interstellar

With Interstellar, Chris Nolan and Warner Bros. tried to create the ultimate philosophical science fiction experience that would twist the mind into never looking at the world, or at one’s self the same way ever again. Where the movie seems to have failed — and this might be the only place — is that they already did exactly that thing four years ago with Inception. But while the earlier film dared to talk about grand psychological themes by diving into the finite space of one person’s mind, Interstellar tries to comment on the nature of individual people and emotions by taking its audience on an abstract journey through time and space. It’s a 2001 remake attempt that is over explained but equally stunning to look at, and Hans Zimmer’s score let’s you get lost in the gorgeous vastness of space with Matthew McConaughey.

Article Lead - wide6160811110ogxwimage.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.10oh4f.png1412231138500.jpg-620x34922. Obvious Child

I can’t say enough about the writing and star performance in this super and wacky take on the romantic comedy genre. It’s dirty, it’s different, and it’s delicious. Jenny Slate is going to be a huge star in the blink of an eye; there is no doubt in my mind about that. Her turn as an amateur comedian in need of an abortion was fresh and bouncy, and they way that she felt like a square peg in the round hole of what dances dangerously close to boring rom-com territory makes this picture as enjoyable as a viewing experience as you’re likely to find.

Theory_of_Everything_WEdding_Kiss_Still21. The Theory of Everything

A lot of people are going to question me for saying this, but here goes: I thought The Theory of Everything was an absolutely lovely romance-history that transcended biography by never really even becoming biography. I’m famously sick and tired of “Based on the Inspiring True Story” films, and especially regarding biographies find they loose their impact when they romanticize their historical figures and forget that they should also be making a good movie (I’m looking at you Imitation GameSelmaUnbroken, none of which you will find on this page). The Theory of Everything managed not to feel like a plea to admire Stephen Hawking like those others did, possibly because the still living and working Hawking is someone we all already know so much about. Rather than paint a picture of the man, it let us fill in the frame with our wealth of knowledge of Hawking, his science and ALS sothat it could focus on making a charming movie-going experience anchored by great mimicry by Eddie Redmayne.

begin-again20. Begin Again

Begin Again slowly climbed up my ranking all year. I liked it more and more the more I thought about it. An independent film that doubles as a not-so-subtle love letter to independent film, Begin Again is a wholly modern movie that meditates on contemporary celebrity, the modern family, and the relationship between art and life. The movie asks Can a song save your life, and it answers with a resounding Yes. For the chemistry between its stars and its incredibly relatable emotional core, this is a movie that I look forward to seeing again and again over my years more than maybe anything else that came out in 2014.

the-one-i-love-sundance-119. The One I Love

Super smart and creepy and weird and awesome. The One I Love seems to totally abstract and incomprehensible when its secret trajectory remains hidden, and I have no intention of spoiling it here. I promise, when you see it, the title makes very literal sense, and the film’s courageous storytelling and editing take flight. The ambiguity of the moral is not moral ambiguity in the tradition sense of debating whether the simple act was right or wrong. You know what is morally right and wrong, you just never really know exactly what everyone is doing. It’s Twilight Zone -esque fun, so trust me, it’s worth your time.

Birdman-Movie-Visual-Effects 18. Birdman

Your Academy Award winner for Best Picture. A showbiz critique like no other — not just because its criticism is unique, but because it is a movie like no other — I’m not kidding when I say Birdman oozes greatness. Because of its one-of-a-kind editing technique (it is composed mostly of seamlessly bound long tracking shots) makes it really hard to ever look away from the big screen, so it becomes an electric viewing experience, knowing that something special is happening but always waiting for the climax that never comes because the pace keeps building and building. It derails in its final act, it abandons it’s cut-less gimmick for no discernible reason and the over-the-top acting looks better on some stars than others, but Birdman is a must see if only for study of the character Riggan Thompson, played by his own spiritual parallel Michael Keaton.

edge-of-tomorrow-tom-cruise-slice 17. Edge of Tomorrow

Birdman is a meditation on striving to resurrect careers marked by early blockbuster success that hinders post-franchise success. Edge of Tomorrow is a golden counter-example, a blockbuster action sci-fi starring Tom Cruise that is more human and honest than most movies bound by the real world. Aside from its predictably flawless special effects and editing, Edge of Tomorrow is a genre bender that also carries the weight of the war film and a strange bildungsroman. To describe its plot simply, it is Independence Day meets Groundhog Day with more intimacy and psychology than those two fine movies combined. It’s more than that. Protagonist Cage’s body returns to the same beginning every day, but the journey his mind takes, and Cruise’s ability to show that, are great cinema.

Under the Skin Official Trailer 16. Under the Skin

Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001 and Rod Serling’s landmark television series The Twilight Zone are each about to get referenced for the second time on this short list. Under the Skin is a sublime science fiction triller that replicates the slow burn of it’s Kubrician spiritual ancestor, also mimicing its aesthetic. The visuals and score of Under the Skin are its formal triumphs, but the story is mysterious and alluring to boot. It defies explanation; even though the explanation is so cut-and-dry that doesn’t seem to matter and the mystery lives on even after the emotional final scene.

Jake Gyllenhaal looks scarily thin on the set of his new movie 'Nightcrawler' in Los Angeles 15. Nightcrawler

For some reason I can’t explain, I get the feeling from Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, is a movie that a lot of people will be talking about for a long time. It’s themes, which are not gently beaten around but are directly hammered repeatedly, seem timely but are objectively much more universal than at first glance. What is specific to this time is that Jake Gyllenhaal’s protagonist Lou Bloom is an early millenial, part of the Participation-Trophy generation, and Nightcrawler might be the best on-screen depiction to date of the stuntedness of my peers and myself in this regard. Except rather than realize he doesn’t want to grow up and flying off to Neverland, Lou becomes the villian of his own fairy tale.

maxresdefault 14. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

This Iranian film by first-timer Ana Lily Amirpour is a spectacular atmospheric drama with stunning cinematography and costuming to makes its very strange subject matter than slow-marching plot easy to sit through. On top of its formal and thematic accomplishments, it is also a truly believable interpretation of what it would be like to have vampires in the real world (read on for another). The smartest thing about it is all of the vampire tropes and how Amirpour brings them in to A Girl Walks Home while not drawing attention to them and keeping them within the bounds of reality: her costume is all black and white but looks fairly ordinary, she glides around as if floating but on a stolen skateboard.

into-the-woods-anna-kendrick-emily-blunt 13. Into the Woods

When every movie this winter seemed to want to tie in to current world events, and to will away some societal evil, Into the Woods existed to be fun. By taking the form of an opera and being put in a world that completely abandons a look of reality it became the ultimate escapist film, one that allowed me as a viewer to forget for two hours my busy schedule and and of the harm in the world, and that is exactly what the world needed. It’s a live action movie that looks and feels like a fairy tale, where the hardships of reality still exist but there’s no better way to move on than to sing it out.

14 12. The Babadook

The scariest movie I have ever seen. Period. What makes movies scary is not an accident, and it definitely isn’t a vague concept or special effects. It is editing and sound design and The Babadook makes use of masterful technical filmmaking to make what might just be the most important horror film since The Blair Witch Project, and the best traditional horror film of the new century by a wide margin. Not only is it scary, but it is moving and character driven. It is to the contemporary indie revival as The Exorcist was in the New Hollywood era: a horror fable about a mother desperately fighting to protect her child from a supernatural force that on the screen seems all too real. Knock knock knock.

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11. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her

Another film that is the first of its kind, this experimental indie is by its very nature the most truly complete a cinematic story can be. Composed of two very good if bluntly ordinary films played back to back — Him and Her — this piece is a unique portrait of grief in modern city life. Him recounts the story of a man who must cope with his wife leaving him suddenly after she attempts suicide. Her is about that wife’s emotional struggle after losing their child. It is about perspective and that every story has, and needs two sides. James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain give what might just be their respective career bests. Chastain is especially powerful, as her acting stigma of a childish air with unexpected maturity helps her portray the complicated situation of a grown woman but one broken by emotional trauma.

1b20e91b0dff5836cf4f404a8ba2365b 10. A Most Violent Year

There has never been a film that so clearly and to such a great effect channeled The Godfather before JC Chandor’s period crime thriller A Most Violent Year. Set in the Winter of 1981, the most crime-ridden period in the recorded history of New York City, A Most Violent Year is occupied by a man who bridges the gap between hero and anti-hero, a venue that has been surprisingly under-represented. He tries fervently to stay straight and avoid falling into the cycle of organized crime and corruption, but its specter haunts him at every corner and seems to be able to smell his desperation. This film also contains two of the year’s finest performances. Oscar Isaac is in the lead as an oil man full of ambition but unwilling to do what it takes. Jessica Chastain is his wife, the daughter of the major crime lord who might have a little taste for foul play in her blood.

gone-girl-movie-screenshot-sugar 9. Gone Girl

David Fincher is slamming the door as the premier director of dark neo-noir. His career already contains the electric and violent expressionistic film Se7en and true crime masterpiece Zodiac. Now he adds the very good best-seller adaptation starring Batman and a Bond Girl. Affleck is impeccably cast as the husband that you truly want to believe is totally harmless, but also seems like there could be a brutish underside to. Pike is equally well cast as the “amazing” woman we kind of don’t blame him for getting sick of. Of course, her uninteresting incompatibility with suburban life did not merit the death penalty, and this quickly evolves into a film that literalizes the question of whether his being a disinterested and selfish husband should land him on death row. These too-good-to-be-true newly weds take less than five years to descend from they marriage they want to the one they deserve.

Whiplash-5547.cr2 8. Whiplash

When I walked out of the theater after Whiplash I thought two things. First, I was ready to run through a brick wall. Its sound design and impeccable and fast and electric editing charged me up with adrenaline. It was a far more exciting and enticing finale than any movie about a snobby kid who plays drums had any right to have, and for that this movie will have serious staying power and be a favorite of young people in need to a face to relate to their antagonistic adult figures for generations. It is super charged in that way; it becomes Andrew versus Fletcher, good versus evil, us versus them. Second, I thought that whatever it was, I wanted to work as hard as I could to be great at something. No, to be one of the greats. Whiplash‘s style provided the first. It’s story provided the second. Both are powerful and they work perfectly in tandem.

palo-alto-2014-08 7. Palo Alto

Palo Alto is a representation of adolescent life that has been missing from motion pictures largely for about three decades. But it handles this material far more gently and carefully than the flood of teen dramas in the 1980s did, thanks largely to Gia Coppola’s exquisite direction. Not overly moralistic or expository, Palo Alto is a snapshot. It seems to be an arc-less chapter in the book of life, which I think is how most teens actually feel about their lives. They know they are supposed to be going somewhere, but don’t understand why the wave isn’t carrying them. It is limbo in every way. One character finds he doesn’t fit in among the senior citizens he volunteers with or with the children at the library. Another thinks she is too mature for silly boys her age, but is seen to be way too fragile to carry on a relationship with an older man. Palo Alto is about the transitional period when everything is changing, but nothing seems to be.

Only-Lovers-Left-Alive-2014 6. Only Lovers Left Alive

The best film of Jim Jarmusch’s increasingly iconic career in experimental and independent filmmaking is the second realistic vampire movie on this list. I will never understand that coincidence. Anyway, while A Girl Walks Home is an unbelievable and unbelievably weird atmospheric experience, Only Lovers crafts very compelling characters and a centuries-old backstory that adds are really enticing element of faux-context to the ultra-modern narrative. Shot and set in the middle of the night in hollowed out Detroit, Jarmusch doesn’t only create vampires that could fit into the world as we know it, but a world that seems to be made just for vampires. But even though I’ve mentioned vampires three times already, the greatness of Only Lovers is that it really doesn’t matter whether they are vampires or not. This is perhaps the most believable on-screen love I have ever seen. I didn’t say romance, which implies the process of falling in love. I said love, the product of time and closeness brought to life by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleson as two ageless characters whom it seems literally hurt when they’re apart.

james-gandolfini-in-the-drop-movie-3 5. The Drop

This is Dennis Lehane’s screenwriting debut, and he also wrote the source material, a short story entitled Animal Rescue. It shares a lot with other film adaptations of Lehane’s prose, such as Mystic River, a highly celebrated urban crime thriller that twists and turns with its enigmatic characters, of which its city is one. All of that description also applies to The Drop, though the characters and crime feature very little overlap and the tale is relocated from Southie to Brooklyn. It features one of the best written characters of the year, protagonist Bob played by Tom Hardy. It also features his associate Cousin Marv, played by James Gandolfini in his farewell performance. It was the perfect note for Gandolfini to exit to — wishing that he’d never exited at all — as a city man worn-down by life and mourning his loss of power and respect. After a monologue he gives about once having been feared and respected, I swear I could almost hear Paulie Walnuts say, “See ya later, T.”

wild-movie-review-20144. Wild

Wild is an emotional experience that at once serves the superficial needs of the audience by playing with the oldest tricks in the book, and weaves ultra-subtle brilliant storytelling and comments on the nature of the human experience. It is as much about memory, identity and the ways in which the mind creates narratives and handles solitude and grief as it is about one woman’s overlong walk through the woods. Wild has been criminally under-appreciated because people are afraid to dig into to, to really pay attention to and appreciate the details (horrible CGI fox aside). The way Cheryl, played by the incomparable Reese Witherspoon, effectively teaches herself to walk in the first minutes of the narrative set the stage for a film about growing psychologically, about songs bouncing around in your head, and about learning to live with yourself before you can live with others.

365054_563457-InherentVice3. Inherent Vice

I have probably typed this sentence about twenty times in the past few months but I feel I can never say it enough. Paul Thomas Anderson is probably the most talented filmmaker alive. His body of work is second to none, a string of movies so great that they would all be defining moments in the careers of most other filmmakers, without one false note. Inherent Vice is another one, and I’m beginning to think after seeing this wild and funny, twisted and contemplative, stylized and cunning tribute to its medium and its city that PTA can literally do no wrong. The novel upon which Inherent Vice is drawn was said to be unfilmable. If anyone can look that challenge in the eye and obliterate it, it is evidently Paul Thomas Anderson. Every frame is expertly created, and the candy-colored aesthetic is second only to the magnetic and cavernous mystery.

ida_still_022. Ida

Ida is almost a nostalgic piece that longs for traditional European art cinema and is every bit as great as the mid-century classics. It is the unmistakably Bergman-esque tale of a young ethnic jew looking to become a nun, but first experiencing life and exploring her identity outside the convent. Gorgeously shot, graciously acted and gently paced, Ida is an incredible achievement for Polish director Pawel Palwikowski. It’s moments of silent reflection are among the best the big screen has seen in decades, and its character arcs are as surprising as they are understandable, the balance every storyteller suffers to reach.

boyhood31. Boyhood

I’ve seen Boyhood twice, spent hours talking about it and even more hours reading about it and I’m still not sure I have the words for what this movie did to me, so I won’t try. It is a masterpiece, a once-in-a-generation special film that can never be replicated and will be discussed as long as cinema exists in popular discourse. It’s a portrait of a life. Life isn’t about vampires and not everyone has cool jobs and great apartments and makes music. Life, according to the works of Richard Linklater, doesn’t need to be dressed up  to make a good movie. It is crazy and touching as it is. No need to highlight any specific peaks and valleys. No need to embellish. See it for yourself, you won’t be sorry. It is a movie that challenges everything we thought we knew about the nature of story, history, growing up. It doesn’t feel at all like a movie. It feels like one of those dreams that is so realistic you don’t realize you’re dreaming until you wake up and it’s still the middle of the night. With it’s own unique pace — necessary for its content — Boyhood can be enjoyed from any beginning and to any end. Just jump in and roll along with Mason. Then, when it ends go live your own life with a new appreciation of the way time passes and that you should always try to enjoy the now.

Now, I invite you to comment or tweet at me and tell me why I’m wrong. I did not get around to every film this year that I had hoped to, especially Goodbye to LanguageTop Five and The Congress, which I was really looking forward to. Oh well. On to 2015. Last year at this time I said that my most anticipated 2014 film was Boyhood, and as you can see I was not let down. So I’ll write here that 2015’s is quite different: Inside Out. I’m cautiously optimistic that it triumphantly will mark the return to Pixar’s inventive greatness.