The Movie Club

For Years, Violence Had Replaced Sex at the Movies. But Sex Is Back.
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 15 2014 12:09 PM

The Movie Club

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Entry 6: This was the sexiest year in cinema in a long time.

AMERICAN HUSTLE
Amy Adams somehow acts her way past all that cleavage in American Hustle.

Photo courtesy Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures

So because I'm miserable at scheduling and really good at overscheduling, this has to be my last post. I leave for the Sundance Film Festival today. But before I go I want to pick up a strain from Dana's post and talk about something very important. Concussion is very smart and often very hot. That was something I felt over and over this year: It was a good year for the libido. Sometimes, it was an actor, sometimes a mood, sometimes a whole movie.

For two or three years toward the end of the last decade violence had replaced sex as the most viable way for characters to communicate with each other. A distributor can better circulate gunfights, shootouts, etc. than it can sex, especially as our movies have become international mega-productions. But this year, you can feel sensuality in both the masterpieces and the crap. The biggest thrill in American Hustle is the way these actors keep burning holes into each other. Amy Adams, who somehow acts her way past all that cleavage, slinks back into Christian Bale's office, locks eyes with him, and becomes another woman.

Adams then has a scene of restraint with Bradley Cooper in her apartment. They want to do it, and don't. The charge between them is emotional porn. That charge is there between Lawrence and Adams in that bathroom scene, and a little bit between Bale and Jeremy Renner, too. And that disco scene between Adams and Cooper should be laugh-out-loud funny, but it's cover-your-pants beautiful. David O. Russell makes screwball comedies. But the heat in those screwballs remains underrated. So does Bradley Cooper. He makes so much sense as a star when he works with Russell, and so little sense almost everywhere else.   

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One of the many perks of participating in the Movie Club is that it's another opportunity to say, "I love Paula Patton," who has a great, galloping way with romantic comedies. I don't know what the movies are going to do to (or for) her, but Baggage Claim is what she can do the movies. The same goes for Oscar Isaac, who made Inside Llewyn Davis so much deeper and more human than any movie the Coens have made. Isaac has an intangible sexiness that not even the makers of Burn After Reading can shut off. I like the movie. I loved him. You guys were arguing over the romantic appropriateness of Jordan Belfort vs. Theodore Twombly, but Isaac's Llewyn Davis seems a much worthier object of that kind of personal displacement. The Coens' movie is essentially about what draws audiences to artists and how a confluence of factors (timing, talent, temperament, taste) affects that attraction. The achievement (or the failure perhaps) of this movie resides in how attracted you are to this allegedly unappealing man. I think if he'd gotten on television, Llewyn would have been a hit despite the cosmic-cultural punch line the movie saves for its penultimate shot.    

Sometimes I feel like the only person who found a little wisdom in the treatment of the sex in Don Jon. But Stephanie, you liked it, too, right? That scene between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Julianne Moore in her living room is one of the most erotic moments to show up in an American movie in a long time.

And what of the lovers in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color? The sex really was a smoke screen for the film's ideas about love and women. This is a ridiculously prurient movie (the sex, the art about the sex, the disgusting eating). I don't find that prurience offensive—just bad. Actually, the warmest scenes in the movie are between Adele and her pupils, not on mattresses or in coffee shops. (I mean, that reunion alone vaults from poignant to AYFKM so fast; Kechiche is a director of such great intensity that the passion winds up leaving a stain.) But you're grateful for a movie like this. By foreign language art-house standards it was a hit, and it got the people who saw it talking.

Remember last spring when people were also talking about the retirement speech Steven Soderbergh made at the San Francisco International Film Festival? He lamented both the death of movie intelligence inside the major studios and the death of a certain kind of midbudget adult movie. For the most part, I agreed with him. Before he took his leave, he made two good, bizarrely sexy movies: Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra, which was released in the U.S. on HBO. Its lack of a theatrical release was very much his point: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, me? What's not to distribute? Maybe the whole Liberace thing, but Soderbergh can make manure gleam in way that few directors can. 

Side Effects, with its quartet of stars and meat-locker chill, was a quiet hit, and maybe that’s all it needed to be. It suffered from being released in the winter, but what should we do in February? Go hungry? Keep watching Identity Thief? Anyway, I'm all for the studios making more of these serious low-to-mid-budget dramas that adults are always saying they want to see. I'm also very much in favor of studios letting directors and screenwriters go as mad as Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy did with The Counselor. That movie didn't cost much, but audiences seemed to really have an allergic reaction to its nihilism. So did some critics.

I saw that movie on a Saturday afternoon the opening weekend in a pretty full house, and we all seemed to have a great time. I was really blindsided by the instant contempt it garnered. It was another hot movie: Penélope Cruz telling Michael Fassbender how to please her? Cameron Diaz making love to the windshield of a sports car? Brad Pitt in a cheap suit? Maybe the killing and humping and glorious vulgarity were too much. Maybe it was badly sold. Maybe in the end what some of us want is Sam Raimi making a droopy Wizard of Oz movie or Walt Disney (whose company owns Grantland, where I work) shoving Mary Poppins down P.L. Travers's throat till she cries for her daddy.

The orchestra is starting to play me off stage. But before I turn from a Movie Club participant into a Movie Club reader, I'd really like to know what you all thought of how strong a year 2013 was for nonfiction filmmaking. Even 20 Feet from Stardom, which has a nagging lack of useful journalism, has moments of wonderment. There were at least half a dozen other documentaries that were great, and unconstrained by politics as usual. Act of Killing, The Square, Let the Fire Burn, Stories We Tell, Leviathan, At Berkeley: That's a ferocious gang of independent movies, better than most of their fictional counterparts, too many of which are rule-bound and pandering now. This is why, despite how conflicted I am about Shane Carruth's movies, I'm unabashedly in favor of Shane Carruth and what he and directors like Andrew Bujalski, Ava DuVernay, and Stacie Passon represent for American movies on the commercial margins: a way forward.

Dana, you asked for a blink-and-miss-it movie from last year. It's tempting to tell everyone who missed The Counselor to correct that. I'm pretty sure a movie of its kind will never happen again. But people didn't miss The Counselor. They got out of the way. I'd pick Bujalski's Computer Chess, an arid comedy perfectly set at the dawn of the computer age. It’s divine. It's magical. So is Emanuele Crialese's melodrama Terrafirma. Crialese is an incomparably imaginative, scandalously undervalued filmmaker—and this movie about two families in Italian seaport town is like a dream, and it came and went faster than the party montages in Spring Breakers. And now, alas, so must I. It's been great, you guys. I'm looking forward, along with everyone else, to reading the rest of the Club.

Love,

Wesley

Wesley Morris is a staff writer at Grantland.

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