My Favorite Movies of 2013

Here are the top movies that inspired me creatively during the past year.

I have to say, 2013 was not a great year for me and sci fi/fantasy films. I saw Oz, The Great and Powerful, the film adaptations of Beautiful Creatures and Mortal Instruments, Oblivion, the new Superman: Man of Steel, and Pacific Rim. (I happily skipped mega-bigot Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game). I thought each of those movies was good, but none was especially memorable. I still want to see the Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Gravity, Thor: Dark World and the second Hobbit movie, so maybe there’s still time for another sci fi/fantasy film to get added to my annual list. As it is, I only have one.

Jack the Giant SlayerI really liked everything about Jack the Giant Slayer, from the re-told fairytale storyline, to the mood and the atmosphere, and to the acting and the action sequences. It got pretty crappy reviews and was branded as another lazy Hollywood fairytale remake, along with 2012′s Snow White and the Huntsmen, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Red Riding Hood. But for me, Jack stood above those films simply for sticking to action adventure rather than overpowering the story with sexuality, modern sensibilities and/or “deeper meaning.” It’s not destined to be a classic, but I thought it was really fun and well-conceived.

The rest of my picks were contemporary dramas, comedies or a combination of the two.

Blue Jasmine

You can’t go wrong with a Woody Allen movie in my opinion.

It’s always tough for me to say what was my favorite film of the year, but if held above a flame, I’d give it to Blue Jasmine. I thought that the two lead characters, portrayed exceptionally well by Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins, had great stories to tell. That was interesting to see since so many of Allen’s films take things from a male character point-of-view. Blue Jasmine was wonderfully neurotic and complex, and I’m a sucker for that.

 

 

What Maisie Knew

Besides fantasy, dysfunctional family drama is probably my next favorite genre. Give me a fantasy with dysfunctional family drama and I’m chomping at the bit; erm, Game of Thrones perhaps?

This quiet film adaptation of Henry James’ novel What Maisie Knew is squarely contemporary, and I thought it was very impressive. Great writing, great acting, and heart-wrenching without pound-you-on-the-head sentimentality.

 

 

Kon Tiki

 

Based on the 1947 expedition of Swedish explorer Thor Heyerdahl to prove that ancient South Americans migrated, on rafts, to the Polynesian Islands, Kon Tiki is worth the ticket price just to see its cinematographic achievement. I literally swayed and lurched in my seat as the crew hung on throughout their perils on the open sea.

Beyond that, it’s an uplifting adventure story based on fresh subject matter.

 

 

The Hunt

Sliding further over to the dark side, this Danish film (a 2012 film but arriving in the U.S. for wide release in 2013) is about a father, displaced by an acrimonious divorce, who is falsely accused of sexual abuse when a troubled girl at the kindergarten where he works discloses fragmented feelings and memories. Loaded issues abound here, and what’s remarkable is the restrained portrayal of both the father and the young girl. Sympathy builds organically as the events unfold, and the only villains are some misguided vigilante fathers in the community who terrorize the main character. Even they get some redemption in the end, but the scars remain.

This Is The End

I have to include one guilty pleasure each year, and This Is The End got my guilty seal of approval for 2013. I watched the movie on a flight from New York City to Los Angeles, and granted: I had tossed back a vodka tonic or two. I laughed out loud so much, I’m sure it was majorly irritating to the nearby passengers.

That’s about all I should say about my feelings on this film in order to preserve a little integrity.

I feel bad that none of my picks so far have gay characters or themes. That’s not because I don’t support gay films. It’s just because none of the gay films I saw this year were 2013 releases. (I did see The Dallas Buyers Club, which has Jared Leto as a transgender/gay supporting character and deals with the early AIDS epidemic; I thought it was good but not great).

So I’ll give honorable mention to a couple of gay films I discovered this year.

I DoThis 2012 indie film had a grassroots tour across the country that went into 2013. I saw it On Demand in the spring. I thought the acting and the writing were solid, and the modern storyline was very appealing. Though I Do was marketed in part as a film about marriage equality and its implications for cross-national couples, I thought the movie’s handling of universal, tragic themes–the aftermath of the sudden death of the main character’s brother–was equally compelling.

Elliot Loves

Elliot Loves is a 2012 indie film that I watched On Demand this year. (My husband and I order in films a whole lot more than going to the movie theater these days). I thought the title character was an excellent portrait of an urban gay man growing up in the 90s/new millennium, on one hand experiencing greater freedom to express himself, but on the other still struggling for connection as he overcomes wounds of childhood, including and beyond homophobia.

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My Favorite Books of 2013

It’s time for my annual lists, where I share my highly skewed reading and film-watching preferences. First up: books!

I read a total of twenty-four books this year, which is better than I did in 2012 (19 books).

I try to keep up with new releases in order to make this annual post somewhat relevant. I ended up doing better than previous years on that score as well. Half of the books I read this year were 2013 releases.

Here are the books I liked the best.

Helene Wecker's The Golem and the Djinni

This was my very favorite book of the year. An engrossing mix of folklore and period fiction, Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni brings to life, in palpable detail, the experience of Jewish and Arab immigrants in late 19th century New York City. This book definitely has appeal for Neil Gaiman fans, and also for anyone looking for a story inspired by Middle Eastern folk legends.

 

 

 

David Zelman's Al Qaeda's Super Secret Weapon

Far on the other side of the spectrum, David Zelman’s comic send-up to military politics and homophobia was a highly enjoyable, transgressive read. Even better, it’s been banned by Apple iBooks for “objectionable content.” The story and the illustrations are definitely adult material, but its hardly “objectionable” for any adult reader with a sense of humor, in my opinion.

 

 

Andrew Killeen's The Khalifah's Mirror

 

As with The Golem and the Djinni above, I picked up this title while searching for books inspired by Middle Eastern folklore. I became a fast fan. This is the second book in “The Father of Locks” series, and it stands well on its own. Killeen has a madcap tone that goes off the rails for me at times, but the story’s unique mix of Arab-centered medieval history and gay/bisexual characters was a winning combination.

 

 

 

Mary Renault's The Persian Boy

 

The Persian Boy has been called the best work of ancient world historical fiction (gay-themed or otherwise). It only took me thirty years to finally read it when it came out in e-book format this past fall. It’s long and epic and filled with interesting details about the life of Alexander the Great. Most of all, it was the beautiful evocative writing that I loved..

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Oz The Great and Powerful

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Image courtesy of Disney.com

I went through several stages in anticipation of Disney’s “Oz The Great and Powerful.”

First, I felt resentful. If Hollywood was going to produce a big-budget epic on the subject of Oz, how could they overlook the material from Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series? No, I committed to myself. I was not going to shell out my money to support that unforgiveable betrayal.

Then, through a combination of my partner’s enthusiasm and the ubiquitous movie trailers, my curiosity was piqued. They came up with a compelling cast. I thought: could a movie really be bad with James Franco, Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz? It looked like fun. And really, maybe the film world is big enough for more than one new story about the legend of Oz.

But next, I read the New York Times review. Wow. I haven’t read such a lambasting in quite awhile. I was back to the stage of writing off this new rendition of The Wizard of Oz as a highly likely disappointment. Here’s a little excerpt from film critic Manohla Dargis:

Can the major studios still make magic? From the looks of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” a dispiriting, infuriating jumble of big money, small ideas and ugly visuals, the answer seems to be no.

Ultimately, I decided to judge for myself. I went to see the movie with my honey-bunny and a friend just this afternoon.

The one sentence synopsis: “Oz The Great and Powerful” is about a charlatan magician Oz (James Franco) who learns how to change his shifty ways when he’s transported to a fantasy world, and he’s the one person who can serve up justice for a people terrorized  by a wicked witch.

So what can I say? The kids in the audience liked it (and there were plenty of them). But as a cross-over movie for adults, “Oz The Great and Powerful” fell flat for me. There wasn’t much to hold my interest in the story. Meanwhile, the one-dimensional characters and cutesy devices (a rescued porcelain doll) worked against that interest, in an eye-rolling and cringing way.

It’s unfortunate because I think kids’ films can work for adults, through delightful imagination (the Harry Potter series) and/or an interesting subtext (The Golden Compass). “Oz The Great and Powerful” has a little bit of the former, but mostly it felt to me like an unsuccessful mash-up of vintage and modern fantasy sensibilities. On the latter score, you could find a more intriguing subtext in a pre-school picture book. Good is good. Evil is evil. And according to Sam Raini’s Oz, only men have the psychological complexity to waffle a bit in between the two.

 

 

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Best Movies of 2012

Here we go with my self-proclaimed Best Movies of 2012.

My typical disclaimer: I rarely, very rarely, recommend Hollywood blockbusters. It happens even more rarely the older I get. So as much as I love big epic fantasy as a genre, those titles tend to be underrepresented on my list. Instead, I usually go with quieter films – fantasy or not – with a strong narrative pull, real emotionality, and that highly subjective quality of resonance.

Another disclaimer: you may ask yourself, where are the queer films? Well, I didn’t see many of them, and I have no idea if that’s a reflection of the lower output (or quality) of queer cinema in 2012 or a random quirk of my movie-going behavior this year. I’ve included one film with a gay supporting character in my Honorable Mentions. Feel free to tell me what I should have seen.

What I do have is a list of great films featuring young adult characters.

I braced myself to see this ultra-heavy movie about an emotionally disturbed boy who grows up to do horrific things, and his embattled mother’s attempts to stop him. WNTTAK showcased the best acting of the year IMHO, with Tilda Swinton as the helpless, deeply-scarred mom, and Ezra Miller as the relentlessly destructive son. To boot, the story comes with an ending that leaves things quite reasonably unfinished yet with just a sliver of hope. My favorite film of the year.

Life of Pi was an unabashedly sentimental film. But give me an unabashedly sentimental film with an underdog hero I can get behind, like shipwrecked Suraj Sharma in the title role, and I’m a happy camper.

I thought the story was ridiculously imaginative and totally believable, due to Ang Lee’s direction and the tremendous special effects. It works whether you believe a boy survives on a life raft with a wild tiger, or the alternative version of the story revealed at the end.

I used the film’s French poster because I like it better.

Chronicle is one of the few 2012 fantasy movies I loved. Three teenage boys discover a mysterious object in the woods that gives them telekinetic abilities. Hand-held filming and capable, unknown actors give the movie an authentic feel – the antithesis to typical Hollywood superhero-storytelling. The movie left me thinking: this is what would really happen if a teenage boy unlocked supernatural abilities.

 

 

 

Honorable Mentions

I can’t fully recommend Snow White and the Huntsman because too many things bugged me about the storyline. It felt to me there was a missed opportunity to develop Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen further, taking her beyond the misogynistic bent of the source material. And the Huntsman seemed like a throwaway character, existing solely to create the possibility of a happy heterosexual ending for Snow White (who was played excellently by Kristin Stewart).

But the film had outstanding artistry and great world-building, along with lots of good intentions, just narrowly missing the mark for me.

Films about troubled suburban white kids have come a long way. I grew up on John Hughes’ movies in the 1980′s, and though I loved their comic moments of adolescent calamity (rendered most successfully in Sixteen Candles, I think), they always felt too safe and sanitized.

Nowadays, filmmakers can delve much deeper into the hardest problems facing teens. Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel, does a commendable job in this regard. There’s a touch of familiarity to the film’s band of quirky, alienated characters, but they are beautifully brought to life by terrific casting (Ezra Miller shows once again that he is expertly suited as a teen anti-hero). What I liked the most about the film was the subtlety with which the main character Charlie’s (Logan Lerman) psychic wounds are revealed.

The narrow missing of the mark for me on this one was a heavy-handed ending. The film does such a good job of slowly unveiling complex issues – childhood sexual abuse, the loneliness of gay adolescence, dating violence – it felt unfair to wrap everything up neatly in the promise of enduring teen friendships.

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My Favorite Books of 2012

I make a concerted effort to read lots of books. I do it to support fellow authors and good-quality small presses. It also helps to keep my literary muscle in shape.

According to Pew Research Center, most American readers read 17 books annually. E-book readers read more – 24 on average.

That sounds pretty good, but not so encouragingly, Pew’s survey found that one in five Americans don’t read any books at all. And the percentage of readers and the number of books read each year has been steadily declining since the 1970′s.

This year, I’ve read 19 books. I would have to give myself a C+ as a reader based on Pew’s statistics.

Here’s a round-up of my favorites. As with last year, I try, really try to include some new releases; but with an ever-expanding reading queue, it’s hard for me to keep up with what’s current.

Top Pick

SONG OF ACHILLES (Ecco, 2012) is a true 2012 release, and a truly outstanding work of mythic fiction. At its center is a love story between Patroclus and Achilles that spans from childhood to young adulthood when the two join the Greeks to fight the Trojan War. Miller’s portrayal of young love is extraordinary, and she renders the time period and setting beautifully. You can read my full review from June 12, 2012 here.

 

 

Close Second

I have never included a short story anthology in my top picks, but this issue of sci-fi/fantasy journal Collective Fallout (Vol. 3, No. 3) was my most enjoyable read of the year. It’s theme is futuristic, and it’s filled with entertaining stories of queer love in dystopian worlds. Highly imaginative and unexpectedly romantic. Here’s my full review from March 14, 2012.

 

 

 

Pick #3

Strange Fortune came out in 2009, but I’m sneaking it in here because I felt it edged out the remaining new releases that I read this year. It’s published by a high quality, LGBT small press (Blind Eye Books).

I’ll give a little more extensive review of the book since I haven’t talked it up on my blog. The story is set in a fantasy world that is an intriguing blend of high fantasy and ancient Indian sensibilities. There’s an Indiana Jones-ish hero Valentine Strange, and a more timid Warlock-y co-hero Alleister Grimshaw. The two get thrown together on an adventure to recover a magical, ancient artifact: the diadem of the goddess Purya.

The two men’s simmering attraction pulled me through the story, but Strange Fortune is equally an engrossing fantasy adventure. The two heroes are up against it early on. Bandits, sent by a mysterious patron, for a mysterious purpose, want to kill Valentine and Grimshaw to get the diadem. A complex mystery unfolds, and between my eagerness to figure out the significance of the diadem, and whether or not Valentine and Grimshaw would get together, I rushed through to the end of the book. A really fun diversion with a fresh fantasy setting.

Honorable Mention

Allison Moon sums up her self-pubbed Lunatic Fringe in two words: “lesbian werewolves.” I took a peek, got hooked and sped through the pages.

It’s the story of Lexie, a reserved young woman raised by her widower father, who goes off to an elite liberal arts college and struggles to fit in with a more “worldly” crowd. Delightfully, she gets taken in by an otherwordly crowd, a politically-empowered group of women who secretly hunt werewolves. They call themselves “The Pack.”

Meanwhile, Lexie falls for an independent-minded townie named Archer, who Lexie discovers is a werewolf.

What worked for me so well in this story was the interwoven political commentary, and Lexie’s journey to find her political self. Things heat up on that score when there’s a rape on campus, and the threat of werewolf attacks becomes symbolic of the physical/sexual violence that maintains male power and privilege on college campuses and elsewhere.

But I didn’t find Lunatic Fringe to be a preachy book. Both feminist politics and the werewolf world are portrayed as complex, with unexpected discoveries of what constitutes “good” or “evil.” There are good guys and gals and bad guys and gals on both sides of the political and werewolf spectrums. Moon brings an interesting perspective to werewolf mythology, with a variety of factions within that are warring as much with each other as they conflict with the human world. The intriguing question becomes: where will Lexie fit in?

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Dylan Edwards’ TRANSPOSES

Dylan Edwards' Transposes

Retrieved from Northwest Press

I recently received, and tore through, a review copy of cartoonist Dylan Edwards’ TRANSPOSES (Northwest Press, October 2012).

Having worked with LGBT teenagers at a youth center for many years, and being a writer and a fan of gender-bending characters, I found TRANSPOSES delightful and instructive.

The book comprises six illustrated stories of “queer-identified female-to-male transpeople” inspired by a series of interviews that Edwards undertook in his community. While he’s careful to point out in his Authors Note that the characters couldn’t possibly be representative of all queer-identified FTMs, I think it is extremely likely that readers, across the gender spectrum, will find something they relate to in this book.

With characters based on real life people, TRANSPOSES provides portrayals of ‘T’ individuals that are current and provocative. Issues like gender corrective hormones and surgeries play into some of the stories. But more often the characters are wrestling with, and learning about, and celebrating the experience of being themselves outside of social and medical preconceptions about gender and sexuality. As Henry, a bespectacled young FTM with an intellectual, OCD-leaning point of view, explains to readers in his chapter “The Museum of Natural Henry,”

“I do sometimes wish my body were more like a genetic man’s…but transition as a state of being rather than a temporary phase seems to be working for me.”

There’s amusing commentary on the perplexity of living in a binary gender-obsessed society. In the same chapter, Henry cleverly laments: “Frankly, I’d jettison all pronouns and gendered language if I could. But, as with pants, it tends to upset people if you leave the house not wearing any.”

Edwards establishes a wry tone from the start in his illustrated Introduction. Imagining himself addressing an auditorium, Edwards talks about the “cauldron of monkeys” awaiting trans-identity disclosures to family and friends. That cauldron gets opened pictorially, and the angry, mischievous monkeys fill the auditorium, demanding answers to such questions as:

“You used to be so pretty. Why did you have to ruin that?”

“How do you have sex?”

“You make me uncomfortable. Don’t you realize you owe me a justification for your existence?”

The stories frankly address such topics as coming out in a lesbian relationship (“Adam”), male role models and gay identities (“Avery”), as well as STIs (“Blake”) and recovery from childhood sexual abuse (“Aaron & James”). As such, I think TRANSPOSES is a trusty guidebook for young adults navigating the discovery of gender and sexual identity, and really for older adults too.

Edwards talks about aiming to create the kind of book he would have wanted when he was younger. I think in this regard, the author emphatically succeeds.

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