Archive for December, 2014

I’ve put this off long enough.

I love movies — I assume that much is clear. And I love recognizing good movies. There are few things that warm my heart like a friend telling me that my recommendations prompted them to seek out a new film.

Ranking movies, however, is torture, and especially this year was tortuous. But as Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit, and a list of 10 films is much more digestible than an incessant profusion of cinephile fandom.

So here are my Top 10 films of the year, beginning with number 10. And bear in mind that almost every day I’ve changed my mind about the ordering of the top 3 and will likely continue to do so after I push “publish.”

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10. Wild

A good character study is hard to come by these days, but Wild paints an engaging and at times hypnotic portrait of a woman putting the pieces of her life back together after being shattered by grief. The movie, set in the isolated, wandering expanse of the Pacific Crest Trail, tracks Cheryl Strayed as she battles the elements and her inner demons through California and Oregon. Wild jumps between beautiful vistas and moments of tense menace as Cheryl encounters both man and nature on her quest, while giving us a glimpse into our heroine’s mind through scattered glimpses at her past.

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9. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is, in a word, intense. As a morally ambiguous video-journalist capturing the nocturnal evils of Los Angeles, Jake Gyllenhaal creates a character that is a volcanic cluster of manic energy barely contained by a smiling, steel-eyed shell. But Gyllenhaal’s performance, incredible as it is, is only one of the many triumphs on which Nightcrawler can hang its hat. Director Dan Gilroy fashions a pulpy, lacerating examination of our blood-soaked craving for carnage media, making the audience complicit in morally ambiguous attempts to get that perfect shot of a crime scene or traffic accident’s aftermath. The movie starts on edge, stays there, and culminates in one of the most thrilling car chases ever captured on film, underlined by a pervasive sense of unease, and curiosity.

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8. Life Itself

It’s hard to love movies without loving Roger Ebert, the celebrated entertainment journalist who approached film criticism from the perspective of the American public rather than the self-aggrandizing intelligentsia. His reviews were sharp, witty and thoughtful, offering constructive criticism when needed and effusive praise when deserved. And in Life Itself, we get more than some two-dimensional portrait. We see the fight against alcoholism, the petty squabbles with his on-screen partner Gene Siskel and the moments of depression as he battled the illness that took his voice and ultimately his life. But throughout his life, he remained a champion of film as an art, or as he described it — in one of my favorite quotes — as an empathy machine.

And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

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7. Gone Girl

Can you ever really know another person? That’s the question at the heart of Gone Girl, David Fincher’s twisty, and twisted, adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller. At the heart of the story is the failed marriage of Amy and Nic Dunne, a pair of New York City journalists turned Southern suburbanites whose professional and emotional resentments toward each other reach a critical, and deadly breaking point. Fincher’s moody pallete, showcased in films like Se7en, Zodiak and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, proves perfect for Flynn’s tale. It’s a seedy tale of heroes and villains where every character is a little of both. If you haven’t seen the movie you’ve probably read the book, and if you haven’t done either then you’re just doing it wrong.

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6. Interstellar

There’s only a handful of American directors with the industry chops to attempt a movie like Interstellar — a mega-budgeted original work of science fiction that would rather play with space-time equations than laser guns and explosions — and thankfully Christopher Nolan is one of them. Having earned his keep with the Dark Knight franchise, Nolan was given the keys to the kingdom to make his 3-hour epic about love, family, wormholes and 4th-dimensional extra-terrestrial beings.

For some, it was a little long in the tooth. For me, it was a hypnotic roller coaster ride, beautifully shot and elegantly constructed, that I never wanted to end.

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5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson only knows how to make films one way, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The director’s hyper-stylized whimsy and dollhouse set design exists in a world that is pseudo-fantasy and often surreal. With Budapest, Anderson created one of his most expansive worlds, largely centered in a luxury hotel but more broadly in fictional pre-WWII Europe, and populated it with some of his most colorful and winning characters, none more so than Ralph Fiennes’ dedicated concierge Mr. Gustave H. It’s a film filled with humor, thrills and a fair amount of melancholy sadness, all placed within a visual masterpiece.

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4. Snowpiercer

American cinema has long been fascinated with the end of the world, but few post-apocalyptic stories have created a vision of the end as simultaneously bleak, bizarre and fascinating as Snowpiercer, the graphic novel adaptation directed by Bong Joon-ho. In a world covered in ice, the last remnants of the human race inhabit a train perpetually circulating the globe, divided into a very literal caste system with the affluent and comfortable occupying the front — near the engine — and the huddled, starving masses populating the back — or “foot” as the deranged villain played by Tilda Swinton explains. The conditions lead to revolt and a slow and steady push to the front of the train, with each new car providing Bong Joon-Ho with an opportunity to create a fully encapsulated micro-world for our heroes to explore and fight through.

Put simply, there’s just nothing like Snowpiercer, which avoids stereotypicality at every turn, subverting expectations and leaning, full-tilt, into bonkers banana land. It may not be the best movie made this year, but I would say it’s the first thing you should make sure to see.

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3. Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more hamful than ‘good job’.”

So goes the mantra of Terence Fletcher, the sadistic music instructor played to perfection by J.K. Simmons who berates his students into excellence in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” Fletcher’s latest target is Andrew (Miles Teller) a drummer who just might have it in him to be one of the greats if he can push himself hard enough, or be pushed hard enough without breaking.

In Whiplash, first time director Chazelle creates a haunting story of master and pupil that vibrates with crashing intensity. Under his direction, Teller’s drum solos have more energy than even the most expensive Michael Bay action sequence. It’s an incredible feet for a young filmmaker, that suggests very interesting things to come and all but certain Oscar nomination for J.K. Simmons.

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2. Boyhood

Filmed over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a triumph of filmmaking that sees a family age and evolve literally before your eyes. Setting aside the technical achievement of the film’s existence, which can’t be ignored, Boyhood is more than just a gimmick. The story told, through the eyes of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a beautiful, natural, soft-spoken thesis on life, from childhood fears to first crushes to the precipitous approach of adulthood. It’s a bold, daring project, that highlights what film is capable of as a storytelling medium.

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1. Birdman

You could talk a lot about the incredible performances in Birdman, from A-list stars like Edward Norton and Emma Stone to against-type casting like Zach Galifianakis to the central role of Riggan Thomson played to droll perfection by Michael Keaton. You could talk about the meta-commentary on fame, with a former superhero franchise actor making an artistic comeback by playing a former superhero franchise actor attempting an artistic comeback.

You could talk about the technical wizardry of the film, edited to look as though it was filmed in one continuous sequence, or the way it uses visual tricks to play with its surrealist elements, tip-toeing between what is real and what is imagined in the delirium of Thomson’s decaying mental state.

You could talk about the soundtrack, an at-times cacophonous jazz riff of percussion instruments that perfectly captures the frantic not-quite-right mood of the film.

You could even talk about the story, which revolves around the staging of a Broadway play and which gives you a peak into the interworking of the NYC theater world.

But really the only thing you need to talk about, and what ultimately makes Birdman the best movie of 2014, is how it’s just so much darned fun to watch.

 

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It’s been a particularly drab December here in Utah, where an atypical lack of snowfall has failed to make a winter wonderland of the otherwise lifeless inversion-bogged post-Autumn mountains of the Wasatch Front.

So I wanted to go somewhere pretty. Somewhere like the spa at the Grand America Hotel, Salt Lake City’s largest and only AAA rated 5-diamond hotel. This is the big daddy of Utah’s hotel industry. When U.S. presidents visit the Beehive State, this is where they stay.

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As far as the actual Treat Yo Self experience, I was intrigued by the Sugar Body Polish offered by the spa, which promised a “sweet treat to pamper deprived skin” through a blend of sugar exfoliate and moisturizing coconut and safflower oil, rich in Vitamins B-6and E.

I love vitamin B-6, it’s my favorite of the Bs! (Note: I don’t actually know the difference between B vitamins). I was sold, and I invited my friend Liz to come along.

I met Liz in February during the Legislative session. She’s a southerner who likes Mexican food. She’s my polar opposite. Literally. We have the Myers Briggs test results to prove it.

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She’s ok.

We checked in at the Grand Spa and were promptly shown to our locker rooms, which were located on separate floors and which included their own gender specific lounges. I can’t speak for the women’s lounge, but mine had two large plasma screens, a shoe polisher and complimentary tea, pretzels and granola.

I was shown to my locker by an attendant, where I found a very comfortable robe (pictured above) and a pair of Jesus sandals waiting for me. There was also a dry sauna and steam room and a row of showers, including the “experience” shower, a behemoth monstrosity advertized as having 17 separate shower heads (I counted 18).

FullSizeRender(14)After a few minutes in the lounge, I was picked up by my — masseuse? scrubber? — the person who would be performing my body scrub, who led me upstairs to my treatment room, which included its very own experience shower.

She gave me an option of scents to choose from, from which I selected a eucalyptus grapefruit blend. I was also a little congested from a cold so she added some essential oils to help me breathe better.

The scrub itself was very similar to a massage: I lied down on a bed covered by a sheet and she proceeded to pass her sugar-coated hands around my body. But instead of the pressured kneading of a massage, she moved in a back and forth motion similar to what I imagine my teeth feel when I brush them.

After the sugar was applied, she stepped out of the room while I went and rinsed off in the experience shower. I was really excited for this but the shower itself turned out to be mildly terrifying, a disorienting onslaught of scalding hot water coming from all directions with no escape.

I rinsed and toweled and laid back down. She returned to the room, applied some moisturizing oil and that was that. I met back up with Liz in the lobby and we picked up our to-go bottles of sugar scrub for an at-home sequel.

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Properly pampered, we skipped over to Simply Sushi to conduct our interview over some miso soup and tuna rolls.

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Wood’s Stock: Who are you and what do you do?

Elizabeth Converse: My name is Elizabeth and I work in politics.

WS: What did you think of the body scrub today?

EC: It was weird.

WS: How so?

EC: It was like a massage that was cut in half and instead you were scrubbed for the first half.

WS: Did you like it though?

EC: Yeah it was fun.

WS: Have you ever had a scrub before?

EC: No

WS: Walk me through it, what it was.

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EC: You get naked and you get on a table and instead of a massage they rub you down with exfoliates and things that smell good.

WS: What does it feel like?

EC: Tingly. I enjoyed it. A lot.

WS: I’ve had a massage, it’s very smooth. But this was scratchy.

EC: It didn’t feel scratchy to me. It didn’t hurt.

WS: I don’t mean that it hurt but it was scratchy, kind of sandy.

EC: Yeah

WS: Like someone with sandy hands was rubbing my body.

EC: Yeah. You and I define words differently. Scratchy to me has a negative connotation. It was awesome.

WS: So then what?

EC: You jump into this really weird shower with a million shower heads and light reflectors.

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WS: What did you think of that?

EC: I was completely overwhelmed.

WS: Right?

EC: I told her that after I got out. She laughed and said she always has to turn have the heads off, it’s over-stimulation.

WS: It was too much. She turned it on for me and she turned it on way too hot.

EC: With mine some of them were cold and some of them were hot and I couldn’t figure out how to adjust them so they were all warm. I just kept turning awkwardly and making sure all the sugar was off of me. And that’s another thing. Sugar gets places.

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WS: Sugar gets places?

EC: Yeah and I didn’t…

WS: Should we just leave it at that?

EC: Yeah let’s leave it at that.

WS: So after shower what then?

EC: You lay back down on a clean set of sheets. That’s another thing, it was weird laying in sheets with food in them. I haven’t done that in a long time.

WS: You mean the sugar?

EC: Yeah, it’s gross. No eating in bed.

WS: So how does it finish out?

EC: You lay down on the clean sheets. They rub you down with oil, like a mini massage and that was pleasant. I enjoyed both sides of that, really it was just the shower that was weird. She did my stomach, which was really nice and felt interesting.

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WS: When you say she did you stomach, you were laying there topless?

EC: No she covered me with a towel. She just rolled the sheet down and I had a towel.

WS: I’m just mad that I didn’t get my stomach.

EC: It was kind of awesome.

WS: I mean, it’s easy to scrub my stomach.

EC: It was really fun and super relaxing. It’s one of those body parts that people don’t often rub so it was quite pleasant.

WS: How does your skin feel?

EC: I don’t know yet. I kind of want to go home and get naked and test it out. Putting my clothes back on was weird. They were dirty and I was all clean and soft. The hair on my legs is super soft right now.

WS: You’re a sports fan yes?

EC: Yeah

WS: Who do you cheer for?

EC: NBA is Oklahoma City Thunder. I currently do not have an NFL team. I’m looking.

WS: You’re in the market?

EC: I’m in the market for an NFL team. I love Peyton but the Broncos are just a raging disappointment. And then of course college ball, Oklahoma State for life and most SEC teams when they’re not playing someone I care about.

WS: Are you more of a collegiate level fan or professional?

EC: Growing up in Oklahoma there weren’t professional teams so college ball is life.

WS: I don’t know a lot of women who are big sports fans. Where you grew up is it just sports everywhere, every day, everything?

EC: Yeah during the season its just part of life. The only season that I wasn’t invested in was baseball but down there baseball is still pretty huge. It just depends on where you live and what the major sport was in the town you grew up in and for us that was football.

WS: Is it weird to you if someone doesn’t’ like sports?

EC: Yes.

WS: Why? Let’s say, hypothetically of course, that right now you were speaking to someone who didn’t care about sports.

EC: Hypothetically.

WS: What would be your argument to why they’re wrong?

EC: I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong it’s just odd to me. That’s what you do in high school and college, it’s how you show collegiate pride. One thing I loved about my high school experience was that we had players in our drama department. There was no divide there. The directors worked hard to make sure everyone was well-rounded so you became friends with people. You wanted to support them in their careers.

WS: I’m a huge film fan and people are often dismissive of entertainment and I have a speech that I sometimes give as to why I think it’s important. So why is sports important. Why does it matter?

EC: It’s the alternative to modern warfare. I don’t know how to explain that. It allows for a healthy level of competition and aggression where other people might not have an outlet at that time. I think people and young adulthood is a very stressful time and sports and sports fandom allows people that outlet.

WS: What about people who argue that it heightens and fosters aggression?

EC: I think they’ve never seen a bunch of bored teenagers in a neighborhood with nothing else to do breaking stuff. You put those same teenagers who want to break stuff on a football field and they might get to go to college because of it.

WS: It’s bowl season. Are any of your teams still in the running?

EC: Oklahoma State. I don’t know what bowl they’re in.

WS: Would you recommend a body scrub to someone who has never had one?

EC: No.

WS: Why not?

EC: I think it’s something that can be done at home and I’d rather spend the entire time being massaged.

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WS: I can see that. I liked the variety of two experiences. Felt like I was getting a lot out of my trip to the spa. Are you on twitter?

EC: No.

WS: Anything you want to promote.

EC: No.

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Normally, that would be the end of this post. But seeing as how this was the final Treat Yo Self I thought I’d check in with some of our friends from adventures throughout the year.

I asked them a few questions and then invited them to turn the tables and interview me. Here’s what they had to say.

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Adam Blair, from Treat Yo Self: Barbershop Shave

Wood’s Stock: Have you repeated your Treat Yo Self activity? Or have you had any other Treat Yo Self experiences this year?

Adam Blair: Yes, I got a mani-pedi with some friends. And it so happens that I booked a straight razor shave yesterday at Ray’s.

WS: Now that it’s not so fresh, would you still recommend/not recommend your activity?

AB: Absolutely. Straight razor shaves make you feel real classy.

WS: Any questions for me?

AB: Would you rather have rackets for hands or flippers for feet?

WS: Flipper feet would only be useful in an aquatic scenario, but racket hands would interfere with more of my day-to-day activities. I choose flipper feet.

AB: How do you feel about ugly sweater parties?

WS: I support themed parties but I don’t believe in intentionally wearing ugly clothing.

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Cody Titmus, from Treat Yo Self: Chest Wax

Wood’s stock: Have you repeated your Treat Yo Self activity? Or have you had any other Treat Yo Self experiences this year?

Cody Titmus: I think I am going to limit myself to just the one waxing this year.

WS: Now that it’s not so fresh, would you still recommend/not recommend your activity to others?

CT: That’s a hard ‘No!’

WS: Any questions for me?

CT: Why? Whyyyyyyyyyyy?

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Neil Schiffman, from Treat Yo Self: Spray Tan

Wood’s Stock: Have you had any other Treat Yo Self  experiences this year?

Neil Schiffman: The only treating myself I’ve ever really ever done was a pedicure. That was heavenly.  No headaches, crazy soft feet, and crazy Asian ladies making fun of me added up to a delightful experience.

WS: Any questions for me?

NS: When you read Ayn Rand what was your initial reaction and how do you view her writings now?

WS: I still consider myself a Rand fan, much like I consider myself an Upton Sinclair fan. I don’t think either author’s work should be the sole foundation of society or an individual’s philosophy, but I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and think there’s valuable nuggets in there, particularly about inter-personal relationships. I even gave Atlas Shrugged a shout-out in my novel Committing.

NS: With this Rolling Stone article blowing up in their face, what, in your opinion does this story do to the cause of raising rape awareness? Do people respond “told you rape like that doesn’t happen” or completely ignore any discrepancies and continue to see men as pigs?

WS: I think we’re seeing both reactions, and I worry about this controversy setting the conversation back several years. But many universities, including UVA, continue to be under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of campus sexual assault and a lot of schools are moving forward with their reviews of campus policies even though the article has been (at least partly) discredited. TIME had an interesting article about the post-Rolling Stone landscape that suggested the conversation is still moving forward.

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Emily Milam, from Treat Yo Self: Hot Stone Massage

Wood’s Stock: Have you repeated your activity or treated yo self in other ways?

Emily Milam:  Probably once a day since February I have thought to myself “I need to get another hot stone message,” but sadly, I haven’t gone back for another. However, this year I went skydiving (which was definitely a treat for me) and I got a couple facials which were awesome.

WS: Any questions for me?

EM: If you had to pick 3 movies that were the only three movies you could watch for the rest of your life, what would they be?

WS: Casablanca, Jurassic Park, Silver Linings Playbook.

EM: Your escorts excluded, which Treat Yo Self was your favorite?

WS: The hot stone massage was the most enjoyable and probably the one that I’m most looking forward to doing again. But in the sense of discovering new and interesting things, I would say the sensory deprivation tank was the most memorable.

Float tank at Salt City Float Spa

EM: What is the most importation news item people should be aware of at this time?

WS: The American diet is a joke, setting us on a trajectory for widespread diabetes in the coming decades. While we were all enjoying our diet Coke, they stopped referring to Type 2 as “adult-onset” diabetes because people are getting it at younger and younger ages. Big sugar is the new big tobacco and common sense reform efforts, like listing added sugar on nutrition labels, are being blocked by very powerful and well-funded lobbying groups. Stop. Drinking. Soda. And watch ‘Fed Up.’

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Chelsey Gensel, from Treat Yo Self: European Facial

Wood’s Stock: Have you repeated your activity or treated yo self in other ways this year?

Chelsey Gensel:  I have not repeated my activity but only because new york is so damn expensive. I have thought about treating myself a few times after reading your blog posts, but I’ve always put it off because of timing or cost – maybe I’ll make a list of my own for 2015.

WS: Would you still recommend getting a facial?

CG: I would recommend trying it at least once, especially if you have problems with your skin. Find a treatment suited to that specifically.

WS: Any questions for me?

CG: Do you feel like you were “successful” with the project?

WS: I do. I like to say that “I fear the life un-lived” and this project really gave me the push I needed to open myself up to new experiences. Most of the things on this list were things I’ve been curious about for a while, but I never had the right motivation to pull the trigger.

CG: Is there any treat you wish you had or hadn’t done?

WS: I don’t regret any of the activities, even though some of them were horrible. Liz and I were supposed to end it with a hot air balloon ride over the Wasatch Front but the pilots cancelled at the last moment because of inclement weather. That was a bummer. I had also hoped to do acupuncture but everywhere I looked sold service packages instead of single visits, which was just too cost prohibitive.

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Morton-Tyldum-The-Imitation-GameBenedict Cumberbatch has an almost singular ability to portray brilliant and difficult men. His take on Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock has become the definitive version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, which is no small feet considering that Holmes has been portrayed onscreen more times than any other literary character.

He also has an aptitude for the period spy thriller, which he displayed as a supporting character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the best espionage film of the last five years.

And if the combination of these two spheres of Cumberbatch’s portfolio were all that was required for The Imitation Game, the movie would be a triumph. As Alan Turing, Cumberbatch is fascinating, all cold robotic efficiency on the outside and a wounded, desperate soul on the inside. The film’s finale is heartbreaking and beautiful, the camera holding steady on a quivering, weeping Turing who has been literally and grotesquely emasculated through chemical castration, a consequence of his then-illegal gay lifestyle.

But there’s more to Imitation Game than the Alan Turing story, and it is in those supplementary aspects that the film falls disappointingly short.

Set in World War II Britain, The Imitation Game tells the story of a group of cryptologists, led by Turing, who are working to crack Germany’s Enigma coding machine. In essence, it’s the true story of how England used brains, rather than brawn, to win a war.

To do this, they need to build Christopher, a granddad of the modern computer that is able to cut through Enigma’s labyrinthine encryption faster than any team of even the country’s smartest men. It’s a risky and expensive gamble, based largely on Turing’s unproven theories of mechanical computation, and every day spent tinkering with wires is another day of war casualties.

Problem is, we already know the machine will be built and will work. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be watching this movie. But The Imitation Game still chooses to focus it’s running time on cracking the Enigma code, rather than what England did after the code was broken, a much more interesting (in my humble opinion) process of calculating acceptable losses and deliberate non-intervention in order to avoid tipping off the Nazis that their Enigma code had been compromised.

The movie’s laser focus also makes short shrift of the supporting characters, particularly Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke, who is ostensibly the second lead of The Imitation Game,  an intellectual equal to Turing and his de facto social mouthpiece. We’re led to believe she was instrumental to cracking Enigma, but besides a sham engagement to Turing and a few cute picnics on the Bletchley Park lawn, I’d be hard pressed to explain what work she actually did during the war, simply because we’re not shown any of her actual contributions.

Much like this year’s Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game feels like a one-man Oscar Bait showcase. It’s a good movie, and the central performance of Cumberbatch is worth the price of admission. But if the filmmakers had pulled back a little bit from the man in the middle, they might have ended up telling a much more captivating story.

Grade: B

*The Imitation Game opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

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Putting together a top 10 movies list is never easy. There’s always too many films and a nagging sense of betrayal as I’m forced to drop titles from the running, let alone the hair-splitting agony of figuring out which film to christen as the ultimate champion for the year. I try to alleviate this with my honorable mentions, which helps, but there’s always at least one more movie I want to recognize.

So a few years back I started naming an 11th best film, an honor reserved for a big-budget, mainstream, popcorn film that excels above the too-frequent mindless bilge produced by the Hollywood tentpole machine. Sometimes there is no such film, but this year it was an obvious choice.

Without further ado, the 11th best film of 2014 was…

4222808-captainamericaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier

To criticize comic book adaptations of being formulaic is the lowest of hanging fruit, but the genre rivals romantic comedies for their paint-by-numbers predictability. 1. Introduce hero doing something heroic. 2. Introduce love interest. 3. Introduce villain being evil. 4. Send hero after villain. 5. Place love interest in peril. 6. Introduce complication that suggests hero will fail/villain will succeed. 7. Have hero and villain punch each other really hard. 8. Hero emerges triumphant, saves love interest. 9. Sunset, ride off into.

The first Captain America followed this pattern, giving us the milquetoast Steve Rogers who, after an injection of magic juice, went on a two hour Nazi-punching campaign. Spoiler alert, I guess, but the ending had villain Red Skull vanishing into a ball of magic space light while Rogers plunged into the arctic so that we could fast forward to the movie we really wanted to see, The Avengers. It didn’t exactly leave me chomping at the bit for more of the star-spangled Cap.

But Winter Soldier was no phoned-in creation of redundancy. It took the loose threads left by The Avengers, namely the super-secret spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D and pulled while the connective fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe unraveled. The result was a comic book movie that was more political thriller than rock ’em sock ’em cacophony, complete with a who-can-we-trust paranoia and a ripped-from-the-headlines criticism of the modern security state.

After TWS, nothing in the MCU feels the same. Promos and chatter suggest the remaining films of Marvel’s phase 2 and some of Phase 3 (including the next Captain American installment) will continue and expand on the fissures created by Steve Rogers’ second outing. The result is an invigorated curiosity in the behemoth multi-film extravaganza that is The Avengers that makes me look at the never-ending slate of new films with cautious optimism, rather than creeping boredom.

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*Note: This review was first published during coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

[Update:] After further reflection, I’m awarding a Wood’s Stock Honorable Mention to The Babadook as Best Horror Film of 2014.

This Aussie horror, which was part of the traditionally edgy and offbeat Sundance At Midnight category in 2014, sees Essie Davis as Emelia, a single mother struggling with the behavioral quirks of her son Samuel while also grieving the loss of her husband. Samuel’s dad died in a car crash the day Sam was born and it is implied that every year on the anniversary of both her son’s birth and her husband’s death Amelia slips into a period of morose depression, which is further exacerbated by her son’s childhood fears of monsters under the bed.

But then a monster appears, or does it? After a troubling children’s book called “Mr. Babadook” mysteriously manifests on her child’s shelf, the typical menu of strange occurrences begin tormenting the family (passing shadows, strange sounds, whispered voices). Samuel insists that The Babadook has arrived but Emelia is skeptical, even while she grows increasingly unhinged.

While The Babadook treads ground laid before it by other genre films, director Jennifer Kent relies on old-school practical effects and a full plot beyond the creaks in the night to form a delightful scare. The Babadook itself, barely glimpsed in shadow and mostly depicted by the hauntingly simple sketches of a children’s book, is a strong display of restraint, with the movie relying more on a sense of escalating psychological unease than crashing cymbals to get under the audience’s skin. The final confrontation is overlong and chips away at some of the goodwill earned earlier in the film, but Kent ends the film on an perfectly eerie note of ambiguity that stops short of definitively answering whether the monster is actual entity or metaphor for something more sinister.

Grade: B+

*The Babadook opens in Utah on Friday, Dec. 19.

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Wild Movie Poster WallpaperThe filmography of Reese Witherspoon is somewhat fascinating. She became a household name with the bright, bubbly and generally enjoyable Legally Blonde, parlayed that success into an Oscar-winning portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk The Line, only to then devolve into a string of milquetoast roles in uninspired drudgery like Four Christmases, How Do You Know, Water For Elephants and the so-atrocious-it-caused-me-physical-pain This Means War.

But there is reason to believe that Witherspoon’s sinusoidal career trajectory is once again on the rise. She took a small but impactful supporting role in the excellent Mud (which, fittingly, costarred Matthew McConaughey during the nascent stage of his McConaissance) starred in The Good Lie (86% on RT) and now gives us Wild, the true story on one woman’s solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail that is earning the actress Oscar buzz.

So how does a movie about backpacking re-launch the career of an Academy Award winner?

Wild, based on the novel of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, is a beautiful tale of loss, sorrow and self-discovery. After losing her mother to lung cancer, Strayed collapses into a sex- and heroin-aided depression, obliterates her marriage and rises from the ashes by challenging herself to hike 1,000 miles through California and Oregon.

We meet her on the trail, bruised and bloodied and a few toenails shy of a full deck. From there, we receive glimpses of Cheryl’s backstory through scattered, disjointed imagery. It’s a smart directorial choice by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), mimicking the natural process of memory that one experiences during long, introspective periods of isolation. When the camera lands on Cheryl’s mother (a spirited Laura Dern) or her ex husband (The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadosky) it feels as though we’ve stepped inside Cheryl’s mind, joining her as she confronts the demons of her past.

The film also benefits greatly from the natural beauty of the varied landscape Cheryl encounters. Backed by finely tuned orchestral and musical cues, we skip through arid deserts and snow capped mountains, punctuated sporadically by a register of the days and miles Cheryl has spent on her journey. And isolation comes with dangers, which Vallee captures with enough presence to create spikes of tension without feeling exploitative.

Existential stories are difficult to capture on screen, where the audience is used to grand stakes and big gestures. But Strayed’s journey never seems small, a credit to Vallee’s direction and Witherspoon’s delivery, which combine to produce an satisfactory, and even moving, emotional journey.

Grade: B+

*Wild opens in Utah on Friday, Dec. 19

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Committing by Benjamin WoodOne year ago this month, I published a little novel called “Committing.” It’s been called “interesting” and “very book-like” by members of my immediate family and currently has 4.5 stars on Amazon.

I’m currently working on a new project, my first feature-length screenplay, but I wanted to commemorate the first birthday (second? birthday numbering makes no sense) of my debut novel.

As always, the entire second chapter of Committing is available as an excerpt here on Woodstock (along with information about how you can get your very own copy). But in celebration of Committing book-iversary here’s the entire FIRST chapter. Enjoy!

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CHAPTER One

There is a beautiful library in downtown Salt Lake City. It is made up of two seemingly separate structures: the first, a glass tear drop, four stories tall, housing rows of books, computers, and conference rooms; the second, a sweeping arm topped by a sloped stairway that rises from the plaza outside to the roof of the main building.

The two structures are, of course, connected, but within the library’s glass walls they are divided by an atrium with café tables and used books for sale where musicians occasionally perform. The arm contains a row of study tables on each level, offering a quiet space for reading and studying. From there, you can look across the empty space to the organized sea of volumes and tomes that lie beyond.

It was there, on a Saturday morning, that Charles was sitting – the top floor of the Salt Lake City Library. His elbows were rested on the table in front of him, causing his body to pitch forward in the kind of youthful slouch that would have prompted his mother to swoop in and straighten him in his younger years. He was staring into the dull glow of a computer screen, his head weighed down further by a chord connected to the headphones that tethered him to where he sat.

The video he was watching ended and slowly he closed his laptop and cast his gaze across the void to his right at a mother and two small children climbing a curved staircase to the third floor. Gathering his things, he began walking back across the atrium to the other side and stopped on the breezeway that connects the two sections. From where he stood he hovered in the air directly above the library’s main entrance and as he peered over the breezeway’s edge at the atrium floor some 80 feet below he allowed his weight to carry him over, and down. The cool air licked at his face, forcing his eyes closed as he fell, weightless and free, to the floor.

But it wasn’t real.

Charles remained sitting in front of his laptop, his headphones over his ears playing an instrumental soundtrack as credits panned up the screen in front of him. In his mind he could hear the dull thud as his body struck the floor below. There was a swath of light pouring in through the windows where his body would land and he wondered if somehow, even though his soul – if there was such a thing – was slipping away, he would feel the warmth on his skin.

There were about a dozen individuals meandering just outside the doors, not to mention the countless people within the library’s walls. Among them, as always, was no small number of derelicts, offensive to all five senses and taking advantage of a quiet space to sit and spend the day near public restrooms. Charles often thought how it made for an odd combination, as the public library always seemed to be evenly split between khakhi-shorts-wearing children and their parents, hipster bookworms and homeless, drug-addicted lowlifes. Then again, Charles’ mind always seemed to say, where would you go if you had nowhere to go? It makes more sense than the mall.

There would be an immediate panic. A piercing scream would echo through the vast, silent space, bouncing off of glass, concrete and paper. The confusion would not last long. Officers patrolling the grounds would respond immediately, call for an ambulance and begin diverting the rubbernecking public from the area. His body would be removed, covered in a plastic sheet and wheeled off to some forgotten and seldom-seen corner of the city where suicide victims were taken prior to being released to their families. The floor would be cleaned and by the next morning, at the latest, the library would open its doors and greet the public.

What would they use? Charles thought. A mop? A broom? A shovel?

For his family, of course, the emotional clean-up would not be so swift and it was the arrival of that thought, the sense of pain that his death could cause to others, that finally broke Charles from the macabre fantasy. The music in his ears had stopped and the website was asking him if he wanted to continue on to the next episode. On the screen was the frozen image of some busty brunette, a promise of the kind of zany, escapist shenanigans you can only get from a television sitcom.

The mother and her children reached the top of the stairs. Upon seeing a full row of nothing but gleaming comic books the boy, probably 10 or 11, darted off and begun pulling volume after volume from the rack with a face of pure, ecstatic joy while several issues spilled to the floor.

Charles closed his laptop. Gathering his things, he passed over the breezeway, pausing briefly at the center only to enjoy the sudden beat of sunlight at his back and then, with a breath, he continued on to the other side, down the stairs, and out the lobby doors below.

It begins at a funeral.

Stories like this one always seem to start with some catalyst, like a birth or a wedding. As it happened, this one begins with a death.

After more than six years, Devin Wallace had lost his valiant battle with leukemia. Charles met him in 2006. By some twist of fate they had been assigned each other as dormitory roommates. They had no way of knowing then that in a matter of months Devin would be diagnosed.

For most of their friendship his disease was simply a part of him. It defined him. He was Devin, “the one with cancer.” He had beaten it before and he would surely do it again.

Except he didn’t.

So Charles biked through the dirty sludge of a fading winter back to his one-bedroom apartment and changed into a black suit. He slipped on his black shoes, which he had shined the night before, over his black socks. He fed a black belt through black beltloops and fastened the silver buckle. He buttoned up the collar of his white shirt and stood before the mirror as he fixed a narrow black tie.

The tie’s slim cut, he thought, was a little Friday night for a funeral but it was the only black tie that he had. His others were all of the bright, solid color variety – “power” ties in commanding reds, purples and greens –

which obviously wouldn’t do. As he looked at his reflection he wasn’t sure if he looked too somber, or not somber enough. He looked good, he thought, but then thought that he ought not try to look good, which immediately gave way to the thought that he certainly ought not to not look good.

Devin was 26. They both were, technically speaking, except Devin was dead. Charles would turn 27 in three months but in photographs, old videos and memories Devin would stay perpetually 26 for as long as Charles lived. Longer, actually, since as long as there were people still living who remembered Devin alive he would continually be Mr. Devin Wallace, deceased March 2, 2013 at age 26. Charles could die tomorrow, he reminded himself, and that would have no effect on when Devin had finally succumbed to the disease inside his blood.

But what about when everyone who once knew Devin was dead? How old would he be then, when every trace of him was erased from the earth and everyone who had ever held a lingering knowledge of his existence was gone? At that point Devin would not be 26, Charles thought, he would be nothing at all.

Devin was also married. He and Stephanie Elizabeth Wallace, maiden name Christensen, had been legally and lawfully wedded on October 4, 2008 after dating for just under two years in college. Much like the cancer, Charles had met Devin shortly before Devin met Stephanie, and so she had come to define him as well. Charles’ best friend Devin, the one with cancer, Stephanie’s boyfriend/fiancé/husband and now Mr. Devin Wallace, deceased March 2, 2013 at age 26.

Their son, Daniel, was born February 24, 2010. Devin’s cancer came soaring out of remission the month after Stephanie got pregnant. It had always been a possibility, one that they had accepted and planned for as best as possible. Every milestone was an event, checked off an imaginary list like a game show contestant scrambling to win a prize before the buzzer rang.

Devin won many prizes. He saw his son’s first steps, he heard his first word. He helped his wife with the potty training, took a photograph of his son on Santa’s lap and lived long enough to see Daniel turn three years old. Charles knew how happy that had made Devin.

He scooped up his keys and wallet on his way out the door. Locking his apartment behind him, he started making his way down the cold, echoing stairwell, arriving one level down before the door to his floor swung shut with a reverberating boom that rippled down the walls like the sliding bars in a prison. For whatever reason, Charles suddenly became fixated on the idea that he was alone in a concrete cylinder that stretched six flights above the ground and two flights beneath it. In his mind he stripped away the walls, floors and ceilings that surrounded him and instead imagined himself floating, 20 feet in the air, standing tall and rigid in a black suit and skinny tie.

Charles bounded down the remaining flights to his car in the basement parking lot, arriving slightly out of breath. It had been a few days since he had driven last and when he turned the ignition the car sputtered slightly in the cold before the speakers blared to life, blasting him back against his seat with the sound of a rousing instrumental chorus from whatever CD he had been listening to. He quickly reached out and shut it off, plunging the space into abject silence.

He sat there for a moment, staring forward into the empty parking stalls in front of him. His fingers where white, the blood having left them at the request of his awkwardly tight grip on the wheel. Glancing up he saw his reflection in the rear-view mirror and straightened his tie.

Charles turned the volume down on his stereo and pushed play. As the music began he shifted his car into drive and inched slowly forward, and out.

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