This is one of the best films of 2015.
I don't know if this Top 10 list should accompanied by a drum roll or sad trombone. I saw about 150 theatrical films last year; that may sound like a lot to some people, but by the standards of this profession it's not immense. During my peak obsessive period as a movie critic I saw anywhere from 250 to 300 new theatrical releases each calendar year, and I'm currently friends with people who see that many or more. So don't consider this the last word on 2013. It's more of a provisional list, subject to change in the future (which is as it should be with all things, not just Top 10 lists).
Beneath the ten, I have included more 2013 releases that made a big impression on me.
MY TOP 10
1. "The Act of Killing."
I saw this nonfiction film last summer with a couple of friends. For 15 minutes after we left the theater we didn't say a word to each other. It wasn't just that the subject matter was disturbing; it was that director Joshua Oppenheimer hadn't so much directed the film as facilitated it, and in the process created a work for which terms such as "film" and "movie" and "documentary" and even "nonfiction" seem inadequate. "The Act of Killing" is a laboratory in which horror and meaning grow.
You could boil the film's "plot" down to a sentence—filmmaker gives assassins and torturers from Indonesia's despotic ruler Suharto limited budgets and access to a film crew in order to recount their experiences in any style they wish. But this summary doesn't begin to describe the film's startling yet carefully managed shifts in tone. It goes from Michael Moore-style glibness to mid-century Direct Cinema-style, fly-on-the-wall character portrait, and then to experimental theater/gallery installation formal brazenness. It also has film-within-a-film scenes, and whole sequences whose offhand surrealism evokes early David Lynch. One of the goons performs in colorful, almost Carmen Miranda-like drag. They're all obsessed with gangster movies, and admit to copping movie gangsters' lines and gestures. (For a full accounting of the project, read my favorite review of the film, by RogerEbert.com's Steven Boone.)
If I had to say what the film is "about" (and I don't like reducing it that way, so take the following with a grain of salt) I'd say it's an argument in favor of the idea that there is, in fact, an objective definition of right and wrong, good and evil, that is in some sense universal. Oppenheimer's experiment—putting the means of production in the hands of "bad guys"—suggests that even when brutal men get away with their misdeeds, they are aware that they've committed crimes or sins that any reasonable person would consider unforgivable, and it gnaws at them even when they insist (as these men do) that their consciences are clean, and they were just crushing the state's enemies, who were themselves evil and thus not worth caring about. What is the means by which this universal morality is revealed? Art. The story. (Don't read this next part if you haven't seen "The Act of Killing.")
Art's greatest purpose is to reveal us to ourselves. Egged on by Oppenheimer, the men tell their own stories, at first with the sole purpose of glorifying themselves and repeating the lie that everything they did in Suharto's name was necessary, and then for more Quixotic and compulsive reasons. The facade of relaxed certitude starts to crack. Admissions of complicity, guilt and self-loathing creep in. We realize these beefy bullies aren't as confident in their rightness as they claim to be—that they've denied or suppressed the truth over half a lifetime. This will be small comfort to the victims of political violence—it's certainly no substitute for a life sentence for war crimes—but it's not nothing, because it puts the lie to the idea that history is written by winners, period, and that if the winners say something was just and moral, then it was just and moral, and everyone should just move along, because there's no hope of making the brutalizers see the error of their ways, or forcing a reckoning, because it's all relative, or subjective.
The final ten minutes of "The Act of Killing" are as close to true personal catharsis as I've ever seen in a nonfiction feature. I believe we have to accept that it's sincere (if groping and unfinished), because the man experiencing it has, over the preceding two hours, revealed himself as not nearly a good enough actor to fake it. The ghastly sound he makes is like the sound he remembers hearing when he cut a political enemy's throat in a moonlit field decades earlier. He's retching up demons.
2. "Fruitvale Station"
Many films were more polished or structurally perfect than "Fruitvale Station," but few felt as fresh. Why? It's not just because this account of the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant connected with another tragedy that was in the news at the time, the trial of Trayvon Martin's killer George Zimmerman. At a time when so many Americans were arguing whether Martin was somehow complicit in his fate because he hadn't lived a perfect life (even though he was just a teenager!), writer-director Ryan Coogler's film focused on a Black man not much older than Trayvon. Simply observing Oscar as he interacted with his family, friends, girlfriend, daughter, and (former) coworkers, it showed the complex set of factors that combine to produce a Oscar Grant/Trayvon Martin-type tragedy: racism; paranoia about racism; the psychological effects of income disparity and America's prison industry (the flashbacks to Grant's time behind bars illustrate a lot about his defensive, blustering mindset).
Looming over everything is the notion that masculinity, or "hardness," is a mask that men wear, that its roots are tribal, even primordial, and that the cops who hassled Oscar and his friends on the train were victims of hypermasculine social conditioning, too. The situation on the train platform escalated because every one of the men involved was utterly terrified of seeming weak (or "like a pussy") in public. As it happens, the men on one side of the divide had handcuffs, nightsticks and guns. (I love the look on the face of that tall cop when he realizes that things have spiraled out of control: there's shame as well as panic in his eyes—an instant admission that no, things did not have to go this way.)
But what I love most about "Fruitvale Station" is its Neorealist flavor. We know where the story is headed—toward Oscar's death—and we know that this real-life tragic "hook" is the reason the film got funded and made (and the reason it went on to become an art house hit). But when I watch "Fruitvale Station" again I wonder if perhaps Coogler pulled a fast one in the best possible sense, by using an instance of disconnection between people to show how people are connected.
"Fruitvale Station" is packed with moments of strangers or near-strangers being nice to each other when there's no obvious percentage in being nice, such as the interaction between couples at the deli near the end, and Oscar helping out a grocery store customer early in the picture even though he doesn't work at the store anymore, and of course the scene with the dog. The scene of strangers from different races, ethnicities and social classes trapped on the BART train celebrating New Years' Eve together is one of the most unforced and joyous demonstrations of commonality I've seen in an American film.
On top of all that, you have lovely scenes of Oscar with his family, hanging out and cooking and eating dinner. When's the last time you went to a major American film and saw a room full of African-American characters just being together—just existing, in an almost documentary way—and not cynically setting up the next plot point? What makes these "small" moments crackle is our awareness that Oscar will never experience them again; what should make them linger in our minds is the knowledge that this could be true for any one of us, that you never know when your ticket is about to get punched. For all the darkness in its finale, "Fruitvale Station" is ultimately a hopeful movie, and important for reasons beyond the reasons that make it Important.
3. "12 Years a Slave."
I wrote about "12 Years a Slave" at considerable length here, and I can't think of anything I'd want to add to it, except this: because screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen have made a film about a horrific chapter of American history, it's tempting, maybe too easy, to praise it simply for trying to represent that chapter on film while downplaying or ignoring the artistry involved.
I hope that doesn't happen. This is the greatest work either McQueen or Ridley have ever been involved with, and the fact that it's an important film on Big Themes is but a small part of the reason why it's so effective. It's viscerally upsetting yet formally perfect in the way that Stanley Kubrick's best films are, and in the way that certain Kubrick-influenced dramas (including "Born on the Fourth of July") are. It's a succession of moments, of memories recollected from distance but not necessarily in tranquility. Every shot, every cut, every line, every pause, every sound cue and music cue, every actor's gesture and shift in vocal tone is meaningful, because it's all contributing to the whole.
The film is illustrating not just the economic mechanics of slavery (how humans were bought and sold, held captive and worked and broken) but also the psychological and physical experience of slavery for masters as well as slaves. It's about all the big and little lies and abstractions and deflections and suppressions that made slavery possible, and that make any kind of systemized oppression possible. "12 Years a Slave" isn't just saying, "This is what slavery was like," it's saying, "This is what slavery means."
4. "Upstream Color"
Writer-director-actor-producer-editor-composer-everything elser Shane Carruth made this striking and mysterious science fiction movie. It scrambles chronology and perception even more deftly than his 2005 debut feature "Primer." It's a romance, a tale of redemption and loneliness and cultish fascination, and probably a parable and a nightmare as well. It unfolds with the cool confident rhythms of a 1970s art house drama or midnight movie—the elliptical storytelling evokes Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge" and "Catch-22" as it does to Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and "Don't Look Now"—but it's ultimately a warm film that demonstrates real empathy for broken or lost souls. I love this movie, and I don't think I'll ever get tired of watching it, because every time I see it it teaches me a little bit more about itself—about how to watch it, how to perceive it.
If one of the purposes of cinema is to get outside your own blinkered perceptions and see things through somebody else's eyes, then "Upstream Color" is one of the most purposeful films in recent memory.
5. Inside Llewyn Davis
I want to see this film a few more times before writing about it at length. For now I'll just say that two viewings put it near the top of my personal Coen brothers all-time-best list, thanks mainly to its quietness and simplicity. It's a film about artistic disappointment and failure: the movie's hero, played by Oscar Isaac, can play and sing with feeling, but he's too much of a shortsighted and self-serving jerk to build a real career. And as an industry bigwig says of one of of Llewyn's friends and rivals, for whatever reason he doesn't really connect with people, not in the way that a great entertainer should.
But "Inside Llewyn Davis" is about more than art and building a career as an artist. It's about how individuals process disappointment, failure, and trauma, and either move ahead or don't. Not that Llewyn's more oblivious or hateful acts should be excused—they shouldn't—but I'm always a bit surprised when I see the character described as unsympathetic. He recently lost his duet partner Mike, the artistic brains of their operation presumably, to a suicide. When we meet Llewyn he seems as though he's still in shock, still perhaps thinking of the event as something that happened mainly to him (in fact it happened to a lot of other characters in the film as well; Mike wasn't an artistically important figure, but his positive energy obviously meant a lot to many people). Time and again Llewyn is presented with the choice of giving his life over (however momentarily) to another person, or creature, and chooses instead to stay a loner and act with cold, even numb singlemindedness. He abandons no less than three cats during the course of the picture, along with an old junkie who seems to be at death's door and his personal assistant, who's been taken off to jail, and he's impregnated at least two women, one of whom carried the baby to term without telling him and settled in Akron.
Was Llewyn always this coldblooded, or did he turn cold when his friend and partner killed himself? When he decides not to visit Akron, is he once again making a selfish and emotionally self-protective choice, or is he finally doing something decent for once in his miserable life? When the husband of the woman Llewyn heckled beats the tar out of him in an alley, is the universe passing judgement on Llewyn, or is the assault just another one of those things? Does he fail or refuse to connect because he's incapable of it or because he's afraid of it? When we make such choices, do we make them consciously? How much control do we have over who we are and what we do? How much of our misfortune is fallout from our choices in life? The Coens don't answer these questions, or any other big questions, and that's for the best. Like so many of their movies—but especially "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", which it obliquely references via folks music and talk of "The Odyssey"—it's a mysterious film, at once impenetrable and embracing, but at the same time, there's sweetness in it, and wisdom.
My full review of "Gravity" is here. Since I published it, I've noticed arguments swirling around it that I find odd. One concerns whether it's really a movie or just a big video game or amusement park-style visceral experience, or "ride"—and as such, whether it deserves some of the praise it's gotten. Another argument is whether Alfonso Cuaron's film is superior or inferior to the superficially similar "All is Lost," starring Robert Redford as a shipwrecked sailor staving off death as long as he can.
Short answers: I don't think it matters what generic label you hang on "Gravity," or how you parse the "movie" vs. "ride" argument, because it's a self-serving and meaningless argument: I've found that, in general, if people like an intensely physical and narratively singleminded film, they talk about it as a movie, or a simple and deeply pure cinematic experience, and if for whatever reason they didn't, they dismiss it as "a video game" or "a ride." This is not unlike people describing any TV drama they don't like as a "soap opera," while defending shows that others dismiss as soap operas by saying, "It's just heightened drama"—or for that matter, people who could themselves be described as hipsters calling other people hipsters.
As for "Gravity" vs. "All is Lost": I liked "Gravity" a bit more than "All is Lost" because it's just more boldly conceived and extravagantly emotional. These are rare qualities nowadays at any budget level. We've seen the kind of "realistic" indie film dourness "All is Lost" does so exceptionally well, but we almost never see blockbuster special-effects sequences that are imagined in stripped-down, at times nearly theatrical terms, such as the final scene between the two main astronauts, which might as well be taking place on a barren stage with two chair representing cockpit seats; or mythically charged images like the heroine Ryan Stone floating for a long moment in a fetal position (safe at last); or the rack-focus that brings one of her tears into sharp focus, finding a metaphor for how Ryan's sadness has defined her (I love this; it's the sort of flourish F.W. Murnau might have tried if he were making movies today), or the final two minutes, a shout-out to the evolution sequence in Maya Deren's experimental film "Meshes of the Afternoon" (you don't see that in too many blockbusters, do you?)."Gravity" doesn't protect itself with Hemingway-style taciturnity, as "All is Lost" does both in its visuals and its dialogue (there's a reason so many headline writers went with "The Old Man and the Sea," just as there's a reason why men seem to prefer Redford's tight-lipped toughness in "All is Lost" to Sandra Bullock's emotional outbursts in "Gravity"). Cuarón's film is is pitched at the level of an early Spielberg movie (like "Duel" or "E.T.")—which is to say it's showing you its cards rather than holding them close, and that it's a late-period silent film (think of Murnau's "Sunrise") that happens to have sound. However detailed its situations are, in the end I believe they're mainly metaphorical. I think of "Gravity" not as any kind of realistic or even semi-realistic record of space disaster, but as a dream or nightmare about everyday trauma—one that translates that trauma into meaning-charged, fantastic tableaus.
About six years ago, after a particularly grim event, I had a dream that I was hanging onto the wing of a jet plane that was crashing to earth, trying to repair a damaged engine. Somehow I succeeded and the plane landed with no fatalities, but when I tried to tell my story to a crowd of well-dressed people at a fancy cocktail reception, they were horrified, because the tale came out as gibberish—the babblings of a madman speaking a foreign tongue. That dream was not about air travel.
7. "The Wolf of Wall Street."
In 1976, Martin Scorsese directed "Taxi Driver," from a script by Paul Schrader. Some audiences cheered at Travis' final rampage, and some critics and editorialists wanted to know why Scorsese and Schrader hadn't done a better job of make sure we knew that the film's last 15 minutes weren't meant to celebrate Travis. Every few years there's a movie that presents unflattering, disgusting or violent people in a way that takes full measure of the damage they cause themselves and everyone else, while also using subjective filmmaking techniques to take you inside the mentality of those same people. In the hands of a purposeful filmmaker, the result isn't "confusing" or "unclear" unless you're upset by attraction-repulsion filmmaking of the sort that Scorsese's been specializing in since the '70s, and that he's unveiled again in "The Wolf of Wall Street," which I reviewed here.
We laugh along with the gangsters in "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas" and "Casino" because we're momentarily intoxicated by the contact high we get from watching them power-trip, not because we think gangsters are marvelous people and true American heroes. We find Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street" and Hannibal Lecter in the Thomas Harris adaptations and Alex the Droog in "A Clockwork Orange" and Max Cady in Scorsese's "Cape Fear" darkly amusing, not because we think they're people worth looking up to, but because a colorful, nasty villain tickles the reptilian pleasure centers and lets us go dark without becoming dark.
When this sort of thing is done well, it gets us thinking about what movies are, and how they work on us, and whether the process of being seduced by a film such as "The Wolf of Wall Street" is anything like the process of being seduced by its hero, con-artist and addict Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Is Scorsese "glorifying" Jordan Belfort in scenes where he shows him shaving a confused-looking female employee's head, or punching his wife during a drug-fueled rage, or bullying a ship captain into nearly wrecking his boat during a storm and killing him and several of his loved ones? When the camera is high overhead looking down at Belfort, whacked out on Quaaludes, as he crawls toward his Lamborghini—a car he later realizes was almost completely destroyed during the subsequent drive home—what is Scorsese "glorifying"? When Belfort watches as a rescue plane coming to save him and his loved ones at sea bursts into flame and crashes, and all the blood drains from his face as he realizes that he is responsible for the crash, what, exactly, is Scorsese "glorifying"? Midway through Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho", a man murders a woman in the shower; the point-of-view shifts to the murderer as he's cleaning up the body, and for a stretch of about ten minutes we find ourselves rooting for the killer to cover up the crime. Is Hitchcock "glorifying" mentally ill murderers? Should we bring back the Hays Office, to make sure that nobody ever sees the world through the eyes of less-than-good people?
The people complaining that the "message" of films like "Wolf of Wall Street" might confuse people are never themselves confused. How lucky we are to have them looking out for the rest of us.
8. "The Spectacular Now"
This dramatic feature was directed by James Ponsoldt, and adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from the young adult novel by Tim Tharp, and acted with great insight by a cast that includes Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler and Bob Odenkirk. It's a testament to everyone involved that once you've given yourself over to "The Spectacular Now," you don't think of the actors as actors, or the movie as any sort of artificial construct. You're just there in high school alongside the cocksure but self-destructive Sutter (Teller) and the quiet and responsible Aimee (Woodley), who sees the goodness Sutter hides beneath wisecracks, flirtations and booze. The film has been described as a romance, but each time I watch it it seems more a psychological case study of a teen alcoholic who nearly destroys (or maybe does destroy; the end is ambiguous) his first healthy relationship.
That description makes the movie sound grim, but "The Spectacular Now" not a "problem picture," just a drama about people who are as quirky, complex and self-defeating as people you know in life. As Roger Ebert wrote, in one of his last published pieces, "We have gone through senior year with these two. We have known them. We have been them."
9. "To the Wonder"
Is "To the Wonder" a great or perfect film? I guess not; I don't know; maybe I don't care. It feels like an experiment, in some ways an advance. Nobody knew quite what to make of it. Is there such a thing as minor Terrence Malick? I don't think so. Some think everything Malick does is minor; they just don't see the appeal of his Transcendental questing, beyond being able to make fun of his flowery, yearning voice-overs, and the way he uses actors like dancers or sculptural objects.
I loved his latest film precisely because it was so confounding. It tells of a love triangle unfolding in Oklahoma and parts of Europe, involving three beautiful people (Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams); adjacent to that, and sometimes entwined with it, is the story of a local priest (Javier Bardem) who ministers to the poor and and sick while meditating (in voice-over, like everyone else in the film) about the unknowability of God's mercy, and the possibility of grace. The characters rarely address each other directly, and when we do, writer-director Malick mutes the sound so that we don't hear their dialogue; their conversation becomes just another gesture, another dance move. My friend Bilge Ebiri wrote the best criticism of this technique. Among other things, he said, "I think he’s going for something different here – he’s trying to find dance-like movement among ordinary people. Clearly, he feels that this reveals something about us -- that we have the potential to move with this kind of grace, no matter who we are."
Bingo—and you can see this in the way Malick films everything. He sees the world as God, or a god, might, always sensing and revealing beauty, always seeing the possible. This is Malick's first film set in the present, and yet like all his other movies, it's suffused in an almost angelic light, as if it's being fondly remembered. Even when he's photographing weed fields, transformer towers, muddy ditches and Sonic drive-ins, we feel as though something holy is being released. I want more directors to see this way: to look through, and beyond, the real, into the figurative; to find a way to show us the world as they feel it. Everything and everyone in this movie has a beautiful soul. Malick sees it.
10. Pacific Rim.
A clanging, banging, diving, wading, exploding mechanical ballet of a movie, this sci-fi blockbuster from Guillermo del Toro was one of the few big-budget effects-driven films this year that had a singular, even bizarre personality, and maybe the only one that seemed to have been fully imagined. (I listed a couple of others below.) The extended prologue makes it seem as though we're about the see the third film in a trilogy, and that's the key to the movie's singularity: like the original "Star Wars" and "Alien," it feels lived-in. "Pacific Rim" is set in a world that isn't merely devastated by attacks by giant sea monsters, but has reconfigured its consciousness around the attacks. We see what military and civilian society would look like, and what popular culture looks like; we even get details of how the world has shifted into a war-based economy (the remnants of different cultures used to pour all of their money and energy into building monster-fighting robots, but they're shifting into defensive technology, namely sea walls). The monster-vs.-robot fights kick butt too, of course, but it's always nice when the butt-kicking is contextualized. As I wrote in my review, "In its clanking, crashing way, it's real science fiction, a play of ideas. It's earnest in its belief that all thinking beings are part of a hive mind, or could be." All action-driven popular fantasies should be as richly envisioned and sincere as this one.
"All Is Lost." Starring Robert Redford, a boat, and the ocean. And that's all it needed—well, that and J.C. Chandor's restrained, at times tactically opaque writing and direction. I like to think the ending is happy even though I know it almost certainly isn't. The hero fought and fought and fought and fought; we want the universe to reward his struggle, even though in theory the struggle is its own reward.
"At Berkeley." As I wrote in my review of this four hour Frederick Wiseman picture, "Wiseman is a master of 'Look ma, no self-awareness' documentary filmmaking that analyzes itself without seeming to analyze itself." This one of his subtlest documentaries, a late-career masterpiece.
"Drug War." Johnnie To's latest picture is more subdued than some of his others, and rooted in reality. A sense of futility and waste pervades the frequently thrilling action, because even as you're watching bullets fly and cars careen, you're thinking of the small, ugly details: brown-stained plastic balloons purged from a drug mule's alimentary canal; a line of cars backed up before a toll booth on a border; the dispassionate way that one cop stares at a bank of surveillance monitors, or that another cop clips a suspect.
"The Lone Ranger." The year's weirdest big-budget movie owes more to spaghetti westerns, silent comedies and midnight films like "El Topo" than to anything being made today. It's got more personality in its worst five minutes than most Marvel comic book films have in their entire running time. Johnny Depp does his best Buster Keaton since "Benny and Joon," and he does it with a bird on his head. The movie is brutal and silly, whacked-out and sweet, knowing and sincere. That anyone could think such a bizarrely personal film is inferior to the likes of "Thor 2" or "Star Trek Into Darkness" is stupefying. It's like preferring a Quarter Pounder with cheese to a home-cooked feast.
"Monsters University." One of the most satisfying followups I've ever seen, this Pixar prequel is a combination campus comedy, sports film and coming-of-age drama, and shifts between modes with understated exactness. It's a nearly perfect family movie with a message that every child must someday accept if he or she is to grow up.
"Post Tenebras Lux." Carlos Reygadas surreal, scrambled-up dream-movie about a rural couple in Mexico would fit nicely on a bill alongside "Upstream Color" and "To the Wonder." It tickles the pleasure centers, and gets closer to abstraction, or pure sensation, than narrative cinema usually dares go. The Hollywood Reporter dismissed it as "offensively self-indulgent cubist folly." That's a DVD box quote if I ever saw one.
"Prince Avalanche." One of the better two-character dramas in recent years, this David Gordon Green film revealed unexpected sides of stars Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, and used its gorgeous, often ravaged landscapes for metaphorical effect without making too big a deal of it.
"The Selfish Giant." Writer-director Clio Barnard's story of two boys eking out a living as scrap merchants in depressed Northern England has a devastating ending and earns it; it's an indictment of the failures of an entire extended village that failed to look out for its weakest members because it was too busy surviving by any means necessary.
"Spring Breakers." That filmmaker Harmony Korine may very possibly be snickering at people who found deep meaning in his biggest box-office hit doesn't dim my fascination with it one bit. Spraaaaaang brayyyyyyk...fo-evah.
"After Earth" (I'm just about the only person who liked it this year; I believe film history will be much kinder to it)
"100 Bloody Acres" One of the greatest first horror films ever.
"The Great Beauty" I smile just thinking of it.
"Mud" Almost twenty years ago, I interviewed Matthew McConaughey for the Austin Chronicle. He said he worshipped Paul Newman and always wanted be him. He's gotten a few chances in recent years, but this drama from Jeff Nichols might be the best.
"No" A smart, sweet, beguilingly odd historical drama about advertising, politics and the fine art of selling. And the whole thing is shot with 1980s-era TV news equipment, so that archival footage blends seamlessly with re-creations and gives the whole thing a unique visual energy.
"The Stories We Tell" Talk about a movie with universal appeal: anyone who's been a child or a parent, or who's ever told a story, can get something out of Sarah Polley's documentary.
"20 Feet from Stardom" The pleasure and pain of being an artist has rarely been expressed so viscerally.
"The World's End" It gets funnier with each viewing, and on first viewing it was pretty darned funny. Wise, too.
Matt Zoller Seitz reviews and reflects upon Jesse Eisenberg's New Yorker piece about film critics.
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