Thursday, May 31, 2012

My Top 100 Films (61-80)

[The following is the latest entry in my Top 100 films. Click the links to see picks 1-20, 21-40 and 41-60.]

61. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969/Italy, USA/Sergio Leone)

Leone's homage/revisionist take on the Western reaches its pinnacle in this perfectly directed, almost Brechtian deconstruction. From the long, unbearably tense beginning (hands down the best film opening ever) to Henry Fonda's everyman image being perverted to suggest that violence and sadism is a cornerstone of the "average American." Leone helped create a Western icon in Eastwood's Man With No Name, but here he tears the whole damn place to the ground. Even so, he does it with such lush formalism it's nearly impossible to see him battering at the foundations until it all collapses.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Top 100 FIlms (41-60)

[The following is a continuation of my top 100 films. Click on the link for picks 1-20 and 21-40.]

41. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie [director's cut] (1978/USA/John Cassavetes)

I still have so much to learn from John Cassavetes. I need to rewatch A Woman Under the Influence and to see for the first time Opening Night, a film several writers I deeply admire love so fervently that most cannot even talk about it. But this director's cut of Cassavetes' ostensible gangster picture—actually shorter than the theatrical version—still resonates. Ben Gazzara's tragic, greasy loser, a man who celebrates the paying off of a debt by getting a whole new stack of it, is haunting. His Cosmo continuously retreats into physical and emotional safety back in the haven of his disgusting nightclub. Compared to the world around him, however, this cum-stained den is as close to comfort as Cosmo can hope for. Cassavetes doesn't use any flashy camerawork, but at no point does his camera fail to suggest the character's inner thoughts and moods. At every turn, Chinese Bookie feels like it might devolve into Oscar-baiting actor moments, only to be cruelly cut short by an uncaring world.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My Top 100 Films (21-40)

[This is the second part of my top 100 films. See also picks 1-20.]

21. Close-Up (1990/Iran/Abbas Kiarostami)

Kiarostami's masterpiece tops Herzog's blending of fact and fiction, not merely recounting the true story of a man who posed as Iranian director Mohsen Mahkmalbaf but replicating it. Kiarostami gets all the actual parties involved, having the man and the family he conned play themselves. The director even gets to film the man's trial, possibly influencing its outcome in the man's favor. But in the playful collision of documentary, recreation and fiction, Kiarostami offers a beautiful meditation on art and the love and power of it. The final shot, frozen on the man's bashful face as he apologizes to the family he hoodwinked, is one of the greatest image in all of cinema, art bringing people together even through manipulation and lies.

Monday, May 28, 2012

My Top 100 FIlms (1-20)

I've done my best to resist the rush to list-making spurred by the critical census-taking of the Sight & Sound poll, that decennial feature that shows off the dearest loves of critics and filmmakers the world over before being averaged out to remind everyone that Citizen Kane is still the best movie ever. I've seen so many top 10 lists pop up over the last few weeks that I started to feel as if I were the only blogger actually happy to not have to agonize over something so meaningless and yet so crucial as a list of 10 movies among the thousands a cinephile has seen that somehow stand out among the rest. I can't even keep a year-end list limited to that many entries; to sum up all of cinema into so few choices is an infuriating prospect. Besides, at 22, the idea of me setting down my favorite movies is laughable. There's so much I haven't seen, so much I haven't re-seen, that I wouldn't dare claim to have any grasp on what I truly love yet.

Then, I thought about the fun of doing such a list not as a declaration of taste but as a time capsule, a snapshot of my mindset at this stage of my life to be revisited later after my picks have undoubtedly changed. I admit that gives these selections a self-satisfying, esoteric bent, but that's true of all lists. Still, I love lists, and I love to spread my affection for my favorite movies. I tried to stick to that old one-film-per-director rule to maximize the variety, though I quickly violated that with a few filmmakers. (Howard Hawks even appears three times in my top 100, but then one could make a credible top 10 of all time with nothing but Hawks films, so I'm convinced this constitutes restraint on my part.) My tastes do skew a bit more recent, a reflection both of my lateness in coming to film and my passion for a type of reflexive, (post-)modern cinema that will become apparent as I explain my choices. I have presented these in alphabetical order, having had such a hard time narrowing the list down to 100 as it is without worrying about placement. I will, though, mark the films I would likely include in a top 10 I would submit to Sight & Sound if I were asked today. Or perhaps I should say were I asked right this second, as my picks at any given moment could be different. So, for the time being, here are the first 20 of my 100 favorite films of all time:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996)

[This is my May post for Blind Spots.]

Irma Vep is the third Olivier Assayas film I've seen, the other two being Summer Hours and Carlos. This 1996 feature contains the roots of both, the former's elegant respect for French art history and the latter's deconstructive, post-New Wave wit. A film about a film production starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Irma Vep instantly recalls Day for Night, but as Assayas voices and visualizes a sense of dissatisfaction with French cinema, the film becomes something else. Eric Gautier's gritty, 16mm cinematography and sophisticated camera movements combine New Wave spontaneity (the film was shot in three weeks) with formal know-how to be both behind-the-scenes docudrama and rich cinematic fantasy.

That the  production in question is an adaptation of Louis Feuillade's 1915 serial Les Vampires only complicates Assayas' thematic intent. The characters working on this French film set all talk of American films, some disapprovingly, others with an eagerness to see their own national cinema reflect Hollywood's crowd-pleasing scale. Assayas "remakes" Feuillade's film to remind everyone that France invented the action epic, and that they didn't need insane budgets and special effects to do so. Yet the fact that someone would remake it speaks to a lack of original ideas for contemporary French directors, and that's leaving out how little of France seems to make its way into this production.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Eros + Massacre (Yoshishige Yoshida, 1969)

[The following was originally written for Cinelogue. I've edited and changed a few things, but otherwise this is the same article.]

Why has revolution not swept the West in recent years as it did in the ’60s? We’re engaged in two wars (now potentially three) to the sole conflict in Vietnam, civil rights remain an issue, and the world economy is vastly worse than the prosperity of the mid-‘60s. Maybe that’s the reason: people don’t have enough money to go play Maoist and instead have to fight just to keep a crap apartment or a house someone assured them they could afford.

Perhaps our relative sexual freedom is the issue. One of the major demands of practically every national youth movement in the sixties was the demand for coeducation, a call for the end of repressive gender segregation. Student riots in America, Japan, France and elsewhere began on such terms and soon exploded into larger sociopolitical stances against the status quo. While Godard and Marke pieced together the remains of these leftist uprisings in their direct and indirect treatises on May ’68, Japanese New Wave director Yoshishige Yoshida traced the revolution back to its unlikely source, and in the process he revealed how the personal and political overlapped.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Criminally Underrated: The Limits of Control

I loved Jim Jarmusch's divisive (to say the least) post-modern noir when it came out in 2009, and finally watching one of its biggest inspirations, The Lady from Shanghai, inspired me to revisit the film. If anything, I love it even more, so I had to write about it for my latest Criminally Underrated piece for Spectrum Culture. This new piece incorporates some of the views I expressed at the time, but I tried to refine the more scattered thoughts. Not that any succinct summary could ever capture the intoxicating beauty of what Jarmusch and Christopher Doyle shot.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, 2012)

Empty but gorgeous imagery, filled with references to other movies and heavily indebted to Kenneth Anger. No, it's not a Nicholas Winding Refn film but Beyond the Black Rainbow, a low-budget throwback gem from Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos. With a stark but smooth, even John Carpenter-like direction, Cosmatos descends into a head trip that takes its cues from '70s and '80s sci-fi movies even as it proudly stakes out its own territory. The film's Oedipal trappings are just add-ons, but the true delight is wandering around the director's hazy headspace, filmed with striking colors, soft focus, and thick grain. Maybe not a great film, but an intoxicating one.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dark Shadows (Tim Burton, 2012)

On paper, Dark Shadows should be a stirring return to form for Tim Burton. Like Beetlejuice, its focus on one main set limits Burton's arty leanings even as it allows him to pour all of his expressionistic flair into his chosen location, maximizing his moody design instead of diluting it across too big an area. And like Edward Scissorhands, it then drags that isolated, anachronistic, black-and-white setting into a candy-colored "normal" world, having fun with the juxtaposition. After the fine but flat Sweeney Todd and the out-of-control Alice in Wonderland, this could have been just what Burton needed to get back on track.

Instead, it marks a low point for a career that already includes the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes and the aforementioned take on Lewis Carroll. Based on the late-'60s soap opera of the same name, Dark Shadows concerns one Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp, obviously), the heir to a fortune and family legacy until a witch whose love he spurned (Eva Green) took everything from him, turned him into a vampire and buried him alive for eternal torment. Accidentally unearthed in 1972, Barnabas must restore his cursed descendants to the rightful Collins legacy while acclimating to a changed world.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

I don't have anything to add to the long-running critical discussion for Notorious, one of Alfred Hitchcock's most beloved pictures, and one of the most thoroughly unpacked in narrative, thematic, and technical terms. But rewatching the film on its new Blu-Ray edition, I was struck by the film's subtlety, a word rarely thrown around when discussing Hitchcock, even by his admirers. Still, there's a delicateness to Notorious not normally seen in the master's work, visible not only in the nuanced performances submitted by the cast but also in the director's camerawork. Even the celebrated key scene, one of the definitive Hitchcock shots, is so playful and light that the tension it generates is even more effective because of its unexpectedness.

The plot itself is, like so many Hitchcock thrillers, at once needlessly convoluted and forcibly direct: Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), the disgraced but blameless daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, is recruited by the American government to help expose her father's cohorts hiding in Brazil. But the nature of her assignment casts a dark shadow over the proceedings from the start, adding shades of moral complexity that threaten to makes the Americans look as perverse and inhuman as the Nazis themselves. Further complicating this moral and political ambiguity is its primary framing around a romantic story, personifying each side prodding Alicia with a single, lustful man, both of whom, in separate but linked ways, nearly kill her with their love.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)

Let's get a couple of things out of the way. The Avengers opens on such a hollow note that its entire first act struggles to find any kind of footing at all. Trapped between a need for some basic exposition and a total disregard for anyone foolish enough to wade into this film without having seen its multiple-franchise foundations, The Avengers thus has nothing for anyone as it slowly, ever so slowly, brings together its collection of superheroes. And though I've never previously bought the charge that Joss Whedon is a smug writer, I nearly blushed at the self-satisfaction in some early exchanges and setups, so obvious and fan-massaging that their cynicism threatened to divorce me entirely from what I hoped would be Whedon's big break. Maybe all that trash-talking he'd done over the years for those who "misread" or "mishandled" his early film scripts was just a smokescreen for a writer whose considerable gift for television writing simply didn't translate to the more concise storytelling of cinema.

Then, something happened that has not occurred in any of the Marvel films leading up to this blowout: the movie kept getting better. Most of the previous films started with intriguing concepts and approaches before fizzling out in half-baked, perfunctorily executed action romps that served only to set up the chess pieces for this picture. Even Captain America, easily the best of the Marvel Studios franchise starters, dipped a bit in the middle, though it differs from its peers in that it finished strong where movies like Iron Man, Thor and The Incredible Hulk ended on lame notes. But The Avengers swaps the usual Marvel dynamic, moving out of a dull, lazy setup into something clever, well-observed and, ultimately, thrilling. By the time everything fell into place, my laundry list of complaints evaporated in the pure rush of Whedon's ambition.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

As weird as Twin Peaks was, the idea of watching a film that worked as an anti-closure prequel to its cliffhanger finale and alienated what fans of the show remained kept me away for some time. But I finally watched Fire Walk With Me and found it not only to be worthy of its companion show's legacy but almost certainly the best film David Lynch has yet made. At once the most obscure and the most immediate film in Lynch's canon, Fire Walk With Me attains a despair unabated by the usual Lynchian grotesque, yet it also finds the strangest form of hope. And wouldn't you know it, even though it ends where the show began, it does give answers for the series' close. They just happen to be emotional ones, not narrative.

Check out my full piece up now at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Fall: Rough Trades and Kameraderie (1980-1983)

Previous Fall posts:

The Early Years (1976-1980)

As I noted in my last post, The Fall marked the '80s by switching labels from Step Forward to Rough Trade Records. Originating from a record shop opened in 1976 in Notting Hill that stocked ethnic artists as well as punk up-and-comers, Rough Trade turned the bosses' almost communistic ethos to distribution, resulting in one of the most legendary of early independent labels. And though the band clearly didn't suffer from executive pressures with their abrasive records for Step Forward, the thought of creative control and the slim possibility of a paycheck must have been tempting for MES and co.

But if the group's first release for the label, the live album Totale's Turns, offered an intriguing, if spotty, summary of the band's early sound, they soon moved boldly into the future. My favorite aspect of the punk era is how quickly groups matured from errantly hitting their instruments 'til noise came out to an actual sense of musicianship. Take, for but one example, the Slits. The not-quite-all-girl punk band cut two Peel sessions before they'd even made an album that are among the most rambunctious, defiantly sloppy work the BBC's engineers ever captured, then they turned up in a year's time capable of meshing reggae with punk in, frankly, more convincing fashion than The Clash. The band was already on an upward slope with the relative stabilization of the lineup, but it was at Rough Trade that The Fall as we know them today emerged.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)

[The following post is my belated April selection of my Blind Spots choices.]

Jonathan Glazer's Birth cribs so much from Stanley Kubrick that I don't think that even Steven Spielberg's A.I., Kubrick's own former project, owes as much to the master. A stately, graceful tracking shot follows a lecturer, Sean, as he goes on a run in Central Park after decrying the concept of reincarnation. The shot is as frigid as the snow-covered area it covers, following behind the jogging man like a stalker until, finally, the angle changes and darts in front of the man. As it does so, the camera moves back into a tunnel under a bridge as Sean slows his pace and starts to stumble. In the middle of this darkened hole, he collapses and dies of a heart attack. Somewhere else, a baby is born in a bath.

The connection is obvious. A man enters a giant womb and dies as a child emerges from one to live. The man who dismissed reincarnation is visually linked to rebirth, and soon the narrative makes this the driving focus of the film when Sean's widow, Anna (Nicole Kidman), has her slowly rebuilt life re-shattered 10 years after her husband's death when a young boy (Cameron Bright) shows up at her door claiming to be Sean. This Sean's emergence raises metaphysical questions that gradually come to nothing as Glazer icy framings serve only to keep a ludicrous, overheated melodrama on ice.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

50 Book Pledge #12: Patrick deWitt — The Sisters Brothers

FINALLY getting back to reading after a busy end to my internship and then a week of just being out of it. I took a break from my Finnegans Wake reading and my tear through the Song of Ice and Fire series to check out this highly recommended dark-comic Western. I absolutely loved it. Clearly drawing on Cormac McCarthy, deWitt realizes he cannot capture McCarthy's almost Russian gift for human profundity in minute observation and instead strives to tell a more intimate story of two brother hitmen out on a task routinely interrupted by bleak oddities. It starts off hilarious, twisting that McCarthy style into deadpan humor with greater aplomb even than the Coen brothers' take on No Country for Old Men. Yet the closer it gets to its destination, the more The Sisters Brothers becomes an affecting, insightful view onto filial bonds, strained by differing, sometimes diametrically opposed, personalities and ambitions yet unbreakable and endlessly supportive. Even the sideplot about Eli's put-upon horse Tub is oddly touching, each new indignity suffered by the poor beast a fresh blow. I cared about that pathetic creature as much as I did the protagonists, which is an impressive feat in its own right given their reprehensible lives and the sad banality of Eli's inner narration. This book has been a huge hit lately among a lot of people I follow on Twitter, and I can see why they raved about it. One of my favorite contemporary reads.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Fall: The Early Years (1976-1980)

The Fall is my favorite band. The ever-shifting lineup headed by Mancunian gutter prophet-poet Mark E. Smith was post-punk before punk had even flamed out and has, inexplicably, survived 35 years of Smith's brutal, unbearable behavior and an appeal that has only even risen to the level of "cult favorite" at its absolute pinnacle of popularity. Where post-punk enjoyed only a marginally longer shelf life (generally accepted to be from 1978 through 1984) than the movement that spawned it, The Fall have outlived them all. Where others are on their umpteenth reunion tour since the belated influence of the genre offered a chance to get all that cash they never received the first time out, Smith has never stopped. Then again, at least when Mission of Burma or Magazine or what have you came back it was with, generally speaking, the original members, barring those who did not live long enough to see the reunion. You could argue that The Fall lasted for less time than any of their peers, and that Smith has simply formed dozens of new groups since.

The sheer prolificacy of The Fall—at the time of this writing, the band has, officially, 29 studio albums, 35 live albums, 47 singles (many of which are non-album tracks), and 40 (mostly terrible, lazy cash-in) compilations to their name—makes them one of the most daunting groups to ever not be found in your local record shop. I was going to write something about them for my old "Stuff I Like" feature, but there's so much to cover that any one post would be embarrassingly insufficient. Instead, I'd like to go through the band's long, turbulent history in steps, highlighting each distinct phase in their ever-evolving sound, which DJ John Peel aptly described as "Always different, always the same."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)

I've been meaning to watch The Lady from Shanghai for YEARS, yet inexplicably it kept falling between the cracks. But I finally watched it and wrote about it for Spectrum Culture. Needless to say, I absolutely loved it, and in fact I found it to be perhaps the most immediately entertaining of Welles' features, despite being one of the murkiest and oddest alongside Mr. Arkadin and F for Fake.  Most of the films I could compare it to came well after it, with only Renoir's 1932 La nuit du carrefour doing something similar before it. Gorgeously shot yet openly farcical, this is one of the best noir deconstructions.

Check out my full thoughts over at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Re:Generation Music Project (Amir Ben-Lev, 2012)

I never know where to stand on DJs, so I was glad to watch Re:Generation Music Project, an effort to prove the artistic validity of this sort of music. I loved watching each DJ pore through his assigned genre, some of them coming to appreciate that which they had previously ignored (I'm especially thinking of Pretty Lights initially disdaining country then growing to truly admire it). There are some irritations, chiefly in the form of that insufferable know-it-all Mark Ronson, but overall I came away with a new respect for what these people do. DJ Premier's work with classical music in particular is one of the most entertaining, inspiring things I've seen this year.

My full review of Re:Generation Music Project is up now at Spectrum Culture.