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The Congress

"The Congress" is a roll call of the orgiastic pleasures and bountiful comforts that art provides, and, a reminder of what waits for us when…

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As Above, So Below

It's that rare found-footage film with a strong premise, a memorably eccentric style, and plenty of energy to burn. It's also poorly conceived, and hard…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Cast and Crew

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How U.S. hopes for a deal in Egypt were undercut; the "strained pulp" debate; a horror movie enthusiast defends "Notting Hill"; "Deadwood's" Jim Beaver on a favorite episode; a case for abolishing tipping.

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Book Excerpt: Guillermo Del Toro talks about the Best FIlm You've Never Seen

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Robert K. Elder made a splash a few years ago with his book "The Film That Changed My Life," a collection of interviews with directors about a single film that influenced their career. Now he's back with "The Best Film You've Never Seen," (published by the Independent Publishers Group) in which directors advocate for under-appreciated and critically maligned movies. Roger said of the book, "How necessary this book is! And how well judged and written! Some of the best films ever made, as Robert K. Elder proves, are lamentably all but unknown." Here's Elder's interview with Guillermo Del Toro, who sings the praises of "Arcane Sorceror," which Edgar Wright memorably described as "the 'Barry Lyndon' of horror films."

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Black designers show the French a thing or deux

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For those of us who missed our calling as jet setters, socialites or fashion models along comes the edifying, spritely documentary "Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution" to show us how much work it is to be spontaneously fabulous.

Nearly 40 years ago, in late November of 1973, something rather momentous happened at the Opéra Royal on the grounds of the King's old digs outside Paris. In the course of a fashion show that Women's Wear Daily dubbed "The Battle of Versailles," boldly assertive American runway models -- many of whom were what we now call African-American -- wore sporty, comfortable American designer clothes with such, well, panache that the absolute supremacy of French haute couture was dented for good.

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Viewer's guide: The keycard to Room 237?!

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Is "Room 237" some kind of crazy joke? Rick Ascher's much-discussed "subjective documentary" features five people who present their theories/interpretations of the "hidden meanings" they say they've found in the rooms and corridors of Stanley Kubrick's Overlook Hotel, the setting of his chilly 1980 horror film, "The Shining." I'm asking a question; I don't know the answer. I haven't yet had the opportunity to see the picture, which has played a number of festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, NY, London, Karlovy Vary) and has been picked up by IFC Films and is slated for release in 2013. I have seen Ascher's 2010 short, "The S from Hell," however, which the "Room 237" web site says "in many ways laid the groundwork" for the new film. That one is satire.

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The great movies (almost) nobody voted for

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OK, this is where it really gets interesting. Forget the consensus Top 50 Greatest Movies of All Time; let's get personal. Sight & Sound has now published the top 250 titles in its 2012 international critics poll, the full list of more than 2,000 movies mentioned, and all the individual lists of the 845 participating critics, academics, archivists and programmers, along with any accompanying remarks they submitted. I find this to be the most captivating aspect of the survey, because it reminds us of so many terrific movies we may have forgotten about, or never even heard of. If you want to seek out surprising, rewarding movies, this is a terrific place to start looking. For the past few days I've been taking various slices at the "data" trying to find statistical patterns, and to glean from the wealth of titles some treasures I'd like to heartily recommend -- and either re-watch or catch up with myself.

I know we're supposed to consider the S&S poll a feature film "canon" -- a historically influential decennial event since 1952, but just one of many. I don't disagree with Greg Ferrara at TCM's Movie Morlocks ("Ranking the Greats: Please Make it Stop") when he says that limiting ballots to ten all-time "best" (or "favorite," "significant," "influential" titles is incredibly limiting. That's why I think perusing at the critics' personal lists, the Top 250 (cited by seven critics or more) and the full list of 2,045 films mentioned is more enjoyable pastime.

It's wise to remember that, although the top of the poll may at first glance look relatively conservative or traditional, there's a tremendous diversity in the individual lists. Even the top vote-getter, "Vertigo," was chosen by less than one quarter of the participants.

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The Return of the Son of the Opening Shots Project, Part 2

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Nearly five years ago (June 16, 2006), I announced what I called the Movies 101: Opening Shots Project, and I figure it's past time for a re-launch. I want to elaborate a little on what I wrote back then, when I started off with the opening title/shot of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon":

Any good movie -- heck, even the occasional bad one -- teaches you how to watch it. And that lesson usually starts with the very first image. I'm not talking necessarily about titles or opening sequences (they're worth discussing, too -- but that's another article); I'm talking about opening shots. As those who have been reading Scanners (and my Editor's Notes on RogerEbert.com) know, two of my cardinal rules for movie-watching are:

1) The movie is about what happens to you while you watch it. So, pay attention -- to both the movie and your response. If you have reactions to, or questions about, what you're seeing, chances are they'll tell you something about what the movie is doing. Be aware of your questions, emotions, apprehensions, expectations.

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A screenwriter and a neuroscientist on randomness, God and A Serious Man

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Whenever I feel a profound connection to a work of art, I can't help but see signs of it everywhere, all around me. The Coens' "A Serious Man" is, unsurprisingly, no exception -- because it is such a magnificent synthesis of my strongest interests: movies, music, philosophy, religion, morality, mortality (especially as an ex-dead person), mystery, humor, passive-aggressiveness, uncertainty, randomness, coincidence, probability, the new freedoms, sleep...

Screenwriter Todd Alcott has written the most detailed analysis of the Coens' masterpiece that I've yet encountered, and he begins by addressing those who have said they don't like the movie because it has "a passive protagonist." Ha! Why, you may as well be talking about the disappearance of the interventionist God between the "Old Testament" (Torah) and the "New Testament"! Indeed, I would argue, that is exactly what you're talking about. Alcott puts it this way:

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The greatest movies ever made

All lists of the "greatest" movies are propaganda. They have no deeper significance. It is useless to debate them. Even more useless to quarrel with their ordering of titles: Why is this film #11 and that one only #31? The most interesting lists are those by one person: What are Scorsese's favorites, or Herzog's? The least interesting are those by large-scale voting, for example by IMDb or movie magazines. The most respected poll, the only one I participate in, is the vote taken every 10 years by Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, which asks a large number of filmmakers, writers, critics, scholars, archivists and film festival directors.

1. The Night of the Hunter, 1955

That one at least has taken on a canonical aspect. The list evolves slowly. Keaton rises, Chaplin falls. It is eventually decided that "Vertigo" is Hitchcock's finest film. Ozu cracks the top ten. Every ten years the net is thrown out again. The Sight & Sound list at least reflects widespread thinking in what could be called the film establishment, and reflects awareness of the full span of more than a century of cinema.

The IMDb list of "250 Top Movies of All Time" is the best-known and most-quoted of all "best movie" lists. It looks to be weighted toward more recent films, although Keith Simonton, who is in charge over there, tells me they have a mathematical model that somewhat corrects for that. Specifically, it guards against this week's overnight sensation shooting to the top of the list on a wave of fanboy enthusiasm. Still, the IMDb voters are probably much younger on average than the Sight & Sound crowd. To the degree the list merely reflects their own tastes back at them, it tells them what they already know.

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Tell me a story, Act II: Acts

View image Story diagram stolen -- er, borrowed -- from "Observations on film art and Film Art."

Kristin Thompson, author of "Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique," a book I can't believe I haven't read and have therefore just ordered, explores her observations and theory of story structure in a blog entry called "Times go by turns," which gets to the heart of how movie storytelling works by showing how familiar structures involve the use of more than the "three acts" we're accustomed to thinking about. She was inspired by the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Image conference in June at the University of Wisconsin in Madison -- and, boy, does that ever sound like something that would be up my street. (Also: See my post "Tell me a story... or don't.")

Kristin writes:

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Stanley Kubrick hates you

View image"The Shining": A bug under a microscope.

The most superficial and shopworn cliché about Stanley Kubrick is that he was a misanthrope. This is up there with calling Alfred Hitchcock "The Master of Suspense," and leaving it at that. The cliché may contain a partial truth, but it's not particularly enlightening. It's just trite.

In the free Seattle weekly tabloid The Stranger, Charles Mudede writes about a local Kubrick series, and begins by stating: "Kubrick hated humans. This hate for his own kind is the ground upon which his cinema stands." This is a nice grabber -- particularly for readers who don't know anything about Kubrick, or who want to feel the thrill of the forbidden when reading about him. ("Imagine! He hated humans!")

Unfortunately for readers, this is Mudede's thesis, and he's sticking to it. Here's his summary judgement of "2001: A Space Odyssey": As is made apparent by "2001: A Space Odyssey," his contempt was deep.

It went from the elegant surface of our space-faring civilization down, down, down to the bottom of our natures, the muck and mud of our animal instincts, our ape bodies, our hair, guts, hunger, and grunts. No matter how far we go into the future, into space, toward the stars, we will never break with our first and violent world. Even the robots we create, our marvelous machines, are limited (and undone) by our human emotions, pressures, primitive drives. For Kubrick, we have never been modern. OK, that's one interpretation (though it gets the direction of the movement entirely wrong), but I think it's a facile misreading of the film. Is there really something un-"modern" about portraying the raw, simple fact of evolution, with a little otherworldly nudge?

And why does Mudede have such contempt for apes and "animal instincts"? Is he going to apply "Meat is Murder" morality to primates? (Besides, they're so dirty!) Or does he not feel the awesome and primal beauty in the whole "Dawn of Man" sequence? If he doesn't, I suppose it's no wonder he sees no wonder in the rest of the movie.

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Kubrick and the cosmic zoom

A mighty zoom. It begins here...

... and ends here.

It's been said that what "The Shining" is to the dolly/Steadicam shot, "Barry Lyndon" is to the zoom. Jeffrey Bernstein offers an in-depth exploration of all those slow, still-life zooms in "Barry Lyndon" -- 36 of them by his count, and I believe him! (Here's the .pdf file.) I have so much reading to do.

The zoom, because it is purely optical and does not involve actually moving the camera, has unique visual properties. It tends to flatten the image as it enlarges it (I was going to say "gets closer," but of course that's the point -- it doesn't). Kubrick uses it so that his characters appear to be locked within the frame, and shots are presented like paintings -- portraits or landscapes. It's part of the canvas of the film, as it were. (BTW, my revised 1981 appreciation of "Barry Lyndon," one of my favorite films, can be found here: "Barry Lyndon and the Cosmic Wager.")

Bernstein writes: In "Barry Lyndon" Kubrick elevates a ‘poor cousin’ as it were of film technique—the zoom in progress—to a central position. In the first twenty-one minutes of the film there are six zooms and one zoom-like track-out. The majority of these zooms are elaborate; the shortest in duration lasts no less than ten seconds, while the fifth (the Nora-Captain Quin love scene) lasts a remarkable thirty-four seconds, and the sixth (the opening of the Barry-Captain Quin duel) lasts thirty seconds. Six of the first eleven scenes in the film, including three scenes in a row, begin with elaborate zoom-outs. The audience can’t help but notice the zooms. Perhaps never before in the history of commercial cinema have zooms been employed to be noticed by the audience. And not only to be noticed, but to be thought about as well. It seems to me that Kubrick’s use of the zoom movement in "Barry Lyndon" is the most elaborate and sustained use of zoom movement ever seen in a film.You'll get no argument from me! Though Robert Altman and Vilmos Zsigmond do deserve special mention for their work in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Images" and "The Long Goodbye." In the latter the camera never stops zooming and moving, as if it were bobbing on the waves at Malibu...

(Yes, those last four words are a Joni Mitchell reference.)

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Repeatable pleasures

"Barry Lyndon": Let's begin again...

Some great (and maybe not-so-great) movies reward repeated viewings; others you may savor only once or twice. The newly redesigned Slate.com has asked several movie people what movies they've seen most often. (On my own personal list: I never tire of the crackling artistic life in "Nashville," "Chinatown," "Citizen Kane," "E.T.," "North By Northwest," "Trouble in Paradise," "Fight Club," "Donnie Darko," "Double Indemnity," "Stranger Than Paradise," "Stop Making Sense"... Then there's "Animal Crackers," any Buster Keaton movie [but especially "Our Hospitality," "Sherlock Jr." and "Steamboat Bill Jr."], "Waiting for Guffman," "Dazed and Confused," "Boogie Nights" -- oh, and "Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy," an unheralded comedy masterpiece...)

Among the choices in Slate's "The Movies I've Seen the Most":

Writer-director Paul Schrader (author of the indispensible book of film criticism, "Ozu Bresson Dreyer"): Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket." (Duh -- he's used the ending twice in his own movies, "American Gigolo" and "Light Sleeper.")

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Opening Shots: 'Superman,' 'Lost in Translation,' more

View image: The opening curtain.

View image: A 1936 comic book.

View image: A child reads the comic book.

From Mark Roberts, Calgary, Alberta, Canada:

I am such a fan of movie opening moments (sounds strange I know, but a great opening moment is something I really treasure), that I had to respond to your call for favourite moments (and I'm going to have to see "Barry Lyndon" now too...). They're all pretty literal... nothing terribly deep in terms of artistic impression... but that shouldn't disqualify a great opening.

"Superman" I always get caught up by the opening moments. As the child narrator speaks about the Daily Planet, the curtains pull back to reveal the first issue of "Action Comics," moving to the "live" shot of the Daily Planet, and then into space and the opening credits. John William's score draws us through the open curtains and into the other world of the movie. I still get a little leap in my chest when the theme reaches its first crescendo and the title "Superman" leaps into view.

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Movies 101: Opening Shots Project

"Barry Lyndon" opens with a bang.

Any good movie -- heck, even the occasional bad one -- teaches you how to watch it. And that lesson usually starts with the very first image. I'm not talking necessarily about titles or opening sequences (they're worth discussing, too -- but that's another article); I'm talking about opening shots. As those who have been reading Scanners (and my Editor's Notes on RogerEbert.com) know, two of my cardinal rules for movie-watching are:

1) The movie is about what happens to you while you watch it. So, pay attention -- to both the movie and your response. If you have reactions to, or questions about, what you're seeing, chances are they'll tell you something about what the movie is doing. Be aware of your questions, emotions, apprehensions, expectations.

2) The opening shot (or opening sequence) is the most important part of the movie... at least until you get to the final shot. (And in good movies, the two are often related.)

The opening shot can tell us a lot about how to interpret what follows. It can even be the whole movie in miniature. I'm going to talk about some of my favorites, and how they work, and then request that you contribute your own favorites for possible publication in future Scanners columns.

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Norman Mailer: Tough guy directs

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PROVINCETOWN, Mass. -- Not far down the street there has been a bloody fist fight, two men pounding each other senseless over a woman, blood on the sidewalk, the police involved, but Norman Mailer hardly hears of it, he is so engrossed in the movie he is directing.

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