300: Rise of an Empire
In comparison with "300", this insane film is more engaging by dint of being absolutely impossible to take even a little bit seriously.
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
Remembrances of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Cohen Media Group has made a name for itself as a boutique DVD and Blu-ray label, bringing overlooked and under-appreciated works of cinema to new audiences.
Sheila writes: Pardis Parker's “The Dance” is a 10-minute short film that just won the Best Comedy from the National Screen Institute of Canada. Parker is the lead actor as well as the director and writer here, and the entire thing is done silent movie style. I love the detail he has written on his own calendar: "She loves matching outfits", which then explains his get-ups. It is a touching and funny short film, and I am so happy to pass it on!
An exhaustive list of Top 10s by RogerEbert.com contributors.
Writer Simon Abrams responds to our Movie Love Questionnaire.
Brian Doan wonders if Mark Cousins' "The Story of Film," showing over 15 weeks on TCM this fall, deserves all the praise it has received.
One detail of a film—say, the anklet worn by Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity"—can tell us more than you might think.
Words, images and videos worth knowing about.
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.
"All of us will always owe him everything." -- Glenn Kenny on Andrew Sarris, quoting Jean-Luc Godard on Orson Welles
Andrew Sarris, "who loved movies" (as Roger Ebert described him), was long considered the "dean of American film critics." Reading the accounts and appreciations of him today, I was surprised to see how many people perpetuated the myth that Sarris and Pauline Kael were like the print era's Siskel & Ebert who, instead of facing off with each other over new movies on TV week after week, carried on a robust public debate about auteurism and film theory for decades. That didn't happen. And that mischaracterization does a disservice to Sarris, to Kael and to Siskel & Ebert, all of whom were taking their own distinctive and original approaches to movie reviewing and criticism. I think what's most important on the occasion of Sarris's passing is to acknowledge that his substantial critical legacy cannot be defined in terms of anything Pauline Kael wrote about him and the politique des auteurs in 1963 -- and certainly not in the way his and the Cahiers du Cinema critics' views were misrepresented in Kael's famous snipe, "Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris."
Let's get this straight: Sarris, who had spent some time in France and acquainted himself with the Cahiers du Cinema critics (Andre Bazin, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, et al.), published an essay in Film Culture called "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" (download .pdf here). In it he set out to explain the French notion of what he called "auteurism" for an American audience.*
(Picture the headline above in Comic Sans.) MSN Movies contributors have selected our Top 10 Movies of 2011. What does that mean? Whatever you want it to mean. Are these movies "the best"? Are they our favorites? Are they "movies we got to see before the deadline"? In my case, it's some combination of all three -- but I'm really quite happy with the aggregate results. As for my own contribution, as usual I hadn't seen everything I wanted to by the deadline ("A Separation," "Hugo," "The Artist," "Mysteries of Lisbon," "Midnight in Paris" among them), and still haven't, but them's the breaks. My lists will evolve in coming days (Village Voice/LA Weekly poll, indieWIRE Critics Poll, and so on), but I do want to say that I went all-in with my emotions. I picked these movies 'cause I love 'em, not because I merely admire them or appreciate them.
The Big List starts here; the individual lists start here.
Of course, as much as we love lists, the best thing about the MSN feature is that we have short appreciations of the top 10 movies, written by some very perceptive and eloquent people. And me, too. You will find the Group List, with excerpts and links to the full mini-essays, below -- and my personal ballot at the bottom. Let me know what you think -- and be sure to read the previous post ("Idiocracy and the ten-best trolls") for a good laugh:
"The Last 15 Minutes... Will Mess You Up For Life." -- tagline for "Paranormal Activity 3" (2011)
"Anyone who leaves the cinema doesn't need the film, and anybody who stays does." -- Michael Haneke on his first version of "Funny Games"
In 1982, I took my 21-year-old sister to see "Poltergeist." When it was over, she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, "You have ruined my life." It was traumatic for her. I showed John Carpenter's "Halloween" in college and the experience so deeply shook a good friend of mine that she spent several sessions in therapy talking to "The Shape" (as he was billed).
So, we don't always know what we can handle. The question sometimes arises: Do you have an obligation to yourself, your friends and family, your fellow cinephiles/cinephiliacs, readers or viewers to expose yourself to films that challenge you, that push you out of your comfort zone? Sure you do. Everybody needs to test their limits, if only to find out what they are. Does that include shock cinema, so-called "torture porn," or movies that otherwise present themselves as a schoolyard dare ("Bet you can't watch this without puking!") -- the feature film equivalents of "2 Girls 1 Cup"? I think not.
This entered my mind while watching the second-season premiere of AMC's "The Walking Dead" last Sunday night (the zombies are metaphors for zombies) -- the monotonously gruesome series that featured a squishy backwoods autopsy scene in which two humans decide to cut open the stomach of a head-shot "walker" to find out if he'd recently eaten the little girl they're looking for. The obvious analogue is to the shark-belly autopsy from "Jaws," but this one was just an excuse to make the audience squirm on the way to a dumb punch line (How much woodchuck could a zombie chew up before it makes you upchuck, Chuck?).
Part of the thrill of watching a horror movie is the sense of triumph and relief you have at the end: "See? I made it through that -- and I survived!" Some movies are conceived and sold that way. It isn't so far from the William Castle-like gimmicks of having ambulances outside the theater or nurses in the lobby or barf bags at the concessions stand, to the hysteria of "The Exorcist" in 1973 (considered a rite-of-passage test of courage for teens and college students everywhere) to more recent phenomena like the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies.
Google "best movies of 2011 so far" (without the quotation marks) and you'll get approximately 19-and-a-half million results, which is just about what this whole obsessive-compulsive list-making thing feels like to me. "Ten-best" (and "ten-worst") mania used to be an annual phenomenon among movie fans and critics; now it happens every few months. Perhaps it's a symptom of what Simon Reynolds calls "Retromania," reflecting the brevity of pop-culture nostalgia cycles (is the first decade of the 21st century now officially "retro"? Oooh, remember those cool circle touchpads on old-skool iPods?) and the "museumification" and "curation " of virtually everything that can be collected, commodified, categorized, chronologized, hierarchically ranked or otherwise pigeonholed. (I sometimes enjoy lists, too, but while I occasionally make artisanal ones -- even bespoke ones -- I do not curate them.)
Seems I've been running across those headlines since May, at least: "Best Movies of 2011 (So Far)," and "Worst Movies of 2011 (So Far)." Here's a sampling of critics and outlets that have published such lists: Metacritic, Moviefone, Roger Ebert (best and worst), IndieWIRE's The Playlist, JoBlo.com, somebody at the Huffington Post, Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at "Ebert Presents: At the Movies (both best and worst), Dennis Cozallio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Paste magazine, Awards Daily (the name of which says exactly where I fear we're headed), CinemaBlend.com, Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies and FilmFan, Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, RopeofSilicon.com, IFC.com, beliefnet's Movie Mom, Fandango... STOP already!
When I was a child I was taught that it was unacceptable to call something -- a movie, a song, an activity -- "boring" because: 1) it doesn't make sense (a thing can't be boring, unless perhaps it is a drill bit; a person feels bored); and 2) it's indefensible, since the quality of "boringness" cannot be isolated or identified as an element of the thing itself; it's a feeling and it is yours).
So, saying something is "boring" is not exactly like saying something in a movie is "funny" or "moving" -- though, again, I'd prefer to place the responsibility for a response on the "feeler" rather than on the object -- because at least you can describe how something is presented or intended to be received as humorous or touching, even if you don't think it is. (Yes, there are exceptions to that, too.) I mean, a joke or a gag or an emotional situation can be objectively analyzed, but there are no agreed-upon cultural standards for evaluating "boring."¹
"Boring," I believe, is more like the word "entertaining" -- too vague to be of much use in a critical vocabulary. So, I might say I found something about a movie "tedious" or "engaging" or some other thesaurus word, but I'll attribute the emotion to myself and my taste, and even then not without a serious attempt to describe what I'm talking about, and to give at least one specific example.²
But now, "boring" is hot, at least in overheated Interwebular film criticism circles, since the publication of Dan Kois' New York Times Magazine piece called "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables," in which he says:
For tax day, the editors at MSN Movies came up with an idea for contributors to write short essays about the most, ahem, "taxing" people in modern movies. Each of us picked a person whose presence, behind or in front of the camera, we find wearisome and debilitating -- as in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of taxing: "onerous, wearing."
You've probably already guessed my choice. I've written quite a bit about why I find Christopher Nolan's post-"Memento" work lackluster, but this exercise gave me an opportunity to condense my reservations about his writing and directing into one relatively concise piece:
Let me say up front that I don't think Nolan is a bad or thoroughly incompetent director, just a successfully pedestrian one. His Comic-Con fan base makes extravagant claims for each new film -- particularly since Nolan began producing his graphic-novel blockbusters with "Batman Begins" in 2005 -- but the movies are hobbled by thesis-statement screenplays that strain for significance and an ungainly directing style that seems incapable of, and uninterested in, illustrating more than one thing at a time: "Look at this. Now look at this. Now look at this. Now here's some dialogue to explain the movie's fictional rules. Now a character will tell you what he represents and what his goals are." And so on ... You won't experience the thrill of discovery while looking around in a Nolan frame. You'll see the one thing he wants you to see, but everything around it is dead space. [...]
"It's enigmatic and obvious, exasperating and beguiling, heavy-handed and understated, witty and poignant, all at once." -- Alex Ramon, Boycotting Trends
What I like most about Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" is its slipperiness. The Tuscan textures are ravishing (it takes place over the course of an afternoon in and around the village of Lucignano -- or does it?), Juliette Binoche and William Shimell are easy on they eyes and ears (good thing, too, since the movie is practically one long conversation -- or is it?), but for me the most enjoyable thing about it is the way the story and characters keep subtly (and not-so-subtly) shifting, refusing to be pinned down. I was fearing one of those overly literalized Kiarostami "button" endings, but this time (as Michael Sicinski observes in his impressive, ambitious essay at MUBI), the thesis statement is placed at the front of the film and it gets slipperier from there:
"Certified Copy" operates almost in reverse of most thematically inclined works of art, which plunge us into a falsely desultory universe and gradually reveal their master interpretive passkey. Kiarostami's film presents a concept, fully formed and cogent, and allows the rest of the film to set to work on that concept, breaking it into Heisenbergian particles, then bringing it back into solid shape, and on and on.
(Photo by Dean Parker)
"Carter Burwell's score, drawing from themes from American folk music of the era, is one of his greatest." -- Glenn Kenny, review of "True Grit" on MSN Movies
I had missed the news, quietly announced in late December, that Carter Burwell's score for the Coens' "True Grit" (which includes Mahleresque orchestrations based on the traditional hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arm") and Clint Mansell's Tchaikovsky-influenced music for "Black Swan" (of course he's going to interpolate "Swan Lake" into the score -- that's the challenge!) would not be eligible for consideration in the Oscars' Best Original Score category. But the category is for score, not Best Original Tune. The presence of a hymn melody or passages from a famous ballet are key to what these compositions set out to accomplish, and how they are integrated into their respective movies. Those things shouldn't be held against them.
Orchestral composers have worked with folk music and other melodic sources for centuries. Mahler used "Frehre Jacques" in his first symphony and other traditional Jewish and folk tunes are found throughout his works. (For that matter, the melody -- and even part of the arrangement -- for TV's "Star Trek" theme is right there in Mahler's Seventh!) And Tchaikovsky -- jeeez, the 1812 Overture is just the French and Russian national anthems. But the composer fragmented them, wove them together and otherwise re-composed them into one of his most famous pieces.
(Besides, we've known for months that Hans Zimmer's score for "Inception" -- which is nominated -- is built on a slowed-down, sampled and otherwise manipulated recording of Edith Piaf singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien." That's using an existing tune in a movie score, too, isn't it? Seems to me that all of the above are legitimate compositional techniques.)
One of the great accomplishments of Mike Leigh's "Another Year" -- and perhaps an essential reason for its existence -- is to test the audience's judgments and perceptions of the characters. It's rare that you find such a wide range of interpretations about what is actually going on in a movie. Take a look at some of these reactions, from the insightful to the blind. But which, do you think, is which?
"Tom [Jim Broadbent] and Gerri [Ruth Sheen] are cheery, comfortable old lefties who've understood that they're not in a position to change the world anymore, and have gotten to be fine with that -- there's a correlation between this picture and Leigh's 1988 'High Hopes, in which a younger (obviously), punkier, leather-jacketed Sheen played one half of far a more agitated couple in Thatcherite Britain. As for Mary [Leslie Manville], her life is one (largely invented) turmoil after another, and the couple's dealings with her frantic plaints eventually get the viewer to wondering whether these nice, settled folks are really all that nice. Mary is very clearly an alcoholic. But the A-word is never once dropped in the film. And Gerri, who's a therapist herself, never even suggests counseling, or a support group, to Mary until an almost cruel hammer-dropping scene near the film's end. Tom and Gerri are so very polite, so very indulgent, so very correct in all their dealings, all the while dispensing conventional left-liberal wisdom spiked with conventional complacent cynicism whenever contemplating a crisis, be it global or local. But it's clear that all the while, they're stifling their own strong feelings of put-upon-ness and resentment. As much as you like them -- and maybe you won't like them, (that's one of the things about Leigh's films and their characters, they're so unusually and thoroughly textured that they never seem designed to elicit a simple response) -- you have to wonder if they're so besotted by their own comfort and contentment that they can't help but act as passive-aggressive near-monsters to the people they're supposedly close to.
"As Tom and Gerri are laid bare (or are they? That's another thing about Leigh, that he never appears himself to be making any kind of overt judgments on his characters, or even preparing any kind of melodramatic reveal of their hidden natures) the film brims with uncomfortable little touches." -- Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies
An old friend and I reunited for the first time in 13 years in Washington, DC last month, and the talk eventually turned to Facebook, the primary way we've managed to keep in touch, at least recently. I have a particular trait, usually reserved for after a night out on the town, by which friends can easily identify the level of my joviality, when I post videos of classic rock songs. Despite my assertion that a certain amount of fastidiousness should be necessary when it comes to sharing links on Facebook, I tend to disregard my own advice and post widely popular songs by legendary bands, for which I apologized to my friend.
Hundreds of sheep a-grazing, two swans a-schizing, one geek a-coding...
The ballots have been submitted, the points (but not the sheep) counted, and the best movies of 2010 have been selected and written about by the contributing critics of MSN Movies. But this isn't just a list. You'll find 300-word essays on the winners (each of which is linked to below) by ten -- count 'em, ten -- of your very favorite crickets! And although I'm still watching and rewatching more movies for crix poll deadlines to come, I present my very first 2010 "best list" below. It seemed like a lackluster year while it was happening, but I've found more to get enthused about in the last few weeks, catching up and revisiting newly hatched movies and theatrical releases from earlier in the year. As usual, I'll be making a wee movie to showcase my Definitive Scanners List (and might even get around to doing the Exploding Head Awards again this year). But now, enjoy these tasty treats:
10. Kat(hleen) Murphy on "Sweetgrass" 9. Don Kaye on "Exit Through the Gift Shop 8. Mary Pols on "Toy Story 3 7. James Rocchi on "Dogtooth" 6. Sean Axmaker on "Let Me In" 5. Glenn Kenny on "Carlos" 4. Richard T. Jameson on "The Ghost Writer" 3. Glenn Whipp on "Winter's Bone" 2. Kim Morgan on "Black Swan" 1. Jim Emerson on "The Social Network"
I greatly appreciated A.O. Scott's NY Times piece last Sunday, under the headline "Everybody's a Critic Of the Critics' Rabid Critics." (And not just because he had kind words for me and Dennis, though I most certainly appreciate that, too.) The article was about the curious reception of "Inception" (before it even opened), and the critical rush to proclaim it either a masterpiece or a disaster. As if it could only have been one or the other.
Scott's review of the film itself, like my initial response and many others, was ambivalent. I love his summation of the critical reaction (and reaction to the critical reaction) in his final four paragraphs, which I quote in their entirety:
So maybe I was subconsciously splitting the difference. Or maybe -- like the Nolanistas and anti-Nolanistas who had come before -- I was just trying to give an honest account of what I had seen. In the end I don't believe that the smitten first responders were simply bedazzled by hype, nor that the second-wave skeptics were merely being contrarian. Just as critics need to operate in good faith, so should consumers of criticism proceed from the assumption of good faith. We may be wrong, but we tend to say what we mean. It's a responsibility of the job, as well as one of the perks.
"If the career of Christopher Nolan is any indication, we've entered an era in which movies can no longer be great. They can only be awesome, which isn't nearly the same thing." -- Stephanie Zacharek on "Inception"
Well, people certainly want to talk about "Inception" on the Internet. The opening lines to Stephanie Zacharek's review above may sound flip, but she's zeroing in on something crucial about the kinds of spectacle movies to which we have, perhaps, become accustomed. I remember having an argument with some younger friends back in 1994 over Roland Emmerich's "Stargate," which I found inert and lugubrious, but my friends enjoyed for what they called "visual splendor." (I don't remember how baked we were at the time.) As I believe I said back then, I'm all for visual splendor, but I don't go to narrative movies for (just) a light show, no matter how splendiferous. (I'd rather watch Stan Brakhage for that kind of thing.)
In my hastily keyboarded notes after seeing "Inception" last weekend, I began by saying the biggest disappointment for me was that it was so contrived and remote -- like a clever mechanical puzzle, but not at all dreamlike. Even more disappointing for me, I didn't feel I had much of interest to say about it. Now, more than 200 reader comments later, I find it more fun to theorize about than it was to watch. (Seems awfully anal and pedantic for a "summer movie.") In that post and the previous one about "Signs" and "The Prestige," I wound up writing more in response to comments than I did in the original post, and I really enjoyed the back-and-forth. (But if you want to spare yourself my expanded thoughts -- and others' -- here about what doesn't work in the movie and read more about the implications of two of the most important shots, spoilers and all, feel free to skip to the numbered boldfaced headings below...)
Commenting on Jonathan Rosenbaum's article in Cineaste ("DVDs: A New Form of Collective Cinephilia," Michael Althen wrote that, for him, cinema is not what it used to be:
It only exists in festivals -- and on DVD. That's a long way from my/our former belief that cinema can only exist if it follows the well-known liturgy of an anonymous mass staring at a screen. On the other hand, this was a somehow romantic construct fueled by Truffaut's "Day by Night" and other cinephile movies. To be honest, that was not how I discovered the Movies. Born in [the] Sixties, growing up in a suburb, I saw most of the influential movies of my life on TV: "Le samourai", "The Party," "Jules et Jim", "Citizen Kane", "Le scandale"... Did these less-than-ideal-viewing-circumstances diminish in any way the experience? Maybe.... [Maybe] Cinema is not dead -- but it's different. Its future will be defined by those who grow up having the possibility to choose between Blu-ray at home and 35mm somewhere in the dark.
It seems that cinema, like criticism, is forever dying and never quite dead. (See my recent post, "It's the End of the Cinema as we know it (then and now).") Movie formats and formulas are always being tinkered with -- which is not to say you have to like the new recipes, any more than you were obliged to savor the flavor of New Coke back in the 1980s.
A Jean-Luc Godard movie is required to bewilder, astonish, bore and infuriate its film festival audience -- especially the critical contingent. That's why it's there. JLG's "Film Socialisme," which may or may not be his last directorial effort, premiered at Cannes to a cacophony of criticism, rapturous and contemptuous. Some of it has also been exceptionally entertaining -- almost as much fun to read as the reviews for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" last summer. In the case of Godard, however, the critical debates take on a nearly religious dimension as believers and debunkers argue over whether there's meaning to be found in the sacred text or whether it's all just an inconsequential, obfuscatory fraud.
Ann Powers, the excellent music critic for the LA Times (and once a fellow contributor to Seattle's semi-legendary The Rocket) posted this link on Facebook, with the following disclaimer:
I hesitate to share this ridiculous dismissal of the field to which I am devoted and about which I am so passionate, but I guess I do so to say, okay, then, perhaps this writer should never approach the subject of music again, because every act of writing about culture involves some kind of critical assessment, and he... is against that process...
She refers to this piece by Steve Almond in the Boston Globe, appearing under the headline "Love music, hold the criticism," in which Almond recalls securing a paying gig as a know-nothing El Paso newspaper music critic during the "heyday of Hair Metal," whose "only qualifications... consisted of a willingness to work nights and hit my deadlines":
My standard template was to start off with a bad pun then proceed to the concert set list, with each song title modified by at least three adjectives. If I was feeling ambitious, I described the lead singer's hair.
Wretched as I was, I loved being a music critic. I got to feel like a big shot, the one guy whose opinion (no matter how misbegotten) mattered.
But one night, he says, at an MC Hammer show, he had an epiphany:
I dutifully spent the evening scribbling witty insults in my reporter's notebook. But at a certain point (after I'd fulfilled my quota of witty insults) I turned my attention to the folks all around me. They were enthralled. And what I realized as I gazed at them was this: I was totally missing the point. [...]
I'd come up against a concept I've since come to think of as the Music Critic Paradox: the simple fact that even the best critics -- the ones, unlike me, with actual training and talent -- can't begin to capture what it feels like to listen to music. [...]
It was as if my critic credibility depended on my not being fooled into actually enjoying myself.