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…
* 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.
Marie writes: The countdown to Christmas officially begins the day after Halloween, which this year lands on a Wednesday. Come Thursday morning, the shelves will be bare of witches, goblins and ghosts; with snowmen, scented candles and dollar store angel figurines taking their place. That being the case, I thought it better to start celebrating early so we can milk the joy of Halloween for a whole week as opposed to biding adieu to the Great Pumpkin so soon after meeting up again...
Marie writes: As some of you may know, it was Roger's 70th birthday on June 18 and while I wasn't able to give the Grand Poobah what I suspect he'd enjoy most...
Siskel & Ebert fight over a toy train (1988)
A regional film festival done right, the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri turns documentaries into an unlikely catalyst for a weekend jammed with community festivities. Wanting more than a showcase for conventional docs dispensing single servings of social awareness, the festival's programmers hand-pick 40 features that collectively stretch the boundaries of the genre. Seems like heady stuff to drop on a hometown crowd of 30,000 attendees, though the University of Missouri community makes for a game audience. The organizers shrewdly dress their highbrow mission in a carnivalesque atmosphere, with buskers playing music sets before each screening and raucous parties for guests and locals alike. Only nine years old, True/False is already a favorite venue of filmmakers for its unaffected down-home vibe.
(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:
Making lists is not my favorite occupation. They inevitably inspire only reader complaints. Not once have I ever heard from a reader that my list was just fine, and they liked it. Yet an annual Best Ten list is apparently a statutory obligation for movie critics.
My best guess is that between six and ten of these movies won't be familiar. Those are the most useful titles for you, instead of an ordering of movies you already know all about.
One recent year I committed the outrage of listing 20 movies in alphabetical order. What an uproar! Here are my top 20 films, in order of approximate preference.
"Melancholia" is now available On Demand; in theaters November 7.
Of the Four Bodily Humours -- sanguine (blood), choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile) and phlegmatic (phlegm) -- Lars von Trier has probably been most closely associated with the choleric, as expressed in angry, violent, inflammatory, irritating and caustic films such as "Breaking the Waves," "The Idiots," "Dancer in the Dark," "Dogville," "Manderlay," "Antichrist"... The latter felt to me like a glossy fashion magazine's idea of a horror movie ("Evil Vogue" -- all it was missing were the scratch-n-sniff Odorama perfume ads), but von Trier¹ claimed it grew from deep inside a cocoon of depression.
"Melancholia" strikes me as a more focused and harrowing portrait of clinical depression, a glowing, black-bile-on-velvet portrait of despair so bleak that it destroys the entire planet. Two planets, in fact: one is Earth and the other (quite similar looking but much, much larger) called Melancholia, a kind of massive-planet-sized anti-matter particle which we see collide with and engulf the Earth (from deep in space) in the opening montage... and again, from a terrestrial perspective, at the end.
If Terence Malick's "Tree of Life" is, as I described it earlier in the year, "a movie about (and by) a guy who wants to create the universe around his own existence in an attempt to locate and/or stake out his place within it," then "Melancholia," by my reckoning, is a movie about (and by) a person whose depression is so inescapably great and soul-destroying that it envelops and annihilates the world. Because it has to. There's nowhere else for it to go. Also, it's important for the depressed character/filmmaker to firmly assert that the only life in the universe is on Earth, and that all of it is annihilated. Hope of any kind is not an option. Besides, anything less that than the obliteration of absolutely everything would spoil the perfection of the happy ending for von Trier and Justine (Kirsten Dunst), his Bride of Oblivion.
It begins on the last day of the semester at a classroom of some Japanese junior high school. Though they will return to their school after a month, most of the students are very excited while waiting for the time to leave their classroom and enjoy spring break. They are mostly occupied with talking with or texting to their colleagues in the noisy classroom. They do not give a damn about what their teacher tries tell to them, while never imagining the terror she will soon unleash upon them.
• Toronto Journal #1More than in previous years, I'm noticing the laptops in the audiences here at the Toronto Film Festival. Some of the bloggers seem to be beginning their reviews as the end credits still play. Then you see them outside, sitting on a corridor floor, their computers tethered to an electric umbilical, as they type urgently. Of course many of them share their opinions in quick conversational bursts, and a consensus develops. Most films good enough for an important festival, I think, require a little more marinating.
So, Cannes 2011: Malick was booed, Lars von Trier was banned and "Pirates of the Caribbean 4" was presented as hors-concours. If those are any indication, I predict "Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo 3" will win the Palm d'Or in 2012.
But in all seriousness, Cannes: banning von Trier? Really? Persona non grata for making some jokes (yes, in very poor taste, but jokes still) in the same year you had Mel Gibson over? The same Mel Gibson who made anti-semitic remarks, defended his father for denying the Holocaust and was recorded in a racist rant over the telephone?
... and Germans and Jews and Albert Speer and Susanne Bier, etc., at the post-"Melancholia" press conference at the Cannes Film Circus. The quotations I've seen in print have been fragmentary and/or inaccurate, and understandably can't convey tone. This isn't the whole press conference, either, but, for the record, it should give you a better idea of how the thing actually unraveled, and how it played in the room. It's excruciating to watch somebody flounder and dig himself in like this (how much of it is meant to be a provocative joke? a perverse publicity stunt? an artistic confession?), but from this angle you can also see Kirsten Dunst squirm in mortification. She and the moderator try to interject and rescue him, but he won't give up.
To me, it appears he has some vague idea of where he's going (something about understanding the worst in human nature, perhaps?), but gets hopelessly lost on the way there -- until, in apocalyptic von Trier fashion (hey, he just made a movie about the end of the world), he throws up his hands and drops the bomb in a desperate attempt to dissipate the gathering tension by saying exactly what everybody is fearing (or hoping) he'll say... And what was the question again?
UPDATE (05/19/11): The festival has now declared von Trier "persona non grata," though what that means is not entirely clear. Ben Kenigsberg of Time Out Chicago reports from a post-press conference gang-bang interview with von Trier:
Another much-anticipated film by one of the big names in this year's Cannes competition premiered this morning -- "Melancholia" by Lars von Trier. It's no secret that this apocalyptic science fiction drama ends with the destruction of the earth, since that is revealed in the first few minutes of the film. The character played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, neatly summarizes von Trier's dark pessimism with the line, "The earth is evil; we don't need to mourn for it." What is rather amazing is that a film about the destruction of all life (and von Trier posits that we are alone in the universe) could be so turgid.
That said, I think I rather prefer von Trier's wacko view of the cosmos in "Melancholia" to Terrence Malick's in "The Tree of Life." With the ingredients von Trier had to work with, it's surprising that he didn't make a better film. Following the various forms of desecration and transgression that are the hallmarks of "Antichrist," it's as if he felt the need to top himself with an even more outrageous concept, but forgot to figure out what the outrageous part would be.
"Melancholia" examines the relationship of two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the final days before the planet named Melancholia is due to collide with the earth. The story falls into two parts. The first is named for Justine, who is blonde, conventionally pretty, and mentally unstable. The second is named for Claire, who is Justine's opposite in every way, not only in her lean, dark-haired appearance, but in her down-to-earth competence in managing the stuff of life.
Marie writes: allow me to introduce you to Travel Photographer, founded by Chris and Karen Coe in 2003 and their annual contest "Travel Photographer of the Year".After years spent working in the travel industry as a professional photographer and finding it was mostly conventional images making it into print, Chris decided to create a way to showcase great travel photography and broaden people's perception of what it can encompass - namely, that it can be much, much more than a pretty postcard image.The contest is open to one and all; amateur and professional photographers compete alongside each other. Entrants are judged solely on the quality of their photographs. There's a special competition to encourage young photographers aged 18 and under; Young Travel Photographer of the Year. The youngest entrant to date was aged just five, the oldest 88. The competition is judged by a panel of photographic experts, including renowned photographers, picture buyers, editor and technical experts.And the 2010 winners have now been announced. Here's a few random photos to wet your appetite - then you can scroll through the amazing winners gallery!
Enal is around 6 years old and knows this shark well - it lives in a penned off area of ocean beneath his stilted house in Wangi, Indonesia. Photo: James Morgan, UK (Portfolio Encounters: Winner 2010) [note: click images to enlarge]
As the opening night of the Cannes International Film Festival approaches, a host of Riviera amenities and services hope to lure my business via solicitous e-mails. Would Madame perhaps like to hire a helicopter for the journey from the Nice airport to the Festival Palais? Rent a limousine with a multilingual driver? Charter a yacht or rent a fully staffed villa with swimming pool (photos handily attached)?
Me, I'm just in the market to rent a no-frills mobile phone with a European SIM card, and I'll be taking an inter-city bus from the airport, but you get the picture. The sparkling goodies of this playground of millionaires are dangled before the thousands of accredited journalists, theater programmers, film buyers, and filmmakers soon to be heading for the legendary festival. Most of us will be pinching the Euros until they scream, but nonetheless enjoying the nonstop spectacle provided by those who get to ride around in helicopters.
The festival opens the night of Wednesday, May 11 with Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." "Monsieur Woodee," as the French are wont to call him, made his first visit ever to Cannes in 2002, when his "Hollywood Endings" opened the festival. Although the film was disappointingly lackluster, it certainly made no difference to his French fans, who hailed him like an emperor. I watched Allen on that occasion from a seat among the hyper-excited audience, marveling at his frail stature, almost inaudible voice, and the shrinking body language that made him seem an incongruous god of cinema.
"35 Shots of Rum". Two couples live across the hall in the same Paris apartment building. Neither couple is "together." Gabrielle and Noe have the vibes of roommates, but the way Lionel and Josephine love one another, it's a small shock when she calls him "papa." Lionel (Alex Descas) is a train engineer. Jo (Mati Diop) works in a music store. Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) drives her own taxi. Noe (Gregoire Colin) claims only his much-loved cat is preventing him from moving to Brazil.
Ever since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgements, and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.
To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")
When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix, Reel.com, RogerEbert.com)... but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.
Yesterday it was cold and rainy and glum. I searched for background movies to put on while I wrote, but my usual George Cukor go-tos weren't doing the trick. I branched out. Shane, Forbidden Games, Love & Anarchy, Mogambo, and various classic TV shows were turned on and shut off. Nothing worked. I decided to take a twenty minute nap to shake the damp.
From Ian Carsia:
Has there been a more harrowing and courageous performance this year? Willem Dafoe plays a wholly evil man occupying a wholly evil world in Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist," a new film that challenges its viewers so boldly that some have fled from the theater. Von Trier's films often stir up heated discussion, but never has he made a film quite this formidable.
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Tina Mabry's "Mississippi Damned," an independent American production, won the Gold Hugo as the best film in the 2009 Chicago International Film Festival, and added Gold Plaques for best supporting actress (Jossie Thacker) and best screenplay (Mabry). It tells the harrowing story of three black children growing up in rural Mississippi in circumstances of violence and addiction. The film's trailer and an interview with Mabry are linked at the bottom.
Kylee Russell in "Mississippi Damned"
The winner of the Audience Award, announced Friday, was "Precious" (see below). The wins came over a crowed field of competitors from all over the world, many of them with much larger budgets. The other big winner at the Pump Room of the Ambassador East awards ceremony Saturday evening was by veteran master Marco Bellocchio of Italy, who won the Silver Hugo as best director for "Vincere," the story of Mussolini's younger brother. Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Filippo Timi won Silver Hugos as best actress and actor, and Daniele Cipri won a Gold Plaque for best cinematography.
Lars von Trier, maker of calculating horror comedies, is a shrewd showman -- if not exactly in the classic Hollywood tradition then at least in the Barnum & Bailey one. He pleases his audiences by teasing, taunting and testing them, keeping his tongue in his cheek. I picture him as a dancing, grinning little prankster on the fringes of world cinema, alternately flaunting a streak of astringent sadism and hiding for safety behind a shield of facetiousness.
He's also, in "Antichrist" particularly, a thudding literalist whose mock-academic ideas and images are so over-rationalized and in-your-face that (like the mysterious cry of a baby placed too far forward in the sound mix to be haunting or ambiguous) they don't have much room to resonate. When they ought to be harrowing, they're obvious and over-explained, which cuts them off from genuine emotion or experience. Nevertheless, "Antichrist" is a serviceable, sometimes atmospheric horror movie, until the last chapter-and-a-half when it just goes flat. By then it's already gotten a little too much of a charge out of commenting on its own giddy morbidity, and whether the audience is laughing at it or with it doesn't matter. Either way, the laughter is dismissive.
The Chicago International Film Festival is celebrating its 45th anniversary in better form than ever, I think. The festival, which opened Thursday, will be presenting 145 films from 45 countries. That's fewer than Toronto or Cannes but more, I believe, than any other American festival -- and besides, can you see 10 films a day?
Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" is poised to detonate at the Toronto Film Festival. This willfully controversial director will inspire, as he often does, a storm of controversy, debate, critics clamoring to get into advance screenings that are already jammed, and a contentious press conference. Of the 400 or so films at TIFF this year, "Antichrist" was the first that sold out in advance. It was the same last May at Cannes, and that was before it has even been seen.
Von Trier was nothing if not canny in his title for the film. By naming it "Antichrist," he provides a lens through which to view its perplexing behavior. By naming his characters only He and She, he suggests the dark side of an alternative Garden of Eden, and then disturbing his ending becomes a mirror image of Christ welcoming the faithful into the kingdom of heaven. The title instructs us where to begin. If he had named the characters John and Mary, and titled the film "A Nightmare," what conclusions might we have arrived at?
Lars von Trier's new film will not leave me alone. A day after many members of the audience recoiled at its first Cannes showing, "Antichrist" is brewing a scandal here; I am reminded of the tumult following the 1976 premiere of Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" and its castration scene. I said I was looking forward to von Trier's overnight reviews, and I haven't been disappointed. Those who thought it was good thought it was very very good ("Something completely bizarre, massively uncommercial and strangely perfect"--Damon Wise, Empire) and those who thought it was bad found it horrid ("Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with "Antichrist"--Todd McCarthy, Variety).
I rarely find a serious film by a major director to be this disturbing. Its images are a fork in the eye. Its cruelty is unrelenting. Its despair is profound. Von Trier has a way of affecting his viewers like that. After his "Breaking the Waves" premiered at Cannes in 1996, Georgia Brown of the Village Voice fled to the rest room in emotional turmoil and Janet Maslin of the New York Times followed to comfort her. After this one, Richard and Mary Corliss blogged at Time.com that "Antichrist" presented the spectacle of a director going mad.
There's electricity in the air. Every seat is filled, even the little fold-down seats at the end of every row. It is the first screening of Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," and we are ready for anything. We'd better be. Von Trier's film goes beyond malevolence into the monstrous. Never before have a man and woman inflicted more pain upon each other in a movie. We looked in disbelief. There were piteous groans. Sometimes a voice would cry out, "No!" At certain moments there was nervous laughter. When it was all over, we staggered up the aisles. Manohla Dargis, the merry film critic of The New York Times, confided that she left softly singing "That's Entertainment!"
Whether this is a bad, good or great film is entirely beside the point. It is an audacious spit in the eye of society. It says we harbor an undreamed-of capacity for evil. It transforms a psychological treatment into torture undreamed of in the dungeons of history. Torturers might have been capable of such actions, but they would have lacked the imagination. Von Trier is not so much making a film about violence as making a film to inflict violence upon us, perhaps as a salutary experience. It's been reported that he suffered from depression during and after the film. You can tell. This is the most despairing film I've ever have seen.
If, as they say, you are not prepared for "disturbing images," I advise you to just just stop reading now.
The programming director of the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago is blogging from Cannes for us.
Thursday, May 14--You can't beat the weather here in Cannes. After the cold rain and dark skies in Frankfurt, where I changed planes yesterday, the perfect, summery temperatures and extravagant displays of flowers makes this town seem even more like a Mediterranean paradise than usual.
The festival kicked off to the world Wednesday night with the first red-carpet walk by the jury, and the Pixar folks with their 3-D animated feature "Up", but for most of us in film-industry jobs, the festival is already well underway with press screenings, market screenings, and press conferences.