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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Some of the images sit there unmoving for too long, but that very same stasis also helps create and enforce the underlying tension, the tormented…

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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

* 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.

In Defense of Armond White

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Walter Biggins defends Armond White, the City Arts critic and editor who was recently expelled by the New York Film Critics Circle, as a provocative but necessary voice in movie criticism.

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Cannes 1968: A video essay

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For the second in his ongoing series, filmmaker and blogger Scout Tafoya looks at the remarkable Cannes Film Festival of 1968, when the festival came to a screeching halt in the face of real-world upheaval. (Check out his amazing look at Cannes 1960 here.)The complete transcripts:Part 1

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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 best greatest movies ever list

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UPDATED (08/01/12): Scroll to the bottom of this entry to see my first impressions of the newly announced critics' and directors' poll results.

Vittorio De Sica's "Bicycle Thieves" (1948) topped the first Sight & Sound critics' poll in 1952, only four years after it was first released, dropped to #7 in 1962, and then disappeared from the top ten never to be seen again. (In 2002 only five of the 145 participating critics voted for it.) Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) flopped in its initial release but was rediscovered in the 1950s after RKO licensed its films to television in 1956. From 1962 to 2002 "Kane" has remained at the top of the poll (46 critics voted for it last time). This year, a whopping 846 top-ten ballots (mentioning 2,045 different titles) were counted, solicited from international "critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles" -- including bloggers and other online-only writers. Sight & Sound has announced it will live-tweet the 2012 "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" (@SightSoundmag #sightsoundpoll) August 1, and as I write this the night before, I of course don't know the results. But, for now at least, I'm more interested in the process.

Given the much wider and younger selection of voters in 2012, ist-watchers have been speculating: Will another movie (leading candidate: Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," number 2 in 2002) supplant "Kane" at the top of the list? Will there be any silent films in the top 10? (Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" and Murnau's "Sunrise" tied for #7 on the 2002 list, but the latter was released in 1927 with a Fox Movietone sound-on-film musical score and sound effects.)

Though there's been no rule about how much time should pass between a film's initial release and its eligibility (the Library of Congress's National Film Registry requires that selections be at least ten years old), most of the selections ten to have stood the test of time for at least a decade or two. The newest film on the 2002 list was the combination of "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) -- but they won't be allowed to count as one title for 2012.

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Andrew Sarris, 1928-2012: In Memoriam

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Andrew Sarris, who loved movies, is dead at 83. He was the most influential American film critic of his time, and one of the jolliest. More than anyone else, he was responsible for introducing Americans to the Auteur Theory, the belief that the true author of a film is its director. Largely because of him, many moviegoers today think of films in terms of their directors.

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CinematoGIFs: Living, breathing movie stills

Each of these astonishing "cinematoGIFs" (animated .GIF files) by Gusaf Mantel distills the essence of a cinematic moment into a living, breathing "movie still" -- an indelible moment preserved in time. Once you start gazing into them, you'll find it hard to stop...

Above: The apes and the monolith: "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

Below: The tension of Travis Bickle, keeping his television perpetually balanced on the edge of smashing to the floor: "Taxi Driver" (Martin Scorsese, 1976).

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Maria Schneider comes to America

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Roger Ebert / September 14, 1975

LOS ANGELES--It was, said the critic Pauline Kael, perhaps the most important artistic event since the first performance of Stravinsky's "The Rites of Spring." She was referring to the 1973 premiere of "Last Tango in Paris," a film by Bernardo Bertolucci which dealt in explicit detail with a brief affair between a middle-aged man and a girl barely out of her teens. The man was Marlon Brando, long acknowledged as the finest screen actor of his generation. The girl was Maria Schneider, a 20-year-old with an innocent face, a woman's body and an electrifying presence.

Most of the film involved just two actors, and Schneider held her own with Brando in a stunning confrontation with sex and death. It was an astonishing performance. Maria Schneider quickly became the favorite "bad girl" of the movie press. She gave shocking interviews, she walked off a movie set and had herself committed to an asylum with the woman she described as her lover, she seemed to be surrounded by scandal. And then she made a film with another of Europe's top directors, Michelangelo Antonioni, and another major star, Jack Nicholson. The film was "The Passenger," and this time her screen image was altogether different: She was quiet, intelligent, even sweet.

Then Schneider dropped from view. She moved to America; signed with Paul Kohner (the legendary agent who represents Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullmann and many other Europeans), turned down several big film offers, and moved into a house in the Hollywood hills. This interview, conducted in Kohner's office, is her first in the United States. She wore faded denims, smoked frequently, looked thinner and more intriguing than in "Tango," and seemed ready to revise her European image.

Q. Why California?

A. The main thing was the space. It was getting hard to breathe in Europe - it's too compact, too compressed. I lived in France about three years, traveling around a lot, and then I tried London, and about six months ago I settled on here.

Q. Americans have a thing about Southern California . . .

A. So do I. It's hard to talk to the people here. They're very shallow. All they talk about is their look, their hair and their screwing. But I love to act, and here is the place to come for the movies. Q. Paul Kohner said you were reading a screenplay based on "The Story of an African Farm."

A. Yes. It's a wonderful story. It's about a girl growing up in South Africa a century ago, and finding herself, and learning how to rely on herself. The story's so good, I want to make the film. I've had offers for a lot more money, but this project is by a director who's young and ready and wrote the screenplay himself. He'll care more than someone who was just paid to direct a story . . . and it's a good role for a woman. In most movies these days, women are just decoration. I'll never be that.

Q. So far you've been in two movies with two top directors, Bertolucci and Antonioni . . .

A. Six movies. Nobody knows, but I did six movies before "Last Tango in Paris." I don't think any of them ever played here. One was directed by Roger Vadim, after he made "Pretty Maids All in a Row." And I did some theater, and a couple of underground French movies. I walked out on one of them when I wasn't paid. I fought with the director, went back to Paris, and met Bertolucci. He offered me the role in "Tango."

Dominique Sanda was going to do it, but she got pregnant.

Q. And you got a sort of immortality, because the movie's already a landmark.

A. So much of that was because of Brando. He was wonderful to work with, for an actor like myself who was still beginning. He had just finished "The Godfather," and now this was also part of his comeback, and you'd think he'd want the advantage in all of the scenes. Actors always try to look their best. But he gave me the advantage, the material to work with. And he was brilliant when we improvised . . . the bathroom scene was improvised.

Q. And Bertolucci?

A. He's a great director, but . . . well, I was 20 when I did "Tango." Bertolucci made me wear very heavy black makeup under my eyes. Makeup on a girl who's too young gives her the wrong character, gives her a funny look. I argued with him, but with no luck. I don't know who he thought I was supposed to be. Marlon was such a good force on the picture. We were working like dogs with an Italian crew, filming in Paris, overtime and all that, and two crew members came down with stomach ulcers. And Marlon was the one - not Bertolucci, who goes on about being a member of the Italian Communist party - but Marlon was the one who brought sandwiches and wine for the crew and worried about them.

Q. After the film was released you were suddenly famous - or infamous - all over the world.

A. And Marlon told me about that, too. He was the first to tell me about the bad parts of fame. How the press can seize on everything and make it as sensational as they can. And there the European press is worse than the American. I think they'll print anything.

Q. There were some amazing quotes attributed to you.

A. I think I said a lot of them. After "Tango" came out, I amused myself at interviews by saying scandalous things, thinking they were funny. I talked about going out with men, women, I sounded promiscuous, I took it all as a joke. I see now it wasn't funny . . .

Q. And then you went to Antonioni . . .

A. For "The Passenger." It's an interesting thing about that film. It did better in America than it did in Europe. And Antonioni is supposed to be a star in Europe. I'm glad the Americans could watch something slower and more thoughtful for a change, instead of all the violence and crime. Still, I think Michelangelo has a problem with his English. He doesn't speak it very well, and I think some of the dialog in "The Passenger," which was supposed to sound real, sounded falsely poetic. Like when Jack Nicholson says, "What the hell are you doing here with me?" And I say, "Which me?" You see how wrong that sounds? And in another scene he says, "I met you before - you were reading" And I say, "That must have been me." Terrible!

Q. Are you looking at scripts from American directors now?

A. I'm looking at all kinds of scripts. Most of them are no good. Hardly any of them have interesting female roles.

Q. Paul Kohner was thinking out loud about the idea of a movie of Hemingway's "Across the River and into the Trees," which would be directed by John Huston and might star Robert Mitchum as the old colonel and you as the young contessa . . .

A. And be shot in Venice. I'd love to work in Venice. I lived there for a while. The light and the silence and all around the sound of the footsteps. You know, I saw Mitchum just last night in "Farewell, My Lovely." It stayed in my mind all night. I loved Jack Nicholson playing the detective in "Chinatown," but I much preferred this detective by Mitchum. What do you think of the . . . the chemistry if Mitchum and I were to be together?

Q. Dynamite.

A. (Laughs) And yet, you know, I always act with these men like Brando and Nicholson, who are much older than me. I wouldn't be with a man that age in my own life. And I think there'd be a problem in filming in Venice, too.

Q. The canals?

A. No, the insurance. You know, I have a problem in Italy since my last film with the companies that insure a film. I signed myself into an asylum for a friend of mine. They locked her up, and so I had to do it out of loyalty.

Q. That was in all the papers here.

A. And all the papers everywhere. But they never printed that I finished the movie.

Q. You did? I got the impression it was closed down. A. Oh, yes, I finished it. It was called "The Baby Sitter," it's a thriller by Rene Clement, who did "Forbidden Games." It's a good thriller, well made, nothing poetic about it. They took away two-thirds of my salary to keep the insurance people happy. The producer was Carlo Ponti. He'll come out ahead any way he can. When Clement wanted me for the movie, he wanted me to play the role that was negative. There were two girls in the movie, and one was perverse and destroyed, and of course that was the one he wanted me for. But Antonioni showed him "The Passenger," and then I got the other role. He only knew me from "Tango." God knows what people think I really look like and act like!

Q. After "The Baby Sitter," did you split for Hollywood?

A. More or less. I was supposed to make a movie in Paris with Jean-Luc Godard. You know, he works in eight millimeter now. He gave a brilliant press conference about it in Cannes. He explained to me that the actor would put up $40,000, and he would put up $40,000, and then we would make the movie together. I would have, too, but I didn't have $40,000. And I still don't.

Q. But "Tango" made millions and millions . . .

A. Ha! You know what I was paid? Five thousand dollars! That's all. I didn't even get a percentage of all those profits. Jack Nicholson told me that after "Easy Rider" made so much money, they gave him something more in addition to the little he made in the first place. But no Italian producer would ever do that. I'm glad I've got Paul as my agent. He'll look after things like that. I'm no good with money. Working on my own, I constantly got ripped off. I just can't handle money.

Q. How'd you meet Kohner?

A. I walked in off the street. I'd heard he was the top agent. My doctor was in the building next door. I came out from his office, saw Paul's sign, and introduced myself at the switchboard. "Who are you?" they asked. I said I was an actress who wanted him to represent me. They asked what credits I had - they thought l was a nut off the street. I said I'd worked with Bertolucci and Antonioni. They didn't believe me. Finally one person in the office did recognize me. I look a little different now, I'm thinner, I'm 23, I wasn't wearing makeup.

Q. Kohner seems sort of paternal toward you, protective.

A. Well, I don't need too much protection. I live a simple life. And Paul tells me, let's wait for the right role. People get lazy doing whatever is given to them. I'd rather wait and go broke than be forced to do a bad movie for money. Paul has Charles Bronson and Ingmar Bergman among his clients. He says, we can go big, like Bronson, or small, like Bergman. I'd rather go small.

Q. And in the meantime you're keeping life uncomplicated?

A. That's right. I don't own anything. Well, I own a pickup truck. I don't have any maids or answering services or any of those things. I spend my money on food and travel and cameras. I live in Laurel Canyon with some friends, including some writers. None of my friends are actors or directors or Hollywood types.

I'm not interested in that crowd. And I'll just hold out and look for a decent role for a woman. "The Story of an African Farm" looks about the best.

Q. What else is around?

A. Paramount wants me to do "Black Sunday," which is about terrorists, and I play a Palestinian guerrilla. That's their idea of a woman's role. But things are changing. Most of the members of my generation are gay, or bisexual, they have more open minds about sexuality, about what a woman's role can be, or what the potentials are.

Q. Did you say most of your generation?

A. Most of my friends, anyway. Or maybe it's just California. The theme from "Last Tango in Paris:" Theme From Last Tango In Paris (1972) by seasonwitch

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Certified Copy: How can you be in two spaces at once...?

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"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.

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Top secret leakage from my 2010 Muriels ballot!

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It's a wrap for the 2010 Muriel Awards, but although the winners have been announced, there's still plenty of great stuff to read about the many winners and runners-up. ('Cause, as we all know, there's so much more to life than "winning.") I was pleased to be asked to write the mini-essay about "The Social Network" because, no, I'm not done with it. (Coming soon: a piece about the Winkelvii at the Henley Gregatta section -- which came in 11th among Muriel voters for the year's Best Cinematic Moment.)

You might recall that last summer I compared the editorial, directorial and storytelling challenges of a modest character-based comedy ("The Kids Are All Right") to a large-scale science-fiction spectacular based on the concept of shifting between various levels of reality/unreality -- whether in actual time and space or in consciousness and imagination. (The latter came in at No. 13 in the Muriels balloting; the former in a tie for No. 22.) My point was that, as far as narrative filmmaking is concerned, there isn't much difference. To illustrate a similar comparison this time, I've used a one-minute segment out of "The Social Network" (Multiple levels of storytelling in The Social Network). You might like one picture better than the other for any number of reasons, but I find their similarities more illuminating than their differences:

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Richard Harris: Don't let it be forgot

By Roger Ebert / June 26, 1974

Richard Harris, dressed from head to toe in black, sprawled on the couch in his hotel suite and sang, not at all badly, a few warmup lines of "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." It was afternoon, although apparently not for him, and he was in Chicago with Ann Turkel, his bride of 13 days, to promote a new movie they costar in.

The name of the movie is "99 44/100% Dead," and that is what most of its villains are, after they encounter Harris. Unlike the soap, however, they do not float, and the movie opens and closes with scenes of a macabre fraternity of the deceased: gangland victims encased in concrete and sent to wait at the bottom of the East River.

"The only way to view this movie," Harris explained, "is to see it as sort of a comic strip, to be enjoyed and laughed at on a strictly one-dimensional level. Once you ask yourself the first question about it, you're lost."

Harris plays the world's greatest hit man, who is imported to New York as a big gun in a war between Little Eddie and Fast Joey, or Little Joey and Fast Eddie ("We never quite explain who either one of them is"), and Ann Turkel plays his girl friend. She is a schoolteacher, who drives the getaway school bus.

"I was petrified," she said, looking, however, definitively the opposite on the couch next to Harris. "I had never driven a stick shift in my life before, and they gave me about two hours' lessons and set me loose in Los Angeles traffic."

"You almost killed the camera crew, luv," said Harris.

"I almost turned us over," she said. "They had a stunt man in the back, but I can't figure out how he was going to help me."

"He was scared shitless," Harris observed.

Their movie, which has been directed as sort of a cross between Steve Canyon and Fearless Fosdick, is a very flatsurfaced, exaggerated, popart fantasy by John Frankenheimer, whose other credits include "The Manchurian Candidate."

"When he sent me the script," Harris recalled, "I got to the line that said, 'This town isn't big enough for both of us,' and I threw it aside. What the hell kind of line is that? It went out with the 1930s. But then I thought if the script's so bad, what's a class director like Frankenheimer doing sending it to me? So I picked it up again, and got the joke. It's a comic strip put-on, done perfectly seriously."

It is the latest of a great many movies, most of them ("This Sporting Life," "Man in the Wilderness," "Camelot") successful for Harris, but it's Ann Turkel's first role. She's a Westchester County girl, daughter of a clothing manufacturer, who did a lot of modeling and television commercials before Frankenheimer saw her screen test, liked it and put her opposite Harris. Casting about for the most original question I could imagine, I asked if it had been love at first sight.

"Not exactly," said Ann, a tall and slender brunet with wide eyes and, sigh, lots of other qualities. "Actually, first sight was five years ago. We met then, but Richard doesn't even remember."

"I had my head up my . . . in the clouds," Harris explained.

"When he found out that I'd been cast for the movie, he wanted me fired," she said.

"There are too bloody many good actresses unemployed already, so why give this unknown a job, was my line," Harris said.

"There was an item in one of the London papers, all about Ann Turkel vs. the Ogre," Ann said.

"I looked up ogre in the dictionary and I didn't like it one bit," Harris said.

"We were both in London at the time and scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on the same flight," she said. "I was so frightened of Richard I changed my ticket to tourist class to escape him."

"That was unnecessary," Harris said, because I bloody well didn't fly back at all. Then Frankenheimer called me up and told me to stop being a bloody fool and trust his judgment, because he'd seen the screen test.

"By the time I finally walked on the set, I was feeling rather guilty, and so I sort of helped her, you know, and we became friends. But she still had her boy friend back in London. One day, after about six months, we were sitting by the pool, and I said, 'Ann, dearest, do you think there's something going on between us and we don't know about it?'"

"Maybe it's a case of opposites attracting," Ann said.

"That's it," said Harris. "She used to go out with tall, sleek, wellgroomed men, and I went out with buxom blonds. There are thousands of girls on the streets like the ones in Hollywood today, but not many girls of the more elegant type, refined . . . I think Annie has a real gift."

Their next movie together might be a sequel to his very successful "Man in the Wilderness," he said. That one grossed around $15 million and was about a civilized English man surviving in the wild.

"I almost got killed on that one," he recalled. "I was suspended from the top of the tepee for the manhood ceremony, and the rope broke and I fell. I could have landed in the fire or impaled myself on a buffalo horn, but I missed and landed between them. Remembering my early training in tavern brawls, I sprung quickly to my feet, because when you're on the floor, they kick you. Only THEN did I pass out."

Harris, it's been noted, is very likely the only living actor who has starred not only in a Doris Day picture ("Caprice") but also in a Michelangelo Antonioni picture ("Red Desert"). I asked if he brings the same acting techniques to both kinds of movies.

"The only advice I ever got on acting that did me any good," he said, "was a long time ago when I was just starting out and I made a picture in Ireland with James Cagney. It was called 'Shake Hands with the Devil.' I'll never forget, one day, Cagney summoned me to his suite at the Shelbourne Hotel for a couple of drinks.

"And then be said, 'Kid, you'll do OK. You'll make it.' Harris was doing his Cagney imitation. 'But remember this: When you're in a movie and they want you to go from one place to another, walk in a straight line. A straight line. That's how they'll know you're the star. Too many of these goddamned English actors are walking in curves all the time!"

Richard Harris at the Toronto Film Festival, 2001. (Photo by Ebert. Mentioned in obituary below.)

In Memory: Richard Harris.

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Cannes #1: On a darkling plain

Fifty years ago, the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes was Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." More every year I realize that it was the film of my lifetime. But indulge me while I list some more titles.

The other entries in the official competition included "Ballad of a Soldier," by Grigori Chukhrai; "Lady with a Dog," by Iosif Kheifits; "Home from the Hill," by Vincente Minnelli; "The Virgin Spring," by Ingmar Bergman;" "Kagi," by Kon Ichikawa; "L'Avventura," by Michelangelo Antonioni; "Le Trou," by Jacques Becker; "Never on Sunday," by Jules Dassin; "Sons and Lovers," by Jack Cardiff; "The Savage Innocents," by Nicholas Ray, and "The Young One," by Luis Bunuel.

And many more. But I am not here at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival to mourn the present and praise the past.

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You better you better you best: The better of the best lists

If all the year-end and decade-end lists (even though we realize the decade isn't actually over until 2011) have left you dizzied and depleted, take heart! Perhaps you've missed out on some of the more invigorating, far-sighted list-based ventures. Over at Some Came Running, for example, Glenn Kenny conducted an ingenious and fascinating project, going back and taking a look at the late Manny Farber's Best Films of 1951. Meanwhile, at The Crop Duster, Robert Horton is engaged in surveying the year's best -- in non-chronological order -- from, oh, about 1919 or so, to the present, posting a new list every Sunday. What fantastic delights are to be found in these itemized accounts...

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Name That Director!

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Click above to REALLY enlarge...

UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...

Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.

In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)

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Favorite movies of 2009 movie: The commentary track

The first time I made a year-end list for Scanners, I did it by suggesting double-bills of 2006 films with older films (much like what contributors to The Auteurs did this year). In 2007, I made my first year-end movie, inspired by "L'Eclisse," as a tribute to the late Michelangelo Antonioni and a commentary on the WGA strike that was happening at the time. Last year, the concept was based on a shot of Hannah Schygulla, Goddess of Cinema, waking up, looking into the camera (in Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven") and dreaming fragments of the films on my list.

This year, I'm not quite sure how it came together (see opening title), but I took my cue from my favorite movie of the year, the Coens' "A Serious Man." I knew I didn't want to adhere to any rigid countdown hierarchy this time, but to let the movies converse with themselves through images. I chose the word "conversation" knowing there would be no dialog except at the very beginning and the very end, with the Jefferson Airplane song "Somebody to Love" (recurring element in "A Serious Man") in between. That gave me approximately 2 minutes and 58 seconds for the montage....

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Pulp Fiction: Nothing serious?

View image Genre picture? Marketing label?

Charles McGrath wonders if critics and the public give genre work enough credit. In "Great Literature? Depends Whodunit," published in Sunday's New York Times, McGrath makes a case for pulp fiction that applies to movies as well as to literature. Often behind the generic labeling, he says, is: ... the assumption that genre fiction — mysteries, thrillers, romances, horror stories — is a form of literary slumming. These kinds of books are easier to read, we tend to think, and so they must be easier to write, and to the degree that they’re entertaining, they can’t possibly be “serious.”

The distinction between highbrow and lowbrow — between genre writing and literary writing — is actually fairly recent. Dickens, as we’re always being reminded, wrote mysteries and horror stories, only no one thought to call them that. Jane Austen wrote chick lit. A whiff of shamefulness probably began attaching itself to certain kinds of fiction — and to mysteries and thrillers especially — at the end of the 19th century, with the rise of the “penny dreadful,” or cheaply printed serial. The market and public appetite for this stuff became even larger in the early years of the 20th century with the tremendous growth of pulp magazines, which specialized in the genres and eventually even added a new one: science fiction. I think of genre conventions as something akin to sonata form in music, or the chord progressions from a popular standard that jazz musicians may use as a foundation. The familiar prototype is just that: a recognizable structure upon which a craftsperson (even an artist) can create almost anything at all -- even turn it inside out or blow it apart.

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TIFF: One day at a time

View image An image from the lost masterpiece by Michelangelo Antonioni, a surprise unveiling at the Toronto Film Festival. Oh, no: It's just the interior view from my hotel room on Bloor Street. Sorry. (photo by me)

Here's what happened: The 2007 Toronto International Film Festival started tonight. I got here last night. But let me back up a little. Seconds before getting into the car to head to SEA for my flight to YYZ (that's Toronto Pearson Intenational Airport), I realized I'd forgotten some dog bones that I left in a bag on my porch. Not for my trip, for my dogs. Who are staying with my mom, who was gracious enough to give me a ride to the airport because she loves me and because she said she'd be up at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday anyway. So I quickly ran back to fetch the pressed rawhide nuggets of chewable deliciousness. The moment I sprung off to fetch I felt the most searing pain in my left calf.

It felt like a Charley Horse -- but, fortunately, it was only excruciating when I tried to use it. Sitting or standing was fine. It only hurt when I walk. Long story short: Five hours of aviation-enforced immobility later (plenty of time to stiffen up real good), I hobbled, drenched with sweat, lugging my bags through a new (and seemingly endless) Torontonian concourse, filled with dread. (And did I mention pain?) There's lots of walking to be done at TIFF, even when you're staying close to the center of the action. Fortunately, I was able to get a massage at the hotel health club at the last minute. It didn't fix the problem, but I think it loosened it up a bit.

This morning I awoke to a moment of pulse-pounding suspense. Put some weight on it and... "Mein fuhrer, I can valk!" As Sugarpuss O'Shea put it, "It's as red as the Daily Worker and twice as sore ("Ball of Fire") but I can deal with it. I cannot describe my relief.

I'm still out of it, though. I think my brain circuits have shorted from yesterday's pain and anxiety overload. Today, I went to get some eye drops for an irritated right eye. (Eye drops are film festival essentials, as anyone will tell you.) The nice pharmacist recommended some antibiotic drops, down aisle 3 on the left, in a yellow and red box. I got 'em. Put 'em in my eye. Hurt like hell -- like no other eye drops I have ever experienced. That's because they were ear drops.

It's a good thing I'm spending most of the time, very still, in the dark. Eyes wide open.

* * *

Tonight, I made a vow to myself, that I hope you will help me keep. Just for the hell of it: no superlatives in my Toronto coverage, which means giving up some of my favorite crutches ("splendid," "superb," "terrific," "wonderful," "amazing"). Which I try to avoid anyway, but too often fail. It's too easy, especially when you're cinematically overstimulated and writing on deadline. I've seen two terrific movies so far and I could go superlative crazy any second, but I'm going to try not to. Please let me know (and I'm sure you will) if I screw up.

(NOTE: I'm using "superlative" in the looser, colloquial sense -- as in "hyperbole," not just the superlative ["-est"]form.)

* * *

Toronto may be the only film festival in the universe where the laminated passes that you have to wear on a strap around your neck have actually gotten smaller. This year, they're wallet-sized. But, you know, who wants to go through all the hassle of removing a card from your wallet, when you can simply flash your pass at one of the World's Friendliest Film Festival Volunteers? (And I mean that last part sincerely.)

Another brilliant innovation this year: bar codes. No longer do the lines for press screenings have to crawl as each and every person signs in with their name and affiliation. Now they just point one of those hand-held scanners at your card and everybody knows what screenings you've attended! I'm not kidding, I think this is genius, and I can't believe I never thought of it before. Next year: Eye-In-the-Sky cams and facial/vocal recognition software, like what Dr. Heywood R. Floyd uses in "2001" (that was six years ago, guys) -- only, of course, much, much faster. No physical passes necessary.

TIFF is cutting-edge. I know they can do it.

OK, next post: Will be about the movies. As usual, Roger Ebert is already way ahead of me. He's already written his THIRD report, which will be published shortly...

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The 100 Greatest Directors of... what?

View image Number 74.

I was not familiar with TotalFilm.com, until I spotted a link over at Movie City News.

Thanks a lot, guys.

The link was to a pair of articles listing Total Film's choices for "The Greatest Directors Ever" Part 1 (100 - 49) and Part 2 (50 - 1).

Will I return to this site? I think probably not. Why am I linking to it now? Because it's my shameless attempt to stimulate discussion, which I hope will be on a more informed level than this list. Or maybe it's just to have a laugh. Or a moment of sadness. What do I think of the list itself? Well, let's see:

Baz Luhrmann is #97.

Tony Scott is #74, just edging out Milos Forman, Kenji Mizoguchi, Satyajit Ray, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Buster Keaton, who comes in at #88.

Bryan Singer is #65, two slots below Robert Bresson, who immediately follows Sam Raimi.

Rob Reiner is #35.

Michael Mann (#28) is on the list, but Anthony Mann is not.

Bernardo Bertolucci is... not on the list.

Otto Preminger is... not on the list.

Richard Lester is... not on the list.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is... not on the list.

Max Ophuls is... not on the list.

George Cukor is... not on the list, but George Lucas (#95) is.

Andrei Tarkovsky is... not on the list.

Eric Rohmer is... not on the list.

Claude Chabrol is... not on the list.

Luchino Visconti is... not on the list.

Vittorio De Sica is... not on the list.

Michelangelo Antonioni is... not on the list. Not even the top 100.

What's worse are the little names they have for each director. Sophia Coppola (#99) is "The dreamer" ("Dreamy, brave and cool, this Coppola is doing it for herself"). Singer is "The new Spielberg." Robert Altman (#26) is "The outsider" -- oops, but so is Hal Ashby (#58). Somebody ran out of labels. Well, at least they are not outside all alone; they are outside together. Sam Fuller (#50) is "The hack." Mike Leigh (#49) is "The grouch." Quentin Tarantino (#12) is "The motormouth."

OK, that's enough. Have at it if you feel like it. If you don't feel like it, you'll probably live.

ADDENDUM: A reader, spleendonkey, describes TotalFilm as a British magazine aimed at teens and pre-teens, designed to broaden their film horizons. For the record, here's the mag's description of itself on its subscription page:In 2007, Total Film celebrates its tenth year of being the only film magazine that nails a monthly widescreen shot of the whole movie landscape. It’s the essential guide for anyone who’s passionate about movies - whether they’re into Cruise or Cusack, Hollywood or Bollywood, multiplex or arthouse, popcorn or - er - sweetcorn. Each issue is pumped full of reviews, news, features and celebrity interviews on all the latest cinema releases. The all-new home entertainment section, Lounge, is the ultimate one-stop-shop for everything you should care about in the churning world of DVDs, books, videogames and, occasionally, film-related novelty furniture. The mag regularly features highly desirable, Ebay-friendly FREE stuff - exclusive film cells, posters, postcards, DVDs… We’re currently in discussions with Health & Safety operatives about sticking a magical compass to the cover when "His Dark Materials" comes out. Subscribe to Total Film now, or forever be belittled by precocious children in discussions about what’s best and worst in movieland.Doesn't sound all that different from Entertainment Weekly to me, but there you go...

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The "Best" Non-English-Language Films (Round 1)

View image Wim Wenders' "Kings of the Road" (or literal English translation: "In the Course of Time"). You may recognize the poster image from outside the theater in which "Duck Soup" is playing in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters." This movie can also save your life.

An ad hoc bunch of 51 online movie enthusiasts (online movie critics, bloggers, et al.), organized by Edward Copeland, the eponymous proprietor of "Edward Copeland on Film," recently composed our unordered lists of up to 25 most significant (or enduring or even favorite) "foreign-language" talkies.

Eduardo (as he might be known in, say, Mexico or Spain or Uruguay or Nicaragua or Puerto Rico) took on the gargantuan task of tabulating the ballots and coming up with the initial list of 122 nominees. As he explains: I set a few guidelines for eligibility: 1) No film more recent than 2002 was eligible; 2) They had to be feature length; 3) They had to have been made either mostly or entirely in a language other than English; 4) Documentaries and silent films were ineligible, though I made do lists for those in the future if this goes well. In all, 434 films received votes, not counting those that had to be disqualified for not meeting the criteria.In order to make the final ballot, films had to receive at least three "votes." I'm happy that most of my initial choices made the finals. And there were five I've never seen, so I have these to look forward to: Elem Klimov's "Come and See," Sergio Corbucci's "The Great Silence" (a spaghetti western), Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood For Love," Bela Tarr's 7.5-hour "Satantango," and Hayao Miyazaki's anime "Spirited Away." (And I've never made it all the way through "Amelie" or "Chungking Express.")

This exercise also reminded me of a bunch of movies I need to re-watch, because it's been too long (at least 20 years) and I don't remember them very well, including: Jacques Rivette's "Celine and Julie Go Boating" (always hard to see, but available on Region 2 DVD, at least), Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Days of Wrath," Lucino Visconti's "The Leopard," Kenji Mizoguchi's "The Story of the Late Crysanthemums" (and, for that matter, "The Life of Oharu," which deserved to be on the list and which I have on import DVD), and Edward Yang's "Yi Yi" (which I've been meaning to revisit since his untimely death).

Best of all, the list serves as a reminder that the vast majority of these films, available on DVD, are easier to see now than they have ever been since they were made! Most are just as easy to borrow from NetFlix as "Wild Hogs."

For my Own Personal List, and some observations about the preliminary results, click to continue...

Meanwhile, if any of the participants -- or any readers -- would like to publish their own lists, please feel free to do so in comments! I'll show you mine if...

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Holy theology! Holy film!

View image A non-god's-eye-view from the final sequence of Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Eclisse."

In the discussion about my hypothetical Athiest Film Festival (before the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni), I was trying to get at the difference I see between Bergman's theological sensibility (seeing/defining the world in terms of man's relationship with god, even if that relationship involves god's silence, indifference, death or nonexistence) and a view in which god is not only not a default position, but not even a question. This, I think, is closer to Antonioni's aesthetic and philosophical outlook, at least as far as his films express it.

There's an excellent, and long overdue, article in the New York Times Magazine today ("The Politics of God"), which is primarily about how the West has (catastrophically?) failed to comprehend that, even in modern times, "theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong."

The piece, by Columbia University humanities Professor Mark Lilla, is adapted from his upcoming book "The Stillborn God: Religion Politics and the Modern West," but the passage that got me thinking about the Atheist Film Festival (and the "Banana as Atheist's Nightmare") again was this one: Theology is, after all, a set of reasons people give themselves for the way things are and the way they ought to be....

Imagine human beings who first become aware of themselves in a world not of their own making. Their world has unknown origins and behaves in a regular fashion, so they wonder why that is. They know that the things they themselves fashion behave in a predictable manner because they conceive and construct them with some end in mind. They stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for them to assume that the cosmic order was constructed for a purpose, reflecting its maker’s will. By following this analogy, they begin to have ideas about that maker, about his intentions and therefore about his personality.

In taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture, a theological image in which God, man and world form a divine nexus. Believers have reasons for thinking that they live in this nexus, just as they have reasons for assuming that it offers guidance for political life. But how that guidance is to be understood, and whether believers think it is authoritative, will depend on how they imagine God. If God is thought to be passive, a silent force like the sky, nothing in particular may follow. He is a hypothesis we can do without. But if we take seriously the thought that God is a person with intentions, and that the cosmic order is a result of those intentions, then a great deal can follow. The intentions of such a God reveal something man cannot fully know on his own. This revelation then becomes the source of his authority, over nature and over us, and we have no choice but to obey him and see that his plans are carried out on earth.... My question is: By what authority does anyone claim to know, and be able to interpret, the intentions of such a God? It's always puzzled me how many leaps of faith a person has to take before even getting to the idea of a deity... which may be one reason why, if I had to compare, I'd have to say Antonioni's films do speak to me more deeply and personally than Bergman's.

(Of course, when it comes to movies, you can usually just substitute the term "auteur" for "God" in that quotation above.)

See Martin Scorsese's eloquent appreciation of Antonioni for more...

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Scorsese at his best: "The Man Who Set Film Free"

View image

While I was gone, the New York Times printed a magnificent appreciation of Michelangelo Antonioni written by Martin Scorsese, called "The Man Who Set Film Free." This piece, which begins with Scorsese recalling the profound effect of seeing "L'Avventura" for the first time in 1961, is so moving, and so perceptive, that I think it ranks with the best work Scorsese has ever done in any medium. Reading it brings tears to my eyes -- like a great film does.

Scorsese traces how the film keeps redirecting, reshaping, and dissolving the narrative before our eyes. Is it an "adventure" or an intrigue, as the title suggests? Or a missing-person mystery? Or a detective story? Or a love story? Or a betrayal/revenge story? But right away our attention was drawn away from the mechanics of the search, by the camera and the way it moved. You never knew where it was going to go, who or what it was going to follow. In the same way the attentions of the characters drifted: toward the light, the heat, the sense of place. And then toward one another.

So it became a love story. But that dissolved too. Antonioni made us aware of something quite strange and uncomfortable, something that had never been seen in movies. His characters floated through life, from impulse to impulse, and everything was eventually revealed as a pretext: the search was a pretext for being together, and being together was another kind of pretext, something that shaped their lives and gave them a kind of meaning.

The more I saw “L’Avventura” — and I went back many times — the more I realized...

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Mr. Cheney Explains It All For You

I'm still on vacation. Back Thursday with some thoughts on Martin Scorsese, the late Tony Wilson and Merv Griffin, Michelangelo Antonioni (surprise!), video games, the Meaning of Life, and more. In the meantime, here's what in any rational world would be a shocking clip (if the country wasn't already so jaded by nearly seven years of malfeasance), from a man with (evidently) unimpeachable integrity:

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Who matters?

View image Whose films matter today?

Andrew Sarris, quoting himself, reminds us of what a big deal the late Michelangelo Antonioni -- and Euro-movie staples Ingmar Bergman, Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, et al. -- were in the late 1950s and '60s, at least in metropolitan centers like New York: My own 1961 review in The Village Voice continued in the same vein. “As long as the great foreign films continue to trickle into New York at the present snail’s pace, the enthusiasm of discerning moviegoers will have to be concentrated on one phenomenon at a time. 1959 was the year of 'Wild Strawberries' and 'The Four Hundred Blows,' 1960 belongs to 'Hiroshima, Mon Amour' and 'Picnic on the Grass' [Jean Renoir]. So far this year it has been 'Breathless,' but now it is time for another blast of trumpets. Beginning April 4 at the Beekman Theater, 'L’Avventura 'will become the one first-run film to see in New York. The sixth feature film of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, 'L’Avventura' will probably be even more controversial than its French and Swedish predecessors, which have been conveniently misunderstood as problem tracts of old age, childhood, juvenile delinquency, miscegenation, nuclear warfare, or what have you.

“With 'L’Avventura' the issue cannot be muddled, Antonioni’s film is an intellectual adventure, or it is nothing. The plot, such as it is, will infuriate audiences who still demand plotted cinema and potted climaxes. A group of bored Italian socialites disembark from their yacht on a deserted island. After wandering about a while they discover that one of their number, a perverse girl named Anna, is missing. Up to that time, Anna (Lea Massari) has been the protagonist. Not only does she never reappear, the mystery of her disappearance is never solved. Anna’s fiancé (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend (Monica Vitti) continue the search from one town to another, ultimately betraying the object of their search by becoming lovers. The film ends on a note of further betrayal and weary acceptance, with the two lovers facing a blank wall and a distant island, both literally and symbolically.”

So when exactly did I tire of Antonioni to the point of Antonioniennui? I am not sure. It may have been about the time of "The Red Desert" (1964), which I disliked, and well before "Blow-Up" (1966), which I liked enormously, unlike the late Pauline Kael, who dismissed it with a yawn.

It must be noted that at the time I waxed rhapsodic about "L’Avventura," I had not yet seen any of his five previous films.... "L’Avventura" was received here like a smashing debut film, and from then on it seemed just like more of the same, only less so, with "La Notte" (1961), "L’Eclisse" (1962) and most exasperatingly of all, "The Red Desert."... Whose films today spark similar sensations, and love-or-hate debate? Living directors about whom your opinion really seems to matter, whose films are considered "must-sees" by serious moviegoers? The Coens? Quentin Tarantino? Brian DePalma? Steven Soderbergh? I'm asking. I don't think film festival mega-stars like Lars von Trier or Abbas Kiarostami or Wong Kar-Wai are nearly well-known or influential enough to have this kind of impact, on movie fans in general or on other filmmakers. Are any of the candidates European?

ADDENDUM: Another way of looking at it: Is there a filmmaker whose style is so recognizable that it could be parodied -- and mainstream moviegoers, from their 20s to their 40s, would know what was being parodied, as was the case with Bergman, who was lampooned by the likes of "SCTV," Woody Allen, and "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey"? (Then again, could a television comedy show as smart and aware of the diversity of culture and pop culture as "SCTV" exist today? Actually, such a thing did exist not all that many years ago on HBO: "Mr. Show with Bob and David.")

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