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Listen Up Philip

The terrific cast all delves into the material full-bore, which contributes to its peculiar resonance. Perry may hate everyone and everything, but in making a…

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Private Violence

A look at the complexity of domestic violence, especially when it comes to the difficulty of prosecuting abusers in a court of law, "Private Violence"…

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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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* 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.

Films on fire: Tony Scott and Christopher Nolan

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"A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." -- Rayburn (Christopher Walken), "Man on Fire" (2004)

While I've never been a fan of the late Tony Scott or Christopher Nolan, a few thoughtful articles in recent days have helped me see them in new lights, and got me to thinking about their resemblances as well as their dissimilarities. Several appreciations of Scott (especially those by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein and Manohla Dargis), along with David Bordwell's incisive essay on Christopher Nolan ("Nolan vs. Nolan") got me to thinking about the common assumptions about these popular filmmakers, both of whom are known for quick, impressionistic imagery, intercut scenes, slam-bang action and a CGI-averse insistence on photographing the real world.¹ Regardless of what you ultimately make of their work, there's no question they've done it their way.

This is an attempt to look at both filmmakers through the prism of others' points of view, refracted in critical appraisals like the above.

Of course, Scott and Nolan have passionate admirers and detractors. Until Scott's shocking suicide last week (from a bridge, a landmark that figures hauntingly in the climaxes of several of his movies), I wasn't aware of many critics who championed his movies, but with a few exceptions the obits seem to have been more admiring than the reviews over the years -- understandably, under the sad circumstances.

Those who applaud Scott and Nolan's films see them as genre boundary-pushers (thrillers, action pictures, science-fiction, superhero movies); those who denigrate them see them as symptomatic of the debasement of resonant imagery in modern Hollywood movies. Both have been subjected to that worst of all critical insults, comparisons to Michael Bay:

"'Inception' may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay." -- Andrew O'Hehir, "Inception: A clunky, overblown disappointment"

"If it sounds like I'm describing Michael Bay, that's because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it." -- Bilge Ebiri, "To Control Something That's Out of Control: On Tony Scott"

One of Scott's notable defenders has been The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. She identifies him as a "maximalist" who used "a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color. This kind of stylistic, self-conscious excess could be glorious, as in his underappreciated film 'Domino' (2005)," which Roger Ebert also somewhat grudgingly admired, quoting a character to describe the movie itself as having "the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth." Dargis writes:

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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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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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Blood and guts and oil and sweat

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Above: What this picture needs is some RED.

I forgot to mention that, while Roger is up at his lake place working on his memoirs, I've done a few reviews for the main site (RogerEbert.com) and the Chicago Sun-Times. This week, I think you'll find that I'm one of the very few critics to cite Yasujiro Ozu in a review of Neil Marshall's handsomely gory "Centurion," and among the minority of reviewers who find a reason to compare the tank in the Israeli war film "Lebanon" to the Nostromo in "Alien," though I could be wrong.

As it turns out, without intending to do so I reviewed both of the movies I was covering this week almost entirely in terms of style, almost as if they were abstract non-narrative films. Actually, I guess I probably do that more often than not, but... judge for yourself:

The Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu once made a film called "The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice." "Centurion" might be thought of as "The Color of Red Guts Over Mountains," because that, as much as anything, describes what it is about.

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#14 June 9, 2010

From the Grand Poobah: Our Far-Flung Correspondent Gerardo Valero writes: During Ebertfest, Monica and I were able to shoot a few videos which I downloaded in you tube and which I think you all may enjoy. Since she was the one to shoot most of the panel videos; they mostly consist of my own participation but there's plenty of stuff for everybody (our multiple presentations, dinner at the Green Room and what have you) I apologize in advance for the quality of the material. I tell Monica she would be fired from filming a Bourne movie because her cinematography is too shaky. Go HERE to see all the videos.Marie writes: this one is my favorite!  Roger and Chaz at Stake n' Shake!

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The Art of Screenwriting Collaboration

Yasujiro Ozu and Kogo Noda understood how to do it. They wrote many screenplays together, including those for some of the greatest films ever made, from "Late Spring" (1949) to "Tokyo Story" (1953) to "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962). Baths are important. And breakfast. And walks and naps. The important thing to remember is that, for the most part, writing isn't what happens when you're at your keyboard. That, to paraphrase embellish Truman Capote, is merely the typing part.

The clip above is from Kazuo Inoue's 1983 documentary about Ozu, "I Lived, But..." -- included in the Criterion DVD edition of "Tokyo Story."

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In movies begin responsibilities

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I saw six movies this past weekend and it was exhilarating. That's a lot for me to suck up these days (though it didn't used to be), unless I'm neck-deep in a film festival. I used to think nothing of a double-bill a day, but this was such a rich and rewarding movie-weekend that it reminded me of the great intensified cinematic forages of my 20s and 30s, when I seemed to encounter, and ravenously gobble down, fresh new masterpieces (heralded or unheralded) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also got me thinking about how unimaginably different the experience of finding movies to watch is now from what it was then.

Here's the breakdown: None of the movies I saw were available in my local theaters. I saw all of them at home, on the same 55" screen -- three on Comcast On Demand (two of those in HD widescreen, one in SD widescreen) and three on DVDs (all at 1.33:1) from my own library (in other words, not rentals, Netflix or otherwise). The movies themselves were made between 1947 and 2009, three were originally shot on 35mm film, one on Super 16mm, and the other on HD video. Four of them were in color, two in black and white. Three were serial-killer/corrupt cop thrillers, two comedy-dramas, and one an adaptation of a serious play about religion. None of them was American-made, but three were in English (though sometimes it was hard to tell), two in Japanese and one in Danish. Two were sanctified classics, one a lesser effort by one of cinema's greatest directors, and the other three recent works by established but not particularly well-known British filmmakers. All but one were new to me -- and that one I hadn't seen I booked it in 16mm, as a Seattle premiere, in a university film series 30 years ago.

OK, here's what I saw, in order:

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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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The greatest movies ever made

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

1. The Night of the Hunter, 1955

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

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

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Stark beauty, dark vision

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Q. In your review for "The Dark Knight," you say that the Joker is a product of his father's poor treatment, but that's just one story he uses to explain his scars. Another is that he did it for his wife, and Batman interrupts before he offers a -- most likely -- different story. I think the point was that he doesn't have a cause. Who's wrong here?

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Elected: 100 Must-See Foreign Films

Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho Dayu" (aka "Sansho the Bailiff").

The ballots came in from all over the web. Edward Copeland tabulated them (and found nice stills for all the winners), under the supervision of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jimmy Carter. OK, I don't know about that last part, but Edward did some great good work here.

He's calling it "The Satyajit Ray Memorial Anything-But-Definitive List of Non-English Language Films." Copeland writes: "The name comes, of course, from the great Indian director who failed to land any of his acclaimed works on the final list of 122 nominees."

In all 174 people chose their top 25-or-so non-English-language talkies made before 2002 (nominees had to be at least five years old). The Top 100 is here -- accompanied by comments from people who chose them. (Comments and vote totals for the other 22 nominees are here.)

My top choice was Kenji Mizoguchi's "Sansho Dayu" (which came in at #46 and is available on a Criterion DVD), about which I wrote: If I had to choose just one movie –- one movie –- above all others on this list, Mizoguchi's would be it. I've long felt that if there were a god, the closest expression we're likely to find on this earth is in this movie. It's not the only film on my list that gives me goosebumps whenever the title is mentioned, but I don't believe there's ever been a greater motion picture in any language. This one sees life and memory as a creek flowing into a lake out into a river and to the sea.That seems a little florid to me now (it was the night before I left for Toronto, and I was trying to tie together the imagery in the first and last shots of a masterpiece), but the emotions, and the awe, are genuine.

Here's the Top 25:

1. "The Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir) 2. "Seven Samurai" (Akira Kurosawa) 3. "M" (Fritz Lang) 4. "8 1/2" (Federico Fellini) 5. "Bicycle Thieves" (Vittorio De Sica) 6. "Persona" (Ingmar Bergman) 7. "Grand Illusion" (Jean Renoir) 8. "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (Werner Herzog) 9. "The Battle of Algiers" (Gillo Pontecorvo) 10. "The 400 Blows" (Francois Truffaut) 11. "Fanny and Alexander" (Ingmar Bergman) 12. "Tokyo Story" (Yasujiro Ozu) 13. "Rashomon" (Akira Kurosawa) 14. "Ikiru" (Akira Kurosawa) 15. "The Seventh Seal" (Ingmar Bergman) 16. "Ran" (Akira Kurosawa) 17. "Jules and Jim" (Francois Truffaut) 18. "The Conformist" (Bernardo Bertolucci) 19. "La Dolce Vita" (Federico Fellini) 20. "Contempt" (Jean-Luc Godard) 21. "Breathless" (Jean-Luc Godard) 22. "Ugetsu Monogatari" (Kenji Mizoguchi) 23. "Playtime" (Jacques Tati) 24. "Au Hasard, Balthazar" (Robert Bresson) 25. "Andrei Rublev" (Andrei Tarkovsky)

(continued...)

Bad news: "Amelie" made the list (though only at #92). Good news: "Life is Beautiful" (which isn't) wasn't even nominated!

Stop wasting your life. Get watching.

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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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First-Shot Bordwell

View image Establishing shot: The first image of Yasujiro Ozu's masterpiece, "Tokyo Story." Ozu tends to begin with a series of static shots (say, three to five) that set the location and mood.

David Bordwell (recently returned from Easter Island!), has a swell historical overview of first shots (and the Opening Shots Project) here. David notes that many classic films begin with fairly routine establishing shots and wonders: Was there a moment when directors started to feel that they had to weight the first shot heavily, to treat it as a dense moment that the viewer should savor? The first shot of a film could be as vivid and bristling with implication as the first sentence of a novel. When might directors have begun to think along these lines?He then surveys several of your (and my) Scanners favorites, and mentions a number of his own (from films by Harold Lloyd, Yasojiro Ozu, D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and others):Fairly far back in film history, directors seem to have realized that first shots should be freighted with implication. There probably isn’t only one moment when this strategy arises, but I’d suggest looking first at the period when synchronized sound comes in. Most films at the time were pretty static and theatrical in their reliance on dialogue, so a flashy opening shot or sequence could reassert “This is cinema.��? The bravura tracking shot was a common way directors chose to draw the viewer into the film’s world, as at the start of "Threepenny Opera" or of "Scarface." Maybe this is a key moment in which filmmakers began to realize that the opening shot of a film should grab or puzzle the viewer and let us reflect a little on the fact that it’s doing so.

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The comical jocularity of humorousness

The Sunday New York Times Magazine devoted itself to comedy this weekend -- and you know how funny the New York Times Magazine can be. Actually, there's a very good article by A.O. Scott on the art of the pratfall in which he explains why some of the greatest modern comedy (from "Little Miss Sunshine" to "Borat") is of the well-executed physical variety. (Not to be confused with what Chris Farley used to call, with an undertone of dismay, "Fat Guy Falls Down" -- a desperate stunt that may elicit knee-jerk laughs, even if it's not inherently funny.)

As part of its comedic survey, the Times Mag asked some 22 comedians, well-known and not-, to name five of their favorite "Desert Island Comedies" on DVD. I don't like any of the lists much (while agreeing wholeheartedly with a few individual choices) -- but I salute David Cross (somebody I've long thought is really funny) for the humor inherent in choosing "Homer and Eddie" and "Rent."

To paraphrase an old David Steinberg routine: There are those who say... (that's the end of my paraphrase) that to analyze comedy is anti-comedic. I could not disagree more strongly. I say if you don't understand why you're laughing, when you're laughing, then you don't appreciate the comedy and you may as well not be laughing at all, since any old reaction is probably comparably appropriate for you. You could be crying or sneezing and it's probably the same thing. But let's put that aside for the moment and concentrate on some lists of very personal, very funny movies.

I suppose I could choose the great movies that have made me laugh the most -- the first that come to mind, such as: a Keaton ("Sherlock, Jr." or "Steamboat Bill, Jr."), a Fields ("It's A Gift" or "The Bank Dick"), a Marx Bros. ("Animal Crackers" or "Duck Soup"), a Sturges ("The Lady Eve" or "Miracle of Morgan's Creek"), and, let's say, a classic comedy (preferably starring Cary Grant or Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur, and written and/or directed by Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder or Mitchell Leisen, like "Trouble in Paradise" or "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) or "Bringing Up Baby" or "His Girl Friday" or "The Major and the Minor" or "Some Like It Hot" or "Easy Living" or "Ball of Fire"...). But those are all 50-75 years old, and I haven't even mentioned my modern-era favorites, like Luis Bunuel ("The Exterrminating Angel," "Simon of the Desert," "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "The Phantom of Liberty"), Monty Python ("Life of Brian" -- greatest comedy of the last half-century), Christopher Guest & ensemble ("Spinal Tap," "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show") or the Coen Bros. ("Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski"). So, I thought I'd just offer up a few relatively obscure, underappreciated or, at least, off-the-beaten-path comedies that I think are hysterically funny and invite you contribute some of your own:

"I Was Born, But..." (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932) I know it's an acknowledged masterpiece by one of the greatest directors in movie history, but how many of you have actually seen it? Two boys, big belly laughs. Some of this material was re-worked in "Ohayo" ("Good Morning") in 1959.

"The President's Analyst" (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967) I love this movie -- the perfect paranoid Cold War 1960s espionage satire companion to "Dr. Strangelove" and James Bond, with James Coburn in the title role. Who is writer/directorTheodore J. Ficker, anyway? Well, according to IMDb, he directed episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Man From U.N.C.L.E., "The Andy Griffith Show," "I Dream of Jeannie," "Night Gallery" and "Barney Miller."

"Taking Off" (Milos Forman, 1971) You couldn't find a better time capsule for 1971 -- which Forman has captured with his characteristically uncanny ease and naturalness. Buck Henry "stars" as a father whose daughter has run away to some sort of "hippie" musical audition -- probably in the Village. The whole thing feels spontaneous and improvised -- but it was written by Forman, Jean-Claude Carrierer ("The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," "The Phantom of Liberty," "Birth"), John Guare ("Atlantic City," "Six Degrees of Separation") and Jon Klein. One of the late, great Vincent Schiavelli's finest moments: teaching a group of uptight, wealthy parents with missing kids how to smoke pot. Early cameos by Kathy Bates, Carly Simon and Jessica Harper, among others. (Long unavailable, this recently showed up on the Sundance Channel, which I hope means it will soon be released on DVD.)

"How to Get Ahead in Advertising"(Bruce Robinson, 1989) Robinson's equally brilliant and demented "Withnail & I" is the official masterpiece (and object of obsessive cult veneration in the UK), but this is Richard E. Grant's finest hour. He's a London advertising executive so sick with self-loathing that he grows a foul-mouthed boil on his neck. How's that for a premise?

Coldblooded" (Wallace Wolodarsky, 1995) In some ways, this is a precursor to "Dexter." Jason Priestly is magnificently deadpan as an empty young man who is recruited to become a hit man -- and turns out to be mighty good at it. Co-starring Peter Riegert, Robert Loggia (getting ready for "Lost Highway"), and Jay Kogen -- who, along with writer/director Wolodarsky, wrote some of the classic early episodes of "The Simpsons."

"Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy" (Kelly Makin, 1996) Critics were mostly bewildered or repulsed, but this movie gets funnier every time I see it (and I've seen it at least a dozen times). It plays GREAT on the video screen -- better, I think, than any of the TV shows. A drug company speeds a new anti-depressant to the market, only to find that the insanely popular Gleemonex has a troublesome side effect: It puts people into comas of happiness. Each of the "Kids" has at least a handful of indescribably (but not inexplicably) funny moments. Including: "Cat on my head! Cat on my head!"; "I'm an elephant rider!"; "Tasty"; "How pleasing!"; and "Just... a guy." Should be seen alongside the great documentary, "The Corporation."

I cheated. That's six. But, OK, I've left out hundreds of great titles. Your turn. And the more obscure/underappreciated the better, please.

P.S. Anybody else remember the rest of the sentence from that David Steinberg bit?

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A miracle of a movie

One of the year's most subtly extraordinary movies opens in Chicago today: Ramin Bahrani's "Man Push Cart." (See Roger Ebert's review here). As readers of this blog know, I first encountered it at Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in May and my experience with it was like falling in love, and not fully realizing it until the final credits were rolling. And that's exactly what's great about it: I never felt like I knew where it would go, or that it was straining to fit a traditional narrative structure; I just became absorbed in the daily (and nightly) struggles of this one human life, an almost invisible man in New York City. Roger sees in it "the very soul of Italian Neo-Realism"; I see the purity and minimalism of Bresson and Ozu. We're both right.

Here's part of what I filed from the Overlooked: Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said that while most movies are a slice of life, his were a slice of cake. He's right about the last part, although most movies are not slices of anything resembling life as most of us experience it. But "Man Push Cart," the film by Ramin Bahrani, a director born in Iran and raised in North Carolina, is not only an exquisitely realized slice of life but a slice of filmmaking perfection. I didn't know, as I became absorbed in this portrait of a New York City street vendor whose life is slowly slipping from his grasp (like his heavy pushcart on one occasion), that it would become one of my favorite movies of recent years until moments after its inexplicably magnificent ending.

All I can tell you is that when the moment came, a thought flashed through my mind: "Wow, I would just end the movie right here -- wouldn't that be great?" And then, one more shot, and the movie was over. So, yes, I felt absolutely in synch with the vision of the filmmaker (whose manifest influences include some of my favorite directors: Robert Bresson and Lodge Kerrigan -- not to mention Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus"), but the film also had me so completely in its spell that it subtly prepared me for arrival at this ending (which, in formulaic conventional movies, would hardly be considered a conclusion at all). It just felt absolutely, ideally right. (Hitchcock also liked to say he played the audience like an organ; "Man Push Cart" is no less masterful, but its method and effects are not the bravura manipulations of Hitchcock but the subtle, underplayed shadings of Bresson or Yasujiro Ozu.)

On the most prosaic level, the story of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi, a former restauranteur who'd never acted before), a Pakistani-American who pushes (or pulls) his breakfast cart to 54th and Madison every day, could be seen as something of a downer. But, as Roger Ebert is fond of saying, no good movie is ever depressing -- because the experience of being in the presence of such artistry is elevating. (A friend and I, in the grips of a paralyzing mutual depression, once made a pilgrimage to "GoodFellas" and the experience -- though it's hardly an upper of a movie -- temporarily, at least, lifted us out of our low-seratonin stupor because it was just so exhilarating to watch something so beautifully composed and performed.) "Man Push Cart" is that kind of movie. I posted an Opening Shot Project entry for "Man Push Cart" here. Please come back after you've seen the film and let me know your impressions. It may be my favorite movie of the year.

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The fillet of fests

"Junebug" director (and still photographer!) Phil Morrison at the Overlooked. (Photo by Jim Emerson)

At several moments during the Eighth Overlooked Film Festival, I thought I had been transported to a time in which the greatest artists of the movies were not only familiar to all, but properly and enthusiastically appreciated and revered. That such a time would be in the spring of 2006 kind of threw me for a loop, but this was a festival in which (I swear) the two most commonly (and reverently) invoked cinematic influences were not Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino but Robert Bresson ("Pickpocket," "Au Hasard Balthazar," "Lancelot du Lac," "L'Argent") and Yasujiro Ozu ("Tokyo Story," "Late Spring," "Early Spring," "Floating Weeds"). Not that any of the young filmmakers at the Overlooked were trying to claim their work was on par with these cinematic masters, but you could tell from their films that Ozu and Bresson really mean something to these guys, their influences genuinely and thoroughly absorbed into the cinematic sensibilities of another generation. It gave me hope for the future of movies as something more than a commodity.

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A slice of perfection

Ramin Bahrani and Ahmad Razvi after the screening of "Man Push Cart" at the Overlooked Film Festival.

"Man Push Cart": Alfred Hitchcock supposedly said that while most movies are a slice of life, his were a slice of cake. He's right about the last part, although most movies are not slices of anything resembling life as most of us experience it. But "Man Push Cart," the film by Ramin Bahrani, a director born in Iran and raised in North Carolina, is not only an exquisitely realized slice of life but a slice of filmmaking perfection. I didn't know, as I became absorbed in this portrait of a New York City street vendor whose life is slowly slipping from his grasp (like his heavy pushcart on one occasion), that it would become one of my favorite movies of recent years until moments after its inexplicably magnificent ending.

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101 102 Movies You Must See Before...

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EXCERPT FROM INTRO: This isn't like Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" series. It's not my idea of The Best Movies Ever Made (that would be a different list, though there's some overlap here), or limited to my personal favorites or my estimation of the most important or influential films. These are the movies I just kind of figure everybody ought to have seen in order to have any sort of informed discussion about movies. They're the common cultural currency of our time, the basic cinematic texts that everyone should know, at minimum, to be somewhat "movie-literate." I hope these movies are experiences we can all assume we share.

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Ozu: The masterpieces you've missed

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"Late Spring," 3 p.m. Saturday, 6 p.m. Thursday"Record of a Tenement Gentleman," 5:15 p.m. Saturday, 6:15 p.m. Wednesday"Days of Youth" (silent), 3 p.m. Sunday "Tokyo Story," 3 p.m. Jan. 15, 6 p.m. Jan. 20 "What Did the Lady Forget?" 5:30 p.m. Jan. 15, 6:30 p.m. Jan. 19 "Tokyo Chorus" (silent), 3 p.m. Jan. 16 "The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice," 5:15 p.m. Jan. 22, 6 p.m. Jan. 26 "I Was Born, But..." (silent, with critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in person), 3 p.m. Jan. 23 "Equinox Flower," 3 p.m. Jan. 22, 6 p.m. Jan. 27 "Early Spring," 5 p.m. Jan. 29, 3 p.m. Feb. 2 "Ohayo," 3 p.m. Jan. 29, 6 p.m. Feb. 3 "Dragnet Girl," 3 p.m. Jan. 30 "Floating Weeds," 3 p.m. Feb. 5, 6 p.m. Feb. 9 "Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family," 5:15 p.m. Feb. 5, 6 p.m. Feb. 10 "Passing Fancy," 3 p.m. Feb. 6 "Late Autumn," 3 p.m. Feb. 12, 6 p.m. Feb. 16 "The Only Son," 5:30 p.m. Feb. 12, 6:15 p.m. Feb. 17 "Story of Floating Weeds," 3 p.m. Feb. 13 "The End of Summer," 3 p.m. Feb. 19, 6 p.m. Feb. 24 "Early Summer," 5 p.m. Feb. 19, 6 p.m. Feb. 23 "Walk Cheerfully," 3 p.m. Feb. 20 "An Autumn Afternoon," 3 p.m. Feb. 26, 6 p.m. March 3 "A Hen in the Wind," 5:15 p.m. Feb. 26, 6 p.m. March 2 "Woman of Tokyo and That Night's Wife," 3 p.m. Feb. 27

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