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The Best Films of 2011

Making lists is not my favorite occupation. They inevitably inspire only reader complaints. Not once have I ever heard from a reader that my list was just fine, and they liked it. Yet an annual Best Ten list is apparently a statutory obligation for movie critics.

My best guess is that between six and ten of these movies won't be familiar. Those are the most useful titles for you, instead of an ordering of movies you already know all about.

One recent year I committed the outrage of listing 20 movies in alphabetical order. What an uproar! Here are my top 20 films, in order of approximate preference.

Festivals & Awards

"Midnight in Paris" but Cannes has just begun

Arriving in Cannes by bus from the Nice airport provides a thumbnail tour of the town, from the more seedy homes on the outskirts to the swanky hotels on the waterfront. The palms lining the Croisette, the festival's de facto main drag, may be the ubiquitous symbol of city, but a few blocks away the plane trees, cypresses, and the prolific climbing roses of Provence are a more common sight. Walk a short distance from the Festival Palais and there are conspicuously un-chic restaurants where local cops congregate for dinner in the back room and retired couples hang out for a smoke and an evening beer, more often than not, with a fluffy mutt under the table.

In a way, my first reminders yesterday of everyday life in everyday France were a bracing counterpoint to this morning's press screening of Woody Allen's romantic fantasy "Midnight in Paris." The festival's opening night film is a colorful valentine to Paris, indulging and gorgeously illustrating the director's every memory and cherished illusion of the city. I've never been a big Woody Allen fan, but "Midnight in Paris" is loads of fun.

The film opens with a morning-to-night sequence of views of the city's most iconic sights: Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge, the Seine, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees, the narrow streets of the Left Bank, and the Eiffel Tower. That opening alone is a tourist board's dream. At the press conference later, a journalist asked Allen, who mentioned that he thought of the title long before he had a story, whether these postcard-worthy views were his own impressions of Paris, or were meant to represent the point of view of his characters. Perhaps the French questioner was hoping for the latter, but Allen replied, "I learned about Paris the way all Americans do--from the movies. I wanted to show the city emotionally, not realistically, but through my eyes.

Ebert Club

#39 December 1, 2010

Leslie Nielsen (February 11, 1926 - November 28, 2010) Marie writes: If ever an actor embodied what it means to "be" Canadian, it was Leslie Nielsen... and the pair of fart machines he always used to carry around; one built by himself using plans sent by a friend and another called the "Farter" - a commercial device complete with remote control. For with each perfectly timed "pfft" he invited everyone to laugh with him and see the humour in life. And it's for that laughter he is now best remembered.The much-beloved actor died in his sleep with his wife Barbaree at his side, this past Sunday at the age of 84 in a Florida hospital due to complications from pneumonia. Nielsen has stars on both Hollywood's and Canada's Walk of Fame and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002. Remembering Leslie Nielsen...and what's that strange noise? - Montreal GazetteLeslie Nielsen: a career in clips, Guardian UKLeslie Nielsen, RIP. "And don't call me Shirley" - Roger Ebert


Beep-beep-m beep-beep, yeah

Over Memorial Day weekend I attended a high school graduation in Albuquerque. One of the graduating senior boys gave a speech in which he used car parts as a metaphor for the components of one's personality or identity. It was a clever piece he'd co-written with a friend, delivered with wry humor. Afterwards, the head of the school -- a man I'd estimate was in his 60s -- took the stage and thanked the student, quipping: "Baby, you can drive my car anytime."

Thud. Thunderous silence mixed with scattered, bewildered titters.


Words and music

View image Movement, music & lyrics: Fred Astaire with George & Ira Gershwin.

Over a wet, grey Seattle weekend, I immersed myself in Wilfred Sheed's delightful book about the architects of the American popular song, "The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty." (This is one of the big reasons I love Seattle: There's nothing better on such a day, when the leaves are just starting to pop yellow orange and red against those dark slate skies, than kicking back with such a book and the Sunday New York Times, and spending the day quietly and cozily soaking it all in.)

Sheed's memoir/survey is an idiosyncratic/anecdotal appreciation of the greats -- Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, Carmichael, Ellington, Kern, Porter, Rodgers, and others who are included in his canon only if, by his estimation, they have published more than fifty standards "by which I mean in this case more than fifty tunes that are still popular enough over fifty years later for most cocktail lounge pianists to have a rough idea of them, and for their copyrights still to be worth fighting for." Or, perhaps, if he happens to have met them.

To me, film is just music set to light. Yes, once "talkies" became the technological standard, the "lyrics" increased in importance, but the dialogue and the stories it help to tell were never so much about the words. They were about the music -- of motion and stasis, shadows and light, gestures and expressions....

Sheed describes his view of music and lyrics this way, and I see parallels to the relationship between movie and script: There's musical genius and then there's verbal genius. To match the explosion of melody [in the early 1920s] came a river of light verse that turned up everywhere, from the largest magazines to the smallest local papers, and it seeped into the most minor songs, guaranteeing some wonderfully literate and accomplished lyrics.

But -- and here some readers and I may split -- the tunes were still the big news. "Didn't they write great lyrics back then?" is a common question I've heard, to which I have two Yes, but... answers, one being Yes, but it's my impression that they still do. [...]

My second answer is Yes, they wrote some great lyrics but they also wrote some lousy ones. The standards didn't care. There have seldom been dumber words to anything than those of the young Ira Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" and "The Man I Love," while the Ellington-Strayhorn gem "Take the 'A' Train" barely has a lyric, only an address you wish would change from time to time.

On the other hand, there has never been a standard without a great tune -- not even a great funny standard. Surf the Cole Porter songbook and you will undoubtedly find some great comic poems still waiting for the right tune to drive them off and make them rich and famous. But although Cole could have dashed off another two hundred choruses of "You're the Top," he couldn't have written a second tune to save his life. And without those magic tunes, his light verse was as unsalable as most poetry.

This doesn't mean the right lyric can't make all the difference. A lyricist is a musician too, one who arranges tunes for the human voice so that you can "hear" them for the first time. But once the lyrics have done that, and made you laugh or cry two or three times at most, they fade in importance. Again and again, people will request a favorite song while knowing only its tune. I don't think anyone would dispute that it's possible to make a good movie from a pretty bad script, or that it's possible to make a lousy movie from a really good script -- but a good script greatly improves one's chances of making a good movie. It's just as hard to make a bad movie as it is to make a good one, yet the odds decisively favor the former over the latter.

Are some movies terrific primarily because of the script? Probably. Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder come to mind. But the script wouldn't work unless it had been acted and directed well. I've heard recorded arrangements of "Night and Day" that made me cringe. Likewise, I've seen actors and directors (and editors and composers) butcher a scene or a sequence that could have been great if they knew how to play it. (Remember, however, that if a scene doesn't work, it's probably least likely to be the actor's fault. Choosing the wrong takes and/or assembling them poorly can make the greatest actor in the world look like a grade school thespian.)

Quotable dialog -- epigrams, witticisms, punchlines -- can be fun, but they don't make a good movie any more than they make a good song. "Here's looking at you, kid" is an immortal line, but it could have been a howler. You wouldn't remember it without the music of Bogart's voice and the look in his eyes. I will never quite understand how "You can't handle the truth!" entered the public domain (however briefly it may remain there) because, although Nicholson sells the hell out of it in "A Few Good Men," it's not a particularly memorable moment. Although both these lines are often used jokingly, acknowledged as clichés when used in casual conversation, one affectionately acknowledges a classic while the other includes an element of sarcasm or satire of the movie itself (almost like "No wire hangers!").

When the words and music seem inseparable, as if one could not exist without the other, that makes for greatness. And in song, and in film, it's a matter of composition -- but also performance and orchestration, whether it's Sinatra singing "So make it one for my baby/And one more for the road," or Walsh (Joe Mantell) intoning those famous last words, "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown."


Pop notes: 101 essential movies

You must remember this: one of the movies' iconic images.

Further reflections on the 2006 Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, CO: John Lennon said life is what happens to you when you're making other plans. Life is also the process of finding connections between everything that happens to you (there he goes with that "We're all pattern-seeking animals" thing again!). So, last week at the CWA, three panels I was on ran together in my head in ways I think are interesting. But then, it's my head we're talking about, so I'm probably inclined to think my digressions and free-associations are interesting, otherwise I wouldn't have spent so much time mucking about with them.

Festivals & Awards

Jury defends award to Moore

CANNES, France -- The jury of the 57th Cannes Film Festival insisted Sunday that it awarded its top honor to Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary not because of its politics, but because of its quality as a film.

Festivals & Awards

Moore takes top award for 'Fahrenheit 9/11'

CANNES, France -- Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," a documentary denouncing the presidency of George W. Bush, won the Palme d'Or here Saturday night as the best film in the Cannes Film Festival. It was the first documentary to take the Palme since 1956, and was a popular winner; at its official screening it received what the festival director said was the longest ovation in Cannes history.

Festivals & Awards

The good, the bad and 'De-Lovely'

CANNES, France -- The winners of this year's Cannes Film Festival will be announced at a ceremony Saturday night. As I write, the leading contenders for the Palme d'Or are said to be "The Motorcycle Diaries" from Brazil and "Comme Une Image" ("Look at Me") from France, although there are supporters for "2046" (2005) by China's Wong Kar-Wai, a film I found maddening in its mannered repetition of a few worn stylistic and dramatic strategies. And it is said that Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" will win one of the top prizes; it was cheered longer than any other film in festival history.


Interview with Burt Reynolds

HOLLYWOOD - It's the kind of place where the food is so organic that you order a salad and the house dressing is peanut butter laced with safflower oil and herbs. The tables surround a shady patio, and the waitress wears a T-shirt and shorts, an attractive combination not lost upon Burt Reynolds. He listens to the description of today's entree (something involving eggs and tomato sauce) as if it were a specialty of selected Moroccan bordellos.