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.
Or: Do comic-book movie blog posts display traffic superpowers?
New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis held a discussion of comic-book movies and that subset known as "superhero movies" in advance of the Marvel re-boot, "The Amazing Spider-Man," which opens Tuesday, July 3. (The article will appear in the paper July 1, but is now online.) This, I think, goes to the heart of the matter:
SCOTT:What the defensive [superhero] fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns: a billion dollars! Who can argue with that? Nobody really does. Superhero movies are taken seriously, reviewed respectfully and enjoyed by plenty of Edmund Wilson types.
I've made some of these arguments many times before, but the one that really stands out for me here is the seriousness with which mainstream critics and intellectuals now approach comic books and comic-book movies. That's unprecedented. Distinctions between popular culture and high culture aren't nearly as rigid as they used to be. Movies that would once have been treated as nothing more than commercial entertainment products are now given serious consideration as artistic achievements. Because they can be both at the same time.
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:
Werner Herzog is a regular. One time I met a man in a cowboy hat on Main Street and he was Jimmy Stewart. I saw Andre Tarkovsky and Richard Widmark exchange shots on the Sheridan Opera House stage (though not on the same night). Krzysztof Zanussi translated forTarkovsky and showed his miraculous "Imperativ." Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern strolled around town, hand-in hand, wearing matching seafoam green outfits and white shoes the year of "Blue Velvet." I was greeted heartily by Crispin Glover, who momentarily mistook me for director Tim Hunter ("River's Edge," "Tex"). I bowed down and kissed Hannah Schygulla's hand....
Continued below, after jump...
View image Richard Widmark, straight shooter.
You may have heard some version of this story about Richard Widmark, who died last week at age 93. I was there, at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 when it happened, in the Sheridan Opera House for the tributes to Andrei Tarkovsky and Widmark. Emotions were heightened, perhaps, not only by the thin mountain atmosphere, but but by a terrifying Cold War showdown between Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan's USA (I don't know which scared me more at the time) over the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which we didn't learn about until we got to Telluride. Things were chilly up there.
The emotions associated with my memories are indelible, even if their precision has faded. But the gist of what Richard Widmark said that weekend, and the eloquence with which he said it, will always stay with me. Shortly after Widmark's death, I contacted Gary Meyer, director of the Telluride Film Festival (whom I'd known as co-founder of Landmark Theatres), to see if Widmark's tribute speech was transcribed anywhere, because I would love to reprint it. Those were relatively early days for the Telluride festival (which began in 1974 and seemed much more remote than it is now) and Gary couldn't find any record of the speech, which I remember Widmark reading from notes he produced from his jacket pocket. But he did find some 1983 press coverage, from which I have pieced together the following "story."
I can't think of another movie that makes me laugh and cry within the course of its opening shot. This is "The Big Animal" (2000), a feature directed by and starring Jerzy Stuhr, based on an early screenplay by Krzysztof Kieslowski. You may know Stuhr from Kieslowski's first feature, "Camera Buff" ("Amator"), "Three Colors: White," "Dekalog: 10" ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods") and other films by Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Angieszka Holland.
This shot could serve as an introduction -- perhaps an encapsulation -- of a certain Polish sensibility dear to my heart that is both absurd and poignant. It begins in the fog -- at least, we think it's fog, but the way it's blowing it looks more like smoke. Turns out it is smoke, from a pair of circus vans, and as they move past the camera and roll off into the distance, the right side of the frame clears and... there's a camel standing there.
Why is there a camel standing there? We don't know. It appears to have been left behind for some reason. The image is comical, incongruous, absurd. But if you think about it, it's rather sad. Poor camel. It just stands there. It looks around. It reverses direction. And just at the end of the shot, the two circus trucks in the background appear to be perched on top of its humps. (Camel fanciers will know that this is a Bactrian camel, not an Arabian dromedary, because it has two humps.)
The mild existential shock of this opening image sets us up for the satire -- of bureaucracy and toleration of individuality -- that is to come. A man and his wife adopt the stray camel. At first, everyone is happy. A camel is a novelty in this village, and it becomes the man's pride and joy. He is no longer ordinary, but exceptional. He has a camel!
But then man-made socio-political reality begins to set in. How do you license a camel? Surely pets must be licensed, but there is no such thing as a camel license (shades of Monty Python's fish license sketch). A dog license is not sufficient -- possibly even illegal -- because, clearly, this creature is not a dog. It's not a horse, either. But do you need a license for a horse?
And then there are the townspeople, who begin to wonder: "Why should this man get away with breaking the rules for a camel? Who does he think he is? Why does he need to stand out and flaunt his special status? Such things should not be allowed. Or should they not, at least, be properly taxed?"
Kieslowski's screenplay, from the story "The Camel" by Kazimierz Orlos, was written in 1973 as a fable about life in the Soviet bloc. But the 1994 "Bart Gets an Elephant" episode of "The Simpsons," where Homer exploits Stampy to pay the mammoth food bills, provides a capitalistic counterpoint. I love this "Big Animal."
"The Big Animal" is available on DVD from our friends Amy Heller and Dennis Doros at Milestone Film & Video.
[This is a contribution to the Krzysztof Kieslowski Blog-a-Thon at Quiet Bubble.]
Cannes, France – Scott Fitzgerald, that poetic chronicler of the lives of the rich, the beautiful and the famous, should have had my seat for dinner last night at Le Moulin des Mougins. By the time the sorbet came to clear the palate between the fish course and the entrée, he would already have seen through the glitter into what was no doubt the ennui beneath. The glitter was enough for me.
Cannes, France – The dramatic return of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa has provided most of the drama during the first week of this year’s Cannes Film festival. Kurosawa, who at age 70 had not made a film in five years or a Japanese film in 10, arrived here Wednesday with “Kagemusha,” a three-hour samurai epic that is clearly a labor of love. It was greeted with ovations at its press screenings, and is the early favorite to win this year’s Grand Prix.