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#189 October 16, 2013

Sheila writes: We're all familiar with the horror movie cliche: someone (usually a woman) is alone, creeped out, and investigating a sound she finds ominous. Naturally, it turns out to be just a cat, but that cat can give a pretty good scare. Thankfully, we now have "Supercut: It's Just a Cat" to get our feline scare-fix all in one place.

Features

Thumbnails 8/3/2013

Shooting the final dance contest in "Saturday Night Fever"; John Boorman's unmade "Lord of the Rings"; Wikipedia founder brands the U.K.'s new anti-online-porn plan 'ridiculous'; how the American suburbs became a hotbed of increasing poverty; Red Sox owner buys Boston Globe; photo of the NSA's massive data-harvesting facility in Utah; Chris Doyle talkes about the art of the cinematographer.

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Greatest Films of All Time: Where's the funny?

The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.

I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?

Roger Ebert

A few calm words about The List

The king is dead. Long live the king. Welles' "Citizen Kane" has been dethroned from the Sight & Sound list of the greatest films of all time, and replaced by Hitchcock's "Vertigo." It's not as if nobody saw this coming. The list first appeared in 1952, and "Vertigo" (1958) made the list for the first time only in 1982. Climbing slowly, it placed five votes behind "Kane" in 2002. Although many moviegoers would probably rank "Psycho" or maybe "North by Northwest" as Hitch's best, for S&S types his film to beat was "Notorious" (1946). That's the one I voted for until I went through "Vertigo" a shot at a time at the University of Virginia, became persuaded of its greatness, and put it on my 2002 list.

Etheriel Musings: A Journey in China

Chinese film criticism: The rising of a new wave

It may be surprising for you to learn that in a country with more than one billion people, the fastest growing film industry in the world, and a 10 billion rmb (1.5 billion usd) box office gross in 2010 alone, there is hardly any professional film criticism accessible to its public.When I say hardly any, I mean that there is an absence of professional film critics who work for major, national publications and media outlets, and thus a lack of regular film reviews of new Chinese movies, at least for the mass audiences. Sure, there are some academic and/or bureaucratic film publications that are read by few, and others that are commercially centered whose readership is small and reserved. The majority of active, up-to-date film criticism in China today comes from blogs and websites started by film lovers.

Etheriel Musings: A Journey in China

Hong Kong FILMART, Jia ZhangKe, and Star Ferry

• Grace Wang of Toronto Running concurrently with the Hong Kong Internatiomal Film Festival is FILMART, an industry film event that attracts buyers, sellers, producers, filmmakers, promoters, journalists, and all kinds of film people. This is a side of cinema not as visible to the public, but just as important. Here the new blockbusters and indie sweethearts of next year are seeded and funded.

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

"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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The Return of the Autobiographical Dictionary of Film

Ever since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgements, and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.

To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")

When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix, Reel.com, RogerEbert.com)... but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.

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Name That Director!

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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Consensus? Mulholland Dr. is LA Film Critics' movie of the decade, too

Critical polls conducted by Film Comment, indieWIRE, the Village Voice/LA Weekly, Cahiers du Cinéma and now the Los Angeles Film Critics Association have all chosen David Lynch's 2001 "Mulholland Dr." as the best movie of the decade.

UPDATE 2/12/10: The Muriels and Slant Magazine also choose "Mulholland Dr." as best of the Aughts.

Full list below...

Justin Chang writes at LAFCA.net:

Call us provincial -- David Lynch's psychoerotic noir is one of the essential L.A. movies -- but the more significant reason for the film's enduring critical favor may be its deconstruction of the toxic allure of the Dream Factory. "Mulholland Dr." projects an ambivalence toward Hollywood with which almost any critic can identify: Moving images have the power to seduce and move us, but many of them are the products of a system that routinely turns dreams into nightmares and artists into meat. Famously salvaged from a rejected TV pilot, Lynch's film stands as both a cautionary tale and a mascot for the triumph of art and personal vision in an industry that, from where we sit, often seems actively devoted to the suppression of both. [...]

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More film polls: Top 150 of Decade, Top 160 of 2009...

Ow, my brain hurts. So, let's just get these out of the way, shall we? In the annual Village Voice/LA Weekly Film Poll, announced just before Christmas, 94 critics (including me) came up with 160 nominations for best films of 2009 -- and voted in a bunch of other categories, too, including Best Film of the Decade ("Mulholland Dr."). [My decade favorites are here.]

Meanwhile, Film Comment polled another big batch o' crix (a lot of the same ones, in fact) and came up with a somewhat different 20 Best of 2009 list -- and 150 Best Films of the Decade (topped by... "Mulholland Dr."). Just for fun, let us compare the two groups' Top Dozen for both year and decade:

Roger Ebert

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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The Seitz-geist

View image The House Next Door.

Now that Matt Zoller Seitz has announced that he's moving on, back to Dallas from Brooklyn and into full-time filmmaking, I thought I'd take a quick glance over the shoulder at some of the writing he's done at his home, The House Next Door, since he opened the place January 1, 2006. Of course, he's done a lot of other writing -- for The Dallas Observer, The Newark Star-Ledger (the Sopranos' hometown paper), the New York Press and the New York Times among other outlets -- but he became a habit with me through the House.

Matt has been a generous proprietor (sometimes perhaps too generous, but that's hardly a grievous fault). Today the House Next Door masthead lists more than 40 contributors -- novices and vets alike -- including the invaluable editor-cum-landlord Keith Uhlich.

At the same time that I'm excited for Matt (who, by the way, I've never met face-to-face), I'm not going to pretend I'm not bummed. This is how I deal with the grief part: Let's celebrate MSZ for all he's done in (and for) the blogosphere. Consider this a very short clip reel. As the lights go down on one phase of Matt's career, and the curtain opens on another, sit back and immerse yourself...

Oh, and sorry about that headline, guys. (That's as in Zoller-, not polter-.)

Open House (first House Next Door post, January 1, 2006): My grandfather, a self-educated German-American farmer from Olathe, Kansas, believed that no journey, however seemingly circuitous or self-destructive, was ever truly unnecessary, or even avoidable. Sometimes we just have to continue along a particular path for inexplicable, personal reasons, disregarding warnings of friends and family and perhaps our own internal voices, until we arrive at our destination, whatever it may be. This type of journey, my grandfather said, was the equivalent of "driving around the block backward to get to the house next door."

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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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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.")