On three U.S. Dramatic Competition films of Sundance 2020, including two of the year's best.
Sheila writes: Mike D'Angelo over at the A.V. Club has written a very interesting article called "What I learned from watching the first 10 minutes of 500 movies". He speaks of the challenge, as a film critic, to see as much as he can in any given year, not just the hits but the secondary films, the ones that don't generate any "buzz." In doing so, he started thinking about "the first 10 minutes" of films and how crucial they are. D'Angelo writes, "Basically, I give the movie 10 minutes to grab my attention. Most of them fail, and get turned off at that point. If I’m still interested, though, I’ll watch for another 10 minutes. There are two more potential bail-out points at 0:30 and 0:40; if I still want to keep going after 40 minutes, I commit to watching the entire film, even if it turns awful later." His essay has a lot of observations about screenwriting, first of all, but also the nuts-and-bolts of storytelling.
A guide to the latest on Blu-ray and DVD, including "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," "St. Vincent," and four fantastic Criterion releases.
"Only Lovers Left Alive" is Top 5 Jim Jarmusch for sure; a long, warm bath in sensuality, with flashes of Wong-Kar Wai amid the ennui. In its deliberate slowness, it also ends up feeling like requiem for 20th century film storytelling, and for the pre-digital world.
"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:
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.
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:
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.
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!
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."
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: