The year is not even two weeks old but it already has one electrifyingly brilliant film to its credit.
Google "best movies of 2011 so far" (without the quotation marks) and you'll get approximately 19-and-a-half million results, which is just about what this whole obsessive-compulsive list-making thing feels like to me. "Ten-best" (and "ten-worst") mania used to be an annual phenomenon among movie fans and critics; now it happens every few months. Perhaps it's a symptom of what Simon Reynolds calls "Retromania," reflecting the brevity of pop-culture nostalgia cycles (is the first decade of the 21st century now officially "retro"? Oooh, remember those cool circle touchpads on old-skool iPods?) and the "museumification" and "curation " of virtually everything that can be collected, commodified, categorized, chronologized, hierarchically ranked or otherwise pigeonholed. (I sometimes enjoy lists, too, but while I occasionally make artisanal ones -- even bespoke ones -- I do not curate them.)
Seems I've been running across those headlines since May, at least: "Best Movies of 2011 (So Far)," and "Worst Movies of 2011 (So Far)." Here's a sampling of critics and outlets that have published such lists: Metacritic, Moviefone, Roger Ebert (best and worst), IndieWIRE's The Playlist, JoBlo.com, somebody at the Huffington Post, Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at "Ebert Presents: At the Movies (both best and worst), Dennis Cozallio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, Paste magazine, Awards Daily (the name of which says exactly where I fear we're headed), CinemaBlend.com, Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies and FilmFan, Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, RopeofSilicon.com, IFC.com, beliefnet's Movie Mom, Fandango... STOP already!
At The Frontal Cortex (a blog you should bookmark), Wired contributing editor Jonah Lehrer reveals his backward reading habits (yes, he likes to peek at the endings first) and cites a study that may indicate people enjoy stories more when they know spoilers ahead of time ("Spoilers Don't Spoil Anything"). Is this why some moviegoers actually want to see trailers that consistently give away not only a movie's major plot developments but the best lines and most memorable (that is, salable) images?
I'm always in favor of spoiler warnings in criticism out of respect for readers, who should be able to choose whether they care about discovering certain developments or twists if they haven't seen the film under discussion yet. If, like Jonah Lehrer, you prefer to know about endings (or story points beyond the basic premise) in advance, then go ahead and watch the trailers or skip to the end of the DVD or peek at the final pages of the book. Nobody's stopping you. But don't try to force your ways on the rest of us. The critic who delights in giving away spoilers is like the drunken heckler who's seen a stand-up comic's act and shouts out the punchlines before the jokes are set up.
I'm also interested in counter-intuitive arguments, however. (I'm fascinated that today's electric cars actually create more pollution and consume more energy than gas-powered vehicles, because of how their batteries are manufactured and charged -- which is not to say that we shouldn't make them, because the greater the demand, the more efficient the production cycle will become. And, of course, the less we rely on coal to generate electricity, the cleaner that process will get.)
While I question the statistical significance of the data in the study Lehrer cites, I do find some of Lehrer's observations intriguing. (I enthusiastically recommend his book about the arts and the brain, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist.") He concludes his post with three "random thoughts," to which I will respond one by one:
From my piece on Buster Keaton's "Our Hospitality" at Alt Screen:
Among the things you will learn from watching Buster Keaton's "Our Hospitality":
● A novel method for easily collecting firewood.
● How to move a donkey away from railroad tracks, or vice-versa.
● How to improvise a boat.
● How to make a lady from a horse's behind.
● How to put on a top hat in a low-ceilinged carriage (and why a porkpie hat is so obviously preferable).
In other words, the act of seeing this movie will immeasurably improve your life.
Technically speaking, "Our Hospitality" is Keaton's first feature as auteur and his first masterpiece. It was released in 1923, not long after "The Three Ages," which was constructed so that it could be broken back down into two-reelers if this "feature-length" comedy thing didn't work out. It isn't his fastest, funniest or most dazzlingly inventive picture (debate amongst yourselves: "Sherlock Jr."? "The Navigator"? "The General"? "Steamboat Bill, Jr."?), but it is my sentimental favorite because of its serene, nostalgic beauty -- a vision of a halcyon world (America, circa 1830) that was already, of course, charmingly old-fashioned by 1923 standards. [...]
From Andrew Davies:
I think the first shot of Christopher Nolan's Memento could be best described as the film in miniature because of how the subject of the shot establishes several important elements of the film. The credits begin on a dark screen. The title "MEMENTO" is still there as the shot fades in, placing the title over the image of a hand holding a photograph. Placing the title over the image of the photograph links the word and the image, telling the audience this photograph is a memento of...something.
The photograph, which is that of a man dead on the floor, his blood on the wall and floor, establishes several important things about the film. The photograph first establishes the narrative structure of the film because as it is shaken, the picture fades instead of develops. This represents how the film begins at the end of the story and progresses, so to speak, to the beginning. The fading of the photograph also establishes the mental state of its main character, the man holding the photograph, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). Like the photograph, Leonard's memory fades. He has short term memory loss, caused by an intruder who raped and murdered his wife in a home break in. His mission through the film is to find "John G," the name he gives to the intruder. The photograph, in of itself, establishes one of the ways in which Leonard tries to keep track of people and places he will forget is to take photographs of them, writing captions underneath the picture.
Netflix Relief Fund with Jason Alexander from Jason Alexander
I understand. That is to say, I understand Netflix's reasons for raising prices and offering DVD-only and streaming-only plans (they were losing money, they want to push customers to streaming which has lower delivery costs, etc.) and I understand the anger long-time subscribers feel at suddenly being faced with an up-to-60-percent price-hike (see Edward Copeland's "Dear Netflix: Drop Dead.") What concerns me most is that the Netflix Instant service still isn't up to snuff.
I'm not talking about the technology; the quality of the streaming has greatly improved (I watch via TiVo over my home Wi-Fi network on a 55-inch HD screen) and, technology being technology, will undoubtedly get better. I'm not even talking about the spotty selection, which I trust will also improve greatly as media conglomerates catch up with reality and figure out that this is a lucrative opportunity. The more serious problem is that too many of the movies themselves (even the good ones) are being made available in lousy prints: not just shabby public-domain versions (the equivalent of the old 16 mm local TV station prints that used to circulate through low-end nontheatrical distributors), but films shown in the wrong aspect ratio (beware of anything with the Starz logo on it) or even obsolete pan-and-scan (shame on you, Warner Bros.). What good is streaming delivery if you have to watch a digital mastering job that looks like it was done in 1986? I thought these battles were fought (and won) long ago, in the VHS and early DVD era. Surely the dominance of 16:9 HDTVs has accustomed mainstream movie and television watchers to the previously foreign concept of widescreen and "letterboxing." (Now some people actually distort their TV picture on purpose -- grotesquely stretching 4:3 images just so they'll fill up the whole screen horizontally. Oy!)
A recent anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) movie like "Let Me In" shown in "full screen" (16:9)? Not acceptable. Albert Brooks' "Lost in America" (1.85:1) in 4:3? Outrage! (Actually, that particular movie doesn't look so bad, but why crop it? The Amazon $2.99 Instant Video 48-hour rental is in the right ratio.) And the mangled movies aren't even labeled, the way they would be if they were hacked up for television or DVD: "This film has been modified from its original version: it has been formatted to fit your screen." (Although, that too is bull: Parts of the picture have been cut off so that the smaller image gives the illusion of looking bigger. Properly presented letterboxed or windowboxed movies "fit your screen" just fine.)
Above: Joyce McKinney and Errol Morris at a screening of "Tabloid" at the Vista Theatre in Los Angeles (Los Feliz), July 13, 2011. I believe that's her dog's leash she's holding. (photo by Tiffany Rose)
"Joyce and I are getting along just fine. (Another Q&A in LA with an extraordinary woman.)" -- @errolmorris, Twitter, July 14, 2011
At the end of my review of Errol Morris's "Tabloid," I quoted from a New York Times story about his "Tabloid" subject and primary storyteller, Joyce McKinney, appearing at pre-release screenings in Austin (SxSW), Sarasota, San Francisco, Seattle and New York, to protest the film's portrayal of her. In the Times piece, she said:
"I sat till the audience started to leave and waited for the precise moment, and then jumped up and yelled, 'I'm Joyce McKinney!' " she said, with considerable glee. "They went crazy."
I quoted one of the producers of "Tabloid" (in which he called the picture "a Looney Tunes 'Rashomon'") and concluded: "Do these people know how to sell a movie or what?"
In recent interviews, Morris has been asked about these appearances and he's professed some bewilderment -- not only about her motivations, but how she's financing her transportation. Morris told Matt Singer at IFC.com:
From my piece on Errol Morris's latest, "Tabloid," at Press Play:
Ripped from today's headlines, Errol Morris's sensational "Tabloid" uncovers outrageous stories of sex, bondage, Mormons, kidnapping, cloning, drugging, buggery (or at least bugging) and betrayal circa 1977, and features more than one dog named Booger. The movie premiered almost a year ago, at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival--yet, between the surveillance scandals at Rupert Murdoch's gossip rags and the Tony-sweeping Trey Parker-Matt Stone missionary-position musical phenomenon "The Book of Mormon," "Tabloid" could hardly be more of-this-very-moment.
Given the timing of its release and the nature of its subject, you might say "Tabloid" suggests that history doesn't have to begin as tragedy and repeat itself as farce; it can be farce every time. The lurid reports recounted here swirl around Joyce McKinney, a blonde 1970s beauty queen (Miss Wyoming) with an IQ of 168 who goes all-out to win the man of her dreams, a clean-skinned Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. When they met, she says, "It was like in the movies." Long story short, she and a (besotted slave?) accomplice wind up accused of kidnapping and sexually abusing the object of her desire. The way Joyce tells it, her beloved suddenly disappears without explanation as they are planning their wedding. With the help of a private eye and a good platonic friend, she tracks him down in England, rescues him from his Mormon "cult" brainwashers, and takes him to a cottage in Devon where she ties him to a bed, ravishes him (consensually) for three wonderful days of fun, food and sex. And love, too. Preparing to give him a warm cinnamon-oil back rub, she rips off his Mormon underwear and burns the "smelly" garments in the fireplace, an act both practical and symbolic.
It's simple, really: Trailer for Adam Sandler's "Jack and Jill" (Dennis Dugan, 2011) + memorable scene from "Hardcore" (Paul Schrader, 1979) in which George C. Scott discovers that his missing daughter has been making porno movies. Instant movie magic.
(tip: Pat Healy)
In 1988, Roger Ebert writes a review of Mike Figgis's "Stormy Monday," which begins:
"Why is it," someone was asking the other day, "that you movie critics spend all of your time talking about the story and never talk about the visual qualities of a film, which are, after all, what make it a film?" Good question. Maybe it's because we work in words, and stories are told in words, and it's harder to use words to paint pictures. But it might be worth a try.
"Stormy Monday" is about the way light falls on wet pavement stones, and about how a neon sign glows in a darkened doorway. It is about the attitudes that men strike when they feel in control of a situation, and the way their shoulders slump when someone else takes power. It is about smoking. It is about cleavage. It is about the look on a man's face when someone is about to deliberately break his arm, and he knows it. And about the look on a woman's face when she is waiting for a man she thinks she loves, and he is late, and she fears it is because he is dead.